Tuesday, September 21, 2004

First of all I want to thank the academy...

It being September 21st, by my calculations I am halfway through my travels today. I started from Toronto on the 12th of July and I expect to be in Montreal on December 1st. It's the longest trip up the 401 I've ever made. At this milepost I would like to do some shout-outs.

This, then, is the post for all of you who have been reading my blog wondering when I would get to the part of the story where you came in and whether I would mention you and what I would say (or perhaps I've already passed that part of the story but my description was lacking). It is for those of you whom I want to thank for facilitating the process of getting me from there to here. It's a long list of personal thank-you's, basically, which at the Oscars would be drowned out halfway through by swelling music.

Mom and Dad: thanks for being the home administrative base. Maeve and Dave: thanks for your own homey-ness and sorry for the box and the automobile parts I left on your living room floor. Patchen: thanks for the lift to the airport and sorry for the bag of sneakers and other excess weight that I left in your living room. Alison: thanks for not panicking on the airplane, thanks for sharing your amarula, thanks for introducing me to your marvelous family, and sorry for trying to grab the steering wheel that one time. Colin and Anzu: thanks for putting me up in your beautiful but doomed East London apartment with the view of chimney-pots, thanks for fashionable noodles and laid-back sushi, the safety vest, and sorry for the bag of stuff I left in your bedroom. Beryl, John and Leah: thanks for your warm and off-beat hospitality while I was in Johannesburg - it was a pleasure to meet you - Leah, thanks for the bubblegum. I don't think I left anything in your guest room, but let me know if I did. Jacques and Leona: thanks for hanging out with us in the bar until closing time and later. It was a fun night. Pauline and Terry: thanks for giving us not one but two luxurious rooms overlooking lush Cape Town hills, and for the dinners and major breakfasts, and Pauline I hope you didn't mind too much that I beat you at Scrabble. Maurice: thanks for taking us to the beach at Hout Bay and for the tickets to Antigone - in which you outshone the king - and I really enjoyed getting to meet you. Rampe in Malealea: thanks for your assistance with my reluctant horse and your patience. It was great talking to you. People who helped me on the mini-buses, whose names I don't know: thank you for taking pity on a bewildered foreigner with no knowledge of Zulu or Basotho; in particular thanks to that former-miner guy with sunglasses on the mini-bus from the Lesotho border, who ran with me to catch the car to Prathaditjaba. Lee: thanks for the lift to Jo'burg and the place to stay and everything else, even the 5 am wake-up call. Tracy: thanks for the very welcome welcome back to London and the wayward Canadian party (with honorary guests from Ireland and Japan) in your lovely pad. Ellen: thanks for saving me from sleeping in the bus station that first night in E'burgh - I hope you enjoyed the highlands. Eric: thanks for generously letting me sleep on your floor at the height of festival-goer-from-out-of-town season - good luck at the Observatory. Downward Dog (Cat, Jack, Carrie, Mike): thanks for taking time out from the festival stress to share some pints with me, and thanks for the opportunity to see the show, which was amazing as always. Richard: thanks for giving me the gospel truth, finally, about cats and dogs. Nikki And George: thanks for showing me around - first in the Yarra Valley wine country and then all the way to Adelaide, and for saving me from the lethal clutches of the Giant Koala, and Nikki's Parents: thanks for letting me show up unexpected and stay in your beautiful house, and sorry for the jacket I left in your guest room. Melbourne Writers' Festival: thanks for a week of stimulation followed by luxurious relaxtion in a bathrobe that cost more than my car. Lou and Zoey, Sleepers: thanks for inviting me to judge people - I'll try not to make a habit of it. Steve Smart and Overload: thanks for inviting me to be judged. It was great to meet everyone involved in Overload. Klare: thanks for the hairdresser recommendation that I didn't take, and the tour of St.Kilda, and for your wonderful grouchiness. Sean: thanks for shepherding me through the Melbourne spoken word scene and putting me on stage at Babble. EZB and Michael: thanks for enduring that show with me, and EZB thanks for the entertaining notes, which I have saved. alicia and Steve: thanks for cheering me on and for asking me to your radio show. alys: thank you (and your roommates) for indulging me with comfortable accomodation, although I have to say it was a bit of a let down after the Windsor. thank you for the lesson in potatoes and kiwi phonics. Amelia: thanks for organizing an impromptu Adelaide spoken-word conference for me at the pancake house, and sorry I missed your reading because of a footy game. Kat: thanks for the German lessons. Trish: thanks for letting me share your table and good luck in Arnhem land. Tug: thanks for the ticket to the missing Opera House, and for inviting me to Bardfly, and thanks for being so darn entertaining. Benito: thanks for letting me crash on your couch or whichever couch happened to be near by, and for drinks, and for hosting me at Bardfly. To the Sydney Opera House, thanks for being there.

