What 2014 taught me (Part 1)

With the new year just a couple of days away, I thought I’d look back on 2014 and try to capture, tangibly in written words, some of the things it taught me. There are two things that made this year unique for me: it was the first time I’d been in a serious relationship, which ‘became official’ in March and fell apart at the end of November, and it was a year of travels – some for business, some for pleasure, all enjoyable and eye-opening in some way. It’s this latter aspect I want to focus on, so I’m going to break up this blog entry into a series of mini-chapters – one for each trip – and hopefully draw some kind of lesson or insight from each.

February   |   Century mine, Queensland, Australia

The travel motif started not long after the year did. When I returned to the office in January, the main thing I had to get working on was a research piece examining how MMG’s intranet could be improved – i.e. made more practical and user-friendly – for our blue-collar employees. (In case anyone reading this doesn’t know me, MMG’s a mining company whose head office I work at.) It was soon decided that this project called for a visit to one of our operations, and that I was to accompany the two consultants we’d engaged to help facilitate the consultation, build relationships within the company and get a taste of Life on Site.

We decided straightaway on Century, one of MMG’s three Australian mines and the biggest open-pit zinc mine in the country. It’s located in a very remote part of Queensland somewhere near Mount Isa, which is somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria which is that top bit of Australia that juts out trying to touch Papua New Guinea across the sea. To get there I had to fly up to Townsville from Melbourne, spend the night there then catch a charter flight with about 50 miners at some ungodly hour the next morning, the radio in the taxi already preparing me for what was to come…

“God made the sugar cane grow where it’s hot,
And teetotal abstainers to grow where it’s not.
Let the sin bosun warn of perdition to come;
We’ll drink it and chance it, so bring on the rum…”

I made the rookie mistake of getting all jacked up on coffee at Townsville airport, unlike the miners who lumbered onto the plane, exchanging g’days after a few weeks of R&R apart, then as soon as the thing took off, slumped their heads back on the seat or against the window and promptly dozed off for the next 1.5 hours. I didn’t regret it though. While these blokes had obviously seen it all before, it was my first time ever seeing the Great Australian Landscape from a charter-flight altitude, which is substantially lower than a commercial aircraft and gives you an amazing view of what’s passing by below unfettered by clouds or excessive distance – an abstract painting of red and brown hues with patches of dark green, veined blue with little rivers and creeks… At points, breath-taking sights like this shimmering opal-like lake:

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As I watched this topographic artwork roll past below me I felt genuinely moved; the primeval grumble of didgeridoo began playing through my head, overlaid with the lilting flute melodies of those early Anglo-Irish settlers who explored and set up industry in this wide brown land… Industry which I was about to witness on a truly colossal, mechanized 21st-century scale.

An open-cut mine the size of Century’s is an impressive sight to behold, a man-made Grand Canyon so vast you can’t actually see the whole thing from any one vantage point. Beyond this Titanic crevice on the earth’s crust, from the top of the pit where the yellow trucks below look like Micro Machines, you see the same Martian terrain stretching out as far as the eye can see – flat, red-brown, barren… Epic.

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It’s not the most interesting or original revelation, but I guess this little trip reminded me how damn big the world is. I hadn’t even left Australia, yet in less than 24 hours I’d travelled roughly 3000 kilometres into a completely different climate and environment – from temperate Melbourne to tropical Townsville then north-west into Queensland’s semi-arid gateway to the Outback. But I’m not so much talking physical scales and distances as the fact that even around this colossal hole in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of people toil like an army of bull ants every single day – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for weeks on end before catching that charter plane out again… Driving trucks, taking tea breaks in ‘cribs’, necking beers post-shift before showering and settling down in little jail cell-like rooms called ‘dongas’, perhaps calling their partner and kids on Skype before passing out on a creaky bed that was someone else’s just a week or day before…

“The world turns, but we don’t feel it move.”

This quote from Gangs of New York kind of sums up the sentiment. As individuals we tend to get locked inside of our own little reality, our awareness confined to the immediate place and present. But the world is incomprehensibly bigger than that, and that’s something worth remembering. Every single second there are billions of people on this planet doing something: chopping up vegetables for soup or sipping wine on a plane; weeping at funerals or celebrating as a newborn baby’s brought home from the maternity ward; fulfilling lifelong dreams or beginning an endeavour or adventure or relationship that will change their lives, even if they’re not aware of it yet…

This is a good thing. Whatever you’re feeling or going through, be mindful that you’re not alone in it, nor is it the end of the world. Life goes on. Important and valued though we are in our own little spheres, we’re just a tiny part of an incredible production that spans many continents, cultures and centuries. “No man is an island,” as John Donne wrote, so take heart: If life’s a roller-coaster, there are many others on the ride along with you, experiencing the same ups and downs, thrills and spills.

