Rundetaarn, Copenhagen, Denmark. 2011

Built between 1637 and 1642, the Rundetaarn (Round Tower in English) is Europe’s oldest functioning observatory.

Spiral towers are for running in!

Such facts matter little to the many children who had a swell time running up (I want to know what they were on!) and down the 200 metre (just over 200 yards) spiral ramp that gives access to the roof. Much like the monkeys that bound over the rocks of fallen temples in Asia, children give no thought to what they are passing over, enjoying instead the pure physicality of what they are doing. Of course there’s nothing wrong with such ignorant bliss, but I do feel that the older I get, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I get out of whatever I’m doing.

Paddy Palin once said something along the lines of, “if you know the names of a few trees the bush is no longer just bush”.

Happy New Year from Sydney. NSW, Australia. 2011

I’ve been so slack with my blog lately.

I could always use the excuse that I’ve been caught up in the social whirl that is what the silly season is all about. I HAVE been socialising an awful lot of late, but that’s still not a good reason for not posting for so long.

Lately I’ve been wrestling with what direction this blog should go. One of the reasons why I have a blog is to practice writing about my early years of colourful stupidity. I know I have at least one book in me. The reason why I write about other subjects besides my past  is to show that I’m not a complete out-of-control-wingnut with poor impulse management. I guess the problem I have is trying to control how, many people are prone to pigeon-hole others. It’s just so easy to form a mental image of someone when you don’t have to use many words to describe them.

I once heard it said that autobiographies are just a self indulgent way to try to control how the subject is perceived and that biographies are much more relevant.

As I think about what direction I should take this blog, I’m constantly conflicted about how much I should expose. Then again, it’s such an act of hubris it is to think that anybody would be interested anyway. I have to admit that such thoughts are fleeting because of all the affirmation I get from my friends.

I think that friends not only enrich our lives, but they are also the benchmark by which we can measure how successful we are as human beings. It’s not success in one’s career or one’s finances that define us in a cosmic sense, but our relationships.

The last week has been a blur of feasting and drinking with good friends. One event after the other. In the short moments between engagements I’ve been catching myself counting my blessings. I feel so lucky on so many levels.

Yesterday I was at a new year’s day get together with one of my wife’s co-workers. I know most of Engogirl’s comrades in engineering and count them among my friends. As the evening wore on I got to hear many accounts of how people spent their new years eve. Sydney is famous for it’s new year’s eve fireworks. People come from all around the world to see the fireworks and each year the crowds get bigger. This year about 1.5 million people lined Sydney harbour to see one of the best and longest fireworks shows available anywhere on planet.

For the well heeled there are very expensive viewing positions but for most people, it’s a case of arriving at least 12 hours before the show to secure a good spot. Of course Sydney at this time of year is stinking hot and many people try to drink themselves into some kind of comfortable place. All along the foreshore in various parks are crowds of hot, sunburnt, inebriated people having a great time. The vast majority of people are in a splendid mood and there is a real party atmosphere.

Luckily for my wife and I, a friend of ours (Peter) has just bought a lovely house in East Balmain that has great harbour views and he invited us to his place to watch the fireworks in comfort. No cars are allowed in of out of Balmain after 3pm on new year’s eve, so we and Peter’s other guests (also our friends) arrived at about 2.30. Before we settled in, to relaxing with food and wine, we took the opportunity to have a walk around the nearby parks that overlook the harbour. Every vantage point had been taken hours ago and there were quite a few people already flaked out on the grass.

A multitude of foreign languages could be heard, and there were plenty of very happy light skinned northern Europeans working on character building sunburns.   

It was pretty easy to pick out the people who are used to living in such a hot and sunny place as Sydney.

The smart people just relaxed in the shade and saved the drinking for later.

Because of Peter’s invitation to his house, we were able to kick back in comfort, drink lovely wines and eat nice food as the day wore on. At one point in the evening, another friend of mine said to all of us at the table with a chuckle, “I wonder what the poor people are doing?” I replied to him, “some of us are sitting with their rich mates drinking their fine wines, in their beautiful houses!”  To which our host beamed with pride and said, “what’s the point of having all this if you don’t have friends to share it all with?”

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Watching humans develop. Seven Hills, NSW, Australia. 2010

A little while back, my friend Paul was talking to me about the latest drama he was having with one of his teenage sons. I thoughtlessly commented that I thought he was having so much trouble because he had spoilt his kids by trying to be their peer, rather than their parent. Paul smiled and replied to me, “that’s right, tell about how to raise kids now, when you don’t have any of your own, but know everything about it. Because if you have kids all that certainty and knowledge will disappear and you’ll realise that you haven’t got a clue”.

