Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Travel


My partner and I are in Paris right now. How thrilling to wake up on a Saturday morning, throw open the window of our 5th floor apartment and hear everyone puttering down Boulevard St Germain on their motor scooters. Each morning we observe that the lights of the penthouse opposite come on at 7 am: hard-working early risers, or, more likely I think, just returning home from the evening’s activities?

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I don’t want to be a tourist, dashing from one ‘attraction’ to another. I just want to be in Paris. So, we wander. We buy cheese and sausage from a street market. We look through an open door to a courtyard, it seems to be okay to go in, we find that it’s the Delacroix Museum – a small museum set up in his house that he purchased to be close to the church of St Sulpice, where he had been commissioned to paint murals. Several rooms and the artist’s studio display a changing collection of Delacroix’s works and a few that were dedicated to him.

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On Sunday we strolled down Boulevard St Germain to the Museum of the Middle Ages – a bonus that it is free entrance on Sundays. I had no idea that it is so extensive. In fact, for me the collection was overwhelming. Most of the artefacts from the 8th to the 16th century are astonishingly well preserved; some were discovered as recently as 1977.

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There are statues, stained glass windows, carved panels, magnificently bejewelled crucifixes and containers for relics. What I particularly like are the tapestries. How long would they take to make? I imagine the poor women bending over the stitches, losing their eyesight, devoted to their creation. Perhaps the most famous of these tapestries is a series showing a lady, a lion and a unicorn. There are six pieces – five illustrating the five senses; smell, touch, feel, taste and hearing. The sixth, Mon seul désir, is mysterious. Behind the lady is a partly open tent – what does it symbolise? Some believe it represents Plato’s theory of knowledge acquired through the senses. Another view is that the heart is an internal sense, making it possible to centre oneself.

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Exhausted, we stumbled out of the museum and found, almost opposite, a cinema. In an hour’s time the 1999 Miloš Forman film Man on the Moon would be playing. An extraordinary contrast to the medieval world we had been in, but that’s what happens in Paris. The film is a biography of the comic entertainer Andy Kaufman, played by Jim Carrey. His style reminded me a lot of Jerry Lewis. Hoots of laughter until the end, where we learn (if we didn’t know) that Kaufman died of a rare form of lung cancer. He desperately wanted to keep living and tried a sham cure in the Philippines, but nothing could save him, except . . . a year after his death, Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s co-worker, appears on a show as Kaufman’s created horror character Tony Clifton, singing ‘I will survive’.

Man on the moon

After the film we kept wandering: crêpes au citron, then later, Chablis at the Odette bar, looking out to Notre Dame and then a concert of piano music rather incongruous for its setting; Chopin and Gershwin in one of Paris’s oldest churches, St Julien le Pauvre.

st julien le pauvre


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Good horn, good brakes, good luck: a month in India

Please find a link to this piece that was published in Bruce Gillespie’s Treasure 1, June 2013:Good horn, good brakes, good luck: a month in India,Good horn, good brakes, good luck: a month in India


Everyone said, why Uganda? Like me, they associated Uganda with the brutal rule of Idi Amin in the 1970s, with military coups and civil uprisings. A few years ago there was a terrorist bombing at a sports stadium. Why would anyone want to go there? And I asked myself this when the possibility of some work arose – was I prepared to conduct workshops in Kampala for a new secondary school examinations curriculum?

I decided it would be an adventure. I opted to go for the shortest period of time. I had my yellow fever shot and procured malaria medication. Then – second thoughts, too late because I’d already committed – I had to complete various forms including a ‘proof of life’ form. I had to provide questions that only I could answer. In other words, if I were captured, what questions could Australian authorities put to me to ensure that I was still alive, and what code words and gestures could I use to tell them I was being tortured? I told myself that other Australians do this frequently. I thought of journalists. It is just a procedure mainly to indemnify one’s workplace. The exercise was quite confronting.


Entebbe International Airport reminded me of Rockhampton or maybe Townsville. The countryside is lush and green with clumps of banana palms. We flew in over the expanse of Lake Victoria (there is also a Lake Albert, named, I presume, when Uganda was a British Protectorate).Uganda is close to the Equator but at a high altitude, so the temperature stays in the mid 20s C throughout the year – a perfect climate. We left the Emirates Airbus 338 by stairs and then scrambled into what one might call a customs hall to complete our landing cards, which had not been handed out on the flight. A long wait, ultimately to be released into Africa after paying for a visa in $US50 cash – the notes to be 2006 or newer. Everyone else was fingerprinted but the guy on the desk forgot to take mine. I thought this a blessing at the time, but later wondered what would happen if I were wrongly accused of a crime. No need to worry about obtaining currency or deciding what kind of taxi would be safest, we were met by a driver who drove us the 40km or so to our accommodation.

