Confessions of an expat – making friends and being welcome

Some people are better at making friends than others. Some have jobs that make it easier. Whatever your particular circumstances, we all like to have some friends, and when we’re living many miles from home, if we want friends we have to go out and find them.

That is not to say that a family or a couple will be miserable if they have only each other, but humans are a sociable species and besides, if travel broadens the mind, so does meeting new people.

When we lived in Grand Turk, there was a sizeable expat population and we got to know lots of people simply by dint of the fact that we all went to the same bar. The island is seven miles long and 1.5 miles wide, with a population of less than 5,000, so bumping into people is easy.

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Grand Turk cruise center. There’s a beach one minute’s walk away, but many visitors don’t bother to leave the concrete

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to meet local people, just that by and large we didn’t mix in the same circles. Anyway, isn’t it in some way patronizing to want to get to know people just because they are local? On the other hand it takes guts to walk into a locals-only bar and impose yourself on them. There are friendly people all over the world, but there are also those who resent your presence in their country. As a middle-aged white man  in a community of black people, I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m assumed to be privileged, soft and rich, and if I say that none of those are true, well, I would, wouldn’t I?

I saw something on Facebook recently, one of those anti-racist posts by white people complaining about their own sort. It said “I’m sick of hearing white men talking to white men about other white men”. Well excuse me, but I can’t help my ethnicity or my gender, and if being brought up in a family where money was often very tight but getting a good education free of charge is a bad thing, then it doesn’t seem so to me. My education, which of course I didn’t appreciate at the time, came about because of a scholarship system that gave opportunities to those from relatively poor families. In many respects it made me, set me up for life. And now I am who I am and if you judge me on those criteria, you’re prejudiced yourself.

The group of mainly white, mainly middle-aged, mainly British characters we became part of in the Caribbean paradise of Grand Turk was just a bunch of people far from home and grateful for good company.

A little later, before moving to Suriname, we did some research on the country because, like many people, we didn’t know anything about it. We came across an international organization called Internations, which has a presence in many countries and organizes events where expats can meet. It’s nice to find different people to talk to, to share stories of where you’ve been and glean a bit of what they have learned about where you are now. You can swap experiences about where to shop, places to eat, builders, mechanics and doctors to seek out or avoid.

The meetings in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, take place in bars, restaurants and on one occasion a small café attached to a bakery run by two Chinese-Canadian-Surinamese sisters. As a journalist I thought these women were interesting, so I interviewed them for a Surinamese English-language online news site, and got to know them quite well. I also met several ambassadors and a consul, again through work, and they became friends.

Through Internations we got to know a few Brits, a German couple and plenty of Dutch people, since Suriname is a former Dutch colony and they still speak the language here. Most imports are from the Netherlands and as a form of exchange, Suriname provided many of the black footballers who have graced the Dutch team in recent decades, from Ruud Gullit to Clarence Seedorf.

Why do I stress that they are black? Because they are, and for the purpose of indentification, not to mention that would amount to withholding useful information. This population is primarily of African descent, with other significant numbers of Indians (known as Hindustanis) and more recently Chinese. The famous footballers were from the African contingent.

But of course at an expat gathering  you’re only meeting other expats, apart from the organisers and a few people who may be there for networking purposes (nothing wrong with that – I do it too; I’m always on the lookout for potential interviewees and people to teach English to).

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There’s this sort of thing…
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And there’s this. Which one makes assumptions about you?

Although the Internations events are pretty informal and the expenses run to no more than a few glasses of wine, there is another organization, which I won’t name, that operates in the same area, but seems dedicated to separating us from our money. Pretentious events at fancy hotels, with vastly overpriced drinks, as if that’s what we are there for: to spread our “wealth” around. That is, unfortunately, a not uncommon experience in the general population in many countries, and I don’t appreciate being fleeced in the same way by an organization, in the name of charity or not. Maybe it’s because to some people I look rich, although I’m not, and that’s why it bothers me.

But that’s how the world is nowadays, isn’t it? If you have loads of money, come in and make merry and spend it with us. But if you have very little, go away and get sick and die somewhere else.




Confessions of an expat – what the Brexit vote tells us

So the British public has had its say – or has it? The voting took place and a result was reached. Britain wants to leave the EU – but for what reasons?

