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The first low guttural murmurs send a peel of apprehension down the alarm bells of my mind.  Just seconds from now, my entire ear canal may very well have fallen prey to the by now well-known blustering of a grown man’s snore.  I must act quickly.

The sound appears to be manifesting from the top of the bunk next to me; the bed directly above the bed my friend is sleeping on.  For now.  I risk poking a foot out of the warmth and protection of the duvet to feel into the darkness and find the smooth wood of the adjoining bunk bed.  The murmurs have just begun their inevitable blossom into a more prolonged throaty grumble.  My friend sighs and turns over.  She’s awake.  My foot secures its position pressed against the bunk bed frame.  And I push.  Silence.  The snoring stops. 

And then resumes, almost immediately.  This offender won’t be easily quashed.

Two hours later and my friend has sighed and huffed her way into a dozen different position before hauling her duvet from the bed and loudly departing the room to sleep in the preferable (testament to the offense level of the snoring) circumstances of a cold dining room, with six unwelcoming dinner chairs positioned into some sort of bed formation.  I have occupied my mind deliberating each and every one of my current problems or worries, throwing them this way and that in an attempt to at least make use of this missed sleeping time and/or to bore myself to sleep.  I have practised deep breathing and a selection of relaxation techniques in an attempt to rise above the now overwhelming bubbling and chattering of this loathsome man’s oblivious throat.  I have kicked the bed for momentary peace more times that is technically sociable and now, dejected and sleep-deprived, I lie in wait of morning.

It’s only when what I believed to be his most offensive noise racketed up a notch to ensure the absolute awakening of all poor souls in the room accompanied by a scratching, quivering, gurgling offensive on the exhale as well as the inhale that my only remaining response is laughter.  How absurd.  How absurd that this man, clearly informed of this unfortunate tendency by every past (and swiftly departing) lover, thinks it is in anyway acceptable to book in to a six bed dormitory. 

Alas, if only this was the exception to rather than the bane of the backpacking experience.


As I sat with coffee and cookie in hand beneath the broad blue sky in the garden of The Velvet Cafe, Cygnet, Tasmania last Monday, I looked around at that bohemian-flavoured town and wished I had more time to spend there.  Be careful what you wish for.

I travelled from Cygnet on the remarkably well priced local bus winding through an hour and a half of forested mountains and chameleon sky.  I found my hostel for the night with ease, already knowing my way confidently around the compact city of Hobart.  I packed a small rucksack with books, notepad and water and set off for an exceptionally relaxed day in the city before waving a fond farewell to Tassie and jumping on a plane to Sydney the following morning.

Two coffees, a small chocolate brownie, a superbly relaxed and purposeless browse through some shops and a couple of parks later, I laid out my coat under the dappled shade of a tree in the park nearest the water and settled down for an afternoon read before maybe treating myself to a pie and beer situation in the Irish bar across the road.  I read in comfort and dosed a little, content and relaxed, enjoying the gentle, lush surroundings.  I read a little more.  Inevitably, my mind wandered from time to time.  On one occasion, it strayed to how best to pack my bags for the flight tomorrow (what exciting thoughts I have).  Now, I usually start the smaller rucksack with my notepad at the bottom, followed by my laptop, my raincoat, any food, my…hold on.  My raincoat.  Where…oh no…no…tell me no…I haven’t?! Oh, I have.

I’m always faintly amused how well my calm and reasoned approach to things stands up even against what could be a moment of panic.  It’s a calmness I sometimes feel is detrimental…it takes a lot to draw external displays of excitement/shock/anger from me (except dogs…dogs always do it).  A student I used to teach in deepest darkest behaviourally nightmarish Croydon still laughs over facebook with me about the time a fight broke out between two of his friends and I sat with raised eyebrow and asked him to ‘sort those two out will you’.  And here, sitting in this park, 5pm nearing on the clock, realising I had just over 12 hours to instigate a raincoat-retrieval mission, the calm remained and instantly I was planning take-off. 

First port of call, phone the farm where I’d left it.  Robynne already knew and suggested she post it.  Problem: the parcel would arrive to an empty house in Sydney, I would not be there for another six days when I’d have one afternoon only to find the depot where it had inevitably be returned…without any transport.  Couldn’t ask brother and family (whose house it is) to sort it – they had enough on with moving house, getting two children up to the Bluesfest etc. Also, bloody expensive coat – risky business sending it through the post untracked.  By 5.05pm, I was determined to get the coat myself that evening.

