Monday, August 03, 2009

Shopping in Stanley

I reached my hostel just before noon, and checked in without difficulty. When the hostel manager checked me in, she indicated a bed and said "ah, one other person. You have a girl this time." Ah Shan's mixed dorm is the kind of arrangement that--in my experience--is limited almost entirely to single men on their way between other places in Asia or taking the long hop between Asia and Europe. It's a bit rough and tumble, and not the sort of place you see a lot of womenfolk.

In fact, womenfolk in hostels tend to be a mysterious curiosity. Admittedly, I've had some great luck along the way, meeting good traveling companions like Melanie, but there have also been the odd girls that will check into mixed dorms but then never say hello, leaving an awkward silence in a room for an entire evening and the following morning, making you wonder if you really look that scary or if maybe they just assume that you won't speak a common language or perhaps they're mute?

Judging by the twinkle in the eye of my host this girl was the sort of likable person I would probably get along with, so I looked forward to meeting her.

So it was that even though Roger turned out to be a very nice guy, I'll always think of him by the nickname "disappointment". It turned out the girl had checked out that morning, and Roger was the only remaining guest. He was a pleasant, softspoken fellow with a soft torso and hair cut very short to mitigate a receding hairline. The oppressive heat had done a number on his UK sensibilities, and so he returned from his morning's excursion shirtless, making him look like the quintessential western victim of Hong Kong's heat and humidity. A sort of white gumby, slowly deforming in the pressure-cooker that is Hong Kong in midsummer.

If he's good at reading expressions, I'm sure he's wondering why the American stranger's face fell quite that far when he walked in the door. Ah well, win some, lose some.

We struck it off well enough, and I gave him a little advice on the easiest way to get back to the airport (bus, from where we happened to be) and headed out. I was hungry, and I had shopping to do.

I had intentionally resisted the urge to buy some things along the way, knowing that I didn't have the space or weight to carry souvenirs, and so I specifically managed it so that I could wait until my last day in Hong Kong to do much of my shopping.

I took the MTR out to the very end of Hong Kong Island, and from there a Green Minibus across the island to the tiny seaside village of Stanley, a tourist's village with a pretty well known souvenir market. There I bought gifts both small and large for several friends, and many of you will be receiving them as Christmas and Birthday gifts over the coming six months.

But before I did most of my shopping, I went hunting for food.

There is a long strip of tourist restaurants with names like "Cafe De Paris" and signs advertising Carlsberg and Heineken, all facing the waterfront. I walked along them glancing incredulously at prices and shaking my head. I suspected there was a place near here where the locals ate, and there was no way I was paying HK $100 for a dim sum sampler plate. At the end of the long line of tourist trap eateries I found a grungy instant noodle house nesting in a hole in the wall, and there I had vegetable and meat wonton noodle soup for $18--about US $2.50. It was delicious, though simple, and I felt a little better about my chances of succeeding in the market.

Hong Kong markets don't really do that much haggling anymore--I mean, some do, but most of the prices are already low and there really isn't much room to negotiate, so I only asked for small discounts when I bought several things together, and while this always resulted in some savings, it was usually only between 5 and 15 percent. I suppose I could have struck a hard bargain, played the difficult sell, and tried for more, but I liked the laid back, relaxed attitude of the shopkeepers and was more than comfortable paying the asking price in almost every case. I found most of the gifts I was looking for, although a couple of artists I had seen on my first visit to Hong Kong whose work I really liked were not represented there, and several pieces that I loved were far, far out out of my price range.

As I wandered I took time to view the waterfront. Stanley faces out towards the open ocean, on the far side of Hong Kong Island from the major city, and it's blatantly obvious at any given moment that Hong Kong's role as one of the major shipping centers of the world is still quite strong.

Eventually the afternoon's torrential downpour settled in, and I moved slowly from shop to shop, thankful for the tightly woven roof made of awnings and fabric and plastic that the shop owners string up to keep the sun and rain off their customers. Around six I finally headed back to town, waiting until a thinner band of the storm came through and the rain reduced to a light drizzle and I could make it to the bus stop at a dead run. I must have looked an awkward sight, with a road-weary face and worn clothing, two cardboard art tube rolls and a severely anachronistic samurai sword protruding from the bag slung over my shoulder.

I headed back to town, dropped my bags at the hostel, grabbed a few pastries from a bake shop for dinner, and took the MTR down to the waterfront for one last view of Hong Kong's incredible skyline. The rain had dispersed by then, and I happened to accidentally arrive just before 2000, which gave me the chance to wade through the crowds of tourists and watch the Hong Kong lightshow again.

The show was nice, but I found it better the second time around, since I decided to block out the Movie-Theatre-Introduction Music with Oh Dorian, which actually seemed to match the light show a little better than the stuff blaring from the Public Address system.

I headed back to the hostel around 9, did a bit of research and caught up on my internets, then turned in around 11.

Tomorrow was going to be two very short days.

Red Eye to Asia

One way tickets from Perth to Hong Kong are inexplicably expensive, and so I had booked consecutive (but cheap) flights from Perth to Singapore and from Singapore to Hong Kong, spending the entire night traveling. I've done it before, and since I wasn't changing time zones, as I was going almost due north for much of it, I knew it wouldn't be too bad.

I arrived in the Singapore airport just before 0300, and spent almost two hours finding out which terminal I was to be in. Allow me to gripe: Singapore has an absolutely ridiculous airport. It is a massive, sprawling thing that has four totally independent terminals, named 1, 2, 3, and Budget. There is a free shuttle bus from the Budget terminal to Terminal 2, which I took, and when I arrived there I discovered that the normal train between those three terminals was shut down, so I had to find out that there is another shuttle that runs overnight, then find it, then go to the wrong terminal, discover that my airline departed from somewhere else, and then go there. All told I probably walked five kilometers and spent an hour riding buses and going "well, where the hell is my flight then?" before I finally found it.

Thankfully, the layover was four hours long, so I had enough time to check in, grab some breakfast (a sort of Singapore Signature dish -- noodle soup with curry seasoning, Prawns and Tofu. Not bad, but it felt like airport food), and head to my gate.

There, I found my second complaint against Singapore's airport.

One of the things I've made a habit over the past couple of years is to always carry an empty water bottle through security with me, then fill it from the water fountains inside the departures area. It saves me the several dollars that water inevitably costs inside the airport and helps me feel a little less like I'm getting fleeced. I used to carry a full one, but of course the modern regulations have done away with that option.

Singapore has a holding pen at every gate that is entered by going through security. This is kinda nice in the sense that security is widely distributed and you're less likely to miss your flight because you're standing in line, but a PITA for me, since it means that my empty water bottle does me no good, as there are no water fountains in that tiny seating area between metal detector and causeway.

I realize this is a really small thing, of course, but it irked me, and so it stuck in my pre-dawn mind and I decided I'd gripe about it here.

I caught my flight with plenty of time to spare and reached Hong Kong in the midmorning.

Also: interesting bit of history and politicaly geography. I'm skipping across the surface of the western hemisphere like a stone, but every place I strike lately is a former British colony. Weird, huh?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Parkour, Kung Foo, And Kangaroo

The next morning we rolled out of bed around 10ish and chatted about politics and religion over breakfast. If you're as controversial in your views as people like Geoff and I tend to be, you get used to not minding when the disagreements are thorough as long as they are reasoned (if not rational) and polite. I learned long ago between being the Christian on the Smoker's porch and being the drinking, cursing outspoken critic in my bible study groups that pleasant disagreements are not only feasible, but desirable, and it's obvious that along the way Geoff has learned the same lesson through his own experience. Thus we could broach topics where we differed wildly and still find plenty of common ground and move on.

After breakfast, we wandered out to the back yard. The objectives of the day were (1) show each other stuff to give an idea of what training had been like (2) teach Daniel (Joe's son) how to throw his new football American-style, and (3) maybe do a little parkour at one of the parks in the area.

So it was that Geoff and I spent an hour or so showing different applications, working muscles long left to atrophy and mindsets covered over in the dust of forgetfulness. We talked about lessons we'd learned, and I tried to remember enough of one of my old forms to give him an idea of how nasty and full of applications they had been. It was a rough approximation but he got the idea. For his part he showed me a few of the more obscure strikes and some of the cool stuff he'd always liked from his art. Along the way I took a few photographs that weren't of him kissing his knees. That is probably the best one, there.

