Monday, November 05, 2012

Thoughts of My Lai

I remember vividly the moment I first saw that now famous photo. The one of the screaming naked young girl, trying in vain to run away from the burning of her skin following a napalm attack on her village. It would have been 1972 and there was the picture, leaping into my consciousness from the front page of the Sun newspaper on our suburban Melbourne breakfast table. The image was marked indelibly in my brain and along with the regular footage on the 6.30 news, it provided me with an immediate understanding of the horror of war. I was nine years old and the girl looked to be around the same age. It made me fearful of suffering a similar fate. My mother assured me that it couldn't happen to me in Australia. We were safe here. Nobody will bomb us. Yet I knew that Australians were being sent to Vietnam to fight along with the Americans. And I knew that most of them didn't want to go but were being forced, even though I probably didn't yet have the word conscription in my vocabulary. The greatest fear of my early childhood was being sent off to war. The American-Vietnam War was already going when I was born in 1963 and ran until I was around 12. It made a huge impact on my outlook on the world. And I wasn't even there. I guess it's why much of the music of that period still resonates with me on a more emotional level than almost anything since. It was always going to be impossible for me to come to Vietnam without visions of the American war, as it is rightfully termed here, floating around the front of my mind. I guess it must be that way for anybody who has grown up with memories of the war, or at least a diet of Vietnam war films and 60's counter culture music. With all of these images in my brain, I felt a need to go to My Lai, the scene of one of the greatest known atrocities of that conflict. A four hour genocide in which US troops raped the women and young girls, tortured many of the people they found, killed every person and animal in the village, burnt the houses and destroyed the crops. Today there is a memorial there comprising a museum and markers throughout what was once the village, denoting where houses had stood and the names of the people who had died there. It is a place off the beaten track, far from any of the regular Vietnamese tourist towns, so to go there is a kind of mission in itself. My children understandably didn't want to go to the scene of a massacre and see brutal images of slaughter, so I left them with Tori at our hotel in Quang Ngai and made the short trip from there myself.

The museum was full of photos from that horrific day. A US army photographer was along for the ride and managed to capture full colour images that later acted as proof of the event. There were pictures of pleading people, just moments before they were executed. Photos of piles of corpses left by the side of the road. Two young boys huddled in fear on the roadside, the elder shielding the youngster, taken a couple of minutes before both were shot. People lying dead with their brains or intestines lying on the road beside them. And photos of the US troops chilling out on the side of the road after having set the village aflame and having completed their mission. The American forces are not alone in barbaric acts of war. Far from it. But I guess it is the transparent propaganda of "we are the good guys" portrayed in countless films and the invention of terms such as "collateral damage" that add an extra edge that sickens me. There was a coordinated attempt by the US military to cover up the events at My Lai, but unlike other such occurrences that inevitably took place in that war, some even on that same day in other hamlets around Son My, there was photographic proof and people willing to talk about what had taken place. During the chaos, a US helicopter pilot had recognised the genocide that was happening on the ground and had flown in to rescue some of the terrorised villagers. His instructions to the gunners on his chopper were that if any of the US ground troops were to shoot at the fleeing locals, they should consider them the enemy and open fire to protect the unarmed civilians. Likewise there were a number of ground troops who refused to fire on the defenceless Vietnamese, even though threatened with being shot themselves or being court-martialled. The bravery of these guys is incredible. While we would all like to consider that we would have acted in the same manner and refused to have performed such gruesome deeds under direct order, it is not that certain. I am well aware that any judgements I make of how people act at the front line during war is made from the comfort of my own life, without any real understanding of what it must be like. The fear that these boys are experiencing, being in some far flung place with an unseen enemy, witnessing the deaths of their friends and colleagues, heads full of indoctrination and sub-humanization of the enemy and procedures of how to follow orders and how to kill. But what seems clear is that the events at My Lai were a planned military tactic from higher up. Not just a bunch of trained soldiers who lost their moral compass and ran amok. They were ordered to do as they did. And they did it well. Most of the men of the village weren't home when the attack came. It was rice harvest day so the men were all away picking the crops. The US troops met no resistance, finding only the women, children and elderly at home and they followed the orders they had been given - killing everyone and destroying the village. And then the atrocity was white-washed by the officers all the way up to the rank of general and glossed over by the knowing Nixon presidency.

After wandering through the museum and watching a documentary with a tour group that I happened across, I was approached by a My Lai tour guide. She asked me where I was from and we started chatting. She offered to show me personally around the grounds at Son My, which is what the village of the main massacre was actually called. Her name was Kieu and her mother was one of the survivors of that day from the nearby hamlet of Co Luy. Kieu had intimate and personal knowledge of what had taken place and was happy to share it with me. She took me to the various house sites and told me how the people inside had been killed. "This family were all hiding in their bomb shelter and the Americans just threw in a couple of grenades and blew them up. Then to make sure they were dead, they poured in petrol and set it on fire". "These two children were asleep in their beds and were just shot where they lay". She led me to the irrigation ditch where 150 or so people had been lined up and shot as part of a nazi-style mass execution. "Here they were made to kneel and then stand up. Then they were shot by machine gun until they fell into the ditch". Some people survived, shielded by the bodies that had fallen on top of them. Kieu said that it took four days for the survivors to bury the dead in mass graves, needing to do it under darkness so that the Americans didn't see any movement in the village and come back to finish the job.

Apart from the horror of the massacre itself, what I also find abhorrent is the fact that this event and others like it in Vietnam, were ultimately accepted by the vast majority of the American public as "just something that happens in war". They didn't really want to know what their troops did in some far-flung place. Much better to just believe they were either heroes who did their best for the country, upholding the great apple pie traditions of the great ole US of A; or that somehow the soldiers were victims themselves of the horror of war, which rendered them unable to see right from wrong and caused them to perform these horrible deeds. In either case, little consideration seemed to actually be given to the South Vietnamese civilians who were, in theory, on the same side as the Americans and whose hearts and minds needed winning for the US to have any chance of success in Vietnam. Despite the actions on this day contravening the Geneva Convention, to which the US is a signatory, as well as the published codes of US armed conflict and of course moral decency in general, nobody was ever really called into account for this incident. The head of the ground operation that day at Son My, Lt Calley, who personally executed dozens of civilians himself, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, yet only actually spent 3 days in jail before effectively being released. His release from custody was overwhelmingly supported by the American public. Nobody else was ever convicted of any offence at all, despite the mountain of evidence of the massacre occurring and detailed testimony from many, of exactly who had done what and where. How could America find this acceptable while in the same breath decrying the inhuman ways that their own captured soldiers may have been treated by the enemy. How can it be acceptable for US soldiers to pack rape an unarmed civilian girl of fifteen years old, then slice apart her vagina with a bowie knife, before shooting her in the head, yet it's unacceptable for a US soldier to be captured, tortured and killed by his captor. Isn't one just as bad as the other? Or does it not matter as much because American lives are somehow worth more?

