Month: March 2014
TCI, the Turks and Caicos Islands
Everyone’s heard of the Bahamas, but not really the Turks and Caicos, but its basically the same place, geographically. We flew over the Florida keys and the Bahemian islands to land in Providenciales, also too long and complicated to say, so its just Provo and TCI from now on. I was confused about how to refer to a local… i accidentally asked twice if a local was ‘Turkish and caico…ish?” but they were shocked and appalled that I could ever mistake an ‘islander’ (the correct term to refer to a local) for a Turk. Obviously I wasnt doing that, but it was a problem of linguistics… and Katrin speak.
It’s called the Turks and Caicos because one of the islands is named Grand Turk. Then theres North, Middle and South Caicos, but no north or West. Provo is kind of the west Caicos, and the biggest island, and finally Salt Cay. All of them have tourism, based mostly around fishing and resorts, but then theres also the migration of humpack whales and a friendly dolphin named Jojo that alot of people come to see.
These islands are somehwere, yet nowhere, since they’re a British territory inhabited by alot of Haitian, Dominican and Bahemian workers. The official currency is the US dollar and the international phone code is +1, but British passports are given out simultaneously with the TCI passprt. The way the islanders speak isnt quite with a Caribbean or American or British accent, but something inbetween all three. Very very few people live here, only 32,000 (a tenth of the Bahamas or Iceland), but thousands visit. And I dont blame them…. its kind of a magical, post-card place hidden away to the secrecy of the few who know the place, and always return. People own time shares or homes that they return to year after year, andall the locals know them by name.
I didn’t know very much before coming here either. I mean I knew where it was but not what was there. To my surprise, there were still couchsurfers here, and at the last minute a host actually found me. Turns out he knew everyone and hooked me up with everything I’d ever want from an island get away – boating, snorkeling, conch diving, para-sailing and a lot, a LOT of rum punch. And thank God for him and all he did, because as it also turns out, TCI is probably the most expensive Caribbean island I’ve ever been to after St. Barth’s. If Cancun is for students on spring break, TCI is for families and the rich and famous any time of year. It’s kind of like a smaller, more intimate, adult, exclusive and expensive Cancun, where older and younger siblings play together, teenagers and parents get along, and couples never fight. Everyone seemed to be smiling at me smiling at them, all in the common knowledge that we were the lucky ones who had found this paradise.
St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago
I tend to skip the mid-west whenever I go to North America, favouring the west and east coasts over the middle of nowhere. After the worst winter in history, I had yet another reason to avoid going to the frigid middle states, but my favourite Canadienne lives in Minneapolis and we were long overdue for a visit. We started planning an elaborate trip to Chicago, since I was visiting over St. Patricks day weekend, and the trip grew from us two, to 5 friends, to a group of 11 that all wanted to drink green beer and see one of the biggest Irish parties held outside of Ireland.
We stayed in some executive suite at the Hilton, which was worth every penny of the thousand dollars-plus we spent on it after my couch-surfing streak all over Africa. It was cold and snowy, but trading that for the mosquitoes and always being too hot was also a welcomed change. We had hot breakfast and a hottub to warm ourselves up every day, and the sun still peeked through on St. Patrick’s day to brighten up the parade and the green river Chicago (it was really, really, unnaturally green!). I was also a good tourist and visited the 103rd floor of the Sears Tower, Cloud gate (which everyone knows only as the Bean I learned), and the Chicago Arts Institute.
Google maps says Minneapolis to Chicago is a 6.5 hour drive, but it took 9 hours, and we played trivia the whole way in and out so I feel a lot smarter after this weekend. I learned all sorts of random facts about American and French history (we had a frenchie with us in the car who knew the answer to every question), and the capital of every American state. I drank green beer, Guinness and Bailey’s to show my patriotism to the Irish. My great-great-great-great-great-great…. grandmother was an Irish princess so I figured even I could claim to be a patriot.
Actual St. Patrick’s day was Monday, March 17, which we celebrated in up-town Minneapolis at an authentic Irish bar called Morrisey’s. We wore green sweaters, green leis, green jewelry and met an actual Irish man who I thought was most deserving of one of those “Kiss me Im Irish” tshirts. Like all of Chicago on Saturday, crowds of people just looked like one sea of green. I kind of started to forget what it was exactly we were celebrating, I just knew that it was green and Irish, but then I went to the cathedral in St. Paul and remembered. There in the church, alongside humongous statues of St. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, stood St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. I had always known he was connected to shamrocks (4 leaf clovers), rainbows and pots of gold, but the myth from reality was never a clear distinction.
