Category Archives: Social observation
13.12.98 I can’t believe I am in Germany, Koln, that I’m here at my friend’s Sandra’s kitchen table. It seems strangely awesome – things here are as I imagined, the houses, the cute streets, the cars and the people. On the subway I was standing next to two couples, one couple were pashing next to me, very loving!! and another couple were pierced everywhere and dressed in really different clothes. It struck me as being radically different from Korea. It would have seemed different coming from NZ but having been in Korea – WOW – What a change!
From Seoul to Germany took 13 hours. We flew over China, Mongolia, Siberia and Eastern Europe. It was such a long way – Siberia or Russia was pretty amazing, it was a clear day so O could see all the way down. It appeared desolate – so flat and I could see no houses or agriculture or roads, hardly even trees – It was all white and covered with snow – from time to time it looked like someone had combed the snow. Like a heavenly Giant had a comb and just stroked here and there with it – like the rake marks in a Japanese sand garden.
I caught a train from the Frankfurt airport to Koln using my well practised sentence of German. Sandra met me at the train station in Koln. Despite the huge crowd on the platform, I managed to find her. From the train, we caught the subway to her flat and started catching up.
With a cup of tea we ate a yummy ginger biscuit and then she fixed me a cheese and tomato roll. Yumbo! – Dutch Gouda and tomatoes with a bit of basil on German bread! That meal was one of the nicest meals I have had in a long time. And it was the simplest things that made it like heaven to me. Perhaps i should buy some herb seeds before I go back, basil and something, mmm fresh basil – the cheese was just divine as well. I went to be early as I had been up 23 hours, but I could only sleep til 3am! After a bit of dozing I’m up now having a yummy strong dark coffee and toast with jam. Mmm. I’ve changed my mind about brown bread – after Korean bread, there is nothing like it, this is bliss. I am so happy.
I realise how much I have picked up Korean ways, I am giving things with two hands, I bow my head when I enter shops and it felt strange to have my shoes on inside. Hmm I’m sure I’ll go back to my old habits…
(written with hindsight…) Wow what an impact western society had on me! It was as if, for the first time, I had had my cultural perspective slightly dimmed and the when the light came back on it, I got a shock. I stared at people and things that looked so different to me again – yet weren’t that strange from what I would have seen at home in NZ. Well the city was very different of course – Nothing like Koln anywhere really, certainly not little new NZ.
I remember this same shock when I arrived in Russia after all that time in Asia, then again in London. It’s like a jolt to you that your view of ‘normal’ was clouded, the realisation that there are so many cultural differences in the world, and they are all right. These perspectives informed by so many factors – but for me the most visible things were an inherently-Christian, yet outwardly-secular informed society and greater equality (..and respectful?) male female relationships.
While church was not a foreign place to me as a child, I was never made to go, sometimes I went to Sunday school, but stopped when it got boring and never bothered much again. But even so, in our society we celebrate Easter and Christmas, Sundays were marked by many things being closed or unavailable. These were things you can’t rely on in so many cultures. Of course, there are other special days with their own traditions.
The other really big thing is a different relationship between women and men in the west – more companionable, equal and much more demonstrably affectionate. Hand holding, kissing, open love. The impact this has on life and how, as an observer you can see the ripple this has.
The food, buildings and the cars were also big differences. I rave about the food as if every meal is the best, yet it was simple, probably nothing special. I had been starved of cheese and our western flavour and I had gotten used to pickled vege, rice, stews and heavily spiced foods.
The day is a little glum – it’s windy, cold and cloudy, but it is winter and I’m going to dress up warmly and check out Koln, I know I can’t see much of Germany but I can see this city – right?
I’m in Sandra’s University, the largest in Germany with 70,000 students! The students look just like they do at home, all different, a bit slobby and not dressed up and not pretentious. I guess Korean students are the different ones really when you come to think of it. They are probably the only ones that dress up so much for uni – maybe in America. It’s like every day is a fashion show for so many of them. Is this the go-to-uni-and-get-married, screw-the-education phenomena?
