Tuesday, August 31, 2010

ROR in Melboourne

I'm lying on my belly on a hotel-room bed, taking a break before the assembled talents of the ROR group launches into a reading of ten out of the twelve scenes of the opera libretto I'm writing.

It's been a good couple days. I flew in on Monday, found the place, and got set up. Present also are Rowena Lindquist, Marianne de Pierres, Maxine Macarthur, and Richard Harland. Missing in action this time are Trent, Margo and Tansy, all of whom pleaded pressing business. It's a smaller ROR than usual, therefore. Also, since we're in some apartments in St Kilda, we don't have the usual atmosphere of isolation to throw us together. On the plus side, though - it's Melbourne. I'm not cooking.

Actually, I enjoy cooking at the ROR retreats, but the setup here simply isn't conducive. So tonight we're going down the road to fang into some Malaysian hawker food. You'd think with Borneo so recent in my past I'd be over it... but you'd be underestimating the delicious factor of Malaysian food.

So far, over two and a half days we've worked through Richard's latest -- a followup to his very successful 'Worldshaker', which is in my opinion a much more interesting and engaging book -- and a project of Rowena's which is a bit more secret. We've also gone through two short novels (linked) from Maxine, and they were a real joy to read. Can't talk about it, but I really hope she finds a publisher: they're tremendous fun.

The reading of "Queen of Bedlam" will bring the work of this ROR to a close. I'm not expecting a great deal of formal criticism, but I need to hear the lines, to know if I'm doing okay with the vocabulary and they rhythms - and who better to read complex Elizabethan and Byronic English than a bunch of professional writers?

Ah, yes. Speaking of Bedlam, those of you curious as to what's going on might try this website, here.

Don't ask any more... I'm not going to discuss it until it's closer to 'go', because there's a lot of work to be done yet. But I have heard some of the early music, and seen some of the dance material, and holy shit! I am totally going to have to bring my A-game to this shindig: these people are talented. When this production gets to the stage, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Okay. Tomorrow morning I head back out to the airport and collect the Elder Son. He's decided to become "Jake Flinthart" for the duration of WorldCon, which should be pretty funny. I've also teed it up with Mr Barnes to make sure the boy gets some time off and away, visiting Young Barnes, and having a good time outside the Con. The kid likes his SF, but I don't imagine he's really going to want to spend the entire weekend following me around, meeting writers, editors, fans, and the rest.

They've got me booked to a nice range of panels and activities - a reading, the odd 'kaffeeklatsch'... discussion of the Fermi Paradox on a panel which includes Alistair Reynolds; discussion of ghosts around the world; discussion of alt-history possibilities for Australi. Oh, and a YA panel where I'm filling in at last minute for Sean Williams, who has been smitten with some kind of evil virus from his recent New Zealand excursion. Curse you, Sean Williams and your feeble immune system... now I have to figure out what the hell to say to a bunch of people who are interested in tie-in novels, an area where I have zero experience!

Not exactly sure if I'll find time to get away for dinner with Chaz and the others, but --- ah, what the hell. It's a WorldCon. It's bound to be fun.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Blecch Factor

Had a really ugly incident the other day.

I started to notice a fairly nasty odour in the car. Initially I put it down to kiddie flatulence - as you do.

As the day wore on, though, I began to notice the entire garage smelled... kinda nasty. Like carrion, in fact. I figured that probably a rat had taken some of the bait I'd laid, and had died somewhere inconvenient. Ugly.

Unfortunately, when I drove down to collect the boys from the bus stop, I turned on the heater. And that was when I realised the appalling stink had nothing whatsoever to do with the garage, and everything to do with whatever had died under the bonnet of the car.

I turned off the heater. I came home, and turfed the kids. Then I opened the bonnet, and began he search.


And yet... the stink got more penetrating, more nauseating. Clearly, I was missing something.

Our weekly cleaner came out to the garage on her way home. She wanted to know what I was doing. I explained. She agreed the smell was vile, and joined in the search.

It was she who discovered the first clue: blood spatters around the battery. Hmm! Mystery!

She also noticed the second clue: a green rat-turd sitting under the battery-holder. So! The theory about a rat taking a bait was looking better. But... where was ratty?

Ah. I found him. As close as possible to the windscreen, wedged between the engine block and the firewall -- one big mother of a dead-ass rat. Seriously big. Size of my two fists, I think.

Stupidly, I reached over and pulled on the dangling tail. It promptly degloved, leaving me with a hideous, stinking strip of ratskin in my fingers. I gagged, threw the rat skin away, washed my hand, and found a gardening glove. Meanwhile, the cleaner laughed at me while I struggled not to puke.

Round two; properly gloved, I slid my hand into the cramped space, latched onto a back leg, and pulled gently. Ratty moved -- a little. Then the skin over ratty's hips burst open, and thick brownish ooze dribbled out. The stench went nuclear, and I literally reeled back, gagging and choking.

The cleaner fell about laughing. I just fell about.

Somehow, I managed to avoid vomiting, despite the truly astonishing stench. After much thought, I devised a plan.

I live in Tasmania, after all. And it's winter. So I reversed the car out of the garage, and left the bonnet open. All night. In the morning, I came out with new gloves and a garbage bag -- and I removed the dead, stiff, frozen ratsicle from the engine of my car without further incident.

Yay for winter!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Photos And Stuff

Blogger's okay, by and large. But the way it handles photos is flat-out f__ked. You insert a picture, and it automatically goes up there above all the text, no matter where you happen to be writing at the time. Oh, and if you put more than one photo in, they go at the top of all the text, and IN REVERSE F_CKIN' ORDER. So, you know... if you WERE planning to put up a linear sequence of photos and write a little bit about each of 'em -- well, just f__k you.

