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.


[Caption: from a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.]


Red light (part 1 of 3)

### Lausanne / Zurich, Switzerland ###

I was recently having a beer with M. from Madagascar, a tandem partner for language exchange. We were talking about Africa and all the different countries there.

-- "Ah! Did you know Malawi is full of marajuana? It is a pot smoker's heaven!"
-- "Really?!" I was very surprised by this. I'd imagined it to be forested place full of wildlife and lakes, not pot heads.
-- "Yes! And Egypt has the highest number of prostitutes in the world."

I was even more surprised by this. It couldn't be right, Egypt is (was) under a dictator, prostitution is illegal, and the state religion is Islam, which is pretty strict regarding these things.

The conversation reminded me of when I came to Zurich two years ago. I arrived by train into Zurich Hauptbahnhof, a giant shed which is constantly full of people walking in non-parallel straight lines. The old guy at the tourist office directed me to a youth hostel and gave me a map, and as I exited Hauptbahnhof onto Bahnhofstrasse I was astounded by how clean and wealthy this city looked. The pavements gleamed, the buildings hewn from smooth, solid rock.

[Caption: Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse on New Year's Day(!) Alfred Escher standing at the far end.]

Outside HB, there stands a statue of Alfred Escher, of whom I found out later (after about a year) *wasn't* related to the artist Escher, but is actually the guy who built all the railways in Switzerland, founded Credit Suisse, Swiss Life (an insurance company), and financed the Gotthard tunnel, thereby opening Switzerland to immigrants from the south like me. Alfred Escher was the leading Swiss industrialist of the 19th century, and if Felix and Regula, the patron saints of Zurich, are buried under the Grossmunster, then Herr Escher the money-man is probably buried under Paradeplatz, next to thousands of tonnes of gold bullion (Paradeplatz is the headquarters of the big Swiss banks, such as Credit Suisse and UBS).

[Caption: Paradeplatz, Zurich. Sitting on top of Ali Baba proportions of gold.]

I took the number 7 tram out to Wollishofen, and alighted 2 stops from the terminus to walk to the hostel. It was early evening, some of the dusk still lingered. It was quiet down this street, clean and without any other people. The 3-4 story buildings on either side were made of large stone blocks, like the ones from the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. Then as I walked a bit further, two ladies appeared on the opposite side of the road, walking towards me. They were about middle age, one had a leopard skin miniskirt with leggings. I looked at them and they looked at me. Then one of them grinned, but it might have been a sneer, and they both started cat calling. Apart from the old guy at the tourist office, they were the first "Zuerchers" I met.

[Caption: Just below from the ETH and University of Zurich. Zurich has the second highest number of prostitutes in Europe, after Amsterdam.]

### BaYi, Tibet ###

On the first of August, 1927, the 2nd Front Army of the Chinese National Party forces in NanChang rebelled, marking the founding of the People's Liberation Army of the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, the name "BaYi", which means "August the first", is in widespread use these days. For example, the "BaYi Rockets" (a basketball team), the "NanChang BaYi" football team, the BaYi aerobatics team, etc. A town which is named BaYi is located in eastern Tibet, about 300km east of Lhasa. I passed through BaYi back in 2006, just before the tourist rush, as the railway line from the north hadn't yet been completed.

[Caption: The town of BaYi in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.]

It was on a whim really. I stood in the line at the bus station in LiJiang town, in the province YunNan (which means "South of the Clouds"), and was planning to take the short bus ride to a nearby lake called "LuGuHu". The local population at this lake (the Mosuo) still kept a matriachal society, which meant that the females were the leaders and made the decisions and that there were no marriages between men and women. Instead, if a lady wanted to make babies (or whatever), she chose a guy for the night, and the next morning the guy was kicked out of the hut. I had planned to go see that place, but my mate in Australia had also been egging me on to make it to Tibet and see Mt. Everest. At the last minute, just as the lady at the counter asked for a destination, I said "DeQin", the last border town before the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

[Caption: The old roofs of LiJiang, YunNan province.]

