Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Pitchfork-wielding outrage in the outer-suburbs

Admittedly it doesn’t happen very often, but very occasionally, while trolling through the paperwork at Saving the World HQ, I come across the odd policy document containing phrases or words which bring a cheeky smile to ol’ Donkey’s lips.

It’s a bit naughty of me, really, but when I occasionally find one of these which stir the ever-smouldering embers in my belly into a lick of flame, causing me to snort mirthfully and break the otherwise crypt-like atmosphere of the office, I feel it’s important to share it with you all out there in Blogdom.

So, the one that got me chuckling away this morning, was in an otherwise stuffy policy document. It read,

“As we know, India is one of the greatest sex markets in the world“.

What? Is it? I didn’t know that! I thought the greatest sex market in the world was SexyLAND. For the uninitiated, SexyLAND is a recent, super-barn-like phenomenon to have sprung-up next to the Bunnings Warehouses, Super-cheap Autobarns, Bathroom Tiles Megamarts and Doors Galores which sprawl across Melbourne’s outer suburban landscape like a cancer.

Since it floated on the Australian Stock Exchange a couple of years ago, this franchise has opened-up in ten massive, convenient locations, each with free and extensive parking and a concealed back door, but instead of marketing hammers, spades, timber, bathroom fittings, paint, barbecues, white goods or doors, like its neighbours, SexyLAND boasts the world’s largest, biggest, longest, hardest, bounciest, stretchiest, fluffiest, shiniest, slipperiest and most comprehensive collection of adult entertainment products, DVDs, publications and other assorted objects which could never possibly be used by human beings … in the World!

Although I’ve never actually had the guts to step foot into one of these Colosseums to Consumerist Depravity, I still believed the advertising … until this morning. It seems the shareholders and management of SexyLAND have hoodwinked us, and all those sexually enlightened suburban men, women and couples (or so the advertising would have us believe) who thought they were selecting from the largest range in the World, would have done better to have turned their salivating leers in the direction of the sub-continent, where it appears the Kama Sutra is taking its rightful place (nestled snugly between nuclear arms and child labour) on India’s international economic juggernaut.

The changing landscape of the outer suburbs

Friday, February 23, 2007

Protected by the ‘Mark’ of Carabas

My all time favourite bedtime story is Puss in Boots. I love the way that clever, cunning little creature has the whole world chasing after their tails, from his rather foolish master, to the even more gullible king and his pretty (vacant) daughter, to the peasants who plough the fields, to the evil ogre whose wickedness would only ever be equalled by a cuddly little kitty in a pair of Cuban heels.

I love the way that, right from the beginning of the tale, Puss is all fluffy innocence and vulnerability as he cries out in mock fright, “Oh Master, please don’t eat me! I’m but a harmless, defenceless animal”, but in the next breath, seemingly with nary a moments thought, he lists off everything he needs - “Just give me a sack and a spanking pair of fine boots, and I shall make sure you never go hungry again” - in order to play-out a curiously elaborate plan to commit medieval impersonation, fraud, extorsion and murder.

Hmm, Puss, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you’d been hatching that one for quite a while, and such a plan doesn’t quite seem fitting from the recently afore-labelled “harmless, defenceless animal”, but nevertheless, Puss is granted his wish; he is newly shod and sent out into the world to create mayhem.

Mostly what I love about the story is Puss’ smug, self assuredness. The little feline has got all the sass, all the moves, all the smarts and all the cunning of a criminal genius, and you just know that the whole, grisly business would have been conducted with Puss spouting off witty one-liners and casting a mutually roving eye at all the girly cats down by the wharf! Ah, that Puss, definitely the Fonzie of medieval Europe!

But the thing that always jars with me when reading this story, is that nobody; neither Puss’ master, the king, the peasants or the ogre ever once questioned the existence of a talking cat. As well as the talking thing, no one seems all that surprised that Puss manages, in the space of three days, to design and execute a flawless, elaborate plan which sends his clueless master from grim to bling, and Puss doesn’t do too badly for himself, either, becoming a great and wealthy Lord.

