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RIP Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe died on 21 March 2013. He was 82 years young.

It’s not often we can look back on our life and pinpoint that definitive moment, person or thing that, in retrospect, changed our life. But Chinua Achebe did that for me.

I’ve always been a reader. In primary school I think I read every book that Enid Blyton ever wrote—from Noddy to the girls at Mallory Towers. In high school I did what every good English Lit student did—I read the classics and Shakespeare—ploughing my way through Dickens and Austen, and moving on to Tolstoy and Chekhov. The cult books of Tolkien and Mervyn Peake held my attention for a while but nothing really left a lasting impression—or grabbed my heart so tight that I never, ever, forgot.

Until I found Chinua Achebe.

By now I had moved from England to Australia and was studying for the HSC (equivalent to A levels in the UK), and one of my subjects was, not surprisingly, Literature. A list of books was provided and we were told to choose one. I looked at the list and came across one I’d never heard of. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. ‘Who’s this?’ I asked—not even sure I could pronounce his name. ‘African writer’ said the teacher, ‘…very powerful book’.

The book blurb told me that Achebe was Nigerian and this was his first novel. He’d written the book in 1958 and it had become one of the first African novels written in English to achieve global acclaim.  Interestingly, Achebe took his title from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming* which I had read. So I chose Achebe’s book and it came home with me.

Set in the 1890s, the main protagonist is Okonkwo, a tribal leader and champion among his people, the Ibo. Okonkwo’s life is good and he is comparatively wealthy, when an accident causes his family to be exiled from the village for seven years. On his return he discovers the white men have arrived in his village and have introduced religion to the people. Okonkwo tries to rally the people to fight the white men but then he realises that his people will no longer fight and have accepted the white men’s teachings.

I remember how I felt when I read it. I felt Okonkwo’s rage and anger, then his despair and desperation as he realised the history and culture of his people were being debased and subsumed and he was powerless to stop it. But I also felt sad for Okonkwo and his inability to cope, and work, with the changes and development offered to his people—medicines, education, and equality.

The village could have been anywhere; Okonkwo could have been anyone, and times change, and some people cope and some don’t. It still happens today for everyone one of us.

For me, this book opened my eyes to the real power of words.

It grabbed my heart.

Thank you, Chinua Achebe.

 

*The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

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Cook Islands—Pearl of the Pacific

There’s not a lot of industry on Rarotonga, or Raro as it’s known. There’s tourism, and there’s tourism, and there’s pearls—and did I mention tourism? Oh, and there’s also weaving and quilting, but more about those later. On a recent visit to Raro we decided to do some pearl shopping, and you can’t do pearl shopping without learning the history of the Cook Island pearls.

There are pearls everywhere. You can buy them in souvenir shops (but they’re probably not very good quality) or from a jewellers, or you can visit a pearl outlet—there are a few dotted around the island. At the pearl outlets you can choose your pearl (or pearls) and design, or make your own design with the help of the jeweller. You can choose silver or gold settings (gold being obviously more expensive) and can select from varying shades of white, pink and black pearls.

The black pearl is local to the Cook Islands, and is farmed on the island of Manihiki in the northern group. The Cook Islands is made up 15 islands dotted over almost 2million square metres of ocean—that’s almost the size of India—and is made up of two groups; the southern group, and the northern group.

cook is map Manihiki is a small atoll that sits on top of an underwater mountain. Its stunning internal lagoon is 10 kilometres across with 43 tiny motus (islets) strung along the reef like a string of pearls. The pearl farms are dotted around the lagoon, and on the west of the island at Tauhunu are the pearl carvers.

Manihiki

The pearls are sorted into quality, lustre and size. Small pearls (like the ones below) are suitable for necklaces, ear-rings and bracelets. Larger pearls tend to be used in pendants and rings.

pearls sorted

For our shopping expedition we visited Tarani’s who specialise in pearls and weaving. Tarani herself designs and makes the pearl jewellery, and her tiny shop is chock full of pearls of all shapes and sizes. Tarani likes to use single pearls a lot, and sets them in silver—often with the shells—as pendants, and she also makes rings, ear-rings and necklaces.

