In “Snippets” I extracted some stories from books I had read. They were about people in unusual circumstances. I do the same here with some stories from my own experiences.
Peter told me he wanted adventure. I knew him from the main office of the mining company in Melbourne. Somehow he had got a paid trip, for a week or so, to Bougainville, to see the operation of the mine. By chance, his trip coincided with two public holidays in PNG. So we had four days to do something and so I asked around and there was a tramp ship going to some of the outer islands to collect the copra. It went every couple of months. This was the main income for these smaller islands and, as every island was covered with coconut trees, it was just a matter of husking and breaking the coconuts and putting the meat in hessian sacks. A small crane on the ship then hoisted these sacks into the hull.
Copra collecting produced only slim profits so the ships used were often near the end of their working life. On this ship we were to sleep for four nights. There were several other local passengers as this was the main form of transport between islands. We put our gear in the two-bed cabin and the captain looked with a smile at the box of food we brought but said nothing. No meals were served and you had to look after yourself. Transporting copra has its disadvantages in that the population of cockroaches on these ships was always enormous. As the ship had been empty for more than a week now, they were all starving. It was hot and humid below decks, the beds were uncomfortable and ship rolled excessively so we slept badly. As well, there was a type of rustling that we couldn’t place. In the morning we found that plastic bags holding bread and spaghetti and other foods were no obstacle to the cockroaches and all was gone except for the canned food. Fortunately, we did not feel like eating.
Our first stop was the Tasman Islands where we arrived in the morning. We found the gap in the reef and anchored. The main island was a typical coral island with white beaches all around. It was covered in coconut trees and all the huts were made from the thatched leaves of the coconut trees. There were lesser islands like a string of pearls in a half circle. While the loading was going on we were free to roam. The Tasman islanders were of Polynesian origin and their language was close to the Samoan language. We were told there were about a thousand people living there. The arrival of the ship was the reason for a dance to which we were invited. This was the adventure that Peter was hoping for and he was enjoying every minute. However, as dusk fell and the dancing started the men and women were separated. Peter and I were led to where the men were. There was an islander here who worked at the mine and although I did not know him this connection brought us together. I asked why the separation of dancers and was told that the worst thing that that can happen to a young man was to see the menstruation blood of his sister. I told him that we wanted to see both dances and that I had no sisters here. Later we had a discussion about the religious beliefs of the Tasman Islanders. Of course Christianity came but they still kept most of their old beliefs.
Next was the Mortlock Islands (Takuu atoll). It had only half the number of people as the Tasman Islands. There was an anthropologist living there, a long time resident, who was working on their language and habits. I think he was from New Zealand. We had a chat and he was desperate for any newspapers. We had been told before leaving to take some and with these he seemed delighted. He had had no outside news for months so he buried himself in them.
We wandered around and the girls and young women of the island took a great interest in us. They wore only a short grass skirt that seemed to get shorter as the day went on. We were both only twenty seven years old. Like the Tasman islanders, these Mortlock islanders were also of Polynesian origin. Their wood carvings reminded me of similar ones I had seen in New Zealand. There were no toilets on the island but of the many beaches one was nominated as a toilet and people just wandered out and squatted in a few centimetres of water and used the same water for washing. I suppose that when you have a tiny population in a vast ocean, pollution does not matter.
We stayed two days here and were shown seven ways to cook the flesh of the coconut. One unusual method was to allow the coconut to go to seed where all the white meat was absorbed and the shell now contained a ball filling the whole coconut. This was then dried and ground into flour. The other main part of their diet was fish. They also grew a few vegetables and had a few paw paws. With the money they got from selling coconuts they bought other foods, mainly rice.
