And so we wander, not alone

Wander or wonder or both? Today I am happy, I’m productive, I’m Wendy. I feel like the malaise of the last few weeks has lifted and there is so much that I want to do – watch out world, Wendy is awake.

And yet, today one of my dear friends is in the depths and immediacy of unwordable grief. Two other friends move tentatively with scabbed wounds, scars forming, hurts still real and fresh. Eyes furtive. Anger flashing. Loss of people, dreams, hope. Others I know are weighted with life, and like Frodo and Sam in Mordor can only wearily put one foot in front of the other. For others, in the words of Ursula Le Guin “There was nothing she could do, but there was always the next thing to be done.”

It would be easy to feel guilty for enjoying the sun, the smell of my steaming tea. For feeling some measure of control over life as I hear the washing machine spin, as I start to write an essay that’s been brewing in my head for a couple of weeks and must come out of its safe prognostications into the world of words and grammar. My toes are cold, but they want to take me outside so they can scrunch in the grass and dirt and proclaim “I am alive!” Energised. And yet a quiet niggle, “How can I be happy when others are in so much pain?” And another, “Don’t get too excited, this too shall pass.” I resist their ache and breathe into the space between my ribs.

Life is so fluid, fragile, fleeting. Formless. So precious. We try to hold fast, too tight, too human. Days like today are so sharp and clear. Intense. I hear one conversation, clumsy, god I hope I was clear, I hope in your pain you heard. “You gave words to their humanity” I know I tried to say. “You said that slavery and oppression weren’t the whole of their story. That even declared sub-human, people claimed their humanity in small acts of resilience, their agency in small acts of resistance. You gave them back those actions. It matters.”

I sip my tea. The Korean chimes proclaim my washing is ready for the line, for the gentle air and warming sun. Feminism must be inclusive if it is to be feminism, my essay wanders toward the keyboard. Breathe. Life is … this instant.

And so we wander, we wonder. We are social beings, us humans. We share, we journey. We are scared to trust, and yet we do. Time rolls us, twirls, layers. We pray to deities we think we don’t believe in. We reach out. We hold… and we let go.

Binti, a woman of earth and stars

Binti and Binti: Home, by  Nnedi Okorafor
The above incredible image was sourced from DestinAsian 

I really want to write you a review of the novellas Binti, and Binti: Home, it’s a long time since I read such real science fiction. But I find I’m not sure where to begin. Instead of finding words or images to share with you, a story line to attract you, instead my brain is still and I can feel earth, coarse damp earth, rough wet clay on my skin. I want to smear it, rub it onto myself. This is unusual for me, I am a woman of water. But the scent of living soil is in my nostrils, minerals seeping into my blood. Enervating. I feel grounded. Real. Growing, alive, but still and stopped. I want to go outside and bury my hands in the soil, feel its pulsing life. To stand on rock and earth. I don’t want to appropriate her culture, to claim for myself otjize, the culture of the Himba women of Namibia. I just want to inhale that grounded life. Maybe I want to reach out and touch that warm supple skin. To taste transcendence in immanent earth. That is the gift of Binti.

Binti is a young woman of colour, the first of her people to be accepted into university on a far planet. She leaves alone in the early morning. By leaving she is exiled. She is the sole survivor of a massacre. She is a harmoniser, a woman who weaves mathematical patterns of meaning and peace. She is powerful. Transcendent and deliberately immanent. Woman.

I don’t think Binti asked me any profound questions, other than why she should be the first woman of colour to have a science fiction series of her own. I love that this is a book written by a woman, about a woman. A book about a woman who dared to defy social strictures that would have held her at home, told her who to be, how to be a good woman. Instead she journeyed away, redefined the meaning of being a good woman. Took the earth from which she came and healed others. Created earth with the power of womanhood and healing and home, although the distances of space ached between. Returned to find change for all life is change. To find something new of herself and her people and her universe. To find echoes of time.

Not since my earliest readings of Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World some thirty years ago have I felt so connected to a science fiction culture, a science fiction character. And I love science fiction. So that is the highest praise I can offer. Neither Binti or Binti: Home are long, they leave you aching for more. And to be honest, I don’t think I liked the end of Binti: Home. But I desire, long for the next instalment Binti: The Night Masquerade. I’m holding a deep hope that Okorafor doesn’t fly Binti away into unreality, when she has been so grounded, so real to date. And so sniffing earth, tasting ground, smelling stardust with our toes, we wait.

 

 

Last stop before home

I said earlier today that it feels like I’ve been travelling since June when I headed off for Montreal. And I know I was home in November, and a bit of December, but wow what an 8 months. No wonder I looked tired when I reached Thailand. This afternoon in Singapore I’m glad to be on my way home. In Inhaling colour, tasting light I promised you some more of Melaka outside the home of Tham Siew Inn so here’s my final post before home.