Apparently St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish, but he was one of Christianity’s most famous missionaries. He was ordained a priest in Ireland against a pagan/celtic population, after being born somehwere in Britain around 387AD and being taken prisoner by Irish raiders. He died March 17, hence the holiday, and invented the picture of the celtic cross – a flaming sun ontop of the Christian cross. I still don’t know whats historically true or not, but the depiction of a bearded Green leprechaun with jodphur pants, shiny black shoes and gold buckles is the first thing that speaks to me when I think of St. Patricks day. The second thing I think about is Lucky Charms cereal, but that isn’t really relative since that just plays on the green leprechaun and rainbow ideology… but anyway. Everyone agrees St. Patrick’s Day is a great American drinking (non-recognized) holiday, and I’m happy to have been a part of the 3rd biggest celebration possible (number one and two is Boston and Savannah… and maybe Manhattan). Put them on the to-do list for next year 🙂
I first tried to go to Haiti in 2011, to celebrate my 24th birthday with my best friend Ursula. We were at JFK airport, when American Airlines kicked us off the flight, since no one would voluntarily take a delay in exchange for a travel voucher. We were chosen since we were last to check in, the arbitrary system AA uses to deal with overbooked flights. This year, I visited Ursula in DC to try and take her with me, and booked a super cheap flight to Port-au-Prince with AA. I only flew AA because I was still trying to finish the $600 voucher they gave me back in 2011, but swore this would be the last flight I’d take with them.
By the time I had convinced her to come, the prices of flights had nearly doubled. But I didn’t give up even after she had dropped me off at the airport and said goodbye. As I suspected, AA had overbooked the flight, and they asked for volunteers in exchange for travel vouchers. I volunteered first, got the voucher, and called Ursula. She wasn’t sure if she could come, so I stayed at the airport long enough to get bumped off my next flight, and get another voucher, and then went back home thinking I had enough money to buy her flight. But, we didn’t, so I planned to leave the following morning, alone, until I got a call at 8 am that I had been rebooked 24 hrs later…
I still wasn’t sure Id make it Friday morning, but I got yet another voucher and actually got on a plane bound for Port-au-Prince without Ursula because she didnt believe me or we would ever get there. I finally landed Friday afternoon, half an hour late, but my couch surfing host made up for all the lost time. He showed me the city from ontop the mountains surrounding the plains, with the thousands of tiny concrete houses piled ontop of eachother and spilling into the lowlands without any sign of the 2010 earthquake. There were a few deserted, cracked houses, but not more than you’d expect from any developing country. Apparently Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but that was also hard to believe with proof of the rich and luxurious also calling Port-au-Prince home.
After years of defending a dangerous reputation, the stability of security and crime has also risen since the earthquake. Hundreds of ex-pats and NGO’s have made progress in the infrastructure, economy and human rights, and Haiti wasn’t any different from what I’ve seen in local neighbourhoods of the Dominican Republic. I wondered over and over why so many people questioned my motives for going to Haiti, asking what I could possible want to do there, and felt both a sense of relief and pride that I had finally made it to Haiti…. and enjoyed every minute there.
Eventful Days in Washington D.C.
Its supposed to be spring in 2 weeks, and we’re much further south here than in Boston, but still a snowstorm came tumbling down on us a couple days into March. After partying into the wee hours of Sunday morning with my best friend Ursula, we spent all of Sunday hosting a brunch for 25 people – not an easy feat when you’re jet lagged, hungover, and have no idea who anyone is. But I knew my mimosas and bloody mary’s just fine so the food turned out great. Sunday night we went to Mayor Vincent Gray’s re-election party, someone I had never expected to meet in person after seeing him so often on TV with President Obama.
The snow came while we slept, but everything was decided hours before the first flakes of snow fell and all hell broke loose with school closures and cancelled flights. In the end, only a few centimetres fell, but without enough snow plows or winter tires, everything still shut down. The capital wash an eerie ghost town on Monday, barely a car or person in sight on the mall where we went to check out all the major monuments. We saw Abraham Lincoln, the new MLK memorial, the Washington Monument, Capitol Hill, the White House, and finally the Jefferson memorial where our only company was a stray (or rabid) fox.
