A la plage.

The beach beckoned.

Soft sand, sunshine and warm water were my reward for what I had endured the previous day, my first day in Rabat.

I’d been threatened.

The threat was vague, but direct, and it was to manifest itself today. I was nervous as I left the hostel, because the man who’d made the threat knew where I was staying and had promised to get me, but I swallowed my fear and walked to Rabat Beach to bathe in its refreshing waters.

Strolling to the beach through the heavy morning air of this fascinating city was not as enjoyable as it should have been, as trepidation settled in my stomach. I reminded myself to ignore my unjustified paranoia, but I couldn’t stop worrying.

The threat which jangled my nerves eventuated after a shopping trip to buy toothpaste and a few other simple items, including the shorts and towel I was taking to the beach.

My suitcase had been delayed on the flight from Nairobi via Dubai, and I had only heavy hiking clothes to wear during Morocco’s summer heat. The problem started when I got lost among the myriad street signs bearing the name ‘Muhammed’, which hampered my search for Avenue Mohammed, where I’d been told I’d find a supermarket.

I made the mistake of arriving in Morocco with no Arabic or French. I then made the fatal mistake of backtracking and criss-crossing a major intersection in my frustrating and sweaty search for the elusive supermarket. Local man Muhammed had found me, and had offered to help me find the shop. Little did I know that he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart.

Muhammed did guide me to a supermarket. I thought he’d leave me at that point and be on his way. His directness, self-assuredness and aggressive manner had put me off from the beginning, and I was frustrated and surprised when he followed me into the shop.

Once inside, he managed to upset the female staff, make a mess, draw attention to us and make me regret my decision to follow him. At one point, he raced off to menswear to find the shorts I was now wearing to the beach, and proceeded to throw pairs at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

I did manage to buy what I needed, except for one essential item, but once we left the shop and started walking back towards my hostel, the problems began. Mohammed lit up a cigarette upon stepping outside, and he soon realised I didn’t need him anymore. This is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. I bought one for him and one for myself.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff. It didn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but I was reluctant to keep opening my wallet, lest he see how much money I was carrying, for he knew the true value of the notes more than I did.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you?”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh, hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying cigarettes. I’m not swallowing more second-hand smoke and watching him drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

Then he walked off.

Thus, my eyes remained peeled for any sign of Muhammed as I strolled to the beach. I made it safely to the beach, where calm, inviting waters lapped the shore and local families played in the sand and splashed in the shallows.

I chose a spot, lay down my towel and sat for a moment. I drank in salty air for the first time in months and let the stress of the previous day slide away. I swam, sunbathed, swam, sunbathed and ate. Then I swam, sunbathed and drank. Time mattered little. I purged my mind of the ugly threats of the day before and looked forward to the rest of my journey through Morocco and into Europe.

As the sun sank in the sky and the call to prayer rang out over the beach, I decided it was time to farewell the beach and head back to the hostel, before deciding on dinner. In a country like Morocco, there are many inviting culinary options, so I set off with a decided spring in my step.

It was only when I reached the hostel that I realised. I realised what I’d forgotten to buy at the shop yesterday while Mohammed harassed the staff. I’d forgotten to buy sun cream, and I was burnt from head to toe. My face was burnt despite the broad-brimmed hat. My back, chest, arms and legs were red raw. The tops of my feet too. This is going to hurt for days. Then it will peel.

So much for a relaxing day at the beach.

All this for a tube of toothpaste.

What are you willing to endure for a tube of toothpaste?

As much as I endured one hot and humid morning in Rabat?

“Find Avenue Mohammed, there you’ll find a supermarket,” advised the helpful receptionist at the hostel.

“If you don’t find this supermarket, you will find many other shops and you can buy what you need.”

What I needed wasn’t much. Some toothpaste, a toothbrush and other toiletries, a towel and some summer clothes. My suitcase hadn’t arrived on the flight from Nairobi (via Dubai), and I was walking the sultry streets of Rabat in long pants and hiking boots. The directions were straightforward, so I assumed the little shopping trip would be straightforward. I was wrong.

I’d never been to a Muslim country before, so I didn’t realise that almost every street sign carries the name Mohammed. I found an Avenue Mohammed and I pondered which sign to follow at the crowded intersection in downtown Rabat. It was too hot to walk back to the hostel for clarification.

Oh well, I guess I just choose one.

Here we go.

I crossed the bustling intersection with sweat already trickling down my back and collecting in my hiking boots. Avenue Mohammed stretched before me, with shops of all descriptions hugging its curb. From behind my sunglasses, I scanned the street and the shops for my destination. The sunlight wasn’t blinding, but the glasses shielded my darting eyes from locals and disguised my recent arrival to the city. It was a safety tip I’d learned while travelling in Kenya and other parts of Africa: never look lost.

