Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Life in Hurricane Alley

22 May 2018

Richard has often called the US and British Virgin Islands "hurricane alley," because so many tropical storms turn into hurricanes as they pass overhead, and so many hurricanes come straight through this region.  It sometimes feels like we have a target drawn on some celestial map, and both sets of islands are in the bull's eye.

So I thought I'd include photos of both the beauty of St. Thomas, USVI, as well as some of the destruction caused by Irma and Maria in 2017.  Some people call the storms Irmaria, because they were only about ten days apart.  And what are the chances of two Category 5 storms coming through the same islands in one year?  (Unfortunately, the chances are better than anyone would hope.)

The first photos show the damage at the little hotel we're staying at.  I don't know how many rooms are okay - our room is fine.  No leaks, no visible water damage, windows are fine.  But the room next door is missing the back.  Really, the entire sliding glass door, which makes up most of the wall, is just gone.  The windows are missing glass.  Pieces of the ceiling are gone.  Paint is peeling off the walls.  No furniture is standing, there's just a jumble of broken glass, broken ceiling, pillows, curtains, and slats of blinds in a sodden heap on the floor, awaiting insurance adjusters or someone. 

At the other end of the building, parts of the roof are missing, and are covered with the signature tarpaulins of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).  Walls are good, but there are some missing pieces.  I can't get around the back of the building to see how many rooms are missing those glass sliding doors that lead to the balconies and decks, so I really can't say how many rooms are damaged. 

The building we were in last year is missing the entire roof.  Really, a three story building with probably 25 or so hotel rooms, with no roof.  A few doors were open, so I peeked in - again, the sliding glass doors that make up the wall of the rooms were missing, and the interior was a mix of furnishings and broken glass/ceiling/debris.  Totally unusable at this point.  

Plus I shudder to think about what animals might wander in and out of these rooms at night.  Our friends who own this hotel feed and take care of stray cats, and a friendly black cat accompanied me in and out of the rooms.  I'm hoping he and his friends are keeping the rats and mice away - but hurricanes damage trees and the bush, and then the rats and mice move inside wherever they can.  (At least we don't have poisonous snakes here - just some nasty things like scorpions, tarantulas, and giant centipedes.  When we lived here, we've had all of those inside our various apartments.  Plus a tarantula in my car one season.)

The pool deck and the side of the pool structure are damaged, and the walkway from our building to the pool is gone.  Tile, rebar, cement just collapsed and sort of hanging there.  So we go the long way around.

One building of rooms is just fine.  The other pool is wonderful.  The office building, and the little casino downstairs, all seem to be untouched.  And the murals my students painted years ago, exterior paint on plywood, are all looking bright and cheerful, despite the damaged buildings.

There's a new restaurant, so we can get lunches or dinners.  But the little store and coffee shop is missing part of the roof and the entire back of the building.  Again, just gone.  Disappeared in pieces into the bush, or blown away to somewhere else.  

Hurricanes as big as Irma (the size of France!) and as powerful (sustained winds of 225 miles per hour) just blast through and create a path of destruction similar to that of a tornado.  Actually, a hurricane is basically a giant tornado or cyclone, but with rain in addition to the wind.  So, yeah, there's a lot of damage.

And everyone has a story.  Roof broken in half and flapping all through the storm.  Windows blown in or blown out.  Walls caving in.  Flood waters rushing through.  Coming out of the broken houses to see bare ground, because these winds blow the grass right out of the earth.

But people are resilient.  People rebuild, and start over again.  Items that can be salvaged are dried and saved, other items are replaced.  Businesses start up again, eventually electric poles and lines are repaired or replaced, and life slowly gets back to normal.

That's the point the islands are right now, slowly getting back to normal.  Several schools are on double session to accommodate another school where the buildings were destroyed, or because the one school had so much damage that only half of the classrooms can be used.  Schedules and people adjust.

But major hotels won't re-open for another year, because they need to be rebuilt.  Some of the large stores caved in, roofs collapsed, and the buildings have to be gutted and rebuilt.  Some items are difficult to find, and prices are high because everything has to be flown or shipped in.  Life on an island.

The most worrying thing is that there is still debris all over, with HUGE piles of metal debris in a few strategic areas around the island.  One pile looks like cars that were damaged, as well as galvanized metal from either storm shutters or roofing.  I'm talking a pile of debris that is the size of a one-or-two-storey building, possibly the size of a city block!!!  Huge amount of garbage that cannot be burned or buried.  And no place locally for recycling.  