DeQin sits under the MeiLi snow mountains, a chain of permanently snow capped mountains of which the highest is the Buddhist sacred mountain "Kawagebo" at 6740m. It is the home of a warrior god, who would leave if any human set foot on the summit. The last major attempt was in 1991, when 17 mountaineers were swept away by an avalanche. As of 2011, the peaks have yet to be summited.

[Caption: MeiLi snow mountains at the border between YunNan and Tibet.]

So I went to DeQin, without a valid permit for the Autonomous Region, but fully prepared to bribe the border guards. I had with me three shirts, which I wore all at the same time, football shoes, a straw hat, and in DeQin picked up a fake leather jacket which turned white in the rain. The bus from DeQin to Lhasa only ran for 3 months of the year, and every year something would happen: rock slides, road closures due to rain, accidents. The total journey took 4 days, and cost about $70AUD, and every night the bus stopped and we all (there were 3 drivers and about 30 passengers) had to stay in a hostel. The road was basically a track cut into the side of a cliff. The main road connecting eastern Tibet to China didn't go through YunNan province, but instead went through SiChuan province. That road was well maintained and "tank friendly".

The road from YunNan was part of the old Tea-Horse trade route ever since Tang dynasty times. In ancient China, silk was traded to the west (i.e. to Turkestan) for horses, as they were vital to keeping the state and security of the empire. For example, at the end of the weak Sui dynasty, the state had a mere 3,000 horses, while during the reign of the Emperor GaoZong of the Tang dynasty there were 706,000 horses. By the time of the Tang, the silk trade was slowing, as the secrets of silk and the Chinese monopoly had already been lost. Horses were still needed, and so that other precious commodity, tea, was traded. At that time the First Empire of Tibet had just been established, and to develop trade ties Princess Wencheng of China was sent to King Songtsän Gampo of Tibet as a bride. Princess Wencheng brought Buddhism to Tibet, and is still sometimes worshipped as the goddess of mercy. As Tibet became more and more powerful, tea was more and more sought after.

[Caption: The road to Tibet crosses steep gorges and is only open during summer.]

The road we took was part of this trade route for thousands of years, and followed the upper reaches of the Mekong river. This area contains the headwaters of three great rivers: the ChangJiang (or "Long River") which divides China into "north" and "south", the Mekong (or "Khong, mother of waters", where "Khong" is derived from the word "Ganges", that other great river of Asia) which flows to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Thanlwin (or "Olive") which flows into Burma. All three rivers have different names in the upper reaches, the ChangJiang becoming the JinSha river (meaning "Golden Sand" river), the Mekong is the LanCang (or "Turbulent Waters"), and the Thanlwin is the NuJiang (meaning "Angry river"). In these upper reaches, the ChangJiang is gold, the Mekong is red, and the Thanlwin is olive.

[Caption: The upper reaches of the Mekong river.]

We reached BaYi on the third day, and having settled into our hostel a few of us wandered about town during the evening. There was a big square at the center of town, where the local people were dancing. About 30 or so Tibetans were formed in a large circle, linked in arms, and shuffling slowly around all together. Occasionally a young man would dance alone, springing and twirling, showing his martial prowess. His legs were bent a little, like a horseman.

Now, prostitution in China is illegal, but it's fairly common. There are these roadside shops that look like salons, with a couch and a coffee table with magazines, and a few hookers hanging around looking bored. You'll find them in any district town or city. The light is always red, so they're pretty easy to spot. There were three of these shops across from the main square at BaYi, where the Tibetans were. It was approaching dusk, so the red lights stood out glaringly against the otherwise dark buildings. A few of the prostitutes stood outside, wearing miniskirts and were doing the hoola-hoop. Either they were bored or that was how they really tried to entice customers. The hoola-hoop.


[Caption: The Meili snow mountains of YunNan.]



We met Sami at the Duomo grounds in Florence. Slightly hunched, he sat on his foldable aluminium chair, contemplating.

One among the several street artists who have put up their colors on display at this popular tourist attraction, he had his canvases on the modified easel, which depicted scenes from the Tuscan countryside, with Brunelleschi's dome pervasive and strikingly visible on most of them. Landscape format paintings for your living room wall or postcard size ones for your work desk, not too big and not too small, he had all the in-demand sizes for tourists with space constraints in their handbags or checked-in luggages. 

