Monday, July 30, 2012

Dentists - and the Olympics.

Everyone has a good story or three inside of them.  Some people's stories are just more remarkable - and unexpected- than others.  Why we should not expect the remarkable I do not know - but we never do expect it.  People sit comfortably in the grooves of their lives and it's easiest to imagine them rolling happily along; you don't watch for the moment when they skip out of it and careen away - sparks flying and rockets exploding - sideways across life.
            Last week I went to the dentist. I don't like going to the dentist.  Dentists are mostly charming people but the electric whine of a buzz wheel burring across my teeth gives me the unpleasant mimminies and I'm not in a mood to be charmed, or charming, in return.  In all honesty, I'm a crier, and the most delectable of dentists tends to become unnerved by a Tabubilgirl with her mouth wide open, and tears rolling thick and silent down her face while a mild-mannered dental technician applies an electric toothbrush for a routine cleaning. 
            The first time I visit a dentist, things are awkward for everyone.  I have a Special Dental Routine: I put on my headphones, close my eyes, and listen to my Happy Music - which for me is the soundtrack to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats.  No matter how I explain things in advance, the first time I overflow the dentist calls for technicians and receptionists, who pat my hands soothingly and give me a running update - with mirrors, even.  Two or three visits down the road, we're all in a routine:  I will hum along to Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat over and over inside my head and cry steadily until the procedure is over, and the dentist will just get on with it, save for a sporadic and low-voiced murmur of "Lord, she's off again" to his assistants whenever a drill speeds up.
            Fortunately for all parties,  I have very good teeth.  But every time I move, I have to start the whole routine over again with a new dentist. 

Which brings us back to last week's dentist visit - me flat on my back in a comfy chair, with my mouth wide open, and not quite crying yet because the dentist is still doing his very first inspection and the noisy electrical tools are still in a box.
           The dentist tapped the point of a dental pick against my upper maxillary incisors.  I winced.
           "You've got a couple of caps here at the front."  He said.
            "Four."  I said, indistinctly, around a plug of cotton wool.
            "Why?"
            I pushed the dental pick out of the way with my tongue and massaged my jaw.
            "My sister and I held a diving competition in our bathtub when I was eight.  I won."
            The dentist was charmed.  "How!?"
            I sighed. "The Olympics were on TV.  We watched the platform diving and that evening, my sister and I and a friend held our own private diving competition in our bathtub.  Dr Tabubil and the friend weren't completely silly - they stood on the side of the tub, put their hands over their heads, announced their dive and sat down really quickly in the water and made bubbling noises.  Me?  I stood on the side of the tub, spread out my arms, and went for it.  Left my two front teeth right there on the floor of the bathtub."
            "Your dedication is impressive."
            "Thanks.  We were living in a pretty remote community in Papua New Guinea  - Mum and I had to fly two hours to the capital city to find a dentist.  Twenty years ago and she still hasn't forgiven me for it."
            The dentist forebore to comment.  "And the other two teeth?"
            "I was 11. The baby caps on my front teeth fell off and the dentist who did the replacement job had worked for the Borgias in a former life. Today I have four false front teeth and cry every time I come near a dentist office."   
That's my story - a very little story that barely bounces me up and down in my groove. My dentist though -
            "You said it happened during the Olympics?"  He said.  "Which one?"
            "1988.  Seoul."
            "I have been very fortunate, you know." He said. "I have been to two Olympics.  I remember that I met a diver in Munich - a Canadian.  When you said diving, I wondered if you might have been watching her, but of course you're far too young.  I found her again at one of the Pan-American Games -"  He smiled to himself and sighed happily. "Good memories."
            "You said -" I said carefully "that you were at Munich.  What was it like, being there that year?"
            "Do you see that tree?"  My dentist pointed out of the window.  "Maybe ten meters away from this building?  In the Olympic village we were right across from the Israelis.  Maybe that far.  Maybe not that much.  We could see them with the masks down over their faces through the window - and the guns…"
            He shook his head. His mouth was tight, but I was struggling to make sense of something else.  Sometimes I'm not terribly quick on the uptake -
            "You were staying in the Olympic village?  You were an athlete?"
            "Mmm-hmm."
            "What sport?"
            "Shooting."
            "Rifle or Pistol?"
            "Shotgun."  He mimed a lock and load. "Skeet shooting."
            "Really?"
            And he put down his dental pick and told me all about it.

My dentist is a one-time world record holder and a two-time Olympic athlete - Montreal and Munich.  He hung up his gun in 1980, when he was at the top of the world, and he never competed again.
            "It was the Moscow Olympics.  Chile decided to join the boycott - fifteen days before we were due to leave.  And you have to understand -  two weeks earlier, I'd set a world record.  It was my year.  My year! The Olympic Games are so big - I sacrificed everything - my life, my family - and it was my year, and after that, when they told me I couldn't go, I just - I just couldn't do it, not anymore.  How could a medal mean anything after that?
            "But oh -"  He sighed. "To be in the Olympic village. There just aren't words. To be there means such a sacrifice - so much work, so much pride, so much triumph - just to be there-
            And when you go into the stadium for the first time, at the Opening Ceremony, Chile is right at the front - you know, A, B, C, Chile - so you're marching in while its still fresh and everyone is going mad, screaming and shouting and waving and you circle the stadium and it's crazy - crazy. They fill the stadium with athletes from the outside in, and Chile ends up right at the front.  In Montreal, we were in front of the reviewing stand with the Queen of England on it, and the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prime Minister of Canada  - and there we were, right across from them for three hours, taking photos of course, but this was in '76, not today where everyone has a cell phone camera, and we were out in front and they'd told us to stand straight and be elegant and keep up the Olympic image, so we're there sneaking cameras out of our pockets and snapping photos from our hips and praying that they would come out -" He sighed gustily.  "There are no words.  No words."

