Friday, September 28, 2007

Watching monks mass-debate*

Beautiful girls go out with beautiful boys,
And average guys go out with average girls.
That's just the way it is, Matchmaker's natural selection,
That's just the way it is, in the search for some affection.
- Rob Clarkson.

It might come as some considerable surprise to you all, given the wonderfully charming, witty, popular and very, very sexy Donkey that I am today, but once upon a time, not all that long ago, I was not quite so wonderfully charming nor witty, I was certainly not popular and as for sexy ... well, maybe a little ... kinda ... sorta ... OK, nah, not sexy at all!

In fact, the Ugly Duckling story of how I came to be this fine, equine specimen of the Blogosphere is a captivating one which I will certainly endeavour to relay to you at some time in the future, and indeed it may take a marathon sitting at the keyboard to bash-out every simmering chapter of highs and lows, love and betrayal, academic accolades and liposuction, but for now, all you need to get yer head around is that, when I was a teenager, I was not attractive at all.

I was short, fat, pimply (to the point of my doctor once showing me the reference to my condition in his dermatology manual, and proudly reading the description out loud enough for the receptionist to hear, "visible, accumulated lakes of pus" – nice!). I also had, for a staggering five years, serious voice-box issues, often breaking the land speed record as I shot from baritone to high alto in a single syllable, and I was already going bald – I think you'll agree, WHAT A CATCH!

And so it will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever set foot in a teenage social environment, or indeed perhaps anyone who has ever watched a B-Grade American High School flick, that I was, from Day 1 at High School, relegated to that social class just below common garden dirt! Every lunch time in the school yard, I would sit alone and eat my lunch, lovingly prepared by my Mother that morning (OK, perhaps it wasn't just my looks putting me in this predicament), and I would watch all the different groups hanging-out, laughing, chatting and occasionally tormenting my fellow unfortunates.

There were the so-called "cool" kids – mostly rich as all-get-out, who'd nick their parent's cars every night, wrap them around a pole every couple of months or so, and still maintain the full favour and privilege they deserved from both parents and teachers.

There were the sporty kids – all blond hair, blue eyes; cricket in summer, footy in winter. Skin as unblemished as their season stats. Muscles on their muscles – great looking kids.

There were the naughty kids –always smelling of smoke, their shirts stained and hanging out, their stories of beach-side summers pulling bongs in the morning and getting-off in the evenings with girls the likes of which you'd expect to be hanging out at the Summer Bay Diner. These guys oozed rebelliousness, anarchy and, in hindsight, and in comparison with the above, were really the incredibly cool ones.

Even the Italian kids, commonly referred to as (rather guiltily nowadays) The Wogs, who despite being more or less outcasts before the bronzed, "Aussieness" of the sporty kids, were still, in their way, pretty cool. They had their twelve o'clock shadows by 10am; they had access to their Papa's grappa; they always smoked cigars at parties and wore white scarves over their dinner jackets at formals. These guys may not have been cool in the general school yard pecking order, but they certainly had style, and style counts for quite a lot when it comes to attracting members of the opposite sex.

'Cause really, that's what this post is all about. All of the groups which I've outlined above; the rich kids, the sporty kids, the naughty, rebellious kids, The Wogs and indeed the skaters, the musos, the arties and whoever all had a certain level of style or attractiveness which corresponded to a similar group on the other side of the gender equation, to whom they would be drawn and invariably bound at the lips, like Pavlov's Dogs, whenever the bell rang to announce that class was over.

But let's get back to the Ugly Donkey. Unfortunately, just because one is ugly and has zero charisma, it doesn't mean that the desire isn't there. However, looking, sounding and smelling like one did (did I mention the body odour issue? No? Must have slipped my mind), it just wasn't as easy for us nerdy kids to meet lovely young ladies as it was for our bronzed, toned, wealthy, swarthy, talented, rebellious peers. And because one wouldn't stand a chance with any female in the presence of such he-men, one had to seek alternative activities in order to source superb cross-gender companionship. And so enters Donkey into the world of High School debating.

Basically, what High School taught me was that you have to know your place, and if young Donkey had any hope of ever hooking-up with a female companion who might have been even slightly interested in him, he was going to have to accept that he must aim nice and low, and put up with whatever he could get. The catch-22, of course, was that while debating might have been the only shot an ugly, dirty, smelly Donkey might have had at mixing with the fairer sex, it also had the result of stigmatising me as an even greater nerd than I was already reputed to be, thereby incurring further jibes and alienation from my peers for the rest of my schooling days.

