Sunday, November 19, 2006

On the toddy trail

It was too late to bail out now. A crowd of glassy eyed guys in lunghis blocked the exit. More peered through the barred window dividing our room from the corridor. The toddy man poured two enormous glasses of cloudy white liquid. Was that steam I saw rising from each glass, some sort of noxious vapour? Fruit flies flitted around the open bottle.

The toddy man looked solemn. Every lunghi skirt wearing man in the place looked solemn. The only guy smiling was our sixteen year old guide, thrilled to have presented two such specimens at the toddy altar. I didn't need to look at my hubby Ryan to know he was pondering the same concept; were the three of us (me, him, and smiley teen) going to leave this place less a kidney each?

Our suspicions should have been aroused long before we fronted the toddy shack. I guess, truth be told, they were, but we we're curious sods with a penchant for the dodgy and absurd. This interest was only piqued by the wrinkled old codger squatting at the front of the shack, wearing the eponymous lunghi and, rather incongruously in the tropical heat, a woolen ski mask. He giggled and waved a stick at us, before being shooed back inside by one of the toddy tappers. The lone tooth that had proudly gleamed from the yawning chasm of his mouth was now firmly nestled behind the grim line of his pursed lips. Here was a man who clearly took his toddy drinking seriously.

We'd been very active in trying to arrange a tipple of toddy, repeatedly asking the captain of the backwater vessel on which we were currently ensconsed, the chef, the porter, our juvenile guide, and, indirectly, the coconut guru. We were after an authentic liquid accompaniment to the endless green palms and meandering canals of Kerala's backwater district. However, the southern state, India's first democratically elected communist government, tightly controls the sale of liquor. You can purchase grog in three ways: a visit to a govt. liquor store, which involves a visit to a dusty counter covered by a metal screen on the highway outta town, where you whisper your poison and recieve the goods through a small hole along with a disapproving grunt; from certain tourist oriented establishments where ordering a 'special tea' gets you watered down beer in a teapot; or, you visit the toddy shack.

I want to stress that we're not lager swilling goons looking for a cheap accompaniment to boorish acts of gluttony. On the contrary, we're true afficiandos of the grape and the grain. Lush troubadours with a romantic and wildly misguided nostalgia for the more hedonistic practices of the colonialists -- that is to say, we longed for G&T's on the deck of a thatched boat that silently drifted past swaying greenery. We were also keen to immerse ourselves in all forms of local culture, culinary and otherwise.

To this end, we fronted up at the pier in Kollam, the less touristed end of the backwaters, with some locally produced gin in a plastic bottle, and a clinking sack of tonic water (quinine is still used as a malaria prophylactic I'll have you know). The boys sported lunghis and thick bushy moustaches -- a must have fashion accessory across the entire subcontinent.

The crew onboard the houseboat were thrilled to see the moustaches and the lunghis, quickly stowing our luggage and engaging our menfolk in an enthusiastic lunghi tying lesson. A lunghi is essentially a sarong type sheet that brothers wear long, or folded and tied up. The effect is mini skirt at the back and nappy at the front. They continually fiddle with them, folding and refolding, letting them drop down and gathering them back up. I believe it's some sort of state sanctioned past-time.

I left the lunghi tiers and checked out our floating pad. Keralan housboats have long wooden hulls and a thatched roof that has a rounded shape and rounded window eaves. The two rooms were decked outin 70's beach house deco and at the front of the boat there were comfy deck-chairs and a mattress known officially as the 'sunbathing deck.' I also found a kitchen and in it, another guy fiddling with his lunghi.

It began blissfully, us chugging away across the wide waters that marked the place where backwater meets sea, turning down a narrower inlet and marvelling at life on the banks. Women beat wet clothes against stones, a man bottle fed a tiny calf. Sand was dragged from the riverbank by lean, dark men, who then hauled it onto flimsy canoes that sank right up to their lip under the weight. Manovering these canoes involved pushing a big stick to the river bed at one end, running along with the stick to the other end of the canoe.

