Chinggis Khaan – A Fascinating Leader Loved and Revered

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Day Two – Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue and Museum Complex

The drive to the outskirts of the city and beyond revealed the vastness of the country and scenes confirming western assumptions. Miles of dusty, brown and sandy soil, hills and distant mountains bare of greenery after winter snows.

There were horses, goats, sheep, yaks and cattle grazing – all chewing pasture I couldn’t see from the car! Individual gers and clusters in camps dotted the landscape – at last, the something different I’d hoped for.

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Chinggis Khaan a revered leader in the past and today. He and his sons ruled during the ‘Great Khan’ period in 13 and 14 centuries. The 40-metre statue built to honour his achievements, not only for Mongolia but his extensive empire, which influenced half of the known world. 

The visitor complex is 10 metres tall with 36 columns representing the 36 Khans from Chinggis to Ligdan Khaan and designed by sculptor D Erdenebileg and architect J Enkhjargal, it was erected in 2008.

It is the world’s tallest equestrian statue and has the certificate to prove it!

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On horseback, Chinggis Khaan faces east towards his birthplace, holding the golden whip, which according to legend he found on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog, the site of the monument. It is 54 kilometres east of Ulaanbaatar and a must-see for anyone visiting Mongolia.

Chinggis Khaan or who we, in the West, refer to as Ghengis Khan was an impressive leader and achiever. I had no idea the Mongolian Empire extended to almost half the world. So many ethnic groups, cultures and religions under the Mongolian umbrella.

Art, Culture, Traditional Craftsmanship On Display

Cultural influences from Turkey, Hungary, Persia, China and beyond were peacefully incorporated. Gifts to the world from his era include games such as chess, knuckles (bones), the precursor of puzzles like the Rubik Cube (invented 1974 by a Hungarian), embroideries, beadwork, tapestries, silk costumes and painting, horsemanship, intricate leatherwork, metalwork and more.

Exhibitions cover Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures and fossil finds. Traveller accounts describe the welcome and easy trade and great organisation and tolerance across borders. 

A lesson in real greatness for Trump and current world leaders perhaps!

Chinggis Khaan, also regarded as the greatest military leader in world history although only commanding an army of 100,000 soldiers.

How did he manage to conquer and control countries with populations numbering millions and his dynasty last 150 years?

Some say it was because he felt a great love for his family and his people and would sacrifice his life for them. Others that he was clever and in love with learning.

Since Mongolia parted company with Soviet Russia in 1991, the legend of Chinggis Khaan and his legacy have become increasingly important as part of the Mongolian cultural identity and national pride.

It is also important to those Mongols living in other states, established in Chinggis Khaan’s time such as Afghanistan (the Hazaras), parts of China and the old USSR.  His successful leadership and rule,  the establishment of law and unification of nomadic societies, a constant source of interest to academics and historians.

The following poem was published in a university paper in Inner Mongolia about the Yunnan Mongol community who number under 7000. They identify as Mongol yet only came to the attention of Chinese officials and academia in the late 1970s.

We Are the Sons and Daughters of the Steppes: Children and Grandchildren of Chinggis Khan

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
Under the military standard of Zandan,
riding horses and holding bows, we fought
across vast lands of the North and South.
Passing the steppes on our magical horses
and crossing the Jinsha River on (inflated)
leather bags and bamboo rafts,
we camped at the Ka Qu Tuo Frontier,
under the military standard
of Zandan.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
We planted trees and set up schools and promoted
culture and civilisation, and our awesome
cavalry maintained peace and harmony.
Under the leadership of Zandan
we guarded the southern frontier.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.

Zandon was the son of Altemur, commander of the Mongol Yuan troops during the Yuan dynasty, his HQ at Qutuo Pass.

(The Yunnan Mongols renewed interest in genealogy similar to that of the African Americans inspired by the novel Roots. They want their children to be able to speak and read and write Mongolian and have imported teachers.)

Chinggis Khaan was a deeply spiritual person but also practical. The changes he brought to the world long-lasting. He encouraged widespread education.

In his time,  people wandered freely, traded, mixed and learnt from each other, sharing ideas as well as goods. Nomadic peoples who glanced at the horizon, ever-mindful of Mother Nature, knowing instinctively where and when to move to survive. 

Many still do this today in modern Mongolia, respecting tribal or clan connections. 

Now???

In Europe and other parts of the world, there is so much suspicion, fear and hatred of the other. Border forces and farces. Freedom to travel not a given anymore. Permits needed to build houses never mind move across country with all your goods and chattels!

What would the world look like if Chinggis Khaan had never lived?

Interesting to speculate and those thoughts and much more enriched my visit as I examined exhibits of everyday utensils, clothes, belt buckles, knives, tales of sacred animals,  ancient tools, religious artefacts and objects made or gilded with gold.

 

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Chinggis Khaan’s “throne” – I imagined being a ‘khan’ for the day!

 

Outside in the grounds, I was at last up close to a traditional ger albeit dwarfed by statues representing Mongol warriors – the army that protected Chinggis Khaan and also advanced his empire.

From the top of the main statue, the view is stunning and gives you a perspective of the size of Mongolia – vast swathes of dusty plains and snow-capped mountains sparsely populated.

Few trees survive here because of the wind.

At the ger, a little boy three or four years old was fascinated by my speech. He overheard me speaking and approached us to ask Ada, 

How is she talking? What is she saying?”

I smiled and said, “Hello.”

He mimicked me, “Hello, hello.”

Then grabbing his little friend by the arm, he followed me repeating, hello. Perhaps my Scottish accent was a new experience!

I’d smile and answer, “hello” and they’d run a few feet away or to their parents but always returned to dance around us, repeating “hello“.

Ada went into teacher mode and after a quick lecture to the boys in Mongolian, which I assumed was on courtesy, she sent them packing with a critical look at their parents.

The boy and his family left to annoy the man with birds of prey on display.

In the shadow of the horse statues, it was easy to envisage the scenes that inspired the art work I bought from the young artist in Sukhbaatar Square. The image of Chinggis Khaan painted on leather and the two watercoloured cards, contrasting day and night, evocative of the period as were many pictures in the complex.

All this public reverence of Chinggis Khaan is relatively new and linked to Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet Union, although his importance to traditional Mongolian culture never faltered.

