Our world, the great melting pot of ideas.

So you found it? Welcome aboard.

As the great Jack London said: "You can't wait for creativity, you have to go after it with a club."

Latest

Image

Don’t let overwhelm feed paralysis – do good.

I stand spellbound neath the Opera’s sails. Here in Australia’s metro heart, where Sydneysiders use 200L water per day…per person. I wonder if they turn off the tap while they brush their teeth. I wonder how much I use.

In Parliament House we mingle in the Strangers’ Room, talking about the drought and eating salmon and roe on tiny pancakes made by house elves. What a name. The room and I both wear terracotta. Dusted orange strangers.

The Deputy Premier NSW gets up and speaks like an oil slick, in that way that people who get up and speak for a living have. A nun speaks, cracking her righteous truth across the assembled. One in six kids in Australia living in poverty. I feel it smack against the makeup I’d applied at 6am. It‘s uncomfortable, forced to confront my own privilege.

28years living with the homeless she says. She calls us to account, right here in Parliament House. Not just the pollies, but us as a nation. I’m pulled from the life I’ve built near Byron Bay and held, feet dangling, above Australia. I imagine the kids in their houses, what they eat and how often. I imagine the people who aren’t in houses too.

I take out my phone as she talks and google “poverty” beneath the table. Eric Jensen reckons there are six types: situational, generational, absolute, relative, urban and rural.A little sadness sinks over me as I read: “Absolute poverty is defined by the lack of sufficient resources with which to keep body and soul together.”

I remember the teenager I found crying at the roundabout in Ballina. Arms on the steering wheel. Head on her arms. Tyre punctured on the curb. It’s ok I said, not realising none of it was. There was a lot to that young person’s story. I didn’t ask, out of compassion for her dignity. I didn’t have the training. She had an arm bandaged and her whole body shook when I asked if she was ok. Sitting on the grass beside her car, her tears streaking my shoulders. She leaned on me the way a child does when it’s all become too much. Leaning into my body, the final, hopeless reach for support. The traffic slowing to miss us. It made me feel breakable. I called the support workers at my org.

We tried to find her a place for the night. Sleeping rough, couchsurfing, living in your car, are forms of homelessness too.I parked her car at Aldi and dropped her to the place she’d been crashing. All I could think was of my sisters. And how she didn’t have one with her now. Not everyone has their people close.

Trauma is hard enough with a roof and a support network.

A journalist took the podium and distilled huge issues into mouthfuls, delivered it back to us through the lens of shrewdness and political context a journalist who’s mastered their craft can wield.

I sit in admiration as I watch her laser-focus our attention to nuances of a social calamity with her well chosen handful of words. It‘s like watching my FNQ friends fillet a fish. Flick, precise, flick, unflinching.

From 2011 to 2016 the Census shows a 27% increase in homelessness in the state of NSW. The waiting list for social housing in some regions of the state is 10 years. Ten years!!What the hell do people do for ten years without a house!

A country with Australia’s wealth shouldn’t have these stats. We can do better, we’ve put a human on the moon for god’s sake.

On the train – packed in like chickpeas, my neon midst the suits, I look from seat to seat and feel keenly the collective minds at rest here. It‘s like seeing something powerful sleeping. A shark on the ocean floor, a lion lounging beard-red beside a well feasted kill.

I think til it hurts.

“You have to learn to compartmentalise,” says my colleague. “You can’t let it overwhelm you. You just have to keep doing good where you can and moving forward.”

A philosophical accountant. Skilled up in corporate, now using that deft mind in social services. This sector attracts some good ones.

Walking through Martin Place in my heels I feel 9-foot tall like my surfboard. The day has been full of stats and I want to make change. I’m impatient and saddened and raged.

My hair whips around like a thoroughbred. Clip clop my heels down the mall, past the Lindt Cafe.

I daydream how fun it would be to whinny loud and gallop through the commuters. Council workers perched, having lunch. Kid in cool skate shoes yelling to his mate. Buzz and thrum of Sydney beneath the GPO sandstone.

I feel strong and determined, my flanks lean and ready to run til foaming. But frustration bites at me. How do I channel this energy? Why can’t 24million people look after the ones who need it better. What has happened to our herd?

It‘s strange being in concrete and trees and bustle after months on beaches and country roads. Clip clop my heels through Sydney. Don’t whinny 😂

As the frustration bubbles to the top of my consciousness a shout cuts through my bleak musings. “Get in quick! Selling faster than Taylor Swift!” The Big Issue vendors. Australian social enterprise. “We take card now!” he says with a grin and I pull out my bank card. I‘m buoyed by social change here in motion, right in front of my snout!

Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.

I’m still figuring out maximum impact. But I’m putting one foot in front of the other. I’m not letting overwhelm feed paralysis. Eat the elephant bite by bite.

  1. The problem with racists

The problem with racists

Is that when one shows up
You must wind back your motor-
Pull the throttle back to neutral
All that horsepower left idling
As the moron speaks.

One cannot engage one’s true capacity
One cannot let the motor run,
wind streaming through your hair as you rise swiftly through the gears of debate and conversation

Instead you are forced to speak
as though with a child.
“I don’t care if you only want to wear your red shorts today, honey”
“It really doesn’t matter. They are still shorts, and we are late for kindy.”

But perhaps the worst past of being on the planet with a racist
Is when your rich, cognitive, sexy brain can’t take it anymore…
And engages in debate for the mere sake of stretching its legs.

Quickly you rev the engine, climb a few gears.
At once the delight of intellectual stretching is stopped!
Like a S L A P from an electric fence,
That you feel in your bones and heart simultaneously.

And with a sinking disappointment your remember
Your companion is a blind, ignorant, pink baby mouse.

In frustration you throw arms to the sky
Willing an eagle to spy this creature
Who gives nothing back to the planet, save painful little shrieks of hysteria

And yet no hungry eagle comes.

Was the racist sent to our planet to test the good ones?

This I tell myself, to protect my sanity.
~LJM~

Sweating My Way To Contentment

All night I sweated like a pork sausage in a condom in an oven in a Caribbean rainy season.

Finally, at 1am, tormented by Cartagena’s heat, I stood under my shower – the water like a boiled kettle atop my skull.

I’ll be tired for class tomorrow I guess. I lay sprawled under my bed with my fan so close it was like a cat purring, curled on my chest. A slight reprieve until my skin dried. Not quite enough to sleep.

Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński nailed this feeling in his description of Africa:

“I was dripping with sweat, but others, too, were drenched – sweat prevented you from being incinerated on the summer’s blazing pyre.”

I woke in the morning to a small miracle. The sun was not out. I was immediately distrustful…. probably it is still night, my sleepy brain thought.

Deliciously however, it was 6:30am and raining lightly. I stood on the top floor balcony and looked out across my street. This was a nicer street than where I’d been living – it was considered middle class in Cartagena.

The roofs however were corrugated iron sheets and the powerlines linked to the homes in a dizzying entanglement of black against the drizzly sky.

A creek ran perpendicular to my street and was adorned on both banks with garbage. Once I saw an iguana beneath the bridge there. Skin like hard-boiled leather, green and huge and regal.

“Sorry about your home,” I whispered to him. “Humans are stupid.”

You couldn’t really walk alongside the creek alone because you might get robbed. You had to cut through the suburb and then cut back to the creek simply to cross the footbridge over it. There were a couple of elder gents who took turns sitting on the bridge with a collection tin marked ‘bridge security.’ You could pay them a coin for their efforts. They also sold iceblocks, hedging their bets.

Like usual in the tropics, the sun bit off the head of that delicious fresh morning after about 30 minutes, and resumed its ruthless governance of the sky.

The blind dog and I sat together outside for breakfast. The ideal companion while your brain swims sleepily into the consciousness of day is a dog. It will simply greet you warmly and then shut up. Not like those chirpy morning people who sap your energy before you have cultivated it.

I looked around. Mosquitoes were waking from their potplant nests and shouting at each other that a human (AKA breakfast) and a blind dog were stupidly waiting to be molested.

The baby’s pants, like tiny flags of humanity hung in rows above our heads. The avocado vender bellowed his wares through his megaphone, the wooden wheels of his cart pushing through the streets, his brow and lip beaded as always with pearls of sweat.

The coconut palm in my neighbour’s yard waved lazily in a rare breeze and children, those being who wake with the sun, were already shouting in their street baseball match – snatched moments before their mums wetted and brushed their rebellious curls and marched them off to school.

The Caribbean was waking up.