The official beginning of hurricane season is June 1.  Yes, nine days away.  So all of this debris is really worrisome.  In another storm, all that metal garbage, plus all the debris hidden in the bush, will go flying in those 100-200 mph winds.  They all become lethal objects at that kind of speed.  This much debris can take out windows, shear roofs off cars, and you don't want to even think about what happens when a person is hit by roofing or a flying car.

Yes, people are on edge.  Stressed from the storm, a little bit of PTSD, stressed about the coming season.  Trying to keep cheerful and maintain normal life while living in improvised shelters and rebuilding their house upstairs, or around them.  

It isn't easy.

Friends have said that it helps just to be listened to.  So while we haven't done the kind of volunteer assistance we thought we might be doing, we're doing a lot of listening to hurricane stories.

The other photos - Frenchtown, always colorful and picturesque with the small fishing boats.  This is a small peninsula on the outskirts of downtown Charlotte Amalie (pronounced Charlotte a-MAHL-ya), once home to much of the island's French population (from St. Bart's).  We have several favorite eating spots down here, so this tends to be where we hang out and run into friends.

And the beach is Magens Bay.  This beach was once named one of the world's top ten beaches by National Geographic magazine.  From end to end, the beach is just about one kilometer (.6-something miles), and beautiful.  Sandy, tree-lined, with a long peninsula at each end.  This is called a pocket beach, because those two peninsulas (maybe a mile or so long) form the sides, and the beach is the bottom of the pocket.  The peninsulas help protect the beach, but in a hurricane they really don't help.  So the water brought the sand up and covered the road, plus brought broken coral and small rocks up from the bottom.  This once sandy and smooth beach now has some rough spots, with that rock and coral mix littered on the sand.  Trees blew into the bay, and there's also house debris in the water as well.

But it's still a gorgeous beach, and our Sunday ritual is to have a late breakfast at the snackbar, then play in the water or walk the beach.  Magens is one of the best spots on island to run into friends while relaxing - the quintessential island hang out.

So, we're enjoying our time on island.  We're helping where we can.  We're boosting the island's economy.  And, as always, we're finding our own fun.

After so many years living here, our hearts really have been with the people of the VI.  Watching the destruction and aftermath of the storms was emotional and depressing.  Seeing the rebuilding, as well as the cheerful faces of friends, former co-workers, and for me, former students, has been one of those events that renews our faith in the human spirit.

Yeah, this has been a worthwhile visit.  Maybe more for us than for the islands.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Wifi Issues in the Post Hurricane Life

16 May 2018

We're in St Thomas, USVI, this month.  We read an article in the New York Times about the ongoing recovery efforts, and there was a call for volunteers.  So we contacted the person at Tourism, and had some communication back and forth.  

But we don't fit the usual one-day or one-week tourists, we aren't ready to blaze trails in the national parks, and we don't really have the skills to hook up electrical or plumbing things.

So we never were connected to a place to volunteer.

However, we're sort of making our own volunteering - everything was impacted by the two major hurricanes, but while rebuilding everything, life continues and work continues.  So I've been helping a bit with committees at my former school, or my after school art program.  We have friends who need help repainting their rebuilt homes.  Things like that.

Mostly, I guess we're helping the island economy!

Our hotel has some rooms that are in good shape, such as the one we're in.  Other rooms are missing roofs or walls - such as the room next to us.  Definitely crazy to look in a window and see the wide open spaces beyond the floor!

And wifi is our major issue - no wifi at the hotel, so half our day seems to be spent finding/using wifi in various caf├ęs and restaurants.

Plus, of course, meeting up with friends and listening to their scary hurricane stories.

We ran into a retired geology professor we know.  He said that Hurricane Irma had as much energy force as ALL the hurricanes in a normal season.  THAT is how powerful that storm was, and why the damage across the Caribbean is so severe.

Sobering image.

I'll get some photos and post a normal blog when I can.

Just wanted to keep people updated.

Friday, April 27, 2018

My Almost Famous Batik Shop

27 April 2018

We'll be leaving Malaysia next week, before our visa expires.  Our first time here, we didn't really pay attention to exactly when 90 days would be after our arrival.  Nor did we realize that the 90 day visa begins with the day of arrival, Day 1.  So we accidentally overstayed by two days.  The people at the airport were quite nice about it, but it did make the two of us a bit anxious until the situation was resolved.  Now, we always try to leave a day or two before we think the visa expires.

