Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

Cover image © Harper Collins.
I’m definitely a fan of Agatha Christie. There’s something about her work that makes me think of Sunday afternoons and Christmas. That said, I’m much more of a Poirot fan than I am of the Marple stories, but, being in the Caribbean, and needing a ‘small island’ mystery, I turned to A Caribbean Mystery (1964).

Set on the fictional island of St. Honoré, Miss Marple has been bought a holiday in the Caribbean by her nephew to help her recuperate from some recent ill health. At first she seems distinctly unimpressed with her location where there is nothing to engage her interest; “Lovely and warm, yes — and so good for her rheumatism — and beautiful scenery, though perhaps — a little monotonous?”

To pass the time, as one could expect at an exclusive resort like the Golden Palm Hotel, gossip is an easy method. When retired Major Palgrave starts spinning one of his yarns about a murder, he stops abruptly, just as he is about to produce a photo of a murderer from his wallet to show Miss Marple.

Needless to say, by the following morning, Major Palgrave is dead. The rumour doing the rounds at the hotel is that the amount of Planter’s Punch he'd drank, plus his high blood pressure, has been the final undoing of him. But did the Major ever actually say that he had problems with his blood pressure to anyone? Miss Marple’s interest is piqued and she is skeptical of the cause of death being simply natural causes.

There are the usual cast of eccentric characters to both move the plot along and cause distractions as the mystery unravels: the young proprietors of the hotel, Tim and Molly Kendal; a strange quartet of nature lovers, Colonel and Mrs Hillingdon, and Mr Greg and Mrs ‘Lucky’ Dyson; Canon Prescott and his sister; the mega-rich Mr Rafiel, his assistant Esther Walters and masseur Jackson; and a Venezuelan family, the de Caspearos.

As is often the case with Agatha Christie, and indeed many a crime novel, the first death isn’t the last. It isn’t long until the “tall and buoyant” Victoria Johnson, a local woman who works at the hotel, thinks that something is awry with the murder of Major Palgrave, noticing that another guest’s medication was left at the scene of the murder; she doesn’t last much longer.

A good Sunday read and you don't have to be in the Caribbean to enjoy it.
In many ways, the descriptions of the “West Indian” girls with “such lovely teeth and so happy and smiling” may make post-colonial readers cringe a great deal, especially when coupled to the frankly bizarre comment that it is “a pity they were so averse to getting married.” Indeed, the unfortunate Victoria is depicted as living as married, but not actually married. Furthermore, the representation of a Caribbean island, where rich white tourists use the region as their playground, may not seem too far from today’s realities – something that Simon Reeve's recent TV series may have helped to partially dispel.

Overall, the book is a good read as, in true Christie fashion, the motive and the culprit for the murder are kept well-concealed until the all important Agatha Christie Moment at the end. Read it on a Sunday in November, or on holiday on a hot island, and you'll not be disappointed.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #10: A Rugarama Mini-­­­­­Drama

Jas, feeling good before his unplanned hospital visit to Rugarama.
Wednesday 8th April 2015 ­­— 11.30am

Shortly after breakfast I was returning to my room when I was intercepted by Tamera on the stairs. It transpired that Jas wasn’t feeling too great.

“He says he was calling out all night, has a fever and has cramps all over his body,” Tamera reported with wide eyes and without breathing mid­-sentence.

I visited his room and found him looking a rather ashy colour and decide that he had to seek some attention. 

After a conversation with the hotelier Deborah and her daughter Hope, we decided that best option was for him to attend Rugarama Hospital in town. Deborah also kindly offered to act as an ambulance and drive him to the hospital with Tamera escorting him.

Jas’ behaviour was so uncharacteristic that both Tamera and I are worried. Gone were the jokes and wisecracks. He was suddenly acting like an old man who could barely walk. Indeed, I was later told, that upon arrival at Rugarama, he was put into a wheelchair and wheeled into the building.

Whilst the group left for the hospital, I escorted a group of students to Blessed Academy as no one, neither John the pickup truck driver, nor Tash, knew the way. Amazingly it later transpired that John’s children attended Blessed Academy and that he was a resident of the Nyakambo district of Kabale. I put this all down to a small lost in translation moment.

When I finally got back to Rugarama, I found Jas and Tamera along a shady corridor and in Treatment Room One. He was quite easy to find as I just asked everyone for the “Muhindi man.”

The treatment room was much darker and more sparsely furnished than an NHS hospital room in the UK would be. There was a bed with a wooden frame from which a curtain hung. The only electronics in the room seemed to be a ward nurse’s phone charging in the corner. This said, the room was clean, tidy and well ordered.

It was quite fortunate that, after six years of coming to Kabale, this was my first ever visit to a hospital and that I was not the patient. I seem to be better at injuring myself, with the help of my bike, in the UK.

The doctor appeared after a few minutes of me being there and decided that the primary cause of Jas’ malaise seems to be a particularly strong, but not wholly unusual, reaction to his antimalarial medication.

His blood tests all returned a normal result and thankfully didn’t show any evidence of something more serious or sinister.

Jas was eventually discharged, along with his small entourage, and given the advice to stop taking his Malarone with immediate effect. He was told to go to bed, rest and get back to full strength before returning to get any alternative medication. 

