Thursday, August 14, 2014

Love is in the air

Forget about the Gaydar – that’s so 1990s.  These days, for us sensitive new-age male types, it’s all about the Gendar, and I flatter myself that I have an almighty one, which right now is standing to formidable attention!

I’m on the flight home from Port Moresby to Brisbane, and I can’t help noticing that very few of my fellow travellers are female … I can count three, in fact, on a 737 with about 180 passengers.  Such is the composition of fly-in-fly-out miners, builders, investors, public servants and missionaries which make up the cross border traffic between the booming, resource- and religion-driven economy of PNG and its down-turning, godless, former colonial master.

And as if the odds weren’t bad enough for an ‘always up for it’ barnyard Casanova, the three possibilities up for grabs consist of an elderly Papua New Guinean woman who looks like she’s got her fair share of grandchildren (and who made it clear upon first advance that she wasn’t interested), a European backpacker with natty dreadlocks, soiled clothing and in terrible need of a wash after six weeks ‘living with a family in the bush’ (who - and I know it’s no longer the done thing for a man to judge a woman by her looks – I wouldn’t go near with a forty-foot pole); and a nun (there are some blurred lines that even I won’t cross). 

So with no options for action from amongst my fellow travellers, I was left with no alternative than to turn my attention elsewhere, through which I noticed a rather interesting, and these days somewhat uncommon dynamic going on between the airline cabin crew and the fat, bald, jowly, ruddy-faced … but extremely rich mining executives heading home for a long weekend ‘alone’ in their riverside Brisbane apartments.

I recall decades ago hearing about young, frivolous air hostesses who used to clamour for shifts on the flights out of places like Monte Carlo and Las Vegas on Sunday evenings in order to land themselves a partner promising a high-rolling lifetime of five-star resort holidays, convertibles, coastal mansions and saucer-sized diamond-rings.  Of course that was a bygone era, and feminism has come a long way since then … at least for most women.  But perhaps not for those very same women whose gambling sugar daddies have since lost their edge, or whose dodgy government contracts proved leaky, or who simply drifted towards the new breed of younger, silicone-enhanced casino floor beauties.  Sadly, for these washed-up social lights, once the Porsche had been repossessed and the last jewel-encrusted g-string had been pawned, they had few options other than to return to the only skill at which they’d ever excelled, and here they were, back on the flight path … looking for a man of means.

And what fertile hunting ground they’ve discovered!  Every day, there are four flights out of Moresby, and every one of them is choc-full of sweaty, wheezy, portly and incredibly rich old men, most of whom, for one reason or another, have chosen to follow money-induced exile at the expense of losing wife and family, and who now, thanks to the power of chemically enhanced erections, have plenty of home-leave and resources to enjoy the company of slightly younger, but equally chemically enhanced starlets of the sky. 

These Botoxed bombshells spend a good deal of the two hours and thirty-five minutes in the air flirting and gesticulating suggestively to these well-heeled, gnarled old toads, and I can assure you there has never been a lap-dance as arousing as the simulated strip-tease these gals do with the demonstration lifejackets – “just bend over like this and you’ll find it under your seat”.

So as you can imagine, poor-old Donkey, with his development sector-issue cargo pants and grotty Greenpeace t-shirt is never going to stand a chance against the grotesquely overweight and over-paid parasites of PNG’s resource boom.  Right now, though, I’d probably settle for a glass of iced water to dampen my arousal, but I’ve been hitting this hostess call button for the last hour and a half and do you reckon anyone’s coming my way?  Not when there’s gold in them there front seats!

With all these old, rich bastards around, Donkey never stood a chance! 

Friday, August 08, 2014

If looks could kill

Anyway you look at it, I was a bad student; my commitment was atrocious, my marks terrible, my conduct inappropriate and my attendance either tardy or non-existent.  By the time final year had rolled around, there was little to save me from the end of a dole queue.  But after a stern chat from one of my more conscientious lecturers (at the pub, as I recall) I was left with no allusions about my future, “Lift my game, step-up my commitment, or I was out”.

The message must have been delivered with considerable fire and brimstone as it cut through my inebriation sufficiently that upon sobering up, I tidied-up my act and set about trying to catch-up on years of missed learning.  At about the time my commitment started to kick-in, I recall having to work with a group of my fellow students to research and deliver an instructive presentation on the role of body language in practitioner-patient communication. 

I remember finding it surprising at the time that this concept of non-verbal communication embodied a significant breadth of scientific sociological and anthropological research, and some kind of academic curiosity deep within my semi-functioning brain was momentarily tweaked.  Still, old habits die hard, and I took to the assignment with the derision deserved of any un-graded elective.  Together with my fellow indifferents, I delivered a puerile, immature but amusing role play about young, drunken students trying to pick-up in a bar (fertile ground for yer old mate, Donkey, as you can imagine … aside from the picking-up part). 

Perhaps you’re thinking that this was yet another squandered opportunity for me to learn something new and to get serious about my studies.  But let’s face it, it wasn’t as though being able to read and understand body language was ever going to save my life, right?

True enough, I’d say … that is if I had knuckled-down and studied my nuts off, in which case I would have been making mega-squillions right now cutting the toenails of bored millionairesses like all my former peers, and would never have needed to understand body language to make my way in the world.  Given the choice, I would happily succumb to deafness induced by the substantially more boisterous language of money, rather than having to strain every fibre of my impoverished being to catch the allusive whisper of the body. 

The bitter irony is that because of my academic laxity, I was denied the moneyed path, and instead ‘chose’ the more modest pursuit of saving the world, within which one’s success, and indeed one’s very survival can at times rely on one’s ability to recognise and respond appropriately to people’s non-verbal communication.  If only I’d studied!

Anyone who’s ever travelled to a new country will know how it feels to have accidentally committed some cultural faux pas such as shaking hands, walking through the wrong doorway, helping oneself to a meal reserved for someone more important, grabbing your host’s wife on the arse and so-on.  More often than not, these innocent mistakes are taken for what they are, and usually the most adverse outcome is simply a sense of shared embarrassment amongst all parties.

