Freedom to Choose: The Last Bite of Cake

Portland1

In Jamaican households, on the island and overseas, Christmas cake starts making appearances in cupboards and on dinner tables in the early days of December. People will tell you how many they’ve baked, or how many their mothers have baked. If they haven’t had a chance to soak fruits in brandy or wine, people will recount how many cakes they’ve bought at Pricemart, Megamart or Hi-Lo or who’s baking them one, two or five.

image.jpeg

There’s nothing that says “This is the festive season” or more encapsulates the holidays than Christmas cake. A house without a decorated Evergreen, poinsiettas, or garlands is acceptable, but nothing could be more unheard of or Scrooge-like than a house without a Christmas fruit cake.

Thirty-seven hours and three layovers after leaving Vietnam, Jamaica’s sun and breeze welcomed me in November. For the two months that I was here, the vista of the island never ceased to enthrall. Country visits to the different parishes  of Portland, St. James, St. Mary, St. Thomas and St. Ann, reminded me, as my mother says, that “Jamaica is not just sun and sea.” 

Portland
Portland

 

The exquisitiness and ruggedness of the island’s landscape: the sprawling green hills surrounding Kingston, visible from every viewpoint; plentiful pink, purple and white bougainvillea colliding with opening hibiscuses, pink heliconia and deep-purple plumbago; night blooming jasmine scenting gardens of green and brick; the sea, varying shades of blue, from crystal egg-white blue to baby blue to aquamarine to navy to indigo; the latticework of lights dancing on the sea; the sea, as warm as a child’s bath; fruit tumbling out of baskets: firm East Indian mangoes, yellow June plums, green oranges; and the soft soft breeze sweeping in every morning before the sun grandstanded and dominated until dusk.

Rock Edge
Rock Edge, Oracabessa

 

There is no utopia, and Jamaica, as warm and rich in beauty as it is,  isn’t mine. It wasn’t lost on me that prices of basic items are more expensive than need be (triple and quadruple what they cost in every other country I’d visited in 2015), everyday is still too much of a struggle for many, and customer service, sadly, still has much room for improvement.

It was also evident that if I permanently lived in Jamaica, my mobility and lifestyle would be restricted; all my friends are busy raising kids, and the Jamaica I knew years ago is no longer; so, it was time to end this period of regrouping and recollecting and greet a place where more freedom resides.

Bougainvillea
Riotous bougainvillea in Kingston

 

Last night, after dinner, my mother and I shared the last portion of Christmas cake.. We ate in satisfied silence, and I thought, “This is the last slice of cake, which coincides with the end of my holiday.” In the back of my mind, my dear aunt’s voice echoed, “Go, and do what you have to do.”

bye
James Bond Beach, St. Mary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hundreds of Birthdays

images (1)

As my birthday approaches, the years that have built up to create this life wind and intersect in my mind. Loops of memory of all these years. Years stack on top of each other and stand side by side, three and thirty-two, six and thirteen, twelve and twenty-four…. and centuries more.

Some memories race, while others saunter in their Sunday best: playing bull in the pen, dandy shandy— we created our own ball with boxes, stones and paper, Emanuel Road (how we broke those rocks), green bows and brown socks, khaki and sweat, Rex– brown fur bristling, flaking patties, sun breaking on our heads, gathering in the hall in white dresses, whiter sand shimmering for miles– spanning oceans, hibiscus closing, red beans still simmering, dancing under flashing lights, body as playground, ploughing fertile land, grilled corn and champagne, glittering, unstoppable snow, the first blue bicycle resting beside the kitchen table, presents on the counter, flashing music videos, TV signing off, singing praisesongs, “Morning has Broken.” Yes, we were valiant “gainst all disaster.

You remember; we walked down roads and crossed seas together. Remember, every birthday, an incredible testament to our survival instinct.

When elders said, “Oh, you children are wise,” didn’t they realize we already had hundreds of years running through our bones? We were “new,” but ancient.

