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.

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.

Wogs vs. Aussies.

“Righto boys, it’s a bit wet outside, so do you wanna play basketball or indoor soccer?”

“Basketball, soccer, basketball…” the sporting options were parried back and forth until Cameron, the captain of the A-grade Rugby team and thus favourite for future school captain, muttered his decree.

“Soccer”

“Ok boys, Grella and Kalac, can you get the goals?” directed Mr Brosnan, as he went to collect the ball.

“Oi, it’s Wogs vs Aussies boys,” declared Cameron, and the students dutifully arranged themselves into a team of Caucasian students and a team of ‘ethnic’ students, as they had done so many times before. Mr Brosnan pursed his lips around the whistle before deciding that Yr.10 boys could referee themselves, and as long as no one broke any bones he could enjoy a coffee on the side line.

“Blakey, go up front,”

“Yeah, you’re our White Wog,” joked Woods, “at least someone on our team knows how to play soccer.”

With that, I took up my customary position at centre forward and hoped that my fellow Aussies would this time secure enough possession and open space to provide me with a realistic chance of slotting that ball past Kalac in the goals.

We’d never beaten the wogs in soccer, indoor or outdoor, and even though I was pleased with my exalted status among the cool white kids and rugby heroes of the school, I still felt the pressure to earn this status by scoring goals.

The fact that a lot of my friends were on the ‘other’ team didn’t really occur to me – in Sydney in the early 1990s this kind of casual racial division was just a bit of fun – or a quicker way of picking teams. To be honest, I never questioned it. The casual racism was buried underneath the testosterone fuelled atmosphere of a PE lesson at a school whose reputation was built firmly on sporting prowess.

Just then, I caught a glimpse of Eldridge and for the first time ever, I felt a morsel of his inner conflict. The product of a white father and Thai mother, he seemed to hesitate in assigning himself to the Wogs or the Aussies, as he had never done before. I was forced to consider whether his increasing maturity and self-awareness, which descends upon every teenager, had prompted him to examine his own identity more deeply. I mulled this over in my mind until Maxwell screamed,

“Ello, go to fullback, hurry up” and Eldridge’s search for identity was put on hold.

At that, Mr Brosnan glanced up from his coffee cup and blew the whistle, we were off.

Bresciano fed the ball to Postecolglou who nutmegged Johnson before skirting around the burly prop and flicking the ball across to Vidmar. The little magician weaved his way past Woods, Maxwell and O’Sullivan before stepping over the ball and completely bamboozling Stevens in goal.

1-0

“Orale pues joven, que golazo!!!!!,” exclaimed Ortega, as Vidmar thrust his shirt over his head and celebrated his goal with arms outstretched.

Ortega himself had dabbled in Rugby, which apparently made him less of a wog, but he still had an ‘ethnic’ surname and spoke in tongues when feeling excited or cheeky. He hadn’t quite reached the status of Aussie – a wog who was so Australianised they cease to be a wog.

Perhaps it was his father’s single silent protest which set back Ortega’s entry into the mainstream. At an official school function, Ortega Senior refused to stand for the toast to the Queen, because the memories of the Falklands War were still far too real. We didn’t realise this of course, and only learned once young Ortega gave us a short history lesson.

I remember thinking, at least he has a reason for remaining seated. I only stood up because the teachers told me to, and I know my classmates didn’t truly know or care why we toasted the British royal family. We also didn’t know or care why we called wogs wogs.

“Come on boys, what’s goin’ on?”, admonished Johnson, “let’s smash ‘em, they’re not that good.”

Bresciano this time fed the ball to Popovic who directed a lovely through ball past two awestruck Aussies and towards Santos. Santos plodded toward the ball and took a massive air swing before falling on his back side. The debating champion attempted to shrug off the failure with self-deprecating laughter, before Fallon asked,

“How are you so bad at soccer Santos, you’re a wog?” and the Aussies enjoyed a chuckle.

Should I laugh? Is Santos truly shrugging this off as friendly banter?  Did these ‘harmless jokes’ seep beneath the skin when the boys got home? When Wogs vs. Aussies was transferred to the Rugby field, my incompetence, and that of Cleary and Stevens, was not linked to our skin colour or racial background.

