After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!
Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book. If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.
Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.
The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate being the more notable. The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David Sedaris‘ Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).
I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads: Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).
All told reading more widely – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.
The first bits of Cyprus we glimpsed as our flight began the descent towards Paphos were wind turbines slowly turning in what must have been a slight evening breeze, and houses which from the height looked like small, matchboxes pressed into the sides of the hilly terrain below us. Although it was only 5.20pm local time, it was quickly growing dark, which at first seemed odd until I realised just how much closer to the equator we were here, than in England from where we were arriving. This trip to Cyprus was at the instance of S, ten days in Paphos being her idea of a honeymoon. The hope was to get the chance to catch our breaths after what had been a whirlwind three weeks in which we had managed to get hitched without losing our minds; the pressure of a large Nigerian wedding notwithstanding.
Having the main events on the other side of town in rural England – as far removed from our usual haunts as could be – added a layer of complexity to everything, that in retrospect we could have done without. The miracle in all of that was that friends and family rallied – some at particularly short notice, and braving the worst of the M25 and Dartford crossing traffic on the day – to be part of the events and support us. As we headed into Paphos, the overwhelming desire was to kick back and de-stress from all of that.
Before all of that kicking back and chilling could begin, there was the small matter of navigating passport checks and customs. Although I had the requisite approvals in my Nigerian passport, it still took in excess of ten minutes – and a couple of phone calls by the fellow at the desk – for my passport to be checked and then stamped. Only then could S and I head on to the baggage area and pick up our bags; she being British had no such problems. It was a warm 22 degrees C even at that time of the day, and importantly dry, with none of the chill from the wind that had hastened our arrival and helped claw back some of the lost time from our flight from Gatwick being delayed.
Bags in hand and through customs, we found our designated driver – he had our names on a card held high above his head – waited a bit at a Costa Coffee for the rest of our party to arrive and eventually headed out into town. That allowed me take in my surroundings at the airport, the overwhelming sense being one of being somewhat pleasantly surprised by the absence of any of that in-your-face first world glitter that airports around the Western world often portray. Our hotel, the King Evelthon, was a relatively recent addition to the Paphos holiday resort scene and just beyond the city limits – sculptures of the Greek letter ρ marking these. From arrival to the hotel and then dinner took all of two hours, including the wait. Not bad, given we needed to tuck into dinner having steadfastly refused the prodding of the the cabin crew to pony up the extra cash required to buy a meal on board.
Having finally managed to get out of our travel soaked clothes and then get some sleep, we woke up to the sight of glorious sunshine already streaming in. Looking through the doors into the pool – we had been upgraded to a swim up room – the sense was very much one of being a holiday resort, complete with all the trappings. In the distance, the lonesome hulk of a rusty brown ship loomed. I would later find out that there was some history to it, it being the MV Demetrios II. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed for a hearty breakfast and were ready to head out, we hopped onto the 615 towards the Paphos harbour for a bit of sightseeing.
We found the harbour area a beehive of activity with buskers, hustlers and traders all keen to interest us in their wares. In the end we plumped for a glass bottomed boat ride around the harbour and picked up a flyer for the wave dancers suite of cruises from the Paphos Harbour. The glass bottomed boat ride ended up a damp squib of sorts – there was nothing of note to see besides the ruins of the Vera K – but the 90 minute trip around the harbour gave a good view of the coast line all the way up and down. Trip done, we found an ice cream place down the road where we took a much needed toilet break and three scoops of ice cream each, for the heat. We – read S – liked it so much that we returned on three other separate occasions for ice cream there. A hop-on, hop-off open bus tour topped off this first day, the whistle-stop tour putting Paphos and its size – or lack thereof – into perspective.
Our time in Cyprus was organised around three main all-day events; a jeep safari, a gourmet tour and an all of Cyprus tour. Being the last of the nine passengers to be picked up for the jeep safari, meant we had to make do with being sat apart, S in the middle seat at the back and me perched on the edge of the back seat alongside the others, an older Italian couple , an English couple from Birmingham and three young men from Hungary. Our version of the safari tour took in a drive through banana plantations, old Turkish and Greek villages, as well as pit stops at a number of other landmarks. In spite of the obvious pride the locals had in their banana plantations it turned out they were neither big enough nor straight enough to meet EU export regulations.