His visage openly screamed out his arab lineage, and Shams struck a conversation with him in arabic. Pleased to meet a fellow-artist and arabic speaker, what followed was an outpour of his personal life struggles.

 It has been thirty years since Sami, a trained sculptor from Baghdad, reached the Italian coasts. He's never been home since then, he says. Whether he never saved up a lot to go home or he had reasons not to go home, I am not clear. But he misses his wife and kids back home. 

Sami does not like to paint for money, he does not like to do caricature for money, but he must, else he has no money. The classic dilemma of the artist.

 Eagerly, he shows us his sketches and painting, framed and kept in black plastic holders, which can easily be packed up in a black suitcase, as he heads back home for the day. 

 The external self is indeed a caricature of our true inner self....


The seven wonders of the world

The Great Wall of China, China
Christ the Redeemer, Brazil
Machu Picchu, Peru
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Petra, Jordan
Colosseum, Italy
Taj Mahal, India
Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

- New7Wonders Foundation

Potala Palace, Tibet
Old City of Jerusalem
Polar Ice Caps
Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii
Mayan Ruins, Yucatan Peninsula
Great Migration of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara

- USA Today

Wealth with work.
Pleasure with conscience.
Knowledge with character.
Commerce with morality.
Science with humanity.
Worship with sacrifice.
Politics with principle.

- Mohandas Gandhi (paraphrased)


The byway nigh me

I was in Denmark recently, and decided after two days spent in Copenhagen to hitchhike into the country and see a bit of the countryside and the towns in Zealand. In the Edda, the ruler of Sweden, King Gylfi, as a reward for his entertainment, promised a certain woman an amount of land "as much as four oxen could plough up in a day and a night." The woman happened to be the goddess Gefiun, and she took four oxen from Giantland, who cut so hard into the land that it uprooted and was drawn out into the western sea, where it was given the name 'Zealand'. The hole left became a lake: either Lake Malar or Lake Valern.

I was told that it rains a lot in Denmark and is quite windy. And so on a windswept shoulder of the main highway out of Copenhagen, in the grey morning drizzle, I stood with a sign saying "Jutland", attempting to make it all the way across the country. For half an hour I was reminded that this was a first world country in the 21st century, and that hitchhiking is not really all that common anymore, especially in a big city like Copenhagen. I could almost hear the drivers thinking, "go take a bus! or the train!"

Nevertheless, one man did stop after half an hour, a kitchen salesman from Holbaek, doing the rounds. Apparently, you can make a lot of money being a salesman in Denmark, especially if you find your niche market. One man, who sold photocopiers, was a millionaire apparently, and owned property and yachts and other stuff that millionaires own. I asked about the immigrant situation, hearing that it was a bit of a controversial topic in Denmark. A few years ago the country had actually re-introduced border controls, despite being part of the Schengen area, to the protest of other Schengen area members. The excuse was that there were more illegal immigrants and criminals, and border controls were needed to keep them out.

The kitchen salesman said that yes, a lot of the "coloured" and dark skinned immigrants were a problem.

-- "They like to fight, to steal and cause trouble. There never used to be so much problem."

And what about the eastern Europeans, I asked, hearing a little about their criminal reputation from my host in Copenhagen, a Lithuanian.

-- "Yes, they too, but they don't stay in Denmark. In the summer they come for the work (picking strawberries), and when the harvest is over they steal as much as can fit in their cars and drive off back home. Of course, we can never catch them because they come back the next year in different cars or whatever."

He decided to drop me off then in the middle of the motorway, since he was going in one direction and I needed to go in another direction. As he sped off I stood in the emergency lane, where cars and trucks sped past me at 100km/h. Not a good place to get a lift I thought, and I was right. 30 minutes passed and it wasn't looking good, the cars were travelling too fast to stop, and it was too dangerous to stay, so I hopped onto the other lane and started walking. Unfortunately, it wasn't an exit, it was a ramp onto another motorway! And just as I began cursing a policeman pulled over in his Yamaha and swaggered towards me, and told me to climb the fence into a nearby farm to get to a footpath and off the motorway.