And now this! In a few short hours, we'd gone from lazing about sipping gin and listening to Ryan's idle strumming, to being locked in a grimy room, replete with bare lightbulb dangling from a cord - long enough to be used as some sort of garrotte I noted as I took a furtive sniff of toddy. Aromas of coconut, vinegar, and lunghi sweat hit the back of my throat. I fought the urge to cry out something like 'For the love of God, no!' Ryan's stare spoke to me directly. 'This was your idea punk, now DRINK!' Thankfully, the boss man grunted in his direction, a clear indication that around here, it was a man's perogative to drink first. 'Skull Andy skull' I sang cheerfully, raising my glass to him. He death stared me till he tipped his head back and drained the glass with the sort of gulp only a guy sporting a Magnum P.I mo AND a skirt can.

There was no wild round of applause. Not even one hint of a broad Keralan smile. Instead, a sort of grim satisfaction rippled through the group before they settled their steely stares on the wanton woman in their midst.

What was I thinking? This stuff was always destined to be undrinkable, but my reckless and persistent thirst for authenticity (and liquor) had led us into a moderately threatening situation, simply to imbibe the fermented sap of a coconut palm, sap that had clearly been left out in the sun for too long.

The point of no return had presented itself with some fanfare well before we arrived at the shack. It was the coconut guru. He had sealed our fate. We were the last coconuts on the chopping board as far as he was concerned.

After a sublime lunch of Kerala fish fry, coconut chutney, beetroot sambal, and of course, generous G&T's, we piled into a small canoe to take in the back-backwaters.

We were punted down narrow canals, passing locals whose faces quite clearly indicated disbelief that we would want to tour through the very waterways they deposited their sewerage and god knows what else in. It was a fascinating ride past settlements, fish farms, tangled wet jungle and remote huts. After a time, we pulled up at the coconut village. Dried coconut dealers, coir (coconut fibre) manufacturers, coconut tree climbers, the whole place fairly buzzed with tropical fervour. Our guide lead us to a shabby hut, pointed and intoned in a rather ominous fashion 'coconut guru.' I nodded and said 'toddy?' He nodded in a slow and serious way. Whatever. We bounded up, inadvertently frightening the guru's tethered goat. It gave a short, fearful bleat and began savagely buffeting our female companion. A wiry, beat-up old brother wearing T-shirt that proclaimed 'My Dad's an ATM' hobbled over and yanked her out of harm's way, before reassuringly stroking the angry goat. The beast calmed immediately and went back to devouring a pair of child's panties.

The guru went back to his post by a large pile of coconuts. He picked one up, held it in one spindly hand and hacked it open with a machete he gripped in the other. Our young guide actually gulped audibly and began speaking machine gun Mayalayam. The guru kept chopping coconuts, but I swear an added ferocity crept into each hacking motion. I made out the word 'toddy' a half dozen times. The guide nodded studiously. Then the goaty old bloke dropped the machete, hurled it more like, into the ground beside his foot and picked up a stick. He drew a detailed diagram in the dust, speaking rapidly and aggressively poking one particular spot. When he was finished, our guide gulped audibly again and made to scurry off. Ryan held out a 20 rupee note. the guru snatched it, and then grabbed Ryan's forearm, drawing him close. He picked up the machete and slaughtered another coconut, spilling the liquid in the dust around Ryan's feet. He pointed to the wet patterns and spoke in wild, gutteral tones. He pointed at Ryan and then me, and then stalked off.

Back on the boat, we asked the guide what the hell that had been all about. He said '' The whole thing was becoming unsettling, truth be told. He furiously punted us back to the houseboat, dropped our two companions off, saying firmly 'only you two.'

It was a good 45 minute walk. It was getting dark. There was little idle chatter. At one point, we passed a billboard, a corner of the huge tattered poster flapping in the breeze. It read 'Men's Planet - terrorists of fashion! and gave the nearest locations. We had a good giggle at that one, till junior joined in, clapping his hands and shrieking 'terror, terror!' Feelings of mirth plummeted faster than an express elevator.

