2011/11/14

Eid-al-Adha

The great Medina of Tunis was completely empty, the light blue shutters of the shops presenting themselves to smooth, cobbled alleys and hiding their store of wares. Not a single person was to be seen, but a few stray cats prowled the occasional rubbish pile. It was Eid-al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, one of the major holidays in the Islamic calendar, when everyone goes home to be with their families and lambs are slaughtered to remember the sacrifice the prophet Abraham was willing to make.

Not only the Medina, but the whole city of Tunis, normally a buzzing, loud, busy place, was shut down. A few people could be seen hurrying home, and a few unlucky soldiers were guarding the empty government buildings. Here and there in some quiet street corner a group of men would be barbequeing a lamb's head or some other body part using a blowtorch, and here and there splotches of dried blood on the pavement show where an animal had been slaughtered. Apart from the slaughtering, the only other activity that could be observed on the streets of Tunis was the occasional rattling of an empty tram as it trundled towards or away from the central terminus. The trams that day were free, given that all the inspectors and ticket sellers had gone home. Even the youth hostel was opened by a middle-aged European lady, who said: "The manager isn't here. It's a holiday you know, everyone has gone home. I think I'm running the place now!" She's a guest herself and had been staying in the hostel the past month.

***


[Caption: statue at Civitavecchia, port of Rome (left); embarking (right).]

Two days earlier I had booked the ferry in Civitavecchia, bound for Tunis. The previous boat was booked out, and this one was packed full, possibly overcrowded. In the walkways, gangways, in the cafes, everywhere, there were prone bodies or groups huddled together and chatting. It seemed like the whole Tunisian community in Europe was going home. In my cabin were three Tunisian gentlemen working in Switzerland. One spoke English and was from Sfax, another kept dancing and making funny faces, and the third alternated between terrorist jokes and lecturing very seriously about Islam. They make the journey often, and told me the boat is usually one-third full. Unusually, it was also late in departure due to bad weather, and when we finally slipped out into the Tyrrhenian Sea at around 11pm, it felt more like being on a dingy rather than a large passenger boat.

The weather didn't clear the next day either, and we docked in Palermo to see it out. This meant an extra day's delay, and since Eid was on the following day, the passengers were not happy! A large crowd had gathered at the reception and several people were shouting angrily at the stewards. Most of the passengers sat resignedly or paced the decks, smoking and drinking coffee. In order to placate the crowd the stewards announced that there would be free dinner for all passengers beginning at 7pm.

Now, the diner itself is quite small, being able to sit about 100 people in a squeeze. In an overcrowded boat full of anxious and nervous passengers this announcement was asking for trouble! By 6:40pm the entrance to the diner (whose glass doors were closed) was completely packed full of people. You could hardly move an arm, and once in the crowd it was impossible to escape, you simply moved with the crowd.

By 6:50pm there was some chanting and screaming by a few "ringleaders". By 7pm the doors hadn't opened, so a few people jumped the small fence separating the queue from the diner, which of course made more people want to jump in or exchange angry words. The poor security guard was completely helpless, and by 7:20pm when the cooks were finally ready to serve, the crowd was a ravenous mob. The guard nervously unlocked the glass doors and whoosh! A mass of screaming, pushing men surged into the entrance, and only the arrival of more guards stemmed the flow by the frantic closing of the doors.

This process continued: once the queue inside the diner was manageable, the nervous guard unlocked the door and whoosh! A crush of swirling bodies, some people facing odd directions, others pinioned onto columns or wall features - and just as quickly as it started it stopped - the diner queuing area was completely full within seconds and the guards managed to shut the glass doors. The mob was stuck again into a frozen mass, hungrily eyeing those already eating in the diner, waiting for the next nervous opening of the doors.


[Caption: Palermo and the mountains of Sicily, the pilot coming out (left); waiting for underdone fish and overdone beans aboard the ferry (right).]

