A few weeks ago, the question that really came to me was… how long does it take to know if a city is liveable for you?
In other words, how long do you need to spend in a city before you can make a decision regarding whether you would stay in the city for a long period of time?
The practical matter is that you and I have limited time. We are not guaranteed another day. Yet, there are so many places on the planet to explore. Is there a way to accelerate the search for your desirable destination, so that you minimize your time in places you don’t enjoy?
I think there are a few components:
1. Have a point of comparison that you love
Probably the biggest game-changer is finding a place you really love. It can be a city, or possibly a country. But it just has to be one that you really enjoy living in.
Once you have this as a reference, you can then evaluate other destinations relative to this point of comparison. It makes the process much more practical and concrete once you have lived experience in your desired location.
On the other hand, if you don’t have this point of comparison, your search will be somewhat adrift. You won’t really know what you are looking for or what you really like.
2. Read the boots-on-the-ground reports of fellow travelers and bloggers
One of the better perks of having a travel-related blog like this one is that I get in touch with other people who are writing about travel. They write about what it’s like to live in certain places and give first-hand reports about life in the city.
Not all travel-related writing is what I’m interested in. Your average ‘see-the-sites’ tour isn’t quite my cup of tea, as I am more interested in living rather than ‘seeing-the-sites.’ But, through this blog, I’ve come to know several people who spend large amounts of time living in various parts of the world, and I get to hear straight from them.
You can also find this kind of boots-on-the-ground information on various forums across the web, but good ones tend to be hard to come by. For example, the Poor But Happy forum did a good job of capturing life in Colombia, and gave some really good BOTG info. But it has unfortunately been closed down.
All of this is to say that you want to try to find some info from people who have already been to and lived in the places you are thinking of. That way, you can gauge what you hear and adjust your travel plans accordingly.
3. Don’t put too much weight on guide books
“It’s a quaint city nestled on the mountainside with exotic cuisine, historic architecture, and vibrant nightlife.”
Tell me, have you read a line like that before? (Somebody shout “guidebook!” :))
Guidebooks are generally written for travelers and backpackers– those that are not choosing to stay for several months at a time in one place. They are designed to show you the sites and sounds of the city as you blitz through it in a few days, only to move on to the next city. The information is generally geared towards the spots to visit and places to see. But again, this is not the same thing as information geared towards living.
To live in a place, you really need to tell a narrative of some sort. Talk to me about the people– what do they think about, how do they act, what are their customs, how do you feel when you meet them. Talk to me about the neighborhoods- what goes on during the day, what goes on at night, who do you see when walking the streets, what sounds do you hear? Talk to me about the culture- how the country encourages personal liberty, how can a foreigner ingratiate himself into the local life, what are the expectations and attitudes of local women?
So you see, deeper writings about life in a place will be different from what you find in the guide books.
4. Examine as many practicalities as possible before you visit. Weather, costs, location, and size can all be evaluated before you arrive.
A simple Wikipedia or Wikitravel search can get you some general information about the city. For example, if you don’t like the heat, then you’ll probably not want to live in a city whose temperatures routinely hit 90 degrees Farenheit. If you don’t like high altitudes, then you’ll probably not get along well in a mountain town.
Similarly, if you are living the budget of a sensible but lively bootsrapper, you’re looking for total living costs to be around $1100-$1400 per month, tops. Unless you have some good connections, you’re not going to manage this budget everywhere on planet earth. And if you’re budgeting lower, fewer places will accommodate you.
And, of course, if you don’t like big cities, you’d be foolish to spend a lot of time in the big cities, etc., etc.
So it’s a good idea to have an idea of some of the practicalities at hand. I’d say weather and costs are two of the biggest considerations, and these can be found out online pretty easily.
5. Make it a point to only spend significant time in places that resonate with you. If you like a place, stay awhile.
So, if you do a lot of the pre-trip investigative work, then your time on the ground will be most effective if you only stay in places that you like. Don’t force yourself to stay in places you don’t like, because that is time you could be spending in more desirous locales.
And, of course, if you find a place you like, stay awhile to really get to know it. This will definitely take time, especially the deeper you want to go. You will need time to make solid friends. You will need time learn the foreign language. And even then it takes awhile to get into the real scenes of life in a place.
Even though I stayed in Medellin for the better part of 8 months, I still feel like I’m just getting to know the real culture, the real story here. And there’s a lot I still don’t know.
So, the basic strategy is one of purposeful travel. The goal is to find places that you enjoy and that you could see yourself living in for an extended period of time, rather than mere travel for travel’s sake.