Canberra By Bike

I’ve started Canberra By Bike on MeetUp, but the pandemic has delayed our first event.

The purpose of this group is to try recreating in Canberra some of the bicycle culture I see that people in parts of the European Union get to enjoy each day.

Here’s what Canberra By Bike is about: We’re a group for people who use bikes to get from A to B. People of all ages, abilities, & identities who use all types of cycles. We are not lycra-clad cyclists who want to ride beside traffic doing 80km/h. Think of us as trying to recreate the experiences of riding in Copenhagen or Amsterdam (as on YouTube channels Bicycle Dutch and Not Just Bikes), but with cockatoos and kangaroos. Leisurely weekend rides on quiet streets or bike paths, at a pace you can talk normally. Wear whatever is comfortable.

Our first ride should be on Saturday 18 September, 16 October, if the lockdown ends by then. I’ll lead a tour of the embassies and high commissions in Yarralumla, a suburb in southern Canberra that is home to the oldest diplomatic missions in Australia’s national capital, and share some stories about their architecture and histories.

The images below show, from left, the High Commission of Samoa, the High Commission of Papua New Guinea, and the High Commission of India, all in Canberra, Australia. What are High Commissions? They are the name for diplomatic missions of countries that are part of the British Commonwealth/formerly invaded by the British. They have the same rank as embassies.

The second ride, on Saturday 30 October, will circumnavigate all 42km of Lake Burley Griffin.

I want to organise future rides that show filming locations around Canberra, and also an architectural tour, but these are still in the planning stages.

My first 5,000 km on an electric bike

The Cube’s odometer ticked over 5,000km on the morning of Canberra’s first lockdown in more than 400 days. Thursday 12 August, 2021. I yelled out with excitement, and stopped for a selfie in front of a wattle tree exploding with fresh yellow blossoms. That afternoon, I headed back with my clothes and lunchbox and office-issued laptop shoved into pannier bags, and readied for working from home for the first time since July 2020.

That moment my Cube clocked up 5,000km

I want to try documenting how happy those 5,000km on my Cube Town Hybrid – my main form of transportation in all seasons and weather – have made my days and nights. Days or nights commuting to and from work. Days and nights cruising to the cinema or a restaurant. Days and nights getting groceries, or something from the Bunnings hardware store.

It’s not true to say that every ride has been enjoyable. There have been some mornings when it’s below zero and foggy that I’ve not wanted to go outside. Nights coming back and a storm hits, hail lashes my face, and my glasses are useless. But each time I’ve finished the trip, I’m glad I did it, and left my car at home. 

Yes, I own a big car, a Mitsubishi Outlander Plugin Hybrid electric station wagon, and some days I drive it to work. But driving in the city is not fun, especially commuting. I hate giving money in exchange for a parking space – even in Canberra where parking is far cheaper than Sydney or other big cities. I prefer converting that currency into a cup of coffee, or dark chocolate, or cake. It costs me nothing to park at work, or anywhere else, and less than a cup of coffee to recharge it. I usually turn on the charger before I go to sleep, and forget about it, just like with my mobile phone.

I bought the electric bike in April 2019 as a reward to myself for changing jobs, swapping The Australian National University campus in central Canberra for the commercial district in Deakin (behind Australia’s Parliament House). That job in Deakin was 15km one way on the bike and took about 40 minutes. [It takes 20 minutes to drive if I get a good run].

I’d ridden my Giant mountain bike several times to the new office, but as I live on a hill, the journey each day started and ended with a long hill climb. I’d get to work and need a shower, and get home and need both a shower and a 10-minute rest before recovering the energy to prepare our household’s meals.

Because an e-bike eats hills, I don’t need to rest when I reach my destination. I shower at work, change into the clothes I carry each Monday on my cargo bike, and get on with my day. 

Electric motor noise matters. I’d spent a few weekends testing a dozen bikes from stores in north and south Canberra. Prices ranged from $1,600 for a Shogun to more than $4,000 for a Trek. Some of the bikes sounded like sewing machines. I don’t want to hear the motor. Biking is meant to be pleasurable. The whirring irritated me, especially one particular Merida. The Cube has a Bosch mid-drive motor, and while I can hear it in first or second gear, it’s otherwise very quiet.

Benefits of my e-bike

I’m upright. Not hunched over the ways a mountain bike or racing bike forces you to be. My back is straight. My clothes and other items are in my pannier bags, and air flows around my body.

