Today I moved to Europe

I’m sitting in a plane 34,000 feet above Ahmedabad, India. I’m listening to “Lovesick in a Hotel Wildfire” by Korey Dane. There’s a little girl in the isle next to me who looks just like Boo from Monsters Inc. and she’s been trying to take a straw out of its plastic wrapper for the last 15 minutes. She keeps shaking the packet and looking up at her mum, who has fallen asleep in the chair beside her. 

I am on my way to Frankfurt, Germany with 30kgs of belongings, a tent and sleeping bag, a near-empty wallet and a desire to taste and love and breathe all that is Europe. I booked this trip just over a month ago during a brief but intense travel fling in Sri Lanka. It was the catalyst for something I had been flirting with for a while: to live somewhere else. I’m sure I could have satisfied that desire by moving to Hobart or Margaret River, but the allure of foreign languages seduced me. The last time I was in Europe I was a devout Christian in a committed relationship studying utopic fiction at Utrecht University in Holland. I no longer feel attached to that Ruby, so I’m excited to see the continent from a different perspective. 

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Naturally I will be writing about the experience. I struggle with treading the line between narcissism (who really gives a shit about my life, honestly?) and my love of words. I liken the act of publishing them on the internet to the way we used etch our initials into tree trunks and wooden tables as teenagers. This is me. I exist. My life is meaningful. Ruby was here. 

In part, it’s probably an attempt to justify my “unconventional” approach to stability. While I have recently reconciled my distaste of the word and adopted the belief that stability is different for everyone, insecurities remain. 

For me, a stable life is one which feeds my insatiable thirst for stories that make me feel more connected to humanity. At the moment, this usually looks like suitcases and tea-stained moleskine pages, red-eye flights and long blog posts. For my friends with babies in their bellies, rings on their fingers, 9-5 jobs and signed mortgages in filing cabinets, stability is the amalgam of these more “conventional” achievements. I relish and admire the strength required to commit to them, but only if they are happy doing so. If not, (and I can usually see it in their eyes after a few too many drinks in a dingy pub that’s calling for last drinks), I push and push and push. “Dive into the deep end! Come and tread water with me- you have more strength than you realise!” 

I don’t know what awaits me in Europe. I’m trying not to romanticise the possibilities too much (I have a tendency). I know I’ll write a lot and shoot a lot on my point-and-shoot camera. I know I’ll look for big baths with open windows for cold winter nights. I’ll look for expansive beaches on the warmer days and big green parks during those afternoons where cardigans are optional. I know there will be mundane days and grey skies, of late nights with homesick tears and hangovers that don’t deserve any written attention. Just a toilet bowl and some pain killers. 

Watch this space. I may last a week, I may last a month, I may last a few years. Who knows.

The Goo Goo Dolls have just shuffled their way onto my playlist and now I’m feeling wistful and nostalgic. Time for sleep I think. 6 hours to go. 

An Ode To Campbelltown

It was an innocent kind of childhood, growing up in the city of Campbelltown in Sydney's South West. As kids, we spent our afternoons racing around our cul-de-sac, dumping rusted bicycles on the grass to run in for pikelets and jam with the neighbours. I usually had grass stains on my knees from playing touch footy in the park across the road. That was before the older boys set up camp and tried to cut a deal and swap my new bicycle for a block of sandstone they had, unbeknownst to them, stolen from my very yard.  

I had my first date at Dumeresq Street Cinema when I was 12. I had one boyfriend sitting to the left and one to the right. We watched iRobot for $5 and one of them tried to put his arm around me. I remember spending the duration of the film with my elbows firmly planted on my knees, choc top in hand, terrified of letting his arm touch the back of my neck. I wore pink butterfly earrings Mum helped me pick out from Diva. There are bigger cinemas in town nowadays. Their movies cost $22 a ticket and you can pay more to have white wine delivered in recliner chairs. If we go to Dumeresq Street, it’s only to watch the “Ballard’s Meat, bloody good meat” commercial. It’s become a legacy.

Down the road, a ceramic pig sits tall and proud on the corner of Campbelltown’s busiest intersection. Pig belongs to Tim’s Garden Centre, and he’s been the social commentator of the town for 10 years. The cars milling at the lights always know to look out for Pig’s gossip. He gets the news out quicker than the Macarthur Chronicle, with or without the appropriate use of apostrophes.

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Sometimes Pig gets “pig-napped”, but the sign assures us that he’s probably off on an adventure. I’m sure Tim Pickles has been through many ceramic pigs.

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When I was a teenager, the bridge that connected Macarthur Square to the Macarthur train station was always populated by emos with studded belts and fingerless gloves. They were likely listening to My Chemical Romance and Escape the Fate through tangled headphones, fiddling with their facial piercings and shuffling their black fringes over their faces. Nobody knows where the emos are now. Probably writing poetry on Tumblr.

On the first day of my new high school, after I’d left the previous due to bullying, someone in my class wrote their name on the table with an aerosol can and lit it on fire. The teachers spent more time disciplining than teaching the curriculum but that was okay. Some of them let us go to McDonalds during our lunch break, which inevitably led us to Appin Bakery for a pie and down Mount Ousley to perve at the tradies at clock off.  