It strikes me as a bit odd, and gets me to wondering about how these animals have been viewed throughout history. And it does seem that humans have been somewhat aware, and wary, of the crafty, cunning and possibly magical potential of those outwardly torpid tabbies. In Egypt, ancient tombs have been discovered in which pharaohs were laid to rest with cats, who were said to have possessed the power to transcend the mortal veil and guide the spirit of the great kings into the afterlife.

Or if you like, take, for example, north-eastern USA in the late 17th century, where sex-starved Presbyterian madmen would burn any voluptuous young woman just for having a big, black pussy (sorry, y’knew it had to happen eventually, I thought I might as well get it over with and out of the way). Or perhaps look at the story of Dick Whittington, who, as far as I can gather, was nothing but an aspiring, treacherous politician, whose record, three-times tenure as Lord Mayor of London is to this day mysteriously attributed to the fact that he owned and travelled with a cat, and not “cos of all dem murders ‘e done!”.

Our forefathers certainly had some inkling that the there was more to these fastidious, furry felines than met the eye; something mysterious, and maybe something powerful to be feared. And this, you’ll be happy to hear, brings me to the point of this little reflection.

While I was in Kathmandu last weekend (that has nothing to do with the story, by the way, I just wanted to let you know that I went to Kathmandu last weekend, ‘cause it’s an awesome place), I was staying at a friend’s house, and overnight had a prolonged bout of my regular, recurring nightmare – the one where I am being haunted by ghosts and I eventually try to swallow my terror, and stand up to the fearful phantoms by shouting obscenities at them, only to find that in the dream, and indeed in real life, I am unable to articulate the words. Instead, I scream out incoherent nonsense, which Mrs Donkey confirms makes me sound like the one who is possessed by an evil demon.

Unlike on most occasions, when this dream comes to its babbling climax, I wake up, Mrs D comforts me and then I go back to an untroubled sleep, there seemed to be something about the house last weekend, which kept the ghastly ghouls coming back for me all night. By early morning, I was a wreck, and Mrs Donkey was getting worried. Again I fell into a troubled slumber, and again I was drawn along that dark corridor to the sinister room at the end where the wicked wraiths awaited me, but as I passed through the entrance to the hallway, there, just beside my left foot, sat my sixteen-year-old pet cat, Sammy, whom I had thought to be safe at home in Melbourne with my folks.

Sam stretched, and smiled, inviting me to pick her up, which I did, and at her urging, together we approached the violently shaking, and seemingly angry door. With Sammy in my arms, I kicked it open and went on through … and I slept soundly until late into the morning.

So last weekend, Sammy, sans footwear but displaying a similar commitment to protecting her troubled master as that of Puss, transcended the spirit world, and travelled halfway around the globe to save me from my own mental ogres. Is it just me, or is there a lot more going on around here than we are usually aware of? Thanks for saving me, Sammy.



And there she is, my sixteen-year-old, feline protector, who travelled halfway around the world to save me. Pic: Mama Donkey.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Anniversary

It was a year ago, yesterday, that I arrived in Delhi.

A year ago that a taxi driver told me that there was no more pollution in Delhi since the government ordered cars, trucks and auto-rickshaws to switch over to allegedly, environmentally clean CNG fuel, “Oh no, Sir. No pollution! Clean Delhi!”.

It has been a year since my lungs, day and night, have been subject to the kind of caustic chemicals and airborne particles only before experienced by Dickensian chimney sweeps, “Penny for Christmas cheer, Guv’nor?”.

It has been one year since I wandered out onto the porch on that first morning thinking, “This weather is fantastic!”, and that means it’s been eleven months since I started gagging under the most intense, convection-oven heat, which slowly cooked my life away as the tumultuous, daily grind of Delhi spun me round and round like a pig on a spit!

It has been one whole year that my ears have been filled with the frog-like croak of the raddi-wallahs, as they ride past our house on their rickety bicycles at all hours, crying out to do odd jobs or to collect loose bottles. “Raddieeeeeeeeee!”.

