Tag Archives: travel

Things of 2018

Front Page

Kapiti Island on a cloudy day over the Tasman SeaThe great rearrangement of 2017 is now firmly established. I am married with two kids, and my life revolves almost entirely around those facts, except for a long window every weekday during which I sit in an office and earn money. I watch in fascination as my now one-year-old children develop, especially when I look at photos from a month or more prior; you don’t see how they’ve grown until the evidence of their past limitations is in front of you.

What else can I tell you? I am a little less lazy but ache a lot more. I would like to own a home but am very happy in my current rental, which provides three bedrooms and a sunny, leafy backyard. I have a good, stable job. My short-term memory is suddenly appalling, a casualty of sleep deprivation. And I still have a need to write, but I’m less interested in writing about myself than ever. Now here are 3500 words all about me.

Health

Writers and podcasters have contributed a lot of morbid fodder to my resting state of mind this year. This is no doubt partly a function of getting a bit older, and of having kids, and of having a minor brush with my own mortality in 2017, but there’s certainly never been so much public discussion of The End in my lifetime. The main influencers into my brain have been Cariad Lloyd’s podcast Griefcast and Leigh Sales’ book Any Ordinary Day, but I feel like death is highlighted in plenty of other places, too. There’s also the spectre of climate change, too big and scary for me to sit and contemplate, a large-scale existential threat galloping over the horizon and into plain view.

Tara and I often joke about who will die first. The basic meaning is ‘I’m dying first because I don’t want to have to be the one to go on alone’. It isn’t really a joke, we both mean it. I am starting to think it’s a bit flippant, though, when so many people press on after the untimely death of someone they love, and when so many people would give anything to live a little bit longer. In December, I learned that a Twitter friend in their thirties had died, and wrote about how the broader availability of grief is a strange side effect of this age of conceded privacy. We have so much more information at our fingertips now, from details of the latest mass shooting to an online acquaintance’s taste in romance novels. It means that death and dying, like everything else, is that much more immediate in our lives, and that much more likely to appear on our radar.

But don’t worry! There are no signs of impending doom in this house. Even during these, ‘the tired years’, as my father-in-law put it, we are all healthy and mostly happy. Although I have often had to substitute calories and caffeine for sleep. The way I see it, that’s just part of the deal, something to iron out when I get a minute to breathe.

Music

I tended to return to old favourites in 2018, often long and repetitive electronic tracks (five hours’ sleep a night will have that effect). And to my good fortune, three of my most favourite favourites brought out new music during a two-week bonanza in September:

Aphex Twin — Collapse EP (good)
The Field — Infinite Moment (very good)
Orbital — Monsters Exist (not so good)

At this point, I can confidently call The Field (aka Axel Willner) my favourite musician. He’s so reliable. Every new release satisfies for many listens; I tend to have my initial favourites, then enjoy more and more of the album until I don’t really see any dead wood. It was a pity the new Orbital — after a long hiatus — only sparked intermittently, but I think they had their time in the 90s, and what a time that was. As for Aphex Twin, he’s still a genius who makes music no one else could even imagine.

There were a few other new records I found in 2018:

Sarah Blasko — Depth of Field — Blasko’s gone all out for hits here and nailed a few. I even heard one in the supermarket the other day. Very catchy tunes in her familiar soulful, whispery voice
Jonny Greenwood — Phantom Thread Original Soundtrack — just love this, listened on repeat for a good while, grand and romantic
Robyn
 — Honey — glittery, perfect pop with great lyrics and earworm melodies. Tracks seven and eight threaten to sabotage the whole thing but the rest of it is so damn good
Leon Vynehall — Nothing Is Still — what a discovery! The shimmery Brooklyn Bridge on the cover looks at first glance like trees parting in a forest, and that’s kind of what the music is like, shifting textures and moods from track to track. My favourite album of the year
Marlon Williams — Make Way For Love — he’s got ‘it’

I’ve chucked a track from each of these records into a ‘Barns Picks 2018’ playlist on Spotify. Bit less variety than previous years, so hopefully your tastes overlap exactly with mine.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1230979649/playlist/3AfEtddCUjsh10w37msHSH

Politics

At this point in the devolution of our political discourse, is it more effective to debate with calm reason or to loudly insist your opponent fuck off? We all know by now that arguing politics (or just about anything, especially on the internet) only leaves both sides more entrenched than before, so surely it’s better, when faced with abhorrent racism, misogyny, homophobia, or greed, to drop a few choice insults and leave the situation?

I haven’t had the opportunity to test this choice in real life. People tend not to confront each other on the street, at least on the streets I walk. I spent a sizeable chunk of 2018 thinking about it, though, especially after recently seeing this unpleasant video, which takes only 23 seconds to summarise where we’re at.

I’ll describe so you don’t have to watch it. The scene is, I think, Palmerston North — it isn’t clear in 240p. A group of women cross the street holding placards and chanting slogans. They are protesting the then-National Government’s sale of government-owned assets. The man holding the camera forcefully tells them to “go back to the commune” and insults one in particular for her appearance. He says all this in much fewer words than I’ve used here. His tone is jocular, mocking; you can almost hear the smile on his face. He is relishing the opportunity to get stuck into such contemptible people.

Notice how the man’s response has nothing to do with what the group is protesting. Their argument does not interest him for a second. He has already dismissed it and moved straight to ad hominem attack. Almost all of the comments under the video on YouTube are positive, calling him a legend and wishing they had the presence of mind to be so profoundly and articulately rude to strangers.  The acquaintance of mine who shared the video on Facebook captioned it, simply, ‘classic’.

