Everyone can handle the expat lifestyle when it’s all famous international landmarks, breathtaking cultural experiences, and charming local children giving you presents. But what to do when your day hits the skids and you’re far from home? Last month I had the chance to find out (not once, but four times), which inspired me to come up with today’s list: the Top 10 Troubles you will face overseas and how to deal with them. I’ve faced every single one of them myself. 1. Car accidents I used to consider myself a good driver. Then I moved to Africa and promptly crashed my car into inanimate objects four different times in two years. My most recent crash involved a tree, a hungry preschooler in the backseat crying for pizza, and my least favorite gear: reverse. The quote to repair the bashed rear of the car seemed enough to cover the entire cost of a new car, but everything car-related is more expensive in Botswana and there aren’t many budget repair options.
I’m usually a few years late to the party when it comes to pop culture. I’d like to blame this on living overseas, but the truth is I didn’t start watching “Lost” until Season 4, and I still haven’t seen Avatar, Crash, or Million Dollar Baby, even though I was living stateside when they all hit it big. So it is no surprise I hopped on “The Americans” bandwagon just a few weeks ago. But as soon as I did, I rode it hard. I was hooked from the pilot and binge-watched my way straight through dozens of episodes, enjoying the finale of Season Three when it aired a few days ago. I love the premise: an average American husband and wife with two kids and a home in the burbs are actually badass Russian spies gathering intel on the U.S. and trying to weaken capitalism from within. I also love the 1980s, so the kitsch from the era strewn through every scene is a happy bonus. (My family had that exact same yellow smiley face cookie jar.) And sure, they’re communist spies: but first and foremost, Elizabeth and Philip are expats.
A few days ago the doorbell rang. I was in the middle of a particularly deep and delicious nap of the variety that only the sleep-deprived can understand. I hauled myself out of bed anyway and picked up the intercom phone to see who it was. The voice on the other end mumbled “Rubbish,” which meant the garbage men had arrived. I pressed the button to open our electric gate to let them in and got back into bed. A few minutes later I thought “That’s weird: the garbage cans are outside the gate: why did they ring the bell?” It was only after I went outside and saw the cans of garbage still there, full and fermenting over with weeks’ worth of trash, that I realized the trash guys were ringing the doorbell for their “tip.” When one wasn’t forthcoming, they drove away. Welcome to Botswana: tipping at restaurants is optional, but if you don’t tip the trashmen, your garbage stays on your curb indefinitely. I am on principle opposed to paying for this service. But it seems this is the custom in my neighborhood and if we don’t pay, our trash will likely fester there forever. So now we are at an impasse, albeit one that damages me far more than the garbagemen, since I am the one living with a putrid mess literally pilling up on the doorstep.
We are back in Botswana after two glorious months in Cape Town, and I will admit that it is a mixed bag. While we were away, I missed: Our friends Our big house (the rental in Cape Town was a bit of a squeeze) How safe and quiet Botswana is (Sure, there are home invasions, but they are rarely violent.) I did not miss:
(15 days ago) My two-week vacation to Vietnam drawing to an end, I take a slow, bumpy car ride past hoards of motorbikes and market stalls of dragon fruit to the capital city of Hanoi, with the taxi driver honking his horn every 20 to 30 seconds the entire 4 hour trip. Luckily it is a pleasant, jaunty trill that sounds like a little song to wake birds up. I need to get back to the big city so I can… (14 days ago) …Spend the entire day at the Pakistani Embassy in Hanoi. This is just as boring as you would imagine, and does not result in the visa back to Pakistan I was hoping for so I have to… (12 days ago) …Head to Saigon for one last day feverish day of shopping, sightseeing, and a relaxing massage and mud wrap to prepare me to… (11 days ago) …Get on a plane to Doha, Qatar and spend a day in the Middle East just killing time before I… (10 days ago) …Board yet another plane for a 14-hour flight to Washington DC since I have no visa for Pakistan and am not in the mood to be detained at the airport in Islamabad upon arrival. In addition to being extremely bummed by this, I also decide to concentrate on the positives, which include me getting to… (9 days ago) …Spend two days in DC seeing fun people, eating great food, and applying for a new visa before I… (7 days ago) …Hop on a plane to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Palm Springs and… (3 days ago) …Drive up to Santa Barbara […] Read More
I’m redecorating. After living in Pakistan for nine months(!) I guess it’s finally time to really settle in: hang curtains, paint rooms, remove old cabinets, get new lighting, replace an entire bathroom. Somewhere along the way, while trying to entertain myself in a country without bars, malls or mini golf, things may have have gotten a little out of control. But you know how it is with home improvements.I got the landlord to let me renovate the upstairs bathroom in lieu of paying rent money for a little while. It’s a good deal for him: I do all the heavy lifting of finding a contractor, designing the bathroom, picking out the fixtures, finding another contractor after the first contractor turns out to be sketchy and incompetent, managing the second contractor, making the second contractor go back and fix all his mistakes while he tries to blame them on first contractor–you know, the usual. Perhaps home improvement is always an adventure. I don’t know: I’ve never tried it in the United States (I’m a renter, not an owner.) But let’s just say putting in a whole new bathroom in a country without access to Home Depot, IKEA, the Yellow Pages, the Better Business Bureau, or the ability to speak Urdu offers a whole new set of challenges. There was the tussle over where to put the Muslim shower (if you don’t know what that is, google it). There was trying to figure out how much a reasonably-priced toilet should cost in Pakistan. Or calculating how many ceramic tiles I would need for the floor in meters, when math isn’t my strong suit on the best of […] Read More
Why is it, in a country often lauded as being as IT-savvy and advanced as India or the United States, THAT I CAN’T PAY MY BILLS ONLINE IN PAKISTAN?This is a mystery to me. No online bill payment, period. Not your phone bill, not your electric bill, not your rental car, not your gallons of clean water to drink bill, not your super cool Wi-Tribe bill. What is Wi-Tribe, you ask? Just a great little service that lets you connect to the internet anytime, anywhere in Pakistan’s major cities using just a little gadget on your laptop for only about $15 a month. Cool, right? Progressive, cutting-edge, technologically modern and up-to-date? Until you have to march down to the store to wait in line for 40 minutes to pay your bill, in person, in cash every month. What? Does anyone have any answers to this one? […] Read More
I’ve been back in Islamabad for 10 days. During that time, the following things have happened: The development project I work on was denied funding by the U.S. government and has been told to close down. I accidently bought a $15 pint of ice cream.
