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Confessions of an Ex-Expat: The Dream vs. Reality

Updated on October 11, 2016

For the past four years, I lived in South America as an expat Canadian. The retirement plan that my husband and I had envisioned included settling in the city of Montevideo, Uruguay, where the moderate climate, low cost of living and lively cultural scene provided an attractive alternative to our life in North America.

The reality of living in a foreign country includes a host of positive and negative aspects that even the most well-informed, open-minded person would not anticipate when formulating an exit plan. Beyond the initial phase of culture shock, there are harsh lessons and unexpected pleasures that present the expat with challenging situations and exciting adventures. Tolerance levels and flexibility are bound to be tested as you make your way in a different milieu, always the outsider vacillating between despair and delight, confusion and comprehension. In Uruguay I discovered my own limits, a personal revelation that supported my decision to return to Canada.

Lush, tropical environment
Lush, tropical environment | Source

Positive Things

The climate of Uruguay is Southern sub-tropical, with coastal areas moderated by Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic ocean. This means that it is comfortably warm in the summer; mild and humid during the winter. Frost is rare and snow unheard of, so lush vegetation offers year-round colour in gardens and parks. Nature is close at hand in urban green spaces filled with palm, eucalyptus and plane trees. A riverfront boardwalk that runs along sand beaches provides a recreational area right in the heart of the bustling metropolis. Our house was located just two blocks from Parque Rodo, a central park where flocks of parakeets nested in the trees and rabbits populated the islands in a lagoon. It was a great place to walk, jog or cycle.

Art exhibitions in public spaces
Art exhibitions in public spaces | Source

Montevideo is a city with an active program of cultural events that includes musical concerts, art exhibitions, films, dance and opera. The government of Uruguay supports the arts and that generous funding keeps ticket prices for the symphony orchestra concerts affordable. The arts are not restricted to an elite, upper-crust group—free concerts and exhibits are offered regularly in the parks, churches and plazas. We immersed ourselves in Montevideo's arts scene and spent many enjoyable evenings at Teatro Solis and Sodre taking in world-class performances.

The Down Side

Montevideo has many beautiful areas, but it also has garbage disposal problems that make inner city neighbourhoods filthy. Household trash is collected in large covered bins that sit on almost every corner. Municipal trucks empty the dumpsters and haul the refuse away on a weekly basis. The system would be fine if the garbage stayed in the bin, but unfortunately that isn't the case. Street people (an army of them) use the dumpsters as their primary source for food, clothing and any other items that they might need. Along with the homeless, there are horse and cart drivers who sort through every bin in the city looking for recyclable materials like glass, cardboard and tin. The result of daily rifling through the bins is garbage tossed out on the street. When the weather is hot and humid, the stench is often overwhelming.

Trash tossed onto the sidewalk
Trash tossed onto the sidewalk | Source
Horse and cart recycling team
Horse and cart recycling team | Source

It's not just the area around the garbage bins that is dirty. The city of Montevideo's bylaw requiring pet owners to clean up after their dogs is generally ignored and unenforced. We had a neighbour who routinely led his German Shepherd to the sidewalk directly in front of our house to do his business. A polite conversation with the dog owner made absolutely no impression and every morning it was our duty to clean up the animal's mess.

The limit of our tolerance for filth was reached when a homeless man set up camp near our house. This is very common, even in good residential neighbourhoods, as a recent boom in new construction is forcing the poor to move out of low-income rental accommodation. Lacking free public washrooms in the parks of Montevideo, street people simply use the sidewalk as their toilet. Suffice it to say that being responsible for cleaning up the human's mess was more than I could handle.

Homeless squatter
Homeless squatter | Source

Noise was another annoying issue that we could not resolve. City dwellers thrive on loud parties, loud engines, loud horns, loud shouting, loud music, loud drumming and loud fireworks. When I mentioned street noise to a Uruguayan friend, she informed me that loud is an integral part of Latino style. Nights in Montevideo were often sleepless as the patrons of neighbourhood "boliches" —small bars that stay open from 11:00 pm to 4:00 am—enjoyed high-volume techno dance music. We found ourselves constantly fatigued and cranky, suffering from long-term sleep deprivation.

