Category Archives: Transition

Wherever I may hang my hat…

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I’ve ‘hung my hat’ for a short sojourn in The Netherlands. The suitcases are unpacked and the few collectibles I’ve trailed from India — through Greece, Scotland and England —  have found their rightful, if temporary spot. The furnished apartment feels more like our home as books (always too many), a lovely scented candle or two and an old, smuggled Indian globe, now stamp it as our space… for just a while.

Throughout our global life, I have taken care to connect the threads that make our lives feel settled and substantial, wherever we may be. In leaving India, I made sure to cut those threads with care and appreciation as they bound us with a sense of belonging. Now here in The Hague I find that I instinctively make the connections that will ensure we are grounded, only if it is to be for two months — as is the case as we wait for our next posting. I have always held that it is a privilege to experience another land’s traditions and society, and carve your own special space amongst it.

And how could I fail to make those connections here; the land where my mother and first son were born. It’s a place where the cadence of the Dutch language is welcoming and the streetscapes seem as familiar as a well-worn wooden clog (shoe).

I feel myself lingering as I explore, appreciating and embracing in an almost heightened sense — the colours are more vivid, the buildings more dramatic and the scenes of every day family life reach towards me with a tender poignancy. Yes I remember fondly that it was once me cycling with my toddler in the front of my bike through our quaint town of Oudewater. Now I wander down pretty cobbled streets recognising these as the rituals of reconnection, of embracing my new yet intrinsically familiar surroundings.

And of course as we’re in a country so abundant in blooms, a home isn’t a home without vases of tulips and peonies, so prolific at this time of the year. I’ve deviated from my predilection for white flowers, allowing rosy pink bloemen to flourish in the room — the fragrance of delicate peonies perfume the air amongst antique furniture, eclectic prints and tall sashed windows.

And one doesn’t have to venture far into the neighbourhood to also be beguiled by the scent of heavenly roses. They blossom prettily, adorning doors of blues and greens with lovely displays of pinks, reds, yellows and whites.

Our temporary abode is on a lively street, with embassies and lovely homes dotting the area. Wealthy merchants once called the ‘Archipel’ home, amassing great fortunes from ships plying the Dutch East Indies route loaded with rich commodities. These streets once echoed with the passage of the traders’ fine carriages — now it is with the tinkle of bicycle bells, the liveliness of children and chatter, birds and chiming church bells. Just along from us, past the forest, the cycle trail leads to nearby Scheveningen. It’s where sea meets endless sky and gentle dunes.

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Our second story apartment looks out to a cafe that spills onto the broad sidewalk, the pastime of soaking up the sun with a coffee, a glass of wine or a pilsje is the norm. As chatter drifts up and I gaze out to the narrow, bricked homes nestled side by side like a child’s play town, I notice the poem on an adjacent wall.

Poems grace the walls of a number of buildings in this area of The Hague, perhaps a project to inspire and provoke. I find them marvellous — they cause one to stop and ponder, maybe even to construct one’s own.

I find myself purposefully wandering the cobbled streets to savour these verses, or to marvel at overflowing flower shops, or perhaps to admire benches doubling as resting places for potted flowers, and to take in the array of two-wheeled family ‘vehicles’ awaiting outside quaint homes. Cycling is intrinsic to everyday life — to get to school, to work, to shop, to cycle for the joy of it, and the Dutch have mastered bicycle infrastructure and design. I find myself also hopping on my borrowed omafiets grandma bike) just because I can… to feel the breeze, to hear the cozy chatter of families as they pass on busy bike lanes.

Have I missed India? It was a cherished place to live for two years and we soaked up the colour, the unexpected and the history. The experience was like one of the treasured antique necklaces I bought from a local jeweller in Bangalore — intricate, imperfect, but ultimately beautiful as a whole. You cherish it, but it had to be removed and tucked away in a special place – in my memory and the mosaic of my life. No, I cannot imagine not having lived there.

To live here now, for a spell is simply a joy. If it happens to only be for two months, we’ll embrace it with open arms, many vases of tulips, long bicycle trips, visits from family and we’ll say our many bedankts for the time. And for the opportunity to live by my friend and co-author, Jo Parfitt… Monday Morning Emails can now be shared a doorway away.

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And just across the street, the poem on the wall of Hotel Mosaic inspires me to sum it up, it reads…

 

This Is Just To Say 

I have eaten 

the plums 

that were in 

the ice box 

and which 

you were probably 

saving 

for breakfast 

Forgive me 

they were delicious 

so sweet 

and so cold…

William Carlos Williams 

 

If I had the chance to place my own words on the wall, I believe I would pen…

 

This Is Just To Say

Your tulips and roses

and cycles 

so aplenty,

already fill

my vases,

and my soul.

Forgive me

I have chosen the last

bunch of peonies from

the bloomewinkel

they were so fragrant and full,

oh, so perfect…

Terry Anne Wilson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two suitcases, maybe three… and the gift of lettuce

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Yes, for the next two or three months, those will soon be my possessions at-hand… two suitcases, maybe three. Oh, and my trusty white fedora. I find it interesting that in my writer’s biography I mention that, At the age of 26, I packed my hopes and dreams in a 55 L backpack. It was thrilling, liberating, I was free!

Now, the prospect of living out of suitcases is confining and downright inconvenient. We have a little more than one week in our Indian apartment before we close this door and walk through the next. Naturally I’m emotional and a little overwhelmed. That supposed euphoria of packing those suitcases and flying off to ‘freedom’ is inching closer, but the romance of it all still mostly eludes me. Today feels like a Monday Morning Email kind of morning, so writing becomes my solace.

If I were to write an MME to you, it would convey these thoughts…

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Wednesday, April 18th, Bangalore, India,,

Dear Reader,

As I write on this Wednesday morning, song birds serenade, my potted palms colour and cheer as usual, yet boxes already inhabit my once-serene surroundings. Getting ready for the next chapter is a lengthy process, but then its upon you like a fast moving freight train. Transition started months ago when we learned that my husband’s posting would come to an end here. Even though we were part of this decision, we then started discussing, pondering and planning. But in previous moves, we had known where we would next be living.

This time around, I face the difficulty of packing without a destination firmly set, though it will be somewhere in Europe or Canada. And with this, I chuckle a little. For us that is nicely ‘narrowed down’ in this wide, wide world. Asia has been a meaningful experience, yet it’s time to be closer to home. And though I agree with this, I’ve still managed to have two very emotional days over the past few weeks. But even those are part of the process of detachment, acceptance and transition.

The first difficult day happened to be on Easter Sunday. Ironically, after having ‘kids’ living with us for almost a year, Bruce and I happened to be alone. Luke, Trixie and Matt were off backpacking in Sri Lanka and I’ll admit to enjoying some time on our own. I preface this by saying how much we’ve enjoyed this multi-generational living, this ‘suddenly my nest is no longer empty’ phase. I would not have changed it for the world.

It’s been wonderful having them here – days of working, conversing, dining and traveling together. Matt has been with us almost a year, Luke and Trixie since Christmas and I’m conscious that this particular phase will likely never be repeated – I will miss them tremendously on a day to day basis. And on that Easter Sunday, mostly I worried, I found myself frozen with trepidation, then finally I felt sadness as soon we’ll all go our own way; the reality of it all was suddenly breathtaking.

That leaves me and Bruce. After a holiday in Greece and the UK, we’ve decided to be in The Hague for a month or so – to a place that is home for us and also close to head office for Bruce. Things will transpire from there. In the meantime we’ve gone back and forth… where do we send our furniture?

img_1086“Forget the ‘ball and chain’ of the furniture,” Bruce consoled me that day. “It can stay in storage in Vancouver and we’ll see where and when we’ll need it. We’ll go home for the summer. We’ll write. We’ll kayak. We’ll see Andrew and Ayla, family and friends. Look at it as an opportunity, not a fear. And Ter,” he said with a comforting hug,” everyone will be fine. The kids have their own journey to figure out.” And he’s right. Matt is heading back to university, Luke and Trixie are working virtually. They’ll do a little more travelling, then settle in Europe. They are certainly living their dream and history repeats itself – they’re doing what we did at the same age

So I got on with my ‘lasts’ and my farewells. In Marilyn Gardner’s poignant book, World’s Apart, she mentions that rarely do people ask, ‘What have you left behind… those things that we lose when we transition.’ So true and indeed we must say our farewells, both internally and verbally, conscious of what we’re parting with. The places and people we often won’t see again – ever –and it’s difficult.

A week ago brought me to the next overwhelming day. There I stood in my bedroom, surrounded by clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery and scarves… so many darned scarves. Do I unconsciously collect them? There are a few from Azerbaijan, from Italy, Malaysia, even Kazakhstan. And don’t ask me how many from India! Indeed, how to choose which ones travel with me and which ones circumnavigate the world in a sea container. In reality, the scarves are really a metaphor for it all; for a household that gets picked up and shunted along.

I became even more emotional not knowing where I’ll have the opportunity to reunite with my personal things. Will it be a place I get to ‘dress up’ like I do in India for luncheons and events? It’s far different than what I would wear on a daily basis in our home base in Kimberley, or maybe cycling in The Netherlands. It feels like I’m packing away part of my identity.

On that particular day, my chivalrous soulmate again comes to my rescue. “Honey, I img_1088understand, I’ll carry an extra bag for you so you’ll have what you need. I’m sorry this is difficult for you.” But there’s some light-heartedness that also resonates. “You know my things barely fill one suitcase, more space for you!”

