The Barang’s Guide to Cambodian Buddhism

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh you’ll  surely be struck by the monks wandering around in bright orange robes and the intricate colourful pagodas. Glorious Buddhism! However, beneath these overt displays of the religion, what’s not immediately clear is that this is not your standard version of Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. The world of the Khmer people is one that’s teeming with the spirits of the dead.

Like many South-East Asian countries, when Cambodia adopted Buddhism it didn’t signal a complete abandonment of earlier beliefs such as ancestor reverence and Hinduism. Rather, all these things were synthesised into a complex and sometimes ill-defined tapestry of folklore, spirituality and superstition. After discussions with a number of Khmer adults and children, I’ve compiled this quick guide to get you oriented.

1.   Much like in The Sixth Sense, there are ghosts all around us. While adults generally can’t see them, cats and dogs can. Babies can too, but for most people the ability atrophies during childhood. A few shaman-types who retain this ability can provide a link to the world of the dead.

2.   When you die you will turn into a ghost. In fact, so will every animal. Strangely also like in the Sixth Sense, <SPOILERS> initially you will not realise that you are dead. As a ghost, you will not have one of your index fingers, which presumably you don’t tend to notice right away.

3.   After seven days you will try to visit your family at home, and this is when the horrible truth will hit you. At this point, several different things can happen:

  • If you were a very good person in life you will be taken to Heaven, where Buddha lives. This essentially means achieving the traditional Buddhist aim of breaking free from the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering.
  • If you were an evil person in life you will be taken to Hell. Tortures include having to climb a tree covered in needles and being hung upside-down in a vat of boiling water. The duration of your stay in Hell and your specific punishment will depend on your sins. For example, if you said bad things a lot in life you will have your mouth stretched open to the point of agonising pain.
  • If you were really evil in life you will turn into a special giant ghost covered in blood that wanders the land in solitude. This is a particularly terrible and feared spirit, and may be taller than a house.
  • If you were neither particularly good nor particularly evil you will stay in between, lingering in the world for an unknown time.

Regardless of which of these fates awaits you, if you didn’t make it to Heaven then sooner or later you will be reborn as a human or some other animal and go through the cycle again.

4.   Ok, so that’s the destiny awaiting you in the afterlife. There are also several other ghosts and spirits swirling in the world:

  • Every piece of land that somebody owns has a guardian angel to protect it from bad spirits. These angels live in the colourfully painted concrete ghost houses you see on stilts outside many abodes and buildings. Offerings here keep the angel benevolent and motivated in its job.
  • Every house that gets built also gains a guardian spirit that lives in the house and protects it as a second line of defence, should the angel prove insufficient.
  • Very large old trees in forests are often inhabited by a tree spirit. If you are travelling in an unknown place and want to rest beneath such a tree or even pee there, it’s important to ask the spirit’s permission first. If you neglect to do this the spirit could make you sick or incite snakes/insects to come after you. If the tree is cut down the spirit will leave and look for a new tree, like any good hermit crab of the sea.
  • The ghosts of humans who drown in rivers are doomed to linger there and watch over the river. They can never leave and be reborn until another ghost takes their place. So be careful around rivers, or one of the drowned ghosts just may try to swap places with you.
  • If a mother dies during childbirth she will become a particularly chilling ghost. For the 7 days before she realises she’s dead, she will climb to the top of a tree and sing a wailing song of lamentation for her lost child.
  • The ghosts of children, however, have a happier fate. They are a playful lot and have the right to come and go where they please – even guardian angels and house spirits will not turn them away. Many households hang small red clothes and candy on their fences to make sure they are provided for. Now, remember how babies can see the spirit world? Well for this reason the children ghosts like to play with them. Sometimes though, they can accidentally scare the baby or exhaust it from playing for too long, and cause it to start crying. In this case it’s often just a matter of the Khmer mother telling the children ghosts “Ok, that’s enough for today” and they will leave, soon restoring the baby’s happiness.
  • A Chinese belief, which has spread to some of the cities in Cambodia, is that the children ghosts often pick a shop to live in. They alert the shop owner to their presence in a dream. If the shop owner then keeps them happy by buying occasional presents like candy and toys, the ghosts will induce lots of customers to come into the shop, often without quite knowing why they’ve come in. If the child ghosts are neglected though, business will be bad.

5.   People make offerings of rice at pagodas so that ghosts of family members will have something to eat. People pray for ghosts in order to accelerate their rebirth. People also offer small balls of rice for the baby and children ghosts.

6.   If you lied a lot during your life then your ghost will have a tiny mouth. This is why thin rice noodles are also brought to the pagoda – so the ghosts with tiny mouths can have something to eat.