All around me, people I know are raising children, and when ever I visit them I feel like some sort of a low rent David Attenborough. Sitting aloof and feeling emotionally detached, watching their children as though they were animals on the Serengeti. Often when I see children around the two years old mark, I think about how they are at the point in their lives where they are on the cusp of superseding adult chimpanzees in intelligence.

When I look at very young children I sort of see them as little unreasoning animals that have immediate wants that have to be met without regard of anyone but themselves. For that reason, I never feel angry at them as they are screaming for something like food or attention. Such young children don’t have the developed intellect to reason or be reasoned with, therefore, it’s not like they’ve made a choice to “misbehave”, they’re just trying to communicate the only way they know how.

I always find it fascinating watching parents cope with crying children. There’s not many parents that aren’t immediately galvanised into some kind of action when their child cries. Every attempt is usually made to placate their little screamer. Food, attention, pleading, threats, distraction and just about anything that will quieten and pacify is tried. All the while, the parents are conscious of the fact that other people are watching them and judging their parenting skills.

Last week, my cousin Andrew (who I haven’t seen for twenty years) with his wife Midori (Green in Japanese), and child Sakura (which means Cherry Blossom) came to stay with Engogirl and I for a fortnight after fifteen months in Japan with Midori’s parents. Andrew is the brother I never had, and it was a real pleasure to catch up with him after so long, but that’s not what this post is about.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to observe a twenty month old child at close quarters. It’s been very interesting to watch the clash of cultures as different approaches to child rearing are applied. Midori, being Japanese is a very indulgent mother. It’s just the way the Japanese are. Japanese kids, from my (ignorant) western viewpoint,  are spoilt rotten until they are teenagers. The slightest little squeak they make is attended to, immediately.

Andrew on the other hand was the product of a very harsh, neglectful and abusive childhood and as such is very mindful about his duties as a father. Andrew has read fairly widely about child rearing and wants his daughter to have all the love and every opportunity that he never had, but Andrew also has a western attitude to discipline. Children will be made to understand their place in the world, which isn’t in the centre of it.

Both Midori and Andrew obviously love their child so much and each of them does what they think is best for Sakura. Midori caters to every need in an instant whereas Andrew tries to guide and educate. It’s like watching a struggle between the id and the super ego. On one hand there is the emotional response of Midori and the more rational approach of Andrew.

What I found interesting is that at twenty months old, Sakura is in transition from non-rational little animal into rational human. The animal part of Sakura is catered to by Midori and the developing rational part is appealed to by Andrew.

To paraphrase my friend Paul, I don’t have kids, so what do I know? In truth, when it comes to children, not much. I do find parents and young children absolutely marvellous to watch and think about though.

Everyone who met Sakura instantly loved her. Sakura is a total delight, so bright and lovely. A real little angel if there ever was one. Sure, she had her tantrums but they were few and far between and they were over fairly quickly, thanks to Midori’s Japanese placating mothering skills.

It was amazing to watch how quickly Sakura was starting to learn English and how well she responded to instructions. In short, it looked to me that Sakura was receiving the benefits of two cultures and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. A sort of cultural hybrid vigour, if you will.

Andrew and his family left for their home in Cairns in Queensland last Tuesday. Both Engogirl and I were surprised at how much we enjoyed their visit and how much we enjoyed having little Sakura around. Having said that, let me state the bleeding obvious, such young children sure do need a lot of attention and care.

On Friday night, Engogirl and I went to some friend’s house for dinner. Our friends also have very young children and both my wife and I found it quite interesting to watch undiluted cultural parenting skills. At first we both thought that the stricter western approach seemed right, but as the night wore on we both felt that Midori’s more indulgent responses coupled with Andrew’s rational instructions were more effective in getting the results they wanted.

Scenes from the top of Mount Wellington. Tasmania, Australia. 2010

Years ago I bought a book called, “The Royal Tour 1901, or the Cruise of H.M.S. Ophir; Being a Lower Deck Account of their Royal Highnesses, The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York’s Voyage Around the British Empire”, at a garage sale. It was a fascinating reproduction of a British seaman’s illustrated journal of his time as a sailor on the 1901 royal tour that visited Australia.

Unfortunately I gave it away a few years later.

The book was interesting to me because it was full of descriptions of Australia and Australian life from over a hundred years ago. Although the author Harry Price, didn’t have much good to say about Sydney (probably one of the more dangerous ports in the world at the time and who could blame him), where I live, his book is full of little glimpses of the naive and excited mindset of an ordinary person who felt they were part of a great empire. Like I said before, fascinating stuff.

One of my favourite parts of the book is when Harry decided to use his day of shore leave to walk from Hobart (Tasmania) to the top of Mount Wellington which looms over the town. 