Because of that, you're getting this bloc of text at the end of a bunch of photos. They're pretty interesting photos. I took 'em in Singapore and Borneo. I'd be happy to explain them, but I can't actually do that in any sane goddam fashion. So I'm just going to tell you a bit more about the trip, and you can sort out the photos for yourself.

Kota Kinabalu was, as I said, very tourist-oriented. So was Sandakan, sure, but it was much more my kind of tourism. We flew in and met up with our tour guide (yeah, it kinda had to be that way; we wanted to get out into orangutan country, and it's difficult to manage on your own) who was a young Malay woman named Rose. She was a follower of Islam, but very liberated -- no headscarf, and plenty of wit and attitude. She was also a total hottie: gorgeous to behold, very smart, deeply interested in the wildlife and the environment of the region, funny as hell... but for the difference in age, race, religion, nationality, marital status and numbers of children I'd have happily -- actually, that's a lot of differences right there, isn't it? Okay, so maybe not. But she was indeed gorgeous, and talking with her was fun and enlightening.

The orangutan rehab centre at Sepilok is at once heartening, and deeply depressing. It's wonderful that it exists, there in a big patch of rainforest (hopefully) permanently set aside for the big orange bastards. But it's incredibly sad that it has to exist, and it's terrible to hear of what's been done to the orangutans, and to their environment.

Anyway. We turned up in Sepilok in our bus - about a dozen of us, all told - and they put us through an orientation video. (Of course, before that we had a bunch of rehydration drinks and some ice cream. Rainforest or not, Sepilok was intensely hot.) Then we followed a raised wooden path through the forest to a large, raised wooden platform in the jungle.

Whereupon it was fiercely motherfucking hot. We could have gone down towards the front, but the kids and I opted for the shady bit at the very back. Yeah, sure: it meant a bit of distance between us and the orangutans, but on the other hand -- it was so damned hot that the tiny bit of relief offered by the shade felt like the only thing between us and a really nasty death.

The orangutans showed up for feeding time as promised. And they were... yeah, they were pretty wonderful. I like orangutans a great deal. I know: it's pointless anthropomorphism. But their faces are so incredibly expressive... just amazing creatures. I'm not really prepared to try to explain my feelings about them. I'll just say this: go. See for yourself.

They feed the orangutans a mix of fruits, apparently. But they don't give 'em the dreaded Durian, vilest of fruits, because it seems the orangutans will never actually leave if they know they've got a reliable source of the stuff. So - there's no accounting for taste, even among apes. (I did mention this fruit smells like over-ripe mango, cat-pee and carrion, didn't I? And that it tastes very much like warm, greasy, onion-and-garlic ice-cream, with a texture akin to over-ripe avocado? Fucking ghastly.)

We got back on the bus. Drove through Sandakan. Made it to the waterfront. Walked down through a water-village that could have been a set for a Bruce Lee movie, followed the jetty through houses and restaurants until it became a sort of actual jetty, and got into a boat. And it was still buggerizingly hot.

There followed a trip across a bay, and up a wide, brown, tropical river through appropriately poisonous green forests. It's interesting: I'm used to mangroves around the sea edge, and around estuaries. I am not used to Nipa Palm forests. At first I thought they were some kind of plantation - but it turns out that's just how they grow. Nipa palms are important in local tradition; the fronds make thatching and basketry and all sorts of stuff. Obviously, no damned shortage of raw materials.

The trip upriver took an hour and a half or so, at a fair old clip. Every now and again we had to slow down so our wake wouldn't mess with various little villages straggling here and there along the river front. The breeze was... helpful, yeah, and we were under a canopy, but the sun was just so damned brutal. The kids flaked out.

When we finally pulled into the jetty in front of our lodge, we were pretty near exhausted. Right away, it got interesting. We'd gone to a lot of effort to catch up with orangutans at Sepilok -- and here, up the river in Kinabatang, right there in a mangrove tree leaning over the jetty, there was a wild orangutan. He was just kicking back, doing his big orange ape thing, eating some kind of oddball fruit... didn't give a damn what we were doing. It was pretty cool.

If you ever go to Sandakan, you should probably consider doing the Kinabatang river run. The lodges are spartan, but adequate. (One could wish for aircon, but since you're out in the middle of a forest preserve with nothing but rainforest, mangrove and river in all directions, one could also wish for the entire array of Miss Universe hopefuls to parachute in with Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" playing in the background... it would be almost as helpful. There were ceiling fans. We were lucky to get that much.) The food was good -- it's Malaysia, after all. But it's the wildlife and the forest you're there to see.

We did a lot of boat trips, up and down the river, dawn and dusk. We spotted birds of a dozen sorts. Pythons. Crocodiles. I saw a chunk of the riverbank that had been thoroughly trampled, and took the opportunity to ask Rose about wild pigs. She looked at me like I was crazy, and explained that all the trampling was the result of elephants, not pigs. (Given her sense of humour, I admit it took a while before I believed that one... but it was true.) There were orangutans. There were monitor lizards. And there were monkeys.

By Great Cthulhu, there were monkeys.

You see that photo, somewhere up there, of the ugly-ass monkey with the big frakkin' nose? That's a Proboscis monkey, an endangered species endemic to Borneo. And you see that one hanging his old feller out for all the world to admire? That's kinda typical of male Proboscis monkeys. They gather themselves a harem of girls, and herd them around the treetops. In between times, they sit back just like that: legs apart, tail hanging, belly bulging, genitals waving in the breeze.

