Wednesday, May 30, 2007


There are parts of Philly that are familiar (I have been in and out of here since 1997) and attractive - for all the reasons you would expect them to be. Here the Declaration of Independence was signed, Benjamin Franklin and his cronies hung out and where the nations capital was seated for a period of time. So there is the old brick, Roman colonnade sense of history to the place which I find appealing. Around about are smaller historical towns that convey that rustic historicity as well. Even the more modern skyline is distinctive and well balanced and sufficiently unique among skyscraper cities for it to stand out the moment you see it - including in the TV series Cold Case where this city sets the backdrop for those stories. And here are the famous boatsheds, the equally famous universities, Hymies deli (what sort of name is that?) Warmdaddys and the fractured bell.

But... There is also a grittier side of Philly that I also like. The city sits beside the Delaware River which is a major industrial artery which seethes with shipping. There is no sense here of any pleasure craft pursuits here - though I maybe wrong. Oil and other heavy industry line the banks of the river. Power stations. Steel fabrication. Skeletal bridges such as the Walt Whitman and the Benjamin Franklin. The amazing naval Reserve Basin with warships mothballed, including the USS America, and any number of hulls being ripped down. All this activity in the midst of a more refined banking and historical centre. I think the mix makes for a more lively city. A snapshot of the Delaware River as we clear Philly and turn towards Dallas.

21 May 2007

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Crossing Paths Over Canada

An extremely disconcerting view from an aircraft window is the full frontal view of a 747 heading your way. In the freezing cold air over Canada, on the way from London to Chicago I was watching our contrail shadow creep across the forests and lakes and was somewhat mesmerised by it when I lifted my gaze to find myself looking at a 747 blowing its own massive contrail. By the time I had grabbed the camera, powered it on and gotten the shot it was moving well below and past us. The crossing speeds were phenomenally fast and unfortunately that head on view was lost very quickly. Lost in the detail is the fact that it was a KAL flight, probably boring in from Korea and heading south to New York or somewhere similar. I grabbed a shot of the plane but also of our crossing shadows. In this photo the top frame catches the KAL flight. In the bottom frame the KAL shadow cuts from top to bottom. It is very faint but is about half way along our shadow which runs from right to left. Kind of neat but disconcerting at how quickly those aircraft were crossing. And that 1000’ of vertical separation did not feel like it for a heart-stopping moment.


A clear spring day. Sunday morning and in this part of the hemisphere the sun has been up since before 5am. It now glances white light off the American Airlines 777 sitting beside us. It is a marked change to the inbound flight last week when the day was overcast and the feeling of depression was only exacerbated by the abruptness and churlishness of the airport staff who conducted themselves in the finest “British Rail” service which was legendary in the pre privatised world we know today for its appalling indifference.

This used to be the busiest airport in the world. It still may be. Certainly the experience of not having enough gates for the aircraft arriving here underscores that claim. When I was a kid the closest airstrip was a sharply inclined strip of grass which ran to the top of a small knoll (used by an agricultural pilot sowing super phosphate) the notion that an airport handled an aircraft a minute was nigh on incomprehensible. So it is with some satisfaction and irony that I note the guy loading this aircraft sitting down on the luggage escalator and taking it easy. It is Sunday morning after all. Heathrow or not.

Things That Alert You to the Passage of Time

Your son rings you and tells you he is getting married.

  • The new jet fighter announced by the government when you joined the military are now in a wind-down program and replacement types have been approved.

  • New employees have birth dates after the date you joined the workforce.

  • The very latest Main Battle Tank (MBT) in secret development when you joined the military is now sitting in a museum, with enthusiasts keeping it alive.
Here it is here. The British Challenger MBT boasted all sorts of innovation but especially the revolutionary CHOBHAM armour (now used by the US Abrams MBT). That it sits in a museum is fair enough given a second generation Challenger is in use. But it does only seem like yesterday that it was being introduced into service.


In my early teens I devoured a series of books which followed the fortunes of a new infantry officer in the British Army as he joined his regiment and then found himself engaged in various scrapes in Europe. Boys Own stuff. I cannot remember who he was nor are the story lines at my fingertips. But I do recall the military town of Aldershot figuring in his training at some point and the place has remained linked in my mind to the British Army ever since. If however there was any romanticism attached to the place as a result of those books such sentiment was sadly tempered this weekend. The town does not wear its military history at all. Sitting in the main street drinking coffee the view, conversation and experience is a grey one. A country town slum would be kind. The plumage of colour I took from the books, if ever true, is non existent. The occasional building hints at some history but military barracks are utilitarian in function and most now reflect that in their design. The best I could find that gave any hint of military heritage was the comparatively young officers mess of the Queens Own Gurkha Transport Regiment. I am sure there is history more tucked away but the town hides it very well.

