Tuesday, 5 January 2021

In my kitchen: January 2021

So here we are in 2021, and it feels like the months are just rolling by. As always I am extremely grateful for the monthly chance to look back over photos. 

In the garden...

My first season of growing zucchini has been interesting. In fact it has been my first season of growing anything! I had a few chances to do zucchini IVF before the plants were totally covered in powdery mildew. I chopped off all the leaves and now the plants are clinging to life... later I realised I could have treated the leaves and not chopped them off! You live, you learn.  

So far there were two successful candidates, and this is my firstborn zucchini. Isn't he a beautiful Italian heirloom? 

My chillies have been going mad! Finally I have enough to supply myself, family and more. It's hard to imagine that one single chilli I bought in January 2020 came to four mature chilli plants. Such is the cycle of life. 


On the baking front... 

I loved this loaf of sourdough I scored in a rose pattern 

I was inspired to make this Gnocchi alla Romana by S' Christmas dinner in Italy - his sister had made it and I was immediately drawn to the idea of semolina dumplings covered in cheese. They were soft and pillowy with an oozy cheesy topping. Definitely something I would like to eat again. 

I also made these vegan sourdough donuts called Sufganiyot for Hannukah celebrations with my friend B. We made them from Barney my sourdough and flax seed instead of egg. I must admit the flax "egg" made me a bit sceptical, ground up flax reconstituted with water really looks like gloop... but they were beautifully light and fried up a treat. We made our own strawberry & raspberry jam as well and filled them.  

It was actually the first time in my life I've deep fried anything. Since we had so much oil, we thought we could make traditional potato latkes after the doughnuts. Utterly delicious! 

I made these sourdough roti prata for a Christmas gathering. Slapping them on the counter till they were huge and extremely thin was really fun! 


Onto the Food & Music series....


This was a beautifully presented dinner with a salmon fillet atop a bed of sweet potato puree. We enjoyed this with Shostakovich 8th string quartet and the not much played Glazunov Quartet Slave. I absolutely adore the Shosta - such a monumental work! 


This was our quartet's Christmas turkey dinner which we enjoyed with Schumann's Piano quartet in Eb major. We were joined by a guest for the piano part and it was wonderful to play a string instead! 

Finally, the curveball...



Pengy (L) was stuck in Queensland for some of 2020, and my friend bought me a new penguin (R) which she named Penga (to avoid confusion). She decided at Christmas that they must have had a baby! Here is the adorable family portrait.

I'm sending this to Sherry of Sherry's Pickings who hosts the monthly In My Kitchen series. Thanks for hosting Sherry! 

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Covid diaries - end of 2020

What a strange year it has been. Who would have guessed that the Covid pandemic could happen to the world in 2020?

I took so much for granted the freedom to go wherever I want to go. In the past, the only impediments to travel were time off work, money and visa constraints. I travelled often and all over the world - it's incredible to think that I have been to over 40 countries on every continent except Antarctica. I have been away from Australia on at least one overseas trip every year since 2001 when I started medical school. I am extremely grateful for all the travel I've done in the past - dreaming of my travel bucket list is literally a dream now. 

Like many other Australians, my family migrated to Australia and called it our new home. Like many immigrants, we console ourselves in the fact that we could always go back to our home country in an emergency. We'll be there by tomorrow at the latest, we promised our family - because that was indeed possible. When my grandma broke her hip last year, I was by her hospital bedside the next day. I never dreamt that being an immigrant in another country could mean that you are cut off from the rest of your family, bar "exceptional" circumstances such as the death of a close family member. 

I saw so many patients this year who have been affected by Covid. Many who were sick and dying could not have the final reunion with their family members due to quarantine reasons. Travel exemptions were hard to come by, flights were scarce and expensive. Some of my friends have been unable to attend the funeral of loved ones in person - a real tragedy robbing them of their final closure. 