At some point Joe wandered out into the backyard and the conversation moved to Gymnastics for a while, a subject at which I have always been terrible. Joe on the other hand is pretty damn good, and would occasionally tease us in our stiff-old-man movements by throwing a cartwheel-handspring or somersault into our peripheral vision. Eventually Daniel came out and we went through the very very basics of punches before he lost interest and we sent him to find his football.

Due to a fellow named Scott, that I knew long ago, back before I was in college--(when dinosaurs ruled the earth, as I would say to my Mercerian friends)--I've always had a halfway decent spiral throw, at least over short distances. He decided one day (with Scott's usual mixture of singlemindedness and decisive action) that I should know how to throw a football, and he taught me the entire mechanic in just a few moments and drilled me on it until it was ingrained.

So it was I found myself halfway around the world in an Aussie's backyard, teaching a five year old the same basic rules. Fingers on the laces. Hand behind your ear. Let it roll out straight.

I'm a pretty good teacher. I know that sounds arrogant, but I've been tutoring, guest lecturing, and assisting in and out of classrooms for almost a decade and I base my opinion on the feedback I've gotten and the results I've witnessed. Still, this kid has to be a natural. In five minutes he was throwing a nice spiral at least five yards with decent accuracy, and could catch the return throw 9 times out of 10. It's a pity you can't use such a throw in Australian Rules Football, or he'd make quite the quarterback someday.

Since we'd been mixing in discussion of another physical activity we enjoyed, a sort of casual parkour sidebar turned eventually into a sojourn to the public park, Joe drove and the four of us wound up on the grounds of one of the local schools, quiet on a Sunday save for the handful of family samplers out letting their kids play on the various playground gear.

We made an odd quartet, Geoff dressed like a Bogan (the Aussie equivalent of a redneck, as best I can tell), Me in baggy surfer shorts, Daniel running from place to place whenever we looked away, usually to be found doing something challenging or a facsimile of whatever we'd been doing a few moments before, and Joe dividing her attention between making sure her son wasn't in any real danger and keeping up with us, a challenging grin on her face and "anything you can do I can do better" attitude that proved absolutely correct when it came to the gymnastics part of our adventure.

We spent some time on various jumps and climbing things, and eventually found a sort of handleless, sharply angled carousel in a big sandpit that made for a half hours entertainment as we screwed with each other while each person tried to walk on it as if it were a mouse's exercise wheel. That devolved into tussling, which became Joe having a go at choking me out. Historically she's always hung pretty tough with Geoff's friends, and has incapacitated a few of them along the way, leaving behind a wake of embarrassing injuries and submissions. Geoff tells these stories with the glowing pride of an older brother, and they are pretty hilarious. She's strong and quick and knew the basics, and went straight for the throat as best she could. However, but I've been mangled by Jujitsuka, Aikidoka, Judoka, Kuk Sool Instructors, and plenty more besides, so I wormed out of the choke and cheated.

One thing I've learned more and more as my knowledge of Martial arts stagnates with the absence of training and slowly ferments is that certain arts have certain mentalities, and the arts I have studied have a certain devious grace to them. So when I got a free hand and had my throat protected, I brought it around her shoulder and, with it still covered in sand, shoved it across her jaw, getting sand in her face and down her shirt simultaneously.

She coughed and spat and let me go, and I scrambled to my feet laughing and helped her up, thinking of Aaron performing a similarly dastardly attack by merely smothering me (something I had never expected or considered until he did it) during a session at Knoxville fest about five years back. Geoff laughed at us both, me turning my pockets inside out and his sister shaking sand from her hair, and I laughed and said "See? What did I tell you? K. S. uses whatever is available." Years later, it seems I haven't forgotten that simple lesson, at least.

We found a couple of really cool playground items that rotated in bizarre and interesting ways, allowing you to form a sort of spinning swing, the momentum of which you could control yourself by how you moved within them, and spent a significant period playing with them as well as climbing them and performing various jumps and talking about life and how to whistle. I showed Joe the whistle my mother and sister and I learned, and it brought back memories of sitting on the top of our giant van on the fourth of July in Texas, many years ago, and picking up the trick by experimentation and spending a quarter of an hour making ridiculous noises before if finally clicked.

Eventually, we headed back to the house, because Geoff had plans to make dinner.

I took a shower and repacked my bags while he did prep work, then I came in to help finish preparing the Mashed potatoes.

The meal was Mashed potatoes, Broccoli and Cabbage salad, and Kangaroo.

As he cooked Geoff explained to me that most people's misconception that Kangaroo is inedible and tough is based on the fact that it's almost always overcooked. The only real way to eat it is seared, and completely rare (for those in need of a definition: the center is still cold and the meat is almost blue).

He had marinated the 'Roo in Wine, Pepper, and a splash fo beer, then made a reduction of the remaining marinade, and the flavour was fantastic. The texture was perfect, soft and smooth and incredibly tender. I couldn't have asked for a better last meal for my time in Australia.

After dinner, I said my goodnights to Daniel, and my goodbyes to Geoff, and Joe took me to the airport, as she was headed off to meet Peter afterwards and Geoff and I had both been drinking with dinner.

I arrived in plenty of time to check in, read a bit, and then climb on board my flight to Singapore. The next thirteen hours would be spent in transit, and at the end of them, I'd be back in Hong Kong.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Marine Museum and a Missed Flight.

Every hostel stay seems to have it's moments, and that night was no exception.

I turned in around 11, and walked into my dorm room to find a very undressed (she was left in pants and a camisole) English bird standing in the center of our room. Sometimes a little bit of curmudgeonly behaviour is rewarded by a glimpse of beauty along the way for no particular reason, and this was one of those moments. I tried not to raise my eyebrows too highly and instead gathered my things for rituals of tooth brushing and preparations for bed. It turned out she and her traveling companion (whose names I forget) had just arrived from Cannes a few minutes before.

Mark and Dominic, two fellows who were staying in (Dominic because he didn't feel like going out and Mark because he was hugely jet lagged from having just arrived from the UK 24 hours earlier and going out to the pub the night before) turned in shortly thereafter, and the five of us chatted for twenty minutes or so before we all decided that we were invested in the sleep aspect of things.

Of course, we were awakened by the returning revelers around 3AM, most specifically a fellow who had apparently been pranked by having a fridge put in his bed (?!). Of course, when you're that hammered everything is as serious as the afterlife and he stood in the hallway and bawled bloody murder for probably ten minutes while his friends tried to calm him down and get him to bed.

After an hour of tossing and turning I fell back asleep and woke up around 9.

Dominic and I finished off most of the remaining breakfast ingredients I alluded to earlier, and the resulting mushroom and onion omelet and hash browns were damn tasty.

I did laundry, repacked my things and dropped them in the storage room, then headed for downtown. I had one last day and the wildlife exhibit and marine museum had my curiosity.

I wandered down the wharf and passed the wildlife exhibit with only a pause to confirm that it was about $32 AU and I hadn't little interest in paying that to go to a miniature zoo, even a neat one. So it was that I didn't see a Koala or (live) Kangaroo during my time in Australia, but that just means there's more reason for me to come back, I suppose.

However, I crossed over the Darling Harbour bridge and discovered a gem in Australia's National Marine Museum.

It was a mammoth building with it's own docks outside, with decommissioned battleships and submarines and a replica of the Endeavour (Captain Cook's ship). For a price, you could tour the ships outside, but the museum itself was free. I threw $3 AU in the donation box and wound up spending nearly 5 hours there, I felt like I should have gone back and donated more before I left.

Among the many permanent exhibits of Australian Sailing and Longshoreman history, there were several really fascinating displays and a couple of great temporary exhibits as well. One of the cool things in the extensive exhibit on the history of the Australian Navy, and how it's evolved over time largely independent of the British Navy which was content to withdraw when it had business elsewhere and leave the colony to shift for itself, which made the Australians naturally uncomfortable, and so they basically hand-built their own fleet.

