Bench Series 1: Monochrome

Bench Series Monochrome

Here’s my post for February’s Bench Series

Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel

I took this photo because I loved the light from the gorgeous pastel-cloured leadlight windows falling across the worn bench and flagstones.  I did try cropping it but reverted to this version as I felt it gave the bench more of a sense of place.

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Going Solo

Re-springing Your Step

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Re-springing Your Step.”

Should a disclaimer ever be needed (and I don’t believe it is in our family but I’d like anybody reading this to be absolutely sure), I love my Russians deeply. Vladimir and I were married on Zanzibar 18 months ago after five years of a courtship peppered with sometimes hilarious (sometimes not) cross-cultural misunderstandings and adventures.  Masha his eldest came here to Tanzania for our wedding and stayed; she attends the school where I teach and is preparing for her final IGCSE exams.  We live in a small house with a big garden and lots of friendly neighbours, including many young children who provide Masha with a regular babysitting income.  Not being blessed with a strong maternal instinct, I am glad Masha is 17.  We get on well, especially since she has worked so hard on improving her English and I have given up trying to communicate in my bad Russian.  I’ve also stopped trying to be a step-mother (evil or otherwise) and now see us more as a Gang of Three.  Our sense of solidarity is getting stronger as we prepare to move to Australia in July.  It is a move ‘back home’ for me, – and immigration for my Russians.  Gathering the documentation required before we can submit the application is quite a process.

Which is where my Going Solo story really begins.  Soon after the Christmas frivolity subsided, Vladimir and Masha had to jump on a plane to Dar Es Salaam to visit the Russian Embassy; Vladimir  to pick up his passport and Masha to apply for a new one.  In order to serve a related requirement for unravelling red-tape, (one of the police checks I must get for every country I have lived in over the last ten years – for Masha’s protection because she is still a minor) I jumped on a bus to Nairobi, to get a document stamped at the Philippine Embassy.

What fun!  I had almost forgotten what a buzz I get from travelling alone.  And knowing I had my family to return home to just sweetened the experience.  There was also an element of hope, – hope that I would return to them in one piece, as anyone who’s ever been on a Tanzanian bus can probably relate to.   I gripped the seat as we overtook slow trucks on blind corners, horn blaring should another vehicle have the impudence to be headed in the opposite direction at the same time.   In an effort to reduce accidents, Tanzanian buses are not allowed on the road after 8pm but this is not the case in Kenya: safely (somehow) at the border, and after clearing immigration, I boarded an evening bus that took me through the night to Nairobi.  I kept my eyes shut most of the way.

My business at the Embassy being over by 10am, the thought of immediately starting the 15 hour trip back to Mwanza was not attractive.  The spring was returning to my step.  I was on an adventure and I wasn’t ready to go home.  The overnight train to Mombasa seemed the next logical thing to do. The spring in my step got a little bouncier after I’d bought my ticket; I even smiled when the lady behind the counter advised me the train would be five hours late, –  what was an extra five hours to me?  I elbowed my way onto a crowded matatu and took myself off to the cinema, (Night at the Museum 2, silly but entertaining enough) then spent time in the supermarket wandering up and down the aisles (an adventure in itself, coming from Mwanza),  putting together a special dinner for my wait: a couple of triangles of camembert, two lovely fresh bread rolls, some mandarines, and a wee bottle of red wIne. I finally felt like I was really on holiday.

The holiday feeling had waned somewhat after the first six or seven hours on the platform.  Renate, a friendly biotechnologist from Vienna, and I (we met when we were both kicked out of the station restaurant at closing time) had polished off most of our train snacks, finished our books and were huddled in scarves and towels trying to keep out the cold.  As were all the other waiting passengers, some occasionally pacing the platform to break the boredom and stir the circulation.  I must admit, the spring in my step was starting to flag.

It’s all part of the journey though, isn’t it?  Even though the train eventually left 10 hours behind schedule, – when we finally did snuggle down in our little compartment the beds were warm and comfortable, the fact that we travelled in daylight rather than overnight meant that we saw zebras and wildebeest and gazelle (and I heard later, someone saw giraffes), and later in the day while we ate in the dining car, amongst more delicious company, the changing landscape of Kenya rolled past us for hours, a live movie that was to me far more intriguing than Night at the Museum.

Finally on the coast: two nights in a welcoming backpackers’, a swim in the sea and a snorkel on the reef, practising my Swahili with the suffering locals (not sure what’s most to blame for keeping so many tourists away, – is it ebola or is it terrorist threats?), and New Year’s Eve dancing in a famous pirates bar on the beach.  The spring in my step was becoming quite bouncy.   A night in a cheap and cheerful city hotel, a leisurely wander inside the battlements of Fort Jesus (where I also stumbled on a real treasure of an exhibition: dozens of paintings casually strung along a verandah, –  all gorgeous watercolours of vibrantly coloured fish done from observation and memory by Joy Adamson, the lion lady), and an even more leisurely stroll through Old Town, stopping here and there for a bite to eat and to ask directions.  By this stage my steps were springing all over the place.  It was time to go home.

I had another long bus ride back into Tanzania, but this time through Dar Es Salaam, where I could catch a plane home to Mwanza.  No more buses for me, – but the mechanics and discomforts were no longer important.  I had rediscovered my passion for solo travelling, and day by day, step by step, recharged my severely depleted batteries, reestablishing myself (in my own mind) as a strong, curious and appreciative explorer and putting the spring right back where it belongs, – in my step.

Postscript: My Russians were as happy to see me home as I was to be there.  They noticed the difference and have promised to send me away again soon.

