Shanghai Sci-Fi

Difficult to believe it was ten years ago, but it was quite a trip to Shanghai. A little impromptu, the holiday was due to a friend getting married in the city, and so a group of us went for the occasion. It was a chilly time to go, right over the new year period.

It’s a remarkable city, a metropolis really, which carried the slight veneer of colonialism from yesteryear, but showing signs of the rapid advancement of the Chinese economy. Something of the skyscrapers had a slightly science-fiction feel to it. It was busy though, with millions of people working there.

One little quirk were the old temples dotted around. From the outside you wouldn’t know they were there, but inside were these little old buildings and pools. It was quite a peaceful oasis in such a busy metropolitan area.

One night we went to a jazz club called the Cotton Club, getting a live performance from a US jazz singer. She had this strong southern state accent and the coarse voice of a heavy smoker. She was a great singer though.

Eating out was an adventure. None of us had even a rudimentary understanding of Chinese so we spent a lot of time guessing what was on the menu. On one occasion we ate at a ‘hot pot’ (a restaurant where you boil/cook your food at your table). A friend of mine ordered chicken, thinking it was a safe bet. To everyone’s surprise they brought out a small frozen chicken – the whole bird – plucked and cleaved into square prices, bones, offal and all. It tasted pretty good from what I recall.

There only a week it was nothing more than a snap shot of the city. In the future I’d like to go again.

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D&D Guy

When I first worked in Perth, I travelled to my office each day by train. The office was located in a part of the city called Midland. Midland usually had the poorest housing, and a higher level of social problems than other places. It did not have a good reputation.

I walked to the local station every morning, often leaving late so I had to run. Being quite overweight at the time the daily exercise did wonders. I had to be quick because the trains were intermittent at the station I aimed for, Meltham. I could have gone to a different station, but it was too busy and I preferred a little bit of quiet at the platform before the train arrived.

The train journey had some familiar faces. I worked in child protection, and occasionally parents I recognised would get on board. I tried to keep a low profile in those circumstances, because I didn’t want any work issues before I actually started work.

One figure that was a regular traveller on the same line was D&D guy. He usually had some kind of role-playing book out and held it close to his face to read. The man had white hair and was probably in his forties. I was always curious about his reading habits, trying to see what book he was reading next. He often had science-fiction novels as well.

I took the photo of him while he held his book up, obscuring his face. In many respects, he made me think of myself. I could easily be that figure on the train, reading role-playing books or sci-fi, dressed in similar attire for work. Even our hats were similar.

I always toyed with the idea of speaking with him, striking up conversation, but I am an introvert trough and through. I was an avid role-player once, particularly live-role playing, but I figured that those days were gone. I think maybe that was what prompted me to consider speaking to him, this idea that I could reaches those good old days of fantasy games, Dungeons and Dragons and all the other assortment of games we played; speaking in terms of Orcs or Elves, or D10 (a tens sided dice) or hit points. Some things are better left to pass though.

I wonder if he’s still catching that train, going to work, and indulging in the hobby. It would be nice to think him of a continuing fixture, keeping the hobby alive for both of us.

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Shining

Chuck Wendig, author and writer of the excellent Terribleminds.com blog, set a flash fiction challenge for his readers. The challenge was to write a short story using the title of one of Stephen King’s novels. I opted for ‘The Shining’. Enjoy the read.

Arriving early, Jeff sat down to work, alone in the empty office space. Strewn about his desk were casefiles and reminder notes. Jeff stared at the bureaucratic debris.

The sight paralysed him.

It might have been only seconds, maybe minutes, that he was fixed in place, before a noise broke him from his trance.

Someone else had come into the office. Jeff winced. Not at the sound, or the thought of company, but at the light. Squinting he looked outside. It was bright; an omnipresent glare that hurt his eyes. And today was a cloudy day.

