Day One in the Life of a Pommy Backpacker in Australia

Fifteen years ago I arrived in the land down under as a Pommy backpacker. In Cairns, Queensland at around 6 am with my sister, Karen, mum and her partner, John. The first Australian person we met imprinted himself firmly on my memory: the taxi driver, Bruce. Those long startlingly white knee-high socks, complete with short shorts and Jesus sandals made me think, in my befuddled jet lag fuzz, we’d landed in another era, or maybe in Germany. No: it was definitely the land down under.

Mr Knee-High Socks dropped us off at our accommodation, right on the Esplanade. The art deco façade was blush pink and racing green, shaded by towering palm trees, waving in the breeze. It had looked nicer on the internet, the vinyl sign advertising “Rooms from $36” cheapened it somewhat. Yep $36! That was back in the year 2000.

The air was clammy and sweaty, like a load of wet washing left in the machine. For a family from the north of England, used to seeing grey skies and drizzle, this southern sky was vast and endless. The sun had just peeped over the escarpment in all in its orange glory to greet us. As did the mosquitos who feasted on our sweet blood.

Too early to check in so we sat and watched the morning awaken. Rainbow-coloured lorikeets slurped and bathed in the mossy pond at the hotel, which had looked like a generous, inviting swimming pool on the Internet where we could ‘cool off for a refreshing dip’. A flurry of cockatoos like fluttering white tissues screamed and stripped the bark from the palm trees in a frenzy. Cicadas droned and clicked. Even the earth and grass beneath our feet seemed to hum along with the cacophony of noise. We’d arrived: in the land down under.

We spent the day exploring the town and booking trips. Mum and I hitched a ride (you do these things when on holiday!) in the back of the hotel handyman’s Ute — another elderly gentleman with knee-high white socks — to the Olympic swimming pool, where the water was the same mouthwash blue as the sky. And where I discovered the disparity between a good English swimmer (as I’d considered myself) and a good Australian swimmer, whose powerful shoulders thrashed the water with effortless strokes.

The sky turned from mouthwash blue to the grisly stewed tea colour we were familiar with. So, naively, and despite the clammy heat, we assumed cloud cover meant no sunburn. The first of many rookie errors for us bleached white folk from the north of England. We finished the day with swollen feet, skin blistered pink like boiled ham and mosquito-bitten.

For dinner another new experience: not kangaroo or crocodile but Thai. Hard to believe now, but it was the year 2000 and we were a family from the north of England! After a long day we retired to our hotel, where my sister discovered a fresh problem. She couldn’t remove her contact lens. The humidity (presumably the culprit as it had never happened in our drizzly climate) had caused it not just to stick to her eyeball like glue but also to work itself up into an impossible to reach place behind her eyeball. After flushing and pushing we (mum, sister and I) decided to go to the hospital, which was conveniently located about 300-metres away.

Thankfully it was more efficient than English A&Es – no four-hour wait, we were in and out in no time, as was the contact lens. She said they’d removed her eyeball to retrieve it and the experience had been like riding on a big dipper.

Don’t walk home, get a taxi, we were told by hospital staff. But our hotel is literally a two-minute walk, we explained. You’ll be robbed, they told us. That’s why the doors are locked; tourists are easy prey for Aboriginals searching for a quick fix. They circled the entrance doors, like zombies, shifting from foot to foot. We took their advice on the taxi, only to discover that John had been robbed as he slept, having (trustingly) left the door unlocked.

And so concluded my eventful day one in Australia. The following days and weeks were just as magical and exciting: the Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda railway, banana and sugar plantations and Palm Cove, followed by Brisbane. Then Sydney – the jewel that captivated this nomad and held her tightly in its clutches.

Every time I see the local bus driver in his knee-high white socks and the cockatoos in my garden I remember that first day in Australia. I’m the story of the Pommy backpacker who never went home, who is still in love with God’s marvelous country down under fifteen years later.

Basic Instinct

Last night I watched Force Majeure by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund. It raised some interesting questions about morality and our basic instinct for survival.

How would you react in a crisis? Would you run and save yourself or try and save your loved ones, and even total strangers?

The answer sounds obvious. Of course, the decent thing to do would be to be loyal, helpful and selfless. Now let’s add a dash of honesty and reality and see what happens.

This is how it plays out in Force Majeure. A Swedish family is holidaying in the French Alps, enjoying lunch and the spectacular views of the mountains when a controlled avalanche spins out of control, crashing towards them on the terrace. Everyone panics and Tomas, the husband/father grabs his phone and runs, without a thought for his wife, Ebba and their two kids. Ebba, on the other hand, tries unsuccessfully to carry both kids to safety, and ends up hiding under the table.

Disaster is averted, the avalanche stops before hitting them and normality resumes, kind of. Tomas returns to the table. But nothing is the same for this family. Tomas denies running and abandoning his family, claiming that he doesn’t share her view of the experience —this theme of truth and perception is just as interesting as the one about human survival instinct, but that’s another story — while his wife is outraged and upset that his instinct was to flee rather than protect them.

Who’s to say what anyone would do in this situation. I had inkling what I would do as I found myself identifying with Tomas. Does the impulse to survive make me inherently selfish? Should I be ashamed of my instincts? Now, if I had kids or someone vulnerable with me perhaps I would act differently. Hopefully. Maybe.

Funnily enough, I relayed the story to my husband and the first thing he said was “You’d run.” But I think he would too.

Does that make him more selfish than me? Are there different expectations for men and women in disaster situations? Is it more acceptable for women to save themselves? Is it realistic for men to act all heroic, saving the women and the children, like they do in Hollywood movies?

According to Ostlund, who has researched disaster survivors, men in real life situations don’t behave like heroes and Tomas’s reaction is no surprise. A case in point is the sinking of the Estonia ferry, where “you could tell from the eyes of the survivors that they knew what it had ten to come through an extreme situation like that.”

Force Majeure is a clever metaphor for the human attempt to control nature. The setting on the snow fields with the controlled avalanches, snow boomers clearing the snow and the extreme weather conditions, remind us that nature, like our basic instincts, are just that —innate impulses —not a force within our power to contain.

Park Bench~Poem by Tina Wild

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My poem Park Bench was recently published in Swamp Writing. See: http://www.swampwriting.com/?page_id=540

Park Bench

Everyone has a place in this park

a space to sit, escape chaos, to dwell,

zest of gum trees, hibiscus halos,

agapanthus lined like pews in a pulpit.

 

Up top where the birds of paradise crane

nosey necks, there’s the smoochers

shrouded in a cloud of smoke—

all glazed eyes and giggly.

 

Midway on the slope by the roses and palms

the pigeon lady and her faithful flock gather,

everyday at three she scatters seeds

to the clucking clamouring mass.

 

The freckly lady sits upright eyes closed.

Not seeing the God-given green, the tinkling stream.

Willing the world away, her veins unfurl

sturdy roots rich in soil.

 

At the bottom there’s a stand off –

homeless Les drinking his tinnies

hides in the rockery, tangled dreadlocks

like willow sap hang in ropey strands.

 

She knows he’s there, the girl with the dogs

hears his slurring, ranting mantra.

In the scrap of sun she sits—oblivious,

steeped in spacious botanical breath.

 

 

I would love your comments on this poem. Sydneysiders may be interested to know the inspiration came from the beautiful Ivanhoe Botanical Park, Manly, NSW.

Meditations on a Silent Landscape ~ Tasmania

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It’s so different to Australia, my husband says as we putter around Tasmania in our camper, drinking in the God-given green mountains, reminiscent of its motherland; Great Britain. I remind him we still are in Australia, as the chameleon landscape changes again before our eyes to flat brown, like a parched tongue. Geographically isolated, Tassie, as it’s colloquially known, is an island 240 kilometres off mainland Australia, separated by the Bass Strait. This wild place is still considered, by mainlanders, as ‘other’; a distant entity. Historically it used to be Van Diemen’s Land, named by the Dutch, where British convicts were sent to serve their sentences to build the colony. Yet it’s hard to feel like a coloniser when there is no trace of Indigenous people. It’s as if they’ve dissipated, like smoke into the ether.

IMG_2264As hunter-gatherers Aboriginals didn’t define their land rights in the same way as British land ownership permitted so vacant domain or Terra Nullius (land belonging to no-one) was justified upon invasion. To white settlers Aboriginals didn’t exist, they were considered part of the flora and fauna, upon which their bones lie buried. This fallacy continues in white Australian consciousness— in the absence and silence of Indigenous people. Captain Cook got it right when he described the land as being ‘in a pure state of nature’ but this island, Lutruwita, its Indigenous name, had been populated for tens of thousands of years. I need to know the story of the earth I stand on. To know the mind of the mountains from time’s basement, that stood here before us all. Is there a trace of sadness and suffering in those mountains in the memory of what happened?

