Run the red light.

Run that red light. Speed. Ignore the road rules and never sit in traffic. Do it all. Get away with it, day after day after day…

You’d love to wouldn’t you. You could, if you were the Sultan of Brunei.

In his tiny, oil-rich Sultanate at the top of Borneo, the Sultan and his family never stop at a red light or obey any of the road rules that are imposed upon every other occupant of the South-East Asian nation. The Sultan drives gleefully behind two police outriders who clear traffic from his path and assure him safe passage.

The police motorbikes speed into traffic with sirens blaring, and gesture violently to every motorist to pull over- immediately. Drivers screech and swerve to the side of the road in an attempt to stop just 100 metres after the arrival of the police, lest they incur the wrath of the royals.

Motorists are more scared of the government than they are of crashing.

The Sultan and his family then fly past with their foot firmly planted on the accelerator. Danger matters not to the omnipotent ruler. His outriders clear traffic from expressways even when that sends motorists into the path of merging traffic. The police part motorists as Moses parted the red sea, and the Sultan’s loyal disciples obey.

If they don’t?

For a Bruneian, the consequences could be disastrous. The Sultan controls every aspect of their lives and could easily cut financial support. Malay Bruneians essentially exist on a subsidised lifestyle and a welfare system disguised as public service employment. Locals get out of the Sultan’s way.

For expats?

That’s easier. The government could cancel their work visa and give them 48 hours to leave the country. Expats get out of the way.

Do Bruneians resent the Sultan?

They don’t appear to. They gaze respectfully at their glorious leader as he smiles and waves back from behind the tinted windows of his bullet-proof black Mercedes SUV.

Does it cause accidents?

Yes, but no more than the everyday driving habits of Bruneians. Locals speed, tailgate and fail to indicate. They nurse their kids on their laps while driving and use their phones. They let their kids run around the car without seatbelts. They don’t understand merging and they honk like mad if they’re made to wait half a second after a traffic light turns green, even though they have nowhere important to be – there’s not much to do in Brunei. This despite the fact that honking the horn is considered very rude in Brunei.

Another peculiarity of Bruneian motorists is their habit of waiting in the shade. They will seek out any form of shade while waiting at the traffic lights, even if it’s a full 15 metres back from the lights. Brunei is always hot. If you’re four or five cars behind the person in the shade, you might miss the green light altogether. Furthermore, every Bruneian knows someone who has been badly injured or killed in a road accident, but this doesn’t alter their behaviour. The Sultan is just setting a good example.

Strangely, Bruneians also run out of petrol a lot. Strange because Brunei is a very small country and one end of the country to the other is only a two hour drive. Strange too because petrol is cheap. It’s an oil nation. Cars are often abandoned at the road side with a small branch sticking out of the window – the universal sign of an empty tank.

What about the police?

The police rarely enforce road rules on a daily basis in Brunei. Police exist to serve the royal family.

What happens when the royals travel?

What happens when they go overseas? How do they react when they’re forced to wait at a red light or sit in traffic? They must go mad. It must frustrate them enormously, or remind them that they are big fish in a very, very small sea.

Once the Sultan has flown by, the outriders trailing his car give motorists permission to resume driving. This causes more potential carnage as drivers set off without indicating or waiting for other drivers. Worse still, some canny locals will speed after the Sultan’s entourage like loyal devotees following Moses.

Next time you’re tempted to run a red light, remember you’re not the Sultan of Brunei.

Image: Ulvi Safari

Beaches of sorrow.

The beach is a happy place, right?

Not always. Two beaches in Mexico are famous for stories of sadness and sorrow.

Playa San Blas, Nayarit.

The first beach synonymous with sorrow is Playa El Borrego en San Blas, in the state of Nayarit, and it centres on the true story of Rebecca Mendez Jimenez, who was known as La Loca del Muelle de San Blas.

Rebecca was often seen at the beach, the lighthouse and the wharf of San Blas wearing the same white wedding dress for 41 years, until her death on September 18, 2012.

So how did Rebecca come to be known as the crazy woman of San Blas? Two separate stories attempt to explain her actions.

