My Two Million-Year-Old Brain

I didn’t have to go. I could have said no. All the signs were there, telling me not to, yelling, “Danger! Danger!’

A volcano, for God’s sake, about to erupt at any minute the headlines screamed. I bought masks and goggles, and borrowed a Steripen in case water became scarce.

My husband glanced askance at my growing pile of precautions. ‘Are you sure you really want to go?’ he asked. ‘Doesn’t look like much of a holiday to me.’

“I’m going,’ I said. But in my head the voice remained, ‘It’s a sign, pull out now. Don’t go.’

The facilitator of the writing retreat I was attending sent an email. Because we don’t want to put anyone in danger we have decided to relocate the retreat to Australia.

I was incensed. I’m the one who decides to put myself in danger, or not. I didn’t want to go to a writing retreat in Australia. I wanted to go to Bali. Besides the retreat was being held in Sanur, miles away from the widest of the exclusion zones. And the locals needed us. They were suffering because of cancellations and the lack of tourists. We had a moral duty to keep the retreat in Bali. I emailed the facilitator and told her so. But all the time the voice in my head kept saying, ‘See, even someone who spends half her time in Bali thinks this is a bad idea. It’s a sign. Don’t go. Stay home. Stay safe.’

The facilitator changed her mind. The retreat was going ahead in Bali after all. I could tell my husband was disappointed but I was jubilant. Well, most of me was, all except that voice in my head.

The plane refuelled in Darwin, just in case we had to turn back. The stewards told us stories of how they’d been stuck in Bali two years ago because of a volcanic eruption. I thought of my mask and goggles safely packed in my suitcase. Volcanic ash consists of tiny pieces of glass that cut and gouge into eyes and lungs, so the voice in my head kept telling me. ‘It won’t be pretty. You could jump out of the plane now, in Darwin, and catch the next plane back home.’ I didn’t.

The week in Sanur passed without incident. No eruption. No disaster. No ash cloud. But my next stop was Amed, up the north east of Bali, right next to the volcano but just outside the exclusion zone. I was going there to learn to scuba dive. It took me three days to find a driver who’d take me. “Too dangerous,’ ‘Amed is closed,’ No Miss, you can’t go there.’ These were the stories I was told. I emailed the dive school three times for reassurance. Yes, they were open, yes, it was safe, and Amed was suffering because of the lies about it being closed. The small town of 500 people needed me to come and spend my rupiah. The voice in my head disagreed. ‘This is a sign,’ it said. ‘If you go to Amed you will die. If the volcano doesn’t get you the diving will. Breathing underwater? Are you kidding? It’s against nature. You will drown. Your equipment will fail. Your death will be horrible, excruciating, and tragic. Your poor husband. He didn’t want you to come to Bali but here you are and now, against all advice, you’re still going to Amed, you’re still going diving? Idiot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

A strange thing happened when I arrived in Amed. That very day all volcanic activity decreased; the tremors, the crater steam, the magma readings. They all plummeted. I was disappointed. I’d hoped to feel some tremors at least. Nothing. The volcano was beautiful. I walked along the beach of black volcanic pebbles and was in awe of its pointy, steaming majesty. Here I was, right next to the cause of all the fuss, and it was nothing but a gentle, sleepy giant. (And yes, I took the photo above of Mt Agung.)

The next day I learnt to scuba dive. I breathed underwater. I swam through fluttering clouds of rainbow fish and over magical realms of coral and creatures. I was weightless and buoyant, oblivious to gravity and atmosphere in another world beneath the surface. The voice was in my head the entire time, urging me to stop this foolishness, telling me I’d proved my point after the first dive and didn’t need to continue, that persisting with a second and then a third dive was lunacy, I was just pushing my luck, I would definitely die. After two days of diving I was triumphant and invincible. I was still alive.

The voice in my head didn’t let up, it warned me about the state of the roads, the lack of driving skills of the people using them and the total absence of road rules, the fact that tourists get robbed and thrown out of cars on a regular basis, that my credit card would get skimmed, my passport stolen and I’d have no money, no proof of identity and I’d be left in a desperate state, abandoned and probably injured.

I’d managed to avoid monkeys and the numerous stray dogs that populated every area I visited. The voice had warned me about the very real threat of rabies. Ironically it had also insisted that I not to get a rabies shot, or any other vaccinations. ‘Vaccines don’t work, just look at the flu shot debacle,’ it had told me before I left for Bali. ‘Besides vaccinations are full of crap like mercury and other poisons you don’t want in your body. Avoid them entirely.’ And so I did, and gave every monkey and every dog a very wide berth. Even the dog that came running out of an alley in Ubud, threw itself on the ground in front of me and rolled onto its back wagging its tail begging me to rub its tummy. I missed my funny old dog back home. This dog was so full of joy and fun I laughed out loud but I didn’t touch it. Besides, the voice told me it had probably been trained to do just this by some nefarious person who would be appearing out of that same alley any moment demanding money to feed his funny, loveable dog.