No need to swing my leg over like on said mountain bike. The Cube has a step-through frame. Some bike shops call them a “European frame.” Whatever. The design is practical for whatever I’m wearing, including a suit. 

I can see flowers and trees and hear birds every day. I can get swooped by magpies in spring, and chased by overly protective Pacific black ducks near the ponds at the Aranda snow gums section of the Canberra nature park. I can see kangaroos lazing on the grass, or grazing in the evening, and share those magical moments on Twitter. I am reminded each trip of what I’m connected to, and what needs to be protected and defended. 

My head is clearer on my bike than when I am traffic. I can think about things I need to do at work, but more often I find myself singing along to whatever’s entered my head. Or I listen to bird song, or just enjoy being outside and having my own time and space before other demands return.

Just because it’s an electric bike, it doesn’t mean there’s no exercise involved. Most e-bikes are pedal-assisted, so if you don’t pedal, there’s no boost. I still puff and pant up hills, especially in winter, as you can here in this video of what was part of my daily 15km/40-minute commute.

Clothing, accessories and equipment

I ride every day, even when it’s raining and below zero. The Finns and Danes ride in actual snow. Canberra rarely experiences snow, so I can’t use that as an excuse.

I usually wear track pants and a few layers in winter, and shorts and T-shirt in summer. I get changed at work. Luckily, my last three workplaces have had showers. If yours doesn’t and you aren’t self-employed, is the boss in an position to provide it? 

In autumn/winter, I wear a high-visibility polyester jacket with reflect strips on the chest and arms because my city’s idea of cycling infrastructure is paint. The most dangerous part of my commute is the 4km between my unit and the C5 bicycle path, so I also use a GoPro mounted on my helmet in case my family needs to prove to police that it was the driver’s fault.

I have two weather-proof pannier backs bought second hand on Gum Tree. In wet weather, I use this Rover rain cape from Cleverhood, a company about which I learned from the consistently excellent podcast, The War on Cars, which I support on Patreon. I recently got these cycling overpants from Decathlon and they’re excellent as they cover my shoes. Before that, I was wearing polyester hiking pants, also from Decathlon.

Getting my Cleverhood With Rainbows look the day a double rainbow appeared over Black Mountain, Canberra, and caused several cyclists and at least half a dozen motorists to stop on Bindubi St and soak up the moment.

I’ve learned the hard way the importance of having spare underwear and a second pair of dry socks at work.

Gloves. Fingerless ones for the warmer months, and thick polyester ones for the colder months. Sometimes earmuffs.

Removable flashing lights front and back, USB rechargeable. One stuck with clear tape into the the back of my night time helmet. A $40 day time helmet with a flat surface for the mount for the GoPro. 

Two bike locks. Patch repair kit. Spare tubes. A small pump. Allen keys. 

All of the above usually live in my pannier bags. On shorter trips I can of course not carry both pannier bags, but sometimes I’ve been caught out, and it’s a drag.

Downsides

The battery design of the Cube is annoying. The battery attaches to the back of the frame supporting the seat. The battery latch never catches on the first try, and unless you pull it to check, the battery can fall off. It happened once during a lunch time trip into the city. 

The bike is heavy. It weighs at least 25kg. I’ve felt every gram when the battery has run out while I’m climbing Redfern St in Cook. Twice. I’ve since learned that I get far more range keeping the motor in eco mode, the lowest setting, and using tour for hills. I rarely use the sport mode or turbo, the highest setting. 

Conclusion

Can you replace your car commute with a bike? Probably. Most commutes in Australia are under 30km a day. See if a bike suits you, and reduce or negate your expenses like annual registration, insurance and vehicle servicing. 

Canberra’s lockdown will end soon. My commuting will resume. I’m eager for the morning sun on my face, and the sound of currawongs, magpies, and cockatoos in my ears.

Belconnen, 30 August 2021.

Banitsa – Bulgaria’s cheesy gift to humanity

Learn how to bake a Bulgarian cheese pie, banitsa баница.

#BanitsaNotBombs

Join my livestream at 7pm AEST, Thursday 26 August 2021 on my YouTube channel. (Webinar via Google Meet was too hard for people who don’t have a Google account).

The banitsa, a delicious cheese pie, is one of Bulgaria’s many gifts to humanity.

Learn how to make this simple, scrumptious pastry, and make your kitchen smell divine.

