Sinai weekend: Saturday on Mt. Sinai

It was our friend Jeff who had the idea for the weekend in Sinai. He is leaving at the end of this year and Mt. Sinai had been on his must-see list since arriving in Egypt three years ago. Jeff is interested in Bible history, and this is a place where some significant Old Testament events are believed to have happened. So on Saturday morning we all got into a van and headed into the desert.

Look for Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, Dahab on the east coast north of there, then go west into the center of the peninsula for Mt. Sinai PC: http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/Sinai_map.htm

Look for Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, Dahab on the east coast, and Mt. Sinai in the south center of the peninsula. http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/Sinai_map.htm

Mt. Sinai is a sacred site for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Great numbers of them were there at the entrance to the trail. It looked liked it was going to be a very crowded hike.

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Boy would I ever look stupid in one of these ponchos. Glad I brought a warm jacket.

We walked up a short trail to St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox monastery, where the hordes of people were gathered. We had been unaware that the monastery is only open from 9 to 12, and it was now 5 minutes to noon. We got inside the gate with just enough time to view its main attraction, and the reason the 6th-century monastery was built in the first place:

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According to monastic tradition, this Rubus sanctus plant is the actual, original Burning Bush featured in Exodus 3:2.  At some point the monks of the monastery transplanted it from a few yards away to this courtyard corner, but there is a chapel on the grounds (which we didn’t get to visit) marking the original location.

We were quite sorry not to be able to see the rest of the monastery. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that houses the second biggest collection (after the Vatican) of codices and manuscripts in many different languages, as well as a tremendous collection of early Christian art. I don’t know how much of this stuff is on display, but I suppose we will have to return another time to find out.

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As we left the monastery we realized that all the people were heading back down the hill to the parking lot. Out of the hundreds there, our party of seven was the only one continuing up to the top of the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Dedicated walkers Andreas and Ger struck out ahead, much to the consternation of our Bedouin guide. The five of us remaining chose to take camels as far as we could go.

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Setting off. That’s the monastery in the background.

I have ridden camels before, but only in the sandy desert. This camel experience was rather different, and not in a good way. I think that camels are not really designed for hard, rocky paths. Nevertheless it was a beautiful clear day and the scenery was spectacular.

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After a couple of hours we finally made it to the camel station. The camels can’t go beyond this point because the last bit is a steep slope ending with a long staircase, which camels can’t manage. I decided I couldn’t manage it either, at least not in the time frame required (we would have to move quickly to be able to make it back down the mountain in time to catch our plane). Another slowpoke friend and I kept the camels company while our faster friends carried on up the mountain.

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Abdul is the one in the middle.

I saw the photos Jeff took on the top and it truly was a gorgeous view. One of the others said it felt as if you could touch the sky. That would work with the Commandments thing for sure.  Maybe sometime I will get up there myself. But as it was, we rode our camels back down the mountain (surprisingly even less comfortable on the downhill). We got back late and had to get special security permission to travel on the roads as we had missed the 5 pm convoy and the next one would have made us miss our plane.  But we made to Sharm and the airport, and back to work on Sunday morning.

 

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Sinai weekend: Friday in Dahab

We try to get out of town whenever we have a three- or four-day weekend, but most of our regular Fridays and Saturdays (that’s right – weekends in Egypt are Friday/Saturday) are spent close to home catching up with household and school tasks.

This weekend we did something different and escaped to the seaside, where the air is fresh and the weather is warm. We bussed to the airport with a few of our friends right after school Thursday and flew to Sharm el Sheikh, at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. A van met us in Sharm and drove us north to the beach town of Dahab on the east coast facing Saudi Arabia.

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It was after 11 when we got there, but the beach bars close late in Dahab.

Dahab is a laid-back sort of place, with inexpensive hotels, shops, and cafes catering to low-budget divers and snorkelers. It’s got a very different feel from glamorous resort towns like El Gouna and Sharm. Less Las Vegas, more Santa Cruz. My husband says it reminds him of Bolinas in the 70s.

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Although I’m pretty sure Bolinas had paved streets.

