Ever wondered what you need in an emergency?

Although I rarely feature sponsored posts on this blog, every so often I come across an idea that I don’t mind promoting because I believe it is something that will be truly useful to my readers. I also like to help out fellow expats – in this case, Richard Miles who lives in Botswana, not a million miles from my old stomping ground in South Africa. I love the idea of someone else telling me what I might need in an emergency and – having been in a few (mostly hurricane related!) I can really see how this would be of great benefit to many fellow expats around the globe. 

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As a native Californian, I know from experience that sometimes you have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. My wife Michelle and I have lived through earthquakes our entire lives, and our house in California sits in the Oakland Hills fire zone, right on the Hayward / San Andreas fault. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” the Big One will hit. Many of our dear friends in California just lived through the recent fires and floods and few of them lost everything. And living in Africa we know at any minute we could be without power, in the middle of some interesting times, and we need to be ready to go. And someday someone’s going to knock on our door and say we have to get out now and we aren’t going to be prepared.

Last fall we had a briefing from the Office of Emergency Preparedness where they told us all to make an emergency kit — a “Go Bag” — in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. Everyone nodded in agreement and said, “oh, yes, very important, will get right to it.” Of course, no one did. And the entrepreneur in me thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could put these kits together and offer them to my friends? And that way we all could go from feeling guilty that we hadn’t got it done to sleeping well at night knowing it was handled. But then I thought it would be ridiculous and massively expensive to try and buy all these products, ship them to Africa, assemble them, and then pay to ship them out to people all over the world. I also realized I could find all these products at great prices on Amazon.#

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Getting our Go!Bag together turned into an item on my to-do list. And that to-do item kept getting pushed back. Because it’s an enormous hassle. Going online searching for emergency supplies and pre-made emergency kits very quickly turns into product overwhelm. most of these pre-made kits are either trying to prepare you for the zombie apocalypse or are just full of useless junk (and quite expensive). What should I buy? There are 40-100 choices (or more) for every single thing I need. Figuring out what we need to buy made my eyes glaze over. Trying to sort through the 1,000s of products out there is overwhelming. Add procrastination and not wanting to think about, and it simply slides off the to-do list uncompleted.

Thus, Let’s Go!Bags was conceived.

I was fully committed and I continued to do research — I spent hours reading articles from FEMA (US Government Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Red Cross, even the Humane Society and more — learning what goes into a great emergency kit, and just as importantly what you don’t need. As a result, I put together a pretty comprehensive Emergency Plan & Go!Bag checklist. You can download it for free and use it to create your own family Emergency Plan. Then I spent many (many!) more hours searching for decent products I could buy – and recommend to others, reviewing detailed product specifications and reading user comments and reviews. I found great products on Amazon and I organized them into kits for your home, for your car, for your pets… The products I put on the website are the ones I personally bought for us after all my research. I looked for the highest quality affordable products and quite happily I succeeded.

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So I built a website where folks can come and check “go bag” off their to-do list with a click or two. A lot of our friends said they wanted to just click one link and get a kit. Others wanted to pick and choose. Others (a small few!) had a kit and just wanted to find specific products to expand them. So you can Buy A Kit, Build A Kit, or check our full catalog. We boiled it down to 10 essential products for your basic Go!Bag and you can order a kit for one, two, three or four people with a single click. Then you can expand it with more items if you want, plus get a kit for your car(s).

So be happy I did all the heavy lifting, download the Emergency Plan and checklist I put together, and then order what you need. Now’s your chance to just get it done.

And it wouldn’t hurt if you told all your friends about this: http://www.letsgobags.com

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Still leaving the EU, still breaking my heart

The closer we get to the day we are due to leave the EU, the louder gets the noise about it. Although some news commentators seem to downplay the significance of this event, you would have to be living under a stone in a desert far, far away not to realise how important an issue this is.

And it continues to break my heart.

