In pursuit of the inedible

There must be something about getting older that makes you want to learn something new, to somehow better yourself or even get healthier and goodness knows, I could do with all three.  I have returned to Chennai  in India and I’m on a mission that could last two weeks.  I have decided that aside from work, I am going to finish Bill Clinton’s autobiography and not eat meat or drink alcohol all the time I am away.  Quite why I have decided to do the latter, I don’t know…

My work this week has the potential to be a ‘bit stressful’ so I have convinced myself that some clean living will do do me good. It’s hotter than Hades and there’s around 90% humidity to match, interspersed with some torrential rain, so I know that theres not much fun to be had outside in any case.

Avoiding meat in India is actually not that difficult as around 40% of Indians are vegetarian and the food is great here.  You could literally eat something different every meal for year and not even go near meat.  Alcohol is a different thing of course. I tried meditating while I was there, but I kept falling asleep.  In that, it was relaxing but so much for a achieving a relaxed state of consciousness.  If only there was an Ashram with a gin bar…

Actually, not going near meat on this trip is pretty easy given what I had just seen. I happened to pass by a shop selling the unhealthiest and saddest looking chickens I have ever seen.  I was tempted to buy them all, rent a piece of land and pay a fellow to look after them for the rest of their natural lives, but we drove on.

KFC it wasn’t.

Just around the corner was another option.  The local butcher could do a nice line in fresh (ish) goat, but strangely, by that stage, I didn’t feel too hungry and the goats were past saving in any case.

Get it while its hot…

Whilst thinking of meat and not thinking about eating it, many years ago, whilst living in Malaysia, we took a holiday in Borneo and stayed in one of those huge amazing brand-new resorts that only seem to have half a dozen other guests staying there.  It was so amazing that I couldn’t afford to feed the family there, so we went out into the local town to find sustenance.

The resort.  Not too shabby at all.

Nearby, there was a town square fringed with restaurants,  that had every form of live Chordate, Arthropod, Cephalopod and Crustacean squirming, slithering and swimming around in fish tanks.

Clams, alive and spitting!

The kids were impressed when a couple of clams spat at them from a nearby basket but they fell instantly in love with a tank full of large happy green bullfrogs burping loudly.

Their favourite dish at that time was vegetable fried rice so they didn’t quite understand when the waiter offered the frogs with garlic or black bean sauce.  I hated to be the one to break the bad news, but once I stupidly had, there were floods of tears.  The kids ran around the square looking into the tanks, shrieking with horror at the thought of the inhabitants ending up on someones plate.

They ended up sniffling back in front of the tank of frogs and by that stage, there were only two left, so I bought them both. The waiters offered to cook them up before we took them away, which caused wails of despair, but we assured the kids that they were not going to end up as dinner and that we were going to set them free, so I popped them in a plastic carrier bag and we caught a cab.

By now, it was quite late and there was nowhere appropriate nearby to release them so we took the frogs back to the hotel.  I ran a few inches of water into the huge bath and we slipped the frogs into the water to the kids squeals of delight.  They swam around happily and sang to each other (the kids and the frogs), while I tried to persuade the young ones to stop playing with the frogs and to go to bed.  Some chance.  But after what seemed to be an age, we closed the bedroom door on them and then the bathroom door on the frogs.

The calm before the froggy storm…

It was a lovely warm night and we had left the balcony window open to enjoy the sea breeze and listen to the crickets and the faint music from the distant bar.  I heard a soft amphibian buuuurp from somewhere outside and then an answering buuuurp burp from the bathroom.  As soon as communications had been established, there was a full on orchestral movement happening.  Trying and failing to silence them, I checked that there was no light penetrating the bathroom window and rolled towels under the door, just to try and deaden any external frog song from getting into them. Evidently, that didn’t work because they just went from strength to strength, to the extent that there was an almost constant two way song going on.

Somewhere around 2am, I had persuaded myself that I could convince the kids that the frogs had climbed out of the bath and hopped off the balcony to freedom, instead of me launching them off, only to find the kids happily singing to the frogs in the bath by torchlight.  Cursing under my breath, I slipped back to bed and tried to sleep.  Around 4am, swearing murder, I had emptied the mini bar and dug my swiss army knife out.  Mrs. Jerry, who had already done so, instructed me to stuff the left over cotton wool in my ears and to suck it up.

The next morning, the frogs and I had somehow survived the night and we had checked out and moved on to our next destination, which was Pulau Tiga, where the US ‘Survivor’ TV show had been filmed not long before.  There were some wetlands, near the jetty where we’d catch the boat that would probably suit the frogs, because I knew that I wouldn’t last another night together.  We had the driver stop while we all trooped out to the edge of the water and released them.  The kids stood waving for some minutes as they swam away and then chatted to each other about the frogs having fantastic adventures together as we sailed over to the island.

Children’s identity obscured to prevent retaliation by frog eaters who couldn’t get their dinner that night

For my part, I was already dreaming about  a bloody steak and a cold beer on the beach.

Jerry.

Let loose in Ceylon

It’s been quite a few years since I first came here. In fact the civil war (1983 to 2009) was in full swing the first time I was in Sri Lanka, as its now known and there were many restrictions on where you could go and what you could do. Of course, that didn’t really stop me back then as there were ways of getting to the most interesting places without encountering too many road blocks manned by very suspicious and trigger happy soldiers.

In 2001 there was a Tamil Tiger attack on the airport that destroyed much of the Sri Lankan airlines fleet and resulted in a massive crackdown by the Buddhist Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) against the Hindu Tamil Tigers (otherwise known as the LTTE).  I was back in the country this time because of the war, even though it had ended and I needed to go up to the north west of the country to Mannar Island to see if any of the tens of thousands of landmines and munitions still remained.

Things have really improved now and there are very few physical barriers to getting around the city and so I decided that I’d go exploring this morning. I went for my morning limp along the route that I used to run (oh, how times have changed) which takes in Galle Face green, which in more colonial times was the cricket pitch, but now it’s more of a car park for visiting dignitaries. The sea front was never beautiful here right in the city, in full view of the main barracks but at least now that the new Shangri La has been built on the site, there are fewer (visible) guns and a lot less barbed wire.