20150526_145920

Buenos dias Cartagena

Buenos dias Cartagena

20150429_102915

A passenger jet cut across the sky overhead, a reminder I would be on one in just two months. I pushed the thought out of my head. I could easily live here another two years.

What to teach today.

My 1pm class had at least nine very bright students who wanted to learn English – a true blessing for an English teacher in a Latino country. My 4pm class had around the same.

The problem lay with those who didn’t try. The thing about a language is if you chill, process what has been said to you and implement an ounce of cognitive reasoning it is possible to learn.

Some students however throw up a roadblock in their brains.

“That isn’t Spanish!” yells their brain in a panic.
“We can’t understand that.”

Others watch my actions, think about it and hazard a guess.

Hey you! Do you speak English?

Hey you! Do you speak English?

Yesterday one of my favourite students was leaving school as I arrived.
“¿A dónde vas?” I asked him.

His English was not good but he always showed up, participated and was respectful. And he had a cracking sense of humour, which I loved.

In Spanish he explained his cousin was killed in a gang shoot-out in Turbaco, a small town about an hour out of Cartagena. The funeral service was in an hour and Turbaco was an hour’s bus ride away.

Well what the hell do you say to that? I excused him from my class.

When something awful happens here the journalists print pictures of it.

I am not talking pictures depicting it; I am talking pictures of it.

When I worked at a newspaper in Australia there were many car crash fatalities. They were often avoidable. As I stood speaking with the police officer beside what was once a person or a car, my heart grieved at the pointlessness, the waste of human life.

I would print a picture of the mangled wreck of the car in hopes it would jolt people into the realisation that sending a text or overtaking with barely enough space can end like this – twisted metal and burnt flesh.

In Cartagena however the pictures are of the dead. A widow, roadside, crying over the body of her husband as he lies beside his crumpled motorbike. Red blood gone black on the bitumen.

A teenager with his skull opened in a machete fight, the contents of that skull spilled out and printed right there, in colour, on the front page of all three local newspapers.

The thing about this information is you cannot judge it through western eyes until you have lived here. Here life is cheaper, simply because there are less rules, less means of safety. People take motorbike taxis because they are half the price of taxi cars. Unless you plan to fly to Colombia and cover the difference you cannot judge the safety measures here.

For around 240 days I have been living here, and for about 200 of those days I have caught moto-taxis. I have had around 5 close calls, where my heart flew into my mouth and I thought, well, at least I got to live my dream before I died.

Fingers crossed I make it through two more months of these rides. I have already seen three who didn’t.

20150621_141150

And yet there is a joy here.

When you ask a Colombian how they are, they will very often reply without hesitation “Excelente!”

This never fails to buoy my spirits. These are the people I talk to every day. Street vendors, taxi or moto drivers, fellow professors or housewives sweeping the fat green leaves from the street in front of their houses.

They are not rich but perhaps this is their secret.

This country is filled with music and noise and life. If you cut a Colombian’s arm, music will come out. In the tiendas (little stores that sell everything), on the buses, in the taxis, on the beach, from the boomboxes groups of friends sit around, from the boots of parked cars on Sunday afternoon. It is a place saturated in music.

I often feel like my life has a soundtrack as I walk around on my daily happenings in this city.

The one gift Colombia has given me is contentment. It has re-taught me what I once knew. (I was far more intelligent at 12 than in my 20s).

Life is temporary. At any moment you could be hit by something bigger than you and killed. Especially here!

So enjoy it.
When someone asks you how you are, if you are not replying “Excelente!” it is time to ask yourself why not.

The one thing I will take away from this country is a renewed appreciation for life.

My lungs breathe air and my legs bend whenever I tell them to. I (usually) have food to eat. This already gives me more reason to be happy than a lot of our Earth’s population.

One day I caught a taxi into the historical centre to run errands.
Windows down, and palms beating out the rhythm of salsa on his steering wheel; I looked at my driver’s face. Sea breeze blew into the taxi.

“¿A dónde va mi amor?” he asked me with the chopped coastal Spanish of los costeños.

Where are you going my love?

On the coast they use mi amor (my love), mi reina (my queen) and mi vida (my life). It is something I will dearly miss.

When I asked him how he was he replied “Excelente!” without a second thought.

“Por qué?” I asked.

“Mira,” he said, swinging one hand towards the ocean, “y escucha,” he said, turning up the dial on the salsa.

“La vida es Hermosa.”

(Look…and listen….life is beautiful.)

Cartagena's coastline

Cartagena’s coastline

What Do You Know Of The Desert, Costeño?

 

MOONSCAPE: The northern desert region of Colombia.

MOONSCAPE: The northern desert region of Colombia.

La Guajira.

 

By the time I’d learned to say it correctly I had fallen under its spell.

 

Miles of nothing. Then mountains the colour of Bolivia, and nothing moving save a goat or open-mouthed lizard.

 

Forests of spiked succulents shouting their resilience into a blue dome that gives nothing back – just looks down at the desert with dry, blue eyes.

20150403_055353 20150402_124820

It was a total shock to the system after the highly tropical, beach life I’d been living.

 

My two housemates had already made the trek up north, so I was chasing them by a day. It was incredibly fun to be hoofing it on my own. Just me and my work-in-progress Spanish!

 

If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, wanting to get to Colombia’s northern desert region, this is how you do it.

 

Catch bus to Santa Martha (4hrs).

Flag any bus heading north from Santa Martha. Your destination is Riohacha, however you could be dropped in various towns.

Get off where bus drops you (in my case Palomino).

Stand on side of road with local woman, trying to figure out what you are both waiting for.

Ask local tienda (shop) to use bathroom. Response = “Solamente para chi chi.”

Figure out new word. Wee wee = chi chi.

Get in car with woman and pay 4mil to head north to next town.

Get out and wait on road again.

Get on next bus heading north. Stare subtly at woman feeding baby green parrot on lap.

Stare subtly at shoeless, Indigenous Kogi people, clad in white-linen moo-moos. Marvel at their jet-black hair. Feel like you are in a National Geographic episode.

Ask various people where to get off. Get various responses. Practise Spanish with cheeky teenagers. Get called Mona a lot.

Get off at town called Maipaca….or something.

Buy weird chicken thing from children who told you it was vegetarian.

Ask more people. Find expensive buses and search for cheaper option.

Turn down solo male car driver who wants to drive you there for ¼ of usual price.

Stand in what seems to be bus cue. Whole cue leaves without warning.

Bus pulls up from nowhere and collects you only.

Get out at Riohacha.

Find out friends are four more hours to the north in some place called Cabo de la Vela.

Write ‘Cabo de la Vela’ on your arm and crack your second bag of peanuts.

Follow woman with two sons because you here them say a northern town’s name.

Share car-taxi with them.

Watch giant sun slide into horizon. Think of Africa. Learn the secret Spanish talk of two little brothers.

Get off at Uribia. Wind blows, people feel a little wilder. Am I in a frontier town??

Meet some university students and cram into a truck/jeep for a reasonable price.

 

In the jeep we sped through a darkened desert. I was so excited for morning to see what it looked like. Show me your colour, desert.

 

We smelled a dank odour.

 

“Un animal?” I asked my new pals.

“Si,” they confirmed.

 

It smelled like fox to me.

“Es como un pero?” (like a dog?)

“Mmmm….no.”

 

There was a mysterious desert animal out there. Smelling like a fox, but not looking like one. I’d have my eyes peeled for tracks the next day. Not sure what they’d look like. Maybe it flew, and there’d be none.

 

I met Ayumi, a perfectly-cheekboned Japanese girl who had been travelling the world for three years. She had all her stuff in a netting bag. She had two dreadlocks and was cool in that way only Asian travellers could truly rock.

 

I shared my trail mix (con chocolate), remembering that Colombians were a collective society and that meant the whole jeep needed a handful. It was a hit.

 

I accidentally stepped on a puppy in the darkness. I spoke to two desert sisters who were on their way back home to their little desert town, Cabo de la Vela. (I was on the right track, yes!). One wore the beautiful, flowing cotton dress of their region, the other skinny jeans and a singlet top.

 

One of their friends was working the outside of the jeep. Hanging on the back and swinging round to unstrap huge bags of water, backpacks and supplies like onions and toilet paper as we dropped people in the middle of nowhere.

 

We rolled into Cabo an hour or so later.

 

Little town. Hot, dry, with a perfect blue sea lapping the little houses. There was a friendly feel sitting in the back of that darkened jeep, as the guy unloaded everybody with their supplies, said hello and goodbye and swung with grace back onto the jeep.