7.   An important belief held by Cambodians in the countryside is that the living and the dead must never cohabit, lest ill events occur. For example, if the ghost of a deceased husband were to remain in the family house and was unable to move on from his living wife, he could accidentally cause her to become sick. There’s also the darker possibility of a ghost intentionally causing harm to its family, either because of some unresolved resentment, or become it wants to be united with their ghosts. This is one of the reasons the guardian house spirit and angel are so important: to keep out dead relatives. The family will go to the pagoda to make offerings to their ancestors, not do it in the home.

8.   Finally, one belief practised by Cambodians from the countryside is that it’s essential to protect the house from spirits during child birth. The midwife will draw an X on the door and hang something sharp there like a knife or pair of scissors, and all windows must be sealed. This gives the best protection from spirits for the mother and infant.

This is obviously a huge simplification of the immensely complex and varied Khmer belief system, but it’s not a bad starting point. If there are any important elements I’ve omitted or misrepresented, please let me know and I shall make amendments. See you around the streets!

A Completely Unscientific, Not Even Singly-Blind Case Study on the Effects of Daily Vitamin & Mineral Supplement on Perceived Health and Well-Being

ImageBackground

Subject was a healthy 25-year old Caucasian male. Subject maintained a predominantly vegequarian diet consisting of cereal, dairy, copious quantities of white rice, various Asian vegetables and fruits, seafood and, rarely, insects or creepy miscellaneous meat. Subject was a non-smoker, and alcohol intake was hearty and regular.

During a routine clean-out of the communal refrigerator, subject discovered a box of Vitamin & Mineral Supplements (“Vitacap”, Mega Lifesciences (Australia) Pty. Ltd.), presumably left behind by a former volunteer. Subject decided to commence a course of these pills a) to see whether they would provide any health benefits, b) because they were free, and c) because they looked kind of fancy and tasted slightly like chocolate.

Material and Methods

Nutritional content of each pill was as follows:

Vitamin A (Palmitate)                                  5000 IU
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine Mononitrate)            5 MG
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)                               5 MG
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine HCl)                        2 MG
Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin)                  5 MCG
Vitamin C                                                   75 MG
Vitamin D3 (Cholecalciferol)                      400 IU
Vitamin E (di-alpha Tocopheryl Acetate)   15 MG
Nicotinamide                                              45 MG
D-Panthenol                                              45 MG
Folic Acid                                                  1000 MCG
Ferrous Fumarate                                      50 MG
Dibasic Calcium Phosphate                        70 MG
Copper Sulphate                                       0.1 MG
Manganese Sulphate                                  0.01 MG
Zinc Sulphate Dried                                  50 MG
Potassium Iodide                                      0.025 MG
Magnesium Oxide                                      0.5 MG

One pill was consumed daily between 7.30am and 12.30pm, typically with fruit juice or failing that, water or beer. Course of vitamin & mineral supplements was carried out for approximately 3 months.

Results

1.   Morning vivaciousness

Prior to, during and following the course of vitamin and mineral supplements, subject typically woke up feeling uniformly like a hung-over bag of trash.

2.   Energy levels during the day
Throughout the course of treatment there was no improvement in subject’s tendency to feel “over it” and sleepy by lunch time.

3.   Resistance to disease
During the period of vitamin and mineral supplementation, subject experienced one pinkeye scare (which luckily turned out just to be tiredness) and two minor bouts of cold. This was not an improvement over general health prior to supplementation.

4.   Swallowing aptitude
Subject did experience a marked improvement in his ability to swallow these rather unpleasantly large pills without them hitting his epiglottis.

Discussion

The results from this study do not support the hypothesis that any health benefits are gained from randomly taking vitamin and mineral supplements of unknown origin that were found in a box in a fridge.

In hindsight, even the scantiest of internet searches would’ve shown that this endeavour was doomed to failure from the outset. As explained by the Victorian Government-funded Better Health Channel [1]:

“Vitamins play an important role in keeping the body healthy. However, taking large doses of certain vitamins can actually be harmful. For most people, it is best to get the vitamins our bodies need from eating a variety of healthy, unprocessed foods, rather than by taking supplements.

Vitamin supplements are frequently misused and taken without professional advice. High-dose supplements should not be taken unless recommended under medical advice.”

Oops.

The one unexpected benefit from this study was the increase in swallowing proficiency. Whether this will have broader applicability beyond the scope of consuming non-beneficial dietary supplements remains to be seen.

The author did not receive any funding from or have any links to vested interests or bodies related to this “study”.

References

[1] http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Vitamins_common_misconceptions

Spicy Time-Signature Safari

NB: If you’re not interested in bands like Pixies, Radiohead and the Dismemberment Plan, you might want to give this a miss.

