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.

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.

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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.

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.

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

Let Us Pray: Rodeo Townsville.

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The Professional Bull Riders event in Townsville was supposed to be a celebration of athleticism, courage and rodeo skill, but it was as much as celebration of religion, patriotism and the military.

The PBR Townsville was the final event of the Australian leg of the international sporting competition, and served as the finals of the national championship.

The overt militarism of the event was obvious before entering the stadium, as fans lined up for selfies with the sparkling new army tanks parked outside the convention centre. This continued during the prelude to the sporting contest as members of the defence forces were presented to the crowd, and when the American host referenced the military ties between Australia and The United States by using a phrase similar to “The Coalition of the Willing”. George Bush would have been proud.

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The bull riders were presented to the crowd and the well-lubricated fans showed their admiration for the athletes, especially those from Queensland. The raucous cheering subsided upon the singing of the national anthem, as cowboy hats were removed and beer cans put aside.

Once the national anthem was finished, I expected either an acknowledgement of country, or a bull bucking in anger. However, neither happened. An acknowledgement of country is a spoken recognition of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land on which an event takes place. Anyone can do it, and it has become very common in Australia in recent years. However, there was no acknowledgement of country at PBR Townsville. I don’t know why.

Nor did the action begin.

No, first we had to say a prayer.

I have never said a prayer before a sporting event in Australia, and I’m no spring chicken. But this was my first PBR, so I could only assume this is normal.

Thus, hats were removed, beer cans put aside, again, and the hundreds of people in attendance stood silently and in great reverence for a prayer which thanked god, thanked the military for keeping us safe and protecting our freedom, and asked for the safety of the riders and the bulls. Yes, the host even prayed for the bulls – but did not acknowledge country.

The prayer was also surprising because I can guarantee that most of the crowd, who showed great reverence and finished the prayer with a loud ‘Amen!’, would never got to church – except at Christmas and Easter, in true secular-Australian style.

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With the prayer over, and the military saluted, I though the bull riding would finally begin. But no, there was another treat for the audience: Ryan Weaver. The worst singer I have heard in public for a long, long time. This guy was worse than a drunken friend at a karaoke bar. He was terrible, but he was loved.

Why?

He was patriotic.

Not towards Australia necessarily, but towards the US. He emerged in boots, buckle and big hat, with the stars and stripes emblazoned on his T Shirt. He was universally loved because he sang about patriotism and the military, and because he is a US war veteran.

Once Ryan had made his patriotic exit, the bull riding finally began.

The action was impressive, as the hulking masses of beef bucked off rider after rider and only a select few riders manged to stay on their ride for the mandatory eight seconds.

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One rider stood out from the rest not because of his scores, but for another reason. His name is Cody Rodeo Tyler. Yes, that’s his real name. On his birth certificate, his passport and his entry form.

The boy from Guthrie, Oklahoma was obviously destined to ride bucking animals, and he does it well. One wonders, though, if Cody has a son and wants to set his offspring on the path to success in the future, will he call him Cody ‘Rodeo’ Tyler Jr., or Cody ‘Influencer’ Tyler.

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Cody and his colleagues threw themselves around the arena for the initial rounds in an attempt to qualify for the final, and after many thrills and spills, an intermission was called so the riders could take a well-earned rest.

I was deciding whether I needed to go and buy another pie, take a comfort break or stretch my legs, when the decision was made for me. Ryan Weaver walked back out onto the arena and belted out another massacre.

Time for a pie.

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Ryan finally made way for the riders, who treated the crows to some exciting action and spectacular falls.

Who won the event in the end?

Let’s just say patriotism was the winner

Here, take my child.

Parents in China tried to give me their children.

They approached me in supermarkets, on the street, in the park, and they thrust their young children into my arms.

I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know their children, and many of their children were mere babies. I didn’t ask to hold their child and I didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

Furthermore, the parents didn’t warn me or provide any explanation as to why they were handing their beloved offspring over to a random person. Well, they may have tried to explain but I didn’t speak more than a few words of Mandarin, and they didn’t speak any English.

