The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? What did you know of the city before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government to educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

Travels and touchstones…fifteen roses in memoriam

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I write this on my flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. The sun streams in as we fly over Budapest. We pass Munich, cross the Danube, Rome is off south. It’s time to return to Asia, time to be ‘home’. There’s much to reflect on these past few months, much joyful, but regrettably not all.

A Bollywood Masala serenades me as a pre-diner drink is served. The music is intoxicating and strangely in sync with my melancholy. It never fails to feel somewhat surreal, Gosh I’m on my way to India…and I live there. And this time especially, I just want to be there, in one place for more than a few weeks at a time.

I play one track over and over again. It is evocative and comforting. First I write, then simply sit and be. I reflect on this past week of a farewell to a loved, my brother-in-law, who passed away.

I glance at the book I’m reading and a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, India’s dearest writer, jumps off the page and resonates.

”If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”

I left India just over two months ago to attend a conference in The Hague, then onward to Canada, meeting up with my husband in Vancouver. On idyllic spring days there and in Victoria, and in the company of two of our sons and their girlfriends, we strolled beaches, soaked up the sun on wind-swept piers and walked drizzly streets under cherry blossomed canopies. We drank in the beauty and the calm, the sublime balances of city life surrounded by mountain vistas, forested coastlines and the endless Pacific Ocean.

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Staying just a stone’s throw away from ‘the kids’, we took pleasure from sharing everyday things; signing a new lease, early morning rock-climbing, late night games and long chats. As for many of us, time with our grown children is painfully finite. Each visit is treasured.

DSCF0160Back at our home base, we got down to practicalities. The lawn cried out for raking to usher spring growth, layers of dust counted the months since our last visit and the deck beckoned us to sit and luxuriate. During respites in a favourite chair, I looked longingly at my deserted flower pots, begging for summer blooms. But in vain; we won’t return until August.

There was time with good neighbours and friends; hiking, walking and conversation. Yet it wasn’t long before it was time to close up the house and I did what I do each time I leave, what I’ve done for the past eight years. I sign my own guest book. Here from such and such a place, date, did this and that…chronicling those everyday moments that comprise life.

Having delayed my return to India I made my way with our middle son, Matt, to my parents for Mother’s day. We spent a weekend of games, seeing family and friends, lazed around an outdoor fire on a Sunday afternoon. We strolled through the garden picking tulips and the first of the asparagus – the apple tree is in abundant bloom, a heavenly canopy over the graves of family dogs. A tranquil weekend – simple joys of being home.

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And as if preparing and steeling me for the week before us, my final few days in Calgary were also comforting.

“Are you back in the city?” Carol asked not long after I’d arrived. “I’ve been thinking about you, can I see you before you leave?”

“Carol I’m glad you called, though I have sad news. Rod has passed away, I meet Bruce in London in a few days.”

“I’m on my way,” she said, “be right over.”

Carol is the sister I didn’t have and we rather like that we’re often mistaken for siblings. She is my touchstone. Same high school, same hometown, same cultural references. When I finished college our mothers arranged for us to live together. With a job secured, I packed up my ’77 Camaro and headed to the big city. We’ve been soulmates ever since– connected through life’s milestones. We know each other’s history like a well-read book.

DSCF0217When Carol walked half an hour later into our small condo in Calgary, suitcases lined the hallway. She offered her condolences and with a hug reminded me, “You get to leave again.” Tales of my global life are music to her ears.

Carol is also a traveller but now spends most of her time in Calgary, with a yearly buying trip to Asia for her importing business. I flit in and out of her life…if I’m honest, everyone’s life.

I commented on the scene outside as dusk approached on that warm spring evening – the emerging twinkling skyline, the milky turquoise river, the flow of walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, the couples nestled on park benches.

“But Carol you get to be here, in one place, see spring turn to summer, then autumn. I skip whole seasons and then plunk myself into life for a month or so. Always unpacking and packing, always on the move.” We have this conversation often, yet would either of us truly give up the life we have for the other?

The evening turned late, as is usual each time we’re together. There’s never enough time for the stories, the meanders, the laughter and this time the tears. Carol recently lost her mother and her pain is still at the surface and my heart breaks for her. “You can never know what it is to lose your mom until it happens.”

We meet again late the next afternoon and stroll until the evening turns dim. Sunnyside/Kensington is quirky, a mix of older homes and new. A pleasant sedate neighbourhood going about its business of life.

DSCF0233“It’s almost the end of May. How strange most homes still have a snow shovel on the front porch,” I remarked after yet another shovel belied the gorgeous weather.

“You know the saying,” Carol looked at me with a wry smile.

“I have no idea.”

Never put snow shovels away until the end of May,” she rhymed. “It tempts the weather to snow”. I had never heard this before and noted that many of the shovels seem to compliment the house perfectly, adding a splash of colour, almost completing the image of home.

Unlike my children who were raised globally, Carol and I have a hometown with the anecdotes and recollections to go with it. This is now more poignant than ever for her as sadly she was recently faced with dismantling her mother’s life. Having to go through the meaningful and the ‘just stuff’, the heartbreak of not only saying farewell to your loved one, but also to your family home. As we strolled in the evening hues over Calgary, I felt a certain calm in offering some solace and for her love and understanding of what was on the horizon for me and my husband.

Having only returned to India a week previously, my husband headed back west and met me in London. Our long embrace at Heathrow Airport was the calm before the storm, the balm for the soul. The four hour drive to Wales seemed unusually long, but we were together. We had no choice but to start brainstorming, start planning…

Rod had made his way south as a young man, following his profession from Scotland to Welsh Wales (as he lovingly referred to it). He never left. With his untimely death came the painful realization that it was up to the two of us to plan and host his funeral, and clear his home.

Arriving at the house for the first time was wrenching, signs of Rod’s interrupted life were stark reminders of the fragility of time. The new bags of potting soil and gardening tools, a carefully chosen cherry tree and parsley already abundant were particularly poignant. Not knowing what to do, we did what we felt was right. We lit a candle, chose a good bottle of wine and pulled out one of Rod’s many c.d’s. We’re sure he would have been pleased and with tears welling, we offered up a toast to him and to the house – the last time it would be a home. The next day everything would change.

All those things he valued, collected or just ‘stuff’ had to be dispersed. It is somber and admittedly tedious, and I suspect it isn’t often when one only has six days from start to finish. Perhaps that somehow made it easier.

We only managed with the help of family and good friends. In the midst of it, there was the paper work, meeting the pastor, arranging the funeral, writing the order of service and the eulogy. We secured a bagpiper, we ordered flowers.

“We’d like white roses, some thistle to represent Scotland, something for Wales, but a natural, wild look.”

“I think I understand what you’d like, a scruffy look,” the florist reassured calmly.

“Yes, perfect.” I was relieved, then chose a ribbon that best matched the family tartan.

The two scruffy bouquets were simply perfect.

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And finally we were able to honour our Roderick Wilson. The bagpiper welcomed and moved many to tears – the haunting, rousing strains reached into souls, touching innermost emotions. My husband delivered an eulogy that was eloquent and powerful, honouring a man that despite blindness and ill health, had poured his heart into his church community and friends.

An after service ‘tea’ at the church with an array of baked goods spoke of community and the indelible connection of life. “Ah my nephew is out in Canada.” “I work with the church in India, come see us when you get to Calcutta.” “We’ll miss our Rod,” we heard over and over again. Rod’s trusty and beloved guide dog, Neena, was with us throughout. She will officially retire on June 1st and is with a loving family; a celebration is planned for her.

The beautiful day was infused with the comfort of my husband’s cousins from Scotland. “It wasn’t a question of coming or not, of course we’d be here,’ they said without hesitation. Jean and Christine grew up five doors down from my husband’s family home. The lush bluebell woods behind their homes was their playground. An idyllic place where the trees had names like Thunderbird and Big Ben.

“We were always together it was the perfect childhood, pet,” Jean told me in her warm Scottish accent that placed me back with my late mother-in-law.

“That’s what Isa used to call the boys,” I remembered fondly. Along with the comfort of family and their unreserved love, Jean and Christine brought a piece of Scotland to Wales.

The day of the funeral culminated with an intimate gathering of close friends and family. At one of his favourite restaurants, we toasted our dear Rod and when his ashes arrived we toasted again. We’re quite sure his off-beat sense of humour would have enjoyed the scene. We strolled in the early evening down to the water, hand in hand, arm in arm. Past the comfort of an aged stone wall, past spring flowers and the promise of new beginnings.

The tartan ribbon was unfastened and the scruffy bouquet was our solace, one most perfect of white roses for each of us. “Please say a few words as the ashes and your rose meet the water’, my husband asked.

And we did. “Thank you for your love and help raising me,” Thank you for your humour and friendship.” “I’ll miss you.” “You have three nephews who love you and the Wilson name lives on, dear brother-in-law.’  There was grief and sadness, there was laughter, new friendships and rekindled family bonds. It was a soulful, fitting farewell.

IMG_3746 (1)Fifteen roses, a loved one’s ashes, and a few Scottish thistles drifted peacefully out to sea. In remembrance of a life and good deeds done. And that seems all we can ask for; to live, to love, to have loved ones remember and speak well of us when our time comes. To be there for those who need comforting.

It isn’t often that you truly contemplate how you’d like to be honoured when the time comes, but I know I would chose a day like we had in Wales. Despite the loss, it was a time of family, friends and tenderness. One of poignancy and meaning, one of gladness for what was.

And perhaps for those of us who live globally, time seems ever more precious as our parents age, as we miss our worldwide friendships, as our children live their own lives. Visits home are never long enough, yet we look forward to returning to that other life, that other ‘home’. It’s a fine balance of sacrifices and abundance, of memories and goodbyes; never does it strike you more than after losing a loved one.

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As I finish writing, the captain announces that it will soon be time to land. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “How has the flight been Mom?”

It’s one of Rod’s nephews, our dear son Matt. He’s on his way with me, his new journey to spend some time with us and do some travelling. I’m looking forward to being ‘home’ again and I’m thankful it will be with one more family member…

Family, friendships, home, journeys, farewells and time spent with loved ones…really just life. Embrace it.

Haida Gwaii…majestic and spiritual home of the Haida

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This is my first guest blog written by my son, Luke H. Wilson and his girlfriend, Trixie Pacis. On a recent trip to Haida Gwaii, they beautifully captured the essence of this remote, yet culturally rich destination in Canada’s Pacific North West.

 

The Highland Ranger took a sharp turn into a small cove and skidded to an abrupt stop on the pebbly beach of what once was K’uuna village. We disembarked quickly, eager to explore and relieved to be on land after two hours sailing across choppy seas. The rugged shoreline looked much like we had seen of Haida Gwaii so far, an archipelago of 150 islands located between Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle. On an Easter getaway from the city, we had reached the main island on a small propeller plane—its age belied by lavatory ashtrays.

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The morning mist revealing stunning vistas

Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii was renamed in 2010 as part of a restitution agreement between the indigenous Haida Nation and the provincial government of British Columbia. Despite its pristine wilderness earning it a spot on National Geographic’s list of ‘must-see places in the world’, it seems that relatively few have heard of it. For us, the notion of exploring Haida Gwaii first came from an unexpected source—a chance meeting with a German hitchhiker during Trixie’s solo road trip to Alaska last August. The almost spiritual wonder with which he spoke about the island resonated; we were curious to see if it would evoke a similar response in ourselves.

On the road to the Queen Charlotte harbour earlier that morning, we had no choice but to interrupt a convocation of eagles swooping and circling over their roadkill breakfast; there’s really only one main road on the island. As we passed slowly and reverently, we counted seven Bald Eagles perched in the trees above, piercing eyes ever watchful. Though tempted to linger for this rare and intimate glimpse of nature, we had a boat to catch.

