Friday 31 October 2008

If the skirt fits

Well, break out a slab of SOLO, slam it down fast and add my name to that lofty list of real men. Finally, I can roll a kayak!

Oh no, don't tell me you don't remember the SOLO Man?

Alright punters, firstly, SOLO is a lemon soft drink, which has been around in Aussie fridges for at least three decades. And anyone who watched TV during the 80s couldn’t possibly have missed one or another of the SOLO Man ads. I think the original had him taking on the rapids in a one-man inflatable raft. The iconic version, however, was the same moustached hardcore guy stuffing a can of SOLO in his jacket before jumping in his kayak, taking on a steep descent through God-knows-what-infested jungle, and finishing with a breathless drop off a waterfall. The ad concludes with him guzzling SOLO, the SOLO mostly spilling out the corners of his mouth, and the overture, "Light on the fizz so you can slam it down fast". They don't make ads like that any more.

The SOLO Man was a real man, and obviously, real men kayak. Which obviously makes me a real man. Yeah. Subsequent SOLO ads didn't quite cut it, except maybe for the one with some guy (not the original SOLO Man) wrestling with a croc that tried to steal his SOLO (there was a kayak in there somewhere).

Don't take the moral of the story as SOLO being your best way to distract a hungry crocodile, though. For that, you need the Crocodile Reaction Action Plan, or C.R.A.P. But that's a story for another missive.

All jokes aside, though, it’s been a great day. Great feeling to stuff myself into a fiberglass boat, seal myself in with a rubber skirt, get in the pool, deliberately remove myself from the living breathing world of air by rolling upside down, feel the tension of not being able to breathe building, and then successfully popping the roll and coming up right and steady. I did it today for the first time, by myself, unattended, and then did it another ten times in a row without failing once. There’s something a little more right with the world when you conquer a little goal, overcome a little fear, and look forward to pushing onto the next challenge.

But my great Friday hasn’t just been about kayaking. It started at 5am when I turned up for work at Quarantine. We’ve got a few projects going on at work, which keeps us busy, and I’m surrounded by positive people. It can be rough when the shift work deprives you of sleep, but otherwise I usually enjoy my morning at the airport. And I had to issue my first fine just yesterday – not that I enjoy taking people’s money, but it went as well as can be expected, and is a little bit of a milestone. Declare your mandarins, folks...

Got home, Skyped my beautiful wife, then headed down to the markets to give Billy the coffee man his new chess pieces. Scored a free mocha for my trouble, then headed off to do my fruit shopping and buy a nose clamp. Yes, a nose clamp – to use when kayaking so less water gets up my nose, and more air stays in my lungs! Home again to put said clamp to good use by jumping in the pool with the kayak and popping my first roll (cue Rocky theme song).

Quick shower and back on the road to a school sports awards evening, where I get a bit of recognition as a chess coach and my students get recognition for their champion efforts during the year. The main event of the evening was a demonstration blitz chess game between a student, the current Queensland under-14 junior champion, and a teacher, a champion swim coach who happens to play a mean game of chess. I had to commentate to ham it up a bit. The student won, but kudos to the coach, he did very well. Exciting stuff! But even more exciting than that, I scored the evening’s raffle hamper! Top day!

How do you beat a top day? By having a top week, of course! I had such a week just this past fortnight or so, when I made an impulse decision to visit Masumi in Japan.

You see, being married is great, but being forcefully separated by 5000km is not. Masumi and I have been doing and planning lots of things that bring our life together closer to reality every day, and you know, it’s all part of our adventure. But just earlier this month, I was booking cheap tickets to Japan for January. We’re going to do our wedding photo session then – so-called MAEDORI is the usual thing in Japan so you don’t have to worry about getting great photos on your wedding day – and we’re hopeful that Masumi will have a visa, so I can escort her back to Cairns. As I was about to depart the Jetstar website, the withered part of my brain that was once responsible for being a little maths whiz clicked briefly into gear and I realised, hey, if we next meet in January, that’ll be five months without having seen each other. Five months without my wife, what the...?!?!?

Booked yet another ticket to Osaka, begged for some leave from work at short notice, and before I knew it, I was headed to Japan on a Thursday afternoon flight. There followed 7 top days in Osaka, Tokushima and Kyoto with Masumi. Great autumn weather, great onsen, great food. I was a bit early for the true fire of Japan in full autumn, but at least it was still warm enough to get around comfortably.

We tried on a few of our wedding suits and dresses – check out the results in these photos, and as you can see, this skirt fits, too! We inspected our wedding venue - also very nice. And we caught one of Kyoto’s great festivals, the Jidai Matsuri. Which I have to say, honestly, is a bit boring, but at least we can say we’ve seen it. Line it up next to Awa Odori, and you’d just as well be comparing a waltz with your grandmother to a rumba with Angelina Jolie. Not that I’d ever rumba with anyone but you, Masumi, sweetheart, if you’re reading this, I love you. Anyway, it was a top week. In every sense of the word, it was a week of consummation. Time together, time to get grounded and reassure ourselves that we’ve done the right thing. Very timely and much needed for us both.

