Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sk8n with the Mughals

I recall an episode in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, in which Mole and Rat were wandering along quietly together after a series of high action adventures involving Toad’s manic obsession with cars and boats. All the zany high jinks were over, and the two rodents were quietly walking through the woods when, all of a sudden, Mole was knocked off his hind paws by some kind of urgent sensation, which sent him off through the woods in blind flight.

It turns out that Mole, who had all but forgotten about his home during the escapades at Toad Hall, was struck down by some animal survival instinct which, according to Grahame, allows all manner of beasties to find their homes, and safety, regardless of which direction they are approaching from. The author goes on to explain that we humans have lost this innate, sixth sense, but that moles, rats, badgers and even toads are still well-equipped with these psychic abilities.

Now, while it seems a bit strange to me to be making such distinctions between animals and humans given that, up until this point in the story, our fluffy heroes had been indulging in all manner of what I would call “human” pursuits, like driving cars, sailing boats and feasting in banquet halls, I do take Grahame’s point that there are some instincts which we all possess, way down deep inside; instincts which, although we may have little actual control over, are there to protect and/or enrich our lives.

I re-discovered one of my hidden, protective instincts just a couple of days ago when Mrs Donkey and I were visiting one of the numerous, impressive ancient tombs of the former Mughal rulers of Delhi. These enormous, red sandstone tombs, with their Islamic minarets and pointed arches, which once would have dotted the otherwise featureless, alluvial desert landscape of these parts, can now be found wedged in between the alleys and sprawling boulevards of New Delhi’s vast socioeconomic spectrum.

After researching the Delhi street directory, the Donkeys wound their way through the tortuous, suburban streets to where it looked as though such a structure might exist. Eventually, after a few garbage-filled dead-ends and switch backs, we slipped through an elaborately ornate arch in the dusky garden wall to join the other tourist sleuths (and a surprisingly large number of canoodling Delhi couples), in marvelling at the incredible architectural gem which rose four stories in front of us.

Safdarjung’s Tomb was erected by a former high official of the Mughal court around the same time that plans were being drawn up for the Taj Mahal, and although on a much more “modest” scale than the Taj, Saf’s Tomb reflects many of its successor’s features, such as the beautifully decorated minarets, onion domes, vaulted chambers and decorative pools which radiate from the central structure out into the garden and which, when filled and on a sunny day, would reflect the grandeur of the monument to the onlooker.

It was the latter which awakened some of Donkey’s latent instincts. Unfortunately, these long, radiating pools have not reflected anything for a very long time, thanks both to the orange haze which has escalated the sprawling metropolis to the top three most polluted cities in the world, and which prevents them from receiving any direct sunlight, and to decades of drought which have left them empty of water. Despite these setbacks, one can still sense their former grandeur by the ornate fountains which stand mutely in the middle of their cement surroundings, and by the avenues of palm trees which line the pools’ edges. But it wasn’t the architecture or landscape gardening that was making Donkey so toey, it was the reawakening of some long-dormant passion at the sight of the empty pools which was making him feel young again.

I’m sad to say that Donkey never really made it as much of a skater, but for many of his teenage years, Donkey lived and breathed skateboards, and the music, clothes, language and attitude which is pivotal to skateboarding culture. I was, I’ll admit, crap at it, but I did love it, and during the late 80s and 90s, you would always find me, well into the late summer evenings, punishing the streets, stairs and curbs of Melbourne’s concrete urban jungle.

And like all committed skaters, Donkey would day dream about, and yearn for the opportunity to one-day stumble across some neighbours’ empty swimming pool, and being allowed to spend a contented summer “dropping in”, “ollie-ing” or “hand-planting” along its sides. As I got older, when I was allowed to drive, even though I was skating less and less, I still carried my “skatie” in the boot of my car and if I ever drove past some car park or office block with some impressive, decorative concrete buttress or walled fountains, I would pull over, grab my skatie and grind away for an hour or so. It would fill me with a great sense of abandon and, just for a short period, made me feel part of the community to which I never really belonged, and which, I must admit, had probably outgrown their passion for skating years before.

