Looking After Your Mental Health Abroad

One thing I can tell you from living in parts of the world that are considered ‘developing’ there are many challenges you don’t have to face in a First World country. All of us expats agree that it’s not for the faint hearted.

mental

Lack of freedom would be the biggest loss you face. Not traveling far when it gets dark. Locking your car doors and not putting your windows down. Security checks for bombs and weapons to get into a mall, mosque, government office. Not to forget getting your bags checked several times a day. It’s a hassle but it’s life here and there are other places that are way more strict than Kenya.

The separation from family is a daily challenge. We’ve got it lucky though because of technology. But when you’re reminded how many birthdays and Christmases you miss, milestones in your grandkids and the fact that they only know you through a computer. It is 8 years since we have had Christmas with our kids. A few years ago we made the decision that 2018 we would get together and after much saving and scrimping, it is only a few weeks away.

christmas

One thing people aren’t aware of is the loneliness that can eat away at you. I’ve got expat friends who move every few years because of their spouses work. It’s hard for them to connect with people as they know they’ll be gone soon. It’s also hard to find info about basic things like where to buy stuff and how the system works here. It’s okay if you’ve got kids and work but what if you’re the trailing spouse?

It’s expensive. There’s the assumption that Africa is cheap to live in. Sure, the local fruit and veges are a good price but pretty much everything is as expensive as in Aussie, but mostly twice the price. For us our funds come from New Zealand and Australia and we lose about one third of our income because of the exchange rate. Some expats who are employed here get bonus packages (housing, travel, insurance etc) which makes it very attractive for them. Not in our case as development workers.

Some companies send out their expats every 3 months on a 6 day paid holiday. We saw that and totally understand why. The pressure of being a foreigner and the daily living conditions put on you a pressure you that you don’t have to face in your home country. A few times a year we try to get out of Nairobi, grab our tent and get among the wildlife. It’s really good therapy.

wild

A really big challenge is not having someone to talk to about the issues you face within your marriage, family or life. A local doesn’t understand what it’s like for foreigners and have those pressures. I’ve come to the thought that the challenges you might have in your home country and you get through them, become really big cracks when you are in a developing country. We’ve had good friends who didn’t really have issues until they went to another culture but through the pressure of having to come up with the finances of putting their kids through international schools (super expensive), trying to set up their work in a place where people didn’t understand English too well and struggling to get an income, was just too much for them. Some returned to their home country pretty quickly, while others separated.

Broken Relationship

Looking after your mental health is really important, anywhere in the world. So, if you’re out on foreign soil for a long time, here’s some of my suggestions to help you last the distance:

 

  • There’s nothing wrong with taking time out! Our Christmas break is actually an investment into our mental health. I’m calling it my mental health break after a really challenging year.

 

  • It’s okay to get out and have some fun every now and then. A missionary over here said to us ‘Don’t let people see you’re out having a coffee or people will think you’re mis-using their donation’. That’s ridiculous! You have to have an out. I go to the movies a few times a year (only $4 here) and Pete indulges in a bought coffee. Anywhere there’s nothing wrong with that. You have to live a real life.

 

  • Enjoy the journey, don’t endure it. You are in a unique part of the world so go and experience the things you can only do there. A few years ago I went white water rafting on the Nile. Who else says they’ve done that? We have got to know some absolutely amazing people that we wouldn’t have if we’d stayed back in Aussie.

 

  • Mostly, remember why you’re here. I say to Pete when he gets over something ‘We chose to live here and have to put up with the crap that comes with it’. Stay focused on why you chose to come here and remember that no one forced you to do it.

 

Have you lived in a developing country before? What we’re some of your challenges?

 

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The Unseen World

The online world of social media is a one sided, glimpse of a moment kind of thing. None of us want to put the real us out there, just the smiley, it’s all awesome picture.

So I thought I’d share what goes on behind the scenes to get what people see about us and the work we do.

 

  1. Motorbike

bike

Actually this was one of the many frustrating moments in Kenya. The mechanic had promised to have our car repaired by the Thursday as we had planned out of town trips to do project work.  And of course, he didn’t deliver on time. In fact, it wasn’t ready to get picked up until the Monday.

Hence, we had to take our motorbike out to Isinya, which is a 90 minute ride. Doesn’t sound like much but the seat is harder than concrete. Mix that with lots of potholes, huge speed humps and crazy drivers. I had to get off twice each way just to stretch my legs and butt. While we are smiling, I never want to get on that bike again – but of course, I’ll have to.

