Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In a land of implication

Most English speakers have heard that Chinese does not have any "tense", meaning they do not "conjugate" their verbs like latin languages and English do. They do however, manage to convey a sense of past, present, future, etc through other grammatical structures. So it isn't as bad as it sounds.

But ultimately I find that Chinese seems to put the burden of understanding on the listener whereas English puts the burden of clarity on the speaker. English grammar forces the speaker to include things like "if", "when", "compared to", "at", "has" in the sentence, whereas Chinese allows (in fact encourages) the ommission of these seemingly crucial words.

The Implied IF

This was the first implied construct I came across in Chinese. A friend told me (in Chinese) "have time, come Shanghai visit you". I got excited and thought he meant "I have time so I will come visit you". But what he meant was "IF I have time, I will come to Shanghai to visit you". Clearly this was meant to be gleaned from the context. I'm starting to realize that these implied IFs are like black holes, you cannot see them directly, but their influence can be detected in other parts of the sentence. But it takes a trained speaker to pick up on such subtle clues. It is not as if Chinese does not have the word for "if", it is 如果 (ruguo). And I see it used. Someday perhaps I will fully understand when it is used directly and when it is implied. For now, I've become suspicious of all sentences, seeking the mysical signs of an implied "IF". Also, I confirm by asking directly whether the second half of the sentence is true before jumping to conclusions.

The way of the NO

There is no single word for NO in Chinese (nor for YES). It depends on the context how a negative is conveyed. But there are two major prefixes that are used to negate verbs: 不 (bu) and 没 (mei). Generally speaking 不 is used for present/future negatives (不要 means "I do not want" 不会去 means "I will not go"). All pretty clear so far. But then you start using 没 and you enter the implied zone, which coincides with a sort of past tense. It turns out that (most of the time) 没 is actually 没有 (don't have) with an implied 有。Which is odd, since that is a very common character that is used directly all the time (我有一个问题 means "I have a problem". Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't. I shall call 有 (yo) the Cheshire Cat of Chinese, and 没 is his smile; it lingers while you cannot see the rest of him.

Comparatively strange

I have learned to build comparison sentences like "A is better than B" using 比 (bi). To use it looks something like this: "A 比 B good". In English we could think of this as "A vs. B". Then I came across this sentence 晨跑当然没有夜跑好啊。Broken down this is: "Morning run, of course, not have, night run, good". This is like: "A is not as good as B", which is the opposite structure of 比. So I thought I had discovered a new structure to learn. But, yes, you guessed it, there is an IMPLIED 比. Sadly, my teacher's English was not sufficient to explain this to me completely. I was told that it is implied and it cannot be added back, so I just have to adopt the Chinese mind on this one. I think of it a bit like Neo's trouble understanding that "there is no spoon" is the key to bending the spoon.  

When I'm 64

The Beatle's famous song in Chinese could have been "age 64", no need for the "when". I'm guessing on this one, but I think the lyrics would go something like this:

我64岁,你还是会爱我吗?(Me 64, you still will love me?)

This is really a stealthy form of the implied IF: "IF I was 64, would you still love me?". Of course, Chinese has a word for when, which is 的时候 (or 什么时候 when asking a question rather than making a statement). So they can always put it in the sentence when extra clarity of emphasis is required. 

Much Ado about Context

Chinese is referred to as a "contextual language", even though ultimately, all language is contextual. We know that especially from seeing how the understanding of our own language fades over time. It gets harder and harder to read Shakespeare, for example. However Chinese does make extra use of context. In America we spend time in English class focused on the differences between "there", "their" and "they're" because they sound the same but mean different things (homonyms). Studying Chinese is like that, except where EVERY word is a homonym and key grammatical elements like IF are implied. 

The Chinese Mind (中国人的思维)

Much ink has been spilled considering Eastern vs. Western thought. But I'll add my 2 cents to the dialogue anyway.

Perhaps the Chinese language (Mandarin being the only one I can speak about) forces native speakers to share more of the same way of thinking in order to understand each other because of the limited amount of explicit context. So people avoid straying into new mental territory too quickly. If an individual strays too far from the shared context they will not be understood at all.  The language reenforces the cultural need to be like minded not because of idealogy but simply because of a pragmatic desire to be understood.

Of course, things are changing in China faster than anyone could have imagined. So perhaps the current generation is finding ways to break that barrier.

Today I had a Chinese Mind moment: where I understood the Chinese perspective on a concept. I was in a class with another Western woman who was asking, "What does this 泳 character mean?" and she was told "It doesn't mean anything, it is part of the word 泳远 that means "forever"". I remember feeling the way she did: confused that this individual character 泳 could not have meaning.  But it is all about the context in which it resides, to the Chinese it literally "has no meaning" without its context (in this case 远). But as analytical reductionist thinkers we want to break it down to the individual parts and gain understanding from the meaning of those parts. But Chinese resists this approach. You will go mad trying to think that 泳 has a meaning by itself. You can notice that 泳 seems to be associated with words that relate to a concept similar to "always", but that should only be helpful to remember the actual words, not to draw any conclusions about the "meaning" of 泳. Richard Nisbett expands on this idea of contextual thinking in his book "The Geography of Thought; How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why?". A worthwhile read on the topic.

I will leave you with this painting from an art gallery that I stealthily took from the street. Rows of synchronized TaiChi (太极拳)practicioners in front of a Chinese temple. There is one lone individual out front: is he leading them? has he broken from the pack? Ponder this with whatever type of mind you have handy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Practical Australian English guide for American Immigrants

I've been living in Melbourne, Australia for over 3 years. I made the mistake when I moved here from the US of assuming they spoke the same language but just with a different accent. I had read about 'Strine, a heavy slang based version of Australian that is not commonly spoken in the circles I travel in Melbourne. Those phrases are funny and popular in lists of Australian words. But I was unprepared for the terms that are in common usage here and new to me. Note that British immigrants will find many terms listed here familiar, but since Americans split from the empire much sooner than Australia we developed a more distinct dialect.

