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My Chinese Train "Nazi"

October 29, 2006

Our lives are the sum of many parts, a significant number of which are other people. Some of those parts can be a bit rusty. Or completely non functional. Or may even be a spanner in the works altogether. In China I met one part that went out of its way to get in the way. Well, that is one interpretation. Another, more kind one, is that she was simply demonstrating how it is that she fights the system. Working within a tight constraint of rules she used those same rules to get her own back. It all happened on the train from Lanzhou to Xining, from which I am recently departed – and gladly.

18 September 2006

Here we are, well and truly belting along on our way to Lanzhou. In a soft sleeper which is turning out to be a bit of a story in its own right. We are sharing our cabin with a corporal in the army. Other than that there is little we can deduce about him – we can’t speak the language and the fact he was in the army was worked out using field hand signals (used by the military), and initially cued by a Chinese language military magazine he was reading. When we got into our cabin he was sitting up on the top bunk and looked a little intimidated by our noisy and boisterous invasion.

A more rustic fellow turned up just before we pulled out. I had planted myself on the top bunk. He came in and parked on the bottom bunk – after first skulling a bottle of beer. Then got on the cell phone and lit up a cigarette, the latter being extinguished after he was requested to do so. After maybe twenty minutes or so he started to get a bit animated – I had not idea what he wanted but suspected he wanted the top bunk. After suggesting he could have it in as many variations of sign language I could invent he and I continued to not comprehend each other. Eventually I had to resort to an American woman travelling on the train who has been in country for four years or so doing language training. She quickly ascertained that he wanted the top bunk!!

We finally cleared my stuff from up there at which point he leapt into his roost, stripped to his underpants, fell backwards and started snoring – in less than a minute. Within about another minute he was talking in his sleep.

I am sitting in the corridor filling in this journal and thinking it will be a long night. However I am not sleepy despite the late hour and this is as good an opportunity as any to catch up on this journal. We glide to a crawl and mechanical sounds of the train drop away. Outside the dusty silhouettes of sheds silently slip past, backlit by orange lights. Industrial sheds and workshops. The train sounds its industrial horn (nothing romantic about this one), we clatter through a set of points, doors slam, flanges pinch and scrape and we jolt to a halt. The train is so long – we are in carriage 10 – that the horn sounded far into the distance. After a few moments we glide on, smooth and without any corresponding starting jolt. Past a stern faced military type with his face cast in shadow, LED bright white torch casting a beam of light forward of his feet. The station is in shadow, dimly lit, dusty and vague, vacant, functional and lifeless. Past a female fat controller standing to attention under a single street light as we glide past, gathering speed, the clack clack, becoming clickety clack. She is wearing a smock of pale blue. It protrudes over her distended stomach, yawn blotting out the lower half of her face, large black spectacle frames blocking out the rest, and a severe bun pulling it all into shape. I can see her thinking she is glad the final train is through, she can chase the uniform off to his barracks (or her bed) and click shut the government issue massive brass padlock on the front door and get out of there! So on we race into the night, sometimes through flashing, dim, orange light, but mostly through the dark, the only hint of speed being the blur of smooth sound which are the wheels on the track.

0030 hours. It is now 1230 am on the 19th. Thirty minutes have passed since the last stop and I feel the very soporific effect of a quiet slowing of the train and the gentleness of its run as we glide through a bend and potentially to another stop. I remain out in the corridor. The policeman has finished prowling and on his last pass had a cup of tea in his hand. I bet he has settled. Other lost passengers have long finished moving up and down. Time, I think, for bed.

0045 hours. Stopped at Baoji. Looks like a million people want on. A small flood of bodies. I may have to get out of this corridor if they decide to use this car as a shortcut to others.

0055 hours. Well, it has been a long time since I have been told to go to bed but I have been so instructed. By the female guard, who I immediately dub “the Carriage Nazi” and who is clearly responsible for the carriage. I am in fact ready for bed and was only in the process of reading earlier entries in this journal. So here I sit and drag out my going to bed. I can see her furtive head poking around her doorway every minute or so to see if I have moved. She has signed “sleep” to me a few times and I have been clever and claimed ignorance of her intent.

Too clever. She got her own back later in the morning. We hammered our way alongside the Yellow River and I awoke to a hazy orange dawn, a clear sky and open paddocks. But as the sun shifted we could more clearly see the tracks ran close to the river because the hills cut in so closely. Agriculture quickly gave way to steaming, smoking industry. Soon we were travelling through enough light to take in the settlements along the track. In some parts the small green plots gave up cabbages in postage stamp sized farms perched on terraces that are clearly coping in what is an arid place. We watched soldiers doing their morning PT, slogging along the road beside us. Workers in a factory slowly filed along the track, swinging their hard hats and chatting with each other. The Yellow River flashed into view every now and then through clay and shale parapets and the occasional tunnel hid everything from view.