 

  1. Eldoret

build

What people see is the nice finish of the first stage of a block of toilets. What they don’t see is the 4 days of Pete and Lucian trying to communicate with a non-English speaking team led by a guy who didn’t want to build the way we wanted. In fact, the labourers refused to unload a truckload of building material because they didn’t get paid extra. Hello, aren’t you getting paid by the day no matter what you do???

 

  1. Smiling Sharon

fam

I hate being in front of the camera but do so occasionally because we need it for our newsletter. What you don’t see is me with a frozen shoulder which aches 24/7 and especially when I’m trying to sleep, but can’t. Of course, we’ve always got to be smiling! Actually this was on a really bright day and I was dreading jumping on the motorbike for a trip home. We’ve been working non stop for weeks without a break but committed to the weekend of meetings for our friends. I don’t regret it, but knowing we haven’t had a day off for over 2 months is a bit much for my brain.

 

  1. Kids

me

Nothing gets raving reviews like a photo with kiddies. This one was done at a primary school in Kenya. What you don’t see is the little autistic boy in the green sweatshirt who kept running his greasy and dirty hands through my hair. And of course, we were staying at a place where it had a run around shower so couldn’t wash my hair – and I left the dry shampoo at home in Nairobi. He came alive when I brought my phone out, which meant it too was covered in goodness know what.

 

  1. Alice

alice

Here’s a nice photo of Alice, our Kiwi visitor with Scholar and her mum. When people see a photo like this, they usually go ‘oh that’s nice’. What they don’t see is the team walking through a slum area literally over a rubbish heap, with people shouting for the items we’re carrying in bags ‘You should give me the sugar’, going through alleyways not much wider than your body, having to watch you don’t whack your head on a sheet of metal. What you also don’t see is the hours young Scholar has put into preparing a meal for the four of us in her 3 by 3 metre home. Or meeting her mum who is super quiet because she thinks her English isn’t acceptable.

 

  1. Tonya

tonya

Tonya is a doctor who lives in a very remote area of Kenya. We see this awesome photo and go ‘Oh, so cute’. What we don’t understand that Tonya has been awake straight for 38 hours. She doesn’t get a day off unless she is away from the clinic. Her friend Linda who runs in a school in a Masai area, are the only white people in the area. They have lived for 10 years without electricity, running water and some of the most unreliable internet in the country. It is only this year that they had an x-ray machine. We don’t see the hardship, the times they’ve been robbed at gunpoint nor the loneliness that comes with being on the mission field.

 

Every photo has a story, both good and bad. However somehow in our minds we take that moment and don’t realise that there is so much more to the situation. We don’t understand the hours, the sacrifice, the loss, the struggle with mental health, the days when you want to be invisible.

Let’s just be careful to remember there is more to a person than what we see online. They have feelings, bad and awesome days.

 

 

Don’t judge your life by the snapshot, but by the movie.

Cairo in a Day

Recently we had a 15 hour layover in Cairo on our way from Torotnto to Nairobi. I had booked a one way ticket and going via Cairo served a couple of purposes:

 

  1. It was the least amount of stopping.
  2. The baggage allowance was awesome.
  3. Going to Egypt was on my bucket list.

top

 

My grandfather, like thousands of other ANZAC’s spent time in North Africa for training before they were sent on to fight in the Second World War. I remember seeing this old black and white photo with my grandfather standing in front of a pyramid. At that stage I didn’t know that he wasn’t in many photos because he was actually a photographer. I’ve always wanted to go to Egypt and this fueled that desire.

 

It was a bit tricky booking a flight on the Egypt Air website, especially since I found out that Westpac in Australia blocked me from making the booking. Apparently they thought it was fraudulent until I called them about it. One thing I did note is that they didn’t offer a gluten free option.

city

Egypt Air have their own tour company (Karnak). You can choose a variety of ready made tours, or like in our case, they got us into the things we really wanted to see. For $90 USD each they said they would take us on a 9 hour tour of the Sphinx, Giza Pyramid, Museum, boat ride on the Nile and the Mosque. It sounded good, but wasn’t sure how it would work out.

 

What happened is that we waited 90 minutes for a transit visa (free) that was organized on arrival. They told us that they were booking us into a hotel before the tour, which freaked me out because we didn’t have the funds for it. Considering women are pretty invisible there, the nicest customer service guy told me ‘Madam, we have to look after you, you are here for a very long time’. After a 5 minute walk we ended up at the Le Meridien, one of the flashiest hotels I’ve seen for a long time.

us

When we got to our room I kind of wished that we weren’t going on tour. After an overnight flight where we hardly slept, the bed felt so luxurious and clean. But, we didn’t have time to  relax. After a quick shower we headed downstairs to a full on buffet breakfast – all taken care of by the airline. At 10am sharp, our driver picked us up just as we were told.

