It’s scary but nobody cares

I’ve never understood why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.

There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.

This is the opening to ‘It’s Scary but Nobody Cares’, an article about coming to terms with Australia’s reputation for deadliness, published by Griffith Review. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, How to Be Australian. The full piece is free to read now!

Here’s a little bonus I couldn’t squeeze in:
A Snakey handling a snake at the La Perouse Snake Show in Australia
Australians have a delightfully weird relationship with their deadly wildlife. The La Perouse Snake Show is a perfect example of this.

Running once a month for the past century, the snake show takes place inside this rather low fence. Visitors gather around and dangle their children’s legs tantalisingly into the arena, where a ‘snakey’ (the genuine professional term) hauls a variety of live snakes out of brown sacks and gives a little spiel about each of them.

Steve and I happened upon this by accident while visiting this historic part of Sydney, and we were captivated. Particularly when the man said, speaking directly to a potentially lethal snake in the cutesy voice used for puppies and toddlers, ‘You’ve got tiny little fangs, don’t you?’

This country will never cease to enthrall me. Also, I move that all writers be called wordies; it’s got a real ring to it.

Ashley
xo

PS. If you’re keen on hearing about my upcoming author events, plus great reads and book giveaways, sign up for my monthlyish enews.

 

From euphoria to genocide

This month I reviewed the recently released Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad by Canadian author Wendy Elliott. Drawing on archival documents, including personal letters and journals, the book tells the incredible stories of a group of humanitarians working in central Turkey during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

From 1908 to 1923, Ottoman citizens endured ‘two coups d’état, four regional wars, a world war, a war of independence, and a crippling national debt’ – as well as an unprecedented modern genocide. Elliott traces these events with clarity, intrigue, and a wonderful attention to startling detail.

I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her time in Armenia, what drew her to these stories, and what she learned in the process.

1. What first took you to Armenia? What drew you back?
In 2006 I was asked by a Canadian international development agency to go to Vanadzor as a Volunteer Advisor to train a group of women in skills I’d acquired while working in various executive positions in not-for-profit organizations. I was welcomed by them so warmly I immediately felt at home, and I was eager to return. The next year I was invited to Gyumri, and in 2009 I completed two assignments in Yerevan. Canadian funding for the program was discontinued in 2010, or I would have returned regularly.

Author Wendy Elliot in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia
Author Wendy Elliott in Yerevan, Armenia, 2006

2. How did you come to write the story of Susan Wealthy Orvis and her fellow humanitarians?
In 2014, my one-time interpreter and now-friend Kamo Mayilyan heard about Susan Wealthy Orvis, an American missionary who had saved thousands of Armenian orphans after the genocide. We co-authored an article about her, and were contacted by her great niece who had seen it. She offered us access to a hundred-year-old trunk that contained Susan’s original letters from her time in Turkey. From then on, Kamo was determined I should write the book. For many reasons, it took several months of persuasion on his part and research on mine before I accepted.

3. What was the first thing that made Susan appeal to you as a character?
Elliot.jpgI remember the moment clearly. I was reading her unpublished manuscript about her journey to help establish a relief centre in Alexandropol (Gyumri), Russia in 1917. She travelled more than 7,000 miles from Dubuque, Iowa during World War I and the Russian revolution, and I was impressed by her lack of naiveté, her living-by-example style of evangelism rather than proselytizing, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems. But what tipped the scales for me was when, under armed attack, instead of frantically praying for divine salvation, she thought about the psychology of William James and a bear! I was so startled, I laughed out loud. I realized I liked her very much and could spend the years it would take to write the book in her company.

4. Grit and Grace is full of details that range from surprising to shocking, like the man who treated the bullet wound in his leg by stuffing scrambled eggs in it. What details or moments stand out most for you?
I can instantly think of four:
1) nurses Rachel and Blanche’s befuddled attempt at removing tar caps from children’s heads to cure them of favus (a dreadful scalp disease);
2) the horrible conditions of the conscripted Ottoman soldiers in winter, without coats, forced to wrap their feet in rags or go barefoot, fed only a third of a ration, and housed in filthy, vermin- and disease-filled shelters – and still expected to fight battles;
3) the absurd incident in the Marash hospital when the pharmacist, who had once been in the Ottoman army, screamed across the courtyard at a group of Nationalists, “You know it’s not permitted to fire on a hospital! The Director Doctor Madame is very angry about it, and will hold you responsible. The Director says you are to stop firing at once!” and amazingly they did; and
4) the entire village of brave Armenians, Greeks and Turks who defiantly stood together against the gendarmes who tried to deport the Armenian residents, thus forcing the gendarmes to leave empty-handed.

