2017 Grateful 31

Catch anyone looking treeward in this part of the world and you can almost be certain that they’ve spotted a sloth. And it’s exciting. The fact that they’re metres above you, high in the trees is neither here nor there. That’s what zoom lenses are made for.

They’re quite something. They live in trees and only come down once a week to do their business – and always in the same place (bringing their intelligence into question). They have four stomachs and sleep more than 10 hours a day. All have three toes but some only have two fingers. And the retain their grip even when dead. mmmm… how can you tell a sleeping sloth from a dead one then?

We visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo one morning between beach sittings. The name is a tad misleading as jaguars were thin on the ground – but there’s a story.

In 2007 a baby jaguar was given to Encar [a Barcelona native] and Sandro. Her mother had been murdered because local farmers suspected she had killed two goats. The baby jaguar was dehydrated and very sick. Encar and Sandro did everything they could to save it but in the end the endangered baby jaguar died. Encar and Sandro decided to name their animal rescue center in honor of her and the Jaguar Rescue Center was born.

Their goal is to rehabilitate animals and reintroduce them back into their native habitats This isn’t always possible and some of their rescues are now permanent residents. Crocodiles who associate humans with food or ocelots who’ve become too fond of chicken. In operation for nine years, the Centre has quickly become the go-to place when tourists find injured animals on the roads or the police find them in drug raids. Power lines play havoc with the monkeys. Machetes are the weapon of choice against the cats. And the poor sloths don’t do well on the ground. [The intrepid LB spotted one limping on the side of the road. She stopped, bundled him up and brought him back to a tree. He seemed well able to grip so was perhaps only stunned.]

The rehabilitation process is simple at times – take the cats for a walk in the jungle and each day they go farther and farther ahead till the day they don’t come back. Toucans and sloths are easy to rehabilitate as they’re solitary creatures, but parrots need to find a mate before they’ll go back and monkeys need to find a family to hang with. Orphaned monkeys quickly identify with their human carer so to assimilate them back into a group, a volunteer needs to stay with them in their enclosure all day. When they’re first born, they’re fed like a baby with regular 3-hourly feeds during the night.

There’s an interesting volunteer programme that attracts willing help from all over the world. The guides know what they’re talking about and gave plenty of useful information that I never thought I’d need. Like, shiny frogs are poisonous. And when it comes to snakes:

Red on black, you’re alright Jack; red on yellow, kill the fellow.

Not that they’re advocating mass serpenticide – their advice regarding snakes (143 kinds in the country) is to simply stay away.

The 90-minute tour costs $20. The proceeds from the tour go back into the Centre as do all proceeds from sales at the gift shop. This place really lives its ethos. Tours are daily at 9.30 and 11.30. Worth stopping by if you’re in the neighbourhood. Worth checking out if you fancy volunteering for a few weeks.

It’s been a mad week of late nights and early mornings. Costa Rica seems to have its self together when it comes to the environment, looking after animals, and living clean. It’s slogan – Pura Vida – the Tico equivalent of the Swahali hakuna matata. Translated, it means pure life and it’s the law of the land in CR. Bitch that I may about the humidity and the heat, and the mozzies and the ants, I’m grateful that I’m getting to see part of Central America and to experience a way of life that is so laid back it’s still in the middle of last week. It’s no wonder so many foreigners forget to go home. I can certainly see the attraction. Except for the humidity, the heat, the mozzies…

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Lots of things to be grateful for today…

  • That I stayed up all night in case I slept through the alarm and missed my flight (as nearly happened in March with Cuba)
  • That the security queue in Schiphol airport only took 50 minutes – it could have been far worse
  • That the gate agent promised me my bag would have time to transfer planes in Panama City
  • That the airport has a lovely library seating area with free wifi close to my gate (I might just get that final paper finished before I head off)
  • That the painter is busy working on the house while I’m gone – I am looking forward to coming back to clean walls
  • That I found a stash of dollars I didn’t get to use in Cuba
  • That Costa Rica takes US dollars
  • That I tripped over a box of W5 stain remover wipes and stuck some in my bag before I left – I needed them at 4.30 this morning as my hand/mouth coordination was a little off
  • That I was asleep before taking off in Budapest and only woke on landing in Amsterdam
  • That the airport pharmacy stocked 50% DEET mosquito repellent
  • That my Kindle is fully charged and loaded
  • That even though I’m travelling solo, good company awaits in San José

But most of all, I’m grateful to CR for sending on this poem by Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak. It’s called A Little Bit About the Soul – just what I need for some inflight reflection.

