6 Lessons Learned from Being a Perpetual Guest

  • Kimberly Collins
May 02, 2017


I had a revelation this week: my closest family member lives 4,667 miles away (hi cousins in Tampa).

I had never fully appreciated the sheer un-walkable-ness of that distance before, and I must say it’s a little weighty.

I live abroad — which, despite its many perks, means I am far from family, and it makes me a perpetual guest. Even though I’ve lived here in Uruguay for more than a year, even though I rent my own space and know the bus routes and where to find the granola at the grocery store, when it comes to traditions, holidays, or family meals, I’m always la invitada, “the invited guest.”

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not bad, it’s just a different way of relating. As a guest here, I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t understand all the nuances. I can’t always anticipate what will happen nor speak authoritatively on why things are. I lean toward the receiving end of most equations. Far from the context in which I was raised, I’m generally more precarious here, more prone to being jostled, and somehow people sense that and huddle in to help. Neighbors invite me to dinner, strangers give me extra precise directions, friends haul me along to family events where their mothers squeeze me extra tightly.

Exhibit A: when I first moved in, my next door neighbors greeted me warmly, said their home is always open and that I am welcome whenever. Naturally, I assumed they were just being nice and didn’t really mean it. So I never went — even though I wanted to.

A week later, I was strolling down the block to a cafe, when I heard someone yelling my name. I turned and saw my neighbor, Ana, literally chasing me down the street on her bicycle. Panting, she caught up and proceeded to lovingly ask how I had been doing, telling me they had been wondering about me and why I hadn’t come over. She exasperatedly reiterated that I was always welcome, I just had to show up at the door.

So on my way home from the cafe a few hours later, I stopped by their house. This time, I opened the door myself, poked my head in and called “hola!” to which Ana promptly leaned in from the other room and cheered, “Yes! Just like that!” Since that first step into their home, I started dropping by almost daily. We watch soccer games, we swap stories around the fire, we celebrate birthdays, we eat long meals and make music and laugh until our ribs ache.

Being far from my home has opened the door into other people’s homes and places and families. I get to be a guest in their worlds, invited to step deeply into their stories for a while.

Like I said, it’s not so bad. Jostling, maybe, and humbling, yes. It’s also beautiful and edifying, and an honor I am ever thankful for.

So what does all this guesting impress upon one such wayward traveler? A lot, but mostly these:

  1. To say yes. Do I want to have tea with your grandparents since I’ve been missing mine? Yes. Do I want to come visit your biology research project? Sure. Do I want to try cow tongue? Might as well. Saying yes is fun and exciting. We all need a little nudge into growth sometimes.


  2. To get over myself. Navigating the world in my non-native language inherently disadvantages me a bit. In Spanish, I’m a little less funny, less competent. I can’t bother trying to impress people, because I’m not impressive. So instead I just try to see them, connect, and give, and it’s surprisingly freeing.


  3. To receive. I always prided myself on being independent, but when living abroad, independence is both essential and fruitless. I need to be able to take care of myself, to figure things out, to be confident and comfortable in my own skin — and I am. But I also need to be able to recognize when I need help, have zero qualms about asking, and swallow my pride enough to accept people taking care of me.


  4. To contribute creatively. As a guest, I want to offer something, and as hosts, people appreciate the gesture. However, I moved here with two checked suitcases. As physical goods go, my supply is limited, so I learn to invent alternatives. I bring flowers, I share music, I prepare new foods, I help with English. I keep a note on my phone of funny anecdotes splattered throughout my days for precisely those times when good story duty calls.


  5. To express gratitude. I smile, I look people in the eye, I say thank you and mean it even if I’m tired, or if the five-year-old neighbor’s sloppy Spanish is exhausting to understand, or if it turns out I don’t actually like cow tongue (quite the texture). No matter what, I remind myself that I am grateful to be embraced by someone, and I want to be sure it shows. 


  6. To pay it forward. For all the people who have welcomed me with uncalled for generosity, who have invited me to cool events and deciphered my Spanish mishaps, who have encouraged, embraced, and supported me — I’ll be hosting for years on their example.

As a perpetual guest, I am perpetually humbled and heart-warmed by the unnecessary embrace of people, how stunningly uncomplicated it can be to sit around a table with strangers and find common ground. No doubt travel teaches us many things, but these lessons learned from stepping into other people’s worlds have been some of my favorites by far.

Or, in sum, believe people when they say you are welcome, show up at the door ready to share, and always keep a bike handy for when you need to be the one to catch up to your future invitada

About the Author

Kimberly Collins

Raised in Indianapolis, Kimberly now writes and travels from Montevideo, Uruguay. After studying global politics, she worked for a small tech company until a 2016 Fulbright grant plopped her in Uruguay. She’s since finished the grant but opted to stay abroad, continuing to advance her Spanish, bop around South America, and soak up all the learning and dancing she can.

Read more of Kimberly’s blogs

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