life's a picnic

the adventures of william & laura

topkapi palace and the grand bazaar

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On our second day in the Old City, we explored Topkapi Palace and the surrounding grounds. We could have spent all day in this gorgeous park – it was so green and lush and clean. One of the things we miss out on in Nairobi is beautiful, safe green spaces. We ate our morning baklava and did some people watching before walking up the hill to the Palace.

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It’s always funny to reflect on the things you remember about a holiday. One of my clearest memories of this particular day was standing in line with Will to get our tickets, and him spotting a fellow tourist who he suspected to be a Mongolian street fighter. So then he told me some hilarious (and scary) stories from his time in UB, and shared a bit on the current relationship between Turkey and Mongolia. There is so much about this world of ours that I am yet to learn!

But back to the Palace. Topkapi Palace was home to the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years. It was constructed in 1459, survived an earthquake in 1509 and a fire in 1665 and in 1985 the Palace, along with a number of other historic sights in Istanbul, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are displays throughout the grounds of various historical items, however for the most part, we weren’t allowed to take photos. But the real reason I wanted to visit was the see the gorgeous ceramic tile work.

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Our favourite section was the Baghdad Pavilion, which was used as a library. The ceiling was exquisite.

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The palace is set up high above the water, with beautiful views of parts of the city. We asked a stranger to take our photo – we never have enough photos of us together! (P.S. Can you tell who was taking most of the photos today? The photos of me:Will was basically 1000:1!)

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After exploring the gardens further, and saying a quick hello the police horses, we jumped on the light rail and headed to the Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world and was teeming with people. We felt the TV screens and funny lightening kind of dampened the historic effect a little. We’re collecting globes and so we wandered around to see if one could be found, but alas all we discovered was a dinky Made in China option that wasn’t so inspiring. It got really hot inside so we headed back to the train station, stopping for fresh orange juice on the way.

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And then that evening, we headed to Nardis Jazz Club to hear an 84 year old Turkish trumpet player. The club was just around the corner from where we were staying in Galata and it was a definite holiday highlight.

Previous: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia

Next: Princes’ Islands

 

the blue mosque and the hagia sofia

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We split our main sight-seeing over two days. Originally we planned to fit the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia (pictured above), Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar into one day, but of course we discovered the Palace was closed the first day we were there. We almost missed the Statue of David in Florence last year for the same reason, we can be such unorganised spontaneous travellers sometimes!

First up, the Blue Mosque, which is also known as Sultanahmet Mosque. The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 and is in remarkable condition. I had to don a full length dress and head scarf before entering and we all removed our shoes. I realised as we walked it that it was the first time I’d walked barefoot on carpet in about a year. The chains holding the lighting fittings up blocked the view of the gorgeous ceilings a little, but the detailing was impressive. Certain sections were roped off and only devout Muslims were able to enter to pray, but we wandered through and caught snippets of information from all the tour guides leading their little groups around.

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We can’t help but laugh when we see people trying to take photos with a tablet. Isn’t it the weirdest thing? We’ve even see people try it on safari!

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The line into the Hagia Sofia was rather long, so we stopped for Turkish icecream on our way. It’s stickier than icecream we’re more familiar with, and the traditional icecream sellers have this whole slight-of-hand routine where they use their long scoop to offer you the cone, but take it back, then offer it again, and somehow leave you with just the cone in your hand, then take it back, then you end up with icecream on your nose, or an upside down cone, or a huge scoop with two cones protruding from either end. I’m sure that makes no sense if you haven’t seen the routine for yourself, but it’s highly amusing for spectators and hilariously frustrating for the person trying to buy the icecream!

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On to the Hagia Sofia! I think we were both more impressed by the Hagia Sofia than the Blue Mosque. Its history is fascinating. The current building is actually the third structure built on the site. The first church, finished in 360, was burnt down in riots in 404. The second church was finished in 415 and also mostly destroyed by fire in 532. The current building was constructed over five years and finished in 537. The basilica was the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and often used for Byzantine ceremonies and coronations. For a brief period, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral, before it converted to a mosque in 1453. The brain boggles at all the dates and all the changes this building has seen!

In 1931 it was secularised and by 1935 it was open again, but now as a museum.