When Todd was killed out the front of a party when we were 16 that shook things up. People kept saying the conflict was due to graffiti or girls or something. Either way, the community was torn. Graduating Year 12 was difficult because there were people from both sides of the conflict in the room. They were tough looking characters with tattoos and a kind of unwavering loyalty that was to be admired. Not everyone got an applause when they were handed their graduating certificate.

As of 2016, only 47% of Campbelltown’s population over 15 had completed Year 12.

As we hit puberty, the never-ending and comfortingly dark street beside Mount Carmel High School became the place to explore a lover’s body. That was at least until a police car pulled up and shone a light in the steamy car window, the light bouncing off pale bottoms and the soft skin on the inner thighs. You’d give the officer an ‘it’s consensual’ nod before baring your tits and waving them goodbye.

The Raby Walker, the butt of too many jokes, sparked many conversations on Facebook about mental illness and respect. Whenever you’d drive to Minto station you’d be sure to see him in his stride. Sometimes people took photos of him and the Raby Walker Facebook Page would post it. The Raby Walker is still around, Mum’s called the hospital a few times over the years because he keeps running out into traffic.

On the rare occasion I’d stay out late in Kings Cross, (before the lock out laws set fire to the industry), I'd catch the night rider home. The trains stopped running at midnight. The bus was always peaceful, with drunk teenagers dozing in the laps of their friends or lying across the seats, the suburban lights licking at the windows in the blur that comes with a big night. Sometimes we’d forget that the taxis wouldn’t pick us up from Minto Station because it was “too unsafe” and we’d find ourselves ringing our folks, praying for a lift and a patient, sleepy voice on the receiving end.

There are a lot of places to eat in Campbelltown. Hooters is best for wings. If it's your birthday, they'll make you spell your name with your arse while you're standing on a chair. They always say "Welcome to Hooters" when you walk in. Rashays is where you go if you want to leaf through a menu the length of a Bible and drink soft drinks from 2L glasses. If you've got a sweet ride with good subs and a spoiler, it's more about the carpark. McDonalds Woodbine on a Thursday night is the place to be, if you're interested. 

I remember the first time I went to a social occasion at a friend’s house in a wealthier part of Sydney. I cried into my mum’s shoulder the morning of, ashamed of my second-hand wardrobe and my lack of knowledge about makeup and fashion designers. She took me shopping and we bought a whole outfit- a conservative red dress from Dotti with a little black belt, small black heels and matching earrings. She leant me her black handbag with the pearl clasp. The first question I was asked by a girl at the party was “so, how many of your friends are pregnant?”. We were both burdened by ignorance.

There used to be a suburb called Claymore in Campbelltown. They’ve knocked most of the housing commission down now, rebuilding and changing the name so that new buyers can’t research the history of the place. It used to be full of houses with boarded up windows and sheets for curtains, front yards littered with glass bottles and ripped furniture, flag poles with the Aussie flag flying tall and proud.

In 2009, the Rosemeadow Riots left 6 men with gunshot and stab wounds and a mother of 15 children alongside six other families being served with eviction notices. I remember catching the bus down to Wollongong University years later and hearing stories from those who had experienced it. I heard a lady talk about hiding under a bed with her kid while she watched people waltz through her place with a bat. One of my best friends lived there. Her little brother once asked if my family was poor because we didn’t drink Coke at the dinner table.

I once confided in a friend that my family was struggling financially. He told me my parents were selfish, that they could have tried harder to earn more money so that I wouldn’t miss out on school excursions and international travel. His father was in gaol for financial fraud. I told him a kiss goodnight from my Dad and a home cooked meal from Mum every night was all I could ever want. I didn’t feel like I was missing a thing. Dad let go of his business when I was born to work in a factory from 9-3 so he could be there for breakfast and dinner, to be there to ask about what I learnt that day and what my friends' names were. Mum went to university when she was 40 because she got a scholarship and ended up the Dean’s Scholar. Even when she was studying and working, she managed to cook my sister and I cookies and cupcakes for school. No school excursion could have taught me about sacrifice and hard work in the same way.  

Growing up, I felt pride watching the teen mums on my social feeds blossoming into kind and smiling parents. Watching their children grow as we did. Celebrating their first steps on Facebook as we celebrated our first jobs or our first cars. We knew that the vapid stereotypes didn’t do the hard work and sacrifice of being a teen parent justice.

Now, I’m watching friends make something of themselves: being the first in their family go to uni, scoring record deals in the Aussie hip hop scene, buying a house and land package, starting plumbing businesses. Others I can see falling between the cracks, slipping into the cycle of the system.

For those of us who grew up here, Campbelltown was so much more than its stereotype: kids with rat tails and flanno-wearing, mullet-donning Dads; muffin tops and tights-as-pants and ugg boots covering foot tattoos; re-growth and fake nails and neck tattoos; Southern Cross vinyl stickers on the back of commodores and on the calves of young men. It was also home to the house that was full of the love and sacrifice of two parents who showed me a world that I could contribute to.

