Monday, April 30, 2012

Chamber Pots

Chamber pots are, in my world, a vanished Thing.  A THing with a capital TH, spoken of with hushed tones and curled lips  and surreptitious glaaahs and gaaaks by people of my mother's generation.

Mum glaaahs and Dad is smug.  He might have had an outdoor dunny when he was a nipper, but it was a flushing model, in a shed with electric lights, even.  My city-girl Mum gaaaks and says that she spent her summer holidays in country-er towns than the one he came from - towns where the dunnykin man came once a week in a horse-drawn cart, trailing a boiling cloud of black flies behind.

HER dunny was a dunnykin - a glorified milk bucket in reverse, under a hole in a wooden seat.  A new one was delivered every Monday.  By Wednesday it was unspeakable in the boiling Aussie summer, by Thursday it was crawling, and by Sunday night it was crawling an inch up underneath your bum.

The dunnykin man worked in dark and secrecy - by broad daylight.  On delivery day, Nice People huddled in their living rooms and were ostentatiously Not There as he stealthily carried the noisesome gong bucket down the garden path to where the horses stood, and stamped, and trailed a boiling cloud of black flies behind them, all new hatched and rising straight up out of the muck.

Chamber Pots are unlamented, unmourned, unremembered and unknown to me and mine.  Last year, just before we left Australia, I fount two elegantly enameled tin basins in a thrift store.  They were teal and celadon blue, and I brought them home to put flowers in - a la Martha Stewart - at a tea party.

We never held the tea party, on account of packing up the house to move to Chile instead, but my Mother visited me last week and I held one here in her honor, and brought out the new flower pots to decorate the tea-table.
Mum screamed.
            "Chamber Pots!"  She shrieked.
After a brief moment of dismay, I giggled. 
            "No one will know."  I said.  "I didn't.  And Martha Stewart would call it Retro-rust-pan Chic!"
Mum glaaah'd.  AND gaaak'd.  But nobody knew.  And Martha Stewart would have smiled, enigmatically, and cut me a bunch of roses.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Devils you Don't know At All and Don't Want To - Ever. So There. THANK You.

Not long after I moved back to Australia, I was out to dinner with Mum and Dad and a group of other brand-new arrivals.  Among them was a lovely young man from South Africa (which is not exactly under-populated with its own beasties), who'd immigrated to Australia with his wife and two small children.
            The thing about Australians is that we're well aware of the reputation for the sheer versatile lethality of our flora and fauna, and we take a perverse and sophisticated satisfaction in winding up foreigners until they're strung so tight you can pluck that last stretched nerve and bounce them half-way to Jupiter.
            This young man had been pretty well worked over by the well-meaning folks in his new office over the past week, and by the time he got to us, he was in a state of bug-eyed paranoia that had him checking underneath his restaurant chair and carefully inspecting the folds of the table-cloth before he sat down, just in case the shadows were harboring something unsavory that would jump out and bite him in the neck.
            Mum and Dad watched him narrowly, and with very little prodding, led him into  a breathless exploration of how Australia required its citizens to maintain a perpetual state of readiness -
            "My God," he said feelingly.  You've got the world's deadliest snakes and the world's deadliest spiders, and they tell me that they all live inside your bloody house. But you can't go outside into the garden either!  You can't put a picnic blanket down on the grass - there's trapdoor spiders in the grass.  And you can't go walking in the bush - there's snakes that look just like little brown twigs lying on all the paths, and when you go home, there's huntsman spiders in your beds, and redback spiders underneath the toilet seats - I tell you, I'm about to quit this job and take the family up north for a long, quiet tropical holiday on the beach.  At least the beaches are safe!"
            This was Mum and Dad's cue.  Mum, who has spent considerable time teaching on the coast up north, launched into a story about her seven-year-old student who walked barefoot to school one day and stepped on a stonefish.  He lived, barely.
            "Don't forget the box jellyfish."  Dad said.
            "The What- ?"
            "Cone shells." Mum said.
            "Sea snakes."
            "Salt-water crocodiles."
            "And," Mum said, "The little blue-ringed octopus. It's so small you barely see it, but there's no known antidote. You die in agony; paralyzed and writhing."
            The South African blanched. "About the only bit of Australia that's safe must be the little strip of sand around your coast between the high-tide line and the start of the bush!"
            "Malaria."  Mum said consideringly.
            "Japanese Encephalitis,"  Dad nodded
            "Dengue Fever," Mum said, and nodded harder.
            The poor man had to call a waiter over for something to settle his nerves.  Several stiff drinks later, Mum and Dad poured him into a taxi and went home very pleased with themselves.

