Busco Un Burro: Buying a Donkey in El Perú

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

It turns out that buying a donkey in Peru is not the easiest thing to do. Which, if you have ever been to Peru, may surprise you. Donkeys are everywhere. More ubiquitous than the llama, almost as common as the cow, donkeys are used on every trek and they can be found in every field.

Understandably, after a year of living in close contact with Peruvian farmers and their donkeys, I came to the conclusion that buying one would be a simple task.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Buying a donkey took me 4 weeks from the day I started looking.

Okay, so why on earth was I trying to buy a donkey in the first place?

My then partner and I had this crazy idea to walk across Peru from the ocean to the Amazon. But we really didn’t fancy carrying all our supplies on our backs. So we decided to buy a donkey to help us out.

The mission started when we arrived in Chimbote in late August, 2015. Chimbote is a fairly large port city in Peru. We got a room in a small hospedaje, the cheapest version of a hotel in Peru, and went out to get a feel for the town.

 

A young girl, probably late teens/early 20s was working at a cell phone booth and we started talking with her. Eventually we mentioned that we were in town to purchase a donkey.

Her shock was plain to see.  Not in Chimbote, she told us, incredulous, but outside in the chakras (farm fields) in a town called Santa. But, she warned us, donkeys were very expensive, 2,500 soles, or about $700… WAY more than we wanted to pay.

Still, it was our first lead. So off we went next day to Santa, a smaller much more agricultural town outside of Chimbote. We soon found an agricultural products store and asked them, Busco un burro? Donde se vende? (I’m looking for a donkey, where are they sold?)

Our timid questioning was met with much belly slapping hilarity. Not in Santa! This is a town! Silly gringos, go out to the chakras!

Into a moto and out to the rural area we went. And that was how we found ourselves standing in a deserted collection of 5 mudbrick houses. No one around. Donkeys in all the open spaces. I could just see the tumble weed floating by in the distance.

What was there to do? We didn’t know, so we walked down the street until we found someone. Eventually we ran into a guy using an ox to plow his field so he could plant his quinoa. He said he might know a guy with a donkey and calls a friend. Pretty quickly we get the standard response ‘nooo, no hay’ (There aren’t any).

Why do we want one? He askes. And we explain that we are looking for a donkey to carry our stuff from the ocean, across the desert, up and over 2 mountain ranges, and out into the Amazon jungle.

He looks alarmed.

No, these donkeys, he tells us, are burros costeños (coastal donkeys). A walk like that would kill them. They aren’t made for carrying heavy things.

 

Well there was the crux of our mistake. We had been living high up in the mountains near Cusco, where all the donkeys were hearty mountain donkeys. We had completely forgotten to take into account the fact that coastal donkeys would be as ill equipped for high altitude life as we were.

We decide, with much trepidation, to complete stage one of our walk, across a desert and over one 4,800m (15,700ft) mountain pass, without donkey.

Probably the most painful decision of my entire life. I was committing myself to two weeks of walking through unforgiving terrain with up to 50 pounds on my back.

14 days later and we’d made it to the end of stage 1 and the bustling metropolis that is Huaylas, Peru.

Did I say bustling metropolis? No sorry, I meant completely dead mountain town.

Huaylas, which had been our mecca for 2 weeks, is a ghost town. The tiendas are empty. There is one hotel and we appear to be the only guests. The market has one lady in it who, at 2pm, doesn’t appear to be serving lunch.

Having placed all our hopes on this town as our best option to buy food and a donkey: we despair.

But over the next 4 days, this ghost town slowly comes to life around us and I begin to love it.

The one lady who works in the market is Maria and she becomes our biggest supporter in town. Every day she makes us breakfast and asks how the donkey search is going.

On day 2, Maria calls up her son, and he and his cousin take us up into the mountains to several villages, asking around for a donkey. We head up to tiny rural communities without cars and ask everyone we see if they have donkeys available. We are greeted by a chorus of ‘nooo, no hay’. But to give our guide, Ibo, credit, he never gives up and even commiserates with us: que hacemos? (What are we going to do?) I had this beautiful sense that we were his friends and he was going to help us until the very end.

