2018 Grateful 3

I got a right old slap in the face this week. Shocking really. I’ve been dwelling on it for days. A mate of mine rang me from Tanzania one evening and we had quite the chat. I asked what life was like over there as we plan on visiting him next year. On a personal note, I was particularly interested in how he was faring in the romance department. I wondered if there was a new man on the scene.  Being gay in a country where homosexuality carries a 30-year prison sentence is no joke. I wondered how he was doing and how much the draconian laws affected his life. [According to Amnesty International, four African countries still have the death penalty for homosexuals.]

He’s keeping a low profile, he said, but thankfully, he’s not living in the capital. Last month, according to a report in The Guardian, hundreds went into hiding to avoid the witch hunt currently underway in Dar es Salaam, where Paul Makonda, the city’s administrative head, has called for people to out their gay friends, neighbours, and relatives. The US embassy has advised US citizens in the country to review their social media posts for content…just in case. Mad, I thought. And very worrying. How could anyone live in those sorts of circumstances?

Anyway, I was recounting this story to another friend of mine, who said: ‘I assume you won’t be going there, then.’ And before my brain kicked in, I heard myself reply: ‘Of course I’m going. I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.’

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

Sweet mother of Divine Jesus, how did I get to this low point? When did I start thinking that as long as it wasn’t being done to me, I’d nothing to worry about?

To say I was disgusted with myself is an understatement.

Many years ago, I came across a quotation by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It affected me deeply. I have serious issues with Azerbaijan and doubt I’ll ever set foot in the country again after that Azeri murderer debacle.  I try my damnedest not to buy anything made in China because I’ve taken umbrage at its censorship laws. After some soul searching in October, given what’s going on with the Rohingya, we decided not to go to Myanmar, even though we could see it across the water.  Realistically, if I took stock of the human rights record of every country I visited and avoided those with a blemish, I’d find my map of travel opportunity much smaller. But that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s the quickness with which I came back with the answer that has me concerned.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

A few weeks back, in a comment on something I’d posted on Facebook, a former colleague (and friend, or so I thought) called me a racist. No explanation was given. Just a statement: ‘You’re a racist.’ That same week, because I don’t happen to think George Soros is evil, another friend lumped me into what they call the Zombie Minions. Not usually one to give a rat’s ass about what people think of me, these two labels hurt me deeply.

Just about any policy or political post I read today on social media has a litany of comments following it that vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ad hominem attacks are rampant. People’s characters and/or personal attributes are being attacked to discredit their arguments. Criticisers are not engaging with the subject of the debate but the person debating it. It’s mean. It’s nasty. It’s debilitating. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly becoming the norm. There seems to be a prevailing sense that ‘I’m right and if you don’t believe as I do, then you’re wrong.’ In this black-and-white world, I’m finding it hard to find even two shades of grey, let alone fifty.

In one comment on an anti-Trump post recently, someone pointed to a page on the US State Department’s website which lists all that’s been achieved since getting into power. Arguably, Obama had set the groundwork, but still, these were accomplished with him in office. I read the list and spot-checked, looking for alternative sources to support the claims. And they’re there. So why then can’t those against the man and all he stands for admit the accomplishments but ask what they’ve been achieved at the expense of? And has it been worth the price?  Isn’t that a better basis for discussion?

I’m slowly losing the will to engage. I’m having visceral reactions to the strident posts I read on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sick to my stomach of the anger and the hate and the superiority of the arguments. I’ve blocked, muted, and unfollowed but then I wonder if I need to read/hear all sides to keep track of what’s going on and not get lured into that self-righteous box of moral certainty.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

But is it too late? Am I already there? Have I tucked away my principles until a more convenient time dawns?

I still plan to go to Tanzania. I want to see my friend. It’s been too long. But now I’ll do so consciously.

This week, I’m grateful that we had the chance to talk and that I had this recalibratory moment. Now more than ever, I need to keep my wits about me, to keep thinking for myself, and not fall victim to the hype and hysteria I see and hear every day.

 

 

2018 Grateful 4

Sometimes I amaze myself.  I really and truly amaze myself with my ability to get things mixed up. I knew Francis Bacon was around in Elizabethan times. I had a vague memory of him being some sort of scientist-cum-philosopher. I had thought he was a lawyer, too. But I didn’t know that he apparently died from pneumonia contracted when he was researching the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.  And I had never, ever, thought of him as a painter.

