A conscious uncoupling…

The time had come for the other hip swap out. Barely six months after the first and happily, if ever one can be happy about having a fairly major part of your body ripped out , I had managed to wrangle the same surgeon in the same small, country hospital. He had done such a good job that after the first one, I had decided to stay with the public system, so long as I could stick with the same theatre ‘dream team’

Having one hip replaced in your (early) 50’s brings a raised eyebrow, but two at the same country town hospital within living memory is positively shocking with “but you’re too young” being the common refrain. It also brings with it a degree of notoriety and given my previously demonstrated desire for exploring the town on crutches following my last op, my card was marked from the get go. I could see the hospital administrators whispering to each other as I passed ‘yes, that’s him, we’d better lock the doors this time’ Nurses smiled knowingly muttering ‘he’ll not get out this time’…

Of course, that was like a red rag to a bull and as I passed Princess Margaret’s picture on the wall, I looked up thinking ‘ I bet they couldn’t keep you in’ and winked at her. Actually, having seen the latest episodes of “The Crown” she would no doubt have been a lot of fun to sneak in, or out of a ward with. It actually wasn’t that I wanted to leave the hospital and go downtown before I should have done last time, it was just that I wanted a hot chocolate, the hospital coffee shop had closed some ten minutes earlier and I had enthusiastically bought into the ‘opiates are your friend’ nurse/pushers spiel. I’m sure its something to do with shift changes, but honestly, who closes their coffee shop at 2:30pm when folks are bound to have the munchies?

After having set ourselves up in the pre op administration area and been issued my stockings and gown (‘sorry, we’ve still only got it in blue’), I downed the pre op pills but despite my looking forward to a bit of a lift, I just felt a bit ‘flat’ Mrs. Jerry and I had discussed that the last time I was here we’d had the pups with us and we’d been a lot more animated in what was (potentially) our last moments together. So much so, that when I was wheeled into the waiting area, the same theatre sister who had wryly observed my embarrassingly tumescent state some six months earlier was staring at my flat, rather than tented sheets and asked “not looking forward to this one quite so much then?”

I ended up waiting for almost two hours in that room listening to the music of my youth, minus the Clash, of course and the noises of the preceding hip replacement. Hammering and drilling were the two dominant sounds, competing valiantly with REO speed wagon blasting out through the doors. My over observant theatre nurse commented, “you can tell what kind of mood he’s in by the music he plays” peaking my interest she added “when he likes the way the operation is going, he’ll play an 80’s compilation; but when he’s not happy; it’s Lady Gaga at full blast” Interesting, I thought, just hoping that he’d had a good night sleep, not argued with this wife and had a healthy breakfast – all of the things I also want to ask my long haul pilot whilst holding his a hand and maintaining steady eye contact before taking off.

The anaesthetist, with whom I had reached a humorous accord during my pre admission interviews, entered the room and asked ‘ what’s it going to be, conscious or unconscious?’ He’d previously sold me on going with the epidural without the additional knock out gas on the grounds that it was healthier, more interesting and that I could make requests for the music to be changed if I didn’t like it. I decided that it probably would be an interesting experience and so I chose the ‘conscious uncoupling’ option. He nodded knowingly, clearly appreciating my pop cultural reference and marked my back with a pen, then injecting the epidural as the song changed to ‘ma ma ma poker face’… we half jokingly speculated as to what could possibly be going wrong in there.

A bout of determined hammering accelerated that train of thought and I settled back to contemplate my gradually numbing lower body and how it would be if the wind changed and I stayed like that – that’s a normal waking nightmare, right? After a while, there was a swish of the curtains and what seemed like a dozen or more people trooping in and out of the operating theatre. My surgeon, all smiles and bonhomie shook my hand and enquired as to my decision vis-a-vis being asleep or awake. When I told him, he asked what my favourite music was – “anything but Lady Ga Ga” I replied. “Good choice” he nodded sagely…