Yesterday we went sightseeing around the city, we went through some really old streets and lots of Christmas markets and also a Roman museum. Funny place it was the foundations of a Roman building in the 2nd century, many of the artefacts had come out of there seemingly unscathed. Very interesting. The cathedral here is really beautiful – stunning. It’s the biggest Cathedral I have ever seen and the gothic detail is amazingly ornate. We haven’t gone in yet, but I will. Koln was heavily bombed in the War by the Allies – but the cathedral was spared – a twist of fate – or were they really good at avoiding it? It was one of the only buildings in the central city that wasn’t bombed – in fact it was left untouched while everything around it was destroyed. And yet these days with all our modern GPS technology and mapping our soldiers make so many “mistakes”. Yeah right, I’ll swallow that one again. There are postcards you can buy that show pictures of complete demolitions – except the cathedral.
We also saw gates, walls and towers left over from when the city was enclosed. I can’t stop looking at people’s noses. Germans, well us Europeans I guess, have such big, pointy noses compared to the Asians, I’m really noticing it, I never did before. I know it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Korea. Just a stupid observation I have made. Last night we bought a whole lot of different kinds of beer and went over to Sandra’s boyfriend’s flat. He was lovely, he’s in a band and he played us some music. He smokes pot but not cigarettes, but last night it was beer instead. I still have to go to a German pub. I have to do that. Did I miss my opportunity because I piked out on Saturday night?
15.12.98 I have a big German cheese zit on my chin due to the copious amounts of cheese I have been consuming. Yesterday, I wandered around and went to a park near the University. It was great to get into a bit of nature again. There were hardly any people out, so it was really peaceful. The chocolate factory was closed, so we ended up ambled around the older districts of town. It’s just so beautiful, so old and ornate – the buildings are so detailed. I always wonder why we don’t put any detail into our buildings these days? All our buildings are crappy compared to these.
It’s great to see Sandra and hang out together. We stopped at a pizzeria on the way home and I had the most divine pizza ever. Ever! Maybe it was because I’d been starved of good pizza for 6 months or maybe it really was the best god damn pizza ever! We also had it with some homemade bread and a beautiful salad, lots of cheese, tuna, ham artichokes and lots of really delish yuuuuummmmmmmy dressing. Coupled with wine it was just the best meal. Yum, I ate too much though and I had to lie down for a while holding my stomach as if it would speed up digestion.
The Christmas markets are also amazing, lots of really great handicrafts and delicious food. We went to the Christmas night market and drank gluvein (hot mulled wine) from mugs in the Cathedral Square. Everywhere sold it, so we could browse with our mugs, restocking when we wanted more warmth and spice in our souls. What a wonderful thing to drink at Christmas.
Later we went to a German pub, a kind of stereotypical German hofbrauhaus. It was the Fruh Brewery House. They have people called cobersse /kerbers/ who come around with tall, thin, nice fine glasses filled with cold fresh beer. They are, I’m told, not to be mistaken for waiters. There’s about 5 cm of head in the glass (a kiwi might be forgiven for feeling the tide was out on their beer). Once we started, our cobersse never let our glasses get empty, so obligingly, we kept on drinking. The place closed at 12 so we left and caught the train home.
After a great sleep in, I pronounce myself completely over the jetlag.
United States of America
Streaming into my Canadian bedroom.
Well today is one of those special days in history. Barack Hussein Obama became the President of the USA.
I was at home sick, so I was able to catch a fair bit of the parade live, streaming onto my bed. Man! Americans are fond of the marching band. I guess it’s the best band for a parade. Lots and lots of people all blurred into one. Streams of fervent people and dreaming about what this day means, and could mean.
Michelle and Barack Obama were so patient and kept their waves and smiles going the whole day. She had on some pretty high heels as well so musta had sore feet. I think she took them off as when they left it looked as if she was getting back into them.
The live facebook stream was great to see what folk were saying and thinking. Lots of pride to be an American today. Lots of love and shout outs for the Prez. Michelle is liked too and especially that they were dancing and wearing nice clothes. Yellow with green gloves. Wouldn’t have chosen it myself but then I am not one who suits yellow. Hope is a word used a lot and pride. And HAPPY. Everyone is happy. It’s great. With this kind of hype let’s hope people really do take it to heart and be part of the change. Go Obama. People are very proud to be an American today.
The live streaming (actually they had 3-4 live streams) was awesome – what a great way for people to tune in – lots of people were working and facebook also stayed working.
People are now wondering what the First Lady will wear to the 10 official balls they are attending. Apparently they will dance and comment at each one. I wonder if there is an unofficial ball he’s also going to. Ha ha I guess 10 is probably enough.