On day 3, Maria takes us herself through town to ask some friends about donkeys. Even when we are away, she goes by herself to a different pueblo and actually finds someone willing to sell a donkey to us.

Not to mention Maria is incredibly kind, friendly, and welcoming. Her help turned Huaylas from a ghost town to a living Peruvian community of which we are briefly a part.

On Day 2 in the morning, before Ibo can take us up to the mountain villages, we take a walk through Huaylas and up to the next town, passing through all the farm fields in between. We speak with everyone who crosses our path. People ask us where we are staying so they can find us if they do find a donkey. A man offers to sell us his, but he wants 800 soles, still way more than we are willing to pay.

Day 3 of the Huaylas search was the day of success. After Maria took us to meet her friends without success, we went back and asked the man who owned our hotel if he knew anyone. He turned out to be yet another incredibly helpful and friendly character from Huaylas.

And so we are off again, following señor through the town to the house of a woman who may own a donkey. Well, she doesn’t know of anyone, we get another ‘noooo, no hay’ and are about to give up, when a tiny campesiña woman walks by and our host calls out to her. Asking, does she know anyone who wants to sell a donkey?

For the first time, we don’t hear ‘nooo, no hay’ Instead, as if in a dream, I hear her say, my mother wanted to sell hers, let me call her.

Her mother is an 88 year old Peruvian woman who is as small as child, but tough as nails and sweet as sugar. She says yes, she has a donkey, a female, who is made to carry things through the mountains, and she would like 250 soles for her.

Perfect.

Off we go with Felicity, not the 88 year old mother, but the daughter. She takes us down ‘just 15 minutes’ to the chakra where the donkey lives.

11222164_953907604730988_1721181325776676843_o

Chana looking gorgeous on the day we met her

And the donkey is perfect. She is sweet, mild tempered, with healthy teeth, healthy feet, a good weight, and a clean, healthy coat of hair. I couldn’t be happier.

We work out the details with Felicity and head back up towards town. I expect it to be the end of it, but no. Felicity takes us into her home and makes us a delicious lunch from scratch. Canchita (peruvian toasted corn), a pea soup, and a vegetarian dish of veggies and potatoes over rice. During all of this she tells us about her life, raising a daughter by herself, making sure her daughter stayed in school. Her problems with monkey and her life struggles. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in Peru.

And after lunch? She has us help her herd her sheep down to the fields below town.

And that is how you buy a donkey in Peru.

My Eating Disorder Struggle And Recovery

Body Positive

The story that I am about to relate has been casting about in my head for months. It wanted to be told. Or rather, I wanted to tell it. But something stopped me. I wasn’t ready. It is a deeply personal and revealing account of a traumatic experience, and some people would probably consider this oversharing. But really what else is the internet is for?

I wasn’t ready to tell this story until now. Hopefully by the end of this post you will understand why.

For the last 2 years I have been suffering from a debilitating eating disorder. I have never seen a professional therapist and I have never been diagnosed but I don’t need a doctor to tell me what I know to be true.

Let’s start from the beginning.

I guess it starts from my desire to be perfect.

Pretty much since I realized I was a female human being, right around the age of 11 or 12, I have had issues with my body. Body dysmorphia, as it is called. What young woman, or man, doesn’t? I always thought I was fat.

This feeling of inadequacy manifested itself as internal self-hatred. I now know that this results from, among other things, my tendency to compare myself to others. “I wish I had her legs. I wish I had her waist.” Or it stems from the less obvious and more insidious comparisons like reading a book that describes a desirable woman as slim and thinking that I should also be slim, while fearing that I am not. Seeing pictures of women everywhere photoshopped into impossible bodies, and not being able to tell myself it is ok not to look like them.

For whatever reason, I am extremely susceptible to these influences and spent more than a decade internalizing this idea of what a beautiful woman should be. I wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to be perfect, but I always felt that my body was out of my control.

