I Snubbed the Sultan.

The news sent the school into mass panic.

The Sultan was coming.

Teachers and staff rushed madly around the school trying to fix a failed institution in time for the visit of the man who had raised himself to the status of a god among his own people.

Bruneian teachers dashed madly this way and that for weeks in order to impress a man they regarded with an equal amount of reverence and fear.

“Kieran, you’ll be in the official welcoming party for his majesty,” I was told upon arrival.

Oh no, I thought. I Immediately knew I would be the only ‘orangputih’, or foreigner, in the welcoming party and the Sultan would never pass up a photo opportunity with one of the white people who gave his country’s education system the semblance of professionalism.

I also felt like death warmed up after a fitful night’s sleep which ended abruptly at 4.30am when the daily ‘reminder’ blasted through loud speakers. What’s more, I’d been required to arrive at school before 7am, knowing that my afternoon teaching shift wouldn’t start until 12.30, and would end at 5.30pm.

This meant that once the Sultan’s flying photo opportunity had finished, I’d be forced to twiddle my thumbs at school for hours. A morning teacher was occupying my ‘hot desk’, and I was only allowed to physically leave the campus if I got a permission note signed by my head of department and the Principal. On the day of his majesty’s visit, signing a form for a random English teacher would be the last thing on their mind.

In fact, I was more worried about the Sultan’s entourage. From all reports, the Sultan himself was quite a nice, friendly, amiable person – he can afford to be when he enjoys unlimited wealth and power. I was afraid that one of his entourage, including a sycophantic representative of the education department determined to assert their authority and improve their status in the eyes of the Sultan, would ask me a genuine question, and that I would offer a genuine answer. If they’d asked me what I thought of the school, I don’t think I could have resisted saying,

“It’s a joke. It clearly exists to corral teenagers and teach them nothing but obedience to religion and the royal family, and is deliberately underfunded to ensure that the students remain uneducated, because an uneducated population is easier to control”

I don’t think I would have kept my job.

I’d be the only white person in the line up because the only other ‘orangputih’ had drawn on his many years of experience in Brunei and called in sick that day, just as he’d called in sick the previous Thursday when the Sultan was originally supposed to visit. Funny that.

There was no way I was going to risk my job, so I snuck away to a place that I knew no one would find me. How did I manage to avoid any contact with the ruler of the tiny nation and his sizeable entourage?

Quite easily.

I went to one of the normal classrooms. One of the classrooms in which I taught. A classroom with peeling paint, an old blackboard, cracked cement floors, a broken clock, a broken window, no internet reception, no technology, no air conditioning and fans that may or may not work, despite the incessant tropical heat.

Most government schools are like this, and I chose this as my hiding place because the Sultan was never shown the reality of the schools he visited. He was shown the few classrooms with paint on the wall, tiles on the floor, a working computer and functioning air conditioning.

This despite the billions of dollars in oil revenue circulating the Sultanate.

Another peculiarity of the Sultan’s visit was the disappearance of the recycling bins. The coloured bins had been brought to the school only a few weeks earlier. They weren’t really effective because their purpose hadn’t been explained to students who grew up in a country with no recycling and not even local council rubbish collection. In Brunei, if you want to dispose of your household or business rubbish, you pay a private contractor – or just throw it in the bush.

The day before the Sultan’s visit, the bins disappeared. I asked a local Teacher why this happened, and he said it was because they didn’t look nice.

I was thus able to hide out and ignore the Sultan. Despite my thumping headache, I got through marking some homework tasks. Every so often I would poke my head out the door and watch the smiling Sultan being politely gestured towards another polished classroom or polished student.

I noticed some of the other foreign Teachers lining up for selfies and thought about the reaction of some foreigners to the Sultan and the royal family. Many expat Teachers sought selfies for fun. They thought it was a laugh to score a photo with an obscure world leader and share it on their socials. Others, however, seemed to genuinely respect the Sultan. How is that possible? How could an intelligent, educated person from a democratic country genuinely respect a man such as the Sultan? Everyone had to respect him publicly, it was too dangerous not to, but some of them also spoke of him in glowing terms privately.

Why do I dislike the Sultan so much?

I dislike all royalty. Not just because they live a life of luxury off the public purse. Not just because they are born into privilege and never have to work a day in their lives. It’s also because I am a keen student of history and I know how they achieve and maintain power: through cruelty and propaganda.

There are a few specific situations which reinforced my disdain for the Sultan.

The state of the school

As mentioned above, the school was falling apart. It was poorly maintained, it lacked technology and teaching resources, many Teachers are not actually qualified, and it was poorly managed. Bruneian children are not supposed to learn, they are supposed to obey.

The school was also dirty. The cleaners were employed during school hours, so the most they could do was drag a dirty mop around sections of the staff room, before they retired to one of the storerooms for their tea and cake. We would see them huddled together, sharing stories over tea and cake, and they would smile and wave at us without a care in the world. Meanwhile, the dirt and grime festered in the tropical heat.

The cleaners didn’t clean the classrooms. That was the student’s responsibility. The philosophy of inculcating civic responsibility may succeed in Japan, South Korea and Singapore, but not in Brunei. Classrooms were filthy.

