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.

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…

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.

Home.

Anuradhapura butterflies
Anuradhapura butterflies

Sometime it takes going away to realise where your home is.

I haven’t felt homesick once since the move to Singapore. Of course, I miss friends and family, and I’m very much looking forward to going home for Christmas, but there hasn’t yet been that overwhelming sadness of the “What have I done? I want to go home!!” variety.

Naturally, I swirled my kopi and attributed this to my imagined status of “citizen of the world”. “The world is my home,” I said to Tippy, who did not even look up from licking her foot. This wankery delusion was further supported by a weekend trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It felt very cosmopolitan and worldly to jet off to Vietnam for the weekend. Because when you’re cosmopolitan and worldly you don’t fly, you “jet”. Even if it’s in economy with screaming kids and snuffling Vietnamese men, it’s still “jetting”. Anyway, it was nice to come home after that, home as in Singapore. Nice to come back to our bed and our couch, to be able to drink tap water again.

Sri Lanka though, still only a short trip, changed that. As we puttered through the country side in a tuk-tuk, going from Anuradhapura, the fabled ancient capital, to Kalpitiya, the deserted windy beaches straight out of kitesurfing fantasies, I caught myself thinking about Australia. Specifically, though I loathe to admit it, Bundaberg. I thought about the smoke plumes from cane fires and catching ash as it fell from the sky. I thought about sitting behind the couch at my Grandma’s house with the cat, squinting at the street through the yellow frosted glass windows. I thought about Arnott’s Assorted Creams and the lolly jar on top of the fridge that became easier to reach as we all got older. How strange it was to be suddenly back in the home town I had joked off for years as “You know, where the rum comes from?”. In the middle of Sri Lanka, of all places. Maybe two months and two weeks is too soon to receive a “Citizen of the World” Passport?

I’ll go back at the end of the year though. There’s no more cane fires, the cat’s long gone. The lolly jar has likely been replaced by bottles of rum: my 21-year-old cousin lives there now. I’ll buy some Assorted Creams though, I’ll eat the Monte Carlos first. I’ll drive through the streets that are the same every time I’m there, a constant cause of outer derision and inner comfort. I suppose they calls them roots for a reason. As far as you go, as wide as you spread your branches, as many different creatures come and build nests on you (maybe not), your roots stay in the same place. You know, where the rum comes from.

A few snaps from Sri Lanka

Insular travel: why I don’t like resorts

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Our time in Sri Lanka has come to a close already. I type this from my kitchen table, wrapped in Singaporean humidity, half a world away from that other little island.

The last week of our travels was spent kitesurfing. The first week was travel, the second was spent sequestered in the kiting haven of Kalpitiya. It was great: the wind howled through the palms everyday and I very much enjoyed being constantly barefoot and salty, and even the (Naughty! Bad! Pre-cancerous!) tingle of sunburn on my shoulders.

One thing that didn’t quite sit right with me was the style of accommodation. We stayed in kiting accommodation which could be described as resort-style in that all our meals were provided, as were trips to the kiting spots and beach toys. It was lovely. But. You could just about be anywhere else in the world. There was nothing that remotely even whispered Sri Lanka. Even the food. We asked if they served any local food but were told most kiters didn’t like it. Um ok. 

Our first trip into town was halfway through the week when we were changing accommodation because of availabilities. It was my first real exposure to Kalpitiya town. There was not much there. Whatever tourist rupees that were being pumped into the kite camps were definitely not being seen in town. The place was run-down and dirty, lots of dirt roads and wild donkeys. It was something I had not even considered, coming from a place where prices are quoted in euros and everyone wields hundreds, even thousands, of dollars worth of sporting equipment everyday. 

Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable in our sheltered faux-Lanka. I thought about the amount of money even scungy backpackers like me inject into local economies. Just simply through getting something to eat, having a few beers on the street or catching a tuk-tuk somewhere. Resorts almost deprive a local community of that income. They provide local jobs of course but I wonder about the comparative effects of both approaches. Admittedly Kalpitiya didn’t seem to have the infrastructure to support much tourism but is that the result of not getting any tourists through? Impossible to know. 

I’m by no means an expert on the economic development of communities through tourism, just something I got thinking about. The second place we stayed in was a lot more my style. We were in a smaller, quieter place, foreign-owned but locally-managed. All our meals were provided but at least they were made by a crazy-talented local. We had some great curries! This place at least embraced being part of the village rather than shutting it out. The local kids took Partner 2 for a midnight kiting session on the lagoon! It just felt better.

 

The hornets on Lion Rock

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Sigiriya, the sign and the nests

As an aside, the title sounds like it could be an episode of Game of Thrones. Alas though, brothers, this be not a tale of elaborate deceit and twincest, tis simply a tale of the hornets on Lion Rock.

Yesterday we left the cool mountain air and Perahera madness of Kandy for the scorching plains, home to Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. The itinerary was Kandy -> Dambulla -> Sigiriya -> Anuradhapura, or A-rad as it will henceforth be known. Our driver suggested we change our itinerary, visiting Sigiriya first, then Dambulla. Yep, fine, no worries, why? “Sigiriya very dangerous, 12 o’clock after,” he told us seriously. Yep, ok, heat stroke, hot, maybe crowds, why? “Many wasp attack.” Wasp? That was chalked up to the mountain of what is and has been lost in translation.

It took us about two and a half hours to go the 90-odd kms from Kandy to Sigiriya. There’s a few theories about the history of Sigirya but nothing concrete. Archeologists say it was most likely a meditation spot but locals maintain it was a palace or a fort. A rock fort. Sigiriya is most commonly known as the rock fort of Sri Lanka.

Something I’ve noticed, and I’m not sure if it’s the Bundaberg showing, is my cavalier attitude towards things that people in other countries tell me to watch out for. African sun? No worries, mate, I’m from ‘Straya. Second degree burns and superficial pride wounds ensued. Snakes? Mate, we had a red-bellied black the length of your ute in the back yard the other day, now THAT would make you run like a rat up a drain pipe. I swear I even get more of an accent. The wasp warning was no exception. My scorn grew at the Sigiriya ticket booth, when we were told we could only proceed to the summit at our own risk. They recommended coming back at the Lion’s Paws. Mate, if I’m gunna pay 3900 rupees, I’m gunna bloody well go to the top of the bloody rock.

So we did. Joined by a British/Aussie couple, we climbed countless stairs to the Lion’s Paws, about halfway up. People lingered, posed with the paws, and the more cautious collected apiaries costumes from the First Aid shed before making the summit climb.

How we laughed! Those paranoid tourists sweating in their modified raincoats! Signs warned us to be quiet but we simply mocked the scale of the hornet illustrations. Then, we climbed the narrow iron stairs, bolted into the rock face. About 100m up, we saw them. They clung to the rock, five or six, each one the size of a human child, their surfaces shimmering with the movement of a million wings. The nests. The line of summit-bound tourists hushed as they saw them. I began calculating the reaction of a hundred tourists on a narrow stairway when faced with a swarm of angry hornets. Humbled, I tiptoed past and triple-checked my flash was off when snapping a few pics.

To summarise, thus far Sri Lanka has left me humbled. Not in a Buddhist-enlightenment kind of way, more like when they say watch out for hornets, they’re not fucking kidding.

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