Archives For travel

At the End of the Day

April 23, 2017 — 2 Comments

Clouds drifted through the sinking rays shimmering through palm fronds and across the bay. A magical end to an interesting day. I was sitting at the corner of a long bar at a pink hotel, my elbows resting on the brass rail held to the counter by ornate elephant heads. It was crowded and from the murmur around me I gleaned a plane load of tourists had recently arrived.

We like visitors on St Croix. Mostly. If they enjoy and respect this beguiling island which has so much to offer. We like them to help prop up the economy. Buy rum. Buy the famous hook bracelet, or the many variations thereof. Revel in the ever-changing colours of the sea as it filters through aquamarine, turquoise, lapis lazuli and occasionally grey when a storm scurries in from Africa. Hike the rain forest or down to the tide pools. Ride the beaches. Immerse themselves in the history of what was the Danish West Indies a hundred years ago.

People are friendly here. No conversation starts without a good morning, a good afternoon, and once the sun goes down – even if it has only just dipped – a good night.
And that was why I was so surprised. I have sat at many bars around the world. When traveling alone it is by far the most interesting place for conversations and the barman, if experienced, keeps an eye out for his solo female patrons.

It was busy but barmen are used to that. If they are good they acknowledge the person waiting – it is the polite thing to do and defuses any possible irritation. Not a nod came my way. I continued to wait and watched, piqued, the two white men dance around each other like mating praying mantis. Arms reaching and cocktails shaking. I listened to the patter of one, an aging Lothario, as he placed a chocolatey concoction in front of an older woman – a grandmother sitting with her granddaughters.

“A Bushwhacker, dear. It’s an adult MacDonald’s shake!”

His manner was unctuous and I expected him to wring his hands any moment, Uriah Heep style. Friends know how much I loathe being called ‘dear’ by anyone, particularly in a restaurant or bar, and even more so by those much younger. Familiarity really does breed contempt for me, though it did not appear to irk the customer. Fortunately I was served by the other barman, harried and not being particularly helped by his older cohort, he did apologise for the delay and promptly poured my wine.

My acquaintances arrived – we met at the VI Literary Festival and I had agreed to join them for a sundowner at their hotel. To some we may have appeared a motley crew: a white woman with an English accent – me; an African American writer from the mainland with numerous books and accolades to her name; a black man from Antigua known throughout the Caribbean for his calypsos; and a swarthy, though attractive, young man originally from Leamington Spa, England but sounding American, and who is a respected editor and publisher from New York.

I turned my barstool as more drinks were ordered and we formed a tight group. Banter and laughter were interrupted as a hotel guest, a white man of retirement age, pushed past us. With not a word of apology to our young companion whose rum he split, not once but twice, the tourist leant against me and signaled the barman.

Edging away, and about to admonish this rudeness, I caught the eye of my Middle Eastern-looking companion with an Arabic name, who shook his head. I learnt later that there had been a similar incident with the same man at the breakfast bar that morning, where words had been exchanged. I also learnt this erudite professional was regularly hauled out of lines and subjected to unpleasant grillings in airless little rooms at airports around the world.

The jostling of an ignorant man led to a discussion about the assumptions we all make. My writer acquaintance, invited to St Croix to be a speaker by the VI Literary Festival, commented on the whiteness of the pink establishment in which she was a guest. The Antiguan shrugged it off with a flashing, toothy laugh and the words, “Tourists are like that everywhere.” Perhaps lyrics will be borne from our conversation.

I wonder, as I sit at my desk and these new friends fly back to their homes, what sort of impression they have of this island I love. I hope it is positive because the pink hotel and its guests, were not a good indication of the friendliness of St Croix.

And I wonder why some people travel if they are unable to be polite and pleasant to fellow travellers, and I can only presume their hosts. But, at the end of the day, maybe I’m the one now making assumptions.

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

Marching On….

January 27, 2017 — 2 Comments

Saturday, 21st January 2017 marked the first time I deliberately marched for a cause.

