Freedom to Choose: The Last Bite of Cake

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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James Bond Beach, St. Mary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Accept What Is

Dear Friends,

It’s Saturday afternoon, which means that it’s a flea market day, a beach day, and the day for grilled octopus at the restaurant beside the gas station. In this corner of the world, where the sun washes up in waves on the asphalt, the jacaranda trees have shed their last blossoms, and the dogs never stop barking, there’s a certain rejection of what’s happening elsewhere. Over coffees and custard pastries, no one spoke of who died today based on their melanin, their religion, their gender, their hunger, their misfortune of being born in the wrong place in the wrong time. There are conversations about the economy, but they don’t last very long. Hard lines haven’t etched themselves near the corners of mouths, or eyes, yet. My mother has started using the expression, “It is what it is,” which seems to sum up the reactions I’ve seen here– acceptance; little resistance.

Yesterday, on Skype, my niece told me that she’s most glad about turning six, because it means that she’ll soon be turning ten, and therefore can get a phone, and if she’s ten, then she’ll soon be sixteen, and then twenty-two, the age when she’ll get married and have a houseload of childen. She really made me laugh, and each statement had to be explored fully, but it also made me realize that at all ages in our life we rush ahead, instead of fully enjoying each moment. It’s impossible to tell a child, “Think of today; treasure today.” We were all told that, and ignored it, or told that we wouldn’t miss it until it was much too late, and we didn’t understand what was being said. I’ve already told you that my only dream when I was ten was to be sixteen, then sixteen came and went, and was it what was imagined? Can things ever be as we imagine or is it the anticipation that holds all the weight of exitement, joy and wonder? If we could really put our minds at rest, I imagine we’d be more blissful than we could have imagined.

A very good friend, in another conversation yesterday, told me that she’s thinking of moving to Europe in the fall. She’s single, childless, intellligent, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful, so I wondered why the debate?  She confessed that fear was holding her back from taking the leap; no friends in the new country, no idea of what her place would look like, or what the future would hold for here there, whereas at home everything was “good,” but she had a feeling of discontent. I’ll share my response, because maybe it could help you too– “So what?” So what if you don’t know anyone, have never been there, don’t know the language, don’t know how to get around at first? You’ll learn or leave; you’ll thrive or leave; you’ll survive or leave; you’ll make it, but it you don’t, and I’m sure you will, then leave and try something else. As my Uncle Aubrey said, and I’ll never forget it, “Nothing is permanent.” One day, I’ll tell my niece the same thing, unless of course, she’s in her house, at 22, with all the children she wanted at 5.

I never really understood, though I’d heard it so many times in countless ways, that “this”, the right now, is it, not the plans for the future, but the living each day. I’ve imagined a lot, and dreamed alot; many things came to fruition and just as many didn’t. It’s wonderful though, because each day is another chance. We get the chance, and sometimes it seems the right questions aren’t being asked.

I asked my lovely friend, if she had savings, to which she answered, “Yes.” So then, what’s the worst that can happen? The very worst that can happen is occuring to some every single day, out of our sight, and often out of our knowledge. Maybe, we need a checklist to put things into perspective: no real obligations, a passport, savings, capable, intelligent, desiring– if it’s all yes, then there’s no worst case and no excuses. My niece only knows me via Skype now, and I hope she’ll take to mean that life doesn’t need to be conventional. This is what I want to say to her one day, “You are special; you were born in the right place at the right time to the right people. You are intelligent, kind and driven (and it doesn’t hurt that you’re beautiful), you can do absolutely anything. Don’t be afraid, and don’t let anyone (absolutely anyone) tell you something different.”

(*finally getting it)

Love,

Val

Beach Day in Monte Estoril

other side of the tracks...

Words scrawled across the ocean, with the curves and dips of calligraphy, relay a full story: 1) The sound of waves, in no hurry, rolling in, that’s enough; there’s no need for other music 2) the melody of children laughing, as they skirt the waves; women giggling as they splash each other; men, with glee, stepping out of white sailboats, that’s enough; there’s no need for other melodies 3) the green blue indigo violet of the color spectrum’s end, sprawling across the vista, the tranquility it inspires, that’s enough; there’s no need for other views 4) the pink, red, orange, yellow, and blue umbrellas, standing like sentinels over receptive bodies, that’s enough; there’s no need for other protection.

