Just ask for the time: Recollections of a journey

16 November 2008

This is to greet friends old and new with the tale of a journey that took me far. It covered many miles and wondrous sights in Costa Rica, San Francisco, Hawai’i and New York. It is about lasting friendships that were made in Geneva. In part they date back more than thirty years; yet our meetings felt like yesterday.

It is also about the notion of the extended family and its particular meaning in the context of the United Nations and its international organizations for which many of us have served the common cause. In so doing we have lived and are retired in voluntary exile often far from home and our loved ones. In this sense it may stimulate some likewise experiences to share amongst the wider audience of the readership…

This trip sprang from a friend’s invitation sometime last year to participate in the 2003 St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. In the spirit of Irish sisterhood I willingly accepted. That was to be it. Through the wonders of electronic mail and chatting across the globe further ideas developed. A flood of new invitations arrived much too difficult to decline. That set in motion a process about how practically to put them in place keeping in mind time constraints and extended absence from home. Some help from the computer and a quick revision of geography were essential. I was then set to pay my first visit to a local travel agent Priorities were cost control and how best to juggle with different time zones. Also the logistics on my part required arranging the trip to end rather than begin in New York. It took some fine tuning but three weeks later all was set. I then had to wait, somewhat impatiently, to depart. What follows goes from end to beginning. That may be a bit of the Irish.

Hail to St. Patrick: l7 March dawned as a glorious spring day and continued in like manner. In honour of our dear little isle, the city and much else turns green. It was an early start from Connecticut and a great experience to find myself mid-morning with and amongst friends in the buzzing thoroughfares of New York to wait our turn joining the parade. Fifth Avenue and other streets come to a commercial halt for most of the day. The city is ablaze with colour and flags of green, white and gold. A huge variety of skirted and whirling musicians in great numbers were present with drum and piper bands from places both local and more distant. A number of ceremonial groups representing the New York police, fire and civic institutions were all appreciated and warmly applauded. Sidewalks are no longer paved with gold but the parade is well served flanked by large crowds of smiling, colourful and flag waving supporters of our island all routing for things Irish on that very special day. I was happy and proud to be there and specially to be in the company of my steadfast friend and the university group who had invited us to join the parade. They made wonderful hosts.

I stayed over in New York to relish more of the adventures and excitement of the Big Apple. It is well described as the city that never sleeps. I enjoyed a show or two on Broadway with its glitter and bustle day and night. I took the subway to what is now known as Ground Zero, a site and sight, sad to see after the tragedy of that fateful other day too close in memory for anyone to forget. Now gone, the World Trade Centre will be reborn of its ashes. From that gaping hole, hope has sprung and the work has already begun.

Hawai’i had been my previous stop. What a great place to hang loose. That is the Hawaiian expression for having fun, using a special hand sign called shagri, I think. I will not easily forget my introduction to Aloha and the warm welcome with the traditional necklace of orchid lei on arrival. It was a week with my ex-WHO Geneva friend and her husband now both in retirement on Big Island. It is said to be one of the most isolated islands on earth. That is how it felt and everything to dream about. As the youngest of the islands it is also known as baby island. A long day’s bus tour around the island gave a good overview with an enthusiastic and talkative guide. He never stopped. We learned a lot about Big Island and much more. With its active Kilauea Volcano in continuous eruption since l983 it is a moving and expanding place. I heard about Pele, Goddess of fire and volcanoes. Beware! Much of the island’s surface is hard grey volcanic matter. It has more to offer from its tropical rainforests to arid deserts, high grasslands to snow-capped peaks. The centuries old Parker Ranch covers thousands of acres with herds of cattle and other breeds grazing over its vast areas of hill and green plains. Need I emphasize the attraction of its warm climes, beautiful palm tree bays and residential resorts. The time of my stay was right to share the excitement of spotting whales visible from the shoreline. They had come for reproduction to

warmer waters of the Pacific. There were also dolphins and huge sea turtles, the latter lumbering in and out of the ocean. A big event had been the birth of a baby dolphin just ten days old that we were able to see on a visit to the Hilton beach resort, another welcoming place. The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf born in the early morning hours of March 3 was later to be named Pukanala,. The Hawaiian name translated means rising sun. The calf was the third born to Iwa at the Hilton Waikoloa Dolphin Quest Lagoon where there is a dolphin quest protection and educational programme. There is huge marine conservation in the area with strict controls for ecological protection.

Captain James Cook discovered Big Island in l778 which forever changed the history of the place. Since those earlier times today’s island is a much friendlier place. It permeates Aloha and the blending of races and cultures from around and beyond the Pacific Rim. I was impressed by that during my short visit and watched an informal evening of hula local song and dance in true Hawai’ian style on my last evening. I was also touched by Aloha and the great hospitality which I received. It made me sad to leave.