So when himself mentioned going to see the Francis Bacon and the School of London exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in Budapest, I was all on for seeing a side of the man I’d not encountered before. But the dates didn’t add up. I’d gotten my Bacons confused. This Francis Bacon was Irish, born in a nursing home in Dublin in 1909. He lived over the road from me at home, near the Curragh in Kildare. [How come I didn’t know this?] His website is a fascinating read. I was particularly taken with this description of his parents:

His father, while not unintelligent, was a belligerent and argumentative man; his mother, a gregarious hostess inclined to self-absorption.

And this belligerent man threw young Bacon out of the house at 16 when he caught him trying on his mother’s frillies. Bacon moved to London and when, in 1927, he saw some of Picasso’s drawings at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, he thought art might be his thing. But first, he’d serve his time as an interior decorator and furniture designer. His bio really is quite enthralling. I was surprised to see that he only died in 1992. We walked this earth at the same time. His studio was donated to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin where it was reconstructed and opened to the public in 2001. The Irish boy had come home.

I won’t pretend to understand his art or how he was influenced and in turn influenced so many. That’s beyond me. I found some of his paintings disturbing and there wasn’t one I’d want to hang in my hallway. But his life – his life was quite something.

I really should have done my homework, though.

Amidst the dominance of the late 1970’s abstract, conceptual, and minimalist art, a number of artists focused their creative energies into the examination of the painting of the post war period. The term School of London was coined by R.B. Kitaj in order to refer to the group of artists and their preoccupation with figurative painting whom he gathered for the 1976 exhibition The Human Clay at the Hayward gallery. The chief artists associated with the idea of School of London, in addition to Kitaj himself, were Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Leon Kossoff. In the face of the avant-garde approaches, these painters pursued both drawing and painting focused on the examination of the form of the people and the world around them.

A little embarrassed that I’d gotten my Bacons confused, I kept my next addlement to myself until I could test it. You see, another of the painters in this exhibition was Freud. And yes, I’ll fess up. I did wonder how come I’d never known that man was a painter either. I’d gotten my Freuds confused, too. That said, Lucien’s work was more to my liking than Francis’s. I’d happily hang his painting Two Plants on my wall and stare at it for hours. It took him three years to finish this amazing piece of work.

I’d never really appreciated how much work goes into one painting. Seated Nude by another artist in the show, Sir William Coldstream, took sixty 90-minute sittings. He only painted in the presence of the model. Modelling has to be hard work. Sitting still for 90 minutes sixty times?  Juliet Yardley Mills  (JYM) modelled for another featured artist, Frank Auerbach, each Monday and Wednesday for 40 years. Such dedication. Incidentally, his Head of E.O.W. I was my second pick of the exhibition – the picture I’ve linked to doesn’t do it justice. The colours are quite something. It’s a painting of his long-time model, Stella West.  Freud painted a series of 18 portraits of his mother that took 1000 sittings, each lasting anywhere from 4 to 8 hours. I’m telling you – these models are unsung heroes. I can’t help but wonder how artists today fare out. Can anyone sit still, sans phone, for 90 minutes, let alone 8 hours?

I love my art but I’m not an art lover per se. I’ve never studied art history. What I know about style and schools and techniques could be written on a banana skin. But I am a fan of learning, of exploring, of trying something different. For my birthday earlier this year, I received a Friends Membership for the MNG which gets me into these gigs for free. And as I loathe waste of any kind, I intend getting full value out of the investment.

Half-way through, though, I was conscious that I was racing ahead.  If I didn’t watch myself, I’d be waiting outside for himself to catch up. So I slowed down a little and instead of reading the captions first, I looked at each of the abstracts to see if I could guess what it might be. Leon Kossoff stumped me. I spent an age with his Building Site, Victoria Street, 1961 and came up with everything but. I finally fixed on cliffs and mudflats. But I was wrong again. That said, his Christ Church, Spitalfields was my third pick for the day. Given my angst at the institutionalisation of religion and what it can lead to, this held me up for a while.