IMG_2199Tasmania hums to the ancient rhythm of nature; almost half of the 68,000 square kilometres is made up of reserves, national parks and World Heritage Sites. Abundant in space, minerals and exquisite food, super fresh seafood is trawled in from every port and there are more vineyards than you can shuck an oyster at, with the cool climate taste of Europe. Tassie is an introvert’s dream; whisper quiet. You can drive meditatively through unpeopled landscapes, past mountains, farms, alpine forests and coastal beaches.

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The only busy place is Salamanca Market on Saturdays in Hobart, the island’s capital. Hugging the waterfront, it teems with people — who have crawled out from who knows where. Abuzz with stalls that throng the harbour, selling familiar handicrafts and bric-a-brac, live music and local artist galleries contribute to the atmospheric je ne sais quoi; the earthy, artistic yet modest chic that is Tassie. Yet it lacks the multicultural hub of many capital cities, it’s full of white faces, without even the Aboriginal paintings, and didgeridoo players daubed in paint for tourists, characteristic of many Australian cities. Though the permanent exhibition at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart is a nod to Aboriginal cultural heritage.

IMG_2278We take Louisa’s Walk tour from Cascade Brewery. The plight and journey of a typical Irish convict, Louisa, is enacted, from London to the women’s prison in Hobart. It’s entertaining and poignant yet there is no mention of the Indigenous people, of their conflict with the first settlers. It’s as if they have been erased from minds, like a layer of paint slicked on canvases.

Aside from its beaches, the surrounding premium vineyards of the Coal River Valley and the cute historic village of Richmond, there’s another feather in Hobart’s cap that impresses, even those without an artistic gene. On the seventh day God created MONA: Museum of Old and New Art. Or rather David Walsh did. A professional gambler who funded MONA, donating his wealth to the public domain. Aside from its exhibitions, the main building of the artistic hub is a worthy masterpiece. High on a hill it stands, like a brown rusty giant, eerily prison-like — a reminder of the island’s convict history — its industrial chic is nonetheless enticing.

IMG_2096Multiple levels with rooms of all shapes; soaring sandstone walls, lots of concrete, steel, timber, and a glass cylindrical elevator—like in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory—that descends below the ground, where you can smell the sea in the cool darkness. Red Queen, a character from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, is the current exhibition. Her sinister blend of power and futility is depicted, through the art, into an inquiry about human nature and how we evolve with our environment. The most memorable piece is Fat Car; a red bulging Porsche, conveying the excessive nature of our commercialised society. An indulgence to which I can relate, with all the wine and oysters I’ve consumed—what a truly ‘first world’ traveller I am, but I appreciate my privileges and use them well.

The drive from Hobart to Cradle is momentous. I traverse through every season and landscape imaginable in one day. Quintessential Australian country; patchwork of yellow fields and fragrant gum trees. Weaving on through the cool alpine passes of Derwent Valley, so similar to its counterpart in the Lake District, England. A place I know well. I imagine the first settlers’ comfort in naming their new home; so reminiscent of its northern hemisphere roots.

Pylons and mountains, with flat grey peaks like slate roofs, and the smell of smoke from a recent fire somehow warn me of the ensuing desolation of Queenstown. The scene is a dramatic charcoal painting, blurred and rubbed onto the concrete canvas of the road. Petals of ash float. The cloud is so low it hovers on the ground of the narrow pass that winds down into Queenstown. A begotten, forgotten copper mining town, like an old haunting story, in a deep dark valley, cocooned by mountain walls. A place where, if it had a gender, it would be a male of the macho kind. Where the drizzle and biting wind make bones rattle and backs round in misery against the cold, feeling the poverty of their ancestors to their core. A place that smells of loneliness yet has a beauty of its very own. Everything is brown. Discoloured teeth form the ridged escarpment. Chocolate mud stirred with caramel streak the precipice, resembling claw marks, as if someone tumbled into the abyss of the valley.

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Round the next hairpin bend autumn arrives in russet and burnt orange glory. Impossibly steep gradients and plummeting escarpments jolt my heart into my mouth. Tight clusters of fat trees huddle, like broccoli florets, reaching and waving a welcome. Skinny pine and gum trees tower like a man’s long legs with arthritic knees. Upon approach to Cradle Mountain, deservedly the best-known feature of Tassie, the sun creeps around the corner, revealing the mountains’ grandeur—like a performer’s bow.

IMG_2146Blessed with a clear day to view the dramatic vista of Cradle; named for its resemblance to a miner’s cradle, I begin with Dove Lake circuit walk. It’s a flat, friendly two-hour stroll by the lapping of the lake, whose hip meets the mountain of Cradle. To follow, a three-hour steep climb to Marion’s Lookout; around two-thirds to the summit, of jagged dolerite peaks. I look out at the peak of Cradle that rises and looms like a camel’s hump, past the grassy slopes, past the boats that bob on the icy black water below. A ragged landscape where an old gum tree, stripped bare to her grey waist, is smooth and surprisingly cool to touch; immune to the scorching sun.

IMG_2195A three-hour-drive north-east from Cradle takes us to Launceston. A surprisingly beautiful city with, in many ways, just as much to offer as Hobart. Victorian and early colonial buildings lend the city its quaint historic character. The Tasman River and expansive waterfront are dotted with fishing boats and restaurants, and the city is surrounded by yet more vineyards. At Cataract Gorge peacocks roam and strut around manicured gardens and a Victorian grandstand— where I imagine gentry once strolled in their Sunday best under parasols.

IMG_2213Two and a half hours’ drive south, past St Helens and Falmouth, sees me arrive at the Bay of Fires; a conservation area on the northeast coast. Cosy Corner is a secluded little bay with sand textured like lentils, where men fish atop boulders and seagulls cry and swoop for fish. Where waves pound and slap the orange-hued granite rocks, nestled in the water. Numerous bays huddle and give onto endless beaches of white squeaky sand, framed by plump sand dunes, alive with birds and vegetation.

IMG_2215Along the coastline heading south to Freycinet National Park, I meander past the fishing port towns of St Helens and Swansea, each named for their British counterpart. The fish are so fresh they have barely ceased to flap: Blue-Eye Trevalla, Blue Grenadine, abalone, crayfish, prawns, mussels and scallops; cooked every which way – curried, smoked, bread crumbed, fried and packed into good old Aussie pies. And creamy heavenly oysters, served at oyster farms—straight from sea to plate.

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The sprawling beauty of Wineglass Bay at Freycinet National Park is a visual delight. A great yawning curve of sugary white sand stretches like a slow smile, framing the ice-cold water against the mountainous peaks and troughs. Tame wallabies and pademelons frolic on the beach unperturbed by the odd tourist.

 

It seems inconceivable that this idyllic place was founded by the hard labour of British convicts. Yet you can feel the people’s survival instincts and hardy resilience in the bite of the wind in the roots of the trees. This ‘Island of Inspiration’ has shrugged off its stigma of isolation. Yet the peace and quiet is the very jewel in its crown. Where else can you find a place where the beauty of the landscape induces a meditative state of peace. A place where you can breathe clean air, and walk along a seven-mile beach without seeing another person. A place of mountains, oysters and wine. And silence. If you listen you may hear the swipe of the woodcutter’s axe and the cracking of bones of the silenced ones.

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Cited References

http://treatyrepublic.net

http://www.justpacific.com/tasmania/first.html

References

http://www.racismnoway.com.au/teaching-resources/factsheets/10.html

http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/1301.0Feature%20Article21995?opendocument

http://www.tmag.tas.gov.au/whats_on/exhibitions

 

 

 

Crocs, Wetlands and Waterfalls: Kakadu National Park

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Hi folks

I thought you may be interested to read an article I had published on Elephant Journal, a holistic living website. It is about a trip to Kakadu National Park, which remains the most memorable trip in Australia and a must for nature enthusiasts.

It would be great to get your support if you could click on the link below. I would LOVE your comments and feedback.

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/12/crocs-wetlands-waterfalls-australias-kakadu-national-park-tina-wild/

Best wishes for a joyful Christmas and peaceful New Year ahead.

Tina

Blooming of a Lotus

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‘You have enough.’ This postcard on my fridge reminds me every day of my trip to Plum Village monastery and mindfulness centre in the Dordogne, France. With food in my belly, clothes on my back and a roof over my head I have abundance.