Australia is a lovely country.  And if the new immigrants can survive the Australians, they can survive anything.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's the 25th today

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Devils You Know

Speaking of earthquakes - it's an interesting thing, watching the mental processes by which humans process risk.
            Over the last two weeks, I've received some lovely letters from family members, telling me how much fun the earthquakes didn't sound - and wanting to know when are we coming home, back to Australia, where things like this don't happen and the country is safe.  Soon, they hope?
            My Auntie Dee wrote to me from Queensland.  She didn't ask me to come home, but she expressed elegantly and forcefully how completely she is not a fan of natural disasters such as ours  -
            Dee and her husband are farmers in Queensland's red soil belt.  In any given year, they are up to their elbows in floods, droughts and bushfire watches.  It's hardly worth noting the ordinary, everyday, scarcely to be mentioned Aussie annoyances of venomous snakes and spiders in the downstairs lavatory.  During 2011's epic floods, they spent the better part of a week in their farmhouse shut off from the rest of Queensland while water lapped around the margins of their garden path, and later that year, when man-made disasters appeared on the horizon, my uncle was instrumental in defying a particularly bloody-minded government-sponsored attempt to seize the local farming land for strip-mining.

Auntie A  lives in the same part of Victoria that, three years ago, was blasted by horrendous bushfires that killed almost 200 people and left more than 7000 homeless.  Two days after the 7.1 quake, she wrote to me to say that Mr Tabubil and I ought to come home now, please. Soonish. Her own daily concerns are scarcely less considerable, and her own risk calculations deserve full presentation here:
            "I thought my little episode with the Tiger Snake in the lounge room last week was unsettling, but it was nothing compared to your earthquake. I had been ironing in the lounge room for a couple of hours.  I went into the bedroom to put on my shoes, and I think at this stage I may have disturbed the snake. I glanced down at the floor as I walked back into the lounge and there it was.  My brain did a double take as I swung back for a second look, quickly called your Uncle A (who works on the property where they live)who jumped up from his office chair in a hurry and banged his knee (he is now limping) flew home and caught the snake, which was hiding at the back of the couch.  Of course, we turned the bed upside down to see if there were any of his family left.  Still can't work out how it got in as I always am checking the doors to make sure that they  are closed fully.  Anyway, so far we have survived its visit."
            Four days ago, I had another letter from her - her young grandson had been bitten by a tiger snake in her backyard, next to her lemon tree.  He spent 7 hours under observation in the local hospital with his leg wrapped in bandages from his ankle to his hip.  Ultimately, he was let go with no more than a good fright- the snake had struck his ankle-bone and recoiled for a second strike without depositing any venom, in which moment the boy had been able to run and get away -
            "It was a good outcome." Auntie A wrote to me, far more casually than I could have sounded under similar circumstances.  

It's all about perspective, isn't it?  The devils that you know.  Known devils can become almost routine, and if not exactly tolerable, then bearable, and if not actually reasonable, then able to be reasoned against.
            The quakes that we are having here in Santiago are reckoned to be part of the tectonic reverb after the great big 8.8 quake in 2010's 8.8.  The first aftershock of that one rung bells at 8.2, and after a few days of 7-point-somethings every hour or so, the tectonic activity  has been trending more-or-less reasonably downward, ever since.
            Earthquakes become familiar.  As each new one builds, it brings to Santiaguenos what has become a familiar terror, until it peaks and then, then fear settles into calculation - "Well, we got through the big one, and this one feels less than that, so we'll get through this -  so no worries, no worries at all -"
            There's a night spent outside on high ground if you live on the coast, but you're through, and it has settled in the ground and inside your head, until next time -
            Would Chileans take the floods, which drowned so many in Queensland,  or Victoria's fires, which left nothing but scorched bones on scorched earth, or even the daily Australian caution against snake and spider?  Or up in Darwin, beaches that are salted with crocodiles, sea-snakes, box-jellyfish and the immortal blue-ringed octopus?  Or we could be up in Texas this month, praying for a storm cellar as we listen to the roof come off -
            The devils you know are the ones we can live with.  Strange dangers are terrors.  The danger we know are calculable, considerable and endurable.
            So we all endure.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

