Monthly Archives: May 2009

A tale of two worlds

The teenage years are a slow slipping through the fingers of control. Ever so slowly those little girls who were once glued to the hip are now keeping secrets and living in their own little worlds.

People often ask me, how can I possibly cope teaching teenagers? Aren’t they rude, smelly and all together quite awful? The truth is that I really love teens. I love the enthusiasm, the raw energy, the budding intelligence, the swirling hormones, the fact that they are on the cusp on adult hood. Plus no one is smelly, if anything those boys seem to bathe in Axe.

The other evening I witnessed a mating ritual, that resembled the great meeting of the peacocks. It was the final night of CAISSA, a sports event that unites several Caribbean International schools. While I was mere feet away in the auditorium watching the elementary school music festival ( a few screeching violins and my beautiful daughter singing a solo) the gym was brimming with unrestrained teenage joy. Our school had just won the girl’s basketball championship and the music was nearly as loud as the cheering. With little time to spare, showers were taken and people were dressed to impress, for there was young, fresh and very handsome blood in the building. The teens walked circles around each other, flashing smiles, batting lids and giggling behind hands. The boys from Caracas and the Dominican Republic were smiling and looking around, the girls from Trinidad were doing their own mating dance. The contrast between the sweet innocence of the auditorium with the brave display of young talent performed for eager parents and the loud sexy gym was one that gave me pause. I sneaked out of the music festival, accidentally missing the choir performance (a sin for which I paid dearly) to revel in the fresh talents of my teens. 

The two worlds collided in the photos I looked at later that evening. My photos of earnest children dressed in black and white looking fearfully into the limelight were suddenly interrupted by the puffed and pruned teens standing around the gym. Those little eager sprouts making their parents proud would soon enough be ruffling their feathers for the opposite sex.  I have one little ball of sweetness singing her heart out for me and then before my eyes her sister is slipping into that great big world of peacocks.




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The longest goodbye

When I was 9 my family moved from Hong Kong to Japan. I wasn’t particularly upset about moving to a new country other than two wholly devastating events. I had to bid farewell to both my best friend and my dog. My parents decided that leaving him behind would be the best thing, considering that Tokyo was a concrete jungle bereft of green parks and places for a long-eared basset hound to run free.
I can still recall the tears. My friend I could talk to on the phone, perhaps even see again but my dog, keeper of my secrets, lover of my bed? No. It was goodbye forever.

Now as we embark upon the Great Departure from Trinidad I look at my two daughters, 9 and 12 and see history repeating itself.
We have a gorgeous dog; brown eyed, long in the ear, soft to the touch. We brought her with us from Canada and wept as we watched her endure the 4 months wait in Montreal, the long flight and the 1 month in quarantine before she finally arrived. She is named Zola and we call her our bear. We spend many a moment staring at her in awe. She is sweetness incarnate.

Yet we have decided to leave our beloved dog behind. She will not be joining us in Africa. This decision is based upon many factors, mainly practicality and the quality of life for our dog. The logistics of shipping a dog from Trinidad to Kampala are horrific, but can be overcome despite expense, time, and discomfort for the dog. But once in Uganda we have no idea if our apartment allows dogs, who would watch her when we leave to travel and explore, nor how she could endure the 6 month quarantine that would be demanded of her when we leave and try to bring her back. It goes without saying that the nomadic lifestyle we have unwittingly adopted is wholly unsuited to dog ownership. It is hard enough to drag a whole family across two continents, let alone an innocent and sweet unwilling pet.

Practicalities and rational thought aside, this whole affair is breaking my heart. 31 years after the fact I am reliving the terrible farewell I bid to the first dog I loved. Here I am doing it again. I cannot say the words out loud “she is just a dog”. She is not “just” anything. I have raised her from a pup, cleaned up all of her bodily secretions, trained her, loved her, and slept with her. The bond between her and the family is one that travels deep.

We are all silently dealing with this in our own way. We awake sad and slightly shocked; we look at her, touch her and stare into her eyes as if for the last time. The next 4 weeks will be the longest goodbye.
Last night she slept beside my youngest, curled beside her head like a pillow. At night she likes to visit us, one by one in our beds, a quick check to ensure her pack is in place.

Will her heart break like ours?




Filed under Family Stuff, I love dogs

Slow food in the Fast lane

Grocery shopping here is a frustrating and very expensive experience. Eating local food such as Roti and Doubles is a cheap and cheerful way to go but finding decent imported food is both costly and unreliable. Every now and then a container arrives filled with a new and exciting product and a few months later, when the container has emptied and run out, the shelves are bare. It’s best not to make too many decisions about dinner until the shopping is done as you never know what you will get. Many people cave and go headlong into the fast food option a few times a week.