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Captain Volker and Watchman Walter

We arrived at the docks as the morning sun burned through the mist, revealing pine-covered islands and snow-capped mountains. Equipped with extra layers and flasks of steaming coffee, we walked down the gangway to meet Danny, the colourful owner of Highlander Marine Services.

The guiding season doesn’t technically begin until May, and his company doesn’t typically offer guided tours, so it was by chance and generosity that this expedition came together. Coincidentally, Danny had been on our flight to Haida Gwaii, and was able to work some magic for us. He arranged our passage into Gwaii Haanas, the National Park Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that comprises the southern-third of the island.

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The Highland Ranger, our trusty vessel

Here we were on the Highland Ranger, two of twelve Haida Gwaii first-timers from all over the world. To prove the vessel was sound, Danny wryly explained that the Ranger had once even been used to recover a decomposing grey whale from the harbour. He introduced us to our captain, Volker, who’d worked his entire career on local waters, and our guide Walter, who’d spent many summers leading tours through the historic sites of Gwaii Haanas.

We were told that one such site, a village known as K’uuna (or Skedans by early European fur traders), would be our first stop. As we sped Southwards, we were whipped by crisp winds, sprayed by heavy waves and battered by the abrupt rise and fall of the boat’s metal benches. But breathtaking vistas and a thrilling, up-close encounter with a pod of grey whales made the journey more than worth any discomfort for self-admitted landlubbers.

At first glance, K’uuna didn’t appear to be much. In place of the well-preserved Haida village we had perhaps naively envisioned, we found a lush patch of forest nestled beneath a steep cliff, flanked on either side by a rocky, driftwood-laden beach. The only visible dwelling was a newly constructed cabin housing the summer watchmen who maintain and protect the site throughout the ‘busy’ tourist season. Walter had spent many summers as a watchman and it wasn’t until he began to walk us along K’uuna’s winding trails—marked with bright white clam-shells—that we slowly began to realize the extent of the history they watch over.

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Two mortuary poles, one leaning and one resting on the ground, protected by white clam shells

The ancestors of the Haida Nation first reached the islands of Haida Gwaii as early as 13,000 years ago. They developed a complex culture harmoniously intertwined with the abundant resources of land and sea. At one point, as many as 100 villages had cropped up throughout the archipelago—vibrant enclaves of skilled artists, seafarers, warriors and traders. European contact, which began in the late the 18th century, was initially an economic boon for many Haida clans who used their trading prowess to take advantage of the insatiable foreign demand for fur pelts.

This relationship ultimately had tragic consequences as diseases transmitted by the European traders and subsequent Christian missionaries decimated indigenous populations, wiping out 90% of the Haida people in a matter of decades. The scourge of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis was so virulent that by 1890, the vast majority of villages had been abandoned entirely. We learned of this as we walked the paths of K’uuna; the white clam shells preventing us from unwittingly disturbing human remains and serving as a stark reminder of the catastrophic fate that had befallen it.

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Fallen roof beams under a blanket of moss

Before the epidemic, the village was home to over 700 people living in thirty communal longhouses lining the sheltered bay. Walter showed us all that remained of these dwellings—rectangular depressions in the soil, now overgrown. Could this be all we’d traveled so far to see?

But our initial disappointment soon faded as Walter began to paint for us the history of his people. As he pointed out four cedar corner posts—waist high and rotting —once supporting a longhouse, he described how numerous families lived, cooked and socialized under one roof. They were clearly once impressive structures, sometimes up to 30 meters long and over 15 meters wide; however, despite their size, custom required them to be constructed in just one day. According to Walter, the superstitious villagers feared that evil spirits would occupy the building site if it was left incomplete overnight.

The residents of a particular longhouse were rarely involved in the building of their own home; that task was given to members of neighbouring clans—a tradition designed to promote peace and unity throughout the community. Intricately carved and painted “house poles’, once adorning the front of the homes embodied totems of revered animals; orca, grizzly bear or mythological thunderbird. Each represented the identity, lineage, and social standing of its occupants. The shores were once also dotted with ‘mortuary poles’ honouring past chiefs and other prominent individuals. The largest of the Haida poles, these had a cavity at the top where the remains were enshrined, allowing the physical body to return to nature while providing an earthly home for the spirit of the deceased.

Few of the many totem poles that once towered over K’uuna remain; some still defy gravity, raked at alarming angles, but most lay on the ground beneath a blanket of moss in various stages of decomposition. Walter pointed to a faded carving of a bear. We crowded around the fallen pole, straining to glimpse the faint outline. Without Walter’s help, the symbolism of the carvings might have been lost on us. He revealed that in his time as a watchman, he had seen such a dramatic deterioration in the poles that he believes, in as little as a decade, the once beautiful and striking poles will be unrecognizable.

Instinctively, we asked: shouldn’t all of this be preserved so future visitors have the opportunity to learn about Haida culture first-hand? Walter paused thoughtfully, “In our culture, we believe that everything should be allowed to return to the earth”. This simple, yet profound, response provoked a fascinating discussion that continued throughout the day as much of what we observed circled back to the delicate and often contentious issue of cultural preservation.

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At Queen Charlotte Cultural Centre

At one point, Walter turned our attention to a mortuary pole and indicated that it was one of many painted by Emily Carr, the renowned British Columbian artist who traveled to Haida Gwaii in 1912. Her depictions of the haunting scene she found in K’uuna are an example of early attempts by outsiders to record Haida history, and she was not the only one to show concern.

Anthropologist Wilson Duff led an expedition to ‘salvage’ artifacts from the village in response to the encroachment of the logging industry in the 1950s, the repercussions of which were still evident in the scarred terrain beneath our feet, and the tire tracks left at alarming proximity to several mortuary poles.

Facing such threats, many were cut down, rolled to the beach using logs, and carted off to various places. (It is suspected that a container of poles—some no doubt from K’uuna—is to this day stored at the University of British Columbia, neither displayed nor allowed to return to the earth.) Though Duff had obtained permission, we got the sense there were, and likely still are, members of the Haida Nation who feel his actions were a sacrilege. Towards the end of our tour we passed a mortuary pole, slanting forty-five degrees but supported by a makeshift wooden brace. Walter shook his head, “I don’t know who did this but it’s not the Haida way—it should’ve been left to fall.”

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The rugged coast

At the end of a long day, which included a stop at Tanu, a larger Haida site and the final
resting place of celebrated sculptor Bill Reid, it was time to return. As the
Ranger pulled away, we were struck once more by the island’s pristine nature; from our vantage point, there was no sign that we—nor 13,000 years worth of thriving, industrious inhabitants—had ever set foot ashore. Sailing north towards the Queen Charlotte harbour, we reflected on what Walter called the ‘Haida way’; an understanding of equilibrium and a willingness to let nature take its course. We realized that behind us was one of few truly wild places remaining in the world, one that wouldn’t exist without the Haida Nation’s continued practice and defense of their ancestral beliefs.

Two weeks later, we found ourselves admiring The Raven and the First Men, a seminal
Bill Reid sculpture featured at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). We roamed the adjacent gallery of totem poles and wooden chests, taken from Haida villages and put on display in modern, climate-controlled rooms. We roamed the outdoor exhibit where several replica poles and two impressive longhouses stood at full scale. While it helped us to better

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s indoor exhibit. 

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The Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid depicting the birth of the Haida people

visualize what K’uuna and Tanu might have looked like, we couldn’t help but notice that they were staged on a man-made beach that was a poor imitation of its wild counterpart. However, we realized that while we were lucky enough to see the sites in person, it’s certainly not sustainable.

With the MOA drawing 150,000 visitors annually, we can only imagine what that foot traffic would do to K’uuna’s lightly trodden pathways. Though the exhibit is well-curated and an effective way for people to discover the richness of Haida culture, we left the museum wondering whether these artifacts were being deprived of their natural resting place.

As you read this, wind and rain are smoothing away the once distinct and beautiful carvings. Tree roots grow through the fallen poles, absorbing and recycling their nutrients. In as little as a decade, the carvings will be indistinguishable, and not long after, the poles will disappear entirely. Though the footprint of the early Haida people on the land may have faded, the ‘Haida way’ lives on—in Walter’s words of wisdom, in the continued carving and raising of totem poles, and in the evolution of the culture to balance modernity with tradition.

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Totem poles in Skedans, circa 1878

We were left with the impression that the people of K’uuna would have been content to see their poles return to the earth, so long as their traditions and values remained. We were moved by the pristine haven that is Haida Gwaii and left with a deep respect for the guardians of this majestic place and a determination to learn from their relationship with nature. Perhaps this is the legacy we should immortalize.

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s outdoor exhibit contrasted by Haida Houses

Emily Carr…Victoria’s free-spirited writer and painter

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IMG_3403Jack and Eloise

“Don’t you love her shoes? asks a lady in a cozy hand-knitted bonnet. “But I think Emily might have suffered a little from bunions,” she says pointing to sturdy, laced loafers. Surveying the bronze statue, I agree, then gesture to a monkey perched on Emily Carr’s shoulder. “That will be Woo, her Javanese monkey,” Eloise tells me with a ring of affection.

We happen to have ambled up to the likeness of Emily Carr at precisely the same time. The warmth in my new friend’s voice and the twinkle in her eyes endear me to her immediately.

It seems apt that I meet Jack and Eloise on the corner of Government and Belleville Streets – a window on the soul of Victoria. The grand Fairmont Empress is Emily’s backdrop, kitty-corner from British Colombia’s Parliament buildings, next to the Royal BC Museum; all anchored by the harbour with its schooners, pleasure boats and float planes.

Victoria, the capital of BC, sits at the southern tip of Vancouver island on the Pacific Coast. A short sail from Vancouver, it is a city of glorious blooms – billowy cherries, plump magnolias, abundant daffodils and tulips, heavenly hyacyniths and pansies; a cascade of colour in the crisp April air.IMG_3393 (1)

“Do you know our Emily?” Eloise asks, almost maternally.

“Indeed I do, in fact today”, I tell the friendly couple, “I’m tracking Emily through the city.”

Emily Carr (1871 – 1945) is one of British Columbia’s most beloved figures – a painter, a writer, a free-spirited rebel. Emily proclaimed her profound love for the Canadian West and is best known for lush, haunting forest-scapes and powerful portrayals of totem poles. At heart, she was also a fearless traveller; the essence of her nature was to embrace the landscape and native culture at their source.

IMG_4686I tell Jack and Eloise that as a writer, not only do I love Emily’s words, but I admire her intrepid explorations to capture her favourite subjects. Once vital cultural entities in First Nation villages, Emily seemed prescient in knowing that totems would ‘disappear’ as the Colonial settlers pushed the Coastal First Nations away from their lands, stripping them of their deep-rooted culture.

“Off she’d journey,” I added, “on working steamers, small boats, even dugout canoes. With a dog in tow, she’d arrive on the shores of a First Nation village, taking it on faith that she’d find shelter.”

Emily Carr’s paintings created a lasting, brooding documentation of the proud sentinels that watched over those villages. She was respectful and deeply empathic, “It  must have hurt the Indians dreadfully, to have the things they had always believed trampled and torn from their hugging.” E.C.

Emily became friends with the people of the First Nations and was bestowed with a native name that she proudly proclaimed for the rest of her life…Klee Wyck…it means the ‘Laughing One’.

The iconic symbols of Canada’s First Nations stand stalwart and proud from our vantage point; contemporary carvings by descendants of this land’s first settlers. One totem is nestled by the harbour and another seems to guard the nearby British Colombia Parliament Building. I admire the colours, the symbolism of each carved raven, orca and thunderbird capturing tribal lore, evoking spirit and culture.