I find it difficult to not be disgusted by US foreign policy that existed then and that exists to this very day. The Vietnam war was essentially created by the US administration of the time. They stamped out democracy in Vietnam by not allowing planned elections to take place that would have seen Ho Chi Minh win by a landslide. That was not the result they wanted, so instead they supported an unpopular puppet government in the South and the partitioning of the country, against the will of the majority of the country's people. They then came into the war based on a proven lie. A fabrication about events that were supposed to have taken place in the Gulf of Tonkin. Along with events such as the massacre at Son My and similar horrors inflicted on a people trying to defend their homeland from an invading army, they decided that it was also justified to use chemical weapons. While incidents such as those at Son My do seem to happen in all wars when human decency and morality have been completely abandoned by those at the front line, the dropping of Agent Orange across the Vietnamese countryside, poisoning the crops, forests and the rivers and causing disease and premature death to many thousands of people, including US troops who fought in these regions, is a war crime on an even grander scale. It's legacy lived on after the war in the grotesquely deformed bodies of babies born to parents who were subject to Agent Orange dioxin poisoning, both in Vietnam and America. And of course, there was the use of napalm and phosphorous bombs where many civilians were burned alive. As well as the 1500 or so Vietnamese people that still die every year from unexploded ordinance that the US have never bothered to help clean up, even though there is now a "normalized" diplomatic and economic relationship between Washington and Hanoi. Fast forward to the war in Iraq and what has actually changed? A war based on the lie of "weapons of mass destruction". Front line atrocities performed by soldiers, bombings that hit civilian targets killing many innocents and the ongoing torture of prisoners. And there is the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, causing poisoning of those exposed if they somehow survived the blast, including US servicemen who came down with the eventually acknowledged "gulf war syndrome". It is all abhorrent. And seemingly just as American as apple pie and baseball. I guess when it comes down to it, there is nobody big enough to discipline the biggest bully going around. Instead we mostly digest the stream of patriotic claptrap about the American nation being the good guys who are somehow interested in world peace, rather than their own self serving economic interest. And we recoil in shock with them when they point at somebody else performing an audacious act against humanity, such as Sadam Hussein gassing the kurds in the north of Iraq, somewhat as the Americans did in Vietnam with Agent Orange. There have been no more abhorrent crimes against humanity since World War Two than those performed by the US in Vietnam, so for the US to bring charges in a human rights court against any other person or nation is the grossest of hypocrisies.

My own country's government seems mindlessly complicit in many of these US outings, from committing Australian troops to fight here in Vietnam, to then going along for the ride in almost every US conflict since, to the point now of even opening up a US base of 5000 troops in Darwin. We are guilty by association of helping to perpetuate the myth of the US as world policemen good guys. We should be ashamed of our role in Vietnam and our willingness to blindly follow the Americans into battle.

In Son My, Kieu acts as a tour guide around the memorial, reliving every day the horror stories told to her by her mother and other survivors from My Lai, Co Luy and My Khe. I'm not sure how she can do it. I asked her if she found it a difficult task. She responded that her mother could not do it, as it was too emotional for her, so she felt a need to do it on her mother's behalf. It was important to her that people came to Son My. It showed her that people actually cared about what happened to her family's village and the people who lived there all those years ago. Some days, if the visitors were overly emotional in hearing the stories, she too would get emotional and would find it difficult. There were several times during my visit where she was choking back tears in relating to me the events that had unfolded, as I was choking back my own. She told me that those who had lived through the atrocities in the village hated the Americans and could never forgive or forget what happened to their families and friends. She on the other hand did not seem to have any hatred. A number of Americans came to visit the memorial she said, and this was particularly important. In fact, the whole country seems to have moved on and there seems to be very little residual ill will to Americans throughout Vietnam. Certainly not amongst the places we have visited and the people that I have spoken to. Perhaps after centuries of occupation by the Chinese, French, Japanese and lastly the Americans, just to be independent and free is reason enough to move on and leave the horrors behind. They can exist in the museums to show people what happened, with the hope that it won't happen again. Perhaps Vietnam is now safe from this fate. But no doubt the gruesome circus will move along to another town somewhere, some time soon.


For a good understanding of what went on that day in Son My and its aftermath, check out the documentary "Four hours in My Lai"

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Travelling Vietnam with kids

There's no more demanding time than when a toddler is 15 months old. They can't really talk, so can't tell you what's wrong. They are fully mobile, but balance is problematic. They have a propensity for climbing on to whatever they can, which when combined with a lack of balance and awareness, is a recipe for disaster. Kimi is all over the place. He is a very social little creature and so will run around visiting whoever is nearby. If we are in a  restaurant, he will wander over other diners, climb up on a chair at their table and sit there examining them as they eat. If the door of the restaurant is open, he will potentially try and escape out to the street, not really caring too much for the dangers of motor bikes whizzing around outside. If there are stairs, he will want to climb them. He now has the ability to push a chair across a room to use as a ladder to climb on to a pool table. He needs to be watched by somebody almost constantly and even then, there are perils. With us all in our hotel room one evening, lounging around on the bed watching TV, Kimi decided to stand up at the foot of the bed only slightly out of our reach. He stumbled, did a forward flip and landed head first with a thump on the relatively hard floor. A large egg with carpet grazing appeared almost instantaneously on his forehead, but with baby resilience, was almost gone within a day. The very next day on arriving at Phong Nha Farmhouse, he decided to roll head first down the brick stairs in front of a sizeable crowd of stunned spectators, who were sitting out on the patio sipping their afternoon drinks. It was a spectacular manoeuvre from which he somehow survived completely unscathed. Not even a scratch or bump from that one. It is a constant battle to try and keep him from hurting himself. Our ambition for the trip is to bring him (and everyone else) home alive and uninjured. While still in Hanoi, about to leave for Sapa, Kimi came down with a fever, clocking in at around 39.6 degrees (just over 103 fahrenheit). We couldn't really determine any symptoms other than a fever. No runny nose or dribbling or red cheeks that you usually associate with teething. No flu like symptoms. No signs of ear infection. And of course he couldn't tell us what was actually hurting, if anything. Some good quality drugs brought the fever down and he seemed fine for a few hours until he started to bake again. Seeing your baby cooking like that is a concern for any parent, even more so when you are in a foreign tropical land. We questioned whether we should cancel the trip to Sapa and just stay in Hanoi, perhaps even take him to a hospital. We decided instead to soldier on and spend a stressful night on the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai; the five of us couped up in a four berth cabin, with Kimi waking periodically in a feverish sweat, at which time we would sponge him down and give him some more medicine. The fever hung around for about 36 hours in total and then thankfully disappeared without trace. The coolness of the mountain air of Sapa perhaps assisting in the process. A nice change from the polluted humidity of Hanoi that we'd left behind. In the Sapa market we purchased a brightly coloured Hmong child carrier so that we could strap him on to our backs or fronts, as the Hmong mothers do. After a day of rest, the little fella was back in action, running around with all the locals once again fawning over him.

