I hear the slaps from the hands of Gods proceed across the sky. A warning or a welcome? Rain pisses down, lightening strikes, thunder bolts, transparent worms lay still against the wet, marble tiles. I threw my coffee back, a thick black medicine, washing my dreams away. Beside me the fire cracked, moaning with desire. I stomped through puddles, a barricade to our bus, lost but soon found.
I sipped the tea and suddenly missed my father. My mind sways through the emotions of being present and content and feeling anguish towards facets of returning to the West. A pendulum, left than right. His teeth are already incredibly eroded. I examine him as he examines himself in the small, pink mirror he holds in the palm of his hand.
My head lay on the pillow, slightly propped up by my elbow that acted as a leverage beneath. The tiger balm I'd momentarily ago rubbed into my shoulders and dabbed on my temples and beneath my nose had begun to sink deep into my skin, the intensifying heat a symbol of recognition. A remaining mosquito darted around the room, it was almost impossible to keep them all out. Somewhere, someplace, a tiny crack must grant them entry. I'd written a realisation in my phone at breakfast and I reflected upon it. A faint headache still troubled my mind. I had assumed it was dehydration that was the instigator, yet being reminded of the inclusion of MSG in the local food made me point the finger elsewhere. I wondered of the clothes that were being stitched and sewn together someplace near or someplace far. Would the money be worth it? I was slowly accumulating materialistic items, rather literally, as my travels progressed, torn as I am between wanting to rid myself of desires and excess and yet adorn myself in tailored threads, leather shoes and handwoven bags. The two worlds I have long danced between epitomised by this very scenario. I thought of the old coins that I'd let swim between my fingers down in the Old Town while the setting sun offered it's final shards of light that negotiated paths between the bustling tourists and Old French colonial buildings. The scent of raw seafood open in baskets on the sidewalk dominated the air. Vegetables in every colour provided a contrast to the natural woven baskets that hung from the roof of a stall on the opposite side of the esplanade. Glimpses of a river revealed itself when granted the opportunity. Water, large masses of it, have always held the ability to keep me grounded, just as the ocean had successfully achieved the previous day. Perhaps it's rooted in my up-bringing, but I can only think it has this effect on most people no matter their narrative.
Bạch hổ Hoạt Lạc Cao (White Tiger Balm)
12.00 The flash of a foreigners camera feels like an electrical strike as the rain pounds down outside.
12.30 A food buzzer relentlessly beeps.
12.45 She shoves chopsticks and cutlery still dripping wet into plastic baskets of varying colours.
13.00 The handshake by the elderly woman plays out in my head over and over again.
13.15 A man to my right is served a steaming plate of small crustaceans. He sucks at one and a string of goo that resembles melted cheese elongates from his mouth attached to the shell he holds out in front. "Tissue?" He asks the young Vietnamese waiter who stands in blue gum boots, a red and white checkered shirt and trousers, holding a menu as a child beginning first grade would proudly hold their school hat.
14.00 You look very militant the Italian had observed. Are you here modelling? Have you been to Milan? Have you been to Italy? You look like my friend Laura, yet you are not. Can we take a selfie? I suppose my reluctance to answer his questions only encouraged him to ask more, "do you speak English?" Yes, I finally responded. Yes you can take a photo with me. Yes I've been to Italy. Yes I am a Model. No, I'm not in the military, but I will hurt you if you hurt me. The last line didn't leave my lips, but my mind attempted to decipher his coded intentions. The stall owner ushered us on wards and a thunder strike broke our line of conversation. He spun it is his favour in an attempt to continue to hold my attention. "Army Hannah get out your gun, quick it's war." I smiled at his attempt. "Go forth Army Hannah. I'm with the Australian," he proclaimed. "In Italy we don't fight. Peace and love." He paused and reflected. "Except food, we fight over food." I grew bored of the pleasant small talk. I was travelling alone for a reason. I brought the conversation to a cul-de-sac, turned around and walked away. "Let me know when you are in Milan. I'll whatsapp you..." His words drifted into the atmospheric rush of noise behind me.
16.00 I posted two letters from the royal post office, Ho Chi Min stared down upon me. 45, 000 she typed into the calculator and spun it around so it would face me. I bathed the stamps on the skin of the wet sponge before sticking them on the resigned space of the post cards. She pointed to a blue basket, I tossed them in and progressed towards the entrance, negotiating a path through the barricade of people. "She's rather tall isn't she", the overweight American observed.
16.45 Lemongrass and peach iced tea wets my throat. The beeps persist. I sit overlooking another construction site. Infrastructure is obviously booming.
19.05 I was the first to leave the red velvet seating. She called my name. Disbelief halted me. I turned to see her standing before me. The hair of Brigitte Bardot in the attire of Patti Smith; we embraced. "Have you eaten?" "No, should we?" "I know the perfect place. It has an old elevator, you will love it." She affixed the flash to her Canon AE-1. I affixed my khaki cap with the iconic red Vietnamese star stamped on the front. The traffic flew passed her back. The Opera House stood proudly in place behind mine. She took my photo and our journey began.
Arrival into Saigon.
But what of the clouds that salute equality with their greyness. What of the wind that licks at the leaves with a strong hunger. What of the ocean that's turned brown and wild. And what of her heart that's unsure of itself.
A 23-year-old girl concludes writing in her diary words to a man who occupies a quadrant of her heart. She intends to brush passed artworks admiring the gallery’s exhibitions. She purchases a ticket, but a corridor entices her. A loud speaker pierces the sullen noise and announces the showing of a film. She knows nothing of its nature. She descends three levels, following an intuitive trail. A woman hands her a brochure and informs her the film will be three hours in length. Her stomach is empty; her mind’s curiosity seeks nourishment for them both.
‘La Dolce Vita’
Starring Hannah McDougall
Black and white, the film is Italian. It’s 1960s Rome and the camera stalks Marcello as he journeys in a fruitless search for love and happiness. An hour or more passes quickly, her mind victim to the abyss of foreign dialogue. She resonates with the female protagonist ‘Maddalena’.
A ten-minute interval arises and so does she from the darkness of the theatre. Dim lights and a trail of shuffling bodies lead her through the double doors. She steps out into the bright walls and marble floors of the gallery, reminded of reality. She considers moving onto another scene, she wonders of her close friend, she writes to him…
He responds instantly, “Are you coming?”
