30 March 2014

Going Home

It is late afternoon on a crisp Spring Nepalese day and I am high in the Himalaya mountains. I am with my brother and our Nepalese friends. We are in a village called Katunge.

Say it Kar Toon Jay.

It is heaven on a stick.

As I tap away at my keypad the sun is setting behind the monolith Ganesh Himalay. It is more than eight thousand meters tall and it is the second highest mountain in the world. I have had to pause my writing to take in the spectacle. It is glorious.

OK it has taken away what little breath I had remaining.

I am sitting in a battered and sagging wicker armchair on the veranda of the Future Village Visitors centre. I am obviously gasping. When we arrived about fourty very excited mountain children were there to greet us. We laughed and played until teacher chased the last of the children away an hour or so ago.

If you have been here before you can imagine exactly where I am.

It is divine.

We thumped and bumped and shook our way up and down many mountains today - from dawn until dusk. The ‘we’ being my brother, our old friends Bhim and Dambar, and another old friend and our driver Babu.

Say it ‘Baaaar boooo”

Katunge is a difficult destination. The journey is long and bone shaking and is on perilous tracks with precipitous drops. It is at times a little terrifying. The battering is always worth the while though.


The people and the children of the Himalaya are as spectacular as the scenery in which they live and being here is a very special time. Dare I say it is spiritual?

I dare not.

I have no such strength of conviction and I have little faith in my fellow man – let alone belief in an unseen force.

I have no time for despots or deities.

The world is mostly a fucked up place but this however is a special spot – with special people. For me it is precious time and a big moment being here.

It really is.

Big moments fly past us infrequently and we all of us need them.

We must snatch them when we can.

It was an exciting day yesterday in Kathmandu. It was a day of meetings over breakfast and afternoon teas. We had breakfast with a Holy Man and then tea this afternoon with a Hillary – the grand-daughter of Sir Edmond.

Then we visited a school we are friends of and where we support a ‘Going Home” program for children who come from the faraway and very high Himalayan region of Dolpa. They are the children of Tibetan Buddhist refugees who fled the country when the Chinese occupied it.

These children are the brightest of the bright and they were selected by their schools and families to get a secondary education – which is only attainable in Kathmandu. The Dolpa region is a long way away. It is twelve-day journey of little planes and old buses and horse riding and walking.

Lots of walking.

Very steep walking.

The travel distance and cost of going home to see their families is beyond the budgets of most families so most kids will not go home at all until they finish their education. That’s twelve years. Not seeing their mums and dads and brothers and sisters for more than a decade. I can’t imagine the anguish of such separation. It is tough. It is sad.

So some friends and I help out each year and send home ten.

Kids that is.

This year eleven.

I am not sure why eleven but we don’t mind at all.

It doesn’t cost all that much – not by the standards of the people we mostly hang around with. About three hundred dollars per kid. 

Fuck all.

The school principal and his staff pick the children who are to go home and in previous years I have just sent a cheque. This year my brother and I were in Nepal just before this year’s group were due to go home so we went and met the ‘going home’ children at the school.

Eleven of them.

They are Karma and Karan and Pema and Bikash. There is Ayush and Bishwonath and Sonam and Norbu and Tsering and Anil and Dup.

None of these kids have returned to their homes for more than ten years. Not once.

Ten years!

I kid you not.

For nearly their entire childhood the brightest of the mountain children of Dolpa are separated from parents and grandparents. They have been apart from their brothers and sisters and their aunts and uncles. They have missed births and deaths and weddings and funerals and they have grown up alone. This is the price that must be paid for an education for the majority of the mountain people of Nepal.

The bravery and perseverance and sacrifice that is made is remarkable.

It really is.

I am an absent parent.

I know separation.

Not for ten years though. Never for ten years.

My brother has decided to stay on and go along this year with six of the eleven. He is going to a very high area of Nepal called Dolpa with Karma and Karan and Pema and with Bikash and Ayush and Bishwonath It was a spontaneous decision - to go with them. We are over here anyhow and after meeting the kids Richard just decided he wanted to see the faraway place these kids came from and to witness the long going home.

