Tuesday, December 27, 2011

DO THEY BITE

I'm balls-deep in water trying to get phone coverage. This would not normally be a problem, but there is a big crocodile living just over there at Red Island. And he visits the beach regularly. I ran into Danny last night at the fishing club after the raft race. Danny is the manager of the holiday park where I'm camped.

Got a call saying the croc was up on the beach, he says. Someone left a crab pot there.
So how do you shoo away a four-metre saltwater crocodile? i ask.
He stares at me in disbelief.
You don't. You shoo away the campers.

I keep my phone call short and my eyes on the water. I had a tourist ask about crocs on Thursday.
Do they bite? she asked.

I walk up the beach and drop my shirt and phone and go back in the water for a quick dip. I squat down and splash some water on my face. All the while I'm peeling eyes like a kitchenhand in a cannibal restaurant. Then it's back up the beach, grab the shirt, and back to the tent. No point using a towel. I'll be dripping in sweat again in no time anyway. I use the tap to rinse the sand off my feet and let the salt dry on my skin.

It's hot. I lie down in the tent for a brief relapse. After the madness of the raft race, it is a great relief to just stretch out in this tropical heat and do nothing.

THE PENINSULA PIRATES REGATTA

It's a pretty boat, but small, almost toy-like. A large islander walks down through the coconut grove and picks up the line from the stingray anchor. He starts to haul it to shore. The rest of his group sit on the sand around the ashes of last night's fire. I walk down and join him on the shoreline.

Boat blo yupla? i ask.
Wa.

The small craft crunches up onto the sand. I see the mast is a length of three-by-two pine. The boom is the same, and a roughly-sawn piece of ply is lying in the bottom of the boat. It's a centreboard. Another length of construction pine runs cross-wise to strengthen the mast. The tiller is a length of hardwood attached with galvanised screws to the plywood rudder. Most of the fittings are handmade. The pulleys and eyelets for the ropes are all hand-carved from blocks of pine, as are the cleats on the gunwales.

You build this boat? i ask.
Wa, I mekem, he says.
Looks like its from the 50s.
Dis dinghy, i get im down south, dempla bin call im a 'clinker'.
Because of the way those boards overlap?
Wa. I mekem mast and sail, tiller, mekem sailbot.
He points to the centreboard, which still bears the markings of a felt-tip pen.
I suddenly realise this vessel has been built with a specific purpose in mind.
You're going in the raft race?
Wa.
So this is an entry in the Peninsula Pirates Regatta, an annual raft race from Umagico to the fishing club at Seisia. Well, 'annual' in the sense that it was held for the first time around this time last year, give or take a tide or two.

I've been camped at Seisia for a couple of days now, having come over to the mainland from Thursday Island to cover the race for the paper. Having not seen any of the rafts, this year or last, I was not sure what to expect. In all honesty, I was expecting to see a bunch of empty cans of XXXX Gold tied together with driftnets. Or perhaps a beer-keg outrigger with a beach umbrella for a sail. Or bamboo. Lashings of bamboo. I didn't realise you could use an actual, prefabricated boat as the basis for your 'raft'. I'll be having a word with the scrutineers. What kind of show are they running here?



Friday, August 19, 2011

COCONUTS KILL MORE PEOPLE THAN SHARKS

A good day for journalist is a bad day for someone else. Today was a bad day for a journalist.
Today i got news that three of ABC's finest were killed in a helicopter crash at Lake Eyre in central Australia. And news that an editor-in-chief i worked with in Phnom Penh is currently hunkered down in Kabul, Afghanistan, after an attack on the British Council. "It always looks worse from the outside." And in Misratah, our former editor of photography narrowly escaped with her life by untying her constraining ropes and jumping from one balcony to another after Libyan thugs took her hostage. "It's amazing the pretty colors a rifle butt, a fist, an army boot, and having your head smashed repeatedly into a concrete floor can produce. No camera left to take a proper picture though." But the cameraphone picture was horrifying enough.

Meanwhile, here in the Torres Strait, the tide came in this morning, and went out this afternoon. The only clear and present danger on Thursday Island is spraining a wrist falling out of a hammock, or being hit by a falling coconut whilst sipping a piña colada.

Of course coconuts kill more people than sharks. Sharks aren't stupid enough to sit under coconut trees.



Monday, August 01, 2011

MUSHROOMS IN THE LOUNGE

Sure, it wasn’t a mind-blowing idea for our first magazine cover, but then again, the hallucinogens weren’t that mind-blowing, either. But the mushrooms were certainly easy to come by, especially with a supplements editor wandering the office throwing bags to all and sundry. Now that's what i call "supplements". Not that the distribution of hallucinogenic mushrooms to news staff happened every day. Not at all. This was only usual on Thursdays. As a Monday to Friday daily, our partying schedule started on Thursday nights with beers at Cantina, and continued until around Wednesday the following week.

The mushrooms smelled like the nether regions of a Ukranian prostitute, only cheaper. And slightly more uplifting, leaving us in fits of laughter all night long. But you never can tell with mushrooms. I believe it was the systematic abuse of mushrooms that led our business writer to believe that it was a good idea to fly to Tehran, be beaten senseless by Iranian government forces for violating curfew during an election, and file copy about it. But each to their own. I was more focused on aesthetics. And it was while swimming in the pool at Fly Lounge on the funny black mushrooms that i came up with the idea for the magazine cover. With its glass walls, it was a simple matter for us to photograph each other floating in this tepid water, like creatures in Damien Hirst formaldehyde, before flopping down amongst the throw cushions in the lounge to drink mojitos and giggle hysterically.

After discovering this small human aquarium tucked away in a tiny but classy shopfront cocktail bar, i realised we could use it to produce some amazing underwater images. Because of its glass wall, no underwater camera was needed. All we needed was a beautiful young Khmer model, two studio flashes set up over the pool, and a photographer. Easy peasy. Plus a range of dresses that would float delicately underwater around the model. That was the idea, anyway, and that was to be the cover image for the first edition of our new lifestyle magazine, 28Days. A dreamlike underwater image of a model, with a pointer to a lively, well-written, informative feature on swimming pools in the Cambodian capital. Swimming pools in hotels, resorts, bars, and sports centres. The model on the cover would appear elegant, with delicate fabrics floating serenely around her. The image and story feature would combine fashion, sports, luxury accommodation, sensuality, and drinking, all in one fell swoop. Now that's what i call lifestyle.

Unfortunately, what actually transpired, after the hallucinogens wore off, was a shoot with a model who was terrified of water. Completely and utterly terrified. Not only was Molyvorn unable to swim, but she was seemingly unable to grasp the concept of holding her breath while her head was underwater. The water in the pool only came up to her waist, so all she really had to do was wade in, face the camera, bend her knees and go under. I had been so concerned with finding studio lighting and a cameraman that it never occurred to me this might be a problem. But here was Molyvorn, coming up, after a brief, submerged second or two, on the verge of tears, spluttering and gasping for air. She may well have been in tears: it was impossible to tell. Despite desperate mediations via a series of interpreters, soothing words, visual demonstrations and remonstrations, all our photographer was capturing was a series of images seemingly hell-bent on accurately recreating the terror of the waterboarding torture methods of the Khmer Rouge, only in evening dress.