Plus, the male students and Teachers shared a bathroom.

Oh, and the sick bay was in the staffroom. Of course, the Sultan was never alerted to these facts on his visits.

The Sultan the Saviour

One story appeared in the national newspaper during my stay. The Sultan was praised for funding the travel and medical expenses of an elderly Bruneian man who needed major surgery in Singapore. The man apparently lived in a squalid shack by the beach and could not afford to pay for the urgent surgery. The newspaper article extolled the virtues of the Sultan who covered the cost of the successful surgery, and showed a photo of the grateful and loyal subject on post-operative recovery in his squalid shack.

Why couldn’t the Sultan pay for the man to live in a decent house after surgery, and why was a Bruneian citizen living in a dilapidated shack in the first place?

The Sultan is one of the richest people, and richest monarchs on the planet, he lives in the world’s largest residential palace, but he hasn’t redirected any of the nation’s oil wealth to a man and his wife who live in a shack.

The reluctant princess

Another story which was told to expats was the story of the reluctant princess. According to popular knowledge, Princess ‘Sarah’ was one of a group of virgins presented to the crown prince Al-Muhtadee Billah for marriage. Apparently, the crown prince chose Sarah who is undoubtedly beautiful and apparently quite intelligent, but is also his cousin. The bride to be, however, did not want to marry the prince or enter the royal family. Thus, her parents tried to whisk her away to Switzerland where she has residence/citizenship courtesy of her mother Suzanne Aeby. The attempt failed, however, when the princess was greeted by security staff at the airport and escorted back to her home, then down the aisle to marry the crown prince. She remains in loyal service to the royal family to this day.

Religious hypocrit

The Sultan is one of the world’s richest men and one of the world’s greatest religious hypocrits. He introduced Sharia law, a strict Islamic law, into his country in 2013, but lives the playboy lifestyle of the rich and famous. He drinks alcohol, he owns a hotel chain which profits from the sale of alcohol and non-halal products, and he is famous for adultery. Details of his encounters with prostitutes are now well known, especially after a member of his harem, Jillian Lauren, revealed secrets in her book Some Girls: My Life in A Harem.

What’s more, Sharia law classifies homosexuality as illegal and punishable by stoning, but it common knowledge that one of the Sultan’s sons, Prince Abdul Azim, is gay. Abdul Azim spends most of his time partying with celebrities in London and protected by his father.

Prince Abdul Azim was the ‘patron’ of the school at which I taught, and I remember being told once that my teaching programs, lesson plans and reports must be completed to the very highest standard, because Prince Abdul Azim would review them personally. The Principal struck fear into the hearts of many of the local staff who slaved away for hours of their reports. I made sure I used pink highlighter on mine.

Lauren’s book also details how the Sultan and his brother, Prince Jefri, would swap women in their harems. Prince Jefri is a famous sex addict and is currently estrnaged from the royal family because he wasted away much of the country’s fortune on women and parties.

What happened to me?

The commotion subsided, so I emerged from my hiding place to discover that the visit was over. A few days after the dust had settled from the Sultan’s visit, the Principal called me into her office.

“I notice you are not in any of the photos,” she said.

“Ah, yes, I was feeling sick, I know I looked sick and I didn’t want to embarrass the school in front of the Sultan,” I explained.

I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe me but she was diplomatic enough not to take the matter further. Our Principal knew the expat Teachers worked very hard to improve her school and her reputation. I was given a perfunctory slap on the wrist by my employer, a British organisation contracted by the government, and life at the school returned to normal.

The staff at the school had endured weeks of extra work, long hours, stress and panic so that the Sultan of Brunei could breeze through one of his schools and pretend that he is educating his loyal subjects.

That’s why I snubbed the Sultan.

http://www.ft.com

All this for one family?

The Summer Palace in Beijing is a grand conundrum. It is an enormous private residence built for one family, in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.

Various emperors and royal families have occupied the site since construction began on the palace in 1153, and each ruler added their own personal touches to the area. The result is a tourist attraction that is large and interesting enough to occupy an entire day of exploration.

The lake itself, Kunming Lake, occupies 2.2 square kilometres and dominates the palace. These days, of course, it is not reserved solely for the royal family and visitors can enjoy the lake and the grand historical buildings.

Locals gather at the palace for recreation, relaxation, eating, drinking, socialising and challenging each other to games of chance and intellect.

Chasing the sun

A palace named in honour of summer should rightly be bathed in sun, but the severity of the air pollution in modern day Beijing means that the sun is rarely spotted in all its glory. A constant haze hangs over the imperial palace and makes rare appearances to remind locals and visitors that the earth’s life source does in fact exist.

The photo below indicates the first glimpse of the sun in Beijing since the Ming dynasty.

The palace is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world and it certainly invites contemplation and a picnic. It is a dream location for photographers who could spend, days, weeks or months capturing its natural, architectural and historical beauty.

Closer inspection reveals amazingly intricate detail and craftsmanship on every edifice which is painstakingly preserved.

