Tag Archives: the sun-herald

Harrassed by hawkers at Angkor Wat

Perched on a temple in Angkor, Cambodia, I paused for a moment to adjust my camera’s settings. It was peaceful up here, not a tourist in sight. When I’d told my motorbike driver I wanted to see everything, he hadn’t believed me. Halfway into day three and he was starting to get the picture.

Speaking of pictures, I needed to change film. Sitting down to open the back of my camera I heard a high-pitched, “Mister! Mister!” A tiny little girl was jumping up and down, waving her five-for-a-dollar scarves at me. I already had 20 of the things.

“Mister! Mister! Mister! You want batteries?”

Before I could respond she came flying up the side of the temple. These junior hawkers aren’t allowed to solicit business on the sacred monuments but somehow she’d taken my panicked, planes-are-landing refusal gestures as a yes. I fled down the other side of the temple, hopping down the steep tiers with a six-year-old in hot pursuit. A toothless monk cackled as I passed; it was like a scene from Tomb Raider.

I know I could have just said no, but these kids were professionals and I was a big sucker. They knew it, I knew it and my dwindling supply of US dollars (they weren’t interested in the Cambodian kind) proved it. The day before I’d fallen for the old let-me-show-you-around trick and later that day had found myself trying to outrun a one-legged man because I had no money left to give.

I leapt on the back of the bike shouting, “Go, go, go!” at the rider. The ride to my last temple was hot and dusty and when we arrived I was desperate for a drink from an abandoned-looking shack.

I’d barely sat down when a young boy appeared looking forlorn beside me. “Scarf, lady? Where you from? Flute?” I somehow managed to decline and he planted himself opposite, examining me.

“You buy me a Coke.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

He beamed at me with a good-natured smile. He was a stunning child with a grin that would do a Hollywood dentist proud.

“You have beautiful teeth,” I told him. “I don’t want to ruin them. I’ll buy you a water. Deal?”

“Deal.”

He spoke eight languages, yet had never been to school. His family had come from the south to Siem Reap for the tourist dollar.

He ran off to tell my driver where to take me for dinner that night and when he came back I was scribbling in my diary. I looked up and he gave me the huge smile, then chomped on the piece of sugar cane in his hand. So much for his teeth.

“Can I take your picture?” I asked. He posed for me, sugar cane in fist, but my camera wouldn’t work. I fiddled with the buttons, checked the film was loaded properly. My new friend looked at the camera, then asked, “Lady, you want battery?”

“Yes,” I told him, “I want battery.”

Assault & Battery, The Sun-Herald, November 13, 2008

 

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A fight where the bulls win every time

I MET a girl once who had been trampled by a bull at Pamplona’s San Fermin festival. As she proudly showed me the nasty grazes from the beast’s hooves, I thought: it’s just not for me. The idea of running in front of a one-tonne, panicky bull just doesn’t appeal.

So it was with much relief that I found myself high above the makeshift arena in Bayonne, watching the daily highlight of the annual fete. In the sand-covered car park below, the crowd of young men steadily grew. This was the Basque region of France and the whole town was decked out in Pamplona-esque white outfits, with red sashes around their necks and waists. The oversized red beret and half-drunk bottle of red was a nice French touch as a fearless bloke prepared to take on some angry beast. He and the brave youths of the region linked arms to form a human corridor into which the beast was released.

As this is the gentler, French side of the region, the opponent was a small cow – albeit one with long, sharp horns. A crowd formed around her and she waited for a moment, assessing the situation, then put her head down and charged, scattering the men like seagulls. The crowd cheered wildly when one of the participants managed to cling onto the cow’s back for a few seconds, then sucked in with collective sympathy as another was trapped beneath her digging horns. For the most part, the animal charged and the men ran; not so much the running of the bulls as the chasing of the cow.

All Hail the Lord of the Ring, The Sun-Herald, April 1, 2007

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Surf camp in WA’s wine region

‘Right there,’ said Blair, ‘that’s your sweet spot.’ The last guy who said that to me got slapped, but this was different. I was head to toe in neoprene, prone on an eight-foot piece of foam, toes dangling over its edge.

The sweet spot – it’s where you should be positioned on the board to catch a wave. This was the first thing we learnt at Redgate Beach on that beautiful Monday morning. As we paddled the sand and practised our pop-ups, I knew I wasn’t the only one wondering what on earth I was doing there. Oh well, it beat being in the office.

Along with seven others, I was spending five days learning to ‘carve it up’ in the glorious Margaret River region of WA. Surfing is one of those things I always thought I should try but knew I was too much of a wuss to commit myself to anything. What’s to be scared of, you might ask? To which I reply: sharks, rips, dumpers, drowning, rocks, seaweed, concussion and now stingrays.

You see, I’m not the bravest of people. On the group’s first night together, we were asked to share the most adventurous experience we’d ever had. ‘This,’ I’d squeaked, then confessed that my adventurous streak had less momentum than Shane Warne on a hot day.

The Beauty of Learning to Carve it Up, The Sun-Herald, January 14, 2007

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Say hello to South Korea’s capital

It may be children’s day but the young boy looks very serious as an assistant dresses him in a heavy orange robe. His father is sitting nearby, being fitted with fake facial hair and his sister is dressed already, swathed in a red and green hanbok with gold embellishment. A female assistant in jeans delicately balances a hairpiece on the girl’s head and pins it in place. The young Korean boy can hear the drums coming from the entrance to Gyeonghee Palace and is no doubt wondering when this torture will end and he can go watch the taekwondo display.

