Old habits die hard

That’s such a popular saying. It means that it’s hard to change habits you’ve had for a long time. And it makes sense too if you think about it—skills we learn as children make up who we are as adults.

One such skill I acquired, quite early on in life, was swimming. My mother, like most over-zealous parents, hoping I’d become a smart athletic one day, signed me up for a swimming club. I was perhaps five or six.

The poor instructor spent many an hour in the water, trying hard to get me to co-operate with him. I wouldn’t. About four years later, I still hadn’t learnt anything except that the canteen had delectable fish pastry and ice-cold chocolate milk.

Undeterred, my mother signed me up for the school swimming classes. It was a free service offered by a school-sponsored instructor, and it completely eliminated my potential plea about wasted fees.

I had no way out.

So I learnt to swim. The instructor was exceptionally skilled, and started us off on the baby pool. Because it was so shallow, it was so easy to wade in the water and get accustomed to kicking and arm strokes.

I even began enjoy swimming.

The school instructor had managed to achieve what the paid instructor couldn’t for years.

Not long afterwards, life happened and I had to give up swimming.

Fifteen years later, I signed up for a different swimming club. Yesterday. In Canberra.

That’s when I realised: old practices don’t just come back after all those years. I spent almost 30 minutes in the pool, too scared to swim. Memories from my old swimming club rushed into my head, swelling into my chest, reminding me of that paid instructor who never succeeded.

Today I went back. This time, I headed to the wading pool—the shallow one, equivalent to the baby pool. I practiced on my own. Replaying the old instructions in my head—powerful arm strokes, kicking, breathing in while my face is out of the water and blowing out bubbles when in. It took me about 20 minutes, but by the end of it, I’d done it. I’d recalled a large portion of my swimming lessons.

I’m not finished yet. I still have at least a few more self-learning sessions in the wading pool before I can go back to swimming properly again.

So yes, old habits do die hard. But once they die, it can be quite challenging to revive them too.

Let there be light

Every year in March, Canberra goes up in lights.

Or so I hear—it’s my first time.

However judging by others’ nonchalance at the nation’s iconic buildings illuminating some of the world’s popular artwork, it’s nothing new.

Enlighten Canberra is a festival dedicated to illuminating many parts of the city for an entire week. Sponsored by Singapore Airlines and ActewAGL, the leading electricity provider for the Australian Capital Territory, the festival features a range of events proven to treat the entire family.

  • Kids' kaleidoscope - Enlighten Canberra
  • Illuminated figure - Enlighten Canberra
  • Giant snail - Enlighten Canberra

A major part of the festival is the night noodle markets, where about 20-30 food stalls showcase steaming soul soothers and bone-chilling beers in a backdrop of live music that ranges from rock and roll to pop to local jazz.

But food, music, and picnic blankets are the highlights of most festivals.

Enlighten is different.

For you see, last Friday, on the first day of the festival, major buildings in the country all lit up at exactly 8 pm.

It all started at Questacon, the science museum for kids and oldies alike. The chief minister of ACT made a speech, as you do for these things, and hit the big red button that officially kicked off the festival. At that moment, other buildings across the city—like the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy (more familiar as the old parliament house), the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the Australian National Archives, and the current parliament House of Australia—all featured jaw dropping illustrations.

Australian Parliament House illuminated for Enlighten Canberra, 2020
Australian Parliament House

It wasn’t all. Throughout the evening, these buildings continued to shower their audience with picture-perfect moments that many a photographer has already drooled over. The hashtag has reached the point of over-usage, fuelled not only by professionals with long exposure digital SLRs, but also by self-educated, self-made, and self-centred teenage freaks and Instagram frequents.

Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House)

The show goes on for nine days, coming to a grand finale on Monday the 9th of March, on Canberra Day.

That day is the beginning of the rest of this celebratory month, where every day from 6 am, hot air balloons grace the skies, showing off to the rest of the world the impeccable clarity of the Canberran sky.

I can’t wait.

Self-remedial

Therapeutic green,
as far as the eye can see—
nature heals, us too.

Chasing trail

I recently discovered the joy of trail running. Although, to be honest, I only started running for pleasure in November. Which, now that I think about it, could’ve been a way to procrastinate. 

You see, I write for pleasure. Opinions, short stories, challenging flash fiction with stringent word limits, and lots of haiku. I’ve also somehow managed to draft a mini novel of about 30 something thousand words. Now I wonder if running was my way to run away from editing the damn thing.