Walking into the cubicle section was Diane and she sat at her desk behind him. In the spirit of clinical perfectionism, there were four desks in a cubicle, each facing a corner little naughty children. Sat by the window, Diane and Jeff had long since perfected the art of talking even with backs to each other.

‘Am I suitably late?’ said Diane.

Jeff shrugged. ‘I guess so. It’s early for most people I think.’

‘That’s true. Actually, weren’t you at court this morning?’

‘Came in to get some papers first. Did you need to be in so early?’

‘Oh, I’ve a million and one things to do,’ she said, flicking on her computer and kicking her bag under the table. ‘Got child interviews this morning and then a family meeting.’

‘Busy.’

‘Aren’t we all?’ said Diane, clicking away on her keyboard.

Jeff blinked. The glow of his monitor was bright.

‘It’s too bright in here,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Too bright. Aren’t there controls for the shades?’

‘Yeah, but we’re not supposed to touch them. They practically had a fist fight the last time someone lowered them. If you’re off to court maybe stick it out until then. Maybe you could wear sunglasses.’

‘At my desk?’ said Jeff. ‘I’d look like I’m hungover.’

Jeff didn’t need to see Diane to instinctively know that she turned in her seat to look at him.

‘Aren’t you really hungover though?’ she asked with humour in her voice.

There was a pause.

‘Maybe a little,’ said Jeff at last.

Diane said nothing, but turned back to her desk. Jeff imagined she was smiling.

No, he knew she was.

With a click, the door of the team leaders office, surprising them both.

‘Good,’ said Sheila, their team leader, stepping out of the office. ‘You’re both in.’

Jeff glanced towards Sheila’s office. How long had she been in?

‘You’re here early,’ said Diane.

‘Lots to do,’ said Sheila cheerfully. ‘Now unfortunately we’ve got a few people off sick today, so I need someone to chair a family meeting this arvo. Who’s up for it?’

Jeff’s mouth dropped open, but no sounds came out. He was already overstocked on work.

‘Well, I can’t,’ said Diane. ‘I’ve already got interviews, those two sisters remember, and a family meeting.’

‘Aren’t they twins?’ said Sheila.

‘Nope, different ages,’ said Diane.

‘I see,’ said Sheila. ‘Jeff?’

‘I’ve got court.’

‘Oh that won’t take you past midday. You’ve got nothing booked this afternoon?’

‘Well, no, but I have a lot of work on-’

‘But nothing booked.’

‘No.’

Sheila’s eyes rolled up briefly. ‘Good, so no bookings then,’ she said, her voice tightening. ‘Can you chair then please. It’s at one.’

Sheila turned and returned to her office, closing the door behind her.

‘Can you really do that meeting?’ said Diane.

‘Guess I’ll have to,’ said Jeff.

Wincing, he rubbed his eyes. Now it was the lights in the office that were too bright.

‘Bloody hell,’ he said. ‘What the fuck am I meant to do?’

Looking down despondently at this desk, Jeff ran his hands over the masses of papers and files, as though somehow he could make it all vanish. Of course, the paperwork stayed, and the light pulsated. Propping up his arms on elbows, Jeff closed his eyes and sank his face into his hands.

Behind him, Diane said nothing. A small part of him had hoped she might offer, but deep down he knew she couldn’t. He’d refuse anyway.

What could he do? Fake court? Pretend the hearing didn’t happen until late? No, that wouldn’t work. Either Sheila would realise the truth, or he’d go stone crazy not being able to do anything. If there was thing Jeff hated more than work, it was having nothing to do.

A family meeting would take an hour to two hours, probably two since he was unfamiliar with the case. Then factor in writing up the notes. By then he’d only have about an hour, assuming he could speed type. He wouldn’t get anything done. Another day wasted on nothing, just someone else’s work.

Placing his head in his hands had provided some welcome relief, but he couldn’t sit like this forever. Raising his head he blinked. The light was still bright, too bright. He was beginning to get a headache. That monitor.

‘It’s too bright,’ he said.

‘Hmm, what was that?’ said Diane.

