December 08, 2005

The Pink Sapphire

Today is the end of a journey that I will complete only once in this life. It is a story that started in the Greek Islands on romantic Santorini, traversed the Moorish bastions of southern Spain, wound it's way through the cool air of Sri Lanka's hill country, made a short visit to Bangkok before the long haul across to East Africa, and finally comes to an end here at Victoria Falls. This is the story of how Victoria got her pink sapphire.

It's impossible to spend seven days on a yacht with eight blokes and not end up talking about women. My companions for the Greek Islands sailing when I reached Santorini were a cocktail of youth, exuberance, wisdom and experience. Some of us were nursing wounds left behind after long term commitments, some were defining the boundaries of new relationships and the very nature of commitment, and others were desperately trying to unscramble the puzzle of dating in the 21st century. Watching the world's most magnificent sunset on Santorini is an evocative experience which digs deep into your heart. Rather than a destination that invites catharsis, It is a place which elicits your greatest sense of "Joie de Vie". You need not listen hard to learn what makes you happy. It is the place where I realised I would ask Victoria to marry me.

The next few weeks I travelled a little further through the Islands and then southern Spain. I enjoyed engaging counsel all the while, so much so that I was reminded of how absurdly fortunate my whole life has been and currently is. In Cordoba we debated the ability of anyone to make a decision as significant as whether to marry somewhat or not. In Granada we came face to face with the consequences of living too much of your life alone and without someone to love. In Barcelona we were ambushed by old friends and enjoyed the company of like-minded souls. The day before I left Madrid I learned about the Spanish Matadors and why they are so revered by the women. I recognised my own imminent danger - dangling my red cape in front of El Toro will only get me gored if I fail to finish the job.

Back in Melbourne there were echoes of Spain everywhere. I drank my Tinto De Verano (which I only recently discovered to translate literally as "Summer Wine") and sought counsel with the tapas team at Yarraville's cigar bar. Tales of how to propose were canvassed and commended. I was the only one at the table who realised that the discussion had moved away from historical reflection and into the realms of plotting the prescription. A few weeks later I was back on the road, traversing the tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Once again I was gifted with companions of the first order and the benefit of a female point of view became the catalyst for action. Late one night, while staying at Nuwera Eliya's Grand Hotel, I found myself selecting some gem stones to accompany my Victoria as her constant reminder of my promise to her. A large but soft toned 'pink sapphire' and two accompanying minor carat 'yellow sapphires' were purchased.

The previous year I had returned from Sri Lanka with a ruby, the more familiar and dark coloured version of a pink sapphire. That stone was requested by Victoria's father and later worked into a ring to celebrate 40 years of marriage. What greater omen could I ask for? I was worried that anything less than a diamond might be received with disappointment, but Sri Lanka is no more blessed with diamonds of it's own than I am blessed with a fortune of my own. It seemed important to consider not just the rock, but where it came from. Should Victoria ever have the chance to visit the Grand Hotel she would be the happiest woman on the planet. She is a girl who appreciates the pleasure of first class service and accommodation. I will admit that to this very day I have not figured how on earth I could get her from Colombo to Nuwera Eliya without subjecting her to travel sickness of the worst kind - the magnificent backdrop of the hill country tea plantations are accessible only by train or bus, both of which sway and rattle their way up the steep ascent over the course of many many hours. All of which is moot… Destiny has been determined for these stones.

The next problem was one of presentation. Having decided that it would be the height of folly to design a ring myself the plan was now to propose with the stones ‘au naturale’. When I reached Kandy I stumbled across the most elegant solution I could have wished for. Instead of a ring-box with a set diamond popping out my Victoria would first lay eyes upon a solid silver Lime Box with the stones carefully wrapped within. The style of Lime Box in question operates like a clam-shell and is layered with fine filigree work. They are popular for powdered lime because the silver is inert and hence ideal for keeping the contents safe and dry within. Knowing Victoria is not likely to develop a bettle chewing habit anytime soon I bought her a very large lime box last Christmas for keeping jewellery in rather than lime. It was the very same little jewellery shop in Kandy that I bought so many ear-rings, necklaces and bracelets last year. I have made a habit of collecting fine silver vesicles to wrap up her gems. Anything less would simply be inconsistent.

The sapphires now had a proper home. I tucked them away into a slip pocket of my camera bag and they would remain there for another ten weeks.

Returning to Melbourne I had a few more things to sort out before the big event could proceed. First was to gain the permission of her father. I consider this a far more difficult question than the question itself. Until now I have been able to adjust to each step at my own pace and without any public scrutiny. It was my journey and mine alone, until this point. Requesting permission makes it all ‘official’. It also means that Victoria’s father is forced into declaring his opinions, something which has never been of relevance or discussion in the previous 18 months. Yesterday he merely had a daughter with a boyfriend. Today he has to decide if he wants a son-in-law. I really didn’t know what he would say, and I really didn’t know what I would say either. I was unprepared and uncomfortable in the extreme.

The nearest I have ever come to such a situation was when a girlfriend’s father offered me $8,000 to elope with her. He said that it cost him a fortune to get the other two married in style, and he figured that we could use the money and everyone would be happy. Well, everyone but me it seemed. Five years later I was wondering how I went from turning down cash in the hand to begging for someone’s hand. I met the potential father-in-law for morning tea, showed him the rocks, and he welcomed me into the family. He was very generous about the whole affair.

Now that everything was official I started to realise that I had to think about who needed to know what was going to happen before the great Victoria Falls Palaver of 2005. It seemed to me that some people might feel a little hurt if they didn’t know what was going on until after the event, while others would just explode with such a big secret to keep silent. In the end I told a lot more people than I thought I would. I tried to avoid any tentative connections that might work back to Victoria, but soon realised that once you tell some people you kinda have to tell a lot of people. The tough bit was not telling Victoria’s mum or sister. My father-in-law to be already pointed out that Victoria’s mum would give the game away in two minutes – not intentionally but because next time we all met she would get way too excited or start crying or something. We just have to make sure that mother-in-law to be will be near a phone when the first rays of African sunlight hit the pink sapphire.

It was far more difficult not telling her sister, Sarah. They are close. Very close. I really wanted to have her permission too and knew that Sarah would enjoy the cunning trickery of the proposal, not to mention my need for her input on the still un-silenced doubt over sapphires versus diamonds. But the same day I would be heading for Africa our Sarah would be flying to Europe to see her long distance man. I figured she had enough stuff to process in her own life without the unnecessary distraction of words like, wedding, marriage, sapphires and diamonds.

Above all else this had to be a secret. There are so few moments in life that we get to make our loved ones cry because they are so happy. It’s a pleasure so fine and rare that you simply don’t forget them, ever. I wanted Victoria to always remember the moment with unparalleled clarity. It had to be a complete surprise. The person most likely to give the game away was, of course, me. Victoria had made no secret of her wishes over the past 12 months and I had made no secret of my reluctance. My worst fear is that Victoria would give up on me before she saw the pink sapphire. So long as she doesn’t get frustrated and dump me, the surprise will be exquisite.

My palpably poor judgment in women before meeting Victoria had led me to question whether I would ever take part in such an institution. The finality of it all still terrifies me. As it damned well should. But a wedding is different for men and women. Men can decide they’ll be with a girl and that’s that, but a girl needs to see it happen in ritual and public display. A girl wants her day. This is not a uniquely western construct by the way. There’s a reason weddings have a bride and bride’s groom. It all comes back to her. In some religions the man doesn’t even appear in the ceremonies at all. I don’t mean to sound unromantic. If you had my parents you’d think twice about marriage too! When you’re 15 years old marriage has a connotation of, ‘happy ever after’. When you’re 35 marriage is greeted with, ‘good luck, I hope you do better than most’. Neither Victoria nor myself are spring chickens, and there’s a lot of fatal errors we won’t be making now or in the future. I just can’t imagine anyone who would be a better fit and a better influence on my life – I’d be crazy to let this one get away.

Just a few weeks before Victoria joins me in Africa and I am enroute via Bangkok. Just one more detail needs tending to. I decided that a girl needs a ring when gets a proposal, so a ring she will get. The streets of Blangphambu are littered with jewellery stalls and shops selling every kind of tacky and tasteless. I come across many rings with spiders on them, or a bulls skull, or much worse. I figure that if she says yes to a really bad ring then I know it’s not my money she’s after! Once again I am saved by wise counsel. A friend was unexpectedly in Bangkok the very same day as me, and his travelling companion was a female of the most sensible disposition. We went shopping and an hour later I had an $8 stainless steel ring with a single glass center-piece. Her view was that you don’t want to spoil the moment – if the ring lacks plausibility then I might be shoved into a barrel and tossed over the falls before Victoria realises that the ring was a joke and the proposal wasn’t! As it stands I think the $8 purchase near Khao San Road simply screams, “oh my god what were you thinking?”

And that brings us to the moment itself. I started writing this story when I first arrived in Kenya. My mind’s eye has assumed that the moment itself will simply be a consequence of moments. It will happen of it’s own accord, like the way a drop of water slowly builds on the tip of a fern before gravity overwhelms surface tension and the droplet plummets earth-bound. I just need to put all the essential elements together and nature will take its course. Maybe I should leave it to Victoria to write the postscript – I bought the stones but the ring will be hers.

December 05, 2005

Hippo Life

The life of the hippo is a mysterious existence of roaming in the forest, gutteral moans and calls, and fierce battles with their own. They are truly bizarre and wonderful.

