Welcome to the blog of Suchita Vanessa Smith!

I was inspired to share my rich journey of living with the challenges and blessings of Pseudoachondroplasia (a condition with malformed joints afflicted by arthritis and dwarfism) when Ben, the son of a good friend, was diagnosed with a debilitating condition at the age of twenty. Immediately I felt a strong urge to share with him the vital insights I have learnt that have helped me find inner peace, good health and to live a full life.  And the chapters of a book came to me.  So I am writing my book “Little Body Huge Life” and while I continue editing, it is time to share some of it with the world.

Everyone I know has issues with their bodies, mine are just more obvious. Most people do not have a positive relationship with their body, whether it is weight issues, illness, disability or injury. Many who are blessed with a ‘normal’ healthy body just don’t like it or parts of it and they treat it accordingly. Many abuse their body by not taking proper care of it; by not eating well, not exercising enough and imbibing too many toxic substances and then are prone to illnesses, pain or decreased capacity in later life. This has bigger ramifications; as we treat our bodies so we treat mother earth.

With a degenerative condition hanging over me all my life I have had a strong motivation to take good care of my body, keeping it fit and healthy, to stave off the deterioration and a frightening future. What has helped the most has been a profound journey of coming to love and accept myself and the body I was born with, and a deeper journey of the spirit, of getting in touch with that vast part of me which is not the body. Living with the paradox ‘I am not the body but I am’ sums up my journey of taking good care of my body as well as connecting with my inner divine spirit that is untouched by any of my body issues. If I can learn to love and accept my less than perfect body, and myself, then you can too.

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Living with Deterioration – Coming to Terms with Loss and Limitation

MISADVENTURE ON GILI NANGUU

When I was on my ten month trip overseas in 1991, five months of it was spent tropical island hopping through South East Asia, looking for my ideal tropical paradise. I was at the start of my big adventure and had been having a wonderful time in Bali and the Gilli Islands off northern Lombok for several weeks with family and friends, when I met up with Sue, my best friend during University. We travelled first to the mountains of Lombok, where life was pretty much as it has been for centuries, and where people were especially poor and we were warned by the bungalow manager not to leave our washing unattended or it would be stolen. Then for an island experience we stayed on Gill Nanggu, not far off Lombok’s south coast. It is a tiny, flat island of sand with sparse, scrubby vegetation and it didn’t fulfill my dream of a lush ‘tropical paradise island’. Gili Nanggu had no inhabitants as such, just a budget tourist place with about ten thatched, two storey huts looking out over the clear blue sea. It is so small we could watch the sunrise from our huts and then walk about 500 metres up the beach to see the sunset.

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We loved the island’s peacefulness, away from the bustle, and for a couple of nights we were the only guests. It may not have been lush but the views across the iridescent waters and the nearby coastline and mountains of Lombok were magnificent. We were content to relax there for a few days; reading, swimming, snorkelling the fascinating waters abounding with coral and bright fish, walking on the beaches, eating well, talking with the friendly staff. One day Sue came back with a big smile from walking around the perimeter of the island saying “What a great day I’ve had exploring the island and all the beautiful views.” I hadn’t gone with her, given I had now learnt not to go into unknown territory blindly. She said “It isn’t so far, and I think you’d be able to do it”. So my adventurous spirit was set afire and I headed off myself the next day. By nature I am quite intrepid, but I had had to curb it with my increasing physical limitations, and this misadventure was another lesson in taking heed of those limitations.

The beach is deserted and I am loving being on my own away from everyone else, which is a rare thing in crowded Asia. I am in heaven; beachcombing, seeing what is washed up on the shore, observing and enjoying the micro as well as the macro scenes around me. I am engrossed in taking photos with the backdrop of Lombok not so far away, it is stunning scenery. Except for the lapping of the water it is peaceful and quiet and I love having the freedom to follow my whims of what interests me.

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I am about half way round the island when I realize I have bitten off more than I can chew. I am starting to get tired and I figure I have about the same distance to go back again. There are no places where I can sit, until I finally arrive at rocks extending into the water. It is a relief to be able to have a rest. I think about my choices, to keep going forward to new territory or to turn back the way I had come. I end up keeping going forward, the attraction of new territory is too great for my adventurous spirit, and the rocks look so interesting. The trouble is the beach ends and it becomes all rocks jutting into the water. They are black, volcanic-looking that rise in large rough boulders up to about 5 metres high, and extend inland as far as I can see. Sue had warned me of this, and had said “I walked around them in the water.” But she is good deal taller than me, and perhaps the tide is higher. With Taman (my walking stick) to steady me, I start trying climbing over the rocks but find that is impossible. When I try wading through the clear water to go around them, it becomes too deep and I am worried about getting my camera wet. I am starting to feel isolated, and stuck in a place I have to get myself out of on my own, with just Taman to help me.

So I can’t go forward, and I still have an aversion to going back because it feels so far now, but which, in hindsight, is probably the sensible option. I opt for a third way which is to strike out inland and cut across the middle of the island, figuring it may be more direct and hence shorter than going around the perimeter. I am thinking if I keep heading across the middle I have to hit the bungalows on the other side sometime. It is such a small island it can’t be far across the middle. Through the centre seems to be the shortest option and that is my priority with fatigue setting in.

But it isn’t a short distance and it isn’t as flat as I had thought it would be. There seems to be many sand dunes I have to climb over, which are not easy in the soft sand. They feel quite steep as I become more tired and sore in hips and legs, especially the effort of trudging uphill. It is very quiet, there are no birds, no sounds in the centre of the island and no people; it is deserted and lifeless. Now the peace and quiet I had felt walking along the beach earlier is starting to feel a little eerie. I feel more uneasy when I come upon an old, dilapidated bamboo hut, which is hidden down in a gully, as though someone didn’t want it known it is there. I feel very alone in a foreign place. I am tired and in pain. I am worried about my ability to make it back to the bungalows. But I don’t let myself wallow in feeling all this too long, I decide my pessimistic thoughts aren’t helping the situation. I have to draw on a reserve of inner strength to deal with this, and not give into my fears and just keep going.

If it is not already a challenging situation, it suddenly becomes more so. My intrepid spirit does not match the ability of my body, and this is where I come face to face with this new reality. I trip over a branch and fall on the soft sand, down in a gully. I suddenly feel vulnerable and very stuck, and I am shaken up from the shock of the fall. For the last couple of years it has been increasingly difficult to get myself up and down from the ground, and I have avoided it, or I use a chair or get a hand from someone else. There is nothing around me now to help hoist me up, just sand and sparse vegetation; all I have is Taman. I don’t know if I can do it, I haven’t ever just used Taman. So I am stuck on the ground, on my hands and knees all alone, in what feels like a deserted, hostile, unfriendly place. I feel scared and helpless and I whimper at my predicament. But that isn’t going to get me out of the situation, I realize I have to pull myself together and not collapse into helplessness. I have to find a determination that I can do this, I have no choice. I have to somehow get myself up off the ground on my own with only Taman. My first couple of attempts I don’t manage it, I don’t have enough physical strength. I fall back down on my hands and knees, feeling hopeless and defeated. I rest a bit and I work on psyching myself into being able to do it, telling myself I can do it, feeling really determined. Finally on the third attempt I draw on strength I don’t know I have, and straining all my muscles I manage to haul myself to my feet. There is nothing like necessity to find new strength. It showed me what is possible if we are determined enough.

