Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The End of the Pickled Eel Blog - Almost

I have been working on transferring this blog to (this blogsite here) something that will give me a bit more flexibility in how I present my material. It is a work in progress (you will see I am still having some fun with the formatting) but it is finally at a point where I think a reader can survive navigating their way around the site.

I hope you like it. Let me know your thoughts if you have time to leave a comment.

The new blog is at

If you are an email subscriber please resubscribe on the new page - I am using a different email service to the one I use here. Assuming of course you continue to wish to have my posts drop into your inbox. THANKYOU.

Feel free to forward this on to anyone who you think might enjoy the occasional digression in their web reading.

The Last Post (if you have a bugle sound it now).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Flight Loads in the US - Getting Some

If I was was to reflect on my travel this last 12months I would ruminate over some of the unexpected destinations I found myself heading towards, obscure places visited and always the remarkable people I have met. Some old friends. And some new ones. The process of getting there has been interesting as well. The nightmare which is now Heathrow Airport stands out. And so too packed aircraft. I can understand there being no spare seats out of Baghdad - that kind of makes sense. In fact packed aircraft are now the norm although the thrill of flying (I am still a ten year old boy in that regard) tends to outweigh the small seats, lack of legroom and awful food. (Can anyone beat freeze dried carrots in a small plastic packet (flight from LA to Dallas)?) With cheaper airfares, the demands of business, and 2001 receding into the background (though the chart here barely registers a minor blip in 2001), more and more people are taking to the skies. In fact the expectation is that commercial airline passengers will double in the next ten years, explaining the massive buildup of global airlines which are creating their hubs in the Middle East. And then there is China's incredible airline expansion which has yet to really impact us. But it is not all bad. Being packed into a seat on a small MD80 making a connection from Philadelphia to Dallas earlier this year I got chatting to about six or seven American travellers in the rear of the aircraft. The cramped confines made for an intimate setting of sorts and we spent the couple of hours in the air talking about family and business but mainly literature. As we descended into the behemoth which is Dallas Forth Worth airport the woman next to me declared (imagine a slow southern drawl), for all the rear cabin to hear, "boy, with an accent like that you could get some." There was much mirth. Sometimes being an Australian abroad can be good for the ego - even if you are getting mileage out of something you have no say over. It was of course a standout moment in 2007.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sydney Storm

Some dogs smell them coming and hide under the hedge. Others smell them coming and spin on their chains in insane, barely comprehensible excitement. I relate to the latter. Standing in the middle of a cracking storm is an almost spiritual experience. In fact I suspect it is - completely. Sprinkled, hosed down, baptised with a thorough deluge that hammers every sense. It does help if it is a tropical storm and the rain is warm. But being caught in a storm of any sort sharpens the senses, gets "up your fur" and makes you feel very much alive. Sadly for this one I had to settle for the office window today - though 45 minutes earlier I had been out under a clear and sunny sky eating lunch. This photo (courtesy of Fergus Woolveridge at the Sydney Morning Herald) catches the storm that hit our office this afternoon - and it is hitting right where our office is. A remarkable burst of sudden rain from a ruptured black tank above us. No warning, no spitting, leaking drips. Just a boom and a splash, and you're on your way home for a change of clothes if you didn't see it coming.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Leunig Lessons For Life

It is that time of the year again when those of us who have resorted to online newspapers pick up a print copy - the Leunig calendar is out. Was out, on Saturday. His ability to distil the essence of an idea in a few simple lines, and convey a poignant message at the same time is to be envied, admired and even emulated. If we can. Here he is again (click on the label to see the post on him from last year).

Evel Knievel

Here is a chap who attempted to kill himself year on year and yet he managed to survive until his 69th year. Passed away from an illness or illnesses that may well have come about from bashing himself up with his motorcycles. And other vehicles. Here is a name that we were all familiar with in the 1970s but a face that had vanished since. Like that of Leif Garrett. Where on earth has he gone? Or the Bay City Rollers?! Boy was I seriously peeved with those jocks - it was pretty hard to compete with life size posters of music heart throbs that distracted our own heart throbs, causing them to swoon over them rather than the blokes in the third row with long shorts and a dodgy haircut. But Knievel had a different impact on us altogether, perhaps best measured by the fact that his name entered our lexicon as teenage boys and has remained there ever since. To to an "Evel Knievel" was to do something so daring and outlandish that it was worthy of peer respect - not always an easy thing to achieve. A broken bone or a suitably impressive gash always helped. In a community where we had reasonably ready access to vehicles, bikes or motorbikes (one of my fellows had even built a motorbike with a wooden frame!) there were all sorts of ridiculous and dangerous "Knievel" challenges posed and attempted. If our parents had any idea what we were attempting on mate's motorcycles they would have grounded us immediately for our own safety. But even without vehicles a leap into a river from a high rock was a "Knievel" leap. I am sure he would not be surprised but Evel had a big impact on us as impressionable country boys back in the early seventies. Its a sad day when a part of your formative fabric, even if it is now a faint, even indiscernible thread, passes away.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A China Dedication

I have been to China a few times now but a trip I undertook with some friends in September 2006 was a stand out experience. In part for the companionship of my fellow travellers. But really for the connections we made in a grassroots way with some of the citizens of that country. We were fortunate to cover some "off the beaten track" places but wherever we went we met the most remarkable folk. It was a poignant way to be reminded that when you meet, know and perhaps understand a little about a neighbour, it is that much harder to get into a fight with them. Wherever we went we met people just like ourselves, with the same hopes, dreams and desires. Wherever we go we are indeed all God's children. I hope you enjoy the compilation, it captures a fraction of the variety we encountered.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Land Flowing with Honey and Diesel

Recollections of an attempt to seize raw honeycomb from a live hive, nestled out of the way in a willow tree.

Norman Mailer and Bad Sex

I do like this piece of news. It tickles my irony bone. So to speak. On my shelves I have a select handful of books on writing ( I know, I need more). Perhaps the most useful in terms of unleashing my pen has been Stephen King's On Writing, a surprisingly well written piece on writing. Bet he worked hard on that title. It's one of those volumes that is read in a sitting but every couple of pages you are being struck by the "bleeding obvious". Quite liberating really. I read Bag of Bones immediately afterwards (he was drafting that novel when he was working on On Writing), and I found myself testing the theory as I read. Putting it into practice has been a far tougher gig.

Another volume which sits up there with On Writing is Norman Mailer's The Spooky Art. Norman of course is famous for his irascible personality and his so called "innovative journalistic" style. I figured you could do a whole lot worse than reading what Norman has to say about writing when trying to figure out your own writing.

So to read in today's news that Mr Mailer, also famous for recently becoming deceased, has won this years prize for the worst account of sex in fiction. The Bad Sex in Fiction Award no less. Not a bad way to back up a couple of Pulitzers.

