Local knowledge necessary

This is a response to Pat Coakley of “Single for a reason” post “Local Knowledge Necessary” 

Damn the torpedoes, FULL SPEED AHEAD!

“Quo vadis?”

“Just down the road a way.”

“If you get into trouble, don’t call me.”

“I’ll be OK, I’m 10 feet tall and bullet proof!”

“But there be dragons!”

“Aye! There be, and I have some experience of their fire.”

“The spirit may be strong, but the flesh is weak”

“That is true but time flies, life is short and I have far to travel.”
“After all, I’m here for a good time, not a long time.”

 

 

I live in a very small world

When I was in the States and I used to work in the carnival (1978 to 1981), after much tequila one night, I started shooting the breeze about a real character called Ron that I had met when I was in Bangkok, back in the early 70s.  A few minutes into my anecdotes one of my audience, piped up and said “he sounds like a guy I met in Greece six years ago in 72.”

” Did he have long frizzy strawberry-blonde hair and always carry around a greasy Moroccan leather satchel?” I asked.

“Yep he sure did. “He was always crapping on about rubbing mink oil into that shoulder bag of his and how good it was for the leather”.

Back in the late 70s, I used to carry about a box of photographs that I had taken when I was travelling around in South-east Asia. So when the guy started saying that he knew the same guy that I been talking about, I was able to pull out the blurry photograph that you see below and ask him if this was the guy.

Ron and Idiot-san in Manilla

“Yep it sure is and I’d know that face anywhere.”

So there you go, I was talking to a Canadian guy that I had met two months previously at the Calgary stampede and just by chance as we were exchanging traveller’s tales in Phoenix, I found out that he knew somebody that I had met in Bangkok who he had met two years before me, in Greece.  5 billion people on the planet, and I bump into somebody who met someone else and I knew when we were both on the other side of the world.  There are better chances of winning a large lottery or being struck by lightning.

I first met Ron when I was staying at the infamous Malaysia hotel in Bangkok. I say infamous because the Malaysia was where murderer Charles Sobhraj operated out of at the same time. Ron was staying at the Malaysia with his mother who had come over from the States to visit him during his travels and they were both in the process of buying gems for her to take back and re-sell in the States.  I think the thing that I liked about Ron was his enthusiasm for life and that he was just so full of joie de vivre.

When one travels, It’s not uncommon to bump into people, that one has a met on the road in nearby countries.  It’s almost as though there is a well worn rut that travellers follow like they are some kind of slot cars made out of meat. So it came as no surprise to me when I bumped into Ron again in Phnom Penh several months later.

The other person in the photograph above with Ron is a Japanese guy whose name I can’t remember but for the sake of convenience I shall call him “Idiot-san”. The reason why I use such an unflattering appellation as Idiot-san, is because the guy was a brainless, wasted attempt by nature at humanity.

A real oxygen bandit!

The very first time I saw Idiot-san, I was sitting at a sidewalk restaurant when he arrived directly from the airport by cyclo (a three wheeled trishaw). As soon as a cyclo stopped, he jumped out and paid the driver about 10 times more than the going rate, and then looked at the rest of the small denomination bills in his hand like they were nothing other than soiled toilet paper and threw them into the air. This almost caused a riot, as all the beggars (there are about five of them who used to hang around at the cyclo-rank) and other cyclo drivers dived on the falling money and started fighting with each other over it. Idiot-san just grabbed his bags and made his way straight for us and asked us in broken English where would be a good place to stay. I pointed him towards the brothel that doubled as a hotel across the road where I was staying.

I saw Idiot-san the next day, with a black eye and I asked him what had happened. He said that the police had robbed him within about four hours of his arrival in Phnom Penh. It would seem that his theatrics with the small change had marked him out as being too stupid to be in possession of anything valuable. I was told that he walking down the road when about four police just grabbed him and gave him the “bum’s rush” into an alley to administer him with a beating to ensure his cooperation. The cops took everything of value that he had. His money, passport, camera, watch and graduation ring.