We have been so fortunate in Australia that Covid has not taken a big toll in terms of case numbers and fatalities. It's so frightening to see what is happening in the rest of the world, and I feel incredibly sad for all the people who have died around the world from the pandemic. I also feel so much pain for those who have struggled with mental health this year. I, too, as a frontline health care worker have had my fair share of scares. For some time I was living alone, not seeing anyone in person, going to work and facing the fears of infection and mortality alone. It was a really difficult time. I was fortunate to have a lot of personal supports and a supportive collegiate work environment. Sadly I know three people who have died by suicide during this time -may they rest in peace. We will never know the answers and how much Covid may have contributed to their deaths. 

Despite all the negative effects of Covid, there have been a remarkable number of "silver linings". I worked relatively little this year, and with the cancellation of travel plans found myself with many weeks free. In the past, I've filled these weeks off with more "things" but this year I have found myself with so much more time and emotional space to explore.

So now, I'd like to take a moment to remember all the things that I have been doing in 2020, the strange year of Covid. I have been:

... Writing:  I kept up my usual journalling and finished three volumes during 2020. I did a lot more writing in general, various things here and there including blog posts. The highlight of the year was National Novel Writing Month - getting through 50,000 words in the month of November was a real achievement to savour. 

... Reading:  I've read dozens of books, a luxury that I don't always have. I re-read almost all of Murakami's works, some of my all time favourites like Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Kafka On the Shore, and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki. I even had a chance to read the German translation of Colourless TT. I read all of Liane Moriarty's books in the bath. 

... Sketching: It's incredible that one can discover things like this, I never even knew that I liked drawing! I took up sketching after J and I followed a live drawing class on TV - I'm totally hooked now. I'm still experimenting with different mediums but so far I adore charcoal because it smudges and is so messy.

... Gardening: I moved in January just before Covid hit, and the backyard was bare when I moved in. My dad built me a veggie patch and I've been gently exploring growing vegetables. I always thought I had the brownest thumbs, but I realise now that I just never tried! I bought a lemon tree and watched it grow slowly. I fought slugs, bugs, critters and birds, trying to save my vegetables! The winter season saw an excellent crop of snow peas, and now I'm onto zucchinis, beans and tomatoes. One single chilli from Harris Farm Cooks Hill in January gave me 4 chilli seedlings, all of which are flourishing and giving me more chillies than I can dream of. Being immersed in green is so soul nourishing. 

... Baking: Barney my sourdough starter has been with me since 2017. I gave some of him away in exchange for flour at the height of flour frenzy. It's hard to imagine now how hard it was to get flour in Australia in March/April, it was a commodity like gold. Finally I bought a 12.5kg bag from Broadmeadow IGA (husband #1) and a second 12.5kg from Hamilton Aldi (husband #2) - how did I get through 25kg flour in one year? I also got into baking sweet treats this year, having always been a bread baker. Barney also made his new home in several places, including Italy!

... Playing music: I had a lot more time to play the violin this year, and I think I have made some progress. Since the lockdown was lifted in NSW in May, my quartet has been meeting regularly. Talking to music friends overseas, we are really privileged in Australia to still be able to play in music groups (with some restrictions). I feel like there has been a lot of development this year, I am much more aligned with my instrument and the music. 

... Psycho babbling: I've been interested in psychology since the car accident 2 years ago but I really got into it this year as a self development tool (rather than purely as a coping strategy). I did the Science of Well-Being course online run by Yale University, and it was super interesting. In the last few months I really got into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and David Burns' approach to CBT - doing my CBT homework is really fun and has helped me to learn a lot about myself! 

... Maintaining human connections: I don't think there has ever been a time in my life where I have felt so overwhelmingly grateful for the social network I have. I have my family and an amazing inner circle of friends. Covid has kept me in touch with local and international friends, some of whom I reconnected with during Covid. The development of Zoom in 2020 has been incredible - video chat as a way to stay connected is a very real thing now. I think Covid has made me appreciate friendship much more than before - we take for granted the ability to see our friends any time! 