The symbol as such has shown not only an amazing level of tenacity but also a high degree of adaptability in taking on new meanings in relation to different historical contexts and different socio-political entities. For the Mongols, it has evolved from a symbol of imperial legitimacy and privilege grounded in absolute kinship ideology and relevant exclusively to the Golden Descendants, to a potent symbol of ethnic/national identity shared by Mongols all over the world, just as the historical Mongols have gradually evolved from an empire of tribal confederation to a nation of and ethnic entity of solidarity. Thus the claim “we are the children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan”…

Chinggis Khan, From Imperial Ancestor to Ethinic Hero, Almaz Khan

A famous Mongolian rock group, Hongk composed a song about Chinggis Khaan and performed it in March 1990 at the time the new Mongolian Republic was being formed.

Forgive Us

Forgive us for not daring
to breathe your name.
Though there are thousands of statues,
there is none of you.
We admired you in our hearts
but we dared not breathe your name.

The Equestrian Statue and Complex, plus the statues in Ulaanbaatar have rectified the suppression of this important symbol of the Mongol during the Soviet period.

(Founded in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was, until the breakup of the USSR and its empire in 1991, the oldest Eastern Bloc country as well as the second oldest socialist country in the world – after the USSR. Despite political and economic dependence on Russia, much of the national culture enjoyed autonomy and protection.)

There is also a resurgence of Mongolian language and traditional script and a recognition Uighurjin Mongol script has carried history, culture, traditions and customs and fortifies Mongolian independence.

Written vertically, the characters take different forms from the beginning, middle, and end of the word. The oldest existing text believed to be on Chinggis Khaan’s Stone – the replica outside the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and the original at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

Mongolian script is not only a writing system but an art form with meaningful strokes. The script’s “tig” strokes were developed in various styles, resulting in an almost abstract style used in calligraphy nowadays.

Huge examples hang in the foyer of the complex with the rich heritage of Mongolian manuscripts categorised into three categories: religious, historical and folklore.

When the Russians influenced Mongolia, the Cyrillic script became official for public buildings and street names and in schools but Uighurjin is making a comeback.

I watched a young girl demonstrate the script and for a couple of dollars, she wrote my name, which looks much more impressive than it does in English!

In between being immersed in the ancient culture, absorbing historical facts, and the context of impressive and expansive exhibits there were interactions with people, like the little boy.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one scared of heights yet determined to climb to the top of the equestrian statue. I chose the stairs and reached the top to a breathtaking view. A lovely family took pictures of me and I of them while we huddled and clung to the wall to make sure the gale force wind didn’t blow us across the steppes.

Outside there was a wedding party using the monument for stunning photographs of their special day just as many Melburnians choose Parliament House or Federation Square or other iconic sites.

wedding in Mongolia

Watching the wedding party prompted a discussion with Bemba and Ada.

Bemba is the youngest of eight siblings. She is not married and has no children. 

Ada is one of five siblings. She married but did not have a traditional big wedding. She has two children. A daughter lives in Melbourne and is studying her Masters in International Accounting at a QUT campus. Ada taught Russian and English in secondary school before working as a tour guide. 

Mongolians traditionally had big families but like westerners, they have fewer children nowadays probably a maximum of three. However, the family unit is still everything.

Ada was born in a ger and grew up in one. Her parents have ‘returned to country’ some distance from Ulaanbaatar and at 76 and 80 years old they have moved into their first house and will enjoy the comfort of permanence, running water, and an indoor toilet.

I returned to the complex to visit the toilet and through a joint doorway, the backs of men could be seen as they urinated. Ah, cultural quirks and customs. It reminded me of a visit to France in 1984 when a similar design was used in several places we stopped.

One last look at the magnificent foyer, the beautifully carved pipe resting on the wings of a mythical beast and a photo opportunity beside the giant traditional boot.

Before leaving for the Terelj National park, I bought a card in Mongolian script as a memento.

A silhouette of a horse galloping free beside the word for joy.

mongolian card meaning JOY

I knew that feeling!

 

 

 

A Traveller’s Guide To Aboriginal Australia

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(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that the content and some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

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NAIDOC WEEK 2017 – 2-9 July

NAIDOC – National Aborigines & Islanders Day Observance Committee organises celebrations every year in the first full week of July.

This year the theme “Our Languages Matter” emphasised and celebrated the role that indigenous languages play in cultural identity by linking people to their land and water and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ history, spirituality and rites, through story and song.

Last year, encouraged by my good friend, writer, and award-winning blogger, Lisa Hill, I reviewed books in the ever-increasing catalogue of indigenous literature.   Lisa hosts an Indigenous Literature Week on her ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

This year, I’ve just returned from overseas and missed the deadline but because of travelling, I decided to review Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia, A Traveller’s Guide.

The book is a treasured part of my home library.

Most people I know who travel Australia will not have read this 1988 publication. It was an expensive coffee table book years ago but well-produced with an intensity of detail and gorgeous coloured photographs of iconic Aussie landscapes!

Some of the information is confronting, but all of it enriching.  Adding to that important store of human knowledge. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the landscape of our continent and of many of the places you already know, and perhaps you may look differently at many of the debates around Aboriginal Land Rights, Australia or Invasion Day and the importance of retaining and teaching language and culture.

The book is –

A pictorial guide to Highway One, Central Australian and Tasmanian sites and places important to traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life; includes history, art, religion of particular clans, present communities and organisations, biographies; many archival photographs.

Trove entry

Here is a snippet about Hamilton near Geelong, the map showing many different language groups in that corner of Victoria alone – nine clans – how many of these languages left?

 

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part of page 276

 

To learn about the history of our country from those who have been caretakers for thousands of years, to learn about the spiritual places holding their sacred stories makes it a special traveller’s guide. A book worth reading again and again. To be read for understanding and appreciation, not for directions or entertaining experiences.

It is not a Lonely Planet guide or RACV road atlas!

However, it’s worth putting in the caravan, camper trailer, or four wheel drive if you’re touring  ‘grey nomads’ or a family that tours together. This is the history not taught in our school curriculum, or just beginning to be included.

Not necessarily bedtime reading (unless you have a big bed and plenty of elbow room) but sitting around the campfire or when having a BBQ in a campsite, you can share the knowledge and/or book.

