Where do you belong?

‘Where do you come from?’ As a traveller, most conversations I have with strangers begin with this. My reflex answer is ‘Australia’, but recently I have felt that this answer isn’t adequate. Yes, I was born in Australia, but does that mean I belong there? To ‘come from’ and to ‘belong’ are different things, and in today’s interconnected world of globalisation, the concept of belonging has no easy definition.
As a teenager, I struggled to find out which social niche suited me. I changed my clothes and hair regularly as I tried on different personas, but none seemed to fit quite right. I couldn’t seem to figure out which group I belonged to. Self-consciousness plagued me and I spent my late teens and early twenties depressed. When I came out the other side, I found that I had stopped caring about how I appeared to other people. For the first time in my life I was happy with who I am. And that’s when I began to understand that belonging goes so much deeper than identifying with social groups, fashions, cultures and countries. Belonging comes from the soul.
I grew up on the east coast of Australia, near Byron Bay. My childhood was spent playing in nature and making things. As an only child, I had to be creative with my time, and I grew to value solitude. I liked to write, draw, dance, and make little worlds for myself and my toys. With a Scottish father and Australian mother, I was raised with an innate understanding of the (non)differences between cultures. My parents joined the Hare Krishnas (a religion similar to Hinduism) when they were in their mid-twenties, so I grew up in a home with influences from all over the world. I was raised with ideologies originating from the Vedas like karma, reincarnation, belief in the soul and strict vegetarianism, as well as adopting the Indian style of clothing like most Hare Krishnas do. Our house was home to a constantly rotating group of travellers and Hare Krishnas, and I was parented by a collection of people from all over the world.
But like most Australians with foreign descent, I felt that I never truly belonged to Australia, or I didn’t have the right to belong to it. With Scotland on the other side of the world, it was only in my early twenties that I had the chance to explore the country where 90% of my heritage comes from. Even then, I felt like an outsider with my Australian accent and dislike of the cold. It is not enough to have a percentage in your bloodline, and it is not enough to have been born in a place that belongs to another people.
When I was ten, I went to India for the first time. My memories from that age are hazy, but I remember many specific memories from this trip. For a month, my parents and I lived with a local family in a small village a few hours away from Kolkata. Two years later, we made this trip again. Many of my memories from this experience are few but sensory, and for the rest of my life I experienced flashbacks that took me back to India every time I heard or smelled something specific. Because of these experiences as a child, or the strong eastern influences in my upbringing, I spent the rest of my life longing to go back to India. I felt a calling that I couldn’t brush away. A part of me longed for a culture I could identify with that compensated for my half-Australian, half-Scottish, half-lost identity.
At the age of 24, twelve years after the last time I had been there, I went back to India. By this time, I had traveled to 17 other countries, finding places I can call home in each one. The more I travelled, the more I realised that people are not defined by the country they ‘belong’ to. To be human means to be made up of a pastiche of experiences, memories, places, people, understandings, beliefs, skills, desires, and dreams. A person can – and usually does – belong to multiple cultures, especially with the events of globalisation and monoculturalism in the recent decades.
When I came to India for the third time, I didn’t expect to find the missing puzzle piece to my identity. And thank god I didn’t, because I would have been sorely disappointed. Instead, I came with no expectations. It was enough for me to be in India. And as it usually turns out, I ended up exactly where I needed to be: Arambol, Goa. In this place I found a community of people exactly like me, travelling the world and seeking a place where home and belonging are defined by what is in the heart, not where you were born. I found a family of brothers and sisters who I had so much in common with except our passports. Here, I can connect with my roots in Northern NSW, Australia, but also the sense of humour I inherited from my Scottish side, my love of spicy Indian food and their easy-going demeanour, my appreciation of Japanese politeness, the strength of character I learned from the Nepalis during the 2015 earthquake, and all the little bits and pieces of the places and people I have known throughout my life.
I belong here; I belong everywhere. My family is scattered throughout all the countries on this planet. I am a global citizen.