Finally, there have been some major changes in my personal life in terms of relationships lost and gained. I really thought I was too old to fall in love again, isn't that the realm of teenagers? But the universe has some other ideas! Love in the time of Covid also has its unique challenges. I feel like we are constantly walking through sliding doors in life, one opens and another one shuts. No one knows what is going to happen next. All we have is the present moment - there are all the bad things that are happening in the world, co-existing with all the good things that are happening in the world. Humans are far more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Human connection knows no bounds, and this gives me hope going into 2021. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

NaNoWriMo 2020

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month -  gotta love Americans and their abbreviations! It started in 1999 with 21 participants, and this year there were over 7000 participants in Sydney. The idea is to write 50,000 words in the month of November, something that I would have thought was pretty crazy till October 31 this year. That day I was listening to a podcast while working in the garden, and I was immediately intrigued. By coincidence, my friend Grace mentioned it to me later the same evening. I had most of November free anyway, and my travel plans were cancelled. It was like a sign from the universe that I should do it.

Day 10, at the secret writing spot at my dad's

You are supposed to prepare for the month by constructing a "writing plan". So I scribbled out a basic sketch on the back of an old billing sheet, and then I promptly lost that piece of paper. A few days later, I tried to recreate the plan by drawing it on the back of an old envelope while I was at my friend's place, but I lost that too.  

Day 20, at Chambers cafe in Top Ryde 

Never mind the "plan", it seemed to write itself anyway. I knew I just had to start somewhere, and then it would be like flowing water gathering momentum. Each day, I would sit down with the laptop, and contemplate what was going to happen next. 

Day 25, at Bar beach 

The story is about a string quartet, because I am fascinated by the kind of interaction that a string quartet brings. On a superficial level, string quartets necessarily spend a lot of time together with each other playing music. The frequency and intensity of contact brings some kind of closeness more than the average social interaction. 

Day 13, with Cali at my dad's 

On a deeper level, there's something about the special nature of stringsAny chamber music groups involving the piano just do not have the same amount of intimacy, because the piano is like an intruder. The strings fight with the piano. But string quartets are a totally different species. Strings can truly become one in sound - it is not just four instruments, each with four strings. Rather, it is like a single sixteen-string being, and we all merge into one. This kind of intimacy naturally brings conflict into the group, conflict leads to resolution, followed by fresh conflict. 

Day 16, with Simba on Namiko's terrace in Darwin (that troppo roof!)

Who were the characters? Well, I started out basing them on real people, but they morphed into their own people. One of the characters (the cellist) was completely fictional, and I enjoyed shaping him very much. The others were based on musicians I knew in real life. I had decided the first violinist would be based on the real life S, but it was particularly tricky to grasp his "voice". I also could not decide the name he would take in the book, so he did not appear for the first 10,000 words! 

Day 18, flying back from Darwin to Sydney

Each chapter, I took a different person's voice and wrote from that perspective, with the storyline running throughout. I had started out wanting to plan something dramatic like a murder, but I could not decide who was going to murder who! I even had some nightmares about being murdered, but in the end none of the characters had the potential for murder. I found it hardest to write as "myself" in the book, which was strange to me as I thought writing as myself would be the easiest. 

Day 12, at the waterfront park in Putney, writing before my real life quartet

I had writer's block just once, at the 37,000 word mark. I had written the first violinist and the violist into a serious conflict, one that I could not resolve. I felt stuck in real life, because they were stuck in the novel. Whatever I wrote seemed to be an inaccurate representation of the reality within the book. Eventually it was the real life S who offered a resolution. It didn't really feel like the right direction for the story, but I wrote it in anyway and it seemed to work. I'm still undecided about whether I should re-write the ending...

Day 28, on the flight from Newcastle to Gold Coast

Overall I had a strong sense of being the medium for the story. It seemed to write itself, if I closed my eyes and let go.  Sometimes, I would start the day's writing with absolutely no idea of what was going to happen in the story. I realised that each of the people in the story had their own story to tell. All I had to do was be very quiet and very still. If I am open and receptive,  then it would just be there - I would see the story unfolding like I'm watching a movie, and all I had to do was write it down. I even felt shocked sometimes when I saw something emerge from a corner of my (own) imagination that I wasn't aware was there.

