Archive for January, 2010

No insects

Every Tuesday in Singapore, like clockwork, they spray the entire country for mosquitoes. People are sent reminders in the mail to close their windows on Tuesdays so the spray doesn’t get in. On the streets I’ve seen them do it – the men with masks and these long, two-handed metal implements that look like a more delicate version of wipper-snippers, waist-deep in the manicured vegetation on the roadsides.

Roughly 500 mosquito inspectors are employed by the state to comb individual houses and gardens looking for stagnant water. People are fined steadily increasing amounts if they neglect their properties and allow water to pool and mosquitoes  to breed, particuly Aedes mosquitoes, which are the ones that carry and transmit Dengue fever – the prevention of which is the main motivation  behind this rigorous mosquito control. It’s a serious problem in this part of the world, Dengue fever, and Singapore does not mess around with these sorts of things. If the Singaporean government decides it wants to obliterate every mosquito on its little island and find a vaccine for a disease that infects an estimated 50 million people a year, just wait, it’ll happen.

As a result, there are no insects, at least not in the area my father lives. No ants tracing tiny holes in the pavement or displacing the sand in the grouting. No flies. No mosquitoes. Or very few, anyway: the itch of a mosquito bite feels as alien as revolution there.

Every time I talk to anyone about Singapore, the conversation follows a similar structure.

“So yeah, I stopped over in Singapore too. Just for a few days on the way there.”

“Oh, wow, Singapore. That place is weird, hey.”

And then we’ll nod in agreement and maybe say something about way the whole place seems to be made of shopping centres, or start discussing the benevolent dictatorship that runs the place, or the sheer cleanliness of everything. One of us might mention the way nobody ever does anything wrong there and then the conversation will turn to the heavy and often barbaric punishments underlying this incredibly polite and orderly society – the pervasive but unspoken zero-tolerance policies that form an invisible shroud over every warning sign and every graffiti-less wall – and this will be blamed for the strangeness of the place.

Last year, when I was working on an oil rig up in the Timor Sea, I noticed a similar alien sense to the place that I couldn’t quite figure out the source for. I just assumed it came from the fact that I was on a giant hunk of industrial metal in the middle of the ocean with no sign of land and the same 100 people day in and out. But one night, at 2 or 3am, I was wandering around the empty and windowless accommodation blocks, spot-cleaning the walls, when I went to clean off what I thought was a smudge. The smudge, however, thought otherwise and flew off of the wall of its own accord and up towards the light. It was a moth and, until that moment, I hadn’t seen one of those for a full two weeks.

I suddenly realised that what made being on the rigs so strange was the complete lack of any sort of micro-system. The fact that, apart from the occasional lost flock of birds who found their way onto the helideck, there was no living thing in the whole place smaller than a human. (And being a skinny female on a rig full of giant rig men – I was among the smallest of those.)

The image of that moth stuck with me so strongly I wrote a tiny poem about it about a month after I returned home:

Metal on Water

I

There was the night the birds showed up.
They never landed, just hung above the sharks;
running wing feathers over the draft that held them
like fingers over fences.

II

On the inside,
somewhere between the galley and the stairwell,
I scare my first moth from the wall.
Realise, I’ve gone two weeks without insects.


When I first arrived in Singapore this time around, on my first day there, I didn’t really go outside. This was partly because I had things to organise and look into and this was an indoor activity, best done on my laptop in my father’s air-conditioned living room. But it was also because the absence of insects, the amniotic temperatures, the perfectly constructed, dustless streets of the place mean that indoors and outdoors are almost identical in Singapore.

Why go outside? You have everything you need right here.

– Zoe Barron

Fear of Airports

I almost didn’t make it out of the country. I’m travelling on my Canadian passport because my Australian one is with the Czech consulate getting a visa put in it (which takes 60 days if you’re lucky and they’re being quick about it) and it turns out customs don’t like letting  Australians out of the country without their Australian passport. The customs woman did the whole calling her supervisor over who sat me down in a chair to the side and made calls on his walkie-talkie while examining the photocopy of my Australian passport I had pulled out of my check-in bags in a last minute, just-in-case decision.

I have a terrible fear of air travel. Not the flying bit but the bit before – all the stuff between arriving on time and getting on the plane. I rather spectacularly missed two planes in a row a couple of years ago and I’ve never fully recovered. I get on a plane maybe three, four, five times a year but I still fall into irrational panics when there’s a sniff of something wrong. “What? No window seats left? Does that mean I’m too late? Is the plane full? Has it already left? Ohmygod ohmygod, I should get to my gate. What’s my gate number? Where’s that? Am I even in the right terminal? Is this the right check-in counter? Are you the right check-in lady? Did I misread the dates on the itinerary? Did my plane leave yesterday? You’re going to let me through, right? Tell me I’m going to get through!”

There’s just so much riding on it – the consequences are so immense and fucking it up is so easy, especially flying internationally. There are so many factors, so many little, bureaucratic details to get wrong. They nearly didn’t let me on the plane to Singapore last year because I had booked my return flight separately and didn’t have a photocopy of the itinerary.

Eventually, suspiciously, after I had explained to him that my passport was going to be sent to me overseas, after long examinations of the photocopies, the customs man let me through. The relief was immense but I could only nod my head, pick up my bags and walk calmly away, lest they see me as a security threat and deport me to Canada or something.