Eventually our ever-patient and professional photographer, Vinh, managed to snag an image that recreated, to a degree, the dreamlike look i had envisaged, and we all went home.

However our valiant efforts to procure a cover image mattered little when our permanently deranged and sweat-laden Australian publisher, Neal, arrived later that week. Storming into the eighth floor boardroom fresh from the heart of the golden triangle, he was possessed by the redundant and impoverished idea that the first edition of our magazine should not pull focus on the subtle luxuries of the expatriate lifestyle, but, rather, regurgitate, like a whiskey drunk kneeling in a gutter lit by the garish rays of the morning sun, an outrageously melodramatic tabloid rendering of sex, drugs and rock and roll in Phnom Penh.

Sweating profusely, Neal began his manic spiel by pulling from his black leather briefcase an A3 sheet of paper and waving it about like a long-lost Biblical parchment. “Sex and drugs!” he shouted. As he held forth the illustration in triumph, an audible groan came from the editorial staff. The drawing, which looked like it had been knocked out in an aeroplane toilet, featured a rough sketch of a busty brunette holding a martini glass, under the heading "Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll in the Pearl of Asia". And there, on the bottom, right-hand corner of the page, was a pile of what could only have been methamphetamine. A destructive quantity it was, too. As a design element, it formed a visual coda to a bacchanalian list of editorial contents. The 28Days magazine had rapidly degenerated into The 120 Days of Sodom, and the swirling underwater fashion photos were sunk.

Ultimately, and despite our best efforts to give the sordid theme a sophisticated sheen, this is what our front cover was to look like: a Phnom Penh bar girl seducing the dear reader with a counterfeit come-hither look over a martini glass filled with red cordial. Fortunately, after Neal's departure for Burma, the magazine improved. He hired an actual designer to work on the desk, thereby replacing the mediocre efforts of a clusterfuck of subeditors armed with varying degrees of InEptitude. But thosee first few issues were mangy dogs. And none more so than that bitch of a first issue.


As our sex columnist later said: You can't polish a turd. You can only sprinkle it with glitter. I hired our sex columnist, Lulu, on a whim, after seeing her in a bikini at a beach resort in Kampot. At the time it seemed a reasonable editorial decision. Her writing style was witty and erudite, had a deft knack of avoiding the sordid, and gave the magazine the kind of local spin and spark that we weren't quite getting from The Guardian's Charlie Brooker, with his Anglocentric, politicosurrealist rants and raves.

Before long, however, Lulu was failing to make deadlines, and my editor was demanding i ditch her and hire Ingrid, who was filing for a men's magazine in the Netherlands. I'd read Ingrid's stuff and didn't much like it. Her style was all sex on the washing machine and blowjobs. It was too "in your face" and would probably get us shut down. When i arrived as production editor, Neal had explained to me the three basic tenets of fulfilling the Ministry of Information requirements for publication:

  • All articles must be truthful
  • Articles must not criticise the royal family, either implicitly or explicitly
  • Publications must not contain graphic depictions or descriptions of sex.

But Ingrid’s columns clearly, freely and wantonly flouted at least one of these guidelines. And what if King Sihanouk was one to day read about his fictional consummation of the Queen on a washing machine on the spin cycle? I'm sure he wouldn't take that lying down. But meanwhile, Lulu was running out of topics. What can I write about this week? she wrote in a desperate plea for inspiration. Any ideas? I mulled this over and fired back an editorial missive: I want sex in the workplace, and I want it on my desk at nine o'clock in the morning.

You could write emails like that, back then.

Then, suddenly, prior to his abrupt departure to pursue a career in heroin, my editor-at-large had what he described as a brainwave, and what I secretly diagnosed as an embolism. He decided to hire both sex columnists, and pay our paltry freelance rates to whoever filed copy first. The effect was disastrous. Ingrid and Lulu knew each other, and neither was going to stand for the other pushing in on what each regarded as their territory. Having weaved his magic, the editor-at-large then vanished to the opium dens of Bangkok, leaving me to sort out what, after a few deafening phone calls, was already shaping up as a vicious catfight in the dog-eat-dog food world of magazine publishing.

What can one do? In an attempt to pour oil on the waters, i wrote an email to both columnists: There is only one way to settle this, and that is in an inflatable pool filled with jelly.

You could write emails like that, back then.

PHOTO: VINH DAO

Sunday, July 10, 2011

ЗАМЕСИТИ И МАЗАТИ МАРГАРИНОМ

Saint Mark's Church in Belgrade is, fittingly, a popular and incredibly beautiful church. The dome forms a heavenly canopy far overhead. On the earthly plane, the framed pictures of saints are covered with the lipsticked imprints of kisses. A sweet smell of incense permeates the cool interior.

My travelling companion, Mili X, hands me a candle. You can light candles for the living, and you can light candles for the dead, she says. It would seem, then, wholly inappropriate to light a candle for my son, because, as a teenage Zombie, he falls into neither category. So i genuflect before the ikons, kneel on this ancient stone, and light a candle for his dear departed mother. I close my eyes and pray before its flickering light. I pray she has found peace. I pray she has gone to a better place. I pray someday i may get my record collection back. I then light a candle for my son. Can't do any harm. Pascal's wager, and all that. Then, having fulfilled our religious observances for the next six decades, Mili and i rise and make our way back out of Saint Mark's. I make the sign of the cross (spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch) and we wander back to the Hotel Splendid via the back alleyways and rooftops of Belgrade.

Daylight. I pull the heavy curtains of our Splendid Hotel room aside, and gaze out across the rooftops of the houses of the Serbian parliament. Down on the street below, men with jackhammers are busily undermining the foundations of democracy. There will be no sleeping in today. I pour a few fingers of rum, polishing the nails with strawberry juice. I must brace myself for today's search for black-and-white film.

Out in the plaza, i find it is far easier to order ПОГАЧА and sit eating it with coffee than it is to find a shop that stocks rolls of film. Nobody wants old stuff like film here. Old stuff is communist stuff. Free enterprise is digital. After eating the cheesy corn bread, i wander the plaza regardless, waylaying bystanders with my retro Nikon (no, it's not a Kiev, Zenit or Lomo) in an attempt to find someone with a smattering of English who can point me in the direction of a film vendor. Eventually, a derelict wino borrows my pen, sketches out a map, and asks me for a cigarette. The map directs me to the sixth floor of a nearby office block.

