The dark side of being a single expat

I had a rough week. And because I can’t bear for one more person to go, “But you live in paradise; go to the beach!” I am going to honestly talk about it, for the first time. Loneliness, sadness and bone-chilling fright are common ailments of living the dream, believe you me.

I became attached to a dog I rescued this week. He was skin and bones when I took him home, and he barely moved, lethargically moping around my small patio. As he gained strength and started to feel better, due to the two sets of pills I was tricking him into eating for his painful kidney infection and small amounts of cooked chicken and dog food four times a day, he started to run around the yard, smiling, tail wagging. He barked for the first time one evening when I came home, jumping up on me with a strength I didn’t know he had.

Meanwhile, a wave of crime has frightened my little town, especially single women like me. It’s rainy season, so all the tourists are home. (Translation: Time for the town’s criminals to target the locals.) I had a long talk with two friends about the latest (nearby) hits: a woman alone waking up to a man in her room hissing, “shhhh,” renters robbed at knifepoint, a cat burglar with dreadlocks spotted casing a wall like a monkey. The last one, of course, is my buddy Mario, who so changed the course of my life last year.

I was spooked.

My house’s internet was AWOL, so I’d been traipsing between friends’ houses with my laptop, trying to jump online whenever I could to keep up with my little company, which is sometimes all I have. My BlackBerry charger had decided to stop working, so I was cut off completely. The very afternoon I heard of all the new crimes, I was walking home alone. I’d been sitting in 100 degree heat, outside, to nab a neighbor’s wireless, and as I turned the corner, I was hit with a wall of fear and nausea.

My gate was wide open, and a muscular stranger was slipping around a corner of my house.

The man turned out to be the gardener I hadn’t yet met. Even after he convinced me so, I was left so scared and traumatized. The dog? He hasn’t been seen since.

Sorry to call him “the dog,” but his name was Chase, coined by my neighbors who spent a few weeks before I took him in chasing him with food. He certainly won this chase, huh? As usual, I feel right now, the joke’s on me.

In the meantime, I’ve been left with some very legitimate concerns. I could very well wake up at knife point and afterwards not be able to reach my mom. Something bad could happen with my company, and I won’t know, won’t be able to fix it. (Oh, and I finally found a charger in town that kinda, sorta worked, but the electricity went out, and the surge protector didn’t do its job. It’s now dead. I can’t get a replacement here.)

Realizing one day that you want a different life than the one you’ve got, and actually ripping out your insides to approach the unknown, takes guts. I love myself for doing it and commend anyone else who does. We’re the ones who didn’t spend years dreaming of giving it all up to move to a hut on the beach. We did it. I love us.

But it’s not easy.

As a single woman living as an expat or traveler, you spend so much time alone. Every hiccup along the way is spent alone, handled alone. It takes ages to fix any and every problem. And meanwhile, you’re basically … alone. Sometimes you’re so on the lookout for something meaningful that a snippet of a Taylor Swift video can drive you to tears.

I woke up Saturday morning by myself, sad and upset, at around 5:30 am. I hadn’t eaten dinner, so I was starving, and I of course wanted nothing short of some kind of magical comfort food feast. My options were slim. Absentmindedly staring into the fridge, I spied an unopened bag of perfect parmesan cheese left from the previous tenants. Score! Pasta it was!

And just like that, life again became about the little things. No one said that changing your life would come easy.

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I'm a life-long travel junkie journalist who works hard to find adventure in everyday life after two years of travel and expat living.

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  1. So sorry to hear that you are going through a rough time right now 🙁 Your comments about solo female travel is so exactly right, although it’s not constant, the oddest moments will spark pure terror when you feel especially vulnerable.

    Sending you warm thoughts!

  2. You’re so brave Abby! I would be seriously freaked out. I sometimes sit at home, worrying about what life on the road will be like. I’ve been to China, but traveling through Asia for 6-12 mths is a long time. Especially when I’m doing it alone!
    Funks are not fun. I’m in the middle of mine, and I’m thinking of doing a post. Kudos to you for sharing yours.
    Stay safe Chica!

