Tuesday, September 29, 2009

And Eleven Years Later...

Bermuda decides to fully protect Cooper's Island...that's island time for you!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bermudianization, Part Two

Cooper’s Island, located in St. George’s parish on the eastern side of Castle Harbor, juts out into the center of the Castle Islands. It was a separate island consisting of 77.5 acres until 1943, when it was connected to St. David’s Island by dredged fill during the construction of the Unites States Air Force Base. “Prior to its connection with St. David’s Island, Cooper’s Island was Bermuda’s largest, most isolated and ecologically diverse island. Even today it retains most of this diversity and ecological importance because the military and NASA installations have not altered the contours significantly and the superb coastline and beaches remain intact.” (Wingate)

When Bermuda was settled in the early 1600’s, the protracted demise of Bermuda’s endemic species, most notably the Cahow, had already begun. Cooper’s Island, because of its isolation, became one of the last refuges for many of Bermuda’s endemic species. In addition to its vital ecological role, Cooper’s Island possesses a rich cultural history. Historical highlights include a reward to Christopher Carter from Governor Moore in 1612, legends of the island’s copious quantity of Spanish treasure, the building of Governor Moor’s Pembroke Fort, it role in military defense during the Second World War, and its role in the United States Space Program.

A bit dry, perhaps a wee bit stilted...but I was young and more than intimidated by my task -- to build a case for protecting Cooper’s Island -- but as I read the paper today, almost 12 years after writing it, I think, “not a bad job, girl, not a bad job at all.”

All the while I was writing the white paper, I fretted. I was certain that if C. were to get wind of my doing for free what she would have been paid for that there would be hell to pay. As an expat you were reminded constantly of your place on the island -- you were there by the grace of the almighty Work Permit and you lived in constant fear that you might do something stupid that would end up in your passport being stamped Involuntarily Repatriated.

Occasionally, The Royal Gazette would run a short article about the latest expat gaff that landed the poor sod in hot water and resulted in a hasty return to his home country. There was the British expat who got caught night farming Easter Lilies one spring -- poor bastard picked lilies for his wife, but the lilies happened to be in the 'Queen's field'...every year Bermuda grows a whole field of lilies just for the Queen and they ship them to her with great fanfare for Easter. The fellow ended up in the prison at Dockyards for a few days and then they booted him home to the UK.

Being an expat came with a constant undercurrent of fear and anxiety. It wasn’t just the fear of violating the terms of the Work Permit and possibly being sent home in shame, there was there was the fear of just about any sort of insane thing happening to you while you were so far away from home. The island was really dangerous in alot of ways. Sharing a 22 square mile island with 80,000 other people was intense -- not relaxing really. We got really paranoid at times, they called it Rock Fever and it could manifest itself in a myriad of ways.

Driving was a daily fearful challenge and there was risk everywhere you went and with many of the things you did. Part of that anxiety was that you were in a foreign place with foreign laws. I frequently asked myself "what if?" questions while I lived there. What if I got really sick and had to be in the Bermuda Hosptital? It had a terrible reputation, most expats had agreements with their employers to be airlifted back to the States if they got sick or injured. Women wouldn't have their babies there, they would go home for better medical treatment.

What if I had a car wreck? An easy thing to do in Bermuda...insane little narrow roads, kids on pedal bikes, motor bikes going between lanes, mad rastas driving dump trucks -- one rasta who worked at our quarry drove me off the road one day with his dump truck, I almost ended up in the ocean...luckily there was a ledge!

What if I drown?

What if I was the victim of a machete robbery? That was a good one, Bermuda was gun free, which most people took to make the island free of violent crime, but not so, and the weapon of choice? Machetes! I truly can say I would take being robbed at gunpoint any day over being robbed by a Bermudian with machete!

I would read about expats and tourists who got into terrible jams...arrested for driving drunk, arrested for possession...some of the best stories involved sailors...British sailors, US sailors, even some Russian naval boys, who came to the island on a Russian nuclear sub; they got into brawls, got arrested and ended up being jailed down at the prison at Dockyards...their ships would sail without them.

We knew of a futures trader who got drunk one night and stole a horse from a local livery stable! They busted him riding on the beach -- he and his wife and kids got sent home....he bought his way out of time down at Dockyards. Lucky for him he had that kind of money - Dockyards was positively medieval.

There was this constant threat of a misstep leading to your demise out there. The island tempted you into doing things you wouldn't normally do, paradise would intoxicate you and so - death, prison, scandal were not so far away as you think - the what ifs were interesting and scary - and funny, now that I look back on it.

So it wasn’t totally farfetched to think that if C. found out I was doing her job, then my husband and I could find ourselves packing for home. But I couldn’t possibly foresee the events of the next year that would send us home just two years after arriving on the island and those events would have nothing to do with writing a white paper for the Bermudian government!

In the meantime though, I tried to keep my Rock Fever at bay by working diligently at the Aquarium and my secret hope was that through my good intentions and some luck from the stars, the powers that were at the Aquarium would see fit to hire me. But the chances of that were slim and Jen made sure I was reminded of that regularly, she was one of those Bermudians who played strictly by the rules. But even though Jen and the newspapers and the government insisted that Bermudianization was a water tight concept that protected the working rights of Bermudians, I saw how wildly inconsistent the carrying out of the law could be. Politics and money and the good old “its who you know” frequently worked in the favor of foreign workers. Bermuda would say one thing and do another. And I saw it with my own two eyes right at the Aquarium

I had been working there for a year - as a volunteer, no ifs ands or buts. I was feeding fish, toiling over turtle data, writing white papers for the government, turtling, and my payment was sanity - pure and unadulterated sanity, because I knew that when I returned to the States I could say I had accomplished something while I was on the island. And on a daily basis, I had a place to be and people to see - many Expat wives didn’t have that. They saw the walls of their pink Bermuda house, they kissed their husbands good bye for the day, they maybe had a drink or two and then they would go to the beach and cook in the hot sun all afternoon. It was a recipe for mental disaster. The aquarium helped me avoid that slippery slope and so I thanked goodness for them every Bermudiful morning.

But then they did it - they pissed me off. They did something that I thought they would never do. One day Jen asked me to go to lunch with her and the volunteer coordinator and some volunteers. Terrific! Lovely. We sat on picnic tables overlooking the water in Flatts - the sailboats were rocking in their moorings and the big pink tourist busses were making their stop at the Aquarium to deposit tourists like coins at the entrance. I sat next to this lovely American girl named Trudy. She was a new expat wife, she and her husband had been on the island exactly three weeks. She was all full of questions and bright eyed. And I was happy to tell her of my first year in Bermuda and how terrific it was that she was volunteering for the Aquarium. She was from Connecticut and so we tried to connect our friends and family from home, but to no avail. She told me where she and her husband were living. I told her about the best snorkeling spots, the ones that are less frequented by tourists and where to go for the best fish and chips, which was the White Horse Tavern down in St. George’s -- wrapped in that day’s Royal Gazette, with just enough grease and vinegar and salt! Lunch ended and I got on my pedal bike and trundled home, it was a good day.

About a week later, Jen sends me across the road to the volunteer office building to pick up some things. When I get there I meet up with the new American girl, Trudy, she’s whirling around organizing this and organizing that for a camp for school children later in the day. She whooshes by me and says Hello! I notice something different about her...what is it? what’s different? Her hair? No, blonde as it was last week, tied up in that perky pony tail. Dammit, what is it? Oh, I see, I see now, she’s wearing a STAFF shirt. She’s not wearing a VOLUNTEER shirt, she’s somehow gotten confused and worn a STAFF shirt for her duties today. Hmmm. How very odd. I ask B. for the materials Jen requested and B. says, oh, from now on you can see Trudy for those kinds of things, its her JOB now. “Really, B.? Trudy is working for you now?”

“Oh yes! I am so pleased to have Trudy on staff! She’s going to be a much needed addition around here!”

“Great...great for Trudy....” I was stunned. I put the papers and other sundries Jen asked for in a small box and headed back out into the heat of the day. Something was roiling about in my stomach. Was I hungry? No, I wasn’t hungry. I was pissed. This girl had been there for three weeks and she was on the payroll. I went into Jen’s office and handed her the box. “So Jen, I think I’m done for today. I kinda have a headache. I think I’ll head home. And you know what? I think I need a few days off. I’ll call you next week, maybe. I’ll be back, I just need a few days off.” Jen cocked her head and asked me if everything was okay? “Yeah, everything’s fine, I just need a little R &R.”

I did take a week off, maybe two. It was the most empty time I had spent on the island since arriving the year before. I read books and went to the beach and stared out at the horizon wishing for a ship, something you did alot of in Bermuda. That empty horizon just begged you to wish for a ship, like you were stranded and ready to light a distress fire...you wanted that ship to appear and take you home.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bermudianization, Part One


“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” These historic words uttered by Neil Armstrong were beamed from the surface of the moon to Bermuda’s NASA Tracking Station on Cooper’s Island and then on to NASA’s flight control center in Houston, Texas for the rest of the world to hear. It was July 16, 1969, and the U.S. Space Program had put the first men on the moon with its Apollo 11 mission. Bermuda and the Cooper’s Island tracking station played an essential role in the success of the mission. Over the years, the Cooper’s Island tracking station has supported countless launches into space, including the Space Shuttle missions, but new satellite technology has rendered the facility redundant and NASA plans to vacate the complex on the tip of Cooper’s Island by September 30, 1998.

I wrote that - that is the introductory paragraph to a white paper I researched and wrote titled A Cultural, Educational & Environmental Opportunity For Bermuda -- Proposal for the enhancement of Cooper’s Island Nature Reserve by the addition of the NASA Tracking Station lands...what a bloated title! But it had to be that way -- it was going to be presented to the Bermudian parliament and those MPs weren’t going to read my paper, they were going to read the title and then listen to Richard from the Aquarium and possibly old David Wingate, the eccentric but honorable Bermuda Conservation Officer, “Mr. Cahow” himself present a case for making the NASA lands into a national conservation area - the body of the paper made a good case on the outside odds that one of the MPs might be interested, but mainly it was something to be filed away in the great tangle of Bermudian government red tape.