On Saturday we drove from KL to Melaka and found ourselves in the midst of celebrations of the end of Chinese New Year. Oh what fun. We passed the procession on the way into town and as they circled and wove their way toward their temple goal, we seemed to keep crossing each other’s paths, twisting and twirling. So much colour and vibrant life, energy. It was the celebration of the Emperor that falls at the end of Chinese New Year and brings prosperity and life. Lucky us.

In between bits of march passing us we managed to fit in one of many fabulous and huge feasts, this one in a large old home, building, warehouse that has been renovated. I was to discover a few of those over the weekend. Continue reading “Last stop before home”

Inhaling colour, tasting light

Soundtrack: Beethoven: Piano Sonata#14 in C Sharp Minor Op. 27/2
Moonlight, First Movement

Tham Siew Inn

I have been so privileged this trip to stay with families, to be welcomed into people’s homes, invited to share food, to sit. One of the truly great privileges of this trip was being taken by a dear friend and her family to Melaka, and then invited into the home of artist Tham Siew Inn. Such an honour to quietly spend time inhaling the atmosphere of the artist’s residence, imbibing the green of their gardens. Drinking tea. Sitting us women, peeling pomelo. Talking with family members, two sons creative artists themselves and the oh so real, material, tangible woman-wife-foundation, herself a teacher and creative floral artist. There were times sitting with the art, wandering the rooms, up and down the stairs, when I caught myself almost wondering what we were doing next, but not following the thought as time had slowed, the lime infused walls cooled the heat of stress and haste, and I wanted to just be, to be breathing, to just be. The colour breathed calm into the empty places in my soul. And of course sharing together much much wonderful local food breathed companionship into the empty places in all our bellies.

When you look out from the first floor gallery through the open windows, the old green glass with its patina of the ripples of time, you see into Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, one of the oldest streets in UNESCO listed Melaka. That’s the street where you find the artist’s gallery, and it’s a street of contrasts. From the most hip art coffee house The Baboon House, to a museum with original shoes for Chinese women’s bound feet, to a UNESCO restored house showing original architecture and building styles. The atmosphere of creativity, grounded in history, twisting and tasting and reinventing identity and vision and place. Continue reading “Inhaling colour, tasting light”

Thai eyes should be smiling

I’m not surprised, not naive or stupid. The sex industry is real, I know that. I’ve seen that. Sex tourism, thousands of years old. I know there are different ways people get caught in the industry, some choose, some don’t. I know that huge numbers of men, women and children are trafficked each year. It’s everywhere. It’s complex. I know all that. But here it’s on a scale and so in your face and so dehumanising that I just want to scream: “Stop! These sex-workers are people, they’re worthy of some respect and dignity and deserve some joy.” And I am really sad because no one would hear. We’ve stopped even joking about pretty young women (and men) taking their old grandfathers out for the night. Who knew there were so many old white men in the world. Oh and really who told them, that shaving their head made them virile and hot?  I’m totally struggling with South East Asian tourism’s acceptance of commodification of the human body.

It’s their dead eyes that haunt you.

Young men and women, held in the vice like grip of old white men, being walked like dogs on a leash. Mostly around here they’re attractive very young men. The women are a bit older, somehow more desperate. Some fake a smile at their owners, but most forgo even a mask of pretended affection. All of their eyes just look dead.

It’s that it’s everywhere. 

Every bar, cafe, took took, street. Day and night, though it’s worse after dark. Although by day I guess there’s also those young ones that sit like fruit on display outside massage joints. How green do you like your bananas? Young men and women, no hope, so forlorn. Their eyes look dead. Vacant. Blank. No happy ending to that viagra charged massage, not for them.

On the beach, a group of young Thai children were playing in the water. One Thai adult supervising. Later one boy appears left behind, alone with an old Slavic man. Surely not?

It’s that it seems so contrary. So wrong: these are people not objects!

The Thai people are beautiful, happy, gentle. Their smiles so wide and welcoming, so generous. We try and say Hello and Thank you in Thai. They smile wider and giggle, remember us when we return. Wave and call Hello. We smile at the “special massage” girls and boys sitting on the street, although they know we’ll say no. We buy fresh juice, coffee, snacks. We walk along and wave and smile, we try to chat with the street food vendors. These people are so generous.The waitresses at the Dutch coffee shop and the vendors alongside, so busy but still pausing to smile. The juice lady waves every time with the widest infectious smile, tells me I chose the wrong bananas and swaps them out for her best. Two juices and a bunch of bananas and she wants to give me change from $2. Our security lady hugs us and laughs, holds tight to my hand. I have to remember these happier faces.

I walked one night after dinner, just up the main street, along the foreshore. Not risking far off the tracks. I felt safe, I’m the wrong demographic. Walked around a hand job happening on the pavement, the man’s walking stick offering no privacy. Dodged a negotiation to go find a room. So many mismatched “couples” call it neo-liberal market dynamics, supply and demand, exploitation. The worst is the young Thai eyes, the dead eyes. No hope, no future, not even a mask of pretence. Do these ridiculous old men really believe these kids love them? Desire them? Or don’t they care as long as they come?