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We watched Argo again on TV the night before we visited the Hagia Sofia, and there is a scene near the beginning of the movie that features these huge black and gold discs (and Ben Affleck being very serious). In reality they are huge – see the photo below to get a sense of their size.

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Will educated me on the fact that Islamic art relies primarily on intricate patterns and beautiful calligraphy, as many Muslims believe that depicting the human form is idolatry.

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I think one of the most spectacular aspects of the Hagia Sofia is the incredible mosiacs that were previously plastered over when the building served as a mosque. It was a little surreal seeing various religious imagery from both the Christian and Islamic faith in such close proximity.

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If we’d been more organised, we would have liked to get an audio tour to learn more about both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia as we walked through. But regardless, we enjoyed wandering through with the hordes of tourists and did all our serious learning on Wikipedia that evening ;)

Previous: Exploring Istanbul: Part Two and Part One

Next: Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar

exploring istanbul: part two

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Isn’t trying new food one of the best things about travelling? Kenya isn’t particularly well-known for it’s cuisine but Turkey, on the other hand, was such a treat. We did a full Turkish breakfast one morning, some delicious kebabs around town and an amazing collection of mezzes at Karakoy Lokantasi, by far the best meal we’ve eaten since our seafood entree at Trattoria Del Billy’s in Italy last year. Our Airbnb host had recommended the restaurant to us but forgot to tell us we’d need a reservation. We showed up at about 7.30pm on a Monday night and were the last couple let in before the place was full! The decor was just as lovely as the food, with stunning floor-to-ceiling turquoise ceramic tiles and a slight Art Decco feel. We loved it. We also ate at Shake Shack for the first time ever, and we were quickly reminded of the nasty effects of fast food.

Other food highlights were the Turkish tea in little glasses (we brought a set home), freshly made fruit juice and baklava. Our favourite Turkish Delight was a rose one made on honey, wrapped in Turkish nougat and sprinkled with crushed pistachio. It looked a little like a Turkish Delight sushi roll. Oh and the cherries! They were the equivalent of AUD$3/kilo, which is approximately one tenth of the price to get them here in Nairobi. We may have overdosed!

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Of course, we walked it all off by traipsing all over town on foot. There are so many pretty alleyways and shop windows to meander past.

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The white cat above was lounging on that door mat every time we walked past. Istanbul is full of ‘community’ cats and dogs. ‘Stray’ feels like the wrong word because the animals are so well-looked after, especially the cats. Everyone leaves food out for them and sometimes people even let them come inside for a play and a cuddle before letting them go on their way. And all the dogs we saw had their ears tagged to indicate they’d been spayed and vaccinated.

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We walked across the Golden Horn a few times during the week. I loved seeing these weather-worn fishermen all sitting around sipping tea together.

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On our last day in Istanbul, we returned to the waterfront for our ‘fish bread’ lunch, such an Istanbul institution! The fish is cooked up on these boats, and then stuffed into a bun with onion and lettuce. The place was absolutely packed with locals, who were eating their fish sandwiches with a plastic cup of pickled vegetables and a cup of lemon cordial. We did likewise, sitting on these little wooden seats and watching everyone around us. The turnover is so high that the manager was shooing people away from tables even as they took their last bite. We struggled a little bit as the fish was full of little bones, but it was definitely an experience to remember!

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Previous: Exploring Istanbul: Part One

Next: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia

exploring istanbul: part one

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Here is the first batch of our Istanbul photos! Friends recommended we stay either in Sultanahmet or near Galata Tower (above), so we opted for a lovely little Airbnb apartment in Galata. Our hosts were so helpful and laid back, and the apartment was in a great location for us. Our first Airbnb experience in Rome last year wasn’t so great, but this apartment more than made up for it.

Istanbul is huge and we barely scratched the surface. It is the only city in the world that straddles two continents – Asia and Europe. Most of the touristy sites are on the European side, which is split in two again – the Old City to the south and the New City in the north. Galata is in the New City and we had easy access to the attractions in the Old City via the light rail.

