selected snippets from here and there

home sweet home – Melbourne, Australia

`…The station entry is a grand facade, up a stairway and through an ornate arch. But below the platforms life is gritty, chilled to the bone, wet winter smells, gloomy tunnels with rushes of peak-hour people and the raucous racket of passing trains. At first, I see an outline, a pile of clothing that morphs to a despondent teen, chin propped on pulled-up knees, hooded head down, bare hands grey and knuckles white. I stop, but can’t see the eyes that may already be dimmed, his plastic cup broken, empty and on its side, my loose coins scattered, shining but unimportant…’

túk-túk times – Mumbai, India

`…Black clouds stink of diesel and a bullhorn blares from a bus with a dark face at every window. “No need to worry Sir. You are with Moban, the best túk-túk driver in all the world. And the red lights, they are not compulsory.” He drives with a mischievous chuckle, rocking his head from side to side. I shake my head and for a fleeting moment wonder if that Indian habit is contagious. But it seems I am a worrier. I worry about túk-túks being low in the pecking order, with only pedestrians, cyclists and lost dogs further down the scale. I worry about impossibly high kerbs, and the games of bluff Moban plays. And I worry about feeling vulnerable in this flimsy, open-sided shell of a túk-túk…’

finding an icon – Mill Run, USA

‘…From the river bend we peer upstream through a forest bathed in weak streaks of sun and flurries of snow, the air laden with the sweet smells of wet forest litter, birch and spruce. We exchange glances, my girlfriend an aspiring architecture student in earlier times. Does it live up to expectations I wonder? But the house speaks for itself, an exotic vision of Arcadian splendour, straddling a stream that tumbles from the architect’s iconic vision; a creation of radically-cantilevered terraces that float ten metres above the gurgle and rush of white water rapids…’

heeding the healer – Soweto, South Africa

`…In the morning I’m about to leave the shebeen, but am suddenly swept up in the arms of The Healer. Her breath is beery, her eyes bloodshot, the words slurred and scattered. She says I “must visit” my mother, nodding her head until releasing her grip. Having offered her a bottle of beer, I’m followed to the kitchen. The Healer’s sister stands at the stove, solid churchgoing stock, all scowls and raised eyebrows, my board and the beer money snatched from my hand and tucked in a jam tin by the fridge. “You must not take notice of such talk”, she grumbles. But I am left wondering at the iron gate… my mother dead for years now, me never having visited the grave…‘

the letter – Beheny, France

`…There was finally help on the farm, a young German POW with fair hair and freckles. Henri smuggled fresh-baked bread, milk when he could, only once asking about the killing, the German kid wiping his eyes on a frayed greatcoat sleeve. But Henri’s father hated Germans, scarred by the last war: the mustard gas, the bodies, and waving red poppies in churned fields of mud. Henri shakes his head. There was a string of letters, all but one burned rather than passed on to a damaged father’s only son. Henri remembers the owls in the dark, the distant artillery, the German’s cries at night, the smell of barn horses, their steaming backs after washdown, the bags of chaff, the wet turf after a summer shower. Yes, his mother knew of the letters, but had said nothing…’

red desert dreaming – Kimberley, Australia

`…We’ve clambered across the rubble beach and cliffs to the paintings, telling the ancient story of a great creator bringing life to a parched earth. The air is damp but dusty, the overhead ledge welcome shade from the blistering morning sun. Dugongs and turtles mingle with fish adrift this rock-face gallery. But the strangest figures float, strokes of red ochre – Wandjina spirit-men – eerie round faces with big pools for eyes. I stand next to Maurice, “a Worara blackfella” and a driver at a local mine. I ask him why they have no mouths, his voice hushed as he points at the staring spaceman figures. “Ah, you see Cuz, these spirits, they have much magic… so much power already… no need for mouths…’

the price of progress – Dili, East Timor

`…This is our last evening here, the hotel soon to be demolished, the murmur of harbour waves restful as we gaze out from quaint Portuguese arches. We drink Trincadiera, and lager from frosted glasses, while shadows wander the Casablanca beer garden… the phantoms of diplomats, reporters, revolutionaries and spies. Palm fronds rustle in a lazy breeze laden with fragrance frangipani, memories of clinking beer bottles and the excited whispers of five young reporters once stationed here before heading to a distant border outpost. I run my hand over cool, rough walls, the same corridors and rooms that witnessed news of the reporters’ brutal murder…’

