Our next piece for Enchanted Serendipity’s EXPAT SERIES is written by Lottie.
In my early to mid 20s, I was busy focusing on my teaching career in London whilst setting up a social enterprise, Global Handprints. Both of which I hoped would enable me to travel and live overseas somewhere exotic, exciting and culturally different to home.
However, as we all know, life comes along, plans go out the window and before I knew it I was living in Toronto, Canada on a 2 year visa. It wasn’t the ‘exotic’ destination I had had in mind for all those years, but it wasn’t home; it was different and I was there for the person I thought at the time was ‘the one’.
Don’t get me wrong, I adored the city and the lifestyle, despite putting both teaching and Global Handprints on hold indefinitely. I embraced life as a Torontonian, put down roots, made friends…even took out a cell phone contract! However, again, life had other ideas and at the start of 2014, I found myself unexpectedly spending two months in Edinburgh, Scotland while my Canadian visa issues were sorted out; to enable me to be sponsored and return to work in the Toronto office.
While I was in Edinburgh, a close friend emailed me about her new job working with volunteer projects in Zimbabwe and urged me to check out the company’s website. Knowing my passion for Africa, education, volunteer projects and community development, she felt I could be doing more than I was.
Having come out of the Canadian relationship my plan to go back there was based largely on stubbornness that I didn’t need to be in a relationship to stay overseas. In reality, I didn’t really have to go back so what harm could come from looking at other opportunities?
Remaining An Expat, Just Somewhere Else
There weren’t any relevant positions posted online but I emailed my CV in and thought nothing more of it. After a whirlwind of emails back and forth from someone based in South Africa looking for their replacement: interviews, visa applications and the longest ‘to do’ list I’ve ever had; I found myself on a plane to South Africa exactly 4 months to the day that I left Toronto.
Before accepting the position I asked pretty much everyone I knew what I should do and the resounding answer was ‘go for it’, ‘it’s your dream job’, ‘it’s an amazing opportunity’ ‘if you don’t try you will never know’…. you know, all the clichés.
They are clichés for a reason. It’s true; if I hadn’t taken the leap of faith, decided that if those who knew me well were telling me to go for it; that I should…and at the end of the day, I could always come home.
That’s how I ended up in the small town of Saint Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (not Saint Lucia in the Caribbean!). I felt more like I had been chosen for the adventure rather than me choosing the destination.
I spent 6 months living there, in rural Zululand, in a town with one main street and surrounded by seemingly never ending zulu villages and set in striking landscapes. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited; in a UNESCO World Heritage site with vast, white everything from sandy beaches to expanses of bush land and home to rhino, giraffe, leopards and hippo, to name just a few!
Expat Living: The Lessons I Have Learned
Everything that I thought would be my biggest challenges prior to leaving; working with people from such a different culture, throwing myself into an intense job with huge responsibility; the language barrier…turned out not to be.
My largest, personal challenge was adapting from city life to a town of 500 people, from a busy life filled with people, plans and activities; to quiet, peaceful days. Of course, there were huge cultural differences but I expected these and embraced them. I fell in love with South Africa as, (having spent time in other African countries), I thought I would.
I have built relationships with South Africans and spent many hours discussing their political and cultural histories, making comparisons and talking about the differences between many countries of the world. I have now explored a great deal of the country, from north to south and east to west.
My challenge remains the lifestyle change, from being surrounded by people, friends and colleagues, with endless options of things to do, places to go and people to see; to a lifestyle where there are few people to form bonds with. This lifestyle change goes deeper to create a personal change within me.
I have always been someone who has to be busy, to be filling their time from morning to night to feel accomplished and adequate. All of a sudden I couldn’t do that, not for want of trying but there just wasn’t the option. Slowly, over time I have become comfortable with not being busy every minute of every day; of not having plans in place for the foreseeable future, for taking time out to breathe and absorb my surroundings. To reflect on the last 2 years of my life and to feel like it was all ok.
I have fought hard to be this person.
My Expat Life: What Came Next
A year ago, when my contract in Saint Lucia ended I was faced with the decision of going home; back to the life I knew there or to remain in South Africa living this new life and version of myself.
I was reminded of an answer I gave in an interview 3 years previously in Toronto.
“My dream job would be to live in Africa, running my own organisation, travelling and establishing links with grass roots level, community established development projects.”
I figured ‘everything happens for a reason’ and that this was my chance.
At the end of 2014 I re-established the social enterprise, having more knowledge and experience under my belt to do it ‘properly’. Since then I have been working on conceptualizing and designing volunteer programs, establishing links with projects to fit into the programs, and traveling the country with my boyfriend and dogs in a caravan. (We met in Saint Lucia just a few weeks after I got there-in the pub of course – like many true love stories!)
I am now in the Western Cape, at the opposite side and end of the country to where I started this chapter of my life.
I plan to spend some ‘static’ time here, putting everything I have worked for over the last year into full fruition, getting volunteer programs up and running and community development going.
The best part of my time in South Africa is that circumstantially it has forced me out of all of my comfort zones and to tackle a dream head on rather than continue to postpone striving for it. It has forced me not to live my life to a plan.
I miss the convenience of being in my native country and not being an ‘expat’ juggling the daily struggles from not having a local bank account or built in understanding of what makes some biltong (dried, cured meat) better than others; to the ease of picking up the phone to call a friend for a quick chat.
I miss really knowing somewhere, where to get the best Sunday lunch in London, the best chai latte or the best price for a bottle of wine! I miss not being the outsider.
However, for now, the things I miss are made up for by the adventure I am on, the freedom I have and the experiences I am gaining.
The longer I am away from home, the more guilty I feel for not being there for my family and friends’ birthdays, weddings, babies, anniversaries, house warming parties, job transitions, break ups and new relationships. I hope they know I think of them frequently and that the knowledge of their love and support gets me through between my visits home. I know, deep down that when I am ready, home will be there for me.
Expat For Life? Where I Am Now
It’s been two years of ups and downs and unexpected life changes but I wouldn’t change it.
The experiences, being here, taking on an unexpected move and now this lifestyle, has made me different. I can have time alone, I can cope without having a diary filled, I don’t need to be cramming my waking hours full to bursting and on a superficial level; I don’t have to wear make up and do my hair every day!
This experience has made me know myself better, has made me (mostly) able to take away the pressure of worrying about what I should be doing and at what point I should be at in my life. Right now I am where I want to be, facing these specific daily challenges and embracing these highs.
The future? Africa has well and truly got under my skin and in an ideal world I would like to travel through the rest of the continent, forming partnerships and bonds with small, independent projects looking for hands on help.
However, this new me doesn’t plan too far ahead so we will see what happens.
Want more? Read Linda’s story on moving from Vancouver to London here. It’s well worth the read!