Cambodian Pilgrimage: How a charity bike ride fundraiser helped lay my love to rest

 

“I fucking love Asia,” Anth said, drawing back deeply on a cigarette. We had just arrived in Bali and Anth had already lit up. He had the lighter and packet in hand as the airport doors slid open, ready to satisfy his addiction the minute we stepped into the tropical heat. He surveyed the chaos of taxi pick ups with drivers jostling for a spot as they waved passenger name cards, the frangipani girls handing out flower necklaces, the racket of motorbikes on the airport road. He sighed with relief, put the ciggie in his mouth, lit it, put his head back and said again to the heavens “I fucking love Asia.”

Anth had lived and worked in Malaysia and loved the ex pat life. He loved the din of market places, the exotic food, the anything goes attitude of drivers on the road, the lack of rules and regulations. He loved the monkeys stealing food from his balcony. He loved being able to afford everything; expensive drinks, as many cigarettes as he could smoke, having servants to clean up and make life easy. At work, his staff treated him with deference, and as an executive he was given special treatment. He loved feeling like a king. He told me all of this when he reminisced. It was the highlight of his career, perhaps of his life.

Now, five years on from that Bali trip, I was back in Asia but he was gone. Before I left home, I had gone to the spot at home where we had scattered his ashes. I took my mother’s antique locket, a bulky silver Victorian artefact too heavy to wear, and scraped some of his fragments into it and put it in an inner pocket of my backpack. I was going to deliver them to Angkor Wat, and give some of him back to the Asia he loved, and the Buddhism he admired.

The Cambodia trip was a bike trek charity fundraiser for brain cancer research. Anth had died from a brain tumour and I was on a mission to preserve his legacy. Somehow, doing this, I thought, would make sense of everything. Of loving him, and losing him. And I needed to put the terrible memories behind me. The flashbacks of his decline, of ambulance trips, of nights in the hospital, the surgery, at his bedside, and the most terrible, at the hospice as he lay dying. The terrible memories I couldn’t wait to drench out with new, overwhelming ones from this adventure in Cambodia that I was about to take.

I had harassed everyone I knew, and some I didn’t, for money towards the cause. It seemed the more I raised, the less pointless his death might become. But even $10,000 later, it seemed just as pointless. And if his death was pointless, so viciously random, what then of this existence of all of ours? It seemed equally pointless and I cursed the universe for giving me this insight. I looked at others going about their day-to-day business and an voice inside me would lament “Poor bastards, they don’t know. It is all temporal. An illusion. It will all be taken away. Maybe tomorrow. Life is short. And then you die.” So, in an effort to drown out this voice, I joined Team Flinders (Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide was where Anth received treatment). I trained and fundraised, trying like mad to make my realisation of the futility of existence subside.

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Team Flinders

Arriving in Siem Reap, I stepped into another world. Here people didn’t seem to care if they lived or died. There were no road rules. Tuk Tuks and motorbikes swerved between cars and buses. If one side of the road was blocked, they simply drove on the other, into oncoming traffic. Masses of phone and electrical cables hung like spaghetti drying between leaning electrical poles in a crazy mess. Foul smells rose from open sewers. In the countryside, as we rode our bikes, we passed poverty bound villages with no running water; water was stored in large earthen jars under houses, and no toilets I could see. There were cows and dogs roaming at large, occasionally getting in the way of passing motorbikes which shifted them with the beep beep of their horns. I saw truck loads of workers packed like cattle in trucks going to and from work in the fields or in factories. Fishermen, knee deep in muddy ponds, systematically pounded the mud with fish cages, looking for catch. When the sun shone clouds of dust rose from the roads and when it rained, mud was everywhere. Everything was dirty.

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I had met Anth on an internet dating site. On his profile, under “religion” he had put “Buddhist”. Early on in our relationship I challenged him about this. “You’re not Buddhist!” I said, “You’re Catholic. You’re Italian!” “Yeah, well, I’m a Buddhist Catholic!” he retorted. Anth had the biggest collection of self-help and metaphysical books I had ever seen. He loved reading about all things spiritual, including reincarnation. He had tarot cards printed with the Arch-Angel Michael (his favourite – he named his car after him), affirmation wall hangings and Buddha statuettes. He burned incense. Both times we went to Bali Anth insisted on receiving blessings at the Hindu temple at Uluwatu. I thought it was all a bit of a fad and whenever he talked about it I inwardly rolled my eyes. He called it his “hoobly-goobly”.

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Anth receiving a blessing at Uluwatu temple in Bali

However, when he was sick I came to understand the depth of this hoobly goobly. Early on in his illness he devoured books with titles such as “The Book of Awakening”, “The Power of Intention”, “Anatomy of the Spirit”, “Quantum Healing” and “Faith”. He listened to the Dalai Lama, Gregorian chants and recitations of poetry of literary masters. This learning gave him strength to accept the finality of his illness and to prepare for his journey elsewhere with great dignity.

As his illness progressed I realised that his connection to Buddhism was far deeper than I had first assumed. In the hospital, when asked if he would like some religious guidance, he said “I don’t want to talk to any pedo priest. Just put on the Dalai Lama.” He would listen to the Dalai Lama chanting over and over again, and insisted he could not sleep without it. “I feel like it is healing me. I see a white light when I listen to it,” he said. The ancient sounds soothed him. It was as if they spoke to his soul.

I didn’t scatter the ashes at Angkor Wat. With the crowds of tourists, and the immensity of the place, it was too much of a public space. But riding through the forest to the Bayon, the Khmer king’s temple, I knew this was the spot. There seemed to be a Buddha face on every wall, in every direction. I knew Anth would approve. I asked Yann, our guide, to take me to a place inside where I could scatter his ashes.

