Skin diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Queensland, Australia

My wife (Engogirl) and I went both scuba diving and snorkelling on the Great Barrier reef last month.

I learnt how to scuba dive years ago and to tell the truth, I never really thought it was any better than snorkelling. Scuba is interesting in that it’s a bit like flying. You aren’t restricted by gravity to the ground. When you want to go down, you merely swim down and when you want to go up, all you have to do is swim up. all very effortless and it’s a bit like being like a bird except the medium which you pass through is much denser and you can’t breathe it.

Engogirl wanted to try scuba diving so when we went out to the reef, we both did an introductory course (I hadn’t done any scuba diving since the mid 1980s). 

Engogirl and the razzbuffnik go scuba diving

My wife was very underwhelmed by the experience as not only did she think that there wasn’t as much to look at the bottom (the reef is mainly in about 10 metre, which is about 31 ft, deep water), she also felt that the noise of the breathing apparatus and the bubbles it made, detracted from the experience. In short she felt it wasn’t worth the hassle of dealing with all the equipment and she’d rather just jump in the water to snorkel.

Engogirl and pineapple sea cucumber

Before we left on our trip we bought a very cheap and consequently low quality underwater camera (a Vivitar 6200W). It’s fixed focus and it can make little low-res movie files. We were a bit disappointed with the lack of sharpness and poor colour rendering. The digital screen was next to useless and basically we pointed the thing and just hoped for the best. The only good thing about the camera was that it was waterproof to 10 meters (which we took it down to).

The nice thing about snorkelling is that it’s very simple and far less dangerous. No hassles with having to be careful with surfacing to avoid the bends and no time limits. Another plus is the gear is way cheaper and far more simpler.

clown fish

Scuba gear isn’t that necessary on the reef because most of it is in shallow water and the colours look better closer to the surface. 

There were some very keen scuba divers on the boat we went on and I scared one while I was snorkelling by diving down to her depth (about 8 meters or about 26 feet) and swimming under her. She sure didn’t expect to see someone without scuba gear at that depth.

surgeon fish

The only advantage of scuba, that I could see, in the area we dived in was that one could take their time taking photos. Trouble was that the further down you go, the duller the colours become. If you use a flash to bring back the colour, you’ll illuminate the particles in the water and you’ll get lots of lightly coloured, out of focus dots in your shot. Unfortunately for us the coral had spawned a few days before we arrived and there were lots of small particles in the water. The crew on the boat seemed to enjoy telling us that we’d be swimming in coral spooge.

There’s no doubt it, the Great Barrier Reef has plenty of fish to see and it’s quite easy to get fairly close to them.

surgeon fish

 We saw some quite large fish such as a 1.5 metre (about 4′ 6″) shark and a very large Maori wrasse (almost 2 metres or about 6’6″). Both fish were big enough to make me think twice about getting closer and I didn’t get any pictures of them.

By the second day Engogirl had found the perfect snorkelling combination; a stinger suit and a noodle.

Engogirl and the latest in snorkelling fashion

Stinger suits are designed to protect the wearer from stings of the irukandji jellyfish and sunburn. The noodles are a long closed cell foam cylinder that provide floatation. I stuck with my lightweight wetsuit.

Engogirl spent most of her time taking little movies with our camera while floating on the surface. I’ve cobbled a little movie together of Engogirl’s first efforts at filming. If you’d like to see the movie, click here.

My version of mango sorbet

It’s summer here and that means mangos are in season! My wife and I love them and have already been through 4 whole boxes of mangos this season. We usually make mango smoothies to beat the heat, but every now and again we use mangos in salads or I make a sorbet out of them.

My version of mang sorbet

Unfortunately many mango growers have opted to grow the large reddish mangos (such as the Calypso or the Bowen) that look so spectacular but don’t taste as delicious as the smaller yellow mangos (such as the Kensington or the Turpentine).

Trust me on this, the smaller yellow mangos are WAY better.

I usually start this recipe the day before I want to serve it and it makes about 2 litres (about 2 quarts).


Enough mango cheeks to fill up a 1.5 litre (3 pints) blender
400gr of sweetened condensed milk (14 oz)
100gr liquid glucose (3.5 oz)
Juice of 2 limes (about the size of a golf ball)

Blend the mango cheeks until liquid. You may have to push the mangos down every now and again (Now I don’t have to tell you not to do this, while the blender is switched on…. do I?). When the mangos are liquid pour in the condensed milk, lime juice and glucose (you might have to warm up the glucose in the microwave for a few seconds so that it pours easily) while the blender is running and blend until it is thoroughly combined. 

Chill the mixture for a few hours and then churn in an ice cream maker and return to the freezer until ready to serve.