Some of our party went diving and snorkeling at the Blue Hole, a nearby spot favored for checking out the sea life, but my husband and I deemed it too chilly for that sort of thing. Andreas is taking an on-line class, part of his IB Theater teacher training, and he had some assignments to do anyway.

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If you have to work on the weekend, why not here?

I left him to his laptop and wandered off to explore the length of Dahab’s “boardwalk”, a pathway made of cement but still charming. Actual boards are in short supply in the Sinai. I did a lot of window shopping and picture taking. Although bargains were plentiful, I managed not to buy anything.

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In the late afternoon some friends hailed me from a rooftop bar.

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Rooftop bars are very much a thing in Dahab.

Andreas joined us a little later, followed by the chilly-but-happy divers.

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Eventually we all headed across the road for a delicious fresh fish dinner and shisha to end the evening.

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Chumbe Island

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you know how I feel about islands. Our friend Lori who we met in Lalibela a few years ago told me that if we were going to Zanzibar we absolutely had to see Chumbe island if possible. I looked it up and knew I had to go.

Our Z tour travel buddies are not quite at my level of island obsession, so we left Kim and Andre to explore more of Zanzibar’s main island of Unguja while Andreas and I set off for a two-night stay on Chumbe.

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Chumbe is essentially uninhabited.

Except by crabs. Here’s our greeter.

In the past, there was a lighthouse keeper’s family, and there have been a few fisherman off and on.

The lighthouse keeper’s mosque

Now Chumbe Island Coral Park is a privately managed nature reserve with seven eco-lodge bungalows and an indoor/outdoor common structure for visitors.

A stay on Chumbe includes nature walks and snorkeling excursions.

We could borrow snorkels and fins at any time, but guides were available to motor us to the reef once in the morning and again in the afternoon. I don’t own a Go-Pro (yet) so I am sorry I have no photos to share with you of the gorgeous fish, eels, crabs, turtles, clams, urchins, coral, anemones, and other exotic creatures. But I do have LOTS of pictures of hermit crabs.

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We took an evening walk to see the nocturnal coconut crabs, the largest species of land crabs in the world.

You can’t really tell how huge this baby is from the picture. Google it if you want to be amazed.

There were only about 12 people staying at the lodge, but the cooks fixed us some elaborate tropical meals.

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Our bungalow was like something the Professor would have designed for Gilligan’s Island.

Bungalow plan, from the Chumbe Island website

 

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Here are some more pictures from Chumbe Island.

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And the trip back to Unguja.

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The Elephant Café

I almost didn’t go to the Elephant Café.

When Kim first suggested it, it didn’t sound like anything I’d want to do. Pet the elephants, then have dinner at the elephant place. It was crazy expensive and sounded like a classic tourist trap. I said we should skip it.

But then, while paging through the latest issue of Zambezi Traveller quarterly over my full English breakfast at the ZigZag Hotel, I ran across an article written by a Livingstone chef called Annabel Hughes. She wrote about using locally grown and foraged ingredients unknown outside Africa, foods with names like masawa, nzembwe, and mongongo nut. The photos of her dishes in the article were beautiful. And she was the chef at the Elephant Café!
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Hey Kim, I said – I changed my mind. And so we made a reservation for the four of us for an evening on our return trip to Livingstone. A locavore feast to look forward to!

But then on the afternoon of our reservation I almost cancelled.

The proprietor of our hotel, Lynn, is also a devoted animal lover who runs a busy animal rescue charity in Livingstone.

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Lynn with one of her rescue kittens.

I told her where we were going for dinner, and she got quiet. Then she said, she didn’t actually know much about the Elephant Café, other than that she had heard it was headed in a new direction. Maybe I would be so kind as to tell her what I thought of it when we got back.

Uh oh. The last thing I want to do is to patronize a business that might abuse or exploit elephants. And I most certainly did not want to ride on an elephant, if that was what they were about. I was ready to cancel. But in the end I decided to go, because at least I would be able to tell Lynn what they were up to over there.