The ship was now full of copra and so it was time to return to Bougainville. This was about two hundred kilometres away and would take the whole night. We tried to get some sleep but in the middle of the night the boat slowed and there were people running about on deck. We went upstairs to investigate. We had gone over a “long line”. These lines were kilometres long and this method was an illegal fishing method. The captain, a weathered New Guinean, said that by looking at the line it seemed Taiwanese. As no light could be seen in any direction I suppose the captain decided that it was an opportunity to make some money. As it was only a few hours to Bougainville any fish caught would still be in good condition when we arrived. The captain cut the line and the crew started hauling one of the halves. Every ten metres there was a hook and on some were huge tuna. Three tuna were soon landed and one must have been over a hundred kilos. It took four crew with gaffs to get it in.
Then all of a sudden a large searchlight came on a kilometre away. It seems the tables were turned and the Taiwanese ship had its lights off stalking us whereas our ship was brilliantly lit. The captain panicked. He knew these illegal fishing ships carried guns and could fire upon him. Now we turned off all the ship’s lights and steered by the white crests of the waves. The searchlight was going in all directions trying to find us. I admired the skill of the captain who seemed to be able to take the ship along the troughs of the waves and I wondered if he had done this before. In the early morning light as we approached Bougainville I asked why he had not contacted a navy gunboat and he said that the nearest was in Lae some thousand kilometres away and others were being repaired. He said that in these vast oceans you are on your own.
The next day when I saw Peter off he told me that he has had enough adventure for a while and would be glad to get back to Melbourne.
The coral reef surrounding the island was broken in a few places allowing ships into the lagoon. One channel was more than a hundred metres wide and through it rushed a strong current. It was impossible to swim against and anyway there was nowhere to anchor the boat as it far too deep. The answer was a drift dive where a white marker was lowered from a boat and both boat and diver travelled at the same speed as the current. The idea was not to get too far from the marker, sit in the water at about twenty metres depth, and enjoy the hour or so that we had marked for this adventure. There is a certain exhilaration of being washed along by a current. Sometimes you might see a marlin or sailfish, a school of tuna, and, as well, the local sharks often came out and investigate. If a shark swims towards you front on it looks like a round disc that gets larger and larger. It’s not attacking but curious and you can be sure that when it is close it will suddenly turn side on and you see its full length. This can be a bit disconcerting at first but as we had all done many dives before we were acclimatised to underwater life in the tropics.
The mine occasionally got visitors from overseas and we had that day Steve from England who was keen to do some dives. On the boat ride out he told us that he had done countless dives and considered himself an expert. He talked about using a “dry” wetsuit where water does not get onto the body and that it was necessary for cold conditions. As Australians, we had never needed to use one. We listened to his stories. Maybe he was educating the colonials. As we got near the channel we started to talk of the dive plan. We said that anyone is free to return to the boat if they feel unwell. It was hard to get a word in. In frustration we told him just to follow us. We slipped over the side of the boat to the white marker. The three of us were about ten metres ahead and after a few minutes I turned around to see where Steve was only to see him hauling himself back into the boat. We had forgotten to tell him about the sharks. We were all grinning on the boat trip back and Steve seemed unusually silent. “That was a short dive Steve!” “I had a headache” he replied.
A favourite night dive was at Robo where there was a constriction between the mainland and a small island and the currents were strong. It was possible to start deep and travel with a current in one direction for twenty or thirty minutes and then for decompression come up to a different current and ride it all the way back. When underwater at night there is no horizon so if you get disorientated there was the risk of being swept out to sea. There was no backup if anything went wrong so we took compasses to guard against this. It was two o’clock in the morning and with no moon it was very dark and still. Joseph watched us disappear quietly into the black sea.
Leaving the landcruiser next to the ocean unattended for an hour or more was an invitation to theft and as security was poor in New Guinea it was necessary to take a guard for protection. Joseph worked at the mine and he was always willing to come with us on the twenty kilometre drive to the coast. He was from the highlands and so normally carried the fifty-centimetre machete. This tool was necessary as the jungle started as soon as you stepped off the road and most locals carried them. He sat in the car while we dived. During the drive we often quizzed him about highland life. He told us of the different tribes, their conflicts and their spiritual beliefs. Of course we were interested in cannibalism. What did it taste like? The last case of cannibalism was in about 1970 but as a child he had eaten human meat. When there was warfare any enemies speared were eaten, why would you waste the meat? I could see sense in his arguments. I met several of his friends and a more trustworthy group of people I could not imagine.
