Advice

7 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Becoming An Island Expat

I’ve lived, in general, a rather surprising life so far. My first overseas solo travel experience was moving to Mongolia to work in an infant’s orphanage when I was 17 – not exactly de rigueur, even for travel-hungry New Zealanders. After that I ended up on an organic crop test farm in South India. I also got very sick, switched universities several times, ran away to Nepal and Tibet, ended up as an expat in Malaysia, had my daughter right after turning 23 and found out I was moving to a tropical island the day after I returned from my wedding.
So in a sense I’m used to the unexpected blessings and road blocks life likes to throw my way. With all that said and done, I’ve found I was less prepared than I thought I was for living on a tiny island in the Maldives. Here’s why.

1. Your previous expat experiences don’t mean you know the ropes.

Time for me to eat a bit of humble pie. Being a second time expat I expected my life to be similar to the first time aside from being in an obviously different location. But it isn’t. The work culture is different. I can’t leave the resort as easily as I could leave the hotel last time. I can’t self cater here and that makes a surprisingly large difference to my life; I can’t teach my daughter to cook, for example, and if I run out of snacks when the restaurants aren’t open – too bad! Food and clothes that I like are much harder to come by in Male’ shops compared to Malaysia. There are differences in the interpretation of Islam (and that affects things like when the shops are open). The climate is better here. My accommodation is different. All these little differences add up to make my previous experience not all that relevant to the current one. One thing I am used to: monsoon!

Lessons learned: Every expat experience is different. Even if you’re returning to a country you’ve already been to before, your own circumstances – where you are in life – will be different. Go with fresh eyes and do your homework first.

2. The local language is not always the most important

I assumed that the Maldivian language, Divehi, would be the most important for me to learn. I also assumed that I could get by in English, and for the most part that’s true – everyone here does speak English. However, living on a resort island, what matters is where the staff are from. Most of the labourers are from Bangladesh and speak Bengali; our nanny is from Sri Lanka and speaks Tamil. Hindi and Tamil-speaking Indian workers are here too. The same applies on Male’, an island with a huge presence of foreign workers.

Lessons learned: Look at all the languages being used, not just the official one(s). If you’re planning on learning a language, pick one that travels well. Tamil and Hindi are good options in the Maldives.

3. Transportation is tricky

Before I arrived here I was told the ferry zipped between the island and Male’ every half an hour, and that the trip itself took 15-20 minutes. First of all, the ferry does NOT go every half an hour: it goes several times a day, but mostly early in the morning or in the evening, with no trips in the middle of the day (ie: when I need them). So careful planning around ferry times has been important, and I’ve had to accept that I can’t go to Male’ half as often or as easily as I’d like.

Lessons learned: Ask for the ferry timetable to be sent to you in advance. Be aware that you may not be able to travel between all the islands (despite the fact that there are many islands, I can usually only go to Male’). Plan trips so that you don’t miss ferries and so that you have enough to do if you have to fill a whole day before the return trip. Learn the name of your ferry and which jetty it leaves from.

4. Childcare is trickier

I’ve written about our experience hiring a nanny before here and here. Before we arrived I was confused about how hiring a nanny would work. There didn’t seem to be much concrete information, just “don’t worry about it!”. I’m not a hakuna matata kind of woman, so that didn’t really cut the mustard: but we had no alternative except to accept it. As it turns out, nannies don’t just drop primly out of the sky (where are you when I need you, Mary Poppins?!) and finding a decent nanny can take a few weeks.

Lessons learned: Find out what is in your contract/your partner’s contract. If they don’t allocate accommodation for a nanny and the island has no kid’s club, you need to be near enough to an inhabited island for a nanny to commute. Moving to an island with a kid’s club (that includes your own child’s age range) is ideal. Forgo international nanny websites unless you’re willing to pay an international salary and air fares, and list on the local buy/sell sites (whatever is the local equivalent of Ebay). Be precise about what you are looking for and set up a trial period. It’ll take longer than you think.