Ten minutes later I saw no evidence of a supermarket, or any shop selling toothpaste. This is the wrong avenue. I needed to return to the busy intersection and try again. I crossed the avenue, to avoid backtracking. I then walked back on the other side of the road, walking into a few shops on my way to pretend I wasn’t lost. I didn’t need a bunch of flowers, cigarettes or a new mobile phone case. I needed to look like I wasn’t lost.

Back at the intersection, I chose another avenue. Let’s see how this goes. I wiped the sweat from my brow then replaced my broad-brimmed hiking hat. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. Darting, scanning and searching for a supermarket and a cure for my bad breath. The shoe shop seemed a good place to pretend to be shopping, as did the spice shop. The third shop I entered under the guise of shopping was not so useful. Aisle after aisle sold only multi-coloured fabrics in the shapes of burqas, hijabs and niqabs.

Oops, I don’t think I’m supposed to be in here. Get out, get out…before anyone notices.

Soon my problems began. Avenue no 2 did not hold a supermarket, and I had to return to the intersection yet again.

I was spotted.

A sweaty, tired, anxious, jetlagged Caucasian in hiking clothes stands out on the sultry streets of Rabat, and I soon had company.

“Hello,” he greeted me enthusiastically, “how are you?”

“I’m fine thanks,” I said dismissively, trying to be polite but firm and non-committal.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia”

And the questions continued. Normally innocent questions, but in this context they were not. I knew that he knew I was lost. His eagerness, directness and self-assuredness put me ill at ease. He rightly assumed I didn’t speak Arabic and soon discovered I didn’t speak French. He also sensed that I needed something. I was extremely reluctant to accept his help, but I was also extremely hot, thirsty, tired and frustrated. If I tell him I’m just after some toothpaste and a few other simple items, maybe I’ll get what I need and I can be rid of him.

“This way,” he commanded, and we set off determinedly down avenue no 3. My new friend, also called Mohammed, lit up a cigarette and tried to glean as much as possible from me in his broken but functional English. I moved to his left to avoid breathing in his second-hand smoke and berated myself for becoming helpless. Four months travelling solo in southern Africa had taught me a lot, but maybe not enough.

We soon found a department store and he clarified what I needed. He demanded assistance from the women in the store, and his condescending, aggressive tone only diminished my opinion of him. Then it turned farcical. He found the towel rack and started testing different towels. He rubbed some of them up against his face and compared their softness, while reminding me of the importance of a soft towel. Locals stared at him then at me. I couldn’t claim I didn’t know him, as he was the only person in the store speaking English. The pantomime ended when I selected a cheap towel to use until my suitcase arrived. He didn’t approve, I didn’t care.

He scurried away and left the staff to arrange the towels he’d left strewn all over the shelves. How do you say sorry in French or Arabic? I thought. It was too late anyway because he’d charged off to menswear.

A pair of shorts would suffice for the beach. How I longed for the beach right now, as my body odour overpowered my bad breath. But soon the pantomime sprang back to life. Act II involved my friend throwing shorts at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

What have I got myself into?

Embarrassed and annoyed, I hastily grabbed a pair of shorts, not even sure they would fit, and walked off trying to find some toothpaste. Mohammed had convinced himself that his presence was essential to my shopping trip, indeed my survival, but had forgotten that every supermarket in the world is basically the same. I’d actually hoped he would just direct me to the shop and be on his merry way, but Mohammed was a seasoned performer, and I his latest audience.

Fortunately, Mohammed restrained himself from ‘demonstrating’ the toothpaste and toothbrush before letting me fill my shopping basket, and we made our way to the check-out. Mohammad morphed from comical to agitated in the check-out queue and this signalled a very uncomfortable walk back to the hostel.

He lit up a cigarette as soon as we stepped outside and I copped another mouthful of second-hand smoke. He realised I didn’t need him anymore and this is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. Fair enough, I bought one for him and one for myself. I could already feel the onset of a dehydration headache, and the water was too late but welcome.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff.

Isn’t he a Muslim? I thought. I don’t care if he drinks, that’s entirely his choice, but should I be drinking with a Muslim?

