Monthly Archives: May 2010

The H Word

1 June 2010

The 2010 hurricane season is predicted to be more active than the average for the 1950-2000 seasons. The December 2009 report estimates approximately 11-16 named storms, 6-8 hurricanes and 3-5 major hurricanes occurring during the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, which is more typical of years in an active era, such as the 1995 season.

–          Colorado State University

Today marks the beginning of Hurricane Season in this part of the world.  As if on cue, just a couple of days ago a fierce wind and rain storm swept across the island, whipping the Caribbean Sea into a frenzy and turning a dozen breakfast patrons in my hotel into a huddling mass, just watching the water.

Since I arrived here, the H word has been bandied about with disturbing regularity, and I’ve learned a little about what to expect.

First, the good news: St Kitts hasn’t had a bad hurricane for around 7 years, and David tells me that maybe they get a bad one every 10 years, so I suppose that’s good and bad.  Odd are, though, this might be The Year.

A few years ago, Grenada got flattened, and one of the guys I am working with on this project had to lead the recovery effort there.  He had to make his way back on emergency flights from New York, where he and his wife were visiting, and work his way through housing, food, water and other needs for the islanders in the wake of Hurricane Ivan.

Mostly, people have educated me about the good signs – cool water and rain among them – which mean that a hurricane isn’t likely since they are attracted to the heat.  I think of this every time it rains, which is fairly often, although only for short bursts before things clear up and it warms up again.

Reportedly, there will be around 2 days warning before a hurricane is due and, being a small island, chances are that it will pass us by.  However, when a warning comes, people get busy buying up tinned food and cooking up everything from their freezer since the electricity will go off (often for days or well over a week), as well as putting up shutters in front of glass to ensure nothing flies into it.  The numerous beach shacks on my little beach simply get smashed, which is why they are such simple structures as they need to be re-built each time.

On one hand, it goes without saying that I’d like to avoid a hurricane.  On the other, my curiosity gets the better of me and I’m (somewhat disturbingly) interested to experience one face to face (well, assuming there’s not too much damage and I have plenty of food, books and stuff to amuse me, of course…).

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Masterchef

I thought it was time to take a break from normal programming and pretend I’m back in Oz for a second. Being one of Masterchef’s most obsessed fans last year, you can imagine my disappointment when I realised that I couldn’t access episodes on the website because I’m not in Australia. Boooo! Friends kept emailing me telling me about it, and I did my best to ignore what was happening because I figured I will watch the whole series back to back when I finally get home.

So, when I found out that iTunes had Masterchef Season 2 for sale for just $20, it was an easy decision to fork out the bucks and buy it. Now, 5 days a week, my iTunes automatically downloads the latest episode for me within a few hours of its airing (often ex-cru-ci-at-ing-ly slowly) and I’m now only ever half a day or so behind Sydney. For this reason, I haven’t signed up to Masterchef on Twitter, because if I do I will get all the commentary on who did or didn’t make it through the challenges before I get to watch the episode (I accidentally found out Philip had been knocked out and could hardly contain my disappointment).

Unfortunately, I don’t get to see the Masterclasses, which is maybe a good thing since I can’t cook most things here (the ingredients often aren’t available, plus I have no oven) and will buy it on DVD anyway the minute it’s available and cook up a storm once I can manage to get unemployed again (errrr…sorry, I mean…when I can…resume my career break).

Not that anyone will care, but here are my Masterchef thoughts this season:

• I adore the new format, and mixing things up a little.

I’m a little confused though about immunity – does it mean that you can get out of an immunity challenge, or is it more like Survivor where you can flop it on the table just after you’ve been told it’s time to go? Maybe it’s just the lawyer in me, but I think it just means the former so it’s not really as valuable as the contestants are thinking.

• I am amazed at the talent of the contestants, and laugh at how some friends were telling me I should enter…ummm, they are way, WAY out of my league I’m afraid.

