The day we will all be colourless!

23 02 2014

DSC_2437We were at a neighbourhood community celebration of Chinese New Year last month surrounded by Singaporean Chinese, Malay, Indians and a bunch of expatriates from all over the world who can now call Singapore their home.   The décor was simple: a red tent, plastic chairs and tables placed on the street, disposable dishes and banners loosely tied or standing on racks around the street fest ground.  A great contrast with the large opulent houses and supercars parked in most of the driveways.

‘Celebrating Cultural Differences’ the slogan said on the banners and it surely felt that way. In shorts, flip-flops and weekend clothes, the diverse members of the community were together mixing all the ingredients to symbolically demonstrate the integration of this lovely neighbourhood.  Some wore their beautiful Indian blouses with jeans and sneakers, others from a Malay background proudly wore their colourful summer dresses with a hijab or a simple polo and jeans.  It made it all the more sincere that this Chinese New Year Lo Hei dish we were about to mix was going to truly represent the melting pot of Singapore.

Our good friends Rani and Don were the newest addition to this community and everyone made their way around the crowd to greet them with a warm welcome.  Invited by Don and Rani, we were happily tagging along and blending in with traditions. After seven years, the multiple celebrations of all the religions in Singapore bear no secrets to veteran Expats like us.

Don is an Irish pilot, born and raised catholic while Rani is a lively and flourished Pakistani Muslim woman who conquered Don’s heart about 7 years ago.  When he popped the question to Rani five years back, he had no hesitation to add; and I will convert to Islam for you Rani, no problem.

-Rani, where you born in Pakistan or Singapore? I asked.

– I was born in Singapore Helene. 

-Since how many generations in Singapore?

-…. Heummmm that’s a long story. 

-Go ahead Rani I have all night.

Well you see Helene, my grandfather was an Indian Brahmin from northern India (Brahmin is the highest cast in India) and my grandmother was a Chinese Taoist.  They met in Hong Kong, fell in love and wanted to spend their lives together.  In order to make equal concessions, they both abandoned their religion and chose together to become Muslim.  They moved to Singapore and started their new life while embracing their new mutual religion.  When my mother was born she was raised as a Muslim and later on in life married a Pakistani man. They had my two brothers and me!  

Tell me Rani, you don’t wear a hijab but your sister-in-laws both do. Are your brothers more strict then your own father?

No, they wear it and I don’t, no big deal or deeper meaning for us.  Singapore respects differences.  

Cultural differences bring colours and diversity that defines what globalisation is all about.  It is not one culture overtaking the way others should lead their lives but instead celebrating the differences.  At Christmas, Singapore spends millions to dress the city with the most elaborate ornaments, Kuala Lumpur, with a majority of Muslims, ensures that travellers will be welcomed with Christmas Carols at the airport while all the shopping centers glitter with elegant decors.  In a month’s time, all is converted for Chinese New Year with horses hanging from every lamp post, then Deepa Vali, then Easter, then Hari Raya, etc.  In Singapore, we always look forward to the next cultural celebration.

DSC_2369In December we had the privilege of being invited to a wedding in India and although the two love birds were modern young people who work in Silicon Valley, the wedding celebrated traditions and ancient values.  A month later, my friend Bob from Canada married his Thai sweet heart Pam in Thailand with the most beautiful display of traditions including 12 monks, an elephant, dancers, a Chinese tea ceremony and a procession of offerings to lavish the mother with gifts and seduce the gate keepers; symbolic guardians of the bride.  Both beautiful experiences forever engraved in my memory. My souvenirs are so full of colours.DSC_4308 DSC_4368

I read la Presse online every morning and follow the debate dividing one more time my homeland and my people.  Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone forcing women to be completely veiled, and neither do most people in the world for that matter and this, regardless of where they live.  I do not condone either to be forced to do anything against your will, whether it is from the radical Lev Tahor community or any other sect or extremist communities using controlling and abusive behaviours.

But when I see people acting and voicing racism and when I see Quebec becoming colourless with its so called secular charter, and when I see the tension and intolerance rising among the Quebec society, I cannot stop feeling saddened.  I have read too many comments online advocating intolerance to remain neutral. The current government distorts reality by using the charter to an extreme action, blending secularism with prescribing how people should dress. One cannot promote freedom of expression and oppress individual choices at the same time. 

To separate politics from religion is a must in a society, but to stipulate what people should wear or not can easily be called dictatorship.

Let me get that right; you can wear a scarf on your head to be fashionable or if you unfortunately had chemotherapy to hide the loss of hair to go to work, but not if it is part of your cultural religious background?  You can wear three or four chains on your neck, studs in your nose or tattoos on your arm, but God forbids you would accessorize your look with a cross, the star of David given by your mother or a Buddha you feel is your good luck charm in life?  What about all of those who have turned money into a religion?  Should they empty their pockets before going to work? I guess that next will be the need for a fashion police, but on the upside it will create new needed jobs.

