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VI Strong!

October 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Once upon a time – long, long ago – I lived on a beautiful little volcanic island, covered in jungles of ceiba, mahogany, palms and giant stands of bamboo like rows of drill pipe that lie in neat piles in oil service company yards. Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea. For those who may not be familiar with West Africa, Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, is on that island though President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo would dearly love it to be in his home town of Mongomo, well away from the threat of a coup d’etat, perhaps staged from the sea. Think of Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War and you’ll get the picture.

Living there for nearly three years was arguably the most challenging experience of my life – not least because of the lack of culinary supplies though boatloads of San Miguel beer were regularly unloaded at the docks. A ‘keep the man on the street drunk and he won’t worry about basic human rights’ sort of ethos. And what I couldn’t do with an aubergine was nobody’s business.

Cement and sand were also in short supply. Both, as the most inexperienced builder will attest, are fundamental to construction of any kind. One might struggle with the concept of sand being unavailable on an island, but believe me when I say you do not want your home built with black sand. It might take a month for streaks of black and a purplish grey to leach through any number of layers of paint – rather like varicose veins creeping uninvited up aging legs.

Cement was in fact the tipping point for signing a contract on our home. The tawdry monetary details had been settled, but still, but still, the landlord – a crafty and not entirely reliable banker – held out. In the round about way of African negotiations it became known that a bag of cement would seal the deal. Not the size of one from say, Home Depot, or B&Q. No, no, the bag in question needed a forklift and a crane to maneuver it into place.

Why this fixation on building materials?

Well, on our walk along Buffalo Bayou this morning, Clyde and I noticed one such bag of cement. It was large enough to cause a certain amount of consternation, and a lot of barking for my companion. It is being used in the construction of a much-anticipated cycle and walking path around the University of Houston Downtown. It will allow a pleasant circulatory ride, or amble, and negate the need to back track to one’s starting point. Across the banks of the bayou, by Allen’s Landing, which as any Houstonian will tell you, is the birth place of Houston, are mountains (I exaggerate only a little) of soft yellow sediment sand. Deposited by the swirling wrath of Harvey as rain pelted into already soggy land and overflowed already swollen waterways, the sand left the banks of the bayou looking like naked dunes. It has now been scooped up by dinky little red backhoes and piled underneath the bridge, presumably to be used elsewhere.

Now I have a home on another island, this one in the Caribbean. St Croix is also in need of building materials. Not because of poor governance as in our West African home, but because she has been ravaged by nature. Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped roofs, stripped trees, tumbled power lines and crumbled walls as she blew in all her rage across the edge of the island. Remember a fury of her magnitude can stretch 150 miles with hurricane force winds and another 150 miles of lesser winds. For an island of just under 83 square miles that is enough to wreak catastrophic damage – which Maria did.

And so sand and cement, or lack thereof, again take on an importance not necessarily commensurate with their normal value, in one of the places I call home. These seemingly simple commodities delivered promptly to our Virgin Islands, will help rebuild the infrastructure. So too will jungles of ceiba, mahogany and palm regrow to once again entrance and shelter the resilient inhabitants who, despite Irma and Maria’s ill-temper, have remained VI Strong!

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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.

 

Harvey Blew Through

September 5, 2017 — 2 Comments

Houston has always had a huge heart, and through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath it has been truly wonderful to see the outpouring of not just community spirit but community help. Neighbours helping neighbours. Strangers helping strangers.

Until September 2017, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 was the benchmark for high water in Harris County. She churned ashore, then went back into the Gulf of Mexico before returning with even greater ferocity. Houston learnt many lessons as the devastation was recorded and plans put in place to prevent such an event affecting so many people again. But Mother Nature is capricious and all eventualities can rarely be planned for.

Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, has been the Harris County judge since 2007, and through three Democratic Mayors has shown his common sense ability, his calm leadership and his willingness to put politics aside for the benefit of the people. So too Houston’s current mayor, Sylvester Turner.

What a concept. Elected officials working for the people who put them in their position.

But Harvey has been something else. The rain just kept pouring. The water just kept flowing. And flowing. The reservoirs built on the old rice fields of west of Houston filled, then spilled. The lakes north of Houston did the same. Controlled releases flooded neighborhoods in a deluge of swirling, brown water which respected no one’s property. Grand or humble. And questions are being asked about the notice given to residents of areas inundated. They will, I am sure, continue to be asked as people survey the damage and then count the cost of the storm, both emotional and financial.

Our city leaders opened the doors of the George R Brown Convention Center, the NRG Stadium and various places around Houston for those displaced by Horrible Harvey.

H-E-B, a Texas-wide, and Texas-proud, grocery store has donated not only a $1 million to hurricane relief efforts, but have supplied food, water and fuel to areas hardest hit with many employees volunteering. “It’s part of our company culture. It’s that spirit of giving,” explained Houston H-E-B’s public affairs director, Cindy Garza-Roberts.

J J Watt, defensive end for Houston football team, the Texans, has raised $18 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. He is more than a football icon, he is fast becoming a Texas legend and he wasn’t even born here!

Gallery Furniture, owned by another Houston luminary, Mattress Mack, aka Jim McIngvale, opened their stores as refuges for the Harvey victims – family’s clustered around a Hunstville dining set or a Navasota sofa, their possessions stuffed into black bin bags clutched on their laps; children wide-eyed from fright, or excitement, darting between the set pieces.

Donations of clothing, toiletries, food and water have been dropped off all over the city – sometimes carried for blocks by people who’s cars have been totaled by flood water. Volunteers have lined up. Hundreds of them. The generosity has been incredible; the selflessness of those who might also have been affected helping others who have lost everything has been heartwarming.