Suddenly we were clattering to a stop and people were shifting from their cabins. I was perched between the carriages to get a better view of the country we were travelling through and initially was not aware that we had arrived. Once I realised we were at the last stop (cue – EVERYONE is disembarking) I turned to re-enter my carriage. And there she was, uniform straight, hat on head, badges gleaming, arms folded, foot tapping, glint in her eye, T-bar door key in her hand where I could see it. And the door to the carriage firmly locked. Urgent signing to open the door. Foot taps, eyes glare. Shouts (the glass is “soundproof”) to open the door. Foot taps, eyes glare. Third party intervenes on my behalf. No good – foot still taps and eyes get even more steely. The door is not unlocked in my presence – I turn and press down the length of the neighbouring carriage through the ambling crowd, disembark and run into the tide of passengers back up the platform to return to my cabin. She has vanished. They are good at that after a confrontation – Nazis’ that is. Maybe I will find her in Argentina.

Alexander Duff

October 26, 2006

19 December 2005
This morning I sat and ate bacon and scrambled eggs, with tomatoes, and a coffee to wash it down. And as I ate I thought “Here is something so simple and pleasureable that he will never know.” Such is the focus of ones thoughts. How mean and shabby are our daily worries and concerns, how unmajestic are our visions and plans, how trivial the fights and squabbles we have with each other. Alec is dead before he experienced any of these things and our daily behaviour begrudges him even those. I opened the paper after spilling the coffee on it. Half hoping to see something about the event, half hoping not to. But there it was and the morbid in me forced a reading. Tellingly it was accurate and objective though the families directly involved would hardly think so. Another of Alec’s uncles, through his tears yesterday exclaimed that this was something that happened to someone else, something you read about in the papers, but not about yourself. So true. Indeed many had heard the news on Melbourne radio yesterday morning, had seen the TV news clips and thought about how torrid somebody’s Christmas had just become. Then they discovered they knew the parents and the horror of it was doubly hammered home.

As I travelled to the airport to travel to Melbourne on Sunday morning I watched numerous children heading to holidays, scampering about. I tried to guess their ages. How close to 2 years old were any of them? It was a good exercise – I normally see little aircraft travellers and hope they are seated nowhere near me. This morning a young blond headed fellow sitting in a high-chair, about 2 or so I fancied, looked up from swishing his hands through his milk and Nutrigrain and gave me a smile. No hesitation, just a direct smile. I winked and went back to the paper, resisting the urge to ask his parents how old he was.

The 24 hours after the event is such a swirl, and I am only in the outer rings of the vortex. But even in this madness there is a remarkable streak of sanity, stability and purpose that grabs your attention. Is it family that have been through it before? Or the knowledge that there are so many others praying about the event? There are numerous folk doing just that. It is of course our sovereign master who keeps his hand on the wheel of the universe least any of us get tossed off. Thank goodness for that.

The week has been such a slow week. It is now Thursday. My failed muse were directed to contribute weak efforts to supporting the need to get some constructive press out about Alec. Once complete they fled and I felt little inspiration to complete this log at the end of each day, rather preferring to ease into clean crisp sheets and be wrapped up by the night and the hum of airconditioning. And on to the next day.

Slow but somehow all the more complete for that. We started the week with wrenching sobs and a pouring out of grief that proved how cathartic it had been as we got on with the week and the dreadful administration of burying a body. But a body can only be released after we have accepted the soul has been swept up and embraced by its creator. Grieving is in part a process of moving what we know in our heads to a place where it sits in our hearts. Taking that deep breath instead of a gasp, a straightening of the lips rather than the expulsion of a groan as we realise that though we miss him the situation is not catastrophic, that the end is not as it seems, that there is indeed life after death. And a slow realisation that the slow twisting knot (sorry about the cliché) in your stomach is less a grieving for the person we have lost so much as a consciousness of the opportunities we daily miss in our treatment of others. A daily death of relationships and opportunities to reach out and love others.

For an undemonstrative family this has been a telling few days. We have had rubbed of on us something of the Middle Eastern, something of the southern European. Who would have guessed at the amount of hugging between the men that happened this week when you saw us arrive in Australia nearly thirty years ago. How much better off we are for it. Confessing our love for each other, embracing at the drop of a hat, for no other reason except that we felt like we needed it, or someone around us needed it.

The touching and caring and sobbing in the first day tempered to a different level of emotion in next few days. We found ourselves simply sitting around and talking. Or playing. Or walking. Or cooking. Eating. Catching the eye of someone and smiling because you genuinely wanted to, not because you were lost for words. There was a serenity in all this which was refreshing and from which cup you dared not lift your head. I tried a few times, resorting to work issues, reviewing contracts and so on. It was motions only and as soon as the task was complete back to the simple communion of teasing nieces, making cups of tea, listing to idle chat, contributing some of your own.

Such marked our days until the 23rd. Today we all buried Alec. I was to say that Rebecca and Scott did so. True enough. But the sum of the week surely has been that we all – both families – came together to support and encourage in such a way that the whole family laid him in the ground then went home to continue applying balm to each other. Grandfathers as pallbearers. An uncle from each side of the family as well. Young. Older. And very young in that little box. A pure representation of all that has been welded together this week. And which has been fusing over the years, despite pressures and torque. Or probably because of it I fancy.