A soul is something we have every now and then.
Nobody has one all the time
or forever.

Day after day,
year after year,
can go by without one.

Only sometimes in rapture
or in the fears of childhood
it nests a little longer.
Only sometimes in the wonderment
that we are old.

It rarely assists us
during tiresome tasks,
such as moving furniture,
carrying suitcases,
or traveling on foot in shoes too tight.

When we’re filling out questionnaires
or chopping meat
it’s usually given time off.

Out of our thousand conversations
it participates in one,
and even that isn’t a given,
for it prefers silence.

When the body starts to ache and ache
it quietly steals from its post.

It’s choosy:
not happy to see us in crowds,
sickened by our struggle for any old advantage
and the drone of business dealings.

It doesn’t see joy and sorrow
as two different feelings.
It is with us
only in their union.
We can count on it
when we’re not sure of anything
and curious about everything.

Of all material objects
it likes grandfather clocks
and mirrors, which work diligently
even when no one is looking.

It doesn’t state where it comes from
or when it will vanish again,
but clearly it awaits such questions.

just as we need it,
it can also use us
for something.


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Appalled. Beset. Confused. Dismayed. I ran through virtually the whole reaction alphabet earlier this week when I received a note from a journalist friend telling me about a press release that had crossed their desk. It concerned a damaging report on a charity near and dear to my heart, one that I’d been fundraising for, for years. I clicked the link and read with mounting horror. Could it be true?

A number of years ago, when Gift of the Gab returned for second run after a year-long hiatus, I decided that any monies raised should go to a good cause. Working with the IHBC, we decided to support a state orphanage in Göd, the Topház Speciális Otthon. 

It was back in 2011 that I first met Norbert and was moved beyond tears to raise money to make his life just a little better. I wrote about it.

Yesterday, I met Norbert. Norbert is in his mid-thirties and spends his day in the corner of a cot in a room at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd, about a half-hour drive from Budapest. His world is the room he shares with Tony and Dani. Although I had a hard time believing it, Norbert is one of the luckier residents: he has not been forgotten.

We raised enough money to get him and some of the others proper beds. The next year it was new doors. Then it was a new sound system so that those residents confined to their rooms could have music and see the events going on in the main hall, like the Christmas parties. We helped as often as we could and as much as we could, never donating money, but buying things they needed and volunteering time to paint, to visit, to play. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there but the volunteer visits have continued with those volunteering getting far more from the experience than they give. I’ve never forgotten the lads, Norbert and Kristof, and the others.

And then the report. Straightjackets and Seclusion.

MDAC is today calling for the immediate closure of state-run institutions for people with disabilities in Hungary after an investigation of one large scale institution discovered children and adults who had been tortured and abused, including being tied to beds and restrained with makeshift straitjackets.

My orphanage. Our orphanage. The full report makes damning reading. It’s horrendous. As I read, I felt let down, disappointed, angry. I felt as if I had in some way been complicit in it all. I began to feel guilty. I’d been involved. I’d asked people to support this cause. And they’d responded. They’d given of their time and their money to help. I’d planted a tree in the grounds in memory of my best mate who’d died the day before a planned visit to the orphanage. I felt betrayed.

How typical though, how selfish, how human to pivot the whole situation so that it revolved around me. I had to stop, think, take stock. And calm down.

And in the while it took me to get to the stage that I could think straight, I hear the director has been replaced and investigations are underway. And I have come to terms with the part I played.

I volunteered, raised money, helped in my small way to make the lives of some of these people just a little better than that might otherwise have been. And I made a difference. No matter what is said or what comes of all of this, I made a difference. Everyone who contributed made a difference.

