Homesickness, 2005-style

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