But here in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, I’m discovering that recognising and responding appropriately to the signs and signals of people’s bodies, facial expressions and actions is my only defence against finding myself as the main ingredient in a pot of Highlands Donkey Stew.  In particular, one thing I have learned pretty quickly, and which is a significant departure from other Melanesian cultures, is that looking a stranger directly in the eye is not a chance to exchange a friendly smile, but rather a challenge which can generate an extreme response.

Jared Diamond, in his laborious Guns, germs and steel, explains that when highlander strangers meet, a lengthy discussion ensues, sometimes lasting many hours, during which the strangers attempt to identify whether they are related to, or know anyone in common, simply in an effort to avoid having to try to murder each other.  So ingrained in their culture is the mistrust of strangers and non-kin, that they will kill out of obligation, rather than to simply pass each other by.

What Diamond failed to cite is that their patience and ability to engage in such detailed and lengthy familial exploration are significantly diminished by the presence of two unrelated factors, both of which are found commonly in the highlands these days.

The first is rugby league.  Papua New Guineans are mad for it.  During the recent State of Origin match between Queensland and New South Wales, every woman, man and child in the country did whatever they could to get to watch the game on TV.  In the villages of the eastern highlands, satellite TVs aren’t that easy to come by, so that means getting to the nearest big town before the game.  Goroka is one such town, but as the transports only come to town in the morning, literally hundreds of thousands of highlanders had descended upon the two-block municipality by mid-morning, to watch a game that was not due to start until 6pm.

All day long, scores of people thronged the pavements in large, protective family groups.  Many of the men and women had painted their faces, admittedly in either NSW-blue or QLD-maroon, but utilising traditional, highlands war-paint designs which further increased their menace.

The other factor set to strain inter-clan tolerance in modern-day Papua New Guinea highlands is alcohol, and with nothing better to do for eight hours in the lead-up to the game, SP beer was flowing out of the bars and bottle shops of Goroka like a monolithic highlands god suffering from chronic, supernatural incontinence.

As I wandered through town on my way home that afternoon, I glanced at the menacing, slurring, war-painted faces of the highlands warriors crowding around me, and despite my incomprehension, I felt both fear, and the stirring of something unfamiliar in the pit of my brain.  I meandered cautiously through the crowds and noticed that groups of angry men were moving towards me.  Suddenly, as if a chamber opened in my mind to release latent information from the distant past, I became acutely aware that these hard stares and menacing faces were telling me something.  They were telling me that there was no need to sit and work out who we both might know, because clearly I wasn’t related to any of them … and they were telling me without words, but in no uncertain terms, to get the hell out of there.

I hurried through the crowd and made it home just before the sun went down … just before the game started … and just before the highlanders started burning everything in town. 

So to my stuck-up alma mater I say, “Screw you and your exams, your supplementary exams and your withdrawal of enrolment notices”, it looks like ol’ Donkey learned a thing or two after all.  It just goes to show that there is no need to concentrate all the time at school, and that you really can learn more in two hours at the pub than you can in a whole life time in the classroom.

Picture this, in a hue of blue or maroon, and fueled by alcohol and boredom … and then run!  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

DYB DOB Donkey

This week I’ve been in Bangkok attending a global summit of influential minds on Disaster Risk Reduction, which is all about trying to prepare communities, governments and countries generally to withstand and recover from the effects of natural and man-made disasters.  I was thrilled to be attending the meeting, not only to hear from the world’s leading minds on DRR, but also because I had been asked to present a key note address on the last day, which I was hoping was going to be my big chance to make myself known to these power brokers and who knows, maybe even nab a high-powered, important job in the future.

The discussion topics on offer at the summit have encompassed lengthy soul-searching on setting-up Early Warning Systems which can be operated as soon as the initial signs of a disaster are imminent, so as to alert communities and other parties to prepare for the coming danger.  There have also been detailed explanations of working with communities and various groups on Disaster Preparedness and Response, so that they know what to do when the Early Warning System is activated, and Disaster Mitigation and Resilience, which is all about putting things in place to limit the impact of the disaster on people and their livelihoods.

But as is so often the case with these high-level discussions, all the theoretical jargon and technical know-how immediately get thrown out the window when a real disaster hits, as I discovered this week when my world was thrown into utter chaos by a series of unanticipated, catastrophic events.  

On the last day of the meeting I was up well before the sun, diligently preparing for my presentation.  After finalising the materials and practicing my speech a couple of times, I ironed my shirt and trousers, and headed off to the magnificent hotel breakfast buffet which is a common, essential element of these kinds of global meetings, concerned as they are with improving the lot of those with barely enough household resources to feed their kids.

In the Disaster Risk Reduction biz, when we talk about developing Early Warning Systems, we encourage individuals and communities to look for any unusual events or changes in their surroundings.  Hindsight is indeed a powerful tool for reflection, and through this I must concede that my ability to recognise and comprehend a significant change to the breakfast buffet that morning could well have spared me from the debilitating effects of what followed, however I failed to recognise the significance of the bowl of small, ripe cherry tomatoes which had replaced the more common-place, large, pre-sliced tomatoes on offer during the previous four days.

Failing to heed this important Early Warning Sign, I obliviously sat down to my greasy breakfast and with the sharpened points of my unsuspecting table fork, I pierced the shiny outer skin of a cherry tomato, unleashing all manner of damnation and hellfire in the form of bright, red tomato juice all over my crisp, ironed shirt - my last clean shirt for the week – all within a few short moments of the professional and reputational reckoning upon which my future career in international Disaster Risk Reduction was to be built.

Within a nanosecond of the destructive cocktail of juice and pulp being sprayed from hip to shoulder where moments before there had been nothing but sharp, starchy creases, I was on my feet in the middle of the public thoroughfare, absently wiping sticky yellow seeds from my scalp and ears, while my shrinking spleen emitted an involuntary, guttural groan which rose into the lofty chamber before disappearing into the same, intangible locale as my future career prospects. 

