ON a balmy Brisbane evening I am slouched under a magnificent tree, savouring a plate of colourful African fare and sipping a Tusker malt lager. There’s but a whisper of a wind on this hot summer evening, just enough to scatter the tree’s tiny white flowers onto the faded tablecloth like confetti. The flowers fall into my hair and onto my head, like little sparks of inspiration.
I’m at Mu’ooz Eritrean Restaurant in West End, surrounded by fellow writers, artists, poets, singers and daydream believers, attending Wild Readings. I blew in here a little like the white flowers, an invitation from a friend to join this underground movement of creatives, who gather on the third Tuesday of every month. It is here that they soak up the collective juices, which are threatened with drought when you are alone for too long in a big city, stalked by the shadows of conformity.
The host opens the night by describing Wild Readings as a “public series for the storyteller in all of us.”
“We’d like to build a community of storytellers and people who just want to listen to words,” she says.
There are four readings in this delicious hour, Alanna uses art to tell stories about mental health and is reading from her book called “The Letter R” for Resilience. You need a lot of resilience to be a writer anywhere in the world, and it’s apt for this setting in which I find myself.
Tina is a published author and runs a children’s and young adults’ writers conference in Brisbane, fuelling the fire of future generations of crazy creatives.
Really, they should be building asylums for those of us insane enough to keep striking the keyboard in a world which begs us to do otherwise. And yet, thank God, we continue.
Annie, a program co-ordinator for newly-arrived refugees, picks up a ukulele and strums her story. There are others, a couple of poets and an author, but it’s Annie and her uke which strike a literal and metaphorical chord with me this evening.
I didn’t leave the house expecting to find a story, but in this salacious setting how could I not? Not only am I inspired by the passion and prose of my fellow artists, but Mu’ooz itself is a not-for-profit social enterprise, established by Eritrean Refuge Women, which assists women arriving in Brisbane from many parts of Africa.
Shortly before the evening begins, I stumble across Manager Saba Abraham, who opened the West End location three years ago and since then has provided training and employment for more than 100 refugee women.
“We provide a pathway to employment with many of the women now employed in other places including schools, factories and cleaning jobs,” she says.
“The program aims to give them confidence and help them understand the workforce.
“Women refugees have minimal employment opportunities and many of them have never had any education in their country, therefore finding it extremely challenging in Australia, to learn the language and secure employment.
“Many of them feel like this is home to them, it is much more than a workplace.”
Saba tells me the business is not without its challenges, rents in West End are high and there is still a disconnect between mainstream Australia and what they are trying to achieve, even in this socially-progressive suburb.
Which is a great shame, as the food here is different and delicious, boasting many dishes and ingredients even a well-travelled Australian palate may have never tasted such as Enjera – savoury purple pancakes; Silsie – a traditional Eritrean sauce; Berbere – traditional hot pepper seasoning; and Tasame – butter flavoured with Eritrean herbs and spices.
I sip on my second Tusker malt lager, a beer I’ve never encountered before – and the white leaves keep falling on my head, urging me to write this story. A tale of a little courtyard in Brisbane, a meeting of people with big hearts and those cursed with that damn desire to write.
We are gathered on the traditional land of the Jagera, Yuggera and Yuggerapul people and we pay homage to them. A Yuggera elder has penned a Welcome to Country for us: “Everything sits in a circle around us. When we open ourselves to looking and listening it allows us to connect with Mother Earth, everyone’s Mother.”
On this hot night, I embrace the circle of refugees and creatives and watch as those tiny flowers keep falling, reminding me to keep writing.
The next Wild Readings will be held on Tuesday, Feb 21 at Mu’ooz West End at 6pm for 6.30pm. You can join Wild Readings on their Facebook page. To dine at Mu’ooz and support their incredible work, go to http://www.muooz.com.au
SOUTHERN Germany is seducing me with a magnificent Monday afternoon. It’s uncharacteristically sunny, 14 degrees Celsius and t.shirt weather. And I am observing this all unfurl from the luxury of my First Class train seat aboard German Rail, part of the vast Rail Europe network.
The train winds its way south from Munich, along languid lakes flanked by gregarious Germans, who have flocked outside to sun themselves in the spring sunshine. It’s been a long, cold winter but Germans know a thing or two about being in the wilderness, not only literally but politically, the legacy of two World Wars still a part of the national psyche. But I’ve been travelling to Germany for almost 30 years, even before the Berlin Wall came down, and have had the pleasure of watching Germany blossom.
