July (1) - Morning

It was almost a year to the day since I had last stood under a Norfolk sky.  As I stepped out of the farmhouse it was not yet mid-summer, though the day was forecast to be hot.  The night before I had been lulled into sleep by the sound of Swallows twittering in the long dusk.  This morning, despite the early hour, they were up before me.  They sat on power lines and fence posts, and darted in and out of the buildings that surrounded the farmhouse.  In a straw topped yard black and white cows – White Park Cattle  – rustled and pushed their slick wet noses through the fence.

In the trees down across the lawn, Wood Pigeons looped through their repeating call, over and over, again and again.  Beyond the trees a faint vapour of mist rose from the river.  A Black Bird sang from the chimney pot, and off to the side a Tawny Owl watched from the top of a five bar gate before it flew from sight.  In the distance I could hear the caw of Rooks and the chack of Jackdaws.  It seemed that all the extras from central casting had arrived this morning.  This was nostalgia and memory at a level that was almost painful.  This is what I dream of when my night time subconscious takes me somewhere greener than my everyday.  Beyond all other things, this I what I had once assumed most mornings would be like, but life did not take me down that path.  Some days this feels like exile, most days it feels like adventure.  Today it feels like homecoming.

The early morning has a special kind of charm, especially when you have chosen to see it, and nothing but your own will has lifted you from under the sheets.  No work time obligation, no financial need, just your own private wants.  In my case I was going to fish for tench.

I was in no hurry to shut the car door on this picture perfect morning, and as I drove away I resented the exclusion that turns the world into more TV.  The crackle of gravel under the tyres sounded loud and out of place.  None the less, the rabbits browsing on the verges ignored my vehicle and me.  Maybe they were aware that they had survived the challenges of the night, and free from the fear of natural predators refused to flee from a metal one.  Maybe.

This time of day is wonderfully special.  The everyday business of the daylight has yet to drive away the hidden world of the night.  Predators return to nests or burrows, and their prey emerges from the same.  What ever the day will bring is still unmade and all that awaits is possibility.  How many people have this time of chance taken from them by some belief in fate or destiny?  How many people have the ‘fierce possibility of now’ stripped from their day before it has even begun?  On a day full of such unknown possibility, how can I not smile?

The roads and the sky are empty.  A few strands of clouds, stolen from above, lie in the hedge bottoms and gather in otherwise hidden folds in the fields.  Even at this hour the sky is beginning to take on the harsh blue of a hot day.  A few young pheasants, empty-headed targets that they are, run along the road in front of me, refusing to fly.  Eventually they leave the road under the bars of a gate.  I suspect the escape may only be temporary. 

I arrive at the lake and begin the familiar process of setting up a fishing rod.  Threading the line through each ring, and pulling down on the line to check I have not missed any.  I attach a classic red-topped float and tie on a hook that looks tiny after days spent on the sea and in the surf.  The processes of checking the depth and setting the float come back immediately despite sitting unused for years.  The bait is close to hand and the rod set with the far end on a rest and the butt on my knee.  To my left, willows give some shade and behind me taller trees, alders, hide me from the skyline.  It’s as if I have never stopped fishing like this, although the truth of the matter is that it’s 30 years since I fished as much as I could.

Embrough, Priddy, Longleat, Woodland Park, sometimes further afield.  Fishing for tench, carp, roach and bream.  More often than not, catching perch.  Or maybe fishing the Avon if I could get a lift with a friend.  My father did not like river fishing, too much movement, too far to walk.  So I fished for barble or chub without him.

I would struggle to the water’s edge, carrying dozens of things I never used, but would take great care to make sure the half a dozen things I really needed were close at hand.  Bait for the hook and coffee for me.  The bait squirming in round, green boxes, with white lids; the coffee in two flasks, blue and yellow, both with a black cup lid.  They may not have been Thermoses, but all flasks are called that brand.  The bait and flasks probably both came from the small hardware shop in Westfield.  My lunch would have been a mix of pies and sausage rolls, bought each week on a standing order from a shop in Midsomer Norton.  People smile at that name, and associate it with murder – but there are days when I would kill for one of those beef pies.     

The float twitches and slides away, too fast and positive for the hoped for tench, and a few seconds later a smallish roach is being slipped back into the water.  It may not be kind, but the least I can do is make it rapid.  I catch a few more roach before my mind is drawn away by a sharp sound in the air.

A group of terns, cloud white in the blue sky, are dashing over the water, beaks pointed down in search mode, looking for fish.  When they spot a target they seem to keep flying a few meters, with the beak tracking backwards so that it ends up tucked under the bird’s body.  At this point the tern pulls into a steep climb and flies back in a vertical circle to dive down into the water.  It all happens in a few seconds and is wonderful to watch.  Most times the tern emerges with a tiny sliver of silver, destined to be fed to an egg fat female or a protein hungry chick.  This is a perfect example of the distractibility that meant I never had any chance of being in the 10% that catches 90% of the fish.   