Checked bus timetable.  I could get to Cygnet that evening (bus due to arrive in 24 minutes) but could not get back to Hobart until the one single bus leaving Cygnet the following morning – which would just, just get me to the airport in time.  Which would mean I’d need to take all my luggage.  I can’t say my internal calm quite extended to external niceties when I barged into the dorm room having sprinted across town, piled all my belongings into my two rucksacks and belted from the room, leaving an alarmed fellow-traveller staring in my wake.   I may even have tiptoed into the realm of sighing impatiently when the French speaking hostel manager failed to understand my explanation for leaving and somewhat half-hearted request for a refund – which I totally did not expect to get but did (60% of it – nice one Hobart Hostel).  There was definitely a moment whilst running with one rucksack loaded on my back and another on my front where I actually laughed aloud, considering from the perspective of amused/concerned looking passers-by how absurd an image I must have given.  After google maps could not recognise ‘Treasury Building’ where my bus left from and I had to take three re-directions, I arrived at my bus stop four minutes late.

Defeated, sweaty, slightly dizzy but ready for round two, I collapsed onto a nearby bench.  Here, neatly positioned at a time of brief pause, there were two minutes where there was a real possibility of giving up and sinking into a tired heap of tears.  Only reminder of how in just a matter of hours, I’d have this sorted kept me together.  Plus a few well-placed words expressing non-too-politely my disdain at the lack of bus timetable presented at the stop.

And so I began phoning Huonville – the nearest town I could now reach – taxis for price estimations to Cygnet.  $40.  Fine.  Next: phone Cygnet hostels.  There aren’t many.  Make that any.  Hotel accommodation was looking to be costing me an extra $80 when I remembered camping.  I think my exact words when I rang up were ‘I have no tent but wondered if you have any form of shelter I can sleep beneath in exchange for money’.  He did.  A caravan, $30, second on your right when you enter the park, he’d leave the keys in the door.  Brilliant! I’ve actually always wanted to stay in a van.  Things were looking up!

Having finally caught the bus, I phoned Robynne who said she could meet me in Cygnet with the coat.  Only, she could not longer meet me.  The taxi would have to take me to the house – another twenty minutes in total.  My saving grace – the Steve Irwin-like energy of Stuart, my taxi driver who, whilst speeding through the moonlit lanes of Tasmania’s coastline, detailed the peaking and troughing industries of Tasmania and the changing climate of the past two decades…together with the prank he was playing on his mate in the pub later on.  Total cost: $70. 

And so I arrived back in Cygnet, van exactly where the man on the phone said it would be, key in door as promised.  Rowan, the owner’s son, came to take my money and amused me further with a thorough run-down of all the places that would no longer be open serving food.  Well I’d got what I wished for…and, despite the $100+, my extra night in Cygnet beneath the moon full, star-littered sky was well worth the trouble.

I don’t think I’ve multi-tasked for days.  Well, I’m currently eating three squares of dark chocolate orange whilst writing this but really multi-taking…nope.  I realised this when I’d finished my gardening for the day (seventh and unfortunately final day of my first WWOOF placement here is Tassie) and found myself trying to carry mug, water bottle, trowel, spade and numerous bits of wire all over to the shed at one time.  Then I simply dropped them all, picked up two and did several trips across the sun-soaked garden instead of the intended one, admiring the rose beds as I went.  At this point, I also realised how slowly I have taken to walking, enjoying each footfall, knowing that whatever it is I’m doing will take as long as it takes and that’s ok. 

Which naturally got me to thinking of the usual routine back at home.  I’m sure the reality of downing morning coffee whilst charging phone whilst driving to work whilst planning a lesson whilst decided what to do in the pre-work gym session whilst trying to text someone about something you forgot to text the previous evening etc. etc (or thereabouts) is nothing new to anyone.  Nor the reality of lunchtimes being a thing of the past. 

When I first arrived at the school I’m currently taking a sabbatical from, my colleagues-soontobe-friends and I enjoyed ‘tea club’ each afternoon after lessons had finished and before we started all the other work.  One friend used to prance from classroom to classroom singing ‘Tea, Tea!’ and we’d all pour over to the staffroom, exhausted from the afternoon’s teaching and have a good laugh.  That lasted a year.  Now, we sometimes grab five minutes together at breaktime but even that is often ruled out by additional meetings or needing to follow up behaviour or learning issues.