The first thing you notice is that Aussies have a great sense of humor. Or at least, they like to think so. They poke and joke and they call it "taking the piss", which is NOT the same as "taking a piss" or "getting pissed", though these often happen in the same venue. It can be quite off putting as a new immigrant, unsure of my place in the social structure and eager to learn the Aussie ways. In the end you just have to learn to be more incredulous of every surprising thing you hear; drop bears are just the beginning!

"Did you know that wombats' poo is square?" or "A Tasmanian devil ate my tires!" - I'll leave it to the reader to figure out which is true, I have heard both at a recent cocktail party.

And now for my handy list of practical words an American needs to know when relocating to Australia. Please send me your favorites and I'll add them on.

coriander = "cilantro", one of my favorite herbs, the seed and the leaves have the same name in Australia

rocket = "arugula", a slightly bitter lettuce common at cafés here. This one I learned in London, so I figure it must be a British label.

capsicum = "bell pepper", I suppose the Aussie version is technically more accurate since it uses the latin word, but I still prefer the "bell" shaped reference

fairy floss = "cotton candy"

icy pole = "popsicle"

skinny = not just for jeans, use this when ordering a "skim" milk drink

cap = short for "capuccino", my morning starts with a "skinny cap"

reckon = as in "I reckon it will take 5 minutes", used instead of "I think" or as a quick way to agree with someone "yeah, I reckon"

heaps = same meaning as "lots" but used lots more, I reckon it is one of the more common words I hear

old mate = used instead of "whatshisname" or "whatamacallit" when you can't remember or are too lazy to name a place or person. As in "I reckon old mate will be here soon". Hopefully you know who they are talking about from context.

chips = "french fries" as in "fish and chips", but also used to mean "potato chips", which the British call "crisps", but the Aussies just overload "chips" for both types of crispy potatoes. Very common to order a "bowl of chips" at a pub with beers.

sanga = "sandwhich"

burger = any sanga with some form of patty, usually round; can be beef, lamb, chicken, fish, vege. 

sauce = multipurpose: any liquid condiment that you can put on a sanga or burger. Typically tomato or bbq. Aussies love their sauces.

tomato sauce = "ketchup". Typically a bit less sweet here and more tomato flavored. Note that what American's call "tomato sauce" is called "marinara sauce" here. You may also hear "dead horse" or "deadorse" when someone is using 'strine to be funny, ask them to tell you why they call it that.

pumpkin = "butternut squash" or other forms of squash. You will not find big orange jack-o-lantern style pumpkins here.

corn flower = "corn starch"

polenta = "corn meal"

university/uni = "college". As in "when I was in uni..."

maths = "math". Why is there an extra 's', it is just one subject!!!!

drink driving = "drunk driving" 

Autumn = "fall". I note this one because if you say "fall" out of context, they won't know what you mean, just stick to Autumn.

toilet = "restroom". Some people use "loo" in Aussie, but the word on all the signs is "toilet" and "restroom" confuses them.

bin = "garbage can"

rubbish = "trash" or "garbage"

car park = "garage". I get laughed at sometimes for using "garage", it is the most common word that gets me mocked for my strong American pronunciation of "a". Houses have a "garage", cities have "car parks".

fringe = "bangs". Remember that "she bangs like a dunny door" is a 'strine reference to sex and avoid using "bangs" at the salon.

serviette or tissue = "napkin". They know what you mean when you ask for a napkin at a café, but I was told by a friend that they usually reserve the word napkin to refer to the feminine variety.

fanny = "vagina", so best not to talk about your "fanny pack"

rubber = "eraser", not a condom

doing it tough = "having a hard time" 

on the dole = "on welfare". Except that the whole system is different, so it is hard to make a direct comparison.

pants = "pants" (British say "underpants"- thanks for the correction!)

trousers = "pants" (another way to say it)

pushbike = "bicycle". They do ride them rather than pushing them, so I'm not sure where this came from.

dinking = riding with a friend on handlebars of a pushbike. And you thought it meant something naughty!

beetroot = "beet". To me it is obvious it is a root and so why add the extra 4 letters. Odd that the Aussies go through the effort of the full word given their tendancy to shorten everything else. These show up in the most unlikely places, including on burgers with an egg.

caster sugar = finer grain "granulated sugar". This one drove me nuts at the supermarket. I just had to buy a bag and take it home to find out.

onesie = no longer just for babies, this is a popular form of costume for adults and you will see them for sale in the oddest places.

Ripper! = "Brilliant!" or "Awesome!" Remember not to pronounce the second 'r', it is more like "rippa!" Usage is well demonstrated in the classic Aussie film "The Castle", which you must watch because otherwise your Aussie friends will keep asking you if you've watched it yet.

chockers = "full" kind of like "Chock full of nuts", but it can be used to express how crowded a place is, as in "that pub was chockers".

chuck = "toss", as in "chuck it in the boot"

boot = "trunk", clearly a Britishism

bum = "butt"

mum = "mom"

bubba = "baby"

chook = "chicken"

How ya going? = "how are you?"

cuppa = cup of tea

flat white = somewhere between a latte and a cappucino, but very inconsistent from cafe to cafe I find

CBD = "central business district". This is a global English term and basically means "downtown"

bloke = "guy"

hens night = "bachelorette party"

bucks night = "bachelor party" ... what does this say about gender stereotypes here? I leave it to the reader to decide. 

milkshake = a sweet, flavored glass of milk

thickshake = closer to an American "milkshake"

slice = a dessert that is cut from a sheet into rectangles. Common instances are "lemon slice" or "caramel slice"

bake = "casserole", as in "pasta bake" which is kind of like baked ziti.

lollies = "candy"

tick = "check", as in "I got that done, tick!" or "tick the box"