“This might be a dangerous time for politeness,” writes Rachel Cusk in her essay The Age of Rudeness. She gives a few examples of situations in which rude or overbearing behaviour is confronted, sometimes rudely, sometimes politely. Her sort-of conclusion is that politeness at least acts as a compass in navigating the world, allowing you to respond consistently to toxic acts and to let them bounce harmlessly away as you continue living your life. If someone is as rude to me as the man in the video, though, or as rude as the man I saw the other day yelling abuse at a fellow Coastlands Mall patron for their poor parking, I’d feel within my rights to take back some of the space they’d snatched with a few angry words of my own.

What does all this have to do with politics exactly? Well, we can tut at other Western democracies as they spiral into ugly, unstable, evidence-denying shitshows and say ‘it couldn’t happen here’. But it could.

Sport

Grandparent, mother, and babies playing soccer in the park

I finally got back into indoor football this year, joining a work team and playing at lunchtime every couple of weeks. Things learned during these fortnightly escapades:

  • I am not in my twenties any more and cannot expect my limbs to consistently execute skills as instructed by my brain
  • I am fortunate to maintain decent natural fitness despite limited concerted exercise and regular potato chip consumption
  • It’s more fun to lose alongside teammates who pass the ball than to win alongside teammates who don’t
  • There is always that one guy who takes it a little bit too seriously, even though it is mixed five-a-side and we are all on our lunch breaks

I lacked confidence to begin with, and struggled to trust my body to win one-on-ones or dribble past opponents — and with good reason. As the matches have totted up, though, I’ve reached a point where I think I’m a half-decent player. I commit at least one clanger per game, for sure, but all of us do.

A more pressing concern now is the broken lock on the shower door at work. No one else uses that shower, so I’m not at great risk of having to frantically hide behind my towel, but I do hope the building manager returns from annual leave soon and sorts it out.

Film

According to my Letterboxd log, I watched 91 films in 2018. My most watched actor was Edward James Olmos (probably because I saw both BLADE RUNNER films in November). My most watched director was Brad Bird (that’ll be TOMORROWLAND and INCREDIBLES 2). So I must have hopped around a fair bit.

It was my most prolific film-watching year since university days. The reason for this is the night feed. If I’m not sleeping, but the light has to be low, and I know I’m going to be up for at least an hour, what am I going to do? Simple: watch movies.

Because I love a project, and ways to whittle down the unmanageable gargantuan morass of films available to watch, I jumped the #52filmsbywomen bandwagon this year and cracked #55filmsbywomen in the end. Some things I learned:

  • It is not hard to find interesting films made by people who aren’t sex offenders, bullies, or otherwise problematic in their actions
  • Plenty of first-time female directors made mediocre films but weren’t given another chance easily, unlike their male counterparts
  • Women seem to me to have a broader appreciation of the breadth of human experience, possibly from empathy conditioned over millennia, and tend to present more complex characters as a result
  • Seeking out female directors led me to take more notice of who the writers, producers, and directors of photography were

And here are some standouts from the exercise:

  • THE HOUSE IS BLACK (1963) dir. Forough Farrokhzad
  • WANDA (1970) dir. Barbara Loden
  • A QUESTION OF SILENCE (1982) dir. Marleen Gorris
  • AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990) dir. Jane Campion
  • POINT BREAK (1991) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
  • BANANA IN A NUTSHELL (2005) dir. Roseanne Liang
  • WHIP IT (2009) dir. Drew Barrymore
  • FISH TANK (2009) dir. Andrea Arnold
  • MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) dir. Kelly Reichardt
  • WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) dir. Lynne Ramsay
  • ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011) dir. Sarah Smith
  • ENOUGH SAID (2013) dir. Nicole Holofcener
  • 52 TUESDAYS (2013) dir. Sophie Hyde
  • ZERO MOTIVATION (2014) dir. Talya Lavie
  • THE RIDER (2017) dir. Chloe Zhao

Next up, I was going to do 52 films by ‘people of colour’ but that category is so general in a global cinematic context as to be worthless. Instead, I’ll try for 52 films by black directors — the definition of ‘black’ cinema is tricky but African and African-American movies will be good places to start.

Tech

Tech.jpgThanks largely to the beneficence of family, 2018 saw me get a new phone, two TVs, and a Blu-ray player. Of these, the Blu-ray player is both the most exciting and the least used. We just don’t get time to watch many movies. But it has been fun starting yet another collection of physical media about to lapse into obsolescence. How, in the all-digital age, will we display the books and movies that mean something to us? It’s so interesting to walk into someone’s house and cast an eye over their bookshelf and their DVDs, and these displays are such effective shorthand for saying ‘this is who I am’. Are we going to lose that, too, along with the bookstores and video shops?

As for the phone, I didn’t need a new one, but the old one was getting a bit old. It is nice to have a chosen app open as soon as I press the icon, or register a keypad press in real time. Of more concern now, though, is how we are going to raise our children to have a positive and active relationship with screen-based technology. It hasn’t been difficult to leave the phone in my pocket and focus on the kids once I get home from work, but as they get older and more aware of the myriad capabilities of these revolutionary devices, it would be nice for them to see them as objects of freedom and not limitation, and an augmentation to the physical world around them rather than a replacement for it. Keeping the kids away from such devices forever is not going to help with that.