The white paper was supposed to be written by über expat wife and super fundraising woman C. -- you remember her? The one with the Roman nose and the blue blood from my Hell Night Out with the Girls. Well, Richard was going to hire her as a consultant for fairly large bucks to write that white paper, but why pay good Bermudian dollars when you can use captive volunteer labor instead?

One day, I was speeding out of the Aquarium, hoping to get home for a bite and then a nap on the beach that afternoon and Richard called me as I trotted by his door...my eyes were all bloodshot from entering turtle data, “Howz Yer Legs! Gotta minute?” I stopped and put it in reverse, and leaned into Richard’s door. There he sat with his constant sidekick, Jack. They were smiling broad Bermudian smiles. Oh dear, what did I do now? Please no more nicknames, I can’t take it!

“What’s up Richard? Hi Jack!” They were cute boys really, always up to something and counting the hours to cocktail hour every day, but they were also deadly serious about running their aquarium and zoo. Jack stood up and offered me his chair - he leaned back on Richard’s old ship’s desk, and crossed his legs...I was mesmerized by his khaki Bermuda shorts and his pink knee socks, he had obviously just come from town, he didn’t wear that kind of getup around the zoo.

“So girl, we were lookin’ at your resume. Seems in addition to data management, you’ve got some fundraising and writing experience, true?” Richard actually had my resume in his hands as he asked this question. I nodded my head and bit my lip. I wondered, hmm, did C. call them? Did she put in some word to get me out of the fish house and up into the front office. I hoped not, I was making good progress on the data base and my turtling days were heavenly. I had no interest in fundraising, in licking envelopes and kissing moneyed ass.

Jack piped up, “Do you know about Cooper’s Island?”

“Yeah, that’s where the NASA station is, right?” I had driven up to the entrance once hoping to find a way in so I could snorkel off the rocks there, but the place was locked up tight.

“That’s the place! Well, in a year of so, they are going to shut down the station, NASA is going to cancel their land lease with the government and we want to preserve the place -- there are people already talkin’ about a hotel out there, but Wingate says there are Long Birds nesting out there and quite possibly Cahows too and well, its a special sort a place.” Jack was right, it was a special place. Hell, all of Bermuda was special, but tourism had sort of taken care of that, hotels everywhere...land conservation was not a priority in Bermuda.

“Makes sense to me guys, but why are you telling me?” I really wanted them to get to the point, I was hungry and I was already half asleep in my spot in the soft pink sand at John Smith’s Bay.

“Well, we would like you to write a white paper for us...to present to Parliament to make our case. Could you do that?”

“I guess I could, but don’t you have people who do that kind of thing for you already, Bermudians, you know?” This was code for “I know you’re not going to pay me and I already work here 5 mornings a week for free, so c’mon fellas!”

“Oh yeah, we do have a Bermudian fundraising consultant, her name is C. -- you probably know her because her husband works for Gold Finger, do you know her?” They knew damn well I knew her.

“Yeah, I know C.” Suddenly I realized they were testing me -- would I screw C. out of her big consulting fee?

“Would it be say, a conflict of interest, say, if you were to write this paper for us, instead of her?” Jack crossed his arms. I was in deep water, I bit my lip harder.

“No, not really, I work for you guys. I mean, I volunteer for you guys. I rarely socialize with C. -- and you guys don’t have to say that I took the job on for you, right?” Oh my god, what am I doing? I am already collating 9 years worth of turtle data for them for free and now, now I am going to anonymously write a white paper for them to be presented to the whole f’ing Bermudian Parliament and screw C. out of her big commission?! Hell yeah, why not? I’ve got nothing better to do, I’m an Expat Wife! But it was risky...if C. were to find out, it might jeopardize my husband's job...his work permit...our expat existence...

“Right, you can do this for us and...” damn and then I realized it, they would take the credit for writing the paper...

“Yeah, I’ll do it. Where do we begin?”

“How about a field trip to Cooper’s Island next week, we’ll take you to the NASA station, you can see mission control and we’ll hike the island, talk to Wingate about the birds and oh, here’s some background info from the museum library.” They plunked a file of papers in my hand. The dye was cast, I was now a covert writer. I felt like one of Charlie's Angels...

You are probably wondering about now - what’s all this? What’s the big deal? Here friend is where I will teach you about Bermudianization and the extreme proprieties that it required an expat to live under. Bermudianzation is the high fallutin’ word that the Bermuda government used to describe its fair employment practice for Bermudians. Bermudians were entitled to any and all jobs offered on the great island of Bermuda, whether those jobs were offered by Bermudian employers or Foreign entities that chose to incorporate on the island for tax purposes or other good financial reasons. What this meant was that Bermudians had a first crack at all and any jobs available on the island -- all foreigners were forbidden to apply for jobs in Bermuda. You could not say be in the U.S. or in Canada or in the U.K. and look up job listings in Bermuda and apply for a job. As a foreigner, you had to be “sought out” by an employer...that is an employer who had exhausted all Bermudian citizens as possible candidates. If an employer could not find a qualified Bermudian for the job, then they could seek the help of foreign workers. But they would have to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop to advertise the job internationally and any prospective foreign worker would have to go through an unbelievable process to be considered not only fit to work for the said company in Bermuda, but to qualify for a Work Permit. If you, the foreign worker, were so fortunate, as to be hired for a position in Bermuda, you would be required to apply for a Work Permit from the Bermudian Government. This application was tantamount to applying to be a Secret Service Agent.

Said Prospective Work Permit Applicant would need to gather at least 6 personal recommendations from reputable citizens of their home country -- if Said Applicant were to know someone personally on the island of Bermuda, even better! A full medical including chest x-rays to eliminate the possibility that Said Applicant may be a carrier of tuberculosis was required. Said Applicant’s spouse was to provide letters of reference to character also, full medical history, and a written promise to not seek employment while residing on the island under his/her spouse’s ever-so valuable Work Permit. There were reams of information educating Said Applicant of violations that one could commit during one’s tenure upon the island that could result in Involuntary Repatriation. Let me repeat that - Involuntary Repatriation.

Involuntary Repatriation is the nice way of saying Deportation. And repatriation could come in several forms --they might give you 30 days to leave the island, they might only give you a day...it depended upon the extent of your violation of Their rules...

Make Me Happy...


Its been a while since I addressed the Good Peoples of San Jose -- and so I will throw them this bone...if you are not reading Mad Dog Manifesto - Manus Haec Inimica Tyrannus or The Blog & I, well, then well, the Imam will continue to pout. So make the Imam smile and good fortune will come to you in the form of many camels!

My mother is a painter...


she paints funny animals...



she paints race horses...


she paints Afghan warriors...


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Flamboyana

Tonight, over the stove
over a big pot of
eggplant and garlic and tomatoes
and sea salt and onions
and a single beautiful Turkish bay leaf
and pepper and oregano
and one last summer zucchini
i am talking on the telephone
with my mother.
Our nightly conversations
are filled with the events of our day
we laugh about the dogs
and tonight i thank her
for the stark little painting
she made for my husband for his birthday
a scene from Afghanistan...two horsemen
galloping and one being shot through the chest
her wild handwriting below reminds my husband
that his growing older, his troubles, are not so terrible
“at least we are not in Afghanistan!”
but her voice drops
“whatta day we had...”
and i know something terrible has happened on the farm
“Flamboyana is dead...”
my mother’s long headed funny old race mare
nineteen years old with the soul of a nun
an elegant granddaughter
of the great Gallant Bloom
on her dam's side
stood stunned in the stall this morning...
when my mother came with her breakfast
the old bay mare didn’t move toward her bucket
and upon inspection, my mother found
a startling swollen hind leg
the medicine cabinet was opened
and syringes were filled
the vet was called
and it was determined that the delicate old flower
had broken her leg
in the night
in the stall
by some freak twist
I turned the heat down on my ratatouille
I stirred it with my old wooden spoon
and cried as my mother told me of calling men
men to bury Flamboyana
today was the first day of deer hunting season
and all the men with bulldozers were hunting
but finally a wife called a wife who called another wife
and a man arrived with the proper heavy equipment
and Flamboyana was put asunder
on the edge of my mother’s beautiful yellow field
only a mile from the Watery River
where the coyotes and the deer and the foxes and the snakes
will run over her under the southern stars...
good night good mare, good night.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Howz Yer Legs?


Back in Bermuda, when I wasn’t feeding fish, or out on the open sea Turtling, or helping the aquarists wrestle with the harbor seals to take their blood (a monthly activity that was dangerous for us, but entertaining for the visitors!), I was tucked away in a little pink one room house that was set off in a tangle of palms and under a huge old poinciana tree...it was Jen, the Head Aquarist’s office -- Jen took me under her wing the minute I arrived in Bermuda. She was in charge of the Bermuda Turtle Project and she had almost nine years worth of turtle data stored in a rusty file cabinet that she had been saving just for me. Jen was a strong tan tawny haired Bermudian woman -- she had blazing blue eyes and was the most sea worthy person I ever met in Bermuda. She and I connected on a few levels...one being that we rode horses. She took me riding a few times on the island -- loaned me a horse that had no brakes and laughed at my concerns that the mare might just take me into the middle of South Road. Jen was very properly Bermudian -- and she considered me to be extremely American, something that eventually I understood. She constantly corrected my spelling -- color was to be spelled colour and behavior was to be behaviour...she truly felt that I had learned how to speak and how to spell all wrong and she was determined to reeducate me.