In the couple of weeks that it took Idiot-san to get a new passport and funds sent to him, he made the acquaintance and friendship with Ron. With a new passport and money, Idiot-san and Ron flew to Vietnam (this was all during the during the war) for two weeks of whoreing and dope smoking in Saigon. When they came back from Saigon, Ron proudly showed me the scabs on his knees, caused by the non-stop shagging that he and Idiot-san had been wallowing in.

Both Ron and Idiot-san left Phnom Penh after a few more weeks and I didn’t see them again until I bumped into them in Manila when I was on my way to Japan. When Idiot-san, heard that I was going to Japan, he gave me his address in Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku and said that Ron would be staying with him when he got back and that I should look them both up when I was there.

When I got to Tokyo, I was so low on funds I had to look for work straight away and I got a few little jobs teaching English.  Because of the way how the Japanese were giving out visas at the time I had to go to Korea to get a new visa after six months. Since I was hitchhiking from Tokyo across the island of Honshu to Shimonoseki to catch the ferry, I thought I should take a detour to visit Ron in Takamatsu.

I hadn’t been given a telephone number to ring first and warn Ron and Idiot-san that I was coming, so I just lobbed up to the address that I had been given. I found the address easily enough and Ron and Idiot-san’s occupancy of the apartment was confirmed by their names on the mailbox. Rang the buzzer, but no one was home, so I asked some of the neighbours in my frightfully crippled Japanese if they knew where they were, and as best as I could understand, I was told they had gone away.

In Japan everybody’s whereabouts is registered with the police so I knew that if I went to the police station they would be probably able to give me a forwarding address. The consternation I caused in the police station when I asked about Ron and Idiot-san gave me quite a surprise. The policeman at the desk called over two shabbily dressed and rough looking detectives and excitedly jabbered away to them as he was gesturing at me. The two detectives took an immediate interest in me and marched me to their desk in the middle of the station. They then bombarded me with questions about Ron and Idiot-san.

Why was I looking for them?

What was my relationship with them? 

Why was I in Japan?

The grilling just went on and on. The detectives were so serious and steamed up. It just wasn’t making sense to me as all I wanted was the new address of my friend and his idiot friend.

When I tried to put a halt to the proceedings with a few questions like “why are you asking me so many questions?” “Are you ever going to give me the addresses of my friends?” I was subjected to a further barrage of rapid-fire questions.

“So, they are your friends!”

“How long have you known them?”

” Why have you come all the way to Takamatsu to see them?”

“What is your real reason for being in Japan?”

On and on it went. Without explanation, I was asked question after question and I answered them as quickly and truthfully as I could, but the detectives still wouldn’t tell me anything or answer any of my questions.  This went on for about two hours (I’m not kidding) and I was starting to get a bit worried, as it was obvious that they weren’t going to let me go.

I guess after so long, the detectives realised they weren’t really getting anywhere with me.  Which didn’t surprise me because I told them everything that I knew, which was nothing.

So they tried a new tactic.  One of the detectives barked something at a uniformed policeman.  The policeman quickly walked down the stairs in the middle of the office with another officer. I sat there for a few minutes wondering what the heck was going on. I was absolutely stunned and horrified at what I saw next.

Back up the stairs returned the two uniformed policeman, each holding on to the upper arms of a semiconscious, blood splattered and badly beaten Japanese man that they had just dragged (he could hardly stand on his own) up the stairs. Things were starting to turn into a nightmare.  It was all just so intensely shocking. The two policemen dragged the poor unfortunate bastard closer to me and snapped his limp sagging head upwards by the hair, so I could see a face that had been beaten to a pulp. His eyes were so swollen that he could hardly open them. His lips were split and his nose looked broken.