Street party with drumming
Street party with drumming | Source

Customer service is difficult to find in Montevideo. I cannot count the number of times that we were initially told "No" when we asked for something. There is a pervasive attitude of slacking off in offices and stores that makes it difficult to get anything done. I recall visiting the city archives, searching for a photograph of a heritage building that was slated for demolition. The clerk behind the counter was drinking mate and reading a newspaper when I approached her with my request for information. She shook her head and said, "No, we don't have photographs." I tried again, rephrasing my initial question. "No," she insisted and turned back to her reading. A person who was using a computer nearby to search the collection took me aside and showed me how to access images following a few simple steps. Why couldn't the paid employee have offered to do this? It is almost impossible to fire a public employee in Uruguay, so the lazy mentality in all departments has become an accepted part of the culture. "Es lo que hay," a phrase that roughly translates as "That's how it is," is a favourite saying used to deter a customer who complains.

Take a number and join the line-up
Take a number and join the line-up | Source

Time to Leave

When our dream lifestyle in Montevideo turned out to be encumbered with so many cultural differences and daily frustrations, we decided to repatriate to Canada. Along with a wealth of good memories and a few souvenirs, we brought back a renewed appreciation for our homeland. Canada is a clean, quiet, safe haven that offers a higher standard of living than many countries in the world. Four years in South America was a great experience, and I have no regrets about our sojourn there. As I shovel snow from the driveway in New Brunswick, I feel right at home, happy to be an ex-expat.

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    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      This is all so true. After 15 years in S. America I can say that I never get used to lack of customer service, noise and garbage. We live here in spite of it, but I certainly understand the decision to move back home.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

      The expat life can seem glamorous and adventurous to many of us, from books and movies. But the simple things seem to have been the biggest turn-off. I imagine that you also missed your family, friends, and the life you'd led for all your life leading up to that time.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Vanderleelie, thanks for candidly sharing your experiences. I have considered expat-ing for retirement (not to Uraguay), so I really embraced your comments. If you don't mind my asking: How many times had you visited Montevido before moving there? Were you living in a large city before you moved? Thanks.

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Thank you for your comment. While living in South America we did make visits back to Canada to see our family, and they had the chance to visit us, too. We kept in touch with Skype calls, but of course it isn't the same as being there when a child is born, or your son has a new job. Uruguay offered many good experiences, but as you point out, the everyday things can add up to major drawbacks.

    • Vanderleelie profile image
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      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      I have lived in many environments - big cities, small towns and rural settings. We were living on a farm in Argentina prior to moving to Montevideo, and had visited Uruguay regularly. (Living on a temporary visa, you are required to leave Argentina every 3 month, so we went to Uruguay often.) The reality of living in Montevideo was not impressed upon us until we became home owners and actually moved in to our neighbourhood. We also witnessed major changes in the atmosphere and economy of the city as time went by.

    • profile image

      Franca Banjal 5 years ago

      A few corrections to what you said. Aboutdogs. There is a law that obliges owners to clean up after them and you can denounce them to the Municipality if they don't. In your case they did not respect the law because you were doing it for them whilst they were having a good laugh at you.

      The guys in the horse drawn carts are authorized recyclers and have nothing to do with the homeless. The ones that go through the grabbage containers work for the horse drwan cart people.

      I am so glad you managed to get out of this horror place. I am trying to but can't find something nice. You gave me an idea... Canada might be a solution. Thanks Regards

    • Vanderleelie profile image
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      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Thank you for providing some insight into the issues I mentioned in this article. While there may be a bylaw in Montevideo regarding dogs, the reality is that no one seems to respect it, and the law is not enforced. I was aware that the horse and cart drivers are licensed to recycle materials from the bins, and are not among the homeless. Both groups, however, do leave garbage on the street after rummaging through the bins.

      Hope you do make it to Canada. This country is not perfect - (I don't think there's any place on earth that can make that claim) - but it feels like home to me.

    • profile image

      Jim & Cyndi 5 years ago

      We're from eastern Canada & would like to talk to someone about Uruguay & ask lots of questions about what it'd be like to retire in Uruguay.Is it difficult to get a citizenship and passport for Uruguay & maybe settle in a more rural part of Uruguay...maybe near Chui(near Brazil border).

