Gili Asahan

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Yeah, it was pretty nice.

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Site inspection

Disclaimer: engagement post. Abandon all hope ye who enter.

dore-divine-comedyIllustration by Gustave Flore

After being engaged for almost exactly seven months (yes, I had to look it up), Partner 2 and I are actually making steps towards actually getting married, or having a wedding at least. We are looking at our first venue, a beautiful island in Indonesia. Though I’m slightly more excited to spend a few days snorkelling and lying on a beach, the prospect of actually looking at a venue is giving this weekend away a very serious and business-like overtone. I can’t shake the feeling that I need a clipboard. I thought it was flashbacks from when I worked as an event manager but a quick google of wedding venue checklists revealed that perhaps I needed a series of binders instead of just a clipboard. My checklist at the moment is pretty much:

Is the food good? Y/N

Is there enough accommodation? Y/N

Apparently the venue must be ruthlessly interrogated, under the threat of duress if possible, on anything that may affect the potential event. Bird migration patterns, local historical events with anniversaries coinciding with the event dates, fluoride content of tap water, coarseness of beach sand, it’s all fair game. How awful it must be to be on the other side of this interaction. Having highly-strung, wild-eyed couples descending upon you and being quizzed with the enthusiasm of a bored airport security officer. Any stutter, pause or unsatisfactory answer runs the risk of the happy couple sprouting black wings from their shoulder blades and screeching “IT’S MY SPECIAL DAY!” That’s how I’m planning to behave anyway. Brideharpy Bridget at the ready.

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On a slightly more serious note, looking at a venue makes this whole getting married thing seem real. The ring doesn’t do that, it’s too pretty to be taken seriously. Actually going to a place and assessing if it’s ‘right’ for our wedding? Bizarre.

I’ve been slow to shake the feeling that we’re waiting on permission from some mysterious higher-up. A government body perhaps, that deems people worthy of marriage.

Dear Partner 1 and Partner 2,

It is with deep regret that I write to inform you that your application to wed has been rejected. While we are unable to provide individual feedback, common reasons for rejection include:

  • Failure to lodge the correct paperwork,
  • Pre-existing marriage,
  • Inability to make a decision on what to have for dinner,
  • Singing the theme song to “Rainbow Road” from Mario Kart loudly at your partner in public,
  • Throwing a Frisbee into the sea and making your fully-clothed partner get it.

Please return your engagement ring to the relevant case worker assigned to your relationship.

Regards,

Committee to Oversee Marriage Appropriateness

We’re yet to receive our COMA results so this weekend is a go. I’ll post some photos when we get back. You can be the judge of how it went: I’ll either be wearing sunglasses and smiling with a Bintang in hand or I’ll be beating my wings and clutching the shreds of a binder in my talons.

Easter in the jungle

 

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One of the worst things about weekends is how short they are and how quickly they disappear. As if through some sort of dark magic, Friday night manages to very quickly dissolve into Sunday afternoon. There’s a specific feeling that rolls around on Sunday night when you realise you’ve spent the last two days wearing pyjamas and playing on your phone while the TV mumbles in the background. Mourning a weekend wasted is not the best way to start a new week.

Weekend escape is a vague phrase trotted out by tour companies and airlines to sell everything from mystery hotel staycations to all-inclusive resort packages. To me though, neither of these are escape. Escape is the opposite of everyday. It’s a phone on flight mode and ignored, it’s getting dirty when the real world demands clean, it’s doing things the hard way when everything is easy and convenient. I know it’s not for everyone, but getting out into nature is my favourite way to escape. Desert, rainforest, tundra, mountains, it’s all good, but my particular favourite is the jungle. It’s immersive, unforgiving and another world completely from the sanitary, city-scapes of Singapore. Fortunately, I don’t have to go far to get my fix. An hour flight and a few hours’ drive is all it took last weekend.

Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra was the setting for our Easter long weekend. While our Instagram and Facebook feeds filled up with picture of foil-covered chocolate, we chose orangutans over bunnies and bird-watching over egg hunts. After a night in the hazy chaos of Medan and a winding, potholed drive, the oil palm plantations gave way to pristine rainforest and rivers so clear it was impossible to judge their depth. Bukit Lawang was our gateway to the jungle. The sleepy town leaned over the banks of the Bahorok River, whose gentle rapids were the ultimate playground for the local kids. I could have spent a week there, but all we had was one afternoon, well-spent exploring bat caves and sinking frosty Bintangs with spicy food.

Our trek began the next morning, before we had even cleared the rubber trees of the village, our guide pointed out a tiny snake halfway through swallowing a frog that was three or four times its size. Welcome to the jungle.

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Much like the hapless frog and the, likely very full, snake, the jungle has a way of consuming you. It dictates your every movement and permeates your every thought. Humidity settles around you like a thick coat and your eyes become sensitive to flurries of movement in your peripheral vision. Time is blurred: you could have been walking for ten minutes or an hour, the trees dilute the sun’s light and make it impossible to judge what a clock might say. But suddenly, it doesn’t matter.

The boots that seemed so bulky and unwieldy when you stuffed them in your check-in luggage are the only thing stopping you from slipping on damp leaf litter and hidden slick clay. Fingers that spend most of their time tapping on keyboards are suddenly grasping rocky ledges and curling around vines. You’re not sure if you’re soaked with rain or sweat, your arms bear the marks of mosquitoes and sharp sticks, mud cakes around your boots and also your bum from scooting down those places that were just too steep. But you don’t notice, all that matters is that next footfall. In this modern age, we might call it mindfulness. Nothing else exists except for that moment.

I challenge anyone to think about emails while tentatively bouncing on a tree root to see if it’ll take your weight. Is it even possible to think about work when you’re staring up at a Sumatran orangutan who is peering right back at you with her impossibly expressive eyes? A final example, and one that is probably more aligned with the general tone of this blog, is if social media is on your mind when you’re coaxing your tired, shaking legs to squat over a jungle toilet. I’m going to guess, probably not.

But then, just as quickly as you arrived, you leave. A hot shower and soap are exquisite luxuries at first, but as you scrub the jungle from your skin, the real world comes flooding back. Then it’s flight times and bag-packing, taxis from the airport and morning alarm clocks. Your bed accepts you back as though you never left. But it takes a bit of time to get back to normal, longer than if you spent the weekend at home. There’s a part of you still in the jungle; in your mind’s eye, you look like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway, and are still quietly amazed by the potable tap water and clean, quiet comfort of home. The jungle’s effect on time lingers. It feels like you were gone for a long time, but you weren’t. Just an Easter long weekend.

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

Kaboooom!

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.