The exhibition runs in Budapest till13 January. Tim Adams reviewed it for The Guardian when it opened in London earlier this year and gave it 5*s, calling it a ‘thrilling and thoughtful exhibition’. I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about [2015 One World award for newspaper journalist of the year, and the Foreign Press award for arts and culture writing]. My lack of ‘fine’ education causes me no end of insecurity. That I had never heard of the School of London and had confused my Freuds and my Bacons is mortifying. I know I should know more than I do, but I’m grateful that I’m getting to remedy the situation, art-wise, one exhibition at a time. And I’m grateful, too, for my new-found appreciation for the unsung heroes of portraiture – the sitters.

 

2018 Grateful 5

The massive earthquake in Alaska last week prompted me to email a mate of mine living in Anchorage. Everyone is fine. And apart from some bits of broken glass, the damage is minimal. For them. Others were not so lucky. They updated me on what’s been happening, most notably the death of an old friend I’d lost touch with. With the news came a link to Eileen’s obituary.

Quite a number of lifetimes ago, I worked with Eileen on the first Irish Music Festival in Alaska – it was in Anchorage in the late mid-90s.  I can’t remember if it was called the Anchorage Irish  Music Festival or the Alaskan Irish Music Festival but I can still see the posters she laboured over and I’m sure I have my signed copy tucked away somewhere. I have vague memories of chatting to potential donors trying to persuade them to sponsor this fledgling venture. One particular night that comes to mind involved a prominent Anchorage lawyer who had worked his way through university giving dance classes. He made me look like I knew what I was doing on the dance floor of a basement city jazz club. My date, Tom Kruse, sat and watched, wondering how I kept this particular talent such a secret. I even impressed myself! Eileen’s knowledge of traditional Irish music and musicians put mine to shame. I remember her getting really excited when Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill said they’d come and play. Seán Keane’s confirmation also set her heart racing. [Interestingly, I see that he has an album out titled Gratitude.] I wasn’t into the music at all, but have distinct memories of being blown away by some of the fiddle playing.

Eileen didn’t drink but she wasn’t fussed at being around people who did. She’d prop herself up at the bar, fan awaving, and hold court. At the heart of everything, she seemed to know everyone in town and everyone knew her. With her bottomless pit of energy, she would regularly leave me lagging, and this was when I was in my heyday. She could talk anyone into just about anything. I once ended up cooking Irish stew for a visiting accordian player and his entourage at very short notice. I have distinct memories of practising saying no to her 🙂 A consummate conversationalist, Eileen was always talking, which is why it was so heart-breaking to read that she hadn’t said a word for the last five years of her life.

Diagnosed with both Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) and Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA), Eileen’s wit was a victim of this dual pairing of very nasty afflictions. She couldn’t communicate, or show emotion. And for someone who was once a master in communication at all levels – emotionally, verbally, and musically – this had to have been beyond bad. I’ve thought of her often over the years. I’ve mentioned her, too, in various anecdotes I’ve told from my time in Alaska. I was sad to hear of her passing but know that heaven has itself a new MC and that the party has only started.

To read the obituary her kids put together says so much about her as a person, a friend, a mother. What great tribute could they pay.

She was a connector of people, a serial partier, and hosted some of the most memorable proms in Anchorage history. Eileen was known for loving a good céilí and if there wasn’t one happening, she would host one. If you were her friend, she was the best kind of friend. When she heard of a need, she helped fulfill it. When she loved, it was unconditional. She was the best kind of mother, friend, and human. The light she brought to the world can never be replaced and will never be extinguished. She illuminated us all and we are grateful for the time we had with her.

I am grateful, too, for the time I had with her. That couple of years I spent in Anchorage have stayed with me. Eileen and her indomitable spirit are very much part of those memories.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam.

Eileen Monaghan

2018 Grateful 6 | Making the Move

Things have been a little scatty lately. What with my recent memory blank and other odd stuff going on, it felt like the puppet master was tugging a little too heavily on the strings. I was a tad discombobulated. Something was off and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Back in Budapest for a few days after a quick trip home to see the folks, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. They congratulated me on making the move.

What move, I asked?

To the village, they said. I hear you’re now living down there during the week and just coming to Budapest at the weekend.

That stopped me in my tracks. I’d no idea that I’d moved.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I had … mentally. I’d shifted from living in the city to living in the village. Budapest is somewhere I have a flat I can use when I’m working in the city or travelling in or out of it. The village is home. And with that admission, the discombobulation recombobulated and life suddenly felt okay again.