Anyway, it’s great to be going at a slower pace.  How on earth is anyone supposed to foster presence and mindfulness when your presence entails four or five things all taking place at precisely the same time.  I used to think yoga retreats and the like were a bit pointless – it’s all very well being relaxed and centred for two (very expensive) days but surely it vanishes into thin air as soon as normality resumes, I thought.  But I’m beginning to think that maybe it sinks a little deeper than that.  Especially with consciousness and awareness of what it is you’ve captured and how it can be nurtured.  I hope so anyway.  I leave this beautiful Huon Valley idyll tomorrow and head for Hobart before back to the chaos of Sydney the following day.  If nothing else, I’d like to think I can capture at least parts of the day for single-tasking.  We’ll see.

I first remember putting my finger on what exactly it was I loved about yoga when dashing out of a small yoga centre in a town in Mexico.  Dashing because my fellow-teacher and I had snatched one golden hour to ourselves during a month-long student expedition through Mexico and Belize and now that hour had almost turned into two.  Anyway, it was whilst hot-footing in down a busy street, coffee in one hand, bag in the other, that I mused with my friend about how yoga left what I’d subconsciously been calling a ‘deep internal calm’ within yourself…even when sprinting through crowds of slow-moving Mexicans.

Having read and experienced far more now than I had then, five years ago, I recognise this feeling to be in line with some of the ideas of Being, Consciousness, Presence, Mindfulness.  Back then, I just knew it felt good.  Which I suppose is all that matters.  Only that now I am more conscious of what is going on I am more able to hone and develop that feeling, even when things are hectic.

Today I felt that deep internal calm.  Not induced by yoga or meditation as is often the case.  No, today it was weeding.  I have been enjoying my fourth day of my first WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) placement here on Cloud River Farm, Huon Valley, Tasmania.  I’ve spent the best part of my five hour working day weeding ground around three flower beds.  Though its description lacks glamour, the task was quite simply blissful.  Soil covered hands, numerous downpours and raging backache aside (or included even), I have felt nothing but calm, compassionate and – for the most part – present all day long.   When presence has strayed, my memories have been those of playing in the earthy den behind the oak tree as a child or gardening with my Grandma before potato sandwiches for lunch.  I can’t help but think of a day up in Brisbane in January when sitting in my English Language Teacher Training class and responding to a classmate’s question ‘So, how are you finding Brisbane?’ with ‘I miss the earth’.

And yet despite being a little preoccupied with fond memories of times gone by, I’ve also been fairly present, remembering regularly the importance of this moment: the sounds, the smells, the feel of compost between my fingers.  I have moved with purpose and felt the earth beneath my feet.  I have taken my time, enjoying the task and not rushing to an end-product. 

Whilst some of my mind has been taken with the past, some too has been playing with the future – born out of such a welcome sense of wholeness, my ‘deep internal calm’, perhaps.  I got to wondering how this feeling of calm, balance and compassion can be nurtured in the hustle, bustle and sometimes worse of a working day at a high achieving comprehensive school in the south of the UK.  If I am to return to my job there in a year’s time, I do not want to leave my advances in understanding about how to be more present, mindful and compassionate in the past – I want to take them with me.  A colleague I greatly admire is open-minded and inquisitive enough to find alternative lifestyles and ways of thinking deeply interesting.  But caught in the mainstream schooling system, she fails to see how many of the ideas and approaches are sustainable.  I’m keen to tackle this challenge.  I don’t want my sabbatical to be a ‘holiday’ before ‘returning to reality’; I want the time I currently have to read, think and experience to be the foundations for the rest of my life – new ways of being that aren’t just ‘holiday mode’ but become everyday mode.  Though I don’t want to dwell overly on the future, I am intrigued to discover how possible it is to retain this calmness when plunged back into the midst of an often raging storm. 

When greeted by a seemingly solitary airport worker with a limp, a lopsided grin and the answer ‘it arrives when it arrives’ in reference to the apparently sporadic airport shuttle bus, I knew Launceston would live up to all my high expectations of quirky little Tasmania. 