It has been a year that my nightly slumber has been interrupted during astrologically auspicious moments, sometimes at 3am, as couples tie-the-knot to the artillery boom of a mighty cache of fireworks.

It has been a year since my clothes began being ironed on the street outside my home, using hot coals fanned by the passing traffic, and returned to me as stiff as a surfboard, with razor-sharp creases that cut a mean swathe through the high-profile, sophisticated revellers in Delhi’s swanky bars.

It has been a year since I started visiting my shoe-wallah to have my shoes shined; a year since I began sitting on a wooden box under the intense scrutiny of the man’s entourage, trying in vain to ignore the attention as I concentrated on reading the same page of my book, over and over again. Incidentally, I always thought it odd that this man wore dark eye-liner, or khol, around his eyes. I only recently understood that it was his own black shoe polish, not kohl, which he painted on his eyelids and which gave him his feminine appearance.

It has been a year since I have, on a daily basis, had to justify my existence in this country to some bureaucrat, taxi driver, street sweeper or other, despite legitimate visas and a wad of official identification papers in my back sky-rocket.

It has been a year since my morning routine of getting to work saw me sitting in the glorified tin-can that is a Delhi auto-rickshaw, beside bumper-to-bumper cars, trucks, motorbikes, ponies, horses, camels and elephants.

It has been a year since I have battled every day, just to get somewhere, buy something, book a tradesperson, see something or find someone, and that means that it has been about six months since I gained some kind of equilibrium with that battle; sometimes achieving the upper hand, and at others, failing dismally. But the highs and lows have helped me to remember my place in the grand scheme of whichever of the vast pantheon of Indian gods one subscribes to.

It has been a year that I have learned to start a new life, every day; a life which can take you anywhere – to the great heights of euphoria when things go well, or to dump you down into the deepest pits to cower in shadowy sorrow when it all comes undone. It has been a year since I have felt what it is to have a life that is not protected by safety laws, rights or some kind of societal morality; a year since I learned to value what it is to be truly mortal, and to love my life all the more for the fear of having it come to an abrupt end via any of the vast number of dangers encountered during a punishing daily routine.
I know I should be getting used to it by now, but it always kinda freaks me out when I pull up along-side one of these babies. Pic: http://www.luvnpeas.org

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Soaring Ambitions

In response to recently voiced fears that DonkeyBlog has been taking itself a bit too seriously of late, I wish to assure everyone that I am still the immature, shallow barnyard prankster of old. And to set your minds at ease, I must ask you all the question;

Do you know anyone who’s a member of the Mile High Club?

I know a guy who claims to be; reckons he did it with his girlfriend-at-the-time, under a blanket, in their seats! Not sure I believe it, though, as the friend in question is not the most quietly-spoken person at the best of times, let alone when he’s a bit excited … and this friend, well, let’s just say that the thought of sex gets him VERY excited. Adding to my doubt about his claimed credentials, unless my friend was travelling Business Class (and knowing him to be the almighty tight-arse that he is, I think that unlikely), I’m not sure two people’d really fit under that little airline blanket. Donkey usually has trouble fitting one across the ol’ guts, which, I’ll admit, are not insubstantial, but c’mon, two people having inconspicuous sex at 30,000 feet!?!

Still, this friend of mine is pretty adamant that he has the Mile High Club ID card and avails himself of membership privileges on a regular basis, so I guess it must be true. And here’s me having complained to the airline after one of my recent trips just because my seat wouldn’t go back! In retrospect, despite the unpleasant lower back pain experienced on that journey, I firmly believe it to be far more preferable than what that poor bugger had to endure all those years ago, as he sat in the third seat of that row, next to my friend and his girlfriend. Imagine having to pretend not to hear the maniacal “Hur hur hur!” of my friend as he completed his membership initiation rituals! Imagine having to pretend not to notice that flimsy little airline blanket as it bounced up and down, and then slipped off onto the floor (I’m sure it must have been this passenger who kept picking it up in order to perform his civic duty in sparing all the other passengers the spectacle!). No, I’ll not complain about bad seats on a plane, ever again!

