Bedposts, chewing gum and Singapore
Shadows cavort across the yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern on St Croix as people mill about waiting for the conch to call them to order. Dawn is a faint glimmer across the hills to the east but all is not quiet. Music, blaring from speakers on a pick-up truck, call for liberation, freedom – Bob Marley is always a popular choice, and blue lights flash like beacons from waiting police vehicles. Then silence.
Senator Positive Nelson, who has organized this Freedom March for 18 years, is a tall rangy figure in white shorts and a loose African shirt. His dreadlocks swing as his head tips back and he raises the conch to his lips, and blows. The drum beats with a building intensity. It is hard not to be moved.
After a twelve-year gradual freeing of the slaves was announced in 1847, and the order that all babies born from July 28th of that year were to be born free, anger percolated amongst the enslaved. Why not immediate emancipation?
170 years ago on the night of Sunday, July 2nd, in what was then the Danish West Indies and is now the US Virgin Islands, Moses Gottlieb, known to many as General Buddhoe, sounded the conch and led many of those enslaved on a march to Frederiksted demanding their freedom. Gottlieb, a literate and skilled sugar boiler thought possibly to have come to St Croix from Barbados, worked at Estate La Grange but was often borrowed for work on other sugar plantations. It was this freedom of movement, combined with an innate leadership skill, that allowed Gottlieb to secretly organize the march. By morning the crowd had swelled to about 5,000. Later that afternoon, Governor Peter von Scholten, fearing violence and burning, momentously proclaimed, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today Free”.
Back in the days before cell phones, it took a while for the news of freedom to travel and so an offshoot of the protesters, known as ‘the fleet’ and led by a young man called King, continued to riot, burn and plunder. It was thanks to Gottlieb, who accompanied the Danish fire chief, Major Jacob Gyllich, around the island that the mayhem did not continue and no white lives were lost.
Order was restored but rumours swirled that the Governor, who had a black mistress, was sympathetic to the cause and knew there was a possibility of an uprising. It was a rumour never confirmed. The sugar plantocracy were enraged with the proclamation, which immediately decimated their workforce, and von Scholten was ordered back to Denmark, where he died a broken man.
Despite being protected initially from the planter’s wrath by Major Gyllich, Gottlieb was arrested, questioned and shipped off the island aboard the SS Ørnen. He set sail from St Croix as a gentlemen but once out of port was stripped of his clothes and put to work until, in January 1849, he landed on Trinidad. Told he would be executed if he ever returned to the Danish West Indies, Moses Gottlieb aka General Buddhoe is believed to have ended his days in the United States.
Today – July 3rd – is Emancipation Day!
Celebrated each year with the Freedom March. As I watched the marchers, including my husband, answer the call of the conch, rattle the chains on Fort Christiansvaern and walk along Company Street at the start of their 15 mile march to Frederiksted, dawn trickled over Gallows Bay, pink and orange striations among grey clouds promising much needed rain.
Freedom came to the enslaved of the Danish West Indies 170 years ago and it is easy to think that freedom is global. But it isn’t. Slavery still exists in all its ugly connotations. So whilst we celebrate the bravery of leaders like Gottlieb and the many who marched with him, as well as those who supported their claims for freedom, like von Scholten and Gyllich, and 30 years later the Four Queens who roused the crowd during Fireburn demanding better labour laws, we should remember those still under the mantel of oppression.
Would that the conch call for freedom be heard globally!
Prunus avium are those delicious sweet cherries that show up in our grocery stores in about July. There are many varieties of which the leader is Bing, so named over a 100 years ago by an Oregon grower for one of his Chinese workmen. Prunus cerasus, is the name given to the tart or sour cherry, the most widely known being the Montmorency.
Now this might surprise you but cherries do not grow in the US Virgin Islands. Whatever the type, they prefer the northern climes of continental USA, Turkey, Chile and the southern states of Australia.
But we do have on our lovely island of St Croix a cadre of tart and sour individuals who seem to think that human rights can be divided into different categories and that one is able to cherry pick which to support and which to denigrate.
June is Gay Pride month. Sadly homophobia is alive and kicking in many parts of the Caribbean though hope is on the horizon when places like Cuba, closed so long to modernity, is proud to have held for the last four years a Day Against Homophobia, spearheaded by Mariela Castro, the daughter of former President Raúl Castro. Puerto Rico and Curaçao are also proud to hold parades supporting Gay Pride.
Yesterday it was St Croix’s turn to be rainbow proud. A first for this island which, on the whole, tends to delight in its diversity. But the Pride Parade could easily have been soured by the vitriol emitted, anonymously of course, across social media. I am not going to give print space to the crassness of comments, though a couple were almost humorous in their stupidity. But there was one circulating on the ubiquitous FaceBook calling for violence against any and all taking part or supporting the Parade.
