Sunday, November 28, 2010

The empty spot inside

I read a book that talked about loneliness - it said that we weren't meant to be alone, that love and community are at the centre of what it is to be human, that God created Eve because without her Adam wasn't complete.

I struggle to be alone. I get lost in silence of an empty house, I don't know where to put my hands, where to sit, what to eat. A free day, spread out like a canvas with no plans and no one but myself to fill it with, can fill me with anxiety. I feel that I should at least be productive - improve my mind with a book, get some exercise, vacuum the carpets.

What am I so scared of?

I've been sick these last days. Not lying in bed in a feverish stupor kind of sick; just a low-level flu that prevents me from going to work but opens my days to different possibilities. Some of these days I have spent at my own house, away from David, where it is empty and quiet. I have watched BBC history documentaries on You Tube. I have improved my mind with books. I have gone round the corner to buy vegetables from that flirtatious old Italian man. And then I have stopped. The sound of an excited BBC presenter no longer blearing from my computer. The trams whirring by in the distance. The light growing dim in a cold room, wind swishing the trees outside.

And I've felt alone. Lonely, even. And I've sat, and thought, until even my thoughts get too noisy. I've felt that empty spot inside, as empty as my silent empty house. I light a candle - it just feels like the right thing to do. And I sit and wait.

Was that what I was scared of?

For how long can I sit here, and what will happen if I do?

When I marry, will my empty spot inside go away? Will Adam ever fill it? I'm not sure if I want him to. I feel like God flickers in that spot.

I wrote a list of all the boys I'd ever kissed, ever rolled around in bed with. It was a long list. Mainly, I realised, in most of those boys and men, I was escaping loneliness. Escaping the sensation of emptiness, which begs to be sated like hunger. I wondered whether I had been damaged by this trail of sexual experiences, whether my purity was tainted and my soul scarred the way that the Christian writers who write about chastity tell me it will be. I don't really know - we are all damaged, but it's hard to know what from. But one thing I did realise was that by kissing boys, I lost an opportunity. I sense there is a great wealth inside our internal empty spots - and I think we all have one. I didn't want to come near that wealth. It was easier to kiss boys, which were like fairy floss to a growling stomach. What might have emerged from my empty spot inside?

These days, I hear the rumble of loneliness less. My love and companionship with David is like wholesome bread. But the spot is still there, and though it's the very arms of God that stretch out from our friends, family and lovers, God still flickers in that very inner place that no friend, no lover, no brother, will ever reach.

There will always be a part of us that is alone. I will try to thank God for that.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fortresses vs relationships

Within my circles, we have a unique way of viewing 'security'. I belong to a community of Christians who believe in social justice and the power of sharing food, art and sport with those in our midst - rich, poor and marginalised alike. Security, then, is less about building fortresses and more about building relationships. The idea is that when we know the people around us, we have less reason to be scared, and they have less inclination to hurt us. You're less likely to rob your friend than the neighbour you have never met.

But then, of course, people we love DO hurt us, and we hurt people we love. This is especially true when one is desperate. You can rob your best friend of when you're chasing for drugs, for example.

And so we walk and oscillate along a fine line, between keeping the door open and keeping the door locked. When I was a young, single, female resident living on Level 8 of inner-city Collins St Baptist Church, I did value the lock on the door, and the buzzer system where we could screen who came upstairs. I learnt that you can love everyone, but you can't trust everyone. We often opened the door, but we also utilised our system of gates, locks and surveillance.

I've been thinking lately about international security. I believe strongly in the power of building relationships at an international level, as well as an individual level. I think we would be safer as a country if we invested more (disinterested) aid in Afghanistan, for example, rather than supporting a war that's getting a lot of people extremely angry. I think that diplomacy, student exchange programme, effective aid, trade and more are all great ways to increase the security of our nation, as our government well knows.

However, I also know that sometimes things don't go as planned - sometimes somebody you once thought was a friend turns around and stabs you in the back. I am pragmatic and I think nations, as well as individuals, need to be prepared for that possibility. We need our nation-versions of gates, locks and surveillance.

We have these things in the forms of international intelligence, our defence force, border patrols, airport security etc. I think this is good. The question, for me, is striking the right balance: there is a point where your gates, locks and surveillance actually make you less safe. On an individual level, it makes it hard to make new friends: your house becomes a fortress of alarms and cameras and a target for thieves and neighbours that call the police when your dog is barking rather than popping by themselves. People don't trust you because you don't trust them. The same occurs at an international level. The trust is breached. You're more likely to face a sanction or a pointed missile than a stern diplomatic word when your country does something that encroaches on the power of another.

What definitely topples the balance, and what Australia is guilty of, is when our defence mechanisms become offence mechanisms. It's one things to defend your country against physical attack; it's another ball game altogether when you're waging war somewhere else. (Of course, we use the language of defence to justify this: we're "fighting terrorism" etc.)

So where does the balance lie, between building relationships and building fortresses? Is it necessary to have a defence force? What about our extensive surveillance systems, for example, the base at Pine Gap? Are we overreaching on the 'fortress' side or is this what a nation-state needs to do to stay safe?

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Why is the church so silent on current wars?"

The other day Simon asked the question, via Twitter, "Why is the church so silent on current wars?" David, who keeps an internet connection in his back pocket, got the message via his iphone, and since we were in a cafe drinking various hot substances, we got to talking about it.

I came to the conclusion that the church isn't terribly loud about anything, really. The times have changed since the days when journalists would sit on the top balcony overlooking the sanctuary of Collins St Baptist Church, furiously taking notes on the sermon so it could be reported in Monday's paper. In those days, the church really did have a voice, and people actually cared about what was said on a Sunday morning.

These days, nobody cares what is preached from the pulpit - beyond the congregation (if you're lucky). Nor does the media care to consult the church as to what it thinks on certain issues. The most we get, in terms of a public voice from the church, is the voice of particular charismatic leaders from within the church, who are animated and know how to play the media game. Ones that come to mind are Father Bob and Danny Nahlia (controversial pastor from Catch the Fire Ministries) - and, when he was serving in the church, Tim Costello.

Things might be different in Sydney, where you have the likes of George Pell and Peter Jensen who, David tells me, are weighty political players. I don't think we have an equivalent in Melbourne.

What we do have down here, however, are active Christian groups that try to influence public policy. Some are NGO and welfare-type groups, like Urban Seed, Sacred Heart Mission and TEAR Australia, and these groups often have a public voice. The other type is the Christian political pressure groups, like Salt Shakers and Australian Christian Lobby. The former generally speaks for the left; the latter almost always speaks for the right.

The churches themselves don't provide the public voice, but it's these extra-church groups, usually made up of church members, that do the talking, or else, like I said before, the charismatic church leaders that are few and far between.

David says that the churches don't have time to be a public voice, and I tend to agree. They are spending all their time trying to figure out how they can be relevant to our society, how to get people through the doors and how to look after people (or cynical version: stay attractive) so that people stick around.

Talking about the war is the last thing on their list of priorities.

So who's going to talk about the war? Salt Shakers certainly won't, nor will Danny Nahlia (they're concerned about more pressing issues like stopping gay people from getting married). The archbishops of Sydney are way conservative and probably support the war, so they won't do it. Father Bob might, and possibly already has. Tim Costello has joined a Christian NGO and won't because World Vision doesn't want to piss off too many people. In fact the majority of Christian NGOs and welfare groups are in the same boat - they don't want to lose key supporters especially when their mandate isn't protesting against war but conducting international development or serving hot meals to homeless people. When they speak publicly or lobby, they tend to speak within the area in which they work.

Which leaves, you guessed it, just you and me (and maybe Father Bob). But in another sense, we are the church, so perhaps the church isn't so silent after all?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Is violence the only response we can think of?

I was on the train the other day just minding my own business reading a book, when I looked up to see a man mouthing off to another man and his children. The man with children - a red-faced Aussie guy - was getting really angry. I recognised the man who was mouthing off - I'd seen him round before, and knew that he had a mental disability.

The situation ended in violence, with the red-faced Aussie guy following the other man down the carriage, forcefully grabbing him from behind and trying to push him off the the train. The man with the disability managed to escape into the next carriage, after which time a lot of people in the carriage applauded the the other man for his heroic behaviour.

I was quite disturbed: could this man not think of any other means of solving the problem without resorting to violence? Of course he needed to protect his children from the foul and abusive words of the other man - but is wrestling a man with a mental disability and trying to push him off a train the best way?

I ended up asking the man if he knew that the other guy was mentally disabled, and suggested that his violent reaction was inappropriate. Another man opposite me yelled out, "Get of the train, ya stupid woman!"

The red-faced Aussie man said that he knew the man had a disability, but that the man had acted violently towards his children. I said, "Violence begets violence" and he answered, "That's right."

Anyway, I didn't relate that incident to draw attention to my own heroic behaviour, but just to point out that people don't seem to be aware that you can respond to violence without using violence yourself. There are many creative ways that you can deal with a situation so that it doesn't escalate - even if it's simply asking someone why they are acting in a certain way, rather than fighting back. Usually you can avoid a violent situation even before it begins.

But this man had probably not been exposed to such techniques: all he had seen modeled to him, most likely, is what he himself modeled to his children. Violent responses to violence are not only condoned but commended in our society, as we witnessed with the applause that this man received.

I've witnessed lots of other violent situations on trains and around public transport. This is the second I've witnessed involving a person with a disability - the other one was when a Yarra Trams officer came close to beating up a man with a clear mental illness who was acting provocatively. I've also seen burly Met officers crowd around and intimidate a man who then shot up and tried to get off the train, and before we knew it there was blood.

