This is a blog about expat life, raising multilingual and multicultural children, and travel. I write about life as an expat, the feeling of having several different “homes” scattered around the world, trying to raise multilingual children in my cross-cultural, East-meets-West marriage, and of course traveling the world. Blog by Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore.
As expats, many of us move to a new country, and then ask ourselves: how can we make a difference in the local communities that we now call home? Some of us volunteer at the local animal shelter in Jakarta, others teach English to underprivileged school children in a small Chinese village in Qingdao, while some of us join an NGO that helps to deliver clean and safe drinking water to remote villages in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But if you live in Dubai, like I do, you cannot help but notice the ‘other’ expats; the migrant workers who come to Dubai to work as nannies, construction workers, gardeners, laborers and taxi drivers from countries like Pakistan and the Philippines. In 2013, the UAE had the fifth-largest international migrant stock in the world with 7.8 million migrants (out of a total population of 9.2 million), according to United Nations (UN) estimates. Migrants make up a majority, approximately 80% of the resident population of the UAE, and account for 90% of its workforce.
The Difference Between Expats and Migrants
Both expats and migrant workers come to the UAE on time-limited, short-term contracts to work here and then return to their home countries.
But what differentiates an expat from a migrant?
According to Padmini Gupta, co-founder of Rise, a Dubai-based wealth management platform for migrants, the answer is quite simple:
“The access to growth is very different for a migrant worker than for an expat. The banking system caters to the expats, to those with higher income levels” she explains.
With vast economic differences in earning power and saving potential, it is no wonder that opportunities for growth, skill development and career advancement are far and few for the typical migrant worker in Dubai. Unlike expats who have access to a wide range of wealth and financial services, migrant workers such as nannies have no access to banking services, so they send money back home to help their families but are unable to save in the long term for themselves.
So how can we start bridging the gap between an expat and a migrant worker in Dubai?
Introduction to Rise
Rise is a growth platform to help migrants in the UAE manage their finances, learn new skills and build a better future. I had the pleasure to meet Rise co-founder Padmini Gupta last week to understand how Rise is helping to develop a sustainable growth path for millions of migrants in the Middle East:
“Banking unlocks growth potential. 68% of the actual population in the UAE is ‘unbanked’. 68% of the migrant population is earning under 5000 AED per month. These are the people who need the growth most” explains Padmini.
I sit down for a chat with Padmini Gupta, co-founder of Rise (right).
Rise has started by focusing on one target group to offer their services to: domestic workers such as maids and nannies, employed in many households across Dubai.
“One in every four women in this country is a maid or a nanny” highlights Padmini. Rise has thus partnered with a Sharjah based bank with branches all over the UAE to help over 2,000 nannies in the UAE to open up bank accounts. It has focused its efforts on helping the ‘unbanked’ nannies to have access to a bank account, a debit card and the opportunity to save. Giving them access to financial services, is the first step to help empower them.
The Idea for Rise
Padmini who was born in the United States but grew up in Dubai, explains how the idea for Rise came to her in April of 2015.
“A massive earthquake had hit Nepal and we had just hired a Nepalese nanny two months earlier. She was devastated. With her family suffering and her belongings ruined in the wake of the earthquake, she asked us for a considerable sum of money in assistance. And I remember wondering why she had no savings after working in Dubai for the past 15 years?” recounts Padmini.
After helping her nanny and scraping together the large sum of money, Padmini realized that her nanny’s story was not unique. Many migrant workers are busy working and they send money home to their families but are not able to save any for themselves or think about their future. This was not the story of one woman’s misfortune, but rather the misfortune of many migrant workers, living and working in the UAE.
With an illustrious career in banking in the United States, policy development work at Oxford University centered around financial inclusion, and previous experience working as a Global Leadership Fellow for the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Padmini realized she could put her expertise to good use. She joined forces with her husband Milind Singh a former strategy consultant, who also doubles as her business partner and the co-founder of Rise.
Dubai expats Padmini Gupta and her husband Milind Singh are the co-founders of Rise.
How Does Rise Work?
If you are a nanny or you are a parent looking to help your nanny benefit from Rise, the first step is to call rise at 800 gorise or email them at email@example.com. Padmini, and her team, can help you open an account for your nanny. If your nanny wants to register herself, she can do the same. There is no minimum balance and no minimum salary required. Rise will help you make the process easy and Rise also conducts financial literacy workshops to talk to Nannies on how to manage their income and start the process of saving.
Their recent ‘Nanny Salary Survey’ highlighted key facts and figures in terms of salaries. The average salary for a maid or nanny in Dubai is AED 1850 a month. By understanding the average salary for a nanny, Rise is also helping nannies to improve their skills and gain new ones in order to increase their employability.
It has partnered with leading local and international experts to bring exclusive training programs. Nannies registered on Rise can take reasonably priced courses on a wide range of important topics such as child nutrition, safety for children and on enhancing communication and language development for toddlers.
Lastly, Rise also runs a hiring platform through their Facebook page ‘Mary Poppins Dubai’. It is designed to make the nanny hiring process easier, while allowing access for both nannies and parents to post for jobs and look for prospective employees.
Impacting Social Change One Nanny at a Time
“Imagine celebrating the fact that you have a bank account!” says Padmini, with a smile. This is exactly what one Dubai nanny did. One of the first nannies to open up a bank account, she celebrated the moment by proudly taking her family out for a celebratory meal.
Some of the proud nannies holding their debit cards, obtained through Rise
Rise has also recently introduced the UAE’s Best Nanny Award. The award aims to show appreciation of all the hard-working nannies in the UAE. Its latest recipient Melanie Manansala who has been working in the UAE for the past 24 years, explains her story and what the award of 1 million pesos has meant for her here.
In the future, Rise plans to extend their services to other migrant workers too and increase the range of financial services offered to migrants. It aims to help migrant workers by offering more investment channels, insurance and lending options and the chance to grow their assets.
Migration is a dominant theme in the 21st century, and Dubai expats like Padmini Gupta are certainly working hard to ensure that growth and financial inclusion are accessible by all.
This is a sponsored post, in collaboration with Rise. All opinions expressed here are my own.
About the Author: Mariam Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat, writer and author. As an expat child, she grew up in Bahrain, New York City and Pakistan. She has been an expat for the past 16 years and has lived in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. She is the a co-author of the books Export Success & Industrial Linkages in South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2009) and Insights and Interviews from the 2017 Families in Global Transition Conference (Summertime Publishing 2018). She writes about expat life, raising a multicultural and multilingual family while moving around the world and global travel on her blog ‘And Then We Moved To’. Her expat writing has been published in Expat Connect Dubai, Global Living Magazine, Expat Living Singapore, Families in Global Transition and The Huffington Post, while her expat life has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) for Super Soul Sunday. ‘And Then We Moved To’ has also been shortlisted as ‘Best Parent Blog of 2017’ by Time Out Dubai Kids. You can follow her writing on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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“Look quick!” I shrieked to my daughter as we walked through the winding alleyways of the maze-like old Marrakech Medina hand in hand. The air was thick with the smell of spices and orange blossoms where the local women were arguing over the price of lamb at the butcher’s stall, men leading donkey carts laden with spices and herbs passed us by shouting “Balak!” (watch out!), motorcycles whizzed past overtaking us on blind corners, shopkeepers called out to us in a mix of French and Arabic, there were rainbow-colored babouche slippers to gawk at, shiny lamps to stare at and snake charmers to dodge.
“Mama, I’m not sure where to look!” responded Mina, my 5-year-old, thoroughly beguiled by the action she found herself in. “You know what would be fun to do here? A treasure hunt!” she exclaimed, picking up an Aladdin lamp from the stall nearby and rubbing it three times.
“Treasure? Where’s the treasure?” asked Mikail, my 3-year-old son, peeking out from his stroller, suddenly interested in our conversation.