There are a lot of things wrong with the 2012 Olympic Games.  Among the more visibly contentious issues is the staggering emphasis on corporate sponsorship over community, in which multinational companies with guaranteed games-long tax shelters have been invoking the full might of the British Police to prosecute any and all local businesses who might be attempt to horn in on their milch-cow.  The climate in London has become something of a farce, where heaven help you if you put up a row of bunting, or - to take one real life example - are a gentleman baker who has displayed five homely bagels in your window in the shape of the Olympic Rings.  The British may have funded the lions share of the Olympics, but the IOC will be damned if British taxpayers are permitted to take a penny's pride in the fact. 
            Inside the Olympic venue, things get even tougher.  You may not bring in food (Heaven forfend that visitors with hypoglycemia or related conditions try and bring a snack through the gates.  Never fear, though, McDonalds is everywhere inside - the best food for a heart-healthy Olympic lifestyle!) or drinks (even water is restricted to levels seen at airports - bottles of 100 milliliters, tops,  which puts pressure on  visitors with blood pressure and other related problems, I can tell you.  Pay premium price for bottled stuff or stay home.)  The silliest in-venue restriction has been rescinded under howling pressure: in the land of fish and chips, the Great Multinational McDonalds attempted to extend its Olympic privilege to banning any vendor but themselves from selling french fries.  Because anyone else selling chips would affect the brand.  That, at least went down under the howling like a lead balloon.
            In fact, a state of such howling hysteria has been reached that one entire police station issued an edict that any non-sponsor snack products eaten by an officer in uniform must be decanted into an anonymous plastic bag or tub if said snacks are to be consumed in public. The IOC has claimed that their guidelines have been wildly misunderstood and are putting on terribly hurt faces, but that level of confusion does not arise spontaneously out of a vacuum - there is a significant level of pressure coming down from somewhere. One can imagine that in 2014, entry security into Olympic Venues  will involve McDonalds employees patting down visitors to find the chewy bars and packets of peanuts that woman have hidden in their brassieres.
            And of course, there is the vicious little kerfuffle over tourist photographs.  It's a solid bet that ticket holders were unaware of it when they purchased their tickets, but the act of purchasing - or entering an Olympic venue under an Olympic Games ticket, gives the IOC complete total and blanket rights to any and every photo of the athletics that they take. Any uploads of your personal happy snaps to any form of social media - facebook, picassa, imagur, twitter - anything, really - is very very illegal.  The IOC says so
            The ban is unenforceable, of course, and the IOC, with a deep understanding of public relations, backed down exactly two whole days before the games began  (It's not that they retract their claim over the photographs, you understand, it's just that they won't try and prosecute.)  but not before Olympic security guards detained a couple of photographers taking photographs of the outside of an Olympic Venues from a public street. It's a weird, and deeply nasty little power play, and seems to be based on two colossally odd presumptions -  that 
a) our personal fuzzy 'I Wuz Here' happy snaps pose a genuine commercial threat to their high-end telephoto lens glossies, and that 
b) it is possible to tell a paying audience - to tell anyone - that their memories and experiences are not their own, and that they may make no claim upon them. 
The level of pettiness on show is unbelievable.
            Completely co-incidentally, local interest in the Games has not been not hugely high.  Tickets are being given away, whole sections of stadiums are being closed off when the IOC chooses to be unsporting and not give them away, and hotel rooms are going unsold all over London.  
            Two years ago, after the winter olympics, I wrote the following: "I suspect that the IOC is squandering goodwill here.  When it comes down to basic economics, the Olympics don't mean nothing - no dollars and no cents, if no-one cares."
            The sentiment seems even more relevant two years on.  When your whole brand depends on popular enthusiasm on a global scale, the metaphor of the goose with the golden egg is more than tangential.  You're infuriating, and alienating, the audience that your dollars depend on.  You're chopping that goose off at the neck.
            And so - I present to you my dentist - and the real Olympic spirit.  Talent and heart, effort and pride and honor sought in honest competition.   We can't take away the IOC, so let's focus on that this year - let's focus on the athletes, who have given everything they are to be in London.  Let's have a bloody fantastic games.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cuttlefish Cargo Cult - Day 5

In 2011 I went diving with the Australian Giant Cuttlefish.  In 2012 they did not come back.  In a spirit of cargo cults and magical thinking, we’re going to have a week or so of cuttlefish:  perhaps, if we wish hard enough, a critical concentration of photo and video will bring them back from wherever they have gone. 

I didn't get chilled after my icy dive -  we waded out of the water and traded our neoprene suits for flannel pajamas and wool sweaters and fuzzy hats, and we sat in the sun and drank thermoses of hot tea and climbed into a truck with a heater in the cab and by the time we were back in town we were warm as toast.
            It was all very civilized. 
            Under the water, on the other hand -
            Nature is red in tooth and claw, and here is the juicy stuff, all of the blood and sex and hormones and raw unbridled passion that makes for Grand Opera and even grander daytime soap-opera (because you can show the exciting bits that get edited out on stage and replaced by Arias and Extreme Death Scenes)  and is exactly the sort of thing to make the three hearts of every wandering cuttlefish feel a pang, and make him - or her - want to come home for the winter.

Here, a Stalwart Male is Attacked By a brave Challenger who Wants His Woman.  See him - Flushed with Rage - Fight Back! 



