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Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Brunei; that's somewhere near Dubai, isn't it?

Written by Charlotte Baird
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An international career change

 

“Brunei; that’s somewhere near Dubai, isn’t it?” , An international career change, Borneo, Brunei, teaching at an International school, living in Borneo, living in Brunei, International schools, Malaysia, Charlotte Baird

I think it was the moment I heard the announcement aboard Royal Brunei Airlines flight BI0098 telling us that our plane was about to be blessed before take off that I began to concern myself with some of the potential issues arising from moving to a Muslim country for a minimum of a 2 year contract. I had agonised over the conservative (some say strict) dress and social code of conduct, the ‘dry’ conditions rarely seen outside the Middle East, and the fact that every single person I spoke to seemed convinced that Brunei was located somewhere off the coast of Dubai, rather than its true location perched on the northern coast of Borneo.

 

I calmly addressed each point in turn in my head, asking myself, “How bad could it be to have to cover my shoulders and knees in public; I am not a wild dresser.” And telling myself, “Only an alcoholic would be worried about moving to a dry country when expat non-Muslims are allowed to legally import 2 litres of alcohol every 48 hours; I mean, how much can you possibly drink in two days?” Aside from my family and friend’s general lack of geographical knowledge, I answered every concern thoroughly to myself. So I sat in my aeroplane seat, telling myself that blessing a plane before take of could only be a positive sign, and that it in no way reflected on the pilot’s flying skills, as I tried to imagine what my new home would look like.

Of course, as soon as I landed and left the airport after being enthusiastically greeted by my new school-allocated ‘buddies,’ Brunei looked nothing like I had imagined. Nothing ever does. Duty-free alcohol quota and accompanying yellow forms in hand, my husband and I climbed into our new rental car and concentrated on trying to drive an automatic while keeping up with our buddies as they sped towards our new home.

 

The roads were my first big surprise; I had expected tree-lined, English-style country lanes winding their convoluted way through tropical greenery. The greenery was there in abundance, but in place of the country lanes were modern, slick dual carriageways. Country lanes were clearly not the order of the day here in Brunei, and when the road wasn’t a dual carriageway, it seemed that it was a makeshift, pothole-riddled alley clumsily hacked out of the rainforest which burst from both sides of the road.

“Brunei; that’s somewhere near Dubai, isn’t it?” , An international career change, Borneo, Brunei, teaching at an International school, living in Borneo, living in Brunei, International schools, Malaysia, Charlotte Baird

It was down one of these alleys that we turned into as we approached our new house. This was our second surprise, albeit a very pleasant one. I had seen photos, but they had not done it justice at all. I had heard a lot about Brunei and its reputation on the expat circuit as being a great place for families, with its huge houses, low crime rate and lack of pollution. However, I had not expected a detached four bedroom house with a large surrounding garden on three sides, car port, maid’s quarters and a laundry room.

 

Our new friends, proving that they still remembered exactly what the English would want upon landing 5 degrees north of the equator, had thoughtfully cranked up our air conditioning, so the weather did not prove to be too much of an initial shock to my system. Throughout my research on Brunei, both International schools in the sultanate came across as taking excellent care of their new staff, and we were no exception. Upon stepping through the door of our new house, we were promptly handed a wad of cash as our settling-in advance, an inventory, keys, mobile phone SIM cards and a very thoughtfully prepared welcome pack containing invaluable household items like tea and toilet roll. What more could we have asked for?


In the first few weeks of my stay in Borneo, I began to discover that the other aspect of Brunei’s reputation was true. Unfortunately, Brunei’s reputation as a dull and boring country totally lacking in any kind of entertainment and excitement had also preceded it on the expat circuit. I guess it depends on your idea of entertainment and just how creative you are prepared to be.

 

On one hand, in order to indulge in relatively simple pleasures such as having a quiet beer in public, you need to leave the country and drive across the border into Malaysia, and I am only just getting used to packing my passport en route to the pub. On the other hand, a very pleasant side affect of the dry conditions meant that it was much easier to build close relationships with other expats very early on in our stay. With all the socialising done under BYOB conditions over dinner, or just regular drinks during an evening, it seemed that the expat community in general was working overtime to compensate for the lack of obvious nightlife and working hard to make their own entertainment.

Personal life aside, the first few weeks of my foray into international teaching have only been a positive experience. Moving further away from the clutches of perpetual government initiatives and inspections, of which primary teaching in the UK is so fond, cannot possibly be a bad thing. Despite the fact that tropical teaching starts early at 7.15 a.m., finishing by early afternoon hasn’t proved too bad at all. A leisurely swim in the equatorial sunshine after a hard day in the classroom seems to be just the remedy for those midterm blues.

“Brunei; that’s somewhere near Dubai, isn’t it?” , An international career change, Borneo, Brunei, teaching at an International school, living in Borneo, living in Brunei, International schools, Malaysia, Charlotte Baird

Away from the pressures of SAT’s and government testing, the staffroom atmosphere is a definite improvement on the south London stress and smog I had reluctantly become accustomed to. Of course, there are downsides. Nothing’s perfect, and I am sure these downsides will become more apparent as I settle into the routine of everyday teaching in my new tropical home. It’s just that the stresses of daily life seem so much easier to deal with surrounded by so much natural beauty and clean air.

As it turns out, my initial fears have proved, so far, to be entirely unfounded. True, it is annoying to have to adjust my wardrobe choices and never wear sleeveless tops in public, but in actual fact, nearly all evening socialising has been done in expat houses or expat-friendly places where I have seen people wearing shorter skirts than I have seen in London. I also have more alcohol ‘in stock’ than I ever had in England, (it turns out that 2 litres of spirits is more than enough to last 48 hours) and it is actually quite fun to go on a beer run over the border every few weeks.

“Brunei; that’s somewhere near Dubai, isn’t it?” , An international career change, Borneo, Brunei, teaching at an International school, living in Borneo, living in Brunei, International schools, Malaysia, Charlotte Baird

My friend’s geographical knowledge of the Middle East and South East Asia has improved ever so slightly thanks to my international move, and now a handful more people in the world have a rough idea where Brunei is. I even met the Sultan himself after precisely seven days in my new country as he, rather bizarrely, made a guest appearance at the local supermarket. I never did find out exactly what he was doing there, (I assume that he wasn’t popping out for a pint of milk) but when you have met one of the world’s richest men only a week after moving to his country, who really cares the reason he nipped down the shops in the first place?

© Charlotte Baird

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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