I’m left literally with the clothes on my back when my luggage is lost at Bordeaux airport, on the way to Plum Village. Lesson one: trust my instincts. Initially bereft, I surrender to the serendipity of being unburdened of my possessions. What could I possibly need apart from a change of clothes and toothbrush?

I miss the last train from St Jean station and endure a two-hour taxi ride with a grumpy, chain-smoking French driver. He throws the car recklessly round sharp bends, whilst chatting on his phone, gesticulating how ‘magnifique’ this slice of God’s cake is. And it unquestionably is, if only he would slow down so I could take in the ancient chateaus, farmhouses, patchwork of fields, abound with grape vines in manicured rows that whizz by in a green blur. Handing over 180 Euros when we arrive at Plum Village, I should be the grumpy one.

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Anger

Upon arrival at Plum Village at 9.30 pm I receive a frosty welcome from a sister, reluctant to let me in because I’m late. Exhausted from the journey and close to tears, I don’t relish sleeping outside, the grass is dewy and there’s a chill to the midsummer country air. Eventually another sister appears and gives me food, clothes, a toothbrush and towel, after I explain about the lost luggage.

Not a wink of sleep. There’s a snorer in my dorm. I vow to find earplugs and to never share a room again. I am so absorbed in my anger I forget the faithful saying that ‘this too shall pass.’

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The next morning in the hall, covered in delicate wisteria, looking onto the plum trees, we meditate on – guess what? Anger. How appropriate. Incidentally, the grumpy sister apologises to me, saying she is sick. No excuse, I think, rather ungraciously, learning my second lesson: spiritual leaders are just like the rest of us. Human.

 

the monks playing ping pong

As I stroll through the gardens, to my amusement a group of young monks are playing ping-pong. They do other things than sit and meditate and be serious? Another reminder – don’t judge and don’t put people on pedestals, they fall off.

Tina's reading nook at Plum Village, France

Tina’s reading nook at Plum Village, France

 

 

I float around, forgetting I’m dressed in a sister’s robes, and am perplexed when people bow and say ‘hello sister.’ I realise, however, from the faux pas I make with protocols they’re probably humouring me!  Take the phone incident. Curled up, reading my book—this place is a labyrinth of nooks and crannies for peace seekers—I listen to the rain drumming and watch it drench the flowers. The phone rings. ‘Shall I answer it?’ I shout to sister several times, unable to work out if her gesticulations mean yes or no, or something else. The something else, it turns out, is the ‘rule’ to pause and take three breaths when a phone or bell rings, before answering.

Cloud room

Cloud Meditation Room

As the day rolls on I retreat to the meditation room, aptly named Cloud; a converted barn with red roses rambling up sandstone walls. Oak cathedral beams soar and hold medieval candle fixtures, like crowns. I stretch out like a cat, bathed in stripes of afternoon sun, like yellow glory. Sinking into plush purple cushions, comforted by the smell of wood and flowers and burning incense, I sleep soundly.Who says Buddhism is all work and frugality?

 

Thay's talks

Thay’s talks

Food To Make Your Heart Sing

Each day Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist master, holds a talk at one of the hamlets. At eighty-six, he looks fragile and tiny yet exudes self-containment, happiness and peace.

To my surprise the first talk and lesson is about nutrition. He gives us a bottle of sesame oil and tells us to gargle a spoonful for thirty minutes per day. Thay, as his friends call him, says all disease starts in the mouth, therefore it can also be expelled through the mouth.

As my insides sing with each delicious meal, I realise how appropriate nutrition is as a topic. The retreat teaches us to be mindful in everything we do, say, think and eat. Food served is vegan with Vietnamese influence—Thay and most of the monks and sisters are Vietnamese—combined with hearty fresh produce from the surrounding farms, it’s a delectable feast.

Bell Tower, Plum Village

Bell Tower, Plum Village

Despite the decadence and abundance of the food, eating meat and drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden and, to Thay, ‘like eating a child’s flesh.’ A great believer in moderation, I find this a little extreme, as I’m sure Nigella would agree. However, Thay tells us, it is scientifically proven if the west reduce eating meat and drinking alcohol by fifty percent it would be enough to feed the world. I love his phrase: ‘May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet and reverse the process of global warming.’ But…I would still relish a glass of the local Bordeaux wine with dinner, whose grapes I see growing on vines in rows, like braids, ripening in the summer sun and pure air.

Mulberry Paradise

Mulberry Paradise

At dinner we sit around the mulberry trees, as if in the garden of Eden, plucking the plump sweet fruit and licking the blue-black juice that stains our fingers and drips down our arms. Paradise. I love how the French wish each other ‘buon appetite’ before a meal. There is no English equivalent. It reminds me of my uncle; a French teacher, who always says this. Plum Village has its own beautiful Buddhist version of grace:

‘We accept this food with gratitude to beings of the sky and earth who helped to produce it. We eat with gratitude for sharing this nourishing meal with our loved ones.’

  

Impermanence

 The following morning at 6.30 am we practice meditation. Revived after a sound night’s sleep and from the bliss of silence between dinner and breakfast, my mind is still. I relish the Qi Gong that follows; stretches to stimulate Chinese pressure points and kidney meridians, whilst my bare feet sink into the lush wet grass. Afterwards, I sit by the lotus pond, invigorated yet deeply relaxed, counting the flowers; a symbol of impermanence.

‘The whole cosmos is in the lotus flower: mud, cloud, sun, flower, you. Everything inter-be’s with everything else so don’t discriminate between the mud and the lotus; accept both. The lotus is impermanent, if you don’t preserve the lotus it turns to mud.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

Lotus pond

Lotus pond

Walking Meditation

At the largest hamlet, where around 500 people gather, Thay leads us on a walking meditation. Silently, the long procession traverse the gentle hills, with each breath in we place the left foot down, each breathe out the right foot. Simple. Beautiful. It’s amazing how loud silence is; the birds sing, the tall grass swishes, the earth crunches beneath my feet. The wild mushrooms are early to sprout this year, I notice. Back to the meditation. Left foot down inhale. Right foot down exhale. Wild lavender and daisies sway in the breeze. Left foot inhale. Right foot exhale. Cypress trees cluster, like broccoli florets, in shades of green, yellow and brown. The very last in the procession, I continue at my own pace; the rest must be quick breathers.

Walking meditation

Walking meditation

Pursuit of Happiness

Thay says ‘meditation is looking deeply at something and finding the roots.’ How empowering we have all the answers within to resolve our problems and make ourselves happy. How? Happiness is a training, by which we teach ourselves to come home to the present moment; noticing the ringing phone, the barking dog and the traffic lights.

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice is ‘don’t look for happiness, you are happiness. Don’t look for the Buddha, you are the Buddha. Fulfillment is only possible when you stop trying. You contain the whole cosmos. Look into your body and you’ll understand the whole cosmos if you understand yourself.’

 

Mindful Living

‘Mindfulness is the light that guides us. Desire to live simply, to be compassionate and healthy. Look deeply within to discover if your desires are healthy. Select your environment carefully, choose where you feel safe, be near positive people, and not assaulted by consumption.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

My final lesson: the arrival of my lost backpack. So at peace with being possessionless, I greet it with indifference. Do I pass? I think so. The retreat teaches me to weave mindfulness into every day life. I try to observe my actions, speech and thoughts. I watch and feed the positive seeds; of joy, confidence, generosity and love. Not the negative seeds; of anxiety, jealousy, depression and anger.

 

Wise Teachers In The Midst

I recommend Plum Village for its peaceful, enriching experience but there are plenty of wise souls around us. Seek them out. I find one such teacher in my veterinary surgeon. Worried why my puppy is so small and under-developed, he responds: ‘He is exactly as he is meant to be.’  How very Zen. I try to apply this lesson in acceptance and gratitude every day. As my stepfather wisely says, ‘if you can’t do anything about it, just accept it.’

 view of vineyards from meditation room

This article was published on:

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/12/preserving-the-lotus-lessons-from-a-buddhist-master-tina-wild/

Positano – La Dolce Vita

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positano view bougeanvilla

Positano. The jewel of the Amalfi coast in Italy, south of Naples. An ancient town, popular for holidays since the Roman Empire. Dotted with white-washed, rose, peach, lemon, salmon and ocre-coloured villas, clinging precariously to the precipice of the mountain, as if craning to jump into the glorious sea. Grape vines climb up the facades onto terraces and Saracen roofs, reaching for the sun. Wooden shutters are flung open to drink in the endless blue panoramic views across the bay to the Isle of Capri, Sorrento and Ravello. Boats of every kind bob gently on the water; sailing boats, fishing boats, rubber dinghys, jet boats ferrying day trippers to Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, Amalfi and other treasures.

