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Friday, August 1, 2008

Not since Resevoir Dogs....

....has violence looked so good on screen.

Justice make a departure from the pop world. There's something about French film making and raw, brutal and urgent images that somehow possess a kind of harrowing beauty.

By Director Romain Gavras

High Quality Quicktime here

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Homecoming Prince (of Darkness)

So it's official, after almost seven years existing in foreign climbs on the other end of the world, I have decided to head back to that Great Southern Land I call home (well...for twelve months at least anyway). I was going to celebrate with Banjo Paterson's Man From Snowy River, but that's pushing the cheese barrier (even for me) - so instead I decided to go with another Aussie with a thinning crop who has also been away from home for too long.

Nick Cave is one of those rare musicians whose talent and credibility somehow gathers more momentum as he gets older. He is constantly experimenting and his narrative style of embedding terrible tales within his music snares me in every time. He has a new album out - Dig, Lazarus, Dig - and if this title track and video is anything to go by, the man and his writing are still holding form.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Jaisalmer breakfast

We're in the far west corner of Rajasthan not far from the Pakistani border in a fort town called Jaisalmer. The 12th century fort rises out of the desert plains like a massive Bondi Beach sand castle, replete with 99 crumbling sand bucket bastions. A quarter of the towns people live within the fort walls and the ten year old in me wanted to stay within them as well, so we paid through the teeth to stay in a 500 year old haveli with a room that was more a film set from Arabian Nights. It looked over the ancient Jain temple next door and out on to where desert plains meet the sky.

We thought we'd be sweltering, but it's winter here and outside high noon it gets cold. Real cold. We've invested in blankets, thermal underwear, gloves and cultivated a rum and hot chocolate addiction just to keep warm. From 11am to 3pm Cheryl and I can be found on the rooftop of our haveli reading books and soaking up rays for the cold night ahead as if we're solar cells.

Yesterday we decided we'd brave the elements and book in to a camel safari through the desert just south of here in Khuri for a few days. We met our guide out the front of the fort. Dressed shoulder to toe in white with a multicoloured turban and turned up shoes, he would have looked like a postcard Rajput if it wasn't for the bad brown leather jacket he'd donned to keep the morning chill at bay that matched the colour of his betel stained teeth. We discussed our trip over a cup of chai, where he also told us his life story. Chatting with Indian alpha males is like chatting with coke heads. Some are interesting, some are boring and (apart from some cursory questions about yourself to not come across as rude) they will largely talk about themselves and any contributions by yourself will be ignored unless they add colour to the wonderful picture they are painting. Baba Singh, was a character though, "not rich and not poor" by his own definition, he'd led a good life and had the hearty laugh to prove it. He said he'd pick us up in his jeep after he'd been to the doctor. He's been coming to the doctor here in Jaisalmer every day for a week after bull rammed him in the desert and gave him a nasty puncture wound to the stomach. We shook hands and agreed to meet in the morning - after three months here we've become complacent with the ridiculous.

We then headed back up in to the fort to track down the Vyas Meal Service - a ma and pa operation that apparently do great breakfasts of Paratha (a roti like flat bread) with apple curd and honey. After eventually stumbling across it in the maze of narrow alleys, we walked up stairs to find a bent over old woman and her daughter sweeping up what can only be described as a living room. It was as dark as night and contained a small gas stove, a Pepsi fridge and a table with four chairs. After some enquiries in basic English, we confirmed that we had actually come to the right place. She bade us to sit down and hobbled over with a menu and a pad and pen and asked us to write our order down. We gave her the pad with our written down order and with a beaming toothless smile asked if we could read it to her as she didn't read English (after three months here we've become complacent with things not making sense). Cheryl patiently read the order to her and we sat back in the candle lit darkness to await our meal. We felt guilty having this poor old woman wait on us so we insisted we'd carry everything over to the table, leaving her on the floor with the gas stove making chai and curd.

When she finally called to us in Hindi that it was ready, we sat down to our most basic yet best breakfast yet. In the cold of the desert morning in an ancient fort, we warmed ourselves up with her spicy chai and piping hot paratha with which we scooped up the rich goodness of apple curd with honey - eating every morsel. We thanked her profusely and left her a massive tip that she would not have known about as we had to add up our own bill (another example of the incredible trust and hospitality we've encountered across India). Warmed to the bone, we flung our rugs back on and headed out to the wine shop to stock up on rum for tomorrow's camel safari. Maybe its the Australian in me, but even after six years in Europe I'm still a big girl's blouse when it comes to the cold.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Was it standing on the banks of Marnikarnika Ghat, where the worker explained that it took three hours and 120kg of wood for a human body to burn completely? Or him mentioning that the three apartment blocks behind us were full of people waiting to die and be burnt right there, the smoke and stench of the funeral pyres filling their nostrils just as it did ours? One of the Doms (outcasts that handle the bodies) stoked the fire just metres in front of us and a head and torso jumped out of the flames, its skull staring at us through eye sockets, hollow and bubbling and black. Just behind, another Dom bends two legs back until they break and fall in to the fire, a fire that was lit by Shiva two and a half thousand years ago and has been burning ever since.

