Sunday, 27 July 2014

My Scottish fling (in regional Queensland)

Watching the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games is giving me flashbacks to high school.

I know this might not be the same for everyone, but for me kilts, tartans, thistles and bagpipes were as much part of my high school years as acne and big hair.

No.  I didn't go to school in Edinburgh, Inverness or Aberdeen in Scotland, but Warwick... regional Queensland.   

You see my high school had quite the "Scottish" theme going.  

Instead of recorders, we had chantors and bag pipes, and instead of school houses we had "clans" (get it?).

I can't quite remember why this school, as far away from Scotland as humanly possible, had such a fascination with Scotland.  Strangely it wasn't something I questioned  when I was donning a kilt and sporran for my year 12 formal.  I guess it's just one of those things you look back at and think "WTF?".

A shot of the real Scotland

Now I'm not going to share some rather choice photos of myself in a kilt, though it has to be said I looked pretty awesome and certainly had (and still have) the legs for it.   

And sorry ladies, if you think guys are only interested in looking up your skirts, then think again.   Imagine a group of immature teenage boys dressed in kilts; a  fair amount of time was spent looking up each others' kilts to see if anyone had dared to go commando.

Not me in a kilt

Oh, the good old days.  Well, the old days anyway.   

It was a good decade after leaving high school that I would actually visit Scotland... the real one.   Since then I've been perplexed as to how someone wandered around the (usually hot, bone dry and flat) Darling Downs and somehow thought "Scottish Highlands".

Scottish Highlands

It would also be interesting to see what a Scot would make of this imitation of their home country.  Would they see it as honour, a bit kitsch, or an insult?

I'd like to think the admiration is reciprocated and somewhere in Scotland (perhaps in Dundee?) there is a school with an Australian theme.   Here the students wear blue tank tops, King Gee shorts and thongs, and school sports include "Stopping the Boats" and crocodile wresting.   

Don't get me wrong, of all the potential inspirations for a school theme "Scotland" isn't a bad choice.   I guess I'm lucky they didn't go with "ewok", "Demis Rousos" or "Clockwork Orange" (though I wouldn't have minded wearing a bowler hat).

I can only imagine in years to come, there'll be the Australian Kylie College or the Alf Stewart Memorial Academy.  Enough to make you want to go back to high school for sure.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Delving into Loch Ness

I'm expecting big things from the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games that begin this week.

Not so much in the sporting arena, but I think the Opening and/or Closing Ceremony would be an opportune time for Scotland to finally unveil Nessie, aka the Loch Ness Monster.
Loch Ness

I can see it now.   Rod Stewart, Susan Boyle... and Nessie dancing to Scotland the Brave.

Let's face it, Nessie was pretty much born to play the role of Games mascot.

By the Loch Ness shore

It would also be a fitting reward to all those tourists, like myself, who've travelled to Loch Ness and failed to see any sighting of the beast that lies below.

In fact the only monsters my friend and I saw on our visit to Loch Ness were the hordes of children descending on the shoreline and screaming for Nessie (no wonder she keeps a low profile).

Urquhart Castle

Even without the prospect of catching a glimpse of Nessie, Loch Ness is an enchanting place to visit.

We arrived from Inverness in the morning when low-lying clouds were clinging to the mountains that fringe the loch.  

Urquhart Castle, well, what's left of it, sits on a headland that juts out into the loch and provides a great vantage point for monster spotting.

While it looks like it might topple over at any minute, we're able to walk up to the top of the remnants of the castle's tower.  

From here, we see that Loch Ness is... well to state the obvious... big and beautiful.  Our thirst for some quintessential Scottish Highland scenery has been quenched.

Even with the sunshine and good visibility, we failed to spot Nessie.

But I'm guessing that we'll all see plenty of Nessie (or something that's supposed to look like her) when the curtains rise on the Glasgow Games in the next few hours.

Let the Games begin!

Loch Ness... sans Nessie

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Kicking up a stink in Fez

You smell one of Fez's top sites before you actually see it.