To my right a mouse, or maybe a vole to judge by the flat face that emerges from the grass, eyes up a stray grain of corn.  This is a moment when all thought of fish leaves me and I hold to as much stillness as I can.  The mouse moves forward in two short bursts, seeming to travel from one place to another without ever being in the space in between.  Maybe it is just my eye that causes it to stop, the observer effect of quantum science made solid by a Norfolk lake.  With the yellow grain held fast between its teeth, it turns tail and vanishes.  

Out towards the middle of the lake a Great Crested Grebe is fishing for roach too.  Its partner carries striped young on its back and takes the little silver fish offered to it with unhurried ease.

A Moorhen appears on my left and panics at my presence.  No amount of stillness is enough for some species.

The sites and sounds of this picture perfect and totally ordinary English morning are so familiar that I could believe I have never stopped living in them; but it’s almost half a lifetime since they were routine for me.  The experience is pure nostalgia. The birdcalls and the smell of leaves and grass drying from their dewy dampness in the morning.  The routine of casting and scattering bait on the water.  The convenience of gear placed close at hand.

But above all else it’s the stillness that I feel and remember.  A stillness that is internal more than external.  A stillness that for a long, long time I had lost, and could not re-find.  A stillness I thought I would never get back.  There was a time when all that went on inside my head was loud and shouted, and all that emerged was the same.  It was a noise so loud I could not hear people telling me to stop shouting, a noise so loud that I did not know I was shouting in the first place.  It was an internal din that drowned out everything around me so that all I had was noise and to make myself heard anywhere I had to shout louder still.  It was like screaming into a hurricane.  I was carrying a whole age of anger with me all the time.  And it robbed me of any chance of stillness or silence. 

It would have been easier, but far more damaging, if I had not been able to remember what stillness felt like.  But I could remember it and I could not get it back.  I knew that there had been times of stillness in the past, and I knew that there had been things that I had done that had brought me stillness – and fishing was one of them.  But in the noisiest times the inevitable hitches of fishing did not bring resigned sighs and a slow solution, rather they brought more noise – and an anger directed at a world that was not responsible for them.   I was ill in a way that was frightening and familiar. As a child I had seen what electricity and drugs could do to somebody in the name of a cure.  And that vision was only slightly less frightening than the vision of a future in which the noise consumed me and I was nothing but anger and volume.  I needed to stand still and let the things that filled me with terrifying noise pass by, so that they could move into a future that did not include me.  I needed space and silence.  I needed the kind of silence that can come on a morning filled with bird song and the noise of water, reel and line.

Sometimes it feels like the echoes of that noise are still there, distant but not gone.  The memory of that noise is like the light from a far-flung star – a sensation that exists in the present, but carries information from the past.  And while the information is frightening I need to understand it, so that I can react to its presence.  And those reactions include rituals of silence and stillness that, for me, include the crafting of words into sentences, the making of pictures and, now and then, a spot of fishing.

It’s not that I have to travel half way around the world for a ‘spot of fishing’, but on this day so many memories and old routines fall into place that it’s hard to believe that I ever stopped doing them.  And things that are absent make for a sense of change and growth.  My blue float box, made with little skill and only a little more enthusiasm in woodwork at school, would have been useful today as it contained a shop full of floats, held in place by foam and sorted by size.  I had a folding chair with one arm removed, which would have been kinder on my knees than the ground-hugging version I borrowed.  I had boxes, bags and buckets, all with a purpose, all mostly unused.  I loved the organisation and the anticipation, I loved the belief that the bits and pieces really would help and that a fish of a life time was just a cast away.  But I have come to believe that a day spent fishing where only the fish that you catch matter, is day when an opportunity has been missed.  It’s a day where a one-eyed focus on rod and reel will have been robbed of the major part of possibility.

In the past, the early morning of the weekend would normally see me in my father’s car, being driven with more enthusiasm than skill (sorry Bert, but it’s true!) to some watery venue.  That we generally arrived intact from these journeys is remarkable really, for the vehicles were of the vintage that drove the British car industry into the ground.  My father probably had no option, but buying more than one Austin Maxi is evidence that you do not learn from your past mistakes.  As we drove (never using 5th gear, as once it was selected it was impossible to get out of it!) we would wonder what fraction of the cars on the road were there for the same purpose as us.  And as another small roach comes to hand I find myself thinking the same thing.  How many people are out fishing, right now in the early morning?

