The aftermath of a supernova – Goodbye Lee Kuan Yew

This week I wanted to write about our vineyard’s bumper crop of grapes which we harvested on Tuesday, the novel that I’ve finally completed and the massive wooden sculpture that Mark built in the garden. I tried to write but nothing came. Instead, I sat at my kitchen table this week with a bowl of fat figs, tearing at their soft flesh in a dull fog of tangled grief.

On Monday this week, Lee Kuan Yew died. In other words, for all of us Singaporeans, there was a death in the family.

Lee Kuan Yew, LKY, or The Old Man as many Singaporeans called him, was the founding father of modern day Singapore and reigned for 31 years, won 7 elections and continued to influence our politics until this Monday, when he died at 91 years of age.

He was our cranky, brilliant, ruthless and charismatic Asian father who hectored, chided and guided us our whole lives, pushing Singapore relentlessly over the course of my childhood from Third World to First.

By the time he stepped down in 1990, our tiny city state had become one of the most prosperous, orderly countries in the world, lauded the world over as an economic miracle.

Over the past week, tributes have poured in from around the world. These past few days we’ve seen US President Barack Obama hailing LKY as a “true giant of history”, British PM David Cameron recalling Margaret Thatcher always said that Lee Kuan Yew was the leader she admired the most in the world. Henry Kissinger said that it was one of the great blessings of his life to have had a friendship with the great man, and this weekend Kissinger will be flying into Singapore for the funeral together with Bill Clinton.

India has declared a national day of mourning for Lee Kuan Yew on Sunday with their flag flown at half mast and all entertainment withheld. http://www.channelnewsasia.com/mobile/asiapacific/india-declares-day-of/1747620.html

It’s all everyone in Singapore can talk about and my entire facebook feed is covered in eulogies from Singaporeans of all races and religions.

However in the corner of the Australia I live in, I grieve alone. Most people here have only the foggiest notion of who he was. “Nope,” my physiotherapist said, bending me into a pretzel. “Don’t know much about that guy.” Neither did my neighbours, the school mums I bumped into, or my friends in Melbourne.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Australians regularly goggle in disbelief when I tell them that we speak English as our first language in Singapore (their 5th largest trading partner). The Australian newspaper, even went so far to write a column criticising ABC for being so dumbed down that it had failed to cover such a monumental story. “Our ABC asks Lee Kuan Who?” the article headline goes. Which prompted an indignant retort from ABC today, saying in essence, oh yes we did, or at least we did more than any other Aussie media outlet.

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my views on Australia. How beautiful I think it is. How privileged we are to live there. How much I admire Australian values of love for community, environment, sport and work-life balance.

But of course it’s not an utopia. Take Australian insularity for instance, the schools my children go to do not offer Chinese as a second language option. Instead, they offer Bahasa Indonesia. This is sheer myopia. China is Australia’s number one trading partner. Indonesia is not even in the top 10. “Oh but we’re close to Indonesia.” some say. “It’s useful when we go on holiday.” Unfortunately, too many Australians only think about the existence of the world when its time for them to go on vacation. And don’t get me started on the sad state of opinion poll politics here. If I were to agree with Lee Kuan Yew whole-heartedly on anything he said, it would be these words “I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind – an inability to chart a course whichever way the wind blows, whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow.”

What most fascinates me about LKY are the paradoxes.

1.) Insignificance breeding significance.
All our lives Lee Kuan Yew told us how insignificant we were. Singapore was but a speck of dust on the windshield of the world. We had no natural resources, no common history, no common racial ties to bind us together. Because we knew we were insignificant, we had to work harder, faster, smarter and constantly look outwards at what other countries were doing to emulate their successes. In 1960, Singapore’s GDP per capita was US$428. Today it is US$56,284, higher than America’s and one of the highest in the world.

2.) Lack of freedom on one level and freedom on another.
The West has always been horrified by what they view as the loss of inalienable freedoms in Singapore. But yet most Singaporeans feel like they have much more basic freedoms than the West. As a young female, I was free to run down the streets of Singapore by myself to meet friends at whatever hour wearing whatever dress I liked without fearing for my safety. I could withdraw money from street ATMs at midnight without even looking over my shoulder. My parents never worried about me getting killed by a gun, taking drugs or being raped. As Lee famously said. “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.”.