“What time and where?” She inquires.
He doesn’t respond as quickly as she’d hoped. She passes again through the double doors. The theatre lights dim once more, she’s floating in the darkness of limbo. Her phone vibrates, the male protagonist moves from the screen of the cinema to that of her mobile phone. She cancels the call and stands immediately. Reaching her fingertips out lightly, she beacons her fedora hat that occupies the seat beside her to join in her departure. She returns the cancelled call; his voice closes the space between them.
“Where are you?”
“The gallery”, she responds.
“Walk out onto the front steps, we’ll collect you.”
“What are you wearing?” “Actually it doesn’t matter, I’m sure you look as graceful as usual.”
She hesitates, but accepts, swallowing her doubts as she moves through the gallery towards the entrance. The large wooden door frame surrounds her briefly, a bordered moment in time. She steps out of one Italian film and into another. She leans upon one of the four, tall sandstone pillars, her gaze cast outwards into the neighbouring park. She hears a shutter blink, she turns, her eyes meet with those of a man, but his words capture her first.
“You’re as beautiful as my daughter”, he takes a breath “I had to take a photo of you.”
She wonders of the photograph that resides inside the metal casing as she exchanges small words with the man. She considers asking to see, yet resists so. She gifts the stranger her own reflection. She moves, trying to settle the ounce of anxiety swimming through her veins. ‘Are they actually coming’, she ponders. ‘How long will they be?’ she wonders. She plucks her shoulder from the pillar and perches on the handrail of the stairs, her feet dangling in the heated breeze. Two women immersed in a rainbow puff of flowing material waft passed her. They appear as two characters from a play.
“You look like a sculpture yourself sitting there. You look beautiful.”
Their words settle her. She thanks them and smiles. They’re gone from the setting when a familiar voice calls her name. An arm coated by a maroon, silk sleeve waves in the air. She follows its command. They embrace.
“You look beautiful”, he assures her.
“I’m in scuffed converse shoes, I need a tie!” She exclaims.
Another man opens the door of the car, penetrating their banter. She slides onto the leather seat; his suit jacket and Ferrari cap greet her. The men strap their seat belts across their chests and resume their conversation. He looks at her in the rear view mirror; she’s suddenly apart of their universe.
The car becomes still beside the pavement, all thee characters ascend from their doors. The younger male fixes a yellow tie for the older male while she watches in fascination from afar. She wonders of the day she will adorn her neck with such. An air of conversation follows them down the street as they wave to fellow guests who drive by. The older gentleman explains to the younger characters the profiles of each guest – a fast tracked education in social elitism. They bypass the women crossing names off a list and proceed up the sandstone stairs and into an obscure scene boarded by faces reflected by gold-rimmed mirrors, shards of chandeliers and a constant flow of champagne. She peers at her feet floating on a sea of antique carpet. Waves of human energy sway passed her gently. He stands beside her, an island of familiarity within an unfamiliar sea. Conversation and introductions proceed; topics of art are muffled by opinions on politics, overlaid with insights into property development and inquiries into genealogy.
“You look too exotic to be Australian”, a jury of three Asian women announce to her.
She drags herself out of her own thoughts, lost in questions beyond theirs. He brings her back to the surface with his statement.
“Let's go outside, I need a cigarette.”
They ascend the multilayered, manicured garden. A tennis court boarder to their left, a hedge to the right secures their isolation from others eyes. He lights up, she reclines on her elbows; their outlook is bright, a harbour of dreams lies just beyond sight.
All are seated on their return; they await the male performers arrival. She applies pressure with a brush of her fingers on the keys beneath, the piano responds. His mouth is ajar, Italian opera fills the room. They sit content, legs cross than uncross, their heart full, wide smiles breech their faces. The clock behind dimes in rhythm, she taps her foot, a man turns his head revealing his right profile. She brings her foot to a halt. The music sews in and out of the humans, binding them together in the fabric of existence.
The night continues on wards, locations change. Rain falls gently as the wander passed bars, pausing occasionally at traffic lights. Like a stage set created for a film, they explore each corner and every light and every shadow before moving on wards. She eventually slides back off the leather seat, bidding goodnight to the suit jacket and Ferrari cap. She lays a single kiss on each cheek of the gentlemen before closing the car door on her goodbye. The credits of the film begin to roll as she takes her final evening stroll and lays her head down to rest.
Act 1, Scene 1
He wore velvet slacks, his brown brogues were scuffed, his ears held a single, gold earring each. His voice was tender, his style understated, he caught my attention as he did Giorgio’s. Words did not pass between us, it would be a stern handshake that would break the silence before we held our shoulders tall and went forth along our carpeted path. We were the ‘Armani couple’. Our affluent audience would hardly have to dig too deep in their tailored pockets to attain our clothing ensembles, and in the coming days, under the vision of Italian import Andrea, they would do just that.
Act2, Scene 1
Silence continued to precede us until the tongue of Champagne and a mutual fascination of the Zodiac signs sewed the space between us together. Under the disguise of a mingling crowd he slid two dark chocolate squares from the silver platter, neatly wrapped in the nest of a black cotton napkin, into the pocket of his trousers. Yet, it would be the sweetness of a cigarette to beacon us onwards.
My uniform of extravagance fell to the ground around my ankles, boarded by a small fortune of leather handbags. My sleek, low bun guided by a precise side part and eyes boarded by dark pigments offered an opposing appeal to his fresh, clean face – the lines between masculinity and femineity blurred, a web of androgyny. We stepped into the cool of the night, cooeed a final “Ciao Bella” and followed a trail of city lights laid out ahead. The Dolphin and a Gemini awaited us.
Act 3, Scene 1
They both sat upright, one swivelling a short black straw, negotiating a path between the ice cubes of his Negroni. The other taped his fingers to the beat behind the lyrics. A red velvet curtain fell heavy, a backdrop behind the two lead performers of my evening. I bought chocolates while they puffed on their slender, paper rollies; their every shift in body weight illuminated by the branch of the streetlight that hung overhead and the stern gaze of the bouncer the stood respectfully at his post. We each withdrew an equal sum of money. The night would not end until tomorrow came.
