Clouds In The Head

The existential uncertainty of being somewhere else
9 May, 2014, 2:29 pm
Filed under: travel versus unravel

Or – what we think we need to do when we travel.

We observe. We make notes. We are surprised. We detect difference. We wonder. We detect similarity.

Oh, look, that’s a good half dozen water buffalo in that paddy. 

They have crofton weed here, too. And that’s a mini-lantana, I wonder how weedy it gets here.

Wow, those women have been hanging round outside our hotel room hoping to sell us stuff for hours!

The locals don’t seem fazed by all that smoke in their houses. 

Does this land ever get a drought?

They like a drink, the men round here, just like us.

We share our thoughts. But we don’t quite know what to do with them. We don’t “travel by thesis” (well we do a bit, but not in an all-engulfing manner – see future blog post “Donna and the Shovel Women” for more info) in the way Marxists of yore once did, seeing everything through the lens of oppression and wage slavery.

We meet folks and compare. Oh, we have crofton weed at home, it’s very bad for horses. 


And then we take a photo. Here is our guide. Her name was Khu. She was delightful. We sent her a photo when we left. Her command of English was amazing. She was a fine guide through the rice fields of Sapa. She had a gorgeous way of saying “I have no idea”. 

We latch onto ideas, hungry for them, seeking perhaps to legitimise our trip or to find some point of solidarity or something to “take home” to the people when we return. They’re so inspiringly energised: we can learn a thing or two from them.

And then we learn that cocktails are cheap, wine is expensive and suddenly the whole holiday begins to develop its own character and our discoveries, thoughts, notes, differences and similarities can be explored again over an easy daiquiri before bed and the next day’s discoveries can begin.


28 April, 2014, 7:21 pm
Filed under: travel versus unravel

Landing means not only arriving back, and dealing with the shards of consciousness still intact after trying to sleep in Economy.

It means beginning to develop the narrative of the trip. Those Vietnamese are so energetic, enterprising, much like us, different, hectic, friendly. The boys liked a lot of it but they didn’t appreciate the extensive hours bussing and training between destinations. Yes we’re broke, I know it’s cheap there but it turns out we have champagne tastes. You must go there, it’s amazing, you’d love it!

It means making our home livable again. There’s a chook sitting on 17 eggs – should we hatch them? OMG Mary and Graeme are booked in for a visit – on Tuesday! The grass is very long; I wonder if there’s enough petrol to mow. It’s late autumn – we need to chop firewood. Hey, look at all the ants’ nests in the pavers. I guess I have to throw out 5 shirts to fit the 5 I had made. I didn’t realise it’d be Anzac Day – no milk till tomorrow lads!

It means work again. Fuck me dead I’m booked in to teach the TAE next Saturday! I have to teach yoga and I never got round to doing yoga on the trip, I hope my body remembers. I have 16 sets of chords to learn before our next gig. Do we have to go back to school? I don’t wanna go to work I wanna be back in the Naaaaaaaam!

It means all those post-trip activities, like sorting photos and writing up the diary and chucking out leaflets. Hey all our cameras were set to different times, we have 5000 photos, the younger boy doesn’t want to cull ANY of his comic selfies, this is going to take FOREVER. Oh no I just knocked a glass of water over my hand-written diary. Are you sure we don’t need this leaflet about orthognathic surgery, darling? 

It means trying to cling on to the memories and feelings, by telling the story, tidying up the house, sorting the photos, and not letting work take complete control. Another weasel coffee, dear? Hey, boys, remember all those frozen jellyfish creatures in the limestone at Phong Nha? You know what Dungog needs – a backpackers! Oh, in Vietnam they’d say Xin Chao. Hey, everybody, let’s have a slide-show. 

But a slide show will require a million hours of sorting. Well let’s get on with it, then, eh. 

10 April, 2014, 1:18 am
Filed under: travel versus unravel

The younger lad wanted to visit rice fields. A restless overnight sleeper from Hanoi took us up to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, then a bus that climbed and climbed took us to Sapa. Built by the French in hilltribe territory, Sapa’s a tourist stop and there’s no shame in that. Tourists are hassled, followed, taunted, befriended, and cheerfully ridiculed by the Hmong, Dzau, Zay and other tribeswomen bent on selling their wares. The miracle they really have is not their gorgeous folky fabrics, including indigo textiles that have taken six months to dye and gloss,  but their rice paddies.