It’s Winter in Campbelltown at the moment. Pig’s wearing his flanno and talking about the weather. It’s nice to be home.

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Header photo by Michel Tuffery
All photos taken from Tim's Garden Centre's Facebook Page

A Letter to 70-year-old Me

Dear 70-year-old me, 

Firstly, congratulations. You made it. 

I’m writing this to you from Mum and Dad’s couch at the ripe age of 24. I’m moving to Europe in a month and I’m kind of living between houses, mostly on the couches and in the beds of friends. I’m self-employed, however I’ve only been working around 5 hours a week lately. I've shaved off my workload so I can enjoy my final month in Australia on dance floors and under waterfalls. 

To be honest, I’m kind of scared about what the earth is going to look like if it’s still around in 2065. The Great Barrier Reef probably doesn’t exist anymore. Thankfully, the big supermarket chains have just banned single-use plastic bags so I'd like to think we've extended the life of some marine species by a few years. I hope the 24-year-olds of your day don’t even know what plastic bags are. 

I can’t comprehend where technology will be at, either. Maybe you’re on Mars right now.  Maybe you don’t know how to read anymore because all of this is just channeling through a chip in your brain. It’s funny how chips can be potatoes and also things that store entire worlds of data. They can both be fried, too. 

I’ve got a real thirst for life at the moment. I feel like I’m on the brink of a pretty remarkable time in history, especially for young women. I mean, we’re still fucking dying at the hands of male violence every damn week, but our voices are louder. We’re standing together. It’s really empowering. I hope the young women you know feel safe walking down the street and don’t feel like they have to put a thumb over the head of their bottles in clubs anymore. Remember when we used to do that? 

I’m really fucking confused about God right now. I’m sure you’re even more confused now that, objectively speaking, you’re a heck of a lot closer to death. I wonder what you think of death. Right now, it doesn't really scare me. Not because I think I'm invinsible or anything, but because I'm happy with what I've done so far. Of course, I don't feel finished... but if someone told me I was going to die in 100 days, I wouldn't deviate from the path I'm on. I wonder if you maintained this perspective throughout your 40s and 50s and 60s. 

I hope you haven’t dyed your hair. There are probably a handful of people in your life who haven’t made it far enough to see their hair greying at the roots, greying all the way to the ends. Remember how proud Dad was of Mum’s grey hair? He believed it was such an honour to grow old together. I hope you haven’t forgotten the fact that age is a gift. 

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I hope you wrote a book. You used to be so damn scared of committing to a big project because of the damage your pride would suffer if it wasn’t purchased by a publishing house or if it wasn’t enjoyed by others. I hope you just wrote a bloody book regardless. 

I hope you’re wildly inappropriate at family dinners. I feel like old people get away with stuff. I saw an elderly man cross a busy street in Sydney just last week. He didn’t care, he didn’t even wait for a break in traffic. He just put one foot forward, raised a hand to slow down the five lanes of traffic and got on with his life. Nobody seemed to care. I hope you’re stepping into metaphorical traffic with dinner conversations. Now’s the time to talk about your experiences with sex and drugs. There’s no career to damage and no digital footprint to follow you in a way that will haunt you. 

I hope you’ve tasted love, I hope you’ve drunk litres of the stuff, I hope you’re drunk on it now! I can’t imagine being loved up but I do hope that future me is. I don't mind if it's not a husband. Maybe you're juggling a few flings in your old age. That would be pretty badass. 

I hope you still dance. I hope that at the weddings of younger generations you’ve still got the energy to get out of your chair and swing your hips. Flirt incessantly with the young men, they secretly love it. They’ll probably joke about it on social media (if it still exists?) and post a photo of you. Make sure you keep sticking your butt out when you drop it low. Embrace it all. 

I hope you've retired now. But not retired-retired. I hope you're still committing to a life of service. I don't know what kind of impact one person can truly make, and I'm a little confused about where I can slot in to contribute to systemic change, but I hope at 70, you feel like you've found that place. I'm sure there's still lots more work to do. The average life expectancy of a woman in Australia is around 85, so thankfully you still have 15 more years. A lot can be done in that time I should think. 

There are some things I pray you remember. I hope you're sitting back in a cane chair on a balcony somewhere sunny and you close your eyes and think about them for a while. Maybe roll yourself a joint. Marijuana isn't legal yet, but it will be in 2065. If not, you know what to do. 

Remember this? Sitting by Bellambi pools at sundown with your housemates sinking tinnies and watching the cockatoos perch on the fences of the housing commission blocks in your cul-de-sac. The taste of Mum’s chocolate cookies with the coloured sprinkles on top. The sound of Dad’s laughter after he’d say something that definitely wasn’t as funny as he thought it was. Your first teethy kiss in the church storeroom. Gloria playing the piano in the morning before school. Running through the ocean in the nude in the middle of the day with long lost lovers you recall only by their profession or by the weird inanimate object that lived on the dashboard of their car. The feeling of the wind on your body when you rode your motorbike through Wollongong naked. Camping on the beach in Italy. Hiking in Borneo. Smoking on the balcony in Sri Lanka. Climbing up the ladder above the peach trees and the fog in Araluen valley as the sun rose. The first time you heard ‘Fly’ by Ludovico Einaudi.

