We wanted to hit reset. At home, our lives had become eerily predictable. So we decided to gamble with everything that was comfortable and settled about our lives for a chance at adventure.
Cape Town seemed like a good place to do that. Ben is originally from Cape Town, and I lived in South Africa myself a while ago. So we sold everything, packed our bags and moved our family (including the dog) halfway around the world. When we left, people admired our gumption. And we accepted their admiration, even as we nursed quiet doubts and fears about what we were doing.
This is the dream, right? You’re sitting at work, toiling away on another unsatisfying assignment. And you think: I could leave it all behind. I could hop on a plane tomorrow. I could live somewhere exotic. I could learn a new language. I could meet interesting people. I could take matters into my own hands and change my life.
Now, here we are. We’ve been in Cape Town for exactly a year. It’s been illuminating and inspiring. It’s been eye-opening. It’s shaken us up. It’s been all those things. But it hasn’t always been easy.
Here’s what no one tells you about the big adventure.
You’ll be lonely.
The perk of an experience like this is you get to start all over and even —reinvent yourself. But the flip side is no one knows you from anywhere. You crop up in a new place with no history, no context, no back story.
Making new friends is daunting, even when you’ve gained the confidence and experience that comes with getting older. Our daughter, Penny, is nearly four, and she’s a little on the shy side. We’re always giving her the pep talk when she sees a potential friend at the park: Just go up to her and see if she wants to play.
Now that I’m working hard to make new friends, I see this scenario in a whole new light. We’re encouraging Penny to ask a question fraught with risk: “Will you be my friend?” I’m doing that almost daily right now, and it feels more vulnerable than I’d like to admit.There’s the very real possibility that someone will say no. But, the possibility that someone will say yes, and become the friend you’ve been waiting for — is too good to pass up. So, I keep asking, and I keep encouraging Penny to do the same.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m in high school all over again. I left behind a circle of friends who not only loved me, but thought I was fun and funny. But here I am, 35-years old , the new girl in school, trying to figure out where I fit in and just hoping I’ll make the invite list. The social scene in Cape Town is well-established, and it lives up to its reputation of being an insider kind of place. Circles are tightly defined, and there aren't usually any extra seats at the table.
Being on the outside looking in, we now realize that we were insiders at home. We had established our circle, and we weren't really looking for new friends. We now wonder how many cool, interesting, inspiring people we were missing out on. So this is the reminder: even if you feel like you've found your people, always keep a few seats open at the table for friends you don’t know yet.
As it turns out, we’re making friends with other people on the fringes — people who don’t naturally fit in to the scene here. Our friends are an ever-expanding circle of newbies, ex-pats and otherwise mis-fits. I kind of love that.
You’ll feel vulnerable.
Vulnerability is the plight of the risk-taker. Anyone who’s ever tried to do life differently, anyone who’s ever chosen to get off the preset path — knows what it means to be vulnerable.Turns out, going on a big adventure, is not so much about being confident, as it is being willing to be vulnerable.
I’m starting to think vulnerability is a good sign. It means you’re far beyond the comforts that once hemmed you in — and you’re not playing it safe anymore. To be vulnerable is to be open to new situations, new people, new places, new ideas.
At home, we had it together. We were the pinnacle of thirty-something American success. But when we came to South Africa, we didn’t have jobs. We didn’t have a car. We couldn’t open a bank account without my father-in-law to vouch for us. We had no idea where to send our kids to school. We had to find a co-signor just to get a cell phone contract. It was humbling, and we needed a lot of help. But family, friends and strangers were eager to give us the help we needed.
Now, being a year in, I see us taking in people who are new to Cape Town. We can empathize with the fears and challenges in starting over. We’re passing on the advice and insights we received when we were fresh off the boat. I’m reminded that asking for help — and offering it — connects us to each other.
At home, we weren’t vulnerable. We knew our way around. We had our people. We had a clear path forward. It was comfortable, but I know we were missing out. These days, we’re wide open.
Your problems don’t go away.
Your problems don’t go away, just because you went away.This seems obvious. But it’s actually harder than you’d expect. To see that, even though you’ve changed your whole life, the same old issues are still hounding you, some of them even more pronounced in the new situation.
The Walt Whitman poem “Song of the Open Road“ is an anthem for travelers and independent souls. I get all caught up in freedom and possibility when the narrator takes to the open road, “strong and content.” But in a parenthetical, he confesses that his problems and burdens travel right along with him: “I carry them with me whenever I go / I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them.”
It’s always tempting to believe that a change of scene will solve your problems. But it doesn’t really work that way. While changing scene doesn’t make your problems go away, it does give you fresh perspective to see these issues in a new way. It helps you break old patterns and behaviors. And now that you’ve changed your circumstances, you might have new realizations about your issues (like, maybe the dissatisfaction with your job wasn’t entirely the job’s fault).
Once you’ve stripped away all the context and constructs that keep your issues under wraps, you have no choice but to tackle them. But for your efforts,you’re bound to arrive at a better version of yourself.
You’ll wonder why you did this.
When we’re having a rough week, we can get buried in homesickness. And homesickness is not rational at all, but a raging, wild emotion. In these moments, we ask ourselves: what the hell were we thinking?
This will happen — anytime you’re taking a huge risk or in the middle of a big adventure — you’ll have doubts. We try to give ourselves permission to indulge doubt when it comes, because it’s the way we feel, and it’s part of the experience. But we also try to cut it short before it turns into tailspin. Because tailspin keeps us from enjoying what’s positive, inspiring and stretching about our current situation. In other words,it keeps us from being present.
In fending off the tailspin, we find ourselves going all the way back to the beginning of this story: Why did we decide to do this? Going back to the original motivation clears our heads.
For these times, you need a mantra, a firm answer to the doubt. For us, we remind ourselves that: “ This is our chance to hit reset on our lives.” Which is shorthand for, this is our chance to figure out who we really are and how we want to live the rest of our lives.With this reminder on repeat, we tighten our grip on the compass and carry on.
If I had to do it all over again.
I won’t lie to you. This experience isn’t exactly what I imagined it would be. But I’d still get on that plane a year ago. Maybe we need to justify this move, but I’m convinced we needed a change of geography to facilitate a change of direction.
It’s not the fantasy. But ultimately, I have to believe it’s richer and more satisfying. I’d rather be living in an honest, hands-on way — even when it’s uncomfortable — than let life happen to me.
And as I’m discovering, the big adventure is not a place, an experience or a plane ticket. The real big adventure is the thrill of a life (any life, anywhere) that’s lived honestly, deeply and with intention. This kind of life doesn’t avoid questions, risk or vulnerability. This kind of life is the one I want.