Monthly Archives: July 2011

On a personal level, writing has traditionally been a source of catharsis for me, allowing me to take all the things out of my head and lay them before me for examination, clarification. Like Dumbledore’s ‘pensieve’ in Harry Potter, as a friend once pointed out.

On a practical level, I was skilled at the academic-style writing required at university, and at the journalistic writing I did at Honduras This week. But that impersonal style is not what the blog calls for; it asks for something a little more intimate, something from the pensieve, taking me into an uncomfortable arena…

Blogging is inherently personal, but I am not inclined to sharing information from the inside – not even with close friends, unless provoked. Since my current audience is likely only people I know, how much should I let you in?

The narcissism of it bothers me as well. How arrogant to think that anyone should care to know me or what I have to say? But then, that surely has to be an accepted truth of any writing. Blogging is merely an amplification of this in the post-modern culture of ephemera and individualism (are we still in the post-modern era? Have we moved on? I’m not sure).

Being given to perfectionism, in other spheres of writing spending days on a paragraph alone, or weeks editing a piece (there is always swathes of gumph to be deleted), the blog is again anathema, it’s ephemeral, unperfected nature like some over-confident teenager. But I must remember it is just that – ephemera, and whatever imperfections I post will soon be lost and forgotten…

If I am to improve and explore as a writer, I must overcome these anxieties. If I am to temper my tendency for introspection, my over-enthusiasm for the comma, my often unnecessary wordiness, I have to put things out there, test them.

Welcome to my pensieve…


Every now and then, the BBC still gets something right.


Watching Syrian School on BBC 4 again last night, I was thrilled to see the documentary tear through Western stereotypes of Arab culture, especially when it comes to young women. Originally aired in 2010, and therefore filmed before the recent uprisings and turmoil, the series follows pupils in four different schools in the capital, Damascus.

The film makes valid reference to the lack of political freedom and the prevalence of propaganda in education, providing us with a glimpse of the climate before the protests began in January, as well as to the strict Muslim inclinations of some teachers and families. But more overwhelming is the predominance of strong, virulent teenage characters, girls in particular. Though some wear the hijab, many do not, and many that do pair it with Western-style clothing – it is a personal choice. We meet girls who throw discus, girls who play basketball and travel the country with their team, girls who vent at length and with confidence about the politics of their country and the wider world, girls who defy their teachers and parents to write and perform rap music about the Palestinian struggle, girls who write poems about love and read them aloud at competitions while their proud fathers watch on, not to mention the extravagant head of the Zaki Al-Harsuzi girls-only school, Mrs Amal Hassan, clad in knee-length skirts, shoulder-padded jackets, and fantastical make-up.

It made me happy and proud to see young women with their heads screwed on like that, fighting against cultural norms, striving to be top of their game, whatever that may be. And it made me sad to think of teenage girls in this country, afflicted by princess-itis, crushed by conformity, oblivious to the oppressive nature of the inane and superficial pop culture, living and dying by the sword of X-Factor…

Where are you, girls? Say something.

While the ongoing revolt in Syria is clearly justified after many years of political repression, the Ba’athist government was (is) a secular one. I hope that these girls’ freedom of expression can be maintained in whatever regime comes to bear.


Watch last night’s episode of Syrian School on BBC iPlayer here (UK only, I’m afraid).

Find more information about the program, its contents, and the Syrian education system here.

After writing the last entry, I began wondering exactly what I meant by ‘innocence’. Although it feels like the right word, I’m not sure that it is. The obvious definition would be ‘lack of worldly experience’, or ‘freedom from sin’. I don’t believe either of those things applied to me at that time. Nor can you come back once those lines have been crossed. So what do I mean by having felt ‘innocent’?

I think what I meant is innocence not as the things you have or haven’t done, places not seen or sins not committed; but the things that have happened to you and around you and how those things affect you. The more difficult things are, for you or those around you, the more you become sensitive to this and this becomes your perspective. The struggle permeates you, any vestige of the childhood feeling of blissful ignorance worn away and you are left with a weariness.

But if circumstances change and positivity abounds in your surroundings, those feelings can be washed away, perspective swung back around and something of that childish innocence given back to you. Time as healer. It’s like being in a submarine, looking through the periscope, and although it can turn 360° you can only take in a snapshot of that at any one time. Swivel your chair around and the picture might change completely.

Innocence is probably the right word after all.

For reasons unknown, Rosario is in my head today.

I spent a week or so in the Argentine city just before I went to Buenos Aires, at the end of September 2008.  Unsure at first, it grew on me after a couple of days, and I spent hours wondering its avenues of early 20th century Parisian facades, falling in with the relaxed spirit of its roots-n-reggae youth.

