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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rounding a corner you come to the elegant, Escher-esque tessellating birds of fellow Mexican artist Gilberto Perez.
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.
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.
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.
Here the shoe shiner’s box doubles as a bird-house. Shoe shiners are one of the common staples around Plaza Bolivar.
A unicycling juggler stands as a monument to Bogota’s large circus and performer culture. Jugglers have in fact performed on this very wall.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever had that in-between feeling? Like in high school when the PE teacher had a stroke of genius and implemented a semester of water polo.
There we all bobbed, treading water with similar competence to the way a baby feeds itself. I was as at home in the water as a fish in the sky. Not a flying fish. Just a regular Spanish mackerel.
I rotated my legs valiantly in eggbeater kick, my nose inches above the mocking stink of chlorine, waiting, bobbing, hoping nobody would throw the ball my way. The shouts of my classmates echoed off the Fairholme swimming-pool walls.
I lifted my eyes to a beam of sunlight stabbing in through the top louvre on the western side and thought how I would always remember this moment in time; treading water, waiting.
That is how the past two months have felt to me, since returning from South America.
As I sat on my Brisbane-bound plane I realised I shouldn’t be on it. That I should have stayed over there and done all the things I wanted to do.
(Including but not limited to sleeping in the jungle with only a can of deodorant and a lighter to make a flame torch against jaguar attack, volunteering at a hostel for a few months and using my savings for nothing but surf lessons and coconuts, and above all becoming fluent in that curly language they call Spanish.)
To clarify that statement, the reason I returned early was for Christmas with my family; to meet our cousins’ two new babies and eat prawns around the pool with the extended family, which we haven’t done in years. And I am happy I’ll be here for that. It puts a huge grin across my freckled face actually.
But there is something nagging at me. I feel like Red Riding Hood – who has left the path when she shouldn’t have.
They say the difference between entrepreneurs and us normal people is tunnel vision. Entrepreneurs have the ability to look directly and unwaveringly at their goal.
The problem with my goals is there are thousands of them, all swinging their buoyant red-poppy heads in the breeze, all begging for immediate attention.
It is no easy task to distil my focus.
I am learning though, as the years creep merrily by, that we have other senses. Mostly these get ignored.
It takes discipline of perspective to listen to these extra senses. It is something you have to consciously work at. Most of the time you are giving yourself advice and signals, which you ignore.
If I have a conflict in my life, big or small, my body is aware of it before my brain consciously is. I will wake with a knot in my stomach. I will feel wound up like a coil, ready to act with instinct in a burst of action.
This is not a good thing! Success in this situation relies on the brain catching up and considering the action I am about to take.
This is knowing yourself. This is what self-discovery is all about.
Once I fired off a reply email. It was following a rather unfounded complaint to the local paper I was working at, in my undertrained and overworked position as senior journalist. I was still a green sapling in the journo world, but like most papers in regional areas, the young ones have to step up to a role often beyond their experience.
We had no editor, and the former senior journalist had just moved to a bigger newspaper….so I was it.
This is a great thing for training and character building, but it often means you are learning by trial and error.
The next morning I woke with a knot in my stomach. Lying there, looking up at the white ceiling of my Dalby house, I let my thoughts filter idly in and out of my brain like the tide.
Why was I feeling like this?
Aaaaah. The email. It was only the next day I realised I had taken the wrong tone in it. Thanks hindsight…..right on time as usual.
From this I learned. Never write back to an email involving conflict/drama straight away. Go and make a coffee. Write a draft. Mull it over.
What is sent cannot be retracted.
I think the key to life is to never stop learning. That is how the world goes backwards; when people start to think they know it all. That is how we close our minds.
Back to the other senses though…..that is one of the main things I want to get out of 2015. Learning to listen to my inner voice properly. Learning to say no to things I don’t need or want in my life, and to keep my own focus when there are a million beckoning hands on the sidelines.
My problem is I can enjoy most situations, so I am easily led to distraction.
If you have ever felt this also, you may enjoy this poem by one of my all-time FAVOURITE poets, Mary Oliver. Read it. Get shivers. Listen to yourself.
The Journey- Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
The thing is we haven’t been taught how to do this. Schools should teach quiet time of reflection. Halfway through the 90 minute Maths-B double lesson all the students should be asked to lie on the floor, close their eyes, and reflect on how they are feeling in life, what they want to get out of the week, and whether they are doing enough to keep their bodies and minds in harmony.
Instead we have to learn it the hard way: through teenage angst, overloading our poor adolescent shoulders with the worries of the world, and listening to advice from all angles from people who don’t necessarily know what you need.
We need a form of unlearning. Of quieting the outer world. Turning off the TV and sitting for a moment on the front lawn. Digging your fingernails into the grass and thinking about your name and your place in the scheme of things.
“the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,”
Oh Mary. So wise.
My in-between feeling is still there, but it is a necessary one. It’s stopped getting me down, I’ve realised I am supposed to be treading water at the moment. It reminds me not to just sit and get mouldy. It reminds me I’ve got places to be.
Thanks inner voice. I get it now.
I left my blinds open and woke with the sun, lorikeets screeching out their bitchy hierarchy in the gums above my head.
I could hear my housemate clanging in the kitchen in that way that early risers do, figuring morning is for waking, and you can sleep when you’re dead.
It felt good to rise as nature intended, though it required going to bed at gramps-o’clock.
I was splitting my day between matters of personal happiness and annoying, obligatory jobs begging attention before Christmas, so I ate a good breaky of eggs and caffeine. I wouldn’t be back til late afternoon.
Last week the fantastic news that I’d received the green light for my Colombia job arrived without fuss in my inbox.
You have been accepted to the English Teaching Fellowship to work in Cartagena de Indias.
Its brevity was great, though a little shocking. I looked up from the couch on my ordinary Tuesday night and let my little heart soar.
Then I googled Cartagena.
“The jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, with a charming colonial, old city.”
Heck yes. My kite surfing dreams would at last come into fruition.
Absentmindedly I thought about what to pack for a year in paradise. All I could think of was bikinis and my favourite pen.
I hoped I could track down somewhere safe to live, that didn’t cost too much. I wanted to spend most of my monthly stipend on Spanish lessons, attending theatres and scuba diving.
I would be teaching English to the poorer people of the nation (all ages), and would be well out of my depth for the first couple of months at least.
That week I bounced around. Someone could have pelted me with eggs as I rode to work and I wouldn’t have minded. I had a secret and it was a good one.
I knew I’d be in for a pretty tough year, but I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
For now, reality beckoned.
I packed my laptop, an apple and some water and pedaled off to my psychologist appointment. I looked harder than normal at our fabulous Aussie trees. I wouldn’t be seeing them for a while.
I’d decided to deal with some stuff that had been getting me down. As a naturally happy person I woke up one day realising I had lost some of that somewhere along the way.
It was time to delve into that mental back drawer that most of us spend our lives ignoring.
I had been recommended to an amazing, professional woman who spoke the language of the heart, through the tongue of the brain.
Sharp as a tack, passionate and sensibly analytical she was just the kind of person I needed to shine my reflection back at me.
I cannot recommend seeing a psychologist highly enough if there is something troubling you. I think we should see them as frequently as dentists to be honest. Probably more.
It was an hour’s appointment and I left with that satisfied feeling you get when you fish a grape out from under the refrigerator. Dealing with something that had been out of sight, out of mind, and would just have festered.
I had a letter to write to someone important in my life, so called into an op-shop to buy the cute vintage writing paper such an occasion demanded.