Boating is a great way to experience the lake. Being so vast, the lake takes a long time to circumvent on foot, so numerous waterborne craft are available. Boat tours in elaborate boats with dragon motif are available, and tourists can hire small pedal-powered craft to carry them from shore to shore. Be advised that the lake is quite large, and if the wind picks up it can be hard work to get back to your starting point.

The famous marble boat is not going to set sail anytime soon.

History

A visit to the Summer Palace is a journey through history. Many rulers and their families have taken ownership of the site, including Kublai Khan, and their influence on the palace is documented in the archival displays found throughout the palace.

Winter wonderland

Somewhat ironically, the Summer Palace looks spectacular in winter, when the lake and the buildings are blanketed in snow and locals take to the lake with ice skates.

The Summer Palace, a fine day out in Beijing.

A look back at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The world’s best athletes should be competing for the ultimate prize in world sport right now, but will instead have to wait another twelve months to test themselves against sport’s elite at Tokyo2020 (2021).

For fans whose sporting body clocks tell us that we should be glued to the screen, or shouting ourselves hoarse at a stadium, we can attempt to fill that void ever so slightly with a look back at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

National pride

Sport evokes a depth of patriotism matched only by war, and this is on clear display at an Olympiad. For Chinese citizens, their pride overflowed as they hosted their first ever truly international sporting event. Everyday Chinese citizens went out of their way to be helpful to foreigners, regardless of the language barrier. The roar of the crowd, in perfect unison inside the stadiums, was deafening and at times frightening. The hosts wore their patriotism on their sleeves, their faces…

International visitors also proudly displayed their national colours, at the stadiums, on public transport, in the streets, restaurants, bars, hotels…everywhere.

National pride consumes the athletes in ways that only a national representative can understand. Unrivalled emotions are experienced when athletes enter the stadium for the opening ceremony, in national uniform, alongside teammates united behind their national flag. For flag bearers, the honour compares only to the victories which earned them this right.

In Beijing, a funny thing happened during the opening ceremony. Something that caught many international spectators by surprise. Nations entered the stadium in the order of the spelling of their name in Chinese, not in English or French.

One thing didn’t change, though. When the host nation entered the stadium, the crowd erupted.

World class stadia

China delivered some of the world’s most impressive sporting facilities. The Bird’s Nest, which hosted the Athletics and the opening and closing ceremonies, and the Water Cube which hosted the swimming and aquatic events, are some of the best-known sporting facilities in the world.

An army of volunteers

China has one advantage over the rest of the world: An enormous population. They used this population to good effect at the games. The opening and closing ceremony performers were apparently armed forces members, accustomed to following directions and repeating actions again and again until performed with military precision. Day after day they filled the bowels of the Bird’s Nest waiting to rehearse their section of the elaborate ceremony.

The practice paid off. The opening and closing ceremonies were some of the most impressive in history, and a triumph of theatre and spectacle.

But is it sport?

No. And there are many sports purists who believe the theatrics of the opening and closing ceremonies are out of control as each host city tries to outdo its predecessor. They argue that the budget for the ceremonies alone plunge taxpayers into debt and the performances become so grand they threaten to overshadow the true stars of an Olympics, the athletes. The ceremonies in Beijing certainly supported this theory.

What about Tokyo?

What will the ceremonies look like in Tokyo? Assuming the games go ahead at some point in the future, can the government of Japan justify elaborate and expensive ceremonies after Japan has suffered the economic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Mystery and secrecy

The Chinese government and the organising committee went to great lengths to guard a state secret during the 2008 Olympics. Not its actions in Dafur, not its actions in Taiwan or Tibet. A secret more guarded than its policies in Xinjiang and the South China Sea. The secret it would not reveal is the most precious secret at any Olympiad: Who would light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony.

In the days preceeding the ceremony, rumours spread throughout the media village and the entire city as to who would light the flame, and how. Pundits suggested all manner of techniques, drawing on the oldest and strongest stereotypes of the host country. The slightest movement on the roof of the Bird’s Nest sparked yet more speculation and theories.

Eventually, the world watched gymnast Li Ning suspended on a wire like a hero in a martial arts movie run a slow motion lap around the rim of the stadium before lighting the cauldron.

The party’s over.

Once the opening ceremony is finished, the work begins. The serious business of sport takes place and athletes do what what they have trained to do every day for years and years. Of course, the stadium had to be returned to a sporting arena after the ceremonial extravaganza.

Sporting superstars

Every fan has their favourite moment, favourite athlete or favourite team from every Olympics. Australian fans lucky enough to be in Sydney in 2000 will recall Cathy Freeman’s victory in the 400m on the Athletics track. Fijians still beam with pride at the memory of their first ever Olympic medal, gold in the men’s Rugby 7s in Rio.

Chinese fans were robbed of a Cathy Freeman moment when their national hero and pre-race favourite, Liu Xiang, withdrew from the 110m hurdle event with a knee injury in 2008. I was in the stadium when it happened and the grief and disappointment among the Chinese people was palpable. Liu reached down to touch his knee before setting himself on the starting blocks, something he wouldn’t normally do. He then raised his hand and walked off the track. He was out. He couldn’t compete. He couldn’t win gold in front of his adoring home fans. Some locals screamed, all stared in disbelief at the big screen. Men and women cried, and every second journalist in the stadium rushed to find him and get that quote. Alas, for Liu it wasn’t meant to be.