I hope you can think of a thousand more beautiful moments. I hope you've written them all down somewhere, so you can hand them over to a little one in your life. I hope you've maintained the belief that a mortgage and a career won't make you happy, that it's the combination of moments of love that make you the richest person alive. 

All my love in youthful ignorance,

Ruby

“I’m Valid”: Conversations with an Afghani Orphan in Sri Lanka

“What really counted was the possibility of escape, a leap of freedom, out of the implacable ritual, a wild run for it that would give whatever chance for hope there was. Of course, hope meant being cut down on some street corner, as you ran like man, by a random bullet. But when I really thought it through, nothing was going to allow me such a luxury. Everything was against it…”  – Albert Camus, The Stranger

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I’m in Sri Lanka with Craig, a friend from my home town, and we’ve been having trouble sourcing cigarettes and beer. 

In the hostel we’ve checked in to, we ask a boisterous young man from Afghanistan, a man smoking and drinking a beer in the courtyard, whether he knows a place. He offers to take us himself so we say “sweet, in 15 minutes?” and he says “the future is unpredictable! The future is now! You never know what is going to happen!”. So we push our unwashed bodies off the couch, pull on our shoes and march out of the house.

From the hostel awning, we watch the afternoon storm roll in and settle above Colombo city. The rain begins to fall and our bare, sticky arms welcome it.

“When it rains we go inside and when it’s sunny we go in the shade.” The Afghani says. “If I say I love you, will you run away?”. He turns to us and flashes a smile, bringing a beedi to his lips before offering the packet to Craig.

The three of us walk through the bustling Sri Lankan streets with tobacco in our lungs. Later, we'll discover that smoking in major cities and train stations here is illegal, but at this point, the blissful ignorance that comes with arriving in a foreign land is enough to prevent us from questioning our cultural assumptions. 

The man whose name we don’t know tells us he’s been in Sri Lanka only a week or so and that it is here he tasted the ocean on his lips for the first time. I could sense the shock from Craig, an avid surfer, beside me.

“To me, this is heaven.” he says, with his hands outstretched. “Afghanistan was hell and now I have escaped, I am free!”.

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We learn he was an orphan. His father died when he was very young and his mother had to sell him like a slave. He lived on the streets and never went to school.

I don’t know what school is like, but I love learning. When I was little and working on a farm, whenever new people came, I would point to things in books and tell them to explain. This is how I learnt English.

We learn he also knows how to speak Persian and Indian and that he’s learning Spanish too, because he wants to marry a Spanish girl.

He weaves around tuk tuks on the bustling streets with agility. He looks over to us and smiles.

But last year, I found Mum on Facebook and yesterday, my VISA to Canada was approved so I can go and meet her! I don’t know what it’s like to have a Mum, but I have one! I messaged so many people on Facebook and many blocked me, but Mum wrote back and asked if I have a birthmark on my leg and I do.

He reaches down and pulls up a pant leg. There is a small birthmark, the size of a milk bottle lid, on the inside of his calf.

I have been looking for her for 20 years and she has been looking for me too. I am the happiest man in the world!

Craig and I look over to him and smile. “I bet you can’t wait to see her.”

“I’ll be her husband, I’ll be her son. I’ll be everything! I’ll dedicate my life to her and I’ll never leave her side man!”. He pulls the beedi from his mouth and drops it into a street bin. He turns to me and says “I call you man because you are outside. Women cannot go outside like this where I am from so you are a man”. He walks ahead.

We ask him what he did for work, before he came to Sri Lanka. He tells us he worked in search engine optimisation which meant presumably, he was one of those people many of us with websites outsource our SEO to. I wonder how often we think of the human life behind the email.

He tells us he loves to write as it was books that opened his eyes to the world.

Have you read Camus? The Stranger is my favourite book – it’s my life. Camus has written my life, we are like brothers. Growing up in Afghanistan, of course I was Muslim, but The Stranger broke me. It made me realise my life was based on one story.

I remember once I was writing for 7 days straight with no sleep. I took a lot of ecstasy and at the end of the week I fell asleep on the floor and I was exhausted. When I woke up, everything had been erased. People began talking, telling me they knew I was writing against the Taliban and against all the gods. I received a letter that told me to stop. That’s when I got out. You don’t understand. It’s different there.

We make our way to the counter that sells alcohol. $2.10 for a 500mL beer. Craig buys 6 and we start talking about how we will carry them back to the hostel.

“You enjoy her, she enjoys you and I enjoy the both of you” he says, a smile glued to his face. Later we tell him that we're simply friends and he can't believe it. Two friends of the opposite sex travelling together? He couldn't comprehend it. 

As we near the hostel entrance, I ask him what his name is, a nicety that is often futile in hostel lobbies, emerging only once a connection has been established.

“I’m Vaild*.
And yes, I’m valid too.” He laughs. “And you?”
“I’m Ruby”
“I’m Craig”
“Like Craigslist?”
“Yes, like Craigslist.”