Here is how he earned it. From his novel "The Castle in the Forest." It gives me immense encouragement. On writing mind you.
"So Klara turned head to foot and put her most unmentionable part down on his hard-breathing nose and mouth and took his old battering ram into her lips."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Singapore Sign of Our Times

Notice anything odd about this sticker? It is the reverse (inside) view of a Singapore car registration sticker. Taken as we drove up the freeway when its message caught my eye. It is pretty nondescript actually and I paid it no attention for most of the trip. But then its assumption leaped out at me and I had to laugh - for only in a place like Singapore could such an assumption be made. Albeit a reasonably safe one. That assumption is simply that anyone involved in an accident will be equipped with a camera so 12 (2 x 6) photos can be taken. Cell phones pretty much equip everyone with a camera these days. But I am sure there are plenty who drive who are not fitted up with appropriate optics. And of course there is the matter of "6". Not 3. Not 5. Not 10. When I asked my Singapore friend (driver) about the importance of "6" - he had no idea. But it is a part of Singapore's DNA that they be so precise and so prescriptive. And the irony is of course that I had a camera with me with which to take the photo.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Snow Dump in New York

Thanksgiving 2003

We made it to the meeting this afternoon after scrubbing up and brushing the light dusting of snow out of our hair. But were feeling the cold. After slushing and sliding our way down through Manhattan we made it into the hospital and into the manager's office. It was on the fifth floor which was not very high by New York standards but far enough above ground to get a good sense of the canyon streets running through this place. Fortunately I was not doing the talking (well , not much). And I was seated with a view down the street while our client was sitting with their back to the window. In the two hours we were there I watched the snow get more and more horizontal, faster and faster, and thicker and thicker, until I was unable to see the other side of the street. As we stepped back into the street the snow was cutting our faces and there were hardly any locals out and about. Sensible people. Carey stopped here for a frozen pose in the Washington Square Park before we ran for a diner in Greenwich Village were we were meeting up with friends. As we thawed out we sat with slack jaws as we watched the snow howl up the canyon - you could not see past the kerb by now. Poor Carey made the mistake of heading for the bathroom just as we were finishing up. Out of his overcoat by now and dressed only in business attire we convinced a Mexican waitress (who had served us ground up, raw Chihuahua (or so we were convinced, it was so awful)) to let Carey know we had headed off up the street. Taking his overcoat we then propped in an alcove and watched an exasperated friend step into the blizzard, put his head down and trudge out of sight into the whiteness. We counted to ten, then ran after him, catching him looking around for his sense of humour and somewhere to buy a new overcoat. He had decided he had lost us in this Alaskan wilderness whiteout. Fortunately he found his sense of humour in one of his overcoat pockets or somewhere and we spent the rest of the afternoon following in the footsteps of Amundsen as we alternatively froze then thawed our way from cafe to cafe, bookshop to wonderful bookshop and finally found our way back to Times Square, tired and cold but as happy as ten year old boys in a puddle. Which was about the sum of it!!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

What are the Churches Not Doing?

I am no social commentator, not do I have aspirations to be one. But as a "member" occasionally things just leap out and slap you when they point at our society and highlight our shortcomings. In the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend there was an interesting article about a small company which has built its business around the cleanup required after a death (accidental or otherwise) or where a site is so filthy no regular cleaner will go near it. Council contracts for abandoned apartments and that sort of thing. They do a good job I am sure. But their observation about cleaning up the apartment of a derelict struck home. One of the cleaners said " one should live like that(in a "pigsty") It is great to be able to help make his life a little better. Rightly or wrongly the reporter went on to say "This sort of work used to be done by charities or nuns or concerned people in the community. It is now done by cleaning contractors such as Gabby Simpson."

Well I am not sure about you but it strikes me as a pretty sad state of affairs that our social safety net, our network of care, is reduced to not only contractors but to cleaning contractors!! Come on! Good on Gabby and her cleaning contractors for having the attitude they do. But shame on the rest of us for letting things get to a point where a reporter observes that in our community one of the key groups we expect to be best tuned into the needs of the poor and needy - the church - is not so tuned in. OK, there is a reasonable argument that plenty of churches are pulling their weight (here is one I know). But church or no church, our community is confronted by the fact that too many in our community live and die alone and none of us are aware until their lonely deaths hit the press - usually salaciously since some have rotted in situ for months and in one case for more than a year. Too many of these in Sydney these last couple of years. I sincerely hope we can do better than leaving these people up to our forensic cleaning contractors. Who incidentally, are usually on site when it is far too late!

Hidden Piper in Xian

It is a not uncommon cliche of those who observe China that these are a people comfortable being in close proximity with each other. They live right on top of each other and being comfortable around other human beings is something that is part of the their DNA it seems. Certainly they have a sense of personal space which is VERY different to our Australian culture, which likes to put wide open spaces between us, even between those who live in our capital cities. (Want to see a bunch of Australians at their most uncomfortable? Insist they crowd into an elevator or commuter train!)

But that does not mean the Chinese don't appreciate their space. They seek it out in all sorts of ways and at different times of the day. In Xian I was in the habit of getting out as early as I sensibly could, to walk around the old Muslim quarter, eating their doughy breakfasts with them and wandering through Lianhu Park as they went through their exercise rituals. One morning I heard the clear, haunting sound of a flute carrying across the park and initially assumed it was being piped across a sound system. But as I walked around the lake I realised the sound was coming from a bushy knoll. When I climbed through the bushes and across a handful of rocks I found this flautist (I think that is what he is) playing his music. In his own space. A few like me had come to investigate the sound, and a couple sat and tapped along, keeping time with their feet. Everyone else ignored him and he had his own place and space in the middle of one of the most ancient and well lived-in cities on the planet. It was a magic time and place for me as well.

Here he is in the video, lost in his own music and creating a special place for the rest of us in the park and under the bushes on the knoll. At the end of the piece (I regret not filming more of it) he signed to me that the music was about a train - I fancy the sound of a horn can be heard in there somewhere. Travel in China is all about these special moments.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Drawing Attention to a Killer

Here is an interesting dilemma which I find rather intriguing. Take your spent fuel rods and bury them somewhere other than near the Hudson River. Then warn off the accidental and the curious who might want to dig the stuff up again - not a good idea if you are planning on dying in your sleep at a ripe old age. Here is the dilemma - what you write on the warning signs might be good for now. We all know the radioactive fan symbol and of what it warns. But what about this stuff that hangs around in lethal doses for ten thousand years. Those warning signs need to be legible AND understandable in ten thousand years as well. The text shown here tells the opening lines of the poem Beowolf. Believe it or not it is in English. The shift in language over 1000 years has been dramatic and few outside of Old English classes can read this text - not even I who spent three years studying the language. I am pretty rusty now. Look how many languages remained a mystery to us that were only 4,000 years old. Clearly warnings around radioactive waste need to have some ready currency in 10,000 years.
An interesting challenge that is actually being addressed by some of America's scientists. They flag some scenarios that speak to human nature as much as anything else. So we put up warning signs, saying "don't dig here, a horrible death awaits." That did not deter those who dug around the tombs of ancient Egypt or of Persia. Indeed, the more vociferous the warning, the greater the attraction. An archaeologist in the year 9007, whose hair has not already naturally receded from his pate and fallen out his ears, might think that the urgent warnings are signs that he is on the cusp of a famous and wealthy find. After all there would be no immediate signs of ill health. One of the more interesting solutions is to seal and bury the stuff without any signs or warnings. If someone is smart enough to find, the hope is that perhaps they are smart enough to be carrying Geiger counters with them - not always a safe bet with boffins. Thinking practically that is.