All along the roadway from Entebbe to Kampala are market stalls or fragile structures that serve as shops for anything – food, clothes, furniture or refrigerators. I tried to ignore the live chooks in cages. The vendors looked contented, although not many people were buying. The trick is to have God blessing your produce; the ‘God is Love Supermarket’ and, particularly puzzling, the ‘Psalm 23 Unisex Hairdressing Salon’. The soil is reddish gold, there are piles of green bananas, food growing everywhere – maize, vegetables. The roads are rutted. In the centre of Kampala the main streets are sealed, but the roads to our accommodation and our workplace are unmade, with ruts so deep I feel one would need a four-wheel drive even to get around the city. The drive from the airport takes nearly two hours. It is a single lane carriageway all the way and the traffic is heavy.

Forest Cottages is set in what is probably a well-to-do suburb of Kampala. Quaint ‘apartments’ with no regard to Occupational Health and Safety. A colleague from Kenya thought they were grotty, but I rather enjoyed the quirkiness and found them far more refreshing than a conventional hotel. For a week I couldn’t read in bed at night – the first night I tried to adjust the power cord of my light and the whole power point came out of the wall. I asked for it to be fixed. It was. The power cord stayed plugged in, but then the light itself gave out. I decided it was too complicated to ask again, so tried to read by my flickering torch that needed a new battery, which I didn’t have time to buy. My ‘apartment’ was on two levels; a kind of living room on the top floor (which I didn’t have time to use) and a bedroom with a mosquito-net-covered bed and small desk on the lower floor – this was reached by a precarious wooden stairway – no bannisters. I came to relish a cup of African instant coffee, which I sipped at six in the morning as I prepared for the coming day.

We held our first meeting with the exam authority the day after we arrived. A meeting room had been booked, but it was nicer to sit on the Forest Cottages lawn, surrounded by tropical trees, interesting birds and large carved animals – including a kangaroo! This lawn provided respite after an 11 hour day of work – just the place to sip gin and tonic. After the first day of plenary sessions we had two shots of gin.

I was working mainly with a Creative Arts group; warm, enthusiastic people with deep soft voices. They had written a song about changing the curriculum. There was a spirit of generosity; no problem to photocopy at a moment’s notice, or to provide ring-binders and a hole puncher. The generosity extended to food; a choice of two types of food such as scones, for morning and afternoon tea and lunch was hot, with many dishes to choose from. I asked whether they usually eat so well. ‘The food is fresh,’ said one woman as she eased herself into her chair. Everything was wholesome.

I hadn’t expected Kampala to be so middle class. Of course, the people we were working with were middle class. But I’d expected to see beggars. I’d expected it to be like India where children are trained to run up to your car and bang on the windows, or an elderly person shoves the stump of an amputated arm under your nose. Although we drove along many roads, I didn’t see a beggar. I’ve been to Botswana, Colombia and Saudi Arabia, so I wasn’t alarmed by the presence of armed guards at the entrance to all buildings. Your bag is searched before you go into a supermarket (not afterwards), there was an armed guard at the iron entrance gate to Forest Cottages and a guard with a truncheon kept watch within the grounds.

One evening we went to the Ndere cultural centre. There was a show of local and other African dances and music – vibrant, colourful, passionate. I couldn’t help noticing that the dancers were leaping around on a hard brick surface.

The best evening of all was when we went to the home of a colleague I had met in Botswana. Now retired to his home town, he had been managing the examinations centre. He lives with his wife in a spacious bungalow and the whole extended family had been invited to meet us. His daughter, who is CEO of a world AIDS organization, collected us and also drove us home. Another daughter is a civil engineer, another works for an international food agency and one son is a teacher. There was a delicious spread of African food. The most touching part was the end of the evening when there were family prayers and they all clasped hands and sang in harmony.

I know that parts of Uganda are very unsafe – it is dangerous to travel up north – precarious because of road conditions and wild animals as well as terrorist threats and rebellious tribes. But I shall take away from my very brief and sanitised experience a picture of that family who have blended their lives of spiritual devotion with the reality of a 21st century world.



A Saturday in Bogota

I arrived in Bogota on a Wednesday and was thrown straight into a work schedule. Then came the weekend – a chance to relax. If there had been an obvious tourist centre with bus trips to the Salt Cathedral or surrounding countryside I would have taken one.  Failing this, I decided to explore Monserrate, a 3160 metre peak that towers over the city with its church and 1650s statue of the Fallen Christ.

According to the Lonely Planet guide you can reach the peak by cable car or funicular. It was an easy walk to the tourist area at the foot of the mountain. Then I looked for signs to the funicular. I couldn’t find it. There were lots of visitors, so I followed them. Surely they would be going to the funicular. I tried to ask for directions, but no one seemed to understand ‘funicular’. So I kept walking along with the other visitors.

