Winter’s almost over in Canberra, and since the start of June, I’ve been entertaining the possibility of a half-rant, half-awe blog post marvelling the mystic that is this season. It was my first winter, and along with everything I expected, it was also every bit as unexpected.
From waking up at 4 am with numb feet, to feeling my innards shivering in the late afternoons, partly in hunger and partly in the unfamiliarity of the nail-biting weather, every day of the last couple of months has been an adventure.
I’d wake up at seven am, and the sun wouldn’t show up until at least ten past. And even before I could get back to the comfort of my insulated, carpeted bedroom, the sun would be gone, shrouded in mist and icy breeze.
Though I was comfortable—with lifesaving heating and miraculous thermal socks—my feet and palms were almost always chilly. As if they were entities separate from the rest of my body. While thermal socks prevented the cold from getting onto my feet, it also arrested the lingering cold, like a shadow unshakeable even in the pitch of darkness.
It didn’t take long for the tiniest of my toes to lose warmth. Unless directly placed under the sun or hot shower, they remained solid and distant. The first few seconds of warm water on my feet would feel cold. It’d take a while for the heat to permeate the blanket of chillness.
That’s when I realised winter’s real power. It was eleven degrees, felt like nine, and yet the UV index was high enough to slow-burn the skin.
Now, though, I awake at 5:30, and there’s light on the horizon. Pinkish shards shoot through the sky, hitting me right in the face as a dart on a target board, paving way for the warm glow of orange morning, elbowing its way past the silver linings, as hopeful soldiers in the border. By the time I set to work, heatwaves pierce through my window, ricocheting ultra-violetness into my messy room, revealing crumbs from dinner and sheared strands of stray hair.
Winter’s gone, and it’s left me rather bittersweet.
When my friend heard I’d been in Australia for four months and hadn’t seen a live kangaroo (I’d only seen dead ones along the highway), she took it upon herself to fix my life.
We were going to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, the day after it snowed in Canberra. When I woke up (much later than usual), sunlight was streaming through the blinds I’d drawn the previous night. Jumping to my feet in panic, I coffeed, stretched, and showered in record time. Unboxing my thermal t-shirt that’d been shelved for almost a couple months, I told myself it was time to layer up.
By the time I got out the door, jacket, beanie, moisturiser, and some sourdough stuffed into my backpack, my friend and her husband had been waiting for 30 minutes.
It was a cold Saturday afternoon, and even though the sun faked bravado, it was no use in the face of gale winds the speed of 50km/h. End-winter sure seemed worse than mid-winter, and I shivered as the breeze nuzzled through my wet hair strands. Apologising profusely, I snuggled into the warmth of air conditioning.
And we were off. All the way to Tidbinbilla to see kangaroos and whatever else we could set our eyes on. And boy, what a journey it was.
Road trips excite me unlike any thing else. While most people would chatter, laugh, and nod away to wonderful music, I’d rather let my aimless eyes wander as we pass by fields upon fields of green and brown smeared trees, peeling white eucalyptus barks striking power poses against the dotted blue skies. Beauty of such kind hits me dumb. And sure enough, as we waded our way through the curving street, weaving through yellowish greenery that defied all rules of winter, bright and nourishing like citrus-infused broccoli, all I could do was stare at the unapologetic expanse of nature.
A sudden “look!” from my friend turned our heads. Two large flightless, fright less, birds, their heads down, mushroom backs protruding, hunted the ground for edibles. I’d only seen emus in pictures before. We swerved out of the street and parked in a campsite nearby. We waddled our way into the wilderness, and I soon gave up trying to avoid squashing the ubiquitous droppings that made up our path. The birds cared naught about the three shivering, decked up, humans that’d invaded their privacy. We watched as one of them stepped over sticks and stones with its lanky feet, webbed toes flipping ever so slightly in the breeze. The other dropped a massive shit storm, thoroughly unabashed by its nakedness.
As we explored our surroundings, we walked into more droppings, some set and square, some round and rolling, some wet, most dry and smashed, blending into the rain soaked grasslands.
And then we stopped. A mob stared at us from the distance. From no where, kangaroos had galloped over and paused in their pursuit of jumpiness to turn around and offer us a glance. I was elated. I looked squarely into the curious eyes of an adolescent kangaroo standing behind a thin, weak-limbed tree, and it looked back, just as fascinated about me as I was about it. A few others had stopped too, looking around at different directions before hopping away into the trees. But my kangaroo friend held my gaze for a good five seconds before dismissing my interest in a flurry of sand rising from its jumping feet. I swelled in joy—I’d seen a kangaroo at last. And it had seen me back too.
I couldn’t wait to get to Tidbinbilla. I was addicted, craving more.
When we got there about fifteen minutes later, the kangaroo abode was our first stop. Three of them sat in a field of emptiness. What more could they want? We stepped out of the car, snuggled into beanies and rain jackets, and approached the closest one. It didn’t even look up at us. So intent was it on the uninteresting sheen of grass at its feet. Afraid of startling it, we remained still, watching its mundane nibbling. As still as us, the rest if its body stood unflinching, even though patches of its fur flurried in the icy wind. Watching it eat its boring food was less boring than I’d imagined. And so we stood for a good few minutes, observing what was clearly a feast, when suddenly a pink sausage poked out between its feet. Like accidentally putting your hand in hot water, the pink whatever pulled right back in as quickly as it had shot out.