Once I catch my breath and recover a little from the surge of adrenalin, I stagger on, shaken but relieved I can keep going. But I am increasingly concerned, as the shadows are getting longer and sunset is upon me, as I take extra care watching out for any potential tripping hazards. I am feeling more and more fatigued and sore in my legs and hips. With nothing to sit on to have a rest, I just have to keep going, step by step. It feels like I am going for a long while, with no sight of the sea or the bungalows, just scrub and small dunes. This route certainly doesn’t feel any shorter and I am regretting getting myself into this perilous situation. I start to worry that maybe I won’t make it, perhaps I am lost. I figure though that eventually I will be missed and that someone will come searching. Sue will surely be starting to worry and will alert the staff and they will send out a search party. The fact the island is so small gives me comfort that I will be found eventually.

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It is such a relief, as darkness is upon me, when I climb up yet another dune, to find the beach below. As I struggle down the last steep slope onto the beach I see the lights of the camp perhaps 500 metres away – what a wonderful sight! I am so relieved the way is clear and much easier on the hard sand of the shoreline; I have made it to safety. But I am exhausted and that 500 metres feels like miles, as I lean more and more on Taman, and hobble more slowly. Once again it is necessity and sheer determination that get me there, step by step. Necessity is a powerful motivator. It is now dark as I stagger back to my bungalow. When I call out to Sue, she comes out from her bungalow all chirpy, “Hello are you just getting back? I thought you were already back and having a rest”. She hadn’t noticed I was missing (so much for the rescue). I sit on the chair on my verandah, having some tea from the flask, sharing with her my harrowing time, utterly exhausted and aching all over, but so relieved the ordeal is over. We have a good laugh about what a great friend she is in a crisis; when I could have really needed her, she was blissfully unaware, enjoying a good book.

With a sad heart I realized I needed to further curb my intrepid spirit, particularly as I travelled through Asia. I was reminded again that I would have to be more careful what I got myself into. I could no longer just head off into the unknown like that on my own and leave myself so vulnerable and potentially in danger. I had to make more enquiries of a well-meaning friend’s judgment. I had learnt my lesson the hard way. I grieved this loss of what I loved to do, I had to let go of something important to me, which gave me such great pleasure and fed my spirit. I felt like it meant I had to deny part of my nature, and instead of being wild and impulsive taking off into the wilderness on my own, I had to be more sensible (ie boring). It felt like a big price to pay, but it was such a strong, scary experience, I had no desire to go through something like that again.

I later found ways of getting around my limitations, it wasn’t the end of my adventures in the wilds altogether, I just had to adapt, and keep trying.

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State of Mind – Attitudes and Choices – Vasundhara

Vasundhara

It sounds terrible but most of us have experienced times when in the midst of our difficulties it helps to know there are people worse off than us.  We can all get caught up in our worries and challenges and feel overwhelmed by them and they can feel like a really big deal. It helps sometimes to get things into perspective, that ‘yes I’m having a tough time, but not as tough as others’.  For me it stops the mind from going so overboard in anxiousness, worry and fear of what might be, or ‘this is all too much’. If I am feeling a bit sorry for myself, or feeling worn down, when I’m sick of all the worry, it helps to remind myself that things could be much worse. I feel a bit better then, lightened of my heavy load. It helps me come back to dealing with just what is in front of me, rather than being lost in obsessive, worrying thoughts of what might be and being in overwhelm.

I saw a news report on television about some Australian tourists who had been stranded in Pukhet Thailand for two days, but given hotel accommodation and meals, when their plane needed repairs.  The man interviewed said ‘It’s been a nightmare’.  This was at the same time we were watching night after night the terrible devastation after the big earthquake in Haiti. Compared to what was happening in Haiti, the man was in paradise being well taken care of, if he had stopped to do the comparison rather than being lost in his own personal drama.

When I was in hospital with my fractured knee/knee replacement/fractured femur saga, things were feeling grim, in fact the grimmest of my life.  I was confined to bed, with my surgeon keeping saying “This is a very bad situation”.  He was pessimistic, after seeing my porous bones in surgery, that the fracture would heal, particularly as it was so high on my thigh where it was difficult to stabilize the bone. While a suitable way to brace and support my thigh bone was being found, I was stuck in bed with only very careful small movement allowed for twelve days, made doubly difficult with my limited arm reach and limited neck movement. I was always getting sore spots from staying in one position too long, and unable to move to alleviate it much, discovering the delights of using bed pans, and dependent on busy staff who were only able to do so much.  It was unclear how my future would be, whether I would have use of that leg again, if I would be able to walk, so the immediate future was scary.

Sometime in those twelve days I received a phone call from my friend Vasundhara, who had Multiple Sclerosis and lived around the corner from me.  A feisty Irishwoman, Vasundhara carried deep wounds from a difficult childhood at the hands of a notorious Irish institution in the 1950s, who struggled with her demons, despite gaining immensely from the therapy and meditation in the world of Osho.  She said to me one day “I hate to think what my life would have been like without having loads of therapy and learning to meditate. I’m not sure I would have stuck around.” She could be irascible, and had put offside numerous friends over the years, but she wasn’t ever that way with me, when we had our occasional cups of tea and catchup, as she tootled by my house on her mobility scooter. We could share our body stories with each other more freely than with other friends who we didn’t want to burden.

It turned out she was in a hospital not far from me, and she said “The back pains I’ve been having are suspected cancer around the spine.”  She was due to have surgery imminently, and was looking for people to come and visit.  It was difficult to talk because my voice was only just above a whisper, and she had trouble hearing me, but I could hear her and we had a laugh about being so close (a few kilometers away), both stuck in hospital at the same time, unable to visit each other, and I wished her well.

So when I was feeling down or distressed about my circumstances, I thought of Vasundhara who was facing a much more difficult situation than me, with less support, in a public hospital ward, while I was in my own room in a private hospital with a roster in place to manage all my visitors.  Knowing she was in a worse situation I couldn’t get too carried away with ‘poor me’ and I couldn’t get really down knowing that. We promised to stay in touch and the next time we spoke was about two weeks later, when I had finally left the high care hospital and was much relieved to be at the rehabilitation hospital, with my room opening onto a tree-filled park, so I was making progress and on the mend.