Back when I was still a freshling undergraduate, a friend introduced me to the Pixies’ seminal 1989 album, Doolittle. I remember I was hanging in my room being awed by the track Gouge Away, a ferocious take on the biblical Sampson and Delilah story, when a realisation hit me like a slap in the face: the song didn’t use a 4-bar progression. It used 5.

The discovery that such a thing was possible – and felt so good – was on par with the fateful day back in high school when I accidentally discovered my penis’ second function.

A quick aside for any non-musically savvy readers may be in order. Many, many songs are written in ‘4/4’, meaning you can count 1 to 4 over and over again to the rhythm. These 4 beats together make up a bar, and bars are usually found in groups of 4. So, 4 bars of 4 beats each, repeat ad nauseum.

This structure is so ubiquitous in many musical genres (rock, dance, pop, country, hip hop etc) that for many listeners – and many musicians – it’s a given, a fundamental constant of music which needn’t even be considered. All songs are written with different tempos, instrumentations, melodies and harmonies, but for the great majority of popular music the time signature is fixed: 4 beats per bar, 4 bars grouped together. By analogy, you could make an infinite number of soups by combining different ingredients, but the final product is pretty much always served in a bowl. But what if, just for once, you drank your soup from… a boot?

It wasn’t long after the Gouge Away discovery that I realised that, in fact, the entire of Doolittle was as riddled with weird rhythmic choices as Madame Chat is with fleas.

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The tracks Tame and Hey both use a 3 bar pattern in the chorus. The excision of the expected 4th bar creates a frantic rushed effect, like the repeats of the chorus are crashing down upon each other. Wave of Mutilation also does this, except with only 2 beats per bar, while There Goes my Gun uses 6 beats per bar. La La Love You uses a 2 ½ bar pattern (!), and Crackity Jones and Dead are so all over the place that I can’t even figure them out. Silver uses a 3/4 time signature, which is actually not uncommon in classical music, but unusually it puts bars in groups of 7.

Pixies did some pretty original things for a rock group, but they were still essentially fiddling with the 4 bars of 4/4 format, adding or subtracting a bar, maybe throwing in an extra 2 beats here and there.

Then there was fucking Radiohead. Citing the Pixies as a major influence, they took this rhythmic tomfoolery to the next level in their timeless 1997 OK Computer.

Remember the indefinable murk of Paranoid Android? Well, that ambiance is partly achieved through the song using a 12 bar pattern – much harder to wrap your head around than the usual 4 bars. Lucky uses a 14 bar progression, and there’s a 10 bar pattern at the beginning of Airbag; these serve the same purpose of throwing the listener off the trail. Paranoid Android gets even stranger though. Count the beats in the section that starts just after the 2 minute mark, and you notice that some bars are in… 7/8! This is a rare time signature, probably best known from Pink Floyd’s 1973 Money or Dave Brubeck’s 1961 Unsquare Dance. It’s much more obviously spicy than unusual bar groupings; the odd number of beats breaks the regular “left/right” flow present in almost all popular songs.

Finally, if you listen to the confusing guitar melody that begins Let Down, you may discern that it’s actually in 5/4, another rare and erratic time signature, possibly best known from Dave Brubeck’s 1959 Take Five. The rest of Let Down is in standard 4/4, which the melody sits uncomfortably atop.

Then came the magical day when I discovered one of my all-time favourite albums – the Dismemberment Plan’s 1999 Emergency & I. In an event surely rivalling the Cold War in terms of tension, espionage and arms escalation, with this album the D-Plan beat Radiohead to the punch to release a song in proper 5/4. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s their work most frequently compared to Radiohead: The Jitters. Notice how the limping rhythm mirrors the despair portrayed by the lyrics? Radiohead followed one year later with the Kid A version of Morning Bell. Then I discovered that a slew of bands were getting in on the action – Gorillaz with their embarrassingly titled 5/4 (LOOK WHAT WE CAN DO!), Queens of the Stone Age with the frenetic Hangin’ Tree, Sufjan Stevens on a bunch of tracks, Radiohead again with 15 Step, and more recently Muse with Animals.

It turns out the D-Plan’s Emergency & I is a seething mass of rhythmic interest, right on par with Doolittle. 5/4 is used again on Memory Machine, this time to create a schizophrenic franticness, and the song switches back to conventional 4/4 in the chorus to harness straight energy. Boy & Bear employ this technique too in their excellent 2011 track Milk & Sticks. In another show of one-upmanship to Radiohead, Spider in the Snow builds on Paranoid Android to deliver a song in full 7/4 (a similar time signature to 7/8). I’ve not noticed 7/4 and 7/8 in many other places at all, though Radiohead pulled one off a few years afterwards on Hail to the Thief’s 2+2=5, as did Broken Social Scene with their 7/4 (Shoreline). Andrew Bird’s haunting Anonanimal ventures into 7/4 during the second movement, and the Queens of the Stone Age track Era Vulgaris does something interesting and 7/8y after the second chorus.