One lady is saying he gives her a reason to live. She’s going on and on….and the reporter is keeping her going. Talking shit, on and on – Molly Larson from Albuquerque . She thinks the reporter has a link into the President and says if you could pass on a message when you see him. Please.
People are stoked to have finally gotten rid of Bush. His sad sorry speech on his welcome home was full of crap. Thank Christ he’s gone.
Two Million people came to Washington to see him today – the crowd went crazy and it was freezing. Then there was facebook and people wrote candidly about what they are feeling. They’re really emotional. Pomp and circumstance has now entered their vernacular.
Obama had massive security 20,000 people to keep him safe. When the president stopped the car and got out everyone went nuts and the facebook chat was so frightened for him – no doubt because of Kennedy’s assassination. They were saying “get back in the car!” “I’m scared!” “You gonna get shot!”
Poor guy can’t walk in his own parade – what a sorry state of affairs.
His speech fantastic:
“Our nation is taking a step forward and moving in the right direction” “the greatest day in American history” “a new era of responsibility” is what Obama said.
Well I certainly hope so. Down with greed and consumption! I can’t wait.
10.06.2001, Wadi Rum: Jordan
The drive up to Wadi Rum from Aquaba is spectacular. There are huge, towering, pink mountains on either side. The arid desert seems to only support tufty scrub to the untrained eye. Camels greet you at the town’s entrance with their lazy eyes and ornate saddles.
At the café, I met my new ‘best friend’ Aodeh. After enquiring after my marital status he arranged my entire stay in Wadi Rum. Visit the town spring with me, join my desert tour, stay in a desert tent, sleep under the stars, watch a sunset, come to my cousin’s wedding, watch a camel race…there’s a 3 day party in Wadi Rum! Does Aodeh have an ulterior motive? Should I be suspicious?
Wadi Rum is special for many reasons, but I will tell you of two – the Bedouin people I met at a wedding, and the sunsets. Bedouin weddings are different. Very different to ours. The men and the women are separated; there’s no drinking; no party dresses; no table settings or seating plans; you eat with your hand from a shared platter on the ground; and the guests take the leftovers home. The more sheep you slaughter, the better wishes for the marriage.
I was ushered into the ladies part of the celebration. Aodeh introduced me to his sisters and then rather quickly scarpered (no boys allowed!) and I was on my own. Everyone welcomed me – despite my bare head and lack of language. (This was my first day in an Arabic speaking country!) I danced with the teenagers to Arabic pop songs from the tinnie trannie in the corner. The girls clapped and practiced looking coy. I taught them the “under the bambushes” song and clapping game which was a hit! The older women gossiped, their traditional tattooed chins both surprising and reminding me of the mokos the Maori women have at home.
Dinner was served on the largest round platters I have ever seen. About 10 women surrounded a heaped plate of mutton and rice and squatted on the ground. With our right hand only we all scooped the greasy and slippery concoction into our mouths. It was well flavoured with spices, super tender and rather delicious. But damn, it was hard to eat! I watched the ladies’ technique and succeeded in spilling far more and feeling decidedly gauche. Then suddenly the platters were picked up (still heaped) and divided into containers for the visitors to take home with them, thus extending the hospitality of the wedding.
After dark the wedding joined parties, the women veiled all in black, kohl eyes shining brightly. We sat in a large black tent made of goats’ hair, expectant and excited. The clapping, singing and dancing began. Whole songs are clapped and the women make a high-pitched yodelling type sound from deep within their throats. The men respond by linking arms and clapping, making equally unusual guttural sounds accompanied by rocking and pelvic movements. Dancing women twirl temptingly in front of the line of men. The turn-taking continues through the night.
Wadi Rum sunsets are gorgeous. Silence pervades, the wind has died, even the birds and insects quieten out of respect for the sunset. The rocks and crannies that capture the final rays turn pink, as if they are blushing. The glow moves across the desert valley, chased by the shadow. The mountains tinge blue before it’s the sky’s turn to blush with hues of pink, turquoise and blue. The temperature plummets. Millions of stars come out. The turn-taking continues through the ages.
I’m glad I trusted instead of being suspicious.