Decades later at a party in Australia I overheard some disparaging remarks about cannibalism and without thinking I interjected with “but some of my best friends were cannibals”. Everyone laughed and of course no one believed me. In 1980 Joseph was over sixty so he would be long dead now, but his memory lives on in me today.
The Mission Station
Buka Luma is a very small island sitting in a channel between big Buka and little Buka and the three constitute Bougainville. The channel between the two Bukas is narrow and the hotel on Buka Luma has in the front a long green lawn which slopes away giving a fine view over the channel. On the grounds sits a zero, the Japanese fighter plane. This hotel has at various times been the administrative centre of Bougainville. Around its walls hang pictures of the original German colonists, then the British administrators that followed, then the Japanese, followed by the Americans, then the Australians, and when I was there Bougainville was governed by Papua and New Guinea. The people who live there belong ethnically to none of the above groups and Bougainville is in fact the northern most island of the Solomon Islands of which it should have been part from the very beginning.
I went to stay at this hotel with three friends from the mine. We hired a boat and snorkeled on some of the zero aeroplanes that were in shallow water around the island. We had dive in the channel where the currents were quite strong. The direction of the current was dependent on the tides. We had the boat follow us as it is a poor dive plan that requires swimming against a current.
After a couple of days we had intended to go on to little Buka to the Catholic Mission there, where it was possible to stay. A small car ferry connected the islands. We phoned earlier and asked if it were possible. Now at the hotel we received the news that the priest was looking forward to our visit. This had us worried. All of us were scientists and so believed in evolution, but we resolved to go anyway. Travelling in Bougainville was hard on cars as the roads were rough and often corrugated and there were frequent river crossings. The jungle quickly reclaimed any clearing and in the coconut plantations constant slashing was necessary. But when we arrived at the Mission the grounds were immaculate. Well kept lawns separated the buildings. Here nature was tamed.
The jovial priest rushed towards us and beckoned us to the veranda of his house. Here we sat on comfortable lounge chairs made more comfortable when a few bottles of beer were produced. We spent a pleasant day there, leaving the next morning. We talked about politics, history, and almost everything except religion. The priest was the only European there and what he really wanted from us was good conversation. It made us realise how difficult it must be to go to far outposts where the way of life is so different from one’s upbringing. I got the feeling that he saw his life slipping away.
Bougainville is on a fault line and has about four hundred earthquakes a year. Most of these are small but there is the occasional large one. The buildings at the mine are all made to withstand them. Next to the mine is a volcano that emits smoke and sometimes erupts. As the operations of the mine could be affected, a seismologist was employed and part of his job included the processing of data from several recording stations.
To check these stations it was necessary to visit and read the data. A technician was sent in the mine helicopter, and, with the pilot, this left two spare seats. Of course everyone wanted to go as a break from work. Of particular demand was a trip to a small island that was almost entirely covered with coconut trees. On this island the old colonial house, originally German, was set next to the sea and the background noise was only the quite lapping of waves. The tropical gardens that surrounded it were filled with colourful hibiscus and the presence of these flowers meant that butterflies were plentiful. A large veranda on the second floor overlooked the garden and sea. The Australian owner, living by himself, enjoyed these visits from the mine and I suppose he was always wondering who it would be in the two extra seats. The pilot led us up the stairs to the comfortable lounge chairs on the veranda. It was handshakes all round and then we were invited to afternoon tea. The owner explained that his cook had left and that he had employed a new one. As we were pouring the tea a large chocolate cake was brought out by a young Bougainvillian woman and placed on the low table in front of us. Her youth and beauty together with the warm and moist and cake turned a simple tea into a highlight. For a brief moment in time I was removed from everything that was happening in the mine.