If I have missed anyone who is reading this, I thank you too. Part Two: Melbourne, Brisbane, the Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand, and beyond!

Sydney Frost

I've been in Sydney for almost four days and I believe I have not seen all of it, unfortunately. In fact, Sydney is an enormous sprawled-out place that has a gorgeous harbour, an impressive bridge, miles and miles of suburbs, and an Opera House that just won't go away. The day I arrived, I took a short bus ride from the airport and stowed my bag at the train station, then wandered towards the harbour. I ended up, of course, standing next to the abovementioned opera house, icon of Sydney and internationally renowned architectural curio. It was quite grand. As I stood there contemplating its majesty my eyes glanced at the performance schedule posted next to me and I realized that a matinee of "The Marriage of Figaro" was to begin in 30 minutes. I went to the box office to inquire about availability of tickets and how many weeks of food money I'd have to part with to see the show, but before I spoke to anyone a kind elderly lady named Mary gave me a free ticket. Apparently her friend couldn't make it. Figaro was entertaining and funny as well as being serendipitous.

The following evening I returned to the Opera House to see (hear) a radio play being performed live by Tug Dumbly and other actors, written by my host Benito di Fonzo, which was about the disappearance of the Opera House itself. But the Opera House did anything but disappear. Everywhere I went in Sydney, from Dulwich Hill to Bondi Beach, its image haunted me from a million postcards. Furthermore, I went to see an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art that had a hall of mirrors focussed on one floating live image seen through a many-times-reflected window: the image of the Sydney Opera House.

Walking along a narrow lane lined with quaint rowhouses overlooking Darling Harbour, just below the span of the Harbour Bridge, I was passing an incongruous-looking construction site when I heard a strange noise, like a crunching sound. The site -devoid of construction workers - became even more incongruous when I saw that the sound had come from the vicinity of a black rabbit that was sitting near a pile of cinder blocks. The rabbit regarded me calmly, as if to say, "Hey bud, whadda YOU looking at?" He then hopped behind a sheet of plywood, and more crunching sounds ensued. Curious animal encounters. Then today, I was standing momentarily in front of the massive statue of Queen Victoria that stands quite permanently in front of Queen Victoria Place shopping center, eating a spinach sushi roll (I was, not Victoria), when a little dog spoke to me. "My name is Islay," he said. "I used to be the beloved companion of the great Queen Victoria. Because of the many good deeds I've done for deaf and blind children, I've been given the power of speech," he said. If you come to Sydney and stand next to the statue of Queen Victoria he will probably talk to you too. But you may have to make a donation.

Tonight I will perform at Bardfly, Tug and Benito's weekly performance series at The Friend in Hand. I'm looking forward to it. Tomorrow morning, I betray my newfound friendship with this impressively odoriferous city by returning to Melbourne on an early morning flight. I couldn't resist.

