Here’s the full show that aired this weekend in Thailand –– it’s in Thai, but the interview is in English with subtitles! Hope you enjoy:
Beautiful people of the Internet,
Sending big love your way from a river town in New Zealand where I am hunkered down for a few months to work on writing a book proposal.
It’s slow going and there are lots of little projects to get out of the way before the nitty gritty book proposal production happens HOWEVER — I am in good company.
I’m housesitting for an ex-Buddhist nun and her petulant cat, Dostoyevsky. I’m blasting Amy Winehouse’s album Frank. It’s the time of night when the sky turns indigo. I’m getting back into the swing of rowing and have been invited to race early on in January. I’m going to spend xmas with one of my favorite families on this island. Strawberries are in season and I’m eating them by the handful. I celebrated the solstice in the company of friends. I ate carrot cake in the shape of the sun. I chased kids around a paddock. The sky was sherbet. My hair smells like woodsmoke.
This time six months ago I welcomed the shortest day of the year in Australia. I gave my friend an asymmetrical haircut, communed with some sassy chickens, rode a penny farthing, learned how to drive a stick shift, and drove this here fine manual truck over a mountain, through lots of muddy puddles, OVER A TREE, and to a waterfall.
I stalled my parents’ car so many times when I was learning to drive a stick that I thought this day would never come!
Australian mud is red & good.
Safe to say: that winter solstice was one of the butchest days of my life, and also pretty darn wonderful.
This time last year I was in Tuvalu, finding the groove of living on a small island, and about to celebrate a very Tuvaluan Christmas.
In other news:
I have an article that TERRIFIES ME TO SHARE (embrace the vulnerability, yep) coming out between xmas and new years,
— you guys you guys it’s for Buzzfeed! More on that soon —
… plus a photo feature on the way for a digital mag. Ohhhhhhgoodness get to work Devi, there are deadlines to meet!
So many things make my heart sing.
This has been the year of the bike.
Hugs to you and yours.
P.S. Sign up for my email list, you know you wanna: http://eepurl.com/bKRzKH
P.P.S. If you want to make all my holiday wishes come true, here’s my Patreon: http://patreon.com/devi_lockwood
… I wrote a piece for the Guardian that went live a week ago:
A big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported me and continues to support me up to this point, esp. to Peppe and Jeanie, who let me stay up late for three nights in their kitchen in Mackay writing this thing, and to Caitlin Kelly, who coached me through it.
I love writing in kitchens.
Balancing three time zones (east coast USA friends to help edit, editors in London, and myself here in Queensland, Australia) was no easy task but I’m happy to say that I’m alive and kickin.
I couldn’t do this without all your help.
High tide after thick rain. The waters lap close to my feet. I’m suspended over a trash heap––coconut husks and tin cans and empty chip bags––in a hammock, breathing in the horizon. If I squint, I can see a rainbow. Tall clouds move south, taking the raindrops with them.
Losite, my host, comes up behind my shoulder. “Devi, we go bath in the sea!”
I wrestle my body from the view and follow Losite and her two sisters as we run across the main road––a sand pathway––to the other side of the island. Soft sand squishes under my toes and I can feel the holes in the ground that were not long ago filled with rain. The whole trip takes less than a minute.
Just before the beach sit the pens of many families’ pigs, a mess of pink and brown bodies stacked close. The smell of slop and pig poo permeates the air. I hope there aren’t parasites in the water.
I shelve that worry, though, as soon as I see the raw beauty of the beach. Coconut fronds frame the red-orange curve of sunset. White sand kisses the deep mauve and azure of the water on this sheltered side of the atoll. We step in barefoot. The water is soft and warm.
Losite’s middle sister, the daring one, starts to swim across the bay to a small island. I follow. Losite laughs, revealing her missing front tooth. “I can’t swim!”
I slow down to stay with her, the vestiges of my mother’s lifeguarding instincts taking over. I make sure that it’s shallow enough for Losite to walk across the whole way. The current pulls at our limbs, but it’s not strong enough to knock us off balance. When we’re out in the middle of the water, I pick up a piece of algae and joking toss it in Losite’s direction.
Losite splashes her sister with a mouth-full of salt water as she dodges the green, slimy projectile, prompting a full-on splashing and algae-hurling war. The rhythm of our laughter travels across the water as we dodge the pieces of slime. I pick a piece of algae off of my cheek and exhale salt.
We reach the opposite shore but the bottom is sharp with crushed-up shells so we turn around. Back in the water, Losite’s youngest sister points and says in a completely serious tone: “That’s a big shark.”
