Ambuyat: Delight or Disgust?

Ambuyat will delight you or disgust you.

It has the power to excite you, or to threaten your constitution. Violent physical reactions can result from the mere memory of the food.

Ambuyat is the only uniquely Bruneian contribution to international cuisine. It is also found, under various names, in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, which share the island of Borneo with Brunei.

Popular Bruneian food is essentially Malay. Most Bruneians are Malay, and this is reflected in their language, customs and cuisine. Ambuyat, however, is uniquely Bruneian.

What is it, and why does it repulse or delight people?

Ambuyat is a gooey, runny colourless and tasteless substance which is placed in a bowl in the centre of the communal table, and extracted with a bamboo fork called ‘chandas’. Non-Bruneians like me are known to struggle to attach the ambuyat to the chandas. Ambuyat has the consistency and texture of the substance that starts in the nose, travels through the throat and is expelled via the mouth – much to the disgust of onlookers.

Bruneians love it.

Ambuyat is not the extent of the dish, though. The table is filled with other meat and vegetable stews, such as Tempoyak sauce. The ambuyat is dipped into the sauces, and these provide the taste to the dish. The stews and sauces can be delicious and even quite spicy. The issue for many non-Bruneians is not the taste but the texture of the ambuyat, the feeling of it running down your throat is like being forced to swallow the substance which starts in your nose…

If you can force it down, you can savour the taste of the accompanying sauces.

Can’t I just eat the sauces alone?

You could, but then you’re not eating ambuyat, and not immersing yourself in the cultural experience. It would be cheating.

What is it made of?

Ambuyat comes from the interior trunk of the sago palm. The dish is compared to tapioca starch, and to okra. It is relatively easy to prepare. Take the starch powder and add some water, before stirring. Then prepare the sauces for dipping.

What makes Ambuyat even more appealing is that it can be served with a side of durian, a fruit so smelly it is banned from public transport in countries like Singapore.

A Bruneian friend had ‘encouraged’ me to try it, just as I’d encouraged my friend to try vegemite. Our respective reactions were similar.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force down more than one or two mouthfuls. My friend was initially put out, before declaring with glee:

“All the more for me!”

Image: http://www.bruneitourism.com

Makan Dulu!

Makan Dulu – Food First!

The staff meeting this afternoon is compulsory. It is expected to last for about three hours and it will cover the implementation of the new IT program and resources. All staff must be confident in the use of the new software and to integrate it into every aspect of their work. Staff do not need to bring their own devices to the meeting, but will need to install and run the new software on their devices, so attendance at the meeting is very important. If any staff member has other plans or commitments this afternoon, please cancel those commitments or communicate your absence, and the reason for that absence, to your Head of Department, before arrange for an alternative time to undertake the training. Could all staff ensure they arrive promptly so that the training can begin at precisely 3.30pm.

The staff filed in at 3.20, 3.25. They found a seat, deposited their notebooks, phones and pens, then made their way to the buffet. Rice, noodles, beef, chicken, stew…cupcakes, biscuits.

At 3.30pm, they began eating.

Eventually the meeting began, at some point after 3.30pm.

Makan Dulu!

Parcels can be collected between 9am and 12pm, and then from 1pm to 4pm. This includes international parcels. Please be advised that parcels will not be issued outside of these hours, and that all parcels can only be given to the recipient after passing through every stage of inspection, including customs, which takes place at the central post office. Appointments may not be made. Recipients may only arrive at the post office during official hours and take a number. Remember to bring multiple forms of valid identification, and dress accordingly. Women must wear modest clothing and men must wear long pants. Men with long hair below the collar will not be served, in line with official government policy. Flip flops are not acceptable, neither are singlets or torn clothing. Standards of acceptable clothing are at the discretion of the postal staff.

Recipients rushed to reach the post office between 12.30 and 1pm. They took a seat, and duly waited for numbered tickets to become available. Then they waited. 12.30, 12.35, 12.40. Nervous eyes twitched before focussing on the prized ticket dispenser. 12.45, 12.50. The redundant ceiling fans squeaked in a forlorn attempt to dissipate the stifling tropical heat. 12.55, 1pm. Recipients rose to grab their prized ticket.