The news from Vasundhara was not good, as a result of her high risk spinal surgery she was now paralysed, so there was no progress for her.  When we talked she seemed to be handling a nightmarish situation really well and was in remarkably good spirits.  She talked of gaining solace from listening to an audio of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now.  She said “It’s been so powerful listening to Eckhart Tolle, I’m loving it. It’s helping me to stay in the moment and not be swamped by my situation.”  I too had found coming back to the moment really helpful when my future was so uncertain and full of grim prospects.  She was talking about making arrangements for care once she was out of hospital, as though she would be going home. Once again when I was having to hobble on the Zimmer frame to the bathroom with great effort, I just had to think of Vasundhara and know it could be a lot worse. It helped keep things in perspective for me, yes things felt challenging, but not as challenging as what she was facing, and I felt a little better, terrible as that sounds.

About six weeks later, after I had left the rehabilitation hospital and was so happy to be home, the news was that Vasundhara was on her last days at a local hospice, she never returned to her home.  So I was finally home, able to sit in my small garden and soak up its greenness and the fresh air, relishing having my autonomy back. I was still fragile and vulnerable with my thigh bone not yet healed, facing a long year of rehabilitation ahead but on the path to recovery nevertheless, and there was Vasundhara dying, not recovering at all.  I could only feel deep gratitude that I was on the mend, and heading in a positive direction, and I doubly appreciated my home and friends and all that I could now do in the freedom of my own home.

About a week after being liberated from hospital, the call came out from her close friends, to come one evening to gather around our dying friend. I didn’t feel up to going anywhere, particularly at night when I was still so tired from poor sleep all the time, but I knew that going to someone whose death was imminent was not something I could postpone.  This would probably be my only chance to honour and say goodbye to my friend. So I went to a small gathering around Vasundhara’s bed at the hospice with my friend Apara, who took me in a wheelchair. Vasundhara was unconscious and being kept on high doses of morphine. There were ten of us, and we sat in meditation in the darkened room full of candlelight, taking it in turns to talk quietly to Vasundhara and hold her hand.

Giri came with his guitar and we sang chants and songs from the Osho commune, and between us created a sacred, beautiful space of love for our friend’s final hours. The harmonies were exquisite, particularly when we sang ‘Halleleujah’ to the notes of Pachabel’s Canon, and I felt Vasundhara was loving being surrounded by such love and sacredness.  I was sitting a little awkwardly, as close to the bed as the wheelchair allowed, stretching to hold her hand, unable to sing with no voice but just being present and being in my heart, with my back to most of the room.  At one point during the ‘Helleluejah’ what sounded like a recorder started playing along in perfect harmony to the singing.  I couldn’t see who was playing behind me but with the voices it brought tears to my eyes, it was all just so exquisite.  Later when there were only about five of us left, Apara said quietly ‘Did you hear the flute?” and I’m thinking “Of course I heard it”, and then the others were saying “Yes yes I heard it too”, and I said “What do you mean, who was playing?”  And they said “No, no one in the room was playing”, but everyone heard a flute.  I felt shivers down my spine as we all looked at each other, shaking our heads, smiling in amazement at this mystery, feeling touched by something exquisite, sacred and not of this world.

The next day Vasundhara left her body, and I remain so grateful to her for helping me get through a difficult time, by keeping things in perspective, to remember to be grateful for the blessings in my life even in adversity. It was such a privilege to, in a small way, assist her passage from this world, which is always an extraordinary experience, something I realized is an important role of close friends and family in each others’ lives.  About a month later I happened to meet the nurse who had been taking care of Vasundhara that night, who was the sister of the hairdresser who came to my home, and she said “It was the most amazing night of my fifteen year nursing career, to walk in to that room with the candles, and the beautiful singing which rang out through the hospice, everyone there, both patients and staff, were touched by it.”

 

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Self Worth – Speaking Up

The first time I needed to speak up about my limited physical capacity was in my fourth and final year at university, when I was twenty one.  I was doing a double major in Biology and Environmental Science. Up until this point I had pretty well managed to get away with just being one of the crowd, disappearing into the group (or so I thought).  I had also managed not to make an issue of my physical limitations and be like everyone else. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself for all the ‘wrong’ reasons, things that made me feel ashamed, things that made me different, in not a good way, from my fellow students. This time though I had to move beyond my innate sense of not wanting to be noticed for having special needs. This was a major turning point in my journey of overcoming my sense of unworthiness and a new stage in acknowledging my disability.

We had an environmental management field trip to Newman, a mining town in the remote north of Western Australia and about a twelve hour bus ride from Perth.  Our field trips were the highlights of our university years, not only did we learn hands-on environmental skills, we had a huge amount of fun and great adventures, in some of the most magnificent parts of the state. After field trips of previous years I was already realising that I couldn’t keep up with everyone else and that I needed to say something.  Nevertheless it took a lot for me to approach the lecturer for the course and request a group project that didn’t involve a lot of walking.  This was the first time in my life I was standing up and saying ‘I have a disability which limits what I can do and I need some special consideration’ and I so didn’t want to do it.  This doesn’t sound like a big deal to me now because I’m so used to speaking up for my needs, but this first time was a big hurdle.  I was reluctant to draw attention to my disability, as I was able to be in quite a bit of denial because at this age I wasn’t that limited. I felt ashamed to ask for special treatment.  This was my lack of self worth speaking.

The lecturer was our favourite; a small, eccentric man, famous for his powder blue safari suit and the comb-over of the thin wild hair, who made us laugh and brought his uniqueness and passion for the environment to our lectures and field trips. He wasn’t long staying in academia and soon after this went on to become a senior environmental bureaucrat in Canberra. He received my request graciously, and I was relieved he didn’t make a drama of it, and proud of myself for speaking up.

What was weird was that my first ever attempt to speak up for myself was to no avail.  I ended up being assigned to a group of six who was to map the vegetation on either side of the banks of the Fortescue River. There were ribbons of lushness and eucalyptus trees along the river banks while being surrounded with a vast, harsh, red desert landscape with mostly spinifex and no trees. The river only seasonally had water flow and was dry at the time.  Our project entailed walking great lengths of the fifty metre wide river bed all day for seven days.  It was the project that involved the most amount of walking, and for some strange reason, I was assigned to it.

Another project involved mapping quadrats of about one metre square of vegetation, so involving lots of standing but not much walking, which would have been more suitable.  By the time I realised the extent of walking involved I was two days into the project, and was having a great time with the people in my group, and my self esteem didn’t extend to speaking up again.  Asking for a change, and so making a fuss, felt too much, and besides it felt too late to swap and inconvenience others.

Each step from one of my group mates, with their longer legs, meant two to three steps for me, so in fact I was expending more steps than anyone else.  I remember gentle giant Phil Scott who, at over six feet tall with a strong, fit body, was a footballer who went on to play for Subiaco Football Club, saying to me one day “I don’t know how you are managing to keep up with this Vanessa, because I’m finding this tough going.  It’s really tiring.” That was when I realised the big feat I was managing, and that no wonder I was feeling so exhausted and sore.

Boy did I suffer on those long walks, they became trials of endurance, particularly by late afternoon. I doggedly kept going, despite the pain in my feet, legs, hips and back,  and managed to keep up with my team, while somehow also doing the work, and maintaining a good sense of humour.  I didn’t say anything of my struggles to my team mates, I didn’t want to be a drag on anyone. I would take any opportunity I could to sit on fallen logs along the way, which were few and far between; in fact I became obsessed with scouring the landscape for any logs or big rocks.