The book tells of many nations, clans and groups adapting to life in temperate coastal regions, tropical rainforests, living by inland waterways or mighty rivers, travelling wild coastline and surviving the desert by trading with other clans.

the Mitakoodi people in the Cloncurry district used a small type of net which they obtained in trading from the Woonamurra people who lived to the north. The Kalkadoons acquired kunti (porcupine or spinifex grass gum) from the Buckingham Downs region to the south.

(Visit the Kalkadoon Cultural Centre located at Rotary Hill.)                              page 144

Sadly, some of the massacres and horrors detailed in this book have never been given enough national attention although a new map recording massacres during the frontier wars appeared in the news recently.

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Burnum Burnum’s Guide was published in the year White Australia celebrated its Bicentenary and a year the author, an activist but “warrior for peace”, mirrored the theft of Aboriginal land in 1788, by planting a flag at the base of the White Cliffs of Dover on January 26, claiming possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal ‘Crown’!

Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia is the first book ever to offer a personal, Aboriginal vision of this, the world’s greatest island.

Through over 300 stunning colour pictures and 150 black and white archival photographs, many of which have never been published before, and through the words of one of this country’s best-known and most respected Aboriginal people, this unique book takes the reader on a journey around the continent, an unforgettable journey that reveals an Australia rarely experienced by its white inhabitants.

Creation stories are told and although most Melburnians are aware of Bunjil the eagle it’s fascinating to read slightly different versions and explanations for Port Phillip Bay, Mornington Peninsula, and the River Yarra’s  twisting trail from Warrandyte.

This extract about ancient bones discovered in 1965 rivals the speculation about burial sites in Orkney and Shetland, where I just spent two weeks exploring.

I was 12 years old in 1965 but can’t remember hearing about this at school or university when I studied Australian history.

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(For updated information on the Frontier Wars, prioritising indigenous input,  a friend’s website created several years ago is an excellent resource.  I’ve known Jane since Aboriginal Embassy Days. Her research scrupulous and commitment to sharing information comes from the heart and not reliant on funding or becoming embroiled in politics.)

Jane and I knew Burnum Burnum in the 1970s although he was first introduced as Harry Penrith. We saw his transformation after seeking to get closer to his Aboriginality he researched his family and took his Grandfather’s name.

A member of the Stolen Generation, he could finally be himself – Burnum Burnum!

Here is part of the Foreword…

For me this book represents a lifetime’s work, a journey to find my own roots in this great country. I was born in 1936, under the family gum tree at Mosquito Point, by the side of Wallaga Lake. But, under the policies of the day, I was seized by government officials and separated (at 3 months) from my family. For the next ten years, I grew up on a mission near Nowra, before being moved to the Kinchela Boys Home, near South West Rocks, where I became the first Aborigine to gain a bronze medallion in surf life-saving. My sister was sent to Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home, separated from me by more than 1600 kilometres…

This book is… an attempt to give the traveller a chance to view this extraordinary country as it was seen by the original Australians… Modern ecology can learn a great deal from a people who managed and maintained their world so well for 50,000 years.

… Australians are gaining a new pride in their real heritage, the one which covers 2000 generations. The story has an inevitable edge of sadness, as we understand the process and pattern of dispossession suffered after 1788. This material has been included not to provoke guilt, but to give a perception of the extraordinary differences between the original Australians and the invaders who came in 1788.

In most areas of early contact, they were greeted warmly by the Australians, who had no idea that these strange white people intended to stay…

In Europe, as people developed their civilisation from the caves to the cathedrals, they left clear evidence of their achievement for future generations to admire. In Australia, the land itself is the cathedral and worship is not confined to any four walls. Each step is a prayer and every form in the landscape – and everything that moves in it – was put there specifically for the people to use and manage…

I hope the reader will find no bitterness in the story; the past cannot be turned back… The challenge of the future is… an acceptance of the past, the first step to a positive future… no one people have a sole franchise on the ability to feel an affinity with this timeless landscape.

This book resonates more with me now than when I bought it all those years ago because of the special connection to Harry/Burnum Burnum. I’ve finished a personal trek myself, returning to my birth country (touched upon in a previous post).

My father was Scottish and my mother Irish, and I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland retracing their childhood influences, and my own.

Here are Burnum Burnum’s thoughts:

All around Melbourne, the spirit of my great great grandmother is written on the landscape. When I drive through eastern Victoria I do so with a great sense of reverence, dreaming my way through the landscape of my ancestors and my birth, I can feel the spirit of my ancestors in many places.

This book weaves a rich tapestry of people, places, flora, fauna, history, mythology, reality and Dreamtime.

Forever relevant, it will earn its keep on your bookshelf for generations.

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When It’s All Right Not To Write

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My writing journey seems to be much like my life – unpredictable, a mystery, an uphill battle, full of sudden surprises and even miracles.

Some days there is a structure  – usually my teaching days when I write with my students. Other days, there are scribbled notes, ideas and perhaps the start of a poem or story, or just an observation as I try and harness whatever fleeting thought an image, event or overheard word has prompted.

Recently, I’ve been troubled by an inability to write what and how I want, never finishing the stories or poems – not so much losing interest but struggling to find the joy and passion.

mordi beach october 2016

Sea-Sawing 1
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by roaring waves, tumultuous surf or crying rocks
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by the lapping wavelets or squelching sand
or the whispers of an ebbing tide.
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
by the endless mystery of oceans
by this chameleon of colour and mood
by the changing horizon of merging sea and sky
by thoughts of the insignificance of humankind
and our attempts to tame, travel, and tease
and always the awesome sea can choose not to please
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced.

Pausing The Pen

As I prepare to go on what I am calling ‘long service leave’ (unpaid, unfortunately) from my writing classes, I’m hoping to rediscover my ‘mojo’ and enthusiasm for writing. I feel as stale and tired as my words as if I’m repeating myself and walking in circles.

Here’s hoping a term off, and weeks of new experiences as I travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and return to Scotland, my birth country to meet up with old friends and relatives, I’ll be able to reignite lost passion and enthusiasm.

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Tracking My Journey To Recovery

I’ll use the blog as a sort of journal to track my journey – inner thoughts as well as the outward physical events. I’ll write about the same subjects I suppose but perhaps have a fresh angle – definitely a different perspective!

