Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 - the Year of Crazy

It's been a wonderful, crazy, challenging, frustrating and eye-opening year.

I know I said that I was finishing up with this blog, but it's NYE, and this seemed like as good as any place for an annual recap on the year that was. Incidentally, this is my 100th post on this blog, which seems like a nice round number to finish up on!

January started with unemployment and an uncertain future. As good a reason as any to splurge all of my savings on a week-long dance camp, a month-long backpacking / swing dancing trip around South East Asia, and to try out a new cabaret show at the Adelaide Fringe. The rest of the month involved tearing my hair out getting the show written.

February saw my return to the Adelaide Fringe, which was what I thought was my best show to date, with mostly positive reviews, and small-but-appreciative audiences. I also lost a heap of money, and started to age prematurely as a result, but these things are all learning experiences. I may have sworn that I would never perform a show at a festival ever again. Several times.

March started in another country, having touched down in Kuala Lumpur the day before, preparing for a weekend of dance workshops and socials. In the tropical Malaysian heat. Multiple showers and changes of clothes a day were necessary. This was followed by four weeks of backpacking through Thailand, Vietnam (with another weekend of social dancing at the Vietnam Lindy Exchange), and Cambodia. I was bedridden in Saigon with an awful sinus infection when I received the news that I was successful in an application to go to Alotau in Papua New Guinea for two months with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program.

April consisted mostly of mentally preparing myself for PNG, with various training courses, a lot of injections, and working out if I could still do my Masters coursework online whilst in PNG. By the end of the month, I was touching down in Port Moresby. Definitely new territory, both terrifying but also beautiful and fascinating.

May flew by in Alotau, adjusting to a new lifestyle of being home before dark, working out PMV routes, teaching myself how to use a card catalogue, and taking boat trips to weird colonial island outposts. I also learned to live with limited internet access - which was insufficient for online research and study. I also found out that I'd been accepted into another assignment in Rabaul, beginning in July.

June finally saw the arrival of some new friends in Alotau, which made the stay more comfortable, but also more bittersweet when the time came to leave. Gifts were exchanged, and for the first time in a while, I felt truly appreciated for the work I'd been doing, yet humbled by the simple grace and love with which my host organisation expressed their thanks. Then another flight back to Australia, with a few days in Melbourne, and a couple of days in frosty Hobart for a swing dance exchange, before flying out on the last day of the month...

The first of July saw me arrive in Rabaul - a relatively isolated town in East New Britain, wedged between an active volcano, and a dormant one. There was a lot of rumbling, and even more internet-related frustration. However, I also attended the National Mask Festival, which was definitely one of the cultural highlights of my year.

And then July was over, and August flew in, and before I knew it, I was thrust back into Melbourne's winter. Facing unemployment all over again, I rewrote a chunk of my show, to perform in Melbourne and Sydney, and vaguely considered my future. Fortunately I also had the Melbourne Writers Festival to keep me occupied and entertained.

September saw the remount of my cabaret show at the Kew Court House, Darebin Music Feast, and Sydney Fringe. I also found out that I was going to Hoi An for three months, on another volunteer assignment. More injections were required. I also turned 35. There was an election, and the result made me happy that I was leaving the country again.

October started with being burnt-out at the Sydney Fringe, but glad that I went. It saw me run my first 10km run at the Melbourne Marathon, where I surprised even myself by actually enjoying it. A few days later, I found myself broken-hearted at the airport before 12 hours of flights from Melbourne to Hanoi. The rest of the month is a bit of a blur, to be honest, but I recall a lot of rain, and making new friends. November brought more weather warnings, with a near miss from Typhoon Haiyan, and widespread flooding in Central Vietnam. It otherwise involved discovering the cultural and culinary delights of Hoi An, of which there are many. It also ended with a permanent job offer, to start in Melbourne in January.

