trapped…

There a war of sorts going on here in Thailand. Its an urban battle fought house by house, corner by corner, street by street. Every man, woman and child armed to the teeth, ready to engage.

Pickup trucks full of masked combatants prowl past the safety of the hostel windows. The wail of ambulances echo through the streets which are starting to fill again after an uneasy ceasefire overnight. 

Here in Chiang Mai today, shellshocked Chinese tour groups wander aimlessly – all colorful dazed and confused – dragging large clattering suitcases on wheels over the rough concrete roadways looking for escape much like a gaggle of geese crossing a busy freeway.

Don’t panic.

It’s Songkran 2017. Thailand’s New Year Water Festival celebrating the end of summer and the start of Wet season – and the largest shit water fight on the planet. 

The only way to survive is to submit.

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Songkran is a 4 day party where most Thais head home to their families and celebrate a New Year. Tourist (and drunken asshole) numbers swell unbearably. Many shops are closed but the bars are open late. Alcohol runs freely even as hostels run out of fresh water.

Seriously, Thais take this water festival concept to a whole new level of batshit crazy.

The Moat surrounding the Old City drops a foot from the water consumption as the streets and gutters run ankle deep wet from the water fights. 

High pressure water cannons, fire hoses, bathtubs and garbage bins, massive 44 gallon plastic drums of iced water, blow up swimming pools, large eskys – anything that will hold/throw water – line the streets and are set up on most street corners and traffic lights where a pedestrian, scooter or Songtaew must stop. Then the flouro-coloured cackling crazies descend and a watery battle ensues.

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Riding in a Songtheaw (red truck)? Tough luck. the driver will pull up at a corner/traffic light/roadside and let his passengers get completely ‘blurged’ (thats my new word of the day). 

Riding on a motorcycle? Too bad – you will cop a thorough ‘blurging’ at 60km per hour . It’s deadly but hilarious to watch .

Chaotic doesn’t adequately describe the level of dangerous mayhem.

The papers post a Songkran daily death tally – last year over 400 people died (mostly in Chiang Mai area) and over 2,500 people injured in traffic accidents directly related to Songkran celebrations.

This year’s stats are in and its not looking great (although deaths are down. Yay less death!).

Sobering, you would think . Nah. Each year it’s about the same.
In Chiang Mai the entire Old City Moat several kilometres around – both sides – is filled with little booths and stalls selling food, drinks, water pistols, plastic bags and hats as everyone tries to make a quick baht and have a good time.

Roadside stalls sell huge blocks of ice to make sure the water freezing cold.

All the alleys and side streets are covered. There is absolutely no escape.

And this shit happens all over the country!

Amazing.

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What to do?

Firstly – Pray to your Gods.

Secondly – Prepare.

So Day 1: (quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Phone wrapped in cheap plastic bag. Check

Quick dry t-shirt, shorts and sunglasses. Check.

Wallet and cash in a cheap plastic bag. Check.

I head out onto the packed streets with the aim of my usual walk from Nimman down to the Old City, around the moat and then back, just to see what the fuss was about. Usually takes about 90 minutes there and back.

A few steps out the door of the hostel I was hit in the face with a bucket of ice cold water – and this kept happening for pretty much the rest of the day.

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2 hours later I stumbled into the Starbucks at Thapae Gate and gave up. It wasn’t even 1/3 of the way. Sunbaked, crowdshocked and soaked to the skin in a fruity cocktail of warm green mucky moat water and freezing cold ice water, my inadequate plastic protections leaking and damp, and feeling ill from the gallon of green moat water that had been forced into my nose/mouth/ears.

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I lasted 5 hours on the unforgiving streets and then retreated to the hostel, slinking back through alleys like a gunshy dog. Unfortunately, my sleepy hostel Bed Addict – Nimman ( 350 baht/night, close to Maya, my beloved cinemas, vegan eateries and some cool coffee shops) had been invaded by a group of loud party hard American students that had trashed it like a college dorm room.

With no dry clothes and no escape, I was trapped in my hostel kitchen – the quietest place I could find. Outside, the artsy part of town had turned into a techno-pumping foam-partying disco-lit aqua-nightmare.

Add to that the several competing foam parties, massive dance parties, and a dude in a tuktuk with enormous WHOOMP WHOOMP speakers parked just outside my dorm window and my night did not improve.

The walls of the hostel were vibrating as was my head. I jammed in my earplugs and tried to tune everything out – the thought of engaging and going out into this nightmare was unappealing. I wasn’t here to party.

But I’d finally figured out the main problem – I was resisting.

———————–

So Day 2. (slightly less enthusiastic quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Recheck my attitude. The key? – gotta get involved.

Upgrade the plastic bags to waterproof cases for phone and wallet (on sale everywhere). Check

Get a cheaparse sunhat for 25 Baht. Check

Buy a kickarse water pistol. Check Check Check.

Fillup, lock and load.

Lasting 6 hours on Day 2, I had a much better time of it. The best advice is rather than fight it, just go with the flow. Accept that you will be wet and hot and cold and covered in white paste for hours on end. Its all in good spirits and is actually a ritual blessing, so feel free to return it as often and to as many people as possible.

The lovely Thai people will (mostly) respectfully splash you or gently anoint your face with white powder or paste, the kids will love a waterpistol fight, and the littlest kids will giggle and smile like angels (right up til the point that their older siblings sneak up behind you and dump ice water down your back – after which everyone bursts into hysterical laughter). It’s so much fun.

It gets trickier with the tourists though.

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Usually some screaming psychotic tourist (see example above) with a massively expensive water cannon will run up to you and blast you in the face, knocking your sunglasses off or half drowning you before yodelling off into the crowd. Best to steer clear if possible.