In my facile youth I was known to occasionally tag along behind a group of noisemakers marching – just for the hell of it! I was never in the right place for demonstrations against the bomb, or for women’s lib. I was invariably in some far flung land where concerns were of a more local, more prosaic, nature. Whether school kids had knickers, or shoes, or pencils – or were even able to get to a school, for example.

So I was excited to be involved in a march that pulled many different factions together – women, the LGBT community, racial equality, religious freedom, the disabled and so on – under the umbrella of Women’s Rights are Human Rights. Something that, in America today, is being challenged.

All three islands proudly participated – St Thomas, St John and St Croix – they are after all part of the United States. But it wasn’t just an American movement. Friends marched in Sydney. My sister marched in London. Countless unknown men, women and children marched around the world. It was an incredible global event.

I was on St Croix, the Big Island of the US Virgin Islands. The march was pulled together in two weeks, thanks to the unflagging energy of a few people. Permits were obtained. Government house engaged. A police escort promised. Banners made, posters painted, flyers distributed. Social media running. Radio spots. The press invited. It was a band of hard working women – some of whom fitted the meetings in between grown-up jobs and familial commitments. It was also fun. With banter amidst the serious concerns that prompted the march in the first place.

When I was asked to speak at the rally I had some misgivings, and voiced them. Who was I to talk? A relative newcomer to the island, not yet even full time, and white to boot. I was asked to prepare something for the first meeting I attended. Having heard what I intended to say, it was decided to include me in the program. I was indeed honoured, and humbled. This is a shortened version of what I said:

“I am a fairly new citizen – I swore allegiance to the flag in 2010. I say quite deliberately to the flag because I did not swear allegiance to whoever happened to be living in the White House. I fully accept there will be times, such as now, when I might not be entirely on board with the inhabitant of that rather grand building, and that’s okay. That’s democracy.

But let me tell you a little about how I came to be here, in St Croix. I’m never quite sure – whether it’s in or on. We have searched for many years, in many parts of the world, for somewhere we could call home – permanently. St Croix is our choice – because of her diversity and acceptance of others not bahn here, her natural beauty, and her openness of spirit.

I have been fortunate to live in many countries – 12 of them. As diverse as Papua New Guinea and Holland, or Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia. And many others. It is only natural to like some places more than others but all countries have one powerful thing in common. Us. Women. The often quiet voice.

But we women, when riled and no matter what cultural lens we are viewed through, are a force to be reckoned with. And women supporting women, no matter from which walk of life, are the mainstay of the family and therefore the community. Now don’t get me wrong. I like men. I’ve been married to a chap for nearly 40 years, and I really like him.

No, what I mean is that women are often the best advocates for women. Time and again NGOs, governments, educators have proven that educating girls and getting women involved in community affairs, by offering women low-interest payment loans, by helping them set up home-based industries, women are the ones hauling their families out of poverty.

And let’s be honest, women tend to be the ones shooing their children out the door to get to school on time, to get to church on time, encouraging growth not just through book learning but through the arts and sport, as well as preserving our oral history and handing down age-old traditional skills.

Despite stereo-types portraying us as back-stabbing bitches or strident feminists, most of us are reasonable people who just want what’s best for our families. We are only driven to marches, such as this, by the unreasonableness of people who presume to know our minds, our concerns, our rights, and who show scant regard for our particular issues – both moral and tangible.

Women’s rights are human rights. That’s what the flyers and placards say. Whether the right to make decisions about our bodies, and our children’s welfare – we should be listened to. Because without the support of women, communities will suffer. We the People, men, women and children, will suffer.

Women’s rights are human rights – that’s why we are here today, and that’s why we shall not be silenced!”

As the euphoria of the march dims, and as decisions are made about moving forward, I think it is important to remember why we marched, irrespective of colour, creed, race, ability or disability, or sexual orientation.