And what was all this pain worth? Well, as you can imagine, not much. The debating girls tended to be short and shy, with blotchy skin, limited social skills and were seemingly ignorant about the world around them. They were devoid of physical style or flare, and they had personalities that could only be described as wrist-slashingly boring. But hey, beggars can't be choosers, and I was all for it!

To be honest, it wasn't just the girls who were boring - the whole debating scene was incredibly dull; it was run by dull teachers, with little or no social skills, who actively discouraged any creativity for fear of their being shown-up as socially inferior to the students, and it attracted a bunch of dull, unworldly, awkward kids with absolutely no concept of their own individuality, and without a coherent, logical argument amongst them. Ridiculous, one-sided attempts at flirting with the opposition rate, to this day, as some of the slowest, most boring moments of my life. With its damaging effect on social standing and its paralysing influence on the human intellect, High School debating was an increasingly steep, descending spiral into a social and emotional void.

Well, as all of us hoary, old chestnuts come to learn in time, things change as you grow older. As one moves from scene to scene, developing a personality and a sense of self, one discovers, fortunately, that those old rules don't have to apply for ever. Donkey changed, and he's reasonably happy with who he is now, but it's taken a very, very long time to get here, a point which was hit home to me this weekend when, of all places, I was wandering through an ancient Buddhist Monastery here in Tibet.

I know what you're thinking, but don't worry, Donkey's not about to go and get all spiritual and Zen on you (besides, I'd hate to be accused of mixing my schools of Buddhist theology). No, it wasn't a spiritual epiphany which caused me to reflect on my personal development, but rather a very physical activity.

As I wandered through the winding, cobbled alleyways of the old monastic colleges, the peace and tranquillity were shattered by a sudden, raucous uproar from behind a wall, and when I ducked under a low archway into a shady garden, there I was struck by the sight of perhaps a hundred crimson-robed, novice monks, sitting in groups of four and five, holding intense theological debates.

But these debates weren't a bunch of no-personality, awkward, malformed, unworldly chumps, standing stiff and stock still and mumbling ridiculously ill-informed assertions into their collars, these were good-looking young, vibrant, bare-armed warriors filled with a lively passion, jumping around excitedly as they shouted their opinions at the tops of their lungs. And perhaps the most striking feature of these debates, especially for this socially and emotionally scarred one-time High School debater, was the way that they would assume Bruce Lee-type poses as they prepared to deliver their final, clincher arguments, and as they did, they'd bring their hands together just millimetres from their opponent's face with a mighty, reverberating smack, and give a triumphant, classic Hong Kong cinema, "Haieeee-ya!"., to thunderous laughs and applause from their audience.

Now that's charisma, that's cool and, dare I say it, that's chick-pulling power! And if young, gangly Donkey had've been exposed to a bit of that kind of debating down at St Stanislaws, circa 1988, well look out girls, the world would have been a very, very different place today.

Incidentally, despite my best efforts, I never did get any action from the debating girls. Talk about one's best-laid plans going awry!

"Everybody was Kung Fu fighting" - a monk at Sera Monastery prepares for his final, fatal blow in the afternoon's theological debate. Pic: Hagas

Thanks for dropping by:

Man at the Pub and The Editor – I know you guys have been lurking, and I hope you're both well. Sorry I can't reciprocate.

* Stole that one from the late Graham Kennedy. Is pretty lame, I know, but hey, lame is Donkey's Middle name – Donkey L. Blog.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What's in a name?

There's certainly a case for the argument that political correctness can, at times, be taken too far. This post is an attempt by Donkey to lend a hand to an old friend whose new business is struggling a bit, all 'cause he decided to do what he thought was right.

Prior to his recent change in circumstances which led to the arrival of a couple of little bambinos, and a considerable amount of ensuing pressure from his missus to settle down and make a go of something at home, my mate Daz was a chronic traveller. He's been everywhere; from New Georgia to New Guinea, Greenland to the Galapagos, Johannesburg to Jakarta, Sydney to Siberia. He's seen it all, done it all, eaten and drunk it all and in some cases, shagged it all! He's a man with a million witty yarns and anecdotes from a life on the road, which he has ever at the ready when an opportunity arises in conversation, and no body, and I mean no body, ever tires of Daz's jokes and stories.

