Ideal is often a notion we do little about. Alice Haine talks to couples who chose to follow their hearts.
After working to save money, UAE couples make their dreams come true
Liz Mercer swipes her fingers across her iPad as she gazes at photographs of a newly built ski chalet nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc in France’s Chamonix Valley.
Set against snow-covered mountains, the traditional wooden, five-bedroom structure looks like a skier’s holiday paradise. But the British secondary schoolteacher is not planning her next winter break.
Instead, she and her husband Paul, 43, a secwurity risk management consultant, were looking at leaving the UAE and living their dream life running Blackrock Skwatei Lodge, their own ski chalet.
“I can’t wait, I’m really excited,” says Liz, 38, who has said goodbye to an 11-year career teaching modern languages. “I want it to be a success because it’s our dream and I’m quite nervous because it’s reality now and we’ve got to make it work.”
The couple has since made their move to France. But what is interesting about their plans is that the Mercers had been living in Dubai for the last seven years – a location that for many around the world is a dream destination in itself.
Expats make up almost 90 per cent of the population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and more than 100,000 new residents arrive every year. While many come to benefit from a tax-free income, even more come to enjoy a lifestyle complete with year-round sunshine and five-star luxury.
If so many expats are here to live “the dream”, why do some then decide to chase another ideal?
“Either they realised they want something else, or that the anticipated satisfaction didn’t match the real satisfaction,” says Devika Singh, a psychologist at the Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre. “There’s nothing wrong with making a move for work or quality of life, but what concerns me is the reason. Some people quickly realise that it’s their inner state, their mindset, that will predict what and where they will feel happy. The rest is just frills.”
This theory does not apply to the Mercers. Their move to the UAE in 2005 was not to fulfil a dream but to ensure the couple could see each other more often. As a security consultant, Paul spent much of his professional life in places such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran, making it hard to meet up with his wife, who was then based in the UK.
After relocating to Dubai, the couple established a close circle of friends, took up sports such as kite surfing and competing in triathlons, even representing Great Britain at the world championship level.
But they admit that Dubai was always only a transit stop for them.
“Dubai never felt like home,” says Paul. “In the last four years, we’ve visited Chamonix a minimum of three times a year and, when we drive from the final tunnel up into Les Houches – the village we’re going to live in – the spectre of the mountains never ceases to blow us away.”
The Mercers want to offer guests the ultimate adventure and chalet-style holiday with skiing and snowboarding in the winter – as well as extreme sports such as heli-skiing, ice climbing and ski touring – and cycling tours, hiking, triathlon events, boot camps and wellness weeks in the summer months.
It means the couple will swap their two-bedroom villa in the heart of Dubai for a one-bedroom apartment within the chalet, that comes with a snug area, sauna and Jacuzzi.
It’s a fantasy lifestyle they have been nurturing for some time, first purchasing the land in 2008 and then wrangling with the French authorities over planning permission and financing for almost three years until the building work began last August. It was paid for with funds the couple raised from selling property in the UK and Oman and living on one salary while saving the other.
With the expected completion date just weeks away, they will spend the next few months furnishing their property and landscaping the gardens before they open for business in December.
“It’s taking our passion for skiing and adventure sports and making it our career and a life,” says Liz.
The idea for a new adventure came from Paul. As a former navy ski racer, he was sent to Chamonix for mountain training where he fell in love with the area and bought an apartment in 2001.
He planned to live there one day but after meeting his wife, the idea blossomed into a ski-chalet business.
While Liz will base herself in Chamonix full-time, her husband will commute between their French home and his business in Dubai to ensure the couple’s fledgling venture has a financial safety net.
Their new work day will start at 7.30am, serving breakfast to the guests before sending them off to the ski slopes. The couple plan to hire someone to help with the daily chores of making the beds and cooking so that they can enjoy the outdoors lifestyle themselves.
“There’s no point going out there and slogging our guts out; it’s meant to be a change in lifestyle,” says Paul. “After breakfast and cleaning the place up, we plan to head out for a cycle or a ski and then come back and cook in the evening.