‘Buongiorno signora.’ Ahh. It’s good to be back in God’s country. Having lived in Italy almost twenty years ago, I still feel at home here. Where the sing-song language reflects the happiness of the gente (people). Where they revel in life’s simple pleasure and do the same things I love: chiacchierare (chat)—always on the phone, mangiare (eat)—fare una bella passiegata (walk). How blessed they are to have been born and raised amidst this beauteous place. The breath-taking landscape shapes the people. How random fate’s hand is. It could have easily been Beirut or Belfast instead.

DSCN0429We traverse the winding coastline in a taxi on the way from Naples airport to Positano. I practice my rusty Italian with the immaculately handsome taxi driver, who tells me about the frequent landslides and stops at opportune look-outs for us to view Sorrento, Vesuvius and Pompeii. The scent of rosemary and lemons and olives, abundant to the area, fires my nostrils, making me salivate with lust for homemade pasta. The pastures are bountiful with fresh local produce; tomatoes, caprese (local mozzarella cheese), lemons—found in everything you can eat and drink; the local digestive liquor limoncello, lemon granite, rich lemon tart dessert (delizia al limone). Seafood risotto was served in a giant lemon that could have been a grapefruit it was so huge, dimpled and organic. Not like the tiny super-yellow genetically modified version you buy in the supermarkets.

Hotel Villa Gabrisa
Hotel Villa Gabrisa

Our hotel, Villa Gabrisa is traditional Italian. A small four-star family run establishment. Our rooms are the penthouse, well attic really. With uninterrupted views over the grape vines on the terrace, to the sublime expansive blue. My mother-in-law and I are equally excited about the free L’Occitane toiletries. Almost.

I develop a crush on a local boy who resides at the hotel; Johnny, the local stray Corgi. He looks like he could be the Queen’s pooch, the tidiest well-fed stray I’d ever seen. Like the littlest Hobo, he’s a law unto himself. Mr Independent. Turns his nose up at croissants I feed him yet insists on sitting under my seat at breakfast so I can’t move to go back for second course at the buffet.

Fruittvendolo

Fruttivendolo

The food was generally a little disappointing. Overpriced and bland. I’d always believed that the south of Italy, particularly the Neapolitan region, boasted tastier cuisine than the north; rich with garlic, laced with chilli. No. Even the coffee, local caprese and homemade ravioli did not live up to expectations. And we were served tinned fruit for breakfast in the hotel. Criminal with all the fresh fruit they must grow on those fertile trees. That said, the Prosecco, local wines from Ravello vineyards and limoncello were daily pleasures to savour with dinner. As was the heavenly local fresh seafood that we saw hauled in on fishing boats; vongole, prawns and swordfish in particular seemed to like the warm Amalfi sea.

Positano streetscape

Positano streetscape

We make our way down countless vertical steps towards Fornillo beach.  Scooters, Fiats and the interno Positano local bus zip round the sharp curves. Elegant Italian women grace the cobbled narrow streets that weave a labyrinthal path from the peak of the mountain, through the town centre of shops, cafes and restaurants, down to the beach. Adorned with designer sunnies, flowing colourful kaftans with matching bikinis, richly tanned and perfectly toned, with subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—gold jewelry. The eptiomy of grace. They age well too. Many attractive ladies and gents of a certain vintage, provide inspiration for our society with a fear and aversion to ageing. I tend to believe it’s down to being blessed with good genes and sense of style rather than plastic surgery.

Ciao Filippo

Ciao Filippo!

 

The church with the dome dominates the piazza, reminding the community of its Catholic duty to God. It is not dissimilar to the Muslim churches in Turkey, unsurprising given most of the Roman Empire stems from Muslim influence.

Fornillo beach

Fornillo beach

 

 

The pebbly beach at Fornillo, and at every beach we encounter, is like hot rock therapy. Not really pebbles but huge torturous slabs of rock that bruise and burn the soles of our feet, rendering it impossible to enter or leave the water with any dignity. Much comical stumbling, pained expressions and swearing—but maybe that was just me. Not everyone is afflicted. All I can say is they must have asbestos feet or a bad case of hard elephant skin.

I may have mentioned this irk before, but the user pays in Europe. A scandalous 7 Euros for the use of a sunbed, shower, toilet, oh but you get the changing room thrown in, and the sweetener is a free water taxi, plus sometimes free Wi-Fi. There would be uproar in Sydney if beaches charged for such basic amenities. But there was a sneaky way out for those on a budget, if you go to the beach after 4 pm you don’t pay! Bingo.

Fornillo beach

Fornillo beach

I can’t remember the last time I lay on a beach and sunbathed all day—well, I lay in the shade actually, having lived in Australia for the last decade I’m no longer fanatical about a suntan. In fact, as I slather on my SPF factor 30, I’m more concerned with not looking like a wrinkled brown leather handbag. The shushing of the gentle waves is like soothing percussion; the drum-like rattle of the pebbles, clinking and tinkling of shells like a tambourine. The absence of shrieking kids is a pleasant relief. Not that I’m anti kids, but let’s face it, they are the antithesis of relaxation and peace. And, having none of my own, I can happily forgo the whingeing and sniveling. The vertiginous climbs of Positano are definitely not conducive to prams, toddlers or elderly legs.

positano view We are jostled, jabbed and elbowed almost overboard the jetty, by gaggles of bronzed Italians—unaware I can understand them—as we politely stand in line for the water taxi that putters along, ferrying people from Fornillo beach to the main Positano beach. Italians don’t queue. In fact Europeans in general don’t queue. It’s a free for all; same on the bus or in a café queue for a cappuccino. But I like that about them; that disregard of rules. My mother-in-law provides onboard entertainment with her commando roll onto the boat (sorry Hazel, it was too funny to leave out). Of course, the Italians glide elegantly on, well practiced at this kind of thing. While I scramble up like a bloke crossed with a crab, Hazel is rolled on like a sushi roll by the captain. I cry with laughter, till the salt and suntan cream stings my eyes, the whole boat ride to the main beach. The bronzed goddesses gaze at us in puzzlement (or pity).

We continue to rip through the Euros like warm sand, slipping helplessly through our fingertips. It’s even more expensive than Sydney! Like Sydneysiders, the Italians are an exuberant, cheerful, positive bunch. Hardly surprising when they’re living the dolce vita by the beach, basking in the sunshine. They find pleasure in simple moments; an expression you hear everywhere ‘che bello’ how beautiful everything is, which it is. There are usually five words to say the same thing, so one long sentence sounds poetic and lyrical but could be translated into a short practical sentence in English. Every nation has its characteristics that are formed by the place and the language. Italians, to me, are characterized as openhearted, family oriented, impractical, stylish and expressive—they talk with their hands. Palms face up accompanied with the exclamation ‘eh’ means ‘and what do you want me to do, that’s life. Che serà serà.’

2013-07-23 20.55.25

Dinner in Positano provides a classic romantic occasion. All the restaurants are perched on the edge of the mountain overlooking the sea. Twinkling lights decorate the scape. The piano, harp and singer warble Moon River. How appropriate as the huge pearl-like full moon slides from behind the mountain and sits against the dark sky, washing us in her marble glow, illuminating a yellow strip of boats bobbing on rippling black water. Her face looks serene, long nose and upturned smile like the Mona Lisa herself.

from capri rocks at capri

We take a day trip to the Isle of Capri; iconic playground of the privileged. Forty minutes from Positano by jet boat. Yachts, sailing boats, James Bond-like speedboats, clad with leather seats and helicopters siting atop on their launch pads, and humble wooden local fishing boats tour the island perimeter—which takes two hours to circumnavigate. Colossal monolithic rocks form an uneven circle of the island, jutting out in jagged coves forming caves, called grottos. Inside the grottos the water is the shimmering colour of Topaz, electric blue, aquamarine, emerald. Beneath the surface lie coral and rock-like rose quartz and amber. The rocks are alive and pulsing, standing proud and dangling like candle wax into the caves. Ninety percent of visitors are Italian, which despite the crowds, makes the experience more authentic and pleasant—not to be surrounded by fellow English speaking tourists.