3.) Hyperarticulation leading to Inarticulation.
Lee Kuan Yew was a champion debater, known for his articulation and wit. Watch him take on the American press when they ask him about Vietnam and marvel at how he dances, dodges and lands his killer blows. My favourite part, 7.45mins in, when an interviewer attempts to put words in his mouth and Lee Kuan Yew says “May I say what I mean myself in my own form of words? I think Americans have — I think it is a friendly habit of trying to help a person think for himself but I would rather do my own composition if I may.” He was our Original Gangster, even rejecting a US$3.3m bribe from the CIA with style, asking them to give Singapore US$33m in aid instead. However his style of leadership discouraged debate and critical thinking. Singaporeans have few chances to exercise their muscles of critical thinking without fear of recrimination or stern rebuke. Today Singaporeans lack soft skills in the workplace and struggle with expressing independent ideas and criticism.

In 2014, Singapore topped 131 cities globally to become the world’s most expensive city to live in, a pulsating city studded with Michelin-starred restaurants, monumental shopping malls, sky trains and futuristic parks.

Success however, comes with a price. In our case the trade off was a growing soullessness, sterility and obsession with material success. In a vacuum of ideology and ideals, most of us are motivated by the blunt instruments of greed and fear.

A Gallup poll in 2012 reported that Singapore ranked as the Least Emotional Country in the World with only 36% feeling either positive or negative emotions on a daily basis. The countries closest to us are Georgia, Lithuania and Russia. Emotions are just not an accepted feature of Singapore life. And don’t tell me that it’s an Asian thing because Hong Kong and China rank far, far higher than Singapore, in fact they are right smack in the middle of the list of 150 countries.

In fact, it could be precisely because we are so emotionally repressed and have so few avenues to express healthy emotion, that the death of Lee Kuan Yew has galvanised the entire country into a 24-7 spectacle of outward grief.

Right now as I write this, there are people who have been queuing for 8 hours to pay their last respects to the man. Most of my friends have been in that queue at some point this week. I’ve seen their photographs on Facebook, looking happy even though they are in the sweltering tropical heat. The line snakes for kilometres, extending all the way into Chinatown.

Was he perfect? No. Was he feared? Yes. Was he loved by Singaporeans? Indisputably. That includes me.

I belong to a generation brought up by absentee fathers and he was a substitute father to all of us. After having run therapy retreats for a few years, I observe that most people are more damaged by fathers that didn’t care than fathers that cared but were too harsh.

Yesterday at family dinner, we cracked open a bottle of our own wine to celebrate our harvest. Swirling the wine about in its glass, Mark asked our six-year old to sniff it and identify the notes. “It smells like strawberries and… maybe Lee-Kuan-Yew.”, she pronounced emphatically, uttering a sentence never heard before in human history. She must have overheard myself and Mark discussing his death and legacy this whole week.

I hope that Singapore finds its feet again. Even more so, I hope it finds its soul. Our great leader has passed and this week I mourn for our nation’s loss but in a balanced way, I hope. While I admire the man, I also see how things could be different. I do not want my wine to smell like 91-year-old authoritarian, but today I raise a glass to you Lee Kuan Yew, our supernova, our goliath-fighting David. Respect, love and gratitude.

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All pictures from The Straits Times

One. Happy. Family.

When we were kids, my dad’s favourite saying, which was always dispensed at the most inappropriate and ironic times, was the exclamation “One Happy Family!”. It drove us absolute bonkers.

I could be launching myself off the railings of our split level dining room to perform a WWF piledriver on my howling brother, yelling “CALL ME UNCLE OR ELSE!” and my dad would saunter into the living room, glance over and pronounce “One Happy Family!” and shuffle out of the door with his doctors bag. Or all three of us kids could be scrapping in the back of the car like an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, pulling hair, kicking and screeching at the top of our lungs and in the front seat my dad would reach over and pat my mother’s hand and say “One Happy Family!”, a irritatingly beatific smile on his face.

Now that I’m a mother of 3 Itchy & Scratchies, I often roll my eyes to the heavens and think “One Happy Family!”, and this week has been a never-ending parade of One Happy Family moments!

For instance, our Cost Centre #1 Sean Leahy, whose daily chores include retrieving duck eggs from the coop every morning, seems to have overlooked his duties for no less than 5 weeks, and we have now got 17 new ducks in residence after we’ve spent the last 6 months trying to get rid of our existing ducks… Sean was informed that his new task was to get rid of the entire brood of ducks and hence has become very proficient in Gumtree advertising skills and screening calls from random weirdos.