Why are are violent responses so revered in our society, and where are the alternatives?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Western scholars studying 'exotic' religions

When I was at uni I studied an anthropology subject about religion. Anthropology is the study of people; traditionally people from societies other than our own (sociology tends to study our own society, although these days the boundaries are fairly blurred). I remember constantly being bothered by this niggling concern, that the Western scholars, and us as their students, were missing something important. We read exerts of ethnographies from all over the world, detailing accounts of witchcraft, ancestor worship, totemism and all other manner of religious beliefs and practices. Yet the assumption was always that the religious phenomena these 'exotic' people engaged with was not real; that is was some kind of device that the society used to explain something else, or perhaps a type of psychological manifestation.

It's not supposed to matter whether or not an anthropologist accepts the veracity of religious believes or magical practices. The idea is that you just observe what happens and think about the role that the beliefs or practices have in the society. The dancing ritual may or may not have any mysterious or spiritual quality that is beyond pure human experience, but it sure does bond people together and transfers some cultural values, for example.

But I think it does matter. I've been doing some more reading on this topic lately, and personally I think that one of the functions of religion is to help people connect with what I call the 'divine'. Other people might call it spirit, or God, or mana, or the goddess. If you start off on the assumption that people's concept of spiritually is not 'real' and that the divine does not exist - which seems to be the assumption by most of the scholars I've been reading, rather than a less decided agnosticism - then you're missing a big chunk of the function of many religions.

I come to this question from the perspective of my own Christian faith, of course, which takes the existence of the divine for granted. It would be hard to accept the divine as a given if you don't believe in it. And certainly many (most?) scholars have not and do not have this conception, largely because many scholars are from secularised Western backgrounds, belong to fairly secular institutions and have agnostic or atheist beliefs.

Which is why I always felt, in that undergrad subject, that our study of religion was fairly ethnocentric - that is, privileging our own ethnic perspective over others. I also felt it to be a bit patronising, as the class smirked at this 'irrational' beliefs of other cultures. Well maybe they understand something that we don't understand! I wonder if academia were dominated by highly religious people from non-Western cultures, would scholars come to different conclusions about the nature of religion?

Friday, September 17, 2010

'Original sin' cosmology makes you feel crap

I've been reading up on religion and cosmology, for a paper I'm writing for work. A 'cosmology' is a theory or conception of the nature of the universe and our place in it. For example, the idea that God is male, or that God is a loving God, or that humans were put on earth to subdue it - these could all be part of people's cosmologies. (These examples come from a Christian worldview, which I'm most familiar with - although probably some are shared with other faiths too.)

Cosmologies really impact on the way that individuals act and the way that a society is organised. They affect the way we interact with nature. Obviously if you think that God wants us to subdue and exploit the earth you're going to be more likely to do that. Likewise, if most people in your society think God is a man then men are likely to be held as more 'God-like' and thus superior.

I was thinking about of theology 'original sin', which I grew up with. It's a distinctly Christian idea, and it doesn't come up in Jewish thought, having developed in the minds of the 'church fathers' in the second and third centuries. Anyway, the idea is that humans are born into sin - i.e. we are born evil. This happened because Eve took that bite of the apple (of course - it's the woman!), and plunged all generations to come into rebellion and darkness. It is only through the salvation offered by Christ that we can be seen as 'good' by God.

I have just realised that this idea, which I have taken for granted for most of my life, has impacted negatively on the way I see myself. I have not seen myself as inherently good and I have not felt that God sees me as good. I have defined myself as a sinner, because that's what the church has taught. The 'goodness' that was bought for my by Christ I have always envisioned as a kind of whitewash, covering what is essentially bad. My badness was so bad, in fact, that Jesus needed to be nailed to a cross to make up for it.

What a crappy, negative, debilitating cosmology. I'm angry that it's what I've believed for most of my life. Even whilst I've questioned the idea that the whole point of Christ's life was his death, I've still somehow believed that I'm essentially bad, or at least, there's nothing much good.

I'm banging the keys hard now. I think I'm mad. But I'm glad I'm now realising that I don't have to let this shitty theology to rule my life. I think it has something to do with the low self-esteem I have often suffered with. But I'm now beginning to nurture a vision of myself that is essentially good. Will probably take some time, though.

Can anyone else relate to this?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Setting up a library in the developing world

I’m exhausted from lifting boxes of books and directing boys to lift even heavier boxes of books. I’m in the middle of converting a jumble of picture books with broken spines, faded junior fiction and geography books from the 1970s into some kind of workable library. An enthusiastic couple from Footscray has collected this array and shipped them to Solomon Islands Hope School c/o the Australian Federal Police – discards from primary school libraries in Melbourne as well as some lovely new titles straight from the publishers, which still squeak when you open the covers.

Does the book about Mexico, published in 1972, belong in the history section or the geography section?

Is the book entitled ‘Seasons’ – which really school be called ‘European Seasons’ – relevant for children living in the Solomon Islands?

Do we really need seven copies of the biography of Henry Parkes?

As temporary chief librarian, I have to make a few decisions. I decide to keep most things. Surely a book about Mexico from the 70s is better than no book about Mexico at all?

I decide fairly early on that my main task is not to set up the library, but to train a librarian, or a team of librarians. There’s no point having a library with no one to staff it, because it will quickly disintegrate without someone lovingly plastering wandering pages back in place, and entering new additions into the system.

Then I realise that my chosen future librarian has never used a computer before. I wait patiently while she tentatively presses the ‘on’ button; I take a deep breath as her eyes scan the keyboard, trembling fingers poised, looking for the ‘a’ key. You need to press ‘shift’ for capitals – try holding it down before you hit the letter. No before. Before. So much knowledge that I just take for granted now – until I have to transfer it to someone else. The difference between single clicking and double clicking is harder to explain. I kind of know by intuition now, like swallowing or speaking English. It’s so hard to explain what is second nature!

I don’t think my volunteers have even used a library before. They are trying to set up a library without knowing what one is. I told my future librarian to split the picture books from the novels; to write the picture book labels in red and the novels in black. I glanced back an hour later and saw that she had done them all in red. For me, the difference between a picture book and a novel is instinctive, and I assumed it was for her as well. I assumed wrong. She looked like she was about to cry as I helped her pull the novels from the big pile of labelled books.

I should have explained better. I should have taken them to the public library so they knew what they were working towards. I should have done a lot of things. I feel so inadequate for this task!

I now realise that my task is to train my librarians in library skills, computer skills, as well as general knowledge like the difference between history and geography. I also realise that my task is to make sure the bulk of these books get catalogued and entered into the computer – if they’re not done by the time I go, in five days time, at the rate the volunteers type, they might never get done.

As we work, as few of the little kids from the school come upstairs to the church mission house, which I’m living in and using as a workspace. They sit on the floor and read the books quietly into the afternoon. I think people here are starved of books. I left a novel lying around the other day, and it was devoured by Ruth’s daughter, and then Ruth’s cousin. This family is relatively well off, compared to other Solomon Islanders. But even for them, access to books is rare and cherished.

We’ve entered 700 titles into the system when we decide to unload the rest from the container. I stare despondently at the piles of dusty, dishevelled books that seem to keep on growing. My back aches from the hours of sitting on the rickety stool I found that belongs to the church’s drum kit, typing titles and publication dates into the computer database. The laptop we’re using has no battery so we have to find something else to do during blackouts.

Ruth and Hennesey are the couple who run the Hope School, which is for kids who live on the streets or who come from domestic violence situations. Ruth’s dream is to eventually make the library into one that the whole community can use. The children and young people walk up and down the road outside our house, continually into the night, because there’s not much else for them to do. Everybody has red-stained teeth, from the incessant betel-nut chewing. Traditionally, this mild narcotic was chewed only during feasting, for weddings and other special events. Now, people chew constantly, and betel-nut vendors line the sides of roads. Ruth hopes that a community library will give people something else to do.

But for now, until a new building can be erected, this will be a school library. Today Ruth directed some of the church boys to move bookshelves into a small area sectioned off inside the metal shed that’s the main school building.
“We’ll put some beanbags here and a small table there, for the little ones.”
I’m starting to imagine what the school library will look like.

I ask my volunteers to put the books in order, according to what we have written on their spines. My hope is that they will see the subject areas neatly groups together, and get a picture of what a library is supposed to achieve.

I’ve been working hard, but soon I need to let my baby go and let it run for itself. I hope I’ve set up something that will sustain, and will reap some rewards down the track.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wealth without exploitation?

A few Solomon Islanders I’ve met say that they want to live like Australians.

I am perhaps feeling a little romantic about the way of life I’m am witnessing in the village, and I tell them that taking up an Australian lifestyle could mean the destruction of community bonds and the environment. I tell them that in Australia, it’s relatively rare to know your neighbour. I have this hunch that it’s to do with how rich everyone is. Many of our river and forests have been poisoned and destroyed. In the village I saw people intimately connected with each other, with the land and with the food they are eating. Most Australians don’t have that.

And yet I would rather live in Australia, where I don’t have to lug water up to the house to flush the toilet, and where I can travel on the train to the city’s centre, and where I can easily satisfy my material needs and desires. Better still, I would rather live in middle class Australia where I can get my two degrees and my nice office job, where I don’t have to sweat under a steaming sun for potato and cassava. I would rather live in Australia, a good base from which I can trot across the globe, comparing this place and that with my last exorbitant adventure.

How can I criticise people’s desires for development, when the very clothes I stand in are the fruit of my wealth?