In a tick/just a tick = "in a minute/just a moment"

dosh = "cash", as in "I need to get some dosh from the ATM"

quay = a location by the water, pronounced "key"

pokies = "poker slot machines", commonly found in pubs as well as casinos since gambling is legal in Australia 

prozzie = "prostitute", legal in some states in registered brothels

mozzie = "mosquito", sadly they have them here too

fuel/petrol = "gas"

servo = "gas station"

barbie = Bar-B-Q or "grill"

prawns = "jumbo shrimp", I haven't seen what I know as "bay shrimp" here at all, they only seem to have the big kind of shrimp. Yes they put them on the barbie, but if you say "put another shrimp on the barbie" you will get glared at.

esky = "cooler"

bench = "countertop"

lounge = "couch"

brolly = "umbrella" - I just learned this one from the Facebook forum for "Yanks Down Under", good addition! The contributor asks, "why not brelly?" and I think that is an excellent question!!

footpath = "sidewalk"

trolley = "shopping cart", and the ones in Melbourne are coin operated. My theory is that it is too expensive to hire staff to collect them ($15 min wage) so they make it so you have a $2 incentive to return the cart.

shops = "mall"

ta = "thanks"


This is just the list I felt would be most useful, clearly there are many more. 

Some other quick tips for new American immigrants:

1. When attempting to pronounce place names: soften your 'r's. For example "Cairns" is pronounced like "Cannes" and "Prahran" is "Praan".

2. They use grams and kilometers. So when you hear "kilo" it could refer to kilogram or kilometer depending on the conversation.

3.  Everything can be shortened and a 'y' or 'ie' added: brekkie for breakfast, lappy for laptop, tradey for tradesman,  sparky for electrician, etc. Make up your own and try it out!

Here's some other fun reading on the topic of Aussie and British English:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fein Walkabout - Sorted

I named my blog 'A Fein Walkabout' as a flippant reference to a significant ritual that used to mark the coming of age of males in the Aboriginal culture of Australia. I like to think my time here has been proof of my ability to withstand pain and survive in new lands - if not exactly in the way of the ancient people - but I know very little about exactly what a true Walkabout entails.

So I signed up for a spot on the Blue Mountains Walkabout to see what more I could learn. The email directed us to meet on the train platform at Faulconbrigde at 10:50am, a very precise time that aligned with the train schedule, but not our guide's arrival time.

The four of us: myself (the American), a male Austrian backbacker on a multi-month Asia Pacific tour, and a mother/daughter pair from Paris visiting Sydney for 10 days, had gathered at the station and waited patiently for the tour to begin. Within 10 minutes, Evan came walking up the road, wide brimmed hat and backpack - looking like a proper outdoorsy Australian. As we walked together he explained that the Aboriginal gene for dark skin is recessive, which is why he looks the same as the British settlers rather than the original peoples of Australia. The last of his full-blood people died in the 1800's.

Evan did his best to keep the day focused on positive things, but there is always a tinge of sadness to contemplate the end of an ancient civilization. The Aboriginal people lived on Australia for over 60,000 according to Evan. I'd heard statements from other sources that "Aboriginals were the oldest continuous culture, surviving for over 40,000 years", but I'm sure it is hard to date things of that age especially given Aboriginals did not have a written language. It is also a bit fuzzy to speak of Aboriginals as a single entity since there were so many tribes and languages (250 language groups and 500 dialects). Evan represents the bloodline of the "Darug" (yam eaters) people, a collection of clans spread from Botany Bay in Sydney to the Blue Mountains (1.5 hour train ride away). There are few remaining speakers of the original language and he is not one of them, but Evan shared some terms with us. Note that there is no standadized spelling for these terms (since writing is only something that has been adopted with recent generations) and this is poorly documented in general. As someone who is used to having all information at my fingertips, it was interesting to spend a day learning through stories in the way that all humans used to acquire information. It requires patience, attention, focus and practice to absorb information in this way.

New ways must be practiced for a moon before they have an impact on your life. This was the first wisdom of the tour, dispensed at the turn off from the sealed road onto a dirt "road".

The road less travelled
This tour was not just a history lesson about how people used to live, it was a chance to learn about things Aboriginals used to do that could apply to modern life to counter modern maladies that they did not suffer. Evan calmly challenged us to absorb these lessons or "challenges" today and practice them for 28 days. He was soft spoken, and at first I felt the pace was a bit slow, but as he wove his spell througout the day I came to appreciate the way he slowed our minds by pacing his words so we could be present with his words and focused on the challenges.

We had walked away from the train station, where there are modern bathroom facilities, before he asked us about needing a toilet break. He pointed the women in one direction and the men in the other, putting a hand up to me as I attempted to move down the trail, which was in the "male" direction. I can only assume it was intentional that he made the first bathroom break in the bush. Welcome to the Walkabout; there are no toilets here.

Can you spot the green beetle?
I had my camera with me so I was happily snapping shots early in the tour, until it became clear that this tour was about being present, not documenting for those who are not there. I snapped this green beetle early on and then later we ate the fruit of this type of tree as "bush tucker".

Almost immediately after we stepped off the dirt "road" onto an unmarked path into the bush, we stopped for another lesson. Evan was here to help us connect with the "Dreaming", which is a way of being connected to the spirit of everything in the past, present and future. This is what Catholics achieve in their awe inspiring cathedrals, Southern Baptists achieve with Gospel song and dance, Yogis with Asanas and chants (Evan didn't tell us that, but I extrapolated). And that day in the Blue Mountains we achieved it by feeling our body's energy through the experience of the natural world around us. Evan encouraged us to touch everything (rocks, trees, plants and water), walk softly and dance! 

The sap is good for wounds, and also for fueling fires
The tree in the photo above is a Sydney Red Gum, similar to Eucalyptus. The sap oozes out as a red, gummy substance and can be used as an antiseptic. This sap is what makes these trees burn so well, which is why bush fires are a big problem for communities near the forests. Despite being aware of the dangers and the need for these forests to burn for their reproduction and health, modern Australians still struggle to find a balance. It is known that Aboriginals did controlled burns to make sure the plants that needed fire to seed would flourish. I don't know whether they also suffered from out of control blazes, but it seems possible. Perhaps that is why they didn't create permanent settlements like other long lived ancient cultures. "Lightning brother" is one of the forms of the Rainbow serpent, the source of creativity in the Dreaming. Clearly they respected the power of lightning to bring change to their world. 

