Archives For travel

Interregnum

March 25, 2020 — 12 Comments

A recent Sunday morning was spent speaking to a small congregation of Unitarian Universalists, www.uua.org whose seven principles would seem to be a pretty good guide for decent living. I promised that Same View, Different Lens would discuss cultural awareness in a world wherein countries, and some peoples, are reverting to an insular and intolerant outlook.

But this isn’t a piece about the brilliance of my talk! Rather it is the coincidental nature of it as the precursor to the hell happening around the world as COVID-19 shuts down our borders. An action wholly understandable but which threatens to make us more inward looking and parochial, quick to lay blame beyond our boundaries.

Pico Iyer, a philosopher and travel writer I much admire says in his book The Global Soul, “The airport was a rare interregnum– a place between two rival forms of authority– and the airplane itself was a kind of enchanted limbo…. And so, half-inadvertently, not knowing whether I was facing east or west, not knowing whether it was night or day, I slipped into that peculiar state of mind– or no-mind– that belongs to the no-time, no-place of the airport, that out-of-body state in which one’s not quite there, but certainly not elsewhere.”

It is this feeling, this interregnum, in which I find myself now. Not, however, the anticipatory kind of limbo that airports induce but rather in a discombobulated state of nowhereness. I should be used to that feeling. I grew up a ‘Nowherian’ as Derek Walcott, the St Lucian poet called us. An in-betweener, and so am accustomed to often being on the outside looking in, to not always quite fitting into a prescribed mold. 

My family is global. My daughter is married to a Trinidadian and lives in Port of Spain, my son is soon to marry a Polish woman. They live in London. I have no doubt we will continue to live in different parts of the world, that their children will grow up with an inherent cultural awareness and, as I sit fretting at the keyboard, I remind myself that cultural awareness and common sense go hand-in-hand. I just need to get a better handle on the latter in these days of COVID-19 because I have a constant refrain in my head. 

What if they need me?

I know that is highly unlikely. I believe and trust in their ability to deal with anything thrown at them. That was how they were brought up, around the same world they now have the temerity to call their playground. And, in my current state of mind and despite my pride in them, I am to blame for their independence. 

It was only this morning, as I walked my dog along the empty Boardwalk in Christiansted, I realised what is causing my somewhat irrational mood. It is grief. 

Grief for a world that has changed beyond anything I could have imagined. No one knows how long borders or skies will be closed. A sorrow for those whose family and friends have died from this rampant virus. But my newly understood grief is also selfish one. It is grief at the freedoms I have lost, the freedom to hop a plane to see my children. It has sent me to find words vaguely remembered from when my father died. In his desk I had found a book of quotes, snippets of Latin and Greek, Malay and Urdu, he jotted down. Words that took his fancy. The words I wanted were written by the British doctor and eugenicist – not a science I agree with but, in the current context, wise words nonetheless, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” 

So in this interregnum, this limbo, I must accept that some things have changed, maybe forever. That is the grief. I must embrace the ease of virtual communication which, for a while, is replacing the joy of real and tactile social intercourse. With vigilance COVID-19 will be contained and once it has run its course our borders will be reopened, and our minds once more excited about the infinite possibilities and cultural awareness that travel provides. But for now it is a time of letting go, and holding on, and remembering we see the same views through different lenses.

Hee-haw – Who’s the Ass?

December 19, 2018 — 7 Comments

I was meant to be wrapping presents, washing windows, winnowing waste and generally preparing for an influx of much-loved visitors over the festive season. But I decided my time would be far better spent going to the races. Not to the dogs, of course.

Music blaring across the grassy expanse guided me to the entrance where I handed over $5 and was welcomed by a gentleman in white tails and top hat. This rather natty attire was somewhat marred by the white shorts but I gave full points for his well-turned calves – wasn’t that how men were judged back in the days of doublets and hose?

It was my first time at donkey races though I consider myself a keen supporter of mutton busting – that popular event at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wherein small children straddle a sheep and cling to the surprisingly greasy wool in the hopes of staying aboard until the finish line. But I digress, and I am not in Houston.

I am on St Croix, the delightful, beautiful and verdant ‘big’ sister of the US Virgin Islands. 

Donkey racing I have learned was introduced in the 1960s, perhaps to pay homage to the simple ass who was once a common mode of transport. Like most stories from this wonderful island it is rather a convoluted one – we thrive on story telling here so, to copy a rather hideous phrase much in use at the moment, please bear with me a moment while I explain.

Donkey racing was started by a group of gentlemen whose habit it was to mass at a local shop to discuss matters of low, or high, importance of any given day. Politics and politicians are always good fodder for a gossip because we all know we could do better if only they would listen to the people they are meant to represent. Here I go again, off on a tangent – Crucian eloquence must be rubbing off on me. In any event, and I’m not sure of the date, one of aforementioned gentleman, a chap named Minard Jones, decided to open a bar at which his pals could lubricate their vocal chords. This group of snappy dressers marched in a parade – we do love parades here – sometime in the 1950s in top hats and tails, and forever after have been known as Gentlemen of Jones, no doubt in honour of their pal Minard. Over the years these gentlemen have become active in various community events on St Croix, which brings us rather neatly back to the donkey races.