Entries may be written in the moment, fragments and random happenings recorded – a different process from how I usually write. I’m a planner and outliner when it comes to publication, a worrier about whether anything I write is worth reading or if there is a mistake with research, grammar, spelling…

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I’ve been writing since a teenager and I love reading good writing – all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer that others want to read.

However, if I’m ever to achieve that dream and finish a couple of important writing projects then radical action is required. I’ll be 64 years old in August – a bit long in the tooth to be regarded as an emerging writer and entering the age bracket conscious that time can run out!

 

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A reminder of life’s fragility the last time I visited Stony Point!

 

Now for Something Completely Different

It’s time to remove myself from the comfort zone of teaching writing and helping others on their publishing journey. Breda now looks after the Mordialloc Writers’ Group – relinquishing that was a major step for me to take because I founded the group over 21 years ago – but the freedom I feel with the cliched weight off my shoulders is wonderful.

I’m going to fulfil another item on the ‘bucket list’ made after I survived a breast cancer interlude. Hopefully, there will be a few more crossed off the list in the future.

A couple of years ago, I went to Samoa and paid homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who inspired me in childhood.  Samoa, the first of travel adventures I’d dreamed about and promised to visit ‘one day’.

On this Trans-Siberian trip, a teenage dream will be realised and  I’ll pay homage to another favourite writer, Dostoevsky whose book Crime And Punishment, I regard as one of the top ten influences in my life. Like RLS and a few others, Dostoevsky gave me the desire to be a writer.

I’ll also be visiting the Orkney and Shetland islands, another long-held dream and the home of the wonderful writer and poet George Mackay-Brown.

Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!

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When I’m in holiday mode, perhaps I’ll rediscover the joy and spontaneity I’ve lost and succumb to the mystical process of mind linking together random observations, thoughts, dreams and sudden ideas into storylines and poems.

Sea-Sawing  2
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
heartbeat slows, breathing even, steps linger,
imagination sparked as dreams awaken.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
shells crunch underfoot, sand soft or solid,
seagulls whirl and twirl their aerial dance.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
blueness stretches to meet blueness or
stormy grey prances with white caps,
the horizon a promise of somewhere else.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
worries, fears, a bad day assuaged –
this too will pass a mantra of healing and rebirth
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed.

Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question

My first published poems were for children and I’ve always been attracted to manipulating words for fun. Perhaps my creative journey needs to return where it began!

I know poems don’t have to rhyme, in fact in some poetry circles it’s almost a criminal offence to write what they consider ‘doggerel’ aka anything with a rhyme. However, I love playing with words, love puns and absurdity.

Sea-Sawing 3
Mairi Neil

I must go down to the sea today
to see the waves and splash
I must go into the sea today
salt water will cure my rash!
The sea has healing powers –
that’s what Mum told me
so, don’t take Nature for granted –
especially the magnificent sea.

You can play in the ocean,
swim, sail, and even water ski
it’s such a wonderful playground
so, always look after the sea.
Don’t pollute the water
home to creatures great and small
because if you listen carefully
you’ll hear the mermaids call…

Here’s to rejuvenation and a renewal of purpose or perhaps I’ll return from my journey and decide to knit and craft – reminders of a lovely period in my life when the girls attended a Steiner school and we immersed our lives in all things natural.

Time will tell.

… what we call the Creative Process is in no way limited to art or to individual acts of creating something. It is in fact, a large ongoing movement in our lives, a force that has its own will and its own purpose, and which we manifest on many levels but in definite sequences… a profoundly sacred process… visible in all aspects of my life…

Burghild Nina Holzer 1993.

 

Aniva’s Place – a home away from home in Samoa

“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.

Edith Wharton

My trip to Samoa, an embodiment of this quote, providing many happy memories and a desire to return to stay at Aniva’s Place where I felt genuinely welcomed and valued.

However, before I wax lyrical about Aniva and her hotel, like Mary Poppins, I’ll “start at the very beginning…” a very good place to launch a travel post!

Due to a ‘complimentary’ wind we arrived in Apia almost an hour earlier than scheduled, touching down at 4.20am. The warm air noticed straight away plus sweet, ‘honeysuckle’ scent of colourful Bougainvillea arborea and the beautiful, fragrant Plumeria (common name Frangipani),  as well as the usual airport fuel smells. I felt relaxed and at ease – and fully awake. There was something special about the place.

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

I took the time to notice and smell the flowers in Samoa – everywhere I went I soaked up the joy of the mass of colour from the tropical plants and the rain forest lushness of the vegetation.

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(Two nights after my arrival when having dinner with Hilary and Peter Ray, close friends of one of my students, they regaled me with stories of their connection with Samoa. Peter explained why they chose to build in “Paradise”. After being away from the place for a couple of years, he returned for a holiday. When he stepped off the plane and inhaled the warm, fragrant night air he knew, he was home. )

No bridge into the terminal at Faleolo International Airport, so we descended the stairs and walked the few yards to the entrance, but struck a bottleneck.

I remembered the discussion between two women on the bus taking us to the transit lounge in Sydney. They joked that going through customs and immigration at Apia would be the quickest we’d ever experience. Had they jinxed us?

I wasn’t the only one to wonder aloud what the problem was until I realised they were doing the health card checks before allowing us inside the terminal.

We’d completed the card aboard the plane – well some had – hence the delay as officers checked cards not filled out correctly, double-checking no one had a fever. The cards focused on Ebola and the countries with Ebola victims. In a country where Dengue Fever from mosquitoes is a reality, detecting and preventing the introduction of sickness indeed a priority because ‘a fever’ could be misdiagnosed later and have devastating consequences on this small island.

At least, passport control was quick, collecting my suitcase even quicker as my purple case appeared on the carousel just as I walked over. Customs took a minute at most with all luggage put through an X-ray machine. I’d first seen one of these when in NZ, 2013 – efficiency plus.

Outside the Customs and Immigration Area, I couldn’t believe the busyness of the small airport. It could be midday at Southland Shopping Centre!

A crowd of taxi drivers touted for business, people waited for relatives or friends (what dedication getting up so early), and passengers waited for flights out and all the usual workers provided expected services. I looked around for Diana, the lady I’d met at Sydney airport who had said her daughter would drop me at my hotel.

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Faleolo International Airport 4.30am

I must have looked confused because several taxi drivers offered to take me to town. One tall man in a bright pink Polynesian shirt was quite insistent. He followed me around as if I was lying about having a friend, or perhaps hoping to wear me down while I searched for Diana.