First time we spotted one of those, Rose altered permanently my opinions of Islamic Malay women. She pointed to the monkey, and said "And if you look carefully, you'll be able to see what we call the Borneo Lipstick... only lipstick you can always find between two legs..."

I nearly choked with laughter, and tried desperately to avoid the inevitable mental image that emerged. 'Borneo Lipstick' - heh. Later we heard another tour guide talking about the same subject - only he was a bloke, and he rather coyly called it 'the big red chili pepper'.


Rose really was cool. I got her to explain Ramadan to the boys, so they could film the explanation for their school-project video. She was very nice about it; fielded all their questions, dealt with the whole thing like a trooper.

Actually, the whole trip up the river was great. We went to two separate lodges, but both were lovely, and the staff - like pretty much all the Malay folk we met - were uniformly friendly, outgoing, and delighted by the kids. (Particularly the Mau-Mau.) We did the night-boat thing, and took in the single most amazing firefly display I've ever seen in my life, as well as frogs and night-birds and insects and all kinds of stuff.

I'm not much for 'guided tours' in general. But in this case, they get my Big Tick Of Approval. If you tried to do for yourself what these people helped us to do, you'd be battling fierce heat, dodgy weather, almost impassable forests... you sure as shit wouldn't go camping or trekking in there unless you were either a scientist or totally fucking mad, or probably both. So - for once it made sense to pony up some cash and let someone else shape and organise the experience. Seriously: there is no way I could have considered trying to hire a boat and direct my own expedition in that kind of heat, and I would never have seen half the stuff that the sharp-eyed Rose pointed out in the dense, poisonous green of the forests.

We dropped in on a local village which has an agreement with the Kinabatang Lodge. The villagers supply the lodge with fish and various other food supplies, for which the Lodge pays cash. The Lodge also brings tourists like us to visit the locals. We wandered around, gawping appropriately. Happily, my Malaysian was good enough for me to make cheerful conversation with the kids at the local school. They thought that was pretty cool, judging by their expression. I guess they don't get a lot of white folks coming in and greeting them in their own language, because they got pretty excited about it... of course, once they started talking quickly, all at once, I lost the thread and just started laughing, but that was okay. And then Younger Son found a paper 'plane that one of the kids had made, and so they were instantly in a shared world. Younger Son loves his paper 'planes, and he was tickled as hell to see that these Malay kids in a village halfway up a jungle river evidently liked 'em near as much as he did, and even made 'em much the same way.

Part of the village visit was a brief gig planting trees in a reforestation area. Largely symbolic, but you pay for the privilege. I didn't mind. It wasn't expensive, and it was good for the kids to see the results of the forestry industry, and for them to get a feel for what it means to try and repair the damage. The local folks offered to do the digging, but it wasn't exactly a lot of work: five little holes for five little saplings, in the soft soil of the river plain. Even in that heat, I knew I could manage that much. The kids planted their trees, and tagged them, and that was that.

The tree-planting thing... actually, the whole of that journey through Sandakan, and Sepilok, and up the Kinabatang river, I was impressed by just how involved the tour folk and the villagers were with trying to preserve and repair the environment. I'm not really very hopeful about the world's environmental problems; there's just too goddam many of us for the planet to support. But it's good to see that some people are mobilising, and getting involved at a real, grassroots level.

We finished off the Sandakan trip with a visit to the War Memorial. (One of our travelling companions for the whole holiday was our neighbour, Mike the Historian. He's currently teaching a unit on WWII, and the Sandakan visit, just one day before Quentin Bryce showed up, was useful.)

I don't care to discuss the war memorial, to be honest. If you're not familiar with the Sandakan Death Marches -- it's not up to me to educate you. Go and find out for yourselves. Or be ignorant. I don't care. It's one of those chapters of human history which is so black, so utterly, unredeemably evil that even now it has the capacity to fire a deep, bitter anger in me. Makes me question the worth of the human race itself, as a species, that we can treat one another in such fashion.

Fine note upon which to end, no? Yet that's where the Sandakan section ended, yes. Then we got into a 'plane, and flew back to KK, where we spent another few days recuperating, and doing touristy stuff. Snorkelling. Visiting the big mountain. Going to the cinema. And... oh, yeah, celebrating the Mau-Mau's fifth birthday. That was pretty cool. I even found a bakery that was willing to make her a big, showy birthday cake with all the trimmings...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Makes You Wonder About The Professionals...

It's real. But I still have no idea what it's about.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Extreme Food Tourism

I'm not very good at the tourist thing, by and large. Oh, sure – here in Borneo I made a point of seeing orangutans, and travelling up the Kinabatang river and all, but mostly, I'm not interested in the tourist arc. That includes the backpacker stuff.

That has made Kota Kinabalu a bit tricky for me. The city got flattened back in WWII, and over the last six decades, it's been rebuilt with a very strong emphasis on the tourist trade. Malays come here on holiday: they go paragliding, they hit the nightclubs, they go snorkeling and go to the beaches, they head off to Gunung Kinabalu and Poring Hot Springs. They take photos. They buy souvenirs.

I don't mind paragliding, but I'm damned if I'll fly umpteen thousand kilometres with my family to do something I could do more comfortably at the Gold Coast in Australia. That's just stupid, in my opinion. And I really don't give a damn about multi-story shopping malls or cineplexes. Visiting Gunung Kinabalu was at best an interesting venture into the countryside, a chance to see some of Borneo doing its own thing. Poring Hot Springs were nearby, and we needed lunch.