***

We finally arrived in Tunis bay the next morning, 12 hours late. It was the day of Eid. The skies were blue, the sea shimmering under the low, autumn sun. The green hills of Africa loomed in the near horizon and the white-washed houses of Sidi Bou Said twinkled on the starboard beam. A few freighters were at anchor inthe bay, keeping us company.


[Caption: Tunis harbour, the day of Eid (left); the empty medina of Tunis (right).]

Half an hour later, I noticed the same scene. The exact same scene - the boat had stopped! It was Eid and apparently the harbour pilot wouldn't be coming out for another 2 hours! We finally docked at noon, and having learnt from my previous mistake I stayed well away from the crowd gathering on the lower deck and instead observed the disembarkment from the upper weather deck. Tiny people were streaming out of the ferry, cars were honking madly with joy, and the people would very soon be home.

video video
[Caption: a happy mob disembarking in Tunis (left); a happy mob singing aboard the ferry (right).]

2011/11/05

Gravehunting in Zurich - in search of Felix Bloch

"... He is buried on the side of a mountain that overlooks the city of Zurich.". The biographical memoir of physicist Felix Bloch concludes with this esoteric note*. Enlightened quantum-spiritually after our recent course in quantum mechanics at ETH, Dan and I had to find and pay homage to this Nobel Prize winner and former student of physics and mathematics at our university.


As a student, Bloch regularly attended the physics colloquia, held jointly by ETH and the University of Zürich , where stalwarts like Peter Debye and Erwin Schrödinger discussed and lectured on the recent advances in theoretical and experimental physics in Europe. He recalls the day when Debye asked Schrödinger to express his views on the strange new hypothesis put forward by de Broglie on wave-particle duality. Schrödinger gave an excellent summarization of how de Broglie's wave hypothesis could be used to get the exact atomic quantization rules developed by Niels Bohr and Arnold Sommerfield, in terms of integral multiple of waves that can fit a spatial atomic orbit. Terming this description as childish, Debye asked, "If it's a wave, there's got to be a wave equation". A few weeks later, at the same colloquia, Schrödinger announced, "My colleague Debye suggested that one should have a wave equation; well I have found one!". This talk formed the basis for the first of a series of papers in Annalen der Physik, and was titled  Quantization as Eigenvalue Problem. Five of the individuals mentioned in this short paragraph were awarded the Nobel Prize.


Such was the epoch, that Felix Bloch lived, studied and worked in, witnessing the progressive upheaval of physics and a quantum leap in our understanding of the atomic world. After his studies in Zürich, he went to Leipzig, to join as the first graduate student of Werner Heisenberg. Later, he found himself in the beurlaubungen compilation circulated by John von Neumann, of scientists in Nazi-Germany who were "forced to leave, and who's  name was on The List". This may have been the basis for the professorship at Stanford University, and Bloch left European academia, emigrating to the U.S in 1934. Felix Bloch received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1952, for his work in nuclear magnetic resonance.

The plan was drawn up. Find him, and find him fast.

With no other clue than the cryptic statement in his memoir, and the fact that Felix Bloch was Jewish, we set out with the addresses of the twenty or so graveyards in Zurich. The city center of Zurich lies nestled between several hills, and most of the friedhofs (german for cemeteries) were located on hillsides overlooking the city. So much for the help from the note! Maybe he was an atheist, but the chances of him being buried in a jewish friedhof were high. We decided to check the twin jewish cemeteries at Friesenberg. A short walk from the Friesenberg railway stop on the S10 line going up to Uetliberg, we arrived at the Israelitischer Friedhof (Unterer Friesenberg). A frosty January morning, there was not a single soul in the cemetery. We noticed a wooden hoarding of the Orientierungsplan (Direction Plan) , damaged and decaying, the moisture seeping in through the broken glass paneling. 


 Next to the mausoleum-like building, which we later learned to be the abdications hall (die Abdankungshalle ) , we found a register with names, grave numbers and the dates of death. 