The Economist carried this article on future proofing nuclear waste bunkers that caught my eye.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Lashes for Being Raped - Saudi Hypocrisy

There is a breathtaking hypocrisy in the news floating around overnight that a Saudi woman has been awarded 200 lashes and a prison sentence because she was in a car with a man who was not her relative. Apparently she was gang raped in that trip. The lads get off with a comparatively light sentence but as a victim she suffers this. It is of course her fault - if she was not a woman and not in the car then the men would not have been provoked into raping her!! The hypocrisy is even more breathtaking when in Riyadh you watch the boys picking up the girls at the shopping centre. In broad daylight. Or sit in certain hotel bars on Dubai Creek and watch the Saudi men march in (usually in pairs) and pick up their East European hookers. One (loose) rule for the men. Lots of rules for the women - which damn them for being women just to start with.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New York Blizzard

Yesterday afternoon I caught the Amtrack up from Philly. I planned on working but it was freezing outside and warm as toast inside. I think I only heard three bars of clickety clack music and I was asleep. I woke just as we arrived at Penn Station. I had an address for the hotel which I saw was in 7th Avenue. I counted the blocks and figured there was only a short distance to travel. I had a case for each hand, was wearing only a suit and business shirt and in the warmth bliss of the station figured this would be a quick and bracing trip. After a block I can confirm the bracing, but not the quick. Stupidly I walked past a man selling mittens of a dollar. Not one man actually. About five. By the time I had cleared the station they were well gone. So on I pushed. Block after block after block. Across Broadway, up 7th Ave, through Times Square and on and on. Slower and slower. More and more braced - stiff. I did not realise just how stiff until I arrived at the hotel reception and was unable to speak, unable to put my cases down and appearing like a mute before the rosy faced receptionist. She seemed to know what was going on and pointed me at a corner near a heater, beside which which I thawed, eventually released my hands and then attempted to sign in again. But even though I could mumble (the jaw needed massaging to help it along) I could still not hold a pen. She accepted a scrawl.

This morning I was more rugged up but we ventured out (on 7th Ave rather than the pavement, with large chunks of ice smacking into the ground every now and then from off the skyscrapers, warning us off) to meet a prospective client, only to make it two blocks before a snow flake stopped us in our tracks. We glanced at each other then continued on. By the end of the block it was falling heavily enough to dust us. We back tracked and purchased beanies and mittens (at which point this photo was taken) and just as well since in the intervening minutes a blizzard whipped across the city and the first dustings had turned into an assault in which you could barely hold your eyes open. By the time we scouted out the location of our client we looked like a couple of cold and bedraggled half-beats. We have an appointment elsewhere this afternoon - lets see what that looks like in this weather. And if we can scrub up sufficiently to make the right impression.

Thanksgiving 2003

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Solomon Islands - Frame Up

We have only been here three days and already we have learned the routine. Get going at first light. It is as humid as a warm bath but at least the sun is not frying us. Work like crazy with the sweat sluicing off us. Hats are necessary first to keep the salty water out of our eyes, the sun off us a secondary role. Tool handles are slippery. Clothes cling - fortunately an open weave shirt (as open as sackcloth but not as coarse) I bought years ago in India is doing what it was supposed to do and the breeze shifts through it occasionally while the sun is kept off. All the locals are sensible people - they sit in the shade and watch us slave away. No amount of encouragement works - although one snowy haired young fellow is always keen to help while a couple of the men chip in every now and then. We work as hard as we can in the morning because, as regular as clockwork the rain tips down in the afternoon and washes us out. We rigged some canvas over the generator and kept going in the first couple of days but the talk at the moment is that we will be able to take the afternoons off since we have gotten ahead of the schedule a little. I have been impressed by the two professional carpenters who have taken this rosewood, rough cut from the jungle, and turned the framing into something that would not look too out of place on a building site at home. With a well drained slab however (it lifts in the middle) getting everything straight and square was a test of wit, builders shortcuts and patience. We fetched timber and laid it out while the professionals scratched their heads and muttered to themselves as they worked it out. Its clear this clinic is going to be the absolute best we can build. And damn it, this is infectious. I could easily stay here and do this forever - building something for those less resourced than us might be hot and sweaty and muscle aching work. But its a real pleasure that warms us all.
(Click on image for a better view)
April 2003

I Married a Dog

There is a wonderful line quipped in Ghostbusters by Dr Venkman (Bill Murray) when he rather nonchalantly explains to his colleagues that his girlfriend, now turned into a hellish demon with a canine disposition of Cerberus, is just that, a dog. "So, she's a dog..." It is typical of Venkman's understated throw away humour but its a line that snapped to mind last night when the Hindustan Times picked up a story of an event that is not uncommon in India - a person marrying an animal. But AP picked it up as well and it was splashed across the Sydney Morning Herald today. According to all reports this marriage was one of atonement, the groom having not only felt aggrieved for stoning and killing two rutting dogs years earlier, but was now convinced his stroke and other illnesses were a direct result of that culling. Marriage would appease the gods. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. After all it looks like he is doing his own ghostbusting. By all accounts he can divorce the dog with no ill effects and is not precluded from marrying a two legged creature (bird?) when he feels that is appropriate. In the meantime he has no in-laws to concern himself about, he has not had to add an extra room onto the house, his toothpaste tube can continue to be squeezed just the way he wants and the cost of the reception was kept to a minimum. Her family had no guests and while the groom had a feast all she needed to sate her hunger was a bun. Training her to fetch slippers will be a career enhancement, not a red neck sexist approach to living together, and "bitch" will be a term of endearment. Sounds like a marriage made in ...well, India of course.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Confused Chinese Pirates

In the spirit of the craziness that can come out of China, witting or otherwise (movie titles and packing instructions) the following is hillarious. At first glance this DVD cover looks pretty normal. But take a close look at the back cover. The pirate graphics specialist has grabbed text from a variety of places to compile the back cover. Reference to "Arnold" ("back better than ever") to start with - I can only guess this refers to the Californian Governator. In the text we start with reference to Michael's movie but it soon morphs into a review of "Laws of Attraction" and the credits are nicked from "Shanghai Surprise". All those English characters look alike so it kind of makes sense. The brazen plagiarism is breathtaking but the publish and be damned approach underpins some of the humour in this. Of course the irony of the "What Controvosy?" header would be lost on the pirates. And no, don't ask me where I got my hands on this DVD but thanks JP for bringing it to my attention. (Clicking on the image should get you a better view).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Escape from Colditz

My boyhood years were spent with my siblings in small rural town in Otago, New Zealand. More rural than town, our upbringing had a Huck Finn flavour about it in some respects. A well established and fond memory are the "contraptions" built by one of the brothers, the building of one being distilled in this (very) short story.