And while I am sure that their reasons for fishing, or the things that they take away, are different to mine, there is a shared experience, a kind of continuity and community, which creates more than it takes away.  But beyond this is a richness of language and experience that would be diminished if this community ceased to be.  By meres and lakes, ponds and waters, streams, rivers, canals, cuts, drains, rivers and brooks people find and maintain a common lexicon that explains and expands our understanding of the world.  I doubt that anybody would be fishing for barble in a mere or rudd in a brook.  The language of the water extends to its ecology and nature; in some ways the world and the words are one.  If we lose the words we lose that understanding of that part of the world – if water is reduced to a dichotomy of just tap or bottled, or sparkling or still, everything is diminished and we are all made smaller for that lose.

The world needs more understanding based on the experience of the real.  We need more words built from the feeling of wind on your face, or the sharp rattle of rain.  We need more days built around the smell of a changing wind, or the knowledge of whether a winter’s sky will bring rain or snow.  We need more language constructed through reality of existence and not words constrained by the edicts of imaginary friends.  Fishing will not save the world, but it may help people to see the value of evidence and reaction, observation and change. 

Out in the deeper water large slab-sided fish roll in the weeds.  The bream are spawning, responding to day-length and temperature, to have thoughts of spring on an early summer morning.  Waves of movement spread through the weeds as one fish after another swirls.  The motion is like watching falling cards or stacked dominoes.  Out past the fish and weed, a dark shape, low to the surface, cuts a slick vee through the water.  Every so often the movement stops and the dark shape disappears under the water, only to reappear a few meters further on.  The bream ignore it but I don’t.  This is more distraction, more reason to look away from the red topped float.  The vee approaches an island and the dark shape pulls itself form the water.  I catch a glimpse of a body and long tail, slick with water.  Even the distance to the island cannot disguise the call of panic from a Moorhen.    The animal is an otter.  As a kid these predators were a ghost in the landscape, lost and presumed gone. 

But all kinds of recovery are possible, internal and external.  And this morning I see both.

I collect my bag and rod and move to a different swim more thickly set with weeds.  A few patches of bubbles, needle fine and rapid, suggest that I may have found some tench.  I quickly catch a bream, empty sided and washed out.  I hold it upright in the water for a while before it kicks away, sluggish and tired.  The float twitches and dances in classic fashion; such signs require patience and a degree of restraint – I can do the first, but the second comes much harder.  Eventually – and probably quicker than I would describe – the float slides under and I feel the slow, but powerful, pull of a tench.  It’s not big enough to grace the cover any magazine, and it’s not bigger than some I have caught in the past.  Bottle green flanks and thick muscular fins.  A red eye and slime, which is warm and slick to the touch.  Within a few minutes it is back in the water.

I recast and wonder what will happen next. 


Walk. Pause. Walk. Pause.  Sand or sometimes stones; sand much easier, stone offering a greater promise of variety. The depth grows beyond ankles and knees; the walk becomes a wade. The involuntary tiptoe as the water reaches that height; the sharp intake of breath no matter the temperature; the final lunge plunge to flotation.

The hard conformity of concrete floors and the Star Trek whoosh of automatic doors.  A heady chemical brew is replaced by a fresh air; cool and light. Familiar faces on the pool deck and in the lanes.  The single step over the poolside edge; under water in a single stride.  The routine of a double leg lift that lets the water reach over my head.

Spit and wash the glass of the mask.  Sit or float to pull on the fins.  Swim fast to warm up. Blow hard from the second water shock, pushing choking splashes from the snorkel.

Dunk the goggles in water and shake off the excess drops.  Pull the elastic high on my head; float and push from the wall.  Stroke and kick.  Stroke and kick.  Blow bubbles and rest your head on the leading arm. Swim slowly to keep going lap on lap.  Turn at the wall and wonder if I should learn to tumble.  More bubbles and a straight dark line. More bubbles and a straight dark line.  If the time is right the darkness falls and the pool empties.  Winter swimming.

The noisy music of breathing and the deep breath of forced relaxation, retained even through growing experience.   The anticipation of discovery.

The repetition of exercise.  The anticipation of completion.



Just out from the edge of the beach a whale back of orange granite slips out of the water.  A pair of Pacific Gulls sit atop the rock watching, keeping an eye open for opportunity.  Slighter Silver Gulls flash overhead, seemingly unwilling to land on the whale, unwilling to share a piece of land with their larger cousins. 

The first leg is often, but not always, away from the beach; almost always towards some structure where things can be found and seen.  Old boats, broken and rusting.  The wooden poles of jetties, slick to the touch and greened by age.  But most often the destination is marked by the presence of stone; reef edges, steep boulder boundaries and mini mountains, rising from the shifting sands below, structures that will hold the fluid life of the sea close to it. 

While the destination may be fixed in my mind, the pathways to them can be twisted and slippery. They say you may never be able to wade in the same river twice, and the same idea applies to the sea.  Even the return journey to the beach will take you somewhere new, even if the final place is the same.  Repetition has, at least for me, yet to flow into familiarity.  I may recognise the beach poles and distant buildings, but once in the water, only the general location remains known.  Rock caves found one day seem not be there the next.  The boundaries may stay the same but the detail changes. 

