After an early morning airport dash and my lovely dad driving all the way to Heathrow to get me, I am now safe in my own bed at home and looking forward to a night of sleep that’s not  in a dilapidated hotel room in a terrible area of town. A room where I can’t hear constant traffic and fighting, where there’s no stale smoke stench, no leaking bath and sink, with a bathroom that has hot water and where there’s working electricity and internet. In a house where I can go downstairs without being met by a crowd of staring men and prostitutes. Where I know I can wake up and walk outside safely without being physically, verbally or sexually assaulted!

Now I’ve gone, looking back I feel I made the right decision. Here are some other things I forgot to mention

– On my first day when I expressed worry that I didn’t know the area or any useful information and that I couldn’t walk around alone, his solution was that he’d assigned me a mentor, I asked when I’d get to meet her and he nonchalantly said she wouldn’t be back for another 10 days then went back to his office. Ten days! What did he expect me to do alone in that time, I didn’t even know where to get money or food or buy water to drink for goodness sake.

– Aforementioned mentor did turn up five days later, by this point I was already going stir crazy. Turns out she had no idea about me!

– I’d been ready to leave from day one, however I’m proud and hate giving up so wanted to stick it out to see if it would get better. I thought maybe it was just beginner’s nerves. Well that’s what everyone said. I needed someone to validate my concerns. This woman confirmed them and more. She genuinely saved me, she helped me to book my flight back, she got me a lift to the airport (something really hard to organise as the taxi system there is so bizarre and they won’t go certain ways!). If a woman who is assigned to be my ‘mentor’ is telling me to get out as fast as I can that has to be a sign.

– I would have been paid in cash for 12 months, in dirhams, which you cannot change out of the country, and without a bank account you cannot send home. Useless monopoly money essentially.

– I would be finishing work at 21.45 four nights a week, I then would have to walk home or get a late night, unsafe taxi, one that picks up other customers on the way. Usually men as women don’t hang around the streets unless they’re ‘working girls’.

– There were only 4 other expat teachers and all were there because they were older, married to Moroccans and settled with kids. Everybody keeps to themselves, there’s no one to socialse with and no where to socialise at all anyway. So I was looking at a year of living alone in an overpriced apartment, only leaving it to teach at a dodgy school for barely any money then risk my life walking home!

– At least three other teachers had left within the first few weeks over the past three years. Two girls my age did come last year, they didn’t know each other but made friends and said they only stayed because they had each other and never would’ve survived without one another!

I’d show you some photos, but I couldnt take any as it wasn’t safe to take a camera out on my own. Also there was nothing to take photos of unless characterless industrial buildings are your thing.

I could go on forever with lists of negatives, I thought I was an optimistic person but I cannot find one positive. Other than meeting that lovely lady and gaining some life experience!

I’ve heard so many similar nightmare stories, but usually in Asia or Russia, I wasn’t expecting it at all. My advice to others to avoid this would be to ask for the email address of an employee where you’re working (even better would be an ex-employee), ask them EVERYTHING. Suss out if they are being honest with you.

Thank you so much for all the amazing and caring message, it’s cheesy but I’ve been overwhelmed by lovely responses from so many great friends and family. I appreciated your concern from day one and especially your messages and support when I finally decided enough was enough! I was pretty scared about leaving as it’s a big pride thing for me, I can put up with and deal with a lot, but even this was beyond me. I am so lucky that I had the money and support to leave, it’s made me think of people across the world stuck in dangerously worse, much more grave situations that they cannot escape from. I am very, very lucky. Now to the next life chapter.

Why I am leaving Casablanca.

I’m not a quitter. I am stubborn and strong minded, I hate showing signs of weakness, I hate asking for help and I hate giving in. This, however, is different. Here is how I learnt an expensive and upsetting life lesson. This is no literary masterpiece as I am writing it very quickly whilst packing to essentially flee the country.

I arrived in Casablanca seven days ago. I was met at the airport by an abrupt Moroccan man who told me I asked too many questions and spent the whole 45 minute journey to the centre smoking with the windows shut and not really talking to me. He dropped me at a hotel and left swiftly. It was 11pm at night, the hotel staff only spoke French and Arabic and put me in an extremely loud room that stunk of stale smoke, where half the plugs didn’t work, with no internet and no information. I couldn’t call anyone and I knew no one in the country, nor the language, I didn’t have a welcome pack or a map. Not a great start, but I’m used to roughing it and wasn’t expecting luxury so tried to sleep.