Each night I was utterly spent and in agony all over. I don’t know how I managed to get myself up the stairs to my room in the single persons’ quarters at the mining camp or to dinner across in the canteen.

By the fourth day my exhaustion manifested in getting flu symptoms and I was too sick to go out.  I felt dreadful, aching all over, and spent the day in bed, mostly sleeping. As I lay there in the silent building I came face to face with what I had done, pushing so much I made myself sick.

The flu symptoms had magically disappeared the next morning, and off I went with my team for another two days.  The six of us were dropped off in the morning, and were essentially alone in what felt like the middle of nowhere; I loved being out there. This was us out of the lecture theatres and labs into the real world of scientific surveys in a wild remote place, this was Uni life at its best and we were in high spirits. We worked hard but there was always lots of laughter and camaraderie, so I was loving it all despite the hardship.

Out of this rather extreme physical experience I learnt much. I find it ironic that my first public attempt to speak up for myself failed. But it ended up making me more clear that I needed to take better care of myself, inflicting that amount of suffering on myself was ridiculous. It made me more determined not to repeat my failure.  I was probably quite tentative when I spoke to my lecturer, coming as I was from my lack of self worth, and may not have been clear and strong enough to register with him. The gift in the whole experience was that I never again allowed myself to not be heard about my physical needs.

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Blessings from Obstacles – Meeting Michael Leunig

I had booked my trip to Bali and then realized I would be there at the same time as the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, which I had long wanted to attend.  When I looked at the program what interested me the most was an evening with Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig, whose wise, insightful work I have loved for years.  One of his best known cartoons is a picture of a father and son enjoying watching a sunset on television, while out the window is a beautiful sunset they are missing.

Of course I would not be able to go on my own; it is one thing to be in Bali staying with my Bali family who help me with everything, but the rest of the island, with its large stairs everywhere, uneven paths and busy traffic is quite physically hostile for me, though the people are always helpful and kind.  But joy of joys, my friend Niyati would have arrived from her world trip by then and she was game to go, so we booked a night in Ubud.  I was interested in perhaps going to an afternoon session before our dinner talk, and one the following morning, but they only sold $100 tickets for a whole day, and at two hundred dollars for two sessions it was out of my budget. So we would content ourselves with just one event at the festival.

Rule number one when travelling: always be prepared for the unexpected and the odd misadventure or two. Before leaving Candidasa I showed our driver Ketut a map of where we were staying, a place about ten minutes out of Ubud and checked he knew where to go.  I asked him “Shall I write down the address and map, to make sure we find our way?” But he said “No, that’s okay, I know where to go.”

Ketut is related to the owners of my homestay, and I have known him for many years.  When he came to see me when I arrived this time in Bali I was shocked at his appearance, he had lost weight and he was in tears as he told me that life had become very difficult because his wife was sick, she was hardly able to walk and was in a lot of pain.  Born with an ugly red growth on one side of his face, life has always had its challenges for Ketut and now with a sick wife, four children and not much money, life was very stressful for him.  If he had been born in the West he would have had plastic surgery early on and his life would have been quite different. So I promised I would hire him as a driver on all my trips around Bali this time, to help him out.

As the crow flies it is probably only about an hour’s journey from Candidasa to Ubud but with so much traffic and congestion it was more like two hours.  Unfortunately the roads in Bali have not kept up with the growth in vehicles, impacting on the quality of life and making getting around more difficult for everyone. When we finally arrived in Ubud we were stuck in a traffic jam, in the Monkey Forest Road circuit.  After our third trip slowly around the loop, it dawned on me that Ketut had no idea where to go.  I learnt that his way of navigating places he didn’t know, as with many other drivers in Bali I was to later find out, is to stop and ask locals, and I suppose eventually he gets where he needs to. But in the new Bali it can mean a whole of extra time being stuck in heavy traffic and for us it added about an hour onto our trip. Of course we had no map, because Ketut had said there was no need, but thankfully I did remember the basics from looking at it, and with better directions, I got us there in the end.

BALI 2013 008

We then had to work out how I was going to navigate the various new obstacles at our unique and colourful accommodation.  After a delicious lunch and a rest, that evening we headed off at 7.30 looking forward to our eight o’clock dinner and talk. We were getting hungry, having saved ourselves for what should be an excellent dinner at one of the top restaurants in Ubud. Except, unbeknownst to us, the restaurant is a little out of town on the most congested road in Ubud, and we crawled our way along what should have been a fifteen minute drive, and were late.  In Bali they are always saying ‘Palan, palan’ or ‘slowly, slowly’ for a pace of life, not to rush around in the hot tropical heat, but to take things easy.  Well the same applied to the traffic around Ubud, we went “palan, palan’ to the restaurant. Finally we arrived, eager to get in and not miss any more of the talk.

Then we see the steep, big steps leading down into the restaurant and my heart sinks.  I was expecting some steps, there always are in Bali, but not usually this many, and not for a venue for a festival. Thankfully the welcoming girl, looking beautiful, dressed up in her uniform of traditional sarong and kabaya, helped me down, slowly and carefully each poorly lit step, with Niyati following behind with my cushion.  The welcoming girl knew how to assist too, offering strength I could lean into, not just a token arm which many offer, which is of no help. While going down there is the help of gravity so it doesn’t require as much effort as going up, but it was tough on my bad knee, which didn’t like the impact of each step. When we reached the bottom of about forty uneven, large steps, I paused and took a few big breaths and then tackled the few steps up into the restaurant, which seemed remarkably quiet for the venue of a talk.  I thought “Phew I’ve made it! At least I can stop and rest now. But where is Michael?”

I couldn’t believe it when the woman at the entrance points to the two flights of stairs up to where the talk is being held. I gather my strength for the next leg, keeping my attention on just one step at a time, not the whole lot.  Once again it was with a hand from one of the staff supporting me.  At least these ones were more civilized, well lit and not so steep and big, and had a balustrade to assist.

In another heart sinking moment, as we reached the top, I saw there was no one having dinner, just people sitting in rows. I’d mistakenly assumed having a talk at a restaurant, for the price being charged, would involve dinner. I had two mistaken assumptions that night, that in hindsight would have been good to check; that the ticket price included dinner and that I would be able to get into the venue, albeit with some help. I usually check about the accessibility when I go somewhere new at home, but this time I didn’t.

We sat quietly in chairs at the side of the small stage, and tuned into what Micheal Leunig was saying, delighting in watching him draw his well known characters projected onto the wall behind him, resigned to being hungry, and resolving to make the most of all the effort it took to get there.