For nearly three decades I’ve discussed Germany’s politics and social issues with my close German friends – whom I regard as family – as well as strangers. Back in 1987 we were talking about the Berlin Wall, never imaging a few years later we would be discussing its welcome demise. We’ve spoken about the flood of refugees from the east into the west after this globally significant event, the social and economic implications of this, and the rise of neo-Nazism.
On my return to Germany in 2007 we waxed lyrical about World Cup Soccer, which Germany hosted in 2006 and in which they placed third, and I returned in 2014, the same year Germany won the World Cup. My friends told me for the first time they felt they could legitimately be proud to be German and had finally shaken off the shackles of the past. And this sentiment resonated on every street corner.
On this trip, we spoke about Chancellor Angela Merkel, terrorism and the Syrian refugees. And it’s a topic on the tip of almost every German’s tongue. Scratch the surface and while many admire their left-wing leader, there’s mounting concern about what to do with the flood of refugees in a country which already is bursting with a population of 80 million. Right-wing views also exist, with some strangers blatantly offering their opinions that refugees only wish to migrate to western Germany, ignoring the less wealthy east.
Even Merkel herself is said to be backing away from her open-door policy. Some admire her stance of bailing out the Greeks and their financial woes, when other countries have wanted to flee the problem, others says she is too lenient. German National Tourist Board CEO Petra Hedorfer, at an international press conference I attended on this trip, admits that challenges to the nation’s tourism include refugees (and the negative impact on infrastructure); border controls in the Schengen area (which allow free movement between European countries); and reassignment of hotels, trade fair halls and leisure facilities to immigrants. Hedorfer also says terror attacks, racism and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), also pose challenges.
My train journey takes me from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where I am writing some nature stories for a travel magazine, to Nurnberg, and north of Munich, where I have the delight of sampling Bavarian beer, for a major Australian news organisation, for the best part of a week. I visit Magdeburg, a former East German city, for the international German Travel Mart, before I again catch the train to Bremen, to visit my close friends, and then finally on to Berlin, to fly home.
German Rail boasts a reputation of being on time, but long-term travellers say its standards have slipped and on one of my tight connections, where I had just 10 minutes to spare between trains, my train arrived 5 minutes late, making for an uncomfortable race through the crowded station with 20kg of luggage. Days later, my train is 20 minutes late on my journey to Bremen. And then 30 minutes late on my last leg from Hannover to Berlin. Deutsche Bahn Head of International Sales Dr Tobias Heussler admits standards have slipped and for the first time since 2003, the company has made losses. This now-private company intends to invest 50 billion Euro by 2020 into infrastructure. But for the most part, it deserves its efficient reputation and is still tracks ahead of many rail systems around the world. (Queensland Rail, are you reading this?)
Even small train stations such as Garmsich-Partenkirchen have rail offices where you can request a print out of your daily itinerary, including the platforms from which your next train departs, which is extremely helpful when you have only short connections between some trains. While the smaller trains don’t offer a food or drink carriage, larger inter-city trains such as the ICE do. While the beer is good, the food leaves a little bit to be desired.
My train journey ends in Berlin, which is fitting as this is where my conversations about Germany began some 30 years ago. I’m staying for one night at the Hotel NH Collection Berlin Friedrichstrasse – part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group – which is one easy underground stop from Berlin’s main train station. This 240-room hotel overlooks the Altmarkt and captures the essence of Berlin with its funky art depicting city scenes and landmarks. It also offers a free “lazy Sunday” 5pm checkout. I’ve fallen in love with Berlin over the years and this brief afternoon is one of the world’s truly great cities is no different. From my hotel, which is smack bang in the centre, I easily amble in one direction along Under der Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate which epitomises historical Berlin. I then wander in the other direction past the Berlin Museum towards the city’s modernised quarter of Hackeschehofe, home to countless alleyways bursting with eclectic art. Around me, there’s an invisible line where the Berlin Wall once stood.
All too often, when Australians dream of travelling to Europe they speak of the “sexy” destinations like Italy and France. And yes, Germany has weathered its seasons of major challenges and will continue to do so while it remains one of the powerhouses of European politics. But history has continually proven that this is a strong, smart country capable of overcoming great adversity. Check it out. Spring is in full bloom and Germany is in the wilderness no more.
The Global Goddess travelled on a first-class German Rail Pass (5 days within one month) as a guest Rail Europe – http://www.raileurope.com.au. She stayed in the NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse, part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group (www.preferredhotels.com), thanks to the assistance of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. For more information on Germany contact The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel
SHE’S here! Dear Global Goddess follower – In response to requests from many of you, I am delighted to announce I have just published my first book! Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey is being billed as Sex and the City with an Aussie twist and a global perspective. It contains some of your favourite Global Goddess blogs, plus some new chapters you’ve never read before. Details for purchase, via eBook or a limited edition hard copy version, can be found at the end of this blog.