And even knowing what I now know about what has allegedly happened there, I’d do it all again. Because the Norberts and the Kristofs of this world need help. They’re stuck in what has proven to be a flawed system. They are at the mercy of the state and its intermediaries, its representatives. The answer is not to withdraw support or distance myself. Continuing to help is not a tacit approval of the way it’s being run. I re-read the translation of a piece that appeared in Index.hu back in 2014 and wondered how three years could have made such a difference.

And if, as MDAC wants, the orphanage is closed, it will take time for everyone to be rehoused. But in the interim, Norbert and Kristof, and the rest of the residents still matter. Helping them still matters.

This week, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute, to help, to volunteer at Göd, along with so many others. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from the lads. And I’m grateful to have made a difference, however small.

Non nobis solum nati sumus



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If memory serves me correctly, something it rarely does these days, it was this weekend two years ago that I took a bus trip out of Budapest, a trip that would have life-changing consequences. When I bought my ticket to visit friends in Zala county, little did I know that I’d end falling in love with the village and buying in to their idyllic way of life.

When they first upped sticks, selling their flat in the city to move into and renovate a ramshackle country manse, I thought they were mad. Although just 10 minutes off the motorway, Balatonmagyaród isn’t exactly a hive of activity. There are two shops (of a sort) serving a population of about 430. One, opposite the church, seems to trade in bread and UHT milk with very little else on the shelves. I bought the entire stock of washing-up liquid one day – both bottles. The other doubles as a dohany nemzeti (a cigarette shop), a coffee shop, and a pub. It’s standing room only when the first six through the door take their seats.

But during the week, various suppliers come through the village in their vans, each with their own distinctive jangle. My favourite is the butcher van (with its Old MacDonald tune) staffed by a young couple who come on Wednesdays. They have sausages to die for. The breadman I’m steering clear of, as I don’t need that daily temptation. The frozen food guy will have to wait until we get a freezer. And the household supplies won’t get any business as I have that hording gene that ensures I always have a bottle of whatever I need in reserve.

In the 2-hour drive from the city, I play my country music and sing my head off to Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt and the like. If the mood takes me, I think along to Blues. But when I pass the county line into Zala, I start to breathe more easily. When I drive through the village of Zalakomar and come out the other side (right now greeted by a haze of yellow with fields planted with oil seed rape) I can feel every ounce of tension dissipate. That couple of miles before I hit our village is one of mounting excitement. What will have budded in the garden? Will the carpenter have been to put in the windows? Will Gyöngyi Néni (my neighbour) have left some eggs on the doorstep? Will the view over the Kis Balaton have changed?

The house is a work in progress. It’ll take a while (as in years) to get it to where I want it but that’s okay. The process is one I enjoy. When work has stalled, I find myself shopping for old furniture. I’m trying my hand at shabby-chiqing and plan on giving upholstering a go, too. I get to do the inside; the outside I’ve left to himself.

I’m not a gardener. Never have been. Laziness saved me from uprooting weeds only to discover this week that they are actually irises. But the fruit trees are budding and we haven’t a clue what we have. Peaches? Cherries? Plums? Apples? It’s all a matter of wait and see. And that’s the beauty.

Time down here takes on new meaning. Everything is laid back. They say they’ll come around 8 on Tuesday – but which Tuesday, whose 8? Things happen when they happen. On days I have work, I work; all day and half the night, cooped up in my dark room that just got a fabulous new window. My coffee breaks I take on the terrace.

We eat when we’re hungry, stay up half the night watching West Wing dvds, get up when we feel like it. There’s no schedule. There’s nowhere to be. There’s nothing to do but live.

Two years ago, when I got on that bus, I never for a minute imagined that this would be the part of my life that I miss most when I’m not living it. And if JFW and CsRW hadn’t paved the way, I’d not be here. So this week, with the new windows in place and the painter set to start next week, I’m truly grateful for that May day invitation two years ago. Who’d have thought that I’m really a country girl at heart.

2017 Grateful 35

My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first visit to Subotica (which I now know isn’t technically in the Balkans) and continued later that year with my first trip to Belgrade. It’s been a few years since I was last in Belgrade (I’ve been to many other cities since) and yet it’s still held its position as one of the top five cities in which I could live – were I to leave Budapest.