I Was an RSM in the Scottish Blagoons

On a train from Liverpool to London and a short while after leaving Lime Street we pull into a suburban station. Into the carriage climbed a wild eyed man in his late forties, mop of hair coiffed back onto his collar, rings in his ears, spare tire around his waist and shirt hanging out. Stumbling as if the train was in motion. With his missus. Looking for a seat. Which he never took but on which he propped his case. She took a seat and roused at the lively “Billy” who proceed to swear his way up and down the carriage as he made conversation. Nothing violent at all – more in the vein o f another Scottish comedian called Billy. They fuelled themselves up with more vodka and proceeded to keep us entertained for a large portion of the trip. When they discovered they had missed their stop they simply laughed.

In fact the couple were a perpetual laugh machine. He had the dry wit of a Glaswegian and the swearing to match. Not in an offensive way (most of the time) but she was alternating between scolding him for swearing and bursting into giggles. Which only encouraged him some more. He refused to sit down and paraded up and down the aisle provoking and prodding with his wit to get responses from us. Her giggles only fuelled him on. Both of these folk were in their late forties but were giving the inner child free rein. Despite this she was concerned at one point that they might get kicked off ‘again”. It tempered his madness very little. Turns out he was a truck driver who drove all over Europe but had lost his license due to drink driving. Was a little over three weeks from having it reinstated. He was going to have to work very hard to be sober in time to pick it up.

There are numerous highlights from that trip which are almost impossible to translate onto the page. One gem went thus: in a moment of complete seriousness he informed us he was a former Regimental Sergeant Major of the Scottish Blagoons. Hissed out three or four times as he very earnestly strained to get his drunken tongue around the words. But the “you had to be there moment” was the moment Billy’s heart stopped when one of the women sitting opposite us informed him she was a vicar. The tone of the trip changed, the swearing vanished (though it was still noisy) and Billy set about convincing her he was not a bad person. Somehow atoning for all the madness that had gone on before - especially given he had just been telling her he could bring any woman to the best orgasm she ever had (in the background his missus was decrying his claims, amidst much giggling). Later, as we disembarked we complimented the vicar on how well she handled Billy. She fessed up to being a prison chaplain, so Billy was no challenge at all.

An Angelic Skirt Lifter

“The Cathedral” in Brussels is understood to be the cathedral in the Grand Place Square. It is covered in intricate statues and carvings, all in fantastic detail. Row upon row of carvings that make up hundreds of characters that adorn the façade. A couple of characters caught my eye. One looking demure, the other coyly lifting her hem to reveal the petticoats underneath. At one level you might imagine that the artist was expressing his sense of humour. And that is certainly one level of interpretation that can be made of these two carvings. At another, more serious and prosaic level they need to be understood in the medieval context in which they were carved – as an instructional instrument. The clue to that is the woman on the right who wears a helmet, carries a shield, holds a lamp, and who has a character under her feet pointing at a book. As if to remind the illiterate that the Bible is the source of guidance on those weapons of spiritual warfare that she is holding. Her offsider is holding her hand over her mouth, is lifting her skirt and the character at her feet looks like a roguish monk. An instructional contrast of how to behave and live – wanton versus virtuous. While all that might be true, the wanton character was the one that caught my eye and which still seems to have a humourous streak to it. Maybe that says more about me than the artist.

Monday, May 21, 2007


The poppy flower brightens the trackside vegetation and livens up the borders of the wheat fields where the plough has not scarified them out of the ground. They blur past me as I gaze across gently rolling fields from the train taking me to Waterloo. The freshness of the red helps you understand how it has become a symbol of the great battlefields of the Great War. They bloom around Waterloo as well. Not the Waterloo of Canada, Britain or the US. But the original from which our vernacular says “he met his Waterloo” and to whom we refer being Napoleon. For here he and his aspirations for a European republic centred on France were dashed in bloody fields the likes of which were not seen for another generation in places like Gettysburg. Today a modern military type would describe the gently rolling fields as ideal tank country. Plenty of dead ground. Good line of sight. Little natural obstruction. In 1815 it was ideal cavalry country but that same ground and its cavalry qualities were disastrous to the exposed soldier and their wounded and mutilated bodies covered swathes of ground and filled numerous ditches to overflowing.

Visiting the site (it is a short train ride from Brussels) requires more than the couple of hours I had to explore the headquarters of Wellington, climb the memorial mound or spend a few minutes in the Panorama rotunda (from which this photo is taken). But it was enough to be reminded that we have never done a good job of learning from one generation to the next the appalling cost war imposes on our communities.