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One of the Buddha faces at the Bayon temple

He showed me the way up the steep staircase to the central tower. We took our shoes off at the entrance and the huge ancient flagstones were cool underfoot. An old woman in white robes sat at the doorway. In the centre of the dark space was an alter with incense and offerings of flowers and money and two opened cans of Angkor beer complete with straws. Behind was a large seated stone Buddha, wrapped in orange cloth. We sat cross-legged on the mat on the floor before the alter and I put some riel into the money box. I took the silver locket out of my backpack. To my horror I realised it had opened slightly in transit and at least half of the ashes had tipped out into the backpack’s front pocket. I took what remained in the locket and emptied it into the incense burner at the foot of the Buddha. Yann said to me, “You should repeat this prayer. Then the soul will go up.” He pointed up above our heads to the small opening at the very top of the conical roof through which you could just see the sky.

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I repeated the words after Yann, and then sat with my eyes closed, my hands in the prayer position. I could hear tourists behind me, coming and going, the odd shutter clicking. I thought of how many other people had sat here, before me, for almost a thousand years, making this prayer for their dead. I thought of the Khmer kings, and the great ceremonies and pageants this temple had seen. And now there was a little bit of Anth, the Buddhist catholic, resting in this inner sanctum as well.

But then I thought of the fragments of Anth in my backpack’s front pocket, along with my lip balm and some spare cash. I could hear Anth saying “Oh for fuck’s sake Jill! Fesse di mamada!” He would always resort to dialect when he really wanted to swear. “I’m coming with you. Don’t think you can get rid of me that easily,” I heard him say. “Yes I know. You fucking love Asia,” I whispered back to him.

I left the inner sanctum smiling, hugging my backpack.

So Anth came with me on the six day bike ride over 336 kilometres of Cambodia’s back roads. Together, we rode in the heat, the humidity and then the rain. We visited tumble down temples with great figs growing through the ruins. I realised I was on a pilgrimage. Most days we rode 60 km. One day it was 80km. Sweat poured from me over the rocky roads, some so bumpy my hands lost feeling with gripping for many kilometres. The bitumen was worse, with the reflected heat baking us from both directions. My back ached from an old injury. But there was no way I wasn’t going to complete the challenge. I was doing this for Anth. And he was with me, in the backpack.

As I rode my bike the irony did not escape me. Here we were, riding in a third world country, raising money to battle a rich person’s disease. A disease the West can afford to treat, with expensive surgery, medicines and radiotherapy. In Cambodia, 70 per cent of people do not even have access to fresh drinking water. Their worries are far more immediate than dying from cancer. In fact, I wondered, looking at the loose electrical cabling, the crazy traffic, the 8 year olds riding motorcycles without helmets, the rancid ponds next to ramshackle wooden shacks, did Cambodians worry about anything?

Here there seemed to be less regard for the sanctity of life but more regard for the eternal. Spirituality is everywhere. Almost every house had a little shrine, like a mini pagoda, on a pole in the yard. Recorded chanting would blare out from speakers in village pagodas across the fields, so loud that when we passed on our bikes we would have to put a hand over the ear closest to the noise to preserve our eardrums. Sometimes it would mark a wedding, with marquees set up on the street with flowing pink curtains dragging in the dust of the village. Buddhist monks were a frequent sight. Yann told me boys and young men often join the monastery for a few years as a normal rite of passage. I rode past a beautiful monastery and paused for a moment to take a photo. There was a young monk who was cutting grass with a scythe. He asked me “why you put phone in your pants?” “No pockets” I said. He laughed, and so did I. “You speak good English”, I said. “Where you go?” he replied. “I don’t know” I said. And we both laughed again.

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The young monks cutting grass

The action of riding a bike over a long distance is so automatic, so repetitive, it becomes a meditation. You do not even realise you are riding, or that you are thinking. As you pass through places, thoughts and memories float past your mind’s eye, like boats on a river.

The events of Anth’s illness, death and its aftermath went through my head as I rode. I saw myself walking away from the first hospital, where he underwent the brain biopsy and waiting for the terrible news in the Catholic cathedral, sitting in a pew alone, silently weeping, uncomforted by the vaulted ceiling or stone angels. I thought of our tears, together at home on the bed, embracing when he said “I thought we would have more time together.” I thought of the terror in his eyes as he lay convulsing on the couch, the first of the grand mal seizures we knew were a sign that time was running out. I remembered his courage making the decision to go ahead with the brain surgery, knowing it could kill him but hoping for more time, and my relief and joy when that time was granted and he came out of the operation still Anth. I thought of the laughs we had making fun of the doctors and nurses and the unsuspecting occupational therapist who was too sincere for his own good. I thought of the beautiful times we had at home with our family and friends and especially our two weddings, the first in ICU before the big op, when we didn’t know if he’d make it through the next 24 hours. And I thought of the last days at the hospice as he battled for breath, still listening to the chants of his Dalai Lama.

I thought of these things as I pushed those pedals through the Cambodian countryside, in a kind of trance.

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As I passed through each village, children ran to the roadside shouting out “Hello!” or “Bye Bye!” Their happy cries would wake me from the past and make me laugh. Older kids would put up their hands for a passing high five, the younger ones jumping up and down excitedly with cheeky grins, waving madly as we went by. At school dismissals large groups of kids in school uniforms would crowd the roadside, shouting and laughing at us. Sometimes, the kids with bikes rode with us a short distance, in a mini race, grinning all the way.

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And slowly, like morning mist over the Mekong, the burden of my memories lifted in the sunshine.

On the last day we rode to the Wat Banan temple outside Battambang. This temple is perched on a steep hill, with a 300 step climb to the top. At the foot of the stairs a group of children met us with fans. “Hello. My name is Rina,” one beautiful girl in a striped t-shirt said. I guessed she was about 10 years old. “I will be your guide.” She started to fan me enthusiastically. I guessed I would have to pay her something at the end of the visit. I was with two fellow riders from Team Flinders and each had a child latched on to them, fanning away. “This special place,” Rina said. “Come. I show you.”

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Rina

As I made my way up the staircase, Rina climbed with me step by step, fanning me all the time. With her one word commentary she pointed out the features of the place like Champei (frangipani), her friend Compei and the fact that when I paused half way up, we had exactly 156 more steps to go.

