On the other side of the world
11 April - 9 May 2012

Friday 4 May

Catching the 06:05 from Hobart to Melbourne

My 6:05 flight from Hobart meant a 4:45 departure from Peter & Krista's house which meant setting the alarm for 4:15. Oh well, such is the life of a peripatetic dance teacher. As it turned out I awoke quite easily and was washed, packed & ready to go right on schedule.

Outside it was darkest night, there were one or two cars & delivery trucks around as we drove through Hobart but mostly we were alone in the empty city. Clumps of quite dense fog came & went as we crossed the Derwent valley, adding another level of strange unreality to the already dreamlike journey. Eventually we arrived at Hobart airport and I prepared to enter yet another weird state - that of the modern air traveller.

Airports are strange places to be, and even more so when catching the first flight of the day. People are either desperately rushing or stuck in bored, powerless waiting. You're surrounded by reminders of the time and the many distant places that are just a short hop away but the overriding feeling is of being immobile & stuck in place. The veneer of glamour is all around but for most of us (in economy) the prospect is of a gruelling, unpleasant & uncomfortable assault on our bodies & senses. How quickly the wonder & magic of being able to bestride the globe becomes something to be endured & survived rather than marvelled at.

There was one beautiful & charming moment in all of this misery - amongst the travellers in the departure lounge was a group of around eight Buddhist monks dressed in long, elegant robes. They were sat in a row, in silent meditation (or so it appeared), until another monk arrived holding what was obviously a carry-on bag. Graceful bows were exchanged, then the single monk went through the gate and walked out to the plane while the others walked round to where they could see him. At some point he must have turned and acknowledged them as they suddenly all started waving him goodbye, transforming from spiritual serenity to childlike emotional immediacy. It made me smile as it makes me smile writing about it now.

(In hindsight this strikes me as a poignant Buddhist lesson - non-attachment doesn't have to be denying the existence of an object or purging myself of an emotional response towards it, it can just be a case of cheerfully waving it goodbye. Food for thought.)

Pat's garden, in the rain

The flights (I was connecting at Melbourne for my Perth flight) were uneventful, probably the best I hope for in travelling nowadays. The strange quirk at Melbourne was that the shops sold postage stamps (I'd finally gotten around to writing a couple of postcards) but the only post box was outside the airport building, and with a fairly tight connection I didn't feel sure of getting back through the security screening in time. (My Tasmanian cards would eventually be posted in Perth.) Neither Melbourne or Perth had signs from the arrival gate to the exit & baggage reclaim but somehow everyone seemed to know which way to go, is this a case of the process of air travel causing migration instincts to appear in modern travellers?

At Perth I saw my first name board (well, the first one with my name on it). Pat (my host in Western Australia) and I had never met before so it seemed like a necessary contrivance but in the event I walked straight towards her before I read my name. My bag was collected and we made our way out - no more airports for me until Tuesday.

We came out in rain and it continued, varying from heavy to less heavy, for the rest of the day. I was driven to Pat's house, fed, given time to shower, unpack & rest, fed again and chatted with while the rumble of raindrops on roofs continued as a relentless backdrop. Everyone I met quipped that I'd brought the rain with me, either from Tassie or Britain, and although they agreed that it was sorely needed they didn't do so with much enthusiasm.

The lack of sleep, early start and time change (Western Australia is 2 hours behind Tasmania) had rendered me decidedly fuzzy but even so I took up Pat's invitation to come to the local circle dance group. It was being held in the home of someone I actually knew - we'd met at the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland (Australia) when I'd been over to teach there back in 2000 and 2001 and, as a celebration of this, she'd laid out pictures from the Fire Events at Woodford in the circle's centre. A very nice way to be welcomed back to Perth.

My spirit was willing but my flesh was becoming very, very weak and I was noticeably fading as the evening progressed. After the last dance I almost fell into the car and on arriving back at Pat's it was all I could do to brush my teeth, undress and crawl into bed before plunging into a deep sleep.

Saturday 5 May

The dancing hall

Grey skies greeted me as I stepped out in the morning but the relentless rain had finally eased. As I breakfasted & prepared for the workshop the clouds rolled away and blue skies stretched overhead, contradicting the weekend's wet forecast. A beautiful day.