Cleary was teased that he was hopeless despite being built like a prop, and everyone accepted that Stevens was allowed to ‘suck at Rugby’ because he was an academic genius and computer whiz. That’s also why he was always forced to play keeper.

Me, I was just ‘too skinny for Rugby’. So skinny in fact that my Aussie teammates told me how they wished I could be a wog for a day because they’d love to tackle me and drive me into the turf.

“He is a wog, he’s good at soccer,” they’d say, but their jokes didn’t cut through me like they did the real wogs. Even if I was a wog for a day, it was only a day. I could still return to the White Side and survive the school playground in relative anonymity.

In the meantime, the little master had stepped and swerved his way past the Aussie defenders for another easy goal.

2-0

Mr Brosnan sipped his coffee contentedly while the teenage boys battled for football supremacy. My blustering teammates took advantage of the game’s self-regulation and ‘tackled’ some of the wogs so fiercely that they took possession and managed to feed me the ball. I dodged Rossi and swivelled past Zelic before placing it into the back of the net.

7- 1

My teammates went wild and hurled insults at the wogs with such passion that you’d think they’d won the World Cup. Guys, it’s only one goal. But apparently a goal for the Aussies was worth more than a goal for a wog.

A few more stern challenges and violent toe pokes succeeded in advancing the ball towards Kalac in goal, and a blind thundering kick from Taylor smashed into the hands of Kalac and out the other end.

7 – 2

“Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole,” sang my teammates and I joined them heartily. We were mounting the greatest comeback in the history of world sport and it deserved extravagant celebration. Then the tone of the chanting changed. The universal football chant was distorted with derision and mockery and was peppered with random ‘foreign’ words the Aussies had learned from their multi-cultural classmates. It was as if my teammates had appropriated this ‘ethnic’ chant and were ridiculing it to put the wogs back in their place despite the scoreboard.

Maybe this silently enraged the wogs, and they responded with an all-out assault on our goal. Poor old Stevens was sent diving and gaping for thin air as Vidmar, Bresciano, Arzani et al scored goal after goal.

“Righto boys,” called Mr Brosnan, “time to get changed.”

The massacre had ended.

12 – 2

Yet again, the wogs won, on the field at least.

Image: Pascal Swier

A birthday in Teotihuacan.

If you or a member of your travelling party celebrates a birthday on the day you visit San Juan Teotihuacan, be sure to remember a cake. It need not be a big cake. In fact it is advisable to pack a small cake, as you will be lugging it up and down ancient steps for hours, and said steps sit at over 2000m altitude.

Don’t forget candles and a lighter. And don’t forget the words to ‘Las Mananitas’, because if the birthday girl is Mexican, ‘Cumpleanos Feliz’ will not suffice.

Of course, ‘Las Mananitas’ should, according to tradition, be sung on the stroke of midnight, but making your way into the UNESCO World Heritage Site, scaling the temple and lighting birthday candles is difficult – and illegal. Thus, you shall have to content yourselves with a daylight ceremony, perhaps at 12 midday.

Ascend the ancient and well-trodden steps to the summit of the pyramid of the birthday girl’s choosing – the Pyramid of the Sun or the Pyramid of the Moon, and perform a ritual that has been performed on this sacred ground for centuries and centuries.

For optimal results, choose a day without strong winds, or the candles will struggle to stay alight for the duration of the birthday tribute, especially at such lofty heights. If wind persists, invoke the spirit of the gods who inhabit this super structure, or the spirits of its ancient inhabitants who were both exalted and sacrificed on these very steps.

Bestow your best wishes upon the birthday girl and call upon the ancestors to grant her a long and propsperous life – before or after you traverse the Avenue of the Dead.

Main Image: Abimelec C

How Many Body Languages Do You Speak?

“Their body languages don’t look good,” said the commentator, “I don’t think the Sharks can come back and win this game.”

Body languages?

What is he saying? Does he not speak English? I enjoyed a laugh at the expense of the Australian rugby league commentator before I realised two things:

One, he’s a former rugby league player so we should not expect a high standard of elocution.