On my way out I spotted a sex shop. I hadn’t been into one since college days, when we would leave notes on the cork ‘meeting board’ up the back saying “looking for open-minded orgy companions, call me” and signed off with out friend’s number. Haha!
“Morning,” said the young male behind the counter a little too brightly.
I was somewhat ambushed.
He sprung up like an erection.
“Can I help you with something?”
“Um, I was just walking past and thought I’d look,” I replied.
Ha. Bet he hears that one a lot.
I walked towards the nearest shelf, which of course was a beautifully arranged display of vibrators. One had bunny ears on the business head, obviously designed by somebody not in possession of a vagina.
“They’re great,” said the vagina-less man.
“What size are you looking for?”
“We’ve got a great range of realistic ones,” he said, sweeping an arm in the direction of the well-endowed shelf.
“Or these little ones are great for travelling, and super quiet,” he continued, putting a buzzing one into my hand.
It was all a little amusing; I relished impromptu experiences like this.
Things became a little awkward when he started a paragraph-like (though very informative) description of the benefits of clitoral versus penetration options.
I didn’t want to interrupt him, but the buzzing in my hand was becoming a little strange to hold, and I didn’t know how to turn it off.
The button would have to be on the erm…dry end I reasoned, as he chatted away. Close but no cigar.
When he’d stopped talking I handed the small instrument back, and he shut it off like a pro. He would make some girl very happy one day, with or without battery-operated help!
“Well, thank you,” I said sincerely.
“You really know your stuff. I might pop back on the weekend.”
When I’d left I thought of a hundred great puns I could have used. Dammit!
“Great G-spot you’ve got here, it’s got a real buzz about it.”
“Been open long or short?”
“I’ll just go out the same way I came in.”
I made my way to my favourite Mooloolaba Café, Envy. I’d done a trial here a while ago and the atmosphere was so relaxed it felt like you were hanging out at a friend’s place.
Sometimes it was hard to identify the actual staff, as they floated by with the urgency of a Bolivian storekeeper.
Like most places on the coast it was overpriced, but I paid my $5.50 for a mug of flat white made on almond milk (YUM) and pulled up a pew.
I wrote a six-page letter. Pausing to laugh, cry and sometimes look up to catch the approving glance of an elderly person who thought the art of pen to paper had long been killed-off by our generation.
It was $5.50 well spent; good tunes kept rolling, the coffee was excellent and no annoyingly bright waitresses bugged you like on the esplanade.
I had forgotten the pleasure of writing a letter rather than an email. The slow pace of penmanship forces you to think about each sentence properly before you blurt it (something I am direly missing in conversation.) It was a great cure for my ever-present foot-in-mouth disease.
I popped it in the post box across the road, like sending off an old friend on the train, and went to finish my Christmas shopping. As usual I bought one for them and one for me…..the only way to get through the drollness of Christmas shopping.
As I paid with cash I shouldn’t be spending a warning rumble of thunder sounded.
I peered up into a menacing sky, got on my bike and prepared to race nature. The sky darkened with a smirk as I waited for the lights to change.
I could feel the air changing in that way it does when it is about to absolutely piss down.
I had gift-wrapped presents dangling from my handlebars and my laptop in my backpack. It was on.
Green light, I gunned it across Venning St, the sky rumbling smugly overhead. I must look like a tiny ant running home.
As I sped past Ocean View Av the drops started coming. What Forest Gump would call “Big ol’ fat rain.”
No!! I pumped my stumpy legs faster, feeling the burn. This is what Lance Armstrong must have felt on those ferocious hills during the Tour de France.
Oh, that’s right, he had drugs helping him. Lucky bugger.
More drops, my sunglasses ran rivers.
I thought about sheltering under someone’s garage but it looked like the kind of rain that would set in for a good hour.
I was only a few blocks from home, and I’ve always enjoyed a challenge. I kicked my steel steed into racing gear, and put my head down as though on the velodrome.
Racing speed on my bike was similar to that attained by a nanna on a slight downhill slope. As I passed the beckoning shelter of the local fish and chip shop, I knew I’d made a rookie error.
One street from home and the heavens opened.
I could imagine them up there (whoever they were) yelling, “Get her! Drown the little ant! It wore a yellow shirt today, how silly of it!”
I arrived home transparent and delighted with the adrenalin of it all. One present to re-wrap.
The rain kept coming down, soothing and beautiful, soaking into the thirsty coastline.
I put on Double J in the background and prepped dinner while the thunder belted its way across the sky.
Is there anything as good as a stormy day when you’re not at work!
You who loves them fierce-red through your veins
I love all the more for refusing –
to let motherhood define you
– to let it constrictingly bind you.
Instead you pin it
Strong brass, clotted with a hundred clammy prints –
from babana-bread-hands, squashed sandwiches, spilt yoghurt –
To the gilded arc of triumph that you are
And wear it as part of you. Of Sarah.
For you never can decide
What you mean to others
But to me you mean strength
and depth and reality.
A refreshing fuck-off reality
So rare is sears like welding flash
At once raw and immeasurable
Sometimes we talk practicality
And you perch Zan on my hip, to fold clothes
Sometimes you make my eyes water
As you lay bare your tenacious soul
Refusing to quit, lie down, sit pretty
Bleeding the ochre from mediocre
And blazing it across your warrior cheeks
Today, surrounded by women
Remember you will always have grace and strength.
Because that is you.
And will always be.
I watch your boys playing against a bright Cecil sky,
I watch Ben lift up his daughter
And I am so glad you are bringing another life in to share our world.
The problem with being vague is that amusing events, weird people and small scenes of disaster tend to magnetise towards your general portion of the universe.
….as though drawn by your aptitude for not having much aptitude for things.
If a weirdo gets on a train or bus, they will inevitably sit down beside me and begin telling me their story. Tangent by confusing tangent.
If I have a simple task to complete and someone else is waiting on the other end, it will invariably go wrong.
Life is a battle!
Here is a story from the front line, for your amusement.
God Bless You Frank… Whoever You Were.
I had been working at my new job as a carer for people with mental illness. There was a sign on the lunchroom door that said “Out of my head, back later.”
The job was a fountain of bemusing scenarios as it was, but this particular day the event happened before I had actually started for the day.
I arrived at work to find my shift had been changed and I was now three hours early. Sigh.
My fuel light had been on for a couple of days and I had no dollars. Driving back to Paddington and risking an empty tank on my return to work wasn’t an option, so I set off on foot through Red Hill to kill the time.
For weeks now I’d admired the old, Roman Catholic church that stood on the hill. An austere mass of red bricks, it loomed in solid splendour above us mere mortals, just as the Catholics would have liked.
They were fond of stark reminders that enjoying sex, coveting your neighbours Merc or eating pizza on the Sabbath would send you directly to hell….without passing go, and probably after PAYING $200.
I loved old buildings like churches, and this one was grand enough to be a cathedral (by Aussie standards anyway).
I decided to sneak up to the bell tower for a pigeon’s gander across our fine city of Brisbane.
As I approached I noticed there was a mass on. On a Monday! Give it a rest Catholics.
This should fill an hour, I thought, and stepped inside to take a seat in the back row. Perhaps they would hand out wine.
Though I was an atheist, I was interested in the concept of religion, and it wasn’t often I got to see it in action.
While I waited for my morning coffee to kick in I was pleasantly lulled by the monotone drone of the priest, swathed in folds of white that dropped from his shoulders like iced waterfalls.
I gazed skyward, remembering with discomfort how hard the benches had been in Sunday school, and how rigidly Inow sat.