Because you are a valued Global Goddess reader, please find a sneak preview of the Prologue below. I hope you enjoy reading it, as much as I enjoyed writing it. It would make a great summer holiday read or a cheeky Christmas gift. If you like what you’ve read below, please share this blog with your family and friends! (And I’d love it if you bought a book). x
“A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi. Alis volat propiis.” In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings.
IT is five days before Christmas and I am on Christmas Island. But I am not feeling festive this humid December evening. I am sitting in a morgue, on what should be my fifth wedding anniversary, mourning the death of my marriage. I have lost my husband, my job and three dress sizes. If I can’t find work by the New Year, I will also lose my home. Down below, the Indian Ocean is uncharacteristically calm and quiet. Even the nearby blowholes, which normally bellow like dragons, barely muster a whisper. An empty bottle of gin rests to my left, alongside a crushed fragrant lime discarded in an empty glass. The ice is the glass is long melted. My red leather journal, which smells like expensive Italian shoes and has become as much a lifeline as my lungs themselves, sits perfectly positioned on my right. It is five days before Christmas and I am on Christmas Island. I am 38 years old and I am all alone.
I have lost my life compass, my job, quite possibly my house and definitely my husband. The irony of being on an island that has unwittingly become home to so many refugees seeking asylum along Australia’s sunny shores is not lost on me. I am seeking refuge from my own life. I have flown, via Kuala Lumpur, to sit in the middle of the Indian Ocean. To grieve.
Seven months earlier, I had come to Christmas Island a healthy, happy, married woman with the rest of her life ahead of her. I had a stimulating life as a travel writer, which had brought great rewards and some awards, and lived in a safe city in a beautiful home with my devoted husband. We played cool jazz and cooked hot curries. We went kayaking at sunset, watched foreign films, flirted with the idea of returning overseas to work and had fabulous friends. We regularly travelled the world and finally, after some years of hard work, had money to spare. Life was perfect. That May, I had been offered a five-day travel writing assignment to Christmas Island – the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” – to celebrate Australia’s 50 year sovereignty over this tiny dot in the middle of nowhere, which is closer to Indonesia than to my homeland.
So remote is this Australia territory, it sits some 2600 kilometres northwest of Perth and 300 kilometres from any other land mass. A trip to this outpost, which made world headlines with the Tampa refugee boat crisis, was an offer too good to refuse. In 2001 a diplomatic dispute erupted between Australia, Norway and Indonesia when the vessel Tampa rescued 439 Afghans from a sinking fishing boat in international waters. The former Howard government flouted international law by preventing Tampa from offloading refugees onto nearby Christmas Island, and the Afghans were eventually transported to Nauru and held in detention camps.
That week on Christmas Island had been delightful. There was no way I could have foreseen the tsunami of pain that was to follow just two months later. I had been asked by Tim, an old and interesting mate, to join him and two other journos on this journey. My other two travelling companions turned out to be kind and colourful characters. Sally was an insomniac with a husky voice that betrayed her years of smoking. She was physically invincible – a woman who had trekked the Kokoda Trail (not once, but twice), thought underpants were a nonsensical notion but wore a heart that sparkled like the rare golden bosun birds which circled this island. In contrast Leila was an innocent, bubbly, fun, friendly photographer, who wore her camera like an extra limb and was prone to saying things like “whoopsie” as a substitute for swearing. And then there was Tim, a gentleman with a sharp sense of humour and an even pointier intellect. We befriended local couple Linda and Phil, and the delightful Lynnie – an island resident for 15 years and dive master who had completed 2,000 dives and knew every inch of its 28-degree waters.
If you could bottle the “perfect week” and capture it in a little snow dome, Christmas Island would be it.
We ate Indian food and drank overpriced wine on a deserted beach, under the glare of the full moon, with curious giant robber crabs as unexpected guests. Then there were the red crabs. They are like flares on the forest floor, hitchhikers on the roadside and occasionally, uninvited guests into your hotel room. The annual red crab migration in December is Christmas Island’s most famous natural attraction, an event leading naturalist Sir David Attenborough named as one of his top 10 nature experiences of all time.
But there’s much more to Christmas Island than crabs and detention centres. With 63 percent of the island protected by national park, it is also home to giant mana rays, whale sharks, laying turtles, 575 species of fish and more than 200 species of coral. Bird watchers will fall in love with this island where an estimated 80,000 seabirds nest annually. At the same time, it boasts some 80 kilometres of shoreline and gorgeous beaches.