Two, he has a point. People do speak body languages. Non-verbal communication is essential to conveying a message in any language, and this aspect of communication can differ between languages, cultures and even sub-cultures.

Eye contact

Eye contact is considered essential and important in many ‘western’ cultures. It shows respect to the other speaker plus confidence and trustworthiness. This is not the case everywhere in the world.

In some Indigenous Australian cultures, it is common for people not to make eye contact, especially when a young person is speaking to an elder. The young person is supposed to defer to the older person and to show their respect by avoiding eye contact. Many Indigenous Australian youth, especially those living in more remote communities, are often taught explicitly how to make eye contact when doing mock job interviews.

Pointing

Pointing with the index finger is forbidden in some cultures. Muslims do not point with the index finger, but instead use the thumb on top of a closed fist to point something out. It makes you feel like a politician driving home a point at a press conference.

The Wrist Shake

Raise your arm about 90 degrees, bend your elbow, open your hand and shake your wrist vigorously. You can now demonstrate to people in Brunei and Malay cultures that you don’t know, can’t remember, don’t have…or don’t care. If you’re a student in an English class in Brunei, you can use this to tell your orangputih (white person) English teacher that you can’t be bothered to reply to him in English.

The hand shake

“Shake like a man”

Grip the other man’s hand firmly, look him straight in the eye and shake hands confidently. Do this in western cultures, but not in Malay cultures. Instead, slip your hand softly into the other person’s hand and rock it gently up and down. If you meet the Sultan, or another V I P, you might have to kiss that hand. Just hope your not the 998th person to do so.

Pout

If you don’t know something in the Yolngu lands of north-east Arnhem land in Australia, stick out your lower lip. Still in Arnhem Land, if someone asks you for directions, show them the way by pursing your lips and moving your head in the direction of travel. That’s right, you point with your lips.

In fact, if you grow up in the Yolgnu culture, you will learn how to conduct an entire conversation without words. Two female teachers demonstrated this during a teaching inservice.

An expert had flown in from Darwin to the community of Yirrkala to conduct a training session on how better to teach students with hearing problems, which are very common among Yolgnu children. To help teachers to empathise with students with hearing problems, the expert put headphones on the teachers and told them to communicate a simple message to their colleague – without using sound. The non-Aboriginal teachers stumbled, mimed and laughed their way through a miserably deficient dialogue, while two Yolngu women conducted an entire conversation with body language.

Don’t smile at me!

“Don’t you dare smile at me,” said the teacher sternly, “this is serious. Your behaviour was completely unacceptable. I said stop smiling, do you think this is a joke?”

The student didn’t think it was a joke. As a Chinese boy who had lived in China his whole life, he’d cultivated the habit of smiling or laughing to show shyness, embarrassment or humility. Unfortunately, the newly-arrived British teacher didn’t realise this and continued her reprimand with steam blowing out of her ears and veins popping out of her head.

The head wobble

Does that mean yes, no, maybe? Are you ignoring me, mocking me, agreeing with me. Is it a commitment, a promise that the task will be completed as requested?

I have no idea.

All I saw while working at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, was a head wobble. No matter how many times I saw it from Indian staff, I had no idea what it meant. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes it was a very pronounced wobble.

In my experience, shaking the head means no. In India, however, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes the head shaker did complete the task. I was thoroughly confused most of the times I was greeted with a head shake. One thing I surmised, rightly or wrongly, was that the bigger the headshake, the less likely it was that the job would be done.

Count with your hands

Yi, Er, San…

The first five numbers are easy to display on one hand, but what about numbers 6 – 10? The Chinese have developed a handy system of communicating numbers with one hand when verbal communication is not an option. Be careful with number 8 though, it could look like you want to shoot someone. Also, don’t assume someone is trying to ward off the devil when they reach number 10.

Peace

Body languages don’t just differ between vastly different cultures. Non-verbal communication can also cause a faux pas between speakers of the same language. George Bush Sr provided a classic example. During an official visit to Australia, the then president drove through a city in his official motorcade and offered the crowd the two-fingered peace sign, or what he thought was the two-fingered peace sign. He put his fingers around the wrong way and showed the back of his hand to the crowd. In Australia, holding up two fingers in this way means ‘up yours’, ‘bugger off’, ‘go away’ or ‘piss off’. It’s just one step down from ‘giving the bird’.