17 May 2007

Old St Catherine

How old is the church of St Catherine? Very old is my guess. In a town full of old things, its age stands out. Old enough to have the fine detail of its relief carvings weathered to rounded edges and their definition blurred. Angels and saints, soldiers and devils, Mary and child all returning to dust as grain by grain they are washed to the cobblestones below. The fenced off walls are shelter now to groups of homeless people who have broken through the fence and settled their noisy nests in the sandstone vaults exposed to the square. At least the church does what it was called to do – extend its hand to the poor and the downtrodden. For this neglected old cathedral you could say its hand is outstretched while its eyes are sightless.

Around the square are new maples, ice cream shops, trendy little restaurants, a few bars - one in which I currently prop – and Flemish style buildings most recently refurbished. Getting here through the outlying city blocks was a traverse of nations and cultures. Africans spilling out of the “Little Castle, a place of refugee application. Pakistani soft-drink sellers. Aged Belgian men walking their pugs. Muslim women of indeterminate origin (other than from the generic “Middle East”) with their scampering children, Korean family selling car deodorisers from the sidewalk, Chinese hairdresser, beggar on a stool still elegant in his beret and doing what he can to maintain his dignity.

16 May 2007

Belgians in Brussels

There is a roughness to the population which is quite striking. It almost verges on the skinhead look. Unkempt and dark. Not that there is any sense of threat. It is just the dress of the youth. Dark and oppressive. Aggressive even. But it seems this is the Soho of Brussels so I should not be surprised. Indeed, there is something vibrant about it as well. Art shops, bookshops, music, paint, stamps, postcards, small bars, gay bars, sidewalk cafes, street theatre, huge murals, on walls, (Tintin and Snowy descending a flight of stairs on one), rubbish piled high, despite the seeming constantly working fleet of trash trucks, more dog turds, and now drifting rain. Bald headed bearded elderly homeless men drift around. Japanese tourists ogle past, mouth open in perpetual surprise. Shaven young Lebanese lads bolt up the street to the nearest night club. Of which there are dozens. So too jazz and blues clubs. Surprising. In fact I am missing a Jazz marathon by a week. Shame really. Unshaven, beanie, long locks drifts past the window. Is this drabness and darkness what the Belgians exported to the Congo all those years ago? Their colonial reputation was not very flash to say the least.

I am parked in Tavern Le Dylans and a mix of French blues and jazz is belting out of the sound system. It is getting dark. People are drifting around outside. Tyres slick and hiss along in the wet. A muslim mother pushes past with pram and two kids. More jacketed youths rush past. Three “homies” shuffle along, arm in arm. Women with dirty brown faces, ripped and ragged brown dresses. Bare feet. But laughing. And with flowers in their matted hair. It is a strange town but there is no question I could come to like it. If the sun ever came out that would improve impressions somewhat.

15 May 2007

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dog Turds in Brussels

I am not sure I have gotten my head around this town yet. However I have had an opportunity to get out and about this afternoon and walked a few kilometres through an interesting cross section of the city. It is certainly a town of contrasts, all living cheek by jowl. Perhaps starting with a panoramic view helps set the scene. The view from the high point of the city, the Palais de Justice, is telling. The cathedral spire, dating back to the thirteenth century, and other ancient and beautiful buildings are nearly lost by that horrible post war bland box architecture which blights all our cities to one degree or another. But in this city ancient is hemmed in by 1960s “deadimaginesque” and all piled up in a strange mix. There is no old centre gradually giving over to the modern the further you get out, although to be sure the Grand Place is about as grand medieval place as you can get. Surrounding the Palais de Justice are some interesting juxtapositions. Down from its base of imposing Roman architecture black children shouting in French play in a small concrete soccer field but with blocked drains so half their field lies under a stagnant pond. Graffiti covered the surrounding walls. Although some of that is art worthy of attention. Lift your eyes up from the soccer kids and look south across a concrete block paved courtyard surrounding the obligatory monument to the war dead of 1914-1918 an d1939-1945. Grass grows through every crack, moss and corrosion taint the statue and the damp must of a tomb pervades the site. It is a hang dog affair for the commemoration of something so glorious. Or maybe its ruin is appropriate.

