Sunday, 29 April 2012

Two different Liberia's in one week

A few days ago, Haresh and I went to Gbarnga for a day trip to accompany our staff for a routine maintenance visit to one of our client sites. Incidentally, it was the same day that Charles Taylor was handed a guilty verdict in the Hague and we happened to be in former "Taylor City." Taylor made Gbarnga his capital city of what he called Greater Liberia in the 1990s and apparently made millions of dollars controlling the export of Liberia's timber, diamonds, gold, and other riches. 

I have not been really tuned into international or local news these days and just vaguely realised that I was in Taylor's former capital city the very day he was found guilty for supporting and abetting the civil war in Sierra Leone. 

What was really annoying me more was how much of a village Gbarnga was with its shabby small structures, the merest semblance of a town (not even a city), chickens and ducks running around, dirty dusty dirt roads, garbage littered everywhere and not a single beautiful sight to soothe the eyes. It annoyed the hell out of me. I have seen quite a bit of Liberia courtesy of monitoring trips I used to make when I was employed with the UNDP and also since I joined the private sector. Some towns such as Zwedru and Harper are more interesting but I think Gbarnga is really a dump. 

Perhaps, it was the fact that we were traveling in an un-airconditioned taxi that kept getting stopped at so-called immigration check points and had been slowly baking in the scorching heat and dry dusty winds which made me so grouchy! Perhaps, it was my moral righteousness for being harassed by these officials who dare not stop UN/NGO or private 4x4's. Perhaps, it was my explosion of anger when one of the uniformed officials asked my staff - a young girl in her 20s - for money for a soft drink and she gave him 20 LD and, the subsequent speech which I do not know why I even bother giving whenever I do. "Cecelia, Cecelia, how could you do this, you know our company doesn't believe in corruption!" I implored to her sincerely. I do realise I was probably looking quite comical, huffing and puffing like a chicken over 25 Cents, but what I can do? I always feel like I have to lord over my opinions over everyone, especially poor corrupt officials of poor countries*, not because I either believe corruption can be wiped out or do not have enough intellectual sense to place it in a real context or have a fun approach to finding a more humorous and gentler way to deal with such a situation, but because I am bossy and take things and myself too seriously.  And I have to admit it, I luuurve it. 

By the time we were driving back to Monrovia, I had descended into the "What the heck am I doing in such a dump!" rant. I lamented over having spent almost 10 years of my life in a soul-less, culturally-bankrupt hell hole. I wish I had devoted as much energy in creating a life for myself in any other poor but culturally vibrant and hospitable atmosphere. I went on and on and even Haresh got into the spirit of things and started trashing Liberia. We had a glorious Liberia-dissing fest in our little taxi and got even further delayed due to the traffic madness in Hades (commonly known as Red Light). 

Hardly two days later, Haresh and I were driving out to Kakata in an air-conditioned car we had hired for the day to attend the marriage celebration of two our Liberian friends. The AC and the super-duper farm house where the party was being hosted changed everything. We enjoyed the smooth ride, the thandi thandi hawa of the AC, and got there in style, non-sweaty, non-bothered and in a great mood. I was bowled over by the grand jacaranda-lined entrance of the farm house, the soothing vast scenery of grass and neatly trimmed hedges, and the party scene laid out in the front lawn. Yes, I was in the lap of luxury and this completely changed the way I looked at Liberia.  

I spent a glorious afternoon soaking up the polite society of Liberia. We made our rounds and greeted everyone. The owners of the farmhouse were friends of the groom's family and, really very gracious and welcoming. We also got to meet the couples' parents who were equally wonderful. We made ourselves comfortable on one of the tables in the tents and, engaged with the other guests. 

Mind you, it was a scorcher of a day and I felt I was being baked along with the other guests. There was only a bit of respite from an occasional breeze but overall, it was quite hot but I had a pleasant time  drinking in the party scene while sipping chilled white wine.

There was a table of ladies in purple-lappa dresses with elaborate headdresses. They spent most of the afternoon gently swaying to the music either sitting in their chairs or standing up. When the bride finally arrived, they welcomed her with a song "African women can do it best...socially, politically." It was really endearing. 

There were children everyone. The little girls in their perfectly ironed frocks and head full of pony tails tied with matching ribbons, were the cutest. 

There was a big mama who was jiggling her stuff sitting in her chair. Haresh and I kept signaling towards her with our eyes because it was so amusing to see her exhibit so much excitement and love of rhythm. Later, we saw that she could not resist any more and was out by the speakers and dancing her heart away. Other women joined her and pretty soon, there was a little dance floor out there. It was quite impressive to see that despite her size, our friend was moving and shaking very gracefully. 

I realise I am either attracted to really old people for their stories and ingrained habits and mannerisms or to kids for their innocence. The attraction usually consists of people-studying, striking up conversations and if I am lucky, getting to hear some interesting experiences. That is with the old people. With the kids, I tease them and make faces at them. 