‘The light. And this monitor, I think it’s broken.’

Diane turned her chaired and rolled over next to him. Looking about his desk she shook her sadly.

‘Geez Jeff,’ she said. ‘I thought I had it bad. Let’s see if we can’t sort this out.’

Reaching across, Diane swept all the papers and casework together in a single pile.

‘There,’ she said. ‘That’s a start. Now, just sift through it one at at time, casefiles typed up, paperwork on file or in the confidential waste. And get rid of these,’ she said, swiping away the reminder notes and putting them in the small office bin under Jeff’s desk.

‘Wait a second,’ he said, making as though to pull them out.

‘Useless things,’ said Diane, waving her hand to stop him.’How long have some of them been there? A month or two? Forget it. And now your monitor, well, there’s the problem, you haven’t switched your computer on.’

Jeff looked down at the computer and blinked. True enough, it wasn’t switched on. Looking at the monitor, he realised that it too was not on.

Rolling his eyes up to the ceiling, Jeff looked at the light. Switched off.

The clouds.

Looking outside, the clouds were dark and grey.

Still there was light, all about him. It was peripheral now, like someone was shining a torch to the side of him.

Diane looked at her watch, seemingly oblivious to Jeff’s optical distress.

‘It’s getting on,’ she said. ‘Get that computer on, get the files you need and head off to court. You should still make it and…’ she lowered her voice a little so Sheila wouldn’t heat, ‘…dinner at mine tonight, yeah?’

Without waiting for an answer, Diane turned back to her desk and began typing away on her keyboard in earnest.

Jeff took a deep breath, and then another. You can do this, he thought.

Reaching out, he clicked the computer on.

And like that, the lights went out.

Just eat the fucking thing: A Coorong Story

I’ve written previously about my travels through the Coorong, it’s open lakes that shift between vast pink coloured pools of water in the wet months, to seas of white salt in the drier seasons. It’s a lovely place to visit.

On the route there was a red shack, which always seemed closed. It advertised fresh fish and shellfish. It was always a mild curiousity.

On one occasion though, there was someone there waiting and on a whim I stopped to see what there was. It turned out the owner of the shack lived in a house in a neighbouring hill. He could see if people were at the shack and drive down in his 4WD, which he promptly did.

He had all sorts of local fish on offer, so much so I wasn’t really sure what to go for. He had a good selection of shellfish, but I’ve never been that much of a fan of that particular variation of aquatic food. However, he did persuade me to try done local yabby, or something very similar. It looked like a prawn on steroids.

I was very English about it, nibbling carefully, savouring (testing) the taste. He gave me something of a funny look, and then, in as strong and gruff an Aussie accent as you’ll hear, he said ‘Oh for Christ’s sake just eat the fucking thing mate!’

Being acutely self-conscious at this point, I smiled good naturedly and eat the mutated prawn very quickly. That’s me told, I thought.

Thankfully, I had been in Australia several months, and this brash, slightly country-esque, direct approach was not unusual in my experience. Nowadays, I’d just gulp the thing down quickly.

In the end, I purchased some of the yubbies and some other small fish. They all tasted good, making for a satisfying meal. A good lesson to take the tie to stop, explore, and don’t hold back on tasting.

The Coorong was home to the Ngarrindjeri people. You can read more here

Trembling Travels

My first experience of Mount Gambier came courtesy of a ride on a Rex Express plane. Taking about an hour to get from Adelaide, this was the quickest route to the town. Over the time I lived in the Mount I must have taken the journey quite a few times.

Nowadays, I am well accustomed to the nature of travel in Australia country. Back then in 2011, the idea was some new to me. I had still to appreciate the nature of scale in this vast land.

Rex are one of the smaller airlines, their planes smaller propeller types. They were SAAB I think, but really I was just glad they landed safely.

