The Honeymoon is Over

DSCN1264The honeymoon is definitely over! For several weeks, I’ve been out of sorts. I start a project, and frustratingly set it aside. It’s been a month of heavy rain, slow internet, lots of bugs, and a lack of professional services on our island.

I am anxious because our “adopted” dog has a cancerous tumor in his mouth, and the only vet on the island has 35 years of experience, but no professional training. In March, he “operated” on Canejo on top of our septic tank using an old hunting knife and a hot piece of rebar and cauterised the remains of the tumor. The tumor has grown back, and now it’s only a decision about when to put a stop to Canejo’s suffering.

DSCN1263Life has been a bucking bull ride lately. If you have lived abroad for over a year, I’m sure you can identify with my feelings. There are four common stages of cultural adjustment:
I. The Honeymoon
The wondrous initial period of euphoria and excitement…oh how I long for those days of mystery and surprise! I enjoy reading Holly’s blog about her first year of rebirth in Boquete, Panama. Let the Adventure Begin!  In this stage, one feels like he/she can conquer the world. It’s a superficial, tourist-like involvement with the host country, as well as intrigue with both similarities and differences between the new culture and the home culture. In this stage, one has lots of interest and motivation in learning and most importantly…an open-minded attitude.
DSCN1268II. Culture Shock
This is the stage where one feels like he/she is on a wild chicken bus ride though life. Every curve is fraught with danger, small issues become major catastrophes, and one easily becomes stressed-out, frustrated, and may feel helpless to solve the smallest problems. The focus is on the differences between the new culture and the home culture. Stereotypes and prejudices surface. Homesickness and missing family and friends sets in. In other words, the novelty of the new culture disappears in a cloud of fog, rain, or dust (depending on the season).

DSCN1265III. Gradual Adjustment
This is the stage in which one’s perceptions change, when one can hear the church bells toll…and enjoy them…and regain a sense of humor lost in the previous stage. Decisions are made to make the most of one’s experiences. Increased familiarity with the new culture, its logic and values enables one to feel safe, comfortable, and creative. This is a time of deeper understanding and questioning earlier assumptions about the world. Some parts of living abroad are actually better in one’s host country, than in the home country! It’s a time for revelations, changing perceptions, and evaluating a new way of life. Of course, there are highs and lows as adjustments take place gradually.

IV. Feeling at Home
One now appreciates certain aspects of the foreign culture and critiques other aspects. This is the stage of reality. There is no paradise on earth. One adapts and changes accordingly. This is home. One is no longer negatively affected by differences between the host and home cultures. Living and working to one’s full potential is the mantra. It is biculturalism at its best!

 Cultural Stress
Most people living in a foreign culture for an extended period experience cultural stress. I have to remind myself that it is normal to feel overwhelmed and frustrated at times. It is all part of the cultural learning process. We learn through our mistakes. Living abroad is a challenge in many areas: culture, language, values, customs, traditions, and logic.

Strategies for Dealing with Cultural Stress:
Listed below are several ways we have learned to deal with cultural stress. Just remember, it is completely normal. Where do I belong in the cultural adjustment stages? Since the stages tend to blend into one another, I am probably between stage 3 and 4. Most of the time, I’m happily adjusted with many expat and local friends. But, occasionally, I do have “those days”. I’m sure you know what I mean. 🙂

1. Make plans to stay in touch with family and friends
Now that we moved my woktenna for a stronger internet signal ( the trees grew a foot or more this rainy season and covered the woktenna!) I can easily keep my schedule of Skyping with my family every weekend.
2. Get into the expat bubble for a change. It depends on where you live, but we are culturally immersed in a small all Spanish-speaking community. Sometimes, I need to visit my expat friends just to regroup, speak English rapidly, and talk about things we have in common.
3. There are several internal supports. First, understand the stages of cultural adjustment, then analyze your situations and your reactions to those situations. Identify your “hot buttons” and ways to manage stress. Finally, identify new ways of thinking positively.
I always tell myself when I’m down that the worst thing that can happen is that I will die. Then, nothing really seems that bad.
4. Travel to a new and different place. It always works to help us get out of a rut. Next week we’re taking a short trip to the La Flor beach on the Pacific coast to watch turtles. Next month, we’re traveling back to the states to visit family. Next year, we are planning a long, 2 month trip to Ecuador and the Yasuni National Park.
5. Physical supports: We eat healthily. We have a thriving garden and 15 varieties of fruit trees on our property. We experiment with new recipes all the time. Our motto is everything in moderation..not too much of any one thing. We get plenty of exercise walking, kayaking, and swimming.
6. Volunteer in your host country. This has helped us tremendously because we formed close and lasting relationships with a variety of local people. Everyone has a talent or a skill to share with others.

