onsen etiquette

If it’s your first visit to Japan, you might be put off visiting an onsen because you are not sure of the correct practices or etiquette. Don’t be. Onsens are casual places for Japanese people, and once you have a grasp of the basics you’ll fit in perfectly.

what to bring

Bring your towels with you: one large bath towel for your body, and a smaller one to bring inside the onsen with you. Your hotel may provide these towels for you – the smaller towel is British hand-towel sized but finer, almost like a muslin cloth.

If you have long hair, bring a hair tie with you. If you have particular shampoo, body wash or other product you prefer to use, bring that too, although all onsens have plenty of (cheap) body wash, shampoo and conditioner available. Don’t expect to do anything particularly personal like shaving your legs in an onsen – keep to the basics.

on arrival

Pay your money at the counter, remove your shoes and take a pair of indoor slippers from the floor in front of you. There will be lockers in reception where you leave your shoes and take the key with you. Access to the changing rooms is usually through a doorway with a red noren (curtain) for women and a blue one for men. All onsens are gender separated.IMG_8367

the changing room

Choose a locker with a number or location you will remember. Try not to stand in front of your locker whilst you are getting changed, as you might be blocking access to others. Use the benches. Strip naked and put all your belongings, including big towel and slippers, into the locker. Only bring with you any toiletries you need, your small towel, a hair tie if needed and your locker key which is usually on a wrist band.

Use the toilet before entering the onsen area – as soon as you get into the water you’ll want to go!

If you have a tattoo it may be necessary to cover it up with a plaster – some onsens do not allow people with visible tattoos due to the connection with gangs. Best to ask beforehand.

Don’t visit an onsen with any kind of open cut or wound on your body.

before bathing

When you enter the onsen area, you may see a large container of water with ladles – use a ladle to rinse off your feet before moving further inside. One or more walls will be lined with individual washing areas, each with a small stool, a basin, hot and cold taps, a shower head and a mirror.

Set your things up and give your body a good scrub (you can use your small towel as it’s going to get wet anyway). You don’t need to wash your hair if you don’t want to, just tie it up.

Rinse your body well. You can pop back and leave your personal toiletries back in your locker at this stage if you wish.

If you do wash your hair and plan on leaving conditioner in your hair while bathing, make sure all of your hair is carefully tied up. It is not acceptable to contaminate the water with any type of toiletry product.

bathing

Move gently so as not to disturb the water too much. Bring your little towel with you but never, ever let it enter the water. In many onsens, people use the towel to cover parts of their body as they move around outside the water (draped down their front, for example, or folded and held across the pubic hair area), but in other places people move freely. Watch what others do and copy them. When in the water, find a spot to leave your towel on the side, or fold it and place it on your head.

Typically the water will be around 40-45 degrees celsius, but some are cooler and some even hotter. Be careful you don’t stay too long and get an “onsen hangover” – plan to stay in the water no longer than twenty minutes before cooling down. You can do this by heading back to the shower area and showering with cool water for a minute, or if it’s a cool day at an outdoor pool, just hop up on the side and let the air cool your body for a while before hopping back in.

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after bathing

Don’t shower after bathing – the minerals in the onsen water are supposed to be good for your skin. Use your small towel to dry yourself off a little before leaving the bathing area. There are usually hairdryers available to use in the locker room, and mirrors to help with getting dressed and ready.

Drink plenty of water afterwards, as the onsen will dehydrate you. There are always plenty of vending machines in the reception area.

Soon, you’ll be a natural, and you’ll pop into every hotel onsen wondering how you managed without them!

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onsen town

First thing I realise is that I’m going to get the footwear thing wrong. We arrive at our beautiful little ryokan on the main drag of this little hot springs resort town, and immediately our sturdy, Gore-Tex lined walking shoes are spirited away in favour of some plain brown guest house slippers. When we reach our room we must remember to walk no further than one or two steps inside before removing even these items of footwear, and offer nothing to the fragile tatami mats but bare or stockinged feet.