The busiest KFC in the world is here in Trinidad on Independence Square. While that branch might be the busiest, I suspect that the other Trinidad branches are not far behind. I have never seen as many people eating fried chicken in my life as I see here on a daily basis. Many students rush to KFC during our 30 minute lunch hour, coming back to school with minutes to spare and licking chicken grease off their fingers for the remainder of the afternoon.
It is cheap, tasty and who cares about heart disease and long term health disasters when all that rum dissolves the probable effects?

In the rest of the world fast food consumption is on the rise. Has anyone seen those tv ads where the nice lady serves Mcnuggets on a banana leaf as a pseudo fancy appetizer? If that is not a woeful tale of recession optimism then I don’t know what it. Crowds of people march into the golden arches demanding their $1.00 meal, feeling puffed and victorious with their frugality, but what can a $1.00 actually give you? Is anyone thinking about the substances, rather than food, that is being ingested? When did people put money so far ahead of health?
McDonalds was one of only two companies to close 2008 with a 4.5% increase in their stock value. (The other is Walmart. Surprised?) Wholefoods is crawling through the tunnel of recession despair and the Big Mac rules. There is no MacDonalds down here but Burger King and KFC have line ups round the block. This has always been the way, recession woes have not really hit this corner of the Caribbean.

When I was very small, back in 1974, my family was living in Hong Kong. There was a MacDonald’s there, shiny, new and nonexistent in the UK from where we had recently been transplanted. So it was novel, yummy and there was an exciting replica of a pirate ship that we would crawl all over. A visit quickly became our Sunday night routine. I remember we weren’t allowed to drink our shake until we had finished our burger. Got to get those nutrients in first!
Once my parents realized what we were really ingesting, the visits to the glorious arches stopped and our fridge became filled with the freshest and best food we could buy. We weren’t an obsessed family but we were healthy, yet despite the guilt I sometimes felt, I loved the occasional fast food blitz.
Now I crave fine food, rather than the fast, squashy and wet food that comes wrapped in paper. I am dreaming of my summer in Montreal when I can gorge on gorgeous tomatoes, fabulous cheese, and fresh produce from the farmers market.

Right now I am dreaming of sushi.


Filed under I love food, Trinidad & Tobago

Cliff Jumping

Here is a little tale of Trinidad and the postal system. Back in early December 2008 I mailed two packages to my nieces in London. They were Christmas gifts and I thought that sending presents 3 weeks early would be sufficient. They arrived on May 11, 2009. I had given up hope but apparently the lesson here is not to lose hope at all but just to be patient.

I am not a patient person. I start to fret when the lady in the bank takes too long to write out the numbers on the bank draft; I am not a fan of the 12 minute cappuccino, I can barely control myself during a power cut. This is a problem as I am moving to Uganda where power cuts are a daily occurrence, there are few ATMs, I can’t even imagine the postal system and I just found out about the Washing Machines. Apparently there aren’t any. I had just digested the idea of living without a dishwasher and had warned my daughters about extensive dishes duty and now hand washing?
I won’t pretend. I am stressed.

This move has got to me. It has moved from the theoretical sphere to the definitely real. Moving is a very slow process and it is hardest on the 12 year old in the family. At that age there is a complete lack of perspective and a total absorption in the melodramatic. Rather than have a smidgen of hope, she is convinced that she will NEVER see her friends again and that her life is pretty well over.

I know, I just need to breathe and take one day at a time.

The time draws near. Between book sales, furniture sales, visits from shipping companies, purchasing of airline tickets and freak out sessions over what to do with our dog, I have been losing sleep. Moving is stressful and moving to Africa is particularly heart thumping since it is the great unknown.

Jumping off cliffs is brave.


Filed under Family Stuff, Travel, Trinidad & Tobago

Bells, whistles, prunes and Chow.