It’s 1 degree outside. It’s snowing. And we’re just back from a rather silly venture. I had the bright idea to go check on the walnut tree we spotted last year on the track that runs along the lake at the end of our property. Walnuts are in short supply. It’s been a bad season. But I figured we might strike it lucky. What I didn’t figure on is that they’d be impossible to find, buried as they no doubt are beneath layers of fallen leaves. Sometimes I seriously doubt my intelligence.  But it didn’t matter. We were out. It was bracingly cold. And it was snowing.

We came across this lovely red-stemmed bush with bunches of black berries. The red really stood out against the browns and golds of the dried leaves around it. And the grape-like clusters of berries looked good enough to eat. And I would have, had himself not pulled me up with a word of caution.

They’re low. There are deer tracks. And the deer haven’t eaten them. You sure you want to try?

I couldn’t fault the man’s logic. So I checked WebMD.

Pokeweed, aka American Nightshade. The root is supposedly used in medicines to treat a range of ailments from acne to ringworm, from achy muscles to syphilis. It’s used in food and wine a colouring agent and in manufacturing to make ink and dye. I was already seeing the possibilities. But then I read on, on the same site:

All parts of the pokeweed plant, especially the root, are poisonous. Severe poisoning has been reported from drinking tea brewed from pokeweed root and pokeweed leaves. Poisoning also has resulted from drinking pokeberry wine and eating pokeberry pancakes. Eating just 10 berries can be toxic to an adult.

There went my pokeweed jam idea. Unless I wanted to cause vomiting, cramps, diarrhoea, incontinence, and more along that vein. [Could there be a market in that?] Apparently, even touching it can cause harm. Getting mixed messages and not willing to believe that this luscious crop of berries couldn’t end up in a jamjar, I checked Poison.org. Yep, pokeberries are definitely not good for you.

Although disappointed I couldn’t put them to good use, I was pleased that I’d make a discovery. That I’d learned something new. As the snow blew across the fields, parallel to the ground, I felt the crispness of winter. I was cold. I was wet. And I was happy. This week, I’m grateful to be home.

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 7

I caught the last train to the village on Thursday night. I’d been in a workshop all day and then to the doctor that evening but I was on time, with 30 minutes to spare. I settled in to my seat, a whole carriage to myself. The joy of late-night train travel. I double-checked my messages. Yep – I was to get off in Balatonszentgyörgy where himself would pick me up.

Fast forward the 2 hours and 15 or so minutes the train takes, and we pulled into the station. I got off. No sign of himself on the platform, which was unusual. No sign of the car in the car park, which was downright worrying. So I rang.

M: Where are you?
H: On my way to Zalakómar. Where are you?
M: In Balatonszentgyörgy.
H: What are you doing there?
M: This is where you told me to be.
H: But then you called and insisted I go to Kómar.
M: I did not. We haven’t spoken since this morning.
H: Yes. We did. You called me after your workshop.
M: No. I didn’t.
H: Yes. You did.
M: FFS!

I ran back, crossed over in front of the Keszthely train getting an earful from the station agent for my trouble. The train splits in Balatonszentgyörgy with half going one direction and half another. My half was beginning to roll down the tracks but the shouts of yer woman berating me for my near-suicidal dash across the tracks pulled up the driver. He leaned out the window and shouted:

D: Hová mész? (Where are you going?)
M: Kómar!
D: Rendben (OK), thumbing back to the carriage.

I jumped on and he took off. {I’m available for stunt work.}

The friendly ticket conductor was curious.

C: Do you know where you’re going?
M: I know where I was supposed to be. But my husband, he’s in Kómar. [Relax – it’s just easier]
C: Ah, us men, we’re always wrong.

And bless him, he didn’t charge me for the extra leg.

So, I get to Kómar and there’s himself. On the platform, phone at the ready, to show me the record of our call. And yes. We had talked. For 3 minutes. I didn’t have the faintest recollection of the conversation. And that scared me shitless.

I am terrified of dementia.

Dementia is a syndrome, not a disease. … Dementia is a group of symptoms that affects mental cognitive tasks such as memory and reasoning. Dementia is an umbrella term that Alzheimer’s disease can fall under. It can occur due to a variety of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.

