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.

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

I Can’t Keep Quiet

Soundtrack: MILCK Quiet

Had a crisis of confidence this morning. Is the India of my hopes and expectations a place only of my imagining? It looks so different out the hotel window. Am I indulging in some white colonial fantasy even thinking of coming to live here? What right do I have to speak? Should I shut up, go home, stay in my place. Could I do that?

But no one knows me no one ever will
if I don’t say something, if I just lie still

Since the global Women’s marches last week I’ve been listening to MILCK Quiet. A song written about finding the confidence to talk about mental illness. A song performed in Washington proclaiming that Women cannot keep quiet when politics abuses. It’s an anthem for anyone who has ever  doubted their right to exist, their right to use the planet’s oxygen to speak, to breathe.

Can I keep quiet about what I’ve learned, seen? Should I? Could I?

Maybe it’s time I left my 4.5 star luxury and went out to find the India I love, to find my smile. To find my muse, Karthik’s daughter, and Kali with her sisters.

Febuary 2014
There is a Castle on a Cloud

There is a bookmark on my pillow this evening… “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.”

Today we reached Chennai, last stop on this three week temple tour. I’m in 6 star luxury high up in the sky feeling like the Queen of Sheba (no glass floor or hairy cloven foot, thank you Miss B) and I’m a little sanguine.

I get very close to India each trip, and the occasional luxuries I allow myself become more incongruous each time. We’ve talked about change and India in the IT age is different but it’s not the India I love and seek. The ordinary people I come here to encounter, Malar and Yoda, the people in the villages and temples and markets, they would never see inside a place like this. And from here I cannot hear their voices. After 3 weeks in their world the pretension here chafes.

Today as I ate a 2500 rupee ($45) lunch in splendid isolation, Karthik waited in the car outside the hotel. On the road he lives on a 500 rupee per day allowance. I used the words of Monty Python on Facebook: “Luxury! We had box in middle of road!” He has a car by the side of the road, and even that is not his.

At 3pm Karthik collected me for our afternoon walk (I took him the fruit bowl from my hotel room to ease my conscience) and we went to the beach.  Just walking and watching for a couple of hours outside my golden handcuffs… come, walk with us:

There are breakers crashing on a long white beach, the air pregnant with salt and spray. The sun lowering in the sky creates long shadows, we slide away from profane time through the shimmering mists to another between world.

Let the salty mist cloud your harsh vision and tint your dark glasses. Stop looking at the rubbish and poverty. See the human not the beggar. Slide out of knowing on a beach on the edge of time. Feel with your soul.

Not in my castle on a cloud

Through the mists the hotels to the south flatten into a single silhouette turreted by a/c towers and elevator blocks. The radar post looms a high watchtower over the mists. Sand castles guarding, watching the sea.

day-19-img_0914-castles

What horrors they watched on 26 December 2004 as tsunami ripped this beach clean… on the feast of Stephen, when the sand lay round about, deep and crisp and even, uncountable beggars and slums washed away.

For millennia we have been drawn to the edges, to the deep, above the waves, beyond these shores. Into the unknown. Here we pause out of time. In the interstices, the beginnings of life.

I feel safer out here with Karthik than in the locked hotel with its security gates and guns.

Stay out of time with us: boys ride bareback on horses along the beach, gallant knights their sand castles fallen into the sea. Off to find a princess or a kingdom to save. The shell seller blows his conch, troubadour echoing a haunting call across ages, percussion by the thump of the waves. There is a castle on a cloud.

The fairy floss seller a splash of color. Madam madam, Karthik gives a few rupees to a small girl begging with a monkey. Is he thinking of his own little daughter?

Rubbish and crows. Wind all wind. Coconut shells tangled in red cloth, “From cremation” Karthik says. People put the ashes in a mud pot, inside a coconut shell. Wrap it in red cloth and cast it into the sea. Fly, be free… I like that.