Staff waited, and took another mouthful. 1.05. Staff waited, and took another sip, under the gaze of the recipients. 1.10. Staff digested their lunch and chatted nonchalantly with their colleagues. 1.15, recipients grew impatient. 1.20, staff started dessert while the hordes waited hungrily for their parcels.

Sometime after 1.30, staff wiped their plates clean, dabbed the corners of their mouths and strolled over to the ticket dispenser.

Makan Dulu!

Students mulled around the basketball court, as teenagers do. Dressed in their sport uniforms and their best running shoes, they waited with nerves, excitement, trepidation or reluctance for the start of the school fun run. About 5km was the estimate. No one really knew how far it would be. No one expected to have to ratify world records with the IAAF, so it didn’t really matter. Something else mattered.

The school had a coloured house system, but most students didn’t know much about it, nor what house they were in. It was even harder to tell when every student was wearing exactly the same school sports uniform, of exactly the same colour. Long sleeve sports shirt for boys and girls, tracksuit pants for boys. Tracksuit pants or leggings for girls, plus appropriate head dress in line with religious and cultural mores.

Mulling continued, in the playground and in the staff room.

Eventually the sports teachers stirred. A warm up must be conducted before any vigorous physical activity could take place. Thus, a CD was thrust into the player, and dance music floated across the school via the speakers.

ZUMBA!!

Students filed over to the basketball courts and followed the teachers in their warm up. Boys less so than girls, but smiles found their way onto everyone’s faces eventually. Zumba over, the fun run could now take place. Ready, set…NO.

Something else mattered.

How can we tally house points if students are all wearing the same colours?

Ummmm – how about we pin a piece of coloured fabric onto the shirt of every student in the school? So they did.

The benefits of the warm up were starting to wear off, though ‘warm up’ was a pejorative term in the incessant tropical heat. Warm up completed; fabric affixed, now they could start the race. Not yet.

Teachers returned to the staffroom and heard their assignments – marshalling, first aid, water station, timekeepers…done.

Now there was nothing impeding the start of the highly-anticipated fun run. Ready, set…NO.

The aroma of heavy, fried, fatty, salty food wafted through the windows of the staffroom to the basketball court, to be inhaled by the students who were just about to set off on a gut-busting 5km run in stifling heat and humidity.

The teachers piled their plates with rice, noodles, stew and other tasty treats.

The race began sometime later.

Makan Dulu!

Image: Jane’s Fairytale

Discounted patriotism.

What motivates people more, savings or patriotism? Are people more driven by love for their country, or the chance to save money?

We were on our way to the KTV centre for an enjoyable few hours of massacring popular songs in Chinese and English, and we decided we could only do so with a substantial supply of snacks. Thus, we detoured via the main shopping strip of central Qingdao to quickly fill our bags with some tasty morsels.

Just days before our singing sojourn, tensions had risen between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Both countries fiercely claim ownership of the archipelago, and regular statements from either government create controversy and wide-spread media coverage in the two proud nations.

Citizens on both sides of the East China Sea commonly react with patriotic fervour and denounce the opposing nation and their culture in personal conversations and across social media. Some patriotic citizens call for boycotts of the other nation’s stores, products and cultural influences, and this had occurred in the days leading up to our karaoke trip.

Toyota and Honda claimed arsonists had badly damaged their stores in Qingdao, while Panasonic and Canon shut some of their stores in major cities. Japanese citizens throughout the country stayed home in fear of retaliation during large-scale protests, Japanese schools cancelled classes, and some Japanese restaurants were seen covering their storefronts in Chinese flags.

Despite this, we were on our way to karaoke – a famous Japanese export.

In Qingdao, the Japanese store Jusco had been attacked and damage was done to its facade and sections of its interior. The store was forced to close for a few days to carry out repairs and to protect its employees. When the worst of the protests subsided and the store reopened, it still showed the scars of the attack.

As we approached the shopping precinct with empty bags and empty stomachs, we discussed which store we should visit, and based our choice on expediency, products selection and price. We could have ducked into Carrefour, but it was crowded and famously expensive. We could have chosen Chinese stores Da Run Fa or Jia Jia Yuan, which offered much the same stock and price, or we could stock up at Jusco.