Despite periods in which I have tried to get back on the horse, it has been seven or eight years since I was really into skateboarding, and so I was very surprised this week, as everyone else was marvelling at the minarets of Safdarjung’s Tomb, that I couldn’t get my eyes off those empty, crumbling pools as I tried to figure out the “transition and vert” of the walls, and whether the fountains would crumble from a “rail slide” or “frontside grind to fakie”. Although my skatie is in a storage shed, literally on the other side of the world, I still felt compelled to get into that empty pool and feel the tingle on my skin as I imagined speeding back and forth along the crumbling walls while dead, old Safdarjung looked down upon me from his ornate, sandstone perch in disapproval.

Fortunately, the crowd of perplexed, turbaned gardeners who gathered to watch my skateboard-less, simulated hand plants were not so hostile, and gave me a hesitant clap as I emerged, rejuvenated from the empty pool. I ignored the bemused, accusing glare of an embarrassed Mrs Donkey as I punched the air, and turned to shake hands with my fans, Tony Hawk-style.

So in concluding, I would like to call upon a much younger, and certainly less eloquent, anarchic, rebellious, skateboarding Donkey to address Kenneth Grahame’s claims that we humans are no longer in touch with certain instinctive, perhaps psychic abilities, that the rest of the animal kingdom relies upon for survival, everyday. Donkey, Dude?

“Um … yeah, OK … you can fuck off, Mate!” … Sk8 and destroy, Dude! … Peace!”.

The Dream: How it should look. Pic: Google images.


The Reality: Donkey tries a hand-plant, sans skatie, Delhi-style. Pic: Sally


And the pool at Safdarjung's Tomb, from where all of Donkey's deepest instincts resurfaced. Pic: Sally

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The regrets of a crusty ol' sea dog

In Thailand recently, while sitting up in a swanky beach-side restaurant eating succulent seafood and sipping my chilled sauvignon blanc, I got to musing about all these funky young things a little further down the beach, who were disturbing my exclusive ambiance with all their smoking drugs, drinking beers, dancing, fire-juggling and more or less having a great time, all in a rather provocative state of undress.

Reflecting on my own experiences at that age, I was at first at a loss as to why I never came to Thailand and got into this sort of nocturnal beach-side work, and then, with a great, rosy-red tide of embarrassment washing over me like a gigantic, cosmopolitan tsunami, I began to recollect and reflect on one of my life’s greatest regrets.

It’s pretty common in Australia for young people, at the end of their final year of secondary school, to go to some up-market beach-side town for “Schoolies Week”; a great celebration of the end of their life of enforced confinement, and the beginnings of a summer, and indeed a new future of fun and abandon. Unfortunately, what it turns out to be for these youngsters, many of whom have had little real exposure to alcohol, drugs or sex (although Mrs Donkey assures me that the latter only really applied to me at that age!) is a substance-fuelled, emotionally destructive week spent, at best, hung-over, or at worst, in medical clinics with alcoholic poisoning and/or seeking the morning-after-pill; a week in which lifelong friendships are broken and trusts betrayed, and a week in which some of the seedier elements of those beach-side towns come out to prey on these easy pickings.

It may come as no surprise to regular readers that Donkey and his friends never experienced this initiation into the “who’s who” of Melbourne’s post-private school social set known as “Schoolies Week”. Instead, my friends and I went to Rosebud! For those of you unfamiliar with Rosebud, I don’t really think it necessary to describe this bay-side retirement village in too much detail, other than to ask you, if given the opportunity, which would you choose;
a) all night parties on the beach, drugs everywhere, free-flowing alcohol, randy young things just wanting a bit of fun, sun, sand and surf … or
b) Rosebud, with your mates?
Yep, the story of my life … while everyone else clamoured all over themselves to sign up for Option a), Donkey chose the far more sensible option with the much, much, much shorter queue, and signed up for Option b), with the result that he spent the first week of the rest of his life of careless abandon with three other socially inept boys in Rosebud; a town that can not even boast a pub!

Immediately upon our return from Rosebud, and on hearing of the exploits of everyone else at Schoolies, my good friend Banno and I, still both with virginity firmly intact, were feeling a bit ripped-off about our lot, and after some high-level summit talks, with inputs from an invited guest speaker, my sister, we hatched a plan to right this grievous wrong.

