Archives For expat

Gabriel Update

January 7, 2020 — 3 Comments

The shot pelican, Gabriel, looking proud and beautiful if a little confused at her inability to lift her wing due to the embedded pellet.

“Gabriel hears and looks out to the sea. When I am not looking, she heads across my lawn with one wing dragging and one wing flapping. My heart breaks, but there is no reason to prolong a futile situation.” Toni Lance, St Croix Avian Sanctuary

Getting Shot!

December 30, 2019 — 8 Comments

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

His beak can hold more than his belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

The Pelican was penned in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt, an American poet and humourist, although the poem is more often credited to Ogden Nash who included it in his 1940 anthology, The Face is Familiar. Plagiarism is a dirty word.

So too is cruelty. 

Such is the risk for pelicans, and other birds on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. Arid on the east end and verdant on the west – only 28 miles apart – natural beauty is surrounded by soothing Caribbean waters. There are though beasts who hide along the bays and inlets ready to shoot down birds skimming with magisterial solemnity above these waters.

What possible sport can that be?

There are eight species of pelicans but here on our island we have the Brown Pelican – a dull name for an august bird whose white head above a chestnut nape and brownish-silver feathers remind me of a be-gowned and wigged judge. They are ungainly as they take flight, flapping their wings and slapping the water with big webbed feet, but as they find thermal currents they can soar as high as 10,000 feet. No wonder the Wright Brothers studied avian aerodynamics. Technical aspects of a pelican are remarkable. The air pockets in their bones are connected to respiratory airways lying under the throat, breast and wings and aid buoyancy, allowing the birds to keep their wings horizontal and steady.

“Almost like bubblewrap,” says Toni Lance, artist, photographer, certified falconer, licensed bird rehabilitator, and founder of the St Croix Avian Sanctuary.

Meet Gabriel, an adult of uncertain sex but of breeding age, shot down a week ago. Due to the location of the pellet surgery was not an option. There was no sign of a break and so Ms Lance is attempting to rehabilitate the bird at the Sanctuary on St Croix’s south shore. She moves the wing but it remains unwieldy, unable to be lifted. She sprays Gabriel with water to encourage preening which in turn helps get oil back into his feathers. The pelican dutifully preens. His appetite is good. If not for the shot wing Gabriel would be flying free as a bird, preparing to mate and sustain his species.

The Brown Pelican – clever birds that they are – stuns its fish by plunging headfirst into the ocean. The airsacs in its wings lessen the impact and bobs the bird back to the surface to float, rather like a cork. If the waters are shallow or churned, pelicans have a back-up system for fishing. Unlike other birds, pelicans have four toes rather than the standard three, which allows effective paddling whilst using that huge pouched beak as a scoop, which they then drain by tipping their head back. It is this manoeuvre that makes them most vulnerable to the thieving habits of others, mainly seagulls, who are wont to steal fish right out of the mouths.

Gabriel, irrespective of sex, is a breeding adult. Unlike other areas, St Croix tends not to have large squadrons of pelicans but rather three or four flying in formation. If Gabriel cannot be rehabilitated in the next few weeks, and this is by no means certain, he / she will be euthanized. That means the loss of probably two healthy young a year for the next twenty years. 

You do the maths.

Avian rehabilitation is not all a flying success. Ms Lance has, over the years, seen many birds soar to freedom but there have also been those unable to be released. Some, such as a peregrine falcon, she has used as aids in an effort to educate children about the importance of treasuring our resources, and honouring the freedom of flight; others with no chance of survival in the wild – often the ones shot by ignorant and brutish people – are euthanized.

Where is the outrage? The chance of the perpetrator of this crime being caught is remote and, sadly, it is only a matter of time before the St Croix Avian Sanctuary is again called upon to rescue a shot bird.

I am assured by Ms Lance that Gabriel is, like most pelicans, a good-natured bird. They have been around for many years – the oldest fossil found is dated thirty-million years ago – and they have remained remarkably similar, if somewhat smaller. They were, in medieval Europe, considered a symbol of sacrifice due to the belief a pelican would, if no other food was available, wound her own breast to feed blood to her young. 

The wound in Gabriel’s wing cannot be mended by an infusion of blood. It may not mend at all. The chance of seeing this magnificent bird fly again is slim. Grounded and unable to swim in seawater, Gabriel’s paddled feet, even on a padded perch, will break down with pressure sores. An inhumanity that cannot be countenanced.