Here, two Alpha Male Types are Locked in Awful Combat. Who will Prevail?





















And here, at last, the video you've all been waiting for:  A violent attack - only centimeters from a Rocky Niche where a Rea Man defends his Harem of Females.  They Love, they Fight, they Consummate their Passion - all for the camera! There is no editing, folks, it's all Real, and it's all Here - exclusively on Tabuilgirl. 

So - Hsst!  Hey!  Cuttlefish! You-all!
The water is icy, the tourists have all gone home, and the sea-urchins and sea-stars are flourishing while you're away, so there's an all-you-can-eat buffet laid on.
Will you think about it?  Please?
There's not much else I can do from here.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cuttlefish Cargo Cult - Day 4



In 2011 I went diving with the Australian Giant Cuttlefish.  In 2012 they did not come back.  In a spirit of cargo cults and magical thinking, we’re going to have a week or so of cuttlefish:  perhaps, if we wish hard enough, a critical concentration of photo and video will bring them back from wherever they have gone. 

 


I had more fun underwater than I had when i went diving with Dr Tabubil- which is saying something because that first time I was bouncing off of walls for a week on the memory of it. 
            That first time, I was entirely under the control of Tony the dive master.  He held my hand as  we stood against a stuff current, and as well, my buoyancy was out of kilter - I was either heading for the roof or bouncing across the sea-urchins on the bottom.  This second time, I was rather more on my own -
            One of the Melbourne ladies had her open water certification - she was buddied with one instructor, and the other two of us were buddied up with the other.  My tourist-buddy had a problematic dive-vest -  an air bubble on one side sent her tumbling in counter-clockwise barrel rolls and I was waved off to join the big kids while our instructor returned her to an even keel.  In water as clear and as still as this it was rather like sitting at the bottom of a 10 foot swimming pool so therewas no danger, and without anyone's hands on my own, I started to find the hang of things, and learned to float -
            And I dug it.  I really dug it.  I'm an original tropical water-baby, and it felt just the way swimming underwater should be - without needing to come up for breath, or being tied to the surface with a snorkel.  Just me and the water - the way it should be, all comfy-like and giving.
            To a point.  Swaddled in neoprene, weighed down by lead shot, breathing through straws out of a glorified great soda-siphon strapped to my back, I didn't belong half as well as the cuttlefish all around me. 

Look at this one - see him fly: 


They were all around me - for every cuttlefish that I saw, if I paid attention and looked a little harder, noticed there at least two more - hiding in the weeds.  When one emerged from under a rock, two or three would be tucked in there behind.    
            The females seemed to be shyer than the males - these photos invariably show a male in technicolor display shadowing a female in her reddest 'I am NOT happy' drag:

This particular instance is a little different.  Here the male is in full furious panoply, and the female is playing it soft and quiet and blending into the scenery.  Check in with us next time to find out why!


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cuttlefish Cargo Cult - Day 3


In 2011 I went diving with the Australian Giant Cuttlefish.  In 2012 they did not come back.  In a spirit of cargo cults and magical thinking, we’re going to have a week or so of cuttlefish:  perhaps, if we wish hard enough, a critical concentration of photo and video will bring them back from wherever they have gone. 

 

The previous cuttlefish post didn't have much to interest the cuttlefish  - it was about things that were going on above the water.

Into the water, then.  We were five on the dive - two instructors, myself, and two lovely young women from Melbourne visiting Adelaide for business purposes, who were driving the 8 hours to Whyalla and back to Adelaide in a day so that they could do the dive.  We kitted up, walked down the refinery fence-line into the water, winced on account of the seriously cold temperature of the water, followed the fence out until we were chest deep, and we put on our masks and dipped below the surface. 
            And there the cuttlefish were - hundreds of them.  Just hanging out.  Swimming languidly around the rocks, you know?  As they do.  Loitering, paying errands, going visiting, courting, mating, laying down their eggs underneath the rocks, and  flashing our cameras with multi-spectrum shows of interactive color gradation.
            The cuttlefish are terribly inquisitive about us-  as much as we are about them, I suspect.  If you float still, just above the bottom , they'll come right over to you.  We were told not to let them come closer than 2 inches of our bodies because they will bite - on spec, just to see if we taste any good, I suspect.
            Immediately on entering the water I came across a very large feller - not so large as the giants Dr Tabubil and I saw on our dive - perhaps only two feet across.  I stopped to take a photograph - as one does - and as I focused, less and less of him was fitting in the frame.  He had decided to come up and say hello.  I had an awful lot of trouble with that all through the dive - half my photographs are blurred and out of focus because the subjects were determined to be on the other side of the camera, sort of the way a really determined labrador retriever will try and say hello  by seeing what the back of your head looks like on the way over the top from the front. 
            Back on shore after the dive, while I raved about one of my closer close encounters, one of the of the other girls laughed and said  "I saw that! I was trying to get your attention - while you were looking at that cuttlefish, there was another, smaller one sheltering in the curve of your knee!"

A curious cuttlefish looks in:




And draws in his arms in consideration:






And now, a taste of cuttlefish home life.  Here a  male guards a female while she lays his eggs under a rock.  As she emerges, he makes his position clear and rippling patterns begin to flare across his mantle:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cuttlefish Cargo Cult - Day Two



In 2011 I went diving with the Australian Giant Cuttlefish.  In 2012 they did not come back.  In a spirit of cargo cults and magical thinking, we’re going to have a week or so of cuttlefish:  perhaps, if we wish hard enough, a critical concentration of photo and video will bring them back from wherever they have gone. 