I have chosen a special yukata, or summer kimono, to celebrate Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. My bright pink floral creation is at odds with the regulation ryokan muted greys, but I love it. A staff member shows me how to dress myself correctly. Hitch the yukata up so that the bottom of the long diagonal collar is aligned with the hipbone. Always fold the left over the right side, never the other way around unless you are dressing a corpse. Tie the first narrow belt tightly around the waist and fold the extra fabric down over it, making sure the lines are straight all around the body. Take your wide obi belt in appropriate contrasting colour and wrap it twice around the folded-down fabric, finishing with a bow to the front. Fold the tails of the bow around itself so that they fall neatly over the front of the bow. Twist the obi around 180 degrees so that the bow is at the back. Voilà.
In Orlando’s case it’s a little easier: put on yukata, folding the left side over the right side. Tie with narrow obi belt around hips. Voilà.

Braving unseasonably chilly weather in a yukata without an under-layer of thermals is unwise, especially if nursing a cold. Happily, both of us have packed some warm undergarments so we are good to go. We pop a traditionalhaori jacket over our yukata, navigate our feet into a pair of tabi (toe socks) and clamber on board a pair of geta (wooden clogs). We are ready.

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We clip-clop our way awkwardly down the street until we realise that nobody is paying us a blind bit of notice. Everybody else is similarly dressed and focused more on not falling off their own geta as they promenade. Different ryokan have different yukata colours and patterns, so you can recognise your fellow ryokan-dwellers and check out what other patterns you like on others.

The canals of the back streets are lined with willows and cherry blossoms. Ignoring the misty rain, we stroll arm in arm along the streets and laneways, peering down an alley here and into a shop window there.

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One or two nooks and crannies have foot onsens, where the tired or timid can sit fully clothed and soak their feet in the hot, healing waters.

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Kitsch gift shops jostle for position with old-fashioned rifle ranges and pachinko parlours, where kids of all ages appear to be revelling in the chance to shoot ancient rifles at dodgy-looking plastic figurines of gods and goddesses. Nearby more modern games parlours are almost completely empty by comparison. There aren’t too many dining options, probably because most ryokans offer full board, but there are plenty of ice cream parlours and coffeehouses to pop into between dips.

Our first onsen is, fittingly, Kono-Yu (Hot Spring of Stork), the first bathing house in Kinosakionsen. Legend has it that storks used to bathe their wounds in the marsh on this spot, before the onsen town was founded. On a Monday lunchtime the place is quiet enough. We deposit our geta in a locker in reception before going our separate ways.

The ladies changing room could be that of any municipal fitness centre or swimming pool. I carefully disrobe, folding my haori, obi belt and yukata, locking everything into a second locker. Eyes down and naked, I tiptoe to the door.

The indoor onsen is in the same large, high-ceilinged room as the wash stations. I sit on a small plastic stool and use a basin and shower to wash myself before bathing. I slide into the waters of the large indoor pool, the hot, slightly sulphurous waters a welcome change from the chilly conditions outside. I share the pool with an older lady who alternates between the pool and the wash point, using basins of cold water to refresh her body and lengthen her stay.

The outdoor pool is a few steps away, surrounded by trees and under a large wooden structure which traps some of the steam and keeps the rain away. I sit with two or three older women, staring out at the drizzling rain, breathing in the steamy air and exhaling all my worries and anxieties. Now and again I hop up onto some large stones and cool down before immersing myself again.