The first claims that a teenage Rebecca fell in love with a local fisherman named Manuel, who promised to marry her in 1971. A date was decided for the wedding and preparations were made. A few days before the wedding Manuel went out fishing, but did not return that day. On the day on which the pair were set to declare their love, Rebecca went to the wharf in her wedding dress and veil to wait for her love. She waited, and waited, but Manuel never returned. He and some companions had been killed by a hurricane that swept through the region. A distraught Rebecca visited the wharf in her wedding dress to wait for her beloved for 41 years.

The second story is equally sorrowful. Rebecca is said to have fallen for another man, this time a merchant named Laos, who referred to her affectionately as Smoke Girl due to her greying hair. He also promised to marry Rebecca, who waited at the church in her wedding attire, but in vain. Laos never arrived and Rebecca was left heartbroken.

Rebecca will always be remembered. Her ashes were scattered on the beaches of San Blas, a statue has been erected at the wharf, and she is the subject of a song by popular Mexican rock band Mana, titled En el Muelle de San Blas.

For locals and Mexicans, Rebecca is a symbol of eternal love.

Playa La Llorona

The crying beach lies in the state of Michoacan, also on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

It is one of the picturesque unspoilt beaches scattered along the coast of Michoacan and it is referred to as ‘una playa virgen’. The sound of crying does not emminate from a crazed widow or a ghost-like creature, but from the sand itself. Such is the chemical composition of the sand on this particular beach that visitors hear a crying sound while walking upon it.

The beach is also more isolated than other beaches on the Pacific coast of Mexico and it has so far avoided the construction of a hotel or other accommodation which smother many of the country’s best beaches. In fact, the coast of Michaoacan hosts many precious beaches devoid of large hotels or development.

Camping is popular at La Llorona due to its tranquillity, its beauty and its clear night skies. Campers drift off to sleep to the sound of the waves lapping the shore. If you’re lucky enough to visit and camp at La Llorona, and you hear what sounds like crying during the evening, do not despair. It is most likely a fellow visitor taking a romantic walk along the seashore under the light of the moon.

Preparing to greet the dead.

They will commune with the dead. They will welcome the unliving into their lives, for one night only.

The people of Guanajuato join their compatriots in creating elaborate artworks and displays to honour their ancestors who will share the earth with them on this one night of the year. Mexicans young and old will hang ofrendas in homes and public places which carry images of skeletons and other macabre images. For on Dia de los Muertos, the deceased return to the earth and walk among us.

Mexicans will bring forth the dead so as to never forget them. To remember the relatives who were once part of their lives. To pay their respects again and again and not just at that person’s funeral. The annual tribute to their ‘antepasados’ allows families to honour the dead without the overwhelming emotions of a funeral immediately following a passing, when grief releases a torrent of sadness. They will honour all of the dead in colourful and striking public installations, over which they have laboured for hours and hours.

In a land all too familiar with drug wars, gang violence and death, perhaps Dia de los Muertos helps local people come to terms with death.

Mexico is colour. Vibrant colour. Bold colour, and this is true of the installations which welcome the deceased.

Mexicans will celebrate. They will laugh and smile and sing. They will eat and drink and be merry, even when surrounded by death and the unliving. Because even in death, Mexicans will find joy and fun and happiness. There is always an excuse to socialise and to party. Deceased Mexicans wouldn’t expect it to be any different.

The families preparing the public and private installations do so with pride and joy. They smile at the striking images of skulls and gore. They revel in their distinct indigenous customs which survived the Christian influence of All Souls Day and the cultural colonisation of Halloween, which fall on the same day. Yes, they celebrate both of these traditions, but they have never strayed from the expression of Mexican culture which is Dia de los Muertos.

Which is your favourite national anthem?

National anthems stir emotions in us all. They evoke national pride and a sense of belonging. They can inspire international athletes, and persuade patriots to lay down their lives. Anthems can make grown men cry and create incomparable life-long memories.

So which is your favourite anthem? Is it the anthem of your nation of birth, or the nation you now call home? Does your country have an anthem, and what does it mean to you? Perhaps your favourite anthem belongs to a foreign country.