I marched, for the first time, because I believe in the power of women’s voices. Let’s not forget, as those from the island I have chosen as my permanent home would say, “All ah we in Solidarity!”

I am not a beach bunny – even stretching way, way back to my bikini days. I love the ocean – being in, under or on it. But sitting on the sand, even with a book and a beer, palls very quickly. Walking along the beach though is a different matter. There is always something to gather.

My latest collections come from the beaches of St Croix. From one, the delicate little shells of palest pink to the deepest blush. Under candlelight on my dining table they take on a translucent beauty reminiscent of a Gainsborough portrait. From another beach, I gather sea glass, or as my granddaughter calls them, gems, tumbled and tossed ashore by tides and waves beginning their journey from who knows where. What start as bottles discarded by careless souls from boats, end up recycled as smooth fragments of opaque glass often used for island jewelry. Or, as in my home, placed in glass bowls to glimmer in quiet simplicity.

I still kick myself for throwing out a cache of elegant little black and white shells. Classic shell shapes – each striation a marvel of nature’s preciseness. I can’t remember where I harvested them, perhaps Australia, perhaps Thailand, but I liked them enough to carry around the world for about fifteen years. And then in a fit of throwing out, probably before another relocation, I tossed them.

That is the trouble with, or perhaps the benefit of, frequent moves. Each item must be judged worthy of container space. We have a problem with books but I think have, on the whole, reached an amicable arrangement. My husband’s collection of Folio Society books, and those left him by my father, always get a free ride. Reference, history and travel books too. Some novels I refuse to be parted from, Pride and Prejudice or Tess of the D’Urbervilles for example, or those which have struck enough of a chord to warrant a second, or third, reading also get a pass.

But beach novels get the heave ho – no ifs, no buts. Which, considering I am a writer attempting to break into the novel arena and know the agonies of bringing 90,000 words to publication readiness, is very hard to do. I feel I am letting the writerhood down but comfort myself with the thought at least the books will be available for others to enjoy, even if the author gets no royalties from the resale.

A truckload of fabric bought from markets around the world – saris, ikat, batik and so on – has also been a constant, with pieces showing up as curtains, tablecloths and cushion covers in other parts of the world.

And then there is a large box of Mexican tiles. Now they have been an ongoing bone of contention – with each relocation my justification getting thinner. Until St Croix.
Those tiles, lovingly collected over the years, now have a permanent home and there has been a certain amount of “see, I told you I’d use them somewhere!”

Our home in St Croix is in Christiansted. One day we will have a wonderful terrace and garden, but at the moment it is a quarry. We have enough stone to build our very own fort – never mind the one guarding the town and Gallows Bay. But it’s what is between the stones that delights me.

Chaney. Lots and lots of chaney.

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Now to people not acquainted with the islands these little bits of pottery and china might just look like, well, little bits of pottery and china. But they’re not! Chaney was currency. Broken shards of table and kitchenware scavenged by children who would then file down the edges, probably on a rock, and use it as money. “I’ll swap you two chaney for a stick of sugarcane” kind of transaction. Early day bitcoins! The term ‘chaney’ is said to be the words – china and money – conflated. Or perhaps, and I have absolutely no evidence of this, chaney came from the word ‘change’. “You owe me two chaney,” sort of thing.

In 2017, chaney is still valuable. This time wrapped in gold or silver and sold as jewelry to tourists and residents alike. Currency of a different kind. These little pieces of china, nearly always blue and white, have though a multitude of uses – all of them artistic. They embellish lintels, become tabletops, or cover vases.

There are four distinct types of chaney: shell edge, a slightly fluted design from mid 1700s England; mochaware, off-white sturdy kitchenware with linear designs from a similar period; flow blue, from mid 1500s Germany when during the glazing process cobalt oxide blurred the design; and lastly the ubiquitous blue willow design, imported from China in the 1700s, and adapted by Thomas Minton for Thomas Turner of Caughley, Shropshire. The willow design depicts the forbidden love between a Chinese Mandarin’s daughter and his secretary. Upon the lovers untimely death, the gods immortalised them as two doves, forever flying together.