Yes he’s the sensible one, the minimalist when it comes to clothes. And to be honest just the acknowledgement that this was difficult for me, gave me strength. I began sorting and setting aside things to give away – to Priya, to the security guards, to the school we support. Finally packing could begin.

Now a week later the suitcases with carefully chosen clothes and accessories, begin to fill – an intro to minimalism has been good for me. Going forward, I’m determined to be more mindful. And yes, I’m well aware these supposed hardships and challenges pale into comparison to what many face. It’s never far from my thoughts.

As I was about to finish this Wednesday morning musing, my doorbell rang. I opened my door to Raj, my vegetable wallah.

“Madam, good day,” he said with his gentle, but exuberant manner that I have come to adore. “Lettuce for you,” Raj offered delightedly, handing me a tiny bunch of red lettuce. It is not something he normally stocks in his heaped cart of vegetables and he’s pleased to present it to me. It’s a bit of a luxury – indeed it felt like a gift.

“Thank you Raj, so, so nice. Yes thank you,” I accepted gratefully.

“Madam, my brother’s marriage is soon in Mysore. Family come?” Reluctantly I shared with Raj that we’ll be leaving soon. He’s taken aback and I found myself apologising.

“Yes Raj, I’m sorry too. I will miss India very much.”

Even those moments help with parting from a neighbourhood that has embraced us whole-heartedly. But it’s been like that this past week – gifts from the local pub that we love going to, heartfelt goodbyes at the ladies groups I’m involved with, and farewell drinks with our landlord and his family. “You must come back for the wedding in August,” they implored many times throughout the evening.

And yesterday, a handcrafted gift from the school we support was presented to me with a sincere note of thanks. Jagruthi enables disenfranchised children the chance of education and security, and is a poignant reminder of the severe hardships many in India face. I will write more, but our involvement has shown me humility and gratitude – for my loving family, the experience of another country, the calling-card of my new book and my speaking and workshop endeavours.

As I wrote a number of years ago in A Fine Set of Luggage when we live a global life, there is much more in those suitcases then meets the eye, thankfully it’s never been more true then now.
So when those two, maybe three suitcases are waiting and we lock the door for the last time, we’ll do what we’ve done in other countries. We’ll say farewell to the country and people who have hosted us so graciously. I know it will be with tears, and I know I can’t imagine not having lived in my beloved India.

For now, I continue the packing… I’ve narrowed the scarves down to a mere twenty!

Until next time, dear reader…

 

Luke and Trixie blog their adventures at howlblog.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India etched on my global heart… thirty days of ‘lasts’

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Today I have just thirty days… thirty more days of living in India.

A friend was recently asked if she loved this country. “I can only love it a little,” she replied thoughtfully. “I’ve already given my heart to Malaysia.”

And this is how it is when we adopt a country as our home. More often than not, it comes to claim a piece of our being – symbolically etched on our global hearts. Mine is already inscribed with Japan, Scotland, The Netherlands, Qatar, Oman, The US, Norway and Kazakhstan. Now to this, India will add its treasured motif.

I am sentimental and fragile at the moment. How will I say goodbye to so much that I love?  

I’ve done this many times before and I know to say a quiet farewell to all that has been my life here. And I will… with reluctance, but also with much gratitude.

It will be a sad farewell: to the birdsong in the lush canopy outside my windows, to the bats that flutter and flit overhead at sunset as we ‘happy hour’ on the terrace. To the rain tree whose expansive branches reach out like the arms of a fond friend, and to the two lemony yellow villas across the street that backdrop saffrony-orange flowers. Also to a giant-of-a-tree that will soon be plump with juicy mangos, and to the slender palm trees with whale-sized fronds hiding caches of coconuts and pairs of emerald green parakeets. And to my apartment – my beautiful space with its hues of greens, blues and ivories. Where I’ve penned two books, laughed and lived with my family, and stepped out to the terrace to marvel at refreshing, life-giving monsoon rains.

Yes I will bid long, lingering goodbyes: to my narrow street with tall shady trees reaching up to the brilliant blue sky, to the security guards who wave and greet warmly, to the vegetable cart that is trundled down daily with Raj at its helm. And I can’t forget the chai wallah who putters up on his motorbike early afternoon or the the saree-adorned sweepers and the rhythmic s w i s h – s w i s h of their short coconut brooms. I will  also say ‘so long’ to the cry of too many cats and far too many barking dogs – even to the clang-clang of Bishop Cotton’s school gate opening and closing, opening and closing again.

And of course before I leave, I will also give a nod to those things that I have despaired of – the all together too much traffic and having to launch myself into the stream with the now practiced nonchalance of a local. There is the symphony of horns and urban clamour, the potholes and broken sidewalks deep enough to lose oneself, the birds-nests of tangled, dangling wires and the choking air that clogs and catches your breath.

Oh, but there has also been much calm – early morning walks in sheltered parks, outdoor swims in sparkling pools and long lunches in frangipani and bougainvillea dotted courtyards.


At this time, I become conscious of the many
 ‘lasts’. Will this be the last time I walk past faded elegant villas that remind of  what once was, or through a market where vendors sell long coils of garlands as vivid as rainbows? Where the aroma of spices piled high entice and beguile? And I’m sure I’ll gaze at sarees so beautiful, and vibrant, they’ll make my heart leap as they have always done. Or perhaps I’ll engage in the friendly banter of barter with a gentle South Indian soul. 

How I will miss it all. And also my Indian friends; with gifts of sarees, with conversation so rich and stimulating, with sincerity and affection of which I have rarely known.

Inevitably, there will be ‘a last time’ gazing up to grand temples and spendid ruins, boarding a Southern Indian train, or cruising to the market in a rickshaw – wind rustling my hair, smells and sights so close I can touch and embrace them.  

Yes, that litany of ‘lasts’ will mark the cutting of threads that have bound me to this dear place. But in fact, they have already been woven into the tapestry of this global life – India’s richness, etched on my thankful heart.

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A Canadian Summer… a passion for mountain towns, Whistler and Kimberley

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For now, I’ve bid farewell to my home in Canada. To my pine trees and my deck, perfectly-placed for moon and star gazing. To a place where the long summer evenings are precious with friends and family. It’s a home, and a town, that ever welcomes me when I return.

Now back in India, the inevitable week of adjustment is always my reality. I reconcile that I can’t jump into my vehicle and cruise the mountain roads or simply walk and breathe the fresh air. I already miss chats with family and not relying on Skype dates. Still, this past week was reserved to get over jet-lag and savour a little time before life gets busy for the rest of the year: final editing on a new book project, an upcoming visit from a dear friend, a retreat to Penang in November and the arrival of family for Christmas. But for just a few more days, I let vignettes of a Canadian summer play in my mind…

 

DSCF5086A passion for trains…for a mountain lifestyle

Kai looked very much the part in his striped train conductor’s hat. Greeting each passenger one by one as they stepped down from the pristine and impressive Rocky Mountaineer, Kai delighted them with a ‘high five’ and a warm “Hello!”

“You’re the little fellow we were told about,” one gentleman remarked. “So I hear you really love this train?” Kai nodded with a broad smile.

The picturesque station for the Rocky Mountaineer is just south of Whistler, British Columbia. We watched the train round the bend, and ease its massive weight to a halt along the edge of Nita Lake.

We were sojourning on its waterfront at The Lodge at Nita Lake. An idyllic place where canoes and kayaks tether to the Lodge’s private dock. We ventured out on early morning paddles – ducks floated gracefully in a line, loons called in the morning mist and a black bear browsed for berries at the water’s edge.

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That afternoon we had cycled along the trails to Whistler, passing families canoeing and picnicking by the water’s edge. As we cycled from lake to lake, we came upon sculptures set in the lush riparian forest and kayakers paddling lazily through waterways. On emerald green waters a floatplane waited alongside a canoe – emblematic of Whistler’s coveted lifestyle.

And if you’re fortunate, you’ll spy another black bear up close. We rolled up to a group of cyclists stopped on the trail. “Wouldn’t go any further,” a local cautioned, motioning to a healthy-sized bear in the bushes up ahead. It was our second sighting of the day, a reminder that Whistler is very much their territory.

“Think we should leave that big guy alone”, the friendly cyclist suggested, hopping back on his bike. “Come on, I’ll show you a different trail.” We cycled further and saw more of the postcard-perfect town, quiet and serene, away from the multitude of tourists – a peek into the daily life of a local. It was late afternoon by this time and I was conscious that the Rocky Mountaineer would soon be arriving at Nita Lake Lodge.

 

As the impressive train slowed into the station just after 6 pm, I immediately noticed Kai. He went about his unofficial duties conscientiously – rolling out the red carpet, raising the Canadian flag then that of British Columbia, then positioning himself to welcome the travellers.

“This little guy is here every chance he gets,” Janice Bondi, the train’s manager remarked with affection. “You’d be surprised how many regulars we have at each stop.” As I watched Kai, I couldn’t imagine a more committed train lover.

 

As his father watched proudly nearby, I knew there was a reason why I too wanted to greet this iconic train in the Rocky Mountains. Its arrival evoked a sense of that slower, older lifestyle that early pioneers must have experienced. Witnessing the passion of a boy named Kai, made it a little bit more special.