Two hours later I was back at the busy office sweating over mathematical calculations. Single events of such contrast often lead to much reflection.
The Shell Collector
Moving to a country of such contrast is, for most people, exciting. Many took up diving and as the mine provided a club building and an air compressor from which we could fill our tanks at leisure. By subsidising the cost of this sport, as well as many other activities, the mine hoped people would stay longer. Their thinking was along the lines that happy people will make better workers.
One such person moving from was Australia was Paul, an engineer. He enrolled in a diving course (two people working in the mine were instructors) and in a matter of weeks was a qualified diver. Collecting is natural and I suppose in our evolutionary past storing food against hard times increased the chance of survival. Many divers collected shells with this desire varying in strength from the fanatic to the disinterested. At first almost any shell was collected but the common shells came quickly and after a few months these were ignored and it was only the rare and hard to find shells that were sought.
The two main groups of shells were cowries and cones. A book “Guide to Shells of Papua and New Guinea” by Alan Hinton lists ninety-two different species of cowries and one hundred and fifty-six different cones. Many people had a copy of this book and as a collection was made the shells were ticked off. I suppose it was similar to collecting stamps. A page of twenty stamps from an issue with gaps where one or two are missing is never as satisfying as a complete set.
Years went by and Paul had amassed a reasonable collection. One of the rare cone shells was Conus aculeiformis and Paul asked me if I had seen it. It was a rather small brown shell of about two centimetres long. Few people would look twice at this uninteresting shell but when needed to complete a set it was an object of great interest. He was desperate to add it to his collection. I told him I had got some in a valley between two islands but it was forty metres deep and that if we dived there we would only have ten minutes because of the necessary decompression. This decompression consisted of another thirty minutes going up a sandy slope to the shore.
He agreed and so we set off at midnight on a moonless night. We had large torches and the water was fairly clear. When we arrived we began to search in earnest. There were some beautiful vexillum compression and vexillum taeniatum shells, much nicer than the cone shell we sought. ( I add a picture of the two vexillums we collected on this dive, as well as two variations of Conus aculeiformis.) Just as the ten minutes finished we found the cone shell we were looking for. I did not need to look at Paul to know how excited he was.
While we were looking for the shell we realised that we had company. A large shark, about twice our length, seemed to be taking an great interest in us. It was about three metres away and circling. In our obsession to find the cone shell we had completely forgotten to keep a look out. It was the strangest looking thing I had ever seen. It had a bell shaped head but it was not a hammerhead because the large eye was on the body and not the stalk. This eye was going around and around examining us. We must have looked very strange to it, especially with lights going in all directions, and particularly in its direction. It was probably just curious. We thought it should be curious somewhere else and slowly went up the sand bank in the direction of the shore. We kept looking behind us and it followed for a short distance but then turned and disappeared into the depths.
When we got to the shore we were both still shaking a little. “Well, at least you found your shell” I said to Paul. “Shell?” he replied. He had completely forgotten about it. After searching his pockets he realised that it must have been dropped when the shark arrived. I had to give him one from my collection. Despite searching countless books on sharks we never found the species we observed that night.
