In Stillness …

Bending into Padahastasana, the energy courses through my legs. In sympathetic unison the crickets count the seconds away.

Listening to the drone of my teachers voice, I feel a gecko scurry over my toes to hunt for moths in the glare of the lights.

Looking up from my book, I see ochre tinged cliffs melting into the jungle below. Fork-tailed swallows flit through the skies chasing insects and cuddle on the roof, sharing chirps of intimacy.

Drifting in the pool, I strain to float effortlessly. Above me, in a haze of yellow and black butterflies, swarms of red dragonflies zigzag across the water.

Playing on the beach, we are joined by two young children. They howl in Thai as we skim a frisbee over their heads and laugh with unspoken pride when they pry the disk from the sky.

Hanging out in an empty pub, we make aimless conversation with the owner. As we laugh and talk a party slowly forms around us, John and Boi on the guitar, Kris and I singing.

Struggling to shape my thoughts into words, I'm approached by a young Indian boy who stares longingly at my computer. To his astonishment I don't have any games installed, instead we entertain ourselves by taking silly pictures while his father looks on and laughs.

Watching children play in the distance with a broken surfboard in the sea. Skimming it across the wash they shriek with laughter each time one of them gets catapulted into the air by an incoming wave.

Sitting, facing north, I close my eyes. I can hear the wind in the trees and feel the beat of my heart as I begin to count my breath.

How We Solve Problems

This description from Newsweek on what happens in our brains when we're creatively solving problems is wonderful. I don't think I could have come up with these words but they describe exactly what it feels like to me when I'm involved in difficult problem solving.

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshalling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

Staying Quit

Not everybody smokes in Indonesia, but it seems like everybody does. Pinched between gnarled fingers or hanging carelessly from lips — stall owners, bikers and touts all peer out at the world through clouds of smoke. Within hours of landing the cloying smell of clove cigarettes has jolted me back back ten years, memories jostling for attention as they flicker before my eyes. Simultaneously my dormant addiction begins wriggling into consciousness, reaching out into my thoughts, looking for leverage to make “yes” the only answer.

My introduction to clove cigarettes was through Kaleigh and her civilised habit of smoking a single Djarum in the evenings. My ignorance was fascinated and I quickly discovered that lounging in the evening sun, a quiet buzz in hand, was the perfect antidote to whatever stresses the day had delivered. I had not yet learned about addiction, how it waits and yearns, how it lingers in the corners never quite allowing absolution. It is images from this honeymoon period, as my addiction and I become acquainted, which now fill my mind.

Driving with Kaleigh from Seattle to Anchorage over the Alcan Highway. We barely knew each other and were trapped in her jeep, desperately trying to keep the conversation alive through two and a half thousand miles of British Columbia's icy wasteland.

At the end of our relationship, standing on my porch and solemnly swearing off women for the next five years, only to meet Teresa less then a month later. Huddling with her on the back steps of Internet Alaska as she bummed cloves from me, the subzero temperatures providing the perfect excuse to sit close enough to kindle an office romance. I still didn't think of myself as a smoker and I remember my confusion when several weeks later she showed up on the steps with a pack of Camels. I discovered that she was an ex-smoker, and she discovered that cloves are three quarters tobacco.

Watching our friend Mark, as he watched Teresa and I, transition from smoking cloves to smoking Camels. No words were spoken but I understood what he had recognised, and why he no longer joined us for the occasional smoke.

Moving to Portland and discovering a city I could love, a city I still miss. Those endless hours with other volunteers from Personal Telco, sitting around and dreaming in bars and cafes about how we were going to build a free citywide wireless cloud with nothing but geek fervour. The collapse of the dotcom era, my friends and I falling in and out of employment as the economy heaved and twisted. Being trapped in a job I didn't yet realise I detested, and failing to adjust to the grim realities of an enterprise support role at a doomed startup. It still astounds me that James had the grace to allow me to work four ten hour days, so I could spend a day each week at home working to help Personal Telco's dreams become reality.

In the stinking hot week of Portland's summer, relaxing barefoot in the shade on our front steps. With sudden conviction I knew that I wanted to have kids, that I wanted to get married and that I'd really like for us to own our own home. Then the bitter realisation that despite a lifetime of privilege and opportunity, I had nothing but memories to show for it. In those moments I lost the sense that I had all the time in the world, I robbed myself of the freedom to let every experience unfurl in its own time. Years later I realise that there are many things right with having nothing but memories to show for your life.

