An expat for 10 years – part 1

How my journey started…

3 October 2013 is rather an unusual anniversary for me. It marks 10 years since I left the UK to start my life and adventures overseas. It wasn’t my first time working outside the UK though – I spent 1998-1999 in Sarajevo as the SFOR/NATO spokesperson. It was there I was bitten by the foreign bug and it is absolutely true – travel and living in a foreign country does broaden your mind and I was also fortunate enough to have a job that was full on every day…

Being interviewed by Combat Camera - the US led internal communications team that kept the 34,000 SFOR/NATO troops up to date.

Being interviewed by Combat Camera – the US led internal communications team that kept the 34,000 SFOR/NATO troops up to date.

Although I returned to the UK and I toughed it out for a few years, life just wasn’t the same. Just as I left a good job with Laura Ashely in 1987 to join the Royal Navy, in September 2003 I traded in a nice secure corporate job with Standard Life in Edinburgh for a three-month contract working for the EU Special Representative in Skopje. As I flew out to Skopje with two bags on October 3 2003, there were a few that thought I was bonkers. At this point you may want to make a cup of tea – although I have split this “story” into three parts, this post covers four years….

Macedonia (or as some insist, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)

Environmentally friendly taxi stance and approaching taxi in Debar.

Environmentally friendly taxi stance and approaching taxi in Debar.

I was always the shortest - particularly when working with the Dutch!

With some of my EUSR office colleagues. I am used to being the shortest – particularly when working with the Dutch!

As former Yugoslav cities, Skopje and Sarajevo had remarkable similarities. A lot of functional post communist architecture, beautiful nature and wildlife, great local produce and welcoming people once they had exchanged a few words. Unlike Sarajevo where I had travel restrictions, I was able to explore Macedonia. and evidence of the Roman and Ottoman empires

Enjoying an Easter weekend hike on Mount Pelister in the South of Macedonia

Enjoying an Easter weekend hike on Mount Pelister in the South of Macedonia

Enjoying the company of some local girls in Debar.  I remember the name of the girl in orange was Rudina. I wonder what she is doing now?

Enjoying the company of some local girls in Debar. I remember the name of the girl in orange was Rudina. I wonder what she is doing now?

My most indelible memories of Macedonia are the stunning and unspoiled scenery, their rich and little known history, the tragic air crash that killed President Boris Trajkovski and his entire cabinet, the great team of people I worked with and the gorgeous produce I used to buy every week at the “green” markets. They were the best! I left Macedonia in December 2004.

Canada

One of the first voters Khalil Labi casts his ballot for the Iraqi National Assembly elections January 2005.  Mississauga, Toronto

One of the first voters Khalil Labi casts his ballot for the Iraqi National Assembly elections January 2005. Mississauga, Toronto

The IOM Out of Country voting mission Toronto HQ team.  This was taken on an ice hockey pitch close to our office.

The IOM Out of Country voting mission Toronto HQ team. This was taken on an ice hockey pitch close to our office.

Next stop for me was a short notice eight week contract in Canada working for the IOM, who we running the Iraq Out of Country elections for the new national assembly. All Diaspora were eligible to vote in 16 countries, including Canada. I called my Aunt Liz, who lives near Toronto, It was a Friday morning in early January 2005. Her delight turned to astonishment with the news I was arriving two days later. It was my fastest deployment – and one of the coldest, with temperatures (excluding wind chill) of around minus 26C. As you can see, I worked with some fun people and also visited four voting centres in Ottawa and Calgary.

At the Niagara Falls with my cousin Fiona.  It was well below freezing that day and the vapour form the falls froze my hair!

At the Niagara Falls with my cousin Fiona. It was well below freezing that day and the vapour from the falls froze my hair!

During my short time in Canada, I reconnected with the Canadian branch of my family, which was a massive bonus!

Posing for the camera with my cousin Carole's two sons.  Andrew (in red) is at university now!

Posing for the camera with my cousin Carole’s two sons. Andrew (in red) is at university now!

My top memories from Canada was the cold, time with my family there, my friend Althea’s damp braids frozen like sticks, the kindness of the Iraqis and all the winter clothing I had to buy and have barely worn since. I spent eight weeks in Canada.

Afghanistan

Heading up the Panjshir valley with the stunning Hindu Kush in the background.  The Panjshir valley was one of the most amazing places I have been to.

Heading up the Panjshir valley with the stunning Hindu Kush in the background. The Panjshir valley was one of the most amazing places I have been to.