Entirely fed-up of Australia’s carbon cut-out cities and characterless dwellers of these urban duplicates, I’ve been relying on Tassie to give me something to smile about.  The very fact that it is littered with names from Devon and Cornwall is a pretty good start but the immediate encounter with so many eyebrow raising eccentrics made it quite impossible for me to keep a straight face for my first half an hour in this land.

Firstly, the aforementioned airport worker, his limp drawing particular attention due to his first words being ‘follow me’, an action difficult to execute due to his gammy leg having rendered him just a shuffle shy of immobile.  When ‘it arrives when it arrives’ materialised into an actual shuttle bus fifteen minutes later, the first chap to unload, seeing me looking at my phone (checking shuttle bus times, needless to say), before even stepping from the bus grins and says ‘You texting me?’ and scampers off chuckling to himself.  

 The drawled accent of the bus driver was enough to make me doubt the judgement of anyone who says Australia doesn’t have regional accents.  It took the best part of a minute for him to deliver the message that he wouldn’t take just one customer back as it wasn’t economic (much like his rambling choice of words to explain this matter).  Accompanying this remarkable Australian drawl was a tendency to repeat back entire sentences as way of confirmation, a tendency which is like to render the recipient somewhat speechless.  As way of example, when his question ‘How long are you in Launy (Launceston) for?’ met my reply ‘Until Sunday’, he thought it best to go the long way round: ‘Ahhh, so you’re here ‘til Sunday?’…”Um…yep.”  This was not an isolated case.

Despite his speech ‘characteristics’, the driver was another delightfully upbeat colourful Tasmanian, leading me quite successfully down the path of delusion that all Tasmanians would be the same.  Not for long.  The hostel manager, was there to check my rocketing optimism.  Upon entry to the perfectly tatty and characterful ‘Launceston backpackers’, I popped my head into the office and offered a cheery ‘hello’ to the bald head of said manager.  I mention the bald head as I feel that, to date, I’ve had greater conversation with it than the face immediately below it. Given that this gentleman failed to grace me with his name, he shall be called ‘Bald Headed One’ henceforth.  Bald Headed One is one of those overly officious little men who deliver clipped answers, often clad in pedantry and the type who like to conjure the impression that they perennially have something more important than talking to you to do.  Bald Headed One seemed at best ‘put out’ at my arrival and waited in silence until I delivered the seemingly obvious explanation of the situation ‘I’ve booked in for a couple of nights’.  “Are you here for a reason?” he answered, failing miserably to make eye contact. I laughed out loud.  With such exceptional contrast to the warmth and vitality of the people I had just minutes before been speaking with, Balded Headed On, in just a few short seconds, had me wondering whether my arrival in Tasmania was indeed all it was cracked up to be.  At least, that would have been my response should I not have been so amused by this peculiar little man. 

“Um…,” I began, beaming with what I can only imagine was an expression of amused disbelief.  He apparently may have retained just enough social grace to recognise the need for further explanation. “Are you here for the walk tomorrow?” 

“Yes, yes I am.  The cradle mountain walk.”  He still hadn’t looked up.  He turned to his notebook, a well-guarded companion in a much rehearsed double-act I can only imagine.  “Nope, I don’t think so!” he delivered triumphantly. 

“Oh, um…” I began peering over the notebook in an attempt to appear to be contributing to solving a problem that really I felt was entirely his given I’d spoken to another member of staff only yesterday to book the walk.

“Ah, yes, no, there you are,” he finally said, locating the pencilled in details towards the bottom of the page.  And as if to prove his own triumph in this discover, much like the one before, he efficiently summarised how all my contact details were in place, before asking me whether I had my key.

“Uh…” racking my brains to see if my travel-addled memory had somehow erased receipt of a key in the last three minutes, “no.”

“Well, you’ve just walked right past it!”

Of course.  Of course I had.  Silly me.  Two rucksacks still in hand, I backed out of the door and back through the main door.  “To your right!” he hollered from his throne behind the desk.  Sure enough, inside an envelope complete with my name, a key had been sticky-taped to the window beside the door.  By this point, I was actively working to contain a snigger at the absurdity of this individual.  It’s just as well he kept his head down as I’m not entirely sure what he would have made of my open amusement at his collection of anti-social idiosyncrasies. 