5. What personal lessons came out of writing this book for you?
My parents, who grew up during WWII, always spoke of the duty of a citizen to pay attention to issues and to vote because society can rapidly change for the worse when there is apathy. I was reminded of that while writing about how the Ottoman Empire went from euphoria in 1908 to genocide in 1915 – only seven short years – and as I listened to daily news reports of radical changes occurring around the world, which continue today. But the most profound lesson was to be careful of my speech. Our brains are programmed to find the fastest, easiest way to do something, so it’s natural to make generalizations. However, I learned that saying everyone or always or never is not only not true, it promotes the concept of Us versus Them. And that’s the first step of a slippery slope towards violence. I was careful not to generalize in the book, but I now watch my words in everyday speech, too. I don’t want to contribute even in a small way to a negative or destructive society.

To read the full review of Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, visit Newtown Review of Books. Learn more about Wendy Elliott on her website.

A new life of mud pits and stink water

I recently discovered Anna Altman, an American author with chronic migraines. Altman  perfectly highlights truths like this: ‘Our culture encourages us to think that, if we push ourselves hard enough, we can overcome whatever ails us.’

As she discovered when her migraines became debilitating, it’s simply not true. But we deeply want it to be true, which is why it’s such a pervasive idea. In an essay about living with chronic illness, Altman describes what felt like her ‘failure to bear up under average hardship’ when she could no longer work full time. Yes, I thought. Exactly.

After trying all kinds of doctors and treatments for years with little success, Altman says, ‘I ended up finding that giving in to my limitations and trying to find a meaningful, happy life within them helped a lot.’ Her mother counselled that in spite of what she had to give up, she could make a new life for herself.

Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life was definitely the theme of my recent trip to New Zealand. When I say ‘recent’ I mean two months ago, because this is yet one more way I’ve given into limitations.

Steve and I booked the flights early last year. I suppose we thought I might be significantly better after all those months. We were very optimistic, it turned out.

In the past, planning a trip to New Zealand would have involved researching all the best hiking trails, kayaking spots, and sunrise yoga on the beach. By November though, it was clear I wouldn’t be doing anything physical. We still refer to the mildest incline as my nemesis.

If I couldn’t hike or kayak or swim, if I had to give into those limitations, what could I fill that gap with? What could this new life as a chronically ill person still desperate to travel look like?

Te Ika-a-Maui, New Zealand’s North Island, had a perfect answer: HOT SPRINGS. Living within the limits of chronic illness, traveling to hot springs

This photo from The Lost Spring looks incredibly relaxing, but what isn’t pictured is the chainsaw and wood chipper blasting away on the other side of that wall. It was actually intolerable, since one of my least fun symptoms is noise sensitivity.

But that was okay, because New Zealand has dozens of hot springs, and I’d planned to visit as many of them as possible. Hot springs are definitely within my limitations, as you can see here at Hell’s Gate mud spa, which was blissfully chainsaw free.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in new Zealand

New Zealand is full of options. When you’re done slathering yourself in mud at Hell’s Gate, you can soak in this even smellier sulphur pool. It was super weird and I loved it. Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in New Zealand, sulpgur

At the right time of day, you can visit Hot Water Beach in Hahei and get your able-bodied husband to dig a sand pit that will fill up with geothermically heated water. It seeps out of the ground at 65 degrees Celsius, so dig the pit carefully to make sure some cool ocean water seeps in also.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot water beach in New Zealand

Or just visit a traditional New Zealand cat cafe, where you can spend an hour sitting quietly, drinking a cup of tea, and feeding kibble to 17 cats. Traveling with chronic illness, cat cafe in New Zealand

I was able to see and do a lot while mostly sitting down and relaxing, which meant I felt especially good in New Zealand. I was still disappointed to miss out on sights like Cathedral Cove in Hahei, which was only accessible via a rather vertical one-hour hike or an expensive boat journey that would have been exhausting for me. I stayed in the shade on the beach and Steve hiked up on his own. Traveling in New Zealand Cathedral Cove

All that resting meant I was able to see some of the flatter sights, however. This was especially exciting in Rotorua, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. It’s an active geothermal area, which means all sorts of weirdness goes on. This is a park in the city, where there is a variety of steaming lakes and bubbling mud pits. This steam blows right onto one of the major streets. Travelling with chronic illness to Rotorua, New Zealand

I wasn’t kidding about the mud pits.