The two detectives then said to me, “do you know this man?” To which I answered, “no”. Then they barked the same question to the punching bag, to which he just whimpered a negative. The two policemen then let go of his hair and his head flopped forward. The poor guy was spent and I’m sure he would have told them anything they wanted to hear if he thought it could get him out of his predicament. From the look of things, he was in very deep shit indeed.

I was starting to get a bit frightened by this point, and I was beginning to wonder if I was going to be subjected to such “aggressive interrogation” as well.

I needn’t have worried because as soon as they took the punching bag downstairs, the older of the detectives he took me by the arm to his car. He said, without any further explanation “get in”. I did as I was told, and he drove me towards the ferry terminal.  During the drive, I tried to ask a few questions about what was going on, only to be ignored.  The detective didn’t say one thing to me until we got to the ferry terminal and that was, ” get out and don’t come back”. I left the island of Shimonoseki with no idea of why, what had just happened, happened.

Fast forward several more years to my conversation at the beginning of this post, with the Canadian carney. As I exchanged anecdotes about Ron with the carney, I said that I would love to know what had happened in Japan with Ron, to which the carney replied that he had Ron’s parent’s address in Pensacola, Florida and that we should visit him.

This was starting to get really freaky.

We had just finished the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix, and we were on our way to San Juan in Puerto Rico to do the first really big fair than they’ve ever had down there and we would be passing through Pensacola.

When we got to Pensacola, we found that Ron was living with his parents. Ron still had a long frizzy strawberry blonde hair, but he put on quite a bit of weight, and it was obvious that his mother was feeding him well. After smoking a few joints from Ron’s pillowcase sized stash, he suggested that we go to a local air force watering hole, known as Trader Vic’s.

Trader Vic’s was the perfect context for Ron because it was so crazy in a Vietnam war sort of way. There was camouflage netting hanging from the ceiling, and various military souvenirs all over the corrugated iron walls. All the waitresses seemed to be Vietnamese ex-prostitutes who would take their orders, while kneeling on the knees between the seated men who openly groped them. It was as though I was in a movie about Americans in Vietnam that was being directed by Fellini. It was surreal.

After a few drinks, Ron told us what happened in Japan. Apparently Idiot-san was the younger brother of a minor Yakuza and he suggested that he and Ron could make a lot of money if they took guns and marijuana into Japan. Back in the early 70s Cambodia was awash with firearms and Japan has very strict laws about firearm possession so Ron and Idiot-san bought a number of Chinese pistols when they were in Phnom Penh. Then they bought a bunch of marijuana when they were in the Philippines. Surprisingly, they were able to successfully smuggle the contraband into Japan, but they both got busted in Takamatsu when they were trying to offload it.

Ron and Idiot-san both received three years jail, and the punching bag that I met in the police station at Takamatsu was Idiot-san’s Yakuza brother.

My version of Merguez with Amadou & Mariam singing along

I’ll be having a bunch of French friends over for dinner in two weeks time for Bastille day celebrations and I though I’d trail a meal I’m going to make for them, John dory with shellfish , saffron and merguez broth.

For you non-cognoscenti out there merguez are a sausage from North Africa that are popular in France. I make my own merguez from scratch and I thought you may want to try making them sometime, since most of you live overseas and are unlikely to ever come to my place for dinner.

The music I was listening to as I was making my merguez was my new favourite CD, Amadou & Mariam on their album Dimanche a Bamako

[youtube yxH7pKD8flA] 

Ingredients

1 kg lamb
2-3 teaspoons harissa (you can test how hot you want it by frying up a little mince and tasting it)
5 large cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (pimenton)
1 teaspoon ground allspice
250ml iced water
 
Thin sausage skins
 
Method

Try and use whole spice for recipe as the flavours will be more intense. Put all the whole spices into a dry frying pan over medium heat. Keep the pan moving so that the spices are evenly heated. Take off the heat when the spices start smoking and grind them up in a mortar and pestle. When the spices are fine, add the garlic and pound it all together.
 