As it turned out, I have only good things to say about the Elephant Café. The herd has been  together at this location for many years, and currently numbers ten elephants. Most of the animals were rescued, although a couple of them joined the herd voluntarily over the years (the land is unfenced, and the elephants forage freely in the area and return to their shelter at night – and on a couple of occasions, they brought friends back to stay). It is true that the proprietors were using them for “elephant safaris” for tourists, exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want to support. But since opening the restaurant two months ago they have been rapidly phasing out that aspect of their business. They are honoring reservations already made but booking no new ones. The new business plan is an “elephant experience” combined with gourmet dining. Which I suppose is still in a sense exploitative, but in the modern world there has to be an economic incentive to protect animals with a high black market value.

Elephants are brought in to greet guests before dinner. The owner and handlers tell you some things about the herd and the individuals in it. You get a bag of food to hand out as well. Our party was the first to arrive and they led a few elephants to the lawn just for us.

It was really a little surreal to be interacting with these immense creatures on the pleasant grounds of the restaurant. It was a very relaxed, unhurried encounter.

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After the elephant visit we had a little time to explore the grounds. Kim and I had to be warned away from the riverside, as it seems there was a man-eating crocodile in the neighborhood.

The monkeys were fun to watch.

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After champagne and appetizers on the lawn, we were seated for dinner on a cool covered deck by the river well out of crocodile snapping range.

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Every aspect of the meal was superb. In fact, it is one of the top five meals I’ve had in my life. When you think about the restaurants that cater to expats and tourists in developing countries and the trouble they have with sourcing ingredients, there is definitely a lesson to be learned about studying and experimenting with local ingredients (a good lesson for home cooks like me, too). Of course it would help to be an amazing chef like Annabel.

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At the end, Chef Annabel brought out her crew for a well-earned round of applause.

 

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Dinner train

We’re back Zambia again, where we’ve checked in again at the homey ZigZag lodge on the edge of Livingstone.

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Right across the street from the lodge compound we can see these beautifully restored passenger train cars.

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This is the Royal Livingstone Express dinner train, one of the luxury treats we (OK, Kim) planned for us along the way.

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Just in case we need to prove it someday.

Transfer from your hotel is included in the ticket price. It seemed like a practical idea when we were in Egypt but back then we didn’t know it would be right across the road.

Once the van got us all the way across the street, the porter ushered us onto the train and welcomed us with drinks in the lounge car.img_9726Appetizers were served as we got underway, and then we had a couple of hours to refill our glasses and enjoy the scenery.

Our porter and a passenger enjoy the view from the observation car

Our porter and a passenger enjoy the view from the observation car

The train moves very slowly – this excursion is all about the journey. It took almost two hours to travel the 10 kilometers along Cecil Rhodes’s “Cape to Cairo” mainline to Victoria Falls Bridge, where we stopped just short of the border sign in the middle.

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The train stayed on the bridge for about 20 minutes so we could take pictures of the falls, the train, and each other.

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There was ample opportunity to buy souvenirs from the very persistent Zimbabwean vendors.

As the sun set we got back on the train and proceeded to the dining car.

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And two hours later we were back at the ZigZag, a bit overstuffed and happy with our new herd of aluminum-can zebras.

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Victoria Falls

On our last day in Zimbabwe Andreas and I took a walk through town to Victoria Falls National Park, a protected area that runs along the cliffs opposite Zambia. They have put in a wide paved sidewalk just in from the edge so you can walk the length of the falls.

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This time of year the river is low (making visits to the Devil’s Pool possible) but there was still plenty of water in the falls across the way. The heavy mist rising up from the canyon felt good in the tropical heat. The local name for the falls, in the Lozi language, is Mose-Oa-Tunya, which means The Smoke that Thunders.

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Hey… what’s that I see through the mist?

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The Devil’s Pool

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Those people are INSANE! Get away from the edge, you idiots!!

 

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Adventureland

We’re in Zimbabwe now. A new day, a new adventure.