And then there is Cost Centre #, Dylan Emerald Leahy, who despite being told numerous times about the dangers of medicine, was caught snacking on grape flavoured kids antihistamine tablets in the middle of the night and washing them down with a little chaser of a bottle of Sambucol syrup. Dylan is now on a complete Screens & Sugar ban and is now doing manual labour in the apple orchard as penance.

And of course not to be ignored, is Cost Centre #2 Finn Leahy, who is also on the Screens & Sugar ban after a large variety of misdemeanours involving tree branches, poking, water guns and not listening. So far he has adjusted marvellously to his new life and has discovered new ways to annoy his sister. Such as discovering a box of hair extensions which he realised was key to his transformation as Smugolas, the Self-Satisfied Elf Princess, cue prancing around tossing his extensions in his little sister’s face, declaring “I’m the prettiest princess in this house!” and tons of waterworks from his dejected and very threatened-feeling sister who spent the morning yelling “No you’re NOT A PRINCESS!” and bedecking herself with more tiaras and princess accessories than a Barbie convention.

Behold, Smugolas in all his glory…

So we had lunch today, cooked by CC#1 Sean, whose new chore is to make family lunch on Sunday. The lunch comprised of extremely spicy red Thai chicken curry, some slightly soggy rice, and a liberal dose of screaming.

Finn: “Oh I’m so pretty! Why did you make me so beautiful Mama? I’m the loveliest princess in the house!”

Dylan: “NO YOU’RE NOT!!! I AM!!! YOU’RE NOT EVEN A GIRL!!!!”

Finn: “I’ve decided I’m going to be a PRINCESS now! Because I”m the prettiest child in the family!”

Dylan: “NO YOU’RE NOT!!! LET’S HAVE A VOTE”

Sean & Mark: “We vote for Mum, that’s a majority Now shut up and eat your lunch.”

Finn: “So that means you tie with me Dylan! And I’m still the prettiest and you know it….”

Dylan: “WAaaaaaaAAAAAaaaaAAAA!!!!!!” (massive waterworks)

ALL: “SHUT UP DYLAN!!!! STOP IT FINN!”

Me: “One. Happy. Family.”

The End.

Why? Because.

When I was a kid, my little brother used to follow me around the house asking me questions. “Why?!” he would say. “Just because.” I would reply, my nose buried in some how-to manual or Gerald Durrell novel. “Why?” “Because!” “But why?!!!” “I said BECAUSE!!!!”. It would go on and on, driving my mother absolutely demented.

Well this Christmas was a pretty existentialist one. Why? Because.

The day before Christmas Eve, Mark and I had taken the kids to a circus in Melbourne and we were driving home when I received a call from Sean. “Mooom.” he said. He sounded really groggy and strange. “Mom I’m really hurt. I had an accident on my bicycle.” “Are you going to be ok Sean?” “I don’t know Mom.” And then this lady came on the phone and said “Hi, your son is covered in blood on the side of the road, no cars were involved but I need to take him to hospital now.” We didn’t have time to think and just sprang into motion, calling our neighbour Tony who was down the road to pick Sean up and turning the car around and heading for Frankston Hospital.

Sean ended up needing 3 operations and 2 nights in hospital between then and Christmas Day but thankfully nothing major was damaged, except for his face which needed plastic surgery having 3 deep gashes and 4 smashed front teeth which require root canals over the next few weeks. He looked like a huge wet mess though.

Once word got out about Sean’s accident, everyone kept on texting me, why? How? Sean doesn’t remember skidding or hitting anything. What we do know is that the two metal front spokes that attach the wheel of the bike to the frame appear to have had a manufacturing defect that made it snap. He went over the handle bars and hit the road on his face, making impact with his helmet, cheek and chin. Thank goodness for that helmet.

Sean’s biological mother and her family flew down from Hong Kong on Christmas Eve to see him arriving at 2 a.m. in the morning on Christmas Day and we checked Sean out of ER at 9 a.m. sharp. after the kids had opened their presents. Dylan rushed in and gave him a very solemn hug. All the damage is on the other side of Sean’s face so you can’t really see it in the photo below, other than his swollen lips.

It wasn’t a perfect, Kumbaya, Martha Stewart Christmas by any means. Christmas was a maelstrom of driving to the hospital, buying last minute presents, wrapping things, carrying on with our Christmas eve party for 17, frantically making guest beds and moving furniture around and runs to the pharmacy, cooking for two families, cleaning more crap than you can believe, dogs getting into the rubbish and kids going batshit crazy everywhere. Every two hours Sean’s wounds needed to be swabbed and sluiced, every four hours he needed to take a cocktail of meds.

