Ramblings on Returning to the Small Island in 1998

I found these ramblings in an old notebook the other day. It was written long before I had a blog, when our family was living in the USA and I had returned to Scotland by myself for a week. The title was obviously inspired by Bill Bryson’s 1995 Notes from a Small Island. It’s 23 years old and I know that so much has changed in the UK since then, including the fact that you are no longer charged to use the loo at the station! I was young, slightly arrogant and a bit too critical, but I wanted to type it up and publish it here as it was one of my earliest attempts at writing while traveling and consequently a part of my ongoing story.

Each time I return, I feel more of a stranger, yet the strangely familiar feelings and forgotten senses stir up from within at each new turn.

The arrival at Heathrow: herded like sheep along dingy corridors; being condescendingly spoken to by uniformed, yet shabby, incomprehensible airline staff; broken down escalators; packed like sardines onto a bus to explore the bowels of Heathrow in search of Terminal 1.

The smoke-filled gates; One pound 25 pence for a bottle of water at the French style coffee shop. The American style coffee, but the somewhat self-conscious waiter who spills milk over his hands as he nervously struggles to place the plastic lid on the lukewarm contents of the cup. There’s an increasing awareness that I’m back in the UK.

I watch my fellow-travellers waiting to board BM 22 to Edinburgh. The small child who was on my flight from San Francisco has finally stopped talking and her eyes are getting heavier by the minute. Her zombie-like mother holds her in her lap and stares blankly out of the window. If only these bright red chairs were conducive to relaxation.

Two English businessmen discuss the latest figures in the Financial Times. Both attired in navy, ill-fitting business suits and slightly geeky glasses. One carries a shabby brown overcoat and both wear shoes that are begging to walk themselves over to the “shoe-shine’ booth located just outside the gate.

Mr Yuppy confidently strides in with his pin-striped suit, striped shirt and polka dot tie – another victim of Great British fashion.

A friendly American from Boston chats with the man next to him about the British weather. He voice is loud and he exudes confidence and self-assurance unlike the young man in the olive green anorak, who sits nervously studying his boarding pass and scratching his head.

Then there’s Jack and his mother…

Jack is around three and he is with his mother, a young, attractive and trendy woman with an air of sophistication that disappears the moment she opens her mouth!

“Jack, if ye dae that again I’ll skelp yir bum in front a abody, d’ya hear me, Jack?”

The British Midland staff strut their stuff, complete with little hats precariously perched on top of their heads. Jolly old English uniforms.

The flight is called and I am Edinburgh bound …

Edinburgh

I walk around Trinity and look towards Leith. I am reminded of my maternal grandmother who grew up around here. I start to imagine her as a young girl playing with her siblings along the edge of the freezing water of the Firth of Forth. The wind is bitterly cold and the water murky, There are kids walking home from school and it’s almost dark.

However, the streets feel safe and there’s a sense of security in just walking along peering in the windows of people’s front rooms as they switch the lights on to give me a better view. A few have already closed the curtains to spoil my fun.

The traffic feels close and noisy, but the side streets are quieter so I veer off the main road. There are a few very brave daffodils trying to push their way through in perfectly manicured gardens. They will be lucky if they survive the forecasted frost. I’m surrounded by green grass, holly hedges and iron railings and gates. There’s such a sense of order. Even the weeds wouldn’t attempt to spread over the footpath.

A plane flies overhead and I feel thankful to be on the ground after long flights. My sense of time and place are momentarily confused. My sense of identity and where I am become questionable. Only this morning I confused the lady in the next seat on my flight by telling her that I’m an Australian, temporarily living in the USA and visiting my family in Scotland.

My father in law calls to welcome be back. I’m glad he doesn’t use the word home, as it’s not any more. Although, the grey skies and the grey bricks still hold a part of my childhood. Somehow when I start to reminisce they appear less grey.

A visit to the pub confirms what I thought – this is still the land of warm beer and boiled ham salads.

Then there’s the Edinburgh ladies: head scarves to save the wind from uncurling their tight-permed hair and blue rinses; sensible shoes to pound the pavements and dark woollen overcoats to shield agains the elements.

“Good afternoon Mrs Muir.”

“Good afternoon Mrs MacDonald.”

Neighbours, yet polite and never on first-name terms.

“What a lovely mild day.” says one.

If this is mild, please God, don’t let it get cold.