Back at the request of DiploFoundation to run a two-day public speaking workshop, the few days were packed solid, Serbian style. I’ve yet to meet a people with anything approaching the same capacity to live life to the full. And the hospitality, as I remembered, is first class. (India comes a close second.)

Serbia has its fans and its detractors. I can’t ever hope to understand its history or even come close to anything approaching empathy for the past that has shaped its present. I can only speak from my experience. It may well have been four years since I was there, four years since I worked directly rather than virtually with the Diplo team, but it felt like yesterday. From that first welcome dinner at Patlidžan with its excellent piadina sa biftekom (steak wrapped in flatbread) and my re-acquaintance with Tamjanika wine, I felt at home. Conversation flitted between the serious and the banal. International development policy, cybersecurity, Trump, Brexit, the recent Serbian elections, village life, modern education; everyone at the table had something to contribute. That evening, on our way back to the fab Crystal Hotel, we stopped into Le Petit Bistro, lured inside by the strains of live music. Stubovi Pop Kulture are now on my list of bands to check out, next time in town.

Over a late lunch the next day in a fabulous local Italian  restaurant, Amici, the conversations continued.

The workshop started Friday evening at 5. Participants, keen to learn the secret to effective public speaking (if there is one), came from work, probably the last thing most people would want to do at the end of a hard week, but they came. Everyone was an expert in their own field. And again, the diverse backgrounds and experience added to the quality of the communication. Serbians, in my experience, are rarely, if ever, stuck for something substantive to say.

Each had their own demon to tame – be it anxiety at determining what to say, lack of confidence in their ability to speak English, fear of facing an audience – and they brought their demons with them. My mandate had been quite broad. There was only one specific ask: the workshop had to be dynamic. They didn’t want a lecture. Or a seminar. Or an ex cathedra presentation.

It’s impossible to turn someone into a public speaker in two days. It takes time and effort and practice. But what can be done is to raise the level of their awareness of what makes a speaker good speaker and what makes a message an effective message. Practical tips to address the demons, opportunities to put the theory behind public speaking into practice, and immediate constructive feedback on performance – that’s where it’s at.

It’s always a good sign when participants are in no rush to leave. So much can be learned from others in the room. And very often, chance encounters at workshops where participants are given a safe environment in which to expose their vulnerabilities and experiment with finding their voice, can lead to future co-operation.

Dinner that evening was a quieter affair, just four of us. Villa Maska, with its fab floral Trabant, is yet another gem on the Belgrade culinary route. My sixth encounter with the hospitality industry this trip and my sixth time to comment on how seriously they take their business. From the coffee shop on the corner to the local restaurants and kafanas, the service was warm and welcoming, delivered with ease and efficiency. Service in Belgrade is the stuff textbooks are written about.

The second day, Saturday, ran from noon to 5pm and again, participants stayed over. The overriding feedback was that it had been different to the type of soft-skills training they were used to. They got floor time. They got to speak. They got to experiment. They got to practice. And they learned. Mission accomplished.

Dinner that night was at the home of old friends in New Belgrade. A smorgasbord of Serbian delicacies that left me daydreaming of having the time to grow paprika and make my own ajvar  and making a note to myself that I had to try the boiled eggs in horseradish and sourcream at home. As we sat around the room sampling homemade rakija and Montenegrin wine, again the conversation leapfrogged around the world with everyone contributing. Life in Serbia is extremely social. And inclusive. And entertaining.

Sunday, we had plans to visit the Tesla museum but it was lashing out of the heavens and I was knackered. Workshops drain me. Having to be on my game for hours on end is physically and mentally challenging. We were picked up from the hotel at 2.30 for a Sunday afternoon lunch at Milošev konak, noted for its delectable desserts. In this remnant of old Belgrade, with its platters of roasted meats and lively music, we spent the better part of five hours. Had the yawns not begun to get in the way of conversation, I might still be there.

As always, the musicians were an integral part of the experience. The music was like a rollercoaster ride – from happy to sad, from upbeat to melancholy. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the lyrics, the sentiments were clear. My new favourite song is Dimitrijo, sine mitre, a tearjerker if ever there was one.