“The next time I paint with the locals I’m going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don’t-like-it, the eternal spareness of it. Oh the West! I’m of it and I love it!” E.C.

It’s obvious that Jack and Eloise also have an appreciation for this island and this city. Like many retirees, they have chosen Victoria for the temperate climes, the ocean, the beauty, the quaint Victorian charm. With a sly grin, Eloise reminds her husband of sixty years that, “I’m not moving again dear.”

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I bid a fond farewell to Jack and Eloise. “Do go see Emily’s family home,” Eloise suggests as she takes my hand warmly.

“It’s on my list,” I promise, “but first I’ll duck into the Empress while I’m here.” “Oh yes dear you must. It’s been refurbished and the Victoria’s are lovely!”

A horse drawn carriage clops past, a London-inspired double-decker bus waits for tourists, while chimes reminiscent of ‘Big Ben’ pronounce the time.

 

The Victoria’s and Anthony

I spot the Victoria’s immediately. They weave history into art with a modern edge and are the perfect backdrop at The Empress’s Q Bar. Then again I muse, perhaps some modern versions of Emily Carr’s paintings might have been apropos.

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I’m distracted by a man’s voice at the bar. He’s weaving a tale of Victoria’s history to the bartender and I’m drawn to his narrative like a magnet. I practically pull out my Moleskin in anticipation as I slide onto the barstool next to him. “You’ve chosen the best seat in the house,’ Anthony smiles, offering his hand in welcome.

Born and raised in Victoria, Anthony declares, “I know every inch of this city and have a fierce love for this Empress Hotel.” Motioning towards the Crystal Ballroom, he fondly recalls this as the setting for his high school graduation and where most Victorians were treated by their parents to their first ‘legal’ drink.

With the Victoria’s as our backdrop, Anthony relates that life as an ‘island child’ was idyllic and a stint away in Eastern Canada from the age of six to ten was more than trying. “I was at peace when I came home again – this is where I belong, who I am.” His sentiments seem to echo Emily Carr’s.

Anthony looks outwards to Victoria’s inner harbour through aged stained glass set into tall window sashes. “I remember when there were no cruise ships, only steamships. I recall the Royal Visit in 1982, peeking into a port-hole of the Royal Yacht Britannia. You know why the Empress was built I’m sure”, he wonders out loud.


I do know that the Edwardian, chateau-style hotel was designed for Canadian Pacific Hotels and opened in 1908. Serving those who journeyed to Victoria by CP’s steamship line, it became a tourist destination from the mid 20’s. The impressive Rattenbury-designed edifice has played host to Royals, movie stars and the famous. “What of Emily Carr?” I ask.

I had read she was known to take tea, dine, attend lectures and concerts at the Empress. “A dull tea with a dull woman at the dull Empress. The pups were the only gay thing about it and the conservatory a joy of airy, fairy, gay colour, too exquisite and upstairs to describe in words, like colour stairways of joyousness leading out beyond earth things.” E.C.

We discuss that it wouldn’t be surprising for Emily to find the Victorian ritual of English Tea (still a major tourist draw at the Empress) too confining and pompous. We ponder the rebel side of Emily. To Victoria’s refined middle and upper-classes who melded into a city said to have been built as a replica of Britain, Emily was regarded as ‘quite crazy, eccentric and bizarre’. Eventually she would embrace the isolation, yet the loneliness never subsided.

After stints at Art Schools in the US and abroad, Emily thought nothing of smoking, wearing trousers and hand stitched clothes, riding cross-saddle, camping, and generally bucking the traditions of acceptable behaviour for someone born into a genteel English family.

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Emily Carr

“We didn’t learn much about Emily in school,” Anthony confides to me. “As a boy I knew her paintings were on stamps and that she once had a pet monkey. You kind of knew she had been an eccentric.”

I comment on the new, also delightfully eccentric murals and ask his opinion about the refurbishment. “Queen Victoria means a lot to me, like Emily Carr, my roots are English.”

Victoria was named in honour of the Queen in 1843, a few years after James Douglas was charged with establishing a trading fort for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The port city later became a supply base for miners, many from the US, en route to the gold fields along the Fraser River. Immigrants from the British Isles were plentiful, enticing families such as Anthony’s for its British ‘sensibilities’. I comment that perhaps it’s fitting that a statue of Queen Victoria towers just across the street – evidence not only of the past, but of Canada’s proud position today as a member of the Commonwealth. Along with the statues of Victoria and Emily, there are others along the harbour that tug at one’s emotions and attest to this harbour’s long, maritime history.

I can well imagine the countless tales that have been woven at this Empress bar throughout the years – the settlers, the travellers, the sailors and the gold miners. Or like today, an illuminating discussion during a delightful chance encounter. Yet it’s time to take my leave from the engaging Anthony and from the royal gaze of the Victoria’s. It’s time to visit the Carr family home.

 

The Carr Family Home

“Father bought ten aces of land, part of what was known as Beckley Farm. It was over James’ Bay and I have heard my mother tell how she cried at the lonesomeness of going to live in a forest….The house was large and well built of California redwood, the garden prim and tended.” E.C.

This ‘forest’ and the environs, only a mile out of the city in 1863, had a profound impact on Emily’s formative years. She was creative, a tomboy and prone to imagination as a child, a contrast to her ‘girlie’ sisters and her strict, autocratic father. Richard Carr was a successful merchant and had a soft spot for his youngest daughter. He had saved her first charcoal sketch of the family dog – perhaps the only recognition by a family member throughout her entire life, that she had any talent. Mr. Carr fired her artistic inclinations with stories of Native culture and the virgin forest he had encountered.

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Today the Carr home is flanked by spring flowers and signage with Emily’s evocative words. “Nothing, not even fairyland, could have been so lovely as our lily field. The wild lilies…did something to the back you your eyes…they were white, with gold in their hearts.” The home’s orchard, lily fields, farmyard and forays into nearby Beacon Hill Park and to the ocean, fuelled Emily’s love of nature. It would offer much needed solace when her mother died, and then her father. Emily was only seventeen.

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Kitwancool 1928

Escaping the stern ‘rule’ of an older sister to study at the California School of Design in San Fransisco, the nineteen year old embraced the freedom and her new outlets for expression, Yet she returned to the ‘big house’ in 1893, setting up her first studio in the barn’s hayloft and teaching art; hoarding her earnings in an old boot hanging from the rafters. A trip to Lake Cowichan, then one to Ucluelet, finds her sketching in the villages. It’s here she acquires the name Klee Wyck from the First Nation families with whom she bonds.

At the age of 28, Emily had saved enough to set out for further study in London. The hopeful beginnings turned to hardship, a spurned romance, a breakdown with 18 months in a sanatorium. Five and a half years later, she returned home via a stop in the Cariboo, further fuelling her love of nature and adventure; her streak of rebellion now firmly rooted. “No woman had ridden cross-saddle before in Victoria! Victoria was shocked. My family sighed…cross-saddle! Why everyone disapproved. Too bad, instead of England gentling me into an English Miss with nice ways, I was more me than ever, just pure me.”

Other acquired habits like smoking further alienated Emily from her family, conservative Victoria was aghast. Another studio was set up, political cartoons drawn for a local publication, a job offer in 1906 in Vancouver took her away from the English confines of Victoria. It seems there was a collective sigh of relief.

Today, the Emily Carr House has not yet opened for the season and so I can only circle the house. I gaze up to what was once young Emily’s bedroom, I notice an easel propped against a wall, I imagine how idyllic the setting must have been for a creative mind. And I play the next years of Emily’s often tumultuous life in my mind.

~ Teaches art in Vancouver. More sketching trips and a cruise to Alaska which confirms her commitment to record the ineluctable march of the aboriginal cultural demise.

~Studies art in France for a year or so. Returns to Vancouver, extensive sketching and painting trips throughout Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands.

~First exhibit and lecture on Totems in 1913. Muted response to the more than 200 pieces. Hopes of the Government buying her collection not realized. Feels isolated with no fellow artists to commune with.

~From 1913 to 1927, art is sidelined as Emily owns a boarding house and mostly abhors the role of ‘landlady’…the attic becomes her respite. She fires pottery, knits rugs and raises dogs. Her love for her menagerie of animals keeps loneliness at bay.

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Odds & Ends 1939

~Invited in 1927 to exhibit in the Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern Show in Ontario, she meets the famous Group of 7 painters, those capturing the beauty of Eastern Canada. Encouraged by Lawren Harris and accepted by this prestigious group, her life is changed. She bursts with renewed creativity and resolves to become The West’s foremost painter.

~Her most productive period ensues from 1928…Emily Carr is 57 years old. She begins a regular journal, extensive trips, rents cottages for work then buys Elephant, a simple trailer for situating herself to capture the forest, now her main focus.

~Suffers first heart attack in 1937. Groups stories written over an eleven year period. First stories are read on CBC in 1940 to resounding appreciation. Suffers another heart attack, first book Klee Wyck published, wins Governor General’s Award. Book of Small published in 1942, House of Sorts in 1944. Growing Pains, Pause, The Heart of  Peacock, Hundreds and Thousands, Fresh Seeing, all published posthumously.

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The Indian Church 1929

After years of rejection and doubt, of solitude and impoverishment, a woman I feel much admiration for, had found solace, acceptance…happiness. Emily Carr was a great talent, the West she loved so fiercely now celebrates her.

I find some of Emily Carr’s last words before she passed away in 1945. Finally, they ring with joy…

“Outstanding events! work and more work! I sat self contained with dogs, monkey and work- writing into the long dark evenings after painting-loving everything terrifically. In later years my work had some praise and some successes but the outstanding event to me was the doing which I am still at. Don’t pickle me away as done.” E.C.

Finding Your Passion…a pecha-kucha

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These past few months found me preparing for the Families in Global Transition Conference. I was to deliver a short speech – set to twenty slides that shift every twenty seconds. It’s been described as, “Say it in six minutes and forty seconds with exquisitely matched words and images, then sit the heck down!”

This concept is a complete departure for someone like me who, as a former tour guide, is given to elaborating, meandering and drawing out a story like a languorously painted mural. Challenged not only by brevity but by the need to memorize my impactful six minutes and forty seconds, I was in new territory.

Two Tokyo based architects are credited with this mode of communication which endeavours to convey a message not just succinctly, but also poignantly. Their innovation, dubbed pecha-kucha ペチャクチャ, means ‘chatter’ or ‘chit-chat’ in Japanese. However this translation is rather misleading. Chit chat usually implies an unrehearsed and natural exchange, but as I’ve recently discovered, pecha-kucha is anything but this.

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I was one of six delegates at the recent FIGT Conference tasked with delivering this precise format. Before traveling to The Hague from our various parts of the world, we each embarked upon days of preparation – writing the narrative, selecting slides, rehearsing tone, rhythm, injecting meaning and emotion, honing and memorizing. I hadn’t appreciated that something so brief could have demanded such commitment.

I recall sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Kimberley, the ski hill my backdrop, the deadline looming. My thoughts were crystal clear as the idea had percolated for months, yet I had no idea how to combine eloquence with economy to finesse everything into just under seven minutes.

IMG_2964For me, opportunities such as the FIGT Conference are a cause for pause and for celebration. The four day gathering is a meeting of people discussing, disseminating, listening, learning and sharing – then taking these ideas back to our global community.

Those of us who move from county to country settling our families with seeming ease and confidence, in reality face myriad complex issues. The conference is a yearly gathering, our forum to revisit and resolve those challenges in the embrace of friends – old and new.