The historic lighthouse, surrounded by the new Chinese mega port.

Sounds and smells

I walked out to the lighthouse, celebrating the end of British colonial rule (1796 to 1948) at the northern end of the green and past where there used to be a roadblock that turned all non military traffic back.  The road passed behind the married quarters of the Naval base and like most military family areas, there is a mix between civilian life and the strict protocols that govern military etiquette.  It didn’t seem quite so obvious here with sailors of all ranks hugging their families, finishing their breakfasts while waiting for their drivers to take them to work.

Aside from the normal ‘drains of Asia’ aroma, once I had moved upwind, there were the cooking smells I really missed, fish and ginger frying with tamarind and lime and small children laughing when they snuck food out from under their mothers noses.  I enjoyed the sounds and smells from the local ladies cooking so much, that I had to sit on a small wall opposite the base and just watch and listen for a while.

Sri Lankan chicken and fish curries are the best I have ever tasted.  They use a lot of coconut milk in the cooking, so it’s very creamy and sweet.  The smell is almost too much to bear without eating and luckily my hotel served it for breakfast as well.

Progress?

I got a little further along the coast and saw a number of what once must have been lovely beachside mansions that are now crumbling and are surrounded by high rise apartments.  There is still a family living in this one who I felt quite sorry for.

There’s nothing like a few close neighbours…

Sri Lanka is one of those wonderful countries where it can be hot and so humid, but despite that, the kids all troop out of the villages and into the schools in white, perfectly pressed uniforms and the mothers sashay after them.  Sashay, because there is no other word for the way they move, with their circular hips and feet that never seem to leave the ground, all bright white teeth against their lovely brown skin whilst wearing the most beautiful coloured sari’s.

A few cheeky chappies on their way to school

Historical Hotels.

I’m staying at the Galle Face hotel, which is an old colonial pile that was built by three Englishmen in 1864.  Last time I was here, it was very tired, with all of the the faded beauty and elegance of an elderly duchess, but now it has been refurbished and it’s very much back in the Raffles mode, but still surprisingly cheaper than its modern counterparts.

The refurbished Galle Face Hotel with the cricket pitch under construction as a car park… 

Next door to the hotel is the Indian high commission and the US AID building.   As a nod back to the war, there is still a watch tower with a heavy machine gun on top, back then it was to guard against the Tamil Tigers suicide boats. During the conflict, I remember it being equipped with a WWII Oerlikon anti aircraft gun, which would have made a real mess of any attempt to mount an attack from the sea.  I was told that it was still there, just folded down and hidden from view under the tarp at the front of the tower.

From the hotel swimming pool.  The .50 machine gun stands on the left of the tower, but there’s something more evil under the cover…

The usual end to a day

After my meetings I headed back to the hotel and believe it or not, it’s a bit of thing for me to have sundowners by the ocean whenever I can and at 6pm, a piper marches into the hotel accompanied by the concierge and they lower the Sri Lankan flag to the sound of the pipes.  Everyone stops what they are doing and watches.  I couldn’t help thinking of it being the union flag that was lowered and all the buttoned up brits in solar topees and ladies in wide brimmed hats watching the same ceremony, a hundred years ago.

Time for sundowners.  A lot of them…

The next morning, I was feeling a little shabby (blaming the jet lag, of course) but after a brisk walk I felt a bit more lively and along with my companion, the UXO expert, we travelled up the country towards Jaffna, a city that was very much embroiled in the civil war, I passed through some wild and undeveloped areas.

The wildlife

There are a number of national parks in Sri Lanka and more native wildlife that could be seen from the road than I have seen in any country, in many years. There were monkeys, a gang of mongooses racing around, snakes in the long grass everywhere you looked and elephants, quite a few elephants in fact.

An elephant family bimbling through the jungle

The young father starting to get a little shirty with my presence.

Galle and more about elephants

Seeing the elephants reminded me of a previous visit where I got up close and personal with two of them.  In mid 2005 I was back in Sri Lanka during the state of emergency, conducting some training.  The very real threat of suicide bombers attacking the vehicles of politicians meant that police outriders would force pedestrians at gunpoint to face away from the street, foreheads against the wall and hands behind your back.  If you didn’t comply, you’d find the barrel of a machine gun in your stomach.  Given what I’d seen elsewhere, I took them seriously and I remember closely examining the brickwork one morning outside the Indian High Commission as the convoy drove by.

Luckily, on that trip, I had occasion to escape the city and travel to the south of the country and quite by chance, as a favour, we were asked to take a look at the overall security and safety of a colleagues house.  So,  I ended up staying in a luxury beach house, along with two resident pet elephants, as you do…

The house was just outside the town of Galle, where there is a world heritage listed fort and it is a very beautiful place. The beach house was owned by a very wealthy merchant banker, who had married a Sri Lankan lady and they used the place as a holiday home.

Galle Fort, started by the Dutch in 1584.

The couple had come by the elephants during a local religious holiday where the mahout had been selling food to the locals so that the public could feed the mother elephant and her daughter. The bankers two little girls who were 8 and 6 at the time saw the sad looking pair and prevailed upon Daddy to help.  As any father knows, there’s only one answer when your little girls look up at you with their enormous brown eyes and ask you to buy them a couple of elephants and that’s “right away darlings”  and so he did.

They walked the new family members home, in a long convoy of locals who all wanted to meet the two young owners and see where they lived.  The elephants lived a great life in the large garden, being made a fuss of by all of the domestic staff and going for long walks along the beach.  When the girls were there, they were bathed, scrubbed, made up and dressed up on almost a daily basis.

I knew the place had been badly hit by the Boxing day Tsunami of the previous year and so I wasn’t expecting much to be left. I was very surprised to see that it had been completely repaired with the addition of an observation tower, in order to give advance warning of the next time the sea rapidly receded.

The owner told me that his security guard hadn’t seen the water recede following the undersea earthquake from behind the high wall, but that instead he’d noticed that there was no sound of the waves. He went out to have a look, saw the exposed reef and luckily woke everyone up.   The banker and his wife scooped up their two small girls and quickly headed to higher ground. The domestic staff released the elephants onto the beach road behind the house and then literally ran for the hills.