Act 1, Scene 2
He held the lonely, white stick of a freshly deceased lollipop between the gates of his front teeth. An ironic object in the face of the candy he had departed to fetch. The white powder that resembled the whiz fizz of my youth had increased in expense and toxins with time, the colourful packaging of effective child marketing replaced by the transparency of a delicate, clear plastic bag. The novelty of the once plastic spade superseded by the tube of a rolled up five-dollar note. It contents would serve to elongate the evening, time elapsing until its memory came to haunt us come morning. The theatre of reality played on.
Act 2, Scene 2
Two plane tickets and an 11 o’clock departure, the lead Gemini would see me safely to the airport, collecting our beloved Libra along the way. I kissed one, closing the car door on our goodbye and the other walked by my side through the automatic doors of departure. We would skip states together by midday.
Act 2, Scene 3
I was sitting patiently writing this story when he handed me a black cotton napkin. “They didn’t melt”, he whispered under his breath. We’d naively imported chocolate between two cities in the pocket of a pair of Armani trousers. Encouraged by the warmth of my tongue, the sweet secret dissipated, safe for all eternity.
It was a fleeting few days we spent in a city other than our own, dressed mostly in another’s clothes. Italian replaced English and we sought European ascetics in all our acts in preference over our country’s own. A rainbow wall of water greeted our entry and I giggled as I flicked the unexpected droplets from the tips of my fingers. We handed over our largest possessions in return for a single plastic card, saluting the rules of the space and the streamlining of society. As we stood amidst Edgar’s adored works we imagined the transformation of a lonely, old man in our distance into the great artist himself. “What if only we can see him and he beacons us over to tell us of his life?” A new act in the performance was unveiled and without a hint of hesitation we both sunk into a mindset of a time beyond our own. We’d laugh and smile our way out of the gallery and back across the bridge, admiring the stained glass of a cathedral or the architecture of certain buildings protruding proud from out of the city sprawl, he took a photo of me on the theatre steps. We chose to sip a crisp white wine over being on time, he wore a black hat and I draped an Indian pashmina around my head to avoid being sprung. He caught us out and we fumbled for words, attempting to façade our carelessness with consideration. We marched a quick pace across the traffic lights, tipsy on inspiration and rebellion. They’d view our faces, groom my hair and straighten the line of my dark, red lip. I’d slip the hotel key into my pocket and together we’d leave the stale air and conversation of the hotel room in search of another scene. “Return by 5.30pm”, he warned.
Act 3, Scene 1
We followed the words of a well-dressed man up the steps and through the royal doors of Hotel Windsor. We were hunting for an appropriate setting in which we’d exchange money for liquor. The clock was ticking, yet he drowned out its threats with an eloquent piano piece. I stood to his right in admiration. We exuded the confidence of guests, my sleek hair and makeup a mask towards the truth. We approached the main desk and revealed our desires. He handed us a map with three X marks the spot. Like pirates we sought our rooftop wine bar treasure.
Act 3, Scene 2
The large wooden doors opened to reveal a setting of splendour. We leaped up the stairs with excitement to our throne overlooking the city below. We ordered two crisp, white wines and adopted a slender cigar that sat comfortably amidst the contents of my crocodile skin purse, "for later." The minister, in his black gown, awaiting his freshly wedded subjects beneath the pillars of Parliament House was worth a photograph and yet we had not any device to do so. The heaviness of the hour hand returned and so would we, the show must surely go on.
Act 3, Scene 3
We walked the walk and talked the talk, paid to look the part, knowing all along what mischief lay beneath. Lips were wet with wine, our location changed, small glasses of lemon cello replaced their larger predecessors, and pizza and pasta quietened the crowd’s hunger. A family had formed that would come to separate at the meeting of night and morning. Eyelids would close briefly, dreams barely the chance to be induced, before the car lingered out front reminding us of our responsibilities. We left the theatre via another plane and there he awaited – The Gemini of familiar dreams.
A performance with no beginning nor end.
“Have you read Aldous Huxley’s book Doors of Perception?” She asked. It was a predisposition of mine to witness a dialogue that day but the alphabet, contrived sentences and paragraphs held no space within that thought. “No I haven’t”, I responded. “Though on the same train of thought…my book last night made reference to…what’s that psychedelic cactus down Mexico way…it’s like Kyoto but…” I pondered staring out the window, humble cabins and receding fog catching my gaze. “Peyote?” responded Laila questioningly. “Yeah yeah, that’s the one! You’re so knowledgeable in this field…” I said sarcastically. She laughed. “Anyway, my book was discussing how the use of such drugs, medicines, plants with psychoactive components however you want to see it, assists in breaking down the analytical logic of our Western culture – a weakening of attitude and a surrendering of the subject to synaesthetic experience.” These ideas were nothing new to Laila and I. We’d both long held open minds towards, well, opening our minds but revisiting these ideas with my current studies of anthropology/psychology and Aboriginal cultures, a constellation of concepts that had long ago been impregnated in my conscious were now expanding rapidly, feeding off new found knowledge and experience (or perhaps it was those four hours I spent with a medicine man in the Sri Lankan jungle that were finally settling in…). Regardless, I’d become very much aware as of late how estranged the human form has become to direct experience. Through the evolution of our language, we have severed or lost our connection to the landscape of which it originated and thus our connection to everything else within it - the cosmos. We’ve so readily dismissed the intuitive teachings of Indigenous cultures in preference for our seemingly progressive accomplishments as a human race, though surely such accomplishments only seem to sparkle in the eyes of those viewing it through a Western capitalist lens, those who view Ruwi (Ngarrindjeri language for country) as property. It may well have been this very realisation that gave rise to what felt an innate yearning to go for a barefoot hike within the valley womb of the Blue Mountains. Cold sand lay soft beneath my feet, early morning sun kissed the sheer cliff walls displayed on the far side of the canyon, the air was clear, and I was ready to listen, to read, the pages were sprawled out before me in various forms. We hadn’t any idea where we were walking to, or how long for, our collective instinct and lust for adventure guided us. It wasn’t long before Laila paused to remove her boots, tucking them within the hidden sanctuary of a small rock formation out of direct human gaze; “I’ll collect them on the way back”, she said unconcerned and together we began to remove our allegiance to our learnt culture and connect rather literally foot to ground to our surroundings. Down we descended, step by step. Without shoes one is forced to grip with their toes, manoeuvre graciously around vicious looking ants sharing the same forest floor, all senses become ignited, nothing to hinder complete presence. One