The meat should be cold.
Trim any skin from the lamb, but leave a good proportion of fat and cut it up into chunks.
 
Toss all the ingredients (no, not the skins as well) into a food processor and mince. Then spoon the mince into either a sausage maker (not necessary) or, the way in which I do it, a cloth reinforced piping bag (the sort of the used for icing cakes). Place the sausage skins over the end of your filling device of choice and fill them up. Easy!
 
Cook sausages slowly on low medium heat and don’t prick them, the fats inside help the meat cook and the flavour will be better.

[youtube dKrFbfCHm5Q]

 

I didn’t bother putting any photos of the merguez up because they just look like ordinary sausages.

 

My love hate relationship with bureaucracies and the trouble it has gotten me into

I was reading an article about losing passports on a blog called “I Am The Cheese” today and it got me thinking about my relationship with my passports and dealing with immigration in the various countries I have visited. 

I was 16 years old when I got my first passport, and I can remember being so thrilled when I received it.  I looked at all the blank pages and dreamt of filling them up with stamps from exotic destinations. 

I’ve had a total of five passports.  I filled up two of them, destroyed one in the wash, had one expire without filling it up, and I’m currently working on filling up a new fairly new one.

Razzbuffnik through the ages

The old passports were easy to fill up because back in the early 1970s, when I started travelling, the stamps in passports tended to be big, elaborate and colourful affairs. 

Visa for Thailand

I used to love it when I’d get a nice big new visa stamp in my passport.  It was as though my passport was a gun and each new visa stamp was like a notch on the barrel, marking off each new kill.  This might sound crazy, but I used to love crossing borders and filling out the immigration forms.  The more questions on the forms for me to fill out the happier I was.

Although I liked getting the visa stamps in my passport and filling out the all the forms I didn’t have that much respect for the whole concept of authority. I used to bristle at the thought that my stays in various countries would be limited by how much time was allowed by the stamps in my passport.

The first time, this attitude got me into trouble was in the second country that I visited, Indonesia in 1974. Back then, you could only get a one-month visa, and if you wanted to extend it used to cost $25 US for another 30 days. This extra charge struck me as being outrageous, because at that time, I was making about $80 a week, and it seemed like a huge amount of money to pay.  Thanks to my bad attitude, I decided that I wasn’t going to pay the $25 extra and that I was going to sneak out of the country on a fishing boat or something when I felt like leaving, instead of getting the proper extension. So I took my time as I dawdled through the Indonesia from West Timor to Bali and then on to Java and Sumatra.

By the time I got to Sumatra I started to realise it wasn’t going to be so easy to leave illegally, and it would probably cost me way more than the $25 extra charge I was trying to save. Plus there was the problem of arriving in another country illegally. I’m not a very good chess player.

Okay, okay, so I’m as a sharp as a bowling ball! I know, I know!

By the time I’d gotten to the small town of Djambi in the southern part of Sumatra I had already overstayed my visa so I went to the local immigration office to sort things out.  Rumour had it that all officials in Indonesia were extremely corrupt.  So I hit upon a cunning plan.

I got all of my money, with the exception of about $10 worth of local currency and hid it in my shoes, and then I went into the immigration office and ask to speak to the boss.  Amazingly, I was taken straight in to see a General of Immigration (there’s a general for everything over there).  I walked straight up to him and shook his hand and then explained to him as best I could in broken Indonesian, that not only had I overstayed my visa, but I only had $10 to bribe him with to fix things up.

The general looked incredulous and embarrassed, as I, a long red haired teenage idiot offered him a pittance to compromise himself and break the law.  As a condition to entering Indonesia, I had to have an onward ticket out of the country, and the cheapest ticket out of Indonesia that could be bought overseas was a 15 minute air Malaysia flight from Medan, Sumatra to Penang in Malaysia.  The general asked to see my onward ticket so I showed it to him and then he asked to see my passport.  The general then stamped my passport and wrote in my passport that I had 10 days to get out of the country.  He then told me that if I didn’t leave by that time that I would go to jail, and that it was basically a deportation order.