He told me that he felt compelled and it was a moment that he could not miss. I told him that I didn’t need convincing. If I were physically up for it I would do it in a blink.

I told Richard that walking at the height of the Dolpa would certainly kill me and he told me that he agreed.

My brother is younger and fitter and stronger than me and he trains and works out every day. He is a big unit.

He is a very big unit.

I will not mention nor indeed elaborate on the fact that my little brother has a very big dick. I have mentioned it before in my writing and my mother didn’t like it.

She didn’t like it at all.

Mum of course knows that we are both over here and she is worried that we are safe and well. We are Mum.

- Safe and well.

Richard sends his love.

My brother and I worry a lot when our mother worries which only worries her more.

And on it goes.

I am leaving Nepal in a couple of days but Richard won’t be going home for a while. He is going to walk home with some sensational Nepalese kids in the Dolpa region of the Himalaya. It is going to be a big walk and there are going to be big moments.

He will be on the top of the world.

The going homes that he will witness will be fantastic.

They will be sensational.

17 March 2014

The Ipseity Incident

I had a “Do you know who I am moment today?” A chubby, sweaty - and as it turned out obnoxious man nearly bowled over a couple of demure little Singaporean ladies at lunchtime today. He was endeavouring to push into a queue that I was a part of. I witnessed the whole saga and it enraged me.

Then I intervened.

Queuing is a national pastime in Singapore and the natives and we expatriates are quite used to it. The locals love it actually and will queue for hours for anything that is discounted or free.

There is great order in the Singaporean queue. It is magnificent in its discipline and its control. It oozes forbearance and there is generally complete composure. 

There are no ants in the pants for those in these concatenations.

It is my belief that this passion for queuing is born from the Singaporean desire to hunt for a bargain - no matter the cost. The duration of the wait is of no consequence. I have - with great admiration - witnessed lines of dozens of people impassively waiting for up to an hour to receive a free biscuit - offered with any purchase of a grande latte. 

Or a cappuccino.

I have observed with astonishment, and great approbation - a long snaking queue of people line up to receive the gift of a pencil - with any spend of more than ten dollars. I have beheld the visible delectation of Singaporeans basking in the glory of receiving an upsize of their fries after cashing in a coupon that has been carefully cut from the morning newspaper.

In Singapore there would is no finer a fare than a gratuitous feast. There is no greater a gift than a complimentary token. 

No matter how long the wait.

Today though the lunchtime queue for a sandwich was unsettled by a rotund English dude who was wearing an immaculate and I assume tailor made suit. There are no off-the-rack suits for such fat little fellas. He was all red-faced and hot and I assume that he was a visitor to our shores for very few residents here wear jackets and ties.

It is simply too hot.

The nasty little man came charging into the shop and he simply stepped into the front of the queue just as the demure little ladies were moving forward. One of them was jolted and she bumped into the other and they both nearly fell over. He didn’t apologize or indeed comment at all. He stared intently at the overhead menu while my mind rapidly processed the event and the rage within me began.

The little ladies didn’t do anything of course. By nature Singaporeans are diffident and demure and they don’t like conflict. They are impeccably mannered and it is a trait that I normally like very much.

Not so in this instance.

“Hey you” I exclaimed.


“Excuse me” I said and tapped the dude on the shoulder.

He turned around and glared at me. He looked vaguely familiar but the English look all the same to me. He was balding, pasty and had a most annoying look of superiority on his face.

“What?” he spat.

“Get to the back of the queue dude” I replied in an even and controlled tone.

“I am late for a meeting” he replied with contempt.

“Give a fuck” I responded.

A bit of a hush had descended in the shop now and I could sense there was going to be an altercation.

Then he dropped the big one.

“Do you know who I am?”

I gave him a good belly laugh - an exaggerated one. My grandpa taught me when I was little that there is nothing like laughing at self-righteous people who annoy you.

It drives them crazy.

“Do you know who I am?” he repeated.