Dylan watched three episodes of Eloise when things were crazy busy and I was feeling sort-of-but-not-really-guilty about using the TV babysitter but then again she tottered out of the TV room and pronounced “Christmas is about sharing and caring for your friends and family.” and went off to check on Sean. Which it really is when you think about it.

So shit happens and you ask the universe Why? But the answers are as changeable and subtle as the wind.

Because on one level this was a horrible, terrible, no-good Christmas but yet within it Sean had one of his biggest wishes come true – that he could spend family with both of his families instead of having to choose.

Because Dylan saw Sean’s mangled bike but she still said that she wanted to learn how to ride anyway.

Because Finn made a new best friend in Sean’s little half-brother from Hong Kong and more importantly, learned to forgive when he deleted Finn’s Terraria world on his iPad that he had spent a year building.

Because the amount of help, support and friendship that poured out from our friends and community around the world has been frankly quite staggering. I guess Facebook can be a good thing too. Thank you thank you and thank you everyone for everything.

Because we did our gratitude ritual around the table and everyone had something to be sincerely grateful about.

Because it was actually really cool to have Sean’s mother’s family with us and show the two little Hong Kong city boys life on the farm.

Because life goes by too crazy fast with kids sometimes and this Christmas every day felt like an eternity.

Because life is so precious and so bloody delicate.

Because Sean knows that he is so loved.

Mark wrote me a note when we were dating many many many years ago. I still keep it tucked into the frame of my mirror. It says “Beautiful things do not come into being easily, but are formed by intense heat and lots of pressure.”

This Christmas I asked Why and and the answer was because there was beauty, despite everything. Happy Christmas everyone.

Farm Dramas

A farm is like a jealous lover. I’ve been travelling for the better part of the past two months to Singapore and Indonesia, and when I finally returned to Cable Car Estate, oh what fun lay in store! We were busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking competition.

First the alpacas needed to be sheared. If you have any doubts about the transformative powers of a haircut, just look at our alpacas! This is them before, all plump and happy in the orchard.

And this is the very traumatic shearing process, where they have to be hung and drawn like a scene from Game of Thrones while the shearer gets to work. I was told many times that this is the safest and most humane way to do it because if they aren’t bound up, they can seriously injure themselves. Did you know that alpacas can kick in ALL directions unlike horses? Well Mark found out when Mandate gave him a nice shiner on his left leg.

And these are our boys after the shearing, two scrawny little embarrassed deer like things! They didn’t recognise each other at first and spent a long time spitting in each others faces, which was quite funny. There must have been so relieved to get all that furry wool off themselves though. There’s now 4 big bags of alpaca fleece in our shed, ready to be spun into something. I’m think a lovely big throw for our library room couch to snuggle under while watching a movie.

Leave us alone, the alpacas convey wordlessly.

And then the next drama was the arrival of baby lamb Sparkle (Dylan’s idea of a name). We found poor baby Sparkle all neglected lying by himself next to a rock in the field and our alpacas standing over him nudging him gently and trying to get him to stand up. Not knowing which one of the sheep was his mother as both of them seemed equally clueless, we bundled the little guy in a towel and brought him into the house to feed.

The little guy loved being hugged and stroked, and followed the kids around wherever they went, until we thought we’d have to change Dylan’s name to Mary.

It was really cute but stepping in steaming warm puddles of lamb pee in my kitchen tempered my enthusiasm a bit. Thankfully over the next few days we managed to reintroduce Sparkle to her lackadaisical mother in a catch pen and she’s working hard on being a better mother. We’ve renamed the mother Britney Spears as she still spends most of her time smoking behind the shed, dragging Sparkle around from place to place randomly while he’s trying to take a nap and being a general Loo-La.

Poor Sparkle! He (or she) needs a bit of therapy I think. Speaking of therapy, Pooky our peacock then decided that everyone else on the farm was acting up so he decided to run away the day after Sparkle arrived! We got a call from a friend who was having coffee down the road who had spotted him causing a commotion across the main road and it took 5 grown people, the Irishman and two vineyard nets to catch him.

We put the silly bugger back into the covered orchard and the first thing that happened was that one of the Muscovy drakes came over, jumped on his back and attempted to give him a good shag. Who needs to watch Prison Break when you have Farm TV here??