 

A passion for Whistler, and for hats

Like me, Erik is fond of hats and considers himself fortunate to work with his passion. It was easy to warm to his friendly and engaging nature. “I ordered my first hat when I was ten years old,” he explained, “I like that you can customize your outfit with just a different hat.”

And Erik knows them well: beanies, flat caps, fedoras, buckets, suns, cowboys and of course the iconic Canadian toque. The Hat Gallery in the heart of Whistler is a place to try something different, or stick with what you love – it’s always a fedora for me.

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“What kind of a pinch do you like in your fedora?” Erik asked as he scanned his displays. He patiently searched and suggested, all the while exuding an obvious love of his job. We found the fedora up high on a shelf – yes it was the perfect choice.

Erik is Canadian and admittedly a bit of an anomaly in Whistler’s workforce. The ski town has attracted thousands of young workers from other countries, especially from Australia and the U.K. I was told that most arrive with a two year work visa, but start the process of becoming a resident almost immediately. It’s an easy decision for them. They choose Whistler for the lifestyle – skiing, paddling, hiking and a mountain that transforms into a biker’s dream in the summer months.

 

Whistler’s pedestrian-friendly town is lively with tourists from all corners of the globe. Enticed by the allure of the mountains, the activities, the cool bars and restaurants, it attracts millions of tourists yearly and has grown beyond all expectations.

Two tribes of First Nations shared this territory before trappers, traders and loggers arrived in the mid 1800’s. All would change when the Phillips, a young couple from the United States, opened a fishing lodge in 1914. Rainbow Lodge enjoyed great success, especially renowned for its fishing package...return train trip from Vancouver, 2 nights at the lodge and fishing for $6.00…

DSCF5057 (1)Visitors could also hike and horseback ride, enjoy a paddle on Alta Lake, or play with Teddy, Mrs. Philips’s pet bear. Myrtle Philips was the pillar of this new community that would eventually spread to nearby Whistler.

A ski hill developed in the ’60’s, a smattering of houses and the village itself in the early ’70’s. When the town needed a centre, town planner Eldon Beck planned a pedestrian village “where one could get lost, where things flowed like a river.” He could not have foreseen the success the mountain city would one day enjoy – being part-host to the 2010 Winter Olympics certainly helped. The Olympic rings are a tourist draw in themselves, a must-have backdrop for photos and selfies.

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Whether it was Erik or other young people I met who couldn’t imagine leaving this outdoor haven, the passion for life in Whistler is palpable.

And of passion, there was one more stop to make. The new Audain Art Museum – ‘where art meets nature, nature meets art’. It is a fine collection of Northwest Coastal Masks, Emily Carr paintings and more. I have a great admiration for the gifted, if wonderfully eccentric, Canadian icon. The Audain is iconic as well. Designed as a modern day longhouse and raised above the forest floor, seemingly one with the trees in which it nestles, it is a recent addition to Whistler’s cultural mix – already an essential counterpoint anchoring the proud past to the present.

 

The pride of a ‘forever hometown’…

We enjoyed a quintessential summer road trip from Whistler, back through Vancouver, and eastward toward the Okanagan, Canada’s wine region, a detour to Banff, and back to our own mountain town in the interior of BC. Like Whistler, not only is Kimberley a ski town, it’s a summer feast of bike trails, golf courses, rivers and lakes. For us this town anchors our peripatetic life. It represents warmth and stability, the place we chose for our family home.

 

 

When a ski trip took us to the small city of 7,000 or so, we were immediately smitten. Situated in the Purcell Mountains with the Rockies as its backdrop, it seemed like an easy choice and we resolved that no matter where we live in the world, this is where we’d return to.

Kimberley was once home to the largest lead-zinc mine in the world and has long been a community that welcomes newcomers. The Scandiavians pioneered our first ski-hill, the Germans and Austrians gave us our Bavarian-themed town centre, the Platzl. It is a setting where, on a Saturday afternoon, you’re as likely to meet a barber-shop quartet as a party of golfers in town for a weekend foray. Kimberley might well be known as a golf and ski destination, but people are drawn to this mountain town for many more reasons. Increasingly young families are choosing Kimberley for its lifestyle, a place to raise children in a safe and active community. But then that is nothing new to generations of settlers.

 

I met Clarence, serenading visitors about to board the Kimberley Underground Mining Railway. Commuter trains no longer run to Kimberley, but this small train wends its way up the ski hill, or tours into the now closed Cominco Mine.

 

Clarence was playing ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, rather fitting considering the wildfires that rendered the mountains hazy through some of the summer. He flashed a wide grin as I identified the song and again when he heard I was an accordion player too. I asked Clarence how long he’s played.

“Oh since I was ten or so,” he remarked speaking fondly of his instrument, then assuring me that he loves keeping the tourists happy. “About ten-thousand rode this little train last year…good for the town.”

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Clarence shared that he has been here, ‘a long while’, drawn here from a neighbouring province. I also made small-talk with the conductor as he waited for the 11 am tour to fill up.

“Are you from Kimberley?” I asked.

“I’ve been here for years, where else would I live?” I’m told matter-of-factly. People here get a little protective about this city, one of the highest in Canada – 1100 meters of altitude and only one stop-light. I hear this kind of unbridled hometown sentiment time and again. As Sonya, a good friend of mine, often comments, “Don’t get me started about how much I love this place.” She and her husband retired here three years ago and it quickly became their ‘forever hometown’.

Like Whistler, Kimberley has its share of locals who are passionate about their jobs and businesses. I’ve long been welcomed home by Robin and delight in her refined taste of home and kitchen wares she offers in her store, Grater Good. 

And I love the quirky and eclectic goods at Old Koots. “Hey Terry Anne, welcome home,” Janet and Wendy greet me as I wander through their door, hoping for that one-of-a-kind find.

The date for my hair appointment at Wolfy’s is always booked the minute I get into the country. While Kellie and her mother Pat fill me in on the latest news, I sink back into the small town vibe and delight in the scene…yes, it’s a little like the set of Steel Magnolias.

 

I stop in at Caprice’s Fine Art Studio to admire her latest works. Caprice and I share the love of art-books and of Emily Carr. We even share the same hometowns, our original, and now our adopted. “Sometimes you just know when something is right,” Caprice tells me.

 

I find myself at my favourite coffee shop, Bean Tree. With its retro furniture, its door always propped open by a ski boot, and its antler-adorned fireplace, its charming atmosphere typifies this unique town.

With friends and family having come and gone, it was time to pack and ‘close up’ the house. And with that, I only just remembered to grab my new hat from its perch on the antlers at Bean Tree. I’ll need it for the days ahead in India. The pattern of my life continues…

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The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? What did you know of the city before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government to educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

Travels and touchstones…fifteen roses in memoriam

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I write this on my flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. The sun streams in as we fly over Budapest. We pass Munich, cross the Danube, Rome is off south. It’s time to return to Asia, time to be ‘home’. There’s much to reflect on these past few months, much joyful, but regrettably not all.

A Bollywood Masala serenades me as a pre-diner drink is served. The music is intoxicating and strangely in sync with my melancholy. It never fails to feel somewhat surreal, Gosh I’m on my way to India…and I live there. And this time especially, I just want to be there, in one place for more than a few weeks at a time.

I play one track over and over again. It is evocative and comforting. First I write, then simply sit and be. I reflect on this past week of a farewell to a loved, my brother-in-law, who passed away.

I glance at the book I’m reading and a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, India’s dearest writer, jumps off the page and resonates.

”If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”

I left India just over two months ago to attend a conference in The Hague, then onward to Canada, meeting up with my husband in Vancouver. On idyllic spring days there and in Victoria, and in the company of two of our sons and their girlfriends, we strolled beaches, soaked up the sun on wind-swept piers and walked drizzly streets under cherry blossomed canopies. We drank in the beauty and the calm, the sublime balances of city life surrounded by mountain vistas, forested coastlines and the endless Pacific Ocean.

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Staying just a stone’s throw away from ‘the kids’, we took pleasure from sharing everyday things; signing a new lease, early morning rock-climbing, late night games and long chats. As for many of us, time with our grown children is painfully finite. Each visit is treasured.

DSCF0160Back at our home base, we got down to practicalities. The lawn cried out for raking to usher spring growth, layers of dust counted the months since our last visit and the deck beckoned us to sit and luxuriate. During respites in a favourite chair, I looked longingly at my deserted flower pots, begging for summer blooms. But in vain; we won’t return until August.

There was time with good neighbours and friends; hiking, walking and conversation. Yet it wasn’t long before it was time to close up the house and I did what I do each time I leave, what I’ve done for the past eight years. I sign my own guest book. Here from such and such a place, date, did this and that…chronicling those everyday moments that comprise life.

Having delayed my return to India I made my way with our middle son, Matt, to my parents for Mother’s day. We spent a weekend of games, seeing family and friends, lazed around an outdoor fire on a Sunday afternoon. We strolled through the garden picking tulips and the first of the asparagus – the apple tree is in abundant bloom, a heavenly canopy over the graves of family dogs. A tranquil weekend – simple joys of being home.

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And as if preparing and steeling me for the week before us, my final few days in Calgary were also comforting.

“Are you back in the city?” Carol asked not long after I’d arrived. “I’ve been thinking about you, can I see you before you leave?”

“Carol I’m glad you called, though I have sad news. Rod has passed away, I meet Bruce in London in a few days.”

“I’m on my way,” she said, “be right over.”