At the top, through a narrow portal surrounded by the top branches of the hillside’s trees, was the temple compound. A beautiful stillness filled the air. There was something rich and peaceful in the quietness of the place. On this hilltop, with Rina and her friends, we seemed very close to heaven. I knew this was the place to scatter what remained of Anth’s ashes in the backpack. First I again went to the inner sanctum, which this time was much smaller and less imposing. A friendly lady kept guard over the small white Buddha here. She took my riel and blessed me by tying a strand of red wool around my wrist. She got me to repeat a prayer in Khmer, which was more complicated than the one Yann taught me, and which she gave up trying to get me to replicate. “What did that mean?” I asked Rina. “It was for good luck,” she said.

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My riding companions had already started their descent down the stairs. “Come,” Rina said. “I will show you the mountain.” Other than the friendly holy woman, it was just me, Rina and her little friends in the temple now. The building was partly in ruins, with great blocks of stone strewn across the hilltop. I followed Rina, hopping from block to block across the back of the temple to a spot where the trees parted and a beautiful view of rice paddies and palm trees opened out before us. I opened the front pocket of my backpack and brushed out the remaining ashes. The breeze caught them and they were carried away out over the Cambodian countryside.

The children looked at me, uncomprehending.  “Here, time for a photo,” I said. They understood that and crowded around my camera with its impressive looking lens as I pulled it out of my bag. “Me, me,” one of the boys said. So I gave him the camera and he took photos of me and the other kids standing, smiling at the spot where I laid my dear Anth, the Buddhist catholic, to rest, on the wind.

kids2When I got back on my bike at the bottom of the stairs for the final leg of our journey, something had settled in my heart. I feel it still. It is hard to explain. It is as if the heat had gone from my pain. There is a smoothness there now. Anth’s loss is still part of me but instead of jagged and sharp now it is like one of the ancient carvings on temple rocks, deep, meaningful and somehow beautiful.

Koh Rong is a island covered in jungle with white sands and green seas off the coast of Cambodia. I was on a boat headed there, part of 4 days R and R after the ride. I was sitting right at the front of the rickety wooden “Sunny Boat”, talking to two Buddhist monks who were on holidays from Phnom Penh. The breeze was cool and the air was sweet. We had all been swimming off the boat while it moored in the lee of an islet and the monks’ robes were wet. They had changed into dry robes and tied the wet ones to the railings of the deck and the orange cloth fluttered in the wind. I went to find my smartphone in the front pocket of my backpack to take a photo. It came out covered in gritty grey dust. I realised that there were still more of Anth’s ashes hiding in a recess of the bag. I smiled. Of course. The pilgrimage had not finished at Wat Banan. The universe was telling me that this spot in the Gulf of Thailand, in the company of Buddhist monks, was the final resting place. I took everything out of my backpack and piled it on the chair next to me. I opened every zip on the damned thing and leaned overboard holding it upside down and jiggled it upside down. The last fragments of ash fluttered out of the bag into the smooth green sea.

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The Team Flinders Cycle to Cure Cancer Cambodian Bike Challenge raised more than $56,000 for cancer research. You can still donate at https://cambodia2018cycletocurecancer.gofundraise.com.au/page/JillianSmith

 

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What grief is

“Are you alright?”

“How are you doing?” “How are you holding up?”

I get asked this all the time. Every day. At work. Down the street, at the shops. On the phone when well-meaning friends ring to check in on me.

“I’m ok. One step after the other”. “I have my good days and my bad days.”

They are my standard responses.

I get tired of it. I never know how to answer. What answer do they expect? Most look at me with a frown, and a look of incomprehension. Their eyes are asking me not how I am, but “What is it like to lose a person you love?”

I don’t know how I’m doing, 7 months now since he died. I mean it’s not as if you can be marked on grieving. “Oh yes on sincerity and heart-felt emotion I’ll give her a 10 but she hasn’t shed that many tears so we’ll drop the overall score to an 8.” It doesn’t work like that.

The thing is, it catches you when you least expect it, this grief. Sometimes, a thought will flit across my mind and I’ll be taken back to another time. A song or a smell will do it. A positive mood will disappear like mist in the wind and then I’ll break down and suddenly cry and my kids will worryingly ask me “Mum, what is it? Are you alright?”

It happened when I caught up with an old boyfriend, a first love, who took me out to dinner and when hugging me goodbye, was surprised when I broke down and sobbed. The feeling of his arms reminded me of the safety and comfort I used to feel when Anth’s arms were around me. It happened at the dentist, when I was surrounded by white coats peering at an x-ray of my mouth. A door was opened to the past and I was back in his hospital room. It happened again, the day after I chatted on the phone to a new friend, a lovely bloke who has also lost his love recently. The next day I was shattered. He had reminded me what I had lost in Anth.

Missing Anth is with me every day, a dull ache in my heart from the moment I get up until I close my eyes at night. Sleep is usually a relief, but the pain of missing him intrudes into my dreams aswell. I dream he is still alive but has left me for another woman. I dream that he is in hospital, in the mental health ward and demented. I don’t know what is worse; the dreams or my memories of his actual suffering.

I will tell you the story of hurting my back so you will know what acute grief is like. Awful pain woke me from my sleep one night when I was home alone (my kids with their father). I had felt something go in my back when I was chopping wood a few days before and it had been growing worse. This was about 3 months after Anth died. I had had the same terrible back pain before. But last time Anth was there. He caught me when I fainted. He called the ambulance. He travelled with me to the hospital holding my hand, telling me it would all be ok. This time I was on my own.

I had never missed Anth more. Not only did I miss his help and his comfort, but I missed his spiritual presence, his calmness, his strong energy which always made me feel safe, even when he himself was weak and ill.

As I lay in bed, the pain escalating, I started thinking about the terrible times I called an ambulance for Anth, from this very room. I thought about my worry turning to despair as his cancer progressed. I thought about how brave he had been. But this only made my pain worse.