The more pertinent issue may be that my attitude to technology is itself already becoming obsolete, so pushing that stance on my kids could be more damaging than I ever intend it to be. Many schools already demand most kids work on laptops or tablets; the future world of work is likely to require high-level computing facility, including the ability to code. I will do my best to pay attention to my growing kids and keep an open mind as technology advances (and hopefully doesn’t eat us all).

Books

Father with twins readingMy wife was shocked when I told her that if I had to choose between books and movies, forsaking the other for the rest of my days, I’d choose books.

“What! But you’re Barns! You’re the movie guy!”

Yes, that has been true for a long time. And I think I still understand movies better than books. But where movies are more fundamentally concrete — you can’t imagine different images or sounds than those presented on the screen — there is infinite possibility in a book: a world to disappear into, a character to examine closely, a story to carry you along, all projected in the cinema of the mind. Books are magic, books are philosophy, books are time travel. I’ll never be able to read everything I want to, even if I were to devote all my film-watching time to books. I find this thought comforting.

In 2018 I continued my reading programme, begun the previous year, of reading almost exclusively works written in years ending in the same numeral as the current one. That meant a master reading list of books from 1918, 1928, 1938, etc., all the way up to 2018, on which I tried to include a half-decent variety of voices.

My goal was to polish off 52 books — one a week. I managed 78. Pretty pleased with that, especially considering 51 were novels or non-fiction. You can view the entire list of 78 here.

Some highlights from my 2018 reading mission:

The Rehearsal‘ by Eleanor Catton (2008)
In Watermelon Sugar‘ by Richard Brautigan (1968)
A Wizard of Earthsea‘ by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
Rebecca‘ by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Things Fall Apart‘ by Chinua Achebe (1958)
Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World‘ by Snigdha Poonam (2018)
The Player of Games‘ by Iain M. Banks (1988)
The Fifth Child‘ by Doris Lessing (1988)
The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids‘ by Alexandra Lange (2018)
Plumb‘ by Maurice Gee (1978)
Never Anyone But You‘ by Rupert Thomson (2018)
Unaccustomed Earth‘ by Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)
Normal People‘ by Sally Rooney (2018)
Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety‘ edited by Naomi Arnold (2018)

And some disappointments:

Young Adolf‘ by Beryl Bainbridge (1978)
Finn Family Moomintroll‘ by Tove Jansson (1948)
Running Wild‘ by J. G. Ballard (1988)
The Public Image‘ by Muriel Spark (1968)
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting‘ by Milan Kundera (1978)
Snap‘ by Belinda Bauer (2018)
Everything Under‘ by Daisy Johnson (2018)
The Alchemist‘ by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The ‘year ending in x’ rule is working well for me so far, so I’ve got a heaving 2019 reading list to keep me occupied. Happy reading to all the other readers out there, and put some recommendations in the comments — I’ve got plenty more lists to fill.

Travel

IMG_20181019_185423487Much of our 2018 was spent at home, wedded to routine. For most of the year, the closest we came to travel were two housesitting stints at my brother’s place in Wellington — more a transplantation of the routine than leaving it behind, but still exciting, especially our visits to Khandallah pool in summer, sun-dappled and frothy with kids.

In October, we undertook our biggest expedition with kids yet: a long weekend away in Taranaki to introduce them to Tara’s relatives. Granny — Tara’s mum — joined us to share the load. We anticipated carsickness, restless anger, wariness of so many unfamiliar faces, and no sleep at all; it turned out that a little less sleep than usual was the worst of our problems. They were equally tolerant of long rear-facing journeys and fussing relatives. The great Taranaki Maunga, which is to be made a legal personality, loomed watchfully over us, drawing our fascination whenever it appeared. “Wow! You can see Taranaki from the bathroom window!”

But don’t forget to appreciate the wonders where you live. When you come northbound over the hill at Pukerua Bay, either by car or on the train, and you round the final corner below the village’s pōhutukawa canopy, Kāpiti Island hoves into view — dark and magnificent in the Tasman Sea, its zigzag skyline dominating the vista. Depending on the weather, you might only see parts of it, or not see it at all. If we had had a Hokusai, I could imagine him painting thirty-six views of Kāpiti.

People

Family selfieI couldn’t count the number of people who told me that raising kids gets easier. True, the first couple of weeks of constant floundering through sleep-deprived fog were as intense as anything I’ve experienced. Once you have the basics of bottle sterilisation and nappy changing down, though, it’s just a stream of simple tasks. Relentless, but uncomplicated. Things have only gotten more complex — and, to my mind, much more challenging — as they’ve gotten older. The highs are higher and the lows lower. And still 10+ years before they become teenagers. It really is a rollercoaster!

The hardest part of all has been the maintenance of my marriage, and our mental health. Both recede into the background very quickly when you’re faced with two needy infants and only two pairs of hands. It’s lucky, then, that I’m married to Tara, in whom I have a firm ally dedicated to preserving what we have and improving what we lack. We are in it together, sometimes in battle with one another — usually over stupid shit like who’s less tired and therefore better placed to do the night feed (and not the way you’d expect; we are always fighting to keep the other person in bed) — and taking brief moments where we can to actually look at each other.

Maybe this is where it gets easier. Maybe we’ll get some time back for us, in increments, over many years. In the meantime, the blessing of young kids is their immediacy, how they force you to deal with what’s in front of you and not some imagined future catastrophe (not that this stops the terrible daymares descending in idle moments). And then, when they’re finally in bed, we talk to each other about the day and prepare to do it all again tomorrow, together.