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Why I’m living in Arambol, Goa

I first heard of Arambol through a friend. We were sitting on the steps of our hostel on a humid morning, watching the city of Galle, Sri Lanka, run its daily course of existence. I had a flight to India in two weeks, and no idea of where to go or what to do when I got there. I prefer recommendations from fellow travelers rather than guidebooks, so when my friend told me about the artists hostel in Goa I must visit, I made a mental note to remember it.
Three weeks later, I found myself standing at a train station somewhere on the west coast of India, completely lost. Wearing my backpack and carrying my ukulele, I was losing hope. The train timetable I found online was different to the real life timetable, and a direct route to my destination, Hampi, didn’t seem to exist. Nor did an indirect route. I was searching Google Maps again for an answer when I realised that there was a direct sleeper train to Goa. I remembered the hostel my friend had raved about, so I decided to stop there for one night before moving on to Hampi.
A train, a taxi, and three buses later, I arrived in Arambol. Like most bus stops in India, there were no signs or markings (it seems that you have to instinctively know where they are) and I was unceremoniously thrown off the bus into an intersection busy with scooters, motorbikes, cars, trucks and cows. Although still a novice at the art of crossing the road in India, I managed to cross it and find my hostel. Sitting on the top of a hill, the white three-storey building has a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. After settling in, I admired the view from the balcony and imagined wild elephants roaming the grassland at night. I soon found out that the nocturnal wildlife mostly consists of cats and dogs. Even so, I was captivated by this place and its energy. And so began my stay in Arambol.
One night turned into three nights, then a week, and now, I’ve passed a month here. What, you must be wondering, is so special about this place when I have the whole of India to explore? Perhaps the answer lies in how Arambol came into existence. Before the 1960s, Arambol did not exist. Then, with the birth of the hippy movement, long haired foreigners began to explore the unexplored parts of India in search of a sanctuary away from the system. Back then, Arambol was little more than a beach and overgrown jungle. In other words, the perfect hippy hideaway. Soon, more people caught on to the secret, and within a few decades the small town beckoned to artists from around the world. Today, Arambol is a place for like-minded people to gather, create, share, learn and chill out. Some people have been returning every season for ten years, some longer. Arambol attracts the kind of people who create not because they want to, but because they have to. As my partner said, if you have a project you want to finish, Arambol is the place to do it.
What makes this place unforgettable is the feeling that anyone with a good heart is accepted. The community, made up of people from all walks of life, are united by their common love of creativity, playfulness, music, dance, and individuality. I spend my days here making music, painting, writing, reading books, talking, doing yoga, meditating, swimming in the ocean, learning new skills, sharing my skills, seeing live music, dancing, and meeting new people. In other words, I spent every day doing what my heart desires with beautiful people around me. And that’s why I’ve lived in Arambol for a month and counting.

Birds fly because they have wings

birds fly because
they have wings
what else could
lure them out of their nests
plumetting, flailing
toward certain death
below?

skeletal and featherless
but with one purpose
fly or die.
nature grants no allowances
or exceptions
no second chances
this is it.
go.

humans have no wings
nor gills, scales
fins, tails
death is bad luck, not
a certainty
if you fall out of
your nest, just
climb back up

what are our wings?
what allows us to soar?
think about it; pause
feel it beating in your chest
remember the first time
it got broken?
you jumped from the nest but
the wind failed you

pause; feel it beating

remember the first time
you flew?
weightless, buoyant,
dipping through clouds
you never imagined
it could feel like this
this is purpose, meaning
fulfilment
this is destiny

then a stutter,
plumetting.

perhaps humans are
luckier than birds
for if our wings fail,
we fall to the ground
dust ourselves off
and launch ourelves into
the sky again

birds fly because they have wings
humans live because they have love

The sun does not rise by mistake

rooftop, sunrise beyond the hills
I am calm like the unseen sun,
I tell myself
breathing with deliberation and
feeling nothing but the wind.

but my emotions fight back
throwing pebbles into my calm pool
of thoughtlessness
and I am a boat bobbing on the surface
unable to control the movement
of the water under me

I hear the words
he said and I said
bitter anger at a friendship lost
over something so trivial
and the sad realisation that
if fear did not devour him
I could have saved our friendship

the sun’s forehead peeks over
the edge of the earth
immovable but for its’ own path
just like me
moving the only way I can;
forward,

I watch the sky light up
and let my thoughts trickle over me
then disappear
knowing that acceptance is slow
and growth takes time.
the sun does not rise by mistake

Getting a tattoo in Sri Lanka

 