 

In 2011, I went dove twice, the first time with my sister, Dr Tabubil, off of Black Point, near the Point Lowly lighthouse. We saw dozens of cuttlefish - enormous ones, fighting and flaring as they went through their seasonal mating.  The second time, we didn't have to dive off of Black Point, humping our gear down an escarpment and over the rough sandstone to the water. The winds were in our favor and we were able to dive right off of the beach at Point Lowly - pull the van up to the shore, sit on a wooden deck while we geared up, then follow the fence line of the Port Bonython Natural Gas Refinery right down into the water.



The gas refinery was quite large on our local radar at that time -
            A few weeks prior to the dive, when the craze for planking  was at its height, two young employees at the gas refinery had taken photos of themselves planking right across the mouth of a flare stack. 
            These geniuses were proud.  They circulated those photographs far and wide.
            Have you heard of the Darwin Awards? The purpose of a flare stack is to flare – as needed, which means randomly, and without notice. These two young idiots were high-odds-on gold-medal Darwin Awards contenders.
            In this particular instance, the idiots got lucky and missed the medal - the stack did not turn the subject of the photo into extra-crispy, but if there was ever a case of ‘have your belongings in a box and be off the property in thirty minutes’ this was it.  And in a town as small as ours, where the industries (mining and large-scale agriculture) revolve around familiarity with heavy and dangerous machinery, certain public voices were loud against the prospect of two young louts being considered responsible enough to wield so much as a spanner by any employer between Port August and Port Lincoln. 
            The Port Bonython Gas Refinery has turned out to be something of a boon for the cuttlefish.  Explosive security concerns require that you keep a hell of a wide berth around a refinery,  and the water along  the shore here is shallow enough that their loading jetty stretches more than two kilometers out into the gulf.   The refinery has a null effect on the local marine-scape, and what with the security buffer zone on shore and out on the water, a rather large stretch of shoreline has been marked off from fishermen and recreational divers, and gives the cuttlefish something of a break.  No sanctimonious cuttle-fishermen here.  Just us, on the other side of the fence-line. 


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cuttlefish Cargo Cult Day 1: Here's to the Cuttlefish!


Almost exactly a year ago, just before we left Australia, I had a second opportunity to go diving with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish.
            The dive happened a week and a half before we left Australia, when I was in a rather busy period of my life.   I have always intended to talk about it, because that day dive was, if anything, even more extra-ordinary than the first dive: the sun was shining and the water was clear and there were exponentially more cuttlefish out and about than when Dr Tabubil and I went diving-  but what with the move, and then one thing and then another, the photos have been languishing on my desktop for the past year and I haven’t found the moment.
            And then a couple of weeks ago, Australian friends sent news that made my cuttlefish images very topical indeed.
            For those who aren't aware, the Australian Giant Cuttlefish is the largest cuttlefish species in the world - up to a meter across, and the coast of the Spencer Gulf in South Australia, where I lived, is a place very special to these animals.    
            Those unfamiliar might read my post HERE and explore its own attendant links, or if you're in a hurry, you might just read this quick summary.  And then go look up the BBC documentary series 'LIFE' (2009) and check out the episode 'Creatures of the Deep.'  (after which you will want to go read the post linked above anyway, because the giant cuttlefish so entirely fascinating).

The nutshell:
The Australian Giant Cuttlefish is the largest cuttlefish species on earth.  They lead a solitary, leave-me-alone-and-to-hell-with-the-neighbors sort of life, but once a year, they come by the thousands to breed along a very small and very specific stretch of the coast along the upper Spencer Gulf in Southern Australia. 
Point Lowly, this little stretch of coast, is the world's only known mass cuttlefish spawning ground.  Just outside the coastal mining town of Whyalla, the sandy floor of the gulf gives way to a litter of sandstone slabs, built up with ledges and overhangs under which the cuttlefish can lay and leave their eggs.
            When they have finished breeding they disappear.  We have no idea where they go or what they do – all we know of them we know from this brief annual window of time and breeding behavior, and when they leave they vanish out of science and out of human knowledge. 
            Because of the scale of this breeding event, the Australian Giant Cuttlefish is a species that lives in a tenuous equilibrium.   An event that disrupted the breeding colony would have a huge effect on the viability of the whole species.

When I left Australia, there were two threats to the cuttlefish. 
Threat the first:
 A large Australian multinational firm (BHP Billiton) wished to build a desalination plant for their inland mining operations, and they had chosen this same specific piece of coast to build it on.  The scientific reports are inconclusive to hypothetically optimistic – there is no direct evidence to indicate that an upsurge of salinity in the local region would affect the breeding grounds.
BUT:
The local geology of the breeding site holds nothing special for the desal plant.   A few kilometers in either direction across hundreds of kilometers of gulf coastline would have made no difference either way to the economics or feasibility of the plan.  When you are building around a species so special, so evanescent and so terribly unknown, in what sort of human universe would you want to take that risk?
            Local landowning interests had played NIMBY and refused to give up any of their sheep pastures, and the state-owned land that is this very special breeding ground seems to have been the only piece of coast that did not have someone in government willing to stand up for it.  Shame on South Australia.  When I left, the proposal was still, slightly, on the fence; the people of the gulf coast cared – even if their elected representatives didn’t, and there was some tenuous hope.

