Friday, 19 June 2015

Space Invaders

The apartment is immaculate. There are no wet towels on the floor; the wash basket is empty and the fridge is full. A distant foghorn from a passing ship punctuates the silence; the only movement is the golden right arm of Lucky Cat waving eternally at the mountains in the South China Sea. This is the calm before the storm. Six thousand miles away Thing One and Thing Two are busy stuffing dirty washing into bags. It won’t be long before they’ll be blowing in here like a typhoon, kicking off their fetid trainers and blocking the toilet.

When Thing One was 12 I bought a white linen corner sofa. When it arrived I felt I had finally become an adult. I loved it as much as it is possible to love an inanimate object. Within two hours there was a large bloodstain on it. The Thing had been scratching a mosquito bite and blood was pouring from his leg. “Is it my fault I’m full of blood?” he asked indignantly. Coincidentally, this was about the time we sent him off to boarding school in the UK.  

We were living in Mumbai then and for the next two years I only had Thing Two at home. When she heard how much fun the other one was having, she asked if she could go too. From having two kids at home to having none, I experienced early onset Empty Nest Syndrome and set about developing a mild form of OCD (I like things at right angles.)

Four years on, we live in Hong Kong and the Things come out for the holidays. The apartment is small and the Things are big. I love them dearly and I can’t wait to see them but man alive; they can drive me crackers. 

Thing One will come in complaining about the food on the plane, he’ll head straight for the fridge and take a fistful of Babybels and a Pepperoni into his room and fire up the X box, filling the apartment with the ear-splitting din of rapid gunfire. The other one will be locked in my en suite, using all my products and blasting out rap music as she prepares to take the world’s longest shower. Later on, they’ll want Blue Tack so they can stick pictures up all over the walls or they’ll be emptying drawers on the floor, looking for a charger. 

These two mean more to me than anything else on earth. They have caused me pain and suffering and pure joy in equal measure. My heart aches for them when they are not here but sometimes breaks when they are. (Mum, does ink come off carpets? Is the telly supposed to be cracked like that? It’s not mine; I’m looking after it for a friend)

When Thing One was six he brought home his first piece of homework. He had to choose an animal and write down five facts about it. He chose a tapir but after an hour in front of Google he could only come up with a single fact: (verbatim) "There is not much TV shows of tapirs.” I laughed my socks off and could not have loved him more. When he spilt paint down himself and was not able to go to his friend’s house, I told him he would have to live with the consequences: “But I don’t want to live with the Consequences, I want to live with you and dad!”

Now he’s six foot one but I still think he’d rather live with us than the Consequences, in the holidays at least. Thing Two has always been loving and affectionate, demanding family hugs and getting cross when you let go of her hand because your hand is getting too hot.

In a couple of weeks my two worlds – World of OCD and World of Chaos – will collide, but actually I’m quite looking forward to it. I think it’s time to make amends. When they were little they asked me to come outside and play, to read to them, go on a bike ride or have a picnic. Can we make cakes/go to the park to feed the ducks/ close the curtains and watch Jumanji at three o’clock in the afternoon? Most of the time I was too tired or thought I was too busy. 

Now that the exams are over and the long hot summer approaches they can do exactly what they want. They can sleep all day, play X box all night or buy crap sugary drinks from Starbucks. I won’t lecture. In fact, I’ll even take them to Ocean Park and Disneyland and go on all the scary rides with them (even the Teacups)

I love that film Boyhood, especially the bit where the mother is watching her son pack up to go to college. She can bear it no longer and suddenly says: “You know what I’m realizing? My life is going to go just like that – a series of milestones, getting married, having kids, getting divorced … that time when we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you to ride a bike, sending your sister off to college, sending you off to college and you know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral.”

At 17 and 15, my two haven’t got much of their childhoods left, time is running out. So this summer, we're going to make the most of it. I can tidy up in September.









Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Serve Yourself (know your onions!)

I spend a lot of time eating food here in Hong Kong but not much time preparing it. That’s because I have a helper at home and when I dine out it just appears on the plate. Such is life for People Like Us.

But now, as I type, my fingers smell faintly of onions after the 90 minutes I spent this morning chopping an unknown chive-y/grassy sort of vegetable at The Home of Love, a Nam Cheong soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity.