But if you are up for a water war, then there are plenty of other soldiers here that will accommodate you.

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Day 3. Flick to Saturday morning and its an uneasy ceasefire – the celebrations are winding down but the odd water-pistol bearing straggler refuses to let go. Its still impossible to rent a scooter in this city as there are so many tourists, but the traffic to the airport is increasing as the tourists vacate.

The crowds are still there though and accommodation still hard to find. The mood is high but the celebrations are winding down from crazyassed to an almost manageable level.

*Still no sleep as the partying Americans have been replaced by partying Chinese students.

Day 4. Ahhh better. Now is the time to hit the Sunday Walking Markets, chill and explore the spiritual side of the festival as the craziness abates, with early morning happenings at the 50 or so temples around town, or better still up on Doi Suthep peacefully overlooking the city.

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Songkran 2018 – it was so much crazy fun, but next year remind me to be on top of a tall mountain, anywhere but here.

P.S

*so tired today I rinsed my glass in a sink and then drank a glass of tapwater today without thinking. Lets see how that goes.

**written over the 4 day festival but finished on Monday morning after no sleep for 3 days and totally stressed out by the frenetic pace of the holiday weekend.

***reminder to self  – never do this again.

time machine 2…

… it seemed a hundred years had passed since I’d heard the first whale blow and every nerve ending in my body was sparkling. Soaked in adrenaline, buzzed on nicotine and cocooned in a humming halo of nervous energy, my monkey brain overloaded – ‘eeeep!’ – then shut down.

Fight, flight or freeze.

I froze: hands glued to the rail, body completely locked in place, scanning the deep night for any signs of movement. Anything at all. Nothing stirred. Nothing.

The world held its breath.

‘WHOoosh’… 

This was really happening!

The forgotten cigarette burned my fingers, shifting focus. Suddenly free, I flicked the butt into the Canal (sorry guys) turned and bolted into the cabin like a wild-eyed child on Christmas morning. Knocking frantically on the bathroom door…”Jen,Jen,Jen,Jen,Jen….the whales are back!….the whales are back!…”. Running back out onto the deck.

She followed me out a thousand years later, wrapped up in pyjamas and towel against the cold. We stood together close by the low deck rail, staring out into the night.

More whales sounded, much closer than before.

At least 4, scattered out across the entrance to our little cove no more than a few hundred meters away.

But weird behavior. What’s going on here? They weren’t just on the way through. Something was up.

We could clearly hear their vocalisations as the Orca spoke to each other: the ‘whapping’ of finslaps, high pitched warbling whistles and deep rumbling vibrations.

They seemed to be coordinating and changing their locations, out in the black water no more than 100 meters away.

“A little bit to the left, a little bit to the right…come closer…yeah that’s it” in Orca-talk.

It finally dawned on us what was happening.

‘My God, they’re hunting!’

It made sense. There were several harbor seals that lived in and around our little Calm Cove. At night they slept on the floating pontoons and under the docks that were scattered around the canal. 

The whales hunted these seals, and years before had wiped out most of the local seal population in a destructive orgy of blood, guts and fur close to Robin Hood resort in Union. Herded them into shore and massacred them all. It is spoken of in awed whispers by the locals apparently.

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The few seals left were the smart ones.

I moved over and put my arms around Jen, lost in the moment, forgetting. When the whales were whistling to each other, I whistled back, trying to emulate the sound.

“If you must hold me, at least be quiet”.

Ouch.

The pod had positioned themselves around the entrance to the tiny cove.  It seemed they were forming a loose cordon  – a net – with the aim of driving whatever prey out of their hiding places and close to shore.

Once in place, the 4 whales began to close up  – sonic ghosts, the only sign of their presence now being finslap splashes and their haunting vocalisations as they maneuvered out in the black.

Then they stopped, falling silent again.

For a minute or so, all was quiet save for the soft lapping of the wavelets against the deck supports below.

We looked to each other. “Now what?”

Then, far out towards the middle of the canal…

…’WHOoosh’

There was a 5th whale.

It passed through the cordon of Orca and entered the cove. The only physical sign a subtle warping of the reflected streetlights – a swell and surge breaking the amber ripples of light as something massive but invisible passed silently beneath. It began to slowly sweep across the cove from one side to the other and then back.

A sudden dread enveloped me. Gone was the wonder, replaced by a primitive irrational fearfulness. I knew it was larger than the others by the sheer menace of the thing. It radiated danger.

Now it was coming closer to us and the deep waters edge. Unseen. Impossibly close. Once, twice, three times it moved across the cove, closer and closer with each pass.

Directly below us lay black, freezing water that at high tide we could bend down and touch at arms length. Just ahead, barely illuminated by the low voltage Christmas lights on the cabin, bobbed a series of buoys about 20 meters out – where the neighbor usually moors his jetskis and canoes.

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Halfway to the closest buoy in the rusty pool of light, the black surface surged upwards.

Completely silent save for tiny tinkling splashes of water, the tip of a black curved fin broke the surface with barely a ripple  – up and up and up it came. Massively tall. Improbably close. A gleaming obsidian blade followed in slow motion by the glistening head and curved back of this enormous predator.

I felt my heart tear as this wonder emerged from the invisible, rising silently in the semicircle of light before us.

“WHOooosh”… a shower of misty silver, tinkling tiny splashes.

It checked us out. I’m sure I felt its dismissive gaze pass over us – the boring little monkeys standing huddled and frozen up on the deck.

And then it was simply gone. Slipping quietly back under the surface with nothing to mark its passing but the oilslick swirl of the icy water.

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.

…………………….