The Label-Maker that Changed My Life

On Saturday morning I came across a garage sale in Brisbane’s West End. There were some entertaining signs gaffa-taped to several of the items but most of the stuff was fairly unexciting – some crockery and expensive retro clothes for indie kids. But in the corner, next to the chest-high hooka and under some stairs, was a little green label maker.

“Label things with – LABEL PRINTER – $5” the sign said.

“Hell yes!” I said and quickly bought it. Then I spent a good portion of Saturday night printing labels and climbing street signs. I knew I learned how to climb the poles of swing sets when I was a kid for a reason.

(They’re a little hard to read but I’ve labeled each of the photos so you just have to move your cursor over them to see what the label on the sign says.)

– Zoe Barron

Fish and Dentists

While wandering the streets of Coolum Beach, looking for the dentist, my phone rang. It was the receptionist.

“We’re running early so if you’d like to come in now, that would be great.”

It was ten minutes before my appointment.

“Yep, no worries. Just on my way now.”

I kept walking and found it: Coolum Beach Dental. True to the theme implied by the name, the glass door was decorated by those plastic stick-on pictures of octopi and cheery-looking fish.

Inside, the reception desk was very very red and the walls were very very yellow – primary colours in all their glory. “Dentist” was spelled out on a panel to the right of the desk, vertically against the red in shiny gold cursive. The chairs were the type you get in dodgy train stations. The place looked more like a Chinese take-away than a dentist’s office.

“Hello Zoe!” the receptionist nearly yelled as I walked in. I flinched, hesitated, arranged my face into a polite smile. Mentally prepared to let these people into my mouth with power tools.

I was directed straight in. The dentist and nurse were both grey-haired with mad-scientist sort of European accents. They bantered as they drilled.

“She’s giving him all of her love,” the dentist said, commenting on a song playing on the radio.

“That’s what she does,” the nurse replied.

“Still, you have to admire that sort of commitment.”

The nurse nodded. “You do.”

A wide-screen television was fasted to the ceiling with what looked like bungie cords. On it, fish were swimming passively around a reef. The camera never stuck with one fish for very long and there was no narration or storyline or action of any kind. It was the sort of stock footage made for museums or tourist centres to create a more colourful atmosphere. It was not supposed to be watched closely for any period of time, and it wasn’t too helpful in distracting me from the dentist drilling into my face.

“Please try to relax,” he said, grinding away at a molar. “Please, try to relax your bottom lip. It will make it much easier for us if you do this. Relax, watch the fish.”

I watched the fish. I tried to relax. But I didn’t want pretty, passive things. I wanted something to eat something else – violently, with lots of blood. I wanted there to be as much horror and devastation on the screen as there was in my mouth. But the fish just kept nonchalantly twirling their little fins around, softly knocking against each other, looking at nothing with their dumb, gaping eyes. A shark casually cruised past, probably swinging them a neighbourly wave as he went, while the hot fumes of something smelling strongly like superglue rose from what was left of my poor molar.

– Zoe Barron

All the things you don’t look for

There’s a large patch of National Park behind where Mum lives. Sketched through it are sandy fire breaks and this morning the two of us got up early and went for a walk along a few of them to Lake Weyba: a shallow, salt-water lake.

Mostly the park is low scrubland and sandy soil, the occasional break in foliage offering views of vast, harsh tracts of it. The trails grew more narrow as we got closer to the lake and we barely found the one that lead directly to the water. But, after some careful footing and a few unfortunately placed spider webs, there it was: huge and glossy, boatless and quiet. We sat on a branch stretching out over the water and drank our juice boxes.

We took a different trail on the way back, one that looped around back to the main road and the beach. This followed higher ground and, as we followed the sandy little paths up, we began to see the extent of this funny little patch of land, surrounded on all sides by tourist town and million dollar houses. This patch of land that Mum has lived right next to for fours years at least and probably driven past a hundreds of times.

The view was incredible. To the east was white sand and so much ocean I could hardly stand it. Behind us was the silvery-blue of Lake Weyba, and all around that were the vast dips and rises of perfect, hardly touched scrubland.

It’s amazing how much we don’t see of our own hometowns. The tourists see the popular stuff because they’re looking for it, while us locals don’t need any of that ritzy, hyped up business. We live here. We know our cities and our towns too well. We move to a place and set up shop, get to know what we need to and draw out the boundaries. But what about all that stuff to the side of the road you drive to work on every day? Turns out there’s a lot there if you look.

***

To celebrate my last night on the Sunshine Coast I took myself and a bottle of red down to the beach. There’s no moon at the moment and the stars are clustered so close together they look smudged. I saw a shooting star and thought about all the arriving-in-places-I’ve-never-seen-before I’d be doing soon.

I took my glasses off to smudge the stars some more. After wearing them all day, their boundaries remained, like a ghost limb.  The middle of my vision was forced to join the myopia of my peripheries and it was having trouble adjusting.

When it was time to I walked back to the cul-de-sac my mum lives in. It doesn’t have any street lights – at night, with no moon, it’s this puddle of black to the side of the main road. Mum has finally settled down enough to live in a cul-de-sac, and one with no street lights at that.

I leave here tomorrow for Brisbane and on Monday, at 12:35pm, I’m off.

– Zoe Barron