I usually time this recipe by doing the blending just before I go to bed and I leave the covered mixture in the fridge until morning to cool down and I churn it in the morning and then place it in the freezer until the evening.  I do it this way so the texture is firm but not hard and it’s easier to scoop.

If you’re wondering why glucose is used, it’s because it keeps the sorbet soft enough to scoop and gives it a smoother, less crystalline texture.

Don’t use frozen mango cheeks or tinned mangos (they taste like crap). Another reason why you shouldn’t try and blend frozen mango cheeks to speed up the churning is because the glucose will go as hard as a rock and won’t mix in properly. 

Don’t get your mother high for Christmas.

Back in the late 1970s when I was in my early 20s and living in Canada, I used to smoke a fair amount of dope. As a matter of fact, back then if I couldn’t do it high, I thought it wasn’t worth doing.  Also at that time my relationship with my parents was very strained as they could see I was living a lifestyle that they disapproved of. My stepfather Manfred was a teenager during the Second World War and as such was in the Hitler youth (which was like the boy scouts except that one received weapons training and indoctrination).  Manfred was educated by the Jesuits and grew up in a world of strict discipline and respect for authority.  I’m pretty sure that my long hair combined with an anti-authoritarian fuck you attitude drove him up the wall, and he used to say to me, “a few years in the army would do you a world of good”.

Little did he know that I was kicked out of the Army cadets in high school for being useless (according our captain) and I’d been put in a boy’s home to two weeks when I was a young child for being uncontrollable.  I suspect that I would have been up on disciplinary charges most of the time if I’d ever joined the army. 

If I was a dog I would be one of those mongrels that would always be pulling on the leash no matter how hard you yanked on it and I’d probably bite you for your troubles.

My mother was also rebellious as a child and I think she had some sort of empathy and understanding of the headspace I was in at that time.  When my mother was in her mid teens she used to hang out with the local hell raisers who were basically a small-town biker gang.  Mum has had a fair bit of experience with rebellion and she is not one of those naive mothers who has never been anywhere or done anything.  In short, my mother is a very worldly person to the extent that she is almost the exact opposite of wimpy-wishy-washy and she has had what many people would describe as a “colourful” life.

Because of the tension at the time between myself and my stepfather, any family get-together was always a time of great stress on my mother.  Now that I’m older I realise what an imposition I put my mother in and what an absolute pain in the arse I used to be. It also surprises me that Manfred never tried to murder me because I sure did deliberately push his buttons, and he would have been justified.

Now I don’t have to go on about what a stressful time Christmas is to everyone because we know it’s such an old and familiar trope.

I think it was back in about 1979 when I was invited over for Christmas dinner (I was such a jerk back then that I wasn’t really welcomed there at any other time) with the family.  Ours is a pretty small family, as there is only my mother, Manfred, my sister, her husband (at that time, they’re now divorced) and I.

This picture was taken about two years after this story

As usual, mum cooked a really great meal and afterwards we were all soon suffering from post prandial lassitude. There hadn’t been much conversation as we ate because of the general tension caused by my presence, so Manfred excused himself from the table and said he was going to have a bit of a nap to sleep off the meal.

As soon as Manfred was out at the room I pulled out my bag of dope and tossed it to my sister to roll a joint (something that she was very good at back then). It never even occurred to me that I should have asked my mother’s permission or that she would mind. Mum just sat there with a raised eyebrow and a bemused look on her face.  I can almost imagine my mother thinking to herself, “ha! You think you are so cool, but you’ve got no idea”. Never let it be said that my mother is a wet blanket. 

Mum then went on to explain that she had tried marijuana with a bunch of musician friends that she knew about 10 years earlier and it didn’t have any effect on her.  “I just don’t understand what the big fuss is about that stuff “, she knowingly declared.

“I think it’s a waste of money”, was added for good measure. 

Those comments got me rabbiting on, in that irritatingly condescending tone that young adults take with their parents, about how good Colombian weed was and that I was sure that my dope would knock her socks off.

Mum, just said, “no thanks”. 

Just as we were about to light up, Manfred came back into the room (he later told my mother that he knew we were up to something) and my mother grabbed the joint and stuck it in the top pocket of her shirt.  Of course the tension between Manfred and I killed any further conversation so we all went into the living room to watch some television.  The diagram below shows our seating arrangements so I don’t have to go into a complicated explanation that would probably be hard to follow.

Manfred wasn’t wearing his glasses so he was sitting on the edge of the seat leaning towards the television, whereas I was sitting back in my seat while my mother faced both of us with her back to the television.