After the bull had swept the cove, the pod became chatty again, and one by one moved off around the point to the next cove along. It was obvious now that they were systematically working their way down though each cove searching for food.

We never saw the other Orca – only what I’m assuming was the big male.

As they moved around the point to the left, their slaps, blows, chirps and whistles became fainter and fainter until finally we couldn’t hear them any more.

After a few minutes, the world around us exhaled and came back to life.

A seal barked loudly just off to our right, scaring the crap out of us both and breaking the spell. We jumped and laughed – that was the luckiest seal in the world tonight.

It splashed into the water and got the Hell out of there as fast as it could swim, heading in the opposite direction to the pod.

……………………

So why am I sharing this…

Well for one thing, these stories would eventually be lost unless I write them down.

I spend a lot of time in this memory and I love the physical and emotional sensations it evokes. Even writing this today has the hairs on my neck standing up and I’m buzzing. 

Secondly, one simple comment recalled now speaks volumes.

“If you must hold me, at least be quiet”.

Who says something like that?

Seriously.

That shitty recollection popped randomly into my head the other day as I was going through some pictures from last year. 

This time it didn’t sting – it just made me a little sad.

Scientists and Romantics simply don’t play well together I guess. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

time machine…

Few positive events in your life burn themselves into your minds eye so deeply that whenever you return to that moment, your body immediately reacts – chemically, viscerally : your heart races, your breath catches in your throat, nerves tingle -racing up and down your spine. Even the tiniest hairs on your body prickle into goosebumps like you’ve been caught outdoors naked in monstrous electrical storm.

You are there, transported.

It’s actually a post traumatic stress reaction, in a way. One that is not debilitating but can be addictive. Taking pleasure in past experience to escape the present. Trauma doesn’t have to be ‘bad’ to have a lasting effect, I guess. 

Hmm…discuss.

I’ve been living in the past a little bit lately, purposefully re-examining some events with the benefit of a year’s emotional distance.

OK. Stay with me. I aim to wander.

Flip back to mid May last year. 

One of the highlights of last May was getting to watch a pod of killer whales transit the Hood Canal near Union WA – followed by a flotilla of small water craft. The pod were virtually chased out of the area by excited locals. There hadnt been a pod here for years.  But Killer whales! Man!

I was staying with my ex gf at their family’s cabin on the Canal at Union.  Oysters, whales, seals, forests, mountains…luckiest guy in the world no doubt. 

Beautiful place. 

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I didn’t know it at the time but the relationship was winding down – she was heading in another direction, I was definitely in denial. Maybe I wasn’t. That’s a longer story for another time.

Anyway…

Jen had a job interview in Portland as an archaeologist for one of the big Utility companies; an unexpectedly awesome opportunity and everyone was excited for her.  I’d gone with Jen for support (and shopping) and we’d stayed in Portland overnight. After spending the day shopping, the evening apart and staying in separate hotels (she needed to prepare) it was an odd night. The next day as it turned out the Interview had gone well, and she was elated. We decided to do a road trip out to Eastern Washington where she had gone to college, lived and worked for a time. Explore more of her past. Long story short, I met more of her friends and saw even more of her WA life than before.

To be honest the trip confused the Hell out of me, but I got see see where they filmed Northern Exposure (Roslyn) and Twin Peaks (Snoqualmie, North Bend…coffee and Damn fine Cherry Pie at Twede’s cafe) so, you know : swings and roundabouts.

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Anyway…

We’d gotten back after our weird 3 day road trip, talked our asses off and our issues to death, endured the awkward silences that followed, but ultimately had a good time. We visited her parents in Shelton on the way back through. Then it was late and we were heading back to the cabin.

Still with me? I’m setting the mood here hopefully.

It was past 11pm when we got out to Union.

The canal was moonless dark, winters day cold and unusually silent. Apart from the odd barking of a seal and the distant “shHHhh” of a passing car, it was graveyard-still. 

As we were in a little cove, so the road curled around the waters edge, following the shoreline. The streetlights threw long rippling shafts of soft amber light out along the surface of the black water – delicate grasping fingers that reached blindly out into the darkness. A mile away on the other side, the scene was a perfect mirror – distant pinpoints of houselights, rippling reflections, softly glowing streetlights, and silence.

Jen went inside and jumped in the shower. I stood out on the deck and rolled a cigarette, contemplating the Universe and marveling at the night.

I leaned on the deck rail and took a drag of the cigarette, enjoying the nicotine buzz. Pale smoke curled out over the low deck railing down to the dark water lapping a few feet below.

…now: take a single big breath, hold it. Purse your lips, and exhale forcefully, push all your breath out at once…

‘WOOoosh…’

Soft. Sounding like it was a million miles away but crystal clear in the night air, the deep sound whispered across the canal…

Did I imagine that? What the Hell was it?

I couldn’t see a thing in the inky darkness so I froze – held my breath and waited.
It came again. Closer this time.

‘WOOoosh…’

A massive exhale, followed by the tiniest series of tinkling splashes. Another, further to the right. then another even further along. Right out in the middle of the canal but definitely coming closer.

The hairs on my neck stood up.

I forgot to breathe.

Oh my GOD!

The whales are back…

tbc

 

 

 

 

 

re-entry…

So I’m back at work now. You can imagine my excitement.

Back in Dubbo, Australia now for 10 days, spending the last 5 days locked in an office, glued to a phone and computer, staring out a distant window at the sunlight, wishing I was somewhere else. Its ‘Luke Skywalker Syndrome’ at its worst and it’s easy as my office walls are now lined with new travel photos – a quick glance left takes me away to the forests of Olympic National Park and a distant view of Mt Rainier, a bit further takes me diving in Koh Phangan, to my teacher training class in Bali, or the Giza pyramids, or to Carthage.