 

 

I had been forewarned about both the traffic and the dirtiness of Cairo – and it’s true. Both Pete and I agreed that we would never drive there. There’s no lanes, people weave in and out, and pretty much all the cars are dented. I never felt afraid, but I’m glad we were sitting in the back seat – if only my seatbelt worked!. After picking up our tour guide, as you do from the side of the road, we headed towards the pyramids. It was so cool when we approached the area which was full of security. Lots of people were walking in, which would’ve been faster. Unfortunately we didn’t get to touch the pyramids, which you can do. I think it was because there was nowhere for the car to park. Next we saw the sphinx, which was massive. I’m definitely going back there.

sphynx

We also visited a couple of other stores. One was a perfume store where you could buy the real deal (apparently) of lots of oils. We only bought one, 100ml of oil for $50USD. Now, I kick myself as we should’ve bought more. Another reason to return.

 

Like other tour companies, I’m sure the guides get a kickback from sales at places. They insisted on us going to a papyrus picture store. While they paintings were a good price, there wasn’t anything I wanted in my house – which they were disappointed with.

water

The boat ride was so calm that Pete nodded off during it. It was 43 degrees outside which we didn’t mind but the cool breeze off the river was appreciated. There were two more stops on what would only be a 5 hour tour. The first was at the museum. This was where we spent a little bit too much time, but our guide was so knowledgeable on what was in there. You could take some photos but definitely not in the room where King Tut’s coffin was. There’s a new museum being built where a lot of the artifacts would be transferred to which is good because this one was pretty crowded.

The last stop was the mosque. We’ve done a few mosques in the past in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and this was the least glamourous. We did get a fantastic view of the city and when you understand how old the surrounding buildings are, it puts things into perspective. Egypt is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. According to our tour guide there’s never any problems between the two faith groups. Interesting considering the latest report from Open Doors reports that Egypt is the 17th top country in the world that it is dangerous to be a Christian.

mosque

Once we were dropped off it was time for lunch. Even as it approached 2.30pm they allowed us to have buffet lunch. The great thing about the hotel is that we could check out just before we needed to be at the airport. This meant we could go for a swim if we wanted, or in our case, catch a few hours sleep.

 

The Cairo International Airport is nothing to rave about. Not that we needed food, but there isn’t much to choose from. One thing that does stick out is the smell of cigarette smoke. Sure, there are smoking rooms, but they keep the doors wide open – what’s the point?

 

Pretty much, that was our day in Cairo. I’d definitely go back again but travel down to Luxor or Alexandria. Our Egypt Air plane stayed in the sky, so that’s always good. Their service was great, the Cairo airport crappy but I’d do it all again.

me

What about you, what are your experiences with Egypt Air?

 

 

What a Year

It’s been an interesting year in Kenya that’s for sure. It’s never dull and boring here anyway but this was a year we were all dreading in a way. Pretty much business went downhill, people weren’t paying their bills and no roadwork got done. Usually in an election year there’s plenty of roadworks going on to convince people that a party is worth voting for.

 

That meant our roads were in the worse state possible for a whole year. Last year we spent $3,000 on repairs and tyres alone. In one day two new tyres burst just coming back from the airport.

 

Earlier in the year I spent a few weeks in New Zealand with our daughter’s little family. Poor Pete had to stay behind and in the end I only spent 3 days without meetings. Not exactly great family time. It would be nice to actually go somewhere for an actual holiday and not have to mix meetings with it.

 

Before we came to Kenya I thought our travel days were over. What a joke, we’ve traveled more than ever before. In fact, sometimes I wonder if people think all we do is travel. But, if we’re not out there fundraising, then pretty much no money comes in for projects. Hence, we took a 6 week trip to the US. It’s an emerging market but will probably be at least a couple of years before we start making any money there.

 

We stayed in country for the 2017 Elections just in case it all went down the toilet. We ended up with another family staying with us who felt unsafe in the Kibera Slum. While it wasn’t as bad as in previous elections, there were still plenty of people rioting and burning buildings. One of our team told us how her neighbor was killed simply because her kids were hungry so she went to the market and was shot in the crossfire. After all that, they reheld the elections which didn’t change anything. Lots of money spent, lives lost and a low economy.