As we drove to the hall I got my first real look at the countryside, no longer hidden behind curtains of rain or the shadows of night. The tall trees seemed more diverse than in Tasmania with big variations in height, leaf colour (although nearly all had the slightly olive tint that marked them as 'exotic' to my European eyes) and bark. The soil was richly red, something that seems quintessentially Australian to me, and provided a contrasting background to the vegetation that emphasised the openness of the bush land we drove through.

After about twenty minutes we arrived at the hall, a sturdy brick built structure at a crossroads in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. However taking a longer look I could make out a few houses set back from the road and several driveways, marked with Australian-style mailboxes, leading off into the forest. I'd seen a lot of this as we'd driven along, at first glance the land was mostly empty but on closer inspection there were houses all over the place, concealed behind fences or (more often) dense greenery or glimpsed at the end of long dirt tracks snaking away from the road.

The hall was large, spacious & cool, a raised stage at one end had stacked tables & chairs but the dance area was clear & empty, no need to organise or tidy anything away. The two organisers (we'd been joined by Karen who I'd met at the dancing the night before) set about the million and one tasks that running a dance workshop always seems to require - mostly involving the kitchen, centrepiece & power supply - and I was left to get a feel for the space and try not to rearrange my plan for the thousandth time. I had a small panic when I realised there was no sound system but was reassured that someone was bringing it later. (Well, mostly reassured, there was a certain amount of fretting until the promised system finally arrived and I had a chance to play with it.) It turned out to be a venerable looking amplifier and speaker, more like a band's PA than a hi-fi, but it came with a connecting plug that fitted my iPod and when it was all turned on it was clear & more than loud enough. I arranged my list, iPod and water bottle then took the last few minutes to greet & chat with people as they arrived.

Old meets new

The workshop ran between 10:00 and 4:30 which, with breaks for tea & lunch, broke down into four one-hour teaching slots. For the first three I taught three dances in each, teaching & dancing each one in turn and then reviewing and repeating all three at the end. For the final slot I just repeated everything we'd done, going over the steps fairly briskly but adding extra information and focussing on particular details where it was appropriate. It's taken me a while to come up with this format but it seems to work very well, working through a dance quite intensively at the start, giving it a rest before repeating it, then letting it sink in through the day before revisiting it at the end. Part of me still goes through panic after the first, wobbly run throughs of a dance before I see the confidence grow and the harmony of the group emerge as the day progresses. As each group can be so, so different it's hard to not get sucked into over-managing the process and trying to 'push' people towards the end result (or what I see as the end result) rather than trusting in both my experience and their capabilities and gently 'steering' & encouraging them. Somewhere inside me is a Serene, Confident & Professional Dance Teacher but often it feels like there's a little me that's standing there, frozen in the spotlight & not knowing if the words will come. And maybe that's the way I work best, being well & truly present (& in the present) with all my fears and insecurities but trusting that the right thing will come at the right time.

It seemed like the right thing did turn up (again!) as the workshop went very well, the dances came together smoothly & quickly and when we did them all for the last time during the final session the group were really dancing them. The feedback was very positive and people said some really nice things about my teaching & my dancing, the little me was suitably reassured.

But I was also tired and not a little sweaty. After getting home and having a long, cleansing shower Pat & I, joined by her husband Nigel, went out and had a rather nice Chinese meal at a nearby restaurant, celebrating the success of the workshop and avoiding the need for cooking (or washing up). But that was about it for me, after the meal I found my eyelids growing heavy and before too long I was crawling into bed once again.

Karen setting up the centrepiece

The hall framed by the surrounding trees

Sunday 6 May

Youngsters playing Aussie Rules, parents picnicking

With my final workshop behind me I could be the Compleat Tourist for the remainder of my stay in Australia, and what better way to celebrate being in a strange & exotic land than with a frenzy of consumerist abandon! The original plan had been to hit the shops in Freo (Freemantle), a prime site for the heavy-walleted, but my hosts said that there was an Arts & Crafts Festival being held in and around a nearby town/suburb that might have more interesting (and less predictable) stuff on offer. This seemed like a splendid idea so Pat & I joined Karen in her car and we set off to explore the Festive offerings.