 Dew drops clung onto the thin plastic films which enclosed the printed name lists. We realized that Bloch seemed to be a popular Jewish surname, noticing three pages of Blochs. From the dates of death printed alongside each name, it was clear that there had been no burials after the mid-1950s, most probably due to lack of space, we concluded.  


 Dejected, but resilient, we decided to continue our search in the cemetery at oberer Frieseberg.



This cemetery seemed to be better off than the dilapidated conditions at unterer Friesenberg. There seemed to be signs of life and activity at the cemetery office. We noticed two workers smoking, taking a break off from work, while another one walked away, carrying a huge pair of shears.


 We found the register with the name list at the cemetery office. With a sense of  impending thrill, we hurriedly flipped the pages to the surname Bloch. There it was! Right in the center of the page, "Bloch, Felix 7559 10.09.1983" . 


Wasting no time, we found the Friedhof Orientierungsplan, and identified the plot marked N, which housed the graves, marked from 7509 to 7769.

Gloomy excitement is the only description of how we felt, as we swiftly walked past eerie rows of tombstones with their cryptic hebrew epitaphs. 



The hebrew equivalent of here lies is פה נקבר  (po nikbar) and its abbreviation פנ (p n) is inscribed on most tombstones.


Walking along the graveled pathway, there it was, a marker with the grave number 7559, poking out from the dense bush of creepers.



A simple tombstone with no lithographic frills, the epitaph stated " Here lies...Felix Bloch...1905-1983 ". There was no embossed Magen David (Star of David) nor the hand symbol on the stone. A fresh mound of snow lay around, but no cut flowers, wreaths, yahrzeit candles, nor any visible signs of bereavement and care.


To honor his memory and pay respects, we wished to place something beside the grave. As we looked around, we noticed small pebbles and stones neatly piled on top of the surrounding tombstones. Some of the tombstones, had one or two of them, while others had many, placed with no apparent ordering on the narrow stone ledge. We sensed the importance of these stones, but did not know the exact reason why they were kept there.



We picked up three pebbles and neatly arranged them on top of the tombstone, to remember and honor the memory of the former student of ETH and Nobel Prize winner, Felix Bloch.



* www.nasonline.org/site/DocServer/Bloch_Felix.pdf?docID=74047 Felix Bloch (1905 - 1983) - A Biographical Memoir by Robert Hofstadter ( published by the National Academy of Science ) 

2011/10/08

Preface to "At the Orchid Pavilion"

"This is the ninth year of Yonghe (353 A.D.), kueichou in the cycle. We met in late spring at the Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin to celebrate the Water Festival.

All the scholar friends are gathered, and there is a goodly mixture of old and young. In the background lie high peaks and deep forests, while a clear, gurgling brook catches the light to the right and to the left. We then arrange ourselves, sitting on its bank, drinking in succession from the goblet as it floats down the stream. No music is provided, but with drinking and with song, our hearts are gay and at ease. It is a clear spring day with a mild, caressing breeze. The vast universe, throbbing with life, lies spread before us, entertaining the eye and pleasing the spirit and all the senses. It is perfect.

Now when men come together, they let their thoughts travel to the past and the present. Some enjoy a quiet conversation indoors and others play about outdoors, occupied with what they love. The forms of amusement differ according to temperaments, but when each has found what he wants he is happy and never feels old. Then as time passes on and one is tired of his pursuits, it seems that what fascinated him not so long ago has become a mere memory. What a thought! Besides, whether individually we live a long life or not, we all return to nothingness. The ancients regarded death as the great question. Is it not sad to think of it?

I often thought that the people of the past lived and felt exactly as we of today. Whenever I read their writings I felt this way and was seized with its pathos. It is cool comfort to say that life and death are different phases of the same thing and that a long span of life or a short one does not matter. Alas! The people of the future will look upon us as we look upon those who have gone before us. Hence I have recorded here those present and what they said. Ages may pass and times may change, but the human sentiments will be the same. I know that future readers who set their eyes upon these words will be affected in the same way."

