Couchfish: Did this really happen?

Couchfish: Did this really happen?

Barking birds on Haleakala

In early February 1992, when I left Australia on what became a two year overseas trip, my first stop was Hawaii. My companion and I spent a couple of days being silly on Oahu, then took a short flight over to Maui. We were both keen windsurfers at the time, and Maui was one of the top spots for the sport.

While there we met a flight attendant and she gave us a lift up to Haleakala. At just a smidgen over 3,000 metres in elevation, it is the tallest volcano on the island. After making our farewells, we hiked into the crater and camped. Like many volcanic craters, it was a moonscape of a place, desolate yet stunning. We each had a silver–coloured dome tent and we set up for the night.

Good thinking time. West Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I was woken the next morning by barking and emerged into the pre–dawn light. The barking seemed to be coming from some kind of bird—there were certainly no dogs in sight. Leaving the tent, I looked across the crater surface, our two silver domes, birds barking like dogs. I felt like I was on another planet, and the experience was burned into my memory. Since then, I’ve told many people about that morning.

Not all that long ago, I met an American who called Hawaii home. A keen hiker, I told her about the experience. She politely told me I must have been mistaken as Haleakala does not have birds that bark like dogs.

I don’t think I’ll forget this. West Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’m so sure I heard birds barking like dogs—like 200% positive. Maybe the barking birds are seasonal and she’d never been there at the right time. Or perhaps it was the altitude playing with my head. Or perhaps she was right, and my imagination had slipped over into my memories.

Memory is a funny thing.

A few years ago I went through a period of obsessing about memory. I wanted to learn why memories of some events were so vivid yet others were forever lost. Sometimes trauma may emboss—or erase a memory. The same goes for extreme pleasure. There’s a glad bag of reasons to explain why some are kept and others lost or misplaced by the giant noodle above our shoulders.

Beach crabs mimicking my memory connections. West Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

One thing I did learn is that every time you recall something, your brain “re–records” it. This re–recording is often not the same as the initial memory. It may be influenced by events since the memory formed, a changing world view, or an infinite number of other reasons. The more one recalls it, the more often it is re–written and the more it can change. It may not change, but it might.

This is one of the reasons police often treat eyewitness reports with some caution. Memory can be an erratic medium to say the least.

As regular Couchfish readers will know, some of the events I’ve written about happened a while ago. Sometimes years, sometimes decades. There’s scope for plenty of memory re–writing.

Memories can pass you by. West Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I was listening to a podcast this morning, an interview with American writer Pam Mandel about her book The Same River Twice. Her novel recounts her travel and life experiences in the early 1980s. Towards the end of the interview they talk about memory—how was Pam able to recount stories that happened almost 40 years ago. Says Pam:

“The more time I spent working on it, the more I recalled, so the longer I spent trying to mentally revisit Egypt, trying to mentally put myself back on that trip to Luxor, the more I was like oh I remember this girl with a parakeet. These very small things are what make stories real for you.”

Earlier this week I took a break to West Bali for five nights (why Couchfish is out of sync this week). We stayed in an isolated beach house on a near–deserted strip of black sand that was about five kilometres long. It was ideal for long solitary beach walks where I’d rarely if ever encounter another person. It was a great place for turning over old memories for a side–project I’m sort of commencing work on.

Me trying to remember which volcano I’ve climbed. West Bali. Photo: Samantha Brown.

I thought about Haleakala a lot. About those barking birds, our silver tents and the moonscape we were sleeping on. The image is so clear in my mind I could draw a picture of it, but if the birds were false memories what else was?


Pam talks about how she’d have one memory and as she thought about that, others would fall out, coalescing into something more whole. Couchfish has often worked like this. I’ve a whole collection of half–written pieces, half–formed memories, waiting for the rest to tumble out of my brain. Memories on the tip of my tongue and all that. Luckily I have many old notebooks, some dating back to 1994—yes, I am a pack–rat. A massive plastic box of thousands of slides, all with date and province written on the casing. These have been invaluable in plunging the depths of my memory.

Memories can look a bit different when they wash up the next day. West Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Sometimes it is the simplest memory—seared for the most random of reasons into my mind. These need no trigger, it feels like they happened yesterday, yet some are false. I have this indelible one involving a South African girlfriend and us chatting to a cafe owner in Chiang Mai. The thing is we travelled together in Malaysia—not Thailand. Or at least I think that was where we travelled. How can I not recall which country we travelled in together, yet can firmly remember a conversation we supposedly had in Chiang Mai?!

More than anything though, my strongest memories—or at least those that feel the strongest, were from the first trips to each country. I could tell you in more detail what I did in India in 1993 or Vietnam in 1994 than what I did in Thailand or Vietnam in 2019. How does that work? Why do I still remember my childhood phone number but it took me two years to be able to remember the phone number I have now?

This photo is three days old and already I can’t remember which of the two I chatted with. West Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

My theory is that like everything, the first impression leaves the mark. The first kiss. The first flight. The first time in a country. These are the ones that really leave the mark. Yet the more I think about them, going on the rewriting theory, the more tenuous and nebulous these memories become.

So where am I going with this? I forget! That’s a joke—really. What I’m thinking is that first impressions matter. The first time you go to a place, it does leave a mark. Not an indelible one for sure, but one that forms the foundation for all subsequent memories.

Also, this is a note that Couchfish is the product of the shifting sands of my memory. An inexact science if there ever was one.

How is your memory? How indelible was your first trip?

The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.