An idea was bandied about within the Diabetes group I was part of a year or two back, about writing a book of short stories based around travelling with Type 1 Diabetes. I offered to have a go first as I liked writing and had an idea for what to write.
No one else ever got round to writing their own stories but I quite like this one and will save it for when the little ‘un can appreciate it. I won’t tell you anything else as it might spoil it for you.
Before I start, let me just state that all characters and situations in this story are absolutely real and true, apart from the bits I couldn’t remember properly, plus the fact it was eleven years ago. To complicate matters further I had another trip to the same place about two or three years afterwards with some of the same people. All in all, you’re probably best to take the whole thing with a pinch of salt, as things and people may not appear in exact chronological order or even in the correct holiday! Anyway this is pretty much what happened…
It was somewhere around my birthday, that is to say the 22nd of September 2001. I was young (mid-twenties), and due to an unfortunate turn of events free (or at least gainfully employed but without any actual responsibilities outside keeping the job) and single (speaks for itself). One evening my parents had been talking to one of my three brothers on the telephone, not massively unusual as Rich lived in Edinburgh at the time, working as an environmental lecturer for Napier University. Our Dad was a biologist before he retired and so they chatted a lot.
After The Old Girl had finished and passed the phone on to Dad she came through and told me that Richard was running a field trip for his students early the next year and wondered if I’d be interested in going. Naturally I asked “Where will it be?” and she replied “Tobago!”
I have a suspicion that I fell quiet for a time, contemplating the idea of accompanying a bunch of students clad in flip-flops and inappropriate beach wear, however I eventually managed to answer in the affirmative and that was that. I was going to Tobago.
Christmas came and went and it drew closer and closer to February when we were due to leave. I was kind of excited not really knowing what to expect, having only travelled to places which measured somewhat more than three hundred square kilometres and where the main income didn’t stem from tourism, in the case of my brother’s field trip ecotourism to be specific. In fact he was taking two ‘courses worth’ of students, or at least the ones who were willing to forego alcohol and other vices for long enough to save up for the trip. The other group consisted of wildlife biologists but frankly all I knew was that overall there was a mixture of blokes and women with a heavy weighting towards the female element. This was also the main reason I had started to get excited about the trip.
Eventually the day arrived, I jumped into the passenger seat of my parent’s car and we headed off to Gatwick where we would be meeting the students. Sorry, I mean my brother and his co-lecturer who were supervising the students. Did I mention they would have students with them?
Getting to the airport was a bit of an anti-climax as the February of 2002 was a particularly cold and snowy one and after parking the car and dragging our luggage to the terminal we met the “party”. They were all, without exception, swathed from head to toe in scarves, gloves, woolly hats, big coats and whatever other heavy wintery attire they’d managed to root out from the bottom of their cupboards. Boarding time arrived and we trooped off to the check-in desk. I stood in the queue in front of a couple of the mummified students who, realising that I was something to do with the trip, introduced themselves. One was called Mel and the other Deanne; “That’s an interesting name!” I thought, and “an interesting accent!” I tried the safest gambit when meeting an Antipodean which is “Are you from New Zealand?” This is generally the best course of action if meeting someone from down under, because a New Zealander will be really upset if you call them an Australian, but an Aussie doesn’t usually give two hoots if you suggest they come from the other place.
“No, Australia!” was the unsurprising answer, which left me feeling slightly silly – like I was too stupid to recognise an obviously mainland accent. Anyway the flight got underway and I happily partook of whatever free food and drink I could persuade the air hostesses to provide me with.
If you’ve never flown to Tobago I would suggest that you try it. It’s a lovely place, however , be warned, the airport is right on the edge of the south coast and just before the plane lands it banks heavily making it look as though the wing tip is about ten feet above the water. It’s exhilarating, as long as you’re not terrified of travelling at about three hundred miles an hour a mere matter of feet above the sea! Anyway we duly arrived on the tarmac and immediately felt like we were overdressed. The temperature was a pretty constant thirty degrees and felt like a kind of slow oven, cooking us from the inside out. Most of us were still clad in our cold weather gear so there was a sudden rush of coats, jumpers and other wintery clothing being shed while waiting for our bags to be dragged in from the plane by, what you could only imagine was a man with a horse and cart, from the look of the “international” airport that we’d landed at. I watched with interest as the attire was retired, mainly because it was the first chance I actually had to figure out how many of the people in my brother’s party were male or female and how that might affect the rest of my holiday, (sorry, I mean student supervision). I had to admit that it looked like it might be quite a positive outcome!
