Opinion and Editorial

New country, new home, new me

Anjaly Thomas
Filed on September 17, 2021
File photo

What happens when the pull from a foreign terrain makes you pack your bags and and start life elsewhere

I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met, said the 13-year- old Melody Truong on her now defunct Tumblr page. That innocent statement became famous, thanks to American author John Green, and summarised the philosophy of every traveller on earth.

Years before Melody, brave travellers and tourists (age notwithstanding) simply turned up at a destination, found a new opportunity or passion and moved homes, leaving behind friends and family. I am not the shining example of a plucky traveller, because I am eager to head back to familiar territory, sooner or later.

But frequently on my travels, I meet the above people — with their heads high, doing the unthinkable, finding themselves or losing it all. And starting again. Which got me thinking: what prompts them to leave the familiar behind and start life elsewhere? Are they brave or foolhardy? What does it take to make that life-altering decision?

Allure of South east Asia

When Kenneth Liss turned 67, he decided to leave US, his home. Having worked as an independent recruiter for nearly three decades, he took the plunge to move to South East Asia, because he “loved it” and because his social security would allow him to live out his life there. The most important thing, however, was that SE Asia was so hot that he’d never have to wear a shirt. “That was my prerequisite. I never wanted to wear a shirt — except for at weddings, funerals, or dining out with friends. All other times, it had to be flip-flops and shorts,” he says.

Kenneth moved to Hoi An, Vietnam, in 2015. Eight months later, he met his wife in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, while travelling around. After two years in Cambodia, they moved to Dong Thap, Vietnam, for good. The best thing that happened after moving to SE Asia was meeting his wife, he says. “We moved from Cambodia to Dong Thap in Vietnam in 2018 because the Chinese developers came and destroyed the ambience by building high-rise apartment buildings where we lived. Crime rate shot up.”

Dong Thap is where Kenneth has decided to grow roots and watch endless paddy fields outside his window. He is certain he never wants to leave Vietnam, having much to keep him occupied for the rest of his life. “At my age, I see more writing for myself. I have two books published in the last three years... I read a lot, which is now a forgotten art. But really, the place you choose to live in can become anything you decide it to be. If you begin your life as an expat with regret, then that is how it will treat you. With negativity,” he adds.

Inspired by storybooks

Keith Pearson has lived long in Kenya, Africa — longer than he has in his home, England. A theatre director by profession, he sums up his life in his typical theatrical way. “I come from peasant farmer and sea-faring stock and was raised on travel stories from Great Uncle Sam who spent his life as a merchant seaman and Grandad Pearson, a sailor. England was grey, cold and humbug-flavoured while Uncle Sam’s stories were warm and tasted of coconut,” he recollects.

Uncle Sam remained his biggest influence before travel writers like Theroux, Chatwin and Morris came into his life. He moved to Kenya in 1979 and never returned. His adopted country embraced him warmly. He puts it this way: “There is a beautiful contradiction to being a post-colonial era Englishman going to live in a former colony. I felt at home, but with more sunshine and a vast country begging to be explored. And soon I moved into my home and made theatre.”

In 1985, after getting involved in the movie Out of Africa, he decided to commit to living in Kenya and eventually established performance spaces and institutions, and created the Karichota and Souareba artistic retreat centres. “Kenya remains a place where I can serve the people and the environment through art, which is more important than what it can do for me. I have always questioned the notion of ‘nationality’ — so when asked where I belong, I respond that I do not believe in traditional and formal definitions which are represented by visas, passports and social security numbers… or countries.”

He has seen immense changes in his new home — from its economy to its population and, as an artist, prefers to reflect upon them in silence. For Keith, there is no going back. Kenya is home and as he says he will never throw away the chance to meet wonderful, intriguing new people; to be in the most spectacular and varied environment; to be in a society where creativity and learning have existed bountifully and are valued and practised.

Feeding her artistic soul in India

French contemporary sculptor and visual artist Yahel Chirinian made India her home. Interestingly, it was in her father’s antique store in Paris that she developed what she calls her artistic side which eventually brought her to India. Yahel recalls the first time she set eyes on an Indian man at her father’s store; she was five. “Dad was busy with his merchants when a tall man with a turban walked in, communicating with the objects in silence. Then he looked at me and smiled — and that smile was kindness and magic. My father later told me about him and that was the precise moment when my love for India began.”

When she was older, she came to India and that was that. She explains how her new country spurred her on. “By nature, I’m solitary, and yet I enjoy the Indian chaos. It’s a very maternal form of chaos — warm and protective. When I first arrived in India, Delhi International Airport was lit by neon lights. I remember buying books from Nini Singh Bookshop in Jor Bagh. When I moved to Goa [in 2002], it was still a fishing village — but the rhythm of the monsoon, an old song of Asha Bhosle, the whisper of sarees were everything I wanted to feel.”

Yahel runs Monsoon Heritage, her studio that furthered her artistic career, in Goa. “Always, I connect with people first — they are the real treasure. In 2016, my new country honoured me with the Goan of the Year Award, a rarity for a foreigner. Today, I am one of them.”