It’s been a long week. And I’m heading into the next with a backlog of work that will take days to get through. But as exhausted as I am, I’m grateful that I managed to hold my own, and to keep up with Belgrade. I’m grateful, too, for the spirit of friendship and the shared belief that working together is how we change the world, one thought at a time.

If you’ve not been to Belgrade, you’re missing out. The food, the wine, the music, and above all, the incredible hospitality, is something everyone should experience. I can only hope that it won’t be another four years before I get to come back.



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My first baseball game was watching the Padres at Murphy Stadium in San Diego. When the crowd stood at the top of the seventh to sing Take me out the ball game, I thought I’d passed into a parallel world. I don’t pretend to know the rules, even if some of the lingo crept into my vocabulary while I was Stateside – home stretch, third base, in the ballpark, batting zero. Read more

2017 Grateful 37

I like to eavesdrop. It’s not something I deliberately set out to do. There’s no conscious decision – Oh, today’s Saturday. I think I’ll go sit in a café and listen in on someone’s conversation. But if I’m there, and you’re at a table beside me, talking loudly enough to be overheard, I’ll listen. If I’ve nothing better to do. And I’m alone.

And there are many like me. There’s a fab repository called Overheard in Dublin, full of classic drops from the city.

Lately though, the quality of the drop has fallen dramatically. It’s all so boring. And trivial. And inane. It’s amazing what people can get so worked up over – C’mon man, like, yeah, like, Canadians definitely have an accent, like, for sure, mon.

I was in Trinidad, enjoying a coffee in the shadow of the nineteenth-century cathedral, surrounded by other tourists on day-release from the all-inclusive Playa Ancun. There they were, miles from their suburban North American homes, in Cuba, in Trinidad, in a UNESCO city steeped in history with as yet just one foot in the twenty-first century. And all that was on their minds was the exchange rate. I know, I can fixate a little on that, too. But there isn’t 30 minutes worth of conversation in it. Is there?

[BTW – turns out, even though my bank changed the CUC to USD before taking it in EUR, it is still cheaper to use an ATM in Cuba (if you can find one) than to exchange cash.]

To my left, sitting on a wall, was an older man. Let’s call him Hector.  He looked liked a Hector. He was grinning away to himself, laughing up a storm. He had a bottle of what looked like rum and a cigarette and was enjoying life no end. His wardrobe looked like it had see a wash or seventy and he himself was a little worse for wear.

When the band struck up, he started to bop. At first in his seat on the wall, and then on the steps out in front of everyone. He wasn’t doing it for money. He wasn’t doing it for attention. He was doing it because the music got to him.

Conversations carried on around me. Comparisons were being made between Cuba and St Lucia. Between Cuba and The Bahamas. Between Cuba and anywhere else people had been and Cuba wasn’t coming out of it very well. All the while, Hector kept on dancing and laughing.

Song over, he came back to his wall perch and gave me a big smile. He thumbed at the table next to me and shrugged as if to say ‘They don’t realise how good life is.’

And he smiled again. And I smiled back and thought what a hames we make of life when we over-complicate it, when we forget that simplicity, in is simplest form, is worth appreciating. Hector’s life seemed uncomplicated. He spends his days sitting in the shade by the steps near the Cathedral watching the world go by, sipping his rum and smoking his cigarettes. And dancing. The bar staff slip him the odd drink and the band like having him around. He gets fed. No complications. His smile seemed genuine and his happiness real.

The lesson was there for the taking. Keep it simple. Enjoy the moment. Don’t make it any more complicated than it is by looking back on yesterday or looking forward to tomorrow. Live today.

And for that reminder, Hector, thank you.

I shook his hand and slipped him a fiver as I was leaving. He dropped a cigar into my bag and put his finger to his lips in that universal gesture of silence, and winked. Enough said.

2017 Grateful 38

I’ve heard the stories. A sister dying in Ireland a minute after her brother died in Australia (they say he picked her up on his way by). An otherwise healthy mother dying the day after her daughter (think Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher). Apparently there is such a thing as broken heart syndrome. Back in 1990  Japanese researchers called it Takotsubo syndrome.  It’s also known as the widowhood effect. It’s got something to do with the heart being assaulted by a sudden, massive release of stress hormones. It’s like a heart attack, except that the arteries are fine.