It was serious enough to involve the FBI, with the St Croix Police Chief, Winsbut McFarlande being heard on various radio shows in the days leading up to the Pride Parade, assuring listeners that the organizers had the requisite permits and that, “The police department will do all within its resources to monitor and attempt to minimize the threat.”
And they did. There was a strong, polite and friendly police presence. There had been an attempt to block the parade route with debris, probably left over from the hurricanes which did their best to destroy the island last year, but all was cleared by the time the marchers made their colourful way along the seafront at Frederiksted to Dorsch Beach. Rainbow flags were vivid against the cerulean waters and all that was needed to complete the postcard was a rainbow in the sky.
There was a mingling of signs. Repent of your Sins and you will be Forgiven waved next to Love is Love! One has to wonder what is sinful about loving someone, anyone. There was though an upbeat and friendly mood with little actual engagement from those picketing. I wondered whether indeed they were becoming bemused at the mingling of gay and straight. Perhaps the tee-shirt proclaiming, I Can’t Even Think Straight added to their Cruzan confusion.
I am not gay but count amongst my friends from around the world, some who are. By the same token I have never had to face the dreadful dilemma about whether to proceed with an abortion. I have friends who have. I have never been racially profiled despite having spent much of my life in Africa and Asia, unless you count comments called from market vendors along the lines of “Hola, Blanca….” or a shakedown from a policeman who hasn’t been paid for months. I consider myself fortunate to have friends of all colours and creeds – not because they are all colours and creeds but because they are good company and have proven their friendship over years and continents, as I hope I have to them.
Because ‘human rights’ should be across the board. If they are not, the early work of suffragettes has been in vain. If they are not, then the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and desegregation in the United States has been in vain. Or the death of Harvey Milk and the Stonewall riots. If they are not, then the work of people like Maryan Abdulle Hassan, a 26-old-Somalian woman fighting female genital mutilation is irrelevant.
Or people like Audre Lorde – who championed the rights of gay, black women and who spent her last years on St Croix and helped found, along with Gloria I Joseph, The St Croix Women’s Coalition.
So when I read a post written by someone, without even the courage to use his or her own name, urging others to wield AK-47s and shoot those holding rainbow flags and marching peacefully, and joyfully, it really pisses me off. It makes me go out in the hot sun and proudly join the parade.
LGBTQ rights, women’s right, every variation of colour rights – they all matter because they are human rights. 100 years ago that Oregon farmer named a sweet cherry after his Chinese cherry picker. Let’s lessen the prunus cerasus variety on St Croix and remember human rights are not up for cherry picking.
There are websites galore devoted to the expatriate life and how to make the most of it. How to choose the right school. How to recreate oneself as an accompanying spouse. How to make friends in a foreign land. How to have a baby overseas – that one always makes smile. I believe the answer is the same anywhere in the world – you push.
Living a life abroad is not difficult. And as the world shrinks with the ease of travel and the omnipresence of the internet it has without doubt become easier. In some ways though the very ease of communication and the ability to see films and TV shows from any country, has created a belief that we are one giant homogenous world with little separating us – a sort of Bollywood comes to Hollywood. And that can lead to unrealistic expectations, to a lack of cultural awareness, a lack of willingness to accept and, mostly, embrace our differences.
It is a privilege to be invited to share in someone else’s customs and traditions. To travel, and to spend significant time in another country encourages us to become more compassionate, more open to inevitable differences, to understand that there is no single way to do many things. It is also too easy to forget issues that may arise whilst living in a foreign country might well have arisen when living in the village of one’s birth, surrounded by family. It is easy to blame external factors for internal problems though like everything there are exceptions.
I think a global perspective helps make us more accepting and in some ways kinder.
What travel most certainly does is introduce new words and phrases into our lexicon that are used without thought in our daily speech, without remembering those to whom we are speaking might be utterly confused.
My 60th birthday was shared with seven girlfriends with whom I have celebrated for over ten years and who, last week, flew in to St Croix from mainland USA and Britain. Sitting on the gallery one evening I looked at these wonderful women who I had met around the world and wondered how many countries had been lived in. A quick tally was 24 countries, and that wasn’t counting overlaps where some of us had lived in the same country. Had we included those the total would have been 42.