I think I’m feeling better, now. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the stages of cultural adjustment. If you live abroad, what stage are you in?



44 thoughts on “The Honeymoon is Over

  1. My wife and I have lived 3 1/2 months now on Ometepe, and loving it! We spent 5 months in La Dalia (one hour north of Matagulpa) and it was, even there, a totally different culture. Granted, we know many people up there before arrival, but we have no interest in living there! Prior to all that my wife and I spent a year traveling around Europe and the Middle East.

    Between March and May of 2015 we sold the house, cars (still miss my 1969 GMC, some things you don’t get over), winter clothing, furniture, boat & fishing tackle, guns (that’s when my wife knew I was serious), and donating everything else we couldn’t sell, we were officially homeless and ex-pats “with a plan” and without a CLUE! Talk about freedom and a weight being lifted!

    Looking back over the past 21 months I can totally relate to so many aspects of all of these different stages! Great blog! Please shoot me an email as I would love to talk more since we appear to be neighbors!


  2. I have one thing to say about the stages one goes thru when moving to another country.

    “Home is where the heart is!”

    If you feel at home, regardless of your GPS readings, enjoy it.

  3. This is an excellent post! As someone who has lived abroad twice and traveled a lot I feel like I am always going through some of these stages. I like your recommendations as I agree it helps to remain connected with people who understand you and your culture as well as bridge the gap by involving yourself in a local community. Hoping you will soon be entering number 4.

  4. The whole “culture shock” phenom is interesting. In ’89 I got what seemed like a dream job. Captain of a large sailboat on the French Riviera (hey, someone was going to do it. Why not me?) The “honeymoon” phase lasted about six months and then all I wanted to do was LEAVE! But I’d accepted the job and decided to stick it out, and I’m glad I did. I was in France for three years. Learned the language, etc. The interesting thing, though, when I returned to the States after about six months reverse culture shock set in and all I wanted to do was LEAVE! I seriously thought about returning to France. But I didn’t have the where with all to do it and gradually I readjusted to life in the USA.

    I retired and moved to Panama. I’ve been here for four years now and haven’t gone through the culture shock I did twice before. I guess they were learning experiences in coping.

  5. I am awarding you the Versatile Blogger Award for the quality of your work. I realize that it is a tremendous amount of work to accept this award and of course do understand if you do not have the time to do so! Jejeje, it’s taken me months to getting around to accepting this myself!
    Congratulations! Keep up the good work. I enjoy your work immensely!

    Please refer to the following for instructions:

  6. Pingback: Stages and phases of adjusting to life in a new country… | Let The Adventure Begin!

  7. It helps to know the stages of culture shock/adjustment, at least conceptually. However, that still leaves all of those muddled emotions, especially in stage 3. Hopefully, journaling and blogging and conversations with those who’ve been through it will help to keep your sanity. And knowing, that all emotions are a rollercoaster and will change, eventually…. Hang in there !

  8. hey from mindo where i’m helping friends who bought a lovely property … only it’s 30 minutes on 4wd roads and w/zero internet. when in town, i have about an hour online, not enough for emails and wordpress and sundry reading/writing.

    those long dreary days/weeks of the rainy season will challenge the strongest pioneers; clothes won’t dry, and one has to wash them again to remove the yucky smell; there’s mud everywhere – i get tired of the mud in the rainy season… vegetables blight and die; salt turns liquid; books mold – leathers mold – even candles mold! it’s very normal to crave a long hot soak in the bathtub if one is a bathtub sort of woman, and we find ourselves craving things we don’t really are about the rest of the year.. we want comfort items and good books and goodness, for the crashing sound of rain on a tin roof to give us a day’s break!!!!

    i learned to enjoy the rainy season.. if the day started with rainfall, i’d reach for a novel and vanish into the pages.. and when i fnished, if the rain was still falling, i reached for another.. and another.. and i cherished my incubation time… i knew that i worked hard and i deserved to do nothing if that’s what felt right…. so you do the same – enjoy the rainy season and use it for incubation! it will be great to see you in 2014!