Maybe it was seeing the faithful bathe, brush their teeth and do their washing in water that is septic. No oxygen exists, just 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water (anything over 500 is considered unsafe for bathing). Dead bodies, excrement, anything of the physical realm cannot possibly harm them when they believe the water is so pure, so holy.

It could also have been the morning chai with the sadhus, street kids and the homeless out the front of our hotel. All of us feeding twelve puppies - smiling and laughing at the simple joy these little furry creatures brought to all of us.

Then there is the light and the way it plays upon the river, the mist, the buildings and your retinas so you're certain that if everything in the place was obliterated tomorrow, it would somehow still be holy.

It could also be the constant array of prayer, puja and ritual that surrounds you, so that in any given place at any given time you are sure to be faced with something bizarre and baffling happening before you.

I think seeing a family stand in solemn silence over their just departed Grandmother (whom they had taken down to the auspicious river for her last moments), draping her Sari over her face had a lot to do with it.

Along with winding our way up the old town, sharing the Galis (narrow walkways framed by decaying buildings and hole-in-the-wall shops) with a constant stream of pressing bodies, motorbikes, hobbled donkeys, road-blocking buffaloes, mad charging cows (that send people flailing out of the way) and a bull that rammed me from behind as I chatted with a local. The actual streets provide little respite, sharing these with striking boatmen shouting slogans with rifles casually slung over their shoulders, haggling touts and rickshaw drivers and a travelling procession of wound up Muslim boys brandishing swords and mock fighting with bamboo poles.

Framing all of this chaos is the tranquil flow of the Great Mother Ganges. Rendered even more serene by the boatmen's strike, it takes on the persona of a wise and graceful old matriarch lovingly tolerating the antics of her beloved children.

It could have been any one of these that left me reeling in bed with a pounding heart, a racing mind and restless sleep - but it was most likely the sum of the whole. Varanasi, Benares, is India distilled into 2km of river bank. It is where life and death co-exist brazenly along side one another and out in the open for all comers to see. It is also where you'll be enthralled, captivated and confounded by a culture you'll never really come to understand.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lather me up

Facial hair. I have too much of it. From the top of my cheekbones to the base of my Adam’s apple - it’s solid beard. Whisker to whisker it never lets up, with some follicles sprouting two, three, even four whiskers. I shave in the morning and by evening there’s a shadow any spaghetti western bad guy could light a match off.

I’ve experimented with growing it – mutton chop sideburns, goatees, Bollywood moustaches – with varying comedic results. People say “that looks great” modulated by chuckles as they say it, as though they’re commenting on a fancy dress outfit. I grew a beard once. That didn’t work either. I was told I looked like I was homeless or a terrorist. Or was it a homeless terrorist? The kindest taunt was courtesy of the inimitable Guy Champney “Matty K, you look like the New York based financier for Al Qaeda, the respectable face of terrorism.” And the look I was going for was ‘sea faring philosopher’. With the reality way off the mark from my perception (and a persistent campaign from Cheryl stating that kissing me was like kissing a ball of steel wool), I eventually shaved it off. Fact is (as cruel as it may be), with all of this facial hair at my disposal, growing it simply isn’t an option.

So I revert back to the standard procedure of shave it, let it grow until itchy, then shave again. I can’t shave daily as it kills the skin on my neck. Well that’s my excuse anyway. With a beard like mine shaving is a hassle and it’s painful. Even though I invest in the latest shaving technology (currently Gillette Fusion), the blades grate and tug against those iron filing whiskers and makes for quite an unpleasant experience.

The only time I can be at peace with my beard, is when I’m traveling in the third world – where a proper barber’s shave is always cheap and readily available. This relic of by-gone era is alive and well in the developing world. And with a beard like mine the shaving experience and final result are both heaven sent.

