Getting ready to move home again after a healthy game of international living Ping-Pong. I’m on the cusp of completing a back-and-forth sojourn of nearly seven years of living overseas in four different countries, which has put me in a reflective state.
I remember trying to explain to my Aunt Karol why I would even consider moving from Egypt to Ghana instead of coming home. (I also had to explain to her why I would stop to pee in the woods on my way to Portland from Bend instead of pulling into a gas station…to each their own!) I had come to the realization that my chaotic mind was peaceful when I lived in a chaotic place. By dropping into Accra, Ghana and using my problem solving skills to figure out how to live there on a day-to-day basis, I generally felt an inner calm that was difficult to achieve at home. Living at home was easy, perhaps even boring. So boring, in fact that I had to create chaos to make it interesting. Unfortunately for those around me, the chaos I created often made their lives more difficult. And so, as things go, unplugging from the mundane to experience the chaotic is something I imagine I’ll do over and over again in order to keep my roulette wheel mind busy and amused.
Here are a few things I have learned along the way, in no particular order:
Live and let live. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. If we were all the same, the world would be an inherently boring place and I would have to create even more nonsensical chaos to quiet my mind.
Egypt’s early lessons:
DO NOT look into the driver’s eyes when crossing the street. This means he knows you have seen him so he guns it. Instead, you negotiate with the bumpers and fenders of all the cars around you as you casually step in front of them.
DO NOT ask “bekem” (how much) in Arabic unless you think you can understand the numbers that are about to rattle back at you.
DO cross the street from a tourist trap or an expatriate market to grab a cab. It will cost you about ¼ the price of the cabbies that nab the people coming right out the door. (See lesson #1 on crossing the street before you try this, though.)
DO soak all of your vegetables and fruits in a capful of bleach before you eat them (Otherwise you may encounter severe bowel trouble referred to as Pharaoh’s Revenge in that corner of the world).
Find other cyclists as nutty as you are to ride with. Create a critical mass before you head out.
If you are not riding in a large group, pick your line and maintain it. However, if there is a chicken, pig, goat, dog, motorbike, car, truck, handcart, donkey cart or pothole the size of an elephant in your line then you should pick a different line.
Realize if you leave Cairo city environs on a bicycle, you will pick up a mandatory police escort at the checkpoint. Be thankful for this police escort, because suddenly all traffic behind you automatically passes safely. Be less thankful for this police escort when you are looking for a discreet place to pee on the side of the road.
Study the local language right away. Practice as much as you can when you are out and about. You’ll only learn if you try.
If you aren’t going to really learn the language, learn enough phrases to be friendly to locals in many situations. Also learn an amusing line or two to keep people smiling. For example, In Egypt, “Meyah meyah wella frecht gemeyah = Good enough like a government chicken” will do. In Ghana, after the locals yell, “Good morning, White Lady” to you, you should learn to yell back “Good morning, Black Man” in the tribal language Twi. In Bali, you don’t have to learn anything like this because suddenly you have two children to amuse the locals. You just have to learn to ask the Balinese about their children in Bahasa Indonesian.
Carry tissue, sunscreen and mosquito repellant in your purse all the time.
If the police try to pull you over in Ghana, you are probably better off pretending you don’t see them. Keep driving.
In general, it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Before you do this, however, have some understanding of local customs so as to not offend in a major way. If you offend in Bali you’ll never know. Balinese people are inherently forgiving and polite. If you offend in Ghana you’ll know right away because everyone will start laughing and slapping their knees and smacking you on the back as if you have just won a major sporting event.
Try all the local foods and beverages at least once.
If you are eating or drinking something unfamiliar that you don’t like, it is easier and much less offensive to swallow it quickly than to look for a place to spit it out.*
*Look for my soon-to-be-released coffee table book (with photos) titled, “Things I have had in my mouth that I wish had never been there”.
If you acquire pets overseas in a developing country, some ‘home vet care’ is OK but consider waiting until you get back to the USA to get them spayed or neutered.
Keep in touch with old friends while away but realize life goes on without you.
Find a local friend. If they invite you somewhere, go. Attend a wedding, ceremony, breaking of a fast or other significant event. It can be challenging to connect with people outside of your immediate surroundings if you are living in the expat community and working at an international school. Find an outlet for friendships away from the bubble.
When packing to move overseas, don’t buy things that you think you might need when you get there. Only bring what you already have and what you know is essential. The rest you can do without.
Realize what you think is essential might be very different than the rest of the people in your house. Understand this creates a lot of luggage and roll with it, but remember less is more.
Live somewhere desirable where family and friends might want to visit.
Every once in a while you will need to turn off and tune out. Have a couple movies available to watch at home. If you are prone to anxiety, stay away from movies about outbreaks, kidnappings, airplane disasters and terrorist attacks. Something more along the lines of “When Harry Met Sally” should suffice.
There’s always a new experience to be had and new people to meet but you’ll never know about it if you stick to your routine.
At the same time, find simple entertainment at home. Dance parties with kids are really fun, even if you have to listen to Brittany Spears over and over and over again.
Travel lightly (still working on this). Less is more.
Paying extra for convenient flights is worth it if you have children. So is finding a playground in the airport or any place you can sniff one out in the world.
Living in an open bamboo house in the jungle is cool, but living in a villa in the rice paddies with air-conditioned bedrooms and a swimming pool is a lot more comfortable.
Be patient, calm and seek to amuse yourself and those around you when things seem to be going terribly wrong.
If massages are cheap get them as often as possible.
Do what you need to do to turn your home into an oasis. Nothing is too weird to bring if it adds to this feeling of comfort at home. My own bedding and multiple boxes of macaroni and cheese are my top two choices.
Always stop at Duty Free for booze in the airport, even when you are arriving with too many bags and tired children.
Again, live and let live. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. If we were all the same, the world would be an inherently boring place and I would have to create even more nonsensical chaos to quiet my mind.
So, how to be home again without boredom and self-inflicted unhelpful chaos? I have a few ideas. For one thing, I have some built-in chaos in my home from having two young kids. I’m also older, more tired and therefore calmer (sometimes). We are looking forward to welcoming a pet into our lives again (guaranteed chaos) and I’m hopeful that our home in Bend will be inviting to family, friends and neighbors to stop over and stir things up a bit. In the end, home is the right place for now. There are always possibilities on the horizon and I won’t kid myself that sniffing into them brings a thrill, but for now the thrill is in checking into a more permanent community (thank you, good people of Bend, Oregon), maintaining important ties with family and getting back into sporting in the great outdoors in a place that we love. So, please check in with us in Bend soon and bring your chaos so I can leave mine behind!