One morning, when staying on the west coast of Sri Lanka in a town called Hikkaduwa, my friend Ty and I were joking about getting tattoos. I’m not sure how the joke started, but eventually it turned into an idea. It was our second last day in Sri Lanka – we were both catching flights out of the country. We both already have a few tattoos; Ty had collected his from around the world, but I had gotten my two from a trusted tattoo place in Melbourne called Heretic. However, we both want more. We have the bug. So when our joking began to turn serious, we started to brainstorm ideas. Neither of us had an image in mind, just vague ideas, but both being very spontaneous people, we started searching the web for inspiration, and tattoo parlours. Hikkaduwa is a medium-sized beach town, with a tourist side and the locals side. It was nowhere near being a city, though, so the options for tattoo parlours were limited. Some ‘saloons’ (salons) which offered hair cuts, facials, and massages, also offered tattoos. But to us, this seemed a bit dodgy. We had some standards.
Eventually we both came up with ideas for small tattoos; a circle on the back of my leg, two inches above my ankle, and a cube for Ty, on the back of his arm above his elbow. Both simple line tattoos. On Google, there seemed to be one tattoo parlour in Hikkaduwa, and one in Galle, the nearest city. However, this didn’t include the saloons or places that advertised tattooing outside their stores with cut-and-pasted Google images of tattoos. We contacted the place in Hikkaduwa, but they wanted to charge us $75 USD for a 5 cm tattoo each. Way too much. I could get a tattoo for this price from a high-end tattoo parlour in Melbourne.

The next option was to go to somewhere that advertised tattooing and try our luck there. As it was our last day in Sri Lanka, I was pretty determined to get one (it was also a belated birthday present to myself), so we tried a place that our tuk tuk driver recommended to us. The ‘parlour’ was a room inside a hairdressing studio, and the tattoo artist took about 40 minutes to reach the salon. Finally, he entered the room: a huge, overweight Sri Lankan with long hair tied back. The tray of equiptment was already laid out on the table, with ink made in Australia, packaged needles and ordinary napkins.

As we are both used to getting tattoos in the West, we were a little disconcerted when the artist began to draw our designs freehand. By freehand, I mean tracing a coin for my circle tattoo, and using a ruler to try to construct a cube for Ty. No perfectly printed out designs here. Although Ty and I knew what we were getting ourselves into when we decided to get a tattoo in a tiny shop in Hikkaduwa, I think we were both a bit disconcerted. Finally, the artist had drawn a perfectly round circle and traced it onto purple typewriter copy paper, which he then pressed onto my skin in the right spot. I examined it in the mirror for a while, making sure it was in the right place. It was. I lay down on the bed, which had ordinary home towels laid on it, and concentrated on my breathing as the tattooing began. It was the most painful one I’ve had yet, but that’s just because of the spot it is in. It was finished within ten minutes, and the artist wiped some cream on it and wrapped it up in cling film. During the tattooing, I had an audience of four people in the room; the hairdresser, her husband, the tattoo artists friend, and Ty. I was relieved when it was over, and I was happy with the result. I was expecting a less than perfect circle, without the security of using out a computer print out of a circle, but it was fine. Round and mostly even.

Next it was Ty’s turn. The artist had had a bit of trouble drawing a perfect cube, and Ty wasn’t going to settle for a dodgy design. All of his other tattoos are perfect. After finally agreeing on a design, the tattooing began. This time, things went wrong. First of all, the artist had only brought one needle as he thought he was doing just one tattoo. He had to use another tattoo gun, with another needle (not sure what type of needle this was). After half a minute of tattooing, he stopped and changed the gun and needle. He said that the second needle was a thick one, but he was going to use it on the side to make it thin. In the reflection of the mirror, I could see the panic in Ty’s face. The unprofessionalism of this man who he had trusted to give him a tattoo had just increased tenfold. A tense ten or fifteen minutes passed, until the tattoo was finished. The artist wrapped Ty’s arm in cling film, but had no tape to hold it together. Eager to get out of the small room, we paid the artist 10,000 LRK for both (about $40 AUD each) and left the place.

Ty wasn’t entirely happy with his tattoo. It wasn’t perfectly straight, with one edge a little wonky. I admitted that to him, but it really didn’t look as bad as he thought it did. I was happy with mine; it turned out exactly how I wanted it, for less than half of what I would have paid in Australia!