Then Tuesday came, not any regular Tuesday, but Mardi Gras Tuesday, and some schools were still closed and flights were still delayed. Me and Ursula had breakfast with her mom, who was on her way to the elementary school she works at, where President Obama would be visiting that afternoon and deliver his budget speech. She sent us minute by minute updates on his whereabouts in the school, had her car swept by security, and later showed us the footage of his visit on the 5 o’clock news. We visited Ursula’s 94 year old grandmother, who was once the Mardi Gras queen in New Orleans back in the 40’s, then went for our own Mardi Gras party with a whole lot of beads and a feather mask.
When Wednesday came, there were no more politicians to meet or flight cancellations, so I headed to Reagan National Airport to catch my on-time flight to Haiti. Since I was flying via Miami, there were a lot of over bookings and stand-by’s from the last 2 days of delayed flights, so I volunteered myself off for a travel voucher. I returned to Ursula for Ash Wednesday, where we broke all the rules of lent, and tried to book her on my new flight to Haiti with the voucher I received. That didn’t work so well, but my feelings of failure only lasted a few hours until Thursday, when I woke up to a phone call from American Airlines that my flight had been rebooked for tomorrow.
Now its Thursday, and instead of flying to Haiti, I walked around the Smithsonian museums all day. I learned a lot about American history and natural science without paying a penny, and saw some of the most beautiful buildings and exhibits I’ve ever seen. At the portrait gallery in the Reynolds Center, I saw images of all 44 American presidents except Obama. I also saw the first piano ever placed in the White House, a beautiful 1903 Steinway and Sons painted grand Piano, chosen by President Roosevelt. Then I saw an amazing 1930’s box piano at the American history museum, followed by a contemporary grand piano smashed to a million pieces at the Art & Destruction exhibit at the Hirshorn Museum. Interesting how history has developed…
The most amazing things I saw today included the original, torn and tattered, Star Spangled Banner, the 30x40ft 15 striped, 15 starred US flag hung after the war of 1812, and inspiration behind the American national anthem. At the Air and Space museum, I saw the original Wright Flyer, the actual plane built in 1903 by the Wright Brothers and the first aircraft to ever make a manned flight. Shortly after, I touched a piece of the moon, and felt like today’s accidental day in DC was definitely worth being delayed for. Now I just home that tomorrow comes and brings me to Haiti, since this will be the 5th confirmed flight I’ve had booked to Port au Prince but still never made it on one!
Masters Degrees and Birthdays to feed my homesickness
I didn’t attend my first master’s graduating ceremony, and I wasn’t going to attend the second, but then three of my closest friends and partners in anti-studying crimes from the program were invited to (slash threatened to attend) the occasion; Steve, Liv and Marie. I felt I had to be present too once they all showed up in Iceland and I was still MIA. My flight out of Sierra Leone was delayed nearly a day, but I made it in time for the ceremony and a lot of celebrations.
The first celebration was Steve’s birthday, then my graduation. I felt like a spectacle since I was the only person to walk the stage from the program, and it was the only program announced in English, “Masters in Medieval Icelandic Studies.” It should have been called a Masters in Norse Mythology, or Icelandic Horse History, but now everyone thinks I’m one of those medieval enthusiasts who should wear a Thor’s hammer necklace or studded, black pleather clothing. Unfortunately, I’m not pale enough for gothic fashion, and I don’t know nearly enough about Vikings or the middle ages, so I just claim it as a degree in being more Icelandic than before.
We took a road trip to celebrate my new truck, a Kia sportage I bought 2 days before leaving for Africa for 4 months. But the Kia was a party pooper and ran out of gas in the middle of the highlands between Thingvellir and Laugarvatn…
The next celebration was my roommate Harald’s birthday, followed 2 days later by my birthday. There weren’t enough champagne bottles for all the events, but we popped at least 4 over the week, and polished off some 12L of miscellaneous other alcohol. We threw a mustache and bowtie party, where I received the kind of amazing gifts little girls wish for on shooting stars. My father treated me like a princess, a special guest from France came to visit, and my Icelandic chef friends spoiled me rotten for the Reykjavik Food and Fun festival.
Then, I was gone as quickly as I had arrived, with another flurry of happy home memories and a bunch of friends to miss even more. But I was on my way to other friends that Im always missing, so once more I tore myself away from the comfort zone of safe at home, with a tingle of travel bug itching again at my toes.