When the ambos shifted me into the ambulance, red hot lightening shot down my spine. When the pain settled enough for me to notice my surroundings a black anguish set in. For the first time, I knew I was truly on my own and Anth was gone. Great sobs wracked my body and it was all I could do to explain to the paramedics “I miss my husband.” The kind paramedic stroked my hair, her hand cool against my forehead. But each time I sobbed, my back spasmed some more until the pain was so bad I could not cry.

They gave me morphine but it didn’t touch the pain. I was screaming at the faintest movement. When they shifted me from stretcher to hospital bed the pain burned white hot. I could not bear it. “How bad is the pain?” they asked. “It’s a 10,” I cried. They gave me something stronger; Fentanyl. Even in my state I knew this was heavy duty stuff. It was what they gave Anth at the end. I started to feel very unwell. I pressed the buzzer but no-one came. “Help me,” I cried to the patient in the next bed, behind the emergency room curtain. “Please help me, there is something wrong. I think I’m going to pass out.” A nurse came and took my pulse, then disappeared quickly. Suddenly I was surrounded by people. Two doctors, a nurse taking my blood pressure, another sticking wires onto my chest. “We are giving you the antidote,” the doctor said, as he injected me with something. He waited a minute and consulted the machine I was now hooked up to. “Yes, that’s better,” he said. He looked relieved.

“I’m going to throw up,” I said. The nurse thrust a plastic bag under my chin and I vomited and vomited until it was full. “Can I call your husband dear?” she said, looking at my wedding ring. I shook my head on the pillow. “He’s dead.” I was crying again. She held my hand and I fell asleep, the drugs working at last, against the pain and the emptiness.

I spent four nights in hospital until the pain subsided and I could walk again. I’m not sure if the Fentanyl had almost killed me, but I’m certain the grief almost did. I now understand how you can die from a broken heart.

Someone told me to embrace the sadness, as it’s love, in another form. I see the truth of this. But I also know that grief is more than sadness when it’s at its most acute. Grief is pain. It is stabbing, heart wrenching pain. It wells up from your inner depths and is irreconcilable, untreatable, and basic. It is historic, prehistoric even, a thing that both reaches back into our collective human past and beyond into future generations. It is deeply personal, but at the same time shared with every person who has ever loved and ever will love. It is separation. This pain is a recognition of nothingness, of looking into the void and seeing nothing. It is the pain of being human, of glimpsing the possibility of eternal love but knowing that our mortality prevents us from ever obtaining it. That is what grief is.

Jillian Smith

Giving my own little bit to eternity

 

Writing is my life-long thing that I do. I’ve always written. When I’m in the zone, with the muse, the creative mindforce – what ever you want to call it – I’m somewhere else. Completely absorbed. It’s more than creative expression. It feels like tapping into something universal, outside of myself.

As a lawyer, I write every day. I craft arguments, tell legal stories designed to persuade. My professional writing is in the form of formal letters of advice, or outlines of argument filed in court, but it’s still about storytelling. About flow. About ideas.

I wrote my first book aged 11. It won an A+ from my year 6 teacher Mrs Ferguson at Clapham Primary School. It was a sci-fi picture book. My second book was “Fast Disposal and Safe Return” about road safety which I illustrated and bound myself, complete with dust jacket and marbled frontspiece. “Fast Disposal” had creative scenarios for killing yourself on the road, such as backing a truck into a public swimming pool or hopping blind-folded over the busiest road you could find to be dismembered in the oncoming traffic. “Safe Return” was about doing the right thing, obeying the road rules, being sensible. Mr Young, my year 7 teacher, gave it this review; “A very good idea for getting people interested in the real message. Charming drawings.”

By age 11, I had been keeping a diary for a while, and writing came naturally. Inside the pale blue vinyl cover of this diary, which I still have, is my father’s handwriting “Best wishes for Xmas 1978. Love from Mum and Dad.” Inside, I recounted my summer holidays (many entries about the beach and friends’ pools) and the return to school (“Mrs Ferguson is picky! Played overlanders at lunch. Not that exciting.”) I recorded my delight at our family buying land in country South Australia, and plans for building our new house. I recorded departures; “Uncle Harold died today. We went over to Aunty Jean’s because Daddy had to talk to the undertaker. All my cousins were there. The kids had to stay outside.” And arrivals; “It was charity day today. We had a raffle and sold lollies. We made $11.89. But best thing of all was Helen had her baby. A baby cousin called Andrew Carnegie.”

My diary went on to record the first days of high school, trying to fit in as a bookish nerd with poor ball skills in a sports mad rural town. There was endless teenage angst in what by then had the more sophisticated title of “journal”. But now my gaze was broader and I was also writing about local events, like the Ash Wednesday bushfires on 8 February 1983:

Watching the McLaren Flat fire from our hill, we could see flames racing down the distant hills through the binoculars. At night a shower of rain fell, but helped the situation little. On going outside an incredible spookily beautiful sight met our eyes. The whole of the hills where the fire had been was smouldering in thousands of tiny pin-pricks of red light. It looked as though a new city had sprung up instantly on the distant hills.”

By now I had aspirations of being a writer, a journalist, and in year 11 with my friend had started a student newspaper. I managed to get work experience at a local rag, the Victor Harbour Times. They liked me and offered me a job. But I declined. I wanted to go to Uni and learn to be a serious journalist. Not some small time hack. No, I was going to be an investigative reporter, a Lois Lane of South Australia.

I did get to Uni, and that’s when my world fell apart. Dad dropped dead from a massive heart attack.

Now the world was bleak. I’d been shown that life contained darkness and sorrow. I knew grief. I stopped writing my journal as recounting pain just made it worse.

But I persevered with my studies. With my shiny new degree I got a job in Adelaide at The Advertiser as a cadet journalist. I was completely unprepared for how much I hated it. Still reeling from the shock of losing my dear Dad, who was not only my father but my friend, my ally, my reference point, I felt adrift. This wasn’t writing. I couldn’t do this. The only thing I ever wanted to do turned out to be the last thing I wanted. So I left those literary dreams behind and set off to see the world and find out where I fitted in it. I took my journal and my camera with me.