I met three other AWA (American Women’s’ Association) members at Hong Kong station at 8.30am and we caught the MTR to Nam Cheong. We had to cross a busy intersection diagonally (v.scary) before arriving at a rough-looking housing estate. It was a long way, if not geographically, from the bright and shiny Gotham City Hong Kong we’re all used to. 

We walked past one or two people asleep on benches and a lot of washing draped over tiny balconies until we got to the tiny nun-run kitchen - a hive of industry even at that time in the morning. A red-faced cook on a stool was stirring a vast vat on the stove and others were busying about with plastic bags full of vegetables I didn’t recognise.

We were handed some delightful gingham aprons and told to chop two bin bags full of the mystery chive-y/onion specimen – I'm gonna call it a ‘chunion’

We were all soon happily engaged in chopping and chatting but I was a little shame-faced when told by the boss nun that I hadn’t chopped the ‘chunion’ properly and had to do it again. A traveller guy sat outside chopping a volcano of chilies. The Sisters depend on people like this to help out, even as a one-off.

At 10.30am we walked over to the ‘dining area’ a sort of caged room lined with tables and chairs. The dinner ladies – members of the Korean Church (dressed to the nines for some reason!) – stood ladles in hand, waiting to serve the food to the men gathering outside.

From what I could understand, those who are allowed in to sit down and eat have been somewhere first to procure a ‘yellow ticket’. Without this ticket, the men have to wait outside for leftovers. It’s a bit disconcerting to watch hungry men, presumably down on their luck, stare in through the bars, ever hopeful.

At last prayers were said and what I thought would be a bun fight - ensued. Except it wasn’t a bun fight; it was a very civilised affair. I have volunteered in Mumbai where I’ve had people practically mow me down to get their hands on a samosa, but this was different. The men all sat waiting patiently while we served them. The Korean Church ladies dolloped rice, some sort of brassica and a meat/egg combo onto the tray and we took them to the tables –just like proper waitresses. One or two of the guys said ‘thanks’ but mostly, nobody caught anybody’s eye as the business of chowing down got underway. Some of these men were dressed in rags, some in suits and two or three in past season Liverpool strips (my favourite was a tee shirt reading "Who the FUCK are Manchester Utd?" - the nuns didn't bat an eyelid) but they all had one thing in common – hunger

Some of the guys came up for seconds and even thirds while those outside shuffled uncomfortably. One or two of the ‘yellow-ticket’ guys even brought Tupperware boxes so they could take away some of the grub for later (more anxious shuffling outside). Finally, one of the sisters turned up with some takeaway boxes and cups for the soup and an orderly line was formed at the door. Every one of them received soup, the main meal and a cake. Nobody went hungry I am very pleased to say because for a minute there I was getting a bit worried. Miraculously they had exactly the right amount of food. The soup kitchen runs every day of the week and these men depend on it for survival. Imagine living in Hong Kong – or anywhere - with little or no money. Thank God there are people like these Sisters in the world.

When the work was over (I was quite relieved they didn’t ask us to do the washing up ‘cos I’d just had my nails done) we went back to the city for a coffee - which probably cost more than the ton of ‘chunions’ we’d just chopped. There but for the grace of God, eh?




Wednesday, 13 May 2015

On the Buses


If someone had told me a year ago that my main mode of transport for 2015 would be ‘the bus’, I’d have thought they were a deck short of a double decker. Me? On the bus? I’m scared of buses; I don’t even know how to catch one. Buses are way too complicated; how do you know which one to get? Where is it going? When will it come? So many unknowns and anyway, I drive a car so why on earth would I ever need to catch a bus?

Reader, what was I thinking? Six months after arriving in Hong Kong, I can’t get enough of buses. I’m a massive bus fan. I flippin’ love ‘em, especially the 75 (Sham Wan to Central via Causeway Bay and Admiralty) Every time it comes sailing down the hill I get a little rush of dopamine because I’m so happy to see it. The 75 takes me to all the best places in air-conditioned comfort. I am also partial to the 72a but I don’t care for the 71, which takes a circuitous route through Pokfulam and made me very late for an AWA early morning cycle once. (Again ladies, apologies!)