But I am also critical of this wealth, as much as I enjoy its benefits. Australia’s wealth – my wealth – comes from exploitation, on so many levels, stemming deep from our roots. The land, which contains the resources that drive our wealth, was not only stolen, but its traditional inhabitants were murdered and the people broken. The land itself has now been ripped up and butchered to make way for cities, farms and mines. We exploit the air so we can produce electricity to keep our economy running strong. In the early days the poor of England and Ireland were shipped to Australia and used as slave labour, and later Solomon Islanders were kidnapped and made to work on the sugarcane fields of Queensland. This was all kick-started by the colonial ambitions of our former Mother Country, whose wealth was gleaned by plundering the rest of the world of its land, labour and riches.

And so, we are rich, and we live a nice lifestyle. Sustaining these lifestyles requires more exploitation, of the earth and its less wealthy inhabitants.

My question for Solomon Islands: is it possible to generate wealth without exploitation? And suppose it is possible, can you preserve what is good and beautiful about Solomon Islands people and communities?

The government intervention program of Australia and other regional partners, in Solomon Islands, is called RAMSI. RAMSI came to Solomon Islands after some terrible ‘ethnic’ tension that occurred between 1999 and 2003. People put down their guns almost as soon as RAMSI arrived. Seven years late, RAMSI is still in Solomon Islands, trying to strengthen government institutions and bolster the country’s economic performance.

Australia is the main player, but outside of RAMSI it is not just Australia who is interested in the affairs of Solomon Islands. China and Taiwan are also pouring aid dollars into the country, hoping for power and influence in the region. No doubt Australia is there for the same reason.

The kind of development proposed is usually large-scale projects such as mines and ports. These kinds of projects have the capacity to generate large amounts of money – some of which will no doubt line the pockets of rich foreigners, but some of which can also be used to really help Solomon Islanders. The education system, for example, is in a bad state. Teachers often do not know the material that they are trying to teach, since they have come from that very same education system. Most schools don’t have proper books and libraries.

A well-placed injection of capital could surely improve the situation, which would have flow-on effects of the wider society and to government. Is this money to come from aid donors like Australia, China or Taiwan, who will then hold the country to their demands and conditions? Or could it be funded by the proceeds of a gold mine?

And could a gold mine be run well, without poisoning the rivers that people rely on, without the proceeds going into the pockets of just a few people (probably men), while everybody else suffers from the environmental impact?

There are lots of NGOs doing good, bottom-up development work in Solomon Islands – developing people’s livelihood opportunities, doing piecemeal work on the education system, helping people respond better to the frequent natural disasters. But is it enough?

And enough for what? Enough so that Solomon Islanders can live like Australians? Or just enough so that people have higher levels of education and running water and die less often from malaria?

Ah, so many questions. Anybody got any answers?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A village wedding...

I have just come back to Honiara from a few days in a village and I must say, I’m a touch relieved! The destination point was R-, which is a village on the west side of one of the other main islands, Malaita. The purpose was a wedding: the younger brother of Ruth (the woman I am staying and working with) was getting married, and I got to tag along!

I fished the travel sickness tablets from my medical kit soon after the boat left the wharf – which I promptly threw up. The rest of the trip was spent on the floor, clutching my stomach while the kind attendant passed me plastic bags. Tearoha, Ruth’s 10-year-old daughter, just laughed at me.

When we entered the village on the back of a truck, I was so overwhelmed by the mass of unfamiliar people – many of whom were staring at me – that I happily took up someone’s suggestion and went to bed. That afternoon I sat on a stool amongst some of the women, and some brave little girls got up close, clinging to each other and giggling. One of them poked the skin on my arm. We finally broke the ice with some hand-slapping games. I find it amazing that little girls all over the world seem to play the same games! I taught them a few that I remembered from my own childhood, and then they wouldn’t leave.

The wedding preparations were in full swing. I watched some pigs being slaughtered, their screams ringing throughout the village. The men then used their fingers to pluck the bristles, and a team grabbed Bic razor blades to shave what was left. A big group of people sat around into the night, chopping the pigs into little pieces. A group of ten chicken-pluckers, many of whom were children, sat in a semi-circled and pulled white feathers from fattened birds.

When they held up the naked chicken carcass it occurred to me that the only time I’d seen anything like it before was in the form of the rubber chicken in a magic show. The dead chickens I was used to seeing were neatly folded under plastic film, their long toes clipped so we’re not reminded that this lump of flesh once pecked and fossicked. But these chickens were fattened up months before the event, as were the pigs, and people gathered taros, cassava and stones for cooking in the weeks leading up. There was no paying caterers for this wedding – the land and the people did it all.

The whole village came to the wedding, including the other language group (Langa Lanage as opposed to Kwa’rai, who hosted the wedding). The bride wore white and the service was fairly Western traditional, save for the wonderful Melanesian women’s choir that accompanied the couple to the church, and the scores of villagers who poked their heads through the windows to get a peek of the proceeding. I got a front row seat, such is the privilege of a white visitor!

But the wedding made me feel a bit homesick, as I thought about my own community and my own husband-to-be. There’s nothing like being an outsider in the midst of another’s community bonds to make you feel alone!

I also really began to miss my independence, by the end of my stay in Radefasu. I was like an infant again, completely reliant on everybody else for everything.

I needed to use the toilet, which requires a bucket because the house I was staying in was fairly modern save for the lack of running water. So I asked one of the women what to do, who inquired loudly as to the nature of my business, and then everybody discussed amongst themselves how I might acquire a bucket. A grumpy teenager led me to the church where she emptied a bucket of flowers, took it over to the water tanks, filled it up and set it before me. I knew what to do from there.

And I came to understand a little better the nature of a subsistence lifestyle. I mentioned around lunchtime one day that I was a bit hungry (alas there was no convenience store in sight!), but was told there was no lunch that day because everybody had been busy killing pigs in order to reward people who had helped with the wedding or contributed to the bride price. So much labour is involved in eating – you have to catch it, kill it or dig it, and then prepare it and cook it. So I waited til dinner.

And so I have a new appreciation for the joys of urban life, as polluting and unsustainable as it might be. It’s nice being able to catch a bus into town when I want to. It’s hard to leave the village. I managed to arrange a little trip around some of the nearby islands while I was in the village (I was intrigued by the Langa Langa people who have no land and so make artificial islands out of rocks!), and the whole thing cost over 300 Solomon Island dollars, by the time I paid for fuel and hired the boat and its drivers. Who has that kind of money – when you live off the land, largely outside of the cash economy? When you live in the village, it’s hard to go anywhere. As a consequence, I attracted a group of about eight women, who all wanted to go for a ride and see a part of the world beyond the village.

I can see why so many young people come to Honiara seeking opportunity and excitement – unfortunately far too many of them end up chewing beetle nut on the side of the road, and walking up and down, up and down, because there ain’t that much to do in Honiara either!

Monday, July 12, 2010

God in Solomon Islands

At the Pentecostal services, they often talk about THIS life, as opposed to life after death. “Jesus heals”, “God is good to me”, “God always provides” – it is these kinds of phrases I hear over and over again. These aren’t rich Australian Christians who have everything they want and need, and whose main religious concern is the kind of afterlife to expect. These are Christians who rely on God everyday; when many pray the words, “Give us today our daily bread” they are literally asking God for their next meal.

I was sceptical at first. When one of the women, Sista Beverly (I have changed her name for the purposes of this post) got up to give her testimony (amidst cheers and hoots and cries of ‘Amen Sista!’), she told how sometimes there is no food for her children, but God makes it ok. I wondered exactly how her faith helped her – did it just make her feel better about her poverty?

But I had forgotten my own childhood experiences, when Mum and Dad had their own struggling business during the 90s recession. It was nothing like the poverty Sista Beverly was experiencing, but my parents found it pretty hard to make ends meet, with me and my five brothers and sisters. They sent us to a private school, but I think it was pretty hard going.

However, I remember understanding that God always provided. Not in some airy-fairy feel good way, but literally, at times, provided food and clothing. It usually came through the Christians we knew, who would hand over $100 in an envelope or drop off some groceries. And my parents would do it for other people too – they were always giving away money or baking cakes for people or whatever.

God doesn’t work in a vacuum – God operates within a community of people who love and support each other. Is that what God is? The love that people show for each other? Or is God separate from that? I remember growing up and people just sensing when someone was in need, and responding to that feeling. I think that kind of intuition is God too – it’s God’s spirit connecting us all together.

Today I sat with Sista Beverly in the church building while she made a beautiful flower arrangement for tomorrow morning’s service. Afterwards she went out to pull up some cassava from the land next to the church, which she planted a while ago. Some of the church members use that land for growing food. I tagged along and as she dug we chatted, and I found out that her husband had left her with four children and no means to support them. She doesn’t have any family to help her. So she relies on God to provide every meal. Sometimes someone brings her some rice or some root vegetables. I think people from the church help a lot (I wonder if the people who speak her language – her wantoks – help her more? I need to ask). Even that church land is God’s way of providing – never in a vacuum, but always through people sharing and showing love.

I had never tasted cassava before so she gave me three to take home and cook up. I gave her a cucumber I’d bought from the market that day and a loaf of bread. I think that’s how God works. Just by talking and sharing what we have.

I like it here. Life goes slow and I have time to talk and sit and read and think and write. We’re going to a wedding in Malaita next weekend – very exciting for me!

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I’ve been in Honiara, Solomon Islands, for three and a bit days, and it occurred to me that I should let people know how I’m going! Right now I’m home alone – everybody else has gone down to Honiara High for this evangelism night that’s part of the United Pentecostal Church conference. People have travelled by truck, boat, bus and plane to be here. There’s a whole group of people from Malaita – that’s the next big island across – who are spent six hours on the boat and are sleeping in the leaf hut by the church. I’ve been chatting with them about life in the village.