I could talk for far too long about the other joyful timing tricks used on this album and others – such as The City’s crazy 6/8 – 7/8 part and seamless switching between 4/4 and 6/4 (a device also featured on CKY’s Disengage the Simulator), or the complete drumming nightmare that is 15/8 on Gyroscope. Also unique is 9/8, used in Radical Face’s Deserter’s Song, the constant switching between 5/4 and 6/4 on Sufjan Stevens’ The Tallest Man, and the disguised 4/4 on Radiohead’s Pyramid Song. Heaps of metal music is so endlessly creative with time signatures that I can’t even discuss it in a meaningful way. And also sheesh, I’d better draw a line somewhere.

What is the message to take from all of this? An unusual time signature doesn’t automatically make a song good, and 4/4 is a perfectly excellent time signature – otherwise what has pop music been doing for the past century? What I will claim though is that once you start to notice the different options out there, it’s like tasting all the spices of the Seven Seas after a lifetime of unsalted rice (a foodstuff I have become exceedingly familiar with over the past 5 months). Perhaps popular music too could benefit from a little added spice in the rhythm department.

The Not So Immediately Clear but Surprisingly Poignant Relationship Between Teaching English and the Alien Franchise

There’s a scene in Alien 4 (which, by the way, is terrible, so if you haven’t already seen it, I would recommend you don’t go out of your way to do so just to get this reference) where the genetically engineered Alien-Ripley comes upon a room full of failed earlier attempts at creating her*. The prototype creatures are all deformed horrors, and she ends up torching the entire room with a flame-thrower.

In my attempts to teach English to a class full of 11-year old Khmer kids, I feel a deep kindred with the scientist responsible for those deformed Ripley hybrids. Every week, I try some new experiment in teaching grammar to the class, then we’ll do a writing exercise to see whether the lesson has stuck. And every week, I get back grotesque defilements of the English language. However hard I try, each new experiment produces mutilated punctuation, eviscerated spelling and sins against conjugation. And alas, I have no flame-thrower to ease the pain.

Unfortunately, as with genetically engineering a hybrid alien species, there are just so many ways to screw up a language – especially one as complex as English, and especially when the student trying to learn it natively speaks a far simpler one. Khmer has no tenses other than past and present; I believe they just figure out anything more specific than that from the context. Verbs aren’t conjugated. There are no capital letters, and they don’t even have spaces between words. So coming from this background, how could one ever grasp how to use the past continuous or when a comma would be appropriate? I think this is an important thing to remember when judging ESL speakers.

Much like killing Alien Queens, learning English is Hard. But there’s no sense crying over every mistake. Learning is iterative, and it’s clear that students do actually improve at English as they ascend through the school years. It evidently just takes a very long time and lots of patience. And as with taking out Alien soldiers, you never can get every grammar rule. There’s always that one last sneaky bugger hiding on your space ship.

*In this sentence alone I used the simple present, negative present perfect, conditional and infinitive tenses. You can see the difficulty!

Oh I Would Ride 500 Miles

 

Imagine you’re flying through the air, about to collide with the road at approximately 32km/hr. What do you feel in that moment? A flash of terror? Reflex preparedness? Fatalism?

The correct answer: not a whole lot of anything. You don’t have time to think about it.

You won’t remember the impact. Your brain skips straight ahead from that suspended instant in midair, then you’re on the ground and your instincts have kicked in: ignore your injuries, get off the road, drag your bike out of the way of traffic. Blood is running down your left forearm and one of your riding gloves is stained brown from clutching the elbow. It’s funny how no one in Hollywood seems to know just how quickly that sacred life fluid oxidises once outside the body.

You don’t really feel the pain yet; your mind is back in your apartment months ago, reliving a conversation you had with your housemate. You’d sworn you would never become one of those wanky east-siders who cycle around wearing Lycra and gloves. He advised you to at least reconsider the gloves, said you’d be grateful for it when you eventually came off. He was right.

Concentrate, stay in the moment.

The driver has gotten out and is explaining something about blind spots while a fierce old woman berates him. A couple of passers-by have rushed over and are asking if you’re ok; telling you to do things, telling you to get the driver’s details. Later on you will not remember their faces or even how many there were. It’s ok, it’s the shock. You realise you’re limping a bit. You try to inspect your elbow but it’s hard to judge with all the blood and the funny angle. It looks deep. The front bonnet of the car has popped off from the force of the crash, and you’re surprised to find you feel slightly proud.