Set back in the palms, adjacent to a rubbish pile teeming with unseen beasties that moved under the top layer of rubbish, was the shack. Once, it would have been an attractive example of colonial/Keralan architecture with its peaked red tile roof and wood slatted walls. The walls acted as a screen, shielding those inside while allowing those inside to see out. A painted sign said 'Toddy' in both Mayalayam and roman scripts. The stick-toting ski mask man squatted and cackled. We had arrived. There was nothing else for it but to get the hell in, then get the hell out.

Past the cashier we go, him leaping up and slamming the door behind us. Past the wooden benches crowded with cloudy bottles. Under a covered walkway and into a room, its floor smeared and sticky with something brown and copious....curry I hope, but
I'm not too confident. Through a metal door to the bare bulbed, metal barred holding pen.

They seemed to want my success, but their eyes seem to bay silently for my failure, and whatever sinister ritual might follow such a transgression. I sigh imperceptibly and quickly recount the laws of yard-glass drinking imparted to my by my brother many years ago. Epiglottis stop to the trachea. Open that gullet wide. Don't breathe. I skull the glass, smashing it back on the table and grinding my nails into the rough underside of the bench as the coconutty, vinegary sludge hits my insides. Truly rank stuff.

Grunts. A chorus of them at different pitches. A flurry of lunghi tying and re-tying. Set back in the crowd, one gleaming tooth shines from the inside of a yawning chasm once more. We pay our few meagre rupees and stumble out the door with our guide, now beaming and clapping his hands again. We're clutching two fresh bottles of toddy wrapped in newspaper, presented as a gift from the toddy man.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How Good it is..

How good it is.... how good it is....

When you are on the road, then your mind can wander free; a wonderful release from the bonds of a workaday life, the urban hum-drum, the relentless wheel of busyness Ry and I seem to find ourselves on.

On the road though, your mind is free to wander and to search. You look inward, but where you wish to pause and contemplate, to watch and reflect, at times you end up criticising yourself, becoming acutely aware of your shortcomings, and little worries can creep up on you.

It's such a strange state. On the one hand, you're free and zooming down country roads, eating amazing foods, picking walnuts direct from the tree, discovering the amazing kindness of complete strangers...and on the other, you can be consumed by these interior concerns that grow as you feed them with doubts and concerns.

Luckily, for me....the world constantly shows me the other side of the game. Different vantage points. Inspirations.

I have so much to share with you. Beautiful Bente and her farmhouse of self-reliance, where the garden burst with autumn vegetables, clothes are knitted from wool spun into thread on the wheel...a beautiful pagan woman trying to keep dreams afloat on a rickety old boat in the Barcelona there alone while her partner tries to smooth out legal wrangles in a cold northern country, she welcomes guests with a gentle charm that is suffused throughout the whole boat; a grand wooden structure she describes as like 'living in a forest'. The Mistral winds of Provence that whistle through villages high and fierce. You can hear them coming from afar, moaning and gathering speed and whoosing over your little tent, giving you crazy dreams.

Oh so much to share. And sometimes the worries rise up and swallow a whole day, and for what? In Liguria, a total stranger sharing a house and music and history with us...and paintings -- oh the magical paintings on every spare vertical surface. In Firenze, in Tuscany, on the lake where Hannibal slaughtered the Romans and rode elephants.

What about Rome, meeting my family, learning how to gesticulate and how to say 'you're breaking my balls.' Seeing my Nonna's sister, who looked like her, cooked like her, and had the same gentle air. Trying to eat and not to break down, and to swallow that lingering regret, the only regret of my fairly compact life.

Oh so much to share...Today what strikes me are the stories of people. Other people, people you might not glance at twice. Or those who make a big impact with their dreams lived on a grand and gorgeous scale...These two people aren't so different...

The flower seller in Venice, an Indian boy of 23. We told him we didn't want his flowers, just his story...After waxing lyrical about the Taj Mahal...'Madam, you can't realise it. 20,000 people took 20 year to build it....a monument of love madam'...then he told us how he arrived. By foot and bus to Iran, and then somehow to Greece where he payed to be stowed away on a boat to Brindisi. Then he caught a bus to Venice. Now he sells flowers (which he hates, he hates those damn roses) without any papers at all, in a sense without any identity. He lives in a room with 10 other men, only one of who he feels he can trust. He has a degree in Political science from Calcutta University. He believes that every few years, the Italian government offers a moratorium on illegal immigrants, and he'll get papers. He speaks no Italian at all.