Losite and I freak out and start hurling our bodies towards shore. The other two sisters collapse in laughter. Cue more algae hurling.
The middle sister reaches her hand to the bottom and picks up a tubular, brownish creature as long as my outstretched hand. She offers it to me and I touch it, recoiling and making a face at the slippery squish.
“This animal makes sand.” she says, finding another and tossing it in my direction. I duck, just in time for it not to hit my face. “We call it loli.”
“Loli.” I taste the Tuvaluan vowels, the long “o” and the upswing of the “i.”
The dark rises. We continue to soak.
“Dave, on your island do you have a boyfriend?”
“In the states? No.”
“It’s more fun to be alone.”
“And on your island, Christmas is warm?”
“No,” I laugh. “It’s snowing.”
“What would happen if it snowed for Christmas in Tuvalu?” one sister dreams.
Losite thinks this would be a brilliant idea. “We need snow! The sun here is too hot.”
I express concern for the coconut trees. Could they handle it? Probably not.
The first star comes out, then a second. I point and shout for every time a new one appears. “Two stars! Three! Four! Another, there!” The simple jewels.
“In Tuvaluan, we call the night sky ceitu.”
I try on the word for size. “Ceitu. Cei-tu. Cei-tuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”
Losite and her sisters laugh and mimic my exaggerated pronunciation. Drum beats echo across the water from the village.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“The evening summon to prayer.”
“That means it’s almost Christmas!” I proclaim. “Happy birthday, Jesus! Amen.” I stick out my hands like they’re pegged on the crucifix and fall backwards into the water. I dive down, do a handstand, and come up to cheers.
“Dave, how you do that?”
I explain putting hands on bottom, toes pointed in the air. The youngest sister tries and succeeds. The middle sister flicks her toes back and forth in the air like a mermaid tail. Losite tries but comes back up for air, sputtering.
We give up for home. Outside the one-room house we huddle around a spigot by the rain drum, passing around a bar of soap and a cup between our hands. We soap our hair and use the suds to point it straight up in the air.
The middle sister says to me: “You know, Dave, you’re a nice girl.”
“Ha! And you’re a very naughty girl,” Losite retorts. She is met with a cup-full of water in the face. We all laugh.
“Tomorrow we bath at the wharf?”
“You ready?” Losite asks me from the top of the platfom. We look down at the ocean from above: a stretch of pristine blue lapping placidly at the concrete pillars supporting the platform from where we stand.
“Is it deep enough?” I manage, curling and uncurling my toes.
“Yes! Yes! Very deep. Tide is high.” Losite punctuates each word with a hand gesture and smile, our fallback if neither one of us understands the other. “We go?”
I swallow my suspicion as another round of kids, some naked and some in shorts, push past us to jump in, chortling and hollering and making all manner of gleeful sounds as they descend to the water below. It can’t be that bad, right? I poke my head over the edge to make sure they are all unharmed.
“Okay, we go.”
We walk closer to the edge, looking down.
“One, two, three!”
My body is filled with blue. How can the sea be this warm in December? I have to remind myself that Christmas is always sunny and sticky hot in this realm of the southern hemisphere, far from the white Christmases of my childhood in New England and Ontario. I let myself float on my back for a moment, taking in the milky clouds overhead. Tiny, electric blue and yellow fish dart in and out of the currents surrounding our bodies.
We climb the stairs, dripping and laughing. Losite and I jump again and again and again until the harsh bite of salt water finds my nose and my fingers are wrinkled like tiny chestnuts. The water is coming in, almost filling the shore.
The Tuvaluan island of Nukufetau sits like a smile of a sandbar atop the ocean. There are no cars, only motorcycles. You can walk from curved one end of the island to another in twenty minutes, and that’s if you pause to chat with a few neighbors along the way. One boat, the Navaga II, arrives monthly from Funafuti to delivers the essentials––flour and sugar, breakfast crackers and rice––plus, of course, relatives.
Without warning it starts to rain in big, fat drops. I love swimming in the rain. It feels defiant, somehow. Hey raindrops, you thought you were going to make me all wet? Nope!! Turns out I’m already swimming in the sea!
The rain stops as quickly as it came. I look to the horizon, where a rainbow arcs from one point in the Pacific to another, so clear I could lick it.
“Rainbow! Nua nua!” No one else seems to take notice. A second arc appears, lighter and fainter about the first. I shout and point, flapping my arms like a baby bird who hasn’t quite mastered the art of flying.
Rainbows must be a daily occurrence in Nukufetau, especially in the rainy season.