Threat the second:
When Dr Tabubil and I made our first dive last year, Tony's dive shop was a busy place:  on his sofa was a pair of Japanese documentary film-makers (if anyone knows who they were filming for or how to find the footage that they took, please let me know.  I’d love to see it) and at the back of the dive-shop, drinking coffee and talking in low, frustrated tones, was a team of bemused biologists and marine scientists.  The cuttlefish numbers were low that year – very low.  The winter drop in water temperature had happened more slowly than usual, and the cuttlefish had been coming  late and slowly.  And when they came, they had been much smaller than the average.  The scientists watched, futilely, and took censuses, and waited to see what would happen. And wondered why the cuttlefish that came were so small.
            That was 2011.  In June of 2012, two things happened. BHP Billion won.  The desalination plant is going ahead.   Huzzah for Big Businesses.  Huzzah.
            But it may not matter one way or the other.  This year, the cuttlefish did not come back.  The numbers at the breeding ground were low last year, but nothing like low enough to affect species viability.  The water conditions at the breeding ground have not changed.  Whatever has happened happened out wherever the cuttlefish go when they do go, and it happened extremely enough that within two years, an entire submarine ecosystem may be gone forever.
            And so, in a spirit of cargo cults and magical thinking, we’re going to have a week or so of cuttlefish:  perhaps, if we wish hard enough, a critical concentration of photo and video will bring them back from wherever they have gone.
            Given a large enough set of universes, nothing is impossible.  They’re curious creatures, cuttlefish.  Look at this one here – he found me, a long, dark-blue-neoprene-and aluminum-tank thing, floating a foot or so above the surface, and was moved enough not to run but to swim over to me and investigate. He came on and on and would have snatched the camera from my hands if I had let him.

Here’s to the Cuttlefish:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reason 382 for Not Sharing Your Smart Phone with Your Small Children


(Reason 381 being the friend, whose small niece, on deciding that she wanted to help the grown-ups with the washing up, dropped the first grown-up object she could reach on the kitchen ledge into a sink full of hot water and suds.) 

Exhibit A:
A man arguing with a receptionist in an office lobby, his attention divided by a small child pulling on his trouser legs and bouncing about with the energy of a demented flea. 
            Locked in awful battle with the righteous disdain of the Chilean receptionist in magnificent wrong but on her own home turf, the man slipped his smart-phone out of his pocket and proffered it downwards as a distraction for the sprog.
            It worked.  In fact, it worked astonishingly.  Her absorption was total.  However, the touch-pad didn't seem to be as responsive as the little girl wanted it to be.  Her brow furrowed, she regarded it - briefly, and then she stuck out her tongue and gave the whole screen a good washing.  To lube it up.

It being politically unwise to laugh yourself silly at behavior of a small child belonging to a man on the losing end of a front-desk skirmish, I skaddeedled.


Friday, July 13, 2012

On taxis and Being from Elsewhere



"Oh for - !"
"WOULD you - ?"
"Puh-leeeeze!" 

Seven times in the space of two months, I have made taxi-drivers cranky before I've even said a word.  They looked at me with expressions of extreme pain and forbearance, but there was clearly a cultural gap of understanding that left both of us bewildered.
            And at last - twice in the past ten days, the mystery has been made clear.
            On Tuesday last, I climbed into a taxi, shut the car door, gave the  driver my address - and he winced, and turned in his seat and said:
            "A gringo, huh? Yup. I thought so. So can you please tell me, why for the love of God do all you gringos slam car doors so (redacted) hard?"
            I had to sit and think about that one. 
            And I realized that yes, I suppose that I do. I pull the door firmly shut when I get into a car, and I slam it decisively shut behind me when I get out.  And I do it without considering relativity - there is no softer than, or harder than, or any other way to do it - there is just the Firm Shut Door.
            "It may be good manners."  I said, thinking aloud.  "There's not an intent of force as much as there's an intent of sound- an audible signal to the driver that I'm in securely, that I haven't left the door flapping, and that it's safe to drive away." 
            I thought about it some more.
            "Believe it or not"  I said. "I think that we think that it's good manners."
The driver digested this and rejected it.
            "It's like you want to break the latch or tear the door off it's (redacted) hinges or something!  It doesn't matter where you're from, for God's sake - you all (redacted) do it!"
            And that was that.
            When he dropped me at my destination, I opened and closed the door with the slowest, softest whisper of air pressure imaginable, and had to lean closely on the door to make sure that it was closed at all.  The driver gave me a grudging nod through the drivers side window and sped off with unnecessary vim.
            That was last Tuesday.  On the Thursday, as I was sliding into the taxi's backseat, before I'd opened my mouth or even touched the door, the driver threw himself around in his seat and hissed "Softly, softly, for the love of God close that door softly- what is it with you gringos, huh?"
            Which opens a whole different kettle of onions, because clearly I read as 'other' even before I open my mouth. (I need to wear pointier shoes.  More scarves.  Less blue eyeliner.  Do something, anything, with my hair.  Maybe?)
            Ever since, I have gone in and out of taxis with such careful tenderness and solicitude that five out of six times (and counting) the door hasn't shut properly and I've had to go back for a do-over: a sharp wave-off to the driver as he peels back into the traffic, a solid, snicking gringo slam, and wildly un-Chilean thumbs-up to let him know that we're all good now. 
            Unmistakably a gringo at 50 paces.  That's me.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Teenagers with Drivers Licenses


While walking home the other day I passed by two girls, both  of them blonde-ish, who were coming out of a store and examining the drivers license of the blonder of the two.
"No" she was saying, rather vehemently. "It DOES look like me.  When my hair is down, and it's permed and when I'm totally made up, I look EXACTLY like that."
There was a pause, as the less-blonde considered the logic, and then the blonde-er suddenly wailed "But my hair was up in a ponytail and the bouncer wouldn't let me in!"