6.7 this time

Last night  Santiago was hit by another very nice earthquake.  
The epicenter was only 150 km away, give or take a few, right next to the town of Maintencillo on the coast, and around hereabouts it felt a LOT larger than the 7.1 we were hit with two weeks ago, and it certainly seemed to have it lasted longer, which says interesting things about subjective time dilation under stress, because it official lasted about the same as last time.
The  strength is officially 6.7 now, which is nothing to sneeze at, and it being so close,  No WONDER we shook and bumped! It could have been worse -  we have friends down in Maitencillo whose house is about 1.5 kilometers from the epicenter, give or take a few inches.  They are feeling somewhat shaken up, right now, thank you.  And possess rather fewer breakables than last night.

The earthquake hit just on midnight .  I still wasn't quite asleep.  I felt SOMETHING, a mild jouncing, and half asleep, thought 'Ohh....  I'll wait and see.'  
Mr Tabubil started shouting "Get UP! GET UP! GET UP! NOW!!!!" - and by the time I was on my feet the room was shaking and heaving underneath and all around us.  We got to our pre-selected solid corner and I swear that damn apartment tried to rattle itself loose around our ears. Every single wall and bit of floor was fighting on a different axis. Our drawers rattled open in the kitchen and I began to imagine that I could hear our glassware resonating in the cupboard - but the sound grew and I realized that the quake had set off all the car alarms outside in the street.  And the quake built and built and went on and on, and I was purely terrified. 
Far lot more than I had been last time.

When that 7.1 earthquake  hit on the 25th of March, I flipped right into a frame of mind where there was "NO time to be scared, NO time to be SCARED - What are our evacuation routes?  How will I find shoes if this place is covered in glass?  etc? ETC, Tabubilgirl, ETCETERA?"  Afterwards I was frightened, but not nearly as frightened as I could have been had I not used up all my adrenaline on emergency planning.

THIS time, my forward planning was done and dusted and there wasn't anything to do except sit back and appreciate the roller coaster!!  Mr Tabubil and I had our arms wrapped around each other as we braced in our little corner in the stark dark and I could feel his heart beating like a hammer right underneath my own.

After it was all over i just lay in bed and shook.  I spent hours trying to get back to sleep. Outside in the street, half of Santiago was milling around and talking, their voices all high pitched and  thoroughly freaked out.  We were deeply gratified to learn that everyone who had been through the 8.8 quake in 2010 was as comprehensively terrified as we were this time around as well.

My Mum and Dad are here in Santiago this week, and they did NOT have a nice time of it.  Their room was on the 10th floor of their hotel.  One of the only things I could think during the quake was "Oh god, they're on a higher floor.  Oh god, they're on a higher floor."  At their height  the quake was less of a rattle and more of a roll - their building was swaying from side to side  with a noticeable pitch.  As it began they rolled to opposite sides of their bed and dropped off into the safety triangle, and just lay there, getting seasick and praying that they wouldn't get brained by a falling bedside lamp!

 I have a friend from Columbia whose mother hasn't quite grasped that there's about 150 km  of desert and a whole range of mountains between Santiago and the coast, and calls her and tells her to RUN FOR THE HILLS! Every time! 
And again, we are all okay.  And thanking goodness that we didn't have to up and leave and really head for the hills for a tsunami worry, like all those down on the coast last night.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Spanish Cold Turkey

I was dropped into the whole Spanish thing more or less cold turkey. We arrived around midday, sailed through customs and immigration with perfect fluency, and in the early afternoon, Mis Suegros took us out into the city to find some lunch.  We started off with a hiccup – in the cafe, the lady at the cash register launched a flurry of Chilean accented Spanish in my direction, and was completely unintelligible. I’d been feeling pretty good after my success in the airport, and now my self-esteem was plummeting into my boots. I revealed my secret identity – a bewildered and ignorant gringa, and she vanished into the back. She returned with a roll of paper, and in graphic pantomime explained that the roll of paper that prints out the receipts in the cash register had become jammed – and here she was, fixing it, wasn’t that nice – so she’d had to go into the back storeroom and look for a new one so that she could give me, as was my due as a nice customer, the correct change.
Now HOW was I supposed to have gotten all that?  It's been seven years since I lived here last!