Waverley Station:

Stations are pretty much the same the world over and there appears to be only one language that is used over the public address systems and no-one has yet been able to translate it.

They just charged me 20p to pee though.

I board the train and find a seat among the countless backpackers who are being told by the guard not to sit on the reserved seats. The train snakes its way out of the station and into the suburbs of identical houses topped with satellite dishes.

The beverage cart appears and the guy across the aisle from me has just purchased two cans of beer and it’s not yet 10am. Could be an interesting journey. Others are buying coffee, but I’m not going to risk being disappointed by a max pac with no lid.

The landscape is bleak and drab today and the colours are reflected in the faces around me.

The next town is Pitlochry with its endless rows of kilt shops and woollen mills. Again everything feels so ordered and safe. It’s a harsh, but safe landscape. I want to belong to it again, but I can’t. I guess you can’t replant something when the roots are no longer there.

Maybe I was only meant to belong here for a short time.

Edinburgh supermarket:

I decide to buy a few items to take back with me. I take them to the checkout where the lady scans them and tells me the price. I eventually hand over the money, after fumbling to work out the different coins. The checkout operator gives me one of those you poor, simple woman sort of looks. She then asks me something in a language I do not know or begin to understand. ‘Dayyihivaclubcard?’ Confused I ask her to repeat several times. Eventually I work out she is asking me if I have some sort of loyalty card. I answer in the negative as she shakes her head and decides that I really am completely stupid.

I then add to her assumptions by waiting for her to bag my items.

She looks at me somewhat frustratedly, folds her arms and pronounces, “Ye hae tae pack yer own bugs here ye kane.”

I helplessly reach for a plastic bag and bundle my few items into it as she stares me down and humphs!

I turn to bid her farewell and wish her a nice day.

2020-the year of the unexpected

For me, the best thing in this horrible year has been the birth of my youngest granddaughter, Maddison Isla. Maybe when she’s older someone will ask her what it was like to be born during the great pandemic of 2020. So Maddi, this digital reflection on 2020 is for you, but also for Claudia, Austin, Josie and Logan for whom this year has thrown many challenges to which you have all risen with great resilience.

Maddison Isla

This time last year we thought the catastrophic bush fires and chokingly thick smoke were the major issues here in Australia. Little did we know that by March we would be confined to our 5km radiuses, banned from travelling overseas and running out of toilet rolls…

There is anger that some governments were too restrictive while others think they weren’t restrictive enough. Everyone has an opinion, a theory, and too many conspiracy theories. 2020 saw a huge rise in facebook-trained epidemiologists and health experts!

Many have lost loved ones; loved ones are still separated by closed borders and many are living out their final days devoid of visitors or looking at them though impenetrable glass when all they want is a hug. 

Everyone has their own 2020 story of the COVID19 pandemic. I know that I’ve had it so easy compared to millions of others, and I am truly grateful. 

January 2020, I started reading more about the virus that was affecting people in China, but I didn’t really think too much about it. My husband went off on the first of his planned overseas work trips in early January and I took myself off to Melbourne for a few days with friends. Late January two of my grandchildren started kindergarten, one began preschool and one started year 2. February was a fun month with friends visiting from Colorado and we also enjoyed catching up with friends from the UK and other parts of the USA. We attended several large events alongside hundreds of people and had an overnight trip to Sydney in a hotel.

Early March and this virus was making headline news and affecting people in many countries beyond China, including here in Australia where there was one death recorded and the first cases of community transmission reported. There was a general feeling of apprehension and even confusion as people tried to grasp just how great a threat this virus was to us here in the Antipodes. My husband’s planned trip to Peru on 15th March was cancelled 5 days before the WHO declared COVID19 a pandemic. By mid-late March the terms social distancing, quarantine, contact tracing and lockdown were becoming a part of everyday vocabulary. 

The week of 9th March was my last week of ‘normality’. We babysat our grandkids, had a haircut, I went to the gym, had coffee, drinks and dinner with friends and did the usual grocery shopping — although there was no toilet paper, tissues or hand sanitiser on the shelves. By late March there were restrictions on how much pasta, rice and mince you could buy.

Monday 16th March we pretty much started self-isolation for 7 weeks. Previous arrangements were cancelled and I opened a Zoom account which would prove to be a lifeline of communication across the world for both work and socialising. WhatsApp groups called ‘iso’ were created and the lounge began to look like a recording studio with microphones and laptops mounted on piles of books to get just the right height for ‘Zoom drinks’ with friends and family.