After a while I began to actually pay attention to the sermon. (This can take some time with the roundabout preaching style of the snow-clad).
“He was a man of many communities,” the priest was saying, “giving not only his time to his family, but also to those in the many clubs he was involved with over the years.”
So Jesus was a clubs man! I knew it. I could almost picture him kicking back at the bar of Jerusalem’s local bowls club with a jar of the good stuff, after a tough day on the green with his 12 mates.
I looked up at the Jesus upon his lofty heights on the internal arcs.
“Today we come together not to mourn the loss of Frank, but to celebrate the life that he led…..” the priest went on.
The lightbulb inside my brain also went on. Finally.
I was in the middle of a funeral.
I looked with fresh eyes at the assembled congregation, noting I was one of approximately eight people under the age of 100.
Shit. They probably think I’m a secret mistress here to argue the will.
I became acutely aware of everything in my surroundings, and tried to ignore the feeling that I stood out like an extra finger on a Simpson. One of the congregation breathed heavily and the priest looked sympathetically in her direction.
I nodded solemnly at the milestones of Frank’s life (which were remarkable and humbling to hear by the way) and considered the most low-key exit I could make.
A woman dressed in a lavender two-piece dress suit turned her head slowly to look at me.
I nodded subtly to her in a way I’d seen jockeys do at country races when other jockeys trotted past them in the warm up ring.
This was arguably not the appropriate response.
I had to get out before the procession and mingling occurred or someone would inevitably ask me, tears pooling in their earnest eyes, “And how did you know Frank?”
And I would be forced to think of an innocent way I could have chanced upon the friendship of this man in his 70s (gathering by the demographic of mourners), so as not to answer with honest disrespect, “Oh no, I don’t know Frank, I work up the road but I don’t have enough fuel to get back to my house so I thought I’d kill time here. Not kill, pass. No, shit, not pass…..um…look an eagle.”
There was a brief pause in the proceedings and I took this moment to dust off my acting skills.
Looking directly out the large door to my right I pretended I was being hailed by a fellow mourner.
Perhaps one of the aged who couldn’t lift their walker up the stairs unassisted. A friend of Frank’s who I’d met while I was over at Frank’s place….cleaning his fish tank. As I did. Each Wednesday. Yes, yes he was a lovely man, madam.
Calmly I nodded and made the motion for them to stay there, that I would come out to them.
From his position at the parapet only the priest could see the empty stairs I was signalling at.
“We would like to thank those of you who have travelled to celebrate Frank’s life amongst family and friends on this day,” he continued.
Bless you father for your silence.
I took my leave, wishing Frank well in the next sphere, and hurrying off down the road, taking several metres to extricate myself from the far-flung shadow of the great building.
“I see you child,” said the God I didn’t believe in, “I know what you have done.”
Ironically, though the remainder of my day included explaining to a lovely man with dementia that his debit card was linked to his own money, and not a scheme by us carers to replace his hard earned cash with a small plastic card, that was the most surreal part of my day.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I entered the ‘normality’ of my workplace, all the while thinking Frank seemed like the kind of guy who would’ve got a chuckle out of my story.
I recall many summers, gazing out my classroom window, stuck to the little brown chair with sweat, watching magpies pull grubs from their safe places on the lawn.
It was so hot the air seemed to buzz, a languid drawl against my 12-year-old ear drums. I tried to focus through the audio-haze on my teacher’s voice.
“Who can tell me why the Aborigines didn’t want the new settlers to build houses in Australia?”
Ha. What a can of worms that one was.
The clearest thought I remember, however – because it has never truly gone away – is: “There’s got to be more to life than this.”
Even at that young age I was not wholly satisfied with the options being served before me.
That thought roars loud as as a Harley through the channels of my brain. I think of it as I brush my teeth, run on the road, check my emails, dive deep under water, wash the dishes.
We get up, live our lives for a day and then sleep, only to do it all over again.
When we are young we have wild and wonderful variations of this, but ultimately for most people, it is too difficult to maintain a life against the grain. All that swimming upstream is exhausting. And we eventually succumb to a doldrum existence.
This is not the case for everybody. And finding those sorts of people is the inspiration that can change your own life. Through inspiring you to change it yourself.
Today I finally watched the second Australian Story (ABC – excellent program) on Aussie Tara Winkler. Do yourself a favour and view the link.
This woman, aged just 22 at the time, pulled 14 kids from an abusive and corrupt orphanage and set up a better one for them. She then realised orphanages weren’t the answer and embarked on an over-abitious project to turn her efforts into an NGO instead, that places kids with families and puts on programs from karate to schooling.
And she pulled it off.
She didn’t just complete a token ‘kid rescue’ to save 14 children and stop there. She looked at the systemic failings of childcare in the country and tackled the problem with vision.
As I watched her story I cried and laughed at several points. I have always had a big heart and in recent years grown increasingly frustrated by not knowing what to do with my pent up will to help, desire to use my brain, do work I love and find something ‘more to life than this.’
Over the last year I’ve felt a pull towards the NGO sector. I love journalism, but I want my years on this spinning ball of rock to mean something at the end of it all. For me journalism is fulfilling, vitally important for a fair and open society and hard, brain stimulating work.
But there is a part of me that hasn’t been allowed to stretch its legs.
As I sat at my computer in Mooloolaba, on one of the Sunshine Coast’s lifeless, overcast days, I was struck like a gong by a long-overdue realisation of what I wanted to do with my life. Mostly epiphanies sneak up on you and hit you full in the face to announce their presence.
Tara’s story made me proud of a stranger, meditate on the beauty of romance in whatever form it comes, remember that we all have strength and should blaze ahead with our plans regardless of the doubters, who will never risk or achieve anything grand.
I took a photo of my puffy, red face to use as motivation in years to come if my mission got tough.
I made a list of the skills I possessed at that exact point in time.
1) Good at talking to people and engaging them to share their story with me.
2) Resourceful. Can enter most places with or without consent of security. Possibility to apply this in professional/legal capacity.
3) Good with kids.
4) Horses trust me.
5) Fast, efficient writer.
6) Good creative writer.
7) Good at having ideas. Not so good on follow through. Working on it.
8) Handy with a camera and video camera.
9) Excellent at finding hidden corners of cities.
10) Good networker. Good at deciphering jargon. Good at rewriting jargon to normal speak.
11) Good at cheering people up. Highly empathetic.
12) Good at climbing.
It was a mixed bag. I felt with these as my specialties I could live a fulfilling life, without crusting over.
Spurned on by a desire to make up for lost time, I applied for two positions with NGOs. One in Cambodia, one in Colombia.
I felt this life clarity was a little late, but better late than never.
The miserable day looked down on me miserably. So much for my planned swim today.
While I was thinking of all the exciting options that lay before me, and the mountain of work it would take to get to where I wanted to be, I was aware of one thing.
I would have to look at this not as some phase, but as a way of life. A way of looking at life. If I had a bambino in Colombia while helping set up a domestic violence education program it would be no big deal. My kid would grow up speaking Spanish and English and we’d swim in the water together and watch whales play during their breeding season.
If I didn’t achieve the lofty journalism heights I had planned by 30 I would just have to relax and accept that life works out, partially through your actions as the liver and partially through circumstances out of your control.
I felt I had gained something and let go of something all in one morning. It was mentally refreshing and spiritually uplifting. It reminded me life was good.
I felt like I’d just taken the mental component of who I was through the car wash, to emerge a little better, and ready to wear another ten thousand bugs to the windscreen.