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It is not so much about real issues and whether Britain will be better off financially and security-wise in or out. It’s all about the principle of being open to outside influences. The Remain people don’t just see strength in numbers but think that other people’s ideas are probably better than our own, while the Leave faction just don’t want anyone else telling them what to do.

Unfortunately, on social media (or what I see of it on Facebook, at least), it’s the lefties who are always shouting. Sometimes it seems that the default FB attitude is to support any underdog just because they’re the underdog. But is that necessarily a good thing? It is good to support the needy and underprivileged. It might be said that that is the Christian way, but of course many of the social media shouters object to organised religion for the same reason: they don’t want anyone else (in this case God) telling them what to do.

But to understand why the British are like they are, first we need to understand what Britain is. It is, for a start, not Great Britain. That is just the name of the island containing England, Scotland and Wales. Add Northern Ireland to that and you have the United Kingdom.

But what about British communities  all over the world? What about the Channel Islands – only half an hour away by plane but closer to France than to England? That’s where I come from and although I am proud to be a Guernseyman, I have  a British passport. And I’m glad to have that, because it opens a lot of doors.

The Channel Islands are not and have never been part of the EU. They have a “special relationship” with it under Protocol 3 to the UK’s Treaty of Accession to the European Economic Community, but they are not members.

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The Channel Islands are British Crown Dependencies. In the event of a war, they will be defended by Britain (although in the Second World War Sir Winston Churchill chose not to do that for tactical reasons) and will fight alongside other British troops. If a Channel Islander is going to play football for a country, although many of us have French names, we are likely to play for England. Guernsey’s Matt Le Tissier and Jersey’s Graeme Le Saux did just that.

As someone who has lived abroad for several years now, I have become accustomed to being assumed to be English, rather than British. That is because to most people it’s the same thing, just as we talk about Holland when we mean the Netherlands, which is Holland plus others.

A friend who was born in Guyana and is now established in the Turks and Caicos Islands (a British Crown Dependency just south of the Bahamas) told recently of how her young daughter, becoming aware of her passport for the first time, complained “I’m British?”

Well, it’s not a bad thing to be, as long as you don’t mind the rest of the world regarding you as a privileged former colonialist who looks down their nose at the rest of the world and should therefore be treated with suspicion and called to account for any failure of personal behaviour or professional competence.

You should have seen the dentist’s face in Tobago when my UK-fitted tooth crown fell off. She could hardly contain her glee at such a clear example of British unprofessionalism.

It’s called inverted snobbery: looking down on someone because you think they are looking down on you.

But getting back to Brexit, no sooner had the result been declared and the regional breakdown studied than Scotland was jumping up and down, shouting “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me! It was them!” Scottish First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, is already planning a new referendum aimed at leaving the UK and joining Europe.

That is because, just as Brits abroad are still regarded as arrogant, whether we are or not, within the UK it is the English who are seen as the bad guys who have claimed the entire country rather than just their own part of it.

Scotland was jumping up and down, shouting “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me! It was them!”

So, is leaving the EU a good thing or a bad one for the UK? We don’t know yet, but that wasn’t the point of the question for the Remain people in the first place. Maybe it should be rephrased and asked again.




Confessions of an expat – Leaving Grand Turk

Half the islands in the Caribbean claim to have been the first discovered by Christopher Columbus, and Grand Turk is one of them

People come and go in every community, but in a small one you just notice it more. Our Grand Turk experience caught the latter days of the interim government, and gradually the numbers dwindled. There were a few new faces, but the trend was out rather than in.

Unless you’re involved in a seasonal trade, in the Caribbean the months slip by unnoticed. The leaves don’t fall from the trees much in Grand Turk because there aren’t many trees there. And the main reason for that is that the main industry used to be salt. The island – and even more so nearby Salt Cay – retains large areas of abandoned salt ponds, where sea water was evaporated until only the salt remained. Trees were a problem for two reasons: first, too many of them can have an effect on the weather, and although rain has obvious advantages as far as drinking and hygiene go, it could also reduce a pile of salt to mush, undoing perhaps months of work. Secondly, leaves do fall and get blown by the wind, and another thing the salt producers didn’t need was bits of vegetation spoiling their pristine white mounds.

