resilience

We interrupt this broadcast with a brief message from the future….. (part two)

 

 

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Now that it’s somewhat clearer why sending two thirds of the family home was a good idea, let’s explain how I also ended up home within two weeks of them – despite being months ahead of schedule and still possessing a ticket home from Europe…

So there I was, having farewelled the rest of my family, left to contemplate that decision and the next 4 months of solo travel. It was a hard bus ride home – I was grateful for the sunglasses and practically-mandatory-smog-mask which hid me away.

I came back to our room in the school – we had been graciously allowed to stay in one of the kindy classrooms while the school holidays were on. It was a glorious place for a family to stay – safe, peaceful and surrounded by beautiful Waldorf toys, playground and garden. It was a refuge we were very grateful for. But now, coming back without them felt awful and strange. It was so empty.

Empty, except for a little posie sitting on my pillow – it had a tag which read “love love love”. Oh what a saviour that little posie was – a beautiful token of love and thought left behind by Michael and Emma. Actually it made me cry but it was something I could focus on to move through the initial grief, carefully putting it in some water and arranging it upon a cupboard.

I could have easily turned to my old friends shopping and food that day but for some reason I made the conscious decision not too.  Instead I surrendered to the pain and knew I needed to just sit with it. Acknowledge it, let it pass. Don’t ask me why it changed there and then, god knows there have been plenty of other times it was sorely needed. Maybe it was because I was alone – now I had the time, space and ability to devote all my energy to whatever I felt necessary.

Out of the blue, I decided the necessity was meditation. Again: why? I’ve no idea – meditation wasn’t something habitual for me. But suddenly here I was, spontaneously cobbling together little bits of experience from yoga and relaxation, plus some kind of intuitive feeling for what I needed to focus on. It was incredibly comforting and much to my surprise, the relief was immediate, noticeable and long lasting (unlike my old vices, it came with no trailing guilt). I made a pledge with myself to turn it into a habit, so I read what I could and investigated options for further guidance – suitable courses that were for lay people yet didn’t cater to the wealthy tourist trade were a little hard to find but definitely existed. This, I decided, was what I had been searching for. I would do some simple practice by myself, seek out a good down-to-earth guided course for more experience/technique then I might just be ready for my ultimate challenge – a 10 day Vipassana session (see link here to learn about the immensity which is Vipassana). So I continued with it every morning and night, which also helped a lot to curb the sadness which seemed to peak at those times. It also became apparent it was helping with self-motivation and not getting so stuck in strong emotions like anxiety, sadness or fear. It instilled a confidence in me that I could cope with the challenges I had taken on, as well as those that were to come.

And come they would – the first week alone was crazy. In amongst riding out my emotions, reading, meditating and blog writing I also:

•took myself sightseeing, with a real paper map (for those who don’t know me, I suck at navigating – so please marvel at my accomplishment),

•got into a visiting situation that was stressful, confusing and alarming enough to seriously consider skipping out on them in the middle of the night

•found myself displaced but unable to look for other accommodation because I was a ‘guest’ and therefore they must do it for me,

•successfully navigated the above cultural intricacies and found my first solo overseas accommodation (which was neither a dive nor a rip off – score!)

•managed to meet up with my friends who were a) coming from a different country, b) with intermittent communication and c) without a definite plan – all while having a history of being anxiously anal and freaking out if the smallest detail remained up in the air (apparently that version of me had been knocked around a bit with all this experience….)

So after all that, spending some time with two friends we met at the Navdanya farm in India, was great. Eliza was from the States and Paula from Colombia – it was their first time to Nepal as well so we hung out and saw the sights. We visited the Monkey Temple (Swayambho) and Boudhanath Stupa the first day, then lost ourselves the next in the wonderful museum of Patan’s old city. The third day was spent trying, unsuccessfully, to break into the other old city of Bhaktapur (it’s a long story….). After an epic showdown with the ticket man we gave up and found a cafe to regroup in.

To my absolute delight and amazement we moved through this potentially frustrating, disappointing and day-ending situation into a new plan without so much as a raised voice. Wow – these two really showed me how to keep your cool and talk to each other in a way which is honest about your own feelings while still open and respectful to everyone else’s. And so much so that you end up with a plan everyone is not only accepting of, but excited about. Good work girls! And so the new plan saw us spend the rest of that day with a hired taxi man. He took us to the unexpected delight of Changu Narayan Temple and an awesome little museum that gave my first real insight into regional Nepali life. Then it was up the villages a bit further to Nagarkot. There we took in a cloudy but nevertheless awesome hilltop view and some cracking food at a guest house restaurant. After some seriously happy eating, the taxi drove us right back to our home (and tourist-town) Thamel – no wayward buses tonight my friends (unlike the two previous days…).

We decided the next day would be earmarked for a morning romp in a real-live garden then off to the last of the old cities – Kathmandu Durbar Square.

Saturday Morning – April 25

We had plans to begin with my family’s favourite little local, Namaste Cafe, but found it closed upon arrival. Of course, it was Saturday – this seems to be the Nepali’s weekend, just one day where a lot of people take time off from their shop or taxi to be at home. So we visited another nearby cafe and took the short walk to ‘The Garden of Dreams’ – a European garden oasis in the middle of the city (built by a Nepali President’s son, after winning the money for it from his father in a game – oh the life of royals…). We strolled and absorbed our fix of nature, before consulting the map and walking to Durbar Square.

We entered, getting our bearings and our tickets, then headed to the palace of Nepal’ls living goddess, the Kumari Devi (a young child thought to be the reincarnation of one of their gods of destruction – so naturally she is chosen by being subjected to a night of horrific noises, masks and buffalo heads….yup – that really happens). Inside the palace courtyard, people emplored the caretakers up in the wooden windows to coax the Kumari into showing her face. To everyone’s joy (and/or amusement) she did, before disappearing again shortly after. We strolled out again between the cities’ open square and palace, which held the museum of former King Tribhuvan. The building was an odd mix of ancient wooden palace joined to a newer white plaster european add-on. At the end we turned up ‘Freak Street’, in search of lunch and signs from its hippie-heaven past.

Saturday, lunchtime

We settled on the organic cafe which was still overflowing with white western hippies (literally – they spilled out over all the available steps such that we had to step through them to get in). We made our order and went to the empty second floor for a seat. Eliza had de-shoed and taken up the guitar, Paula was snapping photos by the window. The waiter came up the stairs then promptly started hugging the door frame, saying “oh my god, oh my god”. I was perplexed – moving between wondering if he was joking and trying to decide what else he could possibly be doing. Then I felt it.

My brain finally noticed and knocked on the door of my conscious – “We are moving. We are wobbly – something is happening. Wake up”.

I remained groggy for a few moments more while I scrambled to process what it meant. ‘What is going on?’. Click. It’s an earthquake.

What? How could I possibly be in an earthquake – I’m just spending the day with my friends, we’re waiting for our lunch….

“Wake up, this is an earthquake! Here. Now. It’s happening – and you’re in it”.

Right. Ok.

Historically embedded comments turned-knowledge surfaced: doorway, get to the doorway.

Grab bag, get to doorway, brace.

And so I did. Eliza and I held on to the door frame while the whole building shook back and forth like nothing I could have imagined. Paula was soon there too, after falling several times in her attempt to crawl over from the window. Eliza says “love you guys”. Paula is visibly scared – I hug her and tell her it’s ok. Meanwhile the waiter and another couple also huddled in the doorway with us – the girl cries into her boyfriends shoulder that she doesn’t want to die. “You’re not going to die” he says’- yes, good call.

An uncharacteristic and unexpected calm, compassion and pragmatism were within me – I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t panicking. I did what was necessary and waited for it to stop. It wasn’t the reaction I would have predicted – I am normally prone to anxiety and fear on a good day, let alone this. I only had brief thoughts about the possibility of the overhead stories falling down on us – they left as quickly as they came.

After what seemed like a very long time, the shaking stopped. We stopped too and our brains pondered what next. (my brain and body felt like quite separate entities at this point). Mine said “we need to get out, now”. My friends seemed reluctant but in my head it was the only option. Paula had the presence of mind to pick up Eliza’s shoes then we hastily descended the stairs and got out onto the street. There were people standing around everywhere – stunned, confused, looking, talking.

We got the first glimpse of damage in the form of a great dirty dust cloud sitting in the sky – a messenger of news and particles from fallen buildings. Eliza broke us out of our daze with a sage suggestion of getting out of the narrow street to open ground. I think we were all suddenly acutely aware that aftershocks follow earthquakes.

The open square we passed earlier was very close so we headed for that – joining lots of others. It was a safe place to be, well away from the now ominously towering buildings. It was also the spot where we gained some initial insight into the level of damage – one palace roof was now shorter and akimbo, the old palace/museum was missing a wall and the adjoining white-plaster side had lost great chunks while gaining severe cracks. Most alarming though was the temple next door to the Kumari’s palace – it was completely gone. Reduced to a pile of rubble.

I heard no screaming, saw no one attempting to approach the rubble. Nor did we – it felt too unsafe. Thoughts about what or who might be under that rubble were being suppressed somewhere inside my head.

The square slowly filled. There had been a market there moments ago – some merchants packed up their wares, while other goods were tossed aside as people looked for space. For reasons I still don’t understand, the girls managed to find an intact internet connection and got on with their smartphones. We scurried to send out messages – what a relief it was that our families and friends would know we hadn’t been hurt. The connection soon cut out and the aftershocks began, prompting panic and screams, crying and fear.

It was then I realised how dangerous panic can be. And how staying calm is actually a really practical thing to do that is incredibly valuable. As more people filled the space and/or people got more panicky, the risk of fear-induced pushing and stampeding increased – “this is how people get hurt, calm down” I thought – for goodness sake.

We held and comforted each other as the aftershocks came and went. We saw a helicopter fly overhead with what looked like Chinese writing on it. And a while later a man with a whistle gestured for everyone to sit down as an ambulance made its way through the square. Eventually we saw the first of some heavy machinery arrive. By now we had been in the square for hours, talking with our new ‘ earthquake family’ of fellow tourists. We decided to follow them to a much calmer park area nearby and after a carefully considered risk vs benefit analysis, we went with one of our new friends to find a toilet, food and water. Some nearby shops had opened their doors. Hilariously, (even in that moment), the one selling alcohol and cigarettes seemed to be the busiest. After some food and a long stint without tremors, we decided it was time to finally say farewell and go face our guesthouse.