It was a clear and warm to very warm day. Something around thirty degrees I guess. A better day than the one following his death – which was a grey day and sporadically wet. It was a beautiful day to be buried. On a low ridge in Lilydale. Under some young gums. Dandedongs a sprawling blue grey in the distance. The caw caw caoooarghh of a crow in the background. The cortege dragged slowly through city traffic to the cemetery. There was something obscene about the normalcy that we drove through. Every one else was having a normal day. Swinging into the cul de sac we all sat for a moment in the relative cool of the air-conditioning before slowly climbing out and milling around. The undertakers busied themselves with flowers, taking them from the car and placing them beside the graveside. Then when we were all braced, physically and mentally, we fell in behind Alec who was being carried by four dark suits – grandfathers and uncles – in an unwilling and solemn march up to the hole in the ground that was an inevitable destination but to which no one wished to go. The day was still and hot and the suits cooked on us. And flies arrived in swarms and busied themselves.

The graveside message was appropriate. We heard the assurance of eternal life and the comfort of knowing Alec was elsewhere. Lowering the casket is always the moment of truth. The test of ones ability to know and feel that assurance despite what is happening in front of you. The pallbearers gripped each other as they lowered Alec into the ground – it was a tough job. Heads bowed, their tears dripped from their noses and flies were grateful. I watched Bec and Scott closely. Mother moved in and stood close as the casket was lowered. They were both doing it hard, and so too Scott but they all remained composed. Then we selected flowers from one of the bouquets and threw them into the ground. Who knows what that means but it was done as a family and that can’t be a bad thing.

That evening I sat in the airline lounge and thought to write notes but had no heart to do so. A handful of people appeared to be on business but most were on holidays. There seemed little to get enthused about. Even my fellow traveller needed a good make over and scrub – perhaps it is just that everything seems grey despite the sun. She certainly needed to lose weight and to find a good hairdresser. I was in no mood to make small talk and I think she sensed that – perhaps the glare I shot at a couple of chaps bumbling their baggage as I walked up the aisle had been seen by her.

The following day was the toughest. I went to work but was no use to anyone. I suspect after a week of work around Alec it was not until I was at home or in the normal routine that the emotional drag was felt. Everything seemed to be without purpose, although a lengthy chat with one of the staff about what God might have in mind with this death was worth being there. A knot in the stomach all day, a feeling of being raw and ragged. That most of the afternoon was taken off by everyone, in anticipation of the holiday, and I being left alone in the office, was a good thing.

Riyadh Foyer

October 25, 2006

The Saudi is a very nocturnal beast, sleeping late and only really getting going in the evening. Helped along by the restaurants being open until 11pm and the coffee shop even later the Saudi men, usually in the national dress, drift into the foyer, settle in to smokes and coffee and get down to business. Few have elected for alternate cell phone rings so a constant Nokia chorus interrupts the low rumbling murmur which arises from the dozen or so couches and paired seats which encourage these business couplings. Papers are pored over, laptops press out presentations, phones ring, hands gesture and smoke rises. Few Saudi’s raise their voices – that is reserved for the Indians who service the Avis desk propped in the middle of all this is. As I write this and glance down the foyer I can see prayer beads being fingered, heads bent across a table in earnest conversation, middle aged and portly gents reclining and pointing their bellies at each other in studied genteelness – which will vanish as they try to pry themselves free of their seats later. Silver haired Aryans flock around the Avis desk and laugh and jibe each other while white Saudi thobes and red dishadashas drift past offering murmured Salams as they go. The young Indian “coffee boy” with an accent so thick I have to point to the menu before we understand each other, flits from table to table. There are no tips but jobs like this would be tough to find and dressed as “labourer casual” will be the last thing he will want.

Men Only – Unfortunately

October 25, 2006

Notes from Riyadh

After making my third trip to the Middle East I finally attempt to put pen to paper. Unlike most trips when I manage to get a few notes jotted about what I have seen those made to the East have been without my muse. Its hard to know why exactly. Perhaps the intense business focus has not really allowed insight into the local and what he or she thinks. And that is what I am mostly interested in. Or is it because the local is not so very visible, or is reluctant to get engaged in the street with a Westerner? Perhaps they assume I am an American!

It is a couple of days before you realise that women are noticeable by their absence. And then you are startled by that vacuum. There are none circulating around the business premises. No secretaries, businesswomen or even clients. In the shopping mall every shop assistant is male. If you think thats not so unusual imagine a stroll through a David Jones perfumery or lingerie department, or any other part of the store for that matter. Instead of well dressed women in attendance find well coifed young men instead. Not a woman in sight. At least not until you are in the shopping precinct proper and the occasional cluster of women with a few young children stand out – for their presence as much as for their black covering. They seem furtive, disjointed, out of place, awkward. In and around the mall on another night a number of women are much more self contained and assured, bright and confident and brazen – allowing their faces to be completely uncovered and eyeballing us aggressively and not without some curiosity. But their heads remain covered. The occasional male berates them for their lack of respect but young, and with the advantage of numbers – five or six of them – they huddle up and scurry off. Columnists in the paper two days later kick around the need for women to be more liberated but I suspect that while ever men in the mall dislike an uncovered face we will be watching these sorts of confrontations for a while yet.