DSC_4468So lets be safe and all wear black and white clothing with no accessories to ensure that we comply and don’t upset the new proposed Quebec charter.  We will all look the same at work and demonstrate the great value of our society.

As said earlier, separating politics and economics from Religion is a must in all societies, but what is devious about this charter is the way it conveniently brings it down to decreeing how people should visually express their differences.  Being a secular society has nothing to do with the way we express our traditions, feel dignified in the way we dress, define our moods or express our cultural beliefs and diversity, because quite frankly that’s what getting dressed in the morning is all about.  Separating religion from politics is about not mixing and influencing government decisions due to manipulative thinking, and it seems that the current politicians are manipulating the meaning of secular society towards bigotry.  What is the difference between this interpretation of secularism and the other radical behaviours we condemn?

Two weeks ago, I invited my Quebecer friends who live in Singapore to a Smoked Meat party.  We had brought back a 5-kilo brisket from Montreal.  We were excited to celebrate this amazing tradition brought to Montreal by the Jewish community and we joyfully plastered the meat with mustard on rye bread and needless to say devoured every part of it.

Our terrace was filled with French, Vietnamese, Chinese, a Belgian Jew wearing a Buddha on his neck, Turkish married to a local Chinese and other Quebecers from a melting pot of descendants. They all had this lovely French Canadian accent, had a love for Montreal that is forever engraved in their soul, but also had a sad heart when thinking of what it could become.

I could not stop but wonder: Can this great multicultural society loose its treasure and become colourless?  I pray whatever God you believe in, it doesn’t. A world without diversity, a world without cultural differences, a world without colours is a very boring world.





On The “Spur” Of The Moment!

14 09 2013

Pat and SpurIf I were in Hollywood or I had a big movie producer friend; he might have done a movie with what I am about to tell you.

Yet the story of Pat and her beautiful horse Spurgeon, who she calls affectionately Spur, has nothing to do with romanced scenarios, it is the true simple and beautiful story of my good friend Pat whose empathy for animals has rewritten the definition of having a second chance in life.

16 years ago Pat was living on a small hobby farm near the border of Quebec, an old place she rented to be close to nature, to be near her passion of horseback riding; a passion she holds since a very young age.  Pat is far from fitting the stereotype of the wealthy, too often unjustifiably snob élite crowd surrounding the equestrian sports. Quite the contrary, Pat lives under the means of most people I know, working as a part-time technician in a hospital. Most of her working time is about confirming that people are no longer responsive; for lack of better words, she is the one declaring them “brain-dead”.  It is hard for me to imagine what it does to someone’s spirit to spend your time looking at people’s last moments.  I am simply glad that this tragic moment is spent with her; it just makes the situation a better one.  Pat is a beautiful woman with an even more beautiful soul.

One day, Pat heard that a horse in a field was left to die. The poor animal could hardly walk on his legs, his feet had been cut with a hatchet rather than being done by a proper blacksmith, hence he had severe abscesses on 3 of them. Not fed, he had lost 500 pounds and was so skinny that you could see all his ribs and bones.  Still today, when Pat tells the story, tears run down her cheeks from the images that resurface.

The horse belonged to one of those rich, so-called “horse lovers”, who compete in shows across the country.  The animal was left there to die, because he had become useless to him. A horse trader, who was owed money from this rich man, heard that the Animal Protection was coming the day after to end the poor horse’s misery. He decided to pay himself back and took the horse thinking he might still get a few hundred bucks from someone.  That someone was Pat, who that day changed Spur’s destiny forever. She pulled her trailer near the field and helped the wounded animal to slowly climb the ramp of her trailer.

For the next year, Pat spent every penny she earned and each minute of her off time trying to heal her new 6-year-old friend despite the fact that most veterinarians did not give Spur much hope; the horse is damaged and is never going to be good for anything if saved.  Luckily for both, Pat had a neighbor, Susan Rothgeb, who was a horse trainer.  Susan gave a helping hand and all the advice she could to help save the 650 pound skeleton horse.

Pat’s determination had no limits and she managed to get two old rescue horses  just to keep Spur company, to be his friends.  If the horse was not going to make it, he will have experienced love and friendship. In her heart, Pat needed to make sure that Spur would know that not all men are created equally cruel.

When I first saw Spur, a few weeks after Pat adopted him, I felt sick to my stomach that someone could have neglected this animal so much.  Someone supposedly educated, civilized, and of the higher society; someone who over tea breaks must pretend to love horses.

Just before I moved to Singapore in 2007, I spent some time with Pat at her farm.  We went horseback riding, her on Spur and me on another tall jack.  Spur was then 13 years old with the traits of a winner, the elegance of his branded Oldenburg background and the heart of a champion.  Pat and Spur were collecting ribbons in small dressage competition, but both Pat and Spur were considered unworthy of further evolution from the ones controlling the equestrian scene. Pat did not have the kind of money that can bring her to the proper schools where champions are made. All she would hear is that the horse is too small, too old now and too weak to ever amount to anything.