  9. Excellent, you nailed it. Will be two years this December and still loving our life. I think I bounce between all four depending on what’s happening in our lives. We’ll be returning to the states next year and that will definitely give us a break from some of the stress areas. Though I’m sure there will be a different type of stress we’ll experience when back visiting family.
    Love the paintings !
    So sorry to hear about Canejo. The vets here refuse to euthanize a terminally ill dog. We had to watch Bobby suffer way too long. Hopefully all will go well amiga

    • It seems like when I write from my heart, the fog lifts. Thanks so much for your loving thoughts. I knew that you would like the paintings. Why won’t the vets euthanize a terminally ill dog? I’ve heard that rumor here, too. But, Guillermo, our experienced, yet untrained vet said he would walk out to our house and euthanize Canejo when we felt the time was right. He can still eat very soft dog food, and he barks occasionally, but I don’t want him to suffer. The time is getting closer and it makes me so very sad.

      • I’m not sure, it may have been just the local vet. It was heart breaking watching our “adopted” neighborhood dog live his final days. Then he disappeared, but someone saw him lying in an empty lot and called us, knowing we were one of the people who fed him. John went down and found a place to bury him. Still miss that “junkyard” dog. John wrote a post, RIP Bobby in his memory.
        My heart goes out to you, our four legged friends can certainly grab a hunk of our hearts.

  10. Nice post, Debbie.

    We have been in the Pátzcuaro, Michoacán area now for over 8 years. Seven of those years in this same house. Looking back, I’d say that the first year was the most challenging. After we were shown this house and moved in, life started to improve.

    That’s not to say there haven’t been some bumps and dips. This year, major changes took place in Mexican immigration laws, enabling us to become Permanent Residents. Nothing comes without a price. That price, apart from the substantially increased visa fees (a one time payment. ¡Viva México!) was that we were no longer allowed to keep a foreign plated vehicle here. Another cost was major stress as we attempted to puzzle out the conflicting and often erroneous information posted on various expat forums.

    We had the choice of either driving our van across the border to the U.S. and selling it for peanuts, then returning to buy a car in Mexico; or nationalizing it through a recondite process, in which substantial amounts of money are fed into the hungry maw, and presto! (really, not so presto, but eventually it all came to pass.) our car emerges as a Mexican car. That whole process is odd beyond description, and the journey, to the border city of Nuevo Laredo (average temp at the time, 105º F) was arduous. But in the end, our van was qualified to have Mexican plates and we are proud of it.

    En fin, this year represents a sort of milestone kilometer stone for us.

    Don Cuevas

    • I can’t believe you have been living in Mexico for 8 years, now. Seems like yesterday that we were all living in Arkansas. I’m not even going to think about how many years ago that was! Congratulations on your new plates for your van and permanent residency. Woopie! I can only imagine the tangle of paperwork and trips you had to make.
      Nicaragua is cracking down on ‘perpetual tourists’. Foreigners living in Nicaragua without residency have to cross the border every 90 days to renew their visas. Now, they are required to show proof that they are working on getting residency in Nicaragua, or they may not be admitted back into the country. This only applies to foreigners that have a passport full of visa stamps every 90 days. It is forcing foreigners who have lived here for many years to either start the residency process or leave the country. I have friends who are leaving and others who are starting the residency process, but it’s not an easy decision for either of them. I’m so thankful that we have residency.
      I miss you both. Seriously, we’ll have to plan a trip to Mexico one of these days. It will keep us out of the rut of daily living. 🙂

  11. Wow, what a post! It’s so hard to imagine you not meeting every challenge with your smile and positivity while barreling full speed right over it. Good to see you really are one of us humans after all. I’ve often wondered how people can live in one place for any length of time without going stir crazy and once again you so eloquently share your experiences.