the phantom procession – Machu Picchu, Peru

`…I shuffle to the side of a narrow path. Bells clink as approaching llamas toss their heads and groan; complaints of heavy loads strapped to woolly sway backs. They stamp feet and spit at their handlers, wild-looking men with pierced noses and harsh voices. Striding behind come finely-clad emissaries, tall men in long alpaca cloaks that brush my legs, then courtiers and attendants in robes, macaw feathers of saffron and blue, condor heads atop wooden staffs that pound the path with every step. I wait an eternity, the procession not over. A clap of hands heralds the shuffle of porters, a grand palanquin born shoulder high, the air layered with clouds of copal incense. I glimpse a headband graced with feathers – the rare golden hummingbird – and a blurred face brown… an untouchable god, the face of a king…’

the weight of wrongdoings – Luxor, Egypt

`…Men lounge in the setting sun on ancient temple steps, all robed in the ubiquitous galabiya and turban.  I gaze up to tall colonnades now glowing gold, and ponder the final resting place of Osiris, recently discovered at the nearby Necropolis. I wonder at the feelings stirred by each new find, the archaeologists entering a large hall supported by five mighty pillars, their first hesitant steps down a steep staircase to a gloomy netherworld, a previously-unknown funerary temple and a colossal stone statue under a soaring vaulted ceiling. So, this was the place of ultimate reckoning for ancient folk… the weighing of their hearts to assess the good in their soul and the weight of their wrongdoings, all under the stare of the statue: the great God Osiris, God of the Dead and the Afterlife…’

of music, madness and fame – Prague, Czech Republic

…Bohdan is a busker and a bear of a man, close cropped hair, a boyish face and an incongruous bush of a beard. Most days he drags his cello here by the river. I mention Dvorak, the famous Czech composer, and Bohdan’s right eye flashes, the other – oddly askew and unfocussed – a childhood reminder of a Soviet baton and the Prague Spring of 1968. “Not a fan”, he shrugs, “prefer Bedrich Smetana, a quiet man, cruelly treated by the critics… eventually going mad and dying in an asylum after weeks of starvation.” To make his point, Bohdan plays Smetana’s romantic anthem to the Czech nation. Tossing him some coins, I wend my way up from the river to gaze over Prague’s famous hundred spires, raising a lukewarm coffee to my lips as bells peel out from the Basilica. Could it be? There is no mistaking the notes of Bohdan’s favourite…’

where there be dragons – Kadavu, Fiji

`…From high in the hills a lone white yacht looks small, the hull and mast aglow with sunrise, the unsighted captain choosing last night’s tide to tackle reef-strewn seas in total darkness. Palm fronds rustle as melodious voices rise and fall from the village far below; hymns of Sunday singing adrift a balmy breeze. At dinner I meet Robert, a retired doctor. Mourning the death of his wife, he bought the yacht and took sailing lessons, leaving Bristol to see the world. He could never go back. “Nothing there for me these days.” He turns away, musing over his wine. In the morning I sit and look out to sea, cool sand between my toes. Robert’s boat turns slowly into the wind, then back, sails flap gently then fill. The indigo water is glass, the splosh of the bow breaking the spell. I wonder where he’s headed…’

monkey business – Yudanaka, Japan

‘…The mountains are shrouded in deep winter snow, the path steep in parts, meandering through bare brooding forests, the stone steps slippery, the valley path caked in ice and frozen mud. The air is sharp, perfumed pinewood from secret lodge fires. We follow the winding ways of a gurgling creek, shrouded with steam although lined with snow. At the hot springs, the monkeys are here, the youngsters rush, tumble, chatter and squeal under the gaze of world-weary parents, older siblings and extended families. The elders sit quiet, some bathing shoulder deep, others high and dry on rocky ledges, whiskers icy, those wizened eyes small and round on flushed red faces, thoughtful and pondering, knowing stares directly at me, the obvious oddity…’

mystic gifts – New York, USA

`…I am surrounded by primitive cocoons, some two metres long, oddly reminiscent of ancient Peru or Egypt. Each is tightly wrapped, mummified bodies bound in strands of yarn, the scent of lanolin, the colours a mystic rainbow. I scratch my head. There is something uncanny about these shapes, the hours and hours of work, an unfathomable intensity, each coloured strand of wool painstakingly woven and tucked into some preordained pattern. And each with a secret object buried deep inside, its identity only known to the artist. I peer at the name plate on the wall, the sounds of outside traffic and the screams of an unruly kid now only dulled background noise. I’m astonished at the creativity of an artist with Down Syndrome overcoming the burden of being deaf and mute…’

all aboard – Lagos, Nigeria

‘…Flooded streets are potholed, the wrecked buildings once grand, our route riddled with bumps, speed-humps and countless corrugations. A cavalier conductor wears green sports shoes and red shorts, propped precariously with one leg on what’s left of a rear bumper, the other hanging clear, his left hand gripping a crooked rail. He waves with his free hand, spruiking fares as he goes, a shrill tin whistle poking from the corner of his mouth. Music blares from a boom box on the passenger’s seat up front, the car radio broken. The driver is a “good Christian man” with a wife and three kids. He is surprised when I ask if he’ll work on Christmas Day. “But of course Sir, there is no food for lazy man”…’