5. The post is rubbish

Many online shops don’t ship to the Maldives, and when they do it can be insanely expensive. Not only do the usual international charges apply but post must then be taken to the right jetty and put on the right ferry for your island. This hikes the costs further and also means that items may take weeks and sometimes months to arrive. Non-arrivals are pretty common, too. Smaller items for some reason are more likely to arrive than larger ones, so I still buy my books online from Book Depository. For those of you who are not already BD addicts – free shipping worldwide!

Lessons learned: Bring things with you when you move or buy them on trips home. Buy smaller items online if you have to but try and find large purchases locally. Find out who is in charge of the mail once it leaves the post office, so that you can follow up if something isn’t delivered. Make sure whoever deals with mail on the resort island knows which room your post should be delivered to.

6. You don’t need to worry about the water

Before I arrived my biggest fears were all to do with the water. What if the boat capsized and we drowned? How would I keep a pre-schooler safe with so much water everywhere? What if she ran off and into the sea? What about sharks? The truth is, that water is not an issue. Never an avid ocean-lover, I’m learning to make my peace with the sea. The sea is almost never choppy, so ferry rides feel safe. The island is configured so that you only really go to the beach or pool if you want to end up there: you’re not constantly battling water hazards. The shark attack risk is negligible according to Lonely Planet because there is such an abundance of smaller fish that sharks don’t bother with the chunkier residents of the sea (that’s you and I).

Lesson learned: stress less! The sea is one thing you really don’t need to worry about.

7. There are unexpected bonuses

I realise this list may not make the most uplifting reading. That’s not a reflection of living on a small island – just of the many things I was wrong about! There are several good things I knew we were signing up for: a better income, virtually no living expenses, a beautiful beach and pool on our doorstep… oh, and a cleaning service. As other toddler parents will probably know, small children make mess like it’s their full time job. I might have come for the cleaning alone. Nonetheless there were more goodies in store once we arrived that I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t even consider how safe it was, how I can walk around at night and leave my bag on the beach when I go for a swim without anything happening. Mr C and I have more time for each other now that we have a nanny. We save money by having less shopping available. And through having a restricted lifestyle on some levels (ie, the resort makes the rules here) I’m s-l-o-w-ly learning to let go of what I can’t control. Enlightening experience for a closet control freak. I’ve had new experiences, like learning to dive, that I wouldn’t have had if we weren’t here. And I’m finding my feet as a parent without a support network. I can do this! I am capable of doing this on my own, and that’s a good feeling.

Lesson learned: Coming here was the right decision. I would tell anyone considering a move like this to go for it. Work on the rule that if you can always go home if it turns to custard, it’s worth going. You’ll never know what you’re missing if you don’t take the leap.

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Expat Stories

How to Spot a Fake Facebook Profile…

Or maybe not.

I have to admit that I am utterly addicted to Facebook. I justify this addiction with the fact I have no family or real friends here, so Facebook is my link to an online social support network of friendly faces that keep me sane. Prior to coming here of course I was still a Facebookophile (totally a word). I justified it because I was either studying via distance or parenting a small child at home, so my online support was still necessary…. Essentially, if there’s an excuse in the (face)book I will find it! We all have our vices and Facebook makes a nice change from all my other ones.

So there I was, participating on a Facebook thread which had devolved into a discussion about whether bikini tops are purely to cover your breasts (yep, pretty much) and if women who have no visible breasts at all can still say they have breasts (no, you strange people. Just no.) During the course of this debate I happened to mention my own breast size in a comment in which that was relevant information – no big deal in a group of women, I thought.

Five minutes later a comment popped up on the thread, addressed to me. “Why are you even here talking about breasts? Aren’t you a man?” a woman was demanding.

I sat there for a moment, confused and slightly offended that people would mistake me for a man (nothing against the lovely men in my life, but that’s not an aspiration for me!).
“Why would you think I am male?” I typed out slowly. I wanted to know why she thought that before I told her that I wasn’t. I wondered what male stereotypes I had triggered for her. I didn’t have to wait long.
“I just checked your profile page and it says you are a MALE from the Maldives!” she replied, triumphant.

