Santiago

I have been bombarded with questions such as “what are your first impressions?”, “I can’t wait for you to tell me what you think of the city”, and the simple and straightforward “what is it like?”. But since I keep using the same words to describe it to reply to everyone that asks, I thought I’d share. It is less personal yes, I am sorry.

First and foremost, I am not on holiday. So despite how beautiful the city is and how wonderful the people are, I know I will be living here. So I had to buy a sim card and charge it. I had to buy a metro card and charge it, and then find my way using it. I had to find my way in the supermarket. I need to get used to the currency. I need to practice my Spanish. The list goes on. My point is: that experience is truly humbling. Yes I speak (some) Spanish, but I can safely and truthfully say I have to figure out everything again. No misplaced pride or arrogance here, I can literally say “no sé nada”. But that’s okay, because once you accept that, every single thing is empowering too 🙂 And the people have been wonderful and welcoming as well. My colleagues speak English (I have the feeling your average person doesn’t?) and they have been so incredibly nice. Chilean people also just seem rather chill (excuse the pun), with the amount of traffic you encounter here, I find it amazing no one uses his/her horn? They must be really calm in nature. 

But that of course has little to do with Santiago and you wanted to read about Santiago of course.

First, there is the Andes. They are beautiful, they are omnipresent and I can imagine how they very much define the identity of this city and its residents. I have already figured out that if I want to go North, the mountains have to be on my right. (And yes: South, left.) So I have my eye on them at all times. It is also because of the Andes, that my past 3 mornings started with fog. Today (day 3), I went to the view point on San Cristobal Hill and that was a mind-blowing sight, with the mountains cradling the city. I am sure that at some point, the girls and I will drive in the direction of the Andes and go skiiing. How can anyone not, right?

The city itself is huge. I read that 7 million people live here. I have now walked around in it for the last 3 days and I feel I have not even skimmed the surface. It has an interesting mixture of old and new, history and modern buildings, and every area has it’s own special and unique character. It will be a search for me and the girls to see where we will live. Most likely, on the Eastern side (the side of the mountains) because both the school (North-East) and my office (a bit more South-East) are there. But even that does not pin it down to a specific neighbourhood so stay tuned.

My limited tick list I made before arrival, had “Plaza de Armas” in the top 3. Your typical Latin American city will have a Plaza de Armas, it is the old market square so to speak. And the one in Santiago did not disappoint: some musicians were playing music, old men were playing chess, lots of people were enjoying the afternoon sun on a bench, the police rides horses, pigeons everywhere.. The old city centre is always fun to explore: avenues, parks, statues, fountains, churches, universities.. you can just see, smell and feel the history everywhere.

What I am less used to, is the big shiny malls. That is not only because I just lived in Africa for the past 16 years, but even in Belgium they are more exception than rule. I assume it is the American influence that brought them to South America? Especially the food court on the top floor is a concept foreign to me. I can’t say I care for that very much. But I will be the last to complain to have some first world luxury, and my girls will be over the moon. And today I had a fresh raspberry juice for a dollar and a half on the roof of a mall with the view of the glorious snow caped Andes. The perks.

Yeah.. I think we will settle in just fine. And I still have loads to see.

 

 

 

 

Puzzled

She had always been very mature for her age. Or no.. what is the better way to explain it? She had always had an old soul. Yes, that is what a teacher once wrote in her report card: ‘she has an old soul’.

At the age of 9, she heard from a friend that there are YouTube videos that show you how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. So she set her mind to it and she taught herself the algorithm to solve a Rubik’s Cube. After she made sure she could do it every single time, she set out to school and told everyone that if they had a Cube at home which was jumbled up, she would make it right again. Numerous children showed up with one, even more children showed up to watch.

She told her mother about her little project, and asked to be filmed. Her motivation? “This will be my college application.” It wasn’t ruthless ambition that made her do it, or the plan to boast about it later (old souls don’t think like that) but it was out of pure empathy. Since she knew that the college of her choice might depend on a scholarship based on her own merit, and not on her mother’s financial situation.