 

Our beautiful grandson was born in October and this time I was smart. I traveled to Australia for 10 days of fundraising and did nothing but be a grandmother in NZ. This time we all went. Pete worked for a good six weeks painting my cousins house but at least he got to see his family too.

 

Our biggest shock of the year was to find out that our daughter Liz was told she had to return to Australia or New Zealand to keep her Disability Pension. We were all so stunned because for the past 5 years we’ve had no problems and had no indication things were about to change. Thankfully my sister who lives in New Zealand was able to take her in but it’s not really the solution. For most people it’s a chance to ‘grow up’ by being thrown in the deep end. However, for someone with a mental disability they cope but don’t have the ability to grow. Thankfully we will see her in March when we go over.

 

So it’s a terribly quiet Christmas for us. We had all these grand plans to drive down to Tanzania as a family and then go on to Zanzibar. Without Liz though we threw that idea out of the window. Pretty much all of Nairobi empties out and it becomes a ghost town for a few days. Boring would be an understatement to describe Nairobi over this time. Thankfully we’ve been rescued by our friend Lucy who is like our daughter, who invited us to her university graduation celebration on Christmas Day.

 

2017 has been a full on year. While most people when they retire want to travel, I dream of staying at home! 2018 doesn’t look like things are going to slow down but at least I can’t complain that I’m bored!

Navigating Airports

You can’t avoid airports, but you can help yourself and make it easier. Some people make it bigger than Ben Hur so let me help you out by giving you some tips.

 

  1. Travel as light as possible

Everyone packs way too much stuff. Pack for 4 changes of clothes – remember you can always wash them! Weigh your bags BEFORE you get to the airport. You can go to places like Kmart and for less than $10 buy a small bag weighing scale. There’s nothing more stressful than to get all the way to the airport and either getting whacked with excessive baggage fees or having to dump some of your gear on the lovely people that dropped you off.

Best not to go over the limit on your hand luggage weight as some airlines weigh that bag as well.

bags

  1. Check in online

If possible, check in online before you get to the airport. This saves you time and also covers you if you get stuck in traffic on the way.

 

  1. Get to the airport early

I would much rather be bored at an airport than stressing while sitting in a taxi which is stuck in a traffic jam. Try to avoid peak traffic times for transit. Before you travel, check which of your airports does have free wifi.

traffic

  1. Get your money exchanged at a bank and not at the airport

You’ll get a worse rate at the airport than anywhere else. US dollars are accepted in any country so always have some of those to keep you going. Pretty much at any airport you can buy things in US dollars as well. Also have several ways to access your money. If your wallet gets stolen or lost, what can you do to get cash? When traveling I carry one card with me, and leave the other in a safe place, just in case. Also download an exchange rate app on your phone so you have a good idea of what things will cost you.

 

  1. Wear easily removable shoes

It would be great if all airports had the same way of doing things, but they don’t. When going through security checks sometimes you have to take off your shoes, and at other times you don’t. Keep an eye out for what others are doing, and don’t be afraid to ask. If possible, wear slip on shoes at the airport, it makes easier. If not, at least undo your laces before getting into line. Always, always get your laptop out early.

shoe

  1. Take a jacket

I’ve been on a 14 hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney and frozen my butt off. Literally everyone on the plane had one or two blankets over them. We were all complaining about how cold it was and yet they didn’t turn up the temperature! I always carry a hoodie on the plane just in case. Wear comfortable and breathable clothes.

 

  1. Keep your passport on you

I was in a toilet at the Auckland Airport and there sitting on top of the toilet roll dispenser was someone’s passport. Of course, I took it to a security officer and then I heard the person’s name called out over a public announcement. I’m always super conscious about NOT losing my passport. In lots of places you can’t even hold your passport as you go through the security scanner, so don’t forget to take it out of the tray!

passport

  1. Go directly to the gate

I always tell people that once you’re through the security checks go directly to your gate so you know where it is. There’s nothing more embarrassing than your name being called repeatedly over the sound system and then a whole plane load of people give you the hate look as you finally make your way onto the plane.

hall

  1. Walk as much as possible

You’ll be sitting down for a very long time on some of your flights. Try and walk as much as possible while in the airport rather than sitting down all of the time. After a couple of days of flying I’ve even resorted to laying on the floor just to catch some sleep for a few minutes. Otherwise I get on my phone on the free wifi and walk when I can. When you’re on the plane get up every now and then for a quick walk or at least do some foot exercises to keep the puffiness down.