Walking down from the high ground you pass through cobbled lanes that are alternatively pretty, flowered, cobbled, and given to fine furniture, architecture, or fine art, or drab piled high with rubbish and littered with dog turds. Street repairs are like those you see in China. Half done. Piles of ripped up cobbles and heaps of earth, some with well established weeds, indicating workers have been absent a while. And I am not in the back blocks here but down town – the Grand Place is a short two minute walk away.
15 May 2007

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Worship Via a Cell Phone

These old cathedrals reek of smoke and wax and are scented with aged timber. Light catches gilt and gold, careens off marble and helps give life to the slate floor, all cracked and tilted but polished smooth from eons of traffic. In their calm stillness you can understand how worshipers seek God, the more so for the singing choirs quietly being played in the background. You can imagine rows of chanting monks helping set a tone of awe, reverence and respectful worship. They would be nonplussed at the overcoated grey haired gent who rushed into this pool of quiet worship this afternoon. Crying out in French to the statue of Mary shrouded in a beautifully gilded cloth. Pointing and waving. And talking into his cell phone. I thought he was talking to someone else then I realised he was talking to Mary via his cell. It would have been humorous if his entreaties were not so earnest and heartfelt. I had stumbled over the place wandering the lanes of Brussels and had welcomed its solitude and a place to be reflective. I handed over to the cell phone worshiper and left him to this place. I hope God picks up at the other end for him.

Tintin, Waffles and Chocolate

Brussels is a strange town. I sat and ate a very expensive McDonalds burger (the Big Mac Index blows out in this place at about USD8.00, AUD10.00. And as I did so watched grey people on a grey day. It is Sunday, Mothers Day and everyone seems to be out and about. But it is not an attractive city today. It has a hard edge to it. Dirty and somehow forgotten. Museums are boarded up being repaired. Streets are filthy – cobblestones are great for trapping rubbish. Yet that which had people flee the old world is no doubt what attracts us all back. There are flashes in this town that surprise and enchant. And let’s face it, I have only walked for a couple of hours after getting off a 24 hour series of flights from Sydney. So my sampling is very limited. On the other hand first impressions count.

There is an area surrounding the Grand Place – a beautiful central square - in which you could lose yourself for a long time. Art and music, food and chocolate, fashion and books. An arcade in which colour and light entice you to the window like mosquitoes to a blue light, and from there the scent of cocoa and spices draw you in to the chocolate tar pit from which you never escape. Unless of course you spend a small fortune and walk out with your purchase wrapped in Tintin paper.

Airport Security: A clever Marketing Exercise

Security is always about trade offs. If I want to get to my destination I will put up with the impositions of removing shoes, stripping laptops in and out of their bags, handing over my bottle of water. And tolerate people handling me in a way that would earn them a quick uppercut to the jaw and a call to the police if they tried the same behaviour in a shopping mall.

There is nothing that convinces me all this imposition is helping keep us safe. Explain how it is that having liquids limited to 100ml and placed in a small plastic bag is helping the cause? The best it is all doing is giving the travelling public some assurance that somebody in authority is doing something. But there is no question it is simply mistaking activity for progress. And of course helping position those authorities so they can argue that they were doing everything they could, should something ever goes wrong.

Which is highly unlikely. An aircraft accident is more likely to kill us than the act of someone taking an aircraft down with a bomb disguised as VO5. And being killed in an accident is less likely than dying in an automobile accident. Indeed, to put that likelihood in perspective about 45,000 Americans kill themselves each year in car accidents. We don’t limit what is loaded into our cars, and who climbs into them! And to put 45,000 automobile accident deaths into context consider this - assuming there are 250 passengers in a 747, there would have to be 180 747 accidents a year, or 3.5 a week. Imagine 3-4 747 accidents a week in the US alone. We say that is ridiculous. The public would not tolerate it. Of course not. But the likelihood of a terrorist strike is even less than accidents suggested here - yet we put up with the stupidity of the security madness at airports so we can all feel comfortable about going through the security motions. But there is no additional protection that I can see. Can anyone else? What are we trading off – not improved security, that is for sure. We are all kidding ourselves. But I am not sure why. Maybe we are just so desperate to get to the other end that the end justifies any means.

Insufferable Changi

The Airport I mean. Nothing to complain about really when the “other Changi” is contemplated – that is, the Japanese POW camp that used to be here. Perhaps been through here fifty times and it never gets any better but I should not complain – a passenger is a statistic to be processed after all. It boasts a not unreasonable infrastructure and the facility is clean and well managed. But we get spoiled at home by people who have some comprehension of what service is about. Something the staff at this airport have never gotten their heads around. Officious, petty, hustling, full of their self importance and propped up by their uniforms and badges. Processing you though their security like the number you are. I think sometimes when I am here that I prefer the heat of a Tel Aviv grilling. At least there they looked you in the eye – and you were being handled by security people who knew what they were doing, rather than by a bunch of people who have not been able to make it anywhere else in this society. (Next time you are through here do the sociological exercise of noting how many Chinese staff are actually doing these so called menial tasks). At least at this time of the night (midnight) the place is fairly empty. Enough grumping – back onto the plane and off to London.