-- Wang XiZhi (321-379), often referred to as the "Sage of Calligraphy". He is particularly remembered for one of his hobbies, that of rearing geese. Legend has it that he learned that the key to how to turn his wrist whilst writing was to observe how geese moved their necks. The translation is by Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who also provided the following introduction:

[This piece by Wang XiZhi, the "Prince of Calligraphists," has an unusual and most distinguished history. The original manuscript was regarded as so priceless that it was said to have been buried with the great founder of the Tang Dynasty, Tang TaiZong. Many rubbings from the stone inscription of the script through the succeeding centuries provide a history of the gradual partial erosion of the carving in stone, and students date these rubbings according to the condition of a particular stroke in a given character. The earliest we have now is the Tingwu rubbing of the eleventh century, the stone itself having been lost during a northern invasion. The peculiarity of this precious script is that Wang himself later made a clean copy of it, but failed to recapture the beauty and absolute spontaneity of the first draft. So it was the first draft, with its deletions and insertions, which was inscribed in stone.]


2011/10/03

Red light (part 3 of 3)

### ChongQing, China ###

ChongQing is one of the four directly controlled municipalities in China (the others being Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai), and it's greater region has a population of over 30 million in an area the size of Ireland. The city itself is built into the mountains beside the Yangtze river, and served as the wartime capital of China during the second world war. Because the area is so mountainous, the Japanese could never locate the headquarters of Generalisimo JiangJie Shi or General Stillwell.

Before the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river was built, the waters were turbulent, but now, due to the locks on the dam and the controlling of the waters, ChongQing is the furtherest inland port which can be reached by ocean-going vessels. This makes the city a very important trade center, where produce from neighbouring districts can be easily shipped down river. This honour once belonged to Wuhan, before the building of the dam, and this is why the furthest inland foreign concessions were at Wuhan (The Russians, French, Germans, British, and Japanese all had concessions there). The city is also known as one of the three "hotpots of China", due to its unbearable heat and humidity, the other two being Wuhan and Nanjing.


[Caption: Chongqing with sinking boat (left). A bridge under construction (center). The locks of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river (right).]

I arrived in ChongQing at midnight, by train from SiChuan province. Walking out of the air-conditioned train station into the midnight air was like walking into a blast furnace, and the first thing I could think of was to find an air-conditioned hotel or hostel. The first hotel I came across was a giant skyscraper of a building, and it looked like a four star at least. Entering the lobby confirmed my suspicions, the nightly rate was over 1000 yuan (about $150AUD), which was way over my means. So I asked the receptionist if she knew a cheaper place.

-- "Ah, but we have some cheap rooms going for 300 yuan if you like. They're on the third floor, why don't you take a look?"

So I went to the third floor where there was a separate lobby. The receptionist there showed me a room and I took it straight away since it was well past midnight and the place had air-conditioning. The room looked a little odd though, quite small, without a desk or chair, and the bed was like a massage bed where one end could be folded up so that it became like a couch. There was a TV though, so I thought nothing of it and slept a dreamless sleep.

The next day I went to see an acquaintance in the city, and we ate a hotpot together. This is the city dish, where a pot with very spicy broth bubbles in front of you and you put in fresh vegetables and raw meat to cook, like a fondue. We ordered the least spiciest broth on the spiciness scale, and it was enough to make my eyes water. The other popular city snack funnily enough is fresh fruit salad with ice shavings and a bit of sweetener.


[Caption: The city of Chongqing (left). The sleeping Buddha at Dazu, near Chongqing (right).]