    Permanence is inconceivable for me after an adult life of two or three months on land followed by two or three months at sea which allowed me to live in other countries and experience Stages I, III and IV without ever having to deal with Stage II. Living in one place as I recently did for three years probably won’t happen again. While I will happily stay in Nicaragua most of the year other travels will always keep it fresh and you are so fortunate to have the option of doing the same. You don’t have to necessarily choose one life completely over another and it’s all there to be enjoyed.

    My best thoughts go to Canejo and hope all goes well for him.

    • Hola Brian! It won’t be long, now. You should be packing your suitcases, right? You bring up a good point about living permanently in one place. I’ve been in a “been there, done that” kind of mood lately. We all are fortunate to be able to have the option of renewing the freshness of our lives. We always said that we were going to make a home base in Nicaragua, then travel. The problem with that is that we have created another anchor in our lives…a sick dog, 3 cats, a garden to water in the dry season, and always the issue of crimes of opportunity. We just can’t lock up our house and travel. Looks like we’ll have to find some reliable house sitters who want to stay in our house for free while we travel. 🙂
      Thanks for your wise thoughts! I can’t wait to see you. Safe travels.

  12. When everybody tried robbing me, I lost all interest in “helping” them, returned to ther states, and am happily working full time “helping” some widows of dead friends with their wayward children’s grandchildren, back in the real estate game again, altho I have yet to generate a dime, I have high hopes, and am starting another business trapping feral Hogs in central texas. My desire to stay in Nicaragua vanished as I watched And experienced the natives attempt to rob me, and other ex-pats trying to establish businesses in Nic, foolishly mistaking the inability to speak fluent spanish with stupidity

    • Whick! I’ve been wondering what happened to you. I’m so sorry to hear about your bad experience in Nicaragua. That’s a shame. Best of luck to you in your new jobs, especially trapping feral hogs…that sounds like a real adventure. Please keep in touch and let me know how you are doing.

      • I work very hard for small commissions, paying fees for the privilege. getting in the middle for outrageous amounts up to 100 percent for just saying, use this guy will not fly Sam says, thats just the way it works here. I said, only because you allow it. don’t work that way with me. so, I am content to quit, that last trip lasted four months from miami to columbia and back to texas via road.

  13. I believe where you live the worse thing for people is dealing with their internet addiction, when the service is slow or not working you feel helpless. Everything else can be overcome with $$ by for example having a backup power supply, water storage etc. It is simply having something to do with your time that you enjoy. After the adventure/honeymoon is over you must stay occupied! My plan since I am proficient in Spanish is to marry a local woman where I chose to live which gives one certain advantages and another set of problemas! lol

    • You are so funny, Dean! But, I agree with your thoughts about an internet addiction. I’ll admit, I’m an internet junkie and without an internet connection I do feel helpless and isolated. I pay all our bills online, I chat with my friends and family almost daily, my main source of news is from the internet, and of course, my blog. Good luck with your plan. Hope I’m invited to the wedding. 🙂

  14. Deb! You are a guerrera(warrior) I understand a lot of the things you say, I’m a Nica that has been living in the US for 33 years sometimes I wish that beurocracy would disappear from US way of life and when I’m Nicaragua I wish they meant mañana tomorrow Not a week from now, I turn on my Nicaragua switch everytime I go visit family 🙂

  15. I think the younger a person is, the easier the adjustment is for them. One thing that I’ve noticed is a constant with ex-pat friends is what they learn to value. Their list is one of a purest; simple and self-sustaining. It reiterates the concept, ‘keep it simple.’ I know the complexities of our lives in the U.S. bring us the most stress. I hope you find a truthful, enriched balance and the sustaining pleasure that took you to Nicaragua in the beginning.

  16. Debbie, this is so well written. I don’t live abroad, but your thoughts are right on. I can identify with all those stages. You give ways to climb back out of it and that is the key to coping. When northerners move down here, the first thing I hear them say is, “well, we always did it this way where I come from.” That immediately creates division until they adjust.