Sometimes the stereotypes just write themselves, don't they?


Monday, July 9, 2012

Ichthyotherapy. (Ich. And Fich.)




I have done something that I may have cause to regret. As a birthday present, a friend took me to a day spa for a session of ichthyotherapy.  Have you heard of it?  And if you have, are your alarm bells ringing, or did you find it fun and faintly ticklish and are you wondering what all the fuss is about?
            Ichthyotherapy is an elegant way of describing a piscene pedicure.  You put your feet into a tank of water and hundreds of little garra rufa fish - a sort of miniature catfish of Turkish origin - descend upon your toes and feet and ankles and strip you clean. And leave you well moisturized afterwards. And now - also afterwards, I find myself wondering- what was I thinking?
            I had plenty of warnings.  When I told my mother-in-law what I was going to be doing, her mind shut down.  I mean it quite literally - she was half-way through a step and her foot froze in midair and her mouth wavered about half-open and I could see the mental processes come to a gluey halt.  She couldn't even muster up the necessary muscle control to make a 'yee-urch' face.
            I love my mother-in-law very dearly, but if I ever want to throw a real spanner into her mental workings, I now know how to do it.
            Alba, a friend, took me out for coffee the afternoon beforehand and filled me with dire stories about  water-borne communicable diseases - Athletes Foot on all my toes and mobile Veruccas settling on all of the exposed skin surfaces while little fish nibbled their way into the blood vessels and let in the HIV and Hep C pathogens that would be swirling about in the water.  My skin rose in chicken-flesh and all my hair stood on end and I shuddered   Alba is something of a germophobe and when she saw that she had my attention,  she moved on from fish-spas to movie-theatre seats - by related ways of ringworm and head-lice transmission - and when Mr Tabubil dropped by to say hello, he found me pressed into the corner of my chair, hyperventilating and grappling with a bottle of hand-sanitizer.
            But Alba is a germophobe, and  I've never contracted ringworm in a movie theater.  And mi Suegra is Dutch, and the European landscape has been reasonably effectively neutered over the last couple of millennia - they don't have much in the way of wiggly things over there.  Neither fishy things nor wriggly things bother me particularly, and it was a birthday present, you know?
            So I went.

The ichthyotherapy happened at a manicure-and-pedicure joint in the basement of the Plaza Peru Parking garage (if you're still interested).  The 'Salon de Pesces' (fish room) was windowless and dimly lit, with soft-chiming music on the stereo, low japanese-ish benches around the walls,  a mini-fridge packed with champagne - and four glass tanks, lit from beneath and softly bubbling, filled with white pebbles and hundreds and hundreds of little grey fish.
            There were three of us doing IT -Ximena (who had had her birthday around the same time that I had), myself, and Ema, who was treating both of us to the experience.  We stood in a small huddle next to the tanks and giggled, nervously. (How very girly of us.) 
           I was up first.  At least - the others weren't volunteering.  An attendant washed my bare feet and delivered an orientation lecture:
            No foot wounds, please, no athletes foot, no exczma.  And no need to panic.  Seriously.  Garra rufa fish do not have teeth, they do not break the skin, they are not eating you - they are fed their very own fish food and when you put your feet into the tank they are simply doing what they do - foraging and sucking, and all of the dead skin cells will be hoovered away and a digestive enzyme in their mouths will leave your skin soft and supple.  And Very Important, when you put your feet into the tank, the sensation will be strange but you do not need to worry - the strangeness will pass and you will enjoy it, so please don't wig out on us, just relax and envision those bottles of champagne waiting in the mini-fridge behind you, okay?
            And all the time I was thinking "Yes, yes strange sensations, got it, of course it's going to feel a little odd, I mean it's fish, and how often does anyone experience something like that?"
            And when I sat down on a wooden bench and lowered my feet into my very own glowing white garra rufa tank, I was smiling up at Ema's camera and I wasn't paying quite as much attention as I might otherwise have been, and, dear reader - I shrieked.
            Not very mature of me.  I admit it, but the sensation was one of being mobbed.  Attacked and Swarmed and Overwhelmed - when I looked down, my feet were entirely invisible in a cloud of hungry fish, fighting for position and propinquity.  It wasn't hugely attractive.  They were long and whippy little things and  resembled nothing so much as a cloud of leeches.
            Ximena was next - and she screamed, and then Ema, who had a very very bad two minutes of it, and then the attendant, confident that we were not going to start gibbering, left us to gaze down at our feet and wiggle our toes and watch the fish pass under and between them and to giggle at the tickling.
            The absurdity and sheer strangeness of it all passed swiftly.  Soon it became fun.  The fish felt like a thousand feet with pins and needles, like a thousand Jacuzzi jets running all at once, and as their first competitive rush passed off the fish settled down to some serious nibbling and became almost - and then actually - cute. 
            Ema had purchased us a half-hour with the garra rufa fish, but the time passed and the attendant didn't come back.  The fish hoovered up their fill of us, and drifted away, and came back - and drifted away again- we waved our feet idly and watched the fish swish about to follow us, until we noticed that an hour and a half had passed - and in all reasonableness, we decided that we should probably come out.
            When we did, our feet were soft and emollient - and after an hour and a half in the water, there wasn't a single prune or wrinkle between us.
            "We need to do this again."  Ximena said.
            "Once a month."  I said.
            "We need our own tank."  Ema said.  "Who has a spare room for an ichthyotherapy  salon?"
We were drying our feet when the attendant came  back in.
            "But I haven't given you your complimentary massages yet!"  She wailed, and stared at us reproachfully.
            Ema giggled and she melted.
            "I forgot all about you."  She confessed.  "It's been a slow morning.  Won't you take your shoes back off anyway?  The massage comes included with the treatment."