What I find really hard is the messages I see from expats discussing whether they should come to live in the UK or not. It really hits home when I see these stories which reflect how the outside world sees us. European expats wonder whether it’s worth coming here. Brits married to non-Brits worry what it will mean for their partner’s status, or the status of their children. Expats from non-European countries discuss the rise of racism in this country. And while some question whether this is really true, both police statistics and stories I myself have heard from good friends would indicate that, sadly, it probably is.

What is so frustrating is that it didn’t have to be this way.

Had we had a sensible, clever leader in June 2016 – not one who ran away as soon as possible – they could so easily have stopped the country splitting in two as it has. They could have said thank you very much for the information you have given us by your vote. There is clearly something very wrong in this country which needs solving. Now we will go away and do some modelling, have some focus groups, set up a cross-party group which will travel the country to talk to people, and eventually we will come back to you with what we have found out. Once we can show you whether what you are voting about is as a result of us being in the EU or not, and once we can properly see what the affect of leaving the bloc will mean, we can discuss next steps.

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They could have calmed the situation down. They could have been seen to be taking action without rushing into this fool-hardy process as they did. Triggering Article 50 without a plan, any sort of plan, was shameful. Even if the end result was still that we would, eventually, leave the EU, to do so without a careful plan was simply, I believe, a dereliction of duty.

Of course you would need to go back further in time if you really wanted to sort out this mess (oh for a time machine!). Back to stop Cameron allowing the blame for his austerity policies to rest on the shoulders of immigrants. Back to stopping him promise in leaflets pushed through doors that he would carry out the result of the vote, whatever it was. Back to preventing parliament from backing a vote without a supermajority (eg two-thirds of the vote). Back to, somehow, allowing all EU nationals within the UK and all UK expats in Europe to vote on something that was going to have such a huge impact on their lives. And back to making sure the ballot was more than a simple yes or no – leaving confusion about whether leaving the EU also means leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.  Something some still insist it does even though I highly suspect most people in this country had barely heard either of those two terms before the referendum.

In fact, if we could really go back in time, what we should actually try and do is stop Cameron promising to have the referendum in the first place. Who but for a few members of his party were calling for it? How many people can really say, hand on heart, that EU policies have been having a negative impact on their lives? And how many of us really want the country that we have got now – more split than I have ever known it, friends pitted against friends, family members against family members, and worst of all, a nasty, vocal majority suddenly believing that they have the right and freedom to spout their nasty racist nonsense in public whenever and wherever they want?

Many people voted to leave the EU because they want to go back in time. Back to an imagined past, where in their memories life was good. No-one seems exactly to be able to pinpoint when this was because the past might have been better for some but I don’t believe it was better for all. I too want to go back though. I want to go back to 2012, to the summer of 2012 to be precise. To the golden days of the summer Olympics, when London welcomed the world to what then seemed like an open, tolerant and liberal-minded country. When Mo Farah, an immigrant from Africa, won races and we all cheered.

Will we ever be that country again? Right now, I don’t think we will. My heart remains broken.

Picture credit: EU flag – Rock Cohen

Don’t worry new expats, that blank canvas will soon be filled

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I saw this map a few weeks ago and it really resonated. In fact, I have been thinking about it a lot as I drive round Pretoria in our last few weeks here. It really doesn’t feel that long ago that we were living in the city on the left. I knew no-one, every street was strange to me and I was nervous that every time I left the safety of our compound I would never find my way back home again.

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This is what it looked like at the beginning…

But now it’s different. Now as I go about my daily chores almost every street corner, every mall entrance, every road reminds me of something or someone. Or lots of someones. There’s the turning to the park where we took the dogs after brunch with Bonnie and Geoff. There’s the restaurant where I last met Katy and Naomi. There’s the mall where I lost my car in the enormous car park and had to ask a car washer to help me find it. There’s the place where we bought the beaded schnauzer, where we had our the last meal with the Naslund’s, my husband’s favourite liquor shop, the cafe where I first met Karen.

