Saturday, June 30, 2007


I missed winter solstice this year. Though technically still in the Southern Hemisphere (by a mere 8 degrees), while I sweltered in 30c days with high humidity – it was just too confusing to delve into internal spaces while my physical body was outwardly travelling.

Back in Melbourne, the essence of the solstice seems ever present. The days are short and dim. The morning darkness seems inhumane. The trudge home on the tram – dark, wet and late. Part jet lag and post holiday inertia, part winter – all I want to do is get horizontal and sleep. The hot water bottle has become my closest friend. I am having a love affair with my soft bed, the pillows of the perfect thickness and my 400 thread count sheets. Bliss.

I arrive back to Australia to one of the weirdest government initiatives, which really is quite an achievement with the Howard government’s litany of ridiculous local and foreign policies. A while ago the issue of sexual abuse of young children in Aboriginal communities got to the point that they couldn’t ignore it any more. So what did they do? Did they go and speak to the elders? Did they consult the communities? No! They got all paternalistic and sent the army in to sort the situation out. With many survivors of the Stolen Generation still alive, some locals took to the hills in fear of further maltreatment. This is a real dark hour in the history of this nation and at this point it seems unlikely that any actual healing will come out of this intervention.

Locally, within the State – flooding, where just months ago there was fire, drought and pestilence has hijacked the news. A man died on the outskirts of Melbourne when an ancient tree crashed onto his home amidst a storm.

In London, the bombers are out and about again.

Let’s just hope that the darkest hour really is just before the dawn.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

paradise lost

Klungkung, Bali. Hall of Justice

“Transport? You want transport? Maybe tomorrow? Where are you from?”

“Hello…What’s your name?..Where are you from?…Where are you staying?…You been to Bali before?”

“Sarong? You want sarong? I give you good price”

“Madame. Bracelet Madame? Special sunset price. Won’t get this price tomorrow”

“Massage? I give you good price! Manicure then, you want manicure?”

Ah - the sounds of Bali/Lombok. Part tropical paradise. Part impoverished nation. Other than those who were trying to hawk their wares, we did talk to many locals typically men in their late 20’s all desperately trying to leave the country. One was searching for a German woman to help him escape, another wished to find a way to Australia – hoping to attract a sponsor (as he already had a wife and child, the girlfriend/marriage route was less likely). There were many stories of families with “special friends” in Australia – donating money to educate their children or kick start their business. We heard of the heady days of Kuta at its hedonistic heights and the drug addictions fuelled by tips from the generous tourists, of the big Yuba (crystal meth) problem (especially on Lombok).

When you are a tourist in a foreign land, especially somewhere like Bali, you are as much a part of the problem as you are of the solution. For years Aussies flocked to their favourite tropical island for package holidays. Two bombs and one "stupid, dumb bitch" later (quote a local Western business owner about Ms Corby, who for the record actually is guilty) once thriving resorts have turned into virtual ghost towns.

We had a holiday in 2 parts – the first essentially backpacking with no fixed destination, staying in cheap rooms, off the usual Aussie tourist route. The second was in the tourist Meccas of Ubud and Legian – both in their own ways a take on "Disneyworld Bali". The Bali shaped strongly by the type of tourists they attract.

In Pandangbai, there were desperate street sellers, mostly women and children. A pervasive veneer of sadness and poverty. Children basically ran the virtually empty accommodation strip, featuring identical down at heal rice barn style (lumbung) rooms at $5/night (including breakfast for 2).

In Gili Air there were few children, most of the hawkers caught the boat over from mainland Lombok each day to sell bangles and necklaces to the predominantly German, Dutch and French tourists seeking some beachside relaxation or diving. A small island with only your own two feet or pony carts for transport, food that was uniformly delicious and a gentle, quiet vibe.

Ubud was an odd culture shock after the quiet eastern shores. The streets thronged with visitors, many shops were up market and air conditioned, the cost of a room could rise to many hundreds of US dollars a night. There were even restaurants, real ones, not just run down warungs, with publicity that boasted reviews from London newspapers. There were masses of cashed up Americans and Japanese staying in luxury resorts. In organic juice bars, bright eyed young men and women of many nationalities flocked for yoga classes and even study groups of “The Secret”. I suspect they followed their juice with an enema.

But even in the midst of that, there were late afternoon soccer matches, volunteer teaches (and many other professions) in residence working for no wages and some real Balinese food in out of the way places.

Indonesia is surely a land of contrast and Bali even more so.

Now, after a couple of days of chilly weather, rain, work routines and alarm clocks going off at inhumane times I try to reflect on my couple of weeks in paradise. I am left with two distinct feelings. The first – a belief that as tourists, we can be both saints and sinners, architects of a monster. The second – of utter relaxation!