I returned to my Spanish study, frequently pausing the CD to decipher the curly and confusing language that the tutor demanded from me.
The horizon looked challenging, but it looked really good too.
I’m A Coastie Now Bra
I moved to the coast with about three times as much gear as I’d lugged through South America for the past five months.
That is to say, not a whole lot.
Luckily coasties aren’t too fond of clothes, probably they were already starting to regard me as a native. The more skin, the more native.
I sat above Mooloolaba’s main beach and surveyed my new home. I liked to think I looked like a seasoned water woman scanning for rips. Probably I looked more like an unemployed 20-something eating her homemade sandwich.
Wind took up my hair to dance, sun bit deliciously into my back and with each white crash of wave I felt the pull to leave Australia growing a little weaker.
What a place.
I’d hoped to knock off work earlier to work on my tan and put my head beneath that famous blue water. No wonder travellers came here and never left.
And when I say work I mean unpaid trial. I’d been a coastie bra for four days now. I hated being idle.
After stressing about work on day one, I peppered the Mooloolaba esplanade with my resumes. On day two I’d been lined up for four trials.
Anything over two hours I requested pay for. Café trials meant making plenty of coffees under the boss’s watchful gaze…which meant I scored two free coffees per trial. I spent the day buzzing.
Unfortunately for me I’d just spent the past two hours working (unpaid) at a place that’d never heard of me. Ha! Let me explain.
These types of occurrences were commonplace in my life.
My phone had rung the night before.
“Hi, Lisa, it’s so-and-so from the something-mumbled Café Mooloolaba, just wondering if you could come in for a trial at 9 tomorrow morning?”
“Yes, certainly,” I said, scrawling ‘9am Café Mooloolaba’ on my growing list.
Shit yeah! Beachfront workplace.
The sun had a bite even at 8:30am. I stood high on my bike as I glided down Mary Street. If a car pulled out I’d have gravel for a face, but how good that wind felt, blowing my worries away.
My short legs pedalled me valiantly past dawdling holiday makers in too-bright prints. At the sound of a bell they seemed startled. A bike on a commonly used bike path!
I changed into hospo blacks, chained my bike and headed to my future workplace.
“Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m here for a trial this morning.”
“Oh, I didn’t know anything about that,” said the sprightly manager.
“My boss must have forgotten to mention it.”
I made coffees, learnt the till and took orders on the iPad. I was killing it, and we discussed the roster at the end of the shift.
I hadn’t been climbing or waitressing in months and my weak fingers rebelled every time I made them carry three stacked plates.
But it felt so good to be working after three idle days I would have almost paid the café to let me do the trial.
“Well thanks for coming in, you did well today and we’ll have a look at the new roster this week,” said my future boss.
I headed off, coffee in my belly and success on the horizon.
I sat on the beach to delete job rejection emails from Seek, which had the habit of collecting there each day for me. Like unwanted children.
Four missed calls from a coast number. Obviously someone had been gobsmackingly impressed with my resume.
A voice on the other end answered then handed me to her manager whose first words were “are you all right?”
“Yes….shouldn’t I be? This is Lisa…”
“What happened this morning? You were supposed to come in for a trial at 9am,” answered the owner.
Aaaaaah. Yesterday’s phone call. The trial at Café Mooloolaba was actually a trial at Envy Café, Mooloolaba.
We rescheduled for the morning and I walked back into Café Mooloolaba to explain I had just worked two hours for them without them contacting or meeting me ever before.
The barista who’d showed me the ropes looked at me with pity, the manager laughed and wrote my number on a docket.
Well that’s one way to get noticed at a place you want to work….rock up and work for them whether they ask you to or not. Fingers crossed….
That arvo I had lunch with my Nanna – collected in a real car for the occasion – what a treat. She was wearing a patch on her chest to help against memory loss. Oh science!
She told me life was no good when you got older unless you stayed cheeky.
“Each time one of the nurses puts it on I’m a bit cheeky with him,” Nan said with a twinkle.
“Raymond,” I tell him, “you get lower are lower each time!”
That arvo I pedalled off to my second trial, a German place on the esplanade where the owner made me taste Underburg, a German apertif that had the kick of cognac and the aftertaste of cloves. It was made on herbs. Not bad.
I managed to smash two expensive looking wine glasses.
“Ooooh, I’d hide those,” said the cherub-faced kitchen boy, clearly delighted there was a bit of a scandal on.
I stuffed them under a milk carton in the bin and got back to the coffee machine.
“I’ll just take the rubbish out,” he called to the chef, giving me a co-conspirator wink.
The place was dead. I studied the menu (food is overpriced on the coast!), wiped the same non-existent puddle of milk and watched the clock.
“How do you feel about not wearing your nose ring?” the owner asked.
“Our customers are quite conservative here.”
Obviously I hope I get the other job…. You know, that one that didn’t know they were auditioning me.
“Ok,” she said at 4pm.
“We’ll be in touch.”
It was too cold to swim so I lay on the beach and read Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country.
I lolled raucously to myself like all lovers of literature do.
He was a cracking travel writer – this book on his misadventures through our sunny country. In one chapter he is walking through bushland in the middle of Sydney when he hears two dogs, barking threateningly.
“They were coming toward me at some speed. Now the barking said, “We are going to have you, boy. You are dead meat.”…Note the absence of exclamation marks. Their barks were no longer tinged with lust and frenzy. They were statements of cold intent. “We know where you are,” they said. “You cannot make it to the edge of the woods. We will be with you shortly. Somebody call forensic.””
Oh Bill. I imagined him trotting in terror through our fine bushland.
Suddenly sand sprayed across my face as three little boys tackled each other.
They were nippers from the Mooloolaba Surf Lifesaving Club, which sat proudly over my shoulder.
They ran back to their larger flock of nippers, clad in hot pink rashies. They looked like the good molecules on those indigestion adds.
Stoopid little nippers. One was standing on the 3m wall below the surf club, looking down at the sand.
“Ashton’s gonna jump,” yelled the nippiest of the nippers.
Ashton ran to the edge, reconsidered and backed up.
“Do it Ashton,” yelled his fellow good molecules.
Like all good young Australian boys he bowed almost immediately to peer pressure and leapt.
Luckily Ashton broke the fall with his face.
He dusted the sand off like a little trooper and was sweet.
I watched them doing their nipper activities. Line up, like a bright pink intestine, clasp their mini ironman boards and run into the waves. Paddle, run back up the beach, drop the boards and race each other to the finish.
An exuberant freckled lad took the lead but lost a few second swivelling his head back to enjoy the struggle of his fellow nips. Come on freckles, commit bro. Ashton smoked him.
I pedalled home up my hated hill, the mountain bike trying its best. A man on a road bike overtook me.
“Bit easier on this one,” he turned around to grin. Sitting pretty above his tooth-floss wheels.
After a full day in town paying Australian rather than Colombian prices for things, and spending almost seven straight hours with my mother, after five months of not, I was ready for a wine or ten.
Parents have a knack for asking annoying questions like “what are your long-term plans?” right around the time you are tossing and turning over your long-term plans.
Mum and I had had a nice day, but I was at my threshold. We got home, dumped the shopping, and I dragged my sneakers out of storage. There was only one way to deal with my stupid Irish temper bubbling just below the surface before it got out of the bag.
The shoes felt like tiny slippers of cloud after months of hiking boots. I basically skipped down the road….for the first hundred metres at least.
It wasn’t long before I was puffing like a steamer and the shoes felt like cement clogs. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Plod. Plod. Plod.
