When I moved to Qatar from the United Arab Emirates in mid-February, I was nervous that Qatar was just not going to measure up in terms of the quality of life Polar & I had enjoyed in Dubai. People are always banging on about how magnificent the United Arab Emirates is and while I agree that it’s a lovely country, it’s certainly not the best place to live or visit. However, as the weeks went by, it became obvious that moving to Qatar was definitely a smarter decision financially, emotionally and for a less frenetic pace of life.
For reference, this is the 5th country I have lived in.
Even though I had taken a step back from full-time work, we were not struggling financially due to less expenses and a lower cost of living.
People say money isn’t everything but I think there is a different kind of freedom attached to still having money in your bank account at the end of month and not counting down the sleeps until the next salary arrives.
It didn’t take long before I had my residency sorted and had finally settled in to my new home, new routine and new role. But two weeks after my arrival into Qatar, the country went from being totally relaxed into a very severe lockdown. The borders sealed, shops shut down, face masks became mandatory and suddenly venturing outside became a distant memory. I had very little grasp on the dynamics of the country, the people and my explorations had barely touched the surface. I was still very much a stranger in a foreign land despite the documents that said I was legally living here. I was EXTREMELY FORTUNATE that I had arrived when I did because my timing not only allowed me to enter the country but also allowed me to get my documentation done because government departments closed soon after. This was my harsh reality when I went to get the process for my driver’s license started and found everything barred upon my arrival.
In an attempt to lower our risk of catching Covid-19, Polar’s company moved us from the city to the outskirts of the country’s coastline to live on the resort he would be working at. We were anticipating this move, it just came sooner than expected. Despite being in the middle of nowhere with no car and no valid driving license- the closest city was an hour away- Polar was enjoying work and his colleagues had become our new family members. Looking back now, I feel I did not take advantage of that peaceful time when all was well.
One day- mid April- Polar came home and explained that there were complications with his job due to the pandemic.
His sector- tourism, leisure & hospitality- was being the hardest hit and the project he had been hired to work on was not going ahead as planned. There would be a loss of income. And we would need to leave Qatar as soon as the borders reopened.
It wasn’t just him; everyone around us was in the same boat. The company had terminated everyone at the same time. The atmosphere in the neighbourhood became somber. Needless to say, this threw the proverbial spanner in our contentment.
For the month of April, I did not have a single night of uninterrupted sleep. I lay awake tossing & turning, wondering what was going to happen next. And while I knew what I needed to do, I also didn’t want to face up to the truth- I needed to return to teaching.
But didn’t I just publish an entire blog post about how I was adamantly not going to go back to teaching in the gulf. For a whole book of reasons? This was a step backwards wasn’t it?
I started to wonder if we had really made the right move to come to Qatar. I had fervently wanted to leave the Middle East so that I could leave the many problems I experienced in these gulf schools behind me. But we came to pursue an opportunity for my partner that- due to the virus- had been halted necessitating a return to work in the very environment I had sworn off.
Hell I started to wonder why I had even embarked on this expat journey. Maybe I should’ve settled down the road from my parents, bought a house, married a mediocre man and had a boring career earning a small salary that wouldn’t have threatened that mediocre man. Other people didn’t have problems like this did they? Stuck in foreign countries, questioning their entire existence & life choices?!
I had two choices at this point- I could resent the person I followed to be here who had led me down a road which led to a dead end; or I could overtake him, grab his hand and pull him down another road that avoided petty resentments and allowed to keep us both to keep living abroad. This was an active choice I made not to blame him or feel angry at the way things had turned because it was not his fault that the world was undergoing a pandemic. And truthfully I had a lot to be grateful about because he had allowed me to take a break from full time teaching for 6 months. A break I desperately needed. A break that finally allowed me to evolve my identity beyond just my career. A break I would not have gotten had I been single or with a less ambitious partner. It was time for me to step up while his industry recovered.
