Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Gunner in Vietnam – Killed By His Own Hand

Funny how random things can spark random thoughts. The picture of Spud standing in the rain in Martin Place sparked thoughts over the last couple of days about a good friend I used to serve with. He was an Airfield Defence Guard. For those of us serving in relative comfort in the Air Force he was one of those strange few who elected to live rough, cold and wet. A kind of Air Force infantry who were trained to do what their job title says – defend airfields. During the Vietnam War they did just that but also served as the door gunners in 9 Squadron helicopters. They also mixed it with the regular infantry and in the case of my friend he spent some time with a US Marine unit patrolling the jungles.

He was one of those guys you share a barracks with who was always boisterous, loud, happy and on the go. A larrikin. Prankster. Knew all the perks. Knew all the senior officers and who to see if you needed half a sheep for a bar-b-que, your car fixed, or a free ride to Darwin for a few days in the sun at the tax-payers expense. He was nearly ten years older than the rest of us so we all tended to defer to him. Trusted with the keys to the troop’s bar, he would always be the one who closed it, long after the duty barman had gone home. Many a time I woke to hear him singing his drunken ditties as he ambled back to the barracks by himself.

It is an evening that seems to get clearer in my mind as the years go on. I came into the barracks one evening and he was on the floor in tears. When he saw it was me he got up and locked the door and swore me to silence. Then he dragged a military issue trunk out from under the bed, wrestled with the padlock for a while and then pulled out dozens of photo albums. He went immediately to one in particular and spread it and its loose photos out over the floor. It contained a series of fading colour shots of him standing on a jungle clearing with the head of a Vietnamese soldier in each hand. He was grasping them by their hair and holding them out from his body like a pair of gym weights. At his feet there were other severed heads. They had successfully out-ambushed an ambush and his grinning face betrayed the relief they felt. So too the US Marines standing around and watching.

He put those photos away (there were others as macabre) and through his tears told me he could not reconcile, even these nine or so years after the war, how it was that he had been able to “play God”. And he proceeded to recount how, from the door of the helicopters he was able to tap a few rounds behind a running target moving across a rice paddy, make him stop by tapping a few rounds in front him, steer him left or right with rounds on either side, and then cut him down with a long burst just as the runner got to the safety of the tree line. Over and over again. With no feeling, except that it was somehow a game and he had complete power. Now he raged against the abuse of that power and I gained some insight into why this friendly, outgoing, very loveable guy was the way he was: it was all a front. A cover-up. A first class act to deceive himself and those of us around him.

Nowadays we like to think we catch these men before they self destruct with these dreams and images rotting their minds. That we get through all that male, macho bullshit that we put up and expect our buddies to put up. That we catch them and encourage them to talk these things out. We didn’t catch Ian. Ten years later he shot himself dead, still plagued by his “I played God” demon. I hope his Mum, who he loved to bits and who was always rescuing his adult boy, never found those photos.

Thanks Spud for reminding me to remember one of your Vietnam Vet colleagues who didn’t make it. Even though he pretended to.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Spud Murphy's ANZAC Day

I love this photo, taken by Steven Siewert, in the early morning rain which dumped on Sydney yesterday. Wednesday the 25th of April is ANZAC Day and war memorials all over the country, and in New Zealand, have crowds gather around to remember our war dead, and living. For a period through the late seventies and eighties there was a fear these gatherings would fade out as our veterans faded away. But the dawn services and the parade that follows has a strong following today, with the younger members of our community taking a strong and real interest in the events and celebrations.

Yesterday the usual parade in Sydney took place, as did the dawn memorial service in Martin Place where it rained solidly on all who had gathered there. I don't know Spud Murphy but he found his way onto the front page of the paper this morning. The rain is bouncing of his pate, his medals and shoulders. His suit is soaked. But he stands there as if there is no rain at all. No cringe or uncomfortable slouch. Rather a stoic and focused standing to attention with a purposeful look on his face. Knowing that he is a veteran of the Vietnam War somehow made the picture all the more poignant. Perhaps remembering places and friends and faces and his part in our history. And perhaps the sluicing rain of a Vietnam wet season. Who knows?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Toilet Humour - Bangladesh

Bangladesh is the last place in which you want to be afflicted with giardia (this blog refers). Especially when the toilets are usually a hole in the ground. While recovering under some unknown medicine administered by my friend Zia, I kept within a short sprint of the hotel toilets, or at least something civil. I cared less if they were soundproof -that consideration had long fled after the bowels had dramatically erupted at the beginning of the trip. But I was worried about my flight out. A sudden attack of cramps, and the need to pass a stream of liquid the consistency of water came only with 3.6 nanoseconds notice. Not enough time to even undo a seatbelt. With a sigh of relief I managed the flight from Chittagong to Dakhar without mishap. It is about an hour. Then I was worried about the two hour wait to clear immigration. Again no mishap.