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The old dock in Salt Cay from the salt-industry family home to which it belongs. A descendant still lives in the islands, doing boat trips, and he took us there from Grand Turk

Nature sent a grim reminder of the past and the potential future when a hurricane that had passed a long way from the island flicked its tail in our direction. The sea raced up and crashed against the walls, destabilized the outdoor seating area at the Osprey and poured over roads.

Our bit of beach, which was edged by a strip of (I think) limestone topped with sand and stones, changed dramatically to the point where you couldn’t walk into the sea safely. By that time I was addicted to swimming, though, so I persevered through the lingering swells and waves, breaking a small bone in my toe in the process.

Our house in distance
That’s our old house on the right

As what passes for winter drew on, barbecuing became complicated by the fact that the light disappeared earlier than usual and I found myself cooking in the dark, which didn’t go down well with those who like their chicken well done.

With fewer visitors and fewer government people, the Thursday night crowd at the Sandbar could be a bit thin – and my novelty had worn off, anyway.

It was work (my wife’s, that is) had brought us there and eventually it called us away too. Our Canadian friends gave up on their ginger beer brewery and sold the business. Our latest neighbor in the tiny house in our garden finished her government contract and went back to the UK to finish her training as a priest.

Maybe you know your time is up when you’ve tried absolutely everything on the Sandbar’s menu at least once. It is a small island and you’ve done pretty much everything within a couple of months – or weeks, if you’ve got somebody telling you where to go.

We had wandered around the ruins of the Ike-ravaged hotel on the windy side of the island. We had discovered the slightly eerie remains of the Conch World tourist attraction, with its pink buildings and spiraling wooden walkway.

We had spent lunchtimes down at the Cruise Centre, just to see a few people and browse, like the ship-bound American hordes, around shops full of t-shirts and trinkets.

Don’t get me wrong. I would have stayed there forever, happy to be  buried, when the time came, in the dusty, desolate graveyard near the more rarely-used of the two Anglican churches.

Sunset in Grand Turk, and a cruise ship heads into the distance

There’s an old song by Procol Harum: A Salty Dog. It’s about 18th century sailors marooned on an island like this. We hadn’t been washed up along with the timbers and barrels of rum, but when you walked alone along the sand with no one else around, it was easy to feel that way.

Beautiful place, lovely people, indelible memories. But all things must pass.



Confessions of an expat – Singing by the sea

Coral Reef from beach
The wild east coast of Grand Turk. Before Hurricane Ike in 2008 there was a hotel here

A friend (an expat) who ran a business in Grand Turk told me that if you kept your head down you could tick along quite nicely. That is only possible, though, once you have been through the mill of officialdom.

One of the legacies of British colonial times in the Caribbean is 19th century-style bureaucracy. While bureaucrats are everywhere, holding up those in a hurry through their insistence on doing things by the book, that book can be relatively straightforward or unnecessarily complicated.

In Grand Turk you would start at one civil service office, where there were forms to be filled in. Then there  would be the inevitable consequence of filling in those forms: the need to go to the accounts office half a mile away on the sea front and pay a fee. With the receipt for that fee you could go back to the first office and continue the process, which ended with the filling in of another form and another trip to the accounts department to pay another fee. It gets tedious and it gets expensive. But you can’t argue, and the worst thing you can do in another country is tell them what they’re doing wrong and how the system can be improved. That makes you an American smartass (people in in general who speak English are presumed to be American, and your London/Scottish/Australian accent counts for nothing).

One day while driving through the back streets near the centre of Cockburn Town we passed a building through the open doors of which we saw shiny new stainless steel equipment. Aha. A restaurant we didn’t know about. There was no sign outside, but they don’t really go in for signage in Grand Turk. With such a small population the tradition is that everyone knows where everything is and where everyone lives.

We climbed the stairs to be greeted, if that is the word, by two noisy dogs, followed by a blonde woman whom we had seen in the Sandbar. She and her husband were Canadian and were in the process of setting up a ginger beer business. ‘Hard’ ginger beer, that is, containing alcohol at about the same strength as ordinary bottled beer. The stainless steel containers were part of the brewing process.

