Last time in Lyttelton

Sled dog

When I first came to Lyttelton, it was December 2011. I came because I was in New Zealand for two and a half months without much of a plan, and the opportunity had arisen to pet sit here over Christmas. I’d Skyped with the homeowner from Istanbul, right before I made my way to New Zealand via Georgia, Armenia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. I wasn’t especially excited about Lyttelton – it’s next to Christchurch, which I didn’t think much of – but at least it would be good to have a base for the best part of a month.

But I found that I felt at peace here. And after that, I came back to Lyttelton to pet sit every Christmas. I also looked after the next-door neighbour’s four cats for the whole of April 2013, and in mid-2014, reeling from the worst break-up I’d ever had, I came back again for lack of any other ideas. I rented my friend’s room for six weeks, cried a lot, and tried to piece myself back together.

When I explain Lyttelton to people I tell them that it’s a port town – a village, really – surrounded by hills, and that many of its inhabitants are writers and artists and musicians. It’s a chill, friendly kind of place. It has a farmers’ market every Saturday morning and I look forward to the whitebait fritters all year. It was the epicentre of the big 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and even today some sites are vacant where buildings used to be, and others are fenced off. For a while, there was no supermarket, and the bank was a van that showed up once a week. The Port Hole bar was reborn in a shipping container. Gradually, art seeps in to brighten things up; the latest, in recognition of the Antarctic expeditions that stop by Lyttelton, is a sled dog on the corner of London Street, recently unveiled by sculptor Mark White. (“Have you any idea how hard it is to make a sculpture look fluffy?” he said to me.)

Things I have done over the years while staying in Lyttelton:

  • gotten used to earthquakes, starting with a Richter 6.1 my first day alone
  • read at open mic events
  • took a motorbike trip to Akaroa
  • looked after friends’ kids
  • looked after a total of nine cats and three dogs
  • walked the dogs by the coast
  • wanted to speak Bahasa and Spanish to the Indonesian and Latin American sailors in port, but was hesitant
  • worried about money a whole bunch
  • attended gigs by Aaron McGrath, whose stories were a delight
  • drank too much
  • looked after drunk people
  • found queer, trans and sex worker friends even in this tiny place
  • visited the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective
  • welcomed my dad, who came all the way around the world to visit last year
  • cried in public; wandered around shell-shocked
  • made out with some dude when I was drunk and then avoided his calls because I couldn’t deal
  • baked things, like pumpkin gingerbread, meringues and snickerdoodle cookies
  • taken the ferry to Diamond Harbour
  • went to bars by myself
  • had enough of going to bars by myself

I think I spent three Christmases alone here and three with company. I’d never spent Christmas by myself before, I’d always visited my family for it. Being alone doesn’t really bother me, and since I’m not religious, why should it matter anyway? But it’s hard sometimes just because everybody else has their own family plans or whatever, and everything is shut, and at those times I kind of just wait for the day to be over.

Then there’s New Year.

2012: I was DJing at The Archive in Christchurch. Everybody had gotten the fuck out of town because they’d had enough of earthquakes, though, and there were about ten people total in the bar at night. But my music was good, and I still remember starting with a track by Bilind Ibrahim, a private tribute to my Kurdish little brother in Dohuk.

2013: I went to a house party in Christchurch, invited by a dude from CouchSurfing who was cool and who I should have kept in touch with.

2014: I went bar hopping in Lyttelton with a couple friends and then made out with one of them when we were spectacularly drunk.

2015: I went bar hopping in Lyttelton with another friend and we met random people and I told some dude off for making inappropriate comments.

2016: I took a South African guest to a bar in Lyttelton and we drank and talked and came home without major developments.

2017: I stayed the fuck in, drank wine and talked to Twitter. And missed my crew back in KL, but they sent me a bunch of GIFs of them dancing.

When I first came to Lyttelton, I didn’t know where I was going to end up afterwards. I didn’t know that I would find my home in Malaysia. I see my history in Lyttelton through that lens as well: the first time I came here, I had a crush on a boy in KL I hadn’t even met in person yet. The following year, our relationship was a real thing, and yet, I still remember one day, walking to the corner shop in Lyttelton listening to Said the Gramophone’s best songs of the year. I was listening to, of all things, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together by Taylor Swift, which I hadn’t heard before, and suddenly those lyrics resonated like hell. I was with somebody who was prone to dumping me on the spur of the moment, and she was right, it was exhausting. I still wanted really badly to be with him, but on that trip, I started to look around me more, to find evidence that there were good (and hot) people around and that if we stopped being together I would be okay.

At Christmas 2013 I was worrying about how to tell him that some of his behaviour was hurtful; I was walking on eggshells all the time, and what was the point? By Christmas 2014 we were finally over, but still, at Christmas 2015 I lost days to reading about emotional labour. I needed to process what had happened but I also needed to radically reassess my own approach to relationships and never go through this again.

