First night in the field

20170612_102315Fieldwork has begun and it has been quite a start. There was a pre-pre-dawn departure, a delayed flight, a sweaty, steaming sprint between terminals, and then eventually touching down. But then it was on to the next leg. Two flights and a three-hour drive through windy, hilly roads with nothing but coffee sloshing around in my stomach did not make for a happy camper.

So, when the friend of a friend who had been helping me asked if I wanted to come to his parent’s place for dinner, my first instinct was to say no, thank you. I was tired and confused, and a little homesick already. Feeling completely out of my depth and in need of some decompression time. Fortunately, it struck me how rude it might have been to refuse the invitation so I accepted. Only after this I remembered my India survival technique. You have to say yes. Or at least shrug and go with “why not?”.

Because, much like her auto drivers and tourist touts, India doesn’t take no for an answer. She demands that you say yes. Obviously there are some fairly major caveats to this advice, I may be a solo female traveller in India but I’m not a complete idiot. It’s maybe not the best idea to follow shady dudes down dark alleys because they asked you too. But new experiences, meeting new people, eating new things, they’re kind of the reasons we travel in the first place. While India may be intimidating, so much so that the first instinct is to withdraw and regroup, that’s not why I’m here.

So we piled into our local host’s tiny Tata car and set off along the narrow mountain roads. The area was lush and green and stunning. The front seat were talking about how there had been elephants in the village two days early. The road curled around a tea factory and the air smelt like overbrewed tea.

As we pulled up in the village, there was a bit of a stereotypical moment. The car pulled up and we strangers got out. Two from the city, and me from somewhere else entirely. The men who were loading a truck with bags full of tea leaves stopped and stared. The children who had run up to the car initially hid behind each other and gaped. I pasted on my best goofy “hello” smile and followed our host up the hill.

We met his parents who smiled and welcomed us into their pristine home. It was warm inside, with the low ceilings and doorways trapping the heat in a way that was cosy, not smothering. Introductions were made complete with some broken English and completely butchered Tamil (mine obviously). “Come, we’ll take our tea outside.” It was hard to leave that toasty house that was just starting to smell like an amazing dinner spread. But it was worth it. The air outside was cold and crisp. We sat on plastic chairs and sipped on steaming hot, sweet chai. The village was on a steep slope, and this patio seemed to be on the main thoroughfare. This might not have been accidental, it turns out our host’s father was the village headman. People were constantly stopping by to have a chat and gawp at the foreigner. Two of the braver children stood near enough to headbutt me but were too shy to say hello.

It was pretty magical. Sometimes in the chaos and the filth and the poverty and the frustration, it’s easy to forget that India is indeed a special place. Bitch is manipulative. She makes you wait in ridiculous queues and tries to run you down with a trolley first, then a car, then a cow. She bakes you in steamy humidity then chills you with dry, dusty winds. She taunts you with images of delicious curries and rice, but then serves you a cheese sandwich. Still not sure how that happened.

Anyway, but then India turns in on and all is forgiven. It certainly was that night. After the long day of travel, I somehow ended up in a postcard of what fieldwork in India should look like. On a rooftop in a remote village, eating biscuits and drinking chai. The sun had long disappeared behind the mountains and the air smelt of cooking smoke and cows. “This might be what it’s all about,” I thought, as my host generous pushed the plate of biscuits towards me again. I declined though, gotta save room for that curry.

 

Sir-tainly

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 Hyderabad sunset

I’ve been in India planning and getting organised, as much as possible, for my fieldwork. To say it’s been a learning curve would be an understatement. While I’ve visited as a tourist, immersing myself in another academic culture when I’m not really that familiar with my own has been quite an experience.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long until my first, inevitable, cultural faux pas revealed itself.

Now, as a disclaimer, I wouldn’t say I’m excessively anti-authority, just the garden-variety, convict-descendent, Australian kind where everyone is called by their first name or “mate”.

I realised on my first trip here that I’d made a grave error. In all my emails prior to the trip, it was my usual approach of first name usage. Perfectly normal in Australia. I call my supervisor by her first name, I call faculty members at my uni by their first names, I called my former boss, a dean, by her first name, and, in turn, they all called me Bridget.