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You can’t get the ginger beer anymore, but the bar and the smiles are still there

Hard ginger beer has a long history in the Caribbean, and this couple had experimented with recipes to produce a beer that tasted good and had a pretty broad appeal. Like many of the other expats, I got a bit of a kick out of the fact that this stuff, although not exactly homemade, was produced on a small scale by some friends of ours.

With live entertainment being at a premium, and being a singer-guitarist myself, I eventually got a regular gig at the Sandbar. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience: the expat crowd were mainly around my age and receptive to my material, which  is big on Neil Young, Bob Dylan and James Taylor, with a song here and another there by everyone from The Beatles to Bonnie Raitt and Steve Miller, plus a bit of reggae, a touch of folk and even a wander down a country lane at times.

The Yorkshireman who ran the cruise centre lent me their PA system and there was a brief flurry of excitement at the musical new kid in town. A drummer appeared from nowhere, an Italian who played a single instrument called a djembe, which most of us in our ignorance would refer to as a bongo. Whatever it was called, it added rhythm to my solitary guitar and he played along to whatever I launched into from a repertoire of several hundred songs.

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One Thursday night at a bar on stilts over the Caribbean. That’s me making an easy chord look difficult, with a real sky in the background

Last week I told you about Mitch, who has been playing in Grand Turk for years, and I have to say I don’t know how he does it. For my own amusement as much as the audience’s, I tried to add two or three different songs every week, and variety was added some weeks when a holidaymaker who could play or sing would come up and do a bit. There was a regular who came to Grand Turk two or three times a year for the diving and brought his electric guitar with him. With a bandana adding a touch of the rock star to his balding head he would blaze away on whatever I was playing.

Another who turned up more than once was a Canadian who played exclusively his own songs. That’s a brave thing to do unless you’re Neil Young or Bob Dylan; I used to do one of mine now and then, but in my experience in such a setting  you’ve got to give people something they know.

A couple turned up once who sang I-can’t-remember-what and then did some backing vocals on California Dreaming. A solo singer-guitarist had everyone bewitched with his first song but didn’t have more great material to back it up. And one of the local masseuses, a Guyanese girl, would get up and do three or four with me each week, which involved rehearsals.

I was always on the lookout for talent, but more often than not, people who can sing a few songs very well in private just haven’t got the confidence to do it in front of an audience. And it is different. The next time you see someone giving you a couple of hours of good music, just remember it doesn’t happen by magic. As Ian Dury said on What A Waste, “First night nerves every one-night stand”. Yes, it’s fun to do when there’s a bit of a crowd and they’re on your side, but on a quiet night it can be a lonely job.


Next Tuesday: all things must pass




Confessions of an expat – Grand Turk

Governor's Beach
Governor’s Beach, Grand Turk

If you fancy going to the Caribbean and you want to get a sense of how the islands used to be, here’s a name for you: Grand Turk. It’s the capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), south of the Bahamas.

The TCI is a peculiar group of islands. It’s a low tax zone, so it attracts money, and you get a feeling of that in the biggest island, Providenciales, where the international flights drop you. Provo, as it’s known, is all hotels, restaurants and fancy houses, with frighteningly expensive shops in palatial single-storey malls. It’s where the nightlife is, and if that’s what you’re into, then fine. You get one of the world’s most celebrated beaches, Grace Bay, thrown in: a long, unblemished stretch of white sand lapped by turquoise sea. It’s the stuff of movies. You can’t believe the colour of the water; it doesn’t look real.

If that sounds like a millionaire’s playground, that’s because it is. And there is another island that’s even more full of money: Parrot Cay, where the super-rich live. A friend of mine tells the story of a friend of his, an electrician, who was summoned to a house on Parrot Cay to fix the air conditioning. He rang the bell and the door was opened by the owner: Keith Richards.

The electrician had to get a part for the a/c unit, so he left and returned a day or two later. Rang the doorbell. The Rolling Stones guitarist was busy, so he asked a friend to answer it. Paul McCartney.

So the tax situation, the weather and the beaches attract people who can afford to live anywhere, but you and I couldn’t remain in Parrot Cay.

