March 27, 2017 § 3 Comments
Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning. Gloria Steinem
How do I start. 1 year, 9 months and 3 continents have gone by since I was last here. After many false starts and false promises I find myself cross legged on the couch in my Melbourne suburb home and ready to share a story. The windows are open and autumn is rolling in across the busy streets right up to our front door. And by god does it feel good! Not only to be here again, but to feel a sense of coming home – settled.
It recently dawned on me that it is exactly 3 years ago to this day that I made the decision to leave Australia in search of a dream.
I was living in Darwin and had gone to Bali to do a yoga teacher training course. Some whimsical desire to get away from it all and move from my head and into my heart. I never had the intention of becoming a yoga teacher, I just wanted to go away for a month, do lots of yoga and explore my mind – that inner world – sweep it out, open the windows, give it a good air and take the duster to it.
One morning, in a little seaside village of Bali, I found myself in a cafe where you could sit on top of the rice fields, eat organic eggs and watch the golden light rise over the sound of the roosters. Dark clouds were brewing in the east and my heart was dancing. I realised what kind of a negative state of mind I had been in in Darwin. I was reeling from a recent break up and stressed and anxious in my job. The weight of it only seemed to dawn on my once I saw again how things could be good.
With the morning sun on my face, my mind drifted to the previous day when I had stopped to watch an old man painting the gate at the guest house where I was staying. It wasn’t a huge gate by any standards, but it had taken him two whole days to complete. He sat there in such concentration, with steady slow even brush strokes, totally absorbed in his task. The man who painted the gate became my inspiration, my guru, I decided I wanted to be more like him – to be more present, to be more absorbed and joyous in each task, to love each daily ritual.
Because it is my nature to up and leave when inspiration hits and this was no exception to the norm, I started dreaming of my escape. I would quit my job back in Darwin and become… well I didn’t know what… maybe a yoga teacher?
The idea I had planted must have taken hold. Within that very same week one of my fellow students approached me with an offer to teach yoga in her women’s surf school on the west coast of France!
It didn’t take me long to come back to her with a loud and resounding YES!
You see, I had always wanted to learn another language. Not just to get by with a few words but to really know another language. For about a year I had been taking evening French classes with the idea that I would one day move to France and make this dream a reality. How elegantly life seemed to weave itself into place.
I decided I would take a year off, move to France, teach Yoga in the surf school and enlist myself into French classes. I would devote a whole year to learning French!
Little did I know that no more than 6 months later, life would continue on its mysterious path and in some intertwined and serendipitous twist of fate, I would meet and fall in love with a French painter. His name was Jon. When Jon was young he had a map of the world on his desk. In the bottom right hand corner was Australia. For any reason he spent a great deal of time when he should have otherwise been doing his homework looking at it. His eyes would drift through Europe to Africa, South East Asia and come to rest on that island continent straddling the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. He would wonder what the seemingly empty country draped by sea was like. Ever since, he dreamed of visiting one day.
By the time we met I had forgotten about the old man in Bali but in those early days Jon would tell me how he loved the work he did. How painting was a kind of meditation for him where his mind was set free through the labour of his tasks. I respect him deeply for this. In his beautiful and broken English he would say. “I love doing hand jobs”. I would try to hide my smile. I never did want to correct him when his English was muddled, because as well as being sometimes hilarious and enormously cute, it offered a peek into the structure of the language I was trying to learn.
It wasn’t until recently that I remembered the old man who painted the gate and I realised the poetry of it all. Pay attention to your dreams. Dreaming after all is a form of planning.
May 6, 2015 § 10 Comments
I have found myself wanting to apologise for my scarcity here this last year and a half. I don’t want to say it too early for fear any new feeling will just as suddenly disappear, but finally there seems to be a tentative impression that I am coming back – into the kitchen that is. I guess it says something about the type of year it has been. Before leaving Darwin, I was tired, stressed and overworked with new jobs, break ups, house moving, and of course that very solid North Australian heat. All in all it left me largely uninspired to do much in the kitchen. This surprised and saddened me, and I questioned the things that made me happy and how I identified myself with them. With some deep nostalgia, I began to miss what I felt was an essential part of the person I was. The person who took joy in the stained colour of a knife left after chopping vegetables, the smell of lemon and spice hitting a fry pan, the feeling of dough sticky and stuck on my fingers, or the scent of sourdough every time I opened the fridge. I missed time to be still, to gather thoughts, to listen and watch more closely, and to pull it all into something creative. There was however, somewhere in amongst it all, some small confidence that it was just a phase and when more time permitted, that willingness to potter with taste and smell, colour and texture would one day creep back.
