Independencies

One of my clients has me coaching individuals in Nigeria at the moment. I know very little about the country’s complexities, save from a short assignment a few year’s back, which brought to light the sheer scale of the problems caused there from ongoing conflict. I had a plane ticket booked to visit at one point, but unfortunately this got canceled.

Without the presence of Covid, I am certain I’d have travelled back to the continent in 2020, for one reason or another. A year of teaching in Uganda, in 1996, still surfaces tingling memories for me, and I’ve visited several times since.

And so I found myself, last night, with familiar Africa “flashbacks”, as I walked through my initial session with two colleagues from local Nigerian organisations. With the merest of warm accented expressions, as they introduced themselves, I was transported back to the colours and sensations I’d lived with as a 21 year old, in the north western province of Kiboga, Uganda. Even as I type these lines I am smiling again.

It will be of no surprise to anyone who has graced these pages (I’ve written about teaching in Kiboga, and Uganda often features in my writing) to learn that I have a soft spot for the place. Or, additionally, that I’ve a soft spot for travelling generally.

That would hardly have been a claim to fame, up until last year.

Although, when you roll back a generation before mine, how quickly people of my age were gifted the opportunity to travel as we did. In 1970, when my Dad was 21, flying to a remote village in Africa was logistically feasible, but ill-advised by most authority figures. A job and a family were deemed the priority for anyone fortunate enough to finish their school careers in 1970, let alone complete a University degree.

How quickly, too, have these luxuries of movement been curbed by the current pandemic. Whilst some of the world’s population will never have many opportunities to leave their home countries, the adjustments being made by those of us accustomed to catching flights on a monthly basis have been significant. Yet, they’ve brought with them significant dividends, too, re-calibrations the world over about how we communicate, co-exist and organise our day-to-day lives.

My eldest daughter Florence embarks, next week, on her annual school trip, comprising 4 nights away down in the Mekong (which, I appreciate, is a ridiculous sentence to share in public, knowing what constraints and stresses so many young people are under in other countries). And it’s got me wondering what types of adventuring she will experience in the Mekong, and how this will shape her independence?

My time in Uganda taught me a lot about independent living. I suspect Flo’s school trip isn’t quite the corollary, yet, to traveling solo in Africa, but I can’t help muse over how independence is experienced by youngsters in the present day.

With technology advances, you’d need to pick a relatively off-the-grid overseas assignment these days to curate the type of raw isolation that my friend, Flora, and me experienced in Kiboga as teachers during our respective ‘gap years’ there.

We used to take one mutatu taxi ride into the capital every 4-5 weeks, along an orange dirt road for four hours, in order to eat in a restaurant, before sending a fax to my parents from Kampala’s main post office.

In our village we had one “wind-up” phone that only received incoming calls, and I’d use the fax machine to arrange the phonecalls. Must have been a nightmare for my parents – more so had they known, back then, that a few tourists had been abducted in the Rwenzoris, just a few clicks away from where we were living, a fact I chose to keep to myself at the time.

I wrote countless letters during that year. Read books. Took photos on my camera that I then posted home to be developed. We used to listen at night to the cicadas, sipping sweet milky tea and buying single cigarettes from the wooden huts down in the village, all of which constituted as a more-than-agreeable set of past times, and the awfully manufactured cigarettes a delicious vice, when paired with a half litre bottle of Nile Special beer.

I couldn’t have asked for more in life during those semesters of teaching.

And, in between, on wildly unplanned and disorganised school holiday trips, I was perhaps experiencing some of the truly “once-in-a-lifetime” episodes where independence, innocence, youth, and adventure were all magically rolled into one.

On one of these trips, we went across to Kenya with our backpacks and not a lot of foresight (it transpired). We were robbed in Nairobi, not physically, but conned by a guy we met in a night-club who we instantly, and naively, trusted. In Mombasa we slept in $2 hotels and survived on a lot of fruit and local fried cassava. And then in Lamu, a muslim island (that still bans cars) we fell hopelessly in love with our daily existence of lying in hammocks and laughing with other globe trotting vagabonds.

On one day, we sailed in a dhow with our snorkels, and joined a local spear fishing group. Fish caught and duly cooked fresh on the beach, with mangos for dessert, I then fell over on the rocks and had to get kayaked to a clinic to have my hand stitched back together.

Not pleasant, but I also don’t recall it being hugely inconvenient for the next week whilst it healed. It was, perhaps, more of a disaster that the first my parents were to learn of the incident was when they developed the film a month or so later that I’d forgotten captured the actual “surgery”. I still feel quite guilty about that.

During our travels in Kenya, Flora and I made our journey up as we went. No internet cafes, just “Post Restante” options where parents could send out letters to post offices in advance, and in the vain hope we’d pass by at some point.