There are two undying memories I have of the African Hippopotamus. The first is a pod of hippos relaxing in the water at Ngorongoro Crater with egrets and heron gently resting on their backs while the blue sky above reflected across the water. Positively serene. In the cool of the morning a couple of hippos walked across from one pool to another, grazing on the grass as they went. My second memory is from a water pool in the Serengeti, cut off from the nearest river during the dry season and fast filling up with hippo dung. Very stinky water. The slightly overcrowded family erupted into tension about every 15 minutes, either a result of barging and jostling for prime sleeping positions in the middle of the pack, or due to a protective mother demonstrating due caution from an approaching male.

Two hippos going head to head is a spectacular sight. It starts out with a lot of grunting and guffawing and should neither party back down then the real show gets underway. Teeth are bared for display and then pressed into action. Hippos have a series of very long tusk like teeth on the lower jaw, the outermost are very long and kept sharp with constant grinding against the upper jaw. They are sharper than any spear and backed up with powerful jaws that can cut a man in half with a single bite. At various stages of the conflict either hippo may attempt to claim the territory, a display which involves frantic flapping of their tail combined wth copious amounts of fluid fecal matter. The shit really flies.

Male hippos will often attack the young calves to assert their dominance. Only a strong and healthy mother can protect her baby. One side effect of this intra-species competition is that weaker mothers rarely have a chance to contribute their genes to the family group. Such an aggressive level of behaviour between their own has also made them a formidable opponent to other species. The big cats of east Africa would never dare to tackle a fully grown hippo, and even a crocodile must use stealth and cunning if it has any chance of grabbing a baby. The hippos spend their days wallowing in the water without fear of predation, save only the attentive mother who must defend her baby.

Families of hippos with 20 to 40 members congregate in pods where ever the shallow water of a river or pool is available. They make an impressive sight, dotting the waterways every few hundred metres and bobbing up and down in the water as they rise to the surface for air. On the Zambezi river near Victoria Falls the nightly parade of river boats take great care to observe but steer clear of the small hippo families. It's a big river, very big, and contrasts with the more familiar habitat of ephemeral mud pools - such is the adaptability of the hippo. Further along the same water course, in Botswana's Chobe National Park, the hippos endure a unique threat. In the Chobe the lions are organised into extraordinary large prides and they hunt together to stunning effect. Exceeding 20 or 30 lions they attack water buffalo, elephant and even the hippo. It is a scene repeated nowhere else on the continent.

In the dying light of dusk the hippos begin their nocturnal activities. The dominant male is first to leave the pool, leaving a marker of his dung at the exit site for others to follow. A few early risers will venture out not far behind him, but most will wait for total darkness. Once on land they all go their separate ways to graze and browse. They will revisit regular paths night after night, running trails through the forest and across the plains. The sausage tree is a particular favourite for hippos, it's large fleshy fruit that falls to the ground and provides a nutritious food source vital to their survival in the dry season.

On one stormy night in the Luangwa national park we watched the lightning for a few hours as we sat overlooking a wide and semi-dry river bed. In the moments when the sky lit up the surrounds we could see the hippos wandering about like giant grey jelly beans. Elephants mingled with them for a while before crossing the water to head into the forest. A few hippos came all the way up to our campsite that night, looking for the greener grass near the water tower. When caught in the torch light they become shy and retreat quickly to other pastures. A curiously shy response for such an impressive and powerful creature.

Sad to see her leave, we were equally glad she didn't take umbrage to our intrusion.

November 25, 2005

Malawi Movie Stars

Bargaining for souvenirs in Malwai is often a friendly but slow process, made slower still by the relaxed pace of the locals and their tendency to name themselves after movie stars.

It's about 600 billion degrees outside. Our campsite is situated at the southern end of Lake Malawi and the afternoon cloud has failed to arrive. Instead of cooling off a little the mercury continues to rise and what little joy is brought from a swim in the lake is quickly erased once on dry land again. The sun just saps your energy away.

With nothing else to do we go shopping.

Just outside the campsite at Kande Beach a row of bamboo huts have sprung up to offer carvings to the tourists. They are differentiated by hand written notices dubbing the merchants with names like "Samuel L Jackson", "Mel Gibson" and "Shaggy". It takes some digging to find their real identities but that's half the point - spend a little time, no need to buy, just have a look. The shade is welcoming at the very least.

A few of the gals pick out some quality carvings and get down to bargaining. The average statue seems to sell between $US1 and $US5, depending on your ability to close a deal and your preparedness to walk-away if the price isnt right. But dont take too long. This age old interplay between buyer and seller can be derailed without warning, when shopping on a Malawi beach front, should the proprietor take off to smoke some weed!

One minute we're negotiating a price for a handful of carvings and the next minute Mr Gibson has disappeared to the back for a quick puff. "I'll just be a moment", he tells us and proceeds to inhale a reefer that releases more smoke than a bee-keeper collecting honey. We wait while the happy moment is shared with a few of his mates, and then he lights a second one. We're not sure if he'll be returning at all.

His friends take a seat at the back of the shop and stares blissfully across the street at nothing. They have stopped blinking. I try to get their attention but am too late, they wont be back for days. Our man returns to continue bargaining and we're pretty hopeful of getting to the real price soon. Surely we have the upper hand now?

He looks at all of us, smiles a few times, and asks us what we want to buy. We're back at square one.

Holding aloft the same collection of carved wood that had previously been debated to $10 he gives us a few more smiles each, smiles are free, and declares the carvings to be worth $19. It seems we are caught in his time warp, the negotiations have become bogged down. I wonder if this problem is what keeps peace elusively at bay in the Middle East? Mr Gibson is pretty convinced we are wealthy enough to meet his price, but we are pretty convinced the guy next door will sell for $7. We move on.

Mr Jackson looks like he's selling more weed than souvenirs so we pass. Next shop along and we catch Mr Shaggy before his next session with the jazz cigarettes so we get a good deal on some quality carvings. We didnt sit and chat this time, just exchanged basic greetings and told him what price we'll pay. In and out in 3 minutes.

On the way back I walked past Mr Gibson, still smiling and still convinced we will pay $19 for his carvings. Maybe he fogot to share his joint with us before entering the bargaining?

November 22, 2005

Zanzibar Dhows

The sunny side of Zanzibar is filled with pearl white beaches, delicious seafood, and a fleet of fishing vessels that are as distinctive as they are charming.

On the northern tip of Zanzibar the heat of the afternoon sun is cooling down a little and the fisherman are getting ready to head out to sea. The water is crystal clear, reflecting torquoise blue off the pale white sand below. Zanzibar is famous for it's unique sailing craft, the Dhow. These yachts feature a low mast and a single lugg poled sail that varies subtly from the Asian lanteen rig. The rigging is very flexible. Once the lugg is lofted to the top of the mast the sail is let out for running downwind or footed in at the bow to point into a breeze. They are majestic little craft of beautiful proportions and exotic flare.

A few Dhows come in late in the afternoon with a load of sardines. The fishermen use very small nets and snorkels to corral and bundle schools of sardines. Occasionally they hit a big school and the Dhow is filled to capacity upon returning to shore. As the vessels slip into the shallows there is great yelling and men and children flock to unload the catch. Tubs are filled to the brim and carried off one by one. The fish just keep coming. Children clammer for a share of the spoils and the fishermen oblige with small allocations in return for assistance to offload. For a good 30 mintues it's pandamonium. People are shouting and calling and the fish just keep coming. The scene is repeated several times.

The majority of the fleet heads out in the middle of the sardine bonanza. They are seeking larger catch such as tuna, kingfish and swordfish. They will head a long way out to sea during the setting sun and continue catching through the night. They drift with their lines out and hope for clear skies on moonlit nights. The return journey to shore is completed by 6am and the fish are sent directly to market. This is the catch that will be served on restaurant tables that same night, fresh and full of flavour as all good seafood should be.

Further south along the shore are holiday beaches and hotels that cater for a relaxed style of tourist. The sand is soft, white, and gently washed by the clearest of water. Between each stretch of beach the restaurants provide decking out over the water and a magnificent view of the sunset. Dhows come and go while the sun fades behind the horizon. Some carry tourists out for a joy ride, others are simply a little late as they head out for the fishing. Food and drinks are cheap. Seafood is the pick and the spices of Zanzibar feature proudly on the menu too. The combination is indulgent! The local drink is Dawa - gin, vodka, lime juice and honey. Pick a bar with african beats to accompany the scenery and let the Dawa slide on into the night.

November 12, 2005

Africa in a Week

There are two big advantages to 'small group adventure travel'; making new friends and packing the most experiences into your time as humanly possible. Our small group travelled for a week in Kenya with GAP Adventures and set the bar to a whole new level.

Africa has always been an exotic choice for the budget backpacker. They leave behind the world of hostels and bus schedules in favour of months on end living on a truck, cooking over woodfires and sleeping in a damp tent. I have heard the stories from my friends who travelled the continent from end to end, returning to civilization after a journey that is measured in months instead of miles. It's slow going in Africa. There is a lot to see and very little to make travel easy.