Then I moved to Korea.

Talk about out of control. When you move from the English speaking western world to Asia, everything is out of your control. Tiny things such as buying laundry detergent without asking for help become major victories. It is easy to be overwhelmed. And when overwhelmed and feeling too much emotion, I tend to turn to food for comfort.

So that is what I did in Korea. I ate. And as a result I gained weight. Looking back at photographs now, I can see that I didn’t really gain so much weight, just a little. I was not the horrible fat slob that I saw in the mirror every day. But at the time, I was disgusted.

In November 2012 I decided it was time to get myself under control. I had read some quote somewhere attributed to Buddhism that said, and I paraphrase, mastery of the self is the greatest victory. This became my mantra.

I joined a Bikram Yoga studio and made a promise to myself that I was going to be healthy. I was going to stop eating junk like dry packets of ramen noodles, and eat more veggies. Whenever I felt a craving for some junk food, I exerted total self-control and never let myself indulge. I took a 90 minute Bikram class every day. And at first these were positive changes.

But I wasn’t losing weight.

Then I started counting calories.

It started out reasonable, I was eating 1800 a day I think. But soon I dropped to 1200. And even if I worked out, I kept it at 1200. Strict. It became a daily obsession. I spent so much time and energy focused on calories. I bought a scale and weighed every single piece of food that went onto my plate. Including lettuce. Seriously. I knew precisely how many calories I ate every day. I felt that I was healthy and in control.

I stopped listening to my body and only listened to my calorie counter. If I felt hunger, I ignored it because it was not a scheduled meal time. I made food that fit with my mathematic calculation of how I should be, instead of catering to how I actually felt.

I would have anxiety attacks at the thought of unplanned food. I never went out with friends on weekdays because I was too afraid to eat calorically dense restaurant meals.

Even within my own kitchen I developed fear foods. I feared cheese, and oils, and avocados, because they were calorically dense. I feared bread. I feared rice. I feared fruit. I even feared onions and garlic because they had slightly higher caloric value.

On the weekends I would go out with friends and seriously let go. I would eat mountains. Drink horrific amounts. It’s amazing I still have a liver, really. And I would wake up on Sunday or Monday hating myself for my lack of discipline, and staring in the mirror for hours analyzing every inch of my body, desperately trying to ensure my 1 or 2 days of eating hadn’t made me fat. The rest of the week was a punishment for this indulgence.

Rinse, repeat.

But at the time, I simply thought I was being conscientious and healthy.

Oh yeah, please combine the above description of my eating habits with an absolute obsession with exercise. I never missed a day. I never took a day off. Or, if I had a rest day, it usually included a 6 mile walk or intense hike.

This lasted from November 2012 – August, 2013. By this time I estimate that I weighed in at or below 100 lbs or 48kgs. I had stopped weighing myself at 52kgs. I was shocked that my size 0 pants were falling off. I still looked in the mirror and hated what I saw. Even when I was bone thin, I looked in the mirror and hated it.

I had convinced myself that if I lost the fat, I would be beautiful. Well I lost the fat, but the insecurities remained, only this time I hated that I looked more like a praying mantis than a human being.

I probably would have kept going down this self-hating, self-flagellating path, but 3 very important and disconnected things happened that August.

First, while running to catch the last bus home, I stumbled and broke my pinky toe, thus rendering me incapable of heading to my twice daily gym sessions.

Second, one night after more than a few beers, a very good friend started calling me “Auschwitz” and told me that in fact I was terrifyingly thin.

Third, I went to visit a friend from California in Tokyo. We went out for a luxurious Japanese meal and for the first time in almost a year I remembered what life was like before I was obsessed with every piece of food that passed my lips. I remembered what it felt like to enjoy the flavors and the textures, and to eat rich foods just because they are delicious, and not feel guilt and self-hatred after the fact.

When I got home from Tokyo I looked in the mirror and tried to objectively look at my body. I was killing myself, slowly but surely. My hips were a mess, constantly in pain from overuse. In fact, my whole body was physically painful.