Social media

Body languages do not exist on social media. Emoji’s have attempted to replace non-verbal communication across these platforms but they simply cannnot transmit the same level of meaning. Furthermore, even an emoji can have different meaning in different contexts – and I’m not just talking about fruit emojis and their attendant innuendo. I’m referring to seemingly innocent emojis such as the thumbs up symbol.

In my experience, the thumbs up symbol is a succinct way of saying ‘I agree’, ‘everything is ok’, ‘problem solved’…However, a Brazilian friend did not interpret my thumbs up in this manner. In her experience, the thumbs up means

‘I can’t be bothered answering your message’

‘I don’t care enough to write a response’

‘I’m politely ignoring your message’

As the world becomes consumed by mass media and people live more of their lives online, what happens to body language?

Body language is vital to communication. It can involve the use of the hands, the head, the eyes or even the lips. It can be enlightening or confusing, and it differs greatly between cultures and within cultures.

How many body languages do you speak?

Image:www.telegraph.co.uk

La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Mexico is unique. It boasts its own distinct cuisine, its own colloquial language and its own liquor. Musical genres such as Banda, Musica Nortena, Narco Corridos and Mariachi originated in the country and Charreria belongs to the state of Jalisco. It stands to reason then that Mexico would possess its own Virgin Mary.

How is La Virgen different to The Virgin?

La Virgen de Guadalupe has dark skin. In contrast to the white-washed version of Jesus, Mary and Joseph which dominates contemporary conceptualisation of the holy Christian family, Mexico’s sacred mother bears the skin tone of the mestizo people of her homeland.

La Virgen also took physical form in Mexico. Mary immaculate, according to accounts in the Bible, only existed in body in the Middle East, but La Virgen is authentically Mexican.

The popular account told to every Mexican child is that La Virgen appeared to St Juan Diego in 1531. St Juan Diego was apparently an Aztec who converted to Christianity and saw the apparition of La Virgen on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego is believed to have seen the apparition of December 9 and again on December 12, and on one occasion La Virgen requested that a shrine be built on that site in her honour.

As with any report of a miracle, religious authorities at the time demanded proof from the witness. Juan Diego was ordered by the Bishop to provide proof of La Virgen’s presence before they agreed to build a shrine, so she told the young man to collect roses. Juan Diego then fronted the bishop and opened his cloak to reveal dozens of roses which fell to the floor, and, more importantly, an image of La Virgen on the inside of his cloak.

The famous image now appears in the Basilica of Guadalupe which sits on Tepeyac Hill in modern-day Mexico City.

Visiting the Basilica of Guadalupe is a pilgrimage of significant importance for many Mexicans and a cultural experience for foreigners. Many locals, and even tourists, speak of the transformative experience of entering the basilica to witness the unveiling of the image of La Virgen.

I visited the Basilica. I’m reluctant to share my thoughts and reaction to the experience of viewing La Virgen because every person will react differently to a site and an image of such revered religious, spiritual, historical and cultural importance.

The experience should be personal and reflective.

El dia de la Virgen is a celebration and veneration held on December 9 and December 12 in various locations in Mexico City. Why are there two celebrations for La Virgen? Firstly, because La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego twice. Secondly, because It’s Mexico.

The influence of La Virgen is evident in daily life and explains why so many Mexican women are called Lupita. Thousands of Mexican women are christened Maria Guadalupe in honour of the virgin, and are known affectionately as Lupita, even into adulthood. It’s impossible to travel through Mexico without eating at a ‘Tacos Lupita’, ‘Loncheria Lupita’ or a stall selling pozole, enchiladas, burritos or sopitos prepared by Lupita.

Christmas has Santa Claus, and Easter has chocolate eggs and a bunny, so the site of La Virgen at Tepeyac Hill must also succumb to the inevitable lure of commercialisation. Visitors can buy religious iconography in the form of crosses, statues and rosary beads, but also take home pillows, key rings, T-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing the image of the virgin.

A visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe can be a spiritual transformation, a patriotic obligation, a glimpse into history or an immersive observation of contemporary Mexican culture. Whatever the motivation, it is a worthwhile stop on any visit to Mexico.

The Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is steep. Surprisingly steep. We all know the wall for its length, its historical significance and the fact that it can be seen from space, but its difficult to appreciate its steepness until you actually visit.

The winding fortification snakes its way over hills and mountains along China’s northern border and is traversed via paths and steps connecting each of its guard posts.

Walking up and down the paths and steps at the Badaling section of the wall is hard work, especially when northern China’s summer heat combines with Beijing’s famous air pollution to constrict the lungs. However, a leg and lung busting mini-hike is worth the effort because it allows the visitor to separate themselves from the hordes of tourists who descend upon one of the world’s most famous landmarks every day.

In actual fact, you don’t have to venture too far from the main entrance at Badaling to escape the crowds, and on a good day you may find you have the wall to yourself for a moment.

At this point you can contemplate the construction, appearance, history and significance of the wall.

Struggling up along the sections between the guard posts prompts visitors to wonder what it must have been like to have been stationed on the wall as a guard hundreds of years ago.

Would guards have lived in a constant state of fear of attack from enemy invaders? Somehow I don’t think this would have been the case at many sections of the wall. The topography alone would have thwarted any genuine attempt at invasion, and the height of the wall would have allowed the guards to see the enemy from miles away. The scale of the wall surely removed the element of surprise from most enemy combatants and this must have been a deliberate feature of its design.

It seems that boredom would have been a major threat to the guards. Staring into vast nothingness for hours and hours, day after day, and having nothing to do even when their shift ended – if it ever did.

I also wondered how they ate. If they were stationed on a remote part of the wall, were they provided with a set amount of rations sufficient to sustain them for the duration of their ‘shift’? Where and how did they cook? Where and how did they go to the toilet?

Actually, I know the answer to the last question. They did it in the guard towers, just as certain visitors are still doing today. Tourists left little reminders of their visit in most of the guard towers, which might explain the presence of this sign.

Regardless of how the guards fed and entertained themselves, or stayed sane, a posting to a remote section of the Great Wall was probably not a highly-prized assignment.

The guards fared better than the builders of the wall,, however. It is a well-documented fact that the workers who died during the construction of the wall were buried inside the wall.

The views are impressive and expansive, at least they would be if the haze of pollution cleared long enough to enjoy them. One has to wonder whether visiting in winter would afford better views as the summer haze would have dissipated. Either this or making the effort to visit other sections of the wall which a re further away from big cities and their choking pollution.

Other sections of the wall can be visited from Beijing. They are said to be in various states of disrepair, but are less crowded than Badaling. There are of course hundreds of section of the wall still standing along China’s northern border, and these could in theory be visited with time, money, a strong grasp of mandarin and a sense of adventure. Walking the entire wall required all of that and seemingly a solid grasp of logistics, because the wall is made up of many unconnected sections.

Would you do it?

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

God bless my Taxi.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We craned our necks for the source of the excitement. We could hear it but we couldn’t see it.

What was it?

Horns blaring, engines roaring, people shouting, music blaring, bells ringing.

From atop the hill we had a great vantage point over Zacatecas and its surrounds, yet we still couldn’t determine the source of the noise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Was it a protest, was it a celebration, a festival, a fiesta, a beauty contest, a football game…?

It’s often hard to tell in Mexico, as any event seems to be a perfect pretext to become boisterous. Any day, any time.

The origin of the pandemonium eventually revealed itself. A fleet of brightly decorated taxis rounded the bend and climbed the hill in a convoy of commotion. Vehicles were draped in streamers, covered in balloons and painted or wrapped in the national flag. Red, white and green dominated the scene as more and more taxis wound their way up the hill to the church.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Why?

To be blessed, of course.

On this particular day, the taxis of Zacatecas were receiving their annual blessing from the priest and, through him, the almighty. They were asking for protection and, no doubt, many lucrative fairs for the next 12 months.