Escape from Colditz
A Story by PickledEel

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Walking Through the Roman City of Jerash

I took some photos and video when in Jordan recently. An earlier blog refers to that visit but the video gives a better feel for that place. I loved being able to walk through a place that gave such a sense of historicity yet connection with its inhabitants - all at the same time.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Eating Squirrels in New Jersey

For those of who are not Americans, and/or who live outside of the CONUS there is a quip which explains the quirky, bizarre and just plain weird. It is simply "only in the US", usually said in a condescending tone, the combination of which helps the listener understand that there is a rational reason for the weirdness. Most commonly used when referring to the escapades of Hollywood. Here is one from the other coast that falls in that basket though. It goes something like this:

False alarm: New Jersey says it's once again safe to eat squirrels. Earlier warnings about excessive lead in the rodents that live near one of the Garden State's toxic waste sites was caused by a malfunctioning blender that they used to "process the squirrel's tissue samples," according to the federal government. Full article under this title:

Have no fear New Jerseyans, the toxic waste hasn't made it unsafe to eat squirrels after all

So what is the "only in the US" element hidden in this article? The squirrel element of course. Everyone else would be concerned about the toxins, real or imagined. Here the city council are pleased to announce squirrel is back on the menu!

Born in A Solomon Islands Dog Kennel

On our third day at Fauabu we had a look at the existing medical facilities. They are pretty primitive. The clinics to which the locals come, emerging from the jungle along invisible tracks, are extremely rudimentary. It is the post natal and post "op" care that we are building this ward for. And if we needed reminding of the need (we didn't really) this morning's visit got us focused. Here is the delivery room. Girls walk out of the bush, deliver their babies on this table and then recuperate on a veranda before walking back to their village. If there are a couple of deliveries happening at the same time then the spillover uses the floor. Perhaps what struck us most forcibly was the fact that this third world facility was operating only an hour or so flying time from first world hospitals and resources in Brisbane. But the lingering impression is the pride with which those who run the clinic showed us around. It is not much better than a dog kennel (one of the lads muttered he would not let his dog give birth in here) but it is all these trained nurses have got.

April 2003

Monday, November 05, 2007

Not so Sleepy Wellington - but Still Windy

I thought when I interviewed with Eric that my next overseas trip was going to be back into Asia but I ended up in New Zealand last week. In Wellington to be precise. Which is where the New Zealanders hide their politicians. In a building that the locals call the Beehive. It kind of looks like one of those upturned wicker type beehives , though nothing like the boxes we used to raid as kids - there were no bears in our woods doing that. It was the local ten year old boys, who would have copped a hiding if we had ever been caught. Wellington for me is always about memories of the Wahine disaster in 1968, also marked for being the year one of my sisters was born. Later I sailed into Wellington from Lyttleton and the bow of the Wahine was still protruding from the harbour waters. It has long gone but I still see it there in my minds eye. A buoy still marks the spot. Interestingly when I was there last week the winds that blew about town approached some of the speeds that lashed the harbour when that ship went down. Wellington has changed a lot since I was there in the early 1970s but it has a slow country town air which is pleasant. You can walk the length of the CBD very quickly but a slow stroll takes you through a quite cosmopolitan dining and drinking scene which is not what I have ever associated with this very windy place. I happened to be there in February actually and the businessman I was with for lunch bumped into two ex Army friends as we walked to lunch. Men he had not seen since his Army days. Its that sort of village.

The video here catches a more recent ferry heading for the harbour mouth, then the view out over Wellington (with the QE2 in port) and then some views of the Malborough Sounds as we headed back to Sydney.

Jews are Smarter than the Average Bear?!

Race is repository of IQ points apparently. According to a reporter sympathetic to the notion and who attended a symposium on the subject at the American Enterprise Institute. Certain Jews apparently demonstrate higher IQs than other demographics. Some Jewish communities apparently flash up an average of 107-115+ of those points when the global average is about 100. It would be interesting to know just how rigorous the testing was. I wonder from a slightly cynical standpoint – I swotted my IQ tests before I went through my officer training examinations. Not that I saw any test set by the military which I had seen in my rehearsals. But putting the brain to that sort of training and discipline, and having some practice at breaking down a problem presented in a particular way, meant I not only completed those timed tests you are not supposed to complete but easily packed 20 or 30 points onto the result. Some of my colleagues, who swotted their university exams like mad were horrified that I swotted my IQ exams – somehow that was not the same thing. I am not sure what their reasoning was but it seemed a reasonable approach in my book.

So Jews are allegedly smarter – if IQ points ever really mean anything. Their claims raise some interesting questions about race, Darwinian theory, comparative intelligence of Christians, the impact of historical events like the holocaust, and pogroms throughout history. Not to mention the matter of being a tight knit demographic which tends to marry and interact within its own bounds- thanks to that round of instruction from Mt Sinai, reinforced by lessons such as the Exile into Persia (Israelis are still trying to get back there lately I see!) Plenty of comments on the issue can be found at the Slate site. Based on my own experience of IQ tests and being able to load up a result I think the following probably apply:

Jews are great swots.

Those tightknit Jewish communities pass around volumes of previous IQ tests for others to swot up on.

Jews own and manage some of the greatest libraries in the world (just don’t tell the Vatican) and those old IQ tests are carefully catalogued, examined, distilled and methodologies are circulated to all Jews.

Schooling for your Bar Mitzvah is really a thorough grounding in IQ test papers.

Circumcision means you are less likely to cock up your IQ results (theory only applies to 50% or thereabouts of the population)

The Shin Bet and Mossad knock off any competitors before they can get to the examination room.

IQ tests are written by Jews.

And in the spirit of those supposed results I would hasten to add that there is no scientific basis to my theories. Which is a long winded way of me saying IQ metrics are bunk at best. But then I work with a Jew who has a brain as big as a house and who definitely is smarter than the average ah, person.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Paul Tibbets and That Nuclear Bomb

Paul Tibbets made news again yesterday with the announcement of his death. (NYT Obituary) Paul was the pilot who flew the Enola Gay (named after his mother) from which the nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima. The news of his death prodded surprising reactions from some in the the newspaper blogs I have been reading. I have the view, perhaps historically driven, that the decision to drop these two weapons was sensible when weighing up the costs of Operation Olympia, the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. With more than one million casualties anticipated, the code breakers indicating the Japanese military factions had convinced the country to fight on and that the defences of the areas into which Olympia was to be directed had been reinforced, combined with Iwo Jima and Okinawa giving a foretaste of what a hometown fight was going to look like (pretty nasty), the two bombs made a lot of sense. But sixty or so years on and our revisionist perspectives prompt comments and views I don't entirely understand - some thought Tibbets' (apparently) painful death was a sign that he got what he deserved from God (just as well God is not a vindictive fellow isn't it?!). Others felt he was an officer simply doing his job (I am sympathetic to that view) while others felt he could have said "no" to the mission - clearly failing to understand the times in which Tibbets lived, or the structure in which he worked. All mixed up in other commentary that gets emotive after all this time about the rights or wrongs of various aspects of that war, aspects which have no connection with Tibbets in any way. Sadly Tibbets lived some of that ambivalence, emotion and hostility in his latter years and he has asked that he be buried with no tombstone least that be a site for protest. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that war it is a part of our history with threads that tie into the fabric of our community today. Beating up on Tibbets now, or at any other time for that matter, isn't going to change any of that.