The first thing we needed was a map showing the various participating locations. The one place that we knew was part of the Festival was Kalamunda Agricultural Hall so that's where we headed, successfully negotiating the town centre road works & diversions that seemed deliberately designed to make finding the venues more difficult. There were several craft stalls at the hall, good stuff but nothing that quite tempted me, but no maps, so Pat made a sketch of the Festival plan (that we were allowed to look at but not take with us) and we used this as our guide to the next venue.

Before we set off I wandered outside to look at the neighbouring sports field where a lot of action was taking place. It turned out to be two games of Australian Rules football being played by children's teams, with a good collection of parents providing (mostly) support & encouragement from the sidelines. It was fascinating to watch, helped by the fact that I have virtually no idea of the rules and could view it as some form of macho formation dancing. The young tykes were chasing around with fierce concentration, virtually all in neat pairs of one from either team, presumably marking their opposite numbers. Despite what looked like a potentially life-threatening combination of running & kicking meeting youthful inexperience it seemed both (relatively) safe and good natured. It made my childhood soccer games look very tame.

Ironwork bird bath

Our next stop was the MORO studio where the preferred medium was metal plate, some of it very heavy. However the resulting artworks were full of life & humour and I was sorely tempted by several of them, only to be held back by the serious weight involved - any one of them would easily break my luggage allowance and the shipping costs would probably have been astronomical. I was particularly taken by a seadragon sculpture after my Tasmanian encounter, even though this one was leafy rather than weedy, but it was still too heavy to seriously consider.

We managed to obtain a map at the studio but this proved to be a mixed blessing, it was so stylised & abstract that on several occasions we really had no idea of where we were or what road to take. Despite this we somehow managed to end up at the Kanyana Wildlife Refuge, an animal welfare centre that was having an open day as part of the Festival.

Kanyana at first seemed like many other wildlife centres I'd visited - lots of pictures, bones, old nests and other 'educational' stuff in amongst stalls where you could buy t-shirts, bags, toys and any number of sugary drinks & snacks. We met a friend of Pat's who was a volunteer there and asked where the Good Stuff was, she said that we should definitely visit the animal hospital so we joined the queue and shuffled along.

It took a long time to get in (the hospital was actively in use and visitors were strictly limited in number) but it was well worth the wait. We were taken through the hospital in small groups by one of the volunteer workers, more or less following the treatment path that an injured animal would take. The approach was compassionate but pragmatic & practical, there was a real sense of devotion to the welfare of these creatures but an acceptance that most wouldn't make it (they have a 45% recovery rate) and a determination that those that do will be released back into the wild rather than kept as pets or otherwise domesticated. I was impressed that although we were told the injuries were caused by 'cat attack', 'cat attack', 'car verses bird', 'cat attack', 'car verses bird', 'abandoned pet' and so on there didn't seem to be any rancour towards cat or car owners, these were injured animals and it was their job to make them better.

Bluetongue lizard in the recovery ward

One thing that was repeatedly mentioned was that they saw a lot of magpies with calcium deficiency, apparently people feed them mince which stops them eating the bugs from which most of their calcium intake comes. This got a little surreal for me as I was at the back of the group at this point and heard that people were feeding the birds 'mints' which seemed a peculiar thing to do - were magpies particularly partial to After Eights?

The stay (especially the queuing) at Kanyana had seen us fall way behind schedule so we found our way to one of the wineries (it seemed like 80% of the Festival was concerned with the production of alcohol in some form) and augmented our picnic lunch with a shared green salad and various coffees. From here we decided that we should restrict ourselves to visiting the designer woodworking studio (run by the family of a circle dancer) and finishing off at an organic vegetable shop, but we had not allowed for The Map From Hell which led us all over the town before seeing us arriving very, very late at our first objective.

