Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Informative Information - The wise way

 "The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination" - Albert Einstein.

              My eyes open to the sound that broke my sleep. The ceiling fan whirls around circulating the musty stale air from the top of the room to the floor in a manner that creates no relief for my outstretched naked body. My head hurts and my mouth tastes like I’ve been chewing on cotton balls. Memory starts trickling back into my head, right I’m on an island, I got put up for accommodation my first night, I found this share house and moved in. The next memory clears up the confusion about the sore head and dry mouth, oh right I found the pub and met every man woman and child who lives here. I was right about one thing on a small island, there’s no way a guy carrying a massive backpack down the main street goes unnoticed. It’s simple; I’m “the” backpacker. Since the tourism industry died after the government shut down the casino due to Asian money laundering, tourists are few and far between, backpackers are unheard of. I get the same question from nearly every person I talk to “why Christmas Island?” My answer is always equally inquisitive with “Why not?” However their eyes all question my motive for being here, so much in cases that the rumours have already been circulated.
                I’m thrilled; usually when a rumour finally makes it way to its subject the reaction is hurtful for false allegations. My mischievous mind is overwhelmed with ideas to milk this rumour for what it’s worth. I’ve been on this island for two days and I have become the undercover journalist disguised as a backpacker. Word through the grape vine tells me the highest of people in the Australian federal police have been inquiring about me, doing background checks, and gathering information about my intentions on the island. Part of me feels like putting the rumour to rest and lowering my profile but the devil inside wants to stir the pot because I’ve got nothing to lose, my visa is up in two months and I’ve had a good run of the country. The inquisitive side has got me curious as to what they have to hide if their jumping out of their skin when an unfamiliar face with a bag takes a picture and asks a couple of questions. Keep them on their toes; keep them sharp, I never told them I wasn’t a journalist.

                I’m back on track now, I’ve survived the weekend and I’ve made my way to the Headquarters for National Parks. Information is what I seek but persuasion may be necessary. “Hi I’m looking for any vacancies in employment” I figure it’s my best card to play to get a bit deeper in what I want without revealing my true intentions. If anyone’s going to find me in the woods it will be these people. Study their faces, size them up, take note of how hard they squeeze your hand, look into the dark of their eye and read what they don’t want to tell you. I’m filling out my application forum and talk continuously to break down the barriers present during any new introduction. Eventually I start mentally checking off my list, no poisonous reptiles or insects, no mammals that pose any threat, edible wild chicken’s and crabs cover the island, wild fruit and veg ready for the taking, three fresh water streams, countless freshwater caves, and last but not least the deal breaker. I find out the island is infested with an introduced ant that’s devastating the wildlife, the method for controlling the supercolonies is biological toxin called “fipronil”. Its effects are disastrous killing everything in its path including humans. Once again I get that feeling like I’ve somehow cheated death. My lack of preparation and planning just happened to save my life this time around. I get about all the information I can for one day and decide to source out the location the toxin bombs will be dropped another day, for now, its time to explore the untouched backbone of this forgotten paradise. Being the only tourist on the island has its advantages.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Seeking Asylum – The risk for a better life

'A look can say a thousand words, if only those looks had a voice'