I’ve led a charmed life this year no doubt about it.

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Now that’s in the past.

Settling back into Dubbo hasn’t been a lot of fun – the numbness and “dead inside” feeling has persisted and the episodic disconnection (almost disassociative at times) is still present but slowly waning. I’m getting out and about, getting as physical as I can on my current prepayday budget. I haven’t wanted to settle back in though, avoiding people and doing my own thing as usual. Walking a lot as I can’t sit still (the restlessness persists and as you know stillness is always an issue). There’s like a constant pressure in my head that I’m attributing to the instant onset of extreme hayfever (yes that a real thing  – there have been people dropping dead of asthma in Melbourne over the past few weeks).

The water here tastes like mud (algae in the river water we drink apparently), the dry heat and hard water has turned my skin to flaky crap and my hair to a dandruffy hair helmet, but the clear blue skies and sunsets in the evenings have made everything worth it.

Almost.

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In the grand scheme of things though, I can’t complain. Decent job, great money, good conditions, new work car (hopefully flame proof after the last one), semi-autonomous and self managing to a large degree. I work alone in a regional area of New South Wales, my immediate supervisor (now retired) is a 3 hour drive away, my team Manager 6 hours, the remainder of my team spread all over New South Wales. Perfect.

Almost.

You might recall that I mentioned that nothing had changed here in the past year. Well that holds true for work as well.

Starting back last Monday, a few people were surprised but most were welcoming (It was a sad day as a colleagues’ son had committed suicide over the weekend so the mood was low). I wasn’t expecting a parade but people passed by in the corridor, a few remarked that they hadn’t even realised I’d been gone.

Nice.

Walking back into my office after 11 months I expected at least SOMETHING to be different. But nothing was (except someone had stolen my 2 x new 22″ monitors and had replaced them with shitty old ones).

I settled back in, checked the few emails filtering in from colleagues who finally realised I was back, and then started catching up on mandatory training that been missed  – online talking head videos about terrorism or radicalisation or somesuch “fear fear fear warning warning warning’ nonsense –  (I suppose to be fair one of our own colleagues had been assassinated/shot point blank right outside the front door of Headquarters last year so a little paranoia is to be expected).

After a few calls from my colleagues, I was again getting drawn into the same corporate bullshit, the infighting and office politics that I’d been happy to leave in the dust. All the same personalities involved, their low morale, negativity and backstabbing once again hurled at me as the corporate factions struggled to find support and numbers. Tiresome and sickening but not entirely unexpected. I usually try to stay above it but sometimes its hard when it catches you off guard and it finds a way in.

It was then I started to feel the psychological load building again as all these familiar things reasserted control over my mind and began manifesting in my body. Pain free for the past 12 months, in this 2 day period things started to happen again. The crunchy shoulder muscles, the hypertension, irritability and anxiety. The shoulder and neck pain came back in 1 day. By Day 2, the tingling in the fingertips and wrists started up again, and lower back pain started to fire up. These things had spilled over and caused Hell  in my personal life and even in the first few weeks of my holiday, had caused aching pain and a lot of discomfort from sitting (especially touring around in Jen’s little 4WD for 3 weeks)

Usually I’d just go and stretch, chillax for a bit but ultimately put up with it. But “Bugger this” I thought – my health is important to me now – and got the local Workplace Health and Safety manager to come in and check out my office equipment. Sure enough, he measured and tested and moved things around, eventually ruling that every single piece of office furniture and equipment I’d been using for the past 4 years was totally unsuitable, too small , or needed changing out.

SO – now I have a standup desk! (at least temporarily)  – IT’S THE BEST THING EVER…and it’s gone a long way already to stop the aches and pains.

Short story is I’m doing ok. It’s not all doom and gloom.

Daily, I’m examining and reframing all the negative thinking, watching my mind, meditating and breathing purposefully. Flicking my gaze to next year while staying rooted in the present. Its a skill for life : less crystal ball gazing and more staying open to opportunity, but luckily I have some amazing friends in other countries that are still traveling and they are keeping me level – <Shaye, Megan, Kate, Anna, Megs, Christina, Connie, Bronnie especially> – if it wasn’t for the support of these guys (albeit remotely) I’d be a real mess.

The tiny OCD part of me still needs a plan ABC to settle down though.

So plan B is off to Bali in February to complete another 2 modules in the Svastha Yoga Therapy program. It’s something I really want to finish and after Bali there’s only 2 more modules to go and I’m certified.

Oh and I’m learning French! – met with a local tutor and shes going to help me over the next 5 months. There’s a plan bubbling away in my head to use Language study to travel the world – get an education visa for a year, study at a language school, move on. French first, then Thai in Thailand or Arabic in Tunisia at Bourguiba Language School.

It’s my plan C if the USA goes up in flames with Trump in control. (Did I mention I’m moving to the US next year?)

Next week brings Doctors visits, assessments and some work related travel to Bourke, Brewarrina, and probably Walgett. Today, I’m enjoying the Sunday sunshine, a decent coffee or two at Dahab Cafe, my new Jack Reacher novel and then who knows what the future may bring.

 

homecoming…

I’m back where I started 11 months ago and the only thing that’s changed is me.

Leaving Chiang Mai on Monday was just another flight, just another airport and I guess didn’t really even register as a “this is over” moment as far as my travels for 2016 was concerned. I’d tried not to dwell on it but the shadow of real life was a threatening figure looming over my sometimes forced positivity.

Fake it til you make it, remember?