Tarani displays her pearls

There isn’t a great deal on display as Tarani prefers to show the pearl separately, and then work with the buyer to design a piece of jewellery that not only is unique to them, but showcases the pearl in its best setting.

Be it pendant…   single pearl necklace2

double pearl necklace

Or ring…

rings

Or this…

Yes i bought a ring

…which came home with me.

A brand Newstart on $35 a day

Jenny Macklin is the current Australian Federal Government Families Minister and, according to her colleagues, is staunchly in favour of dole reform. For those who don’t know—‘dole’ is the term used in Australia (and the UK) for unemployment benefit paid to job-seekers. To qualify for a dole payment, the applicant must prove they are genuinely unemployed and seeking work, and the payment may also bring other benefits such as a health care card and food vouchers.

It’s highly commendable for a Federal Minister to be in favour of dole reform, as most don’t give a damn about voters on welfare. Indeed, the general public as a whole don’t particularly give a damn; with the popular view that those on the dole are simply ‘dole bludgers’, and should in fact get off their butt (and the dole) and just, well, get a job.

On 1 January this year, a law came into effect that moves single parents off unemployment benefit and on to Newstart when their youngest child turns eight. This change will save the Government $728 million over four years and will cost single parents up to $223 a fortnight. Despite Government claims that approximately 3,000 recipients would receive better payments, only 667 single parents have been given higher welfare benefits, including the disability support pension. The Newstart payment is $245 per week, or, as previously stated $35 per day.

In an inexplicable attempt to shoot herself in the foot, Jenny Macklin has announced to the world, that recipients of welfare should be able to live on this $35 per day. And, in a greater attempt to shoot off her other foot, has stated that she could live on $35 a day. As a Cabinet Minister, Jenny Macklin currently earns $6,321 per week—that’s $903 a day. Some disparity there I think.

Just out of interest AU$35 equates to:

US$ 36.63

Euro 27.67

GBP 22.50

Yen 3,187.50

NZ$ 43.93.

So let’s look at public housing. Public housing in the ACT (Canberra) has a long waiting list—almost two years in standard cases. To be eligible for public housing you must:

  • be 16 years or older
  • currently reside in the Territory, and have been a resident for at least six months
  • not have cash or personal assets greater than $40,000
  • not own any form of residential property
  • comply with a variety of income barriers according to your status, that is, whether single, single parent, family with one or more children etc.

Meeting this criteria and being prepared to wait the required length of time, you may be allocated public housing. Public housing rentals are 25 per cent of your total (gross) household income, or full market rental, whichever is less.

Now let’s look at a single parent with one pre-school or early primary aged child. They are unemployed and currently living in public housing, and as a single parent receive the maximum Single Parent Benefit (SPB) of $331.85 per week, out of which they pay 25 per cent or $82.96 in rent. This leaves them with $248.89 for other living expenses. There may of course be other benefits such as the aforementioned health care card and/or food vouchers.

Do you see where I’m going with this Jenny?

When the child turns eight years old they will be moved off the (SPB) and on to Newstart, thereby reducing their income—albeit only slightly. However, when they gain employment their payment will be reduced and their rent will increase according to their total income. Unless they have very accommodating family to help them with child care, it will be extremely difficult for them to pay their living expenses either way.

A single parent (or both parents) with more than one child does receive more benefits, but again their rental and other expenses increase accordingly.

Now let’s look at your circumstances Jenny. For someone earning over $900 a day, I would really like to see you move out of your lovely family home in Ivanhoe (where the average four bedroom home is priced around the $1 million mark, and rentals are upwards of $600 a week), and subsist on $35 a day. Of course you’d have to do it for at least three months to feel any real benefit.

Hell, I’d even fund you for the first week just to show my commitment. And I’m sure you’d have others lining up to fund the remainder.

Newstart? Not for some.

Pat-a-Cake Christmas

Christmas is a time for fruit cake; brandy and fruit puddings, and mince pies.