And so, finally, in December, the rain mostly stopped, and though the sun came out from time to time, it was still on the cold side - perhaps a case of nature mirroring my emotional state. It began with a festive weekend in Saigon, with Christmassy goodness and lots of swing dancing about town. There was a somewhat indulgent but much-needed relaxing weekend at the Nam Hai resort. A weekend in Hue ensured full of dreary weather but wonderful food and company, ending with an epic motorcycle ride over the Hai Van Pass. I've somehow managed to amass a new wardrobe full of tailored clothes, ready to break out when the time comes to hit the fashionable streets of Melbourne next year.

And so, 2014 awaits. It will be a very different year - perhaps the year of becoming somewhat more settled and sensible about my future. I'm looking forward to the responsibility of taking on a permanent role again, which promises to have its share of interesting projects and challenges. But there are already new adventures planned, starting with a brief trip to Dalat, my return to Melbourne, and 10 days in Adelaide to get my swing dance mojo back up to speed (I'm definitely rusty after three months!). I'm putting on my show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I'm also about to submit an abstract for a conference paper - my first in three years - and actually finishing off my Masters. Actually, that already sounds like enough to keep me busy for a while!

Ultimately, this time next year, I want to be celebrating New Years Eve somewhere in Europe. I've yet to travel beyond the Asia-Pacific region, and by then I'll be sure to be yearning new horizons...

To the future.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

New beginnings...

Well, the times are changing, and this chapter in my life is coming to a close.

I've been in Vietnam for two months now, and it's been yet another extraordinary experience. But the time has come to prepare to return to the real world. Or maybe this is the real world, and the time has come to prepare to return to the fantasy realm from whence I came. I don't know anymore.

So, henceforth, I will be blogging at Bibliotheque Bound.

However, I do still have many adventures planned for the near and distant future, and this will continue to be my dedicated travel blog, on those occasions!

Until then!

- A.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On the semi-nomadic life...

Well, it's been two months since my last post. I have returned to Melbourne, on what has been a bit of a whirlwind of activity. Upon my return, I've been doing some work at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and remounting my show from the Adelaide Fringe, "Songs from the End of the World", performing it at the Kew Court House, the Darebin Music Feast, and the Sydney Fringe Festival. Unsurprisingly, this has been physically and emotionally exhausting, but also a wonderful reaffirmation of the kinds of things I want to do with my life, and a reminder of why Melbourne is still my favourite place in the world (although, admittedly, Sydney is also starting to catch up in the coffee and brunch stakes...)

But now, I sit here amongst boxes as, once again, I pack up my life. I seem to be doing this every couple of months - uprooting my life, and taking myself to a new place to challenge myself in new ways. For almost a year... well, let me recap:

January / February - three and a half weeks in Adelaide, with Swing Camp Oz, Kangaroo Island, and my show at the Adelaide Fringe.
March - a month of backpacking and swing dancing around Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
April - A month back in Melbourne, preparing for...
May / June - Two months in Alotau, Milne Bay Province, PNG, ending with a long weekend in Hobart, via Melbourne, and then back to PNG on the 30th of June for...
July / August - Six weeks living next to a volcano in Rabaul, East New Britain, PNG. Returning to Melbourne on the 13th of August.

And now, two months later, I'll be flying back to Vietnam. I'm going to be spending three months in one of the most awesome locations - Hoi An. Home of many tailors, a 500-year old Japanese Bridge, and some of the best cuisine in Vietnam, including the banh mi that Anthony Bourdain ate and declared the best in the world. To say that I'm excited would be an understatement.

But I also confess that this lifestyle doesn't feel sustainable. I'm trying to bridge two lives - the life of the perennial traveller, and the life of the career-minded worker, and soon I think I'm going to have to make a decision to put down roots somewhere, at least for a couple of years. And although I haven't left year, I also feel like I need to be putting plans in place for January when I return.

And so, I wait for the stars to finally align, and set me on a new, more permanent path. But until then.... Hoi An awaits!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lukim yu, PNG...

Well, today is my second-last working day in PNG. I'll be flying back to Melbourne next Tuesday. But not before eating all of these mangoes, which just came into season a few days ago.

