Sunday, August 15, 2010

Beaten by reality

FOREWORD: I drafted the following post last Thursday (12th August), back when all was quiet on the inner city streets ... little did I know that my Hindenburg-like, pseudo-intellectual smugness was going to be deflated in a great, blubbery mess by the pointy-end of the real world, as Melbourne's gangland mobs geared-up for a whole new shooting spree.

While the ongoing northern suburban teenage knife fights and the cudgelling of Indian students keeps the blood-lusting Sunday paper readers interested past the Page 3 Girl, the rest of the city is starting to get a little twitchy that there hasn't been a decent shooting outside a suburban home, cafe or primary school for well over a year now.

For a while there it was looking promising that Carl Williams might be released before someone could knock him off in broad daylight outside Woollies (preferably at a home-value-inflating shopping strip near you), but alas, the grubby, tubby drug lord met his end on Her Majesty's watch, selfishly denying a salivating populous its opportunity to spend the next eight years driving by 'the spot where it all happened' and pointing at the pavement where one would claim that in the right light, you could just about determine the outline of his leaked cranial blood.

Such is Melbourne's obsession with organised, true-crime. Where the release of a ghost written 'auto-biography' of a notorious, nouveau celebrite gang lord can steal the front page from a politician's dastardly, late-night government takeover or a despot north Asian leader's preliminary steps towards nuclear world war.

And thanks to the good folk at Channel 9 bashing-out three series of Underbelly in as many years, the rest of Australia has followed suit and is obsessed with the seedy underworld of organised crime (not to mention soft porn and Matty Newton's arse!).

But while all eyes and cameras are firmly trained on the last known survivor of the Moran clan (poor, two-year-old Kitty is alleged to have signed a multi-billion dollar exclusivity deal with Murdoch's News Limited, to be paid in a lump sum on the release of Volume 1: the Primary School Years, should she be fortunate enough to live that long), the rest of the nation's established criminal families have been more-or-less free to get on with the business of drug-manufacturing and running, theft, extortion, protection racketeering, arms trading and illegal gambling, with narry a glance from the press or the cops.

Take my neighbours, for example. These folk aren't the types to be escorting high-end hookers and joining Eddie McGuire for the AFL's Brownlow Medal Count at Crown Casino in a few weeks time. They're not even the types to be seen playing at the high-roller tables of the same establishment. You won't see them hooning up and down Chapel St in Ferrari convertibles or spot them joining George Calombaris at table in one of his fine-dining establishments.

Rather, these fat, balding, tracky-daks-wearing, butt-crack showing, pitbull-walking, possibly excessively violent, but otherwise neighbourly types are more likely to be seen scoffing $8-parmies-and-a-pot-before-noon down at The 'Wick, throwing a few bucks each way on Race 6 at the Cranbourne Dish-lickers, or dropping twenty-cent coins into a slot after 3pm at the RSL. They're more likely to be driving a '96 HSV Commodore than a Ferrari, and the only thing high-end about their hookers is that when working the back alleys, their girls make sure they're not standing where the drain water pools at the bottom of the rise.

So while the three generations of criminals living next door won't ever grace the front page or be made the subject of a high-rating Australian TV series, you gotta hand-it to them for their diligence at keeping at it – a bit of a meth lab here, some movement of stolen goods there, a dabble in some illegal importation of tobacco products there – for decades, and all completely under the radar*.

I guess you'd have to liken them to former Prime Minister John Howard's Little Aussie Battlers. The kind of folk who will never be singled-out for their selfless and unrelenting contribution to society, but who, by their commitment to honest hard work, keep the economy on its feet.

That's my neighbours ... the Little Aussie Battlers of Organised Crime. They'll never be recognised for what they do, but with the media, the police and the hungry, true-crime-obsessed public's attention preventing the higher-profile crooks from dabbling in anything even slightly bent, my neighbours, and other, likewise established families are keeping organised crime alive.

