Sunday, May 29, 2011

Carnies

Today we went to the Exmouth whale shark festival. Well we almost went. By the time we got there they were already packing up all of the stalls. All the whale shark displays, dive and tour operator tents, craft market and food stalls. All finished. We did have a program for the festival back in the van but nobody actually looked at it, so we were quite surprised when we got there and it was all over. We milled around for a little while amongst the vendors dismantling tents before heading back home despondantly to our van. All that was left was to go along later in the evening to the amusement zone that had been set up in the field across the road from the caravan park. It was run by the typical bunch of carnival operators that seem to tour the country. They have interchangeable faces but common ways of parting you from your money. Exorbitantly priced rides and the myriad of sideshow games where you pay a lot to try and win prizes that you don't really want and would usually cost less to buy than you spent on the game anyway. Carnivals like this are such a magnet for kids. I used to love them myself. Flashing coloured lights. Loud music. The sound of people shrieking on rides. Jazzy and Finn were so excited at the prospect of going to the carnival, so after dinner we ventured across the road. They'd already checked it out on the day it had been set up. Finn was already taken in by the basketball game and the prospect of winning a giant monkey with a banana. We were doomed to be playing it right from the start. Once years ago, when Tori and I were up in Cairns, I sashayed up to one of these basketball stalls, shot the two required baskets to win the stuffed toy, gave it to my girl and swaggered out of there. Of course this story had been told to the kids and so Finn now had visions of a repeat performance. The economics of the stall weren't good to begin with. Four baskets were required to win the giant monkey. The price to play was six bucks for two shots or ten bucks for five shots. After some discussion the guy said he'd give us the monkey for three baskets. Three from five. Well that seemed possible and I fancied our chances. Some few minutes later and five shots that didn't come close to threatening the net and we walked away emptyhanded, my pocket ten dollars lighter. Any chance of a basketball comeback for me looking completely dashed. Finn was slightly disappointed that his father couldn't come through for him and also with his own poor shots. Another couple of victims separated quite easily from their money by the carnies. At least it was all above board and I was a knowing and willing victim.

When we were in the little Provenรงal village of Barbentane the carnies came to town. Real carnies. Not just fair ground ride merchants with a few sideshows, but hardened circus veterans who travelled across Europe taking money from anybody who crossed their path in whichever way it presented itself. Their circus was a throwback to the days when all circuses had poorly treated animals that travelled around with them in their small cages, along with the acrobats, the ring master, the fat lady and so on. Tori, a very young Jazzy, baby Finn, our friend Andy who had come on holiday with us and I, all headed up the street along with the local villagers, for the circus was in town. We got there to find that there were monkeys being held in a small barred trailer. A lion was on display in a similarly tiny cage. In the show were dancing horses with bridles that were on so tightly that the horses appeared to be smiling, their mouths stretched back so far. Animal cruelty clearly wasn't an issue for these folk. An elephant was brought into the ring and was running around wildly, not seeming to be really under control. We were in the front row with only a small barrier between us and the gallivanting elephant. It seemed like it could all go horribly wrong at any moment and that the giant elephant, who probably wasn't treated the best by his masters, would decide he'd had enough and go stampeding through the barrier and into the crowd. I was relieved when he was led out of the ring and the disaster was averted. At intermission Andy went off to buy us all icecreams. He passed across a 20 euro note for the 8 euros worth of icecream he had ordered and on receiving the goods waited for his change. And waited. And waited. The carnie ice cream seller had just decided to keep the change and completely ignored Andy. Having no doubt detected Andy's inability to speak French, he figured that he'd have no real objections to deal with. Not normally at a loss for words, Andy came back to where we were sitting, without his money and stunned at the audacity of the icecream seller. I'd had a similar situation with the program seller. I gave him a ten euro note and waited for my change also to no avail. When I looked around he seemed to have vanished. They were so blatant in the way they were ripping everybody off. I have no doubt there were many others who suffered a similar fate. After the show, the carnies would pack up and move on to the next little French town to rip off the people there.

In Australia, there seems a bit more control over the way that fairs or carnivals are conducted. Here they just rip you off in legal ways. A five minute ride for nine dollars. A lucky numbers game where you pay two dollars for a card with four numbers on it that are certain not to match the "magic" numbers listed on the wall. We gave the kids some cash and told them they could have a couple of rides, play the games or whatever. And they had a ball, as kids do at these places. Well after all it's not their money. But as a parent, seeing the happy faces of your kids running around excitedly trying to determine which ride to go on, building up the courage to go on the Gravitron or having a crack at shooting the tin cans that you know will never fall down, along with memories of having had that same excitement so long ago whilst at a fair, it does seem worth it. And of course, that's what the carnies are banking on.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sleepless in Osaka