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He talked of a turning point in his life as a cartoonist for a major newspaper, during the Vietnam War.  When he was particularly moved by the horror of it all and wanting to express what was in his heart, with the first cartoon where he broke out of his old mould, of Mr Curly with a teapot on his head. That was the start of Leunig bringing heart, the dignity of the human spirit and the sacred into the hard world of journalism. He talked of his creative process while needing to meet a deadline, but just allowing his pen to move where it wants, and getting himself out of the way and seeing what comes. It felt to me he was describing being in the moment and allowing an energy greater than him to come through. He talked of days when the drawing gets messy and complicated and feels like it is going nowhere, and he has to meet his frustration and sense of failure, let his ego go and continue on.

I loved when he said he just has to keep going, meet what happens and somehow get a result to meet that deadline.  I loved when he talked of the fragility of the human condition, and how important it is to have love and the spirit represented in a media that is usually so empty of these most important human qualities. Quite often when someone asked a question he would say “I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of answers”. I loved his humility.

I was touched and inspired and so glad I made the effort to get to his talk. He gave me a boost in my tortuous working on this book. By 9.30, we were fading from a lack of food, but Niyati slipped downstairs to the restaurant to get some snacks on offer, which revived us to be able to stay until the talk finished at ten.  Niyati asked “Do you want to go and meet him?” I looked at the queue of people already forming to meet him, and not feeling up to standing in it, I said “No I’m happy with the talk, that was enough, let’s go and eat.”

So down the two flights of stairs we go, with a woman in the queue tuning in fast and walking in front of me in case I needed help.  We ordered some food, and I could finally go to the toilet. We shook our heads at how this inaccessible place, where there wasn’t even a toilet on the same level as the talk, could be a major venue of the festival.  Thankfully in Australia there is far more awareness these days about having accessible venues and almost wherever I go some thought and effort has gone into making the venue accessible to all.  As we sat and ate I was facing the stairs and I noticed my slight resentment at all the people so effortlessly going up and down them, not giving it a thought, taking for granted something so basic.

We were both tired by now and ready to head back to our hotel, but with some dread at the mountain of steep steps that first must be climbed.  Niyati was sympathetic and empathetic; sometimes it is easier being the sufferer, than watching a loved one suffer and being able to do little about it.  Once again there were ready hands to help, and I just focused on one step at a time.  It is not a good idea to look up and ahead when climbing a mountain, eyes kept just on the next step, then the next; otherwise it feels too daunting. I got up to what I thought was the top, and was dismayed to see another flight, which nearly undid me, and then it was back to just one step at a time.  By the last few I was tired and sore, my bad knee and neck and shoulders were complaining at the effort, at which point I had a man on either side hauling me up.  I said to both of them “I will never come to this restaurant again, it is not friendly for me”, needing to say something about it and make a point. I was feeling annoyed at the festival organisers and at myself for not checking ahead.

I was so relieved to reach the top, and I was standing there recovering in the now quiet carpark, catching my breath, letting my shoulders relax a little, when suddenly Niyati cries out “Ah! Here he is!”  I turn around and Niyati is lassoing Michael Leunig from the top of the stairs towards us. He is all alone on his way out and we have him to ourselves.  He is quite tall with a mass of white curly hair, and he bent over slightly to us two small women.  Niyati says, with hands in a Namaste position, “Thankyou so much, that was wonderful.” And perhaps in need of expressing her concern for me, she burst out, “And my poor friend Suchita here had to go through so much to see you, all those dreadful stairs.”  He turns his attention to me, smiling, looks back at the stairs and says “Yes I can see”. He would have been behind us as we climbed the stairs.

I gush out “Thankyou so much, we love your work and I so needed to hear that tonight.  I’m writing a book and it is not easy, and I’m inspired by hearing you; it was so helpful.” He continued smiling and said in a heartfelt, sincere tone “Thankyou so much,” as though he was touched. And he reached down and took my hands in his large soft ones and held them.  We smiled into each other’s eyes and for me there was a meeting of hearts. It felt like we were standing there for quite a while, and it was me who drew my hands away; I was tired and uncomfortable standing for that long.  Then we said our goodbyes and he headed to his waiting transport.

Niyati and I turned to each other with huge smiles and shining eyes, saying “Wow!” My heart was full of joy; it was like this extra special reward after all that effort, to meet and connect with one of my heroes.  We were on a high all the way back to our hotel and felt blessed. It was a magical moment, wrenched from misadventures, which made it all worthwhile.

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Asking for and Receiving Help – Writing This Book in Bali

About six months after my three month stay in hospital, with my fractured knee, knee replacement and fractured femur saga, I went to stay with my sister Deirdre and her family in Margaret River, the first time I had been away from home since hospital.  While I carefully got used to the new environment, and the new hazards to be navigated, it was wonderful to be in nature, with family I love, having time out from all my usual things.  It also meant I had more space to write this book, and I made good progress each day sitting out on a verandah enjoying the garden and visiting birds, much more than at home with all the distractions, daily chores, going to bodywork sessions and hydrotherapy.

I especially liked that when I hit a block, I could pause and look up and nourish my eyes and being on the beauty around me, and have space to reflect and often come up with the next step.  I find it the loveliest way to work on the book.  I haven’t found any part of writing this book easy, so it’s been an effort to get myself to sit down in front of the laptop and stick with uncomfortableness as I wrestle with writing well and editing.

A few months later I was reflecting on this, and feeling frustrated at what felt like slow progress because the distractions were winning the battle for my attention.  I could see that getting away and being able to give my writing a greater focus would help me make more progress.  Around this time I was also thinking about Bali, and thinking with regret that it would be a long time before I would be able to manage all the big steps and uneven pathways that abound there. I was still quite physically fragile, and not able to do much while needing two crutches and had a ways to go on my rehabilitation.  I remembered then the last time I was staying my favourite homestay at Candidasa (at the quieter east end of Bali) about three years previously, my friend Nyoman said to me, after seeing I was more fragile, even before the latest misadventures, ‘Please don’t think you can’t come and stay here if you are not so strong, please keep coming and we’ll take care of you’.

Then I remembered a vision I have had every time I have been there, of me staying at Candidasa for a longer time and writing on my verandah, even though I had no idea what I would be writing at that time.  I was musing on all of this and then a light went on, ‘hang on a minute, here I am writing a book, needing to get stuck into it, perhaps it’s time to live out that vision with the help of my Balinese friends’.  If I kept things simple, based myself at the homestay and not try to venture too far I figured I could probably manage.  With airfares to Bali half the price than when I last went, I decided to take the jump and I booked a ticket five months in advance, giving myself plenty more time to build up my physical strength and capacity.

I was feeling quite nervous and vulnerable leading up to the trip, moving away from my comfort zone where I felt safe, into some unknowns. I just had to trust that my Balinese friends would be enough support, and if it didn’t work out I could always go home early. My physical strength had improved from all the swimming and hydrotherapy, and I had graduated from two crutches to only Taman my walking stick.  Thankfully my friend Nirmala came with me so I had support and good company for the trip.