Kimi hasn't been the only one to be sick. We've all had bouts of traveller's diarrhoea. With the exception of Jazz, who instead had a bout of fear of getting traveller's diarrhoea and went through a few days of being frightened to eat anything or go anywhere near water. Finn had it the worst. During our three day cruise through Halong Bay, Finn was firing from both ends and could keep nothing down. Not even water. In one dramatic burst he succeeded on making it to the bathroom in time, but failed to quite get the toilet lid up before spewing forth a great torrent and decorating the entire tiny room with his breakfast. The tour leader of our boat provided him with some local herbal based pills that kill off the dodgy bacteria that cause this stomach sickness. It was like a miracle cure and Finn's recovery was amazingly swift. He and I sat out of the Cat Ba island excursion after that and instead had a relaxing day hanging around the boat. By the evening he was completely fine. Since then, we've stocked up on bottles of these little yellow pills. Just in case.

The Vietnamese people have loved Kimi wherever we have gone. Random strangers in the street will come over and try to pick him up. His blonde hair and blue eyes have been like a magnet for the locals. In one park we were confronted by a gaggle of young girls who squealed when they saw him, picked him up and started excitedly taking photos of themselves with him, like he was a slightly younger but more tasteful version of Justin Bieber. In restaurants the staff have often just whisked him off to other parts of the establishment to play with him while we have eaten our meal. That is always a godsend. A few moments of respite where we can eat in peace, without getting up every two minutes to chase him somewhere. On a boat trip to the Phong Nha cave, the old grandma Vietnamese woman who was skippering our craft saw Kimi and spontaneously grabbed him, unbuckled his pants and had a look inside before I could say or do anything. I guess she was trying to work out whether he was a boy or girl. All very strange. But nothing quite gets the locals going than when Kimi is strapped on to either Tori's or my backs in the Hmong child carrier. Especially if we are riding a bicycle with him strapped to one of our backs. In a village where nobody bats an eyelid when a whole family of five whiz by on the one scooter, or a group of buffalo wander on to the road, or a guy rides down the street with a large pig bound up lying across a plank at the back of a motorbike as an unwilling pillion passenger, every single person we pass screams with laughter and points our way as we ride by. Clearly it's something quite new around here.

It hasn't only been Kimi that has come in for extra attention. Jazzy also has had her fair share. Whilst walking around the markets of Dong Hoi, every single person turned to stare at her. Not a lot of tourists come through that town and it would certainly appear that they are not used to seeing a white skinned, blue eyed, freckle face beauty like my Jazzy. She was slightly unnerved but doesn't really mind being the centre of attention, so took it well within her stride. It is quite strange being a tourist in a land when you find that you are actually as much of a tourist attraction for the locals as anything around there is for you. Even in Hanoi she would occasionally be mobbed by squealing girls who wanted their picture taken with her.

The trip so far has been a balancing act. One where we have needed to try and balance Tori's and my desire to take in the sights of Vietnam such as temples, historical war sites or caves, with Jazz and Finn's need to run around doing kid stuff, while factoring in Kimi's safety. It's a day by day proposition, but finally now at Phong Nha Farmstay, a relaxing hotel cum hostel surrounded by rice paddies and rolling hills, in the central Vietnamese countryside, everyone has relaxed into full holiday stride.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hello Hanoi

It was always going to be difficult to come to terms with being back in Melbourne after a year on the road travelling Australia. And so it proved to be. "Have you settled back in?" and "Is everything back to normal now?" seemed to have been the predominant questions from well wishing friends and family. Categorically for me the answer was no on both counts. Nothing is as it was before. Kimi has made sure of that. Dealing with a new baby, now a toddler with burgeoning personality, guaranteed that nothing could ever be the same. We struggled. Well certainly Tori and I did. And still have been. Tori has hated the Melbourne winter. She'd rather be somewhere else. Pretty much anywhere else, but if asked to narrow it down, she'd point to the southern Queensland hinterland village of Maleny. A place of stunning natural beauty and significantly warmer climate. I, meanwhile, have been wrestling with my changed working situation. The daily commute to town from Warrandyte and the immense personal fallout that accompanied the end of my association with the company I formerly represented in Asia-Pacific. The latter one affected me more than I thought it would. Like a long term love affair that turns sour. Filled with bitterness and loss. The change in the actual work side has been a blessing. That had got to a stage where it was boring me senseless and they were getting far too corporatey and procedural for me. It has only been the damage of friendship that has been of any consequence. At times that wreaked havoc with my psyche. I bounced between rage and depression. The angst of the situation only recently calming to rest in my mind with the passage of time. And my working in the city these last few months has meant that I am hardly seeing Tori and the kids at all, after spending pretty much all of every day together last year. This has been especially difficult for Tori. Me off at work, Jazz and Finn at school and just her alone at home with Kimi. It was with this as a back drop that I booked us all on a five week trip to Vietnam. Something to look forward to. Something out of the ordinary. Something akin to life on the road. Five weeks of unplanned adventure in a foreign land.