I stayed in a backpacker hostel where a cute, muscular, intense blue-eyed boy manned the desk and courted me, bringing me black coffee and flowers in the mornings and beckoning me to smoke with him in the evenings.

I was at his apartment one afternoon when it started raining. It seemed as though I hadn’t seen the rain in weeks; the fields around the city were brown and dry. I lay on my front on the mattress on the floor with my chin on the backs of my hands, and stared out his window at the rain falling on the leaves of the trees in the street. They looked so happy. I was so happy.

Something about the innocence of that time struck me today. I was youthful and innocent. Now, something intangible has been lost. Or acquired… I miss my innocence but I like to think it is not lost. Before I left the first time, I felt broken and tainted by life. And yet here I was but a few months later, feeling youthful and innocent in Rosario. Renewed by change, renewed by time.

Time: it giveth and it taketh away.

It’s a total mind-fuck. It won’t let you go back. Every day just now I look in the mirror and see the skin under my eyes filling with lines. But time fixes. Or heals, at any rate (they are not quite the same), and sometimes it brings worse things but sometimes it brings better things, and sometimes it just lets you let go.

We are not unfixable.

Continued from The bullet

I began to wonder what had happened to my bag. Though I’d yelled from the golfcart for someone to get it, it wasn’t in the clinic. John was sure however that it was in the custody of Rosalita, the lady who runs the dive shop opposite the crime scene, so I didn’t worry too much.

After the wound was cleaned out, the really painful part began – testing for serious damage. The lungs part was easy – I just had to breathe in and out sharply while John stuck a stethoscope at various points on me. I could feel that my lungs were fine. I was pretty sure my spine was fine as well – the fact I could move my fingers and toes was a fairly good indication – but to be sure this involved a lot of poking me in the back to see where it hurt most. We came to the conclusion that the bullet had very possibly taken off a spinous process, the pokey-out bit of bone on the outside of each vertebra, but otherwise, incredibly, had left nothing but muscle damage.

After all the fluid from the IV which had been going into my arm for some hours, I really badly needed to pee. I hadn’t moved from my front-laying position since entering the clinic, so the logistics of this were going to prove a challenge. John nominated the newly inaugurated Nurse Jane to help me accomplish this. Most of the muscles in my upper body were out of action, so to get off the table I had to shuffle downwards, still lying face-down, until my legs were hanging off the edge, and tip myself over until my feet reached the ground. I was incapable of standing upright, so had to remain bent at an unfortunate angle, resting somewhat painfully on my forearms. Jane and I were provided with a special bonding experience as I was unable to undo my shorts. At least I was able to hold the pee jug myself, but morale took a blow as visions crept in of what my life might be reduced to for the next few weeks…

John re-entered and asked Jane for stats on the urine. “Yellow”, she replied, to the Doctor’s hilarity. John liaised with the police and relevant authorities throughout the night, and found out that Magenta and Steve had to leave to go to court on the larger neighbouring island of Roatan at 6am that morning, having been up all night. In Honduras, a report has to be made and statements of two witnesses taken within 24 hours of a crime for it to be prosecutable. We were all caught in a ridiculous cycle of guilt, me feeling bad that they had to go through all this because I’d been shot, them feeling bad I’d been shot in the first place. We wished them the best of luck, nervously laughing at how the huge blood stain on Magenta’s top blended in with the pattern, and away they went, leaving me and Nurse Jane alone.

Jane fed me electrolytes through a straw. We looked around the room, covered in smears of my blood, and reflected on the utterly bizarre circumstance in which we’d found ourselves. We laughed at the ‘nose drawer’. There was an eye drawer as well, but that wasn’t quite as amusing as an image of a drawer full of noses. Dr. J returned with coffee, cinnamon rolls, and banana cake and decided it was time to get me up. Unable to use my arms to raise myself, the two of them had to prop me into a sitting position. I immediately felt dizzy and nauseous and had to lie down again. John said it was because I’d lost so much blood, and only then told me that I actually didn’t have a radial pulse when they first got me to the clinic. I looked pale and like shit. I was wheelchaired into a room with a comfy bed, where I scoffed a banana cake and some more electrolytes and was allowed to sleep. It was 9.30am.

John returned three hours later, having been in touch with the Mayor, the Policia, the British Embassy, everything. I was able to sit up myself now and he couldn’t believe how much better I looked. When Jane returned a short time later he told her he’d never seen such an amazing recovery –  a total turnaround after nothing more than a three hour sleep and a piece of cake! To mine and Jane’s great relief, I could now take a piss by myself as well.