Visa for Indonesia

Whoo! Hoo! My first sort of deportation! Awright! I was special, and I had special stuff written in my passport.  I couldn’t have been happier. I showed every other traveller I met over the next couple of months.

The next time I got into trouble with immigration was in Cambodia.  By the time I had arrived in Cambodia (about six months after I’d left home) I was starting to run out of money so I had to look for some work. One of the beauties of being a native English speaker is that one can always teach English in non English-speaking countries, with dodgy governments. The fact that I wasn’t qualified didn’t even enter my mind and it wasn’t very long before I found a bit of work here and there pretending to teach people how to speak English.  The matter that I was on a 30 day tourist visa, and I wasn’t supposed to work didn’t even appear as a blip on tje outer edges of my radar. 

Who ever said “ignorance is bliss”, sure knew their stuff, when it came to my attitude towards governments and their rights to control the movement and the employment of foreigners within their borders. I just didn’t give a shit.

Cambodia during my stay was in the midst of a civil war, and as such, the government was a shambolic free for all.  It was pretty easy at the time to get extensions to the visas, but it was much more problematic to get permission to work.  I had gone into the immigration Department to explain that I wanted to change my tourist visa to a work visa, and I was told that they would think about it.  That evening two immigration officers turned up at my place, and just hung around for about an hour or so, making small talk.  I was so clueless at the time, I thought they were just being sociable and I didn’t realise that I was supposed to pay them some money to sort my visa status out.  When it was obvious that they were wasting their time with me, they left, and my visa wasn’t extended or changed. 

To be honest, at the time I didn’t care. That is until I got a letter from the Australian Embassy, telling me to leave because the Khmer Rouge were about to take the city, and I had to leave in a hurry.  When I went to buy my air ticket out, I was informed that I had to get permission to leave the country, because my papers were no longer in order.

I went back to the immigration Department to try and set the matter straight.  I was kept waiting in a stuffy hot office for about two hours, and during that time a long haired American traveller who was there before me, totally lost his cool and started yelling and screaming at the immigration staff. He had been waiting for so long and it was the second time he had been through the long waiting rigmarole thing. Apoplectic with rage, his face turned a bright red as he spluttered invective at a seemingly imperturbable desk clerk. The American could see he was getting nowhere, and that the immigration staff were beginning to enjoy his little rant so he just “tossed his plaits” and stormed off.

A short while later I was shown in to the office of the man in charge, Su Sonn the Controleur de Police.  He was one of those greasy arrogant and horrible people, who made their way in the world by squeezing money out of everybody he came into contact with. I had seen him around town before, riding around on a big Harley Davidson dressed in a khaki safari suit and he used to wear a side arm in a holster around his waist. He parted his hair in the middle and slicked it back with a greasy pomade.  To complete the slime-bag image that he was cultivating, he was smoking a cigarette in a tortoise shell cigarette holder and wore aviator Ray Bans.

Su Sonn sat behind his desk, slumped in his chair as he gave my passport a cursory look. With a grunt he flicked it casually back at me, making sure it fell on the floor and said to “me come back tomorrow”.

I was starting to see why the American had lost it.  As I picked up the passport off the floor I remembered that the next day was a public holiday so as I stood up, I flicked the passport back across the table towards him, so it landed in his lap and I said to him “tomorrow is a public holiday, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks”.

It’s never a good idea to lose one’s temper in Asia with officials because they see it as a sign of weakness and lack of control. It only causes them to despise you even more.  I knew that Su Sonn scumbag was counting on me caring about whether or not I could get my exit permit. 

The thing was though, I didn’t care. 

I figured that if the guy was going to mess me around and then try and get some kind of huge bribe from me, I might as well, just say that my passport had been stolen and get another one. To hell with him! I was naive, brainless, 10 foot tall and bullet-proof.