Truck Trip to Fauabu (Foo arm boo)

We drove into the night from Auki along a track through the jungle with no lights. The sky was a heavy velvet blue drape that gave no sense of where we were or what time of the night it was. We forded creeks and crept past silent villages, thatch and lattice barely visible in the starlight. The cabs of the trucks were silent as we wondered at what we had gotten ourselves into. After the bustle of the the last few days getting everything loaded onto the ferry, this silent, reflective trip seemed very surreal. Nearly three hours later, after finally finding ourselves on a slightly better road we stopped in an open space at the steps of a white house that looked vaguely out of place in this dark jungle. White clapboard, tidy blue framed veranda and a tin roof. After the quiet trip we were all like boisterous kids as we found beds, moved food in and set up the mosquito nets. And discovered that it was now three o’clock in the morning.

I woke after the sun was well up. A couple of the lads were still snoring away but Mick was gone. I shuffled outside and saw him on the far side of the clearing talking to one of the local men, both beside a large tangled heap of timber. Turns out it was all chainsaw cut 4 x 2, intended for us to turn into the clinic building we were supposed to be working on.

The place is an old leprosy mission site, built in the 1920s but now gone to ruin. Some timber and stone buildings remain, and one clinic was rebuilt, but the main indication that things used to be different are the crumbling concrete slabs that mark where the leprosy mission buildings used to be. There is something sad and ghostlike about the place. But behind the house we discovered we are a short walk through the coconut trees to the beach, where we could see, to our amazement, dolphins playing in the water. We also found a crowd of boys who were very adept with their machetes, chopping palm wood into toys. In this case a small car, complete with wheels which turned. Even the axles were made from palm wood! Kids with swinging, whacking machetes though - this will be an interesting couple of weeks.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Possums (12)

In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next few weeks. And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.

The pet possum was a rare animal, treated with compassion and given a citizenship in the house that few other animals ever had. Ordinarily the Australian brush possum is hunted without respite, it being a noxious pest in New Zealand, causing millions of dollars of damage to forestry and agricultural resources every year. They are hunted with a passion and were the source of some pocket money as we grew up. Out on the Run, with the dogs loose it only required a whispered “sic ‘em” to have a pack of half a dozen dogs or so (sometimes more) to get their blood up and to tear off towards the nearest outcrop of rock to hunt out a possum. Whether there was one resident there or not. David would amble along behind to see what would flush out but often he was the one grabbing this or that dog and force feeding it down a hole or crevice. Sometimes a possum would flush or sometimes a possum would deter the dog with a well aimed swipe at the nose. Sometimes there was only a lot of noise, dust, and slow grins and absolutely no possum to show for the hunt. One possum escapade was especially memorable. It was at Waihola. On that place there was a very old woolshed. At one end there was a lean-too structure which was only a single story high, with a corrugated roof. Somehow we had learned there was a possum resident in the roof but we were unable to flush it out. With a ceiling pinned to the reverse side of the rafters there were plenty of places for it to hide and no way for us to see in. David’s solution was to pick up one of his scrawniest dogs (he used to bring a selection of them down to Waihola, and in the days prior to the purchase of the truck they would all be piled into that old Ford) and stuff it under a loose bit of corrugated iron on which he would then stand to prevent the dog reversing out. Hardly any need since every dog knew that a hunt was on with the cue “sic ‘em” and the place stank of the possum in any event. There was a huge commotion from within the roof as the dog scrambled around in the dark, barking and yelping and the possum growled and shrieked. I have no idea how the possum got out but remember being surprised at its appearance as a dark blur evacuating from under the guttering, flying across the yard and scrambling up the trunk of a huge old macrocarpa tree nearby. Its second mistake was to pause to look around and get its bearings. David shot it dead. We then spent some effort in extracting the dog from under the iron and I recall a few sheets having to be lifted. That old woolshed came down a few years later and was replaced by a new structure that did not leak but had none of the adventure in it that its collapsing possum ridden predecessor had.

Standing on the high country of the Run on a snowy day I paused with David and watched the “bread bus” making its way along the pigroot. David had stopped striding across the tussock to point out that the bus was travelling way too fast on a road covered with ice (he would know) and only opened that morning by the council grader. He suggested we watch it disappear around a bend on the side of the distance spur, across the gully and in the far distance and see if it reappeared on the road further down the valley. “My bet” said David, “is that we don’t see it reappear.” And we didn’t. An hour later we edged our way carefully back up that same bend and found the bus on its side in the snow. The driver seemed very nonplussed and was sitting in the snow drinking from a thermos flask and making wise cracks about the mail not getting through. But as we chatted we realised he was very shaken – as he had swung around the bend only seconds after vanishing from our view he had lost control and was heading for a dramatic drop into the creek below. Somehow he had wrested his careening vehicle to the other side of the road where he had deliberately aimed for the ditch in an effort to get the thing to stop. We left him in the snow and ice, in the rapidly dropping ice blue shadow of the end of the day and said we would call the council to see if he could get him towed out. An hour later the grader came through and about an hour later the bus crept past David’s house, somewhat chastened no doubt.

We left the Run late one night in pouring rain. We had been up there at midnight in late spring, shooting rabbits using a spotlight. The booming .303 was something of an overkill, deafening those in the cabin and proving to be more of a fun factor than anything else. I can still hear Steve saying “Bruce, put that thing away!” as the muzzle flash lit up the night and the thunder of the shot cracked across the gullies. The rain increased to a point where, even if there was a rabbit out there we would be hard pressed to see it so we departed the top of the Run and headed down to the highway. Travelling back to David’s place, as we drove up a long gentle slope in the highway a rabbit hopped out onto the road just at the edge of the headlights. Not in any hurry but just edging along in a slow lope. David asked me to pass over the .303 which I did. Leaning out the driver’s window he proceeded to blast ten rounds up the highway. One hand still on the wheel. Chunks of Highway 75 were flung into the night but the rabbit continued its slow lope, seemingly oblivious to the noise behind it and the destruction around it. In the end it hopped into the verge and stopped after which we duly dispatched it from a distance of only inches. The “one shot, one horse” legend was in tatters!