But as I waited in the departure lounge the urge hit me and I bolted for the men's room, grabbing a passenger list from off an unattended counter. (I was guessing there would be no paper). There I was confronted by a single toilet stall with a ceramic bowl. The alternate "hole in the floor" squat was submerged under two inches of water (this is an INTERNATIONAL departure lounge for goodness sake!!) The western ceramic bowl option was not much better. The cubicle was also under under two inches of water. Literally. My shoes and socks were soaked. But the complicating factor was the position of the bowl - it straddled the stall. To sit in it as presented to you was to invite falling in. All of this seen, and options assessed in 2 nanoseconds, while hands fumble for the belt, random thoughts contemplating how to keep the suit dry given the flight we are about to board, while other brain function is trying to juggle briefcase and laptop case.

Finally perched facing the stall of the wall, trouser hems pulled up above the calves, rest of trousers caught at the knees. Laptop and briefcase perched on the knees as well. Water now soaking into your shoes. Of course, being a western toilet there was no hose. But nor as there any paper. As I had anticipated. Unfortunately I had dropped the passenger list in the puddle but printer paper is not absorbent anyway and tends to only smear things around. I sat there for a few minutes contemplating whether or not Thai Air would let me on the plane given the odour that was sure to rise off me. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had a newspaper in my briefcase. One from India, and Indian newspapers happen to be printed on the softest tissue on the planet. Sadly it covered the business activities of a business colleague in Hyderabad. He had kindly pressed the article on me and I was happy to accept it. Boy was I happy to accept it - now! I waited until my name was paged before carefully using the paper, reversing the juggling and balancing act and tip toeing out to the lounge in sodden shoes. Thai Air were fantastic - I insisted on a seat right next to the toilet and they did not argue. I fancy the wild glint in the eye did the trick but it may have been a stray odour after all.

Monday, April 23, 2007

KangarooValley Rain

The limestone escarpments drop like a blunt forehead from under a sharply cut fringe of tall timber and dense undergrowth to a gently sloping easement that runs out to the coast a couple of miles away and on which more grass grows than the dairy cows know what to do with. In this humid weather, with moist air being lifted off the ocean and driven up and over these heights the likelihood of rain is high. On this coastal fringe 100mm (4inches) or more can fall in an afternoon, but exhausting supply before getting twenty miles inland to the dams which feed this city. Yesterday was a spectacular and dramatic run up that escarpment, though the winding hairpin bends of Kangaroo Valley. As we ran in from the coast two curtains headed us off and draped themselves alongside. One was a dark gray backdrop of flat cloud which gave no sense of depth or movement. Just a dark premonition of heavy rain. In front of it was a roiling, boiling cloud as black as night, slipping up and off the escarpment, lashing the tree ferns, beating the ash, hammering the eucalypts into a rain of accompanying leaves and hinting at an uncommon fall of water. And so it was as we hit the mountain. The noise was deafening, and visibility was reduced to watching the taillights in front of us. A sobering effect, the unspoken thought being, ‘what if we break-down in this?” Such was the dramatic, drumming, hostile effect that all ipods were removed from the ears of my passengers as they gazed outside and wondered at the spectacle. Rivers of mud and stone were sluiced off the hills and driven across the road, hairpins became watercourses of bouncing, boiling, white water. Sticks and leaves boated past at speeds that easily outstripped us. We crept up through the pass into the darkness, the lightning and instantaneous crack of thunder giving the sense we were being slapped along from behind by this storm. Yet, the occasional glimpse out to the left revealed the unusual spectacle of a valley in sunshine and under a clear sky. We ran on, up and over the pass and down the other side. The storm followed and kept clawing at us, the occasional drop of rain keeping us alert to the possibility of another dousing until we finally outran it. I read in the mornings papers that the record low dam levels remain just that, with none of that torrential rain touching them.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Taxi Story - The Iraqi