As we neared Jusco, we saw many locals streaming in and out of the store with bags full. We were confused, after days of patriotic statements and anti-Japanese sentiment, until one of my local colleagues discovered why the store was full.

“Look, everything’s on sale!”

Without hesitation, my colleagues left their patriotism at the door before rushing into Jusco, collecting some tasty delights and smuggling them into the karaoke bar.

We’re not gonna make it…

I’m late. I’ve missed it. There’s no way I can make this flight.

It’s my fault. I slept in, but the taxi ride also didn’t help.

Upon waking, I’d slowly cleared the sleep from my eyes and glanced nonchalantly at the clock. Then, In one terrifying instant, I realised I had about 65 minutes to get on the plane to Easter Island. Not 65 minutes to arrive at the airport with sufficient time to check in and drop off my luggage and walk to the departure gate and spend my life savings on an airport coffee… 65 minutes until take-off.

That’s impossible.

How did I not wake up? Did I not set the alarm, did I sleep through it, was the room too dark, was it too quiet – how, it was in the middle of Santiago, the bustling and busy capital of Chile?

Anyway, I didn’t have time to ponder. I had to get to the airport- fast.

Luckily, I’d packed my bags and left out essential items the night before – including my now redundant watch. I threw on some clothes, threw the key at reception and raced outside to find a taxi – in the middle of Santiago, the bustling and busy capital of Chile.

I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna make it…I kept repeating in my head. Idiot!, stupid fool! I’d paid a lot of money for this flight to see one of the true wonders of the world. It was one of the destinations around which I’d arranged my nine-month round-the-world trip, and now I was about to miss out.

You fool!

Taxis flew by ferrying Chileans to work, and I tried in vain to catch the attention of one taxi, any taxi. I was having as much luck hailing a taxi as I do hailing waitstaff at cafes – then my stomach growled. Taxi after taxi streamed by, until one finally crossed two lanes of traffic and stopped abruptly at my feet. Horns honked and motorists shouted abuse, but neither the taxi driver nor I took any notice. I needed a ride, he needed the fare. I threw my pack on the back seat and jumped into the passenger seat.

He said something. I didn’t understand.

He said it again. I still didn’t understand.

Then I saw it.

As I glanced up from my daypack and the seatbelt buckle, I noticed his face. He had a cleft lip and subsequent speech impediment. That in itself wasn’t a problem. After all, this good man may have just saved my bacon, because although I wasn’t hopeful of making the flight on time, it was still mathematically and physically possible.

The problem was that his cleft lip made his speech very difficult to understand, and my Spanish was rudimentary at best. This would complicate matters.

I deduced from context that he’d asked where I wanted to go,

Aeropuerto! I said, hoping that we could at least set off in the direction of the airport while we tried to provide each other with the details.

“And I’ll give you another 50 if you get me there on time,” I was about to say, but this was no time for Hollywood cliches. Somehow, though, I managed to communicate to him that I was running late – very late.

He spoke again – I had no idea what he said. He tried again, and the whole time the clock was winding down. On his third of fourth attempt, I think I heard the Spanish equivalent of ‘international’ and ‘domestic’.

Good question.

Domestic, I proffered, and he changed lanes in the direction of what was hopefully the domestic airport or terminal.

Wait- is that right, I asked myself. In my highly flummoxed state, maybe I’d confused myself. Easter Island is technically part of Chile, despite lying a long way from the mainland. This fact could save me, because I wasn’t required to arrive at the airport so early…

On the other hand, it could be an international flight. I couldn’t remember. LAN Chile was carrying me to the mythical island (if I made it) and the national carrier sometimes stopped at Easter Island before continuing to Pape’ete, and Auckland on its way to Sydney. So, was it international? If so, was that a different terminal or a different airport? We were heading in the direction of the domestic terminal, I think, and requesting a change of direction in my woeful Spanish would have been very difficult. I’ll just leave it. It’s too late now.

But what if I’m wrong?

Then my stomach growled again.

I was about to dive into my daypack for my itinerary and or my Lonely Planet when the driver asked me another question.