400 Tonnes Gets Airborne

The 747 is roughly 200 tonnes of aircraft and 200 tonnes of fuel. Pretty amazing weight when their take off and flight it so elegant and graceful. They say fat people make the best dancers – sure on their feet and confident about handling their bulk. But I would be reluctant to label the 747 fat. Big boned maybe. Not fat.

I took this sequence of photos as we departed Sydney yesterday. If you take note of the leading edge in the top photo, taken while we were powering north along the runway, you can see how straight it is. As the aircraft lifts off and the weight is taken off the undercarriage (wheels) you can see what happens to the wings as the 400 tonnes is transferred to them – the leading edge takes on a decided curve upwards to the tips. If you are standing on the ground watching this, from behind and below, the fuselage appears to hang in the middle of the wings, as indeed it is designed to do. The engineering involved in this is endlessly amazing. Think about the compression of the top skin of the wing as this happens. And the stretching of the underwing skin. Then the reverse when the aircraft lands. Then think about the metallurgy involved. The internal plumbing. The fact that it is a wet wing – fuel is flooded through parts of it. A constant source of amazement.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Do Security and Duty Free Have anything In Common?

I am never sure which is worse - the security routine or the duty free rigmarole. Departing Sydney now requires anything that might be a cream or gel or liquid to be packaged in a small plastic bag – if you wish to take it on board that is. Even your toothpaste. And the quantity allowed is minuscule. Not too much of a problem for most male passengers I suspect, but I stood in line watching two women trying to decide which perfumes they were going to have to discard. It was actually a choice between perfumes, hand gels and moisturisers and other bathroom bits and pieces they had with them. Used to years of travelling with that sort of support no doubt. Now constrained. Reluctantly they made their choices, discarded the rest and then moved to the scanner portals and X-rays.

No matter as it turns out since the body scanner portal is followed very closely by the entrance to the duty free gauntlet. When departing Sydney you have no choice but to walk a linoleum road through a forest of air brushed celebrity faces (OK, so that is not so bad) and endure a blizzard of conflicting scents and perfumes, all swirling around you in an attempt to induce a headache before you board your plane. And a billion litres of liquid, and all the gels and moisturisers your little heart desires. I think it is worth checking out - I bet the security company confiscating potions and gels is a sister company of the duty free company. Come on, it happens in India, why can’t it happen here?

Departing Sydney

I have a real soft spot for the city of Sydney. All the things we say about it in our promotional material is very clichéd but, in most cases very true and in which lies its appeal. Brash. Loud, Flamboyant. International recognition. That unique harbour. All true and part of the formula. On an autumn day when the temperature is in the low twenties it is especially appealing (although I prefer the humid heat of summer). The sugar maples are not too sure if it is really heading to winter so their leaves are still hanging on, some a dirty green, others a burnt umber. But bare branched? Not at all. As if hanging in there with the rest of us, denying the notion that winter ever happens in this place. A clear blue sky but with a hint of yellow haze as the sun drops early, long shadows tricking the mind into thinking that it is later than it really is. Throwing the city in relief, highlighting the off-white building surfaces and showing off a city that is never in any doubt that it is up there with the best of them. This view from the international terminal and on day one of the long haul to London. Which is a 22 hour marathon from here. And a world away from this brilliant place.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An Ideal Weekend

FuelMy Blog and invited 300 words describing an ideal weekend in a competition, the prize for which is business class travel to "the continent" – but for UK residents only (it did sound too good to be true). No matter, it was an interesting challenge. No doubt competitors will write in anticipation of an ideal weekend. I thought I would try something retrospective. Just for the heck of it.

The Atherton Tablelands, lifted above the blue tropical heat of the north Queensland coast. An old plywood caravan sitting on blocks on a blanket of pineneedles. In a whispering pine forest that gently fell to the banks of Lake Tinaroo, the water barely glimpsed. It is the only caravan in the forest. At the front step a circle of stones in which the fire is lit. There is no electricity. The children are toddlers and run free though not far. It is getting dark. The circle of stones fascinates them but more so the fire that soon crackles in it. A child gathers twigs. The others are content to be mesmerized by the fire. Dinner is had on nightfall, from a sticky frypan. Moving shadows beside us draw our attention to a possum which inches towards the fire and sits in the circle with us, part of the family. The boy is fascinated and flicks him some food. The girls are asleep. The sun has been sunk less than an hour. They are tucked into bed. We sit for a short while gazing into the fire until we can hardly keep our eyes open. So we repair to the caravan. The possum stays where he propped and watches us leave. The June air is fresh and cool but the van is snug and warm. Asleep in seconds at a time of the night we would normally be busy with work or study or children. The next conscious moment is dawn when we wake with the sun. Two days worth. No phones. No traffic. Long companionable silences. Glittering Milky Way. Cool air. No distractions. No clocks. No people. Just the family. And one possum. Perfect.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Taxi Story - Mauritius

