Get Out There

The benefits of facing your fears and pushing yourself to go outside your comfort zone, are exponentially rewarding. Each time you achieve something on your own, you buoy up your confidence and your ego, and that means you can go on to to do even more adventurous things.

Visiting a foreign country on your own seems to be something most people are afraid of, or maybe it’s just women. But as I’ve said before, the advantages, like being adopted by strangers and following your own interests and timetable, outweigh the disadvantages. Once you’ve done it, it gets easier. I’d recommend going somewhere similar to home first then stepping up the ante. I started with domestic travel in Australia, then moved on to Ireland, and now it’s India.

Exploring on your own, day or night, seems scary to some, as well. I know I’ve talked about this before but I want to reinforce that it’s worthwhile. I want to share some examples I experienced in India to convince you.

Catching the train from Mumbai to Goa, nine hours on my own, was far easier than I anticipated. I did need help finding the platform but that wasn’t bad. I brought my packed lunch and mini-thermos of masala chai, and found that tea, snacks and lunch were provided! Mind you, I wouldn’t eat it, but that’s pretty convenient.

Hiring a driver is essential for safe and time-efficient site-seeing in a place like India but it’s not necessary for short trips with a purpose. I could have opted for hotel transport to and from the Jaipur Writers Festival but choosing to take the auto rickshaw was fun and gave me some of my best photos. And a real taste of being a local. Apart from motorbikes, this is one of the key ways for locals to get around. They’re really cheap and give you an authentic experience.

On my first night in Varanasi, I went along the promenade of the Ganga to survey the area before dinner. Being sensibly cautious I first asked the hotel staff if it was safe to do so, since it was dark. Their answer was absolutely. There were so many people going about their business: chatting, bathing in the holy river or sending candles off in little foil trays with a prayer. A young man started walking alongside me asking, where are you from? The usual conversation starter! Did I feel threatened? Not at all. Was I wary? Of course! When he asked if I’d like to see the cremation site, I said yes, but it wasn’t like I was following him up a back alley. I was in plain view of everyone and he offered pieces of information which were helpful. When he offered to guide me the next day, I firmly told him that I already had a guide, gave him 100 rupees (AUS$2) to make him happy, and left. It was a positive start to the trip.

The next night, I attended a religious festival, which happened to coincide with my being there. There was a huge number of people and a lot of noise. As a single, I could climb over people that were seated at the front to perch myself in a tiny spot. I squeezed in to cross my legs next to a dark, sari-clad lady who smiled, made a bit more room, then helped me put red paste on my forehead. She even shared flower petals with me. I was delighted and I think she was too. Returning to the hotel, a kilometre walk along the Ganga bank, I got even closer to the cremation site than the night before. About five pyres burned, flames reaching metres high and smoke billowing, stinging my eyes while my ears and chest vibrated with the loud beating of drums. I finished off the evening with feeding a mother dog and her four puppies, and three cows, my left over dinner of naan bread and vegetable kebabs. (I’d asked the restaurant to pack it in a takeaway bag for my lunch!) This whole experience, which I wouldn’t have had if I’d been too anxious about going out, will always stay with me as a highlight.

Finally, in Kolkata, I left my lovely hotel, a cocoon of peace and safety (but also rather un-thrilling for dinner for one), and discovered a buzzing hive of brightly-lit activity, just outside the gate. Night markets were right there and as I stepped through the crowd of buyers and sellers, I watched as locals examined the clothes, stainless steel pots and embroidered tablecloths. I even bought a couple of things myself. Young people gathered around food stalls and stood eating dishes that I now recognised. The aromas of sweet spices and garlic made me hungry so I pressed on to the rooftop bar and restaurant recommended to me by my guide earlier in the day. I was thrilled that the atmosphere was both vibrant, enhanced by contemporary (Bollywood-style) music, and comfortable, with white cane chairs, orange cushions and marble table tops. And the food was tasty and inexpensive. It was another authentic experience that I wouldn’t have had if I stayed in the hotel.

I want you to understand that these moments not only enhance my travel experience but also help me grow as a strong and curious person. These are the building blocks for developing a joyous and purposeful life and I hope I can encourage you to take the first step towards doing this for yourself. We can all do it if we start with baby steps. It’s taking a leap of faith, even if it’s off the bottom step first.

“Be brave. Without bravery, you will never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, your life will remain small – far smaller than you probably wanted your life to be.”
Elizabeth Gilbert.

PS Adventures don’t always run smoothly. Things do go wrong and they can hurt. But whether they’re negative experiences or learning experiences is how you view it. I’ve had worse but I’ll tell you this tale because I see it as funny!

