On the move again

by Barbara Lewis
Indonesia

Our time in Bangkok is coming to a rapid conclusion, with a speed I feel I can’t control. We will be saying goodbye shortly to our life overseas. Each of us has a story to tell and most of my story involves expat life, at least my married life. The other day my husband and I figured out that since we have been married, 36 years, we have moved 22 times. Until we moved to Saudi Arabia I had never lived in any one house for more than two years except my family home. In Saudi we lived in one house for 5 years and I thought that was an amazing sign of stability.

I think that even as a child that I wanted to be an expat. My father had the opportunity to go to Libya in the early 70s and decided against it because there was very poor schooling for girls. Women in general were treated like chattel so my parents felt it would be an unhealthy environment so my Dad turned down the job. I remember being quite disappointed with this decision. When I was entering grade 11 I applied for a scholarship to go to Wales for my grade 11 year. I got the position but decided not to go because I didn’t want to leave my boyfriend behind. My desire for an expat life began long ago even if I didn’t have the courage to follow through with it until it became a shared goal of both my husband and myself.

My husband works for a big company and although we would have loved to be here almost to his retirement, it is not to be. We are moving to the United States, which for us, being Canadian, is still a foreign assignment. Previously we lived in this city for three years. I am ready to move on because once we get told we have to go I don’t like to prolong the agony. We are saying goodbye to our life overseas as there is little to no chance within the company to go overseas again because of my husband’s age. You could call it ageism but in fact the age restriction of 60 years exists in many countries, set by the governments of the respective countries.

There are many things that I will miss about living in Asia, specifically Thailand and our life adventures overseas. This is our last likely assignment overseas therefore and culminates 25 years of living away from North America. I will miss the opportunity to travel to all the exotic places we have been privileged to go, see and experience. Each place that we have lived has provided vivid memories to store and savour.

We started our overseas adventure and got the bug to work internationally during the two years we lived in Jakarta when my kids were just two and four. We had so much fun and made such good friends when we lived there. It wasn’t all good, as every place has its challenges but the people and the culture were so wonderful that it made up for any and all of the challenges. We were struggling in our marriage at the time and the space from well meaning family and friends gave us the opportunity to work it out how we saw fit instead of trying to please others around us. My parents came to visit us when we lived in Jakarta and they had a marvellous time getting to know little parts of the country. I learned to speak Bahasa Indonesian quite well and could converse with the people that worked for us as well as others in the community. The kids don’t really remember much from that time but it was a great place to raise them for two years. We did a lot of physical activities and sports with other young couples small kids.

Indonesia is a country of over 18,000 islands. We visited as many as we possibly could. Both my husband and I became certified divers. One trip we went to Komodo Island (the land of the living dragons) and dove off its shores in an eight knot current. It had the most amazing soft coral I have ever had the privilege to witness; there has been nothing to match it since. Seeing the Komodo Dragons was another amazing experience. They may not be the mythical fire breathing dragons but they certainly are huge measuring eight to ten feet in length and weighing 300 – 400 pounds.

Their bite will kill you as it sets up bacteria that goes into your bloodstream and eventually kills whatever it bites.  We also went to Bali – Kuta and Ubud and had very memorable relaxing holidays on white sand beaches. We were attacked by monkeys in the Monkey Forest of Ubud and bought all sorts of pop art in the surrounding towns. My husband and I got to travel with and live with a Dani tribe in the Baliem Valley of Irian Jaya or now Papua. For two weeks we lived in their huts, eating only sweet potato, learned about their culture and cultures of some of the other major tribes of Irian Jaya. This island has 832 living languages and is the most linguistically diverse place on earth. It was an amazing experience that we were so blessed to have.

Relax

Jakarta was the place of glamorous balls for expats and we went to so many of them in one year it was considered a circuit. It was a great way to socialise with all sorts of different nationalities. Our children had almost celebrity status; our son was a beautiful Gerber baby white curly blonde hair and dark brown eyes and our daughter had sandy blonde ringlets (natural I might add) and looked like Shirley Temple. They got touched everywhere we went.

Warren, our son, liked the attention especially from the ladies and older men whom he saw as Grandpa but Alyssa, our daughter, didn’t care for it and often asked me to make the people stop touching her. She and I were conscripted to model wedding and flower girl gowns for a magazine shoot. Her payment was a pink princess dress, which she loved. Traffic, monsoons and flooding were horrible and something we had to learn to deal with but we loved living overseas so much it began our quest to have an international career once we returned to Canada. It took me five years to convince my husband and a job offer by Kuwait Santa Fe before our true adventure overseas started.