“It’s everywhere guys! Through those hidden alleys. Around those quiet corners. In the shops. Behind the fountains. Shall we look for it together?” I asked excitedly.
“We can be Shimmer & Shine!” exclaimed Mina, referring to her favorite Disney Channel cartoon series.
“But first we need a magic carpet!” shouted Mikail, pointing to a carpet shop on our left.
I looked up and smiled at my husband. I had known that a family trip to Morocco with young children wouldn’t be all amber-tinged, saffron-flecked and perfect. But I did see these 10 days as an opportunity to introduce my kids to a different sort of travel holiday than they were used to. One that came without a Kids Club preferably. What else are the school holidays for, if not to introduce their minds to centuries old imperial cities, teeming with history and adventure, with new foods to try and market places, secret gardens, gorgeous palaces and Medina’s to ignite their imaginations?
If all else failed, there would always be a hike through the mountains or a camel trek to fall back upon, right?
Morocco with kids was not an easy trip to plan. Most of the information I found online dissuaded me from attempting it with two kids five and under. Heat, busy crowded markets and squares, long travel times and considerable distances between Morocco’s major cities were often cited as the major drawbacks. I could not find even one article that recommended staying in a traditional Moroccan riad with children because of steep steps and the fact that noise travels fast through the open courtyards. Not one to give up on a destination that I had longed to visit for well over a decade, I simply made our itinerary family-friendly. Here’s a peek at our ten-day family itinerary which allowed for enough down time between hectic travel days.
Morocco is the perfect playground to capture your child’s imagination.
Here are my 10 ways to enjoy Morocco with your kids:
Stay in a Moroccan Riad
Riad Laila, our home away from home in Marrakech
If you want to have an authentic local experience and enjoy the warm hospitality of Morocco, the best way to do this family travelers, is by staying in a traditional Moroccan Riad with your kids. Paris has its cathedrals and Dubai has its skyscrapers, but riads are what sets Morocco apart. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house, with a wide, open courtyard in the middle. Enter through the brass-studded door and you will find yourself in an oasis of calm, in a bougainvillea-laced courtyard with trickling fountains and the music of songbirds. It is truly the best and most relaxed accommodation for a family traveling with kids and your kids will love exploring the gardens, jumping in the fountains and interacting with the local staff. The advantages are many; a cozy home-like atmosphere, the opportunity to sample home-made family food and introduce your children to simple Moroccan living.
“There is no TV in our room Mama!” announced Mina with a rather concerned look, when we first arrived at our gorgeous Riad Laila in Marrakech. She was only used to hotel accommodation, so this was a novel experience for her. By the end of the day, she had forgotten about it, because exploring the riad was so much fun! Staying in a riad took out a lot of stress usually associated with family travel – crowded spaces, big swimming pools, fancy dining restaurants, where you’re afraid your kids might either break something or be unwelcome. If you are traveling with children to Morocco, riads are definitely the way to go.
2. Treasure hunt through the Medinas:
Exploring the labyrinth Fez Medina
Morocco’s Medinas are its bustling centers of activity, teeming with historical sites and souqs and bazaars. Most adults find a visit here overwhelming as the hustle and bustle in the maze-like alleyways is enough to bedazzle even the most intrepid of travelers and leave even those with a good geographical sense reaching for their maps.
Google Maps has still not yet figured out Morocco’s Medinas so don’t expect you will have any luck in a day or two. But this is precisely why exploring the Medinas with your children will spark their imagination, because getting out of its streets could be a fun family exercise! Make it creative for them, help them imagine they are on their own treasure hunt as you stop to examine spices, try on Moroccan babouche slippers, admire shiny silver teapots or peek through winding alleyways for what lies within.
Moroccan babouche shoes
Our children loved exploring the Marrakech and Fez Medina. We got lost in both, multiple times and had to try and remember our way back, by paying attention to the “clues” we had seen and gathered. It helped us to bond as a family and gave the kids a purpose as opposed to just aimlessly wandering the streets.
3. Show them a real market place:
A butcher shop in Marrakech’s market place.
I don’t know about your kids, but my Dubai kids think food comes from Carrefour! If like me, you are looking to teach your kids where your food comes from and introduce them to a real authentic market place, then Morocco is the perfect country to do so. The markets are lively, the butcher is cutting up his meat right in front of you, children are carrying trays of loaves to be baked in the local bakery and women are selling bundles of freshly cut herbs and olives. There are chickens and roosters crowing loudly, stalls laden with vegetables pile high and oh the smells! We sampled some fresh Moroccan semolina bread, olives soaked in olive oil and fresh herbs, before bargaining for some delicious Moroccan pastries covered in coconut and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Don’t shy away from taking your kids to the marketplaces, they will learn a lot and probably ask a lot of questions too. A visit to the marketplace can be educational and fun!
4. Discover secret and tranquil gardens:
The entrance to Jardin Secret, Marrakech
“Did you say there’s a secret garden behind these doors? Oh, I want to go see the secret garden!” exclaimed Mina. The newly opened Le Jardin Secret Marrakech is located right at the heart of the souks, and was hidden behind 9m walls, until last year. Originally this palace was built in the late 16th century as part of a complex that included the Mouassine mosque and fountain, a library and a hammam. Its recent restoration makes it the perfect spot for a family break.
Stepping inside into its calm enclosure makes you finally appreciate this city of extremes. Outside there is total chaos, but inside this secret garden, the only riot is that of exotic fauna from all around the world. There is an exotic garden and an Islamic garden. There is a fountain of course with beautiful mosaics, tile work to interest the most ardent photographers and several serene moments to enjoy here, while the kids run around. There is also a café with sweeping rooftop views of Old Marrakech to sip some mint tea and fresh juices quietly.
Exploring the gorgeous Jardin Majorelle
Marrakech’s gardens were truly a pleasant surprise and if you are traveling with kids, a visit is necessary for enabling your children to let off some steam. The next day, of course we also explored Marrakech’s most famous gardens, Jardin Majorelle. Its former owner Yves Saint Laurent, whose ashes are scattered here claimed “Marrakech taught me color” and a visit here can easily make you see why. In this bright blue manor, surrounded by turquoise benches and yellow flower pots, the colors here are dazzling. Mina and Mikail loved the frogs and the turtles they spotted in the water-lily pond and a visit to the Berber museum was also enjoyed by all of us. Mostly, they just enjoyed running through bamboo laden walkways and calling out to us to share what was around the corner.
5. Learn Moroccan cooking:
Taking a cooking class together is a great way to introduce your children to Moroccan cuisine and is thus a family friendly activity that I highly recommend you try in Morocco. We signed up for a four-hour cooking class with Cafe Clock, in Fez with both kids. You can also sign up for a two-hour bread-making class or a patisserie workshop.
After planning our menu, we shopped for our ingredients in the souq, before returning to Café Clock to chop and cook and then to enjoy the feast we had prepared. It was the perfect place to hone our couscous-making skills and the cooking class and staff were both supremely kid-friendly. The staff involved our children, and Mina had fun chopping parsley, soaking couscous and stuffing date palm paste with almonds and strawberries. I noticed she was a lot more enthusiastic about trying new food to eat after our cooking class, she even tried the spicy local bread!
6. Interact with the locals and enjoy their child-friendly attitudes:
I know traveling with kids can feel super stressful sometimes. But when you travel with them to a country like Morocco, where family is everything and children are a language onto themselves, you will experience the locals friendly and welcoming attitudes towards children. People will bother you less, shopkeepers will welcome you in and restaurant owners will call out to their own kids to come and play with yours. Even the mosques and madrasah’s that we visited were children friendly! Nobody minded Mikail running around the Kairaouine Mosque in Fez, one of the oldest and most conservative mosques in Fez.