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In 2013, Pat heard that Anky Van Grunsven, triple Olympics winner in 2000-2004-2008 and 8 time world champion was going to come to Canada for a 3 day clinic.  Only 15 horses would be carefully selected in Canada. On the Spur of the moment, Pat decided to tempt destiny and apply for the clinic.  She would in debt herself for a long time to come, but she would have the best experience of her life, she would realize a dream.

The jury examined her application and initially refused her. It was a too familiar selection that would take priorities; only the inner circle would have such privilege.  But Pat’s sister Peggie insisted that she should not accept the verdict and go plea her cause to the entourage of Grunsven, so Pat sent a video.  Without knowing anything about the amazing story of Spur and Pat, Van Grunsven selected Pat and Spur to be part of her clinic.

You can imagine the surprise on the faces of the 350 people in the audience when they saw this unknown 21-year-old horse with a rider that they never really included in their circle, proudly walk into the arena.  Van Grunsven gave a last piece of recommendation to Pat as she walked-in: Half the people will love you & want to see you succeed & the other half will desperately want & wait for you to fail, at the end it does not matter –What matters is that the ones who you love & who love you want the best for you & how in the end it is what you feel in your heart that really counts –so go out & ride & if you make mistakes–so what?? Just learn & improve for next time.

But no mistakes really happened, Spur was fabulous and did the best performance of his life despite his age, the loud noises and crowded audience.  Pat was in heaven, living the experience of a lifetime and was so proud of Spur. What a long way Spur has come–from being so abused & SPCA coming to put him down, a day before Pat grabbed him from a trader— to now working with the best dressage rider/coach the world has ever known.

It still seems to be a bit of a fluke that she got in as so many people who have seen her over the years– from her outside vantage point of the dressage world– who never even acknowledged her, suddenly came to congratulate her, saying how surprised to see her in the clinic and then how surprised they were that she did such a great job.  I wished we had known you were so good said some of the selection party members, they claimed it would have made a difference at time to enter.  Duh!

One woman with her horse worth hundreds of thousands of dollars approached Pat to say that she was a grandmother and thrilled to be in the clinic at her age (56) with her older horse (14).  Pat who is 65 with her beautiful Spur (22) simply smiled and kindly congratulated the old lady.





Is Fake the New Real?

9 06 2013

It was just a day before my flight to Shanghai last month that I read the news about the new food crisis in China.  Lamb meat in restaurants and on grocery shelves was found to be in fact rat meat mixed with other sorts of animals, anything but lamb!

Fake eggs.  Photo from http://chinahush.com

Fake eggs. Photo from http://chinahush.com

It was the latest of a long list of shocking food scandals, from tainted milk to fake eggs and fake yogurt.  And here I thought I needed to be careful only with the poultry due to the H7N9 new virus scare. But the superbug is now the least of my concerns, I will need to worry about everything I eat; no poultry, no meat, no eggs and what else? Enough already!  My decision is made, I will become a vegetarian during my trip. I scrolled through the newspaper page to see if vegetables were on the list of fake items.  Phew, it’s not on it… yet!

As I got off the plane I warned my local colleagues about my intentions of temporarily becoming a vegetarian. They giggled profusely and added a few more fake things to my list. Helene, fake BMW and Lamborghini cars and fake Hummers are flooding the streets of Shanghai and Beijing, joining the rank of the Apple product copies and the fake IKEA store.

I knew about the luxury goods copies, I myself being guilty of succumbing to temptation a few times. Not that I could not buy a real one, but I particularly liked the thrill of going in a fake looking boutique, only to be dragged in the back-store, climbing two flights of stairs in narrow corridors as if I was going to enter the secret world of John Malkovich. At the door, you needed to say the magic word “Kitty” for the fake closet door to open and let you enter the Alibaba cave.

Kitty was so proud of her merchandise, insisting on the quality leather and the handmade stitches. All made in Korea, she claimed. She also proudly pointed out that her copies are so good that even some Hollywood stars purchase  Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Hermes replicas at her fake store. They offer them as Christmas gifts to their friends. Hummmm!  What kind of friend offers a fake Louis Vuitton to a friend without telling the truth? Imagine the humiliation if the friend goes into a real LV store to get it fixed or see a new model. Ah! well, Hollywood is the capital of fake friends so let’s not pretend to be surprised here.

In my life, I had also heard of the staggering number of women who fake orgasms with their lovers so fake is nothing new, but when fake enters the food chain, it becomes way too real for me to ignore.

Scene from the beautiful Fuxing park in Shanghai

Scene from the beautiful Fuxing park in Shanghai

To appease my thoughts, I went scrolling around the beautiful Fuxing park of Shanghai, looking at families playing with kites, couples on the grass preparing a picnic, two old ladies chatting with a man who was writing poems on the sidewalk using a simple brush and water. The scene was so real, so European, so human. Did I say European?? Aren’t I in Shanghai? Is this real?