It took me a minute… And then another minute to tell Mr C… And another several before I wiped the grin off my face. By that time someone else had already replied for me.

“Wonderful confusion!” they wrote, “I do not think this poster is a male in the Maldives, but that SHE lives in or near Male’, which is the capital of the Maldives.”

Wonderful confusion indeed.

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Expat Stories, Living small

Bed is NOT Square

Our staff accommodation is still in the process of (painfully) slowly being furnished.

Yesterday a couple of cleaners from the Housekeeping department lugged a wardrobe up the stairs with the intention of installing it in our bedroom.
“Look,” I said, before it was even down the hallway, “we really don’t have room for this right now unless we move some stuff around.”
I wasn’t kidding. I haven’t measured our rooms yet but with the laser-like precision of my eyeballs I estimate it’s got to be less than 300 square feet (8m x 7m ish). It’s SMALL. And this wardrobe, was not.

“It’s ok, we’ll put it over there, in front of the window,” one of the cleaners replied.
I stood there, half paralysed, not sure how to state the obvious without being offensive. Then it just tumbled out in a whine: “But then no light will come through the window.”

“Ok, ok, we put it here…”
“In front of the light switch? Um… I need to use the switch to turn the light on.”
I scanned the room. “You could put it next to the bed if you turned the bed around the other way.”

They ignored the bit about turning the bed around and proceeded to try and jam the wardrobe in beside the bed as it was, aligned with its long side against the wall. It’s both confusing and amusing watching people attempt to do something that is clearly NOT going to work, but even the cleaners eventually had to accept that this baby just wasn’t going to fit.

I cleared my throat and suggested again that they turn the bed around first, so that the short end was against the wall, to give them more room for the wardrobe.

“No, no madam – the bed is square. No more room if you turn it around.”
I looked at the bed. It was not square.
“It’s not square, see, this side is longer, and this side is shorter?”
“No no, bed is square. All sides the same.”
I looked at the bed again and blinked. It was still not square.
“I don’t think it’s square…”
“No, no madam, it is…”

On and on we went. Yes it is! No it bloody well is not! Well, a slightly more diplomatic version. Both the cleaners agreed, the bed is square. They yelled down the hallway and I heard the other cleaners clattering towards us to have a nosy. Their verdict: yes, the bed is square. A slow grin was spreading virally across their faces. White woman, not so smart, it said. I kept looking at the bed. Was it square? Shit. I had been so sure.

“Look, just leave the wardrobe here and I’ll sort it out.”
Disappointed, the cleaners took their leave.

With Mila busy making tents out of the sheets I dragged the bed out into the middle of the room, turned it round 90 degrees and pushed it back towards the wall. Then I pushed in the wardrobe beside it. Victory dance! There was miles of room between the bed and the wardrobe: I’d gained at least a few feet more room, which is a lot when you live in a matchbox.

Why do these tiny victories mean so much? I guess because we’re all living in each other’s pockets, on this tiny island. Small becomes big. And I admit, I bought into it. Standing back and admiring my own handiwork (and clearly my own genius in being right about the bed shape) I couldn’t wait for the cleaners to arrive the next day.

“TA-DA!” I wanted to crow. “Bed is NOT SQUARE.”

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Expat Stories, Travel

On Not Coming Home

When we left New Zealand, we told everyone we knew we’d be gone two years. Mr C’s contract is for two years, so that was our given time-span. Twenty-four months that would slip by: done and dusted.

And yet, and yet. You would think that what I felt when we crossed the short gangplank to the aeroplane might be excitement, or trepidation, or anticipation. But what I felt was an overwhelming sense of relief. Thank god I was getting out of New Zealand: a country full of people I loved, but thousands of miles from anywhere. There’s an odd kind of claustrophobia that comes from knowing you’re in an empty corner of the world; my skin itched for change. When the plane’s wheels folded back and the tarmac rolled away below us, I was finally set free.

