It was one book that called me to visit the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago – The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. I read it in early 2011, after having spent almost a year in South Korea teaching English. I was getting ready to leave Korea for good, but before returning home, I planned to embark on a trip to India.
Trinidad & Tobago is a dual-island Caribbean nation near Venezuela, with distinctive Creole traditions and cuisines. It doesn’t rely on tourism as do most Caribbean islands. The Trinidadian economy is primarily industrial with an emphasis on petroleum and petrochemicals; much of the nation’s wealth is derived from its large reserves of oil and natural gas.
Here is the post that I wrote on February 20, 2011 on my blog catbird in korea. Here I talk about how The White Woman on the Green Bicycle reflected my feelings about Korea.
I can’t get no satisfaction…
I am walking down the main highway in front of Keimyung University, trying to get some exercise, trying to get my bad knee used to taking long walks in preparation for my upcoming trip to India. On my iPod Nano, Mick Jagger is singing “I can’t get no satisfaction.” And I am singing right along with him, with no care in the world that the Koreans passing by me on the street may think I’m crazy. I just don’t care anymore.
I’m feeling good and the air is crisp and cool, but not as frigid as it usually is in February in Korea. And I realize this song is an echo of my feelings about Korea and why I am so happy to be leaving here in 8 more days.
I have had a great adventure here in Korea. I have traveled all over the country, explored many nooks and crannies that even native Koreans have never seen. I have been able to travel to 5 other Asian countries while I’ve been here: Turkey (1/2 Asian, anyway), China, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia. I will travel to India on my way home, so including Korea, that will make 7 countries total. I have made many new friends, both Koreans and expats, and have learned that I have the ability to be flexible enough to survive in a foreign country.
On the other hand, I have endured a horrible 1 1/2 hour commute each way every day for the last six months. I have struggled with loneliness. I have missed my children. I have had to work in conditions no Westerner would ever expect to work in, namely, a classroom that is not properly heated in winter and not air-conditioned in summer. I have been surrounded by people who I know have been learning English for the past 20 years, yet refuse to speak a word in case they make a single mistake.
I finished reading a great novel in early February called The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. I bought it in the Siem Reap Airport in Cambodia. In this book, a husband and wife, George and Sabine Harwood, move to the Caribbean island of Trinidad from England. George is immediately seduced by the enticing island, with her lush curvaceous mountains and tropical greenery. Sabine, on the other hand, feels uneasy and heat-fatigued.
She describes her arrival to the island in 1956. Her stomach is twisted in knots. She is frightened. She describes the heat: “Hot countries I knew, European countries. But this heat was indecent, like breath or fingers. Hands on me, touching me.” (p. 198) She describes how she wards off boredom by cleaning her tiny flat until it is immaculate. Shopping, she encounters strange unlabeled fruits and vegetables, “forlorn and shriveled” or “root-like bulbs, dirty and hairy.” Tomatoes “a little rotten” and cauliflowers “heat-tired and turning brown.” The shelves are dusty and sparse. She can’t understand the accents of the locals and she feels like they are all staring at her as if she’s some kind of apparition. She feels the locals won’t engage with her, as if she is an irritant.
At the markets, which resemble a “mass of bees swarming,” where the bright sun is “polishing the black bodies,” she sails by on her green bicycle, “a white ghost in their midst.” Her face flushed “with the embarrassment of not knowing the rules.”
While reading this book, I can relate to Sabine’s experience, though the setting is different. In Korea, everywhere are swarms of shiny black hair, straight and gleaming and lovely. I feel like an albino walking around with my whitish hair. Everyone wears black or dark and subdued colors. Things seems dark and depressing. The only bright colors are on the garish signs written in Hangul, all of primary colors and punctuating the city streets like childish cartoons.