When I arrived back at the hotel, on the third floor, things seemed a little strange. There were a few ladies hanging around wearing one piece dresses, the hemline up to their thighs. There were also a few businessmen about, chatting with the ladies. I began a conversation with a man in the lobby, who was working in the hotel in some capacity. As we ended the conversation and I started towards my room, he said something to me in Chinese which roughly translates as:

-- "Hey! Maybe you'd like one of these lovelies to keep you company for a bit?" (The exact phrase in Pinyin was: "Yao bu yao meimei pei ni liao tian?")

I looked at the ladies again and a mental veil was lifted. They had awful make-up on, with bright blue eye-shade, and all of them had unnaturally large breasts straining to pop out of their tiny dresses. Some of them were sitting next to suited businessmen, stroking their thighs and fluttering their eyes.

-- "No thanks", I croaked, as I walked away in a stupor, realising that I was staying in a brothel.

As I passed the reception of this "hotel" within a hotel, I stopped to talk to the receptionist to try to clear my mind and get a grasp of the whole situation. I was quite shocked, and had to make some small talk to get a sense of normality. The receptionist was placing some towels and some pink oblong objects in a tray, so I innocently asked:

-- "What are those?"
-- "Condoms", she giggles.

They're so obviously condoms that I make a mental facepalm as I nod slowly, with a face like a dead fish, and walk away towards my room again. This time I don't talk to anyone else.


[Caption: My "bed" in ChongQing, basically a chair with fold-down backrest and a foot stool.]


Some honourable mentions:
-------------------------

### Mashhad, Iran ###

In the early 9th century, Ali al-Reza the 8th Imam and 7th descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, was allegedly poisoned by the future caliph Al-Ma'mun, for political reasons. After the death of Al-Ma'mun's father, Harun the Just, the Abbasid empire was split between his two sons: Al-Amin had the support of the Arabs, and Al-Ma'mun had the support of Persia. This situation quickly escalated into civil war, and to further cement his position among the Persians, Al-Ma'mun named the 8th Imam as his successor. However, once this move paid political dividends, Al-Ma'mun allegedly used poisoned grapes to remove Al-Reza. The 8th Imam Reza was buried next to Harun the Just, and over time this place became a shrine, and then a mosque, and then the city of Mashhad, which means "Place of Martyrdom".


[Caption: At the Imam Reza shrine, Mashhad, Iran.]

Mashhad is the second largest holy city in the world, and is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims. The shrine of Imam Reza is the largest mosque in the world, and each year over 20 million pilgrims visit the site. I knew none of this as I arrived in Mashhad, on a bus from the deserts of Turkmenistan. I thought it was simply another big city where I could finally get a proper bed (the previous night was spent in a watchtower which belonged to a police officer in Sarakhs). It was 4pm and the streets were deserted. I found out later that in Iran there is also an afternoon siesta when businesses shut down.

I managed to spot a pizza restaurant which was still open though, and my stomach hurried me over. I sat down and ordered and the guy at the counter took the order and looked at me curiously. Pretty soon two cooks joined him and surrounded me at my table.

-- "Where are you from?"
-- "Australia", I smile, just in case.
-- "Ah! Australia!", one of them says, "how are the women there, nice? Good..." Then he made a hand-signal which was the thumb and forefinger close together, looking like a duck's beak horizontally, but vertically it looks like, well...
-- "Er, yeah...nice..." I say weakly.
-- "You want nice Iranian girl? Twenty US dollars an hour."

I looked at the three of them, who stood surrounding my small table, unsmilingly, like interrogators, their shadows falling on my pizza. They were deadly serious too.

-- "No thanks", I squeaked.

Just like in Zurich: apart from a chap at the bus stop, they were the first people I talked to in the holy city of Mashhad.


[Caption: The Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran. Note the guards with the brightly coloured feather dusters.]


### Venice, Italy ###

After the receptionist at the hostel, the first Italians I talked to in Venice were also cooks in a pizza shop. There were only two of them this time, so my odds were a little better. The conversation went something like this:


[Caption: Venice.]