Interestingly the women have become art masters of the eye. With it being the only thing visible it makes sense – they love dark shades and metallic colours and these burnished jewels are doubly striking for being cast in the black frame of their chador. Later I walk down Olaya Road to the Kingdom Tower and am diverted into a couple of malls which sell dresses. I am completely startled by the lush, deep flashing colours and fabrics. Daring cuts and imaginative combinations of material I have never seen anywhere. We are all missing out if this is what they wear. Alongside these fabrics are a staggering array of jewellery as well, with deep Middle Eastern roots in their design and nothing like what we might see at home.

Butterflies in Riyadh Airport

October 25, 2006

Leaving Riyadh

A young soldier too skinny to be credible lounges on the side of an aircraft container loader. His olive green helmet rounds out his head, a dark browned one and incongruous in this place. Or perhaps not where the gritty jobs go to those not in the family. The sound of a fountain adds to the air of cool in this place but I know it is at least 34 degrees out there and his motionless posture – stooped back, flopped arms and careful slow movements reminds me of my own times on a hot tarmacs and thinking of other paces I would rather be. I fancied he had a rifle propped behind him but that appears to not be the case as the Lufthansa Airbus is pushed back and the wingtip giving him shade heads for parts unknown. To us at least. The thing he is no doubt briefed to secure no longer requires his attention and he slowly stands up. The rifle turns into a metal rod. He shifts the bulky bullet proof vest in a way that suggests it is uncomfortable and an irritant and hot. With carefully deliberate strides he lopes across the flight line area in front of me, hitching that darned vest around a few times and shrugging his shoulders into place. No weapons I wonder to myself. Stashed somewhere else maybe. But his trouser pockets are shaped by something large and square, one slapping against each thigh as he lopes off in gangling strides. And there is something propping up his vest at the front and I suspect it is not his lunch. Radio and batteries if my former security colleagues are any guide.

This airport is a third world effort and despite the press noise about terrorists being hounded here with vigour, and the French President making lots of noise and slapping the Crown Prince on the back for his efforts in curbing the scourge of the international community this place gives me no assurance that the net is tight and precautions effective. Nothing is checked with any thoroughness. X Ray operators chat among themselves and are distracted by the sergeants that drift around with nothing to do. My passport was stamped and flicked back to me by an officer who at the time was greeting another like long lost brothers and in the Middle Eastern way with lots of backslapping and cheek kissing. My backpack, containing cameras and lots of CAT5 cable and other odds and sods, was not looked at but my shoes needed a thorough examination. Perhaps the experience is coloured by my being here along with three hundred Indians and a similar number of Filipinos. The former are their old familiar selves, plunging to get in front, pushing and shoving to get through the inspections only to wait for an hour for their flight. I think the Filipinos are nicking off with the Saudi silver. One chap had five enormous cartons he was trying to check in. The first two totalled 80kg. He tried to pile the third on top, but Filipinos are not known for their tall build and he was unable to reach that high. The by now agitated check-in clerk directed him to place them on one at a time but he tried to pile on a different two – also coming to about 80 kgs. His excess baggage bill must have been enormous. I was delivered from what happened next (the check-in clerk was ermeging from behind his counter with a scowl on his face) as the First Class clerk waved me over and I was checked in and done in minutes. Even though I was not travelling up the pointy end of the plane.

In any other place you would be viewed askance for noting who entered and departed the women’s toilets. But in this airport lounge – well, let’s call it that for the moment since it really has the air or a 1960s run down hospital, despite the bright lights and vaulted ceilings and being only ten years old – black cacoons shuffle in and long haired, bejewelled, heeled butterflies float out. The transformation is, at an academic level not surprising. At another aesthetic level it is a pleasant surprise. After three weeks of not seeing a woman – apart from her eyes – and that, only in the occasional shopping centre (not even at Starbucks) the transformation is pleasing, delighting not only the eye but the slightest sense that these girls are breaking the rules.

Cycle Culture ( II )

October 25, 2006

(Follows from “Heading for Ho Chi Minh City” ( I )

A tone which sets impressions straight away is the tide of motorcycles, although we would call them scooters and the branding type might insist on Vespa (though we saw Yamaha doing extremely well). We were sucked out of the airport at peak hour — or is it like this all the time? – into a tidal wave of cycle riders. From our cab we watched them surge, ebb and flow around us, joining us in a close fraternity when all caught at the lights together, fleeing when released, and weaving and wending with and through us when we all had a bit of speed up. The vast majority do not ride with any helmet or other protection. So the compact gathering at each set of lights creates opportunity to talk to each other in a way the cacoon of a sedan does not. Some admire the others bike. Others are clearly chatting about clothes. The rider demographic is as diverse as the community. Grandparents through to newborn infants were spotted on our ride into town. Perhaps most startling were the two young chaps riding with four slabs of plate glass, held upright by the pillion. Each plate was about one metre wide and they were about 2.5 metres tall. Images of accidents flashed through our minds but so too the thought of the weight of the glass. That motorbike must have been doing it hard. We should not forget the humble push bike in all this. Younger folk, and especially girls seemed to prefer these. The old bicycles, and such were most of them, sit their rider high off the ground, and these short statured people have to fully extend themselves to reach the pedals. The effect is a slight bobbing and high knee action being performed by a rider forced to maintain a very erect posture. Add to that picture the girls who are wearing traditional garb and you have a rather quaint and very proper cyclist

