Ancient Worlds






I: “The” Ancient World




My wife and I have just made a visit to Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, a modest form of the Grand Tour. In times past I might have referred to those places collectively as “The Ancient World”. Now I see “the” as narrow and inadequate. Other worlds exist which are just as ancient, while yet others persist that are far more ancient. All those old worlds carry the authority of origins. They too precede, and give rise to stories and cultures that inform humans to this day. 




What I now see is how these particular places we’ve visited are sites of ancient event and story that locate me within a particular strand of the human story. That strand formed in the Near East, before fructifying and spreading widely; it informs what might be called the Western Mind. So this present visit helps me to locate my understanding of myself within its first sources.





What do I find within this section of Antiquity? I find  ruins, remains, fragments. I find beauty, elegance, imagination. I find creation and destruction. In short I find History, more of it than I can morally bear, more than I can contemplate with any comfort. To give but one example: just today, on the road from Messina to Taormina, I encountered a towering landscape rising high above the sea. On precarious hilltops perch picturesque villages, linked originally by ancient roads. Rome built those roads – Ancient Rome. In Taormina itself Annette and I labored up to a ridge to view a splendid Greco-Roman theatre, constructed in the three centuries that straddled the start of the Current Era. 




Even today the roads that trace that coast are a feat of engineering. Even a contemporary theatre built into those hills would amaze the eye. But these are ancient; they were built before machinery and mechanization. Those glories were built by slaves. The slaves were captured or they were bought. They worked until they could work no further. No Occupational Health and Safety regime protected them, no Worker’s Compensation recognised injury and loss. The slaves worked and they died. Those roads, that theatre, all are soaked in human blood.





Rome, Athens, Jerusalem, all, we might say, chockers with history, all truly splendid in their legacies to the western mind, are all actually weighted with their stories of suffering. It is hard for me to look upon the glories untroubled by tremors, echoes. Every petty Ozymandias came, saw, and built his self-memorial. All came, killing, killing. Here died the Canaanite and Amalek, there the Jebusite, here those slaughtered by Rome, those killed by Crusader, those by Goth, those others by the Inquisitor, those by pogrom, and those – my particular people –untermenschen, sacrificed to the glory of the Third Reich.   




History made me. I mean my mind was built on old stories. Travelling to historic sites, I find, can unmake me. My spirit cries out to History to stop. But History does not stop. In heavy boots it trudges on, trampling, trampling. I look about, seeking some relief.     





II: Country





I live in Australia. Australia made me. Here I grew in freedom and equality, here I absorbed those values as norms. Instinctively I assumed these to be universal entitlements of all humans. It was easy to love life and to love being Australian.




While my body and spirit grew here, my mind was drinking from exotic wells of thought and belief. Those were the ancient wells of Israel and of the broader Western World. I came to middle age believing myself to be Western. Over the last decades of my life in Australia I’ve come to know how radically incomplete is an Australian self that draws solely on those western influences, and on that chunk of antiquity. I was late to earn how life in Australia offers me older stories, stories of this land that formed me. These are stories of country. Does country not invite me to learn and to claim – where I can – some patrimony in this far more ancient Ancient World?





Only a freak of time and place combining could provide a life that would begin in this land at the hinge of the middle of the last century. That life has been a freak of privilege, a life untorn by war on our own shores, a life of secure food and shelter, of free education, of civic freedoms. (To be sure, such a life of privilege would be enjoyed only by the whitefeller child, the unstolen.)





Such a life might blind one to the reality of human experience elsewhere and in elsetime. I am a child of that generation, blinded by blessings.




III: A New World




In a companion essay I have described the Land of Israel as a locus of struggle, a place of vigorous, often violent religious contest, a strategic crossroads between continents, in many senses a land located in a valley of rift. Contest has visited the land since the earliest record. Contest persists to the present; and always the land exacts a toll of blood. Its children are heirs to story, to glory and to pain. In short one can hold that land, I might say, only by memory 




In Australia my generation is learning how we held our land by the extinction of memory. The old joke went, the problem with Europe is it has too much history; the problem with Australia is it has too little.

