Many people travel in search of a place. There is an idea among travelers, whether spoken or not, that one day they will come across a place so perfect they’ll lay down roots. Even among non-travelers there is an idea that there is somewhere that will feel the way home should. The people will like you, the scenery will inspire you, work won’t be work…in short, in the perfect place life will be perfect. The core of this idea is that a place can make us happy, not that we make a place happy. Couchsurfing in the Middle East showed me that it is up to us to make a place, a home, spending our energy making a life rather than trying to find one.
Having met and stayed with expats the world over, the people we met in Oman and UAE were different, they had made their lives there. Most of the young people we’ve met working abroad were abroad because they didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives. We even met one person who moved to Asia because they clicked on a facebook ad promoting teaching opportunities. There is no discounting the amount of work that everyone teaching abroad must do, from visas to physically moving across the planet, but, in general, most of the young expats I met were abroad not because they knew what they wanted to do, rather they were there because they didn’t know what they wanted to do. At their worst they were killing time, at their best they were hoping to find themselves. In the UAE and Oman though, the people we met were dynamic, seizing the opportunity to live in a rapidly changing place, who were making a life abroad.
The challenges of living in the Middle East are more than moving there. While Oman and UAE may be the “liberal” Middle East, there are always reminders that you’re not in Kansas any more. While men may notice the tight liquor laws, women’s daily life can be affected including rules about “proper attire”. This didn’t stop the Couchsurfers we stayed with. The excitement of living in a rapidly changing place and being able to be part of the cultural change drew them here. If teaching English was the only driver, they could have chosen easier cultures. If experiencing a foreign culture was all they sought, they could have chosen stranger places. If growth was what they wanted, they could have chosen better cities. They actively chose the Middle East to be part of something special, to live and learn there…not just anywhere.
What struck me most was that they not only chose to be there, but they have built lives there. One Couchsurfer wanted to do yoga, but found there were no options in a smaller city…so he started a yoga studio. One outdoor lover developed a passion for caving, exploring the unexplored caverns of the rugged Omani mountains. Several runners decided to not let being in the scorching desert confine them…they adjusted to their climates and run races…weather be damned. An attorney saw an opportunity to do contract law for the Sultan of Oman and seized it. All of these Couchsurfers are not living abroad just to be there, they are living their life, how they want it, where they want it.
If home is where the heart is, then we can’t forget that our hearts are with us, no matter where we are. The Couchsurfers of the Middle East taught us that what is important in life isn’t finding a place for you, rather making a place home.