Category Archives: History

my country

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On the outskirts of Charters Towers giant mango trees appear, signalling with their torrid green foliage that we’re back in habitable country. The returning sight of veggie plots and herbaceous borders quiets me. I wave goodbye to the Outback. Not long now ’til the sea.

After the parched, upstart ugliness of Mt Isa, Charters Towers is paradise: well-proportioned civic stone buildings line the streets, vying with one another for shoulder space and the largest share of generous Queensland winter sun. Tidy bakeries, hardware stores and cafes crowd the pavement, offering their assurance that, in Charters Towers, the scaffolding of a well-functioning civic community is still intact: every tile, masonry block and wrought iron bannister attests to the gravitas of the town’s rich cultural history.

The nexus of streets at the heart of town is awash with people: good, simple folk out for a stroll with dogs, or gone to fetch the morning paper for an elderly aunt or neighbour. I have a brief but compelling urge to throw myself on a pink iced finger bun; the kind you only get in really really uncouth Aussie bakeries.

Around the corner, a group of mourners spill out of a church, down the pavement, smoking cigarettes and scuffing their shoes, looking nonchalant; heedless of their grief as they keep one another company under the flimsy canopy of the bus shelter. A contingent of police stand ready, watching for signs of dissonance. In our white-man van we glide, slower than Kennedy’s black limousine, past the mourners, wondering what it is all about, who has died, and why the police feel it necessary to be present.

At this rate, there are two hours remaining until we reach the East Coast; two hours to rescind my old values and re-form my opinions of my country, myself.

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An 18-month journey is coming to an end. In a matter of days I’ll be home. The conscious process of re-configuring, re-inventing… over… for the time being, superseded by a string of expenses, reunions, outings, job-seeking, home-making. With the strictures of arrival firmly in mind I draw my awareness back to the present: to the space I am occupying in Norman’s car; to the sight of the mourners and the giant waving branches of the mango trees of Mt Isa, who have seen it all, and survived.

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ratatouille on the balcony – Couch Surfing in Townsville

The following night, on the balcony of Steve’s apartment in Townsville, Richie and I are privy to an impromptu recitation of Dorothy Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. Headmaster Kevin has put away all reserve and is up on the table amid bottle tops and discarded empties, reciting lines of Australia’s most iconic poem. After a confident first verse, Kevin loses nerve, bolstering his bravado by forcing us up out of our chairs, onto our feet, goading us to repeat after him:

I love a sunburnt country

A land of sweeping plains

Of rugged mountain ranges

Of drought and flooding rains

I love her far horizons

I love her jewelled sea

Her beauty and her terror

The wide brown land for me.

Caught midway between the novelty and splendour of this rash, drunken moment, I look about at the faces around the table, feeling faintly uneasy to be participating in such a flagrant show of patriotism. Glancing across at Richie’s animated schoolboy face I wonder, what meaning, if any, the words have to him: a visitor of 10-days to this country.

Hearing the words shouted wilfully, late, on the balcony of a suburban home feels wonderfully affirming, wonderfully Australian! I am bemused to hear the Maltese, French and English persons in our midst affirming their love of and allegiance to this ‘wide brown land’. I feel involuntarily moved by the image of my country that the poem conjures; brown foliage, dry creek beds, expansive vistas – the aspects that make it unique, different to the ‘green and shaded lanes’ and ‘ordered woods and gardens’ of the world from which my ancestors (at least some of them), came, and in some cases, fled.

Since our arrival in Darwin 10 days ago, and our journey through the Outback, Richie and I have heard a lot about what it means to be Australian. We’ve heard plenty of points of view and a fair bit of nonsense. I’m anxious about the impression my country is making on Richie and keen to make amends.

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roo balls – Richie embraces ‘Australian culture’

That night, on the balcony in Townsville, Kevin’s performance is followed by a lengthy discussion of what it means to be Australian. I’m among friends and as an absentee of six years, want to know what the hell is going on in my country; why my fellow Australians are hell bent on erecting a razor wire fence along our borders to keep the ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘legitimate’ citizens in, and the ‘greedy’, ‘opportunistic’ migrants out.

