It was indeed a lurch over a very rickety bridge from the suddenly unsustainable ‘road’ that took us to Malaysia in the first place. We said we were headed toward a place where we could get to know the same patch of grass for a while. We said we were looking for community. We were tired of drifting around in the inescapable footsteps of all the other white travellers, with the orchestra of chainsaws, longhaul coaches and haggling arguments they unwittingly conduct. Looking back on it now, Malaysia was our first true act of home-sickness.
It was not out of longing for the homes we’d left behind that we ached for something else – it was out of faith in the one we wished to believe was possible: a safe, nurturing place in the world to create gardens, to love the soil, to cherish its yield and to share with kindness, with effort, compassion, laughter, openness and trust this life – made simple – in a community that placed the land and the peaceful blooming of the souls upon it above all other things.
After exploring many variations on better ways of living around the planet I had become tired of the claptrap and of the underlying actual stress of resultant poverty and loneliness, and was simply looking for decent people, with decent values who are prepared to do a decent day’s work and take responsibility for their own sexuality, spirituality and sustenance. This has become my quest, a refined and humbled version of the one I set out with which included all kinds of hysterical stuff about the end of money, the ruination of deceitful leaders, rejection of fundamentalist (arrogant doctors, real estate agents, uppity women etc) and the pursuit of ‘higher spiritual planes’ – one of the most wretched idiocies of all.
Following the almost bus crash, the tummy bug Olympics and quite a lot of bickering in Laos Scott and I had decided that the problems could not possibly be with us – of course – the reason we were feeling this sense of sort of empty meaninglessnessness, and squabbling over the most unholy things like money and childlessness despite being able to buy good coffee (at Sydney prices) and get a bus to absolutely anywhere (with 20 other tourists) … must be that we’re On The Wrong Path.
Which left us with a new path to ‘manifest’ – or CHOOSE, if we are to continue the personal responsibility theme. Our first instinct was to head deeper into nature, but in Laos this is harder than you think. For one thing, the place remains riddled with the unexploded remains of its pounding by US forces in the 70s, and for another, any trail tourists have so much tossed a cigarette butt at is ringing with the sounds of chainsaws as Laotians reap the rewards of being Next on the Lonely Planet’s places to be ruined by tourism list. What used to be actual travelling routes for backpackers can these days really only fairly be called ‘highways’ as thousands and thousands and thousands of white people in travel-brand khakis and fleece vests pretend they’re having actual adventures in a kind of mass walkabout through third world nations.
After consultations with fellow travellers despairing over what has become of ‘the road’ – infested as it is with young alcoholic Aussie yobs and older more glamorous travelling shoppers who just inflate the prices and take all the glamour out of being a poor backpacker, we decided we look for something more practical. It was a toss up between 10 days silent meditation at a Forest Monastery deep in what’s left of the Thai woods – or farming.
I can tell you that the idea of 10 days silence after a month of bickering seemed a mighty fine idea, but since Scott remains penniless and jobless, and since as farmers we should at least be able to come up with a few eggs and some parsley should the situation not improve, we opted to learn to farm and I bought us each a pair of work gloves with matching flowers at the night market in Vientiane.
My last formal educational credit was in Criminology Sydney University (a logical step to make sense of the world at the time) and I felt I had come a long way from there when I booked in to become a bonefide Sustainable Person at Embun Pagi, Malaysia’s one and only Permaculture farm.
I even got a new pencil case. With Miffy on it.
It’s around 35 years since my illusions about education were gonged. In those days the disappointment of Infant School surprised me but did not cause the ribbons on my very tightly woven plaits to sag. At 20 I maintained the strict faith that University would redeem the whole nightmare of dull ideas, mean politics, bullying and sexual intimidation that under-pinned my Australian education – and dove headfirst into Law, then Communications in yet another dumping wave that crushed and twisted me for a further 5 years of academic mind-kneading before spitting me out with a certificate and a damaging insight to the underbelly world of starving, anxious, experimental young adults to show for it.
Dumb-struck and institutionalised I staggered around Journalism for a few years stupidly thinking that a role in the free press in a democratic nation should allow me some sort of valuable contribution to the common good (as well as plenty of opportunity to wear shoulder pads and girl suits as was the ridiculous and miss-shapen fruit of feminism at the time). I was a total victim of the hopelessly lost 1990s, believing that I could succeed on my own merits (without having to suck up to the infected elite to be allowed to excel, let alone get published), and that working hard and going with the flow would be their own rewards in the end – even if at the beginning one feels like one is having their soul siphoned out of their body.