I am definitely glad that I was able to spend another six weeks in this country - my experiences in Alotau and Rabaul have been vastly different, but still overwhelmingly positive, and it's provided me with the scope to experience a wider range of what this country has to offer. And still, I can't help but feel that I've only merely scratched the surface of what this country's culture, history and people are all about.

I do hope that I'll be able to visit again. One of the unfortunate realities of most of Pacific Island nations is that it's an expensive place to visit - especially compared to their Asian neighbours. Combined with PNG's unfortunate international reputation, I have to admit that I would never have considered visiting in the past. However, the people here have been far more friendly than most places that I've travelled, and whilst it's true that there are sometimes security concerns, it's by no means any more dangerous than some of Melbourne's suburbs.

Given Australia's interests in Papua New Guinea, and my current career trajectory into international development work, I don't think it's the last I'll be seeing of the Land of the Unexpected.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Life in Volcano Town

So, yesterday I reached the halfway point for my time here in Rabaul - three weeks down, three weeks to go. It seemed as good a reason as any to reflect on my time here so far.

I currently live down the road from an active volcano - Mt Tarvurvur.

My time is spent mostly either in my room or in the office at the Rabaul Hotel - situated in what the owner Susie jokingly refers to as “the Paris end” of Mango Avenue. Once the bustling main street of Rabaul, the hotel - formerly called the Hamamas Hotel - is the only building at this end of the street. The locals still call it the Hamamas Hotel, and I can’t help but feel a sense of irony (Hamamas is Tok Pisin for "Happy"), as it stoicly stands tall amongst growing mounds of volcanic ash and overgrowth.

Hamamas tru!
The first thing I notice when I step outside is the misty mountains that surround the former town of Rabaul - reminding me of my previous months living in Alotau. And then the dragon deep without the mountains lets out an intermittent roar - not unlike a jetplane circling above - and I remember that it isn’t mist, but volcanic ash. If the wind is unkind, which I’m told it is at this time of the year, the whole area is veiled in a grey cloud of ash, which inevitably gets into everything. Not that there's much to see - most of the buildings have been torn down, and all that remain are vacant lots, piled high with ash and overgrown with greenery. My eyes sting, my nose clogs up, and I can feel the silty grit between my fingers and toes, in my ears - even between my teeth. That’s just part of the experience, I keep telling myself - but I can't help but feel like Mother Nature is telling me something else.

Of course, there is a lot of history - and emotion - tied to this town. Established by the Germans in 1884, taken by the Australians in 1914, then later taken by the Japanese in 1942, and then taken again by the Australians in 1945, and eventually returned to the local people in 1975, the town was once known as the Pearl of the Pacific. And although there has always been a volcano nearby, it only caused serious problems every 50 years or so. However, in 1994, the volcano on the other side of the harbour (aptly named Mt Vulcan) joined in on the eruptions, and everybody packed up and moved to Kokopo. Well, most people. A stoic few are working hard to keep both the history - and the future - alive in this place. There's the hotel here, and down the road there's the Rabaul Yacht Club and the Travelodge Hotel. Further away, on the other side of the harbour is "new" Rabaul, where the shipping industry, soft drink production, and half a dozen supermarkets (no, really!) keep many of the local village residents employed.

Meanwhile, the daily life has definitely been a challenge for me - moreso than my time in Alotau, where I had a regular social life and reliable communications access. I’ve come to appreciate how much I rely on social interaction to maintain my sanity, and I worry that my desperation to connect with people is coming off a little creepy. Like when I was recently in a supermarket in Kokopo, and I saw a couple of young kiwis, and waited for the opportune moment to jump behind them and say “Oh, hey! You’re volunteers from New Zealand, right? I saw your photos on the VSA Facebook Page!”

Nope, not at all stalkerish, right?

