Robyn Howell-Jones is an Aussie expat mother and grandmother who is living in interesting times and has lived in really random locations. She has a science degree in geology and a post-grad diploma in Genetic counselling but worked all her professional life in IT. She has opened a very insightful window to her life and thoughts about living abroad. I congratulate Robyn on her ability to articulate so well and for writing such a heartfelt and expansive piece, her photos are exceptional and show how talented she is at capturing her life and others experiences. I chose not to edit any of her interview because it is honest and her story deserves to be told as is. So settle back with a glass of red grape juice or a warm cuppa and experience a little of Robyn’s life . Enjoy! xoxoxo andy
Where were you born and where are you currently living?
I was born in NSW, Australia and currently live in Gurgaon, Haryana, about an hour (or sometimes 2, depending on the crazy traffic here) from New Delhi, India.
What brought you to this place and how long have you lived here?
I never imagined ending up in India. A couple of years ago my husband Denis was offered work in Mongolia. His company was keen for him to take up a senior project management role there for 5 years, perhaps even more. Mongolia was booming, with lots of multinational companies scoring contracts for mining and infrastructure development and many other international companies establishing a presence there to support them. I didn’t know a lot about Mongolia but always had a romantic notion about it, this place I knew to be quite unique, beautiful, still populated by a people who live a traditional nomadic herding life, a place that gets to 30C during the short summer and -40C during the winter, one of the least populated countries in the world. I’d always been drawn to the idea of visiting Mongolia and suddenly, out of the blue and totally unexpectedly, Denis was offered a job there! It felt right. It felt like an opportunity we just couldn’t turn down. How many Australians get to spend time in a country whose borders were closed until the early 90’s, a country with one of the most extreme climates imaginable, a country with a an amazing and colourful culture that has been virtually unchanged for centuries. Some people told us we were mad. Others were green with envy.
His initial role was to take over the construction and commissioning of Mongolia’s first ever wind farm, a project that had been plagued with problems and was already behind schedule and over budget. It was a tough project in incredibly tough conditions but he took it on and finished it about a year after our arrival. We were told, when we accepted this job, that other projects would follow on from the wind farm but during the time we were there the political and economic climate in Mongolia changed dramatically with many international companies scaling down their involvement or moving out completely.
Denis’ company in the meantime had another project in trouble in Asia, the construction of India’s longest road tunnel, on the ‘highway’ between the 2 capitals of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, Jammu (the winter capital) and Srinigar (the summer capital) in India’s north. It really shouldn’t be called a highway, in places you can barely call it a road, it’s in fact one of the most dangerous roads in the world in a state that is still unsure of its identity, whether Pakistani or Indian, Hindu or Muslim, known for its militancy and political tension. Again it was a project in trouble, struggling to make headway in a remote, unstable and difficult terrain in a remote, unstable and difficult region plagued with problems such as corruption, union tension and violence. Denis had made a name for himself as someone who could turn bad projects around and this one seemed to have his name on it. His company decided they needed him more in northern India than waiting around in Mongolia for the political situation to improve so off we went again, this time from a place that I had grown to love, where I had met some amazing people and had some amazing experiences to a country I had never felt the urge to visit, a place where I would have to live 1000 km away from Denis and the project, in a place I really knew nothing about and knew nobody. This time I didn’t feel quite so confident but as an expat you know each new posting will be hard at first; you know you have to firstly establish a home base, wherever that turns out to be, then you need to take the bit in your teeth and simply immerse yourself in it, make contacts and make a life, wherever you find yourself. I didn’t expect this posting to be any different or any more difficult than any other. It was just another adventure after all. I had learned to have no expectations. I considered myself pretty flexible. Although I’d never been drawn to India I felt open to other cultures and experiences. I had always told Denis that wherever we are, wherever his work took us, I would support him, I would make a home and a life for us and I would make it work. That was the theory. That was our deal. That’s what I wanted and expected. I had no reason to think it would be anything else.
And then we got to India. Denis has been here about 15 months now and me a little over 12 months. We were expecting to be here another 18 months or so although this appears to be changing and we could be out of here now by January because of a number of factors including the recent floods and the current political, economic and general uncertainty in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. I thought Mongolia was challenging but it proved a “cakewalk” compared to India.
What other places have you lived?
India is our third expat experience. We lived for nearly a year in Jakarta in 2008, then just over a year in Mongolia and just over a year so far here in India. I also lived and worked in England on my own for just over a year when I left University, many years ago. Around a year, give or take, seems to be our thing. It isn’t usually the plan or the agreed arrangement but it seems to be our thing.