When I arrived in India and was greeted by a PhD student, it was all Professor So-and-so, First Name Sir, First Name Ma’am. I had an awful sinking feeling that I’d been ignorantly rude to the people who were kind enough to host me and assist in facilitating my research. Woops. Not that any of them called me on my cultural ignorance, but still, I’ve made sure that my speech and emails are liberally punctuated with sirs and ma’ams and professors and doctors ever since.

The phenomenon is not just associated with professional courtesy. At a conference, even older peers, fellow PhD students, got the sir or ma’am treatment. If I pulled that in the PhD student offices back home, I would either be laughed at, or people would think I was taking the piss, and they’d beat me up.

Speckling my emails with “sirs” and “ma’ams” is easy, but saying the words out loud is more difficult. They feel awkward and insincere. Not that I don’t have the utmost respect for the people I’m working with, it’s just surprisingly difficult to adjust to a culture that is so serious about putting that respect into words. Singapore is similar but more colloquial in terms of the use of Aunty and Uncle. Aunty and Uncle though seem much friendlier and more accessible ways of respecting those older than you, which is almost a cultural difference in itself. Even bhaiya feels a more natural, as much as is possible for a non-native Hindi speaker anyway…

For the mean time though, I’ll get used to “sirs” and “ma’ams”. At the end of the day, it’s probably one of the more minor cultural differences I’ve encountered since arriving in India! Plus, getting into the habit of being polite and respectful, albeit more formal than I’m used to, could never be a bad thing, right mate?

Opportunity cost

Opportunity cost is one of the very few things I remember from the economics unit I had to take at uni.

Until the last couple of months, I’ve never considered the opportunity cost of moving to Singapore. The benefits always seemed to outweigh anything we left behind, friends and family aside, of course. Plus, it’s not that far to visit.

I avoided writing this for a few reasons. I also spent a long time sitting on it, not sure if this is something I really want to share. Out of respect to my family, obviously. My cousins and aunt. And also my mum, who is still not ok. “I just had a moment,” she says.

A few months ago, I went to Sri Lanka on holidays. It was amazing. It’s such a special place and we had a fantastic trip. But while I was there my uncle passed away.

It was a pretty tumultuous time. I spent hours on the phone. When I got the news that he was moving to palliative care, I was on the verge of getting the next bus, train and flight back to Australia.

“Don’t come. We’re ok. Just send lots of pictures. Enjoy your holiday.”

Enjoy my holiday. I never expected that to be one of the most upsetting things said to me. But I tried. I sent photos. Mum showed them to my aunt, and my uncle in the hospital. They loved them, the kitesurfing, the sunsets over the beach, the cheap beer pictures. Under no circumstances were we to come home.

Then my uncle died. I spoke to my dad. “Please just tell me what to do. I want to be there.”

“It will just upset your mother and your aunt if you come back.”

Then my mum.

“Don’t come back, we’re all ok.”

I still don’t know if I did the right thing.

The rest of the trip was a rollercoaster of phone calls and tears, while trying to pull myself together to enjoy where we were and not spoil the trip for Partner 2. Which resulted in situations like me crying quietly while on a safari jeep but wiping my nose and giving Partner 2 a manic smile when he asked if I was ok. I’m sure it was tough on Partner 2, who doesn’t cope well with other people’s emotions at the best of times. This was something I was quick to lash out at, at the time. On reflection though, he was the one making sure I was eating and sleeping, he was booking trains and pointing out interesting thing, he was making sure we could always get phone reception when I needed it. Just goes to show what you want isn’t always what you need.

I looked back over family photos, as you do in these situations. There’s a gorgeous one from last Christmas, of the whole family, aunts, uncles, cousins, Grandma and Grandad, all around the table. Mum sent it to me, because I wasn’t there. The only one missing. And it was about to happen again. I wouldn’t be there.

Guilt intermingled with the sadness, which was followed by more guilt. How could I possibly be making this about me right now? My younger brother, who was inexplicably sage, told me not to beat myself up. “Everyone is here to support everyone; you just look after yourself.” It’s most off-putting when your baby brother is suddenly the wise one.