I travelled all over the joint. London first, as a live-in babysitter for a high society family. I backpacked Europe, several times. I taught English for a year in France. I lived in Croatia for 6 months on the rocky shore of the Adriatic. I did Bangkok, Turkey, Greece, USA, returning home in between times to settle the homesickness I felt when I was away. I was torn between the love of home, the sunburnt hills of Adelaide’s Southern Vales, and exploring the new, savouring the exotic, and always the yearning to learn about the world and my place in it.

On 5 October 1993 I wrote about a trip on the Overland to Melbourne:

“I haven’t been out of SA for more than a year. I love it here. I’ve slotted in to home. I’ve built something for myself; I’ve got foundations. But for two days away I’m excited. It’s only Keswick Railway Station, but I stride down the platform. It’s only Melbourne with Tracy, but I’m alert and awake and alive. There are a Greek couple in front and group of Lebanese youths behind. The Greeks are being waved goodbye by friends on the platform. There’s a bum who looks drunk and has his shoes off. They stink. People are running down the platform and waving. There’s excitement and sadness, so much emotion and life in a railway station.”

At home, while in one of a series of casual jobs, this time working as an admin assistant at the Alliance Française (I spoke the lingo reasonably well since my stint teaching in France), I decided I had had enough of the officious French director (“Mais non! Julianne – he never pronounced my name correctly – do eet like zis!”) I needed to do something a bit more serious than stuffing envelopes or taking messages. I applied for law at uni, not thinking I’d get in. I realised that I needed structure, a career, a challenge. And I needed money. I did get in, and to my complete astonishment, loved it. It was one big puzzle, and I loved trying to work out the answer. Plus it involved writing. Heaps and heaps of it. It suited me fine.

With a steady legal job I had enough money to realise my dream of adopting a child. Having one biologically wasn’t going to be part of my life story. I was lucky enough to adopt two babies who have grown into a thoughtful, caring, energetic son and a graceful, smart and sassy daughter. Of course, I wrote about it in my journal.

My volumes and volumes of handwritten journals collect dust on my shelf now. Facebook and WordPress have replaced them, and recently Shutterstock have accepted my photos for sale (that’s been my other passion). And only recently I’ve tentatively started submitting articles for publication again. “The pain of losing my husband – what it taught me at 50” was accepted by the website Mamamia and was my first success.

If you read the Mamamia piece, you’ll understand my new driving force. I lost Anthony, the love of my life, in a brutally short time, to brain cancer earlier this year. In the shock of the diagnosis, in my despair, I turned to my old friend my journal, to help me process the unfolding nightmare. In quiet moments, when not too exhausted from my caring role, or too emotionally drained from receiving one lot of bad news after another, I would retreat to my lap top and spew forth my inner most thoughts. I recorded everything. The visits to the doctor, the hospital, his deteriorating condition, the ambulance trips, the paralysis, the surgery, our two weddings (one in ICU the night before his crainiotomy, another proper one a few weeks later), the caring, the intimacy and the terrible end.

Whereas before, when my father died, the journal became too painful to keep, now I turned to it to sustain me through the pain. The journal became my priest, my confessor. It gave me strength and from it I took counsel. And in it I have recorded Anth’s courage and love for me, two themes which continue to sustain me since he has gone.

Since Anth’s passing I’ve thought a lot about life and death. About an afterlife, and about the point of it all. What’s left after the Universe has pronounced “That’s it. Time’s up. Time to go”? What do you pass on, your contribution, your legacy? What do you leave to eternity?

The other day, one of my colleagues quipped “Have you made sense of the meaningless universe yet?” “Haven’t had time,” I quipped back. And that’s true. To dull the pain post-Anth I have immersed myself in distraction. There’s work (a necessary distraction), kids, family and friends (a welcome distraction), fundraising for cancer research, travel to New Caledonia and then Fraser Island (two bucket list destinations). I have volunteered at the hospital charity Flinders Foundation and made efforts to start advocating for better services for brain cancer sufferers with politicians and doctors. Of course, I’ve written about each of these things.

But what I really want to do is to write about Anth.

In a way, I feel I have a moral duty to fulfil a promise – to write his story, to complete the journal and turn it into a book. To share his struggle and his triumph, his grand tragedy, with the world. I’m the only one who can. I witnessed it all, as supporting actress to his lead role.

Anth’s two great legacies are love and courage. His is a case study in courage. He looked death and debilitating illness in the face and told them “Fuck you”. I want to broadcast his legacy, and by doing that maybe I will be closer to making some sense of this meaningless universe and give my own little bit to eternity.

In my mind there is a vault with a massive steel door. Inside the vault are all the memories. But it is more than memory. They are events suspended in time. I feel if I open that door I can step inside, back to the past, to be with him, to be there again. I will step back and write it all down for you. And then, on this blog, I’ll let you know that it’s done.

Jillian

Anth in hat
Anthony
RK Smith
My Dad, RK Smith, in his 20s

From To Do to Ta-Da!

I overheard two women talking in the café yesterday. We were standing in line waiting to order our coffees. The line was long and these two work colleagues were chatting.

“You know, every day I get in to work and first thing I do is make a list of things I want to achieve in the day,” one of them said. She was tall and stylish with an accent. She was a professional of some type. “And usually there are nine or ten things on this list. Usually two or three big things, involved things I want to get done. Like finish that research funding application, write that paper, finish that report. And the rest are small things. Administrative things, or things that shouldn’t take too much brain power. Always about 10 things.”

She went on.

“And do you know how many things I get done each day? Always?”

“How many” her friend said.

“Two or three. I might get one big thing and two little things done. Max.”

“You’ve got great expectations,” her friend said.