Dark brown, hazel coffee glaze, deeper than the deepest cave, darker than a moonless night’s frown. Studying, interpreting, withdrawing from inside my body, deep into the dark crevices of my soul. Those eyes. They focus directly into the pupils of my own. They strip every barrier that surrounds me, dissolve the confidence that radiates from me, and knocks the chip off my shoulder that I carry around with me. He has the body of a twelve year old child, but the maturity of a gorilla soldier. The young child sits alone in the mid-section of the bus. His head cocked sideways gazing with those eyes. What was really only a brief moment felt like a lifetime. I know he felt it to.
I stand there at the beginning of the Jetty observing the transaction of people. I look around and try to spot the camera’s as if it was a Hollywood film shoot. I’m the only one stopped and starring, everyone else goes about their business in their usual way. It’s simple, it’s safe, it’s a routine for these Australian Federal police and SAS Marines as they laugh and joke about the weekend shenanigans or the football scores while the undetermined identities sit in nice neat rows when instructed to do so by the man yielding the assault rifle. I don’t understand the atmosphere here. There are 105 of them, men, women, and children crammed into a rickety 9 meter wooden boat that just spent the last 28 hours chugging across the 350 kilometer wide java trench that bridges Christmas Island to Indonesia. 28 hours is the minimum amount of time if the conditions are just right. 28 hours of standing side by side to one another, some of them hip holstering infants. 28 hours of no food, water, or toilet facilities. Shoulder to shoulder when there’s nowhere to go but where you stand. 28 hours if you’re lucky that is… you can double the time in the water and half the chances of arriving if this boat departed from elsewhere. God help the ones still out there.
Just like clockwork, the pilot boat returns with another group of Asylum seekers. They wait their turn, patiently and gracefully planting their feet on Australian soil. I’m still confused, I don’t understand the atmosphere when finally something predictable happens. A desperate Iraqi man jumps from the wooden boat into the water, he mustn’t have thought they were coming back for him, the poor guy didn't know how to swim... Number tags are laced loosely around their necks, the only sort of identity they have for the moment. I stand and I stare, they sit and they stare back. I don’t speak to them, they don’t speak to me, they don’t speak to each other, no one speaks. No words can do its justice. I think about how they see me, do they think I’m a rich spoiled Westerner?-they would be right. Do they think I take my life for granted?- They would be wrong. Do they know I’m just a Canadian backpacker observing the ugly truth to the world?-How could they even know what a backpacker is, such luxuries don’t exist for those willing to risk their lives to escape something much worse than death itself. Suddenly I feel foolish for risking mine so many times in the name of nothing more than my own amusement.
 As before they are calm and systematic, they board the awaiting buses laden for the detention center where they will be processed. Men segregated from women, women segregated from orphans; families get to stay together. The buses drive past one by one, and that’s when I see him, that child, that small boy, those god damn eyes. A moment’s glimpse will etch that sight into my mind for the rest of my life. I’m left fixed to that position blinking repeatedly with the watery eyes of the diesel smoke. I don’t know if I’m blinking my eyes because of the smoke or because I think I'll see those eyes again like you see the sun after staring directly into it long after its gone. That one momentary look told me a story of such grief and hardship completely lacking the need for sympathy. What ever has happened in this young boys life leading up to this bus ride was over but there was no need to feel sorrow nor excitement.  That bus was headed for a future, a brighter future Where it was going, it was better than where he had come from.
 I walked out to the end of the desolate jetty where all the action had unfolded moments ago. The wooden boat is being towed out to sea and I watch it. I watch and I think. I can’t help myself now; my mind’s racing a mile a minute. Finally the wooden boat becomes nothing more than a small black dot on the nearly black horizon. A plume of smoke rises up from the dived between water and cloud.
Goodbye boat,
Today you have traversed 350 Kilometers
Today you have saved 105 people.
Today you have changed and changed 106 lives.
 Rest in peace.
Shalom our wooden savior. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Adrift - In The Abyss

“If you haven’t booked accommodation, then good luck getting some buddy” – My not so good friend.