I’m staying with Ruth and her family, which includes her pastor husband, two daughters, a cousin and an adopted son. Their church is hosting the conference. I met Ruth when she came to Melbourne last December and spoke at a forum I ran on religion and disasters. Ruth runs Hope Ministries, which is the organisation I’m volunteering for. Hope provides education for street kids. My task, among others, is the help organise the school library.

So far I’ve been to two Pentecostal churches services – one for women only, and one huge one in the open hall at Honiara High, that involved an imported American pastor. The best part is the singing, for me. When the women got together they strummed their guitars and sang Christian songs in Pijin and in English. They have this way of singing that seems to flow straight from their souls. I tried to do it but my voice kind of got stuck near the back of my throat. And there are a hundred harmonies flowing alongside the tune.

Here, everybody can sing. I think that everybody can sing in Australian society to, but people think they can’t. The thing is with Solomon Island singing is that people pick a pitch that suits their voice and makes it work with the melody. Sometimes in my Australian church I hear people singing who ‘can’t sing’ – and they are actually singing a third below the melody. They’re creating a harmony but because it’s not ‘correct’ they think they can’t sing. I like the Solomon Island way – if you have a low voice you sing low, if you have a high voice you sing high. And I guess you learn from a young age to make it harmonise in with the other voices.

So I’ve been singing along and learning the songs, clapping and dancing and all that. I stop short of the Pentecostal arm waving and the shouts of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Praise the Lord!’ The biggest culture shock so far has been the Pentecostal style of worship, which I’m really not used to. But nobody forces me to participate where I’m not comfortable, which I really appreciate. I’ve made friends with quite a few of the church ladies – they’ve been so lovely and welcoming.

I’m having a wonderful time so far. I’m picking up the language quickly – the best thing I did before I came was learn a bit of Pijin. It’s amazing how it breaks down barriers – people go, “Oh, she speaks Pijin, she must be ok”. The kids were really shy at the start but they’re getting used to me now. I’m sharing a room with Ruth’s daughter and young cousin (just a bit younger than me) and we’re having lots of fun. They’re showing me around and teaching me how to ride the bus and all that.

There is a giant huntsman spider watching me. I wonder if it’s the same one that accompanied me in the shower the other day. I squealed and Ruth’s cousin came in and herded it out with her fingers. I preferred the multicoloured moth from the first night. But you win some you lose some.

Right now I’m also waging a war on mosquitoes. I brought a massive baton-like can of repellent with me from Australia, and I intend to use it – whether by spraying or by beating them off! I’m not planning on getting malaria while I’m here. The mozzies are little but deadly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cake tin rant

I wanted to bake a cake, but in order to do so I had to buy the right size tin. The only one available was a super-good-quality-delux tin that cost $16.87 at Big W. $16.87 for a freakin' cake tin? No way!

I was thinking how there is this current trend in manufacturing really good quality homeware items - but they're the kind of things that don't actually need to be terribly good quality. I mean, my Mum has ordinary, run-of-the-mill cake tins that have lasted her all of her married life. She's still baking yummy things in them. I just don't think there's a need for overdoing it on the potato-masher quality.

But then, for other items that you use every day and actually WANT to last a long time, like electrical appliances, it's really difficult to find something good quality. In the old days TVs would last for 40 years; now TVs last for 5 years and your grater would last an eternity. Only there's no point for the grater lasting an eternity - you probably have another one anyway, so you'll send this one off to the op-shop in your next spring clean.

So I didn't buy the cake tin. I'm just going to bake the cake in something that's the wrong size.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Afghanistan war in an election year

Seems that Afghanistan is back in the news again. A number of Australian military personnel have died, and people are starting to ask more questions about whether we should be there. The polls show that the majority of Australians do not want our country involved in this war.

Coincidently, there is also a federal election on the way. Presumably the government will read the polls and decide that it is in their political best interests to withdraw? Sadly, no. The reality is that most people are passively opposed to the war in Afghanistan. If they had to decide, they would decide against, but in the scheme of things, it’s really not a big issue.

I found an interesting document on Wikileaks - a CIA report into shoring up support for the Afghan war in Western Europe. The document is dated 11 March 2010, and notes a poll that indicates that 80 percent of the German and French respondents opposed increased troop deployments in Afghanistan. Yet, the report says, "public apathy enables leaders to ignore voters". The report goes on: "The Afghanistan mission's low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ASAF)". People oppose the war, but when it comes down to it, they don't really care that much. Only 0.1 to 1.3 percent of these poll respondents identified "Afghanistan" as the most urgent issue facing their nation.

Presumably the reason this CIA report was written is because they are nervous. The Dutch government fell over the Afghanistan issue, which led to the Dutch withdrawal of troops. In the Netherlands, Afghanistan became an election issue. There is concern that the same thing could happen to other coalition partners, like France and Germany - especially if there are more casualties. Summer is upon Afghanistan, which is the 'fighting season'. With the recent troop surge, there could be a lot more Western deaths. The report is concerned "that a spike in French or German casualties or in Afghan civilian casualties could become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal."

Until people begin to care and actively oppose the war - through demonstrations, letters, lobbying etc - Australia's troops are unlikely to budge. Australia's involvement in the war is completely beholden to domestic politics - one of the great things about democracy. Right now there is bipartisan support for the war, but perhaps if enough Australians cared, the Liberals would differentiate themselves by introducing a platform to bring troops home. It's entirely possible - after all, they're just politicians, fickle as the wind.

But until the war hits the voter radar, the status quo will be maintained.

My question is: how does public disapproval turn into public resistance, and what do we do to help that happen? Perhaps we could learn some lessons from the Dutch?

[Update: Defence Minister Steven Faulkner has just indicated that some troops might be coming home 2 to 4 years from now. I would say this announcement is likely due to increased disquiet about recent deaths. The other thing is that Australia isn't terribly committed to the war in Afghanistan - we're there mainly to look like we're supporting the US. So maybe withdrawing some troops isn't such a biggie.]

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The end of apathy at uni

When I was at uni I was involved in two student movements: Students For Christ and the political group against fee increases. I realised one time that they were having an event on the same day: the Christians were doing an Easter drama depicting the passion of Christ, while the activists had scheduled a protest.

(I wanted Jesus to be depicted as a woman. I thought it would show people a different side to Jesus and cause them to think deeply and ask questions. I rang up Kate, who was a leader, and told her my idea. She said, “Hmmm…”. I asked one of the other leaders and he said, “Hmmm…” as well. The idea never got up.)

On the day, one of the Christian students (a man) walked around on the main lawn with a cross pretending to be Jesus. A group of Christians followed behind, handing out tracts and pretending to be disciples. At the same time, the activists wore t-shirts that said “Welcome to the degree factory” and chanted slogans. They were on the main lawn too. I just stood and watched.

Then all the sirens went off in the university, so the whole campus was evacuated onto the lawn. Everybody was pretty shitty, except for the Christians and the activists.

The Christians said, “This is a great blessing, because people can hear our message!”

The activists said, “The student body is finally beginning to see how oppressed it is, and is coming out in droves to protest!”

For a while after that, in meetings, everybody was in a really good mood.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The 60s are gone

Today I met a woman who wanted to go back to the 1960s. She recited a poem, flecked with exerts of Bob Dylan and Jimmy Hendrix, sung with the voice of a middle-aged hippy and some pale blue eyes. She wore a psychedelic rainbow scarf and fluro laces on her black Dr Martin boots, and spoke about fields of daisies and a peace sign painted onto a smooth cheek - in the days before the drugs made everybody fight and 'free love' was the trojan horse that exploded marriages.

And most of all she yearned for her lover - that long-haired man with a scruffy ginger beard, who made her feel beautiful and special and that she belonged somewhere. Her pale eyes lifted skyward as she recited her words - of a full length fur coat skimming the ground, of platform heals that went high, sky high, and of a woman she once loved buried deep beneath piles of Simon and Garfunkel and cut-off hair.

As we chatted over milky tea and cream-filled Arnott biscuits, I suggested that what she missed was still within her - that it was a part of HER she wanted back, not the era. She shook her head slowly: "No, it was the 1960s" - the idealism, the freedom, the community. It was a short-lived revolution, destroyed by the very things that caused its conception. "I never got into drugs, I never slept with anyone else's husband!"

And now, all alone, the man who once held her in a fragrant bossom gone, selling stocks and tending children.

"Won't somebody join me? Why won't somebody join me?"

Friday, May 7, 2010

Stop trying to make yourself feel better about my shit life!

There's this guy who begs around the CBD - you probably know him. He stands there with his head down, as thought bowed in reverence, or shame, holding out a cup or a hat for people to throw their coins. He never makes eye contact and he never says anything. I've said hello to him a few times and even engaged in some awkward conversation. I knew his name at one point, but I've forgotten it now. The other day he was standing outside Myers in the same forlorn position and so I went and said hi. I said that it was getting cold and he agreed that it was. I asked him whether he was cold standing there and he said he was, a bit. I told him that I thought his coat looked warm and he said it was ok. He's always so damn polite. Then I said that I had to go, and I clip-clopped off.

The next day I saw him again. I was about to walk past but I thought I'd stop for a quick hello. He looked up at me and said, "Why don't you just go off and have a good time?" His voice was shaking a bit. "I'm not your responsibility, you know."

I told him I hadn't meant to offend him and I quickly walked away, upset and embarrassed. I'd been trying to be a good, caring citizen and it had completely backfired. What had gone wrong?

I never exactly enjoy chatting with the guy. He's not the greatest conversationalist, after all. I do it because...well, I want him to know that I see him. That he's not invisible. I'm trying to treat him like a person.