The Swiss Cheese
I couldn’t get rid of him. I had just walked through the gate of the Tokyo zoo and there was a group of people on my right all with large white tags attached. One split off and joined me and said that he was “assigned” to me. This group of retired Japanese was learning English. What better way than to attach to an English speaking person and spend a few hours in conversation? I told him that I had expected to wander the zoo in peace and contemplation and that he should choose someone else. I said something about consent. Here I ran into my first problem. His English was so bad that he did not appear to understand me. Well alright, I’ll just wander off and he won’t last. Past the giraffes and then the bison, we came to the crocodile enclosure. All the time, one question after another. What work did I do, where did I live, was I married, and so on? He held a sheet of paper so I assume that they were given a list of questions to help them in conversation. The crocodile enclosure was made like a Swiss cheese of eight triangular divisions. Each enclosure held one crocodile. There were a couple of small ones, then a caiman from Paraguay, and then… what! The whole triangle seemed filled with a giant Australian saltwater crocodile. It must have been over five metres long and it could not lie fully stretched and could turn around only with difficulty. It must have been put in there when small and had grown and grown. Now, I have no warm feelings towards these animals who manage to kill a few people every year back home but it was a bad look for the zoo all the same. I suggested to my companion that it was time for a new enclosure as some people might see a small pen for a large animal as cruel. He looked from the crocodile to me and back again several times. I could see from his expression he had no idea what I was talking about. I had just spent the most frustrating 30 minutes of my life and had another three hours to go. Several “go aways” with hand gestures had no effect. A person has rights. Now at school I was good at running and a hundred meter burst did the trick. I looked back and saw his small figure still rooted to the same spot next to the crocodile pen. Now, I actually felt guilty, and that I was the cruel person! This incident occurred in 1989 and I assume there is by now a new crocodile enclosure.
At the end of high school, two good friends of mine, realising that we had not yet been out of Australia, decided on a trip New Zealand. This was a close country and an easy introduction to travel. It was 1972 and we only needed our driver’s licence as identification at the airport. As the driving age was sixteen we all had had our licences for over a year.
Having little money we travelled by hitchhiking and despite being three people more or less stepped from one car to another. People were very friendly. For accommodation we used backpackers hostels and as a backup we took a tent. We landed in Auckland and left from Christchurch. New Zealand was not too different from Australia until we got to Rotorua where steam issued from the cracked footpaths. It is a town sitting on geothermal activity with bubbling mud pools and a geyser at one end that erupted every few minutes. We went to see it and the water was boiling. Around this geyser were pools and, being Australian, we tested them with the intention of going for a swim. The pools further from the geyser were cooler and there was one about twenty metres away that seemed alright and so we had a very pleasant swim. We had forgotten to bring our bathers but this was not a problem.
Almost two decades later I was again in Rotorua and while anyone could walk up to the geyser for a small fee, the pools had large signs saying “extreme danger”. I was looking rather forlorn at my pool when a ranger approached and assured me that if anyone fell in, there would be no chance of survival. A nice hotel had been built on a hill overlooking the geyser where you could have tea and scones. Again, a further fifteen years later I was in Rotorua. Now for a larger fee you could visit the geyser and all the surrounding pools. The signs had been removed and fences were in their place. Rather than pay fee I went to the hotel.
But on my last trip to this interesting city, about two years ago, I found that an “authentic” Maori village called “Whakarewarewa” had been built at the entrance to the geyser and through this village and its countless souvenir shops you had to pass to get to the geyser. The company that built the village charged an entry fee of 45 dollars per person and so 90 dollars for a couple. We thought this exorbitant for what was, after all, a natural phenomenon which should be free for all. So we drove up to the hotel but it was closed. “Ok, let’s walk around the back, we can see it from there.” But at exactly the spot between the hotel and the geyser a large fence had been built so nothing could be seen. The company was making sure that no one could see anything without paying.
I suppose if some natural feature of the Earth attracts enough people it will draw the attention of some enterprising person. Most likely this enterprising person will join the local council, gain influence, fence off the attraction and enrich him or herself through entry fees and selling souvenirs. Some people may call this progress but for me this way of thinking erodes the soul and one wonders what the purpose of life is.