So I apologise for the long break between blog posts recently but sometimes, life just gets in the way. In the meantime, here are some photos of the beautiful weather we’ve been having. Just last week we had a technicolour sunset so extraordinary that my entire instagram feed was full of the Mornington Peninsula sky. Sometimes when the farm is kicking your ass, it’s good to be able to look up and just breathe!

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the magnolia manifest

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Every spring soft bursts of magnolia flowers erupt like flower popcorn on the row of trees in our garden, exploding forth in glorious profusion day after day until the branches are completely laden with beauty.

Magnolia Grandiflora. Even the name is beautiful and stately.

There is a term in interior design, “visual reward”, and I always think of it when I walk down the corridor linking my office to our kitchen with my cup of tea, where a magnificent magnolia tree is the visual reward at the end of that well trodden axis. It is most stunning at dusk when the fading light turns the huge blossoms a surreal luminous silvery pink.

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All forms of happiness contain within themselves the seeds of their own decomposition and renewal. Our driveway is now lined with lush, velvety petals each the size of a baby’s hand. They fall in droves now, lying in the snowy drifts, until the Irishman rakes them into the compost pile, where they will rot, break down and be spread on top of the roots of the other living things in our garden.

We will not feel sorry when the magnolias are gone. They never really leave us, but just change manifestation, dissipated into the good earth of our garden and tinting my nighttime dreams the palest pink of springtime hope.

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At World’s End – an adventure to Nihiwatu, Sumba

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We tumbled out of the airplane like a sack full of puppies onto the steaming hot tarmac at Tambolaka Airport in Sumba, accepted the huge drinking coconuts pressed upon us by our smiling driver and set off on our way to Nihiwatu resort, our home for the next 6 days. The road wound past terraced paddy fields, cashew plantations, villages made of clumps of thatched roof huts, craggy mountains and cliffs falling away to reveal crashing surf in the distance. Pressing our noses up against the window, we watched scenes from within a time machine.

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Goats, dogs, chickens and toddlers ambled across the arbitary path with nonchalance. A wedding procession of men in ceremonial ikats led a buffalo towards a sacrifice table, their parang swords swaying from their waists as they strained with the great animal. A bunch of tiny knee-height pranksters jumped out of bushes in front of our car and screamed HELLO and then dashed off giggling. I pointed out to my children the Dr Seuss-like towering kapok trees by the road with their football sized wads of cottony fruit, used to stuff bedding in the tropics. My 7 year old Finn sniggered and said that it should be called the rabbit tree as it looked as if someone had hot glued bunnies to its branches.

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When I’m in Bali, the Indonesian phrase I use the most often is “Berapa harganya?” What’s the price? How much? Which is swiftly followed by “Yang mahal!” Too expensive! While travelling in Sumba, the phrases I use the most are “Awas!” Watch out! or “Hati Hati!” Be careful!. And sometimes at particularly thrilling times these phrases can be combined to form a continuous AWASHATIHATIAWASAWASAWAS!!! Maybe I’m fretting too much. Everyone else is chilled. As the Malays in Singapore say, Jangan Tension! Hang loose!

I watch as a man climbs out of the passenger window of the moving truck in front of us and clambers onto the roof to join the 5 small children already crammed on top of the bouncing vehicle. A minute afterwards, the truck passes under a broken electrical cable dangling overhead, sparking with live menace. Somehow the people on top of the truck survive. At this point, Finn turns around and tells me that he must spend the rest of his life in Sumba.

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Once we’re safe in the luxurious and serene surrounds of Nihiwatu resort, we settle into our villa like feet sinking into warm sand. The shoes are unpacked and never worn. Our gracious, enthusiastic butler Reuben is quickly adopted into the family and becomes Uncle Reuben to the children. Reuben brings the children an endless array of treats, from french fries and swimming floats to a pair of beautifully hand carved miniature replicas of the parang sword he wears at this waist at all times. Finn gets sword fighting lessons and thumps the bougainvillea outside our room half to death while Reuben eggs him on. Reuben later comes back with an ikat cloth which he carefully wraps around Finn’s waist and inserts the wooden scabbard into. Finn doesn’t take it off for the rest of the holiday, sleeping with his sword under the pillow.

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Nothing is off limits here. Finn gets to drive speedboats, ride in the front of a Land Rover, and even gets a diving lesson with a real adult sized air tank, jacket and regulator. My 5 year old girl Dylan signs up for a cookie baking class, has a hair smoothie at the spa, wades around rockpools and makes up cocktail orders. On Day 3, she tells Natalia the Guest Relations Manager that she would like to have a job at Nihiwatu running the Kids Club Programme. Dylan thinks that she can teach children cutlery balancing, flower hair weaving and of course (deep breath) MAKING COOKIES!

