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Norway

Jun 30, 2010

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norway2Crikey reader Paul Johannessen — an Australian who has a home in Norway and is currently living in Japan — writes Part I of a two part series into living in the whaling nations:

Norway is known for perhaps only a few things: fjords, whaling, smoked salmon, and being one of the richest countries in the world. And of course the whole blonde blue-eyed gorgeous women thing. Being born to a Norwegian father landed me in the blonde blue-eyed (though male) category. When, at the age of 27 I ended up living in Norway and applying for residency, I had a feeling that my application transitioned fairly smoothly through the bureaucracy; my surname is the Norwegian equivalent of Smith, and my photo ID had me looking more Norwegian than half of the immigration office employees. But, I had never had a Norwegian passport — it was one of those quirks of the rule of law, left over from times gone by, that if you were a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, then you could not also be a subject of another just as figurative monarchy.

I lived in Norway for almost five years, and am now a permanent resident, but currently I am living in Tokyo where my wife has received an art scholarship. We have a little apartment in Bergen on the west coast of Norway that we will return to in a few years time.

So apart from the fish, what else has Norway been responsible for? At the time my father emigrated they were one of the poorest countries in Europe. A house in our street in Norway that today accommodates a family of 5 — in a modest space by Australian standards — used to have 50 people living there. Hence it was known as the “50 man house”. Most of the men would have eked out a living at the docks right next door, selling dried cod to Portugal and Spain, and pickled herrings to Germany.

Now, the fishing industry remains strong, as does the whaling. Though I have it on good authority that the whaling and fishing run by Norway is sustainable. My uncle works for the fisheries and oceans institute. They count before they catch, they monitor the stocks, and they respect the advice of scientists. This is one reason why they are not in the EU — they want to retain their own fishing grounds and management, whereas the rest of Europe have destroyed their own fishing industries through over fishing and poor management.

Norway has become a leader in all sorts of industrial design and engineering fields. Shipping, offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling, as well as renewable energy technologies. They are world leaders at building drilling platforms, and have also been capturing and re-injecting carbon dioxide into an oil reservoir in the north sea since the mid nineties. They introduced a carbon tax around the same time and have 90% hydro electricity, but yet they are way up there with the US when it comes to per capita carbon emissions. A company selling frozen fish was found to be sending Norwegian caught fish to China on a plane where it was filleted and packaged and then sent back to Norway by plane to be sold on the local market. All because the company could save 20 cents per packet by using Chinese labour. And this from a country with a carbon tax?

But everything is expensive, wages included. This makes everyone middle class, or extremely rich. When I first got there, even the junkies had brand new mobile phones with cameras. Continue reading “Living in the whaling nations: land of the cold long winter”

Two boys and a boat

Visakhapatnam (also known as Vizag) is a million-strong city on India’s east coast in the state of Andra Pradesh, and is home to a large naval base. Spykey and I were there for a couple of nights in February as a stopover during our journey back south to Trichy for our flight back to Australia, and were using it as a staging point for incursions into the Araku Valley. Vizag’s a nice enough place but there are no real knockout attractions to speak of.

One day as evening approached we caught an autorickshaw down to the beach and strolled around soaking in the dusk along with hordes of happy locals who were there doing the same. As with any Indian beach there were massive extended families, vendors pushing carts of steaming food, men offering horse rides, kids running everywhere, and young people getting up to good-natured mischief. Down near the water were two topless boys on rusty old bikes, riding them around in the shallows; behind them was a warship leaving the naval base. The smiles on the boys’ faces sum up the mood of everyone on that beach that evening.

Photo meta: Canon EOS 1000D, ISO200, 51mm, f5.6, 1/250

Asia

Jun 23, 2010

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vietnamstreet
Vietnamese street, image from Flickr

Being a pedestrian in South East Asia is marginally less exciting than a werewolf in London I must confess, but I can assure you it’s probably far more likely to result in death.

I don’t drive at home, in fact my partner and I no longer even own a car, so I have fairly extensive experience as a pedestrian. I find driving to be a frustrating and aggressive activity. I’m sure many people would disagree, and to them I would just say my partner and I have never been followed into a 7-11 and screamed at for walking too slow by a middle aged Ipswich man with an enormous beer belly. Nor have I ever been walking with a friend and had them pull out a wooden club and threaten a pensioner for walking in front of us. Both these things have happened to me while driving in cars (and yes, I immediately severed contact with the wooden club owner after said incident).

But Asia is a different kettle of fish. For starters the death toll on the roads in these countries more closely resembles a lotto jackpot. And we were heading to Vietnam first which in traffic terms is like drawing Federer in the opening round of your first pro tournament.