I didn’t understand a word. Again he tried. I apologised that I didn’t know what he was saying. I could sense his awareness that his cleft lip was hindering communication as much as the language barrier. I could also sense he was becoming annoyed as he thrust his old taxi more aggressively in and out of traffic to the displeasure of fellow motorists.

I felt insensitive and incompetent. I should have set two alarms.

I fished for my itinerary, because this was in the days of paper flight tickets – remember them? I found the paper and searched for any information which I would relay to the driver which might allow us to pull off a miracle.

LAN Chile, I said, before reading out the flight time, the terminal, the destination and any other information I could find. I don’t know how much of this was necessary, but at least this stopped me from looking at my watch every two seconds. He seemed satisfied and he stepped on the accelerator and tore through the traffic. Even if I don’t make it, this guy deserves a tip, I thought. He can use it to buy himself a drink, or pay a speeding fine.

Soon, my spirits lifted as I saw signs for Aeropuerto. Still the driver swerved through traffic with reckless abandon. I still wasn’t sure if he was committed to delivering his passenger on time, or just releasing his frustration via the accelerator.

Closer and closer we crept and somehow the traffic seemed to clear. He kept his foot planted and his eyes fixed on the road and I saw planes circling, landing and taking off. We might just make it; or that LAN Chile plane I just saw could be on its way to Easter Island.

We tore along the expressway and soon approached the airport entrance. The driver said something which I also didn’t understand, but I determined he was asking me if I wanted him to drop me at the airport entrance or continue to the departure gates. I think the answer was obvious, but he signalled money.

Don’t worry, you’ll definitely get a tip.

He snaked his way through the clogged traffic of the drop off point and stopped the cab in the middle of the road, with hazard lights blinking. I threw him a wad of cash, which he indicated was sufficient, then I grabbed my pack, thanked him profusely and sprinted towards the check in.

In the space of a few minutes, I somehow managed to push my way to the front of the check in line, dump my pack, pass through security and dash to the departure gate. I sprinted through the airport gates past bewildered passengers, with barely enough time to flash my boarding pass at airline staff and squeeze through the closing doors and on to the plane.

That’s one way to avoid spending your life savings on an airport coffee.

Image: Ulvi Safari

¿Quiere’ fre’co?

¿Quiere’ fre’co?”

¿Como?”

¿Quiere’ fre’co?” she repeated.

“Sí” – I think that’s what I want.

The friendly Cuban woman was confirming my order of a ‘refresco’, or soft drink. Except now I wasn’t sure what I’d just ordered.

This was my first prolonged exposure to Cuban Spanish. It was at a busy street stall amid honking traffic and other thirsty customers, and the vendor had no time to coddle this foreigner through his language learning journey. I was a bit worried because I’d planned to stay in the country for a month, and already I was struggling just to buy a soft drink.

I was actually quite confident of my Spanish as I’d flown directly from Mexico where I’d been living for the past 12 months.

I eventually got what I asked for and walked off into the sultry streets of La Habana with a welcome sugar hit. It wasn’t Coca Cola of course, because products and imports from the United States are strictly forbidden in Castro’s communist utopia. I wasn’t bothered, the sugar hit was what I craved.

Cuban Spanish was to challenge me for the rest of my trip. Despite having already travelled through South America, Central America and Mexico, I was having some trouble adjusting to the broad accent. I found that Cubans chop off various sounds and syllables, pepper their language with slang, and run many of their words together.

Have Cubans done to Spanish what Australians have done to English?

Even a word as simple as ‘vamos’ sounds more like ‘wamo’ in Cuba.

The Cuban dialect was very different to the Spanish I’d used in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and my only previous interaction with Caribbean Spanish was through Calle 13, Daddy Yankee and fellow Reggaetón stars.

I eventually trained my ear to the local dialect by staying with local families in Casas Particulares. Cubans rented out rooms in their houses to travellers and were happy to chat over a meal or a cup of coffee. Few of the families that I stayed with spoke English, so it forced me to adapt to the local lingo.

Cuban Spanish was more difficult to understand than the language I’d been using in Colima, Mexico. Colimenses dispensed with many of the more complicated grammatical features of standard Spanish, such as ‘vos’ and ‘vosotros’ and had a flowing, almost musical accent. Chilangos, or residents of Mexico City, spoke more quickly and with their own parochial slang, and the young Chilangos in particular finished their sentences with sharp inclination. This habit alone signalled their origins, and was a source of great amusement for every other Mexican.

