Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Exit Plan

As years turn to decades and little flags are pinned at least on a dozen places you’ve lived, the needle slowly tilts away from your country of birth and starts swiveling like crazy in all directions.. You’ve now entered the Bermuda triangle on an expat’s life map hanging on the wall.  There’s no destination.. No clear point of exit.. and if you do exit, well, there is no sure inkling as to where you really want to end up.

One early morning, on our way to school, I tell the kids:
-       You know which countries are opening up now?

Three pairs of sleepy eyes look up and they all ask, with little enthusiasm: Which?

Costa Rica, I announce, ignoring their reluctance to engage. It’s a morning ritual and I’m used to it by now. But I know I can always count on Costa Rica to awaken their most treasured memories and loosen up their slumbering tongues.

Suddenly Tarek’s knee jerks..
-       Let’s move there now!
-       Are you sure? Are you already done here?
-       Yes, definitely Yes!

T2 and T3 are silent.. They’re literarily rolling the idea over in their heads.

T2 says he’s not THAAAAT ready to move yet but Yeah, why not!
T3 is just silent..

I’m speechless!!

10 months only into South Africa and my ever-fidgeting T1 is already planning his next move.  He’s happier here than he’s ever been elsewhere. This country was designed with his special passions in mind. Nature, good weather, animals, hikes, loads of road trips and fun adventures. Sure Middle School is tough, but this set-up is the best and the most sheltered he’ll ever have, and he knows it. So why?

I try to nudge a reason out of him, some deep concern he’s reluctant to share, an angst of some sort, a bad experience he’s eager to leave behind. But the truth is much simpler than that… My T1 has grown to be an eternal expat. In his head, he’s a traveler, an explorer and settling down is just a tangle of drama and broken friendships that his frail social skills have yet to learn to navigate.

Leaving is the easiest way to escape our failure to integrate, to establish roots and to belong.  My T1 is a pariah at heart,  and our nomadic lifestyle offers him exactly what he needs, a fresh start whenever loneliness creeps in and reminds him that friendship is a complicated affair.

For a fleeting moment on an early morning school ride, I feel blessed I’m an expat mom.. I spend so much time helping my kids settle in a new environment that I fail to appreciate the best gift I offer them over and over again: An Exit Plan!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Expat Nostalgia - Why I believe global children are universal friendship donors

“Nina is leaving to France”, my daughter announces this morning.

She says it without a flicker of emotion that runs through her voice. I know she’s unhappy about it. She’s only seven and Nina is her best friend, her champion, the girl who makes her feel special every morning she goes to school.

Dare I tell her that Mayen is leaving too? End of this year? Back to the States where my Tamara also longs to be? Mayen is BFF too, and more importantly she also comes from New York, or close. The girls share heritage here!

I deep search into her eyes.. I see sadness, acceptance.. or is it just my mind willing me to see in her eyes what I truly feel inside my own heart?

This is the hardest part of life as an expat mom.

The loss you feel with every move is a family sized one! No single portions here! You mourn every BFF any of your children ever made. You start shuffling that ever-so-tight travel budget purse trying to figure out how you’ll plan the next reunion. Destinations keep spreading as we move from post to post and the children each make their own friendships, just to lose them months or years later. And those friendships turn to virtual friendships, and my job to plan for reunions turns into an impossibly tangled web of destinations across the globe... This a UN tight mini purse, remember? they don't factor in friendship budgets when they calculate our worth as expat UN families. 

I take a pause.

Do they really suffer the way I think they do? My kids were born into this life. They don’t know any other. Childhood friendships are a foreign concept to them. Or maybe it’s a concept that they have redefined to suit their rootless lifestyles. Maybe they are OK with it and I need to be watchful not to overflow my own personal baggage onto their tiny resilient heads.