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Our teenager Sean is the most sedentary of the bunch, initially circulating on a closed circuit of bed, computer and pool, but Nihiwatu works its spell on him and he ends up busting some cool moves on the dance floor at White Party Night and the next morning, he decides to go for a breakfast hike with his dad across the cliff tops to a secluded beach at Nihi Oka.

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Unlike Bali where everything has is neatly packaged, parcelled out and available for sale, in Sumba there are no compartments, no separation. You are at one with everything and everything is one with you. Food is handed to you in banana leaves and as soon as you pull the toothpick out, rice bursts out over your ungainly tourist hands and you end up licking your palms without a trace of shame. Chickens and pigs live in houses next to grain stores, toddlers and parents. At the market, piles of sweet potatoes, betel nuts and bananas spill over each other on the grass. We walk around barefoot all day whether we’re hiking across the paddy fields or waterfalls (flip flops just get stuck in the mud) or going for lunch at the beachside restaurant, and at the end of the day the soles of our feet are indistinguishable from the land, darkened with mud, grit and sand. This is life without makeup, at its most raw and vital.

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Nihiwatu resort must surely be one of the most beautiful resorts on earth, with its pretty thatched roof villas, panoramic ocean view and hot pink bougainvillea lined rock paths. But more importantly, Nihiwatu is also one of the most responsible. The resort buys coconuts from locals, and instead of throwing away the husks, they feed them and the oil to their biodiesel fuel processor which powers the generators, air conditioners and hotel equipment. Fish is caught by traditional methods by the staff in the morning and turned into free flow plates of sashimi at the bar in the evening. Organic gardens, chickens and compost heaps are a given.

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The Sumba Foundation is the resort’s charity and it has reduced Malaria infection rates by 85% in West Sumba since its inception, supplying more than 16 primary schools with supplies and water. Every time we venture outside the resort on hikes, we see the big yellow water tanks with the red Sumba Foundation tank in the surrounding villages, the foundation having provided more than 240 water stations across the land and healthcare to over 20,000 people. 4f0c0cfa-da2c-45dc-8854-e3e4e3b2db0c.jpg

On Thursday, we are invited to a presentation at sundowners on the Sumba Foundation. Health Program Director Dr Claus Bogh, also a senior adviser and malaria expert for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talks to the resort guests about two of the latest patients the Sumba Foundation has helped – a pint-sized girl, born blind, who can now see again after her cataract operation, and a 13 year old boy who they are helping get a prosthetic limb to help on his arduous walk to school. My children stuff their faces with hot sea salted popcorn offered to them by Reuben and ask us many questions long after the video ends. Why does that boy have only one leg Mama? Where are the parents of those children? Why does everyone in the family share the same bed in Sumba? Why can’t I walk to school by myself like all of the other children here? Good, big questions for little people.

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As the days go by, Sumba works its magic and the tight knots in my neck, shoulders, and gut loosen. I start to feel languid, going along with the flow. Even though I’m not remotely sporty, I sign up for a long hike to Blue Waterfall, one of the many glorious waterfalls in the area, and the Irishman and I trek for hours through the rainforest, the sweat rivulets down our neck merging into a continuous wash in the heat. Just when my ankles are about to give out, we hear the soft white noise of crashing water in the distance. The canopy of trees thins out and we arrive at a majestic waterfall, spraying explosively from a hole in the cliff side and churning a whirlpool into the surface of a topaz blue lake. 25d93b7c-33a4-41ce-bc44-94d00c078ea2.jpg

I have never been one for swimming in natural waterholes, but I can’t get peel off my sticky shoes and t-shirt fast enough. Plunging into the crystalline pool, the Irishman and I swim out towards the spout and climb onto a boulder just out of its torrential path. Overhead, the cliff face is covered with thick, dripping moss. Little water icicles dangle off the emerald covered rock, eternally forming and reforming, as beautiful as diamond shards on a Christmas tree. The waterfall roars high over our heads and sends iridescent arcs of droplets which drench us from head to toe as we shriek with laughter.