The most realistic stories are the true ones.

It was about six months ago that I had my accident. Melbourne’s not the easiest city in which to be a cyclist. Numbers of riders have increased hugely over the past decade, but I still consider us pioneers of sorts, forging a path forward in a hostile environment for the good of future generations. This idea isn’t mere fancy- there’s a well-documented relationship between the number of cyclists in a city and the safety of cycling.

The theory is that as motorists become more accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, they get better at looking for them. This is something I can definitely believe. Some of my best-practised manoeuvres include swerving to avoid clueless pedestrians and slamming on the brakes when a driver suddenly turns left. I’m constantly awaiting the unexpectedly opened car door that will be the last thing I ever see. Amusing door-related epitaphs welcome.

It’s early 2009 and I’m in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Right now my home state is being torn apart by the worst bushfires in recently history, in which 173 people will ultimately die. But right now I know nothing of this; my mind is in the past, occupied with another tragedy of human life: Kanchanaburi is home to the infamous Death Railway, where over 100,000 prisoners of war died during the Second World War. Having visited the poignant bridge and war museum, I’ve hired a push-bike for the day in order to see the town and visit a memorial several kilometres away. I’m weaving happily amongst motorists and motorcyclists down the main road. Bikes are common enough here that people look for you, and consequently I feel safer than ever I did in Melbourne. If I were to come off, I’ve heard stories that maybe the locals would rush over and pour Coca-Cola on the wound since it’s the only sterile substance they have easy access to.

Back in Melbourne: twenty minutes after the crash everyone has left and I’m dazed in the city clutching my elbow, wondering helplessly where the nearest hospital is. I call my best friend, who was actually waiting to meet me, and tell them I won’t be able to make it. As I explain what’s happened, my voice breaks.

There’s a special type of distress that comes from having your body damaged. It’s separate from the physical pain, born instead from the terrible possibilities of the future. Will you ever recover from the wound? What will life be like if you can’t?

I can fully feel the pain in my elbow now, and sickening thoughts are swimming through my mind of punctured bursas and severed ligaments. Talking to my friend, these thoughts momentarily overcame me. Stop being a pansy I reprimand myself. This is nothing, you’re just in shock.

On the tram to Melbourne Hospital – the only place I can think to go – the other passengers stare uncomfortably at my bloodied arm. I feel somehow indecent. Someone lamely asks if I’m ok.

Endone is an amazing drug. It’s a semi-synthetic opioid related in structure to morphine and heroin, and like its cousins, it can cause addiction. I have a nurse acquaintance who was shocked to hear that the doctor had prescribed it to me for such relatively minor injuries.

I relive its sensations: the warm tingling all over my skin, the sleepy happiness, the slight spinning of the world. It was like burying the pain in my elbow and hip under a pile of fluffy blankets. One side effect however is that it inhibits memory formation.

I lost most of the week after the crash in a forgotten drugged haze, punctuated only by random scenes like mirages in a desert. At some point I was wandering through JB Hi-Fi, awed by the lights and sounds; I was swaying through the office and my supervisor was there telling me to go home and rest; one time I was rolling around on my bed, ecstatic from the feel of the sheets on my face, only dimly aware of people watching me from the doorway.

Oh thin green nurturing strip. Somewhere to call home. A conduit for our kind, a facade of safety. Oh how I’ve followed you and yearned for you.

It’s five hours before a surgeon finally sees me. I will never be able to repay the incredible friend who stayed with me that whole night and probably suffered worse than I did, having to helplessly watch me flinch with every pass of the needle through my skin. Weeks later my sister cut the crusty stitches out using a scalpel blade.

I’m also not sure if I can describe the boredom that builds over five hours with nothing to distract you, boredom that grows into frustration and boils over to rage. Rage toward the understaffed public health system, toward the pointless waste of life, and especially toward the unapologetic scumbag who hit me. Oh yes, of course you wanted to just call it even and go our separate ways.

In the days that followed I fantasised about my assailant, about vandalising his car, suing him. Anything. I didn’t want money, I wanted justice. Why was I in bed, useless, dull pain looming just below the surface, while he was still driving around, probably carefree, probably still a threat to my other friends on two wheels? I regularly obsessed over whether the accident might’ve been my fault, but the outraged old woman kept returning to my mind to reassure me that she’d seen it all and I was in the right. I tried calling the police, the TAC. Medical expenses and bike damage weren’t great enough to claim anything, and the policeman told me there is no penalty for negligently hitting a cyclist. I stewed.

