Why I Chose Living Abroad Over Backpacking

April 15, 2015

I’ve never gone backpacking, and I probably never will.

Recently I met up with some friends at a backpacker’s hostel near León, Nicaragua, where I’ve been living for the past seven months. They asked me, “But weren’t you traveling around first before deciding to stay?” No, I decided to come to Nicaragua without ever having traveled here before, because I heard it was beautiful, the people were wonderful, and it had a low cost of living (all true). I was lucky enough to like it, and I never left.

I knew I wanted to live abroad, and I had an inkling that the backpacker’s life was not for me, which has since been confirmed by all of my experiences here. Not only do I have a back injury, but getting up and going somewhere new every few days sounds exhausting.

I came here alone, but there have been few moments when I’ve truly felt alone.

I see people carrying their life on their backs on the streets of León, and they often look miserable, which could also simply be a result of the city’s extreme heat. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure this lifestyle is great for some – it’s just not for me. What is the point of being able to say you’ve seen X amount of countries if you never truly get to know what they are like, who their people are, what their customs are? Seeing the tourist sights and restaurants is just the tip of the iceberg – there is so much to learn from a culture and learn about yourself that requires staying longer than a week, or even a month, and integrating yourself into society to the best of your ability.

Staying means learning from every single meaningful slow travel experience and letting it shape who you are. Staying means not being a ghost when you go somewhere, building relationships, building a community, getting involved and having even the tiniest impact on your surroundings. Staying means growing roots while spreading wings, always learning and adventuring and seeing new places, while still having that familiar, comfortable place to come home to at the end of the day.

There are so many experiences that one cannot have just by passing through:

  • Being able to truly evaluate and debate where to find the best Nicaraguan tacos: do they have that delicious sweet sauce? Are they equally soft and crunchy?
  • Being able to return to a city in a foreign country, and truly feeling at home, relieved. Noticing things you haven’t seen before, and recognizing what’s different. Going to a new city in the same country and having the ability to truly compare it to another, on multiple levels, beyond the surface.
  • Passing the same people on the street, seeing Chele Loco (a neighborhood eccentric here in León that every local knows) run around every day, and actually knowing who he is.
  • Walking to get a smoothie and seeing four familiar faces along the way, running into your old roommate or Spanish teacher.
  • Knowing where to buy the cheapest bananas. Knowing exactly where to tell a taxi to go, and not letting them jerk you around because you know the real price.
  • Having a Spaniard tell you, “Se nota que llevas tiempo aquí,” “I can tell you’ve spent time here,” because I know my way around.
  • Walking a different way to work every day.
  • Knowing the way the Nicas speak and noticing yourself adjust your own accent and vocabulary.
  • Getting to know the humble man at the fruit stand, whose art is famous around the country.

Why I Chose Living Abroad Over Backpacking

Living Abroad: Going Beyond the Surface While Staying in One Place
Photo Credit: Bob Gala

I came here alone, but there have been few moments when I’ve truly felt alone. I created a network abroad and it continues to develop and connect, creating new opportunities. Maybe the most valuable take-away from staying in one place is the ability to develop relationships that go deeper, much deeper, than “How many countries have you done?”

Staying means growing roots while spreading wings, always learning and adventuring and seeing new places, while still having that familiar, comfortable place to come home to at the end of the day.

One of the important lessons I have learned from months of living abroad is the need to find a balance within investing time and emotional energy into that friendship – not getting too attached, but still making it worth your while. The nature of living abroad is that people come and go. The reality is that you will get close with another foreigner and then they might just leave. After getting discouraged, I’ve been tempted to give up and stop making the effort to develop new relationships.

Maybe this is why some locals are hesitant to get involved with foreigners, because they know it will be impermanent. I realized this won’t get me anywhere because I have something to learn from everyone, whether it’s big or small. It’s representative of a bigger life lesson – everything is impermanent, and we need to learn to live in the moment, invest ourselves fully, take away what we are meant to, and move on. When it’s time, we need to face the goodbye and embrace it, acknowledging that person’s impact on your existence, and maybe even stay in touch – but if not, it’s okay.

