Diving in

We’re on a yacht cruising round the scattered islands of Vava’u, glasses of champagne in hand. I’m completely out of my depth, riding on the coattails of a mate who is much better at small talk than me. She can socialise with anyone, befriend everyone, and has generously wangled us the invitation to cruise. I’m no good in these fancy expat social settings – it’s a world away from the youth centres I usually work in. The bubbly is a very different drop to Pineapple Fanta, I have nothing to add to the conversation about luxury boats, and the best I can do is cringe when our hosts talk about how hard it is to get good help around here.

I know, cue the violins.

But the setting is superb – the boat, the turquoise water, the vacuum-sealed Pringles that aren’t even in the neighbourhood of stale. Plus, the Captain and his family are taking us to Mariner’s Cave – one of Tonga’s legendary snorkelling experiences. A free dive two metres down and about four metres across takes you into a cave teeming with ocean life and other magic.

Despite the opulent setting, I am poorly equipped. My snorkel is ill-fitting and scratched. I neglected to bring a waterproof torch and forgot flippers so my friend D is going to share hers with me. One each, a single flipper, for the most substantial dive I’ve ever undertaken. Needless to say, I’m terrified.

I wouldn’t even be trying this if it wasn’t for D.

The first time I met her was at a resort on the edge of Canberra, where we were bundled in for a week of cross-cultural training prior to taking up volunteer positions around the Asia-Pacific. D was fresh from climbing the Andes, a trip she took after first cycling the junta-ridden backroads of Myanmar. She’d grown up on a sheep stud, and had biked and hiked and travelled to the most remote corners of the world. Later, it came out that she was once in a plane crash off the remote Tasmanian coast and had to swim to shore with a broken back. In our break, undeterred by her lack of swimsuit, she jumped in the pool in her underwear and smashed out some laps while I was still chewing down on the Scotch Finger biscuits rolled out for morning tea. I was completely in awe of her. Too awed to strike up a friendship. In fact, by the end of the week, I decided that I had no business hanging around with D, or any of these other intimidating, worldly, foreign aid over-achievers. I was ready to drop out of the program all together.

But somehow I didn’t, and a few weeks later, D and I found ourselves at Sydney Airport, ready to board a plane to Nuku’alofa. Unfortunately, there was a pesky cyclone railing through the Pacific that day, so we got sent home. I caught the bus to my aunt’s house doubled over with all my gear; D got a romantic interest to collect her in a pick up truck and camped overnight in a beach cave somewhere in the Royal National Park.

Our second attempt at international departure was more successful, and we made it to the Kingdom of Tonga. I couldn’t stop looking out the taxi window: the wandering pigs, the acres of palm trees, the security guard wearing a slam dunking basketball t-shirt that said “Air Jesus – the Ultimate High.” Culture shock hit me like a rocket. I lay on the hotel bed under a lazy fan, breathing in the sickly sweet smell of frangipani and pandanus flowers. D headed out exploring.

Within a couple of days, the other volunteers organised an outing to one of the nearby islands. We were told that Pangaimotu was a popular Sunday outing, a ten minute boat trip from the capital with a beach, good snorkelling, and fish burgers that apparently tasted just like chicken.

D studied the map. “Just one or two kilometres from the shore, is it?” she asked one of the other girls. “I might swim over,” she told me. “Want to come?”

I declined. I took the boat with the others, and watched D arrive on shore an hour or two later, shaking off her snorkel, triumphant.*

Game of Thrones wasn’t in our popular subconscious back then, but D could have played her choice of characters: Daenerys Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, Arya Stark. At best, I might have played Sansa, and frankly, that’s a stretch.

But somehow we became friends anyway. D is a generous facilitator of adventure, a surefooted leader. And I suppose I’m a determined and curious, if inept, follower. She took me to places I never would have dared alone: we kayaked the outer islands in a leaky boat, hitchhiked and skinny dipped on remote beaches, slept under coconut trees, cycled around the main island, scaled cliffs for obscure snorkelling spots. Together we lived with a local family for two or three months, honing our Tongan language skills, and yes, there was that free dive into Mariner’s Cave off the back of a luxury yacht that we had no business being on.