In my arrogant and selfish stupidity I resented the fact that Manfred had come back and that I could no longer smoke the joint.  I sat there for about half an hour bored and irritated. So behind Manfred’s back I indicated to my mother that I wanted the joint back.  Not to be outdone in the cool stakes, my mother who smoked cigarettes back then, took out the joint and lit it right in front of Manfred. Manfred whose eyesight isn’t that great couldn’t see that it was a joint and not a cigarette. 

Within seconds of mum lighting up, Manfred quickly stood up and said in an alarmed voice, “What’s burning?”

To which my mother just said, ” don’t worry about it, it’s okay”.

Manfred then said, ” no, something is burning maybe it’s the wiring”.

In the meantime my mother had taken about 4 or 5 drags of the joint, and since it was really strong Colombian, I was trying to indicate to her that she should pass it. Unfortunately, mum just didn’t get what I was trying to communicate and she followed Manfred around the house, smoking the joint and blowing the smoke on him as he was sniffing in all the various nooks and crannies looking for the fire. Together they made a circuit of upstairs, the ground floor and the basement. By the time they came back to the living room the joint was just about finished and mum stubbed it out in the ashtray.

A few minutes later mum got up and went upstairs. I didn’t think anything about it at the time but then a few minutes later my sister went upstairs. My brother in law, Manfred and I sat there in the living room, glancing at each other every now and again for about another five or so minutes until Manfred also went upstairs.

After a few more minutes my brother in law said that I should go and see what’s going on.

So off I went upstairs to my parents bedroom.

As I approached the bedroom, Manfred came charging out of the room like a wounded rhino. His face was bright red with anger and he barked at me, ” did you give your mother that dope?”  

Summoning up my most insolent tone I spat back at him, “yeh”. I thought we were going to come to blows but Manfred must’ve thought better of it and kept on proceeding away from the bedroom.  I guess he felt he had to get out of the situation before he did something that he would later regret.

 My mother was laying on the bed crying and freaking out as my sister was trying to calm her down. Mum turned to me and between her sobs said, “how could you do this to your own mother?”

“I can’t feel my legs!”

The only thing I could think to say in reply was, “well, you did smoke the whole thing by yourself and I was trying to get you to pass it on to somebody else”.

More sobs and a repetition of, “how could you do this to your own mother?”

“I can’t feel my legs!”

I thought I could try reason, and explained to mum that the joint was made with $60 an ounce Colombian, (this was back in the days when a lid of weed used to cost about $10) and that people don’t pay that kind of money to feel bad.  I then went on to suggest that mum lay back and enjoy the experience. Mum was just too freaked out and that wasn’t going to happen. There was plenty more crying, accusations and damnation.


That went well,

………….. not!

Manfred was dangerously furious and mum was so upset that I figured that it would be probably a good idea to leave and go home.

If in doubt……..

 Bug out!

Christmas ruined for everyone.

 Yes, my work there was done!  

A couple of days later I got a phone call from my parents basically explaining that I wasn’t really welcome back in the house, and it was about two years before I went back.

Poor ole mum! 

This picture was taken by Manfred about two weeks ago

The crap I’ve put her through could fill a book.

Luckily for my family and I, I’ve matured a bit and I now get along with Manfred to such a point that I consider him to be a friend and I find it hard to understand why I never used to like him. 

On the other hand, I have no problem understanding why Manfred used to be annoyed with me when I was younger. 

This situation reminds me of a quote by Mark Twain:

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”


I’d rather be blown. The Great Barrier Reef, far north Queensland, Australia

What I want to cover in this article is the dynamics of being on a charter yacht for two days in the tropics.

About a month ago my wife (Engogirl) and I went up to Surfers Paradise to attend a conference on large dams. Engogirl had never been up to far north Queensland, and she wanted to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I hadn’t been up to Cairns since I was about 14, so I was quite amenable to extending our trip by travelling up north by train.

A fact that many people aren’t aware of, is that the Reef is actually about 20 or 30 km offshore and if you want to visit it you will need some kind of boat. Because the Great Barrier Reef is such a well-known tourist destination, there are plenty of options to get out there for visitors wishing to go diving. There are huge catamarans that hold hundreds of people complete with a helicopter pads on top through to charter yachts catering to much smaller groups.

Due to the facts that my wife and I can’t stand large crowds of people and that it’s easier to go missing at sea on a large boat, we decided that a smaller boat would be more suitable.  We booked tickets on a boat called the “Vagabond“, which is crewed by three people (captain, diving instructor and cook) with nine other passengers.

Engogirl and fellow punters

We boarded at about eight o’clock in the morning and straight away it was obvious that the cook (who I suspect was the captain’s girlfriend) and diving instructor didn’t get along. The cook (an American woman from Virginia) made it obvious that the diving instructor got on her nerves by snapping at him a few times about nothing, in front of us. 