Ironically, I encountered more linguistic challenges in Cuba than in Peru and Bolivia, where I first started using Spanish. I arrived into Peru with nothing more than ‘hola’, ‘gracias’, and a translation dictionary, but was soon able to negotiate traveller’s fundamentals like food, accommodation and transport. Travellers hypothesise that Andean Spanish is easier to understand for a foreigner because it simplified and stripped down by people from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, who speak it as a second or third language.

In contrast, Chileans speak it rapidly and proudly as their first language. Santiago was fast-paced and sharp, and demanded powers of concentration. Costa Rica, meanwhile, was a language of two halves. The language of the centre and the capital was distinct from the Spanish of the Caribeños on the Atlantic coast.

How is my Spanish now?

It’s fading. I don’t use it much, especially after moving to Asia after finishing my time in Mexico.

Maybe it’s time to return to Cuba.

Wamo’!

Run the red light.

Run that red light. Speed. Ignore the road rules and never sit in traffic. Do it all. Get away with it, day after day after day…

You’d love to wouldn’t you. You could, if you were the Sultan of Brunei.

In his tiny, oil-rich Sultanate at the top of Borneo, the Sultan and his family never stop at a red light or obey any of the road rules that are imposed upon every other occupant of the South-East Asian nation. The Sultan drives gleefully behind two police outriders who clear traffic from his path and assure him safe passage.

The police motorbikes speed into traffic with sirens blaring, and gesture violently to every motorist to pull over- immediately. Drivers screech and swerve to the side of the road in an attempt to stop just 100 metres after the arrival of the police, lest they incur the wrath of the royals.

Motorists are more scared of the government than they are of crashing.

The Sultan and his family then fly past with their foot firmly planted on the accelerator. Danger matters not to the omnipotent ruler. His outriders clear traffic from expressways even when that sends motorists into the path of merging traffic. The police part motorists as Moses parted the red sea, and the Sultan’s loyal disciples obey.

If they don’t?

For a Bruneian, the consequences could be disastrous. The Sultan controls every aspect of their lives and could easily cut financial support. Malay Bruneians essentially exist on a subsidised lifestyle and a welfare system disguised as public service employment. Locals get out of the Sultan’s way.

For expats?

That’s easier. The government could cancel their work visa and give them 48 hours to leave the country. Expats get out of the way.

Do Bruneians resent the Sultan?

They don’t appear to. They gaze respectfully at their glorious leader as he smiles and waves back from behind the tinted windows of his bullet-proof black Mercedes SUV.

Does it cause accidents?

Yes, but no more than the everyday driving habits of Bruneians. Locals speed, tailgate and fail to indicate. They nurse their kids on their laps while driving and use their phones. They let their kids run around the car without seatbelts. They don’t understand merging and they honk like mad if they’re made to wait half a second after a traffic light turns green, even though they have nowhere important to be – there’s not much to do in Brunei. This despite the fact that honking the horn is considered very rude in Brunei.

Another peculiarity of Bruneian motorists is their habit of waiting in the shade. They will seek out any form of shade while waiting at the traffic lights, even if it’s a full 15 metres back from the lights. Brunei is always hot. If you’re four or five cars behind the person in the shade, you might miss the green light altogether. Furthermore, every Bruneian knows someone who has been badly injured or killed in a road accident, but this doesn’t alter their behaviour. The Sultan is just setting a good example.

Strangely, Bruneians also run out of petrol a lot. Strange because Brunei is a very small country and one end of the country to the other is only a two hour drive. Strange too because petrol is cheap. It’s an oil nation. Cars are often abandoned at the road side with a small branch sticking out of the window – the universal sign of an empty tank.

What about the police?

The police rarely enforce road rules on a daily basis in Brunei. Police exist to serve the royal family.

What happens when the royals travel?

What happens when they go overseas? How do they react when they’re forced to wait at a red light or sit in traffic? They must go mad. It must frustrate them enormously, or remind them that they are big fish in a very, very small sea.