The conversation started out in a humourous way, something like this: "Good morning where would you like to go?" "I have no idea." He laughs. "Actually I need to get to the new Westpac (bank) HQ, do you know where that is?" "Yes. Actually I had a passenger once who asked me to take him home but he had no idea where home was. We drove and drove until he recognised places. I eventually got him home but it was a big fare. You meet some strange people in cabs. But not all cabbies are the same you know. Not every one would go to the trouble of helping someone like that. And not every cabbie has a sense of humour - they would kick him out. Mind you, often people get in and try and be funny with us about where we are to take them."
That of course prompted me to tell him about some of the cabbies I meet. I told him about the Kurd. He laughed and said "I am an Iraqi. But I came here 25 years ago.I am a draftsman. I started out here in Sydney as a cabbie, only until I could get a drafting job.But I was able to turn this into a career.I love it. I came here because I am a Christian, not a Moslem. With only 2% of the population in Iraq Christian it was hard to make a living. But making a living here in the cabs can be up and down. You have to stick with it to do well. Mind you, never trust a cabbie when he tells you how much he earns. If he earns $100 he will say he has earned $70. If he has earned $20 he will tell you he has earned $100. It is a very competitive business and no one will tell you, or the tax office exactly what they earn. But especially we don't want to tell each other. The competition becomes worse when some days you can pay your bills, other days you have to wait to pay your bills, and even some days you have to pay to be a cabbie! But I do well and feed my family and love what I do. I am very glad I never went and found a drafting job, I would have to shave every day and wear a suit. Phew." (and proceeds to scratch a five o'clock salt and pepper shadow that has not been shaved for three or four days).

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sydney View

Sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time with the camera (most times you are not) and in this case I was also in the right seat. We had just taken off from Sydney and then turned right with an angle of bank that allowed a couple of nice shots up Sydney Harbour. The background to the Harvey World Travel banner inserted above is taken from this image. A lot of my travel (and hence many of the anecdotes in this blog) is organised by the team there so to acknowledge the fact I thought some (unsponsored) recognition was in order. It is supposed to be a travel blog - in part - after all. They are one of those travel agencies that most aspire to be and have done a sterling job getting us around the globe with no fuss - even fixing up seating and accommodation in the wee hours of the morning.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Taxi Story - the Serb

That tattoo? That! I think I made a mistake with that. No, it is not the Great Wall of China. When I hold it out you can see it is a castle (on his inner forearm). It is an old crumbling castle near where I was born. I was born in Serbia, can't you tell from my accent? No, probably not, we all sound the same from that part of the world. Even after eleven years here and being a "dinky di" Aussie. OK, maybe I am not yet a "dinky di" Aussie (laughs) but I want my two children to be. I want them to grow up in a place where there is no hate, where neighbours can be neighbours. The trouble with where I was born is that there is more than 400 years of hate and it is hard to live with love in a place that is so infested with hate. So I came here.

I had a girl in my cab recently who admired the colours of my tattoo. She liked all the green shrubbery around the castle walls. It is still fresh and bright since I have only had it for a year. On the soft skin of my arm it was painful to have done. But this girl pulled up her dress and showed me a beautiful angel (pronounced "anne-gel") tattooed up the side of her body from her hips, up over her waist onto her ribs. But it was half finished because she was skinny and the tattoo was too painful to complete on her ribs. You see some strange things in the cabs. But this an-gel was beautiful, even if it was not finished. But I am still not sure if my castle tattoo was a mistake. At least it was not as painful as if I had had it tattooed on my ribs. (Shakes his head as he remembers, or imagines).

A Spitfire Out My Window: Vale Bobby Gibbes

Last week when it was raining I enjoyed the soft warble of a magpie wallowing in a warm shower. On most days the rainbow lorikeets keep up their colourful chatter outside the window. For a busy Sydney suburb the bird life is quite active. But today the bird in the sky that caught my ear and eye was a Spitfire. Not once (I missed the initial pass but there was no mistaking the sound of an unmuffled V12 growling past), or twice but thrice. In fact an indulgent four flights since he slipped past over a couple of hours earlier, heading north on idle. This fly-past had a bit more soup to it. And he hung around the suburb for a few minutes before disappearing West. In this photo he was coming back for his second pass over our neighbour's building. Its moments like these you wish you had a real camera! But there is no mistaking its wing form.