I also realized that traveling with our kids meant we made deeper connections with the locals and were offered help when we needed it. After not getting any first-class train tickets since they were sold for our journey for Casablanca to Marrakech (as recommended for tourists in all the guide books), we sat in the second-class compartment, with the locals where there is no assigned seating and just a free for all. It was not air-conditioned, it was hot, dusty and chaotic with no place to sit, there were people selling bread and drinking mint tea over our heads, many were smoking (right under the no smoking sign), while others were reciting the Quran out loud and swaying back and forth to the rhythm.
But many locals helped us get on with our many suitcases, two men gave up their seat for us, a lady shared her bag of peanuts with Mina while a young girl played with Mikail’s curls. Everyone gave us tips on what to do and see in Marrakech, while one lovely lady invited us to our home in Marrakech and gave us her number! Traveling with young kids is not always east, but completely worth it for the experiences and connections it allows you to make, especially in a place like Morocco.
7. Delight in the different color-themed cities:
Exploring Chefchouen; the Blue Pearl of Morocco
“Blue is my favorite color!” exclaimed Mikail in glee as we arrived in Chefchouen. He was ecstatic to find each street painted blue. This was an unexpected way that my children loved exploring Morocco. First came Casablanca (the ‘white city’ as it was called by the Portuguese settlers), then came Marrakech (the rose city where everything from buildings to the sunset sky is painted red). After that came Fez (the yellow city), followed by the most vibrant Mountain village town of Chefchouen; also known as the Blue Pearl, for its blue streets, doors and windows.
Morocco’s vibrant colors had us all enthralled, but for my children it was the first time they had ever seen each city represented by a particular color. When it was time to draw and write in their travel journals, it was apparent that the color of each city had stuck with them and jogged their creativity. It was a fun way for them to explore and remember each city.
8. Enjoy the great outdoors and the natural landscape:
“Desert or mountains?” we asked the kids. They both voted for mountains. We agreed, given that we already live in a big desert called Dubai. Morocco is blessed with a variety of natural landscapes. We enjoyed a gorgeous hike up the Middle Atlas Mountains, which included incredible mountain scenery, waterfalls, forest walks and less hair-rising passes than the High Atlas, which made it easier to do with kids. We simply arranged for a guide through our riad and kept it flexible, which meant when the kids were tired, we headed back.
You might also like to experience a camel trek through the Sahara Desert instead, which is an easy day trip from Marrakech. Regardless of what outdoor activity you choose, enjoying Morocco’s variety of landscapes is a must. It is best to speak to your riad as several offer day tours for reduced prices and cheaper packages than other tour companies.
9. Be fascinated by multilingual Morocco:
This was one of our favorite ways to enjoy Morocco with the kids. Travel is a great way to expose kids to hearing and learning different languages and multilingual Moroccans had us enthralled. It is common in Moroccans to mix languages, so they produce a beautiful mix of French, Arabic, Berber and even Spanish thrown in.
Mina is incidentally learning both Arabic and French in her kindergarten in Dubai, but she had never heard anyone mixing the two in one sentence before. Soon, she turned to me and said:
“Mama, they mix Arabic and French here, just like you mix Urdu and English! Its funny, the man there just said “yallah, s’il vous-plait!” giggled Mina.
“Bonjour, ma’salaama!” she shouted back, giving it a try herself.
It was true. I realized traveling to multilingual countries is a great way to normalise multilingualism for my children. If you are raising bilingual or multilingual kids, exposing them to these environments can help in embracing diversity in languages. Morocco helped my children see that speaking and mixing multiple languages can be cool and fun!
10. Slow travel through train rides
7 hour train ride from Marrakech to Fez
Traveling with kids has a way of forcing you to slow down, which is a good thing. One of the experiences we enjoyed was indulging in slow travel with the kids, and to give our bodies and minds the time to adjust from one city to the next. Our 7-hour train journey from Marrakech to Fez was actually one of our best traveling days as a family! Kids are easier to entertain on train rides than on air planes, and this time we had prepared in advance. Snacks were bought, iPads were charged, first class tickets secured in advance and seven hours seemed to fly by.
Our car journey from Fez to Chefchaouen (three and a half hours) and then back from Chefchouen to Casablanca (five and a half hours) were definitely more tiring. We tried to make it as comfortable for ourselves. Instead of a taking a bus, we hired a private car (with WIFI) through Tangier Taxi and enjoyed the spectacular Riff Mountains and scenery of nearby towns. Northern Morocco felt very different from Marrakech, and it was seeing these different sides of the country in our travels that helped us to take it slow and enjoy Morocco with the kids.
A Caleche-ride through Marrakech with the kids
Now, because I like to present a completely honest picture of family travel on ‘And Then We Moved To’, be prepared that certain things will go wrong, when you’re out exploring a new country with kids. As I discussed in my travel piece published on Huffington Post on 7 Reasons Why Travel Is Never ‘Wasted’ On Young Kids: “How enjoyable traveling with kids is, ultimately has a lot to do with the mind-sets of the parents. Don’t expect perfection, plan for some hiccups along the way.”
Here are some things that happened to us on our Moroccan trip with kids:
Some minor hiccups:
Three year old Mikail did not like the taste of the local milk and went completely off milk for 10 days! He did enjoy their fresh juices though, so we substituted with more vitamins and just made sure he stayed hydrated.
Five year old Mina got pricked by a cactus. Nothing serious, but it did warrant a quick trip to the pharmacy. Luckily, there was one quite close to us in the Medina, and one of the lovely staff members at our riad quickly ran out and got us some band-aids and antiseptic gel.
Using less-than-clean public bathrooms on the road, was a challenge with two young kids. I started carrying extra wipes, toilet paper, a water bottle and hand sanitising gel with us to avoid major hygiene issues.
He looks away so that I don’t see the tears or the longing in his eyes. After a few seconds, he turns to look at me and says with a forced smile “It would have been tough to go back, but I think not going back has proved to be even harder. Somehow, I lost all my family history overnight. We gave up our lands, our house and just walked away from our lives there. But the pain of moving has never quite gone away.”
At this point, my 70-year-old father brushes away his wistful look and says, “Now Pakistan is our home. I have come to terms with it a long time ago.”
Daddy was born in 1947 in the small Indian village of Saeswan, about 230 kilometres from New Delhi. The year of his birth was a turbulent one in the Indian Sub-continent, one which witnessed the biggest human migration in the world as 14 million people crossed the newly created international borders in search of a new home.
After more than 200 years of British rule, the colonial power had decided to grant India its independence. But independence came at a cost – the partition of India into two countries: Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. Like many families, my father’s family was forced to choose which country they wanted to live in and then make the tough migration amidst mass violence, communal rioting and religious tensions leading to mass rape and murder, while the country they had known and loved, split apart. Like a pomegranate being ripped open, only to find some seeds land in one half, and the rest land in the other half, many families were torn apart and could never visit one another while living on the other side of the border. Diplomatic ties were severed as the two countries fought and waged three wars against each other in the years following independence.
The Partition of India 1947. Image by themightyquill/CC Licensed
All four of my grandparents were born and raised in India. They spent their childhoods in Indian cities from Ajmer to Delhi to Panipat. My paternal grandparents went on honeymoon to the Indian hillside resort of Simla high up in the Himalayan mountains and gave birth to the first of their children on Indian soil. But after partition, they worked hard to build their lives in newly created Pakistan.
And they worked even harder to forget their old lives.
Moving countries, knowing you can never go back not even for a visit, must be a strange feeling indeed. Growing up in Pakistan, I was painfully aware that all four of my grandparents had said goodbye to their home country and moved to a new country created for the likes of them. They gave up their citizenships and they gave up their ancestral homes all for the promise of a better and safer future. Each time they sat and reminisced about their previous lives, there was pain, nostalgia and longing mixed in with their tales of sacrifice and adventures into the unknown. For the longest time, I only saw India through their eyes: a mythical land full of mango trees, huge ‘havelis’ (private mansions), joint family systems, village bazaars and a rural life full of delectable Mughal food, religious festivals and ancestral fields.