The elevator is one of those contraptions where you need to be sure to keep your appendages completely to yourself. Although i suppose this is proper etiquette whilst inside any elevator. I open its double concertina doors onto a sixth-floor corridor. Part way along, a timber veneered door hangs open, beckoning film wasters with its single, lopsided, faded orange sign: "Agfa". Inside is a man in a leather jacket, black polo neck shirt, and black beret, smoking. He is sporting a black goatee, and has a surreptitious air about him. Clearly, the man is a Satanist.

Given Mili X and i are leaving the capital tomorrow, this is my last chance to stock up on the precious silver, even if i have to deal with the devil. I spy a few black and yellow boxes marked 'Ilford Pan 100'.

Pan 100? I've only ever seen this in 50, i say. Is this some kind of cheap Russian substitute? He shrugs, takes out a few rolls of the film, and places them on the grubby glass counter. He buts out his cigarette in a filter mountain and immediately lights another. He points at my Nikon and beckons. I hand it to him. He handles the rewind spool expertly, and, determining there is no film in the camera, pops the back open and quickly checks its shutter speeds and auto function. He nods. Dobro, he says. He snaps shut the back, points to the film identifier, where i shoved a tag off my last roll of Fuji Neopan. Pointing next at the Ilford 100, he gives the thumbs up, indicating that this film manufactured in some backstreet Gulag will stack up well against the fine-grained, dependable Japanese version. As it transpires, this is complete bullshit. Nonetheless i fork out a pile of dinars for half a dozen rolls, and in appreciation, the Satanist reaches under the counter and comes up with a roll marked with the unlikely name 'Gekko'. With a wave of his cigarette, he indicates this is a freebie. Back on the street, i load a roll and start shooting street scenes. Street scenes. I love street scenes.

When i first arrived in Belgrade, that is, when the JAT aeroplane landed at airport, the passengers broke into loud and heartfelt applause. I found this unnerving. I tend to take an airline pilot's ability to land a passenger jet aircraft somewhat for granted. I don't see it as something to be celebrated with astonishment, gratitude, and a standing encore. Especially when the seat belt sign is still on. But, here we are. Belgrade, however, is only a transit point. For we are on our way to that Hawaii of Eastern Europe, Montenegro. That, at least, is how it is advertised on the billboards. I'm looking forward to the pineapples. Pineapples. I love pineapples.

Twenty minutes past midnight, Sunday morning, and i am on a train to Montenegro, having missed the bus in the scrambled mess that passes for a bus station in Belgrade: a giant clusterfuck of cars, buses and people, all tooting, shouting, and blowing smoke. A bus full of passengers about to set off to a destination somewhere elsewhere in the Balkans is stationary, blasting its horn incessantly at an unmanned car blocking its path. Someone has simply parked a red Yugo right across the middle of the road and left it there, regardless of the available parking spaces dotted around it. Finally, the vehicle is lifted and manhandled out of the way by half a dozen burly Slavs.

After the bus trundles off, the inconsiderate Yugo driver appears, and nonchalantly parks his car in a marked bay. Mili X glares at him, calling him an idiotski under her breath as he stands idly chatting with waiting passengers. He then takes a big glob of gum out of his mouth and drops it on the ground in front of him. I've always wondered, while trying to pick gum off the soles of my Blundstones, what kind of idiotskis do that. Now i know.

When the late-running bus to Montenegro finally arrives, we discover it is not our bus. Our bus left an hour previously from a similarly named street just around the corner. So we hurry and harry a taxi driver across town to the train station, and squeeze onto the last train to Montenegro, and spend three and a half hours standing in a narrow corridor as it groans and wheezes. The ramshackle train does most of the groaning while chain-smokers do the rest. Eventually we bribe a train conductor and he finds us some seats. We fold them down and chase the elusive gremlin of sleep. The two female anglo backpackers beside us manage to somnambulate throughout the entire trip, including the breath-taking scenery, leading Mili X to believe they are in possession of powerful sleeping tablets. They looked and smelled to me like they hadn't had a decent night's sleep or a decent bath since departing the white cliffs of Dover. I down a few shots of rum and fall into a fitful sleep, dreaming of pineapples and Serbian women. I fucking love Serbian women.

The morning sun is bright, accentuating the contrast between this dry, mountainous green landscape and the sudden black tunnels from which it can take several minutes to emerge. Every now and then, when we burst into the blinding sun, i notice some of these chainsmoking people are staring at me. However, i resist the impulse to smile back at them in what might be construed as a friendly manner, as Serbs have a saying in common with the Russians: "He who smiles for no reason must be fucking crazy or stupid or both" and since i had no desire to appear any more idiotic that would came naturally on any given day, i adopt the same blank-to-grim-faced expression as everyone else on the train. Perhaps it's the hair. Before i left Belgrade i dyed my hair the kind of colour you would get if you poured gasoline on a case of tangerines and threw in a match.

A river meanders alongside as, and i watch as it rushes hurriedly over shallow stones, past a couple of fisherman, before winding on past a variety of half-finished houses with steeply-pitched roofs and market gardens and into the occasional town in which the houses stand in jumbled rows, one on top of the other, and disappear beyond the view from the train window as they ramble up the side of a black mountain.

We reach the old Austro-Hungarian fort town of Budva, Montenegro, after a horrifying taxi ride from Bar with a driver from the Evel Knievel School of Taxi Instruction. For this driver, the best possible place for a taxi, if not actually in mid-air flying off the edge of a cliff, is at high speed on the wrong side of a winding, narrow, mountainous road. As we cross a narrow bridge over a ravine, i see where the metal railing has been forced back in a gaping hole. Quaint plastic posies and a delightful Orthodox cross lay next to it. This spectacle energises our taxi driver, who begins tailgating a black, late-model Mercedes Benz with dark, tinted windows, Albanian plates and three antennae - id est, quite obviously a carload of gangsters - before overtaking them with his horn blaring and speeding on through completely unlit tunnels towards oncoming traffic with his headlights off. After communing at length with Jesus, for the most part silently, we arrive in Budva in the unfortunate position of having only dinars and dollars in a province powered by euros on a Sunday morning with fifty kilograms of luggage and nowhere to stay after an allnighter on a train from hell.

We buy two bottles of water and struggle up the hill to look for a room, and very difficult it is, too, carrying bottles which, as you can see from the label, contain over a hundred litres and are larger than a small child. We find a room run by an old lady who is very nice, although it would also be nice if we had hot water and toilet paper, but one can't expect miracles.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

AWAKE IN DJALI'S DREAMING

Arnhem Land is a peculiar feeling. I'm at sixes and sevens. I may not know what that means, but i know how it feels. The rules no longer apply. Meanings are buried. People speak in ancient languages. I'm a stranger in my own country. Because this is not my country. This is Yolngu country.

The troopy bucks like a rodeo brumby as we bounce through the pandanus scrub, all soft sand and corrugations. In the bare metal cargo hold i cling to whatever handholds i can find as the esky and spare tyre leap about like cane toads in a campfire. Up front, the two girls chatter excitedly as our Yolngu guide, Djali, tells tall tales from this remote part of East Arnhem Land. His homeland – our destination. A beach where waves foam across the invisible line between the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria.