The non too shabby sun shelter at the beach house.  Try to imagine a tsunami crashing through here in the middle of the night. 

Looking back up to the main building.  Either side of the pool is the accomodation.  There was a slight tide mark 3 metres up the walls…

The elephants instinctively made their way inland and when the waves hit, they were swept apart, but luckily met up again some hours later.  They brought themselves home a couple of days later, outwardly none the worse for the experience.

Mannar Island

Anyway, back to the real reason I was there.  I was heading north to Mannar Island, up at the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, ostensibly to find out the real situation with regards to how the area had been affected by the war and if there were any explosive remnants of war left in the ground.

A nice old map of Ceylon with Mannar Island shown three quarters of the way up on the western side of the country.

The tactics used by both sides, was to use artillery to drive the enemy out of the towns and villages and then to lay landmines to deny the other side the ability to move back into their homes.  It was a really dirty conflict and through various sources we had identified a number of underground villages (mass graves).  Out of respect, we wanted to know where not to dig foundations and roads and the very last thing we wanted was to find, at the last minute, was a mysterious government person telling us not to dig there, but instead to dig there…

Our guide was a young local who spoke both Sinhalese and Tamil and it turned out that he’d been interned along with the whole town ‘for their own safety’ as the conflict spread to the island.  He was able to confirm that there had been fighting throughout the island and for around a year, the LTTE actually controlled most of the area.  Research with the Mine Action Group also confirmed that whilst all but around 15% of the landmines laid by the Army had been cleared, they weren’t at all sure if all the mines laid by the other side had been.

The differing stories are common in conflict afflicted areas and sometimes, the older people who were told the government ‘truth’ had their own ideas and remembered accordingly.  The younger generation knew only the propaganda from both sides who told their grisly stories.  Others, keen to encourage tourism and also healing between the two sides, blankly said ‘there was no war here’ ignoring the shrapnel scars on the buildings and rusting barbed wire from the road blocks that had been bulldozed off the road.  The trauma from such a deeply personal civil war takes generations to even begin to heal, if ever for some.

Mannar island, looking pretty desolate. 

Mannar Island itself was quite un prepossessing, being flat and featureless, but there were lots of wild donkeys, that had apparently been imported by the Dutch, during their years of colonisation.  I stayed overnight at the ‘shell coast resort’ which if you read trip advisor, will tell you not to bother.  We were a captive audience however and I had managed to pick up a bout of food poisoning that kept me changing ends in the bathroom all night.  It also had no liquor licence, so not a good choice at all really.  We did manage to pick up quite a lot of useful information from the locals the next day that convinced us of the need for a more in depth survey of the specific areas before we started to disturb any ground.

After another night in a strange, but this time, luxurious hotel in the middle of nowhere,  we were back in Colombo.  I had a shopping list as long as my arm and so took a few hours to cover the two floors of Paradise road.  It’s a fantastic shop with lots of asian homewares.  Part of the business is a very nice restaurant called the “Gallery Cafe” and the shops, restaurant and even a hotel is run by a delightfully camp gentleman.  I recommend them all, if you are ever back in Ceylon.

The Gallery Cafe. Try it!

Jerry.

 

 

Back in Blighty

Tower Bridge at stupid o’clock in the morning

Having arrived in the UK in one piece, albeit feeling like I had been pulled out of a matchbox when I eventually got off the plane. I had managed not to over self medicate, (something’s obviously wrong with me…) and I actually felt slightly human. If doing it one meal at a time counts, I’m also trying this vegetarian thing and remarkably, I am still enjoying it (thanks Liz!) but the problem is that a pint and a bag of pork scratchings does sort of scream ‘you’re back in Blighty now…’ and for old times sake, I just have to have them. It is possible to buy such an unhealthy snack in Oz of course, but somehow it’s more processed and removed from the farmyard than the fantastically greasy lumps of crunchy fat in a bag that the UK pubs can offer up.

In order to justify such a thing as part of my rehab, I have continued my early morning speed march efforts and as a blast from the past, I have dragged myself around a circuit of London Bridge, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. It’s really quite mesmerising and I find myself stopping and staring often.

The bloody tower – it’s had some distinguished guests over the years

The Tower of London still has the capacity to send chills down your spine if you think about the number of people who were put to death there, both ‘judicially and otherwise’ or imprisoned.  One person who fitted in to the former category is Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, who was executed on tower green following false accusations of incest, witchcraft, adultery and conspiracy against the King; apparently on the grounds that she couldn’t produce a male heir (she did give birth to Elizabeth the 1st, one of England’s greatest monarchs mind you) and that she’d allegedly said that Henry was a crap shag.  He may well have been, given the size of him in the end.

Rudolf Hess, who was Hitlers deputy and the Kray twins were also imprisoned there for a while.  The Krays were there for avoiding national service apparently.  Not so tough after all perhaps.

Jet lagged. Can you tell, I can’t sleep?

There’s around a thousand years of history lessons in an hour of dawn walking. Maybe it’s just a boy thing, but I am really enjoying glancing down the riverside steps and seeing signs telling me that something nasty happened there.  Under Tower Bridge, to the left of the picture above, there’s small area called ‘dead mans hole’ where the victims of suicide or the short brutal life that poverty engendered, washed up.  Under the supports of the bridge there’s actually a small mortuary, disused now, where the bodies were stored before they could be identified (I wonder how often that happened?) and disposed of.  There is still a long pole with what looks like a grappling hook atop hanging on the wall, that can only have been used for dragging the corpses out of the river.

Dead mans hole and the open air mortuary

The large pole and hook reminded me of a boat hook we found in the river when Mrs Jerry and I lived on a small boat at Richmond on Thames.  we were too poor to pay rent in such an exalted neighbourhood, so we saved up some money from various jobs and bought ‘Snipe’ who was a wartime Thames cruiser, for us to live on. Snipe was very briefly a movie star in a ‘Fish called Wanda’ and can be glimpsed when Michael Palin and John Cleese are riding along the riverside on a motorcycle.