It’s a strange ambition, this Mile High Club. Never really turned me on much – call me old fashioned, but having sex in a filthy cubicle while standing in a puddle of stale, post-turbulence urine while twenty passengers wait patiently for the lavvy on the other side of a light plastic door doesn’t quite do it for me.

But having said that, I do possess the odd, somewhat sordid, high altitude ambition, and mine too, I’ll admit, has something to do with the airplane loos. You know how on airplanes, the bogs have that sealed s-bend, and you have to hit the button before all your business gets sucked out, and you know how you have to hang on tight to avoid being sucked out yourself and landing on some poor villager who has just started dancing with joy at the first rain in ten years? You know those toilets, right? Yeah, well, I have an ambition to actually fill one of those toilet bowls up completely with my own piss! That’s right – fill it right up to the rim, then press the button and watch it all slosh out into the stratosphere!

I know you might be wondering why I might want to do that, but I’m sorry to say that for contractual reasons, the “why” is not going to be addressed here. Nevertheless, it’s the “how” that occupies my thoughts most keenly, and to be honest, it’s not an easy task at all!

I’ve tried all sorts of things, but am sorry to report that the sick bags do not hold fluid for very long before seepage occurs. The most effective method of achieving my goal, I’ve found, is to down three large, Starfucks-style paper cups of “coffee”, two beers and a couple of Cokes at the airport bar before boarding, and then to alternate between beer and coffee once on board. As a tip for young players, I recommend asking for a second drink whenever being served your first, as those small cans really aren’t helping anyone.

While maintaining this volume of fluid in-take, the challenge then is to sit as still as you can for the next eight hours or so – it’s not easy; the pain will usually start about two hours in. Meditation’s no good, ‘cause you still have to drink, drink, drink, so it’s all about gritting your teeth, breathing through your nose and praying for a smooth ride.

Unfortunately, to date, these precautions have been insufficient. Despite the super-human effort of lasting the time, my endeavours to fill the vessel have not even come close. It appears my bladder is just not large enough to match the volume of the bowl … but I won’t let that small obstacle prevent me from assuming my rightful place as the inaugural member, and self-appointed Grand High Wizard of the Mile High Bowl Fillers’ Society Inc. No Siree! I have been doing my research and it appears that the medical profession is making tremendous breakthroughs in bladder transplant surgery, so there may be help for me yet. Until then, if you’re travelling and you find yourself sitting next to a rather agitated, shallow-breathing Donkey, don’t be alarmed, just be ready to get out of his way if he starts to move … or groan!


But wait, there’s more…

Far be it for me to get all Rodney Dangerfield on you, but “how ‘bout those airlines?”. Here are some recent observations of stuff I just don’t get.

Flying’s great for your lungs, isn’t it? Yeah, fantastic! Ever noticed how you and everyone you’ve ever met gets the sniffles after any flight lasting longer than 90 minutes? Here’s a question for you, if someone on your plane has TB, who do you think is most likely to get it? Yeah, that’s right, everyone!

Still, on a British Airways leg from Delhi – London, recently, it was a toss-up as to whether I was gonna go down to severe respiratory illness or malnutrition. When did airlines drop down to one lousy meal on a nine-and-a-half hour flight?

At least Air Sahara make you feel as though you’re getting two meals, even though they’re tiny! Apparently those thimble-sized coffee cups are a safety precaution to prevent anyone from sustaining massive burns in the event of turbulence, but as a not-so-well-endowed Donkey, even that small amount of boiling coffee could severely damage the likelihood of a future barnyard brood. I’ll take my chances, though; “Gimme a mug, ya tight bastards, and let’s get on with it!”.

Flying’s great for your skin, too, hey? Especially for someone like me. So much for what they all told us during adolescence, y’know, about how your acne would disappear by the time you were fifteen. Yeah right! I’ve got bacteria on my face that’s so old it could be used to make the very smoothest vintage tasty known to man … and the cross-pollenation at the hands of the airplane cooling system could do wonders for the epicurean industry!