The diving instructor (Frank) was one of those happy go lucky guys that obviously has a great time, doing his work and chatting up any of the female punters who might mistake him for a legend. I’ve known plenty of guys like him. As matter of fact, a few of my friends have been trekking guides in Nepal and white water rafting guides, so I know what their headspace is like and I’ve heard all the stories about their gormless punter conquests.  Unfortunately for our diving instructor, Frank, he was a German, and although he wanted to have fun and joke around, there was a little bit of cultural dissonance happening, which cruelled most of his attempts at humour. Which was a pity because he was a nice guy.

Viri shoots the breeze with Frank

I’ve got real soft spot for Germans and there have been very few Germans that I’ve met, that I haven’t liked.  I think that many non-Germans think that Germans are rude, because they are so direct. I’ll admit that it can seem confronting at first, but once you get used to the way how Germans interact, it’s a real pleasure to be able to relax and be so straightforward. No fragile sensitivities or gameplaying, just direct communication, and I love it.

It was an absolutely beautiful clear day with a good offshore breeze that allowed us to make good time (12 kn) under sail.

There’s nothing like being on a large yacht that has all its sails and spinnaker up in a good stiff breeze.  To add to the general feeling that we were partaking in something special we were accompanied every now and again by pods of dolphins. It took us a couple of hours to get out to the reef, but by about lunchtime we were already in the water snorkelling.

About half the people on the boat where experienced scuba divers with their certificates. I on the other hand, learned how to scuba dive when I was 14 years old for $11 at a local YMCA with a high school friend of mine, Stephen. That was back in the bad old days, when they basically just said, “make sure that you exhale when you surface and don’t come up any faster than your bubbles”. Of course, things are very different nowadays and I couldn’t in all good faith tell the diving instructor that I was properly qualified to scuba dive. Never mind having to produce a certificate that would be recognised today.

Fortunately my shonky scuba certification and Engogirls girl’s complete lack of experience wasn’t an issue because the Vagabond offered an “introductory course”, which basically meant that the driving instructor went over the basics with every one and then escorted us on the dive, ensuring that we didn’t go any deeper than 10 meters (about 30 feet) and that we exhaled as we resurfaced slowly. I won’t talk any more about scuba diving and I will leave that for another post.

When a yacht is under full sail with a good wind, sailing can be sublime. Of course it’s not for everyone, because a good wind means that there is usually fairly choppy seas, and that means the boat leans over and goes up and down in a way, that people who aren’t used to it, may find alarming. I’ve been on various water craft on the ocean many times and I’ve never been sick, even in large storms.  Although I’ve never been seasick, I know that it can strike anyone and I was a bit worried that I might get nauseous, and I was doubly worried about Engogirl because I wanted to her to have a great time. Luckily both of us didn’t even come close to getting sick, but one unfortunate passenger did. According to common wisdom, one can avoid seasickness by staring at the land or the horizon if there is no land in sight. Another strange thing about seasickness is that the nausea completely stops when the sufferer enters the water.

Strangely enough, it’s very hot and humid in the tropics. Since you can’t or don’t want to scuba dive or snorkel all day, you end up sitting in the shade on deck, sweating your arse off drinking. Being on a boat means that you can’t get away from the heat and humidity and your only relief is to jump on the water every now and again to cool off, then drink some more.

Engogirl and a fellow punter from Germany

With such a small group, interpersonal dynamics are important. Most of the people on our trip were very nice (we met up with a couple from Mexico and Brazil who live in Sydney and we’ll be having them over for dinner this Friday), with the exception of an older surgeon (who’s wife was lovely) with an unfortunate god complex. He used to own a yacht charter business himself at Airlie Beach and he was the sort of guy that saw himself as the font of all knowledge. He constantly contradicted people. If somebody said black he’d say white. He was just ridiculous.  I guess he was used to pushing a bunch of terrified underlings around without any comeback, and his personality had suffered as a consequence. So our little tin god held court in the cockpit and bored the shit out of me. Unfortunately the captain, who was quite capable at his job, seemed to be in his thrall and basically encouraged him to pontificate.

Another interesting thing was that none of the passengers smoked cigarettes but all three of the crew did.  I asked the captain, ” what’s the matter, do you guys get too much fresh air?”

As the day passed, I found myself noticing how fatigued the crew looked. They go out as often as they can, day after day, without much time off.  They go out for two days to come back in the afternoon, and then they have to clean up the boat ready for the next day’s group first thing, the next morning. 

In such heat and humidity it was no wonder they looked so exhausted and jaded. The diving instructor was new to that particular boat, and he obviously hadn’t been ground down by the routine yet, but the captain and cook could barely disguise how, over, the situation they were.  Constantly being out in the heat and humidity whilst having to make small talk with people they know they’ll never see again, must be completely draining. They were too busy to go scuba diving and snorkelling themselves (the captain said he hadn’t been scuba diving for over a year) and were constantly at everybody’s beck and call. I can completely understand why the captain seemed so disinterested and fake in his conversations, but I do wish he had have been a bit more professional and not shown it so openly. Then again, us Australians are like that in general.