Still, as the philosopher Bon Jovi once said, “Woah, we’re halfway there.” I’ve come this far, and I’m slowly but surely getting some good work done. And despite the challenges, I’ve also had some amazing experiences. Last week, the National Mask Festival was in Kokopo, which I used as an excuse to get out of Rabaul for a couple of half-days. And with only three weeks remaining, I’m definitely feeling the pressure to explore some of the other attractions of the region before my time is up. Maybe some exploring of the Duke of York Islands, or a weekend over in New Ireland and Kavieng. Papua New Guinea is such a beautiful and diverse place that I still feel lucky to be here, and whilst Rabaul hasn’t been the easiest of places to live, there are certainly far worse places I could be.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Going through the emotions...

So, I'm six days into my second assignment - this time in Rabaul, East New Britain. A town surrounded by volcanos with a fascinating colonial and military history, it has much of the beauty that I enjoyed in Alotau, but a completely different place in other respects.

The town of Rabaul, with Mt Tavurvur smoking away in the distance.

I've been a little apprehensive, to be honest - not because of the location, or the people, but because of myself. Last time, I found that being on a short-term assignment was somewhat emotionally turbulent. To be given 6-8 weeks to settle into a town, develop relationships with counterparts and stakeholders, build local support networks, and address various personal challenges such as cultural barriers, social isolation and technological shortcomings is quite an undertaking. And it can be overwhelming at the best of times.

So, I was definitely hitting the one-week blues today. The last five days have been wonderful - I'm in a fascinating place, and have met an array of interesting, enthusiastic and supportive people, and starting to get a sense of where all the action is happening in order to have a stable and regular social routine. But last night I definitely hit the wall, and this morning I was miserable. I just wanted to be back home, see my girlfriend, eat mexican food, and wake up in my own room. I wanted to ride my bike around town, walk the streets at night, and go swing dancing in Brunswick Street.

So this morning was a struggle, but I forced myself out the door by 9:30am. Down the main street to the centre of town. Onto a PMV to take me on the 30 minute ride to Kokopo, and then another PMV to Rapopo Plantation Resort, where I had hoped to go yesterday, but ran out of time (I need to leave by 4:30pm if I want to safely make it home by sundown!).

And I'm so glad I did. Rapopo turned out to be Kokopo's equivalent to Driftwood in Alotau - but with a pool! Barely had I swum a dozen laps, when a couple of other familiar faces arrived for a swim. This was followed by a much-needed pot of coffee and a fantastic meal, with friendly company. Three hours later, my morning's angst had become a distant memory.

It's exhausting, but I know that I can do this - especially as I've done it before, and I know that I'll do it again. I just have to remember to keep moving, take every opportunity to connect with others, and not to shut myself in. As tempting as it feels to let myself get down, I must always remember that things will get better so long as I let it. It's the key to survival in these situations.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


So, I'm back in Melbourne.

It's safe, but cold. Familiar, but different. Friendly, but intimidating.

I'm feeling grateful for being home, but also yearning to fly the coop once again - which I'll get to do soon enough.

Sitting here in my room, I feel overwhelmed by the weight of all my possessions scattered about, and towering above me. I guess after two months of living out of a backpack, I have a newfound understanding of what is essential, and what isn't.

And yet, I return from Papua New Guinea with various gifts of carvings and knick-knacks. It's only human nature to want to cling onto mementos of the past - the reminders of our life-changing experiences.

So, I've taken the opportunity to do some weeding of my various boxes of stuff that I seem to have accumulated through my life, whilst I'm in this current headspace. Separate the essential memories from the ones that seemed so important at the time, but are trivial in hindsight.

I discover:

- Many many photos, from the days before Facebook, Flickr and digital cameras.
- Flyers, handbills and programs from numerous plays, and concerts.
- Years of tax packs and receipts (I believe we're meant to keep seven years' worth?)
- Badges. So many badges.
- Postcards, birthday cards, and letters.
- Mementos from the university club days.
- Ticket stubs from films, plays, overseas flights and train journeys.

Every one of them stimulated memories almost-forgotten, and I can't help but worry that if I discard these things, then the memories will eventually disappear with them. This makes me anxious - worrying about losing these newfound memories all over again. It seems absurd.

It's hard. I need to take a leap of faith - throw out the physical things, and hope that the memories remain - at least, the most important ones.