Once we settled in to life here in the Maldives, I began looking for blogs of other expats living in the Maldives (oy, it’s a lonely corner of t’internet) and then decided I would just read the blogs of any interesting folks living overseas with their children. Of course there are a bajillion and one, but some that I found inspiring were  The O’Sullivans AbroadLost in TravelsRaising Miro on the Road of LifeThe New Diplomat’s WifeSoul Travelers 3 and The Sattvic Family, to name a few. These are people living amazing lives in various countries, and I feel like our family is doing something pretty cool too… So why was this ugly, greasy jealousy winding its way through me? It took me a while to figure out: because most of these people don’t plan on going home.

It was one of those moments where you realise the obvious: Aha! Why are we putting an end-date on our travels? We don’t HAVE to come home if we don’t want to. And yeah, I know it is THAT obvious, but I still spent a few days reveling in the cleverness of myself for figuring it out. You have to celebrate the small things sometimes! After I finished frolicking around in glee I learned more about family travel. Some of the families I read about really are travelling families, living a nomadic existence for a good part of the year or full time. As much as I ADORE this idea, I also have a soft spot for my husband. He likes having a career, and that means staying put for at least a year at a time. Quite a few of the nomadic bunch are also single parents: so long as your ex-partner is willing (or completely absent) I think that gives you a bit of extra autonomy that you don’t have when you’re a team of two or more.  Nonetheless, they are part of a greater movement of slow travel; intentionally spending longer periods of time in one place in order to experience it more fully. And while we can’t be nomads, we can be slow travellers of the expat variety.

So here’s our Plan B. We aren’t coming home, at least not for good, for several years to come. When this contract ends we’ll move somewhere else for a year or two, when that contract ends we’ll move again. Life overseas suits us. Things that matter to Mr C (not being poor) and things that matter to me (travel) merge happily. It’s funny how much of a mental shift it has made, taking the end-date off our journey. Our world has expanded – where will we go next? Thailand, India, Dubai? Mr C is loving on India these last few days, which just makes me love the man more. How will we find a new posting? How will we educate Mila if we are overseas?  On the theme of love: I love that our new plans are providing so many questions for life and time to answer.

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Food

Paleo on the Resort

I’ll be the first to admit, living on a Maldivian resort is not exactly true to caveman form. I don’t have to outrun any wildebeasts, starvation is not high on my list of natural selection pressures and, um, to be frank – life here can be pretty cushy in terms of all my physical needs being met. Nonetheless, I try to follow a Paleo diet the majority of the time: that is, a diet based on the types of foods our paleolithic ancestors would have eaten.

If you’re new to Paleo, you’re possibly conjuring up images now of raw steaks and plenty of ‘em (for the record, I do like steak tartare, but I very rarely eat it). If you’re familiar with the food blogosphere then perhaps you’re groaning: Paleo is not really known for its moderate adherents and calm discussions. A lot of the debate stems from what the Paleo diet really is and isn’t. Without stepping on too many toes, I think I can safely it’s just a diet based on plants and animals – avoiding processed foods, hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils, and foods we’ve only really eaten in large quantities since the agricultural revolution, like grains and legumes. Our bodies are genetically very similar to those of our Paleolithic rellies, so eating the foods we evolved to eat makes intuitive sense and is good for our bodies. And that’s the essence of Paleo: not half as crazy as the caveman-connotations can make it seem.

The other thing about my diet is that while I do eat veges, fruit and tubers, for the most part my diet is low in carbohydrates. That’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to: I’m a recreational (slow) runner and have a history of becoming way too obsessive with food, so I never want to go so far down the crazy tunnel that I can’t find my way out. Keeping my perspective is important. Am I just ditching most starchy carbs because I want to lose weight? No – I wouldn’t demand my fat back if I happened to lose any, but I don’t eat Paleo to lose weight. After getting through an initial “I feel like shit!” adjustment, I now find my hunger and energy levels are much better maintained without the insulin roller-coaster that carbs provide. This really works for me, in a way that my previous temporary dietary (ok, I’ll be honest: diet) kicks did not.