What languages do you speak?
I took language lessons in Mongolia, learned the Cyrillic alphabet, learned quite a few useful phrases, enough to get by, even took lessons in the traditional Mongolian script. I can say and understand some words and phrases in Indonesian. I intended to do the same here in India but I have to admit to failing this challenge entirely. It makes it easier that India has a history with the British and most people speak at least some English but I consider learning at least some of the language of your country of residence as a cultural obligation. I am living in someone else’s country and the least I can do is try to respect that culture, to learn how things work, culturally and practically, and to be sensitive to cultural practices and norms. Learning some basic words and day to day phrases is part of that and not only shows people that you’re interested in them and their country but also opens the door to experiences you might not otherwise have. It was my intention to take language lessons and learn some basic Hindi (which I assumed was the language of India) but for a number of reasons it simply didn’t happen and I will leave India feeling I failed myself in this respect.
How many children do you have and who are they?
Denis and I have both been married before. I have 2 children and 4 grandchildren, he has 2 children and a grandson so quite a bunch in total. All our children are leading their own grown up independent lives back in Australia and we are incredibly proud of all of them. Being away from them though is probably one of the harder parts of expat living. Modern communication like email and Skype make it easier but the fact is you’re a long way away and their lives are moving on without us. We only expect to do this for a couple more years at most and look forward to the day when we can spend more time with them all and be more present in our grandkids’ (and childrens’ ) lives.
I think they might be just the littlest bit proud of us too though.. they have these crazy world travelling parents who live in these far away exotic places and can tell these wild and wonderful (and even distressing) stories of life abroad. Perhaps their exposure to our experiences gives them a better perspective of life in other countries and a new appreciation of life in Australia. Our experiences become their experiences too. Our education becomes their education. It has a kind of knock on affect that’s hard to explain. We’re older expats than lots of others and our kids don’t get to actually live with us and experience a foreign culture growing up but they get to experience it in some small way anyway, whether it’s by actually visiting or just by staying in touch. You can’t put a price on those experiences, for any of us.
What shits you the most about your children? sorry inappropriate question! (I might change this to what you shits me most about being an expat living so far away from our children).
I am an expat and I am currently living abroad but I am still a mother and we are still parents and grandparents. Being away of course means missing a lot of things that go on day to day with our families and of course that’s hard but I think it’s changed me as a parent and I think changed them too. Our children have become more independent and self-sufficient and I think we have become more sensitive to them, listen more and have become more determined to be more present in the lives of our kids and grandkids when we get home.
We’ve been lucky enough to observe family life in other cultures and had a chance to think about family and what it really means to us. We’ve seen some positive things in the Mongolian culture, seen how much Mongolians value family, children, mothers and the elderly. On the other hand we’ve seen some very sad things, seen how poorly women (girls, mothers, widows) are valued in India, how they are largely at the mercy of their husbands and their husband’s family. We’ve seen how they are bought and sold like cattle, treated no better than slaves, even cast out or murdered by their husband or husband’s families if they fail to produce a boy child, abandoned by their own parents if they leave a violent or drunken husband because of the shame and financial burden it will bring to their home. I’ve heard of women killing their female children, both because they can’t afford to raise them or to marry them off and because they would rather they die at birth than suffer the sort of existence they themselves suffer in this very male dominated society. All of these experiences have taught me a little more about the kind of person I am, what I value about family and what kind of spouse, parent and grandparent I want to be.
What was the easiest thing settling into a new country?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. I don’t think anything’s easy about settling in to a new country but you go there knowing that. If you expect it to be easy you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. If you go there thinking you know what to expect you’re wrong. I think the trick is to go to each new place without any expectation and take each experience as it comes, knowing that with each new learning experience things will get a little easier, the way things work will become a little more familiar, contacts and some sort of support network will materialise and at some point you’ll realise it isn’t as hard as it used to be. I think you always have to cut yourself some slack, be patient and give yourself 3 – 6 months to learn and adapt and then to take as much advantage of the experience that you can.
What was the hardest thing settling into a new country?
I haven’t done an expat posting to a Western or first world country. Our expat experiences have been in Asia – Indonesia, Mongolia and now India. I think the hardest thing about settling into these countries is realising and adjusting to the fact that things that you have always believed or known or valued in your own country are not always true or known or valued in another country.