I hold my breath and listen to what my peers tell me.

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stars over kuta

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The three brightest stars in the sky above Kuta Beach are not stars at all, they’re aeroplanes. They orbit the sky, once, twice, before descending. I watch as they approach, becoming larger and more fanta-coloured as they draw near.

The aeroplanes drop like muscular angels to the earth, chasing one another up the runway, lifting the skirts of their wings like frisky schoolgirls, teetering on the narrow lip of land that separates runway from sea. Finally, they come to a standstill before the crooked elbow of the disembarkation ramp, disgorging another fat helping of tourists into the swollen body of the Denpasar Bali airport.

To balance out the equation, three aeroplanes take off. They enact the dance in reverse, lifting their gaze to the horizon, hunkering down, and launching themselves at the sky. As they claw their way up into the stratosphere their blunt bodies shed vortex after vortex of spent air molecules. The sound falls like a meteor shower on my head, mingling with traffic to create a peculiarly Balinese symphony. The change in air pressure as the planes fly overhead leaves me flattened and subdued.

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an aeroplane coming in to land at Denpasar Airport

bright star... ? aeroplane

bright star… ? nina, aeroplane & sea

In contrast to the antisocial airport, the beach is full of human-friendly shapes: surfers, mandorla shortboards and the pleasingly symmetrical silhouette of traditional Balinese fishing boats, jukung. Lifeguards in Baywatch buggies ply the shoreline. Dogs on leads buck their owners in a comic play of walker and walked, whilst higher up, on the tree-line, the well-heeled make ready for a performance of gamalan, sipping cocktails with names more redolent of the Carribean than this overpopulated strip of beach that lies terrorised and trembling under the flight path of the Denpasar Bali airport.

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The human magnitude of the beach is astounding: surfers and their girlfriends; honeymooners; gangs of local youth who have come to perve on bule in bikinis; hawkers selling beer; photographers; wedding parties; families; schoolgirls. Amongst the masses there are tetchy parents, who at this late stage in the day have surrendered, like cornered sloths, to the devilish antics of their children: I watch as one embattled father pivots in the sand, permitting his 2-foot son to fill his pockets, hair, underpants and ears with as much sand as his eager hands can gather. Continue reading

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On a mission in Phuket… in photos

cruising the beaches, yacht clubs, marinas and piers in search of a ride south...

cruising the beaches, yacht clubs and marinas in search of a crewing opportunity south…

that one would do...

that one would do…

... or that

… or that

checking out the competition at the Boat Lagoon Marina

checking out the competition at the Boat Lagoon Marina

spot the cheeky mugs! Putting ourselves out there...

spot the cheeky mugs! Putting ourselves out there…

Crew for you!

Crew for you!

It's not all hard work... strolling in old town Phuket

It’s not all hard work… strolling in old town Phuket

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local cats on the look-out

local cats on the look-out

high glamour in one of Phuket's more picturesque lane ways

high glamour in one of Phuket’s more picturesque lane ways

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a golden horizon of fishcakes

a golden horizon of fishcakes

power (present) & Portugal (past)

power (present) & Portugal (past)

another crumbling facade

another crumbling facade

Richie ogles the jackfruits in the market... eyes as big as saucers

Richie ogles the jackfruits in the market… eyes as big as saucers

dusk... and still 60% humidity

dusk… and still 60% humidity

a late night in the lobby finding WorkX, Wwofi, Couch Surfing and music opportunities

a late night in the lobby finding WorkX, Wwoof, Couch Surfing and music opportunities

Crew for you...

