Friday, April 08, 2011

There are worse things

This weekend my visa expires and I have been left with no choice but to go to Mauritius for five days to renew it. I have experienced this immigration delinquency before and I am once again reminded that there are worse things in life than a visa expiration trip.

The last time this happened I was in Nicaragua and I was “forced” to go to Costa Rica. Now, this really cheesed me because it the visa expiration happened to fall on the very weekend that all my friends were going up to Matagalpa for a friend’s concert. Those days, I would make the two-hour trip up to Matagalpa about every other week, so it is not like I was missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime event, but you know how it is when you feel like everyone is going to have a party without you. So I stomped around the office in a cranky mood trying to find a place to stay in Tamarindo… stupid beach town… mumble mumble… maldita immigracion... mumble jumble…

Yes, I was a spoiled cranky-pants until I arrived in Tamarindo, one of Costa Rica’s premier surf resorts and realised that there are worse things than an enforced, paid holiday to the beach: My roommie Shannon came along so I wouldn’t get lonely and we had a lovely adventure running away from the other backpackers, getting top notch spa pedicures and even met us some handsome fellas. As I recall, I had a jolly good time all around.

Here’s a bit of advice from Auntie Kiks for those kids who want to grow up and try to save the world: clam down and enjoy the ride. This week, faintly in the back of my peanut gallery mind, there was the kind voice saying “it’ll be ok, this will be good, you will get a visa and if you don’t, they will figure out plan B or C or Z…” Unfortunately, the rest of the peanut gallery was the usual, charming gong show, so poor little gaffer didn’t get much credit for being wise or calm or right. Instead, I stomped around my office trying to get answers and make people run after my anxious inquiries.

So often I hear that in order to make it working overseas, be it as a humanitarian worker, a missionary, in the diplomatic corps or just any old international business, there is one virtue above all others: flexibility. It’s true, but it is something deeper than that. You have to be able to roll with the punches on the surface, because deep down you trust. There is nothing naïve or weak about this trust. You make the best arrangements you can with the knowledge you have and then you let it go. It is also called "faith" and what makes it work is that it delights in people - lovely, flakey, people - but doesn't need to rely on them.

Of course, it's much easier said than done. Of course, it's much easier to be cynical. I hear other expats whine about how people take advantage of you or won’t do what they promise or this or that or the other…

But so what?

So they tell you they will do something and then don’t do it for four days. So what? I have the sneaking suspicion that, contrary to what popular culture tells me, my time is not as colossally important as I think it is. I think that's the difference. The beauty of faith is the wonderfully freeing idea that if it doesn't work out - shock and disbelief - the world won't come to an end, because it turns out that I'm not at the centre of it all.

Man I should take my own advice… At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I am in Madagascar or Canada though. Being at peace with the things I can’t control is not a challenge unique to a new culture. Some days we're better at it than others. I am happy to report that at the end of the day, I can trust that this is in the hands of someone greater.

It’s the other 23 hours of the day that are a problem …

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Going Places

I travel a lot for work and there are two key travel methods I’d like to discuss here, one I use all the time and the other I simply look upon with awe. The first is flying: you will be happy to note that I’ve been doing jolly well considering that, as I’ve said numerous times - I don’t like flying, but I want to go places. I don’t love the whole 30,000 ft in the air part, but airports on the other hand – big fan. I’ve been known to peer pressure friends into sky-training all the way from Waterfront to YVR just for an airport starbucks, which is different from regular starbucks. It has the extra sense of anticipation and importance and it comes with the rather exciting warning: “Caution, this beverage is hot and if left unattended, it will be subject to immediate seizure and disposal so your $6.32 worth of coffee-themed milk will be a double waste of time, money and recyclable product packaging.” After all, numerous peace and security studies have indicated that one of the tell-tale signs of a terrorist is their flagrant disregard for environmental sustainability.

I’ve been flying about four or six times a month for work these days, each time to Tamatave, Madagascar’s second city. We take a nice wee 15-seater, where I can sit behind the pilots and heckle them. For some reason, this takes the edge off the fact that I am flying through a lightening storm in rural Africa. No big deal.

