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That’s Democracy

March 13, 2017 — 2 Comments

Tanks rumbled past our house in the predawn haze. An armed soldier, visible only from the waist up, surveyed the road ahead from each turret. It was Thailand in 1986. A failed coup.

An army truck, the canvas flaps rolled up, slewed to a halt on the unpaved and muddy road at our neighbour’s locked gate. Armed soldiers burst past the terrified guard as he opened the gate. Screams reverberated around the compound and over the wall into ours. From my bedroom window I saw women, Cameroonians, slapped, pistol-whipped and man-handled into the truck. Money was exchanged and some were allowed to stay. It was Equatorial Guinea in 2004. A failed coup.

I have lived in countries where governments are corrupt. I have lived in despotic countries where, whether power has been taken violently or elections have been mired in irregularities, the leader has ‘a direct line to God’. I have never, thankfully, lived in a war-torn country.

Countries and cultures not my own have sometimes fascinated me, sometimes horrified me. But I have been able to compartmentalism the differences, without necessarily accepting them. In all the counties I have called home – twelve of them – I have prided myself on my ability to adapt to different environments, different political tenets, even when I might not have been entirely on board with those elected, freely. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

Relocating to America the first time in 1997, the year after Fox News came into being, I was struck by the intense political partisanship – there seemed to be no shades of grey, but there was still a civility. We lived in the suburbs, in a Republican stronghold and I learnt, mostly, to keep my opinions to myself. To respect the people around me who might not have had the same exposure to global cultures or customs, and therefore found it harder to understand those from different backgrounds. But I spoke differently and so, for the most part, I was accepted as a foreign liberal.

After a nearly three-year stint back in Africa, we returned to the United States and moved to a more flexible part of Houston – Downtown. In 2010 we shed our resident alien status to become US citizens. Texas has had a Republican governor the entire time I have lived here. There have though been both Republican and Democratic presidents. Some I have liked, and agreed with on both sides of the political spectrum. Some I have not. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

But the tenor has changed.

Until the week before the presidential election in 2016, I believed the American people would see through the bombast, the lies and complete lack of humility, and would reject the misogny and coarseness of a man attempting to become leader of the free world.
I was wrong. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

After the initial utter dismay, and after a dear friend pointed out I was in danger of becoming one of those people I despise – an intractable woman, I stopped myself swinging from stunned torpor to hysterical rantings, and prepared to give the new president the benefit of the doubt.

52 long days later wherein we have seen a rash of crass tweets, the clumsy roll-out of an ill-conceived immigration ban, a pathetic attempt to appease those wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act – an act everyone on both sides of the political divide agrees needs repair, the craven signing of the anti-abortion executive order, a lack of cohesive governance and the blatant mistrust of the security services, I say, in good Anglo-Saxon English, sod that. There are citizens who feel they have been given free reign on their behaviour. Who shout racial epithets before murdering an innocent Indian sitting at a bar. Whose Confederate flags flutter freely on the backroads. Who have the confidence to push through with seeming impunity laws against the LGBT community.

People in America are not mysteriously disappearing, never to be seen again, but there appears to be little room for dialogue or diplomacy. Any president who hamstrings the people working for him is a person only wishing to surround himself with sycophants. With serfs so wary of their own position they are not prepared to question the master. Those who do, are dismissed – Sally Yates and on Friday, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. An independent judiciary is obviously not high on our president’s list.

Neither is draining the swamp – that much touted praise. Washington is rich with millionaires new to government – with people singularly unable to understand, or who have forgotten, how a family struggles to put food on the table, struggles to get adequate healthcare, struggles with education. Washington is drowning in a mire of unelected nepotism – what was called in Papua New Guinea – the wantok system. That is not democracy.

There might not be tanks rolling past my front door, or thugs in uniform pistol-whipping my neighbours, but the current political climate in the United States is divisive, is unpleasant, is unwelcoming. We are a nation much of the world looks at with amazement, and fear, for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, We the People, elected this president so I guess it is democracy. And yes, in 52 days I have become that intractable woman.

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Distance Perceived

October 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

Distance has never been an object.