Honestly, having your plane go down in mid flight is the least of your health problems, if you ask me. Fowl, biblical skin disorders; deadly respiratory illness; third degree coffee burns; sexually transmitted diseases; and hepatitis from some freak who tried, in vain, to reach the lavvy, but ended up exploding urine all over the cabin. It’s no wonder air hosties get paid serious danger money!





Evangeline Lilly didn't seem to suffer from bloody phlegm, skin pustules or even coffee burns, and let's face it, after 60 days on the island, she still looks pretty good. Pic: imageunivers.canalblog.com/

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Negotiating your way through this life ... and the next

DISCLAIMER: Just so that you lot don't think that I'm slack for not posting everyday, know that I am always hard at it. The following bit of crud was published in The Age newspaper, on Saturday, 10th February.


I know he’s watching me approach; all high pants and twitching moustache as he calculates how much he’s going to be able to squeeze out of yet another foolish tourist. It’s 9am in New Delhi, and already as hot as the Eternal Pit. I’m sweating like a hog in long-johns as I approach the auto-rickshaw wallah in order to commence negotiations for how much I will pay to get into his ludicrous dodgem-car, and I can sense that my patience is already wearing a bit thin. Like a wolf on the hunt, he can sense it too!

And so it begins, “No way! That’s way too much!”, “Oh no, Sir, this is a very good price”, “But it’s so close!”, “OK, Sir, what’s your best price?” … “Oh no, Sir, I have a large family…”. And on it goes. My wife giggles as I start to gesticulate wildly, and my face turns the colour of last night’s tandoori chicken. “Yesterday I only paid…”, “But today is Wednesday, Sir,” he replies, all smarmy patience and indulging smile, “Extra charge on Wednesday”.

“Bwaaaaaaaaaaagh!”, screams every muscle and sinew in my bulging neck, but a week of yoga in a Himalayan Ashram is starting to pay-off; I gulp down some deep breaths to calm myself, and smile as I approach enlightenment.

The negotiations finally draw to a close, and as we climb into the battered tin-can that is the auto-rickshaw, I know I’ve just been suckered and paid at least five rupees more than I should. While this is not much more than about fifteen cents, I am burning with shame as I remember the sour, obnoxious Swiss backpacker at breakfast, cursing and preaching about how we “new comers” are spoiling it for everyone else by agreeing to pay too much.

Ashamed and absolutely done-in, we launch into the writhing Delhi traffic; thoughts of self-loathing are immediately replaced with self-preservation! As the horns blare, and the trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes all speed by within inches of our hands and feet, I am reminded of why all the arguing and negotiation is so worth it. Travelling around in auto-rickshaws is exciting because it’s so dangerous; you’re so close to the other vehicles and the unforgiving road that it reminds you of just how mortal you are. And that’s what India is all about – experiencing and appreciating your great, big, fragile life!
"Oh no, Sir, this is a very good price!" Auto-rickshaw wallah and his son in New Delhi. Photo: Google images.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The chemical pursuit of happiness

I recall the first time I was exposed to drugs at parties. It was at a school friend’s house while his folks were away, we’d all had a few beers and were laughing and joking, and then our host, P (not his real name, Hee Haw) pulled out his brand new, homemade bong. Made from a Spring Valley fruit juice bottle, it was painted a glossy black with orange flames down the side, and had a big HSV Holden badge welded to the front of it. It was truly a piece of modern art, and a definite labour of love requiring a painstaking commitment of time and effort; the kind of which P was unfortunately never able to apply to his studies.

Anyway, at this stage I was 17 years old, which I think you’ll agree is pretty old for a first drug experience, and to be honest, while I knew about crack (thanks to sensationalist reports on 60 Minutes), heroin (ditto) and joints of marijuana (give me a bit of credit, I had seen plenty of these), exactly what one was supposed to do with this glorified vase was a bit beyond me.