Carol is the sister I didn’t have and we rather like that we’re often mistaken for siblings. She is my touchstone. Same high school, same hometown, same cultural references. When I finished college our mothers arranged for us to live together. With a job secured, I packed up my ’77 Camaro and headed to the big city. We’ve been soulmates ever since– connected through life’s milestones. We know each other’s history like a well-read book.

DSCF0217When Carol walked half an hour later into our small condo in Calgary, suitcases lined the hallway. She offered her condolences and with a hug reminded me, “You get to leave again.” Tales of my global life are music to her ears.

Carol is also a traveller but now spends most of her time in Calgary, with a yearly buying trip to Asia for her importing business. I flit in and out of her life…if I’m honest, everyone’s life.

I commented on the scene outside as dusk approached on that warm spring evening – the emerging twinkling skyline, the milky turquoise river, the flow of walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, the couples nestled on park benches.

“But Carol you get to be here, in one place, see spring turn to summer, then autumn. I skip whole seasons and then plunk myself into life for a month or so. Always unpacking and packing, always on the move.” We have this conversation often, yet would either of us truly give up the life we have for the other?

The evening turned late, as is usual each time we’re together. There’s never enough time for the stories, the meanders, the laughter and this time the tears. Carol recently lost her mother and her pain is still at the surface and my heart breaks for her. “You can never know what it is to lose your mom until it happens.”

We meet again late the next afternoon and stroll until the evening turns dim. Sunnyside/Kensington is quirky, a mix of older homes and new. A pleasant sedate neighbourhood going about its business of life.

DSCF0233“It’s almost the end of May. How strange most homes still have a snow shovel on the front porch,” I remarked after yet another shovel belied the gorgeous weather.

“You know the saying,” Carol looked at me with a wry smile.

“I have no idea.”

Never put snow shovels away until the end of May,” she rhymed. “It tempts the weather to snow”. I had never heard this before and noted that many of the shovels seem to compliment the house perfectly, adding a splash of colour, almost completing the image of home.

Unlike my children who were raised globally, Carol and I have a hometown with the anecdotes and recollections to go with it. This is now more poignant than ever for her as sadly she was recently faced with dismantling her mother’s life. Having to go through the meaningful and the ‘just stuff’, the heartbreak of not only saying farewell to your loved one, but also to your family home. As we strolled in the evening hues over Calgary, I felt a certain calm in offering some solace and for her love and understanding of what was on the horizon for me and my husband.

Having only returned to India a week previously, my husband headed back west and met me in London. Our long embrace at Heathrow Airport was the calm before the storm, the balm for the soul. The four hour drive to Wales seemed unusually long, but we were together. We had no choice but to start brainstorming, start planning…

Rod had made his way south as a young man, following his profession from Scotland to Welsh Wales (as he lovingly referred to it). He never left. With his untimely death came the painful realization that it was up to the two of us to plan and host his funeral, and clear his home.

Arriving at the house for the first time was wrenching, signs of Rod’s interrupted life were stark reminders of the fragility of time. The new bags of potting soil and gardening tools, a carefully chosen cherry tree and parsley already abundant were particularly poignant. Not knowing what to do, we did what we felt was right. We lit a candle, chose a good bottle of wine and pulled out one of Rod’s many c.d’s. We’re sure he would have been pleased and with tears welling, we offered up a toast to him and to the house – the last time it would be a home. The next day everything would change.

All those things he valued, collected or just ‘stuff’ had to be dispersed. It is somber and admittedly tedious, and I suspect it isn’t often when one only has six days from start to finish. Perhaps that somehow made it easier.

We only managed with the help of family and good friends. In the midst of it, there was the paper work, meeting the pastor, arranging the funeral, writing the order of service and the eulogy. We secured a bagpiper, we ordered flowers.

“We’d like white roses, some thistle to represent Scotland, something for Wales, but a natural, wild look.”

“I think I understand what you’d like, a scruffy look,” the florist reassured calmly.

“Yes, perfect.” I was relieved, then chose a ribbon that best matched the family tartan.

The two scruffy bouquets were simply perfect.

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And finally we were able to honour our Roderick Wilson. The bagpiper welcomed and moved many to tears – the haunting, rousing strains reached into souls, touching innermost emotions. My husband delivered an eulogy that was eloquent and powerful, honouring a man that despite blindness and ill health, had poured his heart into his church community and friends.

An after service ‘tea’ at the church with an array of baked goods spoke of community and the indelible connection of life. “Ah my nephew is out in Canada.” “I work with the church in India, come see us when you get to Calcutta.” “We’ll miss our Rod,” we heard over and over again. Rod’s trusty and beloved guide dog, Neena, was with us throughout. She will officially retire on June 1st and is with a loving family; a celebration is planned for her.

The beautiful day was infused with the comfort of my husband’s cousins from Scotland. “It wasn’t a question of coming or not, of course we’d be here,’ they said without hesitation. Jean and Christine grew up five doors down from my husband’s family home. The lush bluebell woods behind their homes was their playground. An idyllic place where the trees had names like Thunderbird and Big Ben.

“We were always together it was the perfect childhood, pet,” Jean told me in her warm Scottish accent that placed me back with my late mother-in-law.

“That’s what Isa used to call the boys,” I remembered fondly. Along with the comfort of family and their unreserved love, Jean and Christine brought a piece of Scotland to Wales.

The day of the funeral culminated with an intimate gathering of close friends and family. At one of his favourite restaurants, we toasted our dear Rod and when his ashes arrived we toasted again. We’re quite sure his off-beat sense of humour would have enjoyed the scene. We strolled in the early evening down to the water, hand in hand, arm in arm. Past the comfort of an aged stone wall, past spring flowers and the promise of new beginnings.

The tartan ribbon was unfastened and the scruffy bouquet was our solace, one most perfect of white roses for each of us. “Please say a few words as the ashes and your rose meet the water’, my husband asked.

And we did. “Thank you for your love and help raising me,” Thank you for your humour and friendship.” “I’ll miss you.” “You have three nephews who love you and the Wilson name lives on, dear brother-in-law.’  There was grief and sadness, there was laughter, new friendships and rekindled family bonds. It was a soulful, fitting farewell.

IMG_3746 (1)Fifteen roses, a loved one’s ashes, and a few Scottish thistles drifted peacefully out to sea. In remembrance of a life and good deeds done. And that seems all we can ask for; to live, to love, to have loved ones remember and speak well of us when our time comes. To be there for those who need comforting.

It isn’t often that you truly contemplate how you’d like to be honoured when the time comes, but I know I would chose a day like we had in Wales. Despite the loss, it was a time of family, friends and tenderness. One of poignancy and meaning, one of gladness for what was.

And perhaps for those of us who live globally, time seems ever more precious as our parents age, as we miss our worldwide friendships, as our children live their own lives. Visits home are never long enough, yet we look forward to returning to that other life, that other ‘home’. It’s a fine balance of sacrifices and abundance, of memories and goodbyes; never does it strike you more than after losing a loved one.

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As I finish writing, the captain announces that it will soon be time to land. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “How has the flight been Mom?”

It’s one of Rod’s nephews, our dear son Matt. He’s on his way with me, his new journey to spend some time with us and do some travelling. I’m looking forward to being ‘home’ again and I’m thankful it will be with one more family member…

Family, friendships, home, journeys, farewells and time spent with loved ones…really just life. Embrace it.

Finding Your Passion…a pecha-kucha

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These past few months found me preparing for the Families in Global Transition Conference. I was to deliver a short speech – set to twenty slides that shift every twenty seconds. It’s been described as, “Say it in six minutes and forty seconds with exquisitely matched words and images, then sit the heck down!”

This concept is a complete departure for someone like me who, as a former tour guide, is given to elaborating, meandering and drawing out a story like a languorously painted mural. Challenged not only by brevity but by the need to memorize my impactful six minutes and forty seconds, I was in new territory.

Two Tokyo based architects are credited with this mode of communication which endeavours to convey a message not just succinctly, but also poignantly. Their innovation, dubbed pecha-kucha ペチャクチャ, means ‘chatter’ or ‘chit-chat’ in Japanese. However this translation is rather misleading. Chit chat usually implies an unrehearsed and natural exchange, but as I’ve recently discovered, pecha-kucha is anything but this.

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I was one of six delegates at the recent FIGT Conference tasked with delivering this precise format. Before traveling to The Hague from our various parts of the world, we each embarked upon days of preparation – writing the narrative, selecting slides, rehearsing tone, rhythm, injecting meaning and emotion, honing and memorizing. I hadn’t appreciated that something so brief could have demanded such commitment.

I recall sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Kimberley, the ski hill my backdrop, the deadline looming. My thoughts were crystal clear as the idea had percolated for months, yet I had no idea how to combine eloquence with economy to finesse everything into just under seven minutes.

IMG_2964For me, opportunities such as the FIGT Conference are a cause for pause and for celebration. The four day gathering is a meeting of people discussing, disseminating, listening, learning and sharing – then taking these ideas back to our global community.

Those of us who move from county to country settling our families with seeming ease and confidence, in reality face myriad complex issues. The conference is a yearly gathering, our forum to revisit and resolve those challenges in the embrace of friends – old and new.

We discuss essential matters such as Third Culture Kids (children raised in cultures different from their parents) and their transitions, identity and professional challenges. We talk of dealing with family issues from afar, educational challenges and a host of other topics. Yet along with these weighty matters, I wanted to celebrate the joy and abundance this life on distant shores offers.

