Excuse the melodrama – when DW called to say I had the job I felt as if I had won the career lottery – my life seemed to have been a series of paths that had led me to the posting. My British background, my fascination with Colonial history, my adoration of all things different, my thirst to decipher “other”, and my family background in the service industry – something I have always been proud of – watching my mother in black skirt, white blouse and heels run a dining room was sheer magic, seeing the photos of my grandparents behind the bar of the pubs they managed thrilled me, so service was something I naturally gravitated to.
And oh….oh….the opportunity, the absolute brilliance of travelling – the fear, leaving my family at the Ottawa airport as they delighted in waving from up above as I cried and panicked.
I learned to take each leg of the journey in my stride – to not add up the hours but to just get to the next plane…the bar in Frankfurt – a rum and coke at 10 am their time – Heathrow – the English breakfast (giant meaty mushroom, stewed tomatoes, gammon, and thin toast, marmalade)…updating my registration database in airports with the cord on the computer stretched far out while people tripped over it. Delhi airport a massage looking out onto the runway behind bamboo and white curtains.
South Africa whisked through immigration assisted by two lovely security staff and Nigeria – petrified and tired and alone and told I would be staying a month and thinking I was being kidnapped but it was a joke which ended with a lovely deep belly laugh and a drive to the hotel listening to BBC football, past the tin shanty towns, and cars being washed in the river and food cooked over open flames.
The hotels shined – Nairobi was a dream, featured in Wallpaper magazine – samosa on the rooftop with the wealthy and the glass floor that made you press your legs together so people underneath could not see your knickers, and fresh vibrant lilies in a vase, glass shower and modern African art….Trinidad looked out onto the working dock and everyday at 4 pm, 30 odd people would gather to work out together, and I saw a middle aged average couple kiss on the sea wall.
Abuja orange – my art deco love hotel where I watched the high class hookers, and ate bush meat and tasted the best spaghetti carbonara while waiters swept the table cloth between my courses and soap operas with cocaine on car bonnets, and the pure beauty of the plastic water jugs used to wash the feet of the Muslim men who worked the stalls in the “traditional village” on the hotel grounds.
Malta – my first trip, my taste of luxury and falling in love from my balcony with the smell of the sea and the view of the boats and the crumbling ancient buildings and the delicate desserts in my room with the king size bed and the white linen sheets.
I rode an elephant off a highway in New Delhi – an old working elephant, owned by a destitute group, all with malnourished orange in their hair and the mahout grabbing the rupees I had given from the kid’s hands and I climbed up onto her back on a stinking blanket and held lightly his thin body and felt all the joy and guilt in the universe and felt at home with her bulk and just wanted longer.
Honoured to meet Benjamin who drove me through Nairobi and beyond who understood my request to experience to understand to touch the tip of the iceberg of cultural difference – he took me to see the rich and the poor and the schools and slums and the burned out riot buildings and we spoke of family and courtship and education and we connected. And when I returned the next year he spent an entire day constructing with his young son the winter Lego set I gave and tried to explain cold.
Tired after running, literally running, our biannual in Malta, combining instant coffee and porridge in one cup for breakfast, resentful at another night’s activity, arriving at the president’s summer palace and the Maltese secretariat are there on the stairs, and our bond was such, our love, that there they were on the stone steps just for me really, so proud to present to me the beauty, the showcase of European history, that I sat and wept with joy. The buffet in a room of robin’s egg blue was from the pages of fairy tales, and the paintings and frescoes too dear to even begin to describe.
In the local market in Abuja with Micheal completely out of any depth I have experienced, the aggressive hum of generators, feeling so unknowing and there is the woman who was cleaning my room, I had given her a notebook and some Canadiana crap, and she got us water and led us lambs, and kept the cat calling at bay, and delivered us safely to the fabric stalls. And going to the airport my strong brave helper insists we stop so I can get a Jonathan Goodluck poster and we spray it with water and use our nails as the traffic goes by so close my hair moves.
On a Trinidad beach I photograph a dead dog, vultures pecking away and worm ridden puppies play nearby and the houses, and Mr. Biswas, in washed out shades of pink and yellow and blue, and at the cultural night I dance for hours in 6 inch blinged out heels with Ministers and colleagues and I visit the studio of a top Carnival designer and could weep for what my lantern festival could have been.
I cannot even write more about Malta or about the Masai Mara because I will weep….
And Soria in South Africa – a soulmate, my counterpart, her generosity and capabilities, her home and her wonderful intelligent man and a night spent debating and brain tripping and connection so real that I cannot even email her now because it just seems so empty a communication.
Soweto and the townships, and I thought I was about to be robbed but instead I was led into a home and a birthday party, and the teenage girls rolled their eyes as I crashed their day and the teenage boys in school uniforms spun records and there was a large white birthday cake with delicate flowers and I thought I was seeing the slums but then they took me to the riverbank where the immigrants lived with hundreds of dwellings made from scraps and one roof over it all and yet people waved and smiled and lived and dreamt.
DW and I traveled to Old Delhi, to get Saffron for my Uncle, and it is a holiday, and we move as spawning salmons, not even putting a foot down, but moved by crowd momentum, and personal space is abandoned, the sweat of the people boxing you in slides off your fingers, and there is fear, every news article and novel you have read about riots is running like a newscast across your working memory, but oh you are living and letting go, and after an hour you find the stall you visited the year before and he remembers you, one of the men remembers you from before, and you feel the tug, the absolute magpie finding a diamond tug of “this is your amazing life”.
And I was in Delhi, and I called my Uncle’s cell phone, and him and Becky put the phone up to my nan’s ear and I told her “thank you for accepting me and loving me” and you are in the McDonald’s on the edge of Connaught Place, ordering a McChicken and fries and 5 cans of Diet Coke to drink with your duty free rum, and a message from your uncle, and you know, and you eat the McChicken, I ate the McChicken, I knew, and I got a rickshaw, I did not read the message, I rode in the rickshaw in the New Delhi heat, and I knew, and I got back to my room and listened to the message and I called my Uncle and I called my parents and I called Dan and then I paced and I curled up in a ball and I drank all my duty free rum. I called David and I said I don’t know God but I need a prayer, and the sweet soul came to my room and I sat and cried while he wished her well and soothed my soul. And I bottled my anguish and told nobody and did my job and then DW and I went to the Hanuman temple, and he (and now I am crying) he got me an offering and we threw it on the flames and it was so very cathartic and meaningful and I know my nan would have been tickled pink.
And now I cannot go on much more…I don’t know what I can do next…I know people love to travel….but I don’t quite know how to express how much this has meant to me…how complete I am when I travel, when I organize the conferences and get to work with my counterparts and my delegates and my board…. I don’t know how to tell you all how whole I have felt and how sad it is too lose that.