The point was we were too young, historically, to know ourselves. But “too little history” was both callous and a canard. Of course Australia had plenty of history, more in fact than Europe, too much to contemplate. So we refused to remember. Instead we created an Australian Genesis, dated 1788. We saw no story of prior order, we looked back only to that hinge in time when Governor Phillip raised a flag. We built an image of Oz, of God’s Own Country, colloquially, Godzone. But Godzone won’t work any more. God knows Oz is cracked in its foundation and needs a rebuild. The crack is there to see, it’s not subtle, it’s white and black.




Our visits to the ancient lands of Israel, Greece and Italy have helped me to see Australia’s true history as normal. This turning of my mind might be termed eucalyptic. Everywhere I went I was struck by the sight of gumtrees, heartwarming, domestic, defiantly assymmetric. Not for the first time these trees brought me comfort. Time and again they deepened thought. These far-away lands grew normal trees! My musing mind leaped sideways: perhaps Australia too might be a ‘normal’ country, a country like others, a place of painfully complicated stories, of glory and gore admixed. 




Normal histories tell of struggle, of contest conducted in blood and pain, of possession and dispossession, of enslavement, of massacre, and not rarely, of genocide. Normal history is made of microbes and their epidemics, of good intentions, of moral blindness, of women stolen and raped, of stolen children, of slavery and its commercial manifestation in human trafficking. Normal history, too, tells a story (often hidden) of the planet striking back at its occupants. Where now is Herculaneum, where Pompei, where indeed, is Gondawanaland?





Travel, they say, broadens one. Sometimes, I’ve found, it deepens one uncomfortably. So tempting, to recoil, to contemplate the darkness with historic fatalism: history is just like nature, bloody in tooth and claw. What can we do? It’s always been like that, it won’t change. Sorry, but it’s normal. Scorpion talk.




Against the clamour of expediency it’s hard to hear the call of honour, decency, morality. In Australia even the cry of the climate, which grows ever more desperate, and which appeals to self-interest, is ignored. You have to really listen to catch a still, soft voice.





Running from Office

The following verse followed me from the city and found me where I am working in remoter parts:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the ‘bidgee, years ago,

He was doctoring when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just `on spec’, addressed as follows, `Goldie, Doctor of The Overflown’.

And an answer came directed in a writing not unexpected,

(And for sure the same was written with that horrible doctors’ scrawl)

‘Twas his running mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

`Goldie’s gone to Queensland doctoring, and we don’t know where he are.’

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Goldie

Gone a-doctoring `down the Cooper’ where the Western doctors go;

As his flock are slowly sitting, Goldie runs past them singing,

For the bush doctor’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a not so stingy

Ray of sunlight struggles not so much between the buildings tall,

And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city

Through the air con floating, spreads its foulness over all

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle

Of the tramways and the ‘buses making hurry down the street,

And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,

Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me

As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,

With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,

For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Goldie,

Like to take a turn at doctoring where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the drafting and advising —

But I doubt he’d suit the office, Goldie, ‘Doctor of The Overflown’.

Nicholas Miller, legal practitioner and versifier, has doctored Paterson’s ‘Clancy ‘

A Message of Love Smuggled into a Suitcase

We live in a world in pain. In that world dark deeds, harsh words, inhumane policies are normal. God is conscripted and deformed in every form of violence. Truth is lost, our planet poisoned.
Seeing all this, hearing it, feeling it,a person might surrender and despair.
Then life sends a message.
This is the message that came to me today.

Miles spent two weeks pocket money on this gift for his mother.

The Prayer of the Traveller

Many of us are on our travels as I write this. Today I will resume mine – one hundred and fifteen kilometers by road before a flight of forty minutes (in the air we register time not space), then a break before resuming for the next seventy minutes of flight. Finally thirty kilometers of suburban roads. Then home. Home – that word for an idea that houses our love; for the island we build to grow a couple into a family. After two stationery days I’ll skip from the continent of my birth to the land of the free – three flights, ten security checks (eight of these in the US) – eighteen hours in the air.