So the funeral came and went, as did our trip. I was ready to fly out to Brisbane within hours of arriving back in Singapore. But then the call came. “Don’t come. We’re not ready.” So I didn’t. I rebooked and waited.

When I eventually got home, we sat around the table after dinner. I nursed a beer while my parents finished their second bottle of wine. My grandparents had gone to bed and the conversation had turned from the forced light chitchat of dinner. There was a box of tissues on the table.

Mum asked when the last time I saw my uncle was. My throat had closed and I couldn’t meet her eyes. The question I’d been dreading. Because I didn’t know. And I’d been scared to wrack my brain because I knew the answer was a long time ago. Because I haven’t been there. I attempted a wry laugh but it died before it came out.

“On TV, at the Melbourne Cup. I should have been here.”

There were more tears and hugs and stories and booze.  As my sage brother said, it doesn’t get easier, we just need to figure out what normal is now. So wise.

In a nutshell, that’s why I’ve been thinking about opportunity cost lately. Living overseas is fantastic and I’m so lucky to be able to do so, but there’s always an opportunity cost. I just didn’t realise what it was until now.

 

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.

To heed the call?

I saw something on Pinterest that I didn’t understand. That in itself is not ground-breaking, I really don’t get half the shit that’s on there, particularly in the burlap-bound, flower-crowned, hellish depths that are the Weddings section. That is another post entirely though. No, this one pops up in the Travel section and a variety of “inspirational” quote boards.

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The quote is attributed to John Muir, a Scottish-American adventurer/environmental philosopher/conservation, who, by all accounts, seems like a pretty cool guy. He spent his days tramping through the wilderness of California, exploring, studying, writing. The quote is from a letter to his sister: “The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” The last, oft-redacted, part of the quote sells it way more for me. Sounds like someone who has nailed their research topic, which is the dream, really.

Back to the mountains. Admittedly my mountain experience is limited. That comes with spending the majority of your life within spitting distance of sea level. But I climbed Kinabalu and bloody hated it. Rinjani did much to redeem mountains but I’d never been 100% sold. I love hiking and the outdoors, and I physically miss the ocean when I’m away from it for too long, but the mountains have never called to me the way they apparently call to so many keyboard climbers.

A book changed that. I’m sure that makes me no different from the Pinners that post these whimsical quotes and daydream about rose-tinted peaks, but it’s true. The book was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, about the same events that the recent movie, Everest, was based on. I had no idea about the 1996 tragedy on Everest and no real interest in mountains but the author also wrote Into the Wild, one of my favourite books and my favourite movie, so I downloaded it for a seven-hour flight. The book consumed me. I hate reading on screens but I couldn’t stop. I ran my phone’s battery dead reading non-stop. When I landed in Singapore and got home, the first thing I did was charge my phone so I could finish. I’ve read it twice in two months and sung its praises to just about everyone who has made eye contact.

Safe to say the book had an impact. I had nightmares about storms and cold. The Himalaya became regulars in my browser search history. They were never too far from the top of my mind. It was not that the experience was romanticised. Far from it. Krakauer captured the dangers and pain of mountaineering with journalistic precision and openly catalogued the effects such a hobby has on the loved ones of those who do it. Nonetheless, I was equally terrified and enthralled. I was not exactly inspired to pick up some rope and crampons, and throw myself into a new sport but the fascination remained.

Base camp is a fixture on many a bucket list, Partner 2 has even expressed interest in the past. Not me though, the physical and mental strength that drives people uphill through thinning air is something I can only analyse from a distance, an interesting scientific phenomenon from which I am removed. But, I do want to see it. Everest. From a distance is fine. But I want to try and understand the pull. The power it has over people, who endure pain and suffering, who test the limits of the human body, and who risk their lives to stand on the summit. If the mountains are calling, then this one surely has the loudest voice.

So I guess the, long-winded, point of this post is that I get it now. I get it, John Muir. I understand how mountains can call, they might even be calling me a little bit. What I’m wary of is the rhapsodised, sepia-toned representations. We’re not always called to things that are good for us. Who says the mountain’s call isn’t a sinister one? A siren song. It’s not really a call that can be made by someone at sea level. Maybe one day I’ll find out.