His eyes shone as he spoke of his dreams.

Then tonight, researching our next leg, I came across this inspiration...On her site she wrote
"Every dream is given to us with the power to make it come true."

A girl who trusted the world and relied on the kindness of others...she hitch-hiked the world for more than 5 years and documented her incredible journey. Trusting in the universe and in strangers. To read her site is to be inspired by the possibilities that open if you fling yourself into the void without fear.

Kinga died 3 months ago in Ghana from cerebral malaria. Reading her site and viewing her images is an exercise in inspiration; her sense of happiness so visceral.

How good it good it is....

Kimba in Paris

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Grimbas conquer Celts

Sunday, July 23, 2006

On the road again -- feels like home


What can I say about this place...It is exactly like TV and it's nothing like TV. It was a difficult goodbye to the streets of Japan, the rain pouring on haphazard streets, the half-readable kanji blurred by water streaked glass and my own eyes that brimmed with the sadness of leaving, a sadness that stems from knowing that, when we return, it will be only as mere visitors.

As expected, we had numerous hurdles with our luggage that included two backpacks, three carry-on bags, and two guitars and a shamisen that needed to go on-board and not underneath. Hours of fun negotiation ensued. Here's Ryan pre-shave checking out his baggage ensemble:

A suitably uncomfortable plane ride (even in premium economy) involved obligatory screaming infants, corpulent snoring Americans, and ill-conceived airline fodder...not even the airline stewardesses provided any visual relief, what with a median age of 50 something and a slight hint of 'Yeah? Whatever' about them.

First purchase in America: Coffee from MacDonalds to get change for the phone.
Number of fake boobs seen at the airport: four inflated sets

We were met at the subway station by our host Steve and his neighbor Paul. As the gay games are on in Chicago, Steve and his partner Bob were already decked to the rafters with Australian gay men with tight bodies and muscle shirts, his neighbors Paul and Lisa had agreed to put us up.

Their place is absolutely gorgeous and the bed is like something from another world for us single futon ground dwellers. Plump, feathery, with multiple pillows and a thread count approaching zenith levels...mmmmmm

Also, just to really indulge our Americana dream fetishes, Paul is an FBI agent and Lisa is a lawyer. No could not ask for a better start to the visit than that, except for the fact that these guys are incredibly generous and accommodating and Paul LOVES Chicago and decided that we had to do all the "bests." Cue trip to Connie's pizza joint where we all sucked back deep-dish pizza and Corona Beer.

For those ingnoramus's amongst you, deep dish is like a pizza pie -- it has a thin crust and an edge like a pie and then the topping is just loaded in there in goopy, cheesy, super-size me layers. After two pieces (minus the crust) we were spent, and the box of leftovers was actually impossible to carry in one hand. We got a thick crust version -- here it is.

The next morning, Circadian rhythms spinning wildly like a polyphonic pocket watch playing Mrs Malaprop's greatest hits, we rose at 5.30am. By 8.30am we were decked out with two incredibly zoopy hybrid bikes, one care of Steve and Bob because Lisa is a 6ft Amazonian and I couldn't even hook my leg over the frame!

We rode into town along the bike path that runs along Lake Michigan -- A brilliantly, independently free and democratic blue sky day glinting with radiant flecks of industry and ingenuity. The path was crowded with fit people, training for the marathon, tour de France, Marathon De Sables, or the fake boobie beach volleyball tournament. The Chicago skyline is breathtaking -- it's like Gotham city and 2050 -- a silver odyssey all rolled into one. Here's me trying at an 'I built this city' pose:

We zoomed around on the bikes all day. We were obsessed by exteriors, by the way things gleamed, by the intensity of the green grass, the ostentatious fountains, the sheer size of things. Streets sprawled widely, giving us a sense of what it means to be an 'avenue.' Public art is huge here, and we were impressed at how much spectators could play, interact, and merge with the art on display.