Ho Chi Minh City ( I )

October 25, 2006

October 2004

We bumped out of Singapore through muscled clouds that flashed and dropped rain on the Straits, finally clearing across their boiling tops into bright sunshine and a slight feeling of relief. As we bore north the hazy coastline of Malaysia kept us company on the left until geography and navigation separated us and we whispered along on our own for a while. The first sighting of Vietnam occurred when glancing down and “discovering” the Mekong, or rather a large substantial arm of it. Cook’s Young Nick would have missed his rum ration for such a late discovery but such is air travel. As we sank towards our destination a clear day presented a vast green and flat vista, peppered with white blocks and dots of (farm) houses. Drawing closer we found these clustered more and more tightly together, gathering palms and foliage around them until there was quite a collection of green laced hamlets making for a very scenic view. Sheening through it all the hard steel blue and grey of water, lit off occasionally by blinding white as slabs of sun reflected back to us. We flew almost a complete 270 degree circle of the city to finally land, a circuit which presented us with plenty to absorb. The river with its busy shipping, although with many trading activities happening on its banks rather than in one major port facility. Cement plants are noticeable by their number – that is, cement clinker production rather than the final wet product. Perhaps indicative of the pressing as well as the opportunistic needs felt around here right now. Wide open gardens and colonial residences. But mainly box on box poor mans housing, sprinkled with the occasional new residence with a tiled rood.

Land and turn off the runway to rain stained views of fighter and bomber revetments, open and closed, reminders still of the Vietnam War. And then be reminded that this whole experience is about slowing down (we have just finished an IPO and need to recharge) – clearing immigration is a slow shuffling process. We edge our way towards an immigration official sunk in a low chair into his booth. He is careful about his job, meticulous but slow. Anything out of routine is cause for pause and the damp which caused the wrinkled pages in Judy’s passport had him leave his bunker of glass and timber and consult with a colleague. Never mind that the visa was in order. We are finally squeezed out onto Ho Chi Minh City, into a pleasant thirty degrees, the polite smile of a crowd clearly used to waiting, and a small cardboard sign which read “Pickled Eel, Vietnam is this way” with a thin arrow pointing to the left. Humour intended, and humour induced, helping set the tone for the rest of the visit immediately.

Dog Girl of Bangkok

October 24, 2006

I discovered Lumpini Park ten years ago. Countless thousands of Thais and others found it before me but it was a discovery nonetheless. It is a jade green oasis in the middle of a gritty city which offers some respite from the madness of the streets. Back in Lumpini, with my throat catching on the bite of cooking fire smoke drifting in from the surrounding streets, I am reminded of why I liked this oasis back then. Old gents herald their presence by the click click click of drafts pieces being stamped across a drafts board. In the fading light and through the humidity you search them out and discover them crouched around a stone table in the deep green jade light shadow of a rubber tree. Paraded in neat rows are elderly folk, some in wheel chairs pulled up on the lawn, some waiting to carry out their fatigue performing Tai Chi movements, some exercising and everyone out and socialising. Water half heartedly flops out of a fountain but the soothing acoustic effect is what counts. Couples paddle in row boats or paddle boats on the lake which simpers like the onomatopoeic park name suggests – limpid, green, hinting at depths which will not be there. Unselfconsciously a young man, hair pulled back in a bun, performs a rigorous callisthenics workout in front of me on the lake’s edge. Drifting in and out of the smoke are the occasional hints if liniment, imposed on us by wiry middle aged men who run like there is no tomorrow, competing with each other to beat the clock or impress the girls. They have a crew cut air of military or police personnel. Maybe that is what this striving is really about – they have their physical assessments coming up.

It has now just gone six o’clock. The national anthem has been played over the requisite tinny speaker system – callisthenics, rowing and clicking have been transformed into postures of “attention” for a moment or two and now the park seems to be emptying. A band has started up on the other side of the park, a warm breeze is pushing through the trees on this little island on which I sit, a sad cat wanders past and gives me a hopeful eye (sorry, not carrying any food) and the darkness deepens in a smoggy, velvety way, draping itself over you. As it does the numerous 12 volt bulbs lighting up the cooking carts in the middle distance get brighter and the geckos at this table get more active and numerous. I sentimentally feel that Lumpini rediscovered is a little like coming back home.

Shortly after six a guard (a gardener a little earlier perhaps?) appears, resplendent with medals and braid and pressed uniform and in perfectly clear sign language informs me the gates were closing on the island. Then jumping onto his pushbike rides furiously over to the gate, jumps off and waits to usher me out. Unfailingly polite he pushes his palms together in the sign for prayer, points his conjoined fingertips to his chin and politely bows. An imperative has never been so invitingly put. Iron fist in a velvet glove was the sarcastic and ungracious thought that came to mind – these people could not be more polite if they tried.