      • Lynne, I appreciate your comments so much. Cultural adjustment stages happen all over the world, not only to expats. I never thought about it from that perspective before. Ten years ago, I was visiting in Granada, Nicaragua and went into a small art gallery where these beautiful pictures were displayed. I wanted to post the information about the artists, but it was so long ago, I don’t know who painted them. I even tried to magnify the signature. I’ve been waiting for the right post to accompany the paintings, and this was the one. Gracias mi amiga.

  17. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve heard many similar accounts of the various stages one goes through when living abroad and I must say, your words will serve me well down the road. All is shiny and new for me right now and even though my head may know that a day will come when it’s not all so wonderful and new, my heart will ache when it actually hits me. But your very honest, and generous sharing of this moment for you is a gift that I, for one appreciate tremendously. I hope like heck that I will be able to brave the storms ahead for there will certainly be days of difficulty as I adjust to this new life in a different country. There will be a day when those hummingbirds and flowers and friendly neighborhood dogs will fade to the background (for a time) and other things will begin to dampen my spirit but your words of wisdom will serve to give me strength and encourage me to remember that all will be well if I keep the right perspective and choose to focus on what I love about my decision to live this most excellent, if often challanging, Adventure. I love you for sharing this ! Cheers!

    • Holly, I just want to say that I love your posts and I look forward to reading every one. You, my friend, are the one who inspired me to write about the stages of cultural adjustment. My only wish is that I could keep that sense of wonder and excitement like you. Bottle some of your enthusiasm and save it for me when I come to visit someday. lol Thanks for being you!!!

  18. I don’t know exactly where I fit. I’ve been back and forth between the US and Boquete for several years so the move wasn’t a culture shock. Although I’ve only lived here permanently just over 3 months, I can get by in Spanish and am over-involved in the community. But my friends are expats, not Panamanians which I regret.
    Your observations are right on target though. I have seen people move here and move away within months. They hit the “culture shock” or “missing family” stage and couldn’t cope. I’ve seen too many people visit for a week, go home to sell everything, and then move without any true concept of expat living. I met a woman a few weeks ago that put in an offer for a house after being in Panama for only 3 days. We should begin a pool on how long she will last. 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Tombseekers. I think one of the major keys to coping with cultural adjustment is to be involved in the local community. The best way for us to meet the locals when we moved here over 9 years ago ( the first time as a pretirement experiment) was to teach ESL classes out of our rented beach shack. We made friends with so many families because we taught their children English and they remain our friends to this day. We consider them to be extended family.
      And, what’s the deal with people buying a place after their first week of visiting a new country? Put me in the pool…my bet is that she won’t last long. 🙂 I always recommend that people rent for at least 6 mo. before jumping into buying something.

  19. Wow. You’ve hit this topic spot-on! Thanks for the reminders that all these feelings are “normal.” People who tell me, “You’re so lucky to live in Mexico.” — I remind them (and myself) that lifestyle is a choice — what are you willing to give up where you are in order to live the dream you SAY you want. I miss being with my family (especially Grand Babies) on a regular basis, but do not regret my choices allowing me to live my dream.

  20. I think we can get culture shock where ever we live. It doesn’t always have to be oversees. When I moved from New York City to upstate New York, culture shock is too kind of a word to describe the feelings I was going through. First off, there are no street lights at night. You have to do everything in the dark! Like driving a car! The 2nd thing is that people up here do not judge you by the car you drive or the clothes you wear or the money you have in the bank. They judge by the acreage you live on and how fast you can chop wood. Who’d a thunk this?

    I’m in stage V (5) as in: why didn’t I think of doing this sooner? How could anyone live in New York City? See what I mean?

    PS: if it makes you feel any better, there is only one telephone company up here, so we have no choice about phone service or internet speed. cell phone service is a joke. last I heard the owner of the local phone service here had Alexander Graham Bell over for dinner the other night. That’s how behind it is.

    Keep the faith and enjoy the view. I hope your dog gets better. I’ll say a little prayer.

    • Yes! Absolutely! Cultural adjustments occur just moving from one location in the same country or state, to another. Thanks for your insight. I’m laughing about Alexander Graham Bell. That really makes me feel better. jejeje I’m keeping the faith! Thanks for your little prayer for Canejo.

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