Preparation takes about 20 minutes, and baking at least 30, depending on your oven.
Making one banitsa will cost around $10

You will need:
375g Fillo/filo pastry – chilled, not frozen. I recommend Antoniou brand
At least 400g of feta cheese. Bulgarian white cheese, called sirene, is best, but if you can’t find it in the deli section at your supermarket, get Greek or Australian. Danish white cheese is not salty enough. 
One cup of natural yoghurt (Greek is great. Don’t use a flavoured yoghurt).
Minimum four eggs
One quarter of a cup of oil (eg canola, or sunflower or olive oil).
A pinch of bi carb soda (baking soda)
Small amount of butter/Nuttlex to top the banitsa before baking
A baking tray, such as a 25cm round spring form one. A flat tray will also work, but it needs to be at least 6cm deep.

I’ve made this dish multiple times since my Bulgarian Beloved showed me a few years ago. It was in Bulgarian stereo: she was beside me in our Canberra kitchen, Mother-In-Law on the phone on Skype from Varna on the Black Sea.

In Bulgaria, you can get banitsa everywhere, from bakeries on street corners to pubs and bus stations. I ate it three times a day in Bulgaria during three weeks in the summer of 2017 and I regret nothing.

Two weeks with an electric cargo bike

A Babboe cargo bike  parked in front of a Belconnen sign.
A Babboe box bike in Belconnen

Oh, what fun it is to ride on a big wooden electric boat!

Sitting in the wooden box as we did laps of our block’s car park, my neighbour’s eldest daughter remarked that it was like a big boat. Six weeks after I returned the Babboe City cargo bike to the Canberra Electric Bike Library, her younger sister was still asking when she could go for another ride.

I loaned the Babboe for two weeks in December 2020. The Library is a pilot project of the ACT Government, and is managed by SEE-Change and Switched on Cycles. (Disclaimer, I am the convenor of SEE-Change’s Belconnen group.) It’s free, aside from the $30 insurance fee for individuals ($45 for households), which is waived if you’re a member of Pedal Power ACT (I am).

The point of the library is that because electric bikes are more expensive than non-powered ones, most people can’t afford the initial outlay. But they want to know if an e-bike suits their needs, and that’s not always possible if they borrow a bike from a store for a few hours or a day. The library solves that problem by letting individuals or households use the bike for two weeks.

The library was launched in July 2020 and comprises seven bikes, ranging from commuter bikes to cargo bikes and tricycles. I waited six months before it was my turn. I think a waiting list is a good problem to have, as it demonstrates there’s strong demand.

I borrowed the bike firstly to see if our greyhound would fit in it, as I wanted Dot to experience the fun of riding around Lake Burley Griffin. She’d jumped out of a Christiania cargo bike a few months earlier at the start of a test ride. (Didn’t get the bike; too wide for my laundry door). She didn’t jump out of the Babboe, but didn’t settle down either. Maybe if we’d used the Babboe Dog cargo bike, with its larger box?


Secondly, I wanted to see if I could replace short car trips – 30 minutes or less from my house – with the bike, for example, to the supermarket or hardware store. Turns out, it was easy.

Collecting the bike.
Borrowing the bike was a bit like using a rental car. I got a lift to the SEE-Change office at Downer, where Zuleka Chan, library project officer, marked off a checklist while we inspected the bike. Zuleka gave me the keys, and cautioned: Don’t look at the front wheel.

Because a cargo bike is longer than an ordinary bike, your eye is drawn to the front wheel, waaaay in the distance, and it fools you into forgetting your balance. “Just ignore the front wheel and ride,” Zuleka counselled. It worked.

I rode a few laps of the Downer community centre carpark, then headed back home via O’Connor ridge. This gave me time to get a feel for the bike, and how it performed uphill. Lower motor speeds weren’t noticeably responsive, so I increased them and found it made the climbs easier.

You can park your cargo bike at the front door of Bunnings. A staff member saw the bike and said “that’s a good idea.”

Carrying loads
At Bunnings Belconnen, I parked literally at the front door, locked the bike to a wobbly railing, and shopped. Bought a small work platform for my parents’ adjustable ladder. Outside, while munching on a democracy sausage, a Bunnings staff member saw my bike and exclaimed it was a good idea. I wished I’d bought heavier things, like paint or pot plants, so I could show others what it could carry. Or something magical at Christmas, like a #TreeByBike.