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The next day, I wake up early and clamber onto a fishing boat with the Irishman and Finn and head out to the Fish Aggregating Device seventeen miles offshore, which we have heard so much about from Chris, Nihiwatu’s resident fishing expert. The FAD sounds fancy and we expected something akin to a floating Death Star in the ocean, but it turns out to be a bamboo raft, anchored with oil drums to the seabed with a weight. Algae forms around the FAD and that attracts small fish, which then draw bigger fish. As soon as we put out the lines, an entire shoal of about fifty huge mahi-mahi fish turn up for the bait. A French guest on the boat reels in the first one. The Irishman has a go at the second one, but not without a good eight minutes of wrestling with the fish, a huge female mahi mahi.

I decide to have a go. Chris hands me a rod with something tugging gently at the end. It feels deceptively easy as I start turning the reel, but that’s because the fish is still far away and swimming towards the boat. And then all of a sudden, I feel a giant yank at the end. “What’s that!” I yelp. The supremely capable Chris leaps into action, shouting orders in Bahasa to the boatman to steer towards the fish and simultaneously issuing me a rapid-fire stream of instructions. Hold the rod upwards, stabilise the end against the rail, lean over to let some slack in the line and quickly reel it in on the downward motion of the rod. Don’t stop reeling! When the fish starts another violent bout of struggling, let him have some more line and when he is exhausted, start the process again. Don’t stop reeling! Ok, stop reeling! Put the rod up! Now point the rod down.

This is like ballet, a technical dance with its own peculiar rules and rhythm. I learn to waltz with my fish. Forward I go, spinning like a maniac, backwards I arch, feeling the fish take my weight like a tango partner. My left arm cramps and aches as the fishing rod is on the wrong side for a right-handed person, but the show must go on.

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After what seems like an epic struggle, the fish tires and allows me to gain on it, pulling it closer towards the boat. It makes one final leap in the air, and we all gasp. It is a giant dolphin-like creature, golden with blue spots. Chris bellows more complicated instructions to the boatmen, manouvring the boat into final position, as I bring the fish as close as I can to the side. It thrashes and flashes just under the surface of the water. Chris runs over grabbing a spear and stabs my dance partner in its side and brings it up to the deck and hollers for everyone to stand well back as the giant fish spasms all over the floor. He manages to wrestle it into the ice chest and one of the boat boys quickly slams down the lid and sits on it as the fish thumps angrily inside. Finn watches with fascination, and perhaps a touch of morbidity. c44c2632-9f6a-4eef-af6b-8a93310666fe.jpg

Later on, back at the boathouse, we measure my fish and it is the biggest of the haul, 11 kilos and 1.3 metres, as long as Finn. Its glorious neon yellow colour has faded out of its skin. I feel a shard of sorrow. Over the past few years of living on the farm, I have become intimately acquainted with my food, learning to slaughter our free range chickens, ducks and sheep. So why does taking the life of this fish feel so different? It was a wild, abundantly available fish who had lived a long healthy life, caught in one of the most ethical ways, due to become food for the resort with not a bit of it wasted.

But I was connected from my sternum to this magnificent creature with a taut line vibrating with its energy. It was a worthy opponent. As I remembered the glory of its metallic cobalt and gold skin, I thought about our pet peacock back home and said a prayer for the fish. And for us, that we would not waste the precious, worthy life that we had taken.

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So many more memories. Having a bath with Dylan in a gigantic bronze outdoor tub. Watching a boy not much older than Finn learn how to use a harpoon. Seeing horses and buffaloes bathing in the waves. Watching the ruby red sun sink into sea from the Nihiwatu yacht. Eating the freshest fish on earth with rice and a fiery tomato sambal on the beach.Learning to surf with the Irishman under the watchful guidance of Chad and Kaieve, Nihiwatu’s two bronzed resident surf gurus, in the famous Nihiwatu break, one of the best in the world. The wave is a thing of beauty, a perfect tight roll, running left to right along the reef. When it gets big, it hurls against the boulders, smashing into a fine mist. I swear you can taste the negative ions in the air.

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On our last night, the staff of Nihiwatu arranges for a special surprise dinner for Sean’s 16th birthday. We are led to a special birthday table, ensconced within walls of palm fronds and with a giant bougainvillea rising out of the centre of the tabletop. When we go around the table, taking turns to say what we are grateful for. All of us have our own highlights;- diving, hiking, fishing, cookies, but the children agree that this has been the most amazing holiday they have been on and say that they never want to leave. Sean says that he is most grateful for Reuben, and just then, Natalia, Reuben and the rest of the staff turn up with a birthday cake and sing him happy birthday in English, and then in Bahasa. Sean is presented with a wooden birthday plaque, an ikat sarong, a pair of board shorts and big hugs from everyone.