We flew into Hanoi with three nights accommodation booked in a well recommended hotel, in the old part of the city. In the days when it was only Tori and I, we would just rock up to a new place and then look for accommodation when we got there. Apart from a few occasions, such as when we ended up in the very dodgy Tenderloin (aka the loin) of San Francisco, or a sleazy hotel that was more often paid for by the hour than by the night in Vegas, or when we drove around the entire state of Victoria in a weekend searching for somewhere that had a vacancy and ended up in Underbool, this method has served us well and led us to a load of interesting places. Especially when we were unable to find any accommodation at all and instead ended up staying in the homes of random strangers we met during the search, as had happened to us in Jordan and Turkey. With two pre-teen kids and an infant in tow, I wasn't quite up for the search on arrival method, especially after a fifteen hour journey and was happy to see that one of the blokes carrying the name signs at the airport arrivals hall was there waiting for me. Three nights seemed like it would be a good intro to the country and enough time to gather our bearings and work out where we actually wanted to go next. I've always liked unplanned travel. An open itinerary with the freedom to move on when you fancy, or to change direction based on the advice of a fellow traveller met during a chance, fleeting encounter in a bar. And who knows how it will be travelling in Vietnam with a 15 month old boy. Worst case scenario if it gets too difficult, we can just fly somewhere for a few weeks and laze on a beach. But I'm hoping for more than that.

As always, we arrived at our destination at night. Totally exhausted from a long journey and longing just for a clean bed to pass out on. But there had been casualties along the way. Kimi's sleeping companion Monkey Monkey and Finn's special blanket were both missing in action, last seen at Hanoi airport. We were all on edge and three days of booked accommodation all of a sudden seemed like nothing. What are we going to do then? How is this all going to work with a toddler? Should we have brought antimalarial medicine for travelling to remote areas? What can we eat and what should we avoid? What if one of the kids gets really sick? Even though Vietnam is well touristed now and hardly off the beaten trail, it is a country that we have no idea about and is sure to have its dangers. Will Kimi run off and be cleaned up by a rampant Hanoi motorcycle?

Like it usually does, the following day brought calm as the previous night's anxiety subsided and the excitement of being in a new and vibrant place kicked in. And what a vibrance Hanoi has. It is a city with a throbbing rhythm. One that is easy to pick up and assimilate into. The streets are a bustling seemingly chaotic whirr of motor bikes, taxis, cyclos and street vendors all moving in time, but somehow also at their own pace. People had warned me about the perils of crossing the road in Hanoi, making it seem like you were the poor unfortunate frog who inevitably got smooshed in Frogger. But in fact crossing the road is something akin to osmosis. A scattered mass of pedestrians somehow moves through the stream of traffic with no vehicles actually stopping or slowing down in any way. Somehow the entities pass through each other to continue unscathed on their way on the other side. The safety harness for Kimi had been bought following the warnings that if he ran out into this traffic, he was a goner. But the harness is still in Melbourne. And we'd been told that the stroller would be impossible in the old Hanoi streets. There is certainly no room for a stroller, or in fact even a pedestrian, on the inaccurately described "footpath". That's too full of parked motor cycles and scooters and people congregated on small blue stools chowing down on the local street food or downing glasses of the local bia hoi. So the stroller has just become another vehicle on the road and in fact a faster and more robust vehicle than some. We all stroll out there on the road along behind, moving at our own pace like a family of ducks, with the bikes cruising around us with a honk of their horn. In fact there is the continued sound of horns from every vehicle that possesses one, forming together to create the Hanoi street symphony. The street vendors move along at their own particular pace with a kind of bouncing gait. Bobbing up and down rhythmically while balancing a long pole over the shoulder, a basket at either end filled with their their wares. Their heads are resplendently adorned with the classic conical hats particular to this region. And their baskets carry all sorts of items from juicy pineapples, mangoes or bananas, to local vegetables or herbs or flowers, to crabs or other assorted shellfish, to socks and undies, to wicker baskets or feather dusters or the aforementioned conical hats, or indeed seemingly any item that somebody may potentially need to buy. The cyclos are mostly stationery vehicles soliciting tourists to purchase a one hour ride around the city. I'm still not sure how they feel they can fit five people and a stroller into that small carriage at the front of the bike, but it hasn't stopped every one of them asking. And there is a constant barrage of people trying to sell you things. T-shirts, Vietnamese hats with a red star, sweet sugar coated doughnuts on a stick, postcards, silver bracelets, a decorated paper fan. People in Hanoi seem to be doing fine, but its all relative and clearly the tourists who have the financial ability to travel there are laden with cash and ripe for the picking. Prices of course are inflated to the max, whatever the item. No sale is complete without a good haggle, which of course I've embraced wholeheartedly. It's all part of the game. I love the banter with the locals during these exchanges. The feigned look of shock at the price I've offered, as if I've just insulted them with my offer. The insistence that the price they've just put forward is their last and they couldn't possibly budge, acting as if their family won't eat for the next month if they were to go any lower. ("Won't take a penny less or strike me dead"). If a vendor agrees too quickly to the price I have offered, I realise that I've come in way too high and have just been played for a sucker. It's likely just for a dollar or two, so it's not the money that causes the grumbling feeling in my head. It's the feeling of having lost the game. Checkmate! In one exchange I was taken down by a man with no legs. He said he'd lost them from a bomb. That could certainly be true, with a large number of Vietnamese people still killed or maimed every year by unexploded ordinance dropped by the Americans more than 35 years ago. Or maybe that just seems like a more sympathetic story for a tourist target than having lost his legs in a motorcycle accident on the Hanoi streets, which is also a possible, but less exotic, truth. But regardless of the cause, one thing that was undeniable was that the man had no legs. I bought from him a copy of the book The Sorrow of War, which is a highly acclaimed tale of the American war by a North Vietnamese Army vet. The cover was pristine, but on unwrapping the clear cellophane covering I discovered that the pages inside were all photocopied. And poorly photocopied at that. I'd certainly paid a premium for a shonky book. But the words are legible and I guess it was just the words I was after, so in the end I was happy enough (though still grumbling slightly in my head) that I had an interesting read in my hands and had helped out a bloke who didn't really have too many other employment options.

Of course a major highlight of being in north Vietnam is the regular consumption of pho for breakfast. Finn is keeping a tally of how many bowls we manage to polish off on the journey. He's confident that we'll easily top 50 in the first few weeks. And all of the other great food at other times of the day, many of which have been staples over the years down Victoria Street in Richmond. And having spent many years occupied by the french, at least one good thing to come out of colonialism for the Vietnamese, or certainly the rest of us, is the french contribution to the local food. Banana crepes seem to be on the menu in every restaurant. Slowly but surely we are reaching in to the street food scene, but it's still difficult as a softy westerner not to wonder on the hygiene of the food preparation, and whether or not some dodgy bacteria on a plate will cause the next few days to be spent with one eye constantly toward the toilet. And often it's difficult to actually work out what the food concoction is that is on offer and a leap of faith is required. One that, having settled in, I am feeling much more confident about making.