In fact, the government of Australia actually invited The Great White Fleet--Teddy Roosevelt's personal "Fuck you" to Japan--to come visit and tour Sydney harbour, and the government made a huge celebration out of the visit, and used it to drum up public support for their own Naval ambitions, which they would proudly tour through the same harbour themselves five years later, and which would prove invaluable during the first world war just a few years after that.

One of the intriguing visiting exhibits was "Exposed--the History of Swimwear" which I have a twofold interest in. On the one hand, I swam quasi-competitively as youngster, and rather enjoyed the experience, and find the current "Fastskin" controversy intriguing. On the other hand, I'm also a human male over the age of 12, so a fitting bathing suit on an attractive woman will always be a visual I appreciate. To quote Garrison Keillor (who was quoted in the exhibit) "A girl in a bikini is like having a loaded pistol on your coffee table - There's nothing wrong with them, but it's hard to stop thinking about it."

I was surprised and impressed to note that the human body factored into the exhibit to the extent that they included the iconic William Claxton photograph of Peggy Moffitt modeling Rudi Gernreich's famous "monokini" of which 3,000 were sold and only a handful ever worn. I was to realize later in the other exhibitions on swimming that the female breast is apparently not something that the museum felt should be avoided if it factored into an exhibit, and spotted several other images (mostly Australian beach-and-swimming-related-art) that also had nipples a plenty. I've dutifully reprinted a low quality image of the monokini photo (which is a fantastic photograph from a technical and asthetic POV as well) here to voice my support for this mentality. What I've come to realize is that I think nudity and alcohol are in the same category here. If they are treated with respect, but also with a casual admission that they are facts of life and not to be considered shameful or unhealthy, we'll probably be a lot better off as a society.

Other intriguing displays included the Darwin Exhibit ("Journeys and Theories" or somesuch) which was a really fascinating overview of Darwin's travels around the world aboard the HMS Beagle. One thing I found fascinating was that the captain of the ship for that voyage would go on to become one of the first proponents of using barometers to predict the weather, and to advocate their use by ships at sea.

There is a "United States of America" gallery that contains a bunch of gifts from the Smithsonian, most interesting of which is a display of journal excerpts and photographs from a 19 year old Yankee that sailed to Australia from New York on one of the last tall ships near the turn of the 20th century. His photography is remarkable (though occasionally out of focus) and his writing is blunt, simple, and fascinating, and these materials provide a compelling view backwards into a world now long gone.

There is also a boat built out of beer cans, which is seaworthy. Turns out that Darwin runs a beer boat competition every year, and it's encouraged some really remarkable creativity over the years.

I finally left the museum around 4:30, took a train back through town, swung by Harries for another delicious meat pie, this time with mashed potatoes AND mashed peas, and the collected my bags and headed to the airport.

I walked up to the Virgin Blue counter around 6:15 and told the lady I was checking in for the flight to Perth. She had my passport by then and said it was odd that she wasn't finding me on the passenger manifest. I asked what day it was (that always being my biggest fear) and she laughed and said the 1st. Ok then, I wasn't completely wrong. She said the flight was at 7:55 though, and tha concerned me, because I thought I remembered it being at 7:30. Finally she searched for my flight details and found my original booking, and discovered that I'd been on the 5:30 flight (now, of cours, long gone).

"Oh, shit" I thought to myself. "Really?" I said, trying to play the innocent passenger card while I wracked my brain for how I'd managed that one.

Then I hit upon it. Throughout this trip I've been drilling my use of Military time, which has served me very well throughout, but in this case it had sunk me. The flight I'd thought was at 7:30 (and had converted in my head to 19:30) was actually at 17:30, and I'd simply misread the booking. I'd made an assumption based on the duration of the flight and the time changes and the fact that I knew when I landed, and assumed that 7:30 made perfect sense. In fact the flight time was two hours longer than I expected. My face fell but the very helpful girl pointed across the concourse to a customer service desk and said I'd be able to change my ticket there for a $50AU fee.

Well, $40 US wasn't too bad, and in fact was easily absorbed by my budget, so I schlepped across to the desk and explained my plight to the girl there.

She pulled up my flight details and looked concerned. "oh, actually. . .the kind of booking you had can't be exchanged once you miss the flight. . ." (OH SHIT. RED ALERT.) "I mean, if you'd been here but not had time to make it to the gate. . ." she trailed off, not wanting to say "you're about to have to buy a new $250 (or god knows how much more) ticket if you want to fly tonight".

I played the innocent traveler card again and pointed back at the check in desk from which I'd just been sent. "Oh, I didn't realize. I mean, I just talked to her and she had said that I'd be able to transfer to this flight for a $50 fee since there were open seats. . ."

They played phone tag, waving at each other across the concourse and talking briefly and the customer service girl (who obviously wanted not to charge me an arm and a leg) confirmed that I was some TLA that basically meant "was here on time but couldn't make it" (a complete fabrication they were both happy to maintain for my sake, thank the maker). As a result, I was on the next flight to Perth with very little economical pain or inconvenience.

I phoned Geoff to explain and he laughed at me. "How the hell did ya manage that?" and I told him briefly and said I'd call when I landed to find out if he was still at work or back at the house.

While I waited for my next flight, I sampled a local treat: Arnott's. The big seller are "Tim Tams"--a chocolate coated cookie that is the common companion of tea. In this case though, it was a mint cookie not unlike if a Devil's Food Cake cookie and a York peppermint patty had mated. Imagine a grown-up version of a Girlscouts' thin mint and you've got the idea. They were great. I ate the entire package before I reached Perth.

When I landed, I found him at home. We sat and talked and drank for a bit, then went to sleep with plans to spend a little bit of the next day at least sharing technique, doing a mini-Knoxville-fest, both knowing we'd be frustrated by the experience since it's been so long since either of us trained, but wanting to get the chance to convey at least the vague outline of what had, once upon a time, been conveyed to us.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Manly Ferry

I woke up the next day in fine form around 10AM, having slept well, and went to make myself breakfast in the hostel kitchen.

A cheerful Irish girl named Elizabeth made me breakfast, on account of a series of strange circumstances that had involved missed breakfast and provided ingredients the previous morning. Over breakfast I chatted with her and a very sweet young Korean who had moved to Sydney on a work Visa with an eye towards waitressing, improving her English, and traveling around the country.

In the end, I scrapped my intentions for the Wildlife Expo and Maritime museum, and went along with them on a Ferry ride to Manly. We took our time on the walk, enjoying the sites and the company of fellow travelers.

Sydney is built along a river leading to the Sea, and Manly is the tiny seaside town at the mouth of that river where white men first landed in the Sydney area in 1788, and now has a beautiful European seaside feel, but with a much better beach and a good surf.

We walked down to Circular Quay, the main ferry port, and caught a ferry around 1PM. Elizabeth was quite the talker, while Niki was the sort of somber Asian girl that is eternally listening to what everyone else says and about once an hour asking a random question.

So it was that I spent the day in the company of a shadow of the east I'd so recently explored, and a chattering Irish lilt that told stories of travels to India and Turkey and the adventures of living in London as a teacher.

Our ferry provided us the best possible views of the Opera house as we pushed away, and we got a few fantastic photographs on the way out of the city. Elizabeth commented on how pretty and surreal it was, like "it'd bi'n maed by aliens!"

Manly is really just a far-flung suburb of Sydney at this point, and the ferry ride was less than an hour. We arrived in high spirits and wandered down to the beach, where a dozen men in wet suits were practising their surfing skills and a few women and children wandered the sandy shoreline. We sat for a time and chatted, and took a few pictures along the way.

The architecture of Manly is actually quite pretty, and when we'd done with the beach we wandered back through the small town and found a place that made pies and coffee. I had English Breakfast Tea (courtesy of Elizabeth) and a wonderful Pumpkin and Feta and Coriander pie with a flaky crust and an incredible flavour. It was really yummy and I would love to figure out how to make it when I get home.

Around four we caught a ferry back to Syndey, taking more pictures along the way. Niki is at the very beginning of a year's work here in Australia, and desperately concerned about improving her English, and so I pestered her a bit and we taught her a few new words on the ride back, while Elizabeth would randomly derail the conversation to topics like music, politics, interesting places she wanted to go, or the adventures of her gay friends.

When we returned, we walked out to the end of the point where the opera house is located. As we approached, Elizabeth's mind changed like the wind in Manila.

