Life after long-term travel: adjusting back

Unpacking all of my belongings after more than a year away was a strange rite of passage, and one that was much more emotional than I thought it was going to be. I lived out of two suitcases during my time away in Costa Rica, most of it in a little house the size of a car. I learned to live with only the basics. But when I moved back to Las Vegas, a storage unit’s worth of belongings came with me. Alone, I watched the movers fill my new house with boxes, each a mystery that had been untouched for 13 months. I had no idea what I was in for.

Excited to be going back to work and again living in the land of Whole Foods and movie theaters, I was at first thrilled with the idea of setting up my furniture and again enjoying my own bedding and fluffy pink towels. Instead? The first boxes I opened contained piles and piles of purses and belts and shoes, none of which I’d remembered even owning. It made my heart race. I threw it all in my walk-in closet and forgot about it. I should’ve given it all directly to Good Will; instead, my shoes alone lined up both sides of my closet, two rows thick, and the purses and accessories overwhelmed one wall-to-wall shelf. It made me uncomfortable to look at all of it, but I wanted to give myself a chance to get used to having “stuff” again.

And I did get used to it. Yes, don’t think this is a post about how I came back from Central America and lived a spartan life in the U.S. Oh, no. Old habits die hard.

What shocked me the most as I continued to unpack were the dust patterns on my furniture. I guess I hadn’t thoroughly cleaned before packing up! I could literally see exactly where my printer had sat on my office shelf, the small circles where my flower candles from Thailand were arranged, the spots on my dresser where I stack the bangle bracelets I buy around the world. I’m not sure why, but this totally unnerved me. I scrubbed and dusted like a mad woman to get rid of these glaring placeholders; I was not going to just arrange my rooms exactly the way I’d left them, as if I’d never left at all. Long-term travel is way too important and life-changing for me to pretend to just be “back” as if I’d just put my life on pause. But can you really simply dust everything off and start over? I was determined to find out.

In the end, I was indeed ecstatic as I, after many loads of laundry, made my bed with my own linens and put out my beloved pink towels. I lovingly laid out all of my favorite jewelry on my dresser and arranged my trinkets purchased in places like Malaysia, China and Brazil. But my closet was its own beast. The dresses didn’t fit, and my pathetic wardrobe of $15 cotton frocks from the tropics was not going to get me very far in my new life of five-day workweeks and almost nightly events out on the town in Las Vegas. But spending so much money on new clothes made me ill. It seemed to me that hitting the mall for expensive dresses went against everything I’d learned while living abroad for a year, where I had only what I could bring on an airplane, no mail and only the rarest of shopping excursions. Was I throwing all of that simplicity away?

Eventually, my need to do well in my new surroundings won out, and I survived two shopping sprees. I’m even going to admit that I love my new clothes. It’s been really fun, too, buying too much at Target again and spreading out into a three-bedroom townhouse. But just because I’m adapting doesn’t, in fact, mean that I’m throwing away everything I learned in Central America. I’m not going to buy a kitchen table just because I feel I “need” one, and I feel absolutely no pull to keep up with the Jones’s in my neighborhood.

Every picture here was taken during my last trip to Las Vegas before I moved back, when I had no idea I’d be returning to live. I’m wearing dresses I haven’t put on once since the big move. I’m not sure if they feel too “tropical” or if I’m trying to separate two parts of myself. But I love them so, just as I’ve loved my transition. Moving away is thrilling; coming back is special.

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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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Comments

  1. Aww other half of my Abb- I <3 u. That's really all I can think to say. 🙂

  2. I felt the same way when I came back from the Philippines, I was surprised after the initial shock how easy it was to settle back in. You’ll find Costa Rica has changed you in subtle ways and there’s no need to pursue a spartan life 🙂

  3. @Abbie!! You’re so sweet. So happy we’re so close now!

    @Ayngelina Yes, exactly. The changes are extremely subtle — but so important now!

  4. I hope you’ll be packing those $15 smocks for a quick visit to CR some day soon 🙂

  5. It’s like reverse culture shock. I wonder if you feel it more moving home than you did moving to CR?

    Anyway, new places and times in life call for new things. Your American life didn’t fit in CR just as your CR life won’t entirely fit in Vegas. But you’ll always keep pieces of it.

  6. Loved this post so much. I always get really sick to my stomach when I return from a trip and I see just how much I own. I really could be content just living out of a suitcase, but the second I’m back in the States I buy, buy, buy. Ugh!!!