My first experience in Africa was a gentle introduction - just one week and just one country. Kenya seemed as good a place to begin a journey as any other and is relatively easy to fly into and out of. GAP Adventures offer a seven day loop that takes in safaries in the Samburu Reserve, Lake Nakuru and the Masai Mara. Several things made this journey a stand out experience - the exceptional knowledge of our drivers, the experienced and tested itinerary that allowed us to fit everything in, and the most stunning array of wildlife and scenery we could have imagined. Toss in a few visits to local villages and you have a perfectly balanced adventure that leaves you wanting nothing.

Our support team were two drivers and a cook. We had two vans for nine people which left just enough room for luggage to be stowed and day packs to sit at our feet. My first impression of the vans was disappointing, but later in the journey it became clear why they are the best choice. Your transport is used for travelling between towns, into the parks, and for the safari around the reserves too. We saw groups on the big trucks and they had much greater storage for camping gear - but they took a lot longer to drive across country and were cumbersome platforms for viewing the animals. Our little vans by comparison could make time on the open road, travel the smaller tracks around the parks, and get us right in close to the action when the opportunity arose. The roof of the van pops up to convert our passenger space to a viewing deck with shade, and the two-way radio communications between the many local operators ensured that every bit of action in the park was quickly shared amongst the drivers and everyone gets a chance to observe.

And we saw everything. In Samburu we got our first taste of the sleepy lions, a lazy leopard, the graceful giraffe, zebra and their stripes and the remarkable sight of herding elephants. Impala and dik-dik were sighted every day as well as the beautiful collection of birds that fill the morning air with song at our campsites. We were completely overwhelmed by our experience at Lake Nakuru. The sight and sounds of the mile-long flamingo flock and the dancing antics of a baby rhino went well beyond our expectations. The setting itself was enchanting with the broad wetland plains the sweep up to the wooded hills provide a grand landscape for grazing animals and birdlife. We thought Nakuru would be a filler to break up the drive but it turned into a highlight - how could we ever top this?

We started our Masai Mara safari with a baby elephant. He had been abandoned by it's mother and was about to be transported to Nairobi where it would be nurtured and raised. On it's way into the truck it stood on my foot. I was fine, but I could tell the little one was intensely sad and suffering greatly in the absence of it's mother. We drove on and took in buffalo herds, wilderbeasts, zebras and more zebras, masai giraffe, topi, gazelle, hartebeasts and warthogs. We stopped for a few more elephant herds during our drive but eventually arrived at an open field with a single tree giving shade to a cheeta and her five cubs. This was special. The cubs were adorable and even more so in numbers. We got a walking tour of some hippo families along the river, had lunch, and then watched a lion having his. The king of the jungle was ripping into the rump of a zebra, the sound of bone and flesh yeilding to those powerful jaws was broken only by the clicking of SLR cameras. The buzz around the vans was electric as we processed the reality of what we just saw.

Our last sighting as we headed out of the reserve was yet another cheeta with her cubs. I lost my cap in the wind as we drove near the cheeta and the second van stopped to collect it. They were not aware of the predator up ahead at the time. Minutes later as several vans gathered to observe the family of cats we were treated to a live kill. The mother demonstrated to her cubs the stalking technique and timed her attack to perfection. A young topi was brought down and with a piercing cry the mother called over the cubs to enjoy the bounty. We finished the day with a visit to a Masai village and then back to camp for a wood-fired hot shower and dinner.

The morning of our last day we awoke at 4:30am to drive back into the park and take a balloon ride. This is not a standard part of the trip and the additional cost is not cheap. Having seen the procedure for the balloons however, I can see why it costs so much. My budget didnt stretch to this optional inclusion so I came along to photograph the launch. It seems a family of lions also enjoy the launches and there was a 'simba' alert in effect when we arrived. In the headlights of someone's land rover you could see the male lions gazing at us from the edge of the launch site. Pilot Pete, who has been working for the UK based Balloon Safaris for over 10 years, was running the show on this occasion - he had one spare seat in the basket and generously offered to give 'our photographer' a flight and breakfast. What can I tell you from this point on? The experience was sensational, the views magnificent, and there simply is no other sight of the Masai Mara that will compare. We drift along towards the picnic site and drop low above the wildlife and rivers. A few bursts of the burner and we climb higher and enjoy the peaceful immersion. The landing was a peach and we were driven a short way over to the champagne picnic to enjoy the best meal we had seen in a week.

The rest of the day was spent driving east to Nairobi and we got back to the hotel in time to shower off the dust and head out for a feast at Carnivores. This is a unique dining experience that appeals to tourists but still retains plenty of exotic flavour to make it a must-do finale to a great trip. We ate ostrich, crocodile and camel - and plenty of other more familiar meats. They walk around with great skewers of grilled meat and cut slabs directly onto your plate. A more fitting end to this safari would be hard to imagine.

October 24, 2005

Tasmanian Timber

Tasmania is a place where people take the time to enjoy the passing of time. Wew spent a breif weekend enjoying the food, the views, and the trail of lovely old wooden boats.

The great surprise of travelling around Tasmania is the ease and speed you can travel from one place to another. Having stepped off a flight to Hobart i took little over an hour to collect a hire-car and arrive in the small town of Triabunna. I felt like I had left my world beind entirely, finding myself immersed in this small village and it's little fleet of fishing boats.

With the help of a local boat builder I learned a few things about cray fishing and some of the reasons a man chooses to spend days at sea alone. In the same way I flew to Tasmania to escape the city, these fishermen motor out to sea and enjoy some quality time alone. Driving further north you can quickly find yourself along the Great Oyster Bay and the magnificent Freyicnet National Park. It's all too easy.

The next day I collected my other half in Hobart. Breakfast was a definite highlight when we ventured down to Elizabeth St Pier and enjoyed a little cafe indulgence. The view of the warfes and coves was almost matched by the cosmopolitan cuisine - some brilliant winter sunshine giving the scenery top marks on the day.

With little fuss we managed to navigate south to the town of Franklin, a town on the shores of the Huon River where the community celebrates the tradition of timber boats. Franklin is home to the Wooden Boat School. The foreshore is a serene environment to promote the education of things wooden, and travellers to the Huon Valley are encouraged learn a little about the heritage and skill of the timber boat builders craft.

One of the students who currently attends the school was indeed himself a traveller on holiday, just passing through. Kelvin Aldred was so impressed with the centre that he decided on a career change, coming back a year later to begin work on a a yacht. When she launches this December he will be 57. It seems that time moves gently in Tasmania, and age is no barrier to acheivement.

We time the journey onwards in minutes not hours. Heading back across the other side of the Huon River we journey to Kettering. The picturesque nature of this village preceeds itself but I was still taken with silence when I saw for myself what charm she holds. The hillsides ease gently down towards the shore and embrace the village and the various little bays with their yachts in the water.

Several places of exceptional note offer views of the area and neighbouring Bruny island. High quality food and some of Australia's best wines are on offer here too. If there's one thing Tasmania does well it's combine sights and delights.

As the day drew near we knew we had to head closer to Hobart and our awaiting flight home, but there are some places you visit that you know you will return to. Tasmania is special that way.

Wooden Boat Centre

Kettering in The Age Travel Guide

Wine Glass Bay at Freyicnet National Park

October 13, 2005

Friends and Money

The division between business and friendship is one of modern times and represents the very worst of our western cravings for wealth. The notion that market forces can generate the best outcome for everyone is an old and tired dogma that overlooks the humanity of our societies and will ultimately divide nations into rich and poor.

There is one concept that pops it's head up in my life again and again and again. western cultures have adopted in recent decades the notion that business life and personal life are separate entities and require different moral codes. This has resulted in the notion that you shouldnt do business with friends, and conversely that anything goes so long as you make a profit - "It's just good business", or "It's not personal, it's just business".

This is a great fallacy that leads to a dangerous undermining of social standards. If economic goals are the only determining factor in government policy then you reap community dysfunction on a grand scale. Rational economics and 'market forces' do not deliver good health care, quality education, or equality of employment. They merely serve to concentrate wealth into the hands of those who already have it. Conversely, the notion that factoring-in a social dimension into government policy is 'socialistic' and flawed is misguided and harmful. There are countries that have perservered with social equality, welfare assistance and employment protection policies. These are typically wealthy countries from northern europe who enjoy higher standards of living, healthier lifestyles and extremly good education.

Morality, ethics and social responsiblity should never be divorced from capitalism. It's a gross error that has been perpetrated on the unwitting masses. Removing social conscience from capitalism is like removing compassion from Buddhism. Making a dollar isn't wrong, but making profit unfairly and PURELY FOR THE SAKE OF IT is shallow, corrupting and soul destroying. We have become so fixated on financial success in western cultures that we have forgotten our heritage and hearth. There was a time when success was owning a home to live in - now it's about owning lots of homes to add to our portfolio.

Let's think about that. If everyone could own their own home then no one would need to own lots of homes would they? It's not easy to utilise more than one home, except for a holiday beach house or cottage in the mountains. But if one person owns ten homes, that means nine other families who rent those homes are in a less fortunate
situation. It turns out that investment properties also raise the overall value of homes, making it a little harder for those same nine families to buy their way out of renting. This is the thin edge of the wedge. The continuing divide between the haves and have nots is like an ugly scar that cuts deep into the body of the nation.

So if you want to be a Zen property developer i might suggest you find a way to make money while helping lower income earners enter the housing market - and make sure you like them because it's better to have a friend than just a client.

September 10, 2005

Forgotten Smiles

The dispossessed people of Sri Lanka continue to wait for help from a government that has failed them. Yet, in the midst of suffering and loss, they demonstrate the most unexpected reserves of smiles and laughter.