On the steel mesh cargo grille behind Djali's head, two hand-painted woomeras swing back and forth, two brightly coloured pendulums bearing strange designs from before time. Djali steers the tojo effortlessly through the scrub and sand. He is headed for Bawaka. In places, the track is completely washed away, more of a creek bed than a road. Djali nurses the Tojo in low-range over the deep red ruts. Fish in tree, he says, pointing into the terrain of low scrub and eucalypts to our left. Each tree is host to its own termite nest, those thin, jagged apartments for ants. These so-called "magnetic anthills" are unlike the bulbous red anthills further south. Their grey, wall-like constructions are built on a north-south axis, to escape the sun's heat. In the afternoon, the ants simply shift their activities to the shaded eastern wing of their mud skyscrapers.

You see? Djali says, stopping the landcruiser, its diesel powerplant rattling away in neutral. I look around. I don't see. 'Fish in tree' is just one more surreal, incomprehensible excerpt from his millenia-old culture. Like the explanation for the strange cross-hatchings and markings on those tall, hollowed and hallowed totem poles at the Buku-Larnggay art centre. Then it snaps into focus. A fire has run through this country. On the iron-hard bark of a eucalypt is a burnt black charcoal simulacrum of a fish, tailfin down, mouth gaping at the sky. Djali stares at it a good while. Fish in tree, he says again, before shaking his head and jolting the tojo into gear.

The beach, as we crest a dune and slide slowly down upon it, is breathtaking. The water is pale emerald green. Smooth white sands dotted with coconut palms curve away to a dark green smudge of mangroves in the distance. In shallow, crystal clear waters, oysters cling to granite rocks at the high-tide mark. On the far side of the bay, low hills bask silently under a molten gold sun in a clear blue sky that stretches forever upward into the vacuum. We are in space, and lots of it. Dropped here from low orbit. Djali powers the lunar rover down the beach. The finely packed sand is the smoothest ride since we left the blacktop way back past the turnoff to Yirrkala.

Part of the trip from Nhulunbuy to Bawaka is along a dirt "highway" in inverted commas: the Central Arnhem Highway. This gravel road is closed half the year for the Wet. It winds through hundreds of kilometres of pure outback goodness. About 500km down the highway is the only fuel stop, the Mainoru Outback Store. Then the road finally meets the Stuart Highway after about 700km, just 40km south of Katherine.

Here and now there is no road, no roadhouse. Only beach. As we near the mangroves, Djali slows, leans out his window, and scrutinises the shoreline. Something catches his eye. He stops. We climb out, stretching cramped limbs and battered frames. Leave the camera in the car, he says. He juts his grey-bearded chin at the dunes. Women's dreaming, over there.  Drawing out a long, steel-barbed wooden spear from a bundle woven into the aluminium roof-rack, he takes a few paces back along the cruiser's tracks, and calls us over, pointing his spear at some markings in the sand. The clearly defined impressions sashay their way beneath the Tojo's tracks, through the saltbush and into the creek. I know it before he he says it. Croc. Big one, too, he says, swinging the point of the spear in a casual arc between the crocodile's footprints. Then he clambers out among the mangroves, searching.

Three mudcrabs later, we are winding along the sand crescent once more. Djali points to rocks in the distance. Only little way now to Djali's home, he says. Land on other side my father's country. See the boat there? That my nephew, fishing. I can't see anything, not a speck, but i don't doubt for a second the boat is there. The dunes on our left have some cultural significance. Two sisters. Long time ago. Create all this here. Djali tells us only part of the story.

Myths from different mobs have similarities that strike me as vaguely and naively preposterous. People and animals turning into one another. Good magic, bad magic. Human foibles and frailties. The actions of all combining with the power of myth to create this landmark, river, waterhole, rock formation or that constellation of stars. The stories convoluted and deeply felt. But they find no resonance in me. This is not my country. This is not my dreaming. I can't pretend any deep understanding of Aboriginal culture and myth. That takes a certain kind of bored urban misfit, one who ponces about the globe, dreadlocked, rubber-sandalled, and full of shallow bonhomie, adopting Indigenous cultural beliefs in the kind of ad hoc fashion that makes bower birds look like they've taken monastic orders.

The shack at Bawaka is the epitome of beach castaway chic, created as if for a getaway brochure. Decorated with fishing floats, driftwood and shells, the rough-hewn chairs and sawn log tables are right the beach, under the coconut palms. But despite its relaxing ambience, it is clear that this homeland is hard won. The native title battles have been fought, and Djali makes it clear that those who want to visit must have permission, and they must respect cultural traditions. The landscape is harsh, but bountiful – at least to those who know from those who knew before them. The Yolngu are familiar with the unfamiliar. Strangers have been coming to these shores for aeons, to take, to trade, to fight, to beg. The Macassans, who left the seeds for the tamarind trees all along the north coast, sailed here for the fish and the beche le mer, trading for women, and taking Yolngu crew with them back to the straits of malacca. The Japanese, here for the pearl shell. The missionaries, here for the heathen souls. Then the white man came in force, with government, police, handcuffs, rifles, poisons and prisons. Here to declare dominion, driving the Asians and their centuries-old trade back to their neighbouring shores. In place of the seafarers' wares they brought flour, tea, sugar, tobacco, alcohol and disease. In exchange for these hollow commodities, they took the land, the sea, and the souls of the Yolngu.

For a while, at least.

Djali starts a fire on the beach, and i see he has gathered some leaves and seeds along the way. He lays these upon the fire, where they smoulder and smoke. Picking them up, he comes at us and pats each of us on the chest, three, four times, while speaking quickly in Yolngu Matha. A cleansing. The scent of the smoke is strong yet subtle. Bringing back memories of bushfires, hot summers, the burnoffs that cleared the land for parks and homes in the suburbs.

Now, no bad spirits, Djali says, and smiles. He lays the green leaves back on the hot coals, and throws the mud crabs on top. As they cook, Djali tells us about the time Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman visited his home in Bawaka. She named my crocodile, he says with pride. He came up on the beach to eat some leftover turtle. I told Cathy how fast people run when they see him. How he makes them run faster than they ever run before. She called him 'Nike'.

Djali pulls the hot mud crabs from the fire, and throws them in front of us. The girls have brought fresh bread and salad. We crack open the shells and claws of the crab. I watch as Djali tears at the sweet white flesh of his crab with his teeth and fingers. He nods, with a chin and beard covered with juice, at a crab lying on the sawn plank before me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

LIFE PRESERVER



Back in Perth. The salt water seeps into my pores and dries slowly on my skin. Crusty. I feel crusty. But i can feel the cleansing catharsis of the Indian Ocean.