We walk into the hostel together and open a beer.

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*His name is spelt Walid, but pronounced with a V. 
All shots taken with my little point and shoot film camera.

Reflections on 75 Days of Self-Employment

It’s been 75 days since I quit my job and decided to dive into the world of self-employment.

In that time, I drove around Tasmania's North West and kept warm by beach fires. I camped in pine forests and jumped off bridges into freshwater lakes. I drove the south coast of Western Australia and lived in a van and swum in bodies of water every single day. I ran down a highway naked. I went to Melbourne twice and hiked the Grampians and cooled off under waterfalls. I rode my motorbike in the nude through the back streets of a familiar town I once lived in. I was filmed for a Woolworths TV commercial. I hiked in five different states. I started working with politicians and universities and adventure brands. I took 9 planes. I slept in the Royal National Park and stayed in Jervis Bay. I got drunk on Tinder dates. I danced the salsa in clubs and in bedrooms at midnight until I was covered in sweat. I made double what I would have made if I stayed in my 9-6.

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I was sexually assaulted. I wasn’t allowed to board a plane because I wasn’t wearing shoes. I stressed about the financial security of my business. My motorbike needed significant repairs. On four separate occasions, I felt uncomfortable walking home due to wolf whistles and beeping and snide remarks. The garage in which I live in was invaded by thousands of little caterpillars. I was fined for taking a hire car off-road. I got incredibly sunburnt. I recognised that my heart was ultimately empty and that I would struggle to allow someone to curl up and make a home in there again. I mourned the loss of friendships and I expected too much from those at an arm’s length. I battled with the arrogance that comes with starting something successful when old friends doubted you. I sent stupid texts in bouts of insecurity. I broke a heart.

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I worked at a desk and missed having colleagues. I worked at a beach-side café and was thankful for the diversity of spaces. I went four days without showering. I listened to alt-J on repeat. I ran Skype meetings with a nice blouse and no pants on. I had a bowl of ice-cream in the bath at lunch time. I discovered that business has an entirely different moral code to personal relationships. I embraced spontaneity because I owned my schedule in its entirety. I wondered what I would do if I got sick and what would happen when I retire because tax and super and HECS-HELP payments are up to me now. I decided to think about those things later.

Later.

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I tried to learn how to love my body more by being naked in front of friends and by being naked in front of strangers. I drew nude portraits of myself, studying the curves and folds that remain hidden in photos and behind full-piece swimsuits. With my pencil and a mirror, I explored the shadows. It became a nightly ritual.

I didn’t allow myself to slow down. I said yes to every single business opportunity, to the point where I had more work than I could handle, to the point where I am now looking into registering a company and hiring staff.

I forgot to dedicate time for the things I love like books and baths and handwritten letters. I realised there were some things I loved that I had to sacrifice for a while.

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I learnt that if I speak the passion that dwells at the core of my being, then it will reach the right ears. Better friendships and bolder business opportunities sprout in those conversations and what joy it is to walk away from them feeling lighter, happier.

It is my hope that the next 75 days are as full of the ecstasy of risk as the first 75. 

Black History, White Lies: The Day an Aboriginal Man Revealed My Ignorance

The three of us are lying in the back of our rented camper in a carpark by Margaret River in Western Australia. Our noses are buried in books and our legs are twisted around a naked doona we bought from K-mart earlier in the day. We’ve been on the road for about a week now, comfortable with the light layer of red sand sifted through the roots of our hair.

“Hey girls!” we hear, as a man approaches the van. He looks like he’s in his mid-30s and he’s of Aboriginal appearance. He continues talking like he knows us except we’re not listening. We have never seen this man before and the three of us instinctively rise to protect ourselves as women are prone to do when they are approached by a male stranger.

“Oh, sorry girls. I thought youse was German! No bullshit!” he says with a friendly smile. “They was drivin’ around in the same kind of van!”

We started making small talk with the man whose name was Malaak and soon we were bounding through the forest behind him searching for hairy marrons, a species of endangered crayfish (“I can’t believe youse ‘aven’t seen ‘em yet!”) and picking bush foods from the shrubs.

“You girls want a feed? We can catch one right now if you want!” he says enthusiastically, pointing down at the hairy marrons in the murky water below.

We could barely keep up in our bare feet and singlets and we didn’t know whether to be excited or wary. Is he drunk? Is that alcohol in the water bottle he is carrying? Are we safe? Should I put a jumper over my singlet? Do we really want to follow him into the bush? What are his ulterior motives?

The hesitations and questions that arose were directly correlated to the racist messaging that the government has funnelled through media channels since I was a small girl. Ugly stereotypes were swirling about in my subconscious, rising to the surface like a crocodile ready to defend its territory. My territory?

Reminder: his territory.

According to the Reconciliation Barometer’s Key Findings Fact Sheet of 2010, only 9% of Aboriginal Australians believe the media presents a balanced view of them. I will not hesitate when I say that I don’t think those numbers would be very different now, 8 years later.

