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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Have child, will travel

I’m a mum now. It’s never so obvious as when I pack my hand luggage for our trip to Bali. Oh, and when the obstetrician put a purple splay of limbs on my chest after 14 hours of labour and said, here’s something that will prevent you from sleeping, ever, ever again. Deal with that as best you can. But yeah, apart from that, definitely the hand luggage. In goes: ten nappies, three spew cloths, a baby sleeping bag, one packet of wipes, a handful of plastic bags, two rattles, an industrial sized bottle of hand sanitiser, a breastfeeding pillow and an artisanal rubber giraffe called “Sophie”. The backpack is stuffed to zipper-popping proportions and none of the stuffing is for me. In the end, I manage to squeeze in a kindle and a set of head phones for myself. And my passport. I remember a meme I saw wandering around the internet before I gave birth:

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

I remind myself of that annoying piece of interweb trite as I caress my laptop lovingly before moving it from the “to be packed” pile and placing it under a mess of t-shirts in my cupboard so no robbers will ever find it. Stupid, sacrificing, self-flagellating motherhood. Give me my goddamned pie. And Microsoft Word. And the second season of The Americans. But it’s not all bad, I guess. We’re going to Bali for a family holiday – Me, Mr Tea and Baby Tea, who is now six and a half months and teething like a rabid dog. And who’s got time for laptopping anyway?

A word on Bali, especially for the postgraduate, single origin coffee drinkers amongst you. When I lived Down South, no one went to Bali for holidays. Well, sure, some people did, but as far as I was concerned they were mostly sports teams who wanted to drink their body weight in booze and, occasionally, each other’s urine. In a close-minded sweep, of the kind that we love to do in Australia where we assume that other countries exist purely as our playground and have no intrinsic value as a nation or to their locals, I reserved the entire island of Bali for footy bogans and their relatives on extended family holidays, especially if they liked getting their hair braided and having a squawking Kids Club nearby. And why would you lie about by an artificial pool, drinking lurid cocktails and watch other people’s kids savage each other with pool noodles anyway? No, I was going off to eat hot pot in Chengdu, to get diarrhea while trekking the Thai-Burmese border, to go to South Pacific islands without paved roads or green vegetables. It was the traveler’s life for me, by gum.

But when I moved to Darwin, I was forced to rethink my holiday prejudices. Of course, Territorians can still play bogan in Bali as well (if not better) than the rest of Australia. We like a wind chime and a knock off watch as much as the next punter. Many of us dress our toddlers in Bintang singlets and when the question is posed on local social media pages as to whether “midget boxing is a laugh worth seeing?” – there are plenty of compatriots who can (and will) answer, mostly in the affirmative. But the flight to Bali is only two and a half hours away – significantly shorter (and ridiculously cheaper) than grabbing a plane to Melbourne or Sydney. Also I worked full time now. That whole lying by the pool thing had more charm. And the Darwin old hands showed me another side to the Bali holiday equation. They had beautiful Balinese furniture in their homes; they spoke of yoga retreats and cooking courses and charming men called Ketut and Nyoman who could usher one across the island to mystical temples and boutique homestays. It wasn’t all Kuta, beer and skittles, they said. Ubud. Sideman. Amed. Lovina. Nusa Lembongan. Lombok.

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Anyway, I began making a regular pilgrimage to Bali, ostensibly to do yoga but really to read books on a day bed. I’d stay in Ubud, wandering rice paddies and photographing doors and attempting to eat, pray and love, but mostly just eating. On one of my wanderings, I met a woman who’d just come back from the Gili Islands. Gili Air, she said, was magic. Palm trees, white beaches, no cars. Overlooked the island of Lombok. And she’d stayed in a place owned by Nigel from UB40. What a character, she chortled!

I came of age to UB40. When I started watching Rage in the late ‘80s, it was all “Kingston Town”, ad nauseum. The lyrics are as good as I remember:

And when I am king,
surely I would need a queen
And a palace and everything, yeah

UB40 was also the soundtrack to my year in Tonga. You could walk along the main road in Nuku’alofa and listen to “Red, Red Wine” just through the speakers of passing cars, all tuned to the same radio station. You couldn’t buy much in the way of red wine down town, but you could slow jam to it all you wanted, along with Eminem, Kelis and a particularly ubiquitous Pacifica remix of “Who Let the Dogs Out.

And now Bali had discovered my soft spot. Forget white sand and beach front cocktails. There was a chance to meet Nigel from UB40? I made my calls and got on a fast boat. After a slightly sickening trip across, I got off at Gili Trawangan to a sea of bronzed backpackers frolicking in the water. I could wait for an interisland boat to Gili Air, they said, or Nigel himself was just around the corner grabbing supplies and could give me a lift if I stuck around for another hour. So I did. And Nigel picked me up, tattooed and mouthy, with an accent that came straight out of an Essex pub.

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I was beside myself with excitement. And when he offered to buy me a gin and tonic after we rolled out of the outrigger canoe on the nicest stretch of white sand on the island, I rolled up my sleeves with anticipation. Ready for him to confide all the stories from the road, the time he played pool with Mick Jagger, the process they went through to give “Can’t help falling in love with you” a reggae make over, whether Ali Campbell and Maxi Priest ever got into fisticuffs. But Nigel just wanted to talk shop: the resort, the website, how hard it was to get good help around here, etc. I was disappointed but I didn’t want to be uncool. I didn’t push it. If Nigel wanted to forget his days at the helm of UB40, well, that was up to him.

