17 June 2016

Paradise and the Snake

Life as an expat is a fantastic opportunity.  It has allowed me, and subsequently Mr EE and the children, to experience so much, to see things we would otherwise not have done. 

Years ago (far too many years ago when I think about it) I lived for a few years in the city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey.  It was not an easy posting as the tensions between the Turkish state and the PKK (and other groups) would regularly explode into terrorist violence.  Car bombings and Molotov cocktails were a regular occurrence and while, thank goodness, we were never caught in a directblast, we were too close on a number of occasions.  Although peaceful for a while the situation in Diyarbakir has started to deteriorate once again, so much so that the family of a friend of mine, who have lived there for many many years, are now debating whether or not to move to another city. 

The fact that the city has been in the news so much in recent weeks has brought my time there back into sharp relief.  It was a truly beautiful city situated along the banks of the Tigris river.  An old stop on one of the silk roads it long black basalt walls are still intact, ancient caravanserais continue to serve refreshments, carpet shops line the street and, perhaps my favourite of all, spice stalls, redolent with exotic fragrance, tempt you in.  Sadly the security situation deteriorated so badly during our time there that I only ever went into the beautiful and beguiling old town on about 3 or 4 occasions confining the rest of the trips into town to the more modern business district.

Garden on a bend of the Tigris.  The city of Diyarbakir is to the left.
This site is reputed to be one of the possible locations of
The Garden Of Eden
Back in 1993 (gulp) underneath the walls and inside a loop made by a bend in the river,  was a garden/plantation that looked rather unkempt and unloved.  I am not sure what it looks like now (I should ask my friend).  We were told, proudly, that legend says that it was the site of the Garden of Eden.  Nothing could have looked less like the mythical paradise and I think I would have been rather pleased to have been evicted from a life there.

While the thought of eternity in that location was none too tempting I have been lucky enough to see some real life paradises, places where I would be happy to reside in perpetual bliss.  Indeed while the first is the type of place I would love (were heath care and safety to be practical which it sadly is not) to retire, the second is the place where I imagine I will wake up after the long dark tunnel, strolling along the warm sands as family, friends and pets that have gone before walk out of the sunlit horizon to welcome me.  The final one is a place I will do all I can to return to as often as possible before that final moment.

A real life paradise garden - Umutu in Nigeria circa 1988
So where are these wonderful places?  The first is a place called Umutu a few hours drive away from our home in Warri, Nigeria.  The company owned two houses set in a few acres of garden and they could be booked for a weekend.  It was not luxurious by western standards, two bungalows set far apart, each with a few bedrooms and basic bathroom and cooking facilities.  The furniture was spartan and not all rooms had AC but it was heartachingly beautiful.  We went a few times, sometimes just the family and sometimes with some friends thrown in the mix.  It was an idyllic retreat, a perfect place to enjoy a swim in the river, read quietly or run in the gardens and get away from the never ending goldfish bowl experience of living in the company camp.    As I mentioned earlier if it was not for the parlous state of medical and other care in that region it would be the perfect place to retire.  We did have the occasional run in with the less welcoming wildlife, the odd snake (swimming in the river was out of bounds one visit because a large snake had been seen swimming near the jetty and not yet cleared out) and scorpions, memorably, on one visit, in the loos. 

The perfect place to relax after weeks and weeks of goldfish bowl living
There is always a snake, always something that poisons the experience of paradise.  There was a small village just the other side of the river from the gardens.  Like everywhere we went at the time children would swarm around to see the oyibo (white) visitors, often running their fingers through my long hair (my mother and sister kept theirs much shorter) so different from their own.  As always in the Nigeria of the 80s there was an element of guilt, the simplest life we lived would always be so very luxurious, compared to the day to day life of the villagers.  Many of them were horrendously poor, a situation that is criminal given the wealth of the country itself.  It was a small comfort that the place we visited gave employment opportunities.  Our paradise was their grinding normality, our idyllic retreat in the midst of their land a luxury they could never hope to attain.