Turns out it was an overflight to commemorate one of Australia's war time aviation "greats", Wing Commander Robert Henry Maxwell “Bobby” Gibbes DSO, DFC and Bar, OAM, born in Young, New South Wales, on 6 May 1916. He passed away on the 12 April. The following notes summarise a more comprehensive tribute found at the Temora Aviation Museum website. With war looming in Europe Bobby reported to No.4 Elementary Flying Training School RAAF at Mascot on 5 February 1940 as an Air Cadet and eventually posted to 23 Squadron at Archerfield, Queensland which was equipped with Wirraways and Hudson bombers. Here he honed his skills and was assessed as an “Above average fighter and fighter bomber pilot”.

He was posted to Williamtown, NSW to become Adjutant of the newly created 450 Squadron with the rank of Flying Officer. After an intense period establishing the units command and support structure it embarked for Egypt where it arrived in May 1941. Three days later Gibbes was posted to 3 Squadron RAAF at Lydda. Gibbes participated in the squadron’s opening engagement of the Syrian campaign in an attack against the Vichy French Air Force Base at Rayak. He rose to command 3 Squadron and finished his North Africa tour with 10 1/4 aircraft destroyed in air to air combat, 5 probably destroyed, 16 damaged and 2 destroyed on the ground. With the North African campaign over he returned to Australia where he was posted to 2 Operational Training Unit in January 1944. A quick operational mission to New Britain with 77 Squadron was followed by the busy and sometimes hair-raising task of operational training on P-40s, Spitfires, Boomerangs and Wirraways.

As a final tribute to Bobby's service to the RAAF, to Australia and to aviation, the Temora Aviation Museum undertook a rare fly-past over his service at St Thomas' Anglican Church at North Sydney. This was a rare event for the Museum as its aircraft are not flown over built up areas. However, in this one-off instance the Spitfire provided a final tribute to this great Australian who continually risked his life in the skies over North Africa and the Pacific.

And here is a nice touch - the museum
happens to have a flying Spitfire MkVIII painted up in the colours of Bobby's war time Spitfire. Here it is. It was nice to be part of the farewell, even if only from the balcony of our office. Vale Bobby Gibbes.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Graft in Zimbabwe

Visas tell their own story. I love the Stalinist overtones in the art that remain in the Vietnam visa. Those from the Middle East reflect their fascination with "bling" - they love foils in their documents. But this visa from Zimbabwe has its own little story. As you may know this country, once the bread basket of Africa, is now the basket case of Africa. Sadly so, despite incredible resources and a sound infrastructure on gaining its independence. Even when I was there in 2001 I met with bankers and businessmen still buoyant about what was possible with their country as they funded new development in Harare. Mind you, in one quiet moment one local banker scratched his head and wondered how it was that foreign investment was pouring into Botswana (next door) and not into his country. We all knew the answer to that, but there are moments when diplomacy has to rule a conversation.

I flew into Harare, easing in over a remarkable bouldered granite landscape which looked not dissimilar to some parts of Australia, and arrived at a modest airport, though recently renovated, so everyone was very proud of it. It is about as exciting as Canberra Airport - O'Hare it is not. Three of us made the mistake of wearing ties and carrying laptops. We were each escorted into our own rooms and left alone for a few minutes. I started to expect the worst. After a while I was introduced to a guard, who was more congenial than I was expecting. But with my defences up I missed his oblique references to payment. It took a good five minutes before I realised he wanted USD100 for a visa. I rarely carry cash but I happened to have USD250 in my wallet. I tried to hang onto it for maybe another five minutes before realising that I could be here for a long time. We were the last flight, and I could see through a crack in the window set high in the door that the airport was now empty of passengers, and that staff were packing up to go home. The guard assured me he was there for the night. Said with a smile of course.