Among the population of 1000 to 1500 people – depending on with whom you speak – there lies three distinct cultural groups – the Australians/Europeans who largely inhabit The Settlement area; the Chinese who live in Poon Saan; and the Malays, who reside in the Kampong. More than 10 languages are spoken on the island, including several Chinese dialects, English, Malay and Bahasa Malay.
Christmas Island’s history is as eclectic as the population itself and can be traced back to early trans-oceanic travellers from Polynesia and Melanesia who are thought to have sailed past en route to Madagascar.
These days, stepping on to the island is like stepping back into 1970s Australia – with a spicy infusion. And that week we lapped it all up.
We ate fresh roti and spicy curry for breakfast at the Malay Club, next to the Mosque, “ordinary noodles” for lunch at the Chinese Literary Association and imported Northern Territory beef as the sun set at the modern Australian Rumah Tinngi restaurant.
We languished in the island’s natural spa at Dolly Beach, snorkelled among an army of sergeant major fish at Flying Fish Cove and hunted for the island’s only mammal – the Pipistrelle bat – in the cool shadows of Daniel Roux cave.
Off the boardwalk between Lily and Ethel beaches, we stumbled across the island’s brown boobies displaying their white pinafores like nuns while nesting among sharp limestone rocks.
One night as the sun set, we joined Lynnie, Phil and Linda and watched the clouds twist into random formations over the Indian Ocean, spending hours testing our imaginations and guessing what the various shapes could represent. An elephant? A clown? A woman with a dog on her head? And we laughed outrageously at the childlike simplicity of our game.
Among all this, one of the highlights was taking an ice-cold shower at Hugh’s Dale Waterfall. Unbeknown to me, Leila had captured me on camera in one of life’s magical moments. We had trekked through the rainforest, past hundreds of red crabs shuffling along the forest floor like old men, to the top of this waterfall on a day when the air was heaving with humidity. The picture, which later ran in an Australian lifestyle magazine, captures me as I stood under the ice-cold waterfall for the longest of times, watching the crabs scurry around me and expressing gratitude for my lovely life.
Little did I know that it was to be the last time in many months that I would feel the same way. I had no idea at the time I was about to enter my biggest challenge of my life, which would see me cry an Indian Ocean of tears and thrust me into a vicious cycle of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping pills, alcohol, insomnia and starvation.
Seven months later, back on the island without Tim, Leila or Sally, things are different. My husband and I had been together since we were 16 years old – almost 22 years – and had somehow managed a balanced act that seemed to suit us perfectly. We were like two ballet dancers in perfect rhythm. We never went without, wore nice clothes, ate out and trekked the globe. And now it was all gone. One night was all it took to annihilate 22 years with his words: “I don’t love you anymore, I’m leaving you,” spoken from behind his hands, which were shielding his eyes.
From my privileged perch, I am under no illusion that I share anything in common with the poor souls who have desperately turned their back on their countries, cultures and families, spending their life savings to flock to Christmas Island in a leaky boat with no guarantees. The only thing we share is that we have all come here for answers. A new life.
The “lucky ones” who do make it here are now locked up like animals for “processing” in a multi-million dollar jail that stands in the middle of the island, heavily guarded as successive governments fumble for a “Pacific solution” to the issue of illegal immigration. Off shore, the Australian naval boat HMAS Ararat sits for days, awaiting permission to “come alongside” and deposit its latest “cargo” – another boatload of asylum seekers.
Sitting in the Golden Bosun bar one night, where the Navy boys are enjoying two days’ R&R after weeks at sea, I am reminded of the complexity of border control issues. I listen as a naval officer has a spirited debate with the Department of Immigration staff. The naval officer refers to the latest people they have brought onto the island as “refugees” but is quickly corrected by a Department of Immigration staffer, who refers to them as “asylum seekers.” It is clear that there is plenty of ink to be dried on this issue, let alone this latest batch of boat people.
Back in my room, I am tucked away, miles from the detention centre, in the morgue, which no longer carries the dead, although the deeply superstitious Malay population thinks we white fellas are crazy for even setting foot in the place.
It is now a simple cottage – the aptly named Captain’s Last Resort – on the edge of the Indian Ocean and perfect for the task with which I have set myself. To heal my heart.
For the first time in months I sleep like the dead who have lain before me in this place. On my first night, I imagine I hear the chatter of thousands of voices swirling around the room.
It’s Thursday, and the local Christmas Island roundabout blackboard, which comically carries the daily news from tonight’s soccer game to a Christmas party, informs us that three asylum seekers have escaped from detention. The chalked words slouch there casually.
In deference to the island lifestyle I have quickly embraced, I don’t even bother to lock my door this night. I am facing my own demons and suspect, so are the escapees. They have no business with me.