The backpacker thing does even less for me: nightclubbing, 'adventure trekking', and hanging around a bunch of other backpackers... even when I actually WAS backpacking, I tended to do things like hitch-hike my way at random around Ireland, camping in people's fields. I don't mind backpackers in general. They're usually energetic, often reasonably intelligent, engaging and outgoing people. But if I've flown half a world or so, the people I want to learn about are the people who actually live there, no?

That's my problem. I'm not actually a tourist: I'm curious. I'm looking for the things that make living here, in Borneo, different to living at home. I want the different viewpoint, the different way of doing things, the different ideas and approaches. And in KK, it's bloody hard to get them because KK is all about selling the Tourist Experience, on the whole.

There's a zillion craft and souvenir shops in this city. I swear they all have exactly the same inventory, right down to the badly-made boomerangs with faux-Aboriginal dot-painting designs on them. I've even seen tanned cane-toad skins with zips in them so they can be used as wallets, and I'm dead certain Borneo doesn't have cane toads. Figure they've been bought from Queensland, most likely.

There's a building on the waterfront. It must be eighty metres by fifteen metres, and inside, it's an orderly grid of tiny little shops, each about three by three metres. And each of those shops has sarongs, wood carvings, fetish masks, beaded jewellery, postcards, a few pieces of mass-produced songket... I cannot actually distinguish between the stock in these stores. Clearly they all use the same suppliers. How the fuck do so many of them stay in business?

It's been interesting. Watching the locals watch my children, for example: as long as we're walking around, doing touristy stuff, we're invisible. But the moment we walk into some backwater, offbeat eatery, the kids – especially the Mau-Mau – become objects of amazement. Oh look! The boys are using chopsticks! Hey, check it out – not only are these white kids eating squid, but the older boy is using our chili sauce! And that little girl! Isn't she just the cutest thing you've ever seen?

Useful to remember that tourism is a two way exchange: we're not just a source of revenue, we're something to be observed and marvelled at.

Anyway, KK isn't my cup of tea. I preferred Singapore, for all its sphincter-tight control: still there was more history, more variety, more of a chance to slip out of the role of tourist, and try something the locals might do.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not going to babble on about 'authenticity', or try to get myself put through some kind of obscure tribal ceremony in an Iban longhouse. I'm simply curious. I've come a long way. I can speak enough of the language to explore, and listen, and learn. I don't want to paraglide. But I do want to know where the locals go to eat, for example, and I want to try the food there for myself.

Happily, I did get that chance. It was challenging, and uncomfortable, but it was also really interesting and a shitload of fun.

It's Ramadan at the moment. Thumbnail sketch: Islamic folk may not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. They get up before dawn to load up for the day, then not a bite nor a drop passes their lips until sundown. But after that...

Well. During Ramadan, here in Borneo they lay out great big complexes of food-stalls on areas of waste ground, and after sunset, it's a feast. In KK, at least one of these bazaars is here on the waterfront, and I managed to convince the others to give it a try. It wasn't as successful as it could have been, simply because it was all a bit much for Natalie and the kids and our friends with whom we're travelling, but for me, it was the best part of the trip.

The bazaar is a huge maze of stalls and tables, all tucked under a giant patchwork marquee of tarpaulins, sheet plastic, and anything else which can be used as a temporary roof to keep off the rain. It's definitely not a tourist show: the tables are jam packed, shoulder to shoulder, with local folk, and it's a big challenge for someone my size even to move through the place. And the food!

Grilled stuff: huge skewers of little grilled cuttlefish, hot and spicy, wonderfully flavoured with charcoal smoke, and not the least bit chewy or rubbery. Prawns the size of big bananas, one to a skewer. Entire fish, the skin scored and salted and spiced to hell, cooked in wire frames over charcoal. Satay sticks of all kinds. Racks of marinated chicken wings, threaded onto skewers: buy them a dozen at a time, eat them piping hot. Clams and mussels, lightly grilled with butter and chili and garlic and coriander.

Dumplings – more kinds than I ever knew. Coconut cakes, a little charred underneath, but sweet and grainy and heavy. Proper yeast donuts: no batter here, but a genuine leavened dough worked into shape and then fried and covered with sugar and spices. Absolutely delicious, and thirty-five cents will buy you a bag of three, each as big as my fist.

Fritters – prawns, bananas, chicken, fish... you name it. All of them light and crisp and hot enough to melt your tongue.

Fresh fruits and juices of all sorts. Blended fruits. Fruit salads. Bizarre drinks full of lumps of jelly and corn kernels and coconut cream. And coconut, yes – fresh coconut milk, coconut meat, coconut rice.

Traditional dishes of all kinds: wonderfully spicy nasi lemak with the coconut rice and the dried anchovies and eggs and wickedly chili-laden sambal full of lime and belacan. Laksas. Rotis of all sorts. Murtabak – superthin sheets of springy dough thrown onto a greased griddle, with chopped, spiced fresh vegetables on top. You fold the dough over the vegetables, then fold it again, and again, until it's crispy on the outside, chewy in the centre, and the vegetables are layered all the way through. Soups: Javanese bakso, hot and sour Tom Yam out of Thailand... currries, noodles, rice...

I could eat there every night for six months, I suspect, without ever duplicating the menu. And for me, it's the height of fun: wrestling with the language, making conversation with friendly strangers who can't believe this big white guy and his kids are sitting down to a platter of kway teow and murtabak and satay right alongside a bunch of working-Mohammed types.

I love it. I love trying the new flavours and textures. I love the stumbling, hilarious conversations that result when I try to find out what it is I'm eating that tastes so damned good. I like swapping names and potted personal histories with the curious folk sharing a rickety, plastic-covered table with me. I love the huge smiles from the vendors when I greet them in their own tongue, price the dishes properly, make change correctly and make the right sort of polite small-talk. And the way those grins get even bigger when they see that I'm enjoying the food as much as they do, with the chili and the spice and all the rest of it...