A visit to the tourist desk to get a map in case I did have to find my way, and the over-friendly cabbie looked over my shoulder as if he was coming with me. What a relief to hear Diana call out. She’d had a phone call from her daughter who was parking the car. The cabbie hovered within earshot.

He disappeared as Christiana arrived and didn’t hear her dismay at the size of her mother’s suitcase plus several bags. ‘All the stuff you demanded I bring my love,’ Diana said with a smile. Christiana’s worried looked increased when she saw my medium purple clothes-eater. ‘I’ve only a tiny car, Mum!’

I felt obligated to ease Christiana’s discomfort and release Diana from the hasty promise.  ‘No worries! If it doesn’t fit,’ I swept my hand to encompass the line of cabs, ‘I’m not going to be stranded.’

‘Let’s go,’ said Diana, using her registered nurse voice, ‘We’ll fit!’

And we did.

A large illuminated picture of Jesus in the carpark couldn’t be missed – the Samoan people are well-known for their religious devotion – I offered a silent thank you to the Creator.

Jesus overlooking the airport carpark - I did feel blessed
Jesus is overlooking the airport carpark – I did feel blessed!

The drive to Aniva’s Place took about an hour with plenty of kangaroo-hopping and stalling. Christiana kept apologising for her lack of experience with the manual car she’d borrowed. However, the slower than usual trip enabled Christiana to deliver Samoa uncut- the good and the bad.

She explained the speed limit in Apia and other areas of Upolu was  40 km/h around Apia or 56 km/h on the open road. Even slower in many cases because there are plenty of speed humps.

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Apia’s population is between 37,000-38,000 and comprises 45 villages and cars are expected to slow down. It’s very pleasant not to have traffic roaring past, and I found traditional Samoan courtesy and relaxed attitude extended to the way people drove.

The other anomaly about driving in Apia is the ability to turn left at red traffic lights if the way is clear –  it can be disconcerting the first time it happens. This rule probably a hangover from when Samoa switched from driving on the right side of the road to the left-hand side in 2009. They made the change and aligned with Australia and New Zealand. Six years down the track I saw no evidence of the disaster opponents prophesied, but it certainly made headlines and international news at the time.

Christiana confirmed there was a feral/stray dog problem. (We noticed plenty of dogs mooching by the side of the road.) ‘If walking and you become worried  pretend to pick up a stick, and most will run away.’

‘Hilary, the lady I have as a contact told me to carry an umbrella – flicking that open will usually scare them,’ I said, ‘and an umbrella is a good sunshade.’

‘Good idea,’ said Christiana, ‘and you’ll need a sun shade, it gets hot and humid by midday.’

She pointed out the special cages on poles. These were for rubbish, raised off the ground, so the dogs didn’t rummage.

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There is a special police unit to deal with dogs, which had just performed a cull, picking up unregistered dogs for slaughter. The culls happen periodically and are controversial, but I saw plenty of dogs searching hungrily for food and water and lying panting or asleep in the heat. Strays will suffer either way.

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The sign reads Dog Management Unit and the building extends for several blocks.
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Many of the dogs are either white or brown and very similar in looks.

Here is an account from missionary Reverend John Betteridge Stair 1815-1898: OLD SAMOA OR FLOTSAM AND JETSAM FROM THE PACIFIC OCEAN

At the time of first contact with Europeans the only mammals found on Samoa were dogs, cats, pigs, and rats, the three former, if not the latter, having been apparently introduced into the islands by the original settlers, or from later intercourse. Others have since been introduced, and have thriven well, horses, cattle, and goats being now abundant…

The dog, Maile or Uli, from u, to bite, and li, to grin, or show the teeth, was found on all the islands, but the breeds having become so much mixed it is difficult to say what was the original stock. I think it was a small breed, with sharp-pointed ears, traces of which are sometimes seen. Dogs were formerly eaten by the Samoans, as at other islands; of late years, however, the practice has been discontinued. Many dogs had run wild in the forests, and occasionally came down to the settlements-and made a dismal howling as they prowled about and searched for food. I once got a glimpse of one at a distance, in the bush, but it was very shy.

Apart from one day, when I walked into town, I heeded everyone’s warning (Samoans and Europeans) and took taxis.  At between $5-10 tala ($2.50-5.00 AUS), it would have been silly to risk my health in the heat or an attack by a dog. The day I walked I have to admit there were a couple of dogs ‘with lean and hungry looks’ slouching nearby that made me nervous.

Christiana pointed out the architecture. The Samoans live in fales, designed for their lifestyle and the weather – sleeping in fales without solid walls allows the sea breeze to pass through. We noticed many fales were open, others strung up curtains for privacy, and others have full or half walls. I can imagine that dogs were traditionally and still are a security because they are territorial. Each night at Aniva’s, I certainly knew if anyone was still about walking or driving because neighbourhood dogs barked and howled.

A typical modern fale at the Tourist Information Centre
A typical modern fale at the Tourist Information Centre
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A typical village on road from airport

The noise level of open-style living a disadvantage  – more than one tourist complained of snoring and ‘bodily noises’ disrupting their sleep when they stayed in the famous fales built on the beaches. ‘And, I never knew the ocean was so loud,’ declared one young man from Bristol, England. His last night in Samoa he booked into Aniva’s Place looking forward to an uninterrupted night’s sleep. I guess for unacclimatised westerners ear plugs should be packed!

Sunday is still a traditional church day  – Samoa being a traditional society. I was privileged to be invited to attend church with Aniva and enjoy the special lunch (to’ona’i)  cooked afterwards. I was her honoured guest, and she had been to the market at 5.00am to choose the fish for the meal. Spices are an integral part of Samoan cuisine designed to saturate the senses and delight the palate. They don’t need any lessons on ‘slow food’ – sourcing their ingredients locally with the emphasis on fresh. No fast food here (although sadly McDonalds have opened in Apia) and mealtimes are for relaxing, enjoying, communicating – and laughter – Samoans have a great sense of humour.

This generosity and caring evident from the first day when Aniva was awake at 5.20am to welcome me to the hotel! Aniva’s Place may not be classed as a 5-star luxury hotel, but the treatment is five stars plus.