Heading into the Fez medina
It smells like I'm trapped in a giant urinal... and there's not an accompanying giant pink urinal cake trying valiantly to mask the stench.

I'm at the Chaouwara Tanneries, in the heart of Fez's medina, where a network of open vats containing concoctions of pigeon poo, acids and cow urine are treating countless leather hides.

The tannery
It's here that cow hides are stripped of their hair, cured and converted into quality leather cherished the world over.

Even from the "safety" of a vantage point overlooking the tannery, I can taste the smell emanating from the vats far below.

This vantage point happens to be part of a store selling the tannery's products - everything from leather bags and purses through to leather jackets and shoes.  The store's staff, knowing they've only got you for a limited time while you can stand the smell, try hard to get you to part with some Moroccan dirham.

Upon arrival, one of the store's staff thrust a clump of mint leaves into my hand.   By holding them under my nose this is meant to make the stench bearable.  It reminds me of those smelly little cardboard trees taxi drivers hang from their rear view mirror.  The "trees" don't work in taxis, and these mint leaves aren't working now.

When my eyes aren't watering, I note that there is a strange beauty to the tannery.   The honeycomb network of vats contain a range of different colours and look almost like a painter's palette.  

Remarkably, while I'm recoiling from afar and trying to breathe only through my mouth, the tannery's workers are jumping into vats to pull hides in and out.  They're soaked.  I only hope they lost their sense of smell some time ago.  The workers are in shorts and I can see their bare legs are hairless (presumably from the vat's liquids) and coloured by whatever was in the last vat they jumped in.

It's a strange, smelly and fascinating sight.

While there is a constant danger of becoming permanently lost in the maze that is the Fez medina, I sense you could almost navigate your way according to how close or far away the smell is.

Donkey awaits its load

Away from the tannery, the rest of medina is a hive of industry and craftsmanship.   There's brass being beaten and carpets being woven.  It's like one huge department store where pretty much everything from camel testicles to electronics can be bought.

Beating brass

Great minds are also produced here, with the media housing several theological colleges and universities (including one that is believed to be the world's oldest).

Inside one of the universities
It takes the rest of the day before the smell of the tannery starts to fade.   It's as though the smell has been burnt into my nostrils and no amount of sniffing mint leaves, herbs or spices can shift it.

Photos do a great job of keeping my travel memories alive once I'm home, but the unique smells of Fez means I'll remember it every time I walk past a urinal.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Loop around Laos

My first trip to Asia and one of my first overseas trips was to a country I'd rarely heard of.

I knew of "Laos", but wouldn't have been confident placing it on a map.
Travelling down the Meekong River

I was being sent on a trip there by my newspaper employer at short notice.  It was a quick week's lap around the small land-locked country, via Bangkok.  I didn't really care where it was at that point or what I was going to see - a week out of the newsroom sounded perfect.

But given it was one of my first overseas trips, it left one of the biggest impressions on me.

It was also my first taste of Asia - both the huge, chaotic cities (Bangkok) and the simple and traditional lives people led in the lush countryside.

I had my new backpack overstuffed with things I would discover were completely unnecessary, my passport, and a vague idea of where I was going.

My instructions were simple: I was simply to join a guide and small group at Bangkok airport, and together we'd journey fly to Chiang Rai, cross the border at Huay Xai, boat down the Meekong River to Pakbeng and Luang Prabang, before driving to Vang Vieng and the capital Vientiane.

If I didn't know exactly where Laos was, I had even less of an idea about these places I was about to visit.
Life by the Meekong
To this day, Luang Prabang in Laos stands out as one of my favourite and most memorable travel destinations.

I don't have many photos from this trip.  This was strictly pre-digital camera days and for this trip I had just one roll of 36-exposure film (it was only when I was back home that I discovered if the camera had focussed or had been fogged up from humidity).