On my last day in Varanasi, I decided to see an Ayurvedic doctor, as much for the experience as a curiosity about advice he would give me. I followed a hand-drawn map scribbled on a napkin by my guide the previous day. This was challenging and fun, a bit like orienteering. I had to catch a boat first, a ride of 30 minutes, and get off at Assi Ghat. Then I turned left at the steps and right at the chai shop and past the ATM and up to a big house on the right. On the way, I was stopped by a thin woman carrying a toddler and an empty baby bottle. ‘No money,’ she said. ‘Baby formula, milk!’ And she waved the bottle at me. ‘No money, milk for the baby,’ she begged again. Well, what could I do? I asked, ‘Where do I get the formula?’ ‘The shop, follow!’ she said, beckoning me with a wave of her hand. I followed her to a shop twenty metres away and she requested the formula from the shop owner. ‘Two,’ she suddenly appealed, touching my arm and leading my gaze to the toddler. So again what could I do? Okay, two! I was surprised at the cost and exclaimed it. The shop owner showed me the box and the price was printed on the packaging. ‘Okay!’ I nodded, reaching into my purse, mumbling to myself, No wonder she can’t afford it! The baby pinched my arm, a little painfully, in gratitude. He was quite strong!! I took their photo, which was reverse begging really. I love my people photos.

So….I went to the doctor. I stepped past the lazing cows and into his house foyer. He spoke English, was kind and intelligent and basically told me I was going to be fine. Ayurvedic doctors are free so of course I believe him. This was a truly positive experience.

Back to the lady and toddler. I sent a message to my guide saying how helpful he’d been in his recommendation of the doctor and map drawing. I said something brief about the lady and buying milk. He replied that I’d been ripped off, that she would take it back to the shop and get a refund. 600 Rupees (AUS$12) it cost me! I sent the photo and he sent back, ‘Ya, I know dis bloody leady.’ This made me laugh at myself so hard, I may have looked crazy. Really, did it hurt? No! Did I learn something about life in a hard world. Yes. About myself. Yes! So end of story. Another great experience!

Blending In or Standing Out

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Just because I feel like a local in Udaipur, India, doesn’t mean the locals think I’m one!

I’m at ease here, relaxed and bouncy as I walk the alleyways and say Namaste to shopkeepers. I smile and they return the grin. My head wobbles in reply to theirs, a conversation in itself. But I know I stand out. They’re looking, watching to see what I do, hoping I’ll stop to buy or give them a chance to talk about the cricket or tennis. They love us Aussies! They’ve all got a relative or an Australian story.

When I sight-see like a tourist, I mingle with the Indian tourists. They’re having a good time, always: couples, young families, extended families. Their language is soft. They chatter and laugh. We admire each other, for once again, I stand out. Sometimes I ask, may I take your photo? The girls pose, just like in any other part of the world. The men proudly hold their children – and the kids are so cute! But they often approach me first: can we have a selfie? I always oblige and grin at the camera. I’ve even been passed their toddlers for a special photo, as if I’m royalty.

I’ve been to two pujas, Hindu prayer ceremonies. I like to integrate and immerse myself in the culture and I’m rewarded for my efforts. I buy a garland for 50 rupees ($1), a tiny price for such an intricate floral work. I take it up the stairs, leaving earth behind, and barefoot, enter the temple. I sit on the floor, cross legged and try to get comfortable. I return the looks of worshippers and smile. They smile back. I copy their actions and stand when they do. I clap and line up to give my offering and accept the holy rosewater in my hand. I act like I sip it but I don’t. I do pour it over my head and run it through my hair. I enjoy the bells, the chanting, the drum and the finger-cymbals. And the people love that I’m there. I can see it on their curious faces. When I go outside, I get the rock-star treatment. Grown men are the most bold: can we have a selfie? What can I say but, of course!

Cows are sacred here and roam the streets. In some areas, there’s too many and I feel sorry for them. They’re thin and eat rubbish – literally; I saw a calf eating a cardboard box. People throw out food scraps for them but it can’t be enough. Here in Udaipur, though, they look okay. Today I saw a pile of chapatis in a feeding spot. I touch my fingers to my lips and pass the kiss to the cow, as I’ve seen locals do. I wish it well! It doesn’t look too sure!

It’s harder for me to cope with the dogs. There’s so many street dogs and hierarchy is everything. The tough ones, the intimidators, get the little food that there is. Small fights can be heard too often. Last night I was watching a dog from the steps of the temple. He was pressing forward onto the street, clearly terrified, with his tail wrapped firmly under his bottom. He started to bark at nothing in particular, but facing the traffic. I so wanted to comfort him but didn’t dare.