And then we have Lakewood Church – the monumental edifice in which Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen spout their brand of evangelical christianity. I have written about them before – see previous blogs (September 18, 2011 – You too can have Friday every day of the week, and Nov 27, 2012 – What Constitutes Community).

It is no secret I do not hold the Osteens in high esteem. Charlatans abound in every community and country but if they offer solace to those in need then they are filling a need. But during Harvey Joel Osteen forgot he was a member of the very community he purports to serve, the community who has given him the riches he seems to feel he deserves, the community who has allowed him to live a life of extreme luxury.

Lakewood Church did not offer sanctuary. Only opening its doors as a distribution center for donations, and offering space for a few hundred evacuees days after the storm and only after a public and nationwide backlash. This is a building which has seating for 16,800 people.

In his Sunday six-minute ‘Hope for Houston’ message Osteen thrice reminded the crowd, significantly smaller than usual, “We’re not victims in Houston: We are victors.” His palliative style of preaching I suppose offers an element of hope to his congregation but it was, as always, without any great substance. He appeared more concerned about the outcry, telling his listeners “I know y’all love me. You need to get on social media.” Osteen on NBC’s ‘Today’ show excused his church for not opening the doors, “We were just being precautious.” That same social media disclaimed his assertions of the church being inaccessible due to flooding.

Not only does the man preach ‘cotton-candy gospel’, as stated by Reverend Michael Horton, Professor of Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, he’s a fabricator and obviously illiterate.

Precautious? That is enough, in my book, to be sent to damnation.

Harvey has blown through but the destruction and pain will last a long time. The National Guard, police, firefighters, neighbours and people from all over the country have helped rescue victims with boats and monster trucks; have hauled the detritus of ruined homes out onto the streets. Others have offered beds, cars, clothes, and sometimes just a hug.

Houston has shown she does not need the trite entreaties of a mountebank secure in his private citadel. We have strong and sturdy leaders, company’s with a community culture, and most importantly Houston is a city with heart.

Following My Feet

September 9, 2016 — 1 Comment

I am inherently a lazy woman. But I do walk. You might remember from blogs of a few years ago that we used to be owned by Miss Meg, a beautiful blue heeler, mixed with a few other breeds. She walked me every day. Her chosen route was along the bayous or through the woods and, because her free running gave me pleasure, I was happy to comply. Now, however, when I walk the forests or the fields or the great outdoors in whichever country I happen to be in, I find that, once I have admired nature’s beauty, it does little to inspire me.

And so I have come to realize I am a street walker!

I pound the pavements with a sense of purpose until the first interesting or novel thing catches my eye. And I stop. Often I untuck my phone from wherever it is stuffed, take a photo then off I march again. I stop for people too.

There is no route. I follow my feet. Just sometimes these feet of mine have led to places I should not have been. To sights I should not have seen. A man masturbating in the ruins of a colonial building crumbling into the waiting Bahia de Malabo. A copulating couple under a Houston bridge was an embarrassing encounter. A man stumbling from De Wallen, part of the infamous Rosse Buurt (Red Light District) in Amsterdam, to die at our feet was a bit of downer. Fortunately my husband was with me on that particular occasion.

On a recent visit to wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen I found myself in the “free state of Christiania”. In existence since 1971 when abandoned barracks were taken over by squatters, it is now a governed community funded partly by proceeds from its cafés and handcrafts. The open sale of cannabis was banned in 2004, however signs demanding no photographs give a clue as to the possibility of wayward behaviours. But I am middle aged and exude respectability from every pore and so, more often than not, I am left alone. Not in Christiania. Or the wrong part of Christiania anyway. On one corner I was offered drugs, and on another, sex. I politely declined both.

I find I have different walks for different countries. Walking in Equatorial Guinea required an African amble. Westerners are so often in a hurry. With no time for the pleasantries required to ease the conversation into the more serious business of negotiation – whether for a cucumber or a contract. Good morning in any language, accompanied by a smile, goes a long way in international relations.

Days after an attempted coup in Malabo, I walked through N’mbili Barrio, a shanty town of rutted roads, open sewers, sporadic electricity, no running water and bars. I was a volunteer English teacher in the school and had been advised not to go as the streets were unsettled, and the market still closed – always a harbinger of civil unrest. I have though never taken advice very well and so I went to class. I was a little apprehensive but, as I pushed through the chicken wire, I was met by three of ‘my boys’. “We wark wid you today, teacher,” they unisoned.

A somnolent stroll allowed me to blend in, as far as is possible for a white woman in a black country. People were used to seeing me. And those three youths sent a message to any troublemakers in the barrio – I nearly cried at their kindness. I don’t for one minute presume I was accepted, but I was tolerated.

My wanderings have introduced me to the prescribed wonders of cities dressed in all their finery, but also to the side streets where people live. It’s there along the little alleys, in the local cafés or markets, that we get a glimpse of the soul of a town or city.

Downtown Houston might not have those labyrinthian lanes but it has an energy of its own. As always it’s about the people. And yes, sometimes even the hobos. Cities cannot function without the high powered financier or oil baron. Socialites or philanthropists. Councilmen or clerics. They have little time to stop jogging. But neither can cities  function without the street cleaners, the janitors, the myriads in the service industries who make our lives easier. And as I walk the streets, usually early, it is these people who smile at me, who greet me in accented English. And I am humbled. We are so often worried we will be accosted, we forget to smile.

Today, two young men sitting on the curb, one white, one black, grinned and called out “Mornin’ Momma! God bless you.”

No wonder I follow my feet!