You know what it is: to observe and be observed; to be created and create; to be a part of a tribe and alone.

You know what it is: to stop and feel the breeze surround you; to fill your lungs with salt and air; to let your ideas fly away in the beaks of gulls; to shake hands, grin, and mean it when you say, “Pleasure;” to sit in silence and think, and not think; to massage your mind, gently unwrinkling thoughts; to crave the sun and the shade; to crumble into the dust from whence you came.

“Ola.”

“Hello.”

“Would you like coffee, wine, water?”

“No, thanks.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“Nothing. Thank you.”

You know what it is: to want nothing; to watch sandcastles falling one turret at a time; to catch the scent of coconut and vanilla drift by; to be sated– to be complete.

other side of the tracks
other side of the tracks

Tenho Saudades Tambem

image courtesy of  Wikipedia

Saudade is a word in Portuguese and Galician that has no direct translation in English. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return. (Wikipedia)

Evening rounded the corner and stopped. In the middle of the street, I watched shutters lowering, heard a song being sung, saw houses being lit from within, saw the sky’s lights competing– “You shine brightest.” Warm air deepened the perfume of the purple and red rose bushes in every yard, the lemons on every tree, the sweat from the schoolyard, the bread, custards and cakes at the cornery bakery, hair shampooed with lavender apple rinses. It caught me and said, “Wait, don’t go. Remember this.”

Caçapava: In 2004, less than 90,000 people, one vegetarian restaurant in the center of town where a complete lunch was $3, multiple bakeries, a movie theater that was closed down, a square where fairs were held, a large church, vendors deep-frying chocolate bars, pastel shops, barbecues and beer as the way of life, warm, gregarious locals, long stretches of road with no houses in-between, cows and white butterflies dominating the landscape, pizza and esfihas on Friday nights, riding the bus in one direction to the mountains, in the other direction to white sand beaches.

Dona Natalina. It would be hard to find a gentler woman than Dona Natalina. Dona Natalina standing in the kitchen with her hair pulled back in a low bun, a t-shirt and a knee-length skirt, looking out the kitchen window at the gate. She cooked lunch and dinner every day (breakfast was pastries and bread). For dinner, chicken, beef, rice and beans, vegetables, feijoada. She would make juice– usually, passion fruit or cherry, and for dessert, a large carrot cake with chocolate icing. You could always find her talking to and spending equal time with each of her three daughters and young grandson in the kitchen or hanging clothes on the line. Since, I usually came onto the property last, though I lived in a different house with her daughter Andreia, she always had dinner warm and waiting for me.

A stronger form of saudade might be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing, moved away, separated, or died.

I can understand why people stay in one place for a long time. The bonds that are built and the connections made must be priceless. For someone to know you without explanation, whether that be a family member, lover or friend, must be special. To gather moss…. Of course, the other side has its rewards– seeing new things, meeting new people, becoming new, learning new things, but it’s only a few layers deep. It seems when you say goodbye enough, you can say goodbye to anything. Complete non-attachment.

Caraguá: Drove to Caraguá with Eric and Alexandra to Eric’s parents house in Caraguá. All the windows were down, and our bodies leaning out to grab the wind. In that town, the sun always rising, miles of white beach, lying back and absorbing every last drop of sun, eating dinner outside, shot glasses of cachaça and large brown bottles of beer. Crispy pork skins sizzling, hot dogs, hamburgers with soft rolls, fish roasting in foil. The stalls at the night market: cotton candy, instruments and toys on display, colored t-shirts with “I Love…” emblazoned on the chest, pastry stuffed with chocolate and sprinkled with sugar on sticks, oversized churros, drummers sitting on wooden cartons, streamers of lights overhead. Where are Eric and Alexandra now?

Ubatuba: On a public holiday, I decided to take the bus to Ubatuba, about 3.5 hours away. My boss was having a barbecue at her house, which she often did, and I was in no mood to go. I booked a room at the Pousada Mariposa (clean large room, white sheets, ceiling fan, big bathroom)– the card’s still in my wallet eleven years later (a very big deal, because I keep nothing). When I declined my boss’s offer to go to her house that weekend, she told me that I was “too independent.” She told me that often, and meant it is as no compliment.

