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I was recently interviewed by Rizado for Neil Kramer’s Great Interview Experiment 2009.

Rizado posed this question to me,

“Name your top five foreign locales that everyone should visit?”

Whittling down the list of amazing places that I have visited – to just five… became a battle of the senses…

 
 
 
 
Travelling to satisfy your five senses
 
 
Sight
Beijing, China
Beijing is for me the ultimate in contradictions, it’s all high-tech lightning speed, nestled beside ancient hutongs and revolutionary scars.
It’s all about the sights.
The bustle of humanity, the snaking Great Wall, the immensity of the soul-breaking Tiananmen Square and the most delicious of them all, The Forbidden City- home to the Dynastic Emperors and their hundreds of Empresses and Consorts and Concubines and a mind boggling array of offspring. The grounds of which are now visited by Chinese tourist families, who sightsee the magnificent ancient ways of privilege and excess, holding the hands of their single children tightly.
 
 
 
Touch
Pentecoste Island, Vanuatu
Every year the local men of this island village perform an amazingly-scary ritual called N’gol or Land Diving,  jumping head first from hand built scaffolds miles in the sky. And between them and death is their Gods and a single ropy green vine.
But this is not what will touch you in Pentecoste.
As we snorkeled the azure waters pointing in delight at extraordinarily coloured corals and fish, my daughter met a smiling and happy island girl on the soft sands of the beach.  And by the very nature of little girls there was no shyness or awkwardness over language barriers, there was just an immediate friendship.
They showed each other their bags.
My daughter had her DS and ipod and lollies and toys and other girly treasures.
The smiling and happy island girl had a shell and the stub of an old grey-lead pencil.
It was a lesson in the material nature of happiness given to my daughter, like a gift wrapped in banana leaves, that touched all of our hearts.
 
 
Taste
Rome, Italy
In Rome I was taken to a restaurant that screamed so badly of cliché it almost made my eyeballs bleed red, white and green.
From the expected check of the table cloths right through to the stubs of melted candles stuffed into old bottles of chianti, still in their little straw bikinis.
The waiter seeing that we were foreigners took it upon himself to organize the menu. He said it would be traditional. I wasn’t holding out for too much.
But what followed was a meal that was operatic to the palate.
Simple pane, bread slices drizzled with olive oil, melanzane- vinegared slices of purple skinned eggplant, forkfuls of mushrooms clinging to tomato drenched tagiatelle, tender osso buco scattered with shavings of aged romano cheese and flat leaf parsley, and limone gelato so glacial and lemony-brutal that our lips remained puckered in ecstasy till the following morning.
 
 
Hear
New York City, U.S.A
Good Lawd, the cacophony of New York is the sweetest clang of music to my ears. It’s a heady brilliant scream of conceit, from a goddamn sexy bitch who has every effen right to be conceited.
Traffic and music and words and food and art that’s the hiphop-techno-crunch-folky-rock-ballad of your soul.
And the taxi driver who drives with one hand on his horn and the other waving the bird as he screams out the window at the arsehole who just cut us off.
Don’t worry, no probs, we’re in no hurry! we say wide-eyed-petrified from the back seat.
S’okaaaay the taxi driver sings bringing his head back into the cab,
Relaaaax man!
This is how we do things in New York.
 
 
 
Smell
Melbourne, Australia
On any given summer evening there is a smell that wafts, tantalizingly over the suburban fences of my home town, Melbourne.
Can you smell it? Come stand at the front of my house, yes, right here on the footpath. Lift your nose to the air, breath it in deeply. That’s the inhalation of Australia.
It’s blended gum leaves, fresh cut lawn, and steaks grilling on the bbq. You can almost taste the potato salad and smell the coconuty sunscreen on the children who are running around in their bathers eating sausages in square bread squirted with tomato sauce.
The salty air of the ocean is twenty minutes to one side and dark mossy smells from the foresty mountain ranges are twenty minutes the other way.
And in between, is the brackish upside down river that courses through a city so multicultural that it simply smells of the foods from all nations.

 

You can read the full interview here.

Thank you Rizado… it was fun talking to you about one of my great loves… travel!

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Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.        -Mary Schmich

 

 

 

Smile and wave, thumbs up, camera click, wipe the sweat from your brow, no stand this way, closer, closer and camera click again, smile into the lens… perfect!

Look at us on the Great Wall, see how far it goes through the countryside! Wow!

They say you can see this from the moon, or maybe that’s a myth, we’ll google it when we get home.

Yes that’s right, built to keep out the Mongols…or the rabbits ha-oh-ha.

Can you believe that we are here? Let’s buy a t-shirt on the way back down, yes what a great souvenir! What do you think? The one that says “I’ve climbed the great wall!”