Friday night Zoom church became a thing and on Sundays you could choose from a plethora of youtube services from churches all over the country.

My birthday was in late March and my husband’s 4 days later. We had innovative friends set up a picnic on our front lawn as we sat at a COVID safe distance with our own little picnic. Another friend threw up some snacks and a balloon onto the front deck and another delivered slices of cake to the door which we ate on the deck while they ate theirs on the driveway!

Our kids and grandchildren would stand on our driveway every other day to chat to us, while we stood on the deck. We walked to the beach nearly every day and stopped to wave and chat to our kids on their verandah on the way back. 

Our eldest granddaughter sent us a week of challenges which included dressing as Kim Kardashian, doing back rolls to drop stuffed toys into a laundry basket, Pops singing the Baked Potato song. My daughter in law challenged me to join her in the Getty Museum ‘recreate art at home’ which was a lot of fun. On our granddaughter’s birthday we were able to help her parents organise a scavenger hunt which ended up with her coming into the garden through the back gate to claim her present while her parents stood and watched at the fence.

Several hours a week were taken up with online ordering — groceries, fruit and veg, books, more books as well as other things that we probably didn’t really need, but helped us to get through, like wine! We binge-watched netflix series and signed up for nearly every streaming service available. I learned to sew masks and started painting again. My husband rediscovered his piano. 

In May we were allowed to meet with people again in very small groups. It felt so good, but also a bit surreal. We still can’t hug everyone the way we used to and we are all more conscious of sanitising and keeping at appropriate distances. Here in NSW we were able to do so much more than our friends in Victoria who were locked down for so many months. It was extremely tough for them, but they are in a much better place now.

I am so appreciative of all the amazing health care workers, service and retail staff, delivery drivers etc all across the world who have worked under incredibly difficult circumstances to provide care and services to us all.

2020 has been such a mix of really bad and really good. Really bad, because people are still sick and dying and the numbers across the world continue to be horrific. Bad because we couldn’t hug our nearest and dearest. Bad, because loved ones died and people weren’t able to say goodbye or attend funerals. Bad because people lost their jobs and their homes, Bad because we saw an exponential rise in domestic violence and suicide. Bad because plans and hopes and dreams were crushed in an instant. Bad because we saw true narcissism at its worst in too many world leaders.

Really good, because we were able to slow down and learn to appreciate the beauty of where we live and to explore locally. Good because it reminded us that human connection is what’s important and thankful that modern technology allows us to interact and see friends and family across the planet. Good because it allowed me to start a daily practice of being intentionally grateful which is good for my mental health. Good because we started looking out for our neighbours and the vulnerable. Good because I finally started to do some of the things I never had time for before —except I never did join the sourdough bandwagon!

As we approach the end of this difficult year, we are aware of the challenges ahead for us in 2021; will the new vaccines, developed in record time, be effective in curbing the spread of the disease? When will we be allowed to travel overseas again? When will people be allowed to travel here? Will the latest cluster in Sydney lead to more restrictions across the state? Will we have to wear masks for a long time?

So many questions with no definitive answers …

No matter what lies ahead, may the lessons we’ve all learned from 2020 about what’s really important guide us towards creating a better future for this fragile planet and its people.

Here’s to 2021 …

Tsunamis and snakes

So I’m on the Gold Coast of Australia on a relaxing holiday with the husband. The resort is right on the beach. The autumn temperature is a balmy 25 degrees C and there’s sunshine and a gentle breeze. There’s a heated pool, sun loungers and pool bar. Sounds idyllic, right?

Here’s where the picture perfect scene falls apart. You see for much of my adult life I’ve lived in the middle of anxiety central —just ask my long-suffering husband. All it takes to set me off is some throwaway remark or in this case the half-assed joke from my other half as he gazed out to sea from our resort window. “You know something, we’d be gone in a tsunami!”

So what do I spend the rest of the evening doing, as the hubs snores after falling asleep watching The Good Fight? Yes, you’ve guessed, I start googling the chances of the Gold Coast being hit by a tsunami in the next seven days. To add to my already rising anxiety levels, I decide to read the hotel info pack which ever so subtly alludes to the abundance of native flora and fauna in the area, especially reptiles. Reptiles —those include snakes and snakes are my worst nightmare. Way more scary than any tsunami!