My family have been here for years. I came here fifteen years ago after all my brothers and sisters pressured me to come and be a family again. But initially I was reluctant to do so since I could not speak English. I could speak six other languages but not English. I was living in France at the time, teaching Ancient History. I love Ancient History. If I had my time over again I would love to sit for hours and talk about Ancient History. If you are not careful we will drive for hours and I will talk about Ancient History. Mesopotamia mainly. And recently I have been doing a lot of study about Egypt. We think we are clever with our technologies but those ancient civilisations were capable of some amazing engineering. Did you know there are no cranes available today that could lift the blocks found in the Pyramids out to the distance they need to be placed in those structures?
I came out from France once and decided that it was too hard not knowing English. So I went back to France and took lessons, often travelling to England for short visits to practise the language. When I thought I was ready I came out and tried living in Sydney. There are lots of people from Mauritius in Sydney. But I was not very comfortable there so moved to Brisbane and set up here with my family. They were very pleased with that. Now I love the place and don't want to live anywhere else. I don't really follow the football but I am very happy when Brisbane wins so I think that means I have made this place my home.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Soviet Tanks and Japanese Toyotas

With Australians having been intimately involved in the Vietnam War there was a certain hesitancy, a cringe even, on arriving in a place that had once been a battlefield and many of the folk around us considered enemies. Vietnamese have no such cringe. They are out there running just as hard and as fast as they can to turn their country around. That, coupled with having the youngest population under 25 of any nation on the globe, means this is a place that has very little concern about, or even awareness of, the immediate past. The rickshaw drivers, former officers of the South Vietnam administration/government, and unable to gain any other living and cut off from any pension support, are the only real visible evidence of the hurt from that period.

Nonetheless any visitor can hunt around without too much effort and find plenty or relics from the war period. And it is always good to go and see the museums that tell the story from the other side. We weren't angels either.

Down near the zoo there is a lovely juxtaposition of imagery which sums up the current situation rather well. The T-55 tank here is backdropped by the new Toyota dealership in the background - recent political and military history backdropped by more recent commercial history. In turn both are backdropped by the museum building in the background that contains stories and evidence of Vietnam's prehistory and precolonial history. Of the three it is what the Toyota dealership represents that has the attention of most Vietnamese today. Wring your hands all you like about the war Mr Aussie visitor, but don't get in the way of us building our businesses. Fair enough. That is probably more healthy than our introspection - which I am happy to say evaporated within days of arriving here.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Learning English the Hard Way in Ho Chi Minh City

If you stop for very long [in down town Ho Chi Minh City(formerly Saigon)] - say two or three minutes - chances are good that you will be tapped on the shoulder by someone wanting to practise their English. This has now happened on the steps of the Opera House, on the banks of the Saigon River and of course up the back streets with MK and her family. In this instance the lesson was initiated by Nyugan Van Chung who arrived with a dictionary in hand. My initial suspicioun was that he wanted to sell me a dictionary. That proved not to be the case. Rather he came armed with numerous pieces of paper covered in lists of words which he was trying to rehearse.

On a steamy morning, with the drain stink of the Saigon River in our noses (though boys being boys were happily leaping into its swirling current, trying to catch plastic bottles and ear and throat infections) , in the shade of trees that drop goodness only knows what, we explored words starting with "ex", which are especially tough for these people. And of course we made a whole lot of conversation, with things around us being the catalyst for the same. The Russian craft which serve as ferries became the subject of a geography lesson hence the hand drawn map here of Asia and Russia. And we had to take care of China at the same time since he had managed to confuse the country with porcelain. Sometimes a dictionary is only a hindrance.

But all in all we made good progress, practising sibilant and glottal sounds while at the same time doing our little bit for good neighbourly relations. Interestingly enough he volunteered that he asks numerous people to practise like this but said they were afraid to talk to him. He was not sure why that was, but we explored some possibilities - from Caucasians not necessarily being able to speak English through to a lack of confidence in themselves to teach. He is a very slight and unassuming fellow, not intimidating in any way and very plainly though neatly dressed. He was very proud of his very battered briefcase/satchel. I got a sense that he was sleeping in doorways.