Looking down on Royal Palace at Luang Prabang
Formerly a capital of the kingdom, Luang Prabang is tucked alongside the Meekong River and surrounded by rainforest.  It's became a favourite of backpackers throughout Asia - and for good reason.
Ku Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang has an almost serene atmosphere.   It feels like there's a beautiful gilded temple or stupa on every street corner and that every second person is a monk clad in saffron-coloured robe.
Luang Prabang temple
Monks collecting alms
Each morning, these monks wander the streets to collect their daily alms.  Every evening, they gather to chant pray.   Life here seems to have a peaceful simplicity.  Time also moves a little bit slower - and you too thanks to the humidity.

Of course, Laos has had more than its share of conflict.   My only knowledge of the country then was from it's involvement in the Vietnam War.   Before that, it was also a colony of the French (who kindly left behind pretty architecture and baguettes).

French legacy

This loop around Laos was quick, but gave me a taste of the country and of southeast Asia.

What I remember most is not just the sights and sounds, but also how it felt to be a traveller; the freedom,  the excitement of discovering new things, and the foreign but familiar way people live around the world.

Pak Ou Caves

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Why RuPaul's Drag Race is important TV

Yes!   Seriously!

I know what you're thinking;  How can RuPaul's Drag Race - a  realty tv show where drag queens compete to become "America's next drag superstar" - be anything more than frivolous television?

Sure, on the surface the show is fun and frothy, hosted by renown drag queen RuPaul.

It's like a cross between America's Next Top Model and Project Runway as the competitors complete creative challenges and transform themselves into their drag personas under different scenarios.

I can't profess to have seen every episode.  In fact, I often end up watching episodes out of order and from different seasons as it's currently on both SBS and Foxtel.  

Initially, my friend and I were fascinated by "where all the bits went" (so to speak), but now we've become addicted to the show itself.  (I know we're a bit late to the party given the show first started in 2009)

And while I might be reading WAY too much into it, it's got me thinking about how the show challenges what society told us about men and women;  how they both should act, behave and the roles they should play.

To be honest, I've never really given drag much thought.  I didn't really understand it and what it was trying to "achieve".

But what I find the most interesting with this show is the concept of drag itself and what it means to be a woman in our society.

You see, it still seems to be the case that women can look like men and society is more or less ok with that.  But for a man to dress up like a woman is generally not ok.

There are those who will protest that drag is "repulsive" or "unnatural" (an overused word at the best of times).  But you would have to question why there is such a strong reaction to someone simply dressing as a woman (quite a natural phenomenon in itself)?

RuPaul herself offers an explanation: "We as humans find it easy to categorise people so that we know who to feel comfortable with them; so that we don't feel threatened.  If someone falls outside that categorisation, we feel threatened and we search our psyche to put them into a category that we feel comfortable with".

Even today, Australian shows will still have "blokey" men dress up as women (usually as "punishment" if they lose a bet) because it is degrading and humiliating.

You have to ask: is that because they think being a woman is degrading and humiliating?  That you are something less to be feminine?  Have you ever seen a show where the losing female competitor has to dress up as a man?

On RuPaul's Drag Race, these men proudly transform themselves into the female personas they have made for themselves.  They don't find it degrading or humiliating.

Interestingly, as some have said, they find it liberating.   Dressing in drag was/is a way to escape (momentarily) their lives and the baggage that comes with it.

It reminded me of a story I read about a recent Broadway play called Casa Valentina.  Based on a true story, it's about a discrete venue in the early 1960s for hetrosexual men who enjoyed dressing up and acting as women. For them, dressing up and acting like a woman for the weekend was a way to escape the strict gender roles society had defined for them at that time.

Watching these drag queens "sashay away" or "lip sync for your LIFE" makes me ponder the gender roles we still have.  But I'd like to think shows like this help to loosen these, just a little.   After all, I couldn't imagine a show like this being on television a decade or two ago!

To quote the eloquent RuPaul one last time:
"Every time I bat my eyelashes, it's a political statement.   The drag I come from has always been a critique of our society, so the act is defiant in and of itself in a patriarchal society such as ours.  It's an act of treason."