While she rubbed our feet, she answered our questions:
            "How many fish are in there?"
            "There are about 300 in each tank."
            "Where do they come from?"
            "The owner imports them from Turkey.  Behind those curtains- " she nodded toward the back wall- "we have all the master-tanks.  We check the fish every day and rotate them in or out depending on how they're looking and how they're feeding.  We make sure that they're healthy and if we have to shut down a tank for a day or two, we do that."
            "Do your clients ever panic?"
            She smiled.  "Most people with fish phobias are weeded out before they come in here - it's pretty self selecting.  I've only ever seen five people come as far as the tanks and have real problems.   There was one woman - she came in and went completely gaga over the little guys - leaning down over the water and waving her fingers at the fish, and cooing 'Ay, que LIIIINDO, que PRECIOOOOSO - how cuuuute, how adoooorable, WHO'S a pretty fishie then?  WHO'S the PRETTIEST little fishie in the whole wide WOOOORLD?'   Then she popped her feet into the tank, and screamed, curled up around herself in the fetal position like a baby.  I spent 15 minutes holding her hands and rocking her, soothing her like a child, and my boss brought cups of coffee and cups of tea, and we talked to her and brought her back down from whatever place insider her head she'd gone to.  She was strong.  She insisted on trying a second time.  And she kept her feet inside the tank for 10 whole minutes, before she had to come out.  I was impressed. 
            The other four problem people -  well, they came in, saw the tanks, discovered that they had full blown fish phobias and went the full screaming wiggins.  We gave them refunds."

I went home entirely happy with my position in the world - and even thought of treating mi suegra to a session for her birthday next month.  My state of piscatorial bliss lasted all the way until this morning when I sat down to write all about it and did some preliminary internet research.
            And had my very own full screaming wiggins.  A cursory google search for 'fish pedicure' leads to several hundred pages of seriously inflammable headlines all screaming 'BACTERIA!  PATHOGENS!  HIV!  HEP C!  IMMUNE-DEFICIENT-PERSONS BEWARE!!!!'
            It was a good quarter hour before I could bring myself to read any of them.  It's not actually entirely terrible - the headlines are wildly alarmist, and the actual horrors lean heavily toward 'hypothetically plausible' and an 'extant, but extremely low, level of risk' and appear to be based on one rather nastily infected shipment of fish into England in April of 2011.  Even so, the most hyperbole-free, science-based article in the upper levels of google stressed caution and common sense:  the practice can't possibly be good for the long-term well-being of the fish, and the fear of athletes foot and veruccas is well founded.
            In a nutshell, I was a twit who didn't do any advance reading, and Alba the germophobe might have been onto something.   
            I can feel my feet breaking out in psychosomatic rashes all the way up past my ankles as I type.  I will be cancelling the repeat performance, and will look upon it simply as a splendid memory.  And I will feel spectacularly superior to the people in the google-image search who are shown in bikinis, smiling, and having a whole body ichthyotherapy experience.
            The brain just shuts down.  I can't even summon the muscle control to make a 'yee-urch' face.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pancake Tossing



Mr Tabubil is making Dutch pancakes (savory, not sweet), and has been showing off his pancake tossing prowess.
            He seems to be a little out of practice. The lead-up is great, but the follow-through is kind of drippy.
            I removed myself from the kitchen, on the premise that a female audience wasn't what his frustrated testosterone needs right now.
            I am hearing much macho grunting and assorted aaarrrgghhhHHH! noises, so I shall stay out for a little while.

(Mucho sniggers).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

La Ensambe Serenata


Yesterday was a public holiday in honor of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  Chileans don't generally pay too much attention to the honorees of their many public holidays.   When a gringo asks, they shrug and say that they're not entirely sure, but ISN'T it nice to have an extra day to spend with family?
Chilean work days are very long, and I can't imagine that anyone worth the honoring would mind being remembered in happiness and family rather than by name. 

On this particular long weekend, we were taken out by a group of musical friends to La Maquina  (the Machine) a small club in Providencia to listen to la Ensamble Serenata.  La Maquina is housed in an old, high-ceilinged Chilean house.  Room dividers had been knocked out and floor levels now vacillate around an unspecified mean-floor-level.  The walls have been painted ochre-red and hung with large papier-mache carnival masks: one of the men in our party whispered to me that with the ochre color it was a VERY Valparaiso sort of club - and now I will have to go down to the coast and do the midnight-till-five club scene there, just so I can find other places just like it.  La Maquina was bold and cheery and squashed in with far too many tables, just like all the best clubs in every city everywhere. We were a large and cheerful party and had a large table right in front of the corner of the old house that had been roped off for the band.  

As he passed around the menu,  the proprietor of the place bent his head to ours and whispered that machas were available - not on the menu, but happening back in the kitchen for those in the know.
Machas Parmesanas are a very Chilean dish: surf-clams baked in their shells under a layer of parmesan cheese,  and cooked until the cheese is brown and crispy around the edges.  They are served by the dozen, on a plate swimming with a rich, cheesy broth, and they are always accompanied by with a basket of bread-rounds to sop up the juice.
To repeat, this club is called La Maquina, and it is situated at Seminario 65 in Providencia, Santiago, only 500-odd meters from the Baquedano Metro Stop. I note this, not in passing, but because the machas parmesanas that they serve here are some of the best machas that I have ever eaten - the sort of meal where you inhale the meat and lick the shells clean afterward and fight to sop up the broth - double dipping and be damned- until the plate is clean and shining and everyone has had almost enough, but not quite, so that you need to order another plate.  And possibly another one after that.