I would love to say that after that moment of realization, I decided to let go of all these habits and began healing, but the road to recovery is not so simple. In includes binge eating, and then restricting, and then binging again, and then restricting. So many tears, and days full of self-hatred and regret for the binge the night before, followed by another binge.

I gained weight steadily, but I hated every pound. I constantly berated myself for getting fat again. I still worked out constantly and most days still restricted my calories and counted every single morsel that passed my lips.

Then I left Korea and began traveling.

I was terrified. I had no gym. I had to eat street food. Greasy, calorically dense, delicious street food. I could barely enjoy it. I started skipping breakfast as a way to control my caloric intake.

Still I did not listen to my body. I only listened to my mind which said, no, don’t eat. If I felt hunger, I felt guilty for wanting to eat. If I ate till I was full, I felt guilty for that too.

Last February was my last true attack of restrictive eating. I went to a Yoga Teacher Training where they encouraged a vegan diet, and they prepared a beautiful buffet for us of the most healthy and delicious meals. I made sure to always only take one helping, I stayed away from rice, and I always left the table hungry. By the end of that month I was weak, thin, and angry with myself.

So I made up my mind. It was time to change. I had to get over this or it was going to take over my life. So I started eating. And eating. And eating.

You think the guy from Man vs Food is bad? Try watching a person recovering from an eating disorder. I never felt full. My body, after having been deprived for so long, wanted to make sure it could stock up in case it was struck by another famine.

I began eating my fear foods. I ate ice cream. I ate packaged food. Candy. Snacks. Street food. Bread. Sandwiches. It was glorious. I allowed myself to taste the sweet, decadent, oh so greasy fried foods that they sell from stalls in Indonesia. I indulged in multiple helpings of Dal Bhat in Nepal. I ate ice cream cones. And chocolate. I ate noodles and rice and fruit and I ate whatever I wanted.

And it was painful. I still hated my body. I was still healing.

This continued during my summer in America. Living at home with my parents, trying to find a job that I wanted, trying not to succumb to the listless depression that comes with unemployment. But even though it was tough and my relationship with food and my body suffered, I didn’t give up, and I did end up in Peru.

In Peru, for the first time in two years, I feel happy with my body. Not every day, not constantly, but I feel it, and it is amazing. I’m sure there are a lot of factors that influence this, including the fact that I have a new job, in a new country, and my energy is focused externally. I am meditating more and as I mentioned in a previous post, the very energy of the land here seems to have positive, healing qualities.

But there is one factor that has helped heal my body image immensely that I want to share: In Peru, I have no mirrors.

In Korea and the States, I was, we all are, surrounded by full length mirrors. It seems like every surface is reflective. And every time I passed one, it gave me a chance to look myself over and analyze what was wrong with my body at that moment. It kept my focus on my physical appearance and distracted from what is really important.

Here in Peru, I do not have a mirror in my bedroom or my bathroom. There is a small mirror in the teacher’s room at school where I check my face and hair before I go teach, but otherwise I am without my reflection. I cannot tell you how wonderfully liberating this has been. The change is drastic and incredible. I know that I am the right size for me. I feel that my body is powerful and beautiful, and more importantly, I am aware that it is a vessel for the mind and soul that actually make me who I am.

I feel liberated. Am I completely healed? No. I still have bad days. Nights where I catch myself eating extra food after dinner and feeling guilty. Days where I grab at the fat around my belly and feel gross. But really? I probably look beautiful. I would look beautiful if I gained ten pounds or if I lost ten pounds. The fact is that it doesn’t matter.

I’ve realized that we have a plague of vanity fed by images and mirrors. Here look at this model, now look in the mirror and see all the ways that your body is wrong. If you’ve walked down the street today, chances are someone thought you were beautiful. If you’ve had conversations today, chances are someone thought you were funny or charming or intelligent. This is what really matters.

And if you haven’t gone outside today, it’s probably time to step away from the mirror and focus your incredible mental energy on something more important than the size of your biceps or the best posture to ensure have a thigh gap.