On our first afternoon in town, we unknowingly found ourselves in the midst of a political protest and sought refuge in a Turkish Delight store. On our second day, we slept late and then wandered all the way down the Istiklal Caddesi to Taksim Square. We walked the stretch a few times again during the week as we shopped for clothes and mementos and ate at a great little local restaurant. The following day we walked across the bridge to the Old City for a day of sightseeing at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, photos of which we’ll include in a coming post. It was so refreshing to be in a city on the water and to feel safe and free to walk around right through into the night. And the food – oh we ate well!

Our apartment, tucked away next to a beautiful old church

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Protesters in Galata

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The beautiful Galata Tower

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Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim

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Crossing over to the Old City, where the sun shone on one side, and dark clouds gathered on the other!

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Coming up: More from around Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar, and Princes’ Islands.

istanbul escape

We’ve been trying to get away for ages now, but nothing was working out with Will’s work. But then all of a sudden Will found out on Monday he could have the following week off. We booked flights on Tuesday and accommodation on Wednesday. And then we flew out on Friday night to Istanbul for the week! It was such a great trip – relaxing and memorable and full of Turkish Delight. We got back very early Sunday morning and while there are many more to come, here’s a few quick photos of some highlights.

We arrived in Istanbul on the one year anniversary of the 2013 protests…

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… and found ourselves locked in a Turkish Delight store while we waited for this year’s protesters and accompanying tear gas to pass!

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Our home-away-from-home was a lovely apartment  just around the corner from the famous Galata Tower (pictured here from the Old City side).

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We enjoyed amazing food. Yes, those are green chillies.

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And marveled at Istanbul’s beautiful architecture and mosques.

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We visited the main touristy sites: the Hagia Sofia..

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The Blue Mosque..

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Topkapi Palace with it’s incredible ceramic tiles..

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And spent a night on Buyukada, one of the Princes’ Islands, where people get around the island by horse and cart.

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And of course, we drank our way through innumerable cups of Turkish tea.

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We’ll put some more photos up on the blog once we’ve sorted through them, so keep an eye out if you’d like to see more :)

the little things

… that have made Kenya feel more like home.

  1. When we go to our local mall and run in to four different people when know
  2. When we stop thinking (just) in Aussie dollars, and now think in Aussie Dollars, Kenyan Shillings and US Dollars
  3. When we no longer gape at a passing politician’s motorcade
  4. When we realise we can find our way around the supermarket
  5. When we finally figure out which brand of whatever is our favourite, and which is our second favourite for when our other favourite is mysteriously out of stock for five months
  6. When we know the road rules, and the rules on how to apply the road rules, and the rules seemingly specific to certain intersections, and the rules of going through the bamboozling double roundabout
  7. When we know the price of the normal bus fare, and the fare when it’s raining, and the fare when it’s peak hour, and the fare when there is a public transport strike… and when we’re just actually being ripped off
  8. When we start recognising people in the street that we’d seen regularly at our favourite cafe
  9. When we can sing the Swahili songs at church and have a pretty good idea of what we were saying
  10. When we know that we’ve made a horribly embarrassing mistake in Swahili
  11. When we carry an umbrella with us everyday during the rainy season, no matter how sunny it is when we leave the house
  12. When we perfect our own collection of phone numbers – our favourite carpenter, our favourite driver, our favourite water truck etc – and no longer have to ask all our friends who to call whenever we need something made or fixed
  13. When we automatically open our hand bags and lift our arms up away from our bodies for the security check at malls, restaurants, offices, church etc.
  14. When we drive out of our compound and everyone waves – the neighbours, the neighbour’s nanny, the neighbour’s cleaner, the neighbour’s gardener, the neighbour’s gorgeous three year old, the random guy running an errand for the neighbour and the askaris at the front gate (not going to lie, you can feel like a celebrity driving into our estate!)
  15. When we drive out of church / the office / my ballet class and are completely unfazed by the armed guards / troop of baboons crossing the road / herd of cattle blocking the driveway

mr chameleon

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I was ringing my neighbour’s doorbell the other day when I noticed a chameleon in their front garden – just sitting there right in front of me! I raced across the street to grab my camera from home and then spent ages snapping away. Isn’t he handsome?! (My neighbour wasn’t home, the housekeeper answered the door though and was more than happy for me to turn the front garden into a photo studio – the brown wall made such a great backdrop!)