So I quit my job and most of my life in Darwin, on a quest to slow down, come to Europe and learn French. I went from Darwin, to Paris and then to a small surfing village near Bordeaux where I taught yoga in a women’s surf school. After going briefly to the States for a friends wedding I came back to Europe to spend three weeks with my uncle on his little piece of land just on the outskirts of Brussels. Here I picked vegetables from his garden on the same land my great great grandfather farmed and I cooked them in the same kitchen my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother and my great great grandmother all cooked in before me. And perhaps with the memory of all my ancestors behind me, I began to feel that old love creep back in. That old joy of rinsing the thick soil off carrots and beats, of breaking the florets off a broccoli. That old delight in allowing the ingredients to tell me what to do with them. And that old pleasure in plating it all up and sitting around the table in the autumn evening light. The joy in someone else enjoying what you cook. And finally some quietness and stillness started to sink below the surface. I never really thought it would take more than a year.
My next move was to Toulouse. A pink city in the south of France. And I have been here for roughly the last five months. For the first time since leaving Australia I have a little space to curl up in at the end of the day and call my own, an oven to cook in, a bath to sink in, and a lovely little french man to get to know. At the end of May, I move to Maine for the summer where I have some work managing a cafe for some friends at 44 north. Its a little late to pledge something for the new year, but I am hoping this one will hold more pens with words and more wooden spoons.
Bisous a tout le monde!
July 26, 2013 § 1 Comment
I am typing these words all the way from Papua New Guinea! There are tiny ants crawling all over my laptop and getting squished between the keys. I must have eaten something sweet and forgotten to wash my fingers, they are relentless! Over the top of my laptop, I look out from the verandah to a dense, tropical scene. With fertile soil, abundant moisture and warm conditions, PNG is lush, green, and plump. The clouds are bubbly and ready to burst with rain. Trees, tall and straight with broad canopies, seem to defy gravity, growing on unimaginably steep mountain slopes.
I really like this country. I am not sure if I have met more gentle people. They remind me of my friends and family in Arnhem Land; soft and graceful like the surrounding landscape. The women have huge embraces that envelope you tightly, generously.
This is a journey that work has led me on. I am here working on a project through Charles Darwin University in partnership with the PNG National Agricultural Research Institute. We are looking into why the production and consumption of traditional vegetables is in decline and how this relates to increasing rates of malnutrition. For me it also involves taking photos of food and recording traditional recipes. I couldn’t be happier!
As always, I end up in the kitchen talking to the women. They show me how to cook the traditional foods – choko and pumpkin tips fried in oil with a little garlic, tu-lip shoots a tasty favourite, taro root, sago, fern tips, lowland pitpit and of course pork belly, and pork fat, and minced pork and pork ribs – well you get the picture.
Pigs are regarded very highly, especially for the inland populations. I am told that in the past, women used to suckle baby pigs on their breasts and they slept in the house with the family. I was also told (in jest) that pigs are more important than women because, “you can buy a wife with pigs, but you can’t buy a pig with a wife.” Obviously one can argue that without the women doing all the hard work to raise the pigs, the men wouldn’t have any to begin with, but I suppose that’s beside the point.
May 18, 2013 § 3 Comments
The story of how I learnt to make yoghurt is not a simple one. It spans some 5 years and two continents. It begins just after I finished my undergraduate degree, when I spent a year in India, getting lost and trying to find myself again. As you do when you are 24. During that time, I spent a couple of months volunteering in a Buddhist nunnery teaching English in the Gompa. The nunnery was in the far north of India, in a place called Zanskar, a mountain range that runs on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. Being in the rain-shadow of the tallest mountain range in the world, Zanskar is something like a desert, it never rains and vegetation on the surrounding slopes is scarce. But in the valleys where there are glacial streams, fluorescent green fields make a stark contrast to the moonscape hills. Here the grass grows with a certain urgency learnt through evolution in a land where warmth and water are ungenerous.
But signs of life are not restricted to the stream soaked valleys. On the hill tops prayer flags beat in the winds, some are very old, worn and tattered with almost all their prayers lifted to the breeze. Fossils scatter the myriad of paths that weave their way out of town along scree slopes and over mountain ridges. These benthic remnants a reminder that this very landscape was once hundreds of meters below the ocean.
My journey to Zanskar begins in Leh, with a 26 hour bus ride covering some 400km to take me to the remote valley. As you can imagine, the road is very rough. Because I booked late, I don’t have a seat and so have to make do with the floor where I wedge my way into a somewhat comfortable space between the luggage that fills the aisle. I am not the only one and soon a man falls asleep on my back and another on my knees. After 10 hours of this and with the knowledge of 16 more to go, I begin to feel agitated, my legs and back cramped. From my place on the floor I glance up at a boy standing at the front of the bus without even room to sit. He is smiling and in his smile my anger subsides. The easy nature of the locals and their open acceptance of each situation is contagious. Like other times when I have traveled to developing countries, I am struck by what lessons we have forgotten in a privileged and wealthy world. Not long after, a girl sitting on the seat next to me offers me her lap to rest my head. Gratefully I fall asleep there for an hour or two. Later I find out she is from Zangla, the small village where I will be teaching.