Pre-bording at the Tana airport has very specific pleasures, even if it lacks alarmist coffee cups. At Ivato International, one can find second-hand editions of the Economist and the International Herald Tribune for about $2 (compared with $10 in town – highway robbery if you ask me), left behind by business passengers on the international flights. Also, I would like to clear any misconceptions about Malagasy air security. To illustrate just how seriously they take air safety, above the Air Madagascar check-in counter there is a sign that clearly states:

Please ensure that your hand baggage does not contain any of the following:
and then, in picture format, what look like:
- Bursting fireworks
- An open can of paint
- An oven, particularly with some sort of sloppy spill on it – perhaps paint.
- Rifles

You know, all I can think when I see this is that at some point someone attempted to bring an oven in their carry-on and the airline was unimpressed either with the girth or the unclean state of the appliance. It was not immediately apparent which from the picture.

Travel in Tamatave is another story altogether. I LOVE Tamatave because it’s hot and sticky and sandy and it looks like what would have happened if Cannes had suddenly been overtaken by a massive hurricane and then deserted for 60 years. I often take an early morning walk down to the beach and there’s nothing – nothing – like the smell and weight of the 6am air that hangs under mango trees that form a sand-swept street into tunnel to the open ocean.

One of the reasons Tamatave so enticing is the movement in the town. It is the diametric opposite of Tana’s tightly packed streets and winding labyrinths of people, buildings and congestion. Perhaps it’s just that Tamatave isn’t smushed into the crevices of 6 or 7 towering hills, so you feel as though you have space to roam and commuting in Tamatave is a different world from Tana. The difference is the second form of transport I mentioned. For all its simplicity, it towers over the sophisticated technology of any other mode of transportation. I would like to herewith attempt an adequate description of these venerable contraptions that you may never get to experience yourself: let us take a ride on le Pousse-Pousse.

To say it is a rickshaw or a pedi-cab takes away from the mystique. Technically, it would seem very similar to a common rickshaw. Oh but it’s so much more. There is something about the pousse-pousse that even the well-to-do driving lot can recognize. In Tamatave pousse-pousses are given the right of way. If you’ve ever been anywhere outside of the OECD, you will recognize that is no trifling honour. As shocking as this may seem, in other places of the world pedestrians and bicyclists don’t have the pampered existence they enjoy in places like Vancouver or Amsterdam. There are no designated bike lanes and pedestrian-controlled intersections. If you are one of these hapless bipeds getting around on pure human kinetic energy in the global south, you look both ways about ten times and then run for it. Cars don’t stop for you because you’re being environmentally conscientious.
Ha! They speed up.

But the pousse-pousses of Tamatave are different altogether. They are a respected herd, like the Riders of Rohan. If they come pounding down towards you, you keep your head down and let them pass.

The pousse-pousse itself is sort of a misnomer. Literally in French it is a “push-push” but it is really more of a “pull-pull.” Most have bicycles on the front, but there is also the simpler model - a wooden bar rectangle that the driver will hold up at chest level and push, with you and your lazy… backside … sitting behind. And it may not be just you in tow. I once saw a pousse-poussse that had a moto-scooter in the passenger seat. They feature brightly coloured awnings that cover the passenger, but the noble driver is out in the bleeding heat all day long. I have no doubt that these men, given permission to unhook the backseat, could easily lap Lance Armstrong. My favourite day was when I saw a pousse-pousse that had Usain Bolt written on the back. Apparently Usain has used his Olympic winnings to invest in an entire cooperative of them here, as there is a prolific number bearing his branding. Another cooperative is “sponsored” by Subaru. One pousse-pousse I have seen is the quintessential representative of all others: on the back is a union jack (best not to ask) and a very friendly “Hello my friend!!” painted across the middle, which I am sure was selected only because “Hello my friend!! Eat my dust!!” was too long to fit.

Make way, all yield to the mighty Pousse-Pousse.