And so the stage was set in The Hague. We had rehearsed, cued our slides – even selected our preferred microphone – the time had come to translate hours of preparation into an impactful six minutes and forty seconds. We had become our own little tribe of support and encouragement. “The audience is great, you’ll be fine once you’re on the stage”, each speaker rallied as they came ‘backstage’ to the sound of applause, a look of pride and elation etched on relieved faces.

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The Ignite Speakers after rehearsal with Lisa, our mentor

Maryam Afnan Ahmad enlightened and inspired on the experiences and the ‘why and how of Muslim
expatriates’. Lisa Travella-Murawsky spoke to ‘the power of team sports to create a diverse tribe’. The audience heard of how a vibrant TCK English teacher, Megan Norton, ‘created a globally local network in a Hungarian village’. Maria Lombart’s poignant ‘perspective of childhood losses, TCK’s and identity development’ was a reminder of the strength and resilience it takes to transition from an upbringing in a distant land. Janneke Muyselaar-Jellema spoke of her heartfelt journey from a life in Africa to home in the Netherlands; ‘how to find your voice, your tribe and other voices through blogging’.

For myself? I shared my journey from self-doubt and longing for meaning, to this abundant and fulfilled time in my life. And I was humbled by the reactions. My presentation seemed to trigger thoughts of creativity, provide catharsis and forgiveness for times in one’s life which might have been more productive. To my great joy, I’m told that it inspired.

FIGT has that impact on people; it elicits conversations and narratives, inspires and questions, heals and reassures. It fosters connections and communities, forges friendships and kindredness. I hope you’ll think of joining us at next year’s conference – you’ll be welcomed into the warmth and wisdom of this global community.

But for now, may I offer just a bit of ‘chit chat’…

Finding Joy and Abundance as an Expat – Planning your Fulfilled Life Abroad and Building Your Tribe. 

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It is just one story…of self doubt and longing, of joy and passion, of fulfilment and possibilities. It is my journey.

How I dreaded hearing it, “find your passion” you have all the time in the world. Find something that will bring you joy. And except for raising three busy sons…I had time.

A stamp in my passport while living in the U.S. for 6 years reminded me…not allowed to work. I volunteered, I took some courses, I even worked ‘under the table’ in interior design.

I did what we expats know how to do. I settled my family in yet another country and got on with it. Yet by year 5, I questioned my identity, my purpose, and yearned for fulfillment.

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I had taught English in Japan, Qatar and Oman. I had made a difference in people’s lives.

I now had an overwhelming sense of under achievement and felt that time was slipping away. And then I heard…our next posting is Norway. I was overjoyed.

But before I could move forward, I had to forgive myself for lost time, for what I hadn’t done. And I vowed to treat the next country as an opportunity for growth, a place perhaps to find that elusive passion.
IMG_3086As the endless rain and the autumn winds welcomed us to Norway, our lively
household dwindled from five to three. And for months, I surrendered to the adjustment and the heartache, of two children an ocean away.

The sad reality was, only I could rescue myself. It was time for resolve, time to move forward. Time to embrace new opportunities and weave a different path which is often easier in a new country. Time to re-set, to re-create, to move out of my comfort zone.

I took stock of my strengths and my shortcomings…hopeless with numbers and technology. Yet intensely curious about cultures, research and passionate about history.

IMG_0606As important as it had been to me, I declined to teach as I had in other countries. I believed there would be a new opportunity and if I reverted to what I knew, I would not be in a position for this new country to infuse and inspire with its beauty and uniqueness.

And it did! I studied and became a tour guide and admittedly a bit of a crazed Viking expert. Weaving historical narratives that entertained and enlightened, I met and worked with from people from around the world; I simply loved it.

Yet the narratives were ephemeral and sailed away with passengers that had heard them. But now without a doubt, I knew history and culture were my passion.

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Travel diaries lined my shelves and hinted at the future. A borrowed book led me to a writer’s retreat, in Tuscany, led by Jo Parfitt.

Serendipity is not luck, it is the art of placing oneself in new situations which might just bear fruit, revealing something new about yourself. For me that was Tuscany.

Was it frightening and challenging…yes

Instructive and inspiring…yes again

Life Changing…absolutely

I had taken a chance, found my voice and the belief that just perhaps, I could share my passions through my writing.

But the path wouldn’t be quite that easy.
IMG_2943We departed my beloved Norway and soon called the soviet-style streets of Kazakhstan home. And we became empty-nesters.

Without a school network to ground you and with a yearning for your children to completely unsettle you, you must learn to live with the new reality.

And I believe to be what is truly important….it is essential to ready yourself for daily life without your children. Embrace your uniqueness, your talents and  thrive.

And I did…I became a writer! My passions now conveyed in my blog, endeavouring to inform, entertain, inspire and make the world a smaller place.
In Kazakhstan we found ourselves living in a hotel suite, the Caspian my backdrop, a world of time before me.

My writing flourished, I travelled more, I jaunted off to another writer’s retreat, FIGT was now marked on my calendar. Take advantage of what more time allows…

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As a fellow empty nester recently mused at a cafe in Singapore, “What is there not to like? I have a beautifully structured day with endless possibilities. And I can have a gin tonic at 5:00 o’clock with impunity!”

She is in my ‘tribe’, we were writers at FIGT 3 years ago. A reminder that your tribe will grow effortlessly and beautifully, as you journey on a path with like-minded people.

I now live in India, country number nine. A place easy to succumb to the travails of expat life….the pollution, the chaos of the roads, the distance from family in Canada.

IMG_2258Yet on most days I choose to be joyful; to embrace the colour, the culture, the mysteries of India.

These are the joys: of discovery, of evolving, of fulfillment in whatever that may be for you. Happily for me, it is having collaborated on a book this past year…it seems I’m an author.

I recall something my husband said, on one of those despairing days in Houston. “Imagine how great it will be when you’re part of a group who shares the same interests and dreams..”

He didn’t use the word tribe…but that is indeed what has transpired.
Perhaps my most read blog… a ‘trailing spouse’ sums it up best.

Checking in at the airport to return to Kazakhstan, an agent said, ”That’s a fine set of luggage Ms. Wilson.”

I chuckled a thank you, what was I really thinking? There’s more in there than you’ll ever know. My resilience, my wanderlust, my talents, my joy.

Photos of my precious family and my partner that I’m more than willing to accompany anywhere in this beautiful world.

My tribe, I’ll find them scattered here and there.
IMG_2406So there is never truly ‘wasted time’ if we grow from it.

I would not change those six years in Houston, I realize now it was a crucial part of my path. And the abundance in my life now is that much more meaningful.

A lesson perhaps, it is not just the destination that should bring us joy…it is indeed the entire journey.

 

  • Now you know how it’s done. I challenge educators to encourage their students to explore this format. They’ll walk away having delivered a message in a structured, engaging method and I believe they’ll feel as I now do…of enrichment, growth and immense satisfaction from the experience.

Of Magical Mysore…of farewells and re-attachments…

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img_0771Time with family and friends recently in Canada was wonderful – home in the true sense. However my other life in India called.

The world may be my oyster, yet there is a downside to living on different continents. Once back in Bangalore, reality quickly set in.

After four months of a ‘monastic’ existence whilst consumed by a book project and another few months away, I returned to Bangalore feeling a stranger and out of touch. I needed to fit back into a social life.

As in the past with other adopted countries, I trust a time will come when it feels more effortless…

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my first reaction was not to yield to my surroundings, but rather to explore. “Let’s see more of India,” I implored my husband. “We need to take advantage of being here.”

The next morning we pack our bags and head to Majestic, the city railway station. A little more than two hours later, the train delivers us to the charming city of Mysore. The saying goes that you haven’t truly experienced South India unless you’ve journeyed here. Our first hours in the city hint that this might be so. The streets feel different from Bangalore, but in a way that was strikingly familiar. I am transported back to those enchantingly simpler times we had experienced backpacking in India, over a quarter of a century ago.

img_0819-1Mysore’s streets and broad tree-line boulevards, are lively but less urgent than Bangalore’s. Stately buildings exude charm and a sense of place and history. All reminiscent of our India of old – a fondly re-discovered treasure.

The city is steeped in history, defined by the regal Maharajahs of the Wodeyar dynasty and by the infamous Tipu Sultan. Known as the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu was India’s freedom fighter and revered for resisting the onslaught of British imperialists. His state succumbed only after their fourth campaign. The Sultan is also celebrated as the pioneer of rocket warfare… but more of Tipu Sultan later.

We stay at a former residence built by the Maharajah of Mysore himself, a cozy retreat for his European guests. The Royal Orchid Metrople is that touch of old world charm with its tiled verandahs of potted palms, intricate lattice work and inviting wicker chairs. I enquire who the lady is, proper in a lacy Victorian collar and hairstyle of the 1920’s. Her portrait is handsomely framed at the foot of the lobby’s spiral staircase. With a hint of reverence, the concierge confirms, “We’re quite certain she was our first guest.”img_0765

I conjour a day in the life of this European visitor. I imagine her penning a letter at the writing desk in the Maharani suite – the very one we were staying in – carefully folding the parchment before sliding it into an envelope. Perhaps the correspondence describes a social gathering of visiting dignitaries, the unexpected thrill of an elephant ride or the purchase of fine Mysorean silk. Perhaps the letter addresses the paradox of the writer’s privileged colonial lifestyle, in contrast to the struggles and injustices of many locals. I would tell the writer that as foreigners in India, we try still today to reconcile the inequalities that surround us. We embrace the culture and the heritage, but often grapple with the poverty of the underprivileged.

img_0768Our guest from the 1920’s makes her way down the spiral staircase to the porticoed entrance. She dons a sun hat and the doorman, splendidly attired in the Mysore fashion of the day, bids her ‘Good afternoon’. He summons a carriage and the visitor is conveyed to the Maharaja’s Palace. As the palace draws into view, she is instantly captivated.