We just about caught our dancer friend who was on her way out, she in turn led us up to the studio where the work was on display, mostly dinner table sets & cupboards. The furniture was gorgeous - beautiful, comfortable & perfectly proportioned, a dazzling example of art, design & function in glorious harmony. There was a tall chest of drawers that I'd have bought there and then, devil take the problems in shipping it home, if it wasn't for the fact that it was already sold... and that the price was Au$20,000. By comparison a dining table with eight chairs was a snip at Au$10,000. In some ways it seemed preposterous to spend so much money on furniture but I could see just how good it would be to have these stunningly beautiful objects in your home for daily life, and that they were the sort of things that would be lovingly handed down to the next generation, the antiques of the future. If my annual lottery ticket makes me a zillionaire I won't be going to Ikea for my home furnishing needs.

By now time had flown and it was too late to call in at the fruit & veg place for some food shopping. So instead Karen drove Pat & I back and dropped us off. A quiet dinner and evening is coming to an end as I sit here and type, tomorrow is my last day Down Under and I'll be off to Perth to see what the city has to offer.

The iron owl

Vinyard signage

Monday 7 May

Perth street art

I had truly become the Rainbringer in the latter stages of my trip - the last few days in Hobart had been mostly under grey skies (mostly) and my nights in Perth had been often accompanied by the percussion of raindrop on rooftop. There was a more muted watery drum solo through Sunday night and although breakfast started out with a side order of drizzle the day picked up swiftly and by the time I was ready to head out the sun was breaking through.

The breakfast table had a surprise for me - my book had arrived! Yes, despite all the problems & disappointments it had all come good in the end and I finally had my own copy! After a swift glance through I packed it in my suitcase, something to savour over the jetlagged nights waiting for me back home.

For my last full day in Australia (for a while, at least) I'd decided to give my hosts the day off and go exploring the delights of Perth on my own. Last time I was here (my only previous visit) I'd not seen much of the city itself so I was interested in nosing around, and I still had a nicely full wallet and space in my luggage so some shopping wasn't out of the question either.

Pat drove me to the nearest train station (Guildford, another incongruous English name) and from there it was a twenty minute journey into the city centre. As we glided (glode?) along through the suburbs the houses moved closer and closer together, eventually merging into what looked more like urban housing to my suburban eyes. As we came in to the central station the trackside buildings were lined with graffiti that could easily have been murals, apart from the decidedly unconventional subject matter which looked like tattoo parlour decoration or sci-fi cover art. Still, not a bad introduction to the city.

Perth was decidedly more of a city than Hobart, coming out of the train station I found myself swept into a multi-level shopping mall and it took a while to disengage and make it down to street level. The pedestrianised city centre was filed with shops that were a bit more swish but considerably less funky, filled with stuff for the locals rather than the visiting tourist. I wandered for a while with the general intention of reaching the riverside, which eventually I arrived at. I'd just missed a river cruise but I wanted to see more of the landside first anyway. King's Park had been recommended as somewhere I should make a point of seeing and as the sun was still shining bright it seemed like a good place to start. The park was just far enough out of the city centre to not appear on my tourist transit map but I worked out where it must be and found a CAT stop that would take me there.

View from the Bali memorial

The Central Area Transit bus system was a great thing for the indecisive tourist - three 'loop' bus routes that ran continually (I never had to wait more than 2 or 3 minutes for one) and were free to use, you just got on and off as you pleased. As the rain came & went or my feet grew tired or I just wanted to investigate another area I'd find a nearby stop and jump on. They weren't just for tourists - around 5pm the one I was on filled up with workers obviously heading home from the office.

I bussed around to the park area, climbed Jacobs Ladder - a tall & winding staircase, filled with serious joggers trotting down and slogging up - and was soon wandering around King's Park itself. The park was delightful, combining botanical gardens with general urban green space, and its position high on a ridge with rolling contours offered spectacular vistas. I spent over two hours just following the paths and taking in (some of) the sights. Not just the sights - the susurrus of the breeze through differing leaves & bushes was punctuated by sharp bird cries, still sounding strange & primal to my domesticated ears. And every so often I found myself caught in wafts of perfumed air, not just the almost constant background hint of eucalypt that I'd gotten used to but other, sweeter smells, hard to identify or trace to a source, that would suddenly transport me to another world. A real rollercoaster for the senses, a garden of earthly delights.