Would it be there? Would we be able to get our belongings? Either way we had made the decision to sleep outside tonight – I certainly had no plans to be inside one of those buildings anytime soon. Actually, when we discovered that our guest house building was still in tact I found it incredibly hard just to take myself back up into one again. Our rooms were on the third floor – I climbed the stairs with anxiety and fear weighing heavy on me. My body shook as I hastily stuffed things into my bag and got downstairs again. We checked out and briefly chatted to some of the other guests, who were hanging out downstairs and very nonchalant about the whole thing. I felt vindicated though when the manager said he was just waiting for everyone to come back so he could lock it – they were sleeping outside too. Good, we were making the right decision.

It was nice to know because it was hard to make decisions – there was no information, no advice – only whatever limited experience and knowledge you had carried in with you that day, or what you could pick up from english-speaking locals. I wavered periodically in my levels of alarm – bouncing between ‘maybe it’s not so big and plans might still carry on as normal after a while’ to a growing realisation of just how serious it might all get. So I found it hard to judge whether I was overreacting or not. In fact our plan was to sleep in the school’s garden and I was harbouring the fear that I might be doing something wrong by turning up with friends uninvited. But really, it was an earthquake for crying out loud – as if the school staff were going to mind if we took refuge there!

Saturday, evening

Tackling the hour-long walk to school with all our gear and fast-disappearing daylight, we spotted several graffiti tags that said ‘earthquake’ and the date – it was weird and alarming to have the event marked like that already while we were still in it.

nepal earthquake tag 1

 

The roads were full of people, going in all directions. Tourists carried their luggage. Locals took sleeping gear in search of open space to stay in. Nepali soldiers were on the streets and crammed in trucks – the ones in the street just seemed to be standing there, those in the truck were either headed somewhere else or broadcasting garbled-nepali through a loudspeaker. It felt like an informational black hole. What had happened, how bad was it, what areas were affected, what should we be doing now? There were no public answers for tourists and I suspected not a lot more for locals either.

Taking a break along the way, I suddenly remembered we would pass the American embassy- that would be a great place to seek out information and for Eliza to register as being safe. Her passport granted us entry to the first security check where somehow, searching for info (and now a toilet) turned into an offer to stay. We explained we weren’t all American and an understanding quickly developed that the three of us were sticking together no matter where it meant we ended up. Despite making no plea, nor holding any expectation, that man (whose name I sadly forget) said it was his call and we could all stay. Wow – bless him and God Bless America I thought. I was astonished at this development. And that was before realising what kind of an embassy this was – had I comprehended the scale of this place and their resources I bet I would have plumb fallen down on the spot.

We surrendered our weapons (aka knives) and entered not-so-mini America in Nepal. It was a series of buildings in a massive complex for consulate staff, embassy services, a defence unit of some sort plus a crazy-big workshop and who knows what else. The place was incredible. We later found out it had all been rebuilt just years before, to the best earthquake standard available. It seemed we had stumbled into the safest place in Kathmandu.

I marvelled at our change in plans and circumstances. I was safe – so incredibly, luckily, unfathomably safe. So were my friends. And now we had been offered a practically-earthquake-proof, warm place to stay, with food and water. I couldn’t believe the fortune we were experiencing – I was so so thankful. I knew there were so many others out there in such worse situations than me – indeed I felt guilty because I was in here taking refuge while they were out there struggling. But self preservation had kicked in, for better or worse, and it meant I wouldn’t bring myself to jeopardise it. I was going to preserve the safety I had been granted and be damn grateful for it. That came with its own guilt and cross to bear but it felt non-negotiable. I suspect my friends may have been confronted with similar battles. We tried to be helpful in our gratitude by busying ourselves inside the embassy – Eliza and Paula did what they could in the kitchen and dining room while I helped in the library.

After a comforting hot dinner we settled onto our yoga mats in the ‘multi-purpose room’ – where it seemed the consular families with children were camping out. It was a fitful sleep filled with aftershocks and an acutely aware body/brain combo. In fact one of the larger tremors saw me upright with shoes, jacket and bag in hand in a matter of seconds – I was paused like an animal waiting to see if I needed to flee. The tremor stopped and the building appeared to be taking it in its stride so I stayed. But the longer the night went on the more I wanted to leave – feeling like there was no appropriate place for me. We had started to see that Nepal would be no place for a tourist while major rebuild and rehabilitation happened. I felt like unless you could help with food, water, shelter, sanitation or medical aid we would just be more mouths to feed and in the way.

Sunday morning

Another biggie woke me at 5am so I resigned myself to staying awake. That morning was an astonishing dose of food and information – a full hot american breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes and oatmeal (plus every cereal and milk under the american sun) was followed by an announcement from the Ambassador. It was exactly the kind of thing we had been hoping for – a public address on the situation; what they knew, what they were doing and what we could do. Currently, what we could do was pretty much stay put, stay safe and look after each other, as well as the surroundings (even in this situation people took to littering their space with rubbish – what’s with that?). We also now knew that the airport was in tact and operating – but only for aid and emergency flights so far. After this and a consulate offer to send messages out on our behalf via email, they soon opened up the library’s computers  so we could do it ourselves. Wow, we binged on information and it was so very satisfying.

The morning wore on and we talked about leaving – the airport was allowing some commercial flights now and we could see electronic ticket sales had opened again. We also talked about sticking together – I liked the idea and was keen to fly out with my friends.  However a combination of visa requirements, time delays and distinct lack of three tickets available on the one flight was inciting indecision. We decided to break for lunch and mull it over.

Sunday lunchtime

We ate, talked some more and considered our options. India was our destination of choice, but it was looking increasingly difficult for me. They had visas and existing flights home from there so it made sense for them to go. I had no visa nor any idea where to buy the next ticket onto in order to gain a ‘Tourist Visa On Arrival’ instead.

Then the second major earthquake hit – we braced in the doorway and got under the library tables. A loud incessant voice siren kicked in, stating something like ‘this is an emergency, take cover….’ – it did not help. It was so hilariously american and redundant that I would have found it funny had it not triggered an involuntary fear response within my body.

The shuddering (and siren) continued and we looked at each other from under the tables, “ok, decision made – we need to get out of here any way we can, asap”. We would seek flights leaving the following day – the girls to India and me to somewhere else.

But where? Believe it or not I wasn’t ready to go home, so what I wondered where else I might go. What if I go to Europe early – where would I stay, what would I do, would the visa be long enough? Should I just go to a country close by for now? Am I up for being in a place where I don’t know my way around nor speak the language?

These tickets are selling out in front of my eyes. I need to get out of here ASAP. I need to buy a ticket NOW.

Ok – I need to go home.

So I changed the destination to Adelaide and waited for my fate to flicker up on the screen – the first flight out was for the following night with an unknown airline from Malaysia. They had only started their operation in Kathmandu months beforehand – if there was any airline least likely to be organised and get out of here, it was them. Plus the Australian legs were with ill-reputed budget airline Tiger. Yup, no way I was taking that ticket. So I booked the next cheapest option, which in fact was not cheap at all but hideously expensive because  it was business class – however I was less than aware of that when I clicked on it faster than the speed of light.

Tomorrow, I would leave tomorrow. Monday night. It was a strange thought. The girls missed out on the first couple rounds of flights they wanted so they ended up with tickets to leave on Tuesday afternoon – now we weren’t even looking like getting to the airport together. Again – as we had done with so many decisions over the last week – we talked, took time to consider it all then came to talk again. They were willing to come to the airport a day early just so we could go together – it was amazing the kindness they showed, but I couldn’t let them do that. To give up their safety overnight just didn’t seem right or necessary.

There had been so much anxiety, fear and rush around snapping up those tickets and finding a way to print out the all-important paper confirmation that it was ridiculous – we were the lucky ones with food, internet and the best earthquake-proof building in the entire country – what the hell was it like for everyone else?

Well, we caught a glimpse later that day when we walked to the Australian embassy – it was literally up the road and also backed right onto the school we had been staying at (weird, right?). I wanted to see what they were doing for Australians and check in to say I was ok. It soon became obvious it was much less resourced – the buildings were no longer considered safe enough to use and there was only access to local phone calls – forget internet. Actually if it wasn’t so serious it would have been bloody comical – typical Aussies, they were all just hangin’ about chatting and camping in tents in the backyard! However, the impact of lack of communications meant they couldn’t call home, it was hard to get outside information to make decisions, and couldn’t book flights. And then there were all the poor locals who were camped out in the open, lucky if they had a plastic sheet for protection against the unseasonable rains.

Sunday night

So after this field trip we found ourselves even more grateful to have a place in the American embassy, but more nervous about keeping it – especially in light of how fast it was filling up. In fact the excursion had also led to a stressful and awkward attempt at helping a stranded traveller from South Africa – both the Australian and American embassy denied her refuge. In the end she found a Canadian who was also stranded at the American embassy after being refused help – they made new plans together. So it seemed like it worked out in its own way but the whole situation was a bit of a shambles and saw the three of us going back and forth through security at various times. It was tightening – there were now more people volunteering in administration and admissions hence there were more questions. I got asked if I had ‘my form’, to which I thought ‘what form?’ but replied “I’ve already checked in” – that was apparently good enough and she moved on. Paula got asked if she had her passport – “of course” she said, “it’s back with all my other gear inside the embassy”. She backed up that winner with a flash of the yellow chip we got from handing in our knives and she was through – kudos, that was some quick thinking. When Paula, Eliza and I were all finally back inside the embassy together the relief was palpable – we were not going back outside that area again until it was time to fly out. I hate to say it but I felt like one of those rats fleeing a sinking ship. It took me to a dark complicated place where instead of my morals triggering the usual upfront honesty, I found instead self preservation pushed me toward keeping quiet – I didn’t like this place. Regardless of how I felt about it we laid low for our last night together.