I have made the mistake, especially in India but also in Mongolia, of assuming that if I treat people with politeness and honesty, that people will be polite and honest back. I assume that in a crowded place like a supermarket or shop, that people will queue and take their turn. I assume that if I fall over on this ice in the street or I need some help that someone will help me. They won’t. There are cultural reasons in both these countries why this doesn’t happen but often I find I’m taken aback, surprised, sometimes angry, until I realise the problem is not theirs, it’s mine! I am being culturally insensitive without knowing it. So I would have to say the hardest thing about settling into a new country is recognising what’s ‘normal’ in this new culture and what my ‘normal’ is, recognising where the differences lie and learning to adjust my reactions and expectations accordingly.
One of the hardest lessons I have learned here in India is I’m not just a resident with light skin and blue eyes (Australia is a very multi-cultural society and we are used to mixes of races, religions, cultures, all in the one place). Here I am a foreigner and a rarity and I am therefore seen as a target. I am perceived as ‘rich’ and I am an opportunity for just about anyone to take advantage of. It’s not that Indians are basically dishonest. It’s a country of over a billion people, most of whom live in poverty. To survive and to support their families, the majority of Indians need to find an advantage, some way of getting ahead of the next man. If I was in their position, wouldn’t I do whatever it takes to ensure my family does not go hungry and has a roof over their heads? If I had a chance to get a little extra money, legally or not so legally, to allow my kids to go to school, to get an education to a level where they will have choices that I didn’t have, wouldn’t I do whatever it takes as well? It doesn’t mean I have to like this situation or not be disappointed by it or to make myself a more obvious target than I need to be but what I can’t do is judge them for it. I can’t expect them to treat me as I might like to treat them. There are historical, cultural and often religious reasons that influence their beliefs, their values and their behaviours, just as there are these factors that influence mine. In this society it might mean I have to be a bit warier, a bit tougher, a bit more direct, a little less ‘soft’, but as I’ve said before I have to keep reminding myself that dealing with this without causing myself frustration and pain is my responsibility, not theirs. It’s easy to say I hate this or I hate that about a place, it’s harder to take the time to understand it and adjust your expectations to it.
WHAT is the most challenging thing about being an expatmumma?
I think the first few months in a new country are always the most challenging and setting up the home base, as I call it, is this most challenging thing. When your husband is away working and running huge jobs in foreign places, he’s 150% involved in what he’s doing and what he needs is a place to come back to during his time off that offers him some peace, somewhere to relax, a calm harbour in his storm. Setting up means not just finding somewhere to live and making sure you have a bed to sleep in and other such necessities, it also means making sure things work, learning where to find food, how to get around, how to ask for help. Jakarta had plenty of western style supermarkets and departments stores (although it’s interesting to get used to seeing live bullfrogs and live eels for sale in the supermarket) and houses and apartments that were built to reasonable standards so things were relatively straight forward there but Ulaan Baatar and Gurgaon have been more challenging. In these places I found things don’t always work, that running water, hot water or a constant supply of electricity are not assured, that’s it’s not unusual to have water leaking through the walls or from the ceilings or for appliances to blow up when you turn them on. I’ve learned is not that easy to put a home cooked meal together. I’ve learned there were some places that I could confidently buy meat, other places for fruit or vegetables, other places for bread, others for general groceries, others for wine or beer. It might take me a whole day going from place to place to accumulate what I need to make an acceptable meal. I learned the hard way in Indonesia and India about how dangerous unwashed vegetables can be and I think I will go home with a lifelong fear of salad. I’ve learned that achieving one small thing in a day is an achievement in itself.
What is the BEST thing about being an Expatmumma!
I think the best thing is simply not knowing what will come next, that each day has the potential to surprise you, challenge you, frustrate you, move you, amaze you. I love that I am nearing 60 but learn new things and have new experiences each and every day. The older I get the more I realize that chances and opportunities like these should be grabbed with both hands as they may not come again. I’ve had ups and downs in foreign places, that’s for sure and at times I’ve cried with the frustrations of it all but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’ve seen the Taj Mahal, I’ve drunk salted milk tea and vodka in a traditional Mongolian ger, I’ve ridden across the steppe and across frozen rivers on a small but sturdy pony in the middle of a Mongolian winter, been threatened by monkeys, survived a summer in Gurgaon where temperatures reaches the high 40’s or nearly 50C every day for weeks on end. I’ve met amazing people, made lifelong friends, had amazing experiences and I wouldn’t change any of it.
Tell us about some unique cultural attributes at one of your postings?