So my AirAsia X plane out of Chiang Mai was 3.5 hours late, which gave me about 15 minutes to make my connection to Sydney at Kuala Lumpur International – just enough time to run to thru the transfer hall, 2 security checkpoints, and quite literally to the opposite end of the terminal. I made it without breaking a sweat. Settling into my economy seat, surrounded by young families and crying babies, it occurred to me how lucky that I made the plane. It also dawned that there was no way my bag would and so I had a 7 hour flight to prepare myself for the inevitable.

Arrival in Australia was a bleary, early morning red-eye experience as I was jolted awake by a dazzling dawn over Lake Ayre and its tributaries, which was either full of water or deathly dry (I couldn’t tell), reflecting the early morning sunlight and melting my corneas as I yawned and glanced out the window.

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Drifting in and out of snooze mode, I was aware of the aircraft coming to life around me but tried to imagine I was elsewhere – back in Chiang Dao listening to the morning rain, or in Tunis listening to the 5am call to prayer. Here the 5am call was a crying baby and a hawking cough from my neighbor. 

Something inside me was off but I didn’t catch it at the time. 

Flying in over Sydney I usually get a patriotic buzz about seeing tiny Botany Bay, the miniature Harbour Bridge and the toy Opera House sweeping by, but this time it left me cold. Flat. Nothing was coming through and I was completely numb. 

“Weird” I thought, gazing out at the city below and wrote it off to lack of sleep. Sydney grew larger and more substantial, until finally the wheels hit tarmac and with an anticlimactic puff of smoke I was back.

Sydney Airport was as bad as I’d remembered – expansive, crowded, unfriendly; efficient but largely uninteresting. Smiling photoshopped Australians glared at me from the advertising posters, inviting me to come and swim with dolphins, or climb a mountain. Customer service, politeness and good manners vanished. Anonymous Uniforms yelled rudely at people.  Airport security, black domed cameras and warning signs were everywhere. “Don’t do this – Don’t do that. Don’t stand here. Warning Warning Warning. Fear, Fear, Fear…The terrorists are coming”.  I could already feel the doeskin jackboots of fear and oppression that New South Wales wears proudly pressing down on my throat and chest.

Why so much paranoia? So many rules and regulations? After the freedoms of the road, this was becoming stifling already.

As some aussie ex-pat army guy told me in a dentists waiting room in Thailand a while back,  “We are a nation of laws and need all this to safeguard ourselves from the terrorists.”

No dude sorry Australia isn’t a “nation of laws”, that’s stolen from America and you are confused. Australia seems to becoming a backward nation of ignorant, drunken, racist fools masquerading as “aussie larrikins”, of slow expensive internet, extraordinary taxation, human rights abuses, poverty, homelessness, corruption,  overpriced real estate, and rubbish overrated food. Of course I didn’t actually SAY this to him – but I thought it at him real hard while smiling politely and trying to disengage.

Fingers crossed, I waited in the baggage area for my backpack. Who knew? I might have gotten lucky and the bag made it. A waify Japanese lady had the gall to take out her phone in the baggage claim area and a pompous slicked-back-hair uniformed guy (who could’nt even be bothered to go over to her or check that she spoke English) screamed at her across the hall to “put the phone down” like it was an automatic weapon or a knife and he was Supercop. She of course ignored him which further fueled his rage, and so the saga continued.So rude and unnecessary.  The carousel stopped, the passengers for the next flight started arriving. Still my bag didn’t appear.

Dang it.

Naturally the airline had lost my bag somewhere between Chiang Mai and Sydney.

After 11 months of travel through countless dodgy airports and several dangerous countries, it took an Australian crew to lose my bag.

Coming in through Immigration/Customs was easy (electronic passports make it a 5 minute thing) after which I had to do the mandatory “lost my bag” reporting at a desk where the Aussie “larrikin” (who couldn’t be bothered to tuck in his shirt or brush his hair) barely smiled, nor glanced at me or even said “G’day Mate”.

So feeling strangely calm – numb – I wandered through the airport, caught a train into Central Station, and listened to the sudden clutter of English conversation that invaded my headspace. It’s amazing how much you tune in and out to other peoples conversations. The luxury of not hearing English spoken everywhere was gone and the Aussie accent was like a powerdrill boring painfully into my brain.

It still didn’t feel real. I was in a homecoming state of denial and culture shock.

Of course Sydney started picking my pockets immediately : $20 for an Opel card, $4 train fares, $3 for bottled water, 2 bananas and a takeaway coffee $10. My last $100 was disappearing fast. 

I picked a dirty cheaparse hostel ($34 a night) close to Central, went into Police Headquarters in Parramatta to pick up some gear for work next week (meeting my new managers and doing some schmooze groundwork for my return to work)  and then wandered into the city to meet my good friend Kate for a drink at some inner city bars.

Walking between the bars I realised how pretty Sydney can be, especially at night. This time of year is lovely and for a change the city didn’t disgust me. It was a fun way to end the evening but after 3 drinks  ( $30+ – thanks Kate) I was slightly hammered.

The next morning, after stepping over a few random backpackers on the hostel floor, a 7.18am (what an odd time) train to Dubbo – 6 hours – would give me time to reframe all the negativity that I’d been projecting over the last 24 hours. It was time well spent.

Some meditation, reframing, read my books, peace. ahhh.

6 hours later.

Alighting from the train at Dubbo train station just after lunch was very, very strange.

As I walked down to Church Street Cafe to get my regular Americano, nothing had changed:  the streets, the smells, the sounds –  all instantly familiar. Little gangs of aboriginal kids roamed the streets on bikes and scooters, a few scattered drunks were camped under the shady trees in Victora Park, a young kid called me a “white cunt” before I’d even made it to the main street.

Ahhh. Now it felt real. Too real.

It was like the past year hadn’t happened.

