There you sit at your desk in the middle of a city, bombarded with neon advertising and booming traffic. You’re crammed into a windowless cubicle and will spend the journey home crammed amongst fellow commuters. Just as you begin to unwind from a gritty day in the grimy city, you’ll go back and do it all over again.You’ve probably spent many hours escaping to a daydream world of green fields and glorious sunsets where the only noise is the sweet sound of birdsong. If you decide to make that dream a reality, relocating to another country and another lifestyle isn’t all that hard to do.
Property costs in rural areas tend to be a fraction of those in built-up towns, and if you come from a country with a strong currency you can snap up your dream home for a song. Of course, that dream home can turn into a nightmare ruin if you don’t know what to expect.
Living overseas can be enough of a culture shock, but living in a remote rural area comes with a whole new set of challenges. You may be used to the convenience of having a store on the corner, but now the closest supplies are in a market an hour’s drive away.
You’ll also have the peace and quiet you so desperately crave, but for some expats, this becomes a deafening, maddening silence. As much as you looked forward to the green and pleasant surroundings, you’ll suddenly find yourself battling with the elements to keep your home habitable.
A growing number of expats are returning home after seeing their rural dreams turn sour. They snapped up a bargain and struggled to maintain it. Now in their later years, the property is too much to handle, but has failed to sell for the price needed to carry its owners home.
Living in the countryside can be a rich, rewarding experience, but it can also be lonely, tiring and testing. Make sure you know what rural life means for you.
Living with poverty
The economic powerhouses of the world are all big cities. London, New York, L.A. and Beijing not only generate revenue but also attract investment from around the world.
This effect serves to pull money away from rural communities, limiting opportunity, income and development. Even in the richest countries, the wilder parts will generally be the poorest.
You may find yourself surrounded by neighbours who have spent their lives without creature comforts or essential services. Arriving with a suitcase full of laptops and high-tech gadgets may make you a target of crime.
Be aware that rural authorities may struggle to maintain infrastructure. Roads may be potholed, power may be unreliable and sanitation may be found wanting. Your dream home may need to include its own generators or water source, driving up the cost.
Learn to be a good neighbour, supporting the community without bankrupting yourself or patronising the locals.
A cleaner, greener way of life
It’s difficult in a megacity to grow your own food and live off the land. If you’re seeking the most eco-friendly lifestyle, you need to be out in the countryside.
A small vegetable patch, some chickens and a solar panel or two are a great start toward living a self-sufficient lifestyle. Chances are the locals have mastered the art of living alongside the land, limiting the demands they place on natural resources.
Make sure that any changes you intend to make to your newly bought parcel of land don’t have any knock-on effects. Before diverting a stream, make sure you’re not cutting off the water supply to a farm nearby.
The cost of living can be both cheaper and more costly
City slickers are usually happy to pay over the odds for convenience and prestige, whilst country folk just want value for money. With a lower average income, the cost of living in country areas is often much lower than in nearby cities.
Staple goods may be available direct from source, without any travel costs or retail mark up. Shopping around the local market will often yield generous bargains on the basics.
That all changes however when you need to buy in something that can’t be found locally. Building materials can be expensive as they need to be transported a long way on poor roads, delivered by specialist transport.
It may be that the item you need isn’t even available in the country. Expats in Fiji have to carefully weigh up their desire for items versus the additional cost of flying or shipping them from Australia.
Budget ahead of time, getting as many quotes as possible to generate a realistic estimate of how much life is going to cost.
Far from help
Even in countries with a good network of public services, these facilities tend to be centralised to offer their services where the greatest number of people reside. Consequently, living away from these population centres can leave you far removed from police protection and medical help.
Even in the UK, France and Canada, where the health services are rated the best in the world, you have a greater risk of an early death if you live in a remote area. Not only will it take longer for an ambulance to reach you in an emergency, but you are going to be further removed from a physician’s clinic.
Should the worst happen to you or a member of your family, you could become your own rescue services. A little first aid knowledge and a clear plan of action can help save your loved ones in a critical situation, buying enough time for you to make your own way to the nearest help.
In many countries the rural population have to be content with a high level of petty crime, as thieves know the police are unlikely to arrive in time to catch them.
Even with this in mind, it’s likely that you can enjoy an improved mental health, away from the stress and hassle of city life.
Doing battle with mother nature
A little gardening doesn’t sound like too much hassle, but you may be contending with aggressive jungle encroaching into your living space. Not only do you need to keep the living room clear of invading ivy, but your connection to the outside world may be little more that a dirt track.