Crew for you…

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Angkor Wat

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library, Angkor Wat

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relieved Richie overcomes vertigo after descending the near-vertical stairs from the Bakan (inner gallery)
relieved Richie overcomes vertigo after descending the near-vertical stairs from the Bakan (inner gallery)
queuing for a sunset moment (shades of Vatican Museum)
queuing for a sunset moment (shades of Vatican Museum)
Bodhi tree growing from the ruins
Bodhi tree growing from the ruins
Ta Prohm, the 'Tomb Raider' temple
Ta Prohm, the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple

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swarming over Bayon
swarming over Bayon

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a dissolving apsara
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enigmatic faces, Bayon
Richie's remarkable elephant photo
Richie’s remarkable elephant photo
taking it all in
taking it all in

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Angkor art in action
Angkor art in action

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a cheeky face amid the ruins
a cheeky face amid the ruins
Richie & Paul, tomb raiders
Richie & Paul, tomb raiders

To see some more photo galleries of Angkor Wat check our Richie’s blog

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A Memory from Darkness

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The orchard of longans, the becalmed water in the reservoir, the seasonally-neglected rice paddies, shaggy tamarinds and midday bleat of insects belie the burden of grief that lies below the soil at Choeung Ek Killing Fields.  Like so many visitors to Cambodia I’ve been drawn to this site, 20 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, by a desire to wrap my credulity around the facts of genocide.

On this day of hot placid magnitude I cannot fathom what the audio guide tells me: that fragments of bone and teeth rise from the earth here from time to time, testifying to the presence of mass graves –  lives ended in terror: children, mothers, civil servants, students, professors, farmers, diplomats, party cadres. Gone. Whole families. Gone. The systematic extermination of life. 

Voices of survivors and ex-Khmer Rouge cadres lisp plaintively from the black box around my neck. The audio tour is a forceful document: Khmer Rouge propaganda songs; an epic lament in strings (‘A Memory of Darkness’ by Him Sophy); tales of rape, hard labour, and the abandonment of hope.

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COPE: Legacies of War

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10am. Vientiane is on fire. Quench flames at local pool. En route, COPE Visitor Centre. Limbs hung from ceiling, cluster bombies reconfigured, given new life: makeshift rice cookers, canoes, raised garden beds, sculptures. Stories of horror. Sound of heaven torn asunder. Rice fields rupture, moonscape  craters – mum, dad, brothers, sisters… gone in a bloom of earth and shrapnel. A neat new crop sewn, round metal seeds lay in wait the tender touch of human flesh, the seeking fingertips of children at play. Living in a minefield… life to this day.

survivor artwork
survivor artwork

During the American War in Vietnam, Laos was subjected to American aerial bombardment, representing the heaviest US bombing campaign since World War II, and making Laos the most bombed country in history. The deadly legacy of this destruction continues, with the country still scattered with unexploded ordnance.”

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COPE is a not-for-profit organisation that works in partnership with the National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) to provide access to orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

There are a range of reasons why someone may need to use the services from COPE:

  • Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)
  • Children with Disabilities
  • Polio
  • Club Foot
  • Leprosy
  • Trauma

To learn more about COPE or to make a donation, visit their website. Alternately, if you find yourself in Vientiane on a hot sticky day dive into the COPE Visitor Centre and take refuge in the air conditioned exhibition rooms or cinema. Free of cost.

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River Life

“The river is everywhere.” 
– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

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In Laos rivers are everywhere. They run like long legs down the length of the country, carrying life on their broad backs, travelling swiftly in places, and in others, slow. Life on the banks of the Nam Ou in Northern Laos is fluid and slow, vigorous and languid in turn, changing with the seasons. For children there’s ample time to play and for adults, time enough to discuss the minor calibrations of the day, which is configured around the rituals of washing and harvesting. For the water buffalo, there’s no work but swatting flies.