I bumped into many people I knew and they seemed genuinely happy to see me, which was a welcome surprise and helped. But I’m struggling. Everything reminds me of Jen here. So far, at least. I wasn’t expecting it to hurt so much. The last few years came flooding back. The house, walking past Jens old work, then my workplace, my normal walking path home. Magpies. Jasmine. Hayfever. Cats Eye burrs and stickers, familiar and painful. Sorting through all this and discarding what will hurt the most is going to be hard. It was good to see the housemates though and the weather is great.

I went to see Mum in the Hi Care facility and she recognised me at least, but the dementia now has upped its game and robbed her of coherent speech – her tongue is constantly flicking in and our making everything messy – communication is hard but I think she understood I was back.

Coming back has been harder than I’d imagined and I’d drank myself to sleep last night with the last of my duty free Jamesons, feeling adrift in the world.

This feeling is still with me today, and its Thursday. A deep detachment and numbness that I can’t shake. I don’t belong here.

I know now that this place isn’t my home, Dubbo and Australia.

I am not where I’m supposed to be.

This isn’t a homecoming: its just another stage of a larger journey I’d never realised I was on.

Early days yet I guess. Lets see how work goes on Monday.

 

**airline found my bag!!!!! shipping it to Dubbo from KL “in a few days”. Fingers crossed eh?

 

 

…Far far away!

I’m at a turning point in this trip. Bingo funds.

Push on or turn back but as my Dad always said “It’s bad luck to turn back”.

Leaving the chaos of Cairo far behind, I was heading for Morocco for my birthday. Megan was staying in Cairo, D’ had gone home and it was time to go.

Iris my Californian patents lawyer/Star Wars geek travel bud had just visited some original sets in Tunisia before heading off with her Tinder “boys” into the Balkans. She had planted the seed in my brain however for a small detour on the way to Marrakech.

So I booked the flight and landed in Tunisia – a place apparently scary and very dangerous according to our governments website.

Firstly – what a load of fear mongering crap.  I’ve felt more in danger walking down the Main Street of Dubbo at 3am.

FU travel warnings.

*there ARE a shit ton of heavily armed police, national guard and take-no-bullshit military units around with full body armor, big arse truck mounted machine guns, and tanks but hey…that only spells security to me.

Landing in Tunis a few weeks ago was like emerging into a virtual paradise.

Immigration? Smashed it.  Pssst… you are Australian… NO VISA! Welcome!! Wtf?…then 3 steps out of immigration … Pssst… wanna free Orange SIM card? HERE!…just 20 dinar ($11AUD) gets 3gig data and unlimited calls for 30 days…want to top it up now?… Hell YEAH 🙂

Then I stepped outside. Huh? No scammers or sellers? No garbage? Fresh air? No pollution? No crowds? No traffic?

So this is Tunis? But its all so…so clean and so…so quiet? Am I really in North Africa?

Am I lucid dreaming?

Ok the airport taxis were tricky and I only got a tiny bit ripped off  but lesson learned. The lesson is ignore the taxis and the predatory taxi touts, walk out of the airport case park to the road and hail a cab off the street (with a red window light – green means booked), check he turns the meter on and the rate is correct  (1 usually, after 9pm the rate 2 surcharge starts). Typically airport to the French Embassy in town is under 5 dinars as a benchmark…and off you go.

I’d “Plan B”‘d (yes go on…giggle those that know me) the accommodation as the hostel appeared to vanish after my booking and never returned any calls, answered emails or even their phone. Even by their own admission were hard to find AND they advised never walk in the Medina after dark as it was too dangerous.  So in the 11th hour with not even a booking response I went to Plan B.

Plan B was the best thing ever – an Airbnb with a lovely local lady with some amazing housemates – staying up and letting me in after wandering around the Medina at midnight like a lost lamb.

And so, disheveled and slightly in shock, I met Hasna (eventually), Arianna (+ Dino), and Diana – three amazing Tunisian, Italian and Moldovan women studying and working in Tunis that allowed me to share their home for the initial 3 day trip that’s turned into 3 weeks so far and counting.

Arianna was studying Law here for a little while, and Diana had just arrived a few days earlier but was itching to explore the city.  Day 1 was explore day for me so Diana and I set off and began losing ourselves first in the Medina, then Carthage, swimming in the Mediterranean, then the city at large.

Here to study Arabic and already fluent in several languages (including French and Arabic), she was awaiting her partner to arrive and was the perfect travelling companion to ease me into a completely alien Arabic/french speaking Muslim country. I unashamedly picked her brain to help me get oriented and comfortable with some basic French and Arabic.

We also accidentally broke into the Carthage site via “a secret way” but that’s another story.

**note : ALWAYS explore a hole in a fence, especially the one near the roundabout overlook at the base of the site…shhh

We dove into a local Couchsurfing group meeting and met so many friendly and open people who just welcomed us into their fold.

So much so we ended up on a 2 day camping and hiking weekend with about 30 of them way out west near the Algerian border where we endured endless border patrol and police checkpoints but man oh man, was it worth it.

Best birthday memories made so far in Tunisia:

  • spending my birthday weekend hiking into incredible terrain and traveling with a joyous bunch of Tunisian/Egyptian people:  campfires, singing folk songs, dancing and enjoying life well into the night
  • getting more than a little paranoid by being mega close to the Algerian border then getting surrounded and followed in a dodgy border town by the ubiquitous white Toyota trucks that we know all the terrorists drive.
  • driving through each border town with M.I.A “Paper Planes” on repeat,  blaring out the windows and laughing our heads off at all the white trucks. It became our anthem for the trip
  • Meeting and making many new friends.