Riding the Babboe City electric cargo bike home from the Jamison Centre shops, with five bags of groceries, and a small ladder from a hardware giant.

Danger: Heavier load
After Bunnings, I rode to the supermarkets at the Jamison Centre in Macquarie, and pushed a trolley out with five bags of groceries – roughly a week’s worth for our two-person household. Moved the bags around the box to distribute the weight, and added the ladder on top. Pushed the bike off its stand, tried to pedal quickly, and starting toppling over. I caught the bike just in time, but it was close. Remember to slow down next take off.

Five bags of groceries and a work platform

Headed home, up long, gradual hills, on unsafe painted bicycle lanes, then separate bike paths, and narrow, broken footpaths on Belconnen Way. Rang the bike’s bell proudly when I reached our block of flats, to show anyone who cared that it was possible to buy a household’s supplies for a week and deliver it without needing to start a car’s engine.

As you can see from the pictures, over two weeks I rode the Babboe cargo bike everywhere. Several times to Downer and Dickson, to Lake Burley Griffin, and past several schools in Belconnen to get photos for Twitter. If I had kids, I’d definitely ferry them around in the Babboe, which was enough room for two small kids – say both under 10 – and heaps of their stuff.

Returning the bike
I rode the bike back to Downer on a Friday morning, handed the keys and lock to Zuleka, who gave it an inspection and asked me to complete a survey on my experiences. A quick and easy process.

Verdict
There were a few downsides to the bike, but these were minor and didn’t spoil my enjoyment. The kickstand was noisy and bounced constantly. It needs tightening. The lower power settings weren’t effective on hills, so higher speeds are better. I needn’t have worried about chewing up the battery, as it was a workhorse and higher speeds uphill didn’t trim battery life. I charged the bike every second or third day, and never once ran out of battery life, or worried about range.

I can’t stress enough how much fun it was. Numerous kids of our neighbours in our block loved being passengers. I’m sure they’d love the experience of being taken to school on it. If you want to experience it for yourself, you’re invited to the ‘come and try’ session at the Downer shops on Friday 12 February from 10am-11:30am, or join the wait list on the Canberra Electric Bike Library.

Here’s another article I wrote for SEE-Change about replacing my daily car commute with an e-bike. I didn’t like being traffic. Who does?

The low-down of ditching the car for a bike

I wrote this article in September 2020 for SEE-Change, of which I am convenor of the Belconnen group.

Tuesday 21 September 2020 is World Car Free Day. To encourage others to take up alternative modes of transport and become less reliant on their cars, I am sharing my experience of switching my car for an ebike on my daily work commute.

Me and my Cube Town Hybrid e-bike

I’m just another person on a bike, not a cyclist. I ride to my job in the city on my e-bike, a Cube hybrid with a step-through frame. It’s a 22-km round trip from my home in west Belconnen to my job in Acton. I recharge the bike every second day and it costs about $1.30.

Benefits: Switching to a bike has brought many benefits. At 30 minutes each way, it takes the same amount of time as driving and being stuck in traffic near my office. I now can park at my desk, don’t spend $17/day on casual car parking fees, and can enjoy birds, kangaroos, and other life on the separated bike paths. Riding beside Lake Burley Griffin is a particular daily highlight. Recently I saw a turtle.

Challenges: E-bikes mean hills aren’t a problem. The main challenge is having to share roads with traffic between my home and the start of the bike path (about 4km each trip). So I wear a reflective vest and use my flashing front and rear lights for that section, even in daylight. Outside of summer, I ride in my office clothes. But I’ll soon need shorts, and the showers at work.

Advice: Find where the separate bike paths are – I’m very happy to show anyone in Belconnen – because the roads are not safe, regardless of green paint and bicycle symbols. Get panniers so you can carry things and lose the backpack for better airflow. Ensure you have flashing lights front and back. USB enabled rechargeable ones are more convenient than replacing batteries.

Lastly, I’ve learned riding clears my head, both going to work and coming home. I no longer stress about traffic jams or finding a parking space, and can enjoy hearing and seeing things I couldn’t from my car.

By Paris Lord, Belconnen SEE-Change Convener. 21/09/2020.
Contact Paris at belconnen@see-change.org.au.

Disposable Blue Rios – 2

Seoul 03/12/1999

Hey-ho Everyone,

Thank you all for coming to the today’s show. Sit back and relax as your host ducks and dives and tries to keep your attention.