Mount Wellington is further away (19kms or nearly 12 miles by road) than it looks from Hobart, and it’s surprisingly high (1,271 metres or 4,170 feet). An ambitious and very steep day-walk that Harry Price was ill prepared for.

Locals in Hobart can tell you that the summit is quite often covered with snow, even in the Summer.

Not only were Harry’s navy shoes totally inadequate for the task, it also snowed as he reached the summit and he wasn’t wearing warm clothing. A sodden and freezing Harry got back to his ship late at night and with bleeding feet. I remember as I read the book how I identified with Mister Price’s optimistic cluelessness. I totally understood the young Harry’s delusion of being 10 feet tall and bullet-proof. I’ve felt the same way in the past and it’s gotten me into what I like to describe as “character building experiences”.

It must be a testosterone thing.

When ever I hear people use the word “adventure”,  I’m always reminded of something I read years ago (I can’t remember who said it and I haven’t been able find out, but I was under the impression it might have been Mallory), that, “adventure is discomfort, remembered in comfort”. Although many people wish they had more adventure in their lives, I can honestly say from personal experience, that adventures are usually very unpleasant when they are happening, but of course they make for great dinner table chat. 

Nowadays I feel that adventures come from bad decisions and are to be avoided.

Buying tribal art out of context and other traps for young players.

Ever since I saw a shabby little collection of cheap souvenirs from the 1930s onwards, in a showcase at the old Girl Guides headquarters in Sydney, I’ve resolved to buy “nice” pieces when I’m overseas. Instead of buying lots of little tatty things, my wife and I lash out and spend what we think is a fair bit of money for what we consider is something really special.

When we were in Ubud in Bali this year we saw this stone statue and we were immediately drawn to it.

Over a period of about a week we kept on going back to have a look at it.

Ubud is more or less the art centre of Bali and as such is packed with a plethora of galleries. It’s the Santa Fe of  Indonesia, if you will. The items in Ubud run the full gamut, from very cheap and nasty crap, right through to mind blowingly amazing and expensive artworks.

The trouble with buying tribal artefacts in Ubud is that, often the people who are selling the items don’t know anything about them. As a matter of fact you can go into the same store on different days and be told a different story about the same item every day. Sure enough, the Balinese who work in the stores know about the local Balinese artwork, but they can be so clueless when it comes to art that has been brought to them from other parts of Indonesia. We were told that the statue we were interested in was from Sulewesi.

Since getting back home and doing some research on the net, the best guess I can make for the origin of the statue is that it might’ve come from Sumatra and it might’ve been made by the Karo Batak. The statue has design proportions and elements similar in style to those used by the Karo Batak and it might be based on naga marsarang (Medicine Horns) used by Batak datuk (animist priests) to hold magic substances. I also suspect that the creature that I first thought might be a seahorse could actually be a singa (a protective mythological creature).

To be honest though, I don’t really care where the statue comes from, as I like it, and for all I know it could be some pastiche of various Indonesian designs cobbled together by a local sculptor. I would like to know where it comes from because I just hate being ignorant about anything.

A few days before we were to leave Bali, we took the plunge and after some haggling the statue was bought for a bit under half what was asked (which probably 50% more than would we should’ve paid). The Statue is 630mm high (about 24″), 650mm long (about 25 and half inches), 25cm wide (about 11″) and weighs 39kg  (nearly 86 lbs) so we arranged for sea freight to get it back home at a cost of $400 USD. I knew we would be up for customs brokerage fees as well when the statue arrived so I figured that we were up for about another $100 when we picked it up.

WRONG!

I picked up the statue yesterday and on top of the brokerage fees of $130, we had to pay another $93.50 for the delivery order (WTF is it, and does it mean?).

Then there was the import processing fee of $22.

Cargo automation fee of $27.50.

Terminal handling charge of another $27.50.

It was starting feel like the process was a death by a thousand cuts, but then came the heavier blow of $135.44 for the handling fee, quickly followed up by another body blow to the guts $121.

They knew they had me helpless on the ropes, so they unleashed a quick flurry of lighter blows to finish me off.

Smack!

$22 for maritime security charge.

Smack!

$11 for post and petties (petties? I thought this was just a beating, not foreplay).

So on top of paying $400 to ship the statue, I had to pay a further $591.44. Basically it cost us $1000 to ship our purchase from Bali.

Did I feel like I got screwed?

You bet!

I was screwed, blued and tattooed!

They bent me over that counter and fucked me six ways to Christmas!  They also had the audacity to act surprised when I told them I didn’t enjoy the experience and what a bunch of rapists I thought they were.

I felt so despoiled, as if I’d been subjected to some kind depraved customs broker’s fantasy. I can almost imagine what might’ve being going through the brokers mind’s as they were having their way with me.

[youtube 3uxTpyCdriY]

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