    • Vanderleelie profile image
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      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Jim & Cyndi: I would be happy to answer your questions regarding Uruguay. Please contact me using the link provided by Hubpages at the top right, under my profile photo.

    • leahlefler profile image

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      What an interesting experience! My husband and I lived in Ireland as expats for a while, and it was a very interesting experience. Like you, we made the choice to return to our native country. Ireland was a wonderful place to live, but there are always negatives along with the positives with any out-of-country move. Excellent hub!

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Leahlefler: Yes, living in Uruguay was certainly an interesting experience, as well as being a challenge. I've also lived in Europe and found that to be a better fit and easier to adapt to. As you say, there are pros and cons to every location.

    • profile image

      Alexia 5 years ago

      I'm French, I live in Montevideo Uruguay and I would not relocate any time soon. I love almost everything about this place... maybe is because I lived in Brazil, Peru, Chile, Honduras, France, Ireland, Spain and US. Leaving in another country is different from home but we learn so many things... just give it a try!

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 5 years ago from Arizona

      I really enjoyed your Hub! My husband and I moved back to the U.S. last fall after having spent three years in Uruguay (also with dreams of retiring there). We spent the first year in Montevideo and we had virtually the same complaints you described. We then moved to the coastal resort of Piriapolis, and at first, enjoyed the quiet, small town feel. But we grew weary of spending the winter months in summer houses with no reliable heat source and waging a constant battle against mosquitoes during the summer months (and mold during the winter months). The lifestyle and cultural differences finally became too much to bear and we more than happily hopped on our flight back to the States last October. If anything, the experience made me appreciate the comforts we enjoy here at home. Lesson learned: expatriation is not for everyone!

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Lindacee: Thanks for your comment. Time spent in a foreign environment does make one grateful for the familiar, comfortable aspects of home. Your mention of the cold in Uruguay reminds me of our experience in Montevideo during the winter, with space heaters stationed around the house and hot water bottles in the bed! The tile floors and high ceilings were designed to keep the house cool in the summer months, but also made it cave-like during the damp winter. I've lived through many Canadian winters, but with adequate insulation and central heating, always been comfortable indoors. The Uruguayans are somehow in denial about their weather and seasonal changes.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 4 years ago from Yorkshire

      Vanderleelie,

      I think it is good to experience other cultures, but there is always a problem of standards. I lived in Russia awhile and that had difficulties despite having plenty of friends. The paperwork was a nightmare. I went on a day out and crossed the border in Finland by mistake and I thought I was going to end up in a gulag.

      interesting hub nice to hear your story.

      regards

      Tony

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      tonymead60:

      Thanks for relating your own expat experience. It is a great challenge to live in a country that operates on a different set of values. The daily struggle to try to fit in is constantly going against the grain of your own belief system. I found that the change in thinking required to live successfully in Uruguay was beyond me. I'm happy to be back in Canada.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks everyone for all these comments and insights!

    • mio cid profile image

      mio cid 3 years ago from Uruguay

      loved this hub, honest and accurate ,not overreaching or hateful ,will follow.

    • profile image

      AboutToBeExpat 23 months ago

      Thanks for posting the experience. I am looking at Uruguay is one of the countries I am planning to retire. No I am thinking twice.

    • profile image

      Dan 6 months ago

      Sorry but you are not ex-expat. You are ex-immigrant....ok?

    • profile image

      Douglas Murch 4 months ago

      Thank you for telling it how it is. Seems the third world will never change.

    • profile image

      An old miner 2 months ago

      After almost 30 years of life as an expat in postings throughout Latin America- which I wouldn't have traded for any other life, as it offered both adventure and opportunity for me and my family, as well as opportunity to save- I retired to New Mexico. Everything works!

    • profile image

      Deni 6 weeks ago

      Did you find these to be problems in other areas of Uruguay...such as Salinas or Cuenca? I hear so many stories of happy expats in those areas. Did you look/live in other countries in Central or South America such as Costa Rica or Panama?

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