I have heard a number of national anthems during my travels and I’ve listed the songs which created the strongest impression on me.

Multilingual anthems

I like multilingual anthems. I like the interchange between the languages and the recognition of the multicultural composition of the country. Multilingual anthems acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants of the country and attempt to unite every citizen, at least symbolically.

South Africa – Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica

Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica translates as God Bless Africa. The anthem features Zulu, which is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, as well as Xhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The anthem moves seamlessly from one language to another and encompasses the contrasting cultures which make up the rainbow nation, which actually has 11 official languages.

New Zealand – God Defend New Zealand

God Defend New Zealand is another bilingual anthem, which is sung in English and Maori. Now, as an Australian, I’m not supposed to like the New Zealand anthem, nor their Rugby Union team, nor their cricket team. I’m also not supposed to admit that anything from Aotearoa is better than anything in Australia, but NZ gave women the vote before Australia, signed a treaty with their indigenous population, and gave us Sir Edmund Hillary, the All Blacks…

A national song featuring Maori lyrics is also a perfect precursor to the Haka, performed by many New Zealand sporting teams. Needless to say, I enjoy watching rubgy games between the Springboks and the All Blacks.

Ireland – Ireland’s Call – Amhran na bhFiann

Ireland does not have a bilingual anthem, it has two. Amhran na bhFiann is the official anthem, with Irish Gaelic lyrics, while Ireland’s Call is sung for the Irish Rugby Union team, because the team is comprised of players from the Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Ireland’s Call is said to promote a greater sense of unity.

Scandal

Spain – La Marcha Real

The Spanish national anthem, La Marcha Real, sparked a social media meltdown during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The Spanish players did not sing to their anthem before their first game against Portugal, and people blasted them for being unpatriotic, pampered, unworthy and disloyal, and demanded the entire team be dropped before the next game. People unleashed their own fury on La Furia Roja until one informed user explained;

The Spanish national anthem has no words.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and San Marino also have no words to their anthems.

Sport, religion and war

A pattern exists in national anthems. Most of them reference war and religion, and they provide an effective backdrop to sporting contests. Most anthems pay tribute to the country’s most prominent deity, and encourage loyal citizens to give their heart, their soul or their lives for their country. Anthems of colonised peoples honour battles against oppression, and anthems of the colonisers praise the might of the nation, normally referred to as the Fatherland.

Was any national anthem written by a woman?

Sporting competitions are obviously the most visible expressions of nationalism, and anthems are central to that expression.

Australia – Advance Australia Fair

You’ve already realised that I’m not very patriotic; after all, I extolled the virtues of New Zealand. And no, I don’t love my own anthem. The tune is boring and uninspiring, and the words are equally tepid, as well as being problematic.

I’m not the only Aussie who doesn’t love their anthem. In fact, custom dictates that any Australian who knows all the words to the anthem is UnAustralian. Anyone who sings with their hand on heir heart is pretentious and trying to be American. The phrase ‘girt by sea’ confuses most citizens and even the most patriotic locals sing ‘let us ring Joyce’ instead of ‘let us rejoice’. No one knows who Joyce is and why we should call her – maybe she knows what girt means.

Advance Australia Fair is problematic. The opening lyrics tell us that ‘we are young and free’. Calling Australia young ignores the indigenous history of the country. Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest living civilisation, having occupied this land for about 60,000 years. Calling Australia young recognises only the history of the country since colonisation in the late 1700s – i.e. White Australia.

Using the word ‘free’ also ignores Australian history, and the fact that Aboriginal people were enslaved (yes, slavery existed in Australia) were stolen from their families, were denied the right to vote and were not even counted as people until 1967. For these reasons, and the ongoing disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, many indigenous people disapprove of the anthem, and many indigenous athletes refuse to sing it while representing their country.

Many Australians find little inspiration in Advance Australia Fair, and often look to pop songs for patriotic stimulus. I am Australian by The Seekers is a popular substitute.