Drums continue for centuries. Every touch of the skin a message, and the remembrance that the body has memory. Fine threads, invisible, but unseverable, holding onto this body. So, on this birthday, many many candles, hundreds of flames, riding an Akan rhythm.

 

Born to Wander?

destiny

I was born by the river in a little tent, and just like the river, I’ve been running ever since.– (A Change is Gonna Come)

It has been exactly two months since I came to Saigon, and two weeks since I started the English teaching course (CELTA) that I came here to do. The days are cooler than when I arrived, and it’s been good to be inside the school for the hottest hours of the day. The thought of getting up early and going to class every morning was one that had filled me with a bit of nervousness (ok, dread), since I hadn’t had any reason to wake up early for almost a year. However, though the eighteen of us have been consumed with lesson plans, long hours, assignments and teaching, it has been enjoyable. Most of us have already been teachers around the world (Korea, Japan, India, Australia, etc– an intrepid bunch), but we’re learning more than we thought we would. Though I’d be just as happy waking up early just to do yoga and then drink some tea at a cafe, this is strangely fulfilling.

The four-week course starts its third week tomorrow morning. We see the light glimmering a little brighter, and thus many of us are questioning where to head next. A few will stay in Saigon, but no idea for how long. When I mentioned to my friend Derek that I hadn’t warmed to Saigon, though I do like it more than when I first arrived, he commiserated and spoke about the value of community. His exact words were, “One of the most important things in life is finding community. Somewhere to belong. Even if you belong nowhere, you can find home in someone, or something, or somewhere.”

Even if you belong nowhere….

My student Mai asked me where I live, to which I had responded “nowhere.” She’s an Intermediate student, but even if she were an advanced student, how does one explain? Are some people born to wander? I’m not tired yet, I could do one more country…. and will, before finding that community about which Derek so eloquently spoke.

12046844_10153659621583674_6727200192568745876_n (1)

First Days in Saigon: Down the Rabbit Hole

The streets of Saigon are an unimaginable chaos. Hundreds of scooters weave and turn, whizzing by vendors who wheel fruit and food carts in the middle of traffic. Locals call out to the tourists, “Where you go?” or silently sidle up and whisper, “Marijuana?” Young women hand out flyers for spa, nail and haircare services. Every few steps, another flyer. The inexorable heat follows like a pesky sibling. It’s best to stop, take a few flyers, and buy a cup of sugarcane juice.

IMG_0770

In the streets of Saigon, more isn’t enough: more horns blaring, more traffic, more coffee shops, more humidity, more street vendors, more sweaty, bedraggled-looking foreigners, more shops, more stares, more random smiles, more siestas– more chaos. I’ve spent time in many of the world’s busiest cities, so nothing should surprise, right? Wrong. Saigon is a world of its own. While half the city sleeps, the other half, raucously and unabashedly forges ahead.

Viet 1

It’s been ten days since I landed here, and I haven’t written anything until now, because the only thing on my mind for the first three days was getting out. On a loop, my thoughts were: “How do I get out of here?” “Why did I choose Saigon?” and “What were the chain of events that led me here?”

In a desperate haste to leave, I applied to, accepted and declined jobs in China and the Middle East. It was impossible to sleep with all the thoughts of an exit. After Portugal– the calm, the ocean, the cuisine, the gentle familarity, the cleanliness of Cascais– Saigon felt like a pushy, aggressive friend that I had chosen, then, regrettably despised.

My biggest phobia–rats– were seen daily, as there is food and food trash absolutely everywhere in my neighborhood of District 1. The first two times they scurried past me, I screamed; today, my heart didn’t stop, and I didn’t scream, though I held my hand to my chest. I can’t even watch animated rats, aka Mickey Mouse and that Ratatouille film, and here there were in my path. The jet lag, humidity, the all day/all night chatter, the rodents, all felt like a sucker punch that had laid me flat. When asked about Saigon, all I could say was, “It’s not for me.”

viet 2

cherries
cherries

Then, things started to shift. Yes, I feel this experience is a test, but it is more than that. There is much to appreciate: dear Phuong and Hai, who spent so much of their time taking me to wonderful restaurants and cafes, showing me a different side of the city; the diversity of the cuisine, (almost) every country’s food on offer; the kindness of strangers (they physically take you (for free) or guide you to where you need to go); the mellowing of the heat in the evenings; the exotic and tropical fruit in abundance (had the most delicious, green June plum juice); the affordability of everything; the familiar Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores; the loved fruit of Jamaica and Indonesia; the reassuring fast-food of the U.S; the comfortable place I moved into, and my wonderful landlady.

