Monday, August 8, 2011

Lifestyles of the Far-flung Expat



Life as an expat in a far away land can be so varied, so many diverse experiences await you. But the one thing you are pretty likely to have in common with every other expat is the annual trip home.

You will be sitting with your desk calendar months in advance, plotting and planning and marking the potential dates… then you wait. You get on with your own reality for the time being.

But then, before you know it, time will have eaten itself in silence and you will notice the penned circle on your desk calendar, pinpointing a number which is approaching with speed. The blue ink swirls, a reminder that you aren’t prepared!

You will find yourself, a few weeks before the annual departure date, stealing time at the office, scouring TripAdvisor and cheapcarrental.com and booking the many flights…
oh the flights. Because there will no doubt be more than one place, one family, one set of friends to visit… not to mention the dentist appointments and drivers' license renewals! As an expat, your holidays are not your own. You know there will be time juggling ahead, and that despite your best efforts to spread yourself as thin as possible on those limited days… there will always be someone slighted, an old friend or aunt that feels hurt that you didn’t make that call, arrange that afternoon for tea. Sigh…

And there are the self-inflicted expectations… Afterall, you live in a tropical hothouse and hence you can’t very well return home, pasty - looking as if you haven’t been outside in months. So despite it being the rainy season in your adoptive home country (when you are lucky to see the sun poke it’s shining face through the wall of clouds for a few minutes in any given day), you wake on those last few Sunday mornings before the departure date, praying to various gods, just to allow you one hour to bake a bit, to tease out a slight bronze from your milky depths… to no avail. But you push this to the level of embarrassment, by donning a bikini, gauzy cover-up, and flip-flops, packing up your big beach towel and favourite book and heading down to the pool. You pass security guards and grounds staff in their winter’s finest – toques and windbreakers, and nod a quick hello. You lie, like the underbelly of a fish, a greyish white, on the recliners, chilled by the prickly breeze. You might be defiant, but you are betrayed by your skin - like a plucked raw chicken, you shiver - you are laughed at by the thick storm clouds above. Eventually you retreat in total defeat and pass the same staff, chuckling inwardly they must be, at the habits of these silly Obrunis**.

The last Saturdays hold their own pressures. You will suddenly start to appreciate the rich culture around you, the artifacts and beautiful fabrics, you will see all the vibrant colours and you will be thinking… gifts! Who recently had a baby, who will be celebrating their birthday while you are visiting, who would appreciate that special something that doesn’t come from a generic chain store at a western shopping mall? So therein follows the mad last minute panic shopping. And then you get all this nic-nacky stuff home, spread it out on your bed, beside the battered suitcase, and you wonder… does anyone really want all this stuff? Sigh…

You will realise that the beauty that these artifacts represent, is not in the items themselves, but in the boisterous sellers, in the jovial banter of the bargaining process. The beauty of the colours is reflected in the sun and the smells and the culture that they are a part of. And once removed from their environs, wrapped in your case and carefully unraveled on the other side, it is only your stories that accompany the gifts, that will breathe life into their fascinating charm. You can try to describe the lady, with the sleeping baby strapped to her back with a soft, worn wrapper tucked so carefully; her headload towering two feet above her small frame, who took the time to indulge you, who laughed and joked with you, and gave you a good price... Deep down you will know, sitting in a western living room, observing the glazed eyes around you – there will never be enough words to describe what constitutes your daily life, back home in expat-land.

There will be no words to cover the vastness of the open markets, where you were bumped and jostled along, loving every minute of the hustle and bustle, the voices, the cargo, the cloth, the charm, where you did your final shopping.

You will never be able to convey your ecstasy last week, at finding Cheddar flavoured Sun Chips (what?! In Ghana?! OMG!), on display out front of a random roadside shop, so excited in fact, that you almost caused an accident with a trotro and a traffic savvy goat, just to pull into the lot to buy them. Not to mention the cavernous open gutter you narrowly missed being engulfed in, to get there… and then to think to yourself, “Oh no, I’m supposed to be on diet this week, so I don’t look like such an elephant in my swim gear at the poolside barbeques back home”, and “now that I’m traveling, I could get Sun Chips every day!” Sigh…

But you will have fought the airport crowds and discomforts of the day long journey, and you will be home. To the familiar faces and smiles and the laughter that doesn’t forget you and invites you back in every time. As the partial observer you are, even of your own culture, you will notice the flaws and the beauty of those who will always love you, and who despite all your running away in life, you know you will always love in return. The time will be fleeting and the days will melt together, and before you know it, you will be back in expat-land to your alternate reality. And you will feel absolutely exhausted, and at the same time ‘at home’.
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