Long before the Malaysian airliner disappeared I had my misgivings. The loss of a civilian passenger aircraft over Donetsk did nothing to comfort me. And now the AirAsia tragedy. Travel is dangerous. Out here in the Outback, the roads are full of kangaroo, wandering stock, feral donkey and camel, species which share with the shahidi a zest for homicidal suicide. Air travel, far, far safer, remains hazardous.

Travel has always been thus.

If you are a wuss (I am) and if you have a prayerful bent (I am severely bent in that way) you might pray for a safe arrival – and if you are needy or greedy (I am both), you’d slip in a word for your safe return home.

The following comes from the ancient Traveller’s Prayer recited by Jews. The text catalogues a surprisingly contemporary list of hazards:

May it be Your will to direct our steps to peace, to allow us to reach our desired destination in life, in joy and in peace.

Rescue us from any enemy, ambush and danger on the way and from all afflictions that trouble the world.

Let us find grace, kindness and compassion from all who see us.

You can fill in your own particular concerns. (Afflictions that trouble the world are plentiful. I think of Ebola. I think too of violence of all kinds – both abroad and within our domestic walls.)

An anxious Jewish traveller (Jewish people are past masters at anxiety), having completed the lines above, might feel the need for elaboration or emphasis. Such persons follow on with Psalm 91. I do. I love this one: I loved this one and I quoted it to my shell-shocked teenage daughters after two hilarious hoons chucked rotten eggs through the girls’ car window, breaking on and altering the grooming of their lovely long locks.

Five years ago, grandson Toby, famous in these pages for his flirtations with danger, drew a picture in vivid primary colours. The picture, three inches by one and a half, was intricate, pulsing with the vibrancy of his four-year-old being. Toby presented it to me: ‘This is for you, Saba.’ Since that day it has sat between the leaves of my travel prayer book. It guards the place of Psalm 91.

One who lives in the shelter of the Most High abides in the shade of the Almighty. He will save you from the trap of the hunter and the deadly pestilence. You need not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand may fall at your side, even ten thousand at your right hand, yet unto you it shall not come nigh.

I am not simple – or faithful – enough to believe that simply reciting these words will guarantee my safety. Saying the words is not the equivalent of completing the enrollment forms in supernatural travel insurance. I am not insured. But it is in the beauty of the poetics; in the relief of putting fears into words then filing them away; in the unspoken reminder that in matters in which I am powerless there is no point fretting – in these I find comfort, acceptance.

I am not insured, just assured.

I wish us all safe travels.

No Sexual Massage in Yangon

When I visited Yangon a couple of years ago I enjoyed a number of curious, memorable and stimulating experiences. Among these I recall the vivid sight of a mouthful of ragged teeth swimming in blood-red betel juice. I saw lovely women and lovelier children with cheeks daubed in discs of a caked pink, ochreous pigment. I ran in a huge mid-city park where I was alone, save for thirty men scything a small patch of pedicured grass of brilliant green, and lovers on park benches, enfolded in each others’ arms in the slow ballet of discreet half-satisfaction. I saw women and men banquetting at kerbsides on evil-smelling fishes, I read an English language newspaper from cover to cover, in which grown up writers and editors repeated children’s stories for grownup readers. (These stories, simply told and endlessly retold, announced that the government was very pleased with itself and if we had any further questions we should read the account of the Press Release on page three, which announced how pleased the government was with its plans to change nothing.)

I rode in taxis that had been young when I reached puberty and which still functioned – but only just. I recognised my own physiology mirrored in these noisy, puffing, sluggish vehicles. At the airport I was met by unsmiling men wearing military and paramilitary uniforms that would be laughable in comic opera. Under the hard eyes of these protectors of the public order young female Immigration Clerks checked my passport for twenty solemn minutes before passing me down a chain of clerks similarly trained in solemnity. The solemnity training is impressive, achieving as it does the extinguishing of the endemic native joy that radiates from the Yangonese. In a shop I saw a longhi. I always wanted a longhi and when I went to purchase one, eight young women, so feminine, so, so slim, all stepped forward to fit me. I went to a hairdressing salon where some hair was cut and someone sold someone else a massive bag of rice, while all the staff – including the person cutting the hairs around my throat – watched a lengthy and particularly violent show on TV.