But not so much that I ever failed to appreciate his praise for my shooting. Getting a pat on the back from David was rare but when it came it was very special. Once at Waihola he took about five or six of us kids up to what was then known as the CYC paddock, the only patch of green grass on the place. From a high vantage point we looked down onto a large puddle on which was floating a thin stick, about half an inch thick and barely visible. About 75 yards away he said. Giving us all one round he then handed his rifle to one of the group and asked us to hit the stick. One after another twig was bounced around in the water until I was handed the rifle. Taking quick aim and dropping the sights on it I fired the round and the twig became two. David was impressed. I savoured that praise for years.

Previous Post

Sydney Turns it On

It must be Sunday - time to get back into the Blog! There is always a temptation to go searching for inspiration outside this town but the fact of the matter is there is enough material in this town to inspire and convict - you don't always see what is right under your nose. A small thing that always captures my imagination happens every year and is a case of the "bleedin' obvious" in terms of things that make you slow down and put things in perspective a little - the suburb grow a purple mantle and a slow rain of purple litter covers the footpaths, the garden shed and our backyards as the bare branches of the Jacaranda announce the end of the winter months (we don't really have a winter of course). The Jacaranda does that with a vengeance. And if that does not catch our eye the Bougainvillea is at its blushing and fiery, flamboyant best. On the odd occasion a mix of Jacaranda and Bougainvillea happens in the same space and the blend of colours is enough to have you want to stop the drive to work and simply soak it all up. To top it all off the harbingers of these spring explosions are the amazing magnolias, some which remain in bloom if it has been cool enough - though not this year. Nothing profound in any of this, simply an acknowledgment that we are blessed to live where we do for a whole range of reasons. One reason is our environment.

Bloggers Choice Awards

Many of you kindly voted for the Pickled Eel by clicking on the icon to the right. The 2008 Bloggers Choice Awards are now running so the counter has been reset. If you have a few spare moments I would be very grateful for a vote out there. Its not a bad way to get the blog exposed. Thanks.
p.s. the page is currently parked on the second page under Best Travel Blog.

National Thong Day

Where I grew up thongs were known as jandals. Who knows where that word ever came from - short for Japanese sandal apparently! Australians call them thongs while in the US they are flip flops. American thongs of course are much more attractive - though that always depends on who is wearing them. Same rule can apply to footwear I guess.

Somehow this slipped past me but National Thong Day, held last Wednesday, 24 October, apparently was aimed at drawing attention to poverty issues. Which can only be a good thing. We need constant reminding that there are others out there who need help. And those are not always overseas but most often are to be found right under our noses.

Having said that there is a small group here who round up resources from the corporate world and who package them up into gift packages and send them off to Sri Lanka each year. I have drawn attention to it before but in case you missed it, or perhaps want to be inspired by how one person can make a difference in the lives of others - in this case mainly orphaned kids - then have a look at Network Heaven.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

In Defence of Private Contactors

Like most I was appalled by the videos on YouTube showing the cavalier actions by Blackwater contractors engaging "targets" without any apparent rules of engagement which might have gone some way to determining if the vehicles bearing down on them on the highway were in fact a threat or not. I am not sure if there are any documented instances of there being a clearly identified threat - citizens in a hurry to make a doctors appointment or in some similar innocent scenario are gunned down from unmarked cars if they have the misfortune to say, try and overtake an unmarked Blackwater vehicle. I was in Baghdad when the Blackwater teams hammered 17 citizens when they thought they were coming under fire. I am the first to appreciate how that impression can come about but for Blackwater this was only one of many incidents and the Iraqi's have clearly had enough. I read today in the Washington Post that the FBI is having a hard look at the incident while the US DoD and State slug it out over the merits or otherwise of using companies like Blackwater.

Fortunately the sunglassed, bandanna wearing Blackwater cowboys (the cowboy sobriquet also applies to those who fly these helicopters shown here) are not the whole story. I spent my time with a contracting company which provided not only security services but is intimately involved in the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Their company operations are predominantly staffed by Iraqi nationals, they live and operate outside the International Zone, are committed to a genuine "hearts and minds" effort with all they deal with and are as integrated into the local scene as they can possibly be. I watched them deal with Iraq civil servants and was intrigued to see how they engaged and interacted with them, treated them as they would like to be treated themselves, were deferential and respectful. It is a far cry from the shoot first, ask questions later which damns Blackwater and their ilk.

Use the contractors by all means (they allow the troops to focus on what the troops need to do) but the Iraq government could do worse than filter out those who have an interest in their contract dollars over and above their interests in the rebuilding of this community. Those security contractors who have a philanthropic and compassionate agenda within their business goals do exist. (And no, I am not employed by one, just in case you thought this was a self serving plug).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bomb Harvest

Imagine there was a new Unabomber at work in the US, sending letter bombs out across the nation. Now imagine there was one in every state, so that 164 letter bombs went off in one year, killing 36 people, 15 of whom were children. Would that make headlines?

So commences a review by Paul Byrne of "Bomb Harvest" in the Sydney Morning Herald. An Australian documentary which follows the work of an Australian called Laith Stevens. Paul's review is simply titled Bomb Harvest and can be read by following the link. There is a handy trailer which gives you an idea of what the movie is about.

I went along to the Roseville Cinema tonight to have a look. Regrettably there were only three in the theatre. But we got a clear message about the danger of unexploded ordnance, and the way the filmmaker has you on the edge of your seat as cute little kids unearth bombs is worth the effort to catch this documentary if you can. It did not enrage me (there are some images that might be confronting) as Byrne warned it might, but the message that came though most clearly for me was the capacity we all have to make a difference, even if we are only one person. Laith Stevens is doing that with his life, and what he does has a direct and immediate benefit for some of the world's poorest people. It is inspiring stuff. Sadly it makes too few headlines Paul.

Midnight at Auki

We arrived late into the port of Auki. The ferry slowed and the stern got caught in its own wake, lifted it up and tipping us forward in a slow motion pitch. Initially we could see nothing but eventually a row of lights on the dark water or hanging in the sky (each was not able to be discriminated between) pointed in the general direction. A vague hint of island on the horizon proved to be imagination only – it was simply too dark to see anything. When we finally docked it was midnight and the tide was low – the ramp up to the end of the jetty was a steep climb.

Auki was a revelation. Hot. Dusty. Dark. Shadows flitted under lamps and the laughter of relaxed and drunk people jolted out of the dark. We could hear them but not see them. The lights illuminating the streets were low wattage and few and far between and initially we were hesitant to walk up what looked like a wild west movie set. But eventually thirst drove us into town and we found a shop up a back lane open. Despite the hour – it was now after midnight. He and his numerous assistants were serving warm drinks but with nothing on the shelves to advertise whether he was a hardware store or a food store. We bought our softdinks and some for the others and wandered back through this strange ghost town to the wharf. A melee still kept us from unloading our gear but eventually the crowd cleared enough for us to get our truck out. And another one in to pick up the extra hospital beds. None of the locals were in a rush. And clearly the arrival of the ferry was a big deal, the cause of much laughter, lots of greetings and some singing. But what a strange town Auki is at this time of the night. Ghost town. Wild West set. A strange orange, hazy glow hung around the itinerant street lamps but most of the place is in darkness, the deep velvet outside the main street only broken here and there by the soft, weak glow of a turned down wick of a kerosene lamp. And each of those signals a crowd sitting around laughing and talking. Smoking and drinking.

