Being a nomadic spirit since young, Trista Guertin always knew she wanted to work internationally. That landed her a job with the United Nations right out of school. The humanitarian work brought her to countries like Angola, Congo (DRC), Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and more
Living abroad, adapting to cultures and changing environments come with its fair share of challenges. Trista speaks about her 30 years of experience living abroad and working with underprivileged communities.
We also discuss how living an alternative lifestyle can sometimes lead to doubts and some ways to manage your thoughts. Trista shares how life coaching helped her through tough times and why she is a life coach today helping expat women cope with life abroad.
- 02:30: Traveling the world since young
- 06:40: From past to present: The unconventional lifestyle
- 09:30: Overseas postings with United Nations
- 15:20: Experiences with the UN and how it changes life appreciation
- 23:00: Reverse culture shock from villages to cities
- 29:00: Life challenges & coaching for expat women
- 33:17: Coping with your own doubts
- 40:29: Identifying inner needs vs negative thoughts
- 45:00: There is no one right path or answer in life
- 48:20: Traveling can be a false escape
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Please give a brief introduction of yourself.
My name is Trista Guertin. I am Canadian. I am currently working in Lebanon, and I’ve been here for five years. I’ve been traveling and working for 30 years as a humanitarian aid worker— with the UN and international NGOs. I’ve traveled to over 70 countries during that time. As I continue my humanitarian assistance work, I have recently been certified as a life coach. I’ve started a business as a life coach and mentor for ex-pat women living and working overseas, looking at their experiences and having fun along the way.
Can you tell us more about your past?
It all started when I was pretty young. My father was a high school English teacher and would organize trips for his students during the March Break. He and my mom would go off and mainly traveled to Europe. My mom had a globe, and she would stick a little pin to help them decide where they would go. They would bring us back all these beautiful dolls and treats, so that piqued my interest. When I was 16, my dad took me on my first school trip to France, and we went to Paris. We visited the Loire Valley, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing on earth. At the age of 16, I thought I never wanted to go home.
I decided to take a year off before I went to university and start traveling by myself. I went over for three months. I think I visited 14 countries before coming home and saving for a ticket to Australia. I was able to get a work visa for Australia and went there for a year. I’ve just kept coming and going home periodically. I’ve probably spent a few years back here; I came back and did my bachelor’s degree. Then I went to South Korea and taught English. I went to Central America and did some volunteer work, but then I did my master’s degree. Since 2003, I’d been working regularly out the country, but I returned for a year and a half and worked in Toronto. I specifically went after a career in international studies and humanitarian aid because I wanted to experience travel and live overseas. At the same time, I had an interest in international studies and politics. I wanted a career where I contributed and to help in the humanitarian aid world. It was such a great combo, so I’ve just continued ever since.
Do you feel that traveling the world doesn’t feel as magical as an adult compared to traveling as a child?
I guess. I’m from a smaller city in Canada, and for me, at 16, I always wanted to get out. Going to Paris of all places and seeing all these beautiful things was so magical. I am still impressed when I visit certain areas and sites like the Taj Mahal and Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Things still take my breath away and will make me cry. So, I think there’s still quite a bit of magic in it for me, and it’s fantastic. I want to keep going.
How does your conventional and unconventional lifestyle intertwine?
Going to university and getting my degrees was always something that I planned on doing. Both my parents went to university and got their degrees, and to me, it was part of growing up; it was always something that I was going to do. There wasn’t much pressure with it or necessarily an expectation, but I probably never really questioned it. I wasn’t in a hurry. I planned on taking one year off between high school and university and instead took three. Then again, I took another three years between my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree. I don’t know whether I had a specific plan or whether it just unfolded like that. I just felt like there was no rush to carry out some of the more conventional lifestyle choices. I knew I had plenty of time. I would have fun along the way, and the pull towards travel was just too great. I wanted to get out there.
Was the job at the UN your first official full-time job, or did you do something before there?
Yes, it would have been my first official job because I did some internships before that and teaching English while traveling and those sorts of things. It was once I had finished my master’s degree. I did that for a couple of years. Then I did some work with international non-government organizations as well.
Were there concerns from your parents or yourself when you had to relocate to a developing country?
It was a big adventure for sure. My parents are always concerned, no matter where I am or what I’m doing; they’re always concerned to this day. I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was 2003, so the civil war in Angola had ended the year before, and I went to Mozambique. I think I landed at the airport, got bitten by a mosquito and came down with malaria within a couple of days later, and got very sick. Then they flew me to my posting, which was close to the border of the Congo, in DRC. We were about 10 kilometers from there. We landed in basically a ghost town. It was one of these Portuguese colonial towns set up and then subsequently abandoned when the Civil War started in the 70s.