The next ride was a Pakistani student from Karachi who drove me 5 minutes down the road towards my new destination (Roskilde, now that I realised Jutland was too far to get to in one day).

-- "Man, in winter, there is nothing after 5pm. The shops are closed, and it is dark already. There's nothing to do."

He shook his head as he dropped me off outside Ikea. I walked a bit down the road and waited once again, and once again it took roughly 20 to 30 minutes for a car to pull up. This time it was a garbage man going home after work. It was around 1pm in the afternoon. Although his home wasn't far, he decided to drop me off all the way in Roskilde, another 15 minutes further, and as I was about to get down he grabbed me and pulled out a 50 crown note and shoved it towards me, despite my protests.

-- "Go on, take it. Buy yourself a soda or something. Just know that Danish guys are good guys."

So I went and bought a soda. I'm 27 years old this year.


The next day I decided to give hitchhiking another chance, and in the morning I waited at another highway entrance in the north of Copenhagen. The wind had died down a little from the day before, only to be compensated by the drizzle, and I was doing my best to look miserable at the side of the road, squinting into the light rain and clutching my jacket as if I was an Arctic explorer. The sign said "Helsingor" this time, and I was hoping for better luck as I was carrying my backpack with me, which should denote me as a bonafide traveller and not some random bum (the day before, I carried nothing except a roll of biscuits, and this might have given the game away).

This time, after 30 minutes, it was an electrician. He was off to a job but could spare some time, and after talking to him a bit he even offered to drive me all the way, but I declined, thinking that was too far out of the way for him. But it was a kind offer. Unfortunately he also, like the kitchen salesman from yesterday, decided to drop me off on the motorway. Luckily there was a rest stop nearby, so I walked to it and started thumbing rides off the few cars that were resting there in the morning, without luck (even asking people in cars directly, as they were resting, something I hadn't tried before).

After, you guessed it, 30 minutes, an absolute bomb of a car stopped in front of me. A white sedan, a Toyota or something from the '80s or early '90s. Something I remember seeing in the suburbs of western Sydney when I was growing up. I got in, the driver was just moving some stuff to the back seat. The radio was falling apart, and the seat covers had cuts in them revealing the insides. He started driving, and I knew then that I was in for a ride. The fellow was driving 200km/h on a 100km/h motorway, weaving between cars where there couldn't have been more than a few metres separating them.

-- "Where are you from?", he quizzes.
-- "Australia. You?"

I'm concentrating very hard at the road ahead, for the both of us. I'm not sure the seatbelt would work, so I was clutching the sides of my seat and involutarily bracing myself at each shudder of the car.

-- "Me, I'm Serbian."

I sneak a peak at him. He has very dark skin, black hair and bulging eyes. I think he's a gypsy.

-- "I buy this car in Copenhagen, guess how much?" "2000!!", before I had a chance to reply.

This was about 250 euros.

-- "And now I go to sell it in Helsingor, but I'm late for the commune. If I'm late they don't give me the money, see?"
-- "You mean the welfare money?"

He looks at me blankly and I wish he was looking rather at the road.

-- "Yes, yes. And now guess how much I sell this car?" "4000!!", before I had a chance to reply.

He laughs and smacks his thigh, and then quickly frowns and checks his smartphone for the time. The highway had ended by now, and it was a single lane with road work cones on both sides. We had made about 30km in 10 minutes or so, giving back to me all that time spent waiting at the side of the road, but losing me years off my life. A van was in front, seemingly stationary in the distance. This was the only time I said anything about his driving.

-- "Umm... there's a van, you'd better...."

And he applied the brakes. Applied? Slammed. The old girl moved down from 200km/h and the engine coughed and the exhaust banged. We were definitely going to rear end the van. I braced myself for the impact. Poor bugger, I thought, he won't know what's hit him. But at the last moment the gypsy swings the car into the emergency lane and switches his feet and we're round the van like a flash.

-- "And you know, I'm buying a new car! A Skoda!" he beams.
-- "A new car?"
-- "Yes, brand new! And so I take the registration from this one, and..."