I’m also not a fan of God Save the Queen, because England is ‘The Old Enemy’, and because I despise royalty. I also dislike the Star Spangled Banner because the only thing worse than losing to England is losing to The United States of America, and because the anthem usually accompanies chants of “USA!!, USA!!…” I found the national anthem of Brunei so uninspiring that after three years of living and teaching in the ‘Abode of Peace’, I don’t remember a single word.

Cyprus

I’ve never heard the national anthem of Cyprus, but not because I’ve never been there. Cyprus has no official national anthem.

Mexico – Himno Nacional Mexicano

Invoking war and warriors is a common theme in anthems, and this is true of Himno Nacional Mexicano. The stirring tune begins with:

“Mexicanos al grito de guerra…” which translates as “Mexicans to the cry of war”. It ends with “un soldado en cada hijo te dio,”, a promise that every son or daughter is a soldier for Mexico. It is one of the more passionate anthems, expect when mumbled by a bunch of teenagers at 7am on a Monday morning.

A legend also accompanies the creation of the hymn. According to historical accounts, Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra wrote the lyrics after being locked in a room. His girlfriend encouraged him to enter the competition to devise the lyrics and when he refused, she locked him in a room full of patriotic images and only released him once he slid the ten-verse piece under the door.

France – La Marseillaise

I nominate La Marseillaise as my favourite national anthem. I know I’m not alone in this choice. I’m not French, I wouldn’t call myself a Francophile and I don’t speak French, but I was moved most by this national anthem.

I experienced a rousing rendition of the anthem on two occasions at the Stade de France in Paris in 2003. After Eunice Barber won the long jump, and her compatriots won the Women’s 4 x 100m relay at the World Championships in Athletics, I witnessed a stadium full of French patriots belting out their anthem with unbridled passion and raw emotion. I felt goose bumps and the hairs stood on my neck. It was so moving that I stopped working. Most reporters at international Athletics competitions don’t stop working during medal presentations because they’re too busy. When the French filled the stadium with their patriotic fervour, however, we all savoured the sound of thousands of patriots singing one of the world’s most inspirational anthems.

Image: Anders Kelto

Festival Internacional CervEZantino.

The Festival Internacional Cervantino began as a cultural tribute to author Miguel de Cervantes, but descended into such a celebration of ‘cerveza’ that it should be renamed ‘El CervEZantino’.

The author of Don Quixote has been honoured in the Mexican city of Guanajuato every year since the mid 20th century, when artists began performing his works in the city’s plazas for the enjoyment of the local people. The festival grew in fame and expanded into a multi-day festival which now attracts national and international visitors…and drunks.

Guanajuato’s beautiful colonial centre is decked in traditional Mexican cultural symbols and tributes to Cervantes line the streets and the preserved buildings. The streets are also lined with dishevelled drunks sleeping off their hangovers, urinating in public or lying in their own vomit.

Most visitors come for the culture, and some for the party. The festival program is devoted to artistic expression in the Spanish language and includes performances of the many works of Cervantes as well as celebrations of literature, opera, music, dance, theatre, art exhibitions, street spectaculars and academic events.

International performers who have participated in the festival include Joan Baez, the Bolshoi Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Some festival goers enjoy the culture, while many could not name a single work by the famed Spanish author, such is their drunken stupor. In this way the festival has in some ways become a victim of its own success. As the audience numbers grew year after year, many young people flocked to the city to simply have a good time and drink themselves to oblivion.

Some of the drunks are convinced they will meet their own Dulcinea. I wonder what Don Quixote would make of it.

Look, it’s your grandparents.

“Look, Kieran, it’s your grandparents,” called my travel buddies.

My grandparents, in Mexico? Where? How?

My grandparents are not in Mexico and I’m certain they’ve never been to Mexico. How could they possibly be in San Miguel de Allende at the same time as me?

They weren’t.

My companions were just playing a clever joke on me in reference to the enormous number of old white people in San Miguel de Allende. More accurately, the enormous number of old Americans.

The beautiful, small colonial town in central Mexico is a haven for retirees from the United States and it is often possible to see more gringos than Mexicans in this town. So many that my Japanese and Mexican travel buddies thought I should feel the most at home during our fleeting visit.