There wasn’t any Wi-Fi to be had on the island in those days, but I checked Wikipedia when I got home. No mention of a Nigel in UB40.

Anyway, such were my previous Bali hijinks. And these are the things you can do, travelling without a baby! Restaurant hop, snorkel, chase down never-were celebrities, travel between islands without a crate of your favourite disposable nappies. I wasn’t convinced that Bali with a baby would be as much fun.

I remember my grandmother rolling her eyes once when recalling a particular family holiday at the beach. “Everyone else had a very nice time,” she sniffed. “But I just had to do a lot of cooking in a kitchen that wasn’t nearly as good.” Is that what a holiday with a baby means, I wondered? Not sleeping, but in an exotic location? Breastfeeding, changing nappies and reading Where is the Green Sheep? for the eleventy millionth time (spoiler: that sheep is always asleep, smug little fuck) without all the infrastructure at home that makes it easier?

And the whole process of Becoming Mummy has taken some work for me, much more than I expected. I’d always wanted to have kids, and yet I often found myself mourning my child free life, feeling around for it like a phantom limb, even the bits of it that weren’t that good, like being seriously ill for two years or meeting Nigel from UB40 only to have him bitch about his work-life balance on a beautiful tropical island. And also not actually be from UB40.

I dropped into work with Baby Tea a few months ago, and one of my colleagues looked up at me curiously. “So what’s it like, being a mum?” she said.

Gosh, I stammered. Exhausting! Hard. But good. Yeah, hard but good.

As if motherhood was a yin-yang, swirls of black and white with a tiny circle of hard in the good, and a tiny circle of good in the hard. Later, I berated myself. Motherhood: exhausting! Hard but good! Surely I can do better than that! My younger colleague probably didn’t care anyway, but I felt like I’d done my new life a reductive disservice. Still, I wasn’t really sure how to describe it.

Motherhood. Was it those first six weeks when it felt like I was hit by a truck, every single day? The parts of my body that were cracked, torn, fissured? The hunger that had me eyeing off Mr Tea’s dinner plate every single meal, all “are you gonna eat that?” Was it regret: that I used to talk about important things like politics and journalism and The Bachelor and now I said things like “How did you get food in your ear?”, “Gentle with mummy” and “Come on, all the other babies are wearing their hats”. Or the jealousy that shot through my body when I heard that someone else was going to live in New York, had published their first book, was putting on a festival show? The feeling that I was a fraud of a mother, singularly ill-equipped to deal with a tiny person, who shat and screamed and cried without explanation?

Or was it the way I would choke up singing songs or reading stories to him because he was so goddamned beautiful? Hard but good didn’t touch the smell of his breath: gummy, warm and milky. Or the time he was nuzzling into my shoulder and I thought we were having a moment but actually he was busy pulling on a blanket behind my head. And hard but good seemed wholly inadequate to describe my 5am fit of exhausted hysterics when Baby Tea did a projectile wee into his own mouth, a perfect looping arc of piss.

Of course, being a Mum is all those things. Feeling—and being—fraudulent, exhausted and elated all at the same time. The hunger, the crying, the stories and the songs, the piss in the mouth. It’s all of the light and all of the dark, all things ordinary and extraordinary.

And in travel, as in life.

Our trip to Bali with a baby in tow was great. Not because I “found myself”; I didn’t. Not because I realised my new life as a mother is better or worse than being childless; it isn’t. Not because the holiday was perfect; it wasn’t. We breastfed endlessly in uncomfortable chairs, read the Mem Fox canon for hours, administered baby Panadol in desperation at 3am, dealt with overflowing bodily fluids in the back of taxis. At one point, Baby Tea was crying inconsolably at the airport. I’d fed him, we’d changed nappies, jiggled him, sung songs, shown him the planes from the window. Eventually I handed him over to Mr Tea and muttered something about needing to go to the toilet. I didn’t. I wandered through the bookshop, washed my face, bought ice cream, briefly fantasised about catching the plane home solo (or to, say, Berlin) and then slowly, reluctantly returned to my boys.

“See?” Mr Tea said to our babe. “I told you she’d come back!”

“You have my passport,” I replied.

But overall, travelling with a baby rocked, in a way that I never expected. Cranky old men melted. Balinese women gushed. They told me birth stories and added to the obscure parenting advice column: “Shave his head three times!” “Don’t let him eat pineapple before he turns one!” Immigration officials were kind. They let themselves stop looking for drugs or terrorists for a few moments and tickled Baby Tea’s chin or exclaimed over his newly minted chompers – “Rabbit teeth!” Airport queues were easier, friendlier places. Groovy Malaysian teens took selfies with him. Japanese tour groups pointed at him like he was Lady Gaga doing a fashion shoot on location. Language was less of a barrier. Strangers gave us things and talked to us and picked him up for cuddles. I took him down to see the seaweed farms on the southern tip of Nusa Lembongan, but mostly just to bask in his radiated glory as we walked around. When we climbed out of the pick-up truck on return, a girl I didn’t recognise from our resort yelled out, “Hello Baby Tea!” I must have looked confused so she said, “Don’t worry! We all of us loving Baby Tea so much!”

I got time to wallow in those jolts of joy and the growling, protective love that comes from the bottom of my belly, even despite bouts of hammering sleep deprivation and the occasional, shameful, running away fantasy. I found some space this holiday for the old me and the new, the life I’m not leading and the life I am.

And you know something? I reckon that Kids Club/lurid cocktails/toddlers in Bintang singlets concept has more merit than I previously thought. Maybe next holiday.

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