To see these sights, I had to walk around. This meant planning carefully and rationing my energy. It worked out. The highlight was Wai-O-Tapu. The website describes this ‘Thermal Wonderland’ as ‘a spectacular showcase of New Zealand’s most colourful and unique geothermal elements sculpted by thousands of years of volcanic activity’ and it is not wrong.

This is Champagne Pool, named for its bubbly constitution. Traveling with chronic illness, Champagne Pool, NZ

And this is Devil’s Bath, which Atlas Obscura describes as a ‘neon green pool of stagnant stink water’ and compares to ‘a cartoonish radioactive dump site’.  traveling with chronic illness, Wait-O-Tapu New Zealand

Trust me, I loved every minute of this. Even the minutes where my symptoms flared in the heat and I struggled to breath after battling a mild incline.

I’m very lucky to have been able to travel to New Zealand at all. Many people with chronic fatigue syndrome and other chronic illnesses wouldn’t be able to. Still, part of me insists that if I push myself hard enough, I can overcome my illness. Every time I try, I make myself worse.

So, welcome to 2019: The Year Of Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life … Again.

PS. In New Zealand, shopping carts are called TRUNDLERS. Really. Made my day.

 

Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.
Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.

This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.

Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door:
The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia
What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!

I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor.
Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti
Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem:
Graffiti in Melbourne Australia
So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!

Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.

Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

Brain worms: A Love Story

I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.

This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.

The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).

A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.

 

Experience the nectar

Bhutan by Ashley Kalagian BluntIn 2015 I visited the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country wedged between China and India, like a pea delicately set between two butt cheeks. Bhutan is world renowned for its Gross National Happiness philosophy, which the government believes is a more important metric than the standard GDP. It’s less renowned for its history of ethnic cleansing, which forced more than 100,000 people out of the country and into refugee camps in the 1990s.

One other notable cultural aspect of Bhutan is that everyone is really into anatomy, specifically one region of male anatomy.  For example, one of the local drinking establishments is named Phallus Bar. Their slogan is  –  this is true  – Experience the nectar of Phallus Bar.

(I didn’t experience the nectar. I kind of regret it.)

Bhutan folk art tooIn villages in Bhutan, if you, as a male property owner, want to indicate to your neighbours that you’re strong and virile, you paint a giant phallus on your house. This is one of those cultural aesthetics that is perfectly acceptable in the region it originated in, but if that same Bhutanese guy were to move to the West, his neighbours may not appreciate his exterior decorating style. Or they might. It really depends what neighbourhood he ends up in.

Bhutan folk artThis obsession dates back to a Bhutanese religious folk hero, the Divine Madman. He was both a Buddhist master and ladies’ man, judging by his reputation as the “Saint of 5000 Women.” The Divine Madman used his “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom” (his term, not mine) to kill evil spirits. He was basically an x-rated Buddhist superhero.

This is all to let you know that in May, a monologue I wrote after my Bhutanese travels is being performed at Voices of Women in Sydney. It’s called “Tonight’s Performance: You’ve Definitely Got Rabies” and it doesn’t require you to know about the Divine Madman, Phallus Bar or anything about Bhutan. But aren’t you glad you do?

 

Scene from a holiday

Winnipeg in winter, under a blanket of snowArriving in Australia to discover four weeks annual leave was standard – plus you might get some extra leave at Christmas, just because – was like getting a hug from a rainbow unicorn. It was not quite Western Europe’s six-week leave extravaganzas, but I wasn’t going to complain.

Except that four weeks of leave in Australia is nowhere near enough. At least not if your family lives in the middle of the Canadian prairies, because you are morally obligated to use at least three of those weeks to visit said family. And getting yourself there involves the modern travel equivalent of paying thousands of dollars to churn your own arm through a meat grinder.

First you must twitch and writhe all the way across the world’s largest ocean and, for the first time in your life, use one of those airsickness bags for its intended purpose (sneakily, so the stranger beside you doesn’t notice). This brings you to LAX, also known as Satan’s Playpen, where, guess what? You’ve missed your connection and your luggage is on its way to Houston. Goodbye, luggage! Enjoy your new life!