The Fisherman’s Story
Above the gnats of Varanasi is the old part of the town where a labyrinth of small alleys seemed to wind their way around almost randomly. Eventually you find your backpackers where you have chosen to stay for a few days. The electricity supply is unreliable and certain to go off just as you are writing your longest email. The accommodation and shops are all shabby and as you enter your room and look around you wonder why you did not spend a bit more and go to a hotel. But this is where the character of Varanasi is, and the fact that all the backpackers are full of foreign tourists is reassuring. It was a cold early morning and I was already thinking of a place for lunch. Some backpackers recommended a fish restaurant close by that was very popular with tourists but first I thought of having a walk along the gnats. I went past the restaurant, which had a good view over the Ganges, then took some steps down to the river where a few people were bathing and where fires were still smoldering from yesterday’s burning of bodies. The ashes would soon be going into the river. A little further on I met a fisherman who seemed to be catching a grey type of fish that looked to me like a catfish. He told me that not all people are burned as it is an expensive process. It is highly regulated with only a certain caste of people being allowed to do the burning. Those who can’t afford it tie rocks to the body and slip it into the river. Turtles and fish devour the bodies with the remains washed eventually out to the ocean. I was surprised at the news and was thinking that by eating the fish at least some protein in the body is better than none. Things were so unusual here that I was prepared to believe anything. I asked him why he eats them. He was surprised and replied: “I don’t eat them, I’m vegetarian”, and with a motion of his head continued “I sell them to the restaurant up there”, indicating the fish restaurant where I had been contemplating lunch.
Visiting a new country is always exciting. The layout of the town, the plazas, art, lifestyle, and markets are all interesting. Countless tourists have done the same before. Listing these facts is suitable for a travel guide but not a story. It is only the rare event that has some psychological or philosophical slant that is worthy of recording. The reader has been moved on in life. A little bit has been added to the understanding of the world. I have been to Poland several times, mostly when it was still a satellite of Russia and while all these travels were exciting for me because they were new, no one else would find them interesting. Except for one trip.
A friend of mine in Essen had a friend in Lublin in the east of Poland. He intended to visit her. She was there on a year’s study leave after high school and before university mainly for the purpose of learning polish. She was working in a nunnery that was attached to a home for old ladies. The nunnery itself was bared to males but this didn’t bother us as we planned simply to enter by the back and sleep on the floor of her room.
He had a Volkswagen scout care that looked like a small military vehicle. On this he had fitted a cover that could be lowered and with the front seats back it was possible to sleep and so we saved the need for a hotel. Booking into a hotel would have been difficult anyway and our visas and other documents would have been thoroughly scrutinised at every stop. As neither of us spoke polish travelling via this method we thought would be easy. Our method would be to go down side roads in the forest between towns, get some sleep, wake with the sun, have breakfast at the first town we pass through, and so on, till we reach Lublin. The distance we needed to travel was over twelve hundred kilometres and this method worked well for a few days until we were about one hundred kilometres from our destination. We were so tired that any forest path would have done at that stage. So down a road we went looking for a spot. There were signs in red along the way which we could not read but thought it had to do with forestry, probably prohibiting the taking of plants and animals, or something similar. We parked between two large rocks, turned the lights off and went to sleep.
We had the top of the car down because of the morning dew but the windows slightly open. My first memory at dawn was that of a machine gun barrel poking through the window. We realised that the red signs along the road were warnings against entering a military zone and that the “two rocks” were tanks. There was a group of excited soldiers around us, no doubt because such an event had never happened before. The situation was made worse because we had a camera under the back window, in full view, with a large telescopic lens. The soldiers ordered us out of the car with waves of their gun barrels. But my friend had great presence of mind and as he got out he quickly locked the car and he put the keys in his pocket. We were then taken to a wooden building of three stories. Here our German and Australian passports were taken from us and we were locked in a prison of thick timbers and bars for about an hour. In the background we heard many doors opening and closing intermingled with excited voices.
We were taken to an office on the ground floor, and being soldiers, we noticed behind a cabinet some calendars with pictures of nude women. What rank the soldiers were I have no idea but the presence of one or two gold stars gave them some authority. Here they tried to interview us in Polish. Getting nowhere we were taken to the second floor. Here the officers had lots of gold stars and as one spoke a little German he tried to interview us to explain our presence. The officers had problems with our story and he could not believe that I spoke no German. My Australian passport was full of visas to many different countries, including America. The pages were flicked through so many times by so many different people that eventually the cover separated from the internal pages and passport began to look quite shabby. They asked about the camera. I could not understand anything so was free to observe the room and noticed another calendar, again with beautiful women, but this time in bikinis.
