Meet The Dropouts: Di, The Globetrotting Gran


Meet Di, a 50-something palliative care nurse who retrained as an English language teacher and set off on some amazing adventures.

Di is an inspiration for many reasons. Her kind manner and beautiful smile mask her amazing bravery. (She will probably spit out her tea when she reads this, but it’s true.) Di has been brave enough to work with the dying, to give love a chance later in life, to take a crazy Scotsman as a husband, to retrain for a new career and to experiment with expatdom.

I met Di and her Sean Connery-lookalike husband James several years ago when they were both working in Ho Chi Minh City. They later moved to Hanoi, then back to Adelaide in South Australia and now they are exploring the exotic-ness of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, keeping in touch with Di’s two children and three grandchildren and James’ two sons and five children via Skype.

James, me, Santa and Di, Christmas 2007

I’m going to let Di’s take it from here:

In 100 words or less, tell me your story.

I guess I’m kind of a “backward backpacker”. That is, I’m doing what my friends did while I was making my first mortgage payments, having babies and keeping house.

When I had finished my nursing training, all those years ago, I took on the responsibilities of wife and mother, while my friends travelled the world. I’m just making up for lost time. I now have the advantage of financial security, maturity and a great guy to share it with. Life is too short to sit in your comfort zone.

Hopefully I will be a role model for the grandkids and my example will build a desire to travel the world and experience cultural differences.

Where are you now and how long will you be there?

At the moment we are enjoying the last of summer in Mongolia. Our plan is to be in Ulaanbaatar for a total of 12 months, providing we survive the winter.

What are you doing in Mongolia?

Surprisingly, after three months, still sort of settling in. We are here as volunteers with Ausaid (the Australian government’s overseas aid program). James is working for Austraining with the Ministry of Education helping implement their English curriculum and I’m working with Australian Red Cross as a nurse trainer in palliative care at the National Cancer Hospital.

You’ve been an expat before in Vietnam. Tell me about your previous experience living and working overseas.

We just fell into the fantastic, relaxed lifestyle that was mixed with the craziness of an Asian city. We had a year in Ho Chi Minh City before relocating to Hanoi, where I ended up running a kindergarten, while James was at the other end of the education line teaching in a university. We loved the people, made so many beautiful friends who are still in our hearts and, given half the chance, would do it all again.

In regard to work, I guess the trick is don’t have expectations and if you do, don’t overlay them on others. You really have to accept the local cultural way of doing things, as frustrating and illogical as it may seem, and not expect that you can
make changes overnight. Find something to laugh at everyday.

Accept that you may be woken at some ridiculous hour on a Sunday morning by someone who is auditioning for ‘Vietnam Idol’, accept that you may come home one day and find that the front of your house has been dug up and
you can’t get in, accept that when you get pick-pocketed that your neighbours will be grossly apologetic and graciously do everything they can to help get your belongings back.

How did your latest expat experience come about? How did you feel about the prospect of moving to Mongolia when the option first came up?

While in Hanoi we met an Australian couple (I followed him around the supermarket to see if he spoke English) who were working as Ausaid volunteers, which sparked our curiosity. When we left Vietnam, returning to establish a relationship with a new grand-daughter, we still had that restlessness.

Our family and friends were so welcoming when we returned but I had this feeling like being the only one in a circle who didn’t understand the punch line of a joke.

So much had happened while we were away, and as wonderful as our friends were, it took a while to settle back. That said, James was just about straight onto the Austraining website and found a project in the Maldives.

James has retired a few times, but he is not one to stand still for too long. The grandkids were too much of a magnet for me so I didn’t want to leave again straight away, so James went to the Maldives on his own for six months. Of course I visited and, unless you are on the resorts, it is obviously a very poor country and in need of international aid.

James was home for a year and had been constantly checking the Austraining website. One day he said to me “how about we go to Mongolia?” I was only half-listening and said “yeah sure”. And now here we are.

Actually it wasn’t that simple. We had to apply for the jobs and be interviewed and psych tested. The only big fear is winter and the anticipated drops to minus 40 degrees Celcius. I think that honestly was the only consideration, because I don’t like the cold. But everything else is an adventure.