You spend six hours facedown on the carpet at Gate 91 until you fly to Minneapolis, where the airport is a mall (excuse me, ‘shopping centre’) next to an even larger mall (excuse me, ‘corporate hate crime’).

It is -27 degrees Celsius in Minneapolis, and you are finally on another plane. But then it stops abruptly just seconds after reversing out of the gate. The plane sits on the tarmac for 20 minutes, and you wonder if they are de-icing the wings with that blue chemical spray that has the same hue as toilet bowl cleaner, because that is an extra thing fun that has to happen in winter climates otherwise you might die.

But no, there is another problem.

‘It seems one of the straps used around the plane’s front tire has gotten stuck because of the cold weather, and wouldn’t you know the ground crew just can’t get it unstuck there, folks,’ the pilot says. ‘They think that if everybody in the first, well, let’s say six rows or so, if everybody could just head to the back of the plane, that might shift the weight and take some of the pressure off that tire.’

It is this sort of technical solution that gives you so much confidence in the aviation industry. Several rows of disgruntled passengers trudge past. The entire plane seems to hold its breath.

‘Well, the ground crew says that worked, so you can return to your seat, folks, and after we get the wings de-iced, we can be on our way.’

You’re so glad you’ve used a year’s worth of leave for this.

 

5017

Picture this: It’s the year 5017. Your coffin is dug up from the mausoleum you built specifically for the purpose of sheltering your earthly remains.
Museum of Old and New Art, HobartIt’s carted to another planet and put on display in a post-modern museum/aquarium where octopuses perform tricks with hula hoops, not because they’re forced to, but because they’re really into it – by that time I imagine whatever the dominant species is, they’ve figured out how to communicate with cephalopods – the point is, how would you feel about your coffin with your remains being on display?

I think it’d be pretty awesome as long as the octopus tricks were tasteful and not, you know, lewd.

 

What I learned in Singapore part 2: how to avoid being sawn in two

In Chinese folklore, there are Ten Courts of Hell that sinners pass through after death. This is according to rather graphic dioramas at Haw Par Villa in Singapore, and not any rigorous research on my behalf.

In part 1, we visited courts one through five. Each court specialises in certain crimes and corresponding punishments. As courts six through ten reinforce, the crimes and punishments can get quite specific.

Sixth Court of Hell  
Crime Punishment
Cheating, cursing, abducting others Thrown onto a tree of knives
   
Misuse of books Body sawn in two
Possession of pornographic material  
Breaking written rules and regulations  
Wasting food  

Sixth court of hell from Ashley Kalagian Blunt's comedy websiteWhether this guy was using his books as doorstops or letting his bananas go spotty was left unstated.

More importantly, check out that torturer’s red patterned tights and jaunty hat. If you’re going to spend your day sawing people in half, do it in style, that’s his motto.

Seventh Court of Hell  
Crime Punishment
Rumour-mongers Tongue pulled out
Sowing discord among family members  
   
Rapists Thrown into wok of boiling oil
Driving someone to their death  
Eighth Court of Hell  
Crime Punishment
Lack of filial obedience Intestines and organs pulled out
Causing trouble for parents or family  
Cheating during examinations  
   
Harming others to benefit oneself Body dismembered

Eighth Court of Hell from Chinese folklore - hilarious

Ninth Court of Hell  
Crime Punishment
Robbery, murder, rape Head and arms chopped off
Any other unlawful conduct  
   
Neglect of the old and young Crushed under boulders

Note that there seems to have been some disagreement when divvying up the crimes among the ten courts. The Seventh Court really wanted to throw rapists into a wok of burning oil (not a bathtub or a whirlpool; a human-sized wok), but the Ninth Court felt it more appropriate to chop their heads and arms off. Is this after they’ve been deep-fried? The Ten Courts of Hell diorama left many questions unanswered.

At the Tenth Court of Hell, sinners receive final judgment. They drink a magical tea to forget their past lives, and then are reincarnated as either nobility, common man, quadruped, fowl, fish or insect.

If I had children, I’d definitely tour them through the Ten Courts of Hell. That way, when they gave me some sass, I could remind them that there’s a demon waiting in the Eighth Court of Hell to pull their intestines and organs out, after which they’ll be reincarnated as a bug. I’d make a great parent.