The real Aussie Battlers of Organised Crime look more like David Wenham's character, Johnny Spitieri (Gettin' Square, 2003) than the slick, playboy types of Channel 9s Underbelly. Pic:

* - well almost completely, except if you count the incident which saw our neighbourhood wake up to view the late night handy work of one of our neighbour's grammatically-challenged competitors or disgruntled clients scrawled across their front fence in red spray paint; "DRUG DEELERS" (sic).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign...

...Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?
Five Man Electrical Band
Here I was thinking I'd come a long way since I was fifteen years old, travelling through Germany, and breaking-out in adolescent hysterics every time I saw a sign denoting an exit.
"Ausfahrt! You gotta be kidding me, Ausfahrt?! Hey! Hey! Pull my finger. Pull my finger ... I'll show you how an Aus Farts! Woo hoo! Yuk, yuk, yuk".
On my return to Australia, my teacher repeatedly asked me to bring my Germany trip photographs to school to share with the other students. In order to hide my embarrassment (given that every second shot was of me doubled-over in fits of hilarity beneath an exit sign), I conjured excuse after increasingly implausible excuse to throw her off the scent; "Our cameras were taken from us by East German border guards and they strip-searched me to get the negatives I'd hidden up my arse ... despite the stench, my substantial, numerous ausfahrts were still not enough to deter them from their merciless quest".
She stopped asking.
But anyway, those juvenile days are well and truly behind me now, right? Right? That's what I thought, until on a recent trip to Tibet.
It's bad enough having to prepare yourself, both mentally and physically, to visit a Tibetan toilet. For starters there's the negotiating one's way around the disgusting piles of steaming turds that accumulate over a year or so between cleans, but it really does make the experience completely inaccessible when one faces fearful confusion over which cubicle is for the fellas, and which is for the ladies.
Believe me, it can be quite an uncomfortable, and potentially life-threatening ordeal to have daintily picked your way through the stinking smears of nomad excrement, placed your feet carefully either side of the over-flowing hole in the ground, be squatting in vein-popping agony as you push-out last night's yak steak, only to have an attractive, young Tibetan village girl wander in on you as that brown bear pushes its way into the world!
Funny, maybe, but I can vouch for the fact that things can rapidly deteriorate into a public health disaster as you suddenly reach for your strides with one hand, accidentally twist sideways, slip on a fresh coat of gravy and reflexively reach to the floor with the other hand to steady your body's downward trajectory. Splat!
So it was a great boon to me on my most recent visit, to approach one of these fragrant, rural outhouses, and be provided with some assistance by [I suspect] local youths with a piece of charcoal.
Very helpful indeed ... and yes, I love the artist's impression of the gash! Pic Hagas
And while I'm in the middle of this incredibly mature missive about amusing foreign signs, I'd like to share with you a label I found about ten minutes after viewing this sign, in a local dining establishment characterised by the same standards of hygiene displayed in the bogs.
The label was attached to a most remarkable piece of Chinese engineering and manufacturing; a plastic, automatic toothpick dispenser in the shape of a German country house [there, ya see, this post's gone full circle], on which the pressing of a small button forces a single, clean, round toothpick into the hands of the eager consumer. A tremendous feat of modern, scientific research and development.
And the label read;
AUTO TOOTHPICK CASE. Design with meticulous care the external appearance beauty is generous usage convenience.
That's all very well, but you know what they say, "Self praise is no praise!".

Monday, August 09, 2010

Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!

Mrs Donkey's currently on the Indian subcontinent enjoying her fill of the leering eye and twitching moustache – ah yes, the South Asian male; small in stature, but large in virility!

Meanwhile, I'm holding the fort and attending to the (occasionally, unreasonably high) demands of Little Hambones. He's got this new, incredibly hilarious breakfast, lunch and dinner schtick goin'-on which sees projectile mush, toast, fruit and milk bouncing off the walls, table and floor to the soundtrack of hysterical infantile belly-laughs.

More and more, with each passing day, the house's interior resembles the blood-stained hands of Lady Macbeth; it seems no matter how well I scrub at the soiled surfaces, when I turn my back they are immediately smeared with a replacement coat of partly masticated foodstuffs.

So after a week of this, I figure the only way to manage the edible air traffic control in the dining area is to brave the chill and get the hell out.