“You appear to be a rude dude with a weight problem, very poor manners and an identity crisis,” I suggested.

“Remove yourself to the back of the queue immediately,” I added.

There was a brief moment of silence and tension then and I was unsure what would happen next. 

In my mind I had already set him on fire. 

I am a lover not a fighter but I thought that I could take this bloke and I momentarily considered whether to go on the attack. I was actually carrying a plastic bag in which were two delightful kippers that my English friend Chris had bought all the way back from London for me. The thought entered my mind whether to whack him in the face with one.

A kipper slap.

I decided to wait.

Mr. do-you-know-who-I-am turned red and then purple then he looked around and saw what a scene that he had created. The expressions of the Singaporeans that surrounded us were hard to read. They were mostly locals who are generally impassive.

He then demanded what my name was.

I in turn asked him what his name was and then enquired whether he had an ipseity problem.

This was again heeding the advice of my grandpa in dealing with conflict and bullies. He told me to repeat whatever they say as it will normally confuse and confound them - and use words that they will not know the meaning of.

Ipseity is a sense of self. It is who we are.

“Do you know who I am?” the foolish fat fucker repeated yet again.

“Do you know who I am?” I returned in mock laughter.

“Go to the back Jack” I added and I nodded my head to the rear of the queue.

We stared off for what was likely only a few seconds but it seemed like minutes. I have lived on the Island for many years now and have mastered the stare. The abhorrent man then made a huffing noise before he turned on his heel and left the shop.

What a fucker.

I then asked the demure little ladies if they were all right and they both smiled and told me that they were.

It was then my turn to be served and I walked up to the counter and ordered myself a chicken and mayonnaise sandwich on rye bread with just a little bit of lettuce and lots of salt and pepper.

The very nice chap gave it to me for free.

16 March 2014

Florence Nightingale, an Amish beard - and a Bowl of Beetroot Soup

It is a rainy Sunday in Singapore. I am sitting on my battered green leather chair on the small verandah that is attached to my tiny apartment in Novena. I am feeling comfortable and content. I have taken my breakfast and coffee at my favourite café and have chatted amiably with the Spinelli girls. I have played Facebook for a while and connected with my friends around the globe and have caught up with news from home in long yacks with my family. I will depart for Nepal in a few days with my brother.

All is good in my world.

All is fine.

I had a most entertaining and enlightening afternoon and evening yesterday with my Ukrainian friend Daria. Together we watched an excellent game of Australian Rules football, saw the Rolling Stones in concert, discussed the mystique of fashion and had a glorious and in-depth discourse on world politics and human nature. As is always the case when I meet up with Daria – I feel enlightened and culturally enriched.

I bask in her over-glow.

Daria is former catwalk model who is now a fashion designer. I met her many years ago through my Italian friend Ornella. Ornella was also once a fashion model who then turned Restaurateur. Both women are incredibly tall and exude style and gorgeousness that is several universes above my own.

I do not know why the term catwalk model is used for fashion models - nor do I really care.

I don’t give a fuck.

Alas Ornella sold up her restaurant and moved back to her family in Switzerland last year - taking a large hunk of my heart with her. I have however kept in touch with both her and Daria. Daria still resides in Singapore and we on occasion catch up.

Yesterday was such an occasion.

Apart from being stunningly blonde and beautiful and incredibly long-legged - Daria is an exceptionally intelligent and interesting person. She speaks five languages and has a Bachelors degree in Politics and a Masters degree in Fine Arts.

I enjoy her company very much.

For some reason there is a tendency to think of beautiful, blonde and glamorous women as being dumb.

I don’t know why.

Either does Daria.

Daria and I often communicate on the subject and concept of culture and cultural identity. I have in the past mentioned Australians proclivity in sport and how I believe it fits into our ideology. She in turn believes that art and literature are a part of the Russian and Ukrainian dogma.

I have previously mentioned to Daria my love of Australian Rules football and in particular the Geelong Football Club. They are coincidently known as the Cats however they are runners not walkers. Australian Rules football is a game that Daria is unfamiliar with. Many people outside of Australia are unfamiliar with the game. It has complicated and often changing rules and it is quite difficult to explain to someone who has not seen it before. It is nothing like rugby or soccer and the English with whom I work do not understand it at all.