My legs began to loosen and the evening air began to drive away my worries. This was it, addictive as smoking (but not as good for you, if you ask Winfield, Marlborough or Lucky Strike).
Helidon’s valley air filtered through my blood and my spirits were at last persuaded upwards. C’mon endorphins you sexy sons of bitches!!
The moon trailed me like a vanilla grin on a string; running at my pace.
I rounded the corner into the slight uphill and pumped my little legs. Bloody hell.
Ryan’s (who runs up tabletop twice in a row for fun) voice echoed in my head, “don’t whinge and don’t be a quitter.”
I’m not sure about the grammatical structuring of that last sentence.
As I passed the paddocks I tried my animal sounds to make sure I still had it. These things are important in case you ever have to survive in the wild. And by wild I mean local farming community with domestic animals.
I mooed deeply at a small herd of cattle. The wily, white bull –sensing the threat I may impregnate his cows- moved to stand between his harem and me.
Down in the flood-break paddock, which had been filled to overflowing that fateful day in 2011, I spotted two horses gossiping.
I neighed sharply and the bay mare’s head shot up, a classic characteristic of a gossiper. The white mare continued chewing, unphased – a classic characteristic of the long suffering friend of a gossiper.
I beat my merry way across Kapernick’s Bridge. Three baby water hens were striking out on their own. They swam nervously, their heads tugging them across the glassed creek.
I remembered the wrath of that creek in the summer floods of 2010/11. This very bridge had been torn in two, a huge expanse of concrete, metal and bitumen simply gone. The locals came down and stared in disbelief.
People swept mud out of the top storeys of houses. My Dad found a photograph of a lady on Kapernick’s Bridge and handed it in at the local shop, lest it be the only remaining souvenir of a life washed away.
In the cleanup week they found a body in the rubble piled on the remaining portion of bridge. I stopped as I thought of that, my breathing loud in the still air.
Later a little boy from the city 20 minutes’ drive up the Great Diving Range was found washed right down into the valley.
A small community mourned.
I climbed the rail and sat with my feet dangling, looking into the water. We’d jumped off here once as kids, hitting the bottom softly. I thought about doing it now to cool off. I remembered how much heavier I was and decided against it.
The drawl of an engine slowing turned my head.
White ute, two bales of hay in the tray. Tray hay.
A cute farmer type looked out the window, bemused.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
“Yeah I’m good, just went for a run….it’s been a while. Needed a rest.”
“OK,” he chuckled.
I looked down on the house perched on the creek bank. People had been choppered from that roof in the floods.
I decided to suck it up and keep running. Past the fruit and veg honesty stand.
Lettuce: red, iceberg, $2 or 3 for $5.
At Hartz Rd I made a U-bolt.
I laughed at the memory of Dad’s stunt on that road. Our youngest sister had joined him on his regular morning walk. I could picture him striding out; piece of polypipe in hand to hit vicious dogs, should they appear; navy stubbies and work-shirt on; boot protectors over his socks, no burrs getting in there.
They separated for some reason. Maybe lil siswa jogged ahead, or more likely still, sat down for a while.
They had been talking about snakes and heart attacks.
Lil siswa looked up and saw her father lying on the dirt track, body twitching. She covered the ground between them at a sprint, blonde hair flying, gravel skidding.
Dad with roaring laughter stood. She was not impressed.
I jogged back across the bridge, past all the animals who eyed me suspiciously; now aware I was neither cow nor horse. Up the little hill like the train who could. Past the spot we’d wait as kids for the bus, breath as steam in the air, cold knees knocking.
As I hit our street I made myself work hard to compensate for the short distance of the run. 60% capacity, wheeze wheeze, 70% capacity, past the barking dog, 80% capacity, glance at the orange tree I used to raid as I ran for the school bus- shoes and socks in hand.
Hold that speed. Don’t be a quitter. Across the electric grid and home, doubled over like an athlete, feeling like anything but.
I stretched on the lawn under the stars. Sammy, the white yard wolf (a breed closely linked to the suburban Labrador) came over to check out the scene.
Pinned in a calf stretch I was hapless as he coated my face in dog breath. I breathed jogger breath in his direction to even the scales.
Toby the cat came over too, having heard that a human had run without anything chasing it.
I didn’t even touch the hot tap when I showered. Just like Townsville days again. On the ABC news a moustachioed hombre from the Gold Coast was being interviewed about the truce reached between surfers and the council.
Sand pumping was no longer clogging up the best breaks. The surfers had been consulted this time and were happy.
“I think we’re finally catching the same wave,” said the mo-bro with a grin.
The whole thing was deliciously Australian.
In other news our country’s gender pay gap has hit an all time high in 20 years.
Now at 18.2%, with women on the losing end, it is the highest since records collected in 1994. That’s the national pay gap of Australia on average. Men being paid 18.2% more than women for the same jobs. What a fucking embarrassment. How disgustingly Australian.
Thankfully, someone is doing something about it. A new website launched now allows employees to search their company and check whether they have completed a gender pay gap analysis. It is for companies with 500 or more employees, but it’s certainly a start.
And then I found the best Youtube video I’ve seen in a long time. To tackle the pay gap issue, 3000 CEOs who haven’t done the workplace analysis have been sent a bottle of Daughter Water.
View the video here. Tackle important issues with humour. Gold:
Important to note, the battle for gender equality is not always set in underprivileged countries.
The sun came up and shouted about itself
Look how thick I seem on cotton
Look how I dance over brass
Look how I change you from dull green to bright green
With my lemon lick
That you might hold your head up –
Thanks to the beauty I bring
Not your own beauty of course,
Just a projection of my golden one
The kookaburras laughed with scorn
A ripened hatred of vanity
Look at our blue wing feathers
That we tell nobody of, they clicked
A frog green as panic came out
And sacrificed itself to a beak
Humans are lazy in the morning
But a frog will die for the same
I sat with fingers tapping
Bleeding my head of the words
How strange, this need that seizes
This burning for language to trickle
Then falling like flour to my pillow
Finger valves turned off
Sleep curls in the empty cavity
The words left behind in my skull
On the second leg of my three day voyage home to Aus I flew from Los Angeles to Honolulu, Hawaii.
I hit the tarmac at 8.30pm, island time, and was due to leave again at 9.45am the next day.
Perfect, I thought. I would sniff out a cheap room somewhere, buy fish for dinner and have an early morning dip before heading back to the airport.
But my plans were thwarted. My money had not transferred back onto my Aussie card as promised by the lovely lady at ANZ.
And so I found myself with five US dollars in my pocket and around 12.5 hours to kill.
I stared in disbelief as the hibiscus shirted staffer spoke.
“There aren’t any showers in this airport, and we don’t have wifi,” he informed me.
“That’s ok, I enjoy counting tiles anyway.”
He didn’t laugh.
I sat on a chair and pondered, beautiful images of Hawaii’s beaches and waterfalls mocking me from the mounted flatscreens. I couldn’t even afford a taxi to get some dinner and return.
I was nodding off so went to find my roost for the night.
It was hot as Hades outside, muggy as a proper Cairns summer. The ‘waiting areas’ were open to the air, with numerous people camped out with bags. They were clearly passengers, but one guy had a sleeping mat and another guy had a dog, who were clearly not. It was a bit too suss to sleep there with my video camera and laptop I thought, so I made my way down to the enclosed baggage collection area.
Curled awkwardly across three chairs whose armrests wouldn’t go up, I stuffed clothing around them to lessen the dig on my stomach and legs.
To take my mind off the hunger I actually counted tiles.