“Our plot is on the side of the mountain so you can walk to the slopes and then ski back into the house past the Jacuzzi, drop your skis and boots off on the terrace and head into the bar for an evening of food and relaxation.”
While the Mercers have jetted to the northern hemisphere, Jenny Waterhouse, 55, a former primary schoolteacher in Dubai, and her husband Mike, 58, headed south to Zambia for their change of pace.
Originally from South Africa, the couple moved to Dubai in 1997 after Mike was offered a job to run a workshop equipment
company. They raised their children, now 24 and 25, in the emirate, first living in Desert Springs, an old gated villa community, before moving to a four-bedroom villa in Rashidiya.
Life in Dubai meant driving the latest Mercedes 4x4 or sports car – a perk of Mike’s job – buying whatever they needed at the malls and an international upbringing for the children.
But with Mike harbouring a secret desire to be a game ranger, they began looking for a safari lodge they could run when the children left home.
After several years of negotiations, they took on the lease of Marula Lodge, a remote location perched on the edge of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park and a four-hour drive from the nearest town, using their retirement funds.
Jenny flew to her new home on June 30, 2010, transforming from a schoolteacher to the boss of a safari lodge – complete with 30 rooms, four tents and 18 staff members – overnight.
“It’s as different from Dubai as it could possibly be,” she says. “There’s nothing man-made here and we’ve actually got the only double storey building in the area.
“We have to buy our groceries in advance, receiving a delivery once a week. I buy second-hand clothes, which I would never have been happy with before, and we drive around in two 1990s open-top Land Rovers.”
Speaking to Jenny on video phone, she seems a world away from the urban jungle she once inhabited. In the background you can hear the call of the hippos basking in the river behind her.
With the waterway as the only barrier between the lodge and the natural wildlife, elephants, lions, giraffes, leopards and hippos roam freely through the property and the Waterhouses make it a priority to teach their guests about safety.
“We’ve had several occasions with 20 people sitting absolutely still in the dining room while the elephants ate food off the table. We’ve also got a resident leopard and one day the guard woke me up and there were eight lions on the lawn.”
But while her new life sounds idyllic, Jenny is quick to point out that it is not retirement but a seven-day-a-week, full-time job.
“The guests eat breakfast at 5.30am and by 6am everyone’s in the park. They come back for brunch, relax and go out again at 3.30pm to see the nocturnal animals. We finish at 10pm, when the guests go to bed, so it’s actually pretty full-on, but in the quieter times we just have the pleasure of being here.”
However, not every dream seeker finds the happiness they crave.
German-born Silke Rehman, a life coach and mother-of-one in Dubai, relocated to Bavaria with her family after falling in love with a house overlooking a picturesque castle. The family spent their time hiking, cycling and picnicking, turning part of their home into a luxury holiday apartment.
They enjoyed the company of their international guests, but felt sad when they left. Realising they missed their former lifestyle, the family returned to Dubai two years after they left, converting their Bavarian home into three holiday apartments.
Rehman, who says she is happy the family “tried” to live their dream, writes on her blog www.developandgrow.com: “It’s not arriving at the next dream destination that makes you happy but travelling along your dream path.”
Psychologist Singh says while it’s healthy to set goals, problems can arise when those dreams don’t match our level of anticipation.
“Once a dream comes true, the novelty and excitement become the dominant experience. But when the honeymoon phase wanes, the law of diminishing returns dictates the need for something bigger and better. Unless these wants are managed they can spiral out of control and lead to a situation where nothing is ever enough.”
Ask Jenny if her new lifestyle has started to wear thin and she laughs: “I miss nothing about Dubai. Our priorities have changed and we live a simple life now. Without a doubt, we are living our dream.”
For those worried about missing the UAE when they move on, Singh advises to stay connected to previous life experiences through old friends – something the Mercers will continue to do through Paul’s work and holidays.
But for now, their focus is on their new life. Liz returns to her iPad. “That’s the view from the Jacuzzi,” she says, pointing to a stunning vista of the mountains. “I don’t think I could get bored of that view,
Correction: July 12, 2012. The surname of Jenny Waterhouse was corrected.