Thai people are not junk, not objects, not receptacles for white men’s stale cum. Their eyes should not be dead.

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To Hellfire Pass and Back, Hallelujah

Soundtrack, a very broken Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen,
performed by  Jeff Buckley

img_7472I’ve never been one for war memorials, I’ve been to one Dawn Service, never felt I wanted to go to Gallipoli. But something in me jumped at the chance to take a trip to the River Kwai, it just seemed right somehow. I didn’t really even think about what it would be, just knew I had to go. It seemed like a good reason for having found myself in Thailand.

You might question my soundtrack recommendation for this post, but it seems so right to me, the rough, broken emptiness of the empty Hallelujah of Cohen crying for meaning. And performed by Jeff Buckley, the spaces between the guitar strings become the spaces in a disillusioned heart full of longing. For me, the sun-baked jungle mountains reached out to sons of a sun-burnt country whose faith was formed in suffering in a sun-parched Judea, until it resonated with a very hot agonised human thirst for meaning. I hope you’ll come to agree that the Hallelujah respects the spirit of those men, who, although broken, dying, tortured in body, mind and soul, even in death, still remained human, remained Australian, and endured.

Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Our journey to Hellfire Pass started at the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi where almost 7,000 graves attest to the 15,000 total POW deaths, and signal the some 100,000 Asian civilian deaths, lives that were lost building the infamous Thai-Burma railway between 1942 and 1943. Such a short time for so much death.

Standing among the graves of unknown soldiers I felt moved to sing Amazing Grace. Wandering I saw a crocheted poppy, symbol from last Remembrance Day. A friend of mine made several of those and here I was seeing one in Thailand. How far our simple acts of love and compassion can reach.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah

People from our group found the graves of some for whom they had come to pay respects. Already moved, we moved on to the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. Bombed and destroyed and rebuilt it doesn’t seem to meet the size of David Niven, but the agony is bigger, somehow in every rail, in every sleeper, every rivet.

I had to go and look at the locomotives, two original rails re-laid, somehow they made it more real.

I love that in South East Asia there seems to be this habit of building temples near sites of suffering and death. As though prayer and stillness could ease the souls, the grief, the pain. I like it at the very least as a sign of respect and reverence.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I’m not even sure now how much I knew about Hellfire Pass before yesterday. We got to the museum, which is so fitting, and the thing that struck me most… a sign that said: there are no artefacts in this museum. The men who suffered and died here brought nothing with them to leave behind.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

Warned about the number of stairs (121) and the “rough” track I headed off down the path to Hellfire Pass.

The rail bed is immediately impressive. Yes it’s been cleared and maintained as a memorial, but the engineer in me says this was a well built railway line. Cut into rock with blood. And the scenery is so gut-wrenchingly beautiful.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

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I was walking along thinking how impressive it was, how incredible the feat of construction. The roughness of the cliff, cut back in to make the railway line level along the mountain side. It’s rough going even now but what stopped me, brought me up short, were the occasional sleepers still buried in the path. And I remembered again that this was built by men, POWs, by hand. Men brutalised. Feed starvation rations of plain rice, eating insects for protein. Digging through granite at the point of a gun.

And it is impressive. But then I came around a bend and saw the actual Hellfire Pass. And my immediate thought, “It’s an empty tomb.”

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It was called Hellfire Pass because the Japanese forced work 24 hours a day. And as the pass was dug, the conditions and the flames of the fires that lit their work by night, were as close to hell on earth as the men could imagine. And it wasn’t imagination, they were living and dying it.

At that point I started to understand how it was that the war in the Pacific came to a place where it could only end in the otherwise unthinkable use of nuclear bombs.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

It seemed kind of kitsch, but I felt I had no option but to take my hat off in awe, in horror, and in wonder. Awe and wonder, at the brokenness of hell, at the empty tomb filled with gut wrenching despair and loss and suffering.

And Mary stood alone outside the empty tomb and wept

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

I was humbled in the presence of such great spirit.

img_7619Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

After the mist this morning we went to Saiyoknoi Waterfall, where there is no water. But the fallen leaves were being burned and created an eerie, supernatural sense of not being alone in these mountains even today. The tree roots, reaching out like some kind of skeletal being, one still shackled. Still reaching for god and home and meaning. Poppies and flower offerings for peace, on a Japanese loco, in the smoke and the sun and the drought.

Hallelujah

But I was still despairing about humanity. How can people have a future in a world of so much reckless hate? How can we have a future if it’s all happening again? Do we even deserve a future? I wandered off alone, unable to cope with other people.

But inevitably it was back in the van and we were off again to another rock cut railway with wooden trestles and I despaired.

The POWs working this section were herded each night into a cave so they couldn’t escape. And in that cave today: Buddha, incense, prayers for peace. I don’t know why, but it made me pause and wonder, maybe, maybe, maybe, is there some hope for humanity?

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah