Observational

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It’s pretty grim when, on day four of a blog writing challenge, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for blog ideas. Never fear, dear reader. I’m hoping that delightful observational insights from Singapore will keep you entertained until tomorrow. After all, there’s only so many times I can write about weddings, PhDs and my cat.

In Singapore, there’s a different seating hierarchy on public transport (hoooo boy, a public transport post already!). There really is though. In Australia, it’s pregnant women, people with disabilities, and older people who get the seats. Not you. Stand up. Go on. That’s the way. You get a warm fuzzy, the person in need gets a seat, not so complicated. Here in Singapore though, it is more complicated. There are significantly less seats. And those seats are taken way more seriously.

In Singapore, the MRT (and I really cannot speak for buses) seating hierarchy goes pregnant women, people with disabilities, kids then older people. Yes, kids are in on the seating chart here. In Singapore, people will give up their hard-fought seats for kids. Children. As in those small humans with bouncy bones and young legs. Yeah, them. They get priority over an older Aunty with two fistfuls of shopping bags. But the Aunties love it, they smile and coo, all the while eyeballing the person on the seat next door. They’re happy to give up their seat for a kid, but if they do, they damn well want yours to make up for it.

They say that the fastest you’ll see a Singaporean move is when there’s a spare seat on public transport. I’m not sure if that’s true, but what I have definitely observed is the number of people I’ve seen leap out of their seats for someone who they think is more deserving. I do hate to finish on a warm fuzzy but it’s a Friday night and I’ve had a few drinks. Happy weekend, readers!

Snow-ward bound

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It is the second day in December and the silly season is starting to set in. It’s also the second day of winter here in Singapore. I’ve been layering the bed with thick doonas and cosy blankets, I’ve wrapped myself in a warm cardigan and the kettle is boiling for that first winter cocoa. Not really. Right now it’s only 28 degrees which is actually cooler than usual. The kicker though is that it’s 88% humidity. Oh Singapore, never change. Winter is more of clothing style than an actual season here. More accurately, it’s monsoon time. Our second of the year, the northeast monsoon is characterised by loud, thundery storms that build up through the morning and explode in the afternoon. Similar to Australian summer but here the storms are all bark and no bite. Anyway, Singapore’s “winter” is making it difficult to fathom what Christmas will be like this year.

This year FS (future spouse? We’re workshopping the labelling thing still) and I are spending Christmas with his family in Europe. His parents are flying over from Australia and we’ll come from Singapore. We’re collecting his sister and her partner in London then heading to Denmark for Christmas with FS’s brother and his family. Christmas in Denmark, in December, in Europe. Winter is coming. And I am not ready.

My last 25 Christmases have been spent in the Southern Hemisphere. To me, Christmas is summer. It’s beach and stone fruits and mangoes and salads and sunburn and cricket and cold beers. It’s light hair and dark skin, and always having a layer of sand (and an empty beer bottle, thanks to a littering passenger) on the floor of the car. It’s not cold and dark, unless you’re sequestered away in air conditioning nursing a hangover or catching a Boxing Day movie.

A white Christmas looks lovely on TV or in movies, or when Bing Crosby is singing about it. But it’s going to be cold. I’ve always wanted to sink a few pints in an old London pub and complain about the tube (also to call it ‘the tube’ without feeling like a twat). But it’s going to be cold. Plus snowboarding and snow kiting sound like so much fun! But it’s going to be cold. I can’t quite get past it.

I don’t cope well with cold. It makes me grumpy and hungry. I also just don’t have the wardrobe for it. The warmest thing I have is a recently-acquired hiking jacket. It’s very much a function over form situation and, though it fared admirably on a volcano hike in Indonesia, I’m sceptical of its worth (aesthetically and practically) on the London High Street or in a snow-swaddled village in Denmark. Also on a shallower, less practical note, how do you look nice and respectable at all those ‘trendy London nightspots’ when you’re swaddled in 13 layers of clothing and resemble someone trying to subvert a Ryan Air baggage allowance? I just don’t know.

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Cold aside, and for me that’s a very big aside, I’m crazy excited. It’s going to be amazing. Apart from a teenage exchange trip to Germany, I’ve never been to Europe. I’ve only seen snow twice. It will be great to spend some time with FS’s family too, it’s been years since they’ve all been together so it’s going to be very special. And if it’s cold, it’s not the end of the world. I can always go shopping or borrow something. What better way to bond with my future sisters-in-law than by stealing their clothes?

Coins for Australia and the Bali Nine

I’m always surprised at how politicised travelling can be. When you arrive in another country and start talking to people, a number of topics come up: where are you from, where are you going, where’s good to eat, sport, culture, movies, Australian animals and cricket players; fairly innocuous stuff. But there are times when you are reminded that just because you’re not keeping up with the news doesn’t mean the news doesn’t exist.

We were having a chat with the manager of our hostel. He’d seen we lived in Singapore, “But where are you from?”

Australia, we told him.

“So you are defying Julia Bishop?” he asked, grinning.

I was taken aback. A man in a hostel down an alleyway in Jakarta (almost) knew the name of Australia’s foreign minister: it was impressive. A lot of Australians couldn’t tell you this much. Unfortunately, in context, his joking statement was also pretty embarrassing. News of Australia’s misguided foreign policy and stance on Indonesia had reached the backstreets of Jakarta, and was colouring people’s opinions of us. There was some awkward laughter and I proclaimed, too loudly, that I hadn’t voted for her.

This encounter stuck in my mind as the trip continued. We were treated to amazing scenery, chaotic traffic, incredible food, and, best of all, the friendly, wonderful people we met along the way who were so very patient with our bungling attempts at speaking Indonesian. Yet the implications of the actions of the Australian government hung over us, and the two Bali Nine on death row were never far from the top of minds.

I don’t agree with the death penalty. People should pay for their crimes but they should also have the opportunity to rehabilitate and better their situations. This becomes impossible if we kill them. This post is not about debating the death penalty, or the implicated guilt of drug smugglers in drug-related incidents. This is about the role of the Australian government in potentially signing the death warrant of these two men.

It has been almost 10 years since the Bali Nine were arrested. 10 years. That’s a lot of time for tactful diplomacy and negotiations. But instead, it has all blown up at the last minute, in the month leading up to the executions of the alleged ringleaders, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.

I’m not hiding of my left-leaning politics but successive governments, Labor and Liberal, have had the opportunities to make things better for Mr Sukumaran, Mr Chan and, frankly, bilateral relations. If respectful negotiations were ongoing rather ebbing and flowing based on newspaper headlines, the issue would have been resolved. No doubt the Bali Nine would still be serving a hefty prison sentence, but they would be safe in the knowledge that there’s no firing squad waiting for them at the end of that sentence.

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20 vision. We turn to what’s happening now, and the disgraceful handling of the situation by the Abbott government. First, calls to boycott Indonesia, and second Abbott’s tactless mentions of tsunami aid.

Boycotts of countries are always problematic as they tend to hurt the average citizens rather than influence the powers that be. Just imagine: if Australians suddenly stopped going to Bali. The government of Indonesia would eventually take notice and potentially support airlines and hotels to encourage more visitors from elsewhere to the region, but that would all take time. The first victims of this boycott would be the aunties and uncles selling drinks on the beach, the family-run restaurants who rely on a steady stream of Bintan-swilling Australians hungry for mie goreng, the guesthouses and the small souvenir stalls. It would be devastating at the lowest level of the local economy. It would be hurting the local people, not influencing government policy or laws.

A secondary aspect to this call for a boycott is whether Australians would actually do it. I wouldn’t for the above-mentioned reason, but I’m not the target demographic. This boycott is aimed at those Australians who regularly make the pilgrimage to Kuta for cheap drinks and hair braids. Triple J conducted an SMS poll over the Australia Day long weekend that revealed 52 percent of people surveyed believed that Australians convicted of drug trafficking overseas should be executed. So assuming this poll is reflective of general opinion, there’s more than half of the country that would not be fussed if the executions went ahead and would continue to go to Indonesia anyway. A boycott is a simplistic answer to a complex situation and one that is more focussed on placating the unsettled Australian public than actually influencing the fate of Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran. Australians who don’t support the death penalty can sip their lattes guilt-free as they read of the boycott in the weekend paper, smug in the knowledge that by simply not going to Indonesia they are “making a difference”.

Next, Abbott’s mention of tsunami aid and his transparent attempt to hold it over the head of the Indonesian people. How disgusting. 286,000 people died. Most of them Indonesians. Yes, Australia provided $1 billion in aid but how could we not? How could we stand by as our closest neighbour reeled from the effects of a cataclysmic natural disaster that affected many Australians as well? The fact that Abbott though it appropriate to use the tsunami aid as a political weapon less than eight weeks after the 10 year anniversary is deeply disturbing. Scars from events such as that do not heal quickly or easily. The anger that rises like bile in my throat is nothing when compared to what Indonesians must be feeling. The outrage that lead to the #coinsforAustralia, #coinsforAbbott, #KoinuntukAustralia campaign should not be surprising and is completely justified. For those unfamiliar with the campaign, as a sign of protest against Abbott’s lack of humanity, Indonesian’s are collecting coins to pay back Australia for the aid.

I was in Jakarta and paying more attention to street food than the news when Abbott made these comments. It’s a testament to the Indonesian people that we, as Australians, were not treated differently because of the ignorance and tactlessness of our ‘leader’. Not once did we experience any vitriol or even a mean look because we were Australians. In the same way, Australians need to rise above the misguided advice spewing from Parliament House and treat Indonesians the way we would like to be treated, regardless of their government policy and laws.

Unfortunately, government bungling has been a major distraction from the sad focus of the story. It’s looking as though Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan will be moved for execution at some stage this week. We can only hope for an 11th hour reprieve, and the only way this can happen is through urgent diplomacy. Abbott must apologise for his tsunami comments. He must dispel any illusions for a government-supported boycott of Indonesia. He must forget, for once in his entire reign as Prime Minister, about opinion polls and what’s on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. There are two men about to be killed. That is the perspective we need. Two men, whose fate will reverberate through their families, friends and communities. Two men who made a mistake, and who may never be given the chance to atone for it. Mercy and compassion are the true tests of strength. It will take a lot of strength for Indonesia to show leniency in the light of the Australia’s political chest thumping. But for the sake of those two men, I hope they do. I stand for mercy.

Jakarta and Krakatau

We celebrated the start of the Year of the Ram by climbing an active volcano. Indonesia, as always, was incredible. It seemed like we packed a lifetime into four days. We were mobbed by teenagers wanted photos in Fatahillah Square, we ate our weight in incredible food, and stalked the President on his Sunday morning walk from Monas. After a three hour car trip through Jakarta’s notorious traffic and a choppy boat ride, we arrived at Anak Krakatau. We climbed the volcano and played amateur geologists with sulphur rocks, we warmed our hands on steam vents and skidded down the gravelly slope. We camped in the shadow of the volcano and snorkelled on the reefs its rich sand has created. We watched the sunrise over Mama Krakatau before heading back into the chaos of the city. Krakatau was one of the most impressive places I’ve ever been. But have I mentioned the food? The. Food. Terima kasih for an absolutely awesome weekend!

Childhood reading

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My parents, those voracious hoarders, have kept all of our childhood books. Despite increasing pleas to give them away and clean up, they remain in two buckling bookshelves in the living room. In defence of my parents, many of the books aren’t in any state to be given away. The condition of the book directly related to its popularity. The Harry Potter series is falling apart except for a few pristine volumes that were replacements for originals that disintegrated. Favourites are missing pages or are splattered with food. Some look they might have taken a dip in a bathtub or swimming pool. As unattractive and shabby as they are, the books are a nostalgic trip back through childhood for my brother and I. Roald Dahl and Morris Gleitzman share a shelf with 90s YA classics like Animorphs who sit above my grandmother’s complete Narnia series (I’ll give them back soon, I promise, I just need them for another 10 years). Novels occupy the top two shelves of each bookcase, the bottom shelves are reserved for the big books. Picture books, fact books, craft books, covering every topic from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the 2009 Book of Guinness World Records. There’s books on weather (no, actually that one is here with me in Singapore), volcanoes, the ocean, the solar system, cats, Where’s Wally, and my brother’s favourite: the choose-your-own adventure stories.

There is one book in particular that still exerts a certain degree of influence over me. I wish I could say it was Chaucer or Joyce or even Enid Blyton. It’s not. It’s a big blue book of facts with silly cartoon illustrations. It’s called “facts about everything” or something along those lines. It contains useless facts on a range of topics from motor vehicles to sport and everything in between. My favourite was the nature page. That page is the reason why, on our final day in Borneo, instead of relaxing and preparing for our flight, Partner 2 and I spent two hours on a bus followed by a 40 minute hike. All to spend 10 minutes inspecting the world’s largest, smelliest flower, the Rafflesia. We then turned around and went back into town so we could fly home. And it was totally worth it. I can vividly picture the cartoonish Rafflesia illustration in that blue book. I can also picture the drawing of a giant Sequoia with a tunnel cut into its trunk and a car driving through it to show the ridiculous size of those trees. I can see a picture of a Saguaro cactus, wearing a sombrero of course. I can also see the volcano section.

Krakatoa was there. The book wrote of its apocalyptic eruption in 1883: how the sound of the eruption was heard in Perth and Mauritius, the devastating tsunami that followed, the effect on global climate for years afterwards, and that the volcano literally blew itself up, leaving practically nothing left of the island she called home. Not the most appropriate subject matter for a child perhaps, considering the hundreds of thousands of people that died and the bodies that washed up in Africa a year after the eruption. Nonetheless, Dad in particular encouraged this one. Perhaps he had visions of having a wealthy geologist for a daughter? The follow-up book he bought me was more scientific. I read about tectonic plates and the crust of the earth, the San Andreas Fault line and the Pacific Ring of Fire, magma vs lava, about other famous volcanos: Pompeii, Mount St Helens and even Anak Krakatoa, the volcano that rose out of the ashes (volcano pun!) of Krakatoa and is growing at a rate of seven metres per year. I read about how the movement of the plates formed the Himalayas and why Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world from base to peak. Unfortunately for Dad, who was no doubt mentally spending his daughter’s future geology income, this interest led to a fascination about how the continents formed which led to dinosaurs. Sorry, Dad!

Anyway, I digress enormously, as usual. The reason for all this nostalgia is an upcoming trip, perhaps indirectly inspired by that damn blue book. We’re spending Lunar New Year climbing Krakatoa. The discussions around the impending trip have been punctuated with “fun facts” and Partner 2 rolling his eyes, though he has come around since he watched (of his own free will!) a documentary on Krakatoa.

The thought of setting foot on something so powerful is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. It will be hugely humbling, I imagine, to be in the presence of such a violent testament to the strength and volatility of nature. An explosive reminder of who’s really in charge around here. Because for all our technological and medical advances, for all the seismographic equipment and forecasting models, if a volcano’s erupting, you run. If there’s a tsunami coming, you run. If there’s an earthquake or a typhoon, you run. What else can you do?

Despite this talk of bowing at the altar of nature’s strength and power, I am (at the risk of my own demise) hoping for a little eruption. Just a tiny one. Just some smoke and a dribble of lava. For scientific observations, of course, and absolutely not to appease my strange inner child. So if you don’t hear from me after this weekend, you’ll know that Krakatoa, or potentially her son, got the better of me.

Krakatoa permitting though, next time I’m home, I’ll be borrowing that blue book.

Homeward bound

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I’ve been suffering from some fairly irritating writers’ block lately. Everything I jot down is scribbled out or deleted or filed away in a bottomless ‘Drafts’ folder. I’ve found that if I can’t write a post straight away, in one go, the idea tends to languish and rot away. I lose interest and… yeah… You’ve seen the results, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

I’m hoping this evening though will provide some relief from my block. It obviously has already and it’s not even here yet. This evening I’m heading to the airport to fly home. A situation fraught with emotions and writing material!

For some unknown reason, I expected a triumphant homecoming. I’d sweep off the plan clad in designer sunglasses and smart-casual leisurewear, full of stories about the exotic Orient (is Singapore the Orient?) where I now call home, and suddenly be worldly and erudite beyond measure. I’d sneer at Australia, land of uncultured convicts, and bemoan the fact there’s no authentic satay in Brisbane.

Where do I get these notions from? Honestly, I think I watch too much TV. Instead, I’m going home to catch up with friends and family. To eat whatever is on the dinner table. To roll my eyes when my Mum fusses about how much protein I’m eating and if I’m making friends. To go to the beach. To maybe wear a jumper to survive the paltry high-20s temperatures and low humidity. To see whether the place has changed or stayed the same. To see if I’ve changed or stayed the same.

In true Australian fashion, I’ll be picked up by my Dad and his cattle dog. My togs are at the top of my backpack, ready for an airport bathroom costume change. We’ll go straight to the beach. I can feel the hot sand under my feet already. I can feel the gasp in my throat, ready for the shock of plunging into cool, clear salt water.

In case it’s not painfully obvious, I’m a little excited. So I’ll see you on the other side! Of the equator, that is. Hopefully I’ll have something more compelling to write about than airports and sand.

Meandering in Malacca

“It’s nice… just for the weekend though.”

That was the general consensus when others learned of our trip to Malacca, Malaysia. The former Portuguese/Dutch/British outpost had the most beautiful blend of architecture, from the thick-walled Dutch buildings to the intricacies of the traditional Malay terrace houses. I’d be interested to know the rate of museums per capita because there seemed to be one on every corner documenting everything from stamps to Chinese jewellery. Despite this rich deposti of touristy goodness, we seemed to spend more time eating than doing anything else. Malay coffee, Nyonya cendol, satay, Taiwanese cakes, ice cream eggs, Portuguese curry, mee and nasi in all forms, and one incredible mint chocolate milkshake. Malacca was definitely nice, but yes, just for the weekend. If only for the sake of my waistline…

We love Africa but it hurts

Some thoughts for my South African friends and (adopted/stolen) family.

The Swedish African

A South African woman came by my brother- and sister-in-law’s bakery in Billeberga, Sweden the other day and mentioned that she’d heard of another South African (me) who was flitting about town.

And as the story goes with most South African expats – she proceeded to make a case for why her and her husband had left their disastrous, God-forsaken country and immigrated to 1,100-strong Billeberga, where it’s safe and clean and where life couldn’t be more perfect. A place where people live equally, work hard and leave their front doors open at night.

“We love Africa but it hurts,” she said

The final straw — she told my brother-in-law — came when their young family fell victim to crime – for a second time.

Ja, ja, it’s the same spiel we hear from South African expats the world over but heck! I don’t want to judge her when…

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Community cats: best thing ever.

Yet another excellent thing about Singapore is the phenomenon of community cats. Ahh, community cats. Australia truly is a backwards society, you know.

As a cat enthusiast (we don’t like the term ‘cat lady’), I have been known to bestow love on needy albeit flea-bitten street cats. Ugly cats need love too. Despite the risk of rabies and parasites, I have chased cats all over the world: from the alley ways of Ho Chi Minh City to the streets of Cape Town. Here is no different but most street cats tend to be friendly and well-fed here. How can this be, I wondered. Does Singapore have some kind of advanced cat welfare system? Meow for the dole? The answer came on a trip to Tanah Merah. After meeting a delightful street cat, I noticed a sign explaining that dogs were banned from the area because one had attacked one of their beloved community cats. Community cats. The answer.