The beaches and rock walls of Freycinet are completely unfamiliar, just the whale back rocks off shore provide any form of marker.  Halfway up the east coast of Tasmania, this is a place of cool crisp water, clear and yet rich.  The next landmass to the east is New Zealand, and beyond that the west coast of South America.  To the south, beyond the southern point of Tasmania, an Earth girdle belt of ocean cuts off the icy southern pole. 

Although there are no paths, I follow a predictable path; along the edge of rocks and through gaps in weed beds.  I avoid the open water, with its ripple sand floor and seeming lack of life. Life clings to the rocks and I follow suit.  But this still feels like a greater choice than following the paths that travel on land.  Here my choice is based on interest, rather than some choice made by others, some time in the past.  I could strike off the path on land – and in many places this would pose no real danger – but it is not really the done thing. You follow the path, keeping an eye out for the next guide arrow or paint flash.  The interwoven undergrowth – the bush – does not encourage off path meandering in the same way as is possible in the sheep grazed uplands of the UK.  The presence of snakes is hardly encouraging either.

But in the water the choice feels so different.  The path exists where I choose to take it, and in the deeper water it takes on a depth that is not possible on land.  The path becomes three dimensional through choice, with only the necessity of breathing bringing me back to the 2D world of the surface.  I suspect I would enjoy diving greatly.

I swim around a corner and a huge ray lifts from the sandy floor and moves a few meters away, the edges of its body moving like a shaken blanket.  A few small silver fish share the movement and swim away with the ray.  Small wrasse rush away from the disturbance of my presence and now and then squid hang in the water until they reverse out, jet propelled.  I can’t name most of the fish I see, small or large.  Zebra stripes.  Spots.  Small rays and sharks, the cousins of the carpet sized ray.

Once there was an octopus, huge and plastic, with arms that seemed to reach in and out at the same time, and could spread in all directions.  Sharing the water with it was unsettling as it seemed to move towards me and then back away, and then come forward again, as if it was debating some form of option.  The fact that this is basically a sentient and intelligent snail was, in hindsight, even more unsettling.

From force of habit I keep to the rock walls and the edges.  The abundance can be startling, the chance encounters remarkable. But for the time being I stay close to the security of stone, unwilling to enter the open water that lies further from the shore.

My arms and legs start to feel heavy.  I drag as much air into my lungs as I can. By this time it never really feels like enough.  I drop from a four stroke rhythm to three and then down to a two.  The line before the wall, a few meters out, comes as a welcome sight, knowing that I will soon reach the wall, from which I can push and glide.

Without the background thud of the engine you can hear the wind and the splash of the water on the side of the boat.  The waves splashing on the boat make a strange noise, neither rhythmic nor discordant, but a kind of both that comes and goes with its own beat.  Although it relies on the presence of a boat for its expression, at its heart it’s a wild sound.

The boat drifts with the wind and we catch the scent of the seals.  This is a smell that is wild in almost all ways.  The kids on the boat wrinkle noses and pinch their nostrils with tight fingers. People move off the end of the boat in pairs, and shuffle off the dive step into the open water.

It’s best to avoid swimming too close to the platform on which the seals sleep, lest half a tonne of waking carnivore slides off and on to your head.  If the truth be told, the smell alone is enough to make you keep your distance.   The platform on which these males loaf is called, with a certain lack of sensitivity, Chinaman’s Hat because of its conical roof. The colony is a Man Shed for yet to be and over the hill male Australian Fur Seals.  The once and future seals are a uniform silky brown, dense furred and whiskery.  The old boys all carry scars from past disputes.  They have more character than the youthful wanabees, which I admit may be the view of an old man!

Dropping off the back of the boat, into water where I cannot see the bottom, feels more like diving than swimming – the sudden step, the drop that ends in a cold solid softness that wraps around you and eventually holds you up.  Those first few seconds are always a test in my faith in buoyancy, the pull of gravity, the opposition of displacement.  

A seal appears in front of me, just a few feet from my nose, or if I was stupid enough, within arms reach.  I keep one eye on the seal and one eye on H who is swimming with me.  The seals make a mockery of any thoughts of my own manoeuvrability, with loops, twists and turns that would snap the spine of a yoga guru.  I spin, left handed, trying to track the seal with the camera I hold in my right.  Bubbles bleed from the seals fur as it dives and disappears, leaving behind nothing more that a growing screen of silver spheres, growing as they reach the surface.  The seals are at home, and I am merely comfortable.

I have no guide for exploration but the ghost of the long gone seal – I swim in a direction that I cannot justify; one that comes simply from the direction I am pointing. This is discovery by chance with no compass rose of experience or geology to help me – I may as well be swimming in circles, and there is a good chance I am.  No paths, no markers.  The only definition comes from the seals that come to visit me – I become the marker that defines travel for something else, and when that happens, my own path becomes clear.   

