I suspect that you, like most of us, haven’t spent much time thinking about the many specific habits, behaviors, brand loyalties, routines, and comfort areas that make up what you call your life. This collection of everyday, routine stuff has taken decades to assemble. Your personal hygiene products, favorite brands of mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup… restaurants you frequent, clothing you wear, the vehicles you drive, the traffic laws you rely upon for your safety, cultural norms and taboos, the typically failsafe operation of public utilities and emergency services, the mostly efficient operation of public agencies, your familiarity with the barbers and hairdressers you use, the television programs you enjoy, cleaning products you trust, sports teams you watch on television and even the toilet paper you choose to flush have all been interwoven into the fabric of your life. And then, of course, there are your friends, families and co-workers with whom you regularly interact and who all play active supporting roles in your personal play.
Becoming an expatriate and making a move overseas to an entirely different culture necessarily means that all of that…everything above changes!! Notice the double exclamation points in that last sentence. As many of us who have made the move to become expats have repeatedly said in many forms, the most important thing you can bring with you when you make the move is a “you” who is ready to surrender your old life and replace it with an entirely new life. Read that last sentence again. Additionally, the most important thing to leave behind is your trunk filled with expectations.
Bringing the “you” that is ready for a huge change and forgetting about how things were before is not a daily or weekly effort. It is a minute-by-minute, in-your-face reality that slowly becomes easier with each tick of the clock over a period of months and years once you are in your new environment. It is something that required me to consciously focus on accepting something new and forgetting about how it used to be every minute of every day for many months after we first arrived. Even though I told myself I was ready for the changes that were about to come and even though I had lived overseas with my military service, the reality of dealing with the sudden loss of an entire life and the immersion into a new one felt a bit overwhelming on some days.
I think that Diane did better than I on the initial adjustments. Although I never once had a moment when I wanted to leave and return back to the United States, I did have many moments of frustration, primarily related to the language barrier. I simply could not effectively communicate with those around me. Shopping for the basic necessities became a survival skill, even though I had the use of computer translators and an English/Spanish dictionary, there were many times when technology simply was not enough.
After more than 6 decades, I had come to accept certain things in my life as absolutes and those things were comforting, providing stability in an unstable world. As an expat, I could no longer count on any of those things…any of them!
I recently had an opportunity to expand my new, expat life even more. The Pocket Babe and I were invited to a friend’s large home (actually a very nice resort) to join others this evening for a celebration of life; a spiritual celebration. Actually, this man is a very new acquaintance, one with whom we had recently spent the better part of a day. We liked him and he was certainly very interesting. He is an Ecuadorian business man and has been quite successful. We were told that the evening would be structured around singing, drumming, chanting and a time for questions after. We would gather in a small temple built into the stunning landscape of his home/resort.
Most of the participants would be Ecuadorian. Nothing about the invitation sounded like anything I had ever done before. We invited one other Expat couple to join us. The female half of the other couple and Diane were well acquainted and both of them shared similar spiritual paths. Now, anyone who knows me would know that this sort of spiritual experience with singing, chanting and drumming is definitely not me! Not me by a long shot!! Okay, well maybe the drumming. BUT…in the spirit of remaining open to new experiences I said yes. Diane was shocked! I mentioned that I might bring my tumba (a beautiful native hand drum Diane had purchased for me a year or so ago here in Ecuador).
The truth is that I truly wanted to become more open to other experiences. I had recently discovered that my preconceived ideas about another acquaintance had been very wrong. Based on her very healthy lifestyle choices, I had made some broad assumptions about her without really knowing her and my assumptions were completely inaccurate. My awakening occurred only in my head and I realized that despite my proclamations to the contrary, I did have some preconceived notions I needed to shed. I needed to experience a much broader slice of life and increase my interactions with various lifestyles, expanding my perspectives. I needed to really understand that we are all one people. I wasn’t getting any younger so I couldn’t afford to miss such a wonderful opportunity as was being offered.
After dinner, we drove from San Vicente into Bahia where we picked up our friends and then continued on to our host’s home a bit outside the city. The large gates opened and we were greeted by our host and some staff as we drove inside. The time was 8 P.M. and darkness had enveloped the lush landscape with sparse lighting assisting us as we followed a cobblestone pathway to the small temple.
We removed our shoes, placing them on a rack just outside the temple’s entrance. We stepped inside and were greeted by others. The small temple was constructed of beautiful hard wood. It was a multi-facetted circular design, perhaps 20 feet across. There were windows and glass doors built into the walls and pictures of Jesus, and other religious icons were hung in frames around the perimeter. There were a number of photos of another man who was dressed in a long tunic. He had bushy hair and his image was prominent among the other photos. I would learn he was called Sai Baba.
There was a place in what appeared to be the front (hard to tell the front of a room if it is circular in shape) where incense was being burned. Beautiful square cushions were placed in neat rows on the floor and we were motioned to take a seat. I placed my tumba (drum) against a wall and took my place on a cushion. I carefully checked the room for any signs of a sacrificial alter. I was open to new experiences but not ALL new experiences!
After a moment for all to become settled, our host introduced us to the others in the room and then invited us to speak if we wished. Using the best Spanish I could muster, I introduced us, explaining that we were into our second year of living in Ecuador and had retired to Ecuador from the states. A few questions followed and then, silence.
A soft vocal tone began to fill the room as our host began a musical “Ahhhh” sound that the others followed. I joined in. It was pleasing, one tone following the next as our host continued for a few minutes. Then…more silence. An a cappella song was begun by one of the participants and others joined in, a drummer beating his rhythms in time from the rear of the temple. After a few minutes, I asked someone to pass my drum to me and I joined in. Music, after all, is said to be the universal language. I would find a way to participate. The words to each song were printed in small but very nice booklets someone had assembled using a computer and printer. Some of the songs were in Spanish and others were in the ancient language of Sanskrit. While we struggled to interpret the meaning of the Spanish lyrics, the Sanskrit lyrics were impossible to understand and yet, it was the Sanskrit lyrics that connected most deeply with Diane as she sang.
At one point, the lights in the temple were turned off and an obvious time for individual meditation had begun. Shortly after that, a small bit of sacred, burned ash was offered to each participant, placed into upturned hands. We were told beforehand that this small bit of ash could be eaten if we wished. Heck yes! Why get off in Chicago if you’re going to New York? I was going to eat the ashes if offered.
When the ashes were offered, I extended my cupped hands and perhaps a quarter teaspoon of ash was deposited using the tiniest spoon I have ever seen. I tilted my head back and emptied the ashes into my mouth. Flowery, perfume-like and a bit gritty.
After perhaps an hour of singing, chanting and rhythms, it seemed to be finished. Our host, looking directly at me, asked if we had any questions. I wanted to know about Sai Baba. Our host explained who he was and a bit of history as well. I learned more after coming home and doing some research. Our evening was enjoyable. I am still processing the experience but I am extremely glad that I said yes. It was a positive experience, for sure!
It seems like becoming a successful expatriate is much like stripping completely naked and shedding all of the stuff you wrapped around yourself in your previous life. In your new environment, I say cast those things aside and wrap yourself in a completely new set of experiences. Those new experiences won’t feel entirely comfortable at first. But they will not always feel like “new clothes”.