But SO much better then sitting alone in a bar in Casablanca and proceeding like I’d originally planned.

*Plus waking up with sticky notes all over the house just totally made my day 🙂

There’s so much to see and do in this small but historically rich country.

It’s been a wild few weeks so far.

*breaking in to and exploring historical archaeological sites at Carthage and Sidi Bousaid.

* wandering the Bardo Museum marveling at the mosaics and weeping at the bullet holes.

*spending days wandering through Punic, Roman and even older ruins.

(I MAY have also snuck into the Les Villa Romaines via the paddock and the thorny hedge next to the large Mosque – hey I was exploring!!! )

*wandering lost for hours in the massive Medina.  (dangerous? …pffffft… night is awesome in there)

*Spending an afternoon at beautiful Sidi Bousaid and relaxing by the Mediterranean.

*a 7 hour bus ride to Tozeur and visiting Star Wars and Raiders movie sets.

(I look smug for a reason – I’m on a freakin Star Wars set!!!)


* the 4wd drive through the Sahara that was incredible.

*a virus/food poisoning that laid me so low in Tozeur I missed Star Wars Canyon and had to fly home. Slept for 2 days and have just now gotten over it.
*the possible source of the camel tagine that brought me undone … Dear God the humanity 😦

*and the general weirdness of being in a completely ancient and totally foreign culture.

I’ve also learned that no matter where I go, people seem to generally like me. Perhaps I’m not as awful a human being as I’d convinced myself I was.

To be continued …

checkout time…

It’s 11.45am on Sunday, Islamic New Years Day.  As I sit here at Kafein editing the crazy out of this post, the call to prayer is echoing around the city from every mosque in town. The blend of calls, all slightly out of time and with different tones and voices, create a dull but powerful roar when heard from outside the city but from the inside it feels comforting and warm.

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There is a particular vocalist who’s voice is absolutely beautiful and it literally moves me to tears every time I hear him.

(I recorded a bit on my Instagram so check it out there as I’m only on the tightarse WordPress plan).

It’ll be a bit hard to leave this time as (per usual) in my last few days  I’ve met some fascinating people and just as we are getting to know each other, its time to go.

Megan, Ollie, D’e, Ilva, Iris, Ahmed – uniquely talented individuals : photographers, artists, performers, businessmen. All travelers like myself on various personal journeys and battling their own demons. Despite my best intentions I still seem to collect people.

Letting go is a skill for life – whether its a partner or a friend, or just personal baggage or belongings. It gets easier as you go along I think but the sooner you get used to it the better. Its the whole impermanence thing.

Its almost time for me to check out and move on…next stop Tunisia on Monday for a little while. Going to work my way across the top of Northern Africa and see whats what.

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So some entertaining stories for you. How about the nightclub hostage thing. 🙂

Lets start here.

I met Megan  at my hostel, (we were roomies there) and she’d been her a week already when I first arrived. An American girl on her first trip to Egypt but this wasn’t her first rodeo. Here long enough to make friends with the locals and have some insight into where to go/what to do. We went to a film at a local mega mall (Magnificent Seven – so good!!) and the next night decided to go out to a local bar with some of her Egyptian friends. Met up at a local joint, drank beers and smoked many exotic things, and eventually ended up going to a seedy belly dancing place downtown.

You know the type of place – dark stairs leading up to a black door and doorman on the desk. Tinny arabic dance music blaring, serious sweaty men leaning in shadows.

I let my guard down for a time and relaxed into the evening.

We got to the place, and the sting began.

We had to pay a ‘foreigner’ charge to get in the door. OK, fair enough i guess (entry was free to locals).

So in we walked like hammered lambs to the slaughter, our local friend getting an earful from the host, us largely oblivious and my spider sense chemically dulled. We were guided carefully to a ratty table near the centre of a space where a terrible 3 piece electro-arabic band were belting out belly dance music on a small stage. Fog machines and cheap disco lights. You know what I’m talking about.

The place was a joint. Filled to the roof with a thick layer of smoky haze, tacky tables filled with swarthy men, my friend the only woman save for the dancer on stage weaving through the swirls of fog and spinning disco lights.

At this stage I’d like to paint an exotic picture of your idyllic bellydancer but the reality was closer to a tired old stripper going through the motions, in costume but barely moving at times, stopping occasionally to take a drag of a cigarette or have a brief chat to her thickset handler lurking off to the side of the stage. She coughed heavily several times in the middle of the routine. Possibly spat the phlegm out discreetly into the stage. Bored. Barely there. On autopilot.

The men, all smoking and drinking, never looked directly at her. Eyes to the floor, or ceiling, or each other.

Now for some reason all the lounge singers here appear to be men. The dude on the mike was giving it his all but the incompetence of the band was exceeded only by the shrillness of this guys voice. Using tinny speakers with the treble jacked up to 11, his performance was both interesting as a cultural phenomenon and in the way it made your nose bleed when he hit the high notes – like a slightly blunt dentists drill the ululations made your eyes water.

The drinks started coming immediately – unasked for and unendling. A large silver alfoil swan appeared filled with exotic dried fruits and sliced dates – again unasked for.

Our local friend leaned in “no matter what happens, do not give anyone money. Under any circumstances, ok?

Yeah sure I mumbled, soaking it all in. 

Still no spidey-sense tingle.

Then the dancer seemed to notice us for the first time. She  spun closer and closer and closer, working her way down the tables of now demure men who refused to make eye contact with her.

She got to our table, shimmied up to me and held out her hand… “Hello, where are you from?” she said in perfect English.

Now me, being the canny traveler that I am, immediately smiled my biggest, drunkest smile, shook her hand and said “Hi, my names Jamie. I’m from Australia!”