(Together! Man. Who am I kidding? Tara is the one who is home with the kids. She does by far the hardest job; I come home and pitch in for a few hours before bedtime. I do wish we could switch places for a while. She’s so good, though, so conscientious in crafting the best possible childhood for our kids. I can only admire her work.)

We’ve had plenty of support along the way, but especially from Nana (my mum) and Granny (Tara’s mum), who have given up a day each week to come up the coast and help. The best indicator of how successful this has been is in the kids’ excitement whenever they show up, and the tears when they leave. They bloody love them. Our first year as parents wouldn’t have been nearly as fun and coherent without them.

What next? Another bum change. Another night feed. Another train commute. Adelante, as one of our hosts in Spain used to say whenever there was a moment of silence. Forward.

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Tenzin’s Hammer

Nizar, the owner/chef at Amantha Restaurant, whose grinning, elongated face is the kind you never forget, had a habit of inhaling on cigarettes as he smoothed out paratha dough on the hot plate. On fine mornings, the smoke swirled elegantly in a beam of sunlight that streamed in through a hole in the corrugated iron shroud. It partially overpowered the sweet and spicy smell of masala but was no worse than the exhaust fumes emitted by passing rickshaws, so if you had objections initially, they quickly melted away (especially if you were also a smoker, as I was at the time). In any case, the taxis roaring by at 80km/h on the newly paved Edava-Papanasam road were a far greater health hazard than any air pollution.

Where's your cigarette?

Nizar tossing parathas at Amantha Restaurant, Varkala

More pertinently, the food at Amantha was cheap, tasty, and delivered with a smile. As it was situated at a busy junction, where three thoroughfares meet, the tables were often full.

One morning, I was walking over for a breakfast of appam, egg curry, and chai when I spotted Tenzin sitting at one of the front tables, barely a metre or two from the asphalt surface of the road. A large hammer was resting on the table in front of him and he held a glass of chai still in his hand. His eyes bore a hole in the street in front of him, his mind seemingly elsewhere. I imagined him finishing his chai in a single gulp, slamming down his glass, picking up the hammer and striding off to mete out bloody, mafia-style justice to some foolish transgressor.

I deliberately walked into his eyeline so that he would notice me, and as soon as he did, the blank expression vanished and his face lit up.

“Oh! Barnaby! Hello!”

Tenzin would smile with his whole face. Everything lifted, from the corners of his mouth to the highest wrinkles on his forty? fifty? year-old forehead, and he looked directly at you with wide and unassuming eyes. Even his voice lilted pleasantly as he greeted you. His intensity from a few moments ago stood at stark odds with his usual serene demeanour, and was quickly forgotten as I reflected his smile.

Tenzin had been running his Tibetan shop Wind Horse on the top of the Varkala cliffs for over about a decade at this point, which made him one of the longest serving shopowners in Varkala’s tourist area. Like many other Himalayan natives –- Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis -– he would be in Varkala from mid-August to mid-May every year, and during the May to August monsoon he would return with his wife to Tibet to spend time with family and buy stock for the next season. Together, they would use their customary courtesy and a quiet, unshakeable self-belief to convince tourists they needed beaded necklaces and notebooks made from recycled paper, among thousands of other items in their cliff shack.

“What’s the hammer for?” I asked as I sat opposite him, my back to the street.

“Pardon?” he replied. Obviously the hammer wasn’t as prominent in his thoughts as it was in mine.

“The hammer! It looks like you’re… ready to use it,” I said, hoping he’d understand my implication.

“Oh! The hammer! Well, I have some workers to build my new shop but they don’t have a hammer, so I had to go and buy one. After this I will go back and we will continue the work.”

These two weeks of construction in mid-July were the exception to Tenzin’s off-season routine. Like many other shopowners on the cliff, he had returned to Varkala early to rebuild his shack, which had deteriorated after a summer’s worth of wind and spray from the Arabian Sea below. This tearing down and rebuilding was Varkala cliff’s yearly regeneration ritual. Most workers who come from elsewhere only make it through one or two of these regenerations before cutting their losses and trying their luck in another tourist paradise. Either they weren’t making money or, worse, they made too much money and got forced out by a local population swift to act against any successful rival to their operations.

The end result is that each season a few old shops would disappear and be replaced by new ones. This particular aspect of the regeneration cycle was sometimes made unconsciously explicit in the naming of new establishments. One year, Sun Rise Restaurant was torn down by its departing proprietor and replaced by a row of fabric shops. A little further along the cliff, a new eatery was being erected with an almost identical menu, despite no connection to the previous management. It was called Sun Set Restaurant.

Sun Rise or Sun Set, maybe?

A clifftop restaurant in Varkala

Tenzin’s longevity in Varkala was therefore something of a miracle — but it didn’t mean he was exempt from the regeneration, or the quality of local labour.

“How’s the work going?” I asked.

“Oh, Barnaby, it’s not going very well. These men, if I don’t watch everything they do, they do very bad work. I have to tell them all the time what to do!” He raised his voice above the din of a passing Ambassador taxi racing along the tar seal with its horn blaring. “Even though they are builders and I am not a builder!” He was still smiling, almost laughing at this point, as though this crucial stage of the process -– which sets the foundation for his and his wife’s livelihood until next May -– was just another trifle to be dealt with. Nothing to get too upset about.