Sometimes I see my reflection and I realize I am just a normal sized person who doesn’t need to lose weight. I glance quickly, feel content, and move on. When I think about how I used to think this body was ugly and fat, I start to smile. I was so foolishly vain. It doesn’t matter. I look fine. The more important things are within me.

Because in the end it is not important what you look like, it really isn’t. What is important is how you feel. How do you spend your day? How do you use the beautiful, amazingly creative and incredibly talented mind that all humans have? Focus internally, heal the soul, and the body will follow.

 

Perhaps this post reads as slightly dramatic. I will be the first to say that I am a dramatic person, but I actually toned down and heavily edited the above story. My hope is that you find it relatable. I know I am not the only person who struggles with this.

If you struggle with your body, in an intense way, like the story I just recounted, or in a small way, please know that you are not alone, and that you are beautiful. If you want to talk, please send me a message. I’m pretty sure only my friends read this blog, but even if we have never met before and you somehow stumbled onto this post, please don’t be afraid to shoot me a comment or a message. I am not a therapist, but I am a human and a listener. Society teaches you that your most important asset is your looks. You must be beautiful, and beauty only has one form. This is wrong. It is incredibly difficult to break free but we can do it.

Embrace your inner divine.

How to Plan an International Backpacking Trip

Adventure Travel, Travel, Uncategorized

Begin at the Beginning

I am trying to tell the story of my solo backpacking trip. In 2014, I took 6 months and travelled solo across South East Asia and over to Nepal. It was my first time traveling alone, and it had a profound effect on who I am and how I see the world.

If you are planning a backpacking trip, I hope this can serve as a sort of guide or suggestion for beginners.

My desire for this blog is that it not only tell my story, but also act as a resource for anyone who is planning or even daydreaming of setting off to travel the world alone. Be that for 1 week, 1 month or 1 year. With that in mind, I will try to finish each post with a list of resources and/or recommendations.

But a journey has to begin somewhere, and this one began in Korea.

Leaving Korea was surreal. Life abroad as an expat has one constant: people leave, you stay behind. You make friends, they leave, new friends arrive. But it is never your turn to leave, until one day… it is. You close your apartment door, turn in the key, and take the bus to your friends apartment for the last time. As I rode away from Bangbae on bus 406 I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I may never ride on this bus again.”

Considering I rode that bus everyday, that was kind of a big deal.

lastmeal
My last meal in Korea

Of course, primarily I was excited. I was flying to BORNEO the next day. BORNEO! Where the hell is that? Is it even a country? Incidentally, it is not, it is an island split between 3 countries.

Was I sad…? not really. Or if sadness was there, I wouldn’t feel it for a few weeks. There was too much ahead. I was nervous, and somewhat anxious. I had never traveled alone!

I had spent the last 2 months attempting to “plan” my trip to Borneo, but every time I sat down to plan I got overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and simply read other people’s accounts of Borneo on trip advisor, or the pages in my Lonely Planet.

passportticket

In fact, the morning that I left for my trip I had absolutely nothing booked, and only knew the name of a hostel in Kota Kinabalu, my first destination, where I hoped to spend a night. I would later learn that when traveling “on a shoestring” this is the preferable way to do things, because you can often get the best deals if you just show up at the door without a reservation. But at 23 years old, leaving Korea and heading into a black abyss of uncertainty, I was plagued by insecurity.

But mostly, as I went to sleep on my last night in Korea at my friend Gregor’s apartment, I was excited. That morning, I woke up at 4am to catch my 6am flight to Kuala Lumpur. Even the name sounded exotic. Kuala Lumpur.

byebye

Getting on that plane was so overwhelmingly thrilling I got chills. I had a heightened awareness of the fact that I was heading into something I had no expectations of, no understanding of, and no preparation for. I was terrified and it was exhilarating.

You don’t leave for your first trip as an experienced traveler. You leave confused and nervous and green, and that is exactly how it should be.