Friday, September 17, 2004

A Top Top End End

Today is my last day in Darwin and the Top End, the northern part of the Northern Territory. Yesterday I travelled to Litchfield National Park. I wrestled with a 3-year-old crocodile and won, although it wasn't too hard because he was only about four feet long and he had a rubber band around his jaws, which is a rather unfair handicap for a crocodile. I walked around a termite mound that was three times my height, even though the termites themselves were no bigger than the number 8, and they tasted like lemon peel. (I ate some of them.) There were other termite mounds, the magnetic termite mounds, that were smaller and gray. The field was filled with them like a vast bush graveyard, and they were all perfectly aligned north-south. I went to a waterfall where there is a cave and in the cave there is a hot spring that keeps the cave warm, and this unusual arrangement allows a colony of rare orange bats, that are particular about temperature, to thrive. The bats are rare, in fact, because there are not too many caves that have built-in heating. I went to another waterfall - a very high one - and jumped in and swam around, and then to another waterfall where I also got in and swam a bit, and then yet another waterfall, a series of them, where I was too tired to swim and I just sat in the rocks and let the water rush over my shoulders. I went for a cruise on a river filled with hungry crocodiles, and the people on the boat dangled bits of buffalo over the side of the boat on a string and the crocodiles literally leaped out of the water in sometimes inaccurate but nevertheless astonishing attempts to get the buffalo bits. Some of these crocodiles were 16 feet long. I watched the sunset over the Timor Sea, and then I went to a night market. People were selling didgeridoos and jewellery in the shapes of insects, tie-dyed clothing and crocodile-skin hatbands. There was a food stall featuring emu, kangaroo, crocodile, camel, and wallaby kebabs, as well as witchity grubs. A man named Mick was cracking two whips to a toe-tapping rhythm. There was a fire-juggling show, a one-man band, a Baha'i information booth, and a farmyard petting zoo where over-excited toddlers were let loose on geese, goats, ducks, chickens, and rabbits. There was also a beautiful beach. Darwin's youth seemed to be sulkily enjoying themselves.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


I have been standing
in the huge centre of a bean-shaped world
when the sun came up

I once wrote a story about numbers that featured a cameo by Ayer's Rock (now known as Uluru) playing a negative one, and the line above was in the story. Now it's true. I spent a couple of days with Uluru this week, and although I have been fascinated by this enormous rock for a long time, it turned out to be even more awe-inspiring than I anticipated. This is for several reasons. First of all, it is simply so large. It confuses the mind, because on the one hand it is a rock, but when you get there you realize it is also a mountain. On the postcards it looks large, certainly, and yet its smooth rounded shape gives one the impression of a hill, a stone. Up close, walking around its 10-km perimeter, one is surprised again and again by gorges, cliffs, waterfalls, and caves, all over the surface of a single gargantuan rock which from a distance looks so monolithic. And the part that one can see is just its tip, as the rock extends likely more than 5 km underground. I must have taken over a hundred photos of it while walking around, and while watching the sun rise and paint it glowing red, and then watching the sun set and colour it orange. In addition to being large, it is strange and surprising: it juts out of a nearly flat semi-desert that stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction and right to its red slopes. The path around the base is perfectly flat and it seems almost as if the rock had been planted there. I walked around it rather than over it because the Anangu, the traditional residents of the land, don't like people climbing it. They never climb it themselves except at the start of certain very significant traditional ceremonies, and then only the wise old (male) initiates do. (Some tourists do climb it, though; it's officially allowed but frowned upon. I'm working on a story about the issue of to-climb-or-not-to-climb.) That is one indication of the other very awe-inspiring thing about Uluru: that it is a central and very spiritually significant part of one of the world's most enduring cultures. We visited a wave-form cave where ceremonies initiating aboriginal boys into manhood had been held for thousands of years. (They no longer are.) Every feature of the rock, every cave and shape and marking, has a history and is a character in the Anangu dream-time (creation) stories. This slope is the scene of battle, that cleft is where a spear hit, this boulder is the egg of a python-woman. And there are places on the rock which are sacred ceremonial sites and closed to the public. The uninitiated can walk past them, but are asked not to go near them or touch them or take photos or even draw pictures. Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas), which is another group of geologically bizarre enormous monoliths about 50 km west of Uluru, is also of great religious import for the Anangu and is cloaked in even more secrecy. It's a men's sacred site, apparently, which means that Anangu women are not supposed to even go there, and the significance of the place and the stories associated with it can not be revealed to outsiders. So the tour guide did not have much to tell us. But the rocks said a lot on their own.