I’m patient; I wait until all the passengers have unbuckled their seat belts, jumped to their feet and wrestled past the person they have just spent the past unknown hours befriending. The overhead compartment doors fall open and they struggle to maneuver the oversize hand luggage in the isle between them and the person ahead. All of this to queue up and wait awkwardly for the cabin door to open. I’m amused thoroughly at the instincts of people in distress. You would swear there was a freshly killed animal outside and it was the last meal they would have for months. Button up shirts, ironed pants, more make up than a kiss concert, but break someone’s barriers down, make them vulnerable and watch the animals come to life. I enjoy the irony. Twenty two animals clawing at the cage door trying to get back to their flat screen tv’s and treadmills to redeem their civil structure. One solitude passenger sitting, preparing to lose his.  I'm on a plane full of animals with only one passenger  intent to live like one.
                I step outside with a great leap mimicking Armstrong’s lunge on the moon. The humidity hits me like a brick to the chest. I should have expected this, I knew this was coming, but the panic rushes through my veins anyway questioning my motive to live in a foreign environment.  'Am I built for this? Will I survive? Stop being a pussy and get on with it you wimp'. I know what a harsh and deadly environment feels like and this isn’t it, not yet anyways. I keep walking. I keep walking straight past all the people with the massive carry on luggage being inspected by border security and quarantine; my seven liter hydration pack doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Nothing to declare, nothing to hide, nothing to hold me up.  22kg on my back, 22 kg slung over my shoulder resting on my hip, and 5 kg strapped to my chest. I burst out into what possibly could be the smallest airport parking lot I have ever seen. There it is, I’m face to face with the jungle, palm trees, vines, and ferns fighting for life on the forest floor. I wait a moment and look around, I recognize all the faces I have previously studied and walk off like I know where I’m going - I don’t. Those same looks cross past their faces as they see me walk off towards the road. I’ve been less visually shunned walking through the shanty town of Soweto in South Africa. Small island mentality, I must remember that.
                The road is long, the temperature is hot, my bags are heavy. I set the sun to my right shoulder and convince myself I’m headed north because I’m not hungry enough yet for it to be past mid-day. Shit, I should have done more research or prepared better. I don’t want anybody to see me because I don’t want to exist. Popularity is not what I seek with an itinerary to disappear.  Every car that passes I feel the heavy eyes studying my figure and circulating the rumors before its words have left their mouth. To my left, to my right the jungle consumes every inch of forest floor. I just want to have a look and be consumed by it. A few attempts to wrestle my way into the foliage leaves me spiked, bloody, and full of thorns. No machete, no map, no provisions.  I abandon my plan to be invisible. I need food, water, and most importantly information. A car pulls up next to me on the road and I recognize the older lady in the passenger seat as one of my fellow trauma patients from the flight here. A younger woman gestures me the offer for a drive. I’m shocked. I had myself convinced I was invisible. I look down at my duffel bag and feel the internals digging into my hip, I look at my white knuckled fingers helping lift the 65 liter back pack slowly sawing between my shoulder blade and collar bone. I feel the ache of my spine, the sting of the thorns in my skin. I look up at her and my eyes speak a single word. I accept defeat. 'Yes', make that two words, 'Yes Please' I had a feeling it would come to this. A down side of being young and stupid is that reality is often clouded by fantasy.
               My newest friend on the island, the fifteen year old son of the generous woman helps me with my bags out of the car. I feel ashamed for resorting to a drive and being discovered on my big adventure. On the flip side I’m not a dehydrated corps laying ten paces from the road side. I didn’t need to walk into town with this Winnebago on my back. The humidity is at least 200%, I don’t even know if that’s possible but that's what it feels like. Dressed for a Perth winter I need to shed the denim and alleviate myself from this sweat bath. I walk through the doors to the visitor center, the air-conditioning brings new life to my breath, I had nearly gotten used to the heat – 'you’re not fooling anyone kid'.  I drop my bags in the lobby and make it clear that I’m not coming back for them anytime soon. Food, water, and information are the only things on my mind. I don’t care about the shortest history book ever written, I don’t want any post cards, shirts, or memorabilia of things I don’t deserve to flaunt. Give me a map, distances, terrain, elevation, flora, fauna, I want them all. The lady behind the desk is friendly, kind, and charming. I can tell she likes her job. She can’t help but to ask what the bags are for and I simply tell her I’m a backpacker. She’s kind enough to wait a full three seconds before bursting out into laughter and resumes enough seriousness to repeat her question. 'Ugh… common people, don’t pry for an answer you don’t want to hear'  I flirt and charm for the information I want while tip toeing around the truth to my presence. My resources are diminished and the only information I get is that the information I seek is only obtainable from the National park office on a Monday, the grocery store is closed on Sunday, the pub stays open late on Saturday. Thank god it’s Friday!
               I rearrange my bags and take only valuables, clothes, a sleeping bag, and my tent. The sun is well past my left shoulder and my stomach tells me I’m about two meals past breakfast. The race is on. The one thing more primitive than food and sex, I need shelter. My thirteen dollar dome tent that boasts for two and only sleeps three quarters of one is no match for monsoon rain. The tropic rain swings more than a banks doors on pay day with more rain falling in the span of a half hour than what Sudan gets in an entire year. I start to walk, I’m not really sure where, but I have a feeling I’m headed to where I need to be. I make my way down a gradual decent to Flying Fish Cove, the only real beach with sand on the entire 180 km of coast line. I find a nice little patch of grass surrounding a tree that would reward a tired set of legs and rest for a stiff back. I’m on a mission for shelter but sometimes one must stop to put progress into perspective. Similar to the Muslim Salat-ul-Maghrib (sunset prayer), I let the beauty of the Indian Ocean take my breath, the wind take my sweat, and the sun my eyes. Just as the sun bathes in the far off water do I recognize the disparity unfolding right in front of my own two eyes. Three Australian war ships loaded to the nines with heavy weaponry cross each others paths. A mat black Zodiac occupied by military SAS escorts a small wooden boat into the shelter of flying fish cove. I have a hard time understanding what’s going on in the fading light. The boat is packed full of boxes, yellow boxes. The boat gets tied to a mooring by the military zodiac allowing it to pivot in the wind. A side view displays itself shedding a nice silhouette of its cargo… those aren't boxes, those are people, shoulder to shoulder wearing yellow life preservers. 
Who are these people?
Where have they come from?
What the hell is going on here?