Not surprisingly those multiple countries and languages have spawned many phrases in our personal dictionaries. Growing up in Malaysia the word cukup and tidak were daily admonitions from, it sometimes seemed, most adults in my life. Meaning “enough” and “no”. Makan siap called us to the table – the bahasa melayu equivalent of “grub’s up”. Papua New Guinea added em tasol and means “that’s all”. Genoeg and tot ziens came from Holland, another “enough”, and “see you later”. My children, raised initially in Thailand, were quick to learn mai pen rai – “it doesn’t matter”.
But the phrase I had completely forgotten from my childhood was huggery buggery!
I had left the house early to go and prepare the table at Cafe Christine’s for 14 lovely ladies joining me for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, those staying with me had plans to decorate the house in my absence. (I later understood why everyone kept asking me “when are you going?”, or “what time do you want us there?” I had also been mildly surprised to note my Cruzan friends, who often work to a Caribbean clock, arrived on time and my houseguests all late.)
But back to huggery buggery.
Apparently whilst hustling to decorate the house with all manner of glitzy banners, streamers and balloons proclaiming my advanced age, my multi-lingual pals were searching for sellotape.
“Well she must have a huggery-buggery drawer somewhere!” said Trish, continuing to pull open cupboard doors and tug recalcitrant drawers swollen by humidity.
“What?” The query came from five women.
“The huggery buggery drawer. You know, bits and bobs, odds and ends. Everyone has one.”
Relating this to me later over yet more bubbles, I laughed. It was a phrase used by my paternal grandmother and my father, learned from their days in India. Sometimes it is best not look too deeply into the etymology of a word but goodness it is descriptive. And whilst Trish has never lived in India, she learnt it from an Indian ayah whilst living in Dubai.
Writing this blog brought to mind the teenage glee with which a friend and I, then living in Papua New Guinea, would call her dog to heel. Her travel history included South Africa and her amusingly non-pc parents had named the mutt who appeared one day at their door, Voetsek. Voetsek in Afrikaans is a not terribly polite way of saying, “get lost”.
And so along with kindness comes humour. Two things necessary wherever we live but which is sometimes needed in larger doses when living a global life. Some of the things we build into big events or issues are really very unimportant in the greater scheme of life, and we need a take a kecil out of the huggery-buggery drawer and learn to realize that for most things, mai pen rai!
Now I wonder if there’s an expat website for that!
Note: I’ve just been told that huggery-muggery is listed in a 1700 Scottish dictionary so it seems India borrowed and adapted from the Scots!
‘Here’ is St Croix, the largest and, to my biased view, the best of the US Virgin Islands. We have for five years been restoring an old West Indian home up a steep hill in Christiansted. It has been a labour of love and which, as most love affairs, has had moments of great joy and moments of deep despair.
A web, not of lies, but of wires criss-crossing the walls, with appliances daisy-chained into the front of the fuse box. A gas pipe suspended below a low ceiling. Fans that would decapitate anyone over 5’6”. Termite eggs sounding like sand trickling into a pail whenever furniture was moved. Shutters which creaked in un-oiled anger with each gust of the Trade Winds that make this island such a cool place to live. A dishwasher which had been home to small furry critters with long tails. An oven that belched gas at the threat of a flame. And baths upon which no bottom should ever sit. The list was longer.
But the views! Ribbons of blue as the Caribbean filters through azure, to aquamarine to emerald, and back to kingfisher navy glisten in iridescent invitation. Yachts dot the bays in bobbing abandon. And the one thing that makes any place a pleasure to be. The people.
No conversation, no matter how short, starts without ‘good mahnin’ or a pleasantry about whatever the time of day. If the acquaintance is more than a passing hello, then inquiry after the health of the family, or a comment about the day, or maybe an upcoming event is the norm before diving into the purpose of the meeting. It is the most delightful way in which to conduct one’s life and a reminder that courtesy is still alive in certain parts of this great land, despite the lack of civility in the political sphere.
St Croix might be an American territory but she most definitely has a West Indian vibe. The hustle of the mainland is missing. “When will you be here?” is answered by “Soon come.” People are warm and welcoming, and like to laugh. The market is full of fresh produce and stall holders eager to impart their knowledge of how to cook that strange looking leaf.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not Utopia. There are social issues, as there are anywhere. Gun violence has taken a nasty upturn – fueled by drugs and unemployment. Domestic abuse, probably for the same reasons, runs like a fetid stream through society. Last year’s hurricanes rudely destroyed homes, schools and the hospital – the aftermath of which is still being felt by many, though power has been restored islandwide.
For someone like me, who has lived and worked in many places – 12 countries, as diverse as Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands – there is a charm to St Croix that appealed from the outset. I couldn’t care less about the possible health hazards of sparrows flying around the supermarket. And whilst religion is taken seriously, no matter what the denomination, there is still space for humour – the sign, since blown away, affixed to the gates of the Presbyterian Church, admonished, “Thou Shalt Not Park Here”.
