I have nervously watched the institutionalised mayhem of Indian traffic for years, ‘safely’ as a passenger: India has the highest number of annual traffic incidents in the world. This year I actively took part – in Pondicherry I rented a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’. Old style, heavy, single-cylinder 350cc: lovely motorbike design dating from the year I was born.
Joining the traffic in the Bullet taught me many lessons – no helmet is better (improves peripheral vision); check the fuel tank (we pushed it down dusty roads for a kilometre the first day); it’s a delicate balance between assertion and deference in Indian traffic, and almost every Indian out-asserted me. Ananth Gopal was the perfect pillion passenger: balanced, navigating, laughing. Risk is broadened on a motorbike: Ananth, me, the people on the bikes next to me I might bump, pedestrians… It is all about flow: after ten days it was just exhilarating to negotiate insanely crowded intersections and nudge through crowded marketplaces.
On a beach just south of the Wallace Line, we troop onto the transfer boat. Then we wait in the rolling swells while three of the crew paddle a surf ski to the ‘fast boat’. Finally the fast boat starts its engines and comes alongside. We crowd across, holding arms and shoulders of muscular deckhands as we climb aboard. This boat has four monster outboard engines, so I stay at the back, guessing that the bow is going to be in the air a lot. A young woman makes room for me on the outside seat. The skipper is a full pirate: snaking tattoos across his dark back and arms, long black hair tied back. There is an incomprehensible announcement in static and Indonesian, and he guns those monster engines.
The propellers suck down the stern, the bow points at the sky: it’s fifteen miles across the strait and we are going to do it very quickly. The pirate continually works the helm and at first it is just fast, but as we move out of the wind shelter of the headland we meet the big seas rolling down from Lombok. There is a stunned silence from the passengers as the boat explodes over the first two massive swells, then half the crowd loudly scramble for life jackets. Several women quietly put their heads in their hands and pray. I look at the distance I might have to swim…
This month in Asia has been about the edge. We’ve been on the edge of oceans and continents, the edge of biogeographic zones, and presumably the edge of safety. The edge of change in all kinds of ways.
The 8,118 km long coastline in India spans eight states and two island territories, with over 2,600 towns and cities, and nearly 4,000 villages situated along this ecologically and culturally diverse edge. Port facilities and other coastal infrastructure are rapidly expanding. Extensive tropical mangroves remain in many places, nurseries for fish, shelter for fishing boats, and sometimes ‘bioshields’ against extreme weather events. The climatic region, coastline and dual monsoon expose India to 10% of the world’s tropical cyclones. The unprecedented infrastructural development along this vulnerable ecosystem results in visible effects of both human and natural catastrophe.
In Pondicherry, myself, Ananth, and colleague and friend Tasneem Khan from EARTHCoLab, are writing a paper on the nature of immersive field teaching in India. Long animated discussions about how to curate peak learning experiences from the relationship between danger and what Ananth calls ‘the holding environment’. Many diagrams and then the beginnings of a narrative. EARTHCoLab are also hosting Swedish artist-in-residence Jennifer Rainsford, leading to strange and fruitful intersections from watching hatching dragonflies in the moonlight to discussing the creative influences of childhood trauma.
In Bali, I am developing SGSC’s GEOG339 ‘International Fieldwork Intensive’ framed around the concept of ‘Uncertain Islands’… How is the myth of Bali constructed today? The colonial Dutch in the 1930s portrayed Bali as a paradise of bare-breasted women; Australian surfers and hippies ‘discovered’ it in the 1960s (watch the iconic surf film Morning of the Earth, the title reflecting a quote from Indian Prime Minister Nehru on his first visit); the Indonesian government disastrously opened up large-scale resort development in the 1980s. There is a proposal for a huge, multi-billion dollar development on reclaimed land near Denpasar, provoking ongoing island-wide demonstrations – ‘Tokla reklamasi’ is everywhere. Ubud is peace, love, yoga, magic and shopping, with continuing deep knowledge of complex local farming traditions and Balinese dance; the north coast is scuba and free-diving amongst poor fishing communities; Nusa Penida is the last stronghold of the critically-endangered national bird, the Bali Myna (called jalak Bali locally – there are an estimated 100 in the wild, and I saw one).
The risk assessment process rightly requires me to think about the welfare of our students in the field, and the team who will deliver the subject (am I drinking the Arack that causes blindness, or the good stuff?). I also think of the communities, human and non-human, with whom we will interact – how do our privileged, carbon-spewing lifestyles put them at risk? One million Australians visit Bali every year: what different kinds of understanding can we provoke through immersion in field experiences here? As usual, more questions than answers.