We sat at our cheery, squashy table and ate machas and drank red wine and weirdly de-natured strawberry daiquiris, and music happened all around us. La Ensamble Serenta counted  a flautist, an oboist, and a percussionist in a corner with all manner and sort of drums and cymbals. There was an acoustic bass guitar, a man with a perpetual and dreamy smile who alternated between an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, and Senor Claudio Acevedo, the band leader, who played nine instruments over the course of the night  - from maracas to a Bolivian charango and a squeeze-box, as well as two guitars, one of which was strung with something that made the sound come across all silvery like a harpsichord.

They played music that combined Caribbean Latin rhythms with Andean scales (for those not familiar with Andean Music, listen to El Condor Pasa, one of the most internationally familiar songs in the genre), lifting all that was best of both and fusing bright percussion with the minor chords and melancholy flutes so that toes tapped while we sat still and LISTENED. 

At intervals, the percussionist stood and became a tango singer.  He had a deep, dark, caramel-colored voice, the sort of voice created to be heard with your eyes closed and your hand wrapped around the hand of another listener, but he carried so much emotion outside his voice that closing your eyes was a terrible waste of him - his hands reached up before his eyes, his face twisted with pain and his back was racked with it, and we sat with our eyes wide open , eating and drinking his story until the very last ululating note.  As the evening passed, songs grew looser and toes tapped harder and people were clapped and rocked along with the music, and then, suddenly, after and hour and a half that had passed like a breeze, Senor Acevedo announced that they would sing their last song - and they did - and then they bowed and put down their instruments and left the building by the back door.

And the protocol was all bent - the closing of a concert demands a hemming and a hawing and at least two encore sets before the performers leave the stage, and here they were - gone.  We couldn't be having with that at ALL. 

In Australia - and the United States, an ovation is a critical mass of personal appreciation- there is a hail of applauses, and individual volleys of 'Encore!' are lobbed back and forth across the room like errant tennis balls until the noise rises like a storm.  The Chilean approach is rather more collectivist.  A Chilean audience stands abreast, links elbows with its neighbors and chants "Otra! Otra! Otra! Otra!"  ("Another!  Another!") until something happens to its liking.  Eyes may be dancing and mouths may be smiling, but the collective Voice has an edge that says that there had better BE an Otra, or there will be Trouble.  There is more than the whiff of a football mob about it.

A good band will pay attention to the way the winds are blowing: after just enough time for a quick cigarette and a single quick hand of poker, the Ensamble came back from outside and stood again behind their instruments.  They played a long rolling encore piece, and then they put their instruments down and Senor Acevedo took up a microphone and presented to us, one by one by one, each of the musicians.  We clapped and whistled and howled and stamped - and from the back of the room, ululated even - for all of them.  The flautist took up the microphone and told us that the oboist had learned that same day that he was to become a father, and he held out a hand to the back of the room where the oboists wife stood blushing and smiling - so we clapped and cheered and ululated for her as well. The oboist took the microphone from the flautist and pointed to the table behind ours, where, he said, all of the men there were a group of oboe-makers from France, visiting Santiago for an oboe-fest.  He went around the table, introducing each of them  by name, and we stamped our feet and gave every single one of them a great big hand of appreciation as well.  And while we were all turned around with our backs to the stage showing our appreciation to the French oboe-maker in the far corner, the band dropped their instruments and scarpered.

But we weren't NEARLY done.  We howled and whistled and clapped and cheered and ululated some more, and then we put our hands to the tables and began to drum.  We liked the sound of that, so we put our feet to the floor and began to stamp.  the sound thundered and the high windows began to shiver, and we raised our voices even higher and chanted 'OTRA' until the ceiling rang.  It wasn't that - or ONLY that - we wanted more songs; we had been sitting still and mostly quiet all evening while the live music bent itself all around us and now we were primed and firing and we wanted OUR turn to move. 
The band seemed to understand.  As the noise grew and harmonics in the floor became a susurration underneath the roaring sound, Senor Acevedo appeared once more.
He lifted his hands.
           "Silence."  He said. 
We stopped.
            "We will play two more songs." He said.  "The man who is to become a father would like us to play Ventana a las Estrellas for his wife.  And then we will play La Columbiana for you so that you all can dance."
Ventana a las Estrellas (Window to the Stars) was a sweet, simple, sentimental piece.  We sat through it patiently, nodding to the music, and when they finished we slipped loose and exploded.
The Band-leader fixed a gimlet eye upon us.
            "Now stand."  He said.  "Find a partner.  And DANCE."
And the band played La Columbiana three times all the way through without stopping.
And we danced in the narrow spaces between the tables.

Mr Tabubil wasn't dancing - he was in a three-way percussion battle on the table with the bassoonist from the Santiago Philharmonic and the Director of the Universidad de Catolica Chamber Orchestra.  Behind us, the French oboe-makers were stepping rather more soberly than there rest of us, smiling faintly and taking tentative stabs at a salsa. Their  host, a round, teddy- bearish Chilean gentleman,  was jamming it up alone between the tables.  When he saw me dancing by myself, his eyes lit and he snatched my hands and we were OFF - spinning and twirling and stamping along with a six-piece Chilean Ensemble Band, and a three part percussion accompaniment pounding out our way up to the sky.