There seems to be no other way to describe the behaviour of the seals than play.   A small male shoots below me and twists vertically to burst through the surface just in front of me.  If both of the animals in this dance were humans, one would be showing off or teasing the other – and that one would not be me.  For all I try, I am bound in many ways to the surface, brief forays below the surface are the exceptions, not the rule.  For the seals, their world and the pathways within it are truly three-dimensional.   But here, in the open water, I can get a brief feel of what such freedom must feel like.  No lane makers.  No need to follow the rocky wall to my left.  Up and down remain logical, but left and right are defined by the point of my nose – and as I spin the part of the world to my left changes and changes in a way that makes nonsense of the idea.    In a world where all pathways are possible and location can change, what is the meaning of direction?

I hear a sharp whistle – the signal to return - and look around to find the boat. Once more direction makes sense.  H is only a few feet away.  Did I follow him or did he follow me?  We swim back to the boat, and pull ourselves back on board.  Air, gravity and a sharp south wind bring me back to my own world.  I reach for a towel.

I swim four more laps, trying to stay smooth in the face of tired arms and heavy legs.  I pull myself out of the pool and onto the deck. Air, gravity and the sharp tang of chlorine bring me back to my own world.  I reach for a towel.

The seals circle the boat.  Gulls hang overhead.  Later dolphins arrive to show us the way swimming is really done.  I can’t help but smile.



Outside the Wall

I’m not sure when or where I first learnt the word ‘archipelago’, but it was probably in Geography at school.  And those wonderful to say syllables would have tumbled from the lips of one of my teachers in a way that made me know that there were no archipelagos in Somerset, and that the chances of me ever seeing one were slim.

Geography was an introduction to a world more exotic than the one I knew of, and one more distant than any I ever expected to explore.  I only really remember three geography teachers.  Mr Goldsmith, who was just a wee bit too young and fashionable for the rest of the staff at the former Grammar School.  A female teacher whose name escapes me, but I suspected was really a PE teacher masquerading as a geographer; her tendency to wear track suits to class and her unfailing habit of reading her notes to us from an old black A4 clip file, reinforced my opinion that she was an imposter.

And finally there was Mr. George Rodgers, who within the school was Geography. In the fine tradition of teachers of this subject he had a total disregard for the niceties of dress code.  He rejected the classic leather arm patches on jackets and pullovers, but instead wore his tie on the outside of his solid colour, vee necked jumpers.  When he bent forward over a desk his tie would flop forward like some out of control trunk.  (During my years as a teacher I rarely needed to wear a jumper of any sort, but I wore a single bar, silver tie clip to keep my tie under control).  George had a fine collection of roller print maps, which would be inked into our exercise books with production line precision.  I often wonder if in that cupboard at the back of the geography room, just across from the gym, there are still boxes of those roller printers un-inked and un-loved, awaiting the tides of educational fashion to bring them back to life. 

I have no evidence of any sort that George ever used the word archipelago in class, but I believe he may have.  And in these days when the necessity for evidence has diminished, belief may be all I need in this regard. 

Politics and erosion may have changed the boundaries between countries and the shapes of the seas and mountains on those roller maps, but in those representations of the world there was wonder and magic.  I have a suspicion that they set me on the road away from home and on to a journey that took me to a new land, half a world away.  I wanted to see an archipelago, an isthmus and walk in U shaped valleys, with truncated spurs and corries, cwms or cirques hidden above.  I wanted to see the maps made real.

I hold George at least partially responsible for this, although not in a bad way.  I very much doubt that he still teaches, but if it turns out that he still does I would gladly lend – or even give – him my tie clip as both a thank you and as a practical aid.


The sea to the north of Australia is speckled with islands of all shapes and sizes; a Jackson Pollock paint flick on an east west arc.  Indonesia sits at the western end of this arc, a porous membrane between Australia and the rest of Asia.   It is a country of islands, some large, some small, some well-known, others destined to remain obscure; some islands are peopled by Christians, some by Hindus, but the country is officially Muslim.  Even the actual number of islands is contested, and depends on the turn of the tide and the state of the weather.  I suspect that the population numbers posted on web sites and printed in books are at the very edge of what could be called estimates, and are more probably bordering on guesses.  Isolation and fragmentation leads to diversity and uncertainty and the only thing I am sure of is that I have never been here before. 

Despite its apparent proximity on the map, the flight stretches on and on, the view from the window obscured by clouds for most of the trip over Australia, the view only opening up as we pass over the sea.  The course is an unfailing northwest, the duration stretching out beyond the normal workday and into a long day.  Once out over the ocean it’s clear that the Earth is more sea than land, with only a few green spots breaking up and through the water.  A dozen colours surround each island and few of them are blue.  Browns where current and tide kick up sediments.  Green where the seabed rises towards the surface and plants bask in the shallow water sunlight.  There are dozens of places where the two combine.  In two places there are streaks of red, maybe where bare rock shows through.

