Saturday, July 07, 2007

2 years on

Sometimes it takes your tube being blown up on the way to work one summer morning to put the hum drum repetitiveness of your life into perspective. I took that same journey every day for a year and a half after 7th July trying to prove that I wasn’t scared, fighting a non existent battle with the already dead bombers. I wasn’t going to change my life just because of them, I wasn’t going to let them win. Gradually it dawned that they would never win, they are dead along with their innocent victims who they murdered that day, but I am alive and lucky to be so.

A Christmas card came from friends in New Zealand, ‘Carpe Diem’ it signed off whilst planting a seed. Ten years of working and commuting across London in dark overcrowded tunnels did not, suddenly, seem like the best way of living my life. In January I resigned from my job of 4 years and by the end of February I was living in a timber hideaway perched amongst the tree tops on a luscious green hill with a porch overlooking the tropical Atlantic Ocean. I live on the wild side of this little island in the Caribbean. Nine square miles, 3,500 human inhabitants and hundreds and thousands of others which bear no resemblance to human beings whatsoever. There are bats and lizards, snakes and manacou, humming birds, fireflies, cicadas and frogs. Last week I found an albino locust blown over from sub Saharan Africa along with hazy dust from the desert. The trade winds blow in from the east keeping my house cool with fresh ocean air. As the summer descends dark storms pass through, short and sudden, with wind so strong that the rain feels like hail stones against your skin. The animals awake and the parched vegetation smiles with shiny greenness sucking up the moisture as the heavy clouds pass. There is no water resident on this tropical island, only that which falls from the sky. We collect it on our roofs and store it in large echoing tanks underneath our houses. Rain is a blessing here, not the cold curse it is at home.

I transport myself down from this hill in my red mini moke, canvas shading the sun from above and sides open to the breeze and cooling rain, down through the valley filled with a dancing coconut plantation. Pencil thin trunks with an ecstatic growth of palm leaves at their head, bulbous coconuts waiting to fall on the grazing goats below. I wind back up another hill, past the hairpin bend that is ‘jumbie’ corner. The old folks believe that the spirits of the dead live here and the youngsters delight in frightening them with their tales. At the crest of this hill the vast natural harbour, which has made this place a haven for boat men for centuries, comes into view. A small town has spread its way along the valley and the main street runs along the water front. The harbour is lined with sandy white beaches and is filled with boats, some resident and many passing through. The population here changes every day, new faces being blown in by the wind and old ones sailing out to pastures new. This is a place where people live off the sea. One of the few places in the world where whaling is still allowed, so steeped is it in their culture. The two traditional whaling boats, complete with sails and spears are permitted to catch two whales each a year. So far this year only one has been caught. It was taken to the whaling station (built by the Japanese) out on a little island off the windward shore. Hundreds of people descended at dawn, braving the rocky island in high seas to buy their whale meat and blubber. It was the talk of the town, spirits ran high and there was a carnival atmosphere in the air. In the days before refrigeration the blubber was boiled into oil with the meat cooking inside. This oil preserved the meat for up to a year, stored in a bucket in the shade under their houses. To this day the people of the small whaling village are known for the beauty of their singing voices, said to be lubricated by years of drinking oil from the whales.

It is a small but eclectic community who choose to call this place their home. Locals and expats living uneasily but peacefully together. There is so little crime that the theft of a flashlight is thought worthy of a report to the police. Little is done, and people accused of more severe crimes can buy their way out of a prison sentence. The main pastime here, as far as I can see, is sitting around and talking. The almond tree at the harbour’s edge is the unofficial town hall under which there is always a gathering debating the issues of the day. Sometimes political, but more often than not just plain old gossip. Talking about other people is a national sport here and one in which I happily participate!

Last week I returned from a journey through the elements which cleansed my mind deeper than ever before. I sailed, from this very harbour to another old whaling island in North America. 2,000 miles in a 50 ft schooner through an ocean that was sometimes 4 miles deep and I found myself in Martha’s Vineyard. Six days at sea before we found Bermuda and a further five from there before we reached our destination. We left Antigua to the sight of a humpback whale and awoke the following morning to dolphins over breakfast. After that we had 5 days of very very little. A bird spent an hour trying to land on our mast which was the only life we saw for days. Suddenly the little things become major events at sea. We saw a moon bow (a monochrome rainbow lit by a full moon at night) the green flash as the sun rose, shooting stars and satellites and a never ending expanse of ocean, sky & horizons. The clouds became our scenery and the weather our lifeline. We were lucky to only get badly knocked about for our last night at sea. Others had worse and one boat, along with their crew of four, is still missing. We raced through the Gulf Stream watching the water temperature rise and the seas grow as we approached. Eight hours of rolling ocean and waves breaking over our cockpit and suddenly, at midnight, the water temperature dropped by 20 degrees, the air cooled and the seas around us flattened. We were though the stream in one piece, ejected out of the other end and into the cold New England morning.