 

The sisters showed me their bags, hand woven in the La Guajira region by women who had passed down the method for years.

 

“Ciao Lisa,” they called, getting off with their puppy.

“Bienvenidos para café por la mañana.” (Welcome for coffee in the morning.)

Their mama came out and made sure all supplies were in order at the drop off. Not getting your water in the jeep run was a big deal in this part of the country.

 

Eventually we arrived at Glamar, the hostel/restaurant my friends were at.

It had been a long day, and I fell into my hammock with thanks. There were three strung in a row for us, with the sea at our feet.

 

I slept; a desert baby in my bright cocoon.

 

Home for the night. Who needs walls!

Home for the night. Who needs walls!

In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gladis (the owner) and her family having breakfast, a few metres from our hammocks.

 

I had noticed something in this region: the women were calling the shots. Not in an overbearing way, just calmly and with great competency. It was a matriarchal society, and the hisses and catcalls of the southern coast were blissfully missing here! Yahoo.

 

The stunning La Guajira women: all that floating cotton!

The stunning La Guajira women: all that floating cotton!

20150402_145828

The multi-talented Galdis of Cabo de la Vela.

The multi-talented Galdis of Cabo de la Vela.

I watched Galdis juggle a family, a busy restaurant kitchen, diffuse a drunken men’s argument and make us girls feel welcome all at once. It was impressive.

 

We spent a fabulously lazy day. The region was strange on the eye, the red sand a total juxtaposition against jade seas.

 

We hired motorbike drivers for the day and jetted into the blinkless face of the desert. My driver was a young hot-shot who sped up to everything, skidded us through the sand and never listened when I asked him to chill out. He reminded me of me at seventeen.

 

A sign of my age perhaps, that the kind of driving I’d once broken my collarbone with was now making me anxious.

 

Slow down you little punk. Some of us want to see the sunrise tomorrow.

Slow down you little punk. Some of us want to see the sunrise tomorrow.

The drivers would pull up and us girls would explore up hills of cacti. Millions of spikes in brittle grey and khaki-brown pushing themselves up on straightened elbows from the red dust.

 

Against an endless cliff wind we’d push uphill until our breaths were stolen clean away by the stunning view thrown out below us.

20150402_103453

20150402_131050

Was there anything so strange and beautiful as a desert meeting the ocean?

 

That night we paid 5mil for a bucket of water and crowded into the small toilet stall to wash. Three white bums, three sets of white boobies – the rest a jumble of brown limbs covered in red dust. A life lived in bikinis for two months!

 

We walked around as the evening chill set in, a welcome visitor in this terrain. We bargained gently with the La Guajira weavers, seeing the work in each of their mochilas, and each bought a stunning bag to remember the trip and the people by.

 

The artisans talk prices.

The artisans talk prices.

That evening the feel of the place changed. All Colombians were now on holiday and those bent of partying flooded into tranquil Cabo.

 

Gladis had her hands full. A fat, drunk man insulted guests at our little ‘hostel’, made jokes about us sharing a hammock with him (blurgh), blared champeta music all night and all morning, and the next morning (to my delight) crashed his car into his other car while drunkenly trying to reverse it at 5am.

 

I told him in the best version of my bad Spanish it was lucky he’d hit his own car not one of the little kids who were staying with the families on holiday here.

 

“You’re not from this land,” he said.

“You’re not from Cabo de la Vela,” I said.

 

After that frustrating dispute, where he still refused to turn the music off (it was now 5am) we decided to walk into the desert and watch the sunrise.

 

Sometimes you just have to walk away.

 

What else does one do at sunrise, with no sleep!

What else does one do at sunrise, with no sleep!

Disused fishing nets sling an odd beauty against the sand.

Disused fishing nets sling an odd beauty against the sand.

On the hunt for the mysterious non-fox.

On the hunt for the mysterious non-fox.

It was truly stunning. It refreshed us, washed the memory of a sleepless night away, and reminded me what beauty there is in the world.

 

I found dog tracks, the tracks of a baby donkey walking beside its mother and, sadly, no trace of the mysterious animal that smelled but not looked like a fox.

 

We caught the next ride we could find out of there, keen to get away from the dank partygoers, and preserve the tranquil memory of the place that had wormed its way into our hearts.

 

This lady from Cabo de la Vela handmade her stunning dress.

This lady from Cabo de la Vela handmade her stunning dress.

20150403_092405 20150403_094117

Women floating by in their cotton, flowered dresses, wrapped headscarfs and an easy way of being.

Landscape that looked like the moon. Or Bolivia. Or a Bolivian moon.

Pastels and greys and burnt orange, with hills streaked in purple standing silent in the distance.

 

The shock of red against blue. Cacti forests and prickly pears that stretched on forever.

 

And one sight, which often rises unbidden to my eyelids when I lie in bed after a day’s teaching: the pink petals of a cacti flower, curled outward to reveal the yellow wad of its centre. Adorned with black ants and fresh as linen in that first light of a sweltering desert day.

 

You are magical life. Whenever I die, may it be in nature.

Feast for the soul.

Feast for the soul.

20150403_065648

Vandal-proof fencing, desert style!

20150403_065820

Thank you desert.

20150403_064200 Read the rest of this page »

You Gotta Fill Those Reservoirs!

Parque Los Angeles, between Parque Tayrona and Santa Marta.

Parque Los Angeles, between Parque Tayrona and Santa Marta.

This morning we woke up in paradise.

“I feel like I’m hatching from an egg every time I get out of that hammock,” Ash said, struggling free of hers, slung in a line of four.

We ate the oats that hadn’t spilled through my backpack, with water and bananas.

Breakfast of champions. Oats. SIN AZUCAR!

Breakfast of champions. Oats. SIN AZUCAR!

A great part of Colombia is the iguanas you can spot perched in trees.

A great part of Colombia is the iguanas you can spot perched in trees.

We hung around (literally) in hammocks talking smack at our campsite. I relished the energy of these three great ladies.

Ashley- The oldest in our quartet, with some delightful life experience up her sleeve. Running on German time, topped with good humour and utterly settled into herself. Whatever you need she probably has in her backpack. Nail file, sardines, pack of cards. Choosing to really live in Colombia (not just say she did, while only talking to other foreigners)- with a Colombian family in a small town down south, taking Spanish lessons and saying “yes” to most cultural opportunities that come her way. My partner in crime while we learned scuba diving, always up for a dark ale. A proud Newfy. Constantly bemused by Fiona.

Fiona- A Ugandan/Boston glamour with a whacked-out view on the world who makes me laugh at least once an hour. Often times more. Youthful, inquisitive and refreshingly strange. In a word, unique. Looking wistfully into the horizon she will declare, “Logic is the greatest threat to imagination,” before laughing at herself. A total babe, often found posing bikini-clad, with beautiful black skin, against scenes of ocean, coconut trees and bunches of bananas, so every time I glance up I‘m confronted by a postcard. More to her than you first garner – perseverance and enjoyment for life, and some street smarts. Going to live an interesting life.

Meg- The calm energy that flows through our group. Unflappable, caring and with a laid-back Aussie humour that makes me ache for home as though I’d just had Vegemite. Patient as a hunting hawk and far more mature than her age would normally dictate. A real giver and over-packer. Brought more shoes to Colombia than I put in storage at home. A definite island of sanity for me in the wash of loud, strange experiences that is Colombian life. Known to prefer bike or skateboard to feet. Heart of gold.

There's even dishes in the jungle. Sigh.

There’s even dishes in the jungle. Sigh.

Last night we’d built a failing fire on the sand. Green kindling the only at our disposal. Bear Grylls would have shaken his head, then asked his camera-man for some kerosene.

Our fire failed slowly as we spoke Spanglish with three chicos from Bucaramanga. They worked in hospitality, they told us, offering around rum and mandarins. They taught us some cool slang to say to our students, and were impressed we already knew ‘chichipato’.

We had beers and salad for dinner. Like all good athletes.

The next morning I caught the aggressive little waves, scrambling free before they pounded my head into the pebbles and shattered baby shells that made up the beach.

I met Juan Stephen from Medellin who was there with his surfer girlfriend. What a place for romance. He had a nipple pierced and an assortment of random tattoos. Probably the look I’d create for myself if I were a young, Colombian surfer bro. Good on you mate.

I was due to meet my housemates in the desert that evening. Little did I know how many forms of odd transport lay ahead of me.

It was April Fool’s Day.

