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.” 

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born to Wander?

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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.

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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

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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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

O Pescador (The Fisherman)

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The voices in the restaurant almost drown out the strains of music. Only three tables are occupied, yet the room seems full– perhaps, it’s the kerosene lamps hanging from the ceiling, the low wooden beams, the black and white paintings, the wall of celebrity photographs. The decor creates warmth. The restaurant, O Pescador (trans. in English as The Fisherman), in Cascais, is a tranquil haven two minutes from the sea.

There’s a faux porthole on the wall that opens onto seascapes. We’re seaside, but there’s no actual window. When I left the house today, it was with no destination in mind and now I sit beside two seas– one real, the other painted.

This morning, I walked past old ladies leaning out of their windows, past gangs of boys whistling, past stray dogs; walked past Arroios, Anjos, Intendente, Martim Moniz, Rossio; danced past nuns, fountains, pigeons. The rain accompanied me; the sun joined us for a moment, but grew bored and left.

Strangers stopped me. “Ha, I’m not from Angola; not from Brazil; not single; not a runner; not an athlete of any kind; not in a hurry. Yes, I can walk with you; help you cross the street; chat awhile.” Let’s speak in Portuguese,”Eu tenho muito tempo,” then I’ll move on to my destination of nowhere. Let me get busy being in love with the streets of Lisbon.

My feet knew where my heart wanted to go, and here I am at O Pescador in Cascais. The waiter, Philip, whom I’d just met, knew what I wanted before I did.

“Do you want to come in?” Yes, it’s cool today. He knew: yes to olive oil drizzled on the grilled squid; yes to fluffy pillows of bread served in a basket, yes to water and a glass of white wine; yes to trying a new dessert.

“May I?”
“Of course.”
“This is for you.”
“What is it?”
“Molotov, a soft dessert made from egg whites and sugar.”
“Thanks much!”

It’s raining hard now. Water inside and outside– enough to set thoughts adrift. A seasoned Irish couple enter, “It’s not summer today; I’m sure it’s not,” the woman says.

What is summer if not a day like today? Philip, in his black vest preliminarily swirls the wine; the rain is decisive, yet calm; Os Tribalistas sing about an old childhood; the ocean fights for position in our mouths; we’ve settled into our seats and ourselves; everything we need is graspable. It feels like summer.

O Pescador, Cascais
O Pescador, Cascais

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grilled squid with roasted potatoes
grilled squid with roasted potatoes

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Cascais, Cascais, Cascais!

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Dear Friends,

Forty minutes, and ninenteen miles from the center of Lisbon, awaits an idyllic town– Cascais. The coastal town Cascais has streets lined with palm trees, designer stores, restaurants, smaller boutiques and pocket-friendly shops, gelaterias, bookshops, a yoga studio, bicycle shops, rows of pink, white and eggshell houses, bars, pubs and tea houses. A few days after my arrival in Lisbon, I attempted to visit Cascais, but the train strike made it impossible. Thus, after two failed attempts, today was the day.

Upon exiting the train, I was thrown into a delicious state of confusion: Should I walk down the cobbled streets of the town? Should I get a hazelnut ice-cream cone and lick it slowly like those enjoying their cones and basking in the sunlight at the sidewalk gelateria? Should I make my way directly to the beach without looking back? Gelato, shops, and cobbled streets are in Lisbon, so I decided to go straight, without stopping, to the beach. Less than five minutes later, an orchestra of waves washed over me.

To the left, and the right: paddle boarders, cyclists, topless sunbathers, sailboats, fishing boats, children skirting the waves, crests of white, a sandcastle being built, guys playing frisbee with their dogs, runners, and young and old stradding the wall that separates the square from the beach. English, Portuguese, Spanish and French rising and falling.

I want to be where the sun warms the sky
When it’s time for siesta you can watch them go by
Beautiful faces, no cares in this world
Where a girl loves a boy, and a boy loves a girl (La Isla BonitaMadonna)

Many years ago, Belinda Carlisle sang “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” and though it was never a favorite of mine, the song kept playing in my mind while observing the surroundings. The town is perfect— the comforts and conveniences of city living, the tranquility of the country, the closeness to the city of the suburbs, and the sea! Oh, Portugal. You were exactly what I was looking for– I adore you.

All we really want is some fun… Some guys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world. I want to be the one to walk in the sun….(Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper)

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(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIb6AZdTr-A)

Love,

Val

This Is How It Starts– The Falling in Love

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This is how it starts– the falling in love with a city. It descends and envelops you. There’s nothing you can do, it happens all at once. In mid-step, between your exhale and inhale, you realize it.

You find yourself doing things you’d never do anywhere else; like, leaving the house in the pouring rain to listen to live jazz and blues. You adore music, of course you do, but in another city, one you’re not enamored with, you’d say, “There’s music on YouTube, why would I go out in weather like this?”

You want to hold your excitement in, but can’t help sharing every photo, every realization, even when you may be the only one who can feel the thrill of it all.

Like the “Come to Jesus” posters at Arroios station say, “Every day’s a revelation.” You take the advice of a wise five-year old and taste raindrops on your tongue. You’ve eaten codfish before, but never steamed and served with potatoes. Oh boy, that doughnut filled with custard and the churro with creme, you’ve eaten those before, but heaven hadn’t opened its gates in your mouth then. Floods of flavor. Wow.

You do things you know you may regret, but then you think, “Those five minutes were worth it”– like, the mango margarita at The George on Rua Crucifixo. Tequila, aka “Ta kill ya,” you promised never to imbibe after the 2002 Festivale Mexicano fiasco, but here you are with a mango margarita– mango, tequila, salt, and– is that black pepper on top?

You fell in love before, of course you did, but this time, this time is different. You’re different. This city brings out the best in you; it makes you write everyday; it makes you smile inside and out, to which strangers will respond, stop you on the street and say, “You’re wonderful;” it makes things seem new, and since you know everything ends, your heart constricts a little.

Wait!

The novelty may fade, but the feeling could deepen. It doesn’t have to end. It doesn’t have to end.

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(Check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCM_VWzSiMo)