In Cienfuegos, in Cementerio de la Reina (Cemetery of the Queen) sits the grave of a 24-year-old-woman who supposedly died of a broken heart back in 1907. La Bella Durmiente. The sleeping beauty.

The cemetery, named after Queen Isabella of Spain, opened its ground in 1837. It’s on the other side of town – far from the yacht club and the villas. And sitting as it does in what looks like the middle of a nowhere trying to be a somewhere, adds to  its otherness.  It’s not nearly as impressive in terms of notable notables or statuary as the Colón in Havana, but it’s got more by way of atmosphere and personality. Colón is like a rich debutante, outwardly confident and inwardly uncertain, whereas La Reina is more like a middle-aged beauty comfortable in her own skin. And she’s definitely a she; statues of men are few and far between. [The last time this struck me about a cemetery was in Milan.]

A local woman, perhaps a cemetery employee, asked where we were from. When we said Ireland, she took us to an Irish grave. I wondered what she’d have done had we said Hungary. But Irish? In Cuba? From the 1800s? How did that happen?

Back in the 1820s, the sugar industry was booming. Slavery was big. The plantation owners wanted to boost their numbers  and have more white guys on hand to keep the slaves in check. So, get this: the Council for White Population went to Maryland, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania and rounded up a few hundred Irish, along with French and Canary Islanders, and tempted them to come start the ‘white colony’ of Cienfuegos.

Marina was the daughter of Limerick man, John O’Bourke, who was one of the Irish to take the Council up on its offer. He married locally and in true Irish form, had ten children. He called his plantation Nueva Hibernia and was known around the place as Juan. On his death, the plantation was sold, although Juan Jnr still had a share in it and was himself administrator of another plantation worked by 500 slaves.

Marina, one of the daughters (I think of Juan Jnr), was an abolitionist. She owned one domestic slave, Matilde, whom she would later help buy her freedom. Once free, and funded by Marina, Matilde herself became a wealthy property owner, lending money, in turn, to Cabildo Real Congo, a black mutual-aid society. Like her former mistress, she, too had a social conscience and worked tirelessly towards racial equality in the new independent Cuban.

Of course, we missed  Barrio O’Bourke, where the family settled and were I to go back, it’d be on my list of places to see. Needless to say, I found out all of this back at my desk in Googleland and see from the comments on Mapping the Irish in Cuba, that a certain Don Morfa of Yaguaramas is thought to have been a Murphy from home. Imagine. The things you learn.

With the remains of soldiers from the Spanish Wars of Independence buried above ground level in the walls, the world seemed well represented. It’s a beautiful spot. Definitely worth the effort. [Check this blog for some great photos.]

I’ve had a bad week. I’m still buggy. I feel like the Irish Sea is sloshing around in my head. I only ventured out when I absolutely had to and even then I was an embarrassment of tissues and phlegm. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but this week, I’m grateful for the Internet and the wealth of information I can pull up in seconds. It really does open new worlds at the push of a button. And while my brain wasn’t able to concentrate on much by way of work, it benefited enormously from the between-headache educational dalliances with Google. In another life, I met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and I met the inimitable Louis Pouzin, inventor of the datagram, and were I to meet them again, I might be a tad more effusive with my thanks.




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There’s something quite lovely about visiting a cemetery on a clear, 30-degree, blue-sky day. I’m a great fan of tombstones and would happily spend my holidays going from one graveyard to another but there are limits. I’ve not yet figured exactly why I’m so fascinated but it’s enough that I am.  If I’m in company, I settle for one in each city. It’s not for everyone. In addition to commemorating lives spent fruitfully or fruitlessly, cemeteries are outdoor sculpture parks. And very often, the leading local architects have the most interesting graves. It was in a cemetery in Warsaw that I saw my first headstone that listed the profession of the interred – an architect. I think it was in Belgrade that I saw a headstone designed as a futuristic building – again an architect. And in Havana, by far the most eye-catching grave (purely because of its oddity and ungravelikeness) was also that of an architect – José F. Mata. Mata is probably better known as the business partner of one Leonardo Morales y Pedroso – who seems to have won just about every notable commission going in the city.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) opened in 1876, its first guest being the architect who designed it: Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso. It’s mapped a little like a small city, sitting on ca. 150 acres, with a main street leading from the gate to a chapel that looks a tad like a miniature Italian d’uomo. It’s off this wide avenue that the main players are buried. The sides streets and less-travelled neighbourhoods are home to those who didn’t quite make the big time. Rank and file still applies in death. Amazing.