In reflection, it’s quite possible that all may not have been lost at that point, as there may have been some individuals of influence who’d not yet become aware of the destruction my heedless actions had unleashed upon the early morning diners, however my voluble anguish was released with little heed to the number one rule of Disaster Response planning, which is to Remain calm – DO NOT PANIC!.  Instead, I projected a shrill, piercing scream like a couple of over-weight drag queens fighting over a pair of fourteen inch, red sequinned stilettoes, attracting the full attention of every member of the largest gathering of influential minds on international humanitarian responses ever to have been assembled.

Realising my mistake, I made a beeline for the door, only to slip on the organic mess I had created on the shiny parquetry with my clumsy upturning of a breakfast bowl, causing me to land flat on my arse and generating for those influential global minds a close-up view of the world’s first ever edible, indoor tsunami, which proceeded from the epicentre of my soiled behind to the far corners of the restaurant.

Crawling now, I lowered my head in shame and slowly reconstructed a Disaster Escape Route in my mind to guide me out the door and out of sight.  Back in my Safe House hotel room a few moments later, I waited for my hyperventilating to subside and began analysing the situation.  I had come to Bangkok for a reason, and I was not going to let this incident impede my Recovery to a lucrative, fat-cat position on the international stage.  I threw open my wardrobe to take stock of my provisions, only to remember with horror that my Disaster Preparedness for this high-level talk fest had me Stockpiling only the required number of outfits through which to get me through five days of looking as professional as possible, and like I knew what I was talking about, however I had not allowed for Contingencies.  Added to this, I had been schmoozing so much with the ‘Big Wigs’ each night … until well into the messy wee hours, that all previously worn shirts were stained with Guinness and sweaty underarms.

This was truly an unanticipated, catastrophic disaster of career-limiting proportions, but despite the dire circumstances in which I now found myself, I took a couple of deep breaths, gulped down my rising panic and I resolved to make something of this.  “Hadn’t I spent the last twenty years working hard and building my reputational Resilience?”, I reasoned, “Sure I had.  I have what it takes to impress these people with my skills, Knowledge, Attitude and Practice”.  I impressed upon myself that these brilliant DRR practitioners weren’t interested in how I was dressed; they’d carved out their careers through the sweat and tears of responding to some of the most severe humanitarian disasters in recent history: working twenty hours a day for weeks at a time while living out of military-type barracks with limited water and supplies.  They knew what was important in this industry, and it wasn’t the cut of a man’s Armani trousers.  I was going to show them that I too was like them; Responsive in the face of a Disaster.  I grabbed what I could from the closet, and boldly headed for the auditorium.

The Inaugural Global Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction is unlikely to be remembered for anything other than the Global Head of UNDRR, demonstrating the military precision upon which his reputation as a leader of international Disaster Responses was built, directing the Conference Facility Security personnel to chase down and brutally apprehend a scruffy, scab-faced maniac dressed only in a stained Singha Beer singlet, a pair of yellowing y-fronts and army boots, who had burst into the opening session of Day 5, shouting like a lunatic about Dyslexic Rock Renditions.

Attack of the Career-Limiting Tomatoes: Donkey comes a cropper to a pesky fruit at a Bangkok breakfast buffet.  Pic:

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Way too much information

Anyone whose worked in corporate customer service in the last 30 years has probably had to sit through a couple of those Gawd-awful, John Cleese-type training videos featuring starving, D-grade actors who’ve sold their Oscar dreams down the river for a couple of bucks performing two-dimensional skits for brain-dead desk jockeys and call centre clerks.

My introduction to this was straight out of school, when I took a job serving watery pots out of greasy glasses to hardened criminals in one of the Outer East’s more notorious bikie bars.  For me it was just a job; sure, I’d not learn anything useful, but provided I didn’t get glassed, king-hit or have a chair smashed over me in one of the weekly brawls, I would collect a steady, minimum wage pay-check with which to advance my own liver-destructing activities, and as an added bonus, catch front-row views of my topless colleagues between 4 and 6 on a Friday.

But that all changed when, shortly after commencing my employment, the pub was bought-out by a swanky, well-established real estate firm reading the urban expansion auguries and speculating on avant-garde gentrification of the establishment ahead of the arrival of an entirely new, upwardly mobile residential market.

Within days of the takeover, we were being drilled with phone-answering hooks which were so long and grammatically complicated that they would send our regular clientele packing long before they’d had a chance to talk,

“Good morning, welcome to The Astoria!  My name is Donkey and I am your friendly, enthusiastic and ready-to-help customer service agent on this bright, sunny morning.  Please take a moment to press 8# to hear about all of our amazing services and products, or feel free to simply request anything specific from me as soon as you are ready” [CLICK – beep-beep-beep].

Ahead of its time it certainly was!  And so too was another customer service approach which was strongly advocated for in the training videos, and soon adopted and directed by the new management.  This approach dictated that if there was to be even the slightest delay in meeting a customer’s demand, the staff were to communicate directly and often with the customer to update them on the progress of their product or service.

You can just imagine the response this got from ‘Crazy Shit’ McCauley, one of our friendly regulars, during my first shift after customer service training;

Donkey:    “I’m sorry about the delay in delivering your beverage, Sir.  We are having some trouble with the turnover of barrels in the chilling facility below stairs”.

CSMcC:    “Well why the f**k don’t you shut your poncey, pretty-boy d**k-trap and get on with swapping the f**king barrels over so I can get me f**king beer.  Stupid, lazy c**t!”.

As I said, ‘ahead of its time’.  These kinds of responses went on for well over two years, by which time I’d gotten jack of the daily abuse, projectile mucous and physical threats and took up a job sweeping the floor of a gay men’s hair salon (while dressed in red hot pants and with only a dustpan and brush to work with – obviously another story all together, but I can assure you the tips were incredible).

But the point is that while the customer service training videos and executive-level research might suggest that customers want to know the minutiae of why their meal/their bill/their statement is taking too long, my experiences at The Astoria suggest otherwise.  So too does another example which I experienced today, this time as the customer.