So knowing that there’s no way I will sleep —after all I need to be alert and ready to run for the hills, or at least to the roof, when the inevitable tsunami hits, I may as well google the resort reviews on Trip Advisor.

Bad move. Mr X from NYC loved the place and would come back again. Mrs Y from Melbourne hated it and will never come back. Different expectations most likely. However, Mr X and Mrs Y are totally in agreement and united in their shock at discovering a 2 meter long Eastern brown snake swimming in the pool! Mrs Y and her daughters are still traumatized. I’m hearing you Mrs Y, I’m feeling the need for therapy just reading your review.

So here I am poolside 12 hours (and no sleep) later. Some guests are relaxing and reading. A few brave, or I’m guessing completely ignorant, souls are in the pool. I’m neither relaxing nor reading. I’m on high alert ready to run from tsunamis and snakes! If I survive the next 24 hours unscathed, maybe I will start to relax —a little!

Morning musings

There’s something inherently calming about starting the day on the front deck (verandah for my non-Aussie readers), sipping coffee in the warmth of the newly-risen sun, listening to the quiet roar of the ocean in harmony with the morning bird calls. As the cliché goes, you can feel the serenity!

I love our front deck. It’s where we’ve spent many hours over the years; where we welcome friends in summer and sit rugged-up in winter longing for spring. It’s where we laugh with old friends and get to know new ones; share dreams, plans and stories; read, discuss and debate the issues of the day.

It’s on the this deck that countless cheese plates have been consumed and champagne corks popped while celebrating milestones, birthdays, Christmases and New Years; where smoky single malts have been sipped on balmy evenings along with the odd puff of a Cuban cigar. It’s here I play I-spy with my grandchildren and read stories, where we can watch the neighbors come and go, and have a grandstand view of spectacular storms rolling in from the ocean.

The view Of the ocean from the deck is calming in times of stress and anxiety. It encourages me to look beyond the horizon, appreciate and be thankful for the beauty that’s around. It’s a place to sit and be in the moment. This old deck has had its fair share of storms and has had to be repainted and repaired over the years. It’s not a huge structure, but the events and people who have shared it with us have enriched our lives and created lasting memories, and for that I am truly grateful. 


Grateful

I’m sitting enjoying the sight and smell of the beautiful flowers I received for my birthday, as I contemplate the start of a new decade.

I have so much to be thankful for, including my wonderful family and friends around the world who have expressed their love and good wishes to me on this special occasion. As I age, I’m becoming more mindful of living intentionally with a grateful heart and taking time to focus on the blessings, of which there are many. Yes, life has thrown lots of curved balls over the years and will doubtless continue to do so. But, I’ve survived —stronger and wiser. Ironically It’s the rough times that shape and mould us into maturity and help us to truly appreciate the wonder of this journey called life.

2017

It was the best of times …

Watching my 3 beautiful grandchildren grow and thrive. Listening to their laughter, playing, cuddles and being in the moment.

Traveling to new places of amazing beauty and wonder.

Meeting and learning from people who selflessly dedicate their lives to the greater good of humanity despite the personal cost.

It was the worst of times…

It’s been a hard year for millions around the world; refugees fleeing conflict and war; increased racial, and religious hatred; the  suffering of displaced families with nowhere to go; people in power refusing to care and some inciting more violence and hatred by their actions. It’s overwhelming and you wonder if it’s really possible to make a difference.

It was a hard year personally, learning to deal with the grief and changes brought about by unexpected loss.

The age of wisdom…

Learning to choose my battles, saying no when I need to, accepting and embracing the benefits of growing older.

The age of foolishness …

Many moments of regret. Accepting it’s part of what makes us human. Forgiving and not repeating.

The epoch of belief … the epoch of incredulity… the season of light … the season of darkness… the spring of hope ….

It’s been exercising faith like a muscle that’s never been stretched; it’s desperately holding onto that minuscule glimmer of hope during the darkest night of the soul. It’s realizing that God does care in the chaos; that having freewill means it has to be this way for now. It’s meditating on the truth that it’s love, not hatred, that will radically change both us and the world.

Welcome 2018 …

Re-living 2015

I’ve been very lazy at posting on my blog lately. I seem to approach it in fits and starts. However, just because I’m not posting, doesn’t mean that my journals aren’t filled with ideas and notes. So better late than never, the start of 2016 may just be filled with some retrospective unpublished blogs from last year!