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.

Bested in Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia

As someone who has travelled fairly extensively in Asia and is a vegetarian, I considered myself immune to all but the most insidious cases of food poisoning. You get used to scanning for the gastrointestinally problematic. Check the ice, avoid the salad, look for the popular street food stalls, is it hot? Can you peel it? It becomes second nature when travelling in Asia. Singapore though has incredibly high food safety standards, you’d be hard-pressed to get sick here without having to import some Indonesian tap water. As easy as it would be to fall into blasé patterns, usually I’m very aware that as soon as you step off an aerobridge at Changi you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. My history of digestive trauma has been fairly well-documented, but the last episode was years ago, at the end of my last trip to India. These factors meant that my food guard was down on our recent trip to Europe. Way down. As in, “Europe, do your worst!” down.

It was a perfect storm. Living in Asia snobbery (“Please, if that road-side lassi stand didn’t make me sick, nothing will!”), assumptions of vegetarian immunity (“Bacteria eats rotten flesh, not me. Veggie power!), combined with a long spell between attacks (“I am the possessor of the iron stomach! Haahahahaha!”). Naturally, it all came crashing down, in Barcelona of all places. A beautiful city of culture, art and architecture,  and one that’s famous for food and drink too. On paper, we did everything right. A restaurant close to our hotel, in the tourist district but still crowded with locals every day. We ordered a selection of tapas, nothing that we hadn’t tried before, nothing outlandish. Everything tasted great. We paid and retired for the evening. Everything was fine.

Until a few hours later. I woke to Partner 2 leaping out of bed to stagger to the bathroom and make some very upsetting noises. The full spectrum. Use your imagination. When he came back to bed, his face was grey and his hand shook as he took a sip from his water bottle. “I don’t think that dinner was good. How are you feeling?” I was fine, I told him and made some assorted comforting noises and sentiments. Partner 2 is a bit notorious for having a delicate stomach, as much as he loathes to admit it. I was not concerned. It must have been whatever meat he and his sister shared.

As Partner 2 lay sweating in the foetal position, just waiting for his next urgent dash to the bathroom, I went back to sleep. Empathetic as always. Looking back on it now seems like a horror movie when the girl goes down into the dark basement alone. Stop, stupid girl, obviously you’re going to get murdered! But it’s always too late. Hindsight is 20/20.

Sure enough, an hour or so later, I awoke to stabbing pains in my stomach and ran to the bathroom to revisit dinner. Again and again. In between attacks of vomiting, I remembered two things. The first that males generally have faster metabolisms than females. The second, and more critical point, was that no-one had ordered any meat. We had all shared vegetarian tapas.

After a fitful few hours of sleep punctuated by sprints to the bathroom to purge any remaining stomach contents, there was a resigned knock on the door. Partner 2’s sister was at the door looking like she’d been hit by a truck. We all sat on the bed trying to comprehend the fact that in just a few hours we had to get in a taxi and go to the airport, then fly to London, then sit on a train for an hour. Drugs. We needed drugs. Partner 2 and his sister bravely went on a mission across the road to the chemist while I threw up a few more times for good measure.

Retrospectively, it could have been a lot worse. The hotel gave us late check out and the medicine we procured gave us a few hours of precious vomit-free sleep and meant we could keep down some water. By the time we had to head to the airport, after some sleep, electrolytes and a shower, our collective condition has been upgraded from “Kill me now” to just “Awful”. Needless to say it was a long taxi ride, I clutched a plastic bag fearfully, the electrolytes I had drunk threatening to reappear at any moment. But we made it. I even ate something at the airport. The flight was mercifully short and our Uber driver was right where we needed him to be.

I think he was in real danger of being hugged by his three passengers. Despite the signs of inevitable recovery, I had never been so happy to see a blow-up mattress before in my life. We collapsed into bed and slept for 12 hours. Barcelona had bested us. My iron stomach had been demoted back to a regular human organ. And I doubt I’ll ever eat tapas again.

 

 

 

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.