But that filing cabinet, I was handcuffed to that rusty file cabinet for almost two years. On my first day at the Aquarium, Jen gave me the grand tour of the Aquarium and the zoo. I met all the staff and all the residents...the Galapagos turtles, the Parrot fish, the Trunk Fish, the Moray Eel the Flamingos, the Macaws, the Golden Lion Tamarin, the Alligator...I was thrilled that I would be surrounded by such wonderful animals and plants and people. And Jen was excited to have me there. My resume was just what she was looking for -- a data manager. After a fabulous lunch she took me back to her little pink office that sat behind the museum...a wonderful building that contained whale skeletons and my favorite; a giant squid in formaldehyde! We sat down at her messy desk and as the peacocks sauntered past the open window she told me of the file cabinet. Jen and her cohorts had been chasing and tagging green sea turtles in the waters of Bermuda for over 9 years. One to two times per month they would take the government fisheries boat out at various locations around the island -- on the reefs, in lagoons, beyond the reefs in open sea -- and there they would drop nets and catch turtles. The turtles were taken aboard the government boat where the equivalent of alien abduction would happen. They were measured this way and that, weighed, and had their blood taken. Then they were tagged with a nice big metal tag which was stapled to one of their flippers and as suddenly as they were captured, they were released. Some turtles were ‘recaptures’ as noted by their already existing tag.

All the information that was collected about these turtles was on paper in that rusty file cabinet -- all their measurements, and DNA info and weights, and notations of scars and injuries...recapture information, all of it. And there was no way to do anything with it. Jen couldn’t get any statistics or trends or reports about her years of work with the turtles of Bermuda. And because she couldn’t utilize her data, she couldn’t write grant requests -- Jen’s turtle project was running out of money.

Jen opened the cabinet and it made a horrible noise, an audible one and a psychic one, the kind of noise only a data manager can hear, like a dog whistle to a hound. Its the sound of disorganization and untapped information -- data managers go nuts at this sound. Suddenly I realized I was back in the business, like an ex-con who had just been released. I thought I had left all that back in the States with the big international conservation organization I worked for. I had come to this island to redeem myself in other ways, to feed fish and marvel at Galapagos turtles while they awkwardly ate lettuce leaves. But no, Jen opened that drawer and this ex-con looked at all that paper and I found myself saying, “okay Bugsy, just one more bank...this will be the last one, I swear and then we can go live in the High Sierras and we won’t have a care in the world.” Nine years of data -- no problem! And then she hooked me good, “And we will take you Turtling...one day or two days a month, out on the sea, you can help us tag turtles!” And now, every Jaques Cousteau television special I had ever seen replayed in my head -- I was a goner, where was my red watch cap?!

And so began a two year project in which I spent my mornings hunched over a little ancient laptop -- first to design a tidy little data base that matched the turtle forms, complete with a turtle diagram to note scars, injuries, and unique markings. And then came the data entry, turtle after turtle after turtle. All the while, out the window I watched tourists and school children and aquarium staff go by. I had a particularly excellent view of the back exit of the museum, which had a wide set of limestone steps, not steep, but gently rolling steps that brought the visitors out of the slightly musty smelling museum into a tropical paradise complete with the wonderful calls of the birds in the aviary.

Sometimes the tourists were so hypnotized by their entrance into this wonderland they would completely miss the fact that they were about to walk down a flight of stairs and on more than one occasion, I witnessed the tumble of a poor fat vacationer in badly fitting shorts and a pale set of thighs go tumbling down...cameras would take flight and there would be a rush to assist. And the usual result was embarrassment on the side of the visitor.

But one day, one Bermudiful day, as I sat there with my stack of sea water stained turtle papers, squinting and trying to discern the chicken scratch of some researcher, a handsome dark skinned Bermudian man came wheeling out of the museum in a motorized wheelchair -- and unlike just about every one I had observed leave that museum, he did not pause to take in the air of the little jungle, no, he had the hammer down, he was on some sort of mission, a suicide mission. And before I could even take a breath of humid island air to gasp, the man and his wheel chair went bumpity-bumpity-bumpity-bump down those limestone steps and he and the contraption landed in a face-down heap at the bottom. His wife came running out of the museum just as I reached the scene -- she had the look of a woman who had seen this all before, I took from her stance that this man was a bit of an Evil Knieval with that chair...perhaps she was even contemplating why she ever gave him that motorized wheelchair for his birthday last year anyway? That maybe she should have kept him in the old chair that required him to think before he moved.

I began my rescue...first I got the enormous chair cleared away from the accident victim -- the chair was heavy and the wheels were still whirring away, the throttle was stuck! The wife magically pushed something and the chair went silent. Just as we got the chair out of the way, Richard arrived. Richard was the tall, curly headed, barrel chested, boisterous, rum loving and fun loving Bermuda Aquarium and Zoo Director. He always had a smile on his face and he could charm a baby from an alligator’s jaws...which he probably had on a few occasions in that zoo. He stopped and our eyes met - I gave him this confident look as if to say, “No worries Richard, I have this all under control!” and so he waited.

The man rolled over, and sat up. The first thing I noticed about him was that both his legs had been amputated below the knees. He was thin and neatly dressed, something Bermudians were good at, they were the most well dressed people I have ever known. His camera was still hung around his neck. I figured he was probably a diabetic -- diabetes occurred in epidemic proportions among black Bermudians, and there were constant reminders around the island in the form of educational posters and public announcements were punctuated with testimonies from diabetic amputees. I kneeled down and straitened the man’s terrific straw hat and remembered that I had seen him land first on those knees, they looked a bit raw and so I quickly asked him, “How’s your legs?”

And like a bad Bermudian storm he blasted me, “GIRL, I AIN”T GOT NO LEGS!“ I sputtered and my face went all hot...I thought, well, yes he does, he has half of his legs...oh dear, what have I done? Richard swooped in. I backed away from the scene. Tourists were slowly walking by trying to ignore the wreckage.

Good old Richard, ”Oh man, we gotta do sometin’ about those stairs! Let me get you back up in your chair man!“ And smiling strong Richard lifted that cantankerous old man back in his chair. I slinked back to the little pink office and watched from the window as Richard did what he was best at -- he had that couple laughing and talking about Bermudian politics or some such thing and then I think he took them over to the zoo cafe and bought them hot dogs and they just had a wonderful time. In fact, it was like the wreck of the wheelchair had never happened. Richard calmed the sea with his guile.

The next morning I returned to the Aquarium. I made my usual walk by the Harbor Seals. I liked to stop there and watch them lap the pool a few times. Early mornings at the Aquarium were the best...no visitors, just a few staff running about getting things ready. By then I was a part of the scene there, I had the run of the place and every one knew me. As I stood watching the seals bullet through the clear water, Richard came swinging by, he didn’t stop, he just tapped me on the shoulder and with a big grin uttered ”Howz Yer Legs?!“ and I crumpled with embarrassment as he disappeared around a corner. And that was how it started, that’s how my nickname became ”Howz Yer Legs?!“ Every where I went in the Aquarium I was greeted with ”Howz Yer Legs?!“, I would never live it down.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Steinbeck says...

“We find after reading many scientific and semi-scientific accounts of exploration that we have two strong prejudices: the first of these arises where there is a woman aboard -- the wife of one the members of the party. She is never called by her name or referred to as an equal. In the account she emerges as ”the shipmate,“ the ”skipper,“ the ”pal.“ She is nearly always a stringy blonde with leathery skin who is included in all photographs to give them ”interest.“ Our second prejudice concerns a hysteria of love which manifests itself in an outcry against parting and is usually written in Spanish. This outburst comes at the end of the book. It goes, ”And so--------.“ Always, ”and so,“ for some reason. ”And so we said good-by to Tiburon, vowing to come back again. Adios, Tiburon, amigo, friend.“ For some reason this stringy shipmate and this rush of emotion are slightly obscene to us. And so we said good-by to Tiburon and trucked on down toward Guayamas.”

The Log From the Sea of Cortez
John Steinbeck

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Backgammon in the Bahamas - Part Two


The bus driver eyed me when I departed the bus...perhaps he thought that he would have to describe me to Bahamian police later in the day. Yes, I was a young blonde American girl, going to the beach in the rain -- and I was alone. I bid him goodbye and strided towards the cabana. The ocean which had been so clearly azure earlier in the week, roiled green and thick. I was pleased to see the men huddled at their table with the backgammon board loaded for bear. They had two piles of bills weighted down with a beach rock. Their Cuban cigars stung my nose and their low guttural voices were like that of horses eating dinner on a cold winter night in the barn...

I placed myself on a stool at the bar and ordered a beer. The dark Bahamian bartender recognized me from the previous days, “Hey, where are all your friends? The rugby players?” I tried to be cool, cool as a young girl alone on a rainy Bahamian beach who was clearly looking for trouble could be. I didn’t know I was looking for trouble, I thought I was just looking for a good game of backgammon with some old men.
“Oh, them, they’re all back at the hotel...so tell me something...” The barkeep leaned over the counter, he was all ears. “Tell, me are those fellas here every day?”

“Yes M’am. Dat’s what dey do...dey play backgammon all day long, rain or shine. Do you play? ”

“I do, just a little, they wouldn’t play me, I would be wasting their time...” I took a sip of my beer and turned to look at the old men, they were fogged in by mist and cigar smoke...it hung about them like it would hang around a mountain top.

“Hey Fishmon! Fishmon!” my barkeep was calling to the men, they all turned, the smoke cleared and Fishmon answered...

“Can’t you see I’m in dis game?” he was clearly annoyed.

“Dis girly here, she wants to play. Give her a game or two!” I held up my hand to the men, I didn’t wave, just cocked my hand and smiled. They all looked at each other and then back at me. Fishmon smiled a sparingly toothed smile...a gold tooth in the very front gleamed at me.

“You come over den.” I got off my bar stool and walked over to them. They cleared the current game, just swept it off the board. They had a live one. “You got money? We don’t play for fun girly, we play for money.” I pulled my stash of jewel colored Bahamian dollars with the Queen’s turquoise portrait accompanied by a barracuda out of my pocket. They waved me to sit down at the board. “You know how to set up the board girly?”