A few fat, warm drops of rain discovered the bridge as I drifted over it but the hissing of rain on the lake suggested something a little more agitated to come. Sure enough, within a minute or two the bath water warmth rain was sheeting down. The aerobics class under the yellow lights continues to their crazy beat but is a little thinned out as a result of the downpour. Small pagodas scattered around the park rapidly fill up as families seek shelter. Joggers keep jogging. Sheltering in the lee of a handy acacia on the waters edge I lost myself in the moment. Rain hissed. Acacia flowers rained into the water, their kissing the surface luring catfish to investigate, these arriving in a swirl and departing in same. One lay up on the surface with its mouth open, as if hunting fresh rain water. When done he silently slipped back to wherever he came from. Petals drifted down, leaves bounced, ducks waddled across the lawn in pleasure and despite the shelter my shirt slowly became translucent and stuck to my back. So dampened, the thought crossed my mind that it would be best not to go near any air-conditioned building until I had dried out – I would freeze.

And so I did – the lure of a banana waffle put me into an air-conditioned shop where I chilled out – literally. But a couple of hours on now and the water on the pavement from all the rain has risen as fast as it fell and the damp air makes you perspire even when sitting still. At my feet is a dun dog. Ears drop below centre like an old bullock and gives him a weary air. He flops to the pavement and lies motionless except for soulful eyes which slowly scan. Even an itch invites a slow turning of his head to his belly where an even slower gnaw induces stupor and he flops back on his side. Three of his buddies lie on the path with him, suffering the heat at this night hour, the only sign of life being rolling eyes. I have propped here to try and capture some of the flavour. Pretty hard when the scape changes so dramatically every few minutes.

To my right is the ubiquitous building shrine with a gold god, burning incense and plenty of light. A few teenage boys sit around as 14 year olds do anywhere. Beside them, sitting on a step is a petite Thai girl, short skirt, knees and feet tucked together, eating her dinner – a plate of rice and who knows what. Motorcycles idle past with young men picking up their office working girls who all seem to carry shopping and who all look immaculate. Sukhimvit Road is to my left. Its attracted a whistle blower. In fact a herd of them and for some reason incomprehensible to me they whistle a constant blast imagining all the while they are directing traffic. Arms move nearly as quickly as the whistle blasts. Tuk tuk driver pulls up and yells hello. I pretend not to hear him – to answer is to invite a conversation I will not be able to stop. Or worse, an offer of help when I don’t want one. Gas lamps illuminate the food carts in front of me and the heat of the wood fired braziers wafts over on occasions. Seared fish is slipped into plastic bags for hungry diners who don’t have time to stop. Kebabs of every size, shape and colour cook next door on another mobile food cart. What look like yellow balloons turn out to be octopus kebabs.

One of the dogs flops over to reveal swollen teats. I wonder where her pups are. Young fellow helps a girl push her food cart up the ramp past me. Full of coconuts with inserted straws. The cart that is. Smiling, they bow their thanks to each other and disappear into the crowds, moving in opposite directions. Beside the food stands two men sell watches, beautifully highlighted by the 12 volt bulbs which also no doubt hide the imperfections of these fakes. Beside them a young girl sells from a mound of those padded bras the Asians seem to love so much. Immediately opposite an old man, feet curled up beneath him, sells a range of fruit that makes you wonder where he sources them. Uh oh, all the dogs (OK, four of them) are electric. Up and following a girl on a bicycle. Now six dogs. Heat forgotten.

She props her bike and squats on her heels, the dogs crowding around in silence. She pats them all, checks their ears and eyes and teeth. Turns their heads around. Checks every angle. I move closer to try and take a photo but the dogs get jumpy and start barking. She tells me she loves dogs and feeds them raw chicken and duck each night after work. A lovely little vignette of life on the street and I wander back to my perch. She told me she looks after 40 dogs here! In all this madness as well! Crowd all the little food carts together, and leave room for two single file lanes of pedestrian traffic, add all the sounds and smoke and dust of bus and truck engines and movement (roar, belch, grind), the sound of 1000 lawnmowers (read “two stroke motorcycles”), the smell of damp concrete, the fragrance of incense constantly on the air, the flood of people drifting past (fortunately not even the occasional tourist is in a hurry) and you have a strange site for an animal drop in centre. I have been sitting still long enough now for one of the dogs to leave his raw duck and wander over and gaze at me. Wonder what is going through his head. It clearly wonders too and goes back to the duck. As I leave the area I give the dog girl of Bangkok a wave. She does not see me – she is busy wiping the nose of one cur with a tissue. Truly she loves dogs.

Bangkok February 2004

The (Saudi) Punjabi Cricket Club

October 23, 2006

The heat hammers off the asphalt and at 45 degrees everything shimmers to attention. Or sags completely. The last puddles, quite deep enough to sodden socks in shoes last night are now mostly gone. Indeed, footprints left in a mud patch last evening are now fossilised. None of this is allowed to get in the way of the weekly cricket game. Played by a group of young men, salted with three or four seniors and a boy of about ten, they seem oblivious to the heat although those fielders with a tree nearby quickly sidle from assigned positions to a shady spot.