The food on board, whilst being quite plain due to the fact that they have to cater to so many different palettes, was perfect, as it was mostly light and fresh salads with cold meats. One of the guests asked why they weren’t serving fish on board, to which the captain replied, ” we bring people out here to see the fish, not to kill them”. Then the captain went on to explain to us how much damage fishing does to the reef. Not only do the fish stocks get depleted, but the coral also gets damaged by boats dropping anchor in areas they are not familiar with. He had a very low opinion of sports fishermen and boats that took such people out onto the reef to fish. After having spent a little time diving on the reef, I completely agreed with him on that matter.

It was so hot and sticky all day, that nobody really spent any time in their dark tiny little cabins. Our cabin was up at the front near the head (boating talk for “toilet”), which was a drag because our cabin had two doors; one to open into the passageway, and one into the toilet. The toilet was shared by other people who could enter through another door. 

During the night both of the head doors were to be left open because there was a hatch directly over the toilet that was left open to let fresh air in.

Much to our chagrin and disgust, we found out that our cabin was so hot at night, that we had to leave the toilet door open so we could get a small rank smelling breeze through to us. To make matters worse, when I asked the captain how to turn on the fans that were in our cabin (the switches didn’t seem to be working), he looked at me as though I had just asked him if I could have my way with his mother, and curtly replied to me, ” I’ll do it in a couple of minutes”. So went back to my cabin and lay in the sweltering heat, and waited for him for about nearly an hour. I figured he must have forgotten, and he looked so irritated when I asked him, I thought I’d probabley be better off asking the cook how to turn on the fans. She told me the captain hadn’t turned on the power to the fans that she would speak to him, and it should be sorted out pretty soon.  Another half an hour passed on the fans weren’t turned on, so I went out and asked the captain again, if he could turn the power to the fans on.

He said he’d get right onto it.

It never happened.

I laid there fuming for hours. I was so angry thoughts of violence crossed my mind.

Another dive boat anchored near us at night

I was still angry in the morning, but I thought, that there was no point in kicking up a big fuss as I would be off the boat later on in the day and I might as well enjoy the rest of the trip.

The second day was calm and the wind had gone away. My wife and I spent the day snorkelling together, and all my anger at the captain just drained away as I enjoyed being in one of the most amazing places in the world.

After lunch, we headed back into Cairns, but unfortunately there was no wind and we had crawled back at a snail’s pace under power. Sailing is great, but motoring along in a sail boat sucks!

The sun just beat down on us, and there was no breeze to give us any relief. I was starting to think that one of those catamarans with a helicopter pad seemed like a great idea.  I’m pretty sure that Engogirl and I would have been happy to spend a couple hundred dollars just to get off the boat. Again, I found myself thinking about the crew, and how they did this day after day. On the surface of things, it might seem to be a dream job, working on a charter yacht on the Great Barrier Reef, but I’m pretty sure that the nitty-gritty, salty, sweaty, stinky reality, would pall pretty quickly.

On the way back, I was chatting with the diving instructor (Frank), and he told me about some of the jobs that he had. He had worked in Mauritius and in Thailand at resorts before he’d come to Australia. Frank had said that there was a high burnout rate with diving instructors in Cairns working on the large boats. Apparently, the large boats work like assembly lines, with all of the different parts of the dives divided up amongst the various instructors. The multitude of divers on board are broken up into smaller groups, and there is one instructor checking their group’s gear on board, plus two more in the water, checking on the punters as they enter the water. Then there are two other drivers who act as guides for the groups.

It all sounded like an expensive nightmare to me.

By the time we got back into port, all of us couldn’t get off the boat fast enough. It was obvious that everybody had, had enough of the heat, and just wanted to go and have a shower and cool down.  As we left, we were asked to sign the guest book and make a comment, so I wrote, ” it was hot….. in so many ways”. Later on in the day I found out it was one of the hottest days recorded.

Both Engogirl and I are glad that we went and dived on the reef before climate change completely destroys it, but would we do it again?


Sure enough, having a sweltering night and having to deal with burnt out crew didn’t help, but the main issue for us is that we aren’t really suited to the tropics.  We are basically two pasty white people who have been genetically engineered to live at the foot of glaciers and hunt woolly mammoth

I spent about two years in South-east Asia travelling around in the tropics, I’ve been to Tahiti, Central America, Florida, Peurto Rico, The Virgin Islands and now that I’ve dived on the Great Barrier Reef, I can safely say that, “if I never visit the tropics again, it will be too soon”.  Both my wife and I know we don’t belong in the tropics and it’s gotten to such a point that when I see those sandy beaches fringed with palm trees and clear blue skies all I can think of, is physical discomfort.