Fortunately, the sanitary, public thoroughfares of the developed world are conducive to the recreational and safety requirements of young families, and there is a myriad of parks and public spaces to shoot for within a ten minute walk from Donkey HQ.

This was not the case for us a couple of months ago, when we were living in Samoa. There, the competing demands of poverty reduction, health care and a selective, user-pays education system selfishly consume government attention and public spending to the detriment of safe, public play equipment, leaving Hambones with little more to enjoy in his recreation time than a plastic bottle full of rice to shake, shake, shake.

But here in the land of milk and honey, where there is just too much money floating around to know what to do with (Heaven forbid that we'd ever put it towards a public health system!), one not only has a myriad of play options to choose from, but you can be sure that each one has a range of equipment that meets as many safety standards as it has won international industrial design awards. Hang the expense! - it's the safety ratings that are all important, especially given that the equipment is provided by local governments hell-bent on re-election and the avoidance of childhood injury compensation payouts. These multi-coloured, plastic pleasure palaces are so safe that you won't find a right-angle within 50 metres of them!

What you will find, however, are truly unique constructions erected on small green patches dotted across the urban landscape, and these are great for kids in most respects, except that they are all so incredibly Freudian; each piece of equipment resembles some kind of body part or function. Take that long, purple slide over there [womb], or those pendulous swings [breasts], or that weird, red plastic ring on rusting rollers that squeals when rotated [a giant sphincter after last night's dodgy curry] or that massive, purple and blue rocket [penis] or that dark, red, ominous-looking tunnel...

This is all well and good – I mean, no small child's ever going to notice, right? But it's not so much what the equipment resembles, but what they make some people do that's the problem. Take yesterday morning, for example. Hambones was driving me crazy with the Great Breakfast Tornado, so off we went into the bitter morning in search of a playground on which he could run it all out of his system. As we approached one of our favourite little haunts, the extra litter strewn around the place didn't register with me, as it's not uncommon for a few empty cans of rocket fuel to be discarded by the regular midnight teenage bingers.

So over to the playground we went, and I am just about to put Hambones into his favourite, yellow-swirly-cup-thing which, now that I think about it, looks suspiciously like a toilet bowl. I reached in to remove some paper from its innards when I noticed that the aforementioned litter all over the ground was white ... and brown. Bog roll! ... and ... urgh, Maaaaaaan!

That's right. Someone had taken a massive dump in the yellow-swirly-cup-thing-which-looks-suspiciously-like-a-toilet-bowl. One might immediately suspect the midnight teenage bingers, except that the evidence of toilet paper everywhere suggested that this had been no accident - no unfortunate octogenarian with irritable bowel syndrome accosted by urgent pains while taking a nocturnal constitutional around the park - but rather a pre-meditated act of defecation!

And I'll tell you something else for nothing. It is not easy to stop a curious Little Hambones when he's set his mind to picking-up an unusual-looking piece of litter!

My sharing this little story with you has been inspired by a similar one I read over at Burb Central. Clearly this is not an isolated incident, and yet, there is hardly a peek from the media concerning this most concerning issue. While travelling recently, I was accosted by a hotel cook demanding to know why Melbournians hate Indians enough to want to injure and maim them (he'd been reading all about it in the Indian press) and I have heard that news of late night, alcohol-fuelled violence outside Melbourne's nightclubs has reached the genteel folk of Sacramento, California.

So how is it that the international media can be all over these minority stories and painting them as typically Melbourne, while not one media commentator has even touched-on the out-of-control public pooing escapades occurring en masse during the dark hours across suburban Melbourne? Looking for an election issue to get people interested in State politics? There it is right there - certainly puts a new slant on the term, 'smear campaign'.