“Yes, I think so.” I hesitated slightly with the pieces, I wanted to appear competent, but not cocky. Its at this point that I must admit, that I had the best of intentions when I sat down with these men. I wanted to have my Bahamian experience, hang with the natives so to speak, something to write home about. But there was clearly a problem right from the beginning. They thought they were going to take all my money and I thought I was going to take all theirs. Fishmon was the first to play me. They set up the doubling cube on the bar of the board. We rolled to determine who would go first...it went my way and I took that roll as my first move. I snapped my men into an automatic point - suddenly the air currents shifted slightly...Fishmon leaned in, looked at my first point and then at me. He sat back and rolled his dice, he smiled as though he was telling himself “Girly knows a little bit...”

The first game went fast - I kept my hands off the doubling cube. I didn’t want to strike too hard in the first game. I gammoned Fishmon and his cohorts ordered a round of beers and lit fresh cigars. They all jumped to be next, they jostled Fishmon aside. I had lightened his pocket by 10 Bahamian dollars and he was stunned.

My next opponent was the blackest of the group - he narrowed his eyes at me and pulled his fedora down over his eyes. But when it was all said and done, he leaned back in his chair, tipping the fedora back on his head and raised his unbelievably long arms to Jah. “Girly did it again! She took all my money!” I did take all his money, I turned the doubling cube a couple of times during that second game and cleaned his clock of thirty or so Bahamian dollars. The bartender came over, “What’s dis? Girly’s got de best of you den?” He pulled up a chair, the rain started to come down harder. The ocean was rising up on its legs and trying to tell me something, but I was high on the Cuban cigar smoke and my Elephant beer.

My third opponent couldn’t wait to play me -- he was heavy, with a round head like Idi Amin. He had more teeth than all his friends put together and they were lighting up the place...I took this to mean that he had money and he had skill...he looked like a man determined to beat Girly. He had been watching me play, he was going to trip me up. But I had another trick up my sleeve - the Anita Blockade - I had never tried it on anyone, but this seemed as good a time as any to give it a go. With my first roll I left two men wide open. There were giggles of delight, Fishmon leaned over me “Girly, you sure you want to do dat?” I bit my lip.

Immediately the fat toothy man took my men and turned the doubling cube. I rolled again, I got doubles and was able to put my taken men back on the board and then use my remaining moves to cast my line with three more uncovered men. The big black fish took it - and a few moves later it was like Anita was there with me, sitting on my shoulder, speaking Swedish to me. I was channeling her. Fat man’s home board was now completely blocked up with my men and he was being forced to use his dice in unconventional and risky ways. And then what I had been waiting for happened. He had to leave two men open and I pounced with a good roll of the dice, a double fives! I took his men and then began my exodus from his home board back to my home board - the cabana went horribly quiet - he had turned the doubling cube to a crazy amount and now all you could hear was the dice hitting the felt...and then, it was over. He never even managed to get one man off the board -- I slayed him with the most brutal of Swedish tactics.

He pulled out his money clip and layed his money down on the board. Close to three hundred Bahamian dollars...and just as I stuck out my arm to take the money, I had a terrible realization...I was all alone and these men were very pissed off. It wasn’t funny anymore -- Girly was a grifter. I let the money sit on the felt of the board. I looked around - I looked to Fishmon, the sea breeze came in and fluttered the bills and the bartender place his hand on them before they blew away. “Fishmon...one more game then...no doubling cube, just winner takes all of that and this...” I quickly took my other winnings, plus my reserve cash and put it down. Fishmon looked at the Fat Man and the Black Fedora man - they nodded. I felt this horrible heat down at the base of my back, like someone was holding a torch to it. My scalp was sweating. I needed to lose that game and lose it in such an utterly perfect way that they would redeem themselves and I wouldn’t end up being fed to the barracudas.

Fishmon won the roll for the first move. He deftly used his automatic point. I rolled, and when I rolled I hung my wrist, I tried to remove all the heat from my hand, to throw those dice with no thoughts in my head that might just make them land hot. I asked Jah to make my dice as cold as that green sea that was rushing in my ears. And Jah provided, roll after roll, was cold and rotten -- I made mistakes, but I had to make smart mistakes, mistakes that appeared to be failed strategy. I could not be a fighter throwing a fight or a jockey pulling a horse - no I had to lose for real.

And somehow I did - I lost in such a way that the ocean began to calm. That hot torch at the base of my spine was suddenly gone and the men patted me on the back. I had given them all my money and had returned all of theirs. The bartender went back to the bar and I pushed back my chair and thanked them for a good afternoon. Fishmon held out a five dollar bill, I hesitated, “Take it, you’re gonna need it for de bus back to your hotel.” I took it and ran out into the rain. I could see the bus waiting at the stop and I didn’t want to miss it.

Backgammon in the Bahamas - Part One


When I was very young, my father taught me to play backgammon...he had been running with a crowd of fashionable people who liked to speak French and play backgammon while drinking wine all night. They played for money too. So he instilled in me a very serious attitude towards the game -- he taught me to be merciless.

There are people who think that backgammon is purely a game of luck because its a dice game -- but a skilled backgammon player knows how to use those dice to their advantage. She knows all her “automatic points” and how to cover her men while capturing her opponent’s men. She knows how to swiftly get to her home board and set it up such that the dice will get her men off the board before her opponent even knows what happened.

My husband refuses to play backgammon with me, he says he doesn’t know this woman who emerges on the other side of the board -- he cannot beat her and she seems so bent on destroying him that he would rather do something less dangerous, like those chain saw chores that have been piling up in our woods. He used to enjoy playing cards with me, Gin, we played Gin for hours when we lived in Bermuda, but that fierce woman took over our card playing too...she is just too good at it, he tired of losing all the time. How did he end up marrying a grifter anyway?

I have only met one person who can foil me at backgammon. My life long friend Anita -- she and I played backgammon as teenagers -- we would sit on the floor for hours and set up game after game after game. We were evenly matched and we were obsessed! The record player would play Bowie’s Changes or The Beatles White Album over and over and we would roll the dice and another game would go by us. We even played over the phone! I would have my board and she would have hers -- this was the ultimate in trust - she would roll her dice, announce what came up, and I would mirror her move on my board - you had to believe the other completely, and you had to be totally honest. My grandmother would walk by me sitting at the kitchen table with my board set up...“Dear, when are you going to get off the phone? Why don’t you just ride down to Anita’s house and play?” I would shush her...“Mom! you don’t get it!” and then I would go back to my game. She didn’t get it -- there was something about playing over the phone that cemented our friendship and our skill.

But then Anita developed the most annoying and ingenious strategy. Early in the game, she would intentionally leave her men open, three or four or five men, so many men, that you were tripping over them, you had to capture them. And then she would fill up your home board with all these men coming back into the game and so you could not build a proper home board...and THEN she would capture your men who had made it all the way to the home board and send them back, back into the abyss. Finally, she would go in for the kill -- she would ever so swiftly gather up all her former prisoners and take them home and start clearing them off the board, while you ran all the way home with you tail between your legs. It was infuriating. It broke all the conventional ideas of the game. And no matter what I did to anticipate her coup, she would undo me. I tried to do the same to her -- but to no avail -- she would crush me, the Swede that she was, quietly, while drinking hot chocolate and nibbling on a Pepperidge Farm cookie, never taking her eyes off the board. This ended our backgammon days -- not our friendship, but she had found the ultimate weapon and our balanced rivalry was ruined, I was defeated.

A few years later though I would find new opponents, or should I say victims? Every once in a while I would stumble upon someone at a party in college who wanted to play, “But we don’t have a board” and I would say “I do, back in my apartment! Let’s go!” It was a nice pickup line, but all I was interested in was playing backgammon and winning five or ten bucks.

In the spring of ‘85 I went to the Bahamas -- to Freeport -- with our college rugby team. My roommate and I line-judged for our team and they asked us to go with them to a rollicking good tournament for Spring Break. Who could pass that up? When they weren’t playing rugby, they were drinking and smoking enormous amounts of reefer. It was a sight to see. On the second or third day on the island, we all went to the beach -- I remember a death defying bus ride and all of us spilling out onto this beautiful beach. We spent the day swimming and dancing and drinking...it was marvelous. But what was even more marvelous was there was a large cabana on the beach that housed an open bar and grill. There I found a group of Bahamian men, old thin boney black men, wearing straw fedoras, drinking Elephant beer, smoking Cuban cigars and playing BACKGAMMON. I was drawn to them like a stray dog -- I watched them play fast and I watched their money, those tropical colored bills going back and forth between them. I wanted to play, but the sun was calling and I had to plan my approach.

The rain came on our last day in Freeport -- the tournament had ended and we had played well. I was wiped out from line-judging in the hot equatorial sun and from the late nights. On that last morning, our hotel was quiet, all the players were hung over and asleep. But I had a plan. I was going to use this rainy day to go to the beach and find those men. I walked down to the bus stop and rode alone in that big unwieldy bus, while the rain came in the windows. I was full of hope about the good game to come and I had a pocket full of just enough cash to buy my way in...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Things I am, Wanted to Be, Was, or Will Become...Not In Order

a cowboy
an indian
a veterinarian
an olympic rider
joni mitchell
deborah harry
a marine biologist
a writer
a polo groom
a certain boy's twin sister
a pantry girl
a painter
a fencer
a modern dancer
a paperback writer
an animal behaviorist
an anthropologist
a teacher
the woman who lives in the lighthouse with all the dogs and puffins on the cliffs
a librarian
a marine biologist
a gardener - the kind who defies the elements
a grifter
a cartographer
a data manager -- oh dear
an expat
a turtle expert
a card shark
a surveyor
a hot dog stand girl
a taco stand girl
a back up singer
a rider of the bravest sort
a wife
a beach bum
a mother
a lover
a surfer
young
good humored
an old woman
which brings me back to the ice cream truck...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bartleby, the Scrivener & Party Girl


When Ida wasn’t calling me Pester Prynne, she was calling me Bartleby...as in the Scrivener. Because when I wasn’t telling stories and bouncing off the walls of our dis-functional and crowded office in Carrboro, NC, I was actually working really hard. And when I worked I took on the demeanor of a scrivener, at least in Ida’s observations of me. It was the nature of my work - I was a database manager, first for the fundraiser folk and then for the scientists. I made maps too -- I taught myself to work with Geographical Information Systems...which is nothing more than a huge database of geographical points...its just that in addition to producing spreadsheets and statistical reports, GIS can produce maps.