I’ve come a long way since Day Two in Hong Kong when I accidentally caught a bus to Hung Hom (107) instead of Aberdeen (48). My husband Mick pointed out the bus stop the day before and gave me explicit instructions on which bus to get.
But in the heat of the moment I panicked and got on the first bus that came along. I waited until I was absolutely confident that it was going the wrong way and then called Mick to accuse him of sending me on a mission I was not yet ready for: “It’s your fault” I cried, “I told you I didn’t know how to catch a bus!”

I know; it’s pathetic when I think about it now, but I was so traumatised by the Hung Hom incident that I didn’t go out for a week. Eventually, Mick gently coaxed me onto the 75 and suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. The last time I rode the bus regularly was in the early 1980’s as a schoolgirl in a fug of cigarette smoke – this is a whole new bus experience. Spotlessly clean with air-conditioning, TV and even free Wi-Fi – what’s not to love?

OK, well actually there is something not to love. As Jane Austen might have said: It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are sometimes nutters on the bus. It’s the same in every country in the world; the general rule is: Avoid the back seat upstairs at all costs.

I have made the mistake of sitting on the back seat twice, both times next to different nutters; one watching a cockfight on his phone at full volume and the other enjoying as spot of porn, occasionally looking up to photograph the girl sleeping opposite. Creepy.

Other than this, I cannot sing the praises of the Hong Kong buses highly enough. Oh well, perhaps I do have one more tiny criticism: You have to hold on VERY TIGHT if you are going up or down the stairs while the bus is moving. I am surprised there aren’t more loss-of-momentum related accidents. Other than the nutters and the HANGING-ON-FOR-DEAR-LIFE stair moments, I love, love, love the HK buses. And now I have discovered the ‘Easy Rider’ app, there’s no stopping me. See a bus coming, punch in the number and see exactly where it’s going. It’s the future! I’ll never get lost again. Only another 16 years until I’m entitled to the senior citizens’ Octopus card. Can’t wait!













Thursday, 22 May 2014

Baby, You're a Rich Man


When my daughter was about nine, she came out of the bathroom asking why her friend’s dad was in the newspaper next to David Bowie. She had been perusing The Sunday Times Rich List, which I had chucked on the floor in a jealous rage when I got out of the bath.

The friend’s dad is a financier with a few million quid more than Bowie and a few less than Jagger. I explained that he was in the paper because he was one of the richest men in the world but she wasn’t very impressed. 

“Really?” she said,  “he’s never even heard of TK Maxx” 

She’d been round for a sleepover and the dad said he liked her pajamas which she said came from TK Maxx and he said he’d never heard of TK Maxx and she said I can’t believe you’ve never heard of TK Maxx and was so surprised that it was the first thing she told me when she came home in the morning. 

She didn’t tell me a thing about the mansion, which the family had recently moved into after trouncing Roman Abramovich and Robbie Williams in a bidding war. It meant nothing to a nine year old. When I asked what the house was like she said it was ‘quite big.’ 

At what stage does money become a thing? And why should it bother me how much other people have? 

According to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Britain’s richest people are wealthier than ever before with a combined fortune of 520 billion pounds. That’s a 15 per cent jump on the total wealth of the richest 1,000 individuals, couples or families in just one year.

So, it comes as no surprise, the rich are getting richer. I hear on the news today that even the IMF and the World Bank are getting increasingly nervous about the levels of inequality in our society.

Tycoons the Hinduja brothers topped the list with a combined worth of 11.9 billion pounds. I don’t know how much Mukesh Ambani’s got but that’s probably walking around money for him. I bet he’s never heard of TK Maxx either, or a good architect for that matter.

And now India has Narendra Modi, great news for the economy, not so great for human development. 

You could say that many of the super rich are at the heart of the economy and their success brings more jobs and more wealth to the country but does it really filter down to the common man or is the common man exploited to bring even more wealth to the individuals at the top?