I went back several days later and picked up the passport without any problems.

Visa for Thailand

Whoo! Hoo! Awright! I was extra special now, and I had extra special stuff written in my passport.  I couldn’t have been happier. It was the first time I ever had to get permission to leave a country!

The next time I got into trouble with immigration was about a year later, in Japan.  Again, I had gone into the country on a tourist visa, with the intention of teaching English.  The Japanese at the time, where giving visas valid for multiple visits for two months over a six month period, that could be each be extended for another month. 

Visa for Japan

So in practice what one had to do was go to Korea after three months and then come back for another three months and then go out of the country again to get another Visa. Which I did, but the only problem was that when I tied to return to Japan, the Immigration officials at Smimonseki looked at my previous visa, and figured that I’d already stayed six months and that was long enough considering that I didn’t have enough money to support a tourist visit. 

They knew I was working, and I got to see side of the Japanese character that most Australians hadn’t seen since the Second World War.  All I can say is that it is the Japanese make the best of friends, but the absolute worst of enemies. Thanks to my wilful disrespect of Japanese immigration laws I got to see the nasty side of Japanese culture. They started to threaten me with ” we put you in monkey house”. “You no go home long time”. I could see that they are enjoying watching me to twist in the wind and the belligerent taunting went on for what seemed like hours.

I was getting desperate, and I finally blurted out that I had to get back to Tokyo, because my Japanese fiancé was waiting for me.  That threw a real wrench in their works, and they were full of consternation at what to do. After much heated debate in raised voices, they decided to ask me what my fiancé’s phone number was. I gave them my girlfriend’s phone number, and they called her and asked if it was true, I was her fiancé.  It was the first time Akemi had heard any such thing but luckily for me, she played along and gave the immigration guys assurances that we were in fact going to be married very soon. Incredibly, I was given a three-month stay and allowed to carry on back to Tokyo. Un-freaking-believable!

So I went back to Tokyo and continued teaching, but the three months went by awfully quickly, so I decided to hell with this, and overstayed my visa again.

In Japan foreigners have to register with the police, and they receive what is known as a gaijin (foreigner) card that they have to carry on their persons at all times. The gaijin card has to be updated by the police every couple of months.  Everything was going really well until I went to get my gaijin card updated and an unusually thorough policeman asked to look at my passport to check my details (it was the first time that it happened) and he noticed that I had overstayed my visa.  I was told I was in serious trouble and I had to go to the immigration Department immediately. 

Strangely enough, the immigration Department wasn’t very happy with me, and after reading me the “riot act”, they made me write out a personal apology to the emperor of Japan for breaking his laws (I’m not kidding) and then they told me I had a week to get my affairs in order and get out of the country or as I going to jail for three years.

Bummer!

When it came time for me to check in at the airport, the counter staff waved over two the huge beefy Japanese plainclothes policeman, who came over to me and without a word, each held me underneath an arm and kept a hold of me until the plane came.  When it came time to board, with hundreds of other passengers watching, the plainclothes policeman frog-marched me onto the aeroplane. I didn’t feel so it elated about having a real deportation happen. It was shameful and embarrassing, plus I was not allowed back into Japan for at least another five years. I loved Japan and the Japanese.

Double bummer!

As it turned out, I didn’t return to Japan for another 29 years.

My how things have changed, or should I say how I’ve changed.  I wouldn’t dream of trying any of that nonsense on nowadays.  I like my border crossings to be trouble-free, and I go out of my way to keep my nose clean when I travel.  These days I have, itineraries, rental cars, travel insurance and obey the laws of the countries that I go into without giving it a second thought.

The trouble is, when one does the right thing, it doesn’t lead to any experiences that are worth the telling.  Now when I come back from overseas trips, and anybody asks me about my trip, I can sum it all up with the following statement, ” I had a really great time, and everything went well”.

Nowadays it’s much harder to fill up a passport with stamps as they’re now these dinky little anticlimactic things.