My travel confidence had been shaky since the sudden onset of previously undetected cataractaphobia (I just made that up) a couple of days ago. What better way to recover my inner Livingstone than a morning mini-safari followed by canoeing on the Zambezi River?

As we drove through the park I kept thinking about the river. How far away were we going to be from the waterfall, anyway? But I allowed myself to be distracted by critters.

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We ended our park tour with a picnic breakfast on the riverbank, then got everything set up for canoeing.

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Before going out on the water, our guide sat us down for a safety lesson. He went over some stuff about paddling and parts of the canoe and whatnot. Then he told us about  the crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Although crocodiles at this time of the year are mostly sleeping on the bottom of the river, he told us that we’d better not dangle a hand or foot in the water, and that if we capsized, to get out of the water asap with a minimum of splashing.

But the animals you really have to watch out for are the hippos. Hippos kill more people than any other mammal in Africa. There are loads of hippos in the Zambezi river, and they are aggressive and very territorial.

Our guide told us what to do if we see a hippo (stay away). Then he told us what to do if a hippo grunts or bellows (paddle away fast) or if it charges (paddle away REALLY fast). Also what to do if a hippo bites the canoe (stay put). Or if a hippo comes up under the canoe and flips it (swim away fast to shore while hoping someone in another canoe saves you with their paddle).

The other three in our party were pretty freaked out about the crocs and hippos. Not me. Instead, I’m the one asking, “how far away did you say the falls were?” (seven kilometers).

It was an exhilarating trip down the river. Hippos were lurking everywhere, their little eyes and ears just visible above the waterline, or gathered in pods with humped backs looking remarkably like rocks.

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See the hiding hippo?

I am pleased to report that we went over a few tiny rapids, but no waterfalls.

We did do a fair amount of fast paddling away from hippos, and once we got roared at as we ran the gauntlet single file between two pods. At that point I think at least one member of the party was expecting the guide to pull out a pistol like on the Adventureland jungle cruise ride, but fortunately that only happens in Disneyland.

And at one point Andreas saw a crocodile glide into the water from a rock right next to us. His shout made Kim think the hippos were upon us (or under us), and there was quite a bit of excitement there for a couple of minutes. I didn’t get any action shots – here are a few pictures from calmer moments.

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As we enjoyed our celebratory beers and lunch by the river, something dawned on me that the astute reader probably already figured out. The falls go over the cliff on the Zambian side. We were downriver in Zimbabwe, and the falls were behind us in the other direction. Duh.

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Nothing to be worried about here. I’m happy to report, I’ve got my intrepid explorer groove back.

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The Devil’s Pool

Hoo boy. This was a thing. A very scary thing. The scariest thing ever, as far as I am concerned.

I don’t frighten very easily. Or at least, I sometimes find that the things that scare other people don’t scare me at all.

For example standing on the edge of a boiling lava pit. Not scary.

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Erta Ale Volcano, Ethiopia, April 2014

Feeding wild hyenas. Not scary.

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Harar, Ethiopia, April 2015

Riding in a little outboard panga on the open sea. Not scary (Alekka disagrees).

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Corn Islands, Nicaragua, July 2014

Hanging with the gorillas. Not scary.

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Virunga, Rwanda, April 2015

Handling cobras. A bit sad actually, when I realized this one had probably been defanged. But snakes, not scary.

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Kom Ombo Temple, Egypt, January 2016

But then there was the Devil’s Pool. SCARY!

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Devil’s Pool, Livingstone, Zambia, December 2016. If you think I am relaxed and happy here, you are wrong. I am terrified.

Our Devil’s Pool excursion, like many of the activities on this trip, was planned by Kim back in September. Of course she asked me before she added us to the reservation. Sure, I said, after she described it to me. A natural rock pool at the top of Victoria Falls! Sounds cool! We’re in!

After it was booked, Kim kept saying that the Devil’s Pool was a thing she wanted to do but was really nervous about. Actually she might have used some stronger language. She mentioned it again at the airport, and on the ride to Livingstone, Zambia. On the way to the hotel where we were meeting our group to go to Livingstone Island, she said it again. And every time, I replied with something on the order of “don’t worry, what could go wrong?” Inside my head, I was thinking, “not scary.”