We were one of the few people there; all the buildings had windows, doors, and roofs were blown off; they had rehabilitated a building for us. There were a few cars in the village, and we had to fly all of our food in. We had no running water or electricity; we had to use a generator and water barrels of water from the river. We had a satellite phone for communication; nothing else. It was a massive adjustment landing there. We had some other international staff and some Angolan staff. It was my first experience working in a developing country, learning the ropes, and fitting in under very challenging physical conditions. It was a great experience. When I look back on it now, I’m so glad that I did it. I don’t know if I could ever do it again; it was very stressful but amazing.
Do you feel drawn to the more rural terrains?
There are so many beautiful places to go. I look at the postings and consider where I would like to try living. It’s such a unique opportunity because you do get up spending vast amounts of time in places that most people will never go. My mother would say they didn’t want to go there. I get to meet amazing, interesting, talented people and be part of something special, assisting those who genuinely do need it. My work has mainly been with refugees or displaced persons and the difficulties, hardships, and challenges that these people faced daily. They’ve been uprooted from their homes; they’ve lost their livelihoods, their homes, and family members. So, I’m very grateful to be able to make a small contribution in helping them. It’s very special to me, and I love my day-to-day job. Right now, I’m an area manager working with a large team in Lebanon. It’s very hands-on and busy. I love working with the teams and helping and guiding them, and creating something tangible for the Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese communities that we’re part of.
Can you give us an idea of what happens on the ground and things you have done, or life-changing moments you have experienced working in these places?
Going back to my experience in Angola, we organized the repatriation of Angolan refugees living in the Congo. Many people were born in the Congo, had Angolan parents born over there, and lived in camps close to the border. So, we started organizing these repatriation convoys to start bringing people home. We set up a reception center and provided them with some non-food items, like buckets, tents, whatever they might need to start setting up a new life back in Angola. It was a compelling experience seeing these people who had been away from home for two decades, being able to come home and set up. It was very emotional for them and to witness and be part of that was unique. Subsequently, working in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, assisting people who, again, have lost everything. That can include providing legal assistance, ensuring that people have birth certificates, marriage certificates, legal residency papers for when they can eventually return home. We provide housing assistance, making sure that the Syrian refugees have affordable housing. We work with some of the Lebanese owners to ensure that they have a certain level of accommodation. We give them money to bring the housing up to a certain standard, and then they provide free rent to the Syrian families for a year or more. We also do some education work. It’s non-formal, but we provide support to Syrian children to enter the Lebanese school system. We offer homework support, tutoring, basic numeracy, and literacy help to make sure they stay in school. Then we help with protection work and emergency cash if their home has burnt down or they’ve been evicted. It’s a safety net to make sure that people have a certain standard of living and that they’re safe.
How have your travels changed your perspective of life?
It does have a massive impact on me personally. I do realize how lucky I am. I think if you ask anybody in Canada, on some level, we’re pretty fortunate. To get to know people, on the ground, on a personal level, we do field visits. I don’t work every day in the fields; I have different teams. I go around and meet these people and see what they’ve lost, how they’ve managed, and how they’re surviving. It is challenging, but it’s also very inspiring because you see that people are very resilient. You see how kind and compassionate they are; people take care of each other, they’re very grateful. I think it has made me very thankful for everything. It inspires me to continue to do the work, and that’s what I try and make sure our teams are serving the beneficiaries as best as they can. We make sure that you all of the precious resources are maximized through donor funding or private sector funding. We make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help where we can.
Do you have reverse culture shock when you return to city life?
It was more pronounced when I first started. When I was in Angola and some of the other more remote places, the differences are much more pronounced. I remember going shopping and being overwhelmed with the selection and all the different varieties. I was standing there trying to decide which of the 55 brands to purchase. We have a culture here and in North America that we buy vast amounts of items in large quantities. When you’ve been born and raised like that, it isn’t easy to let some of that go and live more simply; I do try, and I am conscious of that. People wear the same thing every day, and everything is well worn and well used, so I am very aware of that, but it is somewhat challenging to let go.
How do you find the difference between traveling for leisure and traveling to give aid in developing countries?
I’m not sure, to be honest. You’re undoubtedly conscious of the differences, and I guess it doesn’t matter whether I come home or I travel in Europe and whatnot. You’re aware of how lucky we are and the abundance of resources and services available to us.
Tell us about your move into life coaching and what drove your decision to do that?