The park contains a memorial to the victims of the bombings in Bali in 2002, which includes a viewing platform over Perth Water, a wide section of the Swan river that borders the city. The platform had an inscription which said something like open your heart and let the river carry away your grief which I found very moving, a rare example of a memorial acknowledging the mourners as well as the victims.

During my wanderings I found signs to the 'Reflection place' which I thought might be a still pool with interesting optical reflections but which turned out to be a collection of benches & small pavilions, shielded from each other by vegetation & decorative screens and with long views over the river valley. The largest one looked like it had been set up for weddings & other formal occasions but the others felt more like spaces for personal reflection or existential musing. With my trip almost at an end and a new job & home waiting for me back in the UK this seemed like the ideal spot for a bit of inward contemplation so I sat and thought, pondering on life, the universe and, well, everything. The initial feeling of stillness was slowly subverted by rustling leaves, bird calls and those exotic smells, drawing me back into the world.

Lone bird in King's Park

From King's Park I returned to the city and spent the rest of the day criss-crossing its streets, primarily on foot but with several opportune (or occasionally random) trips on CAT busses. It was an interesting experience, especially where the older, obviously Australian parts of the city brushed up against the more anodyne & anonymous modern centre and where the great Temples Of Sport stood majestic and imperious. But slowly the places I wanted to visit seemed to grow further & further apart and I realised I was tiring and it was time to head back.

As it was getting on I decided to eat in Perth before catching the train home, however I found myself in a strange state of indecision. The city, like most I'd visited in Australia, had a huge selection of restaurants, cafés, bars & bistros but somehow none of them seemed quite what I was looking for - too cheap looking, too snooty, too bright, too noisy, etc. etc. This matched my shopping experiences (my bag remained empty of purchases), nothing I saw seemed quite right or it would have some flaw that made me hold back from bringing out my money. Normally I'm pretty good at making decisions so it was a bit unsettling to find myself dithering like this, what was going on with me? More existential grist for the mill.

Eventually I found myself in an almost deserted Asian canteen where I had a delicious plate of my (by now) regular spicy noodles. It felt like there was a much stronger East Asian influence in Australia than during my last visit, most obviously in eating establishments where the previously ubiquitous Italian places had become almost an endangered species. In virtually all of the airports I'd visited, surely the most sensitive cultural barometers of our transient age, the most popular spots were noodle bars of some kind and it seemed like this was the food of the future. Very sci-fi too, from Blade Runner to Firefly.

Full of tum and weary of foot I made my way to the station and caught the (prompt, clean, popular & speedy) train back home. From there it was, after tea & chatting with my hosts, off to a long, restorative shower and from there to bed. Tomorrow was the long journey back to Britain.

Raindrops on the lemons in Pat's garden

Poignant street art

Quizzical magpie

Baobab tree

Flowering eucalypt

Nighttime church

Tuesday 8 May

View from Kalamunda towards Perth

I'd done most of my packing the evening before and as my flight wasn't until the afternoon I had time for one more outing. Pat drove me up to the hills at Kalamunda where the wide valley of the Swan river spread out before us and Perth was visible in the distance, then down to a park on the banks of the river. The banks were there but a few feet underwater, the rain had obviously been quite widespread and the copious water was finding its way to the sea. It was nice to have one more walk under the Australian sun before consigning myself to a day of canned transport.

Eventually though the time came and I found myself walking into Perth International for the start of my long journey home. I was swiftly & smoothly processed and, after the (by now) inevitable noodle meal, was seated & strapped in to my seat, ready to go. I was isolate in my iPod, avoiding the loud, repetitive & irritating pre-flight announcements, but after a while I realised that the taxiing had gone on for a bit and yet we seemed to be back at the gate. There had been some sort of technical problem that had held us up but after an hour or so it had been fixed and we were ready to go again. After a rerun of the safety demonstration (apparently passengers will forget it on the ground but remember it while flying) we took off, destination Singapore.