Don’t forget, they say never pay the price that they ask, oh no sir, haggle with them to a tenth of the price… that’s what it’s worth after all.

Do you think Grandpa would like one? Of course, let’s buy three.

 

 

The climb up was hard, but we had modern convenience on our side. Imagine it is three thousand years ago. Where do you think these rocks were quarried from? Not nearby I’m sure. It’s a marvel, a feat, this structure of protection.

But there is the echo of a throb here, a throb of living-beats that were silenced by this grey and cold blooded snake.

Now we are at the top, feel that under your feet? We are fortunate to be in a place that many dream of visiting, and yes, you and I, we are here.

Place your hand there. Yes, there on this rough hewn rock. It’s not as cold as you expected? Perhaps because it holds an eon of misery. Pain rising and sighing through its stony face and jagged miscoloured mortar. It’s been said that every foot of this wall represents one human life. Can you see how far the wall stretches? Yes, you are right, it stretches beyond sight.

In the earliest dynasty the tyrannical Qin Emporer would send scholars here to work on the wall, as a lonesome, soul-breaking punishment. Yes, it’s hard to imagine how many people would have perished.

And see these spaces in the wall, pretty, steeple shaped spaces, like little windows in a child’s doll house. Well that is where they would have laid their bows, arrows poised. Weapons of death to the marauding nomads. And this space? Yes, you learn quickly, no, not from a dolls house. This space was for pouring burning-missives to assail the enemy.

Why do you think they call this section the wall of the bones? It’s simple really and gruesome too, for if you died up here they simply threw your body over the edge.

And maybe, they hoped, your lifeless, worthless existence would knock an enemy asunder on its perilous way down.

Cruel you say? Yes, cruel it is true, but it was the way of the world back then and now that you sense the immense history you can also marvel at the feat of structure and engineering and planning and endurance. 

And the enormous power that the Emperors wielded, in human life, with the stroke of a calligraphed signature and the stamp of a Royal seal… in the name of defence.

 

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“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.” –Mary Schmich

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Journal entry:

Friday 11pm , 19th June 2009. 

We had the good fortune to spend three weeks over June and July of this year, sightseeing our way through Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China.

 

I’d spent many months planning the trip. Researching it down to the finest detail.

Preparing documents, planning contingencies, consulting travel sites. Arranging, organising, co-ordinating.

I’d even made little laminated cards with the addresses of each hotel we were staying at (in English and in the appropriate native language) to hand to taxi drivers so we’d have no trouble getting to where we needed to go.

 

My family called me the “little travel agent”. 

My friend’s called me an anal retentive freak a well organized planner. 

 

The highlight for the kids was a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland

We spent the day immersed in Disney shenanigans, enjoying the children’s fascination with all that is sugary-sweet and finishing up with the bang that is the night time fireworks spec-tac-u-lar. 

While we waited for our first train back to the hotel a young man began talking to the children, asking them if they had enjoyed themselves. I moved into protective-mama-mode but he seemed pretty harmless and when it was discovered that we were heading in the same direction he took it upon himself to act as our impromptu guide. 

Just before the second train pulled to a stop he pointed at another train across on a distant platform and motioned for us to get ready. He looked spring-loaded. When the door opened he bolted for the other platform with us in tow. 

My son, Husband and step-father made it inside the train, but my daughter had dropped one of our shopping bags and upon seeing that we wouldn’t make it they stepped out of the carriage, my hubby pulling our son out by his arm. 

But the doors of the train shut before my son could get through. 

I looked at him, inside the train. 

All by himself. 

His face was pulled and stretched. White. He was just two eyes. Two big, huge eyes.

I screamed without knowing I was going to scream.

It was a guttural sound which began in my womb, accelerated by my pumping blood, gushing out through my lungs.

People stopped to help, pulling and tugging at the door, trying to free his arm from the metal jaw that had clamped around it. The train lurched forward and then stopped.

The door was released.

We rushed inside the train. The passengers around us were quiet. Watching. One handed my son a tissue. I mopped up his face, then used it for my own. 

As the train pulled away his terror turned to shock.

“Mum,” he said “I think I’m going to be sick.”

I emptied the souvenirs from a shopping bag onto the floor of the carriage and he vomited long and loudly into the luminous orange Disney bag.

The passengers on the train looked away politely while my son exorcised his fear. I looked for a place to put the bag, but there was no bin or hidey-hole, so I held it in my hand for the rest of the journey. 

Every so often I would look at it and see Mickey Mouse staring back at me, his arms spread wide as if he’d just performed the greatest magic trick in the world… “Ta-daaaaaa!” he said.