He grins at me. I must admit the dodginess was quite impressive. The road is single lane now, and he pulls onto incoming traffic to get past a car in front of us. A truck is driving towards us deceptively quickly in the oncoming lane, headlights flicking madly. I just survey the scene with a mixture of boredom and fascination. Everything is completely clear in vision, completely objective. It must be the adrenaline. He pulls in just in time, and I breath out. Oh my god, I think, we are going to die.

This happens a few more times, and the road starts to wind. It was curiously thrilling to be in that car. He was a pretty good driver, and really pushed the machine into the corners and the curves and I could feel the engine straining and sweating. This must be how it feels to be in a real racing car, I thought. I then remembered that this was a 1980s Toyota bought for 250 euros and the driver was a chain smoking gypsy who kept checking his phone while driving at 110km/h in a 60km/h zone. It is now the town of Helsingor and pedestrians whizz past like spectators at a rally. Suddenly he stops at a school and tells me to get out and points the way to the center, and he turns into the school.

It's only been 15 minutes since he picked me up, over 40km away, and I'm never ever hitching a lift again.



George Mallory, for instance, did an inexplicable climb on Snowdon once. He had left his pipe on a ledge half-way down one of the precipices and scrambled back by a short cut to retrieve it, then up again by the same way. No one saw just how he did the climb, but when they came to examine it the next day for official record, they found that it was an impossible overhang nearly all the way. The rule of the Climbers’ Club was that climbs should not be called after their inventors, but after natural features. An exception was made in this case; the climb was recorded something like this: ‘Mallory’s Pipe, a variation on Route 2; see adjoining map. This climb is totally impossible. It has been performed once, in failing light, by Mr. G. H. L. Mallory.’

- Robert Graves

"I met ten of them in the middle of the night in Derry," he said. "They were working-class lads and I told them that they needed to renounce violence. I said the only way of solving problems is by dialogue, not by shooting each other, but all they wanted to talk about was United and Celtic."

- Paddy Crerand (footballer, who tried to broker a peace deal with the IRA)

But finally here I am, having insensibly reverted to the point I desired, for, since it is now manifest to me that even bodies are not properly speaking known by the senses or by the faculty of imagination, but by the understanding only, and since they are not known from the fact that they are seen or touched, but only because they are understood, I see clearly that there is nothing which is easier for me to know than my mind. But because it is difficult to rid oneself so promptly of an opinion to which one was accustomed for so long, it will be well that I should halt a little at this point, so that by the length of my meditation I may more deeply imprint on my memory this new knowledge.

- Rene Descartes

I fly, my dust will be what I am.

- Hafiz

If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood, and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

- Gerard Manly Hopkins

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

- William Shakespeare

At our table we were joined by Alexander Korneichuk, the ranking Ukrainian playwright, a man of great charm and humor. He and Poltarazki began to tell old Ukrainian sayings, and the Ukrainians are famous for them. Almost our favorite is "The best bird is the sausage." And then Korneichuk told a saying which I had always believed was native to California. It is the description by a heavy eater concerning the nature of the turkey, in which he says, "The turkey is a very unsatisfactory bird, it is a little too much for one, and not quite enough for two." Apparently the Ukrainians have been saying it for hundreds of years, and I thought it was invented in my home town.

They taught us a toast in Ukrainian which we like: "Let us drink to make people at home happy." And they toasted again to peace, always to peace. Both of these men had been soldiers, and both of them had been wounded, and they drank to peace.


With the soft music, the lights, and the peaceful river below, our friends again began to speak of the war, as though it were a haunting thing they could never get very far from. They spoke of the dreadful cold, before Stalingrad, where they had lain in the snow and had not known how it would come out. They spoke of horrible things they could not forget. Of how a man had warmed his hands in the blood of a newly dead friend, so that he could pull the trigger of his gun.

- John Steinbeck

The cranes were already distant, and because of the wind the triangle was turning into a circle. When cranes descend to rest, they set sentinels to watch over the sleeping flock, and these stand upright only on one leg, holding on their raised foot a stone, so that if sleep strikes, the stone will fall to the ground and the noise will wake them . . . . Is it possible, I thought, that someone would eat them?