It was a hard enough fight just to remain solvent for a businessman in Varkala, let alone to remain as calm and collected as Tenzin always seemed to be. The challenges were frequent and ranged from the petty to the physically dangerous. One nightclub-style establishment once had its electricity wires cut by a neighbour envious of its success, while the manager of a textile shack (which also served as his accommdation) awoke one morning to hear a rival placing a venomous snake at the entrance to his shop. One of Tenzin’s biggest problems came when the cocky young Nepalese manager of a new restaurant took a shine to Tenzin’s wife and started openly flirting with her. Within a couple of days, Tenzin called a meeting with him and halted the issue before it exploded, as such matters so often do in Varkala. Despite the affront, he made sure to maintain a positive professional relationship with the guy, and in his shop, with the customers, his smiling demeanour wasn’t compromised.

According to a few rare confessions, during which his voice would drop and his gaze would fall from my face to the ground, Tenzin wasn’t always like this. He used to drink and smoke and ride a motorcycle at high speed, late at night, on winding roads carved high into the mountains of Tibet. He used to have extraordinary violence in him that could rise to the surface at the slightest provocation.

Something happened to change all that, something he never told me about in detail. All he ever said of it was, “I thought I died. I should have died.” After that catastrophic event, he latched onto a selection of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that made sense to him, found a guru, and was effectively born again. The idea of an angry Tenzin, which I had never known, seemed impossible to reconcile with the peaceful man I knew. He defeated all comers — not with blunt instruments but with a warm heart and unwavering conviction.

I wondered, though, if that look on his face as I walked up had offered a glimpse into his past. Perhaps that violence was still in him, somewhere. Maybe just the memory of it returned to him sometimes, an unwanted but necessary reminder of what he had been, before he files it away again and moved on with his life.

Tenzin tipped back the last of the chai and placed the glass back on the table. “Sorry, Barnaby, but I have to get back. If I’m not there, you know, they won’t work! It was nice to see you.”

He picked up the hammer by its head and allowed it to hang freely from his fingers, like a set of house keys dangling innocently from a forefinger. And off he went down the road armed only with his inner strength, the hammer’s potential menace neutralised.

*

This is a re-edited version of a piece previously published on The NRI, an online magazine bringing together Indians, NRIs and anyone with an affinity to India.

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Filtering Brisbane

The sky seems bigger here in Brisbane. I’ve come from Wellington, where the hills surrounding each suburb have the effect of closing in your view of the space above. I can see why some people feel claustrophobic there. Brisbane, by contrast, is built on a river plain and opens out into the incomprehensible vastness of Australia beyond: that continental expanse, which serves to both magnify and diminish everything around — even the stars.

*

On the Airtrain, the airport-to-city train, jetlagged and slightly strung out. All I see or hear are keywords. A few graffiti tags sneak through the filter: ‘NWO’ on a silo, ‘EAT THE RICH!!’ above a spray tan salon, the sun baking everything into the dust.

*

The fellow tourist with the huge bag and the foreign accent isn’t sure whether he should get off here. After looking him up and down a couple of times, catching the confusion written all over his face, a woman in her sixties asks him where he wants to go and confirms that this is his stop. Then, after a pause: “If you’re ever unsure, never be afraid to ask.” She says it like she’s scolding him, pointing out his folly in not asking. “We love to help.”

*

Public Notice, Brisbane

Public Notice, Brisbane

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I listen to Australian radio for a living, and the ‘Straya’ of my working life is spoken in clear, lightly accented English. It leans one way politically, then the other, but is unquestionably politically engaged. It veers evenly between the arts, gossip, scandal, activism, bigotry, and sexism. It’s apparent after an hour in the country that this picture is a narrow, blinkered view, not necessarily representative of Straya as a whole.

A group of four young men aged roughly 19-25 walks past me and all I can catch from their conversation is “had about four loaves of garlic bread”.

*

My airbnb host is very upset that Tony Abbott is her new Prime Minister. “He’s going to fuck the Great Barrier Reef!”

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Brisbane ashtray

Brisbane ashtray

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The State Library of Queensland is a brilliant building, superbly designed and full of treasures. Along from the Talbot Family Wall, which is covered with pictures of women (and men) from Queensland’s history, groups of teenage girls congregate in study rooms and actually appear to be studying.

Being an outsider, I wasn’t sure if I could enter this wing. Of course I could! But is it okay to take photos? Please do!

*

At a panel discussion on literary magazines, former VoiceWorks editor Tom Doig notes over the last decade an exponential increase in MFA creative writing programs around Australia and the world, in which graduates go on to teach the next batch. “It’s a literary Ponzi scheme,” he jokes, and everyone in the room laughs, including the people who are currently studying towards an MFA in creative writing.

*

I hear bells along the South Bank promenade and move to one side as another cyclist glides gently past. This city seems quite well equipped for bikes with its many cycleways and plenty of signage directing cyclists along a certain path. Later, I hear the father of a family walking in the opposite direction warn his children to be careful because “there’s idiots on bikes”.

*

Just about everyone around South Bank, particularly the beach area, is wearing bugger all on this beautifully sunny, 25-degree day. The South and East Asian men — I presume mostly Indian and Chinese — generally wear collared shirts and pressed trousers. I’m somewhere in the fashion no man’s land between the two, which is exactly where I belong.

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

*

An unfamiliar city used to feel like a small, well-lit spot surrounded by an endless dark, invisible expanse. Now I can go into a tourist information centre and ask clearly for the information I need. The darkness is now an unmapped haze to be brought into focus, and I’m growing up. Can I get an aegrotat pass on my twenties?