Yahel is currently in south of France, working on renovating an ancient mill, an in-between arrangement, according to her. “My memories of France are hazy and feels awkward, even the conversations. My heart is in India and I find myself constantly thinking of dal makhni. I hope to return to Goa soon and live the rest of my life there.”

Viva la Mexico

René Charles Grand, a professional chef from Switzerland, fell in love with Mexico when he’d first driven down from New York City (he was working in NYC). One day, few years later, he left for Mexico and never returned — not even for his 4,000 slides and a thousand black-and-white shots from his around- the-world- trip earlier.

It’s been 19 years since then. “I couldn’t go back because I found here what I couldn’t have in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village,” he says with pride. “Never once did I feel like an outsider.” He was on a weekly live radio programme on cooking French food and giving away classic recipes, and became head chef at the hotel-restaurant Le Chateau René in Cuernavaca.

His new country, René says, gave him everything in a nutshell: deserts, pyramids and temples covered in rainforests, mountains, volcanoes and magnificent landscapes, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, on each side, with more than ten thousand kilometres of beautiful beaches, and — most importantly — a beautiful señorita. “I fell in love with her just like that. The guaranteed 365 days of sunshine a year, excellent food, sub-tropical climate was the bonus.”

For Rene, there is no life after Mexico. It is where he intends to live out his life swimming in mountain lakes, sharing the house with dogs and cats, something he says would be impossible in Switzerland. “I am never going to leave,” he affirms.

When it feels just right

A theta healer, Julie Lachtay, a Briton, never felt as though she belonged in the UK and spent much of her adult life travelling, looking for a place to call home. “In the end, it found me,” she says. “I literally woke up one morning and thought of moving to Istanbul. I knew nothing about it. It was just a longing. A month later, I had given up my flat, given away everything that wouldn’t fit in one suitcase and accepted a job here... I fell in love with the city and felt at home here instantly.”

Not once in her time in Turkey has Julie felt like an outsider. Instead, the feeling of belonging is stronger here for her, like home. “Even the baristas know me by name. That is home, isn’t it?”

Julie doesn’t believe that a country becomes home simply by being born in it. “This is my home,” she says of Turkey. “I feel it in my soul and I have no plans to return. It is magical. Istanbul chose me like a siren call to my soul, and all I can do is obey.”

Bhagavati Nath left the grey skies and gloomy weather of England for a more l’aperto lifestyle, first in Italy and later India, and fell in love with the chaos and the peace. “I returned to the UK, and studied BA in social anthropology, specialised in South Asia and Hindi at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), and graduated in 1985.”

On her fifth trip to India (in 1993), she met her husband (Indian), who offered her a simple, traditional lifestyle. “I changed my name; we built a home and started a yoga ashram for Westerners. When our daughter was seven, we moved to Goa and here I made my reputation as an artist. India has been my home, although to most Indians I am still a foreigner and I always will be,” she admits.

Things have changed since then in Goa, but she isn’t ready to move back to England. “When I moved to Goa, everyone rode Hero bicycles, or walked. Then came the scooters and then cars and all hell broke loose. It’s not the same place anymore.”

She is considering another move and Italy is top on her mind for various reasons. “It is cleaner and greener than when I knew it. And art and music are appreciated by all. And home is all about loving the place you are in. Home is a transient term, really, but I will find one.”

Business coach and travel writer Heather Markel from the US lived in a few different countries before finally arriving in New Zealand — her new home for the last 18 months. Heather quit her full-time job in 2017, and became a nomad, travelling through six continents and 25 countries before the pandemic. She says she didn’t choose to make New Zealand her “permanent” home, but it happened, thanks to a strange twist of fate (read: Covid). “I only expected to stay for a few weeks but Covid had other plans. I don’t know when it happened, but I now feel like New Zealand is another second home, the first being France. I have felt greatly accepted by the Kiwis and feel more of an insider.”

For Heather, her new home has given her a sense of security because looking at the news from home scares her. “Violence and anger are at an all-time high in America. Here, people have shared values with me. I’ve learned much about how to connect with nature and be less wasteful or extravagant. There’s a beautiful quality of life here, even if it’s very expensive.”

Although she will eventually return home to be with her ageing parents, a part of her wants to stay back. “I suppose home is wherever your heart is and now I’ve added one more place to my heart.”

The ground beneath my feet

Without yet leaving Dubai, I already know I will miss it if I do. It is an unexplainable feeling. Dubai feels like home — I have totally embraced its free-spiritedness, energy and way of life and dream of many more years here. Considering who I have become today — the result of a strong bond with the city — I am in no hurry to upset the apple cart.

Having thrown myself into every opportunity in a quest to build a new life, I can finally say I have no regrets. I have a life I am proud of… heck, I can even look back in my old age and be glad I took that flight out of India one fine February morning with a backpack and a 14-day tourist visa, lived out of my comfort zone and embraced a new world.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. She tweets @ThomasAnjaly and her Insta handle is @travelwithanjaly.)

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