Note: filter used to bring out red color in the scene and contrast with the forest, the red is the actual color, but all other color has been removed.
Evan pointed to another tree, where the bark peels off like paper and called it the "bandaid" tree, because the bark was antiseptic and antifungal. Now that we have antibiotic resistent super bugs perhaps we'll need this knowledge again soon.

We came to a sacred place and Evan suggested we remove our shoes to feel more grounded on the rock. A few of us did so and it was nice to feel the ground as he told his stories about this sacred place where people carved their symbols into the rock a long time ago and then held their initiation ceremonies. Evan did not know the exact age of the carvings present, but they are likely to be thousands of years old. It was awe inspiring to come across this site so close to the train station, yet unmarked and unnoticed by so many.

Female Rainbow Serpent, the eyes are at the top and the body is wide and then tapers to a tail. This hole was natural, giving the site its sacred status. There is a male version of the rainbow serpent that is more snakelike in form.
The female refers to the earth and the male to the spirit (or sky).
Swamp Wallaby (looks like a mini Kangaroo) carved into the rock along the Song line where rituals were performed over thousands of years. There was also a joey (baby wallaby) and other symbols nearby.

We walked further into the bush, stopping for stories, to sample bush tucker (food) and to feel the ground, trees and plants. After about an hour, I was starting to feel the pace and settle into the rhythm of Evan's stories and lessons. The Aboriginal society was very segmented by gender: men's business and women's business. Evan often used the word "sorted" to describe Aboriginal life. It seemed to be highly disciplined and ritualized. Life progressed through phases and you were led through the right phases for your gender using initiations and rituals. Women had 5 major initiations and men had around 10. The women's initiations centered around their natural cycles: menstration, child birth and menopause. Men had more initiations because they were tasked with the spiritual aspects of clan life  (which required more practice) and because women were busy with the children. 

That kind of comment would have once inflamed my feminist side, but these days I recognize the reality of how hard raising children is, and that it is an important role that should be more respected in our modern age than it is. I do not know for sure how "respected" Aboriginal women were by our standards, but I'm guessing they were respected for their proscribed roles, and veering from those roles was not as respected. Evan emphasized that their world was "sorted", meaning both "figured out" as well as "organized into logical groups". There was work that women did and work that men did. One of his take home points of wisdom was to arrange your own life in a way that had clear lines of responsibility - a truism they also teach in management courses, yet so often ignored. Many of us have thrown off the traditional separation of duties, but not everyone has a comfortable replacement that balances responsibilities in a way that both people respect. While I can see the appeal of sorting on gender lines, I like to think as modern people we have the capacity to make finer distinctions and still have clear lines of responsibility.

One of the rites of passage for men he described included knocking out one of the man's front tooth. I commented that this seemed a bit impractical, and Evan retorted that you couldn't fake it. Today we often struggle with building "trust" and "identity" in the online world, because it is easier to fake pretty much everything. In the clan, there was no faking it - either you made it through the initiations and became a man or you didn't - and everyone could tell at a glance; effective if a bit brutal by our standards.

Cave ceiling with intricate natural patterns.
Rainbow in the rock makes this a sacred place
For lunch, we sat in the shade of a large open cave. I could have stared up at the rock formations for hours, but sadly the wind whipped the sand up and we had to move on. The pictures only capture a glimpse of the feeling of being in that space, I would recommend the tour just to visit this cave.

While we ate the lunches we brought with us (not bush tucker), Evan drew some symbols for us and gave us material to paint. At first I was put off by the black charcoal I was given when Evan explained it symbolized death, but then he added that it also symbolizes change. Since I'm happily in the midst of a lot of change I decided to draw a meeting circle in black and then used the reddish brown coloring to paint a female rainbow serpent on my arm to represent the earth mother that Evan spoke of often as we walked through her realm.

Samples of symbols used in aboriginal painting: emu, kangaroo, male rainbow serpent on the left, female on the right
Meeting place on the hand, female rainbow serpent on my arm

We walked along the song line (literally a path that would have been walked while singing) which was also a ravine. The path was not straightforward, but I loved that it felt like we had gone off a typical trail and felt very much a part of the bush. I was so engrossed that I didn't take any pictures; Evan would approve.

We ended our tour with more stories which I will not spoil for those who will take this tour some day. As a closing ritual Evan used the Bullroare, a device that makes an interesting noise and was used to communicate across distances by men only. Out of respect, I closed my eyes so as not to observe the man's business, but I listened and enjoyed the meditative whirring sound as an appropriate end to the lessons of the day.

We were returned on schedule to the train station and I made my train back to Wentworth Falls. I took the long way back to my B&B via the Charles Darwin Walk, a lovely track cut through the town along a little stream. It was quite well maintained and there were houses just up the hill; a stark contrast to the bush trail I had just been on. Yet I still saw a big lizard lounging in the late day sun and encountered more spring flowers - including the Waratah, a flowering shrub unique to Australia, this variety is the state emblem of New South Whales (where the Blue Mountains are).

Waratah flower in full bloom
As I walked, I did my best to feel grounded and touch the trees and plants as Evan had taught us. It was an exquisite day and I am grateful for the time to appreciate and be present in the company of someone who had many stories to share from the Dreaming.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sydney Showing Off

Melbourne and Sydney have the type of rivalry you'd expect from the two largest cities in Australia. Thankfully, Sydney did not win the Grand Finals of Footy (Australian Rules Football) this year. But they can always fall back on the honor of having the largest natural harbour in the world and certainly one of the most beautiful. Plus, this weekend, I was impressed by the art on display, all for free.