Two weekends in South Africa

11709582_10153466800044540_7932834042939221332_n

In my third year of Primary School in the UK, I had a teacher called Mrs M. Every Monday she would gather us together to sit at her feet where she’d ask us in turn about our weekend. I guess it was an early version of show and tell, without the show.

I’d often become a little jealous of some of my friends as they seemed to have very exciting weekends: ski trips, visits to Edinburgh zoo, ferry trips to islands and historic castles …In comparison, my weekends seemed rather dull and mundane: a visit to my grandma and grandpa, maybe a trip to the shops, Sunday school, and if I was really lucky, a walk to the cemetery to put flowers on my recently deceased father’s grave.

I remember one particular weekend I’d been finishing off a geography project on South Africa. I’d chosen SA for several reasons. I liked giraffes and zebras, I’d noticed that the tin of guavas in the pantry, that we kept for special occasions, came from there and then there were the Outspan oranges in the fruit bowl. Yes, oranges were considered a special treat in 1960s Scotland.

So the following Monday when it was my turn to talk, I proudly announced to the entire class that I’d gone to South Africa for the weekend. There were a few gasps and a few giggles. Then an angry shout from Mrs M who accused me of being a terrible little liar and demanding that I leave the room immediately. Humiliated and ashamed, I left the room with tears streaming down my cheeks wishing that it had been true. I so wanted it to be true. I stood outside sobbing and awaiting my fate. I was reprimanded again and told to come inside and apologise to the class for telling lies, which I duly did with my head bowed and eyes downcast.

The good news is that I received an A+ for my project which I believe assisted my emotional recovery. In spite of everything, my fascination for South Africa continued into adulthood where it remained very high on my travel Bucket List.

Last June saw my dream realised when I landed in Jo’burg on an overcast winter morning. I loved every minute. My visit to Kruger National Park was unforgettable as was the week in Cape Town. But the best part of all was that I spent not just one, but two weekends in South Africa – take that Mrs M!

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling thoughts

IMG_5982

Just recently as I was gazing out the window of a plane at 35,000 feet, mesmerised by the snow-capped peaks below, it dawned on me how different my husband and I are in our attitude to travel. Now in his defence, he does have to travel a lot more than I do and often has to meet work deadlines en route, but all things considered, we do take a very different approach to travel and he acts the same whether travelling for business or pleasure.

It begins at the airport as soon as we step inside the terminal. My husband, who is not usually one to rush, suddenly changes into a possessed man on a mission, which means that everything has to be done at triple the speed, including check in, clearing immigration, getting to the gate, and especially boarding the plane, lest we miss out on that prime overhead bin space. I end up doing a half skip and run in an attempt to keep up with him, my carry on bag zig-zagging all over the place and my handbag slipping off my shoulder as I see the back of his head disappear around yet another corner. The same procedure occurs in reverse at the destination. It’s imperative we get off the plane in record-breaking time, clear customs, pick up our bags and exit the terminal before the person in row 45 has exited the plane.

I love to sit at the window and watch the cotton-wool fluffiness of the clouds; the tiny ships like small dots in the vast expanse of ocean; the patchwork quilt of dry brown desert interrupted by blocks of verdant lushness; the reflection of the sun on the metal of the aeroplane. I can spend hours lost in the thoughts each scene evokes.

Then turning away from the window there are the faces of the others travelling to the same destination; a collection of life’s stories compounded into one small space for this particular moment in time, yet barely a story shared.

When we travel these days we have become so disconnected from the actual journey and from those who are journeying with us. Our eyes are focussed on screens which seem to capture our attention so much more than even the pages of a book.

I remember a time when it was considered impolite not to engage in conversation with the person next to you. Now we just sit in suspended animation with plugs in our ears, engrossed in whatever Hollywood has determined we must see, or else we frantically type emails so they are ready to send as soon as the inflight wi-fi is turned on, so we can meet our deadlines. We are contactable even at 30,000 feet and I don’t know if that’s a good thing …

As I type, my husband has just left on yet another trans-Pacific flight. I can guarantee that the minute he got on the plane— that’s after sprinting through the procedures outlined above— his noise-cancelling headphones would have been out of his bag and stuck into his ears, as he simultaneously scrolled through the list of new-release movies. He would have been ready to roll even before the flight safety announcements were over. He may or may not have acknowledged the person seated next to him.

