My Irish father and mother were born in the last century, in 1911 and in 1914 respectively so my father would have been 7 years old at the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 which appears to have been the worst global pandemic since the Black Death or Bubonic Plague which ravaged Europe and killed 25 million people between 1347 and 1351at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Back in 1918, approximately 20,000 people died in Ireland from the Spanish Flu while 800,000 were infected out of a population of about 4 million but I have no recollection of my parents ever mentioning the effect of the pandemic on their lives or that of their parents or grandparents.
And then there was WWII and my parents, along with most of neutral Ireland, survived that too, although my mother had stories of crouching, terrified, under the stairs when Germany bombed the North Strand in Dublin in 1941, only a few hundred metres from where she lived in Whitworth Road. My father, on the other hand, mentioned that while he was in theIrish equivalent of the British Home Guard or Dad’s Army, the Local Security Force (LSF) the worst thing he had to endure was the filthy language some of the men used!
Then in 1958, when I was 5 years old, the world was rocked once again by the Asian Flu Pandemic with 2 million estimated deaths worldwide but once again, I and my family remained untouched.
In 1967 I jumped out of the second floor of an abandoned building in Sea Point, near where I lived at the time, and broke three bones in my left leg and left arm and spend the entire summer, lying on my back, swathed in plaster of paris and the Hong Kong Flu Pandemic, with another death toll of one million, passed me by once again, although I do remember the public warning advertisements on TV of ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’.
HIV / AIDS struck in 1981 or thereabout but I was living in semi isolation in a kampong on the north-east coast of Malaysia at that time, without newspapers or radio (I didn’t get a telegram telling me of my father’s death until a week after he had been cremated) and was totally unaware of what was happening world wide where 25 million died of AIDS while millions more are living with HIV.
Then in 2000, I moved to Hong Kong to live and work when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2003, infecting over 8,000 people in a matter of weeks and taking approximately 750+ people’s lives. I remember being ‘inconvenienced’ in several ways then – my favourite Australian bar in Kowloon closed down, I had to wear a face mask when teaching and my new wife refused to accompany me back to HK in April 2003 after we got married in Perth, Australia but once again, the angel of death seemed to have passed me – and all of mine – by once again.
Although SARS did not claim a large number of lives, it changed the way the world responds to global spread of infectious diseases. Like today’s COVID-19, SARS was caused by the coronavirus, and was spread much like the common cold, through close person-to-person contact and respiratory coughs and sneezes.
In November of 2019, I managed to tear the Achilles Tendon in my (again) left leg and while that was getting better, I somehow ruptured the tendon in my other leg in late February 2020 and have been wearing an orthopaedic ‘moon’ boot ever since. So this recent COVID-19 pandemic, of which I took a fairly unalarmed view initially until my nursing daughter compared it to the Black Death, has once again passed me by as I am house-bound, barely able to hobble around the house and garden. Nevertheless, the extraordinary lock-downs and social isolations the world is experiencing, the incredible impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives and livelihood, the mounting loss of life worldwide and the ever increasing restrictions on daily life imposed by governments in an attempt to stem this tide of disease, death and destitution is impacting upon us all.
Home isolation is easy for me now, crippled temporarily as I am, as are the other restrictions but I wonder how well I will cope once I am mobile again.
Throughout history, there have been tumultuous waves of change (The Flood?) – from the wave of agriculture that transformed the world from that of hunters and gatherers to that of the industrial and later technological and communicative waves that revolutionised the way we live. Other waves too, of mass emigration for example, which so recently threatened to overwhelm Europes’s borders, have threatened to swamp us, ever since the first people left the Rift Valley in Africa and set out to people the world, and the barbarians broke through the natural frontier of the Rhine to bring about the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century but, like all waves, pandemics too typically slow and come to an end on their own, though the process may be accelerated through effective preventive strategies, such as the measures world governments are putting in place right now.
So, in the words of, I think, Winston Churchill, ‘if you are going through Hell, don’t stop, keep going’ and, above all, stay safe and well.
I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).
Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember thebuzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.
On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest
island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.
Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!
With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialisedbut it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.
A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory, should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.
Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.
So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.
Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish
for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!
I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time andused only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearlya week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!