Next stop Kuwait, we learned all sorts of things about the Middle East: the food, the customs and the culture. The language was something I tried to learn but Arabic has very different sounds from English and other than learning rudimentary phrases in the 10 years we lived in the Middle East I never got past these. We spent five years back in Calgary, Canada where my daughter finished her elementary education and my son got halfway through. They attended bilingual school. My son was keen for Kuwait because then he wouldn’t have to speak French. They both attended a private international school that provided an American education. The four years they were in school there they were required to learn Arabic. My daughter became quite skilled at it but my son never did. The curriculum for Arabic was mandated by the government. They knew nothing about teaching or learning a new language, so it was quite ineffectual. I tried hard to learn the language but Arabic is a very difficult language to learn.

Chilling

One always learns certain sayings like: ‘enshalah’ which sort of means ‘maybe’, another I liked was ‘la’ which means ‘no’ and it sounded like singing instead of being negative. It was great fun getting my Masters in Education and teaching at a couple of international schools there. My children participated in activities that truly opened their worlds and their view of it. My daughter was involved with a dance company run by a retired professional British dancer. My daughter was gifted and did very well with the company.

The shows they put on were so professional, they were amazing – productions like Cats with full costume and stage set-up. The travelling that we did from Kuwait was more conservative but it was an experience for the kids and us as parents. They learned how to behave in a country not their own which was in conflict from the time we arrived. They learned how to handle their fear when, for instance, we were in the air and saw US bombers going in to bomb Iraq on Dec. 17th 1998 during Operation Desert Fox and were forced to land in Beirut for a day before flying on to Austria.

We all learned how to cope with the constant uncertainty and living with people who really did not want us there. We learned how to make friends fast and to trust that those friendships would last, which they have. In Saudi Arabia we learned what it was like to live in fear all the time. We arrived just before 9/11 and it was amazing to participate in so many bomb scares, threats and terrorists events. My family fortunately was never directly involved other than the teaching I did at a school that was on the US consular grounds which would constantly get bomb scares and threats. We lived with heightened security that made our world very small. We learned what it was like to send our daughter at age 15 to boarding school and how much it tore at me to do so. We also learned what it was like to only hear about her school, challenges and triumphs instead of being physically present for her and later my son when he went to boarding school in Canada.

We still dealt with some of the problems that occur in high school however we did everything from afar and sometimes were the last to know picking up the debris after the situation had exploded. My daughter had a serious accident on the ski slopes, which left her with a concussion. We only heard about it after she was admitted to hospital. My son’s school failed to contact us at all when my son broke his arm mountain biking or when they decided to put him on very strong antibiotics for the presence of TB when he had been forced to have the live virus in the form of a vaccination given in Kuwait. The Canadian doctor didn’t know what a BCG shot was so instead of believing my son and investigating, chose instead to simply put him on drugs that he never needed to take. Many parents complain about the teenage years but we didn’t get to participate in the ups and downs of high school and all the changes they went through because they were at boarding school. For us boarding school was the choice for the best education they could get.

the bridge

They both have lifelong friends and now looking back they would never give up the experience but it certainly had its ups and downs. Both my husband and I worked for Saudi Aramco. I worked in training and development, which was new for me and put my Communication Undergraduate Degree to work as well as my teaching skills. It was definitely a more career focused time for me.

We continued to travel to various exotic places especially when our children returned from boarding school. Of course since we were both working and had to accommodate for other’s schedules sometimes their vacations were spent in the camp. The vacation times for the boarding school kids usually only varied by a day or two so it meant that they could meet up with all their friends and party because none of them had jobs, they were not permitted to work so they had nothing but free time to indulge themselves. This was fun for them but not always for us. My husband and I made a conscious decision to leave Saudi Aramco so my husband could pursue a career with a more international company so that we could travel and live more places.

Many people who work for Saudi Aramco spend their whole careers there and help their children and grandchildren get jobs with Aramco. We knew many people who had lived in Dhahran for more than 15 years. We were more interested in being expats that lived in different countries. Our next foreign assignment was Bakersfield, California. This was the toughest place for me because although I had studied all about expatriation and repatriation during my undergraduate degree I never expected going to the United States would be such a hard adjustment. Part of the reason it was difficult was because we didn’t have a natural avenue into the community because both of our children were now in college so the parent/kid relationship that can quite often open doors to new friends didn’t exist for the first time.