"Y'know I rather think it's really ugly!"

I laughed at her. "not two hours ago you said it was pretty!"

But she insisted that the tile roof and modern feel of it looked horrendous up close and the view of the city from in front of the opera house was better than the view if you turned around and looked at the building itself. I laughed at her and told her I thought it looked pretty, and I walked around it hunting for one of those photographs that will someday make a really great desktop background (yes, it's an odd way of thinking about photography, I realize, but the results are often remarkable).

She and Niki stayed and chatted at the corner while I hiked the 300 meter square around the building, and on my return we walked up to the entrance so that Elizabeth could check the prices to satiate her curiosity. As we climbed the steps she looked at the glass entrance. "Well, now that's quite nice! It's like sem soart of noo chaurch!"

I laughed and shook my head. The fickleness of most women knows no bounds, of course, and I should be used to it by now.

We walked to a nearby train station in downtown, and Niki caught a train to visit a Korean friend of hers. Elizabeth and I went back to the Hostel so that she could pick up her bags, and she was off to visit a friend of her own, and I settled in for a very entertaining evening.

As it turns out there's a local dance bar that does a big celebration on Friday nights, and so our hostel does barbeque around 7PM ($5 AU, for a beer and a plate of fantastically good food and seconds if you want them) and then everyone hangs out in the courtyard for three hours and then heads out at 10PM to the club. This helps quiet down the hostel and keeps people from partying in the courtyard and keeping everybody awake.

There is some sort of prize for the most brightly dressed person, so after the barbeque had been finished and the drinking was properly kicked off, people started disappearing and showing back up in neon dresses or sequined skirts. Several people were wearing glowsticks as jewelry, and a couple of guys disappeared and came back with reflective safety vests. One of them was sporting a neon afro and bright yellow arm warmers. It looked like some sort of rave-slash-carnival.

Through all this quasi-drunken revelry I am sitting in the kitchen area, finishing writing this and shaking my head. The club scene has never really been my thing, but if I knew a few more of this garrulous, lighthearted crowd I'd probably go along to watch the train wreck that I'm confident this evening will turn into.

Truth is though, that I know it would be just another deafening club full of people wasting time shouting small talk in the sides of each other's heads like seals with ear fetishes and trying to make a great time out of developing hearing loss and getting slowly pissed on crappy drinks. Admittedly there will probably be loads of attractive, scantily clad women out tonight, and while a little girl watching sounds like (frustrating) fun, I am going to pass on that as well, and read a bit instead, then turn in early.

Egads, I'm a grumpy old man at twenty six.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tashka and the Blue Mountains.

The next morning I was inexplicable awake at 0440, and tossed and turned until around 0730 when Tashka texted me and asked if we could meet up and do a day trip out of Sydney to the Blue Mountains.

The Blue Mountains area runs north and west of Sydney in a series of rolling hills that are a mixture of sandstone and eucalyptus and jungle and little towns along the railway. It was something we had both been considering as a day trip, her with her dad, me with a group trip the hostel can organize, but when her dad's schedule for Friday went to hell and confined him to the city, she decided to see if we could do a bit of the adventure together.

We arrived a few minutes late and missed the first train, so we wandered through Sydney's picturesque downtown and made small talk, telling stories about our backgrounds and the places we'd lived and loved. An hour later, we caught the next train to Katoomba, a small town with some of the best views of the mountains.

The trip took about two hours, and we made discoveries as we went, figuring out that the hop-on-hop-off bus was frivolous and we could walk through town to Echo Point, where we took a few photos and had a look around. The scenery surreal and beautiful, and afterwards we hiked around to a viewpoint that should have given us a nice view of one of the cascades, but by then it was dark and the cascades weren't too amazing from several hundred meters up. I did get a nice picture of a Cockatoo though. He's caught in the sunlight and it makes him look rather surreal, I think.

Along the way we played on the cliffs and took a picture or two. Tashka told me about what it was like growing up in South Africa, attending an overbearing Christian American school, and wandering in the mountains a few hours from her house every chance they had. The mountains there, it seems, were actually very similar to these, with foliage and half-caves that reminded her of 'home' at every turn.

After we'd finished our hike, we wandered back into town and checked for a train home so she wouldn't get back too late. We settled on a train running at 1724, so we had about an hour and a half to get lunch/dinner and then make it back to catch the train.

We settled on a Turkish place that served Kebabs and Pide. Pide are the curious Turkish Calzones I'd discovered in Fremantle a few days before, and we had a really wonderful meal of Doner Kebab and Pide that ran relatively cheaply and left us both pleasantly overfull. While there she modeled the Australian coke bottle for me, which is inexplicably marked with "Buddy." It was about the only way I could convince her to let me take her picture.

Unfortunately for our stomachs and waistlines, we'd seen a cake and pie shop on the way to the Kebab place, so on the way back we stopped in there and neither of us could resist getting two things. Each. She got Chocolate custard and I got crème brûlée (they made it with a Graham cracker crust, which was surprisingly better than I expected) and we each bought a slice of their chocolate cake, which looked astounding. We headed back to the train and ate our first desserts en route back to Sydney, but found ourselves so stuffed by the first that we had to save the cake for later. I'll probably have it for breakfast tomorrow.

We parted ways at the train station that evening, and I headed back to the Hostel.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sydney Downtown and a new South African Friend

The next day, I decided I would spend wandering the city. The interesting parts of Sydney's downtown are spanned by less than two kilometers of walking, and so when I awoke late in the day I took a brief shower and wandered down to Roy's. Roy's is a local pub with free internet and great (if slightly pricey) food. Ignoring the price though, it was enough breakfast for two. For about $12 US I had coffee and the best damn eggs benedict (with really fantastic Ham and perfectly poached eggs) that I've had in ages. After breakfast I headed into the city on Sydney's metro system, which spat me out in the heart of their downtown district on the waterfront.

From there I wandered, through parks and gardens, past fountains with brilliant rainbows made by misty water and minotaurs being defeated by naked greeks. Eventually I wandered my way to the Australian museum, which is a fantastic mix of science and lifestyle evangelism and history and culture.

The museum had some really incredible biology exhibits. One of the more intriguing ones was the skeletons exhibit, which spent a lot of time on the more obscure things about bones that we don't really consider. For example, check out this photo. It turns out that "unhinges it's jaw" is too simple a term to describe what a python does when it swallows food. A better expression might be "explodes it's whole friggin' head"

They also have a great mineral collection (though I think Perth's might be better), a really remarkable exhibit on dinosaurs and Austalian wildlife (ancient and modern), and an amazing exhibit on the indigenous people's of Australia and their struggle with the government over the past 100 years. It even spent a good deal of time talking about the criminal behaviour of the government that resulted in the programs that generated the lost children, which I'd only recently learned about through conversation with my mother. It was a really amazing exhibit.

The lifestyle evangelism came into play in a very meticulously created exhibit on climate change, and how humans must change their behaviour (by lowering our carbon footprints and transitioning as much as possible to renewable energy based on external sources like tide capture machines, hydroelectric dams and solar energy). It was very carefully worded, explaining how scientists might disagree on timing and severity but were still in the main convinced that the shifts in climate that are coming in the next few hundred years were primarily the result of human actions, and could be reigned in by us exercising restraint. It was actually a pretty cool exhibit, and did a decent job of talking about how we can become more responsible citizens both of our countries and of our planet.

In addition, it made use of some really badass technology that included microprojectors, recycled cardboard alternatives to drywall, and a giant, projector-based touch screen technology which let you play a "lead a country to ecological responsibility" game. Granted, the game was typical liberal bullshit, rewarding you for implementing programs that would waste money and resources, but the system itself was pretty badass, and I must say I'm tempted to build one when I get back home. If only I had time amidst the million other projects I want to start once I knock the dust from my boots and have a little free time again.

When I left the museum, I wandered across a few parks and into the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which turned out to be a pretty decent Art collection housed in a really gorgeous building.

The gallery spanned multiple floors and included art from Australians and international artists. The classical art was mainly paintings, even the best of which photograph poorly, so I'll have to apologize that my pictures are from the modern art selection, which I largely wandered with my normal squint and mutter. Still, that wall spanning "light" sculpture--made poetically of neon, was stunning and I thought my mom would appreciate it. And "innapropriate shapes" made me stop and give pause to a very real question: why do we look at those six images and assume the bottom three are the ones with flaws?