He is down from Hanoi, looking for work. Born in June 1976, he told me he was the third child, second son, with no girlfriend. I wonder if he is one of those third child pieces of flotsam that get no support and somehow have to make it on their own. There was no evidence of any job. He told me he came down here to the river every day to find people he could practise his English with. I am glad I accepted his offer. It was a morning well spent. Even if he was part of a security detail. Under all that patter, a part of me strongly suspected he was. Though I resisted the urge to test him and try and trip him up on his language exercises. Heck, I am here on a holiday. Relax and go with the flow. I did, and the conversation was doubly sweet for that.

Journal, Banks of Saigon River, November 2004

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Farmer Suicides

In the early summer months of 1984 we drove 3000km north to the tropics for a holiday. Yup, pretty crazy. On our second day we drove into a wall of dust near Dubbo. It was a wall not unlike this one pictured in 2002 near Griffith. The outstanding difference was that in 1984 there was not a blade of anything green in sight and the country was gripped by a serious drought. We crept along in our little van in a dangerous activity of driving from one white dash on the road to the next. We could not see any further than that. The occasional swirl in the dust suggested a vehicle had passed us going the other way. It took an hour to clear the storm.

Right now our farmers are enduring one of the worst droughts on record. At least in the eastern states of this country. A sad result of this drought is the high number of farmers and others in "the bush" committing suicide. Depression is a major issue with these men and I understand as many as two a week are opting out this way. To help encourage these men and their families, and to draw our attention to the problem the Salvation Army had a local story teller, Murray Hartin, write a poem which is doing the rounds in this part of the world. I have copied it here below but you can find it on the author's website here. If you like some original bush poetry check his videos where he recites his own material. It warms the heart. But none more than this one below.

Rain from Nowhere

His cattle didn’t get a bid, they were fairly bloody poor,
What was he going to do? He couldn’t feed them anymore,
The dams were all but dry, hay was thirteen bucks a bale,
Last month’s talk of rain was just a fairytale,
His credit had run out, no chance to pay what’s owed,
Bad thoughts ran through his head as he drove down Gully Road

“Geez, great grandad bought the place back in 1898,
“Now I’m such a useless bastard, I’ll have to shut the gate.
“Can’t support my wife and kids, not like dad and those before,
“Crikey, Grandma kept it going while Pop fought in the war.”
With depression now his master, he abandoned what was right,
There’s no place in life for failures, he’d end it all tonight.

There were still some things to do, he’d have to shoot the cattle first,
Of all the jobs he’d ever done, that would be the worst.
He’d have a shower, watch the news, then they’d all sit down for tea
Read his kids a bedtime story, watch some more TV,
Kiss his wife goodnight, say he was off to shoot some roos
Then in a paddock far away he’d blow away the blues.

But he drove in the gate and stopped – as he always had
To check the roadside mailbox – and found a letter from his Dad.
Now his dad was not a writer, Mum did all the cards and mail
But he knew the writing from the notebooks that he’d kept from cattle sales,
He sensed the nature of its contents, felt moisture in his eyes,
Just the fact his dad had written was enough to make him cry.

“Son, I know it’s bloody tough, it’s a cruel and twisted game,
“This life upon the land when you’re screaming out for rain,
“There’s no candle in the darkness, not a single speck of light
“But don’t let the demon get you, you have to do what’s right,
“I don’t know what’s in your head but push the bad thoughts well away
“See, you’ll always have your family at the back end of the day

“You have to talk to someone, and yes I know I rarely did
“But you have to think about Fiona and think about the kids.
“I’m worried about you son, you haven’t rung for quite a while,
“I know the road you’re on ‘cause I’ve walked every bloody mile.
“The date? December 7 back in 1983,
“Behind the shed I had the shotgun rested in the brigalow tree.

“See, I’d borrowed way too much to buy the Johnson place
“Then it didn’t rain for years and we got bombed by interest rates,
“The bank was at the door, I didn’t think I had a choice,
“I began to squeeze the trigger – that’s when I heard your voice.
“You said ‘Where are you Daddy? It’s time to play our game’
“’ I’ve got Squatter all set up, we might get General Rain.’

“It really was that close, you’re the one that stopped me son,
“And you’re the one that taught me there’s no answer in a gun.
“Just remember people love you, good friends won’t let you down.
“Look, you might have to swallow pride and take that job in town,
“Just ’til things come good, son, you’ve always got a choice
“And when you get this letter ring me, ’cause I’d love to hear your voice.”