How did your first expat experience come about? What was it like to make the decision the first time round to leave home and set off for offshore adventures?

James and I had holidayed in Vietnam and we both instantly fell in love with the place, just felt at home. Of course we bored our friends silly telling them how beautiful it was. I had family commitments at home, but we had promised each other that eventually we would go back.

At the risk of sounding like Mother Teresa, I had always felt that I had skills that could be of help to developing countries. I had made that a goal (so long as I could take my hair-dryer).

I took extended leave from work and spent my days doing a TESOL course.

James, a teacher, also worked on the added qualification and when my family responsibilities changed, we planned our ‘sea change’. Surprisingly, I secured a job before leaving Australia, with no previous experience, while James applied
for jobs once we were in Ho Chi Minh City. We told the kids we were going for six months and stayed two and a half years.

Leaving the grandchildren was probably the hardest part, I did have a short visit home after six months to quell some of those anxieties. And there were regular short trips after that. But Skype is a wonderful thing. We would be kissed and tickled, shown all the new tricks and dances, making up for what we missed in person. And they got to see around our house and out into the alley.

Our new friends met our old friends over Skype and we even had dinner with friends, each with our computers on the table (but their desert was better).

But of course nothing compares to the welcome home cuddles and kisses from your grandkids, reading a story and tucking them into bed. Now we are in Mongolia, the youngest and newest addition to the family doesn’t understand that it isn’t easy to have sleep-over with Nannie and Poppie, and that is hard.

How did you and James meet?

James and I met in 2001. I was doing home visits, nursing his wife who had a terminal disease. I really didn’t have much to do with him because when I would arrive, he would leave for a bit of a break. What I did see of the two of them together, it was obvious they were a couple obviously attuned to each other.

I instantly developed a great friendship with the previous Mrs A, we had so much in common and would talk away the time that I was there. I wear thumb rings and I was quite honoured to see that she copied my trend and bought two for herself. When she passed away, I was really sad. I was even sadder when James gave me one of those rings, at her request, as a keepsake.

I was single, had been on my own for six or seven years as a widow, my children were young adults and I had been accepted to work in Saudi Arabia as a nurse. I was just waiting for my visa when the world was spun out of control on September 11.

I put my application on hold, waiting to see what transpired.

Just prior to THAT day, James became a widower. He was overseas visiting family. We had previously exchanged email addresses and we sort of checked to see that the other one was OK and safe, he thought I’d be in Saudi and I thought he was in Canada.

When he returned to Australia we caught up for coffee, and as they say, the rest was history. The real story is that I couldn’t understand his Scottish accent so I just kept saying ‘yes’.

Truth be known, I don’t regret it. I don’t think I would be calling life such an adventure without him.

You can read Di’s blog from her time in Vietnam here and her current blog about life in Mongolia here. I am hoping Miss M and I can visit Di and James in Mongolia before they leave. Di makes life in Ulanbataar sound like a fabulous adventure!

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7 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.

5 Comments

  1. Inspiring – and funny! Can’t wait to see where they go next!!
    wandering educators recently posted..Four Reasons Why I Love Long Layovers

  2. jan says:

    I came to your site today Barbara to see what you were up to and instead I have learned a lot about Di. I enjoyed what I read – what an interesting life. Mongolia looks beautiful and I am getting more and more drawn to it through Television programs and blogs. The people seem really friendly. It would be nice being able to help them.
    Great Interview.
    jan recently posted..Wanderfood Wednesdays – Singapore Street Sandwich

    • Barbara says:

      Awww, Jan, you are so sweet to check up on me. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I think Di and James are very inspirational, as well as being absolute sweethearts.

  3. Efrutik says:

    Very interesting post! And of course inspiring that life is re-inventable at all stages 🙂 Some things definitely made me chuckle too “The real story is that I couldn’t understand his Scottish accent so I just kept saying ‘yes’.” Great intro, best of luck and warmth in Mongolia and above Di and James 🙂

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