Overall, my experience of getting a tattoo in Sri Lanka was positive, but like always, it is so important to get one by someone you trust. Ty and I rushed into the decision, but next time I would choose more carefully, especially if I were getting something more complex than a single line circle. Be prepared to experience a little less professionalism than you would at home, because you have to remember that it is Sri Lanka after all. Things are done differently. If the spontaneous decisions grabs you, like it did with me, I say go with it! I have no regrets at all.

Day 24 to 30 – Hikkaduwa to Colombo airport

My last six days in Sri Lanka melded into a blur of eating cheap food, swimming in the ocean, lying in the sun, afternoon naps, drinking king coconuts, reading my Kindle, having philosophical conversations, and going to my new favourite cafe. Ty and I had spent the first half of our time travelling together on the move; we were both exhausted. After two full days of journeying on buses and tuk tuks, when we reached Hikkaduwa we were ready to ‘settle down’ for a bit. We could enjoy the luxury of unpacking our bags (well, throwing its contents out of it) and getting to know the area more. After spending two nights in the northern side of Hikkaduwa, we realised that the southern side was where it was happening.

One of the main factors influencing this move was the discovery of our now favourite cafe in Sri Lanka: ‘Salty Swamis’. It’s run by a well-travelled Sri Lankan guy who has lived in Melbourne for eight years, among other places around the world. The result of this can be seen in the cafe; it would fit right in to the hipster Fitzroy scene in Melbourne. It had REAL coffee (although still no soy milk, only coconut), which blew Ty and I, both coffee lovers, out of the water. The food, too, was amazing; healthy by western standards with symphonies of salad, hummus, avocado on toast, and smoothie bowls. Although I was still enjoying Sri Lankan food and had something spicy or fried for every meal, Ty was getting a little tired of having such heavy food and longed for salad and hummus. Although Salty Swamis is on the more expensive end of Sri Lankan cuisine, it’s still incredibly cheap for what it is, and the atmosphere and style of the cafe made me feel at home. It’s nice to find a home away from home.

Nothing really eventful happened during those six days. Ty and I got spontaneous tattoos one evening, but I’ll talk about this in another post. It was a lovely way to end my trip in Sri Lanka, and to chill out mentally before the next stage of my journey. I was also going over a few emotional speed bumps; a couple of friends had proven themselves to not be as good friends as I thought they were, and I broke up with my boyfriend in Australia. It was good to have lots of time to relax, swim, think and talk it out with Ty. On the 12th, we caught a bus to Colombo, as Ty happened to be returning to America on the same day that I was flying to India. One night in a gorgeous Air BnB, an Uber to the airport, and a 50 minute flight to Kochi. Let the next chapter of my journey commence!

Day 23 – Negombo to Hikkaduwa

My mosquito bites bothered me throughout the night. My legs and feet are covered in bites, collected from each place I have been to. Itchy souvenirs. We had a long journey to do today; we didn’t want to stay in Negombo, as it’s just another city. Our plan was to catch a bus from Negombo to Colombo, then from Colombo to Hikkaduwa, to beaches and small streets and less people. We set off to the bus station and found the place more chaotic than usual. That day, the railway workers had called a strike, and none of the trains around the Colombo area were running. Instead, everyone was pouring onto busses. The line for the bus going to Colombo snaked all the way out of the station, convincing me that it would be hours before we had a chance to catch a bus. Dejected, we went to a nearby cafe and tried to think of another plan. After an hour, we decided that it would be worth one more look at the bus station before we discarded that option. Lo and behold, the line had shrunk to about fifteen people! Within five minutes, we had boarded the air-conditioned bus and were on our way to Colombo.

After a comfortable bus ride (never thought I would say that about Sri Lankan busses), we hopped off in Colombo, walked around a street market to stretch our legs, then boarded another bus to Hikkaduwa this time. No air-conditioning, sadly, and a lot more passengers. The journey took around four hours, during which we sweated, talked about colonisation throughout history, nibbled on spicy snacks and stared out of the window. It also happened to be my 24th birthday, but to me it’s just another day. I like having my birthdays overseas, where I don’t feel an obligation to do something for it. When you travel, every day is a celebration.

We found a very nice guesthouse, bargained the price down, and had dinner at a restaurant that had salads (so rare in Sri Lanka) and jaffles. Delicious. At night we watched the fireflies flit around the garden and went to sleep with the fan on full blast. I felt relieved that we had finally made it to somewhere where we could relax for a few days, and not have to travel on trains and buses the next day. This thought lulled me into a blissful deep sleep.