“Yes. If I were smart, I’d only ever put three things on my list. Because that is all I can possibly do. But instead there are always 10 things. I can’t bring myself not to add things to the list. I always want to achieve more than is physically possible. “

This overheard conversation has been banging around in my head. The stylish accented woman’s observation reflected my own experience. For me I have an endless rolling to-do list in my smartphone reminders app. I’m always adding more to it than I can ever mark as completed. I even schedule reminders to pop up on my screen at particular times during the day in the vain hope that I’ll drop everything as the note appears and diligently make the phone call, write the document, pay the bill, achieve world peace and eliminate child poverty all in a day’s work. Pre-smartphone I would carry scribbled to-do lists around with unpaid bills, incomplete work documents in my backpack. Someone called it my backpack of life. More often than not I’d not even open it during the day. Instead of achieving anything, the backpack would just sit in my office making me feel guilty that I hadn’t gotten around to whatever was lurking inside. Same as the smartphone reminders – it served to make me feel constantly anxious and inadequate.

So why do we do this? This stylish accented woman and me. Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why couldn’t we restrict the things on our to-do lists to just three things? Make it do-able, realistic, achievable. So that at the end of the day, three things done, tick, tick, tick, and we could say to ourselves “good girl good job”. And then spend an evening in quiet contentment. Before bed, instead of worrying about how to get everything done the next day, I would know that quietly, methodically, the next 3 things would be done. And I’d get a good night’s sleep, free from nagging thoughts of unfinished business.

Why are there so many things on the list? In an age of immediacy, we seem to be faced with ever increasing urgency of tasks and a mountain of expectation. Mobile phones demand attention, ringing insistently or sms messages punctuate even the most focused of tasks. Emails flood our inboxes, bills to be paid now, school notices to be read, notes to be acknowledged, work questions answered, clients to be responded to. Now, now, NOW. Social media opens up even more demands. Staying in contact with so many friends, liking the daily holiday snaps, responding to personal messages, expressing sympathy, amusement, anger or interest in the rolling, never-ending daily feed. Not only are we bombarded with information in our post IT revolution era, but we are bombarded with expectations to respond to this information.

And then there are the increased responsibilities of the modern materialist world. With greater prosperity and more material goods we have more stuff to look after than previous generations. Not one car to service, insure, register and clean, but two. A pool to maintain. More clothes to wash, iron and put away. Sure we have more appliances to make modern life easy and pleasant – dishwashers, washing machines, driers, vacuums, air conditioners, security systems, sound systems, computers, to make chores a breeze. But there always seems to be something to do to keep things working. I’m always getting something fixed or serviced. There’s always “Fix [whatever]” on the Smartphone reminders list.

For people like me at the sandwich stage of life – trying to get your own stuff done sandwiched between the responsibilities of teenage kids and elderly parents – the to do list can be overwhelming. My list is full of things to organize for other people. “Get Mum’s toilet fixed”, “organize Mum’s personal alarm”, “organize repair Mum’s shed roof” are currently on the list along with “book parent teacher interviews,” “take kids to dentist’, “make kids’ optometrist appointment.”

Quite frankly, I have had enough of the fucking list. Yes it deserves an expletive as it has been lurking malevolently in my backpack or on my smartphone for far too long, like some administrative magic pudding never diminishing no matter how many things I cross off it.

No more do I need to be reminded, on a daily basis, that I can never get everything done. No, I will not clear out the garage today. Or update my will. And I probably won’t get around to ringing my father-in-law, cousin and probably not even my brother. I won’t finish my WordPress site, even though I would like to, nor will I “do some painting” or sort out the bills. All the to do list does is set in stone my ridiculously high expectations. It constantly reminds me of what’s wrong, what I’ve left unfixed or unfinished, an endless cycle of anxiety and frustration. Because what the to do list is saying, powerfully and in writing, is that I’ve failed. It’s a list of things I haven’t achieved.

That’s it. No more. It’s going. It’s driving me bonkers.

So dear stylish, accented, professional person at the café the other day, if you happen to be reading this, thank you for your insight. We can only ever hope to achieve three things in a day. And you don’t need a list for that.

What I do need is an antidote to the list. After all these years of reminders of my failings, it’s time to celebrate my successes. So, here’s an idea. Instead of a to-do list, I’ll write a Ta-Da list of things I’ve achieved or moments I’ve enjoyed. Not a record of the stuff I haven’t done during the day, but three things I have. Three wins, big or small.

So here’s the first Ta-Da list of what I have achieved today:

  1. Rode my new bike. Sunny day, breeze smelled of spring, checked out the neighbour’s garden sculpture exhibition.
  2. Coffee with old friend. Lovely, good for the soul.
  3. Finished writing this. Ta-da! Happy with that. Good job.

 

 

Jillian Smith

 

 

 

Lost in Paradise

Île des Pins

“You cannot come to La Nouvelle Caledonie without seeing Île des Pins,” Isabelle said. So we took a dual propeller plane for a short flight to the 15 km long Isle of Pines, an oasis of green in the blue of the pacific 100 km from Noumea. Lush vegetation covers the place, with massive banyan trees, coconut groves and banana palms but dominated by the pine trees Araucaria columnaris from which the island takes its name. Only 1500 people live here, mainly Melanesians who belong to one of 5 tribes living in small villages of traditional huts and wooden shacks. It is unspoilt, isolated, a place of natural abundance, a garden of Eden.

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The fishing fleet of Kanumera Bay.

We stayed at one of two resorts on the island at Kanumera Bay. Its fine white sand is like flour, its water still, clear and impossibly blue. You need only go waste deep to snorkel among corals teeming with fish. Here we saw inquisitive purple fish that would swim up to us to look at us eye to eye, long thin transparent trumpet fish, and schools of what looked like sardines churning the surface of the water. I paddleboarded across the bay and green sea turtles swam leisurely below me in the deep green water. My son spent ages on the beach learning how to open coconuts and later we watched the sun set behind the pine trees as fishermen put their nets out into the stillness of the bay.

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Kanumura Bay.