I’m going to go off at a bit of a tangent here but when Samir drove me to the airport yesterday he pointed to the flyover and said it was funny that the people who had actually done all the backbreaking work, would probably never ever get to use it. They would probably never ever enter the airport building or catch a plane. Samir and I interviewed some itinerant workers when I was working on a project last year. Most of them came from villages in UP and MP, they came to work and earn money for their families back home. They had no concept or awareness that they were helping to build a mega city, the projects they were working on meant nothing to them. They just needed to earn the money to send to their families so that they could survive. Some of them had come to Mumbai at the age of 13 or 14, they stay in labour camps where they have to cook for themselves and average about five hours sleep a night. The rest of the time they are working. Up at 4 am to cook a bit of dhal before heading off to work again.  They have nothing to look forward to but the twice yearly trip home, they all miss their mothers, wives and children, and for this they get paid between 3,000 and 4,000 rupees a month (about 40 quid). It’s bloody shameful actually and I felt like crying when we were talking to them. I asked one of them if he ever got to the cinema on his day off and he looked at me like I was mad. There is no money for leisure, all the money is sent home. Compared to these people I am rich beyond belief.





On the day of the election results I was having a fabulous day in Colaba with my old mucker Bombay Jules, celebrating her birthday in style. We stayed at the Taj Palace, dined at the Table and shopped ourselves stupid. We even went for a ride in a horse-drawn tourist carriage. I loved every minute; it was a day to remember, especially as she is leaving Mumbai, our last hurrah. Of course, I chronicled the day in a volley of Facebook updates: Here’s me at the Taj, here’s me stuffing my face, here’s me shopping till I drop, here’s me quaffing Champers on a dry day. A comment appeared on one of my posts from an activist friend in the UK who (half?) jokingly accused me of (effectively) fiddling while Rome burned. She is right to prick my conscience like that but it didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. I am afraid it’s getting easier and easier to turn off. After a while, one gets used to the poverty.

I went to Amritsar a couple of weeks ago and was deeply moved by the sight and atmosphere of the Golden Temple. The people there were calm, happy and almost otherworldly, they seemed to light up from within. Their devotion and contentment was tangible. It was a beautiful thing but there, lurking at the back of my mind was the thought: “I wonder if there’s a Guru Nanak knick knack shop ‘cos I want to buy a fridge magnet.” 

Compared to these people, I’m a pauper.









Thursday, 1 May 2014

Driving Miss Hazy

If I lost my phone and someone found it and called the first number under ‘favourites’ they would not be speaking to my husband or my mum in Somerset but to one Mr. Samir Khan from Kolkata – the very man I would want them to call because he would have it back to me in no time.

I have become so reliant on this man that I sometimes relinquish sections of my brain and become ineffectual and floppy when it comes to tasks such as paying my Vodaphone bill because I know he will sort it out for me. If the AC is leaking I call him up, point to the problem and shuffle off.   

Samir is employed to drive the car. His job description does not include getting stuff fixed, babysitting, sorting out the Wi-Fi, paying bills or putting Sir to bed that time when I was out of town and he’d had a few. But still he does it. And what’s more, he tells me he is happy to do it. I doubt I’d be so amenable if my old boss at the local newspaper had asked me to fix his television, mow his lawn, walk his dog or whatever. 

Over the Easter holidays I was back in the UK in my role as mummy-the-servant. I woke the kids up with a cup of tea, picked up the dirty laundry, made the breakfast, washed up, drove them to wherever they wanted to be, acquired whatever they needed, entertained and fed them and paid their bills. Much as I love ‘em, I was glad the day I dropped them back to school and headed to Heathrow where I flopped on a plane, watched three films back to back and necked a few miniatures. Nine hours airtime is all it takes for me to transmogrify into, well I suppose, a dependent child myself. 

Standing, slightly worse for wear, outside Arrivals at 12.45 AM I realized I hadn’t called Samir to tell him what time I was landing. But there he was, waiting to take the trolley from me and lead me to the car. I don’t know whether he’s psychic or he rang the office to find my ETA but somehow, he always knows where I am and he always finds me.

He asks me what films I saw on the plane, whether I slept and what food I ate and it’s all I can do not to call him ‘Dad’ as I drift off in the back. The kids and their demands are a distant memory. Out of sight is out of mind (though not if you’re reading this my angels which I know you most definitely will not be)

There was a dark and very terrible time a few weeks ago when Dad, I mean Samir, and I became separated in a very busy area and I got lost.