    PS You look so happy and beautiful in your pics babe.

  7. Abby, I want to be you when I grow up!! Seriously.

    I love that you found the life that fits you, and the important balance that is life on your own terms. I struggle these days with how my love of travel fits into the life I want to live and with the things I want to happen for me. I take such inspiration from your story of having lived abroad and experienced all that means for being a well rounded person yet coming back to a “real job” and owning the different parts of you that these experiences fit.

    And girl, next time I am in VEGAS we are so going shopping together. How’s January for you?

  8. Well, you know… if you need to get rid of any of those shoes, I’m sure that you can find someone *cough* to give them to *cough* 😛

    Not that I need anything right now as we’re trying to minimize for our trip.

    I love your writing Abby. It is so incredibly honest and gives me warm fuzzies inside. Miss your face! <3

  9. Thanks, ladies!! I always read comments as they come in on my BlackBerry, but today I just reread everyone’s. All of you guys are so wise! It’s going to be an interesting ride for sure — so happy you are all here with me! (Online!)

  10. I LOVE this! When I got back, the first thing I did was go to Target, and I had to leave, I was so overwhelmed. Getting back into “American life” after being away for so long is not easy. Fortunately, you pull it off ohsowell. Love you!

  11. This post is great as I will be back home in 4 days!! I can’t believe it. I was looking at old photos the other day that a friend sent me and was thinking ‘Oh I forgot I had that dress’ and ‘Oh I love that purse’. Everything will seem new again but when I get back from traveling I tend to donate a bunch of stuff. I hate feeling so materialistic and travel makes you realize just how little you can live with 🙂 (But don’t get me wrong- I”m a jewelry, handbag, and shoes fanatic!)

  12. At the end of the day each lifestyle or location requires some sort of etiquette, like it or not. I bet you’d happily go to the office with shorts, a top and flip flops, but it is not accepted by your current surroundings. No need to be spartan if it will make life tougher on you! But I really understand what is going through your mind… not that I have pink towels or dresses to choose from! 😉

  13. I love this post. Going back is a huge step. It’s going to be very interesting.

  14. Can totally relate. After living out of a suitcase for over 2 years in Australia and NZ, the amount of stuff I know I can live with has shrunk considerably. While I didn’t have much to start with when I got home, I totally do not want to buy new things because “how am I going to fit them in a suitcase? DOH!” I get sick when I see people buying so much stuff “just because”. I have tried to bring that simplistic life back with me and so far, have succeeded quite well, I think!

    Great post!

  15. @Laura!! I can’t believe you’re coming back. I can’t wait to read about the transition. Have a safe trip!

    @Federico I couldn’t have said it better. I would be SO happy in shorts/dresses and flip-flops sigh… But instead I have to help myself fit in. So far, so good!

    @Sabina and @Rebecca thank you!! I gave away SO much stuff before I went into storage, down to making my movers take pieces of furniture. I wanted to get rid of all the excess! And I still felt like I came home with too much saved. Now, I’ve got to go through everything again for give-away. And I can’t wait!

  16. I think it all has to do w/ priorities. You know your priorities have changed, and that everything you do from now on will have your having lived in Costa Rica filter w/ it. Very provocative post 🙂

  17. Argh I went home a month ago for my brothers wedding and dug through some of my stuff looking for things I wanted to bring back to London. OMG what an exercise, I ended up just leaving it all there.

    Can’t believe your now a working woman back in the big city. When I make it to Costa Rica your coming for a holiday with me.

  18. Great post! not that we are going home for a while, but i always wonder about our stuff at home! We had to go home for 3 weeks in september for family reasons and we realised then just how much extra stuff was in storage even after we had a garage sale and got rid of half! Im sure we will be holding another one as soon as we get back!!

  19. Thanks so much, Elise! Yes, I thought I’d gotten rid of so much, which I had, and it still felt like so much while I was unpacking. And yet, I still NEEDED so much new stuff — appropriate clothes, etc. It was a strange feeling!