You’ve asked another hard question here. There are so many interesting cultural aspects of each of the countries I’ve lived in that it’s difficult to pick just one or a few that I could go on at length about. I think I’ll stick to India though as I think it’s been the most challenging and culturally different and culturally difficult place to adapt to, the most distressing to see. I’ve done a lot of reading here and tried to understand some of the social issues, the history and background and prevalence of these issues in today’s society and I continue to be shocked at things that are still happening today, especially in relation to women and girls. For some Indians with money and education things are changing or have changed but for the majority of Indians (by which I mean about a billion people), things have not changed that much and many of the cultural practices that have been going on for centuries continue to this day, despite laws that have been put in place banning practices such as dowry, child marriage, caste and class discrimination and sex determination before birth. All these things are outlawed but in essence nothing has changed. Things are just overlooked, ignored or bribes paid.
The practice of arranged marriage is still the norm, across all levels of the population. In richer families these marriage reinforce family ties or improve business opportunities. Marriage brokers are commonly used to find potential partners for sons and daughters for wealthy and middle class families. Weddings between wealthy families are elaborate affairs lasting for days, conducted at huge expense. There was a marriage recently of a daughter in a family living a few villas away from ours. The house was decorated and lit up with thousands of fairy lights for the week or so before the wedding. I heard that the bride’s family gave the family of the groom a new Jaguar and a kilo of gold as dowry. The wedding sari, of red and gold, usually heavily embroidered and embellished, can easily way 30 kilos and cost thousands of dollars. Couples are generally married young, compared to Australian standards, as contact between the sexes is frowned upon before marriage. Everywhere you go here you see young men holding hands, walking arm in arm or with their arms around each others’ shoulders and I’m sure this is because contact between the sexes is not possible for them before marriage and some form of human contact is important for all of us.
At the other end of the spectrum, in poor families, marriage is still an arranged thing between families and is just as important. The bride’s family will offer as much as they can possibly afford, in cash, goods, livestock or land, whatever they can offer to ensure a decent match for their daughters but the prospect of having to marry off more than one daughter can be a threat to the economic stability of the whole family, hence the practice of giving away, abandoning or killing baby girls, that continues to this day. Having a male child means that the family will gain economically when he marries and the better the match, the more money the bride’s family will provide. A male child also ensures that land is kept in the family and the parents are looked after in old age. A male child is also the only one able to perform the funeral rites for the parents after death so it’s not hard to see why male children are so valued and treated with such importance. A girl child is an economic burden and a male child a source of income and security.
I recently found out the background and life story of a girl who used to cook for me. This girl (and I would never have been able to guess her age) would come in a few times a week to make meals for us and her husband worked for us cleaning floors, balconies and bathrooms in our ridiculously large, 4 level villa. She was the second daughter of a poor family from Bengal. She was married off at 11 when he was 17. He too came from a poor family, one from a nearby village. Although her family had some land, she had 2 older brothers who needed that land to support their own families and an older sister to be married off first so her chances of a good marriage were poor. Married at 11, she had her first child at 12 and her second at 13 and then was ‘encouraged’ by the government (paid about 500 rupees, or less than US$10) to be sterilized. She is now only 21 years old with a girl nearly 9 and a boy of 8. He works as a houseboy and she as a cook and together they probably earn about 30,000 rupees a month (about $500). They live in a one room apartment that has no bathroom, kitchen or running water and share a bathroom with 6 other families. Her story is not unique but she is one of the lucky ones who was actually able to deliver her first child safely at 12, mostly because her family starved her much of her pregnancy to ensure the baby was born small (her first weighed 1.7 kilos, her second, born after a pregnancy where she ate normally weighed 4 kilos). Many other young girls are not so lucky.
These are just a few of the stories I could tell of India. My own feeling is that India is not the spiritual wonderland it’s often thought to be. The poverty, hopelessness, violence and corruption here will remain my predominant memories I think.
What is the most interesting experience you have had as an expat?