My own words slap me across the face
'Don't pry for answers that you don't want to hear'

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Departure - Up and away

Everyone who comes to this island is here for a reason – My good friend

'I don’t doubt these words in the least. I’ve been allot of places, done allot of shit, but this hole in the wall paradise knocked me off my feet.'
       It took about three seconds after walking through the airport doors at Perth International before the anxiety overwhelmed common sense and the feeling of joy wrestling deprivation fought each other on my way to the check in counter. I’ve been waiting in line for 45 minutes and I know that I have only one chance to get the right check in counter if I don’t want to miss my flight… Crap, I just remembered I forgot my cell phone charger in the wall. Are my bags too heavy? What will I sacrifice in a mad dash to security? Shit, I just checked my bags in and I have deodorant, nail clippers, and a bottle opener in my carry on, whatever I won’t need those anyway. I throw them out to spare myself the embarrassment and the extra security checks when I get to that demeaning point of the boarding process. The feeling of travelling overwhelms me again; a grin grows upon my face like a new moon. The reasons most people don’t travel are for situations as I’ve just experienced and yet it’s one of the few things that makes me feel alive. I often wonder what degree of sick human I have become. I look around me before our gate opens and I make an effort to study everyone’s face, they look at me in mockery, my faded jeans, cartoon t-shirt, and eyes of baby who has just discovered its own hands. This island is small, this island is impressionable, watch out because first impressions mean a lot. I don’t mind being the underdog because I know each and everyone one of you will benefit from me in one way or another. They will see ;) 
                Finally I sit back in my seat, buckle the belt and watch the boys down below carelessly load my life long belongings into the belly of the alloy dragon. The anxiety fades and the lost night’s sleep worrying about what I’m going to bring or what I might forget begins to conquer my conscious state. I do little to fight it as it grabs hold and strangles the life out of my lungs and winches my eyes lids shut… oh no, not before I see the ground fade, the buildings turn to sticks, the cars to ants, and then finally the bleach white of the top side of the clouds. White Turns to black.
                My eyes are open as if I were never asleep, no yawning, no confusion, a blank stare straight ahead, apparently my brain started to work well before my eyes became unstuck. Like waking from a horrific hang over my stomach turns instantly wanting to be sick. A few moments pass before my conscious syncs itself with the subconscious. Right… that’s right… I just left my friends, my new acquired family, my best friend and mentor, and I’m headed to an island of which I know nothing about, nobody, or survival odds in the jungle. That new moon smiles cracks the placidity of my cheeks. I laugh out loud in a silent, nearly empty plane. Humor is the one feeling I can always trust in this life. Every time it feels the same, it feels good, it feels familiar. What else are you supposed to do when you go out of your way to put yourself in grave or imminent danger? Sorry mom you raised a freak. I know better than this though, I’ve done this before; I always find a way and the will to push on forward. 
                My heart beat calms and my stomach finds its equilibrium, the first sight of land crosses upon my shoulder. There it is, three and a half hours of blue white caped water and this little fragment of rock dares to stick its nose out of the java trench for a breath. I will crawl upon you. We have hit the tropics, the temperature in the plane is the same but the windows don’t frost like they usually do. The clouds lay a lazy 300 meters above the water intimidating to drop its pay load. I’ve been on enough flights to know this pilot doesn’t know his shit and is scared as a new born faun lost in the foliage. The atmosphere on the planes grows to borderline hysterics with every drop and swoop of the fuselage. I stare out the window with that grin loving every minute of it. Mostly because they're terrified and partly because I’ve lived a full life even at my tender age, disappointment won’t be expelled from my corps if this plane actually does pop out of the other side of this cloud straight into a cliff… the landing gets aborted, the engines roar and nose points skywards. 'go ahead captain, give it another try, let’s see what you’re made of' A tight circle sending us back the way we came and the old ladies hold their breath. A second view of the east side of the island comes into sight. I admire it as I know it very well could be the only time I'll ever see the approach to this place. Up, down, up, down, down, Boom. We hit the ground and the seat belt does it job as my body stretches like an elastic band pulled back on the forefinger. I wonder if the pilots wonder as much as me if we’re really going to stop before that tarmac runs out. Slow, slow, slower… A full stop and I hear the ladies in the back gasp for air. Good effort for some old women, maybe I'll invite them to come spear fishing with me.
I’m on my own, I don’t know a thing, I have no food, and I’m supposed to be living in the jungle for the next many months.. 
Here we go…