US retirees flock to San Miguel for its agreeable climate, it’s relatively low cost of living, its preserved colonial architecture and its relaxed pace of life.

They can spend their days taking brunch at any of the boutique cafes which have adapted their menus to suit the American palette. The old gringos can stroll over to the central plaza and admire the architecture of the old cathedral or engage in the age-old pastime of people watching. Those feeling more energetic could follow the tourists who make the short trip to the nearby Sanctuary of Atotonilco.

They can pop into one of the many galleries dotted throughout the town producing traditional Mexican and modern art works, or they can simply admire the facades of the buildings in the centre of the town which have been carefully preserved. So well preserved that the centre of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The old gringos created a little world for themselves and they are so pervasive that many of the store owners speak English and notice boards are full of activities targeted at seniors. In addition, the Biblioteca Publica (Public Library) which is housed in the former convent of Santa Ana, boasts the second largest collection of English language books in Mexico.

The town is also awash with signs imploring people to slow down.

Yes, nothing moves quickly in San Miguel de Allende.

Even the taxi driver joked about this fact as he crawled through the cobbled streets upon arrival in town. I never asked if he thought this was an advantage or a disadvantage in his line of work. It probably earned him fewer fares per day, but probably kept the meter ticking over for longer and increased the total cost of a journey. Either way, he must surely have been in constant demand in a town full of people with limited mobility.

Of course, in a town full of ‘gringos viejitos’, it’s no surprise that many stores stock an extensive range of walking sticks.

Reusing Maps at Tourist Sites.

Could tourist maps be reused?

You know the paper maps you receive at sites such as The Forbidden City, Teotihuacan, Disneyland or mountain bike trails? The maps you pour over when traversing London or Paris, or when trying to extricate yourself from a Medina in Morocco.

Actually, a map won’t help you escape the labyrinth of a Medina in Morocco – I tried. A savvy local boy is a more reliable guide, as long as he is sufficiently compensated upon exit.

In what condition is the map when you leave?

It is crumpled and covered in scribbles, circles and arrows? Is the map torn, just as your children are torn between the Vomitron roller coaster or the Whiplash dodgem cars?

Was it soaked by the playful dolphins at Seaworld, or sweat stained by the tropical heat in Chichen Itza?

If so, it will simply have to be thrown out.

Or, is it still in good condition? Is it unmarked, unstained and legible? Did you even manage to refold the map to its original folded state? If so, well done.

A map in good condition could be reused, and a reuse system could be introduced at tourist sites to allow and encourage visitors to leave their maps for a future visitor.

Tourists could leave their map in a box when exiting the complex. They can keep the map as a souvenir or place the map in the box. Once the map becomes unusable, it could be thrown into the recycling bin.

The maps could also be left in deposit boxes at hotels and accommodation providers, or at major transport terminals, before being returned to specific sites or visitor information centres.

Does this already exist?

I have never seen this system applied at any popular tourist site I have visited. I love to travel, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit 43 countries, but I’ve never seen a tourist map recycling system in place. My internet search indicated that it does not happen anywhere in the world. Did I miss something, does anyone know if it exists, or has anyone tried to implement the system?

The closest system I have seen is the very informal exchange of maps, along with travel information, at backpacker hostels. Maps were either passed directly from traveller to traveller, or left lying around the common room for anyone to use. Does this still happen, or have flashpacking and online travel resources killed the impromptu conversations that were an integral part of backpacking?

Why?

Reuse is one of the central tenets of sustainability. Reusing tourist maps would reduce the number that are produced and the number of trees that are cut down. The system would also keep maps out of landfill.

In addition, does a map have to be in pristine condition? After all, they are normally referred to briefly before being placed back in a bag or a pocket. They’re not a university degree, a legal document or a certificate of achievement, and they can function perfectly if not in perfect condition.

How many maps end up in landfill?

I don’t know the number, but it must be a lot. Think about the number of tourists (pre-COVID-19) who visit popular sites every year, and the number of maps that are taken and which simply end up in the bin. I’ve done it myself – because I’ve never seen a formal option of reusing my maps.