I tried to text them; “Won’t make it, just jumped off a bus before he’d stopped properly and have broken my ankle. On way to Santa Marta hospital L Battery almost dead. Call later.”

No service. Dammit paradise!
And April Fool’s Day runs out at midday.

Blissed out reservoir filling.

Blissed out reservoir filling.

A beautiful sight. Helping hand when a friend can't swim.

A beautiful sight. Helping hand when a friend can’t swim.

I lay on the beach with Meg. The rainbowed threads of her Mexican blanket mirrored my mood. Amazing what good company can do to the spirits.

Red toenail polish, chipping off, poking through white sand. Blue and white waves biting the coast. Palms and peace and nothing but.

It was perfect here. And perfect doesn’t find you that often in the average week.

A guy was trying to surf in the 3m stretch between the breaking waves and the shore. I hoped he knew what he was doing. They were the kind of waves that enjoy snapping boards and necks.

I scouted out a green coconut, shook it for milk. It sounded just perfect. A hombre at the little juice bar on the sand cracked it for us. Hammering his machete down in expert blows. Ending with all his fingers still attached, sweet coconut water and a stack of the white fruit.

I sat in utter delight munching that white flesh.

Lunch for next month.

Lunch for next month.

A great guy told me something a great girl told him; People have reservoirs. We need to fill these reservoirs up with the good stuff, so we can drink from them in the shitty times.

Two days of the great conversation that female friendships are made up of.

Fiona regaled us with tales of her kingdom and Queen from Uganda. Whose name she didn’t know. We traded ridiculous banter. We talked about how Ash and I had made each other laugh underwater until we had to swim in opposite directions, lest our instructor refuse to certify us for scuba. Meg patiently corrected my Spanish.

I walked out to the road just after 1pm to flag down a bus and begin hoofing it up north to the desert. My reservoirs full to overflowing.

Never put up with bad people in your life. There are too many good ones out there.

Location of paradise: Parque Los Angeles, circa Parque Tayrona, Colombia.

Go there!

Go there!

Missing Ide!

Missing Ide!

Colombian Life…So Do You Get It?

Performers in Barranquilla's Carnival parade.

Performers in Barranquilla’s Carnival parade.

In Colombia time does not really exist. There are clocks sure, to decorate the walls.

My students wander in 15 minutes after class ‘officially’ starts, and cluster in groups catching up on the multitude of events that could have happened since they last saw each other… yesterday.

The fantastic women I get to teach English to.

The fantastic women I get to teach English to.

In Colombia events start an hour late, and people do things based on the general feeling for what time is right – rather than the actual time being right.

If you are supposed to meet somebody at 6pm and your cousin drops by for a coffee, you can happily show up at 7pm – no questions asked. No judgement passed. No explanation offered to your amigo… who was probably only showing up at 7pm himself anyway.

In one way it’s the most frustrating thing I have experienced. In another way it’s a return to the primal; the dividing of a day based on the slow unravelling of events – the feel rather than the obligation of things.

It certainly takes some getting used to, after coming from the time-based Western society. It is certainly still driving me nuts at times…..but I am getting used to it.

Having lived most of my life as the person who is 15 minutes late (as my friend Pip will attest to), it’s probably a good lesson to get a dose of my own medicine.

The only possible way for a FOP (Fresh off the Plane) to keep calm under such circumstances is to have nail polish or a book…. or even some mail you need to reply to, in your bag.

Anyway, Colombia has so many fantastic distractions for you while you adjust to the time warp, that it doesn’t really matter.

20150313_131629

Jugo naturales (natural juice), available everywhere, and one of my favourite things about this country.

Siesta: anytime, anywhere.

Siesta: anytime, anywhere.

Sitting in a plaza while you wait for your late friend/ students/ acquaintance/ Spanish professor offers up a visual smorgasbord.

The homeless man’s dog has a new puppy. It is loving life, trotting around the flower market, where its owner lives on a piece of cardboard.

Pirate puppy, one black ear flopping over one black eye, comes over to play, full of feistiness already, which will come in handy in the life that lies ahead of him.

Our local flower market, where they spray-paint some (yulk) in gaudy hues, and leave others to their natural beauty.

Our local flower market, where they spray-paint some (yulk) in gaudy hues, and leave others to their natural beauty.

Fat male pigeons puff their chests and fan their tails in courtship, chasing around the long-suffering ladies, much like the human scene taking place all around them.

A woman with a voice like a banshee and toes similarly blessed pushes a fruit cart, screaming her wares across the unsuspecting public. “Papayaaaaaa.”

She is wasted as a frutadora; she could have sold voice recordings for emergency evacuations or car alarms. If I had better Spanish I’d let her in on this money-making brainwave.

A little boy destroys a plastic cup with a seedpod, dancing backwards on his toes like the best of the three musketeers. He is under the impression, in that wonderful space of the imagination, that the cup is fighting back.

In Colombia if you visit the same juice lady she greets you with “Hola, mi amor,” (Hello my love), and tops up your glass for free when you’ve downed the first giant beverage.

Oscar the fruit man sells you seven limes for a mil before he knows you, and ten for a mil each time after if he decides you are ok.

Fruit and veges from the streets, much cheaper than the super market.

Fruit and veges from the streets, much cheaper than the super market.

Cartagena's famous clock tower (Torre del Reloj).

Cartagena’s famous clock tower (Torre del Reloj).

As I trot off happily to work, past the sleeping dog on the red stoop, past the screaming green parrot above the clock tower – which stands witness to all who enter its yellow walls, just as it has for centuries – past Jimmy, who sells garbage bags and shakes my hand every morning, I think to myself how lucky I am to be here.

What a place! Life abounds.

Lollie lane…..dangerously good.

Lollie lane…..dangerously good.

The lollie vendors haven’t set up at 7am, but the man in the yellow shirt is always there, newspapers arrayed on his table.

He is usually doing an ineffective form of exercise I like to call the ‘touch your toes almost-squat.’

“Buenos dias Mon,” he says to me each day.

Mona: someone with light hair. Faded red with brown roots seems to fall into this category also.

Life has a busy feel to it sometimes, a lazy feel at others. The people enjoy life. They seem to have that elixir everyone else is chasing. They also seem to work hard for little reward.

20150318_121820

Industrial Cartagena, a different vibe from the walled city.

Industrial Cartagena, a different vibe from the walled city.

On the buses I catch to another suburb, twice a week, I see a whole different side of Cartagena. Here it is industrial. It’s gritty. Sweat pours off the guy who jumps aboard our bus selling water.

“Agua, agua, agua frio.”

Beads run down his cheek and hit the floor. The driver swerves to the right, narrowly misses a motorbike rider, the water seller stands on my foot, a baby wobbles on a fat knee, the bus swerves again, the people slide uniformly to the left, a slither of breeze gets through the window and is quashed instantly by the heat within.

The bus driver is insane. He leans on the horn. He cuts people off and speeds up to clearly stationary things like cars, humans and carts pulled by sad little donkeys, so that we are constantly hitting the brakes; the 40 passengers pitched forward like eggs from a slingshot.

A girl in front of me is sick out the window. I hand her a lollie from my backpack, for the taste.

My spine tries to break out through my skin each time the ‘loco’ conductor hits the skids.

I think about strapping a pillow to my back like a turtle for tomorrow’s ride. For the first time in my life I crave back cleavage.

It’s hot and crowded and I love it.

It’s noisy as hell and I hate it.

That’s the thing with Colombia, you can’t choose which bits you get. It’s the whole package. To feel alive like this you have to have the heat and chaos and irrational spontaneity of it all.

In the staffroom at the other end of the bus-ride-from-hell a male professor tells me I have beautiful eyes, in front of many professors. It’s very awkward and unprofessional. Sleezeball. I narrow the ‘beautiful eyes’ to little Voldemort slits, because I don’t know how to say “shut it mate, that’s not appropriate in a staff room.”

I promptly turn away from him and begin a conversation with a pregnant female professor who wants to know when I can teach her English. I can’t…it’s above my pay grade.

Another professor is helpful and friendly in the way of many Colombians. He insists on making the cleaning lady and me a coffee, and when he finds out I have no food for the return bus-trip-from-hell (1.5 hrs in alarming traffic) he fetches a banana from his locker and wraps it in paper for me.

“For a bus,” he says in English.

Every day in this country I meet someone to restore my faith in humanity. Every day in this country a man checks me out, hisses or says something about my appearance. Sometimes he does it in the middle of a call he’s taking on his mobile, or almost crashes his pushbike. I’m not Miranda Kerr, and I find the level of built-in perversion quite surreal.