  20. Although I’ve never moved to a foreign country & then returned home, I can relate to what its like to come back to old possessions. This summer I cleaned out an old storage locker & discovered stuff that I had totally forgotten about. There were a few times where I said: “I thought I threw this out already?!”. I discovered that so many of the things I had been hoarding “just weren’t me anymore” (ie. I had stuff that I had used to decorate my dorm room stashed away in boxes. yikes!). I donated all this stuff to charity because really, if I haven’t missed it yet, I probably won’t. I love living minimally…but, on the flipside, I also love having lots of shoes. I think its just a matter of developing a sense of balance 😉

  21. Hi! I am from Costa Rica, nice to know you lived there and liked it so much on your everyday learnings. 😀 Your post came tom me as a curious thing, since right now I am living abroad mysefl…made me thought of the day when I will have to get back to my place, my stuff also kept in a storage service for 10 months now…and probably some other 10…I am glad to read your experience and somehow it made me feel weird and even like with a crying-nostalgic sensation already inside!!

    Thank you for sharing, really something! Cheers. Hope you are already getting along well & enjoying much your place.

  22. Thanks, ladies!! I’m so happy you guys could relate. It was such a strange, strange feeling! So good to meet you, Mariana! I’m headed to your blog now — I can’t wait to read about where you are… Awww — I can’t believe how emotional you got reading my little blog. This stuff is SO emotional though!!

  23. I know that feeling all too well! I left for Europe with just two suitcases–and then when I moved from Holland to Denmark, the Dutch Post lost ALL my belongings (I still haven’t gotten any of them back…five years later)–so I literally had NOTHING. I was thrilled to return to NYC and at least have my wardrobe back after 1.5 years of wearing the same clothes in a bi-weekly rotation =)

  24. That must feel so odd! I spent two weeks volunteering in Mexico building houses in the slums…even in that short time, when I got back to Houston, I felt disgusted with how much stuff I had. I guess we all just adapt to whatever culture and situation we are put in. I think it sounds like fun to open up boxes and find all kinds of fun bags and shoes you had forgotten about, but I’m sure it feels like unnecessary clutter since you were fine without them for so long! I hope your transition back continues to go well!

  25. Great post. I think most people who have been away for a long time can relate to these struggles upon return. After living out of a backpack for 13 years I am really struggling with this being home right now. Every day I look around me and the thoughts that run through my mind is “I have too much crap. What can I get rid of today?” I hate having a lot of stuff. I’d much rather spend my money on memories then on materialistic stuff. And now that Christmas is here, the time of receiving piles of materialistic stuff to horde, I want to run far away. I find it so hard to explain to others that “I don’t want any presents, I just want to have a good day with everyone. And please don’t spoil my daughter. I’m tripping over toys she doesn’t play with all day long. ” They just think I’m weird and don’t care about making my daughter happy. sigh.

  26. Abby! I know exactly what you mean! It’s weird coming back to so much you’ve left behind. When I got back from a year in NZ I wanted to just have my mom throw all of my leftovers away before I got back so I wouldnt even have to look at it all! But, the materialistic, vintage-collecting little woman inside of me wouldn’t let me!

    I have a brilliant idea. I’ll be in Vegas Jan 4-9. Would you want to meet up? That would be fun!

  27. I’m not alone! It’s so good to read about someone else going through the same thing!
    I got home 2 days ago and I’m not an emotional person but WOW. Like everyone keeps saying, settling in was quick… but there are these slight changes now. You put things into words I wasn’t even aware of until I read them through you!
    Especially the cloths, as I’ve been scrambling all night to find a nice outfit for my interview tomorrow.

  28. Where was the photo taken? I was reading your blog and noticed that I am in the background of one of the photos!!

    So how are you settling in so far?

  29. Oh, ladies, your comments make me so happy! I was expecting an adjustment period, but not such clothes anxiety. After a year of not caring what I wore, it was shocking that it was my number one fear and obsession upon returning home. I just didn’t have the wardrobe I needed!

    Jessie, yes, that’s you! That picture was taken at Lavo, when I was home for Jessica’s wedding. When you left “early”!

  30. Wow, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I live in California but have been living in Sweden for the past 6 months. I have no idea what to expect once I move home. I am sure our experiences have been completely different outside of the country but it is nice to hear what other people feel upon their return home.

    Thanks for sharing

  31. Thank you so much, Alaura! Wow, I love Sweden — and Swedish people. What a change from California! I love that you’ve been living there. I do miss being an expat.

  32. Kudos to you for not forgetting what you learned in Coco when you returned to LV! I wasn’t sure if your new (old?) life would be all about night life, given the city in which you live. I should have realized that the grounded friend I made in the blogosphere who enjoyed the simple pleasures of live in Coco would bring that back with her to LV! Happy that we’ll be able to just have some time to relaxed girl time to get to know each other in June :).

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