IMG_0279T

Vietnam is an Asian challenge that Japan and Indonesia weren’t, because the people are much more forward, more direct, more open to engagement in some ways. Thankfully, my inner chaos quieted when I recognized that this life and I chose each other. I’m not in love with this city, but am slowly slipping “in like” with it. It demands a lot, and I’m learning to appreciate that and become grateful for the growth it will undoubtedly allow.

aa

Passport in Hand, Again

Sardines-- truly the Portuguese dish.

Dear Friends,

It’s almost D-Day– Departure Day. Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” loops in mind. Yes, it’s almost time to see a place I’ve never seen, eat food never before tried, master greetings in an unknown language, and marvel at the magnitude and the teeniness of the world. With an open mind, I’ll embrace what comes and try not to play the comparison game as travelers are wont to do.

Like a drag racer revving the engine in the second lap, these four months have sped by leaving a cloud of dust. When I lived in Tokyo, one friend visited. In Portugal, friends came to visit (my lovely mother, the dearest friend among them). It was lovely to not only have familiar faces in the ‘hood and catch up, but to appreciate the beauty of Lisbon’s streets through the eyes of others.These last two weeks in Cascais have been without visitors, which is apt. This alone time allows me to wrap up and see and do all my favorite things before leaving.

Beside me is the Things to Do Before Leaving Portugal list: 1) Eat a couple more plates of grilled sea bream and potatoes (dourada grelhada) 2) Eat grilled sardines, drizzled in olive oil and served with a carafe of cold white wine, at least twice more 3) Visit magical Sintra, walk through the park, then relish a jumbo scone and jam at Cafe Saudade, with a large pot of jasmine tea 4) Go to a yoga class with Filipa at Flores do Cabo, the art gallery/decor shop that doubles as a studio space, in Colares 5) Take the #403 bus to Guincho and soak up the sun (as much as sunscreen allows) 6) Sit at the side street cafe in Alfama, and listen to fado under the streamer of lights and stars. 7) Go back to the Artesan festival in Estoril, which is on until September 6 8) Walk through my favorite neighborhoods of Lisbon to feel the energy and beats underneath. 9) Take the train to Porto.

In Lisbon, every cobblestone is a drum, every tile on a facade, a stringed instrument. Lisbon’s streets and buildings are full-fledged orchestras; andante; allegro; crescendo; adagio. My canvas-bound feet know the rhythm and keep the tempo…or perhaps, the streets know mine. It leads– slow, a walking pace; lively now, skip a bit; rush and drink and dance and sing; slow now, slow down. Lisbon paced me.

It may be time to leave Portugal, but magical, colorful, gorgeous Portugal, where the streets are filled with poetry, art and music, will never leave me.

Slow down in Sintra
Slow down in Sintra.
Sardines-- truly the Portuguese dish.
The famous tram 28.
Serving ginjinha (a cherry liqeur).
Serving ginjinha (a cherry liqeur).
Azulejo
Azulejo
mum
mamacita in bloom

sardineswall poem

On the streets of Alfama-- Jamaicana in Lisboa.
On the streets of Alfama– Jamaicana in Lisboa.

Beijos.

The Black Body

A black body (also blackbody) is an idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence.

In a conversation with a friend last week, she reminded me that “we’re sprits having human experiences.” I had read that in The Seven Spritual Laws of Success and agreed it with then, as I did when she reminded me. One of my favorite Abraham Hicks quotes, in line with that idea, is that “I am not a body, I live in a body.” In various religions and the New Age/ New Thought movement, it is constantly reinforced that we’re divine, much more than our bodies, the vehicles that carry our spirits.

