Saturday, January 28, 2012

Russian Roulette (T 4 - USSR 1960s)

(Travellers’ tales – fourth episode, April 1965)

There we were, rolling along the highway from Finland to Leningrad in the middle of a virgin forest with not the slightest sign of human habitation. Just the two of us in my Beetle, not another car on the road, and very pleased with ourselves for having put one over on the border guards. Yee-hah! So it was a bit of a shock to suddenly see a man in uniform standing in the middle of the road a hundred yards ahead, one hand up to stop us and the other holding a rifle in case the hand failed.

“Oh, those damn apples!” Linda cried, while my heart sank. At the border, the guards had wanted to confiscate eight or ten apples we’d bought with the last of our Finnish money; but we said we’d eat them there and then, and began to do so. Two serfs were instructed to search the car for any other contraband. On the back shelf they found a copy of Time Magazine someone had given us back at the hostel. Surreptitiously, with fearful glances towards the boss in the office, they studied every page in silent wonderment, this unspeakably evil symbol of Western decadence. They lost track of time until a roar from the office had them scrambling guiltily out of the car. We were waved hastily through, and entered the Soviet Union with the uneaten apples beside us.

How typical of the bloody KGB, now, to send a man with a gun to catch us with our smuggled goodies, two miles away from the safety of The West. What a rude welcome for a pair of innocent tourists! But actually, the man with the gun just wanted to check that we were who we were supposed to be. So we got to keep the apples – and, incidentally, the Soviet currency notes hidden at the bottom of a tin of English tea. We had bought the notes at a bank way back in Austria, for a third of the official exchange rate. What we did was legal in Austria; in Russia, local currency had to be bought at local banks or kiosks.

A common practice of young budget travellers was selling Western clothing for roubles on the black market, often at night in back streets. Denim jeans were particularly prized by young Soviet citizens, for whom wearing jeans (in private) was super-cool. But every once in a while the local customer for the jeans was an incorruptible young copper. Then, the seller lost his jeans and everything else, and had to wire home for the fare out, plus a fine. It was a risky game, and the secret of playing the black market is always to minimise risk. Plan ahead. Buy currency outside the country and sneak it in.

Some basic arithmetic skill is necessary where tight currency-controls exist. You have to exchange enough at the official rates to hide the fact that you have acquired some somewhere else as well. If you live entirely on the food that you brought in (no apples!), and your car gets sixty miles per gallon of the 20-octane dishwater sold at the local pumps, your exit-form will balance. Ours balanced – clear evidence that we had done those things. We heard of one unfortunate fellow who accidentally declared more money on exit than he had declared on entry. Oops!

Months before, in Egypt, the border police had glared long and hard at the figures on one or two of our currency-exchange slips. And, to be fair, some of the figures did look as though they could perhaps have been forged. Ah well, some of these semi-literate bank clerks, you know... After that, we played it straight down the line, except for some small equivocations at points of entry. It was better to be safe than sorry.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Halfway to Mt Ararat (T 3 - Turkey 1960s)

(Travellers’ tales – third episode, February 1965)

Two of the tyres were flat when we got back to the car after three months away. The Customs shed had no sides to it, and just enough roof to protect the contents from the winter snow. We pumped up the tyres, scraped the cable and connected it to the battery, and the engine caught at the second attempt. We thanked the Customs Officers lavishly in pidgin Turkish, and I gave them my last two Australian beers, carried all the way from London the year before. We hit the road out of Ankara, headed for Scandinavia and points east.

No wonder the tyres were soft. On a back road in a village not far from Istanbul, we had chosen the wrong fork in the road. Our choice really did look marginally the less rocky of the two, but eighty yards into it we reckoned we must be on a dry river-bed. And so it proved, eventually. We were lucky that only two of the tyres lost their pressure during the winter. I don’t remember ever replacing them; the budget didn’t run to new tyres, even with Linda paying half the expenses. Still, I guess we must have done it at some time and somewhere before we got back to London.***
*** Eventually I did remember where we had them fixed. I reported it in "The German Lesson" posted in May 2012. 

Turkey was immensely kind to us. Someone reckoned that being Australian must have helped, with the Turks feeling superior because their army had beaten back the ANZAC invaders in 1915 at Gallipoli. But most of the people we mixed with would never have heard of the invasion. In a town halfway to Mount Ararat we were intercepted in the street while looking for a cheap hotel, and pressed to stay in a private home. The small children were woken up and brought to meet us, and we slept in a bed still warm from their bodies. (Some things you just can’t argue about.)