It doesn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered. I’d hastily gulped down the first bottle myself.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded when he knew I wasn’t going to have a drink with him.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks, I thought, there is no way I wanted to have dinner with this angry man.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but at the same time realised that if I bought him one thing he might keep asking for more. Plus, if I kept opening my wallet to make purchases, he would see how much cash I had. It may have been quite a lot, and it may have tempted him to demand more. I’d withdrawn cash from the ATM at the airport, and as I’d only arrived in the country a few hours earlier, I didn’t really know the value of the notes in my pocket. How much money was I carrying in real terms? I didn’t know. Mohammed would.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation. It can never end well.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you.”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Thank goodness for the sunglasses.

Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying you cigarettes you creepy, scary man. I’m not swallowing more of your second-hand smoke and watching you drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light. He kept swearing at me, and the entire street tuned in for Mohammad’s Act III.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. Why do people always learn profanity in a second language?

He does know where I’m staying. Why did I get myself in this situation? How did I end up a public spectacle on my first day in a foreign country where I don’t know anyone or even speak the language?

The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

Wow, his vocabulary is more extensive than I thought. The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

“I’ll show you,” what does that mean?

Then he walked off

I looked straight ahead, ignored the glares from passers by, and walked steadily towards the hostel. I took deep breaths of Rabats sultry air and tried to calm myself. Don’t look back. Stay calm. Concentrate. Concentrate on navigating your way back to the hostel.

What if he’s following me?

Don’t get paranoid.

But what if he is?

I ducked into the Medina. The hostel was on the corner of the Medina, not far from here. Maybe I can lose myself in the crowds and the maze of streets, and drop my new friend if he is indeed following me. I shot into side streets and narrow lanes and I was convinced I’d lost him.

I lost him, but I was lost.

I now made another new friend. I don’t know if his name was Mohammad. I never caught his name. He was young. Maybe 12. And he knew I was lost.

He motioned me to follow.

Not again, not another ugly interaction with a local, but again I had no choice. I was even more tired, more sweaty, more smelly and more frustrated, so I followed.

We ducked through lanes and alleys crowded with people and stalls and carts and souvenirs and tourists and noise and animals, and the young boy stepped them all like an agile footballer. We ducked and weaved our way through the ancient Medina and suddenly we arrived.

The hostel.

But how? I hadn’t exchanged a word with the boy, or told him where I was staying. It was probably the most popular hostel in Rabat, but it wasn’t the only one.

He knew.

“Oui, Merci,” I said to the boy, relieved to have made it. I guess there are some honest, helpful people in Rabat after all. Thank you young man for restoring my faith in humanity. He smiled, then held out his hand. Of course, he expected a little reward for his troubles. I placed a note in his hand and he demanded more. I placed another one in his hand and he seemed satisfied. He ran off ducking and weaving.

Weary, thirsty, hungry, scared, smelly and fed-up, I walked to the bathroom. I reached for the toothpaste and spread it on the toothbrush.

Aaaaah, clean teeth never felt so good.

Image: William Warby

Qingdao: sailing city.

Qingdao is made for sailing. The coastal city boasts a long and attractive shoreline fringed by numerous islands which await exploration under sail. Summer temperatures soar into the 30s and invite days by the sea and refreshing swims in the ocean.

The city hugs the shoreline roughly halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, and successfully avoids the congestion and heavy air that besets so many other large Chinese cities.

Anyone who has visited China, and anyone who loves to sample imported beer, will know of Qingdao. They will of course know it by the name Tsingtao, which graces the labels of the most popular alcoholic beverage in China. The drink is made in Qingdao, and has been since 1903 when German migrants established breweries throughout the city. German influence is still evident in the architecture of various sections of the cities central districts

Tsingtao and Qingdao are different names for the same city. Simplified Chinese has used two different systems since it was first written using letters instead of Chinese characters. Tsingtao is the Wade-Giles system and Qingdao is the Pinyin system.

A city known for its beer has to have a beer festival, and it does. The multi-day festival focusses on beer, and the consumption of said beverage, but also includes amusement park rides for the kids and a number of other attractions to keep visitors entertained all night…so they stay and drink more beer.

An undeniable connection to beer explains the city’s unofficial motto: ‘He pijiu, chi gala’ – which roughly translates as:

Drink beer, eat shellfish.

Gold medals were contested in Qingdao in 2008 when the city hosted the sailing events for the Beijing Olympics. In recent years, the port city has hosted numerous rounds of the Extreme Sailing Series which showcases elite sailors on some of the fastest sailboats in the world. The marina of Qingdao offered an ideal setting for days of fast and exciting racing close to spectators and cameras.

Qingdao: a city for sailing.

How to teach English in Brunei.

What did you do in the holidays?

It was a simple writing task designed to ease the students back into school life after the holidays.

“I go shopping,” she wrote.

“I buy beg, shoe and cloth.”

Vocabulary and grammar are an issue. We’ll have to work on that.