Snap…and the trap was sprung.

So she smiled and danced on, shimmying her bits,  refusing to let go of my hand, all the while shaking her thang right in my face while I was trying desperately to maintain eye contact. The music played on, her dancing got a little more urgent, her handler came over, and the creepy men around us looked on expectantly.

Then she leaned in and whispered those magical words…

“Money…money?”

huh? (what was that tingling down the back of my neck?)

“you give me money now…”

I looked to my friend quizzically. He was looking at the floor.

Ahh sorry I don’t have any money on me. (the tingling became more urgent)

Her black rimmed eyes hardened. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

The dancer got closer.  She leaned in and this time practically hissed in my ear.

“money…you give me money. Money.”

The handler put his hand on my shoulder.

Ruh roh.

I looked around nervously – my ‘friends’ were all staring at the floor or off into space, every other eye in the club was on us.

In an unintentional Hugh Grant impression, I tried to bumble my way out of it…lots of umms and ahhs, “sorrys”, “you are lovely but no”, “you danced really well” and such.

With a disgusted snort she eventually turned away and moved on to the next table.

I turned to my ‘friend’ – WTF? Did I do something wrong? You said no money!!!

He just said “No don’t worry about it”. But he looked worried.

But from that moment on I was suddenly sober and on high alert. The club had taken on a sinister tone and I could sense the attitudes towards us foreigners had changed. We weren’t the ATMs that they were hoping for and as such our value had diminished.

I’d completely relaxed my guard and look where it had gotten me. No more beers (I’d only had 2), no more food, no more drinks at all. It was 3am.

Megan had had enough of it all, got up and left, ostensibly for the loo.  One of the local guys at our table left to follow her and they didn’t come back. That’s when I knew we were screwed.

I stayed there with the 2 local guys left at the table and waited for them to finish their drinks – my plan to pay the bill and get the Hell out. My share should have been about 150 Egyptian pounds which was good as that’s all the cash money I had on me (at the last place the beers were 20 Egyptian pounds each and here I’d only had 2)

We asked for the bill.

550 Egyptian pounds.

Fuck.

Explaining that Megan had left and I didn’t have enough money to pay the whole bill, the mood changed. The minders put a hand on each shoulder and guided me back to the table, telling me politely to ‘sit down’ while we waited. And waited . And waited.

I knew shed gone home, but just played dumb.

The locals tried to call Megan and she had gone home, driven home by the other guy as it turned out. She wasn’t in the loo. The local guys tried to call their friends to borrow money (as they had none either but for some reason I was the one being held accountable).

The general atmosphere worsened, the smiles disappeared completely,  and I desperately faked a loo visit to see if there was a way out.

2 guys followed me – 1 stayed at the door, 1 came in and stood next to me.

Damn.

By this stage I was thinking of an emergency exit strategy and whether I outrun and evade 3 tattooed bouncers in their own city.

2 flights of steep stairs, 2 guys at my elbow, one guys at the top of the stair blocking one guy at the door below. I did the math and came up really short.

Anyway, long story short, the local guys finally got a friend to go see Megan, she gave him cash money, we paid the bill at 5am and they finally let me go.

So that’s the story.

People may think that I’m uptight and serious all the time but in truth I’m just as capable of letting my guard down, being stupid, and getting into jams as anyone else.

I’d just prefer not to most of the time.

That’s just one of many tales of this trip though. Its been a buzz.

There’s the hair raising car trip up to Alexandria with Megan and Ollie, the Nile River cruise and the buffet from Hell with Iris, sitting on balconies and talking about life with D and Ilya. To many to elaborate on but they’ll stick with me forever.

The scene here in Cairo is relentless – all-nighters are the norm and the local watering holes are open ’til practically dawn (For a muslim country there sure is a lot of alcohol and weed here).

So my time in Egypt has been enlightening in so many ways. Apart from the massive changes in this countries economy post-revolution, there is a resilience to the general population that is amazing – they just gets on with the job of living, loving, walking their dogs, hugging their children and earning a living. Just like us all in times of adversity.

Much of what happens here stays here and isn’t even reported in the West. We had a car bomb here on Thursday afternoon in New Cairo, locals trying to assassinate the Minister of the Interior – heard the ‘boom’ from here but apart from sirens the locals didn’t even bat an eye. This happens a lot and people get on with life.

Anyway, Ive haunted the streets here for almost 2 weeks, getting to know the city on foot and seeing how people live at ground level.

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I went out to the pyramids a while back – caught an Uber out from my downtown hostel (33 Pounds) and spent the day out there virtually alone for most of it. Explored the entire complex, sat and  rested in the shade with the hawkers out there, who welcomed a chat after realising that they couldn’t sell me anything. As Muhommed said to me after selling me a bottle of water at 1000% the street price “Tell your friends in Australia to come to Egypt. We need you”.

Then I walked back to downtown. 15kms. Took me 4 hours as i wandered and got lost in the alleys and fringes of Cairo. It was the Cairo that you see in the old movies, all alleys and tenements, bumper to bumber traffic mingle with donkey carts and camels, street urchins and marketplaces, all dirty and dusty yet vibrant and alive. Buzzing with energy that I drank deeply of.

If you come here, take time and get out on foot. try not to just do the tourist things and leave as it wont do the city justice.

It is tourist-safe here on the streets and out in the desert, even wandering the alleys and streets at 4am alone  (unless you are an idiot then Darwinism will apply). Ive never felt threatened or anxious about my personal security and literally everyone Ive met has been extremely friendly and welcoming.

If you are thinking about going to Egypt – just do it. they need you.

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Plus the pyramids are nice.

Watch out for dodgy belly dance clubs though.