We discuss essential matters such as Third Culture Kids (children raised in cultures different from their parents) and their transitions, identity and professional challenges. We talk of dealing with family issues from afar, educational challenges and a host of other topics. Yet along with these weighty matters, I wanted to celebrate the joy and abundance this life on distant shores offers.

And so the stage was set in The Hague. We had rehearsed, cued our slides – even selected our preferred microphone – the time had come to translate hours of preparation into an impactful six minutes and forty seconds. We had become our own little tribe of support and encouragement. “The audience is great, you’ll be fine once you’re on the stage”, each speaker rallied as they came ‘backstage’ to the sound of applause, a look of pride and elation etched on relieved faces.

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The Ignite Speakers after rehearsal with Lisa, our mentor

Maryam Afnan Ahmad enlightened and inspired on the experiences and the ‘why and how of Muslim
expatriates’. Lisa Travella-Murawsky spoke to ‘the power of team sports to create a diverse tribe’. The audience heard of how a vibrant TCK English teacher, Megan Norton, ‘created a globally local network in a Hungarian village’. Maria Lombart’s poignant ‘perspective of childhood losses, TCK’s and identity development’ was a reminder of the strength and resilience it takes to transition from an upbringing in a distant land. Janneke Muyselaar-Jellema spoke of her heartfelt journey from a life in Africa to home in the Netherlands; ‘how to find your voice, your tribe and other voices through blogging’.

For myself? I shared my journey from self-doubt and longing for meaning, to this abundant and fulfilled time in my life. And I was humbled by the reactions. My presentation seemed to trigger thoughts of creativity, provide catharsis and forgiveness for times in one’s life which might have been more productive. To my great joy, I’m told that it inspired.

FIGT has that impact on people; it elicits conversations and narratives, inspires and questions, heals and reassures. It fosters connections and communities, forges friendships and kindredness. I hope you’ll think of joining us at next year’s conference – you’ll be welcomed into the warmth and wisdom of this global community.

But for now, may I offer just a bit of ‘chit chat’…

Finding Joy and Abundance as an Expat – Planning your Fulfilled Life Abroad and Building Your Tribe. 

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It is just one story…of self doubt and longing, of joy and passion, of fulfilment and possibilities. It is my journey.

How I dreaded hearing it, “find your passion” you have all the time in the world. Find something that will bring you joy. And except for raising three busy sons…I had time.

A stamp in my passport while living in the U.S. for 6 years reminded me…not allowed to work. I volunteered, I took some courses, I even worked ‘under the table’ in interior design.

I did what we expats know how to do. I settled my family in yet another country and got on with it. Yet by year 5, I questioned my identity, my purpose, and yearned for fulfillment.

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I had taught English in Japan, Qatar and Oman. I had made a difference in people’s lives.

I now had an overwhelming sense of under achievement and felt that time was slipping away. And then I heard…our next posting is Norway. I was overjoyed.

But before I could move forward, I had to forgive myself for lost time, for what I hadn’t done. And I vowed to treat the next country as an opportunity for growth, a place perhaps to find that elusive passion.
IMG_3086As the endless rain and the autumn winds welcomed us to Norway, our lively
household dwindled from five to three. And for months, I surrendered to the adjustment and the heartache, of two children an ocean away.

The sad reality was, only I could rescue myself. It was time for resolve, time to move forward. Time to embrace new opportunities and weave a different path which is often easier in a new country. Time to re-set, to re-create, to move out of my comfort zone.

I took stock of my strengths and my shortcomings…hopeless with numbers and technology. Yet intensely curious about cultures, research and passionate about history.

IMG_0606As important as it had been to me, I declined to teach as I had in other countries. I believed there would be a new opportunity and if I reverted to what I knew, I would not be in a position for this new country to infuse and inspire with its beauty and uniqueness.

And it did! I studied and became a tour guide and admittedly a bit of a crazed Viking expert. Weaving historical narratives that entertained and enlightened, I met and worked with from people from around the world; I simply loved it.

Yet the narratives were ephemeral and sailed away with passengers that had heard them. But now without a doubt, I knew history and culture were my passion.

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Travel diaries lined my shelves and hinted at the future. A borrowed book led me to a writer’s retreat, in Tuscany, led by Jo Parfitt.

Serendipity is not luck, it is the art of placing oneself in new situations which might just bear fruit, revealing something new about yourself. For me that was Tuscany.

Was it frightening and challenging…yes

Instructive and inspiring…yes again

Life Changing…absolutely

I had taken a chance, found my voice and the belief that just perhaps, I could share my passions through my writing.

But the path wouldn’t be quite that easy.
IMG_2943We departed my beloved Norway and soon called the soviet-style streets of Kazakhstan home. And we became empty-nesters.

Without a school network to ground you and with a yearning for your children to completely unsettle you, you must learn to live with the new reality.

And I believe to be what is truly important….it is essential to ready yourself for daily life without your children. Embrace your uniqueness, your talents and  thrive.

And I did…I became a writer! My passions now conveyed in my blog, endeavouring to inform, entertain, inspire and make the world a smaller place.
In Kazakhstan we found ourselves living in a hotel suite, the Caspian my backdrop, a world of time before me.

My writing flourished, I travelled more, I jaunted off to another writer’s retreat, FIGT was now marked on my calendar. Take advantage of what more time allows…

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As a fellow empty nester recently mused at a cafe in Singapore, “What is there not to like? I have a beautifully structured day with endless possibilities. And I can have a gin tonic at 5:00 o’clock with impunity!”

She is in my ‘tribe’, we were writers at FIGT 3 years ago. A reminder that your tribe will grow effortlessly and beautifully, as you journey on a path with like-minded people.

I now live in India, country number nine. A place easy to succumb to the travails of expat life….the pollution, the chaos of the roads, the distance from family in Canada.

IMG_2258Yet on most days I choose to be joyful; to embrace the colour, the culture, the mysteries of India.

These are the joys: of discovery, of evolving, of fulfillment in whatever that may be for you. Happily for me, it is having collaborated on a book this past year…it seems I’m an author.

I recall something my husband said, on one of those despairing days in Houston. “Imagine how great it will be when you’re part of a group who shares the same interests and dreams..”

He didn’t use the word tribe…but that is indeed what has transpired.
Perhaps my most read blog… a ‘trailing spouse’ sums it up best.

Checking in at the airport to return to Kazakhstan, an agent said, ”That’s a fine set of luggage Ms. Wilson.”

I chuckled a thank you, what was I really thinking? There’s more in there than you’ll ever know. My resilience, my wanderlust, my talents, my joy.

Photos of my precious family and my partner that I’m more than willing to accompany anywhere in this beautiful world.

My tribe, I’ll find them scattered here and there.
IMG_2406So there is never truly ‘wasted time’ if we grow from it.

I would not change those six years in Houston, I realize now it was a crucial part of my path. And the abundance in my life now is that much more meaningful.

A lesson perhaps, it is not just the destination that should bring us joy…it is indeed the entire journey.

 

  • Now you know how it’s done. I challenge educators to encourage their students to explore this format. They’ll walk away having delivered a message in a structured, engaging method and I believe they’ll feel as I now do…of enrichment, growth and immense satisfaction from the experience.

Priya’s story…part two

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has revealed itself gradually; snippets of conversation as we’ve come to know each other in our one year in India. I have known since she joined us as housekeeper, that Priya is widowed and raising children alone. This in itself, could be considered remarkable in India.

It is not uncommon for widows in India to be considered inauspicious and shameful to their family. They can be marginalized, cut off from family property and money, and considered an inconvenience and a burden. Widows can be abandoned with no place to go – simply cast adrift.

Traditionally, widows are expected to wear white, shave their heads and discard their jewellery – essentially renouncing anything that symbolizes womanhood. In some areas of India, social norms still hold to the belief that for a bereaved woman to remain in society, she must have a supportive brother or son.

In rural parts of India, where arranged marriages commit young women (often girls) to marry older men, it is not surprising that widows comprise ten percent of the adult female population, some forty million. Many, widowed at a young age, find that their life is essentially over or irrevocably altered. It can still be considered improper for upper castes to remarry, lower castes often do, ideally to a brother-in-law.

To understand their plight one has only to read about or see images of Vrindavan, a sacred city which has become home to thousands of destitute widows. Begging to pilgrims and chanting bhajan (sharing) hymns for up to four hours a day, earns them enough for one meal and perhaps shelter. For young widows in Vrindavan, poverty may lead to sexual exploitation, a last resort for those already stripped of their dignity. The organization Maitri endeavours to alleviate this, collecting contributions for the purchase of mosquito nets, fresh white linen saris (perhaps now a symbol of sisterhood) and even sewing machines for a widow’s livelihood.

The abhorrent practise of shunning widows is a grim residue of an Indian tradition sati or suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyres which was once (and by some accounts is still) practiced. The perception of woman as chattel is rooted in the patriarchal culture which must change, in step with the values of a civilized society. The women at Vrindavan and other shunned widows represent all women. They were once girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers – deserving respect and dignity.

Within this cultural context, Priya’s independence and resolve is all the more admirable. She has mentioned to me that she is very careful not to acknowledge that she is on her own.

Priya was somewhat distracted this past month as her search for a new home was far more difficult to secure without a man’s name on the lease. Our offer to help negotiate was politely declined and I was relieved that a driver of another family Priya works for was available to help.

Thankfully Priya has found a new home, one with tiled floors and running water, an improvement from her previous house. However, she is not pleased that so many cows wander close by and she worried that her previous landlord might take advantage by not returning her security deposit, “Madam, this is life without a man, not easy,” she said stoically.

Recently as I relaxed, reading on my sofa, Priya eased herself down on the carpet beside me. We had just arrived home from a trip, the house was already clean and I was happy to have some time to speak with her. Priya’s brave and inspiring story flowed forth. With her resilience worn firmly on her face and her engaging personality coming through, her reflections evoked introspection, wistfulness and even laughter.

I use Priya’s own speech patterns. Madam is usually said with a Ma..dam, the last syllable lilting up lyrically as if it is a happy topic. Otherwise, the dam dips down with a tone of seriousness…it is the name she uses for me.

Priya where did you grow up?  I am not from here, from Tamil Nadu. We lived in a house of coconut leaves with mud floor, like a squatter’s village. We had no food, maybe gravy with onions and rice, once at night. I tell my children,”You are lucky.”

Did your father work?  He died, I was five. Preya puts her thumb to her mouth like a soother, indicating that her father was an alcoholic. Four other children, never enough food.

Did your mother work then and take care of you all?  She worked in rice fields, taking the husk. Very hard work Madam, 6 rupees a day.

Your older brothers and sisters, did they go to school?  No, no, no one. Sisters from a convent came to take me, so poor were we Madam. My mother said, “Take her for better life.”

IMG_0124How did you feel, do you remember this?  Oh yes, I was happy. Food was there. The bus ride was far, to Kerala, a convent. Sister Paulina took me. You know Madam, Priya gazes out to the lush rain tree and palm trees beyond for inspiration, coconut leaves were rolled long for lights (torch). Moved back and forth, very pretty at night. And spoons from jackfruit, we eat rice, lots of rice and coconut chutney always there. Priya smiles with the memory of this and I tell her I love this kind of chutney. Oh yes Madam!

Priya what did you do at the convent, did you start school?  Just a little, maybe one month, but no interest. I work, clean, play with children, pick up the coconuts. Madam, then a rich family wants to take me, “Give us Priya,” they said. I was five and a half.

Did you miss your mother, your family?  No Madam, there is nice food, clothes, soap. I go with the family and play with the daughter. I see her go to school and now want to go. I cry to go, but they say no, just housework and playmate for the girl.