• I fell in love with that red hot spunk Philip as soon as he bravely tried to cook 2 dishes, and of course then I noticed how darn cute he is. Devastated that he’s gone, but I see media reports that he is swinging single and enjoying his new-found fame. If only I were 20 years younger (OMG – HOW much younger?!!)

• How impressive are Matthew and Callum, the 2 young dudes left on the show? Two sweetie pies who can really cook! So great to see young things with such passion (I really am starting to feel like someone’s aunt here).

• I seriously cannot stand that whiney, poutie, annoying woman, Joanne, and it’s obvious everyone on the show feels the same. Imagine telling Tetsuya and Guillame Brahimi that “I had nothing to do with the crème brulee” – where is the TEAMWORK?  Her kids must be sooo embarrassed by her. Can’t wait to see how the contestants react when she is finally given the boot: they will have to work hard to suppress their tears of joy. Get a life, Joanne, and get offfffff!

• Very impressed with the two girls, Marion (who, let’s face it, really oughtta win this comp – no wonder everyone picks her first for all the team challenges) and Claire – both for their cooking skills and because they seem like 110% all-round great chicks. From the background info, it seems that Claire works for Clutz in Brisbane, making her the second person in two Masterchef seasons to come from there (Tom was the first). Maybe Griffo* can tell me: What is going on at CU’s Vegas office? I do love her ultra-calm demeanour. I could SO do with a little of that every now and then.

* What on earth is it about MEN AND HATS?  Last year, we all hated Chris (I took pride in hating him early on).  This year, the contestants seem to hate Aaron the band manager, who is clearly a good cook and doesn’t come across badly, so what’s going on behind the scenes?

• I reckon that Jake the builder is a little darling: don’t you just LOVE his sincerity? So refreshing, and yay Claire for taking him on the helicopter ride.

• WHEN IS TETSUYA GOING TO COME ON THE SHOW SO WE CAN SEE THE MASTER MAKE HIS CONFIT OF OCEAN TROUT? HMMM, CHANNEL TEN? **

• Speaking of which, I am still living under the burden of my massive food-crush on Neil Perry, so PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE show us how to make your stir-fried quail.

*Not that Griffo reads this blog: she claims that it makes her too depressed, so I punish her by calling from the beach with the sound of waves in the background.

**I see on Notquitenigella (my favourite foodie blog) that Tets has opened a new restaurant in Singapore, which my heart is breaking about because I cannot rush there immediately. When I get home, and I’ve eaten my way through the Spice Temple menu (twice) and finally met Neil Perry, I might just have to hop on another plane: http://www.notquitenigella.com/2010/05/24/tetsuyas-waku-ghin/#more-26753

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Work

My home for the next few months

Each week day, at 8.15am, I am collected to travel to my new job. I am based in the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, which (among other things like supervising banks) looks after the currency and monetary policy for the Eastern Caribbean Monetary Union, a group of 8 small countries, whose population is around 600,000, and who share a common currency – the EC dollar.

The Bank is a whopping 2.5km from where I am staying, and it takes a leisurely 5-7 minutes to reach the front of my office building.  The typical workday here starts at 8am but, lucky me: since my driver starts work at 8am, I don’t get picked up until later.  Nonetheless, I feel like I skulk in each day since everyone is busy working by the time I arrive.

The view from my office (that's the canteen on the left, and the Eastern Caribbean Stock Exchange directly across the way). The green and red flag with the stars on the left belongs to St Kitts.

As we roll past the security office at the gates, I have to smile and show my pass, allowing the mysterious figures behind the dark glass to check me out and wave me through.

The Bank. My office is on the middle floor, on the right

Even though it’s hot here, there is a relatively strict dress code, and one is not meant to go sleeveless.  This, and a number of other “rules” mean that the culture is, despite its clear Caribbean-ness (relaxed, fun-loving) is still oddly English in many of its sensibilities.  One rule in the Bank’s dress code reads “ties should be seen and not heard”, and I wonder if the author laughed out loud as he or she was writing it.