We rode for hours, delving into different neighbourhoods, and having to do a few quick reverse manouvres. In Chicago, neighborhoods change in a block -- one minute it's all Starbucks and tree-lined streets, the next there's abandoned tenement blocks and feelings of ill-will and impending danger.

Thrillingly, we encountered a young girl on the street selling lemonade -- I was so excited, that this REALLY happens in America and not just in the Babysitter club series. We took pictures, and bought a cup -- highly delicious, but subject to massive inflation -- a buck a cup as opposed to the 20c a cup I remember from my childhood fiction days.

After cruising back up the lake path, stopping off at 'Boystown', the gay distict, we arrived home to find Paul all geared up to take us to 'Superdawg'... What is Superdawg? Only the most famous hotdog place in the whole of Chicago...a 30 min drive up Milwaukee Ave, it's a joint where you drive in and park. There is a speaker phone at every car spot to order your food and the girls bring it out and attach the tray to your car window -- the only thing missing is the rollerskates. Here is Paul -- he is armed and knows what he wants, so just do as he says...

I am gonna sign off here -- the sun is cooling off and after lathering our sunburn in soothing aloe, we're back on the bikes, jet lag and all, to checkout a free music festival tonight.
One thing though -- I LOVE the fonts in America --- they simply rock.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Handstand Fool

The day after he asked me to marry him, Ryan rocked out a few yoga moves at Miyajima, one of Japan's Top 3 beautiful views...

Put it away Ry ry...

G'day it's a bidet...

Well well, when it comes to toilet convenience, Japan satisfies like no other sovereign nation. Pre-warmed, and packed with added features such as these handy little squirters. We hope you enjoy as much as Kimba did.

Drunken Japanese Dudes #1

I have a whole host of videos like these... the real gems are tucked away on another hard-drive, but these two will warm you up...

Genki boys can't save their trash-bag friend...but he still manages a peace sign..

The hidden Karaoke Files

A truckload of cheap nasty booze...a frisky feeling...2 hours of private karaoke booth fun...It can only end up with dancing on the menus

VB song -- Bringing cultures together

yay for YouTube! At last we can deliver you all a batch of videos from Japan, without having to know anything about compression or HTML...

I love you YouTube! Sorry it's messed our layout up a bit -- but for the sake of the video I think it's worth it.

Here's a classic from Anzac Day -- check Ryan's duds out. It was a joint Turkish Australian gathering (great concept) and the guys did a great job in accompaying Ryan

Friday, March 17, 2006

First Blossoms

An awful day on Wednesday, I was walking around and tripping over my bottom lip. My heart was weeping. I was berating myself for my own shortcomings...worse than that, my body clock was screaming at me 'to hell with your plans, let's get this baby-show on the road.' Why does my body fight my mind this way? I felt as if I were nothing but a mess of amino acids, neural electricity; a tepid flush of ragged hormones.

After staring at the kitchen table for a while, a few fat tears plopping onto the formica, I dragged myself out and got on the bike. Always a great move. Soon I was weaving along new streets, just as the Izakaya mama-sans were plugging in their neon street-signs and sweeping the streets out front of their little noren curtains. Kid sounds from the baseball park. Notes from a tuba carried on the wind from the high school across the street.

I found a cherry-tree, still bony and dry with winter's chill. Peering closely, I saw the first round buds swelling on the branch - not yet green. This will be the tree I follow each week, until it bursts with fragile blooms.

It's an ordinary tree in an ordinary street, but for two weeks a year when it, like every other ordinary cherry tree becomes a flossy, chiffon beauty. I'm going to watch this tree unfurl, and revel in the process.

Hitting the roaring freeway, I held my breath till the lights changed and pushed through my thighs to clear the little hill, weaving around salary-men already giddy with the thought of their first beer. I've learned to remain a tourist in my own town, to marvel at the things we soon grow used to. Japan is an easy place to learn that lesson.

All the cherry branches slept, light and stark, full of hope.