Beautiful maps! In those early days of making maps for the scientists at my big international conservation organization, I could sit for hours, I mean hours digitizing county property maps...there I would be hunched over a digitizing tablet in my dark little office with one lamp on, and all you could hear from me was beep, beep, beep, beep...digitizing maps was like knitting to me. I don’t knit, never have knitted, but I used to watch my grandmother knit -- and she would make the same little motions over and over and over and out of it would come this thing....a hat, a scarf, a sweater!

For me, to meditate upon the lines of tract of land, or to construct the banks and meanders of a river, to note the outline of a pond or to follow a country road with a a digitizing pen was about as zen as it got -- and at the end of the day I had a real treasure...something the scientists could use for land planning and land stewardship and something the fundraising folk could use to educate our donors. It was the ultimate knitting project. And at the end of the day I was calmer than when I had come into the office in the morning.

I am no longer a database manager -- I burned out, surprisingly, about six years ago. If I could have just remained in the little digitizing room, I would still be there, probably. But, things changed, technology changed. And the organization I worked for changed...it became unrecognizable to me. It outgrew me and overwhelmed me. I should clarify all this by saying, I was an English major - not a math major, or a computer science major or an environmental sciences major. I was a good old fashioned English major with aspirations to be a writer. But when I graduated college, yikes, I had to find a real job. And where better to work than right in the heart of the university I had been attending for several years! I went to work for the library -- in the circulation department. I shelved books and managed 50 students who shelved books -- I trained them in the Library of Congress system. And this was so long ago, so long ago, that we didn’t have barcodes on the books to check them out to patrons, each book had a PUNCH CARD...those manilla colored cards that had a series of punched holes that when fed through a reader relayed information into a, you guessed it, a database!

All of this was courtesy of IBM -- our library had the oldest IBM card punch machine on the East Coast and I was in charge of that dinosaur. I loved that machine! It was like using the first printing press - it was like sitting at a loom -- it was slightly dangerous too, you could hurt yourself with it if you weren’t careful. And it broke down quite often, being that it knew that it was obsolete. It was like an old horse waiting to be put out of its misery. There was a faded IBM business card taped to the card punch machine, with the number and name of the last remaining man at IBM who knew how to fix the blasted thing. I don’t remember his name, I only remember that he worked and lived somewhere far from Greensboro, NC and it was a monumental pain for him to come and fix the machine, so frequently he would tell me over the phone how to fix it.

There I would be, lying on the floor, under the card punch machine with a screw driver or a pair of pliers, desperately trying to follow the IBM man’s instructions. Worried and stunned librarians gathered round, they prayed that the card punch machine would continue to live...because we knew that the day it finally died, was the day that planning would have to begin, to convert our one-point-five million volumes to bar codes! Once a year, the IBM man would come to inspect the machine -- he must have been the oldest IBM employee in the world -- and as much as we wanted the punch card machine to live, he wanted it to die, because that meant Retirement! We were keeping him from retiring! He told me this one afternoon, as the sun poured in through the circulation department windows. All my student workers were organizing books and filing them onto trucks to take up into the stacks. I felt badly for holding up the old man’s retirement, but couldn’t he see that we were a well-oiled machine? The library needed those punch cards, bar codes be damned!

Working in the library back then was like existing inside a living database...the books were the data, the stacks were the tiers that the data was stored in, the Library of Congress system was our way of organizing and retrieving the data. Have you seen the movie Party Girl? WIth my all time favorite girl Parker Posey? I was like Parker Posey in Party Girl...I had no discipline and no mind for organizing things and then I met the library and the LIbrary of Congress system (Parker met the Dewey Decimal system...a system I detest, but that’s not the point here). The punch cards, the books, and the stacks changed the way my brain worked. Punch cards made me understand how computers work at their most basic level. Teaching students to shelve books and working with librarians made me desire ORDER!

Here’s how sick you can become -- you walk down an aisle in the stacks and you see a shelf of books that has been rifled through by a student...the books are every which way. You cannot help yourself, you must re-order all the books on that shelf, which leads you to think that this person must have screwed with the order of the books on the previous shelf and the following shelf, so you have to “shelf read“ and confirm that all is in order. And once you are done ”shelf reading“ you smooth the books with your hand...a move I learned from a most wonderful librarian and artist named George K. - you run your hand along the shelf, to line up the spines. Then there is this lovely sight in front of you...pure order.

So working in the library puts you not only in a living physical database, but it also instills a most zen way of being -- because no matter how hard you work to put the books in order, students and professors come and mess it all up, so you have to do it again! Over and over and over, just like Sisyphus...Party Girl’s beautiful Lebanese vendor boyfriend tells her the story of Sisyphus, rolling that damn rock up the mountain, only to have it roll down again, and Sisyphus rolls it back up again and again and again. That is library work -- you shelve the books, patrons take them out, you shelve the books, patrons take them out. The patrons are the gravity that you are constantly working against.

What’s my point? My point is that a little blonde liberal arts student like me, became the thing that all the teachers back in high school said I could never become -- a highly organized mathematically inclined worker! I was an atrocious math student and I damn near failed chemistry because of all that math...but nobody told me that math was about organization, if somebody had said that, I might have gotten it. But the librarians boiled it down to this, ”If you can say your ABC’s and your 123’s, you can learn the Library of Congress System and you can shelve books.“ and for me that meant I could then go on to manage large relational databases and make maps with the early geographical information systems.

But then, the 21st century arrived and with it arrived this wave of computer science and engineering grads who needed much larger computers and had much more data than I had ever worked with before...the demands of my job, to analyze land protection on these grand scales became exhausting...people were drunk on data and they came to me wanting more and more and more. I began to burn out, so I downsized myself into working with a relational database that still relied on the principle of land protection...I thought I was safe, but nope, the authorities caught up with me. My overly large international conservation organization got so good at what they were doing that we caught the attention of the U.S. Senate and suddenly we were being investigated. I was now working for two Senators - Baucus and Grassley and daily, I would receive orders to produce this report and that report from my huge database of southern lands protected...money and acres, money and acres, money and acres....they broke me. I walked away.

Now I am the simplest of data managers -- the old fashioned kind -- I have returned to my roots, I am a bookkeeper. I am Bartleby in her truest form.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Deep

Did I want to feed the eel? The moray eel? Sure, why not? I was feeling lucky! I had come through dinner with The Wives. How could a moray eel be more dangerous than the über girls?

This was not just any moray eel, this was theeee moray eel. He had lived in his own special tank in the Bermuda Aquarium for close to 20 years. He was a celebrity - he was a movie star. That’s right, he had been in the movies. If you are of a certain age, you might remember a movie classic called The Deep. It starred Robert Shaw (of Jaws fame), Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset and Jacqueline Bisset’s exquisite tits in a wet white t-shirt under her scuba gear. And it was filmed almost entirely in Bermuda!

I’m a girl, but even I can appreciate that the whole reason for that movie was to display Bisset’s tits in that t-shirt. The Deep was based on a Peter Benchley's novel of the same title...and here’s where I get to veer off a little -- Peter Benchley was my father’s next door neighbor in Princeton, NJ in the seventies- this was during my father’s second marriage and so my sister gets to tell everyone that she grew up next door to the author of Jaws...I met Benchley once, in my stepmother’s kitchen, all I remember is that he was tall.

So anyway, I will veer back now. So next to Mz. Bisset’s tits, the other stars paled in comparison, except for our Moray Eel. He steals every one of his scenes...all terrifying attack scenes, curiously combined with Mz. Bisset and her t-shirt. He never received the accolades he deserved really...no Oscar nominations. But he did live out his life in the Bermuda Aquarium and so my connections to The Deep equals Two - a random kitchen meeting with Peter Benchley and my feeding of a fish to the Moray Eel. The random kitchen meeting with Benchley was simple and in no way a threat to my well-being. The feeding of the Moray was another story entirely....

Patrick and I made our rounds - like stage hands we walked the hidden scaffolds and lofts above the tanks, out of Aquarium visitors’ view - while the visitors peered into the tanks to observe tropical fish, squid, sea horses, green turtles, hawksbill turtles and coral, we trudged along with our smelly wonderful buckets and dropped breakfast from above...the tanks from above were reflective and it was sometimes impossible to know what you were feeding, and so everything was well labeled.

But the Moray eel’s tank was distinct and there was no mistaking who you were dealing with. His tank was off to one side and twice the size of the other tanks. He had a lair made of limestone and coral and he spent most of his time in that lair, much to the consternation of visitors. Patrick and I peered down into the well-lit tank -- the clear water barely rippled because Himself, was sound asleep in his lair. My pulse was beginning to flutter a bit...was it the hangover or the idea of feeding the eel? Patrick gave me the most beautiful whole mackerel - his silver sides glistened with promise. “First I want you to just dunk dat mack into the water - dat way he gets the scent, dat’ll wake him up!”

I hold the Mackerel and I look at my tan bony hand, I love that hand, my right hand, I consider switching to my left hand, if the Moray takes my left hand, then I still have the skilled right hand, but I decided to live life to the fullest, and retain the mack in my right hand. I look to Patrick for any doubt in his eyes, but he feeds Himself every day, if I don’t want to do it, he’ll do it, its his job, he’s payed to feed the movie star.

So I do as Patrick tells me, I dunk the mackerel into the water, I waive him like a lure and Patrick touches me quickly, “Dat’s enough, bring him out!” So I lift the mackerel back out and I am dangling him over the water, and Patrick grabs my arm, “Don’t hold him dere like dat! you want to lose an arm?!” So I bring the mackerel back to me. Patrick and I peer down into the water which is beginning to stir now...He’s awake! The moray knows that breakfast is about to be served. I am hypnotized by the sound of the aquarium tanks around me, the bubbling of water filters, the murmur of visitors below us, and the distant constant call of the zoo peacocks, they are like volunteer sirens.