Stats say that more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here (a temporary respite for some, as with space at a premium some bones are being put into storage to make way for newcomers). I can’t quite figure out how the storage system works. Lots of the graves and mausoleums have been abandoned because families are living abroad – so upkeep is obviously a problem. Are those the first to be targeted?

Throughout the city of Havana you’ll find reference to the great fire of 17 May 1890 and those firefighters who died in an attempt to control it. Here, at Colón, there’s a 75-foot-tall memorial to those men, the hanging pods on the chain-link surround representing the tears shed when they died. It’s quite something.

I had only one visit on my list (because I was ill=prepared and didn’t do my homework). It was to pay my respects to Ibrahim Ferrer Planas, a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club. A worker spotted us looking and took it upon himself to give an impromptu, and unsolicited tour, for which he expected €5, the same as the entrance fee. From all I understand, this expectation is new – in its infancy – and can even be timed to the arrival of the first cruise ship last year. But hey – we only had 3CUC between us and it was that or a smile. He got both.

Had I done my homework, I’d have spent more time looking for photographer Alberto Korda’s grave (1928–2001). I love his work. He took the iconic photo of Ché titled Guerrillero Heroico that Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick used for his equally iconic facial caricature used on t-shirts the world over.

I’d also have taken the time to search out socialite Mary McCarthy Gomez Cueto (1900–2009), the Canadian widow of a wealthy Cuban businessman who died in poverty. Back in the day, Frank Sinatra was a neighbour. She refused to leave Cuba and couldn’t get at her money because of the US embargo after the Communist takeover. She lived on a tiny pension and died at 108, buried alongside her husband. Quite the gal. And her dad was Irish.

Although confined to a wheelchair after breaking a hip in 2002, she continued to wear a satin dress, silk blouse, chiffon scarf and lipstick for her stream of visitors, just as she had done in the days when she helped to found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and danced at the Havana yacht club. But she was reduced to wearing plastic pearls and earrings instead of the jewellery which, along with three gold rosaries, was in the First National Bank in Boston; and she was keenly aware that the joy had gone out of Havana, even if there was full employment.

And I’d have dropped by and said hello to William Lee Brent, an American in exile in Cuba for 37 years – and a member of the Black Panthers. He hijacked a passenger plane in 1969 from Oakland, CA, and diverted it to Cuba where he defected, because Cuba…

had eliminated racism and welcomed all revolutionaries, regardless.

They jailed him for 22 months thinking he just might be a spy. Some guys just can’t catch a break, eh. His biography is now on my list of books to read. Fascinating.


But the grave that gets the most attention is one of Amelia Goyri, perhaps better known as  La Milagrosa (the Miraculous). She died while giving birth back on 3 May 1903. She was just 23. Her husband José Vicente Adot y Rabell was distraught. He believed that she was simply sleeping. He visited the grave every day for years, each time knocking on it three times to wake her up. Story has it that she was buried with her baby at her feet yet when the remains were exhumed (not sure why), Amelia was intact and was now holding her baby son in her arms.

As the story spread and more and more people came to visit Amelia, Cuban sculptor José Vilalta Saavedra turned a piece of Carrara marble into a life-size statue of a young woman. Her left arm holds a baby. Her right arm rests on a cross, something that apparently signifies a sacrifice.

While we were there, there was a steady stream of visitors, each one knocking on the grave three times, and then walking backwards away from it, as Amelia’s husband is said to have done, so that he could keep her in sight for as long as possible. Today, visitors pray to her to protect their kids, they pray for a safe childbirth, they pray to defy the biological odds and have children of their own.

I didn’t know this then, but I knocked. And I prayed. And I walked away backwards. Relax… I said a prayer of thanks, yet again, for the blessed life I lead, for the places I get to visit, and for the people I get to meet along the way. For all this, I’m truly grateful.