Dear Mum,

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(and now I’m going to have to give you this blog address, – was going to wait till it was set up properly, but what the hell, we’re all a work in progress…)

I’m doing a blog writing course (yes dear? I hear you say, while privately you are thinking Oh heavens, what’s that and what now?) and for my fourth assignment I’ve been asked to write to my ideal reader.  I’ve picked you.  Not because you’re not critical but because you love me anyway.

We’ve had our moments, you and I, as mothers and daughters do.  I’m even now too ashamed to think much about some of the trials I’ve put you through over the years, and I certainly don’t feel the need to give details in a forum like this (what was that you used to say about washing dirty linen in public?)  Instead, I’d like to say thank you.  I don’t know a fraction of your griefs and joys (and your pile of diaries is too overwhelming to even contemplate, – though with your blessing I will make the time eventually), but here are a few memories of pure gold.

Do you know, that every time I climb a mountain or go on a scary trip I carry Miss Kellaway’s silk scarf that you passed on to me, the one that came from India, the one I had wrapped around my neck when we were trudging through the snow on the Cradle Mountain – Lake St. Clair track in Tasmania?  You were 70, I was around half your age and we were not prepared for the change in the weather (it was only that morning we were on top of Mt. Ossa in 30°C).  You were  walking ahead of me, and I kept slipping over on the icy boardwalk, flat on my backpack.  You knew that you just had to keep going, so you did, (so I had to stop falling over and catch up) and we were almost hyperthermic, chilled through to the core by the time we got to the next hut.  And when we finally managed to get out of our wet clothes and warm up, there was a little wallaby with snow all over his fur outside the window.  Nearly all of the other hikers were Europeans (with proper coats) for whom snow was not such an unusual, magical occurrence, (although a wallaby covered in the stuff must have been, surely!) and soon went back to their dinners.  We shared some moments of enchantment, – and gave thanks for being alive.  I have since discovered Gortex and the scarf is shredded and raggy now but I wear it anyway.  It’s my talisman, it reminds me of your strength, and also, quite illogically, I feel as if I am sharing my journey with you.  (It is also soft and comforting; good for wiping off sweat, keeping out drafts, and covering grotty pillows).  I still really enjoy travelling with you.

Do you know that another of the many gifts you’ve passed on to me is a love of nature?  Do you know that I don’t have to be told to stop and smell the roses, because you showed me by example, hundreds of times? I can’t pass them without pausing for a sniff, and a marvel at their velvet petals. Do you know that I still joyfully hug a tree if the mood takes me?  It’s thanks to you I’m at peace in the bush, on the sea, in the outback: you taught me our world is there to be loved, not feared. Do you know that I turn my face up to drink in the rain and push forward with a smile against the wind? Once, riding my bicycle in Kuwait, dodging cars and racing across patches of desert in wild and woolly weather on my way to work,  I remember reflecting, (with a maniacal grin on my face) that you were probably the only person I know who would also appreciate that particular moment.

I could be wrong of course.  We are still a mystery to each other in so many ways. How did you grow from a little bush urchin who left school at 14 into a teacher of literacy, – who finished high school and learnt to drive a car at age 50? Who pitched a tent in the most far-flung parts of your own country as well as major forays into South-East Asia, India and China, crossing Russia by train, and seeing the midnight sun in Scandinavia. Could you ever have imagined such a future?

I’ve missed big parts of your life, but truly admire the bits I know about.  Growing up as the youngest of 10, walking the 3 miles home from school and having bread and dripping in the bark kitchen, meeting Dad over the wires while you were both telephonists (you must’ve been the earliest network daters, – finally meeting face-to-face under the Flinders St. clocks, the height of romance!), catching a ship to England with your girlfriends, working there under the bridge, hitchhiking around Europe and cycling  with your little Aussie flags on the back of your bikes, writing your journals and sending rolls of film home to Dad to develop.  He eventually married you; you were worth the wait.

Then came running the shop, children and miscarriages, raising a family, working for charities, teaching people who were new new to Australia or who had fallen through the cracks in the eduction system, singing in a choir and entertaining the old people in nursing homes, taking us on holidays, making our clothes and bread, growing the flowers in-between Dad’s veggies, filling the house with books and newspapers and music and the smells of flowers and home cooking, making sure we were schooled and had sports and religion and could swim and play a musical instrument and write a thank-you letter and be kind to other people.  Thank you for letting us play, and grow up in our own sweet time.  For our pets, for learning to understand loyalty and loss. For looking after Nanna and the odd uncles and cousins and for making sure we knew them; for keeping up the contacts with our extended family.

Thank you for the tin that is still always full of Munchies and for the toast in bed when I was sick.  For teaching me to sew a dress and for finishing it for me.  For showing me how to knit a scarf and crochet a square and bake shortbread and make a compost heap and save string and rubber-bands and newspaper, and make jam, and wash out plastic bags, and cover tins with magazine pictures. To turn on the TV only when there was something worth watching and to turn it off when people are talking.  Thank you for providing a home that welcomed our friends, and still does, for the doors that are always open.

Thank you for mowing the lawn and chopping wood and changing the light globes and painting the walls and paying the bills and doing all the stuff that Dad used to do.  And for your courage, for continuing to fill your life after losing your mate.  Thank you both for staying together for all that time, and providing the sense of security and stability that has enabled me to be independent, and to travel.  For supporting me in whatever I do, whether you understand it or agree with it or not.  Thank you for not making me feel guilty for being always away or for not having babies.  For wishing me well when I leave and being happy to see me back. Thank you for staying healthy, for keeping fit and exercising your mind.  For nurturing friendships and making new friends, even as you continue to lose old ones.  For being more and more of a friend to me as the years go by.

For being my Mum.

You are awesome beyond words.

From your very lucky daughter,

With love.