-- "Hey! Where are you from?" says one of the smiling cooks.
-- "Australia", I smile back.
-- "Ah! Australia! How are the Australian girls? Nice?" He grins. His mate grins even more widely.
-- "Yeeah... nice..." is all I manage.
-- "What are you doing here? Tourist?"
-- "Yeah, I'm a tourist." Silence. "Er, I've been travelling the last three months", I offer.
-- "What? Three months? Three months without..." and the cook pumps his right fist towards and away from himself, forearm parallel to the ground.
-- "No", I say, dryly.

He didn't have time to offer me a hooker though. The place was a takeaway.


[Caption: The ferry next to the big market, a cheap way to get a gondola ride (1 euro).]


### Brussels, Belgium ###

After seeing the fleshpots of Amsterdam, I visited M. in the countryside of Holland. A few days was enough to refresh the mind, and I continued my way to Belgium, taking the train which approaches the "Capital of Europe" from the north. As the train slows down and pulls in to the station, on both sides of the train, are windows with barely clad buxom ladies trapped inside, on display. Just like Amsterdam except without the lights and without the tourists. Since the train has to slow down a lot, the passengers get an eyeful. We finally arrive at the station and are belatedly welcomed by the sign: "Bruxelles-Nord".


[Caption: Brussels' Grand Place.]


### Moscow, Russia ###

One evening in Moscow, I was finding my way to Kazanskiy station to catch the train to Kazan, capital of the Tatars. Moscow has many train stations, and Kazanskiy station was quite blusterous. Street vendors selling toys and cigarettes, kiosks full of DVDs and keyrings, roadworks, and of course, lots of people walking around, either to pick up someone from the station or to go someplace in the vastness of Russia. It was about 6pm in the evening and quite dark as winter was beginning to set in. I was walking near Kazanskiy station, looking for the right entrance and platform. A girl approaches wearing a dark down jacket and says something to me in Russian.

-- "I'm sorry, I don't understand", I reply.
-- "You want sex?" she says.
-- "No thanks", and I walk off towards Kazan.

(Note: if you ever have to buy a train ticket in Russia, remember that all times are in Moscow time. I once arrived in Siberia at 3am in the morning!)


[Caption: Moscow by day (left). Moscow Kazanskiy station at night (right).]


### Hampi, India ###

The ruins of Hampi belong to the former Vijayanagara empire, established in the 14th century in Southern India, which united to resist the Islamic invasions from the north. The ruins are quite impressive in their desolation, most of them covered in weeds and brush. There is an active village in the center of Hampi, catering to tourists and worshippers, selling fresh flowers, coconuts, scented sticks and camphor. In about 10 minutes walk you can reach the countryside, where ruins sit peacefully among the greeness and the rolling hills and farmland. Shoots of smoke rise here and there, indicating where someone is cooking or burning off some grass. Little coracle boats made of hide and reeds sit on the rocks beside the Tungabhadra River, drying themselves for the next excursion.



[Caption: The ruins at Hampi, India.]

The countryside was very peaceful, with hardly any visitors to the ruins, so I was very surprised as I walked along a dusty track when a shepherd suddenly appeared beside me.

-- "Hey! You want sex, mister?"
-- "No thanks."

But he persisted, grinning and walking beside the track on an embankment, his right forefinger moving in and out of a hole he'd made with his left hand.

-- "Come on! I know a cave nearby, it's very nice!"

I wasn't sure whether this pimp had some girls hidden in his cave or whether he was a shepherd-cum-gigolo. I ignored him, and after awhile he disappeared as quickly as he appeared, presumably to tend to his flock.

2011/09/29

Red light (part 2 of 3)

### Mackay / Gladstone, Australia ###

In 2007 I worked as a site engineer on 2 coal port expansion projects in northern Queensland. The 2nd project was at a place called Dalrymple Bay, where a coal loading wharf was to be expanded from 3 to 4 shipping berths, and the 3.8km jetty out to the wharf was to be widened. The place was a few hundred kilometres north of the tropic line, so the days were hazy and humid. Our offices were initially on-shore, and to get out to the off-shore office was, to use local vernacular, a bit of a mission. Back in the 1980s, a bus full of workers had accidentally driven over the edge of the jetty and a few had drowned.