I don't know what to make of all this.

I spent three days getting from Adelaide to Alice Springs and four days seeing the sights around Alice. I saw camels living in the wild. I camped out in a swag under the stars. Then I took a train - The Ghan - and tonight I arrived in Darwin, in Australia's Top End. I'll be here for three and half days and then I'll fly east again, to Sydney. I'll be performing there on the 21st, at "Bardfly", thanks to Mr. Tug Dumbly. This morning, in Katherine, I went kayaking in a crocodile-infested river (They were the fresh-water variety, "mostly harmless". The locals refer to them as "freshies.") I was by myself and it was beautiful and quiet and I had a staring contest with a wallaby (that's a pointy-faced marsupial like a small kangaroo) who was drinking on the shore. We watched one another for fifteen minutes. And then for dinner tonight, I tested the limits of my recent dietary resolution that I would eat two-legged creatures (chicken, turkey, ostrich), but would continue to exempt four-legged ones (cows, pigs, cats) from my eating habits, by having a kangaroo steak. They have those two front paws, it's true, but they use them more like hands than feet. By this logic, of course, I suppose humans are fair game too. No wonder that wallaby stared at me for so long. He was wondering what I was capable of.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Power v Cats

I went to Footy Park to watch the footy this afternoon. It seems injust, to me, that I am talking about Australian Rules Football for two posts in a row when I never talked about touring Soweto or Table Mountain or the shows I saw in Edinburgh or so much else. But here I am and tomorrow morning I leave at 6:30 for Alice Springs, so let me tell you what's current. First, the good news, if you are a South Australian: Port Power won, by a whopping 112 to 62. The Geelong Cats, a proud Melbourne team (and in Ozzy Rules if you're not a Melbourne team you're risible) will be licking their wounds for a while. Port moves on to the semi-finals. What am I talking about? Australian Rules Football is a game (so says the AFL website), with two teams, the object of which is to win by earning the most points. Are you getting the picture? There are around 18 men from each team on the field, plus some officials and waterboys, but I don't think anyone really bothers counting. They all vie for an oval-shaped ball on an oval-shaped playing area. It also involves some other subtleties. I spent about three hours soaking it up this arvo (Ozzy for afternoon), sitting in the warm Spring sun surrounded by good-natured supporters of both sides, and this is what I've gathered. If the ball is propelled between the sticks at the end of the oval, points are handed out. It may be six points, or it may be just one. It depends. Also, if someone touches the ball first it doesn't count. You have to kick the ball if you have it, unless you punch it, or unless someone punches you first, in which case you can fall down and wait for the crowd to clear and then get up and run again. But you have to bounce the ball - which doesn't look easy - if you're running a little ways. I'm not clear on how far exactly, but a ways. It's kind of like basketball in that way, but it's also somewhat like rugby but not really, and a little like American football, without the protective equipment, and a lot like lacrosse, but with no sticks. You're not allowed to have beer in the stands, so you have to chug your pint in the 6-minute intervals between quarters. You have to wear a scarf with the name of your team on it. If a player on the team which is not your team does something you don't like, for example scores a goal, an appropriate thing to do might be to yell, "Hey 21, you're a poofter! Get a haircut, ya faggot!" - you can ignore that some of the players on your team have long hair too, but only if you are in your home stadium. Encourage your 10-year-old son to yell things too, such as "Smash him!" At half-time, children of ages 5-12 are taken onto the field to really settle the score with miniature footy. And at the end of the game, once the local theme song has been played ("We've the power to win, and we'll never give in, until the flag is ours for the taking..."), as a supporter you must swarm on to the field to kick around your own football with your son, especially if it happens to be Southern Hemisphere Father's Day, so that you can win a TV. All in all, a pleasant and edifying arvo was had by all.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Of footy and possums