Capri harbour

Capri harbour

The beach at Capri, well at least the one near to the main boat jetty is disappointing. Even more crowded and rocky than Positano. People are so tightly packed and negotiating the pesky hot rocks they literally fall on top of each other. I may have admired the Italian ladies’ elegance and beach style. Not so for the men. Picture throwbacks to the 80s with black Speedo’s or budgie smugglers, as they’re aptly known in Australia (I suspect overstuffed with socks) with hairy chests like rugs, gold jewelry galore, and of course, designer sunnies and cigarette in mouth. My mother-in-law comments it’s more like Blackpool or Northside Shore in Cumbria (unsavoury English beaches). She’s right. So we took the cable car up to the peak of Capri.

Capri streetscape

Capri streetscape

Stunning is an understatement. As we pass the immaculate piazza dominated by a white church we see a glamorous Italian wedding complete with confetti rice being thrown and traditional almond favours; the symbol of fruitfulness. A labyrinth of winding cobbled streets teem with designer boutiques and 5 star luxury hotels.

View from Giardino Agosto, Capri

View from Giardino Agosto, Capri

We meander down to the lookout at Marina Piccola where we are rewarded with spectacular views of Capri and surrounding rocks towering out of the aquamarine water. Boats zipped by, doing loops, leaving white wakes—realising the impression of Capri exactly as I’d envisaged it: pure blue and white nautical beauty.

Giardino Agosto, Capri

Giardino Agosto, Capri

views from Giardino Agosto, Capri

views from Giardino Agosto, Capri

view from Giardino Agosto, Capri

view from Giardino Agosto, Capri

The best views on Capri are found from Giardino di Agosto (August Garden). Of course it costs one Euro each to enter but is worth it. Until Hazel steps onto the grass to read the title of a statue and plant names. Whhhheeee! A shrill whistle sounds and the ranger comes running over. To my amusement she then has trouble getting over the flowerbed quick enough to appease the ranger without trampling the marigolds.

 

The tree trunks are covered with pink perfumed flowers and leaves, providing shade from the merciless sun. The bees are huge black creatures, not of the stripy variety; busy pollenating the plentiful honey miele, star jasmine and bougainvillea. Palms stand side-by-side with cacti, a lotus pond guarded by Romanesque sculptures of naked female bodies and other indecipherable objects, which we are unable to name, the grass being off limits!

We comment that Capri is the cradle of the rich and famous. No sooner had we said that we stumble upon a bar with photos on the wall of celebrity visitors: Cristiano Ronaldo, Mariah Carey, Sophia Loren, Beyoncé and many others. But it has an irresistible old-world charm that oozes peace and luxury, yet simple contentment.

Marina Grande, Sorrento

Marina Grande, Sorrento

marina grande sorrento 1

Marina Piccolo pontoons, Sorrento

Marina Piccolo pontoons, Sorrento

Trattoria da Emilia, Marina Piccolo, Sorrento

Trattoria da Emilia, Marina Grande, Sorrento

 

 

 

Onto Sorrento, a typical Italian seaside town along the Amalfi coast. Centred around the piazza at the peak, a maze of shaded streets cascade in every direction. Row-on-row of shops. The aroma of leather is intoxicating; effusing superior quality. Despite this, the shoes and bags and clothes are surprisingly reasonable.

Limoncello granita refreshes our palates as we continue to wander past many churches. At St Francis of Assissi church a wedding was in full swing. The English are easily identifiable, lacking Italian finesse. Despite great stylistic efforts, they awkwardly perspire  in ill-fitting suits, exposing pink and white striped sunburned shoulders.

 

Marina Piccola and Marina Grande consist each of a promenade and concrete pontoons, which to my surprise hold their own charm. Lined with iconic yellow and blue stripy umbrellas with matching changing huts and sunbeds. The water looks clear and inviting, despite what I’d been warned, with bathers diving in, snorkeling and floating on huge Polystyrene beds. Piccola is a bit tarty and over-cooked, with gaudy lights, confectionary stalls—reminiscent of a fairground, rather than befitting the glamour of the Amalfi coast.

The highlight of Sorrento is lunch at Trattoria da Emilia; a simple waterside restaurant on Marina Grande. Gingham paper tablecloths, and huge cheerful waitresses—displaying the gluttonous effects of their delicious pasta.

'Buon appetito'! Vongole at Trattoria da Emilia, Marina Piccolo, Sorrento

‘Buon appetito’! Vongole at Trattoria da Emilia, Marina Grande, Sorrento

A simple spaghetti al mare, rocket salad liberally doused with extra virgin olive oil and fresh bread, washed down with Peroni beer and mineral water— that for some reason in Italy tastes as pure as fresh mountain spring. The most divine meal ever. Simple, fresh, delicious fare, and cheaper than Positano. We watch the fish devour the remnants of bread and the local skinny cats tuck into freshly pan-fried sardines that people simply couldn’t squeeze into their bloated bellies.

 

I want to go to the ancient ruins at Pompei, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to absorb the history of the remains of the town, recovered from the eruption of Volcano Mount Vesuvius. However, my husband declares it’s too hot and his mother has already been. Given the day trip cost over 100 Euros and it was still around 35 degrees I decide instead to retire for the last day on my lettino (sunbed) in Positano and watch the world go by, soaking up the dolce vita. Bellissimo.

Into The Wild

Three hog warts grazed at the side of the runway as we landed in Hoespruit, a long strip cut into the midst of the African bush, in Kruger National Park. I knew then it was going to be a memorable trip. To my surprise there were no buildings, no trace of the human hand, apart from the small airport thatched hut. The landscape was a vast plain of scorched straw.

Welcome to Hoedspruit

Welcome to Hoedspruit

We stayed at a private game lodge in the Klaserie reserve called Gomo Gomo, meaning little hill, though it’s not really hilly at all, apart from the crevices where the water has dried up in riverbeds. Comfortable brick and thatched huts encircled a rustic communal lounge and dining area.

Tina admiring the view

Tina admiring the view

The defining feature was an expansive deck with a pool and reclining chairs that overlooked a watering hole, where elephants, impala and hog wart drank and frolicked, and the resident crocodile slept on the sandy bank. Apparently the croc got washed up in a flood so he’s stuck here alone. It’s a peaceful place to be stranded.

elephants playing at the waterhole

elephants playing at the waterhole

One of the reasons we chose Gomo Gomo, apart from the price; modest for a private game reserve, and the personal recommendation, was it was one of the only safari lodges who offered bush walks. Yes on foot, walking amongst the predators. I was extremely skeptical but ever ready for adventure and challenge. How could I refuse?

On the first game drive in the afternoon we saw three of the Big Five within an hour and had two near-death encounters.  The first of the Big Five was buffalo. Hundreds of them, lumbering across the savanna, just a stone’s throw away. Apparently in a herd they’re not so dangerous but a solitary elderly bull that can’t keep up with the rest is extremely vulnerable to lion attack, and therefore, easily harassed and prone to charging. It was slightly unnerving being so close to such a large group of wild animals in an open four wheel drive vehicle but I was comforted by my naivety and their close resemblance to lovable cows.

buffalo close up

We proceeded in our driving gang; consisting of myself, my husband and a Belgian family; Kristl, Jürgen and two daughters; Romy and Thaïs. The ranger, Bernard and tracker, Caswell—who perched precariously on the front of the open jeep, unprotected and exposed to all predators, were our trusted guides. Caswell, an indigenous hunter-gatherer, had grown up in the bush and learned the tricks of survival for cohabitating with this savage nature, from his father. The tracker is like the ranger’s second pair of eyes; guiding the truck and looking for animal tracks and, of course, animals. Though, often it was Phil, otherwise known as ‘the spy’ or ‘MI5’ who spotted the animals.

Safari dream team Left to right: Caswell, Bernard, Jurgen, Thais, Romy, Phil, Kristl (photographer)

Safari dream team
Left to right: Caswell, Bernard, Tina, Jurgen, Thais, Romy, Phil, Kristl (photographer)

MI5 spotted the elephants next. We got up so close to a group of them I could feel the wind from their trumpeting trunks. The sound reverberated right through me and echoed across the plain. The herd kept multiplying. We had gone down a narrow track and realized they were in front of us and to the right with several calves. Approaching to the left was the herd of buffalo we had just encountered. The trumpeting protestation grew louder. They waved their trunks, stamped their feet and flapped their ears, clearly agitated. At this point we were about three metres away from one bull that confronted us head on. Bernard reassured us they were more distressed by the buffalo than us, they were warning off the buffalo because they had several calves. By this point the two girls in front of us were crying to the point of hysteria. I was frozen rigid to the core, only my hands functioned, patting Romy’s shoulder trying to reassure her it was OK, fighting to keep my voice level, whilst seeing my life flash before me. Bernard explained the necessity to stand ground with elephants and resist intimidation. A hasty retreat would likely cause them to charge. We did reverse pretty quickly though, bouncing around the truck, while those elephants watched us and continued to bellow.