Snipe – allegedly, one the little ships that rescued troops from Dunkirk 

Snipe was small but beautiful inside, made of pitched pine, oak and teak, with a lovely enameled stove that warmed the boat through in the winter when you made a morning cup of tea.  My mother had made curtains and two hanging baskets for decorating our first home, but they were clearly under the assumption that we lived on something the size of a small ocean liner as they were huge, but they did look great sitting on the roof.  It wasn’t the easiest lifestyle, what with having to row out to Snipe when the tide was running, but it was very romantic and in the mornings, the swans used to tap with their beaks on the side of the boat when they wanted to be fed.

We were moored just off the very exclusive ‘Ducks Walk’ area of Richmond and not having the proverbial pot, we could only afford an in river mooring, rather than one alongside.

One of our neighbours and something more like our regular visitors were expecting!

This being the semi tidal part of the river, large party boats would sail up from central London, music blaring and turn around right next to us.  Once, they were so close, a swearing and shouting Mrs Jerry had to fend them off with the bargepole, to avoid them sinking Snipe.  The rooftop hanging baskets, fell into the water as she heeled over from the wash and had to be fished out later.

One of the party boats, called the Marchioness, was the worst culprit and the captain clearly did not value his reputation. In August, 1989, the Marchioness was literally run over by a dredger called the Bow Belle and 51 people died.

The salvaged Marchioness

Sadly, a couple of those people washed up river near us, as did a beautiful 8′ hard wood bargepole with a brass hook from the party boat.  We kept the bargepole, but it let Mrs Jerry down at a crucial time, breaking like a matchstick when she was mooring up against the buoy when the tide was in full flow.  We both think that it was cursed.

Yesterday, I wandered around the decks of HMS Belfast, the light cruiser that has been moored in the Pool of London since 1971.  The last time I was on board, was my last day in the paid service of Her Majesty.  I was actually an extra in a 1988 Denzil Washington movie called  For Queen and Country and if you’re bored, you can pick me out 3’58” into the movie, just for a brief second.  I’m just about the only one, apart from Denzil who couldn’t/wouldn’t grow a moustache – couldn’t in my case.  The big Sergeant dispatching the men out of the hatch and into the landing craft was the mountain leader who was shot in the chest during the raid on Top Malo house in the Falklands war.

HMS Belfast, moored just below Tower Bridge and she played a part in my misspent youth.

The Belfast is lovingly looked after by a number of volunteers and it really did take me back to my thoroughly undistinguished but much enjoyed days in the Corps.  I was what is known a ’embarked forces’ (just along for the ride) onboard HMS Invincible during one trip and below the decks, the Invincible looked just like the Belfast, albeit a lot larger of course.  Being drawn to that kind of thing, I also discovered that there is a great rooftop bar just above the ticket desk for the Belfast and it makes for a wonderful observation platform for Tower Bridge.  I can also highly recommend the charcuterie platter if you are hungry.

The next few days will round out what has effectively been three weeks on the road and I can’t wait to get home, but first there’s a night out in Covent Garden to contend with.

Keep smiling!

Jerry.

 

 

There are 9,000,000 bicycles in Beijing


There are nine million bicycles in Beijing

That’s a fact,
It’s a thing we can’t deny
Like the fact that I will love you till I die.

Katie Melua’s haunting and lovely song claims the there are nine million bicycles in Beijing; which may or may not be a fact, but given that there are over twenty one million people living here, it’s no stretch at all to think that there could well be more than that number of bikes. It makes sense too, as the majority of people couldn’t afford cars and I just wouldn’t want to think of how polluted Beijing would be if they could!

I arrived late at night and went straight to my favourite hotel but upon waking, I noticed that it was a lovely clear Sunday morning, with the air unencumbered by the previous weeks pollution. I got up early and as part of my ongoing rehab/drinkers guilt removal program, I took myself out for a short limp. It was shaping up to be a glorious day and the power station that looms over the hotel was like a sleeping dragon, no steam, smoke or soot to be seen at all. In the 1970’s there was little pollution because people all rode bicycles. The bike lanes were three cars wide and the model to strive for back then was the flying pigeon. Here it is, in all it’s glory!

The iconic ‘flying pigeon’ bicycle – I want one!

There were a number of years where bikes were commonplace in the country and even though China makes 800, 000 flying pigeons a year, the waiting list used to be as long as 8 months! It wasn’t long however, until
cars and scooters took over, but now petrol scooters have largely been banned in many of the cities because of the pollution and in their stead are now once again, millions of bicycles. This time, all for rent.

Renting a bike is cheap and convenient and users can users simply download an app on their smartphone, which then allows them to locate bikes and unlock them by scanning a QR code and getting a PIN for the lock. Rental is somewhere between 15 cents and 1 dollar and there are a couple of major players – Mobike and OfO. The problem with the various services (for everyone else) is that you don’t have to ‘dock’ them formally at the end of your ride like the blue bikes in Melbourne, you can just dismount and leave them wherever you like and this causes major congestion at junctions, barriers and stairs; so much so that sometimes it can be quite difficult and frustrating negotiating your way around them. So much so, that on my morning amble (yes P, I am using my cane), I stumbled over an abandoned yellow OfO bike and instantly christened them the “Ohh f**k Off!!!” bikes…

The not nearly so attractive “OfO” cycle – as usual seen in a mixed herd

On this particular trip to China I had a side mission, one which I chose to accept.  It was a task given to me by Mrs. Jerry who had asked me to take part of her ‘flat Stanley’ project away with me and photograph them in prominent places. I had never heard of flat Stanley, but as it turns out, flat Stanley is a character in a children’s book, written by Jeff Brown, who starts out as a normal boy and is squashed flat in an accident and gets into all sorts of adventures, that only a boy who is inches thick could get into. Mrs. Jerry’s class had all cut out pictures of flat Stanley, coloured them in, laminated them and after sticking a picture of themselves on the back, sent them out all over the World. Last week I took a picture of him in Singapore, outside of Raffles and this week, in China. Next week, he’ll be in London.