The message was repeated over and over - "The government no help". I am walking along the foreshore of Dewatta, a fishing community on the western outskirts of Galle. There are fishing boats and outriggers along the beach and powerful waves crash into the shore and nearby breakwaters. Even without the tsunami the force of the ocean is impressive, but across the road the tent communities are by far the more compelling sight. Hundreds of people occupy the land on either side of the railway tracks, living in camping tents donated by foreign aid agencies during the tsunami emergency response.

There is no shortage of young men who want to show me their homes. Firdous is the most persistent talker although his English lacks the employ of tense and definite articles, "Very problem. Tsunami coming. You see my house you come now." I follow him through the village. Sewerage pools up near the tracks. Access to town water is provided by a single faucet, but it too is surrounded by the contaminated sludge. Between the tracks and the road there are very few standing structures other than tents, but across the railway line a few temporary timber homes are evident and some concrete houses that withstood the disaster.

As we walk along the tracks towards Firdous’ home the children gather around and there’s an air of excitement. They are laughing and full of fun, jumping around and playing. Some practice their English and ask questions. A chance to have their photo taken starts them up again and they go a little crazy to grab attention – even the older ones. The mothers are smiling and laughing too.

Firdous points to each of the families who have gathered around and explains who has lost a mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter. They in turn respond to acknowledge this momentarily, matter of fact, and then continue laughing and playing with the children. For me the experience is quite surreal that the depth of their personal tragedy is absent from the conversation. They speak very little about what has happened, instead focusing on what their current needs are. There is a shortage of work that compounds the problem and, for men like Firdous, the sea is no longer a provider of income, "No good life. I am fisherman. No job. No good life tsunami coming".

Several families show me their tents. They are large camping tents that would look right at home in a caravan park. Most are double lined with very strong plastic. They are effective in keeping out the rain but have poor ventilation and get very hot even on a cloudy day. What strikes me most is the bareness inside the tent. There is literally nothing to see. One half may contain a single bed, but mostly the families sleep on the floor. There are no chairs, cupboards, wardrobes or possessions. Nothing.

We take some more photos and talk a little about the lack of aid. Everyone I have met today says the same phrase, over and over, "Government no help". There is no evidence that anyone has a plan for people like Firdous and his relatives. Home building projects run by international aid agencies require land ownership - tent people like Firdous are in a precarious position as the government has mandated changes to title deeds for land within 100 metres of the shoreline. There is very little political will to compensate tsunami victims and if the issue hasn’t been addressed 9 months after the disaster then it probably never will be. In the absence of insurance, title deeds and work the temporary scenario is looking ever more permanent.

As I leave I wave goodbye to the children. They are full of smiles now, but what will become of them when the laughter stops?

September 07, 2005

Agents of Change

The work underway to restore basic living standards in Sri Lanka may have attracted some negative press, but we need to make sure that we do not lose sight of the achievements and continue to support the hard work ahead.

I have heard people complain about the disaster response and the various NGO's who have bene involved. I hear things like the futility of building wooden houses because they are not safe from thieves, that too few houses are being built to give everyone a home, that people have to wait too long for their home, that agencies demand too much money or labor from the home owner, that some of the roofing is made of tin or asbestos sheets, that people are afraid of returning to the their land near the water.

To all those people who wish to bag the disaster response I simply say, come over and see if you can do better - there is brilliant work being achieved here and however inadequate the response may seem, the response has been vital and life saving. The majority of aid recipients have in fact been very appreciative but they naturally want more.

People have been very afraid to return to the shoreline and with good reason. These individuals have experienced horrendous trauma and loss, but they are moving back to their land and rebuilding with the encouragement of NGO's. In some cases aid agencies have decided to build homes before the people return. Once a house is built the family will change their mind and be happy to start building a life around the new home. Often the biggest hurdle is getting just one family to return - everyone is happy to go back so long as others go back too. No one wants to be the first.

The handout mentality in Sri Lanka is regretably common and the idea of contributing to the work or cost of the rebuilding is a genuine hurdle for many people - they believe the government should replace their home. Aid agencies usually operate around a system of owner investment which requires money to be paid back (interest free and at extemely small rates) and demands the owners to work on the house as well. For people who are disposessed of home and family the need to work and earn money is not insignificant of course, but the 'sweat equity' can be contributed by family and community in addition to the owners themselves. The fact is that agencies can build a lot more houses when the owners are involved, and the finished product is treated with far more respect and possession when the family helped to build it. The bitter reality of international aid is that often we can only help those who can help themselves.

The quality of houses being built is a difficult one to address. What standard of home should be built for any given family? Should they all get the same standard home or should different standards apply to people with different standing within their community. If you improve the quality of building for one family then you may be denying a house at all for another. It has been suggested to me that community leaders deserve a home that reflects their position and the service they have given to their community. It should therefore be in the hands of that very community to offer resources in accordance with that standing, rather than expecting the NGO's to differentiate.

Looking closely at the standard of homes built by various NGO's and by different divisions within a single agency you will find significant variations. The size of the home, the standard of roofing, the quality of finish, etc. One agency only recently stopped using asbestos roof tiles for example. The health risks are well known to western people but less so in Sri Lanka. But at the time the cost and availability of terracotta tiles was not practical and the projects would grind to a halt otherwise. The difficulty in managing construction costs has escalated as demand for basic materials and labor outstrips supply. Market forces comes into a play; a truck load of sand now costs triple what it did prior to the tsunami. This not only impacts the effectiveness of aid agencies but causes problems for anyone who wants to build whether tsunami affected or not. In most cases the permanent homes are designed to be extended upon easily should the owner have the means to do so, and the reality of having a real home that becomes the focus of rebuilding a normal life is far more important than comparing one house to another.

We all appreciate that victims of disasters are disadvantaged beyond comparison but let's not attack the very agencies and their volunteers who work day after day to improve the situation. They need your support more than ever.

(Read about building houses in Sri Lanka with Habitat for Humanity)

September 04, 2005

Universal Footprints

Although I travel a lot it is rare that I cover the same ground twice. Sri Lanka is a rare exception to that rule, and to my surprise it seems I may leave a stronger impression than I first thought.

The short group adventures which characterise the majority of my journeys gives ample opportunity to make connections with your fellow travellers. I had assumed, however, that the impression left by myself and my companions upon the local people we meet was fleeting and insignificant. We roll into a town or city one day and roll out again in 24-48 hours. Our group is one of many that arrive month after month, not to mention the other tour operators who bring their own visitors in regular succession. We are like a gentle mist that rolls over the landscape and receeds as the day awakens, leaving behind a light covering of moisture which itself will quickly evaporate as the sun bears down above.

My perception changed today when walking down the hotel corridoor to my room. My key had been allocated to the cleaning ladies so they could tidy up, so when I found them they promptly dug around for it. They both looked at me and one said, "You were here before!" And she was right - my last memory of Negombo was leaving this hotel at 11pm for a ride to the airport just days before the tsunami hit. But they had recognised me, remembered my face, and politely asked where I had been. These were the same cleaning ladies when I last visited the hotel.

And a little universe of possibilites suddenly emerged before me. Far from being a light mist that fades away it would seem that some kind of footprint does indeed remain. However small. I delved a little further into my new found universe and re-acquainted my consciousness with friendly store owners, gentle jewellery makers, informative tour guides, happy restaurant cooks and contemplative hotel security guards. A broad band of connections were there to be reviewed; momentary assistance to help lift a sack of grain, indignant anger at a mischevious tuk tuk driver, philosophical discourse with older and wiser locals.

Knowing this universe exists makes me feel very responsible for my actions. Suddenly it makes sense that a single smile when buying a bottle of water and make a difference to someone's day. Avoiding dramatic scenes in hotel lobbies when they screw up your booking takes on a deeper meaning when you realise that even if they did make a mistake, you have the potential to make it even worse for them. Last but not least, the manner in which we wealthy western tourists distrubute money in poor countries leaves a lastingly indelable mark on the lives of young children who are best to cultivate skills for working, not begging.

It's so easy to foget that we actually impact the lives of everyone we meet. This statement is so obvious we overlook it's significance. I enjoyed a quiet chat with a colleague and friend who, not 12 months earlier, led me around Sri Lanka. He has been secretly in love with a girl for over seven years now, their clandestine relationship kept hidden from her parents and hence his life shared with her in the smallest of tender moments. She recognised my name from a passenger list, and sent her regards to me especially. To know that my name would be included in their limited opportunities for communication is an honour beyond all others.

It is amazing to realise just how permanent one's footsteps really are, and the opportunity that exists to leave behind something worthwhile. But I have my new found universe, so nothing is ever really left behind.

August 03, 2005

Monkey and the Bull

Put two men together and the quality of their decisions is instantly halved. When I ran into a friend in Spain we each had half a thought to see a bull fight, and off we went.

Luckily for me my companion was knowledgable on the subject and a good teacher. Until that night the notion of the matador and bull fighting was a mystery more than anything, the reality of the bull's fate merely a conceptual consequence. Now it seems real and I dont know whether I am more amazed by the brave foolishness of the men who fight the bulls, or by the bloody and inevitable demise of the 'Toro'. I did walk away with a deep appreciation for some of bull fighting's nuances, and true respect for a little man named Sanchez Vara.