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I emailed Will some photos (subject line: the best photos I’ve ever taken!) and he classified it as a Jackson’s Chameleon, or Jackson’s three horned chameleon, which are native to higher-altitude areas of Kenya and Tanzania. They usually live between five and ten years and, if looked after correctly, can be kept as pets. I took a gazillion photos of this little fella as he explored leafy branches and I swear he stopped more than once to pose for me.

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Baboons last week, chameleons this week… let me organise some flamingoes for next week on the blog, hey?!

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One of the best Kenya-related books we’ve read is a hilarious novel titled ‘A Primate’s Memoir’. Author Robert Sapolsky chronicles his 21 years in and out of Kenya as he studies a baboon troop. He weaves such a fantastic tale, alternating between stories about his beloved baboons and insights into the highs and lows of field work, with his own experiences as an expat primatologist navigating a new culture and land. Will was gifted it by lovely friends for his birthday and we both laughed pretty hard the whole way through.

Not long after we’d read it, we stumbled across a rambunctious baboon troop right near the main gate to Nairobi National Park. We’d already driven around the park with Jeremy for a couple of hours, but we easily spent another half hour just watching this funny little creatures from the car. I didn’t have the right lens on my camera to capture them all, but there were tiny babies and overprotective mothers through to slow old fellows, lazing around under the trees. They were so entertaining!

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We joked that we’d pay the park fee just to sit near the front gate and watch these guys play…. but actually, we really would!

Easter in the Abedares

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I wrote last week’s post (on what comes after culture shock) very aware that we were both in need of a weekend (or three!) out of town. These past couple of months since our trip with Jeremy have been insanely busy for Will – work, work and more work – and insanely frustrating for me – no work, potential work, work falling through, waiting on work etc. We stumbled on Abedare Cottages and Campsite online and after confirming they were happy to host dogs, we booked in for the Easter long weekend. It can be a bit hit and miss staying somewhere without a prior recommendation, but we were pleasantly surprised here.

Abedare Cottages and Campsite is located about 7km from Abedare National Park, about 2 hours drive from Nairobi. The owner/manager, Zac, splits his time between here and Nairobi. They developed the site to fulfill the dream of his grandfather, who passed on the land and always wanted to build a lodge on it. We stayed in a lovely tented room, where you could peer out to the stunning view of the valley and the Mathioya River from both the balcony and the bed.

Our accommodation-rating system revolves around a few important factors – how comfortable is the bed? how good is the shower? do they play lots of loud music late at night? how’s the food? and more recently, can we bring Rum? We were definitely happy with the bed, shower, lack of loud music, meals and are already figuring out when we can get back again.

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There’s a path through the tea farms down to the river. After we arrived on Friday, we made our way down the hill, pass the tea bushes and a couple of cows, to a lovely little garden area that they’ve set up for those staying at the lodge. Given it’s the rainy season, the river was bursting at the seams and everything was super green. It’s so nice to get out into the fresh country air after all the smog in Nairobi.

On Saturday, the weather turned and it rained on and off all day. We chilled out with our books and a game of scrabble and a pretend picnic on the balcony. But Sunday was a gorgeous sunshiney day, so we walked a kilometre or so down the road to find the perfect picnic spot. Zac is building two new, fully self-contained cottages right down on the river so we wandered down to check them out and set out our blanket. The cottages are almost finished, and I think we’ll test them out when we return.

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Rum loves swimming but the water was pretty intense, so Will took her down to play right on the edge. We set up on the opposite side of the river to the grazing cows, as we’ve discovered that, as well as candles, fires, BBQs, late dinners and people sitting on her couch, Rum does not like her bovine friends.

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We followed the river back to our accomodation, meandering past tea pickers and tea collection centres and homes and gardens. The landscape felt like one big mix of Cedar Creek (the river and the eucalypts), what we imagine Rwanda to look like (so lush and green), Tuscany (the lovely fields with the random tree here and there) and Limuru (where we first visited a Kenyan tea farm).

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As we drove out on Monday, it seemed like the landscape only got more and more beautiful. We found the spot where the North and South Mathioya rivers join, and spotted dozens of tea pickers out in force. We also got some spectacular views of the Abedare ranges.

