By Donald Lee
Summary: Lee offers ten tips for people contemplating a move to Central or South America.
I have received many emails over the years from readers of my Blogs who are interested in moving to Central or South America from the US or other 'developed' countries'. The majority of people who requested information are involved in cross-cultural relationships. I have first-hand experience with a cross-cultural marriage. For women, I recommend that you investigate lagringasblogicito and hondurassprouts. These are blogs written by excellent women writers who are married to Honduran Citizens.
Here are some tips that I picked up from years of actual cross-cultural communications as well as first-hand experience, a grand total of 24 years residence in Mexico and Central America.
1. Be informed (Know) before you go. Read! Read! Read! Surf the Internet and purchase up-to-date print Guidebooks, country specific to where you wish to relocate. Talk to as many people as you can who have lived in Central & South America.
Always spend at least 2-3 weeks in your target country, city or region before deciding to make the move. Seeing is believing. Never rely on internet sites, user groups, forums or blogs as your primary source of information. Never arrange to purchase Real Estate abroad from any website nor contract expensive Real Estate & Relocation tours online. One Woman, whom I know, spent $200 USD a day in Costa Rica on 'Real Estate Tours', returned home broke and bitter after a week. If you do not have a friend or relative in your target country who you are able to stay with (try not to stay in a Resort or Luxury Hotel unless on a genuine vacation) take this advice: "I would recommend couchsurfing.com for meeting locals. You don't have to couchsurf (Stay) with them you can meet for a coffee / drink, local tour or whatever. They'll show you around and you'll get to do things most tourists don't do -- and offer insider information on their area. Also try out bewelcome.org. Both organizations are non profit boasting thousands of Latin American members.
Start taking some Spanish or Portuguese lessons online and also in frontal classes or with a native speaking tutor at home well before departure. Build a language 'basic' foundation. Stepping up to intermediate and advanced is easy once in a Spanish speaking country. In all Latin American countries, excepting Belize and Guyana, former British Colonies and parts of the Caribbean coasts, only a small percentage of your local neighbors will speak English.
2. Find a cultural mentor. Long term resident or trusted bilingual local. I befriended a couple of younger, less experienced expats during my first years living in Guatemala. Upon arrival to Central America many years ago, I was lucky enough to have a relative and was introduced into a small social network of both expats and locals..invaluable. These people were very gracious in helping me with many day-to-day tasks in the beginning, teaching me to be independent -- step by step and not to rely on locals to 'hold my hand'. A good mentor can and often will point out errors in judgement. Social contacts and personal relationships are very important throughout Latin America.
3. Choose your home and neighborhood carefully. Look for one that will accept you, and where you will feel comfortable. Cheap rent in a poor neighborhood may sound great, but in the long run, you may be robbed or worse. Keep a low profile and never divulge your personal or work information or give out your address to overly friendly strangers.
4. Go slow at first. Don't expect to work at the same pace as you did in the US/Canada/UK, etc.. Things are just simply harder to get done in Latin America. And slower. Always. Often people show up late, very late, for appointments. Never reprimand locals for this unless they are in your employ and have business commitment with you. 'Life in The Tropics' -- Don't take yourself too seriously and keep a sense of humor.
5. Try not to make general assumptions about Latin Americans. Just as you would not want those in the country where you are relocating to assume that every US or Canadian citizen is rich, white, and arrogant, you should not assume that all Latin Americans are alike. Listen to locals and ask questions.
6. Expect a testing period. Friends, contacts and co-workers need time before you are accepted into their trust. Once you are deemed trustworthy, the doors will fly open.
7. Expect life to be a bit annoying in the beginning. Cold showers are the norm in many areas. Air conditioning is most often a luxury. Water and electricity sometimes fail on a daily basis. In some areas Internet Connections are slower than at home.
8. Try not to complain. Accept that Central or South America is different than the US/Canada/UK.
9. Look for the good things in your adopted new country, such as the beautiful mountains, rustic rural national parks or beaches.
10. Be humble. One of my favorite phrases in Spanish, "I don't understand." "Yo no lo comprendo" A humble attitude goes a long way in getting along with co-workers and friends. Even if you feel you 'know', always get a second opinion from a native or long term expat resident friend. Try not to 'one up' or be arrogant with newly arrived expats. I know a woman in my country (from the US) who will break into and dominate any conversation in Spanish. Even though her Spanish is lacking, she tells new arrivals she is 100% 'fluent'. So, if you choose to live in a gated community or 'condos' with other expats from your country, be advised that gossiping and one upping (what a person who feels inferior does to make themselves feel superior) is a fairly common pastime in any and all expat communties, far better to 'go native' and live among locals, if at all possible for you.
I hope these tips help some of you who are contemplating relocation and / or retirement to Central or South America.
First Published: Oct 11, 2008