The vast majority of people here live in high density housing, huge blocks of thousands of apartments, it makes sense to have communal pets. I was impressed: damn Singapore, you think of everything! But the true potential of the community cat wasn’t revealed to me until I turned into my street at the end of a sweaty run. A lady was empty a tin of cat food onto the footpath much to the delight of two hungry kitties. This probably sounds unhygienic but, trust me, the cats are clean eaters and gobble up every speck. There’s never any fishy surprises underfoot when you walk to the train. Such potential though! We have community cats in our street! A different evening revealed the full extent of our community cats. Walking home from dinner, we found a lady dishing up cat food to a horde of cats and kittens. At least 10 or 15. She was a bigwig in the community cat community apparently. It was amazing. I felt like this:

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So I’ve been wondering how to break in to the community cat racket. Is it as simple as buying some extra cat food and dumping it on the footpath? Or do you need to amass some followers first? Should I poach those followers from the bigwig cat boss or is that leaving me open to retribution? Will I wake with a severed mouse head on the pillow next to me? You can understand my conundrum. So for now, I’m restricted to my one private cat plus one loyal street cat affectionately known as The Cat. The Cat is barely older than a kitten and lives between our apartment and the train. We see her when it’s cool, usually in the late afternoon. She has taken to ignoring other suitors to trot over and say hello to me. It isn’t much, but it could be the start of something. A community cat colony the likes of which have never been seen before. Excuse me, I’m off to force Tippy to sit on my lap so I can pet her evil villain-style.

The Trailing Talent’s Guide to Expat Life

(Alternate Title: So You Followed Your Husband onto a Plane)

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Ah learning. If it wasn’t so much fun, we wouldn’t keep doing it, amiright? I found myself at an expat “welcome to Singapore” morning tea about a week ago, having finally been coerced into attending despite being here for three months. And goodness gracious me, did I learn a lot!

Having charged past the mingling groups to the coffee pot and filled my cup, I sat down at an empty table. Honestly, who can network pre-coffee? Not me. While caffeinating, I was joined by three women, probably mid-to-late thirties, wearing florals. I had missed some sort of memo apparently.

The first thing I was asked was how many kids I had. Fun. I managed to suppress a hysterical shriek and smile politely, “Oh me? Teehee, I don’t have any children, I’m much too young!” That’s what I meant to say anyhow, what really came out was a snort of coffee and “No.” The next question I was asked was what my husband does for work. Hmm. Another head-scratcher. Again I was tempted by the low road, “I don’t see no raaaang on this finger!” Instead, I told them what my partner did for a living, and they were most relieved when I eventually used a male pronoun.

Then finally, did I plan on working? Yes. Easy. What do I do? More complicated. I swept what was left of my dignity up off the floor and cupped it in my hands. “ACTUALLY, I’M ABOUT TO UNDERTAKE DOCTORAL STUDIES IN THE FIELD OF DEVELOPMENT AND COMMUNICATION.” A mild exaggeration, I may not have applied for anything yet, but it sounds good. I was met with polite smiles and nods. They were much better at this than I am.

Mercifully, the presentation started. I learnt more than I ever cared to know about schools and good children’s health care. I picked up a few tips on managing overseas finances and converting your drivers’ license. I also learned my place in the expat hierarchy. “We understand that the trailing talent market is completely overlooked by employers.” I’m sorry, the what now? Trailing talent? Really? I swung around in my chair, searching the audience for incredulous faces and shared “is she serious?” looks. Nope. Everyone was listening politely, some were jotting down notes. Eish. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Trailing talent sounds like something you used to be good at. Hey, I used to speak fluent German but I’ve kinda let it slip, it’s my trailing talent now. I tuned back in to the presentation, the lady was now explaining the careers section of their website. “We understand you and your circumstances! That’s why we predominantly advertise jobs that are part time (because we know how you feel about leaving the kids with your Indonesian ‘helper’)! But there are other jobs too, if your husband feels like a change!” It was along those lines anyway.

I was starting to feel like an undercover agent in a cheap disguise. Soon my fake moustache would peel off at the corner and they would realise I was an interloper. I’d be tied to a chair with statement jewellery and pistol-whipped with oversized clutches. I’d disappear for a week to be re-educated and emerge a perfect, floral-clad trailing talent.

The presentation wrapped up and we were invited to linger for lunch. At an Australian pub. In Singapore. No thanks. I said my goodbyes (“Lovely to meet you, lovely to meet you, see you next time!”) and bailed. While the ladies lingered, waiting to be picked up, I stomped through the puddles to the train. Expats are a strange breed of people, but I guess this is what moving overseas is all about: getting to know new cultures and people you wouldn’t normally mix with. Even if those people happen to come from Brisbane.