The sea strips away layers of tropical detritus and fever, its salty balsam slowly healing invisible scars. Each morning i rise early and submit, monk-like, to this ascetic baptism. My early morning swims grow longer, wider, deeper. Across limestone reefs i glimpse an occasional stingray, a school of herring, on my un-Australian Crawl, before i return to terra firma. The waves wash me up onto the hot summer beaches of my youth. This is my spiritual home – stifling and suburban though it is. Terror firmer.

Every morning after the swim i'm up the stairwell of the apartments at a run, in a desperate fervour to feel well again, up all eight storeys to Safari Bob's eclectic hideaway, with its chartreuse pile carpet, its cacophony of collectible cameras, guitars, books, movies, drinking paraphernalia, and the white leather sofa that is my current abode. I lug my old Mac and prehistoric Kodak film scanner up the lift of the 'Manhattan Apartments', or 'Heroin Flats' as Safari Bob calls them, along with rolls of film developed in my mum's bathroom, and sit and scan the afternoons away, reliving the horror, the horror, megapixel by megapixel, of the sad reality that is Kampuchea.


The coarse white sand, the drying salt on my skin grounds me. The drug-induced haze and topsy-turvy jungle fever is lifting. It is only when Mz Mayhem returns from the real Manhattan – barely a week after my own dramatic splashdown – that I realise how close i came to never seeing my triumphant titanium muse again. Soon, my publisher will be incarcerated in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison and my Cambodian girlfriend will be arrested and locked up in Prey Sar. Different times, different places, different reasons – all same same but different. The sand between my toes feels like salvation.

Meanwhile, Mayhem has not been idle. As a creative genius, she is not without her fans.


While I was in post-apocalyptic Phnom Penh, she was busy in Paris, directing a music clip for a song by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, on a zero-dollar budget. On its debut on the Rolling Stone website, her work was described as "a David Lynch-like odyssey". Which, from her occasional fervent, garbled, intercontinental telephone conversations, seemed to pretty much describe her Parisian adventures as well. While i was sweating it out one long night at the newspaper, Mayhem was perched nervously on the ledge of a shared apartment in Paris, worried there might be some funny business going down with her flatmate, a female clown. The clown spoke not one word of English, and Mayhem's only word of French – voila! – was not really applicable to the hair-raising situation. You can peer into Mayhem's subconsious, subterranean adventure here.

I come back from the beach to Safari Bob's version of Manhattan one morning and find he has taken up with Japanese photographer Emiko Monobe. Suddenly i'm feeling sheepish and in the way, an oafish convalescent beached on this white leather sofa like a Southern Right gone wrong. Then my sister telephones. She's on a flying visit from London; an occurrence rare as a comet. "You want to come to Laos and Angkor Wat next Wednesday? I need a tour guide." She's paying. I don't mention the fact that the only thing i know about Angkor is that it's not a very good beer. I just pack a bag and i'm gone.


The asiatic reprise is brief and sweet – the crumbling temples of Angkor, the beautiful languor of Laos – then my sister is off back to London and i'm broke and on a night bus back to Phnom Penh. I shoot the Life on the Line series with Ada, and come perilously close to being murdered, once again, this time by motorcycle thieves, before the lines blur and i barely make the flight home, clinging to the back of a fearless moto driver as he speeds, slides and scrapes his way through traffic along Russian Boulevard to get me to the airport after boarding has closed. They let me on, but only at a run.

I land on my feet when i return. I land on my feet so hard i shatter a heel bone. Strangely enough, i have no recollection of how this happened, although i do remember eating some strange sugar cubes from Sideways Dave, drinking far too much alcohol at Ezra Pound, and playing guitar on one leg at Lorenna's house while Rui You Kong recited urban poetry. It was at that point i should have taken heed of Lorenzo's advice and gone in the ambulance. I remember limping back to Mayhem's Hotel D'Pravity early that morning, and two days later, when the x-rays confirmed a calcaneal fracture, also known as Lover's fracture or Don Juan fracture. Typical. They bound my leg in plaster, there was nothing for it but to stretch out on whatever sofa came to hand and help Nurse Mayhem script her feature film in exchange for food and board. Of course my narrative style was not of a standard high enough to warrant sponge baths.


Mornings we feast on eggs florentine, bacon, and fresh juice, before brainstorming scenes and characters in the screenplay. We fill the script with such energy and momentum it will film itself.

Occasionally we take the compulsory trip to the job centre, to convince them we are indeed on track to finding gainful employment, and they needn't worry their busy little bureaucratic heads helping us to write resumés or trawl through employment columns for factory or hospitality work. Thanks all the same.

I notice the employment section in the newspaper doesn't have a section marked 'Meaningful', and toss it aside. And what the hell is a 'Hospitality Industry', anyway? Can someone please explain how is it 'hospitality' if you have to pay for it?

We save our money, and put in applications for our British passports, on the grounds that our respective progenitors were both born in England. And despite the fact that my passport photo makes me look like my face caught fire and i tried to put it out with a hammer, both applications are approved. It is a miracle. Break out the champagne. We have our little red books – our passports to Europa, and film utopia – and things are looking up.


Mz Mayhem is heading back to New York to find investors for the film, and i'm off to East Arnhem Land to work as launch editor on a newspaper on the Arafura Sea. But first we must make a pilgrimage south to Balingup, to the Buddhist retreat, to get our respective minds in order. And after a week at the Origins Centre with the muse, i do indeed feel my batteries have been recharged, the corrosive salts have washed away, and the coast is clear. We go to the local hotel to toast our future. Mayhem says au revoir (her French is improving) and i board the bus to take the ride into the future.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

STRUNG OUT IN HEAVENS HIGH


I have to go to work on Sunday, Juanita says, staring at her red wine. Why don't you fly to Merapi? What's left of the village there is covered in ash. I saw some photos. It looks really cool. Everything is grey.

We are on a rooftop. It's Christmas. The sounds of the mosque drift across to where we sit. A bulbous red sun does a slow-motion impression of a lava lamp on the scraper-strewn skyline. I take up a piece of brie. What do you want for Christmas, i'd asked her. Wine. Wine and cheese. I pop the molten cheese in my mouth and take a swig of the heavy Barossa red. Good idea, i say.

We can get you some tickets tomorrow, Juanita says. But tonight we're going to party.

Flying out to an active volcano is a sure cure for a hangover. Especially when you are flying Lion Air. Because by the time the plane arrives - usually two to three hours late - you've been transmogrified by the airport lounge into a state where you are no longer hungover, but flungover. As readers of The Nerve can attest, flungover is like hungover, only further over. It is fractured kind of suspended animation fuelled by coffee, Valium, unidentified frying objects, airport music, pseudoamphetamines and Extra Joss. I crawl onto the plane, buckle up, and hold on. But the plane still spins out of control. I pop another little blue pill.

If you need to refill the vest, blow into the mouthpieces. Use the whistle and light to attract sharks.