No-one in my family likes dried fruit.

Christmas in my family has been devoid of any cakes and desserts for many a year. I have tried Pavlova—an airy-fairy, sugary-sweet meringue with cream and fruit—and that wasn’t too bad; except I don’t like meringue. Being a POM I went for ye Olde-English trifle once or twice—and please don’t get me started on whether a trifle has jelly or not—of course it bloody doesn’t! It does have sherry though, and if you put enough in it Christmas can be very merry …

My son and daughter-in-law are off to Cootamundra for Christmas. (For those who don’t know, Cootamundra is between nowhere and nowhere in NSW and about a four hour drive from Canberra.), and my daughter is in the throes of packing up her house in preparation for January move. So Christmas came early this year so we could all be together.

As many of you know, during the course of the year I became the cupcake Queen, and opening pressies over a glass of bubbly is a tradition in this household. And when a very large box appeared on the table in front of me, I was somewhat taken aback … mostly we give vouchers … boring I know, but useful. Is this going anywhere? Yes it is—so bear with me.

And in the box was … Ta Da!

SAM_0677

So of course I decided there and then to make cupcakes for Christmas.

Of course, the cupcake stand had to be assembled. Firstly I checked my engineering degree (absent), but never mind; having spent some time recently in IKEA, flat boxes are not the challenge they used to be. In fact, after packing up the kitchen earlier in the year I can unpack a flat box with amazing speed and accuracy. Though putting the contents of said box together can often be startlingly troublesome—which explains why I was up at 6.30am on Christmas Eve.

SAM_0675

Stand duly assembled I set about the cupcakes. Being the cupcake Queen I have lots of wrappers, decorations, and pickers for all occasions, so out came the Christmas cups and pickers (Christmas trees and reindeer), and some nice silver and green sprinkles. And two hours later (I took the dogs out while they were cooling down) … voila!

SAM_0676

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting, all ready to be served up with nice dollop of brandy cream—and not a smidgen of dried fruit in sight.

So Merry Christmas—and remember what they say: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, and when the white runs out, I’ll drink the Red.” Cheers!

Get the Look for Less!

I always said I wouldn’t do a fashion blog, but after my recent blog on Shopping Centre Fashionista—where I commented on ‘Get the Look for Less’ from the Canberra Centre Culture magazine—which advertised a lovely look that included a dress for $899; I made it my mission to seriously get the look for less. Well, less than that anyway.

Today summer has arrived, so I did hie myself off to Belconnen Mall (note: not the Canberra Centre) to peruse the shops.

So my look for (considerably) less starts with a sweet little sundress from Crossroads. It may not look much in the photo, but it looks lovely on. It’s well-cut and has hidden side pockets and a nice flattering V back, and comes with the belt. At $49.95 it’s a snip and will take you from work to drinks by the lake, and it comes in a size 8 to 22. Awesome! And yes, I did buy it.

Next up are the shoes. Because the dress is multi pinks, blues and greens you can choose your colour to match. I went for blue—‘cos I’m not really a pink person—but I’ve given you a choice.

You can skip along to the lake in a nice pair of comfy suede flats from Novo at $39.95, or cute sandals at $49.95, also from Novo. If you really want to dress it up, the pink wedges would look great and won’t break the budget at $59.95. Novo strikes again!

Team your shoes with a clutch or tote bag. The pink clutch is from Novo and costs $39.95. The other bags are from Colette—with the little blue clutch a bargain at $39.95.

The pink tote bag is real leather and is simply gorgeous—it will hold everything you need including your iPad, and for the quality it’s a fantastic bargain at $99.95, and it also comes in blue. The blue tote is soft faux leather with lots of inside pockets and an extender shoulder strap, and at $54.95 it’s a steal. It also comes in red—which I bought … yes I know I’m meant to sticking with blue and pink but I got side-tracked.

Finish your look with some Diva jewellery—both items less than $20.

And there you have it—the look for damn site less than a Hugo Boss dress! Enjoy…!