Visaa for Malaysia, Thailand and Japan

One can assume, the more sophisticated the country, the smaller and more insignificant their entry and exit stamps are.  It would seem that it’s only Third World countries with Byzantine bureaucracies have nice big colourful stamps (more like bank notes really) any more.

Visas for Indonesia and Vietnam

The gaze of existential angst. Manila, The Philippines. 1975

Sometimes when I look at my old photographs that I took many years ago, I feel similar to an astronaut who has returned to the earth from the lunar surface with moon rocks. What was gathered in a short time, will be analysed for many years to come, answering questions that weren’t even thought of when the mission was begun.

Like many people in the early 70s, I read quite a few of Hermann Hesse’s books and a quote from the prologue of his book Demianstruck me like a lightning bolt when I first read it at the age of 17 or 18, when I was travelling around South-East Asia.

“Every person’s life is a journey toward himself, the attempt at a journey, the intimation of a path. No person has ever been completely himself, but each one strives to become so, some gropingly, others more lucidly, according to his abilities. Each one carries with him to the end traces of his birth, the slime and eggshells of a primordial world. Many a one never becomes a human being, but remains a frog, lizard, or ant. Many a one is a human being above and a fish below. But each one is a gamble of Nature, a hopeful attempt at forming a human being. We all have a common origin, the Mothers, we all come out of the same abyss; but each of us, a trial throw of the dice from the depths, strives toward his own goal. We can understand one another, but each of us can only interpret himself.”

Ever since I read that quote I have realised that one’s life is an evolutionary journey towards understanding what it is to be a human being.  I’ll be the first one to admit that I have been a fairly appetite driven, base and hedonistic animal most of my life but every now and again, I’ve bumped into little diamonds of wisdom that helped me get back on track to some kind of understanding and enlightenment.

One of the things that I’ve really struggled with all my life is to try and determine what is important and what is not, in terms of what to do with one’s short time on this earth and how to be while we are here.

I’ve always instinctively known that it is meaningless to define one’s self in terms of a career.  Working has been a means to an end for me and if I didn’t have to pay for the basic necessities of life, I wouldn’t work at all.  Now that’s not saying I that wouldn’t want to do anything.  I’m one of those people, that is driven by the need to create, and as such I’m never truly idle.

What has always repelled me from the idea of having a career is the recognition that, for me, most jobs just turn into a pointless slow-moving river of continuous ennui.

The gaze that says, is this all there is?

Occasionally I think about the character (Whit I think) from Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, who when asked by the main character George, why he always blows his weekly salary at the local brothel, replies along the lines of, ” when I look back on my working life,  I can’t distinguish one day from the next, but when I go to the brothel remember every single moment”.

That’s not the kind of life I want to lead! 

If I hadn’t gone to art College at night, the 5 years I lived in Brisbane and worked selling professional photographic equipment would’ve been wasted years.  Like the character in Steinbeck’s book, I can’t remember any particular working day from that job.  It scares me to think that one’s whole life can go by so unremarkably.  I am absolutely certain life must amount to more than that.

So the gaze of my existential angst has led me to being more of a generalist than a specialist and I content myself with the thought that evolution doesn’t reward specialisation for very long.

Dinner at Razzman’s house.

Pat Coakley has created a fantastic image on her site “Single for a reason” of what “Dinner at Razzman’s house” would be like based on my posts. Go and have a look, it’s got fires in it that I’d love to sit around.

For a bit of contrast here’s an image (taken last night) of what “Dinner at Razzman’s house” was actually like.  The woman cradling the dog is my neighbour (the best in the world), Sandra. Engogirl (my wife) is the guardian of the chinmea making sure I don’t succumb to my pyro tendencies.

Sandra her dog Chevy and Engogirl

Phở Dog Blackout

Mai Long is an artist friend of mine whose work I love so much that I’ve bought 4 of her works over the last couple of years. I also designed Mai’s website and I’m her webmaster, as such, I do all the updates. Below is an artist’s statement about an exhibition that Mai had in Perth, Western Australia in late May this year, that Mai sent me yesterday to put up on her website.