Well. Sometimes we surprise ourselves.

It started off just fine.

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It was all good up to this point. But then we had to swim across the river. The people in the next picture had just come back from the pool and were putting their shoes on. The pool is not right where they are. It’s way over near the bushes. You have to swim at an angle across this section of the river and access the pool from another rocky island. To the left, just out of the frame, is Victoria Falls. So basically, if you don’t swim hard enough, this is where you go over. I would have taken a better picture if I’d realized right then how significant this is. I didn’t figure it out until I was halfway across.

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The pool is just past this section

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Well obviously I did it, and I survived. And I even went into the pool after I got across the river, as you can see from the earlier photo of the four of us in the water with our guide, and also from this somewhat more vertigo-inducing piece of evidence.

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That’s the freakin EDGE OF THE WATERFALL

The pool has a natural ledge right at the edge, and it is deep enough that you can stand up. But the river current is pushing you quite hard toward the precipice so it is not exactly a relaxing soak.

Here’s a video that one of the guides took with my phone after we got out. He was standing on a rock just to the left of the pool. My palms get sweaty watching it.

So of course after we got out of the pool we had to swim back to Livingstone Island. It wasn’t quite as bad going back. At least I could remind myself that I would never have to do it again. Also there was a nice breakfast waiting for us.

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Z tour with Mr. and Mrs. P

This evening we embarked on a long-awaited winter holiday with our friends Kim & Andre P.  We’ve got all kinds of great stuff planned for the next three weeks. Truthfully, most of it was planned by Kim. In our family, I am the one who finds the cheap flights and picks out the hotels and Airbnbs, but beyond that Andreas and I are more the turn-up-and-see-what-happens types. Kim, on the other hand, has years of experience organizing Model UN and Week Without Walls trips for students, and it shows. This will be a slightly different travel experience for us but I must say I am looking forward to our itinerary.

Zambia is our first stop. After a few days in Livingstone we’ll cross the river into Zimbabwe where we’ll stay for a couple of nights, then back to Zambia for a couple more. Then we fly to Zanzibar (our third Z destination) to celebrate Christmas at the beach. Then we split up for a few days, during which Andreas and I will visit a smaller, mostly uninhabited island while Kim and Andre continue to enjoy Zanzibar. Then we meet up again for a couple of days in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s only real town. On New Year’s Eve we all fly to Dar es Salaam in mainland Tanzania. After ringing in 2017 Andreas and I will fly to Israel for the final week of the holiday while Kim and Andre relax and visit some national parks near Kilimanjaro.

And… heeeeere we go!

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Should I stay or should I go?

The recruiting train for international teachers is proceeding full steam ahead. At this time of year, educators looking for new horizons are researching schools, sending out resumes, and interviewing via Skype.  Administrators are seeking out the best candidates to fill the vacancies the departing teachers will leave behind.

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Teachers at our school got an email a couple of weeks ago from the director reminding us of the December 1 deadline for our “letter of intent.” This is where we tell him what our plans are for next year: staying here or moving on.

The time between now and that deadline can be awkward. There are teachers who are leaving who don’t want colleagues or administrators to know quite yet. Some want to keep their options open as long as possible – they would like to go but only if they can find a better job. Or they are worried that colleagues or admin will treat them differently if they know they are jumping ship. Then there are people who are staying and who are dying to know who isn’t, maybe because they are coveting their assignment or apartment. Or, truth be told, because they don’t want to invest more friendship energy on someone who is on their way out.

I read a great blog post last year by an expat in China named Jerry Jones.   I’ve seen it shared many times since then amongst international teachers. You can read it yourself (definitely recommended for expats), but the gist of it is that international work is a constantly revolving door.  And while it’s hard to say goodbye, the newbies, stayers, and goers all have the opportunity to make powerful personal and professional connections.

graphic: Jerry Jones, "The transition that never ends," thecultureblend.com

graphic: Jerry Jones, thecultureblend.com

We’ve made up our minds.

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