I’ve been thinking about that cave, that dive, that one flipper, especially these past few days. I feel like I’m sitting on a similar precipice, waiting to give birth to my daughter. A chasm of death that lies between life and life; I can see it from the boat. Two metres down, four across. Like a crossword. But I’m much better at Women’s Weekly cryptics than lung-crushing tunnels. They require more guts than I have. And once again, I’m ill-equipped, unprepared. I’m not ready. The waves are crashing around me, and this time there’s not even the option to stay on board with my glass of misgotten champagne. And I’m sorely resentful–bitter even–of what’s being demanded of me, of my body, despite what’s also promised in return.

“But aren’t you excited?”

This is what you get asked at 38 weeks pregnant.

“It must be so hard to wait!”

Oh, I can wait. The waiting is the easy bit. It’s diving in that’s the trick. Acceptance and surrender. Staring down the terror. The suspension of time. The excruciating pain. Some people do it so well, but I’m not one of them.

And in this case, there is everything that comes afterwards: those first weeks–months–of fractured body parts, sleep deprivation, and the need to soothe, feed and sleep a baby that doesn’t know how to soothe, feed or sleep.

If only I could take D into the birthing suite with me. In motherhood, as in life.

D stayed three more years in Tonga, then worked in Somaliland and Sri Lanka before coming to live in Darwin for awhile. We organised a trip to Timor Leste together, and she dropped by my house three weeks before to tell me she was (accidentally) pregnant (to an old friend, a one night stand). We still went to Timor and hired a 4WD with bald tyres. She drove. All the way, along the pot holed roads that circle the coast from Dili to Tutuala. We slept in huts, took a boat out to Jaco Island and went snorkelling, despite assurances about sharks and crocodiles that were ambivalent at best. The morning sickness meant I could just about keep up with her this time. A few months later she packed up a Landcruiser and drove south with her old friend, now partner, to have the baby.

Back in the day I could have imagined D ending up anywhere, everywhere. A houseboat with a famous musician lover on the Ganges. A Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. Working in a refugee camp in Syria. But at the moment, she lives on a farm in NSW with her fella and their three children. I took Mr and Little Tea out there before Christmas. We took the kids on swings in the outer paddocks and for rides on the pony; we rumbled around on the back of the truck. We ate cake loaded with sugar and butter on her sunny, windswept back verandah, which has a slippery dip into a sand pit. The setting was just right – equal parts what I could and could not have imagined for her. Because when you’re sitting on the boat, you never know how life will turn out. Like my life in Darwin, with Mr Tea. The daughter in my belly and my son playing with his tractor. They are a daily surprise to me, too.

It’s hard to believe that 14 years have passed since we did that free dive into Mariner’s Cave, and I’m still grateful for D’s friendship then and today. For the adventures. For her belief in me, even when I haven’t believed in myself. For the flipper.

And not just hers. Despite (or, because of) my reluctance–my resentment–about giving birth again, flippers are coming in from so many friends. Here in Darwin, but also from other corners of the country. They come as freezer meals, take away curries, cooked dinners. Grocery shops and offers of babysitting. They are clothes: hand-me-down and new. Breast pumps and slings, toddler distractions. Books, massage oils and herbal teas, chocolate, phone calls, and messages of support.

They come from people who are parents and people who are not. Because haven’t we all sat on the back of the boat at some point and thought I can’t I can’t I bloody well can’t and then done it anyway? Sucked in our breath and descended, crossed the divide. Two down, four across. Some of you did it with no snorkel at all. You pushed down on lungs that were already empty. You got scratched on the limestone, stung and bloodied on the coral. The terror was justified. Or it wasn’t. Perhaps the dive took you somewhere you never expected, never imagined. Somewhere both harder and easier, better and worse. It was traumatic; it was exhilarating. It was ordinary; it was a miracle. It was sweet relief; it was an anti-climax.  Maybe you, too, thought about dying and living and living and dying. And then some of you even did it all again. And again.