 

  1. Wait to be called

When the staff call people up for the flight they will always ask for those who are part of their loyalty program, then those with small children or needing assistance and then by zones. Sometimes it becomes a stampede, as if people are going to miss their flight! It must be frustrating for the staff when they ask for Zone B people and Zone A rock on up. All they do is send you to the back of the line. There’s no harm in waiting.

lines

Don’t presume that everyone on your flight or in the airport have flown before. I met two ladies in their mid twenties who were flying from Johannesburg to Bali and I was shocked that they were first timers. They were fretting about our flight delay because they didn’t know about time zones.

I’ve a Split Personality

I’ve been away from our African home for 3 weeks now and I’ve suddenly realized that I’ve got what used to be called a split personality, now it’s known as having a Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Here’s one definition:

‘dissociative identity disorder is a severe form of dissociation, a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity’ (webmd.com)

Most of us turn towards Hollywood on this issue where we see someone suddenly transform into a totally different person and go ‘Oh, they have a split personality’.

Why on Earth would I confess to this?

It’s quite easy really. I was in the car with Pete and we agreed that we felt like fish out of water in a country that we call our ‘other home’. Sure, we hold an NZ passport but it doesn’t make us Kiwis. We are a mixed breed – born in New Zealand, spent a good number of years in Australia but Kenya feels more home than any other place.

tea 2

This does not taste like Kenyan tea.

We literally have to speak a different language, dress differently and act differently. I still get shocked that there is no place in cafes to wash your hands before you eat. It rains here A LOT and it’s the coldest we’ve been in a long time. Temperature wise it’s not that cold but it’s a chill that goes to the bones.

It’s almost like we have to put away our ‘Africa lifestyle’ and pretend that we belong here.

But there’s this tugging of a war inside of me. I’ve adapted and become someone else who doesn’t fit in here, I’m just pretending. I feel like the real me is waiting back in Nairobi.

It’s not that I’m not making the most of it, it just feels weird. I’m loving time with family and the food here is phenomenal, there’s no doubt about that. When I’m skyping my team back home I can slide back into my comfort zone. Even after a few weeks of being away, I feel like there’s a strong pull to East Africa while here I am not connected to much Kiwiana at all.

So what’s the answer?

I think I will embrace my very different ‘mes’, while I’m full on Kiwi on the outside, on the inside I’m very Kenyan. I’ll keep speaking English out loud and Swahili in my head. I’ll use knife and fork with my chicken here but gladly use fingers in Kenya.  I’ll get to understand how this new country of mine (for 2 months) works and then miss the simplicity of it when I return home.

sevens

And yes, the Kenyans beat the Kiwis in the sevens.

When you see me, feel free to say ‘habari za asubuhi’ (good morning) and you will make my day, but I warn you, my Kenyan side might come out in full swing!

 

 

Transport on the ground

For a quick video of this blog you can go HERE.

If there’s only one or two of you traveling you should look at alternatives to hiring a car. When you hire a car you need to look at including insurance costs. The last thing you want is to be out of pocket by thousands of dollars if you have an accident.

oyster

For use in London

Another alternative is to go on public transport. My husband hates going on public transport but even he concedes that it’s a much cheaper way to go. However, you have to do your homework before you get on the plane. If there’s a group of you, it might be easier and cost effective to grab an Uber. If there’s just a couple of you and there’s a bus, train or ferry to where you want to go, why not try one of these.

metro

Metro Card for NYC

Before you leave home make sure you download maps and travel apps for the country/city you’re going to. Google Maps is my fallback. You don’t always have internet when traveling so take the stress out of it all. Also look into whether it’s better to get a one day, 7 day or 24 hour card. Some places like in London cap the daily use to a certain amount, meaning you can travel as much as you like for six pounds. It doesn’t take many trips on the Tube to get to six pounds. In other places you can transfer from a train to a bus at no extra cost if it’s within 2 hours.

opal

Opal card for New South Wales, Australia

Like I said – do your homework before you leave home. We wasted $30 on paying for a travel card we didn’t need.

Most places you will find a vending machine to obtain your card. Then you put as much money on it as you want. A lot of times you can use your credit or debit card. Don’t forget to keep your card as they don’t expire. We have cards from Dubai, Australia, the UK and NYC ready to use for the next time.

dubai

Metro card for use in Dubai

Going on public transport might take you a bit longer but it can certainly save you a lot of dollars and you also get to see how ordinary people do life there. Give it a go.