I saw and enjoyed many things in Yangon but I never bought, received, contemplated, witnessed or wished for sexual massage in Yangon. I did, however, post an innocent blog report on my visit to the hairdresser.

Ever since that post my blog has been visited by readers from around the world, googling key words ‘Sexual Massage Yangon.’ I have innocently discovered the secret to a massive blog following. In posting this I expect to redouble that following. Fame and Greatness beckon.

The Barbers of Madrid

Hairs are sprouting on my chin. It is pruning season again. We have the word “pruning” from prunus, the genus which includes the plum, and its ugly daughter and near-eponym, the prune, as well as its fabulous and malodorous grandson, Slivovitz. The earliest of the prunus family to bear fruit is named for that precocity: it bears fruit “a praecox” , hence “apricot”. Shakespeare calls this fruit “apricocks”. But I digress.


Our hotel, the imposing Madrid Intercontinental, sits on the majestic Avenida, seemingly the aorta of this most masculine city.


The Intercontinental is a place of gold surfaces and plush furnishings. In its grand foyers an espresso doble costs nine euros. That translates to fourteen of my Aussie dollars.


The Intercontinental swallows the money of the incontinent spender. It is all a little uncomfortably grande for this Aussie.  Gilt-ridden, I open the door to the street and run the gauntlet of liveried door openers and greeters and bowers and scrapers, the accouchers who deliver us residents to the world.


I am glad to get outside.


There is a narrow side street that runs next to the Intercontinental. Here Toorak encounters Springvale. Every third premises sells expensive fashions that you can buy.


There are elegant beauty shops where you can exchange expensive euros for beauty, beauty which must die. Fine cake shops and smart restaurants compete for the custom of coutured tourists and people on fat Spanish pensions.


And then there are ill-lit cafes where working men come to smoke and drink strong coffee in the early mornings and after work. The closest of these is three doors from the Intercontinental. This place  is narrow, its roof low, it is a cave where denizens sit in their ones, taciturn, scowling at the football news or the racing news or the political news. All the news, I gather, is one.


It would be a hardy soul who’d break into their silo of quiet. That person turns out to be the young daughter of the owner, a cheerful elf in black apron, black leggings and black t-shirt. She glides around the shop, replacing ashtrays and taking orders.


I open the door to this subterranean place and the elf smiles a welcome. Her smile is perfectly delightful except for the gap where someone or something has knocked out a lateral incisor. Most of her smile expresses her simple, innocent delight in seeing you, but the gap speaks of unsaid dark things like assault or dentistry.


I drink a thimbleful of thunderbolt espresso. It is affordable. People slip in, drift out. No-one looks up, human speech in the cave is low and short; people are here for their serious purposes of quiet solitude and customary chemicals.


On the next block there is a not-very-super market. I pass it by day, and in the evenings and during my early morning run. There is a short man who sits on a low balustrade outside the not-so-supermarket (NSS). He has a smooth face, baby-pink, baby-fleshed, that extends beyond his absent eyebrows to his hairless scalp. It is a face that is opaque to my searching gaze. Taciturn, he sits, nothing more, sits like patience on a monument.


He is there most times I pass. Does he live here? What does he live on? What is he thinking?


Eventually my questions are answered when I pass the NSS at lunchtime: he is lunching from a clear bottle of clear liquor; and that evening, when he is insensible, spread out along the length of his balustrade.


Every block has its coffee shop, its shoe shops (Toorak elegant and Springvale basic respectively), its mixed business, its tobacconist-cum-keycutter, and its barber shops. I am bound for Caribbean Unisex  to attend to the pruning. I avoid the elegant establishments; I am more at home in the unfashionable joints.


Regrettably, every block has its dogs, whose owners (generally Toorak) are not socialized in the matter of dog pooh. While I am no veterinarian, I am confident that canine constipation is rare in this part of Madrid. These dogs are overfed. The rain softens yesterday’s leavings and renders the going slippery.