In keeping with the safari theme, much of the driving was on bumpy, rocky roads on which we in the back seat bounced about. The trek up the Avakas Gorge was the first real physical activity I had undertaken since my last 5k on the 18th of October; that showed in my lack of fitness. The trek itself – ours was the abridged version – took in a number of rare bushes and flowers and a number of tiny rivulets; smaller now at the end of a long summer than they would be in the rainier, wetter winter season. Other interesting pit stops along the way were the Aphrodite baths (where Aphrodite used to bathe according to local mythology), the Adonis baths and the blue lagoon where a few of the less intrepid swimmers dove in for a leisurely swim. As we made to leave the Adonis baths, an interesting exchange ensued between the caretaker and I. He called me a chocolate Adonis, warning S to be extra careful overnight, his point being that my brush with the very essence of Adonis at the baths had upped my virility. That made for a few awkward moments between him, S and I, although no offence was meant or taken.
Over the course of the remaining days we managed to fit in two more all-day tours. The first of these was a gourmet tour that focused on highlighting the food, art and craft of Cyprus, the intent clearly to show case a rustic Cyprus where life was lived at a leisurely, laid back pace. Pit stops on this tour included a winery where we got to taste a range of locally brewed liquids, an all female factory where a range of Cypriot sweets were made and a factory where roses were used in everything from chocolate to wine in addition to the usual suspects of perfumed body care products. Elsewhere on the tour we got to see the Holy Cross church in Omodos and fraternise somewhat with the local silver and glass makers. Also on the gourmet tour, we discovered Carob, which became the bane of my existence over the next few days, as S tried to score bottles and bars of the ostensibly healthy stuff. The other tour – an all of Cyprus tour – went along similar lines, the highlights being a visit to the capital Nicosia and the view across the green line into Turkish controlled Cyprus from the top of the Ledra observatory and the church of Saint Lazarus (the fellow who died twice).
In between the full day tours, we managed to get three 7k-ish runs in, possible in part because S is a running enthusiast who needs her running fix, and the presence of a coastal path which we learned is a fairly recent addition. The ruins being excavated at the harbour area and the Wave Dancer half day BBQ cruise also help the time pass.
By virtue of its position at the junction of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Cyprus has had a long and checkered history, with ownership and control changing hands several times. Greeks, Ottomans, Venetians, The French, the Romans – and a few others I can’t remember – have all at various times laid claim to the island, leaving their marks in various ways. Greek culture predominates, as does the Turkish military presence in the Northern third of the island, a self declared Republic which is recognised only by Turkey. There was an opportunity to cross the Green Line and explore a bit of it, but the situation with my Nigerian passport made me wary of crossing any more borders than I needed to.
What I found surprising was a strong undercurrent of Russian influence – like London one of our guides joked on one of the days. I suppose the shared religious history enables this – both the Russian Orthodox and Church of Cyprus are part of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, making it easier for devout Russians to integrate, and providing a driver for them to visit shared holy spaces – as does the official passport for investment program which provides access to Cyprus and by extension the rest of the EU for €2million. A different guide took great joy in pointing out which of the palatial, stately homes were owned by Russians.
The British influence was more expected, and obvious, given the recent colonial history and the long running interactions with the island going back to Richard the Lion heart’s invasion in the late 1100’s. The language and the sunshine does make it one of the prime destinations for Brits looking to retire by the sun and the sea, that they’ve arrived complete with their own little micro communities complete with English and Irish pubs suggests there is some impact to the local community, particularly in a town as small as Paphos with 75,000 inhabits.
Thankfully, it wasn’t peak season so places like the beach were not filled to the point of bursting at the seams, which made me wonder how this must feel in peak season. I doubt the locals find the influx of tourists as disconcerting as the Barcelona locals do but I got the sense of a mild irritation at times – the eye roll and shrug I shared with an older lady at a shop within the Kings Avenue Mall at a couple rowing over a can of beer at the till being one such.