Our programme guide featured a photo of the three matadors who performed. Diego and Fernandez are pictured in elegant poses suggestive of worldy men who could make women swoon with the tip of a hat. Sanchez however is shown expressing a goonish howl, further accentuated by his flappy ears which stick out like little prince charlies. First glance and we dubbed him 'Monkey man', and sat back to experience the performance.

Two things are essential to make sense of bull fighting. Firstly there are three matadors and six bulls featured on any given night. Second is that the bull is not given a fair chance. The process of weakening the bull echoes of tradition and takes place in various stages. When he first enters the stage the bull is confused and most likely has no idea of what will follow. This makes the following events all the more tragic for the bull. It is his fiest and ferocity that people come to see, yet the matador is armed with knowledge and a team of men to draw the poor animal to his doom.

The bull enters the ring and sees four men waiving capes. He is angry and reacts to the taunts quickly enough. These men are not matadors themselves but are part of the matador's team - collectively they are known as the torero. The matador shows up now and sends the other men to hide behind wooden hoardings. There is a little bit of show here as the bull is revealed to be quick with temper. The brass section of the band burst out a few notes and the picadores are brought onto the ring. Stage one of the weakening. Picadores are men on horses who will drive daggers into the bull and begin the blood letting. The horses are blind folded and armoured with a skirt of metal. When first I saw a bull attack the horse I was stunned. I didnt realise it was part of the pan and thought the rider to be in mortal danger and horse to be in need of a bullet. But what really happens is the bull is tricked into attacking the picadore and receives a savage couple of stabs for his trouble. The picador must be careful not the over play his task else the matador will be denied a suitable opponent.

With blood literally streaming out of the bulls wounds the next stage begins. The matador or his banderilleros are handed banderillas, colourfully presented sticks with barbed arrow heads on them. The banderillas will be thrust into the bull's wounded back when the bull attempts to charge. There are no capes to distract the bull at this stage, so the skill of the man involved is all that protects him. The charging bull is a target now, the banderillo must be close enough to thrust into the bull but far enough to avoid being gored.

Stage three. The bull is now in a very weakend state. Not only has blood been gushing out of several wounds for over 10 minutes but all the while the bull has been in a hightened state of aggression. He is breathing with all his strength. The matador now leads the bull through a few more paces and draws the crowd deeply into the moment with his balletical performance. To my eye it appears to be a process of conditioning the bull's mind. The maneouvres are smaller, tigher and draw the bull into an intense focus on the red cape. Soon the bull is ready for the final blow, refered to as the moment of truth. The matador will strike a sword directly between the bulls shoulder blades and severe the arteries leading to the heart. If done right the bull's heart will cease and death is quick. Very little margin for error is allowed - if the preparation of the bull has been insufficient and he is not properly weakened then the matador is at great risk.

Our good man, Sanchez Vara, demonstrated the seriousness of the undertaking in the most spectacular fashion. While working towards the moment of truth Sanchez allowed himself to focus too heavily on the drama itself and lost concentration for a split second. The bull managed to flip him over the top. The moment was powerful. Everyone watched in stunned surprise, waiting to see what would happen. The immediate danger is trampling from the bull, or a second charge to gore and crush his bones. Barely a few seconds passed but it seemed like an hour. We were amazed when Sanchez got to his feet, the relief swept around the stadium, and then in awe as he grabbed his cape and sword and angrily shouted to the toreros that he needed no assistance with the bull. A few seconds later Sanchez was alone with the bull and back in charge. The crows went wild, women standing on their seats waving white hankerchiefs. He had won their admiration and hearts.

"A bullfight is not a sport. It is a liturgy, a drama, a performing art graced with esthetic refinement, exceptional bravery and religious symbolism," - James F. O’Dwyer(The Art of the Matador)

August 02, 2005

Tinto De Verano

I went to Spain as a photographer, but I came home an alcoholic!

Devotees of fine wine may cringe at the idea of dropping ice cubes and soda into a glass of house red, but it's a great recipe to rejuvenate the body and mind after a long day in the sun. Most people have heard of Sangria and possibly enjoyed a playful indulgence in the comfort of a local restaurant. Tinto de verano is not Sangria, but a more simple equation that does away with fruit and sherry in favour of a little bit of fizz. Therein lies it's true danger, it's so very easy to prepare.

Ordering a tinto de verano is easy too. Most other items of truly local flavour seem to be total tongue twisters to pronounce or incur regional accents that are unnatural to attempt with my neanderthal-australian language skills. Even the world famous chorizo sausage takes on a multitude of potential sounds when you face up to the tapas bar and place an order. Not with our friend tinto de verano. With a single sentence even the most barbaric of tourists can gently and reliably place their order for a glass of refreshment.

After a couple of memorable meals the tinto was flowing free and had formed a regular part of my daily routine. Lunchtime might consist of a bread roll with cheese and proscuitto like ham (bocadillio jamon serrano y quesa) washed down with one or two tinto de verano. The more out-of-the-way tapas bars serve not by the glass but the stein and they try not to overdo the fizzy stuff either, allowing the taste and sharpness of the local wine to come through and leave the pallette enlivened. The smaller the bar the bigger the tinto and the better the quality. Go figure!

In Valencia I had spent the day travelling around by bus and foot and generally wearing myself out in the humidity. By nightfall I was tired, kranky, aching and hungry. I headed up to the central market and across the road was a tapas bar not unlike any other. I sat down and placed my order. I could feel the icy cool liquid flowing into body as if my veins were being directly injected with the stuff. A few seconds later my tuna salad arrived and my taste buds were invigorated and primed to enjoy what will be remembered as the best tuna salad I have ever had - sorry to those lovely people who shared my travels in Morocco, this was a singular moment of unparalleled tuna enhanced pleasure! The servings were so scrumptuious and generous that I had barely started the calamari when my tinto was finished. From this point onwards a single drink would not be sufficient. Two per meal please.

I was not alone in my new found habits. Others in our band of travellers found comfort and release in the rouge shaded glasses. The slightly lower alcohol content of afforded by the soda and ice yeilds a slower path to excess - by comparison our sangria favouring friends would frequently fall early in the evening. A few weeks of frivolous drinking by itself is not really a danger of course. The real 'days of wine of soda' will begin when I get home. My girlfriend has rarely needed encouragement ro enjoy a drop of the red but I suspect that my tendency for lighter drinks may have been a stabilizing influence until now. That will all change of course when next the cork is eased out of a bottle of sangiovese - one wine glass filled with red and the other primed with ice and soda. How easy and simple it will be. Jack Lemon and Lee Remick all over again.

I picked up so very few souvenirs while I was in Spain, so maybe this is the best one of all!

July 31, 2005

Spanish Fleas

Nothing brings out a city's true colours like a market, and in Madrid there is an explosion of colour and life when you get off the metro at La Latina on any given sunday.

Standing on the corner of Calle de Toledo I could listen to an arabic jazz band go wild I picked out a nice lithographic etching to add to my travel wall. I could have bought some truly beautiful leather bags, purses and wallets but I was overwhelmed with choice and indecision. I didnt even take a picture of them. When the band moved on the air was silent for but a moment and the empty space filled with the latin music of a stall. Every form of traditional and regional spanish music from what I could tell.

Further along the street the quality drops off a bit but the intensity of the crowds goes up a notch. Tourists and locals alike mill down the tree lined streets like a slow moving river, forming transient eddies around stalls of note. T-Shirts were predictably popular but offer great value for just 5 Euros. Spanish fans for the senioritas are ornate but compete with the cheaper asian versions and the quality of each product suffers as a result. Most of the jewellery is from India and Thailand too, but a number of Madrid artists offer their ceramic alternatives for those with an eye for detail and originality.

On the side streets little clusters of shops proliferate. Oil paintings take over one section entirely with stalls setup while the artist paints from a photo, and shops that spill out onto the river of shoppers . Here the value was far less compelling but the choice generally excellent. Another street was tip-to-toe with pets and in particular caged birds. I'm no authority on the subject but they seemed to be primarily canaries and they were enough of them to feed all the cats in Greece. I kept moving on and managed to avoid buying all manner of enticements such as... giant flags of Espana with El Toro emblazened across the stripes, flamenco dresses for girls under five, thai silk scarves as you would find in Bangkok's sunday market, and camel leather bags brought over from Morocco.

By mid-afternoon the tide began to ebb. You could feel it. The colourful jazz expressions had given way to mellow blues rifts, the bedazzled beam of the eager shopper had melted a little under the sun, and the vendors themselves were greeting the potential buyers with a weary expression born of a desire to be home for siesta.

I grabbed what I needed and headed for the corner just as the first stalls began pulling down the merchandise and packing away into cartons. Having emptied my wallet and filled my bag I was in desperate need of food and drink. I found both.

Most tapas bars will offer seafood of some sort, even in Madrid, but this one was special. They *only* did seafood. The special of the day was a tapas plate of sardines for 1 Euro. A full rashion would set you back 3.20 Euros. Forget a bread roll with ham and don't bother asking for a salad. The menu only had 6 items on it, all yummy offerings from the mediterenean and grilled or fried on the spot. I looked for somewhere to put my bag down and realised there wasn't one - the floor was ankle deep in discarded serviettes, prawn shells and sardine bones. No lie. I was standing in the rubbish bin. This is common for tapas bars to toss unwanted bits on the floor by the bar, but when a place turns over 100 people an hour since 12 noon the result is a mountain of mess.