My sister, who is a bit older than us, had just returned from a cruise on the P&O liner, the Fairstar. With her neck covered in hickeys, some of which had become infected, and were weeping slightly, she explained that the Fairstar, “The Fun Ship”, was like a Schoolies Week for everyone else; a place where the alcohol is free, where young people party all night long and where you can just do whatever you want, whenever you want. Reading between the lines, randy young Donkey and friend, having a pretty good idea what we thought “whatever you want, whenever you want” meant, hung on every word she said, and a plan was devised to spend the next twelve months saving enough money to book the cheapest cabin on the lowest deck, and to taste the delights of the high seas, P&O-style.

The beautiful P&O Fairstar, sadly no longer with us. Pic: Google images.

Unfortunately, being young males who’d only recently been let off the leash into adulthood, we didn’t manage to save much money that year, and to my eternal embarrassment and shame, Banno and I never did make it onto the Fairstar. Mrs Donkey often gets stuck into me nowadays when I lament this, as there has been a bit of a shift in recent years amongst allegedly higher-brow Australians regarding their view of the types of people who board ships like the Fairstar, affectionately referred to as “The Fuck Ship”, in an uproariously hilarious parody of the P&O slogan.

It appears that both the old and not-so-old like to get on their moral high-horses and criticise the kind of behaviour that goes on aboard these cruise ships, proclaiming them degenerative and morally degrading. These modern-day puritans from all cross-sections of suburban Australia love to editorialise at length, criticising cruise-goers as belonging to only the basest elements of society. I wonder if Banno and I knew about this reputation when we’d planned to go … probably!

Anyway, this backlash against cruise liners, which for some reason does not extend to Schoolies Week (to me the only difference is that one is land-based) seems to me to be rather odd, given that it often comes from older generations, many of whom arrived in Australia aboard cruise liners in the 50s and 60s, at the height of Australia’s immigration boom.

I know you think Donkey’s barking up the wrong tree here, ‘cause we’ve all seen the photos of poor European immigrants coming off the boats and being hurtled into immigration camps in cities all around Australia; the images of hunched old women in head scarves with two or three children in tow. But I’m not convinced that this was always the true story.

Many of Donkey’s school chums were sons of Italian and Greek immigrants, and I can remember one of my friends observing one day, as his father sat around the house in a pair of tight blue shorts, and a dirty-old white singlet, that Australia hadn’t been kind to his father’s fashion sense. As if to explain, he showed me a photo of his father taken just as he was boarding the cruise ship which would take him to a new life in the antipodes. His father was a very handsome young man in his early twenties, dressed in a sharp, pin-striped suit, with an attractive glint in his eye and an alluring hint of a twelve o’clock shadow along his chiselled jaw. Fifty years later, if this hunky, young Italian-stallion had set foot on the Fairstar, he would have been ravished by a bunch of teenage Australian beauties in minutes … but of course, this was the fifties, and things like that just didn’t happen back then … or did they?

If you ask where and when Michael’s parents had met, both will proudly tell you, with a hint of a cheeky grin, that they met on the first day of the journey to Australia, that they danced together every evening during the six week voyage, and that they were married within six months of arriving in Australia.

Isolated incident? Not so. In a previous career, Donkey’s House of Feet serviced many, many elderly immigrant couples whose lives together began on their journeys to a new world, and it always took very little prompting to get them to reminisce fondly of the fashionable clothes, the balls every evening, the days in the sun and the exotic ports which they explored and experienced together. Somehow, this flirtatious existence, which must have been considered pretty risqué for these young people, coming as they did from conservative 50s Europe, has been romanticised over the decades, and is now almost exclusively viewed as having been acceptable behaviour for the time.

How does all this differ, therefore, from the poor old Fairstar? Should a regretful ol’ Donkey be criticised by the love-of-his-life, just because he once aspired to a greater level of social development (even if he didn’t actually ever follow-through with the plan)? I think not! True, had Donkey and Banno boarded that ship all those years ago, there’s every chance that things may have turned out very differently, but such a course of action could/should never be considered to be somehow morally reprehensible. Today’s evils become mind-numbingly passé by tomorrow – that’s the way of the world.

I’m onto the next bottle of sauv blanc now, and the kiddies at the end of the beach are starting to stagger all over the sand. There are a lot of bikinis and shorts littering the sand and lots of splashing and laughing out there in the dark. I muse that tomorrow morning, just like every day here on Thailand’s beaches, these youngsters will be sick, sore and perhaps even a little sorry for themselves … just as Donkey has been so many times before, on different beaches, in different countries, with different people. I have no need for regrets … we’ve all been on our Fairstars; we’ve all met our friends and lovers in different ways, and as far as I’m concerned, the moralists can scream from atop their soap boxes until they’re hoarse. Being young is all about exploration, of self and of others. Whether it’s the beaches of Thailand, the hash dens of Varanasi, the church youth group or a P&O cruise, everyone has to push the moral and behavioural boundaries of their world in order both to find their life partners, and to be ready to receive them.

Perhaps the Fairstar might have been fun, but a different road has brought Donkey to the life he shares with Mrs Donkey, and despite the alleged witticisms above, he has no regrets about that.

If only we'd been more organised, this could have been Banno and Donkey! A couple of hip cats aboard the Fairstar, circa 1984 (I hope). Pic: Google images.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

You think that’s dumb … what about this?

DISCLAIMER: Alrighty, I know that being “dumb” literally means the inability to speak, and that being “dumb” does not actually equate to lack of intelligence. I know, OK? So let’s just get over it.

Kangaroos might be the proud, up-right animal sporting the left side of the Australian coat-of-arms, representing all that is noble and proud in the Great Southern Land, and they may be the cute, cuddly, over-sized mouse of the Sylvester cartoons, and they may be the furry, docile beasties that hop up for a hand feed from Japanese tourists, but up close, most kangaroos are very big, very muscle-taut and very, very smelly. One thing that kangaroos are not normally known for, surprisingly, is their extreme lack of intelligence. I say “surprisingly”, ‘cause although it’s rarely acknowledged, kangaroos are very, very stupid beings.

Never is this more apparent than on a country road at night, to which kangaroos gravitate, drawn by the headlights of speeding cars. It’s when these dumb-arses wander onto the roads, in the very path of the on-coming cars, that the kangaroo’s extreme dim-wittedness really comes to the fore. There they stand facing a speeding Kingswood or Ford ute (all decked out in bull-bar, CB antennas and stickers proclaiming “I got a root at Dookie B&S”), and as the metallic death-traps bear down on the fluffy bouncers, these nit-wits are not only too stupid to get out of the way, but as anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to need a new front-end and radiator after a collision with a nuggety marsupial will attest, these stupid fur bags actually jump towards the on-coming vehicle just before impact!

It’s this kind of stupidity which makes ‘roo hunting at night so easy. All a young, red-blooded Australian male needs is a slab of beer, a rifle and a large spotlight, and despite the cacophony from ill-aimed gunshots and intoxicated adolescents acting as a warning to the kangaroos, the stupid, pouched fools still come towards the light to be picked-off one-by-one … and they just keep coming!

Still, I guess they’re not as stupid as moths. Moths are attracted to even the dimmest of light globes, but even a 10 Watt globe will get hot enough to fry the wings off a Bogong if left on for 10 minutes. You know yourself just how much heat radiates from a burning light globe … so how come these winged Wallys can’t feel the heat before they sizzle on the glass like an egg in a pan? Really not very clever, you’d have to say.

But moths aren’t the only dumb ones out there who, despite sensing the dangers, still continue on until they get fried; it’s not only moths who are a bit intellectually challenged … Bloggers too could be accused of “having a few ‘roos loose in the back paddock”, if you’ll excuse the rather apt pun. How else would you explain the behaviour of a Donkey who, fully aware that his Ma Donkey logs on for a squiz at his Blog every week or so, still writes about previous sexual exploits, or tales of dabbling in hard drugs in the Ashrams of India (it’s all fictitious, Ma, honest!). Why would a Donkey expose himself in a public forum and break his poor Ma’s heart when he didn’t have to unless … unless he was just too stupid to realise that he just doesn’t have to?

Over the last few weeks, I have heard, read and learned with increasing regularity about long-term Bloggers who continue to destroy family relationships, marriages and long term friendships through one thing or other they’ve posted on their Blogs. Perhaps that’s an easy mistake to make ... once! But these seemingly intelligent and witty writers continue to shut down Blogs, open up new ones, write personal things which offend their loved ones and then have to close ‘em down again, and again, and again! Even hamsters stop going for the donut after they’ve been shocked three or four times.

Are we Bloggers really dumber than hamsters? Or is there something else which forces us to hop towards the on-coming ute or land on the burning globe despite the heat? Poor old Naomi Duncan, my understandably frustrated, final year English teacher, may well deserve a pat on the back for her persistence, as it is only now, fourteen years later, that I begin to understand what drove little Asher to paint his poor mother being crucified on a Brooklyn window … and I don’t think it was stupidity.

Despite Skippy's history of flying helicopters, foiling the evil plans of bird smugglers or preventing bushfires, kangaroos aren't really that bright. Incidentally, Donkey used to have a plate with this very picture on it! Pic: Google images

Monday, October 09, 2006

Would you like to pick a pocket or two–oooo?

- Gotcha! Caught red ‘anded!

- Hey! Lay off will ya?

- Wot you fink you’re doin’, Son?

- Lemmi go, Guv’nor, please!

- I don’t fink so, yer lil’ blighter! Only two futures for a filfy pick-pocket in this town; a trip to the gallows or else it’s Australee for ye!

- Let me go, y’bleedin’ bastard!

- Well, now … wif language like that, my Young Son, I’d suggest you’ll be a-waltzing matilda before week’s end!

It wasn’t all that long ago that my own country’s “European” history commenced on the backs of criminals; men, women and children all, as Mother England sought an alternative to its over-filled gaols and leaking, fetid prison hulks. It’s commonly cited that many of those “transported” to the Great Southern Land were more or less innocent, having resorted to petty crime in order to survive the ravishes of extreme poverty driven by the Industrial Revolution, although there were almost certainly many who arrived in Sydney Harbour as punishment for malicious and violent crime.

Either way, transportation was certainly a punishment which was considerably more severe than was warranted for many of the crimes committed, and one that springs to mind is pick-pocketing. Ask yourself what you think of, and how you feel about pick-pocketing? Are you appalled and shocked at so heartless and immoral an act that removes one’s hard-earns without permission? Do you consider it a disgusting violation of one’s personal space and property?

Or do you, like me, when you hear about pick-pockets, marvel at the type of person with enough skill and dexterity to remove something from your wallet without being detected? Or perhaps, again like me, you romanticize the pick-pockets as a bunch of charismatic, sprightly young lads who rob from the rich to more-or-less feed the poor? - I’m thinking here of Oliver Twist’s good friend and mentor, the “lovable larrikin”, The Artful Dodger, who although nothing but an opportunistic thief, still wins our affections as a moralistic hero.

So what do you think is a suitable punishment for pick-pockets? The slammer? The gallows? “Hanging’s too good for ‘em, send them to Australia instead!” Surely it’s not that serious?

It seems pick-pocketing on the streets is not so common in “western” cities nowadays, and so I guess the conundrum of appropriate punishment doesn’t come up all that often, but I occasionally wonder if the severity of the punishment is not somehow relative to the level of poverty within a given society. So, for example, removing twenty Australian dollars from some schmuck’s pocket in Flinders Street may not be judged as being as serious as lifting the equivalent amount in Indian rupees from someone’s bag in Chandi Chowk!

Not so, I learned this week. While wandering around my local market, I witnessed a scruffy-looking teenage lad reaching into a young lady’s bag, and copping an almighty, open-palmed slap across the head from her father, who witnessed the urchin’s ill intent. The whack more or less knocked the young, Not-so-Artful Dodger off his feet, and he scrambled upright immediately, getting ready to high-tail it in the face of an expected lynch mob, but the young lady and her father had already moved on, and the lad just stood his ground, rubbing his thick ear, and watched them go.

That’s it? No pinching the ear? No shouting for justice? No calling the cops? No tanning of hides? Nothin’! Could pick-pocketing be that forgivable? And in Delhi of all places, where people vie for, and abuse moral high ground more than a preacher with the clap!

Witnessing this misadventure this week took me back to my only other personal experience of pick-pockets, in a place where the practice was certainly viewed as a social evil, but at the same time also regarded with considerable hilarity.

Ever since the Russians shut up shop and took off across the steppes in their rickety jeeps back in 1990, most Mongolians have experienced poverty on a massive scale. Nowadays, bands of unemployed youths roam the crumbling streets of Ulaan Baatar, day and night, preying on unsuspecting citizens or travellers, and pick-pocketing has become so widespread and common, that it is almost a National joke. I don’t mean, “Hey Bolbaatar, did you hear the one about the one-armed pick-pocket?”, I mean that a group of young men will follow you for blocks at a time, looking for any opportunity to swipe your bag or delve into your pocket, and if you happen to make eye contact with them, they will smile and laugh with you in common recognition of what they’re up to, but they’ll keep following you just the same … sometimes for hours.

The Ulaan Baatar General Post Office only has one narrow entrance and exit. The pick-pockets congregate on either side, creating a crowd through which you must push if you want to get in or out, and who will filch you for all you’ve got. Your cries for help and your abusive shouts are met with a laugh and a cheer both from the perpetrators and nearby on-lookers, but the thieves don’t let-up and no one intervenes. The strange thing is, believe it or not, that for some reason, it’s not threatening. It’s a game; get through the door with enough money to buy stamps, and you’re a winner!

It gets even more bizarre at the bazaar! A trip to the Black Market, so-called from the days of Ulaan Bataar being a centre for trade in Russian contraband, is a sporting tournament in which you and yours are forced to divide your funds into multiple, small piles of cash which you then distribute amongst pockets, socks, shoes, bras, wallets, bags and even undies. When Donkey went to the Black Market, he looked like a deformed trans-sexual, sporting as he did both a well-filled trouser and a couple of Double-D Cups – but it was all padded with US dollars, I can assure you! Once inside, roaming packs of young men would follow you around, make jokes about trying to steal your money, try to corner you in cul-de-sacs, or knock your glasses off your head in order to distract you while they grab your wallet.

And they’re very, very good at what they do! So good, in fact, that they even have the elements working for them. During our trip to the Black Market, the balmy day very quickly deteriorated into a heavy summer thunder storm which had everyone diving for cover beneath plastic tarpaulins, including the pick-pockets, who took the opportunity of mayhem to begin their orgiastic pick-pocketing feast. Before long, we also had the market vendors joining in the fun. As we raced from one tarp to another to avoid the pick-pockets, the vendors would belch out a cackling laugh and poke the tarps with sticks so that the accumulated water would come crashing down on top of us, and the pick-pockets would run in from the sides, laughing cheekily as they felt in one pocket or other, or tried to lift a bag or two. It all sounds very menacing, I know, but as there was never any direct threat to one’s personal safety, it all took place in the most festive spirit!

Attitudes to pick-pocketing can definitely be fractious. To some it is a tremendous social evil which deserves a punishment of six months at sea with scurvy, followed by a life sentence in an uncultured land, while to others, pick-pockets are master entertainers who deserve a standing ovation, endless groupies and a regular column in the Sunday tabloids.

The Artful Dodger, opportunistic thief or moralistic hero? Pic: Google Images

Monday, October 02, 2006

What an education!

A wise, and admittedly constantly drunk old bugger used to often tell me, “Shon [hic], you’ll learn more in one hour in th’ pub than’ll learn in … in a whole [hic] year in sh-chool [hic]”, which of course seemed somewhat of an exaggeration, but what Bert was trying to tell me was that there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to learning about life, people and yourself.

I had an inkling of this back in ’98 when I announced I was off to see the world, and a few months later, I stood before a teary Ma and Pa Donkey trying to be brave as I kissed them goodbye. I was dressed in a freshly-laundered t-shirt, tucked into the newly pressed, razor-sharp creases of my new saddle, which was pulled up nice and high on my chest. My teeth were sparkly, my Donkey-fluff was parted down one side and my shiny, new saddle bag sported a glittery Australian flag patch sewn on the top-flap (courtesy of Ma Donkey, “So that the hijackers won’t mistake you for an American, Dear”) and off I set for the airport.

It was dressed like this, all squeaky-clean and neatly pressed, that myself and the soon-to-be-she-loving-she-Donkey hit the pavements of Kathmandu about 24 hours later. We performed admirably for a couple of sheltered, suburban Donkeys, displaying extreme bravery in the face of the shouting taxi touts, and despite all the confusion and fear, we reached our pre-arranged rendezvous point and began a hoof-gnawing wait for our third companion, who was to have arrived in the ancient kingdom the day before.

This was when the wheels started to fall off. My Donkey-lips were trembling in fear and my knees were making an almighty racket as they knocked together (which, considering all the fur, indicates just how scared I was). What if Kenny never made it? What if he’d been abducted and sold into Tibet as a Chinese sex slave – where was I going to stay? How was I going to survive? All these things were going through my tiny, Donkey-brain when three hours later, paralysed with fear, I received Lesson #1 in the Travellers’ Crash-course on human behaviour; The Most Important Person on the Trail is You.

Kenny had indeed made it to Kathmandu, and had quickly hooked-up with some more experienced, hard-worn travellers, who he joined on an outing for the day, and very rapidly adopted that “Cool, Man, just chill. I’ll catch up with my friends eventually … they’ll be OK” mentality. An attitude he was forced to suspend temporarily when he finally met up with a trembling pile of much-relieved, but considerably irate Donkey, two hours late. After a heated exchange, all was well and he took us off into the seething mass of alternative and spiritual decadence that has been the welcome resting place for impressionable travellers for thirty years, the Thamel area of Kathmandu.

I can still remember how I felt as I trudged through this remarkable Shangri-La. I was obviously much relieved and happy that we were now three as planned, and I took in with wide amazement and exciting anticipation the rushing cycle-rickshaws, the music coming from the cafes and bars, the colourful shops with their vast array of Tibetan art, golden Buddhas, tarnished brass bowls, glittery bags and light-shades, replicas of cruel-looking Gurkha knives, sparkly, funky jewellery and, most intriguing of all for this staunchly Catholic mule (pun definitely intended), the numerous Buddhist and Hindu shrines, adorned with ghee candles and their maroon and saffron bunting, blocking the alleys and streets.

If one hour of pub education is the equivalent of one year at school, then ten minutes in Thamel should just about measure-up; seeing goats hacked-up and left on the street-side for passers-by to pick up a leg or two on the way home from work, or watching stoned rickshaw drivers cackling in the gutter – talk about a scene from Playing Beattie Bow – the snivelling, shit-scared mess of a Donkey from an hour before should have been out of his brain with fear and disgust, but already the “learning by osmosis” was having great effect, and I breathed it all in with a great sense of wonder.

I only stayed in Kathmandu for two days on that visit, but in that time I came to know and treasure every street of Thamel; every fascinating alcove of every enchanting, tortuous alley became in-printed on my memory as I replayed those two days over-and-over in my mind for the next eight years.

So when I returned last week courtesy of the good people down at Saving the World Inc, I was filled with the same jubilation and exhilaration to find all the old shops and bars right where they used to be. The goat butcher was still waving his big, rust-spotted knife at me, and the rickshaw drivers were still trying to put a dint in that almighty pile of hashish they must keep somewhere.

As I walked past the amazing array of restaurants, the bars blaring out live renditions of Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton, and the long, grey pony-tales of the stoned backpackers in their striped pyjamies, I reflected on how raw I had been, back on that first night when I had ordered Mousaka for dinner, announcing to my companions that I was going to eat a traditional Nepalese dish!

Despite my ignorance, I had certainly been open to a new world, but I had also missed so much. Life’s education has given me a great many lessons since that first drop in a developing country, so while, on this more recent visit, I enjoyed all that was going on around me, I also saw Thamel with my more-recently acquired Development-Worker X-Ray Vision. I saw the hopelessness, not the humour, of the stoned rickshaw drivers; the young boys touting for late-night business amongst the taxi drivers; the impossibly bony porters struggling to get up from all fours with three times their weight on their backs; and the child-labourers sweeping streets, selling fruit, cleaning houses, fetching parcels and serving food.

Am I happy to have this new vision? You bet! It’s a horrible thing to become cynical, but that cynicism also fills me with a compassion and understanding that I believe many of my fellow travellers lack. It makes me more determined to strive for a more equitable world, but most of all, it helps me to learn about human behaviour – who people are, what they do and why. And I reckon that’s worth a great deal more than something you might learn over a few beers in the pub.

While many of Kathmandu’s streets and alleys are quite enchanting…

Life for many of
Kathmandu’s residents is far from magical. Pics: Google images.