Much has happened since my last issue. I’m finally speaking English again, still getting lost on the way from the subway to the guest house, thinking a lot about my Australian plans upon my return AFTER I get that bloody degree, and am so far not showing any adverse affects on my neck muscles from all the bowing and nodding the locals do.

My current guesthouse, Travellers A Motel, is exceptional. It’s more a backpackers than a motel, but don’t let that worry you. There’s single rooms available, as well as dorms. Upstairs is a coffee shop, rooms known as yogwans, which is a traditional Korean room where one sleeps on small mats and upstairs again are more rooms. Its four storeys high and is run by one family. I think the son and daughter of the Han family own the actual guesthouse on the ground floor and run it together. Mrs Han is the overseer of all the floors. She speaks fluent Japanese as a result of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Korea 1910-1945. Currently I’m sharing my dorm with Masa from Japan and James from England. Masa and Mrs Han have big talks every morning and I’ve had Masa translate a request or thanks, which is far easier than both parties (me and Mrs Han) trying to  understand the other. I can get my clothes cleaned for a very reasonable fee, which is neccessary as laundromats don’t exist in Seoul. Mrs Han also took care of drycleaning my dufflecoat, after I soiled it last Friday with the infamous Ice Choco Atrocity. It hadn’t been cleaned anytime this year, just wedged in the back of successive cupboards in Brisbane. I’m only including this detail to justify my drycleaning.

Before James and Masa arrived, I was starting to wish I could speak English with ANYONE. It’s wonderful being here, unable to follow what people are saying, then you’re handed a piece of paper and it’s “Yep, so there’s Jehova’s Witnesses in Seoul too…” There’s at least 10 daily newspapers and only 2 in English. Waiting for my train, I look over the Korean papers and try to understand the stories from the pictures or the way the paper is laid out. There must definitely be tabloid papers here, judging from the height of the headlines and the overuse of ! in said headlines. 

Also at least 10 radio stations on both AM and FM bands. Only one English one, that hopeless US Forces FM station. Today they did play Bowie’s new single, so I now move them up the tolerable scale just a wee bit. 

Korean TV is madness incarnate. More than five channels devoted soley to game shows or home-shopping. Then there’s local dramas and music videos which are exactly like ours in the West, only the faces and language is different. We watched Chinese Channel V earlier this week. The male presenter dressed and delivered his routine just like David Letterman. The music videos and pop stars are the same as ours, but more hair dye and hair product. Korea too has boy bands.

I’ve noticed too that in the music videos, the shots and camera techniques are exactly the same in China, Korea and Australia. All have the “road movie” type video with the singer in big hat miming while driving a convertible, or the girl singing while on swings, trying to get the attention of the prettiest boy in school. There’s no difference here or back there. Quite scary actually. The fashions too are American, as I may have previously recorded. Tonight we passed a shop that sells soley American football and baseball merchandise. On Tuesday while out walking in Oksu I spotted a Chicago Bulls shop, which sells nothing but stuff with the basketball team’s logo stamped somewhere. 

Almost all the clothing available from the markets are fakes, so it seems strange to see the official stores here trying to sell the same goods for a greater price. Brands such as Colorado and Chanel spring to mind. 

Yesterday myself and James, the Englishman en route to Auckland, walked through many palaces and shrines in the city heart. The first shrine we stopped in had protesters out front, so as we left I put on my journo’s hat and asked a flag bearer what Marvin Gaye said. “What’s goin’ on?”

The demonstrators were Korean private school teachers protesting against the owners of the schools, demanding better pay and labour conditions. There were perhaps 500 teachers sitting down singing and clapping. All wore red headbands and many carried placards. In the interests of subjectivity, I asked if I could buy a headband, but they were only for union members. 

I don’t think the teachers, some of whom looked young enough to be students themselves, were expecting any foreign media to observe as no signs were in English.

As we walked in to our first shrine, Chongmyo, were found ourselves behind scores of monks in pale outifts and white padded shoes. One of the monks whipped out his mobile and called someone. This seemed very strange. Further on into the open area, I saw a black light with white cardboard over it. Turns out a film was being shot there later that afternoon and all the monks were extras. But it seemed so real!

Later I learned another unsaid rule for Real Travellers. Real travellers don’t wait until six days into their journey to call their mother. I called, much to her surprise, and promised I will shortly after I’ve landed at Heathrow.