How I booked a room, I don’t remember; no Portuguese, no Internet, no assistance, no problem. Ubatuba: beach, beach, beach, the beaches, one after the other, never ending. Beachside bars, cafes, boys and girls carrying surfboards, topless guys on scooters, “shoes,” a noun all but forgotten, trees falling towards the sea and pausing in mid-air, skies with doorways to other skies, and roads that give way to mountains.

Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It brings sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.

The years trickle through the fingers and blow away like the sand of the beaches of Ubatuba. Tapestries of people, songs, scents, tastes never to be seen again. The last bell fading into the wave receding. It was treasured, and brought pleasure, and now it’s gone. I stopped, because the evening stopped me and said, “Don’t go. Remember this.”

In Brazil, the day of Saudade is officially celebrated on 30 January. How special it is that in Brazil it’s important to put time aside for missing.

image courtesy of Wikipedia
image courtesy of Wikipedia

What Would Thoreau Think Of Facebook?

It’s the middle of the night. Thoughts were layering themselves like a lasgana in my head; and soon, I realized that I was still asleep. It was necessary to get up and write the words down, before they overcrowded me.

The pen ran out of ink in the middle of the second sentence. What else to do but get out of bed and find one? Note to self: Keep a couple of pens by the bed. My thoughts were of Thoreau and Facebook; specifically, what would Throeau think of Facebook?

Thoreau, my modern hero– a philosopher, poet, essayist, activist, naturalist, tax evader of an immoral government.

His first journal entry asks, “Do you keep a journal?” What would he think of the online chronicles of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? 1) Why are some causes more worthy than others? Are some lives more valuable than others; how do we rate disaster? 2) In the U.S, why are racial groups so culturally divided with their FB posts? 3) Why is nothing private anymore? 4) Why are ten hashtags needed for a simple thought? 5) Is posting three or four photos of oneself confidence or vanity? 6) Are we sharing the best of our lives or creating a false reality? 7) Is one real friend more valuable than 500 social media friends and followers, or not? 8) Why the need to be right about issues we know nothing about, really?

Would Thoreau use Facebook and Twitter as tools for his activism, especially in an age where being an activist is loosely defined– when almost everything is “a cause”? Would he use social media for steering people into right action, into waking up, into mobilization? Or, would he shun social media and find another way?

“I did not wish to live what was not life, living is dear, nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put rout all that was not life…” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thoreau
Thoreau

It’s 4:40am; time to go back to sleep.

Movements of Silence

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In front of Pastelaria Pau de Canela, a boy, in a tie-dye shirt, runs past the pigeons causing them to flutter, surge and fall. They move as one. The boy’s not running to anything or from anything; he’s not racing anyone; he’s not exercising. He’s not fleeing his shadow. He’s running, because he’s healthy, joyous, and loves the feeling of his heart jumping in his chest.

On this day in late April, orange blossoms pierce the air; neighbors greet each other with sun in their voices; friends kiss each other on both cheeks; a father kicks a ball with his two sons; young mothers push strollers; couples walk arm in arm; a man buys a flower from a peddler. Bells intrude and recede: it’s one; it’s two; it’s three– the clock will continue to chime, when we’re gone.

A mother and daughter, in matching striped shirts, walk arm in arm; a girl feeds her boyfriend a spoonful of ice-cream; an old man with a cane pauses near the carousel; two middle-aged women savor strawberry cones; a man wipes dirt from his son’s feet; a toddler drops her lemon-lime icicle. Ash and sand and jasmine rain on us.

There’s always a guitarist in the square– this square or any other. He strums, and many stop to listen. His guitar paints thoughts lilac. “Prayers aren’t important,” a man says. Is that so? Then, wish others love, wellness and comfort without calling it a “prayer,” if the word offends. Help financially, if you can, but if you can’t: love is currency; a smile is currency; positivity is currency; action is currency; time is currency; blessings, spoken or silent, are currency. Self-love is capital; loving others, an investment.

There’s music, then there’s silence; there’s chatter, then there’s silence; there’s laughter; then there’s silence; there’s life; then, there’s silence. The world, tragedy-filled, but not tragic, goes on…

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