Crows appear in the first Russian literary document: "Song of the Campaign of Igor." According to Hesiod, they live nine times as long as man, and ravens even longer. "Crows, numberless as flies," says Gogol. They are everywhere: on city sidewalks, in gardens, in the yellow fields of rye, in the sky, in the forests.

- Aldo Buzzi

Stars fade like memory the instant before dawn. Low in the east the sun appears, golden as an opening eye. That which can be named must exist. That which is named can be written. That which is written shall be remembered. That which is remembered lives. In the land of Egypt Osiris breathes ...

- The Egyptian Book of the Dead



Two dreams

I had two dreams recently which stuck to the mind, although the details have long since dissolved into the morning air. In the first, I had some sort of a special power, and was confronting my arch-nemesis, a girl who also had some sort of a special power. I can't recall exactly what these powers were, something to do with being able to change others' perception of things (this dream may be related to the fact that I had been reading the Prose Edda and the stories of Julio Cortazar at the time).

I remember the dream being quite intricate itself, but the crux was when I challenged my nemesis to a final duel. I arrogantly told her that no matter what spell she cast, what trick she tried, I would be able to see through it with clarity, and escape the snare with ease.

She looked at me coyly, "You're very confident aren't you?"

I grinned back, "Do whatever you like, my mind is crystal clear. Try anything you want, I welcome it, I could do with a bit of exercise."

I was feeling good, completely aware of everything around me, and the powers I had at my command responded like quicksilver. I was looking forward to exercising their use. There was nothing she could do really, and I felt a little sorry for her. The world was before me, at my whim.

We looked into each other's eyes. She still had that annoying half-smile. Her eyes were like two dark pools that were twinkling on the surface, but below that surface lay the unfathomable depths. We stared for quite a while at each other. Then she blinked, and I awoke to the cool night air. The window had been left open, and the dark mass of the French alps seemed to loom closer than they do during the day, and the Lake of Geneva seemed to plunge deeper than it appears to in the sunlight.


The second dream concerns an essay I had read, written by Stephen Jay Gould, on the slowing of the earth's rotation due to tidal friction. The Astronomer Royal of England, Edmund Halley, first noticed the discrepancy between records of observed eclipses and their predicted coverage on the earth's surface, assuming a constant rate of rotation of the earth. This could be taken into account if the earth had spun faster in the past and then slowed down, and the best explanation for this gradual slowing, supplied by Immanuel Kant, was the tidal friction due to the gravitational effects of the moon.

This slowing is about 2 milliseconds per century, and as the earth loses its angular momentum, the moon gains the loss by retreating from the Earth in orbit, due to the conservation of momentum. This means that at some point in time far in the past, when the earth was new, the moon appeared as a giant disc in the sky, and the moon revolved around the earth much more quickly, and there were 400 days in the year, and each day might have 22 or so hours.

This puts the moon inside the Roche limit about 1 billion years ago, and since the rocks from the moon are much older, it either means that the rate of recession was much slower in the past or the moon entered the earth's orbit sometime in the last billion years.

And so I dreamt. I dreamt that I was visiting the future, far far into the future. Since I was a visitor, my own natural clock belonged to where I had come from: 24 hour days, 365 day years, the four seasons, etc.

It may be psychologically true that our perceptions of time are relative, that a mayfly might only live a day in our time, but the fly itself might experience a complete lifetime. Scientists found that an animal's lifetime is related somehow to its life pace. Smaller animals live faster, and die quicker. For mammals, the ratio between breathing time and heartbeat time is 4, independent of size.

As I was wandering around in the far future, I noticed that the rotation of the earth was very slow, and that the moon was far away. It seemed that time was stopping, or approaching a lethargic entropy. The sun was moving ever so slightly across the sky, and life was responding accordingly. Perhaps the inhabitants noticed nothing strange, as they were adapted to their environment. But for me, the sun ached, the seconds passed by as I beheld an infinity of worlds in each grain of sand, as time receded asymptotically towards its oblivion.