“I’d need to be set up like Seaworld to keep pelicans in captivity,” Ms Lance explained. Disgust should be filtered through towns, school halls and social media at the wanton cruelty and ‘sport’ of shooting an innocent bird, animal or human. There is too much of it.

“A wonderful bird is the pelican….”

But this is not a humorous story. Gabriel’s life is likely to be short. A sanctuary can only do so much. Birds have to deal with the elements. That’s enough. That’s natural. Getting shot is not.

Pride, it's a tricky thing!

November 30, 2019 — 4 Comments

America has just celebrated Thanksgiving, an important day in my adopted land. It is a day wherein the country is a moving mass as people try to get home, often battling inclement weather, to celebrate the pilgrim’s first harvest.

I have enjoyed every national or festival day in whichever country I have happened to be living. All twelve of them. From Loi Krathong in Thailand to Chinese New Year in Singapore to the Ganzenhoedster Festival in the small Dutch town of Coevorden. Or maybe Deepavali in Malaysia. And don’t let’s forget Hogmany in Scotland. I admire the national pride that keeps these traditions alive.

I name these countries, these festivals, as a precursor to this piece. Not only have I lived in many countries, I have also been employed by multinational corporations to help employees and their families understand the idiosyncrasies prevalent in countries in which they might conduct business, or indeed live. 

In every place I have been fortunate enough to call home, whether for a year or a number of years, I have made an effort to learn a little of the language, to understand and recognise, if not always embrace, the culture. And to engage in local activities, whether as a foot soldier or a board member. 

My peripatetic life began at a month old which, in essence, means I have spent my life ‘not quite fitting in’. It’s not something that has ever concerned me, as I consider it a privilege to be a guest in another country and do my best to be respectful of that culture.

And so the past few days, having been accused of cultural insensitivity, have been spent wondering “what could I have done better?”. The details are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how carefully I worded the email that started the firestorm. It doesn’t matter that the recipient found issue with subjects not addressed in that letter. It doesn’t matter that I apparently provoke “a bad taste in my (his) tongue”. What matters is that somehow, and I have searched my words, conscience and intent, I have caused great offence. Enough to make the man write, “I will not allow someone from else where come to my homeland and talk to me however they would like, I am proud Crucian and I stand with pride for what I do in my community.

That is the sentence that rankles. No, actually it hurts. Because I do not know how this chap got to that place of intense dislike from my actions or, indeed, my words.

Then I started thinking about words like identity, ego, pride – all of which, if used with a dose of reality, are important words for defining who we are. It’s when the dosage gets out of the kilter that things go pear-shaped. It can happen with tyrants of tin-pot regimes, wannabe dictators of western countries, and lesser mortals. The common denominator being that all have lost the ability to recognise the world works best when we are able to feel humility, to admit to mistakes, to accept guidance. It is these people who manufacture threats from without their immediate sphere of influence. Their hubris becomes a crutch behind which they cover inadequacy, incompetency and sometimes a lack of intellect. And every culture is littered with those whose ego is easily dented. 

As I consider the past few days, and give thanks for the island on which I spend most of my time, I reflect on Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. He too was an expatriate, having grown up in India before returning to England then emigrating to America. 

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The words might appear dated but they resonant as I try and master my anger and disappointment. If I can do that, I shall be on my way to being a stronger woman.

I shall also contemplate Kipling’s other masterpiece, The Jungle Book. Because juggling different cultures and sensitivities can make it feel it is a jungle out there. But maybe, if I work hard enough, next Thanksgiving I can truly focus on what makes me thankful for being on this beautiful island.

Dig Once!

August 11, 2019 — 3 Comments

The Boardwalk along Christiansted’s waterfront still shows signs of hurricane damage. Pieces of timber hastily nailed over holes create tripping hazards almost two years after Maria pummeled St Croix. An area sagging due, I can only imagine, from damage to the underside of the structure is in need of shoring.

As I ambled along with Clyde early the other morning, his tail wagging at the few regulars along the Boardwalk we pass every day, my mind was taken up with not only the state of disrepair but also a depressing lecture I had attended the previous night.

Given by a respected archeologist, the talk detailed the current digging up of Christiansted to replace aged water pipes, and the treasures to be found under these historic streets. Bits of clay pipes, Moravian pottery and other pieces of Chaney – the chards of pottery that give testament to the many countries who have claimed the Virgin Islands as their own, the term coming from a conflation of ‘china’ and ‘money’. In essence a social history of colonial times. Now we just toss plastic and polystyrene. Some of these streets were originally built with Danish bricks by the enslaved, who also built the culverts that still do duty today. These same roads have, over the subsequent years, been layered with cement and asphalt. They are today a patchwork of potholes – we call them the streets of St Croix.