In any case, a few of the pieces were really quiet remarkable and not half bad, and it was over one such piece (a giant installation of concrete and rebar) that I struck up a conversation with a young South African lady.

She was a pretty, heavily-freckled bottle redhead in tight jeans and a top to match, and despite her obvious admiration for modern art, I couldn't resist starting a conversation. It turned out her name was Tashka. She was smart and well-traveled, a recent grad with a mother in Singapore and a father here in Sydney, and we told each other stories of places we'd been and eventually settled on getting together the next day and spending some additional time getting to know each other and the city. Here's hoping it works out well.

After we parted ways I walked down to Mrs. Macquaries Point, which affords one of the most remarkable views of the Opera house and the dual downtowns of Sydney. I was lucky enough to arrive just after the sun had gone down, and so I hung around for a time, first getting the requisit picture of myself. See there? Now I have proof that I've been to Australia, and seen one of the world's most iconic buildings.

After I had it though, I did manage to take a few somewhat more artistically valuable shots of the view.

On the way home, I stopped at a great little place on the warf called "Harry de wheels" which is a pie shop chain strewn throughout Sydney. Ironically the night before had involved viewing the last two thirds of "Sweeney Todd" and yet I wasn't thrown off at all. I wound up with a really great beef Pastie and mashed peas, and it made a delicious dinner, with a great Australian Lemonade called Solo (and sold as "Lemon Tang") thrown in, the whole dinner still cost less than $6, so the Australian food choices aren't all overpriced.

So that's my dinner, and a damn fine dinner it was, too. I'm going to learn to make these mashed peas when I get home, and Beth (and anyone else who makes a face when English peas are mentioned) will just have to avoid my house on certain nights of the week. No worries though, there's plenty of other good food for which I'm bringing home the passion, and I'm sure all and sundry will be more than happy to visit me on those nights.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Idiot in Reverse

At 9 the next morning Geoff and I were up and moving, Geoff made breakfast for us (egg and bacon toasties, how I love thee) since he was starving and I was about to board a low-cost airline where food would cost me my firstborn child and maybe one of my appendages.

I climbed aboard a Virgin blue aircraft at 1000, and landed in Sydney around 1630. The flight across Australia is about the same length as the one across the US, and you transition through two time zones in the process.

I often take these night shift walks when the foreman's not around
I turn my back on the cooling stacks and make for open ground
Far out beyond the tank farm fence where the gas flare makes no sound
I forget the stink and I always think back to that eastern town

The views were fantastic. I flew over Kalgoorlie, the place I hadn't bothered to go, and it was as boring and brown as Ash and Geoff had described, then we skipped along the coast, between the Australian bight to the south and the Nulaboor plane, and I (looking out the north side) could see the vast desolate emptiness that is central Australia. The clouds hung in little puffs immobile and cast little black dots upon land that was an otherwise featureless morass of brown and orange. It was like flying over 2500 kilometers of Texas. I think this place would drive me pretty bonkers if I ever had to drive across it alone.

I remember back six years ago, this western life I chose
And every day, the news would say some factory's going to close
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole, but I'm not one of those
I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose

I became absorbed in my Rudyard Kipling book during the flight, and the next time I looked up we were only twenty minutes from landing, and the landscape was entirely different.

The hills were rolling and green, with orange only peeking through on a few cliffs in the otherwise unbroken lushness of New South Wales.
The green was a sharp contrast to the dusty brown of Perth, and the vast emptiness between the two.

I thought about Stan Rogers and one specific song of his called "The Idiot" written about Canada many years ago. In Canada the land and the economics work somewhat similar to the way they worked out in Australia, with the hard work and independent lives being lived in the dust of a newly industrialized and heavily mined west, and the work drying up in the beautiful and picturesque eastern towns until many of them were left with rolling green hills and a dependence on government money.

So I bid farewell to the eastern town I never more will see
But work I must so I eat this dust and breathe refinery
Oh I miss the green and the woods and streams and I don't like cowboy clothes
But I like being free and that makes me an idiot I suppose

I've always loved Mr. Rogers work and especially his narrator's voice in the Idiot. That narrator sings with an impassioned insistence that no matter how bad things are, he'll always scrabble for his independence and give a finger to the handouts of a corrupt and mollycoddling government. I could see now the nightmare that the sacrifice must have been for the miners and factory men that chose to leave NSW and move west and build mines and factories and farms. It is not a decision to be made lightly, but it is one I'll always respect.

Coming in I had a remarkable view of the city, and I wish I had had the good sense to have my camera in hand, even if they would have been shots through the plane window, which I typically hate and avoid taking. The Opera house and the waterfront were bathed in a the stark gold of late afternoon in winter, and the city looked like a thing touched by divinity--a shining glimmer descendant upon it in the waning light of day. Brightly illuminated clouds seemed to cling in the sky, reluctant to wander far from the site, as if they might evaporate outside the radius of its influence. It was a view worth savouring.

So come all you fine young fellows who've been beaten to the ground
This western life's no paradise, but it's better than lying down
Oh, the streets aren't clean, and there's nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown
But the government dole will rot your soul back there in your hometown

I called my hostel when I arrived, and they told me a shuttle driver would pick me up, and I climbed into a small van with a curtly polite mid-eastern driver who barreled through the streets of Sydney like a man who has just learned his mother's been hospitalized. Two other girls, a Perth native and a girl from Redding, UK, were also staying at this place, and they said it came highly recommended.

When I got there, I found it was the kind of meandering, interesting building that makes a really great large hostel, with a huge kitchen and open courtyard and PAY BY THE HOUR WIFI.


But aside from that it was actually a really neat place, and after going out for a bite to eat and a couple of beers (an absolutely top-hole steak sandwich and some draught of which I didn't catch the name, at a local place called Roy's) I spent the remainder of the night relaxing in the common areas, washing clothes and reading. Tomorrow, I plan to wander Sydney for a bit.

So bid farewell to the eastern town you never more will see
There's self-respect and a steady check in this refinery
You will miss the green and the woods and streams and the dust will fill your nose
But you'll be free, and just like me, an idiot, I suppose.

lyrics: Stan Rogers - The Idiot

Monday, July 27, 2009

Last Day in Perth

So the next morning Geoff and I drag ourselves from bed around 0700 like a couple of trolls, and with a bit of cursing and mumbling and plenty of blinking and a bit of tea, finally get ourselves in a car and head for the airport at 0810. There we meet Solomon, Geoff's incredibly cool son, who is about 5, and Jackie, Solomon's mum.

We stand near the baggage conveyor and talk about their trip and do introductions while Solomon, with a strength that belies his frame, stops the first bag (larger than himself) until his mom can lend a hand, and pulls the second two (one of which I carried, and appeared to be full of bricks, books and cannon shot) from the conveyor on his own. To use an American expression, the kid's a hoss. If Geoff doesn't break down and start training heavily again just so he can teach this kid to rip people apart with his bare hands, I think it will be a significant loss for the martial arts community.

Since peak traffic in Perth on a Monday morning is an unfriendly thing, we decide to head back to a cafe very near Geoff's house, which is only 10 minutes from the airport, and have a bit of coffee and breakfast before we return them to Jackie's place on the other side of downtown.

The restaurant is excellent, and serves a bacon and egg toasty that Geoff and I agree is the best bacon and egg sandwich we've ever paid for--though with the arrogance of all domestic chefs, we both admit that we think we've made better ones ourselves at home.

After breakfast, with traffic mostly clear, we head over, drop off bags, woman, and child, and hit the road back to Geoff's part of town. Rather than heading for the house, we instead decide to run a few errands and head for the local forum, a combination of malls and outdoor shopping centers where Geoff wants to check some prices on fish, pay the rent, and pick up cigarettes.

En route, Claire calls and says she's had a very efficient day and is able to knock off work, though it's only around 11AM. I'd told her I was in town for a couple of more days and wanted to catch up more thoroughly than our hasty Dim Sum exchange, and so we agree to meet for lunch at the forum, and after we've run our errands she meets us at a local secondhand bookshop.

