“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” – Douglas Adams
Life is something that you can’t control, be it due to divine intervention or lady luck. This is something that I have learned and keep telling people when they ask me how I got to where I am: Life has a way of taking you places you don’t expect. When I talk about life taking me to where I am now it might sound slightly condescending as if from a billionaire’s biography, but what I mean is that I am somewhere in my life I never thought I would be. You may ask why this introspection today? Simple. It has been ten years to this day that I left South Africa to start my life as a student in London unaware of the journey that lay ahead of me.
You might think that this isn’t necessarily something worth writing about, but for me, it is that move ten years ago that started a chain of events which sparked the change in an orthodox young man stuck between two cultures and led me down a path that got me to where I am today. Ten years ago I had an idea of what I wanted my life to be like ten years on, but like a great Romani proverb says “You cannot walk straight when the road bends” and nothing has turned out as I expected yet I am happy with the outcome, which is why the quote that opened this post is perfect for what I wanted to say.
So for me this ten year anniversary is important, because had I not moved to London those ten years ago, I might have been content with whatever decisions I made, but could I have said that I did everything I wanted to do in my life? I think not! Why is that? Two reasons Well one, it was never in my nature to take risks and second the intrinsic limitations there were placed upon my generation within my community.
Stuck between being ‘Portuguese’ and a hard place
I grew up in relatively closed and small Portuguese immigrant community in small town South Africa. Anyone who has grown up this kind of community knows what it’s like, but if you are not sure, imagine something along the lines of “My big fat Greek wedding”. Your cousins are your friends; You mostly only hang out with Portuguese people; You’re weekends are filled with helping out in the family business. Everything revolves around your family and the little community of outsiders you grow up with. You’re supposed culture is imprinted onto you as much as possible.
Being part of this culture and environment means that certain things are expected from you. One of them is the commitment to family and family businesses. Once you finish school, there is really only one option for you: You join the family business. Tertiary education is considered a waste of time and money (as you can make more money working in the family business than going to university). There are exceptions of course, my case being one of them as my parents have always wanted me to pursue a career not related to the family business.
However in my case, my parents went a step further and gave me the option of pursuing tertiary education in the UK instead of South Africa. Suddenly I was going against the flow of my generation in my community, so much so that one day a person from our community told me the following “You aren’t being very clever! I mean your dad has a good business and you decided to study? Why? You could earn a lot more money working with your dad!”. This was the prevailing attitude towards tertiary education in my community. I decided to go against this trend, with the support of my parents, and by this I became an oddity, the unorthodox Portuguese South African who went to University instead working with the family.
Also, this community I was part of, did not, and do not always respect risk takers, non-conformists, adventurers, thrill seekers, pursuers of life. You are groomed to make your decisions not based on gut and heart, but on ease and minimizing going against the norms of your community. For example, girls in my community are encouraged to marry young and not think about creating careers and their own path. The norm is for your path to be linked to your prospective husband. For young men, you are encouraged to choose working with your family; encouraged to look for a Portuguese wife (not girlfriend), as dating someone non-Portuguese is frowned upon and not even considered (that Raquel is Portuguese is pure chance as I never actively sought Portuguese girls, in fact, I avoided it!). I admit that some of these attitudes have changed a little, but ten years ago, this was the way things were for my generation.
Not so risky business
However as the expression goes “It takes two to Tango…” so there is obviously more to the story than just my community and the unspoken restrictions put on me. There is me and the restrictions I put on myself. The fact is that for twenty three years I was scared of living. Yes at eighteen, I moved to London and even though it was a tough choice, it wasn’t a hard one and moving to London, while being a big move, is not synonymous with adventure, unless dodging cyclists is your idea of adventure…
Up until the move to London, adventure and risk remained elusive in my life. The biggest adventure I ever took before the age of eighteen was when I decided, as a four year old, that I was going to go for a walk with my dog without my mom’s knowledge only to be brought back by a neighbor who happened to drive past me 500m away from my house. Even though I was extroverted at home and within my community, outside it, I remained a quiet, ‘out of the lime light’- kind of person.
Initially, London didn’t change much in me and despite being at university and meeting people from all over the world with different mindsets, which taught me a lot and possibly planted the seeds of things to come. There were lapses in my ‘playing it safe’ philosophy in life, but no permanent change.
However, the seeds were sown and in the winter of 2005 I decided throw caution to the wind and do something completely different and out of my comfort zone. I’ve written about this in another post, so won’t go into it here, but it was this action that prompted a massive change in my life and the way I made decisions. I no longer tried to take the safe option. I wanted to be different. I wanted stories to tell. I wanted to see things. I wanted say that I’ve lived and that done all I wanted to do. I wanted to get to point in my life where I would never need to say “If only I had done this…” or “I should have done this…”.
At the start of 2007, I had only been 6 other countries other than South Africa, and these were family holidays mostly to Portugal, England, France, Mauritius and Seychelles. The concept of seeing the world was foreign to me and this is normal in the community I’m from. Usually travel means going to visit family in Portugal or any other country where you have family.
My 2005 trip to Greece with friends was the first trip I did without any family members and that trip wet my appetite for more. Since 2005 I’ve been to another 23 countries including places which even I thought were odd places to visit such as Oman, Sri-Lanka and Guatemala. Travelling solo, something unthinkable 10 years ago for me, was something I was doing more often that not, which confounded my parents who didn’t understand why on earth I wanted to travel alone, but the point was that if I didn’t have anyone to travel with, I was not going let that stop me.
Add to that I’ve worked in a total of seven countries UK, Turkey, Portugal, UAE, Libya, Mozambique and Guinea, subjecting myself to extreme changes in cultures, environments, attitudes and people, something unthinkable for me ten years ago. However, these experiences have been invaluable to me, not professionally but also personally too as you grow up pretty quickly in places like Libya and learn to deal pretty well with the curve balls life throws you. Going to these odd places were always my choice, my decisions and no one else’s. I took the bull by the horns and made decisions and didn’t sit on the fence waiting for things to happen.
Most of these decisions were made in conflict with what my parents wanted. When I moved to Abu Dhabi, my parents didn’t agree with the decision. When I moved to Tripoli, my parents didn’t agree with the decision. My parents liked the idea of moving to Mozambique as they thought I could go home often, which unfortunately wasn’t the case. I made these decisions despite not being popular, and well fortunately for me things worked out.
Ten years on from leaving South Africa, I look my life and feel content and happy. I’ve travelled. I’ve made friends. I’ve learnt languages. I’ve lived in odd places. I have stories to tell and most importantly I’ve someone to share this life with. Would this have been possible if I had played it safe and followed the unspoken rules of my community or not changed the way I thought and made decision? I don’t know. That’s the beauty of life. You never what life would be like if you made different decisions.
It’s funny that in this ten year anniversary of leaving South Africa, Raquel and I have made another choice which will lead our life down another path which we don’t know whether will be good or bad, but I’d rather live my life making decisions than waiting on life.
Watch this space for more…