Frustration all around we were taken to the third story. So far several hours had passed and as there were no more stories to the building we felt we were getting somewhere. A scruffy young looking chap dressed in plain clothes now entered and we guessed from the saluting of the officers with lots of gold that this was someone of importance. He didn’t say who he was but I again noticed a calendar on the wall, this time of oil paintings of beautiful women suitably dressed. I then knew we were in a room where a decision could be made. He spoke English. Our discussion was free flowing like friends at a coffee shop. He asked why my passport cover was separate from the internal sheets. He asked how we knew each other. He asked which hotels we had stayed in (none). And then when we said that our destination was an nunnery in Lublin, he realised the comedy of the situation. What a difference good communication can make.
Back at the car the camera with the large lens was still under the back window. We unlocked the car and continued our journey.
Problems at the Border
I was living in Berlin when a Russian friend invited me to visit her. She was a journalist living in St. Petersburg. There was a Russian train that did the trip from St. Petersburg to Berlin and back and this I decided to catch. The trip took three days. All meals were provided and a stout woman at the end of the carriage kept the samovar boiling if tea was needed in-between meals. Along the way we stopped at small stations where we could walk on the platforms for some exercise. At one of these stops in Belarus the locals were selling cheeses but two Lithuanians I had met on the train advised me not to buy as Chernobyl was close and they thought of the radiation.
It was difficult getting the Russian visa. Normally people went on controlled tours and were not allowed to wander around the country. Unless you went on a tour, it was necessary to get an invitation. As I had worked in mine engineering, she just dropped the “mine” part and put me on the application as an engineer who had come to Russia to look at the manufacture of ball bearings. With this form she sent me I got my visa in Berlin. One of the conditions was that I had to report to a police station when I arrived and that upon exit I was to get the stamp of the ball bearing plant to prove my visit.
All went well. I arrived in St. Petersburg, saw the winter palace with its thousand rooms and huge collection of paintings, ate at many Russian restaurants and clubs, went to parties with her friends, visited some smaller towns around in the country, went to the public sauna, and overall had a very interesting time. The three weeks were nearly over and I was leaving by plane from the St. Petersburg airport to Helsinki. The day before going I said that I had better go to police station and get a stamp and also to the ball baring factory and get another stamp, as I hadn’t yet done either. She replied, “the ball baring factory doesn’t exist, I just made that up! And don’t worry about the police stamp, Moscow is a long way away. You will have no problems at the airport, stop worrying.”
With this reassurance, the next day I presented my passport and was waved through. Only customs to get through now… Thoughts of years in Russian jails were just leaving my mind when I noticed two police officers staring at me. They walked towards me and pulled me out of line. I was panicking inside but was cool on the outside. I had prepared my excuses. They had my luggage, which was another bad sign. After opening it in front of me they pulled out a brass teapot heater that my aunt had given to me to give to my sister in Australia. They were checking for precious artefacts being taken out of Russia. On realising it was modern, they sent me through customs. But I was still relieved when the plane left the runway.
Problems at the Checkpoint
Leaving Dar es Salaam in May, 2007 I caught the ferry to see Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar city. After a few days I met at the hostel a Dutchman who proposed hiring a car and driving around the island. As the island is only 85 kilometres long a day was ample for this. He intended to stop at all the little towns along the way and have a nice lunch at a restaurant he had heard about at the top end. He needed four people for the car and had three. There was an Englishman who wanted to come but he seemed like a difficult character and so we looked for someone more relaxed. Finding no one we asked him to join us. We made our trip and on the way back was a police checkpoint. These checkpoints are all over Africa and normal procedure and in my travels I have never a problem. They check passports to see who is going where. But for the Englishman this was his first trip overseas and he was convinced that the purpose of the stop was to collect “baksheesh”, that is, a bribe. As the young police officer looked through the passports and was just about to pass them back and waive us through, he half rose from the back seat and said to us “I suppose he want baksheesh” and started to open his wallet. Unfortunately, this was loud enough to be overheard by the policeman. He held on to the passports and told us to pull over on the side of the road. The idea of a bribe had never occurred to him but now he was sure something very suspicious was going on. What else was in the car?