Monday and the rest

The breakfast had been reigned into a more modest selection of hot potato and rice, or cereals now and we ate gratefully – another safe warm night on the embassy floor had been ours. It was the day I would leave – I always get antsy when it’s time to move on from somewhere and this was certainly no exception. Despite my departure being hours and hours away I packed compulsively, knowing that I would feel better once I exercised that outlet of control and had it done. A loudspeaker announced the embassy was running shuttles to the airport and I discovered another couple was also leaving on my flight – we agreed to buddy up and take the 4pm bus out.

I spent the next few hours feeling that horrible we’re-going-to have-to say-goodbye-soon feeling. Eliza, Paula and I dined on the standard lunch of MRE’s – ready made military rations. While we were eating them out in the sun a staff member jokingly asked how we were enjoying them – actually I was enjoying my veggie patty and crackers immensely! The blueberry cobbler left a little to be desired in the looks department – but still, this was fancy desert/emergency food for sure. We talked and soaked up more sun before it came time for me to leave.

I bid my new family members goodbye – what an unusual link we would have together now and forever more. It certainly felt like fate had brought us together – how serendipitous  all the timing (and nationalities) had been and what a help we were to each other through that experience. And what an invaluable comfort for the future to know that no matter what, there was not one but two dear wonderful friends who understood – talking to Eliza and Paula about it would always be different because they were there, it’s that simple.

To have someone you can relate to in that way is a gift – a gold-plated priceless gift. How strange that circumstance made us that for each other – but how grateful I am that it did – love you girls.

I jumped on the bus and was very happy I didn’t have to negotiate the street or taxis. When we arrived I could see people outside everywhere – yet it was surprisingly quick and easy to get into the ticket holders area. But that’s where all the other people were, waiting, going nowhere. We joined the right line and eventually figured out people had essentially camped on the spot for now because an aid flight was trying to get cleared off the one and only runway in Nepal’s International Airport – incoming flights were diverted to other countries for lack of space to land. No flight in means no flight out, and backed up passengers.

I had prepared myself mentally, and physically for the possibility of camping at the airport – I carried my pack on my back and one of the front crammed with sleeping gear, food and water. I had no plans to check any baggage in case I got stuck in situ without supplies to look after myself so I carried it all – all the way home (actually by the end of it, after trying in both Qatar and Singapore to offload a bag, I was used to being a human packhorse – exploding bits of gear here and there).

Eventually our ticket line began to check people in and move them through customs – that was an uneasy place to be, stuck upstairs in a building of unknown structural integrity with nowhere to go except the enormous stationary ‘foreigners’  queue, while the ‘local’ customs officers sat around with nothing to do. It was crazy. By the time we got to the front people were going in whatever line they wanted. It was painfully obvious the airport was not equipped to deal with the situation at hand – the lack of sense of urgency was distressing and security was a joke (they confiscated the water in my hands but left the 3 litres in my bag?). However to be fair, they were probably doing the best they knew how to – I had already noticed an attitude of acceptance and doing things in their own time seemed an inherent part of the Nepali culture which ordinarily was fine, but in this sort of situation I could see it causing anxiety and anger.

After the security check area, people just seemed to be hanging out. We soon discovered why – the boarding gates were all chocka-block full of backed up and future flyers. I followed the narrow path that was left and found a place to sit on the filthy floor – although I couldn’t have cared less at that point. I looked at the departure board – it was like traffic lights all red, amber and green according to whatever status your flight happened to luck out on (‘as scheduled’, delayed’, ‘cancelled’ or even worse – blank). I struck up a conversation with the traveller next to me who’s flight wasn’t even listed on the board anymore – that sucks. He moved on to find out more and I contemplated my position – I was in the middle of a big room, surrounded by people and no walls or doors nearby to use for protection if there was more seismic action.

I pondered my options a little longer when  the inevitable happened – an aftershock. It was intense enough to make people scatter immediately, but short lived. That was all the impetus I needed – I collected my things and scouted out a better position near a doorway. From there I spied another hall way with less people, more sturdy looking structures and an unlocked door that opened directly onto the runway – that was surely the best place to be should I need to exit in a hurry. I moved again, even managing to score a chair this time and settled in. While my flight was still listed ‘as scheduled’, it was already a good couple of hours past the boarding time – I fully expected to be waiting indefinitely. But no sooner had I sat down than its magic flight number was called over the PA like a lottery winner as “now boarding”. Wow – all of a sudden that’s it – I’m off then. Ok.

The whole thing was hard enough to grasp let alone the style in which it happened – we boarded the Qatar aeroplane, apparently pretty snazzy anyway but of course I had the inadvertent business class tickets which meant it was even crazier. So there we were on the runway in earthquake-devasted Kathmandu being offered champagne, hot towels, television, luxury eye masks, and silver service. Incredibly and simultaneously surreal, bizarre, hilarious and abhorrently inappropriate.

We took off and I thought about what had happened – it was hard to believe it had only been two and a half days since the earthquake. It felt like a lifetime. I thought, wrote and distracted myself with movies as I flew to Doha. That airport is like no other I have ever seen – massive in presence and opulence. For instance in the business class lounge they had an indoor water feature that was about 5 times bigger than any accommodation we had been in for the past 8 months – just because they could, I guess. It sat in the middle of a football field of luxury seating booths, internet kiosks and a couple of restaurants serving free food. Then I took a shower in one of the bathrooms that were like half a hotel room. Wow – I was giddy with luxury and relief. But to go from natural disaster in a third world country to this in the space of about 10 hours was bewildering, to say the least.

I continued on through Singapore where it was no better – I got even more tangled up inside watching the news and hearing people complain about stupid superficial stuff while I sat there eating my fancy pants free food. It was enough to do my head in. Nevertheless I boarded my third and final flight, heading to Adelaide. It was hard to believe really – this would be my last stop. I would then be home.

The thing about going through the earthquake was it had triggered a change in my brain – it told that part which filters important vs not important that any shaking sensations were now SUPER DUPER important. This meant I was now extremely sensitive to any kind of vibration – not good news when getting home involves hours of turbulence three times over. By this last flight I had been transformed from ‘ordinarily excellent flyer’ to ‘oh my god, make it stop’. Nevertheless I made it through and got ready to land, noticing for the first time just how many trees we have in Adelaide. Flying in over the top and with lots of other places recently in my memory for reference, I could see that it was incredibly green by comparison.

I breezed through immigration and customs, suddenly faced with the arrivals hallway – holy crap, I’m here already. Not sure if I’m ready for this. But what else is there to do except keep going? I turned the corner and spotted Emma first – we ran towards each other and started crying. We had big hugs and got back to Michael and Mum W where more hugs, kisses and tears ensued. It was a wonderful welcome.

I had arrived – the challenge was now to ‘land’.

It was so weird to be back in the same place with the same people but feeling totally different. It’s like the entire world has changed within you while everything outside remains the same, and largely unaware. Very hard to feel and very hard to work through.

Plus of course the experience we had been through and the circumstances under which we all returned home was so big it was almost beyond comprehension for me at this point. It left me with an intense feeling of displacement.

That feeling would plague me for some time but as we worked through seeing friends, finding a place to settle down and thinking about ‘what now?’, it waned a little. Trouble was, it all still felt so immense and I had had so much more planned that it wasn’t easy to let go of. Finally one day I said to myself “I’m here, it’s time to start acting like it” and so I picked a project to move forward with – that was a big help in dragging me out of my displacement.

So that’s where I am today, over a month after the earthquake, at home piecing together our new life. I don’t hold ill feelings for my experience at all – I am, and hope to remain forever, grateful. I also hope that something positive can come out of it for Nepal and it’s devastated people. Having an earthquake is horrific enough, let alone when the country is poor and it puts the brakes on their major tourist industry. But here’s hoping…

Oh, and as for me and my remaining ticket home – I plan on using it. As I said to my dad – nope, the earthquake wasn’t enough to deter me from travelling again…..oh dear, I’ve been well and truly bitten 🙂

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Portlandia!

Today we reached the final destination of our road trip – Portland. Woo!

We drove in over the city – taking in the trademark White Stag sign, which I didn’t manage to catch on camera. Nor did I do a good job of note taking – my entries here are incredibly scant. Perhaps I was too busy being taken aback by the place – what we saw and experienced here was crazy cool – Portland bursts with personality.

For me, a lot of that was in the community and business endeavours we discovered. So many great new (and not so new) ideas put into action, all with wonderful artistic flair. We came across a community farm, community programs, an eco-laundry, a great food co-op and so many places selling either fabulous local food or beautiful arty crafty goods. Phew!

We made it to the ‘Alberta Arts district’, the ‘Mississippi district’ and East Portland. So occupied were we with all that was in these spots, we never even made it downtown.

We ventured first to Alberta Main Street – heart of the Alberta Arts District. There we parked and wandered, taking in all the buzz and activity of the businesses. What a thriving place, and despite the cold too. Here are some of the goodies along the stretch…

collage businesses alberta street 1 collage alberta street business 2

We stopped at the ‘Random Order’ pie house for lunch – chicken pie and cherry pie. Yum and Yum. And their approach to it all just tops it right off…

collage random order

We took in some more strolling after lunch – one must work off their pie(s). But we did stick to the theme – visiting ‘Pie Footwear‘ on the main road, selling environmentally and socially responsible shoes. They even extended this mindset to the fit out of the shop itself – you can read some more here. We were aiming to get some of the shoes we had held off buying in Oz and fell into a really interesting conversation with the owners, Stacey and JC. Turns out that like our friends Toff & Cara back in Adelaide, (creators of Home Grain Bakery), this couple had also seen a gap and filled it – following the demand rather than their own personal preference for a business type. And we loved finding out that JC used to work in organic veg distribution, so we chatted a little longer on that subject too. Of course there was still more cool stuff to see, including a typical style of painted house that I quietly fell in love with, so we strolled on:

collage alberat street outside plus houses

Actually, the whole reason we had landed in Alberta Street was because our first night was to be in a ‘tiny house’ (see some previous musings on tiny houses here). It was located in the ingenious “Caravan Tiny House Hotel” – a project/business that made use of an abandoned lot to place several (currently 6) tiny houses in a little group, acting as a hotel with separate rooms if you will. The first of it’s kind in the USA (and most probably the world…) took lots of time and negotiation with the city to iron out the legislative hurdles, ahem…. I mean wrinkles. What a great job those trailblazers did of persisting to come up with something brand new – not only great for the community and a livelihood for themselves, but an excellent way for people to try out a tiny house experience. (Incidentally, if you are in Oz or New Zealand there is another way to try out a tiny house experience thanks to the Happy Simply project – check it out here and here.)

wattlebees in front of roly poly tiny house

For more info on the tiny house hotel, you can check out Caravans’ general website here. Or see more photos/info on our little home for the night here. They also have an extensive list of media coverage links here – it’s worth seeing, it’s massive! It also includes an episode of the Portland based, wickedly funny show called Portlandia (which, for the record, I didn’t know about when deciding the title for this post…).

