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.

Writing in a City of Contrasts

Mumbai.

Blasting horns. Bonnet-to-boot traffic. Cars weaving jaggedly along cramped highways like a stream of water rippling over pebbles. Haze in the sky so thick you can’t see the sea. Dust turning the streets a monochrome palette of sepia-grey. Dull. And yet, so rich.

Colour is found in discord.

The noise of horns is entertaining in its uselessness. There’s no aggression behind the wheel, just a benign desire to hurry up. Despite the apparent chaos, the traffic moves ahead and accidents are few. Driving skills are sharp and accurate.

The smog turns the rising and setting sun into a luminous orange ball. The dim backdrop of dirty pavement highlights the saris of bougainvillea pink and emerald green, peacock blue and marigold yellow. The range of fruit and vegetables for sale along the roads create a kaleidoscopic display: fat, red strawberries, pomegranates like cricket balls, maroon carrots and tens of different greens. The freshness beats anything I’ve seen. Flower garlands of burgundy, orange and white hang like curtains over matching sweets: offerings for the deities, an integral part of the culture.
The castes and religions knit together as one. People have their roles, traditions and beliefs and manage to get along. The language is soft, the head-wobble, endearing. The cows, dogs and crows mingle with traffic and people, and no harm is done.

I’ve come to India to do research for the writing of my novel. But of course, I’m getting so much more out of it than that. People are interested, generous and helpful. I’m learning from them and my life is enriched. They too wish to learn and enrich their own lives and being kind is good karma.

Mumbai is a city of contrasts: rich and poor, drab and bright, material and spiritual. And a great setting for a story.

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New Year Fireworks and Goals

The new year has begun. 2019. It started with the explosion of fireworks, live and on the TV, the abrupt bangs and crackles heard over the low roar and whoosh of the sea, cheering voices and music. The windows were wide open, letting the heat out and the cool breeze in, and the sounds were indistinguishable, the reality from recorded.

New Year’s Eve was a quiet one for me and I couldn’t have been more content. Sharing Australian prawns, Sydney rock oysters and French champagne with an old friend. Cooking up a Thai chicken curry and eating alfresco, glad that the humidity had been washed away by the rain shower. Walking a breezy kilometre along the cliff to the park that overlooks Coogee Beach and the headland.

The fireworks at 9pm attracted families, locals and holiday-makers. The crowd was cheerful and festive. Kids had glow-sticks, parents had picnic blankets, cheeky people had sneaky drinks. Brave dogs paced next to their families, as excited as their humans. The fireworks were varied, colourful and constant for twenty minutes. Everyone seemed happy. (Presumably, those who don’t like fireworks or crowds and those whose animals are frightened, stay at home.) Fireworks were followed by a walk along the promenade and giant serves of salted caramel and double chocolate ice creams in a cone.

The simplicity and ease of the evening, along with friendship, community vibe and foodie indulgence, were what brought on the feeling of contentment. I was in a happy place. And it was the close of a big year. 2018 had its challenges: ongoing divorce proceedings, the death of my beloved chocolate Labrador, and breast cancer. But there were also many wonderful things: the road trip up the north coast to Lennox Head, the writing workshop with author, Fiona McIntosh, in SA, another road trip in Donegal, Ireland, doing research for my novel, and the completion of the first draft. All the while I had the support of caring, loving family and friends. All that deserved fireworks, and my gratitude!

So, to my goals for 2019: take better care of my body, feeding it champagne and ice cream in fewer doses; finish a polished manuscript, one good enough to present to a publisher; write every day and continue this weekly blog; maintain and enhance my relationships and give back to those who love me; have fun travelling; move house; find another dog to love; be kind, to myself as well as to others.

Considering I have a good chance of achieving my goals, I figure I have a lot to be content with. I wish you all good health, good fortune, and good goals to go after. Have a happy 2019.

 

Thanks to Randwick City Council https://www.randwick.nsw.gov.au/community/whats-on/coogee-sparkles and my own many blessings.

 

Perfect Aussie Christmas

Another Christmas has passed. In one day, all the weeks of advertisements, gift shopping, Christmas carols, angst, menu-preparing, tree decorating, colourful lights, Santas, parties and feasting, have climaxed and left us sated, in our stomachs and our desire to get together with family at one table.

I realise I’m talking about my experience and everyone’s is different. Some aren’t so lucky. Some are much more so. And some just do it differently. But most of us like to get family and friends together over food.

My Christmas isn’t about religion. It is about all the above. Overall, it’s about thoughtfulness, togetherness and feasting.

This Christmas, mine was close to Aussie perfection. A swim in the ocean with the kids (my life-guards), followed by an excess of simple food – prawns, bugs, oysters, pork, ham, chicken, salad and pudding with custard, shared with good people. The sun shone. The pine tree sparkled and perfumed the air. Later, some of us had other places to go. Some of us lazed around like overfed seals.

The modern family may be more complicated than it was once, with mum and dad living in different places, or children choosing to break traditions or family members living in different countries, but if we remain flexible and thoughtful, we can all still enjoy the idea and practice of Christmas Day.

If we’re not religious, Christmas Day can be any day. The delight is more important than the date. If it makes our lives easier, our families can celebrate their togetherness on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day. Or any day. If it will be more conducive to joy and calm, then let it be.

I got lucky this year. My family were together on the official day, for lunch. I also got The Bonus, being included in a friend’s family Christmas gathering in the evening. I got my fill of thoughtfulness, togetherness and food. In excess! I felt well and truly blessed.