*

Kathleen takes me to a show where an actor playing the Queen refuses to shake my outstretched hand, having accepted all others, and later a naked crotch is thrust at me. Good times. Before the show, we eat dumplings and talk fitness, travel, and the Queensland government.

She’s sunny and friendly, and when she posts a photo of us to Facebook, a mutual friend neither of us has met comments, ‘Well done, you two!’ Nice moment. I mean to catch up with Kathleen again later in the week but for one reason or another, I don’t get round to it.

*

The IGA supermarket in Kangaroo Point is playing ‘Computer Games’ by Mi-Sex. I thought they were a New Zealand band? And now a kid’s having a tantrum in the next aisle over, and another over by the beans. There’s a correlation between ‘Computer Games’ and tantrums.

*

I’m sitting and reading in that relentless sun at Mowbray Park when a dog barrels up and licks my ear with force, then starts rooting around in my backpack. “Leave it!” cries the owner, and after a few uncomfortable seconds, the dog gambols off to the next hapless sunbather. We came here to relax, he came here for a laugh. “Leave it!” Again and again, person after person. Train your dog!

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

*

On the train to the Gold Coast, a bloke in a singlet sits down next to me with a pie and an energy drink. He scoffs the pie loudly and swigs the energy drink in gulps, and I avoid eye contact.

Later, I see several more people drinking energy drinks at Pacific Fair Shopping Mall in Broadbeach, including a woman in her 50s pushing a full-ish Kmart trolley.

New cast member on 'The GC'

New cast member on ‘The GC’

*

Peta is good company, talkative and insightful, not remotely as icy as her measured words on the page might suggest. We used to write for the same website, when I lived in India and she lived in the US, and are meeting for the first time. Our conversation focuses primarily on craziness.

At the restaurant in Broadbeach, I look over to another table and see a young Asian woman wearing a wide hat and blue shirt, talking to herself as she taps away at her phone. Peta’s phone rings and she answers it, absentmindedly holding an edamame pod in the same hand.

*

There’s a frozen yoghurt shop called YO-LO. You only live once, so why not come to the Gold Coast and eat frozen yoghurt?

*

Junk food is my life’s addiction. I used to smoke, but only for a couple of years; on the other hand, lollies, crisps, ice cream, and chocolate have been nearly impossible to resist for close to three decades now. In some ways, you never grow up.

*

Music distorts your perception. ‘Une Année Sans Lumière’ by Arcade Fire in the headphones twists Brisbane into fairytale.

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

*

The haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe in West End is spectacular. Thanks for the tip, Nik. I’m curious, though: what is this older couple next to me talking about?

She: “Nothing is boring. It’s just not.”
He: “[inaudible]”
She: “We don’t have deep conversations!”

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

*

Reena, eight months pregnant, can’t even look at TV ads for McDonald’s beef burgers. She couldn’t drink tea for most of her pregnancy, either, until her mother arrived from Maharashtra and made it the old way with lemongrass and other spices.

For me, her mother made utthappam: pancakes made from rice, white flour, and urad dal, with onions, tomatoes, and chillis mixed through. It was like being back in India, like a step back in time. I hadn’t had utthappam for years. Reena hadn’t been able to handle onions for months, having previously wolfed them down raw with her meals. In her mum’s utthappam? No problem.

*

Back at South Bank, again — God, I love it here — a teenager in a group of teenagers spies a turkey. “Oh fuck yeah!” And he’s off sprinting after the poor thing. It gets away, so he makes gobble noises himself as the group walks on down the promenade.

*

Poster in the Botanic Gardens

Poster in the Botanic Gardens

*

In Myer, a huge and essentially faceless department store, ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics plays over the PA. It’s September and they’ve already got most of their Christmas displays out. Some of us want to be abused.

*

“I think every boss I’ve had over here has claimed to have bikie gang connections,” says Paul. He slips into a perfect working-class Aussie accent: “’You keep that up, cunt, and I’ll get me bikie mates onto ya, come round your house and fuck you up.’” Paul’s workday Australia, of tradesmen and sleeve tattoos and the mining boom, is one I will likely never touch.

Paul is literally my oldest friend. He still seems so much wiser and more experienced in life than I am, just as he did back when we were five years old.

Paul and I

Paul and I

*

Here’s an old-school bus driver. He announces every street and points out landmarks. “There’s the ‘Gabba!” He has shoulder-length grey hair. “Nicely done, on yellow, woo-hoo! The 235 has arrived!” He wears glasses. “Good morning, young man! Good morning, young lady!” He’d be somewhere between 50 and 65 years old. “10:36, we’re a minute and a half late!” All delivered in exactly the same faux-dramatic tone, almost like a defence shield. “Thank you, have a nice day!”

At my stop, two buses arrived at the same time, and I had to signal to the rear bus — his bus — that it was the one I wanted. The driver was impressed: “You should’ve been a traffic cop!” Well fancy that! Maybe I should’ve!

“Ah, the bus is leaking.”

*

At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

*

Time to leave. My airbnb host drives me to Fortitude Valley railway station and we don’t hug goodbye, though we got on reasonably well.

In the station, there are posters advertising New Zealand. Despite the facetious sentiment of ‘100% Pure New Zealand’, and as enjoyable as Brisbane has been, I’m really looking forward to closing in the sky again.