We spent much time getting acquainted with ‘Roly Poly’ by climbing around and investigating. Yes. Literally. Climbing. In a house that could be the size of your bedroom it’s no wonder there are a couple of lofts upstairs for sleeping, and that getting to things often requires climbing up, down or over.

collage climbing in tiny house

Roly Poly – so named for it’s unique rounded qualities – is one of the smaller homes in the hotel. And for me, the design and furniture made it feel so. However, it was beautifully crafted and with only 1 or 2 people in there it would probably be much easier than it was with us 2 biggies and 1 smally. And regardless of all that, it was a super fun experience.

Emma loved climbing all about in there, just witness her hangin’ about over the kitchen. I think secretly though, maybe I loved it more!!! Aside from getting some strength and stretching work in, just by living, there is a great kind of novelty to having nearly everything within your reach. I wonder if it is purely just a novelty or if it turns into one of the pros of a small home. I guess an extended stay would be the ideal way to answer that question.

collage caravan tiny house outside collage caravan tiny house inside

Indeed, if budget had allowed, we would have loved some more time there. Instead we settled on a plan to sleep in our car caravan and started the day with a trip to East Portland, where Zenger Farm, and our  generous tour guide Prairie, was to be found.

P1050628 emma arms zenger zenger farm map 2 smaller

In a space that was open lands in the 1800’s sits the surviving farm, surrounded by encroaching suburbia. What was forest land was logged to help build Portland until it saw a series of owners and eventually turned over to dairy in the 1900’s by a Swiss immigrant family – the Zengers. Their son, Ulrich Zenger, desperately wanted to see the land’s heritage and sustainability preserved. It was eventually bought by the city – keeping and using it’s existing 10 acres of wetlands to help combat the flooding issues fast approaching  with increased urban buildings and insufficient drainage. It also had community and educational potential that began to be realised when it was leased out in the 1990’s to Urban Bounty’s owner Marc Boucher-Colbert. He used the land as a farm but also hosted community and educational events, later forming partnerships with educational institutions in the area to increase it’s use in education. These days the farm’s capacity for serving the community and environment has been expanded and formalised under the direction of a non profit group – Friends of Zenger Farm. This team and volunteers have partnered with the city to officially make it a public space – used as a working model of urban agriculture and education centre for all things sustainable and community. It is a base for a multitude of programs including summer camps, farmer training and a home school partnership. They even run a 60 person CSA and send produce to some local restaurants and farmers market.

They are also big on helping the community to help themselves. The ‘healthy eating on a budget’ workshops were just one example that Prairie joyfully shared with us. These community based cooking demonstrations and related activities have gone a long way to empowering those on the lowest incomes, while honouring and incorporating the huge diversity of cultures from which many of them come. They seem to foster an invaluable exchange of learning and relationships between community members. It was a great thing to hear about. And I loved this tid-bit from the website:

“healthy food comes from healthy soil, which can be anywhere, even in the city”

You can see more about Zenger Farm and what they are doing here.

collage zenger farm 2 collage zenger farm 3 chooks collage zenger farm 1

The mundane but necessary need to do laundry presented itself. So we took on a recommendation from the Tiny House Hotel staff to check out a new laundromat that had opened up in the nearby Mission district. The staff member who told us about it said he hadn’t been there himself but that people were saying it was good. Good indeed – the place knocked my socks off! It’s so odd to get excited about something to ordinarily boring but that is one aspect of the genius – we can make anything and everything an awesome experience! Kudos to the creator, Morgan Gary, who’s concept, execution and environmentally responsible mindset made this as one of my favourite spots we visited. My words aren’t really doing a great descriptive job right now of explaining that which is ‘Spin Laundry Lounge’, so allow me to cheat and read this paragraph from the website instead:

After completing an MBA in Sustainable Business, she [Morgan Gary] set out to give the laundromat a 21st century update: the fastest, most energy-efficient machines in the world + eco friendly laundry products in a retro-mod cafe/lounge, serving local food and drinks. Save time and money, reduce your carbon footprint, and enjoy every minute of Portland’s totally redefined laundromat experience. 

spin laundry and em collage spin laundry 1 collage spin 2 signs collage spin 3 cafe

I mean, they sell microbrews and have arcade games for goodness sake – is that not the coolest way to do laundry ever? We did our laundry and hung out in the cafe, using the free WiFi and sucking up some drinks. We also chatted to Megan, the lovely lady on staff that day. She did a fantastic job of telling us about the place, instructing us on how to use everything and looking after Em with friendliness, textas and spin colouring pages. Our laundry was done before we knew it – I didn’t really want to leave… You can see more about it here on the website.

In addition to doing laundry the fun way that afternoon, we also meandered down Mission districts’, you guessed it… Mission Street.

Like Alberta Street, this also had a fun feel. I observed some sage advice on a door front…

mission street 1 donutsOk. Will do.

We also happened across a funky looking building which turned out to be much more than we expected.

mission steet em building 2 smaller

This was the quirky and wonderful front to ‘The Rebuilding Centre’ – a community resource for affordable recycled materials. It’s a great place to find bits and bobs for all sorts of construction, and also to tap into an inspirational ideas library or their deconstruction service – their website is a great portal for all such things, see it here.

collage rebuilding centre 1

On top of all that, turns out it is actually an income generator for the ‘Our United Villages’ non-profit. Wow! Great place, great resource, great idea.

collage rebuild centre 2 collage rebuild cenytre community legacy

We loved the ‘Community Legacy’ program – a central place, space and imputes for sharing stories that bring the community together. Seems a great way to inspire, forge bonds and spread the word about all those good news stories happening right around the corner! See their website here.

After a very full afternoon we returned to Alberta Street and found fate had alternative accommodation plans for us – the offer of a bed from a kind stranger that we kept bumping into. We struck up a conversation and after hearing about the road trip Yonti said there was an empty room in the space she was renting. We were welcome to fill it for a night or two. It was really awesome to see human curiosity, generosity and trust in action.

When I said it was very kind, she replied “well, I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and know what its like”. Yonti was right – it made me think about our own feelings after receiving generosity and hospitality – it just makes you want to pass it on. I think to receive is to grow gratitude and wish to pass it on. Here is the first, of many, pledges to ‘pass it on’!

It turned out to be a spare room in the basement below a church – cool space! Also, funny to see peoples’ heads at street feet height.

P1050658 the ittle church portland

Not only was it glorious to have a warm, quiet, full size bed and warm shower but getting to chat with Yonti was like a bonus activity! We had interesting conversations and she passed on many wonderful suggestions for people to see around the place.

Sadly, between the other places we visited and the new info intake limit we were fast approaching, we didn’t get to follow up on these. We made a strategic decision to cut some of our plans and slow down. We headed off early to begin our return journey, preparing for the next stage in the area of Santa Rosa – home of the Summerfield Waldorf School.

Lastly as an aside, I want to make mention that I am writing this retrospectively, from Nepal. It’s interesting to do so because having now experienced and seen life here as well as India, it is with different eyes that I view some of our previous experiences. What a curious feeling it is. Like Portland for example, I got so excited about the artistic, cool and happening nature of the place, and with good reason of course. However, one might say it’s at odds with the appreciation I now have for some of the simpler concerns and way in which life is carried out in here in Asia. I find it a strange and hard place to sit. There is beauty in the allure, ideas and aesthetic of what I saw in Portland. There is also beauty and practicality in the simplicity with which people lead their lives here in Asia. I feel like the best way to reconcile this mental rift, as is often the case, is to find somewhere in the middle. I should look for a happy and responsible balance between the beauty and energy of fun, exciting, artistic endeavours while keeping them grounded with a good dose of perspective in the simple and necessary. Wish me luck on the pursuit!

Mel xx

WWOOF round 2 – with a side order of village, permaculture style

village hill view

 

Next stop: Crystal Waters Eco Village in the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland of Queensland.

For us, this was to be round 2 of WWOOFing, and a chance to visit family just down the road – my Dad, Step-mum and two sisters. Actually, they are the whole reason we went to Queensland. And why we even thought of taking the car and some extra time to see Australia on our way out – cheers to that!