Twenty-six hours after flying out of Exmouth, I finally arrived at my hotel in Osaka. I'd had only three hours of fitful sleep on the plane and was already completely shattered. It was to set the pattern for the entire trip. My journey had begun at midday on the Friday, just around the time that Tori was being examined at Exmouth Hospital as part of a routine pre-natal checkup. On the way I'd had a nine hour transit in Perth where I managed to catch up with some family and see a jazz gig, then got the midnight flight out to Japan with a brief stopover in Hong Kong. As usual I was sitting upright in the rear of the plane. Some new design engineer at Cathay Pacific had brought in a new style of seat since I'd last flown with them. A great entertainment system for each person but seats that don't actually lay back at all. They just sort of slide down and render sleep pretty much impossible. And so I arrived on the Saturday afternoon feeling jaded and worn out but at least with the remainder of the weekend in front of me before I had to work. The reason for the trip was to assist a Japanese customer implementing some security software on their live computer system. As they are a major financial institution they can only bring their application down at a particularly unsociable time of day when nobody really uses their service. And so the work was scheduled to commence at midnight on the Monday night and go until 8:30 in the morning. With little sleep behind me and the prospect of working through the night ahead, I just wasn't sure how to approach it all. If I went to bed too early, I reasoned, I'd just set a pattern where I'd need to be sleeping early on the Monday night and fade before the work was done. So with this misguided approach in mind, I decided that going out until late on the Sunday night was the best preparation for what lay ahead.

Japanese tourists are stereotyped as camera toting people who stop every few metres to take photos of the most mundane and commonplace objects. It could be a photo of a very normal looking house or a shop or a bus stop or even a lamppost. Often in the west they are joked about for what seems to be their relentless need to take a photo of everything they pass. On visiting Japan, I completely understand why. Everything is so different to what you would see in Australia or any other western country. The buildings, the people, the clothes, the signs, the shops. The restaurants with the plastic models of their food in the windows. Neon signs beaming out Japanese characters and caricatures from the sides of buildings and over the busy streets below. Even the lampposts look different. It is as if the Japanese world evolved with a completely separate mindset and with different rules in aesthetics to the west. Which of course is exactly what happened. Western influence is certainly all around, but it has been melded into a Japanese styling. Everything looks completely different. Coming from the tiny Western Australian town of Exmouth to the large bustling metropolis of Osaka is somewhat of a culture shock. While Osaka is less crowded and frenetic than Tokyo, it is all relative. Compared to any of the Australian cities, or even more so a little Aussie coastal town of around two thousand people, there are a lot of people in Osaka. Somewhere in the region of 9 million. I was staying in Shinsaibashi which is one of the major entertainment hubs of the city. There are bars and restaurants everywhere from street level and upwards to the higher floors of the multi-storeyed buildings. All manner of local cuisine are on offer as well as Italian, Chinese, French, Spanish and Indian. The challenge in Japan is to find an establishment either with an English menu, English speaking staff or pictures on the menu so that you can work out what to order. The food is of such great quality however, pretty much everywhere, that it would probably work out well to play dining roulette and just point at some Japanese words on the menu and see what was served up. I can't help myself though, especially on arrival in a new place, to at least try and work out what I'm eating. So it was on this quest for food and a beer on the Sunday night, that I walked through Shinsaibashi looking for the right establishment. The narrow Osakan streets were bustling with people who had been out shopping or who were heading for dinner or a drink. As I walked further from my hotel I noticed that the restaurants and bars suddenly gave way to what appeared to be, for want of a better phrase, gentleman's clubs with a scattering of women out front on the street who were soliciting passers-by. I was approached by a couple of middle aged women asking me bluntly if I was looking for sex. I muttered in the negative and kept walking. Undeterred by this a younger woman followed along beside me for about 50 metres. "You want massage? Want sex?" she enquired. Not particularly perturbed by the offer, but also not interested in making that kind of a transaction, I escaped into a bar where I saw a couple of western looking faces. Perhaps I could get a beer and some respite in here. No sooner had I walked in the door than a well-toned looking American bloke came over to me and asked me my name and where I was from. He told me that his name was Ken and he was from the state of Georgia. "I hear that Australian men are very thick" he told me as he made a fist pump in what I assumed was a gesture to indicate the girth of a man's penis. "Perhaps so", I responded and quickly made my way straight back out the door. It seemed I'd found sex central in Shinsaibashi. I wandered down a block or two, still on my quest for food and drink when a couple of girls from a bar started calling out for me. "Hi there. Come on in here with us". Given my recent encounters I was quite dubious of being hailed from a bar by two attractive Japanese girls. It brought to mind a previous experience in Bangkok where I ended up locked in a bar with men and women yelling all around me, demanding exorbitant amounts of money for the one beer I had consumed and a non-conversation that I didn't have with a working girl. After much argument, I managed to escape more or less unscathed and with most of my money intact, but I was lucky that that was the case. I'd heard stories of guys who had had similar experiences in Bangkok and ended up beaten and bruised and several hundred dollars poorer for the experience. I'd never heard any similar tales associated with Japan. Besides this bar was open fronted with a sign indicating the price of beer and that there was no cover charge. It all seemed harmless enough. As it turned out, it was a good decision to go in. Bar Y8 was a new bar that had been open only for a few weeks and was obviously yet to catch on. The place was completely empty except for Jenny and Christine who were working behind the neon blue bar. I was now the only customer. I sat on a stool up at the bar and talked to the two girls for at least an hour before anyone else came in. Christine was actually from Taiwan. "Do all Australians think that Asian people are yellow faced monkeys", she enquired. I replied that I didn't believe so and that I certainly didn't have that view. She then recounted the story of a friend of hers who was abused in such a manner and then bashed while visiting Australia. I said that yes we do have our own contingent here of stupid people, but believed they were in the minority. (I think I'm right. I hope so). "Every country has ignorant people", I suggested. "Do all Taiwanese people think that Gwailo are white devils", I asked her. She responded, no of course not, but took my point. I had a great night in the bar with these two girls discussing the world and the various places we'd been or wanted to go. I made my way back to my room around 2 and after a good deal of stuffing around and a beer from the mini bar, probably got to bed around 4am. Good practice for tomorrow night I figured. And anyway, if I needed to I could sleep for most of Monday in preparation for Monday night's work. 