Hanoi is a great place for our adventure to begin. The people are so friendly and welcoming. Even the people who are trying to rip you off do it with a smile. Restaurant staff have often played with Kimi to allow us to eat a meal, without having to chase him all over the restaurant. The trip through Vietnam will undoubtedly be an eye opener for us all. I'm looking forward to learning more about this country and its people. Among other things, I want to learn about the American war from the perspective of the Vietnamese. But this trip is not just about our interaction with a different culture in a different land. It is just as much about us once again travelling together as a family.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bye bye Pusskana

I miss my beautiful Pusskana. It's been three weeks since he died and thinking about him still brings a cloud of sadness across my mood. I don't think it does a disservice to my human friends and family to say that I felt a bond to him as strong as to any of the humans that I have relationships with. In fact, the people with whom I have as close a bond with as I had with Pusskana, are only those that are the closest and dearest to me.

In 1999 Tori and I were living in Camden Town. We were  pre-children and were looking for a cat. And in London's Loot magazine, the equivalent to the Trading Post, we located kittens for sale in Streatham, South London. I spoke to the woman on the phone and she said she had only one kitten left, a little black girl kitten. That sounded perfect so we drove on down to meet our new family member. I'd always thought that you could tell the gender of a cat by looking at its face and I always had a slightly disconcerting feeling that this little girl kitten appeared to have the face of a male. But the woman assured us that it was a little girl and she obviously would know, so I didn't give it too much thought. And so the little girl cat was as such in our eyes until one night a month or so later when Tori was playing with the kitten on the couch and, on becoming excited, a little pink jellybean poked out against her arm. Tori was shocked and threw him outside, unsure what exactly to think or do. "Pusskana's a boy", she ran screaming through the house. Tim who we lived with thought that he should now become Pusskano, but that sounded a bit too Italian for me. So Pusskana  it remained. It seems amazing that it took a month to find out, but kittens are so fluffy and their genitals get hidden away by all that fur. And they all squat to wee. It just hadn't been apparent until then.

Pusskana had bonded strongly to us from the very start and would follow us wherever we were going. Walking from the quiet dead-end street near Kentish town where we lived to the hustle and bustle of Camden Market on a weekend was always fraught with danger. Tori and I would be a couple of hundred yards down the street and on turning around, we would see a little black cat following us about 20m behind. We'd have to take him home and try and sneak back out so that he didn't see us. When we moved down to the countryside in Sussex some months later, going for walks was a lot less stressful. We would head over the green pastures and through the farmers' fields in a circuit that went for several kilometres and Pusskana would accompany us the whole way. I'd never heard before of cats going for a walk with their people, but he loved it. If we were going, he would always come along. At nights he would often come into our bed and sleep with us. He used to curl himself into a little ball nestling into my body with my arms draped across and around him, tangled up together like two kittens. Either that or he would sleep on top of Tori's head. When we went away on holiday, like most people with their pets, we would put him into a cattery. He was always so happy to see me when I'd pick him up on our return, that he'd start meowing for me when he'd hear me, long before I would actually come into sight. He'd then climb up around my shoulders purring loudly and pressing himself close to me. Once we were back home, without fail every single time, within 24 hours he would give me a light scratch and run off. A reproach for having left him. So we then started to leave him at home on his own if we went away and would organise for a neighbour to come in and feed him. Until the one time when all of the neighbours were away themselves and we had no option but to leave him at a cattery for the two weeks we were going to be on holiday. I had paid for the extra special gold service the place offered, which meant that supposedly they would play with your cat for an hour each day as well as feed him their extra top of the range food and so on. When we arrived back from holiday and I went to pick him up, the girl at the desk apologised sheepishly. She said that he had been so wild when anybody went in to his enclosure, that in the end they put a "Dangerous cat, Do not enter" sign on the door and just slipped food in quickly and left. They apologised and said they would refund me the extra money I'd paid. Pusskana just seemed relieved to see me. This time he didn't scratch me. But that night, in one of the most amazing animal encounters I have ever had, he jumped on to my lap and then quickly reached up with both paws. Before I had a chance to move he sunk his claws into either side of my face and stared into my eyes. His claws didn't break the skin. He clearly just meant to pin me by holding my cheeks so that he could look me in the eye with an imploring "please don't ever do that to me again". He held me there for five or ten seconds and then just let go and jumped off. We never did put him in a cattery after that. But we did leave him to go off on our journey around Australia. I always felt bad about that, but I was mostly able to park it somewhere else in my mind. We'll be back soon enough I rationalised to myself. And "surely we can't put off this incredible trip because of a cat".

I dropped in to see him when I was back in Melbourne in May and he was happy to see me. I sat out on the balcony with him purring on my lap, until all of a sudden a changed expression came across his face and he jumped off me. When I went over to him he began to hiss. I tried to approach him but he continued to hiss before just wandering off into the garden. I sadly left. It was a couple of months after that that I received the call from Sam who was looking after him (and the house), telling me that he had cat lymphoma. Cancer. And that he was likely to die before we made it back home in January some five or so months later. For all of us this was devastating news. Finn in particular had constantly said that the thing he missed most in Warrandyte was Pusskana. And seeing him was the thing he was looking forward to most on return. I had to agree. I wasn't sure what else Melbourne would have to offer, but I knew that my cat would be there. At least I thought that was the case when we left, now it was not necessarily going to be the case. I dropped back in to see him again when I was passing through Melbourne on a work trip in October. This time his displeasure with me was clear. He sat on the grass out the front with a look of hostility on his face and his tail lashing from side to side. I put my hand out to him knowing that he would scratch me but not quite anticipating the ferocity with which he would attack me. He grabbed me with his claws and sunk his teeth hard into my hand drawing blood. He then just sat back and looked at me. I put my hand back over toward him and he again bit me savagely and sat down and looked at me. We repeated this action maybe half a dozen times. I just let him bite me. I thought I deserved it and I was prepared to let him vent his anger at me. I'd abandoned him and then he got very sick. He wanted to express his displeasure. I've recounted this tale to a number of people who questioned whether he had perhaps not remembered me. To which I would say that this was not the way he had ever reacted to a complete stranger. He had never bitten a stranger once. No. He was extremely pissed off and was looking to pass on the extent of this to me, which he did without a lot of ambiguity. Lisa had looked on partially horrified because he had been totally fine with everybody in the new household. I went into the house to wash and disinfect my bloodied hand but it was inside that I was hurting the most. It was only when I was leaving some short time later that, in some kind of conciliatory approach, he came over and let me gently pat him. It was not a very intimate pat, but it was a pat nevertheless. It gave me some small hope that things may be ok when we all got home in a couple of months. If he managed to survive that long. To the whole family's relief, he did survive. And we had a couple of months with him at the end. But it was sad to watch his decline. He would sit in front of his food bowl rocking ever so slightly back and forward. We weren't sure if that was from the chemo drug he was on or due to his ailment. But he was eating ok and did not visibly seem to be in pain. We discussed the idea of having him "put down" but we really didn't want the last moments of his life to be spent in the sterile environs of the vet; a place that he hated even more than catteries. And I'm not sure anyway that deciding to terminate the life of another being doesn't somehow rob them of something. We humans don't deal very well with either pain or death and we let that sensibility affect many of the decisions we make. If he had lost bodily function control or was crying out in pain, I would have viewed things differently. But he was strong. At least externally. He was not whimpering. He had incredible dignity. The night before he died, I knew it was going to be his last. He had climbed into the bath and was just lying there. His condition had deteriorated significantly during that Sunday and I thought that if he did survive the night, maybe it was time to call the vet for a lethal injection. He seemed now to be struggling badly. When Tori got up at 5am to go and comfort a crying Kimi, I went to see how Pusskana was doing. He was still lying in the bath in exactly the same position that I had last seen him. He was alive but was clearly dying before my eyes. I leant over to stroke him, gently resting my head on his side and softly talking to him as I always did. The smell of death was clear. I sat and comforted him for an hour and a half in which time he cried out for me on one occasion. Whether it was in pain or to try and say something I just could't tell. When he was in the final stages of life, perhaps the last ten minutes or so, he would periodically take a quick gasp for air. I continued to  gently stroke him and comfort him until he gasped once more and then that was it. Gone. The last gasp. I sobbed uncontrollably. And went and dug a hole through the thick Warrandyte clay under a gum tree down the back. I felt so emotionally wrenched. So sad. So sorry that I had left him and he had got so sick. So saddened by the thought that I'd never see him again. Never be able to get him all fired up and wild in the house. Never have him snuggle up with us in the bed. Never be able to rub my face in his soft fur. He was so fluffy.