Next one.

“I go to the shops,” he wrote. “I buy beg, shoe and cloth. I’m very happy.”

And so it continued. Nearly every student in this year 9 class spent their holidays shopping, and nearly all of them bought beg, shoe and cloth.

What are beg, shoe and cloth?

Shoe is supposed to be shoes. Beg is supposed to be bag, and cloth is supposed to be clothes.

I now had a decision to make. Either I find a way to start selling beg, shoe and cloth to Bruneians, or I find a way to teach the students how to finally write these words correctly.

I consulted my Scottish colleague, Sheila, with whom I shared the class, and we decided we had to do something to finally teach the students how to use these simple words correctly. We knew why they made the mistakes. Malay speakers do not use plural forms of nouns, instead use the noun twice to show two or more of a thing. Eye is mata in Malay, so eyes are mata-mata. Person is orang, so people are orang-orang. Cloth was partly the result of a difficulty with plural forms, and English words ending in ‘s’.

As for beg, this is a case of phonetic spelling. Malay is a largely phonetic language, and Malay speakers adopt this habit when using English. They pronounce bag like ‘beg’, so spell the word this way.

We arrived at the next class well armed. Then we began.

I stood in front of the class, waited for their undivided attention, then sat on the cracked concrete floor. I dropped my head and held up my hands, ready to receive something. I pretended to be sad, downtrodden and hungry. Students called out some terms in Malay and collectively realised that I was pretending to be a beggar asking for money or food.

“That is what beg means,” I explained. “It is a verb meaning to ask for something in a certain way. A person who begs is called a beggar, and the act is called begging.”

Done.

Now for part 2.

I called forward one of the female students.

“You’re my mother,” I told her “…and I’m your young son,” and this elicited laughter from the class.

“We’re in a supermarket shopping for groceries, and we’ve just arrived at the chocolates.”

“Mummy, mummy,” I pretended to plead. “I want a chocolate.”

Students laughed and the student understood her role.

“No, I’m not buying you chocolate son. Too much sugar.”

“Mummy, pleeeeaaaseee, give me chocolate,” I continued, with increasing desperation.

“Don’t you love me mummy,” and I started to sob either out of commitment to my performance, or from flashbacks of the endless mistakes in the writing tasks.

“That is another example of beg. But, the thing you use to carry other things is called a bag, and spelt b.a.g. – just like this one,” and I pointed to a student’s school bag.

Once the laughter subsided, we practiced the pronunciation of bag and beg, and revised the difference between the two.

Next, we had to tackle the word cloth.

Sheila stepped up.

She called two boys to the front of the class. Two cocky, arrogant boys with an unjustified confidence in their English language ability, even though they couldn’t spell bag. She complimented them on their appearance; their fancy Nike sports shoes, their immaculately gelled hair. They enjoyed the compliments.

Sheila produced a number of cleaning cloths, the type used to wipe up stains from a kitchen bench. She draped them over the boys shoulders, pinned a few to their sports uniforms and even draped some over their heads. The class burst into more rapturous laughter at the boys’ expense, as the style masters were reduced to mere mannequins for cleaning products.

“Is this how you dress when you go out?” Sheila asked.

“Is this what you wear when you go to a party? Do you wear blue cloth, red cloth, orange cloth. Do you mix and match the colours or just make one bold statement? Do people buy you cloth for your birthday presents?

And their classmates submitted to fits of laughter.

“At least it doesn’t matter if you spill something on yourself.”

Sheila then explained.

“This,” holding up a cleaning cloth, “…is a cloth.”

“Shirts, trousers, jeans, dresses, skirts, socks and jackets are clothes.” She then wrote the two words on the board, explained the difference again and had the students practice the pronunciation of each.

The boys were soon put out of their misery and we arrived at word number three.

This was a combined effort.

“Take off one shoe,” we ordered the students.

“Everyone take off one shoe. It doesn’t matter which one, just take off a shoe and leave it by your desk.”

Once the students stopped laughing and accusing each other of foot odour, we gave the next command.

“Now hop around the classroom on one foot.”

What?

“Hurry up, start hopping.”

They weren’t sure at first as to why they should hop around a classroom during an English lesson, but a few students realised it was more fun than endless grammar drills, so they started hopping, and soon the whole class was stumbling and laughing their way around the room. We continued this until we both stopped laughing, and then justified the activity.

“How many feet do you have?” we asked one student.

“Two”

“How many feet do you have?” we asked another.

“Two”

and so on around the room.

“So, everyone in this room has two feet, but apparently you only need one shoe. Most of you told us you bought one shoe at the shops, so you must only have one foot.”