My friend and I exchanged raised eyebrows. Our minds wandered through ungraceful plains trying to discern what that could’ve been. As if to clarify, something rummaged and we realised it was a pouch hosting a living being within. Affirming, a slender tail, like a single strand of rice noodle, slithered out before it went back into the comfort of its home. It was the most pristine moment of life, and we watched for quite a long time, waiting, hoping, the joey would grace us with its face. And it did. First came the tiny nose, followed by pin pricks for eyes and a dollop of ears. Poking its head through the pouch, it tried to grab a particularly long thread of grass that seemed to tease, just beyond its reach. And all the while, the mother grazed on, unaware or unperturbed by the weight in her belly getting hungry. Unsatisfied with the spread before her, she galloped away to the other side of the field, her joey still protruding in curiosity.
And I felt complete. I’d seen more than a kangaroo. I’d seen life in its most natural form, in its undomesticated, unaltered state.
For the next three hours, we walked along a few trails, spotting wallabies, a group of koala bears, one of which shuffled about with a joey of her own on its back, a bandicoot, and a few platypuses plopping in and out of the water. And throughout, alternating rain, snow, and a freezing wind brushed against our faces, pushing us forward, testing us, encouraging us, and numbing our bodies and minds with its suffocating beauty.
Having inhaled a cup of coffee, we pulled out of the reserve and were heading out into the open road when another “look!” screeched the tires. The day wasn’t over—for there sat one on a roof and another on a Eucalyptus tree, two kookaburras their yellow and brown stripped tails flipping, blue patches flashing, as if nature, unable to assign a colour to the bird, had thrown in a bit of everything.
Like most teenagers who didn’t have many friends to hang out with after work, I developed an interest in cooking as a way to entertain myself. Almost every recipe I saw (that I liked) involved tools I didn’t have access to, like a grill, a waffle maker, stand mixers, oven—you get the idea.
Most Asian homes don’t have those appliances—and more importantly, they have no use for them in their kitchens. Generations of Indians lived full, healthy, and happy lives eating wholesome meals without even setting eyes on a microwave or an oven. Cooking heat came from firewood stoves and kerosene or oil lamp burners, both almost extinct now. Modern homes have induction or gas stoves. As a child I sat beside my mother watching her blow through a kerosene stove awaiting the water to boil.
On a side note, she also had a vintage oven in which she baked buns—buttered with a sesame-strewn crust—for us each week, but it was still a phenomenon in a society far more accustomed to traditional cooking methods.
By the time I was old enough to understand its functionality, my mother’s oven had fallen prey to rust and disuse. That’s why the oven fascinated me so. When I saw a video of bread rising behind the glass, as a flower to the sun, my heart swelled in longing. Buying an oven went right on top my list.
But it was also an investment and my inner miser took long enough to weigh the benefits and the possibilities of me making optimum use of the purchase. After years of being on my need-to-buy list, my inner logic won, pushing the oven to the more idealistic nice-to-have-but-high-maintenance list. And so, despite spending almost four years wishing, I never bought an oven.
Then as planned my move to Australia, I realised an oven was a household staple in the first world. Of course, that’s why every recipe called for preheating at 400 degrees F or 200 degrees C. My joy knew no bounds. I couldn’t wait to get started, to bake my aches away, to watch bread that I kneaded rise to the occasion.
Except, it took me over two months to pluck the courage to open the oven.
It was the first thing I saw in the kitchen. Unmissable, wide and thick-skinned, with knobs and symbols, and a clock that showed the wrong time—the oven was too much to take.
The oven, an appliance I’d imagined to love and cherish, felt alien and condescending. For the love of bread I couldn’t figure out what the symbols meant. How hard was it to add explanatory text in there? And why was the fan so big, staring at me as I peeped in, as though from behind soot-studded bars?
It was scary. I forgot all about the wonderful recipes I’d planned—choosing instead to cradle the comfort of the pot. Who needs roasted pumpkins when you could boil them instead? After all, the result was the same—softness, edibility.
And so it was a whole two months before my housemate, trying hard not to snigger at my ancient reluctance to modern equipment, explained the symbols and nudged me to live a little.
And since then I’ve been roasting chickpeas, baking crackers from intended cookie dough, making crispy onion flowers, and toasting oats with tahini and Vegemite (trust me, it’s good stuff if you like savoury stuff). I’ve been on an experimental rampage, throwing everything in the oven, testing temperatures, resting my palms in the glass as winter raged outdoors, and appreciating the oven for its might.
Then one day, too confident to wear oven mitts, I used a cloth to pull out the tray, singeing a small part of skin on the tray above it. It wasn’t painful for I’d pulled my hand out instantly. But the scar lingers, as a visual reminder of my adventures with the oven, with the power of heat, a power beyond my control, a power that I took for granted—that we all often take for granted.
As I look at the scar now, weeks later, I think of my carelessness, but also my growth as an individual. In just a few months, I’d gone from not knowing what an oven is to being so comfortable that I shrug off a small burn without a flinch.
Not to underestimate the importance of kitchen safety, but I can’t help but amuse myself of how ingrained the oven’s become in my life. It’s a reflection of a bigger picture—a sign of my adapting to a new society, and melding in without much friction.
We seldom realise it in our everyday rush, but when you’ve moved to a new place, things that once overwhelmed you soon become part of you. I paused to realise: that’s how oven and I are now.