Well he cried and laughed and shook his head then put the truck in gear,
Shut his eyes and hugged his dad in a vision that was clear,
Dropped the cattle at the yards, put the truck away
Filled the troughs the best he could and fed his last ten bales of hay.
Then he strode towards the homestead, shoulders back and head held high,
He still knew the road was tough but there was purpose in his eye.

He called his wife and children, who’d lived through all his pain,
Hugs said more than words – he’d come back to them again,
They talked of silver linings, how good times always follow bad,
Then he walked towards the phone, picked it up and rang his Dad.
And while the kids set up the Squatter, he hugged his wife again,
Then they heard the roll of thunder and they smelt the smell of rain.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services

This is going to look like a plug for QANTAS. Consciously not so, although I do admit enjoying boarding a QANTAS flight at a foreign destination after being away from home for a few weeks and hearing the flight attendants and their accents from home and seeing their relaxed way of going about things. And I also have to admit to a twinge of pride when pedestrian traffic jammed up Frankfurt Airport as everyone pressed to catch a glimpse of Wunala Dreaming, the QANTAS aircraft seen here in this photo (by Craig Murray). I had just disembarked and wondered what all the fuss was so followed the crowd to see. On a glum, wet and overcast autumn day in Germany this plane brightened things up. And if I recall correctly it was the first time the aircraft had landed in Frankfurt. Sometime in 1995.

But QANTAS had prompted this blog for another reason altogether. As you may have gathered I have a fascination for Google Earth. All that Air Force photo imagery work is still in the blood I guess. And what QANTAS has done here with Google Earth, admittedly in a neat bit of self promotion is a sign of things to come with Google Earth. Take a tour with Qantas around the world. I thought it was pretty neat.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Jim and Lizzie

My first travel journal of any substance was an old hardback invoice notebook that I had lifted from one of the local farmers - from a pile of old stationery in one of his sheds. I must have assumed he had less need of it than I. It went with me to Stewart Island in 1976 when we spent a week or so walking what is a comparatively remote island. Located 25miles off the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand. (Google Earth 46°55'0.25"S 168° 5'33.75"E) One of those freakish, glorious places with dense fern jungles and what in warmer climes would be nothing less than rain forest. Creeks you can drink out of as you go. In fact I recall drinking from puddles in the track – we were high on a perpetual false crest, having hauled ourselves up a hillside by the mossy roots of tall hardwoods. It was hot, we were on high ground, there were no streams, we were not in the habit of carrying water (it is not the Australian bush after all) and we were exhausted. It did not take long before those clear puddles were very attractive. Ironically, having made the top of that ridge we descended shortly thereafter into Patersons Inlet, a creek mouth, and all the fresh water we could drink.

We staggered into Patersons Inlet on dusk, to a hut that was decrepit and falling down. Old tin and timber, with a loose chimney and fireplace. And no lighting, which in itself was no problem. We had spent the day walking a track on which there was no other person. Indeed, one of the attractions of this island is its isolation and its small hiking population. Sorry, “tramping population” to those of you from NZ. As the sun fell, that sense of isolation was heightened by the calls the Whitetail deer were making. The stags bellowed out in the bush somewhere over my right shoulder as I picked my way down the bush track and I was confirmed in our remote and wild wilderness.

That pleasant sensation was bent a little when we entered the dim, no dark, hut. We had plans to light a fire and get comfortable. To get our sleeping bags up on the (three) tiered bunk structure that lined one end of the hut. (We would get a dozen people in there with no problem). You can imagine our surprise when in the darkness two people sat up and peered at us from the top tier. Very hippie like and dishevelled. Camped together in their grungy sleeping bag. Looking over the edge like a couple of surprised but dozy possums. (Years later I thought of them when the British “Young Ones” was on TV. Neal had an uncanny likeness of demeanour to them). Jim and Lizzie. Probably playing doctors and nurses up there to their hearts content thinking they had this place to themselves and only the wild deer out there bellowing their heads off to worry about. Enjoying their wilderness until we crashed in. We crashed out again the next day and they were still up on the top beds looking down at us from out of the dimness, by now pinpricked by light filtering through the leaky roof. I wonder where they ended up.

My first journal entry, in green ink, titled “Jim and Lizzie” contained an account of Jim and Lizzie. And a cartoon sketch of their camp up near the roof. They did wander around a bit getting dinner and all that, but they were quick to repair to their little lair just as soon as they could. That journal hung around for years but I am not sure where it ended up. Probably just as well it is compost – I dread to think what I might have reflected on Jim and Lizzie. Probably something judgemental from an immature head and hand. In hindsight there are moments when I think back to the solitude of Patersons Inlet and think Jim and Lizzie had it right!