Children continue to swim and splash each other, dunking their heads below the surface. One has found a dead fish, yellow with stripes of white and black. The fish passes between the children’s hands, salty. Its dead eyes fix on no one in particular.
Losite’s family lives in a one-room concrete home that her grandfather built at a perfect angle so as to maximize the passage of the sea breeze. The floor is covered with woven mats that double as a sleeping surface and an eating surface.
Decorating for Christmas happened entirely in the two days before. We hung up a string of multicolored lights around the perimeter of the room and taped a gold and red sign that reads “MERRY CH” to the wall. I don’t know what happened to the “RISTMAS.”
Losite’s dad cut a branch of a bush-like plant from the shore that, when stuck in an empty tin of biscuits filled with sand, served as a tree. We wound more lights around the bush. The whole thing was so simple and beautiful that I almost cried. Being part of a family celebration here in Tuvalu dispelled any loneliness that I had lingering from a non-Thanksgiving in Fiji.
Tuvaluans open their gifts on Christmas Eve. At dusk, Losite’s mother leads us in a long prayer followed by a bigger feast of barbecued chicken and a heaping plate of the local root crop, followed by another blessing.
After the last streaks of barbecue sauce have been licked from the plates, Losite and I, as guests, are in charge of handing out gifts. Each family member has one gift hanging on the tree. Earlier that afternoon, Losite’s sister meticulously wrapped each item in left over lined paper from a school notebook. She sealed the edges with a roll of packing tape, securing each with a handle that could be used to hang the present directly one of the Christmas bush’s branches. Each person’s name is scrawled on the paper in permanent marker in all caps.
We tear at the paper in unison, smiling. Each of the kids opens a packet of corn chips and a lolly pop, which they eat immediately. Losite’s father and I both open a tin of pineapple in sweet sauce. It feels decadent.
“Thank you,” I manage, overcome with an emotion I can’t quite name. I hold on to the tin, the cool cylinder and ridges of its lips a blessing. “You didn’t have to do this.”
I add two gifts to the tree: a beaded necklace, maroon and gold, that I bought from a craftswoman in Suva, and a postcard from Manhattan Beach with 50 AUS$ inside tucked in next to thank you note saying how grateful I was to spend time with this family. I make a point of thanking every person who hosts me, whether in writing or in person. Losite’s mom reads the letter aloud and then hands it to her youngest daughter to read to everyone again.
After that is nap time on the floor––the real festivities don’t start until the early hours. Starting at midnight and going until dawn, local kids gather at the playground with pieces of tin that they use as percussion instruments, the soundtrack for an all-night dance. I am exhausted from the day and only make it through half an hour of shaking it under the stars before I walk home under an upside-down Orion and fall asleep, joyous. All in all, definitely a Christmas I am not soon to forget.
A voice falls out from the darkened bedroom––a voice like dried palm fronds brushing against each other in the wind. Loud. Tumbling. Urgent. The words are one big exhale, a gravely sigh many years in the making.
Make, my hostess, is out celebrating the first day of the year with her friends. New Year’s Eve is a weeklong affair in Tuvalu. I peek into the living room and find everyone else asleep, sprawled across the woven mats that line the floors.
I take a gulp and walk into the bedroom, guided by a single fluorescent bulb hanging in the adjacent kitchen and my desire to be of use. Make’s mother croaks from the bed. I see the outline of her body lying down, feel her eyes on me as I move. I tread lightly, as if that could help. No one is around to translate.
The woman starts again with a stream of Tuvaluan. Rhythmically I hear the same two sentences over and over. I recognize one word: wai. Water.
On a table close to me sits a thermos of boiled water. I pour it into the thermos cup and walk closer. The woman belts out a few more sentences that I have no hope of understanding. She is ninety-five and I am twenty-two and the gulf of language between us is nearly un-crossable. Nearly, but not quite.
I hand her the cup. “Wai.”
Make’s mother sits up slowly, so slowly. The pink, plastic sheets crinkle under her bodyweight, releasing a faint smell of urine. I can see the edge of the adult diaper under her sulu.
She lifts the yellow cup to her thin lips, one hand quaking on the handle. I reach over to steady it and help her drink––three small sips in all. It is still dark, but my eyes are adjusting. Make’s mother rests the cup on top of her bedside table next to a blue crocheted cloth.
She points to the bare light bulb on the ceiling and mimes with her hands turning on a switch. I walk the perimeter of the room until I find it. When the light comes on she smiles and I smile. Up close I can see the texture of her white chin hair, her skin like a piece of roti, pocked with splotches of brown.