The appeal of river life draws travellers in large numbers to tiny Nong Khiaw and Mong Ngoi Neu, villages 100km upstream from the northern capital, Luang Prabang. In January and February, when the Nam Ou is at its lowest, tourist numbers peak, and when the waters swell in June, the number of tourists ebb. This is the time the river renews itself, absorbing into its stream the reams of water that uncoil from the mountainside, gathering like snakes among river rocks, fingering into the cliffs, boring caves deep enough to accommodate whole villages. The shores, where corn and beans grow during dry season, are inundated, and when the waters recedes, a shimmering shelf of silt is revealed, ready to coax the sap to rise in another season of crops.

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Life in the more remote villages of the Nam Ou has changed very little in the last century: boys are eligible to marry only after they have mastered the art of building, and the boat builder is one of the most important citizens in the village. As soon as boys are tall enough to hold their fathers’ fishing nets clear of the sand, they learn to cast, and even the smallest child, male or female, knows how to hold his or her head above water while diving with hands outstretched to grab thick tufts of vivid green river weed that their mothers transform into crisp savoury sun-dried snacks, encrusted with tamarind juice, sesame seeds, and slices of tomato and garlic.

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kae paen, river weed

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Arriving in Laos

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That Phoum Pouk

As soon as we crossed the border from China into Laos it became apparent that Lao moves to a different tune than its oversized neighbour to the north.

Entering Laos might entail a change down in gear,” our friends in Dali warned, a day before departure.

This is the part of the journey I’ve been looking forward to since day one,” Richie reminded me as we handed over our passports at the border. Even the security officials seemed happy to see us. We smiled and made our first attempt at the greeting, ‘sabaidee‘, which sounded softer and more childlike in our mouths than angular ‘ni hao’.

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entering Laos on a bus from Jinghong (China)

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laidback at the border, visa on arrival (US$32 for Australian nationals)

I hadn’t realised how uncomfortable the pace of development in China had made me until I entered Laos. Except for the presence of rubber plantations and new roads, sure signs that China’s influence in this region extends well beyond its border, Laos felt a world away. Continue reading

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Litang: pinnacle of the Sichuan Tibet highway

Due to the sensitive nature of the material in this blog I have waited until after our departure from China to publish this post. Thanks for waiting…

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There’s only one thing wild enough for the road from Kangding to Litang: Jim Morrison, The Doors. I spun the control ring on my iPod hoping that the shitty piece of technology wouldn’t crack up in the high altitude. So far it was holding up better than my head.

Next to me, Richie was bolt upright in his chair, avoiding eye contact with the gaping chasm a meter from where the rear wheel of our bus was spinning. Somewhere on the mountain roads between here and Kangding he’d perfected the art of cracking sunflower seeds, spitting the shells onto the floor and munching the crisp kernel: crack-spit-chew-swallow-reach-crack-spit-chew-swallow-reach… So far, it was proving an effective mode of distraction. I shuffled my feet amid a sea of discarded shells, trying to restore the circulation of blood to my lower body.

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As we rounded the corner of a hairpin-bend tighter than the ‘Z’ of Harry’ Potter’s lightning-bolt scar the control ring of the iPod spun and the track I was looking for appeared in the viewfinder. Click. Select… this one’s for you Dad:

Poor Otis dead and gone
Left me here to sing his song
Pretty little girl with the red dress on
Poor Otis dead and gone.

I’ve got the running blues back to LA.
I’ve got to find the dock on the bay
Maybe find it back in LA…

Mercifully the kilogram of seeds held-out all the way to Litang. The gear in the back of the bus fared considerably worse than the bags on our laps. Clouds of dust rose comically from my backpack as I beat it mercilessly before an audience of riot police. The cops gazed curiously from where they sat, taking in the last of the afternoon rays and the two silly foreigners who had their camera pointed their way. We knew they’d be about, but not in these numbers. We wondered whether it was the result of a recent crackdown in Tibet, or merely life as we know it in China-occupied Kham. It was enough to make me wanna cry.

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As we did the rounds looking for a cheep hotel room there was no way of denying the omnipresence of Chinese cops and military in Litang. Policeman were posted on every street corner, bracing automatic weapons against their hips and chests. Police cars did endless laps of the streets, spouting propaganda from roof-mounted megaphones. We looked on, bewildered, as officials confiscated a local youth’s ID card.