The flights were very expensive, prohibitively so in fact. Most of my travel was due to work, so I didn’t feel that pinch. Taking into account travel to and from the airport, checking in and flight time, it only saved a couple of hours in the journey to Adelaide. I wasn’t clear on the business sense of such high prices for so little advantage. I didn’t have a car so generally opted for the bus for leisure trips – it was much cheaper.

The planes were a little rickety, and particularly prone to uncomfortable flights in bad weather. Sometimes the wind would be so strong the planes couldn’t land at Mt Gambier and would have to turn around and go back. Luckily that didn’t happen to me.

I remember one flight, coming out of Adelaide, was during a storm. We’d already been delayed before a lull allowed us to take off. I wish I had my camera handy because it was one of the most dramatic images I ever saw over Rads.

As the plane began the takeoff on the runway it abruptly slowed and pulled aside. A warning light had gone off we were told. We waited for about half an hour on the tarmac. Eventually we took off, flying right into the clouds.

It was night, and I saw nothing for the whole flight until we landed. The plane shook all the way; seatbelt sign stayed on, and the stewardesses didn’t even try to hand out complimentary coffee/tea and savoury snacks. At one point the pilot addressed us over the speaker, giving us the usual cruise altitude etc. but the plane shuddered noticeably more while he was talking and he abruptly cut off mid-sentence. After a moment the plane stabilised a bit more. We didn’t hear from him again until we landed, but it occurred to me that the plane was requiring both of them to fly.

My fear of flying was much more pronounced back then, and the flight terrified me to be honest. My biggest fear was that the plane wouldn’t be able to land and we’d have to turn round. Luckily, as we approached the airport there was a brief clearing in the weather and we landed first time.

Rads Market

A staple of CBD living, Adelaide Market was a familiar haunt for me when I first lived there. It was always a busy place, with a general hustle and bustle that belied Adelaide’s quieter nature.

Built under a massive roof, the enclosed market gave a taste of the various denizens of the city. Being so close to public transport links, I wondered how far some people travelled to come here. There was such an eclectic mix it revealed a diversity in Adelaidian population I might not have got anywhere else.

There were all sorts of fruit & veg sellers, furnishing shoppers with low priced apples, oranges, bananas, mangoes and every vegetable under the sun. Although I remember there had been a tropical storm in Queensland, devastating the banana crops and causing prices to sky rocket. By and large though it was affordable and plentiful.

Deli counters sold local cheeses and cured meats, giving access to the culinary delights of the region. There were cakes, coffee and other foodie treats to be found.

I went there a lot because it housed the local camera shop, and they processed black and white film. They had a display of old film cameras for sale, but had the annoying Australian habit of hiding the prices. Probably a good thing given my penchant for cameras at the time.

There was also a second hand book seller, which a nice selection of older science-fiction novels. I still have some of those books.

I didn’t spend very long in Adelaide, but the market was a highlight,allowing me to experience a little energy and flavour in a city that sometimes seems to cultivate its sedate qualities. I don’t think I’ve there in over 5 years, so I wonder how’s changed.

Fishing at Fitzroy

I spent a week at Fitzroy Crossing in 2014, acting as a relief worker for the local child protection office. It is located in lands of the Bunuba people. I arrived late morning on Monday, and departed mid afternoon on a Friday. Not the longest stretch of time.

It was very hot, but dry. I’ve always found humidity harder to manage. They put me up in a local hotel, which was very good quality with a pool.

One of the workers at the office, whose name eludes me now, told me her partner was into photography and she kindly arranged with him to show me a section of the river.

We went after work, down a 4WD section of track through the undergrowth, before coming out to the river. It was approaching sunset, and delightful colours reflected off the water.

Close by a family we’re fishing. They were Aboriginal. It looked like they were catching fish for dinner, because the kids were gutting the fish. I envied the family that moment, a mixture of calmness and family life. It made the place seem less remote, even though they were strangers.

I got some good photos that evening. Never got to try the fish though.

Lesotho, a rooftop of the world

I went to Lesotho in 2015, travelling with my partner Nancy, her brother David and his son Luke. David owned a small hut next to a small hillside village, and we stayed there for a few nights.