They are however not particularly bright.

I had not spoken to Daria for quite a while but was moved to contact her when I read of the recent public unrest and violence that has broken out in the Ukraine. I am aware that Daria goes back to Kiev quite a lot to visit her family and I was concerned about her safety and welfare. When I rang her she assured me that she was all right – as is her family in Kiev - but she too was worried about the situation and indeed the future of her country. She then suggested that we get together to catch up in person. As this weekend was the start of the Australian Rules football season and I had also been offered some tickets to the Rolling Stones concert – I asked whether she wanted to come to watch both.

She said that she would.

So we did.  

Daria proposed that after the game and the concert we should go to a Russian restaurant so that I could try good borscht. I reluctantly agreed. The Russians and Eastern Europeans that I know seem somewhat obsessed with feeding me borscht. I think that it is perhaps because I have previously said to them that I find it particularly nasty.

It is beetroot soup for fuck sake – of course it is nasty.

Sorry my Russian and Ukrainian friends – but borscht is the vegemite of Eastern Europe. It is a mephitic and malodorous concoction that I think one needs to be brought up on to appreciate.

It is very much an acquired taste that I have not yet acquired.

I doubt that I ever will.

So by arrangement I met with Daria at the Boomerang bar in Robertson quay. It is a quintessential Australian expatriate venue that I normally avoid like the plague -however I knew that I was going to be force fed beetroot soup later that night so I meant to go on the offensive.

I arrived at the venue before Daria and settled at a table near one of the large screen televisions. I was surrounded by mostly male bogan Australians who were swilling down beer at astounding speed and volume whilst burping and farting and saying ‘bewdy’ a lot.

This is my culture - these are my brethren.

Oh fuck. Oh fuck.

I could tell that Daria had arrived before I actually saw her because first a hush settled in the bar and then there was a buzz. She swept into the place in a blaze of blondeness and legs and stilettoes and arrogance and I had to say ‘steady boys’ to a couple of lads seated at the adjacent table.

They were panting like rabid dogs.

I gulped in a huge whiff of Chanel Number Five as we kissed each other on both cheeks and I laughed aloud when she called me ‘darlink’. She also refers to me as Pyotr - which is the Ukrainian version of Peter - and she refers to herself as Ookranian - which I assume is the correct pronunciation.

She would know.

I told Daria that she always seemed to cause a ruckus with men ogling at her and she responded by telling me that all men are ‘peegs’. I reminded her that I was a man and she reassured me that I was a ‘nice peeg’.

Good one Daria.

We shared a bottle of a cheeky little Australian Sauvignon Blanc and bought each other up to speed with events in our life while we waited for the football to start. I was pleased to hear that our mutual friend Ornella was well and that she had found love in Zurich with a very nice German man.

Yes I know - ‘very nice German man’ is a blatant oxymoron.

German man or not, our friend Ornella has had a very tough life and she deserves happiness and joy so I am pleased that she has found it.

We all do really – deserve happiness and joy.

Fuck only knows why it is so elusive.

I enquired with genuine interest and concern how things really were in the Ukraine and what the current unease and conflict was actually all about. Daria informed me that like all conflict, the issues in her country were all about power and politics and greed. I asked her how so and she explained.

I am blissfully ignorant on matters concerning the Ukraine and Crimea and I asked poor Daria many questions and probed her for pertinent facts. I told her that I associated the word and place ‘Crimea’ with war – and I had for some time. I must have learned of it in history lessons in my youth. If the word ‘Crimean’ were thrown into a word association test I would instantly respond with the word ‘war’. I think many people would – but perhaps not.

I can only speak for myself.

By word association - you know what I mean. A word is uttered and one is required to respond with the first word that comes to mind. “Rubber” – “Duck”. “Robin” – “Hood”. “Florence” – “Nightingale”. “Mother” – “Fucker”. “Crimean” – “War”. Psychologists and other mental health professionals somehow use such tests to determine personality traits and cognitive dysfunctions.