So here I am sitting with my laptop on my verandah, with million dollar sweeping views of the ocean ten metres away, a soft cooling ocean breeze wafting over me, living very cheaply in a rundown bungalow in which I am nevertheless quite comfortable.  I am being helped and supported by sisters Nyoman and Wayan and their young niece Ketut, with love, generosity and great care.  Not to mention Nyoman’s amazing cooking, I’m eating authentic, delicious Indonesian food, the likes of which are not found in most restaurants, living a simple life.

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I’ve surprised myself how well I’m going physically, how far I am able to walk, even to the internet place about six hundred metres up the road. I’m also managing to get in and out of the pool at nearby bungalows, so can keep up my swimming.  And it isn’t just my Balinese family who is helping, anytime I go out and encounter steps there is always a willing friendly hand to assist, and as for crossing the busy road, none of the Balinese who happen to be nearby will let me do it on my own. I’m relishing finally being able to give my writing the focus and level of reflection it deserves and I have been able to more or less finish my first draft. It’s been good for my body too, resting much more than at home, and a good deep massage every third day, which is not something I can afford in Australia, and my body feels much more comfortable.

And in asking for and receiving help, the benefits are not all one way.  Things had got quite depressing for my two friends, because the family who owns the homestay has let it fall into neglect, and very few guests now come here. There are piles of old building material everywhere, uneven, broken paths with poor lighting at night, and half dead gardens. This is despite the best efforts of Nyoman and Wayan to tell their nephew Made (pronounced ‘Marday’), son of the elderly owner and the boss, he needs to make the bungalows nice for the guests.  Wayan and Nyoman are the heart and soul of this place, and are the reason I (and many others over the years) have kept returning since 1988, but Made has been ill and their views have been ignored.

Having us staying has cheered up Nyoman and Wayan, and  of course the money I am giving them for my meals, laundry and running errands is of great help with their very low incomes, but they love having us here, and seem to genuinely love being of service, to give, to help. I, and my friends Nirmala and Niyati who came to stay for some of the time, become part of the everyday lives of the Balinese family, invited to any ceremonies, they share their concerns and happy news, bring their children to play while we catch up.

And something else wonderful came from my time at the homestay.  It has become a vicious circle that as the bungalows have deteriorated, so fewer people stay here, and many who used to come regularly have stopped because they want better quality accommodation.  But with fewer people, and less income, the family has been unable to afford to make improvements, and so less people are staying and so it goes on.  From that stalemate they are now offering most of the prime land at the beachfront for lease by Westerners who would like to build their own small house, and so I have been mourning the loss of a wonderful cheap place to stay with warm and beautiful people. This may be the last time I can stay here.

While I would have liked better standard accommodation, I would not have been able to afford to stay here for two months at higher prices, so it has suited me to have it so cheap, even though I grow tired of the night time visits by rats and flying insects and the depressing bathroom.

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But it is a comfortable bed, and I spend most of my time on my verandah, enjoying the ocean views and the company of my Bali family and visiting friends.  But meanwhile no one is rushing to lease the land and Made’s wife Iluh has realized they could be making more money on an ongoing basis with better bungalows rather than the once off payment for a contract for land.  So with the money they are getting from me staying here for two months, they are reinvesting it into restoring a bungalow, starting to slowly fix things one bungalow at a time. So one bungalow will be of better standard, which should bring in more income, which will enable them to improve the next bungalow and so on.  Talk about win, win, win on all sides.

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A year later

The mutual benefits from giving and receiving continued the following year when I returned to further work on this book.  My sister Deirdre rang Made the owner when she was in Bali, saying “Nyoman Suchita would like to return to Segara Wangi in six weeks, but only if she can stay in an upgraded bungalow with new tiles in the bathroom.”  I had no appetite for more rats or grotty bathrooms.  Made said “Oh that is good news that Nyoman (my Balinese name for third born), is coming back to Bali. No problem! I will have a bungalow ready in time for her visit.” It turned out my visit acted as a huge catalyst for Made to finally move on the potential of Segara Wangi to still have some bungalows as well as permanent stayers.  To my surprise rather than upgrade they had demolished the old bungalows and by the time I arrived, the first brand new, luxury bungalow was a week away from completion.

I had seven days in the last old bungalow with mouldy bathroom (but thankfully no rats) but before I could move in there had to be the blessing ceremony, when the priest in white came and chanted, burnt incense, rang a bell, and scattered water drops over the many beautiful offerings of fruit, rice and exquisitely made leaf creations with different coloured flowers, placed on the verandah. Then it was time for the celebration feast, with all the workers, who worked hard to get it finished in such a short time, and family and friends eating suckling pig and satay chicken.

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Next day I moved in and oh the joys of living and writing in such salubrious surrounds knew no end.  I felt like a queen moving into her palace and so I was called “Ratu Prempuan” meaning ‘queen’ in Bahasa Indonesian, and we laughed as they bowed and I gave an imperial wave.

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I have earned the eternal gratitude of Made’s wife and the aunties, in fact the whole extended family, and a discount whenever I stay.  Our bond, built over twenty three years, has deepened.  Made’s wife Iluh came to visit me on my verandah saying “Nyoman, you are God. For years now I worry about our future, I keep saying to Made there is so much needing to be done, and still he does nothing, and there is only so much I can do with three young children and the art shop to take care of, and so I worry, worry.  And now you bring us a miracle, we have a beautiful new bungalow, we have a better life for our family, I am so happy, thankyou, thankyou!” While I was there Made started building the next two bungalows, so on it goes. I can keep coming back to my favourite place in Bali for a long while yet, and stay in a beautiful room with spectacular ocean views.  This time the money I paid the aunties went to upgrading their family temple and on a big ceremony for all the village and family to bless the temple, at which I was honoured guest. Spending money on their sacred space was more important to them than keeping it for food or school costs. Once again, win, win, win.

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Scuba Diving Part 5

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Next day it was time to venture into deeper water and the big test of whether my ears would let me continue with the diving course. What amazed me was that I had no problems with my ears adjusting to the deeper water.  There was nothing wrong with my ears. I think it was all the stress that created the problem in my first attempts at home, and my body was saying, ‘Now is not the time, this is too much’.

Next was buddy breathing, and once again it was my least favourite thing to do after clearing the mask.  For some reason Bhaven teamed me up with the biggest man of our group, and not Agni the other woman, who would have been more of a match physically.  Once again I struggled to keep up, as two strokes with his long legs were about five of mine. I was swimming along the bottom of the ocean, sharing a mouthpiece, trying not to panic when I didn’t have it, while using up lots of air with all the effort. He seemed to take forever for his bigger lungs to take a couple of breaths, and it was all I could do not to wrench it back from him when he finally handed it back.  Those breaths when I had the mouthpiece felt so important, so vital, so precious and I reluctantly handed it back to him each time.  I was so relieved when this exercise was over, and tired from the fear and exertion yet so pleased I had done it despite the challenges.