Did I not mention that the yellow-swirly-cup-thing looks suspiciously like a toilet bowl? Pic: Hagas

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Churning and burning: tales of human butter, politics and religion

Know any good Kora stories?
I know a few stories; whether or not you think they’re any good might depend on your social or political point of view, but let’s see what you reckon.
First though, perhaps I should have a stab at enlightening those who are a bit lost.
The Kora.
A Kora is the circuit around a place, building or thing of Buddhist religious significance, which the faithful circumnavigate in a clockwise direction, as an act of spiritual devotion and cleansing. This thing can be a religious artefact, a religious building such as a temple or shrine, or even a natural place of spiritual and/or historical significance, such as a tree, rock or spring.
In Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, the most significant religious shrine is the imposing, Jokhang Temple; a huge, squat structure, perhaps the city’s oldest remaining building, lying slap in the middle of the city which has grown, fallen, been re-built, razed and re-built around it for centuries.
For over a thousand years, beneath the gilt spires and statues adorning the roof of the old temple, the complex has expanded from its original size to house the growing legions of monks and novices who came from all over Asia, from as far away as Bangladesh to the south and Mongolia in the far north-east, to live and learn from the great gurus and lamas, and it now occupies a space of roughly a square kilometre.
Sadly, the once-thriving monastic community within those metres-thick walls seems rather lack-lustre these days, but this is in tremendous contrast to the tides of humanity which circle the complex every day, lighting incense, murmuring their prayers, fingering their beads and leaving offerings for good fortune in this life and the next.
The narrow streets surrounding the Jokhang mark the Kora, along which a rushing torrent of furry-hatted and coated pilgrims, adorned with jewels in their hair, ears and belts, and regularly with babies lashed to their backs, work their way around the great walls. The unsuspecting, curious tourist needs to be careful as s/he manoeuvres for a closer look, as the rushing masses, from dawn to dusk, can literally sweep you off your feet.
Kora Story 1: The back-breaking road to Lhasa.
If you’re lucky enough to scam a permit which allows you to see something of Tibet other than Lhasa, your mind will be opened to vast skies; friendly (although very dirty) faces; unwavering, humbling hospitality; spectacular, high altitude vistas and a people with an almost super-natural commitment to their faith.
The latter can be viewed amongst the hundreds of pilgrims visiting any of the thousands of shrines, chapels and temples dotting the plains, mountains and gorges of the Tibetan plateau. But the most extraordinary demonstration of this devotion can be witnessed along the main highways within two or three days drive from the capital. Here you will see small groups of Tibetans ranging in age and demographic, from buff young men, to wrinkled, gnarled, stooped old women, making a very special pilgrimage to Lhasa.
For weeks they will make the journey on foot, through shrieking mountain passes, deep, frozen valleys and across dusty, rocky plains. And if the blasting, high-altitude sun is not enough of an impediment to their progress, consider that after every three steps, they raise their hands above their heads in prayer, drop down upon their knees, then lie flat on their stomaches with their hands still raised above their heads, before climbing back to their feet for another three steps!
One sees these pilgrims, covered in the filth and dirt of the land, sometimes with wooden paddles on their hands to save their bloodied palms, moving slowly along the shoulder of the highway as they make this agonising, exhausting devotion to their faith; each prostration taking them slightly closer to the blessings they will receive from the holy temples of Lhasa.
And so they go, surely with every muscle and sinew in their frail bodies shrieking to the highest heavens, until they reach their destination in the city, where they will circumnavigate the major shrines, three times each, maintaining their excruciating devotions with every third step. Their commitment is remarkable, and valued by all; the regular pilgrims undertaking their daily Kora take extreme care not to trample these revered folk mid-prostration.
But the weirdest thing for we outsiders, with our limited understanding of this ancient faith (and this amongst an enormous collection of very weird things), is that inside these most holy of temples, in which most pilgrims shuffle past the sacred icons and statues with a brief pause, and a murmured prayer at each, those who have taken the afore-mentioned, weeks-long, back-breaking journey (as distinguished by their being covered from head to toe in dirt and bloody gashes from their frequent clashes with the earth), literally run through the temples with barely a nod towards the most holies, before disappearing out the back door.