Once the Sultan has flown by, the outriders trailing his car give motorists permission to resume driving. This causes more potential carnage as drivers set off without indicating or waiting for other drivers. Worse still, some canny locals will speed after the Sultan’s entourage like loyal devotees following Moses.

Next time you’re tempted to run a red light, remember you’re not the Sultan of Brunei.

Image: Ulvi Safari

Beaches of sorrow.

The beach is a happy place, right?

Not always. Two beaches in Mexico are famous for stories of sadness and sorrow.

Playa San Blas, Nayarit.

The first beach synonymous with sorrow is Playa El Borrego en San Blas, in the state of Nayarit, and it centres on the true story of Rebecca Mendez Jimenez, who was known as La Loca del Muelle de San Blas.

Rebecca was often seen at the beach, the lighthouse and the wharf of San Blas wearing the same white wedding dress for 41 years, until her death on September 18, 2012.

So how did Rebecca come to be known as the crazy woman of San Blas? Two separate stories attempt to explain her actions.

The first claims that a teenage Rebecca fell in love with a local fisherman named Manuel, who promised to marry her in 1971. A date was decided for the wedding and preparations were made. A few days before the wedding Manuel went out fishing, but did not return that day. On the day on which the pair were set to declare their love, Rebecca went to the wharf in her wedding dress and veil to wait for her love. She waited, and waited, but Manuel never returned. He and some companions had been killed by a hurricane that swept through the region. A distraught Rebecca visited the wharf in her wedding dress to wait for her beloved for 41 years.

The second story is equally sorrowful. Rebecca is said to have fallen for another man, this time a merchant named Laos, who referred to her affectionately as Smoke Girl due to her greying hair. He also promised to marry Rebecca, who waited at the church in her wedding attire, but in vain. Laos never arrived and Rebecca was left heartbroken.

Rebecca will always be remembered. Her ashes were scattered on the beaches of San Blas, a statue has been erected at the wharf, and she is the subject of a song by popular Mexican rock band Mana, titled En el Muelle de San Blas.

For locals and Mexicans, Rebecca is a symbol of eternal love.

Playa La Llorona

The crying beach lies in the state of Michoacan, also on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

It is one of the picturesque unspoilt beaches scattered along the coast of Michoacan and it is referred to as ‘una playa virgen’. The sound of crying does not emminate from a crazed widow or a ghost-like creature, but from the sand itself. Such is the chemical composition of the sand on this particular beach that visitors hear a crying sound while walking upon it.

The beach is also more isolated than other beaches on the Pacific coast of Mexico and it has so far avoided the construction of a hotel or other accommodation which smother many of the country’s best beaches. In fact, the coast of Michaoacan hosts many precious beaches devoid of large hotels or development.

Camping is popular at La Llorona due to its tranquillity, its beauty and its clear night skies. Campers drift off to sleep to the sound of the waves lapping the shore. If you’re lucky enough to visit and camp at La Llorona, and you hear what sounds like crying during the evening, do not despair. It is most likely a fellow visitor taking a romantic walk along the seashore under the light of the moon.

Preparing to greet the dead.

They will commune with the dead. They will welcome the unliving into their lives, for one night only.

The people of Guanajuato join their compatriots in creating elaborate artworks and displays to honour their ancestors who will share the earth with them on this one night of the year. Mexicans young and old will hang ofrendas in homes and public places which carry images of skeletons and other macabre images. For on Dia de los Muertos, the deceased return to the earth and walk among us.

Mexicans will bring forth the dead so as to never forget them. To remember the relatives who were once part of their lives. To pay their respects again and again and not just at that person’s funeral. The annual tribute to their ‘antepasados’ allows families to honour the dead without the overwhelming emotions of a funeral immediately following a passing, when grief releases a torrent of sadness. They will honour all of the dead in colourful and striking public installations, over which they have laboured for hours and hours.

In a land all too familiar with drug wars, gang violence and death, perhaps Dia de los Muertos helps local people come to terms with death.

Mexico is colour. Vibrant colour. Bold colour, and this is true of the installations which welcome the deceased.

Mexicans will celebrate. They will laugh and smile and sing. They will eat and drink and be merry, even when surrounded by death and the unliving. Because even in death, Mexicans will find joy and fun and happiness. There is always an excuse to socialise and to party. Deceased Mexicans wouldn’t expect it to be any different.

