Baking a Cake at Altitude & Other Unexpected Challenges of Living Overseas

Life overseas has its challenges. For most of us, developing useful language skills, making quality relationships with colleagues, and managing to acclimate to the daily maze of cultural issues may top the list. But, what of the little, unexpected challenges that tend to sneak up on us when least expected?

A completely unprecedented challenge came my way mere days after setting up my new house in Nepal, my first international teaching locale. I’m a baker by hobby and so set out to bake a double-layer chocolate cake for our director’s surprise birthday party. I soon discovered baking from scratch in Kathmandu’s high altitude would require a substantial readjustment to almost everything I took for granted about baking back home; and for that matter, Kathmandu would force me to reevaluate most every thing I took for granted about my life.

In case you’re interested, Kathmandu’s altitude means food cooks slower so temperatures and/or bake times must be increased …. but, by how much is really the question. Liquids evaporate faster at altitude so flour, sugar, milk and water require adjustment to prevent a too moist, dry or gummy batter. And finally, gases expand more at altitude making dough rise quite fast. It was easy to see: A new approach to baking was in order! It had been years since I pulled an utter flop out of the oven, and this cake most definitely was a flop, both literally and figuratively.

Most of what we take for granted back home and see as mundane and simple can take on an entirely new character overseas, especially when we try to accomplish a task as if we were back home. Reflecting on my early days in Kathmandu, I consider learning to bake at altitude an analogy of my time here. That’s because everything in Kathmandu is, like life, “at altitude” in one way or another.

ISR asks: What unexpected, challenges have YOU encountered and surmounted in YOUR life overseas?

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3 thoughts on “Baking a Cake at Altitude & Other Unexpected Challenges of Living Overseas

  1. Had 3 unexpected challenges when got a position in Norway; 1- It was a three year contract but if I first signed for a 2 than it was tax fee for 2 years. 2- Average teaching load was 17 out of 45 and anything over 17 was added on to salary. I was on 22 periods so I received 5 17ths over salary. 3- Only had to show up when you had a class, not stay all day. It was shocking, terrible!!!!

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  2. Also lived in KTM and love to cook. In America you can find greenhouse-grown or imported produce year-round, yet I appreciate that in many countries, seasonal produce is… seasonal. It’s tastier, local, and comes with a smaller environmental footprint. In a place like Nepal however, you get what you get, and when it’s gone there ain’t no more!

    I remember teachers texting out the latest kale sightings. I remember taking friends’ shopping lists to the farmers market, based on rumors of parsley.

    And lemons. Always plenty of limes but nary a lemon in sight! While some passengers from Delhi or Doha attempted to smuggle their new TVs past customs, I wheeled through with a suitcase full of citrus.

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  3. Living in Mexico city was similar but we weren’t as high up as Katmandu. The biggest adjustments were learning the language, avoiding cultural judgements, adjusting to the ¨manana¨ mindset, dealing with fellow ex-pats who refused to adjust but loved to criticize, dealing with envy, scorn, defensiveness and hostility that some locals displayed to each other and occasionally to us, finding what one needed to live life as best we could, parental expectations and rampant corruption in Mexican society, to name a few. Baking wasn’t much of a challenge compared to the above.

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