Was anything paid to you, or your mother?  Yes Madam, 10 rupees a month. The convent send money to post office, to my mother. The grandmother was nice in the house. At nine, a Sister dies and I’m at convent for a break, but don’t want to go home. Priya works three years in the convent. At twelve years I go to new home. Sometimes now I talk about my family, but they buy me gold earrings, new dress to stay. From five to twelve I don’t see my mother.

Priya, all this time you didn’t study, only worked?  Yes Madam, I’m sorry but what to do, work from five years old. One day I want to see my mother, big arrangement to do this. The sisters ask, “Why Priya, they are still poor.” But I must see my mother, so I go, fifteen day holiday. Madam I don’t know my mother’s face. I go home, my sisters, brothers don’t talk to me. My language is changed. So poor, no study, only playing, no food. Mother work all day. Again I’m hungry. No clean water. Only two days I stay.

Were you sad to leave your family again?  No Madam, only think of food. It’s clear this is difficult for Priya to reconcile. The convent keeps me now to work, mother can come once every two months if want, two long buses away. Madam I like the schedule at convent. 5 a.m.up, church, food, bath and work. Now too old to learn.

For five years Priya’s mother is sent a salary from the convent. They also saved money separately for her dowry.

Madam at seventeen, I’m asked, “Do you want to go to Dehli?” First time for train, happy but a little scared. One sister took me. Delhi very different Madam!

Where did you go in Delhi, to a new family?  Yes, first year was good Madam. A girl there about three, but then the Sir, you know, was slapping my bottom. One night tapping me on the arm, I sleep in the hallway. I tell him, “I will tell!” I cause big problem, no one understands why I want to go back. The Convent comes to get me, three days again Madam on train. And then bad.

What happens Priya?  My mother comes to Sisters and begs for money for my sister’s dowry. She’s old twenty-five, they give my dowry money Madam. I don’t go to wedding, a mess.

Priya that must have been a terrible shock; all those years you worked.  Yes, now the convent says, “Priya go to a convent in Bangalore, Saint Anne’s.” My God Madam, the first time off train there is breath coming from mouths, so cold, like a frozen town. I work Madam like before and now I’m old, twenty-two. Then one day, they tell me rules are change and I must marry.

IMG_9338You didn’t go back home of course, you had no choice but to marry?  No this is my life. I dream Madam and Priya laughs at her own naivety at the time, I can watch T.V, cook for my husband, a good life. Her voice trails off at what might have been…

They find money for dowry, 20,000 rupees, earrings and a chain. Some teachers collect saris for me. And Madam, everybody knows husband is a drunk. Me a good convent girl, no family wants him. And mother too, a drunk.

I’m so sorry Priya. Yes Madam, what I’m thinking, she pauses for some time, I trusted the Sisters. I remember a cleaning lady at engagement party, “The boy is a drunk,” she says and someone says shhh! But too late, maybe sisters know.


Where did you live after the wedding?  
A place Tannery Road, everybody drunk, even now I would never take children there. Fifteen days after marriage, he says, “Go to work,” the mother-in-law, “George B……Why is she sitting there, send your wife to work!” Priya laughs and repeats it twice in a threatening voice. My dreaming is finished. Madam I’m happy you’re writing.

So am I Priya. You are an inspiration, everything you’ve been through. So you went to work housekeeping, what did your husband do?  Worked in a small shop, TV repair but only drank. The Sisters came and talked to him four times, but Madam, what to do…nothing changed.

Priya would quickly become pregnant. A kindly family she worked for allowed her to rest at work, offering her extra food. With no one to collect her from the hospital after the birth, the pattern of neglect and abuse began. Priya was able to take the baby to work with her; she cannot imagine not having had this ‘refuge’. Unfortunately the family moved out of state. An incident soon after the birth of Priya’s second child, left her fearing for her life. She felt she had no choice but to flee from her husband with her two young children – with no money, no job and nowhere to go.

Priya persevered and bravely worked her way through these most difficult times. I am aware of other details of her heart-rending story but much of it is too personal to publicly share. Her resolve, determination, maternal instincts and loving character is an inspiration to me…a poignant emblem of the strength of womanhood.

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Sometime last year, despite being detached from her family for all those years, Priya took her children on the long bus trip back to the village in Tamil Nadu to pay respect to her mother,”Madam, no cross is on her grave, I must do it.”

It says much about her character that she had the charity and compassion to make this journey for a family which has not been a part of her life. I sense that she views herself as the ‘lucky one’ having been given to the convent as a young girl.

When I show this blog to Priya before I press publish, she sees her photos and laughs her infectious laugh, “Madam, to the world?” she asks. I tell her that I do know much of the rest of her story, but it isn’t printed here. “You know Madam?” Tears well in our eyes.

“Yes Priya, you are very brave.”

“Madam,” she says reflectively, “I wasn’t strong then, not like now. I tell my daughter she must study, she must be strong.”

Priya’s story…the cadence of an Indian neighbourhood, part one

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has inspired me to write. To write of her courage of overcoming a difficult past and of capturing the lives of all the hard-working people in our neighbourhood. Allow me first to paint a picture…

It has been busy these past few months; trips to Brunei, Singapore, Bangkok and a road trip in India. Our comings and goings every other week bewilder the staff of our five-family apartment building; a gardener, two security guards, a manager and Priya, our housekeeper. They are very much a part of our everyday life.

“Madam, where going now?” Boran our gardener typically asks when he sees me with luggage in the porticoed entrance. When I tell him my destination, he looks at me quizzically, “Airplane?”

“Yes by airplane Boran, back in seven days. Sir is back in four.” ‘Sir’ is my husband,  in deference our names are never used. Not only is the country which I’m traveling to a complete unknown, so is the fact that often my husband and I leave together, yet return at different times. Or I travel alone, leaving Sir to ‘fend for himself’.

“But who will cook his food?” it seems half of the street initially pondered. This question was reconciled as they saw Sir on the street buying his produce from Raj, our vegetable wallah. When my husband revealed that he could cook his own food, there were looks and mutterings of bemusement. “Sir cook himself?” This is something new…

IMG_1577Boran is thirty-two and like many men who work in Bangalore as gardeners or security guards, he is from the north of India. They are a three-day train journey from home, usually taken only once a year. Working from afar, their families remain in the villages, reliant on monthly remittances.

As Boran watered the plants on a recent afternoon, he was eager to share some news. “Madam, I get married.”

“Boran are you getting married, congratulations! Is it arranged?” I already know the answer to this question; it would be unheard of for him to not have an arranged marriage.

“Yes Madam,” he says, scrolling through photos on his phone to present his bride-to-be. She has a kind, cheerful face and I’m relieved to see she is not underaged, often the reality in India. “She twenty-six Madam, very good. Come to wedding Dec. 26?” Boran asks with his boyish smile. When I explain that we’ll be home in Canada at the time, he’s not too concerned and mentions that our day-time security guard Kajul will return soon with some news. “Maybe he married now,” Boran says with a sly grin.
IMG_1581Kajul has replaced our first guard Rajesh Kumar who, a little tipsy one night, took a topple from his bike. A month in his village to heal broken bones was prescribed, but no sign of him yet – the ‘grapevine’ hasn’t provided any answers.

Where Rajesh Kumar was reliable yet often mystifying to communicate with, Kajul is unfailingly good at his job and speaks enough English should an emergency arise.

He is also ever the gentleman. Meeting me half-way down the street if I’m carrying more than one bag. Telephoning as the cry of a wallah heralds a vendor’s arrival,”Good Morning Madam, today vegetables?” Insisting on standing at my open door should a repair or delivery man be present. “Safety Madam,” he says. I’ve missed Kajul while he’s been on leave for his sister’s marriage.

About the same age as Boran and as the head of his household, it was Kajul’s duty to provide the dowry money for his sister. “Maybe Madam, when I come back I married too. But sister first,” he told me before he left. He wasn’t sure if finances would stretch to allow his matrimony, though his mother had someone in mind. We shall know in a matter of days when he returns.

Kajul has worked in the Middle East, a desired location I learn from some of the security guards who man almost every apartment building, stores of any repute, schools, clubs, etc. The job is monotonous with twelve hour shifts of sitting and waiting…perhaps a visitor, a delivery, a vehicle to open the gate for.

The guards are a club unto themselves and nothing escapes their attention. When Sir recently had to climb down a ladder from our balcony to get to work at 6:30 a.m. (the lock had jammed), he was updated on the state of affairs as he turned onto our road at 5 p.m. The gaggle of guards in front of the jewellery store chuckled knowingly. “Sir, climbing down this morning? Locksmith here, all fixed now!”

On our street of three villas, three businesses, two apartments buildings and a private school, there are never fewer than a dozen guards at any time of the day. We know most of them and are greeted with a wave, a Namaskara, or a chat. “Madam going for lunch?” “Where is Sir now?’ “Sir, have not seen Madam for two days?”

And we learn of their lives. George Fernandez worked for years overseas, “Happy home now Madam, how is it in India?” he asks, peering through smudged glasses. He springs his roly-polly figure up from his chair each time I walk past. He tells me about his children, “some in university now”, the satisfaction radiating from his proud face…years of working away from his family now just a memory.

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Another ‘on-duty’ sits under the welcome shade of a large banyan tree. Vijay Kumar is a tall man with the countenance of a doctor or a lawyer. He also courteously rises from his chair with a greeting. “Good morning Madam, where going?” he asks on a recent morning. I tell Mr. Kumar  I’m on my way to the doctor and a look of alarm crosses his face. Reassuring him it’s nothing serious, I ask about his grandson. “Oh fine, fine,” he replies, pulling out a wallet-sized photo, “And now a name is there Ma’am.”

Mr. Kumar announced last month that he had become a grandfather and also informed us that the baby hadn’t yet been named. Following a Hindu tradition called Namakarama, on the fortieth day a baby is blessed, sprinkled with holy water and given its name at a local temple. It was a proud moment when Mr. Kumar could share his grandson’s name with the neighbourhood and distribute the requisite sweets.

Bidding farewell, my direction is the local doctor about three blocks away. It’s a beautiful spring morning; the trees are erupting with blooms, the bougainvillea bursting with lively shades, jack fruit and coconut are plumping up melon-big…I cross the road to avoid an imagined concussion. Mango trees are starting to bear their coveted fruit.
IMG_0121 (1)‘My’ mango tree which I see from my window will be harvested in July. A barefooted climber will scuttle up its massive branches and shake the mangos loose, dropping them onto a sheet, hoisted up at each corner. One after another the mangos will tumble down.

I had been promised last week by Anu, my neighbour across the way, that I must taste some this year. We hadn’t chatted for a few months and finally caught up Sunday morning IMG_2537around Mangalora’s fruit cart. After hugs from both of the ladies, and an admonishment that I am never here, Anu asked if I’m home now. “I leave later this week again Ma’am, I’m a speaker at a conference and will go home to see family.”

While we chose our apples and papayas, Anu asked what I’ll be speaking of and reveals that she had once been a teacher. The congenial Sunday morning chat ended with a “Safe travels and blessings to your family.” I resolved to make a point of getting to know Anu better, hopefully over some delicious mangos.

IMG_0277On this morning I turn the corner onto Lavelle Road, mindful of bikes, rickshaws and laden vegetable carts. A pony-pulled cart surprisingly trots past. Another unexpected sight greets me in front of Sodabottleopenerwallah, a restaurant we’re fond of. A brass polisher has set up in front to polish the tiffin boxes. The waft of red-hot charcoal infuses the air as the wallah heats, scrubs and buffs the small pots used for curries and rices. The sidewalk serves as the wallah’s work bench, ideal for this vital itinerant service.