The hills of Sapa

Guided by Khu, our delightful Black Hmong guide, we entered the fields of … of what?

So many things about them, so much, observation, thought, surprise, photo opportunities, Hmong lady chatter.

But the thought came to me later that it was most like entering a vast artwork that straddled numerous art movements.

The fields form an installation, one that’s taken decades or centuries to construct, that you can wander through, that offers vistas and glimpses. A room you enter and are amazed by, only moréso and across great reaches. Sometimes the artist makes it rain on you, or feeds you, or breastfeeds her daughter and her friend’s son in front of you.

They are sublime like a Rothko, gradations of green, of brown, of reflected sky in the wet paddies. They are assemblages of digital Minecraft hill-shapes and there are so many of them curved and intricately interfolded that you could be forgiven for supposing they were planned by a crazy unstoppable exponent of Art Brut. They look fragile yet are solid. Each paddy from a distance seems robust yet you could break its bank if you trod the wrong way.

They offer optical illusions: each field is actually smaller than you think, and trekking to a path down below or way across thêre doésn’t take all that long at all.

Sapa fieldsAnd they are laden with punctums, to borrow Roland Barthes’ term to describe the off-kilter bit in a photo to which the eye wanders, the fragment that contradicts or scoffs at the subject. The TV showing a Vietnamese soap opera, the men building a house like a moment from Witness, the blast of bar noise, the wires and concrete paths. They are earthy yet heavenly.

I’m not trying to be flip about the places and the forceful visual impressions, just to explain what a rich aesthetic experience they smash you with.

Communing with the ladiesBike and clothes

And I do know that they are also massive engines for growing rice. According to Much Depends On Dinner, it’s the invention of the rice paddy that enabled Asia to grow its enormous populations. They are tended, cleansed, rebuilt. Forests are burnt and replaced by more and still more paddies. rising higher up the hillsides. Water buffaloes and cultivators and diggers and shovels and hoes and men and women and old people and kids and trucks construct them, on and on. And market gardens and corn crops and big concrete-floored houses sprout with the rice.

It’s dazzling.

Relentfully, the leader regrets the single day nature of the visit
30 March, 2014, 7:53 pm
Filed under: travel versus unravel

The place you don’t get to know

KL for only one day, and weary from the journey. We’re not going to be staying here. We’re moving on to Vietnam, our serious destination. No point:

– learning our way around

– visiting anywhere but the most obvious tourist stops

– getting more than a taste of the place

– learning the language.

But my smattering of Indonesian, a similar tongue, keeps coming back. And I’ve finally figured out where our hotel is and we’re leaving it tomorrow. And the tourist stops are either as predictable as shopping malls or as inaccessible as the Petronas Towers climb was because the Grand Prix crowd booked it out early this morning. And the place’s flavour includes street scenes crowded with men on busy corners where Donna, clearly a western woman, felt uncomfortable and hot and vulnerable.

I think we’ve learnt some important things, mostly about our own personalities: for we are buggered and in a foreign land so things will necessarily give. The 13 year old needs frequent refuellings and rests. Donna doesn’t like heat unless there’s frequent relief. The 15 year old remains cheerfully laid back but does act as the group’s emotional barometer: it’s only when he says, Dad, I think we should stop, in his barometric way, that I know it’s really time to stop. And I, the leader, the only one with the local currency, or the map, or the leadership skills to lead such a rudderless group, the decision-maker, the planner, the king, the one with the inadequate photocopies of Lonely Planet KL guide, possibly won’t be allowed to be in charge of the map any more. Thanks to me we keep going in circles.

[Note: this has been a pattern of travel with me since I was 30 and re-writing a guidebook to Estonia. Carol and Mark will recall our walk round Riga twice.]

And since I’m the only one I trust to lead, I guess I’m the one who has to proudly relent. I will do it. I will allow the 13-year-old to have the map, when we get to Hanoi. Donna says he’s the best choice because he will choose the minimum number of steps to any point, the exact opposite of my philosophy of cartography. The kids also say I have to slow down so Mum can keep up.

KL tower from the purple bus (we should have taken the green bus - both are lilac)photo by GOBC

Malaysian directions

Things aren’t that well signposted here. To get to the arrival lounge and baggage pick-up from your landed plane, you have to take a brief train ride. No one tells you that, even once you climb onto the train having exhausted all other options of finding your baggage. To climb the Petronas Towers, or even just to find out there are no more climbs available today, you have to get lost both inside and outside the shopping centre at least four times. Despite the numbers of tourists and the tourism economy that accompanies it, the country seems to barely notice its visitors once they’ve arrived.