Day 26, in my backyard with my veggies

The goal was to write 50,000 words in the month of November, an average of 1,700 words per day. I wrote everyday except for a couple of days I skipped. One of them, we went out to Litchfield National Park and swam in Florence Falls, one of my favourite places in the universe. After we got home, I was too buggered to write. The other one, I'd been out all day at the beach on the Gold Coast and we made dumplings for dinner, so I was too tired by the end of the day. 

Day 30, last day in Gold Coast (reunited with Pengy!) 

I finished it on a beautiful day on the Gold Coast at Linda's place, and finally I was a "NaNoWriMo winner 2020"!

Yes... I tracked my word count, I'm an spreadsheet nerd

I felt this strange sense of accomplishment and I was proud of sticking it out through the month. I knew that whatever happens to the story, it was a kind of self affirmation that I can write 50,000 words. Ultimately I want to write a book about death, but for some years now I have been stuck on how to start that project. Now that I have exercised my "writing muscle", I feel confident that I will eventually make it there!

Day 22, writing at J's place with a cup of London Fog

The other little side project I started doing at the same time was a photo journal of where the writing took place. I thought of it one day when I went to the beach to write - it's quite hard to concentrate with the wind and waves, but it's also quite soothing to be in fresh air. 

Day 7, at Bar Beach with a banh mi from Mayfield Hot Bread 

I had inherited the Chromebook from my friend W who generously donated it to me instead of selling it on Facebook. 

Day 19, writing with W at Cooper Park 

The trusty Chromebook now lives with me in Newcastle, but for this project we went all over Australia - to Sydney, Darwin and Gold Coast, covering perhaps 10,000km in the month of November. There were a fair share of ups and downs in the writing process, and I couldn't have done this project without the encouragement and spiritual support of my friends.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

In my kitchen: December 2020

I had organised to have four weeks off in November to travel overseas, but obviously that did not happen! Instead, I visited friends in Darwin and Gold Coast, and I did the NaNoWriMo challenge (National Novel Writing Month) - the aim is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction when I finished on November 30, what fun that was!

What a year it has been. There have been incredible changes in my life this year, and Covid has put a lot of  things into perspective. I have never felt such a profound sense of gratitude for the people I am connected to and the joyful things I have. I'm also gobsmacked that I can still find out all these new things about myself like I love long complex recipes (23 step mooncake? yes please!), and that I love sketching! 

Here my zucchinis are flowering. Sadly all the baby zucchinis died while I was away last week on the Gold Coast, probably from dehydration during the heatwave. 

Proud to harvest my very first ever beans! I went up to Darwin for a week, and when I came back the tomato plant that had survived the winter was completely covered in green stink bugs. With much sadness I had to pull it out of the ground, and eat the remaining 100+ cherry tomatoes. 

I adore the tropical fruit in Darwin! We ate mangoes every day, as well as papaya and rambhutan. My favourite of all time is jackfruit, so intensely sweet with a tiny hint of tartness. I love peeling them too, to get rid of the seed and membranes and finally be rewarded by the fruit!  


On the baking front...

I made this vegan carrot cake for my dear friend B. The cream cheese icing was so interesting - cashews soaked in hot water for an hour, then blended with coconut cream, maple syrup and apple cider vinegar till smooth. It slathered on extremely well, and was the perfect combo with the caramelised walnuts.  

This pumpkin pie was made with some leftover roast pumpkin puree. The pumpkin itself I was storing "just in case" for Covid, but I figured it was getting a bit old. This is also something I never knew about myself... that I love making pie crust!

We made these mochi (sticky rice balls) on the Gold Coast. Our Chinese dumpling party made boiled dumplings (pork and wombok filling), fried dumplings (egg and chive filling) and these mochi. I didn't realise how labour intensive they would be! The glutinous rice flour is steamed then "beaten" but it got stuck to everything. We boiled the red beans with some orange peel and the flavour was incredible, perfect complement with strawberries.  


Onto the food and music series...

We had sourdough pizzas one day, cooked on the barbeque. I made the tomato sauce with fresh oregano from my garden, it really makes a difference. We ate these with the Archduke trio, my all time favourite piano trio now, and also the Mozart Divertimento in Eb for string trio. 