Photo credit: http://diet-memes.tumblr.com/

Or at least, it did work really well, until I went and planted myself on a tiny island where I was not in charge of the food supply. The reality of living on a resort is that you are required to give up control over where you live (I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve moved rooms), what you can do (no more butt-naked toddler running around outside), what you can buy, who makes the rules… and what you can eat. My breakfast is usually from the buffet restaurant – a tomato and onion omelette, a pile of sauteed veges, and sometimes some fatty bacon. My lunch is from the staff canteen: some variation on a chicken, mutton or beef curry, with a vegetable dish like spicy eggplant and some fruit on the side. Dinner is either room service or the buffet again: if it’s room service, maybe some lamb chops and a salad. I am lucky in that I don’t have to prepare the food myself, and unlucky in that I have no choice how it is prepared. I’d be surprised if anything I ate was organic. I’m sure some of the food is cooked in canola oil. Almost nothing is local, because the Maldives imports everything – it’s not a major producer of anything except fish and coconuts. You win some, you lose some.

And yet – I don’t feel like I do too badly. I do the best I can, with the situation I have. And the best I can do – or even want to do – is live a life of moderation. Dark chocolate, wine and coffee: sometimes a girl needs these things! I’ve done my time feeling pure and virtuous because of my diet. Now I’m much happier eating a Paleo diet 90% of the time, and nursing a glass of cold white wine on a warm evening the rest.

So, cheers to that.

P.S – a few of my favourite Paleo and Primal websites, if you’re curious…

Mark’s Daily Apple

Paleo Parents

The Domestic Man

That Paleo Guy (who happens to hail from my homeland, New Zealand).

Photo credit 1photo credit 2.

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Advice, Travel

What to Take to the Maldives

I once travelled around India for five months with nothing but a school-sized backpack. A couple of changes of underwear, one change of outfit, my passport, a book, my wallet and a bottle of water: that was pretty much it. Cleanliness went slightly by the wayside in favour of portability and adventure. Yes, I was that dirty backpacker, and it was bloody fantastic. So, I fancied my chances when it came to packing light. How hard could this be? This time we were all – adults and mini-me alike – allowed 27kg total each: 20kg in checked-in luggage and 7kg in carry on. That equates to about 60lbs per person. Sounds plenty, right? I thought it did. I was wrong…

Though I have been on a good number of overseas trips, I’d never travelled as a parent before. I didn’t take into account that most of Mila’s weight allowance would be taken up with her toys. When you’re not planning on coming back for a decent slab of time, packing toys takes on a sentimental as well as a practical slant. Anything we didn’t take, she will have grown out of by the time we next see it again. The only real point in keeping toys for storage is for potential future babies, grandbabies (now THAT is a weird thought) and just because you will never pry those precious mementos from my cold, dead hands… Ahem.

Mila’s toys that we managed to bring with us. You can probably see how this would eat up a luggage allowance.

So, Mila’s suitcase was filled with toys and hot weather clothes. Mine was filled with 7 kg worth of textbooks that would enjoy a brief fortnight or so of use while we had our first nanny, and my clothes and shoes. Mr C’s carried work shoes, work equipment and clothes. Our weight allowance was quickly being sucked up, and we still had a house full of possessions to sort out.

In the end, we went for professional storage: a 3m x 2.7m insulated and ventilated cube that would hold the majority of our clothes, furniture, books, kitchen utensils and odds and ends. AKA, our entire lives. I try not to appear super-materialistic, but I will admit that shutting the door on all the stuff that represented our happy lives in Wellington was a wrench. It was also a step into the unknown. Still, we had been living in a small two-bedroom house, so we got off pretty lightly on the amount of storage we needed. As for the rest, here’s a breakdown of what we actually brought with us, what we shouldn’t have bothered with, and what I wish we had brought. If you’re reading this and planning your move to the Maldives, I hope this comes in handy.