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Later that night, I look at Finn as he sleeps bare chested, one hand on his wooden Kris, and think who is this Robinson Crusoe child? Will there still be golden monster fish in the ocean for him to dance with when he grows up? Whether it is possible for this Sumba to exist in a rapidly changing world. The night air is velvety and outside a frog starts his baritone chorus, breaking the crisp stillness. The next morning we pack our bags in a surreal stupor, six days went by in a heartbeat. As we walk out of the door, I notice that the kids have erased the sand door mat outside our deck which used to read “Welcome The Leahys” and have written “We LOVE Reuben” in it. Nihiwatu, we will be back. In the meantime, we are happy just to know that you exist.

x,

Crystal

*All photos with the Nihiwatu watermark are copyright of Nihiwatu, all other photos are mine

Best. Day. Ever.

Last week I turned 35. The Irishman organised a wild Spanish themed fiesta (The Fiesta Dos Virgos!) at our house for myself and my fellow Virgo friend Karen. Karen said that she would cook some Pooky for my birthday and I freaked out. It turns out that she meant something porky, and was referring to an original recipe for Berza Chiponera, a bean, pork and chorizo stew given to her in 1992 when she was in Chipiona, Spain. It tasted much much better than it sounded!

Normally when I hold a party I’m running a hundred different programs simultaneously in my mind’s processor. Checking the progress of the various dishes in the kitchen, making sure the candles are lit, the entryway tidied, the powder room in ship shape, playlist weeded of the Irishman’s guilty pleasures and so on, all the time fending off the Leahy children from messing up my work. Someone once said that cleaning a house with kids in it was like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos. That person must have been a Virgo.

So it was a real juicy pleasure to do absolutely nothing before a party for once in my life except to lounge about in my bedroom with an eyeshadow brush and a cup of tea. The irony is that I think everyone almost enjoyed it more that I wasn’t being my usual anal, hovering party mistress self! I had a great time and I think the Irishman can be promoted to co-party organiser from now on, that is if he promises not to wear any more $4 girls outfits ferreted out from the depths of the op shop.

I love that my friends are such amazing cooks. Scallops, prawns poached in oil, stuffed mushrooms, gazpacho, homemade ice-cream, everything was made with such love.
Actually the food could have been takeaway pizza and we would have still had a ball. Our friends are amazing, period.

I’m very blessed to have this crazy Irishman in my life. He has pledged to fill my days with silly ideas, jokes and drama.

Sunday was Father’s Day so it was my turn to stage something festive. We kidnapped or dad-napped Mark and brought him to a secret location. When he uncovered his eyes, we were at the Puffing Billy station in the Dandenongs. The Puffing Billy is an antique steam train established in the early 1900s which ferried passengers from Melbourne to the rural towns in the Dandenong Hills. They had a 3 course Father’s Day lunch special in the first class carriages with lovely old silverware and starchy white tablecloths, which was pretty much the best thing you could say about the lunch other than the old world ambiance. “I’ve always loved boiled dishwashing liquid potatoes and plastic cream sauced fish!” crowed Mark mirthfully as we chugged past the sun-drenched hills and eucalyptus forests.

The kids had “the best day ever” where the highlights were being allowed a soft drink on the train, squashing pennies on the train track (with approval from the train conductor – only in Australia!) and paddle-boating around the lake at the Emerald Lakeside station stop. We actually managed to leave home with zero cash between all of us and while we were waiting in line for the paddle boat ($15 bucks), Sean found a crumpled $5 note in his wallet, I discovered $6.80 in coins at the bottom of my handbag and the Irishman did his part by lamenting loudly about our plight. So loudly and piteously that the bloke in front of us took out his wallet and gave us the remaining $3.20 that we needed and wished us a Happy Father’s Day. Best Day Ever! And Most Shameful Irishman Stunt!

Here is the ecstatic Irishman, full of good tidings to the world and to the charitable bloke in the boat behind him.

And my favourite photo of the day, Dylan and Sean sharing earphones and a sibling moment on the train ride on the way back home.

Happy Fathers Day to all the wonderful, strong, loving, funny dads out there! And thanks to my husband for my birthday party-  growing old isn’t fun sometimes, but somehow you always bring out the funniest, best side of life there is, and for that, you are the Best. Person. Ever.

x,
C