Perhaps because they had chosen their own destinies, they never stopped me from choosing mine. I will never forget the words my paternal grandmother ‘Ammi’ said to me the day I left Pakistan as a 19-year-old teenager, to pursue my dreams in the United States:
“We came to this country to build a better future for our children and grandchildren. Now you’re leaving to create your own destiny. I hope you will be more successful than we were.”
I often think back to her words even today, long after her death. Her death in 2005 was one of the most painful moments of my life. I was stuck in Houston, Texas working a 70-hour week at an investment bank and could not get the approved time off to fly back to Pakistan for her funeral. The next few years saw the death of my maternal grandmother and maternal grandfather and each time I was living in a foreign country and not able to say that final goodbye. Expat life truly at its worst and most cruel.
I often wonder if my grandparents would have understood the life that I lead today – the one of a global nomad. The difference between them and myself of course is that I am always able to go back to my previous homes in various cities and countries around the world. A recent trip to the Kingdom of Bahrain where I spent my initial childhood was one of my favorite travel experiences, because it felt meaningful to connect to a place that had been a part of my story. A trip back to Copenhagen or Berlin feels emotional and like a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but also helps me to appreciate my journey and how far I’ve come.
Any expat will tell you that its always a strange sensation to go back to a country you once lived in, but just the mere act of going back releases a catharsis that those of us living a globally mobile lifestyle desperately need. Going back to a city we once lived in, is like revisiting a previous part of our own identity and who we were back then. Its help us appreciate the journey we are on. Going back often provides closure. Sometimes going back for a visit opens old wounds too and sometimes we view our previous experience through rose-tinted glasses, the privilege that hindsight affords us. And sometimes, we yearn to go back in time, knowing fully well that returning to the same place again will be too complicated. This is the reason I recently said no to a second expat assignment to Denmark. I loved living there, but if I go back, I know it won’t be the same and somehow, I just want to preserve my memories of the place as they are.
So, what happens when moving means no going back? Moving as a refugee, moving as an economic migrant or moving for political asylum are very different experiences than moving as an expat, a diplomat or a missionary. These journeys are full of danger and fear. These international experiences do not come with a paid airline ticket and 4 seats in economy class. These relocations are not helped by a relocation agency ready to provide support on the ground. There is no promised job waiting for you on the other side. No one to help you fill out applications for schools or residence permits.
One of my closest friends in Denmark was the daughter of Afghan refugees, who sought asylum in Copenhagen. When I mentioned I was from Pakistan, she commented “Oh I lived for some time in Pakistan too – in a refugee camp.” I was stunned into silence. Her experience of my country was so different to the lavish style in which I had grown up in surrounded by family, food and countless luxuries. She fled her Afghani hometown of Jalalabad on a donkey across the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, Pakistan and spent many years living in a makeshift refugee camp. She told me there was barely any clean drinking water there for days on end. I found I had suddenly no words to compare her experience of moving to mine. But the desire to understand her experience has only gotten stronger over the years.
Moving as refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants is the kind of moving that often does not get discussed in expat circles. Because how can anyone compare the two? How can the difficulties of making new friends or learning a new language compare to risking your life to flee in the search for safety and a better future? But as someone who finds moving in all forms fascinating, I hope to start discussing these types of moves too on ‘And Then We Moved To’ in the coming months. Would you be interested in hearing such stories?
“Escape is a good novel, a gripping movie, a holiday – not something I can imagine being forced into. I am used to thinking of travel as an escape from security and predictability and stability, not a journey in search of these things. I am used to thinking of home as something that gets left behind at the start of a journey, not something you might be travelling perilously towards.”
― Adele Dumont,
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As an expat blogger and writer, the number one question I get asked is “why do you call yourself an expat and not an immigrant?”
Now, I know that the word ‘expat’ turns people off. When they see ‘expat’, they read ‘privilege’ and imagine me walking with a sign on my head that says, ‘WILL NOT INTEGRATE.’ They imagine a lady of leisure, with business class tickets in her hand, jetting off from one country to another. It’s true; I am privileged, but not in the way that you might think.
So, let’s just rewind here. First, let me explain exactly what kind of an expat I am.
I’m a brown expat.
I’m a Muslim expat.
I’m a ‘I come from a third world, developing country in Asia’ kind of expat.
So first why do I still call myself an expat and not an immigrant?
16 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, I know I am not immigrating to any particular country – I will just be an expat there for three to four years before our contract is up and we move again. Intention is a key factor in why I call myself an expat – if my intention was to settle down in one country for the long term, I would call myself an immigrant.
Now if the word ‘expat’ bothers you, just remember that according to Wikipedia, “an expatriate is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ‘ex’ (out of) and ‘patria’ (country or fatherland).
Sounds pretty accurate to describe my situation, doesn’t it? I currently reside in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where I have no rights to citizenship – just temporary residence based on my “expat” status.
Here is where the definitions get interesting and shows how fluid our global identities can be.
Expats can be migrant workers too and migrant workers can be expats. After all, both are working in a foreign country on a time-bound contract. Interestingly, an expat can become an immigrant just as a migrant worker can become an immigrant if they both choose to settle down for the long-term in the country of employment. My German husband and the Pakistani gardener who comes to tend to our garden, for example are both in Dubai sponsored by an employer to work on a time bound contract. So, what’s the difference? In my book, they are both expats. Let’s test out this definition a bit further:
Is a Filipino nanny working in Singapore for a few years to earn some money, an expat?
Is an Indian laborer working for a construction company in Dubai and sending money back home, an expat?
Is a German corporate executive working in Vietnam an expat?
The Ugly Connotations of the Word ‘Expat’:
Definitions aside, l think the reason why most people have a problem with the label ‘expat’ is due to its connotations – the word expat is seen to be tied to privilege, race, nationality and status. It reeks of a colonial legacy and imperialism. The word ‘expat’ has suddenly developed an image problem.
Let’s explore some of these connotations one by one before addressing what I think we should really do to fix the image problem, that the word ‘expat’ suffers from.
Privilege: Until three years ago, I traveled the world solely on a Pakistani passport, as a Pakistani expat. Contrary to any privileges received, I had to work doubly hard to source paperwork and submit extra documentation at times to the relevant authorities at government offices, embassies and consulates. My applications were always viewed with suspicion, and subjected to extra scrutiny. I took it all in my stride. But please don’t tell me I am privileged simply because I am an expat.
And if you have been an expat for as long as I have, you will know that not all expat assignments are created equal. In Denmark, even though I was an expat, I still had to pay the local rate of tax applicable on my income (52% in case you were wondering). There was no privilege involved. In Singapore, our “expat package” did not cover a housing allowance or maternity allowance while I was pregnant. In many ways, I was even worse off than the locals there. I paid for my Singaporean birth through my own pocket and was not eligible for any local subsidies. Not to forget there are so many expats who are working abroad but on ‘local contracts’ and are far from living the luxurious lives that their friends and family back home might imagine them to be.
Race: I am not white, I am brown. As a brown expat, I have never received any favorable treatment in any of the countries I have lived in. I represent the new type of expats that have arisen since patterns have shifted in our global world from purely North-South moves to an increasing number of South-South moves. India is a notable example; there are tons of highly educated and skilled professionals working as expats in several African countries in finance related or corporate roles.
Status: It does not matter if you are a blue-collar worker or a white-collar worker – you are still an expat. What if you are a well site engineer at an oil refinery (a very highly skilled and highly paid mechanical job?) It does not mean that you have a lesser status than an expat working a desk job.