Raffles and Tianjin – the lad gets around, but he’s brought his crap photographer mate with him…

I spent a few days in a city called Tianjin, which is around three hours drive south east of Beijing, but I didn’t drive, I took the bullet train, which reduced the trip to a very respectable 35 minutes. This time, the same as the last, I stayed at the St. Regis, which is on the river Haihe.

The St Regis and its Dragons gate

It is a spectacular looking hotel, resembling a huge square doughnut. This design originated from Fung Shui design principles and the large void in the middle was to avoid frustrating the local dragon who wanted to fly down from the nearest peak to drink or bathe in the river or ocean. There are several large buildings on the hillside in the Repulse bay area of Hong Kong with ‘dragon’s gates’ as part of their design and whilst the design of the St Regis is more likely to have been an architectural conceit, it’s a nice nod to ‘old’ China and Fung Shui. If you are travelling down to Tianjin at any point, you might also like to know that between 6pm and 7.30pm, there is an absolutely free ‘happy hour and a half’ and you can sit and enjoy sundowners with this view.  I have enjoyed several pints of G&T here, I think.

The river Haihe, all lit up like Las Vegas

I also discovered a popular hobby for the elderly folk who live near the river. As with a lot of old people, they tend to get up very early and take themselves for a walk, with or without a tiny dog.

The sun rising over the Haihe

Some like to fish in the river Haihe and others like to paint graffiti on the flagstones. They aren’t your traditional vandals however, as they just use river water and a large calligraphy brush. I say they ‘just’ use river water as having looked at the murky liquid, I suspect that there are numerous biologicals in there as well… And to think, people actually swim in it and eat the fish from it.  They probably glow in the dark afterwards. The geriatric artists spend hours ‘painting’ Chinese characters onto the black granite pavers as a means of keeping their minds active and getting outdoors. It looks great and as it is usually patriotic slogans they are writing, it doesn’t upset anyone.

Sneaky revolutionaries painting with disappearing ink

A long drive back to Beijing with colleagues later and I’m back in my favourite hotel.  In a days time, I’m off to London, but first, I need to catch up on some sleep.

Stay safe,

Jerry.

 

‘Kiasu’ in Singapore

Singapore – looking towards the CBD and over the Padang (playing field), with the purple lights.  The well lit roads are all part of the F1 race route and you can see one of the stands to the bottom left.

I am back on the road again after 6 weeks of virtual house arrest following some fairly vicious bone carpentry. My first trip out of Australia is back to Singapore, a country I know very well and I am again staying at the hotel with the satanic toilet (http://wp.me/p7wOIN-5o). This time, I am limping a bit and I’m supposed to be using my cane, but I am far too vain to be caught with it by anyone I know.

The marina bay sands casino (and hotel); it’s known locally as ‘the surfboard’ 

When you live in Singapore as a foreigner, one of the first terms you learn is “Kiasu” … It is a Chinese word in the Hokkien dialect that defines anxious and selfish behaviour and means ‘scared to lose’ or, ‘FOMO’ to all you millennials. My other favourite daughter, who actually speaks the language, tells me that a related term is “Kiasi” or the extreme fear of death – related because missing out on something is apparently just as serious as dying. A state of Kiasi might apparently cause a person to lose their sense of justice and righteousness and act in way that was normally alien to them as exemplified when the store doors are open for the Chinese new year sales.   All of this eastern culture can be a bit confusing for the newbies who try to reconcile Asian linguistic nuance and mysticism with the ultra modern architecture looming over the traditional colonial buildings.

The term ‘Kiasu’ sums up the predominantly Chinese attitude towards living competitively here. Currently, the Island is gearing up for the Formula 1 races (next week) and the locals are already acting like they are practising their standing starts. I’ll give you an example: if you are walking towards an escalator and there’s someone approaching from another direction; even if they are further from the thing than you, you can guarantee that they will quicken their pace and attempt to beat you to it, because they are ‘scared to lose’…

Kiasu on the escalator

If you are on the MRT (the tube) a similar thing happens. Sadly, it isn’t generally in the local culture to allow commuters to alight before cramming onto the carriage and there is always a bit of a stoush* to get in and out.

* vernacular Australian for a scrap

In order to improve the situation, the government has sensibly placed lines on the ground showing where people should wait until the doors open and other travellers alight from the carriage. However, there is absolutely no way that a local of a certain vintage (my age and older usually) will allow someone to get off before they get on, even if it means dropping the shoulder and barging their way on.

The Singaporean guide to getting on and off the tube properly!

In a bid to engender more socially acceptable behaviour, the government has embarked on various initiatives that try to ‘educate’ the populace into being less selfish and dare I say it, more ‘international’ in their behaviour. A caveat here, I have many Singaporean friends and having enjoyed living here for 6 years, I can say that Singapore is definitely not as bereft of good manners as I may appear to be painting it. No, wait a minute… it is absolutely the case and what’s more, most of the locals will agree with me…

On the aforementioned tube trains, there are ‘messages’ on the floor and on the windows and walls, advising people that they should stand for the elderly and infirm (I pretty much qualify as both at the moment), take your bags off your shoulders, so as to avoid swiping others and to “give way to have a better day” (FFS!). They even have cartoon citizens to encourage people to identify with the characters positive behavioural traits.

Surely, the very image of a Singapore millennial?

As for me; I tried to navigate the station with my cane and was jostled, barged and tutted at, right up to the final limping step onto the carriage. And yet, whilst in the sanctuary of the car and surrounded by advisory signage, I was deferentially ushered into the seats reserved for the elderly, infirm and pregnant. I accepted gratefully, having got on the circle line towards my destination, purely to avoid long underground treks between stations.   I was even prepared to effectively circumnavigate the country on the circle line for the sake of a seat, but I soon found that the evil eye is alive and well and saved for people suspected of faking their conditions. I had various Aunty’s* standing, navels six inches from my sitting eyeline, shaming me into turning over the holy grail of a seat to them so I did, twice and they accepted, twice.

*the Singapore ‘Aunty’ is a subgroup of ladies of a certain age, who exhibit various traits that some find amusing. Think of the lady who peeks from behind her net curtains and gossips about the way ‘things used to be’ and you’ll get an inkling of the type of person we are referring to.