And also, it probably goes some way to reinforcing my identity of being a person who cares about the downtrodden. Those conversations were always awkward, and he was as aware of that as I. I reckon I've been a bit patronising with him too - always emphasising the positive in everything and urging him to agree, like he's some 5 year old ("But your coat must be warm! At least you'll get something to eat tonight! Oh, surely the concrete isn't THAT hard????!"). All wide eyes and smiles. Yeah well, you know, maybe his life just plain sucks, and maybe he's ok with that. Maybe he doesn't need me trying to make myself feel better about his shit situation.

I thought about writing him a letter, telling him I'm sorry for bothering him and being patronising and all that. Maybe I can explain that I want him to know that I notice his existence, or something. I could put it in his hat. Is that a bad idea?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A gift of perfume, a packet of soap and a chocolate bar

Got a present today. I run the prayer space every second Sunday night in Credo - 15 minutes of sacred quiet before the rush of dinner, where we light a few candles and say a few prayers. You have to be pretty on the ball - if everybody comes in and grabs a hot drink, for example, it can take a long time to settle the mood again. So I have volunteers strategically placed to gently guide people towards the lit candle on the stage area, where we always do our prayers.

Anyways, I'd opened the doors and all these people flooded in, and I was about to gather everybody around the candle, when this person said to me, "Excuse me miss." It was one of those people who you can't figure whether it's a man or a woman - possibly it was neither or both. Since 'it' is a horrible term to use for a person, I will use the gender-neutral pronoun 'ze', mainly because I've always wanted to use it in a piece of writing and now's the perfect opportunity.

Ze clutched at a small plastic bag. "I brought you a present."
"For me?" I'd only met this person once before.
"Well this other little lady somewhere else has helped me so much with clothes and food and this and that but I couldn't find her today so I thought I know you and I thought I could give it to you instead." The voice was deep and the chin wagged at a furious rate, seemingly even faster than the words being spoken.

My eyes darted sideways at all the people spreading out throughout Credo. How would I ever get them back again? "Thanks!" I said.

One by one, ze pulled out a collection of gifts. A bent card and an accompanying envelope ("Here's a card I'm sorry I didn't have a pen."), a chocolate bar, a packet of soap, a muffin, a banana and an orange in a paper bag ("I like fruit and fruit's very good for you, isn't it, it is isn't it?"). I raked my fingers on one hand through my hair, waiting as each gift slowly revealed itself.

Ze kept talking about something I couldn't quite understand. Finally I said, "Thankyou so much for your gifts - but I have to get things started."
"Ok, ok, that's ok, that's fine." And it was, and I gathered everybody together for prayers.

I realised later that it was a bit like the story we'd read in church that night, about the woman who poured ridiculously expensive perfume on Jesus' feet and mopped it up with her let-down hair. It was worth a year's wages, that little bottle, and people critised her for the waste ("You should have sold it and given the money to the poor!"). But Jesus felt honoured by the gift.

Made me think that sometimes you just have to honour a gift, especially if it is from a person who is marginalised. Some people say that the woman who poured the perfume in the gospels stories was probably a prostitute (although not in John - it is Mary there, of Mary and Martha fame), because she was so bold and had the perfume in the first place. What if Jesus were to have said, "Woman! What a waste! You should have sold that perfume and given it to the poor!" The woman would have felt so rejected. Poverty is about more than just money; it's also about acceptance. In accepting such an intimate gift from a prostitute who the religious people would not so much as look at, Jesus was being truly loving.

I felt like if I'd said to the person in Credo, "Can you wait til after and give it to me?" it might have been a rejection. Even though I had more people to worry about than just that one non-gender-specific person. Sometimes to be loving you have to honour the individual over everybody else.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Paid to be friends

James and I were having coffee when I said I had to go to see a friend, who was staying in emergency accommodation. I mentioned a little of her story, and how she had ended up on the streets.
"Did you say she's your friend?"
"Yes, that's right..."
"Isn't that sort of blurring the boundaries of your relationship?"

And it was a fair comment because, in any other professional setting where you are working with homeless or otherwise marginalised people, to become 'friends' with your clients is at best blurring the lines between your personal and professional life and at worst just plain unprofessional.

But of course, at Urban Seed, these blurred lines go to the very nature of our work. We aim to build relationships with people on the margins - not in a professional capacity, but one that is very personal. There are no 'nine to five' relationships at Urban Seed; people come and go as if they are, well, friends.

I have always struggled walking the blurred line. When I was a resident at Urban Seed, my job was to build relationships with people. But what kind of relationships were they? If it's my 'job', then there is a sort of contractual obligation to hang out with people. I was never paid in money, but had my rent and bills taken care of on the proviso that I would do this 'work'. I often felt as though the relationships I had with the homeless people around me somehow justified my living in the building.

Additionally, there is a real professional aspect to the work. We see ourselves as 'non-professionals' but we are also an institution, providing free meals and helping people sort out housing issues and the like. We are not just an ad hoc bunch of Christian hanging out in our neighbourhood, making friends with the people in our midst.

The occasional unease of our work reveals itself in the 'job' versus 'mob' tension, that is spoken a lot of in Urban Seed. Many of us have jobs attached to this kind of work - whether it be the nebulous role of a resident, or the strategic role of an executive officer. But it's more than a job - many of us are deeply committed to our work in a way that goes far, far beyond a contractual agreement. We are also a 'mob' made up of informal, personal relationships.

In other words, there are contractual aspects to the relationships we have around Urban Seed, and there are personal aspects as well. Holding the two together requires some skill!

I think that one reason I am happy living away from Credo is that I never really mastered this skill. Now, all my relationships with people who come into Credo are personal, because there is no longer any contractual imperative. I no longer feel like I have to justify my rent, but can spend time with people, cook with people and write with people (in the Credo creative writing group) because I want to.

It's not just at Urban Seed that the tension between the personal and the contractual is felt. James is studying to be a teacher, and talks about how some teachers go above and beyond their contractual duty to teach to a satisfactory standard, because they care so passionately about their students and their job. The problem is, says James, that this can so easily turn into exploitation. I can see how professional boundaries can be quite necessary at times.

I think that for any job to be fulfilling, the tension must exist. If you teach only to fulfill a contractual obligation, then teaching will only ever be a somewhat satisfactory means to a pay check. But if you are personally invested in your work, and you can believe in your work - well, I suppose that's called 'vocation'.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Profound Truth

Yeah so anyway I got engaged on the weekend. I changed my relationship status on Facebook to 'Engaged', and was waiting to be inundated with messages from all my excited Facebook Friends, but so far the only person who has commented is David (who I'm engaged TO). I have had to remind myself that there's a world out there beyond the social media realm, and that in fact the people I have spoken to in real life are in fact very happy. It's important that other people are happy...the whole point of getting married (as opposed to having a long-term live-in monogamous relationship) is to get the blessing and support of the people around you. Mum's happy so we're 75 percent of the way there. And Mum's not, as far as I know, on Facebook.

Most people haven't been that concerned about the ring but want to know "how it happened". I really want to show off the ring but I suppose it's good my friends aren't as materialistic as me.

By the time my sister called and wanted to know "how it happened", I had enlarged the story to apocalyptic proportions - justifying the augmentation to David by explaining that I was attempting to convey a 'profound truth' as opposed to a 'historical truth' (or perhaps it was just: if you're going to tell a story, it might as well be a good one).

"We were watching Cats the musical when we heard a roar and realised it wasn't a cat, but was coming from outside the theatre. Before we knew it the whole stage was flooded and the cats had scattered. When we left the theatre an eerie still hovered over Collins Street. Chunks of ice littered the gutters and the leaves had been stripped from the trees and were plastered to pock-marked cars and under smashed windscreens. Part of the road had been ripped up with the torrents of rain that had rendered the storm water system completely inadequate. Then, amidst the chaos, we went to a wine bar and he got down on one knee and proposed."

Which is all sort of historically true, just as the gospels are all sort of historically true, but we give all stories a spin to emphasise a truth that is greater than the details of what actually happened. "Be with me though the weather is stormy and chaos abides all around," is my 'profound truth' - which is WAY better than "...and so he got down on one knee but I didn't really notice because we were sitting down anyway and, you know, David's pretty tall."

So now I am engaged to my lovely David and VERY excited about all our future adventures - wonderfully marked with unpredictable Melbourne weather and a warm nook in which to shelter.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Freakin' lingo

Today I had the experience of hearing somebody speak a sentence and having no clue what any of the keywords meant. I got 'the' and 'at' but I was at a loss to the rest. I was trying to make casual chit-chat after a seminar that a friend was speaking at, which happened to be full of business information technology and logistics students and experts. I was just there for moral support. After the initial question, "So what do you do?" I had to take them through the ensuing sentence word by word to extract the meaning.

Sometimes I get the feeling that people overuse industry and academic lingo because they actually don't know what it is they're studying themselves. The meaning seems to be shut away inside the walls of some intellectual game, without truly making a connection with the outside world and the lives of ordinary people. I get this feeling because I do it myself, sometimes, when my research is particularly foggy. You hide behind the vagueness and breadth of words that have multiple meanings, and most people don't ask too many questions.

Later that day I went to another seminar (today I felt like I was back at uni again!), and I had an only slightly better idea what was going on. This one was actually sort of in my area, but was so theoretical and relied on so much assumed knowledge of this author and that theory that I had the feeling of being in a familiar room with the lights switched off. I kept waiting for the guy to get to the crunch - to actually talk about a thing or a country or a person - but all I got was illusions to bodies of literature.

So I was getting annoyed and was thinking, "This is such a self-indulgent wank", and I got even more frustrated when the questions - all from middle-aged men - came out in equally convoluted gobbly-gook.

I joined the (mainly) men for drinks after the seminar, and they turned out to be nice, relatively normal people (as normal as academics get, I suppose). It struck me that this seemingly exclusive and unnecessary language was actually useful to them - it allowed them to discuss complex concepts in a kind of short-hand that the people in the group were all familiar with.

