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I Got Stuck in South Africa During the Global Pandemic—And it was the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

Here’s what I learned about leaving the “American Dream” behind during such a pivotal time.

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In 2019, I told myself that 2020 would be the year my life would change for the better. No more spending my days cooped up in an office in a 9-to-5 job. It was time to finally pursue my dream of working for myself full-time and living abroad! 

Coming from an immigrant family, this was totally counterintuitive. I was born in Guatemala and raised in the USA by parents who constantly pushed me to live the “American Dream”. This meant finding success in more traditional terms: working hard for upward mobility on the corporate ladder, earning a shiny salary, and setting myself up to live a life filled with more prosperity and freedoms than the generations before me. 

I learned so much from watching my parents back then. They were essential workers and didn’t speak much English, but they worked hard, never complaining about the circumstances. I slept on a couch in the living room, while my two younger sisters shared a bed with them. One thing they ingrained in me as their oldest daughter was that it was my responsibility to do better than them. They brought us to the United States for a reason, after all.   

And so, I left home, moved into a Chicago high-rise, and climbed the corporate ladder, chasing promotion after promotion. While this may have pleased my family, none of it felt quite right. I found myself questioning everything. If the American Dream was so special, why did I feel empty inside? Deep down, I knew I needed something more. 

I started to build my own coaching business while still immersed in corporate life. It took time to build up the confidence to eventually leave my secure six-figure job, but I knew I needed to say goodbye to the old in order to welcome in the new. 

In December 2019, I decided to go all in and pursue my passions. I pivoted my coaching business to an online course model and started traveling full-time with Remote Year. I had already been to over 30 countries at this point, but I had never explored the world like this before. My heart soared as we went from Portugal, to Spain, to South Africa. I finally felt free!

Success may have looked different in more traditional terms, but to me, this was it. I didn’t need a false sense of security in a corporate job. Besides, that would always be waiting for me if I wanted to return to it…right?

Enter March 2020, when the Universe had a change of plans for everyone: COVID-19. I had barely touched down in South Africa when the global pandemic broke out and life changed as we knew it. 

My travel program was canceled, South Africa went under severe lockdown, and flights back to the United States were few and far between. As Remote Year tried their best to organize our return, my mind went back to December 2019. A few short months ago, I had made a promise to myself: I would no longer live by society’s standards if they weren’t in alignment with my own. Fast forward to March 2020, where I realized I had a choice to make–return to my safety net in the United States, or take a risk and stay in South Africa.

Amidst all of the fear and uncertainty, something clicked.

I realized that nothing in life is ever certain, and playing it safe doesn’t get us anywhere. No job, bank account balance, or location was going to make me any more secure, pandemic or not. What mattered the most was the commitment I had made to myself–to make my own path, even when it seemed impossible.

Instead of flying back to the United States and moving in with my family once again, I moved into a small Airbnb in Cape Town, prepared for total lockdown. Call it bold. Call it naive. But in my mind, there was no going back. 

As I settled into my one bedroom apartment, I realized there was so much more to life than working my way up the corporate ladder and living for someone else’s dreams. People were losing their jobs. A recession was on the way. No one was safe from what was coming next, not even those who had fought hard to pursue the American Dream. 

It turns out that getting stuck in South Africa was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was in quarantine and knew very few people. Distractions were removed. I couldn’t even exercise outdoors without risk of arrest. It was during these months that my inner voice became clearer, and I learned how to truly trust and be with myself.  

Moments of uncertainty challenge and shape us all. The good news? We get to choose how we respond.

Today, I’m continuing to experience this “new normal” outside of my comfort zone—creating my new life, abroad. While I don’t see myself in South Africa forever, I know one thing for sure: what was once an American Dream, is now a global one.

And that is bigger than any of us could have ever imagined.

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