I came across life coaching a few years ago. I started listening to the Life Coach School podcast by Brooke Castillo; she’s based in the States. I was having a relationship issue at the time and listened to one of her episodes. It was one of those instant aha moments. It really did change my life. I subsequently listened to all of her podcast episodes, and she has a self-coaching scholars’ program. It is a monthly subscription where you can access more classes and materials, go more in-depth, and get some coaching yourself. It had such a positive impact on me and my life that I made several changes. Mostly, it was a lot of internal work. I was managing my emotions, mindset, setting new goals, taking action, and it resonated with me. I found it a very positive force in my life, then COVID hit. I landed up having all this time on my hands that I hadn’t had before. The Life Coach School offered a life coach certification and was a six-month program. It was something that I had looked at previously and consider when I was transiting out of my current career, maybe ten years down the road. With COVID, I realized I had time, so why not enroll. I started in late September last year, and then I was certified in April of this year. I just really enjoyed it, and I learned so much. It’s very applicable for myself and my life. I liked the idea of sharing that with other women. I suddenly decided that I would start my own business with my niece working with fellow ex-pat women who find themselves in the same position that I did. It is an unconventional lifestyle choice, particularly with humanitarian aid, it does present some challenges. I struggled for a long time because I had this calling to live and work overseas, but at the same time, I was just never entirely sure that I was doing the right thing. Or whether I wasn’t missing out on things back at home because my friends started getting married, buying houses, and having children. I question for many years whether I shouldn’t be doing the same thing. Plus, there are day-to-day frustrations and challenges that you face as an ex-pat living and working overseas. So, I thought I would try and support women in the same position to overcome and grow past some of those challenges if possible.
How do you cope with family and friends feeling that you are missing out on things back home?
For me, it was about understanding where I was giving my power away and understanding how I think about my circumstances will affect the way I’m feeling. Therefore, my feelings will drive my actions, and my actions will drive my results. So basically, what we say is all the circumstances are neutral, and it’s the way you think about it. You can choose to think whatever you want. It takes practice and conscious effort, but if you want to decide that you want to do something or create a result in your life, you start consciously choosing the thoughts you want to generate that feeling. You’ll take action, and therefore create the result. So, if you don’t want to have those doubts, you can consciously choose thoughts that will start to move you away from the doubts and create more confidence and more certainty. Instead of worrying if something is a good idea or whether you can be happy living and working overseas, you can then start transitioning and thinking thoughts. You practice those thoughts until you believe them, and they create that certainty in you.
Then you can transition to; I am happy with this lifestyle. It’s a process, but it’s finding out what you are thinking currently and what you would like to think and believe. A belief is just a thought you keep on thinking. So, with coaching, we start with where you are right now? What do you think about your circumstance? What do you feel about it? What would you like to think? How would you like to feel about it? Then practicing creating those thoughts to get you there.
How do you manage negative thoughts?
I don’t think I would try and suppress negative thoughts or thoughts you don’t want to think because what you resist will persist. We have a primitive part of our brain that will default to the negative for most people, and the brain wants to keep you safe. It wants to keep things the same, doesn’t like change and likes to be efficient. So, these thoughts probably will continue to pop up from time to time. But if you’re aware of them, you can say no, thank you, and consciously choose another way to think. I think that’s the way our brains work. The more you practice it, the more you’re aware of it, the easier it will become to change. The important thing is that you’re moving towards the result you want and the thoughts you want. You want to bridge those thoughts and take them step-by-step because you want to believe in them. If you’re taking too much of a leap, you won’t believe it, but if you can break it down, you can work your way incrementally to those places.
How do you identify what a desire versus fear of uncertainty is?
I think working with a coach and having those conversations is basically what a coach is there for. Ask those questions and have that conversation; a coach will be objective. I’m not invested in the outcome. So, helping to sift through some of those thoughts, asking those questions, looking for those answers can be very helpful to figure out what you’re thinking and feeling and what you want. I always recommend journaling; writing down their thoughts can be very helpful; put things down on paper, don’t censor yourself, write things down and see what’s there. It can be an interesting exercise that reveals what you’re thinking and why it is a process. I think it’s essential that you realize there’s no right or wrong answer.
You can choose one option and change it later on. You maybe commit to something for six months, and then you can reassess and reevaluate. How am I feeling? Do I want to make the same decision and continue with this? Or do I want to change it? It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and it doesn’t have to be forever, but make a decision and go with it. Don’t make it about right or wrong; you don’t want to get in that cycle of indecision and worry. I think it’s figuring it out as you go along and making sure that you have that confidence to figure it out.
What are some of the common challenges that you have heard from your clients?
I’ve worked with women in all sorts of different phases. I can help women thinking about moving and working overseas and are a little apprehensive and unsure about their decision. Then once you’ve made that decision and entered the transition period, there’s a lot to do. There’s a lot of uncertainty and goodbyes, so managing that transition and preparing for the departure. There are many opportunities to help support and get your mindset right and ready for whatever you face overseas. You are in a new country and trying to keep everything going is a very intense period. So, helping people to focus and stay calm during that period is helpful.
Even after that, there are challenges and questions about whether you’re doing the right thing and whether you should stay. I see many people thinking that changing the country will help them feel better and happy over there. One of the things I like to work on with people is you don’t have to move somewhere to feel better, happier, calmer, or more fulfilled. It is something you can attain, no matter where you are, and if you want to move, then great. If you’re looking for all of these answers externally, you’re never going to find it. It has to come internally first and then look for changes. I’m all for the traveling, but I’m not looking to be happier over there; I’m doing it for fun. I’m doing it for growth. I’m doing it for the experience. But internally, I’m taking care of my feelings and my emotions, fears, and anxieties. I’m not looking externally to solve that.