Again I know – you don’t have to tell me – I have some issues.

Daria explained to me that the Crimean war that most of us think of was a great conflict between Russia and Britain that occurred in the 1850’s. She told me that they were the two global superpowers of this era and it was when the British had a penchant for invading and occupying countries. Only America does this now. Daria asked me if I had heard of the nurse Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade and I told her that I had. She informed me that Florence served with the British army during the Crimean war and the Light Brigade were a light horse division in the British army that were involved in a monumental massacre. I was quite surprised. For some reason I associated both with World War One.

Florence Nightingale was also known as ‘the Lady with the Lamp” and she is accredited as being the mother of modern nursing.

Daria went on to explain the importance of the Black sea to the Russians - and in particular the city of Sevastapol in Crimea. It has always been important to the Russians for trade and shipping – and in modern times for the oil industry. She informed me that the Russians have defended the Crimea from invasions for many centuries.

Daria was passionate and informative in her knowledge of the history of her nation and I got swept up in her exuberance.

She told me that she believes that the current conflict in the Ukraine and the tension in the Crimean province has arisen from the Ukrainian president's rejection of an economic deal with the European Union. It is all about international trade.
My Ukrainian friend informed me that the European Union of countries has been actively trying to get more Eastern European economies to enter into their trade agreements for a number of years. She said that she and many other Ukrainians very much want more involvement with Western Europe's modern and productive economies – and in turn have less reliance on the Russians. She told me that people in Kiev wanted Gucci handbags and McDonalds hamburgers and IPhones but there was strong resistance from Moscow, as their trade would suffer. She also told me that the political landscape of the Ukraine was much fractured and was full of old fucker politicians and young revolutionaries.
I told her that Australian politics was the same and there were many old and young fucker politicians in the Australian government.
I told her this because it is true.
Apparently when the European Union trade agreement deal was being considered late last year, the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych began to make a lot of noise both in Parliament and in public - voicing his doubts about signing the proposed agreement. According to Daria - for many young new generation Ukrainians, their President's wavering was an indication that he was caving in to pressure from the Russian President Vladimir Putin to reject the proposal altogether. Then Putin threw the Ukraine a $15 billion aid package and President Yanukovych suddenly and formally rejected the EU proposal.
The shit then hit the proverbial fan.
Daria told me that the Ukraine had a long and colorful and bloody history and it had once been a part of the Bulgarian and then Soviet empires. It had regained its status as an independent state when the Soviet Union abruptly and spectacularly dissolved in 1991. She told me that as the independence was only less than one generation ago many Ukrainian people of course still had strong associations with Russia - however much of the younger generation saw President Yanukovych's rejection of the EU trade agreement as being dismissive of their independent status.
They were pissed off.
Daria said that President Yanukovych's rebuff of the EU proposal ignored the views of the majority of Ukrainians. She told me that the protests are a condemnation by the people of their government's corruption as much as it is them questioning the legitimacy of their President's patriotism.
I told her that I thought that corruption and patriotism were both common ingredients for revolution.
I told her that history has taught us such.
Daria informed me that the protests began in January of this year but it was only last month that the Ukrainian government began to react with aggression and matters began to be reported. She said that there is great deal of tension and violence and many hundreds of people have already been killed. Daria told me that last month the protesters overtook the capital city of Kiev and they occupied the President's residence. Apparently he lived in some sort of uber-extravagant palace full of tacky furniture and artwork. When this happened President Yanukovych rightfully feared for his life and he fled to Russia - where he now is. She told me that despite the fact that he faces legal charges for the unlawful killing of protesters he remains the head of the Ukrainian state and there is a constitutional crisis.
Daria told me that she believes that much of the antagonism is about trade and money and there is a great fear by Russia that if the Ukraine were to have a free trade agreement with the EU there would be a massive influx of low-priced European products into the country. Russia is terrified of the impact that this would have on their already fragile economy.