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The familiar streets of Pretoria

It’s hard to believe it sometimes when you have just arrived somewhere and you have no friends and don’t know where anything is but gradually – sometimes quickly, sometimes a little slower – your map will start to fill up too. There will be meeting places and parks to walk in and favourite shops and that special restaurant and probably dentists, hospitals, schools and offices too.

So if you are new and your map is still looking a bit blank please don’t despair. It is only a matter of time and you can start to fill in those blanks. All I will say is try not to include the “site of a broken canoe”!

 

 

Learning to live with the New Normal.

Phew! What a week. I don’t know about you but I feel like I’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson over these past few days, with news coming at me from every direction. There was the travel ban in America, the huge protests against Trump being invited on a state visit in the UK, and then there was the Brexit debates and vote in London. It just seems like every time I check the news something else has happened….

But somehow, with all this going on, we have to learn to carry on.

In all honesty, I am finding it inceasingly difficult to focus on anything. I have plenty of work and am in the middle of an essay-writing course with a view to increasing the amount of freelance work I do. I also have this blog to keep up! Never mind all the normal, daily routine work like shopping and dog-walking that you can’t just forget about. But on the other hand there is Facebook and Twitter and another check of the latest news and before I know it half the day has gone. I also find my mood swings all over the place with the increasingly worrying information we are getting on a daily, nay hourly, basis.

But I know it’s just going to keep on coming so somehow we have to find a way to live with this new normal. And one of the ways I have been doing it is talking to people who have been surviving for years, decades even, in the sort of uncertain political environment that we in the UK and the US (and other stable democracies) perhaps haven’t ever had to contemplate. In particular, I spent last weekend in Harare visiting with relatives.

For those that don’t know (which hopefully is few of you!), Zimbabwe has been living under Robert Mugabe for more than 35 years. I am not about to go into a plotted history of the country and its politics – especially as, to my shame, I am actually pretty ignorant as to exactly what is happening in that country despite living righ next door and having relatives there. But if you are interested to learn more, here is a link.

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Trying not to get crushed in Zimbabwe

However, what is true is that life in Zimbabwe has become increasingly difficult for many of its nationals and change still seems elusive. It is that lack of WHEN things will improve that I think is the hardest to deal with – many people can cope with difficulties if they know it is for a limited time. If nothing else, contigency planning is easier when you have an idea how many months, years or even decades you are planning for.

It obviously isn’t easy and there aren’t any simple rules but it certainly seems that trying to get involved, in one way or another, in any opposition to the ruling government can make you feel a lot more positive. Just to feel like you are DOING something can certainly lift your spirits. How much you are actually able to do will of course depend on where you are and your particular situation – but in the UK and the US we are still in a position to be able to petition, march, write, donate and share information pretty widely. Hopefully all of those things will continue.

Otherwise, distraction is a great way to deal wth whatever is going on around you – epecially when you feel so helpless to change it. Change does and will come – we only have to look at history to know that we won’t stagnate in this situation forever. But it may be slow, a lot slower than we would want – so in the meantime we need to find ways to cope with the wait. Whether that be writing or crafting or sewing or baking or even burying yourself in work, it is always going to be healthy to take your minds off things for periods of times.

Getting together with like-minded friends is another thing that can really help when you are feeling despondent. As an expat I do sometimes feel quite isolated from everything going on in my home country, especially as I am surrounded by American expats so the news of Trump does tend to dominate. But every so often I get together with another sympathetic British friend who reassures me that no, I am not alone in feeling like this (I know the internet and Facebook in particular is another way to bring people together but there is nothing like a proper, face-to-face get together).

Finally the other thing that really helps me is what this blog is really all about – which is that many people, in many countries have been living with these uncertainties for years and whatever happens we will still almost certainly remain some of the most privileged people in the world just by dint of our passports. Although I speak about Zimbabwe, South Africa also has been going through interesting political times with a difficult and unpopular government, student riots, allegations of corruption right to the top of government…..