It is a strange mix of machista, romanticism and people who seem (thankfully) not bound by this incessant need to interact with the opposite sex as though we are at a meat market.

I did learn one lesson however. Don’t retaliate.

The Irish half of my blood boils. I have to bite my tongue.

The local beach.

The local beach.

20150223_165454

At the local beach the other day (we are the only ones who wear togs there) a group of schoolboys continually yelled stuff at us. I stood to shake the sand from my towel. Whistles, woops, cries of “hey baby!” and most infuriatingly…HISSING. Like a snake. Like a pack of snakes. Like a pack of bad mannered snakes who need their bottoms smacked.

Seriously I thought? You guys are not long out of nappies.

I gave them the finger. Yep, flipped the bird their way.

First and last time!

They erupted! In delight. Cheering and laughing. It served to only make me madder.

Lesson learned……rise above.

“Qanta anos tienes niño?” I asked one who was nearby in the water.

(How many years do you have little boy?)

They were seventeen.

Sad that at that age they’ve already learned to be chauvinists from other men they see.

Good training in patience and restraint for me I suppose. Grrrrrr.

On the plus, I have met respectful men and boys over here also. So it just goes to show there’s choice alongside cultural norms. And respectfulness can be a part of any personality/character, no matter what you are raised in the presence of.

After class that day I call past our friends’ new apartment for dinner.

The traffic has died down for my return home at 8:30pm so I pay 7mil to jump on the back of a moto taxi.

The helmet he gives me is a snug fit……for someone with two heads.

Rounding a bend a huge gale blows it right off my face; it hangs behind me on its chinstrap like a bonnet. Safety first in Colombia.

I think of Ryan’s face laughing, calling me pin-head. I miss home and him. Then we scoot out of the way of a bus and I hang on and hope I make it through to 28.

The 1.5hr bus route takes 20 minutes on a motorbike, without traffic. Amazing.

I stop at Oscar’s fruit cart as I walk back to my house, to pick up the usual dinner supplies; eggplant, carrots, avocado and papaya. He gives me a warm smile as he slips an extra carrot in the bag now that we’re regulars.

Everywhere there’s colour, people socialising, too-tight pants, noise and movement. People cooking at their little restaurant stalls under the huge fig trees, with roots that remind me of the Newfarm Park treehouse playground in Brisbane.

A street clown has a huge crowd, getting one guy to walk like a prostitute, the whole crowd roaring with laughter. I’m sure I would be too if I understood Spanish better, or the imbedded cultural jokes.

The streets are busy. Families chat on the plastic chairs outside their houses, making the most of the elusive breeze. There’s that great evening buzz, and I love my new city once more.

The next day my English class is interrupted mid-way for a woman to run a presentation on HIV prevention and management. As I lister to safe-sex delivered in Spanish, she hands around condoms for my all-female class.

“One for you teacher,” she says with a laugh and plonks an apple-flavoured one on top of my notebook.

There is no prior warning for the interruption. Like most things over here. Go with the flow. It’s usually a pretty amusing one.

I think about giving my apple-flavoured condom to the homeless man to blow up and use as a pillow. The thought of explaining this to him in broken Spanish while brandishing a condom makes me laugh.

Colombia you strange, fantastic place.

20150221_184223

Wednesday Night…Out-Of-Body

Levitaatio

A year seemed like a good chunk of time. A chunky chunk. One not to be looked over like six months. Skinny, wishful ‘six months,’ who talked a lot, but who nobody really took seriously.

Well it was only 11 months really. But it was a faraway place and that was the most important part of it all.

In a world where everything seemed to me it had been done before. You could barely conjure an idea without some smug pair of lips babbling how they spent a year doing that very ludicrous thing when they were 22 and had left a long-term relationship.

“While I was living in Nicaragua I was taken in by a one legged healer and his wife. We ate nothing but tomalis and I didn’t check my Facebook for months, that’s right months, at a time. It was a really hard time in my life, and it’s changed me for the better.”

Oh shut it.

It seemed to me at times I had been born too late. We knew it all, we’d tried it all. We had investigated the magic of everything so thoroughly that we had scientifically gotten to the bottom of it. And that is the indisputable best way to kill magic.

Burke and Wills had had the life. Underprepared, unguided; setting into the great unknown to die with urine in their bellies and lips blistered into bubbles like the fine, lifting skin of a dead lizard, swollen under the Australian sun.

Enshrined forever in the glorious doom of the true adventurer.

Now you had to go to more and more extremes to touch foot on virgin trails. You had to buy a motorbike and drive backwards through continents on one wheel, or sell your house on Ebay and move to places nobody had heard of.

Once I read somewhere, “you don’t have to move to India to find yourself.”

I tried to live by this for a little while. Tried to look inside myself, straight through the freckled skin of my chest, past the throbbing little veins that shot blood throughout me, deeper than the clockwork physical, to focus my eyes to persistent green slits and stare into the existential soul of myself.

But in the end it didn’t work, and I decided that maybe I did have to move to India. Only the rapes in India made me cry, and instead of the spiritual heart of that country and stunning landscapes, I thought only of hurt women holding their knees. And my childhood longing to visit evaporated. Poof. Into the Queensland sky.

I decided on Colombia instead, the second friendliest country I had visited.

But I was not a fool. I knew this move alone wouldn’t quiet the mind that whirred at night, a million miles an hour like a plastic windmill stuck in a chain-mail fence. Spinning in glinting pinks and silvers, all that energy expended, yet going nowhere.

I had to do something, I had to challenge myself. With a language, with a culture, with new work and foods and people. But I also had to allow for internal mechanics to loosen, to reform, to rust and take on a new beauty.

I had figured out, finally, a small truth. And it had only taken me 27 years.

It was helped along, as always, by the words of Mary Oliver.

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.”

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

I had only to let my energy unfold. Slow as a green fern unfurling. Gentle and fresh and probing. Or bold as a buffalo calf kicking its way free of the birth sack, and into the arid, dangerous world of the African plains.

I had only to let it be. My will was strong, but my harmony needed the room to move, the chance to stretch out, test itself and perch, balanced, at its rightful equilibrium.

Part letting it be. Part letting conscious decisions guide your trajectory.

Existentialism: “A philosophical theory or approach that emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”

Morning Run Through Steaming Cartagena

CARIBBEAN COLOURS: Cartagena's famous frutadoras set up for the day, chopping papaya, watermelon and mango.

CARIBBEAN COLOURS: Cartagena’s famous frutadoras set up for the day, chopping papaya, watermelon and mango.

I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.

 

Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.

 

FORTIFIED: Cartagena's ancient walls were built to ward off pirate attacks.

FORTIFIED: Cartagena’s ancient walls were built to ward off pirate attacks.

A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.

 

Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.

20150217_110508

No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.

 

As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.

 

“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.

 

‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.

 

We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.

 

The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.

COME IN: Can't pretend you're not home with this thing clanking.

COME IN: Can’t pretend you’re not home with this thing clanking.

 

We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.

 

Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.

 

Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.

 

A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.

 

Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.

 

 

The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.

 

There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.

 

We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.

 

As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.

 

With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!

 

That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.

 

He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.

 

“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.

 

“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”

 

DIFFERENT BY DAY: A lone dog sniffs for scraps around the square that fills with tourists and small groups of sex workers by night.

DIFFERENT BY DAY: A lone dog sniffs for scraps around the square that fills with tourists and small groups of sex workers by night.

It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.

 

I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.

 

This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.

 

https://news.vice.com/article/sex-tourism-drives-underage-prostitution-boom-in-cartagena-colombia

 

It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.

CARTAGENA PALETTE: The visual feast that is a walk through Cartagena's old town.

CARTAGENA PALETTE: The visual feast that is a walk through Cartagena’s old town.

 

Cartagena scenes.

Cartagena scenes.

Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.

In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.

 

I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.

 

There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.

 

I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.

 

She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.

 

“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.

 

My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.

 

Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.

 

In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.

 

COOL HOOD: Barrio Getsemani is the hip place to wander when a thirst hits you.

COOL HOOD: Barrio Getsemani is the hip place to wander when a thirst hits you.

 

There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.

If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.

Returning To Colombia, Because It Called

S.A. CALLING: Typical street scenes in Colombia.

S.A. CALLING: Typical street scenes in Colombia.

The Scratchy Side of the States

“Some of the centres you’ll be teaching in will have no resources, so I suggest you bring as much material as you can fit in your luggage.”

These were the scary words of our coordinator for the teaching English program.