I signed up for another election mission, this time for eight months in Afghanistan as things had calmed down at that time. That soon change though and I ended up staying for only eight weeks. This is the time line and news “highlights” of what happened in Kabul during my time there from April 24th – July 5th 2005:

  • 24 April – I arrived in Kabul. Car bomb exploded 2 blocks from my guest house – no casualties
  • 28 April – Shoot out outside Ministry of Interior
  • 2 May – Had to duck automatic gunfire as our car passed though outer suburbs of Kabul. Classic bad timing – 2 were killed a few feet from car.
  • 3 May – Woken by 2 earth tremors measuring 3.6 and 4.1
  • 7 May – UN Offices and guest house in Jalalabad burnt down during rioting (Newsweek article) 14 dead. UN staff evacuated.
  • 8 May – UN worker one of two killed in Kabul Internet cafe suicide bomb
  • 14 May – 2 rockets fired on city – although denied by authorities
  • 16 May – Italian aid worker kidnapped
  • 22 May – Warning issued for threat of suicide bomb attacks against Internationals in Kabul – “Kill an International Day” announced
  • 30 May – Our escort jeep engine burst in to flames in the middle of Kabul rush hour, leaving us sitting ducks
  • 9 June – Italian Aid worker released unarmed
  • 13 June – Cholera outbreak in Kabul confirmed
  • 5 July – I left Kabul.
Candidate election brief in Wardak province.  This was one of only two buildings left standing in the provincial capital.

Candidate election brief in Wardak province. This was one of only two buildings left standing in the provincial capital.

Despite being in Afghanistan for such a short time and the difficult conditions, I did manage to see some of the country and achieve some success with my work. My job was stakeholder outreach briefing the election candidates in the six provinces surrounding Kabul, including the famous Panjshir Valley. With the help of the amazing UN workers running the provisional elections centres, I managed a briefing in each province. I even managed to do a bit of PR for the election and interviewed a female candidate.

I interviewed this lady living in Parwan province and discovered she risked her life to run a secret underground school for girls under the Taliban regime.

I interviewed this lady living in Parwan province and discovered she risked her life to run a secret underground school for girls under the Taliban regime.

.

After eight weeks, I left the mission. I just didn’t feel safe enough – it was that simple. It was a very tough decision though. As I was halfway to the Far East, I then headed to Singapore to relax and catch up with my brother, who was living there at the time

The middle-aged gap year

Singapore

From Singapore, I took advantage of the unexpected time to myself and my location to explore the region, travelling to Thailand and Malaysia.

Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

This is the famous beach, as featured in the film "The Beach".  I also did my rescue diver assessment and examination here.

This is the famous beach on Kph Phi Phi Lei, as featured in the film “The Beach”. I also did my rescue diver assessment and examination here.

The most significant thing that happened during this time out was me becoming certified as a SCUBA diver. I didn’t plan to – I was sold a 4-star 5 day all-inclusive package at a resort on Redang island, on the East coast of mainland Malaysia. When I got there, I discovered it was a dive centre! It was the best mis-sold package ever. I learnt my fin pivots and buoyancy control watching a turtle eat his breakfast, and on my fourth open water dive I saw a whaleshark.

The Redang Kalong dive resort - where I learnt to dive in 2005

The Redang Kalong dive resort – where I learnt to dive in 2005

I have been hooked on SCUBA diving since and decided I would only work where there was accessible warm water diving. I concluded my gap year by returning to the UK briefly to attend to essential domestic business. I also “lucked in” with my next consulting assignment, heading to Cairo which meant weekend diving on the Red Sea!

Egypt

A popular trade at the pyramids - camel owners charges $20 to pose in shot. Photo bombing was the result if you declined.  A better picture I think!

A popular trade at the pyramids – camel owners charge $20 to pose in shot. Photo bombing was the result if you declined. A better picture I think!

I spent a total of 12 months in Egypt as a USAID contractor on an economic reform project. I worked with British, Canadian and Egyptian colleagues at the Egyptian Tax Authority and lived in hotels – the Semi Ramis near Tahir Square, then moved to the Four Seasons First Residence in Giza. Most weekends I would head to Oonas Divers in Sharm el Sheikh. During the week, in the evening I would often head up to Khan al Khalili, the oldest bazaar in the Middle East, just for the entertainment. I once walked past a stall holder who, in his efforts to attract my custom, called out “For you I kill my wife”. This epitomised the fantastic sense of humour Egyptians possess.

Two of my Egyptian colleagues at a conference on Sharm El Sheikh.  I used to dive before breakfast, and again during the lunchtime break

Two of my Egyptian colleagues at a conference on Sharm El Sheikh. I used to dive before breakfast, and again during the lunchtime break

Despite its imperfections even then, I really enjoyed my year in Cairo and had nailed the art of living in a hotel – shower caps have many uses! I loved Egypt – my most vivid memories are the great sense of humour Egyptians possess, the ancient culture and history, the Red Sea diving and the everyday sights I saw on my morning commute…

Seeing camels and donkeys on the streets of Cairo was not unusual

Seeing camels and donkeys on the streets of Cairo was not unusual

I had planned an extensive trip around Egypt when I finished my contract, but I had to drop everything and headed back to the UK in July 2007 for a few weeks due to sudden family illness.

Part 2 of being an expat for 10 years will follow shortly!

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