Anyway, it was a productive trip and I enjoyed being back in the warmth.  Sadly, I have only got 24 hours at home before getting the next plane, this time  to China!

Mental note: Too much information

A warning for those of gentle disposition or of a tender age – please do not read on if you are easily upset by sexual references, descriptions of bodily functions or your sons erection (sorry Mum).

As mentioned on the home page, partly due to a youthful excess of physical exercise that borderlined on masochism , I have abused my body over the years to the extent that various joints are failing me.  The fact that the conservatives also stole my school milk* probably didn’t help.  My right hip is the second joint, after a rotator cuff that has gone to pot and I had it whipped out the day before yesterday after several months of waiting.

*A political reference that won’t resonate with anyone that didn’t go to school in the UK during the 1970’s

I managed to sidestep the long list of geriatrics at my local hospital with a clever dodge from my GP. He suggested that I could join the public waiting list and still go with my chosen private orthopaedic surgeon in a very rural and well regarded public hospital at Hamilton, built circa 1860 and located in the western farming districts of Victoria. With my adopted home town being very much a kind of ‘Gods waiting room’, the lists ran long there and Hamilton’s was much shorter.  As it happened, it was an easy choice to make.

Mrs Jerry and I conducted a reconnaissance last week to make sure we knew where we were going and to have some pre op tests of the poking, prodding and bloodletting kind. I knew I was in the right place (mental note #1) when I saw a wall size photograph of HRH the Princess Margaret, the hospitals patron. Margaret had long been one of my favourite royals, largely due to her sense of humour, love of a drink and her refusal to conform.

HRH the Princess Margaret.  Patron of the hospital and all round ‘good sort’

Pretty much all the staff there have a sense of humour and go about their jobs professionally and in a caring friendly manner. It should be said at this juncture, that in my opinion, there is no real difference between public and private health care in Australia, except perhaps with the availability of private rooms and wine with dinner with the latter. It’s still the same great staff and facilities. My first hint of that sense of humour was with the pre admission registrar, a very nice lady of a certain age who originally hailed from south Africa. She demanded that I ‘take off my shirt and lie on the bed’ and added “I bet that’s the best offer you’ve had all day” Mental note #2 – must come here again…

One of the pre op appointments was with the physiotherapists who were both twenty something nurses. They blushed and stumbled their way through the description of having to teach me how to shower and dress safely, which caused Mrs Jerry to roll her eyes and tease me with ‘which one would do you think it would be, or would they both do it at once’? Mental note #3 I’m in the right place!

On the day of the race, I checked in en famille and of course, I had to dress for the occasion. I was given a fetching backless gown in “a lovely blue, that brings out your eyes dear” and a pair of disposable pants, that reminded me of a hair net; “bet you’ll be wanting to take a pair of those home dear” the 60 years young admissions nurse giggled. I don’t think that they get many ‘young and otherwise healthy’ 52 year olds in for hip replacements, so I was apparently a bit of a rarity. I was given my premeds with a ‘bottoms up’ and I settled back to enjoy the ride.  The kids were obviously waiting for some kind of spectacular reaction, but I think they were fairly disappointed with my refusal to perform some humiliating ‘dabbing’ dance moves on camera.

The next part of my halloween outfit was a very fetching pair of tubigrip stockings, which unaccountably reminded me of Margot Robbie’s character in the Marvel comics; Harley Quinn. And yes, I know now that she wore fishnets, but some 30 minutes after the premeds, my mind wasn’t working in an appropriate way. That thought (and a few others) stayed with me and that coupled with the heightened stress of the situation caused a totally inappropriate and wholly irrepressible erection.

Strangely enough, I don’t think that I had expressed more than a passing appreciation of Ms Quinn’s slutty, yet arresting appearance during the ‘Suicide squad’ movie, but apparently ‘something’ about her character had stuck in my mind. The bastard thing wouldn’t go down even with the old standby of inwardly chanting “Margaret Thatcher naked, Margaret Thatcher naked…” over and over again and it was there for the duration. As I was wheeled in, the theatre nurse glanced down, smiled and commented, “we don’t see a lot of those here” Mental note #4 – this is NOT the right place for one of those.

I did slip under and away from the embarrassment when the spinal anaesthetic was put in and according to the jolly anaesthetist when I came round, I had managed to blurt out the multi use ‘F” verb/noun/exclamation several times as the needle slipped in and before the inappropriate thoughts had totally left me.

Unfortunately during my recovery nap, I had suffered from a malfunction which is apparently common to patients who have had a spinal anaesthetic and I had copiously wet my bed. Mortified with embarrassment and as the very understanding nurses changed my sheets and wriggled me into my dry PJ’s, I did it again, this time in full view. Mental note #5, for the next hip, request adult diaper to be installed immediately after the op…

After the very public bed wetting incident, I realised that I shared the observation ward with two older ladies, both of whom had gone under the knife with the same surgeon, for the same op just before me. They were fairly sanguine about bladder woes, having had several children and ‘incidents’ themselves.  When I was cleaned up, but still feeling fairly woozy, my family kindly brought in chocolate digestive biscuits, wine gums and jubes; all my undisputed favourites and I tucked in with relish, but later that evening, my ward mates managed to top that with deliveries of freshly baked cakes and even a pizza.

Thanks to the shared ward, I now know all about their grandchildren, how lovely living in the same country town you were born in is and that in Hamilton, they are all royalists really. I drew the line at discussing Princess Katherine’s alleged third pregnancy as reported in womans day (so it must be true) and I can fully attest there is something to be said for having your knowledge of the internal politics of the Victorian Country Womens Association broadened.  I also know I couldn’t have been looked after any better.

In the morning, we were all moved to the other end of the corridor, where the ladies would have other like minded people to talk to and I was wheeled into a private room, probably due to my excessive snoring. In spite of the epidural and its gradually waning effects, I was able to carry out my most immediate of ablutions without impediment and the bedside bottle soon had to be changed several times. There was a ‘near miss’ situation when I attempted to foolishly help the nurse to change bottles and nearly dropped the thing and I resolved to leave that sort of thing to the experts going forward.