Les Pokens is the name New Caledonians have for Australians. Isabelle says it’s not pejorative, but I’m not so sure. They arrive in hoards by cruise ship and flood the towns and beaches. Many are sunburnt a bright pink. Some are drunk. They stand out from the sporty and elegant French Caledonians like sore thumbs. When I reserved our beach lounges at the resort, the beach attendant, said “Oui, oui, they are for you, not for the Australians” with a disparaging tone, nodding towards the line of people walking down the previously deserted beach. “But we are Australian.” I said. “Yes, but you are not them” he said. A Cruise Ship had arrived. 5000 people on board, almost 5 times the entire population of the island. Soon the bay was full of snorkelers and paddleboarders and groups sunbathing on the beach. A market had sprung up on the other side of the bay, near the dock where the cruise ship tenders were arriving. I took a kayak and canoed over there, beached it on a small strip of sand under a palm tree and went to look around. There were queues of boardshort wearing Aussies snaking back from Melanesian BBQ stalls, large local women selling coconut cake and tea and coffee, cheap souvenirs, t-shirts and sarongs. Melanesian music played from boom boxes. On the way back across the bay, I kayaked behind the bay’s sacred rock away from the crowded shallows. On the far side of the rock was a group of Melanesian kids jumping off the rock overhang into the water. I paddled nearer and was quickly surrounded by laughing children in the water, trying to climb into my kayak. I had to say no sternly as they threatened to tip me into the water with my camera gear, but they swam away, smiles all over their faces.

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Relaxing on Kanumera Bay near the sacred rock.

The contrast the next day was stark. With the cruise ship gone there was nobody there. My daughter and I walked along the beach, now stormy but still impossibly blue. Coconuts bobbed in the water where they had blown off trees during the night. Nobody at the dock, just a few dogs roaming. One of them accompanied us as we walked, until we found the general store a few kilometres down the road. We passed tethered cows and a few locals burning rubbish in their gardens, most raising their hand in greeting with a Bonjour.

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Our new friend came with us on our walk.

We hired bikes and rode to the old prison, where nature’s dominance is very much on display. There the crumbling ruins are overgrown with lianas and long grass, almost overtaken by the jungle. (The ruins are all that is left of the French penal colony, housing the Communards, deported political prisoners from the failed 1871 Paris Commune.) Then, we rode to Vao with its old church and mission buildings, and to the shores of Baie St Maurice where a monument to the Saint and his followers, the original 1848 missionaries, is surrounded by Kanak totems. (Given the earliest missionaries were cannibalized by the locals I’m not sure if the totems are there as symbols of threat or protection). Back at Kanumera Bay, I found a spot at the resort’s seafront bar and with my new friend, the stray dog from the morning at my feet, watched yet another breathtaking sunset.

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The weather was perfect for the highlight of our trip – the excursion by traditional pirogue through Upi Bay to the famous natural swimming pool. A mini bus dropped us by a tidal flat where we waded to clamber aboard the little sail boat. As we glided through the glass-like waters our guide, Bernard, spoke quietly to me in French. It had taken him 3 months to make this boat. He explained how he carved out the interior of the wooden hull, and how he now makes his living by taking tourists on these trips, and by fishing. About 200 people live in his tribe, at Vao, next to the beach where he keeps his boat. The tribe still carries on the traditional ways. He has never been to Noumea and French is his second language. His mother tongue is his tribal language. The other boatmen on the water are all from his tribe. They are his cousins and his friends. In high season, in August to October, there are not enough pirogues for all of the tourists wanting trips. As we spoke we passed many green sea turtles in the sheltered bay. After an hour or so we arrived at another tidal flat. Bernard indicated this was where we got off, and with vague directions to go straight ahead, left us alone on a deserted beach on the edge of a rain forest.

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Bernard at the helm of his boat.

After a 45 minute walk along a jungle path (avoiding the tree roots growing across the track and the large hermit crabs) we emerged into a beautiful coconut grove which in turn gave way to another waterway which we waded across. We followed the waterway to the breathtaking natural swimming pool, a rock formation allowing the high tide in, but sheltering the pool from the ocean waves. The pool is fringed by Arucaria pines and the water is the most intense blue. It is full of fish and snorkelling here is like swimming in an aquarium.

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The natural swimming pool.

We stayed at the natural swimming pool until the tide started rising quickly and the beach began to disappear. Remembering our instructions we followed a dry inlet, the River of Sand, to Oro Bay, where we turned to follow the beach to the swanky Meridien Resort, where we were to meet our ride back to Kanumera Bay. Problem was the tide. It had risen so quickly that the beach ran out and we were forced to head inland, where we quickly became lost in the jungle. By some deserted huts, we came across an old Melanesian man whipper-snipping the undergrowth. I tried to get his attention but he studiously ignored me. We were forced to continue unaided. We followed a few tracks the wrong way until a narrow overgrown path became a vehicle track and this became a narrow dirt road which led us to the back of the Meriden. My kids argued the whole way about carrying the bag of snorkelling gear complaining about me getting them lost, that they hadn’t signed up for “Survivor”. But later, back at the resort, my daughter said “That was a great day”.

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Lost in paradise. Tide is coming in as we look for the way back along Oro Bay.

Noumea seemed like a metropolis after the undeveloped, wild and empty Île des Pins. Flying back in the dual propeller plane and seeing the white buildings sprawling along the coast through the hills it now felt like a city rather than the provincial town we saw when we first arrived. In those two weeks, I had spoken French solidly, drunk French wine, eaten French bread, cheese and pastries every day, swam at some of the most beautiful places in the pacific and spent time with dear friends. That’s my idea of a holiday. Better than France. La Nouvelle Calédonie, je t’aime.

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My son spotting turtles on the bow of Bernard’s handmade fishing boat on the waters of Upi Bay.