High design it’s not, but I’m glad we brought this wall frieze to add a splash of colour to Mila’s bedroom walls

Good ideas:

Me:

Long skirts, both on the resort and for trips to Male’
Long dresses, ditto
T-shirts, ditto
Shorts, for the resort
Bikinis
Sandals and wedges
Makeup, jewellery and toiletries
Sunhat, sunglasses and sunblock
Insect repellent
Books
Laptop and phone

Mila:

Shorts and tshirts
Skirts and dresses
Sandals and summery shoes
Toys
Books
Sunhat
Colouring pencils
Child sized life jacket
Bunting flags and wall frieze for her bedroom

Some of the offending tops I didn’t need to bring

Space wasters:

Me:

Way too many cardigans and tops – 3 or 4 would have been plenty
Heels: great for getting stuck in the sand
Boots: too hot
Text books – not much use without a nanny!

Mila:

Warm clothes
Raincoat
Toddler sized sleep sack that is too warm even with the air-con on
A brand new scooter (that sand again)
Cloth nappies. Too warm to store them and we don’t do laundry often enough for them not to get seriously stinky.

What I wish we’d brought:

Tonnes more sunblock
Another sunhat
Home decor stuff: rugs, wall decals, posters, ornaments… etc. Our rooms are still very spartan, and that’s being kind. On grumpy days I complain about our prison quarters.
More long pants/leggings for Mila
More picture books: the ones in Male’ are pretty poor quality

What we were able to buy once we arrived:

Travel washing line
Shoe racks
Cupboards and bookshelves
Child sized cutlery set
Disposable nappies and wipes
Basic kitchen equipment like a fridge, toaster, kettle
Cups and plates
Food and drinks
Pool toys
Potty training gear (potty, toilet insert, training pants etc). I live in hope.
Stationery, arts and craft stuff

Can’t find for love nor money:

Eco and skin-friendly toiletries and beauty products. Don’t expect to buy anything here that intentionally avoids harsh chemicals that are potentially damaging: that kind of awareness is just not here yet.
Good quality toys and children’s books (plastic tat, on the other hand, abounds). 
Affordable, modern art prints – or even just posters
Anything that might resemble a souvenir that won’t set you back at least a few times what the item is worth
Attractive duvet covers and home decor
A sewing machine

So, that’s my packing round up. Overall, I’d give our efforts a solid B. I don’t think we did too badly, given all the must-brings we already had to accommodate. If I did it again I’d do it differently, but hey – we made it in one piece, and nobody forgot their underpants. High fives all round!

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

Nanny: Check

We hired a nanny today. Second time lucky?

God, I really hope so. Not that my gut instinct has proven itself particularly reliable, but I do have a very good feeling about her. Her name is Martha: she only moved here from Sri Lanka in February, with her new husband. I like that we’re both new here. She showed me her wedding photos. I wanted to talk about our wedding too, how we were married a month after them. Our wedding was gorgeous: blue skies, a country house, a garden wedding and a reception in a covered pagoda that had grape vines climbing all over the ceiling beams. But I pulled myself in. I’m wary, after being pregnant in Malaysia, of anything that might label me The Unmarried Heathen Mother, even though I am married now. I am not ashamed of having a baby outside of marriage – hell, I wouldn’t be ashamed if I’d conceived her during a one night stand – but I don’t have time for the labels people here might give me. Here’s my husband, here’s my child: I’ll leave you to your own assumptions.

Anyway, back to Martha. She’s lovely. She called herself shy but didn’t seem it. She misses her niece and nephew in Sri Lanka. She’s bored at home and wants a job. “OK, done!” I wanted to crow. She was just so nice. But we had three more interviews to get through first. I just knew they wouldn’t be as ideal, and they weren’t. A woman who spoke hardly any English, despite having perfect grammar when she SMS’d and emailed me. Was that her husband writing for her? Or was her writing just leagues ahead of her spoken English? It was an odd interview. Then two more women whom I could hardly tell apart. Painfully shy with voices so quiet I had to strain to hear them. They both rubbed Mila’s cheek as they left, which is the standard Maldivian greeting to children. She growled.