Looking out the window, i see the coastline is beneath us, bleached and washed by some sea or other. Wow, tropical seas. I thought i was flying to Central Java. I didn't expect to see surf. I find myself staring, zombie-like, at the Lion stewardess. A Lioness. I smile and give her a friendly little wink. I'd like to blow into your mouthpiece, i think. She blushes and hurries to the back of the aeroplane. You still got it, i say, nodding to myself. You don't need a light or a whistle. You are a shining beacon of man-love.

The drugs have worn off by the time we land, and the airport is filled with people. I am completely disoriented. I notice for the first time that Indonesia is filled with Indonesians. I ask one for directions. He speaks no English, so i draw a mountain in the air, make exploding noises and point out at the horizon in a few different directions. I raise my eyebrows and wait expectantly. No directions are forthcoming. Not a glimmer. He walks away. I have not the faintest idea which way the volcano is, where Jogjakarta is or even how far it is from the airport. Bah. Maps are for vassals. I shoulder my pack and head out past the taxi rank towards what appears to be a railway line. It's only when you lose yourself that you truly find yourself. It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything. It's only after walking about six metres that i decide to hire a taxi.

Merapi erupted in spectacular fashion on the afternoon of October 25, 2010, the lava frying villages and vapourising people in its wake, leaving a death toll in excess of 350. Merapi - literally 'fire mountain' in Javanese - has been doing this sort of thing on a pretty regular basis since the mid-1500s. An earthquake in 2006 in the region killed around 5,000 people. As volcanoes go, Merapi takes itself pretty seriously.



Hermann speaks a bit of English, and has hugely dilated pupils set in vivid blue eyes. But by now i am used to this congress of wacked out Indonesian taxi drivers, and am not in the least disconcerted. Because Hermann claims to know where Merapi is, and more importantly, has a roomy new car with air conditioning and electrified windows. So i strike a deal. $30 for the car, and Hermann will act as my guide and interpreter for the day. He agrees readily and we quickly sideswipe the city, tracking deep into rural Java. Villagers tend cows and rice paddies. Coconut trees do a sterling job of looking picturesque. Ominous mountains loom in the distance. As Hermann points out how the family and neighbours come together to build a house, i realise he is wearing coloured contacts.

Crossing a narrow bridge, a sudden black river of frozen rock appears below us, heavily striated and ruptured, coarse and brutal. Hermann says something in Javanese. It's lava. We make our way on through innumerable detours, UN shelters, crowded roads and scorched earth. On the way up to the volcano i see the wiry, skeletal remains of torched bicycles and motos on the roadside, with scarecrow-like figurines of riders, clumsily constructed from stuffed trousers and shirts, perched atop them, as painted arrows and signs scribble our way onwards and upwards. We are stopped once more by village bandits and i shell out a few more rupiah to see our way clear. But it is only when Hermann finally squeezes the aircon on wheels into a mass of cars amongst what once was a village, and i make my way up towards the lava fields, past hastily assembled food and drink stalls, that i realise what all this is about. It's Sunday, and i am standing in the middle of one big tourist attraction.

Locals line the massive ruptures in the earth, gawping and gaping, sipping cool drinks and munching fried snacks, smiling as they have their photographs taken before this destroyed building and that decimated home. I realise i am witnessing disaster tourism. No, i'm not witnessing it; i'm part of it. I feel a red blush of shame as i take up my Nikon.



I hand some rupiah, about ten dollars, to an old woman shovelling lava slowly from her ruined home. And again to an old man standing, wearied but quietly unbroken, outside what is left of his house. The Indonesian tourists find me a curiosity, and stop to have photographs taken with me. I'm wearing my press tags in a vain attempt to appear professional rather than ghoulish as i prowl amongst the ashes. A pointless gesture amongst this macabre fun-fair. I find myself standing diffidently with two teenage girls who want a photograph taken with me. We stand, smiling amongst this grey ruin, as their mother tries to find the shutter on the mobile phone.

Monday, February 07, 2011

BREEDING LIKE RABBITS

Rabbit Flat, in the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory, made international headlines in the 1970s when word got out that its population had doubled overnight.

Twins had been born to its only residents, the roadhouse proprietors.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I WILL SURVIVE


At some point during the day we cross the border. I'm not sure where, or when, cramped as i am into the back of this tiny Yugo for the long drive back from Dubrovnik. It seems this car has only two shock absorbers - and we are both stuck in the back, sweating like pigs. Lili raises her head from time to time to take in the scenery, while i lie slumped against a non-functional window winder. Goran, at the wheel of this Yugoslavian version of hell on wheels, is attempting to set a land speed record for the slowest ever circumnavigation of Kotor lake. I feel every bump, every nuance of his hand on the wheel.

I muse on the disappointment that was Dubrovnik. Cruiseships of tourists forensically traipsing its stony streets; a brute force of clueless investigators. The Croatian restaurant prices rising in direct proportion to the slowness and rudeness of their waiters. The residents mimicking the drabness and dullness of their visitors, blending with the tourists in shapeless t-shirts, thongs, long shorts - and the men are not dressed much better - with their backpacks, digital cameras, and Amex cards. Banal. That's the word for it: banal. Dubrovnik: a lifeless, decrepit stone monument to the banal turista.

Still, the sea was a nice colour.

Driving back, we pass two tall, tanned girls walking side-by-side along the road. I pull a muscle in my neck as i turn to watch them slowly diminish in the rear window, in their high heeled shoes, stylised make-up, long raven hair, tiger-print bikinis, and legs.
Montenegro, da? i ask Goran, our Yugo pilot.
Da.
I thought so.

We part company with Goran and Valentina at the waterfront with meaningless platitudes and promises to catch up soon. What i really need is a drink and a lie down. A good strong drink and a good lie down. And some shade. And a chair. My needs and wants are minimal. We weave our way along the boulevard towards our street. Everywhere, the tall Montenegran women sway their bikini-and-shawl-clad hips, some with their hair piled high, others wearing it long over hooped earrings and smooth, spotless olive skin. God, i need a drink. Walking up to our room overlooking the bay, we watch as two muscular guys come barrelling down the winding mountain road on Yamaha road bikes, racing each other at speed, leaning into corners with about six degrees of separation between them and the hot bitumen. No shirts, no shoes, no helmets. They pass with a sound like hornets slung from a slingshot.

Lili and i continue up the winding, near-vertical climb as one of these maniacs roars back up the hill, the other presumably dead in a ditch somewhere. We pass a gym, its doors open wide onto the pavement, and as i glance in i see what looks like a heavyweight fighter belting the shit out of a big black punching bag. Probably practising for the next turista who happens to look sideways at his girlfriend. We climb higher up the side of the mountain, towards our room at the villa. Bright white houses fan out behind us around the bay, asleep in the afternoon sun, catching a slight breeze under the hot orange din of the terracotta tiles. The pool of the Hotel Avala lies still beneath us, the sweeping resort almost devoid of guests, its vaulting lobbies and promenades having witnessed more sublime times.