 

My son sported twin black bruise-stripes on either side of his forearm for many days after. As they faded to purple he still shuddered remembering the awful-ness that was the night on the train. But by the time the bruise had morphed through shades of green and grey he would grin and say… 

“Mum, remember at Disneyland? Remember how scared I was to do Space Mountain? Remember Mum? I didn’t want to do it at all! And then I stopped worrying and tried. Mum you should have come on it. Mum it was great.  It was aaawesooome! I can’t believe I did Space Mountain…I can’t wait to tell all my friends that I did it three times!”

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“Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.” -Mary Schmich

capri03 

At twenty one I’d finished my university degree and headed to Europe for the traditional coming-of-age journey so many Australians do. 

I started travelling by myself- exploring London and Paris before connecting with a group tour of young people, forging our way through seven European countries over several weeks. 

 

In Italy we travelled by bus to the Isle of Capri. 

I was dumbfounded, like most tourists, by the azure waters. They were a colour of blue that was so deeply, vividly haunting that it almost hurt. That it stung at your soul. 

The sting came from the knowledge that no photograph, no postcard, no words would ever capture that colour. 

 

It would never be yours to hold. 

 

We spent the afternoon exploring and then climbed onto the bus for the mountain hugging trip back to the hotel in Sorrento. On one side was rocky monolith, on the other was cliffs and sheer drops. The road was barely wide enough for two cars to pass, let alone a bus and any other vehicle, but we were carefree, sharing our experiences, talking about the food, the people and the vivid waters.

I sat in the back seat pressed against the window- part of the squash of six friends, enjoying their chatter and watching for glimpses of blue.

The bus was old, and although it creaked and groaned the driver had a lead foot, taking corners at a precarious speed.

At one point we rounded a sharp bend. We lost our seated balance, all five people tipped full bodied against me, pushing  me hard up against the window.

But it wasn’t a window at all.

It was a concealed door, an emergency exit and access to the storage underneath the bus.

The force of us swung the door open wide. I fell head first through the gap vaguely registering that someone was screaming. I felt hands, strong hands gripping me. Holding my arms, my back, caught in my hair. I watched three red balls fall out from the storage compartment below. I followed them as they hit the road in slow motion. One… and then two bounces before flying over the edge of the cliff in a graceful arc… down, down toward the blue waters. 

The driver brought the bus to a neck lurching stop. I was hauled inside and then realised so many people had held onto me. Along with my friends who had been sitting close there was one guy holding my wrist. I could have sworn he had been sitting near the middle of the bus and I couldn’t fathom how he, in particular, had gotten to me so fast. But I was grateful to them all.

At the end of our trip around the seven countries of Europe we were each given a book to commemorate our journey. These books and pens were passed around, the last two blank autograph-pages filling with jovial comments and snail-mail-addresses and “stay in touch” messages. 

When my book finished the rounds I opened up to read the commentary. My eyebrows crinkled in surprise as I saw someone had taken up nearly a whole page. What the fuck?? I thought. Someone’s written me a bloody essay. 

But it wasn’t an essay.

It was a love letter. 

A confession of feelings from afar and admiration from a guy who had rarely said a word to me the whole trip.

He was the boy who’d sat in the middle of the bus. 

He wrote that he would never act on his feelings because he knew I was already taken. He called my fella in Australia the luckiest man alive

And just like that I suddenly realised it was a joke.

I showed it to my friends chortling good naturedly. But they all looked puzzled. 

Why are you laughing? They asked.

Huh? Didn’t you know? They said.

Oh really? Are you for real? How could you not know? They sounded surprised.

Well everyone else knew… They whispered.

 

But I didn’t know.

I’d been totally and truly and completely oblivious.

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NewFamousChipsOn the weekend we took a day trip down to Phillip Island. Along the way we stopped for some road-munchies at the local supermarket. I had a bit of a tummy upset so I grabbed some licorice (need I say anymore??!!??).

In the car I snapped open the bag and popped a black stick into dear hubby’s mouth as he drove. He snaffled it quickly and opened up for another. I had an instant flash back to the time of our early dating.

 Back then, as Uni students, we couldn’t afford too much so we’d drive to the closest Red Roo[s]ter and buy a large box of hot chips for around two dollars. We’d then go for a drive and- romantically- I’d hand feed him the greasy-sticks-of-potato-yum. We’d usually end up at Elwood beach to have a cuddle and lick the salt of my fingers- as we watched the moon drift over Port Phillip Bay. 

Those were joyful moments of blossoming infatuation. The biggest issue we faced was the weekly scrambling to find a freebie pass into our fave nightclub-so we could avoid the ten buck entry fee. We weren’t worried about cholesterol, or high blood pressure, or diabetes.

Nearly two decades on- I’m now feeding my husband licorice sticks.

“We’re getting old.” I said. He laughed.

But it’s true. We have swapped dancing at clubs till the wee hours of the morn for tango-ing stray children back to bed after bad dreams.