Make’s mother continues to speak. I continue to have no idea what she’s saying.
Finally I recognize two words. Igoa and palagni. The first is name. The second is the catchall term for white foreigner.
I point to myself and say my name. “Devi.”
“Devi,” I point.
We continue like this for some time.
Finally I point to myself and say, “America.” Make’s mother nods, as if this was the answer she had been waiting for.
“Window.” She points to the latch that will shut the slats of glass. This I can understand.
“Window!” I hop up to shut the three windows.
Make’s mother smiles. I smile.
She motions for me to leave the room and I do.
I look in moments later to find her huddled in fetal position, eyes pouring over two pieces of paper from a daily prayer booklet. She mumbles the prayers aloud, clutching them like a talisman.
Half an hour later I pass the doorway while brushing my teeth. Make’s mother is asleep, snoring lightly, the prayers on her bedside table next to the glass of water. I dart in to oust the light.
The next morning Make threads her sewing machine, readying herself for a day of hemming dresses. Trying to sound casual, I ask: “What’s your mother’s name?”
“No silly, I know your name! Your mom’s name.”
“Oh, my mum? Her name is Malaika.”
For the next three days I am knocked out with a particularly virulent form of giardia, likely from drinking a bit of contaminated water. I make six miserable trips to the toilet on the first day, read the first book of the Hunger Games, and sleep without memory of when I wake up and when I doze off again.
I am vaguely conscious of the episodes of Australian Master Chef that play on loop in the next room. Not one of these ingredients that the chefs are working with, not one, could be found on this island, I think, bitter and nostalgic for fresh foods. The thought of food turns off my stomach, though, and I roll off to sleep. Make offers me tinned meat for supper, which I politely refuse.
The second day is Sunday, and I know I ought to tell Make why I am sleeping so much and keep refusing her offers for meals. She returns from a post-Church feast at her sister’s house with a plate piled high with rice and chicken in soy sauce, topped with a generous drizzle of catsup.
My burps have turned sulfurous overnight––this is when I know it’s not just the stomach flu. I have to seek out help. Make sets the food at the edge of the mattress. The smell turns my already-queasy stomach.
“Make,” I start, taking a deep breath. “I’m sick.”
I watch her face turn to concern.
“I don’t want you to worry about me, but I’ve had some awful diarrhea.”
“You go to toilet a lot, yes?”
“You should try eating something.”
At dinner I manage rice. Just rice. Three bites, maybe four. Make rides her motorcycle over to the hospital––the one site of medical care on the island––to get some rehydration salts for me from the dispensary. I learn that health care and medications in Tuvalu are completely free.
I start making circuitous routes to the toilet in the back of the house so that I can avoid using the one in Malaika’s room. I am certain that this sickness would kill her, and that is the last thing I want to do. Please, lord of lords, may I not be responsible for the death of this ninety-five year-old woman with the voice like palm fronds.
That night I throw up three times in a row, all rice and water. I step over a frog and two cockroaches in the hallway to make it to the toilet in time. There’s no one to hold back my hair, but fortunately I had the foresight to cut it short a few days before getting sick.
An extended family member of mine once told me, “Devi, you know you’re an adult when you clean up your own puke.” Well, the single bulb above the toilet isn’t functioning, nor is the flusher, and there isn’t a bucket of water nearby to dump down. I am completely beyond hauling a bucket in from the navy-green rainwater container out back; I barely have enough energy to make it back to the mattress in the hallway next to the kitchen where I collapse.
I take comfort in the fact that I have good aim and hope that my hosts won’t be angry. Before I doze off I make a resolution to go to the hospital in the morning. I let myself cry myself to sleep.
One of Make’s nephews laughs out loud to episodes of Mr. Bean playing in the next room. He must be nocturnal.
Monday morning: Make is scheduled for work cleaning rooms at the lodge. I wake up just before she leaves at 7:30, lightheaded from dehydration.
“Make, today I’m going to the hospital, okay?”
“Okay,” she nods, halfway out the door. “Can you close the back door for me?”
It takes me a full hour and a half to leave the house, though, because I keep surrendering to mini-naps. The temperature climbs and I sweat even sitting in front of the fan. A line of Audre Lorde floats into the haze: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
I instruct myself to leave in small steps that seem more manageable than the twenty-minute walk to the hospital. Devi, sit up. Put two feet on the floor. Good. Put your backpack on. Take it off. Lighten the load a bit. No, you really don’t need a harmonica or laptop at the hospital. Good. Sling it back on your shoulders now. Walk the ten steps to the front door. Put on your right shoe. Put on your left shoe. Take a sip of salty water. Take another sip. Now walk.