Naturally, I was only encouraged by the sight. The food must be good! I couldnt come at the sardines, they were too fresh from the ocean for someone precariously holding a rolled up poster of a matodor and a small etched print. Presents are most gratefully received when they are not covered in fish oil, scales and rock salt. The calamari however is served with a modified toothpick and can be consumed relatively cleanly. "Tinto de verano, y, calamares grande por favour!" I downed my tinto so fast the ice cubes could have stuck to my lips. The calamari was incredible. Again. Flakes of rock salt cut through the freshly fried strips. As I devoured my plate and a second tinto I watched the old lady hover around the grill, tending to batches of neatly prepared squid and sardines with one hand while flipping at the griller with the other.

We exchanged a few smiles and I took a photo. She must have thought I had a lost a few marbles. (The hardest part about being a photographer is the number of times you willingly make yourself look like a dick.)

I was nearly done. I had slowed down about half way through. Why is it that the better the quality the bigger the serving? But I had to finish the plate - growing up as a child I must have been constantly starving because I learned that you don't walk away from a meal without licking the plate clean. I just can't leave food, especially when it's delicious and divine. One last piece remained and I prepared myself mentally to dispatch the tastey morsel and consider it a job well done. But I paused too long. Out of nowhere a second batch of calamari came tumbling down onto my plate. I didn't see it coming and I don't think I could have stopped it anyway. I looked up and the old lady was smiling to me. She gestured with her hands to finish off my plate.

I gushed 'gracious' a few times and took a deep breath.

July 12, 2005

Trailing Goats

High on the west side of Sikinos I sat next to a chapel and watched the sunset in silence. The final warmth of the sun drifted across the sea and out of sight. Far in the distance the silence was broken by a herding cry on the goat trail. Within minutes the farmer and his stock were upon me, nimbly edging their way through the ancient village walls, urged onwards by the fatherly calls of the little man.

The trail weaves among terraced gardens that yield a multitude of primary produce. Dusty beds for grape vines, narrow strips of irrigated vegetables, rocky pits with established olive trees or simply untended earth over run with wild herbs. The purple flowers are of particular note as they fill the air with a sweet scent like honey sweet rosemary. I follow the herd with my camera, the light now reduced to a soft echo from over the horizon. The goat trail is well maintained with stone walls to encourage herds to continue forward and avoid distraction. Further back from the trail remains of homes lie in a state of organised decline. They are buildings which have never seen the white and blue paint these islands are famous for, the dry stone walls expertly constructed so that centuries later the goats and tourists can enjoy the view.

Where the trail cuts back along the contour of the hill I get a closer look at the herd. It is my first chance to appreciate the distinctive personalities among the mob. One goat is almost fixated by my presence, starring at me intently and needing constant reminding to move forward. Others are only partially concerned about me and the rest pay little or no attention. These differences are accentuated once we arrive at the old village. The herd is closed in before being run down into a pen for the night and the females take turns to watch gaurd while the males take turns to watch the females. Each goat has it's own set of mannerisms, such as nervous observations, indifferent posturing, or annoying the other goats as a power play.

The farmer rattles his milk tin and heads down into the pen. Grabbing a female by the back leg he starts milking the goat in an efficient but gentle manner. One by one the females are relieved of their full udders. A little lamb calls this pen home as well, and it follows the farmer around in hope of milk. There is a tone of loneliness from it's bleeting too. Sheep are smarter animals than most people realise and they have a capacity to form attachment. None of the female goats oblige the lamb for a feed anymore than the farmer does.

I take my photos of the proceedings in the ever dimming light. Occassionally the farmer looks up at me and smiles or greets me with "Yassis". I reply the same. As I head off back to the main village I pass the sounds of chickens and goats and donkeys in their lock down pens for the night. The air is finally cool and pleasant as the hot summers day retreats into nightfall.

I am mindful of a very old Hollywood movie and make a small adaption to one of it's more famous quotes - Winter must be cold for those with no warm livestock.

July 11, 2005

My Greek Ferry Disaster

At 3 o'clock in the morning I found myself wandering the central village of a small Greek island looking for a room. It turns out I was more lost than I thought - I wasnt even on the right island!

Earlier that day I decided on a whim to head for the island of Folegandros in the South Cyclades. It is famed for beautiful cliffs and beaches, and makes a cosy stop-over on the way to Milos. I figured if I had to find a new room tonight anyway then I may as well start in a new island.

Not many people travel this direction it seems. The ferry was not even half full and there ample room to sleep in the bar lounge. I had set an alarm to wake me and a little after 2 in the morning I ripped myself away from an exciting dream which featured time travel and large cruise liners full of Italian students. I took a stroll outside to see where we were. In the distance I could see lights from an island, and guessed it was probably Ios. I found it impossible to discern when the ferry was moving and when it was docked - the roar of turbines droned incessantly in either case and the tall steel hull cut a stealthy path across a flat and windless sea. I approached the port side and was happy to see the stern wave below confirming we were still underway.

My thoughts turned to food and drink but at that same moment an announcement came on. I dashed across to the starboard side of the boat and realised to my surprise that the ferry was about to dock. I tried to listen for the english version of the announcement, the speakers were very muffled and the was thick and fast. I thought I heard him say Folegandros, I swear it! I checked the time, we were due to arrive 25 minutes ago and we left Paros about 30 minutes late. This must be it. I joined the small band of passengers and stepped onto the gangway without delay.

As I had hoped there were indeed a few people touting for rooms, even at this hour. Beyond expectations was a local bus with 'Hora' written in Greek. I had read in my Rough Guide that the Hora on Folengandros was the best place to stay and one of the most beautiful Hora's in all of the islands. I turned down an offer for a 20 Euro room nearby and got on the bus. At the bus stop there was no one touting for rooms. I pondered what this scene might have looked like had I not been travelling alone but with one of my highly strung ex-girlfriends who at this point would either be yelling or crying - possibly both. I was not daunted. Rough Guide told me that east of the bus stop was a tavern offering good value rooms in my price range. I looked up at the night sky and wondered which direction was east.

Plan 'C' kicked into action, and I picked up my bag and headed up the hill in the hope of finding the heart of the Hora and a sign for rooms. Eventually I encountered three people outside a little cafe enjoying a very late ouzo. They told me how lucky I was to find anyone up this late, let alone three people. They knew a fellow who had a room and would call him. This was typical of the easy and kind manner in which Greek people have treated me for the past two weeks. On the wall of the dimly lit cafe I saw a map and strained my eyes to take it in. I thought it odd that a map of the neighbouring island, Sikinos, was on display. But the two islands are often referred to in unison and maybe the connection goes deeper. Then I looked at the name of the harbour town on the map. My mind flashed back to the bus, it had written in greek "Alopronia - Hora". I stepped outside, unburdened my backpack and asked the remaining two people which island I was on. "You are on Sikinos. What island do YOU think you are on?" I had a flashback to my Rough Guide - several days ago I was reading about Folegandros and chanced upon the next page and a breif description of Sikinos. It was described as so small a population that it was not until 1980 that a road was put in from the harbour to the Hora and a bus service instated. Donkeys had done all the work until this time.

So now I am sitting in a studio apartment overlooking the sleeping Hora in Sikinos. The nice man who was awoken to arrange my room did me a deal and I have two nights for 50 Euros in total. He could have charged me anything and I would have no choice but to pay it, but he showed his character in our dealings and after he discounted the price for two nights instead of one I made no attempt to bargain any further. The room is equipped with everything except a fan. It even has a laundry tub and detergent which is no small consideration given the state of my clothing after two weeks on a yacht.

In summary my studio is spacious and comes with a killer view. I think. The sun hasnt come up yet but I can see the lights of the village not far below and I can see the lights of Santorini far off in the distance. When the dawn breaks I should also have sight of Folegandros, just a few miles to the west. Teasing me. I can hear a few roosters calling out to the stars already - must be time for bed.

It will be a treasure in the morning to awake and find out exactly where I am - at last!

July 01, 2005

Yainnis The Skipper

The life of a charter yacht skipper rolls from one place to the other making dreams come true for aspiring travellers.

The azure waters of the mediterranean are no longer a playground for such skippers, but a thinly woven collection of friends and transient homes. The yacht itself is both a vehicle of freedom and a vessel of containment, never far from the mind or body. Yainnis is one of these skippers. He spends all summer criss-crossing the islands, watching passengers come and go, and sharing morsels of his philsosphies with those who care enough to listen.

After several years working in these waters Yainnis has made friends in almost every village we pull into. He rarely decides which cove or harbour will be home for the night until the day itself, allowing the wind and weather to be his guide for navigation. In the more familiar destinations you will find our skipper talking late into the night with a near constant supply of sourma or araki. On the boat he is a man of few words. Just enough to get the job done. At 2am he is gentle tide of knowledge, lapping curious annecdotes of wisdom onto our shores. Each night the ebb and flow of his life is revealed a little further.

Yainnis is the personification of a Greek island. A combination of respect for history, committed study of culture and the arts, and impossibly difficult to lock down to a schedule. His catch cry is "cega cega", or 'slowly slowly'. This expresses not only the relaxed pace of life in the islands but the reality of uncertainty - nothing is taken for granted, nothing is assured, all things may vary. Better to enjoy what you have now than worry about what cannot be changed. While this manner of thinking becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy it none-the-less provides a gentle groundedness which enriches the Greek lifestyle.