We have swapped long night time drives to hear the ocean caress the shore for short drives to cart children from basketball- to ballet- to birthday parties- to band practices.

We have swapped holding hands and whispering sweet nothings for messaging each other on Face Book. 

As I chew on this memory-evoking licorice I realize that ‘transitioned’ is probably a more apt description- than ‘swapped’. When did we morph from the free spirited pair into the “eat this it’s good for your bowels” couple?

 

I panic….Could this be the beginnings of a mid-life-crisis?

Then hubby looks at me, I know what he is thinking.

Next weekend we are getting us some red rooster chips.

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P7072775P7072759P7072874P7072850Leading up to the Hall of Preserving Harmony is the largest- or perhaps better described- longest stone carving of the Forbidden City.

The single piece of marble is intricately and symbolically carved with dragons- the symbol of celestial power and the Emperor. It forms a ramp flanked by two marble staircases and measures sixteen metres long (that’s over fifty two feet for my non-metric friends).

The Emperor was the only person permitted to travel over the carving and he would be carried up the ramp via a sedan chair.

The difficult task of hauling the large stone into position was performed by rolling it along carefully placed logs. In winter the task was completed by pulling the marble over man made ice trails. Sounds easy? Doubt it- the stone was hewn from the FangShan mountains approximately seventy five kilometres west of Beijing and the historic description of the journey suggests it took several seasons.

It makes me wonder which ancient Chinese herbal remedies were created for back ache as a direct result of this magnificent work of art?

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Behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony is the largest courtyard of the Forbidden city.

As some of our group, sweaty but determined, headed up the grand marble staircase I was distracted by a gathering of folk who seemed intent on trying to fan themselves while catching two wild children.

These kids were slippery indeed.

They sped up and slowed down to taunt the grownups who had now drooped- either exhausted from the chase or from the heat or quite possibly both. As I got a little closer I realized that the pair of terrors were dressed identically and were obviously twins. I’ve read that triplets and quadruplets were considered bad omens in Ancient China, but in a nation of family life governed by a one child policy I suddenly realized that a multiple birth would now be a different kind of omen.

Attention turned in our direction as the group watching the twins, act out all kinds of naughtiness, spotted my daughter. With her long dark-blonde hair and fair skin she had been treated as somewhat of a celebrity in Beijing. Every where we went people asked if they could take her photograph, posing with her and intrigued by her ability to speak rudimentary phrases of Mandarin- thanks to three years of weekly Chinese lessons at school. The Mother of the twins smiled broadly and waved her camera at us pointing at my daughter and then in the direction of her girls. Miss 8- who had begun to enjoy the Miley Cyrus treatment struck a pose and waited patiently as the Mother called her girls over.

The twins however weren’t all that interested in obeying.

They ran around their Mother, black plaits whipping the stodgy air and cackling at their own defiance. Everyone looked a little embarrassed and our guide looked away muttering  “spoilt princesses”.  The Mother- maintaining a composed face grabbed at the little boy standing next to her and pushed him into frame. He obliged instantly and beamed into the lens.  I asked if this was her son mistakenly now assuming that the twins were actually a trio, but got told no he was “just a cousin”. The girls did eventually saunter over and pose, curious perhaps as to how attention had so suddenly shifted away from them.

Miss 8 is now in our lounge room adding the final touches to her suitcase for her next big adventure- tomorrows grade three camp to Mt Eliza. Her big brother is giving her all kinds of advice like:

Don’t be scared of the flying  fox- it’s a blast.

And…

Just eat everything they give you or you don’t get any dessert.

And…

Watch out for the snakes and tigers (chortle, chortle).

She’s listening intently and throwing him a playful punch when she knows he is teasing her. He suddenly gets all serious and says “You know I’m going to miss you?” she gives him a quick hug and throws in another punch just to place the sentimentality firmly back where it belongs. “Muuuuuuum” he screeches “she punched me…”

My instant reaction is to think of the heavenly quiet that will transcend our home over the next three days. Ahhhhh no sibling rivalry! But then I flashback to those  twins, and China, and the One Child Policy.

As I continued my walk that hot, hot day I found it increasingly difficult to align modern day China’s family policy with that of the world of the Dynasty Emperors. In front of me lay Palaces- one more sumptuous than the last, erected to house the abundance of Empresses and Concubines whose sole purpose was to seed as many descendants as possible. These walls would have contained a bounty of brothers and sisters. Spoilt and plump and plotting. But now mostly families with only one child walk through the courtyards to sightsee the old ways.

And of course there are those families lucky enough to have twins.

 

Three days of peace and quiet will be lovely.

But to be honest I’m also looking forward to hearing my kids argue with each other again on Friday afternoon….

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