Or another propped up in a window offering three directions – the lab, the morgue or the X-ray – take your pick.
Where I sit and write, often on our gallery looking out at the aforementioned view, I am privy to many amusing discussions taking place in the street below, though I am not part of them. I was though part of a conversation last night. Let me set the scene.
The plough was glistening in an ebony sky. The channel lights were blinking red and green to guide cruisers into safe harbour should they be so foolish as to attempt a night-time arrival through the narrow channel. The breeze rustled coconut fronds and clac-clacked tan-tan pods as cicadas harmonised in accompaniment. The roosters were blessedly silent – no doubt preparing for their pre-dawn chorus of ‘funky blackbird’! Jazz in the Park and a glass of Bourbon had left me mellow.
The idyll was broken by the violent gunning of an engine followed by a desperate screech of brakes, the rattling of pebbles on our galvanized roof, and a flurry of curses. I rushed out to see what was going on.
“Good night,” I said, showing remarkable sang-froid in the face of a long-base ute very close to tipping down onto our roof. “Everything okay?” Which in the face of it was rather a silly question, but very British.
“Good night.” A man, with large glasses and trousers slipping below his butt, responded politely before shouting further instructions to the driver. “Wappen de road? De road it go where?” He asked, turning back to me.
This was a fair question. There is no warning that the road behind our house leads not downhill in tar macadamed smoothness but into a series of steep and very rutted steps. If urban legend is to be believed, a number of vehicles have taken the plunge over the years. A little disconcerting to know as such an event would surely disturb my slumber.
“It’s been like this for many years. Certainly since before you were born,” I replied.
“How old you think I be?”
“Younger than these steps.” I told him. “Have the brakes failed?”
The driver, his lips firmly pursed around a cigarette, bade me good night and replied in the younger man’s stead. The brakes were fine. It was turning around in a confined area and the steepness of the gravel road causing the problem. That and no power in the engine. It took another five or six attempts before, with sparks and stones flying, the pick-up made it’s wailing way up the hill. Brake lights flashed on – amazingly both worked – and a cheer went up from the flatbed filled with three young, and perhaps a little inebriated, men before they went on their way – the driver waving goodbye.
And that’s ‘why here’ – it’s fun!
Saturday, 1st February 1969 was the first time I wore jodhpurs. This I know for a fact as it was my first Saturday at boarding school – NEGS (New England Girls School, Armidale, NSW, Australia). It was the only day pupils were allowed to wear trousers and ironically, at the time, NEGS did not have the world class equestrian centre it now has.
Last weekend, and quite by chance also a Saturday, I visited the MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts Houston) to view their lavish exhibition, Peacock in the Desert: the Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. It was magnificent. Featuring masterpieces from the kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Ceremonial swords and regalia, camel guns, daggers. One hall was filled with a 17th century court tent made of intricately stitched drapes, another showed a moveable wooden-framed tent used for picnics – the floor of that was covered with a rug made from slithers of ivory interwoven with fabric. Turban adornments shimmered with diamonds on the front and the finest enamel work on the back – so fine I was convinced they were also gems, tiny sparkling emerald and ruby chips rather enamel. It was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Rathore dynasty and how the latter day maharaja, Gaj Singh, has transformed the royal palaces and forts on the edge of the Thar, the Great Indian Desert, into self-sustaining monuments for now and the future.
The superficial glamour of the maharaja’s life hides the seriousness of his role in keeping this part of India from crumbling into ruins and crushing debt, and he believes the conservation of buildings and the wonderful works of art inside them is an important bridge between history and modernity. Gaj Singh might officially be a maharaja in name only but that is not how the people of Jodhpur see him, and they call him Bapji – father in their tribal tongue of Marwari.
And my father is why I care about Rajasthan in India and Waziristan in Pakistan.
Sent to India, as his father, his maternal grandfather and great grandfather were, to serve in the Indian Army (sometimes now referred to as the British Indian Army), Dad was there during Partition in 1947 in one of the Frontier Corps regiments and he remained as one of the few British army officers in the newly formed Pakistani Army.
I grew up to stories of derring-do on the North West Frontier and about his commanding officer, the first Pakistani CO of the South Waziristan Scouts, Colonel Khushwaqt-ul-Mulk, but who I knew as Khushi. Gilgit, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Wāna, Jaipur, Calcutta, Jodphur were all names that swirled around me with romantic abandon as a child even though we lived in neither India nor Pakistan. The first nursery rhyme I learnt was from the sub-continent – aye aye tonga-wallah, tonga-wallah idera (?), aye aye tonga-wallah, Queen Victoria very fine man!