The history of the islands reveals successions of occupation and punctuated growth of civilization. Yainnis is not so dissimilar. His working life has included construction work, warehouse labouring, courier and pizza delivery, and about 30 other fill-in jobs. Most of this work was to fund his study and passion of music. He played the trumpet. Fleeting success with a band eventually led to dissapointment and the young man began travelling the islands with a wandering spirit. On a remote beach in the Cyclades he met a man who wanted to be a sailor. "Here is someone who knows what he wants to do, but isn't doing it. I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I decided to do it for him."

All these years later Yainnis still isn't sure what he wants to do, but he is happy on the yachts and would like to own his own one day. When he sails the music of his travels is with him on CD - jazz numbers from America, latin rythms from brazil, and bazouki beats from Greece. He says the music makes the sailing go quicker, you dont mind how long it takes to get anywhere so long as the music is good. He has no CD's from his own career as a musician however.

"I always sail looking forward. Cega cega."

June 27, 2005

Slowly in Greek

My whole life I wondered exactly what it was like to holiday in the greek islands.

I had read novels where people lose track of time and life as they immerse themselves in a world of questionable retsina and sultry men. The experiences described invariably seemed to have been born of a need to escape the known world in favour of something unfathomable. For this reason I had failed to comprehend any sense of scale or balance for these mystical islands - they were veiled in a haze of literary license. I was arriving without pre-conceptions.

From a distance the water is blue, the islands are barren, and the literary haze is replaced with a far more solid variant due to salty air and constant sunshine. Getting closer to any little island reveals a whole new measure of character. The sparsely populated hills and cliffs become dotted with little white houses and churches, the bunches of herbacious shrubs are interspersed with roaming goat herds, and the waters themselves reveal enticing colours ranging from royal blue to jade green. The real measure of each island is it's pockets of community in any given harbour. Now one must get closer still.

Most of the year tourists are few and far between. The very height of summer yeilds masses of travellers flooding down from European countries to the north, but in the pleasantly warm months to each side the islands hum gently with the ebb and flow of greek holiday makers and charter yachts. You are rarely alone, except when making passage from one island to the other. The company of locals and other sailors affords services and comforts - these pockets of population are jewels, sparkling with delicate cuisine and friendly conversation.

There are of course places where the influence of tourism has indelably defined the island, but the solution is simply to sail around to the other side and enjoy the more peaceful coves. What ever reputation that a town has earned it rarely applies to the entire island. And for those who do not have a yacht at hand to make an escape, the option is to wait for the next ferry. These are always varied and poorly scheduled. Some are very large, taking on an appearance closer to that of a cruise liner than a ferry, and others are unsettling small to the point of instilling a sense of wonderment as to how it floats at all. And then there are the ex-fishing boats which find service in getting small groups around and off an island.

The key to enjoying the travel in these islands is to leave the schedule behind. Very little happens at great pace, and even less happens on time. You never seem to travel to a particluar destination but edge your way closer to it. Slowly slowly. Remember, there is very little in between the towns and coves. Nothing is really all that close. It is often better to sit back and enjoy where you are. Slowly slowly.

In this way you have the time to enjoy a drink other than retsina, to enjoy the company of men or women who are far friendlier than you might imagine, and take a peek into the lives that fill the unkown beyond the haze.

June 21, 2005

Be You

Buddhists, Steve Jobs and travel photographers all have something in common.

I'm not very gregarious. There's a good reason I hide behind the camera instead of posing about in front of one. And it's not a 'problem' that needs to be dealth with, it's not a little thing I need overcome, and it's not something that might be treatable with anti-depressants. I like being this way, and it's nice to like being yourself. Very nice.

I was reminded today about a few people who probably are not being themselves. They are folks who have a reputation for being earnest and fair. Or at least they did have. They have gotten caught up in their own hype and seem to be living out a facade. It's a little sad for the people in question, but a lot sad for those around them. Anyone who is prepared to deceive themselves is certainly prepared to deceive others.

A recent washington post article refered to a chance presentation by Steve Jobs and the human side that emerged from the chat. The tale of Steve Jobs and his personal fluctuations is an interesting one, but it arrives back at a familiar point - be true to yourself. By virtue of Steve's experience these words really mean something. Not so for everyone however.

Most of us would leap forward to proclaim how correct and honest we are - and most of us would be lying. Every now and then we get a reminder of the lies we live with. They come back to haunt us until put to rest with a reality check and some humble self-appreciation. This is what makes buddhism so powerful for me... at it's very core is the belief that you should avoid all forms of lying or deception and always be a source of truth to yourself and others.

Easier said than done i can assure you. But a wonderful place to aspire to.

June 05, 2005

Good Lord

Today I became ordained as a minister. It took just a few seconds online. You may call me Reverend Ewen.

At first I was humble with responsibility, vowing to use my power for good instead of evil. I had not considered what function I would fill. I simply clicked on a website and became an instrument of God. It's an everyday sort of thing I suppose. The good people from Universal Life Church who have accepted me into their flock expouse just two principles... 1) promote freedom of religion. 2) do what is right.

To be honest I have a little trouble with the second principle. That's ok however, I have read enough John Irving novels to realise that an element of doubt is a vital component to growing one's spritual connection. My concern over 'do what is right' is merely the inference that one knows what is right.

To my mind the great source of conflict between nations and people is the tendency for us all to believe we know what is right. To this end the pursuit of tolerance is of great value. So I figure there is value in these two principles and enough for a simple reverend as myself to follow.

Later this very day I did a little more research. "Let google be your guide". I found quite a few other organisations offering ordination online, one of them featuring the inpsired words of none other than Carl Sagan...

"A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge."

...hhhm, I cant help but wonder if the great Sagan is more impressed with the laws of physics than the potential for spiritual development?

Isnt that just typical of the issue of religion though - great swagging crowds of people gathered together in awe of the church, while the real mystery is of a somewhat grander scale. Of course religion per se is naught the problem, it's merely the manner in which people follow and interpret what they perceive to be a greater wisdom.

That brings us back to 'do what is right'. Lord help me.

June 04, 2005

Business Non-Sense

business ethics is fast becoming an oxymoron. the gradual development of the western work ethic has side-lined any genuine recognition of the individual in favour of ever reducing incentives for the employee. if you feel that your work environment is a 'carrot and stick' situation with very little carrot then you're not alone. i have listed my top five techniques that the modern management team will utilise to keep you underpaid and undervalued.

if there's one thing i learned from my undergraduate sociology lectures it's to recognise the short lived nature of current historical events. while i didnt realise it back in the 90's, there's something very buddhist about sociological study of history - the idea that everything changes. the simple lesson is to avoid treating the here and now as though it has been forever. with that in mind let's journey into the murky realm of business ethics.

there was a time when the success of a business was measured by the social standing of the company. how many people do they hire? how many graduates do they accept from college? how well off is the average employee? a big company was a respected company, because it grew on the basis of good people and strong ties with the community. this view is increasingly old fashioned and unpopular. if i had a dime for everytime someone told me "it's good business sense" i'd be rich. the suggestion is that somehow it's morally acceptable to f*ck your employees over. well i'm here to tell you that it's not only unacceptable, but it's bad business too.

with that in mind i'd like to run through my top five ways that a company will screw their employees.

let's start with 'salary bands'. the funny thing about management decisions to restrict pay levels is that the people making the decision are usually earning a lot of money. the application of salary bands is a classic piece of double speak that leaves even the most earnest of employees confused and betrayed. the company will typically sell the idea as beneficial to all staff, because it brings everyone into the same scale of remuneration and ensures that people are paid equivalent salaries for equivalent work. your friendly human resources team will joyfully explain to you how they assess where in the scale you sit, ensuring that your skills and contribution have been compared against other staff within the organisation and external industry rates. in fact, countless external consultants have been paid very large sums of money to help ensure that you aren't! the trick here is not with the bands themselves, but in how you are assessed to fit into the bands. the subjective nature of such assessments leaves ample room for minimising company expenditure on your salary.

the next trick follows closely from the first. the application of bands not only reduces the size of the kitty you are bargaining for, but the bands themselves suddenly become paper ceilings to your remuneration growth. anyone who finds themselves anywhere near the top of a salary band will find themselves impeded from salary rises on the basis that they need to leave room in their band for future rises. did you catch that? let's do that again because it can slip past you without so much as a blink! people are denied wage increases on the basis that doing so would remove their opportunity and motivation for the next increase. if this logic seems like a cynical piece of manipulation then you're probably right. those clever people who point out that the solution is to 'move me to a higher band' are often met with the shocking news that doing so may actually *reduce* their salary, not increase it. this is no accident. bands are not exclusive as you might think, rather they overlap. moving up a band requires re-assessment of your skills and you may sit low on the new band to the point of getting a pay reduction. how convenient.

the third trick is bonuses. the language alone is clasic double speak. companies remove a portion of your base salary and offer it back to you as a bonus. brilliant! except the rules governing bonuses are hazy and mystical and never seem to favour the employee. only the HR gurus can really assess fully what your likely bonus outcome will be. sneaky little clauses are placed into your contract which allow the company to exercise discretion over the payment of any bonus. the upshot is this - any failure to meet the full set of criteria for bonus assessment will result in losing a large part, if not all, of your bonus.