Beijing, China: 19.8.98
Today we went to the Great Wall of China at Simatai. It was really fantastic! After breakfasting at the bar with the very Chinese meal of club sandwiches, we got on the bus and of course waited ages for it to depart, which it did half an hour later. Despite being a rickety old thing, it got us there with seemingly little problem. We drove for at least an hour before we got out of the city – it’s so huge.
I was tired on the bus from a late night and lots of stories – Stephan from Quebec told us how he climbed Mt Everest!! He wasn’t prepared and had little gear – all unbelievable, but yet also totally believable. You couldn’t make that shit up!
Anyway… it was such a jiggly and noisy, rickety bus and there was no way I was going to get any sleep. So I was entertained by the Chinese countryside, traffic and villages. Not much forest or forestation and some really old looking houses – it’s amazing what the Chinese live in. You would think that the countryside would have progressed with the kinds of technology you see in the city. But no, only the cities get these things – the country folk remain as poor as the proverbial church mouse. There were so many old ladies on the streets selling dried god-knows-what, all the colour of the dust around us. The roads here are good in parts, I was surprised – we travelled on some beautifully sealed tarmac, some not so.
Finally after three hours on the bus we arrived – wow – it was so amazing! So high, so awesome. It cost 20Y to get in and then tickets up the cable car. People said that the wall at Simatai was still in it’s original condition, almost no work has been done (not sure I believe this, below pic of me looks as if that part was restored). It was a really clear day and we could see for miles and it marched over the hills. We were so lucky as the weather hasn’t been great lately.
There were, of course, lots of people up there trying to sell us stuff and it was really really hot. We decided to take the cable car as the mountain looked so steep. It was so peaceful on the car, smooth and quiet, with stunning views of the wall. The cable car didn’t take us all the way up the hill so we got off to do a whole lot more walking up the hill. By this time it’s about midday, it was a hot walk!
Accompanying us were these two older Chinese ladies, we saw them scrambling up the slope as we glided in our cable car. When we got out they followed us and tried to have a conversation which we couldn’t make head-nor-tail of so we just smiled. They ended up following us around. They kept saying, “go up, come down”. They weren’t sweating or puffing like we were, they were super fit – I bet they climb this hill all day, every day. They were also wearing the silliest plastic shoes you have ever seen!
At the top, we flipped a coin and went left down the wall. The ladies still pestered us. Finally another tourist told us to tell them to go away – so we bought postcards from them and convinced them we didn’t need a guide. At this point we were on a very steep, very crumbly part of the wall, so we were trying to come to some kind of deal with them in high winds, on the ridge and the most precarious part of the wall at Simatai. Ridiculous! Finally they were gone. That’s what they meant – “go up, come down”, they wanted to guide us. God, I felt completely dense.
We carried on our way and stopped at the stations. People were living in some of them. In one they had a generator for a TV and fridges and freezers. A man had his young child up there and had built a lean to from canvas and plastic. Some parts were so narrow you couldn’t walk on them, some was just one narrow step after another. We could see the wall stretch out for miles and miles – amazing.
The story behind the Great Wall stretches through the dynasties and is really interesting. It started as a whole bunch of fortresses way back in BC times. Then in the Qin and Ming Dynasties it was connected together. It was heavily guarded and built with great human cost. It marches over a huge part of northern China and is in all sorts of states today. Most people at the time went to Badaling to see it, where it is fully restored for the visitors. And, it’s a myth that the wall is visible from the moon. We came all the way down the section of Simatai and had lunch in a small restaurant around the car park.
It was a real buzz for me being on the Great Wall, standing on one of the greatest sites of the world (along with the Pyramids). I loved it! It made me want to see more of the world and these wonderful places I had only heard about or seen in books. It was the start of many other journeys to see architectural and cultural wonders.
There were very few tourists at Simitai back in 98, although I hear its different now. I went back to a different part of the wall (the Wild Wall) in 2000) and stayed the night. But that’s a different story.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia: 11.04.00
Just came back from the killing fields. It’s a shocking story. It has happened within my lifetime. It will happen again. It is probably happening somewhere now. Why do we humans do these things to ourselves? Why do we create enemies with our fellow countrymen? Why do these atrocities continue to haunt the world? How can we prevent it from happening?
By moto taxi I travelled through Phnom Penh and was struck by the dichotomy of things here. Poor, and a little bit of rich. There’s some wealth, people with nice cars and cell phones, yet mainly the others are all squashed on to a moto gripping their kids or their precious cargo for dear life, while navigating a death trap. The main boulevards are lovely, wide and paved, lined with magnolias and other trees but every street leading off from it is muddy and dirty. The smell is terrible.