Over the next few days things improved fast.  My Spanish isn't actually terrible - less non-existent than mostly rusty.  My vocabulary needs work, my subjunctive is atrocious and my use of indirect articles isn’t all that it could be, and I tear around the city dropping indefinite articles on the sidewalk and tying taxi drivers up in inappropriate verb tenses, but despite the frustrating refusal of the patriotic Chilean to comprehend ANY Spanish spoken by a gringo (regardless of how pure the accent - and I learned mine in a Chilean high school, valley girl slang and all.  My spanish teacher has an issue with that.  'You've GOT to drop the slangy sing-song intonation!  You're an ADULT now!!!" )  I'm getting along swimmingly, and only stop for cascading confusions of "Que?" "QUE?" "Le prugunte YO!"*  two or three times a week!

"I asked YOU!")

Friday, April 13, 2012


Mr Tabubil's parents (hereafter to be known as my  Suegro and Suegra, or mis Suegros, collectively) are also living here in Santiago.  They left Chile and came here a year and a half before us, and knowing that they are here is one of the things that made moving very easy - knowing that we'd be so close to them again!

Until we found somewhere of our own to live, they very kindly turned their spare bedrooms over to us (second bedroom) and our enormous number of suitcases and our airfreight shipment when it arrived.  (Four suitcases, three backpacks and eight boxes.  Third bedroom.)

On the afternoon of our arrival, Mis Suegros took us to Cerro San Cristobal, a hill in the center of the city with a giant white statue of Our Lady at the top.

 The whole mountain is a park, with a zoo and a huge summer swimming pool.  There are walking trails and an access road, but the nicest way to get to the top is to take the funicular railway from a small stone castle at the foot of the mountain, all the way to the top and watch the city  spread out at your feet as you rise up.  The funicular stops just below the statue.  You climb up a flight of stone stairs and just below her skirts is a big open amphitheater that is used as an out door church.  Gregorian Chants play thru loudspeakers all day.  In winter and summer both,  it's a lovely place to sit and look out over the city with the Andes all around your ears.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Flying into Santiago

How do you describe infinity? Enormity? Endlessness? The end of everything?  I don’t know how to say it. But I do know that I saw it. We crossed the coastline at  25 000 feet and through the window,  I saw a line of clouds – giant king clouds strung out all along the horizon. After a minute of watching, we were close enough that I could see that they were not clouds, but mountains.
            I have seen maps and I have spun globes, and I know for a solid academic fact that the Andes cordillera stretches all along the coast of the Americas, from Canada to the Horn. But these mountains stood as tall as clouds as a solid, unyielding, unambiguous, unequivocal WALL,  as far as the world went to the north and as far as the world went to the south, so that it was everything in the whole world, until there was no more world in any direction you looked. I could worship mountains like these, but they would not be worshiped, I think. They would not notice me.
            Flying in to the airport, we passed very low over the first rank of these giants – they were bare and crumpled winter earth, rising from thick green  valleys and zagged by crazy switchback roads that seemed to come from no particular place and end for no particular reason in tumbles of loose scree. The mountains were capped with snow, and we passed so close that I felt I should be able to lean sideways and brush the ice with my fingertips.  
            These mountains make a cauldron of Santiago. The Cordillera lies to her east, and spurs of the Andes reach out around the city, which bubbles and seethes in a pot of smog and steam and mist in their laps.  They are so large. We are so small, we shouldn’t signify – but there, reaching almost to the snowline was a grotty gray and brown smear of tar on the sky. It was an obscenity. A sky-size graffiti, spelling out in letters a thousand feet high the careless and ugly and wanton side of the human condition.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Art Classes

A jump-up to the present:

On Wednesday I went to the Oriente Campus of the Pointificia Universidad Catolica de Chile to register for the art class that want to take there this semester.

It was the second time I'd been there to register.  The previous week I'd gone to there to do it and the lovely gentleman at Desk in Charge of Extension Courses had said, and I quote directly:
 "JUST because we have that class on our website and just because we said it starts on April 23 2012 doesn't actually mean we're offering it this year. Sheesh. foreigners."

So I went away and spent a full week and several phone calls working out exactly what IS being offered this year.  Officially. 


But golly, word seems to have got around.  On my second visit to the university, to register for the almost-the-same-but-technically-entirely-different-class on offer, the gentleman in charge of Extension Courses greeted me with a warm kiss on each cheek and handed me off with all possible extraneous gallantry to the head secretary of the art department to  have me registered in the official listed version of "Life Drawing: Light and Shadow" - and didn't it take the poor woman a terribly long time to do what turned out to be the impossible- because the only life drawing class she could find in her computer data base was the one that  her boss had decided didn't officially exist any more!

