Sunday, June 14, 2009


In a restaurant in Windwardside, Saba; 8 June, 2009; American man regaling friends at dinner:

"It was so dark, I couldn't see anything. I couldn't figure out how the man was steering the boat. It was pitch black. So I asked him, how are you steering the boat? He pointed at the sky and said, the stars. There was, like, one star!

"Eventually we came up to an island. You know what most of those islands are like out there. They're really just sand-banks. It was about a hundred feet long, and it looked deserted. Then on the other end I saw a little shack. It was a bar! So we pull up on the beach and the man gets out and goes into the shack. I can barely hear them talking. I picked up a little Trukese while I was there. And I swear I hear the man behind the bar saying something like, how much for the white man?

[Laughter from dinner companions]

"Finally the man comes out of the shack with a bottle of hooch, three quarters full...."

His friend:

"Don't they still have cannibals out there?"

Saturday, June 13, 2009

So many islands

From my hotel in Oyster Pond, on the east coast of Dutch Sint Maarten, to Cove Bay, on the south coast of Anguilla, it was a little over ten miles, as the seagull flies.

Last Sunday, with my official obligations at the St. Martin Book Fair completed, and the weather perfect for the beach, I decided I'd nip over one island to the north to have lunch with a friend and a swim. The drive from Oyster Pond to Marigot, the capital of French Saint-Martin, took maybe thirty minutes, skirting the island's central hills. The ferry from there to Anguilla leaves every hour or so, and the crossing lasts a mere eighteen minutes.

I sat on the upper deck of the ferry, the better to enjoy the view and the brilliant sunshine. A young American couple sat across from me--honeymooners, I decided--and in front of them sprawled a mixed party of twentysomething holidaymakers--I heard American, British, and Australian accents.

My friend met me at Blowing Point, where the ferry docks, and we drove a few minutes down to Cove Bay and a breezy beachfront restaurant with a stunning view of the sea. I drank two Caribs--brewed in Trinidad--and ate a bowl of delicious pumpkin-corn chowder, and we chatted about this and that. Eventually we strolled down the beach till I found a swimming-spot that caught my fancy. I had a good soak, reflecting that I ought to go to the beach more often at home, and reminding myself to re-read Naipaul's essay on Anguilla in The Overcrowded Barracoon.

The last ferry to Marigot left at 6.15, and by 7.30 I was back at my hotel, with the beginnings of a tan--and with two new stamps in my passport.

Because in order to make this afternoon excursion--far lass onerous than, say, driving from my house in Diego Martin to Blanchisseuse--I crossed two international borders and answered questions from three immigration officers, and the Anguillan customs besides.

On the one hand, it's deliciously absurd, the way the colonial history of the Caribbean has chopped these little islands up into micro-territories divided by language, political systems, and imaginary boundaries--and nowhere more absurd than in the northern Leewards, where my wish for an afternoon swim required me to travel from the Kingdom of the Netherlands via the Republic of France to a British Overseas Territory, and back a few hours later.

On the other hand, I was annoyed and surprised (I suppose I ought to have known) on arriving at Blowing Point to be told by the perfectly pleasant immigration officer that Trinidadians need a visa to stay in Anguilla. (A fellow Caricom member!) Americans don't, British don't; I didn't need a visa for Sint Maarten; I can stay in Britain for six months without one; but not in little Anguilla! Well, I wasn't staying, I pointed out--I was leaving that evening at sunset.

Cautioning me not to miss the 6.15 boat, the nice immigration officer stamped me into Anguilla--with permission to stay no later than that very midnight.

There are so many islands! As many islands as the stars at night....

Friday, June 05, 2009

The box of tea

On 4 June, 1989, the Chinese government sent tanks into Tiananmen Square to clear out the pro-democracy protesters--many of them university students--who for seven weeks had occupied this iconic ground in the middle of Beijing. No one knows how many protesters were arrested, beaten, or killed during what some now call the Tiananmen Square massacre, and many acts of courage and defiance went unrecorded.

On 5 June, as the assault on the protesters continued, a man whose name we don't know did something unbelievably brave. Dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers, carrying what seemed to be a shopping bag in his left hand--had he just left home to run an errand, and inadvertently got caught up in History?--he saw a column of tanks rolling down Changan Avenue into Tiananmen Square, and decided he would try to stop them.

He stepped into the middle of the avenue, right into the path of the tanks, even while other bystanders were fleeing the scene. We don't know what he was feeling or thinking as the tanks steadily bore down upon him, but he looked perfectly calm, as if facing down heavily armoured vehicles were something he did every day. The tanks bore down and he stood still, and for people looking on there were sickening seconds when it seemed the lead tank driver would call the man's bluff and crush him under the vehicle's wheels. But the man stood still, and then, at the last moment, the tank stopped.

We don't know his name, but the world knows about this man's courage because photographers and TV cameramen positioned near Tiananmen Square captured this now-famous encounter. By the next day, tens of millions of people all over the world had seen an image of this little man carrying a shopping bag and facing down not just four army tanks but an entire official apparatus of state oppression.

Yesterday the New York Times published first-hand accounts from four photographers who witnessed this event on behalf of the rest of the world. They took their photos and transmitted them out of China despite the best efforts of government censors and the secret police. One photographer, Charlie Cole, had to wrap his roll of film in plastic and hide it in the toilet tank in his hotel bathroom so the police would not find it. Another, Stuart Franklin, got a student to smuggle his film out of China secreted in a box of tea.

Since I read Franklin's account yesterday, I haven't been able to get that precious box of tea out of my head.

Twenty years ago, photojournalists still shot on film, and to share a life-changing image with the world, they might have had to get that little roll of emulsion-coated cellulose past various physical barriers to a safe media house willing to publish it. In 1989, the photo of "Tank Man" appeared on the front page of the New York Times and many other newspapers, but you had to find a physical copy of the newspaper to see it.

Today, there are millions of people all over the world with access to hardware and software--the right kind of mobile phone will suffice--that allows them to take a photograph or a video clip or write a brief report on an event unfolding before their eyes, and share it almost instantaneously with a global audience of many millions more.

I am proud to be a volunteer for Global Voices, a groundbreaking project harnessing the energy and skills of hundreds of volunteers to amplify the voices of citizen journalists everywhere. Global Voices Advocacy is the branch of GV that supports online freedom of speech and activism; it seeks "to build a network of supporters for online speech rights, provide tools and knowledge to help people avoid or surmount censorship, and understand and navigate the risks and challenges of online speech in repressive environments."

This blog post is part of Zemanta's "Blogging For a Cause" campaign to raise awareness and funds for worthy causes that bloggers care about.

I vote for Global Voices Advocacy, because if events like those in Tiananmen Square in 1989 ever happen in front of my eyes, I hope I can tell the world about them without the intervention of a box of tea.