For all its history, I did get the sense that some of the places we visited over the course of the ten days were not particularly remarkable or deserving of the hype (It might have to do with my lack of culture or just an overt focus on looking to chill and de-stress). That got me thinking of just how much Nigeria could benefit from a concerted effort to clean up its hinterland, make it safer and easier to travel in, and market some of the natural features and historical artefacts. I remember visits to the Obudu Cattle ranch many years ago being the highlight of a team building session at work. Places like the Ikogosi springs, the Ososo tourist centre and carnival come to mind as ones which with a little more focus could be developed further.
All told, the ten days delivered on their promise of providing a place to disconnect from the real world and chill, which is perhaps why the enduring images of Cyprus for me will be narrow roads draped around towering mountains like ribbons – thin, flimsy and barely there, edged on the one side by the faces of the mountains themselves and on the other by vertiginous drops. The irony of this is not lost on me; without the roads, much of these parts would be inaccessible to the wider world which would lose out on all the treasures and delights we had the privilege of seeing over the past few days, but building the roads cannot have been a trivial experience given the terrain. A lot of hard, back breaking work was clearly required.
That – the delights just out of view over the horizon and the hard work required to get there – is very much like marriage, S says, on the eve of our return to our new shared life; all the proof I need that she is indeed a wise one.
PS: For more pictures from Cyprus, go here.
Between work and visits to family, I travel quite a fair bit by air each year. Already though, 2017 is on course to be my most airborne yet – love-hate relationship with flying notwithstanding. The thing with S has been a big part of that, more so over the last few weeks, five of the last six of which have been spent down south. In times like this, even I have to admit- however grudgingly – the usefulness of being able to just fly. I shudder to think of how many hours I would have spent on trains or coaches over the last few days if flying was not an option.
Coming up to Aberdeen on this last but one flight of the lot, the relatively seamless BA experience I have enjoyed over the last few months falls apart, my 9.00pm flight ending up being delayed by an hour. That turns out to be the least of my worries as upon arriving at Aberdeen we have to wait to disembark, and then spend over an hour at the taxi rank for a taxi home. The official reason for the delay with de-planing is that the hold is full and we have to stay on until it is emptied to prevent the plane from tipping over. Ironic cheers greet the announcement, not helped I suspect by the tone with which the pilot relays the reason. By his own admission, it is the first time he has heard that used as a reason. All told, by the time I get home at 12.45am I am barely lucid. How I manage to make it into bed remains a mystery but somehow I do.
My trusty headphones – and music – have been indispensable companions on these jaunts. Most recently I have had Lecrae and Tori Kelly crooning into my ear, the song being the catchy I’ll find you tune. It is a song I stumble on on Spotify on one of those days on which I am mindlessly letting it decide what music I hear. My interest is piqued enough to put the song on repeat whilst I hunt down information on the song, from which I find out the video is in support of a children’s research hospital and comes from a place of pain for folk they know who were battling cancer at the time. Its themes – fighting through a difficult season but knowing there’s someone who’ll make the effort to support one are ones that are uplifting and comforting in their own way.
With the benefit of a clear head a few days later, the question of how much of a distinction there can be between spiritually uplifting stuff (read music, sermons etc) and the messengers who bring them to us comes to mind. A few years ago, the Hillsong song Healer was a firm favourite of mine, made all the more interesting by the back story – the writer of the song was apparently dying of cancer. That was later shown to be false which prompted a huge backlash and calls for the proceeds from the song to be returned and a number of the organisations which had provided him a platform moving to distance themselves from him. Lecrae himself has stirred controversy with comments he has made about not being a Christian rapper and his outspoken support of Black Lives Matter. Eugene Peterson, creator of The Message paraphrase, also drew some flak for apparently shifting towards endorsing same-sex marriage, a position he had to clarify very quickly.