[Caption: The 3.8km jetty connecting the wharf and the shore, at Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal (DBCT).]

Part of the main structural job was to weld steel piles and float them out into the harbour, and then hammer them into the sea bed using a hydraulic hammer. This work involved welding over the sea, but as Dalrymple Bay was in the tropics, salt water crocodiles and sharks lurked in the waters of the bay. In fact, during a life saving drill on the wharf, a dummy was thrown into the water to see how quickly rescue boats could respond. After many hours, the boats still couldn't find the dummy. It was found a few days later washed up onto the shore, completely mangled by sharks. The good thing about working off-shore however, was that sometimes you got to see whales swimming into the harbour in the morning, and also if it was a Saturday or Sunday and no-one was around, you could do a spot of fishing.


[Caption: Our safety office says, "If a man falls in the drink, press this button and throw him a life ring. DO NOT GO IN THE WATER."]

Another thing about working off-shore was that you got to meet some of the sailors. They led a pretty hard life, staying months at sea at a time. One day I noticed that a car was driving out along the jetty to the wharf, and it wasn't a site vehicle. It looked private.

-- "That's a prostie", said an old hand.
-- "A prostitute?"
-- "Yeah, they come out to service the ships."
-- "What? All of them?! That's crazy!"
-- "Yep. Happens. Pretty good money I reckon."

My previous project was also a port expansion, in Gladstone. Between Gladstone's RG Tanna terminal and the one's at Dalrymple Bay and Hay Point, the majority of the coal which is dug up in Queensland are loaded onto ships from the Bahamas, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, and Panama. The demand was so huge that on some days you can see dozens of carriers waiting offshore for their turn to be loaded. Sometimes as many as 100 ships can lie in wait off the Dalrymple Bay terminal, most of them from Panama.


[Caption: Ships waiting for a berth, DBCT.]

Apart from the massive coal port, Gladstone also has a coal-fired power plant, aluminium and nickel processing plants, a cement processing plant, and possibly a new natural gas plant. In the old days, there used to be a small hill near the center of town where you could take in a view of the place, but the hill had been eroded over the years by acid rain. For these reasons some people refered to Gladstone as "arsehole by the sea", where the actual arsehole of Australia was probably Mt. Isa, a mining town in the middle of the desert. Offshore from Gladstone lay the Bunker group of islands, of which the southernmost, Lady Musgrave Island, marked the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Gladstone is also famous for being the finish line of the annual Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race, once won in the 1960s by the media magnate Rupert Murdoch.


[Caption: View from the top of Shiploader 3, at RG Tanna Coal Terminal, Gladstone. On the left are coal conveyor belts, and directly in front are Shiploaders 1 and 2.]

One evening, after our shift, a few of us sat outside one of the many pubs found in Gladstone. [Incidentally, the local beer in Queensland is called "XXXX" and so there are many many signs with "XXXX" written on them. An innocent colleague from Indonesia thought they were all brothels! According to New Zealanders, South Africans, and Englishmen, the beer is called "XXXX" because we can't spell "beer", but stuff'em.] So we were sitting outside having a xxxx when a van pulls up in front of us, filled with perhaps 7-8 Russian sailors. One of them says something to us in Russian but we just look at him blankly. Then he says something like "Sex! Strippers!"

We nod then and point down the hill.

-- "You'll want the Port Curtis Hotel. It's just down there, 2nd left."