2017 Grateful 41

My, my, my. What a week that was. I’d say there are a lot of sore heads in Budapest this morning and a lot of bods draggin’ ass at work. The St Patrick’s festivities kicked off on Thursday evening with the annual National Day celebrations with the Irish Embassy. I was on best behaviour because I was doing a TV interview on Hungarian telly later than night and I had to be enunciating clearly. Nerves being what they were, I decided to do the make-up thing. The lovely BS came by and put my face on before I went out. It was hilarious. People were fascinated by my glasses: at least five men asked me if they were new. (They’re three years old this week.) They knew something was different but couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

The embassy gig is a good place for catching up with people you’ve not seen for a while and meeting someone you’ve never met before. Like the lovely Fr Mike, a priest from Louth who has been here for 12 years. His is the second Mass in English I’ve heard of this week. There’s also a new 5pm one on Sundays in the side chapel of the Basilica. From there it was down to the studios for the big interview.  I could get used to having my hair and make-up done! All went well. I enunciated and this time, actually answered the questions I was asked.  It was a live interview from Akvárium, from what was being billed as the First St Patrick’s Festival in Budapest. Something obviously got lost in translation over the years as this was the 7th St Patrick’s Day Parade and the 11th Gala dinner. The festival has been going on for years. Someone’s invitation obviously got lost in the post. Hungarian Irish Celtic Rock band Firkin were on stage and raising the roof but the outer bars and rooms were remarkably tame. Not a patch on the real event on Sunday.

We strolled over to Jack Doyle’s afterwards for a nightcap, as you do, and proceeded to put the world to rights. With all things Irish looming for the weekend, we took a breather and headed to Barba Negra for the first time to see PASO in action. The Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra are brilliant. Mad. And exhausting to watch. These ska guys bring fitness to a whole new level.

Saturday evening came early. Dolled up in long dresses and tuxedos, we headed to the Mariott for 6pm to watch Ireland break England’s winning streak in the final of the Six Nations. The 11th IHBC St Patrick’s Gala dinner really brought out the glam. More than 200 sat to a dinner of smoked salmon and rack of lamb and were entertained by the inimitable John Murphy (no relation) and another Hungarian traditional Irish music band – Green Spirit. I was on the mic – MC’ing. And I got to make a plea for my charity of choice these days: Mamasotthon. I was blown away. In make-up again, I managed to hold back the tears because I didn’t have the wherewithal to go about fixing runny mascara. Half the tombolo (raffle) proceeds were going towards buying an industrial washing machine for mums and kids taking refuge from domestic violence in the shelter. After my speech, a couple I know well, the Ps, came over and told me to pick out a machine and they’d pay for it. Another chap wrote an IOU for 5ook. A local artist donated the proceeds from the sale of some of his work. and the tombolo itself raised 477 000 huf. It was a fantastic result that will change the lives of many for the better. And this is how we make lasting change. One step at a time. Kudos to Duncan, Andrea, & Co., for making it all happen.

It was a late night. A very late night. The next day, Sunday, began with a full-Irish breakfast for 8 and then the parade. The 7th in Budapest. Seems like only yesterday that this whole thing kicked off.

It’s a tremendous feat of organisation. Kudos to Mark, Anna & Co., for pulling it off. The venue was brilliant – the new Instant location on Akácfa utca. Some of the musicians I saw were fab. [Did anyone catch the name of the bank with the female lead singer/guitarist (Melinda???) that played around 7.45 in the inside courtyard?]. Unfortunately, by this stage, the bug I’d picked up in Cuba had morphed into a full-blown head-cold and I was dying. There’s only so much green lemonade I can put away when I can’t hear myself suck through the straw so I called it a night and was home by 9pm.

So much to be grateful for this week. A visit from an old friend (and a new ambassador for Budapest – how can you not love this city?). The generosity of good people that will make such a difference to the lives of others. Surviving a packed social calendar that would push a younger me to the pin of her collar. All good. Knackering. But good.

It is with fond memories, too, that we remember Ronnie Thompson, for so many years a regular at the parade and now joining us from heaven. Here’s too you!