And in school? Everything went well, she did all the cubes, and the rightful owners took them home to put them back on their shelf, all perfect looking. She now enjoys the reputation of clever cookie. And maybe nerd? But we like nerds.

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If you think this is my weak attempt to a short story, you are mistaking, this is a true story. You see my eldest daughter in the picture, she is 14 now. Yes, she has decided which college she wants to apply for (she is subscribed to the newsletter). And yes, she can still do Rubik’s cubes.

Zanzibar

There is something about the water that other places just do not have. And then I do not care if it is a lake or an ocean, a place at the water just always feels like a room with one wall less. So imagine what an island feels like. (Extra advantage on an island: the humidity is bearable due to the breeze.)

I am not sure how many times I have been to Zanzibar in my life. And throughout the years I made the transition of booking backpacker places that offered a weak excuse for a breakfast to five star hotels, with the stage of decent average places in between.

So when this time around, my brother decided to join me and my family with his family, we decided to go all the way: a full week and five star places and extra excursions. (See pictures below)

Tulia Zanzibar was the revelation of the trip for me. I had never been there. It boasts about having the only pool slides and fastest wifi on the island so because we had kids and teenagers with us, that seemed like a great fit. I was not expecting the food to be excellent, I never really book a property for the food, but my word it was exquisite! Something that guests sometimes complain about in Zanzibar is the tides, and the huge distance between them. Tulia did not only have 2 pools anyway but they cleverly made an extra artificial beach for when the tide is high.

This does mean I had my water-island-beach fix for a while now..

PICTURES:

Park Hyatt

Park Hyatt view pool ocean

Prison Island

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Six Degrees Restaurant

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Stone Town

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Lunch at The Rock

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Tulia Zanzibar

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Spice Tour (the picture shows nutmeg by the way)

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My Favorite(s)

I am not one to make New Year’s resolutions and therefore “blogging more regularly” was not one of them. But this morning, both my kids said something that made me think.. and very often when something makes me think, it makes me write.

For a while, I have been pressing my snooze button but instead of dozing off again in my own bed, I go and lay with my daughter and doze off next to her. I consider it a gentle way of waking her up and giving her some time before she needs to get up. I have two daughters so I alternate between them.

When I casually mentioned this system of switching every day between them, you should have seen their face! They both looked at me incredulously, full on consternation written all over their faces. In stereo they said “what do you mean? You go to her room too? I thought it was only me!” It was actually rather cute to think they were both convinced they are my favorite and they kept it as ‘our little secret’ without gloating to the other one (they do get along). So imagine their surprise when they found out both are my favorite. If I had known they felt this way, I would not have blown the secret either!

 

 

Airports

Today, I will be dropping my girls at the airport, for their flight to see the family and have Christmas with their father. I have dropped them at Kilimanjaro International Airport more than 20 times in the last years. And even though it is never a particularly joyous occasion for me (I am happy for them of course), I do love airports. I guess since an average visit to the airport means you are going on holiday, I am not alone when I say I love airports.

I find it interesting to just sit there and imagine where all these people are going and where they come from. Everybody has a story, right? And I am always intrigued to hear the story. And usually I leave it up to my imagination but sometimes it happens you end up talking to someone for hours during a layover and some of them do have such an interesting life story. I actually have facebook friends that I met in an airport. I guess sharing a gate created a certain bond 🙂

I have to admit I already did the imagining-thing when I was a kid. I remember sitting in a Quick-restaurant (Belgian version of McDonalds) and trying to imagine everyone’s life story. I would go as far as to imagine what some people’s living room would look like. In an airport, the possibilities are of course limitless. And who doesn’t love a world that is limitless?

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Being thankful

Today is Thanksgiving. I am not American so I do not celebrate it. But I have to agree it is a good tradition to be thankful once in a while.

I personally get quite annoyed when people act entitled. When stuff is – or worse: when people are – taken for granted. I mean, marriages break up over this stuff, no? Not trying to be corny, but I find it important to teach my children to stop and think and realize these things occasionally. Maybe it should even be easier for them, when living in 3 continents, to notice positive and little things?