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After running around the river for a while, we found ourselves squatting on a log jutting out across the river bank. The moon was plump and golden and seemed to cloak Margaret River in a kind of ethereal glow.

“Let me tell youse girls some yarns! Wanna hear some yarns?”

We nod eagerly. We had never heard a yarn from an Australian Aboriginal, not in a way that wasn’t staged or done for the sake of upholding some kind of image. This was a great honour and we were all keen to ask our questions.

As conversation started to breathe a rhythm, I realised how little I knew about the first peoples. Where were these stories in our classrooms? Where were the indigenous voices? Where was the emphasis on the true effects of colonisation?

Did you know, in a matter of 30 years in Tasmania, the indigenous population fell from 5,000-10,000 to 300?

Malaak started calling us sisters and soon, the local Noongar word for woman. By the end he referred to us as spirits because “we’re all one here”.

He told us that the reason women cannot play the didgeridoo is because the Noongar people believe the vibrations will damage a woman’s reproductive organs.

He told us that the white fellas, our ancestors, poisoned their rivers and their creeks, so they had to go to the rivers the white fellas claimed as theirs, where they were greeted with guns and death.

“The white people thought we were dumb because we didn’t know their way of life. But we didn’t need a pen and paper to tell us how to look after our land... we’d been looking after it for a long time without their help. The white fellas were our friends at the start, we taught them everything we knew. Then some of them saw the prosperity of the land and got greedy. If the land could speak, it would say it doesn’t care about your money.

Australia’s prosperity is on our broken backs.”

Their backs are still breaking. The war is not over.

“People look at me walking through the streets like I’m a foreigner, but this is my home… I still walk down the road and feel the compressed weight of the people saying I’m worthless. Even in forms we're a separate nation. "Are you Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander?"”

I’m sorry.

“I wanted to go to the Cronulla riots with my mob with our paint and our didgeridoos and yell “what the fuck are you fighting about? You haven’t made peace with us! The war is still happening here!” That would have really fucked them up, don’t you think? I would have liked to have seen that happen.”

Perspective. 

“Australia Day is like celebrating Hitler if he won the war. Australia Day feels like a celebration of war crimes. There has been no treaty, the war is still happening and the wound is still open.”

Change the date.

“You tell me I’m lazy because I don’t work, but you forget we never needed to work. For tens of thousands of years we survived working with nature, not against her. I would happily live out there with nothing. Sometimes I go out there for 2 weeks with nothing but the clothes on my back.”

How quickly he destroyed everything I thought I knew about the history of the place I call home. How dare I expect Indigenous Australians to work and to embed themselves in their invader’s culture? How had I not understood their resentment and frustration until now?

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The more Malaak shares, the more we want to know. He shifts on the log and let his legs dangle out to the water.

We ask him how he greets the land when he arrives at a new place. He tells us he picks up some earth and throws it towards the wind. Then he listens.

“One click, and you’re safe” he says, and clicks his fingers once.

“Two clicks, and you shouldn’t stay there for the night”.

He clicks his fingers twice and the sound echoes down the river. Beside the log we were perched on something rustles in the bushes, frightening us, and he smiles. Two clicks.

~

Time seems like a strange commodity of a Brave New World when you’re in nature and immersed in story. Nevertheless, time passes and the late evening breeze sweeps through the river and rushes past our tanned bodies. Malaak turns to us and asks one final question:

“Imagine sitting here, on this log hundreds of years ago. What word would you use to describe this?” He turns to the sky of stars with arms outstretched to the river.

There is a pause before I turn to him and whisper, “home”.

He turns to me and nods, "yes, sister, you got it. This is home."

Slowly we scramble off the log and walk back to the van. Somehow our desire to meet cute boys at the local pub seems superficial, there are more important things to think about. 

“You girls want me to tell you some more yarns and show you some good spots tomorrow?” he asks after we hug him goodbye. We arrange to pick him up at 8am the following morning.

~

The following day, Malaak directs us out to the dirt roads that weave through the outskirts of Western Australian towns. We bring him a pie for breakfast from the local bakery. He smiles and thanks us but says “I don’t eat this stuff, but thanks for the thought girls.”

That morning he teaches us how to make bush cordial and catch a goanna and together we make damper over a fire from flour he’s brought in a zip-lock bag.

“Are you sure you don’t have any blackfella in you?” he asks us “’cause this is some of the best damper I ever had!”.

While we’re sitting around the fire, Malaak’s brother calls. We hear muffled sentences from the other end of the line asking him why he’s with white fellas and whether he’s safe. I guess this is what my parents would ask if I told them I was in the bush with 3 older men I had never met.

While the damper cools, he pulls out some paint made from pigments at a sacred indigenous site not far from where we were. Using sticks by the fire he proceeds to paint artworks on our bodies. He paints a kangaroo on my arm, the spirit animal of his grandfather, a dolphin on my friend’s leg and a goanna on the back of the other. What a beautiful thing it is to watch someone deep in thought while painting.

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At the end of the day, after spending eight hours circling through dirt roads, pulling up to river beds and swimming in water holes, I ask him what we can do to make things better. How three white women living comfortable lives in one of the world’s most expensive cities can do anything at all. 