I coughed up the USD100 and he vanished. Resigned to being shafted in Zimbabwe and not doing the business I came for I was surprised to see him shuffle back into the room with a book of visa stamps. He duly issued the one you see here. As I left my cell, sorry, his office I was accosted by another guard and dragged into a second cell. I really thought it was on this time, but here sat a rather abashed fellow traveller from Europe who had absolutely no cash on him. And these ratbags would not take credit cards! Another USD100 later and the pair of us walked though an immigration barrier with no officers in attendance - the chaps I had paid had stamped the visas as well is issue them! A one stop graft shop. In the foyer of an international airport. Well, one that pretends to be one anyway.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Whale of a Time

Back in 1984 I was sent for a month to a remote airbase called Learmonth (sounds like a prison sentence and it was - the base is located in the desert (Google Earth 22°13'22.43"S 114° 5'12.81"E) with no nearby townships) for a combined military exercise with the USAF 8th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Kunsan, Korea. They came down and flogged their aircraft around in glee at the wide open spaces. We enjoyed the spectacle. In the slower moments of the exercise we took our police dogs down to the crystal clear waters of the Exmouth Gulf but they came out of the water pretty quickly after a few minutes. Nothing we could do could convince them back into the water. After scratching our heads for a while we saw why, when shadows of sharks started drifting up and down off the beach, about thirty metres away. Big sharks. The dogs knew long before we did. Any ideas about swimming went straight out the window.

A friend has just emailed photos he took last week of the whale sharks in Western Australia. Said he had flown into Learmonth and then travelled to Ningaloo Reef to see these creatures. Not the sinister sharks that we saw in 1984, these docile fish are found further out on the reef and by all accounts are worth the visit. At the right time of the year you can come here and swim with these things. As my friend has just done. Back then I enjoyed watching aircraft belting around the sky with little inhibition but I think a visit back to that part of the world nowadays would be purely for the whale sharks.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Little Guy Holds Out - Forever?

This afternoon I was prompted by the question, "why no accounts about travel in Australia?" I had no sensible answer for that, except perhaps that I have not kept any diary or log of any domestic travel. Other than the 6000km return trip into the depths of the tropics in a Suzuki van powered by a tired 900cc engine. In midsummer. 90km/h downhill only. Windows wound down the whole way. That was the the backbone of our honeymoon - some trips are best forgotten.

But putting that prompt together with the weekly, now fortnightly, drawing challenge at Blue Sky Studio, I thought I could tie both challenges together, although my art is nowhere as accomplished as those professionals. Their current challenge is "On the Way to Work this Morning I Saw..."

On the way to work this morning (yes, sadly Saturday) I saw something that makes me smile most mornings. In North Sydney, stuck between two large office blocks is a small two story building which is perhaps only 5-6 metres wide. It belongs to a watchmaker. He has managed to hold out and not sell his little premises. Something like the nail house guys in China. Not only is the shop front narrow but the shop is very shallow. The owner strikes you as one of those European types who managed to get out of Nazi Germany just in time. A careworn look. Maybe that look has come about from years of fighting developers, rather than the oppressive politics of a home country. His advertising has that blue tint of faded colour prints left on the wall far too long and many of the pieces are out of your grandparents house. And if you are a 1974 James Bond he has just the time piece for you. But he seems to get enough custom to keep him going. I have no idea how long he thinks he can hang on there.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Berne Bear With Humour

I caught the train down to Switzerland today from Bonn. The weather along the Rhine was a little clearer than it was when I came up from Frankfurt but it was still overcast and thoroughly miserable. The Bridge at Remagen drifted past on our left, a very understated monument to a significant and strategic point in 1945. (Even more important to my officer training when a screening of the movie of the same name allowed me to catch some sleep in the back of the theatre). While the remains of the bridge were interesting I was more intrigued by the very small plots of garden that people toil over, each having various vegetable or flower crops, but each also having a small hut on it in which people clearly live. I guess it is a temporary arrangement - the living in the hut that is. The plots are half the size of a normal house block at home, sometimes smaller. All tucked between the railway track and the river. If you live in one of these German city apartments a small garden down by the river may well be a godsend.

We pulled into Berne late in the afternoon. The sun was out. The breeze was fresh. And the hotel mercifully only a short walk from the station. But up three flights of narrow stairs and overlooking a lane into which all the neighbouring kitchens must throw their slops. Not very Swiss at all. I have a meeting late tomorrow so that gave me a chance to look around this evening. It seemed like a small place so I got out and about straight away. Designed for cold and snowy weather, with all the pavements in the old city well and truly under the roofline. Did not think to take many photos though I was taken by a statue of a soldier. The statue included a bear that was peering into the soldier's helmet, as if wondering where its owner had gone. These sorts of statues around all our cities are usually pretty straight laced so it was nice to find an artist with a sense of humour. I wonder if the artist had leave to do this or if the burghers commissioned it. I would put money on the former.