  3. Sorry to hear things are rough right now – stay safe Abby!

  4. I discovered your blog through Nomadic Chick and have been following you for a while now. After such an honest post I felt I had to comment.

    Although I don’t know what it is like to be a solo expat, I can say from experience that we all have hard days. I can definitely relate to people thinking that expat life is always a fairytale existence. Everyone that is except everyone I know who’s ever actually been an expat. Just try to remember way you started on this journey in the first place and know that you aren’t alone. There’s a whole world of us out here in cyber-land rooting for you and are here to listen. Take care!

  5. Ugh, sorry about that bout of rough luck… these things always come in waves don’t they. I am an optimist at heart and I think these things are cyclical- you are bound for some good luck soon!

    Thanks for pointing out that the expat life is not perma-vacation so many people seem to think it is. It’s rough and scary and sometimes it really blows. Hopefully the perks are enough to make up for that in the end!

  6. I love you, Abbs!!! Things will get better. They always do. 🙂

  7. I haven’t done the full ex-pat, living-in-one-place-thing, yet, but I felt the same about people telling me that my trip was incredible and fabulous and wonderful all the time from home. Sure, that much was true — it was the best thing I had done in my life to date — but there were also long lapses of less than great times. Pretty much just like everyone’s lives back home. Some seem to have a hard time understanding that just moving to a great place doesn’t insure that every moment there IS great. Though I’ll take my chances with it verses the alternative. . . 🙂

  8. The life of an expat or traveler is bliss … so sayest the ones who’ve not walked in your shoes.

    Your post resonated with me. Solo travel in isolation can be a heavy weight that makes your heart skip a beat once too often. Paranoia, loneliness, worry, imagination and adrenaline all intertwined make for a powerful potion.

    And, who would believe it? Certainly not those who’ve not been there.

    I’ve not tasted Parmesan cheese since … well, I don’t really know. However, danish blue has pulled me through more often than not 🙂

    I hope things improve. They usually do. Or else it’s, that whole overcome thing.

    Looking back at prior adversity often helps too.


  9. Not sure you’re into this kind of thing, but you might want to learn some kind of self defense-oriented martial art (god forbid you’d need to use it). I’m sure options are limited in a small Costa Rican town, but Krav Maga is excellent and can save your life in just the situations you mention. I studied it for some time four years ago and I still remember how to disarm someone with a knife.

    Now I’m not suggesting you choose the path of violence when you could just give up your wallet. However, if someone were to attack you…

    Or you could just get some pepper spray. 🙂 Things will turn around, they always do!

  10. Abby,
    You are very brave. It’s certainly not everyone who could be a single expat. It is not easy, especially when there are electronics/technology issues to make it more frustrating. I was an expat when I was younger, but I lived with my best friend. We shared an apartment and helped each other immensely, but in some ways we did not share a life there. We had different friends, and there were times when we were disconnected, especially when she fell in love and was AWOL for a few weeks. I remember feeling lonely and isolated. Being far away from my family, culture, etc. and not being a completely assimilated member of the new country made for some rough times. But life is like this– where there is light, there is dark. I hope things go better this week, and remember that this too shall pass. 🙂
    How about the dog? I got the idea from twitter that he had returned…?

  11. Thanks, Jenna! Yes, I did my dog back, but then the gardener let him out AGAIN. And didn’t even try to find him! He was long gone by the time he got home. I’ll find a new one — when I feel up to it!

  12. @Keith Good idea! I do sleep with a machete under my bed and have spray nearby. I also have my ways of hopefully making sure any future robberies yield less merchandise!

  13. Dave and Michael, thank you!! It’s so nice to have people understand. It’s rare that one of my girly posts resonates with the boys. So glad to hear you guys have these emotions, too! Really, thank you!