no discussion of 'performance bonuses' would be complete without a mention of 'key performance indicators' - KPI's. the most obvious failing of modern management techniques is the wide spread use of KPI's. my first issue with KPI's is the manner in which they are invariably implemented. far from providing clear targets to assist an employe to focus their efforts, most KPI's establish metric targets which by themselves are not sufficent measure of the employee's worth - they merely distract staff from doing their job properly and act as a deterrent to people who may otherwsie show initiative in their work. KPI's can only grade events and targets which are known before hand - they have no bearing on changing environments and unforseen opportunities that are common for many if not most roles. the most objectionable reality of KPI's however is the manner in which they reflect a *lack* of management. any manager worth their salt already knows what their team members are doing and how well they are doing it. they need not resort to mickey mouse number massaging to assess performance or to define targets. it is no wonder then that sloppy managers derive little quality improvement from the application of equally sloppy KPI's.

all of this double speak is currently the realm of human resources. let's stop and think about that term - human *resources*. we no longer think of our staff as *people*? they are merely resources. this is no small part of the bigger picture, the de-personification of employment. the catch cry of the 90's was "it's not personal, it's just business". well here's a news flash, for the employees (or 'human resources') who spend all day working for the betterment of your company it is personal. it is their *lives* that are being played out in your job opportunity, it is their children waiting at home wondering where dad is, and it is their spare time that is taking the brunt of the unpaid overtime that is expected but not remunerated.

that brings me to my forth nugget of corporate deception. the idea that anyone who doesnt stay back and put in a bunch of extra hours will be penalised. in spite of legislation which protects a workers rights to fulfill their contract and nothing more, at every level of our society there exists pressure to 'go one better than the next guy'. we live in fear that someone else will get the promotion if we dont do the extra work. it's a nice little trick. most managers will go to great lengths to avoid saying 'you must come in to work this weekend', as that may have legal implications. but they dont need to spell it out, the work culture is sufficiently tainted with the expectation. your own boss is probably a 10 hour a day worker or worse, and so leads by example to ensure you get the message. just try leaving work at a reasonable hour and listen for the murmours of shock and dismay as you head for the door. word will soon get back to you that maybe you're not pulling your weight. subtle checks are made to verify that you have worked the full 40 hours that week, the inference being "do a little extra just to make sure you dont do too little".

the fifth and final item on my list is loyalty. this is the one which makes me really mad - for corporations to invoke such an emotive term is the height of deceipt. loyalty to the company is demanded on many levels, and it's origins take us back to that era of history when companies rated themselves by how well they took care of their workers. but the fact is that modern companies demand a level of loyalty from their employees that the company itself would never return. cutting staff levels and making redundancies is regarded as 'good business'. loyalty has nothing to do with it. protecting employee entitlements is the least priority when a company goes belly up - debitors and shareholders get their piece of the pie first. and then there's the four items listed above. put them together and what do you have?

let's have no illusions about the philanthropic nature of modern business. the contemporary definition of business sense has little room for compassion or morality. the question is, however, where does it end?

what kind of society are we building as we committ our communities to the immoral pursuit of profit? we create an environment where it's ok to stomp all over the human spirit because "it's not personal". what message does this send to our mum's and dad's and hence to their children? how do people learn to differentiate between a business decision and real life? since when are the two mutually exclusive anyway! employee relations is turning into a real-life game of 'survivor', where the value of friendship and human respect is instantly discounted with the excuse "i'm just playing the game". once the rules of the game define people as resources and reward deception with respect then we are undermining our entire society to the detriment of all.

it is a shallow and pitiful existence for those who play this game for their own advantage, and for them my compassion wears thin.

May 13, 2005

Soccer Bags

High in the Atlas Mountains a few hours drive from Marrakech you will find very few pieces of land flat enough for a soccer game. The children of Imlil have managed to keep their interest alive, however, by using unwanted plastic bags to make a soft and padded ball which doesnt roll too far down the hill - even when little Hussan deliberately kicks it over the edge!

Just two hours drive from the famous souks of Marrakech are the High Atlas Mountains, world famous for trekking adventures and an absolute must see for visitors to Morocco. Our journey took us to Imlil, a small town at the end of the road somewhere near Toubkal. Imlil is surrounded by little communities nestled into the valley, far beyond road access and reached only on foot. For the less energetic among us the option was available to burden a donkey with our backpacks as we headed up the hill in the fading light of the evening. With delight we accepted the offer and by nightfall we were safely tucked away in our Gite - accomodation of the most basic variety.

Sunrise the next morning brought our first proper view of the surrounds. At last we could see where the sound of crashing waterfalls was coming from. High above us the snow capped mountains resisted the sun's early rays, while down below the river ran a furious pace through the valley floor. Outside our Gite a track cuts into the hillside. In places it becomes quite wide, providing enough room for two donkeys to pass each other comfortably.

These sections of track also function for impromptu soccer games with the young boys of the village. At first the rules of the modified game seemed difficult to fathom. We quickly learned that the basic goal is simply to run around after the ball, kicking madly, screaming and yelling and laughing. We joined in the fun and suddenly it all made perfect sense. Our addition of passing the ball between players was a novel addition to the local style and lead to even more squeals of joy by the young lads.

One little fellow, named Hussan, was playing his own rules entirely, and upon getting his foot anywhere near the ball he would eagerly kick it high and wide. His goal was to clear the rocky path edge and send the ball off down the hill. He managed this several times during our short match, but on each occassion several boys would cautiously grab his arms to make sure Hussan himself did not fly off the edge secondarily.

The ball itself was actually a sturdy plastic bag stuffed three quarters full with other plastic bags. It's design ensured a great deal of dampening when kicked, but equally so the ball failed to roll very far when kicked over the side of the path. Most times it would stop where it landed, unable to bounce or roll as a normal soccer ball would. Each time it went over the edge, courtesy of Hussan's efforts, another boy would climb down a few metres and retreive the ball.

A few weeks later we were back in Marrakech and came across some more conventional soccer balls for sale. We contemplated buying a bundle of them and sending them off to Imlil for Hussan and his friends. We decided against it however. Chances are that with one good toe poke such a ball would simply bounce and roll all the way down to the river, never to be seen again. I cant think of a better use for the plastic bags anyway.

May 02, 2005

The Name Catchers

Owning your own internet domain name was once the provence of geeks and big business, but the trend for collecting new and interesting domain names is increasingly popular with the masses. The phenomenon is not restricted to enthusists in the manner of bird watching or train spotting, dont get me wrong. And let's not assume such collectors are eccentric recluses with idle money and fancyful thoughts, far from it. They are regular people who live next door, someone you enjoy a sunday brunch with, or maybe even a relative.

Name Catching has come about through the reduced cost and increased ease of owning a domain name. For as little as $20 a year you can register your own domain name and go about finding a home for it. You rarely need to show much justification for the selected name either. Even in Australia the rules governing suitable claim to a domain name have been greatly relaxed. There was a time when a business had to show are clear connection with the name being requested. It was a timely process and not always sucessful. Getting approval also meant having to dig deep for the registration fee each year, in the order of $70 or more. This is no longer the case.

So a lot of people with small businesses, or maybe just an idea for a business, ended up getting themselves a domain name. They didnt always know what they would do with it of course, that's another matter entirely. Thousands of domain names each year are registered and never mature into a fully fledged website. The rush of invention and inception cut short by the realities of a busy lifestyle. Thousands more, however, will join a stable of siblings, belonging to a sole responsible parent who dilligently pays the minor registration fee every couple of years. A domain found by a name Catcher had a pretty bright future.

For many people who already have a website adding new domains to your kingdom is a relatively painless. Each time you are inspired by a new opportunity for expression you simply grab a witty name to define the borders of your creativity. My friend Jo and her partner Micheal were setting up a new collection of photos online and wanted to call it "happy pics". Michael mused that "happy pigs" would be funnier, and soon followed. This new site joined,,, and many others.

This happy tale of new born domains finding good homes is not the full story however. Even in this new world of instant websites there are casualties. Some domains reach their re-registration date and are sadly overlooked. What seemed like a novel idea two years before can become a closed chapter upon the expiration date. Once loved websites such as end up Many companies now exist for no other reason than to pounce on overdue domain names and hold them for randsom in the hope that some of their forgetful owners will have a change of heart and come looking for them once more. Only a small percentage of names are ever re-united with their owners, but a princely and profitable sum is levied in such instances.

For the multitudes of surviving names there is another burden to consider. While they may achieve a modicum of longevity in the short lived world of online names they rarely achieve any great level of fame or fortune. More often than not the latest addition for the Name Catcher is for whimsical purposes and a suitably small audience. You dont build a new everyday afterall! But that's life when you're from a big family - you have to share the attention with everyone else. Unless the Name Catcher has big plans and intends on lavishing devotion your digital destiny is likely to be a dosile one. Just the occasional visitor or email following the initial flurry of interest.

I have enquired among my friends and have been surprised at how many are multi-domain holders. Most have two or more and several are fully realised Name Catchers with between 5 and 50 domains in their grasp. So if you havent managed to secure a few of your own then chances are you're missing out on the trend. Don't worry though. Despite the best efforts of our interent aware generations there are still lots of domain names left, although they are getting increasingly obscure. Perhaps in time you may have to give up on and add to your collection instead. But that's OK, the internet is very friendly to such websites and, since everything is linked to everything else, it's rare that someone will have to actually type it in.

And if you're thinking of setting up a new website for your soon to arrive new child you might want to check for an available domain name first. Funzlrumpit is not such a bad name for a kid really.