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You Too Can Travel In Style

That age-old desire to flaunt more wealth and status than your neighbour ties into another growing sector of the luxury travel market: weddings. Shifting your son’s or daughter’s wedding to foreign country is still a rare thing, but if you can manage it, you’ll be the talk of the town. This from the Wall Street Journal tells of nuptials in Macau and Bangkok and bills of up to USD$5 million – that’s over 22 crore rupees – with nearly a thousand guests flown from India, along with full catering staff and a host of top entertainers. The location is not chosen only for a hotel’s willingness to submit to the parents’ lofty requests, but also for its attractiveness as a tourist destination, which makes doubly certain that all the guests will return home with nothing but good things to say.

..read more at The NRI…

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“Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies”

At Yosemite, California

Inaie Ramalho is the author of Inaie – out and about, a blog about her life and travels as a serial expat. Her homeland is Brazil but she has lived in Australia, New Zealand and the UAE, and is currently based in Bahrain with her husband and two daughters. She writes mostly about her and her family’s travels and lives, with plenty of accompanying photos, but also about all the people close to her in her life.

‘Out and about’ is certainly true, then, but one realises that she has her eyes wide open with curiosity as she goes from place to place, person to person, experience to experience. Her writing is typically open-hearted and direct – she has little use for self-censorship – but a sense of what really matters to her shines through, as well as a desire to learn and understand more about herself and the world around her.

I discovered her blog after she left a comment on mine, and was immediately intrigued by the fact that she double-blogs in English and in Portuguese (which she clarifies further below). Having looked into her archives and found them at times hilarious, at other times moving, I asked if she would answer a few questions, and she responded in record time. All photos used with permission.

***

Why did you start blogging?

When I left Brazil I started writing  emails with “my stories” to friends back home. They were emails with my feelings, my discoveries and a bit about everything. A way to stay connected. 10 years later, I was still sending the same emails, but my “receivers” list was much larger and incorporated friends from all countries where I lived. I was writing my emails twice. In English and in Portuguese.
If I were tired, fed up, or just had nothing to say and did not write frequently enough, these friends would send me angry emails, complaining about my absence.
Because of it, I made a point of writing regularly, but Yahoo was blocking my account every other day, calling me a “spammer”. Every time I was blocked I felt so p’off, I would promise I would start blogging. But then Yahoo would unblock me, and I would forget all about it.
I also had several friends asking me to start blogging. BLOG! BLOG! BLOG! they would say…
Recently I met a FAB lady who is a professional blogger, she translates blogs from several languages, she does a pretty serious job with this blogging business. When she told me I should blog, I thought: Well, maybe I should. ‘A’ is someone who knows what she is doing… she has not been my friend for long and has no reason to say things just to please me.
I started the blog, thanked her for “making me do it” and received furious emails from all those friends who have been saying the same thing for ages, with no result.

Bridge near San Simeon, California

Do you keep a journal? If so, what relationship do your blog and your journal have with each other?

Nah. No journal. My mother used to break the lockers to read my teenager journals. Initially I would make up these horrible stories, about unthinkable things, just to terrify her. After a while I just lost interest. If I could not be true to my journal because my darling mother would read it, what was the point? I never went back to journal writing, unfortunately. Today, my revenge is to write things she would not want to know in an open forum – and I know she still reads it.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

I always enjoyed writing, I remember being 8 or 9, and spending hours making up stories… As I grew up, I realized real stories are far more fun!

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

This is going to sound so tacky, but my girls’ smiles are the most amazing sight. When they look at me and smile, the whole world changes colors, all sounds seem far more clear and beautiful. It is just amazing!

I have pictures of them on my phone; when things get rough, I just look at them and smile too.

Ramalho girls in Santa Barbara

You blog in both English and Portuguese. Do you try to convey the same feeling in both languages, or do you attempt to express yourself with the difference nuances of meaning to which each language lends itself?

You are mistaken. My blog is both in BAD Portuguese and Pidgin English, as I explain in the first line of the blog, but your question has its merit. Initially, my idea was to write in one language and then translate to the other – but as I started doing it, I found it just impossible. I write one story, then when I tell the other one, I remember different facts, I use other visuals; I just write all over again instead of just translating it. Sometimes the texts are completely different, although they talk about the same thing and they are both true.

Have your experiences living and travelling in various different countries changed your belief system(s)?

They sure have. This lifestyle taught me to be more tolerant with the world and see people under a different light. I used to think WE were right (whoever we were) and THEY were wrong. Now I don’t believe in us and them. People are just submitted to different stimuli, grow up under different circumstances and form their values based on these experiences.
People behave different because they see things different. In most cases, there is no right or wrong, in my opinion.
All this traveling made me want to travel more, want to know more, to learn more… life is a fascinating journey!

On the road in California

In your Blogger profile, you mention ‘several Inaies living together under one identity’. Would you say the ‘blogger Inaie’ is distinct from the others, or more an attempt at representing all of them?

Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies. She is the gossiper. She would get in trouble, but would not lose the opportunity to tell her story. With my life story, I do live many different realities in one. I am an only child, but I live far, far away from my parents. I love my dad desperately, but I have not seen him in four years. If you ask how I would feel if I did not see my children for a year, I would say it would just not happen. I could not survive without them. Both of them. I am Brazilian, but I am not your “regular” Brazilian. I am a workaholic who is in a huge crisis because I just found out there is life beyond the office desk (but don’t give me an office desk, I will get stuck in it), I am all for equality and sometimes catch myself being so totalitarian. I am a walking contradiction. I have always been told I am different, but no one ever managed to explain “different” how – and it haunts me. I would really like to know who I am. Sometimes I have no idea what I want or how to get it…

Michael, a friend of mine, once gave this close definition about me:

‘I want it all – and I want it now…’

That sounds pretty real.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

To be honest, my blog is a window into my soul. It is not supposed to be pretty, fun or anything specifically. It is just meant to be a piece of me, to tell my story, my thoughts, my feelings. And to register my journey… I am not afraid to show my ugly sides. I have plenty of them. I guess I am proud of having my blog, and I am sooo grateful (and surprised) people actually read it.