The harbour was on proper display as the day was a perfect spring day. Chase and Sasha were my hosts and we started with brekkie at the Cafe inside the Kirribilli ferry station. Then we hopped the ferry across to Circular Quay (pronouned Key).

Above: Poached egg on smashed peas, with chorizo, salad and toasted sourdough.
Below: Sailing the harbour in front of the Prime Minister's Sydney home.

We were pleasantly surprised to encounter the #chalkurbanart festival going on and spent a bit of time admiring and posing with the art, including the big one in front of the customs house. 

Above: Chase got a little stronger
Below: 6 chalk artists collaborated to create one gigantic piece of 3D art that you could pose in the middle of and have a photo taken from the 3rd floor of the customs house.

We caught the bus to Bondi Beach and got the requisite ice cream and hot dog to fuel our walk. 

I've been living in Australia for 3.5 years and I finally made it to the famous Bondi!

There is a nice path that runs south from Bondi Beach along the coast and this weekend we were lucky/unlucky enough to be there when the "Sculpture by the Sea" was on. The sculptures came in all sorts of shapes, sizes and themes. Some of my favorites below. We didn't splurge for the guide, so we can only guess at the true meaning.

One of our favorites was what we dubbed "Rocks n' Socks", since it looked like piles of rocks all lovingly wrapped in thin white socks and arranged so they almost blended in with the natural rocks. What does it mean!?

This black obsidian sculpture had striking lines and a shiny finish. I liked the rough edges as well.

Above: The crowds stretched along the entire path, as far as the eye can see.
Below: They do not realize they are being watched by one of the clones from "Attack of the Clones"

Chase contemplates the meaning of a collection of plastic bottle caps woven together with zip ties and filled with plastic jugs. "Overconsumption" was a number of pieces spread over the rocks like dead giant squids. *Note: color has been modified for effect

Black swans made from re-used wooden furniture. 

Chase does not approve of the dog cone.

Overconsumption seen from above.

At the sculpture that looked like a giant funeral pyre, we decided the wind and crowds had worn us out and decided to take a break. While laying on the grass we watched a bird literally hover, wings outstretched and not moving forward, back, sideways, just perfectly balanced in the air. It was an impressive combination of wind and bird behavior. I hope it was as fun as it looked. (sorry, no picture)

Lunch called to us from a pop-up cafe in a sea themed cottage in the midst of the sculptures. Tasty fried shrimp, burger and fries, plus a pastry for dessert, yummy!

Out front was a unique sculpture that looked like two tree houses connected by a wooden bridge, but one was a classic western house shape singing Hallelujah and the other was playing a call to prayer and looked like a mineret. The songs alternated and made you look back and forth between the two mini structures along the bridge. I liked the commentary, especially given my personal bridging of these two worlds.

Back at Bondi Beach, we sat and watched the surfers a bit and then we got an unexpected show. If you want to know the story, message me. No, there was not a shark attack.

Sydney always impresses when I visit, but I'm still glad I live in Melbourne. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Measure of Success - Outside my Comfort Zone

I moved to Australia in April of 2011. Three and a half years later and the reason that brought me here, a regional Product role at Experian Marketing Services, no longer exists. So was the move a success?

There are things I had intended to accomplish when I made the original plans and then there is what happened. The incredible truth is, as is often the case, the reality turned out to be much better overall; with just with enough failures to make it worth the time. 

WHAT I DID: I launched an email product in China 
WHAT HAPPENED: It did not succeed due to a range of factors, one of which being that product alone is not enough

WHAT I DID: I sponsored the development of a mini-product out of Australia
WHAT HAPPENED: It has been a significant success in terms of ROI, but was never big enough to transform the business

WHAT I DID: I built a regional Product team
WHAT HAPPENED: A global re-org changed the focus and I decided not to join the global Product team. I'm proud of all my staff for weathering the transition well.

WHAT I DID: I drove the launch of a global product into APAC (Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan) 
WHAT HAPPENED: I learned that I can stand in front of a crowd and make my message heard. I also learned that product, while not enough on its own, it is quite important. And Sales is hard!

WHAT I DID: I helped Experian Marketing Services become Data Pass Certified in Australia
WHAT HAPPENED: I learned that Privacy is a tricky legal concept in general and Australia in particular

WHAT I DID: I came out here single, planning never to marry again
WHAT HAPPENED: I met a partner (Aussie term that does not imply same-sex) that I plan to spend the rest of my life with; we are planning a wedding in 2016

WHAT I DID: I travelled over much of Asia including India
WHAT HAPPENED: I managed not to get sick or injured while still veering off the beaten track sometimes - be careful where you wander in Kuala Lumpur!

WHAT I DID: I bought a flat (studio) and became a landlord
WHAT HAPPENED: Property in Melbourne is expensive, so I probably overpaid in the short run, hopefully not in the long run

Most importantly, I learned that when you are faced with options that scare you it just means you are facing a chance to learn. So, yes it was a success, because I faced the fear of moving continents for a job I'd never done and managed to build a life that I could not have dreamed of.

So with that in mind I have embarked on something that scares me - spending a year outside my professional comfort zone.

Priorities for the year:
1. Become fluent in Mandarin
2. Write more blogs - watch this space!
3. Become an Australian citizen
4. Plan an Epic Destination Wedding to Jordan
5. See more of Australia
6. See more of Asia

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fuji Dreams - 9 people, 2 days, 1 goal

After months of planning, we finally got to the day where nine of us would hike up the most climbed mountain in the world. And it almost didn't happen. 

What started as a crazy idea between two people branched out to include a friend from New York, her Japanese friend, her brother, his girlfriend, my fiance, my brother, and another friend from Melbourne who wanted to properly conquer Mt. Fuji after an aborted attempt 15 years ago. In total, we were 9 people, only 1 of which had ever hiked Mt. Fuji before. Making us cumulatively quite "wise" according to the proverb.