Yes, sure, it's probably thirty-five C under that mass of plastic and canvas, with all those grills and cookers. Sure, I've got sweat running off every square centimetre of my skin. My hair is dripping, my clothes are soaked. I can hardly move for the press of people in all directions – but the food is great, and it's new and it's different, and the people are friendly and curious and everybody's there for the same reason, just to get a decent meal and have a chat at the end of the day.

We've got nothing to match it in Australia. It's a wholly different way of dealing with the evening meal, and it only occurs during Ramadan, so even for the locals, it's a treat – something they look forward to with considerable anticipation. Getting involved; getting hot and sweaty and messy and trying all that nifty food, exercising my rusty (but rapidly improving!) bahasa – that's my idea of tourism right there.

You can keep your paragliding and your nightclubs. I'll take a Ramadan food bazaar any time.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


There are no words to describe the heat around here. All the words have been used before; used so often their meaning has dried up, withered away like a night-blossom in the sun.

I can't believe I used to live in something like this. Except, of course, that Cairns wasn't so bad for six or seven months of the year. Only during the four or five months surrounding the wet season was it anything like this. The rest of the year it was almost civilised, in comparison. But that hot, wet period... how many of them did I live through? How did I do it?

I remember a lot of swimming: the ocean, warm and green and turbulent along the sharply angled coral sand beaches that form behind the barrier reef. Sure, the box jellyfish might end your life in an explosion of unendurable agony, but if if you know the terrain and you know the rules, you risk it anyway, just for the blessed relief of the water.

Rainforest rock pools, clearer than finest crystal and sun-shot under the whispering canopy of leaves. Pick the wrong one, though, and you're swimming with a man-eating crocodile. Still: if you know the territory and you know the rules, you take the risk anyway, because you're already half-mad from heat and sweat.

Murderously chlorinated swimming pools, shimmering pale blue, with that unmistakeable, unforgettable smell of wet concrete and urine, steaming under the sun, water that turns your eyes red and bloodshot, clouds your vision, turns your hair green. But it's still water, and you go in anyway, trying not to think of all those other bodies, all those little kids pissing happily into the same pool where you're swimming, trying to get some relief from the filthy, sweaty, stinking, cloying heat.

That for Cairns, and the summertime. But heat's a bitch with a long, long reach. Even Brisbane knows her, from time to time. The weather turns sullen, nasty and the sky goes hard and brassy. The winds die away to nothing. The city bakes and steams.

There's no relief with nightfall. Not until three, maybe four hours after dark does the concrete and asphalt finish giving up the worst of the sun's warmth. The air is still and heavy. Mosquitoes whine in the high-ceilinged corridors of the old wooden houses. Then the sun rises, and it starts all over again.

A day. Two days. Maybe three, even four, but finally it breaks. It starts in the west, with mountainous masses of cloud towering to the sky. As the afternoon wears on, the clouds get darker, turn slate-blue, maybe green, sinister colours like a fading bruise. Tattered rags of wind, fitful at first, then gusty and threatening, toss fallen leaves, scraps of plastic, shreds of paper, but the wind isn't cool at all: it's hot, like the breath of the devil himself.

Lightning flickers. Growling, muttering, thunder rolls around the edges of the beaten sky.

Then the rain comes down. Cold, heavy, stinging, it comes with such force on the tin roofs and the gutters and the frangipanis and jacarandas that you have to shout to be heard above the roar. The wind throws the treetops back and forth with savage strength. Hailstones – always the size of golf balls, for some reason – come shattering from the skies. Water like a cascade, like a citywide Niagara pours down, jumps up again from the puddles and the pools, the debris-choked gutters, the streets and the sidewalks. The world exists in brilliant instants, flashes of flickering, searing light followed by sounds too big to be heard, huge, savage, rasping crackles and vast booms that resonate in your chest and your belly.

And then it fades away, and suddenly, miraculously, the city is cool again. For a while, anyhow.

That's a Brisbane summer storm. That's heat, the way they do it there.

Not here. It's relentless here. If you sleep at all, it's fitful, twisting and turning on sweat-damp sheets. You have air-con. That's a given, these days, unless you're out in the bush somewhere, but it's only so much use. Step outside, the heat's still there, waiting right outside your door, waiting to envelop you, swallow you, eat you alive. And inside; that air-con hums and knocks and clicks and growls, and streams of too-cold air pour over you until the thermostat is convinced you've had enough, and the machine shuts down. But the heat's still there, right behind all that empty technological trickery, and the moment the cooler sighs to a halt, it sneaks back in. Under the doors, through the glass of the windows, seeping through the very walls and floors, it crawls right into bed with you, snuggling up close, clinging to your skin like a moist, sticky tongue, intimate and vile. You sweat. Armpits, crotch, neck. Where your chest and belly touch the mattress, the bedding grows damp. You move, roll, let your skin breathe, but now your back is starting to sweat, and your ass, and the backs of your legs. Irritably half asleep, you kick the sheets off, but the aircon starts up again and the sheen of sweat starts to cool on your skin and you shiver, drag the sheets back up, and the whole cycle starts over.

Fans are no good at all. They just whine and wheeze, and push masses of hot air around the room, annoy the mosquitoes, maybe. Still, at least they're consistent. No highs and lows, no thermostat-induced sine-waves of wakefulness. If you can fall asleep at all under a fan, you'll stay that way until morning raises the stakes.