Upon being wheeled into the theatre, I realised that a hip replacement was a spectator sport. I actually lost count of the number of gloved and gowned people milling around. A couple of them were wearing what I can only describe as ebola suits and it dawned on me that inside one of them was now my surgeon and he was advancing on me. By this time, several of the multiple players in the room had transferred me to a table, hooked me up to machines that made strange noises and erected a sheet screen, preventing me from observing first hand what was going on. There was however a TV screen focusing, in some detail, on my junk. Well, truthfully, I doubt that was the intention, although I swear I did see the theatre nurse smirking in my direction. By now I was feeling more like a side of beef being washed down with gravy (disinfectant) and prepared for roasting – if you’d wrap your roast in a roasting bag that is. The clear film was apparently to help prevent infections and then layer after layer of tablecloth was laid over me with just a small work area for the surgeon to get cracking in.

My relaxing view of the operation and unfortunately, my junk in the x-ray.  In my defence, it was a cold room… 

Having tried hard to forget the smell of my cauterizing vas deferens as part of having my undercarriage converted from sports to utility, I was however quite unprepared for the strange similarity in smell of the laser scalpel slicing my buttock and the roast shoulder of pork we’d had for last Sunday lunch wafting over the screen. I glanced over at the TV monitor and watched my dissection in glorious technicolour. I did note the rather confronting X-ray of my hips just below the screen that took me back to a recent car journey with Ms Jerry Jnr. I had just exited the local hospital after a pre op X-ray and my daughter grabbed the envelope and pulled out the film. There, shockingly in the centre was a perfect outline of the equipment that created her. With an embarrassed squeal she dropped the film back in the envelope and primly said, “well, there’s something I can never unsee” Serves her right, I thought…

As Bruce Springsteen’s ‘born to run’ cranked up over the speakers, my hip joint was being assaulted by what looked like and probably was, a Dremel multi saw. I watched fascinated, as the leg was dislocated and the ball was chiselled off (literally) by several hard several whacks from a ball peen hammer, then realised that the thuds I was feeling through the table were actually resonating through my body. It’s actually quite shocking how brutal a hip replacement is when you ‘feel’ it first hand. If someone hit you that hard with a hammer under normal circumstances, you’d have to hope to goodness that there would be a copper nearby to drag them off you. This time however, the ball skittled out of the (new) hole in my backside and defying the attempt of one of the gowned wicket keepers, managed to hit the floor with exactly the same noise that a billiard ball makes when it hits a solid floor. There you go, three ball sports allusions in as many sentences, I’m obviously still in the grasp of the painkillers.

The other side of the screen – calm spacemen working on my strangely angled hip.

Prior to the operation, I had once again, unsuccessfully tried to persuade the surgeon to give me the joint as a ‘take away’ I had no intention of giving it to the dogs, of course, but a friend who shall remain nameless (Eric) had stated his intent to make it into the handle for a walking stick – “still not going to happen” the surgeon said with a smile. Bugger, I muttered. That would have been fun, or at least a talking point at parties.

The anaesthetist proved to be a born raconteur and we chatted throughout the procedure. I actually had to be told to keep still at one point as apparently my chuckling was vibrating through the table. I quietened somewhat when I saw the rasp like implement that was being used to route out the femur and how it was used. It looked like a curved cheese grater on a handle and it was worked vigorously in and out of the open bone end to make the room for the implant. The receiving socket on the hip was being ground out at high speed by something else that looked like it came from Bunnings so as to fit the ball joint exactly. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never look at Oso Bucco the same way again.

My surgeon was obviously happy with the way that things were going, as the Beach Boys sang a song about having their car taken away from them. “How did you go with not being able to drive for eight weeks then?” he asked. Actually, quite well I answered and drifting away from the conversation, apropos of the song that had just been playing, recounted a story about my taking Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys diving on the Great Barrier Reef some years earlier. The anaesthetist got it, but I think that it got lost on the telling for the bloke hammering away in my innards.

We’re nearly there, said my new mate the anaesthetist, as the surgeon tidied up the implants by stitching up the layers of fat and tissue around the joint. At my request, he had taken some pictures during the operation and I had thanked him for getting my best side (the top of my head) in focus. Before I knew it, I was taken into the recovery room and poked and prodded to check on my vitals. All must have been satisfactory as I was wheeled into a shared ward of four beds and listened to a frogs chorus of the occupants opposite farting and burping behind their curtains. I joined in myself for a few moments until propriety suggested that I stop while the nurses did their rounds. “Let’s get you out of here and into a room of your own dear” said one of them to the patient in the bed next to mine. “Oh, thank goodness for that” said the educated and very female voice back through the curtain. Oops, I thought.