Walkers make their way around colored fishing boats pulled high onto the sand. Nets formed in tidy piles like a thousand tumbleweeds frozen in the moment. Men sit and talk, repairing nets by hand. Stand on the sand cliff between the boats and lean into the wind. Embrace the spray. Timeless, safe, at home on the shore, the space between. On one side a road of cars and motorbikes and took tooks race, humanity seethes. On the other the sea roads take massive container ships stately plying the eastern ocean, waves crash and propellers drive. Both made Other in the spray filled mists. Stand safe in the space between, be the liminal. Lift your arms into the wind, for 20 rupees hold a balloon above your head and fly.

Drink the spray. Inhale the timelessness.  Stalls and chairs available for the serious moneyed consumer. But drink time not cola. Breathe.

We perch on the side of a small fishing boat. No more than 5 logs lashed together. Laughing as our weight tips it over and us off onto the sand. We sit. Silent. Different worlds, separate, souls touching. Alive.

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The sun breaks through a hole in the sky, spotlights girls dancing along the edge of the waves, sari ends like froth on the waves.

Breathe. A chai wallah walks past. Then ice cream wallah. Coconuts and driftwood litter the beach. Even the rubbish glistens in piles on the sand.

Walk, walk with wind in your face, sun on your back. Walk north. Walk.

The inland flattened hotel castle-scrapers are replaced, now behind the cars and busses and haste are crazy, voluptuous, ice-cream shaped exotica of silhouetted Victorian British architecture, the railway station and university. More continuous motion frozen out of our still silent space. Their world of knowledge, progress and speed.  Here all is timeless and without form, slipping in and out pulsing with the waves, adrift on the spray.

A group of fully clad swimmers laughing and giggling full of joy and salt. Splashing at play. Beach cricket on the edge of the world. “Water is very wet” says Karthik.

Wind blows away words. Wind and tide and time. Shadows lengthen. Long shadows. Walk, walk. Time to turn madam. Which way? Follow the tractor tracks back to the real world. What is real? What is dream? What is in between? He is my guide, and nothing will ever be the same.

 I know a place where no one’s lost,
 I know a place where no one cries,
 Crying at all is not allowed.
 Not in my castle on a cloud.

Though I feel inadequate,
my heart not big enough for the love, the pain,
the hope…

I can’t keep quiet, for anyone, not anymore

 

Feeling odd – from Hyderabad to home

Soundtrack Leonard Cohen, Suzanne

1130… 2017
It’s Republic Day here at home, Australia Day there at home. I’m going home to Mumbai to my second favourite city in the world. I feel odd, shakey inside. Colonised. Coloniser. Post-colonial.

I just finished packing, looked out the hotel window. A poor man is washing trousers in a muddy puddle on a construction site. It’s the same image I saw on my first morning, on my first trip to Mumbai in 2001. Refugee women cooking breakfast on rubbish fires, washing clothes in muddy puddles on a construction site. It is India. Progress, change, the same.

Today I feel lost inside. 

I was born on the land of the Kulin nation
I grew up on Wurundjeri land
Today I live on the land of the Turrbul people
My ancestors were English and Scottish
I am Australian, my soul Indian
Today I journey, always coming home.

What to say. Where to look. Who to be. Human? Woman? Anthropologist? Ex-engineer? Just me? Who is that?

On the way out last night, the Uber GPS said, “You will arrive at 2015.” Time travel or taxi?

I guess the only way to find out is to go. Journey home. Always coming home. Home is where the heart is… right?

And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there

November 2006
Hard to imaging that I didn’t even want to come to India when my first work trip came up more than four years ago – five years ago, wow time flies. I raised a sardonic eyebrow when a friend offered the advice: “You like people. There are lots of people in India.  You’ll be fine.”

But fine I was, WOW, more than fine. Come with me a moment, I will get back to this trip I promise, but if you’re going to have any chance of understanding how I feel about India you need to go with me on this – did you ever read Pookie books when you were a kid?  You know about the little white rabbit with wings?  Well, I have these memories of sitting up in bed with Mum reading me the adventures of Pookie.  She bought me all of them. He was a little lost rabbit, different, who found home and belonging on arriving in the Gypsy night market full of incredible sights and smells too foreign and wondrous to imagine.