Pushing up the hill toward the castle, zipping along the moat, riding like I was back in the bmx days of the past, troubles dropped away, falling like the city dust that pinged off my mud-guards. I cleared the top and cut away from the castle gates, the peach and plum groves opening below me in a fuzzy blur of watercolour.

I inhale air that skips over the dappled blossoms. It's a sweet light crush that lingers, but that you could never hope to capture in glass or plastic. Tears come to my eyes again, but they're fresh and light, like the blossoms, like a new page, like
a pause that holds the infinite.



The light drops away and I head for home, passing the artist packing away his brushes and paints, his painting drying on the easel, just visible in the dim of early evening. As I pass my cherry tree, an old lady walking her dogs smiles, nodding at me as she points out the road home.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Hotel Gang Snowman

Hello peoples of the world.

Yes, it's been forever hasn't it! I must keep these posts shorter and sweeter to protect my bung rsi arms from overload, but I have a little resolution to make these posts more frequent, with lots of pics!

The wedding....ahhhh, the wedding...a magnificent event, something truly spandangelous, fantabulous! Ahh the romance of it all, and for some, the debauchery...Most of you were there, so I need not bang on and on about it...We are awaiting professional pics...Until then, you many want to feast on some prelims on this site:

What I do want to bang on and on about in this short post is Hotel Gang Snowman. Yes, even though we live in a huge house and yes, even though we are married, we still like to visit the odd RABERU HOTERU for a bit of a peek. This one advertised the fact it had a red cadillac on the roof that had been turned into a hot tub...Ohh yes, sir, me sir, I like hot tubs sir!

In keeping with our promise to explore as much of Japan as we can, we met on a Thursday afternoon, bundled up like babooshkas, and wandered the streets of our town. We entered Den-Den town, land of electronic goodness and many, many geeks (and curiously, the land of many shops selling pepper spray, machetes and air rifles???). It was there I spied a place called Rasberry Dream, a 'maid cafe'. We went in!

Essentially, maid cafes are like hostess bars for kids and geeks. The place was full of rampant geeks, finishing off a day's joystick shopping with a caramel parfait and a wistful glance at a chick dressed as a manga maid. Naturally, we too indulged in a spot of parfait, but instead of peering at the maids (who were not really that cute) we just listened to the conversations around us and wrote in the maid's cute little diaries.

The boys next to us were indulging in a spot of that much-loved geek past-time. Quoting movie scenes to each other. One guy was doing the whole movie, the sound effects, the music and all the characters, while the other snorted into his hands a lot. It was total gold.

In the maid diary, we found this pic of one regular. He had pasted in many different pics of himself, and in each one he had a weapon of some kind. In one he'd even written MIG in white out with an arrow pointing to the gun. This was my fav though, as he was obviously going all out and mixing all his obsessions into one.

When we left, we saw another place across the road that offered maid reflexology...we will definately be trying that one out!

We got hopelessly lost searching for the hotel, but about 10km and 20 freezing toes later, we stumbled upon it, after dark, in all it's polystyrene snow covered glory. HOTEL GANG SNOWMAN

Alas, the cadillac was taken, so instead we opted for the disco-disaster-UV-spasm-mega-dungeon room....Words fail, buildings crumble when I attempt to explain, so here are some pics instead:

There were two bathrooms - here's the one we didn't use!

This was our favourite room - Liberace would have felt right at home with the mix of prints, although there was no karaoke, which disappointed me.

Sorry about the pics, they are from my phone camera! So, what did we do in this crazy place? Played Playstation of course!

There is so much to write about, and catch up on, so I will try to do a short post most days.

Here are a few scans from our latest project: Our household has a Tuesday night 'Crafternight' in which we drink sparkling wine and make stuff - Hannah showed us how to make stencils and this week we are going to marinate our own artichokes!
LMAO pg3
By Ryan

LMAO pg5

LMAO pg8
by Hannah

Finally - I am organising a cabaret at a sexy new nightclub. Here is the little blog I have made with the performer profiles - it's still undergoing construction, but it's very fun anyway.

loving you all!
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