Get off my patch!

Get off my patch!

We had just about recovered from the elephant encounter, when we stopped at dusk in an open plain and got out of the truck for a glass of wine; sundowners. How civilized. I was nervous about getting out of the relative protection of the truck but it was good practice for the bush walk. We shared a much needed large glass of South African Shiraz and nibbles as the sun retreated to a perfect semi-circle orange segment, perched on the horizon, casting the marula trees in black silhouettes.

Sundowners magic

The African bush is similar to the Australian bush in that during the winter it is parched and brown dotted with gnarled twisted trees, many torn down by elephants thundering through the savanna, wreaking havoc. During the summer it is green and brimming with wildflowers but the winter-time provides the best opportunities for animal viewing.

Marula tree

Marula tree

We continued driving in the dark, cocooned in our layers of scarves, beanies and blankets, admiring the crescent moon and mass of brilliant white stars against an ink sky. Next stop was the lions; the Ross pride we’d seen earlier. This time we got even closer, the pride was larger with two males and four females. One of the males mated vigorously with one of the females and after his performance the whole pride roared in earth shattering unison.

Lion romance

Lion romance.

Wow! That was good for me.

Wow! That was good for me.

To be near lions mating was the most dangerous situation. The engine turned over. Nothing. Flat battery. The second male mounted another female even closer to our right side. Luckily there was a second truck close by that waited with us. The rangers were talking, partly in Afrikaans, about the escape strategy and I was terrified we were going to have to jump across to the second truck. I knew from our initial instructions that any movements would endanger us and make the animals attack. If we kept still the animals saw the truck as one large unit but the moment anyone stood up, yelled or made sudden gestures, the single unit was broken and we would become prey. We waited for a third truck to bring jump leads. They arrived in seven minutes, which felt like an eternity.

The following morning there was a pungent smell of dwarf sage; like marijuana, mixed with dung, fire and clean air—an intoxicating blend of Africa. We kept wondering how the animals could exceed their dramatic performance from last night; close shave with agitated elephants and a flat battery in the dark within spitting distance of mating lions. What else?

Lion kill

 Cut to the sun ushering in a new day, infusing the landscape with its pink and orange hues. At the intersection between Klaserie and Timbavati game reserves we heard the deafening sound of hooves, their vibration shook the ground like an earthquake. A herd of buffalo stampeded towards us from the Klaseire territory with lions in pursuit, almost trampling their cubs in the chase. We reversed hastily out of the way as the lions headed for the side of the truck. I could see the hunger and concentration in their eyes. The lionesses caught an old bull at the back of the herd and encircled her, trying to bring her down without success. The large male of the pride emerged and mounted the buffalo’s from the rear, on hind legs swiping him with his powerful front paws and jaws, dragging him down with ease.

The bellowing of the buffalo was heartbreaking, we watched in anguish as he was savaged and slowly suffocated. The sound of the lions roaring with satiated hunger and relish was amplified. They tore into him in a frenzy, ripping out inner organs with a sickening squelching and chomping noise. That would feed the whole pride of 12 for several days. We could see the buffalo’s face clearly though the binocular; mouth open, eyes wide, legs kicking desperately in the air. Bernard said he would be in deep shock and wouldn’t be feeling a lot. I wasn’t sure if he was just saying that to comfort us in our grief.

That was the second lion kill Bernard had seen in his time as a ranger and told us that was a pretty unusual sighting, only around 1 in 200 saw that. Bernard, the tracker, Phil, me, and the Belgians seemed bound together in a magical combination of rare luck and dramatic experiences. When we were separated on different game drives the spell was broken, the experience was not so intense and we didn’t see as much. Though the kids didn’t speak English we connected through gestures, mum’s constant translations and I taught Romy some yoga postures on our morning tea break.

The sun was searingly hot by 10 am despite it being winter. I walked behind Bernard into the bush, reassured by his rifle. He was my human shield, though he explained that actually back of the group was safer as danger would come from the front. I reassured myself we wouldn’t be doing this if people got killed.  Every sense was on alert. We were much more vulnerable on foot. Every birdsong was crystal clear, the breeze rustling the trees and twigs snapping beneath my feet rattled me. My heart was hammering. The pulse in my head was wild with panic. Wild cotton blew in the gentle breeze. I could smell the sweetness of wild basil. We scrunched the leaves of the apple leaf tree. I loved learning about the trees, flowers and animal tracks of the wild dogs, hyena, buffalo and elephants in the vicinity. The tactile proximity was exciting but I was terrified of encountering a predator on foot. Would I resist natural instinct to run? No. When we saw the elephants I remained obediently still, despite almost losing control of bodily functions, at the wall of elephants, trumpeting and flapping their ears. Although enormous size they are surprisingly quiet, which is why it’s easy to literally stumble upon them. We made it back unscathed to the camp.

giraffe

Every game drive I felt a little more comfortable, trusting our ranger’s skill and knowledge. But the unpredictability of the bush taught me not to become complacent. I never lost my fear or respect for the incredible work of nature’s art and its inhabitants.

rhino

Each animal has its own personal space zone, which was why we were able to get much closer to the predators; lions, rhino, buffalo and elephant. Whereas the giraffe and impala were more skittish and wouldn’t let us near.

twocubs

The lion cubs on the last morning were the sweet nectar. We’d had the drama, the fear and the adrenalin. We watched the sweet pair of fluffy babies delightfully bounding around, playing, tumbling, jumping on mum’s back, annoying grandma. They appeared so innocent. Just like puppies, wobbling along gracelessly. We’d witnessed the full range of lions’ daily activities: sleeping, mating, killing, eating, drinking and cubs playing.

As we left the camp for the airport the animals put on a final Doctor Dolittle show for us at the watering hole. A huge herd of around thirty elephants appeared, like they’d gathered together to take a final curtain bow, drinking, bathing and squirting one another with water. The crocodile that had been motionless on the bank since we’d arrived stealthily dived into the water and swan across in front of us. At the other end of the watering hole monkeys came down to the water’s edge to play. Once the elephants had disappeared the impala arrived to bid us farewell.

impala face

Bon Voyage beautiful South Africa and the peaceful bush. We were blessed with so many extraordinary experiences. But the leopard, hyena and zebra eluded us. So we will be back.

The Power of Landscape

freeimage-3560172-web_Kimberleyssue woolfe melissa lucashenko

Review from The Power of Lanscape at Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013
with Sue Woolfe and Melissa Lucashenko (plus interview with Sue Woolfe)

‘How to belong to this land, this culture, that is not mine. How to tread on a land teeming with tens of thousands of bones, spirits and history.’

 Award winning author, Sue Woolfe pondered this for a year in the Northern Territory, where her latest novel The Oldest Song in the World is set. She discussed the power of landscape with Melissa Lucashenko at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Melissa’s fifth novel, Mullumbimby tells a story from her Indigenous perspective, set in rural northern NSW, about how a person is shaped by their culture and place. Landscape, for Melissa, provides a sense of belonging. However, she prefers the term ‘country’ to ‘landscape’, which is the settlers’ word, derived from the Dutch word ‘landschap’ meaning ‘land state, or region’.

 Sue Woolfe currently lives on the Hawkesbury River and grew up in the Blue Mountains. The landscape has always captivated her. She feels more spiritually connected ‘out bush’ but as a white Australian has always felt a sense of displacement.

An inopportune visit to the Northern Territory compelled her to write about this ancient place, its people and the landscape. She lived there for a year, immersed in a community that welcomed her unreservedly. She learned the language, camped out with the local women, held their babies and experienced their rituals and ceremonies. She began to understand that the people and their immortal souls are grounded in their landscape and the local mythology of the Northern Territory landscape began to make sense. She felt the most powerful sense of belonging and liberation when she heard the earth sing.

Upon returning home to Sydney, she realised the reality of being a westerner meant she would have to be born again into the Aboriginal culture to fully belong. Though the desert draws her she loves bodies of water and couldn’t quell the longing for Mozart and western art.

Being Aboriginal Melissa is astounded by what settlers don’t know about their natural environment. Aboriginal people take for granted the knowledge of how many tides there are in a day and what the mountains around them are called. In Mullumbimby Melissa references Aboriginal ceremonies and rituals, of which many readers would not grasp the religious significance. For example: the circle of the eagle in the sky and its circular shadow on the earth, and the raising of outstretched arms towards the sky. Melissa wanted to portray what ordinary life is like for modern Aboriginal people, without resorting to clichés and commercialized notions.