cannot trudge their way to the destination, rather they embark in a dance between the self and the landscape and a language is spoken. When I next turned around Laila was shirtless, small droplets of sweat had begun to formulate on her forehead. I was quick to follow suit. When you have little understanding of the distance you’re travelling or the point of completion, the path can feel long and arduous, yet we were both too stubborn to turn around. We knew with persistence we would eventually reach a place where the sounds of flowing water emulated. In the meantime, we would pause to trace where a scent had spawned or listen intently for sounds to acknowledge our location. We admired markings displayed on bark canvases and brushed our hands across leaves. At times a fluttering butterfly or a bird whose flight path would beacon our gaze a different direction accompanied us. When the Blue Gum tree forest finally came to an end we were greeted by a clearing formed by a serpent-like river, slithering as it did throughout the mountain ranges. A fallen tree allowed for crossing onto a stony embankment and we sprawled out over the smooth tree trunk at ease in the sun, water flowing beneath and around us; I wanted to sleep in the arms of the trunk yet I was so very awake. We waited for a nearby group to dissipate and once the long desired solitude was granted, we did what we’d both longed to do all along – to be naked in nature. Hours passed without our knowing. We immersed ourselves in the clear, chill water, to which afterwards the sun would dry and warm us. We were awe-inspired by our surroundings, our ears ringing with silence. This was a language we both knew, a language that is difficult to access within the city and one that isn’t part of our education curriculum – the presence of now and the essence of silence. Yet it’s intrinsic to our nature as human beings. It is so very innate and yet so very foreign. I was reminded that day how accessible it is, I was reminded of the priority to which it is owed. We were reminded of the flow of the river and the greater flow of all that is. There’s a very real connection between a physical action and the corresponding internal response – you strip back the clothes, you strip back the masks contemporary society grants, at once vulnerable to your surroundings. Sometimes you’ve just got to get naked to feel it.
I fell into conversation with a native of Sri Lanka; his name was Sugar. The boys were interested in the herbs he dealt; I tried to hide my disinterest within the haze of smoke that encompassed the table. I watched as small droplets of sweat peeled away from the skin of condensation the glasses of beer wore, a hushed orchestra of bartering played out around me, “how many grams for this many rupees?” Across the courtyard a mural of Shiva stared down upon us.
“She’s angry”, he said. He inhaled deeply, small red ashes ignited in the darkness and the sizzle of burning paper ended the passing moment. His brown eyes darted from Shiva’s to my own. His eyes were familiar, but than again, so were his red gums that so many of the locals bared. “In 2055, the world will end.” He’d won my attention, but I didn’t award him with a reaction. “The 29th Buddha will return, bringing forth ferocious winds, rain and tsunamis. Some men living in nature will foresee the end of the world and move to higher ground. They are the good people and will be saved.”
There’s a prophecy that the peoples of the Amazon and Andes hold close to their heart, it’s that of the “The Eagle and the Condor”. The prophecy postulates that the Eagle people, those that live primarily through the mind and are materially rich will reach a peak in their capacity and be forced to come together with the Condor people, those that live from the heart in communion with nature. They will realise they are each other. However, this transition, acknowledged as the change from the ninth pachacuti to the tenth, will bring with it tsunamis, huge climatic changes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In this way, Pachamama (“Mother Earth”) will humble all her creatures.
“The land wants to tell you what’s going on. What’s it trying to tell us, for its sake and for the entire countries sake?” These questions posed by Australian Desert Expeditions lead wanderer Andrew Harper and the man who would later extend a welcome for Laila and myself to accompany their crew into the Australian Simpson Desert struck a cord close to my heart. If there’s anyone who spends enough time listening to nature so much so that they could predict when to move to higher ground to survive Shiva and Pachamama’s ferocious awakenings, its Harper. We wandered with him and his twelve camels for ten days from the East border of the Simpson Desert towards the West, following the salute of the sun. We became amateur, but passionate Cameleers, students to the 800kg creatures and students to the land. We allowed wisdom delivered by those who’ve read the country to rest in every crevasse of our skin with the grains of the golden sand that adorns the landscape. It was the forgotten history lesson the Australian education system failed to provide us with and the only lesson we truly should be provided.
“The Australian Desert represents a huge percentage of the Australian continent in area. Forty-five percent of the Australian continent is estimated to not be surveyed by Australian scientists and ecologists. So it is important to actually find out what’s going on out here. What’s living here, what use to live here, what’s living here now that may be impacted by climate change, by fire, by the impact of man and invasive species. And unless you know what’s going on in the country than you can’t manage it. And the only way to know for this particularly area is to get out here on foot and have a look around”, Harper says to the camera as he perches upon one of the one thousand, one hundred sand dunes that sprawl into the red-hued horizon.
I held the cold, grinding stone to my cheek, its smooth surface enforced by those who had come before. It wasn’t the first Aboriginal artefact I’d come across, but I felt a preference for it. “I’m sorry”, I said and gently laid the stone back down in the dry riverbed from which it came. But sorry just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. The phrase is thrown around as readily as litter to the gutter. The question is, where to from here?
Should we sentence all Australian citizens out into The Simpson Desert on expeditions to awaken their senses and evoke that connection to land that has surely been severed, just as the convicts were shipped to Australian shores as Britain’s prison system was at the brink of exhaustion? Or do we rely solely on the efforts of a small few to collect the information we need to change our ways, such as those ecologists, scientists, artists and nature enthusiasts that accompany Harper’s annual trips? Religious or not, there’s a force that deserves your devotion and it’s the land from which you were born and land into which you will retire. We’ve wrought her of her possessions to sustain an idealised understanding of what it means to be a productive civilisation for a period with an expiry date that has long been and gone.
And so I ask you, dear reader, would you rip limbs from your own Mother? Starve her of the very nutrients she needs to sustain basic life? Would you plough through her lungs, bulldozing the branches of her ribs? Just because there isn’t blood on your hands, doesn’t mean you’re innocent. The red soil is running through the hourglass quicker than I think we, as a collective society, care to realise. “How many grams for this many rupees?” he asked. “Sorry there’s nothing left”, she said. And with that, Pachamama told the sun and moon to rest, they would not rise again.