Whilst travelling in Zanzibar I remember, one afternoon, filling in an application to study journalism at Goldsmith’s College, London. Mum had sent me the form to the post office there. In the end, Goldsmith’s wanted to meet me in person, before the end of my teaching post, and I declined to go back for the interview, as it would have ended my time overseas.

The truth was I didn’t want to have the future encroach on my present.

One of the other teachers I’d met in Kiboga, Dominic, had spent a year there before I arrived, and I’ll never forget his leaving drinks, and his wistful and emotional breakdown in front of me, at having to return to the UK. He’d planned to buy land and goats in Kiboga, and set up shop there for life.

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My daughter’s Mekong camp next week, I hope, will contain some of these special elements and emotional triggers, setting her off further down the path of independence, at the start of the year during which she’ll become a teenager.

Lockdown, last spring, definitely ignited Flo’s independence. In particular, during the three months that her school was closed and she studied from home, learning how to use Microsoft ‘Teams’ and revising for exams without the need for much help at all.

She’s thrilled at the prospect of four nights away from home with her friends, which is partly her personality and partly, perhaps, because Vietnam’s response to Covid has been so vigilant that life here has continued quite normally. Whilst we can’t leave the country, and no one can visit us, the ease of movement and lack of impact on social circles and socialising has been something to treasure.

That this freedom has been compromised elsewhere in the world remains a stark comparison.

That traversing relatively carefree across continents as I used to do (first as a graduate and then as someone working in international development) might never quite be the same experience in the future, is also now a clear reality. Generational changes are expected, but Covid has smashed into tiny pieces anyone’s sense of what normal looks like, and how change can manifest.

So, as a result of this, independence inevitably could take on new dimensions and new meaning. As my generation’s wave of hungry globe trotters reaches a shoreline, the natural inclination, because of Covid, to focus in on family and loved ones, could be said to be ‘cresting’ in various forms, and defining new social norms and inclinations.

I’ve spoken to many people, locked down for 9-10 months now, whose adjustments to home working and confinement are making them question if they’ve lost the ability to make small-talk, or if they’ll have the drive to be constantly socialising again, once restrictions are eased.

Ironically, I heard that last year, per capita, the Australian botox market outdid its American counterpart, with makeup sales also spiking, alongside Covid increases, because people had spent more time looking at themselves on zoom calls than usual (and, presumably, deciding they didn’t like what they saw!)

I’ve no doubt societies will bounce back, in part because of our natural desires for companionship and kinship, for expressing ourselves and connecting with others. Life and living will adjust, and young people will find their own way and their own form of independence.

The more spiritual outcomes from gaining one’s independence in the future needn’t be any different to my memories of them and current expressions of them.

As Flo might reflect, when she’s 45 years old, the natural ebb and flow and order of things – inside or beyond this pandemic – need never prevent each one of us experiencing our own moments, and the life-altering effects that accompany independence and discovery.

Long may that continue as an arc.

Casa Mitra

It’s hard not to drift into nostalgic daydreaming during the Nth month of Covid. Where the phrase “20:20 vision” conjures up clarity and focus, the year 2020 has flipped most of what we knew, or thought we knew, on its head. And left it there.

The upside down view of this brave new world is one with which many are struggling. Me included. Whilst Saigon is Covid free, the conversations had – out running at dawn or over drinks at dusk – are clouded by everyone’s exchange of perspectives on the pandemic, and the regaling of stories about work woes, or life crises. Me included.

I’ve found one good tonic to this malaise is spending more time with Florence and Martha. Back at school now these last 6 weeks, they are cruising along, their 4 months of “home based schooling” a distant memory.

They are swimming again, gossiping about their teachers, and playing on homemade water slides in our garden. Earlier in the summer we escaped to Hoi An with some friends, and the honest past-time of hermit crab catching became the order of the day, everyday.

I’m all too aware that ours is a somewhat sacred reality, compared to many families around the world, coping with alternative lock-down rules and regulations.

I wonder, too, how this year’s memories will manifest for the girls. Differently, perhaps, for their cousins in Australia, Italy and in the UK – who knows?

We are fairly powerless to direct how young people’s future memories resurface. The beauty and brilliance of the mind is, perhaps, just so because of the randomness of how we recall and re-imagine moments from the past so clearly.

Only yesterday, a wave of images crashed through my conscience. Triggered by talk of going on holiday, I was teleported for a full five minutes back to Lanzarote in the 1980s.

A part of the Spanish owned “Canarias,” Lanzarote is a volcanic island, lying off the coast of Morocco, which boasted at the time one main road connecting its scattered white-washed towns and villages. You can drive the length of it in two hours.

Following a successful family holiday of ours in Tenerife, before some further reconnaissance to Lanzarote itself, Mum and Dad bought a villa there, in the same complex as some of their friends, a mile up from a quaint fishing village called Playa Blanca.