Here in India the barber shop is a hub of social activity, with all the blokes seemingly queuing up for a turn at the seat, but actually just hanging around for a chat. Whenever a foreigner stops by it creates a stir and people get up and out of the way to ensure a clear path to the hallowed chair. For a shaver of the Gillette Mach 3 kind – it’s still slightly nerve wracking to have a shirtless Indian man dressed in only a Lunghi wield a cut-throat razor across my bare and vulnerable neck. I allay these irrational fears and relax into it as he softens the skin with a hot wet towel and lathers me up, using the brush to apply layers of foam at differing consistencies. He poises with the blade like a conductor with his baton before making one large sweep with the blade from my sideburn all the way to the bottom of my neck, cutting through that week old dense forest as though he’s sweeping lint from a linoleum floor. He’s considerate enough to stop what he is doing as he gloms a good look of the two girls walking by his shop, or when India takes another wicket against Pakistan, only resuming once he has regained total concentration. He meticulously sweeps my face clean, wiping the blade after each stroke on to a torn piece of newspaper, then lathers my face again for another round, repeating the process to clear any errant patches. He wipes my face clean, before applying pure alcohol (the sting strangely satisfying), then a dab of old spice after shave, then some multi- vitamin face cream and finally some talc. He finishes off with an Indian head, neck and shoulder massage.

It is impossible to find a closer shave (regardless of what Gillette and Phillips will tell you). Even with my beard I can’t detect any stubble running my finger against the grain. It’s also the only truly masculine way for a bloke to be pampered by another bloke. The tenderness with which they move your head around, massage it and apply the creams and lotions doesn’t jar in the slightest when you’re in a barbers chair surrounded by other guys reading the sports pages and listening to the cricket. And all this for the ridiculous cost of 40 Euro Cents. In India the impossible happens to you everyday, I just never thought it could include me enjoying a shave.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reading Naked Lunch in the depths of India can skew your perspective

Serenaded by a classical Carnatic trio in the Old Portuguese Courtyard in Kochi. Cheryl framed by a great decaying wall - black with mold and perforated at its base by mood-lit alcoves thick with moss of ectoplasm green...One of which on her right doubles as a pen for a bronze four-headed elephant. The humid air breathes musty as we inhale our forbidden meals of Spanish Beef and Baked Mussels, all washed down with a strange concoction of buttermilk, ginger, honey, curry leaves and onions sucked through alabaster straws.

We are flanked by odd refugees from foreign climes. To our right are an incestuous father/daughter twosome furtively reading Aztec adventure comics to each other in French. While to our left sit three fugitive Burmese monks disguised as Japanese tourists.

We make our excuses and slip past the scowling lesbian Maitre'd unnoticed.

Friday, November 23, 2007


We've been in Munnar in Kerala's Western Ghats these last few days. A bucolic idyll and home to the world's highest tea plantations, it's been a more than welcome welcome break from the oppressive heat and chaos of the coast. We'd been living pretty cheap of late and decided we'd splash out on a one day tour of the local area with our own private driver - getting the local knowledge on our surrounds.

We started first thing in the morning - taking in tea factories, cardamom, pepper, sandle wood and tea plantations, waterfalls and breathtaking scenery. Beautiful, but pretty standard stuff for these parts. After lunch our driver dropped us off to commence our 5 hour trek in the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Maybe it's my Aussie upbringing, but the term 'Wildlife Sanctuary' conjures images of migrating water birds and a few furry creatures scampering about the place if you're lucky. And if there are any dangerous creatures present, measures are taken to keep any visitors out of harms way. So I thought nothing of signing the declaration they handed me. It mentioned stuff about trekking being 'highly' dangerous and that while 'all care is taken', they won't be liable for any accident occasioning death or injury. Pretty standard cover your arse stuff.

It slipped my mind that we were in India. It slipped my mind that the owner of the farmhouse we were staying in insists we only take auto rickshaws home after 7:30 and not walk back through the surrounding tea plantations as wild animals some times creep in during the night (for 'wild animals' read: tigers, elephants, panthers, leopards and boars). Maybe it's the genteel surroundings - a strange cross between Australian Tablelands, South Coast England and the Swiss Alps - that never allows this threat to really sink in.

Anyway, our driver secured our tracker and guide and introduced us, he was a young local guy from an indigenous tribe that (among others) had been entrusted as caretakers of the land. He smelled of last night's campfire on a dewy morning and looked more like a Koori (an Australian Aboriginal) than Indian. As the four of us (tracker, driver, Cheryl and myself) commenced our trek, it became more apparent just how much he had in common with the Koori trackers. At one with his land, his movements and sensory perceptions took on animal-like characteristics and sensitivity. He had this piercing gaze that seemed to scan his whole field of vision with hunter precision, his ears twitch at the slightest sound and our driver mentioned he could smell animals from across the valley.

We begin to track some elephants - which is not so hard given they leave behind great steaming piles of shit and knock over any trees that may be in the way - when a sound stops him in his tracks. He holds his hand to quiet and still us, his animal senses working over time. I watch his face intently to see if it will betray anything. He looks concerned then relieved before muttering something in Malayalam.

"Tiger. But not too close." our driver translates


I had no idea there had been sightings of Tigers here. There are a few select places you go to increase your chances of seeing one and this wasn't one of them. I'm at once incredibly excited and a little concerned.