In 2003, Pucher and Dijkstra found that American cyclists are 12 times more likely to have a lethal accident per kilometre travelled than car occupants. de Hartog et al (2010)  compared several costs and benefits of cycling, including physical exercise, air pollution exposure and the risk of accidents. They concluded that the benefits were the greater by an order of magnitude. This was further reinforced by Karl Ulrich, who calculated that each year of sustained cycling adds about 10.6 days to a person’s life due to the fitness benefits- even accounting for the extra risk of accident. If you do the sums assuming 1 hour of cycling per day, 5 days a week, then your time spent peddling roughly equals your longevity gain. That is, if you spend about 10.6 days riding in a year, you live on average about 10.6 days longer. So really, while you’re cycling you do not age.

To be a cyclist is to follow water. In most cities, lakes, rivers and coastlines are the only spaces that get set aside for our species to roll along in peace. Everywhere else is the noise and agitation of motor vehicles. So we learn to love water, to see parallels in the way we both smoothly flow along, and to finally get where Sebastian’s coming from in “Under the Sea”. It’s not pleasant to leave these havens and battle with uncaring traffic in order to infiltrate the city, but I shall continue to do so. The average life expectancy of a male in Australia is 79 years. I figure that if I ride steadily for the next 35 years of my life, that’s 35 x 10.6 = 371 extra days that I’ll get. So when I hit 80 (as I statistically expect to do!), I’m going to lean back in my rocking chair with my false teeth and my Alzheimer’s disease, foggily remember that bastard who drove into me, and have a chuckle about who’s still stan… rocking.

Walk for Solar

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It’s just hit 5am and I’m in a taxi heading to Adelaide airport. The taxi driver is looking at me sideways, thinking that I must be crazy for wearing shorts in this weather. What he doesn’t know is that last night I passed out fully dressed due to sheer exhaustion in the house of a generous stranger. I’d come to that house straight from an after-party, after coming straight from the biggest rally in Adelaide’s recent history, after coming straight from one of the greatest things I’ve ever done- a two week walk of over 300km with 60 other people. But I’m getting ahead of myself; we need context.

The starting point of our journey was a little South Australian town called Port Augusta, known for its two coal-fire power stations, Northern and Playford B. Despite billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies from the federal government, these stations have become uneconomical and are shutting down. A report by Beyond Zero Emissions, a think-tank of engineers and scientists, has concluded that the best way to replace this energy capacity is with concentrated solar thermal (CST).

You may have heard of this technology, or at least seen a picture. It looks like a big field of solar panels arrayed around a tower. These panels are actually mirrors, and their job is to focus sunlight onto the tower, where molten salt gets heated to 565°C. This heat is used to boil water, which generates steam and turns a turbine- just like in conventional coal-fire stations. The huge advantage of CST over other renewables though is that the molten salt can be pumped into a storage vat, where the heat is retained for up to 16 hours. It is then drawn from as needed, meaning that electricity can be generated constantly, even when the sun isn’t shining.

Several CST plants are currently operating in the United States and Spain, with countless more being rolled out globally. Port Augusta is the ideal location for Australia’s first such plant because the town is sunny, the necessary transmission infrastructure is already in place and there’s a skilled workforce available. A survey of the Port Augustan community found that over 98% of residents are in favour of constructing  CST rather than the alternative, a gas-fire station. The local council and state government are supportive, as is Alinta, the company that owns the Northern and Playford B coal stations. CST plants are cheaper than gas over a 30 year period, create more jobs and are not subject to resource availability.

The only barrier to this amazing opportunity is the upfront cost of ~$1.6 billion, which would have to be subsidised by the government.

The future of human history is a massive boulder rolling down a mountain. There’s an incredible amount of inertia, and it’s almost impossible to knock the boulder off its business-as-usual course. But occasionally, there comes a moment where there’s a jut in the path. If enough people push hard enough at just the right time, the entire trajectory of the future can be shifted. Build one CST plant, establish an industry, and the next ones become cheaper and cheaper. Port Augusta could just be the domino that accelerates Australia down the path to 100% renewable energy.

Our mission therefore was to make Port Augusta a national issue. The best way we could think to do this was by marching all the way from Port Augusta to Adelaide, talking to everyone we met along the way, generating as much media attention as possible, and bringing the message to the doors of Parliament.

This story is really the stories of the amazing people who walked alongside me.