I left Century mine after three days. I’d ridden around in a truck the size of a house, in a hole the size of a meteorite crater; pigged out nightly on choc mousse and jelly at the all-you-can-eat dessert buffet (see my first-ever food pic below); and joked freely, discussed seriously and drank heavily with people whose lives are very different to mine and with whom I’ll probably never cross paths again, but I’m glad I did. Because realising the world is a busy and enormous place that goes on regardless of you, peppered all over with individuals from all walks of life, each carrying their own reality and story inside of them… This is a humbling, even calming realisation that helps put things in perspective. Indeed: Even as I’m writing this, somewhere out there right now, hundreds of people in orange vests are digging up ore from the ground and transporting it and putting it through a processor, and that big beautiful world I saw from the plane keeps turning slowly but surely without end…

And yes, the mousse. Ohh the mousse.

“We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning.”

Henry W. Beecher

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April   |   Kinsevere mine, Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo

The second trip brought this home too. It sent me to a part of the world that, as remote as Century is, made it seem like your local corner milk bar by comparison. This was the Congo – a place where you see more machine guns than computers, in a continent known to us mainly through grim stories on the evening news… This year of course it was Ebola, its resurgence wiping out almost 8000 Africans since March.

The outbreak hit the mainstream media around the same time Peter and I (Peter being the consultant I was dispatched with) landed in South Africa at the start of April. The first I heard of it was when we were sitting in the lounge at Johannesburg airport, trying in vain to connect to the wifi, when an alarming story on the TV above us caught my attention: Ebola was spreading like wildfire through west Africa. I knew three basic things about Ebola: it was highly contagious, it killed quickly, and it originated in exactly the place where me and Peter were heading: the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I didn’t end up catching Ebola, although I did develop something nasty during my final week which turned my three-week absence from the office into a four-week one. (Peter himself ended up being hospitalized, with what doctors said was “either pneumonia or malaria” – probably the latter, and probably what I had as well.)

As I wrote in previous blog entries, the Congo wasn’t necessarily what the imagination conjures up. There’s little jungle or gorillas, at least in the south-east where I was – in fact there were very few trees at all, since poor people everywhere have cut them down to get charcoal for either fuel or money. You see these same people trudging down the long dirt road between Kinsevere and Lubumbashi, the regional capital, where they head daily – huge sacks on head or on an old bike bent under the strain, alongside which they walk for up to 20 kilometres a day… A scene that correlates a lot more closely with the Africa we see on TV.

Like I said, this trip definitely impressed upon me how vast and contrasting the world is too. There’s nothing like chilling in the business lounge at Perth airport, sipping scotch & Cokes next to some polo shirt-clad dude, deeply tanned from his ’business meetings’ at the golf course with Sharon Stone-esque wife in tow… then roughly 24 hours later, finding yourself in a mini-van bouncing along a sometimes-paved road past shantytowns full of half-naked black kids sitting on barrels staring in to what you realise is an equally exotic sight for them: a pale white Westerner with hay-blonde hair and denim jeans.

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It made me realise how lucky I am as one of those Westerners – lucky, above all, to have opportunity in my life. Of course there’s food and water and shelter to be grateful for too, no doubt, but even in these shanty-towns people have that – which, not to belittle their situation, I’m happy to say, ’cause it would’ve been heart-breaking to pass malnourished or hopelessly crippled people, especially on the way to a place where food and medical attention are available 24/7.

What’s awful though is that even though these people have things to eat and drink, and some rudimentary roof over their heads – even self-styled shanty medical clinics – what they definitely don’t have is opportunity. They’re doomed to eat more or less the same shit and carry sacks twice their own body weight up and down that endless road, half of it made of dust or mud depending on the weather, forever, like Sisyphus and his rock. Without education, without welfare, without a relative who can loan them some money or do some hustling to get them a job, these shanty-town inhabitants have virtually zero chance of improving their lot in life or getting some lucky break.