I met two sisters who were also spending the night. Joy and Jem from Los Angeles. Cute as buttons. They had just returned from visiting family in South Korea, and the Honolulu airport was a rude shock after the plushness of Seoul’s.
They had loved South Korea.
“The people don’t really speak much English, but they were still all so helpful,,” Joy told me.
“They would go out of their way to help us. And the food was amazing.”
It had never been on my list, but now I considered it. It sounded very similar to my experiences in Japan.
We fell asleep haphazardly.
The music was good, until interrupted by frequent messages much louder than the music, and thus startling.
“Due to increased security baggage found unattended will be confiscated and destroyed,” boomed the excessive voice.
This seemed like an ambitious target in a deserted airport with no wifi, showers or manpower.
At the unspecific time of 1.23am we were awoken by an apologetic security officer.
“Sorry mam but we have to lock this building now. We open it again at 4am.”
“Can I go up one level?”
“So that will be open?”
“No, we’re about to lock that too.”
“So I can’t go up a level then.”
“You can go to the curb. I’m sorry about that.”
Radical. Hopefully the good vibes of Hawaii will protect me from being robbed on the final leg home.
On the plus side it was much warmer outside and the concrete bench was fit for a queen. A really wide but impoverished queen.
There was a faint smell of cigarette butts rising from the garden beneath my head…similar to tucking a sprig of lavender beneath your pillow for a good night’s sleep. But not at all.
I stretched out, my hoodie as a pillow, and fell instantly asleep under the muggy sky.
This ain’t so bad I thought as I drifted off.
I dreamed of food. And swimming.
Someone began spitting on me. Even through my subconscious I’d been woken up by rain enough times to realise this wasn’t actually spit.
Godammit Hawaii, throw me a fricken bone here.
We relocated to smaller, harder benches fit for one and a half toddlers. Ugh.
After snatching a few disrupted hours (to the lovely sound of rain) I was woken by the roar of a metal beast. It was around 4am because staff were beginning to file into the baggage claim area.
An impossibly loud truck with ‘Dry Ice’ scrawled across its side blasted off down the road.
I was too tired to write so I took off my shirt in the bathroom and washed my armpits with the hand-soap, changed my underwear and splashed my face. No showers. Tsssss.
Hours crawled by like injured rats. I put two coats of nailpolish on both my fingers and toenails.
I dreamed of the first steak sandwish (pun intended) with beetroot and caramelised onion I would order when I went to visit my Dalby girls.
Finally, 6:45am. I ditched my big bag and set off to security through the stream of overweight American tourists being led by a guide in hibiscus print. They mostly wore sneakers, socks, and awkward length shorts (both men and women).
Then came the hordes of Asian tourists in much the same fashion but with better luggage.
A mountain of a woman got into an argument with a staffer, Jem and Joy woke up and we said goodbye, and everywhere repulsively touristic happenings kept happening.
This is the side of Hawaii I’d make sure to avoid if I ever made it beyond the airport.
Away from the chaos I ventured deeper into the folds of my airport prison to see what $5 could buy me in this fine land.
It was seven in the morning and Burger Kind had a line-up. Disgusting. I had three options:
1) Starbucks: Fruit cup for $4.45, (tragically the yoghurt and muesli cup was $5.20)
2) Burger King: A crois-wich (or some equally stupid name) for $4.50 which was a croissant with egg, cheese and some spammy looking meat.
3) The Asian place: Two bits of French toast (sweet) for $4.50 or a vegetarian omelette for $4.50.
I went with the omelette for maximum filling capacity, and it was actually quite good.
So many hours left. This is what it must feel like to be sentenced to death by cheese grater.
I looked to the TV to break my gloom.
An American suit called Hagel was speaking live from the Pentagon.
The US would be launching a longterm campaign against ISIS. Belgium, Denmark and ?Spain? had also jumped onboard, and the British Parliament had just voted to join their yankee chums too.
I wondered what news from Australia on that front. It had been pleasant being away while Abbott was in control, but now it seemed I was returning for the next bout of madness.
CNN was having a field day, for once having fresh fodder to fill their revolving crap cycle. I mean news. News cycle.
I hadn’t researched enough about Isis to have an opinion on it. All I knew was their decree for the forced genital mutilation of every female in one town. I hoped it hadn’t come to pass.
I sat with a rumbling stomach. I was $1.50 shy of an espresso coffee, and the sad realisation that Hawaiin Airlines would serve only one small meal on the whole flight sunk in.
I was going to eat a horse when I got to Brisbane……hopefully one of my sisters had one, because I had not one dime accessible.
Spirit Airways, the cheapest way I could fling my travel-weary body from Bogota, Colombia across to Los Angeles.
Their seats don’t recline and their airhostesses yell at you without finesse to stow your bags under the seat for takeoff. But hey, that $200 saving is half a month’s travel in South America!
I sat beside a lady and her son, originally from Panama. I looked at the rich purple/black of her skin and wished for the millionth time I could go ten shades darker. Her clothing was like a vibrant shout against that shade.
“You should go there when you return to Central America. It’s a really good place to travel there.”
She told me about her favourite area.
“Watch your stuff, but you get that everywhere. Food is really cheap, and a taxi is like $3.
“The only thing is there’s a lotta hookers around there, but they shouldn’t bother you.”
We both laughed at that.
“Hopefully not,” I agreed.
With a budget airline the five hours felt like ten. I thanked the powers that be (whoever they may be) for my short legs and tried unsuccessfully to sleep on my window.
Two hours to kill in Fort Lauderdale, which was beautiful to land in at night, ablaze with a grid-work of lights. Luckily for me I made a friend.
As always, the best people I meet travelling seem to appear in the dullest spots. A boring layover where you eat your over-cheesed sandwich and watch everybody sit on wifi instead of talking.
Organised as usual, I had arranged not much for my midnight arrival in LA, with a whole day and night to kill until I flew out at 6pm the next day.
“If you get stuck,” said my new acquaintance, “you can always crash at mine.”
“I have two bedrooms, and I’m not creepy. And you don’t seem creepy, so that’s always good.”
A stunning woman of Indian heritage, it came as no surprise when she said she’d moved to LA to further her acting career.
She had been acting professionally for around ten years, and I was intrigued to learn that an audition could still be nerve racking after that time.
“It’s good though sometimes because you can turn those nerves into really great on-stage energy,” she said.
We had a great chat about the challenge of doing what you love for a living while walking the thin tightrope of not leaching it of all creative joy.
“I want to write books for a living one day,” I told her.
“Fiction with characters you can really picture, to an extent you know what they’d do in certain situations… as though they are real people.”
We looked around at the crowded waiting lounge, a flat and luck-lustre backdrop for a conversation about chasing your dreams.
Tired people said tired things to each other, chewing airport food unenthusiastically and wishing they were home already.
“You could write about this waiting room and make it really funny, if you just get your dialogue right, and use a fresh perception,” I said, thinking out loud.
It remains my motivation for moving somewhere I know nobody and learning another language. To loosen my mind and distance myself from my ability to earn money through writing. Only then I feel will the proper creative juices flow.
In the end the friend in Venice Beach I had emailed last minute got back to me with great news. Yes I could crash on her couch, she had just finished a late night business meeting and her and her partner were on the way to pick me up from LAX airport now!
“Wait outside, we’re close,” the message buzzed on my laptop.
“Black convertible, see you soon! Xx”
I said goodbye to the kind-hearted actress, and thanked the world for sending a stranger to brighten my dull day of transit. We swapped Facebook details, as is the glory of our times.