At the time, I was told I was probably bi-polar or a drug addict or just a bitch, but it has been interesting over the last 20 years to watch not only my own peers gradually crumbling and resigning to a deep sense of loss and displacement, and entire generations abandoning the so-called realities of their cultures in a bid for a society they can trust. Like so many of them I had first blamed myself for struggling, finally become ill (oh, great blessing!) and then set out in search of what I needed. I had tried the yoga thing, the Swami thing, the itinerant thing, the bohemian thing, the shaman thing, and finally worn out my cochlea’s listening to all the spiritual mumbojumbo-ery, conspiracy theories and self aggrandising waffle that goes along with all this. I had refined my options to seeking a place where something might actually get done other than breathing. Albeit it very good breathing.
Anyhow – the idea of learning Real Things, in a Real Place, with Real Teachers in Permaculture was, my friends, a THRILL! Scott and I signed up for a $600 2-week Permaculture Design intensive with teachers who not only know their stuff but can actually grow it. It was extremely exciting and I was ready to get down and get dirty on what seemed like the right track – finally – to the Good Life.
My launch into Permaculture; the study of how to create living, nourishing, healing environments that harness existing energies and resources to provide food, warmth, beauty and community in clean, thriving, sustainable ways could be symbolised by that power shot they use for the film Titanic. You know, where she’s on the bow of the boat with Leonardo, glowing all over the place.
If you’ve spent years of your life in student poverty for the sake of knowing all sorts of crap including the linguistic propensity to recall vowel sounds in a lift, and not to feel sad and mean about killing frogs to cut them up, and something to do with T-scores, the notion of learning something useful about how to live in the world might just fill you too with a splendour only James Cameron could appreciate.
So Scott and I headed into our 2 week Permaculture Design Course on a train from Kuala Lumpur’s Central Station (which did not have quite the glamour of the Titanic, admittedly) and into the remnant countryside of Malaysia’s south which has yet to have be turned into a palm plantation or shopping mall. It was standing room only on the massive commuter line and there was much communal sweating, crushing, smiling and texting among the crowd until we were helpfully squeezed off at the right station to head to the farm.
I will admit I was full of the most romantic notions. I was picturing the rustic farm gate, the glossy bundle of farm love puppy that would greet us there, the busy chickens in their fragrant vine fringed pen, the home-made bread and the cute herbs and veggies, all giggly, fat and jolly in their lovely mulched garden beds. I saw wooden handled spades among the lavender, floppy sun hats on hooks by the door, reliable gum boots by the stoop and lots of rosy-cheeked farmy types with fair handshakes and banjos. I was confident of scones, even. And I had brought wasabi paste, Mint Slices and sheets of seaweed harvested from the Mekong River to contribute to our pantry and our happy meals together.
All such images congealed into a jelly-like scum when we pulled up in our clapped out taxi at the real Embun Pagi.
The gate, hanging off its rotten hinges, was forcibly tied open like the jaw of a perpetual dental patient. It was fair welcome to the property. Embun Pagi, or Morning Dew, in English, was a scene of horrible, heart-crushing disarray, filth and mayhem. The gardens were all dead or never born. The compost was riddled with snakes. There was broken furniture, rusted iron, tangled fencing and festering blankets in all directions. All around the wonky so-called farmhouse (an ambitious and unfair metaphor for neglected dwelling surrounded by neglected gardens) was evidence of ruin, neglect, failed handyman projects and over-ambitious ideas.
It did not look like a place where a dream was being born. It looked more like every other place we’ve seen people living in Asia: a kind of junkyard cum veggie patch cum contamination site, with chickens.
There were, however, no chickens. Not even a sparrow. In all the time I was there the only sign of wildlife in the permaculture world of Embun Pagi was the tragic menstrual form of the resident dog, Sheila, the usual vicious armada of dengue-ridden mosquitoes, a scorpion, a copper headed cobra and one mouse which Scott and I rescued at its last gasp of drowning in a scrap bucket of itinerant pond plants used to catch drips from the bathroom sink. The host couple were frosty and their dog had the mange.
My first moments inside the ‘farm house’ will be forever etched in my memory as I sat on an upturned bucket, staring at total fly-infested squalor, and wondered if I was, in fact, Schapelle Corby. (link)
Within 15 minutes of arriving at Embun Pagi I knew I was doomed.
As volunteers we had arrived early to work 8 hour days to help prepare the venue for the Permaculture Design Course in just 9 days time, with board and meals in exchange. Work, it seemed, was expected to begin straight away so Scott grabbed the first of 3 hammers he was destined to destroy and I just rocked on the bucket waiting for a prison guard to come and wax my eyebrows.
