Archives For travel

Interregnum

March 25, 2020 — 10 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!

Along Came Clyde

July 14, 2017 — 7 Comments

Dejected and rejected strays have always found us. And so it was on the 29th December 2016 that Bonnie appeared. A harried waiter shooed a bundle of matted fur from an establishment on the Boardwalk in St Croix and as his booted foot moved I shouted, “Leave it, I’ll take it.” The ‘it’ concerned was a black kitten, so emaciated we couldn’t tell its sex. Carrying it home was like holding a bag of chewed chicken bones. Closer inspection found it’s gums and tongue to be white, it’s last vestige of energy gone in a final scurry from terror and pain.

A night spent with it sleeping on my chest was a night of sad shuddering breaths. But as morning tickled the hills pink and mauve it rallied and a frantic rush to the vet, an immediate blood transfusion and a number of nights in the clinic found it beginning to thrive.

Bonnie is deaf. Now, I don’t know if you’ve tried but training a deaf cat is tricky. She does not hear the crash and tinkle of broken glass or crockery. She does not hear the panicked shouts of “don’t” as she crouches ready to pounce on some imagined intruder flitting across her line of vision – a shadow maybe traversing a coffee table laden with glasses. But the purrs and kneading make up for the mounting breakages.

We joked that a dog would be a good companion – something to look out for her.

Then along came Clyde – our Trinidadian pot hound – though he almost didn’t make the flight. All entirely my fault. A miscommunication, a missed email and a near total fiasco. It was 2:30pm on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was due to travel to America – a day sandwiched between a public holiday on Thursday and another on Monday. Fortunately that island nation at the bottom of the Caribbean chain pulled out the stops – helped by the unwavering fortitude of my daughter behind the wheel of a car in Port of Spain’s notorious traffic.

In despair at gridlocked vehicles ahead I leapt from the car and made my jagged way along two city blocks, down a side street and burst into the Department of Agriculture. My breathing akin to bagpipes being primed, my hair plastered in grey and purple streaks to my neck and with sweat pouring down my face, I waved TT$5 in the receptionists face – words were hard to come by. To her credit she did not shy away from the mad woman babbling at her about a chop needed from Trinidad’s chief vet in order to get an export licence for a puppy from a trash heap in Cedros.

In remarkable short order the stamp was obtained and with groveling thanks I ran out to Kate and my granddaughters waiting in the car. There followed a mad dash down the freeway to the next government office where the actual licence could be obtained, normally in two to three days.

A stern, uniformed woman of East Indian descent looked me up and down from her perch behind a desk guarding entrance to the inner sanctum, and shook her head.

“Your shoulders are bare. You cannot enter a government building dressed in this way.”

Said shoulders slumped.

“And your feet. You do not have enclosed shoes.”

Begging, and I think with a glimmer of tears, I garbled an explanation, assuring her I meant no disrespect and that everything that could be my fault, was my fault. Her features softened and breaking into a crooked tooth grin and taking my hand, she said,

“Come. I will take you.”

Apologising profusely for my lack of correct attire to the disinterested young man tugging idly at his wispy beard, I felt my heart sink. And then he too smiled.

“You have the chop?” He asked, taking the papers from my damp hand. “Sit. It will take time.”

Twenty minutes later I was out the door. 24 hours later Clyde and I were on the plane with a glass of wine. Well, me anyway.

Global Entry allows a saunter through immigration with barely a missed step. At Customs I was told to wait for my suitcase to be delivered, when baggage, canine and I would be escorted to animal control.

I waited. And some more. Two cats and a dog, a yappy little thing, who came after us were ushered away with their owners and luggage. And then the dreaded words. Your suitcase does not seem to be here. Go through, then report it to the airline. Clyde and I were by this time eager to find some grass, and we scurried along to a woman standing sentry, her tan uniform bursting at the seams.

“Medical papers. Rabies certificate.”

After wishing her a good morning – it was 5am – I explained the latter was not needed as the animal in question was under three months and Trinidad and Tobago was a rabies free country.

“Every dog coming to the US must have a rabies certificate. It is on the CDC website.”

In the politest possible manner I disagreed, feeling beholden to point out Trinidad had been rabies free since 1917, which was more than could be said for Texas.

Her pink talons jabbing the air near my face, her voice strident, I was informed the puppy could not enter the US and would be returned from whence he came, on the next flight.

Calmly I told her he was already in the country – don’t play semantics with a writer – and that I would like to speak to her supervisor. A muted conversation took place between the taloned one and a pleasant-looking woman, presumably her superior, and we were waved through with the words, “I misspoke. You can go.”

The lost luggage ground staff were equally unhelpful, refusing to believe my explanation given over Clyde’s keening, that Customs had my baggage tags. About to lose my final shred of civility, we were all saved by an apologetic skycap hauling my case.

At least he had a smile. And Clyde was welcomed to America.

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.