It's funny how when you are really tired and in desperate need of sleep that life seems to conspire to deprive you of it even more. That certainly seems to be the way it goes for me anyway. Around 8am on the Monday morning I was woken abruptly by the roar of power tools down below my window. They were accomanied by a computerised version of Greensleeves that rung out in what I guess was an attempt to somehow mask the sound of the tools. The drill would start up and so would Greensleeves. The "music" would stop along with the drilling. I wasn't sure which one of these was annoying me more after only four hours sleep. I tossed and turned for a few more hours until finally I had had enough. Having missed breakfast I decided it must be time for some lunch. That was when I discovered that the power to the hotel had been switched off, apparently linked somehow to the drilling, and that rather than taking the elevator, I had to walk down the stairs of the external fire escape to get to the street. I stumbled in to the specialist ramen restaurant across the road and had one of the finest soups of my life. A sesame and chilli based noodle soup with minced pork and an egg along with a side order of gyoza. Delicious and completely revitalising. Which was just as well as I needed some extra energy to climb my way back up the stairs to get to my room on the 8th floor. At least I had some time now to have a couple of hours sleep before I had to get ready for work. Which of course is when my phone rang. Two and a half hours later after an entertaining and completely enjoyable conversation with my friend Matt in England, the time for any real sleep was gone. I collapsed on the bed desperately for about 30 minutes and an hour later I was downstairs dressed in a suit and tie to meet my colleagues from HP Japan with whom I was to be performing the evening's work. I couldn't help but feel that my preparation for this all night workathon hadn't been ideal.

But somehow I pulled through. Not only did I manage to survive the late shift without nodding off, but on being called to the fore to troubleshoot a potential problem around 6am, I was able to deliver. Apart from a couple of minor configuration hitches along the way, the implementation went smoothly and the customer was happy. Which meant in turn that the HP guys were happy. Which meant that my trip was definitely worth it for all concerned. I was relieved it was over and on arriving back at my hotel had a satisfied breakfast before tumbling into bed around 10:30am. I listened to the continued drilling and a version of Greensleeves that sounded like a cheap electronic "on hold" music from the 90's while I drifted off to sleep.

In the afternoon I went to the best camera shop I've been to in my life. Yodobashi Camera in Umeda, up near Shin-Osaka station, has everything photographic you could possibly think of plus a whole lot more. Catering from beginners looking for their first compact to professionals requiring specialist lighting worth over $30,000 they had it all. I was not surprised when the helpful shop assistant came back to me with the exact model of underwater housing I required for my new Canon S95 compact. All of the Australian shops I'd been to online indicated that they would need to order in the part. Here it was in stock. And for about two thirds of the price. Satisfied that I'd managed to achieve something other than lying in my bed, working or eating, I made my way once more back to my hotel. This time I just dropped off my purchase, along with the other small photographic items and new headphones I couldn't resist buying and wandered sleepily around the streets looking for dinner. I also wanted to see if I could locate the Y8 Bar. I'd promised Jenny that I would come back on my last night in Osaka, so thought that tonight I should probably at least find where it was so that I knew where to go the next night. I was determined to be in bed early so that I was in reasonable condition for work the next day. Jenny saw me from the bar and came running out to the street to greet me. I told her that I wasn't up for sitting in the bar and needed some good nourishing food. After a quick word to the boss, she led me around the block to a different bar, one that served oden, a collection of vegetables, fish balls, egg and tofu individually steamed in a clear broth. A very wholesome meal, washed down by a couple of not quite as wholesome but refreshing beers. Jenny ate some oden with me and went back to work. I finished my meal and fell into bed around midnight.

