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.