Photo: Australian Simpson Desert, 2016. For more information or involvement with this landscape click HERE
I’m sure I could write endlessly about nothing. If only I had nothing to say.
We threw the final bags in the back; there was an unintended theme of leather and a palette of beige and brown. The unlocking twist of a wine bottle lid and the smooth engine igniting occurred simultaneously. We drove into the full moon. The stars shone bright, the rain fell hard. We retracted the sunroof and reclined in the back seats. Red wine stained my white shirt. Rain droplets blessed our faces. The night was young and so were we.
I receded into the music of my imagination.
“It’s 11:11. Make a wish,” she said in her sweet tone. I wished for all the wishes to come true.
He picks the locks of her dreams with her own hairpin.
“Grab your camera”, she called from afar. She was the Queen of the crisp white sand castle. “Here you take it” I called in response. The sand hugged my limbs. She shook her head. I rose reluctantly and placed my poncho on to cover my bare breasts. “Is Jai doing something profound?” I inquired. “He has a habit of doing that.” I ascended the dune, following the shadow of her trail and descended down the other side. There he lay, side-by-side with a Kangaroo. Japanese tourists photographed him from a distance. I raised my camera and became one of them.
I had wondered why I had dreamt that, but then again, why do we dream about anything?
He leaned forward and lit her cigarette. She wore a leather jacket with the USA flag tattooed on the back. Together they gnawed at corncobs, together they stoked the fire. His lungs called out, he coughed. She squatted by his side, observing. Black socks, black Birkenstock's. The fire surrendered, the wood ignited. Smoked dates stuck to their foil nest surrounded by a fortress of red wine glasses.
Stay calm was the message telegraphed from his pale blue eyes.
I sat cross-legged on the dark volcanic rocks. A symphony of frog croaks played out around me. I closed my eyes and was transported. The wind blew her blonde hair. She held a bottle of Shiraz loosely in the palm of her hand. The silhouette of two surfers bobbed on the horizon. The sky was a burnt orange hue. The ferocious wind whipped at my back. A black turtleneck and bikini bottoms would grant me warmth only for so long. The crackling fire would beacon us back. I took her hand. Home was one direction. Yet the wind blew another.
It occurred to me as the morning light flooded the small dining area, that without a doubt we sometimes eclipse our own dreams with reality.
It was quiet yet so very loud with thoughts. The scratch of a match being lit. The clouds came back. A butterfly danced in my right peripheral. “Blue or purple?” she asked. Her fingers glided through my hair, two braids emerged. The sun returned. My book cast a shadow on my notepad. I scrawled the word Euphoria.
Perhaps I should be concerned why I have conversations with inanimate objects.
“I feel like a cigarette,” she said. I handed her the vintage tin collected at Bombay’s thieves market. Hit the road jack and don’t come back no more, she sung. He caught my eyes. American Indian. He wore a national park t-shirt. Who was he? It was an innocent car chase between a silver Mercedes and a black Lexus. We took a left down a dirt road. The sun was fading fast. He was beautiful. His eyes were locked on the road. Mine were locked on his.
The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was West but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.
They sat, eyes shifting from cards to competitors. Quick sips of wine before slamming the next move down with force. The scented candle intertwined their auras. They rubbed the melted wax into their skin.
We didn’t stay long in Saint Laurent. We went seaside but the turtle reserves were off-limits.
You can’t take it all too seriously I thought. The moment you do you sell your soul to the devil. Three dolphin’s backs breached the ocean surface.
Yesterday’s poets are today’s detectives, limping exhausted into the sunset.
I turned the coarse pages with my fingertips. The ocean crashed into the shore thunderously in the near distance. A barricade of native bush land divided us. Page 141. She returned from the sea. Her hair was wet. Her hands were cold. They emerged together. They pried the final speaks of sleep from their weary eyes, induced by a night plagued by mosquitoes. They poured coffee. I heard the keys rattle. He left.
The Ghost of a flea, what was William telling me.
I wedged myself out from beneath the weight of pillows, blankets and his sleep-ridden body. The fire still crackled. I’d visit the moon before I gave into sleep. I turned the final page. Good night Patti, it’s been a real pleasure. I gently enchanted him out of the depths of his abyss. Come on Darling, let’s go to sleep.
I salute you, Akutagawa. I salute you, Dazzi. Don’t waste your time on us, they seemed to say, we are only bums. All writers are bums, I murmured. May I be counted among you one day.
Hanging upside down the chicken squawked, extending its arms out wide, wired in defense. The sun caused its shadow, eloquently defined on the bare sand canvass beneath us. I had hoped all the blood rushing to its small head would place it in some elated state, its quietness suggested such. An empty riverbed would make for a place to rest. The syllable of "ch" was commanded three times in a trained attempt to encourage the camels to fold their gangley legs inwards and kneel down to the sand for our disembarkment. Such proud, nonchalant creatures; I could feel their eyes roll into the back of their heads as they bowed down, chewing and munching loudly in the process. We unpacked, unsaddled and the four of us walked over to a nearby tree. The men knelt down, the pocket knife flicked open smoothly as per design, a moment of silence and a prayer spoken before the sharp metal met its neck and blood squirted, a single speck on Mata's white singlet before draining out into a small pool accumulating within and staining the sand. The skin was pulled off, the feathers offering no resistance. I had prepared myself for horror, there was none; there wasn't a single tear shed. We returned to the campfire as three. Chai was served, I lay still thinking, staring up into the blue abyss above while goats meandered around me. J was in my distant vision tuning the guitar, the riverbank walls serving as a backrest, the sun a blanket of warmth over his bare chest that longed for its familiar love. The curry was prepared from scratch, as was the chapatti; the two complimented one another when their creation was final. My curry contained the liver. I shared it with the other two knowing what nutrients rest in this organ. I suppose someone consumed the heart. We carried on after lunch. The vast desert landscape our playground. We passed through gypsy villages where water troughs existed for the camels to quench their sure thirst and wells to quench ours. Children with dark kohl boarding their eyes emerged from the veil of dust that hid what lay a kilometer ahead; we would hear their cries for rupees before we saw them. We would hold our ring studded hands high as they wafted around our bodies looking for something loose enough to pry. Their hisses made me yelp inside. I knew they could suck from me whatever it was they wanted, so I lowered my gaze and held my camel close.