The Koreans all sit quietly and primly on the metro. They barely acknowledge I am there, such an obvious outsider. The young girls at the university wear the tiniest skirts imaginable and their legs seem to stretch to the heavens. Young couples wear matching shirts or even specially ordered matching outfits. I find these things annoying. Koreans on the street look at me briefly, but then avert their eyes, as if I have some unsightly deformity.
It’s almost as if I am floating above and observing this strange world. I’m removed, not really a part of society here. I will never fit in. I will be a curiosity at best, an anomaly. Sometimes I look at the strange people in what to me is a strange land and wonder what on earth I am doing here. I’m sure they look at me in this land of theirs that is perfectly normal and everyday, and wonder what is this stranger doing here, interloping in their town. Sometimes they are very friendly, happy to say “Hi” or “Hello” in chipper voices. Other times they regard me coldly and with irritation. Sometimes they touch my hair and wonder why I don’t dye it. They wonder why I’m different. They are fascinated by the hair on my arms. I do not meet their ideals of uniformity. In this society, individuality is frowned upon. Conformity is pervasive. I don’t conform and I never will.
Yet. This is how I have chosen to live. It doesn’t seem as bad, somehow, to NOT belong in Korea. In the U.S., where I also feel that I don’t fit in, it seems much worse. Back home I’m expected to fit. I should fit, shouldn’t I? After all, I’m an American. Here in Korea, I expect NOT to fit in. Because my expectations are such, it is not as painful to be outside of things. It’s the nature of the life I have chosen. Here I have an excuse to be different, to be on the outside. In the U.S., I have no excuse. Yet. It is the case that in the U.S., I always feel slightly removed from people, like I’m on the outside looking in. This is how I’ve felt most of my life. But here, I’m not so disappointed about this. In the U.S., it’s disheartening, depressing. Disturbing, even. But here, well, it’s okay.
I wonder if this is how other expats feel. Like they’re an outsider no matter what they do. Reading this book about the white woman on the green bicycle gave me a friend in Sabine Harwood. She’s an expat, though fictional, who says it like it is. I feel not so totally alone when I read her story, share her outlook, her experience.
It’s true. Here in Korea, I can’t get no satisfaction. But in the character of Sabine Harwood, I feel some relief to know I’m not in this alone.
In the book, I found George Harwood’s descriptions of Trinidad interesting: “George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. … Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.” (p. 78).
At another point, we see Trinidad through George’s eyes: “He preferred these wild emerald hills, the brash forests, the riotous and unpredictable landscape of Trinidad to the prim hazy pastures of his own country, England. He wanted this bold land. Not the mute grey-drizzle of Harrow on the Hill. He liked the extrovert people, not the prudish and obedient couples his parents had mixed with. He felt alive here, unlike Sabine.” (p.51).
At one point Sabine describes the island: “I watched the green mountains all around. Voluptuous, the undulating hills of a woman. I saw her everywhere, this green woman. Her hips, her breasts, her enticing curves.” (p. 261). But her views are from inside, as she sits nervously smoking a cigarette looking through her windows at torrential rains, in the midst hurricane warnings. She doesn’t feel relaxed; she’s on edge.
Trinidad and Tobago was presented in this novel with all its good and bad; through the eyes of George, it was enticing. Through Sabine’s eyes, it was unsettling, even frightening.
So what made me want to go? I had been many times to the Bahamas, and had seen what George described, what is common in most Caribbean islands: “black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside,” flat crystal beaches, boutique hotels.
After all my travels, I have tired of touristy places, and the non-touristy nature of Trinidad and Tobago enticed me. I have grown impatient with crowds, and long lines, and seeing things that everyone else wants to see.
Thus it appealed. I got to work reading all about it, and deciding whether we should go. After researching it, we would have to make a decision.
“THE CALL TO PLACE” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about what enticed you to choose a particular destination. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments. If your destination is a place you love and keep returning to, feel free to write about that. If you want to see the original post about the subject, you can check it out here: imaginings: the call to place.
Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, April 22 at 1:00 p.m. EST. My next “call to place” post is scheduled to post on Thursday, April 23.
If you’d like, you can use the hashtag #wanderessence.
This will be an ongoing invitation, on the fourth Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired!
- Sheetal, of Sheetalbravon, wrote about how she was called by the macabre (grainy black and white photos of humans and animals frozen in surprise during their final moments) to visit Pompeii.
Thanks to all of you who wrote posts about “the call to place.”
It sounds like a good read, and I actually remember your original post as Catbird, Cathy. It seems a long time ago! I’ve never been to the Caribbean but would always have liked a look. Thanks for taking me along with you. 🙂 🙂
I’m surprised you remember that first post, Jo! It was a very long time ago, nearly 10 years! Too bad we’d end up not going, but it was fun to dream. If we had gone, we would have been there in mid-March, right in the middle of the pandemic! So our decision not to go worked out for the best. 🙂
Some things are surely meant to be, Cathy. 😊 When I first started following you I read a lot of your old posts because you had such fascinating experiences. 💕
Those were the days of interesting experiences, that’s for sure, Jo. Life is always interesting, I guess, though sometimes interesting in a not-so-good way. 🙂
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Reading books is the best way to educate and entertain ourselves during these uncertain times. As we don’t have a TV, traveling accross the comfort of my armchair is what fuels my wanderlust too. Thanks for sharing, yet another great book for my reading list. Aiva 😊
Hi Aiva. Thanks for stopping by to visit. I agree that reading books is a great way to learn, grow, and entertain ourselves, especially now that we’re all “staying at home!” I love to read books set in foreign locales as a great way to get an insight on a culture before visiting, and to relive my visit once I return. Reading also takes me to places I might never go otherwise. Thanks for your comment. 🙂
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I love your journal! 🙂
Thanks, Pit! 🙂
What a lovely post! The best way to experience a country I always feel is through novels, that is, the sort of novels that get under the skin of a place. Mostly these seem to be crime novels – or maybe I read too many crime novels! Anyway, you’ve given me another book to add to that ever-growing list of books to read. Thank you.
I love to read novels to “get under the skin” of a place, Mari. I think a well-written novel delves deep into a place that you may only skim the surface of while traveling. I’m not a crime novel reader myself, but I’m sure they are very telling. I do love the Tana French novels. My list of books to read expands more than I will ever be ever to actually read!
I enjoy good book reviews. Thank you for this good review.
Thanks so much, Christopher. 🙂
What an interesting piece! I have heard of that book, and the cover is instantly recognisable, but had no idea what it was about. One I would definitely pick up in future. I also enjoyed, and empathised with, your descriptions of being other, an outsider. I realise I uses to feel that way, but now it has left me and I don’t know when. You have given me something to think about.
Lucky for you that the feeling of being outside has left you. I loved the feeling of that book, and loved that in my situation I could so relate to it. 🙂
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Here’s a couple of other novels I’d suggest you read:
The Hummingbird Tree;
Green Days by the River;
Crick Crack, Monkey;
A House for Mr. Biswas;
The Wine of Astonishment.
All postcolonial novels based in Trinidad written by Trinidadian novelists. And Tobago is more tourist oriented, Trinidad not so much.
Hope you enjoy 🙂
Thank you so much, Rachel, for these additions to my reading list. I always do two posts when I’m preparing to travel to a place. The second one, besides this one (call to place) is: https://wanderessence.com/2020/03/27/anticipation-preparation-trinidad-tobago/
In this post, I always include an extensive book list. I had some of your recommended books already on my list, but I didn’t have The Hummingbird Tree or Crick Crack, Monkey, which I will now add. Thank you for those. Yes, I understood from my reading that Trinidad is less touristy than Tobago. Ultimately, we decided against going this year, which turned out to be a good thing as we might have been stuck there due to coronavirus! Hopefully we’ll be able to go another year. Are you from there?
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