Sunday, 28 November 2010

Malaysia & Singapore I: From budget flights to classy coaches

In November 2010, I flew to Southeast Asia to visit my friend C, who's now a Brit abroad in Singapore. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be recounting my Asian adventures.

I may have been up there among EasyJet's most frequent passengers in 2010, but even I baulked at the idea of a long-haul flight with a budget airline. Twelve hours of being flogged scratchcards and informed that the last vegetarian pizza had just been sold? It sounded like hell on wings. However, when Air Asia's direct flight from London Stansted to Kuala Lumpur shaved a massive £300 off the average price of a ticket to visit C in Singapore – even after luggage, meals and a bus transfer had been added on – this sceptic reached for her credit card. After all, the saving on the fare could fund a few days in Malaysia, and I've never exactly been one to turn down a holiday opportunity.

A few days before boarding, my building nerves were only slightly settled by the Guardian's review of Air Asia's inaugural Stansted-KL flight. Pre-assigned seats removing the scrum at the gate sounded more refined than the usual budget argy-bargy, but would the on-board comfort really match that of a 'frills included' carrier?  It wasn't exactly reassuring that their online check-in failed to work every time I tried it, but one lengthy airport queue later, I was on my way to the boarding gate. Unusually for a budget airline, nobody harangued me for having both a handbag and a piece of hand luggage; no cases were dropped in gauges to check their size. Hopefully this boded well for the lack of smokeless cigarettes on sale.

A Brit Abroad in Sydney, Australia

In November's tale of a Brit abroad, expat Russell Ward tells us of the reasons behind his 2006 move to Sydney and the challenges he and his wife faced in their search for 'a life less ordinary'. 

In search of a life less ordinary
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so the saying goes. It's simple human nature to look at other people's lives things that we don't have through rose-tinted spectacles.

Most expats-in-waiting spend every available minute researching and watching other people's lives on other sides of the world, dreaming of one day living their own new life in a different country. We did… and, upon moving to Australia in 2006, we found the grass to be not only greener, but a far more interesting and exciting shade of green, as we went on our search for a life less ordinary.
The trigger for our move
We arrived in Australia in the summer of 2006 with our two dogs and the entire contents of a 3-bedroom house, looking for a change to the monotony of our life. Bored with our humdrum 9-5 routine and keen for a more stimulating existence, we opted to head to my wife's home city of Sydney.
Now that I look back four years later, I wonder what exactly was the catalyst for our decision to leave. Oddly enough, I think it was a conversation with a gym buddy that did it. He was moving to Australia, we wanted to move overseas, and that was that.
I'm not sure at what point Sydney became a serious contender. My wife's Australian citizenship obviously played a large part in the decision but her family was from the Blue Mountains, a fair distance from Sydney, which appealed to us on an altogether different level. Maybe it was the large number of world class beaches within a thirty kilometre radius, the sparkling blue harbour with its delightful inlets and waterways, the generally laidback way of life, or the ability to go for a long run on the sand in the morning, put on your suit and work in the bustling, cosmopolitan city in the daytime, then go out for a quick sail in the evening. Whatever the reason, in mid-2006 we flew across the ocean and into Australia, as Sydney welcomed us into its sun-kissed arms.


The Pacific Ocean meets the Australian mainland

Leaving friends and family
It was a traumatic time, saying farewell to family and friends with no idea if, and when, we would ever return. Emotions ran high and tension was ever present. Loved ones were inevitably upset or annoyed; friends questioned our decision; work colleagues thought we were mad. Yet the key was being brave and reminding ourselves of the reasons for leaving in search of a better life.
Make no mistake: picking your life up and moving it to a foreign country is no small undertaking. It's fair to say that leaving loved ones, selling the house you've worked hard for and giving up the job you've worked at for the past five years is a huge deal. But we'd decided to make the break and now there was no turning back. We broke the news to family and friends, we dreamed of our new life in Australia, and we visualised getting on the plane and leaving for that beautiful new environment.

Our new life down-under
The visa process
There was just one small matter to take care of: the visas. To emigrate to Australia, most people apply for a skilled workers visa by way of a points system. For us, it was more straightforward. My fiancée (now my wife) is Australian, which meant that I could apply for a spousal visa. The paperwork was still significant but the process was relatively quick and painless.

We also did plenty of background research to inform our decision. We attended immigration fairs, signed up to expat forums, spoke with distant relatives in our chosen new home and trawled the web for information. This culminated in a fact-finding trip to Sydney one year before our move to look at areas to live in, potential jobs and things to see and do. We were now ready to go.
In January 2006, the envelope with the good news from the High Commission landed on the doormat. We immediately put the house up for sale and got our dogs ready for travel. I left my job early and began readying us for the move and, in June 2006, we departed for our adventure on Sydney's Northern Beaches.

One of the local Northern Beaches
The odd one out
It's worth pointing out that living in a foreign country is harder than you could ever imagine.  I'm not referring to the hardship of moving to a new town or city, or the issues associated with buying houses, cars and other material possessions.  I'm referring to the difficulty of simply fitting in.  In short, you're a stranger in an alien environment.  Your family is absent, you're pretty much mate-less and, unless you do something about it fast, that's the way it's going to stay.

Trying to fit in
In my previous life, I'd spend Friday nights down the local pub with my chums, Saturday mornings in the gym or in town bumping into old acquaintances, and maybe Sunday afternoons catching up with school friends, their partners and, of course, my family.  However, in moving to Australia, I created a situation in which I left behind those friends I'd have a 'bit of banter' with.  My family were no longer present, no cousins or aunts and uncles to visit nearby.  I didn't recognise passers-by in the street and heard no warm "hello" from familiar faces in the shopping mall.
I initially found it hard to adjust, and I plain and simply missed my family.  I was pining for friends and craving familiarity. I had plenty of good pals back home so I was reluctant to join social clubs or make enough of an effort with new acquaintances.
When moving to a new country or even city, it's often assumed that fitting in is easy and happens naturally but it isn't and it doesn't. The lesson I learned was that you need to leave your comfort zone and put yourself out there. To really make the most of your new life as an expat, you simply have to be positive and outgoing. Most of all, you must always cherish and respect the home you've left behind whilst embracing your new environment, new friends, and new life less ordinary. Don't ever look back – you're about to embark on the most exhilarating adventure in making your home from home!

My wife and I on Sydney Harbour

Russell V J Ward
Russell is a British expat living on Sydney's northern beaches in New South Wales, Australia. A keen writer in his spare time, Russell also spends time travelling the world and enjoying life by the ocean. Russell lived in the UK until 2003, before emigrating to Canada (Vancouver and Ottawa), then most recently to Sydney, Australia (his wife's home country).
 Read more about his expat adventures in looking for a life less ordinary at
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