2016 was a year for cementing my place in KL, developing what I was already doing and making it more real and hopefully permanent.

One: Rainbow Rojak was resurrected, again. It’s now a monthly club night at Marketplace in the city centre, a gorgeous rooftop setting with a friendly atmosphere that welcomes people of all genders. It’s also got a monthly spinoff at Minut Init, and another starting in February at Gaslight Café, so 2017 looks like it’s gonna be pretty busy on that front.

(Confession: I still know fuck all about DJing. A couple of years ago, I went for dinner with Javad and he brought along a friend – a European, I think, who would get flown to places like Hong Kong to DJ at clubs there – and said “Nine is a DJ too!” And this dude looked at me with something approximating professional respect, and then I asked him, I shit you not, “Do you use headphones?” And then he looked at me completely differently after that. So. Although it would be nice to learn how to do fancy things on the decks, I kind of like where I’m at, which is just throwing tunes at people that they mostly haven’t heard before, and making them dance. I like reading the crowd and figuring out what will keep them on the dancefloor, and I enjoy that challenge, even if I do fuck up the segue sometimes. But then people tell me stuff like “I brought a spare pair of shoes just so I can dance to your set,” and then I glow, and then they cheer at the end of my set and I still have no fucking clue how to respond which is one reason why 2017 is supposed to be the year I figure out how to stop being so self-conscious.)

Two: Biawak Gemok is the zine distro that I co-run with Liy. It’s exhilarating every time we do a stall. Though some customers will be used to zines and to the subject matter covered in our stock, for others, it’s rare to read material that they can relate to so strongly; or, it opens up a different perspective that they hadn’t seen before. So doing the stall often leads to bigger conversations. We’ve given our profits to Justice For Sisters, SEED, and the bail fund for Orang Asli protesters in Kelantan. Biawak Gemok enables us to spread ideas, raise awareness and also financially support causes that need our solidarity. On a personal level, it’s exciting to be able to make this happen.

Three: In 2016 I officially became a live-in cat nanny at the cat palace, where I live for free in exchange for looking after six cats. I know, I know, What Is My Life. I’d gone from living out of a rucksack and pinballing around the world, to living out of a rucksack and just moving between cat sitting assignments in KL. (I’m still occasionally available for cat sitting in KL/PJ when I’m not needed at the cat palace, FYI.) But now I have an actual room with a desk and a bookshelf and a wardrobe and gradually more and more possessions that I’m scattering around it. Did you notice that I started this blog in 2010? That’s when I last had a place I could confidently call home.

Four: In late 2015 I finally had the spare money to take Malay classes, but in mid-2016 I decided to stop going. This was partly because I’m too impatient for a classroom environment and because my previous efforts to teach myself had left me with perhaps an idiosyncratic level of comprehension. But it was also because I’d had it with listening to my classmates’ racist and sexist opinions; I’d challenged them somewhat, but I also just really didn’t want to dread class, didn’t want to drag myself to it like I was going into battle. I appealed to Twitter to find me a private tutor, and after a couple of tries, Twitter really came through. I’m happy that Daniel is not only an excellent teacher, but now a friend as well. I can feel my Malay improving; I’m still a bit shy to take it outside of the situations in which I usually use it, but I’m getting there.

In 2016 I thought a lot about boundaries and how to conduct relationships that were respectful of them. I had spent so much time folding myself smaller and smaller to make space for others, and I was done with it. I also wanted to respect and really hear other people’s feelings, and never make anyone feel bad for sharing them; I knew what that felt like.

I hope I succeeded. I’m still learning what works. Of course it’s all just a perpetual work in progress. But when I feel anxious, I remind myself that I’m safe now.

My life in KL is blessed with close friendships, people who understand me and care about me and miss me when I’m gone. And I found love as well, against the backdrop of those friendships, which is the best place to find it.

I travelled for so many years without knowing where I would find home, and it feels amazing to know for sure now. I could get by in most places – I could get by in Lyttelton if I were to stick around – but KL (a city which, by the way, I was entirely unimpressed with when I first visited in 1999) has unlocked so many levels to me, and it’s calling me back. I will miss the view, and the sporadic company I get here, and most of all my beloved Squeakycat, but this is going to be my last visit to Lyttelton for the foreseeable. I miss my home, and I want to get back to it, and stay there.

4 responses to “Last time in Lyttelton

  1. I have nothing coherent to add because it’s late and my brain is mush, but I really liked this post. <3

  2. The entire post is great, but the line “In 2016 I officially became a live-in cat nanny at the cat palace, where I live for free in exchange for looking after six cats.” is just pure perfection and also hardcore life goals. <3

  3. so lovely to read this report – what a story of change, fragility, strength and personal growth. a happy 2017, i think! sending you love from a wee tiny village in france, where i’m staying this month with T and my nine month old baby (!)

  4. These annual updates remind me of how much I love your writing voice. I wish you made them more frequent.

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