Archives For travel writing

Finding the IRS

February 14, 2017 — 5 Comments

As an inveterate browser of all things decorative, I was thrilled to find an ornately carved teak door, partially hidden by statuettes of worthy Asian deities. I am particularly drawn to all things Oriental, having spent a large part of my life in South East Asia. Including the frame, the door measured ten feet high and five feet wide. This I know because an arsenal of facts would be required if I were to persuade my long-suffering husband these doors were indeed entirely necessary to our future.

I was rebuffed with the words, “But, love, we don’t even know what country we will retire to, and we are not going to buy a house to fit around some doors.” I have never forgotten those doors and, more importantly, the questions they raised. His words were the start of an intense search. Finding the IRS…. the Ideal Retirement Spot.

My life has been nomadic since birth – countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands have been home. My husband started his global wanderings when 23 and, whilst enjoying returning to England to visit family and friends, did not envisage returning to that green and pleasant land. Pubs, cricket and rugby notwithstanding.

Contrary to popular belief, a peripatetic life does not make the search for the IRS easier.

After spending holidays as a teenager with my parents in Provence, on the outskirts of villages with names like Draguignan and Mougins, I had romantic notions of finally mastering French and spending our leisure years sipping rosé by day and cognac by night. But the area had become expensive and not quite as inviting as my childhood memories.

An intense affair with most things Italian, including grappa, sent me scurrying to the Tuscan and Umbrian hills. Palominos gave an equine serenity as they merged into sizzling summer landscapes, reminiscent of an Impressionist painting. Hungry hogs, foraging in the undergrowth as fireflies came out to play, added an element of danger. Remote villas as old as time. Villages perched on hilltops, narrow doorways tempting us into darkened interiors offering culinary delights – pecorino, salami and vino; cafés spilling onto Fiat-wide streets with the ever-lyrical sound of Italian – what more could we want? Less laments! Utterances, from those expatriates already living la dolce vita, about the lack of a favoured cereal or the slowness of service – so different to home.

Living for a time in a small, despotic, sub-Saharan West African country honed our Spanish. How about Spain? High up in the hills behind Malaga, away from beer-bellied Brits thronging the malecons along the Costa Brava. A vineyard, perhaps? An olive farm? The idea of producing our own appealed to my taste buds. Following garbled instructions along remote lanes, ditches on either side ready to swallow the unwary driver, we viewed several – both grape and olive groves.

And then it hit us. What would we do once we’d trodden those grapes or picked those olives? Did we want to spend our retirement working the land – something neither of us had every done. We appreciate the countryside but really we are water people. A babbling brook would not be enough. Who would we socialise with? Driving half an hour along rutted roads for the daily paper, a cafe con leche or a glass of wine in the local hosteleria, and driving back, held little appeal and would not allow for easy integration.

Our focus changed. Perhaps we needed to consider towns. Barcelona and Tarragona appealed, but prices didn’t. And then we lost our way again. How about living on the beach? Grenada? Beautiful, friendly, too difficult to navigate, too far. Belize? Barrier islands seemed risky when considering the possibility of hurricanes. Let’s try on the mainland. How about Corozal? Jaguars and jacaranda ticked environmental boxes, but difficulty in obtaining basic necessities – fresh produce, cheese, good bread, wine – put us off.

Baja California was next. Not the more usual Cabo san Lucas, but what about the capital of the province, La Paz? A charming old town with a Friday night parade of cars driven by love-lorn Lotharios, looking for the girl-of-their-dreams tossing coquettish smiles as they sauntered along the palm-fringed malecon. Affordable. A good produce market. Interesting history. The sea on our doorstep. But. That intangible but. It didn’t feel right. We were forcing the issue.

Subdued, I returned to Houston to pout and ponder. For a number of years. I gave up house hunting around the world, and concentrated on writing. Until one rainy Sunday afternoon, a golf tournament on the television keeping my husband engrossed and me less than, I restarted the search for the IRS. Trolling through websites in lesser known Caribbean islands, I came across a West Indian house in dire need of love.

“Look,” I said, blocking my husband’s view of the 16th hole. “What about this? It’s in town. We loved the island. Easy to get to. And it’s American, so our investment would be safe.”

“We haven’t been there for thirty years,” he reminded me. “There’s a reason for not showing photos of the bathrooms. And the kitchen looks as if its made of balsa wood.”

“Look at the views. Ignore the clutter, the bones are good. It just needs attention.”

“Interesting, I suppose,” he said, his eyes straying back to the 17th hole. “Why don’t you go and have a look?”

Three days later I landed on the island of St Croix, USVI. I came, I saw, I bought. It felt right – the IRSview-of-the-bvi

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!

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!