With a two hour connection at Singapore I was a little concerned about making the London flight (more so about my luggage making it) but not too bothered - I didn't need to be back at any particular time and an enforced stay (and a horizontal bed) would actually be quite nice. However we arrived with time to spare and after loading up on water (internally, I had no Singaporean money) I joined my fellow travellers in the gate lounge. Within minutes we were hustled out to board but then discovered a huge queue in the jet bridge - I suppose having us lined up made it easier for the staff but it was very annoying for the rest of us. Eventually we were all in place with everything stowed away and the plane rose into the air for the final flight of my trip.

The last few boarding the London flight from Singapore

I'd done pretty well with flights up to now but, alas, this one turned into the grinding, soul-crushing, extended torture that economy air travel can do so well. A middle seat in a full aircraft, claustrophobically small space made even tighter by the person in front immediately reclining her seat, seat pocket so full of airline blurb that you couldn't store anything there (why do they do this?), blaringly loud, frequent & unnecessary announcements, periodic jabbing in the back from the person behind trying to cram stuff into their overstuffed seat pocket, wailing children, overspill from nearby reading lights making it hard to sleep, the list just goes on & on. I was lucky to escape with my life.

Well, OK, it wasn't quite that bad but you get the idea. There's something about being in a nominally regulated environment under stress that seems to bring out the worst in people, a feeling that others are getting away with breaking the 'rules' and so it's OK to be selfish and rude. A bit like road rage I suppose. As I sat & suffered I found myself thinking I have exactly the same seat number as on my previous flight, even though it's a different type of aircraft. The check-in person must have just typed in the same number rather than chosen a better seat for me. How can I have my revenge? Scary stuff. It was actually quite hard to not indulge in petty acts of retaliation (like jamming unwanted stuff into my seat pocket to jab into the person in front's back when they suddenly reclined their chair) and to try to be civil & polite and make the best of a difficult situation. Sometimes I didn't manage it.

Despite everything I tried to sleep. I don't know which is the more incredible, that airline seats are designed so that it's almost impossible to sleep in them, or that we manage to do so anyway. I pretended to sleep when I couldn't manage to do it for real and I must have drifted off without realising it as the clock was often hours further on when I checked it. The 13 hours looked like an impossible ordeal as we took off but by some strange magic I was still holding it together, if barely so, as we landed at Heathrow.

In the rain outside St. Pancras

A 5:40 arrival does have some advantages, mostly that there aren't any big queues (at least if you're an EU citizen). I wafted through immigration, panicked a little when my bag was slow to appear but eventually saw & collected it, changed my money and caught the train into London. Although I had a ticket that included tube travel I indulged my weary body (& psyche) with a taxi across town to St. Pancras where I was catching my homeward train and revelled in having a small, mobile space all to myself. I was buying some breakfasting food at the station when a strange bleeping noise started up from all around and I eventually made out a repeated announcement that there was an emergency and everyone should leave the station immediately. My first impulse was to ignore this and assume it was a test or something (the result of many years of hearing car & other alarms crying wolf) but the staff were taking it seriously and gently shepherding everyone out. Once outside the station we stood in the thin drizzle (the smokers had claimed all the undercover spaces) for a couple of minutes before, with no explanation, we were all allowed back in again.

I had just enough time to reclaim my dumped purchases and find & board my train. As I sat in the carriage I heard the station inspector (or some such title) being paged and I remembered hearing the same thing just before the evacuation. I was bracing myself for retracing my steps outside again but luckily the train pulled out before any further action could be taken.

From there it was train, train, taxi and home. The flat seemed even more spartan than usual - I'd tidied & thrown away lots of stuff before setting off - but it was my familiar & comfortable nest and it felt good to be back home again. I nipped out to the shops for some essential food supplies, backed up the computer, unpacked, kicked off the first of the laundry loads and had a long, hot, revitalising shower. I made a couple of calls to reconnect with friends but I could feel that my poor brain was fuzzy & barely working so I settled down with some DVDs to let myself gradually arrive and settle.

Despite the long, long 'day' (an extra 7 hours long from the time change, plus not having a real night's sleep on the plane) I wasn't feeling sleepy but I was certainly operating in some strange, altered state as the remaining hours just dissolved away. At around 8:30 the energy drained from me and I just about managed to get to my bed before plunging into sleep. But for how long?

Swan river overflowing its banks

No big queues at Perth airport

Multilingual water at Singapore

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