How Moving Overseas Changes You
Packing their life in to storage and going out on a limb, Jon and his wife moved to South Africa to experience a whole new world. This is their story…
Making the decision to move overseas was actually a pretty easy decision to make: I was in a job that was going nowhere fast and I had always had a fascination for Africa. So when an opportunity to work and study in Cape Town came up, it didn’t take me long to make a decision.
I resigned from the mining company I was working for at the time (I still have no regrets whatsoever about that), my wife and I organised South African visas, we put our furniture into storage and we bought our tickets to Cape Town.
Learning To Love Your New Environment
We knew what we were getting ourselves in for, of course. We knew about South Africa’s appalling crime rate, its history of racial problems and associated violence, its poverty, its massive problem with AIDS and the region’s history of political instability. But either through a sense of adventure or a sense of naivety we decided we’d take our chances.
As it turned out, there’s a lot to like about Cape Town. South Africa’s oldest city, and built in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town features stretches of pristine Atlantic coastline, a thriving nightlife, 300 year old wineries, a fascinating history and a uniquely diverse ethnic mix.
There is a type of friendly chaos about the place which is very appealing, the sort of place where crossing the street when the little red man is showing is standard practice.
My wife and I both worked for the University of Cape Town while we were there. Perched on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, and part of the former estate of one Cecil Rhodes, the University is not only one of the most picturesque campuses in the world, but also provided very flexible working conditions allowing us to indulge our passion for travelling around southern Africa.
We travelled extensively – from horse riding in the highlands of Lesotho to kicking back on the shores of Lake Malawi drinking locally-brewed Carlsberg beer. From being charged by an elephant in Kruger National Park to eating kassler and sauerkraut in the very strange Namibian holiday town of Swakopmund.
From being drenched at Victoria Falls to experiencing incredible Mozambican hospitality in a Maputo bar. From playing with orphaned lion cubs in Sun City to soaking up Swazi nightlife in Mbabane.
But, naturally, for all its good points, Africa has its problems. Violent crime, whether motivated by poverty or racial hatred is everywhere. While we were in South Africa, a number of white policemen went on trial for setting their dogs on suspected illegal immigrants and making a video of it for “training” purposes.
Taxi operators in Cape Town began shooting and killing bus passengers in order to try to scare people into using taxis instead of busses.
My wife and I were sitting in a Cape Town bar one Friday night when a Muslim vigilante group named PAGAD detonated a car bomb outside. Fortunately, no one was killed, but, in other similar incidents both before and after, people were not so fortunate. Johannesburg radio traffic reports regularly mentioned a body lying in a road, another victim of one of the 30 carjackings that take place every day.
Then there’s the poverty. I visited a shanty town in Soweto near Johannesburg where 7000 desperately poor people shared ninety communal toilets and five water taps between them. On the dirty and ill-kempt streets of Maputo I saw beggars missing limbs and drove past the live minefields – legacy of a brutal civil war – that caused their current predicament.
Every week before our bin was emptied in Cape Town people would rummage through it looking for glass, plastic or paper that they could sell for a few rand to a recycling depot.
So after a while, no matter how much you love the place, it starts to get to you. While the day-to-day life in South Africa was not all that different to that in Australia, the background violence, and the extra precautions you needed to take to ensure your safety, become a burden.
So we came back to Australia after two years, partly because our contracts were finished and partly because we wanted to. At first the comfort of family and familiar locations was a welcome relief, but it didn’t take long to see how we’d changed. And, perhaps more importantly, how our friends and family hadn’t.
Returning Home A Different Person
We’d seen and done things that they could hardly comprehend, like bribing our way out of a potentially nasty situation with a Mozambican policeman. I used to have a blind, insular patriotism that nowhere could be better than Australia, but I’d suddenly come to realise that Australia is bland, unexciting, non-diverse – dull, in a word.
I noticed that when people got together and started talking they’d talk about their cars, or the weather, or the latest gadget they’d bought. Nothing seemed to matter here like it did in South Africa, there were no big questions about whether it would be better to stay or emigrate, whether political instability in neighbouring countries would spill over the border, whether the country could recover from hundreds of years of institutionalised racism.
Australia seemed to be full of shallow, wasteful, arrogant people who neither knew how good they had it nor cared that other people didn’t have it so good. At the time I would have given anything to go back overseas.
But in time that feeling starts to recede, and you slip back into the Australian way of life. I’ve been back two years now, and my wife and I have happily settled into a new life in a new city. We’ve learnt how to accept and enjoy living back in Australia without forgetting the things we learnt in South Africa.
To that end, I changed careers when we got back, ditching the idea of forging a career in the mining industry. Instead I figured that if some of the poorest people in the world can still laugh and smile and enjoy life, then I didn’t need some high-flying career to make me happy.
My wife and I send money back to South Africa to certain AIDS charities there – in a country where statistics say that 50% of today’s teenagers will die of AIDS, they need every bit of help they can get.
I still miss the chaos: the kwaito music blaring from passing taxis, the street hawkers selling everything from fruit to ironing boards, the different accents that come from being a country with eleven official languages.
But these days I satisfy myself by protesting, in my own tiny little way, against the rigidity and orderliness of Australian life by crossing the street when the little red man is showing as often as possible. And the frowns I get from law-abiding Australians always make me remember the good things about South Africa.
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