Let yourself be afraid. Jump in.

 flight
Somewhere over China, en route to Kuala Lumpur


Now for the all important topic of What To Bring!

Packing up your whole life into one backpack is a daunting task. The good news is, you don’t need to get it exactly right, you just need to get it MOSTLY right (pro-tip: socks and underwear are a must) and then you can fill in the gaps on the road. In fact, filling in the gaps can be its own adventure as you try to find out where on earth do they even SELL toothpaste in this country!?

Take Away: You can always buy whatever you need in a foreign country.

Here is a list of the things I had packed on the day I left from Korea. Problem is, I didn’t write it down and can’t remember.

One of my biggest mistakes: I only had one pair of shoes and no flip flops. In S.E. Asia, this is a big mistake. I was heading to a tropical island WITHOUT flip flops. Such a winter child.

Here is the list of what was in my bag when I arrived home at the end of 6 months. Please keep in mind the fact that I bought many things along the way.

A General List for a Backpacking Trip

  • 2 Backpacks
    • 1 65L (60 is sufficient)
    • 1 Small “day pack”
      • I meet people who travel without these, but I find it useful if you want to go on a day trip, or 2 day overnight trek and don’t want to have to worry about bringing all your stuff.
  • Clothes
    • way too many pairs of socks and underwear
    • dry fit shirt
    • underarmour shirt
    • trekking pants
    • 2 cotton t-shirts (one was used exclusively for sleeping)
    • 3 tank tops
      • unnecessary, should probably only have had 1, but they were 30 cents each in Thailand.
    • 2 pairs of flowy funky pants picked up in Thailand
    • 1 pair of yoga leggings
    • 1 Fleece
    • 1 Rain coat
    • 1 pair of shorts
    • 2 scarves picked up in Laos
    • 1 sarong from Cambodia (used as a towel)
    • 1 dress (picked up in Thailand)
    • 1 bikini (and actually, I lost this in Indonesia so it wasn’t technically in my bag when I got home)
    • gloves and hat
  • Footwear
    • hiking shoes
    • flip flops
  • Toiletries
    • toothbrush/paste/floss
    • shampoo[which I also used as bodywash]
    • coconut oil
    • nail clippers
    • razor
  • Miscellaneous
    • first aid kit
    • headlamp
    • converters
    • phone/charger + camera/charger
    • journal and pens
    • tennis balls (picked up in Indonesia for self-massage)
    • yoga mat
    • jump rope
    • hiking poles
    • sleeping bag
    • pain killers + sleeping pills
    • passport/wallet/photocopies of passport/extra passport photos

I think that is it. My bag was very heavy by the end, but that was necessitated by the wide variety of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to go during my trip. I had to have clothes and equipment for a yoga teacher training in Thailand, swimming/snorkeling in Indonesia/Malaysia, and trekking in… well in every country that I visited, but most importantly trekking in the cold high elevations in Nepal.

If you really wanted to pack light, of course it is possible. Could I have eliminated some stuff? Yes.

The most important step is to figure out what you think you want to do during your trip and pack for that. If you only want to party and sit on the beach, you really don’t need to bring much at all. If you want to go to Thailand and also the Himalayas, then your bag will be much more full.

Do yourself a favor and don’t buy into the budget attitude of idealizing having an ultralight bag. If you want to carry around a fully packed, 70L backpack, do it.

I will say this: you do not need to have a sleeping bag. Seriously. Unless you want to be the kind of person who goes camping, but do your research, there are not that many opportunities for independent camping in S.E. Asia. And when you do want to go outdoors, you can usually rent the gear in a nearby city. It all depends on the focus of your backpacking trip.

Adios amigas!