It was also round 2 of seeing community life, though this time we could settle in and experience it ourselves for a while. For the first week however, we stayed alone on the property (dejavu!) as our hosts, Max & Trudi, were away for birthday celebrations. Max gave us some excellent instructions so we set to work on those jobs.  Despite this, and that there are always jobs around, it’s still a little harder to get into the swing of a place and its work without the owner there to point you in a particular direction. or mention how they do things – at least to begin with anyway. Nevertheless we managed to find our way around and make ourselves useful. When all else failed we had a weeding bonanza – it may have been a little more than necessary but, a good old weeding blitz every now and then is a good thing 🙂

In the topographically endowed plot they have two garden areas, plus various plantings of useful trees for bees, birds and humans alike (such as the freaky but fun – and yummy – Jaboticaba). One garden is up high and close to the house with crops that require more frequent care, as in the permaculture idea of zoning (highest maintenance areas are placed close to where the labour is). Think greens and such: lettuces, herbs, spinach, onions, cucumbers, salad greens, tomatoes and flowers for companions. It was a good sized area with about 6 large raised beds sitting over a sandy base and plantings around the edge (another permaculture principle; value and use the edge – in this example it is taken literally in terms of space but one could also consider it more laterally in valuing ideas, people or products that are on the fringe). And just like at home, cherry tomatoes were proving to be troopers so we foraged lots from stray bushes to make many a tabouli bowl with the abundant parsley.

mic emma upper garden

 

Then the other ‘lower’ garden, as per its name, was located down the hill a bit. As you might guess, the less frequently visited crops were down here. At this end of spring it included the last of plants like broccoli, kale, cabbage and more onions and parsley.  We partook in these too, then helped prep for new plantings in the five super long beds with some home grown chook poo and worm castings (aka, you guessed it – poo) for fertiliser. Turns out, moving wheelbarrows up and down the slopes was, deceptively, much harder than I expected – gardening on a hillside will keep you fit! Then we topped em’ off with locally abundant shredded bamboo for mulch and they were ready for the next planting – some of which we got to do before we left. We sowed peas and beans in time to see them raise their little heads and stretch leafy wings – I love seeing the birth of seedlings!

upper garden

 

Emma was prospering in the setting and lifestyle here too. While on our own, she quickly settled into a routine of looking after the chickens by herself – ushering them in and out; checking water, grain and eggs; and dragging over spent broccoli. I say ‘dragging’ because, by this time, the broccoli stalks had grown to be pretty much bigger than her.

collage em food

em chicken chillinWe often found her taking solace in the hen house, just hanging out with the ladies. She really enjoyed having that responsibility – I think the morning and night animal chores punctuated her day.

She also took to playing hospitality – ‘the tea party hotel’ as she liked to call it. She set up tables, took our orders,  made food for real and even sometimes did the dishes after packing it all up! True to her independent ways, she was completely adamant that she must do it all. Well, it was her hotel I guess. In light of her enjoying this kind of service role, we took the opportunity to add a related responsibility – doing the breakfast dishes while Michael and I went out for another couple of hours work in the morning. Despite not being over the moon about it, she agreed, then volunteered to make the breakfast too, go figure! Seems the freedom to take responsibility and feel strong brings on a flourishing in her.

I’ve yet to mention our accommodation – a beautiful swiss style chalet. And when I say Swiss chalet, in sunny Queensland, I don’t think its a joke. Max is actually Swiss. Picture a wooden cabin with two bedrooms, decks, central lounge and kitchen, viewing the Northern woods and dam. We certainly felt spoiled – even Ruby got a bed!

collage cabin

 

And as for the village’s landscape, Max & Trudi’s lot sits within the 640 acre bush property – 14% of which is allocated to residential land. The rest is owned in common – as preserved bushland mostly, plus commercial land (the village green, commercial kitchen & deck venue, other business space/ventures, paddocks and an eco caravan park).  A body corporate, community co-operative and sub committees manage the public facilities and village green activities. The property is a wildlife refuge and so a no dog/cat policy is in place to protect the diversity there. And diversity abounds – as do the kangaroos and wallabies that frequented our cabin and the gardens every day. Literally. Plus deer – not as often or as close, but not far enough away for a gardener, hence the wildlife-proof fences which surround the edible plantings. Birds, frogs, butterflies and snakes also visited us. And spiders, lots of spiders. But after daily clearing of webs, and nightly refilling, you just let it go and get used to it. Throughout the village are dams, ponds and a sparkling, rocky creek – containing fish and even platypus. It certainly is a beautiful slice of bush that seems to succeed at incorporating refreshing environments for humans and wildlife alike.

collage animals small

 

Then early one morning we met Max – up with the sun, as he is everyday. I think he was a little surprised to see some WWOOFers doing the same. Lovely man – matter of fact and warm. Not long after we met Trudi – working diligently in the bee house and equally lovely, exuding what I think of as a typically wonderful country disposition: equal parts down-to-earth frankness and friendly hospitality.

Then, the bees – oh the bees! This was our first introduction into bees and beekeeping. Scary and captivating is how I want to describe the experience. The gentle calmness Max demonstrated seemed an essential qualification for checking the hives and collecting honey. For that reason I donned a bee suit but mostly watched while the born-calm Michael learnt the ropes. Fascinating – I would love to have a go one day. For now though, I headed in to help Trudi with the processing. Sticky fun sees waxy caps of the honeycomb taken off frames with a heated knife, followed by spinning to release the honey. Then it just goes through a series of mesh filters and into a bucket. Voila! Simple, and such a bonus that honey keeps just fine at room temperature and is naturally anti-bacterial – great product to work with.

collage honey processing

 

While Max and Trudi keep bees and sell honey as a business (Crystal Waters Raw Honey), I suspect that for them, as for others, its about more than just honey and money. Watching Max with the bees was like watching someone in pleasant ritual. In mediation. Not to mention the importance of helping to sustain a healthy bee population – both for their own sake and ours.

collage max bees 2

In case you’re uninitiated, bees are responsible for pollinating, and therefore producing, a significant chunk of our food. As well as who-knows-what other valuable roles in the eco-system. Seems they are having ever-more trouble from disease, habitat/food loss and our increasing use of chemicals in agriculture. The American (aka Californian) almond industry is a great case in point. The sect has turned over massive tracts of land to almond trees – and usually only almond trees = massive monoculture. They rely solely on bees to pollinate their crop and turn blossoms into almonds, but there aren’t enough bees around naturally, (i’m thinking it’s pretty hard to live in a place with only one food at one time of year), and so they truck them in seasonally from all over the country. Increasingly though, more bee deaths are occurring after the event and across the country in general (the mysterious, cause-unknown, syndrome is being called ‘colony collapse disorder’). And it looks like the chemicals the growers are using are also a contributing cause. It got so bad that they had to ship bees in from Australia! Can you believe it? I was shocked, having no idea they did that. I know what we’re like after such a long trip – I can’t imagine it does the bees any good either, never mind the resources that go into the transportation and quarantine issues. Turns out quarantine issues did emerge and the risk of foreign disease/parasites from our bees caused the US to put the Kibosh on that option. Looks to me like plugging a badly designed boat with ever-growing wads of bubblegum. As for a solution, well in my opinion, it seems it might just be the same as what we need – diversity of clean food. We don’t do well eating the same thing endlessly, nor living in a food desert or consuming processed/chemicalised (yes, I’ve now made that a word) food. Neither do they. So plant something else with the almonds, its not hard (unless the system is set up to be a large scale mechanised factory in a field…). It’s just another reason to support the growers using more responsible and sustainable practices – i.e. without the chemicals and mass-scale.

Ok, I’m back from ranty-town. Shall we continue?

Max & Trudi also run cows – on some of the communal land the village holds. Residents have the opportunity to lease land from the Co-op and now it’s free to do so, provided you agree to look after the parcel of land in whatever venture you are using it for. So Max and Trudi have several paddocks to run the cows through, including their orchard of pecan trees. They break up the land with the portable electric fencing that was a game changer for sustainable farming,  letting farmers run stock using cell grazing techniques (see the start of this article). A higher density of animals in the smaller area, for a shorter period of time, mimics nature more closely. Thus producing a myriad of advantages like more complete grazing, quicker recovery and higher quality pasture. The better management creates a healthier environment which translates into more nutritious products. They ran four beautiful black lowline cows – these girls don’t grow horns and are shorter than your average cow, but still rather hefty. So much so that when we first met them, Emma stuck herself firmly to my side and said:

“Mummy, will they eat me?”

Snigger. A lesson followed on the, suddenly relevant and contextualised, meaning of a  ‘herbivore’.

collage cows

 

In addition, Max & Trudi also have an orchard of kaffir lime trees and work on their other business in environmental consulting as well as a non-profit which encourages and educates in the area of communities and eco-villages. So a day’s work on such a property can cover tasks in many areas. To paint a picture of our WWOOFing days though, think of time spent in garden beds working the soil with natural amendments, weeding, planting and watering, as well as tying cucumbers and putting the ingeniously simple shade cloth covers in an infinite number of configurations, according to the days weather. Then other tasks were decidedly bee orientated – helping to check, clean and collect from hives and process the honey. Emma enjoyed watching and helping with the bottle labelling too. And I think we all enjoyed getting a good dose of woodworking when drilling, hammering, nailing, gluing and wiring up new bee frames was required. While Emma was busy learning to use the electric drill and hammer in eyelets, I made a comment about this being a woodworking lesson for her, but despite my best efforts she didn’t believe me. Oh well, apparently those skills belong in some other category!

collage em drill

 

We also went to one of the local markets at Witta to help set up Max & Trudi’s stall, which adjoins that of Pat and Johns – they recently bought the Lindegger’s long held seedling business. They were a great couple of stalls in what was a lovely example of a country market, selling lots of great local, sustainable produce.

In amongst the work hours – which can be a flexible arrangement by the way – we tried to get involved with some of the many activities going on. Most days we would wake up early to do a couple of hours then do another couple after breakfast or leave it until the afternoon. We also did more on some days so we could organise larger allotments of free to time for excursions. The type of work schedule depends upon the host and the work they have going – but from what we have seen and heard, most hosts are more than happy to be flexible and give WWOOFers encouragement, time and help in getting to know the area and people. It’s a sharing platform after all.

Well, at Crystal Waters there is so much to see, do and join in with that we tried our best to take advantage of what we could. For example, Every Saturday in the village green their organic, handmade sourdough bakery opens up to serve it’s bready delights, plus morning sweet treats and coffee. The second hand shop located across the way also opens and people can mill around, sit on the outdoor tables and chairs or shelter up on the deck. People come down for their weekly bread, some stay for a cuppa and chat, or many with kids come down to socialise while the children amuse themselves with the play equipment and each other’s company. Its a lovely, relaxed atmosphere where people are happy to linger and socialise. In contrast, on the first Saturday of each month it grows into the Crystal Waters Market where you find a busier, lively atmosphere. In addition to the bakery and second hand shop, there is live music and vendors selling an array of things like second hand goods and foodie items (ranging from fresh produce and ready to eat yummies – think home made pies, curry, sorbet, real lemonade and juices – to more specialty stuff like kombucha). And the commercial kitchen and communal cafe on the big deck opens up too.

collage market

 

Thats just the tip of the iceberg though. Every friday night there is a movie on in the Eco Centre, followed by the bakery saturday-moning-social (as i’m calling it) and then usually a saturday night show of some sort – we caught a comedy performance when were there, great fun. Then on Sunday morning they shake it all off with a bush walk in the property or surrounding area. After the bush walk I joined in some of the other happenings during the week – like taking Emma to the community choir (thought she might find it fun) only to have her abandon me for a new friend  – well! It now seemed I was there to join the choir – nothing left to do but try and sing. Not to worry though, I found it was so much fun I went back the next week! And it was of course great for Emma – she and Ellenie had a wonderful time. We even organised to come back for another play date.  Then we all went along to watch the Marimba band practice. If you’re not familiar with the marimba, imagine a mutated wooden xylophone-like creature big enough to have its own legs and stand at an adults waist. Now imagine several of them in one room with players beating in time and tune. On arrival we were given instruments and an apologetic forewarning that they may not be right on top of things – it had been a little while. The instruments were great fun, the sounds jubilant and the warnings unnecessary – we enjoyed every minute of it, especially emma who surprisingly found a comfortable home and rhythm upon the drum.