That's why you have lingo: it actually serves an important purpose of communicating shared meanings in a concise manner. The problem is that lingo is, by nature, exclusive. I think it's important that there are other people participating in seminars like today's other than the middle-aged men who have been in the field for 50 years.

But yeah, I guess what I'm saying is that the language you choose to use is always a balancing act between expedience and inclusion. And by being too expedient and too exclusive you run the risk of being ego-centric and narrow-minded. It can be about keeping your place and making other people small.

So I suppose that lingo can be used as a way of keeping others out - because you're in your own little intellectual world and don't want to relate to the outside; because you don't intend for others to be able to understand the language of your group. Lingo and language generally is about boundary setting, which is important for any group (or else it wouldn't be a group). It suffers from the same dilemma as any other sort of group boundary: how penetrable should the boundary be before the group stops being a group, either because no one joins or because everybody joins?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Finding Eden

David and I spent this morning trying to get into the Garden of Eden, but it seemed thoroughly sealed off to the outside world. From the map it looked deceptively accessible, the inviting green patch (with the words 'Garden of Eden' stretched across) just millimetres from where we were staying. Turned out that this was one of those fenced off sorts of gardens. We began to walk around the outside of the high concrete wall, looking for a gate or an entrance of some sort. A well-maintained tangle of exotic-looking green beckoned us from inside the Garden. Kolkata (Calcutta) pulsed on the outside. Over rocky sidewalks we filed past bubbling caldrons of potatoes and spices; boys playing cricket on patchy littered grass; a tiny girl slapping a soapy, miniature piece of fabric against the pavement. Ornate buses and hundreds of yellow taxis whizzed past. The wall protecting the Garden remained high as ever.

Finally we did find an entrance - a foreboding archway labelled 'Water Gate'. We entered to find concrete buildings and soldiers riding about on motorbikes. A woman in a red patterned sari was walking the road, towards us. She waved at us in a shooing motion. We turned around - clearly this wasn't the Garden, but an adjoining army base. We must have come too far. We set back outside the gate, back in the direction we came.

There was a road that we'd walked past before - this time we took the turn. It looked more promising and before we knew it, we'd found the gate to the Garden of Eden. But alas, it was locked! Through iron bars I could see that gardeners were scattered amongst an organised sort of a jungle, which was thick and moist against the Kolkata sun. I wondered if the gates were ever opened - or whether the Garden of Eden was Kolkata's version of a living room that is too good to ever be used. We left Eden's walls and wandered through the streets of Kolkata instead.

I quickly developed a fledging affection for this city. There's an old-world charm about the place - in the side-walks piled high with sweets and special breads, in the rickshaws that are pulled by short sturdy men in their lungi and sandalled feet, in the gentle blues and pinks of the old architecture. The people seem friendlier than in Delhi, and will call out 'Hello!' and street vendors charge only minimum white-person premium for the food they sell. A woman saw my baffled look as I figure out how to cross through an endless stream of traffic. She said, "This way," and led me across. Traffic police hold cars and buses back with their hands, while pedestrians cross. In Kolkata, the government cares about pedestrian safety! Incredible.

After we'd had our fix of dusty, busting streets, we decided to go see what an Indian shopping centre was like. We hopped into one of those yellow Ambassador taxis (India must be the only country in the world that continues to manufacture cars from the 1950s!) and went off to the mall. The taxi stopped often in traffic and when it did, enterprising people took the opportunity to see what they could get out of two young white folk. A flock of young men tried to sell us punnets of strawberries, the prices getting lower and lower as we continued to shake our heads ("If you can't peal it, you can't eat it" - and we were due to fly a plane the next day). We sped off with the taxi and left them in the dust.

At the next traffic jam a man with one arm and a big smile came to my open window. "How are you? Having good day? Money please? Just one rupee? Handicapped, see, one arm. Just one rupee?" I shook my head. "Sorry, no." I had a personal policy about not giving to beggars. The man walked off swiftly, and the taxi moved on.

I saw the women on the side of the road even before the taxi stopped, and I saw them weave through the traffic to get to my open window. I decided not to close it - if I was going to say no to beggars, I had to look them in the face. They were young and both held babies with thin yellow hair and puffy eyes. They were the sickest-looking babies I had ever seen. They didn't even say the word 'money'. "Baby very sick. Need medicine, hospital, need food. Please. Please." I said no. They stood there, repeating the various words. "Medicine. Hospital. Food." I said no again. For the longest while, until the traffic started up again, they just stood there with their palms outstretched saying, "Please. Please." As the taxi started up one of the girls reached into the car and touched me. I pulled back. As we drove away, I felt so ashamed for drawing away, like she wasn't even a person.

The shopping centre rose out of the dust like some glassy space ship. Street vendors sold food on the other side of the street, and to get across you had to climb through a hole in the metal fence dividing the road. "If it's one thing that India knows how to do," said David as we skipped up the pearly steps, "is juxtaposition." So we hung out in the mall for a few hours, alongside middle-class Kolkata in their shining saris and denim jeans. Eventually we took a taxi back to our hotel.

We're leaving India in the morning, and I probably won't have a chance to see if they ever opened the gates to the Garden of Eden.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I think that Delhi is a really nice city. I'm sorry if that means I'm not very hardcore, because I've spent more time sipping chai lattes in coffee shop than tropsing through slums or whatever you're meant to do when you're being a traveler (not a tourist). But I happen to like nice things: yummy food, vibrant streets, well-constructed public transport systems, remnants of cultures that go back and back and back. Delhi has all that, and I like it.

According to Sarah, one of the women who David used to work with at the Emmanuel Hospital Association, three quarters of India's rich live in Delhi. By the number of outdoor malls full of jewellery, brand name clothing and homeware stores, I'm not surprised. There are wonderful bookshops with upstairs cafes, where you can eat Greek salads and not worry about getting sick. The bookish air is thick with English language - young, middle class India is reading and conversing entirely in English. The old colonial language is also the language of aspiration and progression; English is the language of the educated and upwardly mobile. English is part of New India - a poignant symbol in the same vein as Levi jeans and Coca-cola.

And so, being the way we are, David and I fit squarely within the ranks of the middle-class, educated, English-speaking people of Delhi. 'Delhi-ites', is the term coined for this category. And it wouldn't be so bad, if it wasn't for the poverty. Ah, that old, wretched poverty, that defines your wealth in all its stark glory. So ubiquitous it's almost cliche. The dirty-faced children with outstretched arms, clamouring at you while the string on your swinging shopping bag plays delicately against your fingers.

When you see those pictures of slums, juxtaposed with high-rises, in your home or office in Melbourne, you can feel a sort of righteous anger - "Such inequality!" you can say, and you secretly despise the rich who allow it to happen. But when it's YOU who is walking down the steps from the upstairs cafe, and it's YOU with the pashmina around the neck...well, who do you have to be angry at now? You feel guilty, but what can you do? You try not to look at the child, because there's too many and you can't give to them all, and anyway, it's better to give to an NGO, isn't it?

"Is it obscene to be eating here in this cafe?" I ask David.
"Any more obscene than eating in a cafe like this in Melbourne?"

Friday, January 15, 2010

Fog, diverted plane and a bus

Apparently it's fog season in Delhi, which we noticed in full when our plane was diverted to Jaipur due to low visibility. After an initial announcement about the 'change of programme', the Spicejet crew were completely in denial about the fact we had landed in a totally different city. They unlocked the overhead lockers and announced, "We hope you enjoyed your flight from Chennai to Jaipur. We look forward to seeing you next time."

Inside the airport a group of angry men surrounded a lone Spicejet staffer. Communication wasn't high on Spicejet's list of strengths, but in the end it emerged that there was a bus available to drive us to Delhi. David and I formed a little conglomerate with the other Australians on board (a women from Byron Bay who was teaching a meditation course in India, plus her daughter), and together we survived the 6 hour bus journey. I stuffed my feet into socks then sandals and huddled into my seat, as the bus glided through the fog like a fish on the ocean floor. The bus had everything but suspension, and my head made contact with an obsolete metal fan a number of times. David looked like an origami napkin, his long limbs tucked up under his chin. He opened a packet of banana chips (our last vestige from the South) and contents jumped out all over the floor. The Australians giggled. I thought it was pretty funny too.

We paid Rs750 to a taxi driver to take us to our hotel ("Standard airport rip-off price," said David. "At least we've calibrated now," I replied.). Delhi is nice - much more likeable than Chennai. Very cosmopolitan, and I just feel like a person here, not a tourist. Again, just passing through - off to Kathmandu in the morning, before heading back down to Delhi again for a longer stint.

The 'real' India

"Wow, I think we've hit the 'real' India."
"There's no 'real' India," retorted David.

And of course he's right - what I meant was that we'd reached an uncomfortable, less endearing India. The train from Allepey to Chennai took 14 hours, but it might as well have been 14 hours on a plane. The fourth-biggest city in India churned my stomach even before the engine changed its tune and the train slowed down. The smell is an all-body, intoxicating experience - an evil concoction made up of the fumes of 2 million vehicles and the effluent of 7 million people. Maybe there were exotic perfumes and fragrant spices and fleshly cut flowers in the mix there, but I couldn't smell any of that. All I could smell was pollution and poo.