The ones I like to hear the most are those which describe the execution of Daz's peculiarly eccentric obsession with a particular form of souvenir which he collects from countries all over the globe. Now, as a kid, I was forced to sit in front of creepy, giggling Simon Townsend and his so-called Wonder World, and then when I got older and came home late after the pub, before the days of tele-marketing and Danny Bonaduce, I'd sit and eat my souvlaki in front of re-runs of Gary Who, and Just for the Record, so believe me, I've been exposed to some pretty weird obsessions with collectables; shells, spoons, plates, figurines of military figures from the Napoleonic wars, chess sets, garden gnomes, toy pigs ... blimey, I could go on and on. And even in my own life - I have a friend who collects drums from all over the world, another who has amassed a vast stock-pile of stubby-holders; I have a crazy mother who's into owls (432 at last count) and even Mrs Donkey's not averse to hoarding the odd-hundred fridge magnets. So yeah, I am kind of used to the idea of people collecting things, and tend not to get too surprised when I hear of someone's particular collectable fetish. But Daz; the thing that Daz has collected, ever since he began travelling, some twenty years ago, is manhole covers!

He's got dozens of them – from almost every country he's ever visited. I say almost, 'cause do you know which is the only country he has visited from which he doesn't have a manhole cover? It's Mongolia, 'cause the locals nicked 'em all and melted them down for scrap-metal and fast cash after the Russians pissed-off back across the Steppes in '91, taking all the machinery and skilled labour with them. I love hearing Daz's story about how he over-stayed his visa by two weeks in the vain hope of stumbling across a stray, forgotten manhole cover, befriending one delectable Mongolian female after another in order to move from house to house in an attempt to evade the immigration police. The way he tells the story, after two weeks of non-stop shagging, he could hardly walk anymore and gave himself up to the authorities, spent a night in a sub-freezing prison cell and was deported on the next plane, never to be allowed back into the country. To this day, he still has maps in his back room with which he intended to attempt a snatch-and-grab of a Mongolian manhole cover by stealing across the border from Kazakhstan on camel-back, but it never happened.

What's great about Daz's stories are the various means by which he was able to get the manhole covers out. More often than not, manhole covers have pretty distinct markings on them making it very clear which country they belong to, and some governments get pretty touchy about the removal of government-issue property. And let's face it, a manhole cover is a bit heavier than a commemorative spoon or a fridge magnet.

About 18 years ago (blimey, has it been that long?) I was in Berlin just as the wall was coming down – I know, I know, even at fifteen, I was just so cutting-edge!) and although the streams of East and West Berliners were moving freely back and forwards, it was still pretty uncertain about what was going to happen. At the American checkpoint, Checkpoint Charlie, there was a museum focusing on the history of all the attempts, both successful and failed, of Easties escaping to the West. In this museum there are some pretty amazing contraptions, such as cars with hollowed-out seats that could fit a person inside, false-bottomed trucks, duel-compartment laundry baskets etc. All pretty amazing stuff, but nothing anywhere about how to get a manhole cover across the border. But guess what? One of Daz's most treasured editions to his collection is an East Berlin manhole cover, pre-1989!

And if you don't believe me, then maybe you should go and take a look. Y'see, as I mentioned earlier, Daz has recently settled-down back in his home town of Melbourne, with his two lovely kids, and his also lovely (although for mine a bit prickly) wife, Lolita. After a period of restlessness in which Daz, in an attempt to provide for his swelling brood, tried one odd-job after another, he finally threw caution to the wind and opened up his own business, combining the only two things he's ever been committed to, making cocktails, and his collection of exotic manhole covers.

Six months ago, Daz opened his funky new bar in the equally funky, and burgeoning bar scene of Flinders Lane, just near Royston Place. When you walk in the front door, you'll be blown away by the awesome, comfy decor, the very carefully selected music (lovingly changed daily and never-to-be-repeated) and the most incredible, mind-blowing cocktails, as you would expect from a man who has worked in every beach-side resort from Bermuda to Bahama (sorry, couldn't resist that one) and who even once over-wintered in Russia in the '80s, working in Moscow's exclusive underground club-scene (believe me, the triple vodka martinis are to die for).

So I mentioned the decor, but what I didn't describe to you is that Daz's massive collection of manhole covers are all there on display; on ceilings, walls, as table-tops, toilet seats – everywhere. And best of all, Daz loves to tell the story of each and every one to anyone who'll listen - where it came from, how he got it out, and usually, how many beauties he had to sleep with in the process. It's truly the most mesmerising experience to be sitting in a very cool space in one of Melbourne's fastest-growing hangouts for the ultra-hip, with swanky tunes forming a very comfortable ambience, sucking back on a thick Cuban cigar (oops, not any more), and watching a master performer mixing incredible potions while relaying an inexhaustible collection of extremely amusing and edge-of-the-seat tales you could ever imagine.

Sound good? You betcha it's good! But at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that Daz was in a bit of financial strife, and the reason for this is that when naming his awesome new bar, Daz was leaned-upon by his hard-arsed, staunchly feminist wife, and as always, he buckled under her very stern gaze and her anticipated, tempest-like Latino fury were he to not comply. You see, not surprisingly, Daz wanted to name his bar, "Manhole", but Lolita said that that was degrading to working women all over the world, many of whom are responsible for doing just the type of work that sees them going below-deck to fix pipes, cables, railway lines etc.

OK, fair point, but what to call it? Daz wanted to keep the manhole theme in there somewhere, but also wanted to make sure, in keeping with every other aspect of the bar – location, decor, music etc - the name remained cool and hip.

Eventually, after much soul-searching, checking with the Australian Business registration people, coming up with suggestions and having them canned by Lolita, she finally sanctioned the name "(Wo)Manhole". Hmmm ... not bad, I suppose, kind of witty, and so they went with it, and it worked. The funksters of the inner city love the place, word-of-mouth has been effective, and Daz is performing to reasonable crowds every weekend. So what's the problem? Well, people hear glowing reports about the bar, and when they hear the name, they go straight to their directories or websites or whatever to look it up and find out where it is, but no directory in the land will recognise the character "(", and not only that, but you can't have "(" in a web address, so no one can find out where it is. Daz, with the perfect outlet for his special talents, is potentially sitting on a goldmine, but no one knows where he is.

So my reason for writing this post today is to help spread the word about one of the coolest spots in Melbourne right now to have a drink, and one of the most entertaining nights out you'll ever have. In doing this, I am doing both Daz a favour and, I hope, you yourselves, 'cause I guarantee you'll want all your friends to go along afterwards. (Wo)Manhole is in Flinders Lane, about two doors up from Royston Place. Have fun, and tell Daz that Donkey said G'Day.

This is a manhole cover in Tibet, a similar one to which is also a proud possession of Daz at (Wo)Manhole, Flinders Lane, near Royston Place. Pic: Hagas
Thanks for your Comments:Kate S, Gouda and Sabrina, I know you guys have sent comments recently, and although I can’t read ‘em now, I do appreciate it, and welcome more, more, more.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

There's good touching, and there's bad touching

Hasn't Kentucky Fried Chicken (that's KFC for all you youngsters) copped a bad wrap over the years? So often, as a youngster, I'd hear (and let's face it, occasionally I'd tell) the great urban myth of the lady who'd ordered some of the Colonel's famous, deep-fried poultry to take away, and while driving the sacred package home to the family, the aromas of the seven secret herbs and spices were too much for her to resist, so while keeping her eyes on the road and one hand on the steering wheel, she reached with the other into the greasy box (ooh-err Mrs!) and grabbed a tasty drumstick, took a delectable bite and replaced the morsel back into the box, her desires satiated for the short time it would take to reach her abode. Then, upon arriving at said home, she sets to distributing the spoils to her waiting brood, and in the harsh light of a 75 Watt globe, she notices that her own portion, the one with the bite out of it, was not the lovely, fleshy leg of a battery-born-and-bred, southern American chicken, but a dead, deep-fried rat, complete with a lump of grey fur hanging off the end.

Remember that one? And of course, this sparked all kinds of other "true sightings" of people inside the red-and-white-striped outlets, who were said to be shouting and raving at the pimply, minimum-wagers behind the counter, because their "chicken" had fur hanging off it, or a long, thin tail, or whiskers. And once I even saw, without a word of a lie, a woman reach into her sixteen-piece bucket, and hold up before her surprised face what looked like a chicken breast, but which was covered in grey fur and deep-fried batter, and which was still squirming in her fingers!

What? Don't look at me like that. It's true, I saw it ... I swear on the Gideon ... would Donkey lie to you?

Anyway, I dunno what all the fuss is about. As nearly as I can tell, on the streets of Lhasa, far from being something to recoil from in horror, anything fleshy to be bought or sold is seen as more marketable and attractive to the discerning consumer if the butcher has seen fit to leave a good, solid chunk of fur hanging off the end of it.

Take goats, for example. Many years ago, when I first travelled to the so-called third world, as a fresh, naive young thing, I landed in Old Kathmandu and was swept along through the streets of Thamel by the tide of humanity, confronted by the crowds, the smells and the sights. Most confronting of all, as I remember it, was the goat butcher who, each morning, would slaughter poor Billy, and cut him up into various bits – legs, bum, guts and head – and lay them out on a card table. During the course of the day, various Nepalis would come and buy a leg here, some intestines there, and if anything was left unsold at stumps, well then I guess the butcher and his family wouldn't go hungry that evening. But the most surprising thing about the hapless goat, as I remember it, was that it was completely white – the butcher had expertly bled, and then skinned the creature, ensuring that the legs, belly, head etc, were a shiny, pristine white – not a furry hock in sight.

Jump forward nine years and over the highest mountains in the world, and the good folk of Lhasa don't go for any of that pristine, white meat, carefully and attractively laid out on a sturdy card table. No Sireee! Down at the Moslem butchers on Lingkor Shar Rd, the pavements are littered with Stalin-esque pyramids of piled goats heads, all blood, flies and matted fur, with eye-balls staring invitingly, "Pick me, I'm nice and furry – c'mon, don't walk past, I'm soooooo tasty".

And it's the fur, I'm sure of it, which is the clincher for the Lhasa bargain shopper. From piles of goats heads to huge barrels full of lucky rabbit paws., it's really hard to resist a little fluffy hand for an auspicious memento – certainly much more fun and enjoyable than the dusty old yak horns, with their rough, gnarled and dry exterior – hardly an attractive thing to hang around your neck for a reverent caress every hour or so. No, for me it's the furry rabbit paw with the black, crusting base where it was severed from the little bunny, every time!

In fact, the shaggy lump of fur left on the end of a slaughtered limb is such a marketable phenomenon in this lofty city, that the copious yak butchers found on every corner have actually embraced it as an art form, using the yak's own juices as a kind of organic hair gel to mould the thick, black mass into all kinds of interesting shapes and styles. The more outlandish and "new wave" the design, the more attractive the grisly morsel is to the consumer.

It's certainly a far cry from procuring your generic lump of red or pink meat, sitting in a polystyrene tray, on top of an absorbent pad and wrapped in cling film, by reaching into the pink-fluorescent-lit refrigerator cabinet down at your local Safeway or Tesco, but let's face it, without the odd feather, snout, scales or fur in that there juice-tight package, who's to say what you're really buying? For all you know, that beef could just be dyed rabbit, or that pork simply chemical-fed sparrow. After all, do you really know what your butcher is doing way out the back of his shop, behind those thick, stainless steel doors?

I actually think that the residents of Lhasa might just have the right idea – that a good, healthy, lovingly-sculpted hunk of shag on the end of a bloody stump not only makes it clear what they're actually buying, and what condition the beast was in before it got the chop, but also reflects the level of care and attention the butcher lends to his trade ... no, his art! In the cut-and-thrust-world of the Lhasa slaughter houses (oh my Gawd, that was a bad pun), it's all about the hair.

... which brings me to my final observation this morning. If the people of Lhasa judge the quality of their meat by looking at, and caressing the fur left on a choice cut, what exactly is going through their minds when, at least five times a day, complete strangers approach me and rub their hands up and down Donkey's particularly hirsute arms, eyes wide with amazement and saliva dribbling from the corner of their mouths? One thing's for sure, there's no way I'm getting into that bubbling spa over there – y'know, the one with all the chopped vegetables floating around inside it!

And if the caressing of my hairy arms is cause for culinary interest, one can only speculate what was going on a couple of weeks ago when, while wandering around a temple with thousands of Buddhist pilgrims, a hunched, toothless old lady crept up behind Mrs Donkey and started smacking her on the bum, each time smiling and nodding with approval. Now, I'm not suggesting for a minute that Mrs Donkey has a hairy arse, but, well...
The Hairy Hock. Mm, mm, mm! See? I told you Donkey wouldn't lie. Pic: Hagas