The families preparing the public and private installations do so with pride and joy. They smile at the striking images of skulls and gore. They revel in their distinct indigenous customs which survived the Christian influence of All Souls Day and the cultural colonisation of Halloween, which fall on the same day. Yes, they celebrate both of these traditions, but they have never strayed from the expression of Mexican culture which is Dia de los Muertos.

Which is your favourite national anthem?

National anthems stir emotions in us all. They evoke national pride and a sense of belonging. They can inspire international athletes, and persuade patriots to lay down their lives. Anthems can make grown men cry and create incomparable life-long memories.

So which is your favourite anthem? Is it the anthem of your nation of birth, or the nation you now call home? Does your country have an anthem, and what does it mean to you? Perhaps your favourite anthem belongs to a foreign country.

I have heard a number of national anthems during my travels and I’ve listed the songs which created the strongest impression on me.

Multilingual anthems

I like multilingual anthems. I like the interchange between the languages and the recognition of the multicultural composition of the country. Multilingual anthems acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants of the country and attempt to unite every citizen, at least symbolically.

South Africa – Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica

Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica translates as God Bless Africa. The anthem features Zulu, which is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, as well as Xhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The anthem moves seamlessly from one language to another and encompasses the contrasting cultures which make up the rainbow nation, which actually has 11 official languages.

New Zealand – God Defend New Zealand

God Defend New Zealand is another bilingual anthem, which is sung in English and Maori. Now, as an Australian, I’m not supposed to like the New Zealand anthem, nor their Rugby Union team, nor their cricket team. I’m also not supposed to admit that anything from Aotearoa is better than anything in Australia, but NZ gave women the vote before Australia, signed a treaty with their indigenous population, and gave us Sir Edmund Hillary, the All Blacks…

A national song featuring Maori lyrics is also a perfect precursor to the Haka, performed by many New Zealand sporting teams. Needless to say, I enjoy watching rubgy games between the Springboks and the All Blacks.

Ireland – Ireland’s Call – Amhran na bhFiann

Ireland does not have a bilingual anthem, it has two. Amhran na bhFiann is the official anthem, with Irish Gaelic lyrics, while Ireland’s Call is sung for the Irish Rugby Union team, because the team is comprised of players from the Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Ireland’s Call is said to promote a greater sense of unity.

Scandal

Spain – La Marcha Real

The Spanish national anthem, La Marcha Real, sparked a social media meltdown during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The Spanish players did not sing to their anthem before their first game against Portugal, and people blasted them for being unpatriotic, pampered, unworthy and disloyal, and demanded the entire team be dropped before the next game. People unleashed their own fury on La Furia Roja until one informed user explained;

The Spanish national anthem has no words.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and San Marino also have no words to their anthems.

Sport, religion and war

A pattern exists in national anthems. Most of them reference war and religion, and they provide an effective backdrop to sporting contests. Most anthems pay tribute to the country’s most prominent deity, and encourage loyal citizens to give their heart, their soul or their lives for their country. Anthems of colonised peoples honour battles against oppression, and anthems of the colonisers praise the might of the nation, normally referred to as the Fatherland.

Was any national anthem written by a woman?

Sporting competitions are obviously the most visible expressions of nationalism, and anthems are central to that expression.

Australia – Advance Australia Fair

You’ve already realised that I’m not very patriotic; after all, I extolled the virtues of New Zealand. And no, I don’t love my own anthem. The tune is boring and uninspiring, and the words are equally tepid, as well as being problematic.

I’m not the only Aussie who doesn’t love their anthem. In fact, custom dictates that any Australian who knows all the words to the anthem is UnAustralian. Anyone who sings with their hand on heir heart is pretentious and trying to be American. The phrase ‘girt by sea’ confuses most citizens and even the most patriotic locals sing ‘let us ring Joyce’ instead of ‘let us rejoice’. No one knows who Joyce is and why we should call her – maybe she knows what girt means.