The honeymoon ended the first time I tried to quit, and failed, but the memories don't stop.

My first extended travels — three months with Teresa chain smoking through England, France, Holland, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. My failed proposal attempt at the Eiffel Tower and a successful one in the Coromandel. Successfully quitting with Teresa at the end of our travels. Becoming a smoker again through the final months of our marriage and plunging into the abyss of divorce.

Modern etiquette won't let me say that that smoking was a good companion, but it has been a companion. As I write this I'm shocked at how much of my life has been spent as a smoker. How many memories I can conjure of me with a fag in one hand and a coffee or beer in the other.

I remember reading in Wired that a big tobacco executive thought that he was going to get rich creating genetically modified tobacco that didn't have any nicotine. Cigarettes that are just as dangerous but not addictive. I howled with laughter, reading it out loud through snorts of derision, at this gross misunderstanding. They had it completely backwards. What they need to do is create a cigarette which is still addictive, but that doesn't kill you. The addiction is the point.

Smoking provided a reason to get up from my desk and spend ten minutes away from the computer. A reason to meet Teresa on the front porch in the evenings where we would talk and dream about our lives. Rituals full of comfort in cars and airports, coffee shops and bars. A way to be occupied while being alone. And never underestimate the camaraderie of smokers in a world in which they are beset. Each shared cigarette is the beginning of a new friendship, and all smokers share.

For me it's not the quitting which is hard, it's the staying quit. As the challenge of abstinence fades, my vigilance wanes. It didn't take long, maybe a week? A couple beers in Nusa Lembongan and I was bumming smokes from Tania. The surfers in Medewi were more then happy to share their cloves. A week later I succumbed to the pleasures of my own pack, purchased at the Bromo Permai hotel.

Today I'm in Singapore, sitting at a table full of Nick's dive buddies, laughing my ass off as they joke and tease, teaching me swear words in Bahasa, Hokkien and Thai. Everybody at the table is smoking, drinking and laughing but only I know that I'm smoking my last pack. Tomorrow we get on the train for Malaysia, and in these final hours each one tastes sweeter.

At Rest in Nusa Lembongan

There's a lazy insolence in the way the locals move about their tasks. I can't tell if it is disinterest or a measured conservation of energy. Perhaps the young men leisurely dragging scuba tanks through the waves are simply wishing that they too were out playing in the ocean like the near by children. Their bodies don't speak of a easy life.

Nusa Lembongan is the first place I've felt at all at ease. It's still full of tourists but at least they are my age and friendly, unlike the crowds of pinch faced Australians in Kuta and the smiling but reticent retirees in Sanur.

Down the beach from where I'm drinking coffee and watching the morning unravel, three kids are playing in the waves on a broken surfboard. Taking turns skimming headlong into an oncoming wave to catapult head over heels into the water. Each wave brings shrieks of laughter from their friends and I regret leaving my camera back in my room a little more. More then anything I think it's the happiness of the children that puts me at ease, I'm glad the we're staying here a few days.

Across from me, two men have been sitting in a boat named Chilli for the last hour. They are waiting for something, but I'm not clear what. Perhaps a diving tour? A couple of boats down a young European woman is being given a scuba lesson by her boyfriend. Periodically they disappear only to resurface a few minutes later behind a different boat.

I'm fascinated by the little differences. We haven't been slumming it, every guesthouse has had the full range of modern conveniences, but with caveats. At one the shower points at my navel and water sprays wildly from the tap. We think the next doesn't have hot water until we realise it simply takes the duration of a shower for it to warm up. Many are just a combined “wet room” in which the shower, toilet and sink all cohabit in a tangle of pipes and levers. Some provide soap, some towels, none have bathmats and most are slowly disintegrating. I like the differences, each reflecting the biases of the owner and towns we're staying in.

This is the morning of my eighth day of my trip and while I'm settling into the pace and realities, already the doubt is creeping in. Why I'm doing this? Am I running away? I feel just as out of place amongst the hard bodied locals and touring surfers as I always have. What do I want from this trip? Am I chasing a childhood dream?