We spend perhaps half an hour there, pouring over their sci fi and fantasy sections. Much of the time is spent discussing the likes of Stephenson, Niven and Dick. It's fun conversation, and I'm reminded that most people who were as vocal on the internet as frequently as we all were in the late 1990s share this common bond--a passion for genre fiction, be it fantasy, history, absurdity, cyberpunk or sci fi, and a love of the written word in general, especially when it teaches us something new while feeding our imaginations at the same time.

When we've exhausted their meagre selection and all picked a book or two and paid, we head for the food court. There, in between discussions of red drawf, monty python's appeal to the the modern generation, miscellaneous training stories and encouragement that I go and visit Rat (ne Pheonix) in Brisbane--though it's an additional airplane flight away--Geoff and I order really great kebabs and Claire (with a comment about rice being a necessity for all Asians) gets a salmon and rice box from an asian deli. Geoff also hunts up a couple of Brownes, a local cold, sweet, milked coffee drink served in a carton that's an oversized version of the milk one you get in educational cafeterias.

We sit there for perhaps an hour, conversations weaving and threading through personal stories, talk of the various experiences and adventures we've had in the past 5 years since we all sortof drifted away from posting regularly to MAAC. It's an odd shared experience to draw from, but it informs us of each person's character, their motivations, and their peculiarities to a surprising degree.

If you've never made friends through fierce and impassioned discussion of a shared interest, in an open forum where you will one day be expected to back up everything you've claimed you can do with physical demonstration, and where every assertion is challenged, panned for truth, and tossed aside or kept based on whether it holds its own in debate against the assertions of others, I can't recommend it enough. The fest events in Knoxville and Louisville seemed just as valuable but less odd, since at the time I was still regularly conversant with the community, but sitting at this table, half a decade after the fact, and still knowing these people and respecting them as friends really drove home the way that good public debate can influence your choice of company for the better.

I also drag out my phone, since I've not brought along the Canon, and get Geoff to take a blurry here's-me-with-the-mythical-creature shot of Claire. See, she is real!

Around 1400, we have to start going our separate ways. Claire is on a 6AM flight to Adelaide the next morning for work for which she has to prepare, and Geoff has to start work around 1530. I have writing to catch up on, and for the first three hours that Geoff is gone, I pound away at my tiny keyboard, cataloguing my experiences in Perth up to the previous day while they're still fresh in the mind.

Around 1900, a couple of hours before Geoff will be home, and just before Joe and Daniel get back from her busy day at Uni, I head out to the back patio. All our discussions about training had made it impossible for me to avoid the temptation of the heavy bag any longer, and so I change into shorts and t shirt, drag the drinking-and-talking table out of the way, and go to work on the bag for a while, trying to dredge up old knowledge of obscure strikes, remind my body how to put power from the ground, through my legs and hips and shoulders and all the way out into the varied surfaces of my hands. Because it occurs to me I might not see Geoff again, I realize I'll need at least one picture of him in a drunken posture, and so I play with my camera and the bag a bit, ensuring that the picture will at least come out.

When Geoff gets in though, I tell him my flight details for the return from Sydney, which give me one day back in Perth before I head out to Hong Kong, and he says "well that's great, because I was thinking it was regrettable that we didn't take some time and do a little training during one of the days you were here, and I'm not working that day, so this way we can do it when you come back!"

So now there are plans to meet up again when I return, and one day during which we can spend the day talking technique, actually trying to show each other a thing or two from the distant past along the way. Plans laid in, we spent the remainder of the night on a couple of nicer bottles of red wine (a Tayman's Shiraz that's incredible, and a Barking Owl that's not half bad) and a youtubing session, showing each other video to convey stories and impressions.

He showed me Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun" (just audio and a freaky photo of Tim) which conveys with delicious poignancy how an athiest and an Australian feels about Christmas and the ties that bind families together, as well as some music video work for which Geoff did the video switching and directing. I showed him Rob's Paranovian's Pachebel rant, and Taylor Mali's Def Poetry "What Teachers Make" which is the sort of thing that puts your heart in your teeth every time you hear it. In between we told stories about how much we love to rant, and how we share a common character trait that we both have very mixed feelings about--the habit of unintentionally picking up other people's vocal inflections, energies, and accents when we speak to people we like or respect as authority figures.

We also discuss our various levels of flexibility, and how Geoff is naturally flexible, even when he's not training. He's surprised to discover I can't touch my toes unless I've been stretching regularly, and so he puts his face against his own knees, and this is a man who hasn't trained in years.

It's ridiculous, really, and it makes me jealous. So, as a passive aggresive response, the first picture of Geoff to be posted to The Road is this one, of him getting his face as close as possible to his own unmentionables.

We finally cut our talk short around 1AM and forced ourselves to bed so we could get a decent bit of rest before tomorrow's trip to the airport--I was off to Sydney.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fremantle, Poker, Cheap Wine and Priceless Friends

Editor's Apology: For some reason I wrote this entry in a mixture of present and past tenses, and I can't be arsed to rewrite it just now. I promise I'll fix it once I get back to the states, but for now it's just a little. . .odd.

Fremantle is a small suburb of Perth on the coast of the country, pressed between the sprawling city and the Indian ocean, it's a harbour town, with plenty of nice restaurants, a touristy market, old buildings, and even the occasional street performer.

Geoff's only real errand for the day is to make a couple of spare keys, so I'll be able to get around on my own when he's working, and then wander the area. He used to live in a flat in downtown Fremantle, so he knows it pretty well and doesn't mind showing it off to a visitor, and we walk through markets and squares and up to Fremantle prison (known to every ACDC fan as the place that Bon Scott was incarcerated briefly).

We also get to walk out to the harbour and visit the shipwreck museum, which turns out to be a very cool little place that contains all exhibits that have been reclaimed from the sea. It's full of ship's bells, old spanish silver, disected cannon, and even the deteriorated hull that comprises almost 20% of a midsized schooner that went down off the coast on its way to Australia.

In all, Fremantle is a very pretty town, and I had an eye to wander through it with my camera glued to my face, while Geoff had work around 1600, so after walking town for a while, he split having given me directions on how to take the train back to the house.

I explored for a couple of hours, taking pictures of miscelaneous buildings and sights, and eventually wind up back at the waterfront for dinner. I bought a minced lamb Pide (a sort of middle eastern Calzone) from a brilliant little Turkish restaurant, and ate it as I ambled back to the waterfront in time for a really stunning sunset.

Afterwards I bought cake and coffee and watched the birds, then eventually caught the train back to the house. Geoff made it back around 10, and we spent another pleasant evening drinking boxed red wine (Yalumba--which is startlingly decent) and telling stories. Most of these turn to martial arts training, and we related tales of derring do, dumbassery, and dexterity, all with the aplomb and amicable appreciation that comes from being ancient acquaintances.

Something interesting about meeting Geoff is that it does not seem at all odd to say I've known him for ten years, it feels like a really natural thing. It's remarkable, really, how strong a bond one can generate simply through discourse in a completely textual medium over years and years.

The next day Geoff has to work from midmorning until around 1700, when there is supposed to be a free Poker tournament starting up at his pub, so I promise I'll meet him there.

I wake up around noon, make myself a delicious duck egg sandwich (they have a dozen muscovies penned in the backyard) and spend the day fussing with my computer, catching up on e-mail, updating photos and putting the polish on the next few entries in the road, and around four I knock off and head out to Goeff's pub.

I get turned around, having neglected to take a proper look at a map before I leave the house, and wander a couple of miles (and about thirty minutes) out of my way, but it's all good. I've now been lost on foot and found my way again on every continent I've visited, which is kinda cool, I guess.

So Geoff and I play a bit of Texas Hold'em poker, of all things, but get bounced around a bit (there are four tables to start and we keep getting moved to balance play) and neither of us are really that interested, and so we eliminated ourselves rather quickly (though I do feel good that I lost on a hand that someone had to chase on the river, and would have taken the hand elsewise, so at least I wasn't playing terribly). We finished up around 8 and head back to the domocile, and there I got to try Vegemite.

I wasn't particularly hungry, having had such a large lunch/breakfast so late, but I wanted something in my stomach before another night of drinking, and noticing it on the sideboad in the kitchen, I asked after it and was provided advice (spread it very thinly, more like butter than like jam) and made toast and had a taste.