The next morning my boss met me at 10.00am, he was an old, American man. He asked how I was and I replied ‘Nervous’ and he said ‘Erm, why?’ From that point I thought there was something odd about him. He was very awkward to talk to, very vague and just not really with it. All my questions were avoided or not properly answered. Questions about health insurance, other staff, contracts, bank accounts, work permits, accommodation. All really important things he’d assured me in email correspondence were sorted. Allow me one anecdote to try to explain his strangeness; enquiring about medical cover that I was promised, I asked “If I am run over tomorrow and I am unconscious, am I covered or will I be settled with a huge hospital bill?” His answer was a rant about pharmaceutical corruption in the USA and then said ‘if anything happens, err I guess you could ring me and I’ll sort it out and we can probably pay for it” Not the answer you want to a life or death scenario. He also then went on to tell me horror stories about the hospitals and doctor corruption here, including a disgusting one about his own colonoscopy! I then asked when I’d get to meet other new staff and teachers, who he’d told me in emails were around, he replied that there were no other new teachers and the rest of the staff wouldn’t come back for 10 days.  He made me feel really stupid for every question I asked and belittled all my concerns; it was like he just could not understand being a new person in a new country and lacked any empathy. He then went back to the school and left me. Thus leaving me completely alone, in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, with no help or knowledge. Usually when you are hired from abroad, companies give you a full induction, you meet other new staff, you get a welcome pack, a map, they help you with accommodation, they put you in contact with other expatriates, they look after you, they tell you where banks, supermarkets etc are. They help you register with doctors, open bank accounts and meet people. I was given none of that, I was the only new teacher, abandoned in a hotel room for the next 10 days with nothing.  I cant explain how frightening this is in a country you have never been to, with a completely alien culture where you know no one. On top of this the hotel staff were really rude to me, trying to get me to pay for things the company was supposed to pay for, to the extent that I had four staff shouting at me in Arabic one evening and suggesting I was stealing and lying about my job.

My company had also promised they’d find me accommodation, a huge deal when you’re moving abroad and something really difficult to organise anywhere let alone a foreign country, especially where it’s harder to figure people out or read them because of cultural differences. They’ve known I was coming since October, yet they had found me nothing. They left me alone to look for flats (all the adverts were in French and Arabic) and when I asked for help they suggested looking at a range of unfurnished apartments costing at least £400 a month, and suggested I borrow money from the company to furnish it. That meant a new fridge,a washing machine, a sofa, a bed, a TV, curtains, everything. As well as paying a month’s agency fees and 3 months rent for deposit. So that’s nearly £3000 upfront costs for somewhere to live and I’d only been here for a few days. There was no way I was going to pay that sort of money and be tied into a 12 month rental contract for somewhere I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay and where my wage wasn’t that high.

So, the first few days were horrid. I couldn’t leave the hotel without being hassled by men and made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable. There are no women on the streets or in cafes, certainly no western ones, it’s really the male domain. This was something I was expecting and could deal with. I’m used to being hassled in Vietnam, except there it’s more harmless, here it’s scarier because the men are much bigger than you and not used to foreigners. People try to touch you in the street, they make kissing noises, they slow down in their cars and hang their heads out to stare. Again I knew this would be the case, I’m not naïve, but then I didn’t think I’d be completely alone to deal with it. I kept thinking things would get better when I met other staff, because I could walk around with them. But it turns out there aren’t really any other staff. Only Moroccan part time teachers who keep to themselves and a few older, married, Swedes and Americans. There is also no expat community, no one under the age of 35, that’s not an exaggeration, the only foreigners here are French and perhaps a handful of older people from embassies who as far as I can tell are in hiding and impossible to find.  I was feeling so isolated, worried and annoyed at the lack of support or answers I was getting from my school. They had hired me knowing I was coming alone, knowing my age and gender and knowing what Casablanca was like. Yet they painted a rosy picture, promised so much, said there would be other new teachers, but offered no welcome at all. Over the next couple of days my boss and employees at the school said and did further questionable things that set off red flags in my head. Despite this I also felt like I was being a wimp and was just being paranoid about the company.

However, one British lady at work took me under her wing and vindicated everything I’d been thinking. I owe her so much and will be eternally grateful for her honesty. She said she was so disappointed and angry with how I’d been treated and wished she could tell me some good news, but that there wasn’t any. Every hopeful question I asked her was met with a sad headshake; there is no expat community, she said every foreign teacher she knew had been mugged at knife point (day and night time), one student was murdered behind the school last year after class, there is nothing to do in Casablanca, females can’t go out alone at night and that I really shouldn’t trust my boss. She even said she thinks the boss is ‘losing it’ a bit and gave examples which led me to feel even more uncomfortable with who I’d been hired by.