After my first full night's sleep in 5 days I felt suitably refreshed to tackle my last day in Japan. A day at the HP office reviewing the implementation and planning for the next stages was followed by drinks and dinner at a local izakaya, Japan's equivalent of the tapas bar. The Japanese certainly like their beer, which is perhaps why Australians warm so quickly to the place. I didn't want to be rude so made sure that I drank my fair share before we said our farewells and I went off to my hotel to pack in preparation for my early departure the next morning. I still had to get down to Y8 for a farewell drink there and knew that packing in the morning would undoubtedly pose a greater challenge. When I got to Y8 just before midnight, I could see that business had picked up and there were a few people in. I sat at the bar once more and chatted to Jenny, her friend Yuki, a Japanese rasta guy who they knew and another of their friends who dropped in. It was a very social affair involving more beer and some experimental cocktails until I dragged myself away around 4am. I had to get up at 6 to get to the airport, so I figured I might as well end the journey as I'd begun, albeit this time with the added bonus of a hangover. It had been quite a strange trip. Two visits now to the city and I still haven't made it to Osaka Castle, one of the city's main tourist attractions. I had planned to go down to Kyoto for a day and spend the Sunday night there, but in the end blew that out. In essence I'd stumbled into a nice little local scene in Osaka and had met some local people who made me feel extremely welcome. That always means much more to me than wondering around on my own looking at stuff. My feelings for Osaka are warm. I love going to Japan and look forward to my next trip back.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Four month reflection