It may have been one of the reasons. The other is, of course, people telling me it’s too hard and I couldn’t do it.

Well, I can. Charged by my inner egomaniac and a metaphoric hair flip, I now run every day to prove to myself that I indeed can. And it was on one of those days, that I realised I like running on a hard hiking trail more than on a sheen of supposedly-seamless foot path. 

It was a fine day in the height of summer—about two or three weeks ago—when hundreds of volunteers were still battling raging bushfires in every corner of the country. I’d woken up late. So when I stepped onto my usual route, the foot path, it was so hot I couldn’t stand the heat. (I know, how ironic that I can’t tolerate 26 degrees when I grew up in a 30-degree country. Celsius.) That’s when I noticed that the mildly-raggedy trail that ran parallel to the foot path, flooded with the shade of gum and other trees I’ll never remember the names of.

So I took to that instead. As I started off, much slower than my regular pace, I felt the obvious difference. The ground didn’t throw back the stubborn resistance of the concrete-laden foot path I’d become accustomed to. It was more giving, in a sense, and forgiving as I lurched myself on to it. I felt the gravel and sand flex underneath my feet, and even though I was often stepping on uneven surfaces, I soon learnt to navigate through it.

Now I enjoy every moment of the experience. 

Of course, I’m no expert. I’ve only run on two different trails so far, but I’ve been doing it enough of times to know I wouldn’t give it up.

The reason?

Trails are amazing personalities. Not only does a trail pave an albeit challenging way, for the runner, but it’s also a constant reminder of how entwined we are with nature. 

When I run on the foot path, I run over well-laid tar and concrete that’s meshed and designed to satisfy humans. It’s such an engineered path that we take it for granted—it has to be perfect and entirely accommodating to our needs. 

The trail, however, is wild. We’re not the master there—the roots of a hundred-year old tree is. In the trail, you don’t kick aside a twig or cut down a tree so you can have your own  way. Instead, nature forces you to swivel and adjust and hope that the harsh realities of the terrain don’t give you sore feet or a broken ankle. When you’re on a trail, you have to respect nature. 

Even the little things, like Sweetgum nuts can roll underneath your shoe and prick their way in to your sole. Or a broken piece of branch that looks deceptively frail can twist your ankle harder than you can imagine. 

On the flip side, on a trail you are slow. Like an overweight dog, as you waddle your way through the wilderness, you notice… everything. Flowers smell more sweeter than before, ants strut ahead of you, and screeching galas crowd overhead clouding your vision of the clear blue sky for just one moment. It’s pristine, and you have an unmatched sense of engaging with nature.

That’s why trail running is so appealing. On my now usual route, I run over the roots of a few ancient trees. They pop out of the ground, like an angry, pulsing vein, with space enough only for four-five toes between them. As I gingerly tip toe over the roots as thick as my fingers, a rush of affection to nature engulfs me—how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things! 

That’s enough to squash any egoistical maniac. 

National Multicultural Festival

Volunteering is the best way to experience a new society, right?

So when the Multicultural Festival came around, I signed up as a general volunteer—you know, the ones wearing a red festival t-shirt and a hat, and a lanyard too large for their body—wandering around the perimeter smiling at those gorging on meat on a stick, sipping their beer before stepping away so that it doesn’t spill over before they reach their friends. 

The festival started at 4 pm last Friday, with cultural performances and food stalls all the way through 11 pm. When I showed up at 4, a half hour earlier than the start of my shift, the place thronged with a hum of excitement. The sun sprawled on us as volunteers scattered throughout the city circle, taking their positions, armed with brochures, information packs, while the area wardens double-checked their walkie talkies, strapped on and ready to go.

The moment I stepped out into the festival ground, I regretted not carrying my water bottle. The festival organisers had done a tremendous job of setting up water filling stations every few metres, but without my bottle, I didn’t stand a chance. When at last I gave up my ego and picked up a plastic water bottle, drained and desperate, I promised never to do that again. 

It didn’t take me too long to study the festival map. Six stages with three or four tents that accommodated smaller performances, spread across five major streets in the city centre. I’d walked around that part of city enough of times to know what lay where, and after two complete rounds, I’d memorised the locations of each stage.