So I brushed up my CV- with 9 years of teaching experience in 4 countries so it was really nothing to be sniffed at- and I made a decision. There was no way I was being sucked in a recruiter’s lies or wasting time on job sites looking at postings that were really only interested in white teachers with strong passports. My father always used to tell us to be nice to everyone and maintain good relations- why? Because you might one day need help from those people. So I reached out to people I knew who worked in school environments they were happy with. People I had met on my journey of teaching abroad and maintained contact with through social media. Within a week I had 2 interviews. And the following week I signed a contract with a school in Doha after doing the most intense research about this school that I had ever done before signing a contract. I will elaborate more on why I eventually signed a contract with this school in an upcoming post about “5 crucial things to look out for when choosing a school abroad as a teacher”.
It was arduous to live in limbo for a while; both Polar & I were at home almost all the time. I watched him oscillate from being happy about being at home to grieving the loss of his job. It put a strain on our relationship of course, as it’s hard to know how to comfort someone who is going through these stages. We had no idea when we would leave a home we had literally just settled into. Thankfully, we had savings we knew would keep us going without us worrying, a roof over our head and our location in the middle of nowhere, afforded us weekly swims and daily walks. The company eventually booked us a ticket to return home early July so we planned towards that; discussing how we would pack up our home YET AGAIN and put things into storage.
But South Africa’s borders were closed. All flights to South Africa were cancelled for the month of June. And the airport we were supposed to fly into – King Shaka International- was firmly shut. Would we go or would we stay?
It was this uncertain waiting game, a recurring nightmare we had to live through daily. And then the other question was- if we left, when could we return? There was no clarity about when & how Qatar would re-open their borders. After all, I needed to be back by mid-August to start my new job. But we had no answers, and my school was extremely understanding and accommodating.
A week before we were scheduled to depart, Qatar started easing up lockdown restrictions. Parks and beaches were opening up. Malls began to come back to life. The borders were scheduled to reopen to non-citizens. Polar started doing job interviews and entertaining various employment offers. And in the midst of all that- Polar was asked to return to work for his original company- the resort we were still currently residing at. His company was resuming the project and they were planning to open at the end of July instead of the initially projected date in November.
And just like that, our flight was cancelled, and it was like the last 3 months hadn’t happened. Everyone around me slipped right back into the roles they had occupied prior to their work break and high spirits in the community returned. It was almost surreal and honestly… I felt fatigued from the consistent emotional stress of events over the last few months.
We have of course, postponed our wedding (like most couples) mainly because 50% of our guests live outside South Africa and none of them (possibly not even us) would be able to easily attend an event in South Africa. It’s been 6 months since I last saw my friends and my sisters. It will be almost a year since I have seen my parents. I don’t know when I will see any of them next but hopefully they will be able to meet at my wedding next year (fingers crossed!).
I am not sharing our story in order to gauge sympathy from anyone; rather, I want to point out that expat life is utterly unpredictable. Slight fluctuations in world politics, a health crisis and many other factors can end a stay in a country with immediate effect. In our situation, we were not worried about the loss of an income as much as we were worried about mentally adjusting to the fact that we may have to leave a country we had barely gotten to know.
You have to be prepared for any eventuality in any kind of situation and it will drive you insane if you try to control things. Being an expat is the ultimate exercise in allowing things to happen; the only thing you can control is your reaction to such events.
At this point we are taking each day as it comes; I look forward to starting a new teaching chapter in August as Polar to continues to find joy in his current work.
So next time you feel tempted to say “Wow you’re so lucky you live abroad!” to your expat friend, think twice. It’s a stressful lifestyle that demands a level head and resilient coping mechanisms. While I would never discourage anyone from this life choice, I also have to be honest about the challenges that can be faced and how hard they are. No matter how happy people may seem on their Instagram feed, they face difficulties too. Reach out to your favourite expat today and check in on them… they will appreciate it I promise!