My anxiety levels were rising and no matter how he tried to steer the conversation, I kept coming back to the fact that I had zero recollection of a phone conversation that happened less than five hours earlier. Bless him. He really has the patience of Job. I was nearly hysterical. I had a knot in my stomach the size of a pregnant orange. On the 10-minute drive to the house, I messaged a good mate of mine in the UK who is studying memory issues and told him what had happened. Thankfully, he was online. He asked me if anyone had commented on any changes in my behaviour recently. I checked with himself. And yes, apparently I’ve been more forgetful than usual. I asked him if he could run a preliminary check on me. We fixed a date for Sunday evening.

It’s been hovering in the back of my mind the whole weekend. I’ve been watching myself like a new mother might an infant child, the anxiety eaten up by what ifs. What if those three minutes were is alibi for some heinous crime himself was wrongly accused of? I wouldn’t be able to swear on a Bible that I’d spoken to him… the most I’d be able to muster is that my phone records say I did, your honour. What if this is the start of it? What if I’m losing my mind? What if I can’t remember who I am in a year’s time? Or worse, what if I can’t remember who anyone else is!

We did the test – ACE-III – and I got 99%. The cut-off is 83%. No sign of memory issues. Man, was I relieved.

So why the complete blank? Knowing better than to suggest I was burning the candle at both ends, he told me of a patient who had been spinning too many plates in the air and had experienced similar blanks. When he’d cut back on his commitments, when he’d stopped running around so much, when he’d taken time to do nothing, the blanks stopped. Enough said.

I’m grateful it’s that simple. I’m already paring back on the weeks ahead and considering what I can do to take some of those plates out of the air without breaking any. I got the fright of my life. And while there may be far worse things that could happen to me, at the moment it’s losing my mind that I fear the most.

2018 Grateful 8

I was at home at the weekend. A brief in and out to see how the folks were doing. I went to Saturday evening mass, something I usually don’t like to do as I prefer to save my mass till Sunday. Somehow, going on Saturday doesn’t feel quite the same. Yet I was driving in from the airport, and it was on, and they were at it. So I stopped in.

It made a change to be able to understand what was going on. I’m usually straining to catch words I understand and then patching together the essence of what I think is being said. Boys from the village national school were being enrolled in the Confirmation programme, which explained why the church had fewer empty seats than usual.

I sat mid-way down the church. As one of the teachers called out the names of those being enrolled in the programme, they stood up. Amidst the expected Tadhgs and Jameses and Padraigs was a healthy smattering of names I couldn’t pronounce. Amidst the gingers, the blondes, and the brunettes were some fabulous coiled, coarse, and curly locks, including one fab set of dreads. Ireland wasn’t the only country standing up to be counted. I was impressed at the level of diversity in the school.

Back in my day, some 40 years ago, the diversity banner in our class was carried by a lone American. Her name was Phoebe Eaton. She lived in a house out the Dublin Road that was rumoured to have special plug sockets to take American hairdryers and toasters and kettles. For some weird and wonderful reason I’ve still not discovered, I found that fascinating. I’m not even sure if Phoebe made her confirmation with us, I just remember from primary school, an exotic little thing with massive eyes who twanged when she spoke. Strange. I haven’t thought about her in years. And years. [Out of curiosity I googled the name and found a Phoebe Eaton in NYC who is now a journalist. I wonder if they’re one and the same.]

Anyway, by the time I surfaced from my ruminations, a few of the boys were presenting banners representing the seven gifts of the holy spirit. As I watched and listened I noted that the seven boys standing on the altar as representatives of the Confirmation class, well, they were all obviously Irish. The diversity on display, such as it was, amounted to differences in height, weight, and hair colour.

Well, that set me off in a whole new direction.

Was I the only one in the church thinking that this was a little odd? Was I over-reacting? Was there a backstory I wasn’t privy to? Maybe the boys had volunteered. Maybe they had won a competition. Maybe they were being punished 🙂 Had diversity become so entrenched in the school that I, as an outsider, was the only one noticing that it was missing?

This week I’m grateful that my memory still works and that I’m still noticing things. And that Voltaire isn’t around to say ‘Judge a [wo]man by [her] questions rather than by [her] answers.’