The official climbing season starts July 1st, and this year 2 of the 4 routes were open on time. But the route we chose, Gotemba, was not scheduled to be opened until July 10th due to heavy snow during the 2014 winter. With 4 days between the opening and our climb date, we were cutting it close. Then Typhoon Neoguri dominated the news and made us fear extra snow on the mountain. But it turned out that it helped our cause and sped up the melting process. It was not until the day before that we got confirmation we could get to the summit via the Gotemba trail. 

July 13th - Bus from Shinjuku, Tokyo to Gotemba, a town at the base of Mt. Fuji

We hopped on the bus at Shinjuku, Tokyo on July 13th. Sara was blown away with excitement!

The weather forecast predicted severe wind on July 13th (85 kph) and then rain with 45 kph on July 14/15 when we planned to hike; not promising.  It was misty and cool when we arrived in Gotemba. We couldn't see the mountain at all, but the hospitality of the locals kept us from feeling too uneasy.

We stayed at Hotozawean - a traditional Ryoken (hotel) with a mini Onsen (hot spa). The tatami mat rooms were cozy but suited our purposes and we took over the main lounge room to plan our hike the next day. We had more food than we needed and seemingly enough rain gear. It seemed like the plan was coming together. 

July 14th - Bus from Gotemba town to the New 5th station Gotemba Trail head Mt. Fuji

The next morning we checked out at 9AM and headed to the bus station. The hotel offered a van service to take us there (included in room fee), thankfully, because we had a lot of luggage between the 9 of us. The hotel we were staying at the second night offered to collect our baggage from the bus station, a convenience one could only expect in this land of consideration. If I had planned properly from the beginning, it would have been the same hotel, but I added the extra day late, so everything was already booked and we ended up with two different hotels. Having Japanese friends made this much smoother: thanks Christina and Eriko! 
Public bus to the New 5th Station. Gotemba Trail.

The bus ride was 40 minutes, as advertised and cost 1500 yen. We passed the Japanese and American bases on the mountain as we rode up. That resolved the mystery of the booms we had been hearing: artillary exercises.

Halfway up the mountain, we bid farewell to our bus and surveyed the conditions. The sun had burned off the mist at our elevation, but we could see nothing below as it was covered in clouds, making us feel like we were floating above everything. There were a few scattered shops selling souveniers and even high-end trekking gear for those who forgot the essentials, like shoes. There were toilets set in the mountain like bunkers to make sure they survive landslides and snow.

Peak of Mt. Fuji shrouded in clouds above the bunker toilets at the New 5th Station. Gotemba Trail.

Convenience shop at 1400m (halfway up). Adam and Christina with requisite vending machines.

Group eager to get started, walking sticks ready, acclimated to altitude - so far.

Lesson #1: Pack it in, Pack it out: including anything you buy ON the mountain, like water bottles, food packaging. Etc. So leave room in your pack if you plan to buy stuff. There are NO trash cans on the mountain, even at the stations. The toilets have VERY small ones.

There were walking sticks (made of untreated pine) available for purchase for 680 or 860 yen depending on the length. A unique souvenier that also served a good purpose. .

There were also UV sleeves to cover your lower arms, which I was tempted to buy, but avoided as I already had a lot of gear to keep track of and I didn't want more trash. My hands suffered a bit from that decision as they were exposed holding the walking sticks

At the bus stop there were friendly old Japanese at a folding table asking for 1000 yen "donation" for hiking the mountain. In exchange we got a stamp in our passport and a booklet detailing our climb and offering useful suggestions to make it a good one. I wish I had been able to get that PRIOR to arriving at this point, but it makes a good reference and I will share it here for those coming after me.

View of all Fuji trails, note the green Gotemba trail is the longest.
Everything went according to schedule up to this point and we began our ascent
at 11:54AM. Starting from 1450m after acclimating to the altitude for 30 minutes.

The trail was steep and sandy, making it hard to get traction or keep a good pace. Within 30 minutes we reached a "tea house", where we stopped to get brands on walking sticks and a quick rest. Trekking with a large group gets tricky, because each brand takes 5 minutes to apply, so with 4 sticks getting stamped, we spent over 20 minutes there. When the guide book quotes 205 minutes from the New 5th station to the 7th station, they aren't calculating that much time for breaks. So we were already a bit behind schedule, but the day was sunny and mild and we were in high spirits.

Lesson #2: The labels of the stations/huts are not consistent or clear. The oft referred to "7th station" on some maps is not actually open. It marks one of the branches to take down Sunabashiri, but there is an open station not far from it that we THINK is the 7.4th station. There are abandoned stations: 6th (near where we encountered the "closed" sign) and the New 6th station further below. There is NO shelter at the abandoned stations, although the ruins do provide a bit of privacy for a potty break while trekking with a group. In the end, there were only 3 operating stations on the Gotemba route: 7.4, 7.5 and 7.9. The last one is also often referred to as the "8th" station, but the true 8th station is a bit above 7.9 and is abandoned. There is no 9th station in operation, but there are facilities near the summit between the Gotemba and Fujinomiya trails. In the end, it is phenomenal to me that there are facilities at all, and we could not have made it without them, no matter what they are called.

Gotemba (green) has only 3 operating huts at the higher elevations, 7.4, 7.5 and 7.9. Compare to the Fujinomiya (blue) trail which has many more.

The trail from then on was steady and steep, big switchbacks that made us feel we were making fast progress. We stopped for plenty of group photos and moments to take it all in. We could see Mt. Hoei, the result of the last eruption in 1707, off to our left, and we watched many groups ascend and descend (with whoops) the mini-Mt. Fuji while we slowly trudged up the big one.

We came to a cross roads labelled Jirobo. There was just a small sign marking the intersection with the Sandrun (Sunabashiri) and we stopped to watch some hikers running down easily what we were puffing to get up. The soft sandy trail made ascent like a sisiphean task, but descent was like skiing down on powder.