On the excited trip - I love tigers. They're my favourite land animal (for reasons I won't bore you with here) and laying my eyes on one in the wild is one of those boxes I must tick - if not on this trip, then at least in this lifetime.

On the concerned trip - This love of tigers also involves a deep respect for their ability as the most stealthy, ferocious and single minded land hunter on the planet. Their their paws can break its quarry's back with a single blow, the jaws crush wind-pipes and neck vertebrae for good measure and it will stalk it's prey for days (giving up earlier opportunities) just for the fun of it.

With all this in mind, I'd kinda been banking on seeing one within the confines of a 4WD (Big Cat Diaries style)...or at the very least on top of an Elephant. Only a few days ago we'd met a French couple who had encountered wild elephants and their guides had taken rifles along in case anything went wrong. Ours was armed with a half sized machete and we were on foot (flip-flops to be precise). We ploughed on, never really realising how vulnerable we were. At the time, we were still bird watching as far as I was concerned and I thought this little tiger show was something they put on for hapless tourists.

Back to the story. So, after several hours of walking around examining piles of shit and animal tracks and a distant Bison sighting, our tracker spots a lone elephant across the river on the opposite slope. We scramble up to higher ground only to see it disappear over the other side. Perched atop an overhang with an incredible view of the Western Ghats out of Kerala and in to Tamil Nadu, I pour my backpack's contents on to the rock and we hang out and eat, drink, take in the view and hope the elephant wanders back in to view some time soon.

After a while some tribesmen appear at the clearing where we'd spotted the elephant. We assume they must have been tracking him too. They seem apprehensive about following him down that same slope, but eventually conjure the courage and disappear from view. Soon after, two of them re-appear. Running at speed - like 'run for your fucking life' speed. I never thought it possible for a human to run so fast, down so steep an incline. Then we see another two. One is running too fast and he takes a really bad spill, tumbling head over heels a few times before miraculously regaining his footing and keeps on going...never letting up.

Their reaction seemed all so out of proportion. No elephant could have followed them down such an incline, yet they just kept running and running and running - at literal break-neck speed. The final two soon follow in similar fashion and by now the four of us are in hysterics (fed by that universal humour of witnessing other people's misfortune, whilst safe in the knowledge that they're gonna be OK). The distance and the river between us rendered their terror silent and the spectacle took on a farcical nature that was a cross between Benny Hill and The Gods Must Be Crazy. We waited for that elephant and I tell you, if an elephant had bumbled over that hill in slow pursuit I would have suffered a fit of such rock slapping laughter that it would have required a Heimlich Manouvre just to get me breathing again. But alas, the bumbling elephant never made his entrance and the hysterics died down to absent chuckles.

The hilarity over, I began to stuff the regurgitated contents of my backpack back in to its belly (careful to leave not a scrap of rubbish behind), when our tracker's eyes bugged out of his sockets like tongues. He shot up pointing and shouting the only English word in his vocabulary:


A tiger bounded over the top of the hill and with feline dexterity gracefully bolted down the exact same slope as the tribesmen - making a beeline straight for the trees they had taken shelter in. When at the very last second something scared him and it changed its tack and veered right, leaping off a considerable drop in to a clump of trees below - never to re-appear.

Full disclosure: I didn't see that last bit ^^^^. I'm afraid that brief, yet crucial paragraph has been constructed using the eye witness accounts of Cheryl and our driver with some flourishes courtesy of my minds eye reconstruction. Where was I? I was there, packing my pack. And from the angle I spun round on, the guide's finger seemed to pointing to a rather bland rocky outcrop. Cheryl described everything to me and was kind enough to say that it was all so quick and far away that it could have been a large dog, that it didn't really count as a sighting. But the fact is that I missed out on the punchline that made what we had witnessed less of a joke and more a playing out of a real life and death drama, of two top-of-the-food-chain dominant life forms scaring the bejeesus out of each other. I had been thwarted yet again at seeing a tiger in the wild (first time: Sumatra) and my first close encounter with one lacked the teeth of actually seeing it.

The fact is, they are so rare now and are fighting a losing battle against extinction. Even where they are protected, their habitat isn't. Being located largely in the third world it only takes a small payment for officials to turn a blind eye to poachers and loggers. Sadly, unless conservation efforts miraculously manage to turn things around, the days of this magnificent creature ruling the Asian wild lands are numbered. Those that are left are understandably shy of humans and are notoriously difficult and dangerous to encounter - with that camouflage they are only seen when they want to be seen.

We make our way back to the car without event. Part of me wanting to catch a glimpse, the other (much louder) part hoping he stays on the other side of the river. Still, I won't give up until I see one in the wild, with my own eyes.