Why not?

COVID-19

A major impediment to this plan is COIVD-19 and the post-COVID travel reality. Many service providers and health authorities are likely to be reluctant to allow such an exchange of physical objects between many random people, for fear of spreading disease. This is reasonable. However, if it is safe enough to travel, it will be safe enough to exchange tourist maps.

Paperless guides

Paperless guides were growing in popularity even before COVID-19. Many upper-range hotels throughout the world were actually giving their guests a phone upon check-in which is programmed with a host of local information as well as a local SIM card and limited credit. This was driven by customer service, convenience and marketing as much as environmental sustainability, but it is just one indication of a move towards paperless tourism.

Apps

Conversely, many tourist providers and tourist sites have developed apps which contain the same information that is provided on paper maps, and this may reduce the production of paper maps. That said, many smaller or more remote sites, especially in developing countries, lack the requisite technology to transition to an app.

Other forms of recycling

Social media is awash with artworks featuring recycled tourist maps, and many of them look fantastic. Creativity and sustainability have long complemented each other. However, the focus of the article is the reuse of maps at the site at which they are used.

Easy does it

If this system were implanted and if it were to succeed, it would have to be simple. Modern humans expect everything to be simple – some people can’t do anything without an app. Furthermore, people on holiday are taking a break from thinking, planning and working and don’t want to have to make an extra effort just to recycle a map. Providers would have to make the system visible, multi-lingual, accessible and user-friendly.

I don’t see why it can’t happen.

Making friends at Happy Valley Racecourse.

These gamblers are messy, I thought, as I searched for place to sit and watch the next race on the program at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Racecourse. There was the usual detritus of betting stubs and plastic cups scattered over the ground, but what stood out were the newspapers left lying on the empty seats in the grandstand; lots of them.

Can’t they find a bin? Better still, a recycling bin.

I should have been used to rubbish and poor hygiene by now, because I’d spent two months in China before arriving in the Fragrant Harbour, but I was still surprised that punters had made absolutely no effort to put their form guides in the bin – or take them home to study.

The race was about to start and I wanted to sit down. I had no money riding on the result and had no idea how to place a bet at the course even if I’d wanted to – it looked complicated.

I was at Happy Valley for the spectacle and the experience. Horse racing is famous in Hong Kong and some of the world’s best jockeys, trainers and horses descend upon the track every year in search of a big pay day. It’s also a convenient place for expats to socialise and have a few drinks after work. Most of the revellers probably didn’t even look at a horse all evening.

I’d spent some time wandering the facility and observing a few of the horses in the mounting yard, and just watching the goings on at this internationally famous course. Then I decided that I really should watch a horse race if I am at a racecourse.

The upper tier of the grandstand seemed to offer the best view of the whole course, so I climbed the steps and searched for a seat near the betting counters. That’s when I noticed the newspapers. There was enough litter to rival a school playground.

I searched and searched for a seat at the top few rows, but most of the seats that were not occupied by a person were occupied by a newspaper.

Easy, I thought. I’ll just move a newspaper.

So I did, and I planted myself on a seat with an acceptable view of the course and the impending race. The announcer listed the names of the horses and the tension grew in the grandstand. The revelling expats below continued drinking and chatting obliviously but the real racing fans chewed their nails and focussed intently on the track.

The final horse was led into the starting gates and the starter was at the ready. Punters held their breath.

Racing…

Then I heard a voice behind me. I didn’t understand the language, I did understand the tone. I turned around to see a middle-aged local man gesturing angrily in my direction. Gesturing angrily at me.

What had I done?

The ear bashing continued and the gesticulations became more animated. I had really annoyed this guy and he was not happy. He glared at me between panicked glances at the race that was well underway and was now being led by the horse in the pink vest with black sleeves, ahead of the jockey sporting and black and white check with purple helmet. The colours meant nothing to me but they clearly meant something to my new friend who was now highly agitated.

He continued berating me and I still had no idea why.