Shortly thereafter we reached the marker for 2,000 meters. We stopped again for photos and celebration of our achievement. 
We made it to 2000 meters, piece of cake!
Trudging up the sandy Gotemba trail.
When we reached the ruins of the 6th station, it was getting darker. We were losing light and we had been hiking for 6 hours. The switchbacks snaked as far as the eye could see below and above. We should have been to the 7.4th station by then, and we had our booking to sleep at the "8th" station, another hour above that. We had stopped for too long at too many points - we were getting tired and it was hard to move a group of our size quickly.

Almost to 3000!

One of too many stops from New 5th to 7.5th stations.
We were surprised to discover that insects were still pests at these elevations. There were only the occasional sturdy plant at this point, but still we'd have to swat away various flies and bugs of an unknown variety. Some were quite colorful - like a bright green beetle I found. Perhaps it had been blown off course from its usual leafy surroundings.

Bright green bug in a barren rocky land

The mists were blowing around us, making an eerie scene, and the coolness soothed our sun and wind burned skin. The landscape was barren and stark - but stunning nonetheless. Some of us were sweating too much, some had not applied enough sun screen or lacked a sun hat - but we soldiered on. We had enough water and food and we thoughtlessly assumed the stations couldn't be that far off. We could see them in the distance after all.

An hour later, we reached a branch, and the signs pointed down and to the left. There was a big red X across the trail leading up. Closed. The sun had gone down, we were walking in twilight; all the signs were telling us "go back down". 

So we pulled out an old fashioned Japan Rentafone flip phone and were pleased to find it picked up a signal. The numbers for the huts we had was wrong, so we called the hotel that made the booking for us and got through to the huts eventually. Thankfully, our Japanese friend was able to navigate the conversation necessary to figure out whether the route was actually closed and whether we could sleep at the 7th station instead of the 8th since we clearly could not reach our original destination in time. 

Sun setting behind the Mt. Fuji peak, somewhere up there is shelter.

Lesson #3: Bring a phone that can pick up a signal and phone numbers for the huts on the mountain AND most importantly, someone who can speak fluent Japanese.

Message from the men on the mountain: "put on all your clothing, it is getting dark and it will get very cold. Go back down the mountain." Turns out, the day before was incredibly nasty on the mountain, with 85 kph winds and rain, not good to be out in. We on the other hand, were blessed with a clear night with little wind. We had our snow gear and none of us were cold. 
Our response: "if we make it to the 7th station, can we sleep there?" When we got the "Hai" (yes) we were looking for, we pulled out our headlamps, kept calm, and carried on.

The switchbacks were tight at this point, we could see the lights of a station above, calling us like moths to a flame. We passed the 3,000 meter marker sign and trudged on, no stopping, no celebration. 

As we ascended, so did the moon. The most stunning moon rise I've ever seen. Big and red on the horizon, nothing blocking our view. Probably the most memorable vista of the climb for me.

As I called to Adam to look at the view, he swiveled his head quickly and the naseau that had plagued him was unleashed as he vomitted onto the trail. Eriko had brought cans of oxygen, but it did not seem to make a big difference. He was clearly suffering from altitude sickness; the way down was long and treacherous, the only safety was up, yet the worst thing to do when you are suffering from altitude sickness is to go up. His retching continued, but he carried on, refusing to consider alternatives. Realistically, there were none.

Lesson #4: When you set an irrational goal (i.e. "Let's climb the hardest route of a mountain over 3000 meters high"), people get oddly irrational about achieving it. So they tend to be difficult to dissuade, even when the conditions are not ideal (i.e. they are suffering from altitude sickness, in pain/exhausted from the climb, etc).

It was an hour of trekking in the dark from the fork before we reached the 7.4th hut at 3,100 meters. The first operational hut since the tea house at 1,500 meters. The lights were on and there were staff there. We discussed whether to stay there, or carry on another 10 minutes to the 7.5th station where there was more space and food. Some of the group were so tired, it was a bit of a debate, but ultimately we decided to go the extra 10 m up.

The decision was a good one, there was far more space and the people at the 7.5th station were very accomodating. We shared the space with military men there for training; we were the only foriegners. We were there late, we arrived around 8:30 at night, lights out at 9PM, but they set out the tables and made us dinner - Ramen!! It was hot and salty and just perfect after a long day out in the elements. Then they cleared the space and laid out futons and blankets. Who cares how often they are washed! Using our clothes as pillows, we curled up and attempted to sleep.

Some of us slept under the bunks, some out in the main area with the moon light shining in.

I was running on adrenaline by then and quite warm from the exertion. I didn't even wear a coat to go out to the toilets, just my polartec. The wind was picking up and the moon was bright as I found my way around. I had been warned to bring coins for the pay toilets, but that is advice for the other trails. Here, the toilets come with the cost of staying at the hut (7,000 yen for dinner and the rest) but there are donation boxes for those who just pass asking for 300 yen. 

To answer the question I'm sure is on everyone's mind: Yes, the toilet seats are heated on Mt. Fuji. They are sustainable pit toilets, so no water, but there is power, and rain water is available to wash your hands outside. After some analysis we realized the heated seat was less a luxury and more of an economical way to provide comfort: far cheaper to heat a seat than the air in the toilets. 

We considered our options. The sun was supposed to rise at 4:37AM. We were at least 3 hours from the summit, more like 7 at the pace we had been going. Our plan had been to watch from the peak, but the locals at the station told us that our current location was actually the best spot to view the sunrise. There were many benches lined up out front, to underscore his point that this was the place to enjoy the view.  We tried to figure out how we could make it to the summit by sunrise anyway (see earlier point about irrationality), but the howling winds at 1AM put to rest any thought of venturing further at night. 

Adam slept near the door in case he needed to throw up again, but thankfully he was able to rest through the night with no incident. The guidance was for him to remain at the station while we ascended to the summit and then join us for the descent. 

The dawn came clear and calm, at 4AM the light through the windows woke us. We stumbled out to the benches and stood in awe as the first piercing rays of light broke through the clouds. 