And as St Croix once flew under the Dutch flag, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the blue and white fragments are Delftware.

As I wash each piece of chaney, I wonder about its story. These little shards of china and pottery – history found in our garden. History which will stay in our garden, to one day be incorporated into paving stones and risers. One collection which will not be moving on.

Beauty and the Beast

January 3, 2017 — 4 Comments

I am fortunate to spend time on St Croix – the largest of America’s surprisingly unknown Caribbean islands. The raw beauty of her beaches and the capriciousness of the sea as it cycles from emerald to aquamarine to turquoise to steel, depending on the clouds sent scudding by the constant Trade Winds, never fail to delight.

History emanates off the foot thick walls of the forts – yellow in Christiansted and rust coloured in Frederiksted – telling of the seven flags under which St Croix has flown. Originally known as Ay Ay, the island has been colonized, captured, lost, recaptured and bought, by the Dutch, British, French, Spanish, the Knights of Malta, and finally in 1917 sold by the Danish government for 25 million dollars to the US, fearful of German expansion during the First World War.

With the benefits of US laws and banking regulations, strong African roots from the days of slavery, a European heritage, and a lingering Caribbean charm, St Croix has much to offer both residents and visitors alike.

Green, hawksbill and occasionally leatherback turtles lumber up many of the beaches to lay their eggs, year after year. 50 to 70 days later, seabirds circle the skies watching with predatory interest as the tiny hatchlings surface through the sand and scuttle down to the ocean to start their journey north.

Cacti and scrub populate the eastern end of the island, with mahogany and genip trees towering high in the rainforest to the west. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, ixora and the island flower, Ginger Thomas, splash colour along the roadsides and hide both million-dollar mansions and less palatial homes from prying eyes. Papayas, pomegranates, pineapples and figs – the delicious little bananas – grow with easy abundance. Mangos and avocados grace many local dishes, and the sea offers lobster and mahi mahi and snapper.

Tranquility and beauty.

The islands – St Croix, St Thomas and St John – like most places have community issues, with elements of society not content to follow the rules. There is domestic abuse, too many guns in the hands of the wrong people, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions and larcenies of various kinds. All man made.

There is though a natural beast which lurks with vicious impunity along some of the shorelines. Known by the Spanish conquistadors as the ‘little apple of death’, the hippo mane mancinella, more commonly known as the ‘manchineel’, provides a natural windbreak and fights beach erosion, ever a problem for areas facing Atlantic hurricanes. The tree, sometimes growing to 50 feet, can be deadly to most birds and animals though, for some unexplained reason, iguana seem impervious to its toxicity.

To mere mortals its small green fruit resemble crab apples and lie temptingly on the sands. Don’t be enticed. If ingested, savage abdominal pain can be expected, followed by vomiting, bleeding and damage to the digestive tract. Deaths have been reported. Don’t even pick that apple up. The leaves and bark produce a milky sap which cause blindness, mostly temporary, and scorching blisters. If scratched by branches not only do the wounds hurt but pulsating pustules emerge over the coming few hours adding to the misery. I have seen the pain.

If Juan Ponce de Leon, the conquistador intent on colonizing Florida in 1513, and later parts of the Caribbean, had survived a manchineel-tipped arrow piercing his thigh, he might have been able to attest to its ferocity. Some though accept the temptations. Carpenters covet the hard timber for furniture and a few risk the dangers, drying the wood naturally to neutralize the sap.

Most manchineel shrubs and trees are marked with red crosses and warnings, but signs can get overgrown. Beachgoers have been burned just by standing underneath the tree during one of the many squalls washing the islands and coasts of South America and Florida. The caustic sap can even burn the paint off cars parked under its branches. And, if burned, the air is filled with toxins causing respiratory problems.