As it was then, so is it now. Mysore Palace remains one of India’s grandest royal buildings. The most visited tourist attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, six million visitors a year are transported back to an era of unparalleled grandeur. This is the seat of the Mysore royal family, where the most beloved of Maharajahs, Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV was installed in 1902.

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The extensive palace grounds are lush, shadowed with rain trees and dotted with sacred temples. I’m asked to join groups for photographs and willingly oblige. It is clear we are much more of a curiosity here than in Bangalore. Small children greet me with smiles and a, “Hi Auntie, where are you from?”

We join the multitudes and deposit our footwear before entering the inner palace. Photos inside are not allowed, but then they could not do it justice.

The ‘Indo-Saracenic’ architecture of the Mysore Palace is a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic…and it is breathtaking. With soaring rooflines, mosaic floors, doors of inlaid ivory and displays of gold such as the elephant howdahs, the palace is designed to inspire awe. The durbar (the ceremonial meeting hall of the royal court) is magnificent in both scale and opulence, emphatically projecting the power of the Wodeyars who ruled for almost six centuries.

The much beloved Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was the 24th Maharaja, ruling from 1895 to 1940. Focused on education, hospitals and religious sites, he worked to alleviate poverty and improve public health and industry. The forward-thinking Raja also built Asia’s first hydro electro project. Nearby Bangalore benefited and was the first city in India to have electric street lights in 1905.

Indeed the strides made during the Raja’s reign, inclined the revered Mahatma Gandhi to remark that the Maharaja was truly a Raja Rishi, a saintly king. His princely state of Mysore was acknowledged to be ‘the best administered state in the world’. But of course the Maharajahs of Mysore (as with other princely states) were also known for their excesses. Doing a Mysore was a phrase coined by Rolls-Royce executives in the 1920’s, code for the purchase of ‘Rollers’ in batches of seven…as the Maharaja Krishna was inclined to do!

The palace is a trove of treasures. Finely detailed wall paintings portray scenes from the Wodeyar’s stately processions and lavish lifestyle. Depicted in intricate detail, the Maharajahs are adorned in the finest Mysore silk and richly bejewelled. They sit atop caparisoned elephants, under the shade of a howdah or upon golden thrones. And they are rich beyond compare. At the time of his death in 1940 at his summer palace in Bangalore, Krishna Raja Wodeyar was one of the world’s wealthiest men.

We emerge from the palace into the expansive grounds. Hawkers gently tickle drums to entice. Cheap bangles, sandalwood carvings, incense and oils are offered – Mysore’s reputation for sandalwood and the finest of silks is undisputed. Brightly painted carriages and their listless ponies invite; more modest echoes of the elaborate carriages that once graced the the streets of Mysore.

img_0918-1The next morning a ‘carriage’ of a different kind awaits us. The environs of Mysore beg to be explored and we jump into a classic ’66 Mahindra Jeep. It’s rugged and basic, it’s a beauty.

Faizan from Royal Mysore Walks greets us affably and promises we’ll enjoy the tour. “You can ask me anything at all,” he says, “but just call me Fez, it’s easier.” As a former tour guide myself, I easily identify with him.

Fez is knowledgeable, engaging and gently puts us through the odd history quiz… perfect!

The drive takes us to the ramparts of Tipu Sultan’s fort in Sriangapatnam, an island formed between two channels of the Cauvery River. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, had usurped the throne, then expanded the Mysore kingdom but would be forced, with his son, to defend it in four Anglo Mysorean wars. Fought over three decades, the final and decisive campaign by the British East India Company was in 1799. Even now more than 200 years later, the battlements seem impenetrable and might have remained that way but for one man.

I envision the battle as Fez paints the scene with a wave of his hand. “There was a traitor” he tells us. “His name was Mir Sadiq and so despised is he even today that people throw stones at his tomb.” The general betrayed the Sultan by colluding with the British, opening a breach in the walls that lead to the defeat of the Mysorean troops and to the death of Tipu Sultan, the only Indian king to die on a battlefield.  At a nearby palace, we see the face of Mir Sadiq actually smudged out in paintings, more evidence of the contempt with which he is still held. On the other hand, Tipu Sultan is a national hero; his reputation for brutality is a story for another time.

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That British victory yielded the richest haul of war-spoils from any battle they ever fought. I’m fascinated by this remarkable period, indeed of all Indian history…the Moguls, Maharajahs and the British rule which is both maligned and embraced here. As we leave the ramparts, a simple wooden bullock cart trundles past. Two beasts of burden pull the sturdy cart along a time-worn trail at the river’s edge – a scene unchanged for centuries.

Our Jeep rolls past sugar cane fields, silk worm farms and stands of eucalyptus trees, the sights and smells rushing through the open vehicle are colourful, raw and exhilarating. We turn off the highway and thread across an ancient narrow bridge over a gently flowing river. The Raja Ghat extends either side of us, scenes of ritual bathing and high-spirited play combine; scenes that evoke moments of clarity… I am in India!

img_0860On the side of the stepped ghat, under an ancient stone pavilion, a ceremony unfolds. A young man, bereaved of his father, is in the midst of a solemn ritual. Guided by a brahmin priest, he recites prayers as water is rhythmically dabbed on his wrist. His head is shaved as tradition demands. We listen to the priest’s intonation, a soothing, flowing mantra. We offer condolences to the women witnessing the ceremony, sensing that we have intruded on their grief. Yet they acknowledge us with a gentle nod as we quietly take our leave. On the upper ghat, another Brahmin priest invites us into his vividly painted temple to witness the ritual about to commence. Inside, the centuries-old place of worship is cool and somber. We sit cross-legged on the stone floor opposite the priest flanked by two men, one an assistant, the other the supplicant.

img_0862The priest leads them in prayer for the well-being of the family. The father takes his cues from the Brahmin as his adult son and wife look on. Sanskrit mantras mix with wafts of camphor in the still air. Rice and turmeric are sprinkled, offerings in a timeless ritual.

Hands pressed together, and mouthing a ‘namaskara’ to the mother, we again take leave. She returns my gaze, her eyes confirming that our glimpse into this sacred family tradition was welcomed. I am moved by the openness of many Hindus and their openness of sharing their living traditions.

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In the mid-afternoon sun, more scenes of communal prayer and family unity play out on the ghats. As children splash in shallow pools, the rhythmic slap of laundry beats out a languid tempo on the rocks. Ever-present, sacred cows luxuriate as they munch vegetables in the shade of a mango tree.

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On our return to Mysore, Fez points out stops that we will have to plan for our next visit; sandalwood incense makers, silk farms and even traditional painters of those iconic bullock carts that seem the very essence of rural India. The jeep tour with Fez has offered us insights we would not have had the privilege of seeing.

img_0913South India lives up to its reputation of friendliness, of mystic sights and ancient traditions. This is why, I remind myself. Why this peripatetic life with its farewells and re-attachments, its solitudes and contemplative transition, is more than worth it. These are the moments to treasure.

I get my bearings back over the next few days once I’m back in Bangalore and resolve to be contented. I attend a number of social events through the week and feel a little more connected. “Are you free this weekend?” I’m asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I say, “I’m off again.”

As I pen this, my suitcases await at the door for this evening’s flight; it is Singapore and  Australia for the next ten days. Without any children here, I can freely accompany my husband on a business trip. It’s true… indeed I do feel very fortunate.

A vibrant Indian neighbourhood…under the shade of a rain tree

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The neighbourhood fruit vendor

The lyrical calls of the wallah echo through our tiny street…fruit, vegetables, papers, knife sharpening, and the call for tea…chai! These vendors, with well-stocked wooden carts and bicycles, are still part of the fabric in this traditional neighbourhood.

Our move was only days old when I first heard this chant. As I lingered with my Sunday morning coffee, I heard the rising pitch of a female voice. The words were unclear yet the entreaty to ‘come buy’ unmistakeable.

“That must be a wallah!,” I said expectantly, rushing to gaze down to the leafy street.

The vendor was wearing a vivid red sari, contrasting her laden, deep green cart. Hurrying to the street, I meet my new fruit seller, Munglora. She greets me by removing the tiny red dot, a bindi, from her forehead and placing it just between my eyes, “welcome,” she says with an engaging laugh. Despite the language barrier, I can tell she’s a character.

I gather strawberries, melons and pomegranates for ‘a song’, yet discover that like an excited child, I had only rushed down with a few rupees in my hand. “Ok, ok,” says Munglora and jots down the amount owing in a faithful ledger. She’ll be sure to see me next Sunday this way.

A few of the neighbours make their way from their aging villas. Their friendliness is matched by their curiosity about this new couple on the street, “Where are you from and do you have children,” they want to know. It seems a little more acceptable that we’re so far away from our sons when I tell them they are studying and that by co-incidence, our landlord’s son went to the same university/college as I had in Canada. “What a small world,” we all agree pleasantly.