‘Great!’ I thought, visions of myself with a half-stick of chalk staring back at a blank class of 30 university students. Gulp!

Three op-shops later I set off to sneak my way through airport baggage weigh-ins, approximately 3kgs overweight with books.

In the blur of small talk, security checkpoints and bad food that is travel I hit my first stroke of fortune……

I was merrily walking around Los Angeles airport, killing time, when a security officer came up to me.

“Are you Lisa?”

“Ah…yeah…how did you know that?”

“Are you missing a laptop?”

“Oh shit!”

To my great luck, the security team had opened the forgotten laptop at the end of the x-ray conveyer belt to discover my spare ream of passport photos.

“My boss said to just go find you,” the grinning security officer said.

She marched me back to security like a trophy.

“How good am I!” she yelled to a team of about seven, who all turned and gave a shout of hooray. How embarrassing.

THANK YOU Los Angeles security people! I wouldn’t be typing this blog without you.

That night I stayed in the tackiest place I have ever been (and I’ve travelled South-East Asia!).

It was called, ironically, Backpackers Paradise, located in dodgy old Inglewood, a suburb not far from the airport.

Tubes of party lights wrapped to the top of palm trees, there was an Egyptian gift shop on one side (the owner told me I’d be worth 100 camels in the old trading), little tables clustered around while people smoked doobs or had pointless arguments about topics they didn’t really know that much about.

The swimming pool reflected back the whole depressing scene.

I chose it for the free airport shuttle and free shuttle to LA’s best beaches. It was just a bed for a night after all.

It was about 11pm. Rude receptionists (“I just wanna get home and watch my shows” “Did you hear what he was telling her that night!?” “Here’s your key…anyway”), a free glass of champagne (gross pink stuff) upon check in, and a room including three women who lived there permanently.

The bartender finished an argument with her boyfriend on the phone before she got around to serving me. She was from Slovenia and a toilet-installer from South Carolina and I spent the next while teaching her words like ‘rekindled’- you need to rekindle your love with you man- and ‘disposition’ – you have a very saucy disposition.

Everyone I met at that place was bizarre. Most of them lived or worked there. I couldn’t wrap my head around this scene being a daily sight.

A guy named Robert walked past with a coke-can bong.

“You’ve gotta watch ya’self round him,” said the toilet-installer.

“I’ll probably be gone in the morning before you’re up, guess I’ll never see you again.”

“Guess not,” I said, wondering what the point of that statement was.

“Yeah I’m from the south,” he continued, as though we’d been talking about it.

“Just a regular old redneck. My work takes me everywhere though, everyone needs a toilet!”

When I walked down the street to buy an adaptor the next day guys yelled “Ooh look what just got in! How you doin? Looking good.”

I replied automatically then stopped very quickly.

The ladies I passed were all nice, and said hello, beaming from under cornrows and buoyant fringes.

Still, I’m glad I stayed there. It showed me a very different side of America to the one I’d seen as a tourist three months ago. This was the side Obama tried to fight for with his healthcare legislation. And boy did it need it.

Cleveland the Cricket Loving Jamaican

On my flight to Bogota I had the pleasure of sitting beside an elderly Jamaican gent.

He was a real gent. He helped pass my stuff across the seat, had a chequered kerchief in his pocket, and tipped his hat and said “shpank-you!” with a hearty laugh whenever he cracked a joke.

Cool frames, a leather cap and the refined manner of an educated man.

“Australia. Now there was a guy killed there from a cricket ball to the throat right?”

“Oh you mean Phil Hughes. To the back of the head while batting, very sad, the whole country was so sad.”

Cleveland was a huge cricket fan. He’d played in Jamaica and spoke with reverence of an Australian fast bowler (name escapes me) the West Indies team faced in the days of Bradman.

“Our first mon, Allan Rae (Jamaican batter, son of Ernest Rae), took da pitch, and ‘e was good.”

“But ‘e ‘it ‘im on da hand!”

“Our second mon took da pitch, and ‘boom!’… ‘it ‘im on da arm.”

“Oooh ‘e was fast!”

Cleveland was one of those people that give me my kick in life. The kind you can sit down with as strangers and leave as friends.

He thought in a few years Colombia would legalise marijuana. He told me how his friend had seen in planted between coffee rows high in the mountains.

“’e said to me, “mon those buds, they leave a tar on yo hands.””

He held out two fingers to show the size of Colombian buds.

Surprisingly it still wasn’t legal in Jamaica. Old Cleveland had never smoked a cigarette in his life, and didn’t smoke pot. But he did have a useful remedy for stomach troubles.

It involved taking some marijuana, putting it in vodka and storing it for a year or more.

“Yo stomach giving you trouble, take a little sip, and mwa!”

He kissed his fingertips in the manner Italians used.

We got to talking about the cancer he’d had.

“Where was it?” I asked.

“In da anus,” he said without blinking.

“Dey told me I have tree to five years, and that was two years ago.”

“I think you’ll live longer,” I said, and meant it.

“You’ve got that spark. Lots of people don’t have that.”

“Thank you. Thank you,” he said with emotion.

He’d lived a great life. He’d schooled in Connecticut, where his parents had also made him learn the dreaded piano.

Like me, he hated the cold (an obvious position for a Jamaican) and moved to California to study business at university.

“Dey gave me money to continue my piano, and I took that money and had a good time!” he chuckled.

He’d been everywhere; Africa, Europe, America, Australia, you name it. He knew the president of Jamaica and would tell him frequently to legalise marijuana so the people could make a better living.

He’s worked as a business consultant at government level and gave me his address to post my first copy of my book to. “Make sure you write it,” he said.

A rasta walked past to use the bathroom.

“See dat guy,” Cleveland said in his too-loud for a plane voice.

“Yeah?” I yelled back (he was slightly deaf).

“’is Dad was the finance minister for Jamaica. ‘E’s a famous musician. You like reggae?”

When the plane landed he called his mate.

“Yeah mon, we landed, but we still on da plane.”

People tried to push past while Cleveland got slowly out of his seat. I blocked them with my large posterior until he was finished and shook his hand goodbye.

You can’t silence paint- Bogota’s Graffiti Movement

The real start to 2015 for me.

Blocks of 5pm light sat in golden fullness on the dormitory wall. A cat on the terracotta roof tiles yowled mournfully into the chilly afternoon. Hello South America. I was back, and it felt wonderful.

Touchdown in Bogota and I had already been ripped off by my taxi driver. The rookie error of not researching how much a trip to your suburb should really cost. Live and learn!

Still, Alejandro had provided me with a good warm up for my Spanish before re-entry into the fast paced world that is Colombia.

Not far from the airport we passed a stunning seven-storey mural of a couple hugging. I was to learn about this the next day.

Alegria’s Hostal (cnr Carrera 2 and Calle 9 in La Candelaria) was all I’d hoped for; quiet, wanker-free, comfy bed with good blankets, and a homely atmosphere with friendly staff.

Vivianna insisted we speak Spanish and told me I could be fluent in 3 months. Ambitious, but possible she said.

She said I’d be a good teacher and laughed at the offer to come to Cartagena and be my Spanish professor.

She pretty much laughed at everything though, so it wasn’t a good measure of how funny you are.

The next day I woke in time to seize the last breakfast croissant and a cup of coffee (many SA hostels have breakfast included). I was happy as a pig in mud, full of good energy and enjoying flying solo for now.

SWINGIN: This shop in La Candelaria, Bogota, has been painted in Cuban style, with a jazz twist.

SWINGIN: This shop in La Candelaria, Bogota, has been painted in Cuban style, with a jazz twist.

I set off for the Bogota Grafiti Tour (sign up here http://bogotagraffiti.com ) just a short walk away.

I’d missed it last time I was in town due to partying with a local who didn’t care to differentiate between night and day.

Running 2.5hrs and costing tips only (20,000 to 30, 000 pesos is courteous) it was the best walking tour I’ve been on.

The Bogota graffiti scene has been around for 20 years, really exploding in the last 10, and solidifying itself as part of the national identity in the last five.

It has a similar concentration of talent in the one city to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The flyer given out by our guide Ray stated the importance of graffiti as social commentary and cultural expression during “La Violencia” and the height of Colombia’s ten-year civil war.

“With a growing middle class and a drastically improved political system, modern taggers have removed some of the preach from the paint and continue to focus on creating artwork that showcases their skills rather than on a cause.”

Ray was an artist himself and a general mover and shaker in the Bogota Grafiti World, sourcing commissions for artists and walls for them to showcase their works.