This afternoon, I was sitting aboard a jam-packed airliner awaiting take-off, fuming over delays which had us sitting motionless in the sweltering, tropical midday sun as the tarmac around us slowly baked into a sticky black mess.  The delay, we came to understand from the enthusiastic young Captain, was due to a malfunction in the air-conditioning system, which had been blowing-out scorching hot air for the better part of an hour. 

In his best FM radio jock voice, the Captain went into great detail about the debilitated cooling system, and ‘assured’ us that the service crew had all the parts out of the plane and strewn across the baking cement in an effort to isolate and fix the problem.  If the Captain’s intention here had been to make me feel more disposed to forgive the airline for the uncomfortable delay, then blowing the lid off my mistaken beliefs relating to meticulous airline service procedures wasn’t quite getting me there, and my anxiety was soon mirroring the cabin mercury.

About thirty minutes later, we roasting passengers were revived by the initial waft and later firm blast of cool air coming from the vents.  Our Captain then publically thanked John the Engineer for “…coming all the way out here on his day off to single-handedly fix the problem – you may not realise it,” confided the Captain, “but this is a job normally reserved for a team of three”. 

Again, admission of sub-regulatory airline safety protocols wasn’t helping me to excuse the yawning gap in our departure schedule, but the customer service pitch didn’t end there.  A short while later, the Captain again spoke over the intercom, “Sorry for the further delay here, folks; we’ve been having some trouble with the flight computer.  We’ve been trying a few things here and there, and wouldn’t you know?  It seems the best way to fix these things is the ol’ Control-Alt-Delete combination … Ha!  So we’re just re-booting the system and we’ll have the flight plan up in no time, and we should be right for take-off in about two minutes…”.

Are you getting my point here?  And just when one thought that all that might seem just a little unnerving to an anxious passenger, this near-final clanger from our Staff-Member-of-the-Month of a Captain, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I apologise again for that being the longest two minutes of your life; that’s because we had developed a different flight plan when we thought the air conditioner wasn’t going to work, but when it was fixed – thanks again John … that man really is amazing! – we were back onto the old flight plan but we accidentally sent the new one to Air Traffic Control and now we’re trying to sort it out.” 

“Right, that’s it!” screamed every fibre in my body, “I do not want to be here … disarm those bloody doors and get me the hell out of this thing”.  But my desperate attempt at escape proved unnecessary with the Captain’s next words.  By this time, we’d taxied onto the runway, and had been waiting in poll position when the Captain announced, “This seems to be taking too long I’m afraid.  We’ll have to taxi back to the apron now to make room for the Air Solomons plane to depart, and then we’ll have another go.  It won’t take long and we’ll soon be off.”  With that I gave a sigh of relief and looked forward to getting out of this ageing tin can, but at that moment, for the first time all afternoon, the Captain decided to act without passenger consultation, and in a complete contravening of his latest communication we hurtled down the runway and were off into the big blue!

As I clung to my seat for the next four hours, my knuckles getting whiter and shinier with every turbulent bump or shake, I reflected that I reckon the customer service industry R&D teams have got it completely wrong.  No customer really wants to know the whys, the wherefores or the what ifs.  Customers and service users choose to have others pour their drinks, fly their planes or re-insert their haemorrhoids because they are either too lazy, or prefer not to be bothered with the technicalities.  They choose not to be in the driver’s seat, and therefore they simply do not need to be part of the minutiae of decision-making or output progression.  Too much information just puts people on edge, or else highlights the service provider’s incompetence … and there’s no way in the world that either of those two outcomes are going to be good for business.

The only info that we passengers didn’t get was seeing this guy when he boarded the plane and took to the flight deck - all would have been instantly clear.  Pic:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Radio Therapy

Say what you will of Western European nations as ruthless colonial oppressors and exploiters of some of the world’s most vulnerable people; indeed their legacy in many African, Southeast Asian and Pacific countries comprises physical and cultural displacement, racial and political power imbalance which frequently topples into bloody civil war, and economic ruin either through depletion, or forced signing-over of valuable natural resources.

But it’s not all bad.  The Western Europeans may have been a bit heavy-handed on the governance side of things (and possibly a little discriminatory in their national view and treatment of their colonial citizens), but they did leave behind a commitment to fine dining which is truly a welcome aspect of occupational exile in some of the world’s far-flung locales.

While some colonial powers set fire and/or bombed fields, towns and livestock as they made hasty retreats ahead of angry, spear-wielding mobs of pro-independence activists in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the French chose instead to throw toasty, golden baguettes, flaming crepes suzette and sugar-crusted crème brulee in their wake.  This seemed to do the trick in Vanuatu, as the satiated masses embraced this culinary legacy, and such delightful treats are available in every corner store, often at any time of the day or night.

Great news for Donkey in some respects, but not so great for the ol’ waste-line, as evidenced during a recent clothes shopping expedition with Mrs Donkey while on holiday back in Australia.  Mrs D was in the change room trying on some little black cocktail number while Donkey stood outside the closed door, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible amongst the frilly lace and tiny bows of women’s lingerie hanging all about him (why do they put the change rooms amongst the lingerie?).  As I stood stock still, embarrassingly avoiding aggressive, accusing eye contact from the other customers queuing to try on their garments, an attractive young sales assistant wandered-up behind me and enthusiastically asked when I was expecting.

That was it!  As soon as I got back to Port Vila, things were going to change.  No more hazelnut praline-filled baguettes for breakfast, no more pain au chocolat with chocolate ice cream and fudge on the side for morning tea, no more brie and bacon pies aux frites for lunch and definitely no more garlic snails followed by duck a l’orange for dinner.  True to my commitment, my life since returning to Vanuatu has become a thrice daily monotony of breadless lettuce sandwiches washed down with a straight glass of tepid water (the temperature being conducive, so the diet gurus tell me, to more frequent bowel movement).

On top of this gruelling feeding regime, in order to both divert my attention from my groaning abdomen, and to try to shorten the period of time I shall be subject to this dietary boredom, I have also embarked on a sustained exercise program which I must grudgingly admit, is finally starting to yield results.