In no other country, has the correlation between race, nationality and status been more evident to me than here in the UAE. I could see the clear confusion on the face of the government official processing my paperwork upon our arrival in Dubai. My Pakistani self, did not correspond to my American driver’s license or the residence visa in my Italian passport sponsored under my German husband’s name. A global life on the move has added increasing complexities to our identities, as we acquire new citizenships, or foreign qualifications along the way.
Redefining the Word Expat:
Many writers, thinkers and expats in the international circles have started arguing “let’s stop using the word expat” in our globally mobile vocabulary. I agree that finding our language on the move is important, but my solution is completely different:
Instead of not using the word ‘expat’, let’s expand its use. Let’s expand its definition so it stops sounding hierarchical, colonial or imperialistic. Let’s expand it to include Asians, Arabs, Africans and basically ALL the people around the world who are working away from their passport country on a temporary or time bound contract. In Dubai for instance, I started calling everybody expats – this includes the Pakistani gardeners, Filipino maids, the Indian construction workers and the Bangladeshi taxi driver who picked me up yesterday. To read more on the lives of ‘The Other Expat’, head to Global Living Magazine, where I show you the voices, challenges and struggles of these expats, which never make it to mainstream expat channels or forums.
Fair is not to stop using the word expat. Fair is to include in its definition, all the people who rightly belong in it. This is the way to the take the colonial sting out of the word. This is the way to turn it upside down. This is the way to show that our understanding of globally mobile people has evolved and is ever evolving. And to show that expatriation is not defined by or limited to race, color, ethnicity or nationality.
And this is where my privilege comes in – as a writer and as an expat – to fight for the change that I hope to see and to speak up for those who can’t.
About the Author: Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat and writer. As an expat child, she grew up in Bahrain, New York City and Pakistan. She has been an expat for the past 16 years and has lived in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. She is the writer and founder of the blog “And Then We Moved To’, in which she explores expat life, raising multicultural and multilingual children and world travel.
She gave the globe a spin, and as the continents, oceans and countries whizzed by, she looked up and asked “Mama, where is Australia?” Her five-year-old mind was interested in this country far away, because one of her friends from Dubai had just moved there, with her family. As I pointed to Australia on the globe, she looked up and sighed “wow, that’s really far away.”
I shared her grief. As an expat child raised in Singapore and Dubai, she had said enough goodbyes to friends in her short five years. Once because we moved, but other times because in expat heavy cities, the summer expat exodus meant she and I lost several friends each summer, around this time. Some expatriate to another country, while others repatriate to their home country. And some are still left in the expat country. It’s hard to be the leaver, but it is almost harder to be the one left behind.
Until we had kids, our approach to our expat life can best be described as “winging it”. Seven countries in 15 years is my expat story but I wonder how many countries my kids will live in by the time they are 18. In expat circles, there is this notion that the older the kids, the harder it is to move, (think of sulking teenagers having to say goodbye to their friends), but the truth is expatriation and repatriation with young kids is not any easier. There are different challenges involved, but each remains just that – a challenge.
Most nights, my conversation with my husband starts with some form of “is this global life messing up our kids?” Each move, each new school, each transition, each new language, each goodbye, and each new experience sometimes prompts a whole re-evaluation of our expat lifestyle and the havoc it might wreak on our children’s ability to form meaningful friendships and connections through childhood.
Understanding the effects of expatriation on expat kids was one of several reasons, I was eager to listen to the research, findings and discussions at the recent Families in Global Transitions (FIGT) conference in The Hague, in March 2017. As an expat writer and an expat parent, I was particularly interested in hearing how expat life and the constant moving and saying goodbye and starting at a new school in a new country was affecting our expat kids and how I could handle future moves with them in a way that minimized their confusion or sadness. The FIGT conference gave me not only very clear insights of the effects of expat life on kids but also helped me to meet others writing on this topic and read and understand research, articles and books written by cross cultural educators and parents in the field.
When Your Expat Kid is the Stayer:
Jane Barron; a youth intercultural transition specialist who writes about the impact of mobility on children for Globally Grounded, explains in her article 6 Steps Towards Being a Successful Stayer in an International School that “in an international school, there are three types of students: leaver, arriver and stayer.” Quite often the leaver is preparing for the impending move by saying goodbye to friends, while the arriver is the new kid who has just arrived and eager to make friends and settle in. Jane points out that “most international school support the arriver and the leaver, but what about the stayer? He is thrown into transition, yet his suitcase is still in the closet.”
Even though we are not moving this summer, my daughter is still dealing with transition and with saying goodbye to several of her friends. Through reading Jane’s article, I now realize the important of talking through the changes with her, acknowledging her feelings of sadness or loss and making an active plan for her to stay in touch with her friends. Little things like showing her on a map or globe, where her friend is going, helps her to contextualize the new life her friend will lead.
When Your Expat Kid is the Leaver:
When we moved from Singapore to Dubai, our daughter was only two and a half. I thought she would not understand or be able to grasp the gravity of the move but come moving day, when she saw the packers pack up her favorite toys, she grew aggressive and territorial. Even at her young age, she needed help handling the transition. I know when it is time for our next move (a question of when, not if), I will have to clearly explain to both kids why we are moving, and what that entails.
This idea was reinforced by Kristin Louise Duncombe in her talk at FIGT on ‘Raising Global and Mobile Children: Challenges and Solutions for International Families.’ She explained that the key factors towards impacting a kid’s reaction to a move are age, development stage, personality, temperament and family dynamics. It was important to remember the difference in each child’s temperament in his/her ability to process a move. An introverted child may have a harder time dealing with an international move, than an extroverted one. What was also interesting was Kristin’s advice to parent to “be real with your kids” – to talk about your emotions, acknowledge the ups and downs and be healthy role models for them in navigating change. I usually try to shield my children from all my complicated emotions during a move, but now realize it is far healthier to show them my sadness at leaving a place along with my excitement of starting a new adventure.
I also enjoyed listening to Maria Lombart’s Ignite presentation on dealing with loss as a child. She helped me as an expat parent to see, that globally mobile children face tangible losses (pets, places, belongings and people) but also intangible losses (language, belonging, experiences and personality). It is equally important to acknowledge both during a transition.
In their book ‘Third Culture Kids. Growing Up Among Worlds’, Ruth van Reken and David Pollock outline the key for a healthy transition, imagine building a RAFT: of Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell and Think Destination. Reconciliation means to let go of unresolved issues and mend bridges. Affirmation of what you had in a certain place and what that meant for you. An expat kid who is leaving can say to friends ‘thank you for being part of my journey.’ Farewell to places as well as people is important. Sometimes a farewell memento can help kids in the process of leaving too. And lastly ‘think destination’ means to prepare your family for where you are going, and to have knowledge of the place.
In the past year, I have thought more about how to approach an international move with my young kids (currently five and two years old). My personal rules for giving them stability have been to make sure we are going to be at a location for at least a minimum of three years. Once we are in a new country, I like to keep as much as possible – schools, house, neighborhood – stable and the same to counteract all the new experiences they are dealing with -country, language, culture, weather, friends etc. I do not like to switch apartments or houses while living in the same city. I do not like to switch schools or kindergarten for my kids unless necessary. Because they will be dealing with an international move at some point, I like to keep our time in a particular city uncomplicated. Too many frequent small moves within a city, followed by a large international move would be difficult and stressful to handle – for all of us.
I feel a lot more confident thanks to conferences such as the Families in Global Transition, that we are slowly understanding and learning more about the impact of mobility in shaping our children’s experiences in the 21st century. On the question of whether this experience of growing up around the world will mess them up – I hope not. But I do know that each move we will make from now on, will be conducted under the framework of giving maximum support and understanding to our children. This international and global life has opened new doors for them and their experience of diversity, tolerance and learning new cultures and languages has made for such a rich childhood.