After another x-ray, blood test and crappy nights sleep, I decided to stretch my legs. It seemed as though the entire staff on that floor popped their heads out of doorways and stared at me. Yes, the word had obviously passed around that I was up. I greeted them all and went for a crutch assisted wander around the floor and found the bathroom. I managed to negotiate the shower and following that, the physio staff took me through my paces in their gymnasium. I seemed to have met all of the benchmarks for immediate recovery from the operation as with almost indecent haste, I was discharged and sent home.

It seems that recovery is pretty much down to me now that the experts have done their bit.  Thankfully, I only have the two hips.  Hopefully, I don’t stuff them up by overdoing things…

Bears Bush Christmas.

Bear, noticing that the inside of the car is far cooler than the outside

Once again, although the dogs don’t know it, it’s Christmas.  Of course, like anyone sensible, they are spending most of their time in the shade, but now and again, I can get them out into the bush for a good long walk.  When it’s really hot, like it now, the air is filled with the strong fragrance of eucalyptus oil and hot earth.  The Australian bush has a distinctive smell that’s hard to imagine, but it’s impossible to forget once you have experienced it and I really miss that heady aroma and the sound of crickets when I am overseas.

When out for a bush walk, Bear, who is now a human three years old and George (his five year old mother) will dash off, ears flapping, jumping over fallen trees, knocking small bushes aside in their haste to beat the other. Eventually, they will tire themselves out and just flop to the ground panting, but it takes a while as the breed was used to chase lions away from the Boers cattle in South Africa, so they have a good deal of stamina.

When the dogs find a dam, they can’t wait to get in for a drink and a swim.

I took Bear’s father (and the source of my ‘nom de plume’) Jerry, on his last walk here as he’d been having serious fits as a result of a brain tumour and he hadn’t been outside of the garden for a while.  The medication we had been giving him was making a good deal of temporary difference, so I decided to get him out and about.   He’d never paid more than passing attention to this small dam but on this particular day, he hesitated, looking at the water and rather than walking around it as he usually did, he glanced at me and leapt, like a puppy into the water and swam laps.  He was so happy that I just sat there watching him for a good fifteen minutes.  His mate and Bear’s mother George, sat watching and lapping as daintily at the water as a 50kg dog can, but she didn’t get in.  I remember sadly thinking, that as I had to leave on a trip the next day, that this would probably be my last walk with him and it was.  He died a few days later and now I always think of that place as ‘Jerry’s pool’.

There’s plenty of wildlife in our local bush and I often see Kangaroos and Wallabies; usually when the dogs disturb them and they end up bounding away, like a herd of Gazelles and far too fast for the dogs to chase, but unfortunately they do try, ignoring my yelled expletives demanding that they come back.  Eventually they do, tongues lolling and panting and thankfully having the decency to look slightly sheepish.

This large male lives in this paddock near home and he’s well over 2 metres tall.  We call him ‘Bruce’ (what else?) and he’s pretty confident.  Both Bear and George know better than to go near him!

If we go for a walk at night, it’s not uncommon to see Possums and even Koalas.  Bear and George are a bit puzzled but they don’t get too excited when the wildlife is in the trees.

Just get lost and let me sleep…

As it is Christmas, the usual ‘over the top’ decorations are up and you’ll notice that in the picture below, I have the fire lit.  It’s actually around 28 degrees outside, but I have had the aircon on for a couple of hours, in order to justify it!

It’s not dark and it’s not cold, but why wouldn’t you light the candles and the fire?

The tree is not the prettiest we have ever had but it is the largest, at just under 4 metres tall.  Getting the bloody thing home was a challenge as we only have a small car and after enlisting the help of a couple of strapping lads to heave the thing onto the roof, I managed to bribe my neighbour into helping me get it off the car and into the living room.  The dogs unfortunately kept on drinking the water out of the small well in the trees stand, so it was a bit of a competition trying to keep it full and the tree green.