Sharing the back seat of a station wagon with Cottage, a dog of varied parentage, was the norm. None of the occupants wore seat belts, and cigarette smoke curlicued around the interior before finding its way out the open windows. The roads we travelled were mainly dirt and emerging many hours later at either a rest house or our destination, we must often have looked like the Asaro mudmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands. We were though in Nigeria.

My father always took the pre-dawn shift behind the wheel and would last until sun up when my mother, a hardy Australian, would take over and drive the majority of the trip. We sang – I’m pretty sure some songs would not be considered suitable for a little girl – songs from the hill stations of India where my father had been stationed prior to Partition in 1947. One still floats into my head when I’m in the car sometimes. The chorus ends with the stirring words “Queen Victoria very fine man” – which rather dates it. The back seat of that car, and others in my childhood, is where I also learnt Australian ballads – Waltzing Mathilda and The Wild Colonial Boy are two I remember.

Singing passed the time. It was difficult to gauge, even for my parents, just how far we travelled unless close attention was paid to the odometer. Mile signs were non-existent. Instead directions were given by poles. Eighteen poles to the dead tree with a crooked branch. Seven poles to the hut with a broken door. And so on. All very well, but it took a certain amount of concentration to count telegraph poles, spaced randomly, along a dusty road. It was on those interminable journeys to Kano, or Jos, or Enugu that I learnt to count – poles, camels, goats.

The trip would be broken up with coffee, warm juice and sandwich breaks, often on the outskirts of a village so we could refill water bottles from the standpipe. The car would be surrounded by children and I would have new friends to play with for fifteen minutes or so before we piled back into the car and continued on. Distance was no object.

A few years later and on the other side of the world, we relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Two dogs and a cat were also be transported. We had two cars by then and my father opted to take the cat, a decision he bitterly regretted a couple of miles into the, in those days, seven hour trip. Pusscat yowled the entire time. It was a toss up as to who was more stressed on arrival at our new, temporary, home – I do remember Dad pouring whisky from his hip flask not long after unpacking the cars. Many other road trips followed up and down the Malay peninsula. Dodging vast lorries hauling logs, we drove through lines of regimented rubber trees or jungle so thick the possibility of carving a way through it seemed inconceivable – visiting places my parents had lived during their courting days in the 1950s, during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency.

Then Australia and boarding school. Vast distances travelled for half-terms and holidays when I did not return to whichever country was currently home. We thought nothing of driving a hundred miles for a woolshed party and be home for breakfast. Roos and emus waking those of us slumbering in the back seat.

Papua New Guinea was my next stop. Ahh, youth! My boyfriend and I would leave Lae, on the Huon Gulf on Saturday to drive along the world’s most uncomfortable road – miles and miles of corrugated dirt which rattled the teeth and nerves. Lalang grass threatening the shred any unwary arm hanging out of a window. Air conditioning was not a luxury we had.
Our reward would be breakfast of coffee and egg and bacon sandwiches at the Kassam Pass – if they hadn’t been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Views stretching to the edge of the world before we advanced through Chimbu territory. Many Chimbu are delightful but I would hold my breath hoping we would not break down amongst these stocky, tough men wearing little more than an arse-grass, a penis sheath and carrying a spear. We’d arrive in Mount Hagen or Mendi in time for a party and drive ten hours back the next day in time for work on Monday morning. We were young, and distance was no object.

Based in The Netherlands, we criss-crossed Europe either in a not always reliable, shamrock green VW Variant named Murphy, or by train. A few more countries in between, wherein we continued our road tripping with our own children in the back seat – belted in of course – and we found ourselves in Texas. It takes a long time to get out of a state 900 miles wide but Los Angeles, Baja California, Florida Keys called – places not to be ignored.

All adventures which have formed the backbone of our family memories – the songs sung, the games played, the middle-of-the-night stops in strange places. All have continued our theme of ‘distance, who cares?’ And the wonderful thrill of going somewhere.

So why, now I spend a quarter of each year on a 28 mile long island in the Caribbean, do I quibble about driving 15 miles from my home in Christiansted to Frederiksted, nestled on the western shore?

Distance, it’s a funny thing. I guess we fit our perceptions to our surroundings!