It was so good to go to an air-conditioned hotel to have a shower, cool down and have a decent nights sleep.

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Race relations and me

This article is in response to Robert Krzisnik’s article “Racism immunity?” on his blog. 

Since federation in 1901 and up until the 1960s, Australia had an immigration policy known as the “white Australia policy”.  The white Australia policy was intended to keep the Australian population mainly Anglo-Saxon in race and culture. There was a perception that Australia was such a large country and the population was so small that we would be over run by Asians, who were seen as an inferior race of dubious moral qualities. The “Yellow Peril”.

Although Australia has an indigenous population of dark skinned people collectively known as Aborigines, they were not treated as citizens, until the mid-1960s. The stated aim of the Department of Aboriginal affairs, back in the early 1900s, was that the Aborigines should be assimilated into the general population and their culture forgotten. Any aboriginal children of mixed race were collected by the government; often taken by force from their distraught mothers, and placed in government run institutions, that basically trained them to be servants (these people are now known as the “Stolen Generation”). The so-called “full bloods” were kept in reserves out in the country, where they were treated as little more than children. 

As a consequence of these two government policies, I grew up, not really being very familiar with people of other races. 

I was six years old before I met somebody who was of non-Anglo descent.  Back in the early 60s there was a large influx of migrants from Italy and Greece. To my childish eyes these new kids from the Mediterranean seemed to be a bunch of sooks who didn’t stand up for themselves and who would always run off to get help from their friends or older siblings whenever they got into strife with other kids.  As somebody from an Anglo background I’d grown up with the idea that one had to stand up for themselves and fight their own battles.  I guess that’s a hangover from my ancient Celtic cultural past where the self contained hero is held in high esteem, above all. The Mediterranean kids understood co-operation and strength in numbers which I suppose betrays their ancient cultural past. Time and time again, the organised Greeks and Romans thrashed the heroic but disorganised Celts.  The poor old Greeks and Italians had a hard time in Australia back in the early 1960s.  Here was a bunch of cultured people from the devestated post WWII old world, who had migrated to the savage cultural wasteland that Australia was at that time, and I bet a lot of them thought they’d made the biggest mistake of their lives.

All I’ve got to say is, “thank goodness they came here”, as the English cooking that most of us used to eat was woeful. The Italians and Greeks transformed cuisine here in Australia.

I was seven years old when I first met somebody who I thought was a Negro. In actual fact, he was from Malaya (now known as Malaysia) and had fairly dark skin as Malays do. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember how smart he was. On one occasion, we were sitting together drawing and as I looked across at my Malay classmate’s work I noticed that he wasn’t placing his house on the line that represented the horizon, but actually below the horizon. In that instant, I knew he was more advanced than me. I realised that he was drawing what he saw rather than just repeating the arrangement of symbols (the square house with the triangle roof etc) that we had until then thought of as landscape.

At about the same time, we were receiving our first religious instruction at school. I can still remember the weird dreams triggered in my naive brain as I slept, from all the religious iconography I had been exposed to, and meeting that amazing Malay boy.  I dreamt that I was the first black Pope being transported on large uncovered palanquin being carried by a multitude of priests through a huge crowd of the faithful that I blessed as we passed them.

I envied my Malay classmate so much that I wanted to be him and in my ignorance of geography and the world in general I thought he was a Negro and therefore I wanted to be a Negro.  Sure enough, there were derogatory anti-Negro epithets in Australian culture back then, but they just didn’t make any sense to me because I had never met a black person and I couldn’t figure out why, one would want to say something bad about or to them. 

Back when I was a kid, a lot of things didn’t make sense to me. For instance I thought that when people were referring to Jesus Christ as the King of the Jews, I just assumed the word “Jews” was some sort of Victorian era, anachronistic contraction of the word “jewels”, and it wasn’t until I was about 14 years old and in high school studying the Merchant of Venice in an English class, that I found out what a Jew actually was.  As we were reading Shylock’s speech, and when we came to the part, ” and what’s his reason? I am a Jew”, I turned to my friend sitting next to me at the desk and asked him, “what are these Jews?”  My classmate (John Ryder) who had been a firm friend for the previous two years turned to me and said, “I’m a Jew”.  In hushed tones so the teacher couldn’t hear us, John gave me a quick update and brought me up to speed.

