The first time I moved to the tropics, it was thanks to a job offer that had come out of the blue. It wasn’t something I planned. I’d love to say that the first time was the result of hard work and financial success, but it wasn’t. In fact it was more or less desperation that drove me to accept the offer. But it taught me incredibly valuable lessons about what I was going to do when I really did make that move on purpose, for my own reasons, with my own money that I’d invested and worked for. I’m going to share some of the points I think you’ll find most useful if you’re thinking of ditching away and rising up somewhere you might find more agreeable to the human spirit than the cold climate I came from.
First off, plan for some confusion. It’s a lot to think about, knowing that you’re going to Leave. Everything. Behind.
I remember being bewildered at what I was going to do with my house and all the belongings in it. Didn’t I need all those pictures, books, DVDs, trinkets, and so on? What about all my collectibles, antiques, memorabilia? Wasn’t I going to need, well, everything?
The first thing you should understand is that if you were to take a serious look at what you actually use throughout a day, you’d realize it’s only the barest minimum percentage of what you’ve no doubt accumulated. I talk about managing the Front End and the Back End in The Right Question, but for now let me just assure you that you’ve got way too much stuff and moving away from it might really be the only way to get rid of it.
About a month after I landed at my new job, I was talking on the phone with a friend back home. I mentioned that I’d been too busy and having too much fun to miss any of my stuff. I’d bought clothing more agreeable to the new climate and was surrounding myself with my new life. In that instant as I spoke I realized that I’d never needed any of it anyway. And I resolved that when I returned to my house, as I knew I would, I would instantly go through it and get rid of half of it. Fifty percent.
So that’s what I did. When the job came to an end several months later and I returned home, I spent about a week seriously contemplating who I was. It was odd, coming home to a house lived in by somebody I no longer recognized – in other words, the old me.
I’d kept boxes of things never unpacked in the basement. I went through each of them carefully (by the way, there are some wonderfully helpful books about organizing. One of them I have no hesitation in recommending is Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out) and decided whether it went in the Keep, Discard, or Donate piles. The rule was that the Keep pile could be no larger than the other two combined. I knew I’d be moving back to the tropics before too long, and although I’d miss some of the people I knew, I’d have enough money to come back and visit whenever I wanted. The amount of face time I had with many of these people didn’t amount to much, so in that sense electronic communication would keep me in contact with the people who were most important to me anyway. Those friendships that faded away were obviously not strong enough, or simply not meant, to stand the test. I accepted that and knew I’d make new friends where I was headed, if I wanted to.
As an aside, it’s a very different world you are in when you’re a local as opposed to a tourist. When the expatriates see you for longer than a couple of weeks, you become one of them to a certain extent, and now you’re privy to inside information about who does what, what the rumours are about how so-and-so made their money, who’s dating whom, and so on. In every city you visit, this is the same. It’s amusing and comforting all at once.
I want to come back to the issue of emotional confusion before I go any further, because whether you’ve admitted it or not, it’s probably the biggest obstacle you have to living the life of your dreams. Fear, whether masquerading as confusion or manifesting as physical symptoms such as headaches or nausea, can keep you from ever really living to the fullest. In my case, the first time I took a job in the tropics I was scared to go because I had no idea about anything there. I didn’t know anything about how I was going to get around, go shopping in a different language, all the things that travelers have to face. Yet even by then I’d traveled around the world already. The reason this was different was because I couldn’t just dismiss it as being the rookie mistakes of a tourist – if I was going to live there, I was going to have to learn how.
Believe me, take every opportunity you can to make those mistakes. Most of them you’ll only make once, and people will forget about them. They’ve got their own lives to live and can’t be bothered remembering your first stumbles.