We run at our own special pace on this island – Crucian Time and anyway it was Sunday afternoon, and no one hurries on a Sunday, least of all donkeys. They, the donkeys, were corralled in pens at the base of a gentle slope – surprisingly not a bray amongst them. Clustered around were various people carrying bridles though saddles were not to be seen. My interest perked up. This would be entertaining, and no doubt authentic to their beginnings as a means of getting around back in the day.

First up were the children, six of them in a range of heights with one youngster’s legs dangling almost to the ground. A donkey, unimpressed, reared up sending his rider ignominiously to the turf before the red flag had even dropped but the boy ruled the day and mounted once again. The children were led around the track by volunteer runners, or haulers, depending on the donkeys’ willingness to budge. Some of those astride grabbed the reins, others grabbed the mane, with one tiny tike in a sundress and boots who, once lifted aboard, inched her way over the withers and clung to the bridle itself. Smart move, and as they pelted past, her curls streaming behind her, I could see she was a regular on the donkey circuit. Others were not as graceful on their steeds, slipping around bare bellies until the fortunately soft grass became an inevitable and inelegant end.

Watching lightweights on the backs of animals known for their recalcitrant nature was amusing, if a little nerve-wracking for the mothers I’m sure. Next up though were the men. Six stalwarts prepared to make an ass of themselves. Men ranging in size from slim to not-so-slim provoked a different sentiment. Pity for the donkeys and a sincere hope they found the energy to buck, or at least shake their riders off. The men, being manly, were meant to race holding their own reins but some, after a number of false starts, or no starts at all, were also assisted by the hard-working volunteers. 

It is difficult, I’m sure, to stay atop a donkey uninterested in its rider’s well-being but there is nothing quite like anothers self-imposed discomfort to bring out the best in spectators. So we laughed. It was gratifying when the men slid and slithered to the ground despite iron grips and gritty determination and the crowd had no compunction in cheering the asses on, although I wasn’t entirely sure which set.

I did not stay for the remaining races – the time between each event stretching even my willingness to avoid housework – but a loud hee-haw to the Gentlemen of Jones for donkey races well run!

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!

Island Strong

October 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

This is a story about a woman who lived on a rock in the Caribbean 130 years ago when the US Virgin Islands were under the Danish crown, and the dannebrog flew proudly from the flagpole at Fort Christiansvaern. Her name was Anna Clausen, and she was born on St Croix on a sugar plantation called Anna’s Fancy, so named for her maternal grandmother, the first Anna.

Our Anna, at age sixteen, was taken by her mother to England after the devastating hurricane of 1867, when the tidal surge on the western tip of the island had been so huge, the American warship Monongahela had been thrown ashore at Frederiksted. The storm had been the final straw for Anna’s mother, who was determined her daughter have the opportunity of a ‘good’ marriage, and the benefit of cultural activities that, to her mind, only London could provide.

Anna lived, unhappily, in London for ten years until after the death of her mother she returned to the island she loved. Her father, who had remained on St Croix, was ailing and alone after the death of her brother the previous year. Ivy, a girl from the East End of London accompanied Anna, filling both the role of lady’s maid and chaperone.

The homecoming was not as she had imagined, and the great house of Anna’s childhood was no longer the imposing, air and colour-filled home of her memories. Emiline, a surly woman was now the sole servant and was resentful of the young mistress and, more particularly, her white maid. “Chuh! I tell she, soon as, me not de maid. Me de housekeeper,” she mutters as makes up a bed for Anna.

Fireburn, the name of this story, tells of Anna’s struggle to keep the plantation afloat, with the help of Sampson, the foreman. It tells of a turbulent time on the island, with worker discontent high at the lack of progress in conditions since emancipation 30 years earlier, and which culminates in ‘fireburn’, the event in which Frederiksted was burnt to the ground. The rebellion, also known as The Great Trashing, stoked by women who became known as ‘the queens’, was brutally quashed with ringleaders executed or jailed, and the women sent to prison in Copenhagen.

Our heroine, Anna, faces personal heartache but with the support of servants whose trust she has won, both in the great house and in the fields, she becomes the chatelaine of a prosperous estate. Willing to take chances and challenge the conventions of the day.
At the core of Fireburn, the novel, is the resilience and determination of those who call Anna’s Fancy and St Croix home to weather any and all storms, both natural and man-made. To rebuild. To adapt. To strengthen.

In effect exactly what so much of the Caribbean is doing right now, after the wrath of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The islands will recover from the aftermath of these violent storms, they will prosper again. Their natural beauty and the overt friendliness of the islands will draw tourists, and their much-needed money, to choose to recharge on the pristine beaches, swim and dive in the vivid seas which filter through aquamarine to indigo to emerald, to sip rum – the staple upon which many of the islands first found prosperity – and to marvel at the resilient buoyancy of those who call these islands home.

Just as fictional Anna did.

The Caribbean and her people are, despite what is tossed their way, Island Strong!

Fireburn cover 72

Purchase Fireburn here!

https://blog.internations.org/2017/07/the-greatest-reasons-to-love-life-abroad/

Thanks to Internations. org – it was fun!