Sadly because I was part of the “grown up” contingent of the field trip it meant I would be staying in a house belonging to a wonderful Tobagonian lady called Yvonne who spent half of her life near Bristol in the UK being a nurse and the remainder in Tobago as a landlady enjoying the atmosphere. The students were, at this point, packed into a selection of badly air-conditioned cars and whisked off to a kind of large farmhouse near to where we were staying. We collected our own hire cars and headed for what would be our home for the next couple of weeks. This turned out to be a large square shaped concrete building with our apartment on the upper of the two floors. This is the point where it all started to go a bit wrong for me. Also, you may be pleased to know after reading through this far already, where I actually bring up the small matter of my Diabetes.
I stepped into the room I would be sharing with my brother for the first week. To be honest I don’t think either of us were particularly happy about this, the last time we had slept in the same room I was about eight and Rich was thirteen or so. Sure we were both orbiting the age of thirty now, and he was a fully qualified lecturer with all the letters after his name that brings with it but, when we were younger he didn’t snore and have stinky feet and I wasn’t quite so hairy or antisocial, however we made the best of a bad situation after fighting for who got to sleep in which bed and then squabbling about who was most likely to keep the other awake through which unpleasant habits.
I plonked my suitcase on the bed furthest from the window and the fan (in my defence he is five years older than me and used to be a professional athlete). Then I opened up my hand luggage to retrieve my insulin and other Diabetes related accoutrements and put them in the fridge, in the kitchenette of the apartment, to keep them from denaturing. There was, sadly, a rather notable lack of insulin in the bag! No matter how many times I repacked everything then took it out again the insulin seemed incredibly resistant to suddenly materialising from the small dark depths of my carry-on bag.
I didn’t panic exactly, I attempted to remain calm and almost carried it off, only starting to get really worried after a couple of phone calls to my brother, Marc, who lived close to my parents’ house in the UK. Marc kindly drove to their place and called to let me know that my insulin was safe and sound and laying neatly lined up on my bed where I had left it not twenty four hours before. This is when I started to feel a little more hot and bothered than even the rather excitingly balmy weather should have accounted for.
Luckily, because my parents and my brother had visited before, they knew Yvonne was a trained nurse and also that she knew Tobago well. So my mother’s next move was to go downstairs to Yvonne’s apartment for advice. She returned, not ten minutes later, with a suggestion that we should get ourselves down to the hospital in the capital, Scarborough. After a hasty drive through the rather patchy light traffic that is the norm in Tobago, we waited ten minutes to see someone. Although I am mostly unaware of the exact details of what happened I know that they had to look in their version of the British National Formulary because I was on the relatively new analogue insulin – Humalog. Thankfully I had somehow managed to pack a couple of vials of my long acting, basal, Lantus insulin in a separate pocket of the bag to where the Humalog should have been. The medical staff spent some time discussing amongst themselves and decided that the one they called Humulin would probably be the nearest analogue…so to speak!
Eventually I left with a couple of boxes of the magic juice, which was of course in the old fashioned glass bottles, so that that each time I ran out of insulin for my pen I had to use one of the ‘old school’, plastic syringes I had packed “in case of an emergency”, (which this appeared to be) to siphon some of the insulin out of the bottle and then inject it back in to a used cartridge, which I could then put back in to the pen. It worked like magic. In fact my control was better than it had ever been at home, but I’m guessing that was due to the holiday conditions, the greater amounts of alcohol I was imbibing and, possibly, ‘cause it was so darned hot that my body wasn’t sure what it was meant to be doing so it just gave up and doled out the insulin when I needed it’.
The other consequence of forgetting bits and pieces of my kit meant that I also had to use about five or six needles on my pens repeatedly for the entire two weeks. By the end of the holiday the needles were battering their way in to my stomach and legs which taught me an important lesson about being forgetful.
Another thing I discovered on this holiday was that I am, apparently, some kind of beacon to stinging fauna and flora. In terms of increasing severity and from least to most painful. I was bitten by mosquitoes, stung by some kind of plant which I didn’t even see to identify when it happened, gnawed by sand flies, stung by a jellyfish and, most excitingly, attacked by a nest full of rampaging ants!
Unfortunately the jellyfish sting happened on the second day when snorkelling at the far side of Pigeon Point, like the plant which struck later I didn’t notice it at the time but when I got back to the beach and was about to check my blood sugar my Mum said “what’s happened to your back?” I attempted to peer over my own shoulder which isn’t strictly possible, so had to wait until we returned to the house to look in a mirror. I saw a large red line running from the top of my right shoulder to the centre of my back at the waist. Apparently I had swum under a jellyfish while out in the sea and the resulting welt looked like something you’d see on a medical show on Channel 4. Added to that, was the self-inflicted failure to cover the very same back with sun tan lotion, resulting in a kind of oblong patch of red, the flashing likes of which would normally stop you from crossing a road. Of course you spend a lot of time without a top when you’re on beaches in the tropics so the rest of the holiday I was wandering around with what looked like a whip lash across my rosy coloured back.