New Caledonia; C’est le paradis

Noumea

New Caledonia has been on my to do list ever since my friend Isabelle re-located there from northern France 11 years ago. I can see why Isabelle loves it here in the South Pacific. It is a tropical version of home. There are traditional French patisseries, cafes and brasseries, and even the topography of the old town of Noumea is something like the towns of Northern France where I first met Isabelle. There’s a Cathedral on the hill surveying the city and in the streets below are boutiques and little shops typical of a French regional town. Then stepping down the hill along the coconut lined Place des Cocotiers to the port, cruise ships dominate the skyline reminiscent of the Channel ferries and container ships of France’s northern ports.

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A French naval vessel and pleasure craft in Noumea’s harbour.

But unlike Northern France, New Caledonia has 345 days of sunshine a year. Even in “winter” (July) temperatures are between 22C and 25C with the ocean a very swimmable 23C. This means in their spare time Caledonians enjoy the great outdoors year round. Fit, sporty looking types jog along the esplanade or cycle in packs in the early morning. They bike ride in the mountains, windsurf, and sail to deserted islands for camping trips. Isabelle’s family is no exception. Her husband Sylvain is a triathlete and mountain bike champion, their eldest son a surf-lifesaver and their youngest is following in his father’s footsteps. They are all trim and tanned and very good-looking.

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View of Baie Sainte Marie from Ouen Toro.

To welcome us on our first day Isabelle and Sylvain took us on a short tour finishing at Ouen Toro, the former Australian WWII lookout over Anse Vata Beach and the Baie de Sainte Marie beyond. As we gazed at jet skies snaking white streaks through the bluest of blue water Isabelle said to me “People ask me when I am coming back to France, I say to them “Jamais, Jamais, JAMAIS”! (Never, Never, NEVER!) France cannot offer me the life I have here!” In New Caledonia Isabelle has blossomed. She left behind her life as a primary school teacher in a wet and dreary town and now runs Escale Meublée, a letting agency for short term fully-furnished rental accommodation in Noumea. And it was thanks to Isabelle, our holiday accommodation was in a chic 6th floor apartment over looking the pleasure craft bobbing in Port Plaisance.

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Our apartment building overlooking Port Plaisance.

While it’s not France, New Caledonia is very French. As a French overseas collectivity, the tricolor is flying and while you will hear English and Melanesian languages in the street, French is very much the principal language. Noumea is home to a French naval base and naval vessels regularly patrol the lagoon. We were there for Bastille Day, which was celebrated with enthusiasm. I had half expected to see pro-independence protests at this display of French sovereignty, particularly given the independence referendum planned for 2018. But instead Melanesian and French Caledonians enjoyed the festivities together.

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Merguez sausages for sale at the Bastille Day party in Place Des Cocotiers, Noumea.

In Noumea there is an obvious divide between rich and poor. There are more Porsche cars per head of population here than anywhere else in the world. Expensive yachts crowd the town’s marinas and slick hilltop villas look out over the palm-lined waterfront. This is not Bali; there is a sense of organisation with good roads and public transport, you can drink the tap water and there are no sanitation issues. But parts of Noumea are dirty and graffiti tags are everywhere. We saw many vehicles driving with broken windscreens, and there are ramshackle houses and dilapidated apartment buildings. We hired e-bikes from Noumea Fun Ride at the cruise ship terminal. Noumea is hilly and the e-bikes made it easy to explore the rich and the poor areas, all the way from the Latin quarter, the length of the harbour to the tourist strip of Baie des Citrons and Anse Vata Beach.

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Retirees play petanque at Anse Vata Beach.

From Anse Vata water taxis ply backwards and forwards to Duck Island, with its underwater snorkel trail. At Anse Vata there are shops and cafes and the high-end hotels. Baie des Citrons is sheltered and calm with two swimming platforms from which you can swim and snorkel. (It was here I saw my first sea-snake. While highly venomous I was told they are apparently harmless as their jaws are not wide enough to deliver a bite.) At Baie des Citrons we hired Segways for a roll along the esplanade, and spent several evenings enjoying a beer and the live music of FROG (Fred et les Ogres) at La Barca café.

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I shot this from La Barca Cafe, Baie des Citrons.

Thanks to Isabelle our stay in Noumea went off the tourist map to her favourite places of her adopted home. We took a picnic to Kuendo Beach, a short drive from central Noumea on the Nouville peninsula. The tranquil waters of Kuendo are sheltered by high dry hills where we took a potholed dirt track to Fort Tereka to where canons have held vigil since 1877 over the magnificent vista of the Noumea lagoon and the Coral Sea beyond.

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Picnic at Kuendo Beach

Then Isabelle drove us to a secret swimming spot on the Dumbea River in the hills behind Noumea. There the water is as clear as glass and freshwater fish swam around me as I trod water watching our boys leap into the river from overhanging trees. Rainforest covered the mountain towering above the river. Isabelle sat on the bank and dozed. It was paradise.

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“Saute, Saute” Jumping in the Dumbea River.

The following day we headed to le Grand Sud and le Parc provincial de la Rivière Bleue. It was a cool day, the only day too cool for swimming, so we took the park guide bus to see the Kaori trees, forest giants said to be more than 1000 years old. This wild and remote country reminded me of parts of Australia with its red soil and thick forest. In the dark of the rainforest, just past the largest Kaori dwarfing all else we saw the Cagou picking its way along the forest floor. This is New Caledonia’s emblem, a large and unfrightened flightless bird, now threatened with extinction.

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The red sands of le Grand Sud.

On another day, following Isabelle’s insistence, we took a day drip to Amedee Island on the Mary D. The 45 minute trip from Port Moselle was calm enough for a coffee and croissant breakfast. This tiny islet, dominated by its 1865 lighthouse, marks one of the few entrances to the lagoon through the coral reef. Green sea turtles underneath the jetty enticed us into the water and we snorkeled with them and scores of fish of all colours, large and small. At the top of the lighthouse, you can see for miles back to the main Island La Grande Terre and the little islets, sandbars and coral shoals which make the reef the second largest in the world.

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From the top of the Amedee lighthouse you can see for miles.

“You cannot come to La Nouvelle Caledonie without seeing Île des Pins,” Isabelle said. So we took her advice. You can read about this adventure in my next blog post here.