Equipped with so much information, I began wandering. For that was my role as a general volunteer. I was to walk around with a welcoming smile, answering questions, and helping out anyone in distress. It had all seemed easy and fun on paper. And yet as I walked around I felt myself suffocating under the smoke of charred meat, barbecue and grilled citrus waffling throughout the streets, mingled with the joyous cries of lolly-sucking kids and the satisfied lip-smacking of bratwurst-wolfing adults.

On my right, noodles were sizzling, fried with eggs and chicken. From the left came yells advertising crepes—savoury and sweet—French, with gluten-free and vegan options. Baos, or steamed buns, weren’t too far away, sitting right next to the street food extravaganza of masala dosa and curry. A little further were Croatian beers, Sydney ice-cream, Ethiopian lentils and beef stews with flavoured injera.

Row after row showcased food from all over the world, in various shapes and sizes—from pulled pork burgers to the so-called healthy zucchini fritters, from paella to pan-friend momos, from fresh-squeezed orange juice to vodka-infused lemonade.

  • Greek coffee at the National Multicultural Festival

Overwhelming is an understatement. For five hours, I let the crowds push me from one place to another, as I tried to find my way through, only wanting to return to my starting point. As I left the festival that evening—four hours before the performances ended for the day—I was ready to hit the bed and not return for my shift the next day. I didn’t want to volunteer ever again.

But on Saturday afternoon, I arrived again, signed in to my shift three hours early, and started patrolling the grounds, looking for something more engaging than dead meat. Fortunately, that second day was the best.

In most cultural events that are advertised on Facebook with flyers abound and hashtags galore, people throng in thousands, flashing cameras at dancers as if they’d never before seen a blend of colours or beaded jewellery. Our impression of culture is often so stereotypical that we can’t imagine anything beyond a stage performance featuring slender female dancers and flavoured meat.

However, this multicultural festival tried to showcase some genuine culture. Not only did it feature music and food from various countries, but it also accommodated embassies of various nations. Why, one of the most popular aspect of the event—aside from the German beer and sausages—was the EU village. For an entire day, a large section of the festival hosted embassy stalls where delegates and foreign representatives shared brochures, travel advice, traditional information, and snacks. They even gave away free EU passports at the European Union tent—a fun activity for the young and the older where you could walk your way through all the tents of the EU countries and get your passport stamped at each tent.

  • National Multicultural Festival, Canberra - 2020

A little later that day came the iconic Multicultural Festival Parade. As the name suggests, it’s a tremendous walking and dancing display of culture by the many countries that call Canberra (and Australia) home. From indigenous musical representatives to Chinese dragon dance, to Korean music, south Indian drumming, Bulgarian dancing, Brasilian samba, belly dancing, and more, the entire parade was a blurry flourish of colour.

Each of the six main stages represented a region. For instance, stage five was for African and Pacific Islander performances, food, and crafts, whereas stage two and its surrounds featured Celtic performances and Scottish traditional foods, information, and dance troupes.

Day two was more satisfying than the first one.

When I woke up on Sunday, hoping to make it on time to hear some multi-lingual poetry at 10 am, I realised I’d been stressing myself out. I had to lie in bed until I had to leave. My shift was to start at 1pm and I checked in 10 minutes prior.

Having spent two whole days at the festival without staying anywhere long enough to enjoy any performance completely, I’d decided to let it all go and have fun.

The section I stood at featured the Greek community and culture. From Zorba dance and olive pastries to sipping black traditional Greek coffee, I had a wonderful time, nodding to tunes I’ll never get out of my head. 

As I waddled over to the Latin American zone, loud maracas and drums invited me with floral t-shirts and unpronounceable words. It was the most warm and welcoming experience I’ve ever had. Charged by my volunteer status, I walked right to the front—not because I was being an arsehole, but because being 5 feet and a couple of inches, in a crowd, I can’t see anything other that people’s sweaty, muscly, arms. 

While the groovy Peruvian music troupe sang and danced, the audience had a party of its own. People in all kinds of clothing set their bags on the ground to jump onto the dance floor. It was a perfect amalgamation of traditions—performers came from various Latin American countries and the audience featured black, white, and all shades of the brown in between.

National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020
National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020

As the festival wound to a close, I’d changed my mind about volunteering. I’d so it all again next year, but now that I know the scale of the event, I’ll be more strategic about channeling my energy and enjoy the event. 

After all, what good is volunteering if we don’t have fun?