I weave my way between the hazards to “Caribbean Unisex”, a place of haphazard décor, where the young lady asks: “Can I help you?” She is tall and slim and black. Her clothes are close-fitting and her short hair dances out from her scalp at very angle of curl and spike. Her hairdo is delinquent and eloquent: this is a funky joint.


Espero que si, is my attempt to say I hope so. I run my hand through the chin


Madrid Barber Shop

Madrid Barber Shop (Photo credit: enric archivell)


No es para senores, aqui. Solo senoras y senoritas.


So much for unisex: they cut the hair of every gender here excepting the masculine.


The lady from Caribbean waves me in the direction of the men’s hairdresser a little further up the street. I saw it when I passed earlier; two gentlemen peered at me from the dim narrow space of the interior. They looked hard and unsmiling. Their shop was not prepossessing.


I retrace my steps to the shop of the barbers who do not smile. The shop is small. There is a narrow wooden bench which might, at a pinch, accommodate six waiting buttocks. I lower mine to the timber and sit and wait.


The two hairdressers are hard at work. They don’t acknowledge my arrival. They are short, swarthy men, stocky and powerfully built. Their customers look the same.


There is time to look about me. The large church opposite, occupying an entire block, looks as if it were built in the 1950’s. For the first time I study the geometry of the brickwork on its façade. Framing a large cross is an even larger six pointed star, the Star of David! A puzzle.


I return my musing gaze to the barber shop.


There is a mirror in front of the barbers, arranged so we customers can watch our transformation. Below the mirror, on a benchtop, the barbers keep their tools of trade. Between duplicate sets of cut-throat razors, clippers, scissors, brushes, combs, and jars of unguents, stands a topless young lady. She is about 18 inches tall and is made of black wood. She wears a grass skirt and is slim, sinuous and tall for her height, if you know what I mean. Her hair is styled after the manner of the young lady in Caribbean Unisex.


Although she is slim, her breasts are full and they defy gravity. So does her face: alone in the shop, she wears a smile.


My time approaches. The customer on my left rises from the barber’s chair, takes money from his pocket and pays and leaves. There is no conversation.


My man turns to me and indicates the empty chair. He signals me to rise and occupy the chair. Does he  sense, from my dress or my deportment that I am un Ingles, un estupido, who does not speak Spanish? Or does all this taciturnity reflect an establishment run for the deaf by the mute?


I honour the custom of the house, by showing in dumb play that I want a haircut and my whiskers trimmed.


My man nods.


As he reaches for his weapons, I study his profile. He is about forty, serious but not unfriendly looking.


He cuts my hair – numero dos is the length I specify – then raises the cut-throat blade. I signal my aversion to the cold steel, pointing and nodding at the beard-trimmer clippers. The prince of silence obliges me, now holding his breath as he mows through a regiment of my stubble, now breathing audibly in his concentration on the next attack. His rhythm is reassuring. I feel safe to look around and contemplate the black lady who smiles at me intimately, from the close distance of the bench.


A new silence breaks the silence, as the trimmer falls quiet and movement stops. I look up at the barber. He looks down at me.


Es finito? – I ask.


The man shakes his head, extends his index finger and touches the aperture of my right nostril, then the left, raising an eyebrow in interrogation.


I don’t get it. Is he offering to pick my nose?


Now his finger broaches my ear hole, now its opposite number. Again the interrogative eyebrow.


Suddenly I understand: the peso has dropped: would I like the hairs of my ears and nostrils trimmed?


I really am indifferent to hairs that I cannot see and that cause me no trouble. But my wife and daughters do notice these hairs and find them unattractive and they tell me so. I am inclined to believe that all body parts have their purpose or function, especially hair. On the scalp and limbs it insulates; on the upper lip it strains soup; in the umbilicus it catches lint; and inside the undies it attracts and stimulates.


My womenfolk are not convinced that ear hairs are necessary to save wax and that nose hairs protect me from inhaling locusts and other airborne plague species.


So I nod, say Si, and gesture for him to proceed.


Abruptly, Mister Silence leaves the room, passing behind the curtain that separates the shop from quarters in the rear. Voices are heard, one male, one female, and another one, piping.