All told, there does seem to be a tendency with Christendom to throw the baby out with the bath water and immediately distance itself from folk who seemingly stray from the weathered centre ground of orthodoxy. Two views I have found helpful on this subject of what to do with the ‘muddled’ lives of highly visible messengers come from John Piper and Russell More in the aftermath of the Peterson shift that was not. Truth remains truth, human vessels are inherently flawed and their output should be read through the lens of the bible itself.
What could have been. Image Source
It is in the middle of shovelling rice and chicken down my throat that just how similar to prison these cubby holes I pop into from time to time are. For one, there are a number of hoops to jump through to get here – in my case a 5.30am check-in followed by a fixed wing flight up to Scatsta in the Shetlands and then a further helicopter flight out to the platform – and the overwhelmingly maleness of everything, tattoos and all. There are also the shared rooms, the strict meal times and the restricted choices there tends to be for meals. The one statistic which goes against the prison narrative is perhaps the proportion of ethnic minorities in prison vis-a-vis the general population, but that is neither here nor there. And of course, we’re all out here by choice, getting paid a premium of sorts for the joy of being out here.
On this occasion I am on one of the bigger cubby holes – floated out in the late 70’s – with the claim to fame of being the world’s largest movable man-made object at the time. These days the Polarcus Armani and Shell’s Floating LNG Plant the Prelude have stronger claims to that crown, a symbol perhaps of the changed fortunes of the UK sector of the North Sea vis-a-vis the rest of the world. To get here, this behemoth of the Northern North sea, we had to brave inclement weather at Scatsta, the clouds so thick and winds so strong that the pilots decided against going through with two landing attempts thirty minutes apart. In the end, we had to wing it to the southern end of the island to Sumburgh for a landing and then a bus back up to our original destination. The glimpses of the road that were visible through the windows in the pouring rain suggested that there would be some mileage in coming back here for leisure, but on this occasion the rough, rugged terrain – roads that wrapped themselves around hills and valleys and small streams fuelled by the torrential rains leaving their marks on the hills that lined our route – seemed more a trigger for memories of the past than anything else; St John’s, Newfoundland which I visited two years ago and the distant corner of Edo State to which I trace my heritage being the two main ones. One wonders where all that time went, not least the years since I last went home. My plan is to spend a total of three days out here – not since in my early years in February of 2014 have I had to spend more than a week at a time offshore – but for the regulars, a three week stint looms, which is why perhaps they seem less perturbed by the detour we have had to take.
The last few years have seen free wi-fi access hit these haunts, one more positive to everything. Back in the day, staying in touch with folk back home depended on finding access to a desk phone with the ability to dial out; access is a lot better out here than I recall from my offshore Nigeria days. Once offshore, I settle into the room I have been assigned, before heading out to the offices, to get stuck into the reasons why I am out here. A detailed chat with the platform manager to set the scene for why I’m out is followed by the first of what will be several meetings with the folk who I work with directly on a daily basis, and then a walk in the plant to eye-ball a number of areas which have piqued my interest.
With time I have come to realise that the routine is what keeps me sane – regular / restricted meal times, periodic review meetings, and the late night trip to the bund to stock up on sweets and bottled water have become things I look forward to on these trips, symbols of the passage of time, and with meetings, things checked off the to-do list.
There is joy and salvation in the mundane and routine after all, that much is not in doubt.
For the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge Prompt, Evanescent:
A curious combination of events – somehow in my early thirties becoming an insomniac and flexible start times at work – is how I manage to get the entire floor at work to myself for an hour on week days. Rather than stay awake in bed waiting for 8.00am, I figure it makes a lot more sense to use the morning hours up at work and free up my evenings.
Coming in early feeds a sense of quiet control and productivity; time to gather my thoughts and work to a plan of my own choosing. On most days by the time 8.00 am comes along, that feeling is as far removed from reality as can be, a consequence of having one fire or the other to put out on assets that demand 100% uptime.
I am learning to treasure the quiet moments, fleeting as they may be. They afford me the chance to catch my breath and stay sane.