Sex, Trash & Transport

I didn't expect the trash. The constant mosaic of excrement, plastic bags and bottles, cigarette butts, food scraps, old clothes and candy wrappers. I'm not sure why I didn't expect it, but I didn't. In my own country this neglect makes me angry, here I have no right to anger and instead it leaves me numb.

I'm getting used to being measured at every encounter, my new friend quickly determining the fastest route to my callow wallet. Everyone knows somewhere I can stay, can drive me somewhere or has a pretty girl who will blow my mind. It's easy to get overwhelmed, so I've learned to step back, smile and keep walking. This seems better understood then any plea of “no”, which is taken as the opening bid in the coming negotiation. I admire their collective organisation, once convinced my wallet isn't making an appearance, they are generous with advice about where to go and what to see. They have the network effect down pat, knowing that everything comes back around eventually.

The smell of rubbish is the backdrop for the constant offers of girls and cries of “transport”. A Balinese taxi driver tells me about his wife and children before regaling me with tales of the western women he's fucked. A bemo driver boasts of his conquests, disdainfully describing the whores as Javanese, while in the same breath, offering to find me a nice Java girl. In the hotel pool, a travelling Malay salesman asks to hold our hands and describes in detail the perfect nipples of the girl sleeping in his room. He offers to introduce us to her and while two Canadians laugh and joke, psyching themselves up to the occasion, I slip away to my room.

It's a family affair, mothers and boyfriends watch from the corners of alleyways and bars as their girls whore themselves. Their eyes display a nonchalance which leaves me distinctly uncomfortable and confused. Husbands are texted requesting a pick up before running off into the darkness with their latest catch. The offers are so pervasive, and the environment so accepting, that it's impossible not to be curious. To wonder about these girls with their slender hips and perfect nipples, to imagine what an hour spent with them might be like. It's easy to see how men who would never be tempted at home, end up paying for the girl in their bed.

Today the Bali part of the trip ends. We travel to Gillimanuk to catch the ferry to Banyuwangi, the easternmost point of Java. The last two weeks have been spent making friends, swimming, riding scooters and surfing; but most importantly getting used to the routines of a traveller in a new country.

It's time to move.

Learning to Scuba Dive

As my head drops down into the water I exhale through the regulator for the very first time. The first breaths are okay but suddenly the noise of my breath and the jostling of my mask causes my heart to start racing. I'm not normally prone to panic but I last about 20 seconds before standing up and ripping the regulator from my mouth.

Breathing deeply to calm my thumping heart I settle back down into the water for a second try. It's not much better. Apparently we're already behind schedule and the instructor is hurrying everybody along so we can get on with the first underwater exercises. All I know is that my mind is inventing about a billion reasons a second why I should tell the instructor to go screw himself and get out of the pool.

Deep breath.

I release the air from my BCD and settle to the bottom of the shallow end of the pool. And breathe. Slowly. It's starting to feel like a meditation exercise. The instructor starts right in with how to remove your regulator from your mouth and then clear the water when you replace it so you can breath again. Sounds scary, actually dead simple.

I'm very comfortable in the water, it's having all the bloody gear wrapped about me that I don't like. The less gear I need to depend on the happier I am. Once I figure this out things settle down and over the course of the day I get familiar and comfortable with the gear. The day is a relentless pursuit of safety, it becomes increasingly obvious just how much thought has gone into the design of scuba gear, “a place for everything and everything in its place”.

Overall it's a good day, by the end I'm very comfortable with my gear. The only piece which is still a little intimidating is my weight belt. We had to practice removing it from our waists and then putting it back on, which I only managed with assistance. A second attempt was better, but not really a success. It's a reminder to me that my upper body really isn't very strong, something to work on. Hopefully there's not much which can go wrong with a weight belt during an actual dive, I'll be careful not to accidentally remove it underwater!

Until I'm learning something new, I always forget what a worrier I can be. My brain is inventing all sorts of things which could go wrong during our ocean dives next weekend. I don't understand why I panicked getting into the pool after lunch, when I was very comfortable right before lunch. I'm not convinced that any of us has a grip on buoyancy control, and suddenly the cold and poor visibility of Wellington's ocean seems much more intimidating.

Still it's been good to challenge myself and I'm looking forward to the four ocean dives next weekend. Right now my knee hurts, I'm very tired and I'm slightly bruised all over. Food and sleep are calling.


2014 by adam shand. sharing is an act of love, please share.