Supernatural or extrasensory perceptions are every day experiences to Melissa when she is immersed in country. Sue feels she is being brave to talk about the landscape and its spiritual effects. Exalted moments with nature are hard to acknowledge and difficult to write about because the English language is limited. Melissa believes this stems from the convict culture; they were brought in chains to work, not to think or look around them, just to buckle down and survive. Whereas, Melissa explained, talking about these exalted moments for Aboriginals enriches their lives and is ingrained in their culture.

Mindfulness, the Buddhist concept relates to the peace that comes from being spiritually connected to place and country. There is an Aboriginal term for sitting, which translates as ‘sit down, be still and shut up’ – pretty much what mindfulness and meditation are: concentrated awareness and inner stillness. Sue found the way the Aboriginals communed to be deeply meditative. If we immerse ourselves in the landscape – walk in it, worry about it, dig, plant, grow and touch it, we feel a great sense of peace and spaciousness. She believes that’s why gardening is so popular. Whereas for Melissa gardening is more about being a control freak! This underlines their cultural differences; Melissa is from tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherers whereas Sue is from the agrarian culture of farmers; of growing and possessions.

People, for Melissa are an intrinsic part of country, along with the trees, rocks and animals. She wonders whether city people consider the buildings part of the landscape.  Both believe that most city dwellers are living an impoverished life without nature. Even those living in Sydney’s unique city; surrounded by harbour, waterways, ocean and national parks, mostly aren’t aware of the landscape on a daily basis.

 ‘Immersion in nature paradoxically brings a sense of timelessness and placelessness, which results in peace. If you don’t have this you are turning your back on something we’re wired to need.’ Sue Woolfe

Life in the Park

Dora always left her back door open. Even while she was taking a nana nap or in the shower, like that summer afternoon. With the door open the dogs were free to wander in and out as they pleased to the garden. Beyond the garden to the right was Ivanhoe Park and Manly beach straight down the hill. She loved to welcome in the fresh sea air like a dear friend, looking out of the window at nature’s lavender gifts; the willowy jacaranda, flanked by agapanthus and hydrangea beds, in orderly lines like pews in church. Cheerful birds of paradise towered with long rubbery necks and sharp orange beaks. The obstinate yucca, reached upwards with spiky arms, growing confidently taller each day. It was at least as tall as her, not a difficult achievement as she was only half pint sized. ‘Precious gifts come in small packages’ her mum reassured her. Dora only repeated that line once at school. They laughed. So she used her ruler or fists after that – they were more effective than retaliatory words. As a consequence she didn’t suffer any bullying at school. Even though her older brother was the big guy and physically strong, she was fiercely protective of him.

‘Mum, I’m going to college then for a swim. I’ll see you this afternoon. Have a good day,’ called Ruby.

‘Ok love, watch out for the bluies, there’s a nor’-wester blowing. Fairlight might be good for swimming.’  Dora replied.

A door banged. Dora felt a draught on her shoulders and neck from the back door. The neighbour’s baby started crying upstairs. She turned, instinctively aware of someone watching, approaching. She shivered. The dogs would bark to protect her if someone came in, but as they say, it’s usually someone you know so they might remain silent if they recognised the scent. Dora shrugged off the blanket of paranoia. Charlie was circling her, impatiently tap dancing with white socked-paws, harassing her for his walk.

‘All right blossoms let’s go for walkies. Freddie, Charlie, come on.’

The park was alive in its green glory, pulsing, throbbing like blood to nature’s beat. It appeared silent but there was a sound, a feeling, and voice to it if you attuned yourself. She lifted her face to drink in the zest of Eucalyptus that fizzed in her nostrils and had become the smell of home. The high-pitched symphony of birds was led by the exuberant coooo-heeee of the kookaburra. Together the trees formed a generous canopy over the park that reached outwards with compassionate limbs entwined in an embrace, providing shady relief to all the park’s grateful inhabitants.

They tried to tame the rawness of this wild park. The rangers came every Thursday to trim the spidery tangle back into line, making it safe and acceptable. There was even rumour of a new rule to put dogs on leash, which Dora found outrageous. They loved to explore the longer grass by the scout hut at the top end of the park; the black underbelly, where the possums, bats and bandicoots congregated.

Under the scout hall used to be the druggies’ hangout. A dark, bone-chilling dungeon: yellowy blood-stained putrid mattresses, piles of rubbish, bricks, rubble and dirt. Dora never saw needles but imagined they were there, along with the belts, spoons and stench of shit and human misery; slithering downwards like tangled snakes in a pit. The lowest point in life. She heard their high pitched helium-like voices obsessing about where the next hit was coming from, glancing furtively to see if it could be found in the contents of a passerby’s wallet. Nobody knew this den existed apart from the odd dog walker like Dora, it was off the path that people used to walk to the beach and town centre.

It was once known as the homeless park but the council moved the druggies and homeless on, like sheep on a pasture, so ‘decent’ people could use the park. Only one homeless guy, Les, remained. He and Dora saw the park’s beauty.

Dora could hear Les ranting, chanting his mantra behind the palms in the rockery down at the bottom end of the park; the ‘sunset lookout’ – their favourite spot. His twang was distinctively Aussie, monotone, loud, though she couldn’t make out the words. He was in his own world, a bag of delusion. The raspy, alpha voice and Viking face reminded her of Jock, her old Scottish swimming teacher, with bright ginger hair and coarse beard, same blushed, rough skin, piercing bird eyes and angry nobility.

There was a thud from the rockery, like wood being chopped. What was he doing in there? Maybe it was a bird flapping its wings. Dora’s eyes jumped, she turned sharply over her shoulder. Then he emerged.

He didn’t know who she was that day. He clocked her but he didn’t see. Startling blue eyes, glassy, staring, blurred with alcohol and mental confusion. That familiar strong nose and arms dangling loose like a monkey. As he strode purposefully away from his den, Dora nipped into the rockery and left ten dollars, a tuna and mayo sandwich, a packet of salt and vinegar chips – that used to be her school packed lunch, and a bottle of water – to rehydrate that poor liver crying out for relief. He stashed his beers in the rockery for safe-keeping. Dora knew that giving him money to feed his addiction was futile but it was his only solace. She was just trying to help, so someone was caring for him.

You could tell Les was homeless. He didn’t carry his life in tell tale bags, supermarket trolleys or 70s pull along shoppers but he often carried a clear plastic bag of beers. He wore all his clothes, even in the height of summer – the thick ex-army jacket and two pairs of trousers, black and ragged like Robinson Crusoe’s, ripped at the thigh with fringes flapping out from the knees, slapping his calves and ankles like cowboy chaps.

Dora watched him piteously, stomping around the cricket oval like a lumbering incredible hulk bursting out of his layers, sandy dreadlocks down to his bum, shoulders rounded self-protectively around his dark heart like paper măché, diminishing his imposing frame. She knew his routine. He lived between the park, the beach and the bottle shop. Like most people, Dora and Ruby included, his life was contained within a five-kilometre radius.

From the ‘sunset lookout’ you could watch cricket on the oval and the retirees play bowls in their team whites on the scorched bald green. Dora’s apartment was visible, the lone palm tree was a beacon in the back garden, waving like a flag and bending precariously in the wind towards the house next door. The Spanish sandstone church in front, atop the hill, majestically observed the beach, keeping its godly eye out for foul play in the park.

Dora sat for a while, throwing the ball for the dogs, musing how the bird’s nest fern looked like a teacup and saucer, and watching the graceful sway of the palms. The creek tinkled, gurgling like a contented baby being tickled. The spiky urchin plant was like an electrocuted Afro, it reminded her of Auntie Doris’s fibre-glass plant in Colwyn Bay, Wales, that they weren’t allowed to touch.

He was back again. Snorting and sniffing up snotty phlegm. He sat camouflaged amongst the ferns drinking his long necks. Bloody hell! Freddie was running over towards him. Even he knew Les was different to the other people who passed through the park.

‘Argh, sparahhjas!’ Les shouted something indecipherable.

Freddie persisted barking, boldly going within spitting distance to him. Dora was torn between a confrontational rescue and running in the opposite direction in the hope Freddie would follow.

‘Freddie!’ she heard the shrill rising panic in her voice, trying to entice him away. ‘Come on.’

He smelled her fear and continued to bark, warning Les off. Les hurled something from the rock garden and Freddie darted, wide-eyed, tail between legs, bolting uphill to catch up with Dora and Charlie. He’d taken the last half hour of sun that selfish bastard, thought Dora resentfully.