When we finally arrive, tired and dirty from the dusty road, it is late, so I spend the night with the girl from the bus in her family home. Their house is like all the rest in the village, made from mud and cow dung, two stories high, with a flat roof loaded with fodder, wood and dried cow dung to burn in the coming winter.
The next morning I walk through a flowered field woven with a myriad of creeks and streams running to the river. There I wash in water clear as glass before walking the short distance to the Gompa that sits on a small hill on the far side of the village. I am nervous to meet the nuns as they have no way of knowing I am coming, but I am greeted with warm smiles and open laughter.
During my time at the monastery, my relationship with the nuns becomes more like a friend than a teacher and maybe this is why at times it is difficult to get them to come to class. Many of the nuns don’t have much of an interest in learning English, except maybe male and female body parts for which they have abundant enthusiasm. But it makes me question what I am doing. What is the purpose of teaching English? Is it not just another form of cultural imperialism? I still don’t really know the answer to this, but I do know that I am there with others who came before and after me. With a growing number of tourists visiting the region each year and with increasing access to the outside world, western influences are unavoidable. And in general, such change is welcomed by the locals, because with it comes a higher standard of living, the ability to join the rest of the world, to “develop”, to “progress”. I realise I am more sentimental than many of the locals in regard to the loss of traditions and the damage to land and culture that comes with such pursuits. But as I learn from the Buddhists that live there, nothing is permanent, change for good or for bad is inevitable. So perhaps as westerners we should focus on learning from our own mistakes and try to assist those who are following in our footsteps to take on a more sustainable path. Because of this I allow myself some small reassurance that in some tiny way, I am giving the nuns some of the skills they need to communicate with the outside world, so they can speak up and voice their needs and concerns in a shifting landscape. But it is small comfort in light of the stories of rapidly retreating glaciers, water sources drying up, the brain drain as educated children chose to live in far off cities, the introduction of white flour, sugar, packaged food and the plastic litter building up in a place with no formal rubbish disposal system.
So I spend my time practicing the art of just being and trying to help where I can, teaching in the school with the younger nuns, offering small informal English lessons here and there and lending a hand with the cooking.
The kitchen is a good place to be because it is where the nuns meet. Warm and cheeky they laugh and hoot slapping one another on the legs as they sit cross-legged at the low tables lining one wall of the large room. This is where I watch them making yoghurt. Taken fresh, straight from Pashi the Gompa’s resident cow, they heat the milk over a large pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. Just as the milk starts to simmer but before it boils they pull it off the heat allowing it to cool to the temperature of a hot bath before stirring in a tablespoon or so of yoghurt left over from the last batch. The whole pot is then wrapped in a thick woollen blanket and placed in a corner of the kitchen until the next day when it is eaten with ladakhi bread and butter tea for breakfast.
I become very fond of Pashi and her calf Patel. They are a handsome pair, golden blond with strongly defined features. Their stable is next to my room and at night I can hear them moving around. They give me great comfort. In the evenings I bring Pashi back from the fields where she is tethered on a grassy knoll. The pleasure in the simplicity of it all, walking the cow home with the summer breeze on my face and playing in my skirt.
My room is also made of mud and cow dung, a little square that I can just lie down in. It has a small window and a small door I have to double over in to enter. When it is windy the roof sprinkles dirt to the floor. The scene from my window is vivid. At dusk small birds with round bellies and orange tails sit outside and I try to be very quiet then, any movement and they will fly away. As night draws, the moon illuminates the land with a pale yellow grey light and the shadows of the clouds play on the mountain tops.
Some days I walk to the river, its fast current tempting me, full of the energy of the mountains and sky from which it came. To get there I walk past Mane walls, ancient inscriptions on flat stones piled together. Who placed those first rocks there sending Om Mane Padme Hum to all ends of the earth? The valley big and broad with barely any landmarks, I lose perspective of distance, everything seems closer than it really is. Zhos (a cross between a yak and a cow) graze on the fertile strips where a creek meets the river’s edge. I watch the herders bring them together and drive them home. At the river the current is hypnotising, eddies run in all directions and waves appear to move upstream.
Other days I follow the small stream up behind the Gompa into a canyon that becomes narrower and narrower drawing nearer to its source. There in the rock pools I swim comfortably naked and alone among the pastel green, maroon, and orange of the boulders. The water as glass, streams crystal clear over the rocks, like cloth falling over the landscape, cool enough to make me gasp but warm enough to linger a while.