Accepted as the most dangerous tree in the world, the manchineel is relatively rare and is considered endangered – remember, it does have some positive benefits. But really, the best thing to do, should you come upon a manchineel is to give it a wide berth.

Beauty and the beast – part of the allure of the Caribbean.

And, should your kite get entangled in the manchineel’s embracing arms, just cut the strings.

The silence woke Holly. The rhythmic creak of the anchor chain and slap of water hitting the hull had stopped. So too the groaning sheets interspersed with whistling, like Nonna’s kettle, as wind had whipped through the stays and the sea had spumed. Her initial delight on being aboard had lessened with each shriek of the storm buffeting the yacht – despite the cheerful banter over gin rummy and whisky.

Tying a batik sarong Holly tiptoed up on deck. A ribbon of palest pink tickled the horizon and she knew the drenched decks and sails would soon dry in the rapidly rising sun. Hearing no sound from either Simon or Reed’s cabin, she climbed down to the transom and stripping, dived into the sparkling Caribbean. Surfacing, she gasped. She hadn’t expected the chill. It felt more like her childhood dash into the waters off Lyme Regis.

Shards of silver shimmered as her naked body rippled the turquoise sea in ever-widening circles. Tiny fish feathered her legs as they darted first one way and then the other in uncertainty until, as one, they flashed away. Looking down into the clear waters Holly wondered what was chasing them. Barracuda maybe. She shivered. It was cold. Kicking, she swam strongly, relishing the swish of water over her head, and glad she’d had her long hair cut before she’d left London. New life. New style.

Puffing, she floated a while, her hands idling the water. The beach, like snow from this distance, invited her to make sand angels. The white strip lined by palms, the fronds rustling gently after their frenetic movements of the previous evening. She could just make out what looked like ruins at the top of the hill behind the beach. An old sugar mill she guessed. She shouldn’t have been so hasty – she’d like to walk along the beach but doubted her nakedness would be appreciated by those on other yachts anchored nearby, and who might also be early risers.

“Holly!”

She waved. Even from this distance Simon was tall. Beckoning her back, she saw Reed join her brother on deck. Almost the same height but not living up to his name – Reed was a sturdy man. A rugby player to her brother’s cricket. They had met at university and been fast friends ever since. After one marriage and divorce, and one near miss, they’d pooled their resources and, leaving the dank European winters behind, had set sail for warmer climes on their 45’ sloop, Henrietta. The freedom seemed to have had a positive effect on their finances too – freelance marketing and writing brought in more than enough and, whilst Holly knew they had both had flings, the men were happy with their lives. How would they find life with her aboard for the next few months?

Until she could face the Highbury Fields flat again. Until she could face London again. No Malcolm. No Nonna. Holly couldn’t tell whether it was tears or seawater making her eyes smart. Couldn’t tell whether it was the thought of her lover in someone else’s bed or her dead grandmother which made her chest constrict.

“Holly!” Simon’s deep voice skimmed over the shimmering water again. “Breakfast.”

Powering back to the yacht, she remembered her nakedness.

“Go below, both of you!” she called, hearing her brother’s laughter. Clambering up the ladder, she retied the sarong and followed the smell of bacon into the galley.

“Bacon butties on deck,” Reed said, turning from the hob with a grin. “Up you go. You earn your keep from tomorrow.”

The sun dried her corn-coloured hair into loose curls, softening her angular face and grey eyes. She sighed. There were worse places to be. Smiling, she heard Nonna’s favourite carol drifting up from the saloon – Bing Crosby singing The Little Drummer Boy. Turning she saw Simon carrying a tray set with a guavaberry branch in an empty wine bottle, tiny baubles glinting above a miniature reindeer with a red bow and two small parcels wrapped in gold paper. Then Reed with glasses and champagne – both wearing board shorts, fur-trimmed Santa hats and tinseled sunglasses.

“Merry Christmas, Holly!” Simon said, kissing his sister.

“Happy Ho, Ho, Ho.” Reed filled the plastic flutes, bubbles joining the condensation as they spilled over. “Here’s to your first Christmas aboard!”