On the fast boat to Nusa Lembongan the voice had me checking for life jackets and devising escape strategies in case of capsize. ‘The lack of legislation and protocols is obvious,’ it told me. ‘Safety standards are non-existent. You’ll have to take care of yourself. Can you imagine being left in the middle of the ocean with no proof of identity and no money? Make sure you keep your passport and credit card close.’

On the island I wanted to see the sights and travel to Nusa Cenigan which was only accessible by scooter across a narrow, yellow bridge. The hotel where I was staying only offered truck tours, which, and here I agreed with the voice, would be a lot safer. The roads were shocking, narrow, pot-holed, rutted and in some places flooded. A vehicle with four wheels was a better bet than the two-wheel variety, especially as there wasn’t a bike helmet to be seen on the island. But I persevered. The young men at the hotel’s recreation centre had a friend who would take me for a scooter tour. All I had to do was pay them the money and they’d arrange it for the next day. I handed over 200,000 rupiah and not even thinking to ask for a receipt, the deal was done.

The next day at the appointed time there was no friend, no scooter and a different young man in the recreation centre knew nothing about the arrangement I’d made.

‘You could take the truck tour,’ he said. ‘There’s one leaving at 11am.’

‘Yes, take the truck tour,’ the voice said. ‘This is a sign. If you’d gone on the back of a scooter you would have died. Remember that Australian girl who fell off the back of a scooter in Bali recently. She died. That could be you. Forget the scooter. Take the truck tour.’

But I had paid 200,000 rupiah. It was the principle of the thing. Although I felt like an idiot for not getting a receipt, I was going to get what I paid for. I marched off to the front office and told them what had happened. Within ten minutes a scooter complete with driver appeared and I was off and away, leaving the voice floundering in my wake. It was a marvellous adventure, rugged, rutted roads and all. The scenic spots were rather ho-hum for a girl from the Sunshine Coast who’s surrounded by exquisite beauty every day of her life, but being on the back of a scooter was a blast especially when we zoomed along a beautifully paved and maintained back road past the mangrove forests. I felt free and victorious. Once again I had triumphed over the nitpicking nay-saying of the voice.

I understand the voice. It’s my two million-year-old brain. That ancient reptilian amygdala that wants to keep me safe. It doesn’t want me to have adventures, it doesn’t even want me to have fun. All it wants is for me to survive and back then, two million years ago, survival was paramount. And no matter how I try to reason with it, it doesn’t understand reason, all it understands is fear, especially in a strange place like Bali, or underwater or on the back of a scooter.

And so heading back home, the over-packed minibus did not roll over in the chaos of Denpasar airport traffic, the plane did not fall out of the sky, and, apart from a case of Bali belly, I arrived into the arms of my loving hubby unscathed and still very much alive. But the voice persisted. ’There’s still the journey up the Bruce Highway,’ it muttered. ‘There could be a massive accident. You know how notorious this highway is. You could still die.’

‘Oh, shut up!’ I said.

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Outback & Overwhelmed

my-feet-in-the-desert_2Many years ago, when I was a musician, I travelled through the world’s biggest living dot painting to the Northern Territory, a bag in one hand and my guitar in the other. 

I paid my way by singing for my supper, songs I’d written about the sea. Being a coastal girl I’d never been to a place where there were no seagulls. 

I arrived at Yulara, the tourist town that leaches dollars from the grandeur of Uluru. The rock is a magnet for cars, tour buses and four wheel drives. It was hard to find a peaceful place in the middle of the desert.

During the day I would wander away from the resort and sit on a small dune, my pale bare feet digging into the red sand.  I felt as though I was in a postcard, with the rock to my left and Kata Tjuta directly in front. I loved the Olgas, they welcomed me with embracing arms. But I found Uluru overwhelming and kept a respectful distance.

On the last day of my desert adventure, a friend took me out to the gorges. We went for a walk. A gentle gradient to the top of a cliff where a ghost gum grew. There we perched like rock wallabies, watching the light shift and change on the range. Down below, birds were coming home to their water hole.

Time slipped by unnoticed.

I gazed at the rock face, the ancient hills and cliffs, always seeing something new. Gum trees clung in seemingly impossible places. Why did they grow there? How? They had no choice, they had to stay where they sprouted and make the most of it. I felt shiftless and reckless in comparison.

We were running late when I took the wheel of Nelly, ship of the desert. She was a big boat of a Kingswood, column shift, dimmer switch on the floor near the pedals.

I sped across the plain chased by a blood red sunset; the fingers of night creeping up and the darkness scurrying behind us, descending gloom and the threat of looming cattle on the road.

The evening star guided us, first through grey/pink clouds and then through the twilight suspended dusk.

The sun disappeared with a thud and leached all the heat out of the air as it went.

I knew the next day Sydney would slap me in the face but that was many hours away.

The night was restless, windy and warm.