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Tuesday, 19 November 2013


Next week will mark three months since arriving in Italy. It is hard to believe how fast time is going and how quickly the seasons are changing. Milan has been giving me a taste of Jakarta with this ongoing daily rain. Thankfully, the rain feels clean and smells fresh (what a nice change!). This evening as it poured, I decided I needed to get outside and go for a walk. I bundled up in my raincoat, grabbed my umbrella and explored my area of the city a little more. As I wandered down side streets I had not yet seen, I found a variety of bars, cafes and even a little Christmas shop! As I walked in the rain, enjoying the open sidewalks I began to really re-appreciate where I am living. I am by no means a fan of rain, but there is something about the rain in this city.. the rain just seems a little bit more magical and a little bit more bearable than it does anywhere else. Or maybe it's not magical rain... maybe, I just really love where I am!

Living abroad has never been overly challenging for me. I find exploring the unknown and unfamiliar to be the biggest thrill in life! A teacher/mentor I used to work with once told me that she thinks of me as a chameleon in the fact that I can adapt to my environment so naturally. I thought this was a really nice compliment. I've spent the majority of my life moving and adapting. Growing up in a military family meant that a town or house wasn't necessarily your home. Your home was where your family was and there was always the possibility that it could shift or change. A feeling in which I wasn't overly crazy about as a child has now shaped my adult life.

CBC recently had an article about Canadian teachers moving abroad for teaching opportunities. With an incredibly limited job market for teachers in Canada, more and more teachers are exploring alternative options. Some go purely because it's a job offer, others desire the challenge or change, and many want the experiences of culture and travel. Teaching abroad has certainly been the best adventure of my life! I have come to understand and appreciate that living abroad means not always having things be familiar. It means stepping outside of your comfort zone and learning to adapt. Things are done differently, foods taste different, there are language barriers, and different approaches to living life. Although at times the unfamiliararties may become overwhelming, they are part of living abroad... and frankly why move to a foreign country and have everything be the same as it is back home? If that's the case, why not just stay home? I've always found that the people who don't stay abroad very long are the ones who don't embrace the differences. It's a lifestyle that isn't for everyone, but it's also a lifestyle that is so enjoyable when you decide to let go of the comforts of home and embrace your new environment for all that it is and all that it is not.

After living in the Bahamas and the UK, it was Jakarta where I learned the hardest lessons and the true meaning of being somewhere foreign. Because of my time in Indonesia I feel extra fortunate that moving to Italy has been such an easy transition. A country that is so rich in culture, yet has such a sense of familiarity. I absolutely love living in Italy and the opportunities that present themselves. I wouldn't change it for anything. But there are days when I miss the excitement of being somewhere completely foreign and so drastically different. I am fortunate that Milan has many of the comforts of home. It has been an easy transition and other than not speaking the language, it is a city that is easy to live in. It is clean, friendly, entertaining and has excellent public transportation. At times, things may not be as efficient as in North America, but with this being my fifth year abroad, I am becoming much more adaptable with accepting that time in North America is wildly different to the rest of the world, and despite being an inconvenience at times, is totally okay! I really have no complaints.. but I do long for more adventures that bring to me places that shock my senses and reveal things that I hadn't previously known existed!

When I first moved to Indonesia I knew very little about my new host country. I picked a totally random part of the world and dove in head first. My first week in Indonesia I was sick and had only been introduced to the "local" grocery store where there was nothing familiar at all. I remember one night during that first week where I really questioned my decision to move to such a random part of the world knowing so little about what I was getting myself into. I still did not have a roommate and my school had really left me to fend for myself the first week. Not knowing the language or my way around the city was challenging. I did my best to be adventurous and explore but had taxi drivers rip me off, people stare, and I was overwhelmed by the sights of extreme poverty, was constantly uncomfortable with equatorial temperatures and felt nauseous from the stench of pollution. I can plainly recall one of my first nights in my new home. I was sick and hadn't eaten in far too long. The only familiar food I had found was a cereal similar to rice crispees. I remember sitting on the tile floor of my living room by myself … no internet, no television…  trying to cool my body temperature by laying down on these tiles (my a/c was not yet working) and eating plain cereal because the milk was far too sweet and made me vomit. I sat on these tiles listening to prayer call from the local mosque, watching lights zoom by from dozens of ojeks (motorbikes) and wondering, "Can I really make a life here?" I later woke up to thousands of tiny ants invading my apartment and taking over my bathroom and kitchen! There was a strong odor of sewage seeping through the pipes in my apartment. That was it. I had that night to think "Crap, why did I move so far from home?". This was decision time. Let the fear of such a foreign place and a drastic lifestyle change take over - or, embrace the adventure, differences and unfamiliarity for all that they were!