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Fish cooked with a special sauce, breadfruit and taro and Samoan ‘spinach’ – taro leaves cooked in coconut cream – all delicious.  Aniva prepared fried chicken too in case I didn’t like the meal, but it remained untouched.

 I had done some homework before I went to Samoa;  the government’s tourism website informative:

In Samoan culture food is a social event that brings together family and friends to share what bountiful wonders nature has provided. As the sun rises in the east, young men are paddling their canoes out in the lagoon to catch fish, while others have gone into the plantations to cultivate and harvest what is needed for the daily meals.

The bounty of the ocean provides crayfish, snapper, masimasi, octopus, tuna and more, caught that morning and served that evening. The plantations of bananas, taro, tropical fruits and vegetables picked that day add to the freshness of the meals. And with the freshness of all this bounty, it’s the flavours that have your taste buds wondering why it never tastes this good at home.

Breakfast at Aniva’s provided a variety of Samoan cuisine with choices for a western style breakfast if desired. Fresh papaya each morning followed by banana pancakes (thin like crepes) or round pancakes (panikeke Lapotopoto) more than filling for me. There were freshly squeezed juices and coffee on offer, but Aniva and her morning helper Ciah (short for Lucia) soon discovered my addiction to tea!

The staff helping Aniva treated like family – another younger Ciah employed for cooking and housework as well as Siosi (George) who cleaned the pool, did basic maintenance and looked after the garden.

the two ciahs and siosi
The two Ciahs and Siosi having a break by the pool

Aniva’s Place was truly a home away from home – it is where she lives. Evidence of her life with husband Bob (now deceased) and her two sons (one a doctor in the UK, the other a rugby player there) are all around. Her interest in guests’ welfare is sincere.  I was ‘late’ back one evening after a day out with Hilary, which culminated in an unplanned, lovely meal at her home. Aniva was so relieved nothing had happened to me. ‘I was ready to call the police because you never said you’d be late!’

I apologised and took the scolding – her concern genuine and made me feel even safer than before. In fact, Aniva’s Place is so secure I never had a key to my room and never locked it.

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Another bonus of choosing Aniva’s Place was her intimate knowledge of Samoa – her father had been one of the longest- serving prime ministers, and her older sister is still a member of parliament. There is a lot of respect attached to her name – and she commands respect! Unsurprisingly, I want to return so won’t pack away the essentials to take yet!

Samoan survivial kit - insect repellent, sunblock, water, fan, and a cool sarong
Samoan survival kit – insect repellent, sunblock, water, fan, and sarong.

Vailima – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoan Home

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The Stevenson clan: Robert, his wife Fanny and her son Lloyd, and Robert’s widowed mother settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890. RLS had a house built at the foot of Mt Vaea, which he called Vailima, and he continued to write, but also became an advocate for the Samoans.

Vailima, a beautiful island plantation home has been restored and is now a world-class museum set in a national nature reserve and botanical garden. A tour in its coolness a welcome relief when I descended Mt Vaea via the Road of the Loving Hearts. In the house, there are many photographs of life at Vailima with the Stevenson Family.

The home and grounds have been restored to reflect the comfort expected in colonial times, but also the use of many Samoan building products. It is easy to imagine RLS writing here and filling the spacious rooms with many visitors.

The tasteful restoration as accurate as possible and the house repaired and reinvented as a museum by American benefactors who set up a foundation to raise money. Tilafaiga Rex Maughan, its primary benefactor, chairs the Foundation. Two board appointees represent the Government of Samoa. The Board oversees the fiscal, regulatory and policies of the not-for-profit entity.

The Vailima estate was purchased in 1900 as the official residence for the German governor. After British/Dominion confiscation, it served successively as the residence for the New Zealand administrator and the Samoan head of state after independence before being reclaimed as important national heritage.

It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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The guides giving the tours of the house are extremely well-versed in all things RLS. As you walk through the Great Hall, RLS’s Library, his Smoking Room,  five bedrooms and numerous nooks and crannies they share anecdotes from the life of the famous author. They point out what is authentic and what is a reproduction.

The tour at $20 tala ($10 Aus) superb value. The highlight being the guide singing the Requiem from RLS tombstone – a spine-tingling moment. The Samoan’s have a reputation for memorable voices like the Welsh. Tips are not expected but considering how poor most Samoans are (an average wage of $150 tala per week) this would be the moment to be generous.

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RLS wanted fireplaces and a Smoking Room to remind him of Scotland. The fires were never lit!  Throughout the house, the darkness of the beautiful polished wood softened by large windows and French doors letting in the wealth of Samoan sunshine. The Great Hall restored with Californian redwood and replica furniture.The Tapa Room has the local wall covering called siapo or tapa from the original cultural pattern.

Tapa is a cloth made of vegetable fibre and stained in various striking patterns. Widely used by the Samoans for clothing, curtains, beds, and many other purposes, today any clothing from tapa is ceremonial or for the tourists.

Upstairs the bedrooms reflect the various personalities of the household. A photograph of RLS’s mother could be a slimmer Queen Victoria a la the dark dress and crocheted cap.  Mrs Stevenson senior didn’t cope with the heat, disliked the house and complained daily about its gloominess – even the view of a tranquil garden from her window couldn’t console her.

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Fanny and RLS slept in separate rooms because he liked to write at night, but he had a secret door/hatch installed in the wall so they could talk to each other when lying in bed. RLS was often ill, and Fanny became his nurse as well as looking after everyone else in the household plus many of the local Samoans. The sick bed and medicine chest often used according to Fanny’s biographer:

A disease of the tropics, said to be transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes, which causes enormous enlargement of the parts affected. Mrs. Stevenson cured this boy, Mitaele, of elephantiasis by Dr. Funk’s remedy of rubbing the diseased vein with blue ointment and giving him a certain prescribed drug.

As I walked through the rooms and examined the photographs and paraphernalia, it was easy to imagine the scents and sounds of a busy household. The Stevenson’s hospitality matched the welcome and friendliness the Samoans are famous for so there would have been laughter, chatter and music.

Talk is by far the most accessible of pleasures. It costs nothing in money, it is all profit, it completes our education, founds and fosters our friendships, and can be enjoyed at any age and in almost any state of health.

Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the ways the RLS Museum and grounds are able to remain for posterity is by generous donations, entry fees and also hiring out the grounds for celebrations. It has become popular for weddings, but the stipulation is ‘no alcohol’, the wedding must be dry to minimise damage to the heritage property.