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It was a bit of a detour, but we drove home via the famous Trout Tree Restaurant. We were so keen for our lunches we didn’t snap any photos of the actual restaurant (think lots of wooden decks high up in a tree, with ropes and stair cases and hyrax running around – see photos here). But as we were leaving, a troupe of colobus monkeys were travelling through. They are the most gorgeous of all the monkeys – and there were two babies in tow!

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We can highly recommend Aberdare Cottages and Campsite – it’s a gorgeous part of Kenya, great value and Zac and the staff treat their guests so well. We’ll be back once the water level is a little lower and the weather is a little warmer!

what comes after culture shock…?

What do you call the culture shock that happens when you’ve lived in a foreign culture beyond that first year?

I remember reading about the culture shock cycle before we moved here, and felt like I had some idea of what to expect – especially at the 6-8 week mark when you tend to take a dip. I had travelled overseas and on the continent before and I’d been working in a really multicultural team back in Brisbane – it wasn’t like I had no idea what we were getting into.

But sure enough, as week 7 rolled around, I found myself super frustrated at little things that I could normally let slide. I suddenly missed my friends and family a lot. I wondered if I really wanted to be in Kenya for the coming year. Was it all a mistake?

And then, true to the culture shock cycle, I spent a couple of mopey days with a lot of chocolate and lot of TV and then things began to level out again. I could recognise and appreciate the differences in culture, and since then I’ve definitely enjoyed our time living here.

We’ve now been in Kenya for about 20 months. I can’t believe it’s almost two years. Where has that time gone? While we expected and anticipated culture shock in our first 6-12 months, there’s something else that happens after culture shock… culture frustration? Culture ache? Culture exhaustion? I’m not sure what it’s called or if it even has a name.

It’s a little different to the sharp pangs that culture shock can bring. It’s a little more insidious, builds up a little slower, but still catches us by surprise.

For the most part, I feel like our life here is actually a lot more similar to life back home than one might expect. For this season (however long it may be), I feel like Kenya is the best place for us. We love our community here, our church, our neighbourhood, the work we get to do, the countryside we get to explore. It doesn’t lessen the fact we miss so many wonderful people back home, but really, we’re in the right spot for us right now.

And yet, there is a frustration and an ache that comes from living outside your home culture. It’s the small cultural differences in humour, in communication styles, in road rules, in customer service, in faith, in organisational systems, in expectations etc etc that suddenly seem huge and overwhelming and, to be honest, just so damn annoying. Why can’t everyone be like me, talk like me, think like me, drive a car like me??

And it really has nothing do with Kenya in particular. I know we’d go through similar struggles regardless of what foreign country we were in. And some of the cultural ache comes not just from living within Kenyan society, but also being part of a large expatriate community, with a gazillion cultures represented. We live in a unusually multicultural compound. We go to an unusually multicultural church – with an unusually diverse mix of denominations and styles. We’re constantly being exposed to different ways of thinking, of understanding, or organising, of being human really. And it can be exhausting.

I know it’s good for us. I know that difference can be scary, but really it shouldn’t be. I know that while we’re struggling with living in a different culture, our Kenyan friends and colleagues and church family are also stuck dealing with these foreigners who just won’t be like, talk like, think like or drive like them! (Though on that, I think we can all agree that expat drivers are the worse!)

I know that learning to live and thrive together with people who are different is not just experienced in different cultures, but every day within marriages, families, businesses, schools, organisations etc when people with different personalities, characters, beliefs, experiences and ideas about how the world does and should work come together. I know it stretches us and grows us when we’re out of our comfort zones.

I also know that we’re responsible for managing our behaviour and our attitudes and I know when the ‘culture ache’ or ‘culture fatigue’ sets in it is very easy to get rather critical and even a little bitter about the environment around us. I know when that happens, I need to recalibrate. I don’t want to be bitter or live in a constant state of frustration. I want to grow and be better for it.

For us, we’re getting better at recognising the signs of when we need to book a weekend away – or even a week or two out of the country. We’re figuring out what makes us feel better – whether that’s dinner and a movie, or a long skype chat with someone from home, or a debrief with friends here. We didn’t think or talk much about what happens after culture shock, but now that we’re in the midst of whatever this is, we are working our way (imperfectly) through it.

Pole pole.