Do you ever stand in front of the fridge in true contemplative stance, one hand on door, one hand on chin, knees bent; looking with all your might for something to magically appear that would satisfy every craving?
I have found that food. Sweet, spicy, soft but crunchy, touched with garlic and vinegar, sugar and chili peppers. That food is Chow. It can be made with mangos, plums, any fruit that is soft enough to absorb flavours but my personal favorite is pineapple chow. The fruit is cut into thick chunks and left to soak in a jar of marinade until it turns into Chow.
1 pineapple or 2 full half ripe mangoes, peeled, chunked
2 lemons/limes, juiced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt, pepper (or hot peppers) to taste
If you puree the Mango version it becomes mango chutney. I love the combination of sweet and salty. Speaking of which, the funniest thing occurred the other day.
When I was very small and living in Hong Kong I ate these, what I thought were, candies and I recall them being sweet, salty and chewy. I left Hong Kong when I was 9 and despite never eating those “candies” again, I often remembered the taste and wondered what they were. When I arrived in Trinidad I thought I might find that taste again but had no idea what to ask for or where to look. I thought that the land of Chow would certainly have that strange, memorable and tasty sweet.
The other day in class, a student offered me a dried sweet prune. It was like a shriveled ball, rolled in a dusting of white powder. I popped it in my mouth and bells, whistles, cymbles and alarms went off. This was it!! That strange tasty memory I had been searching for. They were sweet prunes. I was immediately transported back in time and I laughed out loud.


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Filed under I love food, Travel, Trinidad & Tobago

Passionate flying.

I have just read Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke and the advice I have carried away with me is to embrace solitude. We have so few opportunities to be alone, between work, fixing dinner, the telephone, catching up on emails, facebook, blogging, tweeting, shopping, reading and all the other distractions of modern life. Even when most of us are alone, we snatch those rare few moments and duck under a pillow or screen of a laptop. Sometimes some vegetable chopping or laundry folding might take its toll on our fleeting time.
On the other hand, imagine a walk on the beach alone, or a walk around the block, not to quickly walk the pooch and run back to the bubbling soup on the stove, but to be really alone. Imagine being still.
What I love most about photography is the concentrated attention I give to an object or a face. Both writing and photography is an excellent outlet for some fine tuned observation.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”  Writes Marcel Proust.
I think writing and photography go hand in hand, both train the eye to be accurate, to stop and attempt to see the essence of what is in front of you. Real observation requires honesty, quiet and a curious mind.
How often do we notice a flower with the awe of a young child? These lines from Rilke perfectly capture the innocent contemplation of something as ordinary as a garden flower.

“And flowers , as enormous as they are to children, gazed back into it, on and on.”
He closes the poem with a gentle nudge that were we to take the time to embrace the art of seeing the rewards would be plentiful.

“And the rumour that there was someone
Who knew how to look,
Stirred those less
Visible creatures…”

So as Rilke writes:

 “Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breath; perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.”

Listen, look, touch, taste and above all stop. You might be missing something important.

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Filed under Lying in bed with books, observations

Greener pastures

I’ve noticed that I live in a bubble. Apart from the fact that my house resembles a goldfish bowl (it sits on a corner and is surrounded by windows) I myself feel like a goldfish, bug-eyed, going round and round in random circles.

I live between school and home, a distance of mere steps, I don’t drive here in Trinidad and an excursion out of our neighbourhood only ever happens at the weekend. So 5 days a week I live within a 1 kilometer radius. If I need to purchase something I need to either walk to the Mall (still within the 1K border) or get a ride. There is no public transport to speak of and walking anywhere beyond our little circle is dangerous, first because there are no sidewalks here, everything is very spread out and there is the small matter of crime.

In Montreal I walked everywhere and lived in my car the rest of the time. I was highly independent and completely self sufficient, relying on no one for transport and venturing beyond my safe cocoon daily.

I guess you could say I am suffering from Cabin Fever.

Trinidad is very suburban, a life style I have never encountered, having always lived in the centre of cities. I am at heart a down town girl and there are days when I long for Montreal, with a pain that is almost sweet in its nostalgia. I want to pound the streets, stop for coffee, browse the stores, peruse a museum or gallery, hide in a bookstore during a brief shower, pick up sushi, grab dinner to go in a deli and ride a bus. There are days where this longing strikes me hard and I barely notice the tropical palms, the sun, or the call of the early Kiskadee that pulls me out of bed.  I have always been a walker in a city and a lover of the bus. But I have also been accustomed to grabbing my keys and jumping in the car if I needed to pick up supplies from the hardware store or take my dog to the vet. Here I am tied to my home and dependant on the schedule of others.

My freedom is compromised and my spontaneity crushed.  I want to dive into the vibrancy of a city and feed on the culture, come up for air and feel alive.

The grass is ALWAYS greener.




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Drunk Driving? Hilarious.

In Trinidad, “come over for Tea is a metaphor.” What ever time of day, beer is always served. People drink here for breakfast, for goodness sake.