So the activities were great and we had a blast, but what we enjoyed most was meeting the people. The chance to meet, chat and connect was invigorating and I enjoyed hearing other’s perspectives on all sorts of topics, including the village. We spent the rest of our free time visiting our family, relaxing in the cabin, chillin down at the creek or exploring places outside like nearby Maleny, Ananda Marga River School, Manduka Coop Community and Chenrezig Institute Budhist Retreat (all of which, were very rich and interesting in their own ways).

collage emcreek chilling collage CW spare time

 

Looking back, I think of the mixed messages we got about this place. It’s reputation as a worthy model is based on the fact that it’s been around for about 30 years, is still going and was the first permaculture eco-village ever designed in the world – not to mention the leading examples of sustainable buildings which can be seen there. Yet, the village seems to suffer from a different reputation in some parts of the greater area – with negative hippie-type stigma or insinuations that things there aren’t working. When we talked about going there to see an illustration of a good intentional community, we received discouragement – the source of which I suspect lay in mismatches of expectations or the natural frustrations & challenges which are present in managing that amount of land and people.

Later on, Max (who also co-designed the village) chatted to us about the issue too, saying people often expect the village to be one way or another. For instance, everyone getting along or thinking the same way, all being into some healing or spirituality, or that the place would be dripping with food. He added that in reality, expectations are often wrong and the village just is what it is – about 200 people co-living in an area with the accompanying diversity one might expect of a group that size.

But in the face of the initial contradictions, we decided that whatever the actual situation was, we could learn from it. Examples to emulate are just as powerful as examples to avoid. And I’m so glad we did – what a rich experience we had.

While we may not know all there is to know after seeing it for a few weeks, it’s still true that we were actually there. We met people, got involved and saw it for ourselves. We saw that there are challenges to be worked through, and trade-offs for the lifestyle – but I think that’s the case anywhere. More importantly, we saw why is the villager’s have decided the up-sides and positives outweigh them – we saw a place where the land and environment are respected, where people come together for activity, joy and in need. And where a healthy lifestyle can flourish.

As a result, we have real admiration and respect for the village and what they have done/are doing there. The continuing journey ahead will be an interesting one that we wish them all the best for, and hope to hear more about.

Lastly, we are grateful to have met the people we did – it was such a pleasure. And particularly to our hosts Max & Trudi for their open and sharing spirit – thank you for the opportunity and conversations. We took a lot away from our time there – we hope we also left a little piece of ourselves behind….

 

Guest Post – Fires & Friendship

It’s been surreal to hear about the bush fires that happened back home earlier this month. In fact there is even a wiki article on it already, making it feel oddly like a historical relic only weeks after its occurrence – indeed while people are still in the midst of grappling with how to recover. Nevertheless, if you want to see the article and the details, find it here.

Closer to the proverbial home, we heard about one of my fellow PDC’ers (permaculture design certificate classmate) Daniel, who tragically had nearly all of his 80 acre property burnt, but luckily escaped injury and retained his house. The word was sent for help and the permaculture and friends network did it’s stuff – organising a ‘Permablitz’ at the property – think good old Backyard Blitz using permaculture enthusiasts and principles!

Our PDC teacher and all round good fella Graham Brookman, summed up the story for everyone – the example of community coming together warmed my heart to and so I wanted to share it here too.

Thus, please enjoy a guest story from Graham Brookman at The Food Forest:

Race to save Daniel’s orchard

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Daniel was away from  his property when the Hills Fire started, but managed
to get home to defend his property. Unseen windblown embers landed west of
his land and ignited a fire that quickly burned east toward his home and
engulfed his agroforestry plantings, developing explosive heat that simply
killed many of his sheep.

The fire was now burning down a steep hill toward his house and fire
response crews were arriving. Despite their efforts the fire went through
Daniel’s precious orchard with many heritage fruit and nut varieties. But
the grass in the orchard was cropped short and deciduous trees don’t burn
well; dripper line does, and it was present as little lines of ash or
disfigured, bubbled black plastic. On the whole the trees still  had bits of
green and the bark wasn’t completely blackened, they were like patients who
had been badly burned and needed a drip and lots of care.

Daniel was devastated but concentrated on the job of putting down his
severely burned sheep and burying them with those that died in the fire. His
fiancee Lynne injured her knee helping to get injured sheep down from the
hills. Things were at breaking point  but the question kept going around in
his head “Could the orchard be saved?”

He didn’t have the ready cash to replace the entire irrigation system and he
didn’t physically or emotionally have the strength to tackle the job of
saving the trees, so emailed friends to let them know his predicament. The
response was rapid and practical. A number of close friends simply said they
would come a help him and would chuck in some cash for a roll of dripper
line each.

They networked others and soon a whole group of his fellow participants in a
recent permaculture course were copied-in. Daniel had been listening to ABC
891 (radio) for fire information and rang the Talkback Gardening show to
see what suggestions they had for care of fire-affected trees. He was
staggered when a listener rang him with an offer of $500 and a day’s
physical help. This bolstered his confidence; Daniel was now organising a
‘Permablitz’, a working bee with close friends and a whole lot of people who
care for plants and have gardening skills.

Someone was picking up irrigation supplies, everyone was bringing tools,
cakes were baked by perfect strangers, salads prepared, replacement trees
were selected from home nurseries, trailers were hooked onto 4WDs and
Hollands Creek rd , Cudlee Creek suffered its first-ever traffic jam as
everyone converged on Daniel’s steep, sad-looking orchard last Saturday.

Kilometres of 19mm dripper line were rolled out, hundreds of drippers were
inserted, the north and west face of each tree was whitewashed to reflect
solar radiation.

Every tree got a dose of vermipost and ‘worm wee’ that someone had brought
to help revive the trees and each was mulched with straw.

Everyone was well fed and well exercised (someone brought a monitor that
revealed that he covered 14 kilometres climbing up and down the steep
terrain of the orchard!).

collage permablitz daniels place

A productive orchard watering system was rebuilt, new friends were made,
skills learned, networks formed and children presented with a powerful role
model. As  someone said, “This is what Permaculture is all about”.

A message from Daniel and Lynne:

‘The dripper system is working and the trees have had a good soak. I worked
out that it would have taken us 5 months to complete what you did in One
Fantastic Day.

Thankyou so much for your kind help and donations

Cheers to the permaculture spirit!

Daniel & Lynne’

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Future Feeders – plus lots of educational tangents (don’t say you weren’t warned)

future feeders piclogo
Our couch surfing hosts put us onto an initiative happening in Mullum called Future Feeders. Reading about it hit all the right words for me:
  • growing young farmers
  • small scale farm management
  • ecological agriculture
  • resilient communities
  • local food security
Turns out, Future Feeders is a new start-up all about keeping local agriculture and food industries alive though youth-driven entrepreneurship. They aim to grow successful models and opportunities for young people in ecological farming.
We got in contact with Joel Orchard, the Project Manager. As with many of the discoveries on our trip, combining short notice with busy schedules can make for tricky chat coordinating! But we found a time that worked, and we’re so glad we did. With a gentle calmness and discernment about him, we talked about a whole bunch of stuff, ranging from the project to corporate food, the structure of today’s society, to education and parental expectations – you know, just the normal topics tackled daily around the dinner table – or is that just us?
Future feeders was born out of Joel’s desire to see opportunities in agriculture for keen, enterprising young people. Therein he recognised a problem – a gap in getting interested youth onto farms. Surprisingly, it’s a lack of training opportunities holding them back, rather than land as one might expect. It’s the missing link I noticed without realising it a long time ago – the deficit left behind because we no longer routinely pass on information from one generation to the next, especially in practical trades and crafts. We don’t go out and learn on the job anymore – we go to school, learn all the theory, get a little practice in a non-contextualised classroom and then sport the piece of paper to say we are qualified when perhaps some of us feel fraud-like about that fact (me at least, and some others that I have spoken to).
Apprenticeships are obviously the exception here – they blend a much larger mix of on-the-job training with the educational theory work. And internships – its all on-the-ground intensive learning. These two models are perfect candidates for learning to farm – but they appear to be a rarity now. And for anyone who has read Joel Salatin’s latest book ‘Field of Farmers’, it wouldn’t be a surprise. He highlights with startling detail just how lacking our bridges are between incoming and outgoing farmers. A clear gap can now be seen between the older farmer without anyone to pass on their wisdom to and the interested youth, often coming from the city or suburbs with minimal, if any, experience. There simply are too few opportunities for real, practical learning in the form of internships or apprenticeships. And it’s for a myriad of reasons, but perhaps mostly owing to the fear and scant time/energy of farmers leftover to invest in creating a quality training program. Joel Salatin goes through the trials, tribulations and costs they encountered in starting their own apprentice and intern programs, as well all the developments they went through. With that all laid out, it’s clear what a big investment it is, and that it must be passion which drives it. For the Salatins, it was the love and desire to ensure their local food system remained – not just for their own sake but also that of the community (just so you know, I love reading his books – if you need a daily dose of common sense to boost your resolve and immunity to this world, I recommend you pick one up).
So it seems a skills shortage really does exist – its just not the one the government told you about.
Our society is set up differently these days. Different doesn’t have to mean bad.
Different = new pros & cons = opportunity.
Con: farming can be seen as not valued or viable these days = Con: big disconnection, hard to get youth on land and learning.
Pro: today’s youth often bring a different way of thinking and skills from other areas to the farm – which, Pro; can help transform it into a healthy, rewarding career option  (while, Pro: healing the land and the people finally receiving nutritious food – not just something that looks like a vegetable).
future feeders rows pic