The slide door of the van slammed shut pretty loudly and there might have been some screeching of tyres as they drove off. It all happened in about 10 seconds. I once went inside the Port Curtis, to see what it was like. It was the seediest little joint, packed full of sailors mostly from the Philippines. It was dark inside and the floors were sticky. A topless girl behind the bar served the dozens of glass-eyed customers, and when a show started a crowd gathered below the stage and stared in silence with glazed faces as a naked girl came out into the lights to gyrate against a pole. There was polite clapping at the end.

For a period of time I was on night shift on the terminal shiploader. Sometimes I stood right out on the end of the boom, staring into the tropical night. Now and then a ship would sidle into the moonlit harbour, pulling the surface of the still waters like a piece of black silk, its dark mass accompanied by two or three tiny tugboats. I wanted to be a sailor when I was a kid, thinking it sounded romantic, but it wasn't looking so appealing anymore.


[Caption: Sailors receiving rations (left). DBCT harbour in the morning (right). A typical workday began at 5am and finished at 5pm.]


### Barcelona, Spain ###

I arrived in Barcelona on a Friday or Saturday evening, there to visit K. who was taking a semester of courses at the University. When we finally managed to find each other it was about 11pm and he was already a little tipsy.

-- "Daniel! How are ya!? Is that all your luggage?! Come on! I'll show you a bit of the town!!"

And so we visited all the sights of Barcelona by night, stopping by at a few local pubs near each place because we couldn't really see anything. Being both football fans (K. supports Liverpool the poor fellow) we decided it would be a good idea to see Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona Football Club TM. Who knows, maybe the guard would even let us in for a peek of the hallowed grounds. So 2am found us both wandering down towards the Camp Nou, slightly drunk and excited to see the famous stadium.

As we walked down the dark lane, we noticed a shadow sitting by the curb. It was a chubby looking girl, by herself. "Odd", I thought. And as we walked further there was another shadow, and then a car drove past very slowly, "crawled" you could say. Finally the clincher: two figures suddenly appeared out of the shadows. They had satin skirts and sequined tops.

-- "Hey Chinka! Wanna play?"

We sobered up pretty quickly.


[Caption: Outside Camp Nou.]

Rewind an hour and we were at the basilica 'Sagrada Familia', or rather, we were at an Irish pub just underneath the basilica's spires. The Sagrada Familia is Gaudi's masterpiece, and Gaudi, my guide tells me, was a virgin at 60. It is due for completion in 2026, passing the midpoint in 2010, and was begun in 1882. The Irish pub was packed full of locals. A rockabilly band was playing in the corner and the singer had hair like Elvis. A group of girls were next to us swaying to the beat of the band and making eyes. Suddenly my friend's face lights up:

-- "Hey! Let's go to Camp Nou!"

I think this is a smashing idea, and we both finish our beers and start jumping and happily singing "We're going to Camp Nou! We're going to Camp Nou!" and we wore happy faces that night as we marched out of the pub and onto the street. In my memory (or my imagination), the girls looked at us with bemusement and horror.


[Caption: left to right, a Gaudi building, a monument, Sagrada Familia.]


### Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ###
(taken from an earlier post)

-- "You can stay at my dad's hotel, it's very cheap."
-- "OK"
-- "It's right in the heart of town, but it's a little run down."
-- "OK"
-- "At night there are fat prostitutes soliciting, they're really ugly and they only come out at night."
-- "OK"
-- "And it's a dangerous area, there are lots of pickpockets and thieves around so watch yourself."
-- "OK"
-- "And don't go out after 8pm, there are motorcycle gangs and drug addicts who will bash you up and rob you."
-- "er ... OK"
-- "Enjoy!"
-- "OK!"

Footnote: I stayed in a hotel opposite the southern entrance of Petaling street. There are quite a lot of these cheap hotels in the area, and at night, at the entrance of each hotel there invariably stood a rather plump lady with horrible make-up in a thin top and a skirt. Sometimes they would just sit in the lobby and eyeball anyone who passed by, but there was always just the one for each hotel.

TO BE CONTINUED ...


[Caption: from a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.]