  14. @Alison So good to meet you! I’m thrilled you wrote and introduced yourself. I just got lost in your blog. Can’t wait to delve in even more later!

  15. @Shannon, Pam, Abbie and Stephanie — thank you soo much for understanding and your warm wishes! Waking up to those this morning rocked. Today is a new day!

  16. Sharone says:

    Abby!!!!I love you!!!!I’m here for you! Come to South Africa with Samarah and I in August. You are so brave!

  17. This is such a down to earth an honest post! I hope that your rough week is long behind you after you finished that pasta with parmesan cheese! While loneliness and isolation are scary and can be downright rough, what is the alternative? There are reasons you’ve jaunted across the globe and now found yourself “settled” (for now) in Coco. I think its great you’ve written about the other side of expat travel and living which does have negatives, so that type of life isn’t viewed angelically as a giant vacation. However, there can be more cons to being grounded in monotony, “stuck” with wonder and wanderlust, yet never able to make the move. Stepping out of ones comfort zone, is when we truly grow and find ourselves. Solely seeking out a comfortable life guarantees an insipid existence. Enjoy the time steeping out of your comfort zone living in a small town away from the big cities.

    I Hope the crime subsides; Abby, you need to be too close to an aggressor to use pepper spray. Wasp spray can shoot up tp 20 feet! Though not sure if the local “bodega” stocks it.

  18. Things can only get better, never worse. rememeber that is why we have each other ….and YAAAAYYY…we found Chase this morning with his partner in crime. Hope you are feeling better today!!

    love Deni

  19. Oh honey … your post hit home with me. I know you are going through a rough moment but it’s just a moment, like you said. And, you know this well, if you need to get out for a bit, my hostel dorm room is always open for you. Miss you. BESOS. xxx. And everything else.

  20. Oh honey, I wish I could jump through the computer and give you the biggest hug and then we could get drunk off a couple bottles of champagne. I’m SO proud of the courage you have to keep going. I promise you will be rewarded in the end. I hope that either you find Chase or another dog to keep you company. Stay safe and know that I’m thinking of you!!!

  21. Hi Abby,

    Wow, I hope your bad week is now long behind you!

    I takes courage to “Live your Dream”. Make sure you go out and do some of those really fun things that made you go to costa rica in the first place! That should help you remember the positive.

    Good Luck.


  22. Wow Abbs, I am feeling so many emotions! TERRIFIED, SHOCKED (Um, you have compassion for dogs?) & PROUD! Keep those doors locked & enjoy your dream for as long you can! Then back safe & sound to the USA please, miss ya. xo lor

  23. katherine says:

    I love you Abby.

  24. Hang in there Abby! Don’t forget if you need your haircut, just hang out on the balcony, or have a bbq and wine, we are always loving company!

    Brian and Jen

  25. Awww sounds like a rough patch, but at the same time many of these things could have happened if you merely moved to the big city somewhere away from family and friends. Minus the lack of blackberry electronics. Good luck with everything!

  26. @Cornelius Thanks so much! Yes, that’s all it was, a rough patch. Glad you understood that most of it was stuff that could happen anywhere. It just feels a little different when you’re far away and disconnected!

  27. @Colin Yes, we a great weekend, a weekend in though. Rainy season has begun! Super-fun though, tons of friends and plenty of red wine to go around!

    @Andi I’m taking rain check on that hug and champagne!

  28. @Mark So good to meet you! I’m so glad you wrote. Yes, the loneliness and isolation is exactly it. Just wanted to give the other side. But I have no plans on going back — it was just a rough week. You’re so right: small price to pay!

  29. Keep your head down, you’ll be fine. Hopefully Chase will come back soon. Dogs make it all better!

  30. Abbbeeeeeeee,
    Your girls in the barrio are always here for you. I know it is hard at times but overcoming those challenges makes you a stronger as a person and ables you to take on new challenges with more ease. Lets hope better times are coming your way.