RIP my beautiful pussy cat Pusskana

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The commute

I've never fancied myself as a commuter. I don't even like the sound of the word let alone what it actually means. Like an automaton heading out in the early morning through the sea of peak hour traffic and jostling crowds, onward to the production line of city humanity. Spending an hour and a half travelling purposefully to get to the land of generic workstations and artificial light. Somehow thousands of people doing exactly the same type of thing simultaneously lubricates the wheels of industry that our city lives are built on. Even though I only have a few weeks or months of this to contemplate, after a year of remote working from outback Australia, it feels daunting and more than a little depressing. I'm trying to remind myself it's only a couple of short term consultancy gigs in the Melbourne CBD. And I do need the loot. At least I think I do. I'm almost finished up now with the American company I've been involved with for the better part of a decade. Contracts have been terminated and the notice period is now almost within its last fortnight. Most of the journey with them has been filled with good times, exotic travel, friends and laughter. But changing circumstances have soured things. And even with an uncertain future of unknown income, I'm looking forward to it all being over and moving on to the next chapter of my working life. Whatever that may be. There seem to be a number of possibilities, but at times I feel a little like the guy who has just split up with his girlfriend and finds that the several alternate girls who seemed available at the time have somehow disappeared, or not been quite what they seemed. One thing I know for sure is that I won't be looking for a permanent open ended position within a large enterprise housed high in a city tower block.