Munglora has parked her cart near the tall school gate at the end of the street and the impeccably uniformed school guard soon introduces himself. It’s obvious he takes pride in his long service to the Bishop Cotton Boy’s School. Built in the 1860’s, it’s one of the oldest institutions in Bengaluru and I gaze beyond the gate towards the Colonial style buildings with their terracotta tiled roofs. Oh how I hope I’m offered a tour of the grounds one day!

These authentic encounters validate our decision to not live in the confines of a walled compound. After much deliberation, we chose a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city. It’s unexpectedly modern with cooling marble floors and generously spacious for this urban location. Best of all, our terrace is shaded by a canopy of massive rain trees, impossibly tall coconuts, mango and bamboo.

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Under the shade of a rain tree

They shelter the headmaster’s garden below, its calm interrupted twice daily by the  passing flow of students. The morning security guard motions to school children in starched white uniforms to hurry, hurry, as they jump out of a car or auto- rickshaw and rush the gate, late for class. Mothers wave their student goodbye as they disappear into the lush grounds…phew, made it just in time! I hear cricket games in the distance, the national anthem and school announcements…all a pleasant ‘commotion.’

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The rush of school pick up

We soon discover the school has also given us a music studio…serenades drift up to our terrace, strains of Adele, jazz and snippets of Indian folk. It blends with the headmaster’s menagerie of ducks, honking geese and a very plump turkey who fans his plumage and makes his presence known with long, squeaky honks. Thankfully, pleasant birdsong and chatter of hawks, pigeons and parakeets soften the soundtrack.

“Monkeys pass through about twice a year,” my landlord tells me as we appreciate the vista from the terrace on the first day. He laughs as I recoil, my lifelong fear of monkeys revealed. We’ve had a comfortable rapport since I first viewed the apartment and he’s obliged us with window treatments of our choice and painting in a shade complimenting my Indian inspired decor of lanterns and silk cushions in gorgeous hues of duck egg green and soft blues.

I feel further spoiled when I realize that an iron wallah sets-up in the shade of the doctor’s garden across the street. The first day, I take over five shirts to be ironed “50 rupees,” Laurence says, shyly glancing up from his coal-powered iron. I ask how long the coal stays warm in the hefty contraption. “Two hours,” I’m told and when I attempt to tip an extra 20 rupees, Laurence returns it to me. Five beautifully pressed shirts for about $1, his rate the same for all. There is help of every nature in the neighbourhood and I understand that it is both our pleasure and an obligation to avail ourselves of these services…it’s expected.

“Anything, anything at all you need, you go to Anand,” the landlord insists. Part of the small ‘family’ we seem to have adopted is this young man with a ready smile and his finger on the pulse of it all; cleaners, internet hookup, pest control, repairmen. Anand is the acting boss of the other ‘family’ members of this five apartment complex including the maintenance and sweeper fellow, the drivers and the security guard who is never far from his post at the gatehouse.

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Villas standing their ground against modernity

Every time my husband passes our guard, Rajesh Kumar, he is given a quick salute. Our Rajesh isn’t as well turned-out as most of the guards, but he is always gentlemanly, insisting on carrying my shopping up the short flight of stairs to our wide, welcoming front door.

 

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A welcome tilak and a vase of ‘eight-hundred roses’

At one end of our short street stands the Bishop Cotton gate, the other intersects with a tree-lined road dotted with bars, restaurants and older villas that stand defiant against the onslaught of development. They contrast a handful of nearby hotels where one can disappear into storied luxury; where doors are opened by resplendently attired doormen and vases of eight-hundred roses welcome in sparkling lobbies. Where one is welcomed with a Namaskar and approached with a tray for the tilak.

This is the welcoming ceremony of dotting a small dab of vermillion or sandalwood on the forehead, just between the brows. This is believed to be where the spiritual eye resides…the place of latent wisdom. And unlike Munglora’s self-adhering bindi, these are more ‘permanent.’

Close to all of this is the ‘lung’ of the city, Cubbon Park with ample walkways, jogging paths and bike trails shaded by silver oaks and Cook pines from Australia. “If they were to ever diminish this park, there would be riots in the streets,” a fellow park enthusiast tells me. I believe I’d join in – it’s imperative that Bengaluru safeguards its dwindling greenery.

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Architecture contrast, looking out from Cubbon Park

We visit the Bangalore Club built during the British Raj for the pleasure of ranking officers and officials stationed in this former cantonment area of barracks and regimental head quarters. This club is redolent with history and after a swim or game of tennis, one can quench one’s thirst with a sundowner in the ‘Men’s Lounge’ (women now allowed) where Winston Churchill still has an unpaid bar bill and a stuffed leopard recalls the pursuits of hunting and gaming…it’s as if you have stumbled upon a movie set.

We continue to explore this past weekend and just a short auto-rickshaw ride away, we find ourselves a little further into the cantonment area. Whether you agree, or not, with this period of history, iconic vestiges of it remain. From 1806 to 1881, this area comprised the largest British Raj cantonment in southern India. We seem to find the old residential area. We peek behind crumbling stone walls where once stately bungalows are strangled by overgrown gardens and telling shop signs cling to redundant buildings.

We’re welcomed into the superbly maintained St. Andrew’s Church and our eyes are drawn to wall plaques that reveal the history of church members in the late 1800’s. People from England, Scotland and Wales, either stationed or chose to make their life here. Some having met their demise from malaria, dengue fever, leopard and tiger attacks…sad reminders of the perils of life in tropical climates.

With that thought in mind, we make our way to Commercial Street to buy mosquito coils and see this lively shopping district first hand. Other than the odd modern shop planted in the maze of crisscrossed streets, we’re transported back to the India of our backpacking days. It is still here; the intoxicating blend of colour, aromas and noise…the stamp of an authentic Indian street. Holy cows hold up traffic, vendors offer an array of goods and artisans inhabit impossibly small spaces creating stunning craft pieces.

We chat with rice and salt merchants, their archaic sign and ‘ancient’ scale an indication of their long standing business. The sellers willingly pose for a photo as does a nearby vendor of saris, an artisan stitching delicate mirror triangles onto brilliant pink silk, a lime juice vendor, a rice grinder, an antique dealer who details the merits of a brass Hindu collectible to me; all friendly and proud of their wares and talents.

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A proud artisan

We are lucky enough to meet Deepa as she sits with other women on the steps of a Marathi community hall, a long way from their traditional Mumbai origins. They’re celebrating a Hindu festival and after a friendly introduction, Deepa insists on taking us to the neighbourhood temple. Once there, yet more women are sitting quietly in the cool of a small temple and smile a welcome as we enter. A private puja, (prayer alcove) is opened for us to peer at the garlanded God and once again, a touch of vermillion is dabbed on my forehead.

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Deepa with her daughter…gathered with friends

“Come back with me,” Deepa insists, “it’s time for the festival lunch, you’ll eat with us.”

We stroll back through the congenial neighbourhood…circumventing cows recumbent on the cracked sidewalks and nodding ‘hello’ when Deepa is greeted by yet more people she knows. Once we’ve returned to the hall, we find ourselves seated cross-legged on the floor, a hand-stitched banana leaf plate before all two-hundred or so of us.

Deepa’s young daughter sits just behind me and practices her English. Her brother-in-law gives helpful instructions on eating with one’s fingers and the young lady next to me plies me with questions. We are the only foreigners, yet made to feel welcome and I sense they are honoured (and a little bemused) that we are enjoying this festival lunch with them.

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Guests at a community festival

Suddenly, it’s all hands on deck as barefoot young men in sleeveless t-shirts and longhis serve from slender metal buckets. One after another, a plop of rice, masala, vada, raita,dosa, more rice…all eaten with only your right hand. I ask for another popadom as the rice is too hot for these uninitiated fingers.

“Your husband has finished everything,” Deepa tells me as I look over and see his plate wiped clean. Not surprising, it’s the best food we’ve had in the first six weeks in India!

“Did you like it?” our hostess asks as we bid farewell and exchange numbers. “Anything you need at all, you call me and we’ll get together.” We thank Deepa and tell her how much we’ve enjoyed the experience.

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A break on Commercial Street

It has been that way, so many welcoming people from expats, to locals, to transplants from other parts of India; we couldn’t feel more embraced these first weeks.

After the busy weekend, I meet a new friend and neighbour for coffee and I’m pleased with yet more unexpected ‘luck.’

“You know there’s a roof-top yoga studio I practice at. It’s just on the other side of your apartment,” Camilla says, knowing that I’ll be pleased.

It’s too good to be true, literally next door…yet another wonderful discovery of this neighbourhood.

And there will be much to experience and discover once we’re fully moved in, when our shipment arrives from Canada; it seems to be on a world-wide adventure all of its own.

We’ll then wander and embark on trips outside of Bengaluru, into this enchanting land of India.

First, however, I have a book project in another magical country, Malaysia. You’ll find me in Penang the next few weeks..wish me luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Dispatch from India…life amongst coconut groves, drishtis and leopards

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A coconut vendor in Bengaluru

“Is it possible to wander through the coconut grove,” I ask, gazing out to the enticing greenery that unfolds from my vantage point in the residence lobby, nine stories up.

“Ma’am no, remember the leopard,” I’m gently rebuked. The staff seem mildly amused by this newly arrived resident of Bangalore, or rather Bengaluru to use its traditional name.