***

Manly beach was enticingly quiet Ruby noticed that afternoon. Mercifully, the weekend army of tourists were absent, spilling off the ferry in endless swarms with their giant colourful umbrellas, striped beach bags stuffed with towels, sunscreen and snorkels, excited kids in tow—hand in sticky hand, munching fish and chips, dribbling ice-creams down sand-salty fingers whilst dragging Batman and Little Mermaid body boards.

During the week Manly was reclaimed by its locals—dog walkers, runners, cyclists, mums’ clubs with gaggles of gurgling babies and shrieking toddlers, marching identical three-wheeled suspension prams up and down the promenade in black Lululemon yoga pants, dishevelled ponytails and this season’s Ray Bans. There was the odd lone swimmer, and grommets revelling in the opportunity of catching an uninterrupted wave. Mr Dreds, the homeless guy (aptly named by his dreadlocks that looked like heavy wet sand), was perched on his usual bench by the surf club, shaded under the Island Norfolk Pines, which stood tall side-by-side like lanky old men, with sparse brittle needles like cold arthritic fingers.

Ruby surveyed the conditions of the bluey-green ribbon that curved around the ocean, framing the walkway from South Steyne to Shelley beach, reading its intention. The water was like a boisterous little boy with a secret, the cheeky white caps smiled slyly, daring her to play, lapping the rocks to and fro blosh blosh, like a gregarious dancer learning their steps, threatening to pull the surfers into the rocks at Fairy Bower. She plunged in and glided through the water like a smooth fish, effortlessly slicing the slapping swell.

Mr Dreds, the mad alkie, was in the bottle shop as Ruby queued for her Shiraz on the way back from the beach. It used to shock and amuse her to see him out of the park, as if he only existed there. Lately he was everywhere, like her shadow: at the beach, on the corso, in the bottle shop. The stench was over-powering and predictably sour – beer, urine, damp stale earth, that unwashed smell of degeneration; spiralling down life’s ladder to the dark abyss, festering in the same clothes. Neural pathways dying and misfiring. Endless days endured, stagnating, without purpose, nobody to talk to, nothing to feed the mind.

The druggies all hung out in packs but Mr Dreds was always solitary, the only homeless person Ruby noticed. His long necks clanked in his plastic bag as he trudged, muttering, in front of Ruby around the oval to the park. She used to wish he’d find somewhere else to drink and shout nonsense but she’d grown accustomed to him. The park was his home. Everyone knew who he was and she’d seen him on an almost daily basis for ages and nothing had happened yet. She just avoided eye contact.

Ruby lost sight of him. He’d probably gone into his usual hiding hole in the trees. You’d think you were alone in this park but there’d always be someone, usually Mr Dreds. He’d suddenly appear, like a walking tree, ragged trousers like the crispy bark peeling off the trunk and hair like tangled willow sap hanging down in ropey strands.

The swoosh and guttural clucking of the grey-white blur of pigeons announced the clockwork arrival of the pigeon lady at 3 pm. Maud bustled up the hill on chubby little legs squashed like sausages into stockings, even in summer, Coles bag in little hands, to feed the pigeons. It took Ruby straight to Trafalgar Square in London, as a little girl in her green gumboots and anorak with the fur hood. She stood in the middle feeding them bread crusts, she’d never seen so many birds. The swish of their wings sounded like an applause.

Ruby watched the straggle of people ambling up the path in the park; mums with kids balancing on the wall alongside the hedge, the squeak of sandy thongs slapped the concrete, dragging happy legs from the beach. She admired a beautiful woman, black skin contrasting against a billowing canary yellow summer dress, Afro curls pulled back in a ballerina bun, a few spring-like strands escaping. It was that time of day where the blonde surfers drifted through the park, barefoot in wetties, boards under arms to catch the waves before sunset.  She kicked off her thongs to brush away the sand, feeling her toes against the spongy grass, and sauntered home.

 

What was that? Dora thought she heard heavy footsteps from the back door as she showered. They were not trying to disguise themselves. Must have been someone walking down the side of the apartment block or going in next door. Strange the dogs didn’t bark, at least, she didn’t notice if they did.

Dora dried herself briskly with the towel, and threw on her favourite summer shorts and T-shirt. Nothing else to do this afternoon. Bliss! She padded through to the living room in bare feet on the cool wooden floorboards.

‘Ahhhhhhhh!!’ She stopped dead. Her mouth and eyes stretched open like three O shapes in shock. The earth shifted beneath her feet like tectonic plates. Sliding. Sinking helplessly in mud.

 

Les’s long limbs were folded into concertinas on the sofa with Freddie on his lap! His face looked overcooked – angry red, inflamed with alcohol, toxicity, sun, shame and neglect.

‘Shiit!’ he jumped up equally surprised at her white-faced terror, knocking poor Freddie to the floor.

‘Les!’ She couldn’t control the stiff panic in her strangled squeal. Act normal, be normal, she told herself. Blood thrashed furiously in her head, heart banging in her belly.

‘It’s me. Dora.’ She tried to wrestle her voice to slow down but fear betrayed her. She swallowed, tried to breathe but there was an obstruction, like a dry piece of toast in her throat. Did he know who she was today? Had he been watching her? Did he remember where she lived? Or was it just chance?

‘Dora. Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you. Tthhe, the door was open, I called out…but.. nobody answered.’ Les slurred gruffly, not meeting her eye, head bowed in shame, face long with disappointment. Caterpillar eyebrows in a straight line, hanging like a bowing bridge over his sunken eyes.

‘It’s OK. Sit down, please. Er, sorry, do you fancy a cup of tea Les?’ Dora rambled, at a loss to fill the awkward silence. Tea always made things better. A nice cup of hot tea in a favourite china tea cup and saucer, brewed in a pot with loose leaves. The thoughts busied her, calmed her. She didn’t wait for an answer but stumbled into the kitchen and bustled around pulling things out of cupboards.

Dora was dying to take a pair of scissors to his lion’s mane of hair and beard. She visualised him transformed, like he was before, with a bath, shave and clean clothes. He looked so much older than his years. His clothes were smeared with black soil or tar. She imagined him as a small boy, blonde, fair skin prone to burning, shy, tall, awkwardly standing back from the group wanting desperately to be included. He always was a loner, found it hard to make friends. It made Ruby wonder if the voices were always there, the ones only he could hear.

She wanted to enclose him in the comfort of that old cream aran sweater that smelled of their dad, his pipe smoke and chopped firewood. Not many people knew the real Les. Her older brother. He’d been in and out of mental hospitals and rehab clinics since his teens, since his diagnosis as a schizophrenic.

‘As long as he takes his medication he’s not a danger to himself or to society,’ the psychiatrist’s diagnosis said, washing his hands of yet another burden. ‘He’s free to leave.’

Yeah right. But if he missed one dose he spiralled into confusion. He had his freedom but at what price if he couldn’t look after himself. Where should he live? Where would he call home, be safe, by an open fire, with bubbling meaty stews on the stove, hot baths infused with lavender oil; a place he could let go. She wondered if Les preferred his home in the park to that cold, shabby one they used to live in with the dodgy back door?

‘Hi mum!’ Ruby sauntered in the back door, dripping, sandy, and halted in concrete feet.

‘Mum! Are you OK? What’s going on?’ Her thoughts clashed. She was ready to run back out and raise the alarm for help. Freddie was on Mr Dreds’ knee for god’s sake. That had to be a good sign, the dogs were a good judge of character.

‘Ruby (pause), meet Les. Umm (Pause. Deep breath in and out), uncle Les to you.’ said Dora.

Ruby stared in disgust at the grey-black curling toenails, crispy skin, blistered creeping flesh, swollen with heat, mottled with cold; like corned beef, bulging veins protruding in a criss-crossed map of desperation. The putrid odour of cheese and onion made her stomach lurch and twist. She ran to the bathroom and vomited in deep retching hacks from the soles of her feet up to her eyeballs.

‘Sorry Les, bit of a shock for Ruby. I never told her who you are, er, as you can see. She’s just a kid.’

‘I think you’d better start at the beginning.’ Ruby said as she reappeared. ‘But first Les, er, uncle Les, sorry to be blunt but you really need a shower. Here.’

Ruby handed him an old towel and ushered him emphatically but kindly, with her long monkey ballerina arms, towards the bathroom.

The afternoon sea mist released its clawed grip, enveloping the air with the salty freedom of the ocean. Clouds slid gracefully across the sky. A stream of afternoon light poured in through the open back door washing the living room in a yellow glow.

 

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