April 2003

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Sanatorium

John "the Global Bedouin" has pointed me at Writer's Cafe and otherwise encouraged me to get some of my writing up there. I have been dusting off some short stories to that end but thought I would start with recollections of my first attempt at a short story. The original is lost but the imagery contained in it and the setting has stayed with me for more than thirty years. It is posted at the link below.
The Sanatorium
A Story by PickledEel

Monday, October 15, 2007

Tale of Two Beaches

He was wearing a small trenchcoat and looked a bit like a pint sized Robert Redford, with a clich├ęd shock of blond hair and an open and engaging impish face.But his shoes! His shoes were black, patent-leather-shiny treads with sharply pointed toes and impossibly long. At least a half size again and rising slightly at the bow like those pixie shoes we all imagine those creatures wear. He was with two friends and they flagged down the Drug Arm bus. We stopped and chatted for a while. They were sober and were simply walking around this beach village because they had nothing to do. They were smartly dressed, fashionably so. His impish grin and self confidence was engaging and we found ourselves talking about school plans (for exclusive private schools), parents and politics. He was in Year 9 and his two friends in Year 12. Articulate. Informed. Aware. Opinionated. Self assured and self contained. Headed home with friends to watch DVDs.

He had a number one haircut and a blue-yellow bruised cheek. Two beaches south. Hailed us as well but for another reason. Curt. Aggressive but not offensive. Lived with his mum in a one room flat. Dad in a one room flat on the other side of the city. Down from the country, thin, hunched against the cold - he was made of high tensile fencing wire. Sharp. Glittering eyes. In our faces, f**king this and f**king that. Mainly cursing “f**king gronks” who had gotten two 14 year olds drunk, stolen their handbags and phones and left them on the beach at midnight when it was snowing in the mountains (i.e. it was cold out).He did not know the girls but had stumbled over them when he came down to the beach with his friend for a smoke. He called an ambulance which arrived, handed out a couple of blankets and left telling him they were in no danger. He was furious at that. All of fifteen or sixteen this firebrand Samaritan, and his moral outrage, with nothing to offer except his compassion, had no intention of leaving the girls on their own least some arrive and molest them. Stomping about in his tight T-shirt angry at the world, at the girls, gronks, his mum, ambulance wankers, himself. And us – we had to leave as well

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pickled Eel Interviewed

Eric over at Travel Blogs asked me a few questions recently - they are listed below. He posted my replies up on his quality Travel Blog site which he has managed to built into a rather good travel blog in a short period of time.

The questions were:

Pickled eel... Is that a delicacy you'd recommend?

You seem to travel quite extensively for work. Do you think this kind of business-related travel is an enjoyable way to travel? Or does the "work" factor diminish the enjoyment somewhat?

Since you spend so much time on the road for work, what does a holiday look like for you? Does it still involve travel, or do you prefer to stick closer to home?

You have been to places like Iraq and Jordan, which many people would consider too dangerous to travel around. Have you ever said no to travelling somewhere because you considered it too dangerous?

Do you think the risk-factor actually adds to the appeal of travelling to dangerous places?

Once this business trip to the Middle East is over, what's next? Any big trips on the horizon?

The responses are at Travel Blog - but take the time to have a look around the rest of his site. There are some interesting characters there traveling some interesting trails.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Post Iraq Muse - An Introspective

The muse have fled, or so it would seem. Best I have been able to do these last ten days is drag out an old journal entry from the Solomons! I drove from the airport directly to work and had half a day at the desk before I headed home before I fell asleep in the office. And as I did so, through newly sprung maples and watching sulphur crested cockatoos playing in the wires near home I thought how safe and boring it all was. I thought I would still have insights and things to say about the place but by the time I resurfaced a week later from Board meetings and other distractions I discovered the stimulation of the place had been fuel to my muse and now I regret constraining myself to an entry a day. If that environment was stimulating to the muse then this environment is enervating, something I had not really appreciated before. Sure, the alertness and "liveness" I felt in Baghdad revisited previous jobs in edgy places that I have enjoyed in the past. But I had not appreciated the impact the environment has on my creativity or on the desire to pry into what makes things and people tick. I could talk about the sound of news choppers here and all that is trite and mundane when those sort of comparative exercises are worked through but I suspect they would be seen for the contrived efforts they could only be. Perhaps rather a note here that I have some images seared into my mind as the visit recedes into history. The face of a driver of an old Datsun as we passed him on the road out of Baghdad - eyes reflecting the shrieking silent fear of being out there on his own (while I took some consolation in my protective armour and team). A solitary middle aged figure standing in front of his empty shop, gazing at us as we swooshed past. The faces and poses of men standing outside their cars with their hands up - just in case. Indolent soldiers on the street behind their anti aircraft cannons. Three men standing by the Tigris with nothing to do. Watching us closely and our own security people getting edgy under the idle scrutiny. Old women chatting in front of blasted shops, as if there was no war happening at all. A woman and her small daughter pulling along the sidewalk as fast as they could go, not looking around for anyone or anything. Other children going to school as if this was a normal street - they and that attitude will be the salvation of Iraq. Rows and rows of blank faces waiting outside the ministry, with no work, no place to go, no home to return to with any dignity. Best to look like you have been at work all day. Smoke on the horizon marking someones ruination. Silent shadows appearing over the Tigris and settling into their nest on the banks of the Tigris, choppers of all types silently returning from whatever they had been up to. Faces. Faces. And more faces. I need to get back there. Soon.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On Ironbottom in a Flatbottom