My first two weeks in Australia were spent in Melbourne, and I was starting to feel so at home there that I feel positively deterritorialized to be here in Adelaide, in Southern Australia. Adelaide is a well-laid-out town: a compact CBD (that's Australian for downtown) surrounded by a greenish belt, with a nice-looking museum and train station and state parliament just around the corner from where I type. I may look into the museum tomorrow, but my big plan is to go to a footy game. The finals are on. I know nothing about this sport. It's not soccer; it's not football. It's not even rugby. Australian Rules Football it's called, and it's uniquely Australian. All I know is that it's played on an oval, there are a bunch of men on the field and a ball and two sets of goalposts, and people here get very agitated about it. A large number of those excited people will be in the Port Adelaide stadium tomorrow afternoon to see the Port Power take on the Geelong Local-fauna (I've forgotten which exactly). I plan to be one of them, and I hope it will be very confusing to me.

Speaking of local fauna, I'd like to report that I've had my first encounters. Walking in the north-eastern Melbourne suburb of Northcote at about 1 am the other night, I came across a furry creature of definite non-feline and non-canine proportions, moseying along the sidewalk. When I got closer the creature scrambled into a tree about my height, and then turned its big glinty eyes on me, and we stared at each other for a while, only a few feet apart. It had tree-gripping claws and radar-dish ears and a long furry tail. It had marsupial written all over it, but I would not have been able to identify it to the police. I thought, it couldn't be a possum, because possums' tails aren't fuzzy. Right? Wrong. It was a possum. It climbed down from the tree when it lost interest in me and climbed another, leafier, tree, and I took a picture of it. Then, yesterday, on the road between Melbourne and Adelaide, I saw my first kangaroos. They were in a fence-ringed fauna park run by the local Rotary club in the Shire of Kaniva, along with some emus and wallabies. They never move one back leg without moving the other. It's hopping or nothing, as far as they are concerned.

Speaking of confusion, I'm trying to make mental notes of all the words that don't work as well here as they do "back home". I'm getting used to them and I hardly notice some of them, but I sometimes forget to use the local vocab and I confuse other people, which in turn confuses me because I don't know what they are confused about. For example, if I ask someone, "where is the bathroom?" I may garner a blank stare. Where is the toilet, on the other hand, is considered proper. Rather than downtown, it's the CBD. Rather than gas it's petrol, of course. Biscuits, not cookies, and muesli bars, not granola bars. Many of these are what I consider Britishisms, which complicates matters. But what would be a lorry in England, and a bakkie in South Africa, is here apparently sometimes called a ute. Australians are also fond, you see, of shortening words and making them a little more jolly. This is usually accomplished by putting "o" at the end. So a musician is a muzo, for example. Improv is impro. Or it can be done with -y. Mosquitos are therefore mozzies (rhymes with ozzy). And the new national hero is Thorpie.

I can't describe how much I enjoyed my stay in Melbourne without blushing. I did four performances (two at the Overload Poetry Festival, one at the MWFestival and one at Babble) and one panel discussion, and they all went over stupendously except perhaps the first one, which had me worried a bit. People came up to me at the MWF and said - really - that seeing me was the highlight of the festival. There were distinguished editors soliciting work from me and young women flirting with me. How can you beat that? Perhaps by meeting a number of people with whom I know I will remain friends, and people whom I feel very lucky to have met. Melbourne showed me a marvelous time, and Melbourne, I won't forget it. Come and visit me in New York anytime you want. All of you. How many are you, 3 million? That's not many. You can stay in my apartment.

I'm too slow for this bloggin business, really. This week I'm going to the wild red yonder, the outback, the dusty glowing red centre of Australia. I don't know if there are any computers there. So sit tight.