While La Candelaria by night involves a fair amount of hassling from its many (persistent) homeless, it is a true pleasure during the day. Bursting with life and colour, this old historical centre draws tourists just as much for its modern graffiti murals as for its old cobblestoned streets.

First up was Bastardilla, a Bogota woman making her skilful mark in a male-dominated scene.

She draws from poverty, feminie empowerment, the effects of violence, pain and nature.

FINE DETAIL: Here Bastardilla used a rubber cut stamp to create a wheat paste paste-up.

FINE DETAIL: Here Bastardilla used a rubber cut stamp to create a wheat paste paste-up.

WALL OF COLOUR: One of Bastardilla's larger murals serves a brilliant backdrop to children's play equipment.

WALL OF COLOUR: One of Bastardilla’s larger murals serves a brilliant backdrop to children’s play equipment.

Father and son duo Rodez and Nomad also put up some impressive paint. Papa bear prefers to work in arylic. He has more than 30 years experience and has put out more than 60 children’s books.

His work is characterised by abstract line work and multiple eyes.

Keep one of yours open as you traipse around Bogota and Rodez’s presence is not hard to spot. He also has a paints a unique signature on his work, including date, location, time, other collaborators and even the names of passers by.

LOOK OUT: Rodez's work is characterised by multiple eyes.

LOOK OUT: Rodez’s work is characterised by multiple eyes.

SLICE OF TIME: A Rodez signature includes the names of passers by.

SLICE OF TIME: A Rodez signature includes the names of passers by.

His son Nomad prefers spray paint as a medium. A little more expensive but much faster when putting up a large mural.

The two often work together and Rodez is now teaching his younger son.

Bogota’s street artists are now coming out to paint during the day in hopes of making themselves identifiable as artists and removing the stigma of street art as a form of vandalism.

IN THE FAMILY: Nomad, while learning from his father, has developed his own style favouring spray paint.

IN THE FAMILY: Nomad, while learning from his father, has developed his own style favouring spray paint.

Needing mention is street crew Animal Crew Collective (also know as Animal Crew Culture). They have a big presence in Bogota, and you can see their APC tags everywhere in the city.

Venture into the more forgotten suburbs, off the tourist trail of La Candelaria and you will see some of their more extravagant work. They are constantly replenishing their crew, and artists rotating in and out of it.

APC had claimed this wall for some time, but it was recently painted over in green by city authorities.

STREET CREW: Animal Crew Collective is one of the most prominent crews putting up work around Bogota. This wall was recently painted over in the green, visible.

STREET CREW: Animal Crew Collective is one of the most prominent crews putting up work around Bogota. This wall was recently painted over in the green, visible.

Since the artists’ appear more in public Bogota’s public has developed an almost protective nature towards their favourites.

In this beautiful piece by Guache, commissioned by the building owner, you can see white paint on the left of the piece where the police tried to paint over it.

Citizens saw what was happening and rushed out to stop it. The repaint was happening due to no permit being acquired by Guache for the work.

CITIZENS UNITE: The bottom corner shows where authorities attempted to paint over this piece in white, because the artist did not have a permit. Citizens intervened to save it.

CITIZENS UNITE: The bottom corner shows where authorities attempted to paint over this piece in white, because the artist did not have a permit. Citizens intervened to save it.

Not all business owners are so happy to have their walls adorned, however. The owner of The Platypus Hostel was so sick of graffiti that he invested in paint that can simply be gurneyed clean each morning. Expensive, but effective!

A Mexican artist named Pez has coined his own ‘happy style,’ featuring fish (pez in Spanish) and gaining him rapid notoriety as an artist.

This wall was valued at $20-$30,000 US dollars were it to go to auction. Not bad for a guy who started out with a simple ‘pez’ signature that he gradually grew into the happy fish characters pictured.

RISING VALUE: This piece by Mexican artist Pez has an estimated auction value of $US 20,000 - 30,000.

RISING VALUE: This piece by Mexican artist Pez has an estimated auction value of $US 20,000 – 30,000.

Rounding a corner you come to the elegant, Escher-esque tessellating birds of fellow Mexican artist Gilberto Perez.

LET'S TESSELATE: Gilberto Perez brings a little taste of Escher to Bogota.

LET’S TESSELATE: Gilberto Perez brings a little taste of Escher to Bogota.

This piece, artist unknown to me – but tagged with PCK, evokes the ancient spiritual culture of South America through Pacha Mama images (the hands, earth, plants) as well as the use of hummingbirds, known as the messengers of the underworld.

CULTURE DOSE: The spiritual side of South America, captured on its busy streets.

CULTURE DOSE: The spiritual side of South America, captured on its busy streets.

A fun artist to spot around town is Mr Troll. This sculptor/artist places a plastic like material on cookie trays and bakes it in the oven to achieve his bright, hardened wall mounts.

CHEEKY COLOUR: Keep an eye peeled for Mr Troll's quirky works.

CHEEKY COLOUR: Keep an eye peeled for Mr Troll’s quirky works.

SPOTTED: Mr Troll, take two.

SPOTTED: Mr Troll, take two.

Another artist whose works deliver a burst of delight if you happen to look up, out of the ordinary periphery, is a recently deceased paper mache master. Unfortunately our tour guide did not know their name, but their work was some of my favourite around Bogota.

ARTIST UNKNOWN: A paper mache maiden fishes for a banana above eye level.

ARTIST UNKNOWN: A paper mache maiden fishes for a banana above eye level.

Here the shoe shiner’s box doubles as a bird-house. Shoe shiners are one of the common staples around Plaza Bolivar.

STREET CHARACTERS: The sculptures provide a snapshot of life lived on the bustling streets.

STREET CHARACTERS: The sculptures provide a snapshot of life lived on the bustling streets.

A unicycling juggler stands as a monument to Bogota’s large circus and performer culture. Jugglers have in fact performed on this very wall.

BOGOTA DREAMING: Performers, artists and musicians all contribute to the increasing arts scene.

BOGOTA DREAMING: Performers, artists and musicians all contribute to the increasing arts scene.

It is a strange week in Bogota if you don’t see street performers performing tricks in front of traffic for money, or in the La Candelaria plaza.

At the end of my three days of freedom I caught the bus with 150 excited (and exhaustingly chattery) volunteers and headed to our two-week classroom prison. Fourteen days sitting and learning….it had been a while. It required a lot of coffee.

I felt good to be back in South America, and excited about the year ahead. Each day of training gave me further insight into the challenges waiting ahead.

“I had one kid who lit a fire in my classroom,” the lecturer said.

“But it was only a little fire.”

2015 here I come!

The Pen is Mightier Than The Semi-automatic

NOT SILENCED: Cartoonist Dave Brown's answer to the Charlie Hebdo terror attack.

NOT SILENCED: Cartoonist Dave Brown’s answer to the Charlie Hebdo terror attack.

Three days in Paris. 17 dead.

A satirical magazine targeted for lampooning radical Islam. Shoppers at a kosher supermarket siege killed.

This morning I came back from my run, red as a baboon’s bum after the lack of training over Christmas.

Mum dozed in front of the morning news, fresh from a night shift.

I stood as the heat prickled off my skin. The fan drew lazy circles above our heads and a lump of pride formed in my throat as I watched the morning news.

In Paris thousands upon thousands of people, Middle Eastern flags, French flags, Irish flags, American Flags, Swedish flags toted high in the air, they marched through the city. There were so many they milled like sardines, one huge united mass.

Between 1.5 -2 million people marched in Paris said the newsreader.

The three days of terror had the opposite effect the killers intended.

People who had never rallied before came onto the streets of Paris, packed their children in the car and drove from across France and Europe, marched singing and shouting and holding hands, to show that freedom of speech will never be silenced.

There will always be those brave enough to exercise their right.

BBC millions march in protest in Paris, 2015

UNITED WE SPEAK: Image from the BBC shows millions marching in solidarity for free speech in Paris, 2015.

Earlier in the week I had been disgusted to see several major news outlets showing an online video of the gunmen shooting dead 42-year-old police officer Ahmed Merabet as he lay on the ground, appearing to plead for his life.

What has the world come to when amateur video footage of somebody’s cold-blooded murder can be run openly on news websites with a simple ‘graphic warning’ bar.

This morning I watched footage of Merabet’s brother, good looking and devastated, lean forward into the microphone and say “for the rallies across Paris, across France, across the world, I thank you. It means a lot to us.”

I was thankful too to the people of Paris for showing Merabet’s family that we cared, that we supported his brother and his community and were aware of the difference between extremists and ordinary Muslims.