A bumper stick seen on various vehicles around the island says it all, “I’m not drunk, I’m avoiding potholes”. But that’s not my beef, though I’d be delighted to see the roads and the Boardwalk fixed, properly, and not just patched.

Under the previous administration, that of Governor Mapp, a law was passed requiring different government and private agencies to work in tandem with regard digging up the streets of the Twin Cities – Christiansted and Frederiksted. Essentially a ‘dig once’ ruling. The water authority to work with the sewage department to work with the electric department to work with the telephone and communications entities. A ruling that would lessen the disruption to businesses, and residences, that would allow a proper rebuilding of roads that would not need retrenching for the foreseeable future.

This is not happening. And it begs the question, why not? If it is law, why is the law not being followed?

It was these vexing thoughts that swirled around my mind as I followed Clyde. And then I was reminded as to why I live here. Two simple things that prompted thoughts of other places I have lived, and visited.

The first came from Leroy, the man who diligently delivers papers throughout Christiansted, and who makes me smile every day. He hefts a pile under his arm and walks up and down these potholed streets. He puts down the newspapers every now and then and gathers discarded beer bottles and puts them on the tables of bars along the Boardwalk. He shakes his head at the disregard both locals and tourists have for the island they call home for ever, or a day. As he pets Clyde we discuss the state of our town and mourn the lack of respect it is given. By those ignoring the rules. Dig once, and don’t litter.

The second thing was the flash of neon blue that caught my eye as I looked out at yachts moored in the bay, then down at the crystal waters which, despite the state of the Boardwalk, continue to glisten in pristine clearness. It was a solitary blue tang. I smiled again.

I was taken back to my childhood, lying on my stomach on the edge of another boardwalk. That time in Tahiti. I must have been about eight. It was the first time I saw the wonders of a tropical sea. A plethora of darting fish, echoing the rainbow in their brilliance. I remember an old man telling me their names as I laughed at the sheer wonderfulness of the underwater world.

Two simple things. Kindness and the beauty of nature. Those are elements that make up a place, that make a global nomad want to put down roots, whatever the state of the roads.

But really, the rules should be followed – dig once!

Redemption

July 4, 2019 — 4 Comments

I woke up this morning with Bob. Those immortal words written in 1979 by Bob Marley, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”. The lyrics of Redemption Song danced in my mind as I walked Clyde. Perhaps as counterpoint to the rhetoric I heard yesterday.

The 3rd of July is arguably a more relevant day in the former Danish West Indies – now the US Virgin Islands – than the 4th July. Independence Day commemorates the day in 1766 that the thirteen American colonies no longer answered to the British monarchy, and were relieved to no longer have taxation without representation. 

The British as occupiers were long gone from St Croix by then – their first attempt to settle here being in the early 17th century. They did though loiter around the island throughout the occupations / ownerships of both the Dutch and the Danish, mainly as merchants, sailors and privateers. That’s what happens when ‘owned’ by so many countries – St Croix has flown under seven flags – descendants tend to stick around.

“None but ourselves can free our minds”. And yet yesterday afternoon, as words swirled up to our gallery from the Bandstand in Christiansted, one could be forgiven for thinking emancipation had only just occurred, rather than in 1848 – rather than 171 years ago. From one particular group of orators there was no single positive message. There is no denying the atrocious and barbaric Atlantic Slave Trade, or indeed the Domestic Slave Trade that flourished on the US mainland after the abolition of slavery in 1865. But a barrage of condemnation for a country banished from these shores in 1917, when America paid Denmark 25 million dollars for the islands, seemed a rather pointless exercise.  

Rather than harangue the, admittedly, very small audience, perhaps people yesterday should have been encouraged to walk the walk, to honour those men and women who demanded and fought for their freedom by actually taking part in the fort-to-fort trek. 

The drums signalled the march on Frederiksted in 2019 as they did in 1848. At 5am on July 3rd, for the last nineteen years, former Senator Terrence ‘Positive’ Nelson, now Commissioner of Agriculture, has sounded the conch, given an invocation and rattled the chains at Fort Christiansvaern before leading Crucians, and a smattering of imports, on a pilgrimage of remembrance for those enslaved who demanded their freedom. He has lead people, who cared enough to get up early, to trudge those hills and valleys that make up Queen Mary Highway and to rattle the chains at Fort Frederiksted. Paying tribute to the bravery, and rigours, of those men and women who fought for freedom. It is a walk of reflection, and a celebration of what has been achieved, and a walk of hope for the future.