A Final Act as Master

It’s nine months since I made and enacted my last decision as master. Those of us that love dogs say our dogs are our fur-babies or our dog’s human, as if they’re our equal, but they’re not. If you’re like me, you treat your dog as your companion, a cherished member of the family or your favourite living creature on earth, but your dog is still not your equal. They’re nearer to being a dependent child or reliant best friend. As its owner, you are fully responsible for your dog’s happiness: its comfort, its health, its exercise, its mental well-being and its love. You are responsible for its life – and its death.

I took Chopper, my last dog, the handsome, seal-eyed, chocolate Labrador, to the vet on the afternoon of 20th March this year. I say my dog because that’s the way I felt, although I know that he had a family, my family. His two fur-brothers accompanied us. It had been a hard decision to make; harder than I knew. You see, I understood that he was suffering, and I gave him lots of drugs to ease his pain. I modified our walks and hugged him as I lay next to him on the floor. But I still thought he was happy. He always seemed eager to go out, lifting his head attentively and wagging his tail when I asked, ‘Do you want to go out?’ His eyes followed me around a room. He sat on my feet when I was still. But some days he could barely go out to wee. He could barely get up. Or he’d throw up.

My sons helped as much as they could and one day, as I broached the subject of the imminent end, they said things that indicated they already knew and they were waiting for me to accept it. I suggested we wait another week, until after the Easter break, so that Chopper and I could have quality time together in our holiday house down the south coast, a place he loved. ‘He’s still happy,’ I said, ‘so it makes it that much harder.’

Then one son said, ‘He’s not happy, he’s only happy when you’re with him.’ I was shocked. I asked the other son what he thought, and he said, ‘It’s not a dog’s life!’ I suddenly felt so sad. And selfish. My desire to keep him by my side had affected my judgement and my reality.

My sons carried him outside for his pre-bed wee, a time, not long before, we cherished as an end of day ritual: fifteen minutes walking, out in the darkness and quiet, Chopper sniffing all the night-time scents and me looking up to the moon and stars. He sat there. He couldn’t even get up to wee. I hugged him and cried. I buried my face in his furry neck and said I was sorry. I was so afraid to lose him, to no longer have the comfort of him, to be on my own.

I’d been his master for over eleven and a half years. He’d been my companion, pal and confidante. I rarely walked him on a lead. I rarely roused on him. He’d joined in the fun of the family, guarded us and looked after the emotional needs of each of us. He’d chased remote-control monster trucks, swum in the sea, supervised barbecues, romanced other dogs (putting it politely), played chasings and tug-of-war.

 

 

He’d travelled with me in a motorhome, never tiring of exploring, resting by a lake or meeting other nomads. He’d consoled me when I was sad, willed me off the lounge at night, and wagged his tail every time we made eye contact. He lay on my feet when I was writing. He didn’t feel like my equal; he felt like a soul-mate.

And for my soul-mate, I had to put his needs before my own. I had to do what I could do as his human and ultimately, his master. I could give him peace.

And nine months later, I can tell you about it.

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Face Work

Would we love our friends more if their faces were less wrinkled, less spotted and less saggy? Would we love them more if they were ‘prettier’ or their eyebrows were higher? Would we love them more if their lips permanently pouted?

Of course not!

Loving our friends has nothing to do with how well their face defies age. It has everything to do with who they are, how they think and what their values are. We like someone when we share interests or they excite us with new ones. We like them because of how they behave, what they do and what they say. Their attention, conversation and empathy are what’s going to make us think, what a great friend, I love this friend!

Not how they look!

It’s the same the other way around. Our friends aren’t going to love us more if we have a firm, plump face. And they aren’t going to love us less for gathering grooves and sagging.

Grooming is different. Grooming is about personality. Grooming is superficial, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. I mean it’s an outer layer that we can don or discard, according to how we want to present ourselves. We tend to hang around people who groom a similar way. We judge people by how they look, and that’s okay if it’s just the grooming we’re judging. It’s human nature to assess if someone is like us or not.

Some people don’t care what they look like. Some care a lot. (Some people have no choice in the matter, but they’re not who I’m talking about.) But what we wear, how we do our hair or how we decorate our faces, is just a temporary effect. It is a choice made for effect.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the desire to stay looking younger and ‘prettier.’ In my forties, I had Botox because I was worried about my frown and drooping eyes. I didn’t like the signs of aging. But then I realised that most of my friends weren’t having Botox. They were aging naturally, and I loved them just as much. My son used to make faces at me when I laughed because he knew my face well enough to observe the distortion in my face. He loved me well enough to let me know he preferred the natural look.

I’ve noticed that it’s hard for people to stop doing ‘work’ on their faces once they start. I know that Botox leads to collagen. All that paralysing, lifting and plumping needs to continue to keep up with the aging process. And it doesn’t keep up! It twists and pulls out of shape. It leads to a false, weird look. If our friends were doing this, we’d want them to stop. We’d want our friends to stop us!

Changing our skin through use of a needle or knife reveals an insecurity. And a belief that people will love us more if we look ‘better’. My argument is that that can’t be so, that they don’t love us in the first place if they are so affected by how young or attractive we look.

We love our friends because of what’s on the inside. So lets pay more attention to that. Let’s keep our minds, our hearts and our bodies healthy. Keep learning, be curious and be interested. Be kind, compassionate and thoughtful. Eat well and be active to keep fit.

Be a good friend. Love your friend for who they are. And remember that your true friends will love you no matter how your face ages. They will love you more for the light and energy that shines through your eyes.