The sun is up and doing business around seven, but by eight, it's already a hammer, a cudgel, a goddam Zulu knobkerrie pulsing away in the east, and everything shimmers and steams under its impact. There's no real dawn nor dusk in the tropics; it's pretty much an on/off switch between light and dark, between steaming, moist, nocturnal heat and the fierce, deadly, crushing blast furnace of the day.

Indoors, in the shade, hoarding the last goodwill of the night behind thick walls of concrete and stone and deep, recessed windows, you're already sweating. Thick, glutinous, the stuff drips from your hairline, greases your armpits, turns your crotch into a slimy swamp. You wear cotton, maybe linen, grit your teeth when it soaks through and clings to your skin like fungus. The air doesn't move at all. The sky might as well be dead, killed by the fierce golden rage of the sun.

The locals aren't stupid. Watch them: they don't start business until ten thirty or later, using those last, precious, almost-bearable hours of the morning as personal time. Then, through the weariest hours of the day they go about their work: indoors, in the shade, in the air conditioning if they can arrange it. The work goes on until sundown, and only then does the place begin returning to life.

The daytime heat is beyond oppressive. It's heavy, like a fresh corpse draped over your shoulders. It weighs you down with every step. If you walk, you do it slowly. If you have to lift, or carry, or work, you do it in short bursts and you rest in between. You drink a lot of water. Litres of it. You feel like a drainpipe, because as fast as it goes in, it comes out again, soaking your clothes, streaming down your skin, making your sandals slick and slippery. You drink, and you drink some more, and you're thirsty all the time, and the only way to win is to remember that sweat is more than just water. It's salt, and electrolytes, and you have to replace some of that stuff or all the water in the world won't help you.

They do good sports drinks here. Really good. I stick with one called 100+. Carbonated, you can get it everywhere, in icy-cold cans beaded with condensation. Rip the top off one, you can drain it in a single long draught, and even though it's a little sickly from the glucose, a little brackish from the salt, it's cold and sharp and it tastes absolutely right and when you're done you realise that yes, that was exactly what your body needed.

Not enough, though. Never enough. And when the lightning flickers and the thunder growls and the rain sheets down, it's still not cool. The rain itself is warm, warm as blood, warm as sweat. Walk through it, feel it soak your clothes until they cling like a second skin, but you're still hot, and now it feels like the biggst sauna, the biggest sweat-bath in all history. The rain brings no relief.

And after the rain? Still no better. Worse, if anything. If it's daytime, the sun comes out and the steam rises from every surface, turning the air into a filthy soup. You want to know about Borneo after a rainstorm? Easy: put a stinking, sweat-soaked sock over your head like a balaclava mask, so you have to strain to draw the air into your lungs. Now step into a sauna. Instant tropics. Want the beach experience? Pour damp sand into your underpants. Don't bother with the salt water; you're already soaked completely with sweat.

My wife complains about the cold in Tasmania. I don't understand it, personally. For me, twelve degrees centigrade is about the point where I start thinking that just maybe I should bother to put on a shirt. But Natalie? Anything under 25, and she's kvetching and carping like a Russian grandma in the depths of a Siberian blizzard.

Screw that. You can always put on more clothing if you're cold. But when you're dealing with the kind of filthy heat you get in the tropics – well, there's only so much clothing you can take off before you're down to your skin. And where do you go after that?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reporting In From Kota Kinabalu

Ahhh, back to the itty-bitty keyboard.

We finished up the Singapore jaunt in fine style, riding around the place on the Duck And Hippo bus service. D&H maintain two hop-on, hop-off bus routes with open-top double-decker buses. It's a good way to get your bearings, although you do have to put up with a fair bit of 'canned history' as you drive past various buildings around the place.

Singapore is kind of daunting. I think it was William Gibson who described as sort of a 'theme park' version of a South East Asian city –€“ it looks the part splendidly, but under the facade it's carefully sanitized, and virtually all elements of danger and uncertainty are gone. Of course, that does make it a good place to introduce three young, Tasmanian kids to the weirdnesses of this stretch of the world. And possibly as part of that theme-park quality, the people of Singapore were relentlessly friendly.

Everywhere we stopped to eat, various locals would pop up to tease and play with the kids. Part of it, I expect, is the simple fact that the kids are light-haired and very kid-cute in appearance. Part of it is also that the kids have never been taught to be fearful of differences in people. They're a little shy at times when they're out of their territory, but they're still energetic and inquisitive.

Also, they're pretty fearless about their eating. (Well, except for the Mau-Mau. But she's extra cute, so that makes up for it.) As a result, we tend to dive into the local food courts and roadside eateries without hesitation, and since we're clearly tourists, that draws attention to the kids.

It's nice, really. Singapore has a very friendly, very relaxed sort of vibe to it, a thoroughly child-friendly feel. We took a trip to the Botanic gardens, for example: hot as blazes, and even though the kids were strongly interested in the Evolution Gardens, the Spice Gardens and the Fruit Tree Gardens, they were really starting to flag. Until we reached the specially designed and designated Children's Garden.

It's brilliant. Separated from the main gardens, you enter through a controlled turnstile. Parents with kids go through without question, but if you're an adult without a child, you need a reason to be in there... and they'll escort you.

Once inside, it's a place that could have been designed by kids. A wading fountain full of oddball water equipment and games. Climbing equipment. A hedge maze. A multi-level treehouse with huge slides. A 'cave'. Ponds, swaying rope bridges, hollow trees to hide and play in, plenty of shade, interesting educational displays on ecology and plant life... our 'flagging' kids ran wild for an hour, and had to be dragged out with the promise of ice cream and soft drinks all round.