In 1995, prior to having any kids to think about, Tori and I spent ten months travelling around Europe and through the Middle East in a VW Transporter pop top campervan. I'd finished up a contract at British Telecom and Tori quit her London city job that she commuted to everyday, two hours from our apartment in Brighton. Unlike this recent Australian trip where (despite people's continued disbelief) I actually worked, on that trip there was no work at all for ten months. Gloriously none at all. The closest I came to any sort of work on the voyage was when we were on our way across Europe back towards England and I decided I should try and find an IT contract somewhere. The possibilities seemed at that stage to be working in either Stockholm or London. The times were good, the economies strong and corporations were throwing buckets full of money at IT people who could help them with the computer industry's own version of the Emperor's New Clothes; the dreaded Y2k bug. Halcyon days! Going to Sweden excited us both greatly and I hoped that that opportunity would come through. That we could drive straight ahead through Germany rather than having to turn left. But the project got canned and so London it was. Tori really didn't want to go back to England. While she wasn't quite dragged along kicking and screaming, she could quite happily have left and not set foot back there again for a long long time. And so it came to be that from a camping ground on the outskirts of Rome, fuelled by a couple of bottles of lunchtime chianti, I got to brazenly negotiate my rate for a job that I didn't really want to do in a place that I didn't particularly want to go to. Financially the result was excellent. On a day to day basis it involved commuting from our very nice rented home in Camden Town to the financial district in London, taking my place in the IT department of a large bureaucratic European bank. That's where we, the system support people, had to do daily battles with our apparently sworn arch enemy, the application support people. I couldn't quite get it as it seemed quite apparent to me that really we were all on the same side. On my first day there after my extended layoff of lunchtime wines and afternoon siestas, I watched people standing around and arguing about a report that should have been automatically delivered but wasn't. It reminded me immediately of how in such working environments the suspension of disbelief needs to be greater than for the most farfetched of fantasy films. The ability to believe that the most ridiculously trivial tasks and events are actually in someway important. The job never really got any better than that and essentially served the purpose  of reminding me what it was like to have a job that I hated going to every day. It wasn't a difficult job in any way. Or oppressive. Or too physical. Or any kind of hardship that I know exists significantly more in most other types of jobs. So I'm not seeking any sympathy. But what it was was mind-numbingly boring. Watching the clock edge agonisingly slowly towards 5.30 at which time I could escape with relief out the door. It felt like torture. Trying to find something during the day to work on that was in any way interesting seemed totally elusive to me. In London terms I lived relatively close to where I worked, but it still took me 45 minutes to get there if I travelled by public transport. It only took me 20 minutes however to ride my bike. I bought myself a London cycle map that had all the bike paths marked in. The ones considered scenic were highlighted in green. I thought this was a great chance to explore some nice parts of London that I didn't know and decided one day to take the route marked as scenic that headed along the canal out of Camden and through the back of Islington. As I rode further along the waterway the surrounds became increasingly bleak. I'd left the bustle of Camden Lock and only several hundred metres away I was in a place that seemed devoid of any movement. And considering that essentially I was in the middle of one of the world's most densely populated cities, it seemed isolated and somehow remote. The feeling came over me that bodies had probably been fished out of the water in this "scenic" part of London over the years and that maybe the bike map cartographer had a particularly twisted sense of humour. I sensed rather than saw a couple of people sitting on the bench seat a little off the track. And just as I passed them I felt a thump as a rock crashed into my helmet adorned head. Stunned, I turned to see a fist waving woman with a can of Tenants Special Brew in the other hand shrieking "you were fucken' lucky to be wearing a helmet". I was so shocked I couldn't react in any way other than to ride on. It seems that the fact that I was wearing city office clothes was enough to offend some people. My bike commute reverted to the more conventional weaving in and out of stationery London traffic after that. Or indeed the longer journey of public transport. Jammed against fellow commuters on the Northern Line. In fact the tube service is very good in London. Especially compared with transport services in Melbourne. The trains are in fact so frequent that when arriving on the platform to see that the next train is as far away as eight minutes, it seems like a personal affront. What am I possibly going to do to occupy myself for a whole eight minutes? I'm not sure what my hurry was when the place I was going to was considerably more boring than waiting for a train and had many more hours to fill with some inane activity or another. One day while I was surfing the net, I decided to fill in some time by checking out life insurance options on an online insurance company's instant quote website. Tori was pregnant with our first child and it seemed that life insurance was something you were supposed to have. I filled in the online form with all my details and got my quote. I wondered what the quote would be if I took the policy out for 35 years instead of 25, trying to work out how long I might actually live for if I had to do this job for the rest of my life. And then what would be the cost if I said I was a smoker. After all, does a casual partaker of spliffs count as a smoker? Probably only if there's some way that smoking can be linked to the death I guess. "He was run over on the way back from the shop where he bought a pack of rizlas"? Anyway, the damn online form kept on resetting itself completely when you went back to fill it in for a subsequent quote. All the details had to be reentered every time. Name. Address. Phone. Date of birth. Partner details. Do you smoke. List all medical history etc. etc. I couldn't be bothered with all that and just wanted the numbers, so I pasted the word "bollocks" into every field of the form. It could have been any word at all, but strangely that was the one that came to mind when I was confronted once again with a completely reset form. The quotes were all delivered fine so it all seemed the same to me. But that is not quite how the machinations of industry in the world of fabricated importance actually work. It seems that somebody received an email from the form and it appeared that I was saying "bollocks" to them. They were quite offended by this and so with a little forensic investigation, discovered that the IP address from which I had entered their website, belonged to the large bank I was stationed at. And more precisely, could be accurately traced down to the very desk that I sat at within that organisation. I was summonsed to my contract agency's office and told that this trail of indignation had led all the way up to the desk of the IT Director who, on discovering the troublemaker was a contractor, passed the information on to the agency. It was agreed that it was best if I finished up then and there some two weeks prior to the full term of my six month contract. I couldn't believe the petty circumstances with which this had occurred but also couldn't believe my luck. Hooray! It was over. I pretty much danced and sang my way down from Finsbury Square to Leadenhall Street to collect my things and to let my colleagues know that I was finishing right now and leaving them behind. I already was scheduled to start a new contract back down in Brighton as soon as this one finished, so now had a two week holiday before my new job commenced. I immediately went home, got on to the net and found two cheap flights leaving the next day to the beautiful tropical island paradise of Tobago, down in the Caribbean. I think my postcard back to the folk in the office started with "I'm lying here in the February sun sipping on an ice cold beer and contemplating whether to have the lobster or the crab for dinner".

Having not done the commute or city job for so long, it is always a shock to step back into that fabricated world. A friend in New York once told me that there were people there who commuted two and a half hours each way every day to get to Manhattan. I find that incredible. How do you have any sort of life outside of work? I just don't have the energy for it. Leaving home around 7.30 and getting home after 7 in the evening sucks. I'm so knackered when I get back that all I can do is eat dinner and fall on the couch. I have a few more months of this to fill up the coffers and then that's it. I might have to get the veggies growing out the back and cut down eating meat to only once a month, but at least I'll be able to spend more time around the house and with my family. Even if they are all a bit hungry.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

And then we were back

And then we were back. And like a tan from a two week Queensland holiday, the feeling of travelling through remote Australia just seems to have washed right off. It all ended so abruptly and quickly. And what a crash-landing back into Melbourne it was. One minute we were on the outskirts of Sydney bound for Canberra, the next we were gunning it as fast as possible back to Melbourne. I'd received a call from my distraught mum, who was crying down the phone saying that she'd had a fall at the rehab place she'd been staying in since her sojourn in hospital some weeks back. Her legs had just given way from underneath her and now she was back in hospital unable to move her legs at all. I felt fearful and ill. All plans were off and we just had to get back as soon as possible. So after a day of driving followed by a night spent in a layaway on the Hume just south of Wangaratta, we arrived back in Melbourne. We couldn't stay in our house though as Lisa and the nefarious other folk who now occupied the place were still living there. Instead we pulled in to the Warrandyte local caravan park and set up as we'd been for the past year. I guess we started with a week camped at Dean and Melissa's in Warrandyte before heading further afield. So returning to Warrandyte and spending a week in camping mode seemed to bookend the trip in some kind of weird way due to the circumstances. There was no easing into it. I was met by the harsh reality of hours spent at the Royal Melbourne Hospital with Nat, trying to work out what was going on with our mum and comforting her. She had five fractures in her spine, one of which had more or less collapsed and started to impinge on her spinal column, hence the loss of movement in her legs. Whereas previously the doctors hadn't wanted to operate on her due to the high risk factor, now it seemed that an operation was the only possible chance of her not becoming a paraplegic. The surgeon indicated that this was almost inevitable unless she had the six hour spinal surgery to alleviate the situation. She had osteoporosis so there was an appreciable chance that the reinforcing structure that they were going to try and insert into her back, along with the cage to further reinforce and protect the spinal column, may not hold. If a screw didn't take or her spine just crumbled, she could be paralysed from the waste down. The anaesthetist was more concerned about an anomaly that had shown up on the ultrasound of her heart. He thought there was a high risk that she wouldn't come out of the general anaesthetic at all. Watching your mother sign a consent form for an operation that listed as possible outcomes paralysis or death is a sobering experience. I wondered if she would die. What would my world be like without her? Thoughts of my own life as a child flooded back. Growing up with her, Dad and Nat. Family experiences and emotions that had lain dormant in my memory for years unfolded in my mind like I was watching a long and continuous movie, much of it appearing to have been shot in seventies style Kodachrome. Conversations with Nat and spending close time with her invoked further memories, both old and recent. And thoughts of all of the practicalities that needed to be gone through if she didn't survive the operation. Along with the fear of loss and of grief. But the staff of the neurosurgery unit at the Royal Melbourne hospital were beyond amazing. Compassionate, supportive, encouraging, friendly, professional, optimistic. I met with the anaesthetist two days before the operation and the surgeon the night before. They spoke to us at length with patience and understanding. They expressed their concerns with the procedure and discussed the risks, but both gave me faith that mum was in the best hands that she could be in. It was very clear that both men knew what they were doing. Nat and I made mum promise that she'd fight hard and that she'd see us after the operation. That her heart was strong enough to pull through. And so was her will. That she had people who loved her waiting for her. We spent a long and tortuous day trying to occupy ourselves while knowing that our mother was unconscious and under the knife. After a feeble attempt at doing some work in the Baillieu Library at the uni, we thought maybe a film would be a good distraction and so headed over to the Nova. My mind raced between the plot on the screen and the greater drama that was going on just down the road. When the film finished I lost it. I could hardly speak and I felt like uncontrollably crying. It took me a good few minutes to pull myself together in the cinema toilets. The six hours of the operation would be close to complete by now, but I knew we wouldn't hear for at least a couple more hours. When I met back up with Nat who had been waiting for me outside the gents' I was feeling a little stronger and more prepared whatever the outcome. By the time we finally received the call from the surgeon around 7pm, we'd been joined by Nat's guy Paul and the three of us were lying on the Melbourne Uni lawns. And the news was good. Relievingly good. Everything had gone better than planned and expected. She was alive and she wasn't paralysed. Welcome back to Melbourne.