I said to her that I didn’t want to quit and was hoping things would get better once term started and she replied that I was waiting for some big epiphany that wasn’t going to happen, she said nothing will change, this is how it is here. She also mentioned that if anything it would get worse as it wasn’t a nice working environment, staff were ‘colleagues’ not friends and people gossiped and lied. She’s worked extensively in the Middle East, loved it and concluded Casablanca was a huge disappointment that would make me really unhappy. Again this upset me, but I thought ‘things will get better;  I can take language classes, volunteer, save some money, travel’.

Except I found out I couldn’t do any of those things. I was told by numerous people that travelling on the trains as a woman on your own is too risky, besides on my salary it would also be expensive. Part of my employment benefit is supposed to be ‘paid for’ language lessons, however the woman told me that no one has ever gotten this, and even my boss told me there are no good language schools and you can’t learn Arabic because they only teach Moroccan dialect. I thought I could volunteer, but days of researching led to nothing. So, at this point there already seemed to be little trade off. At least I can save some money I thought. I was wrong about that too, I finally found out (again from the British lady, the only person who’s been straight with me) I’d be taxed 40%, not only that but I would get paid in cash. You can’t send home cash without a bank account, you can’t get a bank account without a work permit, something that involves needing a visa and a lot of bureaucracy and bribary, something the school expect you to pay for and organise completely by yourself. The woman told me that it’s taken the school up to a year to get people bank accounts, in the mean time your documents (passport, degree, teaching certificate) are posted off to unknown premises. She also told me a number of other staff had left within two weeks, or stayed for the year and been extremely stressed and unhappy.

So by this point I was despairing. There was no one to talk to, no other new staff, I couldn’t walk around safely, I couldn’t achieve anything I’d come to do, I couldn’t eat anything (nothing vegetarian), I couldn’t save money, I had no where to live, my company were untrustworthy. I then found out that part of the wage (a third) is paid as a living allowance but you can only get that with proof of a rental contract, thus I’d get even less money than I first thought.

So, this afternoon I sat down with the lovely lady and we had frank conversation. She said that if she was me and I hadn’t signed anything I should leave right away before I get trapped by a contract. I tried to think of positives; usually if you’re living abroad there is a balance; you might get paid an amazing wage because the living conditions aren’t great, or you might live somewhere truly amazing but not get paid much. Here there are no positives, it’s an unsafe place to live, there is nothing to do, no one to talk to, the wages are low and the accommodation costs are high, the company don’t look after you or stick to their word. They’d lied to me, misrepresented the lifestyle and hadn’t followed through on promises, they’d left me to entirely fend for myself and there was no positive thing at all to stay for. I decided that I could be stubborn, stay for a year and be utterly miserable. Or, as I said to the woman, I could admit defeat and leave. She said that I shouldn’t feel like I had been defeated, I should put myself first and that the company had misled me, they had put me in this position and that I shouldn’t feel bad. Which was lovely of her, she’s a guardian angel. She also said she has had enough of them messing her around and was leaving after this semester. Seeing as she was the only other person I knew in the city I decided I definitely wasn’t staying if she wasn’t!

You may be thinking I was foolish or naive to come, that I should’ve known all this. I knew full well it would be a hard place to be a young, single female, and it wouldn’t be as social or the same as Saigon. But I wanted the challenge and I thought other things would make it worth it; a close knit group of colleagues, learning French and Arabic, saving money, a nice living and working environment. Things I was promised by a respected company that has schools all over the country. But these things never materialised and there’s no way I could have known that before coming.  I knew Casablanca as a city wouldn’t be that great but I thought it might be a good base and worth putting up with for other things, I was wrong.

So, after talking to parents and friends, I decided that I’d given it my best shot, but that a year of being completely miserable, bored, alone and scared was not worth it and I wasn’t going to get anything out of the experience. As I haven’t signed a contract yet it was leave now or stay and work, be lonely, get into housing debt, risk not getting paid on time, risk not getting a work permit, risk losing my documents, risk my personal safety.  A week here alone was bad enough, I don’t want to do it for a whole year, especially with a bad job. I have nothing to prove to myself or anyone, I know I can handle moving abroad alone, I’ve done it in Hungary, in Vietnam, and I don’t owe the company here anything after how they’ve ‘welcomed’ me. So, I went with my instinct and booked a flight home. I’m lucky it’s not too expensive to fly home at short notice!

After such a fantastic 2011 and 2012, I feel like this is the universe telling me I’ve had too good of a time in life so far and deserved a difficult year! Bring it on.

Teachers’ Day and that time I had to eat meat.

chào mừng ngày nhà giáo Việt Nam!

