They do things differently there

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Nick How finds trouble in paradise for those bent on working abroad.

The ominous sign "Aids is real, Aids is here, Aids kills" greeted me and a minibus full of new teachers leaving Moi airport at Mombasa, Kenya. However, disease is not the only danger faced when going abroad to work.

For me the dangers started in February. It was cold and dark outside, term seemed to be going on forever, Year 11 still had months to go before leaving. I flicked eagerly through The TES - on one page there were plenty of jobs for teaching posts in Birmingham, but a few pages further on I stumbled on the overseas job section. The seduction of sunshine, palm trees and the rattle of ice in my gin and tonic at sunset while being paid for the same job I could do be doing in Birmingham became too much.

Any doubts or fears were dispelled during the interview when the job seductively peeled off one layer of temptation after another. Year-round sunshine; the chance to banish jumpers and dig out beach shorts; glossy photographs of smiling, angelic pupils; school in view of a white, sandy beach; a monthly salary in six figures, albeit in the local currency; plus allowances, club membership and weekends spent on safari. All this, and they wanted to bestow it on me. Reality left the interview as day-dream images of paradise entered.

But be warned, because there is no such thing as a free lunch. We all know why teaching jobs in the Middle East pay so well, and the same applies elsewhere in the world. Working abroad is very different to having a holiday there.

Before accepting a position overseas, filter out the Bounty bar images and try to uncover the realities. What I discovered the hard way in Kenya was the salary - once split between tax, the cost of living and inflation - left me with the stark choice between going out a couple of times a week and having the odd beer in the fridge, or living like a hermit, eating a diet of boiled vegetables and constantly counting the shillings in order to save enough money to travel.

I found the daily hassle of boiling a saucepan of water for 20 minutes for cooking and drinking, checking my food for unwanted creatures, constantly dealing with cockroaches, mosquitoes and ants, and spending hours in one queue after another, all too much.

That six-figure monthly salary turned out to be in real terms about a third of what I got here, something which you can find out in your local bank, but the cost of living was just half. A car, essential to get into town or see the country, was barely affordable.

I have no one to blame but myself. More careful thought and research into what the situation would be like rather than becoming intoxicated on the image and the idea of life as an ex-pat would have saved me from the embarrassment of an early return to England.

Many teaching jobs abroad do offer high salaries and a much better standard of living than is available in Britain, which is compensation for the extra hassles incurred. But be wary of the rest. If you do go, make sure your employers pay for a return flight every year and pay part of your salary in sterling or dollars, because at least you'll have a better idea of how much you will get. At least walk in with your eyes open. Don't be seduced by what you think it will be like.

Holiday brochures do not show the Aids warning on the tatty, dirty street and the headteacher will not paint the whole picture of school life. Perhaps Birmingham has something to offer which paradise cannot.

Nick How is now back in England working as a supply teacher

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