Today I am enjoying the feeling of being a law-abiding citizen. It may be the last day of that for awhile. I entered Pakistan on a three-month business visa that expires tomorrow, at which point I have no official documentation to demonstrate my authority to remain in the country. Good times! It’s not like I didn’t do everything I could to follow the rules. I turned in the proper forms, signed the proper stuff, and endured an awkward visit from an agent of the Pakistan government’s Minister of the Interior (MOI). He stopped by our offices a month ago to check me out, presumably to verify that I was, in fact, a development professional and not a high-class Russian hooker. (After the Avari, I feel anything’s possible.) He was then supposed to forward my application to the proper authorities so they could issue me a nice, shining new two-year multiple entry visa. Our office has worked to renew my visa through all the proper channels. So far, they have not been successful. As I contemplate the kind of living quarters one would be assigned should one find oneself on the Pakistani government’s bad side, let’s do a quick scan of my office’s efforts to keep me legal:
In lieu of a thoughtful, substantive statement about my life here or conditions in Pakistan, all I’ve got today is a cockroach story. Hey, it’s been a busy week. Yesterday, while thinking about the different steps needed to design a communications strategy for US government audiences, I looked over and noticed a cockroach the size of a small child crawling along the floor of my office. Attempting to make use of the head waiter that hovers around all day offering diet Cokes and being very disappointed when I refuse (I’m still trying to ixnay the caffeine), I pointed to the roach and asked if he would mind killing it for me.
Turns out my “I’m feeling better!” celebrations from the last post were a little premature. I thought I was basically cured, but as we know by now Pakistan is full of surprises. Instead of that 100% recovery I was expecting, I had a little relapse. It turns out that having a stomach bug for six straight days is the best way to become dangerously dehydrated and get people really concerned. This is how I found myself at one o’clock in the morning last night being hurtled toward the emergency room of Shifa Hospital in downtown Islamabad with an entourage of four: my driver, my boss, my colleague (and acting translator), and our security chief. Overkill? Maybe. But it was really nice of all of them to come to the ER with me. And know we all know how to get there for next time! So, What is the Emergency Room Like in Pakistan? Pretty much like in America, except that it is way better. This particular ER had the huge plus of no waiting. I was ushered right in immediately to my little curtained-off bed and saw the doctor within 3 minutes. When I went to Boston Medical Center in 2001 with what turned out to not be appendicitis, I waited for six hours in the ER with no water or pain meds before anything happened to me, unless you count being poked by med students on their first day of school “anything.” Granted, BMC is in Dorchester, and it is hard to pay much attention to the girl with the tummyache when all the gunshot victims are being wheeled by on gurneys. Advantage: Pakistan. What’s the […] Read More
It finally got me. The deadly blister on the heel of the fantastic ex-pat experience. The reason, perhaps, why 70% of Americans don’t own a passport. The inevitable initiation that tests how much you really like your new exotic environment, all the beautiful sunshine, and the exciting development work. The devil-child birthed through the marriage of a new microbial environment and the occasionally dubious sanitation practices of my adopted country. It seems rude to talk about dubious sanitation practices, and it makes me want to retract that statement. On the other hand, many, many people who have lived here for a very, very long time have told me that the most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food. (They usually say this as a way to minimize concerns about terrorists attacks. As in, “Nah…don’t worry about bombings. The most dangerous thing in Pakistan is the food.”) But, as we all know, I love food. I don’t ever want to be on the wrong side of food. So I started the relationship slowly and carefully, testing things out to make sure I wasn’t going to get burned. And everything went so well at first. I watched, sympathetic but relieved, as one by one, every member of our team went down except for me. It was immediately clear every morning whether a target had been hit: obvious in the haggard look of the haven’t-slept, the grimace at the sight of breakfast eggs, the cautious “Oooh, no thanks, my stomach isn’t doing so well.” I, however, seemed immune. As the days passed and nothing got me, I grew cocky. I thought my naturopath-recommended regimen of probiotics, herbal tinctures […] Read More