The journey so far
It’s four months now since we left home in Warrandyte and launched into our journey around Australia. In that time we’ve travelled more than 6,000 kilometres, had our share of arguments, a few tantrums, shed a few tears, laughed with abandon and stared out the window as the miles and miles of road have spread out before us. We’ve swum, snorkelled, dived, fished, trekked and run naked on the beach. Dealt with flies, mozzies, midgies, locusts and all sorts of unidentified bugs crawling around the shared toilets and showers. Played a lot of uno, rummicub, boggle. Read many books. Watched hardly any TV but played extensively at times with our iDevices. Worked. Done schoolwork. Taught. When we left home, Tori was only 3 months pregnant, now she’s more than 7 months. She has been heard to say that she wouldn’t recommend the combination of pregnancy and travelling in a van, though mostly she has seemed in good spirits and enjoyed the journey. I expect that if she was in Warrandyte she’d probably cut the sentence down to “I wouldn’t recommend being pregnant”. I seem to recall her having a bit of a time of it when she was pregnant with Jazzy and we were living in London. One day she redecorated the kitchen by randomly distributing pots and plates and cutlery and food scraps to all corners of the room. On hearing the commotion from upstairs, our housemate Matthew came running down to see what was going on. He found her in a state of slight disarray, similar to the kitchen. "Pusskana ran amok", she said in an embarrassed way, blaming the innocent cat for the disaster zone that lay before them. Part of her frustration was due to our house being continually full of people, but clearly pregnancy is no easy walk in the park. There hasn’t been any reassembling of the kitchen in the van so far so perhaps things have gone better in some respect to how they were in London. She definitely doesn’t like growing larger even though it’s for good reason. She doesn’t seem particularly fond of indigestion and occasional bouts of nausea either. And waking up in the middle of the night and having to walk outside 100 metres to the toilet block isn’t right up the top of her list of favourite things. Tori being pregnant has definitely modified what we have done on the trip to some extent. We've probably been a little more conservative in our approach to where we have stayed, choosing more often locations that have had mobile phone reception and have been close to medical facilities, just in case. Though that being said, being in mobile and Telstra internet range has also suited my work conditions. The satellite internet has so far gone mostly unneeded, which is just as well as I don't seem to have mastered the technology yet. The few times I have brought it out to establish a connection when we have been in a remote location, I have struggled to find the satellite. It seems like it should be easy but I guess pointing a one metre dish at an object orbiting the earth some 40,000 kilometres away is a slightly problematic task. When we're based up in Broome I'll try to work it out. On the whole, the work side of things has been going well. I feel I've managed to find a good balance between getting the job done and enjoying the amazing locations that we've found ourselves. There have been times when I've been cooped up in a van rather than being able to make the most of glorious weather and a beautiful beach, but that is the plight of all workers in an office type job. At least when I have finished for the day, I can stick the feet up and have a beer while watching the sun set over a beautiful coastline. And  structure my work days as I need to so that I can go for a dive during the day and work in the evening. And the view from my office regularly changes with occasional visits from emus or goannas or ducks. While staying at Yardie Station where we had no mobile and poor internet reception, I'd regularly drive 15 minutes up the road to the Exmouth lighthouse to make calls while taking in the glorious 360 degree view of Lighthouse Bay, Cape Range National Park and the Exmouth Gulf. It's certainly a lot more desirable than spending my days in an artificially lit suburban office building with only a lunch time escape to the sandwich shop across the road for salvation. That's what I could otherwise be doing. As for Jazzy and Finn, like us they have also had their ups and downs, but mostly ups. There has been a bit of homesickness and they have been missing their friends. But in some ways I feel that it will cause those friendships to be stronger when they get back. There's nothing like absence to make you evaluate the importance of what's missing. It will have focussed in their minds who they really do miss and who they are relieved or even happy to not be seeing any more. Likewise their friends will have a tangible understanding of the void left by not being able to see them. I didn't have to deal with it at such a young age but it was certainly a feature of my time living in England. Sometimes I would get unbearably homesick and pine badly to see my friends or do the things I did in my other life. Other times I would just be getting on with my day to day life and experiencing whatever that held without much thought for anywhere else. It didn't mean that I valued my friends any less. Just that I was otherwise occupied by the now rather than the over there. I think Jaz and Finn are experiencing something similar. Missing their friends but on the whole enjoying being away as a family and spending lots of time together. Everyone has had their moody periods where everyone else has copped it. I think it's fair to say that all of us are pretty shit to be around when we're in that state. But those moods have been rare and worth the price for what we are doing. Fifteen square metres is a small space for four people to be crammed into for four months. It makes sense that any normal person would go a bit crazy at times. Only a crazy person could possibly remain sane for the entire time. The school thing has been going well. Jaz is convinced that they aren't really learning as much as they would be at "real" school, but I think she'll get a surprise when she goes back to Warrandyte Primary next year. Tori has been magnificent in taking on the teaching. There have been regular classes of spelling, grammar and writing. Assignments on the wildlife we have seen involving charts or reports that have to be handed in as well as giving presentations. Art projects including the glorious golf tree of the Nullarbor, a mobile made out of vacated shells and sea urchins and pictures of mixed media including paint, sand and leaves that are now decorating the walls of the van. Australian Geography is pretty much looking after itself. And there are spasmodic but intense maths periods when I can manage to put a class together. There has been the odd mutiny where the students have rebelled against the school, not interested in doing the lessons for the day. Sometimes they've got away with it. Sometimes they've found themselves doing 20 pushups. One thing the home schooling has certainly done is given Tori and I a clear understanding of the academic strengths and weaknesses of both of our children. And their abilities to learn and take on new things. I think it will help us all when dealing with the education road ahead. And then there's the baby. It's now just over six weeks until he's due. I've been handling it so far in blissful denial like only a man can. I hardly think about the baby at all. The baby is Tori's issue at the moment, not mine. The wellbeing of the baby is only about her. My issue is to look after Tori and make sure she's ok. I know she has a precious cargo. And I'd like to think that I try to look after her most of the time anyway, despite the inevitable occasional aberration. The baby will only be real to me when it's born. You can't count your chickens until they're hatched, and all that. And I don't really see any point in thinking too much about the baby at all now. I mean what's the point? I know that our lives will change radically once it's born. Why jump the gun and start stressing about that now? There's nothing really I can do about it. We'll deal with it as it comes. It's such a different time for the guy and the girl this pregnancy thing. For the girl it's obvious. It's physical. The baby is a part of you. That's why we all love our mothers. It's a unique bond that is formed right at the beginning by sharing the same body.  For the guy, it's so intangible. Even having had two beautiful children that I love completely, having experienced it all before, I can't yet feel too much emotion for this little human that is forming inside Tori. Just curiosity and some expectation of what I will feel. The best advice given to me before Jazzy was born was from my friend Paul. He told me that when his first daughter was born he expected that he would and should love her completely from the very second she came out. The kind of love that he'd heard parents speak of where their child meant everything. More than the world itself. When his emotion wasn't as strong as what he'd heard other parents describe of their significantly older child, he started to wonder what was wrong with him. Why didn't he love his child like you were supposed to? Until after some time had passed and he realised that he did love his daughter like that. It's just not an instantaneous thing. It doesn't happen at the moment the child is born. I have heard some guys say that it did, but it wasn't like that for me. I am thankful to Paul. The feeling I felt on seeing Jazzy come out of Tori was an emotion that I'd never felt before. But it's not happiness. It's not love. It's something different to that. An emotion unto itself. It does sort of comprise those two emotions but there's a whole lot of other stuff going on there too including a bit of a National Geographic feel to the whole event of "Wow. That's amazing!!!! How did a person come out of there". I was happy to be armed with Paul's advice, because I can see now how easy it could be as the father to feel that you didn't love the child enough from the moment it was born. There are loads of books telling mothers what to expect when they are expecting, but there's nothing on what a guy should expect when the baby is born. Not that was presented to me anyway. Or maybe there was but I was just in denial then too, which I have to say is a state that I would recommend to all prospective fathers. Just look after the mother to be and all will be fine. So there are six or so weeks to go before I have to worry about having a new child in the world. Tori saw a doctor in Exmouth for a routine checkup, just as I flew out from Exmouth to Japan for a week. I'm betting and hoping on the baby not arriving in the next few days before I return and on Tori being ok. In fact we're betting even further. The baby is due on June 27th and our initial plan was to arrive in Broome for a pre-natal checkup on June 8th. That all seemed a bit rushed, so the appointment has been rescheduled to June 15th. That means that we will get a chance now to go to Karijini National Park, which people say is just beautiful. I mean we shouldn't miss these non-missable places just to be waiting around in Broome for three weeks. And if the baby is early... well we'll think about that if it happens. Guess the kids will just have to put on some water to boil. I like a nice cup of tea while I'm delivering babies.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Diving at last

