Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Memories

More than any other, Christmas is the one holiday that fills my cup with memories. Perhaps, this is the same for you. I have very fond and vivid memories of Christmas as a child. The scent of a fir, strings of lights and the taste of sweets. A house warmed by family and a bounty of colour beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

There is one Christmas I will never forget. It was 32 years ago. And each December, the memories of that Christmas seem as fresh as if it was just last year.

It was Christmas Eve 1987, and with my parents and sister, I visited my grandfather in the hospital. Lawrence, or Larry, as he was known was 78. He wore plaid plants better than most, and he taught me to spell Mississippi. MI - double S - I - double S - I - double P – I. I can hear his voice, as I write these words.

When it was time to leave, I walked toward the door. Everyone else had left. I looked over at my grandfather, and with my eyes getting wet, I waved goodbye. There was an undeniable feeling that I was saying goodbye forever.

My parents took my sister and I home before driving back to the hospital in Duncan. Wanting to be at home with us on Christmas morning, my parents left the hospital late in the night. I only remember one gift that year. It was a rectangular box wrapped in colourful paper. I had left the gift from my grandparents unopened. After breakfast, my parents left and returned to the hospital.

It was afternoon when I finally decided to unwrap my last gift. Tears streamed down my face, as I gently pulled the paper apart at each end of the box. Inside was a cream and brown sweater. It held so much meaning at that moment.

With my parents still at the hospital, it was just my sister and I at home for Christmas dinner. My grandfather died that evening.

When I hear Maroon 5’s latest song, Memories, I think of Christmas and I think of my grandfather.  

Toast to the ones here today.
Toast to the ones that we lost on the way.
‘Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
And the memories bring back, memories bring back you

Monday, November 12, 2018

Shanghai Surprise

It was early evening when I exited the East Nanjing Road metro station. I was tossed into a disorienting mass of people. Like extras in movie flitting about, I found myself being swept along by people going in every direction; only they seemed to know where they were going.

I was in the middle of a pedestrian mall in one of Shanghai’s busiest shopping areas. Clutched in my hand was a terribly blurry map of where my hotel was in relation to the metro station, but the challenge was knowing which direction to go. It all made sense when I printed it at home, but less so now that I was standing in the map. 

I couldn’t pick out any landmarks that would guide me, so I wandered down one street, and down another. After some time, I asked a police officer, who gestured in a direction but offered little more. It had been close to an hour of walking around and I realized that it was possible I’d never find my hotel.

Shanghai at night

I came up to the concierge of a hotel that I had considered booking. It was highly ironic. I showed him my now crumpled map. He entered the name of the hotel in his phone and showed me the direction. I took a photo of his screen just in case. 

As I toured the darkened streets in search of my hotel, it was surprisingly quiet. A few bicycles and scooters passed by. And even when I chose to walk on the street instead of navigating the bumpy, brick sidewalks with my suitcase, I kept looking over my shoulder fearing I’d be hit by a race of cars, but the few that did pass me seemed to be in slow motion.  

Down a small alley, I finally found my place of rest, and dropping my bags, I made my way to the Huangpu River and the Bund area of Shanghai. The brightly coloured lights and the futuristic, Jetson’s-like building on the Pudong side of the river dazzled. Several newlyweds had their pictures taken with the iconic skyline of the city as a backdrop.  

I was up early the next morning and set off again for the riverside. There was a surreal quiet to the city. Bicycles, many with baskets attached to the front drifted along without effort. And in a country scorned for its pollution, progress was being made, I thought, as electric scooters passed by in silence. The low cloud that masked the tops of the skyscrapers seemed to dampen the city’s exuberance. Shanghai felt more like a provincial town than one of the world’s largest cities.

Walking along the river, I passed scores of people doing their morning exercises. To some, the old, stone buildings along the Bund might have had the look of melancholy, but to me there was just a restful quiet.

It was a side of Shanghai I hadn’t expected.   

Monday, August 14, 2017

An old salt

Near the Irish village of Leenaun, in the Connemara region, our hungry stomachs stumbled upon the Carraig Pub, with its puncy red and white sign. We stepped inside the small and inviting pub, and were warmly greeted by a man, who I first thought was the owner. Philip was his name. He wore a white beard and a weathered-look that gave the appearance of an old salt. I figured he’d spent his entire 80 years living in this village, next to the sea.

Like a layer of freshly fallen snow, dandruff flakes covered the collar of his black suit jacket, which I imagined was the only one he owned. Part of his striped dress shirt was untucked. Behind him was the barman, a trunk of a man, who I gathered to be in his late 60s. I pictured him knocking down people on the rugby pitch in younger years.

In a way that is comforting, the menu was unpretentious. The kind of meal your grandmother would make. I ordered a tuna sandwich. My mother and sister, the vegetable soup. Someone, who I guessed to be the barman’s wife took the order slip and walked back to what looked like the family’s living area. An Irish or English soap opera—I wasn’t sure—played distractingly on a TV in the corner.
After Philip took a few sips of what I could only imagine was a noon-time nip of Irish whiskey, he came back over, and we started up a conversation.

I was wrong about him spending his entire life in the village. With little prospect for work, he, like so many millions of other Irish before him, left Ireland on a ship and went to New York in 1962. He worked hard for 40 years in America for a good pension, as he put it, and then followed his heart back to Ireland. “You never know when it will end,” he said, looking skyward. It was a bit of poetry. He wished for the beginning and end of his life story to play out right here in this small village, where pleasures are simple and friends gather round and swap old tales.

If you ever find yourself in Leenaun, stop in at the Carraig, and say, hello to Philip.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas in July

A part of my brain knows that it is December, but another part has tricked me into believing it is July. It turned to summer yesterday and the temperature outside confirms it. Surely, Christmas can’t be days away. 