A new year's swim in the river with my sister and her school friend
My other paradise is one I have written about before, a beach in Borneo not far from our home in Miri.  Pantai Bungai is slated for development and indeed there was work underway on more facilities when we were visiting in 2014/15.  This will bring a benefit to the local communities who can capitalise on their spectacular location.  Already there are people offering adventure tours in the local area, guest houses, restaurants etc.  While I would never begrudge the benefits the influx of people will bring to those in the hospitality industry I do hope that this jewel of a location is not ruined by the increase in visitor numbers.

Long, golden sandy beaches in Borneo
At the moment at least the location is a many kilometres long, unspoiled beach on the South China Sea.  Small fishing villages dot the shore and you often see people from the larger towns nearby come to fish or simply enjoy the water.  Our two dogs used to love running along the shore, dipping in and out of the water to cool their paws.  Luckily they have good recall, many Malaysians are Muslim and therefore unable to touch dogs so we would always make sure to call the dogs back to us whenever other people came close, not that that happened often. 

The perfect place for a walk
So what was the snake, the downside to this spectacular location, possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my entire life?  Just kilometres away from this beautiful place the land was devastated, all natural vegetation ripped away to clear land for palm oil plantations.  I am not anti progress or indeed anti human industry or activity for the sake of it.  Indeed I think that industry is capable of bringing great improvement to people’s lives.  This, however, was something else.  To see the land destroyed to this extent, with no regard for long term sustainability was and is a travesty, one that brings benefit only to a select few for a very short term.

Some of the most beautiful scenery in the world

Sadly devastation is only a short drive away
The final location is much less exotic but no less beautiful for that.  About 9 years ago Mr EE and I took a baby Master EE on a 5 week long drive through Europe.  It was a chance to decompress and relax after what had been the most upsetting and hardest few months of our lives to date and we enjoyed every moment.  Following  a day in Lipica (Slovenia) we had been meaning to drive to Lake Bled and find a guest house to overnight there but fate intervened and a wrong turn put us on a back road to the nearby Lake Bohinj instead.  We overnighted in a friendly guesthouse where the owner plied us with schnitzel and wine and took Master EE of our hands for cuddles.  We made our way down to the lake the following day.

Lake Bohinj, my European idyll
We fell in love pretty much at first sight.  The clear water and alpine scenery spoke to our hearts.  We were limited for time, having obligations further north a few days later and so had to get back on the road but we swore that we would be back.  A few years later, this time with Miss EE in tow as well, we spent 10 days exploring the area.  We had meant to go back in 2012 but holdups in visa processing at the Kazakh embassy in London meant that our passports were tied up and we could not go.  We will almost certainly go back again, perhaps for a winter holiday this time.

Paddling with Master EE

And enjoying the view from above.
I have a dream of buying a retirement home there when Mr EE and I have had enough of the itinerant life but we are old and wise enough to know that the impression you get of a place on holiday is very different from daily life.  There is always a snake, we would not want to move without knowing what it is.  Perhaps we will spend some extended holidays there getting to know the region even better and see if that dream has any chance of becoming a reality or if it is completely inadvisable. 

Have you found your paradise yet?  Where is it and what does it mean to you?

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  1. Amazing. Looks amazing. But yes, there is always a snake! I have not found my paradise yet. Maybe the closest was Moalboal but I didn't live there, was only there for a short rest from the busy Tokyo life. The snake there was the extreme and unbelievable poverty. Great post! #MyExpatFamily

    1. Thanks, I have just googled Moalboal and I can see why you loved it and why it is not perfect.

  2. Theres such a bittersweet feeling to this post. Theres something so amazing about the paradises we have in our pasts, the ones where they are perfectly etched into our memories as being the most wonderful place ever (despite the snakes!) i have places like this in my head too and i almost fear returning to them at the risk of ruining my almost certainly rose tinted memory of them.
    Lake Bohinj looks absolutely stunning, its the kind of place I could see us moving to as our next posting, but of course it would require getting to know a new snake!!
    Really enjoyed reading this thanks so so much for sharing with #myexpatfamily

    1. Thanks, yes the downside of living somewhere is that you learn to see it warts and all. That is, of course, one of the major upsides as well!

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