 

 

Thai food

2018 Grateful 9

I like to eat out, to go out for dinner, to have a long lazy lunch. I am a great fan of early morning breakfast meetings. I like my food. I like the occasion of it all. But eating out day after day? After a month away, the novelty soon wore off. The menus all looked the same. Rice. Noodles. Coconut. Chicken. Beef. Shrimp. When JS told us we were going for pizza on a Friday in Chiang Rai, I baulked. It was early days. We weren’t even two weeks into our four-week stay and I was still appreciating the difference in Thai food. Pizza? How bloody American! But I went. And I enjoyed. Immensely.

Yes, you can find your French and your Italian, even on small islands like Koh Yao Noi. You can find pizza joints and steak hangouts in the bigger cities, too. But you have to look for them. And look hard. I’m sure if you had a kitchen you could get creative with the local market offer and turn out some nice dishes sans rice or noodles. But after a month of sameness, I began to appreciate what I regularly take for granted.

I live in a diverse part of the world. Ireland more so than Hungary, perhaps. Yet in both countries, I can find pretty much any kind of ethnic food I crave. Supermarkets offer all sorts of ingredients from all over. I’m not restricted to rice and noodles. I don’t think I’ve really ever appreciated the breadth of choice that’s on my doorstep and the contributions that migrants have made to the culinary offer here and beyond. When they move, they bring with them part of their home country. Speciality shops open to serve the growing communities and the local fan base eager to try their dishes benefits.

When we landed in Budapest on a Friday afternoon, my first port of call was to KFC. Yep. Fine dining it ain’t but there’s a comfort that comes in a bucket of wings that far outweighs their nutritional value. It’s my go-to food when I need to be wrapped in a hug of familiarity. For the next few days, I was all about Hungarian stalwarts, thanks to some lovely chicken and bean dishes cooked up by the inimitable ZsG. The first day back in the village, it was pork ribs from the travelling butcher, something I’d been craving on my travels. I was back to normal. All was good.

But then, oddly, when it came to inviting friends to dinner, I wanted to cook Thai. I’d been to the Asian shop near Fővám tér and stocked up on the myriad ingredients needed to do the recipes justice. I had my notes from my time with P in Chiang Rai and the cookbook from the class I took in Chiang Mai. I was set. And while I didn’t think my Lad Na tasted quite the same as P’s, they liked it. In deference to their tastes, I’d substituted sweet Thai basil for spicy Thai basil in my Pad Kra Prao (making it something else entirely) and it was delish. Thai cooking is all about flavours. A teaspoon of this, a tablespoon of that, and more of the other. Sugar is used to temper the spice. Sweet and sour work well together. There’s a balance to it all. 

I’m grateful this week that I could have a taste of Thailand at home in a small Hungarian village with four people, from four different countries sitting to the table. That’s my world.

2018 Grateful 10

Four weeks in Thailand taught me a lot about myself and how I view the world. I’ve always known that I’m impatient, that I don’t suffer fools lightly, that I have a sometimes irrational fear of getting lost. (But as the inimitable EK has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, I’m never lost if I know what country I’m in.) Thinking myself open to all religions, I was surprised at how out-of-place I felt on the predominantly Muslim island of Koh Yao Noi. I wasn’t expecting anyone but Buddhists, given that the country is predominantly Buddhist, and perhaps had I done my research, I’d have been better prepared, mentally prepared, but I was caught on the hop for the complete reversal in statistics: 96% Muslim.

I found myself wondering if I was dressed appropriately. Tank tops and vests were out but could I show my shoulders if wearing a knee-length dress? How long did my shorts have to be? Should I cover my head? I didn’t want to offend. I was very much aware that when in Rome … Buying booze in the village and being handed it in a black plastic bag accompanied by a frown of disapproval had me feeling like an errant teen trying to pull a fast one. I felt a strange unease at hearing the call to prayer as I lay on the beach, no doubt scantily clad by someone’s yardstick. That other tourists had no problem walking around in shorts and vests made no odds. I wasn’t feeling awkward for them – just for me. I missed the Buddhists and their temples. Those I felt almost at home in. Not here. And yet it was nothing anyone did or said. They couldn’t have been nicer. The smiles, though timid, were real. The welcome, while not effusive, was there. I wondered if I’d become conditioned to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and had absorbed some of the irrational fear it aims to induce.  I had a major rethink on my hands.