This means we're finishing up our time in Malaysia, and trying to fit in everything we wanted to do but haven't done yet.  Richard had his final physio session, mostly due to the fact that his therapist is taking a short vacation.  And of course, I'm finishing up my batiks.

My friendly batik shop ladies asked if I would pose with them for a photo, along with some of my batiks.  Sure, not a problem.  In return, they posed for me so I'll have a photo of them, in the very colorful shop.

The shorter woman is the owner of the shop, Ainna.  Her husband, Nabil, is the guy who does most of the drawing and creating the artwork, and he's the person who drew my lion dancers and Lucky Cats.  (He wasn't around on photo day.)

BUT!  Yesterday they showed me that the shop was featured in The Star, one of the English language newspapers in the country!  Plus Ainna gave me their card so I could go to their Facebook page - where I copied the article from the paper!  I'll attach the article at the end.  Here's a link to their Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/pg/ainnaartworks/posts/?ref=page_internal

Anyway, more batiks - turtle, seahorse, and lots of flowers!  The orchids are great fun to paint, because the colors really do bleed together so nicely.  And I have so much fun spending a few hours down there.

We'll spend our next week doing exciting things like laundry, downsizing our stuff, repacking, and printing all the travel documents.  Plus I'll let people know our next destination.

And maybe post another blog or two. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lucky Cats (Maneki-Neko)

18 April 2018

I'm going to begin with what sounds like the start of some joke.  Except it really happened.

I went to Starbucks for lunch, on my way to the batik shop.  (This was prior to the incident in Philadelphia.  Our staff in Malaysia would never call the police on people waiting in the shop for another friend, regardless of ethnic origin.  Okay, off my soap box.)

I went to Starbucks for lunch.  Got my sandwich and coffee, and sat at a table with a young man.  He was listening to music videos on his computer, and I asked if I was hearing Frank Sinatra.  He looked a little sheepish as he said yes.  I replied that it was a familiar song.  We went back to minding our own business.

Then a Buddhist monk comes in, and asks if he can share our table.  Of course, we invited him to sit down.

So yes, a retired art teacher, a young man listening to Frank Sinatra, and a Buddhist monk all walk into a Starbucks.

But no, it doesn't have a punchline.  It just made for an amusing little vignette.

On to today's topic - the Lucky Cat, better known as Maneki-Neko.

All over eastern Asia, we've seen the Maneki-Neko, the Lucky Cat.  You've probably seen them too, wherever you live - those cute ceramic or plastic cats with one or two arms waving at you.  Some of us (me) wave back, since it only seems polite.  The cats are waving you, the customer, in to the shop or restaurant or salon.  Or the cats are waving money and good fortune in, as well.  It all depends on the arm used.

The name "maneki-neko" is Japanese and means "beckoning cat."  There are several legends or folk tales about the maneki-neko - that an impoverished man (shopkeeper, or inn keeper, or something) found a stray cat and took it in, giving it shelter and food.  To thank the man, the cat began to sit outside and wave its paw to entice people into the shop/inn/whatever the place was.  People came, the man became rich, and people started copying the beckoning cat to bring customers and fortune to their homes or place of business.  

The other popular tale is that a man was sheltering under a tree during a thunderstorm.  A cat under a different tree beckoned the man to come over under its tree.  The man did so, and then followed the cat into the nearby temple.  As they entered, the first tree was struck by lightning.  To thank the cat for saving his life, the man became a benefactor of the temple and brought it fame and fortune.  After his death, a statue of the cat was made in his honor.

At any rate, the beckoning cat statue became well known throughout Japan, and eventually China.  Despite the fact that Japan and China have had a rather bellicose relationship, who doesn't want good fortunate and prosperity?  So the beckoning cat, or lucky cat, was adopted into Chinese culture, and has followed Chinese merchants as they've migrated around the world.

We've seen various version of the lucky cat around eastern Asia, and in various sizes.  I really like the giant lucky cats we saw in Hong Kong - taller than me!!!  And always very round and chubby!!!  