There was nothing fake about this delightful scene from the real Shanghai French Concession Quarter, even if today it is filled with beautiful Asian eyes smiling at you that have become the new reality. The true and warm nature of the scenery got me thinking about the new world we are recreating in pixels, our friends on Facebook and the virtual relations that keeps it real. Some of the new accepted rules have become the norm. We think of plastic surgery for every defect or sagging area we find on our body, we can find more silicone in breasts than in labs, more fake emails in my inbox than true communications, more fake university degrees online than real ones, hence I questioned myself; Is Fake the New Real?

Water brush strokes in the park

Water brush strokes in the park

In Korea, studies show that 76% of women in their 20s and 30s undergo plastic surgery. Can we therefore conclude that being cosmetically modified in Korea has become the new norm? Upon my return at the Singapore office I quickly enquired to my Korean colleague if the stats are true, only to hear a cute chuckled laugh followed by a comment on how she only had her eyes redone! OK! Helene, let me tell you that pretty much everyone in Korea had it done too. This is just standard procedure Helene, it is quite normal in Korea because beauty prevails in the selection criteria for jobs so we do it in order to perform better in the job market. If more women have gone under the knife than there are natural beauties in a country, can we bluntly deduct that the new real is the altered reality?

Later on, I shared my thoughts with a few friends over a good authentic Chinese meal only to hear the most surreal stories on how altered reality has become the new norm in society. It is my friend Geoff who deserved the status of the best story. While exchanging on how the new set of statistics published on Facebook promoting the value of a fan page and “likes” was a distorted reality, he pulled a communication he had just received from a friend:

Dear Geoff, I met a guy who has a business of selling Facebook “Likes”, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest “Followers” etc. There is a simple price structure depending on whether you want follows/likes from real people, fake people created by real people or fake people created by robots and whether or rather how often you want them to interact with your page/Twitter feed etc. He is currently diversifying into selling positive reviews for restaurants via Yelp, fake positive product reviews on Amazon and a few other things on which he wouldn’t elaborate. I asked him whether I could hire him to post negative reviews of my competitors and he just smiled and asked me if I was serious. He lives in a very nice part of town and drives a Mercedes SL55 (real one) and dresses well, so it’s working quite good for him I guess.

I reckon that fake businesses can make real good money!

And to crown my day, a very nice Thai lady called Darika shared with me the story of Miss Tiffany who became a monk! You ought to know that the Thai Tiffany contest is like Miss Universe but for transsexuals. The “girls” are beautiful and certainly could fool a considerable number of men. So the story goes like this:

The drag queen, Jazz, winner of the 2009 Miss Tiffany Universe is now back to being “100% male,” and has become a monk! Little did I know that in Thailand, only males can become Buddhist monks. So, back to Miss Tiffany, Jazz, who had spent most of her/his life as a woman and had gone through plastic surgery and breast in-plants to become a beauty queen, has now reversed the surgery to get back to her status of man and embrace a monk life.

Now that is a great story if I’ve ever heard one. You get the courage to live your real identity only to find out that it seemed fake to you!

As they sincerely say in Hollywood: Call me, we’ll do lunch.

Miss Tiffany in Thailand:
http://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/easier-stuff/349892/miss-tiffany-becomes-a-monk

Fake eggs in China: http://www.chinahush.com/2009/04/24/how-to-identify-fake-chicken-eggs/

Fake lamb scandal in China: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10100436/Tesco-among-China-supermarkets-to-sell-fake-mutton.html

Fake Lamborghini: http://www.gizchina.com/2012/06/20/fake-chinese-lamborghini-33000/





Children of a Lesser Destiny

23 02 2013

In every day life, some topics are avoided as they may be very disturbing to some people, and some topics I avoid writing about as they are so very disturbing to me. The despair of children is one topic that I have struggled with for a long time, but I cannot get it out of my mind. So when my friend Louise made me realize that children were often in my travel pics, I knew that the time had come for me to write this blog. I finally surrendered to writing it, if only to contribute ever so slightly in exposing these issues to the world at large. From now on, the faint smile of these children will not reside only in my mind, but will be immortalized in my blog to render them justice. Louise I owe you a thank you for pushing me to see this through.

It is no hidden secret that the “One-Child” policy of China has seen its share of horrors. Parents, in rural areas, are often faced with the harsh reality of favouring boys over girls or not declaring the second child to the government, pre-condemning the unborn child to a life of anonymity, a destiny of being unknown. Boys are preferred because they are more robust, will be more handy in the fields and will not come with the hefty price tag of the wedding. If you can only have one child, it might as well be a boy, particularly if you want a chance at surviving the hardship of life. The tragedy is that frequently, unborn girls are terminated before birth. If the parents cannot afford ultrasound technology, often the cruel fate of the child is sealed at birth.

DSC03762The same ritual is also found in rural India where tradition binds parents of girls to find a husband of a lesser fortune or of a lower cast for their daughter, hoping that the young woman will be treated better if she is the one with the most money. In traditional India, the father of the bride is the one who is expected to pay the 5 day long wedding where thousands of people come together to celebrate the passage of his little princess to the other clan, carrying with her the wealth of her family, often the savings of a lifetime. How many girls can a father afford to have in his life? I guess having a girl is not always a blessing there either.