The charm of our neighbourhood is just this; the traditional with the modern, the unexpected with the reliable.

As I make my way onto the busy main road, nestled in the shade is the usual chai wallah. His customers are gathered around for a morning tea break. He delights in his photo being taken, but the nearby newspaper wallahs don’t have time for such nonsense. They’re gathering their deliveries from stacks piled on the ground…The Times of India, The Deccan Herald, the Bangalore Times. Once strapped onto the back of their bicycles, they’ll be delivered in time for morning coffee.

When I reach the small hospital another block away, I am the only foreigner and curiousIMG_1280 stares greet me as I pay the 500 rupees (10 dollars) for my consultation. The doctor’s professionalism belies his simple surroundings and when he hears that I write, our conversation meanders to authors and history, to the once sleepy and peaceful Bangalore. “This was once the ideal city, so green with a temperate climate,” the doctor says ruefully, reflecting on his more than two decades in the city.

I leave and walk to my corner-store, Asha’s. I don’t know if it has served the community for twenty years, but I imagine so. About as big as an over-sized garden shed, two people cannot pass through its narrow space at the same time, yet the well-stocked shelves never seem to let me down.

Namaste Madam, what today?” Rafik asks, then pulls the items off the shelves as I call them out. He informs me that he finally has some cheese in stock, I’m pleased with this news but it seems I don’t have enough money with me. “Madam, tomorrow is there,” he says tearing a small recipt from its pad. Each item has been handwritten and it seems I’m 639 rupees short. “Thank you Rafik, I’ll come back tomorrow.” I smile to myself as I leave, knowing that my credit is good in the neighbourhood…truly a local now it seems.

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As I arrive back at my street, a busy scene greets me. Raj’s vegetable cart is positioned half-way down, Arun is cycling up with a bag of laundry in need of pressing and the postman is delivering today’s mail. I don’t get a chance to speak with him, but I engage Arun and Raj.

“How long have you been in business Raj,” I ask admiring the decorative touches on his trusty blue cart. It is well- laden, down to its inner compartment stuffed with greens –spinach, coriander, mint and curry leaves. It requires strength and concentration to maneuver this movable shop along the city’s busy streets.

IMG_0095 (1)“Nineteen years Madam, but the cart is new, 2004. Cost 32,000 rupees.”

“That’s a lot Raj,” I confirm, knowing it’s a substantial investment. “Yes,” he agrees and pats the handle of his cart,”and only one driver!”

We both laugh and Raj hands me the handwritten slip of my purchase. He clicks his tongue and shakes his head when I tell him I must go inside to get some money, “Tomorrow is there Madam.”

Arun unlatches a bag of laundry from his bicycle, just collected from a neighbourhood customer. He and his partner Laurence are iron wallahs and set up most days under the shade of ‘my’ mango tree. This bag of clean garments, along with many others awaiting their turn, will be pressed, wrapped in newspaper and delivered by dusk. Arun’s sturdy Atlas bicycle will roll back down the street with the deliveries.

“It’s a good bike Arun,” I offer, noting the brand.

“Yes Madam, Indian made and old.”

I ask how long he’s been in business and Arun seems chuffed to tell me. “First my uncle for 37 years, then dead. Now mine for 7 years.” I suggest to him that his Uncle would be proud and he smiles quietly.

Arun, as with all the wallahs and guards, no longer appear surprised that we choose to interact with them; perhaps they’re pleased to have some interaction as they work through another long day. The word wallah is Sanskrit for keeper and Hindi for doer, it describes these hard-working entrepreneurs well.

I realize that this is the day I truly feel at ease with my life in India. We’ve just celebrated our one year anniversary in the neighbourhood; it’s home.

IMG_0098Just then Priya walks up to start her three hour shift. “Madam, just home? Where were you?” she wants to know as she takes one of the shopping bags.

We walk up the wide steps, to my apartment where a wooden bench from the Middle East sits against my marbled entrance wall. It has welcomed me home in five different countries. We plunk the shopping down on it as we remove our shoes.

I fill Priya in on my morning, “I was at Asha’s and seemed to speak to everyone in the neighbourhood this morning, Mr. Kumar’s baby now has a name Priya. And I had to go to the doctor before I leave at the end of the week.”

“But Madam,” Priya says, her usual vibrant tone turning melancholy. “So long, over one month away?” she says remembering I’ll be gone longer than usual.

As she ties on her apron once inside, Priya asks ,”Madam, still cold in Europe and Canada?”

“Yes still cold, I must pack warm clothes this time.” With this she smiles mischievously then raises her voice in laughter, “Well Madam, enough clothes are there,” Priya says referencing my closets. This I can’t deny, nor that Priya always manages to brighten my day.

Thankfully, her days are brighter now than they once were….Priya’s story will be continued

A Bangkok love story…art, elegance and companionship

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“Siamese pink was the navy blue of Thailand and Mr. Thompson had a way of combining this with colours no one had dreamt of. He was a talented colourist, above all else.”

Our hostess, I’ll call her Lily, shows deference to her ‘boss’ as we slowly wind our way through the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. To build his home, Thompson sourced six traditional structures which were dismantled, loaded onto barges, then floated to the plot of land he had bought in 1958.

As a former architect, Thompson would not only fashion an elegant residence which became a landmark in Bangkok, but his preservation of traditional Thai buildings would encourage wealthy Thais to better preserve their heritage.

Jim Thompson was the founder of The Thai Silk Company. Throughout the late fifties and into the sixties, when one’s ship docked or plane landed in Bangkok, one naturally made a beeline for the company’s trendy shop. In the early days Thompson would often be there, draping customers in vibrant silks with his refined, creative eye. It is recounted that few women could resist the newly exotic, must-have fabric…or indeed Thompson’s charms.

If you had a little money or notoriety, you might garner an invitation that evening to his renowned home, the heart of Bangkok’s social scene. Thompson treasured it and shared its unique ambience most evenings by hosting drinks and dinner parties.

“It’s in the evening when the house is at its best,” Lily says dreamily as we approach the large drawing room with its stage-like design open to the elements; the orchids, the palms, and the klong, a backdrop in silhouette. “It is magical when the soft lights illuminate centuries old buddhas, tapestries, sculptures and rare paintings. But it’s also when the mosquitoes come out and maybe even the spirits.”

I do wonder if Jim Thompson’s spirit is felt. He disappeared on Easter Sunday 1967, and in the years before that tragic time, he built a legacy of bringing Thai silk to the world and awakening the need to preserve Thai and Asian artifacts. He collected these with passion. It is still inconceivable to many that all these years later, Jim Thompson’s disappearance remains a mystery.

Thompson had exchanged a former life as an architect and a stage designer, to serve as an OSS (forerunner of the CIA) operative and a major in the US Army. Landing in Bangkok at the end of the second world war, the urbane, soft spoken American was charmed by the cities vestiges of old-world character, its canals, floating markets and the royal history of Siam. That first visit captivated Thompson and he returned to the US hoping to convince his wife of the possibilities of a new life in Bangkok. Instead a divorce ensued and he returned to Bangkok a bachelor, thus beginning another phase in his fascinating life.

My first visit to the Jim Thompson House was in January 1989 and for nostalgia’s sake, I now allow myself a journey of discovery, and a little sentimentality on this trip. A silk-bound book, House On The Klong, is in my handbag. Purchased on that initial visit, a note on its inner sleeve reads… Merry Christmas to my traveling companion, Christmas 1989

It was penned after six months of backpacking with that traveling companion and six more of teaching English in Japan. We had fallen in love on our through journey Thailand, India, Nepal and China. Today, he’s my husband and I love that he’s the guy who ported my backpack far and wide. The travel companion with whom I’m lucky enough to still be discovering the world with.

Returning together to Bangkok with its bejewelled temple roof-lines, its hectic waterways, evocative streets and to Thompson’s home, brings floods of memories.

img_4026It was more soulful and quiet then. Without tour guides and with only occasional travellers, one had time to savour; the objects d’art, the finely carved doors, the priceless collections of Chinese blue and white, the delicate bencharong, five coloured porcelain.

Back then one could easily gaze out across the murky canal and hear the click, clack, click, clack of the silk looms in Bangkrau, the small village of Muslim weavers, long since swallowed up by the city.

The boardwalks of their Thai-style homes were lined with hanging skeins of freshly dyed strands of silk, their thinest of threads teased from silkworm cocoons. Not long after settling in Bangkok, Thompson began acquiring lengths of the weavers silk fashioned for sarongs; pasins for the ladies and pakomas for the men. Many of these weavers would come to produce silk for his company, bringing them wealth they could scarcely have imagined. Thompson would have no idea that in just a few years, the weavers would become his neighbours, just across the klong.

One of Bangkrau’s old Thai structures would provide the main part of Thompson’s home, the renowned drawing room. It was a charmed setting where movie stars, writers, politicians and the social elite were entertained by the generous businessman. It is fondly recalled that Thompson would re-tell the same fascinating stories night after night with the exuberance of a first-time story teller. Music by Thai performers floated towards the drawing room as an accompaniment.

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As we meander through the luxuriant garden, Lily points to the spirit house nestled in a corner, its precise location chosen by a Brahmin priest who specialized in such matters. It’s said that it took a full morning to locate the spot as a complicated set of astrological charts were consulted of the genealogy of the compound spirits, traced back 2000 years. Spirit houses are tiny abodes and replicas of Thai-style house or temples which must not fall under the shadow of the main house. For the Thais, there’s an innate believe that spirit houses offer a residence for the guardian spirit of the house and surroundings.

“There are four things the spirit house must have,” Lily enlightens us, “food, water, incense and flowers…oh, and a candle is nice too.” On this day, orange marigold garlands appease the spirits and please our cameras.

Jim Thompson would grow the ancient process of silk weaving and with other investors, form the Thai Silk Company in 1948. Almost instantly, its fine silk was sought-after worldwide. Before this, silk was considered old fashioned and something that your elderly relatives wore to a family wedding perhaps.

This would change as Jim Thompson’s silk soon graced photo spreads in magazines, exhibited in expensive stores and orders filled worldwide. The entrepreneur was seemingly indefatigable. Along with opening a company retail outlet and overseeing a thriving company, Thompson would also consult as a costume designer for movies such as The King and I, and Ben Hur…with specially designed silk of course.

Thompson had little free time, a recognized rebuttal after his disappearance which asserted that he had time to be a covert agent. But despite his frenetic schedule, he did find time to trek into the jungle, ideally emerging with an unknown species of orchid of which he was fond of; another rebuttal as to how someone knowledgable with the jungle could disappear in it.

Fittingly and perhaps in memory, the Jim Thompson House and gardens are fragrant with orchids poised in Chinese blue and white pots, with lush lily-padded ponds and replete with antiquties…I leave reluctantly.

The next day, I decide to visit Thompson’s first residence, The Oriental Hotel. On my way I turn onto a side street from what was once a worn elephant trail, New Road, the first proper road in Bangkok. It is the area where colonial-styled embassies congregated and antique shops opened for the travellers who began to trickle into the city at the turn-of-the-century.

I stop at a showroom, its sweeping decorative rooflines delightfully incongruous with its former use as a tractor repair shop. It stands defiant amongst modern buildings. As I admire antique handicrafts, I meet the second-generation shop owner. She patiently explains lipao, a beautiful dark climbing plant used for weaving and intriguingly, solves the mystery of why bamboo rice holders must to be smoked periodically. You’ll want to know it’s to prevent mites, of course. I then broach the topic of Jim Thompson.

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“Oh yes, we remember him,” she says. “I recall when I was a small girl he came to buy a valuable Thai headdress which was part of a matching pair, he owned the other one of course. It was put on my tiny head and very heavy.” I smile at the recollection and mention that I’m writing about the famed silk legend.