Then he advanced towards me, pushed past me and grabbed the newspapers I had moved just minutes ago. He snatched at the paper which was open at the form guide and scanned it as if to see whether any alterations had been made. He appeared satisified. Satisfied at the state of the paper, but not satisfied with me. He was still very angry.

After further verbal admonition and much bilingual gesturing, he had conveyed to me that leaving a newspaper on the seat was the accepted method of reserving a seat at Happy Valley Racecourse.

Thou shalt not move the punter’s paper

Hence the abundance of newpapers.

Oooops.

I apologised profusely and politely. I know he didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Cantonese, but I think my words and my guilty countenance broke through the language barrier.

I don’t know much about racing but I know that very serious money is gambled at Hong Kong races, and I had to assume that the gentleman I had upset was one of the people risking some of this serious money. I wonder how much he’d bet on that race.

Scolded and contrite, I left my seat and I left my new-found friend to contemplate his fate and his bank balance. The black and white checked shirt crossed the line first but I didn’t hang around to see if this was good news or bad news for my new buddy.

I strolled among the crowd of expats and heard familiar smatterings of intoxicated British and Australian accents. I watched the next race from the safety of the expat throng, then I decided to leave the course because I heard smatterings of intoxicated British and Australian accents.

Is this bathroom gender neutral or gender specific?

I walked into the bathroom and I was confused. The signs on the walls confounded me.

Male. Female. Male and Female.

I just wanted to take a shower after another day of sweltering heat and humidity in Taiwan, but now I was faced with this conundrum.

What should I do? Should I leave, should I stay? Should I ask for help or an explanation? My Mandarin is scratchy at best and I was midway through disrobing. I couldn’t ask for help. I would have to figure this out myself. The gender specific / gender fluid signage on the walls was not making it easy.

Naturally I should use the male. But why present the female option in exactly the same place, and confuse the matter even more by offering a combined male and female option?

Were guests to shower together? Was it a water saving method? I’m all for environmental sustainability, but I was alone. Is a single person identifying as a single definitive gender allowed to bathe in this space?

I stood dumbfounded with soap at the ready and a desperate need to be clean. Then I ventured even further down the rabbit hole…

Is gender neutrality common in Taiwan?

Is gender fluidity or non-binary self identification accepted in this country? It might be in Taipei, the cosmopolitan capital, but what about here in Fenglin? Smaller regional centres tend to be more conservative, so it stands to reason that this would be true in little Fenglin. Then again, how would I know? I’d only arrived here today after a lengthy train trip and a long sweaty walk through the streets with my heavy pack slung on my back.

I shouldn’t make assumptions about a city that I’d barely met.

So, which one do I use?

Then I had an idea. A good idea. No, a brilliant idea. I knew who to ask. I crept toward the bathroom door with my towel around my waist. I peered outside. I looked right, I looked left. Clear. I made a mad dash for my room, quickly turned the key in the door and entered.

I sought out the wise one. The one who could surely answer my question. There is no wiser. I asked Elmo.

Elmo didn’t have the answer. Elmo didn’t have any answer. He said nothing. It was all to much for him as well. I retraced my cautious steps to the bathroom to face the challenge alone.

I scanned the signs again.

Male.

Is there such a thing as male bath gel? I’d never heard of it. I usually just bought the soap that was cheapest and most environmentally friendly (if available) and I didn’t even realise soap could be gender specific.

Does male soap contain different properties? A different scent would be plausible. Maybe I should sample the soap before using it. Dab a little on my wrist and sniff lightly – perhaps dab a little behind the ear and see if I take to it.

Female.

And female soap. Is it softer, more delicate on the skin. Oops, there I go, projecting again, perpetuating age-old gender stereotypes. I wonder how the good folk of Fenglin would react if I wandered the streets emitting an aroma of female bath gel. I wonder if they would even detect it under the omnipotent pungent sweat.

Male and female.

This is too much.

One soap is designated male, another soap is designated female and supposedly ne’er the twain shall meet, but the hair conditioner is gender neutral. This didn’t make any sense to me. Surely the most salient difference between male and female grooming trends is the length and style of one’s hair.