Recommendations:

For Finding Flights: www.skyscanner.com

For Basic Research:

  • Lonely Planet www.lonelyplanet.com I used other brands, but Lonely is the most widely used and useful. Just remember it is a jumping off point/crutch, once I get somewhere I almost never used it).
  • www.tripadvisor.com some of the people who write on here are not to be trusted, but you can get some really good ideas, referrals, testimony of other people’s experiences.
  • www.hostelworld.com decent place to find a mainstream hostel.
  • www.workaway.info If you are at all interested in volunteering during your trip, this is a great place to start.
four stages of culture shock in korea

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock and My First Experience

Adventure Travel, Expat Life, Korea, Uncategorized

If you move abroad, whether to study or to work, culture shock will happen to you. You’ll probably experience all four stages at some point during your transition. But it doesn’t have to ruin your time abroad.

The key to surviving culture shock is being aware. Read articles like this one. Familiarize yourself with the process. You won’t be able to avoid it completely, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on when you burst into tears while waiting for the bus at 11am on a regular Monday.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

Honeymoon

You’re new to the country. Everything is fresh and exciting. Each new day holds another adventure to be had. You’ll feel like you were meant to move to this country and you couldn’t possible have any trouble adjusting.

Rejection

 

Aspects of the new country that were fun and exciting begin to feel irritating. Small inconveniences become major issues. You buy body wash instead of moisturizer for the 3rd time and cry in your shower. Homesickness starts to kick in. You may idealize your home country and miss it intensely.

Adjustment

Those feelings of frustration at your host country start to happen less frequently. You begin to find aspects of life in the new country interesting and enjoyable. You can read social cues. You may start to understand the new language somewhat better.

Adaptation

You start to feel stable and relaxed in your new country. You enjoy certain aspects of it, are still frustrated by others but are not overly emotional about it anymore. In short, that foreign land has become home.

You don’t have to take my word for it, aside from my lived experience, I doubled checked with some fine scholars over at Princeton and they agree, culture shock comes in stages.

Like everything having to do with the human psyche, culture shock isn’t a straightforward process. You’re not going to progress neatly from one stage to the next. Everyone is different, and everyone experiences culture shock differently.

The line between each stage will blend. One day you may get irrationally frustrated at a bus for being 2 minutes late, the next day you might be shopping in the local fruit market with no problems at all. It isn’t a cut and dry process, and your experience of it will be unique.

How Long Does Culture Shock Last?

Expect to go through culture shock for at least six months to one full year. It depends on who you are as a person, your past experiences, whether this is your first time living abroad, or your fifth, and much more. The only thing you can know for sure is this: you will experience it.

The best thing you can do is acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to pretend that culture shock isn’t happening to you. It is. The sooner you become aware of the process, the quicker you can move through it and start developing coping mechanisms.

Though I’ve experienced some level of cultural adjustment each time I move to a new country, the most dramatic and painful was certainly the very first time, when I moved to Seoul, South Korea.

Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in Korea: My Culture Shock Story

I moved in South Korea in July of 2012. As you might expect, at first I was enamored with my new home country. The simple notion that I was in Asia filled me with childlike wonder.

One of my favorite things to do when I first moved to Seoul was to go for hikes. As an ESL teacher at an afterschool Hagwon, I didn’t start work until 3pm. My mornings and lunchtime were free, and there were mountains throughout Seoul for me to explore.

I’d be walking through the forest, listening to the cicadas, and the simple thought that “I’m in Asia right now” would cross my mind and take my breath away. I’d stand still in the middle of the trail just absorbing the impact of it.

I was on the other side of the planet, living in a city I’d only ever dreamed of before. I lived in South Korea. Wow.

This glowing pleasure in the strangeness of my new home continued for several months. I would sit on the subway and gaze around me, enamored with everyone and everything. I eagerly pursued new flavors, new smells, and new sights. I drank it all in.

And yes, I thought I was adjusting with no problems at all.

At the end of September, after I’d been living in Seoul for two months, I had a visit from a friend from home. He came and stayed with me for two weeks, exploring the country and sharing in my sense of awe. We hiked, we ate (a lot!), and we partied. It was an excellent two weeks, but everything ends.

Mere moments after we said goodbye my mood took a nosedive. I felt sad and lonely. And for the first time since my arrival, Korea felt unbearably foreign.