It wasn't all she found.  She found me in there too.  Name, RUT (national ID number) and all, dating back to the last time I'd taken classes at la Catolica -almost 9 years ago, when the art campus was in an ancient adobe hacienda along the river.  Gosh.  After that I wasn't quite such a foreigner after all, and I'm pretty sure that if I turn up on the 24th of April at 6:30 in the evening, there'll be some sort of drawing going on, and I'm almost certain that my name will be on the student list.

After we'd battled the registration computer to an even draw, I asked the dear lady if the art department could recommend a good art store as I needed to stock up on drawing paper.  Ooh,  more gosh.  The secretary didn't know.  The professor of the class would probably have a recommendation.  On the other hand, yes, it's true that by the time I arrived at the class it might be a good idea to have paper in my hands.   Maybe Lapiz Lopez? (a very generic chain of stationers.) They might sell art materials.  Of some sort.  Watercolor paints maybe?  She was terribly sorry, she just had No Idea.  Maybe I should just troll Santiago's stationery shops and find whatever I could to get me through my first class and wait for the professor to recommend somewhere better?  There wasn't anywhere local that sold art supplies.
So I said thank you, very politely, and left (gallantly bowed and kissed to the door on the way out by the Desk in Charge of Extension Courses) and when I exited the office of the art department and turned left, do you know what I found right next door?

Three guesses.
I found a fully stocked, university-funded art supply store.  Right on campus, next door down from art department office.

This semester has the potential to be highly entertaining!

As I left the art store with a roll of brown paper in my hands, I heard music.  It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) and a troupe of students and professors were walking stations of the cross, and singing as they walked, and it was beautiful.  Because the arcades were built for singing.  Quite literally, I suspect. 

The new campus is housed in a turn-of-the-century monastery:  a square quartered into a cross of double-story building blocks that wrap around 4 enormous courtyards.  At the front of the block the courtyards are quite busy, with students sitting at little wrought iron cafe tables and doing huge experimental things on giant canvases.  At the back of the block the courtyards are filled with almost-overgrown gardens that sound like music because the music school is housed there.  In the centre of the cross there is a small, narrow courtyard that is something straight out of an Italian palazzo and it is literally dripping with greenery.  From the windows of the second story balcony.  And it is grassed and fountain-ed and it is so pretty - the whole place is deeply serenely elegant and pretty that I found myself terribly envious of the students and the faculty that get to live with it every day.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Traveling to Chile

Mr Tabubil's new company sent us across to Chile up at the front of the airplane.  It's an awfully nice way to travel.  The 180 degree beds are heaven and the air crew are charming instead of vague and faintly worried about where in the dinner service the hot chicken plate is going to run out.
            (To be perfectly frank, the food up front is just as uninspiring as the hot chicken plate down the back- the only discernible difference between up business and economy was the linen napkins, but that's Air Canada for you.  They do their best with the requisite cheese platters and the side salads, but when that cheese arrived, I picked up the wedge of brie by one corner and tapped it on the plate and my whole sleeper-class pod rattled. 
            You can't imagine what they try and push on you for breakfast.)
            The only faintly awkward part about traveling up front is that there is only one entrance to the plane, and while you're sitting up there, enthroned in splendor and trying out all the buttons on your personal sleeper pod, all the poor souls riding in economy class trudge right past you, clutching babies and carry bags, and you become intensely interested in reading that complimentary newspaper. 
Only I figured that this was doing it wrong.  After the first leg of our trip, I nipped into an airport newsagent and bought myself a Vogue and a Vanity Fair.  If you're going to look like you're part of the jet-set, you've got to do it right.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Goodbye to all that, eh?

Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   


On our last morning in Darwin we walked down to the water and glared out at it with expressions of thwarted lust. 
            It was a lovely beach - long and blonde and sun-streaked.  The sand was white and it glittered.  The water was cerulean blue and it whispered and chuckled as it lapped upon the sand.
The joke was on us.  We absolutely could not go swimming.  Or even wading, if we were sensible.
Darwin's beaches are a triple threat:  The coastal waters here are home to the world's most venomous jellyfish, the world's most venomous sea snake and the saltwater crocodile. 
            Ye Gods.
            There's a reason that Wangi Falls (80 km from the city) is so popular on weekends.  You can get wet without being barbed, bitten or stung.
            Understandably, Darwin has a fantastic set of public swimming pools.