This morning I took the toast from my breakfast in the hope that he’d still be there and I could offer some kindness. He was curled up in the sun on a platform at the temple. I broke the toast and handed him a piece, moving and speaking as gently as I could. He was looking at me dubiously when a beggar-child approached. She looked at the toast and pointed, then touched her mouth. I understood this language and asked, do you want this? She looked back to her mother who was sitting on the steps. The mother nodded at me. I handed it over. A man came over and softly said to her, thank you. She turned to me and said it with a smile. I was glad to give her some coloured pencils and notepaper I carry for this purpose, as well. The vast difference between me and that child’s mother does not escape me.

Fortunately, beggars are greatly reduced in this country. The prime minister, Mr Modi, is doing a fine job. Education, including the removal of false teachers, health, including free care for those on the poverty line, jobs, including bringing in villagers to clean up the roadside rubbish, and free food from vans parked around the hospitals, are all a part of his programme. Let’s hope he gets voted in again, despite the corrupt forces gathering strength to get him out and renew their own power. See, I’m even interested in the politics! I really do feel like a local!

But my time here is temporary. I’m an observer and I’m observed. I’ll never know what effect I might have on someone’s day or path, just by the interaction. And vice versa!

Namaste.

The Life and Death of A Hiking Boot

Last week I wrote about packing for a night away. More specifically, I wrote about going on a two day walk along the Kiama Coast. The most important things to take were my hiking boots. Only hiking boots can keep you comfortable, upright and dry. Well worn, travelled and loved hiking boots are the best. And such are mine.

My hiking boots joined me in 2009 when my fifteen-year old son was boarding in Kangaroo Valley NSW. This is a school campus that teaches outdoor survival skills and at one point, a parent is required to join their son on a two-day hike. The point is – to survive! Hence the boots. They worked hard and I survived! They loved their first adventure, despite the rain, and a close bond was formed between boot and wearer.

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They carried me with empathy and support across many Australian landscapes: beaches and bush in the Bay of Fires, craggy rocks and seal colonies on Kangaroo Island, tracks across Orpheus Island, snow and mud tracks along the Thredbo River, farmland in Goulburn, cliffs and bush trails from Shellharbour to Eden on the NSW South Coast, and most memorably, up and down rocky ridges, through desert grasses and along dry, sandy  river beds on the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia.

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Overseas, they trekked over frozen ground in Patagonia, keeping my feet warm on windswept farms and glacial waterways. They helped me breathe at high altitude by keeping me stable and comfortable in the dry, arid Atacama Desert in Chile.

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And then on a simple walk through the hills and along the cliff, halfway between Kiama and Gerringong, one boot started flapping like a thong beneath my heel. We’d covered some uneven, muddy and grassy ground, leapt over a rivulet, then there it was. Flap, flap. I looked to see what was stuck to my heel, but alas, it was an unstuck sole. A bandage from the First Aid Kit could only slow its leaking lifeblood, and by Werri Beach, my soul had become unstuck!

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I was ceremoniously carried across the last rivulet so as to keep the boot dry. But we had reached the end of the journey. We had travelled so far. The boots had been in shoe-hospital once already. It was time to let them go. I undid the bandage and the sturdy laces, peeled them off my feet and kissed them both goodbye. Then I unceremoniously dropped them in the bin! Despite this callousness, I will always remember them with love and gratitude. RIP boots.

Spoilt for Choice

Tomorrow, I’m going on a trip to Kiama. Not for a week. Not even a long weekend. But for one night. I’m looking forward to it. I’m doing a two day walk with my walking group and we’re staying over-night, which should be fun.

But what’s not fun, is packing for it. It seems to me that you go to just as much trouble for one night as five. And the weather causes a quandary as to what to take. It’s Spring and the weather varies from warm and muggy to windy and cold. And thunderstorms are predicted one day and sunshine the next.

So, do I take long pants or shorts? Heavy raincoat or light? Runners for day 2 in case my hiking boots get sodden? Two caps? Obviously two shirts and a fleece.

But do I also take a comfy trackie to change into after my hot shower? Slippers?

And we’re going out to dinner, so there’s a full outfit, with shoes, and a wrap, because I can’t tell if it will be warm like last night or cold enough for a fire, like the night before!

The toiletries bag always overwhelms me. I try to find little containers to put shampoo and conditioner in. And face cream. And there’s the deo and sunblock and individual sheets of paracetamol and ibuprofen for all those aches and pains that come from hiking. And Bandaids.

I’ll need PJs but what about a gown? Pillow? Will I need swimmers and a towel?