Lesotho was a remarkable place to visit. Outside of the warmer South African climate, the air was chilly and there was a high degree of moisture in the air. Ironically there hadn’t been much rain recently, a source of concern for local farmers. It did rain while we were there though, and the locals spirits improved markedly after that we were told.

The landscape was stunning. Lesotho is one of the highest countries in the world as averages go, boasting the worlds highest pub (which we didn’t visit) amongst other things. We were on a wide lunch plateau which sank into canyons and rivers. It had an epic feel to it.

There were villages dotted all over the place, and you see the crops they grew on the slopes of the hills. The people were incredibly friendly and curious. I would take out my camera to get shots of gorges, and received a friendly hello and smile from passing villagers. They wore large woollen cloaks to keep them warm, which were very distinctive. I could see lonely things in the hills, keeping watch on their cattle, contrasted against the hillsides with colours of blue, red and brown. People pretty much walked everywhere, although a few rode horses and we saw donkeys too.

I remember people were curious where I was going, and seemed bemused by the fact I wasn’t heading to a destination. I got the impression that if you go for a walk in Lesotho it is usually with a destination in mind.

I loved the landscape, the great hills and delicate colours of the grass. Beautiful greens and yellows. It was a great place to travel to; an unexpected gem in the world.

Hanging Shoes

Back in 2011, I took a week’s holiday in Tasmania. At the time I had been in Australia barely six. months, and I was keen to explore the wider country on offer.

My trip was essentially a roadtrip, travelling in a rough circle from Hobart to Strahan, to Launceston and then back to Hobart. With hindsight I set my bar too high for what could be achieved in the time it took, nonetheless it was my first taste of the Apple Isle that I now call home.

I spent long sections in the car, taking time to stop off at places of interest. However, the memories that linger the most though are the ones that can’t be anticipated.

One of these was a fence of hanging shoes. You see these in all sorts of places in Australia, and I’m guessing elsewhere too. What drew my attention was the date on one pair of shoes, because it was only a few days before I was there.

The other was a bus stop in the middle of a forest. A patch of graffiti caught my eye.

I did my thing, took photos, and drove on. These things do linger though. The idea of people over time marking their names in wood, seeking a posterity that could never last. More than likely the bus stop bench has been replaced and the shoes rotted in the weather, but it’s these brief moments that catch me. Australia can be such a quiet place sometimes, eerily so, and having these reminders I’m not the only traveller out there, right in the here and now.

It’s reassuring to have that sense of community even when I don’t know the people or can even see their faces. I’m not alone in the journey. I get to imagine who these people were, what was going on for them at the time, why were they there at that moment? Little mysteries that keep the imagination ticking over. It’s why I love road trips.

Bait, Tackle, Ice

Travelling up from Kingston SE in South Australia, there’s a prolonged stretch of road, encompassed by bush land that obscured the horizon. It’s almost like a tunnel, and somewhat unappealing aesthetically. The reward is seeing the lakes, sometimes with water, glowing pink, or with snow-white sheets of salt. Either way it’s a pleasure to the eye when you get there.

Before reaching those lakes there lies the Heart of the Coorong roadhouse. I rarely frequented it, except as an occasional toilet stop (gold coin donation). It seemed an unusual sign of civilisation in the midst of dense scrubland.

Of course, that’s largely an illusion, because even the sea was not that far away, and occasional sidetracks could lead you to the lakes and coast. Between Meningie and Kingston is only about 150km, and Salt Creek (where the roadhouse is) is barely halfway. It represents the end of the tunnel.

I took the photo of the roadhouse back in 2011 or 2012. It’s film. The light is the biggest player in this shot; something illuminating but glaring in equal measure. I tried to make use of the negative space, creating its own tunnel effect. In many other respects it represents the roadhouse as I saw it, a place to travel though rather than a place to go. In truth I never explored it enough. I would like to though.