What I Learned Abroad

Oh man, did I want this to be an absolutely epic list, brimming to the top with at least 10, 11, (maybe even 15!) things I’ve learned from my time abroad. That’s how it’s all set up in my head, anyway—that my time in Nicaragua and elsewhere is valuable precisely because of how much it taught me, making the value of my time a direct function of the quantity of my learnings. But what if it was the quality, not the quantity, of the lessons learned that matters?

I learned something entirely different than I expected to learn during my most recent trip, so I suppose the best thing I can do is honor that and let this list simply be what it is: things I learned during the last six months I spent living in Nicaragua. Maybe more will come, since lessons tend to arrive in retrospect, but maybe not. Maybe these have legs strong enough to stand on their own, if I let that be enough.

Lesson 1. Let go of expectations.

Seems pretty obvious right? Yet, I only realized in retrospect that I had been pinning this experience to my old one. I studied abroad in Italy college and grew so much, despite absolutely hating it when I arrived. I envisioned my time being as authentic as possible, but I got something entirely different. Yet in the end I found a way to love it there and now I wouldn’t change my experience for anything. I learned acceptance.

I went into Nicaragua expecting to reacquaint myself with the acceptance and adaptability I found before, but Nicaragua had its own things to teach me—very different things than I anticipated I’d learn, things that I wasn’t able to learn until I let go of my expectations. I learned how to let people in and let go. I learned how to ask for what I wanted (in another language half the time). I learned to accept not knowing. That’s what the universe had in store for me this time around and if I would have continued to stubbornly seek out the same learnings I had before, I would have missed them entirely.

Lesson 2. Be proud of the small victories.

If you stay the course long enough, eventually there will be little victories that will show you that maybe you’re not the total failure you feel like when you’re fumbling through life abroad every day, constantly making mistakes in simple undertakings like buying avocados.

One of the big ones came during a trip to Leon on a chicken bus, the local form of travel in most of Central America that consists of piling as many people as physically possible onto second-hand, largely unsafe, used school busses from the States and elsewhere. And, if you don’t want to end up paying triple or quadruple the ticket price on a chicken bus as a tourist, you’ve gotta know what you’re doing. Because arguing with people who are just trying to do their job goes against everything I conceive of as appropriate, it took me quite a few tries, but eventually I got it.

That day I got on a bus, asked the locals how much the price was, and when the money collector came over and asked me to pay a much higher price, in much more aggressive tone than I’m comfortable with, I told him I knew how much tickets cost and that I was going to pay when we started driving the way everyone else does. I put my earbuds back in and looked out the window until he left. I had finally won! I know how small this seems, but just taking a bus without being overcharged gave me an immense amount of satisfaction and an astounding feeling of achievement. I got that from a bus ticket.

Lesson 3. Find beauty in the little moments.

When traveling or living abroad, there will be so many tiny, beautiful moments. Living in Nicaragua for six months reminded me that life is full of little victories (like the chicken bus) and little moments that deserve recognition.

They can be moments in which we do something kind for others or seamlessly execute a task that once was hard for us. In our everyday lives, when we aren’t outside of our comfort zone, we can often forget to celebrate or even notice the beauty in the small things.

To sum it up, I’ll end with a little formula that I love: Happiness = Reality – Expectations.