But yet in Nepal, very near the border of India, a village, or shall I say a tribe, called the Badi people, deploy a lavish celebration of joy at the announcement that a baby girl will be born. For kilometers around, villagers will flock in the home of the blessed parents to share their overwhelming happiness. Soon a girl will be born and contribute to the wealth of the community!

The Badi people are from an old tribe of nomads mainly located in west Nepal and are considered as “Untouchables” in the Hindu system. The “Untouchables” is the lowest layer of people in Hinduism, not even considered a cast, and considered the lowest of the low in general. In the Badi world, boys are not celebrated, they are simply a disappointing miss haps. In the Badi world, women work hard to bring financial independence to their family…In the Badi world, women are destined to work as prostitutes from a very young age, until they are too old to attract anyone!

So Badi people celebrate and favour girls in their community. From the moment they are old enough to walk and talk, the mother will start teaching the young girl about her unavoidable destiny, and on the day her parents will consider she is ready, often at the age of 11, the young woman will be celebrated. On that special day, the village will lavish her with new clothes, jewelry and make-up before handing her over to the first man that will abuse her; sometimes her father, brother and/or other members of the clan.

In the irony of things, these young girls, considered by society as untouchables, will be touched by more men in their lives than it is humanly possible to imagine, sometimes twenty to thirty men a day, all booked and managed by her own family. A cruel destiny crafted by tradition for generations, a tradition of child sex slavery shaped over time by a survival instinct. The luckiest ones will stay with their family, in a bedroom, for their entire working life. And if she bears a child, they will favour a girl. The unlucky ones will be sold by their parents, or kidnapped by smugglers, who will bring the young child to India where she will be locked-in a brothel and never get out of that tiny insalubrious room cell unless she is rescued or dies.

My fascination of photographing children (other than the fact that they look adorable) started on my first trip to Cambodia where I witnessed a glimpse of old eyes in a very young child. A look that should never be seen in such a young innocent creature. Her eyes troubled me so much that I started to look at all the children’s eyes.

I’ve not had children of my own, but this is not the reason for my photographic curiosity for children. Sorry to bust anyone’s psychological assessment, but I take pictures of children because I want to capture their eyes, the mirror of their souls, the door to their dreams, too often broken dreams, the eyes of the ones that have seen too much for their age. I never want to forget these eyes as they will, one day, be my inspiration to help others.

Crossing the path of children who have been robbed of their future, regardless of how bright it could have been, seeing the ones whose destiny was replaced by darkness and disillusion brings a strong sentiment of sorrow that angers my soul to a scary level. Not only for the Badi girls, but for all the hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries who are in this position. A child should never have a customer!

These predators have no specific nationalities; Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Americans, Europeans and Nepalese line-up to be in the first row of those who will alter the destiny of these young children. They are ready to pay high premiums to get very young virgins in order to avoid catching the HIV virus or other STDs. For parents of these poor children, money talks!

Last Christmas, I looked at my 8 year old niece unwrapping her gift from us; a treasure box of objects, money, maps and gifts representing all the countries of Asia. Her face was lit with joy, curiosity, discovery and excitement. Her eyes were sparkling with trust and dreams, all the wonderful emotions that a child should feel. At that moment we took pictures of her, but this time it was to capture the beauty of the moment. I did not have the heart to tell her the truth about the children of a lesser destiny that I sometimes come across in my travels.

P.S: The day after I wrote this blog, a 3 year old girl was raped and beaten to near death by a 20 year old man in India. I cannot even comprehend how people get to this level of depravity.

If you wish to help: http://www.touchingasia.org/main/

Viewers suggest also:
http://www.lfs.edu.sg/fr/services/humanitaire/index.htm
http://onebillionrising.org

If you like this post, share!

Namaste.





Taking My Breath Away.

27 10 2012

At first, saying yes to a trek in Nepal initiates thoughts of Mount Everest in your mind and you hear yourself say:  OK guys I will join the Island Peak trek with you, but only if I can do the shorter version and stop at Everest Peak View Hotel, the highest hotel in the world, the one that promises a breathtaking view of Ama Dablam – Lhotse and of course the legendary Everest. In your mind you see yourself walking with spectacular views and blue skies with a big smile attached to your face.

In reality this fantastic journey starts with chaos at the Kathmandu domestic airport. A place that repeats 40 to 50 times a day the same routine of transporting groups of people to their dream journey, yet, the unruliness and turmoil of the process makes you believe that the staff is always caught by surprise.  The pandemonium clears up when you hear your flight number so right away you go back to having your heart and mind racing with expectations and dreams of what you are about to live and see. These WOW moments that are sometimes bigger than life.

But suddenly the rush is compressed in fear at the sight of the plane you step into. It is not the size of the plane that is the concern, but the state of its maintenance inside out. At this very moment you think and hope that this is your lucky day.    You succeed to control your fear simply because the beauty of the sceneries insist on taking your mind space.