photo courtesy of Future Feeders

This discussion is also related to another thing I have often lamented (ha! ‘lamented’ – now I really do sound like an old farmer!). That being how people are hired for jobs – often resting the burden upon that aforementioned piece of paper rather than the person’s natural aptitude or suitability. That’s what I love about how things used to happen (from what I can tell and yes, probably through rose coloured glasses, but I will continue all the same) – the local business owner would take on new workers realising it was an investment. An investment in passing on their knowledge, their trade, their craft (have you noticed the reemergence of pride in craftsmanship and artisinal skills these days?). I think they appreciated the broader value in it and were therefore willing to spend the time and energy growing productive, empowered people. People who were also more than likely to become members of their own community. All of this meant they would choose candidates not necessarily on their experience or schooling but upon their character, and if they would be able to do the work.  You got a job because your character was worthy and you would be suited to the job. What a novel idea! (do you see it? – that’s my tongue in my cheek).
One of the original land healing farmers, George Henderson, demonstrated the self-evident value of operating this way generations ago in at least one of his books. And I know a few forward thinking managers who recognise this. But, how many times have we let a good candidate go, or not even noticed them because they didn’t have the right qualification? Or what about just looking at the educational requirements – an example of Coles comes to mind – requiring night fillers to have finished year 12 if you were old enough to have done so – why? What relevance do year 12 subjects have to stacking shelves and how does that mean you will be better at the job? Why not look at who they are, what they have done and why.
School is only one way to learn.
It used to be that school was a basic general education so you could then go off and learn what was right for you – granted, the options for employment were also much more limited in previous generations. Nevertheless, it seems like we are specialising kids younger and younger and requiring more and more study – to the detriment of experience and balanced human beings in my opinion. We have seen the social norm go from leaving school early (joining the family business or leaving to earn for the family), to finishing high school, to doing a bachelor degree, to completing something post-grad (Honours, Masters or a PhD). It just keeps escalating – a PhD now seems no more valuable in the job market than Honours used to be, despite the extra 3 years (at least) required to obtain it. I’m not saying any of those are not worth doing or unwarranted – I just don’t think they should be pre-requisites for individuals to be considered ‘educated’, ’suitable’ or ‘worthy’.
Anecdotally, it seems particularly rife in America – it is just expected that you will go to college and get a degree – even if you already plan never to use it or go into that line of work. Doesn’t that seem like a non-sensical social norm? Children placate their parents desires and the business of education is perpetuated for it’s own sake. I’m sure it came from a well-meaning place, namely our parent’s desires to see us secure and do better than them, but it’s not the only way! Please realise that, parents and students alike.
Remember the term ‘life experience’? Or the old fashioned version that came up in our conversation with Joel: ‘worldliness’? It is incredibly worthwhile and should count for something. To understand the context within which we live, and apply our skills thereafter, must be more valuable than thrashing around in the dark confines of one system, one education, one job, one mindset. Let us learn, think for ourselves and act accordingly.
Returning to Joel’s take on things, (Joel Orchard that is, who would have thought i’d be talking about two influential Joel’s in one post?), he wanted to see real skill sharing so people with a passion could learn enough to get onto land and make something of it. WWOOFing (Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms) could be an option but in Joel’s experience spots are often taken up by travellers (ahem….sorry!) or it hasn’t been substantial enough to meet the need. He also thinks there is a reluctance to enter the field by some due to the picture we have been sold of farming as old, lonely, isolated & poor. It’s the scarcity model rather than the abundance we keep seeing is actually possible. This abundance comes from hard work no doubt, but is more than repaid with incredibly rewarding, healthy, purposeful work, and a good chance of having an awesome office to boot.
So what can you do if you can’t find an internship? Call on others to come with you and build your own – while also moulding it into a viable business and reproducible model so others might get an opportunity too. This is what Joel did – initially floating his idea to the local community. Good feedback and involvement has now settled into a smaller core of permanent volunteers. And bear in mind all the Future Feeders crew are making this start-up happen between other jobs that pay the bills until it stands on its own feet – pretty admirable in my book. Its heartening to see people putting themselves out there to save the future of things that are important.  Like local, healthy, responsibly farmed food. I am struggling right now to think of many things more important or fundamental to us as humans or communities – particularly when taking all the side benefits into consideration – like jobs, empowerment, health and community relationships,  all of which build resilience. And Joel is certainly on the same page there – saying he thinks “farming is the most noble profession – so connected, gentle and fundamental”.
They piloted the program at Mullumbimby Community Gardens – 1.5 acres converted into a market garden. Joel said the gardens provided the community interface they were looking for – purposely trying to bring people to the farm rather than the other way around. Visions of chefs and herbalists coming to pick their own supplies embodies the kind of connection they wish to foster – seeing that visceral next level past farmers markets as important. But for now the group has partnered up with a local CSA scheme (community supported agriculture) and recently made their first sale – woop woop! This is moving them towards building the sustainable financial and business aspects of the model.
future feeders market garden
The market garden site is also being used to train participants in ecological farming methods – including possibly certified organic but embracing any types of agro-ecology (i.e. biological farming methods that work with nature or mimic it, rather than the industrial/artificial/chemical model that is of convention today). Amusingly, my computer’s auto correct does not recognise “agro-ecology” thus keeps changing it to “afro-ecology” – a highly entertaining alternative and mental picture, but perhaps not as accurately descriptive. Aah computers….
The Future Feeders’ plan is to  replicate the model on other sites – something they aren’t short of. Joel says they receive offers of land to farm literally every week. Every week! Sadly, they have to turn them down – highlighting the shortfall again of opportunities, time and mentors for training. They simply don’t have enough people to farm the land being offered yet. Good problem to have.
Moving onto the challenges – what are they and how do you overcome them? Joel says the work is physically demanding but the trickier challenge can be that of people. Communicating, cooperating and problem-solving with others is sometimes difficult – for no other reason than humans simply being humans. It’s useful to know. Really – you might like to note it down somewhere…
I know it seems obvious now, but do you remember anyone telling you that in school? That’s an important lesson I could have used a heads up on – forewarned is forearmed you know. But seriously, it’s a message we keep hearing on our travels – managing human relationships can be hard. Yet, the other thing reiterated to us is the power of human relationships to pull us through and overcome the challenges – think those that we work with, our customers, our mentors, the community and family or friends. An interesting paradigm isn’t it? People – the hardest part yet the best part.
Joel said he was pulled through by the love and collective nature of working with people. He also said you have to believe in what you are doing. So, in addition to people, I think he hit on the two other staples for dealing with obstacles – love for what you are doing and the belief or resolve that comes from being part of something bigger than ourselves. Lets call it our top 3 challenge adversaries:
People, Passion and Purpose.
A lot has happened for a project that only started earlier this year – what is next for Future Feeders and its momentum? Pushing the envelope Joel says – using alternative thinking, and youthful innovation to mould farming into a new shape for today. This includes navigating the co-operative model waters – determining good ways to build an inclusive and incentivised network of members and partners. With any luck, it will simultaneously increase ecological production of healthy food, farmland, business, community and training opportunities.
It is essentially a farm, education and business enterprise and they aim to expand into different pockets of land using a cycle of learning. A trained farmer teaches the student, student farms land and becomes a new teacher – they teach a new student and then move on to new land, gaining more valuable learning themselves while having produced another trained student, that will in turn became another teacher. And so it goes on. It will develop a network to leverage better opportunities in labour, equipment, buying, distribution and markets. For example, pooling resources like equipment or machinery (this is a good time to mention that they are keen to stick to appropriate technologies, as are many others – learn more here).
We talked more about our current food system and how it is broken (aka corrupted) – it’s something many could go on about at length. Me included – in fact I did in the draft version of this post, but for now have withheld it. Suffice it to say, the system is such that too many people don’t know where their food comes from – we are disconnected from that which is most fundamental. So I think it’s incredibly exciting to see people take their distaste for the situation and turn it into something positive like this. I think it’s Joel’s form of peaceful protest, useful activism.
In fact, Future Feeders is reminiscent of a like-minded manifestation in America (who seem to be about 5-10 years ahead of us in their action on the food front) called Greenhorns – all about advocacy for, and growth of, the young agricultural sector to maintain true food security there. Back home, the little group of farming friends that center around our local farming elder Di (Bickleigh Vale Farm, McLaren Vale), only discovered Greenhorns recently – with much joy and resolve that something similar is needed in Australia, and in more local chapters too. I certainly see Future Feeders as starting that progression – and indeed Joel hopes that advocacy is an area they will eventually move in to.
It also reminds me of several friends in Adelaide who have just up and started small-scale farming projects independently – Wagtail Urban Farm, The Garden Farmers and most recently Sand Road Farm. Grass roots projects are springing up like weeds – apt pun intended.
So if it’s happening somewhere, I bet it’s happening elsewhere – if you know about something like this, or someone wanting to start-up, PLEASE let us know. These people should be put in contact so they can learn from and support each other!
I want to finish with something Joel said in conversation, a bolster for all those battling on the local food front:
“it’s more than food production, it’s a way to change the world in a peaceful way”
Find out more or get in contact with Future Feeders via their Facebook page here or their website here
.
Cheers and encouragement to everyone working towards feeding our future! xx
future feeders seedlings

photo courtesy of Future Feeders

Week 1 – The Places and the Lessons.

nelson glenelg river VIC

Well, this may or may not be another short post as I consume a cafe’s internet for the price of a hot chocolate – and Michael and Emma play at the playground down the road in Coonabarabran. By the by, that’s something you certainly notice on the road – our place names. No wonder the tourists are confused – i’m Australian and have no idea how to pronounce half of them! Sad really…

Nevertheless it didn’t hold us back – the first week was a beautiful blur of camping and ocean views, with the obligatory specky coastline the Great Ocean Road is known for of course.