After several false starts, today I finally got to go scuba diving. It was not without a few nerves. It had been a couple of years since I'd dived and then only a one off since the previous dives some years earlier. I'm glad they made me do a refresher course. At least I was once again familiar with all the gear and procedures. But sitting in a couple of metres of pool water is somewhat different to the open ocean. I was happy to hear that the two dives today were relatively shallow dives, being only around 14 metres. Apart from no risk of compression sickness at shallower depths, visibility is typically better and the air in the tank lasts longer. I was paired up with a German girl named Maike as my buddy. After a briefing from Danny the divemaster, we were into the water and making our way down the guide rope to the bottom. I'd brought along a glorified sealed plastic bag, optimistically called an underwater camera case to see if I could capture a few photos on my little Canon Ixus. Maike had a camera enclosed in a proper waterproof housing. My nerves had calmed on getting into the water. I felt like I knew what I was doing and after a week of nursing a cold, my respiratory system finally felt like it was back to reasonable operation also. Unfortunately, the conditions weren't ideal. The water had quite a strong swirly current that was even sending the fish flying from side to side and the water was quite murky, reducing visibility to only 2 to 3 metres. With a few dives in front of me, I was happy for this to be a refamiliarization and so wasn't too fussed about what we saw or didn't on this dive. All was going well really until I started to get low on air in my tank. I was trying to inform Danny, as per standard instructions, but I couldn't find him. Maike was off taking pictures and wasn't particularly interested in the whole buddy system of diving. So where was Danny? Visibility seemed more difficult and my head began to swirl slightly. Was that Danny over there with the yellow flippers? I realised I should have paid more attention to what kit he had on as everything and everybody looks different covered in all that gear down under the sea. I had no idea where we were in connection to the boat, though realistically, you never really dive too far away from it. But it's a very different alien world under there and quite easy to become disoriented, especially in unfavourable conditions. I wouldn't say that I was in a panic, but I was certainly on the anxious side of calm. Eventually I found Danny and he motioned for us to head back. Maike was still off with her camera and I couldn't get her attention. So in following Danny back up, I broke the primary dive rule of staying with your buddy at all times. But what can you do when your buddy seems uninterested and you are running out of air? We all did a safety stop at 3 metres on the guide rope with the current throwing us randomly up and down in its swell. It was starting to give me a weird vertigo feeling. I still didn't know where Maike was but assumed she was ok. I ended up back on the boat feeling quite dizzy from the ocean's buffeting, without Maike but relieved to be back on board. It wasn't an especially pleasurable experience and I wondered whether diving really was still for me.



The buddy system in diving is a critical component of diver safety. Always know where your buddy is. Make sure they are always ok. Be there to assist them if they need any help. I went diving some years back with the wife (now ex-wife) of a friend. As we progressed through the dive, it became clear to me that she had no awareness or interest in where I was at any particular time. In the 45 or so minutes of the dive, I don't think that she even looked at me once. I knew that if a giant shark came along and had me for lunch or if I was trapped with my foot in a giant clam, she would have had no idea at all. Nor particularly cared. She probably would have been out of the water having her lunch in the comfort of the Portsea pub and only realised I wasn't there when somebody else mentioned it to her. It struck me that her lack of care for me when we were diving was pretty indicative of her approach to life in general. It was her world and other people only figured in it as bit players who were all essentially expendable characters. It came as no surprise to me to hear her confess some years later that when she had been in a car accident where the car had rolled, she had scrambled frantically, pushing over the top of her friend to escape the car that was now sitting on its side. Not then the ideal diving buddy.