Blogger's Choice

There is always a degree of scepticism in the blogging world which is always healthy. Well, skepticism in my own blogging world at least. Competitions and promotions are as much about feeding someone else traffic as getting exposure for yourself and more often than not they are promotional tools that take you up the same filthy dead end track that we used to find out the back of Trotters Gorge (NZ). (Google Earth 45°24'14.83"S 170°46'49.99"E. You can see the open camping area. The trout, lazing in water as clear as your bottled distilled stuff, and in the shade of the foot bridge, are just out of view. Clear in my memory though). If you had told me in 1970, as I ran loose in this Gorge, that more than 30 years later I could "walk" up it via satellite (or other) imagery and from a desk in Australia I would have thought you insane. Who wanted to live in Australia?!

I digress, though I dip my lid to "travel". Like a good security plan any online strategy has to be a consideration about trade-offs that you have to make. So here we go - Pickled Eel is out there with nomination for the Best Travel Blog in the Blogger's Choice Awards. To vote, and I would love it if you did, you will need to go to Blogger's Choice site, create an account (basically user name and password), log on and vote for this Blog. And if you can't be bothered doing that, at least get into Google Earth and have a fly around Trotters Gorge. You might see a bunch of ten year old boys in long shorts and no shoes having the time of their lives.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Inspired by Xian Sketches and Sketchers

Along the main street in Xian, OK, along one of the main streets in Xian, just near the Bell Tower roundabout, dozens of artists sit along the kerb and entice passers by to pose for their portraits. Sure you see plenty of these sorts of guys around town, hanging out at train stations and tourist spots, even in this town. Funny how they all seem Asian. Maybe they have come out of Xian! Not likely since the teenage artists sitting along the sidewalk in Xian are, without exception, seriously talented. That they can take any person, in half light and through pressing crowds at that, and sketch an uncanny likeness had me transfixed for, well seconds. Stay there any longer and they are wanting you to pose and before you know it you have a bunch of sketches in your bottom draw you will never do anything with. But they did not need my business to stay in business - parents with cute toddlers with braided hair and ribbons were the models of choice and like young parents anywhere they are happy to cough up for a cute picture of their children. Dozens and dozens of them.

However what these artists did do was prod me to get the old HB out and to get sketching again. That creative urge ties in nicely with the blogging. But there is nothing quite like a soft pencil on quality paper. Except perhaps a nice viscous Indian ink used for painting Chinese characters, and the soft, smooth paper they practise on. Now I did take some instruction on that in Xian, some of which I will get up on the site here some time. In the meantime here is a quick "one sitting" sketch from last weekend's paper of Catherine Deneuve. Scanner did something neat with the highlighted look - I can't take credit for that.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Global Bedouin's Oasis: Marhaba - مرحبا - welcome

Now that was a new trick - creating a link from someone else's blog. I had better find out how to do that.

This blog caught my eye mainly because its author shares similar sentiments - a desire to let the creative juices loose and to be a little less focused on the day job and to "leave the creative desert" behind. Mind you I don't think I am quite at the point where I can indulge putting writing centre stage in my life. But the idea sure does have some appeal. Getting 70,000 words down part time takes a while!! And there are plenty more that still need to be captured and put onto paper before that particular project is completed.

global bedouin's oasis: marhaba - مرحبا - welcome

747 Action Shot

And while we are mentioning the 747 here is a gratuitous shot that really stands out from the cloud of other excellent shots you can find on We used to look for "action shots" of aircraft when we were briefing the generals, and the rule of thumb was simply this: "It is not an action shot if the undercart is down." Well, this is an action shot we would have been happy to have break that rule. Photo by Stuart Yates who clearly was in the right place at the right time.

The Brakes Were Glowing Red

I had just endured one of the least pleasant aspects of travelling from Australia to Europe with QANTAS - the stopover in Bangkok. It is a tired airport that offers poor respite. But we were back in the plane and thundering down the runway heading for Frankfurt when suddenly we were thrown forward in our seats as the reverse thrust came on and the brakes were applied. The complete inability to do anything except hang in the seatbelt was remarkable. The g-forces were probably not that great but were sufficiently strong to overcome any ability to sit upright or move your arms. Turns out the fuel pump on one of the engines had failed so the crew elected to stop and replace it.