The old lady greets us on the terrace, and brings out a tray of ice, water and Coca Cola. We slump in the shade, absorbing the curves of the white wooden lilos. I need alcohol. I'm too tired and parched to talk, so i signal to Lili with a simultaneous raising of wrist and eyebrow. Lili translates. The old lady with the white hair nods, disappearing back into the villa, and returning with a bottle of something with a label that looks ... ah ... local. I pour a splash over ice, and add some coke.

I met Lili at university, after returning as an allegedly 'mature' age student to study philosophy and photography. And women, like Lili – forever changing my disinterested, anarchic, and vaguely nihilistic attitude to politics. I met her, ironically, in a Practical Ethics class. On semester break i stole her from her dull-witted uni-student boyfriend, packed her into a borrowed car, and drove her up the coast, camping all the way from Cervantes to Broome, where we ran out of money and lived on one of the northern creeks, cooking up fish from the mangroves with a few vegetables. Lili had been dragged to Australia from a beautiful, tourist spa town in central Serbia by her mother, kicking and screaming, at the tender age of 17, knowing barely a phrase of English. She had been suffering post-Terra Australis depression ever since. She had barely been out of the city, so our regular forays into the bush introduced her to this weathered and beautifully brutal red land. It altered her perception. As did the drugs. But don't get me started on drugs.

It seems we are drinking šljivovica. I can feel it putting hair on my chest with each sip. I twirl my moustache. Judging by the label, my testicles are about to swell up like two huge blue plums. I raise my glass in honour of my beautiful sidekick, Lili. It doesn't count unless you look each other in the eye. She taught me that.

На здоровье!

After knocking back a few, i realise Lili is deep in conversation with the old lady with the white hair. Later, in our room, she tells me what they were talking about. It seems the "old lady" is younger than me. Her husband was the same age as me when he died. 42. Sitting in a café in Belgrade, sipping coffee with his wife, talking about nothing in particular when a NATO bomb struck the street.

His wife's hair went white overnight.

There is a disco here which goes all night long. It's loud. I can't sleep. Ah well, if you can't beat them (and you can't - they have security) join them. I suggest to Lili that we should venture out and join the eurotrash now dancing to the strains of a house version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". The clubs are like an endless screening of Fashion TV, the fabulous women in their perpetual high heels clad in little more than underwear, parading up and down anything that looks like a catwalk, the men muscular, shirtless, and ridiculously tall.

I'm too drunk, Lili says.
Well let's fuck, i suggest, remembering the time in the hotel in the middle of Belgrade last week, when she was leaning half-undressed on the windowsill, looking out onto the street ...
I'm too drunk, Lili says.
So how about you slip into something more comfortable, like a coma, i suggest, in what passes as foreplay when you've drunk half a bottle of šljivovica. I take a swig from the bottle secreted by the bedside, my testicles swollen like plums, and fall asleep.

In the morning, i hire a scooter and we shake off our hangovers as we breeze down the coast to Sveti Stefan. The views are spectacular. I pull over and we soak it in, the narrow causeway stretching out to the sheer walls of the island citadel, perched dramatically on the outrageous cyan of the Adriatic. We head down to a beachside bar to swim and lie under an umbrella on a lezalika. As i take off again along the winding mountain roads, Lili begins belting me about the head. I round a blind curve and come face-to-face with an oncoming truck, and i realise she is trying to gently remind me that we are not in Australia and i should, ideally, be on the other side of the road.
When i signed the scooter hire contract, i noticed it did at least acknowledge the fact that an accident was inevitable if you rode the scooter long enough:

Mini Moto does not contribute to the insurancy of a person who rents the vehicle or the third person in case of the eventual accident. Hmm.

When we first rode out this morning, were immediately overtaken by the maniac on the Yamaha R1 we'd seen tearing up the mountain yesterday. Last i saw of him, he was pulling a wheelstand down a crowded main street, between pedestrians, cars, and market stalls. At least when Valentino Rossi races, they are all going in the same direction.
Of course no-one here wears a motorcycle helmet. And who are we to break this centuries-old Balkan tradition?
On the way back into Budva, we miss the turnoff and are stuck on the main road – steep, busy, with nowhere to stop and turn around – so we just keep going, up the winding mountain road, before plunging into a dark tunnel where i can't find the headlamp switch and we ride on screaming at oncoming headlights on both sides of the road – until we emerge on the far side of the mountain to a brightly stunning, sheer view down a beautiful beach about a kilometre below.

We swim, we explore, we ride. We drink like loons. At the end of the day we find ourselves on a hillside at Podmaine Monastery, taking photographs and talking to a mad Serb who wants to drive us around his village in his Mercedes and treat us to a pig on a spit. Thanks, champ, but no thanks. We go inside and i light a candle for Alexei's mother. I am deep in contemplation when a rather striking-looking nun arrives, and ushers us into the kitchen, where we sit on a wooden bench at a wooden table with the monks as she serves soup, bread, and shopska salad.

Montenegro. Even the fucking nuns are sexy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

JUANITA'S WILD ANIMAL PASSION

I'm straining the coffee grinds through my teeth, the ceiling fans whirring like upside down helicopters, when the Indo man enters the cafe and greets me like an old friend. Oh dear. He must be selling something. At this juncture i might consider life insurance, but not much else. I see is carrying an ornately carved wooden tube, about thirty inches long, which he raises to his lips. Oh no. Ethnic music.

He blows suddenly and hard, and a six-inch steel dart appears with a thwack in the wooden column next to my head. He smiles, and holds out the instrument for my inspection. I shake my head. Undeterred, he demonstrates how the weapon comes apart, folding down into a short tube. '100,000 rupiah. From Kalimantan.'

It's Christmas in two days. I consider briefly whether any friends or family members could benefit from a gift-wrapped set of blowpipe and poison darts.
'No, thank you. Far too impractical,' i say as he fits the darts one by one inside the tube. 'I prefer the Smith and Wesson.'
He shows me the wrapped product in a short tube of newspaper and cardboard.
'Very good, very small,' he says. 'Only 100,000. from Kalimantan.'
I shake my head and return to my typing. 'Sorry. I'm working. Terima kasih.'
I wave him away. I'm loving this little folding keyboard. Somehow the phone knows when i open up the keyboard, and lets me type little stories. Blue teeth. I don't pretend to understand them, but, like women, you don't have to understand them to love them. And soon i will publish my first blog post created directly from this freshly blown technological bubble. I'm back in the zone. Back in the zone, man. I strain more coffee grinds and keep typing.