We spiced our chai with camel milk opium that evening. Perhaps that's what caused the campfire smoke to coil with such art, or the stars to glisten and speak with such intensity, our dreams wild as a result. I played with children among a rock bed when I saw my first tiger appear by our sides, they weren’t concerned and once I realised how natural it was, nor was I. I laughed at the thought of others journeying on safaris to view such creatures in their natural habitat when they are right here in front of us all along. As I turned back a lion leaped over us, its paws offering a sound as they met the ground. Its mane soft and thick. While I was meeting such beasts in my dreams, J was attempting to calm a tall, slender, dark gypsy woman that had journeyed from the horizon into his. Mata was offering a desert man chai and assuring him we knew our place out here. Three days passed, time elapsed, the sun rose and set and chai fuelled us. Wild female camels roamed freely and this made for tough terrain when our young male camels smelt their pheromones rising with the heat. My camel would froth at the mouth, he was tied tight, but he sought escape when we rested for tea or food. He did, we chased him, we caught him, he was punished and it broke my heart. I washed the dishes in silence, I was pissed off, I didn’t like the way his legs were bound with rope forcing him to hop and fall with each attempt to walk. Come afternoon we chewed on more camel milk opium crystals, they looked and tasted like small cubes of brown sugar, but that bitter ending taste reminded you of the contents. Its effect was never immediate for us like it was to Mata; it emerged only subtly in our dreams. Synthetic drugs hold no integrity in my eyes, but those born from nature do and I am open to what heightened understanding they can grant me, achieved in my opinion, through respect of their purpose rather than abuse.
Mata offered to take us to his village, but it was a journey too far. However, when “three hours to my village” suddenly turned to “one hour” there was ground for discussion. "What should we do J?” I called to the side, yet I was met by murmurs from a shadow of J’s former self swaying side to side behind me. We had no bearings, distances were determined by sand dunes or windmills and time by the sun, how could we have known what voyage lay before us. “Alright Mata, one hour, if only it will take one hour, then to your village we go.” In that moment Mata set the camels into a gallop and gallop we did on wards, short cutting through tall cactus fields, I had to flick my legs one side then the other to avoid scraping against their vicious spikes. Everything was spiky out there; everything was in defense against its harsh surroundings. One hour felt like many, many more and what pain we felt. We weren’t sure we could go on. Unlike a horse, no rhythm can be formed when riding a camel. It’s an awkward gait at best, let alone when set in galloping motion. I switched between yoga poses, stretching my thighs and re-positioning by bottom, but it was bone on bone. Mata stopped to take a phone call, J groaned in pain, I knew it was worse for him than I, J being of the male sex. But hell, I couldn’t go on in this state. I pulled J and his camel up alongside mine in order to pass the pocket knife between our hands, then gave slack to the rope and let them fall back into the shimmering landscape of sun and sand behind me. "DO NOT gallop the camels without my word Mata, understand?" I'd hoped he heard me over whatever conversation he was engaged via his phone. The wounds on our feet were struggling to heal, let alone an implanted knife in my groin. I slid the pocketknife between my skin and underpants, cutting vigorously until the material gave way and then I proceeded to cut the other side. I smirked with delight as I pulled what was left of my G-string out, shoving it in my boots that hung freely from the camels saddle and passed the pocketknife back. It felt invigorating to be free of such a layer, particularly in such a conservative culture. “You better wash my knife!” called J. “Fuck off!” I responded. Had my underpants continued to rub anymore there wouldn’t be much skin left to rub come the end of this seemingly epic voyage. Skinny kids, bony arses and camels ain't no easy ride. We collapsed into a meditative state until I finally accidentally dropped my camera cap and it just so happened to also be the point to “ch, ch, ch” the camels for the final time and walk the remaining distance into the village. A train of deer leaped before us, their hooves delicately kissing the sand. Vultures the size of humans supervised the carcass of an adult goat, yet it was a small puppy that gnawed at its remains. The gypsy children came running all dressed in white. A kite designed from a single plastic bag drifted aimlessly in the wind of their sprint. They snatched my Akubra from me as I drew close, the mother placing it on her child. It looked ill fitted against their dark olive skin and colourfully pigmented clothes. “Come come rest,” Mata requested. We plonked ourselves down on a woven mat and then I lay. The exhaustion was overbearing. Mata's Mother, like all intuitive Mothers must have seen through our guises and brought us a tennis ball size of something sweet. We divided it among ourselves and consumed. Masala, sugar, milk, oil, my mind wasn’t registering the spoken ingredients, but the taste buds were satisfied. Chai followed, I could feel my body come alive again, like a fleeting electrical shock that awakens all cells (I’d had plenty of those in Sri Lanka using electrical sockets exposed to the ocean elements). We were told to choose a goat for our lunch but a life needn’t be spared for our stomachs this time. “Just chapatti, please.” We ate, rested, sat, the women braided my hair and attempted to dress me as one of their own as I chopped potato’s with a swiss army knife and tried to see through my eyes that weeped from the heavy smoke caused by the burning of cow dung. I took the appearance of a purple Mother Teresa. We had no idea of our coordinates, but a jeep was on course to find us. We all sat side by side in the section of shade the roof granted, our backs against the mud and sandstone hut, our feet bathing in the sun. The children pulled old shoes by rope, goats drunk from the shared water can, women my own age nursed babies on their hips and sewed clothes, we sipped more chai and the mind felt as desolate a landscape as that vast sandy mirage we’d come walking on in from not so long ago.
Old men squat to shit. Small shanty clusters are lost among a sea of rubbish. Two women adorned in patterned pashminas, both varying shades of red, stand out against the dry, dusty backdrop. They converse, one of them spits. A boy leans on a window encased by a brick building, his malnourished frame exaggerated against the stern structure. He soaks in the morning light, does he have one leg or two? Another orange-haired Indian, it bewilders me. I can't photograph or film this, my camera stays still on the blue leather booth that was my bed last night.