Patrick sends me back to the edge, “Okay, now its time. I want you to hold dat mack right over the water. Hold its tail between your thumb and your index finger, no more fingers dan dat. And stay still, don’t move. He’s gonna come up real slow but den he’s gonna be a demon when he takes dat fish. Don’t you flinch or he’ll take your fingers with the fish. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Patrick, I understand.” I feel lucky but I also see myself in the Bermuda Hospital, a place that all expats fear more than repatriation! In my mind I rehearse the words, “airlift me back to the States please...to the nearest coastal medical facility...anywhere but the Bermuda Hospital!” For a moment I consider swinging my arm toward Patrick and handing the mackerel to him, but then I remember The Wives, I don’t want to be one of The Wives, I want to feed the Moray Eel.

I hold my unusually long and tan thin arm, the one that some used to make fun of for its bony elbow, its stringiness, the one with the fine blonde hairs on it, I hold it taut. I count my fingers and admire their fine build as though this will be the last time that I can gaze upon them. My eyes descend from the loveliness of my arm and my hand though, and move past the sterling museum-quality mackerel to the tank. I do as Patrick instructs, I hold that mack between my thumb and my index finger and I dangle him ever so, a foot above the surface of the now quivering tank water.

Himself emerges from his lair - he is dragon green and he lumbers, if one can lumber in the water. He rolls one eye up to the mackerel but he has a lot of mass and little space to maneuver in. I hear the heightened murmur of tourists below -- I see the flash of a camera! Patrick says, “Don’t let dat worry you --- ignore dem -- hold dat fish!” My arm is strong, I am nothing but my arm and my eyes on Himself.

He lumbers and coils and uncoils and recoils and then he begins to come up. He is following mackerel pheromones in the limited currents of his environment -- I notice the waving of his sea grass and the whiteness of the brain coral that is installed in his tank. His huge flat green sides like a beautiful green ribbon move in slow motion back and forth and back and forth.

My arm is aching -- this mackerel is becoming the heaviest thing I have ever held. I want to adore my hand and my arm just one more time but all I can do is adore the dance of Himself...the emerald swirl of his hips, if a moray eel can have hips. And with that, like a bolt of lightening, he rockets out, to leave the atmosphere of his tank, and he is THERE, out of the water in full-on burn, and I see the flash of his white tusk-like teeth and the mackerel is just a memory. There is not even a tug, just a disappearance!

My arm -- my hand remain relieved of their task. I hear the brief call of angels...and realize it was the astounded tourists below. I pull back my arm, my beautiful bony hand and hold it to me as though it was a released hostage. “Thank you Patrick! That was cool man! totally cool!” Patrick was grinning a lovely Bermudiful smile. Time to move on and feed other less dangerous residents...still though, I thought "Eat your heart out Mz. Bisset!"

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Aftermath

“Expat wives have nothing better to do than to paint their toes!”
Anonymous Letter to the Editor, The Royal Gazette, sometime in 1997

The next morning, my mind was reeling over my dinner with The Wives and despite pushing the waiters back, I was hung over. I was due at the Aquarium to feed fish...the smell of which on a good day was bad, but add a tired mind and a hangover and you’ve got a situation on your hands. I coasted my pedal bike down the big curvy hill from our house and rode slowly along Harrington Sound Road to the little village of Flatts. It was another Bermudiful Day! I wished I had called in sick, but I needed to be with the fish and walk among the peacocks and visit the harbor seals. The Aquarium kept me sane, most of the time.

I half stumbled into the little hut where Patrick, a lanky dark skinned Bermudian Aquarist was already up to his elbows in 3 day old cod and shrimp and various other kinds of smelly bits that our Aquarium residents liked for breakfast.

“Good Morning Shannon! And how are you today?”

“Not so fine, thank you. And how are you?” I dispensed with the normal custom and admitted that I was under the weather. The smell of the fish in the tiny shack hit me like a wave.

“A little too much rum?” Patrick handed me a knife and made room for me at the work table.

“Yeah, something like that.” I looked out the shack window and watched a sail boat drift by on Harrington Sound. I tried to put my mind on that sail boat as I began cutting fish, but it was practically impossible to ignore the smell.

“So I wanted to ask you somethin...” Patrick was cutting the head off another cod fish.

“Sure Patrick, ask away.” I liked Patrick, he was younger than me, and like most Bermudians, he was very well travelled. Bermudians leave the island frequently to avoid Rock Fever, and hence they are probably the most well travelled people in the world. They were an odd bunch, very sophisticated and very parochial all at the same time, much like Manhattanites.

“Who does your husband work for?”

“Gold Finger.” I say very matter-of-factly knowing that this will open a pandora’s box of intrigue about me.

“Really? You don’t strike me as one of those people at all. You’re not like a normal Expat Wife...”

“How so? What’s makes a normal Expat Wife?” I knew the answer but I wanted to hear it from him.

“Normal Expat Wives don’t cut up stinky fish in a shack with Bermujians...especially ones whose husbands work for Gold Finger! Your husband makes enough money to keep you shopping and traveling...” I stopped him.

“and painting my toenails, right? Actually Patrick, Gold Finger is rich, beyond rich, but me...not so rich. I’m here for the Experience you might say.” I was struggling with a pile of shrimp, my mind was in two places -- here, in the shack, breaking Patrick’s misconceptions about Expat Wives, and back in time, way back in time, when I was a teenager working in a seafood restaurant in Westport, Connecticut...my life had come full circle with the cleaning of shrimp! Patrick went silent. I noticed the smell of fish had mixed with smell of sudden awkwardness and it was swirling all around us.

I took a chance and reached out to him, “I’m sorry Patrick, don’t mind me, I’m a little prickly this morning...Its just weird to have people assume all this stuff about me based on the fact that I’m an American Expat Wife and that my husband works for Gold Finger. I just don’t fit into the box that Bermudians have built for us Expat Wives. And there are probably alot of other Expat Wives that don’t fit the mold either, I just haven’t managed to meet any yet!” Patrick laughed, thank goodness.

“That’s what I mean, you are just not a normal Expat Wife! Not normal at-all! So, you want to feed the eel this morning?”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Once Had a Farm in Bermuda, Third Installment

You won’t know why, and you can’t say now
such a change upon you came,
but -- once you have slept on an island
you’ll never quite be the same!
Rachel Field (1894 - 1942)

About a month after arriving in Bermuda, I receive an invitation to dine with The Wives. This invitation frightens me as I had met The Wives on a trip to Bermuda some months before, the reconnaissance trip. They were the wives of the men who worked for Gold Finger and they were a daunting group - most, if not all of them, had Gone Native. They were über Expat Wives complete with the jewelry, the clothes, the hair and the shoes to back it up. They were well maintained in every aspect -- they were a different species from me. I was ten years their junior and totally clueless as to what would become of me on the island. I was feeling my way around in the dark.

The first time I met them was on Gold Finger’s schooner -- we had timed our reconnaissance trip to coincide with a full Gold Finger Inc. staff cruise. They surrounded me on deck and immediately began to ask questions to which I answered none correctly - where were we going to live? Had we bought a car yet? When I said we were not planning to buy a car, there was a collective gasp...“All the wives have cars! Gold Finger does not allow the wives to ride motorbikes, its too dangerous. You must have a car. And errands are almost impossible without a car, not to mention traveling during the bad weather...” Wow - there was no escaping these women, I wondered when I would get my three-ring binder with the embossed label reading “Your Guide to being a Gold Finger, Inc. Wife” -- I was going to need this binder if I was going to fit in with these girls...I thought about The Wives when we returned to the States to begin packing. My clothes were atrocious, barely passable by Bermuda standards, my hair, well, my hair was about two inches long back then...I was a hippie punk girl who worked for an international conservation organization and I lived in a cool southern college town, and while blue blood does run through my veins due to my grandmother once being talked about in the Social Register, I certainly didn’t show it with my appearance.

The Wives occupied little space in my head when we arrived on the island. We moved into our mint green house that was situated next to the highest point of the island, Town Hill. The house had practically no furniture and it gazed out over a rock quarry, a few small farm fields, and beyond that you could see a stretch of the North Lagoon, where cruise ships would occasionally glide past and astonish us with their size! We had a frangipani bush, a loquat tree, several small palms, and plenty of aloe plants. We had few neighbors, which was a treat, and the neighbors we did have became delightful friends. But that first month on the island, really the first several months on the island seem a complete blur -- a mix of ecstasy and agony. I felt like a ghost of myself in this heavenly paradise while I tried to build a new life.

So, the invitation comes from one of the younger Wives, I am certain they chose her to call me because she was closest to my age. “Shannon, dear! Welcome to Bermuda! You must be all settled in now, yes?”

“Oh yes!” I am lying to her as I look around my mostly empty house...I miss my furniture and my BOOKS that I stored back in the States. But my good black hound dog Jack is with me and he could care less that we don’t have any furniture, he just wants to go for long walks with his new girlfriend, a “pond dog” named Riddles.

“Well, the wives want to invite you to dinner - we all go out together at least once a month. Leave the men at home and just let off some steam you know? Can you meet us at Tuscany Restaurant on Front Street tomorrow night, say about seven? Oh and you bought a car didn’t you? If you don’t have a car, I can pick you up, because Gold Finger wouldn’t want you to drive aaaaalllll that way to Hamilton on a bike!” She was not only making sure that I had the required car, which I did, but she was making sure that I understood that they felt that my husband and I had moved to a somewhat inconvenient and not quite fashionable enough neighborhood...my monthly rent was fashionable enough for me...$5,000...yup! Thank goodness Gold Finger Inc. was footing fifty percent of that.

“No need to give me a ride, I have a car. Thank you so much for the invitation, I look forward to seeing you all.” As I am saying this, I am standing in front of my closet, rifling through my clothes. I have NOTHING to wear. NOTHING. And Bermuda has no J. Crew, no Banana Republic, oh boy, this is going to be a challenge. She chortles something about having a to go now because she had an event to attend and she was late, late, late! “Bub-bye!” I hung up the phone and sat on the bare floor with Jack -- so much for staying anonymous. All I wanted was to go to the beach, read books (the few I had with me), work my few hours a day at the Aquarium, and cook dinner while I got good and hammered every night on cheap Portuguese wine with my husband as the sun sank into the beautiful blue bath of the ocean. But, nope, suddenly, I was going to have to be social...