Finally more substantial land comes into view, and based on the sketchy information from the seat back screen I take it to be the eastern end of Java.  Even from high above the island, you can see the pockmarks of clearance and the straight lines of boundaries and highways.  Close to the coast there are tiny white specks, with broken waves behind them, fishing in the shallow waters.  I can see where I want to be, but I know it will be a while before I arrive.  Our flight will overshoot Jakarta and fly on to Singapore before I repeat the flight to finally arrive. 

I stretch my legs in the bright sterile light of Singapore airport.  I check out the giant goldfish, which my kids were pleased to name on my last visit.  I wish I could take a shower.  I wish I had arrived.

The novelty of the airport seems to have refreshed my mind, and the final leg of the journey – back to a city I passed four hours ago – seems less painful than its outward twin.  The city lights shine in the darkness; the ground rushes to meet us.  I arrive, alone, in a strange city and am pleased to see my name on a board held by a driver as I leave arrivals and enter the country.  The Internet may be a wonderful thing, but having a colleague arrange a taxi for you is even better.  Soon I am on the way to the hotel.  Soon I will be able to have a shower.

But the soon does not come as quickly as I had anticipated.

It quickly becomes clear that the only thing I do know about Indonesia is that I have never been there.  There really are only a few ways in which this country penetrates the news cycle in Australia – as a tourist destination, as an export opportunity (either gained or lost) or as a country where the military are very fond of peaked caps, gold braid and epilates.  The fact that this is a developing country seems to fall by the wayside unnoticed.  The drive from the airport to the hotels is the start of a journey towards an understanding beyond the news headlines.   

Outside of the airport the atmosphere is thick with cigarette smoke and shouted conversations.  The taxi drivers and curbside wranglers argue and squabble over fairs and destinations.  But most exchanges end in laughter and a proffered cigarette.  Shouting seems to be a national sport.  Many of the taxis have seen better days, but some are as sharp as a new pin, gleaming and expensive.  The one I am guided to is sharp – much more so than the work a day Ford that took me to the airport in Melbourne, much more than any car I am ever going to own. 

As we move into the traffic, the mood outside changes from the organized chaos of the airport to the absolute chaos of the open road.  Within seconds the car is surrounded by hundreds of mopeds ridden by men, women, children and occasionally whole families.  It’s like being inside a swarm of bees, where each bee is independent of the next, but never the less they never collide.  Each and every inch of space is occupied as soon as it is vacated, and yet there seems to be none of the testosterone angst that comes with driving at home.  To me the mood seems hectic and relaxed at the same time.  I suspect this is some form of contradictory duality produced by being in an air-conditioned car with a relaxed timetable and nothing else to do.  Outside it may all be different.

And when I start to really look outside, I notice that it is.

By the sides of the roads people are sorting through huge bags of waste plastic and stowing them with care on bicycles.  There are shacks below the freeways, backed up against concrete pillars, roofed with sacks and held firm with blue plastic rope.  There is hardly a gap between any of these makeshift homes.  In doorways without doors people cook over small stoves.  Piles of rubbish accumulate in the few open spaces that have not been built on.  Many of these piles are on fire, leaking thin wisps of dark smoke and a smell of oil.  This is the economy of the poor, the refuge of edge dwellers.  This is truly the margin.  The veneer of wealth spread by the luxury of the taxi and the swarms of bright new mopeds breaks.  I can’t help but wonder what a reversal of observation would bring – I wonder what the people looking in through the tinted windows think.  I wonder why these sights surprise me.

The taxi comes to a stop on a section of elevated road.  Only one of the five or so lanes seems to be open and all of the traffic is being forced into a single, narrow channel.  Motorways become the infrastructure of desire, and a source of redoubled delay.  A line of men sit on the road, covered from head to foot in loose fitting, open weave clothes.  Only the circle of their face shows through.  Most have damp cigarettes hanging from the corner of their mouths; from a few small patches of red flare.  They are removing the painted markings from the surface of the road.  All of them are chipping the white paint away with small hand-axes. 

It’s Dickensian and modern all at the same time.  Brutal and harshly economical.  Maybe it’s a marker we should all be aware of; in a place where it is cheaper to hire people than use machines, you may not want to drink the water.  I feel the weight of the luxury and leather that surrounds.  I feel the filter of the tinted windows.  I feel startlingly privileged and fortunate to be inside looking out. 