My favourite tea is essential. But what about a teapot? Many places don’t cater for leaf drinkers any more. What about breakfast: cereal, sourdough, Vegemite?

And then there’s the necessary sustainers-of-life in the day-pack: water bottles, thermos, lunch, snacks, camera, hypothermia blanket (is that going too far?), emergency taxi money.

What if the weather is so foul that we don’t feel like hiking? Do I take a book, iPad? Kitchen sink?

At this point, I’m exhausted! But when I think about this, and stop moaning for a minute, I realise how blessed I am that I have all this choice. I have all these things! And I have the luxury of living in a country where going away for a couple of days is normal and easy and safe. It’s a holiday, an event unavailable in too many countries where there are no choices.

Australia. What a marvellous country it is. And how fortunate am I?

 

https://kiama.com.au/kiama-coast-walk

Mountain Devils

Who’s read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed? It starts with a young woman hiking in the wilds of California – the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s young, inexperienced and she’s sitting on a high rock rubbing her feet, looking into the vast forest below. And then one of her boots rolls off!

I just spent the weekend with my mother in the Blue Mountains. Nothing catastrophic or even challenging happened. But the rim of the Megalong Valley and Grose Valley offer similar views to those Cheryl experienced: the tall, sheer sandstone cliffs, the carved, immense space and thick woodland as far as the eye can see. To stand and look is to be in awe. The imagination wanders far back in time, long before aboriginals were the only tourists here. I could imagine dinosaurs rustling through the trees below, as if it was grass. I could see them flying through the air, much closer than aeroplanes that now dot the high sky.

Getting away from the main lookouts is essential to feel the enormity of what is. Govetts Leap and Evans Lookout are great but there are quieter ones, like off the Fairfax Heritage Walking Track. Mum and I walked several tracks, carefully reading the track descriptions first, and found ourselves admiring Spring wattles, grass trees and scribbly gums, enormous termite mounds and tranquil pools. We were wearing our hiking boots and we got a lot of exercise, but we didn’t try anything as strenuous as what that madly wild Cheryl did.

Which brings me to the other sensory pleasures of our weekend: eating and sleeping. Leura is full of great restaurants and cafes that provide modern, fresh cuisine that looks pretty and tastes good. However, the highlight of our weekend getaway was staying at the Hydro Majestic in Medlow Bath. This grand old, white building is full of history – and it’s all fun! Built, mostly, back in 1903, it’s been renovated with a new take on it’s first owner’s dream.

But for mum and me, it’s nostalgic because we stayed there when I was about seven and eight. I remember running up Cat’s Alley, the long sloping corridor with arched views over the Megalong Valley. I remember the relief work on the huge oil heaters that lined the walls, the stage on which guests and professionals got to perform, and the little dolls made out of pipe-cleaners, tulle and mountain devil pods. Of course, they were called Mountain Devils and I loved them dearly.

Our weekend away in the Blue Mountains ticked all the boxes: fresh air, nature, scenery, comfort and a little bit of sentimentality. It’s suitable for tame bush-walkers and wild, adventurous types as well. I’d highly recommend it. Have any of you been there?

https://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/blue-mountains/katoomba-area/accommodation/hydro-majestic-hotel-blue-mountains

https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/walking-tracks/fairfax-heritage-walking-track

 

Aussie Road Trip

My Blog covers four categories: Matters of the Heart, the Creative Well, the Writing Journey and Take a Trip. This Post is going to cover all four.

My most recent adventure was last weekend when I took four days to drive 1200km in regional NSW. I stopped in Goulburn, Gundagai, Leeton, Cowra, Bathurst and Lithgow before returning home to Coogee.

Firstly, I’m in love with Australia so my heart was feeling warm and full as I drove past bone coloured grasses, cereal crops, green-manure crops and woodlands. Iconic  gum trees, bark hanging off their trunks in long strips, lined the roads. When I was close enough, I watched the funny antics of the sheep, terrified, as my vehicle slowed, into a mass migration of a field, tiny lambs in tow. I felt sad that these sweet creatures have had to suffer so much on the live-export ships and glad that my voice has joined with so many to stop the barbaric practice. Obviously, I feel the same way about the cows; Black Angus’s dotted green hills, calm and still as a Gruner painting. Somewhere between Gundagai and Leeton I had to stop to let cattle cross the road: not in a frantic bunch but one by one, as they grazed by the side of the road, looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing?’ and casually stepped in front of my car.