The funniest moments came when a big steel tank met a small body in buoyant water. The tank was almost half my total length and I found out I could get destabilized, both when it was full or when it was empty.  I first discovered this new unexpected complication during one of our first exercises kneeling on the sand in a circle in water about three metres deep.  I leaned back and was rocked by a current coming through which knocked me backwards. The weight of the tank started a momentum that kept me going and I couldn’t stop even with lots of arm waving, and I ended up on my back. I started ‘doing a tortoise’, on my back on the tank, with arms and legs flailing unable to right myself.  As hard as I tried I couldn’t get upright or sideways or any kind of movement, I was stuck.  The weight of the tank kept me trapped in that position and I have to say I looked pretty funny. We shared much laughter that night at dinner as Kayo the assistant described the scene underwater.  Her attention was on some task and when she turned around chaos was reigning. While Bhaven was kneeling in front of one of the men taking him through the exercise, Agni, the other woman in the group, was floating off into the blue yonder (she was still getting to grips with the buoyancy vest), and I was ‘doing a tortoise’ on the sandy floor. Kayo came to our rescue, and in one fluid dive grabbed the floater as she drifted further away and brought her back to the floor into our circle, then reached across and got me up and settled back on my knees, and more steady, with laughter in both our eyes.

I seemed to run out of air faster than the others, which indicates my level of stress at this whole adventure, probably I was breathing faster than normal.  As the tank became empty it became more buoyant.  Each day near the end of our session when my air was low, I was grappling with this relentless force on my back, over which I had no control, even though Bhaven would add another weight to my belt.  It was impossible for me to swim on the surface on my front to the shore, such was the power of the weight of the empty tank, so one of the others dragged me on my back to the shallows.  I just had to let go and enjoy the view of the vast blue sky while someone else did all the work.

Once we got through the first few days of all the worse-case scenarios, then we started having fun and experiencing the joys of scuba diving at a world class dive site.  I had many amazing sensory experiences on our dives around Tulamben both at the wreck and the drop off, underwater cliffs teeming with life.  At every opportunity I played with the sensation of weightlessness.  It felt like an imperative from my body, a place of deep longing. I played around in the water, doing dolphin moves, delighting in the sensations and freedom.

Then something powerful happened as I was taking my time making my way back to shore after a dive at the wreck.  Being surrounded by warm water, suspended and held by the water, where I had no purpose, I was just following the urges in my body for how it wanted to move with so much more freedom than usual.  I felt like I was in a womb.  It was a primal feeling, from deep within my cells, and it was like I experienced a cellular memory of how I felt in the womb.  I felt safe, I was held, I was warm and nurtured as I’d probably never experienced outside of the womb.  It was a profound experience.  Then my frolicking in the water, twisting, turning, diving, bending took on a whole new level of joy and I emerged from the water feeling reborn.  Seeing all the riches of the coral reefs was wonderful but this was priceless.

My trials of facing my fears were not yet over. One night Bhaven took us on a night dive to the coral gardens off shore from our bungalows.  This was another really scary prospect that I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to do. Not only did we have to navigate in the dark all the rocks into the water while small waves pushed us about, but at night sea urchins with their long sharp spikes came out in droves, so we had to tread very carefully to avoid them.

Then there was the prospect of all that black water and my claustrophobic panic buttons were being pushed again.  This was too like a recurring nightmare I’ve had for many years, where I am in a pitch black enclosed space, I can’t see anything, I can’t move, I don’t know where I am, and I can’t breathe. I wake up in a panic, breathing fast and shallow.

So this swimming in the dark with only a mouthpiece for breathing was a terrifying prospect.  But there was no way I was going to stay back and not experience it, so I had to give it a go despite my fear.  Once again I learnt that my imagination created far more of a worse case than the reality.  Besides the sheer wonder of the experience took over any fears. I was given a hand to get into the deeper water, and we all entered carefully one after the other, stepping in each others paths to all avoid the urchins’ spines. It was a still, full moon tropical night.  I swam along holding tightly onto Bhaven’s solid and reassuring hand.  He had the torch, and everywhere he shone it, there was so much life happening in the dark, and fish and other creatures we didn’t see during the day.  It was like a whole other world going on, quite different from the ‘day world’.  All we could really see was where he shone his torch, everywhere else around us was black.

After a while Bhaven found a sandy spot, large enough for us all to kneel in a circle, and then signalled he was going to turn the torches off.  I didn’t like this one bit, this was going straight into my nightmare and as my panic started to rise I had to breathe deeply to keep a handle on it (no wonder I ran out of air faster than the others). I moved a little closer to Bhaven and gripped his hand more tightly.  Because I didn’t have a torch, I had no control over the situation, so if I suddenly panicked in the blackness I couldn’t quickly fix it, and this made me feel worse. And then a small miracle happened, or so it felt to me. As our eyes adjusted from the bright light of the torch we could see more of the real light underwater, which was not black afterall, but it was lit up by the moon light. We could see the moon light shining down in rays penetrating the black water down into the depths. It was beautiful, and I hadn’t known that the light of the moon shines through the ocean water, and here it was coming down in beams. I was in awe of this wondrous sight, and forgot my fear.  It lit up the ocean floor around us, and everything was black and white.  It felt like another wondrous reward for facing my fear, again. While I was relieved when the torches came on again I surprised myself by being sorry not to be able to see the enchanted world of moonbeams and the more subtle light.

When the dive was over and we came to the surface, all of us on a high from our experience, the night was balmy, absolutely still and peaceful.  There was the large moon above us shining its path on the water and spectacular flashes of lightening on the horizon around us, just to add a bit more magic to the whole night.

Once again in the act of facing my fear the experience was not nearly as bad as my imagination had created.  I made another discovery; in the act of being courageous I felt really good about myself, proud I’d climbed that little mountain. It was very life affirming and gives a good kick to any unworthiness that might be lurking.  If I had stayed back from the moonlit dive because of my fears, I would have missed out on so much, and I would have felt that keenly, regretted allowing my fears to reign, and been disappointed in myself. Instead I felt so happy and I could give myself a pat on the back.   To me the joy was bigger because of the struggle I went through; the joy was sweeter because it was won in a battle with my fears. And sometimes the outcome is a spectacular experience as I had that full moon night in Bali.

My courage muscles got a really good workout with my learning to dive experiences and I felt the stronger for them. It was good to know I was able to repeatedly face down fear and get on with it, so I was reminded I could repeat this at other times needing courage.  I could see how much it helped to deal with each challenging situation moment by moment, breaking it down to handleable bits, rather than being overwhelmed by the whole monster. Mind you when we are in demanding situations with our safety at stake, the situation demands our full attention, we have to be in the moment and just deal with what is in front of us. This is why, in my understanding, mountain climbers, and people who take great risks, put themselves into those extreme situations, they have to be in the moment and so they feel alive, with none of the usual worries or obsessions clouding their awareness.

It was such a fantastic experience learning to dive in beautiful Bali, and having a fun group of caring loving people with whom to share and learn. They too were facing their fears and being challenged and the support and love we gave each other made it all easier. Over our Bintang beers at sunset and meals together we shared our wondrous and hellish experiences and trepidations, celebrated our achievements and highs, and laughed over our mishaps and the funny things that happened.  I could not have asked for a more ideal and beautiful way to learn to scuba dive. Once again I realized the good sense of having given up trying to learn in Perth, when so much was against me. With the right help and support I had proved to myself I could scuba dive, and so much more.