When I got little older I travelled around in Asia for a couple of years and then ended up in North America, which was the first time I’d ever had regular contact with Negroes (which from this point on, in respect cultural of sensitivities, I will call describe as, “African Americans”).  Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I found that in general, North American culture was very segregated.  Not segregated in an official way, but culturally segregated.  There just didn’t seem to be much of an overlap of cultures, whites liked the one thing, blacks liked another.

One time back in about 1979, when I was in Miami working at a car show, there was an after hours party and everyone was invited.  In a large convention room there are lots of white southerners, dressed in their jeans and leather vests with buck knives on their hips and Stetson’s on their heads, and I was being bored to death by their lack of conversational skill (how many times can one talk about sport and car? Sheesh!) and their horrible taste in music (fuck country and western; cry in your beer music!). 

The mood of the room changed when a bunch of African-Americans walked in, wearing flamboyant disco clothing, with a huge ghetto blaster on their shoulder, blaring out the latest disco music. I bet they thought that they were going to just turn the whole place onto something really great and everybody was going to have a good time.

That wasn’t to be.

There was just silence and stares.

The temperature dropped to below zero. 

The white southerners weren’t having any of that disco crap, and they basically stared the newcomers out.  It was the first time I had seen such a clash of cultures. 

It was literally black-and-white.

Another time I was in Philadelphia doing another car show with the laser show, and I had befriended an African American security guard, and we used to shoot the breeze during the slow parts of the day.  On the last day of the car show the security guard was directing the display cars out of the auditorium, when one of the white guys driving his pimped out ride, ignored his direction and sped past him.  As the car went by the security guard banged the roof of the car, to which the car screeched to a halt and a huge white guy got out and punched the security guard in the face, causing his nose to bleed. The white guy got back into his hot rod and sped off.  Meanwhile, somebody had called the police, and I was there when they turned up. The security guard ran over to them, holding his bleeding nose trying to explain what had happened and the two cops got out and threw him against the patrol car and handcuffed him. The security guard was crying out, ” but it was me that they hit!” ” I am the victim here!” The cops ignored him and pushed him into their car making sure that his head hit the roof on the way in, and then they drove off with him.

No I’m not kidding it actually did happen.

In Houston (I was working at the Laser Show in a car show in the Astrohall) I got thrown in jail and when I was in the holding cell I met an old (he looked about 70) impeccably dressed African-American guy. He wasn’t dressed in an overly flash way, but I could see he was a man of quality and style. I went up to him to find out why he was in. He told me that he’d gone into a bar and ordered a cocktail. He was half way through his drink when the manager told him to leave. To this, the old gentleman replied, “I’ll leave when I’ve finished this drink I’ve paid for”. Fair enough I thought. Who’d want to stay in such a place any way? The manager called the police, they arrived within minutes and this lovely, refined old man was arrested for trespassing!

I shit you not!

This guy looks like the old man I met in jail in Houston

Another day in Houston (unfortunately I was there in that shit-hole for about a week), on my way to work at the laser show, I was walking in the pouring rain to the Astrohall (which is part of the Astrodome complex), from my hotel. I was slogging through the mud (there were no pavements around the Astrodome complex at that time) , when a big, beautiful, gleaming white Lincoln Continental Mk III pulled up next to me and the passengers door was flung open by a smiling African-American man, who invited me to get in the car out of the rain. I protested to him that my boots were covered in mud and the I would dirty up his car. To which he just replied, “don’t worry about that, so where are you going?” it turned out that he was also heading towards the Astrohall. A true good Samaritan.

For a while the laser show, I was working for became involved with “Gooding’s million-dollar midway” (that’s the carnival company that was featured in the movie Carney) and as they used to say in the old days in England, ” they were rum lot!” There were quite a few guys working there, who had obviously been in prison and saw themselves as being hard and some of these guys were very hostile and openly racist. Whilst working at Gooding’s I met a well built Negro guy from Puerto Rico, who used to be a professional body builder, and at one stage was Mr Puerto Rico. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember what a nice laid-back guy he was. Mr Puerto Rico love to smoke dope and listen to reggae, which more or less described what I was into at that stage of my life. My co-worker at the time was a guy called Mike, who had been in the army for a few years and had confided in me, that it was in the army that he had learned to hate Negroes.

Strangely enough, for Mike, he found that in comparison to the other dirt bags that we were working with, Mr Puerto Rico, shone like a diamond in a pool of mud. Mr Puerto Rico was such a nice guy, Mike found it very easy to forget his prejudices and all three of this used to hang out together smoking dope and listening to reggae.

One evening we were coming home to our hotel in Mike’s van and we saw Mr Puerto Rico being beset by a group of about six other carnies. It looked like what I imagine an old Bear baiting scene would have. There are in the middle was this huge guy with a pack of other guys trying to take him down. I told Mike to slow down and pull up to the group as I went into the back of the van and opened up the side door. As we pulled alongside, I called out to Mr Puerto Rico, ” quick jump in!” and of course, he dived into the back of a van and we sped off, as his antagonists threw their beer cans at us.