Why I Chose Living Abroad Over Backpacking

These are the types of lessons that I feel require an experience in one place that lasts longer than a few days. I walk around and notice tourists on the street, without judgment, and I feel different than them. I know these streets; I used to look at them with newness and wonder, I used to refer to a map, too. But my perspective has changed and developed as I’ve learned more about this town, its people, and its culture, letting my understanding go deeper than the surface. I might look the same to the locals, but I feel different.

Yeah, I’ll always be a foreigner and I’ll never be regarded as a Nicaraguan. But maybe I can gain some respect and change the locals’ perspective of me. I’m not a barefoot North American that doesn’t speak the language. I’m here to break that stereotype, and meanwhile I will learn so much about myself and where I come from.

It’s representative of a bigger life lesson – everything is impermanent, and we need to learn to live in the moment, invest ourselves fully, take away what we are meant to, and move on.

I’m still a nomad, but a nomad in my own way. There’s nothing I love more than heading out the door with just a few precious belongings on my back – but I’m not ready to carry my whole life around. I need something constant in my life, more than my meditation and yoga practices. I need a space where I can hang my pictures on the wall and make it my home, however temporary it may be.

The ideal length to be able to have an impactful, meaningful experience may vary for everyone. The important thing is that the experience is yours. I’ve fallen in love with somewhere after three weeks, but after six months I am still finding more to learn, new places to see and new people to meet. For the first half of my time here, I was going with the flow without any idea of how long I would stay. I’ve since made plans to visit home before figuring out my next step, and I’ll be here for a little over a year in total, spending my time getting settled in a new city called Matagalpa.

Maybe I’ll return to Nicaragua down the road, or maybe I will live in another part of Latin America. Of course, there is a never-ending list of places in this world I want to see, but I’m in no hurry. I will take my time and enjoy them each that much more.


Why I Chose Living Abroad Over Backpacking //  Living Abroad Over Backpacking

About Chelsea Johnson

Chelsea is a Colorado native who loves discovering new corners of the world. Her quest to conquer the Spanish language has taken her throughout Spain and Latin America and she currently resides in Nicaragua. When she is not exploring, you can find her reading, writing, creating art, listening to music, doing yoga, or eating chocolate. Follow her adventures on her blog.

7 thoughts on “Why I Chose Living Abroad Over Backpacking

  1. Heather
    April 16, 2015

    This is a great article! I can relate, and I completely agree with you. There is something so wonderful about getting to that place where you feel at home in a foreign city. I’ve only experienced that once. Many years ago in Montpellier, France I spent only 1 month there, but it was enough time to begin to feel at home. When I visit again, I still feel that familiarity again. It’s incredible. My dream is to one day live somewhere for longer than a month to get that deeper experience. Thank you for sharing your story!

  2. April 16, 2015

    I am always glad to hear positive stories about Nicaragua, and living the dream from our TEFL graduates. I remember picking up Chelsea from the airport in Managua, and her having a palm sized notepad in her purse. The sole purpose of this notepad was to learn new Spanish vocabulary while she was here. It is great to meet such a determined, and kind soul who is truly living her dreams. How are you living your dreams?

  3. Jack
    April 16, 2015

    Great story….. I am in Leon myself…. I have a business called Nicaragua Home Indpections, local Tours & Real Estate Sales…. And a local partner named Alberto …. I have property in El Transito… Will be building a house there soon… Also just had my residency approved and I will be moving to live in Nicaragua full time…. Enough about me again great out look on life there I wish there were more people that had the same feelings for Central America like you do….. I have been all over Central America for the last 20 years or so….. I sent you my email let’s stay in touch and chat I would like that…. Chow for now Jack ……….

  4. Joanie
    April 16, 2015

    Great article!! What you’re experiencing has always been my goal in my travels. Unfortunately, I’ve never ‘lived’ in those places but have found some I think I could live in and cultures that hold immense attraction for me. I envy your commitment to your experience! xo

  5. Marisa
    April 15, 2015

    Yes!! This resonates so well with my experiences living in Spain for two years. It’s awesome to connect what I’ve felt about living abroad through your writing. Love!

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