Here is another meal we had at the quartets for the other violinist's birthday. Beef stew, Yorkshire puddings, mash and salad. To celebrate her birthday we played Shostakovich's 8th string quartet, something that I never ever imagined I would play in my life time! It is so incredibly dark and complex. It was like climbing Mt Everest and being in awe at what the body can achieve. 

And finally, who can resist Pengy in a fruit bowl? 

I'm sending this to Sherry of Sherry's Pickings, who hosts the In My Kitchen Series. Merry Christmas everyone and see you in 2021!

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

In My Kitchen: November 2020

Every month this year, I remark on how quickly the month has gone! But the real question is, where has 2020 gone? The situation is so frightening all around the world, and yet our kitchens continue... 

On the garden front...


My dad's banana tree was attacked by insects and he hung these up to ripen on the balcony. These were intensely sweet with a strong banana flavour that is just not found in shops anymore.


I have a miracle tomato plant that survived the winter. It was hibernating for about 2 months, and just when I decided to pull it out, it started to flower. Now there are a couple of hundred little cherry tomatoes on the vine. Go tomato plant! I'm cheering for you.
 

Some of the bok choy was kept to grow for seed, and there must have been several thousand seeds here. One time when my dad came up to Newcastle, he showed me how to get the seeds out of the pods. He says he learned this from when he had to work on the farms during the cultural revolution!
 

These were the very first of the beans. It's my first time growing them and I was so excited to see these babies. 

On the baking front... 


I made sourdough bagels using the recipe from Emilie Raffa's book, which is my quintessential bible of sourdough. These worked out really well - tender crust, chewy but light interior. Is there anything better in the universe than fresh warm bagels from the oven? 


Well, maybe fresh warm baguettes would be equal first. I'm still working on my shaping and slashing, but it's pleasing that I'm able to get a consistent crisply shattering crust with a creamy buttery interior. And that's before you add the butter! 


I was also really delighted with this spelt walnut loaf. I was quite distracted on a zoom call and forgot what weight of water I started with, so I had to eyeball it. I usually add chia seeds if it seems too wet after the dough is mixed, but this time the dough was so wet I could barely shape it. It still worked out beautifully though. 

Onto the Food and Music series...


My piano duet friend and I ate this olive sourdough one night with a simple vegetable soup. I think it looks like an alien with weird eyes. We are still working on the two Beethoven projects - on this night we played the Op. 125 string quartet arranged for piano 4 hands, and also the 8th Beethoven violin sonata. 


With my string quartet, we had curry night with a deeply rich beef curry and a mild veggie korma,  accompanied by sourdough naans which were wonderfully puffy. We ate these with the blood boiling Mendelssohn's Op. 13 string quartet and the very sweet Beethoven Op 18 No. 2 string quartet. 


I called ths our traffic light dinner - lamb shanks, mash and fresh greens. We were a trio that night (absent violist) so we played the Goldberg variations for string trio and the Archduke piano trio. 


We also ate these mulberries off the cellist's tree! There is no joy greater in life than picking mulberries straight off the tree - one for the pot, one for me! 

My curve ball of the month: I finished a jigsaw, the first one in about 20 years!




I'm sending this to Sherry who hosts the In My Kitchen series. Thanks Sherry for giving us an opportunity to review the culinary delights of the month - in answer to your question last month, I'm a lady!

Monday, 2 November 2020

Dreams: two dreams of death

(These two dreams follow on from the previous uncompleted dream of assassination)

Dream 1: A secret

This dream starts with a flashback within the dream.

I am a university student and we are at some sort of demonstration on campus. We are at the lower end of the campus, where we used to go for our Biochemistry classes. A bunch of us are holding placards and chanting loudly as we parade down the main walkway of UNSW. 

Suddenly I become aware of a mob of people off to the side, near some  benches. They are tying a boy onto a stake, some sort of home made cross. The boy is young, perhaps a first year or second year. He protests loudly and struggles as the others secure his arms, then his legs. I am drawn to them like flies to rubbish, unable to tear my eyes away. Soon I find that I am also pulling at some of the ropes to tie down his feet. He keeps kicking them away and it takes several people to overcome him.  