The next day brought a miracle! A care package from my mother filled with clothes and a note “Here’s some Resort Wear!” Oh thank God! Brightly colored wonderful things and a couple of smart skirts and a best of all a smart little black dress. I had a terrific pair of shoes...so I was set. They were just going to have to deal with the fact that I didn’t own gobs of diamonds and platinum and make-up? forget it!

So off I drove with a reminder from my husband to Keep Left! something that was not natural to me yet, that driving on the left. I entered the chaotic “big city” of Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda -- motorbikes zipping around me, tourists streaming off a newly arrived cruise ship. Beautiful Bermujians all about me. If nothing else, Hamilton was exciting and always put a smile of my face - it was undoubtedly theeee best place for people watching. Expat business men in brightly colored Bermuda shorts and knee socks, dreadlocked Bermudian boys hanging out on their bikes talking all sorts of shit, elegant older Bermudian women...the color of mocha mixed with heavy cream with blazing blue eyes! MPs milling about town after Parliament had shutdown for the day. And the tourists, oh the tourists, mostly fat Americans in awful t-shirts and bad looking legs and bad looking hair....streaming into the duty free shops to buy rum and Swiss watches.

I made my way to Tuscany -- a very nice restaurant, one that my husband and I could only hope to go to once or twice a year while living in BDA. Dinner for two in a place of that calibre back in the mid-nineties was over over a hundred bucks and if you got a good bottle of wine, call it one-seventy-five. Eating out in Bermuda was something we rarely did -- and when we did it was usually at the little pub down in Flatts where we would have grilled pompano and a pint while we watched soccer on the little tv over the bar.

But on this night, I was about to live large. I walked in the door and was immediately overtaken by the Italian matradee -- his round belly barely held by his uniform -- he beamed at me and took my hand, “You are with the Gold Finger Wives?” Before I could answer him he swept me to a room, a private room with a view of the harbor. All the wives were there and the champagne was already flowing. My wonderful Italian guide pulled my chair out for me and poured me a glass of champagne - I was overwhelmed. He floated away and as he did, I immediately missed him. I wanted him to be my escort for the evening, but he was just my gondolier...now I was smack in the middle of the canal with The Wives.

“Shannon! Welcome!” They raised their glasses and clink, clink, clink and we drank...to ME! and my arrival. Apparently they hadn’t had a new Wife to initiate in quite some time. I kept looking for the three ring binder with my instructions, but it would never appear.

I was seated between the youngest of them, the one who invited me and the Head Honcho girl - C. - C was as elegant they come - she couldn’t have been less than five foot ten and she had one of those Roman noses that just oozes Greenwich. Connecticut...I could handle this one, I grew up in Connecticut, so she was not going to intimidate me. The appetizers began to magically arrive, it seemed as though we had five or six waiters attending to us. My champagne glass was whisked away and replaced by a lovely wine glass that glistened with probably the most beautiful red wine I have ever tasted and will ever taste.

C. began to quiz me. She leaned into me in that intimate Alpha-girl way and asked me where I grew up? Easy first point for me, “Westport, Connecticut.”

“Reeeeally?” she leaned closer. I sat back and shifted on my hip. Okay, now I got her attention. She began to ask me if I knew so and so and so and so...none of which I knew. But this did not diminish me in her eyes, I was from a Good Town, a Money Town. She pressed on, “and so what have you been doing since your arrival?”

“Feeding fish at the Aquarium...next week they are taking me turtle tagging. And they are so impressed with my work I used to do in the States they are talking about having me develop a research database for them....”

C. sits back and shifts gears ever so slightly “You know, I’m a fundraiser. I do all the fundraising events for the Aquarium. Wouldn’t you like to help? I mean, do you really like feeding the fish? I know Richard, the Director, very, very well, I could set you up with a nicer job over there.” She was very impressed with herself, she was helping me to step up from what in her mind was scullery duty. I am tempted to tell her of my three years working under fundraisers for the huge international conservation organization that I left back in the States...how the fundraising women almost drove me into a mental ward and how I ran from them and learned how to be a cartographer and saved myself by working for the scientists across the hall instead...but I stopped myself. C. needed to be treated with kit gloves.

“Oh, how generous of you. Really thoughtful. Please, please, any word you can put in with Richard would be fantastic.” I clinked my glass to hers and thought, she’ll never come through, I’m on fish feeding duty for quite some time, and you know, I LIKE feeding the fish!

I don’t think I ever got to order dinner. Food just kept magically appearing at the table - huge platters of marvelous scandalous beautiful food and more wine and warm bread. The sun had set and the little lights of Hamilton were twinkling outside - the cruise ships stood in the harbor like great pachyderms. C. let up on me and I was able to go into my favorite role, that of a birder watching birds. The evening was becoming like a Fellini movie - like a macabre carnival - they ate and ate and drank and drank. I asked the waiter to bring me Pellegrino water to replace all the wine that was flowing. I was certain that if I continued to drink the way these women were drinking that surely I would drive my interesting little mini car off a cliff on South Road on my way home that night. They began to get very loose, really loose with their talk. They spoke of their bastard trader husbands...all their husbands traded on the futures markets for Gold Finger. My husband was a geek...he managed computer systems for these guys. They spoke of betrayals and how unhappy they were. Their kids were all back in the States in very expensive boarding schools or universities. They missed their native countries. Monthly shopping trips in NYC were not enough for them. Their big island houses were now too small. They were lonely and bored and crazy! It became very apparent that they were all extremely unhappy! This was not a “girl’s night out“, this was a fucking therapy session! The food kept coming, the wine kept flowing. I just sat there in disbelief. The Wives were nothing to be intimidated by --- they were a mess! Toward midnight, one of the Wives stood up and began to sob, she held her empty wine glass at half mast and crumpled. Two of the other wives escorted her away to the ladies room. I looked to C. for some explanation. C. put her hand on my arm and said, ”She’s had just a terrible time. A terrible time. Forgive her. She’ll be better next time we all meet, I am sure of it. “ I sensed from C.’s voice that she didn’t quite believe what she was telling me. The waiters began to clear our table, there was no check to be paid, it was all covered by Gold Finger, Inc.

I left the table and found the matradee. I asked him if I could sit at the bar and get an expresso. He was more than happy to help me. I sat at the shadowy end of the bar and watched The Wives file out of the restaurant. My wonderful gondolier brought me the most precious cup of expresso, which I drank very slowly. I told myself ”Keep Left...“

Monday, September 14, 2009

I Once Had a Farm in Bermuda...Second Installment

"I tried to break the spell--the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness--that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations." - Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Dieter went native. A phenomena among expats that isn’t fully understood by those who have never been an expat. If you have traveled extensively, then you know the difference between Tourists and Travelers...Travelers are my kind of people, the ones who go outside the realm of their safety zone when they visit a foreign place. Tourists are those poor bastards I used to meet on Harbor Road...driving up the wrong side of the road, wobbling on their rented motorbikes, their ill-fitting helmets akimbo on their sunburned skulls. Sometimes I would stop them and help them, and they always exclaimed, “Why...why, you’re an American!” and I would say “Yes, yes I am, now about the road rules here...”

And then there are Expats and Expats Who Go Native...my husband and I were the former, but we met many who were the latter. Dieter is probably the most extreme case of Going Native that I know personally. Like Mr. Kurtz, he went deep into the jungle with no intention of ever coming back - it never occurred to him that one day circumstances could shift so suddenly and severely as to catapult him back out of the jungle with nothing but his passport and the clothes on his back. That’s part of the illusion of Going Native, that assumption that you are capable somehow of assimilating to such a deep degree, that none of the Genuine Natives could possibly turn on you.

Every expat has a mild case of Going Native, you can’t avoid it. It usually happens about a year into your tour of duty. You are feeling cocksure about your position - you know the road rules, you’ve got a right-hand drive car and you can shift gears with your left hand good golly! You’ve befriended the Portuguese grocer, you know to tip the underage bagger boys at the market because that’s their wage, you have mastered the art of the not-silent transaction in every business you go into...it goes something like this...the clerk say to you “And how are you today M’am?” and you respond on cue “I am fine, thank you and you?” and the clerk smiles and says “I am fine thank you!”, you never ever just reply “fine.” or worse, not reply at all!

You have found the beaches frequented by locals, not tourists -- you snorkel at the now-dilapidated Club Med compound, the abandoned hotel stands like a huge turquoise ruin over the water, where the turtle grass flows with the currents like mermaid's hair. The parrot fish and the trunk fish are fine with you, because you're not a tourist, and even though the Club Med is long gone, the terrific little beach grill is still open down at the rocky shore and you can eat fish & chips wrapped in that day's Royal Gazette and have a good COLD pint for a reasonable price. You ride home on your motorbike with your snorkel gear and your tan legs and an unbelievable grin on your face, because how could life get better than THIS?!

You shop once a week in “back-of-town” at the hole-in-the-wall Indian market where they have a huge fiery Tandoor...you can buy goat meat and the most beautiful Tandoor chicken and fresh flat breads that are still warm when you return home to your kitchen to cook a huge Indian meal, because now you live in a British colony and cooking genuine Indian food is well, just the most excellent thing to do...and you know that curry powder is verboten. You listen to the BBC, not CNN. You read the International Herald, not the New York Times (although your secretly covet the Sunday Times).