The ferry for Malaita was supposed to get away early in the afternoon. But as with anything in the Pacific Islands no one really knew the timetable. We were supposed to do this on Tuesday. Now it is Thursday. Be gone at midday. Get going after dinner. Symptomatic of all this madness is the fact that there is no captain on the bridge. Rather, it is crowded by dozens of people, none of whom look like they should be there. The ramp to the ferry, Ramos, dropped onto the dock at Honiara (which sits on the island of Guadalcanal, famous for the fighting against the Japanese which took place here in WW2) mid afternoon even though the ferry was tied up alongside for a good few hours before hand. Before arriving at the ramp it was tied up at a larger jetty and for that period we took the opportunity to load the hospital beds – manhandled across the rails, down some stairs and into the cargo bay. Departure was hilarious. It was finally dark. Families were squatting all around the vehicle ramp of the ferry. As the ramp finally came up the mad scramble was not from those onshore making a hurried entry but those family seeing off other family who had to vacate very quickly. Some of us are camped on our truck with all its equipment and material just in case someone wants to help themselves. But most people seemed fixed on settling down for the night and getting some rest. We hoped for the same but the heat is ovenlike, the humidity oppressive. The lights are dimmed and the deck here, from bow to stern is thick with huddled groups drinking, playing cards, arguing, singing and chewing betel nut. Even though they are not supposed to. It is all a little incongruous since the ferry, ex Hong Kong, is all still signposted and marked up in Chinese characters. No one seems to care. We slide out on a glassy sea and beat our way across the eastern fringe of Iron Bottom Sound, site of huge Japanese and allied shipping losses during WW2. That the ferry is flatbottomed means nothing until lightning and thunder rip open the night and suddenly everyone is awake and hanging on for dear life. Hot rain lashed us for half an hour and we endured it all in silence. And with not a little concern as we were flung about. Those on top of the truck scrambled down for a less precarious ride. Then just as dramatically it was all over and we were returned to a mirror sea and the flying fish that sailed along in flashes of reflected light beside us. For which I was thankful since in the crash of the storm I offloaded dinner over the side. I normally travel better than that. Hours later the dim, dusky orange light on the horizon, looking like something suited to “Heart of Darkness” marked the slow approach into Auki, on the island of Malaita. Malaita will be home for the next ten days or so but we have a long drive ahead of us after we reach Auki.

April 2003

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I am the Captain of the Taxi - To the Tune of Amazing Grace

There are moments in life that are just laugh out loud crazy. And in this case slightly alarming. The high speed run from Amman to Queen Alia Airport this afternoon was with a very pleasant and energetic driver who told me he was ten years in the Jordanian Army, retiring as a Captain and for the last ten years he has been Captain of the Taxi. All worked out through broken English and he producing photos of his Army time while we wandered from lane to lane at 120km/h in an old Nissan that was having problems with its transmission at that speed. Both hands off the wheel. Sometimes when conversations falter these drivers put music on. Usually Arabic or sultry Lebanese. But in this case, in mid conversation he popped a tape on and shouted with glee – “back in the Army, scotch (sic) teacher”. At which point martial pipes and drums music blared forth and killed our conversation dead. Now he was just a dangerous driver as he conducted with his right hand and kept time by slapping his knee with his left, occasionally shouting “parade ground” interspersed by a droning hum or a tuneless whistle. As we neared our destination, after marching all over the parade ground in his mind for thirty minutes, the swirl of Amazing Grace came on. He slowed up to tell me how Queen Nor used to love Amazing Grace played by the bagpipes and that once she asked him to make sure it was played at a certain ceremony. The details were lost on me. I told him it was a song about how amazing God’s love is to his people even when we misbehave. He shouted “yes”, turned up the volume and struck his imaginary baton in the air as he hit the gas again. In the end it was only a Hummer at a checkpoint that momentarily quelled the pipes, but as we swung into the terminal Mull of Kintyre was winding up. As he left me kerbside I could hear it blasting from his cab, barely drowning out his tuneless whistle. And his baton was still waving. I hope he got back in one piece.

Taxi Story - The Jordanian

(In Jordan. To and from Jerash). Hello, my name is Ishmael. You want to go to Jerash? At this time of the day? OK, no problem, no problem. You want to visit craft store for souvenirs? You have enough souvenirs. OK. No problem. Did you know Ismael was related to Ibrahim in the Bible? It is an ancient name. I live just outside Amman. Look at all this countryside. In 1967 all these market gardens and this little valley was home to a million Palestinians displaced by the war. You want to look at that castle? OK, we are going to Jerash. No problem. Here (in Jerash) are all sorts of things to look at and I will show you where to start and will wait until you finish looking. Please don’t hurry. I am happy to wait. Did you enjoy that? It is a special place isn’t it? I brought my wife up here two months ago just to remind ourselves how special it is. When you live here you can forget. I have nine children. I am very lucky to have all good children. And very lucky that they can all do the things they want without worrying about their future or living like those Palestinians had to in 1967. The peace with Israel was the best thing that has happened to our country. My two eldest daughters have been in university. One studied biology and is now getting a job. The other is in her first year at university. All my other children are in school. The youngest is twelve. Two of my children were twins. Two of my daughters are married and each has two girls. (Laughing) I am a grandfather. It is a good thing and I like it very much. Do you mind if we pull over and buy fruit? Thankyou. Here, you will like these figs I have bought for you. It is Ramadan and I cannot eat until sundown but please, have these figs. Let me wash them first with this bottled water. And please, take this rhumahn (phon: = pomegranate). My wife will be happy with these eggplants and fruit, because all the family get together at Ramadan and they eat a lot. It is cheaper to buy fruit and vegetables on the side of the road than to buy in Amman. Thankyou for your talking. I have two nieces in Wollongong. One day I will visit Australia too.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Jerash - Roman City

Since the time I was a kid I wanted to walk around Roman ruins. There was something magical about all those columns. It was a desire fuelled even more when, for a year at high school, we studied Roman art and architecture and columns and plinths, capitals and inscriptions in detail. A year of Ancient (Roman and Greek) history at university kept the interest alive. And in their own quaint way the pictures of Asterisk and Obelisk continued to pique the fascination. Fortuitously I arrived back on a day with all the offices shut and a few hours of sunlight left. I grabbed a taxi driver (so to speak) and directed him to Jerash. No side trips to souvenir shops run by a distant cousin. To Jerash only. No, it’s not too late in the day. Heaps of time. Less talking more driving.

Jerash is a well preserved and partially restored Roman city on the outskirts of Amman. I happily wandered its streets for hours (and the driver seemed content to wait which was very decent of him). Here are the wide colonnaded streets, pavement still cut by chariot and wagon wheels. Here too the little lanes into roofless houses in high density apartment dwelling we would be very comfortable with. Cellars. Temples. Fountains. A hippodrome. Two amphitheatres still in working order and used for performances today. Shopping centres. Churches. An earthquake in 790 AD pretty much ended this city – all those blocks of stone resting on columns must suddenly have looked like a liability when the earth started moving.

But there are other durable pieces of stone work that can only be admired for their creativity and ingenuity. With some of the buildings stripped down you could see how they hung ceilings and floors two or three stories high – with a lot of cantilevering. There is a remarkable dedication in stone to the nymphs, a collection of fountains placed in a wall, fed by water down two kilometres of piping. The piping has gone, the fountains remain. Even the way the stone was dressed was mimicked in Victorian stone masonry 1500 or more years later and you can see the same style of work in London, Sydney, Philadelphia (which incidentally used to be the name by which Amman went by). Those cut pavers, the apartments with their cellars and an old well hint at real people walking around this place. They have an eerie presence still. Most poignant were the fallen stone decorations, on which you can still see the chisel marks of the masons. Nearly 2000 years dead yet his handiwork is still visible. As I was caught by the sight of it lying in the dust of centuries I thought of our yearning for immortality – a universal desire across all time to be able to spend all time crafting what we can do best. How disappointed that mason would be to see his work thrown down like this. Or would he be happy to know we are thinking of him? Happier still no doubt if he was still plying his craft.