We had been to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) a most frightening and labyrinthine place where there be monsters. I had switched my phone to silent, so as not to incur the wrath of the giant (you know, that massive bloke who walks around shouting at people). Miraculously (and with the help of a little palm greasing) my Resident’s Permit was handed to me within the hour so I decided to go to The Contemporary Arts Centre to celebrate. However, this did not end happily.

For the first time in the history of his career, Samir was not exactly sure where CAC was. I casually asked him to drop me near where I thought it was, telling him I would find somewhere for breakfast, visit CAC, drop in at nearby Chimanlals paper craft store and call him in a few hours when I would require him to drive me to my friend’s house in Colaba where I was expected for afternoon tea. I knew he would be happy to park somewhere shady and have a kip so off I went. 

Five minutes later I realized I had no idea where CAC was. The hot sun was melting my face and I recalled that scene in ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ where they fried an egg on the bonnet of a jeep. I reached into my bag for my phone and my world came crashing down when I realized I had left it on the seat in the car – ON SILENT. The horror of the situation unfolded in slow motion. The last time I felt like this was 39 years ago when I got lost in the sand dunes on a beach holiday. By nightfall I lay down and covered my legs in sand, accepting my fate and preparing to die when the coastguard found me. 

I took on the expression of a lost child but at 48-years-old, no one seemed to notice or care. I trudged up and down the road like a lost soul until, as if by magic, CAC appeared before my very eyes. I put my predicament neatly to one side while I had a snoop around, enjoying the AC and nick knacks but all too soon I had to face reality again and head out into the unknown. 

Actually Chimanlals is just around the corner from CAC so I suspended reality briefly once more to check out the lovely paper crafts. As soon as I made my non-essential paper craft purchase ‘The Fear’ returned. How will I let my friend know I can’t come ‘cos I don’t know where she lives or where I am? I don’t know anybody’s phone number. Woe is me etc. I asked the shop worker if I could use her phone to call my phone in the car but to no avail. I imagined Samir snoozing indefinitely in a shady side street with my phone silently trembling on the back seat. All the numbers are on my phone, I don’t know Samir’s number, my husband’s number or even my mum in Somerset’s number. My life is effectively over (unless of course I get a cab back to Andheri, God forbid!)

Just then, outside Chimanlals, an angel appeared in the form of a lady who I vaguely recognized from an MC coffee morning. “Are you the lady who does the magazine?” She enquired, “You look a bit worried, can I help?” 
The poor woman had to listen to the whole sorry tale before lending me her phone. 
“Call your driver” 
“I don’t know his number”
“Call your husband and ask him to call your driver”
“I don’t know his number either”
“Call the office”
“Can’t”
“Your home, ask your maid for your driver’s number”
“Don't know it”

I emptied the contents of my bag onto the pavement and pulled out the recently acquired Resident’s Permit. There was a number on it which I thought might be the number of the office but turned out to be that of a former employee on maternity leave who had once acted as a referee. Fortunately, despite (or perhaps because of?) my jumbled blathering she recognized who I was even though I had no idea who she was and called Mick (out of a meeting) who in turn called Samir who in turn turned up within the minute.

Once in the car and safely on my way to my friend’s house for tea, I got a right telling off: “Write my number on a piece of paper and keep it in your purse! If it wasn’t for that nice lady I might never have found you!”

Hmm. Lesson learned.


Monday, 3 March 2014

Home or Away? - A Place in the Sun



Hi Honey, I'm home! And oh, I see you've knocked up a brand new international airport while I've been away. Oooooh, Chhatrapati Shivaji, look at you all gussied up with your glass walls and natural lighting like a big, proper airport but hang on a minute, what's this?

CARPET! CARPET! CARPET! CARPET! Migraine inducing purple and orange swirls, as far as the eye can see. I haven't slept a wink all night, I've had nothing but five small bottles of white wine to sustain me and now this?   