My first three weeks have not been as busy as I am used to, so I have taken my time in getting stuff done so as not to run out of work to keep me busy.  However, things are catching up on me and the next 2 weeks are going to be frantic, which is more like it (although I wonder how much of this I have caused by taking my time getting into the swing of things – manufacturing my own busy-ness?).

Some time between 12-2pm each day, I head to the canteen for lunch, for which I pay $25 Eastern Caribbean dollars (a little under USD10), although staff have their meals subsidised and only pay $10 EC dollars!  We get soup, a main and salad.  I hate to say it but desserts are not big here in the Caibbean, a subject I will address later as I am still recovering from the emotion of it.  Although I was at first thrilled by the idea of a nearby canteen, all the food is starting to taste the same and access to alternatives is difficult without a car.  Not to mention the fact that green bananas (think flavourless, firm, cooked bananas) feature heavily on the vegetable menu (no, not a typo); I have started to ask the server to leave these out.  The other day, bananas or plantains were in 3 different dishes on my plate!

My office (I think the version of Microsoft Office I'm using is about 200 years old)

At the end of my work day, my driver collects me at 4.30pm, meaning I am home by 4.40pm, which is deeply unheard of in my past lives and allows me to wash clothes, go swimming or take a snooze in the afternoon.  I think I like working here, and am even getting quite used to the hea.  It might – just MIGHT – break the back of my aversion to hot weather, although it does help that it’s not particularly humid, and that trade winds blow through with great regularity to cool things off.

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Middle of nowhere

“I looked at my atlas to see where you are.  [Silence]…St Kitts is in the middle of nowhere”

– Rita, mother and faithful dog-sitter

Indeed she is correct. 

St Kitts is in the group of islands on the right of the above map (double-click on it to enlarge), sweeping in a gentle arc on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It is almost the northern-most island in the “Eastern Caribbean” group of 8 nations just east of Puerto Rico, and north of  Trinidad and Venezuela.  Other nations are Grenada, Antigua & Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St Lucia, Dominica, and St Vincent & the Grenadines; my newest clients. 

While I don’t really feel like I’m in a remote place, pondering a map certainly emphasises how far away I really am here.  In fact, to get back to Australia, I have calculated that you need to spend around 23 hours in the air, let alone the connection times.  Nonetheless, there are direct flights to and from places like Miami, New York and London, so it really isn’t too difficult to return to civilisation if you need to.

I know I’ve been slack with reports – my adventures include starting at my new job, shopping, and of course eating.  I’ll try and get a few more posts done this weekend!

(Map credit: http://geology.com/world/caribbean-map.gif)

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Too lucky for words

The view from my local beach

If you’re wondering whether I’ve figured out how lucky I am working on a stunning tropical island for a few months, then rest assured that indeed I have.  In fact, I was thinking this very thing just the other day as I floated peacefully in the clear waters of the Caribbean, gazing at the beach around me.  I am, indeed, very spoiled, and truly do believe in kharma.

In a fitting start, after Miami, I arrived here late on Saturday afternoon, straight into a long weekend.  On Sunday morning, I hit the breakfast buffet (which was purely experimental – I didn’t think it worth trying again after this) and got directions to the beach on the south (Caribbean side) of the island – an easy 20 minute stroll (albeit in the heat).

One of the local shacks, offering food and cocktails

This was South Frigate Bay, which is lined with coconut trees casting shade over shacks with names like Mr X’s Shiggidy Shack and Cathy’s Ocean View offering food and drink, and even weekend entertainment such as music, dancing and – wait for it – Karaoke (look out St Kitts, your newest star is on the way!).  My first night, I ate delicious ribs at Cathy’s next to a group of college kids who’d just arrived from the US to attend university, which explained why an enormous amount of young things in their 20’s were busy unloading even more luggage than me from the incredibly slow baggage carousel at the airport.  And, on Sunday, I discovered a better breakfast place before heading off to the same beach again.