It’s quite remarkable – all the physical pain and torment they endure, not to mention the emotional toll their devotions must play upon them, in order to reach the holy shrines of Lhasa and complete their agonizing Koras, and they barely glance at the sacred relics on their way through the temples. Obviously, by the time they get inside, their work towards the next life is done, and they’re off for a much needed couple a’ dozen snorts of chang (fermented barley beer).
Kora Story 2: Taking the barnyard to church.
In addition to the sacred Kora surrounding the Jokhang Temple (known as the Barkhor), there is a much larger Kora which circles the other main, holy temples and monasteries of the old city. This Kora (known as the Lingkhor) marks the edge of what remains of Old Lhasa, and on the auspicious, fifteenth day of each month, it is not uncommon for the traffic to be ground to a halt by a flood of pilgrims rushing along the sidewalks and streets from as early as first light until dusk.
Now it’s hard enough to manage cycling along Lhasa’s streets when so many of the out-of-towner pilgrims know little of traffic rules and behaviours, so spare some sympathy for those of us trying to get to work in the dim light on a dark, icy, mid-winter’s morning, and having to negotiate herds of sheep and goats who are being dragged along with the rest of the family for an enlightened blessing. Fifteen goat bells certainly make quite the mockery of one's handle-bar 'ting-a-ling', I can tell you!
Not that I suffer from bell envy...
Kora Story 3: Make yerselves right at home.
Did I mention that these Koras are a pretty big and holy deal amongst Tibetans? Yeah, I thought I did. In fact, the Old City, which is surrounded by the Lingkhor, is considered so holy, that in a city which boasts a thriving, broadly located commercial sex industry, the Old City contains virtually the only streets where sex is not sold.
Now I’ve mentioned my thoughts on the Global Circus before; how smelly, self-centred back-packers believe their aimless journeys can be re-packaged and marketed to the rest of the world as some kind of international quest for enlightened consciousness, and how they believe that their 'unique' behaviours and values are the envy and awe of all.
Well I am sorry, you dirty, hairy, singlet-wearing bogan slobs! But wandering through the crowded, narrow streets of Old Lhasa with your scantily clad girlfriends, while necking imported beer from large bottles is not endearing yourselves to the local populous. And I don't think you need so much as a smattering of Tibetan language to notice that those young, Tibetan men shrieking agitatedly at you are not wishing you well on your spiritual journey ... they are telling you, and none-too-politely, to fuck-off back to whatever savage shit-hole civilization you squirmed from!
Kora Story 4: Private eyes, are watchin' you.
Remember SARS? Remember all those pictures in the papers and footage on the evening news back in 2003 of Asian people getting around in face masks? Well enter the throng of folk making their way along the Jokhang's Barkhor on any given day, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the deadly virus is back!
Thankfully it's not for protection from a fatal disease that Tibetan women and men wear masks while conducting their circular, devotional journeys around the great temple. In winter, one could be forgiven for thinking that the masks are protecting their faces from the extreme Tibetan cold, but when the masks are out and proud on a twenty-five degree (Celsius) summer's day, you know there's some other reason for it.
And that reason lies in a Tibet Government decree that workers in the public service are forbidden from engaging in rituals of Tibetan Buddhism (like climbing sacred mountains, burning incense or completing a Kora); to do so can result in severe reprimand and possible dismissal.
But the good news for those Tibetans unwilling (or unable) to denounce their faith is that it is very hard to distinguish the identity of a single, masked figure amongst a hundred others when viewed through the public security infrared closed-circuit TV cameras mounted on walls every twenty metres along the Barkhor.
Kora Story 5: A grave disturbance in the Force.
Another reason for the masks might relate to a regular disturbance to the clockwise flow of pilgrims around the Jokhang Temple since March 2008, when extreme military might was 'let loose' on the populous to quell city-wide riots. Since that time, every devotional, prayer-mumbling pilgrim meandering along the Kora has had their forward-looking view blocked by the cold, menacing stares of armed troops circling the same route in a most-unholy (and potentially insulting), counter-clockwise direction.
These hard, young soldiers make it their mission to stare-down the devotees through their riot shields, ostensibly to ensure that none of them (comprising mostly gnarled and stooped old people, children, nomadic graziers, rural farmers and labourers) don't rise up to disturb the peace of Lhasa's streets.
Armed troops traverse the Jokhang Temple's Barkhor against the regular, holy flow of pilgrims. Can you spot the sniper?