Cameras.  Phones.  A computer and iPad.  A wallet stuffed with millions of rupiah.  A taxi fee that many could live on for who knows how long.  Whatever spark, whatever light, lifts the lifeless stuff of the universe and makes it live, burns as strongly in the men by the side of the road as it does in me.  At times like this I am shockingly grateful that the spark in me was lit within the damp green fields of Somerset, rather than under clouded Jakarta skies.  It was not religion or purpose, God or fate that lit the fire, it was luck (and biology) and in the face of such poverty, those who mistake luck for talent need to be reminded of the truth.

My thoughts are clouded by capricious ambiguity.  I cannot silence the inner dialogue.  Fortune, in both ways, sits around me.  These are not thoughts to be had when you are alone.  I stare out of the window and think about my family.  It’s the best I can do.

The hotel is housed behind a tall wall.  Guards at the gate run mirrors under the car and look in the boot.  I could have had a nuclear weapon in my hand luggage next to me on the back seat, but it went unchecked.  But even if this boundary was porous, it was there to put me on the inside and keep other people on the outside.  There were more checks on the way in.  More surety of separation.

If there is a secret to sleeping in an unfamiliar bed I am yet to learn it; too many hums and buzzes, maybe too much adrenaline, maybe too few comforting rituals of conversation and reading.  But at least it means I get to see Jakarta in the early morning light.  A kind of pale mustard haze hangs over the city, turning the windows of the tall buildings yellow bronze and the leaves of the plant a seasick green.  I can feel heat flowing in from the windows, and down below on a flat roof, banks of fans spin to feed the building’s air conditioners.  Pigeons and parrots fly between the palm trees in the hotel garden and, less peacefully, two large fighter jets fly in tight circles overhead.  Down in the garden space a group of people look up from their Tai Chi and watch the planes before they return to their morning rituals of relaxation and energy.  I seek out the kettle and tea bags for similar reasons.

The view from my window is dominated by a large tree and a larger building. The tree is in a walled garden that formed the back of the hotel.  The building is on the other side of a major road that runs hot with cars and mopeds. It is easy to see which of these would be most pleasant to explore.

The garden around the tree seems to ring with a kind of deepened silence, a strange silence that swallows and overwhelms the traffic noise that comes from over the walls.  Some fracturing of physics makes the garden quieter than it should be.  Just as the razor wire on the walls and the guards at the gate make it more distance from the geography of Indonesia than it should be.  The strange silence locks me in, and the walls keep others out.  Others who, in all probability make their livings collecting plastic or chipping paint from the road.  A single fallen flower rests on the leaves of another plant.  Statues emerge from clipped and brushed flowerbeds.  Large golden fish cruise with tail flicks, slight but firm, through clean looking water.  From the big tree a Coppersmith Barbet calls and calls and calls; repetition like an unoiled machine.  I am no pioneer or trail blazer, but this all feels forced and inauthentic, like the rooms in museums that claim to take you to the plains of Africa or the desert of Ancient Egypt.  I take refuge in the forced necessity of work.  I hide from the fact that I am rich and well (over) fed.  This is not survival guilt, but it is the embarrassment of the luckily fortunate.  I let the rest of the day slide, and wonder what tomorrow will bring.

A phone call at 4.30 am is normally bad news or a drunk’s mistake.  On this morning it is neither.  A somewhat surprised voice from reception tells me I have a visitor in reception.  The voice at the end of the phone becomes even more surprised when I say that I am expecting the visitor and that I will be down in a minute.

No natural light fills my room as I open the curtains and pick up my camera bag.  Down in the almost empty lobby the full glow of largely unnecessary lighting makes daylight of the pre-dawn darkness.  My guide awaits me, sitting in an ornate armchair.  Khaleb has a classic long black pony-tail and wears the slightly battered air of the professional wildlife guide – tidy enough, but not too tidy; clearly other things are more important.  We pass out through the hotel gates and out into the main streets.  The traffic has changed from chaotic to the merely frenetic.  It’s clear that Jakarta truly is a city that never sleeps.

I have no sense of direction from inside the car, but later I find out that we head west towards the sea.  Once we leave the heart of the city, the world seems to become stiller and quieter.  I hear a strange noise outside of the car, and hearing it too, Khaleb asks for the car to pull over.  We stop outside a small school, the gates still closed, the grounds empty. A short sharp call echoes around the buildings, and the shape of a bird forms a silhouette on the roof;a dog barks and the bird takes flight on long wings.  The wings flap in a rapid and pause rhythm, and white patches flash on the up strokes.  I know it’s a Nightjar, but Khaleb adds the name ‘savanna’ to it – it’s the first new bird of the day.  The bird keeps flying and I keep watching.  But in the end it’s time to go.