Images of the Dalai Lama were conspicuously not present. A few people went so far as to whisper his name to us, but no more. A young man who spoke a little English was kind enough to show us to a suitable guest house but when we asked him to stay and drink tea with us, he mysteriously melted away into the darkening streets. What’s going on here?

During our second day in Litang, still giddy and breathless with symptoms of acute mountain sickness, we set out on foot in the direction of the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery. Midway there we were drawn by the sound of cries to the door of the soup kitchen where we were taking lunch. Outside a contingent of armed military marched past in formation: stern, intent, unyielding. We glanced backwards and forwards at the faces around us, looking for a sign of how to respond to the performance. Beatific smiles, passive nods and cries of ‘Tashi delek’ were all we observed in the way of retaliation. Unlike us, locals seemed unfazed by the military posturing and seemed more intent on greeting friends and doing the weekly shopping than making a scene. They did not pause long enough to dignify the spectacle.

Life at the monastery appeared considerably more peaceful than on the main street. Novice monks picked on smaller novice monks; the sound of childish games resounding through the otherwise empty courtyard. In the shade of a portico a group of five women were taking tea.  They invited us to drink with them, sitting cross-legged on the floor. After draining our cups a second time, they pressed us to take more biscuits, bread, noodles, tea. Guessing at what we meant, each of the women in turn held up the numbers of fingers corresponding to the number of children to whom she had given birth. My age and childlessness made them giggle. We bid them goodbye and thanked them for their welcome.

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After visiting the monastery we spent most of our time in Litang observing life at the Chorten Karpo, a busy stupa on the west side of town. Away from the watchful eyes of the Chinese government, the chorten grounds was the most relaxed and  convivial place in town to sit and be. After doing a circuit of prayer wheels we lowered ourselves onto a stack of logs within earshot of a group of picnicking locals, offering segments of mandarin and apples to their children, and admiring the graceful way their fingers flexed and gripped the perpetually turing hand-held prayer wheels.

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The chorten grounds were Litang’s answer to Hyde Park and Fitness First combined. Every individual had his/hers own way of perambulating: chaotically, ducking and weaving between slower pilgrims; or slowly, methodically, with utter absorption and serenity. It was beautiful to see: intact spirituality, and the expression of centuries old tradition, culture and worship.

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Apart from the chorten, the thing that impressed us most about Litang were the Tibetan cowboys.

 “Look at him!” Richie panted in admiration.

   “Bloody cool!” I agreed. These guys were charisma on two wheels, with prayer beads and fur-lined long-sleeved wraparound chubas to boot. The one over there, leaning against the wall, looked like he could peel yak skin with his teeth! The old Khampa cowboys were equally impressive: they swung in from out of town on their bikes; burnt brown, long grey hair and every bit as laid back and fearless as a modern-day Easy Rider. Even more impressively, to Richie and me, was that some of them had very likely defended their homes and monastery against Chinese attack during the invasion of the 1950s – Kham was where some of the most persistent and relentless battles had been fought. Hardy individuals, the closest thing to Lizard King cool I’ve ever seen.

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You’ve got to be a bit hardcore (or stupid) to visit Litang in November. It’s cold! If you’re not careful, you’ll get a dose of sun stroke with your altitude sickness, which is what Richie and I did. Hapless bunglers! After three days ogling Khampa cowboys, silently repudiating the Chinese government, and immersing ourselves in the peace and friendliness of the chorten community, we decided to cut our losses and come down a rung to Daocheng – somewhere below 4000m. It was blatantly clear as the bus crested the top of a prayer flag-strewn peak marking the way out of Litang that that our 3-day visit would not succeed where over 5 decades of Tibetan struggle had failed. Tibet was still not free… but it does exist  and shall do…

until that day…

Free Tibet

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3 Pagodas, Dali

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