We drove for a few blocks, then slowed down to find out what had happened.  We were told that Mr Puerto Rico had just been walking home when some of his other fellow carnies had seen him and decided that they were going to beat him up. Apparently, it was thought by the trailer trash who were bothering him, that he was a little bit too good-looking for his own good and they thought that some of the white girls in the carnival were interested in having sex with him.

Mr Puerto Rico just wept as he told us this.

I knew some of the guys who had been hassling Mr Puerto Rico, so I went and saw their ringleader the next day. He was a very stocky, well built and very aggro little mother fucker who used to walk around with the thick end of a pool cue, with a large brass ball on the end of it, permanently tied to his wrist.  I was under the mistaken impression that this nasty little prick and I got along, and when I tried to explain to him that Mr Puerto Rico was a great guy and that they should all leave him alone; I got the shock of my life when he said to me that he had, “no time for any nigger lovers” and that if I wasn’t careful, I was going to get my face smashed in, as he waved the end of the pool cue in my face.

Gee, I thought that went well!

When I was in Syracuse, New York after two weeks with a US rail pass on Amtrak I had an experience that showed me very clearly that some people who actually do indulge in “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”. I had basically run out of money but had saved enough change for two phone calls so I could call my workmates who were staying at the Holiday Inn in Syracuse to come and pick me up. Unfortunately at the time there were three Holiday Inns in Syracuse and of course the two Holiday Inns that I called first, weren’t the ones where my co-workers were staying so I was stuck without any money to call the last Holiday Inn. So I went up to you the ticket counter, and as a flamboyantly dressed African American stood to the side counting his change, I asked the teller, if I could use their phone because I had run out of money to call my friends. The white teller just stared at me at in blank non-comprehension, and shook his head in the negetive. Just as I thought I was in a hopeless situation, the guy counting his change next to me, just turned to me with an outstretched hand full of money and said with a kind smile, “here, take what you need”.

Another African-American good Samaritan!

Another time during winter, I was back in Philadelphia again.  It had been snowing heavily all day, and as we were returning to our hotel after being out for the evening, an African American guy came up to us and asked us if we had any jumper cables.

My two co-workers automatically said no. 

This surprised me because I always thought that they were pretty decent guys, and I remonstrated with them, that we should at least have a look in our truck to see if we had some. As it would happen, we didn’t have any jumper cables and we weren’t able to help him start his car. I asked the African American guy why he just didn’t just catch the subway home or call a friend to come and help him and he explained, that he just didn’t have any money on him.  When he said that; my co-workers just rolled their eyes, but since I had been in the same situation myself before (many times) I just put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a handful of change, like the guy in Syracuse who helped me. I said to him, ” here, take what you need”. He just looked at me, dumbfounded with an embarrassed expression on his face and just stood there. I could see he didn’t know what to do, so I just grabbed his hand and put all the money that I had in my hand (which wouldn’t have been more than a few dollars) into his hand.

He burst into tears as he told me that he’d been trying since late afternoon, and well into the night trying to get some help, and nobody would help.  He then said that I’d just given him enough money to phone his family who he knew would be worried about him and to catch the subway home. He thanked me and then he went on his way. 

My co-workers looked at me in astonishment and said, “what the hell did you do that for; you know he just ripped you off!”

I guess some people just don’t get it; “what goes around, comes around”.

I felt it was the least I could do, considering how decently I had been treated by African Americans who didn’t know me. Who helped me despite the fact that many of them were so badly treated in their own society.  In a way, the racist policies of the past Australian governments has served me well, as I’ve grown up without any of the baggage that burden so many people in the US.  In my two years of working in America, I was amazed at how few African-Americans I actually got to meet in social circumstances. Sure, you’ll meet African-Americans in the various service industries one deals with, but it’s almost like there two separate countries in the US.

One white and one black.

It’s quite interesting to me when I watch American television and English television to see the differing ways that those two countries portray Negroes. English television seems to be making a concerted effort to show people of African descent as equals.  Only last night I was watching the TV show, “Hustle” and the main character who leads a group of white people, is black, and talks with an English accent. American TV shows seem to portray African Americans in stereotypical terms. Just like in the movie “Crash”, where the African American director is forced to portray people of his race, speaking in Ebonics, there seems to be some underlying effort in the States to show the differences between the races, rather than the similarities.

Having said all this about the American mass media, there are obviously many conscious and socially aware people in the US who would like to change the staus quo, producing movies like, Three Kings(one of my favourite movies).

Below is the the amazing interrogation scene from “Three Kings” mixed with a history of Wacko Jacko’s face.

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