For further reading on how to handle international moves with expat kids, here is a list of useful websites, books and resources that ‘And Then We Moved To’ would like to recommend:
Globally Grounded (www.globallygrounded.com), a website dedicated to supporting students across cultures, domestic and international transitions.
Expat Child (www.expachild.com) for practical relocation advice for your whole family.
Families in Global Transition (www.figt.org) founded by Ruth van Reken is a forum for globally mobile families and those working with them.
Expat bookshop (www.expatbookshop.com) founded by author Jo Parfitt and Summertime Publishing for the latest in books for the expat community. It has a section devoted to books relating to Third Culture Kids.
B at Home: Emma Moves Again, by Valerie Besanceney. Emma is only ten years old, but has already moved twice. Now, her parents are telling her the family is moving again. She’s furious, sad, nervous, and a little excited, all at the same time. Unsure of how to tackle these conflicting emotions, she turns to B, her faithful teddy bear. While trying to come to terms with the challenges of another move, what Emma really wants is just to ‘be at home’. As the journeys of Emma and B unfold, home changes once again, but home also begins to take on a new meaning that Emma can take with her wherever she goes.
Slurping Soup and Other Confusions, by Maryam Afnan Ahmad, Cherie Emigh, Ulrike Gemmer, Bárbara Menezes, Kathryn Tonges and Lucinda Willshire. The book aims to help children cope with the challenges of living internationally. Each story is followed by a related activity. The activities are suitable for three to 12-year old’s and include brainstorming, problem solving, party planning, family tree, and quirky word creations. The stories explore adapting to new environments, home and family adjustment, cultural differences, friendship changes and feelings of belonging.
Misunderstood – The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, by Tanya Crossman. Misunderstood explores the impact international life can have on the children of globally mobile families – while they live overseas, when they return, and as they mature into adults. Similarities in their shared experiences (regardless of the different countries in which they have lived) create a safe space of comfort and understanding. Whether you grew up overseas, are raising children overseas, or know a family living abroad, Misunderstood will equip you with insights into the international experience, along with practical suggestions for how to offer meaningful care and support.
I confess – I have long had a rather complicated relationship with the idea of having help at home.
I suppose it can all be traced back to my childhood in Pakistan. Growing up amidst a plethora of house help was the norm, for upper middle-class families such as ours. In addition to having a cook to cook meals for us, a maid to clean, a gardener to tend to the garden and a driver to drive us around town, there was even a ‘dhobi’ – a professional laundry man who washed and ironed all major clothing and bedding and hand delivered our clean laundry to us every Sunday on a donkey cart. Each time the doorbell would ring on a Saturday, my father would go out and let one of the house help in. During particularly uncertain and troubled times in our home city of Karachi, we even employed a security guard at our house for additional security.
In many third world or developing countries with large numbers of unskilled labourers, hiring domestic help is not only affordable, but quite vital in creating jobs in the local economy and providing useful and gainful employment.
Growing up watching my parents trying to manage their household staff (on a smaller scale than Downton Abbey with no Mr. Carsen as a butler), made me realize how stressful the entire setup was. Domestic help, while readily available in Pakistan, is also notoriously unreliable. A strike in the city might mean that the maid could not board her bus from one of Karachi’s slums to our posh locale in the upper middle class neighborhood we lived in. The driver might not show up for work one day because his father’s cousin’s wife just gave birth to his nephew. The cook, who had to undergo immense scrutiny of his method of preparing all his dishes from my grandmother who lived with us, would often quit citing her “interference” and “high standards”. I can’t remember the number of different cooks we had growing up in Pakistan. As a family, we joked and placed bets on who would last the longest! Every month entailed a new saga and sometimes a new cook.
When the gardener refused to wash our cars, my father went and hired another person, whose sole responsibility was to wash and keep our cars cleaned in the dusty climate of Sindh. The driver didn’t appreciate the extra pair of hands demanding the car keys and one afternoon, it all went downhill pretty fast. I think we lost the gardener, the driver and the extra car washing guy in one fell swoop!
Watching from my bedroom window, I concluded that having domestic help was definitely more of a hindrance than a help. That and the lack of privacy, was difficult to deal with, with people constantly going in and out of the house, upstairs and downstairs.
I took these lofty ideals with me to the United States, when I arrived ready to start college, wholly unprepared for living on my own. It was embarrassing to admit to my American roommate that at the age of 19, I had never done laundry before – could she please show me how to operate a washing machine? Despite her help, my first few loads were a disaster – my white socks turned pink, thanks to the red T-shirt I had carelessly left in the pile and my clothes never dried fast enough in the harsh winters of Massachusetts, unlike the hot afternoons in Karachi.
Growing up with domestic help was suddenly a big disadvantage for me. I wanted to claim my independence and learn how to do everything myself. I vowed never ever to be dependent on household help again, and to learn to do all household chores myself. I started valuing my privacy and alone time and could finally appreciate the satisfaction that came from doing it all by myself.
Fast forward many years of living abroad in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Denmark. I thrived in such Western societies, where the notion of employing domestic household help was not the norm or the standard. It fit my new ideals of being self-reliant. My German mother-in-law who worked full time, did employ a cleaner who came once a week to thoroughly clean their house in Germany, but she was efficient, punctual and reliable as probably only a German cleaning lady could be! A far cry from the domestic help I was used to.
The societal pressure to hire help started when I left Copenhagen, 5 months pregnant and arrived in Singapore for our next expat assignment. It was my first time moving to a country where hiring a full-time live-in maid or a helper was the norm for many expat families such as ours. The first few months in Singapore, I went from one expat meetup to another, to chatting with my local landlady – a Malaysian Chinese woman – everyone insisted that I would need help once the baby arrived.
Shocked Pakistani expats told me over chai and samosas “But you won’t even have time to shower! Who will help you once the baby arrives if you don’t hire help, and your husband is at work?”
It was not so difficult to explain why I was so vehemently opposed to having a full-time helper. I had just quit my job and offered my resignation in Denmark at the oil trading company I was working with. I was now pregnant with our first child and had just moved continents to focus on being a stay at home mother. The thought terrified me, but since I was already grappling with an immense loss of identity stemming from giving up my career, how could I possibly give up my household duties and outsource them to someone else too? What would there be left for me to do then?
So while I understood that many expat families in Singapore made use of the local availability of help, while living far away from their friends and family back home, I knew it just wasn’t for me. For many expats, especially those from the West, having hired help at home was a novelty. A luxury to be enjoyed that came as a perk of being posted to South East Asia. For me it was something I had grown up with. A hindrance. A headache to be managed. And I just didn’t want any of that. Years of doing everything myself meant that I struggled to relinquish control over my house to anyone. Just the thought of giving control of my kitchen to a helper was too stressful for my type A, OCD personality to handle. My German-Italian husband also unused to help, agreed and so it was settled.
Of course, each time, I complained to my parents on the phone that I was sleep deprived (hardly surprising with a newborn), my father would insist the solution was to “hire help.” The more everyone told me I needed help, the more I made up my mind that I did not need help!
I thought admitting that I needed help would be admitting that I was failing in my new role as an expat mother. After all, so many mothers in different countries did it all themselves and I didn’t hear them complaining.
And as I watched my friend’s daughter run to her maid for comfort instead of her mother when she hurt herself at a playdate one afternoon, I thought “oh I’m not emotionally equipped to deal with this. If my daughter should choose my maid over me, I think I would never get over it.”
It took many years of motherhood since then to make me realize that as a mother raising your kids abroad, without “your village”, any help you can get is vital. I slowly stopped judging kids who would arrive at a playground with their maid and tried to imagine what the mother was doing at home. Maybe she was helping an older child with her homework? Maybe she was cooking dinner and had asked the maid to take her child for some outdoor play in the meantime?