Jane had been down to Paradise Diver’s to get my bag from Roslita. It wasn’t there, and it soon became apparent that some crackhead fuck had seen me bleeding to death as a prime moment for an opportunist theft. I was absolutely livid. The sad thing was it wasn’t at all surprising. For those of you that don’t know, and think that living on an island in the Caribbean must for sure be some sort of idyll – it is not. I suppose that’s already been established by the fact I got shot. But a random incidence of somebody losing their mind and brandishing a weapon can happen anywhere. Somebody seeing a person gravely injured as an opportunity for robbery does not. Utila suffers from what I’ve heard referred to as a ‘cleptoculture’.

So that was the ipod gone, my aloe lip balm (which had survived a previous robbing actually), a book I’d only just started reading and was really enjoying, and my notebook. Ironically enough, I’d just written an entry about all the crazies on that island and how they were driving me mental.

After a visit from Scottish Mike, the British Honorary Consul for the island, phone calls from the British Embassy, and enough getting up and down and doing things for myself to prove I was suitably recovered, I was allowed to go home about 4pm. Doctor John packed me out the door with copious amounts of antibiotics and paracetamol, bandaged up like a hunchback, a can of Salva Vida in my hand (local beer, meaning ‘Lifesaver’; John insisted that not being able to drink on antibiotics is a myth), and we all piled into Chris Muñoz’ (one of my aides from the night before) golfcart for what was somewhat of a victory lap through the town, past Cueva, waving at well-wishers, John looking smug with his freshly-saved patient…

Continued from The shooting

Lying face-down on the surgery table in Dr. John’s clinic, I was still insisting that I’d only been shot by a pellet gun. The room was filled with people I didn’t know – John’s team of first aiders who’d been summoned, mostly out of the bar. There was a hoard of nosy locals clammering outside, trying to get in or catch a glimpse of what was going on. Within a matter of minutes, Shelby the local TV guy arrived, wanting to shoot some film for the news. My alarmed response was an instant no, much to the disappointment of the publicity whore island doctor. I detest being centre of attention, to the point that I’d not show up to my own funeral if I thought I’d get away with it, but I was fast coming to realise that on a small island like this that’s exactly what I was about to be.

Jane arrived around the same time as the police. She’d got the news while closing up at work, but her manager had made it clear she was obliged to stay and pack away the bottles first. The police informed us the gunman had been arrested, took some details and asked some questions. There was a brief panic when they asked for my passport – it was currently in an unknown location off on some dodgy visa renewal – but thankfully just having the number was enough.

Though I think I did fuzzily request painkillers at some point, none were provided. The area around the wound was numbed with lidocaine so that John could operate, and an IV drip attached, but that was the only medication administered. This meant I was conscious throughout the entire intense and surreal process of the next few hours. I could see around me the faces of those I knew – Jane, Magenta, Steve – bound with pity, fear, affection, and was able to respond with good humour and reassurances: I was by far the calmest person in the room, making light conversation about the unfortunate absence of anaesthetic during the Napoleonic Wars and such.

I couldn’t see the faces of the two attendees plugging my wound, but knew their names were Errol and Ryan and that they kept having to swap over because the sight of the blood was making them faint. They were revived from their nausea and fatigue with some stimulatory bumps supplied, of course, by the inimitable Dr. J. Jane, on the other hand, was fascinated by proceedings and gazed on avidly. I was disappointed I couldn’t get a look myself.

I could feel the sensation of John poking about in my back, and after an hour or so the scraping of the bullet being slid out through my flesh. When I saw it I could not believe the size of it; um, not a pellet gun after all – try a .38. “Jesus fuck!” I think was my response. I was equally surprised to learn that it had travelled a full 21cm across my back, entering just below my left shoulder blade and stopping at the other side of my spine. I’d only felt the punching sensation in one spot, where the bullet had crossed my vertebrae.

Getting the bullet out was nowhere near the end of it– the wound had to be cleaned out to avoid infection, and John had to be sure there was no damage to my lungs or spine – if there was it would mean a cataclysmically expensive secondment to hospital on the mainland. John was aware of the fact that my travel insurance had expired and was doing all he could to avoid such an excursion.

After stitching up the tiny incision made to extract the bullet, I was transferred to another room with better light to get the wound cleaned out. The concern was for rust or dirt from the bullet, or cloth fragments from my t-shirt, being left inside the wound and causing infection, easily contracted and not so easily cured in the tropical climate. Due to its meticulous nature, this process actually took about twice as long as the bullet extraction, during which time I began to wane.

Manoeuvring me into a position so as to pull the bloody t-shirt off me, which up until this point had sat around my shoulders, was agonizingly painful. The adrenaline had worn off and I was sore and exhausted. The t-shirt made a thwack as it hit the floor, heavy with blood. My thoughts wondered more and people came to mind that I really, really wished I could see at that moment. For the first time that night tears leaked out of my eyes, and I pressed my face into the pillow to absorb them: seeing me suddenly crying would have been no good for team morale.