Although you are up in the air, you are not out of the woods.  The mountains are high, so high that they seem to tickle the belly of the plane. Before landing in Lukla, the most dangerous airport in the world, you find yourself holding your breath, praying that this plane will hit the runway and not the side of the mountain.  I don’t think anyone remains indifferent to this 45 minute flight, not even my daredevil husband who was amused by my concerns at first and changed his song three days later upon hearing the news of the plane crash that killed 19 people. Trekkers just like us with their Nepalese porters and guides, all going to Lukla.

But the moment you touch down the fear subsides, this is it, this is the moment long awaited, this is the start of the long march, the journey of incredible scenery, beautiful children and courageous people, happy to have nothing. Right there and then you know that all is fine, that all will be as sunny and bright as your imagination had pictured it.

From Lukla, we trek the great mountains, sometimes through beautiful pine forests, open view stone paths with deep vertical cliffs of 300-500 meters, long winding milky light green rivers that would make a jade stone envious of its delicate shade – we cross long suspended bridges giving way to porters who’s head down walk and large loads take priority on these unstable wobbly structures. A tradition is to tie your blessed scarf to the structure to make your mark or to hope that the gods will be protecting you.

Think for a moment here – oil, food, fridges, wood structures or anything that is a daily need of life for villagers and tourists must be transported on foot, carried by men, horses or yaks. Most villages are a day walk from one another and to reach Everest base camp, you can easily count a week. These Porters are stronger than anything and more courageous than anyone.

Along the path mostly formed of stones, you climb giving way to either yaks with long twisted horns, the large loads of the porters that can sometimes be as wide as the trail, the groups of tourists that stay clustered as if an instant alone is a lost moment.  But never you want to miss an instant where the children are going to school running, dancing and laughing, never omitting to turn the prayer wheel, to ring the bell or take the path on the left side of the rock to respect the Buddhist tradition.

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I already know that I will not succeed to tell you the true essence of Nepal because no words or photos can truly render justice. When I asked our local friend Raja why Nepalese people seem happy with so little, he replied:  When daily life is a struggle and you must cater to all your basic needs with no commodity – when you must resolve 50 problems before going to work, you feel so proud of yourself that it makes you happy, and the rest of the day seems easy. The simplicity of his statement made so much sense!

I went to the edge of my strength and it was great. While trekking to high altitude in steep paths you reach farther than your second wind.  You learn that there is a third, fourth and fifth one somewhere deep inside of you.  You are out of breath and your heart is pumping hard to meet demand. But, at some point, when you think you need another break, you turn a curve on the trail and out of the blue, Everest along with the fabulous Lhotse and Ama Dablam appear before your eyes.  At that moment the same phenomenon is transformed; your breath is taken away and your heart is beating fast but no longer from fatigue but from the emotion rising in you.  You look around and see the deep blue sky, the strong sunshine and the picturesque scenery, and a big smile forms on your face.  At this instant you think: it is not as I had imagined…. It is better; it defines the meaning of breathtaking.

Namaste!

Helene





5 years, 60 pages and 3 passports

9 08 2012

When I first landed in Singapore in July 2007 I had an almost brand new 12 page passport in my right hand and a new set of suitcases spinning around on belt 37 of the Singapore Changi airport. I had never been so ready in my life! Ready for what I was’nt sure, but I knew I was ready to conquer Asia and to fill every page of this passport with new unique experiences that would fill my head and my soul with colours, scents, multicultural encounters and fabulous keepsakes. I had a two year expiry date on my work contract and 5 years on my passport, so not only was I ready but I had no time to waste.

18 months later I already needed a new passport, mine was full, very well filled with so many business and leisure trips that I could not spare one more inch of ink on it. At that point I also knew that two years was not going to be enough, that two years and 12 pages is not enough to really write this new chapter of my life and savour my time here. It felt like I had only done window shopping, that I had caressed the surface of things just enough to know I wanted more. So, when my employer told me that they would like to renew and extend my contract, I did not blink twice and signed another two years. I then went straight to the Canadian Consulate to apply for a new passport, but this time I was not going to get caught shorthanded, hence I ordered a 48 pager. With so many blank pages, I surely will not run out of space or adventures for the next five years.

Again I was wrong! After only three years, my fat passport was full! Again filled with stamps laid on top of one another as if they are competing for my attention to remind me of their meaning: the dinners in Bangkok with Ning or Geoff – the trek in the mountains of Australia with Pierre – the conferences in Kuala Lumpur or Sydney, the memorable evening with my friend Sue in Hong Kong, the business meetings on top of the world in Beijing, the running on the streets of Auckland, in high heels, to get All Black jerseys for Virginie and David before the store closes, negotiating a Buddha or a necklace in Katmandu, the smiles and noises of India, the underwater bubbles in Borneo, the paradisiac island of Lankayan, our wedding in Kapalai or the conversation with this lovely lady who accompanied me to the airport in Osaka after a keynote address in Japan. No matter what page I look at, a surge of feelings and souvenirs pops in my head and I hear the noise of the custom agent swinging the stamp with autorative power on one of the pages.