Under the shade of a coconut tree

My worthy objective is to make my way through each of the menus on the beach and home in on the best of the best so I can take you straight there when you come to visit (by virtue of the fact you are reading this blog you are, of course, invited).  Over the next few nights, I’ll sample the lobster, fish, prawns (labelled shrimp, of course) and the burgers, purely in the name of research you understand.

Ahhhh

The locals are very friendly and I’ve met a few people already.  One lady called SweetPea went off in search of accommodation brochures for me once I told her I was going to look for an apartment.  Another guy, a nearby bartender with long thick dreadlocks and a face that looks 50, offered to show me the island and told me not to go off with somone else and forget him.  A third was a guy who offered up aloe and a massage, and claimed to be mentioned on Trip Advisor.

And, of course, there has already been the official offer of a “boyfriend” from a visiting Jamaican construction worker who lives in Canada, something which I continue to consider.  And in between these adventures, I swim, get sunburnt, and contemplate my blessings.

This morning, I am off to the office to meet the people I’ll work with day to day – I am hanging out to see  if the place is air conditioned and, if it’s not, might just need to lobby to move my base of operations to the hotel.  This week’s tasks (amongst other objectives of actual importance) will include getting a local SIM card, and a connection to the internet that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg like the Marriott charges (I’ve located two free wi fi places so far – both my local breakfast place which also has decent coffee and the Shiggidy Shack). 

I wish this warning had been displayed in my life before...

My objective is also to move out of the Marriott (although it does have the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in for a long time…) and find a house or apartment near the Caribbean side of the island where I can do things like properly unpack my clothes and cook.  My little dream is to wake up every morning with a view of the water, head out for a walk and a swim and then off to work after breakfast.  After work, the dream involves a swim followed by some fish on the beach or a home-cooked meal overlooking the Caribbean – and maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a place set for you.

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Where the ##@$ is St Kitts?

My first glimpse of St Kitts

OK, it’s time for me to confess that I hadn’t heard of St Kitts until I started discussing this contract, as it was one of the 3 places I would likely live (along with Antigua and Grenada, which I had heard of).  So, since this place is my home for the next 3 months (or maybe more) I should give you a little run down, especially since I’d love you to visit me.

St Kitts is in the Eastern Caribbean, near to Antigua, west of Barbados, north of Trinidad, and east of Jamaica.  You can actually fly here direct from Miami (3 hours – once each day), London and New York so it’s not altogether in the middle of nowhere (although I think I saw a sign to nowhere somewhere near here.  Its population is around 32,000 and it’s home to the Central Bank of the Eastern Caribbean – needed because 8 of the EC countries share the EC dollar, which is pegged to the USD at a rate of around $2.70 to every USD – although you can use USD here in most transactions.  I will be based in the Central Bank, which is why I’ve ended up here. 

The island is, like Australia, a former colony, and in fact was the first British and French colony in the Carribbean.  It was originally settled by American Indians around 5,000 years ago and, from what I can make out, they have received about as much love from England as our own Aboriginal population.  The law is common law, mainly based on English law, with appeals still to the Privy Council (although a new court of ultimate appeal has been established, it hasn’t yet come into operation).

However, rather than being a destination for England’s criminals, was a source for slaves so it is very much tinged by that past.  It is part of what is known as the “West Indies” and, when they discover I’m from Australia, many people are asking me if I’m here for some cricket.  It looks like there are a couple of one day internationals here between Australia and the West Indies in July, so of course I’ll head along to one or both of those.

Getting up close and personal to St Kitts

St Kitts (whose proper name is really “St Christopher”) has a smaller sister island, Nevis, so you will often see them described as “St Kitts and Nevis” and they are governed together.  They gained independence from Mother England in 1983, and drive on the left.  Tourism drives the economy, even though its better known neighbours like Jamaica and the Bahamas seem to get more press.

The island itself is extremely beautiful, with some large mountains on the northern part, and is shaped like the entire south-western section has been “stretched” – I like to think of it like a big chicken drumstick pointing south-west toward Nevis, a blob of gravy.  I am staying in Frigate Bay, where most hotels are based, and the island is narrow enough at this point that you can walk from the northern/Atlantic side to the southern/Caribbean side (which has less waves and seems to me to be prettier).