It was my second visit to San Francisco to see my ex-ILO Geneva friend there. She lives in what is known as the bay area at Tiburon, a very restful and nice place to be. With her daughter and friendly dog we had a fun reunion. I was again lucky to enjoy a few days of bright but slightly cool weather with lovely panoramic views from her apartment over the bay. Sometimes it can be shrouded in the famous San Francisco mist. Twice I have been lucky. I enjoyed strolling in and around San Francisco and to discover the hidden and less hidden charms of Fisherman’s Wharf. The piers are busy with ferries and boats plying the bay. A favourite destination is the old penitentiary of Alcatraz which is never far away. The antics and noise of the large colony of California sea lions camped out on floating decks are great amusement for all to see. They arrived in the area in small numbers shortly after the l989 San Francisco earthquake, still recent enough for most to remember. Since then their numbers have grown and now total around 600. They are in a protected environment which no doubt accounts for the huge growth of the colony. It was also fun to ride the cable cars in a lively and animated city with something for all tastes. It has wide open spaces and an enormous public park offering varied leisure activities including a golf course. Its ocean views and beaches are attractive while not forgetting its famous Golden Gate Bridge which you can walk across. On a clear day its dimensions and viewpoints are indeed spectacular.

Locally called the blue dog, I took the Greyhound bus for an overnight stop to Monterey to John Steinbeck country and to visit another local beauty spot named Carmel near Salinas, Steinbeck’s birthplace. I wasn’t disappointed. Known as Pacific Grove, that part of the coastline, is considered to be one of the most natural and beautiful in California. I was lucky to be driven along the tourist route known as the l7 Mile Drive and through the famous Pebble Beach Golf club. Small deer roam the greens and its surrounds quite freely. There are large colonies of water seals to be seen and heard close to the shoreline and sunning out with their young on rocks in the shallow waters and local harbours. The area is under marine and ecological conservation to protect its natural and unspoilt beauty. I was grateful and happy to have made the visit.

The first leg of my trip was to San Jose in Costa Rica at the invitation of my ex-ILO colleague who still works there. It was combined with a courtesy call to the wider ILO family at the local office many of whom I had known from Geneva. It was a wonderful reception and almost like a homecoming from all concerned. It had been a long flight from Geneva with connections via Madrid and Miami so I was pleased to rest a while before starting to explore some of what there was to see and do in and close to the capital. My hosts took good care on that score and I learned and saw a lot in the short time available.

Situated between the Pacific ocean and Caribbean sea, Costa Rica is a small and very peaceful country in Central America. Its capital San Jose is in the region of the Central Valley. From there we visited one of the country’s national parks high in the mountains to see the volcanic site at Irazu, just one of several on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. Recent signs of life have been recorded in the bowels of the crater. Against a hot and blue sky, its grey and desolate landscape of powdered volcanic ash felt like being on the surface of the moon. That was a new experience for me. We also toured the countryside, visited coffee plantations and other local and historical places. We bathed in hot thermal spring baths in a lovely area somewhere in the hills. We were able to enjoy two days at a resort called Jaco on the Pacific coast with long sandy beach and hot sea. That was also an experience. From Jaco I took a couple of trips, one to an exotic mountain tropical botanical garden with an enthusiastic and informative guide. I experienced something of the rain forest and learned about Pura Vida, the sweet life. I also appreciated an exciting day trip for a jungle river cruise to view crocodiles and other animals, birds and wildlife in their natural habitat Binoculars were provided not to miss anything of even the smallest of creatures. It was fascinating. I took the bus back to San Jose with local people for company. The drive was tortuous but interesting and very lively. Then night fell. Before leaving, in the company of another acquaintance from Geneva, my hostess treated us to a lovely dinner evening in the hills above San Jose to enjoy colourful local folklore of dance and song and to taste many of the different dishes and food specialties of Costa Rica. An evening to remember. I hope we can return the hospitality and generosity before too long.

In the nature of the international family and our small and shrinking world, let me recount the anecdote of meeting a colleague in Jaco as mentioned above. In the early afternoon on an almost deserted beach, I stopped a lady with two children whom I considered safe to ask for the time in English. She replied by asking “ Ita, what are you doing here? ” I felt quite disoriented until realizing the connection of our having been work colleagues in ILO Geneva. It lead to a pleasant ten minute or so walk along the beach while catching up with each other before continuing our separate ways. She too would recount the tale when she returned.

This concludes my piece, available in English and French, on Recollections of a journey. It may also prove that someone in our United Nations family is always close by. Just ask for the time.

Ita Marguet, March 2003