Sure, I know parents think the place could crash or something bad’s happened, but…Hang on, I’ve not told the Australian Embassy I’m here, so there’s no way anyone would find out. OK I was wrong. It won’t happen again.

I’m also dying to call Her, but I don’t know when she’ll be near a phone. 

The next stop on our journey was the magnificent Kyongbokkung Palace, just in front of the President’s home. The entrance is patrolled by uniformed and plain clothes police. In fact Seoul is teeming with uniformed police. Talk about It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah. Such as presence seems to me like a mild case of paranoia. Maybe they’re just in training for 2002 when Korea and Japan co-host football’s World Cup. 

Everyone must see Kyongbokkung. I’ve taken about eight photos, but it will never do it justice. An entire section containing ancient King’s residences is being rebuilt for 2002, but much of what already stands is original. Or as original as buildings can be after the Japanese ransacked and burnt much of Seoul’s wonderful palaces in their many invasions. I’ve learned of at least three in the past 600 years. No wonder Japan is sometimes left off Korean maps. 

I’d like to go into more detail of Kyongbokkunng because the place itself is so very intricate. Unfortunately James is waiting for me outside of this internet cafe and my tummy’s also complaining. Today we scaled a mountain and I’ve not adquately rewarded it. 

More details next entry.

I’ve decided to stay here until next Wednesday’s 12 hr, 35min flight to London. I will catch a bus to a national park at the other end of Korea before then, though.

Thank you for reading.

adieu,

Paris

Foreign companies turn chicken about bartering with Thailand

Written when I was a Bangkok-based correspondent for Agency-France Press (AFP)

Published in The Age, Australia, 30/01/2006

JUST how many chickens is a fighter jet worth?

Thai economists are trying to work out the answer as the Government is hoping to barter chickens and rice to pay for everything from military aircraft to subway trains.

When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra opened the bidding on Thursday for Thailand’s Bt1.7 trillion ($A58.63 billion) public works program, he said his Government was interested in alternative “financing mechanisms” — namely, bartering.

The highlight of the new projects is an expansion of Bangkok’s public transport system, expected to cost Bt550 billion. The Defence Ministry also wants to barter for fighter jets it is considering buying from Russia, Sweden or the US.

Mr Thaksin’s Government believes that bartering for such big-ticket items would help keep the country’s foreign debt ratio below 50 per cent of gross domestic product.

The scheme envisions trading farm goods already in government stocks, such as surplus rice, instead of using cash for at least part of the payment to foreign companies.

A barter trade committee has been created in the Commerce Ministry to assess the bids for the public works projects and negotiate how much chicken, rice or tapioca could be used to finance the deal.

Final regulations on bartering are expected in mid-February, but foreign companies are sceptical.

Nazir Rizk, who heads the Thai subsidiary of French engineering conglomerate Alstom, doubted whether barter was the best payment option. “A company like us, we don’t do barter, we sell trains. We cannot sell chickens,” he said.

AFP

Homesickness, 2005-style

Thailand’s former king, viewed from my former balcony, Wittayu Complex, Bangkok.

Bangkok

October 30, 2005

Hello there

Thanks for your concerns about my well being in Thailand’s restive southernmost provinces. I’m heading to Hong Kong on November 22 for a three-day course on how to survive conflict zones. AFP has run several courses before for people volunteering for Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ll likely put my hand up late next year for Kabul, but I’m not interested in Baghdad.

The insurance company has asked AFP to ensure their journalists can handle themselves when things turn ugly, such as police start shooting on a crowd. I’ve learned recently from Newsweek’s Joe Cochrane to smear toothpaste below your eyes when the cops are shooting tear gas around.

I’ll squish a tube in my back pocket when next I head south.

Thoughts on a silent night

Before my pool a bed of light –

Can it be frost upon the ground!

Eyes raised, I see the moon so bright;

Head bent, in homesickness I’m drowned

Li Bai (701-762)

From Songs of the immortals: an anthology of classical Chinese poetry.

(Penguin, 1994)

I am running on fumes. And the tank’s nearly empty.

In four nights’ time, I’ll be stuffed inside an Emirates flight to Sydney.

I’m about to have my first trip home to Australia in more than a year.

Eighteen days’ break – the first time I’ve seen most of my family in 18 months.

And as often happens when I’m nauseous with homesickness, I imagine Australia and my home town to be more rich and vivid – and with journalism job vacancies — than when I grew up there.

And so now I dislike being away, and thinking that none of this is worth it because much has changed to my family and friends since I last saw them.