There I stood at the front door of the LAX terminal, my chode of a backpack strapped on, and my video camera bag on my front. I looked like 2-Pak, but obviously tougher.
Then they pulled in. Could there be anything more LA? I counted the number of times I’d been collected in a black convertible….oh that’s right…one. LA baby!
I met my friend’s partner for the first time. He walked past my outstretched hand and wrapped me in a bear hug. After just five minuted, whizzing back to Venice Beach with the hood up so we could hear each other, I was glad he was with my Aria.
A handy twenty minutes from the airport, their apartment was a cool studio style layout, one large-room encompassing lounge, bedroom and kitchen, with a bathroom and walk-in robe leading off.
There were surfboards in the bathroom, bikes beside the front door and a huge printed graphic of a New York streetscape with the Flat Iron building immediately drawing the eye.
I slept on the extremely comfy couch, picturing a pile of feathers beneath me. I could hear the very distant hum of LA traffic as I felt myself sink down through the layers of sleep. Just as I drifted out of consciousness I felt content, safe and comfy…once again in the home of a friend.
In the morning, well rested from my time on the couch of dreams, we strolled down Pacific Ave, past the famous Venice Beach sign strung across an intersecting street, and ordered bagels and coffee at Café Collage.
Oh salmon bagel, welcome back to my life. Australia was slowly catching onto the beauty of bagels, but here you could pretty much trip over them.
I liked thinking they had the same effect on my physical appearance as say, broccoli would, however their deliciousness made me doubt this.
We sat on the beach to eat, watching surfers appear on the white caps one by one like evening stars.
Can there be anything better linked to happiness than a morning surf before work. The waves were so close to the beach it was like a box-office seat at the theatre.
I watched a guy scampering back and forth on his longboard, distributing his weight with each lift and drop of the wave. Eventually, the wave won.
We talked for around an hour about almost everything, my golden-haired friend and I. Love, sustainability, growing into adults, living in a smaller place but a better location, the need to run away from life as you know it and return wiser, better travelled and with a newfound tenacity.
We had met in primary school and seemed to have grown into adults who still shared similar values and enjoyed an easy connection. I love our generation’s view of the world, the ability to reduce it in size so that moving overseas no longer means you drift inevitably away from people.
Thank you technology and great airfare deals.
We spent the morning in her apartment, her working remotely and me remotely working…mostly scouting jobs in Australia and Colombia.
In between we’d break for coffee or chocolate. It was good old-fashioned girl hangs, and much needed.
Back on the job search, depressing and hopeful at the same time. Eventually the temptation of the pool was too much. I let the cold water swallow me as choppers cruised overhead in the LA skyline.
One mention must be made of the take-out we got from Pacific Ave’s culinary gem…..Mexican joint, The Flying Jalapeno.
Holy smack that food is good. With a whole counter of fresh toppings, you create your own taco, burrito or bowl of delicious.
They cooked my fish fresh and I chose black beans, guacamole, lettuce, corn, grilled peppers, onion and some unknown breed of great salsa.
As I sat waiting for my fish, sipping an amazing house-made lemonade, I realised I had misjudged Venice Beach on my last visit.
Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the boardwalk strip of weird beggars and hawkers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the foot, board and bicycle traffic that went past as I waited.
Many people running, surfers, Dads with great tattoos carrying kids on shoulders, girls with wicked rockabilly hairdos, artistic types and pinup types.
I also noticed the street art everywhere, which I hadn’t seen as much of on my last visit, and my friend informed me of the fantastic local arts and creative community in the area.
With a bit of afternoon left before the hours at the airport began, I walked the very short jaunt to the Venice canals.
Built by American developer and environmentalist Abbot Kinney in 1905, the canals fell into disrepair after losing functionality/popularity with the increase of the automobile in Los Angeles.
They were drained, renovated and refilled in 1992 and are now home to some stunning and pricey waterfront houses.
It’s a beautiful walk, with white, arched bridges intersecting the walkways and canoes and rowboats moored nonchalantly in front of houses.
The gardens burst with hydrangeas, bougainvillea and yellow hibiscus bursting in vibrant colour pops on all sides. Little fish swam, the water was still and the day felt easy.
So, Venice Beach, on round two I liked you much better.
NB: No photos because I lost my camera in an overloaded taxi in Peru. Sigh.
It was hot as tin, the air heavy with the suggestion of moisture.
The tease of rain.
We sat for a moment asking when the babies were due, discussing new jobs and laughing about something that some people got, but everyone laughed about.
The Queensland sun smacked down on us.
“That pool looks too good,” I said, and slowly we all drifted into the water like dugongs, lolling there as it cooled the white mass of each heat-swelled body.
The ladies swam their babies across the surface of the water, like fat aqua-grubs, delighting in the foreign texture of it all.
I sunk below the water until my belly touched the cool cement floor.
How double-edged Sundays were – the beauty of bright white freedom, but the knowledge that every minute more of Sunday was a minute closer to Monday.
My last air escaped my nostrils and I shot upwards to break the surface, into my sun-drenched Sunday.
The great thing about visiting friends scattered across the United States is the variation in places that we visit.
We touched down in Buffalo, state of New York, with images of hoe-downs and chicken wings racing through my mind.
While I didn’t see the first, the latter was in delicious abundance. Nobody does Buffalo wings like a Buffalonian.
After reaching our friend’s house (she was at work) we sat on the couch, ate a bagel, and woke up in a daze one hour later. I have always liked how your body calls the shots. If it’s exhausted it will just shut down, without warning, like a flat microphone.
She had left the keys to her Jeep, and feeling very Americana, we drove the hour to the school she taught at to offer ourselves as Aussie show-and-tell.
The neighbourhoods were so American it was funny. I felt like I was featuring in Dennis The Menace. Front porches sporting American flags stood proudly on green lawns that ran to the road without fences. There were maple trees lining the streets and people doing wholesome things like tending gardens.
Memorial Day weekend was coming up so patriotism was in full swing. Every second house had a flag.
As we got closer to the school I noticed the neighbourhoods drop in affluence. I knew it was a lower socio-economic school, which made me only more keen to see it. Having gone to an girls private school it was completely the opposite.
Cool groups of kids hung around the lockers in the hallway, teachers and students were in dress, and everyone was more relaxed and in my opinion more grown-up feeling than when I sat in front of a blackboard.
We visited art class. A girl with eyeliner and a cool fringe told us about the places she’d lived. She was cool and collected, far more mature than I remembered myself at her age.
Another kid up the back was bent quietly to his work. One of the best students, his teacher told us. After the class emptied the teacher showed us a chair he had painted. It was beautiful. She explained the scenes on each side and their meaning was sad and simple in places, dark but hopeful in others.
Kids never cease to amaze me. Youth is an amazing thing. I find it often more truthful than the lives many adults are living. Before it has been corrupted by expectations or norms. It’s probably the closest we come to being who we truly are in some ways.
The kids couldn’t carry backpacks until the bell rang due to gun security. I thought sadly how the power of the gun lobby in America continued to block gun control reforms and put people’s lives at risk. As I walked down the corridors I imagined shots ringing out and the blind panic of hundreds of bodies trying to cram through one small doorway to safety. It is a mind-boggling concept that the safety of American children can be out-muscled by the greed of companies selling steel.
While we were in the States 22-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed to death his three roommates and then shot down three people in cold blood before killing himself. None of them had turned 23 yet.
It went down in Santa Barbara, California. A really nice town with excessively high prices that we’d stopped in for lunch on our road trip the week before. One victim was shot down in a sandwich shop.