Not content with celebrating Christmas Day, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Women’s Day , Children’s Day, Easter, Independence Day, Reunification Day,  Tet, Lantern Festival, the anniversaries of various kings, Workers’ Day and a whole host of lunar and Buddhist related days, the Vietnamese have had Teachers’ Day for 30 years.

And in true Vietnamese fashion it’s very overstated, emotional and full of language that wouldn’t look out of place on a propaganda poster. There’s not just a ‘Happy Teachers’ Day’ card, but a long message professing gratitude for your continued dedication, wisdom and sacrifice for the generation of tomorrow.

I got invited to a celebration at the university I work out. I turned up having woken up half an hour before, hair still wet and not looking great. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, the westerner in my thought it was just another card company conspiracy. I was wrong. I walked into a room full of students and staff, got a standing ovation, a bunch of roses and cards and approximately a million people wanting to take photos with me, all I did was turn up! I met the president, chancellor and directors of the university and was violently hugged and genuinely thanked many times. I felt like some sort of celebrity fraud. The whole thing lasted about two hours, everything was in Vietnamese so I had no idea what as going on. Every now and then everybody would cheer or clap so I tried to keep in time with that. They sang karaoke, played a Vietnamese version of ‘catch phrase’ ( I think) and presented some awards. They asked me to present some awards, which was funny seeing as I had no idea what I was presenting or what anybody was saying. It was great seeing my students singing and dancing, some of them were fantastic.

Then came the food section. Every class had spent the day preparing a dish for the teachers. As the only non-Vietnamese person in the room I was invited to try the dishes. Cue me standing on a stage, with a microphone, in front of hundreds of eager looking staff and students who’d given their time and were excited for me to try their work. There was not one vegetarian dish. I didn’t know what to do, there’s no way I couldn’t have refused without greatly offending so many people who’d been so generous. So, for the first time in 12 years, I knowingly ate tiny pieces of meat. In all honesty, I hated it but I reckon I pulled off the ‘don’t be sick and say ‘delicious’ in Vietnamese’ act very well. I did manage to say ‘no thank you’ to anymore though.

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The cheapest phone you can buy here.

When you live in a country where bag snatching is common, or when you move countries a lot and miss the benefits of a phone contract with free upgrades, this is what happens:

Everybody buys the cheapest phone available here, for a cool 500,000 VND you get this stylish mobile device.

This is just in a room of six people. At work the desks are littered with everybody’s retro nokias. Sure I can’t get photo messages, or have more then 10 messages a time in my inbox, but I can play ‘Snake’ and it’s got a torch. With power cuts happening as often as they do, the torch has been far more useful than any modern app. 

Although it is a pain in the ass when someone’s phone goes off and you have to work out whose bag is ringing. Or when you end up going home with the wrong phone.


It’s going to be a busy two months…

My favourite collection of tenses; the future, including the oft neglected and awkward sounding future perfect continuous.

This time in one week I will have been working in Vietnam for one year.

This time in two weeks I will have finished working at my main employer, the private language school.

This time in three weeks I will have finished working at the university.

This time in three weeks and two days I will be in Bangkok, Thailand.

This time in four weeks I will be in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

This time in four and a half weeks I will be in Hong Kong.

This time in five weeks I will be in London, England, about to drive back to my hometown of Plymouth, Devon.

This time in six weeks it will be Christmas Day.

This time in seven weeks I will be moving to Casablanca, Morocco.

Local wildlife

There are now 8 people living in my house and 6 of them have resigned a contract to stay another yeah. One of the results of this was that we now have three house pets; 1 fish, 1 kitten and 1 puppy. I was rather apprehensive about all of the pets, I love animals and I didn’t think it was fair seeing as eventually my housemates who bought them will leave and they will have to be handed over to new owners. Also it’s a big responsibility and though I adore my housemates, the two that purchased our new animal friends aren’t the most responsible! Nonetheless they seem to be taking it seriously and it’s great to have animals around again.

The first pet to turn up was Cam the kitten (Cam means orange in Vietnamese). He was ‘rescued’ from a local restaurant with a penchant for baby animals. I should mention, it’s a vegetarian restaurant that has loads of pets that just keep reproducing as they haven’t been neutered. Housemate A decided to adopt the newest cat and bring him home. He’s full of energy, is very vocal and does not like the pup!

Now, housemate B had wanted a puppy for ages and as not to be outdone by the cat lovers, decided to go see a man about a dog. That evening he returned with Eve in tow. I’d just about got over the kitten arrival when another furry bundle arrived.

The maids, who already think we’re a bit odd, turned up the next day and threw their arms in the air, rolled their eyes and exclaimed ‘Troi Oi….anh!’ Which roughly translates as ‘Oh my god….the English’