Just before pointing me in the general direction of my dorm room, Bald Headed One plonked three heavy blankets in my one free arm, seemingly oblivious to the luggage juggling act I had already been battling with for the best part of five minutes.  “Have a great stay,” were his parting words, words that uttered by almost anyone other human would indicate at least a partial desire for the other person to enjoy themselves but by this creature were administered with such a meaningless shade of monotone that again I laughed aloud before repaying him with an exaggerated ‘Thank you so much’ and opened the door to my dorm, keen for some privacy in which to freely air my amusement.

It’s hard to say whether it was the monotonous grinding of an industrial machine or the slurs of a rudely-awoken Australian hollering ‘Shut that fucking thing up!’ that brought me crashing from slumber into reality at 6.15am this morning.  Either way, it wasn’t with complete satisfaction that I recalled my location: Newcastle, New South Wales.

I flew here from Brisbane two days ago, on the winds of various different people espousing the glories of this gorgeous town, complete with stunning foreshore and attractive town centre.  I nearly choked when I first caught sight of the harbour, my driver proudly championing its beauty.  Whether it’s that these people have never seen true beauty or it’s that I have been spoiled rotten by the countryside and coastlines of England remains to be seen.  But Newcastle harbour is not beautiful.  That evening, I saw a flat expanse of grey water bordered entirely with giant industrial monstrosities. 

My hotel, chosen for its proximity to the harbour and foreshore, was in what my companion described as a ‘rugged’ part of town after a certain hour.  I had some difficulty computing what I saw as we approached: a solid grey block surrounded by little other than a KFC, a Pizza Hut and a Macdonalds, the latter referred to as a particularly notorious spot for trouble late at night. 

I’d adopted a quiet half-smiling acceptance of my fate by the time I exited the lift on the second floor and was welcomed by the stench of red bull and cheap aftershave.  Sure enough, just around the corner stood a hoard of young men, talking loudly and all too ready with the quips about the amount of luggage I had.  After dumping said luggage on the first available floor space in my hotel room, I crossed to the window and had nothing left but a bitter laugh as I pulled the curtains to see the back of a deserted building complete with scrawling graffiti and no less than three burnt out cars.  Perfect.  Welcome to Newcastle.

A mere half an hour after I’d blogged my potentially offensive summary of Brisbane’s shortfallings, I had a phone-call inviting me for an interview at the English school I’ve been training at.  I saw it as a sign.  Having all but booked my ticket out of Brisbane, I felt a truthful account – warts n’ all – of the place would be the right thing to post.  But I was rushed and even as I pressed ‘publish’, I knew I’d probably not seen some of the more positive aspects of Brisbane and secretly hoped no Brisbanites would alight upon the blog and feel offended.  And so the job interview was a wake-up call to look properly at what is around and pull out the positives.

Today, I had the interview…with some success (another story) and have the day to explore the city and focus on some of the more positive aspects of the place.  Almost before consciously beginning this task, I looked up whilst waiting to cross the road at one of the busy inner-city junctions and saw a statue of a koala mum and her young – the building, quite aptly, named ‘Koala House’.  I’d just last night watched a documentary about the survival adaptations of koalas living on the outskirts of Brisbane’s suburbs.  Last Friday, I saw and stroked my first koala of Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo.  I like koalas.  The statue made me smile. 

Moving on to the Queen Street Mall area, despite a host of overpriced clothes shops and grim-looking fast food chains, the reception at the shops I browsed was none other than first class.  Bright, positive, upbeat and doing a very good impression of actually being interested in whether or not the potential customer is having a good day.  What’s more, outside the mall, the street is lined with musicians: a oboe player slumped moodily in a exit door alcove, eyes closed and melody soaring; an accordion player looking much like the sea-shanty singers of a good old English seaside shindig: full white beard and colourful waistcoat and an ukulele-player: crisp sound bubbling onto the city streets. 

I’ve now taken a seat at the river-side bar/coffee shop, attempting to find some solace in this river in the way I do with my river at home.  The sun is sporadically shining, interspersed with a welcome breeze; CityCat ferries glide past, some stopping to unload passengers; passers-by seem relaxed, content, not friendly but certainly not hostile.

So between the koala statue, the musicians, the friendly shop-service and the pleasant river setting, I’m doing my best to pull out the positives of this ‘soft city’.  Now, I just need to decide whether to stay here or move on.