I had a second slice, and I must say it's a powerful stuff. I don't think I've ever tasted a saltier substance, gram for gram (and I think I include salt in that comparison), and the pungent bite of it is certainly strong. I imagine it is the sort of thing I might have from time to time, but it wouldn't be a regular part of my diet.

We retired to the patio and had another night of storytelling and drinking, this time muchly about education, both our theories and our personal experiences, and it's good stuff, but we have to force ourselves to stop earlier since we've got to be up early the next day--we're picking up Geoff's son and his son's mother at the airport and chauffeuring them back to her house, and I'm going along to help carry bags and make acquaintances.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dim Sum and Downtown

The next day, Geoff had the whole day off, and Joe (his sister) was free as well. Ash stuck around that night (being in no shape to drive anyway) and we piled into Joe's car around 11 and headed off for Dim Sum.

The Dim Sum place in question was one James (Geoff's Kung Fu instructor) had introduced him to many years before, and Claire was to meet us there. It turned out to be an absolutely great place, where I got to try Chicken feet (not bad, though, to borrow Geoff's brilliant description, they were "fiddly") and had lots of other amazing Dim Sum--prawn dumplings and steamed beef rolls and beef tendons and squid tentacles and cup after cup of really fresh Chinese tea.

Five minutes after we were seated, a bright eyed young Asian lady with high cheekbones and a perpetual smile flurries in and joins us. Her accent was remarkable to me--clear, classic Aussie coming from an Asian body is not something I'm used to, even though I work every day with a bunch of Asians who have distinctly American accents.

Geoff does introductions, and so it is that I meet the irrepressible Junglebunny (Claire, AFK), who immediately helps us order (she's studying Mandarin on the side just now, and it's improving her Cantonese food-ordering skills as well), starts telling us about the recent adventures of her Australian Rules Football club (which she captains) and pulls pliers (!) and metal from her purse and begins completing a bracelet. The weave is really unique and. . . well, here's a picture. It turns out the bracelet is a gift for me, and she sizes my wrist and completes the last few links at the table so that it will fit correctly before slipping it on my wrist.

Despite my normal aversion to jewelry, and actually rather like this piece, and I couldn't be more pleased that I have a wearable memory of my trip that was a gift made by someone I know, rather than than something I purchased for myself.

Part of the reason I like the piece, of course, is that with the practicality of a martial artist, Claire has made it with a simple set of copper links for the last centimeter of the bracelet leading up to the slip-through clasp, meaning that in a tight spot it will fail long before it has any hope of injuring its wearer.

When I've been fitted with my gift, and lunch has finally defeated all of us to the point that we can't eat another bite, Claire takes off (as she has an afternoon appointment) and we eventually clamber up, perform some bistromathics to pay for lunch, and head out again.

Joe has shopping she wants to do, and decides to take her son, Daniel, along, figuring that we'll tire him out with walking in our afternoon's perambulations. So, with promises that there will be dinner at home when we return, we set out into the city of Perth.

It's a pretty neat place, with a mixture of modern and victorian style buildings and a distinctly British architectural influence. I mention that I love to hit museums in new cities, because they're such a good way to learn about local culture, environments and history when compared to trying to read up about it on your own, and the boys point out that there is a pretty great museum just a few blocks away, and we head off to it.

The museum is mainly natural history, with lots of preserved animals that I won't be seeing since they're bush creatures, and plenty of history thrown in. I've got two of the best possible guides, since Geoff is a voracious reader who, through working a pub for the past few years, knowns plenty of old Australian legends that are examples of its current social condition and history, and Ash, as a miner and all-around smart guy, has an encyclopedic knowledge of rocks and minerals that kicks in as soon as we get to the geology section. We tell stories about learning both in and outside of traditional educational settings, and they teach me more about Australian history, culture, and ecology than I would have learned in a month of Sundays if it was up to me to read it.

After that, we wander through town for a bit, the two of them stopping and being patient while I take random shots to convey the feeling of Perth, and we stop for a half a pint of Stout at a local pub and talk for a while, then catch the train back to Geoff's neighborhood and walk to his place.

We arrive in time for dinner, and Joe has made a really fantastic roast chicken, with potatoes and carrots and pumpkin to go along with it, and she's got Ice Cream and homemade Apple Turnovers for dessert. It's really wonderful comfort food, and absolutely delicious. Peter comes home just in time and we dig in and chat about my plans over dinner.

My tentative plans were to leave for a little mining town on Saturday if I was overstaying my welcome, but when I mentioned it to Ash and Geoff they responded with "Why the hell would you want to go there?" and discouraged me, and so Geoff told me to stick around Perth for a couple days instead and we'd see the sights when he wasn't working.

Happy to have a place to lay my head that felt so much like home already, I readily agreed, and so Geoff sat on the back porch until midnight telling stories about our lives both before, during, and after our time on the MAAC forum. The next day, we decided, we were going to Fremantle.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Perth Rocks, Telstra does not.

So the next day, I spent the morning relaxing and then I was off to the airport for an afternoon flight to Australia, specifically, I was going to Perth.

I was going to meet Geoff, from the forums that so many of us frequented so very long ago. Oddly, he is one of very few people that I think of by first name, rather than alias (Goldenmane was what he went by in those days). At one point, when the shit was really hitting the fan in that place (and that long and epic saga is really quite remarkable) he was voted in as the interim Moderator, and wound up serving as guide on the site for a time.

Since it was his day off, we'd agreed that I'd just call him when I landed, and find out if he was at home, or elsewhere, and then get there by Taxi, as he was likely to be in no condition to drive by 10pm, when I had made it through immigration and baggage claim.

My assumption (HAHAHAHAHA) was that the Australian telco situation, being close to Asia, might be somewhat similar, and I could pick up a cheap sim card, top it up with five bucks, and call Geoff from my newly Australian cell phone.

In fact, this is categorically untrue.

So I get through customs and integration (where I'm treated with more suspicion, actually, than any of the other countries I've yet visited), and I head for the Vodaphone booth. It's just after 2100, and there have been adverts for Vodaphone traveler's services (rent a sim card!) throughout the airport, but the Vodaphone booth is completely empty. It's closed for the night.


So I go upstairs to the shops, and find a newasgent's that has Telstra quick connect packs (SIM card, $30 credit, all in one package). They don't have anything less than $30, so I shrug and bear it. I'll probably be making a fair number of calls throughout the coming week so I figure it won't go entirely to waste.

I buy the package, sit down, install the sim, and attempt to call Geoff. Because it's already got $30 AU on it, it shouldn't need to be topped up, right?

No, instead it needs to be activated! Apparently there are some really bullshit telco laws in Australia that make it impossible to just buy a phone number, you have to register it and bind it to your personal information!

Well, crap. Ok, how do I activate this thing? I can call them! Great, the phone can make (free) calls to the Telstra system. By now it is 2200.

So I call the number, and it says "You can register online!" (I don't want to register online, the Perth airport is tragically behind the times and doesn't have free internet yet) "Or you can use our phone based registration system during normal business hours!"

(borrowing an expression I picked up from Geoff) "Fucking what?"

These people have zero 24 hour phone support. None.

I hang up, in disgust.

At this point, I can't really return the thing, and I still need to call Geoff and confirm he's at his place before I get a taxi down there.

So I wander until I find a kiosk of internet boxes (at $2 per 13 minutes, they're a ripoff, but whatever) and log in, navigate to Telstra's online service, and try to activate the damn number.

Of course, it requires you to provide Telstra with an address and phone number, and these. cannot. be. international. I try to enter my international address first, and it throws back an error.

Pardon my angry, angry French, but why the fuck do you sell a SIM card in an airport if not primarily to international travelers?

But of course it's probably tied to some bullshit telco law that the telcos no-doubt love, since it lets them jack around their customers (Moo!). So I have to try to make up an address and phone number, using Geoff's as a rough template.

Somehow, I've not got it believable enough (don't know the post code correctly, which is a problem apparently) and the system, after two additional attempts, decides that I CANNOT ACTIVATE THIS PHONE ONLINE.

So now, my "quick connect" package is completely dead in the water until the phone support center opens the next morning.

