Sunday, February 17, 2013
Say what you will of Western European nations as ruthless colonial oppressors and exploiters of some of the world’s most vulnerable people; indeed their legacy in many African, Southeast Asian and Pacific countries comprises physical and cultural displacement, racial and political power imbalance which frequently topples into bloody civil war, and economic ruin either through depletion, or forced signing-over of valuable natural resources.
But it’s not all bad. The Western Europeans may have been a bit heavy-handed on the governance side of things (and possibly a little discriminatory in their national view and treatment of their colonial citizens), but they did leave behind a commitment to fine dining which is truly a welcome aspect of occupational exile in some of the world’s far-flung locales.
While some colonial powers set fire and/or bombed fields, towns and livestock as they made hasty retreats ahead of angry, spear-wielding mobs of pro-independence activists in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the French chose instead to throw toasty, golden baguettes, flaming crepes suzette and sugar-crusted crème brulee in their wake. This seemed to do the trick in Vanuatu, as the satiated masses embraced this culinary legacy, and such delightful treats are available in every corner store, often at any time of the day or night.
Great news for Donkey in some respects, but not so great for the ol’ waste-line, as evidenced during a recent clothes shopping expedition with Mrs Donkey while on holiday back in Australia. Mrs D was in the change room trying on some little black cocktail number while Donkey stood outside the closed door, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible amongst the frilly lace and tiny bows of women’s lingerie hanging all about him (why do they put the change rooms amongst the lingerie?). As I stood stock still, embarrassingly avoiding aggressive, accusing eye contact from the other customers queuing to try on their garments, an attractive young sales assistant wandered-up behind me and enthusiastically asked when I was expecting.
That was it! As soon as I got back to Port Vila, things were going to change. No more hazelnut praline-filled baguettes for breakfast, no more pain au chocolat with chocolate ice cream and fudge on the side for morning tea, no more brie and bacon pies aux frites for lunch and definitely no more garlic snails followed by duck a l’orange for dinner. True to my commitment, my life since returning to Vanuatu has become a thrice daily monotony of breadless lettuce sandwiches washed down with a straight glass of tepid water (the temperature being conducive, so the diet gurus tell me, to more frequent bowel movement).
On top of this gruelling feeding regime, in order to both divert my attention from my groaning abdomen, and to try to shorten the period of time I shall be subject to this dietary boredom, I have also embarked on a sustained exercise program which I must grudgingly admit, is finally starting to yield results.
But the selection of an appropriate form of exercise was not an easy process in this country where the roads and traffic are not conducive to safe cycling, and where the forty-eight-degrees-in-the-shade summer heat renders traditional, vigorous exercise such as sit-ups and push ups completely out of the question (after a single lift, the sweat pouring off one’s body makes it impossible to get any purchase on the floor, and one is left floundering on one’s back like an up-turned tortoise).
The only option left was swimming … in this country with not a single serviced swimming pool greater than ten metres in length. I did give it a go, but after seventy-three strokes and as many tumble turns, I blacked-out from dizziness and had to be retrieved from the bottom by a burley construction worker and his heavy-duty crane with which he’d been laying building foundations nearby.
A week later, with the humiliation of front page local news behind me, I realised there was nothing for it; if I was going to lose this massive paunch, I was going to have to embrace the concept of living on an island, ignore all the horror stories and take to swimming in the ocean.
“What’s the big deal?” I thought to myself as I launched out from the sea wall one fine morning. All about me was a kaleidoscope of blooming coral formations and a menagerie of brightly coloured tropical fish. “This is fantastic … so peaceful. I should have done this months ago”. I pounded confidently out from the port and was still congratulating myself on having discovered this wonderful, submarine paradise which was going to turn me into a herculean specimen of manhood, when I suddenly came to my senses above a deep, blue, murky darkness.
I’d left the drop-off well behind and was now floating vulnerably above an abyss from which I imagined all manner of deep sea beasties zeroing-in on my fleshy white thighs. My panicked brain convinced me that if I was desperate enough, I might just manage to outswim a giant squid, great white or whale shark, and feeling pretty desperate at that point, I set to pounding back towards what I thought was home.
Of course, one’s sense of direction in open water is never an easy concept to grasp, nor is one’s ability to stroke strong and true when driven by sheer panic. In my desperation to get back to the reef, I was floundering like a harpooned killer whale (perhaps not a great analogy, given the circumstances), and heading in a completely different direction, towards the rocky headland at the opposite end of Port Vila harbour.
After a while, the forbidding black depths changed to a more palatable, murky blue, and I managed to reign in my debilitating terror. My stroke improved and before long I was powering along; back into that monotonous trance one gets from the relentless plodding of right arm, left arm…
right arm, left arm…
right arm (“Oh how nice, Angel fish”)…
left arm (“Wow, coral trout”)…
right arm (“Gee, that’s a big fish…”)…
left arm (“Aaaaaaargh!”).
Back in first year physiology, we learned about that basest of animal instincts, the ‘fight or flight’ response. When an animal senses danger, their body reflexively gears-up for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’; the options for success are weighed-up and the decision made by the creature’s very fibres at near supersonic speed. Obviously, ‘flight’ gets them out of danger, and ‘fight’ is the only alternative if the former is not possible. The body’s essential systems fire-up for the selected action, and all extraneous functions shut down to preserve energy.
How is it then, that when Donkey looks down to see a massive tiger shark swimming towards him, his body’s fight or flight response includes the immediate release of two malodourous, bulky, fright nuggets into his Speedos? How can that be fight or flight? For a start, the extra drag from this oozing pouch would surely slow my flight to a messy, mortal end, but even if I did manage to get the jump on my sinister predator, if sharks really can smell blood like they say, then he’d have no trouble tracking my stinky wake all the way to shore.
Stewing in my own mess, then, I resigned myself to meeting my maker, and with calm resolve, I turned to face my toothy assailant. It was then I noticed the horizontal, not vertical tail moving slowly up and down, and realised that rather than meeting my end in a bloody, mashy mess, I’d found myself with the rare privilege of an encounter with a peaceful dugong, slowly meandering along the sea bed, snuffling away at sea grass.
An hour later, I emerged from the sea before a crowd of alfresco diners tucking into breakfast in one of the town’s fashionable cafes. Although my life was intact, my dignity before the shocked crowd was sagging lower than the saddle of my laden Speedos.
Defeated and resigned to life as a fat bastard at that time, I now have Mrs Donkey to thank for helping me to get back in the water. She did so thanks to the wonders of modern technology, which have enabled me to strap on a waterproof iPod and crank up the volume of power ballads enough to distract me in the water from mortal fear. Now I churn along the coast three mornings a week to the spurring drums and guitar riffs of such fire-up classics as:
· Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger [shark],
· ELO’s Don't Bring Me Down [to the dark depths with your massive tentacles to chew off my head],
· Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water [Humph],
· Hunters and Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me [and get me out of this school of killer jelly fish],
· The Choirboys’ Run [for your freakin’ life here comes a manta ray] to Paradise, and of course
· Great White’s Once bitten, twice shy.
The distraction seems to have worked, and everyone’s happy. I’m happy because I look and feel great, and Mrs Donkey’s happy because she’s no longer getting around town with a pregnant hippo on her arm. But the happiest person of all is Ms Nicole, the unfortunate soul who is tasked with doing my laundry – as she’s told me in no uncertain terms, any day without having to scrub the gusset of my Speedos is definitely a good day!
The Western Europeans may not have been the most culturally sensitive of masters, but they certainly managed a mean chocolate dessert. Pic: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2012/12/11/belgian-court-rules-tintin-not-racist-just-gentle/