Our group spanned the age spectrum, from an adorable 5 year-old girl right through to the retired, self-proclaimed “oldies”. Interestingly age hardly seemed to correlate with life experience or philosophy. I spoke with a fascinating Polynesian man, born in New Zealand, who moved to Australia, was adopted by an Aboriginal family and became a professional Indian dancer. I heard the story of a girl who was born in Greece while her parents were sailing around the world and spent the first year and a half of her life at sea, later living in a shed, on a boat again, and in South Africa for a year. I met a lovely German woman who moved to Australia 30 years ago, became a masseuse, and in her spare time makes huge works of art out of materials that to other people look like rubbish.

I chatted with a guy who resents being called an “environmentalist”. The word invokes images of unwashed hippies, anti-progress libertarians, naive youth. He pointed out that our group was not those things. We were primarily university-educated, relatively well provided-for mainstreamers.

It is possible, perhaps even common, to be concerned about climate change because of the human impact, without necessarily caring at all about the “environment”. This was his situation and pretty much mine as well- I see climate change as a utilitarian concern. It is the global issue with the greatest propensity to harm human wellbeing, and is thus the most logical problem for a general altruist to tackle. I spent a lot of time questioning why the individuals in our group possess such altruism. Maybe it’s some reciprocity instinct, maybe it’s a natural behaviour once one’s basic needs are met, or maybe I just have to accept that it’s a random psychological quirk some people have. Whatever the reason, the question was beyond me.

On the third night of our trek I lay in a grassy field beside two Melbournites. We were gazing up at the incredible stars, discussing whether there might be intelligent beings out there on some distant planet; and whether they too might be lying looking up at the stars, wondering whether there might be intelligent life somewhere out there, lying looking up at the stars…

At some point my mind flipped. I suddenly felt I was gazing down at the stars instead of looking up, and awe filled me as I vividly pictured myself plummeting from the face of the earth.

Later that balmy night our camp was hit by gale-force winds. Unable to sleep for the constant flapping of tent in my face, I emerged to meet a Tasmanian and a Sydneysider whose tent had caved in. We dragged our sleeping gear out behind the food van for shelter, and had almost fallen asleep when two huge metal marquees were ripped from the ground and almost crashed over the van onto us. The ensuing scene was how I imagine it would be aboard a ship whose mast has just been destroyed by lightning. There was confusion, flashing torches, people shouting and rushing and trying to dislodge the billowing sail that the marquees had become. In the grey morning a double rainbow crowned the twisted wrecked metal frames.

Blisters become obsessions. A few days in, conversations subtly shifted from complaining to stoicism, and people started enquiring about each other’s feet instead. As the trip wore on some people had whole toes turn into squishy masses, while others clandestinely practised lancing (I won’t mention which camp I was in). By day thirteen I saw blisters the size and shape of grapes, sometimes filled with blood or marbled where blister had grown upon blister upon blister. A visiting first aider warned of permanent scarring and compared some of the worse ones to second degree burns. If anything, I suspect his words hardened resolve.

We slept in fields, in paddocks, beside train tracks and highways, in farm sheds, a shearing shed one night, on stony ground, between bushes, around camp fires. In the second week several tents were destroyed by wind, mine included, and we discovered what it feels like to become climate refugees, sheltering in the backs of vehicles or huddling together in a chicken barn. Somehow the adversity increased the thrill, increased the sense that any challenge could be overcome to make this campaign successful.

On the seventh afternoon we climbed the ranges outside Snowtown, and in the glow of a golden-red sunset, reached the giant wind turbines at the summit. This was possibly my most euphoric moment of the whole trip.

Having previously only seen turbines from a distance, I’d often wondered at the thinness of the blades- how could that flimsy surface area be the best design for catching wind? But up close, the beauty of their subtle curve and tapered edges dazzled me. They reminded me of aircraft; creating lift with the same elegance as wing foils and turbine blades. I no longer doubt their exquisite engineering. Apparently in Victoria it’s illegal to build a wind turbine within 3km of a house. The noise from these turbines was undetectable until we were within a few hundred meters. The sound was comforting, easily quiet enough to talk over, and mostly obscured by the wind. It was saddening to hear of the irrational beliefs in wind turbine sickness, ostensibly responsible for everything from weight loss to cancer.

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“, Robert Pirsig argues that quality is the union between subject and object. To achieve quality in a task, the trick is not to separate oneself from one’s surroundings.

I’ve never tried achieving zen. But when you’re walking for 5-6 hours, day after day through beautiful fields with mountains in the distance, it tends to find you. At times I reached a state of existing purely in the moment, almost a part of the landscape. The future was unknown and didn’t matter, the past forgotten; awareness of my aching feet faded. I forgot my destination and even my reason for being there. The mere act of walking became purpose, and brought with it a soft glowing inner happiness. If that is zen, I can tell you it doesn’t lead to any blinding epiphanies. But over time, and interspersed with conversation and reflection, nebulous inklings and feelings solidify until they become amazingly clear; you come to understand yourself.