  31. Well apparently I am the last person to comment on this wonderful, honest post. Solo female travel loneliness is a killer. I am about to face that yet again in under two weeks, but when studying abroad for over a year in Italy, I battled these same struggles. Granted I don’t think I was ever in that kind of danger so be careful! Isn’t it amazing what a little parmesan cheese can do?

  32. Hi JP,
    Saw your site through Cathy Browns Tweets.

    A great piece of honest writing.

    Sounds like a tough time right now.
    As an expat (6 year veteran in Chile) I know those tough lonely times. Even though I’m now married with kids and have many friends here, those waves of loneliness and longing for a bit of English comfort food (Cheese and Marmite sandwich in my case) come on a regular basis.

    As many others here have said those who stay in the comfort of home, do not really know that “Living the dream” is sometimes a nightmare as well.

    Keep in there and know there are many of us out there who understand you and support you.

    Great Blog, I will be a regular reader.


  33. Thanks so much, Matt! I’m so excited to meet you. I was nervous to write about that, but I just had to do it. I love it here, and I’ve loved this 10-month (and counting!) adventure. But I want people to feel like it’s ok to talk about the rough patches. It makes it easier to deal with then and then carry on living the dream!

  34. @Suzy Thank you, Suzy! I’m so excited for you. Our online community has helped so much, and I think being cut off from that during a bad week made it so much worse!! But now I’m back — and my house is currently filled with no less than five dogs. Be careful what you wish for! (I’m kidding — I’m so happy!)

  35. You know if it were easy, everyone would be doing it! 🙂

    I think all of us who choose to travel or live the way we do enjoy the challenge of it. The good times are amazing, and the bad times are… well…
    It can be especially tough when you’re ‘disconnected’ from the internet lifeline, which is how we communicate with the ‘outside world’

    Anyways, sounds like you’re already in a better place and things are sorting themselves out. Best of luck!

  36. I’ve been a solo, female expat since 2000. I can relate to some of what you have been going through.

    I’ve experienced both stalkers and murder in my neighborhood….very scary. You know yourself you just have to take what precautions you can and keep going.

    Thankfully, the good days more than make up for the bad!

  37. you know i want to do this and i want to do it yesterday. keep it up you’re inspiring me. its not like the grass is GREENER round here xoxoxo

  38. Oh, Wynter! Don’t I know that haha. Do NOT worry — I’m not heading back to LA anytime soon!
    @Nancie Oh, yes, the good far outweighs the bad for sure! I’d say I had two bad weeks (getting robbed and last week) out of 10 months. And last week was just a hiccup. Not bad for former workaholic who used to be stressed all… the time!

  39. I know it’s absolutely no help when you’re feeling lost and vulnerable and helpless…

    …but – look at all these comments.

    Not alone.

    And definitely not lost. Because you’re doing the hard thing – and that’s always the right direction. (The easy thing? Well, that could well be the wrong way entirely. Often is, I reckon).

    Even when the wifi is dead and the phone has no signal and there’s nobody in the street…there are people who care. And they’ll still be caring when the internet comes back on and the phone is reconnected. Some signals never fade.

    Tough cookie, that Abby. 🙂

  40. Aw, thanks so much, Mike! Excellent point about the “easy” way being no fun at all. My favorite part about this lifestyle? You never know what’s next, good or bad. Already on to something new! I know — look at all of these comments! I love how supportive our group is. It means the world to me!

  41. I’m so sorry that its been rough! I’ve never moved to a foreign country but I can kind of relate to what you’re going through. When I moved to this city almost 11 years ago, I knew no one & had to figure it out all on my own & it was really hard at times (I’m sure it didn’t help that I was a wide-eyed 18 year old thousands of miles away from home). I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to deal with a change in language as well. I think it definitely takes courage to start over and that you’re very brave! Also, when you’re in this kind of situation, its all about the small victories-even if that means procuring some great Parmesan!