I did eventually go back to do a professional certification in teaching and that did open some doors but not deep friendships that we had had in other countries. We muddled through our three years there, enjoying travelling all over California, the West coast and Western Canada.We had great vacations in the various wine counties of California, snow skiing wherever we could and camping on the beaches. Our stint in California allowed us to reconnect with North America and activities we like to do like hiking, skiing and camping.

We, next, returned to Indonesia but this time to Rumbai, Sumatra. Until we had lived and moved from Rumbai I did not have a favourite but Rumbai was truly magical. We loved living in the jungle and all the flora and fauna that came along with it. We participated in all kinds of sporting activities and were in the best shape of our lives. It was a small group of expats that lived on the camp and we needed to be able to trust and rely on each other to get by. Sometimes we felt like we were in each other’s pockets but there was a true sense of belonging and being part of a community. As a community we did a great deal of things together; celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras together to name a few.

The whole community would show up on Friday night at the school to play a game of Ultimate. Our kids were not with us but we were never left out; it was expected that the whole community would participate and everyone willingly did. We have lifelong friends from this location. The families assigned there were a special group of people. I worked as a substitute teacher and although the school was small; approximately 60 kids ages pre-K to eighth grade I was always very busy with work. We also had several groups that met multiple times a week or once week. Usually if you had an interest you wanted to pursue there were others willing to as well.

Koh samet

Once we were finished in the Middle East we said that we would never go back. I believe there is a saying “never say never” so as luck would have it we found our next assignment to be Erbil, Iraq. This was a unique assignment since things were still pretty stirred up in Iraq and although Erbil is considered Iraq it is actually part of Kurdistan. The Kurds do not really consider themselves Iraqi but since most of the oil wealth is there Iraq wants Kurdistan to stay part of Iraq and not gain its independence.

We spent the first six months living in a hotel. We had two dogs that stayed with my parents until we moved into our villa. Erbil had a lot of security challenges. When we first got there we were followed around by security everywhere we went including grocery shopping. They carried AK47 assault rifles and looked exactly like what you would expect personal security to look like, very mysterious in black suits and dark glasses. Later, the company decided this wasn’t necessary, thankfully however we did still have two security in each car with us. We didn’t have drivers instead we had a car pool, which meant we had to book a driver, sort of like booking a taxi. It seems straightforward, but it was not, one of the quirky challenges of living in Erbil.

Erbil had four seasons which was really different for such an arid country. It got hot during the summer, reaching up to 40 degrees and as cool as -10 degrees Celsius in the winter. There wouldn’t be snow in the city but there was in the mountains. Unfortunately, our stay did not last long. In 2014 we were up touring the Mar Mattai Christian Monastery (363AD) on Mount Maqlub when ISSI invaded Mosul only 20km away. By the middle of June our dogs and I were evacuated out of Erbil and my husband followed in July as things continued to get worse never to return.

My husband went back to Erbil in October for a few days to pack up our belongings. We spent an interim period of 10 months in Houston until we got our next position, which was Angola. We were all packed to go, my husband had his work visa and we were just waiting for my clearance when we were told that we would not be going to Angola but instead to Bangkok. We felt it was a fair trade. We have been here for four years and would have loved to stay four more however it is not to be. Since we moved back to Asia we have made sure to go to many of the Asian countries we didn’t see before.

It has been wonderful to travel to several islands in Thailand. Two favourites pop out: Koh Samet and Koh Tao. Both magical in their own way: one for its beauty and close proximity and the other for its marine beauty. My favourite vacation was trekking in Bhutan. I almost got trampled by a herd of yaks but it was a terrific experience. I have loved having good well-priced healthcare.

This has been a blessing as I have faced some physical challenges since I moved here. It has been great to live in Nichada Thani outside the city centre because it gave us the chance to have our dogs in an environment that was healthy for them. I will not miss the traffic or the time it takes to go a relatively short distance because of the gridlock. We have a Thai treasure we are taking with us – her name is Sassy and she is a Yorkie born here. Just like her human counterparts she is warm and friendly to everyone and everything she meets. It is the people and the food of Thailand that I will miss most as there is nothing better.

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