It’s awfully hard to sleep when there’s an assault of the senses happening all around you, even when it’s half past midnight, you’re fatigued and there’s a small castle of pillows and blankets seducing you to give in. So I devote this piece to the man behind the wheel, the man with my life in his hands (yet another one) as we speed past elaborately painted cargo trucks one after another, hitting the brakes hard as the front wheels lightly touch the ‘rumble strips’ (multiple speed bumps) that were non-existent until the headlights illuminated their form. When I first met Kailash the moon was full, it was a Saturday. It’s been exactly a week unintentionally and as I lay my head against the glass side-door window, my feet on the other, I see the moon has lost half of it’s whole. The stars have presence due to the lack of electricity. Eccentric Hindi music blares from the speakers, I’m thankful I have the entire backseat to myself so I can rest my head a distance from the elated beats and sprawl my limbs out long. Sleeping seems a far off phenomenon in this environment. Kailash is a rebel without a cause. He likes driving Westerner’s, not because of their nature, but because of their ignorance to Indian road rules. He overtakes left, he overtakes right, I can’t understand Hindi but I can understand expressions and he’s got attitude. At first I was taken back, but ever since we hummed Om together in a sacred cave during a brief lull between the on slaught of tourists (trust me, it took me by surprise) I’ve felt we have an understanding of one another. Perhaps because I’m always sitting in his rear view mirror and he’s watched me from afar. Perhaps because I tease him for chewing tobacco and my humour has finally eased it’s way into the heart of closed Indian man. It feels like we’ve made a multitude of stops since our departure a young two hours ago from the ashram for reasons I’m unsure. At one stop we exchanged tools with a young boy, I think I saw him return into his clay hut with a screwdriver of sorts. Then there was petrol, but that one I’ll let slide, it’s an 8-hour drive after all and we all need sustenance, including the vehicle. Tea break was next, heated using a hand-blower encased in clay to ignite the coals that would heat the masala tea, served hot in a short glass with the glares and questions of inquisitive young Indian boys. They blew me kisses once the boy’s heads were turned; the flattery wore off weeks ago. I had inquired with Kailash why our man making tea had disappeared into the far corner with the sieve; “anything is possible in India Hannah.” I think there was a misunderstanding between our dialects; I assume the man returning from taking a piss in the open was whom Kailash thought I was referring too. We had a flight at 5.20pm, I figured we’d be in Mumbai by then, but until then I’d just being reclined on the backseat conjuring up stories, finding humour in the roadside signage “God praises good drivers” “Be late but don’t be late” “Time is money but life is more valuable” and waiting to see what comes first, sleep or another sporadic pit stop. I’m placing my bets/rupees on the latter.
"How can I contact you?" he asked calmly. "I want to see you in five years." I pondered the significance of this time-frame before offering my response. "Well it's a rather savvy 21st century, you've got the option of Facebook, email, phone, letter, you can have them all if you like," I responded. "Do you think I have Facebook?" , "No, I assumed you didn't, but you never know..." "What's you're number?" He wrote my number in his phone and I insisted he take my email also. "Numbers can be lost, you know." He saved me as Isabella, the name he'd mistaken as my own when we'd met in the surf back in Midigama (Sri Lanka) and the name he'd continued to call me even after he realised his mistake. I didn't mind. If a person's instinct encourages them to call me a particular name, I feel it is naturally suited and thus have no objection incorporating it into my identity. "Why five years," I inquired finally. "Well, you're already in-tune, but I think in five years with a little more travel you will get it and you will be ready to settle down. You'll be ready to return to Yeppoon and start a family," he said with a smirk. I laughed, of course I laughed. "What do you mean by in-tune?" "Well you're already intelligent, you don't see the point in drinking and doing drugs like the others back at Jaya's." This was coming from a man who when spoken of among others refer to him as "being good at life" and "getting it" and so I took what he said as a complement and bid my farewell. As I walked out the gate he called from afar, "hey Hannah, stay Isabella forever." I smiled and wondered if I'd just experienced a subtle marriage proposal.
We slipped in and out of sleep during the 9hr commute to the ashram. Hunger had long given up. Our throats were dry from the dust, lips course from the wind whipping at our faces and hair knotted from a combination of the two. We stopped for food, but the extensive menu had no appeal. We allowed Kailash to order for us, our only input was “spicy.” Our taste buds had enthusiastically adapted to the local cuisine, our craving for chili boarding on an addiction. We could have greater vices I suppose. We washed down the curry and Nan with tea, of course, and chewed fennel seeds as we paid the bill. By our next stop the full moon had risen. Bombay’s city scape of high risers was replaced with a landscape of flat desolate plateaus and vast monoliths rising in the distance. The dust fractured the light and it lent a romantic lens to view our surroundings through. I’ve always felt more comfortable in a wide-open space than a congested one; I could feel my energy shift. We weaved in and out of colourful trucks carrying various loads. Trishaws built for four passengers carried twenty. We sped past vineyards and villages. Our speed approaching 100kms an hour with no seat belts, yet death never felt close, not even when we almost met the semi trailer head on. There’s an understanding among the traffic, an unspoken language. You place your trust in the local driver and in the use of the horn. Hindi music kept us savvy until the tires came to a calm. The indicator flashed left and the car headlights illuminated the front gate, Tapovan. Fairy lights flickered among the trees; excitement still lingered within our fatigue. We succumbed quickly to sleep, but we’d arrived. We’d arrived at Tapovan.
It wasn’t our intention to leave for the family ashram on full moon, it just so happened to occur that way. We entered into it blindly, yet confidently. We paid our due bill at the Carlton, said our farewells and threw back the final sips of our sweet black tea, the glass still warm on my fingertips. Kailash was awaiting downstairs. He knew what lay ahead. We sped out of Bombay on empty stomachs; there wasn’t time to eat that morning. The early hours were spent at the Police station filling out a report for my stolen bag the day prior. The officers made me chuckle, it was all too casual to be taken seriously. My report was lodged among discussion of the cricket and offerings of tea and coffee. I wrote my statement by hand and they proofread it, slowly, their English not strong. The chief officer commended my writing and with a smile of pleasure said “you write a good police report, you want to be a Police Officer?” I laughed. “Because I can arrange that.” I laughed again. Becoming a Police Officer was one career prospect I hadn’t considered until that moment, let alone in India. “I find your uniforms very charming, I think I’d look good in one, perhaps someday, but not today,” I responded. It was his turn to laugh. My report took time. A pleading man was dragged through the room; he held his hip in pain. The next time I saw him he was unconscious, being carried out the front doorway on a stretcher with a thick stream of dark, red blood emerging from his mouth. A Hindi woman sat in the booth next to me nursing a child with tears trapped in the rims of her dark eyes. She was searching for something within mine, but I had nothing to offer her. Finally, two thin pieces of paper with the scenario was stamped, stapled and handed to me. We walked out the door, sighed and hailed a cab.