Tell you what was great: the exterior of the Petronas Towers; the Textile Museum, the air conditioning once you manage to get to any; the lovely cab driver we met named Rodzi, the sudden change of weather as rain arrives with warm fresh winds and lightning outside the hotel right now.

Chickens laughter
27 March, 2014, 2:58 pm
Filed under: travel versus unravel

We can’t go away and leave 3 teenage roosters to create havoc in our normally cheerful chook yard. (The pleasant sound of chickens’ laughter echoing round the valley in the last couple of weeks has become more cackling and squawky, since the wee man-hens hit puberty.) So we decided to dispatch them this morning. It’s been about three years since we’ve killed a chook. We never “enjoy” it, and even repeating the mantra “coq au vin, coq au vin, coq au vin” lost its flavour after a bit.

But we did it, me on the actual slaughter, sharing the plucking, Donna solo on evisceration, and both of us feeling:

a)    a little ill and possibly not predisposed to intercourse for 24 hours

b)   intrigued that we should be doing it just before we head to Hanoi and presumably see a bit more of this kind of thing on our trip (might get some tips)

c)    apologetic, sad and grateful to the little roosters

d)   conscious that everyone who eats chicken, beef, lamb, fish, anything non vegetal is also an agent in the slaughter of an animal

e)    and frankly a little disappointed by the weight of the birds.

We try to make the act as humane as possible. They don’t see each other go, we cover their eyes (very calming for chickens), and we don’t do it in front of the lads, though I’m sure they could handle it. Or am I?

Photo on 27-03-14 at 3.52 PM

The packed peri-departure program continues. I’ve applied for a job, sent a cover sheet for a script, written some internet blurb, approached an auctioneer, commented on a design, copied contacts to my phone, put Quikflix on hold. Two videos to finish watching tonight, Jack Goes Boating and Elena. Not particularly mood-enhancing but that’s what we’ve got.

Do we carry our passports everywhere with us?

Or do we leave them at the hotel? Do we each need a daypack, or will one do us? Should I run up and down the hill in a last-minute attempt to earn some aerobic fitness? Ay me.

Reality TV is only “half distended” (and pre-travel is pre-gnancy)
26 March, 2014, 8:42 am
Filed under: travel versus unravel

I was watching TV last night, which some of you know we can’t do any more since Paul Keating made us go to digital, anyway, I was killing time at the in-laws and  catching up on shows called My Kitchen Rules, Resurrection, The Block, Foreign Correspondent, the news and a truly magnificent one called The Biggest Loser, when I realised that there’s a term I don’t know.

I know the concept: it’s all that padding and filler that reality TV hosts and directors and editors use to make a ten second moment turn into half an hour. How do you feel about evicting someone? How do you feel about being evicted? Who are you thinking of evicting and how do you feel about that? It’s a delaying tactic, clearly, a bloating of the insides of the cells of time. I’m sure there’s a hip cute word for it, but I don’t know what it is.

I’m going to call it “distension”. You know, a distended unhealthy tummy like on a starving child. A distended lump of garden hose where the side has weakened. I was going to call it tumescence but that’s too sexy. Or oedema but that’s not chunky enough. No, it’s distension. Temporal distension to be specific. (One thing I like about the term is that the TV people are trying to raise tension, and it works for a while but then you get sick of it and just wish they’d lance the bloody boil and tell us who’s being evicted so we can find out how everyone feels about it and then watch the next program.)

Travel is pregnancy

I found myself musing that the countdown to actually leaving on a trip is a bit of distension. It turns into this great delay, this wait, this “oh there are so many things to do” time. If you go OS a lot, you probably have systems etc. But for us, rare travellers, it’s a strange build of excitement and fear and tasks.

I was wondering where I’d felt this before. This massive amount of planning, this “it’s still weeks away” feeling, this OMG it’s just around the corner, this “come on, I’m ready” sensation.