I had a fascinating conversation with a grain farmer. He spoke with revulsion about the “fake farmers” who raise battery hens on growth hormones. A true farmer has reverence and pride in what he grows, he doesn’t defile nature in the pursuit of money. This farmer was unexpectedly positive about wind turbines, and suggested that many farmers are actually jealous of them- energy companies pay several grand a year for each turbine on your property and they require no maintenance. He aggressively told me to wash my mouth out when I asked whether any of his crops were genetically modified. He had an ideological hatred for Monsanto which seemed to transcend the necessity for rational explanation. It’s a sentiment often voiced even by liberals, and something I find particularly frustrating as a geneticist. Having had a vague background in pest management, I asked out of curiosity which insecticides the farmer uses. This was a mistake and caused him to clamp right up. I wish I knew how I’d offended him.

On the seventh night we formed a sharing circle around the campfire and opened up about why we were here. I’ve never felt closer to a group of people. I wish I could repeat everyone’s stories here in detail, but sadly it’s not my place. I hope though their owners keep finding the courage to tell them.

It came out that many in the group had gone through true hardship. Someone had been in the CFA and had their first call-out during the Black Saturday bushfires. They experienced first-hand the unapproachable heat of that inferno and saw the devastation of everything in the community afterwards- the land, the homes, the people. Someone had been the victim of police brutality; someone else had spent time in Kenya helping AIDS sufferers. We heard from a civil engineer who’d left his job in the coal industry two years ago because he could no longer live with the moral compromise. Others had left jobs for similar reasons. Several people had gone through periods of despair, anger, even clinical depression, brought on by the magnitude of fighting climate change and the sense of isolation. A father in the group brought up that it takes a whole community to raise a child, and that’s when it hit me: we were a community. I looked around at the fire-lit faces, most of which I’d never seen prior to this walk, and realised that I trusted and cared for them all, would fight for them. Together, we were the remedy to our problems. We needed each other, and now here we were. It was an incredible feeling.

That same night, hearing everyone’s most private moments, I kept asking myself: why? Why why why, why am I here? Utilitarian rationalism wasn’t a good enough answer. People’s stories about family got me thinking about my own and especially my mother. She was the one who had taken me when I was still in high school to see An Inconvenient Truth; the film that had opened my eyes and finally given me a cause. I’d always credited that film with changing my life, but just then something deep inside me cracked, and I realised I’d been missing a crucial point all this time. It wasn’t just the film; it was also my mother, the person who had taken me there, who’d sacrificed so much to raise me and who had instilled me with her values.

Suddenly I could see her from decades ago, from long before I was born, when she was still an activist with Friends of the Earth, fighting passionately in the Save the Whales campaign. At the time it was the most important issue for my mother- something which didn’t directly affect her in the slightest. Despite this, despite it being a different species, it was worthwhile.

Maybe I’d just answered my altruism question.
It was as simple as compassion.
If you have compassion, or can be taught it, the rest falls into place.

And then I knew why I’d come there, to that dark farm in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t because Al Gore had told me to. It was because my beautiful mother had taught me to care beyond myself. She was getting older now, but I had taken up the torch and would carry on her same struggle with everything I had.

As the airport comes into sight I glance down and catch sight of a scar on my pinky that I got on the second day. The support vehicle had blown a tyre and I scratched myself on the shredded wire inside. Who knew tyres have wire in them? I watch the sodium lights play across my tanned arms and wonder whether this time it’s real, or just more engrained dirt and sweat and sunscreen that will wash off in the shower.

It’s going to be difficult reintegrating into society. I’ll have to keep reminding myself that in the real world it’s not acceptable to casually urinate on a bush in broad daylight. Nor is it the done thing to poke at a friend’s wound, or enthusiastically discuss your bowel movements- although, on that note, there’s something weirdly satisfying about digging your own hole to poo in and covering it afterwards. Cats are definitely on to something. I’ve toyed wistfully these past few days with the idea of quitting my job. I can’t see how I’ll be able to endure it now that I’ve experienced something that feels so real and meaningful. I’m trying to remind myself that everyone has to work a job to get by and you’re damn lucky if it’s not menial. Similarly, now that I’ve met so many amazing like-minded people, I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep my values to myself as I’ve done for years. How can I explain to my work colleagues or friends what this experience meant? Apathetic selfishness will once again infuriate me.

I suppose the feelings from this walk will fade over time as I return to normality once more. But whatever happens, I vow to keep a secret flame going inside me, for my new family, and for the journey we shared.