So there I was, 2001, starry eyed like Pookie in the back of a black Ambassador taxi inching out of Mumbai airport into a full on Indian traffic jam.  Back then direct flights from Australia landed after 10pm.  And it was also Ganesha’s Birthday, a festival that is just huge in Mumbai.  Imagine Pookie’s lights, a million little pixie lights strung over stalls made for the festival, twisted around barrows selling food of unknown tastes and ingredients, with awesome smells.  Everywhere women selling garlands of flowers.  Fresh coconuts split for juice, sugar cane squeezed to make some sweet elixir, later advised by my local friend to be too hygienically dodgy for me drink.  Glass cabinets of fried samosas of a million different varieties.  Amazing exotic flowers festooning multicoloured smoke filled entrance ways, beckoning, offering passage to new worlds where mysterious temples are inhabited by brightly lit, smiling, blue idols.  And everywhere incense and smoke from small fires.  People rushing in and out between the traffic, cars ignoring lane markings – are there lane markings? I laugh, unable to wipe the grin off my face.  Horns are blaring, head lights flashing all in a relentless press to get somewhere.  Children laughing, calling, running out, adults carrying impossibly balanced loads over miniature foot bridges before disappearing into shanty towns shrouded in mystery and smoke. Everywhere full of people and laughter and magic lights.  So much pulsing life.

And I sat hypnotised in the back of my taxi inhaling the scent and wonder.  Like Pookie, uniquely at home.  Somehow belonging.

Waking to the next morning’s foetid reality after a pre-dawn tropical thunder storm couldn’t dampen my wonder.  Naked children were playing in puddles. Those narrow foot bridges had been over open sewers foul with every kind of rubbish and excrement. Scrawny yellow dogs snapped and chased and barked.  Brightly clad women squatted, cooking over rubbish fires in a squalid shanty town clinging like the torn underskirts of an ageing sari to a freeway construction site where men were already working in the dawn light, swarming like a million ants.  Squalid, dirty, raw poverty.  But shining with the pride and beauty of the human spirit. I felt truly at home and that feeling hasn’t changed.

On arriving this time I simply passed through Mumbai on my way down to God’s own Country and, perhaps foolishly, I economised on an airport hotel.  That economy meant the hotel was “functional” at best and that I only slept courtesy of the airline earplugs I had stuffed in my bag.  I should say immediately that I still slept with a smile – in fact I don’t regret it at all.  Peaking between the dusty hotel curtains before bed to see where all the noise was coming from showed, even through the filthy glass, that five floors below traffic is still snaking down the same main road into Mumbai along which my taxi crawled five years ago, and it’s still gridlocked in one continuous traffic jam, even at midnight.  The look also showed that my room’s twinkling ambience is courtesy of the top floor of my hotel being festooned with constellations of a million pixie lights.  Home again, home again, jiggity jig.

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror

2215… 2017
I’m back in the familiar Marine Plaza Hotel in a subtly shifted Mumbai. So much has changed, so much is still the same. The drive was much faster, more prosaic, even with the engineering feat that is the new Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link. But Haji Ali Mosque is still at the end of its causeway, all lit up and floating. And the Tower of Silence is still there, looming above the unsilent. I always used to have tomato soup and a club sandwich when I arrived here, going native with the vegetarian tandoori sticks tonight!

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you will trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind

Peninsula Rose

There is no soundtrack to this post unless you choose one, but do pour yourself a glass of bubbles

This is a post that I forgot to share back in December when I was crazy busy getting ready to come to India. Cathy and I had a brilliant day with bubbles and an amazing lunch on the Mornington Peninsula, then we had a bit of a perambulate in some lovely garden areas.

Who would have thought that artichokes and garlic gone to seed could look so beautiful. Love flowers that “convention” says are passed their best – the best is yet to be.

And then we went to Flinders Beach for a walk in the drizzle and found a very large friend feeding in the sea grass. And some learner wind surfers who were caught without wind, and like ducklings had to be brought back to shore.