Somehow an hour passes in the leafy quietness. I gather my thoughts and cool down with a few basins full of cool water over the body before slipping quietly away into the changing room. There, I expertly (by now) don my yukata, tie my obi, slide the ornate bow to the small of my back and wander out into the cool air, ready for a pot of green tea before doing it all over again later in the afternoon.

a valued customer

It’s a source of real irritation to me that, no matter how much you spend in an Australian shop, no matter how high-end, the likely greeting by the shop assistant at the till will be “Just these today?”. Once I was shopping for a whole new work wardrobe, assisted by a personal shopper. Even with the personal shopper’s discount my bill in one shop was a comfortable four-figure number. “Just those today?”, I was asked as I approached the counter. I almost asked whether she would prefer I shop a little harder just to gain her acknowledgement as a bona fide customer.
So I love shopping in Japan, where every transaction makes you feel like royalty. On a whim the other day, I stop by a Birkenstock shop on Shinsaibashi in Osaka. One pair of sandals and a $100 spend later, the shop manager escorts me right outside the front door before formally presenting me with a heavy cotton bag containing my purchase. With a low bow, he thanks me and I walk away. Fifty metres away at the corner of the street, I look back and he is still there, still bowing low.
For a $100 transaction.
A few days later a lovely shop assistant helps me choose a new yukata (summer kimono) and matching obi (tie belt) in the fashionable halls of Dai Maru. This young lady has almost no English, and embarrassingly I have even less Japanese. But fashion, colour coordination and commerce need no common language, and after an enjoyable trying-on session I spend around $80 on a lovely new black, white and red creation. My purchase is lovingly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an iconic Dai Maru paper bag, with a clear plastic bag popped in for later in case it rains. The shop assistant asks whether we will browse some more in the South Building or return to the Main Building. When I indicate the latter, she politely escorts me to a set of marble stairs, indicates where I need to go, then presents me with my purchase with a low bow and an “arigato gozaimas-ta”. As I reach the top of the staircase I look down, and the young lady is still there, still bowing until I am out of sight.
I love this country.

where in the world?

 

singapore weekend

Global cities are well defined in economic terms. They dominate the trade and commerce of their home countries and beyond; they have global decision-making capabilities, and they are centres of distinction and innovation in education, entertainment and technology.

Global cities to me always had a more visceral definition: larger than life, they know they are different, more important, create a larger vortex. And crucially, they don’t care. They are too busy being a global city to think about it too much, and they certainly don’t care what you think. A visitor to a global city is not required or expected to fall in love with the place, to applaud its many merits and achievements. Citizens of global cities really just want visitors to walk at a decent pace, learn quickly what side of the escalator to stand on, spend their money and generally not get in the way.

As a result, of course, we all adore these places. Never mind that New Yorkers are brash and direct, that the rents are as sky-high as the buildings. Those most critical of US foreign policy or cultural domination will sigh at the mention of New York and declare it their favourite city on earth. Never mind that London is congested and chilly, or that the tube has no air-conditioning, or that Heathrow is a nightmare. Everybody wants to go and live in London in their gap year. It’s the buzz, you see.

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Some people equate Global Cities with something more: on top of the economists’ definitions, they also expect them to be multi-cultural melting pots, intersection points for all the races and cultures of the world. To me, this melting-pot criterion is not necessary: you don’t really get that in Tokyo or Hong Kong, and yet they are true Global Cities.

In the late 1990s some academics in Loughborough University, of all places, made a catalogue of Global Cities. In A++ place were London and New York, naturally. In close second at A+ level were Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Singapore and Dubai.

According to my definition it’s almost right. Hong Kong may technically be part of China but it will always be, defiantly, just Hong Kong. Similarly, Shanghai’s colonial past sets it a little apart from the rest of China and it has its own unique feel and sub-culture. Beijing is inextricably linked with the rest of China, both culturally and economically, but its citizens remind me more of the people of New York than the people of Xi’an. Come and visit if you like, just keep out of the way.

Paris, is, of course, Paris. Enough said.

But Sydney? To me, Australia’s largest city is still far too self-conscious to be a genuine Global City. Yes, technically its economic and political influence is significant both in Australia and in Asia Pacific, so the Loughborough University definition stands. But it tries too hard to be liked, admired, acknowledged. It’s like the younger sibling of one of the cool kids in high school, hanging around with the big boys, trying to fit in. It’s Sandra Dee, or a young graduate with their first proper job, hiding their lack of self-confidence money and swagger, but little sophistication.

Also, to this Old-Worlder, it’s difficult to see such a young city as a real Global City. To me, Global Cities are simultaneously ancient and new, patched together, organically developed, hectic places where you can almost see the growth rings like those of an old tree.

The chaos is only barely under control; the plumbing and sanitation and road works and public transport survive each day somehow, and everybody heaves a sigh of relief. One unfortunate passenger under a tube train, one set of Manhattan traffic lights on the blink, one Star Ferry running late, and London/New York/Hong Kong teeters on the brink of rush-hour annihilation.

That to me is what a Global City feels like.

A weekend in Singapore, then, was an interesting scenario. This famous city state holds around 6 million citizens in an area about the same size as the Tasman Peninsula in Australia, half of County Dublin or the Isle of Man. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, but those in the central business district are so tall that the “regular” buildings further out don’t seem to warrant the name.

I had few expectations except for tales of humidity, pristine streets and underground shopping malls built to shield Singaporeans from the heat above ground. I looked forward to the biggest observation wheel in the world and plenty of rooftop cocktail bars.

Did it feel like a true Global City? I don’t know. Again, the economic influence is undoubted, and the urban landscape is sensational. The shopping is fantastic, the street food legendary, the coffee alone worth the trip. A smattering of world-class iconic structures make the cityscape interesting: the enormous Singapore Flyer and the Marina Bay Sands, a warped surfboard resting on a wicket.

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But…. It was a little sterile. Of course, Singapore is renowned for its cleanliness and order, rules and regulations: no chewing gum, no littering, no durian fruit on the trains.

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The trains run on time, the people all stand on the correct side of the escalator, and they all walk on the left hand side of the pavement. The result is a little futuristic and surreal, if like me you come from an ancient and chaotic town like Dublin. The people were unfailingly polite, friendly, warm and helpful, which was lovely. Whilst it was an incredibly busy place, there was little of the barely-controlled frenzy you often feel in other huge cities. I liked it, mostly.

The vast warren of inter-connecting underground shopping malls was a real eye-opener. I’m not a bit claustrophobic, but I ended up feeling quite relieved each time we emerged chilled and blinking from that air-conditioned fluorescent netherworld into the tropical sunlight. At any given time, six million Singaporeans are hermetically sealed in vast steel-and-concrete tubes, either horizontally underground or vertically reaching for the sky. It can’t be right.

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The rooftop bars were a delight. No matter where you are in the centre of town, the views are sensational. From the understated sophistication of the seventh floor Lighthouse Bar at the Fullerton, to the de trop ostentation of Ku De Ta atop the Marina Bay Sands, we tried them all (or many of them, anyway).

The Lighthouse was just delightful. “You look beautiful!”, exclaimed the (female) manager to me as I emerged from the lift. I didn’t, but I accepted the compliment graciously. A perfectly made Bombay Sapphire and tonic was the way to enjoy the tacky but entertaining laser show across the water at the Marina Bay Sands. Time your visit for 8pm or 9.30pm (and 11pm on Saturdays) to watch the dancing lights in understated luxury.

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Ku De Ta is of course the place to see and be seen, and they keep away the hoi polloi with plenty of rules: men must wear closed-in shoes (women are good to go in strappy sandals). No shorts, singlets, slippers or tank tops. You’d better book ahead even for drinks (but the minimum spend is quoted as S$80 a head, and you don’t get a seat). The door staff on the ground floor will vet you even before you get to the lifts. The result was a spectacular view, no shelter if it rained, a disappointing drinks list, far too much ice and marmalade (you heard me) in my cocktail, very little space to take it all in and a quick decision to move on to the next bar.

The City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Stamford, on the other hand, may look north away from Marina Bay and That Building, but the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming and much more grown-up. Karen the manager got to know us by name, scored us window seats every time and brought our “usual” cocktails to us with a smile.

The Lantern on the top of the modern Fullerton Bay is a great spot, not too high but perfectly placed to enjoy the unique Marina Bay skyline. It’s a bit after-worky in the early evening, but a great place to watch the sunset and get in the mood for the night ahead.

So is Singapore on my personal lists of Global Cities? No. Is it a good destination for a weekend break, a spot of shopping, a reason to sip a Singapore Sling by the pool, a chance to overdose on kopi peng (Singaporean iced coffee), an opportunity to dress up and bar-hop with the best of them? Absolutely.

See you next time, Singapore.

 

 

 

are you bikini ready?

At this time of year we are bombarded with magazine and website articles telling us how to get “bikini ready” for the New Year. As a Woman Of A Certain Age with a beach holiday on the horizon, I alternately devoured these articles or shunned them completely, knowing that I had failed in my plans to lose 5kg before our holiday and that my bikini body was nowhere in sight.

Fast forward to the day before we fly. I stand in the fitting rooms in Target with an array of bikinis, having convinced myself that my elegant but sensible black one-pieces would not be enough to tide me over for twelve days on a tropical island. I buy a purple two-piece, two sizes larger than my usual size in the desperate hope that it will somehow make me look thinner.

Two weeks later, after piling on even more pounds in the winter wonderlands of the northeastern United States, I stand on the balcony of our beachfront apartment and know I am going to spend the whole beach holiday in that purple bikini. I am so happy to be in the sunshine, on one of my favourite beaches in the world, with good company and (god help us) excellent food, that I no longer care how I look. All that matters is how I feel, and I feel like a Tropical Queen.

By day two I have perfected my sashay down the beach before immersing myself in the turquoise water to cool down. The purple bikini is now way too big for me, having already stretched in the seawater. I fold the bottoms down to make them even smaller – the suntan is all that matters now.

Every day I watch a procession of tourists walking past. Women of all shapes, sizes and ages sport a staggering array of swimwear. Without the aid of a spreadsheet (this is a holiday, after all) I watch and analyse, and the Five Commandments of Bikini Wearing emerge (specifically for Women Of A Certain Age, but relevant to any woman who is a little less than confident in her appearance).

  1. Choose a bikini. Don’t choose a one-piece. No piece of swimwear is going to make you look like Halle Berry coming out of the sea in that Bond movie, and anyway all that fabric on your tummy in the sun will be really uncomfortable. Relax. You are on holidays. By day three you are going to feel like a Tropical Queen and will believe you look like one too. You look fine, and anyway nobody is watching you because they are either worried about their own wobbly bits or they are already at Tropical Queen status in their head. If you are still unsure, throw a sarong in to hide your curves until day three.
  2. Avoid Large Bikini Bottom Syndrome. You have already decided to wear a bikini. Don’t spoil it by going large. Any stylist will tell you that swathes of patterned fabric draws attention to any area of the body, and anyway it will make you look middle-aged. In the past week I have seen a size 18-20 lady at the water’s edge, shoulders thrown back,  rocking a skimpy sunshine-yellow bikini and looking like a goddess. I have also seen a couple of thin, athletic women of a similar vintage, slightly stooped, looking like apologetic grandmas in their big-knicker bikinis.  Don’t do it unless you have a real reason for that extra support like a post-op scar. You may not be able to see this in the badly lit fitting rooms of your local mall, but take my word for it: you want a fairly skimpy bikini bottom, no more than an inch and a half or 3cm of fabric at the side of your body. If you can find one that ties on the side, so much the better. Remember, the fabric will stretch after a few days and the last thing you want is a bikini bottom that looks like a full nappy, or one that falls off as you get out of the water (it’s happened on this beach twice in the past week).
  3. Bikini tops must be multi-functional, or else you will need more than one bikini. In fact, you probably need at least two or three bikinis for a two-week holiday. Remember, this is essentially your “working wardrobe” of the trip. Never mind how many frocks you pack for the evenings – you will be spending up to ten hours a day in your swimwear, and you will be doing more than lying on a sunbed in that time. Your bikinis need to work for sunbathing, strolling on the beach, jumping into the water and drinking cocktails at the bar. Bandeau type bikini tops are great for minimising tan lines; the ones with a removable halter straps are great for a bit more security when wandering about or when hit by a rogue wave. More well endowed ladies will need properly fitted bikini tops in the appropriate cup size. Again, a halter-neck top will help with the support and look great.
  4. Choose strong colours and patterns. This is no time for nuance: look for bold colours and designs especially if you are a pale-skinned person like me. Pastels are all very well but they look washed out under the bright tropical sun. Go for bright greens, reds, oranges, blues and purples. Avoid all-black items unless you are already sporting a fine tan – if you absolutely must choose black, find one with white piping around the edges. It’s softer on the skin. If you have had your colours done, opt for the stronger colours in your palette.
  5. Accessorise. Again, this is your holiday daywear. Bring cheap and cheerful jewellery to accessorise each piece of swimwear you bring. A pair of matching earrings here, a statement bangle there, some toe-rings, a wide-brimmed sunhat and a matching cover-up or sarong, and you are making an outfit out of your swimsuit. Bring a simple crocodile clip or two if you have long hair. Don’t forget the footwear too: they will have to be sturdy enough to get you down the beach without falling over, but fabulous enough not to ruin the overall ensemble. Think pretty coloured flip-flops or a summery pair of Birkenstocks.

The most important accessory is, of course, lashings of sunscreen. Go one level higher than you think you need, especially if you are aiming for eight hours a day on that sunbed. You can always go down a level after your first four or five days when you have built up a base. The last thing you want is sunburn that keeps you out of the sun, ruins your coordinated look and quite frankly can lead to premature ageing and skin cancer.

Above all remember this: you already have a bikini body. You already look great. You just mightn’t feel great yet. But by day three when the Tropical Queen comes to town, you’ll look back and thank me. Promise.

 

christmas island

Christmas Eve starts early in the tropics, with a dawn wake-up call from the birds and the ocean. I peer out from the curtains and see wild water and an overcast sky – or is it just that the sun is not properly up yet?

But there is no lounging about today. We have jobs to do. Expecting bad pre-Christmas traffic on the narrow roads we leave the car behind and stand out on the street to hail a ZR.

There are three ways to get around Barbados by public transport: a regular bus, a regular taxi and a ZR (so called for their ZR number plates). These privately owned route taxis ply their trade to and from Bridgetown on pre-determined routes, picking up more passengers than you could expect to fit in such a small mini-van. Technically there are eight seats in the back and two in the front (including driver) but it is not unusual to have fifteen or more paying passengers along with the driver and money man.

ZR drivers are known for their enthusiastic driving styles and loud music, so it’s an entertaining way of getting about. Passengers, on the other hand, sit quietly and politely, squeezing into more and more impossible spaces to let another person sit, all without comment, frown or smile. It’s the Bajan way.

We stand on the roadside beside a young man who greets us politely and formally, like all Bajans do: “Good morning and Merry Christmas”, he smiles. Soon he is picked up by a friend in a new 4×4, leaving us to our fate in the ZR hurtling towards us. I sit between an elderly lady dressed in an impeccable mint-green frock with matching bag, shoes and gloves and a friendly tourist bloke from the north of England who is off to Dover beach for the day. He tells me the most he has seen in a ZR is twenty. I forget to ask him if that includes the driver.

We crawl through unusually busy traffic as the sound system cranks out some excellent soca tunes, all of which are Christmas songs with hilarious storylines. Men complain about being made to clean the house before Christmas and the wife’s family eating him out of house and home. Women sing of a turkey and ham feast, presents under the tree and a home full of happiness. Two sides to every story I suppose.