I can trace back my fascination for passports and travel since a very young age at the Montreal Expo 67. It is there that I learned the meaning of travel, it is there that I learned that every time I would visit a country pavilion, they would appose a precious stamp in my Expo passport, a trace that I had been there and seen something special. I clearly remember the devastation on the last day of our holiday when my Expo passport fell in the water at the Ste-Helene’s Yacht club; I was watching it float away as if my life was over, as if all my souvenirs were being washed away. I had a heavy heart until my brother Marc grabbed a perch and bravely dogged it out of the water. He was my Hero! That same night, I went to bed endlessly looking at the stamps until I fell asleep, thinking that the world had not ended and that my first young life catastrophe was avoided, thanks to Marc.

This month, I broke-in another brand new 48 page passport when I went to Malaysia and tonight a second stamp will be added when I land in Canada. It is still rigid and shinny with the gold Canadian crest standing out of the dark blue background, but I will make sure that it will not remain this way for long. A passport is like life, it has no meaning until it is filled to the brim with memories of how much we lived it.

For now I need to go buy a new set of suitcases, the ones I bought five years ago did not last the run and gave up way before I will ever. Funny enough, when it’s time to be protected by a life warranty, none of the things Samsonite and American Tourister write on their tags apply. They claim it is abuse, but I smile and claim IT IS LIVING my life to the fullest.

I have five years and 60 pages of passports behind me and I can only tell my brand new one: Let’s get dirty before going home!

I dedicate this post to Nicola Blanchette and Virginie Rouleau who are independently starting their own life journeys.  Don’t spare an inch of empty space and enjoy every minute of it!

Love XXX

Helene

Update: Another blogger had the same view of what a passport represents and wrote this great bog:

http://www.sandalsand.net/the-fascination-of-passports/





Home Maid in Singapore!

30 01 2012

Gong Xi Fa Cai - Happy New Lunar Year

When thinking of the long 4 day weekend of the Chinese New Year Holiday ahead of us, Pierre and I decided to stay put in Singapore and just relax the two of us; we will take repossession of our house, our sleep and savor our intimacy. We are thrilled at the thought of having the house for just the two of us for a full four days … or so we thought!  We had left one tinny little detail out of our dream equation: Anna will not want to take the time off!!

But it’s Chinese New Year Anna and you have 4 days off, why aren’t you making plans? Why aren’t you out with your friends celebrating and having a good time.  No Mam, I feel lazy and want to stay with you and Pierre, doing not much at home, cooking dinner, etc.  NO! I mean No! Anna, go, please go meet your friends, it is your days off too and we don’t want you to stay around, we want you to go and have fun!!

No Mam, I prefer to stay home with you.

OMG! what happens when your housekeeper don’t want to leave??  Isn’t it our days off too? A time where we can chase one another naked in the house without thinking of getting caught🙂 ? Anna may weigh 92 pounds when wet, but she can invade a lot of space in a house. Add her cat Phuket to the equation and we loose another chunk of the apartment.  Pierre and I are often confined to the living room and the bedroom as our space, because Anna and Phuket are in possession of the other 1000 square feet.

Please Anna, why don’t you call the Cheese or the Buffalo or even the Loan Shark friend, I am sure one of them have plans, no??

Anna and her cat

Let me explain: In our world with Anna we need to find ways to understand one another and to follow the soap opera of stories that we hear on a daily basis. Over time, we got very creative and succeeded to identify the people that surrounds her life, and trust me, it can be complicated. First of all, most of them have close enough names get us confused: Liza, Tina, Nina, Pina, etc. and second of all, Anna mixes the “He and She” when she tells a story… and stories she can tell!!  Not only that she tells stories, but she goes to Timbuktu to reach Australia and you end up knowing what bus she took to get there and stories about passengers that got on and off of the bus.  Tales with Anna never end, and she leaves no detail out, not one single element except the point she wants to make, you could go to sleep and wake up an hour later to hear the end of the story, when all you asked was: how is your daughter or your grandson? Sometimes we are afraid to ask a simple question by fear of the length of the answer.

But may I say that her stories are often JUICY! And both Pierre and I have first row tickets to the best gossips of Singapore. Who needs People Magazine when you have Anna working for you!

For about five years now, I keep on telling my friends that I want to write a television series that will be called “Home Maid in Singapore” and the source of my script and scenarios will be Anna and her circle of friends.  With her group of acquaintances alone, I have enough juicy stories for at least seven seasons.

The problem is that Anna likes to talk so much that we get confused on who is who and what the stories are, hence Anna started to give them nicknames that will help us recognize the who’s who of the maids world.  This now explains the Cheese and the Buffalo mentioned earlier.