I was advised by ‘friends’ on methods for negotiating this minefield before I left. That advice largely consisted of being told to walk out on the road in a steady line and “they’ll drive around you”. This is counterintuitive to most well adjusted people, and for someone who’s convinced people are trying to kill him, it resembles a highly complex `assassination by proxy´ attempt.

Seeing the traffic in Hanoi didn’t help. Traffic to me can often appear like mechanical schools of fish. And on the streets of Vietnam the ubiquitous motorscooters closely resembles ravenous piranhas, swarming around unsuspecting tourists leaving nothing but a pile of bones and those hideous fisherman´s pants. There’s no avoiding them either as in Vietnam the road is for driving, the footpath is for parking, and walking is for idiots.

It got to the point where my partner and I were practicing the calls we would make home to our parents if one of us were to be ‘scootered’. Continue reading “A chicken crossing the road”

USA

Jun 21, 2010

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by Crikey reader Kristin Moore

Central ParkLife gets in the way of your plans doesn’t it? Twenty years ago I spent three weeks in New York City with my best mate, cat-sitting in a tiny apartment.

We were living in London at the time and Manhattan was like a brilliant, edgy jolt of electricity after the stodgy, stark misery of winter in Thatcher’s Britain. It was freezing and snowy, we ate Christmas lunch at the top of the World Trade Centre, went to warehouse parties, after hours clubs, jazz and punk basement gigs, met countless neophyte script writers/directors/actors, hardly slept and of course vowed to go back and live there.

Looking at photos and movies from the 80s, I’m surprised now to see how dangerous, dirty and scary Manhattan was then. I remember the burnt out cars and tenements, the no go areas and the filthy subway but my memories are overwhelmingly of energy, excitement, creativity and 24 hours a day of living life to the full.

Needless to say I never lived in NY, I came back to Sydney, had a child and got on with life; but it has stayed in the back of my mind as the place my alternate self was living in a loft with a brilliant and fabulous career. It’s a big burden to place on a city — even one as big as the Big Apple, so when I decided on a whim to snap up cheap airfares and take my music-mad, drum playing, 15 year old son to visit a long lost friend and her son in Brooklyn, I was curious and more than a bit nervous.

NY has changed enormously and sometimes beyond recognition. Brooklyn is now apparently the hippest place in the world and Avenues A through C are expensive and beautifully restored real estate.

Washington Square buskers
Washington Square buskers

Washington Square is home to buskers and uni students instead of drug dealers; and parks like Tompkins Square — where there had been a riot the year we visited — are now welcoming oases of tulips, shady trees, playgrounds, dog runs and soft grass.

Even many of the ‘projects’ — those tall red blocks of public housing — have been privatised and occupied by the upwardly mobile, while the poor and the welfare recipients have been pushed way out into the outer boroughs or a few remaining pockets in Manhattan. Everywhere, including the subway, is clean and safe-feeling, idiosyncratic community gardens and plantings soften the urban landscape and everyone seems to have a dog. Continue reading “I’m going to make a brand new start of it, in old New York”

Gentlemen of Leisure

Jun 19, 2010

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2007.lair6For most people, most of the time, coming home is an inevitable part of going away. But it still feels weird. That feeling of being homeward bound always catches me by surprise. It’s the feeling of excitement to be seeing friends and loved ones, familiar places, combined with pleasant nostalgia for where you have been, and yet muted by regret for things you might have missed out on. Or maybe that’s just the way you feel after watching four consecutive romantic comedies on an in-flight entertainment system.

A few weeks ago my wife and I really were taken by surprise by the feeling of heading home. We had been living in the UK — Africa before that — and had just finished our final days of work and packed up our flat. The plan was to fly from London to New York, then down to St Lucia for a couple of months working holiday. I had taken to playing Calypso music in the kitchen and reading Derrick Walcott. And then my wife’s mum got sick. The family back home insisted that we shouldn’t come back, but we got the impression they didn’t mean it. So we changed our tickets. And 48 hours later we were watching romantic comedies on a Qantas flight to Melbourne. Surprise. We had been away for a year and half.

So we’re at Tullamarine Airport at 5am. Practically empty. Large posters announce that Border Security is being filmed today, but there are no cameras to be seen. Just bleary eyed travelers clutching travel wallets and reeking of 25 hour flight sweat. A customs official once told my father the reason why everyone looks awful in their passport photo is because this is how you actually look after a long haul flight. The lady behind the desk gives me a warm grin and says “G’day love. Do you mind if I have a sticky at your passport?” Home again, home again.