We stopped at the end of the main runway and blocked it for an hour as the brakes cooled down.The Thai fire crews rushed out, seen here approaching the plane (the humidity had fogged up the windows), all jumping out of the vehicles and excitedly pointing in the area of the nose wheel and the main undercarriage. The Captain came through a few minutes later and explained the brakes were "glowing cherry red" and we would stay where we were until they had cooled down.

Five hours later we took off again. After enduring another painful four hours at Don Muang airport, Bangkok.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Via Dolorosa

It is Good Friday and thoughts turn to things related to Easter, as they should. I am not a Roman Catholic but sometimes I think they have something in some of the traditions they wrap around themselves. A few years ago (1999 actually) I visited Jerusalem and wandered around in some wonder at where I was, pausing at some distance to get this photo of the Wailing Wall. While plenty will tell you that Jesus was here or there, the fact of the matter is the current city sits high above the streets which existed in Jesus' day. You can walk down through some excavations near the Wailing Wall and through a colonnaded sidewalk of Roman times, it all being set down 10-12 feet below the current street level. Despite the displacement in elevation you still have a powerful sense of place and occasion.

I stumbled over some powerful sites in that regard. I was not on any crusade to find holy sites, since in many respects they are meaningless in terms of my faith. But you're caught in the moment as you sit in a small, smoke stained (from years of candle smoke) cave in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and wonder if this was in fact the place Jesus was buried. Who knows, but the possibility grabs you. And it grabbed me in a way I was not expecting at all.

Another such site is the Via Dolorosa, Latin for "Way of Grief". This route, high above old Jerusalem, is the supposed route Jesus took on his way to the cross. I was not prepared for the way this route struck either. I have been dismissive in my reading of history, not understanding the concept of pilgrimage at all. A quiet walk up the Via Dolorosa gave me an insight into that concept and of the emotion that could be associated with this place. I was lucky. Very few were out and about that day and I was able to amble along the Way of Grief, through shopping and markets and laundry in a meditative mood which was not tainted by any tourist crowd - it being about as busy as you see here. My only regret is being less alert to the significance of the place than I might have been if I had been raised in the Catholic church. A small price!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Neanderthals are Your Neighbours

They might even be you!! If you think that is going too far think about this. In an upmarket suburb of Sydney, in which the residents no doubt view themselves as having arrived - at least in society, wealth, education and status terms - she sat down to have lunch. After a little while the cafe owners sidled up to her and asked her to remove her scarf from off her head, there were some other patrons who felt the headwear inappropriate in their polite cafe. After complying to this odd request (count me strange, but these days I thought a scarf on ones head would be fair and reasonable basis for assuming an illness) she revealed her hairless scalp, the symptom of various cancer therapies. That was too much and shortly thereafter those same patrons asked her to cover up her head, her baldness was too affronting. She left without combating them, but also without telling the patrons she was grabbing a bite to eat after coming from the funeral of a friend who had succumbed to cancer.

Ecoli noted injustices to the handicapped make him wild. I have the patience of Job (a "flat liner") but this sort of unenlightened small mindedness and sheer, unadulterated selfishness makes me wild. The same response is evoked when I hear someone in the street tell me my daughter should be locked up. Enough to have me secretly wish a retarded kid on their own families. The behaviour in the cafe recounted above would be enough to have me wish the same illness on those smug apes who found her baldness too confronting. And the cafe owners should not get off blameless either. Just as well I am not God or there would be some smoking patches of cinder around Sydney right now - blasted to oblivion with not a scrap of remorse.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Nailing Your Colours to your Nail House

When you live with 1.2billion neighbours it is pretty hard to be your own person. At least in the way we understand that desire. One of the things I love about the Chinese is that even within their tight and densely populated communities you will see individuals striving to be their own little island for a moment or two. It might be the old gent doing his ablutions on the street corner, studiously avoiding the gaze of neighbours. Or the dancer twirling in her own world. Or little knots of elderly women pushing through a market regardless of the human tide. I enjoyed reading today about a Chinese couple who have been making their own statement in China over the last three years, resisting developers and holding out for a couple of million dollars. Development has gone on around them though even that was eventually held up while they held out. Until tonight, when their house came down. There will be a part of them that is driven by pecuniary interests. Of course. But it is also another example of how these people manage to find their own way to stand out from the crowd and be their own person, and I bet this became their raison d'etre in the end.