  42. @Skinny Dip I actually had no idea you were from Toronto. Yes, small victories!! Sloooowly making them with my Spanish as well. I used to have a phobia of speaking it on the phone, but having no internet cured that. I was desperate — and I navigated the operators and tech team with minimal disaster. Yeah!

  43. First of all, I am excited to find your blog. It sounds like you are doing something wonderful and unique despite the hard times like what you are going through now. Traveling is always challenging, whether single or not. Even as a couple, we sometimes face loneliness because we are so isolated from the rest of the world. There are always fears and challenges but I think those are in part what propels us to keep up this lifestyle. It’s not for the fainthearted but still so worth it.

  44. @theroadforks I’m so happy to meet you! Yes, the isolation can be killer. But we all do know we wouldn’t have it any other way! Since you guys are new friends, I hope you know I’m usually quite sunny… Just had to get it off my chest that life doesn’t stop even when you get up and change your life for the better. “Not for the fainthearted,” I love that. It’s quite rare I think of myself as brave!!

  45. I’m not single but definitely understand the isolation coming from living in CR. Have lived over in Hermosa for nearly a year and still wouldn’t say I’ve made nearly as good of friends as we had in the Arenal area where we lived before..that’s such a small area it was easy to become a part of the community. Coco is definitely a better area to melt into the community than in Hermosa but I need reliable internet for work so Hermosa it is. It’s tough feeling such a lack of connection to the people in this area.

    I had a terrifying night myself recently actually, my bf was out of town and I was alone for a couple weeks…our house had been robbed only a month before, I was a little nervous but not too overly so. At around 2am there was a sound and then the power went out. I was convinced someone was going to break in and didn’t sleep until at least 4 and then only with mace under my pillow and a baseball bat in bed!

  46. Meghan! Oh my gosh!! Yes, it’s hard to explain that feeling. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who gets spooked when home alone! I lived in Hermosa when I first moved down here. It was great. So happy to hear from you!

  47. Hi Abby, Galen and I met you with Kelsey- we went to the private beach with the dogs and really not so private. Desperate people everywhere including our lovely Coco. We are just about done with our lake home here in Minnesota and will be moving this weekend. I had your link saved and thought I would read a little bit – what’s going on in your life. Stay well and nice to hear you have a dog of your own now. Hi to Kelsey and we hope to see you when we visit again in November and January…not so far away! Take care!! Vicki

  48. Hi, Vicki! I’m so glad you thought to look at my blog and checked in. So great to hear from you! Stop by again soon… I can’t wait to see you in November. Write soon!

  49. I’m a married w/children American expat in Myrtle Beach, SC. Seriously. 🙂 Very nice to meet you.

  50. What a real and transparent post Abby. Being a single twentysomething once again that’s one of the biggest things I think about when I ponder moving to another country as an expat or traveling the world. I wonder how I would connect and fit in with the people and cultures I’m around. I recently moved an hour from where I was and even then have so many moments of that loneliness, but can’t imagine it for you as you’ve moved to another country. All the best Abby!

  51. Hi Abby. I’ve been a single female ex-pat in Spain for the last 10 years and its been the most rewarding experience. Change is always hard at first, but after a while, it becomes the norm. Now there is nothing that defeats me, and I no longer wake up afraid (excited afraid) – it will happen to you too. Soon it will become home and you will wonder what you were ever afraid of xxx

  52. Panama Rose says:

    I was feeling kind of isolated and alone as an expat in Panama. It was comforting to read your post and left me feeling less alone.

    In response to your post: “I do sleep with a machete under my bed and have spray nearby. I also have my ways of hopefully making sure any future robberies yield less merchandise!”

    I have been told by the police here that wasp poison, the sort that sprays out of can some thirty-odd feet is far superior to ‘mace’ or other pepper sprays.

    Blessings be with you.

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