But I look around me and people are getting on with their lives. They are shopping and cooking and drinking wine and selling mobile phone cases at traffic lights and sweeping leaves and walking dogs and going to business meetings….in other words, life goes on. It is frustrating, incredibly frustrating, when you feel that you can’t do anything to bring about the immediate change that you crave but actually what you do need to be doing is living.

Now I am going to take my own advice and go and make a cup of tea. Please let me know your thoughts – these are interesting times.

Watch out for mini-culture shock

We’ve been back in Pretoria for a couple of weeks now and I am starting to feel back on top of things. Starting. By that I don’t mean I feel settled back in at all – in fact, I really feel like I could do with about three weeks holiday to get over my holiday, now that the children are back at school…

Because, apart from all the extra work there is to catch up on, the friends I want to see, the chores that have laid abandoned since the day term broke up back in mid-June, there is also that strange feeling of disorientation which we all have to go through on returning from a long trip overseas – especially when it is to your home country.

We all know about culture shock and, to come extent, we all expect it when we first move somewhere new. Most people at least have some understanding of the sort of rollercoaster of emotions they are likely to go through as a new expat – even if many of us don’t realise how hard or how long it may hit for. However, what I hadn’t expected was to go through a sort of mini version of this when we first returned from our long break in the UK.

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Expat life can be a bit of a roller coaster at times…..

I was looking forward to coming back. We’d had a good holiday and seen a lot of people we were missing. But it’s always hard when you have to keep packing and unpacking, moving between different places, never sleeping in the same place for more than a few nights at a time. I also missed my own bed, my own shower and my own space. And yes I missed my dog!

So it wasn’t that I didn’t want to return. We had had long enough away and even the children agreed nearly nine weeks out of school is way too much. They positively hopped onto the school bus the first morning back! We also returned to glorious weather (hot, sunny days, cool nights…) and lots to look forward to including various trips and holidays. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be home in Pretoria – it was more just that when I got here it took a bit of time to settle.

For the first few days I felt a bit down, grumpy and even various degrees of anger. Usually exercise and sun helps with these things but I couldn’t shake the feelings. I also felt disorientated, to the extent that once or twice I woke up and couldn’t work out where I was. I don’t think my feelings were helped by the bad memories of the first few days of “Brexit” which were also my last few days in Pretoria before the holiday – sitting in the car park at our local supermarket I suddenly had a flash-back to checking on my phone and discovering our prime minister had resigned while I was doing the weekly shop.

These feelings didn’t last long and gradually I started to “re-adapt” to my surroundings, getting back into the rythm of a life that mostly revolves around working, writing, dog walking, food shopping and organising holidays. But these feelings threw me as they weren’t expected at all and it made me realise that, as expats, we have to continue to be aware that life isn’t linear and the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride will continue throughout our time away from home. It also reminded me that I needed to be kind to myself – it isn’t realistic that I would be able to jump straight back where I left off nine weeks ago; and that the guilt I felt about not making arrangements to see people or starting a new project within a week of returning should be parked straight away in the unrealistic car park.

So here  I am on day 13 and I do feel like I am getting there. I have managed to write a few new blog posts, caught up with most friends, met some of the newcomers (who so far all seem lovely), sorted out the last details for our coming trips to Cape Town and Mozambique and more or less got up to date with work. I realise there is still a long way to go and my to-do list is as long as ever (although sometimes I think that is just what life in the 21st century is like for everyone). But at least now I know what to expect next time I return from a long trip home. Buckle up those seat belts!

As an expat, why I am voting to STAY in the EU

My country has been split over the past few months. Split by an issue whuch has revealed a fault line through the middle of the United Kingdom – a fault line which many of us didn’t even realise was there until this year, and a fault line that the whole country seems to be sliding into with a huge furour of anger and hatred and fear. It has not been pleasant and I would not wish an EU referendum on anyone.

But what it has done is make me take a long hard look at this institution we are fighting over, this huge behemoth with all its defects but also its benefits – the good, the bad and the ugly side of an institution I had assumed we would always be part of. An important part of – as one of the largest economies in Europe, we play a full and vital role in shaping the way the EU is run. A role we will no longer have if we leave, although we will still be affected by the decisions made by those who remain.