There is nowhere for them to go on this island in the middle of nowhere, and they are quickly captured. The next day nobody bothers to erase the escaped sign from the blackboard. Instead, they simply cross out escaped and scribble “captured.”
I am well aware that despite everything I am the most fortunate of souls. I can leave at will when the next plane arrives in a few days’ time.
In between I snorkel and eat Chinese noodles with my friends. Attend the outdoor cinema under a blazing Southern Cross canopy. Go to beach barbecues with Phil, Lynnie and Linda. Look at Christmas Island’s Christmas lights. I drink sweet Malay kopi and eat hot curry for breakfast. Wake before dawn to see the annual red crab migration to the beach. Drink more gin.
On Monday, I pack up, jump on a jet, and head to Kuala Lumpur, and back into Australia with my much-coveted Australian passport.
Like the refugees I leave behind me on Christmas Island, and the many boatloads to come, I am still lost and have no idea what my future holds.
But unlike them, at least I am free.
To purchase a copy of Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey go to Amazon. The eBook costs $4.99. To order a limited edition hard copy of the book, priced at $14.99 (plus postage and handling) please email me at Christine.firstname.lastname@example.org
AUSTRALIA Day. Race 12. 4.45pm. And The Global Goddess is off and racing. Problem is, I can’t figure out which one she is, among the other critters on the field. I’m at my first cockroach races at Brisbane’s Story Bridge Hotel and have paid $10 to name and race a cockroach. But The Global Goddess doesn’t stand a chance against the tough boys like “Campbell’s a cock head” and “Keep your cock in your pants” and I never see her again. Just like the time I paid $60 for a lizard at the Eulo Lizard Races in the Outback. Oh, the frilly ran alright, straight out of the ring and into the Aussie desert, and like my $60, never to be seen again.
Australians love a wager and we’ll bet on anything. Some say it’s our ragged spirit, borne from living in the harshest country on earth. As I write this, a tornado rages around me. Last week it was the sickening stench of drought. I’ve spent this morning deciding in which room I might need to shelter later, and whether I need to do my hair and make-up in case a handsome emergency volunteer arrives to save me in the midst of the fury. And who said you can’t find someone while hiding under your bed?
But it’s exactly this rough and tumble of the land that I love. Whenever I’ve lived overseas, it’s the early-morning and late afternoon cackle of the kookaburra I miss the most. The punctuation mark on my day. Others hate the nagging crows. I adore them. They’re brusque and ballsy. I love how the summer rain tap dances on the hot tin roof of my timber cottage. The imperfect knots in the wood of my bare floor boards. I ache for the smell of the ocean when I’m stuck in a foreign city. Salt air you could eat sprinkled on a bucket of hot chips. Coconut sunscreen you could drink. Sticky mango fingers. Real waves that dump you, thrash you around and pick you up again. Just like this harsh land.
In her latest book Honestly, Notes on Life, novelist and columnist Nikki Gemmell writes of returning to Australia after living in England. “Life is about wringing the most happiness we can out of our time on Earth, and for me that means old mates and family and land and beauty – a spiky, prickly, ravishing Australian beauty, not that soft, benign, European one. Under a replenishing sun.” Her words make my soul do a somersault. Lost and lonely sometimes in foreign lands, I wonder if I’m the only weirdo who feels sentimental and soppy for the Southern Cross.
Knowing all this, who wouldn’t want to live here? And so this Australia Day long weekend I turn my thoughts, yet again, to boat people. I’m stunned when Australians who claim to love this country turn their backs on asylum seekers. Like they’ve forgotten how their own families arrived in the Great Southern Land. For me, it was five generations ago, via a perilous three-month boat journey from Europe. My adventurous Great, Great Grandfather Christian and his brave wife Amelia boarded the Susannah Godfrey in search of a new land and a better life for their family. I am direct descendent of a boat person. Who am I to deny any other family the same privilege of living in Australia?
And yet, somehow Aussies do. It’s what I call the ugly Australian. Devoid of compassion, insight and education. There’s a nasty rumour doing the rounds of Ipswich that the Sudanese refugee population receives $30,000 upon arrival in Australia. The ugly Australian is outraged. Frankly, if I had my way, they’d receive $100,000 to start a new life, away from the ravages of war, rape and the kind of hunger we will never imagine. Yet the ugly Australian resents these beautiful shiny black people who have suffered so much, they’ve relinquished their homeland.
So, enough. The time has come to accept we are global citizens and all the responsibilities that come with that privilege. Or before too long, Australia will not be our home of mirth by sea, but the laughing stock of the world.