My man returns, leading a toddler, a moon-faced little girl of unusual plainness. The man sits on the bench, pulls her onto his knee, holds her adoringly, puts his mouth to her ear, and pays me no further attention.


Movement from behind the curtain and a woman appears, bearing a can full of dark liquid – molasses? – and a fistful of supersized cotton buds. I catch only a glimpse of a round face that closely resembles the little girl’s, before my head is tilted sharply backward, and my nose is pushed upwards from beneath, flaring my equine nostrils even further. I look up into two dark eyes that are gazing deep into my nostrils – at what? My soul, probably.


Surprised, uncertain, uncomfortable, I gaze back. The lady plunges a long cotton bud into the jar of liquid and withdraws it. I catch sight of it, dripping darkly, in the moment before it is thrust into my right nostril. The liquid is hot, very hot. I am under attack, both surprised and amazed.


I do not cry out. This is not a place where a man would cry out when a mujere, a woman, hurts him. And I don’t want to be a crybaby in the presence of the topless beauty.


My lady assailant now twists the cotton bud, while simultaneously pinching my nostril closed around it.


Now she pulls her fiery appliance from the constricting nostril, which burns like my lips after eating chilli.


I glimpse the face of my depilator. It is empty of remorse, guilt or apology, Not even mirth.


For my part, I am too slow of wit to rise, pay and flee.


Already, my left nostril is being flattened and widened, already the cotton bud, dripping molten wax is about to penetrate a cavity that has only previously accommodated my excavating finger.


Fire flames within me, but once again, moral cowardice stills my voice. I don’t open my mouth in case the lady with the wax decides to beautify my uvula.


I stand, reaching for my wallet. But a strong female arm presses me back into the chair.


Es finito, no?


Apparently not. The lady is shaking her head, pointing to her ears.


My head is flung back, the woman bends and reaches across me, then in one swift movement, sets fire to my right ear hole. Tears fill my eyes. I sit and wait for the coup de grace, which is not long in coming. Both ears burn.


I am hairless, speechless, witless and stumbling inside my brain for the moral enlightenment that must surely follow such sensory extremity.


Across the road, the large brick church looks down at me implacably. The Star of David – in Hebrew, Magen David, the shield of David – has not protected me.


I pay, managing to extend a hoarse gracias, as I take my tearful leave of mother, father and daughter, and of the wooden lady; and breathe fresh air into my hairless nose, and feel the cool night of Madrid offering comfort to my smooth, unoffending ear holes.


A Trip to Cuba – Part 2

English: Apartment building facade and residen...

Habana Vieja, Havana. December 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 December 2, 1999.

We land at Jose Marti airport in La Habana on a mild and sunny day. In the course of this day we will learn a lot about the country during our hours at the airport. We learn quickly that the hot, steamy Cuba of fiction is just that: the truth is an anti-climatic surprise. We learn that Ron de Cuba is not a person but a beverage, rum to be precise. And we learn that Capitalism is rapacious, that a Capitalist will sell his mother if the price is right.

This last little lesson is learned by watching the large TV screen which is set up in the spacious area where incoming passengers are obliged to spend their first day in Cuba. We see a brilliant little cartoon in which the hero outwits all rivals, enemies and friends by his cleverness and ruthlessness. His mother congratulates her boy who rewards her by taking all her life savings then selling her to a band of passing Ishmaelites. Although the manner of presentation is lighthearted, the subject matter is food for serious thought, and soon I am wondering what price I might get for my own mother in Cuba…

Annette and I stand patiently in one of the dozen or so long lines of travellers waiting to be interviewed by IMIGRACION. Every twenty minutes or so a new visitor to Cuba is admitted into a closed booth for interview. The official is apparently a member of the military, to judge by the uniforms and the moustaches. The booth is constructed so that the interviewing officer is seated above the interviewee and largely concealed from view. I surmise that the interviewers are Army Intelligence operatives and are meant to be intimidating.

 While standing in line I read the word BANOS printed above the doorways which lead respectively to the Caballeros and the Damas. In the doorways stand two pretty young women. Every dama and every caballero must pass by them to enter.