As we move further from the city center the buildings become smaller, the roads narrower and their surface rougher.  We skirt the airport and a driver brakes hard to avoid a flock of chickens that occupy the middle of the road.  There are small fires burning outside many of the houses, and thin looking stray cats prowl around the shadows’ edges.  Buffalo wallow in deep mud and a haze of some sort pulls a veil over the sharpness of the morning light.  Water filled ditches sport solid looking layers of plastic wastes and fractured boxes.  There are fewer mopeds and more bicycles.  We near the coast, but the sea stays out of view.  A lady sits behind a bucket of small silver and gold fish, offering a fresh breakfast.  I ask if this is a poor area – which I take to be a stupid question – and find out that this is a holiday area, popular on the weekends with families from Jakarta.  The consequences of this break over me like a wave.  It makes no sense to me.  I have a wallet ripe with rupiah, camera binoculars – all trappings of wealth and discretionary spending which at this time feels indiscrete. 

We pull the car over, on a beach of black sand, where cats, with piano key ribs, fight in the litter for scraps of food.  Two dogs chase each other in and out of the surf, while a blue wooden boat cuts through the same waves to land on the beach.  Flowerpeckers call from the tops of the trees and a kingfisher, blue as the boat, flashes over the littered ponds that sit behind the beach.

I learn to my embarrassment that the blue boat is for me.  On the weekends it runs tourists out to the small islands that lie just off the coast.  But today, it’s all mine.  The boat has four crew, one of whom helps me climb along a bamboo ladder; rough wooden blocks nailed to a pole that bends under my weight. 

With hand gestures and a few short words Khaleb directs the boat to what looks like a row of dark sticks, emerging from the water a few hundred meters off shore.  The engine is noisy; the crew almost silent.  I feel a kind of guilt and a kind of relief.  Guilt, that I am so distant from these people, that I have no words beyond a poor version of hello.  Relief that today, at least some money will flow their way,  that my wallet will lighten to the benefit of more than just bankers and laptop financial wizards.  In hindsight the relief is probably a salve for my guilty conscience.  

As we move away from the dark sandy shore the disc of the Sun finally fully breaks from the horizon.  Above the boat the sky, thickened with a mix of sea mist, cloud and petrol fumes hangs in yellow sheets, below the water seems syrup thick and empty.  The fish traps make a case for at least some level of abundance that I cannot see.  Other fishing boats, not commandeered by rich birders tend the nets.  One of the crew on my blue boat opens a packet of cigarettes and throws the clear wrapper, underhand and casual, into the sea.  At other times, in other places, I would have said something – but here, it feels wrong.  The wrapper scuds away over the surface of the water, strangely visible in the morning half-light.  At the fish traps, nets, suspended by dozens of wooden poles, hang like curtains in the water.  Tidal waters flow through and the mesh filters out the fish, small and silver.  At the outer nets most of the poles are topped by Frigate Birds.

Under the watchful eye of Khaleb I start to tell Christmas Island from Lesser, Lesser from Great.   There are very few other birds about, a few cormorants, a scattering of terns and no gulls.  I ask where the gulls are and, to my surprise, find out that they do not occur here.  No gulls by the sea?  Another marker of ignorance.

In a blue boat, under a dawn yellow sky, on strange oil brown water, I feel misplaced.  I can only share words with Khaleb.  I turn back to the wonder of the birds, back to nature on a wooden pole.  All morning I feel watched, but not by the birds.

When I return to the shore the anonymity of the car feels like a relief.  Buffalo wallow in the mud by the side of the road; the lady selling the fish has packed up, leaving empty buckets on a wooden trellis.

The car pulls to a halt by a bridge over of a thin looking river.  A man points a gun at the surface of the water, where fish swirl, feeding on crusts thrown by a small boy.  A woman, kneeling on concrete steps, washing clothes; soak and squeeze, soak and squeeze.  Soapsuds flow away from her and under the bridge.  A man, deeper in the water brushes his teeth.  And just down from all of these a pipe drips foul brown paste into the water.  Four uses; one problem. 

On the way back into the city we stop to explore the park around the national monument.  The car park is full and the threat of rain has caused the stallholders and drink sellers to cover their carts in plastic.  The air is heavy with moisture and fumes, the light still cut with a yellow tone that owes nothing to the Sun.  There are Blue Nuthatches and Fulvous-Breasted Woodpeckers.  From holes in the trees Coppersmith Barbets survey the world.  Green pigeons feast on fruit.  All seem out of range of my camera.

On the flat ground between the trees people are sweeping the leaves away and organizing their belongings.  They are not visiting for pleasure, but setting up for the night.  I feel like I am walking through stranger’s front rooms, looking at the pictures they have hung on their walls.  Once more my wallet and camera feel heavy. 

The traffic in central Jakarta is back to its normal daylong peak.  The air in the hotel lobby is cool and dry and the atmosphere calm and relaxed.  I have entered a different world.

Back in my room, as I make a cup of tea, I find I am not thinking about the birds.  I think of cats and fish, of the smell of drains and people fishing with guns.

I drink my tea and wonder if tomorrow I will be able to make a difference.