Now it’s my turn. The back of the boat. Turquoise water chopped up with white. A school of silver fish, ducking under the wave. One flipper. Deep breath.

It’ll take a bit longer than Mariner’s Cave, but I’ll see you on the other side, I guess. With my daughter.

Bring the bubbly. Or the Pineapple Fanta, that’s probably more my thing.

*Just to keep it real, I want to include this disclaimer from D.  She says “You do know I was terrified on that swim to Pangaimotu.  I pretty much had to dog paddle the whole way because whenever I put my head in the water I could see imaginary sharks coming at me from every direction.”

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Driving across East Timor

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I’ve hitch-hiked in China, been skydiving in New Zealand and eaten dog in Tonga, but it’s in Timor-Leste that I really decide to take my life in my hands.

We’re going to hire a car.

It seems like a fairly natural thing to do on a holiday, but the roads in Timor are notoriously bad, or nonexistent. Not surprisingly, decades of occupation and tragedy have done little for local infrastructure. The country has about thirty kilometres of good road to rub together. Even in Dili, the pot holes are craterous; some the size of a small car. The roads are so bad that although Baucau—the country’s second largest centre—is just over 120 kilometres away, it will take us five hours to drive there.

But we’ve heard of spectacular beaches and snorkelling to the east. I want to go there.

The microlets, or local buses, are lively but slowed by loads of rice, mattresses and chickens in hand fashioned cages, not to mention the passengers who hang out the door. I spy one heading out of the airport: “God Only Knows” is scrawled on the windscreen next to a lewd cartoon of a green woman in a bikini. All promises of an interesting journey, but no guarantees on the destination.

And for all my early bravado, I’m too scared to get on a motorbike.

So my friend Dimity and I get off the plane, and head straight to the country’s only hire car outlet. They know the roads are bad too and the chance of having an accident is high. No one will insure us, but it seems a deal can be cut to reduce your liability in the likely event that something goes wrong. We hand over a good portion of extra money and agree to go halves if we total the car.

They talk us into a three door Pajero. It has that new car smell, but the tyres look old. None of the other vehicles look more promising. Fingers crossed, we back out of the rental premises and drive onto one of Dili’s many one way streets, the wrong way.

After looping the back streets, we begin the climb up the mountain through folds of rainforest and road side stalls selling coconuts and bedraggled green vegetables.

Eventually, we start to hug the coastline. I’m bemused by pineapple shaped pandanus baskets on tables, one corner after another. We stop. A smiling mother and her four unsmiling children untie the pineapple package to reveal two kilos of sea salt. The road winds on, and the blue ocean to our left is almost blinding. Around one corner, we spy the husk of a troop carrier bearing the UN insignia, roof crushed and windows smashed. It’s only just hanging onto the cliff.

But our more immediate concern is whether we can avoid running over someone’s prized chook. With a radio of limited means, the soundtrack to our journey is the horn, beeping as we attempt to shepherd goats, pigs and chickens away from the wheels. I’ve been warned that road kill will require significant financial compensation, and can end in fists. I don’t have the will or vocabulary for a fight, so it’s slow and steady driving behind the wheel.

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We arrive in Baucau, and the back tyre is looking precariously low. A few false starts lead us to a mechanic whose workshop is decorated with Xanana Gusmao stencils and portraits of Che Guevara. There’s a language barrier. I mime pumping up a tyre to the sudden crowd that has amassed around our vehicle. The Che fan club dissolve into giggles.

Eventually the tyre is pumped, and a container of fuel is strained through a cast off pair of shorts and funnelled into our tank. This is the petrol station, apparently.

