Archives For America’s Caribbean

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!

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Two-Timing Bint!

March 29, 2018 — 1 Comment

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!

It’s bad news week. Actually it’s been a bad news month, particularly in the two places I currently have the privilege of calling home – Houston, Texas and St Croix, US Virgin Islands.

Houston felt Harvey’s wrath as swathes of rain pounded streets turning city and suburbs into rushing waterways. Some areas are prone to flooding and the sagacity of building homes on old rice fields and flood plains will be debated for a long time, particularly as government buyouts are sought. I imagine one word will be repeated often – greed. Of both those selling the land initially and those developing it. So too the decision of when and by how much the dams and reservoirs were opened to release pressure on old infrastructure. But it’s easy to criticize after the fall, or in this case, the flood.

Then Irma barreled through another place I hold dear – Tortola – the main island of the British Virgin Islands, and a place I have been visiting since 1967. I was last there in April this year to visit my family, who thankfully are safe though not unscathed. The Dick-Reads have been an integral part of the BVI since the early 1960s; there before tourism took off and the financial institutions set up shop; before the Purple Palace took on the more sophisticated moniker of The Bougainvillea Clinic. #thatbitchIrma has devastated those Virgins, reducing homes and businesses to piles of matchstick rubble. Roofs ripped off, rooms rudely exposed. Lives destroyed.

Irma also had her way with St John and St Thomas, two of the US Virgin Islands. Irma skimmed St Croix, forty nautical miles south, and grateful inhabitants have rallied and sent supplies and succour to her sister islands.

And now she is under threat.

Hurricane Maria is intent on venting her Category 5 rage on St Croix and as I sit here, safe in Houston, my heart is squeezed. For our neighbours, for our friends, for the historic richness and beauty of the lesser known Virgin Island. And for our West Indian home which we have lovingly restored.

As I wonder what I can do to help in the aftermath of this hurricane’s projected fury I am reminded St Croix has withstood nature’s caprice many times. Alexander Hamilton wrote of the 1772 hurricane in a letter to his father saying, “I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of the most dreadful hurricane that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night….. Good God! what horror and destruction—it’s impossible for me to describe—or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place.”

The Danish West Indies were again slammed by a vicious hurricane in 1867, with the subsequent tidal wave driving the USS Monongahela ashore at Frederiksted. The hurricane, unnamed in those days, was instrumental in bringing about the end of the plantation system as well as discouraging the US from purchasing the islands from Denmark.

The modern benchmark for hurricanes on St Croix is Hugo, which wracked and wrapped the island in total destruction in 1989. Then came Marilyn in 1995 which killed 10, and Omar in 2008 which sank 40 boats spewing oil onto pristine beaches.

The island though is resilient, and the inhabitants resolute. Whatever terror Maria throws at St Croix, she will not win. She might dampen the spirits for a while, tamp down her exuberance and charm, but St Croix, with assistance, with rebound.

There is horror and destruction, degradation and disaster in many parts of the world but I will be doing my best to keep St Croix in the public eye. Particularly that of the US mainland, some of whose newsreaders seem unable to grasp the fact that the US Virgin Islands are the responsibility of the US. They paid 25 million dollars in gold coin for them in 1917. They should not let this centennial year be the year America’s Caribbean is forgotten.

So as others gather tarpaulins and water, medical supplies and baby formula, I will be trying to keep St Croix in the public conscience. I will still launch my debut novel, Fireburn, based in 1870s St Croix, on October 1st, 2017. It catalogues a fictitious hurricane, as well as the historical rebellion of ‘fireburn’ on October 1st, 1878.

St Croix has withstood much. It can and will withstand more. It must – it is dear to me.