In an effort to motivate them to do so, and to make it a habit, we have a gratitude journal. Every evening, we write together but in our own journal what we are thankful for. And it does become a habit, something you then develop an eye for and think of during the day. After writing, the girls are free to share what they wrote or keep it to themselves. On the same day, I heard the following:

A: “I am grateful for showers and how clean they make me feel when it is dusty”

C: “I am grateful for the tree that holds the swing”

And I am grateful for how wonderful those entries are.

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Words

When my children were born – and I assume this is the same for everyone – I slowly but surely tried to teach them how to speak. The first time they then actually used the right word for the right thing, it was followed by applause. My eldest was a stubborn one though, she would say “opa” 15 times when pointing at his chair, but she would refuse to say it when he was actually there (yearning to hear it, I am sure).

Then of course the second one comes along and you are surprised how they develop totally differently. It is as if every child walks through a room full of shelves and chooses from the shelves whatever skill they want to focus on first. Number one made two word sentences at a young age, number two has incredible eye-hand coordination. They also seemed to treat vocabulary differently. Number one associated table cloth with sheet but number two named the table cloth an apple because it was green.

I recall the first time my daughter came home from school and used words she did not learn from me. I remember that exact moment, because I realized she would now be exposed to every single word out there. In the past, she obviously heard words from other people aswell but I was there. Maybe it makes more sense that I remember that moment because my children are raised in a multi-lingual environment. So when the gardener was tending the flowers and gave them water, she repeated after him “maji” and we all beamed with pride. But when she came home from school and said (in an accent more English than the queen, I must add) “water“, it was.. well, weird.

(And don’t get me wrong, it is not as if I think they will pick up bad words from the outside world. They pick those from me. We have a swear jar in our house and all the money in it, comes from me. We could go on an annual holiday with that jar. Although I do my best, I use ‘flipping heck’ and ‘shoot’ and that sort of thing. )

And now we have come to the stage where my kids throw my words back at me. Also a pleasure. (Not) Where I lecture them on something and by God, I have to admit they listened to every word and have actually registered what I said fully because a couple of days or weeks later it is thrown right back at you, and you have to admit they are right and you should practice what you preach. But hey, who am I kidding, I am still beaming with pride when they do that (don’t tell them though).

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“maji!”

The good, the bad and the ugly

I work in a holiday destination, and I am usually the one to read the feedback from guests after their holiday. Luckily, 95% of what I get to read is fantastic, full of praise and tells me guests are over the moon. Great. A perk to the job even.

But you can imagine that the remaining 5% consists of a wide range: from totally legitimate complaints, to a tad naive remarks, sometimes even rude notes, and then all the way to downright ridiculous comments. The totally legitimate complaints I can work with, gladly even, appreciate knowing them. In the category naive, it sometimes seems guests leave their brain at home when they travel. One lady told me she did not brush her teeth for a full week because our packing list did not tell her to bring her toothbrush. Right.. whatever. A rude comment I found in a written questionnaire, saying: “the driver did not smell!”. I immediately wondered if I should be worried that we did not meet her expectations? But it is of course the ridiculous ones that make my job such fun. When I heard “we couldn’t sleep at night, it was quite annoying the animals made sounds all night”, it is very hard to bite my tongue and not reply “oh god, did they forgot to turn the feature off again?”. Or when someone complained there was an animal on the path to the room, I so wished I could say “what do you mean? Do they not put them back in their cages?”

A common one I got very often, was the one where the guest wrote “the Maasai were not very authentic”. Well, it is not as if we got a Chinese rip off in wholesale for her. A colleague and myself even started drawing cartoons based on these comments.

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Not only the feedback but also the strange requests inspired us. When we received a parcel of toiletries in the office, addressed to the mobile camp in the Serengeti, clearly the guest thought DHL would deliver it at his tent? Which would probably look something like this..?

DHL

Clearly, people’s trust in DHL is limitless because when a Chinese millionaire’s daughter summited Kilimanjaro, she told us “you can take me and my luggage down now” and she was appalled by our suggestion she should walk it down. She insisted. We explained planes and helicopters cannot really land where she was. So she said “you can carry me on the stretcher and you can DHL the luggage down”. The worst part? The porters actually did carry her down on a stretcher. And carried her luggage. (I hope she tipped well.) And I made this.