Moses ‘Buddhoe’ Gottlieb, a sugar boiler and a free man, is commemorated as being the leader of the uprising for freedom, yet cautioned restraint to the approximately 8,000 enslaved who converged on Frederiksted on July 2nd, 1848. It was he who gave Governor Peter von Scholten the 4pm deadline to emancipate the enslaved, which lead to the famous proclamation, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free.”

Surely a more enlightened approach today would be to salute those Virgin Islanders who have succeeded and gone on to achieve so very much, whether here or abroad. People like Hubert Harrison, who became “one of the most brilliant and dynamic Negro intellectuals ever to emerge on the American scene” and touted, if he had not died so young at the age of 44, as being a possible candidate to serve in President Roosevelt’s administration. Or David Hamilton Jackson, the labour leader, legislator and founder of The Herald, the first black newspaper on St Croix. Or Miss Enid Baa, who among many accolades, represented the Virgin Islands in 1960 at the 3rd UNESCO conference in Mexico City on Latin American and Caribbean Bibliography. Or Alton Adams, the first black bandmaster in the US Navy and who wrote the Virgin Islands anthem. Or Ullmont James, not bahn’ here but born of Crucian parents and who was educated in the first graduating class of the Christiansted Senior High School, who went on to be an outstanding administrator and diplomat to various missions in Africa. 

The list is long for the relative size of these three Virgin Islands. Sportsmen like Elrod Hendricks, and that proud son of St Croix, Tim Duncan, who has proved his commitment to his home island by his continual support, particularly after the 2017 Hurricanes of Irma and Maria. Or those who represent the Virgin Islands at the Olympic Games, only once a medallist but always present. Musicians, Jamesie and the All-Stars, or Stanley and Ten Sleepless Knights, who have taken the sounds of the Virgin Islands around the Caribbean and to Europe.

There was pride to be seen yesterday in the quelbe dancing later at the Christiansted Bandstand. Quelbe, recognised as the traditional music of the Virgin Islands and a graceful fusion of bamboula and cariso that tells the story of these islands. That’s keeping history alive in a positive manner.

Never forgetting, and honouring, the trials of our forefathers is important. Knowing our history helps make sense of today and prepares us for tomorrow. But to frame today against a litany of sins from long ago is neither productive nor constructive if, as Bob sang, “We forward in this generation, Triumphantly”!

Houston is a city with a bad rap. When I mention we own a funky loft in Downtown I am met with comments like, “How can you stand it?” “Full of concrete.” “Dangerous. Full of gun-toting Texans.” For those in the actual know, Houston is a diverse, liberal city with incredible arts and culture, an amazing choice of excellent restaurants serving anything from Brazilian to Thai cuisine, and all manner of dishes in between. Parks brimming with well-tended spaces and water features, bayous that encourage wildlife – including the odd ‘gator, and bike trails galore dot the landscape. It is a city that has found its feet and has stopped the wanton demolition of buildings that might be more than 30 years old. As such Downtown is a wonderful conglomeration of old and new – honouring the past yet not afraid of the future. And whenever I return from any absence my heart lifts. 

It was my sole intent to show my travelling companions the best of Houston but first the fridge needed stocking. My chosen shopping spot was awash in flowers and chocolate dipped strawberries in preparation for Mother’s Day and we delighted in the colourful array. Suitably provisioned we headed home for a late lunch and general breath catching after a hectic week. It was nice to chill.

Catalina Coffee is the place in which much of my first book, Expat Life Slice by Slice, was written. It has been our favoured haunt since it opened, and I have spent many hours there chatting, reading or writing. It was where my second book, Fireburn, was launched. It is, in short, a place in which happy memories have been made and so it seemed only right to start our day there. And it serves the best coffee in town.

Houston is big but the core, the heart of Houston, is not and in order to give my guests their bearings we went for a drive along Buffalo Bayou, through River Oaks, and back through Memorial Park. Houston is also a shopping mecca and so we agreed Saturday would be our day to browse, and I had a party to prepare for. I introduced Emy and Laurie to Arnie’s – the store to beat all stores for anything festive. Need accoutrements for a Texans party, go to Arnie’s. Need a lei, go to Arnie’s. Having a bar mitzvah, go to Arnie’s. Need something risqué for a bachelorette party, try Arnie’s. 

