Untethered – Or how Expat Life is like Camping

kilimanjaro-day-6
This photo first appeared on the post Johannesburg’s Top Hikes.  Credit Becci Monge.

Expats often talk about feeling like they are in limbo.  Much of the limbo feeling is to do with the uncertainty that accompanies an impending international relocation.   When it’s time to move on, the juggling act of trying to seamlessly line up new jobs, schools and housing with your shipment timed to arrive as you get the keys to your new pad is a mammoth task.  It’s how I imagine living on quicksand might feel, all the goal posts shifting at the same time but in different directions, leaving you with a queasy sinking feeling.

Alongside limbo, I find that there is another feeling that can blindside you when you are in the throes of moving. It’s both liberating and terrifying. It’s a strange feeling of being completely detached and disconnected from the day-to-day life that you have been so busy building, a feeling of being cut loose and utterly untethered.  

What do I mean by untethered and what on earth has it got to do with camping?

Upon arriving at your new expat location, you have to build a network, put down roots and find your way.  I liken it to hammering in pegs and steading guy ropes to give you a beautifully pitched tent, one that is weatherproof, comfortable and welcoming.  One that you can rely on to withstand the strongest storm.  

Usually the guy ropes of school, work and home go up first giving routine and structure.   Then there is the guy rope of friendship, essential to your happiness and mental wellbeing.  This rope can be a bit slack to begin with, as you first of all find some friends at hand, before tightening the rope with more firm and meaningful friendships.  Other ropes representing local knowledge, like finding a bank, doctor, dentist, grocery store and figuring out the geography of how to get from A to B shore up your tent.

It takes a while to secure all the pegs and ropes to successfully pitch your expat tent, perhaps hammering square pegs into round holes.  Sometimes you find a faulty peg or frayed guy rope, but you fix it or replace it until you have a robust tent.

However, when it’s time to move on you effectively walk around the tent haphazardly slashing ropes until the tent collapses around you.  All that work and effort, all those reliable taught ropes that have taken a great deal of time and effort to get right are severed in an instant.  You have cut yourself adrift, your tent collapses around you and blows away on the next gust of wind.  You are completely and utterly untethered.

We had five years in South Africa, time aplenty to pitch our tent and then upgrade it to a camper van.  Then we moved.  Tyres slashed, windows smashed and blocks removed, it rolled down the hill and off a cliff.

The days or weeks between collapsing one tent and starting to pitch a new one are very odd.  This is the time when you are truly untethered.  Your routine disappears and along with it the immediate ease and stability provided by a great friend, your go-to supermarket, your child’s excellent class teacher or your reliable family doctor.  

Just as you left your nearest and dearest, your roots and your rocks, back in your home country when you first moved abroad you now leave behind another set of friends.  They become comforting stars, fiery twinkles in the sky shining and appreciated, but now just, JUST out of reach.  As your horizon expands again, so it simultaneously temporarily contracts to the size of your immediate family unit.  Luckily, they are your water and oxygen, so although you might be hyperventilating don’t forget to breath slowly in and out and you’ll be just fine.    

You know that you’ll be fine despite the challenge of arriving at your next destination, your next campsite, aware that you have to start from scratch pitching your new tent, finding your new tribe.  Hypothetically you know how to pitch a tent.  After all, you’ve done it before.  The tent is a different model though and it arrived without an instruction manual, or one that’s in Chinese.  The pegs are hexagonal and the holes are star shaped.  You make progress, but then realise that the wind’s blowing in from a different direction and you need to make some swift adjustments.

Being untethered is a peculiar feeling.  On the one hand you have a blank canvas and are freed from the treadmill mundanity and many of the responsibilities of everyday life.  You have nothing specific to do and nowhere in particular to be.  You are off grid and not yet connected to the mains allowing a rare degree freedom from social norms and niceties.  You have a unique anonymity in a new place, a cloak of invisibility which means you can move around and observe freely without feeling too self-conscious.  At the same time it can leave you feeling slightly unhinged, unanchored, unsettled and vulnerable with little or no back-up if things go belly up in the first few weeks.

The limbo of leaving South Africa is fading fast for us as our new life swims into focus and begins to take shape, but we (certainly I) still feel a little untethered. The last few months have been a blur of chaotic suitcase living. With 5 countries and 16 beds, it has indeed felt more like bivouacking than camping, with the wind and rain sometimes getting in and stones and twigs inconveniently poking through our improvised mattresses.

We are currently in temporary accommodation, the equivalent perhaps to lashing some half-arsed knots around the nearest sapling and chucking a bedsheet over the top, then hoping our makeshift fort will keep us temporarily safe and dry.  We’re really looking forward to the point where we can at last unpack our worldly goods again and start in earnest with pitching our new tent and tethering ourselves to our new home.

And yes, this time the tent instructions are very definitely in Chinese, for we are newly arrived in Hong Kong.

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