A few days in Doha on the way back added to my mental angst. But for that, I was prepared. I knew I was entering a Muslim country and had rejigged by thought patterns accordingly. I wasn’t walking around in shorts or sunbathing on a beach. I was covered. I had a handle on it. I was struck by the numbers – 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants are expats. Foreign. There are twice as many Indians as there are Qatari, with a fair representation from Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria and more. Fascinating. Such diversity. And yet the diversity wasn’t as obvious as I’d have expected, lost as it is in the religion. The majority are Muslim.

The Muslims I know are moderate in their religious practice, a lot like the pick-and-mix Catholic I am. And the Koran, like the Bible, is open to selective reading. [I came across this fascinating article in the Telegraph What the Koran really says about women.] Yet I’d never choose to live in a country whose societal rules and norms differed vastly from what I am used to. Azerbaijan and I didn’t part friends. But India and I have a lovely relationship. The outward trappings of the Muslim world are difficult for me to understand, to get to grips with. Would I want to feel this level of discomfort in my own country? No. Do I want to wake up one morning and find my church bells drowned out by calls to prayer? No. (I wonder, though, what that would sound like and if they could be scheduled at different times?) Do I want to find myself in a minority? No. Does that make me anti-migrant? Does it make me racist? Does it make me intolerant? I have a pain in my head trying to figure it all out.

The Dalai Lama was accused of bigotry when he suggested that refugees return to their home countries to help rebuild them and leave Europe for Europeans. It surprised me when I heard what he’d said, particularly as he himself is a refugee. Is that what this is about? The difference between migrant and refugee? The former someone who chooses to resettle to another country in search of a better life, the latter someone who has been forced to flee their home country because of armed conflict or persecution. I understand the Dalai Lama’s comments to mean that refugee status is temporary, until the situation at home is resolved and people can return safely. Migrant status seems more permanent. I’m an economic migrant, I should know.

As a new wave of refugees set forth on a long journey towards a better life, I’m here examining my conscience and giving serious thought to what’s going on in South Korea on the island of Jeju where Yemeni refugees are getting a less than hospitable welcome from conservative Christian groups. Yes. Those who by virtue of their faith should be welcoming are crying Go home. There’s no room at the inn.

I read the NYT and watched a short video following one woman heading from Honduras to what she hopes will be a better life in the USA. Another from Channel 4 following the caravan currently walking through Mexico. The debate about asylum seekers and economic migrants rages and the media are playing to the gallery. Could there be would-be terrorists in these groups? Certainly. Just as there could have been on the plane from Bangkok or Doha or anywhere. But is it really terrorists or migrants or refugees or Muslims or conservative Christians (or….) that we are afraid of? Or is it simply the uncertainty of the times in which we’re living? Would we prefer to switch back to our pre-globalisation days where few people travelled abroad and letters took weeks to arrive? What is that we’re really afraid of?

This week, I’m grateful that travel makes me question what I take for granted. That it forces me to examine not only what I think but why I think it. And that both, in turn, give me a more balanced take on the world.

 

 

 

 

 

motorbike in Thailand

2018 Grateful 11

I’ve never been so grateful to have faith, to believe in my God. I needed Him this week more than I have in a long time.

Sitting on the back of our Thai motorbike, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago, when living in California: God on a Harley. High literature it ain’t. The hunking-up of Jesus (just call me Joe) didn’t sit too well with me. But I remember that for all its kitschiness, it repeated the basic tenets of good living.

  • Live in the moment
  • Take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others
  • Don’t build walls
  • Be real
  • Everything is possible
  • Keep it flowing – if you get/have then give

This week, in Thailand, I read Barry Dunning’s account of how religion is waning in the west and waxing in the east. From my experience over the past month or so, Thailand has a very active religious population. Compared to the half-empty pews of Irish churches, temples and mosques are relatively full. One argument in the comments section noted that the richer we become, the less need we have of religion. I wonder.

Surveys and census tell us that an increasing number of young people say they have no religion. I find that incredibly sad. If I had no faith, no god, to whom would I turn in times of crisis? In whom would I trust? I need to believe and while I recognise that this isn’t for everyone, it is very much the case for me. Call it what you will. Disparage me. Think me mad. But I’d be lost without my faith.