Not wanting to let the homesickness get to me, I set off for my local hike, a short trail up to the top of a hill and back down. Probably a two hour walk total.

The trail to the summit wound through the forest at the base of the mountain before ascending sharply top the peak via a steep set of stairs. As I jogged up the steps, my mind focused on my breathing, I thought about nothing except the push to the top. My mood leveled off the more distracted I became.

From the summit, my descent was much like the ascent, I was focused on not tripping and falling down the steep stairs, my mind devoted to the act of balancing.

Then everything changed.

Triggered by absolutely nothing at all, I burst into tears. Anguished thoughts and uncontrollable emotions burst out of me. I missed my home. I missed my friends in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to work tomorrow.

So there I was, walking down the side of a mountain, in bright sunshine, beneath leafy trees, sobbing my eyes out.

The difficulty of life in Korea smashed into me. I needed a haircut, but I couldn’t speak the necessary Korean to call and make an appointment. I wanted to buy some new furniture and accessories for my apartment but I had no idea where to find them.

I had purchased a bottle of what I thought was moisturizer, only to discover once I got home that it was a massive bottle of body wash. I already owned a massive bottle of body wash. Now I had two. And no moisturizer.

I rushed home to my apartment and threw myself into bed. Filled with homesick, I reached out to my friends at home the only way I knew how, I posted a sad cry for help to my facebook wall:

“I try not to post negativity on my facebook but this has been a tough week. I’m two months into life in Korea and while it is awesome and amazing and I’m making great friends and having crazy experiences, I also miss everyone in America and today, I would really like a hug.”

The response from my friends was overwhelmingly positive. For a few moments at least I was safe in the knowledge that I had friends who loved me. ONly, they were thousands of miles away.

Lonely, isolated, and sad, I knew I needed a gameplan to get over this. I needed a reason to leave my apartment and build a life for myself in Seoul.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Overcoming the Shock

I googled “English Language Yoga Classes in Seoul” and found Celebrity Yoga, a Bikram yoga studio in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The next day I was there taking my first class. It was unbelievably difficult. I had taken a few yoga classes in high school with my mom but I had no concept of Bikram yoga, no idea what I was in for.

For the uninitiated, Bikram yoga is 90 minutes of holding difficult yoga poses for an extended period of time in a room that often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My first session was hot, hard, and sweaty; and exactly what I needed. I had found something to focus my energy on, something that made me feel healthier, gave me a goal to work towards and was a fun way to spend my mornings. Especially now that winter was looming and my weekly hikes were going to be put on hold.

Did the yoga classes fix everything? No. Of course I still felt angry at Korea for things I deemed “stupid”. I still got annoyed when Koreans bumped into me, or pushed in front of me to get on the train first. I still got frustrated and longed to hear people speak English. I still spent weekends in the foreigner neighborhood simply because I needed a break from Korea.

But the yoga classes were the first in a long list of coping mechanisms that I adopted to process my new life in Korea. Over time, as I found more things that made me happy, I learned to fixate less on the things about Korea that annoyed me, and adapt more to the parts of it that I enjoyed.

I made a group of friends. On the weekends, we took trips around the country, exploring waterfalls, beachside towns, and climbing mountains. The rest of the time, we adventured around Seoul, which many times boiled down to just finding the new, hippest spot to drink soju and beer.

Eventually I progressed towards the fourth stage of culture shock, I started to adapt and feel comfortable in Seoul. I had my bus routes, my subway station, my friends, and my life there. When it came time for my one year teaching contract to end, I extended it for a further three months.

Culture Shock Comes in Stages, But You’ll Survive

The moral of my story is not to scare you away from moving abroad. I would firmly encourage anything thinking about studying or living abroad to go for it! It was the best decision I ever made. But you will experience culture shock and it will be a challenge.

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some of the coping mechanisms I used to overcome my culture shock, and at least make the 4 stages more bearable.


Like this post? Pin for later!

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock hit everyone who moves or studies abroad in a foreign country.