We emerge from the famous wailing wall, scene of so many family reunions, so much emotion, but at this hour things are relatively subdued. There is no one to greet us. Our lift is late. When he arrives he has a handmade sign with our names on it. He tells us he is late because he spent so long making the sign. It was a nice thought. Continue reading “Gentlemen of Leisure: The weirdness of coming home”

On travel

Jun 15, 2010

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backpackerIt’s been a bit. Nearly five months to be exact. Way back in February I shared sad news that family illness had forced the early conclusion of a massive trip Lisa and I had only just started; we had been away for barely eight weeks of a planned 12 to 18 months. On one level it was terribly frustrating but on another (more important) level it was totally necessary and undoubtedly the right thing to do. From both of us, massive thanks to everyone who left comments and sent us kind messages via email. It hasn’t been the most awesome five months.

But right now there is excitement and anticipation in the air. A trip is brewing and departure is imminent. In a few weeks I’ll be boarding a zero-service budget flight headed north and spending a couple of months in places amazing. Right now I’m waiting for visa applications to process and want to keep my plans sekrit for just a few more days, so in the meantime I’d like to describe to you a moment in time.

About a week ago there was an instant where, the decision having been finalised to head off again, I was overcome with a sensational feeling of liberation and opportunity — I could go literally anywhere in the world I wanted. Continue reading “Back. And now it’s time to daydream”

Bhutan

Jun 10, 2010

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An endless knot: one of the eight buddhist lucky signs and a symbol of their unity as a co-operative. Photo by Xochitl Rodriguez.
An endless knot: a buddhist lucky sign. Photo by Xochitl Rodriguez.

With the lead in to our first performance sparking a flurry of prop construction, last minute rehearsals and bouts of food poisoning, time has been scarce, so apologies for the lack of updates. My food poisoning was divinely mandated: I received it from a sampling of holy water at a Thimphu monastery. I thought initially that my vomiting was punishment for my heathen ways, but my host pointed out that it could also be seen as a painful enforced detox of all my previous sicknesses, which is the best a heathen should expect from holy water, I suppose.

In the lead up to our first performance the troupe went on a drama camp to Paro, a town west of Thimphu that boasts Bhutan’s only airport. Nearby our camp was a cave high up in the mountainside- if one squinted one could see the malevolent glint of a TV screen in the cave mouth. This is the infamous Cursed TV of Paro — a family bought it when television was first introduced to Bhutan in 1999, but within months of the purchase half the family members had died. They sold it to another family, who also suffered several sudden and tragic deaths. To stop the cycle the second family left the TV in the mountainside cave. When I tried to take a photo of the TV with a digital camera, the image came out pitch black — a chilling omen which sent the entire theatre crew scurrying into the van and away. Tshering Dorji, one of the founding members of the Happy Valley theatre group, told of a prophecy (possibly generated by his own imagination) of a Yogi who would one day ascend to the cave, and through the powers of his meditation destroy the evil power of the TV — while also getting to catch up on the latest episode of Two and a Half Men.

Below is a profile of Tshering which I wrote for the Bhutanese magazine Drukpa. Interspersed in the profile are excerpts from a larger article on Happy Valley by Xochitl Rodriguez, so thanks Xochitl for the excerpts and photographs.

TSHERING DORJI: THE BLOW HORN *

Tshering Dorji, photo by Xochitl Rodriguez
Tshering Dorji, photo by Xochitl Rodriguez

*The Blow Horn or conch is one of the 8 lucky signs of Buddhism, and we incorporated it into our performance for the SAARC conference. The sound of the conch being blown is said to spread Dharma across the earth. Tshering is here referred to as a Blow horn in honour of the social message he has to spread and the loud mouth with which he spreads it.

Tshering Dorji was born in 1981 in the village of Jagarthang just outside of Paro. He graduated from high school but received poor grades — an experience that he feels strengthens the argument for having creative as well as academic career paths available to young people in school:

“That’s why I feel bringing more art and drama into Bhutan would be so useful, to provide a pathway for people like me that are meant for this discipline, rather than a more academic path. It would also be wonderful to convince parents and others that by choosing performance as a profession, their child could contribute to society just as much as if they were a doctor or engineer”. Continue reading “Bhutan: The Blow Horn and the Cursed TV”

Japan

Jun 7, 2010

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Alex the Crikey intern interviews his housemate Holly Russell on the winter wonders of her solo travelling through Japan:

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What was your favourite destination in Japan?

Sado Island, it’s a small island off the west coast of Japan.

What made it special?

zen

I went during the height of winter and was pretty much the only tourist on the island. There was a blizzard, which stopped all transit to the mainland for three days. It was refreshing to know I was so isolated. Sado was once used as an island of exile. Zen Master Nichiren was once exiled there. His home and temple are still there, in the mountains. When I went there it was blanketed in snow and there wasn’t a sole in sight, Zen.

What was your favourite dish?

foodEither Katsu Don (deep fried pork cutlet served with bulldog sauce and hot mustard) or Soba soup (tempura prawn), which are inexpensive and incredibly warming in the frosty Japanese winter. Continue reading “A Japanese holiday”