The taxi driver has now developed a nervous twitch, a kind of car-based St Vitus Dance. We have, by some miracle, suddenly found ourselves on a stretch of open road in the centre of Jakarta. But the driver has become catatonic, and is nervously scratching while veering across the road, lurching about in a series of sudden stops and starts. Clearly his meth-addled brain is having difficulty processing the idea of a traffic free -

'For you sir, 90,000 rupiah.' The bubble bursts as though pricked by a dart.
The smiling Indonesian again proffers his newspaper-wrapped bundle of Christmas joy.
'Please, I am writing,' i beg. 'Terima kasih.'

After driving at a lunatic pace between lanes on Jakarta's main roads - barrelling along the breakdown lane, passing cars and trucks on the inside, pushing his way though traffic with millimetres to spare - after driving at impossibly high speeds through dense traffic, twisting across lanes to avoid looming police traps, he is now on a stretch of open road, and appears not to know what to do. Now he scratches wildly at his feet, which he has lifted up (thankfully one at a time) to rest on the steering wheel. Now he is scratching wildly at his back. We have come to a complete halt on a roundabout in Jakarta Plaza. Cars make their way around us like a creek around a fallen tree before he suddenly breaks out of his torpor and is whirled away into the stream of traffic, cutting off and almost sideswiping a driver in a black 4WD.

'Please sir, you buy now?'
I sigh. 'Mate, even if i wanted a portable pygmy blowpipe, which i don't, it would never pass through customs. And if i really wanted to kill someone, which i don't, i'd use a gun, not some souvenir from the wilds of Borneo.'
'No sir, customs no problem. You can take. I promise. If you no can take, you come back and kill me.' He thrusts his chest forward as a potential target. Hmm. This is one of the more bizarre lifetime guarantees i've come across.
'How about i save us both some time and kill you now?' i suggest.

I cast a sidelong glance at the taksi driver. His red eyes are narrowed to slits. Beads of sweat form on his brow and his shirt is soaked, despite the arctic blast of the aircon. He is clearly the throes of some Malaccan drug overdose. Perhaps they have cut his meth with cyanide.
'You OK?' i ask. Not that i particularly care - but i do want to find a hotel sometime before midnight. Everything is taking far too long. Late connecting flights, and now all this traffic. Who would have thought they'd be celebrating Christmas on the roads of Indonesia? 'We arrive Jalan Jaksa soon, yes?'
He has slipped back into his toe-scratching reverie. In answer to my question, he selects another tune on his dumb smartphone. Once the volume is turned up full, he slides the shiny device into a slot on the dashboard, where it blares out a harrowing, distorted whine.
'Mariah Carey!' he shouts.
I press my eyes into my hands.

The man touting the blowgun has finally relented, and is now simply sitting at my table, smiling. I'm waiting for Juanita, former lifestyle editor of the Phnom Penh Post. She is threatening to take me to Jakarta's wildlife market. She wants to adopt a slow loris, and needs me to help her choose one. I'm not sure i am ready for this level of commitment. My son's girlfriend has just had a baby boy, and this is as close to caring for a small simian creature as i care to get.

'Isn't this illegal?' i asked her over the phone from my room on Jalan Jaksa.
'Yes and no,' she said. 'Everything is illegal; everything is permitted. But I think I can give a lazy loris a better life than it would have otherwise.' A pause. 'But then, buying these animals just encourages the trade.'
'Oh dear. It sounds like human trafficking. Why don't you just get yourself a slave? A slave would at least be useful. What does a lazy loris do, anyway?'
'Nothing. They do nothing. And when they move, which is hardly ever, they move very, very slowly.'
I've had experiences like that. They must subsist on a steady diet of magic mushrooms. That would explain why they have eyes like saucers and can barely move.
'So what happened to Billy?' i asked, in reference to the pet crocodile she had in Bali.
'Billy and i no longer talk. He was a little shit.'
'And your pet rabbit?'
'The rabbit died. I don't know why.'
'I'm not convinced your apartment is a safe haven for wildlife, Juanita. Can't we just rescue the loris from the market and return it to the wild?'
'We'd have to fly to Sumatra. And besides, the monkey dentist removes his teeth so he can't bite, so i don't think he would survive. It's a jungle out there.'
My curiosity getting the better of me, I arranged to meet Juanita and go with her to the illegal wildlife market. Given the layers of satire and irony in which Juanita's existence is swaddled, i had my doubts that she actually wanted to adopt a slow loris. This whole escapade is probably a ploy to pursue some investigative journalism on the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia. But you never know with Juanita.

The pet markets are, on the surface, what you would expect - full of the usual innocuous, domesticated animals. Thousands of caged birds piled one upon the other, their tiny bamboo apartments heading ever upward as though in a frustrated attempt to return to their occupants to the sky. We chance upon some glass boxes of tiny hamsters, and Juanita scratches one awake. Apparently he is 'too cute', although the more probable reason for her not pocketing him and taking him home is the frosty reception her prior rabbit got from the management of her ultra-modern serviced apartment. We press on through the menagerie. Kittens, guinea pigs, carpet snakes, geckos, and all manner of birds, from racing pigeons to an astonishingly large black cock (oops, did i say that out loud?)

Juanita has elected to come with a guide, who asks around, enquiring as to the availability of a lazy loris, and immediately finds a willing seller. We set out across the market, following our agent as he gestures us on, winding through the seemingly endless production line of cages and caged animals. We follow our man and the mystery seller through the market before coming to the gate to his apartment.

The wildlife merchant slides the steel bolt of the gate open, and we sidle up the dank concrete stairs into an airless concrete room. Our agent speaks rapidly to him in language and he nods, yes, yes, before disappearing around a concrete wall at one end of the room, into what appears to be a toilet. Juanita looks at me and raises an eyebrow. Almost immediately the wildlife merchant reappears, carrying a steel mesh cage harbouring a loris, or cus cus, which he sets of the floor in front of us. The small furry creature - ridiculously cute and sad looking with its enormous, black ringed eyes - is curled in abject fear on the floor of its cage, head down, looking up at us piteously. We stare at the lazy loris purveyor accusingly, and, believing the animal is not up to our expectations, he shrugs his shoulders, returns behind the concrete wall and comes back with another two cages containing a pair of slightly less traumatised-looking creatures. He says something in Indonesian. 'From Sumatra,' explains our guide.

Juanita takes a fancy to one of them and points, asking how much. The loris purveyor indulges in a deep and extended conversation with our guide.

'One million rupiah,' he says in translation, 'though I think you can get it for less. Maybe 300,000.'
'What do they eat?' asks Juanita. 'Worms?'
The guide patiently explains how unlikely it would be that a tree-dwelling marsupial would eat worms.

No wonder her rabbit died, I'm thinking. She was probably feeding it octopus.

We take several photographs of the caged animals, to the point where the owner becomes impatient and suspicious. We have not bothered to make an offer on any of his animals, and seem to be treating his apartment as a private zoo. I mention this to Juanita.
'Who cares,' she says, 'The guy is an arsehole. What kind of person keeps wild animals in cages in his toilet?'