Horribly, I did not turn out to be Schapelle Corby afterall, and thusly had to make my own bed. By which I do not mean fuss about with sheets etc – I mean make the actual bed! All part of the permaculture fun, folks. We had booked in and agreed to pay the extra $20 a night or whatever, for the privilege of having our own room as a couple instead of dormitory bunks. A lucky arrangement as it turned out, because at the time of arrival, there was no dormitory and the bunks were stacked up hickeldy pickledy with their rancid mattresses and synthetic ‘linen’ yet to be delivered from a nearby refuge for addicts. Nobody seemed willing to point out to me which was our room so our bags were dumped beside a massive wall of laundry and all questions about where we could unpack were studiously avoided. By simple deduction (there was only one room not slated for major renovations over the coming week) I established our quarters were beside the squat toilet. They looked like a nesting place for junkies. Our host, Sabina (recently recovered from Dengue, as we discovered) brightly informed me they would be cleaned, scrubbed, emptied of crusty plates, knickers, disembowelled luggage and some kind of bedding was to be arranged. By me. And then she skipped off on her motorbike somewhere.
My heart did not sink at Embun Pagi. Even after a week sleeping on the filthy old mattress I salvaged from the junk pile, under filthy old sheets borrowed from junkies, and being woken at 7am to work until 11pm at night on an absurd schedule of desperate tasks designed to make the place liveable for 20 more students gathering from around the world to study there in 9 days, I never felt a sinking feeling. It was more of a quiet rage.
I slaved away for 7 days scrubbing caked on shit out of 5 putrid squat toilets, sewing up cushions, washing walls, sorting out pantries, scraping grease and ancient lint off shelves and caked on mange and parasites off the dog. I cooked, mopped, rescued that mouse, slogged my way through a Kilimanjaro of laundry too gruesome to describe, and then built a washing line to hang it on. I surrendered to Sabina’s chaotic management, held my tongue when she decided it was ok not to supply lunch to the men who had been digging, raking, building and de-contaminating her farm since 7am, and did my best not to infringe on her territorial rights over the kitchen while she insisted on being on command of every aspect of life at Embun Pagi but managed to take the lead on absolutely none. I watched in misery as the basic principles of Permaculture: utilising and nurturing existing energies to create sustainable and nourishing environments were undermined by the same old weaknesses of lust for power, greed, haste, poor planning and exploitation of resources.
I did it in the hologram-inducing heat. I did it in the mean, relentless radioactivity of morning. I did it in the itchy, filthy night. And I ate all the Mint Slices myself. Deliberately.
The circumstances did not suit my new ideas of appropriate limits, now that I’m 40 and everything. They did not suit my artistic sensibilities. And they did not suit my blood type. By the end of the week I was clear that on every possible measuring system known to me, I was incompatible with life at Embun Pagi. It even turned me off plants! And I’m a vegetarian.
One day at about 5pm, just before the mozzies began to assault my main arteries in the boggy wilds of godknowswheresville in Malaysia, I gathered my last wits and made a secret dash to the local internet cafe to book myself a 3hour massage and a bath in Bali. I was gone in under 10 hours.
So what can we say that we learn from such experiences?
Scott, who has always said he would live in a cardboard box for the sake of spiritual purity and all of humanity (and may well fulfil this pledge), was quite happy to tolerate life at Embun Pagi and stayed on to have a brilliant course which inspired him no end. I was so relieved to leave that I just about fell in love with the taxi driver who took me to the airport and was never so happy to see an airport in all of my life. Between us we had discovered two completely difference standards in values, expectations and tolerance. Between us we had found the freedom to take separate paths that honoured our different needs – but there was a widening gap as well. Scott says I could be more tolerant, less judgemental and easier to get on with. I reflect on these things and realise I am at a time in my life when I find it’s ok to say, “err, well actually: nope! This sucks. I’m out!”.
In a massive life-affirming boundary-setting self respecting insight, I realise finally that it’s actually ok for me to say Enough is Enough! I have said it to the meddling self-styled hippies who have been to Peru for a few weeks and call themselves shaman (for shame!), I have said it to the cheeky little yoga teacher in Bali who lead all of her classes at the Yoga Barn in ridiculous hot pants, claiming to be a vehicle for the empowerment of women, and I said it to Scott when he said, “Baby, just chill out.”
After whispering several other more frustrated versions of ‘no’ to myself, I sang out my Enough like a beautiful, melodic Ooommm and by the time my herbal bath was drawn on the first morning of my return to Bali, something in me knew that I had in fact, taken the first real step on my journey toward peace in the whole of this 2 year saga.
As the frangipanis slow waltzed through sweet Bali aqua around me and the little caged birds sang their morning chorus a smile was gently forming on a cellular level in my heart and with each beat, and every breath. It melted like a golden wave; the deep and gentle knowing that I was capable, at last, of letting go of a dream to honour my self. For in the end, my friends – are we not each looking for peace with what is, in order to lovingly explore what might also be?