Brandishing his new masterpiece like King Arthur’s sword, P, whom we’d all respected as having been “into the green” for a couple of years by this time, offered us a chuff. To P’s credit, mind, never once then, nor any time thereafter, did he ever pressure anyone into smoking – he was a good, genuine guy who, in terms of his smoking and chuffing, was very comfortable with his way of life, and unlike many of his peers, was never out to prove anything to anyone.

As it happened, like many times thereafter, I declined P’s offer that night, and as the bong was passed around the room, the camaraderie continued for about a half hour or so, until it became clear that only Donkey and maybe one or two others were actually saying anything. Now, I’ll be the first to admit (because no one else is likely to) that I’m an incredibly funny guy, and get a few beers into me, I’ll have the crowd rolling in the aisles (again, you might have trouble getting anyone else to admit this), but on that night, even I had got sick of laughing at my own jokes while everyone else just sat around smiling and dozing. I think it was this event that put me off trying marijuana for a few years thereafter – the fact that the drug seemed so antisocial really made me wonder why anyone would bother.

So, a couple of years later, I hit the streets in search of the right drug for me – something that was a good mix of a fantastic trip, and yet still enabled me to be the life of the party. I tried heroin for a year or so, but no one was laughing. Crack just made me a bit too wired, and I kept convulsing on the bus. I had a go at cocaine but there’s nothing funny about a bloody nose. Acid had me all paranoid about a gremlin on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t funny (or maybe that was just my girlfriend at the time). Finally, I dropped a few Es at a rave one night, and woke up the next afternoon in bed with two girls, a sailor and a goat … and have had a nasty rash ever since. I really didn’t have much luck finding myself a good, social drug, and after three lost years, I pretty well gave up the search.

A couple of years later, fully detoxed, a mouth full of breath freshener and dressed in a sharp suit, some fool gave me a job, and I was sent off to a small, provincial outpost in the Solomon Islands. Here, while meandering into town one night, I was drawn towards a collection of lights from the docks, which to me looked like some kind of festival. I wandered over to investigate, feeling a bit dejected that no one had let me know that this no-pub town was having a party, but as I approached the crowd that was milling around, I saw no signs of any wild celebrations.

What I did see were men and women of all ages - just about everyone in the town – wandering amongst hastily-erected stalls made from wooden fruit crates. Each stall was lit-up with a dull hurricane lamp which cast an atmospheric glow over the proceedings. People were talking happily in hushed tones, and there was an occasional, jovial laugh above the low murmur.

“What was going on here?” I wondered, and approached the crowd to see thousands of the green, golf-ball sized pods known as betelnuts, all lined up in rows along the stalls. Next to them were the triangular green leaves which are rolled up and dipped into a jar of powdered lime (also known as calcium oxide, or quick lime - very caustic), and then placed in your mouth, along with the betelnut, to be chewed for the next hour or so, as you are slowly lulled into a state of extreme, semi-comatosed relaxation.

My neighbour, who had been standing nearby, encouraged me with a red, betelnut juice smile to take one of his betelnuts, and offered to share his lime with me. Never shy to have a go at something new, before long I was chewing away on the bitter concoction, spitting bright red liquid on the ground along with everyone else, and happily succumbing to my companion’s laughter as the front of my t-shirt became soaked in red juice. I eventually got the hang of projectile spit and had one of the most pleasant, social evenings I’ve ever experienced, wandering around the market in the wan light, chatting and laughing and gazing at the stars.

Needless to say, weekend nights at the market became a regular activity, and I even started to get into the betelnut during the day. It carried the dual bonus of making the time pass quickly, and was a great hunger suppressant, so I lost more weight than a chronic ecstasy user.

After about six months of wondering why Mrs Donkey kept demanding that I clean my teeth before kissing her, I was in town one Saturday morning waiting for a friend who was arriving from the capital by boat. There were people everywhere, and I was standing on the dock as the first passengers disembarked. One of the lead passengers was a very attractive young woman, and she walked towards me on her way into town. Now, I’m not a lecherous old bastard or anything, but it suits this pile of steaming fiction to mention that this woman was absolutely gorgeous; she had flawless, bronzed skin, taught, long legs, an attractive, tight, sleeveless top which exposed her slim figure and accentuated her large, buoyant breasts, and she had long, curly copper hair flowing down her shoulders and back, which caught the breeze as she seemed to float towards me in slow motion.