Over time I grew less judgemental and more accepting of the notion of having household help as far as others were concerned. But I was still hesitant to try it out myself.
When I arrived in Dubai with a 2-year-old toddler and pregnant with my second baby in a high-risk pregnancy, in the scorching Arabian summer – I took one look at our villa and decided that yes it would be helpful to have some help cleaning this house, especially given the dust blowing in from the desert every day.
I knew I was still not ready to have a full-time live-in maid as was also the norm in Dubai, but I dallied with the notion of hiring part time help. I agreed with my husband to try one of the agencies a friend had recommended for hiring a maid to come to your place for four hours and clean and then go back.
The first two maids the agency sent were a disaster.
I was just about to give up when they sent Maryann over to our villa one afternoon.
Hailing from the Philippines, there was something about her right away. She was fast, efficient, organized, superb at cleaning and was excellent at taking the initiative herself.
At the end of her first week, my husband and I came down for breakfast one morning and he said:
“Honey, did you see how Maryann re-organized the closet with the towels?”
Me: “Yes, I know, its genius! Why didn’t we ever think of rolling the towels as opposed to folding them? There is so much more space this way!”
It was official. My part time helper/maid Maryann was excellent. Thanks to her my household was cleaner and more organized than ever before. Soon, she was the one giving me cleaning tips on how to get rough stains out.
I happily surrendered. Not my whole household but a part of it – the cleaning, organizing and ironing part. I still cook, look after the kids and do everything else, but having Maryann around has made my life a whole lot easier as a working mother of two. The best part is that she doesn’t live with us and is not always in my space – so I have some help without sacrificing my privacy or my sanity.
In the past two years, Maryanne has become almost like family. As soon as the doorbell rings in the afternoon, my kids run screaming to the door “Maryann is here!” She has babysat for us a number of times and done a great job each time and the kids love her.
But as most expat stories go – this one too ends with a repatriation. Except it is Maryann who is repatriating back to the Philippines, not us. Her husband and two sons await her arrival back home. Expat life in Dubai has been tough; to be away from her kids has not been easy. While she has attended all of my children’s birthdays, she has missed her own children’s birthdays. After earning and saving some money, Maryann will return home at the end of the summer.
When she told me last month, I started to cry. Not because I was losing the most valuable help I have had in my motherhood journey abroad, but because she ended up teaching me my most important lesson yet –someone who may come to clean your house twice a week, could end up becoming part of your support network away from home. And that’s a good thing. We don’t need to do it alone. We need all the help and support we can get, when we raise our families away from home. We expat mama’s have to stick together. May we all be lucky enough to have a Maryann in our lives.
Author’s Note: My family and I are planning a little farewell surprise for Maryann next month. She will be greatly missed and hard to replace. Through the years she has worked for us, we have tried to help her financially and offer support for her family when she’s needed it. We will keep in touch and hope our paths may cross again someday.
I looked up at the government officer and could clearly see the confusion on his face. My Pakistani self, didn’t correspond to my American driver’s license or the residence visa in my Italian passport sponsored under my German husband’s name.
In Dubai, when your race, nationality and driver’s license don’t correspond, you may have a slight problem.
But things were about to get worse.
“Wait a minute. This driver’s license is expired. It says it expired in 2012!” he exclaimed, turning it around.
“Yes. I haven’t lived in the US for a while, so I haven’t been able to renew it online, even though I tried. Also in my present condition, I can’t exactly fly to Texas right now to get a new one issued.” I explained, pointing down at my 7 months’ pregnant belly. “But, I do know how to drive! You can test me right now if you like” I offered, in what I hoped was a convincing way.
He wasn’t fooled. “Ma’am, do you have a valid license from Pakistan?”
Me: “No, I haven’t lived there in over 15 years.”
“Do you have a valid license from Italy?”
“No.” I decided not to confuse him further by mentioning that I have actually never lived in Italy for even one day, let alone having driven there.
“Then how have you been driving all this time?”
“Oh, I was living in Singapore, where I didn’t need to have a car or drive, since the public transportation is so good. And before that, I lived in Copenhagen and I could just walk to work you know. And before that…”
“Okay, okay” He muttered something in Arabic underneath his breath, before going to check with a colleague.
When he came back, he looked serious.
“This is what we can do for you, given your circumstances and special condition” he said sheepishly referring to my rather pregnant self. “Instead of completing 40 hours of theory and driving lessons, you must complete 25 hours only and then you can be eligible for the driving test. If you pass, you can have a UAE driver’s license by the end of the month. Think of it like a refresher course.”
Knowing he was making a big exception and that I was being let off easily, I thanked him profusely and walked out feeling relieved. If expat life had taught me anything, it was how to try to get myself out of tricky situations abroad. It didn’t always work, but it was always worth a try.
I was reminded of this incident when I recently attended the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in The Hague. I listened to Doreen Cumberford give a talk on ‘Tribe Building: Secrets of Moving from Struggle to Success When Building Your Tribe’. In her insightful and inspirational presentation, she talked about dumping our old attitudes, outlining a clear vision for our values and moving from struggle to success “using our intuition” and our “perception skills” as key superpowers in negotiating our lives abroad and building our international tribe. She encouraged all of us to identify our “expat superpowers”.
This immediately made me sit up. Many times, as a child I had secretly desired to have some super powers, that could make me extraordinary. 15 years as an expat, but no one had told me about any superpowers! Surely all the international moves, and learning how to start over and over again, building a life from scratch and learning new languages had taught me some skills?
Turns out I do have many superpowers, but I just never thought of them or acknowledged them openly before. As a long-term expat, I had unconsciously developed lots of tricks of the trade. Some of these might sound familiar to you. Getting out of tricky situations abroad is my forte, along with:
Keeping a conversation going in a foreign language, when you are only understanding maybe 65% of what’s being said? (check) The trick here is to learn a few key words and phrases roughly corresponding to “oh is that so?” “oh really?” “I can imagine” in the foreign language you are trying to hold the conversation in and just keep repeating them in solid intervals, along with the appropriate facial expressions.
Sweet talking your way out of not knowing the local rules? (check) Like the time, I visited a bakery in Copenhagen for the first time and didn’t realize I needed to take a number and queue up for my turn! I was used to taking a number and queuing up at government offices, at an embassy or at a pharmacy perhaps, but not at the local neighborhood bakery. Still, once I realized my mistake, people were quite friendly and laughed at my rookie mistake, when they realized I was not “Dansk”.
Picking a place to live in a city you have just arrived in? (check) House hunting is never an easy or straightforward process, but house hunting in a new city where you have no idea about the different neighborhoods or where you would like to live, can be outright daunting. But as expats, we do this all the time and we get good at it. It requires focus, research and networking – three things that seasoned expats can rock in their sleep! The phrase I hear many expats repeatedly say during a house-hunt is, “I’ll know it, when I see it.” In other words, intuition is often key in our decision-making process.
Dealing with mountain loads of paperwork and bureaucracy without going insane? (check) I always joke that you do not want to be stuck behind me in a queue at a government office or at an embassy. We are one of THOSE families, who take forever because our documentation is spread out over continents and usually the person behind the counter looks at us weary-eyed probably thinking “it’s too early in the morning to deal with this”. We show up, asking for birth certificates to be translated into different languages, to be attested by relevant authorities, for passports to be renewed, for visa extensions to be granted and while we may look calm, it’s all really an act! “Fake it, till you get it” is our family motto.
Settling in kids in a new school? (check) This is usually a big task to handle, and luckily so far, we’ve only had to do it twice and our kids are still young. Orientation tours, chats with the Principal, a lot of oohing and aahing and some bribery later, we are all willing ourselves to feel more optimistic about the move.