Actually, she did pretty well today. It was a long, hot morning. We were in Seagull cafe, sitting upstairs under a fan that I willed would spin just a bit faster. Mila occupied herself with her colouring pencils: then blowing bubbles in her juice, then mashing and mixing an ice-cream sundae as big as her head. She’s still not three, so I don’t expect miracles. Just remaining reasonably quiet and not exceptionally mobile in a public space is the miracle.

She fell asleep on my lap on the ferry home, tiny beads of sweat on her upper lip, skin sticky. I kissed her damp hair. This nanny will be better than the last one, I silently promise her. And then I hoped like anything it was true.

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

Finding Childcare in the Maldives

Like everything else here, turns out it’s an adventure.

In New Zealand Mila was in daycare three days per week while I studied full time. Obviously, those numbers don’t quite add up: to make my study work I had to rope in my lovely husband and parents on occasion, and pull all-nighters when I ran out of time. I did make it work, but it was far from ideal. What was ideal was her daycare. Oh, that place! We all still miss it. A Reggio Emilia  based centre with an outstanding child-staff ratio and staff that were caring and engaged and interested. They cooked together, gardened together, went rampaging through the local forest and stream. It was an idyllic place for her. If I could find anything like that again – or if we ever go home with a preschooler – I wouldn’t hesitate to enroll her. But here? Wishful thinking.

We were of course, promised a nanny would appear almost as soon as our plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. I was anxious about it: I drove Mr C mental making him repeat the assurances and check that the deal was still on. It was, it was:everything will be ok! Don’t worry about it. We’ll have you a nanny within an hour. Three in the next day – just pick the best one. But I was right: promises are slippery things here, and finding a nanny was not that simple.

The first one, Irma, took two weeks to show up: an eighteen year old with an attitude and no previous experience. “My sisters don’t think I can do it, so I want to prove them wrong,” she announced at her interview. If there had been anyone else, we wouldn’t have hired her. But there wasn’t, so we decided to give her a go.
“Do I have to come this early? It’s too early for me, I’m so tired,” she complained on the first morning. It was 8am and she’d just stepped in the door. As a parent of a small child, I’m pretty lacking in sympathy for anyone who thinks getting up at 6.45am is an ungodly hour.
“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t like the food at the canteen.”
“Do I have to take her to meals? I don’t like that place.”
“Can you make the TV work? I want to put the TV on.”
“I didn’t see her drawing on the floor because I was busy talking on the phone to my ma.”
“I don’t like having to get the ferry.”
“We didn’t do anything today, it was so boring.”
“Do I still have to take her to breakfast?”
“I couldn’t play with her today because she doesn’t like me.”

Photo credit: Dharmaflix

No wonder she doesn’t like you! I raged inwardly. You don’t make an effort – you don’t take her to meals unless I practically drag you – everything is an effort and a chore. I split into anxious halves: let her go or keep trying? It was amazing how fast the whole situation unravelled. Irma left the house a mess every evening, kept turning the TV on after I asked her not to and seemed to be eternally distracted because she was on the phone. The last day Mila spent with Irma was awful. She’d just had enough and clung to my husband and I as we tried to leave. I held her and rocked her on my lap for an hour before I left. She screamed as I walked out the door and I could still hear her screaming as I walked away. My heart was broken: it was not right leaving her in that situation, with a nanny who obviously did not, to be quite frank, give a shit about her little charge.

I bawled down the phone to Mr C that I was not doing this anymore. I would withdraw from my studies for the semester if it meant no more Irma. He agreed. No more Irma. Despite the loss of my academic semester, I felt my lungs inflate properly for the first time in days. My stomach unclenched. Relief. We’d had two weeks of Irma and that day when Mila screamed was the last day she worked. We paid her out for the rest of the month, and went back to square one.