And the Chinese have worked this sort of resistance into their lexicon. According to the press "Dingzihu" (钉子户) is a Chinese word that means a household or person who refuses to vacate their home to make way for real estate development. Virtual China translates the word as 'nail house' because "they stick out like nails in an otherwise modernized environment". Works for me.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Two Ducks on a Wall

Art is such a strange thing. Why does one piece grab you and another not? Who knows? At an art exhibition held by Malkara Special School in Canberra years ago this little piece leapt off the wall at me. Drawn by a young kid, I love the clean lines and the balance of the whole thing. But especially that the birds ( I prefer to think of them as ducks) have such earnest intent. Heading off somewhere only they know. Wing motion nicely balanced between the two. And the second one with a smile on his face. Its a clean, minimalist piece that plenty of professionals would work hard to equal.

Taxi Story - the Palestinian

So you are on a mission from God? You want to go to heaven or hell? (laughs) Sydney? Is that heaven or hell? Yes, I agree, probably heaven. I have been in Melbourne for more than ten years mate. I like it here. Sydney is nice. Went there once in 1999. Hard to drive around. A mess. I can get you to the airport at 8.27pm. I can go faster but only if you give me $500.00 to pay for the fines. 8.27 it will be. I came out here with my family when I was a young boy. We stayed in some refugee camps but not for long. We came here in 1995. Palestine had just got its independence - or so it thought. There was lots of building and construction going on. But it was not safe. My parents wanted to bring us up in safe place. All I knew about Australia was that there were lots of sheep. I thought it was going to be a big sheep farm and thought we would be seeing lots of sheep. I was very surprised to land in a city and not see any sheep for many years. I have not been back to Palestine. All my family are here. Why would I go to a place I do not know and which is not safe and not really independent? I have all I need here.

(and yes, we were delivered to the airport at 8.27 precisely)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Art - United Galleries

I found this art gallery via Sonja, who has published her second book and had it launched. I am just a tiny bit envious since the novel is still locked in the bowels of this PC with no additional words added in the last 6 weeks. Sonja is a fan of one of the artists who is represented by the gallery and who kindly allowed her to use his art on the cover of one of her books. Carlos Barrios. His is the painting catching your eye as you scan this blog! Title: Bonnie. There is more of his stuff hanging in the United Galleries. I have no art hanging in this gallery (sadly) and don't know any of the artists, except remotely via Sonja so this is not some sort of gratuitous plug. I just love some of the stuff here. Check the photos by Paola Talbert or the paintings by Kim Nelson. Kim's work with light is stunning.

Getting Under Your Skin

My earliest memories of tattoos were of those etched onto large motorcycle riders who would growl into Palmerston every year before they headed into Central Otago for a spring festival or carnival of some sort. I can't quite recall exactly what the occasion was, though it elusively slides around in the back of my skull avoiding being pinned down. (It will pop out once I have posted this note!) Tattoos went with beards, Harleys and leather. Nothing original in that. A universal image in fact. Thereafter images of tawdry tattoo shops in Melbourne complete the picture, as do the very rough tattoos military colleagues turned up with after a drunken night on the town. Some were funny, though not with the humour you would wish on yourself, but because the wearer had no idea why he was now sporting a full blown Indian chief in feather headdress across his back. (That guy slept on his front for weeks!) I must have seen on at least three occasions the classic tattoo scenario of one girlfriend's name thoroughly embedded only to have the wearer hook up with another "name" a short time later. And one NCO I once worked for had the indignity of enduring an artist who had imposed his inability to spell all over his body.

So all of this tends to put tattoos in the redneck basket for me. Humorous in part but not something I could ever buy into. Though I have long given up the notion that it is somehow evil (childish association with bikers sowed that seed) or undignified. Indeed I will confess that tattoo art over the last few years has grown into something more restrained, creative, objective and carefully designed. And in many cases has become quite attractive, and is even erotic on the right canvas.

But the New York artist who did this piece of clever work has lifted the genre to another level altogether. Anil is his name and this link takes you away from here to his website where you can see more of this wonderful stuff. Well, its art, so some of it is wonderful and rest is clearly framed for beauty in the eye of the beholder only!