Tori's mum had been having her own physical challenges during the previous year, having had a back operation herself some months previously. She was on the long road of recovery and so we had Christmas in Sydney instead of the customary Melbourne Christmas. Bringing her a new six month old grandson to view for the first time was a good tonic. We had a lovely time with Mike and Maggie. And caught up with a load of friends around Sydney. And saw The Church at the Enmore. And hung out in the beautiful surrounds of Lane Cove National Park where we were camped. And a trip up to Patonga where I managed to inflict the only damage on the van since we'd left Melbourne. After making it unscathed up the Gibb River Road, the Strzelecki track and across the rest of the 40 or 50,000km we drove during the year, I somehow managed to drive the van into a bridge that was not quite high enough. I had stopped in front of the sign that said that only vehicles of 2.5m or less could fit under the bridge and had a conversation with Tori about whether the clearance of the car was now 2.1m or 2.3m. Despite the very clear view of it in the rearview mirror I totally forgot that I had a van of around 3.5m height sitting right behind me. As we edged under, I felt and heard a crunching sound from behind. On stopping and rushing out to inspect the damage, I felt like nominating myself for the title of world's most stupid person. In the end the damage to the van was minimal, but it took me a while to get over the feeling of supreme incompetence.

New Year's was spent at the Peats Ridge music festival. A beautiful three day celebration of music with a magnificent backdrop of mountains and forest. After a hectic working period in the lead up to Christmas, I was finally on holiday and able to relax for a few days. Friends and music in idyllic surrounds with a carnival atmosphere is pretty much as good as it gets. We saw a load of new bands, lazed around on the grass or around our campsite, ate good festival food and consumed festival consumables, all culminating in being with Tori and my three kids as the clock struck midnight to ring in 2012. The five of us dancing around to Gotye at the back of the giant mob of people who made up the crowd in front of the main stage. It was a lovely way to see in the new year. And a new year always begins with so much hope. But it was only one day later, that we were on the highway back to Melbourne.

We've now been back in our house for nearly a month and most of the boxes have been unpacked, although it was the typical all consuming ordeal to make it happen. Mum has been in rehab for a few weeks and is slowly on the mend. The kids have started school back at Warrandyte primary and are happy because of it. Jaz has started doing gymnastics. Finn has had his first game back playing basketball. Both have been happy to be hanging out with friends again. They seem so much more aware and mature because of the trip. Finn has come out more self confident. Jazzy is physically stronger and more sporty. I'll be interested to see how their perceptions of the year we've just had change over time and which places or events seem to have had lasting impact. Kim is now seven months and is still to settle into a user friendly sleeping pattern. It means that whatever we are doing is still impaired by sleep deprivation. He is a lovely little boy though. So happy with a wide beaming smile to match.  And he's a strong little fella who's already crawling around and pulling himself up to standing on whatever he can. Tori has come through a period of being overwhelmed by how much there is to do. Whatever she chooses to do she always does well and now she's trying her hand at being a domestic goddess. All of us are reaping the rewards of the wares flowing from the kitchen and the house has never been so neat.

In general I'm feeling disconnected. I'm used to not being on the road now and instead being in our very large house. But I'm still having trouble with the crowds of people and traffic and the increased demands on my time that seem to have descended from out of the blue. Life is so much simpler on the road. Everything is pretty much stripped away, from possessions to responsibilities. It becomes very clear what is important and what is not. I miss being in such constant proximity with my family. Now Finn disappears into his room to play computer games, while Jazzy disappears into her room with the door closed to do god knows what. Now that I have a separate work area, I guess I'm locking myself away too. Living in the van had a physical lifestyle attached to it. Now I'm hardly leaving the house or doing any significant exercise. After a flurry of activity and a quick trip back up to Sydney, work has eased off for me in the last week. But I know it's the calm before the storm. I've changed my whole working circumstance and am back in to the uncertainty of not really knowing where the income will be coming from. The next six months seems chock full of projects, but after that I have no idea. Nevertheless, I'm glad. Time for a change and a fresh start with something new. I'm struggling really to get too excited about anything to do with work at the moment. Looking forward to the end of the old and hoping that something vibrant and exciting will take me away again some time soon. The Good Ship Utopia, resplendent with taped up, as yet unfixed, hole in the roof, is sitting in storage at the local caravan park. Plans are afoot for a two or three week journey away in a few months time, but the logistics of where Kim is going to sleep now that he no longer fits in a basket on the table may be a bit of a problem. Hopefully we'll hitch up and get away to somewhere nice. In the meantime there's a whole city out there in Melbourne waiting for me to come and re-explore. I've spent so many years of my life in this city and have loved living here in the past. Perhaps I should just be grateful for what I've done in the last year and move on in a more positive frame of mind. Embrace the teachings of Candide's teacher Dr. Pangloss that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Go out and dive back in to the excitement that can be city living. But I'm just not ready for that. Like Candide, I think I'll just hang out here for a while and work in the garden.