International superstars grace every Olympics, in many different sports. In Beijing, one of the most famous faces on the planet, Lionel Messi, took gold in the men’s football with his Argentinian teammates, including fellow star Juan Riquelme.

One World, One Dream

One World One Dream, One Country Two Systems, China talks a lot about unity. It is interesting to note that since the 2008 Olympic Games, China has sought to create one world – under its control. Its policies and actions in Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong indicate China’s desire to exert control over its region and the rest of the world. Just as interesting is that despite this, Beijing is scheduled to host another of the IOCs major events, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Until the world’s best athletes meet again in Tokyo, or elsewhere, at some point in the future, we leave you with these memories of the 2008 games. What was your favourite moment in Beijing?

The Daily Double: Surf and Ski in one day.

Where in the world is it possible to surf and ski/snowboard in the same day?

I almost did it once, in Australia, but I can’t genuinely lay claim to having experienced this rare privilege of outdoor sports. I enjoyed a bodysurf somewhere on the far south coast of NSW, Australia, then drove with friends to the snowy mountains and hiked for a few hours that afternoon through patches of summer snow.

I know it doesn’t count but it made me curious and very keen to experience the real thing – a surf in the morning and a ski in the afternoon, or vice versa, as long as you see foam and powder before the sun sets. That said, with so many ski resorts offering night skiing under lights, you could ski in far away lands, or take your time in the waves before heading to the slopes.

California, USA

Southern California is home to great surfing beaches and snow-capped mountains. So blessed are the locals in this part of the world that surfing and skiing on the same day is known as the California Double or the Twofer.

One combo is Huntington Beach and Mountain High, which are about 90 minutes apart. Another popular double is Lower Trestles (San Clemente) to Bear Mountain. They are both enticing options on their own, and are just two hours apart – enough time to grab some tasty Mexican food on your way to the powder. You could also opt for Santa Monica to Mount Baldy, or Ocean Beach to Boreal Mountain Resort.

While you’re in Cali, you might be lucky enough to meet The Governator, or be discovered by a director and appear in a Hollywood blockbuster. The question is, are you cool enough to visit SoCal?

New Zealand

New Zealand is another nation blessed with a long coastline near steep mountains.

If you can handle wild and woolly weather and big swells, check out Raglan and Piha on the north island, as well as Boulders Bay, before driving for about an hour to Mt. Taranaki and the Manganui Ski Area. The South Island Twofer is doable at Taylor’s Mistake, a beach break near Christchurch, and Mt Hutt, just two hours away. At Mt Hutt, get ready to get vertical.

Chile

The thin mountainous nation of Chile offers quality waves and snow from June to October. When the temperature drops in the Southern Hemisphere, the Andes catch snow and the coast catches a swell.

Head to Valparaiso for a surf then up to Valle Nevado. The three-hour drive rewards you with waves and ski slopes. An extra hour in the car lets you ski at Nevado and surf at one of Chile’s most famous breaks, Pichilemu. For off-piste skiing and heli-skiing, try Nevado or La Parva, El Colorado and Farellones.

If you pack your passport, you could surf in Chile and ski in Argentina. Ski resorts such as Bariloche, Las Lenas and La Hoya share the same mountain range as the Chilean resorts. They are located near airports, so you could fly to the slopes from Santiago after a morning surf and a 1-2 hr bus ride from the coast.

For a real challenge, and a story to dine out on, ski at Cerro Castor, right at the southern tip of Argentina, and find some waves at the end of the world. You might need a dry suit and a rescue party on standby, because you’re almost surfing in Antarctica. Has this been done?

France

France is famous for elite skiers and wonderful ski resorts, and every surfer knows the name Biarritz. Fortunately, the surf beaches and the mountains are not too far apart.

When snow blankets the Alps and Pyrenees, the big swells arrive at breaks like Belharra. If you don’t want to stare death in the face at Belharra, or get lost in the crowds at Biarritz, pop over to the Basque Country to beaches such as Anglet, Hossegor or Guethary.

Australia

In theory, it’s possible.

Go for an early at a beach on the far south coast of NSW, or even into Victoria, then across to the snowy mountains which straddle the border between NSW and Victoria, for a late afternoon ski. It would be a very long day, and one destination where night skiing is an advantage.

Algeria

Algeria is an off-the-beaten track destination for both skiing and surfing, and an even more surprising destination for people looking to do both. It is possible. Surf break Decaplage is less than two hours drive from the ski resort of Chrea. This could be the best magical mystery tour of any of the destinations listed in this article – why not give it a go?

Morocco

Still in North Africa, Morocco has both surf and snow. Between January and late March consistent swell hits the North Atlantic along Morocco’s beach breaks and reef breaks, throwing up all kinds of waves.

Distance is the killer in the Moroccan daily double. The ski resort at Oukaimeden is a four-hour drive from the nearest beach at Essaouira, and about 5 hours from the most famous surf spot in Morocco, Taghazout. But, if you like long drives through the countryside, you can surf and ski in the same day in Morocco.