So the debate has raged – back and forth. The economy, immigration, faceless bureaucrats telling us what to do. How much we pay to the EU every week, what we could do with that money. The affect on businesses. What sort of a role we would have on the world stage if we left. Personalities and politicians taking sides. Friends and family split by the arguments – others turned off by the whole thing. But in the back of our minds, all knowing that this might be collectively the most important decision of our lifetime.

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So I know all the arguments. I have read as much as I can get my hands on. Right from the start I have always said that we don’t really know what will happen if we leave – this is an unprecedented situation and the claims from both sides are only based on best guesses. Economics is more of an art than a science and we can’t predict how people will act if we withdraw so there are still a lot more if, buts and maybes than definites in this debate.

But beyond the economics, the question of migration, the laws on bendy bananas and all the other nonsense that has been thrown at us over the past few years there is an issue which as an expat seals the deal for me. And that is that I want to be part of the world.

I realise I am luckier than most in that I have been able to travel all my life. I took my first plane ride before I can remember and I have lived on every main continent. I have visited more than 70 countries and that includes, as a wide-eyed teenager, the obligatory inter-railing trip around Europe.

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I love Europe. I love the beauty of Italy, the food of Spain, the efficiency of Germany. As a child we took holidays in the south of France, canal boats linking up towns where we could cycle to pick up baguettes for breakfast and practice our schoolgirl French. As a student I took part in sponsored hitch-hikes to Paris. I have stayed in Germany with old family friends, lived in Spain and Gibraltar, taken the children on holiday in the Netherlands. I once took a ferry to France for the day to stock up on wine. Another time I did an overnight boat trip to the Hook of Holland just because we could.

Like it or not, Europe is a part of us and I don’t want to lose that. But more than that, as a global citizen I don’t want to belong to a country that looks to the outside world like it is pulling up its drawbridge and isolating itself from everyone else. I love my country but I know it is not perfect – there is so much else out there, so much we should be part of. From food to culture to trade, we need to stay connected or we will be left behind. Not just economically but every other way as well. And it’s a two-way thing – we have so much to offer the rest of the world, why should we put up the walls and say no, we don’t want you? Because to the rest of the world this is what it will seem like we are doing if we vote to leave. In my expat life here in South Africa I am friends with people from all over the world. Many of these friends are Europeans. Proper friends, friends I am sure I will remain in touch with for the rest of my life. I have as much in common with them as I do with my friends back in England. To leave them, to symbolically tell them them we don’t want to be part of you – well, to me that is unthinkable.

This is why I (thanks to my proxy back home in the UK) will be voting to remain a part of the EU this week.

 

Bloggers in Africa – we want you!

Are you a blogger? Do you live in Africa? Then please join a brand-new link-up starting later this month.

From Angola to Zimbabwe, Algeria to Zambia we want you writers and photographers from all over the continent to share a bit of your life with us. The idea for a link-up specifically for bloggers in Africa started when I began corresponding with Frances who runs the wonderful Africa Expat Wives Club – which, for those of you who don’t already know isn’t a club at all but a very insightful blog about life in Kenya. Looking for a way to better connect with other writers on the continent I suggested a blog link-up and the idea rolled from there.

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This is my African world – but what’s yours?

The idea will be to link up on a monthly basis with ANY Africa-related post, whether it be funny, serious, political, photographic…even a poem or short story is welcome, in fact the only rules really are that the post mustn’t be offensive and we don’t accept posts that are pure advertising. A new post would be great, but if you don’t have something relevant written recently then an old post is good too.

The first link-up will be on Wednesday May 25th and we hope to continue monthly from there, alternating between this blog and the Africa Expat’s Wives Club. If you want to join in then all you need to do is leave your contact below – either email or twitter name, or email me directly at clara@expatpartnersurvival.com and we will remind you closer to the date!