Through the course of the night I was filled in with the rest of the shocking details from Steve and Magenta. While I’d been crouched under the bar, shot and unmoving, the Barbecue Man had aimed right at their heads, one then the other. In a moment of amazing superman reaction Steve, the unassuming Welshman, picked up an empty ice box and deflected the shots – one of which still skiffed the top of his head. The crazed German then threw the gun at Steve and, as in some film noir melodrama, said “Kill me”. Killing was the furthest thing from Steve’s mind and he kicked the gun away. The shooter made a lunge to reclaim the weapon, and Steve intercepted him, in the ensuing brief scuffle kneeing the aggressor in the balls in his bid to get the madman out…

When Jane and I were hitch-hiking inCalifornia, we had a safety word if either of us felt we were in a car with a creep – ‘Steve’. We appointed the first Steve we met on the journey Safety Steve. Steve was a lovely bloke but being a stoner, a Deadhead, and a purveyor of LSD, he was not a particularly safety conscious fellow. Now our true Safety Steve had been unmasked!

Continued from The barbecue man

The Barbecue Man burst in through the back door of Cueva holding up this tiny, silver weapon and fired a couple of shots at random. The noise was so dull and the gun so small I honestly thought it was a BB gun. My reaction was still to get down on the floor though, and I crouched down between the bar and the bench. Steve and Magenta were thinking the same as me – they didn’t think the gun was real and just stood where they were behind the bar. He was saying something now but I have no recollection of what, when he aimed the weapon in my direction and fired again. I was hit and let out a shriek, not from pain but from shock, and sudden panic at not knowing what was going to happen next. I still didn’t think it was a real gun – it felt like somebody had punched me in the back really hard, I didn’t even think I was bleeding. But I was stuck inside a tiny bar on the floor with nowhere to run or hide and what was clearly a madman.

I stayed resolutely still, hearing more voices and more shots firing but not seeing what was going on. Magenta came down on the floor beside me to see if I was alright and put her arm around me. I told her he’d hit me but I thought I was ok, and asked her very calmly if I was bleeding. She took her arm away and it was covered in blood, at which point we realised things were perhaps a little more serious.

Sometime around now I looked up and saw Steve holding the gun out at arms length and saying something about cats and dogs. Then the shooter was out the door and Steve ran out in the street shouting for help. Magenta helped me up and began screaming at the man, “What have you done? What have you done to my friend? She’s bleeding! We don’t even know you! She’s bleeding!”

I leant on a post outside – it was starting to hurt a bit more now and I could feel the damp of the blood on my back. People came out from the dive shop across the road but at first no-one would help cause Steve was still absent-mindedly holding the gun and they thought he was the shooter. He flung it on top of a roof and suddenly there were people everywhere, including the Barbecue Man, who was wandering about the road muttering, like nothing was wrong. Somebody put me in a plastic chair and Andrea, a girl who had previously decided she hated me for reasons unapparent, came out and held my hand and got Dr. John on the phone for Magenta.

Now Dr. John requires a bit of an explanation of his own. The first time I saw him was the very first weekend I was out in Utila. It was late on a Saturday night and there was only one bar open – the rapidly deteriorating and soon to close ‘Poco Loco’. There were about five people sitting at the bar, and one on the dancefloor – a tall, shaggy, grey-haired man, shirtless and a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses on, leaping about like a maniac.

“That’s the doctor,” somebody said.

“Doctor of what?”

“Medicine. That’s the island doctor.”

My eyes widened. We were advised against medical emergencies before 1pm.

The first time I actually met Dr. John, though of which I’m sure he has no recollection, was in the back room of the Wednesday-and-Friday late spot, Bar in the Bush. He was sitting in a chair in the dark beside a tarantula, sporting his Che-style beret and some sparkly black nail varnish, completely whacked out, sweating profusely and largely incapable of speech.

Luckily we caught Dr. John on a relatively sane night and he was soon on his way to the scene. There were people all over the place but I was bent over in a chair, by this point dizzy and nauseous, and not able to see much of what was going on. So when suddenly the crowd took a simultaneous run backwards as the German gunman made a reappearance, I freaked out a little. “Where are you going? Don’t leave me!” I screamed, and the only person who didn’t was Archie, local vendor of ill humour and surly nature, who for the first time that anyone had seen showed some human emotion and yelled at the gunman, “What you done? That a woman! You gone shot a woman!”

When it became apparent that the Barbecue Man had not returned with another weapon, the crowd quickly flocked back and were now having to restrain Magenta who was set on beating the living daylights out of him, still wandering calmly back and forth in the street. Without warning, I was suddenly yarked out of the chair from behind. I let out a brief yell of surprise, but quickly deduced that since nobody was running away this time it must be Dr. John. I was bundled into a golfcart and as we drove off towards the clinic I shouted for somebody to get my bag, which I had flung down on the ground beside me…