The field is non existent save for some vague spot in the imagination. It is about as far from the village green as you can get. Except maybe that wicket I once found in the slums of Mumbai (another story for another time). The wicket is a wide section of road and car park. The occasional vehicle disrupts play but as a general rule traffic is non existent on this holy day. The asphalt merges into the clay and gravel which marks most of this part of the world. Not a stitch of grass in sight. But laid out after the fashion of an orchard is a surrounding grid work of small trees, not too dissimilar to olives but lacking that distinctive sheen.

From my side of the wicket, perched atop some stairs and under some convenient tree shade the fielders are only vaguely present in the game, becoming only visible as they dart out from under their protective trees if a ball comes near – like small fish departing the safety of a pile to snatch at some loose bait and whipping quickly back again to their shelter. The normal cricket banter, sledging and good humour is obvious even though the language is indecipherable. A lot of humour is had at the expense of one young bowler who appeals at every swing at his ball.

Now here is a curious thing – the ball has the appearance of a solid, leather clad, red cricket ball. But in fact it is a well taped tennis ball. I watched as one was thrown in from the “field” and refurbished. Stripping the tape from the ball a young man adroitly wound a fresh two layers of red electrical tape around the tennis ball and returned it to the umpire. Batters managed to thump these a fair distance and reactions by some of the fielders suggested they could still nip you if your fingers were allowed to get in the way.

The group was primarily Pakistani although there were some Indians in the mix and a socks and sandals wearing Saudi joined the sideline and the lively spirit of the competition. Come prayer time (a nearby mosque let us know in loud and strident terms but there are so many mosques in this town the calls are echoed forever in every direction) the mats were dragged out and Mecca aligned but to my surprise, and delight, the game was not allowed to stop. Prayers were conducted in shifts and those on the field bowed, stood, bowed, stood and otherwise carried out their ritual only once their team was bowled out and they returned to the sideline. There is something refreshing about the way they accept each others practise of their religion. Equally there seems to be no rancour aimed at those who do not pray.

This game was also notable for the variety of flannels allowed by the “club”. Some players turned up in tracksuits and runners. These are the fanatics and led the sides. Others were dressed in “labourer casual”. But a handful were dressed in their traditional robes and sandals and these seemed to be struggling in the heat. Hey, they were all struggling in the heat. Having just learned that shorts were verboten it was interesting to see that, despite the heat all were in long pants or otherwise had their legs covered. Or was this really “club rules”?

I almost forgot – as light hearted as this game was, the serious edge was reflected in the fact that a scorebook was carefully kept. Beautifully embossed on its mock leather cover was the title of The Punjabi Cricket Club. I had to laugh. Entirely appropriate pretense, inappropriate place. And filched from someone’s storeroom in another country and reverently attended to like a holy book in this holy land.

But this bearded Taliban-look-alike bunch of cricketers are extremely friendly and engaging. When the fielding team arrived off field they all walked up and shook hands with those who had arrived after the game had commenced, myself included. Improperly clad I had to turn down a handful of invitations to play. Next Friday I should be better prepared.

Riyadh, August 2005

An Arab Lunch

October 19, 2006

The sand and dust create a haze around the sun but not sufficient to ease the 46 degree heat or the glare that radiates off buildings, and walls, even those whitewashed ones on either side of the lane down which we bounce. Acacias bend in the oven wind and move their shade from one side of the street to the other, their fine leaves coated in dust and adding to the sense of oppression. The streets are deserted even though it is the middle of the day. Turn down a narrow, wind whipped, dusty lane with high whitewashed walls, sad acacias, barred doors and few windows. We pull up at a bronze coloured metal gate with bulky levers and bolts. For a brief moment we are the only ones in the street but are quickly urged inside and the bronze door, as heavy as that on a vault is silently pressed shut to keep out the heat. Immediately in front of us is the arched ceiling of a fairly cavernous house, the main accommodation. In the hall is an old Bell and Howell projector, gathering dust. It is sitting on an equally weathered Phillips turntable, the timber of its base warped and split. When was a turntable last made with timber?

The main house is not our destination. Like lions the men always eat first and we turn right and stoop through a doorway into the “men’s room”, a cool pleasant place with cushions lining the walls and a TV screen running a movie in Arabic. Seven men are standing and welcoming us, all with the air of guilty children having been caught out. They shuffle their feet, all bare, and are very self-conscious. I try my “salams” and offer my hand to the closest person. He offers his hand but the minor gaff soon sorts everyone out – I should have shaken hands with the host. He presents himself immediately for to embarrass a guest is a sin. From there I am introduced around to everyone after which I am asked to take a seat on a cushion. Everyone relaxes rapidly, taking their cue from my “salam” and having a shot at “hello”. They laugh and grin and reveal themselves to be a very friendly bunch. Carefully bend towards the cushions in a kind of knee cracking squat, then collapse, making sure every move you make does not have you point the soles of your feet at anyone. Try that in a crowded room and see how much a conscious effort it becomes. A plate of dates is offered and a small cup. Unlike in China quaff the hot contents as quickly as you can and accept the offer of more. They call it coffee but it is not like any coffee you have ever tasted. A dash of powdered herbs is thrown in your cup before the hot fluid is added, a mix that I have yet to completely discern. Cinnamon, yes. The rest, I have no idea. But it is hot and sweet and spicy and nicely mulled and you can’t get enough of it. But you have to wait as one of the men offers a dash and a dollop to everyone else.