So I decided that if I had to live in Chennai, I would move to Allepey. Not that many people have that luxury - I suppose people are tied to places by work, loved ones and lack of opportunity. I saw my first Indian slum in Chennai, on an early morning stroll along Marina Beach (scattered with old shoes and empty drink bottle, circled by big, black, dirty birds). It was sad and beautiful, bursting with colourful humanity. The scene - women in saris washing children in multi-coloured plastic tubs amid fish vendors and wandering goats, all against against a backdrop of ocean - would have made some great photos. I poised the camera a few times, but it didn't feel right. I couldn't turn someone else's poverty into a Kodak Moment, to take home and call my own ("Here, look - I took a piece of this bathing man as a souvenir!") . I took some photos of the goats instead.

We spent the rest of our time in Chennai trying to avoid Chennai. We sipped real, espresso, barrista-made coffee in a hip, sexy area that had more in common with Collins Street than Marina Beach. We went to an air-conditioned cinema and watched a film in HIndi. We paid Rs750 to take a taxi to the airport (we got ripped off) because thankfully, we were just passing through, on our way to Delhi. Money gives you that ability - to shut the world out and turn the air-conditioning on, if that's what you want. When you have money, you can choose not to see, not to experience. Money keeps us inside a bubble, which takes a whole lot to pop.

I do appreciate it, though. I do appreciate my ability to shut out the world, at times.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Love, fear and religion

There are only two things in the world: love and fear. That’s what Leunig says, anyway, in one of his prayers. I never really understood what he meant, but it’s beginning to come to me now.

Kerala, like everywhere else in India, is heavily steeped in religion – the difference is that the faith of choice here is Christianity. Rosary beads hung from our taxi driver’s dash on the way from the airport, and we passed pink coloured churches whose decorative facades reminded me of something made out of cardboard, tacked on to the front of an otherwise ordinary building. From village parishes whose crosses are reflected in the backwaters, to large cathedrals that rise up on the side of busy roads, there are churches everywhere. Life-size models of Mary and Jesus ascend in shrines that are more like oversized glass cabinets.

We went into a wonderful old cathedral in the tourist district of Fort Cochin – built by the Portuguese in the 1500s. This was a living church: large stars made out of basket material hung from the ornate ceilings, and the images of Jesus sported disco lights. Though the cathedral was beautiful and felt light on my spirit, I didn’t feel a strong affinity with the faith expressed there. As David and I discussed it afterwards, I realized that this was a religion with a heavy focus on fear. It was about worshiping to absolve guilt; it was about praying so that God may show mercy on one’s soul.

Where was the love, inside this old cathedral? I imagine it was amongst the people. But from the prayers and images that covered the walls in the church, I also sensed a lot of fear.

Fear lurks in all religion. We believe for fear of being damned. We insist that others believe the same thing for fear that we might be wrong. We build walls and hierarchies for fear that we might lose our power, or lose ourselves. We of the Protestant faith have bastardised Christ’s message and example and turned discipleship into a club, where you have to follow the rules to be a member, and membership equals salvation.

But what of love? It doesn’t lie in a set of beliefs, or a liturgy of prayers. It doesn’t lie within the bounds of a club. It lies in the way we treat each other – with dignity, with humility, without envy or exploitation. Salvation doesn’t lie in what we believe: salvation is love. If we believe because we are too scared to face the consequences of disbelief, then that is bad religion.

It’s comparatively easy to believe. Love is freakin’ hard.

Loving involves listening, and that’s hard because you might find out that you’re wrong. Being wrong is scary, because it shifts the way you think of yourself and the world. It’s too easy to become dogmatic, but that’s just fear.

Love involves making yourself smaller and less powerful, and that’s scary because you think you might turn into nothing. Love involves finding the similarities between yourself and other people, and that’s scary because you might realise that someone else is just as right as you are.

There are only two things in this world: love and fear. Love and fear.

Monday, January 11, 2010

How business operates in India

I’m intrigued by the way business operates in India. In Australia, if you want to get a taxi from a hotel, you get the person behind the desk to call 132227, and an anonymous cab driver turns up at the location. If you want to do the same thing in India, the person behind the desk is likely to call a taxi driver friend. It is better to ask the hotel operator than to randomly hail a cab, because you have the added surety of a relationship.

Let me illustrate: today we wanted to get to a relatively remote beach via auto-rickshaw and pay the driver to stick around for a couple of hours so he could then drive us back to Gowri Residence, where we’re staying. We asked Wali, a staff member from Gowri, what was a reasonable price and was told: “Rs350 – I will arrange a rickshaw for you.” Wali made a call to somebody he knew who was a rickshaw driver, so that when the driver arrived, we didn’t have to explain anything. We felt confident that we could trust this driver, because he had more to lose than he could gain by ripping us off – at stake was a personal and business relationship with the people at Gowri.

We chatted with the driver both ways on the journey (David has made a point of finding out what’s going on with the cricket and it’s an invaluable way to make friends!). At the end of the trip I said to the driver “Rs350?” To which he answered, “You decide.” He knew we wouldn’t rip him off either, because we’d already established an amiable relationship. Plus, and perhaps more significant, we had an interest in keeping on good terms with the people from Gowri, which would be undermined if we paid the driver less than what was fair.

So that’s how it works – through relational ties. People aren’t afraid to help each other – even if it’s the opposition. If one stall doesn’t have change, they go to their competitor next door to get some. You constantly see people hitching rides on each other’s motorcycles, or on the backwaters, larger boats looping ropes around canoes and pulling the smaller vessels along for a bit. People own their own plots of land, but they farm it together. There’s a great collective spirit here.

So that’s Part One – David tells me that Indians also have a great capacity to rip each other off. The tension between the collective and the individual is one that marks every society, and I suppose there are people who are collectively orientated and individually orientated in India as well. Right now it’s Day 5 and I’m still in the honeymoon period. Please don’t burst my bubble just yet.

Wealth and washing clothes in the Keralan backwaters

David brought his laptop into paradise, and I’m quite glad of it. The backwaters of Kerala are watery roads that connect towns and villages, whose livelihoods were traditionally etched out in rice paddy fields and fishing boats. Dusk is settling on the water, evening light playing its last dance amongst the ripples. Coconut palms are silhouetted endlessly across a dark sky, and some kind of Indian music is warbling across the water, counterpointed by lapping water and the occasional chirp from a frog. I can hear the sound of cooking – our chef is at work, preparing our dinner. The boat sways and I’m taken some place else.

The houseboat David and I hired has been drifting through this array of rivers and canals all afternoon long, while we wave at the villagers washing their clothes and generally going about their daily life. We have a chef and a driver. How rich we are.
I step off the boat when it docks for the night, keen to get a glimpse of life in a backwater village. The houses snake around the waters, perched on narrow banks. I greet the women and children with ‘hello’ or ‘namaste’. The children grin at each other then stand erect and finally brave, “What is your name?” “My name is Andreana. What is your name?” And that’s as far as the conversation goes, before they erupt into a fit of giggles and run away.

I am trying to get used to averting my eyes when I pass a man: I’m not concerned for my safety, but it doesn’t feel proper for me to be constantly catching the gaze of men.
I look up.
“What did you do to your arm?”
He is a good-looking Indian man in his 30s, wearing a lungi and bare feet. I show him the last piece of gauze tapped to my forearm, and explain how I fell in a ditch in Allepey.
“Ah I see.”
He asks where I’m from and I tell him. He says he has worked in tourism, on the houseboats, which explains why his English is so good.
I want to know about this village: why it appears so wealthy, for example. We are in the middle of nowhere, but the houses are stout and colourful and people look happy and healthy.
“Do people own their own houses?” I ask. I’m interested in land and how people hold it, because it’s one of my research areas back home in Melbourne.
He tells me that they do – and not only that, but everybody owns their own plot of paddy field land as well. People work together in the fields, because you can’t farm your own bit of land on your own. When he speaks, his lips come together tight and stretch wide again, like a piano accordion.
“Has it always been this way?”
No it has not, I am told. Before independence, the state of Kerala had a system of feudalism, where tenant farmers paid rent to landlords. After Gandhi and independence, a series of socialist governments brought many changes of Kerala, including land reform. People don’t have to pay rent anymore; the wealth stays in their own hands.
He tells me that the wealth also rides on the back of the Portuguese, who set up the first trading routes from the south of India, and later the missionaries, who helped to achieve 100 percent literacy. The south, I am told, is a very different place from the north.
“So is land reform the key to Kerala’s wealth?”
He is leaning casually on one leg, while I stand properly with hands clasped, listening earnestly. A few curious children gather around while we converse. He asks if I have time – he can explain more, if I like. I tell him I have some time (although I’m a bit anxious because David is waiting back at the boat). He says that the real backbone of Kerala’s economy are its emigrant workers. The north of Kerala is heavily Muslim, so many Keralans work in Middle Eastern countries, sending capital back to their families. This part of Kerala is far further steeped in Christianity than Islam, but even so, remittances mark deeply on the economy.
“Out of 100 households in this village,” he says, “30 or 40 would have a member working in another country.”
I point to a small but sturdy house standing behind us, with the sound of a TV wafting out of open French windows and a satellite dish fixed to the side of the wall. “Is that why the houses are so nice here?”
“Yes,” he answers.
Aside from farming and selling labour overseas, many in this area work as fisher people. For the aspirational young, however, the future seems to be in tourism – operating houseboats like this one, for example. “Here in Kerala,” he tells me, “agriculture is becoming less and less, and we are turning more into a consumer society. For example, we no longer grow any of our own fruit and vegetables – we buy from other states.”
“Is this a problem?”
“Yes it is, because it drives the prices up. It is ok if you are middle class, as many of us are. But if you are poor, it is very difficult.”
“And so the gap between rich and poor is growing?”
“Yes it is.”