Back on board the boat, I sheepishly made my way over to Maike. She was a bit sheepish herself, both of us realising that we hadn't really got it together as we should have. My head was still feeling a bit awash from the bobbing up and down in the choppy current, but we had an hour or so before the next dive so there was time to mentally and physically regroup. Someone else had come out of the water seasick and had decided to bail out of the second dive. So it wasn't just me with this strange feeling in my head. The second dive turned out to be a completely different experience. The water was calmer, the visibility was significantly better, perhaps 8 metres or so, and Maike and I both had the buddy system much more under control. My camera's plastic bag had survived the first dive but sort of packed it in on the second. With the reduction in pressure, the bag was sucked tight around the camera like a vacuum sealed bag, which in essence it was. It was so tight that it wasn't possible to even operate the switch for the zoom. And it seemed to possibly be leaking. Having only been tested to 3 metres, 14 metres probably was never going to cut it, but I'd been prepared to sacrifice my old camera in a bid to try and get some decent photos. I didn't really get any good photos. But I did sacrifice my camera. The fish life on the second dive was superior to the first. A school of thousands of tiny silver fish swam around us in a shape changing cloud. Large stripey fish wandered on by. A wobbegong shark slept on the bottom totally unfazed by the divers gathering around to check him out. It seemed like a magical world and I remembered why I'd loved diving so much in the past. I felt relaxed, my breathing and my state of mind so much more at ease. I can't wait now until the next dive. Though I do need to sort out the camera situation.






Saturday, May 07, 2011

A New Season

The abruptness of seasonal change always amazes me. When we arrived in this part of Australia, the weather was searingly hot. Every day was 35 degrees, with the sun relentlessly beating down from the very moment it appeared at dawn until it relievingly sunk back down into the sea at dusk. Sun cream, beach shades and rashies were the standard fare for any day lest you should be burned bright red within minutes of exposure. And while those days were little more than a week ago and stretching back a good couple of months for us in WA, they already have faded into memories as the Indian summer has made way for autumn up here in the Pilbara. Days that screamed out for the beach, icy poles and a continuous supply of drinking water have now been replaced by more temperate days. The cool easterly wind blows forcefully through our campground, particularly strong in the  morning. While the sun is still warm and even hot at times, the wind takes the edge out of the heat and the beach no longer comes to mind with quite as much appeal. We were scheduled yesterday to go out for a day of snorkeling with the whale sharks but on arriving at the Tantabiddi jetty, we were met by a grim faced skipper who told us that, due to the strong wind, the seas were too rough and that the day's excursion was cancelled. I guess the thing that amazes me most about the change in season here is that on paper it still looks like summer to somebody who has spent most of their days in Melbourne. The forecast tells me that daytime temperatures are still 29 or 30 degrees. And while it is far more appealing than being in the cold and rain of the south eastern states, it definitely feels like summer is over. I guess it's not just the weather itself conveying this impression. The atmosphere in the Yardie Homestead campground where we have been based for the last few weeks has also seen a seasonal change. We arrived in school holidays just prior to Easter and the campground was full of young families here to take advantage of the close proximity to Cape Range National Park and the beaches fringing Ningaloo Reef. The pool was a summery hub of activity. Children screamed and laughed and cried, splashing and bombing and throwing balls. Their bikini clad mothers lazed around on the grass keeping a watchful eye out while working on their tans. Mating dragon flies and large black and orange native wasps flew in a large contingent around the human occupants of the pool, touching down regularly on the water's surface for a dip and a drink. Into the barmy evenings the kids would still be running around barefooted as their parents, often large groups of friends who had come away together for the holidays, would sit down for a wine or a beer and merrily exchange stories of the day's snorkeling or fishing. Campervans of young french or german or dutch travellers rounded out the campground population, the communal barbecue area often filled with the colourful sound of their different languages and accents. The nights were still and sweltering making sleep a difficult and somewhat sweaty affair. But like the dragonflies, the familes and international tourists are now mostly gone from Yardie Homestead. The vibrancy that they brought seems to have given way now to an autumnal atmosphere that is much more calm and sedate. The demographic has shifted in a very short amount of time to a significantly older crew. A large number of the grey hair brigade have moved in and taken up residence for the next three or four months in a bid to escape the winter further south. Many have been coming here for a few years and have advance bookings twelve months ahead to be camped in exactly the same spot. 
The Taj Mahal next door
Our neighbour Gary arrived four days ago and he has since spent the entire time assembling an elaborate construction of poles, rope and shade cloth around and over his entire site. There are now two fully enclosed rooms off the side of the van. An enclosed balcony region out the back. And a covered garage for his car. As he says, if he's going to be here for four months he might as well be comfortable. There is something admirable about these folk who have the get up and go to come up here to the Coral Coast to live in a caravan for the winter months every year. Most seem to bring fishing boats of some description with them so that they can while away the days on the water and reel in their dinner. The other activities that attract the families and young travellers to these parts don't seem to be of any interest. It's all about escaping the southern cold, fishing and the strong community spirit that is evident among them. Even though I've chatted with a number of the grey nomads around here and found them incredibly friendly, I still feel like an outsider looking in. I have no doubt that that is just as much about me as anything to do with them. They are at a completely different stage of life and I don't fully understand, as nice as it is around here, how somebody could come here every year for four months which many of this group seem to do. It's very isolated, being about 35km from Exmouth town, which in turn is hardly a bustling metropolis. But then, I'm not somebody that likes to go on holiday to the same place year after year as many with holiday houses and fixed onsite vans do. Many people obviously love the feeling of familiarity and being settled even when away from their regular home. I do see the benefit of getting to know a whole set of other people who also regulalry go to these places, kids all growing up together every summer holiday. But something in me always craves the different, the new. In town the other night we met a young Spanish couple from Madrid who had driven up from Perth in their rented Wicked Camper. I couldn't help but feel much more akin to them even though they were likely more than 20 years my junior. The wish to see new things, to have different adventures. Perhaps that will temper as I get a bit older. But I hope not. I hope that when my hair is fully grey and my children are grown that I still have the health and capability to travel around as these folks do. But whereas I may be up around northern WA one year, the next may be housesitting for somebody in the south of France, or visiting friends in Turkey or chilling out with Tori in a rented shack on a remote Thai beach. Or even just taking the van up to the Daintree for the winter or to the Northern Territory or just travelling as we are now, staying somewhere for a while and moving on when we're ready, indeed as many other of the grey nomads do. The world is big and I hope to spend my time exploring many different parts of it. That's my ambition for the autumn years of my life. Just as it's been for the summer.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Sick of being sick

