A Tasmanian adventure of camaraderie
Long names like Satchithananthan a/l Chelliah or Gunananthan a/l Nithyanantham have somehow stayed with me. I first met Satchi and Guna in Standard One (when we were seven years of age) at La Salle Primary School, Penang. We spent the first nine year of schooling together in the same class, from Mondays to Fridays and on weekends for extra-curricular activities. During school holidays, we went swimming, fishing, camping and hiking as well as playing games together. We had no internet, no cell phones, no computers or video games. We only had friends!
How quickly time flies and in a blink of an eye, we are at the half-century mark. Having an excuse to meet up was all that was needed for us to book our flight tickets and make a trip down under.
Satchi (top right) played host since he had relocated to Tasmania in 2000. Luah Beng Hup (top left) and I boarded the flight from Penang, Guna from Kuala Lumpur and Tan Hark Hoe made his way from Canberra where he resides. We convened at Australia’s island state Tasmania, an intimate destination of impossible beauty and charm. We got a true taste of Tasmania in its fresh oysters, apple ciders, cheeses and wines, including a dose of its scenic beauty and laid-back luxury.
We appreciate and realise that having good, strong friendships is as important as diet and exercise. There is a richness to being with friends in person simply because it hits all our senses.
Dan Buettner discovered five "Blue Zones" in the world with an unusually high number of centenarians (people living over 100) who are generally happier in life. These places are Ikaria in Greece, Loma Linda in California, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia in Italy. Buettner argued that the most powerful thing we can do to add healthy years is to curate our immediate social network. Emphasising good relationships, both with family members and friends, is crucial for mental health, happiness and contentment, leading to longevity.
People living in the Blue Zones not only live longer but have lower rates of chronic diseases and mental health issues; they live happier, fully engaging with family members and their community. They exercise regularly in their daily lives – work the land, maintain their houses, complete chores, walk and socialise. You will not catch them at gyms, joining Zumba classes, or slaving over treadmills. We know that even light exercise will improve cardiovascular health, boost bone density and increase energy levels.
Guna (standing in a blue jacket) in his book, "Regimes, diets and joys of life" detailed his journey from being a "fat man" to becoming an "Ironman". In his mid-30s, he weighed a whopping 126 kilogrammes (278 pounds) although he was standing close to six feet tall. His liver function, cholesterol, sugar and all levels were off the charts. He tried every diet possible without much success.
The first thing he did was to forgive himself before setting his goals. He shuffled his priorities on "wealth" to this descending order – family, health, happiness, self-actualisation and money (bottom of his list). He then embarked on a quest to complete a gruelling Ironman challenge – a 3.8-kilometre swim through icy waters, then a 180-kilometre cycle followed by a 42-kilometre marathon – all to be completed within 16 hours. He made life-altering changes and trained religiously for six years. On 10 July 2011 in Zurich, Switzerland, after 14 hours and 37 minutes, Guna became an Ironman!
I know all too well about Guna's dramatic transformation into an Ironman because I designed the book for him. Only a confident man like him will be able and willing to allow his ex-classmate to cup his fleshy man boobs in public at the Salamanca Market. How can he not be my hero?
Another interesting aspect to take away from Buettner's Blue Zone book is the portion of meals. It is advisable to eat less and to stop before being full. When eating is a social affair, especially among friends, it is advisable to eat slower and while away time.
Hark Hoe ("Cheers!"), arranged a scrumptious lunch, enjoyed under cool, shady trees surrounded by the vast vineyards at Goaty Hill. The appetising gourmet and cheese platters, consisting of a delectable spread of local Tasmanian produce and cheese, complimented well with the fine Goaty Hill wines. Meals such as this can truly be appreciated especially on holidays, sans the rush for time to the next meeting or a family engagement. When we add family and friends as a key part of mealtimes, the hours somehow drift by slower, making such moments more precious and rewarding.
The Blue Zone inhabitants are also noted to consume less meat and dairy products. Their diets are rich in vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruits and nuts. Having a daughter, I know how crucial it is for me to teach Jean about food and making the right choices.
Since she was young, I will often take her to the market and show her how to select fresh fish, prawns, crabs, clams, fruits and vegetables. She will also help out in the kitchen, preparing meals while picking up cooking tips. Her generation has convenience at their fingertips that could work both ways, help or harm them. When it comes to food, not making wise decisions could lead Jean down a rabbit hole of disastrous health woes.
During a primary school trip to Singapore, Jean realised that she was the only one who ate greens at her table of ten. She stood up, dished a spoonful for everyone at the table and sounded them to finish everything on their plates. As Jean was able to transform herself into a violent little creature, sulkily they complied. I am sure their parents would not have been able to force the greens down their throats.