Early afternoon, with the assistance (or perhaps encouragement) of my painkillers, I had an attack of the munchies and armed with my new crutches, I decided to head downstairs to the coffee shop on the ground floor of the hospital.  Disappointingly, it was closed, but having set my self the goal, I decided to find a local cafe.  Hamilton is a lovely town, it has a lake, numerous nice houses and several interesting shops.  I know this because I window shopped through the streets for a happy couple of Oxycontin numbed hours.  I found a decent looking cafe and threw whatever remaining caution I had left to the wind and decided to have a glass of the local shiraz and a muffin.  The kindly staff didn’t bat an eyelid at my slightly dishevelled appearance, the hospital ID band on my wrist, nor even at the cannula still taped to the back of my hand.  Oh and I may, or may not have still have had my pyjamas on, I can’t quite recall…

I returned to the ward and a sensed a buzz of excitement.  Apparently, there had been a new hospital record set with regards to post operative activity and with only 24 hours between the operating table and Tosca’s coffee shop, I had created a bit of a stir.  By that stage I had googled ‘Oxycontin and alcohol’ and decided that I probably shouldn’t admit to the shiraz and instead mumbled an appreciation of their Bolivian roast.  Impressively, no one took me to task for my excursion and working on the premise that it is better to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission, I decided to brazen it out and congratulated the physios for their excellent work, that had enabled me to be back on my feet so quickly.  As an aside, my step counter showed 2.5km but I also decided to keep that one quiet.

After having been kindly, but firmly confined to bed, I checked out the range of new mobility aids that I had been issued.  The first, a brand new Zimmer frame (pictured) was discarded with the knowledge that I had already graduated to crutches and in any case, a picture of me driving one on social media would be disastrous.

No, you can’t get a picture of me using it!

The second item however looked like it had scope for masses of fun.  It was known as a ‘gripper’ and you can’t of course bend over when you have had your hip replaced and so if you drop anything, without a flunky following you around and picking up after you, you’d be stuffed.

The “gripper” being used to avoid a ‘Douglas Bader’ moment and confirm the actual presence of my feet.

The next morning, when the hospital had finally had enough of me, I was approved for release and I spent the rest of the impatiently packing and hobbling through the corridors.  Luckily, my chocolate digestives lasted out the afternoon and after thanking all of the staff I could find, I was driven home to what could turn out be the most trying phase of recovery, the rehabilitation. Trying for my family, that is…

In closing, I should disclose that I broke the first gripper trying to remove ‘Margot’s’ stockings, despite apparently having been told not to try and get them off myself.  I have now been issued with a replacement and I am currently trying to see if they are sensitive enough to lift a fine stemmed glass.

Cheers!

Jerry.

 

It’s ‘bring your lamb to school day’

 

Mrs Jerry is a fantastic primary school teacher and she’s always looking for ways to enhance the learning experience of her pupils.  They adore the way that she has guinea pigs, fish and a turtle in the classroom and they vie for the privilege of feeding, holding and playing with the pets.  I have to admit that the experience is slightly less rewarding for the one who normally does the ‘mucking out’ of said class pets, but sometimes I get to work with the boys who don’t have many positive male role models in their lives and seeing their enjoyment of the even the most mundane tasks, (just so long as someone is doing the work with them), makes me very happy.

Last week, it was designated ‘bring your lamb to school day’ by my wife and we made an early morning trip to see a neighbour who had moved twelve young lambs back from their farm and into their yard in order to give them a better start in life by keeping them out of the cold and away from the foxes. They were being hand fed and were as tame as they could be, following around the nearest human and bleating sweetly.

How on earth do you pick one?

I loaded one of the dogs old sleep crates into the back of the car and let the kids choose the cutest two.  That clearly wasn’t easy, but we made off with ‘Samantha’ and ‘Trip’.  Yes, they all had names, although I accused the owner of having made the names up on the spot just to appease the kids! Probably because thats just what I would have done…

Trip on the left, Samantha on the right.  How cute are they? 

Samantha and Trip, who were by then around four weeks old, bleated prettily all the way to school and then proceeded to turn my hitherto clean and new smelling car into something decidedly more agricultural.

We attracted a great deal of excited kids (and adults) as we carried the lambs into the classroom and corralled off a small area for them to roam around in. Very quickly it became apparent that we’d need some form of ‘blotting paper’ to keep the area relatively clean and I was despatched to the supermarket to buy newspapers and a bag of straw.

Getting to know you

It’s difficult not to become attached to something like a four week old lamb and they really are quite lovely. In a previous post I described how country people aren’t generally so sentimental with their animals, particularly when they will eventually end up on the plate, but that doesn’t stop them from treating their animals very well and the small flock of twelve lambs that our friends have at home certainly don’t lack for cuddles.

“Trip” in all his glory

Around twenty eight years ago as newly weds, we stayed on a friends farm in western Australia. I worked in a bauxite mine and Mrs Jerry laboured as a roustabout in the shearing sheds. The shearers tried all sorts of ruses to fluster and reduce the pretty little blonde to tears in the competitive and very male atmosphere, but they didn’t manage it.

That pretty little blonde, with Dolly her favourite sheep dog

The shearing sheds.  Note the sprung back supports, you need them after a couple of hundred sheep have passed through.

They weren’t altogether gentle with the shears either and every now and again, a sheep would end up with quite a nasty cut on their newly shorn skin. There was always a sewing kit in the shed that was used for patching up the ‘nicked’ sheep and as an encouragement to avoid cutting the sheep, the shearer who injured the sheep was supposed to patch them up themselves, but they tried it on with her and flung a bleeding sheep at her with the instructions to ‘sew ‘er up’ but Mrs Jerry had caught on to what they were doing and cooly retorted ‘you cut the poor bugger so you can sew her up yourself’ and returned to throwing and sorting the fleeces. Begrudgingly and following the jeers and laughter of all of his mates, the shearer did just that. Mrs Jerry was invited to the pub that night by them all – a rare honour indeed when Ozzie country pubs were still very much a bastion of chauvinism.