Mother’s Day brunch was spent at Boomtown Coffee though as we wandered along Main Street I thought we were heading to the Honeymoon Café – a lot can change in a few months. I can’t begin to remember all the iterations the space has been called since I’ve lived Downtown. That space also holds many memories – my husband had a job interview there when it was the St Pete’s Dancing Marlin! Brunch was fun – a Mother’s Day treat for Laurie and I, courtesy of Emy!

There is an area of Houston that is particularly dear to me, so it was a must-see. The University Museum at Texas Southern, in the Third Ward, has been somewhere I have spent more time than most places over the last fifteen years or so. A place where I got more than I gave. A place that taught me to understand and value African American art, from the recognised greats of John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White and Kermit Oliver to up-and-coming greats like Leamon Green, Kingsley Onyeiwu and Prinston Nnanna. The Museum is in the Fairchild Building and was converted from the original gymnasium and so has high ceilings, the original floor and light streaming in to form an airy, serene art space – and on the walls was the Graduating Seniors Exhibition, the latest artistic talent to emerge from TSU.

Monday could have been a mess due to the guide’s forgetfulness – i.e. all Houston museums are closed on Mondays and so our long-awaited entry to the Van Gogh Exhibition at the MFAH was a non-starter, though Emy and Laurie did manage to get to see it later in the week, and me a few days later still. Instead we lunched at the Hotel Za Za, that chi-chiest of places on the edge of Herman Park. Next stop the Rothko Chapel. Also closed, this time due to renovations. My role as tour guide was looking nebulous but a drive around Rice University saved the day. We also said goodbye to Bruiser.

Then it was Tuesday. The day around which the entire epic escapade had been based. The Gemini Lunch – an event started over ten years ago – for a group of friends of the dual personality persuasion plus, because it was my party, a few non-Gemini friends! And what was spectacular was that in 2018 that wonderful group of women travelled to St Croix to celebrate my 60th birthday with me there, and so knew Emy and Laurie. It was not a quiet affair. Starting at noon, it ended at 7:30.

Wednesday was the official end of our wonderful road trip as Laurie left to return to Winter Park, the start of our odyssey. We remembered to wear our NOLA for beads for the final photo! Emy though still had a few days left in H-town and so we wandered the elegant halls of The Menil Museum, and went to the Alley Theatre and saw the brilliant Constellations by British playwright, Nick Payne.

Thursday saw the book signing of my third book, Transfer, at the delightful River Oaks Bookstore – thank you for coming out to play, Houston – followed by dinner at The Blue Nile – an Ethiopian restaurant.

Serendipity is a fine thing and two of my favourite people happen to be Wellesley alumni, and here they were both in Houston. Dr Alvia Wardlaw, Director of the University Museum meet Emy Thomas, journalist, author and artist – a lovely evening spent in the company of two remarkable women.

And then it was over – a fabulous road trip to always remember – Emy’s Epic Escapade!

We knew rain was in our forecast but it held off long enough for us to tour the Whitney Plantation, the only museum in Louisiana to showcase plantation life from the enslaved perspective. We were ably lead by Ali whose ancestors had worked the fields of the plantation when it was owned by a German immigrant family. Ambroise Heidel, after humble beginnings, purchased the land in 1752 on which he planted indigo, that most precious of dyes which symbolised wealth for many, from the Tuaregs of the Sahara to the nobility of the Elizabethan era. But indigo production requires great acreage and so when Jean Jacques Haydel (notice the name change), son of Ambroise, took over the plantation in the early 1800s he transitioned to sugar. The plantation stayed in the family until after the Civil War when it was bought by Bradish Johnson of New York. It was then it became known as the Whitney Plantation – named for his grandson, Harry Whitney.

But neither indigo nor sugar, whose actual production is remarkably similar, could be grown, harvested and fermented without a large workforce. And that was provided by the enslaved. It is always the casual cruelty that affects me most when I read about, or visit museums, dedicated to slavery. The indifference. Even a seemingly initial kindness turns into a self-serving and uncharitable disregard. A fact highlighted by the soulful statue of a young slave girl standing in Marie Azélie Haydel’s bedroom. Taken in as an infant, dressed in the finest clothes, taught her letters and numbers, she was toyed with until age ten – then the fine life was taken away and she became what she had in essence always been – a slave. Abuse of the most callous kind.

And it is that which the Whitney Plantation brings to life. Through recorded stories of those who remembered being enslaved as children. Stories gathered in the 1930s and 40s by a team led by folklorist John Lomax of the Federal Writers’ Project, and under the auspices of President Roosevelt. 