DHL 2

But my favorite – and it has not been topped yet – is this one: “the beach was very sandy and there were fish in the ocean”. Which I thought was a huge compliment, talking about a great experience, right? But no, I misunderstood, it was a complaint: the beach was TOO sandy and since there were fish, she did not dare to swim in case they touched her.

 

 

Home is where the heart is?

People very often ask why I live in Africa and if I will ever go back home.

Firstly, I did not chose Africa. I (we, at that time) wanted to leave and we were prepared to go (almost) anywhere. So it could even have been Costa Rica or Vietnam. Call it destiny, call it coincidence, but it became Tanzania. Many will be surprised to hear this but I hated it at first. Hated it. Talked about going home about every day. But I feel that if you do not live in a country for at least 2 years, you did not really give it a chance. This is not a scientifically proven fact, this is my opinion. So we stayed.

Secondly, Africa does get under your skin. It just does. The wildlife, the endless views, the weather, the sunsets, the hakuna matata-attitude.  How can you not get affected by that? I will not expand too much on the fact that I met the love of my life in Africa, but maybe it helped that I saw the place through his eyes. He (partly) grew up here, spoke fluent Kiswahili, he even spoke of sweet childhood memories, maybe it softened me up? Who knows.

And I admit: the hakuna-matata attitude is a double-edged sword. When you want someone to come and fix your water, and he says he will come Monday at 10.00 and he shows up Tuesday at 15.00, that can be infuriating. But if you can put yourself over that, there is something to be said for less stress. When I am in Europe, I am even stressed in the shower. The water pours so hard over my head, I feel rushed to wash and rinse faster 🙂

But to me, Arusha is sometimes a micro-cosmos, and life is simplified. The community I move around in, is fairly small, so is the industry I work in. There are obviously people you like less, but no point ignoring them so better learn to live with it. Also, you cannot really buy much so shopping is pretty much out of the question. Therefore following fashion is futile (impossible?) and you feel free to wear whatever you feel comfortable in, so liberating. And because there is less shopping, there is also no rivalry in school about the latest and hottest schoolbag or clothes because the Italian girl is wearing what she bought in Rome and the Indian girl wears her Dehli-outfit, and that is a wealth for my children, no limitation.   In terms of food, we only recently got luxury products such as imported cheese and they are so expensive that you think long and hard about when and why you would wish to indulge. Which is not a bad thing may I add. Not having much also makes you resourceful, makes you think. And yes, I like nice things but I do not depend on them, definitely not derive my self-worth from them.

And whether I will go home. Always an option. A very nice option even. But why not go somewhere else (first)? The options are limitless, no? Soon, the added question will become: where do my girls want to go?

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It’s a small world after all

When you have been an expat for 16 years, the term globalisation is no longer something you read an article about, it becomes life. But the most amazing example of that just happened to me recently.

At my kid’s international school, they organise an annual international fair where all parents are kindly requested to make a stand which represents their country. Usually the stand has a game and some typical food. The parents are not only willing, they usually go all the way and the festival is very cool as a result. The UK and US stand are always quite big, the Asian ones have fantastic food, Belgium usually pairs up with Holland, and I always lose Celeste in South-Africa in search of her boerewors-fix.. In short: it is an experience.

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This year, I found Axelle in China, where a very organised mum was teaching calligraphy. All of a sudden, a small Asian girl, which I deduced was the lady’s daughter, came up to her and asked in perfect Flemish (yep, accent and all) if she could have a soda. Imagine our faces. So I politely asked why her daughter spoke Flemish. The conversation went a little bit like this.

– me “your daughter speaks Flemish?”

– the mother “yes, we lived in Belgium for years”

– “oh really, I am Belgian. And which part of China are you from?”

– “do you know Hubei province?”

– “I do actually, I used to teach in Wuhan”

– “I am from Wuhan! ”

Mind. Blown.