One night stands out to me in particular. It is nearing the end of my time in Zanskar when we can’t find Pashi. She is not in the field where we left her and must have broken her tether. One of the nuns and I go looking for her down by the river. The moon is half full in the sky and bright enough to lead the way, the stars half obscured by clouds. The green field in the flat of the river runs with small streams and shines moist. The beauty catches my breath. We spend two hours wandering along the water’s edge, through fields and along stone-walled pastures. Finally, defeated, we walk back to the village through the sweet smell of mustard in flower. Back at the Gompa we find Pashi tethered to her stable. One of the other nuns found her and brought her back whilst we were gone. By now it is late and I climb back into my mouse-hole room only to find I cannot sleep. The freshness of the night still on my skin and in my mind, the stars shining on me.
My last day in Zangla, I wake up from my small window to see the sun’s first rays on the fresh snow-capped mountains turning from grey to orange to yellow and finally to white as the day begins. My sleeping bag is slightly wet from rare rain that fell that night. After breakfast the nuns fill my bag with chapatis’ for my journey to Leh. Way to many for me to eat by myself but they insisted I take them all. We hear the bus coming so running out the door, kataks thick around my neck it finally dawns that I am leaving and tears prick my cheeks. I climb onto the roof of the bus. From there the nuns look so sweet waving in their maroon robes framed by the Gompa and the Himalayas. The fresh morning and the smiling mountains feel good on my damp cheeks. I am full with the privilege to have lived a little in their world.
How to make Yoghurt
Before going to Zanskar, I had always been put off by the idea of making yoghurt as every recipe I had come across called for either a yoghurt-maker or thermometer, making it all seem far to complicated. But after seeing the nuns do it, I realised all you really needed was a large pot, a warm place, a blanket and a bit of careful watching.
But still I kept putting it off and it wasn’t until a year ago when I was asked to give a fermentation workshop at CERES that I decided I better give it a go. I couldn’t even pretend to be an expert if I had never made yoghurt before. So I started researching. It turned out I didn’t need to go far. In my bookshelf was my much-loved copy of Wild Fermentation and in it a recipe for Yoghurt that doesn’t use a yoghurt maker or a thermometer. This was what I’d been waiting for.
The most important thing you need when making yoghurt is a warm and cosy place to rest it in. I usually pre-heat a small Esky by filling it up with hot water from the tap. I then empty it, dry it out and fill it with towels and if it is winter and really cold, a hot water bottle or some jars filled with warm water as well. But really what you need is a place that will cool down very slowly. I have also heard of people making yoghurt in a thermos and I’m sure this could work too.
Yoghurt Recipe makes 1 litre
1 litre jar
1 litre whole organic milk
1 Tbsp fresh yoghurt (check it has live cultures)
Pre – heat your jar and cooler with hot water, so that they won’t drain heat once you pour in your yoghurt.
Slowly heat your milk, paying close attention, until tiny bubbles start to form but before it starts to boil (if you have a thermometer, this is 80°C/180°F). Stir frequently to avoid burning the milk. The heating is not absolutely necessary, but it helps to get thicker yoghurt.
Allow the milk to cool until it still feels hot but is not so hot that you can’t keep a clean finger in it. You can quicken the cooling process by placing your saucepan in a bowl of cold water. But be careful it doesn’t cool too much. The optimum temperature is as mentioned above – about 40°C/110°F).
Mix the starter yoghurt into the milk. Make sure you don’t get tempted to add more yoghurt thinking it will help to make a thicker end result as it will do the opposite. Poor into your jar, screw on the lid and place in your pre heated “incubator”. If you see fit, add some jars with warm water and/or a hot water bottle (with warm water in it) to help maintain the temperature. Leave in a place where it won’t be disturbed as it doesn’t like being jostled.
After 8 – 12 hours, check on your yoghurt. It should have developed a “tangy flavour and some thickness” .
Store in the fridge and consume within 4 weeks, saving some for your next batch.
March 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
3 weeks ago we packed our lives into the back of the car and headed north, straight through the guts of Australia. Into each horizon, one after the next, through orange dust, a heavy car holding our breaths, anticipation for what was ahead.
Well north of Alice Springs, we watched the red earth begin to break with fluorescent green and a sticky humidity.
Why move to Darwin? People seem to ask. We can only shrug our shoulders. This place where fans spin, and rain pours dinner plate drops, and the air sticks amphibian to our skin. We have a house with louvered windows from ceiling to floor, no oven, a resident green tree frog, no hot water, an abundance of tropical fruit trees, and no jobs. Time moves differently, it is slower, but the days pass more quickly. Tomatoes and zucchinis can only be grown in winter and the exotic fruit is strange like echinoderms.
Perhaps I’m here for the green pawpaw salads; a slower pace; a new experience; the perfect job; tomatoes in winter; echinoderm fruit. Perhaps it’s the reminder of another Australia; or maybe its for the geographic nearness to the rest of the world.