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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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!

Grandparenting from Afar

When we moved to Kenya we never even had it in our minds that within a few short years we would have a grandchild on the scene. Why you always look forward to it, you’re never quite ready for it. When our daughter Hannah and her husband Luke told us that they were expecting their first baby, we didn’t actually believe them. It’s the type of prank our family would play on each other. So even when we got off the Skype call, we didn’t quite believe it.

But it was true, and in March this year Isabella Rose was born.

I felt very privileged to be there a couple of weeks before she arrived, was there for the birth and for a month afterwards. But then we had to leave to return back to Kenya. We saw Han and Izzy one more time when we were in Australia but after that we weren’t sure when we would see them face to face again.

It could be years.

baby-hand

We are now on a journey of being grandparents from a distance.

It’s a common occurrence in the world we live in for grandparents to be on one side of the world so how do we manage it and still build a relationship with the most precious gifts in the world?

 

  1. Don’t feel guilty

It’s hard not to be there for every moment of their lives. You feel bad for not being there for birthdays or Christmas and if you were there they wouldn’t have to go into daycare because you ‘could have’ helped out.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to realize that even if you moved back to the same country as them, they might up and leave to go somewhere else. So are you just going to jetset around the globe following them? You have chosen to live where you are and they where they are.

 

  1. Use the internet to your advantage

For us, Skype is one of the best inventions ever. We might only get to use it once a week, but the fact that we can, is the fantastic. I’ve asked Han for a photo or video every day of Izzy, and she’s pretty good at sending it on Facebook. Sometimes it’s a report on how she’s been sleeping, other times on how she’s going with feeding. Even the smallest message makes us feel involved with Izzy. At times I just get on my phone and video myself or put some toys in from of the phone and make up stories for her. This morning I got back from a run and put a 30 second video of me filling in Izzy on what was happening today. It’s no big deal, but it helps with me missing her so much.

 

  1. It’s not a competition

It’s hard when your daughter and grand daughter are surrounding by their in-laws who get to enjoy ‘your family’ on a daily basis. When you find out that your grand child has been spoilt with lots and lots of gifts and you can’t do that because you’re a missionary and don’t have money for such luxuries. It’s very easy to get jealous.

But it’s not a competition between them and you. Your grandchildren are not objects. You can’t buy love and the best thing you can do is give them time. Things break, the best investment you can make is time. Let them show you their homework, art, favourite toy and just chatting. Even taking the time for them to sing their favourite song or preparing for a presentation. The fact that you’re making time for them is the most important thing.

october-foot

  1. Make the most of holidays

If you can’t get to your grandkids, invest into them and fly them to you. When Izzy was born, I made the decision that I wanted to be back for her first birthday. I have no idea how I will find the money for the ticket, but it’s important to be there. Izzy won’t remember it, but for Hannah, she needs to know that she matters to us. It’s been a difficult journey for her because she hasn’t had her parents around. I’ve got expat friends whose grandkids come at least twice a year to visit them in Kenya. Others fly to their other home each year or meet up with their kids and grandkids in a mutual country for a few weeks.

One of the dangers of volunteering overseas is that when you return to your home country, you need to spend a lot of time fundraising and you don’t spend time with family. On our last trip we said we would take April off and have a break. But, because of school holidays, we actually had to do many presentations during April. However, we still made time for family, which was a first. For Hannah’s birthday and Mothers Day, we made sure we spent it with the kids.

You can’t get time back. Go and make some good memories.

 

  1. Learn to celebrate

Look at what you do have and not what you don’t. Make the most of birthdays and Christmas, not just with a card or gift, but with the phone calls and messages on social networks. I’m keeping every video and photo that Han is sending through for a project for Izzy’s first birthday. I’ve also got some creative ideas for gifts for Christmas. We’ve sent clothes through but judging sizes is always a hard thing. Sometimes we’ve ordered books online that our kids grew up with and sent them through. Because we live far from them, when I’ve returned, I’ve taken the toys that Han had when she was little. That way if anything untoward happened to us, at least she has memories of us. My grandmother gave me a porcelain love heart when I was small, so when Izzy was born, I gave that to her. It might not seem much right now, but I have nothing left from my mother, so it’s nice to leave something small with Izzy.

 

What have been some of your experiences of grand parenting from a distance?

october-disney

 

25 Years and Still Going Strong

Aside

Well, officially, we haven’t been married for 25 years until December 5th, but because we are leaving the country in a week we thought we’d renew our vows in front of our Aussie family.

We both cried in front of a crowd of 40 people, telling each other how much we cared and how grateful we are to God for how far we’ve come.

So, I thought I’d write something a little different this week and talk on commitment. It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey to get where we are, but one thing I’ve learnt is that without sticking in there, you won’t get great results.

Commitment is treated as a swear word in this day and age. It seems old fashioned, narrow and judgemental.

So, here’s a few pointers for keeping your relationship the best it can be:

  1. Remember, he/she is your best friend.
  2. Laugh lots.
  3. Go out on a date night once a week. When you have kids, take them each out on a date every couple of weeks.
  4. Find similarities, don’t focus on the differences.
  5. Make it a win, win situation.
  6. Forgive fast – don’t let it drag on and on.
  7. It’s nothing like on television – Hollywood is a false world.
  8. Remember that your spouse, or any other relationship won’t 100% fulfil you – that’s God’s job.
  9. Make your spouse a priority.
  10. Have fun – all work and no play is a bad idea.
  11. Don’t try and change them to fit into your mould – the world would be boring if we were all the same.
  12. Realise that you don’t have to like 100% of everything that your spouse does.
  13. Keep your walk close with God, it’s the key to everything.