Yeah, Singapore. Kid-friendly, proud of themselves, and on the go. Interesting place. Looking at the buildings going up, the incredible, monumental architecture happening there, it's clear the GFC was something that happened to other people, not to Singapore. There's this new resort development. Backed –€“ according to public knowledge –€“ by money out of Las Vegas, the place rivals Dubai. There's this one building: actually it's three separate, near-identical skyscrapers of curved blue glass, but they're joined across the top by what looks for all the world like a sleek, low-slung, long, supermodern ocean liner. Seriously: three skyscrapers with an ocean liner stretched across the top of 'em. Looming over the future museum/cultural complex, which is itself a stunning piece of work designed to look like a gigantic lotus blossom, the thing is breathtaking in its hyperconfidence. It doesn't look forward to the future: it bids fair to design that future. The whole thing says look at me and see tomorrow!

In most of the cities I've seen, it would be impossible. Dubai could have handled it. Maybe Tokyo? No. Too crowded already. Possibly the new-look cities of China, like Beijing or Shanghai. Certainly, you couldn't put it in any city of Australia without instantly redefining the entire 'weight' and locus of the city. But Singapore?

Singapore fits it in nicely.

That's not my kind of town, I fear. Visiting Singapore is fun, but I really wouldn't want to live there, cuisine or not. No spitting. No littering. No chewing gum. Clean and friendly, guys, keep it clean and friendly –€“ and all the time, that massive, oppressive weight of money floating over your head. All that finance, all that ponderous, fiscal power constantly sleeting through the air around you... it's a cliché to observe that Chinese cultures tend to be even more money-oriented than our own, but there's no getting away from that in Singapore, not for an instant. The whole place has a kind of symbiotic attachment to money with a capital M. That amazing resort complex? The bill is in excess of US $6 billion.

Six billion US dollars to build a casino/resort arrangement. And yet they must figure they're going to make a profit from the place, or they wouldn't build it, would they?

Nope. Not my kind of town.

Of course, neither is Kota Kinabalu. Still too damned tropical, you see. We're holed up in some tourist-apartment development called Marina Court, near the city centre, more or less. It's a nice place, with enough space, access to the waterfront, and –€“ as is typical of Malaysia –€“ a host of places to eat nearby.

The last time I had anything to do with Malaysia was Kuala Lumpur, back in the mid-nineties. Natalie and I were there for a few weeks while she did some kind of medical placement at the Port Klang hospital. KL was noisy, crowded, smelly, and the traffic was totally farking insane. Plus, the place was basically a lot older than Kota Kinabalu: KL was built at the juncture of two large, navigable rivers and has been a trading centre for something like five centuries. KK had the living shit bombed out of it in WWII, back when it was still called Jesselton, and so everything that's here has pretty much been built since.

They've got a clever system for inner-city living and development, though. Most of the buildings have commercial enterprises on the ground floor –€“ shops and restaurants and so forth –€“ but the buildings themselves extend two, three or more floors above, and are full of apartments. It's not a particularly attractive look. The buildings are mostly concrete, because you don't want huge walls of glass in the powerful tropical sun. Why build greenhouses when the great outdoors is a greenhouse already?

It is very sensible though. And some of the designs go farther: the building occupies an entire (small) block, bordered by parking and alleys and streets, and the interior of the ground floor becomes a big open space, an enclosed and shaded atrium for eating, resting, socialising, markets, etc. It's quite clever. Takes some getting used to, though –€“ you can look at a drab, mould-streaked concrete edifice with a few grubby shop fronts visible at street level, and never realise that if you go through any of those shops or restaurants, and out the back door, you'll enter the living, breathing heart of the building, where its inhabitants do their thing out of reach of the pounding glare of the equatorial sun.

The kids are doing far better than I expected, I admit. Of course, we don't push them too hard. They're good for maybe an hour at a time walking around outside before they have to have some kind of a break. And after three or four hours, it's DEFINITELY time to retreat to the apartment with its air- on, or out to the pool. But they're getting through it, showing some interest in what's around, lapping up the food, checking out the sights...

So, that's where we're at. Next stop: a three day foray into Sandakan, where the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre is, and then farther still, up the Kinabatang river in pursuit of Borneo's wildlife. Should be entertaining...l

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Singapore, Shit, I'm Still Only In Singapore...

Twenty-four hours in Singapore; already, I remember all too clearly why I don't live in the tropics any more.

The kids did really well on the flight across. It's an eight-hour jaunt from Melbourne to Singapore, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology, that's eight hours which can be spent playing video games or catching up on Stephen Chow movies. Elder Son and I both watched 'From Beijing With Love', which is pretty fraggin' funny if you've ever seen a Sean Connery/James Bondflick, and still pretty damned funny even if you haven't. I also sort of watched 'Kick-Ass', which was both better and worse than I suspected. I may have to watch it again, though. It's about two hours long, but it took me nearly four hours to get through it, what with the constant interruptions from Younger Son, on my right.

Anyway, we landed in Singapore, and made it through customs in good time, without a hitch. Well – one hitch, anyhow, though that one occurred twenty-four hours beforehand. Natalie had prepped for the trip by laying in a stock of sleeping tablets. She doesn't sleep well at the best of times, and as you may guess, shared hotel rooms do not constitute the best of times. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have occurred to her that Singapore might have different drug laws to Australia. I, however, was less sanguine, and I jumped on the Net to do a little research. ...Annnd it turns out you can take presrcription benzodiazepams to Singapore – but only if you notify their people at least ten working days in advance.

So. Now I shall be shepherding a sleep-deprived wife around the place, as well as the three kids. Yay.