Right in the downtown there is a lovely wave-pool, so that Darwinians can get their surf on, and just outside of it, there is a wrought iron arcade that casts antic shadows so that those who aren't swimming can get their funny on.

We looked at the wave pool, longingly, but we hadn't brought our bathers, so we went to the other extreme and explored the tunnels that the Allied Forces dug into the bluffs during WW2 to protect their fuel supplies from Japanese Bombing Raids.  Mr Tabubil loved it.  Pipes and tunnels - an engineer's paradise.  It was terrifically cool after the heat of the coast - so I was happy as well.  Beatific in fact. We lingered.

We lingered until we had to say goodbye.  Thea and Sandor and Pippa and the Sproglet had to fly off to Fiji (it was on the way home, so what could they do?) and we had to fly back to Brisbane, to wait for our visas on an indefinite stay with Dr Tabubil.  Because she is a sweetie-pie that way.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   

The next morning we drove back to Darwin.
            A Potted History:  The area of Port Darwin has been home to the Larrakia people for millennia.   The Europeans didn't arrive until 1839, and took another 30 years to think about stopping there to stay.  For the Larrakia people, that went about as well as you can imagine.  In 1870 Darwin gained some prominence as the site of the very first post of the Overland Telegraph - the great engineering achievement that connected Australia with the world.  The same year, workers sinking telegraph posts several hundred kilometers to the south struck gold - and the Pine Creek Gold Rush put Darwin onto the map, as an entry point for the North.
            Darwin has risen to national prominence twice in the twentieth century - It languished, a sleepy port town in the tropical heat until WW2, when it was a major point of national defense through the War of the Pacific.  In 1942 the Japanese bombed Darwin - dropping more bombs on the city than were dropped on Pearl Harbor (courtesy of the same fleet, in fact.) Darwin was bombed all the way through 1942 and 1943, until the Japanese were pushed back north up through Papua New Guinea.
            Darwin received another wallop - and its place in modern Australian mythology- when a completely unprepared city was flattened by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve, 1974.  In a single night, 70 percent of the city was destroyed - a whole city gone in a night.  1974 was before the days of cell and satellite phones so it took a day or so for the news to trickle out to the rest of Australia, but when it did, the result was the largest airlift in Australian History.  In a town of 43, 000 people, they flew out 30, 000 of them in the days between Christmas and the New Year.  There was - literally - nothing left for them to stay for.
            No water, no medicine, no homes, no clothes -
            Mum remembers it.  That year she was spending the New Year with friends in Adelaide.  She remembers flying into the Adelaide airport and seeing an aircraft hanger lined with tables piled high with donated clothing, and crowds of blank-faced people in t-shirts and rubber thongs (you wear 'em on your feet, people, not your bottoms.  Up North you call 'em flip flops and Hawaiianas) and ragged pajamas pawing through it all looking for something that would fit.
            The people that remained in Darwin - those that refused to go, and those that had nowhere else to go, lived in tent camps and on ships anchored in the harbor, and together they rebuilt the town.  It was a good time for them, considering: bank clerks and schoolteachers turned themselves into builders and construction suppliers, and launched the businesses that still control the industry there today.
            The city that was rebuilt after Tracy bears little resemblance to the sleepy town turned to splinters and sawdust back 1974. It's still a small town, hot and parched and spread out wide and panting under the sun -  but the population has quadrupled to almost 130 000 people.  They live in houses built up on breeze-blocks with concrete hurricane cores locked onto the foundations, or houses built small and bunker-like  out of concrete and veiled with bougainvillea and frangipani (that would be plumeria, for you benighted lot up in the northern hemisphere)and there is a 21st century downtown on the edge of the water - built sky-high with airy condominiums and business towers. The Darwinians who lived through Tracy look somewhat askance at downtown, and wonder what happened to the Post-Tracy building codes, and what will happen next time a blow like that comes through.

We arrived back in town in time for the Mindil Beach Evening Market.  A weekly art-and-craft-and-homemade jam sort of street show and street fair down on the beach.  The goods were mostly the usual floating international tat, but there was a good fire-dancer and acres of good food -  and  there was a sunset.
            Mr Tabubil and I scratched our heads.  It was an all-right sunset, but nothing spectacular.  No color, no fire, no great glowing balls of flame sinking into the sea -  nothing at all to write home about, in fact, but as the sun dropped behind the sea what must have been half a thousand people materialized in twos and tens and hundreds out of the dune grass to take pictures of it.
            We couldn't see the draw ourselves.  So we took pictures of them instead.

