Shanty time

It’s almost a year since I relocated to Canberra, and even though I’ve become conditioned to many of the everyday lifestyle quirks of living in Australia, this land and people never cease to amaze me.

For the first few months, I engaged in what I can only call aggressive exploration. I wasn’t violent, but I pushed myself to go out, meet people, make friends, and get involved in community activities. I even had a strict rule not to stay indoors during the weekend. As a remote employee, since I worked from home quite a lot during the week, I’d tease myself to go out even if I had no place to go.

Thanks to all that self-possessed desire to belong and become part of Canberra, I made some excellent friends. People who now text me and call me and want to meet up to know how things are with me. It’s wonderful. To be surrounded by people who care enough to spend time listening about my life choices. It’s not always easy to find that in a new, unfamiliar society, and I’m lucky to have that.

And yet, as I approach my first anniversary of arriving here, I’m baffled at the number of things and behaviours that are still so foreign to me.

Like joining a singing club, for instance. One of my friends introduced me to a sea shanty group. I’d never contemplated the idea before: a group of people—government staff, interview scribes, private consultants, business people, retirees, teachers, high-schoolers, and anyone from any walk of life—coming together after work on a Monday night to sing about pirates, the ocean, and seafaring.

I knew nothing about any of it. Aside from the short ferry rides during my travels, I’d never sailed in my life. Yet, there I was at the shanty club, one with the wall, unsure of what to do, why I was there, too nervous, and downright doubtful.

Oh, and did I say shanty club meets at a bar?

I don’t hang out at bars. I’ve never hung out at bars in India. Heck, there wasn’t even a bar where I used to live.

The good thing, however, was that the group was warm and welcoming. It also helped that my first time at the shanty club was in winter, and it was way more fun lounging by the fire and singing (shouting) at the top of my voice than being outdoors. That might’ve even encouraged me to stay the full two hours instead of running away at half time.

We sang about being in South Australia, travelling to England and back, drinking in Aussie pubs, and drowning in rum. It was so much laughter and belly-aching joy. I stuck with my friend because I knew no one else in the room, but as the weeks rolled on, I started recognising regulars, and they, me.

Now, almost a year later, I’m so comfortable with shanty club that I look forward to it. I smile at the bar staff as I walk in, the usuals wave when I arrive, and we indulge in small talk—something unimaginable in the past.

And I have a hell of a time, every time.

The toughest thing about migrating to a new land is navigating negativity without it affecting your sanity. Often, by allowing yourself to have new experiences, you find people and activities you’ll enjoy and cherish. Shanty was one of those things for me.

Emergency warnings

Not long ago, I complained, with such unfailing consistency, about the insensitive intensity of Canberra’s sun. It was less than three months ago, but feels like an eternity already.

When I first encountered the ferocity of the spring sun, I was aghast. Having grown up in a tropical country where it was almost always 30 degrees Celsius during the day, even the coldest time of the year hovered in the late 20s.

I couldn’t imagine what the summer would bring. That’s why Canberra’s 35-degree dry, dry heat drained me from sanity.

However, Like any other person, I learnt tactics to survive the heat. I bought sunscreens and stayed indoors more. I felt reasonably prepared for summer.

Spring sprang, and then before it settled, a hot flash blew it away, replacing it with a heatwave. It was just before the beginning of summer when we first heard instances of bushland going up in flames. And then overnight, one after the other fires swept down national parks, homes, and livelihoods.

Well before the fire season had started, we had more uncontrollable fires than we could comprehend. Numbers made no sense as newscasters spelled out the thousands of hectares of greenery, now scorched. Native Australian wilderness and wildlife went from safe, to endangered, to probably extinct. Not even hope survived.

More than 4000 people spent the first of January in the ocean, the only safe place from the advancing fires. Like a freshly laid bedspread, smoke blanketed the air, ash the ground.

No one could bring themselves to say Happy New Year. Happiness seemed so unrealistic.

In the days that followed, the heat rose from the late 30s to 40s. More than half of Kangaroo Island burnt. Victoria declared a state of disaster. NSW declared a state of emergency, and the ACT, a state of alert. But then, when the Bureau of Meteorology predicted thunderstorms, some of us were thrilled. But most were alarmed. And they were right, too— those storms brought lightning that started more fires. No rain.

The country faced the hottest and driest year ever since record-keeping began. Rapid wind currents fuelled fires all over.

And then one day, Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne had hailstorms. Gigantic balls of ice pelted down from the sky, shattering thousands of car windshields, permanently maiming perfectly good vehicles. Temperatures dropped to less than 20 degrees in a day. Two days later, we soared back to the 40s.

When it seemed like the summer would never end, the city came down in rains. For two days in a row, Canberra has had steady and mild rains, seeping through dry cracks, kissing dusty leaves, and brushing aside soot that had settled on garden patches. Sydney and Melbourne, however, has had far more damaging rains, with flash flooding affecting train routes and landslides uprooting some railway tracks entirely.

Here’re the top news in Canberra in the last seven days:

  • A fire that’s still active, even after burning through 87000+ hectares (870 square km)
  • The spread of Coronavirus
  • More rains recorded in the weekend than the last two years combined
  • Flash flooding across various cities
  • A small earthquake in Western Australia
  • A major cyclone with wind speeds over 200km/hour in Western Australia

Could there be a clearer indication of climate emergency?