Here’s all the good stuff: snorkelling at the Gili’s just metres away from turtles and the technicolour fish life, lying in the shade eating breakfast looking out across a turquoise sea, eating delicious food for next to nothing, meeting many fascinating people from near and far, learning a little about Balinese cooking, swimming most days, totally chilling out, looking up at the universe at night, living without an agenda for a while.


sunset in Sanur, Bali

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

not quite lost in transit

KL airport may have won a number of awards, if you believe everything you read on promotional banners, but it is not the most exciting place to have a repeat multi hour stop over in a couple of weeks.

Just getting a little refreshment before heading home. It has been a delightful time of gado gado, cheap massages, snorkling, lazing and a little bit of culture thrown in for good measure.

As sunset nears in my transit lounge - I'll leave you this as a momento.

Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia

PS: Travel tip: Fly direct...really even if it's a couple of hundred dollars more. Indonesia via Malaysia with a 5 hour stop over is a really dumb idea.
PPS:Now how do I deal with Melbourne with a climate in single digits in the morning?

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

the sun beckons

While I have been fermenting a post for days about Howards dubious idea about the country going nuclear (safety issues aside, we are in a drought, what's the cooling towers going to run on? dust?), feeling like wretching whenever I hear soundbites from Rudd or his mate the one who sold out from The Oils and have not recovered from seeing "Deliver us from evil" ramping up the invective I shout at any Catholics who cross my path....I have diagnosed myself in serious need of a holiday.

The cat sitter is locked in, work has been rearranged and the legs are freshly waxed in anticipation of tropical days of sunshine and sea. Just one more sleep or so!

I'll be back in a the meantime just talk amongst yourselves or play lucky dip with past posts to remember when this ranter used to take hours crafting a piece about politics and other such lefty ideas (and still they are riddled with grammatical errors and typos).

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

trust us, we're a drug company

Drug companies. What's not to like? The history of the pharmaceutical industry has a past almost as murky as it present. I'm not talking about creating diseases because they've concocted new treatments (statin drugs come to mind, sure hypercholesterol can cause heart attacks and strokes, but being on the drug gives a false sense of securiy as to your longevity) but their habit of testing new pharmaceutical marvels on vulnerable communities. Beyond bunnies, it's a habit of these companies to target under privileged nations and see just how many people it may kill or maim.

The history of the oral contraceptive ("birth control pill") is a classic example of imperialism. It was tested in Haiti and Puerto Rico, where the company took little interest in young women who died of embolisms. It wasn't til nice middle class white women began to fall that their target patients actually stood up and questioned the safety of the drug.

Pfizer, one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies, has been at it again, this time in Nigeria.

Nigeria sues Pfizer for $8bn over kids' deaths


ABUJA: Nigeria has filed a lawsuit for $US7 billion ($8.4billion) in damages from Pfizer over a drug test in which about 200 children were either killed or deformed, court officials in Abuja said yesterday.

The federal Government suit says the children suffered various degrees of adverse effects ranging from deafness to muteness, brain damage, paralysis, loss of sight and slurred speech, while 11 died.

The federal action follows a similar suit filed last month by Kano, Nigeria's largest state, which is seeking $US2.75billion ($3.3 billion) from the pharmaceutical giant.

Both lawsuits centre around the events of April 1996, when the World Health Organisation and Pfizer volunteered to help in Kano following an outbreak of a number of diseases that killed more than 3000 people.

The Kano state suit alleges that Pfizer treated 100 meningitis-infected children in the state with an experimental antibiotic, Trovan. A further 100 children, who were control patients in the study, received an approved antibiotic, ceftriaxone - but the dose was lower than recommended, the families' lawyers allege.

The federal lawsuit echoes those charges. "Pfizer devised a scheme under which it misrepresented and failed to disclose its primary motive in seeking to participate in giving care to the victims of the epidemic," it alleges. "Pfizer never disclosed that it intended to experiment on vulnerable victims or conduct any clinical trials without the necessary approvals from regulatory agencies in Nigeria but pretended it came to render humanitarian service."

The case was adjourned till June 26 for hearing.

In a statement released in response to the Kano state lawsuit last week, Pfizer denied the charges against it.

"The 1996 Trovan clinical study was conducted with the full knowledge of the Nigerian Government and in a responsible and ethical way consistent with the company's abiding commitment to patient safety," said the statement. "Any allegations in these lawsuits to the contrary are simply untrue - they weren't valid when they were first raised years ago and they're not valid today."

The Kano case and a related criminal action against Pfizer officers were both postponed on Monday after the plaintiff's counsel failed to show up for the initial court hearing.

The judge hearing the case said criminal proceedings lodged against company officers would begin on July 4, while a related civil case seeking the monetary damages was to begin on July 9.

State and company officials were not available for comment. Nigeria's Government is in disarray after the May 29 inauguration of new governors, state assemblies and elected federal officers, including a new president.

In the Abuja civil case, the Government is asking for $US500 million for treatment, compensation and support for the victims of the drug test and their families. Another $US450 million is earmarked for damages related to money spent to overcome societal misgivings related to the test, and $US1 billion to pay for health programs. The federal Government is also seeking $US5billion as general damages.