You may not have pictured yourself rebuilding walls after a land slip or pumping water out of the basement, but it can happen. Living close to nature also means being in her way when she’s angry. You may face a winter of flooding, a summer of wildfires and an invasion of biting bugs in between. Look at what the locals do to contend with the conditions; if they put their houses on stilts, you can bet there’s a good reason for it.
Being out in the wilds also means that rescue will be a long time coming if something does happen. If a storm brings down the power lines, it could be weeks without electricity. If flooding spoils the water supply, don’t expect bottled water to arrive in a hurry.
Find out what challenges you might face. What has happened in the area previously? Make sure you know what warning signs will notify you of trouble and how to react. It may be that there is already a community plan in place or that you have to fend for yourself.
Look into investing in equipment and supplies for every eventuality.
Get used to getting behind the wheel. Basic services may be miles away over rough ground, with different villages offering different services and no buses in between.
Expats living in rural France clocked up 20,000 miles a year running from one small village to another in order to restock the kitchen cupboards.
If you’re planning on working from home, dialling into a conference on the other side of the world, or emailing files to clients, you may be disappointed.
As with most other services, phone and internet providers concentrate their effort on centres of population, meaning that even the UK has digital dead zones in rural areas. You may find it impossible to connect to mobile networks or landlines, leaving you at the mercy of expensive and unpredictable satellite connections.
This doesn’t just impact your ability to impulse buy junk on EBay, it may leave you feeling very isolated from the world. Email, Skype and social media all represent lifelines to the outside world, and to your nearest and dearest at home.
Even if you are craving an unconnected life, free from ringing phones and buzzing emails, you may find yourself changing your mind after a few weeks of silence.
Your nearest neighbour could be miles away
They say people from rural communities are friendlier, more likely to stop and chat. This may be because they can’t afford to fall out with one another.
Remote settlements tend to be close-knit and interested in each other’s wellbeing, knowing that what affects one person can easily affect their neighbour. This can mean you end up in the bosom of caring, supporting group, but it can also mean that they are more intrusive than you are used to.
Living in a megacity affords a certain amount of anonymity; you are a just another face in the crowd. Being a fish in a small pond, particularly a new arrival, means that you may have to contend with gossip about your activities. In some parts of the world, the community may even pass public comment, especially if you contravene local traditions. Respect the people whose community you’ve elected to join, be discreet with activities that may offend them.
Even good neighbours could still live miles away, at the other end of the valley or over a mountain pass. It can be a significant psychological factor when loneliness sets in.
Even if you have regular contact with the outside world through email, Skype or text, there is no substitute for genuine human interaction. Being able to hug a friend, share a drink or make someone laugh satisfies a fundamental human need that even the most reclusive hermit has.
Make an effort to attend community meetings, visit the pub or café and become a regular face in the neighbourhood.
It’s quiet, too quiet.
You may have gone overseas in order to escape the constant roar of traffic and press of the crowds, but you’d be surprised how quickly you may come to miss the trappings of city life.
The deafening silence of the countryside and the apparent desolation can start to drive people crazy, but even more maddening can be boredom.
In a city you are never without entertainment. You can be in a bar, theatre, concert, cinema, gallery or café within moments, meeting friends or enjoying a stimulating environment. Living out on your own can be a recipe for cabin fever.
You may take for granted being able to go to the gym, meet friends for a drink or watch the latest blockbuster. Out in the countryside you may even struggle to get radio signal or a book in a language you can read.
Start cultivating hobbies you can enjoy on your own take every opportunity to find stimulation.
It’s hard work
Don’t underestimate just how tough life in the sticks can be. Whether in a jungle clearing, an island paradise or a highland cottage, you’ll be spending a lot of energy to get even the basics done.
On top of travelling further for every service, you’ll be doing more tasks for yourself. You may have enjoyed the help of a maid in the city, but there’s no such service out in the wilds.
Your city apartment had a few pot plants and a window box; well, your rural paradise has acres of land. That land has thousands of creeping plants, spreading grasses and aggressive little creatures that threaten to invade your home unless you keep them under control.
Expats are sometimes tempted by bargain properties, taking on a tumbledown wreck of a place, hoping to rebuild it into their ideal palace. Unfortunately, too many of them fail to grasp just how complicated planning laws, crafty contractors and expensive rebuilding can be. In remote areas, or nations where ‘doer-uppers’ are just regarded as ruins, it may be difficult and prohibitively expensive to get the work done.
A little physical work can be a great way to keep fit and healthy, but if you aren’t already a hardy woodsman, you may find the transformation impossible to complete.
Have you lived in a rural area? Share your experience in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer