Friday, November 30, 2007

This guy makes David Brent look like Donald Trump

So you reckon nothing much changes in life. Well here's a bit of a tale to demonstrate just how much my current existence has altered since just a year ago.

For a long time now, even way back in the dark ages before Blogging, I have usually written some kind of story or reflection for World AIDS Day. If you're interested, you can wander back and have a bit of a squiz at last year's offering (which is decidedly better than what you're gonna get this year). This little ritual has come about as a result of a number of different life experiences, usually hovering on the periphery, but never directly relating to the horrible condition known as AIDS, including an interesting encounter with the very first hospitalised cases in Australia, back in 1984.

Anyway, many years after that, but possibly as a result, I started to direct my career to working in the field of HIV and AIDS prevention ('cause initially, that's all there was) and later, treatment and care. I worked like a Donkey to get there, often being able to do a little bit, but never quite getting the opportunity to work exclusively in my preferred field. This all came to a head this time last year when I very nearly lost it through utter frustration as I, with an inexhaustible passion for HIV and AIDS prevention and who had devoted years of determined study, research and application on the topic, was forced to sit idly by while my boss at the time took it upon himself to conduct the World AIDS Day activities for a significant proportion of the world's population.

And this was his idea. My boss decided that on World AIDS Day, 2006, he would invite a bunch of HIV-positive people to our office at lunch time. I know what you're thinking, "Well Gee, Donkey, that actually sounds like a nice thing to do". But he wasn't talking about sitting them down and serving them up a few chapattis and lentils, oh no, my boss thought it would be a great idea to have them make us lunch, and to serve it up to us!

OK, so perhaps there was some method to his madness. Perhaps his intention was to demonstrate to the staff of the organisation that people with HIV are just like you and me, and there's nothing to be afraid of in terms of their cooking and serving up food. Maybe ... but no! This guy's intention, when questioned about his plan, was to give the HIV positive people something to do, to make them feel wanted by society! Excuse me?

Fortunately, this genius' plan never eventuated. Unfortunately, it was not because people objected to the idea, it was just that, like so many of his plans, he never got up off his throne to put it into action. So instead of forcing HIV positive people to wait on us while we dined on a three-course meal of their creation, my boss decided he would make a speech to the staff of our organisation on World AIDS Day, demonstrating the importance of the day, and of the cause.

Again, unfortunately, my boss' legendary lack of planning kicked-in and he failed to prepare said speech, and so arrived on the day with lots of ideas floating around in that near-empty vacuum, but no butterfly net with which to harvest them.

Now it's fair to say that there are some people in this world who make fine public speakers, and for whom this lack of preparedness would not be a problem. But my boss had already demonstrated his deficiency in this area some months before, when called upon at his former director's farewell party to make an impromptu farewell speech, and proceeded to do so, amidst uncomfortable silence and nervous shuffling of feet, saying that he didn't really think anyone was going to miss Harry very much.

So, with this tremendous record under his belt, my boss approached the podium on World AIDS Day, 2006. He started off strongly by saying that AIDS is a very important health issue affecting communities in many parts of the world ... but that's where the fine oratory ended. He then began pontificating about how AIDS was not the only important health issue affecting communities in many parts of the world, and that there are many other diseases and illnesses which kill just as many, if not more people than AIDS. By the time my boss had delivered a detailed account of half a dozen or so illnesses affecting developing communities in the region, the congregation's initial confusion was transforming into barely concealed mirth. Perhaps sensing he was losing his audience, my boss decided to wrap things up abruptly by muttering that while he's willing to concede that World AIDS Day has some merit, he couldn't see why there shouldn't be a World Diarrhoeal Disease Day instead.

As he sat down, and the embarrassed silence thickened to suffocating levels, I couldn't help wishing that a troop of HIV-positive men, women and orphans in chef's hats and waiters outfits would come piling through the door loaded with plates of steaming venison, roast potatoes and barrels of red wine, y'know, just to ease the tension. But there was nothing doing. I returned to my desk with fire coming out of my ears.

And if that wasn't enough for me to get my walking boots on, a few weeks later, when one of his staff suggested that in 2007 they target some of their HIV and AIDS activities on women, he replied that HIV and AIDS was not about gender, and that there was no need to do anything different for men and women. Right-oh, that was enough for me ... it was time for Donkey, quick as you like, to get rollin' right on outta there...

And into an entirely new setting where, finally, he gets to work exclusively on his chosen specialty. This year, it's all about HIV and AIDS. Not diarrhoea. Not malaria. Not avian influenza, measles, dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever or even gout. No, this year, if Donkey's got anything to do with it - and what d'you know? He does - it's gonna be about prevention of HIV; it's gonna be about clean syringes; it's gonna be about safe sex education; and it's gonna be about condoms, frangers, dingers, rubber johnnies or whatever you wanna call 'em, I don't care, just as long as you use 'em.

Happy World AIDS Day everyone, please wear a red ribbon and remember those who have died from, and those who are living with HIV and AIDS, all over the world.

Wear a red ribbon on World AIDS Day, 1st December.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Teaching mediocrity to the multitudes

Back in the '80s, did you ever see the Indiana Jones trilogy? That series of rollicking adventures set in pre-World War II Egypt, India, the Amazon and Europe, in which the witty, sexy, debonair and occasionally flawed archaeologist, Indiana Jones, took on the Nazis at the height of their power in an exhilarating chase for some of history's most famous biblical artefacts? Great stuff, wasn't it? It was awesome how Indie was this stuffy, clumsy, be-spectacled academic in "real life", who would swap his pen and books for a slouch-hat and bull-whip and take to the field to become this daring, robust cad who broke the rules and took risks in order to obtain ancient treasures, and who enjoyed a fist-fight as much as his numerous tumbles in the hay with some genuine stunners. What a hero!

And do you remember those other great archaeological thrillers of the '80s, the Filipino Smith trilogy? No? He was that short, fat, pasty, balding archaeologist with glasses, a nasal voice and who was always wearing a grey suit. You remember. He lived with his mother, had no friends and would spend years in his office writing letters to various authorities requesting permission to dig up ancient archaeological sites. Smith was wrist-slashingly patient about doing things strictly by the book and was committed to searching for his archaeological treasures through academic research which never once took him beyond three kilometres of his mother's home. As a result of his cautious nature, his total contribution to the world's collection of ancient treasures was a three-hundred year old (American) Indian moccasin ... well, actually, it was just one chunk of an Indian moccasin, which, he maintained throughout the trilogy, proved conclusively that Indians once wore moccasins. Really? You don't remember those films? That's odd.

Now that I think about it, I suppose in comparison with Indiana Jones, Filipino Smith wasn't really much of an adventurer, or at least not much like the kind of adventurer we admire. In fact, when we break it right down, there isn't really much to admire about him at all. He wasn't attractive in the least. He wasn't witty, interesting, charming, energetic, courageous or even the kind of person who could handle himself in an argument. He was neither independent in his personal life, nor in his work, and he was not likely to be tumbling in the hay with a buxom beauty any time soon.

But we watch and enjoy movies all the time which feature hopeless characters like Filipino Smith, so why weren't his movies as successful as Indiana's? I reckon it comes down to what we really admire in a hero; not the wit, physique, affability and intelligence - all admirable and attractive in their way - but the willingness to recognise what is right and just, and to break the rules and take risks in order to achieve it. That's what Indiana Jones really had going for him, and that's why he was such a fantastic hero.

This admiration for those who'll break the rules and take risks in the name of a just cause goes way beyond the thrills of fictitious action trilogies. In Australia, our entire national identity was founded on the battlefields of The Somme in World War I, when "our boys" distinguished themselves from the obedient, British "Tommys", by breaking all sorts of centuries-old, military conventions in order to take-on the wicked Hun, and as a result earned themselves a reputation as fierce shock-troops upon whom the allied military came to rely whenever an urgent offensive push was required. Their brash, outlandish and often undisciplined behaviour, which so often riled the British officers, far from being maligned back home, became a badge of honour, and the admirable virtues of true heroes.

Since those years, Australians have always admired those who are willing to take on the establishment for a just cause. We have always worshipped the daring, and the risk-taker, and by contrast, we detest and chastise those who would stand idle before a great wrong, for fear of personal disadvantage.

For example, how much do we admire that fellow employee with the sour disposition who has been with the organisation for thirty years, has never had a promotion and who complains every Monday morning about how much they hate the boss, how much they hate their job, and how "these young ones think they know everything"? And by contrast, what do we think of that "young one" who is just as miserable in his/her work, but who, after five years with the organisation, decides to throw it all in to go back to school for four years in order to have a crack at that career in journalism to which they always aspired? Of course, we admire the one who had the guts to take a risk, rather than the one who sits around and complains, but does nothing about it. Isn't it interesting that even though we know nothing about either of them, we start to think of this younger person, this urban hero, as likeable in comparison with the older individual ... and possibly even a bit sexy?

So without being able to help it, we admire the risk taker - it's part of our National psyche, and we'd all like to think that we, too, would take risks if it would contribute to the greater good. Which brings me to my point (Phew – it's about bloody time, Donkey!).

When out and about in the world, Donkey regularly finds himself employed to train various officials and personnel on how to plan their annual programs and activities by setting goals and objectives towards which they can work, and up until recently, I've always reckoned that I'm not too bad at it. Now, with one short exception, every job I've had in the last five years or so has been funded by Australian organisations, to meet Australian expectations and requirements. So when I work with people to develop goals and objectives that they should work towards achieving, what do you think is the first thing I tell them? "Remember, when setting your goals, make sure they are achievable. Don't ever set your goals too high; if they're too high you'll never succeed". In other words, "Do not try to achieve beyond your current abilities and remember, under no circumstances must you ever take risks!". Doesn't sound very Aussie, does it? Doesn't sound like the kind of stuff you'd expect from a bunch of people who'd be prepared to break all the rules in order to achieve what is good and just, does it? What are we teaching people from developing countries? To remain as mediocre as possible? Are we deliberately suppressing any tendency towards daring or bravery? Is this some capitalist ploy to keep the poor people poor?

Possibly the only thing less attractive than choosing to do nothing for fear of personal disadvantage, instead of taking a risk that could contribute to the greater good, is to teach hundreds of people to be just as cowardly and mediocre. Hmmm, perhaps it could be time for a change of career, Donkey!

Post script:

On the eve of the Australian Federal Election, one has to wonder how it is that a nation of people who supposedly admire the daring, the risk-taker and the kind of person who will break the rules in order to achieve what is good and just, has, over the last eleven years, demonstrated utter cowardice for change in the face of gross miscarriages of justice and human rights, and an increase in the number of disadvantaged, low-income Australians, simply so that they can hang-on to their precious tax cuts, petrol subsidies and low interest rates on their mortgages. One would hope that tomorrow, when Australians go to the polls, they remember who and what they admire, and that they right a great, eleven-year wrong, by daring to take a risk, and vote for change.

Indiana Jones or Filipino Smith: which would you choose for a tumble in the hay? Pics: and respectively.
Post-post script (24 hours later):
You bloody ripper!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The case of North versus South

I've worked in the Pacific for a good number of years, and it's not uncommon to be sitting on any given evening, in any given city, under the ramshackle shelter of a "yacht" club, beside the gentle, lapping waters as the horizon turns from gold to a deep, dark crimson, and listening to some balding, grey-haired Australian of immense proportions, dubious qualifications and in an advanced stage of inebriation, banging-on about how lazy Pacific Islanders are, be it his maid, driver, staff or the greens-keeper at the golf course.

I'm sure you can appreciate that this is a bit rich coming from a man who, in his own country (and indeed even while he is working abroad), wakes up of a morning, steps into an instant, hot water shower, followed by a breakfast of hot coffee (the water for which was boiled in a matter of minutes in an electric kettle) and toast (made from bread he bought the night before, and cooked, again in minutes, in an electric toaster) with butter (kept at just the right temperature in his electric refrigerator). After breakfast, during which he's had time to cast a lazy eye over a newspaper that was delivered to his door early in the morning, our man gets into a ridiculously large vehicle and drives himself along immaculately maintained highways to an office with all the latest computer hardware and furniture and, as it happens, another electric kettle with which someone makes him another coffee before he kicks-off the day's work.

This typical, daily Australian scenario makes it pretty difficult to argue that any hunter-gatherer community, be it in the Pacific or elsewhere, could ever be compared with its Australian counterparts and come-up appearing lazy, and yet, the old stereotype of the lazy Pacific Islander continues to dominate the Western psyche. It has always perplexed me, until recently, when, here in Tibet, I stumbled across some very plausible evidence to suggest that Pacific Islanders are not lazy at all, but just appear to be on go-slow, because in comparison with everyone else in the world, they have more time in their day to get things done.

I can assure you that Donkey is not about to dust-off his Year 7 science project and start prognosticating on the average hours of daylight in the tropics compared with sub-polar regions. This new evidence has little to do with daily solar meanderings, and a great deal to do with what it takes for individuals in different parts of the world to get up and out into the world each day.

Take Donkey's daily routine at present. At 7.15am, the alarm goes off to bring Donkey back from his nocturnal land of liveried dwarves and go-go girls wearing nothing but knee-high boots and hula-hoops, but it's so ridiculously cold, he can't bring himself to emerge from under the doonas (note plural) until 8.30am. After ablutions and bathing, the making of the essential morning coffee takes twenty minutes because at this altitude, water takes much longer to boil (9.10am). With breakfast done (9.30am), it's time to head-off to work, but before this can happen, one has to get ready to step out of the front door – herein begins the real ordeal.

In addition to my regular work clothes, which are already on and looking a million bucks, if I do say so myself (I have to, really, 'cause my Mum's not around to tell me how spiffy I'm looking today), I must put on a scarf which I wrap very tightly around my neck and face. Over this is placed a polar fleece jacket, followed by a larger, puffy-type jacket which zips up over the whole ensemble. On the scone goes the beanie, and on the hands, the yak-skin gloves. With bags gathered and filled, I squeeze through the front door and waddle down to my bike, which I unlock and drag outside. I then go back inside to fetch my bags, which I fix to the bike, before fumbling in my pockets to produce both front and rear lights, which are placed in position, and finally I'm ready to go.

Now, if you were to see Donkey naked at present (urgh - easy stomach!), you truly wouldn't recognise him. Indeed, I myself am still a little uneasy when I look at this stranger in the mirror. I have lost so much weight since I arrived in Tibet that I've dropped four inches off my waste, and I have discovered the kind of defined, cat-walk class, high cheek bones that are the cosmetic surgery dreams of aspiring, teenage models along the entire length of the Gold Coast. I am also enjoying the relative silence that comes from no longer hearing the slap and smack of jowls each time I turn my head. Basically, I am a new Donkey, in peak physical condition, but each morning, as I climb up into my saddle, I am so rugged-up with layers and padding, that I look like the Michelin Man after he's had a sex change and been knocked-up with quintuplets!

By the time I set off for work, it's 10am, and just getting light. By contrast, our Pacific Island friends, due to the brightness and heat of the early-morning sun, and with some considerable assistance from the day-break activities of the numerous, vocal Pacific roosters, have been up for four hours. In this time, they've washed and dressed (simply by wrapping their single lavalava, or sarong, around their waists). By way of making breakfast, they have peeled taro and yams with the edge of an empty corned-beef tin, scraped the flesh from twenty open coconut shells to make cream, peeled three bunches of green bananas and gathered and chopped wood for a small fire, on which they have boiled their coffee and cooked all of these goodies. By the time they've eaten, it's still only about 7am, leaving them plenty of time to relax and talk ... or look lazy.

At 10.20am, I'm still struggling along on my bicycle, my painstaking progress as much to do with the lack of oxygen in the air, as the fact that the oxygen is covered in jagged, razor-sharp icicles which slash my windpipe and lungs with every breath. By the time I get to work, it's 2.30pm, and it takes me another twenty minutes to peel off my 1960s space suit. Straight away I need a cuppa to help me catch my breath which, again, at this altitude, takes a good twenty minutes or so, followed by a further quarter of an hour thawing-out in front of the heater.

By 3.30pm, I sit down to work, and get just enough time to check my emails and Facebook, before it's time to close up and start getting ready for home. I know what you're thinking; 3.45pm is a little early to be going home, but it'll take me an hour to layer-up again, and I have to get home before dark lest I freeze to death in the street. Do you remember, when you were a kid, they used to have those ice-blocks shaped like a rocket, with a little jelly astronaut frozen in the top? Well that's what homeless people end up looking like here if they get caught outside after dark, and there's no way I'm letting that happen to me! So by the time I've unlocked my bike, replaced all the lights, struggled home and then repeated all this in reverse-order, it's 8.30pm and time for tea and then bed. What a day!

So you see, Pacific Islanders aren't lazy, they just get a lot more time in the day to do what needs to be done, compared with those who live in colder climes. I mean, look at Tongans and Samoans - not exactly starving due to being too lazy to get a meal together, are they? No, to those fat, privileged Australian piss-heads in the yacht and golf clubs across the Pacific, I say that real laziness is having everything you want at the flick of a switch, or the handing-over of a wad of cash. To them I say that real laziness is not being willing to open your eyes and look around at the way your maid, driver, gardener, staff or greens-keepers at the golf course live, and not being willing to understand just how much they've already done each day when you're only just falling out of bed with your thumping hangover.

What's this? A bird's-eye view of Donkey riding to work.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Indignant spiritual indigestion

You know, I don't really mind if people want to have opinions that are wrong, but why-oh-why must some (for want of a more appropriate term) FRIGGIN' IDIOTS insist on banging-on about them in public places, to all within ear-shot? For example, I'm a hard-workin' Donkey, and so, when it comes to Sunday morning, I like to rise late and take a leisurely stroll down through the multitudes of monks, beggars, vendors and pilgrims, past the massive gold ornaments of the Jokhang Temple and make my way to my favourite, chilled-out eatery where I like to sip two or three cups of dark, steaming Colombian, eat my over-easies and grilled tomatoes and sit in the bright Lhasa sun, keeping to myself as I read a book or, if I am lucky (and I was very lucky today) an Australian newspaper lovingly brought over by some thoughtful friends. Not too much to ask, now is it? A bit of Donkey-time as I sit and drink-in the atmosphere of old Tibet.

But I really cannot understand why other patrons of Donkey's favourite, chilled-out eatery seem hell-bent on shattering the quiet ambience with megaphonic observations of "the thing that's going wrong with Tibet", in a pompous, American East Coast, Ivy League drawl. Try as I might to ignore this twit, by the time it had gone on all the way through coffee numbers one and two, and through the first googy and tomato, I had to get up and stick my head around the corner to see just who this loud-mouthed braggart was actually talking to.

And what do you know? The poor sod who had been stuck listening to this nit-wit for the last hour as he spouted his opinions on why there were no monks at this or that monastery, and why Tibetans are no longer interested in spirituality and the old secrets was perhaps the only person in Lhasa who was not allowed to turn their back on an obnoxious, ill-informed prat. She was the poor, young, Tibetan waitress who, without this job (and all the trials that go with it), would be forced to return to her family and spend a long, draughty winter without a steady fire for warmth. In essence, she just had to endure it.

What else could I do? I gave her an out by calling her over and ordering another Colombian. My incredulous shake of the head was answered with a pleasant, conspiratorial grin, and for a short time all was calm and peaceful in the land, until some more of his countrymen came in and forced me to endure the whole procedure again – this time in stereo! That was it! I scalded my tongue as I downed the last caffeine hit and ducked out of there as Mr New England was proclaiming all the reasons why Tibetans today will never reach a state of heightened consciousness through tantric meditation.

My walk back home, usually very pleasant in the warm midday sun, had been soured. I had been cheated out of my pleasant weekly ritual, and now all I could think about were his last, anger-generating words about heightened consciousness. I was angry 'cause a) it wasn't true, and b) 'cause he was just another ill-informed, Martin Scorsese-worshipping "Boo-dist" who'd been here a week. Besides, of all people, he was the least likely to reach a heightened consciousness through tantric meditation ... certainly a lot less likely than the poor waitress with the bleeding ears.

Besides, what's so special about a heightened consciousness anyway? I've been clubbing - I know what it's like to have all my friends e-ing off their heads and hugging and drooling down each other's shoulders. And I've seen people lying in the gutters off Smith St, blissfully oblivious to the freezing Melbourne rain pelting down around them, or of the warmer, darkening patch around their groin.

And me. I get pissed pretty often, allegedly as a means of reaching a heightened state of consciousness, but I can't say that the results are all that cosmic or spiritual. For instance, just the other night, after about ten Lhasa beers, I got into a heated argument with someone who didn't believe that in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, the only humans are the housekeepers, who we imagine to be big, black, Queen Latifah-like ladies, although all we can see of them are a pair of stripy socks. Strike me down if it isn't true (unfortunately this place prevents me from Google-ing it), but either way, I'm sure you'll agree that neither of us seemed to be approaching Nirvana through our heightened consciousnesses.

Crikey, see what happens when I don't get my quiet, Sunday morning breakky?

Tom and Jerry, the new spiritual quest for weekend "boo-dists" everywhere. Pic:

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Living in the Wild, Wild West

You gotta love Spaghetti Westerns; the macho gun-slingers in their shiny boots and spangley chaps, bright leather holsters ever at the ready and both a sparkling eye and a gleaming pistol for some buxom, fast-talking dame with a frilly, pink skirt that she doesn't mind hitchin' up above her garters as she storms out of the saloon in mock-disgust over something her charismatic, boyfriend sheriff has uttered. And then there're the Indians; those hollerin', homicidal, feather-headed madmen in ug-boots and fawn, suede chaps - every one a savage, and not to be trusted. Man, I just love the black-and-white politics and emotions of the Spaghetti Western. It's easy to know who to root for, and who to detest and despise ... so easy, in fact, that even as a kid, sick and home from school ('cause that's the only time they were ever on the teev) you could turn on the box at any stage of the film, and you'd know exactly what was going on. It was kind of comfortable – like putting on a nice, clean pair of old undies.

Did someone mention clean undies? Naturally, 'cause that's what Spaghetti Westerns are all about, I reckon. Think about it. Here you are, a ten-year-old, snivelling mess, lying back on the couch with a blanky all tucked-up nicely under your chinny-chin-chin, and you're staring at the tele, into what is ostensibly, so they tell us, a window into the past ... a window into the Wild West.

But while it's always easy to know when the moustachioed, black-hated villain is gonna draw on the count of two, or when the barman is going to duck as a half-empty bottle of sippin' licka flies in the general direction of his balding, bespectacled head, there are some things about the Spaghetti Western which, as one gets a little older and wiser, just don't make much sense.

The case-in-point is that the Spag Western, being, as we said, a window into life in the Old West, portrays a place where it never rains, where everywhere is dust and mud, and where cowboy desperados, after months out on the Ponderosa swallowing cow-dung or "going fishing" up on Brokeback, mosie on into town with only enough time to whore and drink, before copping a silver bullet between the shoulder blades or being chased away by Sheriff Charisma. Certainly not enough time to wash their dust and sweat-stained bodies or launder their fraying hats and dirty breeches, and yet, in the Spaghetti Western, there's never a dusty hem or sweaty underarm in sight.

And the Indians too; out there on the prairie, thwacking off arrow after arrow at some bastard landowner and/or buffalo, then skinning both of them and dousing 'emselves in blood and gore before going off for a chuff of the peace-pipe. Now come on, when are they gonna have time to scrub the blood out of their clean, light-brown daks with all that going on? – I went to Uni, I know how unclean stoners are the next morning! But the Spaghetti Western would have us believe it was all clean, brightly-coloured pants; clean, frilly knickers; clean, Whorehouse Madams with hearts of gold; and clean Sheriffs with a sense of morality and duty, while all around them was dirt and lawlessness.

Something doesn't quite fit, does it? I'll admit that the realisation that Hollywood has been lying to me about the state of cleanliness and hygiene in "the olden days" was, ironically, brought to my attention by the silver screen itself. In John Hillcoat's The Proposition, a "Western" set in olden days, outback Australia, the portrayal of life is anything but clean, and the contrast with its genre forefathers was both brilliant and startling. But still, the movies are the movies, and after a sickly, stay-at-home childhood of sparkling silver spurs, starched, silver-lined collars done up to the neck and perfectly-proportioned, unblemished suede hats, it's hard to know what to believe about life and hygiene in the olden days.

In hindsight, some questions about life are best left unanswered, as I discovered in the Wild, Wild West last week. The setting was a little further west of Texas and California, but despite being a little off-course, the Tibetan plateau makes a pretty good meal of the American West in the olden days, and I can assure you, it's been quite some time since the cowboys and whorehouse dames of western Tibet have had a wash!

You know how, when the desperados ride on into town, chewing tobaccy and spitting here and there, all the town pokes grab their children and skedaddle pronto? And you know how all the shutters on the windows bang closed and within seconds there's no sound in the sandy, dusty, single street other than the wind blowing between the rickety buildings? Well that was exactly Donkey and the Team wandering into our first stop on the road trip. That dusty town, a grimy pimple on an otherwise flat, featureless landscape emptied of inhabitants immediately upon our arrival, and just like in the movies, the only place left open to us was the saloon.

Whisky being a little hard to come by in these parts, we settled for the local brew, chang, and turned to look at the filthy bar, with its stained inhabitants staring back at us. After a couple of heart-starters, it was time to order a feed, and just like food from the un-refrigerated larders of the Wild West, the meat that was presented to us smelt as bad as it tasted – sort of like how you'd expect that lung on the anti-smoking ad to taste after it had been dried out in the sun and then pissed on by a diabetic yak - so it wasn't long before Donkey was looking around for a bathroom. I could have been still looking now, if it wasn't for my interpreter who informed me that there was no toilet, and that I had to go around the back. Well, "around the back" was over a small wall, through a knee-deep pile of rubbish and suspiciously human-looking excrement, past a cow with a hideously protracted anus, and around a corner to the back wall of the establishment, where I quickly discovered I had not been the only person to use these amenities in the last three years. Hmmm, as the sick little Donkey of years before, all curled up on the couch, I don't ever remember seeing the Sundance Kid's boot covered in Butch's crap! Something was not right; while the setting rang true, this town was nothing like the clean, well-kept locales of the Spaghetti Westerns. Feeling even worse than I did after the meat, and not a little puzzled, I returned to the bar and was able to gather the troops with very little prompting.

That night, we pulled into a steep valley just before dark. Our destination, with the exception of the Tibetan prayer flags above, which were so abundant as to blot-out the final rays of the setting sun, could well have matched a Californian gold-mining town of the Great Rush of the 1850s. The bustle was loud and intense as we threaded our way through the series of rickety wooden buildings to find the hotel – a windowless, coffin-like box with more dirt on the floor than a graveyard. The soiled sheets on the beds looked like they'd wrapped a few corpses in their time, but the nun who ran the place didn't seem to notice.

On the way down to our exciting new lodging, I was a little shocked at the rubbish piled up in the small stream that ran between the closely spaced buildings, and the smell was quite something else. The reason for the latter soon became apparent as I squeezed my way along a particularly narrow stretch of track, and out of the periphery of my right eye, saw a lady, slightly raised on a stone platform, about level with my waist, glance at me, casually squat and ... well, let it all hang out!

By the time I had dumped my gear in the coffin, I was almost ready to curl-up and admit defeat – the Wild West was not the highly sanitised and civilised place I had believed it to be, but rather was a squalid, impersonal and grossly immoral reservoir for disease. Unfortunately, giving up was not an option, because by that stage, the lung-meat-a-la-yak-urine from lunch was really making itself known. To its credit, in addition to the stream we'd followed earlier, this town had a toilet. Up the hill I climbed, and in the dark, I accidentally went into the Ladies'. The stench was something to be believed, but under the circumstances, I could ill afford to be fussy, so I let it all go, and heard the disturbing splash as the processed lung meat landed in the river far below.

There's truly nothing like the thought of a disgusting toilet to keep you sleeping all through the night despite the pain of a near-exploding bladder, but at first light, there was no alternative but to trek back up the hill. On arrival, I realised my embarrassing mistake of the previous evening, and this time selected the correct door.

On entering, I became aware of the extreme sexism which exists in modern society, even in this filthy community run by nuns. Y'see, while my experience of the night before had been brought to you by the phrase, "over-powering and physically debilitating stench", that was nothing compared with the Blokes'. Clearly, as evidenced by the fact that you could actually see the floor of the Ladies', the nuns do try to clean up their toilet every month or so, but the Blokes'! Oh my Gawd! The floor was coated from wall to wall, and the unmistakable scent of both fresh and fossilised human faece was like a blow to the head. So the nuns are more than happy to clean their own, but us cowboys can go to hell, right? Sexist in the extreme! Maybe ... but who knows, it was so ... confronting in there that perhaps the guy employed to clean the Mens' died while working one day, and fell through the hole. It certainly felt possible, and they'd never know 'cause no one would ever dare to venture close enough to the sluggish river below to search for his body.

As you can imagine, the Mens' toilet was not a place in which to spend too long, and as I turned to leave, I had to side-step a young man urinating on the door-step, as if, out here in the Wild, Wild West, close enough is good enough.

My recent visit to the Wild West of Tibet has given me a pretty good whiff (OK, bad expression) of what life must've been like in the olden days, and my rudimentary understanding of public health is such that if the Cow-pokes of the Spag Westerns had lived in conditions such as these, there's no way they would have sported the wonderfully unblemished complexions I envied as a sickly, young Donkey, nor the sparkling, cleaned and pressed outfits of the trusty sheriff and his posse. Once again Hollywood has lied to me, and another piece of my youthful innocence has been flushed down the dr... ah, I mean, dropped into the river!

Beneath the mass of prayer flags, deep down in the "bowels" of the valley, something dark and smelly lurks in the river beside Tidrum Nunnery. Pic: Hagas