A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!
And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?
Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s
southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.
Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.
Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!
Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!
I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.
I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!
The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.
Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rums(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.
From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.
Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.
Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..
Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.
Macau casinos held no
attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.
Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to beoyster omelettes!
Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.
In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.
So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.
This is a standard Malaysian kampong style recipe and while it is called a curry or “gulai” no commercial curry powder is used. Instead the exquisite flavour comes from the dried spices and seeds, which are traditionally pounded in a stone mortar, mixed with the dried chillies, fresh ginger, garlic and lemon grass, or serai, and santan, or coconut milk, in Malay.
My experience with coconuts before living in S.E. Asia was limited to the hard, hairy nut we would buy once a year on Hallow’een when I was a child. Then, my father would use a corkscrew to punch through two of the three small depressions at the top of the nut so that he could drain out the juice before labouriously cracking open the shell with several increasingly hard blows of the hammer until, misjudging his blows, the shell would suddenly shatter and pieces of it would fly around the kitchen. The thin, insipid water drained from the shell was what I mistakenly then thought was coconut “milk”.
I remember goggling with amazement when my neighbour in the kampong, demonstrated the ease with which he unhusked a coconut and then sliced it open, evenly and cleanly, with one blow of his parang. The so-called milk was poured into a rusty basin for his goats to drink and then the real magic of the nut appeared.
Sitting astride what looked suspiciously like a stripped down bicycle frame with a heavy, rounded, metal grater knob emerging from where the handlebars had been, Mamu would rotate and rub each half of the shell over the grater, scraping out the firm white flesh inside the shell. Two cups of water were added and stirred around this mound of grated coconut in a large basin. The kneaded and squeezed mixture strained through a fine sieve resoled in 2 cups of a brilliant, white, thick, deliciously sweet milk, called the first squeezing or the cream. Two more cups of water and the mixture kneaded and squeezed one more time, resulted in a much thinner liquid called the milk. For most people, it will be much easier to just buy a can of coconut cream or milk from the local Asian supermarket.
Delicately flavoured lemon grass can be grown in most back yards or bought in Asian supermarkets either fresh, dried or bottled and adds a wonderful flavour to a host of Asian dishes. The stalk is quite fibrous, so remove the tough outer husk and then smash the inner stalk with the back of a cleaver to release the flavour before adding it to the mortar.
In most S.E. Asian cooking, the spices are pounded and ground daily so that the sudden thumping of pestles and mortars traditionally done, squatting on the floor, echoes throughout the afternoon in the village.
In Malaysia, I used tenggiri, a glorious, firm fleshed variety of deep sea Spanish Mackerel. Albacore is the name used in West Australia for this beautiful, white-fleshed fish. Grilled, fried, baked or curried, it requires serious over-cooking before it falls apart.
So honoured in S.E. Asian waters that it was the subject of a North Vietnamese Stamp, and may still be, for all I know. It is usually sold cut into thick, plate-sized steaks but any firm fleshed, white fish can be used.
I kg Spanish mackerel cut into steaks
3 tsp. of coriander seeds
2 tsp. fennel seeds
8 small red shallots
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
I tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. turmeric powder
5 dried red chillies, soaked for 5 minutes in hot water and then deseeded
2 stalks of lemon grass
Thumb size knob of fresh ginger
2 cups of coconut cream
Salt, to taste
2 cups coconut milk
1 Tbsp. of oil
Fresh coriander (garnish)
Pound the shallots, garlic, ginger, dried red chillies and lemon grass in a mortar, (or whiz in a food processor, if you prefer) Mix the dried spices – the coriander, cumin, fennel and turmeric – together and crush in a mortar or in a coffee grinder. If you have neither, crush on a cutting board with the back of a large spoon.
Heat oil in a large wok, add the pounded shallot mixture and the crushed coriander mix and fry briefly until fragrant – about 1 minute.
Add the 2 cups of thin coconut milk to make a paste and bring to a gentle simmer. Stir occasionally for about 10 minutes
Add the 2 cups of coconut cream and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
Finally add the fish and salt to taste and cook gently for a further 10 minutes or until the fish is done.
Serve with white rice and garnish the dish with a sprig of fresh coriander and some slivers of fresh red chilli.