And now I frown at thinking I’m missing out on my young niece and nephew growing up and discovering the world.

So I consider packing up all my books and music and notepads and moving back to Australia – a regular mood I usually pass through easily.

Except this time it seems far more difficult a hill to trudge up than the others.

This time it’s the toughest because it’s taken so long to get home to Ballina, in New South Wales state.

Before the Bangkok job was offered, I’d head back every April, after covering the Hong Kong rugby sevens for the Standard newspaper.

Once a year was inadequate, but all I could get in a city that does not offer four weeks’ annual leave, the way Australia does today, but may not in a year.

Then, when the Thailand job was mine, they said they needed me urgently, so I kept quiet about wanting to go home.

It didn’t seem sensible to mention my mother was arriving in Hong Kong, and I wanted to be there to see her and her friend.

So I left Hong Kong on the Sunday. Mum arrived that Friday. She couldn’t change her flight at the last minute for Bangkok.

This is my first holiday proper – aside from long weekends – in a year, when I spent a big break in West Africa and Ireland/London.

Day one is breakfast in Sydney before being met by a beautiful girl, Kaos, who’s also timed her trip back with mine.

My wonderful father meets us at the Gold Coast airport for day two, and on to Gabba cricket ground in Brisbane to see Australia play West Indies in the first test. I hope we can argue about John Howard in the car…

The weekend’s with my sister Charm, and the gorgeous Bree and Caelum, including a trip to watch Bree at the local pony club.

Finally, Sunday night in Ballina and my mother’s company, to regale her and dad with my adventures. And then bore them with talk of moving back and trying to live somewhere quiet…

A trip to Broken Hill in western New South Wales, or Mitchell in western Queensland — to get some red dirt under my skin — have been scrapped in favour of seeing more of the land around Ballina and Kaos’ Kountry near Coffs Harbour.

Tired of telling people no, I’m not from Sydney, I now say I’m from Bunjalung country, northern New South Wales. Although I don’t speak a word of Bunjalung, nor know any Bunjalung Aboriginal people any more.

I spent most of my first 19 years growing up there, but hardly explored the southern parts of it. I never once visited Bunjalung national park, and perhaps once briefly saw a bit of Broadwater national park. It’s time I saw both, or Broadwater at the least (if only to help dent my uncle Doug’s likely certain observation that few people visit the park, despite them claiming national parks are vital).

Sentimentality took root in me early. I can still recall the day my cousins and I found an echidna (a spiny ant eater, native to Australia) while playing in the grounds of Lennox Head primary school in the mid 1980s) and picked it up.

And the Aboriginal corroboree ring in the scrub across the road from their house in Stewart Street.

I want to see if the ring is still there, or is now a housing estate, like many of the places we used to play in.

My cousins used to know how to sing the “heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes” song in an Aboriginal language, which may have been Bunjalung.

They learned it at Lennox Head school, with its white and green uniform.

It sounded like: “Bo wollygin jindoo ginner, jindoo ginner.”

I wonder how much they remember?

Finally, after catching up with as many friends in Brisbane and Sydney want to meet me, I’m going to Orange to see Nan.

When I spoke with her in August – and asked about what she remembers of the war in the Pacific and Hiroshima ending in 1945 – it made me realize people my age and from a white, middle-class background have nothing to complain about.

Nan married my late grandfather during the war. About two days later, Pa was posted to far north Queensland to serve in the Royal Australian Air Force. They didn’t see each for 18 months, until after the war ended.

They lived off letters.

My generation, me especially, devours cheap international telephone calls with cards or on the Internet, e-mail, discount air fares and fast mail services, and still we moan about being separated from those we love.

So hearing that from Nan on a Sunday afternoon has made me pull my head in, despite all you’ve read above.

I’ll be taking notes, and grabbing some hair samples to help make a specimen of how people should be built.

After people like my Nan and Pa, well, they broke the mould.

Disposable Blue Rios – 1

Travelling tales – emails from the road, before blogs

Seoul, 29/11/1999

Hey-ho Kids!

I’ve finally found a computer terminal that seems to send messages rather than lose them. Perhaps the other machine back at my guest house breaks down when the messages are too large. Each time I’ve tried to do a mass send. I get some weird message in Korean I can’t understand and the hostess can’t translate. Twice in two days I’ve wasted more than two hours of my life. A bit like lectures with Cratis, but I digress.