I think I want to live on the Caribbean side.

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3 days in Miami

Bizarre pretend "beach" in Miami

Greetings from Southern Florida!

I arrived here on Wednesday afternoon, where a group of us descended from various places in the Caribbean and elsewhere to attend a couple of days worth of meetings on this matter I’m working on.

Miami is pretty much what you’d expect, with little of the charm of Chicago or Boston and none of the glamour that I think New York oozes.  Essentially, from what I’ve seen so far, there are large swamps (flying over the Everglades gives you a better sense of how large they are), billions of palm trees, lots of water and heat, heat, heat.  I was lucky enough to be staying in the Intercontinental on Biscayne, the snazzier area of Miami, and arriving back into the lap of 5 star luxury was most welcome (esp the comfy doona they place on the mattress to give it a more “cloud-like” effect).

I was meant to meet two of the team I’m working with for dinner, but one of them, Karen (yes, it will be confusing esp as she’s also a lawyer) got stuck coming in from Antigua when the Homeland Security IT system went down for a few hours right around the US and people were herded into rooms to wait out the solution of the problem.  Naturally, the communications strategy involved complete silence so after a couple of hours Karen was busy hatching plans for a unlawful imprisonment suit, especially since she’s a US citizen.

So I finally met Karen (who I’d been speaking with already) and Timothy (who runs the Finance Ministry in Grenada) at breakfast, and then Caroline, on loan from the World Bank, flew in from Washington DC and joined us for our morning of brain storming.  I think I’ve got very lucky here, as these guys are incredibly smart, very nice and I fitted in straight away.  Karen and I both seem to suffer from the same problem of talking too much, so at least no-one will think I’m strange.  Karen in particular is a darling, and we are new BFF’s – what a shame she’s on Antigua and I’ll be on St Kitts (admittedly only a 20 min flight away). 

The meetings went fine, and I did my usual thing of saying mainly hopeless stuff with a couple of gems chucked in so hopefully they don’t think they’ve made a terrible mistake.  Well, at least not yet.

Karen and I compared notes of the whole story of getting me here, and it seems that, yes, I was the only person they looked at and they were very grateful I was actually available.  She also confirmed my suspicions that this might last longer than 3 months, as they are already seeking funding for an extension (not sure how to break this to mum at this point) but we started brainstorming options of my doing at least some of the last bits from Sydney and coming back here for the party…I guess time will tell.

We did a wander around some of the waterfront in Miami, and I didn’t find it all that interesting – a lot of cliches including bands playing The Girl from Ipanema and La Bamba, just in case you don’t know you’re on a piece of land that resembles an appendix just above Central America.  There was a particularly odd man-made strip, covered in sand, with lounge chairs spread out on it – and people actually sitting on them, gazing at the water (see picture at the top)…I hate to say it but I found Miami SO uninteresting that the only 2 shots I took were of this strange little “beach” so sorry my journalism isn’t of the quality you deserve.

We dined at the friendly and cheesy Bubba-Gump Seafood, based on the movie Forrest Gump.  The waiters ask you trivia questions about the film, and they have rather nifty signs saying “Run, Forrest, Run” and “Stop, Forrest, Stop” depending on whether you want to grab a waiter’s attention or not – and they were rather effective.  The food was also pretty good, which was handy since I’d passed up going to a Cuban restaurant owned by Gloria Estefan.

At the airport on Saturday morning, I discovered the joy of “side walk” check-ins, where men take your bags and go and get your boarding pass for you, without you having to wait in line – I think they are called “Sky Caps” and of course a tip was needed, but I only guessed at how much was de rigeur so I probably grossly under-paid them.

I was happy to leave Miami, albeit nearly 2 hours late, after they needed to check some equipment.  The flight over the Caribbean was absolutely beautiful, and I’ve used most of my photo space here enticing you with some snaps from the plane.

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