I love this life, but I’m old enough to appreciate the upside of this journey. And even then, I can’t but experience the sudden flip when I miss a friend, or a moment or a memory that was forever etched in my brain. A moment like now while I’m writing this and I remember that same moment a year ago, when I sat writing about my upcoming move to ZA and I left the writing to flip through photos of my trip to Costa Rica with Hoda. By the time I was done I had to rush to go meet Estelle for a quick 5k run around her house.  We were training for my first 5 k in New York,, a sort of a good bye bucket list that I had developed to cope with the move, a list all my fiends conspired and obliged to fulfill.. I miss my friends in Westchester.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

From Nikes to Hikes (part # 2) – Nine Hikes to start with if you love it but just can’t look down without hearing your dying prayers in your head

Egyptian Expat In Joburg – an amateur’s guide to living Joburg to the fullest..

Tswaing Meteorite Crater
So Yeah, I love to Hike.. I guess I always loved that walk in the forest without knowing that this was in fact hiking: a sport, a hobby and a very organized activity to undertake.

I had forgotten about it in humidity-pervaded Indonesia. Totally missed it while navigating the sky scrapers of New York, did a bit of it in Jordan, but then I was either pregnant or breastfeeding at the time.. Not exactly your best hiker’s profile!

Then I relocated to the outskirts of New York. To every avid hiker out there, Westchester is a hiker’s heaven. Every fall season, the Catskills with their explosive foliage hues lure you to go explore the trails, breathe in their colors and enjoy the serenity of a passing deer and the squish of playful squirrels as they zip line above.

Then I landed ZA and my mind wandered to savannah plains, zebras and giraffes. And ZA did not disappoint!

The thing about Hiking ZA, is that every trail is an archeological site: Iron age, Stone age, dinosaur marks and meteorite craters..

The minute you set heels on a trail you are literally T-warped to another era in time, so well-preserved that halfway into your hike, you begin to wonder.. Am I really walking the paw steps of those Rexes? Did a meteor really blast through this rock I’m leaning on? Those cave drawings, who was that Bushman who took the time to leave his art carved in stone for me to see, thousands - if not millions of years later?

While Hiking around the country there are certain Must Dos and Must Knows:

-      -  Most trails exist inside private or gated reserves. This means they are for the most part well sign posted and well maintained, but it also means you have to pre plan your hikes and call to reserve in advance

-       -  All Hikes I’ve done have elaborate websites with detailed maps and descriptions. South Africans take their hiking.. just like their biking.. very seriously!

-       -  Government run nature reserves do not require prior booking for the most part, but there is always an entrance fee and you have to check operation times to plan your hikes before gates close

-       -  This is South Africa and the African sun is simply unkind to your skin so wear protection no matter where you originally come from.. Believe I’m Egyptian and I still get burnt

-       -  Bring plenty plenty plenty of water along

-       -  Reserves that boast animal and game encounters are off limits to pets. Makes sense!

-      -  Many reserves offer lodging from basic camping, to luxury tents all the way up to spa facilities and bush lodges, you can make a weekend of it if you wish

-      -  Hiking shoes are a must.. A trail is a trail here and there is no easy way to break it to you! But hiking is no stroll in a perfectly manicured English garden in the African bush

-       -  Most trail sites will offer picnic facilities, ablutions, and Braii (Southern BBQ), but you have to bring your own stuff

-      -   Nature is revered around trails and you have to show the utmost respect to your surroundings.. Breath in, observe, meditate even but show respect to the plants and animals you encounter along your hike

-      -  Bird watching is an activity on many hike trails, and you can join a bird watchers club as a starter

-       -  All hikes I did are child-friendly and boast either incredible views, animal sightings, or a dip in a natural rock pool and some splashing in waterfalls

-     -   Mosquitoes, Ticks, and other fascinating spiteful bugs will make a lunch feast out of you if you let them, so lather yourself in bug repellents and wear long pants.. The pants will not just keep the pesky creatures away, they will also prevent bush scratches and hopefully keep snakes at bay!

I’ve only been here seven months and I’ve done twelve hikes, ten of which are only an hour’s drive from the bustling Gold reef town that is Joburg.

So here they are from ‘awesomest’ to ‘awesome still’ but without the WOOOW effect..