It doesn’t take long to become a local. If you’re wondering about acceptance on the part of people who already live where you’re headed, think about immigrants in your own corner of the world. They’re the same as anyone else. Some are helpful, some aren’t. Some are cheerful and friendly, some aren’t. Some make an effort to learn your language, some don’t. My advice is to respect the fact that there are free countries in the world who will welcome you with open arms, and to repay that courtesy when you go there by being friendly, helpful, and not trying to make them do things your way. Act wisely and you’ll learn from them.
If you’re moving to a climate that’s very unlike the one you’re in now, your entire lifestyle will be different. Your wardrobe will reflect this, your house will too. You might be surprised to find how many houses around areas like the Caribbean have exactly the same kind of architecture as those in Vermont or Russia. At first this disappointed me tremendously. Where were the open verandas, the tiered decks, the open floor plans and so on? Well, I discovered where when I looked at buying a property – they’re in wealthy enclaves. Most people can’t afford that kind of thing. The days when everyone had more than enough are long gone, in the sense that the same amount of work now in countries like the US nets you a lot less disposable income as it did in the ‘70s. Having said that, however, there is more than enough money for everyone if you know where to look and what to do. It truly is an abundant world, but you have to look in places you wouldn’t have looked twenty years ago. And I believe this is how it should be. The world is a fluid, changing, dynamic place, and rolling with it is the only way to love it unconditionally.
Anyway, back to Your Stuff. That’s what prompted me to write this in the first place. I’m looking around my house at the things I ended up bringing with me. Some of it is in boxes and I don’t use it or look at it often – this includes sentimentally valuable things such as photographs, as well as items that are hellaciously expensive to purchase locally because of freight costs such as tools and so on (I enjoy tinkering with my cars). I brought most of my books, because I love to read, but they’re heavy and expensive to ship and I don’t really recommend bringing them with you now that the internet has made them all available in a virtually invisible format. I did because I have the financial wherewithal thanks to years of asking the Right Question, (yes that’s a shameless plug), but I wouldn’t advise it as a general rule. Same with furniture.
I kept my house back home simply because I do go back to visit now and then. But I’ll tell you something – it feels strange every time I go there. I remember moving in many years ago, talking with the contractor unknowingly provided me with the last phrase of the Question, sharing time with a girl I thought I was going to marry, and filling it with the memories that make up an ordinary life. I go out to the garage and put the battery in the Viper, turn the crankshaft a few times with a wrench to lube the cylinders before I fire it up and cruise for a while down highways that used to take me to dead-end jobs.
Every time I come back it’s as though I’m renting somebody else’s house, not returning to my own. It’s gotten so strange that I’m going to put it up for sale and just buy a condo at a mountain resort and leave it behind me.
None of this would ever have happened unless I’d taken that first step and accepted that job. Even though I was confused about how to proceed and afraid of what I’d find at my new destination, it was what to do with all my belongings that weighed on me the heaviest. And in retrospect, it was the easiest thing to handle.
If you’re contemplating a move, don’t make it into a Big Huge Scary Thing. It isn’t. You accumulated your belongings to serve a purpose at the time, but that may have changed and you might not have even noticed. Take a serious look at what you’re surrounded by. I’ll guarantee you could get rid of half of it and never even notice. I’m not talking about hoarders, I’m talking about everybody from the average Jane and Joe to backpackers. The difference is that backpackers are mostly aware of this, whereas houses are usually pretty silent about how inconvenient it is to be crammed full of Stuff.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s you doing the deciding, not your fear of the unknown. If we all allowed our fears to make our decisions none of us would ever leave the house after watching ten minutes of the evening news. I don’t recommend you read the news anyway, personally, since almost none of it affects you directly and most of it exists in order to coerce you into thinking a certain way. If the news was presented as facts, without mentioning anyone’s skin color or using any adjectives, everyone would have to think for themselves and interpret those facts themselves, and in general education has been a failure at that in every corner of the globe. The only thing you should make sure to bring with you is a toothbrush, your passport for those times you aren’t going to sneak across a border, and an open mind with a loving attitude.