Another day, later in the week, my Dad and I were heading for the north of the island to help out with some field work the students were doing. The roads in Tobago are at best exciting and at worst downright dangerous so you tend to drive quite slowly on them. Due to the rate we were travelling we happened upon a fruiting tree, ‘The Old Guy’ thought the seeds might be of interest to the students, so we stopped the car and popped in to the undergrowth. Now I don’t know if I’ve mentioned, but it’s pretty warm in Tobago so I was in the obligatory shorts, t-shirt and sandals, as is the holiday uniform of the average Englishman.
We walked up to the tree, according to Father it was a Cacao tree, the source of lovely tasty chocolate, amongst other things, and it had a very ripe fruit hanging low enough for him to pick straight off. We were about to turn around and head back to the car when I noticed there was another pod just out of reach, so I cunningly told him to hang on a sec’ while I grabbed it. I looked at the bottom of the tree and there was a handy little natural step in the trunk of the tree where a branch had broken away, so I lifted my foot up and placed it on the bare, damaged wood, then hefted myself up high enough to grab the other fruit. I swiftly dismounted and stamped my feet about in the undergrowth because a plague had descended upon me as if I was excreting insect attracting pheromones.
I had unknowingly disturbed a large nest of what turned out to be fire ants. That’s incredible you might think, a race of ants ‘who’ have discovered how to initiate and harness a flame, but no! It turns out that the reason they are called fire ants is because they clamp their large mandibles in to you and spray a rather noxious concoction of chemicals which makes your skin feel like it’s got a bit part in the ‘Towering Inferno’. This was the second time the local wildlife had seen fit to try and discourage me from stepping foot or flipper in to the great outdoors of the island. The outcome was that, turning up to meet the students, I had a conspicuous limp and a rather disagreeably glowing lower left leg to match my pre-cooked back.
My brother and the other lecturer accompanying the party, headed home after seven days and left the students, my parents and me to make our own entertainment for the second week of the trip. It was a kind of added bonus for those that had saved up the quite considerable sum (for someone in full time education) to go on the field trip, and also meant there was a week of relaxing in the sun before they had to get back and do some real work again.
The students decamped to Castara, a little village on the Caribbean shore, which was apparently the “cool” place to stay according to one of the girls, who had a relative living on the island, so we didn’t bump in to them much in the second week of the tropical getaway. I spent most of the time pottering around with my parents, looking at ancient things with my Mother who’s an Archaeologist and likes that sort of thing, standing in rainforests, drinking cocktails and ‘Carib’ beer which in my opinion tastes better than Stag (“a man’s beer!” according to the adverts) and swimming in clear blue seawater, which was frankly a pleasant way to kill time.
It was on the Wednesday that we decided to take a trip to the Arnos Vale hotel; the area is covered with beautiful managed tropical forest and there’s a large cove you can snorkel around for hours to meet the local sea-life. After a morning spent on the beach and in the water (which was remarkably free of any kind of biting or stinging), we headed up to the bar. Now when I call it a bar it doesn’t really do it justice! It was a kind of decked platform standing amongst tropical flowers and exotic trees where you could relax in comfy chairs while being served piña coladas by the staff, dressed in traditional Creole clothing, and watch hummingbirds flitting around the well-stocked bird feeders hanging from the balustrades.
No sooner had I sat down with my first drink than we were greeted by a small contingent of the students, they ordered themselves drinks with the exception of Deanne who had introduced herself to me in the queue at the airport. She explained that somehow the others had persuaded her that she would act as designated driver for the week and therefore would not be partaking in as many of the local beverages as she might have liked to. I attempted to gain more knowledge as to how this appalling situation had come about but another of the girls was, what you might call talkative and derailed our chat, as well as everyone else’s, and carried everyone along in a whirlwind of whatever it was she was currently and noisily small-talking about.
We spent a pleasant couple of hours watching the tiny, intricately patterned, birds imbibing sugar water, but then it was time to leave. I was feeling a little bit upset that my only real chance to hang out with people my own age had been so short and hadn’t really given me the opportunity to get to know them, when the conversation hijacker suggested that on the last full day of the trip, my parents and I should come and join them for lunch in Castara. This brightened up the prospect of the impending end of the break, as well as improving my day, somewhat!
As mentioned, the second week had been surprisingly free of things attacking me but there was a return to form on the last few days as I was set upon by mosquitoes, not particularly bad but annoying. We also visited a place called Black Rock for ‘The Old Guy’ to do some more fishing (he’s a fishing-a-holic of some renown) however, no one had warned us that at about five in the afternoon a swarm of sand-flies appears and starts chewing on any ankles which happen to be displayed in the vicinity. Finally, and probably most distressingly, I was minding my own business walking along in some undergrowth and, without knowing exactly what it was, I was stung by some kind of plant which left a hot pulsating rash on my left leg. This may partly explain my subsequent lifestyle choice of becoming a vegetarian and attempting to get my own back on the flora that attacked me in such an unprovoked and unseemly manner.
The ultimate day rolled up and I did my best to dress up for the occasion, although with a wardrobe consisting entirely of shorts, t-shirts and a rather unfashionable wide brimmed hat this wasn’t easy, but I chose carefully and possibly looked slightly less scruffy than I had for the rest of the holiday. We arrived in Castara at about midday and were taken on a walk down a path which snaked steeply downwards until it ended quite surprisingly at a restaurant, with one large table, open on all four sides but covered by a raffia-like thatch.
Everyone took their seats and we proceeded to partake of some local delicacies like callaloo and fried bake. A good time appeared to be had by all and the Carib ran freely as the meal was rounded off with, pawpaw balls and sugar cakes. Unusual food but, as with the rest of this trip, my blood sugar was stable, as if I’d borrowed a fully functional pancreas! As everyone sat back to digest their food, one of the girls suggested that they would be rounding their afternoon and evening off with a barbecue on the beach which we were welcome to stay for. My parents, ever the polite English folk, declined with grace and made their excuses to leave but I jumped at the chance to spend a little more time with these people, met so recently and so briefly and whom I might not see again after the flight home the next day.
In case you have been wondering, this is where the story gets interesting!
The girls had got in to the habit of going for an afternoon nap after lunch, this practice was, I think, picked up from the locals who have turned it in to an art form. Anyway this left me without anything in particular to do with myself until one of the two male students, Bob, a forty-something bloke from Ireland, suggested a way to pass some time until the girls got up again! Before revealing the details of what came next I would like to make a disclaimer that it wasn’t at all clever and, in my defence, the couple of years preceding this trip had not been particularly good ones for me and so I was willing to give anything which might improve my outlook a try. Suffice to say I don’t remember a lot about the next hour or two, but I believe that the girls were awoken from their mid-afternoon slumber by immature-sounding merriment. Upon investigation they discovered myself, and my literal partner in crime, sitting on the settee in the entrance hall, laughing at our own hands.
Thankfully, the effects of this slight misadventure wore off quite quickly and I managed to spend some quality time with the students (here comes the interesting bit). Sitting outside the house on a small area of decking, it turned out only one of them had enough forethought to have brought a case full of CDs with them and it was, much to my own delight, Deanne. I spent some time sitting next to her looking through the discs seeing a lot of music I didn’t recognise, or at least hadn’t listened to much, like The Dave Matthew’s Band and Crowded House, but then (this is it, here!) I happened upon the second album by the Ben Folds Five (bet you’re disappointed now aren’t you? But bear with me), this was a band I originally discovered at a festival deep in the mists of time and up to that point I don’t think I’d ever met another person who had even heard of them, let alone owned an album. I had finally discovered some shared common ground and had a lever with which I could prise out further details.
It turned out, she was close to my age, was into music, travelling, nature, food and drink, reading, movies, lots of the same things I liked! I was quickly realising that I had wasted my holiday enjoying the sun, being bitten and stung by various organisms and relaxing in this tropical paradise when, what I should in fact have been doing, was making up excuses allowing me to travel across the island and spend time in the company of someone who wasn’t more interested in fish than people. And people who are still alive for that matter of fact!
As the evening wore on there were a number of memorable events, such as me purloining a local’s guitar with a missing string and serenading the students (one in particular), with a badly selected set of a few depressingly worded rock music covers, along with some less than appropriate songs of my own devising, including one about a sheep! I was also invited to revisit my earlier state of consciousness with the more “mature” member of the party, which I stupidly agreed to once again, having ended in much embarrassment earlier in the day. This time there was a surprise bonus which was that, after a small discussion, these good-natured people I was with, decided that I probably needed feeding, to make sure my blood sugar didn’t drop too low.
This is one of the other memories I have retained, from the hazy period, in some detail because the method that was chosen was that of my head being rested on Deanne’s knee and her delicately stuffing barbecued food in to my mouth. The rest of my memories of the night are, at best, vague!
The next morning I decided to make like the locals, and hitchhike my way back across the island. This act consists of sticking your hand out until someone picks you up and hoping, sometimes in vain, that the motor vehicle which stops for you is heading in roughly the right direction. What made this journey particularly exciting was the fact that, the aeroplane which we were catching to take us home that afternoon would not be waiting for stragglers, and therefore I needed to be back and packed before it was time to depart.
Thankfully, a slightly beaten up old car pulled over before too long. The state of it was not unusual as most of the cars in Tobago sport the more mature, weathered look. However I almost regretted climbing in immediately as there was a large sports bag on the back seat which may have just contained the driver and passenger’s lacrosse team’s kit, but by the look of said driver and passenger, was quite possibly packed with any number and type of dubious substances. Once you have climbed in to a car it would, I surmised, be somewhat rude to hop out again, so I crossed my fingers and hoped they were headed towards my destination. I did, just about, recognise a number of the roads we drove along, and after about half an hour we pulled up at a small undistinguished village in the middle of nowhere. I was thankful to be clear of any kind of international narcotics incident and decided I would walk, swiftly, in the direction I believed to be towards the apartment.
After a short interlude traversing perilous looking roads, which looked like they rarely saw motor vehicles, I was lucky enough to thumb another lift. Thankfully this car headed towards what I knew to be the Windward Road, the main thoroughfare along the south side of the island, then turned right, which was the direction I needed to head in. As it drew up to the junction I recognised as being nearest the house, I gesticulated wildly and tried to make it clear that I wanted them to drop me off. They did! I thanked whoever it is that looks after atheists at these times and power-walked the mile or so back to find my parents enjoying breakfast on the veranda and seemingly, not worrying the slightest bit about my whereabouts (please note, upon reading this my Mother’s exact words were “I nearly went out of my mind worrying about you getting back from Castara!”) over the past sixteen or so hours. I mentally shrugged and made myself some toast, joining them for the final mornings’ jaunt to the beach and then off to the airport.
As you may be aware, seating on an aeroplane seems to be randomly allocated. Rather surprisingly I was placed next my Mum, looking out from the centre along the aisle. From this vantage point I noticed that Deanne had been placed in the middle of two of the other students, in the window seats. The outermost of the three was Bob, who had helped me stray from the path of righteousness the previous day. “Great,” I thought, “I can persuade good old Bob to swap seats with me,” because I knew that he had a soft spot for my Mum and would probably enjoy the chance to chat with her and my Dad on the way back to the UK.
The plane took off and at the instant as the seatbelt lights dimmed I proceeded towards the lucky fellow, to offer him the opportunity he didn’t realise he was missing out on. Sadly, this is when he decided that if I really wanted to sit next to this girl I appeared to have something of a crush on, he would make me work for it. I believe we were about an hour in to the journey before he relented, possibly because I was starting to look like a sad pug dog, he shifted and I sat down, just in time to be served a tray of whatever passed for food, on the budget flight we were taking. It was about tea time and that was when I usually performed my basal injection. I did so, then tried to work out what would be a sensible bolus dose for the soggy limp vegetables, and overcooked meat, they were trying to pass off as a meal.
The flight passed all too quickly and, before I knew it, the plane had landed and we were all saying our goodbyes. Deanne and I hugged and pecked each other on the cheek. Having put my unfashionable hat on, as a handy way to carry it through the airport, I inadvertently poked her in the eye with the brim. I apologised and she was kind enough not to hold it against me. We swapped e-mail addresses before she went to get on a bus to Edinburgh, and I to the car heading back to Dorset.
It was only twenty four hours or so later that I realised that in my over-anxiousness to continue my conversation with her as I left the plane, I had left my long-acting insulin pen, in its case, in the seat pocket in front of me and was therefore rather lacking in the injecting department again. This actually concludes my catalogue of disasters for the trip, almost a full twenty four hours after returning home. However, I wouldn’t change any of it (apart maybe from the sunburn…and some of the bites and stings!).
Now, eleven years later Deanne and I have been married for almost ten years, we had a lovely wedding in Australia, which my parents attended, and we have a three year old son who supplies us with endless questions and answers to life’s riddles.
So to finish, I would just like to dedicate this to Bob, whose ill-judged counsel and sub-legal dealings offered me the chance to rest my head on Deanne’s knee on that night so long ago, also to Joshua who may one day read this and think that his Dad was once, in fact, a bit of an idiot. Finally and most importantly to Deanne, without whom none of this would have been possible.