Then there are the superpowers that I wish I had. I wish I had the ability to not get lost in every new city that I call home. I wish I had finally learned some killer suitcase packing skills, but the truth is I still don’t know which is better; to fold or to roll? And I’m still incapable of packing light. I wish I had found a way to make my international bedding magically match, but the truth is, I’ve given up on this front and succumbed to mismatched pillow sizes and bed sheets. I wish I could conquer feelings of homesickness, but the more I move, the more homesick I feel. While I’m at it, I wish I could be as good at ‘apparition’ as Harry Potter and friends, it would make my expat life much easier.
Let’s cut straight to the chase. Almost everyone you ask or meet will tell you that an African safari requires two things: patience to see animals and silence when you do spot them in the wild. For this reason, many people think that taking young children (less than six years old) on a safari is like committing family travel suicide.
But think about it.
An African safari is probably one of the most magical experiences that you can expose your children to. That unbelievable excitement of being in the wild and the suspense of seeing something moving behind the bushes…is it a giraffe? Is it an elephant? Is it a wildebeest? Oh, it’s a magnificent leopard and it’s walking straight at us! This is the kind of stuff that children will remember forever. Young kids are especially entranced by animals and interested in wildlife, so is there a way to fuel their childhood curiosity and give them their very own Jungle Book experience?
Now, I’m a firm believer that when it comes to travelling with young kids, its best to do your research but then in the end, make a decision knowing your own family best. No one can predict how your 2 or 3-year-old will behave on a safari. So, if you think you won’t enjoy it, he is not ready and it will be too stressful – then don’t go.
But if you are like me – you know how much your children love animals and would do anything to see them, and you are able to manage their expectations and adjust your own while making the proper arrangements – then I can guarantee you, it is possible to have a fabulous time on your safari adventure!
Here are some tips and tricks of what you need to know and how to plan for such a trip:
The gorgeous landscape at Pilanesberg National Park.
1. Choose a child-friendly country and preferably a smaller game reserve: When you are doing your research, choose an African country that is child-friendly and easy to travel to with kids. Even though I initially had my heart set on doing a safari in Tanzania or Kenya, this did not seem feasible with young kids. The children would need yellow fever vaccines and there was the risk of malaria to contend with. In the end, we wanted a stress-free holiday and decided that South Africa was our safest bet. Most of the game reserves in South Africa are malaria free and we decided to go to one of our favorite game reserves known for its natural beauty and abundance of the big five: Pilanesberg National park. There was a reason we choose to take our kids to a smaller game park like Pilanesberg as opposed to the hugely popular Kruger National Park. A smaller game reserve means you spend less time waiting to spot animals and you have a higher chance of seeing many animals in the wild in just two game drives. We felt both factors would make for an easier safari experience with young children and we were right!
Don’t get complacent in your travel planning: We were denied boarding for our flight to South Africa, since we had not checked up on local rules and did not realise there was a new law in place. To clamp down on child trafficking, South African immigration requires attested originals of your children’s birth certificates (in addition to their passports) to be presented at the time of check-in. We had passports, but no birth certificates, but luckily had enough time to go back home and get them. It was a good lesson even for frequent travellers like us to always check the local requirements when travelling with children.
Hire a car:
My 2 year old was extremely excited to ride in the safari jeep!
Hiring a car gives you more flexibility to drive around and suit things according to your own schedule. Having a car helped us plan road trips according to nap times, so the almost 3 hour drive from Johannesburg to the Pilanesberg National Park was very smooth, and meant our kids were well-rested when we arrived. There’s also another benefit of hiring a car – if you want you can also do your own private tour in a game reserve, if that suits your own family needs better. We did not need to do this, but in case you are worried about joining a big safari group, this could be a good plan B. And as most parents know, when travelling with young children, it’s always nice to have a plan B!
Spotting animals early in the morning over breakfast at the 5 star Bakubung Lodge.
Choose a child friendly lodge: I cannot stress this enough. Do careful research and choose a lodge that is child-friendly and accepts young children. Many lodges do not accept children under six years of age, or allow them on game drives. Avoid these. There are plenty of facilities geared towards families with young children that will help you feel welcome and not anxious. We were so excited when we arrived at the five star Bakubung Bush Lodge in Pilanesberg National Park. It was super child-friendly, with a swimming pool and a playground for children to play in, in between game drives. The best part was its location; right next to a watering hole. This meant, that in the mornings we could spot many wildebeests, hyenas, and zebras drinking water, while having our breakfast! Our kids were fascinated to spot animals in the wild and it prepared them for going on their first official safari drive. Wide, open, free, green spaces for them to run around in the African bush was very important too, since children need time and space to explore. Dinner at night was a very casual and laid back affair, and very welcoming of young families. Where we stayed, played a huge part in helping to make our family safari a success!
5. Get disconnected and enjoy the nature and wildlife:
While we were on safari, we had a no internet, no Wi-Fi, no TV, no iPad rule. Sounds like torture? Well, I was skeptical too, but it turned out that as soon as my husband and I switched off from our busy, hectic lives, our children followed suit. For three days, we surrendered ourselves to our incredible surroundings, and focused on the nature and wildlife around us. There was plenty of time in between game drives to read stories together, talk about our day, for the children to draw the animals they had seen that day and to just unwind. Sometimes going off the grid can really enhance your travel experience, and what better time to do this than when you’re in the middle of the African bush!
6. Manage children’s expectations and your own: Before you set off on your safari game drives, its best to manage your children’s expectations. Explain some ground rules: it’s a bumpy ride so they need to be seated. If they are not quiet, then they will scare the animals and the animals might run away. Encourage them to look out for animals, and give them a pair of binoculars EACH (trust me, it’s better for each child to have their own binocular to avoid fights!). Pack some snacks to take with you so the kids can eat in between if you have a long period where you don’t spot any animals. Pack appropriate clothing for the kids (and yourself) including sweaters especially if you are doing an early morning 6 am safari drive. The safari jeep is usually open, so it could get chilly early in the morning or late at night. Manage your own expectations too: be prepared to answer a ton of questions and take a lot of pictures. If your children are comfortable with cameras, you can encourage them to take pictures too!
7. Make your game drives into a fun game: Children love new experiences and a safari game drive can be extremely fun for them. Encourage them to keep their eyes open, and report what they see. A safari is a great way to encourage their observation skills. A number of times my five year old daughter wondered out loud “is that a stone? Is it a bush? Oh, I can see something moving!” She was discovering the thrill and anticipation of being on a safari herself and this was not something I could have taught her at home. She had to experience it herself.
8. Let them draw their experiences:After each safari, my two kids would sit down and list excitedly all the animals they had seen and then tried to draw them. This was a valuable way for them to process their safari experiences and important for us as parents to encourage their storytelling skills, jog their memory, and help explore their artistic talents. We later compiled some of their best drawings in a book to show to their teachers and friends at school, after we returned from our Spring break.
9. Fuel their curiosity but introduce structure: My kids thrive on routine and we were able to introduce that during the safari, which really made the entire experience fun for them. We were structured when it came to our safari drives (getting up early, having a big breakfast etc.) but in between game drives we let the kids play at the playground, go swimming, take much needed naps and really do anything they wanted to do. It is important to strike the right balance and allow for some down time.
10. A two to three day safari is enough: Its best to keep your safari adventure short and sweet with your young kids. Going on a week-long safari will definitely get boring for them. I found that two to three days was the ideal length for a fantastic first safari experience – with enough time to see animals and equally important, enough time to unwind in between and enjoy your surroundings. When planning your safari trip with young kids, I’d recommend a two to three day trip, which is perfect for family bonding time.
About the Author: Mariam Ottimofiore is the founder and writer behind the blog ‘And Then We Moved To’. She is passionate about travelling with her young children and encouraging them to experience the world for themselves. Her travel writing has been published in Expat Living Singapore, Expat Living Hong Kong, Fuchsia Magazine and on the Huffington Post’s Parenting website.