The road trip continues. It’s as if we’ve passed through Pakistan and into Thailand as a stone littered steppe turns into green rice paddies with water buffaloes grazing. Ten kilometres on, windswept grey beaches remind me of picnics on Scottish beaches.

But it’s not a world tour; we’re still driving through Timor. Each village has its share of Fretilin flags and graffiti. “What do we wanna do for peace?” cries one school wall.

We decide to make for Tutuala and Jaco Island, renowned for pristine white beaches and the aquamarine waters that sell postcards. It’s Timor’s Far East, and the road progressively becomes more bumpy, and soon, indiscernible. We pass through crumbling ruins of old Timorese houses, raised on stilts, and decorated with swathes of shells and horse skulls. I buy some eggs and salad vegetables from a rare road stall. Forget about restaurants with byo alcohol; we’ll need to bring our own food.

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As the light turns purple and the trees become more windswept, we pull up to Tutuala, and drive up a rubble strewn hill to the village’s only accommodation. It’s a pousada that remembers better times. A gang of children gather at our feet, and then turn fallen columns into slides. They frolic on the faded tables, under painted concrete umbrellas.

The caretaker arrives, and for five US dollars a night, this can be our home. It’s musty, and has the air of a forgotten Swiss ski lodge. There are old maps on the wall, and spider webs around the beds. No running water, just litre bottles which have been dutifully carried up by the caretaker for us to flush the toilet. Some of the windows are smashed; what role did this building play during Indonesian occupation?  We beg some hot water, eat two minute noodles and watch the light fade over the cliffs.

The next day, after stiff Timorese coffee and bread rolls, it’s a treacherous 4WD crawl down to the beach. Two locals are quick to jump in our spare seats, and as we descend down a road which runs almost vertical, I understand why they didn’t want to walk. I’ve mentally emptied my bank account, certain the car is not for this world much longer, when we reach the beach, a fleet of outrigger canoes and a jumble of beach shacks.

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For a small price, the fishermen persuade us that there are no crocodiles and drop us at Jaco Island, to rub noses with the angel fish and meditate amongst the coral. They land their canoe down the beach half an hour later, with a barracuda and Spanish mackerel tied to the helm. The fish will become our dinner. The fishermen disappear, and then rain clouds gather above. It’s the rumble of an unexpected dry season storm, and soon the ocean is fluorescent against the sky. Our fishermen soon appear in the distance, and ferry us back to land before the waves take over.

A few days later, when food supplies run only to bananas and rice, our car manages to cling to the scrabble of rocks on the track, back up to Tutuala. We stop once more in Baucau. There’s a swimming pool which is filled every three days with pure spring water from the mountain side, then drained again. It’s electric blue, and with cement banana lounges, it looks like a resort for the ancients. A get-away for Socrates, a few laps between classes and opining to the village square. I feel like I’m swimming in Evian.

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We overnight at the Pousada Baucau, a bright pink guest house with the best round steak in town. I spend an hour on the porch with the hotel’s receptionist, a sparky woman named Gabriella. She trained to be a nun, but decided to leave the church. She doesn’t elaborate. Her parents were both Fretilin fighters, and sheltered in the mountains out of town. At night they would creep down to siphon water from buffalo drinking holes, filled with the blood of the disappeared, shot dead. Later, an expat friend tells me that our pink Pousada too was an interrogation and torture chamber during the occupation.

It’s a slow drive back to Dili, passing once more through Scotland, Thailand and Pakistan. The dusty capital—home to one million people, many more livestock and a giant statue of Jesus—is a welcome sight.

And unbelievably, the car is unscathed.

The country has much bigger problems than nervous tourists in hire cars, but it’s still with a sigh of relief that I hand over the keys and relinquish the little 4WD that could. We flag down a taxi driver with a cracked windscreen and just one broken door, and climb in.

I let him worry about the potholes and suicidal chickens. I watch the road, the occasional cluster of graves and the acres of frustrated graffiti splashed across Dili, as we drive to the airport.