But the selection of an appropriate form of exercise was not an easy process in this country where the roads and traffic are not conducive to safe cycling, and where the forty-eight-degrees-in-the-shade summer heat renders traditional, vigorous exercise such as sit-ups and push ups completely out of the question (after a single lift, the sweat pouring off one’s body makes it impossible to get any purchase on the floor, and one is left floundering on one’s back like an up-turned tortoise).

The only option left was swimming … in this country with not a single serviced swimming pool greater than ten metres in length.  I did give it a go, but after seventy-three strokes and as many tumble turns, I blacked-out from dizziness and had to be retrieved from the bottom by a burley construction worker and his heavy-duty crane with which he’d been laying building foundations nearby.

A week later, with the humiliation of front page local news behind me, I realised there was nothing for it; if I was going to lose this massive paunch, I was going to have to embrace the concept of living on an island, ignore all the horror stories and take to swimming in the ocean.

“What’s the big deal?” I thought to myself as I launched out from the sea wall one fine morning.  All about me was a kaleidoscope of blooming coral formations and a menagerie of brightly coloured tropical fish.  “This is fantastic … so peaceful.  I should have done this months ago”.  I pounded confidently out from the port and was still congratulating myself on having discovered this wonderful, submarine paradise which was going to turn me into a herculean specimen of manhood, when I suddenly came to my senses above a deep, blue, murky darkness.

I’d left the drop-off well behind and was now floating vulnerably above an abyss from which I imagined all manner of deep sea beasties zeroing-in on my fleshy white thighs.  My panicked brain convinced me that if I was desperate enough, I might just manage to outswim a giant squid, great white or whale shark, and feeling pretty desperate at that point, I set to pounding back towards what I thought was home.

Of course, one’s sense of direction in open water is never an easy concept to grasp, nor is one’s ability to stroke strong and true when driven by sheer panic.  In my desperation to get back to the reef, I was floundering like a harpooned killer whale (perhaps not a great analogy, given the circumstances), and heading in a completely different direction, towards the rocky headland at the opposite end of Port Vila harbour.

After a while, the forbidding black depths changed to a more palatable, murky blue, and I managed to reign in my debilitating terror.  My stroke improved and before long I was powering along; back into that monotonous trance one gets from the relentless plodding of right arm, left arm…
right arm, left arm…
right arm (“Oh how nice, Angel fish”)…
left arm (“Wow, coral trout”)…
right arm (“Gee, that’s a big fish…”)…
left arm (“Aaaaaaargh!”). 

Back in first year physiology, we learned about that basest of animal instincts, the ‘fight or flight’ response.  When an animal senses danger, their body reflexively gears-up for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’; the options for success are weighed-up and the decision made by the creature’s very fibres at near supersonic speed.  Obviously, ‘flight’ gets them out of danger, and ‘fight’ is the only alternative if the former is not possible.  The body’s essential systems fire-up for the selected action, and all extraneous functions shut down to preserve energy.

How is it then, that when Donkey looks down to see a massive tiger shark swimming towards him, his body’s fight or flight response includes the immediate release of two malodourous, bulky, fright nuggets into his Speedos?  How can that be fight or flight?  For a start, the extra drag from this oozing pouch would surely slow my flight to a messy, mortal end, but even if I did manage to get the jump on my sinister predator, if sharks really can smell blood like they say, then he’d have no trouble tracking my stinky wake all the way to shore.

Stewing in my own mess, then, I resigned myself to meeting my maker, and with calm resolve, I turned to face my toothy assailant.  It was then I noticed the horizontal, not vertical tail moving slowly up and down, and realised that rather than meeting my end in a bloody, mashy mess, I’d found myself with the rare privilege of an encounter with a peaceful dugong, slowly meandering along the sea bed, snuffling away at sea grass.

An hour later, I emerged from the sea before a crowd of alfresco diners tucking into breakfast in one of the town’s fashionable cafes.  Although my life was intact, my dignity before the shocked crowd was sagging lower than the saddle of my laden Speedos. 

Defeated and resigned to life as a fat bastard at that time, I now have Mrs Donkey to thank for helping me to get back in the water.  She did so thanks to the wonders of modern technology, which have enabled me to strap on a waterproof iPod and crank up the volume of power ballads enough to distract me in the water from mortal fear.  Now I churn along the coast three mornings a week to the spurring drums and guitar riffs of such fire-up classics as:
·  Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger [shark],
·  ELO’s Don't Bring Me Down [to the dark depths with your massive tentacles to chew off my head],
·  Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water [Humph],
·  Hunters and Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me [and get me out of this school of killer jelly fish],
·  The Choirboys’ Run [for your freakin’ life here comes a manta ray] to Paradise, and of course
·   Great White’s Once bitten, twice shy.

The distraction seems to have worked, and everyone’s happy.  I’m happy because I look and feel great, and Mrs Donkey’s happy because she’s no longer getting around town with a pregnant hippo on her arm.  But the happiest person of all is Ms Nicole, the unfortunate soul who is tasked with doing my laundry – as she’s told me in no uncertain terms, any day without having to scrub the gusset of my Speedos is definitely a good day!

The Western Europeans may not have been the most culturally sensitive of masters, but they certainly managed a mean chocolate dessert.  Pic:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Aversion Therapy

Way back when …long before I became the global superstar of international development that you know today; the saviour of the poor and vulnerable everywhere; the wondrous hero of philanthropic virtue; long before the keys to the cities, interviews with my good friend Oprah, Nobel nominations and all that guff, I was but a young, lowly, anonymous Donkey trying desperately to break into the industry.

I tried all the usual tricks to get noticed: hanging around after lectures and sucking-up to my tutors; signing-up to be an usher at international conferences in the hope that some Global Fund Exec would be impressed by how well I wielded my torch; writing hundreds of donor reports while on work experience at high profile NGOs while managers enjoyed three hour lunches; giving hand jobs to tipsy managers after their three hour lunches … but I never got much traction from these methods.  So desperate was I to get out there and do good for the poor people, that eventually I knew I was just going to have to suck it up and devote a couple of years of my life living in poverty as an international volunteer.

After about a year of negotiating the multi-step selection process, getting accepted into the volunteer program and then stewing in my diminishing self-confidence for six months while not a single assignment came my way, the call finally arrived.  “Donkey,” whined the nasal bureaucrat down the line, “I have the perfect position for you in exciting Sri Lanka”.  Wow, I thought.  Awesome!. “You’re going to start-up Sri Lanka’s first ever quit smoking campaign”.

My heart sank.  Firstly, what I knew about health promotion at that time could have fit on the side of a very, very, very small grain of stunted Sri Lankan rice.  Secondly, I had at that time recently returned from travelling around India where I had learned that a pack of ciggies on the subcontinent costs less than seven cents (AUD).  As it happens, despite never having smoked a day in my life, I had taken up the habit for the period of my travels just to enjoy the warm feeling one gets from sourcing a bargain (in fact, I love a bargain so much, I was averaging about four-and-a-half packs a week!). 

With economics like that at play, I knew the Sri Lanka job was going to be a tough gig, and added to that, I was philosophically opposed to any process with the potential of reducing the number of posters and general advertising featuring hot women in white bikinis taking a cool dip in the turquoise waters of a tropical paradise.  So on this occasion, despite my desperation to help the poor people of the world, I declined the offer, and some months later, I was lucky enough to start on my successful journey towards international development in the turquoise waters of another tropical paradise … albeit sans the white bikini (hang-on, that sounds like I was nude … I wasn’t nude … I was wearing shorts … most of time, anyway).

As the years went by and I came to learn a thing or two about health promotion in developing countries, I remained content with my decision of the time; I would have completely ballsed it up, and quite possibly could have walked away from the experience scarred, never again to return to the field.  But fate has a funny way of catching up with you, and just the other day I unwillingly got to participate in what I can only assume to have been one of your more successful quit smoking interventions.

It happens that while en route from holiday back to Vanuatu to re-commence my life-saving development work, I became stranded in the transit lounge of Brisbane International Airport for seven hours.  Like most such lounges around the post-September 11 world, Brissie’s transit stop is a hermetically sealed affair, however it humours the dubious, ‘physiological needs’ of nicotine addicts via a small balcony out the back of the sub-standard café, with comfortable outdoor chairs and tables overlooking the enormous car park.  It’s certainly nothing special, but as smoking lounges go, it’s open, airy and seems to get cleaned every once in a while.

Certainly, in contrast to the nicotine-stained glass ‘smoking rooms’ which are pretty common in Asian airports, this place is actually quite nice.  And even in comparison with the so called ‘outdoor bar’ at Sydney airport, where twitchy travellers suck back on three of four Winnie Reds in the howling gale of the terminal’s aircon exhaust engines before throwing their butts on the filthy, un-serviced floor to join the queue for Immigration, this spot is like a penthouse apartment balcony in a luxurious holiday resort … apart from one small, architecturally overlooked flaw in the terminal’s design.

It was about five hours into my static ordeal, and by this time Donkey had done his best to squeeze as much as he could from the airline’s compensatory refreshment vouchers over the terminal bar.  I ran into the men’s lavvy in considerable desperation and didn’t take much notice of the décor and fittings as I dropped my strides and relieved myself at the sparkling urinal.  Moments later, with an empty bladder and a much clearer head, I took advantage of my solitude to turn around for a look at the facilities as I lifted my strides.  Only after having completed a 180 degree turn did I notice the large, untinted window looking out over the enormous car park … the very same car park one can see from the smokers’ balcony … as the penny dropped, so did my jaw.  There I was, standing for all to see, my pants in one hand and my hairy, ever-apologetic penis in the other, while the assembled, horrified smokers desperately butted out their ciggies to join the frenzied crush at the balcony exit.

So there it is.  Many years later, and quite by accident, I (or at least my hairy, spotty arse and unattractive member) have now done my very own, small bit (no pun intended) for the anti-smoking lobby.  Strangely, while this methodology is certainly bound to be effective for male smokers, perhaps this helps to better explain why young women continue to take-up smoking at a higher rate than their male counterparts.  Clearly there is still some thinking to be done on this.

What I really wanted to post  here was a pic of the old ‘Fresh is Alpine’ ciggie ads from Australia in the 80s.  Each one featured a birds-eye shot of a bronzed woman in a white bikini lying on a boat/board/whatever over turquoise water (sometimes with, but not always, a male version in white shorts).  But it seems that these things are no longer on the internet … I find that amazing.  The anti-smoking lobby is clearly as powerful these days as its nemesis.  Instead, here’s one of the poor guys I could/should have helped.  Pic:

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Read your entry in "Who's Nobody"

It’s hard to pin-down exactly what turned Breaking Bad’s Walter White into a homicidal, manipulative, self-serving, methamphetamine producing-turned cartel baron egomaniac, but definitely a running theme of the fantastic TV series has been his unrecognised potential as a chemist of some brilliance, and the deep resentment he feels towards his University peers who reached great heights in the field of industrial chemistry to become multi-millionaires, while the equally brilliant Walter wound-up teaching high school chemistry to disinterested, unmotivated teenagers by day, and scrubbing strangers’ cars in a run-down car wash by night.

There’s nothing like returning to one’s home town to bring back all kinds of latent memories, and in particular, to drag from one’s closet - clackety clackety – a whole crypt of condescending, grinning and highly reproachful skeletons.  Yesterday, in the stinking summer heat, the family and I commenced a road trip to the high-brow climes of the Mornington Peninsula, via a short stop to catch-up with an old friend in one of Melbourne’s beautiful, bay side suburbs.

It’d been ages since Donkey had spent much time in this part of the leafy South, where he’d previously spent years of his life servicing the bored housewives, distinguished gentlemen and plastically-enhanced daughters of Melbourne’s established, moneyed families.  Day after day, Donkey had slaved away in accordance with their whippish demands for buffed bunions, magnificent nails and honeyed heels; a little callus chipped off here, a nail edge filed away there and wrinkled old ladies groaning in long-forgotten, post-menopausal orgasmic pleasure as Donkey’s magical, lubricated hands did their thing to wind-up a messy session of grinding away at gnarled toenails and horned corns.

For all this labour, and the accompanied pleasant, inane conversation which was all part of the service, Donkey would extract a pretty penny from his clients, but after a few years, the high-yield and resultant, high-paced lifestyle of shiny red sports cars, cocaine-fuelled cocktail parties, court-side box seats and luxury holiday villas proved too high a price for the sheer boredom of the work, not to mention the all-too-frequent, inadvertent glimpse up an octogenarian’s panty-less skirt which is an occupational hazard for any hard-working podiatrist.

As the horror and mental burn-out set in, Donkey set off on a new adventure and new career, and before long found himself saving the world in far off, exotic locales.  I’ve never looked back, and in truth have found the mental stimulation and physical exertion of working in and with remote island and mountain communities to be tremendously fulfilling and truly life-giving.  Well, that is until yesterday…

As we drove past the beautiful homes of Ocean Highway, with their steady, socioeconomic scaling-up in proportion to their distance from the city, I pointed out to Mrs Donkey the various homes, sports cars, tennis courts and swimming pools of my former colleagues, and before long, their well-appointed, beach-side holiday homes and luxury yachts.  I ignored her popping eyes and increasing, green-tinged pallor as these dwellings became more and more extravagant, and I ignored her uncomfortable fidgeting beneath tightly packed luggage inside our rusting, third-hand beige Toyota.

Before long, we stopped at my friend’s home for a very pleasant lunch of antipasto, French champagne and post-meal cognac.  We marvelled at the marble floors, seventeen-foot ceilings, walk-in wine cellar and three-hundred and twenty-five inch flat screen TVs in every other room, and we listened attentively to talk of the booming podiatry business, mid-week golf and winter-long Mediterranean getaways.  Eventually, we waved good bye with a promise to visit again soon, and drove in tight-lipped silence all the way to the coast, where we joined our newer friends in our rented holiday home for the next few days which, we were relieved to discover, was similarly appointed to the home of my friend and former colleague, with beautiful, architecturally designed hallways, sea-view balconies, airy designer kitchen, multiple cavernous bathrooms and pleasant hallway water features.

Within an hour I was fully relaxed and just settling into a chilled beer and crisps (definitely more Donkey’s style these days) when I noticed a note from our landlord requesting his tenants to be careful not to mark the ancient teak floor boards - ‘imported from Borneo’ - with high heel shoes (and this accompanied by a picture of a stylish man and his fashionable lady returning from a polo match).  As I read casually through this missive, my eyes were drawn to the bottom of the letter, and to the landlord’s name resting beneath an ostentatious, flourishing signature. 

An icy chill crept up my stiffening spine as I realised that the owner of this magnificent, beach side monument to modern hedonism was none other than one of my fellow podiatry students from years ago, who had failed his final year of university and who, rather than repeat the year, opted to open a podiatry equipment supply facility which he later franchised, floated on the stock market and went global in the biggest small business start-up of the pre-internet age.

It was quick work, but Mrs D managed to talk me down off the roof within the hour, and the hyperventilating soon subsided.  As a precaution for the safety of private podiatry practitioners and their families in the greater Melbourne metropolitan area, she’s got me tethered to the extravagant, four-poster bed from where I am being forced to write this using voice-recognition software (hence the typos) while staring at the kind of ocean vista that can only be purchased on the backs of a million well-manicured toenails.

Seems a bit over the top from my good wife.  I mean, it’s not like I’m bitter or anything.  Sure, this landlord … and all my podiatry friends, in fact, are rich beyond my wildest dreams, with Swiss bank accounts as fat as their spoilt, sedentary offspring, with wives as well manicured as their landscaped gardens, and mistresses as fresh as the waxed ducos of their Jaguars, but it’s not like I am going to turn homicidal and hunt them down in merciless, resentful cold blood.  Sure, I might be up for a bit of hedge burning and perhaps even a spot of spooky stalking of their children down the well-lit streets of their exclusive, gated communities, but I’m not about to commit anything which could be considered physically dangerous.

No, that’d be an act of a bitter man … a man who felt that he had been denied all the breaks and opportunities to excel in his field and become rich, fat and powerful.  I’m not that.  I made my own choices.  I love being this poor … ah, I mean, happy.  Happy, not poor.  And in fact, in the happiness ledger of life, I am rich indeed.  You may untie these bonds my good wife.  I am stable and I am content.  Now, I am just popping-out to the shops for some matches … I mean milk.  Too-da-loo.

What would tip a mild-mannered, failed podiatrist into a Walter White-esque, homicidal maniac.  Pic:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fighting the good fight

A rare encounter with truth and honesty.

Isn’t it amazing how much more difficult it is to try to do something properly, compared with the relative ease of simply shooting one’s mouth off with whatever vacuousities pop into one’s cavernous skull at any given moment?

Such as it is that this year’s World AIDS Day post seems to have taken me quite a few weeks to write.  The reason being that for this year’s post, I’ve decided to hold-up on the belly-aching introversion and soul-searching from years gone by, and instead focus very much on the here and now.  This year I am going to come clean on a whole chapter of my life which certain, pretty awful circumstances demanded I kept secret from this blog, and the internet generally.  I’ll leave it up to you and yours to decide on whether action is required.  But in short, for this one-post-only, never-to-be-repeated occasion, I am going to have a go at using this blog for good, rather than evil.

Most of you will know a little something about Tibet; maybe you’ll be aware of the chuckling fat statesman living in India’s hilly north, and perhaps you’ll know that he’s there as a result of an invasion of an ancient kingdom by a now-great superpower some sixty-odd years ago.  If you know that, then you’ll have heard that many countries (a majority of those being ‘Western’ ones), while verbally condemning said super-power for its continued occupation of Tibet and rumoured oppression of its people, have never once made a substantial attempt to moblise international, diplomatic, political and/or military pressure towards the exiled leader’s return, nor the restoration of Tibetans’ religious, political and civil freedoms.

This is the stuff which makes the news (albeit still a long way from the headlines), but what is not so well understood outside of the politically secluded and media-shrouded Tibet Autonomous Region,  is some of the very real vulnerabilities which the average Tibetan faces on a daily basis.

A rough business.

Within what I could only, honestly describe as a pretty fortunate life, I consider one of my greatest fortunes to have been the four and half years I spent working with an amazing, dedicated group of young Tibetans who, every day for the past eight years, have taken to the streets of Lhasa to provide educational resources and condoms to young Tibetan women and men who work in, or live on the periphery of the Tibetan capital’s thriving sex industry.

This might seem a little surprising to the reader who knows Tibet only as a seat of Buddhist enlightenment, but it’s not uncommon in societies whose culture and practices have not been influenced by conservative Christianity, to have fewer hang-ups when it comes to handing over a tenner for a quickie on the way back to the office after a heavy lunch of soup and wontons.

But despite the remarkable client through-put, one shouldn’t go mistaking the commercial sex scene in Lhasa as akin to the seemingly sexual enlightenment of say, Bangkok or São Paulo.  On the contrary, this is an industry whose continued existence is very much driven by the political, social, religious and economic oppression of these unfortunate people.  The reality for Lhasa sex-workers (and their clients) is gritty, grubby, dangerous and (in terms of health, well-being and life-expectancy) very, very dire.

Tibetan sex workers are young; they hail from rural areas, and in most cases, have never engaged in sex work prior to arrival in the city.  They were drawn to sex work as the only alternative for survival, due to a variety of factors which severely limit their opportunities for formal employment.

First and foremost, the majority of Tibetan sex workers have little or no formal education (a few might have completed the poor standard of primary education available in their home county), so literacy is low.

Many of them are also non-citizens.  While there is some relaxing of China’s One Child Policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region, larger, traditional Tibetan families are penalised such that the third, fourth and fifth children are not registered as citizens, and therefore are ineligible for government work, housing and all other state-run services (healthcare, education, social welfare etc).

But one government service that Tibetan sex workers, be they registered citizens or otherwise, are all too familiar with, is the security service.  As the Central Government decrees quotas for city clean-ups, sex workers are systematically and regularly harangued, harassed, locked-up, exploited and abused by the civil and military security forces, of which there has been a dramatic increase in recent years.  Since the civil unrest in Lhasa in March 2008, poor and hungry sex workers have had little alternative than to risk incarceration by working the streets during regular security crackdowns and week-long curfews.  With military foot patrols working day and night and perhaps one of the most sophisticated closed-circuit TV camera networks in the world operating on every street corner, sex workers are regularly caught and/or extorted by the authorities, and incarceration is common.

Added to this, their state-supported, Han-Chinese bosses further exploit them by taking the lion’s share of their meagre earnings, and are complicit in the government’s regular rounding-up of sex workers for enforced blood tests; a human rights violation in itself which is further compounded by the authorities rarely bothering to communicate the results to the frightened sex workers who have unwillingly contributed to meeting government HIV testing quotas.

These young women work out of grimy, confined, poorly-ventilated, unsanitary spaces designed for shop store-rooms, seeing upwards of ten clients a day.  With few exceptions, these Tibetan women had no awareness of sexually transmitted infections (and certainly not HIV) before commencing sex work.  Most had never seen (or even heard of) a condom.

Tibetan sex workers are frighteningly vulnerable to the short and long term effects of sexually transmitted infections; their poor knowledge of these infections and how to prevent them makes them vulnerable, as does their limited literacy, which excludes them from accessing safe sex messages within information booklets and pamphlets.  Added to this, they have few resources with which to obtain condoms, and even if they can buy them, they have little power to negotiate safe sex with their clients.  In the event of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, many have limited legal opportunities to access the government treatment and counselling services, and are forced to secure health care services from exploitative private providers who peddle questionable treatment regimes.

A glimmer of hope.

So you see … not a feel good story this year.  But there is hope, and that hope lies in the hands of that dedicated team I mentioned earlier.  They have been working with young women and men from the Lhasa sex industry for nearly a decade, educating them about the dangers of sexually transmitted infections, both in terms of their immediate health, and their long-term opportunities to give birth to healthy children.

The program works hard to assist young women and men to remain disease free and healthy long enough for them to reach the inevitable end of their sex work careers.  In the meantime, the program staff engage with the sex workers to foster an understanding of, and promote healthy sexual relationships and gender equality with a view to their contributing to a family and/or community in the future.

Sadly, the program is in danger of coming to an abrupt end early next year.  Since the civil unrest in Lhasa in March 2008, China has made it very clear to the outside world that it will not tolerate political dialogue from other nations on Tibet.  It has closed ranks on the issue and shut international tourist traffic down to a well-muzzled trickle.  As such, governments and other international donors who used to support HIV prevention programs in Lhasa, are now too scared to do so for fear of damaging those all-important trade relationships.

And so it is not even a slight exaggeration to say that without support from interested, non-government donors, the vulnerable young women and men of Tibet who find themselves with little alternative than to work the Lhasa sex trade, will soon lose one of the last vestiges of support open to them.  And without this support, they could well be denied the opportunity of reaching any kind of potential as citizens, or simply to dream for a healthy future.

Maybe you’d like to help?

This World AIDS Day, or perhaps this Christmas, if you really want to make a difference to someone’s life, get onto your local MP and tell him or her and their government to grow a pair.  Tibetans suffer some of Asia’s worst poverty, are poorly educated, have limited access to health care and suffer the ongoing physical and emotional abuse of systematic oppression.  The Australian Government should be doing more, and supporting non-political programs like the one I have described could well be a way to make a difference to Tibetans’ lives, without contributing to the propping-up of an unjust regime.

Thanks for remembering World AIDS Day, everyone, and Merry Christmas.