Not only is it enough to pop the eyeballs out of your head but it also gobbles up wheels, making my nippy Samsonite a dead weight. I swear it'd be easier to drag a dead body the length of Juhu Beach than to cross this carpet from A to B with a clinking carry-on full of Duty-Free. Forty million passengers a year are going to be cursing the numpty who said: "I know, why don't we have carpet instead of normal airport floor?" as they lug their stuff through this shag-pile soup. #I'm just sayin'.

Personally, the top two things I look for in an airport are 1. A Mulberry Store and 2. A smooth surface upon which to glide luggage.

(I haven't seen the first yet but I've only been in Arrivals - Epic fail on the second) 

That said, other than THE CARPET (I'm shouting 'cos it's loud) a big thumbs-up for Mumbai's shiny new airport. It's a substantial improvement on the last.                      
                                                     
At Baggage Reclaim I got chatting to an earnest young American in the city for the very first time. "So what are you doing here?" I asked.

"I'm a magician, here to teach tricks to the children of sex workers." His reply.

So deft was the elevation of my eyebrow that I think he missed it. Mind you, if I'd have held up both eyebrows with my middle fingers, I think he would have missed that too. He was EVER SO earnest and I am a b-yatch. A joke formed in the darkest part of my brain but I quickly swallowed it down. I've only been back five minutes and the madness has started. 

Day Two in this fine city and I nipped across the road to the foot spa for a three-way with two lovely Thai boys who stretched me out on a rack, one pulling my hair while the other cracked my toes. I was home for breakfast before 11am (ladies fingers and a coconut) with the Mumbai Mirror (natch)

My highlights of today's news:

1. A water pipe has burst in a place called Seepz. 
2. A policeman by the name of PI Pimple is in trouble for being lazy and neglecting his duties. 

There is obvs a lot of other heavy stuff going on but snippets like this amuse me all day. Now I'm feeling guilty about Mr Magic, at least he's doing something, if only pulling rabbits out of hats, not just sniggering at the papers and having three-ways like me. I would like to get down to Kamathipura to offer my services at Kranti, a fantastic NGO which helps the daughters of sex workers find their place in the world. They are looking for folk to help with homework etc but need a six month commitment which I cannot give because of my comings and goings. 

For the past nine months I have been supervising building works at my house in Hunton, Kent. I wore the same clothes everyday and stopped everything at 3.40 pm to watch 'Home or Away? - A Place in the Sun' on More 4. In this show, a couple who cannot decide whether they want to live in the UK or somewhere abroad look at properties in the UK and abroad, usually France, Spain or Florida. I have yet to see an episode where the couple can't make up their minds whether to live in Kent or Mumbai. 

Fortunately, that decision has been made for me. I live in both and life could not be more different in each.

Last week in Hunton:

1. Went to Tesco to get kippers

2. Painted window frame

3. Went for walk


This week in Mumbai:

1. Dined under stars (and flight path) in beach restaurant rammed with with Bollywood A-listers

2. Sat down in the road outside HSBC Juhu crying in frustration after staff told me I didn't exist (despite banking with them for the past five years)

3. Played Mah Jong at a five-star (only because best Mumbai friend had gone away on a black buck safari) with three women, each from a different continent, whooping them at every game (All the while wearing LK Bennett killer heels - I only wear wellies or slippers in Hunton)

4. Martin Scorsese was in town 

5. Joined Om-chanting class


I honestly couldn't tell you which life I prefer. Each one helps me to better appreciate the other. Last week in Hunton, I opened the window in the dead of night to listen to the silence, broken only by the hoot of an owl. The sky was velvety black and the only light, the moon. I missed my husband Mick, four thousand miles away in Mumbai.
My dawg (who lives with me when I'm in Hunton)
the view


But now, one week later, here I am in the Maximum City. I can hear drilling, wailing, banging, honking, barking, shouting, whirring and drumming. The noise never stops, it goes on all night and is relentless. Mick sleeps through it, as he always does, while I pace the flat like a demented thing seeking peace. The lights are off and the curtains are drawn but the electric yellow light seeps in under doors and through gaps. I don't sleep much here but I read a lot more.
Our other place (at night)
The other view

The quiet of Kent is a welcome respite from this madness but this madness is also a welcome respite from the quiet of Kent.

Thing is, I don't feel I belong in either.