Tasmania's unpolluted air, unspoiled ocean and fresh waterways offer fresher-than-fresh seafood to indulge in. Lucky we had Satchi with us, who knew all the best spots to savour succulent fresh oysters, salmon, mussels and sea urchin roe.
Satchi is a brilliant cook and runs his own restaurant in Tasmania. So when it came to embarking on a culinary adventure, he was the best captain to steer the ship. All the meals were divine and we feasted on the island's finest.
Tasmania also offers an impressive range of cool-climate wines as well as premium ones. We ventured on a wine route that was within an easy drive from Hobart. Everyone in the group is a wine connoisseur except me. Hark Hoe is passionate about good wines and Satchi at times, would buy the entire harvest from a vineyard to bottle his own label. Guna once ran a successful distribution chain for wines in Malaysia and Beng Hup, having a bottomless expense account, must have enjoyed countless bottles of premium wines. On the other hand, I would develop rashes almost immediately after my second glass. Surprisingly, many centenarians would relish a glass or two a day. The drink of choice in Ikaria, Greece, is strong red wine – and one in three residents live into their 90s.
There are a few lavender fields in Tasmania and we visited Bridestowe Lavender Estate. The fields were not in bloom but judging from the postcards, they would have made a stunning backdrop for photography. We settled for its creamy lavender ice cream (first for me) and bought a few souvenirs. Do you know that lavender has been used for centuries as a treatment for anxiety and depression?
I was terribly impressed with MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), a dimly-lit, largely subterranean sandstone labyrinth, built around the central themes of sex and death. It showcases ancient, modern and contemporary art from the David Walsh collection. The museum has been described by Walsh as a "subversive adult Disneyland".
I cannot thank Satchi's wife, Mahesvery enough for suggesting MONA. The exhibits were brilliantly erotic, highly titillating and intensely thought-provoking. Everyone in the group knew I would be stuck in MONA for hours and suggested a meeting point. As they enjoyed their long blacks, lattes and cappuccinos, I explored every room and exhibit, soaking up ideas and inspiration for my next art piece. At the end of such an almost orgasmic experience, Satchi presented me a 470-page coffee table book entitled "On the Origin of Art", containing all that I had just seen. It has become one of my most cherished books. Satchi knew that the book will continue to spur my artistic endeavours.
What do lavender and art have in common? Besides the colour purple, well, both have been known to release stress. When I paint, I find myself in a transcendental state where at times, I lose my sense of reality and time. Worries and stress melt away; good apple cider might be able to do that too.
We visited the 115-acre Willie Smiths organic apple orchard at Huon River Valley to sample some first-rate apple ciders. Four generations of apple farmers have tended this orchard. This valley is one of the richest apple-growing regions on planet earth earning Tasmania its "Apple Isle" title.
Here, apples are hand-picked and the cider is allowed to age for up to eight months (six months in French oak barrels). Then the batches are blended for consistency before being aged further (two more months) to make a cloudy French farmhouse-style cider. I enjoyed the complex yet "approachable" apple cider, layered with flavours.
Another lesson we should all adopt from the residents of the Blue Zone is to have a good sense of purpose but not to sweat the small stuff. Cortisol is produced in our bodies when stressed and should be kept at its lowest levels. Developing a set of rituals to slow down the pace of life – meditate, nap and hang out with friends – will help reduce stress levels and improve sleep quality. I am grateful for holidays such as these, providing golden opportunities to unwind and rejuvenate both body and mind.
We had no checklist and left it to our host to introduce us to the land he now calls home. The natural beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness is insanely picturesque – from Mount Wellington to Cataract Gorge and from Wineglass Bay (in Freycinet National Park) to Tasman Arch (in Tasman National Park). To bask in its glory is priceless!
Tessellated Pavement, a coastal platform of eroded rectangular rocks, with a geometrically perfect grid, is rather fascinating. Being at these gorgeous sites with friends makes such moments even more nostalgic. With outrageous ones like mine, they will top them up with the most hilarious jokes you will ever hear.
A Harvard study concluded that having solid friendships in our life helps promote brain health. Good friends also help us handle stress, make better lifestyle choices that keep us strong and allow us to rebound from health issues and diseases more quickly.
True friends are those who make you feel good about yourself. They will make you feel lighter by laughing at embarrassing moments of your life (mine do – every chance they get!). They are the ones who will be there for you during happy times and on occasions when you need them most. The importance of friendship in our life is beyond any description.
Will we live to be centenarians, only time will tell. To conclude, Hubert H. Humphrey said it best for me, "The greatest gift in life is friendship, and I have received it."
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
24 November 2016
PS: Many thanks to Mahesvery, daughter Deepika and son Karnan for taking good care of our dear friend Satchi and for your warm hospitality as well. Satchi, you continue to fill my days with sunshine and laughter.