The Whitney Plantation is now owned by John Cummings, a retired trial lawyer from New York who in his own words is “a rich white man”. The estate bought as an investment has instead become his life’s passion – a legacy demanding attention. The Children of Whitney, statues of enslaved children dot the property and are the work of Woodrow Nash, a sculptor from Ohio. The figures are made more haunting by eyeless sockets and bowed heads. It is hard not to be imbued with shame. Then the Field of Angels. Black granite slabs naming the 2,200 slave children who died in Louisiana before their third birthday. Thirty-nine of them on the Whitney Plantation between 1823 an 1863. There is statue in their midst, a bronze sculpted by Rod Moorhead, of a black angel carrying a baby to Heaven. It was impossible not to cry.

By the time we got to the plantation house I couldn’t have cared less about the murals and frescos painted by Italian artist Dominici Canova and commissioned by Marie Azélie Haydel, the widow whose plantation by 1860 was producing up to 407,000 pounds of sugar in one grinding season. Produced on the backs of those bartered through the Domestic Slave Trade.

As we drove through the Whitney Plantation gates the heavens opened and I, that most pragmatic of women, felt they could well be the tears of angels.

We were subdued and, until our mobiles started bleeping warnings of flash floods, only cursory words were spoken. But as rain lashed the windscreen and Laurie’s grip on the steering wheel changed from light to tight a change in mood was called for. And so we sang. Or rather we started numerous songs only to tail off into tum-de-dums as lyrics failed us.  

Now I’ve never been to the Isle of Capri in Italy, but I’m pretty sure it looks nothing like the Isle of Capri at Lake Charles, our next rest stop. Granted the gloom of a furious storm did nothing to elevate the scenery, but the hoped for jollity of a casino hotel was equally lacking. Instead droopy-eyed punters sat at dining tables eating forgettable meals. A little levity was found when our waitress attempted to remove a plate whilst Emy was in the act of eating, fork en route to mouth. My words were probably harsh and further conversation with our server was conducted through Laurie, whose charm soothed ruffled feathers.

Morning came to find Laurie looking flummoxed. Guilty.

“I think I must have hit something. That’s a fire alarm,” she said, throwing on clothes and disappearing along the corridor. She didn’t return.

Why, I wondered, as Emy and I followed suit do women always assume we are at fault?

We found Laurie outside in the carpark, not allowed reentry. We mingled with fellow guests – tousled hair, bleary eyes and lack of clothing added to the drizzling drama. I had never realised camis enclosing bosoms could house so many knick knacks – cell phones, cigarettes, lighters, wallets. There appeared to be quite a lot of teeth missing from various mouths.

Words jumbled around us. 

“Screaming all night long. Doors banging.”

“Smoke everywhere on the 5th floor.”

“A naked lady – Asian – running up and down the corridor.”

We listened as sirens approached. Slinging my computer case into Bruiser I saw, at the side of the hotel, two fire engines, an ambulance and a police car. A woman covered in a sheet appeared to be receiving oxygen.

“I’m going in for our stuff,” I said, expecting to be stopped by someone in authority. Not smelling anything untoward I went to our room on the ground floor. It was not pretty packing. As I pulled three cases down the corridor people were entering the lobby, only to be shunted out again. Then in again. It was fortunately not a serious fiasco.

Free breakfast, issued for our inconvenience, turned out only to be available from 11am. At 8am and in dire need of coffee we braved the cafeteria. Breakfast was good, or maybe adrenaline had sharpened our appetite.

None of this intrepid trio are gamblers but a quick swing through the casino was a must. Croupiers – the women heavily made up and no longer in the first, second or third flush of youth, and pasty men, paunches straining uniform shirts – spun wheels, flipped cards, or gathered dice in automated boredom. Smoke lingered overhead like a shroud. 

The pokies – one armed bandits – flashed their gaudy lights as bills were fed into their greedy mouths and the roll of the machine jolted to a stop and delivered no rewards. Men and women, cigarettes stuck to lips or dripping ash to the floor watched in blind belief that today would be the day. 

We each played. Novices that we are, we didn’t realize we were in the high stakes area until I lost $10 on two pulls. Laurie and Emy sensibly moved to the amateurs side of the hall and lost $5 each on five pulls. A mug’s game.

Lake Charles was still drizzling and so with little regret we left and Bruiser took us on our final drive to Houston where …..