“What do you think happened to him?” The shopkeeper seems genuinely curious.

It is not a surprising question as three or four theories persist.

5-moonlight-bungalow-todayFirst and perhaps the most widely accepted is that Thompson innocently set out for a jungle walk from the Moonlight Bungalow where he was staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. After an Easter church service followed by a picnic, the others had retired for an afternoon siesta. Thompson said he also planned to rest.

He didn’t however and a scrape of a lawn chair and the crunch of footsteps on gravel were heard sometime later. Thompson’s friends assumed he had decided to walk, which he was inclined to do at every opportunity. Despite weeks of full-scale searches, no trace of him or his body was, or has ever been found. Did he meet his demise accidentally plunging into a ravine or falling into a tiger trap set by local tribesmen?

A planned suicide theory persists, but is most often debunked, “Jim would never have done that to his friends and business,” a former colleague insists.

Other theories involve a kidnapping, a secret departure to start a life elsewhere (a few supposed sightings were reported in places like Tahiti), or a planned escape underground with his past OSS career having caught up with him.

What is known is that family, friends and colleagues waited tortuously for weeks and months in the hope that Thompson would stroll back into his beautiful home.

“I really don’t know,” I confess to the shop owner. “Even I’m a little haunted by it, I can only imagine the grief of his those that knew and loved him.”

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I take my leave and walk the short distance to the legendary Oriental Hotel, more imposing and glorious than ever. Commandeered by the Japanese during the war, the grand old Oriental was threadbare and worn-at-the-heels after liberation. American soldiers and liberated Dutch, British and Australian prisoners of war had also sought refuge in it’s once glamours surroundings.

Thompson, ever a designer, was serving as an unofficial political advisor to the American embassy at the time but couldn’t resist the charm of The Oriental. “We could make this a great hotel again,” he is quoted as saying to Germain Krull who became one of his partners. Thompson relished the opportunity to use his creative skills, yet the partnership lasted only a year with Thompson being squeezed out.

He continued however, to live in its revolving-door lifestyle for a year or two more, setting up his first silk shop. Framed prints pay homage to his time at The Oriental. In one print, Thompson’s parrot, Cocky, is perched on his shoulder in front of his home. It is said, the verbose parrot died of heartache when his master did not return.

I stay for a late lunch, taking in the elegant surroundings and the glimpses of Thai silk all around me; the furniture and cushions, the staff’s vibrant sarongs and jackets…patterns and splashes of smokey greys, oranges, emerald greens, tawny browns and of course siam pink. Jim Thompson’s colourful signature is everywhere.

This is still where the rich and famous gather and I notice some dressed for lunch as if for a cocktail party. Short silk dresses and sarongs mix with gentlemen in linen jackets and polished Gucci shoes. Thompson would be pleased. “He was a terribly elegant man, always dressed immaculately in Thai silk,” gushed one admiring lady.

Despite numerous affairs with married women, a few apparently more than ready to leave their husband, the bachelor never remarried. “He was rarely alone, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lonely,” mused one of his confidants.

 

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I gaze out to the Chao Phraya river and watch the myriad boats ply the waters. Orange robed monks and tidy businessmen catch ferries, tourists alight at the hotel’s dock, long-tail boats speed past with their bright strands of fabric flapping from their prows. Elegant Thai roof tops have given way to modern buildings.

I remove the silk covered book from my bag and write of yesterday’s visit to the House…Bangkok, Feb. 25th, 2017, A return to the lovely and beguiling Jim Thompson House, yet this time with one of our sons. And what a joy to still be discovering and finding inspiration with my traveling companion...it’s been some twenty-eight years after all…

Penang’s shades of green and hues of blue…a mansion and Jimmy Choo

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There are a few unsent ‘postcards’ from Penang this past year. Having co-authored a book about its pioneers, both past and present, there is much to write. I could relate the fascinating history of Francis Light, who claimed the island for the East India Company in 1786, or the myriad settlers from near and far, especially the resourceful Chinese and the stalwart Southern Indians. There are Penang’s iconic shophouses, godowns and clan temples. Its diverse culture and heritage trades, the legendary food and the engaging street art. That and more will be revealed when the book is published. But for now, a few snippets from the Penang I’ve come to know and love…

 

The Blue Mansion…img_5098-1

A photo of her hangs in the mansion’s dining room, her dress and hairstyle unusually simple for a person of her status. Tan Tay Po was 20 when she married the 70 year-old Cheong Fatt Tze. She would become his favourite wife – there were eight of them – and the Blue Mansion was Tan Tay’s splendid home.

Known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze had homes (and wives) scattered throughout S.E. Asia, but the indigo-blue mansion in Penang was his preferred. Where he’d find his beloved wife number 7.

boutique-hotel-penang-island-blue-mansion-architecture-02-1-600x600-1I had been to the mansion earlier in the year, gathering information for the book project. Along with writers from the region, I had the good fortune to be invited to a candle-lit dinner in Indigo, the mansion’s elegant restaurant. Serendipity saw my place-card positioned across from Laurence Loh, the man who brought the mansion back to life; rescuing it from its dilapidated state and likely from demolition.

Laurence Loh is one of Malaysia’s esteemed architects and I followed many who have spoken to him over the years, BBC, CNN, Architectural publications and others. Laurence is understated yet passionate about his role as a conservation architect.

“Why take on such a daunting project?” I asked. “What motivated you to dedicate years to the restoration of a mansion? ” In fact a home now considered to be one of the finest restored mansions in the world.

Laurence admitted that he had not given the property much thought as he passed it daily as a youth on his way to school. Years later having returned home to Penang after time abroad, Laurence felt a strong pull towards the temple-like building. Along with partners, he and his wife Lin Lee would buy the property on Leith Street and transform the Chinese court-yard home to the enchanting splendour of its past – it would take 11 years of meticulous restoration.

That evening as we had dined, Laurence explained that developers had hovered in anticipation for the prized site when it came on the market. Conservation in 1989 was almost non-existent with no guidelines and little vision. The mansion lay in a state of decay and disregard with more than thirty tenant families inhabiting it. Motorbikes zoomed through the house and washing lines hung from gilded panels. Animal bones, droppings, feathers and rubbish littered the rooms.

Laurence told me modestly, “It just needed to be cleaned up and restored. There was an epiphany that this would take hold of our lives.” And he hinted that it was meant to be…that perhaps Cheong Fatt Tze had already chosen him as the rescuer.

I was curious if it was the love story of wife number 7, ‘the one he loved above all others,’ as Laurence had put it. Or perhaps it was the unique sense of scale, proportion and space with which the mansion had been designed. I sensed that it is a little of both. Laurence admitted that a keen sense of preserving the legacies of Penang’s forefathers, especially those of the Chinese settlers, had motivated him. “I’m very proud of my Chinese roots,” he explained, “it’s essential they’re preserved.”

The residence was originally completed in 1904 by Cheong Fatt Tze. Having arrived from China to Batavia in 1856 as a penniless 16 year-old, Cheong would come to epitomize South East Asia’s determined Chinese entrepreneurs – of which there were many. Cheong transcended from a carrier of river water to a one-man multinational conglomerate. Initially there was help from his merchant father-in-law, that of wife number 1, yet Cheong would go on to successfully deal in the commodities of the day: pepper, tin, rubber, tea and coffee, rice and opium. He would invest in banks, glassworks, textiles, cattle and a vineyard. He would start his own shipping line when refused first-class service on another. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur.

On a recent visit to Penang, I decide to spend an evening at the Mansion in one of its 18 restored guest rooms. I’d be untruthful if I didn’t confess that its history and spirt is felt within its storied walls. It’s not an uneasiness, but more of a tacit acknowledgement that you are just passing through…the home will always be Cheong Fatt Tze’s.

The next day, I’m invited to join a tour. The private rooms are roped off to the public and there’s a secret delight in having been in the inner sanctum of the mansion. Along with tourists from different countries, I learn that nothing was left to chance when the grand home was built. With its 5 inner courtyards, the centre wing was where business was conducted and were family was housed, perhaps one or all of the 3 wives and various concubines. This was often the norm for a man of Cheong’s social standing.

“Wives 3, 6 and 7 lived here. But if you were out of favour you could easily find yourself in the side wings or across the street in the servants quarters”, our guide reveals motioning to separate buildings across the street. Yet we’re told of Cheong’s great philanthropist tendencies, of his ease with both Asian traditions and of the Western World. We hear of his discerning sense of fashion from Mandarin outfits of fine silk, to top hats and tails.

Indeed the photos and other manifestations capture the essence of time, place and wealth. We see intricate Scottish ironworks (a must-have to affirm one’s wealth in the British empire), gilded decoration, priceless porcelain and Art Nouveau stained glass windows. But its the chien nien that intrigues me most.

Chien nien translates to cut-and-paste shard works, a laborious process whereby specially produced rice bowls are cut with pliers to provide shards of coloured porcelain. Lime putty is then used to form the shards into intricate patterns of men, women, animals and scenes depicting Chinese mythology and various Gods. Some 10,000 bowls, imported from China, were needed to restore the mansion’s chien nien – believed the most prolific on any private building outside of China.img_5060-1

As we gather in the central courtyard, we’re asked a question that I had heard previously from Laurence. “Do you feel the chi, the spirt?”

It is reference to the elaborate feng shui that Cheong Fatt Tze implemented in his home .

“This is the heart, here in the middle, where the greatest chi energy radiates,” our guide says motioning to a spot between two stone columns. “This precise point would have been selected by a feng shui master, the house grew from there.”

It seems very little was left to chance. Granite steps were added as ideally one must always step up when entering a Chinese home…it denotes promotion. The granite implies strength and stability. Golden coins were buried in auspicious corners to ensure continued wealth. The side wings of the home contain six rooms on each floor. The number six as it rhymes with ‘lok lok tai soon‘…smoothness for every dealing.

The Chinese believe that rain water brings wealth (farming, crops) and that nature’s wealth should be drawn inwards. Hence the mansion’s elaborate pipes and gutters to collect rainwater, emptying into the courtyards, backing up in loops, cooling both the floors and ceiling spaces. “The water can come in quickly but should flow out slowly, just like the Chinese ethos towards money.” This is conveyed to us with a chuckle, yet it is clearly to be taken seriously.

When we encounter a photo of the beloved wife number 7, we learn that Tan Tay was the daughter of a Penang goldsmith and the only wife mentioned in the tycoon’s will. When Cheong died in 1916, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Asia by both British and Dutch authorities. His coffin was toured to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong for farewells, before burial in his native China.

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And of the mansion? Cheong’s will stated that it was not to be sold until the death of he and Tan Tay’s son, only 2 at the time of his father’s death. When he died in 1989, the last daughter-in-law would fall short of money and resort to leasing the mansion’s once grand rooms, contributing to the dilapidated state Laurence Loh would find the mansion.

As the tour finishes, I recall something Laurence had shared that with me. “Cheong Fatt Tze had wanted nine generations to live in this home. He wanted it to be enjoyed by many.”

Thanks to the vision of a passionate architect, that is happily the case…

*The Blue Mansion is properly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

 

A connection with Jimmy Choo…

img_3173I find myself on ‘hallowed’ ground…that is, if one is both a lover of shoes and familiar with Jimmy Choo. His story began in Penang, a local boy who shared his roots with the very man I’m speaking with, Mr. Wong Heng Mun.

I’m at Hong Kong Shoes on Kimberley Street and have decided to have a pair of shoes made by Mr. Wong and his team of cobblers.