The day I visited, the final preparations were being added for a wedding that evening. One of the guides urged me to look inside the marquees and confided the wedding planner was famous in Samoa. Perhaps I’d seen the advertisement on television, ‘You know about Fa’afafine?’

I smiled away my ignorance as I went to have a look at the preparations that had taken two days and vowed to look up Fa’afafine later.

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Fa’afafine of Samoa are Samoa’s 3rd gender – the term  fa’a means ‘to be’ and fafine means ‘a woman’. Fa’afafine are not just cross-dressers nor are they males reared as females (a myth often believed by foreigners). Mostly they see themselves as female despite the gender markers, and they grow up choosing to identify with the female rather than the male gender.

Acceptance levels of fa’afafine are at an all time high with the Samoan Prime Minister patron of the Fa’afafine Association. However, some villages and districts treat fa’afafine differently although I didn’t see any evidence of this in my short time in Apia. In fact whenever fa’afafine were mentioned or seen around Apia everyone seemed proud.

Samoan culture treats and respects fa’afafine. Western culture through religious influences does not so the fa’afafine entrench themselves in their culture in order to be accepted into the community, with resounding and remarkable success.

My day at Vailima and Mt Vaea was a resounding success too – increasing my knowledge on so many aspects of Samoan history and modern day culture. I left the gorgeous surrounds to the tinkling laughter of the ‘celebrity’ wedding planner and helpers.

I reflected on Samoa, RLS and life in general and agreed

That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Samoa – Paradise Found

We are all travellers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.

Robert Louis Stevenson (13/11/1850- 3/12/1894)

I love this quote by Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson whose life and writings have inspired me since childhood. In fact, I became so fascinated that I determined to visit Samoa where he spent the last four years of his short life and pay my respects at his graveside.

The trip moved to the top of my ‘bucket list’ after being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010. Last week during the September holidays, I gifted myself a trip to Samoa to celebrate what I hope will be my fifth anniversary cancer free.

I’m a traveller, not a tourist. I enjoy learning about different cultures and places,  making an effort to befriend locals who reveal insights and knowledge about their homeland. A love of travel one of the many things husband John and I shared.

However, my obsession with Samoa goes back to a younger self, leafing through the ten volumes of Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedia Dad purchased for the family.

In 1961, I dreamt of being like RLS:

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I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

The stories of  Stevenson’s final years in Samoa enthralling because he arrived at a significant period in the country’s history ( in the midst of a civil war) and yet established good relationships with the people. He was called Tusitala, the Teller of Tales. So revered by the Samoans that when he died, they carried him to his chosen resting place, to the top of 472m Mt Vaea. They created a trail significantly named “The Road of the Loving Heart”! 

comprehensive information English/Samoan comprehensive information

the tomb of RLS

After arriving at Apia’s Faleolo Airport at 4.20am and having to adjust to the well-known, constant heat and humidity, I chose to visit  RLS’ tomb on day two of my holiday.

I ordered a taxi for the 3km trip up to the Vailima National Reserve, and Tai arrived at 8.30am so I could climb before the heat of midday. At $10 tala, taxis are a cheap, reliable alternative to the often crowded local buses costing  $2.00 tala.

Mt Vaea is a volcano from Samoa’s origin 2 million years ago, but the crater rim has almost eroded away. The original lava rock is now rocky soil although many large rocks remain, especially near the summit. There are warnings of landslides after heavy rain. A slippery trail is not the only hazard: – jutting tree roots, steps made for giants and steep gradients are a few more! This trek is not for the faint-hearted or unfit.

notice at foot of mountain

There is a choice of trails – I chose the short, steep trail on the way up and the longer ‘more gentle grade’ (debatable) on the way down. The vertical climb to the beginning of both trails is 200m from the car park.

My daughters had bought me a ‘selfie stick’ so that I could take photographs as proof of reaching the tomb and for other outings in Samoa. Unfortunately, my mobile is too old and incompatible with the thoughtful present.

“You see Mum, I told you to upgrade your phone!” Anne and Mary Jane admonished me in unison.

My response, “Well, since your Dad died I’ve travelled a lot on my own and always found someone who’d take a photo of me!”

On top of Mt Vaea, I found half a rugby team – what I thought was a rugby team! The nine young men and one woman were police officers who had come off night duty and were doing a weekly exercise to stay fit. They puffed and panted past me, some struggling more than others, but I wasn’t that far behind, and they cheered when I arrived at the top – red-faced and gasping – but in one piece. They insisted on photos with me, totally amazed I was 62 and celebrating surviving BC.

The view was as magnificent as brochures promised and as described in The Life Of
Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Nothing more picturesque can be imagined than the narrow plateau that forms the summit of Mount Vaea, a place no wider than a room and as flat as a table. On either side the land descends precipitately; in front lie the vast ocean and the surf-swept reefs; in the distance to the right and left green mountains rise, densely covered with the primeval forest.”

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“Stevenson’s tomb, with the tablet and lettering, was designed by Gelett Burgess, and was built by native workmen under the direction of a half-caste named George Stowers. The material was cement, run into boxes and formed into large blocks, which were then carried to the summit on the strong shoulders of Samoans, though each block was so heavy that two white men could scarcely lift it from the ground. Arrived at the summit the blocks were then welded into a plain and dignified design, with two large bronze tablets let in on either side. One bears the inscription in Samoan, “The resting-place of Tusitala,” followed by the quotation in the same language of “Thy country shall be my country and thy God my God.” The other side bears the name and dates and the requiem:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The requiem

Fanny died in America, but her daughter returned her ashes to Samoa:

“When Fanny’s daughter and husband, Mr. and Mrs. Field arrived in Samoa they brought with them a tablet which they carried to the summit of Mount Vaea and had cemented in one end of the base of the tomb. It is of heavy bronze, and bears the name Aolele (Samoan for Fanny), together with these lines:

Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart whole and soul free,
The August Father gave to me.”

“On the tablet for Mr. Stevenson the thistle for Scotland had been carved at one corner and the hibiscus for Samoa at the other. On his wife’s the hibiscus was placed at one corner, and after long hesitation about the other, a sudden inspiration suggested to Mrs. Field the tiger-lily—bright flower whose name had been given to little Fanny Van de Grift by her mother in the old days in Indiana.”