Most students groaned at our Dad joke and the subsequent order to hop around the room, and then we practiced making the plural form of shoe.

Before the lesson ended, we revised the correct form and use of each word. Sheila and I left the classroom confident that we had finally corrected this glaring, simple and frustratingly common mistake in our students.

A week later, we sat down with confidence to review another writing task we had set our year 9 class. A task which taught us that most of our students love to go shopping

“…for beg, shoe and cloth.”

Are your parents alive?

Are your parents alive? he asked.

That’s an odd question, I thought, especially from someone I’d just met.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Mother and father?”

“Yes.”

He smiled.

I was confused. Was it culture or concern which prompted this question? I’d certainly never asked it or been asked it while growing up in suburban Australia. Most Australians would assume that other people of a certain age would have two living parents. It’s not definite, but likely. When I was asked this question for the first time while travelling through Africa, I was also of an age when strangers or new-found friends could naturally assume that both of my parents were alive. However, during my numerous visits to southern and eastern Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, I was asked the same question many times.

Why?

Why did strangers want to know if my parents were alive?

I tried to analyse the tone of the question. This is hard to do in a second language, and I conversed primarily in Spanish or Portuguese in Latin America. Tone is also difficult to decipher while speaking English to non-native speakers. Nonetheless, I tried, and I never felt like anyone was prying or being invasive. No one was rude, or impertinent. I didn’t detect any hidden meaning to the question, and definitely no inkling of dark humour or a bizarre joke. What stood out most was a straightforward tone designed to glean information – whether my parents were alive, yes or no.

While the question was very common, it also failed to present as a distinct social custom. It didn’t belong to a particular country, state, province or tribe – I heard it everywhere. There was no sense of gravity or depth to the question. It also wasn’t the first question I was asked, but it arrived fairly early in the conversation with people I was meeting for the first time.

At least it was easier to ask than other questions which always found their way into conversations while I was travelling the world solo, such as:

Why aren’t you married?

Why don’t you have children?

Having confirmed to myself that the question served simply to extract information, I then began to wonder what people would do with this information. I always said yes, and the conversation usually moved on. Often we discussed the age of my parents, where they lived, their occupation and other ‘GTKY’ (get-to-know-you) questions. If I’d said no to the first question or the clarifying question, would the conversation have followed a different path?

What about yours?

A long time passed before I felt confident enough to reciprocate. That’s when I started to understand one of the reasons for the question. In Africa, and other parts of the world, most people replied ‘no’. Rarely did adults from these countries have two living parents. And there is a simple reason for this: life is precarious. In developing countries, life is more fragile than it is for (most) Australians and citizens of the developed world. Life expectancy is lower in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America and death usually visits families sooner than it might in other parts of the world.

Threats to life are far more common and present in these countries. Poverty, natural disasters, violence, famine, political corruption, war, tribal conflict, poor hygiene and sanitation, the climate crisis, transport accidents and so many other causes of suffering are a more salient reality for people living in these parts of the world.

As a result, threats such as terrorism don’t strike fear into the hearts of people in some parts of the world in the same way that they do in places like Australia. A politician need only utter, or imply, the word terrorism in a country like Australia and they can justify a raft of excessively strict laws or policies on immigration or policing. In developing countries, terrorism is just another threat among many. Friends in Mexico even joked that a terrorist attack on their soil wouldn’t be met with the same reaction, because locals would think that the sound of explosives was just another Saints day festival at the local church, and another excuse to celebrate. Some Mexicans went so far as to suggest that if Mexicans heard the explosions of a terrorist attack, they would rush into the street with food, alcohol and a stereo, ready to party. That said, Mexicans also sadly acknowledged that they don’t need foreign terrorists to destroy their country, they have drug traffickers. Terrorism is still a threat. It is just one of many.

What is an orphan?

An orphan is a child without parents. In my upbringing, that meant no mother or father. However, I learned that in Brunei an orphan is a child without a father, even if the mother is alive. I deduced that children were awarded this classification because the father is still seen as the bread winner, and for this reason some ‘orphaned’ children in Brunei receive a small amount of financial assistance from the government. Of course, state support or welfare is very rare in developing countries, so life is much harder for children when their parents pass away.

Life is uncertain. COVID-19 has reminded everyone in the developed world that life is precious and can be taken away from any of us at any time, but this is something people in places like Africa, South East Asia and Latin America have always known. The fragility of life and the need to cherish it is a realisation I made on many occasions during my travels, especially when I was asked if my parents were living.

My backpacking days finished many years ago, many years before COVID-19. Fortunately, and with great pleasure, I can still answer yes when people ask:

Are your parents alive?

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’!