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Scuba Diving Part 4

A few years later, on my ten month Asian travelling odyssey in 1992, I was in my princess apartment in an old mansion, around the corner from the Osho ashram in Poona, catching up with my friend from Fremantle, Bhaven.  He, amongst other things, was a dive instructor and was organizing to teach a course in Bali in a couple of months. When I told him of my first experience of a diving course he said “Come and do it with me, I’ll take care of you”. He was confident I would manage, and I felt confident in him. He said “I would love to share my love of diving with you, and help you be able to do it.” I was touched by such a generous offer and I felt a big ‘yes’ in the face of his enthusiasm and encouragement. I felt a thrill of excitement as I thought of having another chance to experience diving, and this time in beautiful Bali with an old soulful friend as instructor. How could I say no? The question still remained whether my ears could handle it but I had to say yes to such a wonderful opportunity and I jumped in.

The experience could not have been more different from my first attempt.  We stayed at the Paradise Palm Beach bungalows at Tulamben, on the north east coast of Bali. About ten metres from the shore is a beautiful coral garden, and about two hundred metres down the beach is a world famous dive wreck. It was a stunning underwater classroom.  There were only four students, instead of eleven. Bhaven was a really good instructor, who was a clear communicator, but even he couldn’t make some of the theory not boring.  He had the bonus of having an assistant, a warm, fun French woman, Kayo, with whom I shared a room, so there were two helpers for four of us.

We spent most of the six days and nights together, eating our meals and spending all of the days with each other. There was much laughter, fun, love, support and encouragement, very different from my first attempt. Our classroom for theory was Bhaven’s large verandah at his room, where we would sit in our sarongs and shorts, surrounded by lush gardens and the sound of the ocean not far away. We would order drinks or snacks from the nearby restaurant. It was so civilised and comfortable.

Instead of a chlorinated, boring swimming pool buffeted by cold wintry winds, we had warm tropical waters, with a rich life going on underneath.  People from the village close by were paid to carry all the gear, so all I had to do was walk along the shore line where we were going to enter. There was always plenty of help.

Mind you it was not a perfect paradise for me. The beach at Tulamben is all volcanic rocks and pebbles (from the eruption of nearby Mt Agung), with no postcard sandy bits, so it wasn’t easy walking on so many pebbles and rocks; it was uneven and often wobbly footing.  I managed walking along the pebbly beach to get to our diving spots by taking my time, and I didn’t have to carry anything so that made it easier. I just had to focus on the rocks in front of me, and each step, and I eventually made it.  There was never any pressure to hurry, all good in my own time.

Then there were the challenges of getting to the beautiful coral gardens immediately in front of the bungalows, with small quite strong waves, wobbling pebbles and many rocks; the first time I tried it I was pushed into the rocks and cut my ankle that later got infected. It was like having to navigate a mine field on the way to the pot of gold.  I stopped trying that on my own, I had no desire for any more ‘sporting wounds’ (not a usual thing for me). Until a few days later I found out a Dutch man, who had lived there for many years, maintained a rock free pathway into the water, one just had to know about it to find it.  After that I often snorkelled out to the coral garden which filled me with wonder and awe.  So many colourful fish and other creatures, so much variety of coral.  I loved that it was (now) so easy to get to in front of our bungalows, and I didn’t need anyone to help me. It was difficult to tear myself away from so many sights and the beauty of it was, in the warm tropical waters, I could stay in a long time.

Getting on the lightweight wetsuit I had bought in Singapore on my way to Bali  was a saga in itself because it didn’t fit me well.  It was tight, and too long in the arms and legs of course so it was all bunched up at my ankles and wrists, and impossible for me to get on or off by myself. But this time all the help I needed was easily available, and it was never the case that I felt I was holding everyone up or was any extra hassle. The same for getting on the gear in the shallow water, there was always someone available to help me on with the tank and weights, so I had none of the sense of pressure or stress from last time.

The difference from my stressed out and exhausted working self, to my new more relaxed travelling self, was immense. I was rested from my eight months relaxing on the beaches of beautiful tropical islands, before heading to the Osho commune in Poona India for five months.  There I shed more layers of stress and distress and came home to myself again. I was in much better shape emotionally to deal with the challenges and fears. Everything about this time was so much easier and more enjoyable than my first attempt, which was full of bleakness.

The classroom was spectacular.  Instead of an urban concrete jungle with a backdrop of big storm clouds, we were at a quiet and beautiful beachside place with just the nearby village and a few shops and little other development (it has since become more developed). It wasn’t for a few days, until I was out far enough from the shore in the water, I had a proper view of where we were. When I turned around to face the shore for the first time, my jaw dropped at the view; there were rows of thick coconut trees, and emerging from them was the large and loomingly magnificent Mt Agung (the sacred volcanic mountain of Bali). It was a spectacular place to learn to dive, both on land and underwater.

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It was as challenging as the first time in terms of facing fears and overcoming obstacles but because it was all so much more relaxed, and we had a lot of support with two teachers, it was all easier to deal with.  The exercises that are usually done at the bottom of a pool, were done at the bottom of the sea, and while it was calm, there was still the ebb and flow of a small tide that could rock us around and make us unsteady. This was especially challenging in the middle of a tricky exercise like taking the mask off. The water was clear and blue with a reasonably even sandy bottom.

Once again I feared having to take off the mask underwater.  The night before we were due to do the exercise, I felt terror and dread at the thought of it.  Even though I knew I could do it from the first time, the very idea of being at the bottom with all that water between me and the fresh open air, without a mask on, filled me with fear again. This time I couldn’t just stand up if I got into trouble, we were too deep for that. But I learnt a valuable lesson from this exercise that has stayed with me ever since.  That what we imagine in the future could or will happen, is usually far worse than the reality of what actually happens. Our imaginations can create monsters from the smallest of things, especially if it is feeding on our fears.

We were all kneeling in a circle and Bhaven came round to each of us one by one. With Bhaven kneeling right in front of me, ready to act if anything went wrong, it was reassuring. It helped that I really trusted and felt safe with him; he was calm, steady and capable. I was totally focusing on what I needed to do, step by step and I didn’t feel fear or panic, I was too busy concentrating. I went through my paces and just managed to get the mask on over my head with all the rigmarole on me, and over the top knot in my hair that I needed to keep my hair from my eyes underwater. To my surprise I managed it no problems. It still amazed me I ended up with an air-filled mask.

My fear of what may happen was far greater than the reality of what actually happened when I tried it. The contrast was stark. I felt such a sense of an achievement from facing my fear and managing to do something that was terrifying thinking about it, but turned out okay. I was so pleased that I overcame my claustrophobic tendencies to be able to experience something so exciting.  This changed how I live, it helped me live more in the moment and less in fear about the future.

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