The conditioner must be gender neutral. But not non-binary, because non-binary folk don’t identify as any specific gender. And if the label denotes male and female this proposes that the conditioner can be used by both genders, and perhaps used together.

How do they make male and female conditioner; do they just mix the male soap with the female soap?

50-50?

At some point I had to make a decision. I was standing in the middle of the bathroom all sweaty and smelly and silly and I just wanted a shower. I had to take the plunge.

I could always try a little of all three. I could embrace my feminine side as well as reinforcing my masculinity, and if I applied too much of either I could restore the natural balance with a dollop of the male and female product.

Right. That’s it. That’s what I’ll do.

Then I realised I had another problem. What to do with all these taps?

Is there a male and female tap?

Male is right – female is left.

That’s what I was taught in army cadets when affixing my belt for parade. The male part always went on the right hand side of the webbing. The same rule could apply here. That said, they drive on the other side of the road in Taiwan so maybe tap selection demands this role reversal as well.

Should I touch the female tap?

Is male hot and female cold, or is that assumption sexist? Are men hot blooded and women more tempered? Can a woman be hot? Yes, but if I call a woman hot am I objectifying that woman? If I call a man hot am I gay? Is there anything wrong with being gay, or am I just being homophobic?

Is anyone a man or a woman?

Now we’re back at the soap dispensers?

Maybe I should have a warm shower. That would be safer. Less likely to complicate the discussion or offend anyone. But there’s no one else in the bathroom, certainly no one else in the shower. No one to offend.

Actually, what I really wanted was a cold shower after enduring the tropical heat all day. I kept hoping, praying for the mass of angry black clouds to burst and release a downpour of gloriously refreshing rain on the small town.

I wanted to dance joyously in the soothing rain and rid myself of the layers of sweat clinging to my skin. But bathing in public was sure to offend someone, even if gender assumptions did not.

I showered;

Cold water. Mixed soap. No major side effects. I was clean.

After all that excitement I was exhausted. I needed to sit down. I needed to find a beautiful, relaxing chair on which to rest my tired self and contemplate one of the most complicated showers I had ever taken.

Where would I find such a chair?

In the elevator of course.

Image: http://www.pridelife.com

Hangzhou.

Hangzhou is picture postcard perfect. The popular Chinese city south of Shanghai boasts beautifully manicured gardens bordering its expansive lake, and the fragrant blossoms of its seasonal flowers lure visitors from far and wide.

Sunlight dances off the rippling waters, and the surrounding gardens offer a kaleidoscope of colour in the warmer months. Drops of fresh snow on West Lake convert the majestic body of water into a winter wonderland.

West Lake invites wandering. Stroll along its banks and admire the flowers, or stop to picnic at its shores. Waterborne craft ply its waters for an immersive experience.

Evenings promise yet more visual splendour. During warmer months, the lake comes alive at dusk with a wonderful light show featuring shooting fountains and an uplifting soundtrack.

Nearby Xixi National Wetland Park offers yet more beauty. The vast network of marshes, lakes and ponds plays host to a multitude of birds and wildlife and holds enough treasures to entertain visitors for hours or an entire day.

Of course, when something is so beautiful, it must be protected. This explains the abundance of public advisory billboards scattered throughout the city.

Billboards featuring cartoon like characters warn locals and visitors to avoid unsavoury habits such as smoking, spitting, bribery and traffic violations.

The anti-smoking message isn’t working. China is awash with cigarette butts and the stench of cheap Chinese tobacco. Smoking is banned in many places, but tolerated everywhere. Spitting is just as prevalent, and ignoring traffic violations seems to be something of a national sport.

The bribery billboard is interesting. The message is sound, but the Chinese man in the image seems to be accepting a bribe from a foreigner. Does this mean that only foreigners would dare offer a bribe in China? Also, the foreigner has red hair. Are red heads less trustworthy?

The only message that appears to be cutting through to its audience is this one:

Chinese people are extremely patriotic. They don’t always obey the law (see above) but they are fervently patriotic and will defend their national honour with passion and vigour.

At least in the case of Hangzhou, they have something of which to be proud.