We wind the rope all around him and secure his chest to the main part of the stake. We tie him so tightly to the stake that he cannot breathe. We stand back and watch as he slowly begins to fade, his protests becoming weaker and weaker. Finally his eyes roll back in his head and he becomes still. His chest is no longer moving and he has stopped breathing. As the blood stops circulating, his face becomes an ashen grey. 

The flashback ends and I am in the present time again. I'm on a bus, sitting near the middle door. The bus stops and a morbidly obese man enters from the front door. He seems to be struggling to breathe, sweating heavily as he takes a seat at the four seats facing each other near the front of the bus. From where I sit, he is just 3 rows away, facing me. 

He does not look well. His face is purple and his lips are slightly blue. I think that he probably has some sort of lung condition and is totally puffed out from the short ascent to the bus. 

The bus lurches to a start and a couple of guys come up from behind. 

Hey man! What are you doing here? They shout at the breathless purple man. 

I see a flash of fear enter his eyes. He tries to get up, but he stumbles and falls back into his seat. 

The other two guys are on him in a flash. One of them has a thick rope in his hand, and the two of them start to tie the purple man to the bus seat. 

I want to call out to the bus driver to stop. I feel a sudden flash of anger - can't he see what's going on? It's only a few metres from where he is sitting!

The two men are arguing with each other now, one person blaming the other for not bringing a long enough rope. They struggle to get the rope around the girth of the purple man's abdomen. He shouts for help but there is no one else on the bus. 

I want to get up and help the purple man, but I am totally glued to the seat and unable to move. I open my mouth but no sound comes out. I want to help him, but there is a vivid thought on my mind that I'm not helping him because I am actually a killer, since I participated in the other death on campus. 

The men continue to struggle while the bus rolls through the suburbs without making any stops. 

I have to do something. I think to myself. It's up to me to do something, I have to! 

But still I am stuck to my seat, a mute witness to the struggle. 

Finally the men give up trying to tie him around his large body, and instead they put the rope around his neck like a noose. They grab one end each and start walking towards the opposite ends of the bus. 

The purple man's hands grip around the noose but he is unable to loosen it even a touch. He loses his voice and his eyes bulge out. His face goes from a purple to a bluish grey colour. 

Then he dies, and I wake up. Full of shame that I was not able to stop the killing. 


Dream 2: A laneway in Toronto

In this dream, I am just outside Emily's apartment in Toronto. I have a key, and I let myself in. 

Inside it is completely still. There is no sound and no movement. There are no smells of recent cooking or that of cats. The curtains are drawn in the living room and the place is dark. I try to turn the lights on but they are not working. I open one of the curtains slightly and the big electronic advertising boards outside cast some light into the apartment. It looks like her real apartment, but it does not feel real - does she still live here? I wonder. 

I close the curtain and return the apartment to darkness. I carefully lock the door and head out onto the street. I walk along Queen St and then head south on Yonge St. The time of year must be about now - slightly chilly and a little windy, typical Toronto fall. 

On Yonge St I pass by several cafes and restaurants full of people who are laughing and chatting. 

Who are these people and why are they so happy? I think bitterly. 

I keep walking south and start to lose where I am - somewhere between Adelaide and Richmond? I see a small side lane and feel a strong urge to go down the lane. 

In the lane it is almost completely dark. There is a tiny bit of light from the streetlights on Yonge but within a few steps, I am immersed in darkness. 

Hey! Fancy seeing you here! Emily emerges from the darkness. I think she had been in a doorway, waiting for me to enter the lane. 

I see her face, which looks exactly the same, but she is different somehow. I feel a pang of fear - who is it? 

You wanna go get some cider? I know this great place near here. She says. 

I remain silent and contemplate my options - should I go with her? should I run away? 

She comes closer and she feels cold. The normal reaction to two human bodies in proximity should be that of warmth, but she is like a stone. It starts to snow and tiny little snowflakes fall onto my eyelids, causing me to blink as if the world was not real. 