The Scandinavian God of Shopping

So we’re driving through St Peters towards Sydney Airport when on the horizon—there it is! We didn’t go looking for it; we just stumbled upon it, but while we’re here … why not …

This is our first visit to Ikea and we have no idea what to expect. Parking is like parking at Disneyland with rows and rows of cars as far as the eye can see, and each row has a large alphabet letter (we park in C) so you don’t lose your car, and follow the crowds. Neither of us like crowds so this should set off alarm bells right at the start, but for some reason we don’t hear them, and continue into the store.

Now I’ve heard of Ikea and all the jokes about flat packs, and needing a Masters in Engineering to put your purchase together, but somehow I never really thought that everything came in flat pack. Quelle surprise … but surely you don’t have to put together a lounge suite from a flat pack?

 

We follow everyone else to a sign that says ‘Showroom’. At the foot of the escalator a lady in the blue and yellow uniform welcomes us to Ikea and shoves a card in our hands. It’s at that moment I realise I’m probably one up on everyone else because I can speak Swedish. 

Well, no not really, but many moons ago when I was in high school, I had a pen-pal (remember those—they came before email, Facebook and tweeting) and the aim was to correspond via letter (that’s post) and impart information about your country, your life, your customs and culture, and anything else, and hopefully learn a bit of the language along the way. I was handed the name and address of a young girl called Cristina who lived in Gothenburg, and we corresponded for well over 30 years—yes, really! And, she was a bridesmaid at my wedding. Obviously her English was miles ahead of my Swedish but I did learn some—including the words on the card the Ikea lady shoved in my hand. It said:

“God Jul och Gott Nytt År på Ikea”

And that’s Merry Christmas and Happy New Year at Ikea. Didn’t think I knew that, did you?

Anyhow, back to the store, which not surprisingly; as the card conveyed; is Christmas themed.

Christmas Lounge – complete with roaring (fake) fire

The Showroom is quite amazing with little alcoves done out like lounge rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, kitchens etc, so you can see what the stuff looks like in situ as it were. It’s around this time that we realise everyone is going in the same direction. No-one is meandering like people do in Myer or David Jones. Everyone is being herded around the store by following large glowing arrows that flicker on the floor—it’s done by lighting, so they can change the arrows and herd the customers towards specials or sale items. But on this particular day we are going round in some sort of order—we think.

Ikea Modern Lounge with study area

After the showroom we arrive in the lounge area, followed by the dining area, then led to the bedrooms, then the kitchens. How do you get an oven in a flat pack? No that’s not a riddle. I don’t know the answer either.

Coffee tables, and more coffee tables

Then we are guided to manchester and soft furnishings. I think we’ve followed the arrows for about 5 kilometres by now and have probably walked as far as Mascot. But wait there’s more! Around the corner—and there it is … the perfect Swedish Christmas. There are fir trees, pine trees, and white, silver and gold trees, and more baubles and bows than you can poke a stick at. And I dare say the trees do come in a flat pack.

But we’re over it. Sadly it’s way too much even for me and we start desperately looking for the exits. Unfortunately we still have to follow the arrows (I wonder if Swedish supermarkets are like that?) and after Christmas we have to make our way through babies, kids and toys; light fittings and lamps; accessories; the flat pack pick-up area; the coffee shop and restaurant (well everyone needs coffee and cake after all that …), and finally the Swedish Market, to the checkouts.

Swedish snacks from the Market

 

People are maneuvering trolleys laden with packs, and I lie through my teeth when I can’t help but stop one couple and say I’m writing an article on home-wares and can I ask some questions—I give them my business card just for good measure.

Helen and Phil (names changed to protect the innocent) have spent over $700 today. This is their third trip this year and they’ve bought a couple of wardrobe inserts; and two bedside tables with new lamps (they’re doing up a bedroom … really?), and some Christmas gifts for family members. Nice. Who puts it all together? “Phil does,” says Helen, “he’s very handy, and we’ve never had a problem—never had pieces or screws missing or anything like that. Of course, you don’t expect it to last forever—it’s not like solid oak or anything, but you get what you pay for, and it’s ideal for a quick makeover.”  I suppose it is.