She said that since President Yanukovych’s departure the Russian army has began to appear on the Ukrainian-Russian border. I told her that I had seen these reports on television and the Internet. She thinks that this is a deliberate show of force by Putin who is sending a very clear message that Russia is prepared to go to war with Ukraine.
The province of Crimea is the supposed entry point.
Daria informed me that Crimea is an autonomous republic within Ukraine whose people generally identify very closely with Russia. It also happens to house several very large Russian naval bases.
So apparently Russia has now gained full control of the Crimean province and the Russian military is occupying Ukraine's military installations in the area. It is this Russian annexation of Crimea that has moved Russian and Ukrainian forces closer to more significant violent conflict and it is something that Daria is very fearful of.
The USA and the majority of Western European nations have threatened economic sanctions against Russia if they do not withdraw their troops from Ukraine but Putin doesn’t appear to give a fuck. Daria says that any economic sanctions against Russia would actually end up harming the already battered Western European countries more - by simple virtue of the fact that Russia controls massive oil production and distribution networks – which just so happen to travel through the Ukraine.
Fancy that.
Daria said that the situation in the Ukraine is dangerously unstable and she thinks that it has the potential to reach a global scale very rapidly. She told me that she doesn’t know why it isn’t being covered more in the global media. She seems genuinely very worried about the prospect of war and the safety of her friends and family.
I don’t blame her.
Our conversation about all of this was suspended when the footy started. The two teams that were playing were from Sydney so I was unconcerned about the result. As I did with the Ukraine situation – Daria asked me many questions. These were obviously more light hearted and were mostly about the rules of the game.
I was able to answer all questions with patience and fortitude.
Daria told me that she thought that it was good that there did not appear to be as much celebration in Australia Rules football after goal scoring as there was in soccer. I told her that I agreed. I think that whilst scoring a goal is a good thing and is deserving of some celebration, the post-goal scoring cuddling that goes on in soccer is a bit unnecessary and is quite unmanly.
It’s a bit of a girly game anyway.
We both noticed that there were a number of players on each team that were sporting very shaggy beards and these were reminiscent of the type that I associate with the Amish people. They were wild and wooly beards without moustaches. Daria asked me if this was a current fashion trend in Australia and I told her that I did not know. I turned to Facebook for a comment and was quite surprised when both my son Tom and my favourite nephew Ben responded immediately. They told me that such beards were indeed in fashion. To my greater shock my nephew Benjamin then sent me a selfie of him sporting such a beard.
It was not a good look.
It was an abomination in fact.
Here is the selfie:
I showed Ben’s selfie to Daria and we laughingly agreed that he looked more like a garden gnome than an Amish.
Sorry Ben but you do.
Daria told me that she liked the footy and she assured me that she would from now on barrack for the Cats.
After the game Daria and I caught a cab to the Marina Bay Sands complex where we went into the massive event hall and we watched the Rolling Stones. My mate Stewart who is a sound engineer had given me most excellent tickets so we were right up the front. I think I saw Mick Jagger leering at Daria a few times as she bopped about the place. This is not surprising as he has somewhat of a penchant for leggy blondes. Both he and Keith Richards looked most old and haggard.
Here they are:
The whole concert was a bit bizarre. There were many old dudes like me who seemed enraptured by the Stones standing amongst a mass of Singaporeans - who just stared.
I think it is time to stop touring boys. The Rolling Stones seem to have gathered a great deal of moss and you surely don’t need the money. Sixty year olds prancing about in tight pants and with long hair and headbands seems a little sad to me.
It is tragic.
I was quite happy to go home after the concert but I had promised Daria that I would eat some of the cursed borscht and she was determined for me to have it. I think her determination is born of the fact that I have declared on a number of times - to both her and the Russians that I know on the island - that it is not very nice. They seem insistent on feeding more to me in the hope I will have some sort of borscht epiphany.
So we went to a Russian restaurant and I ate some.
I repeat - it is beetroot soup for fuck sake.
Like the Amish beard – I think it is an abomination.
I don’t like it at all.