The bus station is right by the market and we weave through the crowd.  A man sells Christmas CDs out of the boot of his car. A woman around my own age sets up a jewellery stall for all those last-minute boyfriends. The busiest stall is the fresh bread.

Left alone for an hour I wander down into the city centre looking for a pharmacy. Most shops are blaring Christmas music of one type or another (although you won’t hear White Christmas or Winter Wonderland here) and there is plenty of last-minute shopping being done. The venerable Cave Shepherd department store has been doing business on Broad Street in Bridgetown since 1906 and is crowded with locals and tourists. The toys and books department is doing the most business, along with the beauty and perfumes department right inside the door. Down the street I am surprised to see Bridgetown’s new Tiffany’s store in the fancy Colonnades shopping mall, although it doesn’t look too busy.

I turn down the back streets and find my way to Swan Street, a narrow pedestrian thoroughfare crammed with shops, mini-malls, street vendors and shoppers. Think Dublin’s Henry Street or London’s Camden Town. Barbados is the only place I have seen outside Mexico whose stores display female mannequins with the rear end facing out, the better to see how well these trousers/that dress will show off your rear end. A few women sit at stalls shelling peas, selling bags for $8 (US$4) a pop to those too busy to prepare everything from scratch for tomorrow’s feast. The occasional shopper hurries past with a Santa hat at a jaunty angle and a Christmassy brooch on her top.

I take a quick look inside a $3 shop. These everything-at-one-cheap-price shops are fascinating to me, a handy cultural barometer of any town or country I visit. I am always interested in the range (or otherwise) of goods on sale, indicating both availability and demand. Today I find last-chance red Christmas bows for doors and windows, a decent choice of cheerful Christmas crockery, a mundane mix of dried goods from long-grain rice to cake mix, some quite lovely wrapping ribbon and the usual wall of kitchen items you never thought you wanted.

A few doors down in a mini-mall, Warren the roti man shares a shop with a Chinese buffet. It is about a dollar more and 30% bigger than the Chefette all-beef roti, which is my favourite snack here. But he’s a small local business and his food smells good. I get a beef and potato roti with a choice of plain or dhal puri roti. He adds a dollop of chilli sauce before the beef and potato mix goes on. It’s expertly wrapped and handed to me in moments. I peel away the paper and start nibbling carefully lest the bread gives way. The filling is bordering on the wet side for something being held together with a thin piece of pastry, but it’s just delicious. Warren looks over anxiously, gesturing a question: do you like it? Is it ok? I roll my eyes happily, smile and give him a shaky thumbs up. This is really good food.

The ZR trip back to our lodgings is more eventful than usual. One young lady breaks all protocols and attempts a loud and disgruntled conversation with the driver, with whom she appears to be unhappily acquainted. I can feel her fellow passengers stiffen. After a quick survey of the final destination of each passenger, we take a wild detour from the usual route, trying to avoid the Christmas Eve traffic. I enjoy house-watching from my window seat: there are some lovely big houses down these back streets that I hardly ever get to see. When we end up down a cul-de-sac courtesy of another passenger’s directions, our rowdy neighbour laughs raucously. “He tells us to go past his house, but he don’t know where he live!” The other passengers hide their smiles and try to maintain the decorum required of them.

Back on the balcony the sun stays mercifully behind the clouds as I sip a nice cup of tea and dunk a couple of ginger nuts. The waves are still wild but we venture in for a dip as a procession of airplanes descend overhead towards the airport: Virgin, Thomas Cook, American Airlines, Iberia. These people are leaving it a bit late to reach Paradise in time for Christmas.

My candle is lit on the balcony although it is not quite dusk yet. The Irish tradition of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve is one I treasure from my childhood, and one I have upheld in every home I have had. Mary and Joseph will know there is room for them in our two-bedroom apartment if they happen this way and are turned away from the inn.

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Merry Christmas, everybody.