On Koh Yao Noi, the only feasible way to get around is by motorbike. Each day, we’d take off, somewhere. Himself would drive. It’s been on his bucket list for a while. I’d ride pillion, hanging on for dear life, repeating my mantra – Oh most Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in Thee. I mantra’d myself into a fugue and thanked the good lord every time we arrived at our destination unscathed. We only ditched it once. No harm done.

Other drivers. Other bikes. Flash rains. Potholes. Muddy patches. Ruts in the road. Old machines. Old-lady racers. None of these made for a relaxing journey. Relinquishing control didn’t help either. But then, I’ve been so scatty lately that I didn’t have much faith in my hand-eye coordination and I didn’t want to drive myself.

Although helmets are mandated by law, few locals wear them. Few tourists, either. But I insisted. We might be puttering along way under the speed limit being overtaken by 10-year-old veterans, often three or four on the one bike, but I had to have a helmet. Last month’s concussion is too recent to have been forgotten.

I know I was being selfish. Himself wanted to release his inner ‘Easy Rider’. It can’t have been easy for him to see the kids whizz by but thankfully, he’s not one to care much about what others think of him. So each day, for a couple of hours, I’d stay home and let him away, to go as fast as he liked, to lay flat turning those corners, and be lighter on the brakes going down those steep hills. I’d stay home, praying that he’d come back in one piece and trying to decide if I’d bring back his body or just cremate him if he didn’t.

He felt better. I felt better. And I’m sure God was having a right laugh, used as He is to riding a Harley.

Santiburi, Chiang Rai, visitor or tourist

2018 Grateful 13

I’ve been trying to figure out how long it’s been, he said. Seventeen years, I replied. Almost to the week, I added. Mad really.

Having bumbled around Bangkok, assimilated Ayutthaya, and cooked in Chiang Mai, we arrived in Chiang Rai earlier this week as visitors rather than tourists. And there’s a difference.

Visitor or tourist?

As tourists, we’re at the mercy of guidebooks, search engines, and guest reviews. We read other peoples thoughts on what to do and where to go not knowing if we share similar tastes or ideals or are complete opposites. We make educated guesses as to what we’d like to do and see based on the experiences of others. Perhaps we’re guided by a Top 10 list of things to do or Top 10 list of things to avoid. Perhaps we’re simply into ticking boxes, taking photographs, and then tweeting the world to let them know what we’ve been up to.

Our meals are usually taken with our fellow tourist(s). Our conversations revolve around what we’ve done today and what we’d like to do tomorrow. We become each other’s world. Our phones, giving us audible directions, betray us as strangers. The maps that we fold and unfold mark us as tourists. We’re on a mission of sorts, a mission to see and do and record that same seeing and the doing.

But when we visit friends, even friends we haven’t seen in 17 years, we’re visitors, not tourists. We share their days, their routines. We see places not on the tourist route, places locals go, like a tiny Thai restaurant that only opens on Fridays to serve fresh pizza until they run out. Or a local pub owned by an ex-copper, where you bring your own whisky and buy your soda there. Or a small shop, packed with handmade traditional skirts and shirts and teas and all sorts, where fair trade is a fair deal. We get the inside scoop on protocols and preferences. We get to hear about life and living and how cultures mix and mingle. We get to relax, knowing that if we don’t get to see it this time, we have a bigger reason to return.

So much has changed in both our lives in the years since we last met in Valdez, Alaska. There’s a constant catch-up going on that involves rather than excludes our partners. Backstories become part of the explanations. A mutual appreciation grows. I came to meet one friend and will leave with two. Evening meals have turned into cooking lessons for me. I’ve Pad Thai down, and Lad Ka, too. We will, of course, reciprocate their hospitality when they visit Europe. I’ll need to brush up on my pörkölt and my csirke paprikás and learn a little more about Hungary’s history so that I do the country justice. I’m already looking forward to having them stay.  

So, visitor or tourist? Well, I enjoy travelling. And I enjoy being a tourist. But I prefer being a visitor. This week, I’m incredibly grateful to J&P for being so generous with their home, their time, and their knowledge of all things Thai. Kapun ka.