Rodger’s parents had alerted authorities about concerns over their son months before the May 16 attack, but no grounds were found to detain him or search his premises.
In a manifesto published online Rodger cited a history of rejection from women as his motive. Just another messed up kid given too easy access to murder. If he couldn’t walk into a store and buy a gun perhaps he would have done something else destructive. I used to pinch a carton of eggs from the fridge and pelt them one by one at the horse trailer to deal with my own inexpressible juvenile angst. Nobody was ever killed during this ten minute release of anger.
The pro-gun lobbyists say it’s people not guns that kill. Stabbing three people is one thing, but standing metres away and letting the pull of a trigger mow down three more is a damn sight easier.
Maybe one day the head of America’s powerful and filthy rich National Rifle Association will have someone they love gunned down in cold blood. Until that day they will continue to pour money into opposing any kind of gun reform in the United States. It’s a sad, stupid state of affairs and one I have little patience for debating anymore. Every time they pick the young body of a school massacre off the ground I wonder dully how it is even still up for debate.
We walked down the hall where some kids were painting a mural on the wall.
“Good job guys,” said our teacher friend.
She walked to a boy kneeling down painting the white caps of waves.
“I think we need to get a little more shading on this light coming out of the lighthouse,” she said.
“See how it’s blending too much with the water?”
Leaning back on his haunches the kid surveyed his work and agreed. He dipped his brush in a darker yellow and began adding a subtle shadow line to the lighthouse beam.
people need is nurturing, a bit of guidance and the space to grow and achieve things for themselves.
Seeing my friend interact with the kids was beautiful. She was fun, cheeky and patient with them. I could see how they loved her. If the world had more people like this lady we would be turning out more kids who felt they had options for help, rather than feeling backed into a corner with the need to lash out. My hat off to the great teachers toiling in this world. I know the work doesn’t stop when the bell rings.
I decided a long time ago I wanted to take in foster kids. There seem to be so many souls who aren’t given the chance from the outset. They don’t need much. Just someone who gives a shit and a bed they know they are safe in at night.
That night we gathered at our friend’s parents’ place for a good old fashioned American dinner. Luckily for us they were from a long line of chicken farmers, and their great-grandparents had even paid good money for a secret recipe back in the day.
Just like the KFC legend, before it was commercialised to death!
I love meeting people’s families. People are generally a product of their nature and nurture. Gretty’s family were like her: gracious, hospitable and friendly. And her mum had the same booming laugh I loved her for.
It erupted without warning, pure as honey and honest to its last resounding note.
After her dad found out I worked as a journalist we had some great chats around the barbecue. The US was having fracking dramas with exploration for gas/energy sources similar to Australia’s. I explained our huge underground water table and the fears of local farmers that such a dry country was risking water security for the short term dollar.
Mr Gretty basted the split chicken halves with the secret sauce his ancestors had paid for those years ago. The meat looked out of this world delicious. He wouldn’t tell me the ingredients, a true flavour guardian of the oldest order.
“You should see this place in the winter,” he told me, as we looked across the stunning green spread of his lawn.
“Everything is white. It’s just melted not long before you guys arrived.”
Their house was beautiful, they’d done well. I looked up the street and was sorry I wasn’t here in the waist-deep white of winter. I imagined how red my coat would look against the blanket of white. I imagined the kids dining each others’ doorbells and standing back to pelt snowballs when the door swung open. How different to my dry, inland upbringing of gumtrees and red dirt!
Our hosts covered the table with enough food for a small country, and we ate with relish (the enthusiasm not the condiment) as we envisaged the strict budget ahead for the next five months.
Buffalo probably doesn’t feature high on the average US itinerary, but I was glad we went. The next morning we ate in the garden, cold air on our faces. A red breasted robin and a squirrel frolicked in the garden. I waited patiently for Snow White to step out of the greenery, fawns at her heels. It was very pleasant after the concrete rambling of San Fran.
We visited Niagra falls, spectacular but marred by the casinos on either side. Nature should be natural.
The Hornblower boat glided underneath the hallway of blinding white water, its deck packed with poncho-clad tourists. I pictured the spray raining down on them, their cameras taking blurred snaps of nothing much. Their eyes goggling at the might of it .
That night we went for beers and buffalo wings at a little local joint. Dark and great. A sign on the wall declared “if it needs a blender we’re out of that.”
A moose head hung above the beer taps. The bartender shouted a shot of local whisky. I always hoped I’d find bars like this in America.
We also squeezed in a night out on the town, which was highly amusing. Cinnamon flavoured shots are a big trend at the moment in the US. A bit like shotting pureed bakery items, but tasty nonetheless.
We left the industrial town of Buffalo, with its pretty outer suburbs and unassuming galleries and vintage shops, and clambered onto a bus for New York City.
Little did we know it would be the quickest of our bus trips over the next six months.
30 soles for a Swedish massage….why not.
We limped with aching muscles up the stairs, the two Peruvian ladies leading the way. Peruvians are tiny and beautiful, like the Burmese.
“No ropa, solo las bragas,” she said. (No underwear, just nickers).
Hmm….problem number one. I explained in atrocious Spanish I’d put almost everything I owned into laundry that morning and wasn’t actually wearing any.
“No problem, we are all women,” she said in Spanish.
She began working on my back, running her knuckles down the length of my spine to the plump of my bum.
I pointed out the two ferocious knots on my right shoulder begging for attention and she did her best to skirt this problem. Sigh.
It was soothing nonetheless, as oil and touch inevitably is.
By this time her little daughter had climbed under my table and was firing a rapid succession of “hollas” at my upside down face.
“Holla,” I replied once to her ten. She was cute as a button in her little red trench coat and striped stockings.
She found the sight of an immobilised gringo impossibly funny and kept kneeling so her face was an inch from mine.
She was about four and told me her name was Mina….or something like that.
“Mi nombre is Lisa,” I replied.
I blew her hair and she giggled so much she fell over. I tried to focus on the massage while I laughed. Deciding we weren’t quite close enough she brought her nose right up to mine and rubbed it like a bunny. Only in a South American massage! I liked the informality though, it felt more natural.
Eventually her madre took her outside.
“Ciao chica,” I called to my new friend.
The small lady began massaging my hair, which was more like mussing, less like massaging.
The shoulders, though brief, felt good.
“Muy fuerte (stronger) por favor,” I requested.
She climbed on the table and used her tiny frame to lean into her elbows.
It was similar to a small goat walking across my back.
She moved to the base of the table and wrapped a hand around my big toe, lifting my leg by this odd hoof-handle.
It reminded me of a baby clasping your finger.
With the other hand, which felt smaller and stronger, she began pounding my tender calf.
Dear God. Give me back the Inca Trail….. the thousand steps of death were like feather fingers in comparison.
A tear sprung involuntarily from my eye and sat in a pearl on the carpet beneath my face.
It took a good 10 minutes to soak in. Must be the same carpet old people put in their bathrooms. Weird.
I couldn’t help worrying about the views she was being subjected to from her vantage point at my spread calves.
“Change positions,” she said in perfect English.
Then the brand new experience of a pectoral massage. The arm massage enlightened me to muscles I didn’t know existed, and the quad massage required a teeth-clench. Oh Inca Trail you were cruel.
Overall the experience was painful but freed the muscles to some extent. You certainly get what you pay for though… as all requests in poor but decipherable Español to work on problem areas were ignored.
It was very much a repeated process for each client, rather than the necessary tailored approach per client.
The ferocious knots would have to wait until a better-researched option in Lima. At least some of the Inca Trail pain had been persuaded out of my legs.