It was the first time I’d allowed myself to appear clean, really clean, in 55 days. I didn’t necessarily want to dress that way, in fact it felt contradictory to my environment and I questioned it more then once before walking onto the street and into the day. Yet, I was meeting with my modelling agency and some care ought to be considered when undergoing a business encounter, at least in my opinion. I must have stood out like a 6ft golden-haired cash sign as I wafted through the marketplace, the ‘thieves market’. The streets laden with dust and cow dung a stark contrast to my crisp, clean ankle length vintage French collared dress, black and white stripped and 70s inspired. A black pashmina hung loose around my shoulders and a small bag hung from its material straps around my wrist. Were they following us from the moment we stepped out of the car? I mean, in retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking trying on men’s trousers within a predominately Muslim marketplace in the outskirts of Bombay. I’d found a somewhat hidden alleyway protected from public glare to slip the pants on to try for size, but they too had found the perfect pocket to corner us and cause a scenario that would unfold gracefully into the palms of their greedy hands. The shouting wasn’t real, the reason for their shouting was certainly not necessary, but at the time, in their foreign language how could we have known. Our vulnerability and its harsh consequences were self-induced. I knew it was gone before I could even look. The scarf that had hidden it was removed and the wooden box that had cradled my bag by my side, empty. “Please God, this can’t be so, don’t do this to me, not right now.” Despite my somewhat atheist beliefs, in times of desperation I always find myself asking for assistance from some higher power, I suppose that’s how most find religion. It’s been a pattern of mine since the time of my parents divorce when I use to pray for them to stay together, it didn’t work of course, nor did it on this day. And so there I stood shaken, a fortress of curious men surrounded me. Tears rolled down my face, one for the loss of a large sum of money, another for the photos and videos of new-found friends stored on my phone and a third for the letters to loved ones that will never be read. Life’s funny with its irony. I lose some of my most materialistic possessions the day before I leave for an ashram. The people bit the hand that would feed it abruptly and without hesitation. I would have invested all that money into their culture, into those that were hungry for it, but it was snatched from me prematurely. It was a blurry-eyed departure from the antique marketplace; my eyes remained wet with sadness and anger for sometime after, as did the adrenaline that resided in my muscles. I can only hope all the financial worth in that bag finds its way into the lives of those I romantically daydreamed about as I journeyed further North. Among the bumper-to-bumper, beep-to-beep commute I heard a whisper - welcome to India.
We’re young, we’re naive, we missed our flight to Mumbai. No Sir, no Madam, you need a visa to board this flight. We walked out the hotel and dropped the room card at the vacant desk, we rode a tuk tuk, we walked through security, the tickets were printed, they almost touched my hand. He ripped them up, gave back our passports, we turned around, rode a tuk tuk, picked up our room card still waiting patiently for our return and walked back through our room door. It was 4am when we departed; it was 5.30am when we returned. The sun had still not risen. We fell back asleep and woke with the light. Perhaps it was all just a dream. A costly dream at that.
You ask my name, where I'm from, whether I'm married and do I have children. I know what you're doing, I know what you're thinking. You sit with your legs spread wide pushing up against my thigh. You look at me with hungry eyes, that you hide behind a red-toothed smile. There's three handles yet of course you choose the one above my knee, oh how subtle of thee. I tuck myself beneath a blanket of luggage, but I feel you peel it back with your gaze, it's too early for this shit, there's still morning haze. Does your four-armed flashing God at the head of the bus approve of you? A child occupying his Mother's knee stares at me from across the aisle. What does he see, what does he think? The bus hounds down the highway, beeping, braking, beeping, braking. My hair whips at my face. I make my escape and stumble to the back of the bus where other females reside, a life-vest of femininity among a murky masculine sea. I sit frustrated, staring down the aisle. Heads turn, I feel you all, like a swarm of crocodiles waiting, wading, beady eyes hovering above the head rests. You tell me I'm special, that you'll never forget me, you think I have power, you try to impress me. I don't care for your assets, your cars, homes and gems, I can't grant you citizenship to my homeland. No I won't come stay with you. I want to climb out the window, but I push through you all. The door is so close when I feel your hand brush with pressure high between my thighs. Your oblivion is staged, but my anger is not. You think our contrasting skin is some excuse, you think our differing genders is some game. You honor the cows to which roam free, but you're void of respect for someone like me. I escape the bus and fall into familiar arms. He removes the black soot from my face, but your behaviour selfish man, is a unforgettable disgrace.
We met in the surf; his board had a rainbow under wash. He spoke softly, he moved graciously, he cared little for how many waves he could conquer. I asked where he was going for dinner, he responded with a statement, “you’re welcome to join.” I didn’t answer yes immediately, though I knew I would go. He told me his parents were stiff, so I asked whether I should wear shoes. “Of course you should, you’ll be on the back of a motorbike.” I could have argued the contrary; instead I slid my sandals on for the first time in weeks and adjusted to the foreign feeling. I tucked my kaftan between my thighs and slid on the back of the bike. I was conjuring up this story when the bike hit the bitumen. I lay unscathed on the opposite side of the road to what we should have been travelling on, the motorbike that should have met us head on was humming in neutral gear a meter or so away and the tuk-tuk driver that had carelessly forced us there remained seated, leaning out to admire his doings from a distance. I dislodged my foot gently pinned, picked up my rouge Birkenstock and walked somewhat out of harms way, a dozen brown, masculine, Sri Lankan eyes locked on me. I moved my tongue in my mouth, I could feel dust grit merged with saliva from the conversation we were engaged in while the world flew past us in the form of buses, trucks, tractors, families of four on one motorbike, stray dogs, cows and Buddha status tall enough that I was forced to arch my neck back to observe their entirety. There was an unpleasant taste in my mouth and unease to my step when the 60km coastline stretch finally came to an end and we cut the motor. Perhaps it was resent, or perhaps it was because I’d just danced delicately in deaths front garden. I walked down to the sand and starred out to sea, it churned like my stomach, the afternoon wind had risen. The clouds hid the sunset and tried to hide my dread about the return ride home under night’s veil of darkness.