Picture this

image
Last weekend my younger son took me on a scenic flight over Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. Once up in the air he asked if I’d like to have a go at flying the plane and explained a few things so that I could hold the plane steady as he snapped a couple of photos. The whole episode lasted less than 60 seconds after which I was more than ready to hand the joystick back into his capable hands while I gazed out of the window at familiar landmarks.

That evening he sent the photo of me ‘flying’ the plane. The more I looked at it the more I thought about how photos can be so deceptive and so with that in mind I decided to post it on social media, with a cutesy caption, as a kind of experiment to see what reaction it got. I was overwhelmed that so many thought I was really having flying lessons. I guess I should feel flattered that people assumed I could do something that complex!

The photograph I posted shows a very determined, focused, yet relaxed, middle-aged woman in control of a light aircraft. What that picture doesn’t show is my son persuading and coaxing me to actually get on the plane just 10 minutes earlier. It doesn’t show the risk-averse woman who is still scared of flying, especially in small planes. It doesn’t show the woman who is riddled with self-doubt, anxiety and insecurity, who struggles in large groups and sometimes just wants to run and hide from the world. Yet the photo is definitely of me, and I’m flying a plane.

I’m not looking for sympathy, pity or even compliments. I’m simply telling the truth which a single photograph can’t. So often I look at photos on Facebook and Instagram and feel that other people’s lives are so much more glamorous and exciting than mine. Their families are all so functional and together; their designer homes never have a dirty dish in their imported kitchen sinks; their fashionable clothes and hair are always perfect; there’s never a bead of sweat on the gym-toned bodies posing for post-workout selfies; there are tables groaning under the weight of gourmet chef- inspired dinners on a nightly basis, yet never a baked bean in sight.

It’s so easy to forget that these individual photos do not tell the whole story of people’s lives – they are simply snapshots. Even gym-toned bodies experience anxiety and depression, gourmet cooks have dysfunctional families, people in designer homes suffer divorce and death and on it goes…

I’m not suggesting we stop posting  pictures of  having a great time or celebrating life’s wonderful moments. In fact I have even stopped apologising in advance for the photo spam of my beautiful grandkids and my overseas travel. What I am suggesting is that we should never  judge or make assumptions about the reality of other people’s lives based on the photos we see…

As for the photo of me flying a plane, I will save it as a memory of a moment that was both fun and terrifying at the same time!

Multi-story thinking

I recently listened to Nigerian author Ngozi Adichie talk about the inherent dangers of the single story. By failing to understand and appreciate multiple stories, the single story can end up shaping how we view people, nations and entire continents; our assumptions and opinions skewed by our ignorance and judgements.

For the last two weeks I’ve been travelling – one week at a resort in Mexico, frequented mostly by Americans, and now in Colorado. As a result I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been guilty of casting all Americans into a single story stereotype. That story reads something like this: Americans are loud and overly confident; they talk too much; they are culturally insensitive and disinterested in what goes on beyond the borders of the USA. They are consumed by super-sized consumerism.

In my defence, I may have heard one too many single story-tellers in the last two weeks, but it would be wrong of me to judge all North Americans because of a single story, stereotypical few.

In fact, I have had the pleasure of spending time with some wonderfully innovative and intelligent people who are interested in learning and understanding more of the world; folks whose diverse and multi-faceted stories will help shape the future narratives of generations to come.

Please don’t think I’m being judgemental about Americans, because I know that as soon as I board the plane back to Australia and hear a typical Aussie accent, I will have to remind myself that it takes more than a single story to truly understand the diversity of us Aussies as well.

Undefeated

Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Well if that’s the case, Mr Hemmingway, I have been sitting at my laptop for weeks while my blood coagulates. I’ve been well and truly bogged down with bloggers block – sounds more alliterative than writer’s block!

Now don’t get me wrong, ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you that I’m never short of an opinion and am happy to wax eloquent on numerous topics, but when it comes to committing my thoughts and feelings to the written word —well it’s all been a bit scary, really. Putting my words out there in the public arena fills me with all sorts of emotions. It’s as if my writing is somehow going to unearth this deeply buried Pandora’s Box which, once opened, will expose to the world the hidden and murky depths of my very soul.  All quite amusing really considering that only nine people actually follow my blog.

Over recent weeks I’ve just completed a creative writing course where I even ventured to share some of my writing with the class. Believe it or not there were no serious repercussions or violent backlashes, no opening of that infamous box. There were even one or two positive words of encouragement.