The Sunset in Question:

The Crowd:

The Crowd when it was really fierce:

Monday, April 2, 2012

Litchfield National Park

Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   

Litchfield National Park is 260 km from Katherine, going northeast back up toward the coast.
            Finding the park wasn't entirely difficult.  Sandor drove and Thea did the navigating. 
            "Drive straight for 236 km and turn right." she said.  And then she went to sleep.
            She didn't stay asleep, poor darling.  The handbook of our trusty van swore up and down that the thing could hit 130 km/hour on the straight.  But it had no cruise control.  Sandor desperately wanted to put the van through its paces on the long straight road, but a van weighed down by five adults, one baby, four metric tons of luggage, and a picnic hamper full of hamburger fixings accelerates like a  turtle in a particularly sucking mud.
            He'd mash his foot onto the accelerator, and the little engine would whine and wheeze a little in complaint, and slowly, ponderously, bucking a little as it crossed through the round numbers, the speedometer needle would drift up toward the red, and five or six kilometers later, when we were pushing 110 on the flat, we'd run into a road-block or a road-train, and he'd have to slam on the breaks and slow right back down again to zero until we were allowed to pass.
            By the time Sandor had turned right through the gates of Litchfield and found some swoopy curves to play with on a long descent down an escarpment, our very own grand-prix racing driver had 236 km of frustration under his accelerator pedal and he was ready to roar.
            Except that top-heavy camping vans tend to wobble when you play grand prix on hairpin bends.
            And the people in the back seats don't think very much of it.  Including and particularly the Sproglet.  The shearing songs had to come out again. 
           By the time we reached Litchfield National Park, we'd had about enough of driving places.  We wanted to stay in one place and go swimming. 
So we did.

But first we had to stop and gawp at the termite mounds.

There are thousands of them, adobe arcologies like standing stones, like soldiers in serried ranks standing at attention facing north, a million termites in each one.

            The Top End's 'magnetic' termite mounds are a mystery.  It's a  miracle of nature - that the termites know the orient direction for the best sun and wind and ways to brace against the monsoon rain - a phenomenon of a billion termites with compasses inside their heads.

            This story-book version, park signboards told us, has been lately and largely disproved. The truth is less a miracle of nature than direct Darwinian intervention.  Termites build every which way, and the mounds that aren't built to precisely the right specs don't make it tall enough to be noticed before they fall down and blow away.  It's the three little Pigs as a morality play - straw and sticks are east and west, and bricks built to north and south keep out all the huffing and puffing that the big bad wolves can throw.

            It's not half as mythic this way.  This way, romance doesn't throb in your veins at all.

And it was hot. Blisteringly hot. We had our photos taken with the termite mounds and we went to Wangi Falls instead, and ate our picnic lunch on a blanket on a lawn, with a pair of black cockatoos peeling the bark off of a tree above our heads. 

Wangi Falls was bright with sun and loud with shouts ringing off the rocks.  The falls are only 80 km from Darwin, and very very popular with locals who choose not to swim in salt-water-crocodile-infested oceans.  There was a path to the top of the falls, but the climb took an hour and had no view of the water below.
             "Sod that," we said.  It didn't appear hugely popular with anyone else either.

            The pool at the bottom of the fall has fish - if we'd brought swimming goggles and a snorkel to see them with. We hadn't, so we stood on a bridge over the little creek that ran out of the swimming hole and watched little fish quivering there, lined up in rows like the termite mounds, oriented parallel to the current, heads upstream.

            And then we went swimming. 
            There are freshwater crocodiles in the swimming hole, but the Parks Service is vigilant, and pitches out all but the baby ones that are as small as the fish in the pool and far too sensible to take a toothy chomp out of a toe.
            In the pool, the best sport was to swim up to the main waterfall - curving around sideways to avoid the current, and climb up the rocks as high as you dared go, then clinging crabwise to the wall, work your way into the waterfall itself until, just when the current tore you loose, throw yourself out into the pool and be spun and dragged half-way across before the current slacked. 
            Over and over again.
            Mr Tabubil came out of the water after an hour, and sat on the grass in the sun with the Sproglet.  The rest of us stayed in the pool all afternoon, until the sun started to drop behind the cliff and the air turned cool.  And the world was very good.