Let's go! She grabs my arm tightly and her fingers are like a cold steel vice. 

The fear explodes in my chest. My heart is pounding and my mind is racing. I kick into survival mode - I have to get out of here somehow. She starts to go towards the other end of the lane, further into the darkness, while I try to pull back into the light. 

Help! I scream in the direction of the light. 

She tightens her grip so much that I yelp with pain. I think she is going to crush the muscles of my forearm. As we struggle, I see a glint of metal from inside her coat. 

At that moment, a middle aged man enters the lane and comes up to us. In the darkness it is hard to make out his facial features, but I can see he is short and bald, wearing a heavy winter coat. 

Is everything OK here? He asks. 

She smiles at him sweetly while I flail helplessly, my arm still trapped in the vicelike grip. 

Hey look lady, it's not OK to restrain someone like that. He says to her. 

With one hand still on my arm, she opens her coat with the other arm. In a swift motion, she removes the glint of metal and it is a Global brand chef's knife (in real life I use one at my place). 

With complete and utter silence, she slashes the knife neatly across the front of the man's coat and the coat falls away. 

A huge gash appears across his abdomen and he falls to his knees. There is blood pouring out from the gash as he starts to shout and cry at the same time. Blood is coming out of his mouth too, and he's choking on his blood as he cries out. In a moment of trauma surgery reality, I wonder where the injury must be. 

Then I realise that the grip on my arm is gone, and she is gone. Where has she gone? 

I rush over to the man and cradle him in my arms. 

It's going to be OK, it's going to be OK. I repeat to him, as the snow continues to fall onto us. Then I wake up.  

Friday, 23 October 2020

Travels via food (9): Digital detox in Leura

Last week, my friend J and I went up to the Blue Mountains for a midweek getaway. We met in February 2001 on our first day at medical school. We were taking the same 891 bus to UNSW - she sat down opposite me, we started chatting and as they say, the rest is history. We have lived through so much together in the last two decades, finishing medical school, specialty training, overseas fellowships, relationships and heartaches..

These days we both have busy lives as specialists, and plan our holidays around international trips. J usually travels around neurology conferences, while I usually meet up with friends for music. 2020 has chucked a spanner in the works with Covid and all our international trips have been cancelled. Australia has been running an ad promotion "This year, Holiday here." and it seeped into my consciousness. This trip to the mountains was inspired by an article I read on the bore baths at Lightning Ridge. But Lightning Ridge is so far away, so we thought of going to the Japanese baths in the Blue Mountains instead. 

We found a nice Airbnb in Leura and the hosts generously offered us an extra night when they heard that we were stressed out doctors. On the way out of Sydney, we discussed our plans to do a digital detox. We are both heavily reliant on our phones for work as well as keeping in touch with family and friends. But we know all about the deleterious effects of our phones - the conscious and unconscious distractions, the unaware passage of time, the ups and downs of dopamine. Every time we hear the "ding", our primitive brains start thinking Someone loves me! Who is it? What are they saying? It is extremely difficult to break out of this dopamine cycle, and I am not any different to the average person. Even though I don't have Facebook or Twitter, I still use Whatsapp constantly to talk to my friends, particularly those overseas who I cannot see in person. In the end, we agreed to try a digital detox and get away from emails and social media. What a blissful time it was! 

I packed a "Fun Bag" which reminded me of road trip holidays from pre smart phone days. It had a jigsaw, scrabble, magazines and books, sketching materials, my journal, an old school camera, and knitting. I think all these things bring a stronger tendency for me to actually focus on the moment, rather than being distracted and in three different places at once. 

After a long sleep in, we explored the gardens at the Airbnb full of beautiful flowers, a truly stunning garden. 

Later we went to Sublime Point and were blown away by the majestic view.  