South Africa

At the other end of the continent, South Africa offers a daily double. Get in the green room at breaks such as Dunes, Crans, The Hoek and Pebbles near Cape Town, then travel for about 2 hours to the small ski resort of Matroosberg. On the Eastern Cape, be prepared for more driving, because the ski resort of Tiffindell is 6hrs from the coast. If you’re going to travel that far, why not cross a border and visit Afriski Mountain Resort in Lesotho, which is just a little bit further. It’s a tiny resort but it might be worth the passport stamp, and you could say that you completed the Twofer in a landlocked nation.

If your wish is to surf and see snow on the same day, you could do it in Taiwan. Taiwan catches snow in Taroko Gorge, Hehuanshan, Yushan and Xueshan, and most of these mountains are reachable by road and /or hiking. At some of them, you can sit in a hot spring instead of skiing. Is this also possible in Japan, Norway, Sweden or Iceland?

If you’re lucky enough to experience this double, it’s up to you where to go. It’s also up to you whether you ski or snowboard, or whether you ride a surf board, a body board or a SUP. You could don some skins and ski the back country if time permits, or spend hours showing off at the park with your selfie stick.

I don’t really think you qualify for a Twofer if you ride a goat boat through the waves before sliding down the snow on a toboggan. Personally, I also think it doesn’t count if you surf at a man-made wave pool, even if Kelly personally invites you, or ski at an indoor man-made slope.

To get back to the roots of surfing, grab some fins and enjoy body surfing – pure surfing.

If anyone has achieved this double, or knows of another place in the world where it is possible to surf and ski on the same day, let us know. Maybe one day in the future we will all be able to travel again and fill our days with surf and snow.

Images: Anton Repponen, Alex Lange

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden city in Beijing evokes thoughts of ancient Chinese dynasties and powerful rulers who reigned over vast swathes of East Asia. It conjures up images of an amry of servants and layer upon layer of restricted dwellings which were guarded like few other buildings in history.

Much of the original structure remains to this day and makes for a fascinating walking tour through various eras in China’s history.

The architectural beauty of the buildings is undeniable and is the first impression upon entering the gates. Every building is grand and ornate and the craftsmanship and sheer ambition of their creators is clearly evident. A closer examination and a study of the building methods reveals a mastery of construction which matches their beauty.

Upon closer inspection, the casual visitor can admire the intricacy of the design and decoration in hidden corners, rendered all the more impressive when considering that this intricacy is replicated throughout the enormous city.

Of course, The Forbidden City is more than an architectural masterpiece, it is a window into Chinese history. For this reason, a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour is essential, to save the visitor from simply wandering aimlessly through an endless assemblage of impressively-restored buildings.

The incongruous image of Chairman Mao looms large over the entrance to the city. Incongruous because the city was the masterpiece of ancient emperors and the ruling class of China, the very same people Mao and his communist party revolted in order to overthrow.

The Forbidden City is vast. Visitors are advised to set aside at least half a day to enjoy a complete appreciation of the site, and to allow for the inevitable crowds and the extreme weather which characterises Beijing – sultry, hot summers and freezing cold winters.

Allocating a few hours to the inspection of this historic and architectural wonder enables the visitors to snake their way through a deliberately constructed grid of servants and masters quarters all dedicated to the service, protection and exaltation of the ancient emperors.

Playing Tip With a Buffalo.

Have you ever played tip with a buffalo? The kids in Yirrkala do it all the time. For fun.

A group of children from as young as four years old will wander through the bush and search for one of the many Asian water buffalos which roam free in Arnhem Land. Not the domesticated buffalo which plough the rice paddies in Asia, but the feral, wild, big and dangerous kind of buffalo which infest the tropical regions of northern Australia.

Once the children have located a buffalo, they line it up. One or more of the children will pick up one of the bauxite stones which cover the earth in north-east Arnhem Land and will place this stone into their slingshot.

The children will hold their collective breath in anticipation and get ready. The slingshot draws back to its full length. The fingers pinching the slingshot ease then…SNAP! The slingshot is released and the stone goes flying towards the unsuspecting buffalo which is happily munching on the grass. In the split second that it takes the the stone to travel from the slingshot to the buffalo, the children stand on full alert, their senses heightened and their eyes widened to capture the charge of the massive buffalo.

WHACK!

The stone strikes the hind of the buffalo and the huge angry creature charges into the bush in the direction of its attackers. The wild, muscle bound animal powers head long into the throng of children who scamper in all directions with the buffalo at their heels. In bare feet, the skip across stones and thorns and twigs in a race for their life, knowing full well that the beast behind them can squash the bonnet of a SUV upon impact and could trample them to death. They charge through spindly trees and over fallen logs while screeching and laughing and hooting in fear and glee. Slightly older children grab slightly younger children to save them from impending doom and the bush comes alive with the streak of junior humanity.

The buffalo snorts and grunts in disgust at having its lunch disturbed and sets its horns on its target – any of the children who broke it from its reverie. The buffalo has only revenge on its mind and dedicates every ounce of energy to that task.