It was when we had our first baby, nearly 16 years ago. We didn’t know what we were doing. The creature didn’t have a gender, personality, identity, “tone”, or even reflexes or eyes that worked. There was advice everywhere, books to read, things to set up, stuff to buy, bookings to make. We knew it was important, a “one-shot” chance at success with each baby or trip. We tried to be careful and sensible (how many ultrasounds should we have, when’s the best time to buy US Dollars). Then Donna was overdue and we were getting sick of it. Exactly the same way I grew sick of waiting to find out if Kerry or Roger was going to be kicked off Loser. Sooo sick of it. Time, like my love’s belly, was distended and filled inconsequentially.

Photo on 26-03-14 at 9.50 AM            Photo on 26-03-14 at 9.36 AM

And then it happens. You’re on the trip, you’ve given birth. The days consist of the demands and novelties of travel or a new human life. Responsibilities mount but very quickly so does the knowledge of what to do. You make decisions. The time before, all that prep, the single life, the getting-plenty-of-sleep, has disappeared as if it never happened. You’re a new you: the travelling you, the parent. (And don’t tell me people aren’t slightly different versions of themselves when they’re tourists!) You’re trying to fit shit in, but it’s different shit from your normal/former life. You don’t do anything perfectly but everything is amazing.

And then you shove the baby back up the clacker whence it came, fly back to Australia, update your photo albums, thank people for taking care of things while you were away, and after a couple of weeks forget it ever happened.

Which is also true of reality TV.

My hands are falling off
24 March, 2014, 7:13 pm
Filed under: travel versus unravel

My hands are falling off. Travelling overseas, it turns out after a ten year hiatus, has changed. Instead of underlining half your Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, then going, and hoping there’s a loose fit when you get there, nowadays you go on the internet three months earlier and you stay there until the flight attendant tells you to turn your computer off, the captain wants to take off.

Photo on 24-03-14 at 8.05 PM

At least I assume that’s what will happen. So much choice. So many questions. Do I even bring my laptop? Do the kids bring their devices (an iPod, an iPod Mini, a phone)? Where did I put my under-shirt passport wallet and will it fit four passports in? Are the folks looking after our house and chickens well enough versed in the strange ways of both species?

We’re only going for four weeks, but what about all the things we meant to do before we left? I was going to restructure a script, help plan the educational program for the new film fest in Dungog, start a blog at the community college, make a short film. I think I’ll do this blog instead. (Hidden agenda: I may be teaching a short course in Blogging Basics just after I get back.)

Do I take the laptop? If I do take my laptop it will be so I can write this, and upload my photos. If I don’t, it will be so I can have peace of mind and a real break while we’re away. Can I do the blog anyway – use my younger son’s iPad Mini and take it from there? Eek, I don’t know the technology. I’m a fogey!!

More questions resound as my fingers type and internet exploration continues. Have I booked the train tickets to Sapa? Is it essential to pre-book transport to Cat Ba? Do I need earplugs? Do I need to pre-book the cooking school at the Red Bridge? How much cash do we need in US dollars and do we let the lads have any of it? Everyone else is bringing shorts but I’m scared of mozzie diseases.


Well, either this blog will briefly be turned over to a short series of articles on how I decided not to do a blog on my holiday – or it will record the journey of my particular family.

Giovanni Guareschi’s family was more fiery (fierier?) but we have our own peccadillos (peccadilli? Are we a peccadilli circus?).

Donna is the relaxed one with the small pharmacy – an expanding pharmacy as any suggestion from anyone has her rushing off to the chemists to expand her dispensary. Someone today said maxi-dosing on vitamin B discouraged mosquitoes. A magic bottle of mega-B just appeared.


The 15-year-old is just going to go along in his unworried way and see what the rest of the world is like. He’s laid back but I suspect that a love of architecture and military history will surface. Oh and he’ll have to find somewhere to store his retainer for nine hours a day.

The 13-year-old who may or may not be taller than me (I’ve refused to be measured for a month) wants to do rock-climbing, kayaking, motorbiking. We haven’t mentioned that trekking is really just a Dutch word for bushwalking, which he’s semi-allergic to. Oh, and that the locals put green-coloured plant materials in many of their dishes.


And me? Well I need a holiday. I need to renew, reinvigorate, relax. Ah, but who is the boss of the timetable, the king of the map, the smith of Cam-An Rak-Ngieu and other travel phrases, the maestro of the next day’s activities? And who is thinking of taking his laptop so he can do a blog on the trip?

Photo on 2-02-14 at 9.55 AMI dunno yet. Possibly me. I’ll tell you when I get there.