1-    Robberg Nature Reserve
GPS Coordinates: Latitude: -34.075937
Longitude: 23.370538
One hour away from Joburg – North Pretoria
9.5 km+_ trail with 2 possible shortcuts
No game sighting / Seals and possibly Whale sightings
Pets (I don’t know)
Entrance Fees applied
Strenuous- Edge hugging- climbing - But watch for High Tides timetable

It’s not around Joburg but I just had to throw it in there because it’s well, THE HIKE
Robberg Point.. Can you smell the Seal Stench?

To the sand dunes

Dune Tumbling

The Finish Line

2-    Somabula
GPS Coordinates: S 25 42.622      E 28 31.936
One hour away from Joburg – Close to Cullinan
30kms of trail possibilities, design your path
Game sighting
Pets not allowed
Entrance Fees applied
Very Easy

The website says it all. It’s only one hour away from Joburg and it’s got tons of animals for close encounters during your hike..

3-    Tswaing Crater Reserve
GPS Coordinates: Latitude 25.409 S Longitude 28.0958 E One hour away from Joburg – North Pretoria
7.5 km trail
No game sighting
Pets (I don’t know)
Entrance Fees applied
Easy  - But avoid summer heat

 Also an hour away from Joburg and 40 kms north of Pretoria.
Just the idea of walking along the walls of an impact crater left by an asteroid that hit this excat spot of earth some 200 thousand years ago is mind blowing, right?

4-    Groenkloof Nature Reserve
GPS Coordinates 'S25 47 379 E028 11 764
Half an hour away from Joburg – Pretoria
3.5 and 4.0 and 10.5 km+_ trails
Game sighting
Pets NOT allowed
Entrance Fees applied – No need for Pre booking
Easy – No edge walking – some inclines but not too steep

This is the first hike I did with the family and even my husband who always feigns sleep when I propose Hikes as a family activity, loved it!

5-    Vergenoeg
One hour s away from Joburg – Magaliesburg/ Hartbeespoort Dam
No game sighting
Pets (I don’t know)
Entrance Fees applied
Moderate –edge walking/crossing – heavy inclines (was really hard for me)
Cape Vultures soaring above me

So happy I did it..Hated every minute of it.. Would never do it again.. Still.. it’s breathtakingly beautiful up there

6-    Rustig
GPS Coordinates S25 50.179 E27 39.114
Base camp - S25 48.522 E27 38.306
One hour and 15 minutes away from Joburg – Magaliesburg
3.0 to 9.0 km & 13.0 overnight +_ trails
No game sighting
Pets allowed
Entrance Fees applied
Easy / Moderate – some edge walking/crossing – heavy inclines

This is one of the most scenic hikes I’ve done.. once more a mere hour’s drive from Joburg, nestled in the beauty of the Magaliesburg

7-    Wonderboom Nature Reserve
Half an hour away from Joburg – North Pretoria
2.8 km+_ trail
No game sighting
Pets allowed
Entrance Fees applied – No need for pre booking
Easy/ Moderate – some edge walking – steep
Fort Play

Did you know that Wonderboom literally means Miracle Tree? Well here is your Afrikaner 101 tip for the day.

The park, aptly named houses a thousand year old fig tree that stands majestically welcoming day visitors.

8-   Saamrus
GPS Co-ordinates: 
S 27.516175 ; E -25.945809
One hour away from Joburg – Magaliesburg region
7 km+_ trail
No game sighting
Pets allowed
Entrance Fees applied
Easy – No edge walking – some inclines but not too steep

This was my second hike so naturally I was wowed all over. It’s an easy long hike that meanders through the Magaliesburg plains and hilltops. 

9-    Windy Brow
GPS Co-ordinates: R513Turn off  S25 40.772 E28 30.099
Base camp - S25 40.882 E28 30.159
One hour away from Joburg – Cullinan
7 km+_ trail
Lots of game
Pets NOT allowed
Entrance Fees applied
Easy – No edge walking – some inclines but not too steep

The only reason this was my least favorite is that on the day we went, we inhaled so much ash from a lightning-caused bush fire the previous night.. The animals seemed quite frightened and wouldn’t get close enough for photos, let alone a true encounter.. Maybe it was the after-shock of the fire !
Windy Brow