Somehow, all of the children find safe ground as the powerful buffalo tires and ceases its pursuit. The children re-gather in a gaggle of laughter and wicked smiles, their little hearts pounding with adrenaline and gratitude. They escaped this time. They rest and recover.

Until next time.

Image: http://www.biggameaustralia.com

Taroko Gorge.

Taroko Gorge is spectacular. The crystal-clear waters of the Liwu River plunge from its towering peaks and support a vast array of plant and animal species which thrive in the varied tropical and alpine climates. Lush green rainforest juxtaposes with river stones and boulders smoothed by thousands of years of rain and snow melt.

Taroko National Park lies near Xiulin Township in Hualien County, Taiwan, (or Chinese Taipei? I guess it doesn’t matter, I don’t think the Chinese Communist Party will read this article).

Suspension bridges traverse its deep gorges, and set visitors’ hearts racing, especially when a young man reverts to adolescence and decides to shake the bridge as his girlfriend leaves the safety of dry land, leaving her less than impressed (I wonder if they’re still together). These bridges are often the only way to cross to the other side of some of the more challenging hiking trails.

Trails reward hikers with wonderful views of flowing aquamarine rivers and spectacular high peaks which reach into the clouds and are sometimes blanketed in snow. It’s a rare treat to travel from the humid tropical lowlands to mountains covered in snow in the space of a few hours. In fact, Taiwan may be one of the few places in the world where it is possible to see surf and snow on the same day.

Hikes range from mild short walks to beautiful waterfalls, to challenging multi-day treks across high peaks and precarious paths which plunge into the abyss.

A slow and careful trek through the rainforest reveals myriad plant and animal species which change dramatically in keeping with the changing terrain.

Tunnels bore through the mountains throughout the national park and add some mystery and excitement to any hike. Some of the tunnels are quite long and if you begin your hike without a torch, headlamp or mobile phone, you might find yourself wondering what awaits you in the dark, damp depths of the tunnel.

The gorge is vast, and offers so many sites worth exploration. For that reason, a few days and a vehicle are recommended. A bicycle would suffice for the fit and adventurous, and Taiwan is a very cycle-friendly country. However, the hills are steep and the hiking is spectacular, so exploring the gorge by bicycle may be too arduous for some. A motorised vehicle of some sort would allow for deeper exploration of the various hiking trails, and is advisable for those staying inside the national park, or at one of the accommodation providers near the entrance to the national park.

Getting Around in China.

How do you get where you need to be in China? How do you negotiate your way around a country of more than one billion people?

You can cram yourself into an overcrowded bus. You can squeeze your way into the back door and feel it close on you as you are sandwiched between the door and your fellow passengers. Be sure to pass your 1 or 2 yuan bill to the front of the bus via the rest of the passengers. You never know which day of the year an inspector will board the bus, and if you’re found to have ridden without paying, the penalty is severe.

You could avoid paying altogether if you copy Tim. Tim, nice but dim, was a friendly but hapless ‘Gap’ student working at a private school in China, who discovered a novel way to travel for free. He ‘scanned’ his 1 yuan note on the ticket machine. He didn’t have a transport card to scan, and he knew that money sufficed in lieu of a card, so he scanned his money. It worked, until someone pointed out that waving a note over the scanner does not constitute payment.

The standard issue communist-era utility vehicle is a reliable option. Functional, easy to park, no-frills transport which was once ubiquitous on the streets of China. If you painted it blue, the three-wheeled mobile would look a lot like Mr. Bean’s nemesis.

Another mode of transport which was even more ubiquitous on the streets of China is the bicycle. Sturdy, heavy cumbersome bikes that carried citizens and their possessions from one place to another and formed a sea of two-wheeled humanity. The car has largely replaced the bicycle as Capitalist-Communism replaced Socialism, but the humble bicycle is still serving its purpose for many citizens.

You could drive a private car. If you can afford one, and if you’re willing to negotiate the notoriously dangerous traffic and ‘creative’ driving which always seems to find its way onto ‘World’s Craziest Drivers’

In Harbin, northern China, walking is not always an option in winter. The daytime temperature drops below zero and after the snow melts, then snaps cold again, the footpaths turn into ice rinks. Its better to take a taxi, and to take whatever taxi you can find. Even if that taxi is fuelled by coal. Not refined coal transformed into fuel and dispensed at a bowser of some description, but pure coal. Coal that is shovelled into the engine by the driver while he is driving. Coal that is inserted straight into a furnace sitting by the driver’s feet, and which exits the vehicle via a chimney running along the side of the vehicle.

Sorry I don’t have a photo. I was afraid my fingers would fall off if I’d removed my gloves to extract the camera from my pocket.

If you’re averse to suffocating on the fumes of coal-powered taxi, you could progress a few decades into a gas-powered taxi. You’ll have to get out of the taxi, though, when it fills up at the gas station. Sitting in the taxi while it fills up is too big a risk, in case the taxi blows up, but apparently standing one metre away from the taxi, while the driver smokes a cigarette and plays on his phone, is perfectly safe.

Advance a few more decades and you can travel in comfort and style in a far more sustainable vehicle. Hop on one of the tourist buses in Hangzhou and admire the impossibly beautifully lakes and gardens of this popular city.