I have always nurtured the spirit of the ocean inside me. My father built me a boat when I was 8 and sailing has been my freedom and my passion ever since. It seemed like a natural place for me to come and heal my wounds this haven of sun and sea. For long enough I had tried to keep living my ‘normal life’, battled the tube every day through the height of my PTSD and fought off daily panic attacks. The day I quit my job I also decided to quit the anti depressants which my psychiatrist had prescribed over a year before. Two weeks of cold turkey followed, or SSRI withdrawal syndrome as it is officially known. This felt like the final blow, I had been through enough, struggled on and conquered so much of my illness and just as I was ready to spread my wings and fly I was grounded by yet another trauma. When I landed on this tiny island, the only passenger in a terrifyingly rickety old plane, I felt as if every last strain of energy had been drained from me and I would never be able to move again.

But the Caribbean and the ocean have worked their magic. I am tanned and lean and fit from daily swimming and walking. I eat fresh fish and rice, fried chicken and plantain, nothing processed, no packaging or advertising, just the fruit of the land and the sea. I feel healthy and alive, in tune with the weather and the stars. I can sense the tiny uplift in air movement which precedes an almighty rain storm, I can tell the time by looking at the sun and the date by looking at the moon. I am not afraid any more of the squawking and rustling I hear at night or the bats that swoop from the eves to welcome me home. I have grown used to the enveloping darkness that is night on my hillside. This girl from London has found her feet in a world very far from home. My hairdryer and straightening irons have lain redundant since the day I arrived. I shower in cold water and wash my clothes by hand. My make up bag lies unopened and the only mirror in the house is no larger than my hand. There are no shops to buy ridiculously expensive clothes and indulge myself in that old therapy of retail. The record shop is a hut where I sing the songs that I like to the girl and by the following day she has burnt them onto a cd and charges me the equivalent four pounds for the service. I don’t read papers or follow the international news. That is a conscious decision to break the never ending trawling through the internet for stories of terrorism and government incompetence. Gone is the anger I felt towards our leaders for fuelling the terrorists rage by illegally invading Iraq, gone is the girl who could only talk politics at dinner parties, and ranting raving politics at that. Gone is the obsession, the hurt, the outrage and the fear.

The ultimate test, though, of the extent of this healing was found on my journey back. A bus ride from Martha’s Vineyard took me to New York from where I flew, three days later, back to the Caribbean. Arriving at the Port Authority Bus Station I felt like Crocodile Dundee in the Big Apple. Shocked and fazed, scruffy and dazed I met my old friend and we headed for her apartment. Without a second thought she lead me to the subway. Down into the dirty dark tunnel. A different subway, a different kind of under ground, but still the same cold fear. I could feel that old familiar tightening of the chest, quickening of the heart and cold sweat dripping down my neck. I breathed deeply and tried to use some of my old calming techniques. ‘What are the chances of this happening again?’ ‘And if it does what are the chances of me being on that tube again?’ But it didn’t work, this was a different city, a different subway, and one which had not been attacked before. The chances were higher, so my panicking mind told me, ‘it’s rush hour in New York and I am on the subway, the chances of being bombed are pretty bloody high.’ Eventually we emerged into daylight, out into Queens and above the ground and I began to feel my rigid body relaxing. We walked a couple of blocks to her apartment and I found myself entering a wobbly old lift with barely enough space for the two of us. Another phobia borne from my PTSD, small spaces with too many people, and lifts are one of the worst. We bounced our way up to the 6th floor and I hurried into the safety of her apartment. Safe until I heard the sirens and the car horns blaring outside. Sirens that always took me back to that day, and it seems they still do.

I wandered the city for a couple of days, caught up with friends and tried to shop, but that old instinct just wasn’t there. I walked into my favourite stores, 2 dollars to the pound I told myself, but just turned around and walked right out. I felt cramped and confused, I couldn’t see the sky, where was all that space that I had left behind? An instinctive urge took me back on the subway and down to the site that is Ground Zero. I have been there before, but this was the first visit since 7th July and it hit me like a thunderbolt. This vast empty hole in the middle of the city, gaping and raw, the site of such destruction and death, this is where it had all began. The empathy I felt for the thousands of people involved on that day was so powerful that it reduced me to tears. I thought of those that were there, those that died and those that are still living with the trauma of having been there and survived and the families that are still grieving for their losses. The colossal amount of pain radiating out of this site made me weep for lives that were destroyed that day and the spiral of death and violence which it triggered.

Three days was enough, and now I am back in my house on the hill, marvelling about the journey I have travelled and wondering how the second anniversary will hit me so far away from home. There are very few people here who I have told my story to, another conscious decision to try & distance myself from having to tell the tale. I am torn between doing something special such as having a day alone on the top of a mountain or just carrying on as normal and keeping it in my head. I will miss my friends and fellow passengers with whom I spent a beautiful but emotional day a year ago, we let off white helium balloons into the sky in honour of the people who didn’t make it off that tube. I cried with them for the first time, in public, since the bombs went off. They have helped me through so much of this journey but this year I will have to do it without them. I have a feeling that I will be all right though, a feeling that this is the right place to be, for now. It is Carnival this week end, after all, and there is so much of life still to celebrate.

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