As we pulled over, we all in unison, told the Englishman to shut up and stop panicking. I got out of the car and walked back and had a chat to the policeman and after some explanation retrieved the passports. Back in Stone Town we realised that the three of us should have travelled alone without him even if it did cost a bit more in rental costs. What stories he had read about Africa before he came I have no idea.
A few years ago I was leaving the diamond area of Namibia and we were stopped at a checkpoint with the reason given that the police were checking for diamond smugglers. They both checked the car and then the older policeman sent the younger one back, which was very suspicious. He then wanted to check for diamonds in my partner’s handbag. We never took our eyes off him as he counted the euro notes he found there. Whether he expected us to give him one we will never know. But all went well and we continued on our way.
Australia is a long way from Europe and all planes need to stop about halfway to refuel. At these stops it is usually possible to break your journey. With American airlines I have stopped in places like Guam and Hawaii and with Asian airlines places like Bangkok and Singapore. This time I choose an Air Japan flight and stopped in Japan on the way to Europe and Alaska on the way back.
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska although not the capital (Juneau). After a few days in this city I felt it was time to see the countryside. At the backpackers I met an American who, by coincidence, happened to be the consular official in Melbourne who stamped a visa into my passport some months earlier. We hired a car together and set off. The trip was more than a thousand miles but we saw only a tiny part of this vast mainly uninhabited country. Caribou and moose regularly crossed the road. We stopped at a glacier that had nice ice caves but it was closed to the public. A fence surrounded it but in one place it was pushed down a bit where everyone has climbed over. A big sign warned people of the dangers of walking on the ice. But this type of sign is common in Australia and is really only for insurance purposes. If anything happens the government will deny liability. I climbed over but the American would not. I said, “give me half an hour and I will be back”. It was summer and I was wearing thongs but most glaciers have stones embedded in the ice so it is more like walking on gravel road than slippery ice. Back at the hostel in Anchorage a few days later the American said to me “it was a great trip, but I regret not climbing on the glacier, I may never have another chance.” Life is short and we must take the opportunities that are presented to us. We never met again.
Emily and the Green Tea
I was living on a small community at the central coast of Queensland when a woman rented a house that had just become vacant. As she was new to the community she wanted to meet some of the people living there, and so, after the owner of the house introduced her to me, she asked me over for tea the following day. When I arrived the place was cluttered as she was unpacking. She said that she only had green tea. As the water was boiling she got two cups and then looked for the box of tea. The water finished boiling. The tea was nowhere to be found. Would I help her find it?
After a prolonged search, in frustration, she suddenly declared that “someone must have stolen it. It was here this morning. They probably came in the back window while I was in the garden”. I looked around and saw a tablet, a phone, a wallet, and countless other more valuable things and the idea of a person sneaking in and stealing just a four dollar box of tea bags and nothing else seemed incredible. I pointed this out but despite my logic she was fixed in her mind. She genuinely believed that it was stolen that morning. She has taken a position and she was sticking to it. No amount of reasoning would shift her.
This type of encounter was not new to me. At my parent’s house we occasionally had visitors from various religious denominations. I remember a discussion when about fifteen years old about the age of the world: “god put the fossils there to test your faith”. Or on another occasion “if you don’t worship Christ hell awaits you”. I felt sorry for Christ that he should be so insecure that he needs continual worship with praise and complements and punishes people if they don’t give them. And wasn’t his main message forgiveness. But despite such arguments they always had a practised reply. They are well schooled before they are sent out to proselytise. Any logic seemed to sweep past them and not adhere. They were unchangeable in their beliefs. Their views were fixed. It is just like the green tea.