I fire off a thoroughly pissed off message to Geoff which is summed up roughly as "Hi, I'm on the ground, your phone system sucks, hope there is alcohol wherever you are" (I shouldn't have worried) "gonna try a payphone now." and logout of the internet terminal and head downstairs.

Since the payphones are also a Telstra product, I wonder if they will be working, since it's after business hours and who knows how competent these people are, but thankfully they come through and I get in touch with Geoff and get confirmation that he's home and waiting and that I have his address correctly written down.

In fact, making the situation even more pathetic, the following day when I called to activate the phone, I was to discover that it would take Telstra up to 24 hours to actually free up the number and assign it to me, once I'd gone through the activation process. "Quick connect" my ass.

Telstra will receive a very strongly worded letter from me once I return to the states.

Thankfully, there's a cab at the taxi queue and I hop in, bark the address as politely as possible and smoulder my way through the dark streets of Perth on a Thursday night. We roll up to Geoff's house around midnight, and I jump out, grab my bags, and pay the cabbie.

Geoff himself, (he's real!), threads (weaves might be a better word) his way between the cars parked in the drive and greets me at the curb.

He and an old mate from Uni (Ash) are catching up on the back patio, which explains the fourth car in the drive (the other three are Geoff's, Geoff's sister, with whom he splits the house, and Geoff's sister's partner, a very cool fellow named Peter that I'd meet the next day).

I get the ten-cent tour of the house, drop my gear in the spare bedroom, and we return to the back patio, which I discover is the designated spot for sitting around and drinking and talking on most nights.

Those of you that are longtime readers will remember Adrienne's hazy recollections of visiting my French family in the Alps. Hanging with Geoff is to prove pretty awesomely similar, minus the skiing and with different (but equally delectable) food. In the next couple of hours, we demolish a bottle of Whyte and Macay Scotch (damn decent stuff, by the way) between the three of us, and the conversation gets progressively more delightfully scattered and meandering until we succumb to exhaustion.

So it is that Geoff and Ash and I sit and make acquaintance and talk until almost three, when we finally surrender, since we'll need to be up the next day around 10:30 to clean up and head out, as we're doing Dim Sum for lunch with friends*.

*yes, friends includes Claire, another person I'm very excited to meet, but you'll hear about her tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Expat in Singapore

I departed Manila and arrived in Singapore under the cover of night, slept like the dead and awoke around 10AM the next morning, just in time to catch breakfast before they stopped serving it.

The hostel is the sort of professionally run place that you occasionally see in Europe, all Ikea decorating sensibility and Austrian scheduling, though the desk staff are a mix of cool twentysomething Malaysians, a race I can only recognize by the fact that they seem like a cross between Indonesians, Thai, and Cantonese.

I had been recommended the Night Zoo, but I decided to skip it, due to the combination of expense and inconvenience (it's on the other side of the island and would have involved both MRT and Bus rides). Plus at the end of the day, it's a zoo. We have zoos in America.

What we don't have in America is a downtown district shaped by 130 years of British rule, endcapped by a short period of Japanese Occupation preceding another 10 years while the world figured out it wouldn't stand for colonialism anymore (except in places like Hong Kong).

So I got on the MRT to downtown (and no-one searched my bag! Weird!) and wormed my way out through a sprawling underground mall into a park that runs along the waterfront.

There I found a fountain (victorian era, it's sat in the same place in this park since the mid 1800s) two memorials (one for the Indian Army men that fought and died in the first and second World Wars, one for a particularly passionate (and conveniently dead) Malaysian guerilla fighter that the British raised up as a hero after the War--you'll note a trend among local heros raised up by occupying forces: The never have a heartbeat. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, was chosen in part by the US for similar pulse-related reasons. And finally, one memorial to a memorial.

What is a memorial to a memorial, you ask?

Well, the Japanese may have been brutal and heartless sons-of-bitches hell-bent on Asian domination, but they weren't idiots.

So when you occupy a place like Singapore, that is chock full of Indians who have lived under British rule their whole lives, and many of whome are trained military men, what do you do?

The answer is, you don't leave them sitting around, getting bored and waging a guerilla war against your occupying force--you arm them, train them, equip them, then send them home to liberate India from the British.

Let's be clear, the Japanese had no interest (that I know of) in liberating India, but they had plenty of interest in keeping the Brits busy in between India and SE Asia so they could more effectively set up shop in the rest of Asia.

So they created the Indian National Army, and sent it to fight the British in southeast Asia. As a moral booster, they erected a monument in Singapore to the unknown soldier of that fighting force. The monument was finished just months before the British reclaimed Singapore. When they were back in power, of course, the British promptly tore it down.

In 1995 a set of 11 sites in Singapore were chosen as historic sites to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, and one of them was the site of the former memorial, where a small plaque was placed. The plaque was hardly worth photographing, though, so all you get is this story. Sorry.

I wandered through downtown Singapore for most of mid-day, taking pictures and watching tourists, avoiding Indian Fortune tellers and Bicycle rickshaw tourguides.

Judging by the ongoing construction in the harbour area, I'd say Singapore's reaction to the current Economic adventure is "Recession? What recession?" and it doesn't seem to be doing them any harm at present.

The architecture is some of the most delectable I've seen in ages, Victorian-era hotels and government buildings smashed up against glistening modern skyscrapers. It has that absurd look and feel of a city build during the height of British Imperialism, and it's incredible. I wandered for a couple of hours and eventually found myself at the waterfront, where I chose a place almost at random to have a couple of overpriced beers and read Kipling for about two hours while the temperature slowly lowered.

When the sun had settled lower in the sky and my beers (and a couple of short stories) were finished, I made my way back to the subway station and from there back to my Hostel, where I dropped off my day bag and wandered Little India for a while.

Little India is a magical place. Since the East India Trading Company was so heavily involved in Singapore's growth, India has always had a connection here, and many Indians have moved here to work in Singapore and throughout the Subcontinent. Every construction worker I saw throughout my walks in Singapore had clearly Indian features. Little India is the logical starting point for the dreams of many an Indian trying to make a name and a life for himself and his family outside of India, and it retains the same "Tourists are not unwelcome but are irrelevant" feeling that you get still in certain alleys and restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown--this is truely a tiny snapshot of a nation, existing withing a completely foreign city, and it's quite remarkable.

There are occasional souvenir shops, certainly, but they seem an afterthought crammed between secondhand stores, sweetshops, gold sellers crammed with Indian men debating over the latest jewelry, and small spice shops with so much incense burning that it looks like there has been a fire inside. The occasional tourist, Malay and Chinese seem to be an oddity to be glanced at and then left alone while the daily business of keeping a tiny lump of city prepared to support the half-million expatriate Indians who live and work throughout the surrounding region and who rely on this place to import the majority of their food and clothing and everything else.

They say that the place is a madhouse on Sundays, when those half-million come home to this tiny stretch of Singapore to relax on their one day off each week, but unfortunately I won't be here to see it.

I wandered through the streets just as they were coming alive around 7, everyone just getting off work and making their way home or out to shop. I finally found a little restaurant with plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk and crummy lighting, and more Indians than anyone else eating at the tables. The place screamed "CORNER DINER" at me and I walked up, grabbed a menu and told the first person who asked me what I wanted that I'd have butter Chicken, Egg Curry and Rice.

I should have picked just one, but the dishes were cheap, and they both sounded great.

Of course that was with good reason--they both were great, but it was a lot of food for one man to finish, even one who had only had one real meal so far that day.

Unfortunately for my health and safety, I'd seen a shop a few blocks down when I was wandering earlier that said "Savories and Sweets" and so after my incredibly good dinner I threw myself on the tender mercies of that shop, buying 5 of their most popular treats and wandering home, stuffed but still eating.

It was in this bloated, happy fashion that I discovered that the Indians make a dessert that appears to be literally sugar, a little milk, and pure butter, crystalized into a sort of bar. There don't appear to be any other ingredients, and I'd estimate that judging by the flavour, they've got at least four or five pounds of Sugar and Butter crammed into each two ounce creation. It actually glistens when you bite into it, and your heart beats an extra measure in a combination of sheer fear and gleeful anticipation. It took me over an hour to eat the thing, as I actually had to take a break and write this entire post and check my mail in between times to give myself the strength to finish it. It. was. delicious.