Patriotically-adorned taxis and motorised mayhem lined up outside the church and the noise eventually subsided as the drivers and their family and friends waited for the priest to bless every vehicle in turn.

While the event certainly surprised me, it was not entirely unexpected. Sure, I’d never seen taxis blessed in my own country, but I had noticed during my time travelling in Latin America that taxi drivers would bless themselves every time they drove past a house of worship.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The procession of taxis had interrupted our quiet inspection of La Quemada archaeological ruins, so we decided to return to the city. With tired legs and the burden of history upon us, we realised the best way to return to the city safely, and saintly, was by taxi.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

My soul for your sol.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photographing people can be challenging.

Photographing people of different cultures, religions and nationalities can be even more complicated.

How do we photograph people while travelling without causing offence?

This conundrum presented itself to me while travelling in Peru.

It soon became apparent that many local people living and working near tourist hot spots such as Cusco and Arequipa did not like being photographed. It was also apparent that certain travellers insisted on photographing these people.In reaction, some local people demanded payment for appearing in traveller’s photos. For a few ‘Nuevo Soles’, they would acquiesce to performing the role of subject.

This arrangement led one fellow traveller to remark,

“They’ll give you their soul in return for your Sol.”

The traveller was referring to a commonly-held belief that Peruvians, and other indigenous people, are reluctant to appear in photographs because they think that the camera will steal their soul.

Some cultures forbid being photographed. Australian Indigenous people traditionally forbid photographs, even though today’s youth, even in remote communities, have fallen under the spell of the selfie.

Local people living in tourist hot spots, such as those in Peru, detest photography because they’re simply sick of it. Sick of arrogant tourists appearing in their community on a fly-by visit only to shove a camera, or phone, in their face and demand a photo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Analysing this phenomena theoretically or philosophically informs us of the concept of the ‘other’. Theoretically, the ‘other’ is a person or thing that does not belong to our culture and is therefore different. Our culture is the norm, and any other culture, and people belonging to that culture, are the ‘other’.

Travel, and photographing people, can be a manifestation of ‘othering’. Travellers, who journey to lands that are different to their own, seek photos with people simply because they are different. The visitor is not interested in that person’s thoughts, personality, motivations – only interested in what makes that person exotic, strange, different…the ‘other’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Without delving too deeply into philosophy, it could be argued that the visitor chases photographs of the ‘other’, because sharing those images with friends and family makes that person appear more travelled, more worldly, more exotic.

Some local people have responded to their ‘othering’ in a pragmatic way. Some reluctantly pose for tourists, in return for cash or in the hope that visitors will buy more of their Maasai souvenirs. Photo done, the traditionally-adorned Maasai warrior resumes playing on his smartphone.

In contrast, some local people are perfectly happy to be photographed, especially kids.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Personally, I have never experienced any major issues with photographing people. I try to be respectful traveller, but I’m also not a passionate photographer (in fact, at the moment I don’t even own a camera) so I simply don’t take many photos.

I have, however, been in situations in which the opportunity arose for me to take a photo of a public event, even a private event that was happening in a public space, and I took the opportunity to snap a photo as a passive observer. My photo was never going to make any difference to that event.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photographing children is another topic altogether. Their images can appear anywhere, and be used for any sinister purpose. Such is the potential danger that a Surf Life Saving Club in Sydney, Australia, has banned parents from taking photos of their own children during ‘Nippers’ (junior life saving training). Instead, the club hires a professional photographer to take photos of the children, and parents can only access those photos through a password-protected site.

This is the world we live in.

Also, as an aside, when I first started backpacking (when I was a boy…) smartphones and even digital cameras were rare. Many travellers carried a film camera and had to re-stock on film, preciously guard their used film, and wait until they arrived home, which could be six months later, before they could process the film and see how their photos turned out.

In such circumstances, one travel buddy once remarked.

“Film is more valuable than your passport. You can replace your passport, but you can’t go back to that very moment and take exactly the same picture.”

Thus, while photography can be a fulfilling activity to accompany a journey, perhaps we should all remind ourselves to enjoy that very moment.