I think about my home in Melbourne, which is also largely a consumer society. There are people who lose out there, also. I guess standards of living can only get so high before people start falling through the cracks. Gain that is beyond your share is always founded on somebody else’s loss. As we get more, we become more selfish and stop looking after each other. I think about the Keralan rice farmers, who can’t farm their own piece of land by themselves, so they have to work together. If they were richer they would have machinery, and wouldn’t need to collaborate as much. The ties based on economic interdependence would begin to dissolve, and thus the ties between people. That’s where wealth disparity begins.

“Some people here are beginning to buy washing machines and things like they. They don’t need to, because we have everything we need to wash clothes.” He points at some steps leading down to the darkening water. “The washing machines are just there to tell everybody how rich you are.”
“Status symbols?”
“Yes, status symbols.”

He wants to know about Australia and I tell him it’s not so different – only we are further along than Kerala. Our eroding wealth goes much deeper and further than the way we wash clothes.

He invites me to chat more – he motions in the direction of his house. It is beginning to rain and the mosquitoes are biting; it’s getting dark and I told David I wouldn’t be long. We each express gratitude for an enlightening conversation, and I wander back to the houseboat to listen to the sounds of dusk falling.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The time I fell into a sludge-filled ditch in India

The other night I fell into a hole full of sludge. I climbed out of the concrete roadside ditch and found that my bottom half was almost entirely covered in black who-knows-what and my arm was grazed. David and I looked at each other and said, “Oh shit” – and then, almost in unison, “That really is shit!”

“What do I do?”

We quickly realised that no auto-rickshaw driver was going to let me within smelling distance of his vehicle. We stood there a moment, both completely unsure what to do, and me with my gritty, soaked pants sticking to my backside. Headlights lit the street and horns continued to blare. Sari-clad women paused, tut-tutted and kept walking. It wasn’t long before a man took pity and directed us to the hotel where we’d had dinner.

With wet, smelly grit in my shoes I tiptoed gingerly to the hotel. We stopped at the door and called to the registration desk, “Do you have a bathroom?”
“Stay where you are, stay where you are!” The hotel staff, it seemed, were not particularly keen to get black sludge all over their white floors.

There was a group of nicely dressed Indians sitting in some kind of waiting area in the hotel. They gazed at the gunk-covered white girl and let out a collective “Eww” (or the Indian equivalent). The whole situation struck me as particularly funny, so I started laughing. There wasn’t much else I could do.

Eventually, a hotel staff member led us around the back of the neighbouring service station. David said, “I’m coming with you for this bit” (he’s the hero in this story). We dodged parked trucks and men smoking cigarettes until we found ourselves in a small Indian bathroom, with a toilet, a bucket and some taps.

I stood there in my undies and panicked about what the hell was in that sludge while David went off to find some antiseptic and new clothes. He returned with a shiny plastic bag from the lit up Reebok store a few addresses down – the only place selling clothes that was still open at this hour, it seemed. I pulled out a white cricket uniform. It cost Rs1000 (about $25 – there was 30 percent off cricket gear that day) and it would have to do.

Dressed up in my cricket uniform, with my (thankfully shallow) wounds drenched in antiseptic lotion, we stopped by one of the many drug stores that dot the streets of Keralan towns. We walked away with a course of antibiotics in a brown paper bag (“Sell only upon receipt of physician administered prescription”) and hailed an auto-rickshaw for the bumpy ride back to our abode.

We decided it would be a good idea to see a doctor, mainly to get the dosage on the antibiotic right. The next morning, through a series of directions, we found ourselves at a hospital. Rows of people sat on long dusty benches in a breezeway, while official people wearing white whisked in and out of doorways. I stopped in my tracks and surveyed he scene.

“Do you want to go in there?” Dave wanted to know. “We don’t have to.”
“Sure, let’s do it,” said the writer in me.

I was aware that I was getting special-white-person-treatment, because after registering and paying the Rs150 initial fee, we managed to skip several queues and were led quickly through a door, past a very sick-looking man lying on a narrow bed, and into a small room crowded with hospital personnel.
“Please sit down.”
I sat down on the bed, but it was the wrong spot so I got moved. A man in a white coat asked me a question that I couldn’t understand. I looked at David but he appeared as clueless as me. The man asked again and I looked back, blank-faced before saying, “Oh! Australia!”
“No no no.” The man repeated the question again. I looked at David. David finally figured it out. “What is your complaint?” he interpreted.
“Ah, right.” I related the story. The man in the white coat pulled out a stethoscope and strapped Velcro around my arm, pumping it tight.
“So do you know how much antibiotic I need?” I asked.
The man waggled his head. “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the doctor that.”

Ah ha. So he was the triage nurse.

I sat there a few minutes longer before the nurse announced that the doctor was here. He pointed over to a corner of the room, where an overweight man wearing a stethoscope around his neck was walking slowly through the door. The fat doctor lowered himself onto a chair, his face grimacing. He motioned for me to come over.
His face was a sickly grey-brown colour – not exactly a picture of health, I thought to myself. Oh well, hopefully he’ll know about antibiotics.
“What is your complaint?”
I explained the story again. As I spoke he gazed over my shoulder through yellow-lens glasses. When I finished talking he looked at me, felt my forehead, and briefly pulled the skin under each eye. He poked his stethoscope into his ears and lifted the end, motioning for me to shift forward on my stool – he wasn’t going to come to me. The doctor wrote something illegible on a piece of paper (I guess there’s one thing all doctors have in common!) and handed it to the triage nurse.

The nurse gave David a piece of paper and we wandered back out into the breezeway again.
There were about three counters to choose from in the following order: Pharmacy, Billing and Cash. We lined up at Pharmacy because that seems somewhat logical – turns out we were supposed to go to Billing first, then followed by Pharmacy, and then by Cash. But the staff were very gracious and communicated amongst ourselves to get the two whities paid up and out of there.

It all seemed chaotic and illogical, but it must be functional. After all, we were in and out of there much faster than most Australian clinics. Then again, I really did get some serious preferential treatment. The meds cost about Rs180 – about $4 for us, but a fair bit for a local. I’m not sure whether healthcare for locals is subsidised in Kerala.

We Googled the medication we had been prescribed (each in a little brown paper bag with squares that were ticked according to the frequency of administration). Turns out we got an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory and something to cure indigestion from overconsumption of spicy food. I suppose he prescribes the latter drug for all white people who come, no matter the complaint.

So I think I’ll live through the experience. For the time being we’re not going far from the beaten track, in case I come down with some terrible fever. But so far I feel ok – from now on I’ll watch my footing a little more carefully, and be grateful for the opportunity to tell some more tales.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Stuff White People Like

The Lonely Planet describes Cochin (or Kochi) as a 'gaggle of islands', and so today we left the chaos of the mainland town Ernakulam for the comparative serenity of Fort Cochin, where apparently goats outnumber auto-rickshaws on the roads. Well, I'm not sure about that last claim, but certainly what DOES outnumber the auto-rickshaws is the tourists.

The website 'Stuff White People Like' lists 'Being the only white person around' as one of our key desires whilst traveling - it makes us feel like we're somehow less of a tourist and more of a traveler, or something like that. I found the best cure for my discomfort at being surrounded by hundreds of people JUST LIKE ME was a good dose of irony. David and I found ourselves directed by a series of coordinated signs and brochure wielding representatives to a Kathakali performance, where the costumes and makeup outdo the even most ornate Baz Luhrman production. It was White Person Hell - a room completely full of fisherman pants, tank tops and oversized earrings. I squirmed in my seat until I found the cure - I just started taking photos of the people taking photos. After a while I felt mean and became ashamed of my comfort clutch of irony (another thing that White People Like) was a guise for arrogance, since it implied that I was better or more self-aware than the other tourists.

Hmm, propensity to psychoanalyse one's self - another thing that White People Like. I guess that's because I'm White.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

So this is India

Woke up to the sound of gunshots and a flurry of voices, wishing I had've been more conscientious in my perusal of the official travel warning website that the Australian government puts out. Turns out the reverberating bangs came from a nearby construction site, so David and I breathed a bit easier.

So this is Kochi, India: sleepy in the morning (apart from the construction) and buzzing, beeping and blearing well into the night. We wandered out of our hotel room last night in search of dinner, making 'chicken' runs for it through traffic that never stops, and treading precariously over the rubble that's the footpath. I found out that my 'hunches' about roads meeting up don't apply in this city, and that David doesn't like getting lost. We ventured into a department store lit up like a Christmas tree, which held five levels of the most beautiful silk saris. The women are so beautiful here, and wear saris that make me want to be Indian so I could pull them off.

This is no sleepy seaside town! Off to Fort Cochi next, which I'm hoping will be a little more relaxed (and smell a little less...).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kuala Lumper in the language of commerce and opportunity

Dusty runways have been replaced with steamy tarmacs. We wound our way around thermal screening passage ways, crawled along in fat dazed out queues, and ended up on an over-airconditioned bus headed into Kuala Lumper. I sat next to a beautiful woman in a headscarf and tight jeans. She was holding a little boy who alternated between playing a game with me and wacking my boobs in a hope of finding some milk.

The good thing was that the woman taught me how to say 'thankyou' ('derimagasi', or however you spell that). I must say that I've felt a little silly utilising my new forre into Malaysian language, because everybody here seems to speak English (not that I've so far ventured far). Nearly all the billboards in this hyped up, Vegas-like city have a large componant of English, and the radio station blearing in the taxi-ride to the hotel was like Hamish and Andy in some kind of generic Asian-accented version of my native tonge. As David says, English is the language of commerce and opportunity, and everybody is more than willing to speak it. Not everybody here has shared in the riches, though - we passed one begger on the way from the hotel to the internet cafe.

We've spent the first night in style, and I spent part of this morning filling up on logan fruit and smoked salmon at the hotel's buffet breakfast. Back to the airport in an hour or so for our next stop: India!