It is in the wake of real tragedy the good people come to the fore.

Last week I held my friend’s baby boy.

“It’s so weird that 16 days ago he was in my stomach,” she said, feeding him with the ease I use to make a coffee.

He squirmed his tiny arms and opened his mouth in the silent cry of a baby bird. I was struck by how little he was.

How many things could harm him! What a miracle it was that any of us reached adulthood at all.

A loaf of bread could suffocate him; a loud noise could deafen him. I felt as though a small breeze would leave him with pneumonia.

He was tiny and beautiful and would one day be a grown, talking man. Bizarre.

A reverse of these thoughts played through my head as I looked hard at the faces of the two brothers accused of shooting dead journalists, cartoonists and other innocent people in the Charlie Hebdo Magazine attack in Paris.

They were little boys once, probably bounced on their mother’s knee. I wonder if she looked into their eyes as they suckled and thought, ‘drink up little murderers.’

My bet is not.

Somewhere along the way something goes wrong. It raises, as always, the debate of nature versus nurture.

Are people born bad? With the ability to murder? My belief is that some are. But most aren’t.

I would hate to kill another human being. But I think I could do it if I had to. In a situation where I would be killed unless I killed my attacker. I could do it.

But these two brothers?

The BBC reported in their online coverage of the event:

“Witnesses said they heard the gunmen shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic (“Allahu Akbar”).”

This is radicalism. It is nurture not nature at play here. And it is extremely sad.

Four of the magazine’s cartoonists were shot dead in the attack. Perhaps an indicator of the power of the pen, and of humour, to really hit its mark.

It is the cartoons in a newspaper that make me stop and think. It is the cartoons that neatly summarise the crux of an issue in a way a lengthy article cannot quite manage.

The ability for humour to hone a pincer sharp light on an issue remains long after blustery and indignant words have faded.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists did exactly what they set out to do: raise important dialogue around contentious issues, get under the skin enough to highlight a point, draw attention to something in a satirical and confronting way.

And it is for this reason they died at the hands of gunmen motivated by radical religion. A sad, sad day for free speech indeed.

Perhaps some of the best coverage was the BBC’s compilation of obituaries for those killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Well worth a read.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30724678

France lost some amazing people that day.

Another post which shows the spirit of those who fight to protect free speech is this, a resounding and powerful response from cartoonists globally – a message of unity and above all, the prevailing might of pen over sword:

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/08/europe/charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

Four years ago, as a brightly-dressed uni student with little real worries, but an intensely curious mind pointed at the world at large, I attended an amazing event.

My university hosted the 2010 UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Press Freedom Day.

This was a big deal. It was an annual event and this was the first time it had come to the Pacific….let alone to the University of Queensland in BRISBANE!

I was one of the volunteers who helped interview journalists and speakers in attendance and produce short podcasts for the live coverage.

I put on my best practical heels, did my hair in an elegant but forgettable manner, and charged the battery on my Zoom audio recorder.

‘Freedom of speech’ was a buzz phrase to me before that day. Something people spoke about, but something Australians didn’t have a whole lot of drama with. Certainly not on the scale I was about to discover.

I sat in a packed lecture hall, madly scribbling notes as a journalist from Fiji described going to work in a dictator-led country.

He described the military personnel marching into his office before the paper went to print each afternoon. How in the beginning they wrote truly, and in the end they self-censored so they didn’t get a bullet through their skull at 4pm in their office chairs.

It would have broken their hearts not to write what was happening in their country. Not to let the people know that what was going down in their island nation was wrong and illegal, and everybody knew about it.

That is what freedom of the press means.

Another journalist shared their story. I put my pen down and ingested every word, spellbound. They told how they had been working in an African country, in the grip of a military coup.

One day a car carrying journalist colleagues was led into an ambush, the back doors opened and the occupants gunned dead. Red blood on the white tailgate. Stifling African heat spread like an old coat over the whole scene.

They suspected their translator, though they didn’t blame him. Everybody had a family that could be held hostage to meet certain demands.

That was the problem.

This was real, and it was happening to journalists all across our globe for reporting what was really going on in countries with major political problems.

I have the utmost respect for journalism, as atrocities don’t stop until there is enough public outcry, trade sanctions or international pressure.

And those things don’t happen until the stories see the light of day. The fact some journalists are willing to die so that those stories are heard is the reason some of them are ever heard.

That night I ate my povo uni dinner (affectionately termed Three Potato Stirfry). This was a carb-friendly mix of rice, potato, sweet potato and onion, and yes, I am aware onion is not in fact the third species of potato.

I sat on my front lawn in Bardon and listened back to my recording with an Argentinean radio host.

Noisy miners were sitting in the wattle tree above the pool, mining noisily. Rush hour traffic was streaming down Chiswisk Rd, a handy shortcut to avoid the Toowoong roundabout.

I hit play and listened as his deliberate, accented voice explained that without journalism in countries like his, politicians could get away with blue murder. And often it was just that; murder.

I finished my Three Potato Stirfry without enthusiasm and went to bed thinking about who I’d meet tomorrow.

I parked a ten-minute walk from the university, far from the parking man’s vile clutches, and headed in for the final day of the event.

Today the prize would be awarded. After finishing my jobs I snagged a good seat in the auditorium.

Well dressed, like many Chileans, Mónica González Mujica took the stage, her bright silk scarf a testament to her vibrant country.

It was a day and a person I will remember for years. She received the (UNESCO)/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for the work she did during the dark years of Chile’s military coup and dictatorship (1973-1990).

The award is named in honour of Colombian editor Guillermo Cano Isaza who was assassinated for fearlessly denouncing the crimes of drug mafia operating in his country.

I remember being very tired that day as Ms González took the podium.

As she spoke, strength and emotion resting equally on her words, I felt my physical awareness melt away. The fatigue left. Every word sunk slowly into my skull.

She spoke about the things that had happened to her during the barbaric rule of General Pinochet, the military commander who seized power after his troops slaughtered and arrested a democratically elected President and members of the new government.

The things this lady spoke about; her treatment at the hands of soldiers, what it was like living in the torture prisons of Chile during that dark chapter, had a profound effect on me.

Despite harassment, exile and eventually arrest and torture, this woman continued to publish books, articles and stories about what was happening in her country.

It is the kind of bravery that makes all your other thoughts hush. That makes your $150 parking ticket fade away to nothing.

I did not fully grasp the extent of the pain and danger she was in until I put my own two feet on Santiago soil.

Chile’s capital is bound up in history. The people are vibrant and well dressed. There is great pizza, elegant market plazas and towering, cramped apartment blocks. 17 years of dictatorship and terror had taken place here.

Above it all the Andes blink their snow studded lashes at the whole scene. If those mountains could talk they would have some stories.

IMG_1756

Of the two university students, 18-year-old Carmen Quintana and19-year-old Rodrigo Rojas Denegri, who were covered in petrol and set alight in front of witnesses, for daring to protest against Pinochet and his soldiers.

Read Carmen’s story here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24014543

As I walked slowly through each floor of Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, I thought about the speech Ms González made in Brisbane years ago.

I looked at the cold metal bed before me. It was used to strap prisoners to, naked and dripping wet, to better conduct electricity through their bodies during torture.

I stood with tears streaming hot down my cheeks as I watched the video testimonial of a woman who had lived through that very torture.

“They told me to take my clothes off,” she said.

“And there was always a risk there that as a woman you would be abused in some way.

“I will never forget the sound it made as the electricity went through my body.

“Afterwards for a long time everything would bleed. Blood would come out of my eyes, my nose, my ears, my vagina.”

The death of free speech and the failure to protect the right of the press to investigate and report is somberly highlighted in Santiago’s museum.

QUIET MOMENT: A visitor takes a moment in the reflection room at Santiago's Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

QUIET MOMENT: A visitor takes a moment in the reflection room at Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

These people were arrested for opposing a violent man who was not elected. They were tortured and mistreated for raising their voice, exercising their right.

As always however, the people who were brave enough to keep raising those voices, such as Mónica González Mujica, were instrumental in bringing enough outcry and national pressure to oust Pinochet once and for all.

He was taken out of power in a democratic NO Vote. During his regime four newspapers were shut down and opponents were ‘disappeared’.

Leading up the historic NO Vote, campaigners were harassed. It did not silence people. They continued to speak.

As I watched over a million march in Paris for solidarity this morning I was again reminded of the strength of standing up for something. Of protecting, above all else, our free speech.