We made it to the Landmark Village Hotel without trouble. It's a good choice: there's plenty of local shopping and eating – Bugis street is no more than a stone's throw away, and there's a lovely mosque right on our street corner – and we're within walking distance of Chinatown and Little India, but the hotel itself is clean and solid. Minor issues: not enough bedding for the Mau-mau, because apparently they didn't realise we'd actually want a foldaway bed for her. No big deal: she's happy to sleep curled up on the floor between a couple of beds.

An evening expedition acquainted the kids with true tropical weather. Thirty-odd degrees of heat, and the air practically wringing with moisture. Personally, I completely hate it, and I have done so since I was a wee kid. I will never understand my father's proclivity for the tropics.

We wandered aimlessly around until we found a hole-in-the-wall food court, and then for about twenty Singapore dollars, we stuffed ourselves on ubiqitously tasty Malay food. Yeesh. I know things are improving in Australia, but honestly, the food culture still has a very long way to go before it reaches Singapore standards. Even the kids were pleased. Half the time I had no idea what was being put in front of 'em, but it was all tasty, and it went down a treat.

We're making great fun of trying odd things: bizarre soft drinks (Pocari Sweat; Aloe Vera Juice with Peach Nectar and Pulp), strange clothing (the boys both now have a set of silken shirt and trousers which would fit right in with any of Jackie Chan's Chinese period-piece movies) and most especially, fruit. I bought a decent serve of durian from a market last night, and insisted everyone give it a go. Despite the fact that the stuff reeks like garlic, carrion, cat-pee and fermenting mango, the kids screwed up their faces and had a try.

Now, let's just expand on the description for a moment. The pulp is roughly the colour of over-ripe avocado flesh, but it has a texture a lot like near-melted ice cream. And it tastes... um... it tastes... well, it's sweet, but that's not what you notice first. For me, the first thing is the pungent blast of onion/garlic, then the sweetness, and then the horrid, cloying banana-mango fruit flavour.

Durian is often called 'The King Of Fruits' in this part of the world, but for my money, Elton John still has that particular title locked up. Durian is just plain horrible.

The kids were good about it though. And an old, teak-coloured Chinese gent standing nearby on the street while we were sampling this... ugliness... just about shit himself with good-natured laughter at their responses. He managed to recover enough to send us the thumb's-up, and generally let us know he thought we were doing the proper parental thing, but for a minute or two there I was worried about his heart. I guess watching three white kids take on their first batch of durian is pretty funny, mind you.

I made up for the durian by buying a couple kilos of mangostines, You can't get these in Tassie at all, and it's rare enough to find 'em in more northerly parts of Oz. Mangostines are one of my all-time favourite tropical fruits, and we chomped our way through two kilos without much effort at all.

And then it was bedtime.

Of course, the younger two haven't even come close to adjusting their body clocks for the time change yet. Nat and I, we tried keeping them up late. Didn't go to lights-out until 2130. That was 2330 Tas time, and when you realise their usual bedtime is 2000, you'll understand why we hoped they might sleep in just a little, given that they'd travelled several goddam thousand kilometres in the interim.

Nope. Not a hint of it. 0500 local time: Younger Son and the Mau-Mau were up and at it with a vengeance. At just shy of 0700, a very frazzled Natalie bonged the doorbell to the room I'm sharing with Elder Son. He and I were both still in the dark, mostly asleep. But we pulled ourselves together, and went down for breakfast. Then we all shouldered arms, and went for a Big Walk.

Big Mistake.

Apparently, pretty much nothing opens for business before 1030 in Singapore. Sure, mostly they'll then stay open until 2230... but if you happen to be burdened with a couple over-active kids at around 0800, you're fucked.

We walked. Past Bugis St and all the shopping – closed, yes. Found the legendary Raffles Hotel, and managed to snag an expensive Yum Cha second breakfast... but the shops were all closed, as were the various museums and tours. So we walked farther. Found a toilet in the Raffles City shopping mall, though pretty much all the shops were closed, yep. Walked farther still, Found Chinatown – mostly closed. Bought a little dizi (odd Chinese flute) in the one-and-only store which was open in an interesting spiral mall thing... and surprised hell out of the proprietor by playing it easily. Walked down some kind of a mall/street lined with little stalls and stores, even though it was just barely opening up...

By this time, the heat and humidity had really put the zap on the kids. Every step, they were groaning and complaining of life-threatening tiredness. I have to admit, I knew better, but I couldn't convince Natalie... so in the end, we climbed into a cab and went back to the hotel.

Lo and behold! Three minutes in the air-con, and all three kids are running back and forth, bouncing on beds, and making goddam nuisances of themselves. Tired? Who, us? No way!

I'd tried to explain it to Natalie, but she's always been in denial about the tropics. Truth is, when the heat and the humidity close in like hammers, the kids feel trashed. They're sweating, they're uncomfortable, the air is hot in their lungs – and their bodies are telling 'em that they've obviously done so much activity that their metabolism is overheating. The closest sensation they know is the tiredness that comes from prolonged physical activity.

But they're not tired. Not really. The moment they cool down, all that energy kicks in, and they're back on the move.

Think kindly of me, friends. My wife isn't sleeping. The kids are bamboozled by the tropics and they know not the meaning of jet-lag. And I have to keep them all from killing each other until this holiday is over...

Sunday, August 1, 2010


House-sitter - check.

Cats and dogs organised - check

Pet rats farmed out to Amazing Neighbour Anna - check

Chooks organised - check

Packing - check

Documents - check

Electronic bumff (video recorders, cameras, music machines, rechargers, memory sticks, batteries, netbook computer, etc) - check

Children - squabbling perpetually

Wife - teetering

Sanity - sadly missing.

I fkn LOVE holidaying.