My father’s time in both India and Pakistan were arguably his happiest days and the men with whom he served, whether British, Indian or Pakistani, were men he stayed in contact with throughout his life. When Dad died in 2010 one of the condolence letters I received was from Khushi’s son – his father having died in February of the same year.
And so I’ve almost come full circle – Saturdays, Jodhpur and Dad – but to close that gap I have to go to Waziristan. That part of Pakistan is riven, still, with violence – 71 years since Partition. And still from the same quarter. Then, the SWS gashts (patrols) were spent defending the frontier with Afghanistan against dissident tribesmen hoping to create a new independent country to be known as Pukhtunistan. Now it is the Taliban causing chaos.
I wonder was it serendipity that sent me to the museum on Saturday to see the Jodhpur exhibition? That reawakened a life-long desire to see those places albeit almost three-quarters of a century after Dad was there. Most of Dad’s ashes currently reside in my son’s London flat – awaiting the ‘right’ time to scatter them in the place which held his fascination and part of his heart for all those years. Perhaps that time is now, one Saturday very soon.
Daddy would like that!
I’ve been caught! I have been, since 2013, a two-timer. It has been fun, exciting, though at times a little fraught. Timing is often an issue. What to wear, and where to wear it? And like most relationships there have been moments of despair, moments of regret but there has been, on the whole, great enjoyment. And strangely my heart has not been torn asunder by my dual lives. My loves are so very different it has been easy to compartmentalise their existence, to take the best of the both and conveniently walk away for a spell when too much has been asked of me by either. All in all a most selfish affair.
I thought the arrangement was long term. I thought I had it sorted. I thought I could have it all. I didn’t see the end coming and so have had the proverbial stuffing knocked out of me. I am dismayed. Discombobulated.
The decision to end this two-timing life has not been made final due, as so often is the case, to situations outside my control. I am in the hands of people over whom I have no clout. I suppose in a way I am being held to ransom. And yes, I am resentful. Though arguably I have little right to be.
As I consider the consequences of my actions, and the consequences of those who hold aloft the Sword of Damocles under which I now live, I find myself withdrawing from the one I believed would be the constant. The one who has held my heart for thirteen years.
I write not of people but of places.
Downtown Houston was, when I moved here in 2005, an area of promise but little else due in large part, according the then mayor, Bill White, to the tunnel system. Meandering 20 feet below the city they were started by Ross Sterling in the 1930s. Over the years the tunnels grew to cover 95 blocks. A warren of scurrying humans protected from Houston’s heat. And as they became more and more subterranean the hobos and the ne’er-do-wells took over the surface.
But by the early 2000’s a push was being made to bring office workers back into the light, to stop developers buying up and demolishing historic buildings, to revitalise what was once a vibrant city. To bring back those who had fled to the suburbs and who only dared enter Downtown for a night at the opera, the symphony, the ballet or the theatre – all of which are first class.
Walking the streets at the weekend in 2005 meant a quiet stroll with no chance of finding a coffee shop or a wine bar. Me, my husband and my dog were the pretty much the sole occupants. Then slowly, slowly people came and Downtown Houston became once again a dynamic, pulsating, cosmopolitan city. And I fell in love.
We bought a loft apartment, one not deemed worthy to show so we bought ‘as is’ and made it our own. We share the building with 13 other urban dwellers – a conglomeration of ages, ethnicities, and animals. We are all part of what has contributed to the resurgence of the city.
And now we are being told there is a very real chance our funky brick building with black terraces and a metal star on the roof (it used to be the Star Furniture warehouse) will be purchased under eminent domain laws. To make way for what is being touted as an answer to Houston’s flooding problems. The North Canal.
So, yes, I’m furious. I have been jolted, if no jilted. The place I have loved unconditionally is in danger of being demolished to a pile of rubble and dust to make way for a giant ditch. We are in essence being considered the scapegoats for the greed and, let’s use that currently much touted word, ‘collusion’ of property developers and officials who have built homes on flood plains and what were once rice paddies. There is a reason rice grew so well out west of the city. Wetlands will flood.
And so to preserve my heart I can feel myself withdrawing from the place in which I have lived longest in my entire life. A place that as old age approached would still be a viable option and from which, quite frankly, I could be removed in a box.
But I am lucky. I have another love. A newer love that tempted me to become that two-timer. A place so utterly different to Downtown Houston that I never felt the pull-me-push-me of loyalties. I will not though go easily into the arms of American’s Caribbean on a full-time basis. Despite the powers-that-be trying to moderate my behavior, which let’s be honest adds to the spice of life, I will remain a two-timing bint!