The moment we had anticipated for months, the sunrise from above the clouds.

Devin and Joanne began their climb early and watched from the 7.9th station. The rest of us watched at 7.5, then had breakfast before packing up for the final ascent.

Adam returned to bed and 6 of us took to the trail under the glaring heat of the new sun. We baked as we climbed, but the distance to the 7.9th station took us only 20 minutes. The power of well rested legs. From there the trail got stepp and tricky, the rocks were big and unstable. At one point the trail was only about half a meter wide, with the slope to one side and snow to the other. Clearly this was the section that had kept Gotemba closed until the 10th. 

We had stayed together between the 5th and 7th stations, but from the 8th onward we spread out at our own paces. The switchbacks stacked on top of each other and we could see each other above and below. The air was thin and my head ached. I didn't find myself gasping, it was more like my energy was drained and every step took effort. I settled into a steady pace and just put one foot in front of the other, resting for a breath at each turn with a pause to survey the scene - bright and clear, but down below a blanket of cottony clouds lay on the land. 

We met a number of climbers coming down as we went up, including a monk of some type in orangish robes. But we were the only ones going up.

Devin and Joanne kept up a good pace and made it first. Eriko and Sara were the first in the second group. Followed by Issac and I, then Jeff shortly after. Christina struggled; she hadn't slept much for the last two nights and the exhaustion combined with the altitude caught up to her, but within 20 minutes of our summit she arrived.

We were exhilerated, but a bit dissapointed by the view. Thankfully, we had not pushed to the summit the night before, it really was far better to be at the 7.5th station for a good view of the sunset. The crator was a massive hole, which we had planned to walk around, but the conditions (icy) and being behind schedule meant left that for another time. 

We took our photos and then realized we were not yet at the peak. Another 70 meters up to the weather station was required to properly achieve the 3,776 m mark. The hill was not friendly to hikers, it was a working road meant for catapillar-type tracks, but we were determined and made it up anyway.

Weather station at Kengamine Peak behind me, just a little bit further.
The crator view from that angle was even more stunning and we could see the 9th station at the top of the Yoshida (most popular) trail on the other side. 

Issac, Jen and Sara made it to the ultimate Kengamine Peak: 3,776m
Our original plan was to walk around the crater, but it was still dangerous with snow and we were way behind schedule. Something for next time.
There were young men taking off their shirts and posing for their gopro. There were workers focused on the tasks that had to be competed during the brief summer months. We were grateful to have avoided the hoardes we read about - although it is too bad we couldn't buy a can of Mt. Fuji air. 

My final activity at the summit was a jump shot in front of the gate marking Gotemba, including the "closed" signed keeping the normal Mt. Fuji hikers away. I did about 3 jumps to get the right shot and that's when it hit me. Jumping takes a lot of energy when you are at sea level, but it clearly required more oxygen than I had available and I suddenly needed to get down. Issac and I began the descent to the 7th station and I couldn't move fast enough. My head throbbed - I wasn't nauseas, but it was the worst headache I've ever had. 

As we picked our way down the trail, the military men who shared our hut the night before were running UP the trail in running shorts and tank tops. What took us 3 hours to ascend took them less than 30 minutes. Good training for a marathon I suppose. The sun made us hot, the winter gear we had was good to protect against the wind which had picked up, but it was a challenge to keep comfortable. 

I remember the taste of the air as I got lower, it was like drinking from a clear stream. Cool and fresh and full of oxygen. It was heavenly.

After a quick stop at the 7.9th station for a toilet break I carried on ahead of the pack, still driven by a pounding headache. I arrived at the 7.5th station and stripped off my snowboarding pants and jacket and collapsed beside Christina on one of the futons. She had descended earlier, desperate for more sleep. I rested my eyes for a bit, but knew we didn't have time, so I opted for some food (chicken and egg over rice) and some ibuprofin for the headache (didn't work). 

Some people refilled water, Issac from the rainwater (they do not recommend drinking) and others from the bottles for sale. I had no more room for bottles, so I drank what I could over lunch and planned to get to the bottom before drinking more. 

Lesson #5: Bring more water and less food. I had 2 L of pure water and 1 L of electrolyte infused water. I drank it all on the first portion of the ascent because we took so long. I purchased 5 more bottles (650 mL) along the way and drank it all. I did not eat all the food I brought, mostly because of the food provided at the huts. They have fresh eggs and rice and miso soup and curry. More options than you'd expect - simple but so good under the conditions. 

Lesson #6: CASH ONLY!!!!

Seven of us gathered just below the abanoned 7th station at the fork to the Sunabashiri. Devin and Joanne had gone on ahead, and we assumed they were waiting for us at the New 5th station. 

We began the best part of the trail at noon. The Sandrun (Sunabashiri) is the straight path down that avoids all the switchbacks that lead up and takes just 1.5 hours to get down what took us 8 to get up. 

Sandrun (Osunabashiri) in the mist. Almost to the finish line - getting dirtier with every step.

The mist came in again, thicker than the day before, so we had to be careful to stay within sight of each other (or at least sound). Christina was feeling naseaus, so she couldn't run. Others were taking advantage of the soft ground and racing down. Only two of us did face plants. We had amusing exchanges through the mist with people we couldn't see on the trail going up and we watched dropped items roll on ahead of us faster than we could catch them. 

My shoes filled with rocks, but it was worth it to be able to take long soft strides down, racing to the finish line and a proper night's rest at Gotemba Mars GardenWood.

The day after we descended, the news outlets were spreading a story about "Mt Fuji due for eruption" - so far not a rumble from the wise Fuji-san that we saw, but we are glad we tackled it when we did. We seem to have appeased all the local gods with our paid respects at various shrines; many thanks to Fuji-san for a successful journey and for the chance to acquire the kind of wisdom that comes from being so foolish.

Still alive and smiling the next day - ready for the next stage of the journey.