All these images fill my creative well, giving me inspiration and recharging my delight in my surroundings. One of the three characters in my novel-in-the-making is an Aussie woman who derives great joy from exploring her Australian environment and captures it through the lens of a camera. I wonder who she takes after! I’ll be doing more of these trips – in the name of research – so that I can develop this character in full.

There was another reason for this trip: this same character loves the show McLeod’s Daughters. She’s watched every episode, laughed as the girls fell in muddy dams saving a calf, cheered as they sheered sheep through the night and cried at the breaking of their hearts. So, when I discovered that some of the actors were gathering for a reunion at the Roxy Theatre in Leeton, I felt I had to go and check it out. It had very little to do with Aaron Jeffery the man, and a lot to do with my character being in a fantasy romance with Alex Ryan, the character!

Following your heart and your curiosity, exploring outside your normal field, and going on a trip anywhere, opens your mind to look outwards, learn and expand your view of the world.

I learned on this trip that Gundagai has a whole lot more history than a bronze dog sitting on a tucker box. The sculptor, Rusconi, was gifted in masonry work, developed and promoted the marble industry in the area and made a model Italian Palace that stands 1.2m tall. It sits in a room in the Tourism Office and is an astonishing masterpiece. I also learned that the aboriginals, the Wiradjuri people, warned the early settlers not to build on the plains near the river as they were prone to flood. The settlers ignored the advice and in 1852, the town was swept away overnight by a huge torrent of water. A group of Aboriginal men in their canoes, saved about forty people from the branches of giant red rivergums and roof tops. I’d recommend Gundagai as a place to stop for a day.

I learned that Leeton, a place I’d never been to, has a wetland that is important to the Wiradjuri people and is an essential stop for birds that migrate all over the world. Leeton is also full of citrus orchards.

Driving from Leeton to Cowra I discovered that you can drive for hours in regional NSW without passing through a town big enough for a coffee shop. I was glad to have my emergency thermos full of hot water and my own tuckerbox, Aussie traveller essentials.

I learned that I’ve been to Goulburn so many times that when I arrived for lunch at my favourite café (Harvest – next to the park) it felt like home and I was reminded that I love staying in country motels and having breakfast in bed, something I did with friends’ families as a child.

In summary: I went on the trip because I LOVE regional Australia (and maybe Alex Ryan). Also, because to be more creative, I need to step outside normal life. To develop more ideas for writing I need to research, and to go on a trip is to wander and wonder, and that’s one of the most rewarding parts of life.

And then to write about it, is to add to the joy. Writing a Blog means I get to re-live my journey and think about some point to it all. The point is, to suck every skerrick out of the life you’ve been given. And to have a reason to keep going.

Perfectionism, Procrastination or Research

When is RESEARCH just another form of PERFECTIONISM or PROCRASTINATION?

“Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity,” says Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic. It’s been said by many different writers, motivators and teachers. It’s the writer’s biggest obstacle to getting anything done. The fear of the work not being good enough prevents it from flowing and growing. Perfectionism is the little tyrant that sits on your shoulder saying, the work is crap, so you better make it better before you move on!

‘Making it better’ can demand a lot of editing along the way. It demands that you stop what you’re doing and Google that idea or go to that place or do that thing. Research. The only thing is, it doesn’t make it better because it interrupts the flow of the idea and stops you from ever getting to the end.

Research is obviously important for authenticity and detail but there’s a time to do it and that is not in the middle of the writing. Fiona McIntosh, masterclass teacher and author, says do all the research first, then sit down and write from start to finish. This makes sense when you’re trying to get the story down. It also prevents the research from becoming a form of procrastination.

The first draft of my first novel has been smattered with research. Word choice has me reaching for the dictionary. The suggestion of a place has me sucked down the internet tunnel. Both, most definitely, are the combined forces of Perfectionism and Procrastination.

And then I downed tools and went to Ireland, to research a County, a culture and a nursing home. For a chapter of my novel! Of course it was useful. Of course it was enlightening. Of course it will make my novel better. But was it necessary for what I was writing? Probably not! It was the Perfectionist and Procrastinator that made me do it!

Procrastination will find us an endless list of things to do before we can possibly start that important project. Whether it’s washing the dog or writing a blog, we can rationalise that it was essential before we get onto the task. Make sure that research isn’t just another excuse.

Research becomes another form of perfectionism and procrastination when it interferes with the writing. Do it before you start the first draft. Do it before you start the second draft. But don’t let it be the excuse that stops the flow. Don’t let it be the scene on the side of the road that slows and jams all the traffic.

Let research be interesting. Let research be fun. Let research take you to places you’ve never been before. But don’t let research gobble you up. Don’t let it be the wolf in sheep’s clothing!