Now it’s back to work and time to get cracking on wedding preparations. Yes, we’re legally married, but we’ll do things properly. In Japan, next northern summer, Japanese style. My side of the family is pretty excited about the whole prospect of being in Tokushima for the dancing season and having a Japan experience like no other. And there’s no such thing as preparing too early for a wedding in Japan, so Masumi and I are already doing up invitations, menus, orders of proceeding... and lots of other stuff that I still have to learn about! I’ll keep you up to date with the adventure!

Which just leaves another 3 months – or 2-and-a-bit now! – before I see Masumi again. A bit of chess, some kayaking on the Barron, Christmas and New Year working at the airport, and before we know it, it’ll be January. No worries. Now where's my skirt?



Monday 25 August 2008

Just here for the dancing

I don't quite know how to explain it. I went to Japan for a quick holiday filled with dancing and rafting. I came back married. I'm still pinching myself. WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?!?!?

Hehe, well let's see. I remember reading the response Masumi had gotten from Australia's immigration department, refusing her application for a second working holiday visa. I remember the ensuing faxes and phone calls to try and sort out who was responsible for that decision. The decision, in any case, is "not merits reviewable" and my feedback wouldn't change a thing. I remember realising this and thinking, "What next?"

Sobering option number one - no visa, we can't be together. Adieu and thanks for all the memories. Sobering to say the least. I know Masumi had prepared herself to hear that from me.

Slightly less sobering option number two - just try to apply for some other sort of visa without changing our situation. But really, this wasn't an option. Masumi somehow overstayed her first visa - it's a long story, more fine print and red tape - and this put her in the unenviable situation of being automatically excluded from Australia for 3 years. Ouch. That exclusion period is an axe hanging over any visa application less than the full monty.

But I hear some of you say those magic words DE FACTO. That's all well and good, but you need to have been properly in that relationship for at least 12 months - Masumi and I lived together in Cairns for 11 months before she got kicked out. And it takes a whole lot of paperwork and proof besides. A de facto spouse visa pretty much amounts to declaring you're married anyway, without having the marriage certificate to prove it.

Which brings us to scary option number three – bite the bullet and get married, the full monty. And hope that, in every way, it works. From the time Masumi's visa was refused to the time I was due to leave Japan, we had exactly 7 days to discuss it, find out if it could be done, make a decision, and do it.

Only God knows why she loves me, but Masumi's been ready to marry me for some time now. I had a lot of soul-searching to do. In the midst of dancing down the streets of Tokushima, I thought about... well, lots of things. Other women who have been in my life, and who might be in my life. Family and friends – hers and mine. Language and communication. Jobs. The practicalities of living a life between two countries. The possibilities of this road or that. And whether I was ready.

I've known for a fair while that Masumi would make a great partner. She's great with kids and people, motivated, intelligent, and positive. She has a solid loving family in Tokushima. And it’s not like I’ve only known her five minutes – we've been friends for nearly six years, in fact. Living with her here in Cairns confirmed a lot of that. And being parted from her when she was forced to leave Australia earlier than expected was a good test. I missed her. I'd already started toying with ideas of proposing to her and honeymoons and stuff like that. The refusal of Masumi's visa just provided a catalyst, I think, a little something to bring the reaction to completion.

I had doubts – I still have them! It was scary – and it still is! I hadn’t prepared my heart for all this. But life is like that. In the end, I decided to go with what I've got. Which, fundamentally, is love.

My good friend Fenn, the original mountain JET of Tokushima, was on hand to provide sound advice about getting married as a foreigner in Japan. An Australian Consulate-General was just a bus ride away in Osaka to provide some necessary documentation. Masumi's father and I sat down for a chat on Saturday morning. I asked him for permission to marry his daughter, and he was gracious in giving it. I got the documents from Osaka on Tuesday. Masumi and I walked into the local town office on Wednesday morning and signed the papers. We walked out at about 10:30am, husband and wife. I still can’t believe it. :)

And then I had to get on a bus, which took me to a plane, which took me back to Australia. Alone. Hopefully not for too long. Sounds like a sad ending, and it was a bit sad, but really it was a fantastic couple of weeks in Japan and the beginning of a whole life of new adventures.

I danced in Naruto, for 4 days in Tokushima city, and for old time's sake down the main street of Ikeda. Masumi dances, too, by the way. She's with Uzuki-ren, a top group that rivals my own Tensui-ren, which makes for some fun rivalry at Obon! I caught up with all sorts of old friends – JETs, touch footy teammates, teachers, rafters, students, and a few besides. Masumi and I got in 2 days of rafting, too. Our guide down the main section of the river, a great Aussie by the name of Mezza, put it nicely when he congratulated us on our impending union – "Consolidating your marriage by going rafting, I love it!" This just before we drove the boat into a raging surf hole at Otaki and took a trip to flip city, yeah!