I was at a wonderful Trini lime the other night. What is particularly cool about our time here is that we rarely socialize with expats or foreigners and are almost always the only non-trinis in the group. We feel this is an honour to be included in their pretty inclusive world. The house, like many of the homes we have been invited to, was quite extraordinary. Perched high atop a mountain and reached by a seemingly never ending steep windy road, it was nestled quietly in the bush. The sounds of wildlife mixed with the gleeful cries of children in the pool and the flap of bats took over from the birds once sunset descended. The view was like peering out through trees and foliage down, down towards a tiny twinkling Port of Spain below. In the wee distance the sea sparkled. It was quite the magical place.

After watching the men wrestle with coals and fire and flap cardboard frantically to get a flame, the meat and fish began to sizzle. We moved to the balcony to eat and look out over the mountain.

We had arrived at 4.30 p.m. and by 8.00pm I glanced around at the empty beer and rum bottles and said in my rather bossy fashion “ hey guys. Don’t forget we have to drive all the way down that hill in the dark! So watch out on the drinking!”

Laughter. And. More Laugher.

“Hey girl. Don’t you know we don’t worry ‘bout all that here? You know we been getting some good practice in for many years so don’t you worry.”

Not only do people never consider the effects of driving drunk, it isn’t even against the law!

Case in point. On the way home from the beach the other week we passed through a road block. They were quite common leading up to the Summit of the Americas, and normally they were primarily to check that the windows were not too tinted.( For some reason dark windows was considered a major threat. Not drunk drivers, men carrying guns…) This time we were asked for our insurance papers and there was a slight kerfuffle when we produced a photo copy rather than the original. Eventually, with the assurance that we would speak to our leasing agent and get the original we were let go and we drove on. But the whole time there was an open beer next to my husband and not a word was said. Apparently a photocopied slip of paper is way worse than a beer while we drive! Since, of course, no one ever drives without beer, but insurance is another matter.

Some good friends of ours are moving to Denver and they are already preparing the adjustments they’ll have to make when out liming.

Looks like they might have to go back to that little something called A Designated Driver.

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Filed under observations, Trinidad & Tobago

Persian princes, rockstars and humble pie.

Slightly unconventional class the other day. After watching the computer games unfold in my kitchen I got into a debate with some of my students.

“How can any video game be as good as a book?” I asked them.

“Of course they can!” (Collective chorus)

“Prove it.” I replied.

The mission: in teams of three to bring in a game, 1 person would explain the merits of said game while persons 2&3 play the game for the eager and skeptical audience. Three judges will decide which game and presentation wins. But the greatest challenge would be to disprove the following and in doing so persuade me that I am wrong about video games:

“Video games rot your brain. Read a book instead.”

And so the games started.

Team one lugged out the XBOX  and proceeded to play Prince of Persia. I learnt that this is a game involving the leaping upwards and across to higher and harder levels. An attractive Persian woman accompanies the Prince and is his lucky star. Should you miss a leap and hurtle alarmingly towards the colourful abyss below, she will save you.

The colours, art work, music and graphics were all incredible. This was certainly not a game involving the hurtling of hedgehogs. The sophistication was impressive. I didn’t have a go, far too scared of dropping the prince.

Next up: Halo 3, the darling of video games and the main drainer of teenage boy’s time.

A lot of shooting. I tried this one, and was impressed by how the (wireless!) console vibrated each time I fired the guns. I felt small fragments of testosterone shooting through my veins that stopped the minute I put the game down. A little scary.

Game three was the Wii and Rockstar. Out came drums, guitar and microphone. I had the frightening responsibility of singing along to The Clash, ….  My score was meager and embarrassing but this was fun! The whole class sung along, laughed clapped and (did I imagine?) took photos.

Then it was Wii sports and I attempted (good word) to play tennis and baseball. More photos.

So am I eating humble pie? Did the teacher learn something?

The silly miniclip and other free games on the internet involving fast cars, motorcycles, snow boarders and hedgehogs will rot your brain. Read a book.

These games on the other hand require imagination foresight, coordination, fast reflexes and a sense of humour. The greatest thing is how social they are, having the ability to gather a group together to play or even watch. There is an investment in time and thought, especially Prince of Persia that takes about 8 hours to play.

 They are a lot of fun! And I am convinced that any pilot who spent his youth console in hand will have excellent reflexes, it probably aids in drivers ed, but more importantly, and apart from all the shooting that I didn’t like, these games were really fun. Obviously spending 6 hours playing games, 3 on MSN and 2 in front of the TV will rot the brain and probably lead to oxygen deficiency. But in moderation, and in my opinion, the Wii is the way to go.

And to quote one fine student in response to my totally nerdy question about spending one’s time in a productive and worthwhile way,

“What’s wrong with doing it just because it’s fun?”



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Filed under Miss Teacher, Teenagers