So, I found myself admiring the old people, especially the ladies whose personalities almost leapt off from their jewellery-encrusted fingers, elegant wide-rimmed hats, slightly snobby side profiles, and general fabulousness. The younger lot kept coming and bowing and scraping in front of them. Even I felt like getting up and fetching their drinks for them, so enthralled I was with their majesties. The air was heavy with their expensive musky perfumes and their endearing snootiness. Haresh tried to make a few jokes and strike up conversations with them and, it was quite funny to see him fail with ze ladies. Much later after we had left the elegant-snobby-ladies table, and had finished eating our delicious dessert, Haresh intentionally put his empty plate on that table and I scolded him for being so inconsiderate loudly so that the Madame could watch me do it. She shook her head in disgust and started mumbling something. I was mortified but in retrospect it was funny. 

Who knows, maybe she was the one who told our driver that only "civilised" people were allowed in the guest area. 

There was a very distinguished couple we were seated next to who told us they had ten children. Haresh got quite impressed and the gentleman was bursting at his seams in pride. His wife, though, rolled her eyes, after all, it was she who had to give birth ten times. Whenever I would smooth Haresh's shirt or tell him to behave, she would approve towards my direction. 

So, we passed a fun afternoon mingling with some really interesting people, congratulating the happy couple, and really relishing being in such a beautiful farm house. The house was painted in a warm terra cotta colour and we also got a peak of how beautiful it was inside when we had to use the bathrooms. 

A marriage celebration really is a happy occasion and this was no exception. I guess I was in a good frame of mind to be able to enjoy the atmosphere, appreciate the company of almost everyone there, and feel good about being in someone's home and participate in such an event. The hosts were sincerely gracious and welcoming. 

Even though I have been in Liberia for almost a decade, I feel that I only get a glimpse of the Liberian society now and then. I have always opened up my home to my Liberian colleagues (whether at UNDP or in the private sector) and friends but invitations are very infrequently reciprocated. I have noticed this applies to all classes and find it very strange. I feel that Liberians are very reserved people. The funny thing though is that this couple whose marriage celebration we attended, do not even know us that long! In short, I find it hard to understand Liberian people when it comes to hospitality and generosity, something which most cultures are proud of. It is a bit unpredictable. 

As a final note, though, I am really glad we had such a wonderful end to our week. I'll always remember the scorching hot afternoon on that beautiful farmhouse, sipping chilled white wine, surrounded by elegant old ladies decked out in all their glory. 

* That is not entirely true. I also feel I must lord over officials of rich countries. My brother and I were taking a flight out of Dubai to Shiraz, Iran back in 2008 and I was shocked to see that a 'white guy' had cut the line and was allowed to proceed at the immigration check. I made a huge scene and was taken on the side. While my brother cringed at my ridiculous and disrespectful behaviour, I continued to insult the official and started verbally attacking his short stature in every sense. The guy threatened to arrest me. I became further infuriated and would have punched the guy but my brother managed to cool me down and bring me to my senses at the scary prospect of being thrown into a UAE prison. Thank God, he is a lawyer and had the frame of mind to think things through. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

My psychotic red and soothing turquoise dream came true. Yay!

It has been about a month and a half since we shifted our office into a bigger and more fabulous space and we have started transforming the old space into a proper apartment. After living in a room for two years and making polite jokes about "I live where I work, no wait, I work where I live," I am really relieved, ecstatic and rather over excited to finally have an apartment to decorate and lord over.  

The apartment has a huge open living room,  a balcony, a kitchen, 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. It really is a decent-sized flat. After all, it served as a full-functioning office since 2009 and I had only one room to myself in which I could take off my owner-and-manager-of-an-IT-company hat. 

Almost all the traces of it ever having hosted an IT office are gone and everyone who comes over is shocked to see it. Gone are the yellow walls and replaced with a pale blue/turquoise and deep red combination. Gone are the desks, the shelves, the cables, and the files and instead, we have a living and dining space where we can display our quirky belongings, host dinner parties and watch TV. 

I have been obsessed with creating a stylish and chic apartment ever since we got the apartment back, wanting to unleash two years worth of domestic creativity that was trapped in that one room which served as a sleeping, TV-watching, dressing, and reading room. 

Every night I would spend hours intensely browsing at pictures of apartments and homes for inspiration. One of my favourite sites thusfar is the fantastic I also really like House of Turquoise

I love how creative people can be when it comes to their homes and it is really not about buying expensive furniture and pieces for your home but about one's own personal style and its expression. These sites, especially Apartment Therapy, has some great pictures of living rooms, bedrooms and nooks. Cool apartments are those that do not follow any rules. These spaces reflect the owners' passions and interests. All kinds of textures, objects and colours are thrown in together to create a certain mood and project a certain fantasy. And let's not forget, you want a fabulous apartment to show off to everyone how creatively clever you are which is exactly what I am determine to do.. 

