Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Ghanaian Job

by guest blogger Holli from Holli's ramblings

So my friend and interior decorating inspirational counsellor and I conspired to revamp my son’s bedroom and bathroom recently.

In our attempt to do it all on the cheap in a company provided, 70’s throwback style house (which was incidentally the Libyan Embassy in Ghana before we lived in it…), one of the aspects of our clever plan was to paint the en suite bathroom walls gold (to bring out the best in the hideous tiles). I mean, seems natural enough? No? Well, you’d be surprised how difficult it is to find gold paint in Ghana. Or maybe you wouldn’t…

So, as we do, we picked a Saturday when we were feeling particularly brave and energetic, and headed into ‘the Market’, the infamous neverending rolling squalor of Makola…There is a saying that anyone who has traversed the pathways of Makola knows, ‘You can find anything in that market!’ … but you might not find your way back out!!

So true to its legend, as we trudged through with green solid slime gutters underfoot, chickens and goats skirting around, and a constant flow of hot pulsing bodies surrounding us under the oppressively beating sun, we poked in and out of crowded alleys and deeper and deeper into the abyss, and we stumbled upon some sellers with.. wait.. GOLD SPRAY PAINT!!! So I bargained and bought two tins. The seller assured me this would easily cover a small bathroom. (All the walls are tiled halfway up).

We found our way out of the maze, after walking the ‘gauntlet’ of used clothes sellers, and buying more than a few “Selection, Madam!” items…at about $2 each.

And as things go in Ghana, we didn’t actually plan to do the dirty work ourselves! We’d have Eric, the house help do it… Therein lies the ultimate Ghanaian experience. You want something done. It seems simple and straightforward. You convince yourself you are too busy etc. and ask the ‘helpers’ to do it. What could go wrong???

Silly question, really. Monday morning I armed Eric with three week’s worth of old Sunday Times, an industrial roll of tape, and the two spray paint cans, with strict and precise instructions – cover all the tiles, ceiling, sink, toilet etc. with the papers…

Monday I arrived home from work and opened the door of the bathroom… drum roll please…

The two empty spray cans tossed on the floor caught my eye first. Then the white walls... What’s wrong with this picture?

Then I opened the door further and there in the back corner behind the door, on a 2 x 2 ft. section of the wall, was gold.spray.paint. Newspaper was taped to the tiles below, about a half inch below where the tiles begin (hence the top of the tiles is now gold spray painted), and every few inches a piece of tape, placed vertically, right into the spray painted area of the wall. So that when you remove the tape, there is a tape shaped white rectangle on the gold portion of the wall.

Question to self: Where is Zen when you need him? Deep breaths. This is funny, right? Cute even... Don't snap, just avoid Eric for the day...

Really I should just leave it. What did I expect when I said, tape paper over everything? That it was assumed the REASON for this was to create protection from the gold paint? And how else would one tape up the paper, if not with thumbstrips of tape?! You mean you wanted the paint to be uniform?

I looked up at the ceiling – a fine mist of tapering gold…

When I asked Eric, determined to stay calm, about all these absolute F^&%^ ups, not to mention the fact that he didn’t bother to spray across the wall but over and over on the same spot until both cans were completely empty… he shrugged and said “Oh Madam, the paint wasn’t plenty, o. The man who sold it to you was cheating… And I forgot about the paper for the ceiling. Also, I don’t know how to put paper up on the ceiling. Madam, please, it will fall. …”

I’m tempted to give up, just as is and leave the mess that is there. After all, TIG (like “This Is Africa”, but my more dear to the heart version, ‘This Is Ghana’…). But I just can’t. So I will painstakingly explain what I REALLY meant the first time about the tape and then describe how one goes about spray painting, and send Eric himself to find more of the paint…

After all, I’m a glutton for punishment and Eric may never find his way out of the market…

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Saying Goodbye to China

"My experience in China has not been about demystifying this culturally complex place or becoming a Sinophile. Old China Hand, China expert--I'm none of those and don't feel any more qualified to write about "the Middle Kingdom" now than I did when I arrived three years ago. The only thing I can say for sure is that I'm leaving a different person from when I arrived. There is nothing like being skyrocketed out of your comfort zone and landing in an unknown place to turn you inward and make you reflect--on the world as you know it, and your place in it--and being in China has certainly done that for me......"

Click here to read the rest of this post

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hotel Expat

One of the things the newer expat discovers very quickly is that they suddenly have a large number of new friends.

Some of that will have been expected - the new neighbours, the other expats living along the road, the nice local people in the nearby shop or bar etc.

What is often more of a surprise is just how many ‘old-new’ friends they suddenly also discover back home! There is a proven mathematical relationship that governs this phenomenon. It runs along the lines that the number of ‘old-new friends back home’ made will be directly proportional to the tourist attraction rating of your new location.