In any case, for those of us who like a bit of desert island with our turquoise sea, rather than marinas full of luxury yachts, the answer is the name I mentioned earlier: Grand Turk. This is nominally the capital, in that the government is based there, but it is nowhere near as developed as Provo, and the population is dwindling because there is no industry there. No jobs. It’s a sleepy place, as a Caribbean island should be, but it’s in danger of sleeping itself to death. It has beautiful beaches just like Grace Bay, but smaller. And precious little nightlife. Three or four restaurants to choose from and the same number of bars.

When I was there, four years ago, there was an extra expat contingent of 50 or so, brought in by the UK Government, because the TCI is a British Overseas Territory which had been running its own affairs but was rotten with corruption. That is hardly unique in the Caribbean, but the UK felt compelled to step in and stop the rot with an interim government and ancillary workers. Our friends included women who worked in HR and a salt-of-the-earth Geordie (that’s from Newcastle, England) whose job was making the best use of the government buildings. There was the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Executive and, left over from colonial days, the Governor.

There were also people whose roles I never fully understood, such as an adviser on government structure, whatever that means. I didn’t even really get what the Geordie actually did with himself all day.

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Early morning in Duke Street and the Sandbar is as quiet as the beach

A nice bunch of people, anyway, and they had adopted the Sandbar as their base in the evenings. That is a little open-sided wooden building on stilts over the slope of the beach. They served food: nothing fancy, but decently cooked. The conch, that big shellfish that people hold to their ear to “hear the sea” is found around there, and at the sandbar we ate conch fritters and conch bites along with the local fish, such as grouper. The drinks were not expensive and the service was good and friendly. It is owned and run by two Canadian sisters, Katya and Tonya, whose mother is well established as a realtor (estate agent to my fellow Brits).  The waitress and the cook were Haitian girls.

Grand Turk is hot and it hardly ever rains, but that is not the good thing it might sound. There is a chronic water shortage and on the rare occasions when the sky gives the island a bit of a shower, you don’t run for shelter; you put every container you can find outside to collect the wet stuff and pour it into the underground tank, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

We lived right next to the beach: open our back gate and you were on sand. Occasionally a woman would come to our part of the beach and just sit down in the sea, fully clothed, presumably for the sheer pleasure of being wet.

Others who suffer are the island’s roaming animals, a legacy from a time when horses and donkeys worked in the salt industry. Now their descendants wander the streets and beaches, along with the cow on this blog’s home page, and hundreds of dogs. Some say the government does nothing about it because visitors find the sight of horses and donkeys cute.

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Homeless Grand Turk horses search for nourishment in the sand

Contact with the locals, who call themselves Belongers, was minimal. The expats drank in the Sandbar and ate in the restaurants, but by and large the Belongers didn’t. They had their own bars and kept themselves to themselves.

The centre of the action in Cockburn Town, the capital, was, as far as I was concerned, the street where the Sandbar was: Duke Street. At one end is The Osprey, a hotel with a restaurant overlooking the beach. There are dive shops, because scuba diving is one of the principal attractions, and  opposite the Sandbar, next to the Canadian girls’ Manta House holiday apartments, is the Saltraker Inn, another expat hangout.

Blue Water Divers is owned and run by an American, known simply as Mitch, who came to Grand Turk as a young man, aiming to polish his guitar technique, and ended up staying, becoming a fixture, buying the diving business and playing and singing in the Saltraker, the Osprey and other places. Everyone in Grand Turk has seen Mitch play 100 times, so there are few surprises, but he doesn’t mind and nor do they.

Mitch is living a dream a long way from rural Iowa. And yet, of course, it’s not dreamlike. He has a business to run and money to earn. A hurricane devastated Grand Turk in 2008 and took Mitch’s seafront house with it. He’s now built another one, bigger and stronger, half a mile down the road.

The word that crops up automatically ehen people refer to Caribbean islands is “paradise”. In this case it is merited. Grand Turk is a Caribbean paradise, but it’s a real one populated by working people.