So here goes, I’m back in the blogosphere …

And Mr Hemmingway, if you have any tips for removing blood stains from a laptop I’d be much obliged.

Through my eyes

I have the enormous privilege of occasionally travelling with my husband as he does research for an international NGO. As a result, I appreciate and understand the importance of objectivity and gathering good data etc in order to present valid evidence, but as an emotional arty-farty type, I tend to be very subjective and reactive so the following accounts of our West Africa adventures are based purely on my personal observations and opinions and are not in any way endorsed by my husband!

Africa draws me in every time. Although a continent of many lands and different cultures, there’s something about the combination of red earth, dust, crazy traffic and the smiles that warm my heart and give me hope for the future of this amazing continent.

Accra, Ghana’s capital, is a sprawling city. You can see the signs of development in the many building sites across the city. There’s also the Accra Mall filled with western style stores. ( Not necessarily a good sign of development!) Arriving at our ‘ Grand Hotel’ where the brochure promises that we will be treated as ‘royal guests’, we are greeted by staff in brightly coloured traditional dress who effortlessly swing our heavy bags onto their shoulders and climb two flights of stairs to our room. Along the same street are similar grandiosely named restaurants and hotels, pertaining to royalty and all things majestic.

Along the dusty streets sprawl myriads of shops and stalls where owners stand plying their wares from dawn until dusk. They sell everything from fridges, stoves, couches, audio gear, clothes, pulpits and even coffins. Trading names include Blessed by God electrical enterprises; Glorious healing hair salon; hallelujah hardware …

A predominantly Christian country, there are church signs in abundance and giant billboards with pictures of animated men in suits advertising crusades and healing ministries.

And then there’s the food. My western palette is not used to banku, fufu and palava sauce, although I did at least try some – once!

For me, the highlight of our few days in Ghana was the visit to a Compassion project where we were apparently the first white visitors to actually visit on a Saturday when all the children were there. I am always humbled by the dedication and commitment of the staff and volunteers and of course it was a joy to be among the children.

I in 1.4 billion

There are 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty – one of the many statistics we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. In fact I’m such a words girl that as soon as I hear or see numbers, I chill out and they become almost meaningless. But last night I met 1 of the 1.4 billion. She wasn’t a statistic; her name was Rosa and she was trying to sell me a rose as the sun set over Manila bay.

Manila Bay is where the rich and the poor converge under a reddening sky to appreciate nature’s celebration of the day’s end. Luxury hotels and office blocks line one side of the multi-lane boulevard while the other side plays host to local joggers, tourists, ice-cream sellers, and touters of tacky souvenirs and fake pearls. It is also here, on sheets of plastic and cardboard, that Rosa makes her home. This is where Rosa and her five-month-old baby spend their days (and nights) trying to make ends meet.

So how did she end up here? Like everyone who ends up in a place like this, there is a story:

Rosa’s husband recently died, leaving her with four children and no income. Like so many from other parts of the Philippines, Rosa thought she’d have a better chance of finding a job in Manila. So leaving her three other children behind with her sister, she arrived here with her baby.

Unfortunately, Rosa has discovered that finding work with no vocational training is almost impossible. No proper job means no income. No income means no rent money. No rent money means no home … and so the cycle of extreme poverty continues. Rosa gives street-side massages during the day and tries to sell roses to tourists like me at night. She earns around 2 dollars a day. Not enough to pay rent; not enough for a return ticket home.

I tell her that I don’t want to buy a rose, but I would like to buy her a meal. I slip her a few pesos and feel a little taken aback when she begins to cry. The measly amount I have given her is more than she’s made all day.

We say goodbye and an hour later as we drive away, I see her standing under a street light, her baby asleep in her arms. She still has 5 roses in her hand – the same number she had when we met.

I’d love to say there is a happy ending to this story, but there’s not. I presume that Rosa is out there again tonight. It’s raining heavily as I type. It just doesn’t seem right…

Don’t write me off!

I realised the other day that I have an irrational  fear of getting old. (You’re already old, some may say!)  So where does this fear come from?

Well, it’s not because of the increasing number of grey hairs or laughter lines (my euphemism

for wrinkles) or that my birthday cake gets bigger every year in order to accommodate the required number of candles! No, it goes much deeper than that. Continue reading