 After a little while spent waiting in line, passengers become bored and begin to think that a visit to the toilets will be a welcome relief or a change of scenery. One or two venture to the Banos, others follow out of curiosity, yet others out of lavatorial solidarity. Soon a trickle becomes a movement as we are visited variously by inspiration or simple genital envy.                                                                                                                                  Sooner or later many of the caballeros and every one of the damas will ask one of the young doorladies is there any toilet paper. And the young lady will sell some to her captive customer, a foreigner who pays in foreign cash. Now I begin to realise how the Cuban Revolution gets its hard currency. The longer the delay before we are interviewed by IMIGRACION the greater the cashflow. The cameras track our movements and we are only admitted once we have succumbed to this systematic brownmail.

 At last I am admitted for my interview. My inquisitor is a little jockey of a guy in a uniform far too big for him which badly needs a wash. He is half my age and not fierce at all. I start to feel sorry for him, not least because he must put up with my Spanish. He decides, after a wrestling match with his computer, to let me into his country. Muchas Gracias, senor, I say, and wait to see whether mi amiga Annette will likewise be admitted. Luckily, she is, and we go off together in search of a taxi driver to rip us off.

We have been forewarned that in Cuba there are taxis and taxis, some official, some otherwise. Among the official cabs Panataxi is the name to go for. So we go for it, and find ourselves seated in a tiny little Citroen driven by a bulky lady of about my age. We give her the address of the Casa Particular (literally, “private house”) where we have a reservation. Our driver takes a look at the address and snorts: “Habana Vieja! Why do you want to go there? Centro es mejor, muchas mejor!”

Well, there are lots of reasons why we want to go to Habana Vieja – Old Havana: Annette has researched this city and determined that Habana Vieja is close to the Sinagoga, close to the places of interest to us, and furthermore we have contracted with a Mister Selim Tache of the Havana Jewish Community to stay there. He has reserved the flat for us.

But our lady driver knows better. This Boadicea brooks no dissent. She knows a very fine casa  particular in Centro. She will take us there. By now we have been driving for about fifteen minutes, in who knows what direction?  For my part, I have a strong prejudice in favour of the Old City – any old city – because it will be authentic, and (hopefully) charming, even if it turns out to be an authentic slum. So I tell Boadicea to drive her chariot to numero 518 Aguacate in Vieja, and bugger Centro.

While we drive, we watch the scenery. Quickly the countryside gives way to a built-up area where Comrade Stalin has designed some atrocious, soulless blocks of flats in an attempt to quell the Cuban spirit. They certainly quell mine.

We come to a large roundabout in the airport freeway where la campanera conductora (our comrade driver) points out the Institute of Sports. This ugly circular block of cement is the home of the bureaucracy that administers fun-running (and sport in general) in Cuba. One look at this deadly structure tells me that it exists to take the fun out of running, and that my dream of running in a race here will be difficult to realise.

 The Cuban Consul in Sydney had advised me that I would encounter this office on my way into town from the airport. So at least I have my bearings now, but the Consul’s advice that ‘the esport in Cuba is centrally planned, senor,’ tolls a doleful sound in my imagination.

I watch our driver. She has a singular method of fuel conservation whereby we crawl up hills then cruise down with the gearbox in neutral. Although we save fuel, we do not spare the horn. The horn is sounded at every lane change, at every turning and when a Vespa or a horse and cart or a cyclist impedes our passage.

Now we are passing through an older area, with crumbling colonial dwellings and narrow little streets. If drivers were horn-happy on the freeway, they are like Joshua at Jericho here. The slower the passage the greater the hornplay, but curiously, it is a message without menace that says simply: “I’m here, citizen cyclist/sister pedestrian/ diesel-belching truck/ancient chevvy/pony cart/mother with pusher; be careful, merge right please, and I’ll pass you on your left.” In this way, a heavy truck overtakes a pedestrian at close quarters, and the walker doesn’t even turn around to assess the hazard coming from behind.

I notice that our fearsome conductora is actually a benevolent fellow-citizen on these inadequate calles, as the streets are called. This is our first experience of how poverty in Cuba creates an amity and freemasonry  between the men in the street.