This really isn’t a joke! Many people see the newly settled expat as an ideal opportunity for a free stop over or cheap holiday. Obviously most expats welcome family and close friend visits as they would anywhere, but sometimes this can become a little too much and a problem.

One expat was telling me that between late June and the end of August, she and her family had not had a single weekend without visitors.

Another family was also telling me that having opened a small hotel, they’d had several awkward situations with friends asking if they could stay for periods. They said it had been very tricky because their various friends always wanted to come during the relatively short holiday season thereby occupying rooms they could otherwise let out. This meant that their real and precious income was being hit hard. Apparently some friends had reacted very negatively when they’d been asked to re-schedule their planned visit or pay for the room(s).

I also know of another working family who had a fairly ‘distant’ friend coming to stay for a few days. The day before arrival he very considerately emailed them with a list of places he’d like to visit and a rough itinerary – he’d also been doubly thoughtful and included a reminder that he couldn’t drive so they’d need to factor that in when making arrangements to take him around!

These are of course exceptional cases, or at least I hope they are. The vast majority of those that descend upon the conveniently located expat are well-intentioned and considerate people and their visits are welcomed. The trouble is that although each individual visit may be welcome, cumulatively they can be a strain.

What those old next-door neighbours of yours who have just popped in for a few days fail to realise is that being an expat is not usually the same thing as being on holiday. Perhaps they think that spending a day or two with them is not a big ask, but if they’re the fourth visitors in the past 6 weeks then that’s a total of 8 days you’ve had to take off work to entertain and show people around – and this says nothing about the cumulative costs of food and drink etc.

So is there an answer to this?

I suppose you could try to avoid moving somewhere that is too picturesque or which has beautiful sea and beaches. Certainly beaches, cute city-centres or historic towns with castles can be risky in terms of attracting old-new friends.

On the positive side you could try only handing out your contact details to very close family and true friends while swearing them to secrecy.

If that’s not your scene then what about taking some photos of a cement factory somewhere and sending them to all your old acquaintances back home on a post card labelled “view from our garden”?

You can be subtle and email back home to one and all making casual little asides such as “really enjoying it here in spite of the local health scares”.

These are all techniques that real expats claimed to have actually used with some success. I wonder if they were serious?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Expat travel deals - have YOU found any?

Here comes a moan...

Quite a few expats need to travel regularly. Many spend endless hours trying to find the best deals possible on flights and ferries through various clubs, associations and special offers.

Many consider themselves experts on the numerous cheap travel web sites and tend to have their own favourites.

The trouble is, I’m one of those who always seem to find it difficult to get these deals!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had expat friends and contacts telling me how they found 2 first-class air tickets round the globe for only 50 euros each or how they got their ferry tickets, a luxury cabin and dinner with the captain thrown in for a grand total of 15 euros. I am also seemingly the only person on Earth that has never been spontaneously offered a free upgrade or 10 free flight tickets when boarding a flight just because one of the cabin crew liked my tie, shoes etc.

It’s worth stating here that I do not for one-second doubt these stories, I’m only moaning that I am never the beneficiary of such luck or largesse!

I do get angry and frustrated when the "fly via private jet for only 30 euros anywhere in the world" offers emblazoned onto a web site’s home page immediately disappears at the next click never to be seen again. Equally frustrating are the "fly X to Y from 50 euros" offers. Try as I may to key in every single conceivable combination of dates and times, I can never get these deals as the system invariably keeps telling me I’ve got to find, say, 675 euros instead.

Now, there are some good sites out there for expat travel and we have some good links and advice on Expat Focus covering that subject. You may also want to look at - a section of the British Telegraph newspaper aimed specifically at expats – I’ve seen some useful travel tips and offers there also.

I’m also a fan of the budget airlines and don’t have any problem accepting their ads for flights at 1 cent then finding they’re going to add 40 euros in taxes – in fairness they highlight that clearly up front.

All this, though, doesn’t hide the fact that for all the great information and stunning offers, one can still struggle to get good deals. One site for a ferry company, I’ll mention no names, does provide an excellent deal between France and the UK but in fact to get it you effectively have to buy two return tickets (UK/France/UK and another France/UK/France) and throw one leg of each away to make a ‘merged’ return. I’m sure it must make sense to someone, but it certainly doesn’t to me.

One airline offers a great deal on flights between the UK and Spain, but nowhere indicates how one goes about getting it – you certainly won’t find it on their website and their sales staff seem equally baffled when one asks.

Maybe that’s why so many people do seem to track down these great offers and I seem to find it difficult. Perhaps one needs to be skilled at cryptic crosswords coupled with Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction AND have the patience of a saint to be able to find them!