Sunset in San Simeon

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would love to visit Iran. And Morocco. And India. I also would like to visit Oman and see sea turtles. Mexico too. I would like to go to Turkey and fly over Capadoccia. Ireland is in my list of countries to visit, so are Vietnam and Lebanon… oh, sorry – you said ONE! But there are so many other places I would like to experience…

A country I would revisit? To be honest, I am not ito revisiting places. Given the opportunity, I will always choose the one I have not been to. In saying that, I would like to take my teenage girls to Egypt and to Jordan, to share the beauty of these places with them, especially because we are so close and these destinations are so magic…
I would not consider going to these places again if it were not to show them to Anita and Lia.

Do you believe in God?

I sure do. I just feel very sad for all the atrocities men do in name of Him. I am sure it pisses him off too.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

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“Writing helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words”

Rock on beach in Abel Tasman National Park

David Cain is the author of Raptitude.com, a blog about ‘getting better at being human’. His posts are a combination of truths he feels he has discovered about the nature of humanity, and/or the world, and experiments he undertakes – and their outcomes – in trying to improve his skillset for life.

He also wrote a travel diary about his experiences travelling in New Zealand which is here. The photos in the post were taken by David in NZ.

I discovered Raptitude.com at a particularly low point in my life and while I wouldn’t give David all the credit for turning it around, his well-composed, clear and unpretentious words provided me with plenty of inspiration. He himself has experienced darkness and appears to write from a deep yet continually developing understanding gained through those dark times, and is dedicating his greatest efforts to something as simple and meaningful as sharing what he knows.

David’s following grows daily into the high tens of thousands, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions.

***

Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging?

I was a fan of Steve Pavlina’s blog for a long time, and one day I read a post in his archives about his favorite blogs. One of them was Problogger.net, which I hadn’t heard of at the time. I visited, read a few of the posts and a few of the comments, and realized there was a whole culture of blogging out there, with its own history and social structure. It wasn’t unlike the music scene; there were up-and-comers, has-beens, wannabes, hacks, big shots and legends. Everyone was doing their own thing, and talking about what others were doing. I wanted to be part of that. So I got started.

I keep blogging because I love doing it, and I feel like I have something to say that can help people create more ease in their lives. Another side-effect of writing is that it helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words. I am now too accustomed to this to stop.

Do you keep a personal journal/diary as well as your blog? If so, how much is one an extension of the other?

No I don’t keep a journal. I have tried, but every time I do I think, “Who’s going to read this? Not me.”

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

Every year we had to write short stories in grade school. It was one of the few parts of school I loved.

Tree and ocean at Napier

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

The surf at sunrise. I really need to move closer to the ocean.

What were the circumstances in which you first came to read Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Good question… I came across a quote of his, in the Crypto-Quote puzzle in the newspaper I think. I forgot about him but remember being amused that his middle name was “Waldo.” I pictured Waldo from “Where’s Waldo.” Later on I was reading a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who mentioned Henry David Thoreau. I read a bit of Thoreau and soon learned that Emerson had been his mentor. I finally looked up Emerson, found his essay, “Self-Reliance” online, and loved it.

How much of an effect has travelling had on your belief system(s)?

I think it has left me with fewer beliefs… fewer foregone conclusions about people. It’s left me more curious, more open, more forgiving and more grateful. It has also rearranged my priorities in life. I now feel it is very important for me to travel a lot, which means I can’t settle for a typical 9-5 lifestyle for long. I can’t be happy with two weeks’ vacation a year. Or even four or eight. I need to see the world in a big way, and I’m not waiting for another lifetime to do it in.

Sandstorm on Farewell Spit

You frequently discuss the effect of habit (and addiction) on today’s society. How large a role does habit-forming play in your life now?

Well I’m currently doing an experiment where I’m trying to install five little habits at once, and it’s going well so far. Habit change is hard and I’m not particularly good at it. I have never had terrible habits that I was desperate to change, which means I have never developed a lot of strong habit-changing skills. But I am always working on something, and when I look back I see I have made a lot of progress.

Habits and addictions are by far the greatest determinants of a person’s quality of life, so I will never stop working on them.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

Not one above all others, but I’m particularly proud of Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed, Who You Really Are, and How to Be Right All the Time.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would like to visit France, and I’d like to visit Thailand again.

Sunset at Napier

Do you believe in God?

Tricky question. My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean I think God doesn’t exist. I just think the conventional concept of God — the God as characterized by churches — is way out to lunch, like not even close to meaningful, and I don’t think there’s any merit to it. The idea that God has emotions or desires, or resembles a person or a thinking mind in any way strikes me as completely asinine.

So when people ask me that question I say no. What the word God means to me is not something I can explain fully here, but let’s say it has something to do with a higher intelligence that human beings can have access to, yet are habitually oblivious to. Beliefs, more than anything, are what get in the way. So believing in God doesn’t make sense to me. Once it’s a belief — a mental image or a mental position — it’s not God.

Clearly there is some order behind the universe that we don’t yet fully understand. Even hard-minded empiricists must agree with that. God, to me, is that order, or is an aspect of that order. It seems to be intelligent. Einstein would agree.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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