Infused with all kinds of midnight-internet-surfing and two-years-of-bubbling-creativity, I embarked on apartment therapy and apartment snobbery of my own, assisted by a few decorating sidekicks, which includes Haresh (or Radish, as Mama Susu likes to call him). 

Not only am I relishing (I type this with my eyes closed, lips slightly parted in apartment ecstasy) being able to live in an entire apartment of my own again but also enjoying being in what I think is an exceptionally cool and cozy space. 

How did I come up with this marvelous colour combo for the walls? Well, please don't laugh but I was watching the Indian flick "Robot" with Rajnikant and Aishwarya Rai and there's a dreamy track with the two prancing on a pristine white beach with turquoise waters. I first thought of painting the walls an ocean blue and later, decided on off setting such a pale and tranquil colour with some intense red drama to reflect the two sides of my crazy moody personality.

I started muttering "deep red, cool blue, cool blue, deep red" over and over to myself and started fantasising about my apartment until we went and got the paint from Chicri Brothers in Vai Town. These guys have all the colours you can think of so you can  effectively convert your apartment dreams into reality. They had a Burgandy Red and two shades of turquoise; it was quite expensive though, $ 45/gallon. We spent $ 500.00 on painting the living room and re-did our balcony in a terra cotta orange. Gulp! but well worth it.

There is an off-tangent but extremely nostalgic and amazing story to be told here regarding Chicri Brothers. This is apparently Haresh's first (and only) employer when he was a young kid of 17, newly come to Liberia for a job. He was staying across the bridge and was promised that he would be hooked up with potential employers very soon but he got fed up after a month of waiting - during which he furiously smoked an entire box of cigarettes - and proceeded to find a job himself. He actually struck lucky on the first day of job hunting and with the very first door he knocked on: Chicri Brothers. He worked there for almost a year and at that time, the business was the authorised dealer for Volvo. For most of the time he worked on taking stock of all the Volvo parts. After a year, he started his own business of Volvo spare parts. (No, I am just kidding.)

So there we were, buying paints for our apartment at Chicri Brothers, a place where Haresh got his first job. He was getting pretty misty remembering his boss and how loved to smoke cigars and looked like a movie star. He met a former co-worker who has been working at Chicri Brothers the whole time and never left.  Talk about continuity!

Continuing with my story about my apartment, I am truly enjoying the luxury of having separated my home and work spaces. Sure, it was really fun and adventurous in the beginning when I decided to take over my dear Wesley's IT company, in a fit of lucidity, after he was killed; I had witnessed the birth and evolution of Wes' company that set and maintained standards of excellence and trained from scratch dozens of IT techies. I made the decision to give it  shot - to see whether I could keep the dream alive.

Hence, I immediately took over the company after Wesley's funeral. I shifted NLTC (now known as NATC) from its premises to the apartment in order to live and work in the same space and save costs. This is the apartment where Wesley was murdered by 2 Chinese criminals on Sunday, 6 September 2009 in this very apartment and since, then, I and the IT company moved in there. I've run the show from here since then.

My life became stripped down to the essentials. I was living out of a room in a very basic apartment with the most basic necessities. I enjoyed all the challenges that came with it, especially having to live so simply. Living in the same apartment where Wesley was gruesomely murdered did not freak me out too much either. Over the time, the business started to pick up, I added new clients, I constantly made efforts to keep the apartment-office into a smart-looking place of work, even entertained guests in the balcony and consciously made happy memories. It felt a bit like constructing a new city on the ruins of an ancient one. The apartment is like my own Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, built on the layers of 7 older cities.

But, two years of living and working out of the same space is long enough and I am tremendously relieved that my self-imposed challenge is over. I get my life back, yes sir! To hell with living simply. Dafa karo! I want to have a stylish apartment with lots of lamps, lots of funky artwork on my crazy-coloured walls, and shelves and shelves and shelves of my collections of books and DVDs. I am a compulsive collector and love displaying the junk.  I want to be able to come home after work and just crash in front of the TV. I want to host dinner parties with enough space to go around. I am enjoying having a guest room (in fact, Haresh and I just hosted a friend from Pakistan) which I have taken extra care to decorate. I love having a huge wardrobe and a couple of dressers to arrange more neatly my clothes and shoes. It's wonderful to have things organised and in their place. I recently organised my DVDs into themes and it was just SO FREAKINGLY COOL to see my amazing collections proudly displayed. What a kick I got!

I am also fortunate to also have an easy-going partner who is helping me to indulge my pleasures. He is doing all the work: he got the carpenter to make some new furniture for us and, it all turned out beautifully. Yess!

I look forward to enjoying my apartment for a long time to come. I love it so much I don't feel like going out at all these days. After our hectic days, Haresh and I come home at around 6 PM. We proceed straight to our wonderful terrace which is on the roof of our building, have our evening tea and cookies, and watch the sun go down. We then come down and eat dinner at home  (we also happen to be amazing cooks), have some Sharks ice-cream, and watch TV and go to sleep.