In front of the palace, a crowd has gathered to watch a farmers’ dance in which participants leap around a square, defy dizziness by spinning long white ribbons attached to their hats while playing traditional percussion instruments. Their maroon smocks with yellow, red and blue detail reflect the colours of the ancient buildings behind them. More drummers follow; young men and women beat out a heart-pounding rhythm.

Meanwhile, the taekwondo experts are limbering up for a breathtaking display set to the theme music from Pirates Of The Caribbean. For a nation that has survived 900 invasions over its 5000-year history, physical strength is important and this sport is hugely popular. Pollen floats through the air as boys, girls, men and women line up to spin through the air and kick apples from knives, or smash concrete with bare hands.

Life in Seoul, The Sun-Herald, April 13, 2008

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Up close and personal in PNG

‘The villagers want to know why you came here. They think you must be bigmen from your villages,’ our guide explained. ‘Are you bigmen?’

No, we most certainly weren’t. We felt far from big at that moment, mud stains up to our knees, sweaty, sunburnt and humbled by the hospitality we’d received at this village deep in the Nebilyer Valley.

The day before we’d arrived at Haus Poroman near Mount Hagen, capital of Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands province and stood on the edge of the lodge property, looking over the prehistoric valley, half expecting a pterodactyl to screech past. We’d be sleeping somewhere down there the next night.

I’ve been on cultural tours before. In places like Thailand and Morocco these ‘village experiences’ have a staged feel, with conveniently-placed snake charmers and kids that charge you five baht to take their picture. But this was the highlands of PNG, where there’s little tourism. The beaten track, if you could call it that, was a long way from here.

Meet the Neighbours, The Sun-Herald, March 4, 2007

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Escaping a guided tour in Morocco

I DON’T usually do guided tours, but it was just an extra EUR6 ($10) on top of the return catamaran trip. That’s a pretty good deal. So we booked onto our Magical Moroccan Mystery Tour departing from Spain’s southernmost point and prepared for a day of socks, sandals and inane questions from the rest of the group. We might not get to see the “real” Morocco, but at least we’d get lunch, we concurred.

On arrival at the port in Tangier, our tour guide identified us from all the other guides’ charges by the coloured stickers we’d been issued with in Tarifa. For an organised tour, they weren’t very organised and the hundred or so tourists baked on the bitumen while the guides argued about which bus belonged to which group. We learnt quickly to shout “English speakers” to any of the robed men who approached.

Eventually, we were crammed onto a plush coach with Spanish, German and French speakers and taken into the hills to admire the walled homes of wealthy Tangier. We regrouped by the road where a tired fleet of camels lifted heavy men and squealing children up for a photo, then down, ready for the next. We were still operating in euros and it was one for a ride.

Bussed back down to the kasbah, we happened upon some musicians charming a snake from a wicker basket and in a tiled courtyard two dancers were spinning in brilliant blue robes. Lunch was what you’d expect from a North African meal: couscous, shish kebab, chickpeas and harissa served with mint tea and baklava to finish, and an ear-piercing band for atmosphere. Vacating our table for the next group, we did whistlestop tours of a pharmacy and a carpet shop where a 10-minute talk preceded a 15-minute shopping allowance.

Racing through the kasbah from one attraction to the next, my partner and I were in hysterics. Our eyes were fixed on the baseball cap held aloft by our guide, and we were aware of ancient walls and intricate alleys, stunning mosaic tiles, palm trees and arches. In the market we stopped to buy olives while the group rushed on.

That’s all it took; we were lost, left behind in the warren of alleys, with no language or local currency. Rather than panic, we took it all in. The piles of dates, the colourful textiles and foreign smells. We saw a communal bread oven and a shop filled floor to ceiling with watermelons.

After a few minutes, a grinning old man in a fez tapped my travelling partner’s shoulder and pointed down an alley. At the next junction, a young woman giggled and hid her face, pointing left. And so it went, a pair of tourists loose in the kasbah were ushered through the maze and returned to the fold.

When we joined our group in an antiques store, no one noticed we’d been missing. It occurred to me that, in fact, it was they who had missed out.

Looking for Guidance? Get Lost, The Sun-Herald, March 25, 2007

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A wild windy tale from Tarifa

 

There’s no denying the beauty of Europe’s biggest wind farm. Sleek and majestically aloof, scores of windmills dotting the hills above Tarifa, Spain’s southernmost point, turn their heads to face Africa. It’s only 9am, but already the mighty structures are beating out a circular rhythm. You’d expect them to make some kind of noise – a hum or a whir – but there’s nothing save the whistling of the Levante.

After the dreary, cheap sameness of the Costa del Sol, it’s a great relief to be in the lesser touristed Costa de la Luz. Even the big, new road that traverses the southern coast, paid for by British pounds that pour in to Andalucia by way of package-tour holidaymakers, has petered out. The now narrow road climbs into the hills leaving the stretch of white stuccoed villas, fish’n’chip shops and crowded beaches behind and giving prime views of Gibraltar’s Rock and the straits that separate Europe from Africa. On a clear day, as we’re repeatedly told, you can make out the white pillbox houses on the Moroccan coast, but with this wind, the view of Tangiers is a murky haze of heat and dust.

Where the Wind Blows, The Sun-Herald, June 10, 2007

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