I think I would have to say the most interesting experience was driving in Mongolia. Denis’ job was about 70kms from the capital and from where I was living so the car and driver were generally out there on site with him. Rather than rely on other expats or the sometimes unreliable taxi services I bought a big American 4×4 and drove myself. If you have ever been to some of the large Asian cities you will already know that the traffic is just crazy, and crossing a busy street can be one of the more dangerous and foolhardy things you will ever do. Mongolian driving and the traffic in Ulaan Baatar is no different. There are no rules and anything goes. I think that’s what I loved about it! Lots of the other expat wives thought I was crazy but it was simply a confidence thing and about bluffing. If you have enough size and enough bluff you can do almost anything. I was pulled up by the police once for (intentionally) going around a busy round about in the wrong direction as we’d been stuck in heavy traffic for a while, I was taking Denis and a few others back out to site and they were getting somewhat impatient. I just moved into the other lane, flashed my lights and beeped the horn a few times, wove in and out of the oncoming traffic until I managed to get back in the right lane past the roundabout, ignoring the police whistles and baton waving the whole time until I was pulled over just up the road and asked, I assumed, to explain myself.. I just kept waving my hands, pointing to the guys in the back, saying ‘wind farm’ over and over and eventually in frustration he waved me on. All in a day’s work .
What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen on your travels.
I have a memory from Mongolia that I think will stay with me forever. I was lucky enough to get a chance to bring my son and 8 year old granddaughter to Mongolia for a visit. It was the start of the winter and the first snows had fallen. I decided to take them out to see Big Chinggis, or shiny big boss as he’s know, the towering stainless steel statue of Chinggis Khan that almost all visitor will travel 50kms out of Ulaan Baatar to see. Along the way there is a spot where you can hold an eagle or a vulture on your arm or your shoulder, ride a donkey or ride one of the beautiful, huge and hairy dromedaries (Mongolian 2 humped camels). It was still early in the morning when we got there and the birds and donkey were there but no camels. Little Maya had a ride on one of the donkeys, Adrian had the compulsory picture taken holding a vulture aloft and we were about to set off when, in the distance, we could see 4 camels approaching. One was being ridden and three led so we decided to wait until they got closer so we could snap a picture. Eventually they reached us and the rider slipped off the camel’s back and began walking all 4 camels to their tethering post. When the rider dismounted I don’t think I’d ever been so surprised by anything in my life. The rider was a small girl, perhaps 8 or 10 years old! She was absolutely dwarfed by these 4 huge beasts and had obviously travelled some distance with them, all alone and would spend the day there with them and undoubtedly head off home later in the day the same way. I simply couldn’t imagine any child I knew being able to do something like this at her age which just shows how remarkably capable Mongolians are, how in tune they are with their environment, how incredibly strong, resilient and hardy they are to survive and thrive in such a challenging country.
Describe a usual day?
My usual day here in India starts with a coffee and letting the dogs out, after firstly making sure there are no monkeys around.
Then, doorbell rings – it’s the garbage collector, wanting to know if I have anything for the skip.
Breakfast – finally found a good Muesli that I like and usually buy 3 of every time I see it because it’s there this week but probably won’t be for the next 3 or 4.
Doorbell rings – it’s the laundry man wanting to know if I have any ironing for him.
If the temperature is less than about 30C, walk the dogs then feed them.
Doorbell rings – it’s the plumber come to fix the leak in the kitchen, the same leak he tried to fix yesterday and the day before.
Shower, change for the day and check email and Facebook.
Doorbell rings – it’s the driver come to get the car key.
Perhaps then I’ll go out to coffee morning, book club, golf or perhaps shopping. If its food shopping then it’s across the road at the supermarket for some staples, down to Huda market for fruit and veg, then to the Japanese shop for meat, then the Korean bakery for bread, then to one or two other supermarkets for all the staples the first supermarket has run out of. If I’m lucky I might be back by 1 or 2pm for a quick lunch of Korean bread and American cream cheese (would normally have had this with tomato but after a few bouts of Delhi Belly after eating local tomato I now stick to just bread and cheese).
Just starting to enjoy a post-lunch coffee when…
Doorbell rings – it’s the housecleaning man, come to do the floors and balconies (the dust in Gurgaon is never ending).
Spend the afternoon tackling any number of things that need tending to, perhaps some emails, perhaps some sorting through things that I will give away or put aside for packing, perhaps replacing some light bulbs that have burned out again within days of being replaced last time, perhaps trying to locate my shoes only to find that the cleaner has, yet again, pushed them under the bed or under a cupboard in the process of cleaning the floor, make mental note to ask Lakpa, my sanity saver (who was my previous housemate’s nanny and who has agreed to stay on with me til I leave), to talk to cleaning man about shoes, answer doorbell at least 3 or 4 more times for return of laundry, driver returning car key, postman delivering Airtel bill, gardening man asking if I want my plants watered, security guard with yet another form to fill in about who lives here and how long we intend to stay (the same form I’ve filled in at least 3 times before), perhaps the courier bringing another remarkably cheap book I’ve ordered from Amazon.in, the plumber with his supervisor this time because the leak is still not fixed and I’m running out of patience or any of at least a dozen other possibilities.