I’ve found a cinema when I wanted one and plan on eating a pizza afterwards, as a reward for the unsuccessful attempts to send email earlier. I’ll see a Korean film about something. I wonder if I can follow a foreign film without the benefit of SBS’ subtitles? While waiting for the 6.30 movie, I’ve found a 24 hr computer lounge full of Korean computer geeks ready to take over the world. The gear they use is powered by Windows 2000, whatever that means. The huge towers are big, blue ‘Millennium’ units with huge, white sub woofers on the computer next to me. I’m number 31 and if anything goes wrong, I hope these kids can help.

Here goes attempt number three.

Tip #1

For any would be travellers to Seoul in November, or probably any other northern hemisphere country, BRING CHAPSTICK.

My lips have been punishing me lately. It took four days to find some chappo. The pretty lip gloss I had did wonders at street corners, but failed to stop the chafing.

Tip #2

When you leave Kimpo International Airport Terminal 2, be sure to copy down the taxi driver complaints number located on the huge blue sign to your left as you exit the building and at the beginning of the taxi rank. Also make a record of the taxi’s number plate and the Korean character to the left of the four digit number. Ensure your driver has his (I’m yet to see a taxi driver, cyclist or motor bike rider who is a woman) trip meter turned on. If he quotes you 5,000 won for the journey, pay only the 5,000 not the 40,000 he yells for when he dumps you in some weird intersection in a suburb you can’t read the signs for, after he twice phoned the guest house to get directions.

I’m nearly getting used to the amazing cold. Perhaps it’s the delusions that kick in when the temperature rises but a wee bit. It’s warmer today and the beanie has remained in my backpack, but around my neck remains my super cheap red scarf while my hands sleep warm in my A$1.50 gloves bought at the Tongdaemun markets.

For all those people back in Oz who heard me rabbit on “Oh, not me, I love cold”, feel free to blow raspberries. I should have qualified my remarks with “I love an Australian cold”. Seoul is the real thing. At the top of Mt Namsan, outside Seoul Tower, it was apparently -5 degrees Centigrade when I visited on Friday. I walked down the mountain to better soak in the view of this enormous, seething mass of humanity, pulling the beanie further down with each step.

When I left the first guest house yesterday, I could crack the ice layer that had formed in the bird bath. This cold is no joke, it told me.

Still, I sleep warm every night and the floors of the guest houses are heated. The first night at the Wow guest house, the hot water didn’t work, so I waited another day to bathe. I guess everyone smells the same under several layers of clothing. The layers also keep out the travellers’ smells. Wow was a dirty, smelly place, more expensive than where I now live. A sign in the bathroom said “please do not put paper in this bog”. Beside the toilet was a bin bulging with paper, so join the dots.

My new place is smaller, warmer and cheaper. The hot water works and upstairs is a coffee shop that serves as much toast as I like. Today I liked five slices. I ‘m forever in my sister, Merope’s debt for the Vegemite and apricot jam she put in my ration back. I think by the time I reach Dublin, I may need a crate shipped over, a la Shane Warne.

My dears, I have a feeling I should try and send this before the computer loses my message.

I’m thus far adoring this place. The only thing I have to thank the heavy presence on US forces in Seoul and surrounds is that all the stations in the subway network are clearly marked in English, while a voice also tells you which lines I can transfer to at a particular stop. The American Force’s own FM radio station, SHITE FM I think it’s called, has announcers who spend the day saying “how ya doin’?” and playing forgettable US numbers. (Amon, if we thought the announcers for B105 and MMM were bad, they’re taught by these idiots.)

To further annoy this traveller, Kenny Wee has released a CD for Christmas which is playing outside every music shop in the city. Can I please suggest an uncomfortable place for his sax? Yeah, I know it won’t fit there, but with some gentle persuasion….

The cold can be dealt with. Tonight three Korean female university students stopped me to record my observations of Korea for their English studies project. They then stood beside me and had a group photo taken. I hope more people actually stop me to practice their English, like they did to another Australia staying at Wow. I wish I spoke more Korean than “yes” (ye), “no” (aniyo), thank you (kamsa hamnida) and excuse me.

I like this place with each new day. Tonight it’s increasingly likely I’ll stay my full two weeks, especially if free accommodation happens soon.

I’ll keep you all posted as to my movements, both bowel and physical.

Expect postcards very soon.

Thank you for reading.

adieu,

Paris