The people here seem to relate to each other with the easiness between strangers and the opposite sex which reminds me of Indonesia. There are smiles everywhere and bantering. The people seem happy enough. Which is weird considering their recent history.
From Phnom Penh we travelled down a pot holed road (what roads aren’t potholed here anyway?) to get to Chong Ek. This is the site of the mass genocide committed by Pol Pot and his clique of devils.
Cows were grazing in the killing fields adding a peace to the otherwise horror housed within. On entry there is a large pagoda containing skulls and bones and a few dusty clothes It was really tall– perhaps 8 or 9 levels high – skulls as far as you can see, shelves and shelves. The fields weren’t as expansive as I had imagined – fields being a euphemism for mass graves. The earth had sunk in, so the hollows and holes of the mass graves were all around. Some had pieces of cloth sticking out and I saw a few bones in one. I thought that the cows in there grazing was funny – but i guess they have to eat too. Are cows holy in Cambodia too? I didn’t think so.
One of the trees has a sign on it that said this tree was used to bash kids heads against to kill them. There were bones around it. Another tree had teeth around it. This gave me really strong images of someone’s head being bashed so hard that the teeth fell out. Shocking thoughts and mental images. As bad as the babies being thrown up and bayoneted from the S 21 museum. I have seen those pictures and I believe the stories to be true. I don’t think my imagination could be so gruesome.
These killing fields were only dug 20 years ago, and the whole thing happened 25 years ago. So recent. It’s hard to believe this happened in my lifetime. This country was stripped of its pride, and its educated people. Just like the heinous crimes of the cultural revolution – and about the same time too. I think i need to know more about what went on here. I’m really interested now I have seen it.
I’m also interested in Cambodia – I’m meeting people who have been all around to all these crazy places and I’m regretting my decision to skip through. I didn’t think there was so much to do – I was wrong. I guess I can come back. It sounds as if there is heaps of illegal logging of the jungle. The wildlife sounds great – no promises for the future with their homes disappearing. But I don’t have anyone yet who’s keen to go and I don’t think I would enjoy doing it by myself. Everything takes a large investment of time due to no public transport and the dangers of bandits.
Last week bandits boarded the boat that runs between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They boarded the boat which takes the tourists up and bound and gagged them, then put a paper bag over everyone’s heads while they robbed their backpacks. What a reminder to be safe. I’m going to take extra precaution on the mini bus tomorrow although I am sure I’ll be fine. I just met two kiwis from Christchurch – I’ll add them to the short list. They didn’t seem the type to be here – but I guess there really is no ‘type’ as such – it’s a personality thing.
Why am I here? Why should you stay? Whoah! The path to consciousness is a big call.
I’ve been keen to write up, embellish and make stories from my remarkable travelling life. I thought I might use this to explain environmental issues and solutions, consider the impacts of our choices on people and how it all winds up in social justice. Self exploration and identity? Environmental and humanitarian consciousness? A decade long field trip? This will be a second, interesting and enlightening journey. I will be sharing my big thoughts about little things.
I’ve been travelling for a while and I hope I always will. I always get good feedback from my letters and emails to mates from all over the world. I know I am a good communicator so I thought I’d use this space to capture what I have done and what I have learned. Most of this comes from my journals written along the way, or perhaps random tangents and reflections written with the benefit of hindsight. It’s interesting as I read them to see how much environmental and social observation and description I note and ponder. I can see in hindsight how’s I’m influenced and why I am so suited to what I do (environmental policy and strategic planning).
My reason for doing this that it has been a major influence on me and I don’t want to lose my stories, my memories and my vividness. After pulling my diaries out of a box that had been in the basement for years I can see damage and harm so I thought I’d try to capture what I could while it was still relatively fresh in my mind.
I make no excuses for completeness or correctness – I am who I am, and I think what I think. I’ll just dip and dive into my journals and bounce around to reflection. I hope to also learn from you and see where it takes us. I hope I can make sense of it and I hope you get sense out of it.
I know that this sort of perspective is difficult to achieve if you haven’t done this sort of thing, so I encourage you to do it for yourself. You don’t need any experience and you apply within yourself.