It’s unpleasant to even think about but in another life, that could be me or you staring into the windows of that white mini-van as it whizzes past a few times a day, carrying people with their well-paid jobs afforded by their education afforded by their parents afforded by their citizenship in a country where these things are ‘rights’, not hopes and dreams. I distinctly remember sitting in the taxi on the way home from Melbourne Airport, after three weeks of tough meat and lukewarm veg, and being excited – literally excited – about the prospect of eating a ramen: hot and buttery with a Japanese-style boiled egg. Having the opportunity to do, back in this city with all manner of cuisines ready to be served up in front of you, delicious and affordable and fresh, felt like winning Tattslotto… And indeed, all of us who live here have.

“I have a very good life – I’m lucky enough not to be deprived.” – Meryl Streep

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May   |   Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Like Century, Sydney was just a three-day thing, a short trip to attend an intranet conference at a big posh hotel in the CBD (the Amora, if anyone cares). It’s hard to articulate or even understand in concrete terms what the ‘meaning’ of this trip was, but I felt it very intensely – walking along King St Wharf the first two nights, eventually settling on one of the harbourside restaurants for dinner, ordering a table-for-one and a beer, and soaking up the ambience of this dazzling world-class city so close yet so different to Melbourne… Then wandering aimlessly some more, before returning at around 10pm to my little room at the Ibis hotel, with its window overlooking a highway and a bunch of high-rises.

There was a sort of intense, uplifting loneliness to this stay in Sydney, and looking back on it, it seems distinctly longer than three days – as if three days doesn’t seem long enough to generate that sort of intensity. I felt it too at Kinsevere, of course – in that miniscule dot of light in a vast, pitch-black ocean of grassland-wilderness at the bottom of the Congo. But I was there with a consultant who practically became a buddy of mine, along with dozens of expats whose faces and names I got to know either through the training room where I spent most of my day or, more commonly, at the bar afterwards where most of us wound down for the night. Even a total stranger doesn’t feel like a total stranger when he’s wearing the same bright-orange shirt with the same familiar red logo as you, not to mention his full name.

In Sydney though, once the conference concluded at 4 or 5pm each day, the hours afterwards were all mine and mine alone… And so I’d go wandering, along George St and King St and Pitt St, through glitzy shopping centres and past waterfront casinos the size of ancient wonders and bars busting at the seams with people, the smokers and drunks noisily congregated outside… And towering over all this, when you step back far enough from the music and traffic and humanity and look up, you see looming over you like a mountain range clusters of skyscrapers adorned with hundreds of tiny lit windows and crowned with neon signs, spectacular and silent in their glory… And high above even them, hundreds more tiny lights that form the equally spectacular and silent night sky.

”You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder… And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”

– Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Dining at the waterfront and exploring the city by myself after my day at the Amora was done felt like a Hemingway short story at times: the meaning is far from obvious; it’s much more about the atmosphere and that strange, deep, bittersweet feeling you’re left with…

I remember messaging my girlfriend at the time, ‘Wish you were here’ and all that stuff… and I did, very much. I had my own hotel room in this gorgeous part of town, dinners and taxis paid for… And as I strolled for hours along that King St boulevard past all the parked boats and fancy restaurants with people wining and dining, conversing and laughing, I wished she could be there with me, so that together we could be like so many of the other young people I passed – hand in hand or arm over shoulder, perhaps sitting on the wooden decking by the water, taking in the magical ambience during pauses between make-out sessions.

Again, it’s a hard thing to describe, and kind of a paradox – because although I was yearning for romantic company, I loved that being so alone – this tiny atom of consciousness in this awe-inspiring metropolis with all of its grit and glamour – gave me such power of introspection, allowed me to dive right into my core and nurture and embrace this yearning, and use it to imagine what could be and in doing so, perhaps manifest it and relish it all the more if and when it does… If that makes any sense.

For many of those young (and not-so-young) people I passed, it was probably just another night, the same way I march down Southbank boulevard at half past 5 every weekday to catch the train from Flinders St station. But for me, on those three nights, it was like a conversation took place deep inside me between me and the world, and everything seemed intense and full of beauty like a van Gogh painting, there was soul in everything, and the entire evening glowed with a vibrant magic that I learned will make itself quietly apparent to you if you just tune into the right frequency.

“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

–    Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

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