I used to get colds and flus all the time. As far back into my childhood as I can remember. I recall my father driving me to school with "yet another" cold. Typically with me having again forgotten a handkerchief or tissues. He seemed to imply that this affliction was somehow of my own doing and make me feel more guilty by passing across his pristine handkerchief for me to blow my nose in. I'd sit in the passenger seat for the 20 minute drive from East Doncaster to Camberwell suppressing a cough until the point where I could bear it no longer and would finally convulse in a huge fit of relieving expectoration. He'd just glare across and tell me that I should be taking better care of myself. Now if this advice had have been delivered to me in my early 20s when I was partying through the night on a regular basis and foregoing sleep or meals for another jaunt out with friends, often with the aid of party enhancing substances, then I guess I couldn't really put up much defence. But at this stage I was only 14 or so with a bedtime that was still dictated to me by my parents, and I only got to go out to a blue light disco or similar if they dropped me off and picked me up, and my mum fed me all of my meals, so I'm not really sure what I could have done differently to look after myself. It seemed to me that I just had some predisposition to getting colds. And often at the worst times. So often over the years illness has crashed in on a planned event or eagerly anticipated occasion, replacing my excitement with disappointment. A party or a gig that I'd been particularly looking forward to. A weekend in Dublin for a mate's stag party. A week away with friends up in Port Douglas. So often when I'd have time off I would get sick. I'm led to believe that this particular affliction is quite common in people who push themselves too hard in their day to day life. Grind through the working days, try to have a  full life outside of work, burn that candle as much as possible at both ends, and then, on finally stopping, your immune system is so depleted that a virus can move right on in. Got you now buddy! But over the last couple of years I've actually managed to break the cycle. I've been taking a regular fizzy drink cocktail of vitamins and herbs and I've hardly been sick at all. I've even managed to work out a bit better when I need to go home and sleep rather than head on to that next bar at 2am with friends who are still in full swing, even though at the time I always feel so disappointed to be doing so. And so now, with my healthy-ish regime (well I'm probably drinking a bit too much too often to really consider my lifestyle as physically healthy as it could be), of all times to come down sick, why did it have to be now. I'd been looking forward to scuba diving on Ningaloo Reef ever since we'd started planning our journey. In fact it was the destination and activity that excited me the most. So having finally booked in three days of diving, just at the completion of the refresher course in the pool, my respiratory system gave way, my ears blocked up and my nose and throat packed it in. All the tools that are of such critical importance when diving. Whereas you can sort of pull through in the above water world with a cold, at least to some degree, it's not ideal being 20 metres under the sea and unable to breathe. And along with that, I just felt shit. Not physically up for anything much of anything. Shit!!! I went to bed hoping to miraculously feel better the next morning, the day of my first booked dive out in Lighthouse Bay. Inevitably I wasn't and so at 8am I went out to my scheduled pick up spot at Yardie Homestead and told the dive master that I was crook and was going to have to bail out for the day. So disappointing. Marlene at the dive company was generously compassionate and let me reschedule all of my dives. Some consolation through the gloom and the snot. So it's been a few very low key days. No drinking. No swimming. No real activities at all. Staying inside a lot, working, sleeping. Not too exciting for me or the rest of the family. But I have got a lot of work done this week. And am now starting to feel a bit better. And I still have all of my dives in front of me. I think I see the grey clouds starting to lift and a sliver of glorious light starting to shine through.