At the end of my shift, surrounded by an orange halo of bauxite dust,  I was usually dragooned into helping out with rounding the sheep up in the evenings and putting them into a holding pen for the next mornings shearing.

The holding pens.  It wasn’t unusual to see the dogs running over the sheep backs to keep them moving forward!

I loved walking behind the farm dogs who nipped and yapped at heels of the sheep in the soft early evening light and I learned that there’s nothing quite as daft as a frightened sheep when they are boxed into a corner.

Rounding up the mob.

Rather than take the obvious and easy way, which is usually to go the way the dog wants them to go, the sheep will often run in a totally different direction and get stuck in a fence or a bush. You’d have to wade in behind them, lift them up using their wool as a carrying handle and dump them into the back of the ute before they collapsed from the stress. A few years later, whilst running a wildlife sanctuary in north Queensland, I discovered that whilst trying to herd Emu’s, that they have the same daft, but in their case, belligerent temperament and rather than turn around (they can’t walk backwards) and go the way you wanted them to, they’d try and jump over you, usually knocking you to the ground in the process!

The kids in Mrs Jerry’s class absolutely loved the lambs, but for obvious reasons, I can’t publish many pictures with them in it, but here’s a nice picture of Samantha checking out their art work.

And just in case you think that I am going too soft, here’s what we had for dinner that night…

Bon appétit!

Jerry.

China!

You can’t go to China and not visit the wall.  Well actually, I have been to China many times over the last 20 years and have never gotten around to it, but last year, I took the opportunity of a trip that lasted over the weekend and got out of Beijing with a hire car and driver.  Mutianyu regarded as the ‘best’ section of the wall, is around 80 km from Beijing and is well administered, do beware the aggressive t shirt sellers however.  Jinshanling is also a very good place to get to the wall and although it’s around 157 km from Beijing, the crowds and souvenir sellers are less frenzied.

The Local government takes care of their own sections and some areas, such as Mutianyu and Jinshanling are beautifully restored and maintained.  I did hear from my driver of one council who decided to enlist the help and sponsorship of local business to fund the rebuild and maintenance.  The selected business just happened to be a supplier of ceramic tiles and fittings and that section of the great wall of China ended up looking like a hybrid between a public convenience and a Versace palace. State government was not amused apparently…

A very brisk morning on the wall.  It cleared the sinuses

It’s not often you can see a ‘cityscape’ in Beijing, but on recent trip I encountered a very rare clear summers day.  It was a Monday morning, of course, which means that the air has had the weekend to clear out all the traffic fumes and industrial smog.  Central heating goes on in Beijing on November the 15th and all the coal-fired power stations spark up at the same time.  Yes, you read that correctly, the Government determines when its cold enough for you to have your heating on.

What that means of course, is that your eyes sting, your throat gets sore and you’ll have a something between a low-level and ‘get me the hell out of here’ headache from the moment you leave your hotel in the morning, to the moment you return in the evening.  Forget navigating around the city by landmarks because you won’t be able to see more than 200 metres horizontally or vertically.  The Government restricts what cars can be on the road and tries all sorts of other controls but ultimately has said that poor air quality is the price you pay for progress.

Monday morning and clear skies

I was so excited when I arrived recently and I could see right across the city from the office window.  So excited in fact that I joined all the other Beijing’ers and stood at the window and ooh’d and ahh’d at the distant mountains that circle the western side of the capital. I even forgot to take a picture…  The next morning of course, it was back to a ‘normal’ smoggy day.  But bear in mind that this is summer and you can see twice as far as you normally can.

Back to normal by Tuesday

And here’s what you have to look forward to in winter.

Mao in Winter.  (sadly, not one of my pictures)

I have, on previous trips headed out into the countryside, where the air is clean(ish) and as part of my work, I have seen a good deal of renewable energy projects and had occasion to view their agricultural practices. On one trip I saw what looked like an army of soldiers with small ladders, tending to vast orchards. Upon closer inspection I saw that it was indeed a small army of soldiers tending to the orchards and in fact they were cross pollinating the blossom on the thousands of trees with tiny paint brushes. Normally, of course cross-pollination is done by our friends the bees and other insects, but the Chinese have used so many chemicals to make sure that harmful insects can’t get anywhere near the crops, that there are no bees left alive. In Australia and the US, the farmers truck in millions of commercially managed bees at the crucial times and have them augment the local bees efforts. It’s apparently cheaper to get the Army in here.

I had occasion to visit a location in the south (Tianjin) and decided to take the bullet train to turn a 4 hour drive into a 35 minute trip. For those of you who have used the Shinkansen in Japan, they are identical, if not quite as luxurious. They are also a bit quick as you can see from the speedometer picture  on the wall below. Getting on and off them is like negotiating a Saturday afternoon football crowd at the turnstiles as they are very well patronised.

Train stations are unfortunately a popular venue for violent political protests and the government are very well aware of this and prepare accordingly.  Luckily, firearms are very difficult to obtain in China, so your average criminal resorts to physical force or the use of edged weapons to get what they want. The Uyghur terrorists who largely reside in the Xinjiang region and want autonomy, tend to use knives in frenzied attacks in public spaces, such as train stations, of course.

The Chinese authorities now post uniformed and plain clothes security guards at prominent places who are equipped with long poles for holding would be knifemen at bay, presumably while they can be bludgeoned with clubs. The guards are also equipped with fire extinguishers as sadly, there are numbers of mentally ill or disenchanted citizens who also protest against the government with self-immolation. It happens a lot more than you’d think apparently, but is never reported.

Note the curved end to hold the nutters at bay and the extinguisher to put them out.

I enjoyed this trip, not least because of the warm weather and the relative lack of pollution, but also because I had the chance to sit outside at the JW Marriott restaurant and have my habitual (Australian) eye fillet steak and bottle of Malbec as a trip closer. I had looked forward to it for days and it always ends a visit well. I know it’s not a very Chinese dinner, but believe me, I have had enough of the three major Chinese countryside food groups – dog, duck and donkey to last me a lifetime, so please forgive my culturally insensitive meal.

All the best,

Jerry.