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Sunday, June 03, 2007

the other USA

In the last year of the previous millennium I went to the USA for the first time. Though I flew into LA, it was hardly the Disneyland trip. In fact all I saw of that city was a blur as I was catapulted in a small Korean car at over 100mph. Someone said to me afterwards “What? You didn’t even go to Universal Studios?”

That journey took me to a town a few hours out of LA, a place where B-Grade actors retire, or go to spas to detox. But most of my time was spent in Oregon, almost every part of the state – from coast, to desert and mountains, except the capital.

I found my erratic journal of those weeks. The notes I took make me smile.

“Eugene: pop 100,000 – 6 wholefood/health food stores (that actually sell food!)

Williams (Sth Oregon): pop 100 – local store sells organic beer and veges, as well as Rice Cream ice creams.”

It was berry season. I ate not just black and raspberries picked straight from the vine but huckleberries and wild strawberries foraged in woods.

I ate no takeaways other than the exceptional organic salads and hot dishes from the aforementioned health food stores. Though an English friend, resident in the USA, insisted in taking me to a diner to make me understand that the average American didn’t live on vegan delights or get tofu dishes at their local Mexican restaurant.

Always a great fan of breakfast, I fell in love with ‘home fries’ with my scrambled tofu. I ate the best pancakes of my life, with whipped butter, maple syrup and walnuts. I learnt how important it was to ask for a half order of breakfast, so as not to leave the country too large to fit in the airplane seat.

I did not watch television or see a newspaper. I listened to the news of NPR a couple of times and caught up via the internet periodically when I wasn’t camping in the woods.

I slept on a child’s bed in a nice middle class suburb, a structurally unstable mezzanine with a lumpy mattress, in a luxurious ‘guest house’ attached to a millionaires home that could sleep at least 30, in a sleeping bag on rocks in a meadow, in a greenhouse in a desert and lastly a comfortable sofa bed in a quiet home in the middle of an orange orchard.

I camped on a mountain, with pockets of ice that hadn’t melted despite the warm summer days. Though I was told to be aware of bears, whose home we shared, those I was with were too superstitious to talk about them – so wouldn’t tell a girl from the Southern Hemisphere exactly what you do in their presence. There were also mountain cat stories – I never got it straight – one animal you looked directly at, the other you should never make eye contact with. Fortunately I never met either but secretly I hankered to be in the presence of such powerful creatures. In both States I encountered rattlesnakes. For a person phobic about snakes I had an extraordinary encounter with a rattler while meditating on a Mesa that was life changing. I learnt about beavers and elks, and lost my innocence about gophers – no longer a cute cartoon character once you’ve seen the havoc they cause in a garden.

While my internal compass had lost any sense of direction, I sat in on a talk on mountain survival skills. I picked wild sagebush to make smudging sticks. I got initiated around a campfire into the joys of s’mores. I sang to the moon. I watched the night blooming cactus flower (it only happens one evening a year). People actually paid money to hear me talk, in the backroom of a bookstore.

But most of all I met extraordinary people.

An etheric, beautiful man raised in a Californian commune, who was most at home camping in the woods.

His then girlfriend, a young, astute and intelligent creature who plucked me from the all male environment I was staying in and offered to take me to the coast one day, picking up quite rightly that I was in need of some female company.

Not one but two barefoot millionaires. Guys in their early 50’s who’d made a fortune but lived amongst nature in the middle of nowhere. Both of them cooked me salad. Both offered me more drugs than I could poke a stick at (including hash from Amsterdam that had been illegal imported in the intimate confines of a girlfriend’s body) – which I declined. I found the situations I was in surreal enough without any chemical help. One was a washed out, once famous musician, his lounge plastered with gold records. The other made his living being a hippy.

An edgy woman, with homemade tattoos, who talked of riding the freight trains and the community of other illegal travellers she met.

An extraordinary older couple, her with purple hair and a sunny disposition, him a grumpy old bugger who’d retired to a remote meadow and discovered nudity. He even drove us nude to the local store to get ice creams, they knew him there and would serve him so he never got out from behind the wheel.

I reacquainted myself with a colleague who was serene and honest. I wrote of her “..we could be sisters. But she is much better at being nice than me”.

I was humbled by the natural beauty and the equally as awesome people. My preconceptions of the nation were of brash puritans, but I met divine mavericks. I was overwhelmed with their generosity. Not a single one voted for Bush. Few I have kept in contact with but each one left an indelible impression on me.

I’m well overdue a return visit to that vast country. Do you think a trip to New York would be just the same?

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its never to late to tell mum you love her

Brochure from a local hardware chain New Zealand, early May (not the best pic but it just keeps begging to be posted).

“For the unrepentant smoker

Coughing Lung Ashtray

Each time Mum puts down her cigarette the ashtray coughs and splutters to remind her how bad smoking is for her health”

Coughing Lung Ashtray - $11.90 (excludes batteries)

Telling Mum you love her - priceless
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