We had not done the Great Ocean Road before. I’m so glad we decided to make it part of our trip – it really is beautiful. And there were so many postcard nooks, lookouts and towns around every corner – not just the stuff they put on the tourist maps. In fact some of the other sites we stopped at were nicer in our opinion (and less populated). For example this picturesque beach below was completely deserted! Hello lunch spot.

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But before we even got to the ‘Road’ itself, we already had a bagful of fun. In fact when I asked Emma and Michael what their highlights were, they came from the places beforehand. Michael enjoyed cooking on the fire at our ‘rest stop’ camp just outside Beachport in SA.

beachport camp 1

And also swimming in the Great Southern Ocean at our next camp spot, in a little vacant block abutting the bush and on the esplanade of a quiet beach.

collage camp allestree beach

Emma’s favourite was Portland and watching all the goings on between ships, trucks and mountains of grain.

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Portland, Victoria – down at the busy activity of the port foreshore. If you look carefully you will see what looks like sand is actually a monster mountain of grain and a truck (yes, a whole truck) being tipped up to pour out.

As for The Great Ocean Road itself, it was smaller than I anticipated, not that it mattered. What I found interesting was how it seemed to be a shapeshifter – moving from dairy country and sleepy little towns to drier scrub, then mountainous forest – dotted with mega tourist hot spots, surfer havens or family friendly & funky locations. What a kaleidoscope!

Port Fairy was a quaint, quiet and pretty place – would be lovely for a recharging hideaway I think.

collage port fairy

Apollo Bay was my personal favourite – we hauled up at the local Recreation Park, right on the river overlooking the range and endless farmland. Then a short stroll down the street reveals a vibrant High Street with rolling grass, playground and views to die for of the coast, ocean and range – just gorgeous.

camp apollo bay rec park

And the surprise of the trip – Cape Otway Lightstation. We thought it might be nice to visit a light house so we drove down the (rather longer than expected) road to see the touristy looking car park and frontage – ok, here we go. We needed water so we went inside anyway. Without seeing the entry fees (that should have been our first lesson) we said we would go in and Michael coughed up what turned out to be $50 for all three of us – he did a great job of not choking on his drink. But it turned out to be  a whole complex of lovely sprawling grounds with lots of interesting things to do in addition to the lighthouse (which by the way is staffed by a guide up the top so you can ask him anything you want – (I thought that was cool). There was also an aboriginal culture centre (which is actually a super cool hut) – also staffed. Dale offered to let Em throw a spear he’d made with an aid called a ‘woomera’. She loved it. Michael and I had a go too – of course Michael picked it up straight away as he usually does! And they had a beautiful map and activity book for the kids – Emma took great delight in following the map and ticking off our adventures. Talk about value for money – it was a great spot to see the ocean, take a walk and learn about history, physics, electricity, maritime navigation, aboriginal culture and a myriad of other things – including how there used to be dolphins and flamingoes living in the centre of Australia (ahem…millions of years ago in the permanent inland lakes) – that blew my mind!

collage cape otway lightstation collage cape otway 2 collage cape otway 3

And speaking of surprises, we found out the hard way that Emma gets car sick on long, windy drives…… oh dear. Poor poppet!

So those were some of the places. There were also ‘lessons’.

What became painfully obvious to me, almost immediately after setting off, were the lessons we were being forced to learn – and quickly. You would think that after 15 years together Michael and I would probably have the whole communication thing down, right? Apparently not!

What seemed like a new phenomena for us was more likely just my amplified reactions to our situation. It was hard to believe just how immediately these things cropped up, and the ferocity of it. Up until now I have been able to avoid dealing with some of my shortcomings by escaping to another part of the house or busying myself with some other task. I no longer have that option here. My issues have been dragged out into the stark light of day by the challenge and change we put ourselves in. I don’t like seeing that side of myself – it is ugly and bitter. But, at this point in time, it is part of me – and part of why I put myself here. I knew those issues needed to be faced – so I keep choosing to do things which make me decidedly uncomfortable.

But the upside is growth, hard won strengthening growth.  And awesome, mind-opening experiences. To my amazement, Michael and I are already so much better at making plans on the run now – that’s been great!

Of course just when you think you’ve got it, something else comes along. In fact it seems to go in waves. We will do really well, then hit a hole again. I realised why – there were two lessons. We had both gotten better at communicating more effectively by being open, honest and forthcoming about what we want and what we think. The problem was the second lesson (and me) – doing it diplomatically. I hadn’t (and seemingly haven’t) figured out how to do that when i’m struggling. There’s nothing like being lost, late or constrained to make me really uncomfortable – and therefore less than pleasant to be around. What can I say – I’m a work in progress!

I love what this trip has given us already – not even two weeks in:

I love the experiences we have had, the things we have seen and the people we have met.

I love how astonished I am at the intensity of work my character is being put through, and equally by how fast we are all learning.

Boy, oh boy – what a crash course in how to be better – I love travel!

Lastly, I wanted to include this passage was that I thought was apt. It comes from a book a friend gave me to read – My Year Without Matches by Claire Dunn. In it she includes a little Rumi poem her friend sent to her:

Very little grows on jagged rock.

Be ground. Be crumbled.

So wild flowers will come up

Where you are.

You have been stony for too many years.

Try something different. Surrender.

mic & mel great ocean road

Mel x

The School of Life – Melbourne style

school of life with piggy & emma
Tuesday:
Slow start-stop morning. Rush to finally get sorted and out of the house – doesn’t happen until after lunch – kicking myself, never mind. Then onto learning about the trains on the fly – whoops, missed one, oh well. Caught the next train. Then suddenly it says the destination is now where we came from – what? We jump off – only to see it progress to where we thought it was going, bugger. Apparently the ‘city loop’ messes with what I would consider the conventional naming of things. Mel has a mini-meltdown, Michael and Emma vacate the platform. We regroup and jump on another train only to find out from a passenger that this one IS actually going back to where we came from – seriously?! Jump off again to the one across the platform and lo and behold – it goes to our station! We ask where Bourke Street is – apparently we are already on it – ha, awesome! Such tourists….
After the shenanigans of the train, finding our destination turns out to be super simple – it was just down the street (yay!). The School of Life, Melbourne, sits on Bourke St – mere metres from Southern Cross Station. When we arrive we are greeted by the wistfully pleasant Genevieve, who also turns out to be the queen of books (later walking us through some of the must reads on the shelves – i’ll be adding them to our reading list). We are here to talk with Jess, the Community Manager, who meets us with a great openness and honesty. She has kindly agreed to chat with us about the workings and passions of The School of Life Melbourne (which I shall hereafter designate TSOL for the sake of my typing fingers and sanity).
It turns out that describing TSOL to people is hard for us when mentioning this as one of our Melbourne-town destinations. I think that’s because it’s a new kind of beast – part education centre, bookshop, cafe, art house, community/connection/conversation builder and purveyor of fine inspirational goods & tools (like their awesome conversation cards, the 15 minute important life activity hourglass timer or the hilarious tote bag labelled “emotional baggage”).
mic school of life
The original TSOL was founded in London by modern-day philosopher Alain De Botton. A group of super interested social-doers, through a local Melbournian social enterprise (who are also responsible for the Dumbo Feather publication you may have seen kicking around) approached the SOL about trying something here. The result was a pop-up that piloted last year – for which they had a wait list of 800 people wanting to take a class with 26 spots – clearly there was something in this! So the dedicated group forged ahead and this permanent – and first – international outreach was born in Melbourne. There are now 6 others in places like Amsterdam, Rio and Paris.
I asked Jess what she thought it was about TSOL that made it unique – she said it seems to fill a gap for people, that something is missing and it helped give them insight into themselves plus a connection to others. That pretty well seems to reflect TSOL’s core business – developing emotional intelligence.
Now don’t be scared off by that. Really – it’s just useful stuff we don’t seem to get taught in school or society much these days (in my opinion). Class titles like ‘how to be confident’, ‘how to be creative’ and ‘how to face death’ start to paint the picture. Here are some others (or check out the full program for Oz here):
– How to balance work with life
– How to spend time alone
– How to make love last
 I feel like lots of people spend decades pondering these topics in solitude before ever getting a breakthrough or finding the insight they seek. What a grand idea to have an inviting, funky, well run place for the general public to come and engage in such important inner work.
The demand for their classes hasn’t waned, regularly selling out. I want to ask what it is about this educational model that makes it work, but before I can, Jess gives me the answer in describing how TSOL is unique – seems they are one in the same. She describes how classes deliver a great mix of elements like historical & current wisdom or philosophy, questions & workshop activities, individual and group time as well as pre-class tasks & post-class reading references. They also lash out a heavy dose of culture – think literature, film and art as a tool for examples, therapy and insight.
I suspect it would be hard for someone to come away without something useful. Jess also says the classes have a kind of practical “immediacy” to them – and she should know. After enrolling in “realise your potential” (because that was the only class not sold out), she quit her job the following day! She also put her CV into TSOL and hey presto – that is how we came to find her there! Pretty good embodiment of what goes on there i’d say.
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I ask a last question – what is the most important job of TSOL? ‘developing emotional intelligence through the use of culture and community connection’  says Jess – if we can learn to find comfort in speaking and listening to strangers, perhaps it will help break down the barriers to open, richer relationships with those we love. We could even find others have similar situations, feelings or thoughts.
We thank Jess for her generosity and stay to look around (and maybe we had drinks and cake too – not telling). So much goodness to be had – I only wish we could have taken a class while we were here. But as I said to Jess, Adelaide isn’t far away from Melbourne – we might just come on back one day!
This quote was up on the wall for the day – I thought it summed up nicely one of the reasons we are travelling and why we consider it important for Emma to see other places:

“For those who feel simply trapped under their responsibilities and can’t summon the initiative to quit, exposing yourself to how other people live loosens the mind. You can comprehend how many ways there are to get by. Choosing a new way seems possible”

Po Bronson – ‘What Should I Do With My Life?’

You can explore the website, classes and shop here or check out their new youtube channel here – I encourage you to have a look.
May we find solice and solidarity in our shared stories.
Mel xx
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