While there, we got talking to some other visitors. Initially I thought they were a couple, but as they talked I realised that they were actually mother & son. How nice it is that a grown up 25 year old man still wants to go on a mid week holiday with his mother! We talked about our digital detox and they were amazed we were driving around the mountains with no navigation. The son was a newly graduated nurse at a major hospital where J had worked, a strange random connection. He told us stories about how his transition to nursing practice has opened his eyes to how life really works. One story was really quite striking. Being of Italian background, he had connected with an older Italian gentleman who he viewed as his "Nonno". One night, the patient died unexpectedly and he was utterly shocked to find this out when he arrived at work. One of the senior nurses took him aside and told him that they would look after the patient, that he should take a break from being responsible for taking care of the body. In retrospect he realised that the senior nurse had recognised the impact this would have on him and was trying to shield him from that sadness. It was an apt reminder that got me thinking back to my own junior years. 

Then we went out to Wentworth Falls for a short walk. The effects of the bushfire season over 2019-2020 summer are still quite evident. 

Everywhere we turned, the blackened trees still gave off the faint scent of smoke. Lots of green had emerged in the bush, leaves growing from crevices of burnt stumps. The fires must have been so devastating that much of the track was destroyed, and the main walk in the area (National Pass) is still partially closed. 

Cliffside on the National Pass

Wentworth Falls

We had dinner at the Yellow Deli cafe, run by a cult with a farm in the local area. I often drop by when I am in Katoomba because it is such a quaint place with beautiful furniture. 

I had a warming bowl of chili and a mug of mate latte to complete the hipsteriffic dinner. It was pretty cold and misty in the mountains. 

The next day we drove up to Medlow Bath for afternoon tea at the Hydro Majestic. This is an old hotel from the 19th century that has been recently refurbished. 

The views from the hotel are unparalleled, overlooking the expansive valley. 

We had a traditional afternoon tea - fluffy warm scones, traditional savoury sandwiches and dainty little sweets. I don't know of any better place for a high tea!

We went a little further up the mountain to Blackheath, where it was a beautiful clear day at Govett's Leap lookout. Here also, the bushfires had been quite bad last summer. Parts of the track were closed but we could descend to the first lookout over Bridal Veil falls. 

There was hardly any water in the falls, but the view over the valley was gorgeous and we soaked up a bit of sunshine. 

On the way back we gave a ride to a woman in her late 30s who we had met briefly at the lookout. She had screamed I'm free! some time after we had left the lookout, her voice echoing across the valley. It must have felt amazing to scream! We were still contemplating the view at the lookout when she approached us and asked if we could give her a ride. She explained that she had walked the 4km or so from the train station but a strange man had followed her along the way. He kept pestering her and asking where she was staying, and she was terrified. Being slightly out of town, she couldn't find an Uber to get back to the station. It was sobering to remember how vulnerable we can be as solo female travellers, and we were glad to be of some help to her. 

On our last day in the mountains we said goodbye to our lovely airbnb hosts and went up to Katoomba to visit the Lost Bear Gallery. I loved the collection here - an eclectic mix of Australian landscapes, photography, sculpture, blown glass and some modern art. We got talking to the gallery owner Geoff who shares the space with his gorgeous 11 year old dog Nugget. 

There was a beautiful old German grand piano there that had been restored, and the art gallery setting for this kind of piano was just perfect. 

Our final stop on the holiday was at the Japanese bath house in the upper mountains. 

Just short of Lithgow, the bath house is in a stunning location overlooking Lake Lyell. Unlike the original onsens, we were required to wear bathing suits and it was not gender segregated. Most of the baths were the same temp of 38 degrees, with one extra hot pool, a herbal steam room and associated cold pool. Some of the baths were set up in spectacular locations with panoramic lake views. What is it about water that is so calming? And of warm water in bath form, it must remind us of the amniotic fluid of the womb...

After the bath we made a quick stop in Katoomba for dinner at the trendy 8Things, a hipster street food joint with 8 dishes inspired from different countries around the world. The descent from the mountains was extremely foggy with visibility of less than one car at places. Nevertheless, we arrived home feeling relaxed. 



It was amazing to get away from our devices even just for 3 days. I experienced a kind of mental reset and an awareness of presence. It's been a long time since I had this time to just be with my friend, and not try to do a billion things at once. It really got me thinking about mindfulness