Then there was the even taller Diamond-Eye Cat in Bangkok, covered in hand-made ceramic flowers.  Diamond-eye cats are a traditional Thai cat, usually white but with one blue and one green eye.  The statue cat had her right paw raised - the paw that beckons customers in to the shop or, in this case, a mall.  She was absolutely gorgeous.  (Yes, I take photos of notable lucky cats.)  (Note: The left hand is raised when the maneki-neko is beckoning in good fortune and prosperity.  And yes, some cats have BOTH paws raised, ushering in customers and prosperity at the same time.)

The items the cat is holding can be significant - often the cat is holding a yellow or golden oval with writing.  This is a "koban," a symbolic or stylized coin.  The kanji, or characters used in Japanese writing, reads "sen man ryo."  This means "1,000 times 10,000 ryo."  A ryo is the name of the gold coin used in Japan during the Edo period (1600 to mid 1800s Common Era).  One thousand times ten thousand would be ten million - a fortune in gold!!!  No wonder this is such a lucky cat!

A fish in the cat's hand doesn't mean food - that also denotes prosperity.  Multiple cats in one statue bring health and prosperity to the family.  A cat with a tiny cat in its mouth also means prosperity to the family - NOT a cat eating a baby cat, which is what I asked the shop owner.  (Just a little too cannibalistic for me!)

The traditional color for the maneki-neko was a white cat with orange and black spots.  Yes, a calico cat!  So 99.9% of the maneki-nekos were female!  Okay, I don't know if the original sculptors knew that about calicos, but I like to think they did.  Of course, traditions change, and so did the colors of the cats.  The original white denotes purity and happiness.  Some modern cats are gold (wealth and prosperity), some are red (protection from evil and illness), some are black (promoting safety, warding off evil and stalkers).   Even more recently, green cats supposedly enhance education and studies, while pink cats bring love, romance, and relationships.

Much of this information comes from the Maneki-Neko Lucky Cat blog.  Yes, an entire blog devoted to these adorable cat statues and the whole culture behind them.  More information here:  https://luckymanekineko.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/welcome-to-the-lucky-cat-maneki-neko-blog/

So, why am I writing about Japanese and Chinese lucky cats when we're hanging out in Kuala Lumpur?  Good question!

We see lucky cats all over Malaysia.  Malaysia is one of the melting pot countries in SE Asia.  There are the Malay people, the original inhabitants and they comprise just over 50% of the current population.  There are also the Chinese Malaysians, people of Chinese descent who have been in Malaysia for centuries, and who make up about 22% of the population.  About 12% of the population are other indigenous groups of people who are non-Malay - the Malaysian word for these people of various native groupings is Bumiputra, which means "son of the land."  And the last large group of Malaysians are Indian Malaysians, people whose ethnic origin goes back to the Indian subcontinent, people whose ancestors were brought here by the British.  (There are also nationals of other countries who now make Malaysia their home.)

Anyway, I wanted to make some batiks that reflected Malaysia.  And I love cats.  So I decided the lucky cat would be a great design to batik.

I drew a nice chubby maneki-neko, waving its right paw.  I gave it nice wide open eyes, and holding the koban.  And because it's currently spring in the northern hemisphere, I thought it would be nice to have some cherry blossoms behind my lucky cat.

I brought my drawings down to my buddy at the batik shop, and had a little consultation.  I showed him the cat drawing, and the cherry blossoms, and explained that I would like them concentrated in the background but sort of filtering out as they go across the fabric, like the flowers are falling off the tree.

Then I asked for two more, with sort of a diamond-shape frame background, but said I'd like him to make whatever design he thought would look good.  So the second two are more collaborative than the first design.

Of course, my buddy at the shop is absolutely a brilliant artist, with a wonderful sense of design.  He whipped out the first sketch, and asked me what I thought.  And of course it was PERFECT!  Then he did the other two cats for me, and they are absolutely wonderful!  LOVE them!

Yup, I now have my gifts for friends and family!

But wait, there's more!  I was painting some other designs, and one of the women in the shop asked if it would be okay if they took a photo of my cat design.  I said of course, not a problem.  Then I asked the owner, the young man, if he wanted to keep the design to make copies to sell.  He smiled shyly and said yes.  I said that was fine with me - and that it would make me feel famous to know my design was being sold here.  (I didn't tell him that I had wanted to do something nice for him, because he's really gone out of his way to be helpful and do a couple of special requests for me.  So I truly was happy to give him my design and let him make money selling this cat.  It seems to be in the spirit of the maneki-neko, right?)