through the looking glass – Glasgow, UK

`…Grandma had a story for all occasions, never having seen a tree until after arriving at the bleak wharves, cobbled alleys and bedraggled, grey tenements of 1930s Glasgow. She journeyed from a distant Atlantic rock on Britain’s most remote inhabited island, the entire population evacuated due to sickness, the impossible isolation and frequently dirty weather. Earlier I see the family gathered at the smoking hearth of a wee stone house buffeted by screaming island gales. I see her clambering – tied by knotted safety ropes, among soaring stony stacks, edging along cliffs above white seas that seethe and boil – collecting eggs and young birds from the thousands of nesting gannets, fulmars and puffins. I see her, a feisty young woman, at the front of a crowd, cheekily taunting Gospel Band trumpeters by sucking on a cut lemon…’

a darkside downunder – Hobart, Tasmania

`…The installation’s stepping stones are islands, low, flat and square, the only things visible in the dark… “real water” we’ve been warned by the museum attendant. I am off-balance as I reach a turn, a single round step directly below a stark, white face on a pitch-black wall… just one dark eye, a heavy eyelid and long lashes. The pale, translucent skin has freckles – oddly unsettling – uneven nostrils and pearly-white teeth under a pink upper lip. A pale shroud hides the other eye and lower lip, me finally dragging my gaze away and turning in the gloom. The steps are again square, and I am acutely aware of my girlfriend’s unsteady footfalls that follow somewhere in the dark, but can’t forget the alabaster face, that vacant, unnerving stare. We’ve been transported by the artist to a morgue…’

ways of the world – Beruit, Lebanon

`…The sea has a golden sheen under a setting sun, gulls screeching and wheeling overhead, the harbour smelling of sea salt and French fries. Mirko is a bright eyed five-year-old who chides his twin sister, accusing her of eating more than her share. I ask is she a good sister. Mirko looks at his mother who raises one ample eyebrow and smiles. I laugh, and ask the boy if he likes the water.  Mirko is quiet for a moment. “But of course, We are the first to build boats and sail on the sea.” He knows the stories of his Phoenician ancestors and I am impressed. His mother worries. “We hope for the best, and things are good just now.” Her gaze is glued to the twins. “You know, I try to be positive. They live in their own little world, but need time to be kids”…’

the ghost dance – Pierre, USA

`…From Los Angeles I catch the first flight to Pierre, where my father lay frail and tired beyond his years. He whispers something in a raspy voice. Leaning closer, I can’t make anything out. There is no follow-up sentence, and he drifts off to a morphine-laced world. That night I dream of a father I never really knew, of an Indian Prophet and a ghost dance where men gather at a big tree for five days. There are visions, talk with dead family and friends. The Prophet says he’ll return when winter passes, with the ghosts of our fathers… and I suddenly recall balmy evenings under starry summer skies, sitting on a small suburban porch among smoky drifts from my father’s cigarettes, mostly in silence, my father in his once-white singlet, with his own secret thoughts and the occasional word to a doting red dog…’

of desert and diamonds – Terrace Bay, Namibia

‘…The air conditioning drones, the road behind billowing dust, the desert spartan but sublime. Passing plains are topped with black dolomite pebbles polished by eons of wind-born grit. Ahead we see a floating mirage, the imaginings of distant dunes that shimmer on a somewhere shoreline. Soon the blue glare turns grey, our road lost among dunes that blend and drift. Morning is blessed with cool ocean air, giant concrete pylons emerging from a sea mist shroud, the structures once supporting a giant pipe with water to wash uncut diamonds, the ten metre towers now a skyscraper home to cormorant clusters above wild Atlantic seas. Beady eyes stare from on high, snake-like necks craning to take in our every move, our boots slipping on wet rocks and black, broken kelp…’

touching the sky – Granada, Spain

`…We meet at the hotel, Candelaria with shining eyes to match her name, dark olive skin a startling contrast to the simple white blouse. I ask of her parents back home and she hesitates. “Ah, Papa, he hates me being here and reminds me of Franco’s brutal murder of Lorca.” I know of the great Andalusian poet. She nods and continues, “Well, my father idolises Lorca and I remember when I said goodbye. Papa told me that here in Spain the dead are more alive than anywhere in the world – that’s Lorca.” Candelaria’s eyes well up with tears. “Mama cried when I applied for visas.” Candelaria pulls out a handkerchief and blows her nose. “Papa does not understand, says I’m being selfish to bring his only grandson here.” Candelaria sighs, “I just need to spread my wings”…’

Heading Somewhere?


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