The rings of Saturn

"The Rings of Saturn" was written by the German author W. G. Sebald late last century, recalling a tramp through East Anglia in England in both space and time, visiting the quiet, faded places along that east coast, and remembering passed lives, of which only a few relics remind. A miniature railway built for an emperor in China leads to a discursion on the TaiPing rebellion and the occupation and Western involvement in China. Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement are mentioned, connected by the exploitation of the Congo in the late 19th century. The poets Chateaubriand and Swinburne make an appearance, as do the herring and silk industries, which had by then sunk into oblivion, much like the port city of Dunwich, consumed over the centuries by the North Sea.

This is the obvious theme of the book, the passing of things, destruction, but perhaps also with some hope for renewal, like the tree which grows again from the place where its branches touch the ground, thus forming loops around the countryside. The book is made wholly of digressions into the past, and these digressions are all based on this theme of loss. The metaphors and language are tied to it as well, and an atmosphere of melancholy pervades the experience. Even the photographs which punctuate the chapters are of things in decay. Despite this somberness, the anecdotes are fascinating, entertaining, and humorous, but it is when the book is finished and reflected upon, that is when I realised something was jarring, and very wrong.

The theme of destruction is too obvious, its frequency stifling. The two threads which run through the entire book, Thomas Gray and silkworms, are just too tenuous, too forced. The picture in chapter three of the herring when Sebald discusses the herring industry is actually a picture of a cod! Can we trust any of the other anecdotes? Can we trust Sebald's memory? Our memory? Was the book a literary joke? It certainly seems that way, given the beauty of the prose and the apparent emptiness of meaning. Did Sebald actually make this walking tour, or is the book completely fiction? Does the voice on the spacecraft Voyager II, which will greet possible aliens, really belong to a former member of the Nazi party and a staff officer in Bosnia during the Second World War? Did Gagarin actually take three things with him to space, one of which was a battle standard of a unit from the Paris commune?


LiBai (李白) is one of the most famous of the Chinese poets from the Tang Dynasty. I remember having to memorise one of his poems when I was in pre-school in ShangHai, back when I was five years old! It is called "夜思",

床前明月光, By my bed the moon's light,
疑是地上霜。 Is it a ground of frost?
举头望明月, Eye's raised the moon so bright,
低头思故乡。 Head bent I think of home.

The surname "李" is very common in China, and it can also mean "plum". "白" means "white", so you could translate his name as "Pierre Blanc" or "Barry White"! ("Barry" is pretty common in Australia!)

Last year I travelled to China to see my family for Christmas, taking the trans-Siberian railway. I stopped for a few days in Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia, to rest and to see Lake Baikal, which in ancient times was known as the "North Sea" by the Chinese. It was already winter, so the air was crisp and the ground and roofs of the wooden houses covered by a layer of white snow. The sky was that mixture of grey and orange you sometimes get in the north, and as I took the bus away from the city to the lake, which was about an hour away, the snow gradually acquired a tinge of blue.

After a few days I continued on my way and when I reached WuHan, the city of my birth, a week or so later, I told my dad that I had been to Irkutsk and had seen Lake Baikal.

"Lake Baikal!", he exclaimed. "Did you know that LiBai, the most famous of the Chinese poets, was born on its shores?"

This took me completely by surprise, and for a moment I was transfixed by this wondrous idea, that one of the most renowned of the Tang dynasty poets, whose name was "White", came from the snows of Baikal, far outside the borders of the empire. A quick check in Wikipedia soon discredited this fabulous story, but nevertheless to this day the thought of LiBai being born in Siberia has stayed in the memory.

We can hardly trust our own memories. Who knows how they change when we call upon them again, and dredge them up from the depths. Even fresh experiences can hardly be grasped, they seem to sometimes float away as soon as they happen, like waking up from a dream. The most wonderful stories have an element of truth, just like the most impressionable histories and facts are embellished with a bit of spice, and whilst losing some of their real and factual basis, ironically become more memorable.


The Roche limit is a distance from a planet where its gravitational field is so strong that satellites can be pulled apart and destroyed by the planet's tidal forces. One theory about Saturn is that a moon had wandered too close, inside the Roche limit, and had been completed destroyed, its fragments forming the rings which encircle its host. I first saw the rings of Saturn around 2003 or 2004, through a reflecting telescope I had bought at Dick Smith Electronics. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.