I traveled to foreign lands, adapted to new work ethics, mixed and mingled with people of all walks of life, forced myself to go out alone and meet new friends, spent time traveling third world countries alone,  and pulled myself away from comfort foods to try eating more exotically (even after many horrendous episodes of food poisoning). My point is, it wasn't easy and I did make complaints along the way (part of being human, right?). But, I did it and my life is richer for having these experiences and doing my best to embrace it! I met friends I will never forget, taught children who made me a better teacher, and saw sights that words cannot give justice to.

I very much had a love/hate relationship with Jakarta. A Global metropolis with such an array of old traditions and new world luxuries. A city where glamorous malls are outlined by slums of starving families. The fourth most populated city in the world - a city where you can find fine five star dining from around the Globe and also see naked children eating garbage off of the street. Extreme opposites come together to form this city. Jakarta is a city of luxury for those who can afford it and sadly appears as a nightmare for those who can not.

The sights of Jakarta were enough alone to overwhelm anyone's senses. The city hosts some of the most intense traffic in the world. Mix in some goats, cows and street vendors crawling in and around the vehicles and look out your window to see a tiny human being holding their hands out and begging for money, food and hope. Add in the the cultural differences and you really realize you are no longer anywhere close to home. In my experience I often felt a major cultural divide in daily life. Being a "bule" (meaning: Caucasian person) meant constant stares, giggles, and being approached on a regular basis for photos or by someone hoping to practice a little bit of English with you. As silly as it may all sound, it became exhausting. A simple outing to buy groceries could often leave me feeling insecure and wondering why I must get so many stares and giggles. It was probably in these moments I missed familiarity the most. I sought after being somewhere so different, but was unprepared for the fact that I was what was different in this city. My Indonesian friends often tried to reassure me that it should be taken as compliments, but it wasn't always easy.  

By the end of my time in Jakarta the giggles, the stares, the differences in work ethic and perspectives on everything from how to dress to how women should act became more easy for me to understand. I learned that it isn't about one culture being right and the other wrong. It is simply two different view points due to so many factors.  This is after all what culture is all about and if you are going to live away from home, you better do your best to embrace it! Things are done drastically different and you have to choose your battles. This was the biggest lesson I learned last year. I was careful not to be taken advantage of as a foreigner, but also made sure to avoid coming off as an entitled North American demanding the luxuries of home in a country that I was a guest in.

Despite the challenges, heartaches and stresses - I do not for a second regret my time in Jakarta. I met people who have had entirely different upbringings from mine, who view the world so differently and value things that I hadn't before. I learned from these people and became richer because of them. I was a guest in their country and learned to adapt the best I could. 

From climbing one of the world's most notorious volcanoes in the Sunda Strait, to visiting a hill tribe in Thailand's North.  Working with rehabilitating injured elephants and crawling through the war tunnels in Vietnam. A surf lesson in Bali to walking the streets of little India in Singapore and caving in Malaysia. Being placed on a billboard in Jakarta to trekking the jungles of Indonesia. Learning about life from Monks to spending time playing with some of the world's most impoverished children.  Spending the worst moments of my life being interrogated and threatened for hours on end by immigration due to a visa nightmare to exploring new tastes, customs, and traditions.

Being abroad: It isn't home. It isn't always easy. Things are different.
But....Adventure is out there! There is beauty in even the most chaotic places and it is in these unfamiliar places you learn the most about the world. 

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