“You’re a writer?” he asks me. “Good. You can tell this story. That’s all I ask. All I want is for people to tell our truth. "

~

I would like to acknowledge and pay my respect to the traditional owners of the Noongar boodja past, present and emerging, on which we met Malaak and had the great honour of sharing his spirit. 

My Favourite Books of 2017

Every year I challenge myself to read 50 books. In 2017 I moved four times, changed jobs 3 times and, as ridiculous as it sounds, lived my most stable 365 days in 5 years. I didn't manage to hit 50. 

In 2017 I read 41 books which, according to Goodreads, totalled to over 11, 794 pages. I read so many incredible books that I'm genuinely struggling to list my favourites. Anything by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig and Australian writer Tim Winton is amazing, so I won't bother going into detail there. Purchase and consume literally any of their works. You'll thank me later.

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Favourite Fiction:

Let The Great World Spin - Colum McCann
A boy on Instagram recommended this book to me and I adored it. I posted it to another friend immediately after finishing it.

It's one of those books that follows multiple storylines centred around an event in history: a man walking a tight rope between the Twin Towers. This actually happened, and there's a really awesome documentary about it called Man On Wire. The book is incredibly poetic, with some strong social commentary about religion and class. For my post-Christian-still-spiritual readers, you'll love one character in particular, Corrigan. 

“Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where He was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed. He took little or nothing along, a pair of sandals, a bit of a shirt, a few odds and ends to stave off the loneliness. He never rejected the world. If He had rejected it, He would have been rejecting mystery. And if He rejected mystery, He would have been rejecting faith.” 

“What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday...he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it.” 

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
This was a heavy read about a fictional kid who committed a fictional mass shooting in America. It addresses the blame we place on parents, and how a young person may reach the point where they commit such an atrocity. I inhaled this book and the ending shook me.

My Name is Leon - Kit de Waal
If you're after a consumable read, this should be next on your list. I didn't leave the couch until the final page had been devoured. A beautiful story documenting two brothers who are separated as children and put into foster care. It vividly portrays all of the pain and anger that comes with. 

The Atomic Weight of Love - Elizabeth J. Church
Set in the 1940s, this novel is about one woman's quest to be recognised as an intellectual in her own right. Exploring many of the challenges that women faced in this period and woven with romance and bird watching, this book left me feeling grateful for the sacrifices women have made in the name of feminism. 

“Take one Naive Girl. Bring to room temperature in the Big City. Add three cups Academia. If in one cup Encouragement. Fold in two drop Love. Sprinkle with one teaspoon Adoration. Mix thoroughly. Spoon carefully into greased Pan of Matrimony. Bake in Desert Heat for 25. Test doneness with Careless Toothpick. Let cool on Wire Rack of Inertia. Serve with generous dollops of Benign Neglect.” 

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
Ah, my favourite genre, Speculative Fiction. Anyone who loves reading loves reading books about books. This is such a fun and beautiful 1-day read about what the world would be like without books. Spoiler alert: it sucks. 

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” 

Favourite Non-Fiction:

Without You There Is No Us - Suki Kim
A journalist goes undercover as a missionary who goes undercover as a university tutor in a North Korean university for elite young men. What an incredible insight into a world I had no understanding of. I told a very hungover young man all about it in Margaret River, WA on New Years Day I was so excited about it. It's one of those non-fiction reads that flows more like a story than an academic piece of literature. I promise you will be shocked by the contents.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari
This is a big fella and has been held in high acclaim largely due to its accessibility. The first half of this book was addictive as I followed the evolution of mankind across the continents. Growing up in the church and in a school with limited teaching on history, I had no idea how much science had discovered about the origin of our species (screw you, Creationists). I was absolutely shocked by my own ignorance, and it was a joy to be enlightened. I slowed down in the final quarter, but there was a lot of meaty bits and I'd encourage you to give it a read. 

2018 Goal

Yup, another 50. I want to dive into more non-fiction this year, so feel free to shoot through your recommendations! What did you love in 2017? What are you looking forward to reading this year? I have just started The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and I'm being hit with some crazy revelations. My pen is permanently tucked behind my ear or in my messy bun. 

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"By the 1980s beauty had come to play in women's status-seeking the same role as money plays in that of men: a defensive proof to aggressive competitors of womanhood or manhood. Since both value systems are reductive, neither reward is ever enough, and each quickly loses any relationship to real-life values. Throughout the decade, as money's ability to buy time for comfort and leisure was abandoned in the stratospheric pursuit of wealth for wealth's sale, the competition for "beauty" saw a parallel inflation: The material pleasures once presented as its goals- sex, love, intimacy, self-expression- were lost in a desperate struggle within a sealed economy, becoming distant and quaint memories." 

Crying On The Shoulder Of My Uber Driver

He pulls into the driveway and turns off the car. With tears in my eyes, I reach out to shake his hand. He leans in for a hug and we hold it for a while. I struggle to keep it together.

“Thank you for telling me your story” I say.
“Thank you for caring” he replies.