Pleasantries are offered. Everyone tries one or two words of English then offer, in English, an apology for not knowing any more English. A bit like my own trick of having my own most fluent Bahasa being an apology for not being fluent in Bahasa. But somehow we all get through. Our host is a Saudi diplomat based in Yemen. We share jokes about the drug chewing Yemeni’s, my puffed cheeks emulating a qat chewing Yemeni and immediately everyone is laughing and doing the same thing. One of the younger fellows is a cadet in the air force. He knows Tornados and F-15s but when I show him photos of Soviet aircraft in Yemen he is lost. But no less intrigued, and later I draw pictures and scribble names in an aircraft recognition lesson that gets across the language barriers and has everyone engaged. A drawing pencil is a catalyst for much humour, usually at my own expense, and a good way to bring down barriers. Short of being able to speak the lingo in the first place which would always help.

Coffee and date aperitif behind us our hosts motion us to the centre of the floor. Someone jumps up to wash his hands and we all follow. Then we are back on the floor, mindful of where the soles are pointing. Most sit on one foot and lean on the other knee to avoid causing an offence. Others tuck their feet away and I copy them. It costs me later when I try and stand up. We are spaced around a large shallow dish a little over one metre in diameter, all under the wraps of aluminium foil. Other smaller dishes of hummus are placed around and each is given bread to rip apart and otherwise use as a spoon or vehicle for getting various foodstuffs into your mouth. The foil comes off. For some reason I was expecting chicken. It is mutton. With a difference. The cadet, with some command of English, proudly declares “sheep”. I smile and nod and try not to look surprised. The sheep’s head is lying in a bed of rice. My grandfather was a butcher and would have been appalled at the lack of finesse in delivering this meat to the table. The nostrils have been cleavered off and the face bones remain splintered up the nasal bridge and across the forehead. What has been the skin is drawn tight across the head and has been reduced to a highly psychedelic yellow, no doubt the result of however many herbs and spices infused in the fat. The eyeballs are blackened and shrunken but remain in place. And the cheeks have been smashed off to reveal the teeth and lower jaw. The effect is that of some bizarre animal grinning at us while we eat. Sweetmeats, as in our own European heritage, are delicacies and various cooked pieces are placed among the sea of rice. Liver was the obvious and I happily chewed away on these, knowing that while I was doing so they were unlikely to dig out something more exotic and insist I try it. I was content to let them prize the jaw open and squabble over the tongue at the end, pushing their hands into the grinning maw and getting their fingers around whatever slippery tongue they could. Right hand only and no utensils. A bit tricky. Apparently the eating of the tongue signalled lunch was over.

Indeed, observe through all this that you are only allowed to use your right hand. Use one hand only to try and pull mutton of splintered shanks. An extra set of fingers would help sort through those bone fragments. Try and separate tendon from muscle with one set of slippery fingers. It’s all good fun. Fortunately a large plastic sheet has been spread under us so spillage is expected and accepted. Plunge your hand into the bed of rice, crimp it into as tight a ball as you can and get it into your mouth. The rice is laced with saffron, and sultanas and pepper, and is as light a feed of this grain as you will ever find. I love it. But that fist full never quite compresses correctly and if we were outside the pigeons would have been in heaven. I had rice all over the place although careful watching of the others helped me refine the technique to the point where most was getting to my mouth on the first attempt. Alternate mutton with rice with hummus, take a swig of Pepsi to remove the taste of the hummus and start the cycle again.

Signalling you are done is easy but only if you have any circulation – simply push back from the centre of the room and recline on the cushions. I discovered I couldn’t push back, my legs were so locked up, so did the most idiotic thing and tried to stand up – those rice covered hands needed a wash after all. Rising to low couch was about all I could do before falling back and realising I would have to wait until the blood got going again. After washing our hands one of the men went around splashing a perfume into them, which everyone vigorously rubbed across their necks and arms. The moment we were so scented and all back on our cushions the uneaten food was whisked into the main house where the women and children took over. Hot, sweet, honey tan coloured tea is then poured into shot glasses and a few of these see the ritual complete.

However the visit is not. The diplomat’s father takes me into an adjoining room where he proudly shows off a collection of old bits and pieces which he calls his museum. Old grain grinding stones, ancient looking tools, not so ancient record players (he has a thing about these), swords, a 1929 .30 calibre German Mauser, medals from goodness knows where and more fabrics with family stories than I could take in. A heart stopping moment when he threw me a plastic bag of old cartridges to admire, most corroded with lead salts, but including several large 48 calibre Holland and Holland elephant busters along with the usual Enfield .303 suspects. I relaxed a little once I was able to see that all of the primers had been impacted. We “talk” guns and swords and old times and admire all sorts of flotsam and jetsam before repairing back to the cushions to smoke, pick toenails and shoot the breeze. Then all of a sudden it is “shookrans”, “you’re welcomes” and “come again”s and we are out the door and into the oven of a street where, after the dim light of the men’s room (there are no windows), the light hammers off the walls and out of the dusty sky and makes you pause to consider. The street is still deserted.

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