Helen is on roll, “you can get an Ikea person to install it but you have to pay extra for that. I suppose if you’re getting a kitchen or something you’d need to have it professionally installed.” I suppose you would. 

Back at the hotel I randomly Google Ikea deliveries and discover that a couple of young blokes (Michael and Loyzek) in Canberra are making a motza driving to Ikea three times a week to collect online orders and deliver them to the Canberra region. They charge you 10 percent of your total purchase. So if Helen and Phil lived in Canberra they could have ordered online; contacted www.bringithome.com.au and had their delivery within 48 hours. Compared with six hours of driving to and from Sydney; negotiating Ikea (at least another four hours), and getting the goods in the house when you get home, it’s a small price to pay.

And no, I don’t know them—I just think it’s a brilliant idea and I should have thought of it.

Why don’t fat people do yoga?

My 20-something stick-insect work colleague does a yoga class every Wednesday lunchtime. Having cursed her size 6 figure many times, and once again bemoaning that the three kilos that appeared around my middle over the winter refuses to budge, stick-insect approaches my desk.

“Hey, why don’t you come and do a yoga class with me—you’ll feel so much better.” Will I? “Yeah, and the first class is free if you come as my guest, so you can try before you buy. It’s awesome; you’ll love it”. Will I? “Just bring track pants and a t-shirt on Wednesday and we’ll go.” O-kay … well, it’s nice of her to ask—after all she’s 20-something and I’m probably the same age as her grandmother …so I’m honoured. I think.

Now, for those of you who don’t know; I work at a university whose campus spans 340 acres. In order to get to the yoga class we leave our building on one side of the campus and do a brisk walk to the gym on the other side. Consequently I am knackered by the time I get there—let alone ready to do any sort of fitness class.

Target trackies $15

I’m wearing my trackies and t-shirt. Everyone else is also wearing trackies and t-shirts. But not quite. My trackies cost 15 bucks from Target—everyone else is wearing yoga pants. There’s a difference? Apparently. My trackies are just that. Their yoga pants are very nicely cut, and have the brand name embroidered in little letters on the bottom of the leg. Also, and this is a dead giveaway, the label is on the outside! So there they are: 10 size 6 stick insects in trendy yoga pants standing in the middle of their mats. Their t-shirts are actually singlets that hug their waist; my t-shirt is long and baggy. And although I’m the first to admit I could lose a couple of kilos, I’m not fat (my pants are a very respectable size 10); I’m beginning to feel like the proverbial brick outhouse.

Lorna Jane yoga pants $90

And I have to tell you that walking into a room full of 20-something stick-insects in very expensive yoga pants, with their lovely long hair twisted nonchalantly around their head does not make me feel better.

Lorna Jane yoga top $35

Stick-insect colleague takes my arm and we move to the two empty mats at the back. Our instructor (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger version of the late Farrah Fawcet-Major) fronts the class. “Let us sit in the lotus position.” Let’s not. The class sits. “Are you right there at the back?” No I’m not. If I could move from a standing position, into the lotus position, in one seamless, elegant movement I wouldn’t be at the bloody class …

Three awkward, and somewhat clumsy, attempts later and I’m sitting on the mat. Not in the lotus position—just sitting—and it hurts.

For the next four hours (30 minutes has never been so long…) the instructor encourages the class to move their bodies into various positions. Some of them so complicated I start to think I’m watching a performance of Cirque du Soleil. A little tinkling bell announces the end of the session and the class rises to its feet in yet another seamless elegant movement. I, somewhat unfortunately, appear to be glued to the mat and stick-insect colleague comes over to help me to my feet.

I stagger out the door and come face-to-face with a group of people carrying enormous balls. “They’re fit balls,” explains stick-insect, “you balance on them, and do squats and crunches, and lean backwards over them. It’s awfully good for your back. I go every Friday after work—you should come, it would make you feel better.”

 Bugger off.