We had already listed on Great Au Pair, a site which charged a steep US$60 for a month’s premium membership. And you needed to have a premium membership in order to contact potential nannies – so basically for the site to be of any use, although of course it was easy to sign up for the free version without realising that. Despite the name, the site promised it was also possible to hire nannies for any country in the world. We had plenty of applicants: but nobody from the Maldives, and most expecting the same salaries from their home countries: France, the UK, the US. Here in the Maldives we are able to offer a salary that is much better than the local going rate, but it still doesn’t compare to a Western income. Plus, we didn’t want to pay for an air-fare over here or organise work permits – so in the end, the site was a flop for us. We needed to go local.

And then I found it: Ibay. It’s the Maldivian equivalent of Ebay, and it has jobs. It’s a hassle to sign up for: you have to register with a bizarre SMS back-and-forth, the terms and conditions you agree to are only in Divehi (so God knows what I agreed to!) and the links aren’t the easiest, but, but, but – 100% worth it.
Maldivians seem pretty keen on their phones, so I gave out – with some reluctance – my phone number as well as a robot-protected version of my email address. Nobody bothered with my email. I had ten applicants the first day, and ten the next. Where were all these would-be-nannies coming from? I didn’t care. Well I did, but there was time for going through their CV’s later. For now I just wanted to feel gratitude that anyone had replied at all. The resort hadn’t made any progress finding anyone else, and I had begun to feel like we’d just fired the only nanny on Male’.

Of course, not all the applicants were what we wanted. The most memorable was Amina. Our text conversation went like this:

Amina: How much you paying.

Amina (five minutes later) Why you no text me back.

Me: Hi, can you tell me your name, whether or not you are living in Male and your childcare experience please. [I give her the salary range]

Amina: So how many hours I have to work

Me: Four days per week and two evenings.

Amina: I want to keep the baby with me in Male’ during day

Me: Sorry, she has to stay on the resort

Amina: I will come and see environment then decide if I accept the job.

Uh, sorry Amina, but no-one’s offering it to you! We may be a little bit desperate for a brilliant nanny, but you’re certainly not The One and we ‘re not THAT desperate. Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

But then moments later:

“Hi, I saw your advert for a babysitter for your family. Am really interested to spend time with kids. I am a Sri Lankan, married, living in Male’. Thanks, Martha.”

Photo credit: Dharmaflix

Now that is more like it.
We haven’t got to the interviewing stage yet, but today I’m feeling upbeat: somewhere in my phone inbox is someone who will take good care of my beloved little one.
Today, despite all the idiosyncrasies and dysfunction of everyday life here, is suddenly bright and warm with sunshine.

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Expat Stories

One Month In

Four weeks in and I’ve come to the conclusion we live on Crazy Island. Things which convince me of this:

1). Myself. I was crazy enough to move to a tiny island with my new husband and nearly-three-year-old daughter. What was I thinking?! Hmm, well actually, Ithought I knew what I was getting myself into: a two-bedroom beach villa on an island resort. What we actually got was actually a one-bedroom beach villa – first with one super-king bed, then moved to a villa with twin beds. Holla romance! (sorry, sarcasm). With our daughter to think of, the honeymoon suite it was not. Furthermore, we found out that we had it for day use only. At night we had a two bedroom suite in staff accomodation. This would have been fine if the apartment was furnished: turned out it wasn’t. Now what? So, we’ve spent the last couple of weeks in an increasingly farcical tug-of-war with the housekeeping department over silly things like  furniture and bedding.

2). Mila attempted to wee in the pool today. I became aware of this because she shouted to everyone in the vicinity: “I’m about to wee in the pool!”
Well,  I hoisted her out so fast she looked like she was the unwilling victim of an ejector seat, but I was still mortified. As I ran away she yelled at the top of her lungs: “I WANTED TO DO MY WEE IN THE POOL!” Yeah, we’re officially uninvited to any pool party happening any time in 2013.

3). My daughter watered the sandpit with the liquids from the mini-bar while I was in the bathroom today. I’m incredibly relieved she didn’t drink them (the sooner we can locate safety locks, the better) but still horrified by the loss of so much expensive alcohol. At the very least I could have put those beverages to better use.  Days like this, it’s tempting too…

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