The shock of being entrusted with someone else’s child left me dumbstruck, rooted to the spot. I just tried not to drop the poor thing. I also wondered why anyone would surrender their prized possession to a person they’d never met, in a country still operating under the remnants of the one child policy. Surely, in China of all places, a baby is a valuable commodity.

Despite this, the parents carried on unperturbed. They placed the child into my arms, smiled nervously and excitedly, then retreated. And retreated a little further, and further. Don’t go too far, I thought, I could easily run away with this baby.

Then I realised. Then I would discover why a bewildered Chinese baby was being cradled in my arms. A phone was produced and pointed at us and the parents would prance around in a frenzy, attempting to force a smile…out of the child or out of me? Probably both, I was as shocked as the child and my first reaction was certainly not to smile.

The parents would then snap away. Photo after photo while the baby became heavier and heavier in my arms. A conference would ensue, during which the parents would judge the quality of the photos.

Then, finally, one of the parents would approach. Great, I thought, now this bizarre experience is over. No, wait, the parent is not coming to take their child back, they’re just coming to straighten the clothes and fix their hair – or wipe the tears away – before retreating to take more photos.

Eventually, once the perfect photo had been taken, the child would be returned to its parents and they would walk away, many times without even a Xie Xie or a “Ni jiao shenme mingzi? (what is your name?).

It was a truly bizarre experience, which happened quite a few times. I can only explain it by pointing to the fact that I lived, and worked, on the outskirts or Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Qingdao is quite a nice city, but Chengyang is not Qingdao. There’s nothing particularly bad about Chengyang, it’s just that it’s a fairly bland Chinese city, and one which sees very few foreigners. I was not a novelty, I was a freak show. Thus, when the Chinese saw a foreigner with blonde hair and blue eyes, they felt compelled to take my photo, which, in itself I din’t really mind. I just found it very odd to have my photo taken with their children.

There was another odd experience in Chengyang in which I had my photo taken.

I was heading to karaoke with some local friends, and we were in something of a hurry. We’d purchased some snacks and refreshments to smuggle into the KTV, and as we were leaving the supermarket, 3 young local women approached us and asked my friends if they could take a photo with me. Sure, as long as it doesn’t take long, we were hell bent on murdering some musical classics.

The photos were taken, the women appraised them and decided that they were acceptable. A conversation took place the whole time, entirely in Mandarin.

After the photo session concluded, I asked my friends why the young women were so determined to have their photo taken with me.

“They’re studying at university, and they wanted to show their lecturer.”

Why would they want to show a photo of me to their lecturer, I wondered, so I asked my friends,

“What are they studying?”

“English”

My soul for your sol.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Where is everyone?

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The platform was deserted. Completely deserted. It was early afternoon at a train station in the middle of Taiwan, and both sides of the platform were utterly devoid of people.

What’s going on?

What should I do?

I waited.

Surely, someone will turn up. I waited 15 minutes. No one arrived.

Maybe a train will turn up. No train arrived.

Where am I?

There’a a sign on the platform, maybe that will help. Platform A to one side, platform B to the other side. The name of the platform written in Chinese. That’s no help, I can’t read Chinese, I can barely speak it.

I needed to know where I was, and I needed to know why I was the only person standing on the platform, looking forlorn with nothing but a backpack and a few words of the local language.

I descended the stairs and searched for a station guard or staff member. I found one, then remembered that I couldn’t speak Chinese. I gesticulated, as linguistically-hampered travellers do, and managed to convey that I was planning to reach Taipei at some point that day.

With the aid of a network map, the guard gleaned from me that I had boarded the train at a certain station, and that I was now at a different station – going in completely the wrong direction. If I wanted to reach Taipei, I should have headed north, but, instead, I had headed south.

Simple mistake, but one that is very easy to make, because Taiwan’s impressive national train network essentially performs a loop of the island. Hop on in Taipei and head either east or west. Hop on at a station in the middle of the country, as I had done, and head either north, towards Taipei, or south, towards Kaohsiung. At the previous station, I’d simply stood on the wrong platform.

Eventually the guard transmitted to me that I needed to head back the way I came and I would eventually reach Taipei. He had a good chuckle to himself and I eventually found a train to return me to the capital.

I still don’t know the name of the platform I had somehow arrived at, but I do know that on that particular day, it certainly wasn’t heaving with excitement.