I take the journey in small chunks, moving slowly. While I’ve never been to the hospital before, there are only two main roads on the crescent-shaped island, so it should be difficult to get lost. I stop by a baker to double check my directions and buy a bun that turns out to be a frosted piece of white bread. I surprise myself by managing to keep it down.
When the woman at the shop sees me sitting at the bench under the awning a good ten minutes after she sold me the bread, she asks, “Did you like it?”
“The bun? Oh, yes. It’s quite a feat, too, because I’m sick.”
She looks at me blankly and smiles. I lick the icing from my fingers.
“Do you make them?”
“Oh, no. My husband does. He bakes and I sell.”
“He must wake up very early in the morning. The bun was so fresh.”
“Yes. Always early. Bread in the dark,” she sighs.
I thank her for the 50-cent bun and trudge onwards towards the hospital. The waiting room is full when I arrive.
“I.D. card?” the woman at the front desk asks.
“Yes, I’m here to see the doctor.”
I pull out my passport and hand it over, grateful that I remembered to bring it, given my current physical and mental faculties.
“D-e-v-i-K.-L-o-c-k-w-o-o-d” she types with her middle finger. “You take a seat now.”
“How long will it be? An hour? Two?”
She smiles, pitiful. “Two or more. Please sit.”
I manage to find a seat at the edge of a bench next to a breastfeeding mother and child and two teens playing cards. The room is clamorous with children. The walls are green. A kid two benches over spits up a red lollypop and wipes it off on his shirt. The adults in the waiting room seem absent or occupied with sicknesses of their own.
Eventually the exertion of sitting upright is too much for me and I have to lie down. I find a spot next to the windows in the back of the room and curl up, using my backpack as a pillow. The last thing I remember before falling asleep is a Tuvaluan woman pointing me out to her neighbor and saying: “Tapa (Wow).”
I open my eyes, disoriented. Green walls. The sun is higher and the room hotter than I remember. To my right a group of Tuvaluan kids sit under a crumbling stairwell, tossing bits of tile at each other. One hits my leg with a clattery thwack and I have to hold myself from getting angry. I half fall asleep again, only to be wakened by another flying piece of tile.
Mercifully the door to consultation room number five swings open and someone with a clipboard calls my name: “Dave Lockwood.” Finally.
I’m not sure where to sit. A Tuvaluan woman with a topknot and colorful scrubs stares at a computer screen with my name in the top right corner.
“What’s your problem?” she asks, still looking at the screen.
She looks over from head to toe and laughs, a full-bellied, hearty chortle. I blink twice, refusing to believe that a healthcare professional is laughing at me.
“Ha––ok. Diarrhea.” She types the word painfully slowly, using only her right pointer finger. “And how many times do you, you know…” she trails off.
“Anywhere between four and eight times a day. Oh, and last night I threw up three times.”
“You puked?” her face contorts into pure disgust. I have to remind myself that I’m not paying for this.
I take a deep breath. “I need Flagyl. I used it once before in Tanzania and it worked for giardia. I have giardia.”
“What is Flagyl?”
“Metronidazole. Do you have that?”
The nurse-doctor spends a few more moments typing at an astoundingly slow rate into the keyboard before looking up at me. “Yes. We have. I give you one dose? Five days enough?”
She sends the document to the printer and hands me the prescription, signing it with a loopy hand.
“Where do I take this?”
“Dispensary. That way,” she points. “Next.”
I amble in the direction her fingers pointed towards, finding a door marked Pharmacy. It is locked. I put my prescription in a pile along with thirty or so others at the window next to the locked door.
An hour later a harried-looking man unlocks the door and scoops up the pile of prescriptions, disappearing into a back room. I’m not the only one waiting, but I am beyond striking up a conversation. When the packet of pills with my name on it arrives at the front window, it is late afternoon and I feel that I have witnessed a small miracle.
I am startled awake in the pre-dawn hours by, of all things, a rat crawling over my leg. The lights are never fully out in the hallway where I sleep in Make’s house, so I can see its furry body clearly, the beady eyes staring up at my own.
I panic––“Jesus!”–– shove it away, and bring my pillow into the room where Malaika sleeps. I curl up on the floor next to Make and her two grandsons, hoping that I am beyond contagion. I don’t seem to be able to protect myself very well on this trip, but the least I can do is look out for the ninety-five year-old woman with the voice like palm fronds who I gave a glass of water.
How do you say, “Tuvalu, you kicked my ass,” in Tuvaluan?