I think there'll be ceremonies of one sort or another in due course. We'll give you a little more notice for that! And we're already looking to set ourselves up for 10 months a year in Australia, the other 2 in Japan for the northern summer. We're flying mostly by the seat of our pants at the moment, but it seems to be all for the best so far. And it's certainly given me a reason to update my blog!

I'll post a couple of pictures here to round off the story - sorry, there are no wedding photos, because it really was just signing some papers, you'll have to wait for those! But let me finish by saying thank you. To all of you who have been a part of my life, who have brought me to where I am and brought Masumi to me. For all your support and understanding in this and everything. I'll be more than happy to follow up in person if you want to get in touch, probably best to use dave_cc at Hotmail in the first instance. I'm looking forward to hearing from you, to seeing everyone soon, and to introducing you to my lovely wife.

'Til then, lots of love,


Thursday 31 January 2008

Two dollars a box

It's not quite midnight. The kitchen smells of mangoes. I have a milo in hand. And it's a bright new year. Besides for the fact that I'm supposed to be at work by 5am tomorrow, life's good.

But first thing's first - the mangoes. We picked up a box of these tropical beauties at Rusty's markets last Sunday - six minutes before closing time, two dollars the box of a dozen or more. Not the most pristine Bowens going around, but sweet and tasty all the same. Cheap, quality fruit is just one of the things I appreciate about living in Cairns. Rusty's is good for more than just the cheap fruit, though. I spend far more time there playing chess with Billy at the coffee stand than sorting through fruit and vegies. Not a bad way to spend your summer.

However, the concept of a weekend is sort of going out the door for me now. This whole shift work thing really does take some getting used to. The basic schedule for a part-time quarantine officer is 3 days on, 3 off. At the moment I finish by midday and have the rest of the day to myself. It's a great schedule really. Irregular sleep is a challenge, but otherwise I like being up in the cool dark of the morning, I love driving to work in zero traffic, and it all gives me a bit of flexibility. The work is good, too, and I'm on the floor with a good team. And thank God for air-conditioning in the tropical summer! But weekends? Yeah, days tend to blur into each other a bit at the moment.

My Japanese skills are finally getting some good use thanks to quarantine. More than half of our incoming passengers are from Japan – there's a set of flights in the early morning that dishes up most of these. Mostly I'm just able to carry out the basic inspection duties in Japanese, which I hope puts people at ease as they clear the border. There've been a couple of instances already, though, where I've had to have more serious dealings with clients to facilitate some sort of quarantine action. It's mandarin season in Japan and some people just don't realise how serious we are about stopping those babies, and what the consequences of non-declaration can be. Fortunately, most people want to play the game and we can just send them away better educated. It's all pretty interesting. And I even get a small bonus to my salary for having recognisably useful language skills. I won't call myself an interpreter, but it's nice to be recognised!

On days off, and sometimes in the afternoon after a shift at the airport, I've been getting some rafting in. The monsoon is just starting to get into gear, so the river has finally had a couple of days of decent flow and it's been enjoyable rafting – less pulling boats off rocks, more big waves, fun times all round! There's been a lot of turnover at the company since I was last rafting regularly, so there're a few new faces. I guess meeting new people is one of the things I really enjoy about rafting anyway.

Christmas was pretty low key for me. Firstly, I was on duty at the airport that morning! Not very busy, but someone's got to keep the country safe. In the afternoon, we knocked back a kilo of prawns and spent the rest of the day relaxing.

Just before Christmas I took a long overdue grading for kendo. I've gotten back into it regularly enough to learn the first few "kata" techniques and get back into some sort of kendo shape. Long way to go, though, I must admit! I took the grading at 6th kyuu, which is pretty elementary, and passed with no problems. It's nice to be on the road to kendo mastery and have some goals to look forward to this year.

Amazing how time has flown and I've now clocked up a year in Cairns. Two years ago I was in Tokushima city teaching English. Shortly thereafter I moved back to the valley to start my rafting career, which seemed like it could be finished when I got back to Oz in October. By January, however, I was driving up to Cairns to start my chess coaching business, and kept up some rafting work on the side. And now I'm a quarantine officer, once again a public servant, amongst other things. It's been a great ride.

Hard to see what 2008 holds for me. I'll be getting used to my quarantine job for a good while yet. Chess is about to kick into gear again for the year – it'll be interesting to see how my schedule works out. Rafting might have to take a back seat – I've thought about taking up kayaking instead, but I'll need to save up some cash for that, not to mention finding someone to teach me the basics! Speaking of cash, I'll be spending a lot of time just paying off my debts, and I have a half-formed idea of heading off to Japan in the northern summer to get my fix of Awa Odori dancing and Yoshino River rafting. Tough call, though, considering that's the middle of school term, probably a busy time for chess. I also want to visit my family regularly. My car keeps costing me lots of unexpected money, too, so we'll just have to see how it all pans out! All in all, it sounds like it'll be a pretty quiet year compared to the exotic adventures I've had these past couple. I guess that'll be an experience in itself.

I'll finish by wishing everyone a safe and prosperous 2008. I hope the New Year brings you all sorts of happinesses! And I hope we can catch up again soon.

Very best,