Whilst being driven back to Green Hills by Deborah, I wheeled out Evelyn’s advice about drinking some good quality tonic water as part of an alternative course of action, which Jas graciously accepted.

What had to be said for Rugarama hospital was not only the speed with which they dealt with Jas’ condition, but also that the doctor who saw him was female. If we consider the general imbalance between women and men in positions of authority, and also just the various academic institutions in Uganda, this was something of a success story all round.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #9: Back to School

Rain causes the group to take shelter and the distant hills to disappear.
Tuesday 7th April 2015 – 6pm

This is a curtailed version of the entry that appears in the original journal, but, for the sake of continuity, it has been included in this series.

Today was our first full day at the high school. Our group were received, along with the Coombeshead Academy staff and students, by the new head teacher, Steven; a friendly and jovial character who insisted on trying to learn everyone's names by the time we had left his office. This was the first time I had signed a visitor’s book with the name of my new school; a strange experience in itself, but one that puts Fulham Cross on the map in southwestern Uganda.

We had a tour of the school and I could see a number of improvements. The most striking change was the completed main gate to the campus that parents, amongst others, had helped to raise the money for.

Further along on our tour there were also changes to Elizabeth Hall, the girls’ dormitory named after Liz Walton, the All Our Children charity’s chair. One of the prep rooms upstairs had now been given over for use as an additional girls dorm room, further evidence of the slow redress of gender imbalance in the school which still has an overwhelming majority of male students, in line with most of the country.

Robert, who acted as our tour guide, also took us via his house inside the school compound where we met his son Isaac. He showed us around a number of his recent projects involving chickens, super–sized carrots and his homemade microorganisms. 

His key project of the last couple of years has focused around the use of compost to heat a shower. The shower works on the principle of surrounding a water–harvesting tank with composting material from his farm. Robert then adds his proprietary blend of microorganisms, that are cultured underground, and covers the whole lot with a tarpaulin to encourage anaerobic respiration.

The net result is that the reaction causes the water to heat up to around 70°C. Essentially speaking, a completely free hot shower.

A little after lunch, running a little bit behind schedule as one expects due to rain, the students dispatched themselves to different lessons; some went off to a History class, the others to English. I took some time to catch up with a few of the Kigezi teachers and students, including one teacher who I'd actually taught in my first visit to Uganda. I then also spent a while talking logistics with Tash.

Overall a reasonably quiet, yet busy day, but, by the time we’d walked back to Green Hills, everyone seemed ready for an early night.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #8: Unbeaten Bike

An Eastman bike parked outside of the fabric shop in Kabale. I want one.
Monday 6th April 2015 - 5.00pm

In terms of my health, today was a real low-point. I’d never really felt as poorly as I did on this day on any occasion I’d visited Uganda. I was feeling tired and struggling to hold a meaningful conversation.

Call it paranoia, but having read about Fausto Coppi’s demise at the hands of Malaria, and all of the health checks we had been subjected to in association with the Ebola outbreak, I was feeling a little worried.

I had been drinking a tonic water a day just in case I had malaria and had been taking a heady cocktail of pills and locally-sourced throat sweets too. I was living in the hope that whatever it was would clear soon before the paranoia became as intolerable as my raw throat.

I drifted down with the group into Kabale town, feeling pretty ropey, and opted to wear my kaffiyeh again, today in order to protect my neck from the intensity of the midday heat. As we passed Dave from Coombeshead and saw the colour he had rapidly turned, I was happy with this decision.

We ambled to the Royal Supermarket via the long route, searching for lunch en route at the Hot Loaf bakery which, this year, had only a rather limited selection of cakes available. After this, and stocking up on a few dozen more throat sweets, I led the group towards the fabric shop.

Kabale’s high street, or main street, was clearly in the process of getting a major upgrade. Trees had been felled at the roadside and certain areas of land cleared. There appeared to be money flowing into the area’s infrastructure, that much was clear.

New buildings, and more typically ‘Western-looking’ buildings, were emerging at the roadsides. Also a couple of enormous advertising hoardings had been erected at both ends of the street.

Jas waxed lyrical, in his own inimitable style, saying that he believed that there were more modern cars on the streets than the last time he had visited Kabale back in 2011.

On our walk what caught my eye the most was actually an Eastman bicycle parked outside the fabric shop; dusty, beaten, yet perfect for the job of riding around these rough muddy red roads.

Aside from a robust looking steel frame and tyres of a mighty width, there were a couple of interesting features. Most noticeably there were no cables on the bike. All of the brakes were connected by a series of steel rods and pulleys.

The rear brakes sat parallel to the crankshaft and were also connected by rods. Both the front and rear brakes wrapped over the tyres and rubbed the rims further inward than on regular road bike brakes.

Obviously the bike was single speed for ease of maintenance, but did boast an extra-long chain by way of compensation, and, again, that seemed quite chunky. 

The seat had seen better days, the wheels and mudguards appeared to be a little buckled and the chain looked close to the end of its useful life, but I loved it. I would actually love one for riding around the streets of Islington or commuting to work on.

As the afternoon sunshine sank slowly away, I dreamed of buying an Eastman bike for myself before I snapped out of my daydream and we headed back up to Green Hills for our dinner.
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