I grab my bags and swing the door shut. He waits in the driveway until I enter the house safely. I don’t look back.

~

Aba* smiles at me as I open the door, showing a mouth full of pearly whites. We get chatting straight away, and I ask whether he was born in Australia.

“I am from Rwanda” he says. “Rwanda is an African country near Uganda and the Congo. I have been in Australia three years now. I come to Australia to do my Masters with my wife and two little children. We had only $3000 in our bank account and we didn’t know where we were going to live or what we were going to do for work. Our English was very bad. I only speak French….”

He was unassuming and kind. I continued asking the standard Uber questions, but with a little more earnestness. “Most people ask these questions” he says, “but they don’t really want to listen”.

I asked him if he missed home.

“I don’t miss home, because home for me is not like home for you. I lost my parents and my brothers and sisters in mass killings when I was 16, a million dead in three months. I have nothing to miss, not really.”

I ask him if that was during the Rwandan genocide, with the Tutsis and the Hutus. He responds with, “you know about that?”, shocked that a young western woman would know of the genocidal mass slaughter of almost a million Rwandans over 100 days in 1994. (If we did, where were we? Why didn’t we do anything?) I told him I had seen Hotel Rwanda and he nodded. “That’s the one. But it was worse than that. It is something you can never explain, something too horrific to think about. But I remember it. I see every image and yet, I can’t describe it. I can’t say it, not even now…”

Aba stares out at the road ahead and I shy away in my passenger seat, watching the cars drive by, their lights like ribbons in the wind. I remember sobbing on a beanbag at a Rwandan charity evening after watching Hotel Rwanda, unable to process just how evil humans can be. The scene where the car is driving along a bumpy road at night, only to discover that all those bumps are human bodies haunts me.

And yet here before me is a survivor, a survivor that not only saw it, but felt it. 

“In our first week in Australia my family lived in a hotel, but we couldn’t afford it after that, so we moved to a hostel out of town. We were paying $500 for one room of bunk beds, and if they were busy more people would come and stay in our room too. It was hard, you know? We were running out of money very quickly and no one would give us a house- we didn’t have a rental history and we didn’t have enough money for bond. Most were asking for $6000 for 6 months. I didn’t even have $1000 to my name. So, one day I caught a train and thought to myself: I will just get off somewhere. I will just get off anywhere.”

He tells me he gets off at Parramatta station, an hour out of Sydney, and enters the first real-estate agent he passes on the main street. He talks to an agent and begs for a house. He tells him his story with faith in his heart and love in his eyes. He would give him every dollar his family owned. The man said he’d talk to his manager and to come back and see him in a couple of days.

Two days later he returned to the real estate agent with his wife, his four-month old, his two-year-old and their two bags of possessions. The man was moved by their sincerity and their need. He handed over a key to a unit in Blacktown and said: ‘Don’t tell my boss but go, go and move in and we’ll talk paperwork next week. Just get out of that damn hostel’. He walked up the road with his family and their bags and they moved under their first very own Australian roof. No bed, no mattress, no cutlery. Just two bags and each other. A week later they signed the papers and found a mattress on the side of the road. His wife was working, and he found a job too. He continued studying his Masters full time.

And then they struck luck, or maybe his Faith gave them a deserving gift. His wife got a promotion. They got permanent residency. He signed a contract for a full-time job. He bought a piece of land that, by the time it was registered, had doubled in value and thus no longer required a deposit. His two-storey house with a double garage is now being built. His children have just started at private schools. They have a bed to sleep on.

He calls his Australian life his resurrection. His second chance from his loving God. And he loves our country fiercely.

“I always hear people complaining that they will never be able to afford a house in this country and it makes me sad you know? Because I’ve only been here three years and I came with nothing. I have two children and a wife to provide for and I did it.” He did not speak boastfully, but with a kind of sadness. It was then that I understood the depth of my entitlement. The weight of my ignorance. My desperation to have things easy and to have things now.

~

I used to take out my phone when in an Uber. It was an automatic thing, like pulling out your phone when you’re on the toilet at work, or at a bus stop, or when your friend goes to the bathroom at a restaurant and you tell yourself you’ll look weird if you’re not doing SOMETHING. In an Uber, pulling out your phone builds a wall. We take comfort behind that wall, happy we don’t have to engage in surface level conversation with a stranger we’ll never see again. But the last few conversations I’ve had have taught me differently.

Uber has given a lot of people a chance to live. One girl I rode with was paying medical bills. Another was paying for his son’s education because he didn’t have a chance at a good education himself. Another was sending his earnings back home, so his family could eat and live and send his nieces and nephews to school. How many opportunities have Uber-users missed by pulling out their damned phones? How many people had stories they were willing to share if only a stranger cared about the questions they asked?

Aba taught me a lot about faith. He taught me a lot about my own privilege. He reminded me to listen and to think about what truly matters in my life. A Bible verse that has stayed with me, long past my Christian upbringing, seems fitting to leave at the end of this story in respect to Aba…

“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for they may be angels in disguise” – Hebrews 13:2

 

*Name changed for privacy