Feed dogs then finally sit down to a wonderful meal cooked by the amazing Lakpa (or perhaps some more Korean bread and cream cheese if it’s her day off) drink a well earned glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (wine has a 170% import duty so can’t afford any of the good stuff but Chilean is usually drinkable) and think about how tired I am having gone up and down the stairs in this crazy 4 level apartment at least 40 or 50 times today.
Finally crawl into bed to read my newly delivered book from Amazon, wonder why I feel like I have achieved so little and finally fall asleep to the sound of Floyd the bulldog snoring, knowing I will wake up tomorrow for it to start all over again.
What is the best thing about living in this place?
Definitely my driver Pintu and the amazing Lakpa, the nanny/housekkeper. These two help me with everything and also give me insights into India that I simply wouldn’t get anywhere else. Pintu is also someone I have been able to help in small ways, making me feel that our time here has not been totally wasted. I know there’s very little I can do to help the millions here that need help but if I can help just one family in some small way I will leave this place satisfied. I will continue to sponsor his children through school after we leave and hope one day to hear that his children have escaped the cycle of poverty that affects so many people here.
Where would your ultimate expat posting be and why?
There is no ultimate posting in my view. They are all good, they are all amazing, they are all difficult, each in their own unique way. I’m open to anything, would give anything a go and have no particular one they I long for or wish I had an opportunity for.
What is the best advice you have been given or you would give to another expat facing challenges in a new country?
I think someone told me when I first got to Mongolia that I should be proud of myself if I achieve one thing in a day. Having always lived life pretty fully, working full-time, raising kids, playing sports etc, I was shocked to hear someone say this but I’ve learned that it’s true. Some days, achieving one small thing is a great achievement, something to be quite proud of.
The other pieces of advice I would give is be kind to yourself, take on every chance you get to immerse yourself in your new home, its people, culture, language, and smile and say hello to each and every one you meet or pass during your day. It’s amazing what that can do to lift your day and lift your spirits, especially when you’re having a bad day, which you undoubtedly will.
Lastly I would tell anyone to have no expectation of anything going to plan, despite what people or your contract might say. Your experience will be yours alone, will not be necessarily like anyone else’s, will have a life of it’s own and can change in an instant.
What have you found makes it a little easier to adjust to each new place?
One thing I do when I move to a new place is to take a few things with me that make me feel at home. These things tend to be pieces of art for the walls or rugs for the floor or perhaps a few little knick knacks or keepsakes that remind me of people or places. These things make every place we live in feel a little more familiar and comfortable. We also made the decision to bring our dogs with us. We had expected originally to be away for at least 5 years and were not confident either of these dogs would necessarily live that long so it was not a hard decision. These dogs are now probably some of the most well travelled dogs in the world but they have provided a great sense of continuity, are very grounding, great company for me when Denis is away working and a great source of stress relief for Denis when he’s home. It’s been quite difficult at times taking them from place to place and having them accepted into societies that are quite fearful of dogs (especially societies that think they look like fighting dogs) but I don’t regret it for a minute. It’s not for everyone I know but for us they have been a godsend. I would recommend to anyone spending long periods abroad to take a little bit of home with them wherever they go, in whatever form that takes. I would also recommend that you take a little of each place with you, something internal as well as something physical, when you move on but to also try to leave a little behind, be it an act of kindness that someone will remember or a gift to someone in need, something that gives purpose to your time there. I have accumulated a lot of memories in the form of photos and plan one day, when we’re back home, of having a place in my home for some of the better or more meaningful ones, photos that will be a constant reminder of what I’ve seen and learned.
What is it you simply KHAN’t Face about living in this country?
I think the thing that I find hardest to face is the corruption here. It’s endemic at every level of society. You can buy anything and anyone here be it a government official, politician, shop keeper, police. You can make people disappear, injure them for life, buy a wife or child, anything.
Pintu my driver once told me a story of a cousin of his who was treating his wife very badly so other members of the family, Pintu included, each put in money and approached the police and ask them to go to this cousin’s house, drag him out into the street and publically beat him up and tell him never to do it again. Although their hearts were in the right place I’m sure, it just shows what a group of poor people can achieve and opens the imagination to what the incredibly rich here (and some are unbelievably rich, by anyone’s standards) can achieve if they desire to do so.