 The roads are buckled, the footpaths broken, and all are congested with movement and with lack of movement. Broken down people, cars and bikes slow the traffic, but no-one gets heated, no-one gets hit. It all works.

 Eventually our driver parks on the footpath of a little side street, honks her horn, lowers her window and bellows someone’s name. A window is opened a crack, some shouts are exchanged and our driver discovers that the person she is after is not at home. Then the centavo drops inside my head: we are not in Habana Vieja at all; this is Centro, and we are here at the casa of our driver’s particular friend. Sudden indignation gives me sudden fluency as I emphatically direct the panataxista to Aguacate, 518.

Unabashed, muttering mildly “Vieja mas mal, Centro muy bien”, she drives us to Aguacate and help us with our luggage. Will she rip us off for the detour to her friend’s place?, I wonder. No, there’s no extra charge for the extra tour. Smiling and friendly, she departs, the first of a number of benevolent bandidos we are to meet in Cuba. They try to con you, and whether they succeed or no they hold no grudge against you for their trying.

It’s like a sport: you acknowledge the effort of your opponent and you honour the contest and play in good spirit.

We knock on the door of Aguacate 518, identify ourselves to the young girl who admits us, and go inside where we meet Jesus and Maria.

A Trip to Cuba – Part 1

Early in 1999 I ask Annette whether she might take a couple of weeks off at the end of the year for a trip to mark our thirtieth wedding anniversary which falls on December 3. I propose to take her somewhere she has never previously visited, a place which she has always wanted to see. She will need her passport and her sunglasses, and she will discover the name of her destination as she boards the plane on December 1.

Surprises have littered the twisting path of our three decades of marriage, and frequently enough they have caused one or other of us to stumble. Generally I have created the surprises and as time has passed Annette has become nervous of them.So it is with our surprise anniversary destination: Annette becomes nervous, then edgy then agitated. Soon the surprise raises serious doubt whether we will reach that milestone as man and wife. So I tell Annette it is to be Cuba.

Annette is immediately enthused and sets about refreshing her Spanish and buying and playing every Cuban CD available in Australia. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival she bails up the great Oscar Hijuelos and asks him for a reading list so she can prepare for our visit his homeland. As Annette is the only gringa in Australia who can pronounce Hijuelos, Oscar does her will.

On December 1, 1999, Annette sets out with her passport, her sunglasses and an English-Spanish dictionary. I accompany her and keep the journal that follows.  Continue reading

Two Propositions at the Zurich Cafe

Barcelona, Ramblas

Barcelona, Ramblas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barcelona in the sunshine. Annette and I stroll down the Ramblas, admiring everything. The weather is benign, the street theatre brilliant, the shops alluring, the cafes innumerable. Everything is old and quaint or new and gaudy. Or Gaudi.

The Rambla is famous among tourists for all of the things I´ve mentioned, all the things that seize our attention, and while our attention is seized, our wallets, handbags and purses are also seized, by pickpockets and by bobby dazzlers. The bobby dazzler operates by doing something unexpected or outrageous that grabs your attention at just the moment that his accomplice jostles you and relieves you of your wallet and runs.

The Rambla has played host to many, many shoppers, but none the equal of Annette. Annette has a plan with which she will foil the pickpockets: she´ll spend all her money before they can catch up with her.

And so it is that Annette hits the Rambla running. Single-handedly she rescues the Spanish economy. Her targets are shoe shops, jewellers, children´s outfitters, leather clothiers, and dress shops and dress shops and dress shops.

I am dizzy with admiration. Spain is in surplus. Only the pickpockets have a bad day.

I take my vertigo to the Zurich Café, where I will drink coffee in the sun and read my book, until  Annette, the Goddess of Commerce, exhausts her resources.

Of the lavatory arrangements at Café Zurich, I will say little, beyond noting how cosy it is to squeeze past a line of ladies waiting in the basement, then, upon reaching the immediately adjacent gentlemen´s Lavabos, to note how the charm of proximity is enhanced by the absence of a front door to either the Ladies´ or the Gents´.  Continue reading