“Struth!”, thought I as I glanced around to make sure that Mrs Donkey wasn’t anywhere close. Just as this goddess was passing me, I smiled and said “Hi”. She didn’t reply, but she did smile, and instead of seeing the gorgeous set of pearly-whites that I’d expected, I clocked a single, black, rotted tooth protruding from putrid, red, decaying gums. Even though I’m sure it could not have been the case, I still believe to this day that I could smell the stench of rotting flesh from where I was standing, about five feet away!

It was at about that time that I gave up betelnuts, and about then that I resigned myself to never being able to find a social drug that fulfilled all of my needs. No pleasure without pain? Perhaps, but I’m a reformed Donkey from now on.


The betelnut smile. Pic: Hagas.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

A couple of years ago, I was working in an island nation, in a small provincial “city”, whose main form of transport throughout the island was sea travel. On one occasion, we needed to take a trip to visit a small health outpost on the south coast, so we went about organising our transport.

Firstly, we had to go looking through town for a suitable boat. One of the two Health Department boats had “gone missing” in the last couple of weeks, and no one had noticed until that morning, and the other one was deemed “unseaworthy”, which is really saying something in a country where a degree of unseaworthiness is de rigueur for sea-going craft.

Finding a decent enough boat took a little longer than anticipated on this morning, because there was a fussy white man accompanying the team (if by fussy, they mean, “attentive to the preservation of life”, then yes, I’m fussy!), and a suitable replacement was finally located late in the morning.

Then (and I bet you thought a boat came with an engine, right? – Ha ha, so na├»ve), we tested the two engines owned by the Provincial Health Department; the 40 horsepower was knackered as it had not been stripped-back since its last trip due to the one-and-only engine mechanic going on holiday to the capital, and the other engine, a 25 horsepower, was able to be started only after being bashed a few times with a wrench. Hmmm…

Next obstacle; fuel. The Provincial Health Department had no budget left for fuel, due to the unanticipated rising price of oil thanks to the crazy, undergraduate antics of George, Tony and John in the Middle East, so we had to wrestle with miles of red-tape, then the accountant (whom we first had to locate, as he had not turned up to work for a few days) and finally the Provincial Director (who hadn’t been at work for at least twice as long as his accountant!). After many hours, and considerable angst, we had just enough fuel to get us there and back (as long as there were no emergency detours – “Safety procedures anyone?”).

I didn’t even bother trying to organise an Health Department vehicle to take us to the wharf … sometimes it’s just worth shelling-out the cash for a taxi. It was midday by this time, and I approached the wharf to glimpse our boat, shining gloriously out there on the harbour. Well actually, “shining gloriously” might be too much of a great, big, ridiculously inaccurate exaggeration bordering on a blatant lie! Our boat was an open-topped, aluminium dingy with three aluminium bench seats, no life jackets, our ridiculously small, 25 horsepower engine hanging off the back, one paddle and a broken bottle with which to bail water back over the side (summary: boat was small, old and leaky). With a glance at the beating tropical sun, I shrugged my shoulders and sighed a resignation to fate. As I shouldered my gear and waded out into the fetid, oily water of the harbour, my last humiliation came from the jeers of the tough boys on the dock who laughed and whooped as I tried to climb over the side of the boat, and slopped unceremoniously into the disgusting, fish-blood soaked bilge in the bottom of the hull – nice! Here’s to the next six hours smelling like the floor of the fish mongers!

****


A couple of days ago, I travelled to another island nation whose main forms of transport around the country are boats and planes. I disembarked from the latter, grabbed my bags, cleared customs and was onto the former all within 15 minutes. Another quarter hour later, I walked along the concrete wharf, to come face-to-face with the Health Department boat which would take me and the team to another health outpost.