Sun protection is vital. Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays and prevent skin cancer. As you’re in China, it’s also imperative that you avoid a tan because you will never land yourself a wealthy husband unless you have fair skin. Also, it is considered chivalrous to provide comfortable seating for your female passengers.

A visor at the front of the vehicle doesn’t just look great, it also protects your eyes from the dust, and keeps your perm in place.

If you have a few goats to transfer from one place to another, why walk them through the busy streets of Xiamen? After all, if you can hire an Uber for your pet dog, why can’t you carry goats in a minivan?

What if you find yourself in a canal city? If you need to traverse a canal city such as Suzhou, which formed part of the enormous canal system that stretched from northern to southern China, how would you best get around? Driving could prove slow and frustrating in a city of narrow crowded streets, so why not take to the water, for a faster and more peaceful trip, perhaps in the company of some cormorants.

At times, speed is of the essence, and a water-borne craft with an outboard motor is the only vehicle which will suffice. Especially if you’re chasing the catch of the day or nipping between Gulangyu and the mainland.

Honey Season is Over.

“Honey season is over”

“When did that happen?”

“About two hours ago apparently”

Well that changes everything.

We were supposed to take the entire school out to a homeland to collect Guku, or wild honey. We now have to find another way to entertain the students for an afternoon. What will we do?

And before we decide what to do, how did honey season come to such an abrupt halt?

Honey season occurs at a particular time of the year in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and is a highly anticipated season among the traditional owners of these lands, the Yolgnu. The children venture out into various parts of their family’s homelands to collect wild honey from certain trees, under the direction of the women. The women knew when to go, and where to find the honey, and the children have always looked forward to sampling the rich honey to complement what was traditionally a sugar-free diet.

The kids consume a lot more sugar these days, but they still love the sweet taste of wild honey.

Hours of planning had gone into the activity, which would include all of the students at the school, the staff, the elders and a group of visiting indigenous athletes in a group called ARM, or Athletes as Role Models. The ARM program was created to encourage indigenous youth to participate in healthy and constructive activities and to eat healthy food. Thus, a walk through the bush, in the sunshine, to eat wild honey and connect with their traditional culture was an ideal afternoon activity.

The ARM participants were lucky. Many of them were city folk and they just happened to be in the community of Yirrkala during Guku season – or so they thought.

The Guku site was beyond walking distance from the school, so transport had to be organised. Being a government school, first aid and other equipment had to be taken in order to keep the children safe, and to satisfy the bureaucrats and protect the teachers from a lawsuit. Not that the Yolngu families would ever undertake that kind of proceedings against the school. It always struck me as humorously ironic that we teachers would take so many precautions for the safety of the students during outdoor activities, while the Yolgnu children, especially the younger ones, would wander through the bush in bare feet, no shirt and no hat, and run freely across the bauxite gravel that covers the earth in this part of Australia. They would also run bare foot across coral in the rock pools, and even swim in crocodile infested waters at the beach, as they have done for thousands of years. They very, very rarely got hurt.

Shovels, axes and other digging equipment were organised for extracting the honey, and receptacles were taken to carry the Guku, as well as some bread and other food items with which to enjoy the honey. I was looking forward to it, as I have a dangerously sweet tooth, and the rest of the school was excited about the activity.

The elders had been consulted as to the best day to conduct the activity, the best site to visit and the cultural significance of the process. Permission had been sought from the traditional owners of that particular piece of land. Many different language groups live together in Yirrkala, but each piece of land belongs to a particular language group. Organising the activity was therefore quite an effort.

The teachers had built up the activity quite a lot, and everyone was excited. Then, two hours before we were set to depart came the bad news:

Honey Season is Over

In the space of two hours, honey season had been declared finished, and we couldn’t do the activity.

Why?

I have no idea.

I had no time to ponder, though, because we needed to find another way to entertain the students for the rest of the afternoon. Thus, while various teachers were dispatched to deliver the bad news, a few of us tried to devise another activity. The sea breeze had picked up, so the best suggestion was to fly kites.

But we have no kites.

That’s no problem, in fact it could be the solution. We can make kites. The students can sit down with each other, the teachers and the athletes, and can build their own kite before decorating it and flying it. Great idea, we thought.

“Do you know how to make a kite?” we asked each other.

“Not really.”

It was then that Ray Minniecon, one of the group leaders from ARM, walked in. Ray is a well-known Aboriginal community leader and activist who was accompanying the athletes on their tour of various remote communities.

“So, you need to know how to make a kite,” he said.

“Yes,” we answered with more than a hint of desperation. Time was running out.

“I know a way”

And with this, us two whitefellas from the suburbs waited with baited breath.

Were we about to share some ancient Aboriginal wisdom about traditional kite making? Were we about to be privy to a little-known Aboriginal technique in the creation of airborne art? We expected to be taught about a tradition that that had been passed on from generation to generation through Aboriginal oral history. Did Aboriginal people make kites before colonisation, were they used for hunting, communication, recreation or for spiritual reasons, or were kites a preferred method for communicating with the gods?