In an area known as Sydney’s northern beaches, I took an early morning walk along Narabeen lagoon and on to a nearby shopping centre. Inside, a small area was reserved for Santa Claus. He wasn’t there, and so I imagined they had simply left Santa’s house up all year, because in my shorts, t-shirt and sandals it must be July.

For 46 years my brain has been conditioned to know what December looks and feels like, and this isn’t it. In the part of the world I live, December is dark and cool and typically punctuated with dreary, gray skies filled with rain, and sometimes snow. People hibernate under blankets in front of the fireplace with a warm cup of cocoa or spiced apple cider.

Migrating south of the equator for three weeks has tricked my brain. Here, on my patio I seek shelter from the sun, which arrives early each day and lingers late into the day. The palms and Norfolk pines move lazily in the warm breeze. Colourful birds sing and jump from tree to tree.

I suppose when you’re on vacation days and months mean little, so while I know the calendar says December, it’s July to me.

I just hope Santa will still come. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Path of Ancients

It was just before five in the morning and I was navigating a scooter through the dark, bumpy roads of Bagan. I swerved around a cow that sauntered in front of me. I was travelling toward Old Bagan to watch the sun rise. I had only a vague sense of where I was going. The world looks different in the black of morning, as the light on my scooter struggled to light a path in front of me.
A motorcycle pulled up next to me, and a young guy asked, “Are you going to watch the sunrise? I know the best spot…follow me.”

I didn’t say anything to him but followed along. I knew that the cost of his help would be listening to his sales pitch for his paintings, like a time-share hawker in Hawaii. I have quickly learned that everyone is a painter in Bagan.

We turned off at a temple just next to the main road. He lead me up a narrow passageway of stone steps with the light from his mobile phone. As I climbed up through the tight space I felt like Indiana Jones, except I was wearing a ball cap instead of a fedora. And I didn't have a whip.
We popped out onto a small terrace and then climbed higher pulling ourselves up the outside of the temple, placing our feet carefully on ledges that were only half-a-brick wide. There were about six others already staking out a perch.

Sunrise over Bagan

From atop a temple to watch the sunrise

The sky began to lighten, as the sun prepared its grand entrance. Then slowly, like a shy child, the big ball of fire slowly rose above the horizon, colouring the vast plain that is Bagan. It is here, a thousand years ago, where more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were constructed. Impressively, there are still more than 2,000 left standing. 

With the sun now warming the air, I climbed back down, and after listening to a pitch for some art, I hopped back on my scooter, and rode to nowhere. Curious, I turned down a dirt track, which a short way along had narrowed and was muddy. I turned the throttle to give the bike more power, so I wouldn’t get stuck, and put my feet close to the ground, so I wouldn’t fall over. Mud splashed up on my sandal clad feet. 

Carrying on, I realized no one was around and I didn’t have a map with me. What’s an adventure if you know where you’re going. A short distance away was a large temple. I climbed off my bike and started across a grassy field. Then I stopped and wondered if there were any harmful critters lurking in the grass. 

I thought of snakes. The first one to come to mind was a Burmese python. It took me a second to compute. Myanmar used to be called Burma, and so yes perhaps a Burmese python might be slithering nearby waiting to swallow or strangle me. I looked in the tree next to me and in the grass ahead of me. I didn’t see anything, but I listened to my overactive imagination and retreated. I drove my scooter through the bumpy field, thinking that if I had to I could outgun a python chasing me.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Arms wide open in Yangon

Morning is the best time to explore a city. The promise of a new day washes off its slumber. It was just before six in the morning in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and once its capital. The sun was struggling to get up when I stepped outside my hotel. Taxi! Taxi!, was the chorus that greeted me. 

I wanted my feet to do the exploring, so I carried on up Sule Pagoda Road toward the aptly named Sule Pagoda, with its gold covered Stupa rising up in the middle of a traffic circle. I passed weathered colonial buildings that spoke of past grandeur now fading into history. “Welcome to Luxury,” read the large sign on a building under construction. The promise of a new grandeur, perhaps.  

Sule Pagoda

Next to the Pagoda, a few buses idled while their conductors called out like auctioneers looking for new fares. Close by, I came to the square-shaped Maha Bandoola Garden, named after a war hero, who fought the British in the first Anglo-Burmese War in the 1820s. In one part of the park a large group of people were doing aerobics, moving to the sound of music that drifted from a portable music player. Others were doing tai chi, while others still were sitting in quiet reflection.

In the middle of the park was a tall obelisk commemorating Burmese independence from Britain in 1948. Apparently, it replaced a statue of Queen Victoria. Sitting at the base of the obelisk was a young man. When he saw me, he smiled and said good morning. I reached out and shook his hand. He told me his name was Ko. I complemented him on his good English. He said he learned it from tourists. This is when I expected him to hit me with a hard sales pitch to be my tour guide, or sell me some postcards or lead me to his uncle’s shop. But he never went there. We talked some more and then just as I about to walk away, he smiled and said. “In a while crocodile.” A phrase no doubt learned from the tourists.

Ko Ko
Ko Ko

I stopped to talk to three other men. They pointed at the tall moment and spoke of independence from Britain. There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings. They were complimentary of the British, saying of them that they are very disciplined. The men come here many mornings and walk around the park. Very disciplined themselves, I thought.

On my way out of the park, a man, who could be a paler twin of James Earl Jones, wished me a good morning, as did a woman.  How could it be, I wondered, that such a kind people could have been subjected to a regime for decades that was repressively the antithesis of kind. It seemed cruelly unfair.

There’s a welcoming spirit in Myanmar, and its arms are wide open.

Yangon is home to the largest number of colonial buildings in southeast Asia. Many of them have been abandoned. Here nature is reclaiming itself