It’s not the size of your car, its the size of your tree that counts!

When not sleeping in front of the fire, the dogs loved the lights on the tree although Bear wanted to pee on it – and on all of the presents…

Settling down to lie like big dogs in front of a big fire on a cold night

All in all, the dogs did very well, what with the Christmas left overs and the numerous people who were willing to play with them and take them out for walks.  We are now moving into the bush fire season so its hot and windy at home and sadly that means no more ‘aircon justified’ fires for a while…

This evenings sunset.  Not too shabby.

Hope you all had a good Christmas and that you have a happy and safe new year.

Jerry.

Turn left Sir…

Turn left Sir…

It’s the holy grail of economy class flying. When you are tired and fed up, just hearing those three words is like hearing that ‘the kids are asleep’ and lets face it, it’s about as rare.

This time, I have been travelling for about a month, Hong Kong, China, 48 hours at home and then India. Hong Kong was an ordeal, because I go there once a year and it takes me the rest of the year to get over the hangover, China, because its bloody cold and massively polluted; home because it’s my sanctuary and then India because there’s a price to pay for everything. Actually, that’s unfair, I love India, but it can be hard work.

After collecting a ridiculously large Christmas tree from a nearby farm and manhandling it onto the roof of my small car, we had a Christmas party at home during those 48 hours.

It’s not the size of your car, it’s the size of your tree!

I spent the evening ensuring that I would know little of the 20+ hours in the air, but I paid for it from the moment my eyes opened and the taxi picked me up, to the moment that I landed in Hong Kong, en route to Chennai. Now, I have known hangovers and for those of you who like to consider themselves connoisseurs, please allow me to tell you that this one almost drove me to taking the pledge. In fact, I think I may have actually taken it at some stage that morning, I cannot quite remember.

As I have previously mentioned, I always fly down the back of the aircraft and it’s not just because that’s the final part of the plane to hit the mountain, because thankfully, I wouldn’t know much about it if it did. The back of the plane is all the company pays for. I’m used to getting off the plane bent over like Quasimodo and it taking me days to stretch my way out of my human pretzel like shape. on this trip however, the stars aligned.

By virtue of my constant flying, I get access to the first class lounge and this time, I really needed a place with room to lie down, without the worry of being trampled or robbed. I found a couch with enough room to stretch out, took my boots off and after setting my alarm, simultaneously fell asleep and started snoring like a chainsaw. I know this because according to the barman, that I cleared that end of the lounge like a fart in a lift. His words, not mine…

I woke up to my alarm buzzing angrily and just in time to hear boarding of my flight being called, so I struggled downstairs and limped into the queue. I managed to fold my boarding pass into my passport, in such a way that hopefully, it would speed my way through the scanning of the pass when I heard the hideous “NAAAAAAAA’ of the machine when it rejects your pass. I hate that sound. There are many very specific reasons why I hate it, but suffice it to say, that nothing good usually comes from it. On this occasion however, I heard the magic words “happy Christmas Sir, we have upgraded you” There have been few times in my life when I have felt motivated to kiss a man, but they have usually been at weddings and I have usually been drunk AND in some way related to them. This time I had to stop myself from planting one on the cheek of the chap on the gate.

I almost skipped to the door of the aircraft and with a flourish, showed my pass to the air crew and there it was – “turn left Sir” It’s the most simple thing to say, but the words carry such meaning and such inherent joy. So, turn left I did and entered the other world. I slipped into the cocoon like seat and bided my time through the takeoff and chomping at the bit, until I finished the glass of bubbles and I had been given all clear to recline the seat into the flat bed and crawl under the duvet. I was able, in a fraction of a moment, to go from slightly grouchy, middle aged male to a dormouse.

It might not look like much, but it’s like an oasis in the desert to me

Knowing that this would be a tiring week, I had taken the precaution of booking into a decent hotel. It was right on the beach in Chennai and this is the view I came back to each evening.

But you just know, it’s going downhill from here.

Have a safe and happy Christmas.

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!