Tears for Thailand

October 14, 2016 — 3 Comments

Years ago and far away, in what now seems like another life time, we lived in Bangkok. Those fortunate enough to spend time, not just a vacation, but time enough to absorb some of a country’s culture, will forever have an element of that country in their souls.

As Thailand mourns the death of King Rama IX, my heart is heavy for what the country has lost and what the country now faces. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is the ordained successor to King Bhumibol – the only son and a man considered by many to be a serial philanderer. He has been married three times, has numerous children, some of whom he has denounced and is not held in the same high regard as his father. Or his sister.

I had the honour of being presented to Princess Sirindhorn when Cheshire Homes opened a new centre for the physically disabled on the outskirts of Bangkok. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn or as many Thais call her, Phra Thep – Princess Angel – is another matter. Admired by all for her steadfast devotion to the Thai people, she was elevated, with a tweak to the constitution in 1974, to Princess Royal which, in theory, would allow her a claim to the throne should something happen to the Crown Prince.

Soi Attawimon, where we lived our first time in Bangkok was a narrow street over a klong littered with daily detritus and which, in the monsoon season, regularly flooded our garden and occasionally our house. There were bonuses though to living on our little lane. Late afternoons were often punctuated by delighted squeals from our daughter, Kate, when she would feed sugar cane to the elephant ambling back to his home. We also had an early warning system of any coup. Tanks and trucks filled with soldiers would rumble along from military barracks at the far end of the soi. Being essentially a dead street did have its drawbacks though. We were regularly delayed as it was closed and city traffic idled to an even slower pace than usual, in order to allow the Crown Prince clear passage.

The Glorious Twelfth is not only the start of the grouse shooting season, it is also the now Dowager Queen Sirikit’s birthday, and so a public holiday. Kate, whose birthday is also on August 12th, grew up believing the whole world stopped for her one day every year.

There were many happy occasions in Thailand. From the serene to the surreal.

Loi Krathong, which falls on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai calendar – usually the end of November – is a charming ritual. Baskets woven from banana leaves into ornate shapes are filled with flowers, trinkets, incense, candles and coins, sometimes even nail clippings or hair so character flaws are released, and are then floated down the waterways taking away misdeeds and paying obeisance to the water spirits. The Chao Phraya, the river flowing through Bangkok, is the main repository for the floating mass of twinkling baskets but, in my mind’s eye, it is our little fish pond where the spirit of loi krathong is wedged.

Inordinate skill is required to weave banana leaves into a floating receptacle. A skill I did not have despite expert guidance from Es, our maid. She fashioned a basket in the shape of a lotus blossom for Kate which was duly filled with flowers, a candle and a small doll, “For to be lucky”. The house was dark and our garden became a magical wonderland as lights from the soi sent shadows dancing. Kate, as she had been taught by Es, put her hands together in a deep wai and slid her loi krathong into the pond. Water splashed up and, as we watched her basket eddy amongst the reeds and curious gold fish, my two-year old turned to me laughing at her wet nightie and said, “Mai pen lai, Mummy!” And she was right. It didn’t matter. The world was in harmony in that darkened garden – if only for a moment.

Surreal came from the machinations of monkeys in Wang Kaew stealing our breakfast of papaya and pineapple when, as I shouted and flailed my arms at the intruders, Kate reminded me that being kind to kleptomaniac monkeys was considered good luck in Thailand. Es taught her well.

And Edward was born in Bangkok. Not on an auspicious date in the Thai calendar but a day to be forever celebrated in our family. Our children were playfully pinched and pampered by Thais wherever we went – scooped away the moment we sat at restaurant table – to be heard chortling as they devoured sticky rice and mango with their new friends.

And so, as Thailand mourns King Bhumibol, my heart is with them and my deepest hope for that gracious country is that the transition to a new monarch is peaceful. That, in the not too distant future, Thailand again becomes the Land of Smiles.