The Cheese bears this name because she works for a cheese importer of Singapore, the Buffalo inherited her name at Anna’s graduation, because this girl impressed me with her story on how she bought a Buffalo to make a business for her family in hopes that they will stop dilapidating her money.  Anna also has a friend that we call the loan shark and one that we identify as the ‘sell her body’ and those two do not need further explanations on how they got their nicknames or what their sidelines are on Sundays.  There is also the “Kill Dog” who was the girl who killed, or shall I say assassinated her employer’s dog because the furry little thing was getting on her nerves.  We found out few months later that the poor girl had a brain tumor and was hallucinating, paranoiac and had a temper control problem. No kidding!!   She returned to the Philippines and unfortunately died few months later from lack of good treatments and a delayed diagnostic.

In our collection of characters we also have the “lost dog” who lost the two dogs of her employer while they were away in Australia. One of them returned but the other one vanished for good or so the “lost dog” girl says.  There is one that we name the “pregnant” even if she had an abortion 5 months ago.  She was expecting from a Chinese man who was married with children and did not want the trouble in his life nor pay for the abortion.  She went to Malaysia and borrowed money from her employer to do it, otherwise the government of Singapore would have returned her back to Philippines.  There is the “top-up telco card” girl who has a side business of scamming other maids with telephone cards for double the price, and there is the “Mental Breakdown” one that Anna used to refer to as the “Mentality breakdown” until I explained to her the difference.  And the list goes on and on so you can imagine the cast of actors we would need to manage in our TV series.

Home maids in Singapore

Now, to protect the innocents I cannot go into too much details, but just imagine how juicy it becomes when the stories extend to the employers’ life.  These girls work for diplomats, for expatriates or for rich Singaporeans so needless to say that we know things that would  make soap operas such as “The Bolds and the Beautiful” or “As the World Turns” a new shade of pale. Some sleep with their employers (of course without the knowledge of the wife) and know the password of the employer’s email inbox.  A few months back, one of the maids discovered through the email account of her employer that he was having more than one affair, shall I say outside of the house.  What happens when the mistress finds out that her man has a mistress? Well, believe it or not, she sides with the wife and poison her mind!!

When I think of it, I believe there are more bolds than beauties sometimes!

Yes, some of these girls can be a marriage breaker, because for many Filipina or other Asian girls, catching a Westerner is their lifetime goal! For many of them, a Westerner is a trophy and a great ATM machine.  They will tell you how gorgeous you are and how much they love you if it means that you will round-off the monthly budget and be a potential visa of entry to another country.  Be it you are 70 and she is 20 something, if you want to open your ears to it, the ladies will sweet talk you into romance. Even if often it means leaving your wife and kids behind!  I do not know what percentage of marriages end-up failing here, but there are many who get what we call here: the yellow fever! A disease that catches some men and makes them lose their mind!🙂   Don’t worry, Pierre  and I are not in danger🙂

But the known obsession of the Filipina to get an American, Australian or European in their life can make these poor and sometimes naive girls a great target for scammers.  In the past few weeks alone, at least 8 of Anna’s maid friends mentioned in my blog were taken for hundreds, even thousands of dollars by Nigerian groups that go on dating sites and post fake profiles of a handsome Westerner who will fall in love with the filipina girl who he catches and write hot and juicy text messages of love to her.  The girls all fall like flies for the handsome Romeo, so when the unfortunate handsome westerner gets his wallet stolen in Africa while on a business trip and pretends to have no one else to turn to but her for help, the girl sends him money to buy his plane ticket to Singapore to meet with her and live happily ever after.  Of course they are left standing at the arrival gate since the Nigerian men behind the scheme are pure fake! But the money they lose is real and represent months of work for the girls.

There is even one girl in Singapore who actually stole the jewelry and money of her employer (about $60,000’s worth of it) to send to the poor business westerner who needed to buy equipment to complete a big project in Africa.  The girl got caught for stealing the money and is now in jail, but the Nigerian guy who took advantage of her is now hitting on someone else in the world, probably in Singapore.

Thank God Anna trusts us and shares these stories so we can give her advices for not getting caught herself.  Many times we need to even insist for her to believe us and in her disbelief, the other day, I went online and showed her the photos used by the Nigerian scammers and a photo of the real Nigerian man behind the mask .  She was chocked when she recognized the photos of all the beautiful Westerners that are dating her friends online.  She tried to warn her friends but for most of them it was too late, the money was already wired.  One girl was about to leave her job here to go work for a rich handsome European that offered her a highly paid job but needed for her to send money to get the Visa and the related working papers, all fake of course.  Go see the guys at: http://www.romancescam.com/scammers4real.htm and please share the link with your friends because not only Singapore maids get trapped in this scam.

As I am writing this blog we are at the last day of the Lunar Chinese New Year and Anna is still with us, laughing at the thought we wanted her to go out, in vain.  She just surprised us at the pool this afternoon, asking us what we wanted for dinner.  Pierre and I looked at each other and responded: We will go out for dinner Anna since you won’t leave us alone.  She laughed and went back in to call the Buffalo and make plans!

All beautifully dressed-up in a black outfit that made her look as if she is 24, Anna finally left for dinner at 18:00 hrs on the last day of the holiday!  I am sure she will be back by 21h00, the latest!

Cheers Anna and we love you!








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