Tiger-lily and Scottish Thistle nestled together under tropical skies enjoying starry nights as of old, far away from their birthplaces. There is  no waving yellow corn or purple heather clad moorlands, but people from all over the world pilgrimage to Samoa and climb Mt Vaea to pay their respects and tenderly pray or leave flowers on their tomb.

Samoan Journey
Haiku by Mairi Neil

A much loved writer
Robert Louis Stevenson
The teller of tales

Inspired childhood dream
To follow loving heart trail
No longer strangers

I traversed The Road of the Loving Heart breathing in the sweet scents of rainforest trees and flowers. I listened to delightful calls from various birds, especially the easily recognised tiny scarlet robin (tolau ula) and Samoan fantail (se’u). I thought of RLS and envied the writing inspiration he must have experienced in such a delightful environment. Imagination fired I realised; I could be the last person on earth – other walkers a rare sight. The serenity disturbed by black and green geckos (miniature dinosaurs!) darting around my feet, abandoning where they basked in sunlight atop rocks or protruding tree roots. Their frantic escape into dry leaf litter sounding more like a possum or fox and disconcerting as I concentrated on not losing my foothold.

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It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The climb certainly renewed my weary spirit and the sense of achievement satisfying. Despite the heat, sore muscles and sweat-soaked clothes I had a smile on my face as wide as the Mississippi!

I’ll share further adventures of my week in paradise in other posts and leave the last word to RLS:

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a poor substitute for life.

Dresses made With Love and worn with Joy better than Designer Love!

Pure, intense emotions. It’s not about design. It’s about feelings.

Alber Elbaz

July 2011: The dark blue floral voile  falls soft and sensual against my skin,  the shirring elastic bodice still has elasticity and bounce.

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Anne holds the long flowing dress against her slim body, sways slightly and lets the material swirl at her ankles. ‘Can I have this, Mum?’ She sashays in front of the wardrobe mirror, ‘ it’s so cool.’

I smile and nod. ‘ Your Aunty Cate made it for me. I was 18, maybe 19. To think it once fitted…’ I close my eyes briefly as remembering is hard,  ‘size 10 I think…’

Anne grins and pats my shoulder. ‘You’re beautiful Mum,’ and as if aware of my embarrassment, ‘your body’s great for your age and what you’ve been through.’

I chuckle at the backhanded compliment – and understatement – pushing sixty and living without a cleavage after a mastectomy, plus coping with extra weight from Tamoxifen, this body’s been ‘through the mill’. (I hear Mum’s voice, she loved her proverbs, Bible quotes, adages… they may be cliches, but always ‘hit the mark’!)

I remember choosing the pattern and material for this dress in 1971. Older sister, Cate and I on one of our many sojourns to the South Melbourne Market,  a great place for bargains as well as having an exciting multi-cultural milieu that made every visit memorable in the 60s and 70s, especially for us living ‘out in the sticks’ at Croydon, the foot of the Dandenong Ranges and considered semi-rural.

The baby doll style fashionable in the late 60s and early 70s, but the material and shirring elastic bodice set the pattern apart, as did the smaller puffed sleeves my sister added and the giant zip at the back allowing my then recognisable waist to be shown off!

When I look back, I appreciate how lucky I was to have clever seamstresses in the family. My father’s sister, Chrissie owned a dressmaking school when she sponsored us to Australia in 1962. She  generously taught my sister and I all she knew as well as making the latest styles like muumuus, mini skirts, and hot pants so we could be fashionable despite our low income.  Dad a blue collar worker chasing money so we could be established in Australia. We used Aunt Chrissie’s Singer machines, the large cutting-out table plus all the other accoutrements necessary for tailoring.

In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable.

Christian Dior

Needless to say, my sister Cate thrived under her tutelage with an inherited passion and gift  for the craft. I preferred to find a hiding place to read, or go off on an adventure with my brothers. After all, how many  dressmakers did the family need?   Cate, with a natural talent for design and style, infinite ideas and good judgement, expertly manipulated needle, thread and machine. Today her embroidery, sewing and quilting still win prizes, also her porcelain dolls and teddy bears, even crocheted and knitted articles.

Many people (including me) have wedding photo albums full of pictures of bride and bridesmaid dresses Cate made, as well as outfits for formals, debuts, travel, new babies, concerts and any other occasion you can imagine. When she moved out of home, I think  every visit back was spent altering clothes for some member of the family – saved up just for her – that’s the downside of having skill in a big family, everybody wants a piece of you!

I stare at the flimsy material catapulting me back to my youth.  I loved this dress, and those years so much! The dress suited my slim physique and  hopeful outlook – the hippy years at university – and the restless years –  setting off overseas in 1973 and again in 1976.

me in canberra

In Scotland,  it doubled as a formal dress when I added a hat and attended a cousin’s wedding. It’s that kind of dress – casual, comfortable, but elegant too.

Anne rolls it up, but before she  packs it into her backpack, I hold the dress to my face, breathe deeply and imagine the lingering smell of patchouli, a staple perfume in the freewheeling 70s, when I was in love with Donovan. I feel the warmth of the bodies of lovers I met on my travels, the wonderful last dance at the Mecca in Portsmouth to Procol Harem’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. I hear the crackle and swish as I dance to Steeleye Span’s ‘All around my hat…’  at Melbourne’s ‘summer in the park’ festivals popular in the 80s.

‘So, it’s going to Canada again, ‘I say and with a nod of her blonde head, Anne smiles.  She  throws her arms around me. I hold back tears as she whispers, ‘when I wear it Mum I’ll think of you.’

I swallow the lump of emotion and laugh; returning her squeeze. ‘Well, I hope you have as much fun and good luck as I did on my travels!’

Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.

Yves Saint Laurent

anne in London   anne Toronto 2013

January 2015. I think that’s why I kept the dress – years of clearing out, moving house, pregnancies, seesawing sizes, yet it remained at the back of the wardrobe. A reminder of a happy time, of travelling the world, maturing, learning, becoming independent and my own person. Not always having someone looking over my shoulder expecting me to be… not surrounded by preconceptions, accepted norms.

And now the dress has returned – in need of minor repairs four decades later, but still wearable and still loved.

anne back in melbourne december  2014

 images

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
As she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
As she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
Contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
Many still struggle in shadowed light
Exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

2014