Down on the southern most tip of Lanzarote, Playa Blanca was a humble spot to which to escape. There were three restaurants running along its harbour front, and a supermarket in the centre, whose dusty shelves we’d explore as kids, looking for beach balls and plastic spades.

Our villa back when we first took it on was renamed Casa Mitra – the house of the Bishop’s Hat? – and, for a good long while, we’d visit twice a year, coinciding trips with family friends over New Year’s and Easter.

My brother, Matt, and I quickly adjusted to this exciting phenomenon of regular holidays in the sun. Who could blame us? We’d have suntans each February half-term, and could order ham, egg and chips in Spanish before we’d left primary school.

It wasn’t long before we graduated from selecting off the child’s menus to choosing moules marinara and fillet steaks, much to the chagrin of Dad, footing an ever increasing bill.

As youngsters, we’d guzzle down half a dozen bottles of 7Up a day, having spent the lion’s share of it playing tennis, or throwing tennis balls at each other in the swimming pool.

I was then soon enough of an age where I’d be sloping up onto the roof of the villa to smoke cigarettes, whilst Matt, not so many years later, chose the beach of Playa Blanca to drop down onto one sandy knee and propose to his wife, Becks.

In many ways, Lanzarote ended up being an integral part of our family. Having lost our Grandma Edna (whose anniversary on 23rd Sept coincided exactly with my flashbacks yesterday) in 1983, it was only through her legacy that my parents had been able to buy Casa Mitra in the first place. We often spoke about how much Ma and Pa would have enjoyed being with us on these special holidays.

And then, not so long ago, Mum and Dad returned to Playa Blanca to rekindle the memories in person. Meeting up, quite incredibly, with the same brothers, Santiago and Pascal, who ran the local café all those years before. They were still running it, and it was still called Snoopy Bar.

When we first arrived in the Canaries we did some of the tourist things, exploring the volcanoes and watching as local guides launched tree branches down into the smoldering crevasses, only for them to instantly catch fire. The tree branches, not the guides.

As our visits evolved, however, we ended up sticking to a routine of frequenting our favourite eateries, and avoiding the tourists and the traffic jams in the capital.

The simple pleasures in life were all we required to curate the perfect day in Lanzarote. As kids, it was all about playtime. For the parents (as I can only now fully empathise) it would have been the frothy breakfast coffees at Snoopy’s in the morning, and their Tia Maria nightcaps in the evening.

We’d always hire a clapped out Seat Panda and drive up to the top of the island, through the idyllic village of Yaiza, past the more industrial capital, Arrecife, until we reached deep into the black mottled mountains surrounding Arrieta.

Here, we’d take a table outside a small restaurant, Bar Miguel, and devour calamari and salted boiled potatoes – I can taste them now – with the sea spray from the waves flicking onto the wooden table.

It was the ultimate local hangout, and we seldom missed a trip up to sample the day’s catch. Whilst Mum never touched the squid, their beers were icy cold (just as she likes them) so she didn’t hold it against us that we were forever driving up there.

We still reminisce about the evening Dad ended up eating only with Matt and I, following a few too many strong gin and tonics at a neighbour’s villa, resulting in Mum “just having a little nap in the car” whilst we, oblivious to why she’d choose to sleep so early on in the evening, tucked into our flambéed crepes.

Taking oneself back in time, in the spirit of nostalgia, is unavoidable. Particularly now. Deep in the recesses of my subconscious, these tastes and smells and foundational memories of Lanzarote still burn.

Remembering the feeling being sat, aged 12, on the scorched back seat of our Panda, my walkman plugged in, bounding up the island, is a feeling I’m sure helped at the time define for me the notion of travel, and of trying new things.

My eldest, Florence, turned 12 last weekend. Her carbon foot-print, by contrast to mine at her age (up until Covid struck) has been off the charts. The constant cycle this past decade of being an expat, and a “third culture child”, has ensured this.

Heading back to the UK for Christmas last year, and then being flown out of Heathrow with my parents to Sri Lanka to be met by me and Issy, before playing starring roles at our wedding, all involved a bit of planning – yet, for the girls, it was water off a duck’s back. In the end, it also turned into one of their most cherished flying experience, given “Grandma was constantly handing us sweets and treats!”

I would love to think that, one day, Flo and Martha’s recall from their formative years was as similarly heart warming and inspiring as mine remain. That their memories of travel and adventure and play are as prominent, and help shape their attitudes and perspectives.

Positive sentiments evoked by nostalgia are lasting, they can live through pandemics, and undercut the trouble and strife of adulthood.

Ironically, the girls will not appreciate, until much later on, just how empowering they continue to be for us adults, today. They are often that needed distraction and remedy to everyday angst, or to future speculations – a visceral antidote to that feeling we all share of being stuck in time right now.

The costs of this pandemic are being felt by everyone and are, as yet, to be fully understood. In the meantime, nostalgia can be a priceless commodity and, whilst we associate it with things past, it begins of course in the present.