There are three skilled artisans busy today in the long, narrow shophouse. One shoemaker is stitching and another cutting strips of leather with scissors as large as a size- 13 shoe. Mr. Wong minds the front of the shop. He not only knows a thing or two about shoes, he apprenticed alongside Penang’s runaway success story…Jimmy Choo. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Choo also came from a family of shoemakers.

“Jimmy was about 15 or so, a little older than me when we apprenticed. It was my father that taught us.” Mr. Wong’s father, Wong Sam Chai, was Penang’s esteemed master cobbler for some 60 years.

This is not the original location of the shop but still, it’s become a bit of a mecca for shoe lovers visiting Penang. The shop is certainly not as salubrious as a Jimmy Choo. This is more of an ‘organized chaos’ with shoe mouldings, scraps of leather and shoe samples crammed onto shelves and arrayed on the floor. Proudly displayed magazine and newspaper clippings of the Choo connection decorate the walls. The workshop is stuffed with tools of the trade: threads on bobbins, glue for soles of leather, hammers and heels, and a ‘museum piece’ Singer – timeless and trusty.

Mr. Wong is kind enough to lead me up the worn treads of narrow stairs to the second floor. Shoe moulds as far as the eye can see. Wooden and plastic – shades of greens, hues of blues and wood polished smooth by expert hands, sizes and shapes for all.

Mr. Wong tells me that more than 200 pairs of shoes are handcrafted every month for clients. “Some locals but many foreigners.”

img_5285Back in the workshop, I notice the nonya shoe that is in the works. Its delicate glass beads have been painstakingly stitched into a pattern onto fabric, and is now being crafted into a sandal or perhaps a slipper.

Traditionally this was a pastime expertised by Malay ladies. Beaded slippers complimented their colourful sarongs and lavish kebayas, their tight fitting embroidered blouses.

I’m told that the craft of stitching the coloured glass beads was even a skill coveted for marriage. It seems that presenting a pair of hand-stitched men’s slippers was effective for impressing a future husband. Wonderful examples of nonya slippers and all else pertaining to their refined and opulent culture can be enjoyed at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Today, pieces of the beaded designs are still created and sold to Hong Kong Shoes, both for personal orders or otherwise. “Many foreigners also like these,” Mr. Wong assures me as we admire the intricate samples. In somewhat of a paradox he shows off a massive shoe mould, though I don’t catch the name of who it was a match for – surely it was an extremely tall basketball player.

I’m just a normal size 6.5 and I tell Mr. Wong that I’d like my sandals copied please, “though just a little more tight fitting.” I dig my worn footwear from my bag. They’ve traipsed over the cobblestones of Rome, through the narrow lanes of Cintra and the back streets of Miri…and many others in between. I surprise myself by choosing roughly the same colours of leather…actually I think I’m just a little overwhelmed with the vast array of samples.

Mr. Wong opens a notebook, asks me to take off my shoes and instructs me to stand on the blank paper. He traces my feet, jots down some notes and confirms my order on a small notebook…order 8565. I pay, then he bundles up the note paper, my beloved sandals and plunks them in a plastic bag. Gosh, I hope I see those again, I can’t help but fret.

“How long Sir, until they’re ready?

“About two, three months,” he tells me with a confident smile.

“Lovely, my friend will pick them up for me,” I say, giving a knowing glance to a good friend who spends much of her time here. I already envision my next visit, my shiny pair of sandals awaiting me.

“No worry,” Mr Wong assures me,” we make many, many shoes.”

I can’t resist asking, “Who is the most famous client you’ve had?”

“Oh, Hollywood famous,”he says matter-of-factly. He’s most definitely not revealing any secrets.

 

And may I share a few of my ‘preferred’ in Penang…

Hotel…Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell

Restaurants…Seven Terraces, Il Bacaro, China House

Museums…Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of Sun Yat Sen (father of modern    China), Penang State Museum, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Things to do…Enjoy street food, especially Char Kuey Teow. Trishaw to discover the many Street Art installations. Take in the view at the peak of Penang Hill and visit The Habitat, Penang Hill. Wander along Beach Street, Armenian Street, Love Street and all in between. Venture out to the Spice Gardens. Have tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Take in live music at China House. Visit the many temples and mosques. Stroll the clan jetties. Don’t miss Occupy Beach Street early Sunday mornings. Arrange your visit to coincide with the brilliant George Town Festival…

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A finely stacked woodpile, skating in the Canadian outdoors…welcoming the New Year

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“Birch is most definitely the cadillac of wood, kept us warm growing up,” Ian tells me, fondly recalling winters of his prairie youth. We and a dozen others are gathered around a crackling bonfire in British Columbia on New Year’s Eve day. Stacked in the fresh snow is a pile of wood …readied to keep the fire ablaze.

Despite a temperature of -12 Celsius, the late afternoon gathering is lively and it feels perfectly natural to socialize in the beautiful outdoors. Neighbours wander up with a drink and a ‘Happy New Year’ on their lips, many clutching a pair of skates.

For beyond the fresh air and the chance to greet friends, the other attraction is the open-air skating rink. A few meters from where we’re gathered, the glassy stretch of ice beckons as keenly as a deep-blue pool of water…if you’re a skater that is.

Skating on outdoor ice is a hallmark of Canadian winters, about as idyllic as it gets. Two of my sons are with us and they can’t get their skates on fast enough. Having played hockey in various countries we’ve called home – Oman, Dubai, Norway, the U.S. – the opportunity to strap on the ‘blades’ in the Canadian outdoors is part of their identity. But perhaps that is over-thinking it… it’s just unbridled joy.

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Snow shovels ready at the outdoor rink, near Kimberley BC

They glide and weave effortlessly over the frozen pond. They and longtime friends grab hockey sticks and shoot pucks at the net, shouting into the cold December air, Feels so great to be out here! For a longtime hockey mom, it is music to my ear-muffed ears on this last day of 2016.

We’ve delighted in seeing countless outdoor rinks this holiday season in the small towns in our area…Cranbrook, Fernie and Kimberley. This is what you do. It’s how many families spend time together, building traditions all the while. Perhaps the rink is the setting for a date or where you just ‘hang out’ and meet friends. Or maybe you play a game of shinny – pond hockey – with whoever happens to be around. It’s all of this and more; it’s part of being from the ‘great white north’. This is where the deep and abiding love of skating and hockey is born in the hearts of many Canadians.

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Skating in Fernie, BC

My own boys learned to skate on Grandpa’s pond. On visits home for Christmas the first question was usually, “How’s the ice Grandpa, can we skate?” If the answer was ‘yes’, out came the wide snow shovels. Back and forth they were pushed, clearing the snow for action…anticipation rising as each strip of ice revealed itself.

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A Sunday afternoon in Cranbrook, BC

Countless hours were spent with family on that frozen wonderland. The grind and rasp of metal blades on the uneven surface, the crack and thunk of a flexing ice sheet, the elated shouts of kids at play, the bark of dogs chasing the puck…the sounds of winter ingrained in our memories. And now for life, the guys can enjoy a day like today and feel at home on the ice.

With dusk approaching, more people arrive and I smile at a small girl on the bench at the edge of the ice. Her mother is lacing up her figure skates and she’s clearly excited. The ice is busy, yet the skaters will be mindful of a beginner; memories of learning how to skate stay with you. It’s tough. You stumble, you fall, you get back up over and over again until you get it. And then, like riding a bike, the sense of freedom and satisfaction it brings is thrilling.

Back at the bonfire, I continue the discussion of wood with Ian and our good friend Nolan.img_1740 The brothers grew up in Saskatchewan where a weighty stack of wood got you through the biting cold winters.

“Birch is ideal,” the two confirm, adding some science to their assertion. “It doesn’t spit, good energy density and it burns hot.”

I admit that I had ‘smuggled’ some ornamental birch logs into my shipment when we left Norway and on reflection, it had always burned well in our classic Norwegian fireplace.

Some treasured pieces of it now happen to be part of my decor in India, of all places. Perhaps like the wooden skis propped in our office, the birch reminds me of my roots. Of growing up in cold winters; in the snow, on a ski hill, on the ice and yes, often huddled cozily around a fireplace. But there’s far more to wood than meets the eye. “Did you know that the chopping and stacking of wood can be a bit of an obsession in Norway, even takes on an art form,” I offer as someone adds more pinewood to the bonfire.

Yes, apparently it’s common knowledge that wood will dry well if there’s enough space for a mouse to run hither and tither throughout the pile. And stacking that wood is not to be taken lightly. Different types of wood should be stacked accordingly and in Norway, besides the practical piles like a sun-wall pile, there’s a round stack, a closed square, a standing round stack or the v-shape pile. Who knew?

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There are also the sculptured woodpiles. I have learned that wood, with its complex hues, also offers an outlet for creativity that one might not expect. The end of a pice of oak is a deep brown. Pine and spruce radiate yellow tones with a little help from the sun, whereas cut ends of elm, aspen and maple display as muted whites. And apparently the rich alder is also a sought-after shade for stacking aficionados.

It seems there’s no end to woodsy creativity, One might ‘sculpt’ a massive fish or even a portrait of the king and queen. I recall that while we lived in Stavanger a retired engineer had created a woodpile portrait of Queen Sonja and King Harold V, in tribute of the king’s seventy-fifth birthday. This masterpiece had been preceded by a portrait of a composer and a likeness of the local mayor. How wonderful to find creativity in wood (and gain a bit of notoriety!)

Yet if it that all sounds a little mundane, there is something far more rousing about woodpiles. “Ok gentlemen,” I joke with my friends at the bonfire, “by any chance did your prospective wives happen to inspect your woodpile before they said yes?” There’s a reason I’m asking of course.

In the late nineteenth century in the American state of Maine, it is reported that young women might determine the suitability of a husband by the condition of his woodpile. Call it a folksy tradition or not, but the general rule was thus:

img_3066Upright and solid pile: the same could be said of the man.

Low pile: a good cautious man but could be shy or weak.

Unusual shape: freethinking and maybe an open spirit but construction could be weak.

Not much wood: be ready for a life from hand to mouth.

Unfinished pile, some logs here and there: unstable, lazy, maybe prone to drink?

Old and new wood together: be suspicious, might be some stolen wood there.

No woodpile: forget it, there must be more suitable candidates!

I think of the wood pile at the back of our mountain home. No it surely isn’t perfect, but the wood has been enthusiastically chopped. At our house you never have to ask twice to have firewood, our guys relish the opportunity to channel their inner woodsman. There’s no question they find a certain satisfaction in the process.

It is said that chopping your own wood is therapeutic and contemplative, even atavistic. A chance to wield an axe, use brute power – a gratifying correlation between effort and output.

Back in 1854 in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau extolled the virtues of not only chopping wood but living a simple life in natural surroundings. It was Thoreau who observed that wood warms twice over, once when you chop it and again when you burn it.

A seemingly simple observation that just happens to be inscribed on a small cushion in our home. Filled with pine needles, it evokes the spirit of the outdoors and nature’s simple pleasures.

I’m curious to see how our neighbourhood measures up in the wood stacking department. I notice finely-stacked woodpiles and logs waiting to be split and chopped, all protected by snow-clad trees and cabin eaves. This is the kind of place where snowboards, skis, snowshoes and sleds lean against houses, fond embrace of the mountain lifestyle. It’s where snow piles high, gathering on roofs and resting on tamarack, pine and birch. Indeed, the reminders are everywhere…embrace nature’s beauty.

We said our farewells, hung up the snowshoes and covered our not-so finely stacked woodpile. Now from our other home in India, restored to face the challenges and the new opportunities the year will bring, I wish you all a joyful and fulfilled New Year. I hope you’ll revel in the beauty of nature…wherever you may be…Terry Anne