Due to the sensitivities of the organisation ‘Vietnamese Community in Western Australia’, the Phở Dog installation has been covered.

Pho Dog blacked out

Here is an explanation by Mai Long (the artist of the work)

Phở Dog is an installation of 12 mythical mongrels named Phở Dog. Part of my artist statement printed in the I love Phở catalogue (p. 44) explains Phở Dog as a ‘character that contemplates difference and tries to understand it in the broader context of human nature and complex political histories – a tribute to the idea that things will never fit into neat little boxes’ … and also… ‘Eating Phở in Australia as an Australian reminds (me) of the unhealed wounds of the Vietnamese
diaspora’ … in addition … ‘This work embodies my wish for a healing, and a search for hope and humour’.

This is what the exhibition should look like uncovered

Cuong Phu Le, curator of I Love Pho, informed me of a sensitive response to the Phở Dog ‘Keala’ at the opening night of the exhibition. Keala, a dog interweaving a number of flags and symbols from parts of flags from various countries, was seen to be problematic by the Vietnamese community, due to the five pointed yellow star on red background and the three red stripes on yellow background.

This is the offending dog.

Over the past weeks, increasingly steady pressure regarding the problematic work – threatening ‘boycott’ / requesting ‘removal, or ‘covering the work’ – and negative media generated nationally throughout the Vietnamese community has taken it’s toll. It has been the personal criticisms directed at the curator that have been particularly damaging. Following many in-depth conversations with Cuong Phu Le, I made the decision to cover the entire Phở Dog installation. During our discussions, the curator had also expressed concern over my personal safety as I am scheduled to arrive in Perth 23rd May to run a weekend workshop.

It is with great sadness that I have decided to cover the entire installation of Phở Dogs with a black sheet, as if a shrouding, a mourning, a death-ness, a frustrated silence with mysterious and alien bumps. This is a gesture to acknowledge the suffering of the Vietnamese Community concerned, and at the same time the suffering of all peoples who cannot speak out in the world, and who are censored in their own societies.

I considered just removing or covering Keala, but to censor one would be to treat that mongrel differently to the next, which in essence goes against the grain of the entire concept of the installation. The mongrels need to be seen in context as well as individually. Individually and as a group they illustrate and talk to the whole idea of complexity and the problem of us all progressing equally together, as a healthy cohesive society.

Phở Dog tries to look at complex issues in a humorous light, with a main inspiration being selfmockery as I slot myself into a supposedly derogatory mongrel label (as a half-breed). Selfmockery is a mechanism I have used previously in my art to alleviate the weight of pain and seriousness I have placed on issues that seem so unfair and irreconcilable that you just don’t know where to turn or who or how to communicate them with. In this sense, sadly and ironically, this “blackout” of the Phở Dog installation seems eerily natural. However, I will need some more time to better digest what has occurred here.

Mai Long
27th of May 2008 

Phở Dog installation – by Mai Long 2006 –Casula Powerhouse Collection
Phở Dog Blackout – 23 May 2008 –Breadbox Gallery, Perth

Apparently there are people in the Vietnamese community here in Australia who feel that the current flag of Vietnam is as potent a symbol of oppression and hate to them as the nazi flag is to Jews. It would seem that 33 years after the war in Vietnam ended, feelings still run high. I find it ironic that some people would have us believe that behaving in a non-democratic and fascist manner is somehow better than the way how the Vietnamese government behaves. To such people I have this to say:

Guys, you’re here in Australia now (a country that recognises the current Vietnamese government) and those sort of bullying tactics are not what this country is about. You live here because you enjoy your freedoms. By all means express your opinions but that doesn’t give you the right to curtail the freedoms of others to express themselves.

Below is an example of Mai’s latest work.

The ascension fo Dag girl