You help confused and lost tourists on the roads with a mix of sympathy and bravado. When you are not driving your interesting little mini car, you are tooling about on your Italian motorbike, the beautiful Scarabeo, wearing your red motorcycle helmet and your smart skirt. Your husband is working for one of the most powerful men on the island...Gold Finger! And you go on cruises on Gold Finger’s three masted schooner with the full British crew and are treated to five course meals after a day of sailing beyond the reefs. When you return to Hamilton Harbor, the crew transports you back to the Queen’s F’ing Yacht Club. That’s Theeeee Queen, her life size portrait hangs in the large Bermuda pink entry hall....she is wearing her crown and some fabulous blue suit and smiling at you with those wooden teeth. The crew helps you teeter in the dark back up the dock and bid you a good night. While your husband works all day, you volunteer at the Zoo and Aquarium, where they refuse to give you a paying job, because you are not Bermudian, but they use all of your talents to their utmost advantage...you are developing a database for the turtle researchers, you are writing proposals to the Parliament regarding the protection of natural areas on the island, and you are going out with them on monthly excursions on the Government Fisheries boat to tag turtles...sure, give your services for free now, because in the end they will see that YOU are the one who needs to be hired! You have absolutely no money, even though your husband works for Gold Finger, because the island is the second most expensive place in the world to live, but who the fuck cares? You are there and you are swept up in it like Dorothy in that twister in Kansas.

And all this makes you think about Going Native. You think you belong and you see your life stretching before you for years and years in this place. Others have done it, why not you? But, then you meet some of the unfortunate sods who have Gone Native...and you quickly begin to ponder the benefits of returning to your home country.

Next? Dinner with the Wives...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Once Had a Farm in Bermuda...

"There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne - bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive." Baroness Karen Blixen, Out of Africa


There is something about being an expat that changes you forever...it lingers in your soul and walks at your side long after you return to your native soil, it doesn’t dissipate with the unpacking of your trunk and your reassimilation into your home society. No, in fact it taints you forever. To travel is to put your toes into the water’s edge of a foreign country - it liberates you and unbinds you to walk its cities, to gaze upon its views, to become drunk on its wine, to fatten your belly on its food. Your suitcase is light and you relish the simplicity of the few possessions you are responsible for. You can take comfort that when you return home that it will be just as you left it.

To be an expat is a full on dive into cold hard waters - while you are submerged in the bright blue waters, your ticket home is blowing away on the beach, fluttering in the sea wind along with your money and quite possibly your sanity. You are held just below the surface of the water by unseen forces and you wish that you had taken a deeper breath before your ill-thoughtout plunge. You look up through the watery ceiling and you can just see the sky, but you cannot reach it and so you look to the waters around you and find that you are facing a shark. You are an expat now, what do you do?

Before I speak of my time as an expat all those years ago, let me share a conversation I had with a friend of a friend yesterday. While following a throng of people into a lovely little hall to listen to a homeless man speak about the writing of his memoir, I bumped into an old friend, Shawna. Shawna lives in Chapel Hill and while she and I are not strong friends, we go back many many years. She is part of the fabric of my history, we share many friends and odd memories of the “salad days”. Her husband was in the writing program at my college, back when I was an undergraduate wunderkind. I knew Jeff and Shawna right before I quit writing and ran from it like a horse from a horsefly for over a decade...but there I go again, I digress.

Shawna and I see each other perhaps once a year, always at a party with other old hippie friends from Greensboro. But Shawna and I have a mutual friend that we love and care about deeply and his name always comes up whenever I see her -- Dieter -- wonderful, fabulous, German-furniture-making-bon-vivant-Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Dieter. The Dieter who chose to leave Chapel Hill close to 12 years ago and join a Portuguese service to rehabilitate land mine amputees in Angola. Two years into his stint in Angola, his organization would receive a Nobel Peace prize for their work. Dieter travelled to Stockholm with a huge group of co-workes to accept the prize...a wonderful moment for Dieter and a delightfully amusing moment for his friends...Dieter, a Nobel Prize winner? The world seemed askew with this development!

Dieter could have stayed in Chapel Hill and opened a martini bar -- his numerous friends alone would have kept him rolling in cash! Dieter was the ultimate party giver, and for him to become a barkeep would have been more than appropriate. But his soul took him to another place -- Africa. He worked for Portuguese nuns, who spoke no English and needless to say were not party girls. They saw sin in Dieter’s face, I am certain of it, because Dieter always emanated a wonderful sinful air -- something his friends all adored and were attracted to like gulls to garbage -- but just as the nuns worked everyday to rehabilitate the land mine amputees, they worked to rehabilitate Dieter. But their methods were cruel and Dieter had none of it. They spoke no German or English and Dieter spoke no Portuguese -- this barrier worked to Dieter’s advantage on a daily basis in the jungles of Angola.

Dieter wrote me exactly 3 letters from Angola. I was living in Bermuda at the time and it was as though we were cosmically connected by our expatness -- and his expatriate experience was so horrific, that my troubles seemed a real pittance. I look back now and the troubles I had on the island pale in comparison to Dieter’s extraordinary circumstances -- Dieter’s troubles were vast and his life seemed to always be in the balance. Africa according to Dieter’s letters is a place that has little or no respect for human life. There are just too many people and too many ways to die there for it to be of huge consequence...death doesn’t bother people in Africa quite the way it bothers westerners.

Show me you say...okay, here’s one straight from Dieter’s library: So Dieter needs a vacation from the nuns and the amputees. He’s been in the jungle for six months, in fact he hasn’t had a break since arriving in Angola from his 30 day training session in Portugal. The nuns have been beating him daily, his garden is dying and the amputees keep coming. His mind is in need of rest and BEER...something the nuns won’t let Dieter have. So Dieter borrows a jeep and off he goes to a coastal Angolan city. The beach! Dieter hits the beach as soon as he arrives in town -- doesn’t check into a hotel or bother to eat. He buys some cold beer and plants himself on a towel (probably stolen from the nuns), takes off his shirt, and lays down to listen to the ocean and feel the sand between his toes. As he is listening to the ocean he is feeling just the way I used to feel when I sat on the beach in Bermuda...that green sea you were hearing and watching was in touch with Home! That water connected you to Home...Home may be thousands of miles away, but its holding the hand of this ocean on the other side. Its a comforting feeling, to know that the water leads home. There were times that I thought, "Maybe, I will just swim home today!"

So there is Dieter getting drunk on the sun and the good African beer and suddenly there is a commotion down the beach. Men, black black men chasing a terrified black black man, the man is running as fast as he can, he jumps over Dieter, as do his pursuers -- and then, just a few yards past Dieter there are gun shots and the men shoot their prey dead. He falls like a wildebeest into the sand and writhes for a short time and dies...his blood staining the sand. His killers keep running down the beach until they become black pinpoints, heat waves rising over the late afternoon beach -- Dieter feels like he is part of a mirage. But its not a mirage. There is a dead man on the beach and no one cares. Dieter looks around at the few others on the beach and they go about their business -- they continue eating and drinking and swimming. No one does a thing to help the man -- Dieter thought to call someone, but there were no pay phones in sight and he honestly felt that as a white man, a German, on the beach, that he might be in danger if he were to make a fuss about the dead man. So he sat there on his towel, until the sun began to set. The sun set and the dead man remained on the beach. Dieter found a cheap hotel room for the night and went back to the mission in the jungle first thing in the morning...vacation over.

Fast forward to Shawna and me setting ourselves down in an air conditioned hall just minutes before the homeless man is to tell us of his memoir. “Shawna, so good to see you! How are you?” I ask, opening a cold bottle of water. The room is filled to capacity for this memoir session.

“Fine. Shannon, fine. Jeff has been here all day helping with the festival. Fred Chappell’s here today. Have you seen him?”

“No! Oh rats, I would have loved to have seen Fred. Maybe another time. So Shawna, have you heard from Dieter?” I ask Shawna knowing she will have news, because Dieter stays in touch with her and our friend Ooley up in New York.

“You haven’t heard?” Shawna seems surprised.

“No, I haven’t heard anything from Dieter since last winter. He friended me on FaceBook, which was weird, I didn’t think he could log into FaceBook from Senegal.”

“Damn, he’s on FaceBook? I need to get on FaceBook!” Shawna slaps her forehead.

“If you’re not on FaceBook, stay away from it, its a dangerous little town! It’ll break your heart! But anyway, yeah, Dieter friended me and last time I checked he had about 25 friends and he hadn’t updated anything, so I don’t think FaceBook is working for him. Shawna, is Dieter okay?”

“Not exactly. His wife became a witch doctor.”

“WHAT?!” I choke on my water.

“You know she was kind of a big thing in their village, so they elected her to be the witch doctor. More like Bitch Doctor...you know that woman is a beast when she’s drunk, which is every damn night. And she’s horrible to the kids...”

“ Are the kids okay?”

“ Oh the whole situation is a mess. She wants a divorce from Dieter. She is demanding to keep the kids and to take the house and the restaurant.”

“Jeeeeezus.”

“And here’s the kicker. Dieter is trying to hire a lawyer. But nobody will go up against the Witch Doctor! You know she can cast spells on them, make their families sick, bring lions out of the jungle to devour them, order monkeys to attack them in the street...you know that kind of thing. So Dieter is fucked.”

“Not to mention he’s white and he’s German! That makes him double-fucked.”

“Yup - double-fucked, that’s what Dieter is...welcome to Sunny Africa.”


The lecture began. I sat there in disbelief. My dear friend Dieter, all those miles away. My expatness came alive in my belly -- that feeling of total isolation, total powerlessness...its something that every expat feels at one time or another. You cannot escape it, the daily nagging feeling that you will break an unknown law, end up in a substandard hospital, be murdered by a machete robber...your demise can come much more suddenly and in the most surprising ways when you are not living in your own country.

Years ago Dieter came to visit Chapel Hill for a few months. He built furniture for a local master furniture maker to make some extra money to take home. Dieter showed us beautiful pictures of his African wife and his three children. Dieter beamed with pride. He showed us the house he had built and the restaurant with the bar. His life finally seemed so settled, so perfect. And now, he’s in ruins...the homeless man man finished his lecture to us by telling us to love one another, to be understanding and to help those in need. I thought of Dieter and wanted to be by his side...but of course, that is impossible right now. I walked out into the Carolina Blue afternoon and asked Shawna to stay in touch, to keep me posted on Dieter’s whereabouts, she promised she would.


next?...Going Native...