This boat was a gleaming, white cabin cruiser that shined from repeated cleaning, thanks to the uniformed crew, one of whom actually reached up to help me with my bags, before scurrying off to do some checking, cleaning or whatever else trusty seafarers do before setting sail. I stepped from the firm concrete wharf onto the sparkling, white, fibreglass deck without so much as seeing the water, and as it was getting a bit hot in the midday sun, I ducked into the spacious cabin, and sat down in the shade, on one of the twelve clean, padded seats. Hmmm….

Just before we left to head out to sea, the crew pointed out where the life jackets were kept, and the skipper radioed to headquarters to announce our departure. I decided I’d like to sit at the rear of the boat, so on plush, waterproof carpets, I wandered down to sit next to two (count them, one … two), brand-spanking 200 horsepower engines. “Well now, this is the life, hey Donkey?” thinks I!

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Thanks only to my bum having been soaked in fish blood and mud, my arse was saved a burning from the hot, aluminium seat as we headed out of the harbour. Before long we were on the open sea, holding on for dear life as we crested Everest-like waves, found ourselves floating in mid-air for a split-second, and then thumped back onto the hard seats as the boat plunged down the other side and we braced ourselves to do it all again. This continued for six hours, with occasional stops at various, picturesque tribal villages to pass-on month-old messages to families and relatives in this land without radios, phones or postal services.

Through the painful, disorienting haze of seasickness and with a thought that The End had finally arrived, a spied a break in the jungle and prepared to meet The Maker. I eventually reasoned that Heaven probably wouldn’t look like a mouldy, broken-down, windowless, leaking shack, and realised we had arrived at the health outpost. For the next four days, I would slip and slop along muddy “bush roads” to visit various communities, eat nothing but boiled fish and rice, and sleep with rats in a decrepit building with a fragrant, dysfunctional sewerage system and definitely no electricity.

During that time, I would meet and talk with communities.

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As we glided over the tropical waves in cushioned comfort, I dozed off for a bit in the sun, and when I awoke, I saw rows upon rows of luxury resort villas spreading out into the glorious turquoise of the lagoon. I glimpsed a couple of Europeans snorkelling along the reef, but we were travelling very fast, and they were out of sight in moments.

After about thirty minutes, we negotiated through the points of a sturdy, concrete harbour, and tethered to another wharf which could be reached from the boat in a single step. Before visiting the health post to get started, we were ushered onto the polished wooden deck of a seaside restaurant where I partook in a perfect espresso and a crusty croissant. I took a call from the boss on my mobile phone, and then strolled through the meticulously clean, sandy streets; past concrete houses with overhanging palms; past the power house, with its 24 hour generator, spotless white-washed walls and landscaped garden; past the government building, each office with its own split-system air conditioning units; and onto the health post - fully equipped, staffed and powered, twenty-four hours a day.

The next day, I would meet and talk with the community.

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These people have walked and carried goods up and down the muddy, slippery paths of this region for generations, and have fought wars with each other for land, pigs and marriages as recently as eighty years ago. Nowadays, there is peace, and their distance and isolation from government have made them very self sufficient. It is not difficult to encourage these communities to meet and to discuss their problems – they have very few resources, but they are willing to work together to do what they can for themselves and for each other.

After four days of meetings and discussions, I boarded the floating coffin and returned to base.

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These people have lived under one religion and one, centralised government for over five hundred years. Their ever-increasing wealth allows them access to technology and they have become great consumers of western products. They proudly maintain their belief in their own individuality, and yet they live in their permanent houses, identically built and located in clusters, close to their worship. They rely on their government for everything, and have lost the spirit of compromise, cooperation and community in everything except religion. They have access to all the possessions and food they need, but they are reluctant to work together to even protect their families from disease or to manage the mountains of waste generated through their consumerism.

After four days of meetings, I boarded the luxury liner and returned to base.

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It’s odd, isn’t it, how each of these communities have something that the other would value, and yet without all of the parts, the sum remains incomplete?

It’s also odd the kinds of communities that this sort of work will take you to meet … but when you scratch the surface of any community, you begin to see what barriers there are to development.