Yet, it’s easy to forget that the living outer shell is significant, when our lives  are shaped by its color, its gender, its size, etc. When one starts out in the perceived non-privileged position, it’s that much harder to realize that the body houses what truly matters; in fact, that we’re all one consciousness. How easy it must be to live as a monk in a homogeneous society, with a shaved head and an orange robe? (However, it has been reported that female monks experience sexism, so let’s change that to how easy it must be to be a male monk in an orange robe.)

I inhabit a black, female body. I had never known or learned that it was supposed to be a hindrance, not a help; a limited thing; an “ugly,” “masculine” thing; a disposable thing. Those are messages I’ve learned from the media, and concepts that are alien to my thinking, being lucky enough to have grown up  in a community where those ideas have always been exposed as laughable and false.

Yet, how discouraging it is to be trapped in a body that needs constant explanation. Why must there be a defense, or even a discussion of this Black female body? Where to start– it’s not any more sexual than any other body, nor is it more masculine or strong. It’s not more naturally athletic, not more or less beautiful, not less sensitive to pain; the skin is not softer, or rougher; it just is. The outside markers that have been placed on it– complexion, height, size, etc., the silly things that amount to little, have been given much meaning.

I love this Black body that shelters my soul, not for its shape or height or size, but for what it has allowed me to learn. It forces me to be an observer, a receiver, to simultaneously have two or three minds. It has forced me to be binary– to understand the dominant and oppressed, the strong and weak, the dark and light. Understand that loving this body does not mean that I don’t appreciate and love your “Other” body, but I don’t understand your body and you don’t fully comprehend mine or its realities. Thankfully, loving one thing doesn’t mean hating another.

R.I.P Sandra Bland

images

Two days ago, Roxanne Gay published an op-ed piece in the NY times about the vulnerability of Black bodies– male and female. She started the article, with words friends and I have used when discussing the racial situation in the U.S, “I’m tired.” Thanks to cellphones, we’re seeing just how often Black children (who somehow appear to be adults), men and women are being brutalized, violated, and/or killed. As difficult as it is to look at the situation, we can’t look away and we can’t be silent. As one activist cried, “There’s a war on Black bodies.” How can this be denied with the videos and the statistics? One person killed based on their race, as I’ve said on this blog before, is one too many.

What I really don’t understand are a few of the comments attached to the article. A few people expressed, and thankfully very few, that Sandra Bland, the focus of the article, was responsible for her ill-treatment by the officer because she was “disrespectful.” If I’m understanding those commenters, they’re saying that being rude to a public official, and possibly deservedly so in this case, should somehow lead to death. I’m not going to debate if Sandra handled being pulled over badly, she died as a result of it. Whether she committed suicide in the jail cell, after being locked up for three days for a reason that still hasn’t been revealed or was murdered by the police, only one thing is sure, the whole situation was overblown, unnecessary, unacceptable and heartbreaking.

A 28-year old woman lost her life, because of an alleged traffic infraction. What do we then teach Black children in the States– even if you’re right, hold your head down; don’t speak back; be polite; make yourself small; appear as unthreatening as possible? If you read this story and somehow felt that Sandra was at fault for her death, or somehow feel that she’s in any way to blame, then please take a long look at yourself and the justice system.

Let’s continue to speak for those who were silenced much too early– Amadou, Trayvon, Tamir, Michael, Walter, Sandra…and sadly, it goes on. (What an awful roll call.)

Read Gay’s article here:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/25/opinion/on-the-death-of-sandra-bland-and-our-vulnerable-bodies.html

10982357_10102095607983579_7683906929589773476_n

p.s a) If you look at this and say, “All lives matter,” (and yes they do, and that’s irrefutable), but if that’s what you say, then you’re not getting it. b) If you say, “Black people kill each other every day,” and think that’s an excuse for why it’s alright that a law enforcement official does it, you’re still not getting it.