Advance Australia Fair is problematic. The opening lyrics tell us that ‘we are young and free’. Calling Australia young ignores the indigenous history of the country. Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest living civilisation, having occupied this land for about 60,000 years. Calling Australia young recognises only the history of the country since colonisation in the late 1700s – i.e. White Australia.

Using the word ‘free’ also ignores Australian history, and the fact that Aboriginal people were enslaved (yes, slavery existed in Australia) were stolen from their families, were denied the right to vote and were not even counted as people until 1967. For these reasons, and the ongoing disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, many indigenous people disapprove of the anthem, and many indigenous athletes refuse to sing it while representing their country.

Many Australians find little inspiration in Advance Australia Fair, and often look to pop songs for patriotic stimulus. I am Australian by The Seekers is a popular substitute.

I’m also not a fan of God Save the Queen, because England is ‘The Old Enemy’, and because I despise royalty. I also dislike the Star Spangled Banner because the only thing worse than losing to England is losing to The United States of America, and because the anthem usually accompanies chants of “USA!!, USA!!…” I found the national anthem of Brunei so uninspiring that after three years of living and teaching in the ‘Abode of Peace’, I don’t remember a single word.

Cyprus

I’ve never heard the national anthem of Cyprus, but not because I’ve never been there. Cyprus has no official national anthem.

Mexico – Himno Nacional Mexicano

Invoking war and warriors is a common theme in anthems, and this is true of Himno Nacional Mexicano. The stirring tune begins with:

“Mexicanos al grito de guerra…” which translates as “Mexicans to the cry of war”. It ends with “un soldado en cada hijo te dio,”, a promise that every son or daughter is a soldier for Mexico. It is one of the more passionate anthems, expect when mumbled by a bunch of teenagers at 7am on a Monday morning.

A legend also accompanies the creation of the hymn. According to historical accounts, Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra wrote the lyrics after being locked in a room. His girlfriend encouraged him to enter the competition to devise the lyrics and when he refused, she locked him in a room full of patriotic images and only released him once he slid the ten-verse piece under the door.

France – La Marseillaise

I nominate La Marseillaise as my favourite national anthem. I know I’m not alone in this choice. I’m not French, I wouldn’t call myself a Francophile and I don’t speak French, but I was moved most by this national anthem.

I experienced a rousing rendition of the anthem on two occasions at the Stade de France in Paris in 2003. After Eunice Barber won the long jump, and her compatriots won the Women’s 4 x 100m relay at the World Championships in Athletics, I witnessed a stadium full of French patriots belting out their anthem with unbridled passion and raw emotion. I felt goose bumps and the hairs stood on my neck. It was so moving that I stopped working. Most reporters at international Athletics competitions don’t stop working during medal presentations because they’re too busy. When the French filled the stadium with their patriotic fervour, however, we all savoured the sound of thousands of patriots singing one of the world’s most inspirational anthems.

Image: Anders Kelto

Festival Internacional CervEZantino.

The Festival Internacional Cervantino began as a cultural tribute to author Miguel de Cervantes, but descended into such a celebration of ‘cerveza’ that it should be renamed ‘El CervEZantino’.

The author of Don Quixote has been honoured in the Mexican city of Guanajuato every year since the mid 20th century, when artists began performing his works in the city’s plazas for the enjoyment of the local people. The festival grew in fame and expanded into a multi-day festival which now attracts national and international visitors…and drunks.

Guanajuato’s beautiful colonial centre is decked in traditional Mexican cultural symbols and tributes to Cervantes line the streets and the preserved buildings. The streets are also lined with dishevelled drunks sleeping off their hangovers, urinating in public or lying in their own vomit.

Most visitors come for the culture, and some for the party. The festival program is devoted to artistic expression in the Spanish language and includes performances of the many works of Cervantes as well as celebrations of literature, opera, music, dance, theatre, art exhibitions, street spectaculars and academic events.

International performers who have participated in the festival include Joan Baez, the Bolshoi Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Some festival goers enjoy the culture, while many could not name a single work by the famed Spanish author, such is their drunken stupor. In this way the festival has in some ways become a victim of its own success. As the audience numbers grew year after year, many young people flocked to the city to simply have a good time and drink themselves to oblivion.

Some of the drunks are convinced they will meet their own Dulcinea. I wonder what Don Quixote would make of it.