Next Tuesday: sea, sun, sand, music and smaller islands



Confessions of an Expat – Return of the Unwanted

This is a true story, or at least a small part of it. It's about Grand Turk, the struggling capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands, just south of the Bahamas. Scandal and corruption led to an interim government being imposed - and the locals didn't like it one bit. The neighbouring island, Providenciales, is where the action is now.
Governor's Beach
Governor’s Beach, Grand Turk. It’s deserted because the island is virtually deserted. It is struggling but doesn’t know how to help itself.

The atmosphere at the Parade Ground is like a special Saturday in a public park in south London. But here the green they walk on is not fat, overnourished British grass struggling to keep its head above water, but artificial turf, because around here grass is only periodically drowned: it hardly gets started in the barren, sandy soil that rarely sees rain.

The green mesh fencing around the perimeter is there to keep cricket balls and footballs in. Along the western edge of the ground are two plastic gazebos, sheltering the crowd from a sun that is heading for the sea, but with bloody-minded sloth, blazing still because it is now June and what had seemed like a hot but bearable climate only a few weeks earlier has now been turned up a notch. Children, their bodies but not their heads shielded from the rays by a four-foot wall, jostle for position in the shade of telegraph poles and speaker cabinets to protect the top of their head. This is what they have grown up with, what their African heritage says their ancestors grew up with, yet they are not immune. An older boy uses his PC tablet alternately as a fan and to shield his face. In the gazebos, groups of 20-30 black women huddle on white plastic garden chairs, some smartly attired in shiny dresses, others squeezed into American jeans and t-shirts.

There used to be life here, but no customers means no need for a gym

Between the two huddles is a more elaborate shaded area with tiered seating, a makeshift grandstand, and here sits a group of largely middle-aged white men. In front of them, on a small daïs in front of the grandstand, a grey-suited white figure in a smart straw hat stands doggedly, arms at his sides. His Excellency the Governor. The crowd in the grandstand is composed largely of members of his interim government and advisors brought in on short-term contracts to oversee the process of establishing a functioning government for this British Overseas Territory, the UK government having stepped in to protect the interests of its far-flung citizens after a monumental scandal of corruption which had seen tens of millions of US dollars flying into the bank accounts of the disgraced premier and his cronies. The Governor can see from the corner of his eye a group of young men carrying placards bearing slogans such as “Bring back democracy” and “Corruption is still wrong, even when the British are doing it”.

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Homeless horses roam the island, along with cattle and donkeys. That’s not snow on the ground, but blindingly white sand

Out in the middle of the field, the spectacle revolves around the Police band, who, dressed in white uniforms and caps with bright red and green bands, have been playing Lean On Me for at least ten minutes. Somehow they now find their way out of the loop and embark on a tune which unfamiliar, although it sounds vaguely churchy and a bit military. Orders are barked and the leader, brandishing a long ceremonial baton, takes the parade on a slow march over towards the cricket scorers’ box, where long-limbed youths lounge up in the sky, and then, changing to quick march, the parade swings around towards the dignitaries.

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A distant cruise ship heads into the sunset

The band is followed by the country’s second-finest quasi-military body, a group of prison staff and, judging by the un-Cellblock-H-ness of some of the young women, ancillary workers. Behind them come the Boy Scouts, then the Cubs, the Girl Guides and the Brownies. A chubby young Scout, regretting his failure to try it out in advance, is swinging his right arm with his right leg, his left with the left and wondering how people don’t fall over doing this, because he is sure he is going to. And behind the Brownies, whose little heads are dressed cutely in cornrows of black hair, scalps glistening, the placard-brandishing protestors sneak along, slouching beneath their dreadlocks. A ceremonially-attired police officer marches aggressively towards them but abandons his mission in the face of shrugs and smirks and the knowledge that the media are in attendance. The protestors, not blessed with an official to command ‘Eyeeeeees…. right!’, nevertheless flick a communal sneer at the Governor as they pass, before realizing they are now in front of the cameras and that their placards are facing the wrong way. There is a flurry of flailing cardboard as they get in each other’s way before they conclude that they have done enough and don’t so much ‘fall out’ as deflate and resume their loitering.

The legitimate parade goes back to its original position in the middle of the field while presentations are made to long-serving officers, the polite applause stirred up by whoops and heyys from the women, as the fathers of their children get the recognition they deserve for keeping the country together before the hooray henrys arrived.