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Coconuts, a staple of Karnataka

Yes of course, I chide myself, recalling the front page news on this morning’s Times of India; a leopard attack with two other ‘cats’ prowling this suburb known as Whitefield. Perhaps it isn’t surprising as we’re in Karnataka, a southern state of India known for its jungles, coffee plantations and rainforests…its ancient temples and forts. I gaze longingly at the coconut palms and eucalyptus dotting the open spaces between housing compounds, new apartment buildings and haphazard streets. I’m already yearning for clean, fresh air.

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A warm welcome from Kasturika

Even as a seasoned traveller, I find myself wavering between my usual curiosity and the less familiar sense of disorientation. This city of 10 million might well have become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, but the infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with its relentless growth. The roads are chaotic; no lane discipline, precious few lights, cows strolling at will, a jostle of auto rickshaws, cars, hand-painted haulage trucks and motorbikes all vying for space…edging forward, inch by inch with toots and beeps and throaty horns merging into a dissonant musical score. The moment you encounter the streets of India, all senses are engaged.

On day one, we’re welcomed by Kasturika our relocations expert, one of the millions of young professionals who have relocated to Bengaluru. Over the next three days, her insight and sensitivity help us transition as we traverse the city to view houses in various compounds. Some locals choose to reside in these walled oases, as well as expats who find the communities safe, orderly, social and if I’m honest…insulated.

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An ‘army of gardeners’

There’s isn’t any doubt as to the privileged life within these protected enclaves. Small armies of workers sweep the streets, tend gardens and guard the premises. Lush landscapes of palms, bougainvillea and fragrant frangipani contrast the street scenes just beyond… where bullock carts amble amidst the traffic mayhem and stray, bone-thin dogs pick at mounds of garbage. Where sari-clad women beg with desperate eyes, precious babies in their arms. Where so many women labour in the sun; digging, carrying, sweeping, and selling, hour after hour after hour.

But ‘out there’ is also where shop vendors smile widely when I pause to buy flowers or fruit. Where a man hefting a coal-warmed iron, working his way through mounds of laundry, greets me with a proud gaze. Where ‘an army of gardeners’ are bewildered when I ask to take their photo, but chuckle and tidy their hair as they pose. Where life unfolds in riots of colour, hierarchies of castes and prayers to a multitude of Hindu gods.

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Hefty coal-warmed irons

I try to marshall my senses, heightened by extreme emotional swings and sympathies.

Memories flood back of the two months we spent backpacking in India years ago and the contrast is surreal. Where once ours was a carefree adventure, we are now in an orchestrated search for a home, enclaved from tumultuous streets…yet part of me resists the notion.

 

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Colourful ladies sweep in a walled enclave

I flood Kasturika with questions as we crawl through traffic. I sit in the back of the vehicle feeling choked from the poor air quality. I put on my sunglasses and quickly learn to peer straight ahead when there’s yet another knock on my window from a hand outstretched and a plea.

Recalling my ‘First Dispatch from Kazakhstan‘ I know that these initial days are trying and I trust that I’ll settle as I always have in a new country. Yet I admit… I’m in culture shock.

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The daily palm frond collector

It’s a relief that I fall in love with the first house we’re shown. It’s new, with an open floor plan that communicates with the palm treed garden where parakeets flit and papayas thrive. There’s a sparkling pool in the compound and a small shop for basics.

But I’ll have to come to terms with summoning the driver to do any major shopping. It’s uncommon here for foreigners to drive as the roads are too challenging to navigate. I speak with other women about the loss of independence…they say you get used to it.

At the end of the first day, we’re gathered around the residence pool for a cocktail party and we meet young professionals from Denmark, Hungary and Poland, all here on short-term assignments. There is a genuine bewilderment as to why so many international companies have chosen to set up shop in this ill-prepared city; yet the brisk pace of investment continues.

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Flowers on a busy street.

On day two I peruse The Times at breakfast for news of the leopard…still on the loose. A headline jumps out at me that an elephant has run riot in a forest town damaging forty houses during a seven hour rampage.

I note the overt sexual overtones in countless articles and marvel at the detailed ads for arranged marriages, categorized by castes and religions. And it seems most parents have very attractive children…

I’m somewhat charmed when an Indian gentleman approaches my table and asks quietly,

“Have I seen you before? Perhaps in Bollywood, such a sweet and pleasing face.” I’ve already fallen for the charming rhythmic and slightly archaic pattern of speech that is heard here; it sounded lovely of course. I tell him that it’s unlikely as I’ve only just arrived, but thank him in any case.

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A Hindu Temple

“I told myself to let me have the courage and come say hello,” he adds gallantly and politely takes his leave. I chuckle at the Bollywood reference and as I gaze over the dining area I notice a striking young Indian couple that certainly look as if they’ve just stepped from a movie set. A group of ladies chat animatedly, their vivid saris colouring the room. The children of a young Canadian family fill the room with excited chatter, the young Euros are in deep conversation beside me. The cross-section of nationalities is emblematic of modern day Bengaluru.

That afternoon we travel north, viewing compounds removed from the city and the crush of urban traffic. I begin to notice that many of the houses are decorated with a somewhat malevolent looking mask near the front entrance.

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Nazar battu

“Those are nazar battu,” Kasturika tells me, “they fight evil with evil and protect your home or business. It’s an evil eye, a drishti.”  And they’re everywhere, as are temples painted in pretty pastel shades and an inordinate number of roadside fortune tellers. Also in abundance are coconuts; laden on bikes and wheeled carts, neatly stacked with guavas, grapes and more. Caged chickens cluck for sale in shoddy storefronts. I see little meat for sale as it’s very much a vegetarian based diet here. And everywhere, absolutely everywhere are the bright green and yellow three-wheeled auto rickshaws that transport passengers for a mere few rupees.

These scenes unfold alongside IT business parks and modern hospitals, timeless counterpoints to the boom. Late afternoon we make our way back through simple country villages, past fields of marigolds, cows grazing near haystacks and goods balanced on the heads of villagers. The narrow road is busy with bulky, garishly painted trucks that pass dangerously as they dodge cyclists, autos, and bullock carts. I feel the danger factor intensify.

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An abundance of fruit and vegetables

 

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The Parliament Building

Eventually we find ourselves near our temporary residence and I’m uncharacteristically panicky. Yet another beggar knocks on my window, a one-armed monkey hops along the roadside wall; I know that’s all I can take for one day and we cancel an evening engagement. As someone who has transitioned to nine different countries, I temporarily surrender and finally find peace by envisioning my pending walled refuge…perhaps I’ll hang a drishti at the entrance as well!

Making our way into Bengaluru proper on the third day, I finally get a sense of how the city looked in the days of the British Raj and why it’s called the Garden City. There are wide boulevards where trees meet overhead; this is where Cantonments were built and where Winston Churchill lived for a time basking in the colonial life of polo, elegant parties and hunts. Old colonial buildings recall the past, massive cricket stadiums fill for the national sport and stately government institutions proclaim India’s status as the largest democracy in the world.

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Weathered old buildings

A succession of South Indian dynasties once ruled this region. In 1537, Kempé Gowdā – a feudal ruler, established a mud fort considered to be the foundation of the city. It eventually developed within the dominion of the Maharaja of Mysore and became the capital of the Princely State of Mysore, existing as a sovereign entity of the British Raj.

In 1809, the British shifted their cantonment to outside the old city and a town grew up around it, governed as part of British India. Remnants from this period dot Mahatma Gandhi Road, or MG as it’s known.

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Krishna with a ‘Maharaja of Mysore hat’

On MG road we wander into an old bazaar where chits are still used for payments, carbon copies are given to complete the sale and a security guard thumps it with a rubber stamp on the way out; one can’t help but be transported back in time.

A street seller flanks the entrance and is down to his last guava. In a kind gesture, a group of young millennials insist I have theirs to taste. It’s piquant and delicious, sprinkled with an unknown spice. The friendly professionals are also new to this burgeoning city, the capital of Karnataka and pass on some local tips.

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The gift of guava

Our day finishes amongst modern sights of gleaming shopping malls with high-end showrooms and terraced restaurants. Part of me…no all of me…is relieved that this part of the city exists. Where I know I can escape to ‘Western modernity’, yet I know I’ll embrace the rich culture and the mysticism of India.

 

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A family in their auto

As we completed our three days with Kasturika, I tell her how much I’ve appreciated her openess to my endless questions.

“Every question is important when you’re thrust into a new environment, especially one such as India,” she responds. And so very true, India’s disparities can overshadow the beauty of its ancient stories echoed in everyday life…they beg to be appreciated for what they are.

We finish the day with a wander along a vibrant street where young people are enjoying a stroll or a drink, as at it would be in any major city. Yet in this atmosphere on a  balmy Saturday evening, a cow saunters past and suddenly there’s a ramshackle mess of a building next to a sari shop that offers valet parking…quintessential India.

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A small auto souvenir

We celebrate the completion of our orientation with the comfort that we’ve perhaps found a home. In probably the coolest Hard Rock Cafe we’ve been in anywhere in the world, we enjoy a glass of the local wine and I pull out a whimsical purchase from the day, that ‘ubiquitous form of transportation’ that will grace my desk and remind me of the trials of transitioning to this fascinating country.

For now, our transportation is in the hands of Shivu, our assigned driver. He collects us and manoeuvres through the gridlocked traffic. I ask him if he has children and when he tells me her name I note that it’s the same name as the compound I hope to live in…surely it’s a good omen!

 

Post script…At the time of writing, the leopard had been captured but has escaped. It is once again on the loose.

 

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