We were climbing a bit – I assumed to the funicular. I did think that the path would be very demanding for disabled people. We kept walking. There were stalls selling bottles of water at the side of the track. I bought one. Every-so-often a group of people would come thundering down the track – in the opposite direction to us. Ultimately I recognised an American accent and I was able to have my suspicions confirmed. I was indeed climbing Monserrate and by now I was probably a quarter of the way up.

I stopped and pondered my situation. I was wearing a coat and carrying a bag with more in it than I would have taken on a vigorous climb. The Lonely Planet Guide had advised against walking up the mountain except with pilgrims on a Sunday (this was a Saturday): ‘you’ll be a prime target for thieves who prowl the mountainside’. Also, Bogota itself is at a high altitude and some visitors are affected by the depleted oxygen. I had not seemed to be affected, but climbing to a higher altitude might be asking for trouble. On the other hand, I had already covered a fair bit of the distance and there seemed to be plenty of people around, including Tourist Police who did not speak English – I had already tried to ask them the way to the funicular.

So I decided to keep climbing. If I started to feel faint from lack of oxygen, I would turn around immediately. It would be stupid to faint on the mountainside with thieves wandering around! I tried to stay close to other people (I noticed now that most were young men wearing track suits and runners) and even they had to stop to catch their breath . Whenever I sat down to rest—and as we neared the top I had to do this more and more frequently – I made sure that I was in sight of some Tourist Police. There were little stalls from time to time selling delicious-looking tropical fruit juices and slices of pineapple, but I decided it was best to keep to bottled water. The view was utterly magnificent and the vegetation seemed to me not unlike Australian plants. I was certainly puffing as I neared the top, buoyed on by some kind of private heroics. My coat was tied around my waist and I was sweating profusely. It couldn’t be far now – there were stalls selling trinkets – replicas of the cathedral and the Fallen Christ. I rounded a corner – it must be the final stretch . . .  and . . .   I was hit by the stench of boiling offal! It was so overwhelming and repugnant that I felt I had to beat my way through it although I had practically no reserves left. Somehow I covered the last few metres and tottered up a flight of white stone steps to the cathedral where I joined the crowds and gave thanks, sitting up the back, panting and marvelling at the crystal chandeliers.

I think I bought some post cards at one of the many stalls set up for tourists, then I went to what is probably the best restaurant, sat at a table with a magnificent view and ate a beautifully baked fish. From the restaurant I could see the funicular – and that’s how I descended Monserrate.  It took about 5 minutes.

Some ‘smackerels’ of travel: a work trip to Bogota


I was a little anxious about travelling alone to Bogota because of all the press about drug crimes. I bought a new secure backpack and had it wrapped in plastic at the airport so that it would be difficult to make me a ‘drug mule’. The people sitting next to me didn’t seem to speak much English and the Lan Airlines flight entertainment wasn’t working so it was just as well that I had a lot of preparation to do on the sixteen hour flight to Santiago. I arrived around lunch time and the next plane to Bogota left at 9.30 in the morning, so I sampled a South American style airport hotel which, unfortunately, is not very different from an Australian one. There was a shuttle bus to the hotel, but no clear way of getting from there into the Santiago city centre, which was some distance away. So I prudently remained close to the airport and forced myself to stay awake until South American bedtime by having lunch (assisted by my Latin American phrase book) and wandering around the hotel swimming pool area, which was not very extensive. I was reassured that I was actually in Chile when I looked out to the snow-capped craggy mountains, which I assumed were a part of the Andes.

Next morning I set off for ‘Eldorado’ – the name of Bogota international airport. (It reminds me that in Adelaide you can catch a bus to ‘Paradise’.) The plane was going on to Miami and there was a small part of me tempted to remain on board rather than face up to the challenges of finding my way around downtown Bogota and the work I had to do. Hotel Bacata would send transport to the airport – that was all I knew. And I ultimately recognised it – a taxi driver holding up the name: ‘Jenifa Brais’. We set off down Avenue Eldorado, detained by a student demonstration and the need to buy petrol.

The hotel did its best to accommodate me comfortably. It was the kind of hotel that catered for local sports teams rather than international visitors with no Spanish. When travelling for work I usually make use of the hotel gym. Hotel Bacata had a gym that opened at 6.00 am. I fronted up at 6.30 am. There was no one around. I could not get any of the machines to work – they weren’t turned on, yet there seemed nowhere to turn them on. I looked fruitlessly behind curtains and partitions for a master switch. There was a phone and a sign (in Spanish of course) – and I knew it said: for service please call this number. But I also knew that I would not be able to make myself understood, so I gave up, somewhat deflated by the defeat. For breakfast there was a choice of lumps of meat floating in watery soup, or watery scrambled eggs. I went for the scrambled eggs.

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