Were kites used in every part of the country, or maybe only in Ray’s ancestral lands, we wondered. Perhaps they were only suitable in certain climates, certain geographical regions, just like the boomerang. The commonly-known boomerang, the one made in China and sold at souvenir shops all over Australia, was not used in Arnhem Land for example. A boomerang like that would never come back. In Arnhem Land, the trees would get in the way.

And what were we to do with his knowledge once it was shared with us? Would we be free to disseminate it? Could we divulge this secret years later during a blog post? The responsibility felt immense, were we ready for this?

Thus, we listened intently for Ray to share this ancient wisdom. And Ray, being a wise old man, sensed our mood and leaned in slightly, pausing for dramatic effect, before telling us:

“Just google it.”

And he cracked a cheeky smile.

We did google kite making and found a suitable method that kids, teachers and athletes could understand. The students gathered various materials from the school and the surrounding bush land and put together their best imitation of a kite. They were creative and colourful and some of them actually flew. Even the ones that crashed spectacularly provided much amusement, and the kids were outdoors and smiling.

I never did taste wild honey.

Will I ever get the chance, who knows?

Who knows when we will be able to travel freely to north-east Arnhem Land again? Who knows if the Yolgnu can maintain their traditional cultural practices and protect their lands from mining companies, developers and an Australian government which seems determined to destroy this country’s natural environment?

Will the rest of Australia do what is needed to help protect the world’s oldest surviving culture and enable everyone to enjoy the taste of Guku?

Image: Matthew T Rader

Can I Have Your SIM Card?

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My landlord asked me for my SIM card.

I was leaving Brunei and I knew I wasn’t coming back – so did my landlord. A few days before I left the country for good, the landlord messaged me and asked if he could have my SIM card.

Why did he want my SIM?

He didn’t say. But amid the mixed emotions of leaving a country I had lived and worked in for three years, my mind did begin to wander. The landlord clearly wanted access to a SIM that was not registered in his name.

Did he have a mistress?

Perhaps.

This is certainly common in Brunei, despite, or because of, the country being a strict Muslim nation under Sharia law. Many married men are known to have mistresses and many of the girls were apparently quite young. In fact, one of the girls I was teaching, who was 14 or 15, suddenly disappeared from my class and her name was removed from the class roll. I was informed, quietly, that she would not be returning for some time as she had been sent to an establishment for ‘re-education’ after being caught in a relationship with a married man. According to my source, the girl’s behaviour would be ‘corrected’, while the adult male in the relationship would not suffer the same consequences.

I was also informed that men would lure girls into relationships with nothing more than a SIM card or the promise to pay for their phone credit.

Was he a criminal?

I don’t know, but that was another obvious assumption. Maybe I’ve watched too many gritty crime dramas in which the criminals have endless access to burner phones and new SIM cards, but I couldn’t help assuming that he wanted a number that wouldn’t be traced back to him because he was involved in some shady business.

My suspicions grew because of what happened before I moved into his house. It was offered fully furnished, but when I moved in, there was no furniture in it. I was told that he could not arrange the furniture, despite having more than a month to do so, because he was still overseas on business.

“He can’t get a visa”

This is the reason I was given for his delay. He apparently hadn’t returned because he was waiting for the Bruneian government to grant him a visa, to return to Brunei.

My landlord was a middle-aged Malay, Muslim Bruneian citizen, born and bred in the country, yet he needed to apply for a visa to come back into his country. I had never heard of this before and I don’t know if any other country applies this condition to their own citizens.

I had been told, however, that the Bruneian government (the royal family) pays particularly close attention to any Bruneian citizen, or long-term resident, who accumulates a significant amount of income. I had also heard that the government will stop anyone from earning more than a certain amount of money because money equals power.

It was suggested to me that his business was quite successful, and his new-found wealth may have attracted the attention of government officials.

He’s not Chinese.

The threat of a wealthy citizenry prevents many Chinese Bruneians from earning full citizenship. Many Chinese Bruneians are technically stateless because, despite living in the country for many generations, they are never granted full citizenship. Chinese people, and those from the sub-continent, run the day to day economy of the country, and some are so successful that they accumulate considerable wealth.

However, their businesses are fully or partly owned by a Malay Bruneian, because the Chinese do not have full citizenship. The royal family knows that if Chinese Bruneians enjoyed the same rights as Malay Bruneians, their superior business acumen of the Chinese would erode the power of the government.

What was his business?

I don’t know. I never found out.

Why did your landlord have your number?

It’s a peculiarity in Brunei that real estate dealings for rental properties are normally conducted directly between the landlord and the tenant, even though the property is rented through an estate agent.

What do estate agents do?

Apart from listing rental properties and organising the initial meeting between the two parties, not much. If you’re looking for an easy, well-paying job, become a real estate agent in Brunei.

Did I give him the SIM card?

No, I needed it up until I checked in for my flight in order to hand over some items to a staff member from the company with which I had been working. I didn’t realise at the time of the request, but I also needed it after the flight home was cancelled and I was trapped in the country for one more night – and put up at a dodgy hotel not 200 metres from the house I had just vacated.

I could have stayed one more night in the house.

If only I’d given the landlord my SIM.

Image: Brett Jordan