We were snowed in the whole of the next day, and did what the natives did – sat around in a cafe sipping glasses of sweet black tea. I hate sweet black tea, but what can you do? I stood up to buy my round, only to be confronted by a fierce-looking fellow with red hair who dismissed my money. A futile argument (sign language and shouting) ended by his thumping his chest while roaring “ME TURK!” I glanced at the others, who gave me the slight shifting of eyes and head that says, “Let it go.” His command of English impressed his friends enormously, so he got his money’s worth, I guess.

In the villages, the sexes were segregated, pretty much. We knew enough not to hold hands, or show affection in any way, or to offend the dress code. We heard of a Danish couple who had been knifed in their tent one night for cuddling in public during the day. In most places our very presence was exotic enough to put us beyond the reach of local etiquette rules. Linda was an honorary male, in effect. Only once was she invited (with a hint of desperation, as courtesy warred with custom) to go with the women upstairs in their harem. They had never had a foreign woman up there before, and she had a great time dancing the Twist with them. I was guest of honour on a chair down in the street watching the men doing their line-dancing. Ho-hum. The village schoolteacher spoke a smattering of German, as did I, and he translated every word he thought I’d said to him.

Some time later, an English-speaker must have visited the village. In our mail at the Bank back in London there was a postcard with a message in English, printed in block capitals. “WE HOPE YOU COME BACK. OUR WILLAGE PEOPLES LOVES YOU.” Verbatim.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Rats, dogs and kangaroos (culling pests)

Killing kangaroos is not generally popular in Australia, even for the soundest of economic reasons. Out on the sheep and cattle stations (ranches) they eat the grass that would otherwise be available for the income-producing animals. In the towns, they die for the lack of grass, or they wander into the streets and get hit by vehicles. The State governments license special shooters to keep the numbers down.

Dingoes and rabbits are also on the killing-list. Shooting rabbits failed to kill enough of them, so they were pretty much exterminated by deliberate infection. Dingoes were mostly shot. When I was very young, the sheep-farmers organised “dingo drives”, on horseback with Enfield rifles. A far cry from “The Man from Snowy River”, but the exercises were effective enough; dingoes became extinct in our area. The sheep were safe, and the graziers’ incomes were safe. In between drives, poison-traps in paddocks accounted for strays. Unfortunately, my own personal dog (not a pet, just a friend) died after eating strychnine in one of the traps. Well, what can you do? A boy didn’t deserve a dog if he couldn’t take care of it.

Canada licenses the killing of baby seals, Japan of dolphins. On the South Pacific island we lived on in the early ‘70s, the Vietnamese immigrants killed cats, and cooked them into nems for sale in their shops. (Nems were a tasty snack halfway between a meatball and a spring roll.) Whenever a pet cat went missing, its owners swore off nems for a week or two until the memory faded.

Cayman allows the culling of parrots, and turns a blind eye in respect of agoutis and “expat” iguanas. But not sharks, and not dogs, although dogs are culled by the Humane Society when they become too much of a pest. Sometimes private individuals take matters into their own hands, when neighbours’ yard-dogs’ persistent barking gets too intrusive. The Compass and the Humane agonise over private action like that, but offer no practical alternative.

There is no doubt that undisciplined yard-dogs, like rats and green iguanas, should be killed as public nuisances, when they become an obstacle to people’s “quiet enjoyment”. Yard-dogs are not pets, of course. Pets are members of families; they live mostly indoors, subject to family rules that are compatible with peace and quiet for all. Dogs whose lives are spent in a yard – even an enclosed yard – are not pets. Backyard-dogs belong in communities where quiet enjoyment and privacy are not valued, and where loudness is a way of life, and where the neighbours’ comfort is of no account.

Cayman’s society is a broad church. Half its population doesn’t mind living in a state of rowdiness and absence of privacy; the other half much prefers to live more gently and quietly. The first half tolerates yard-dogs barking day and night, the second half hates it. We all have our prejudices. I myself belong to the second half, and am dismayed whenever my neighbourhood seems in danger of degenerating into a kind of Dog City South. Most of my readers probably share that prejudice. The dog-owners among them are, I’m sure, responsible enough to keep their pets in the house and under control.

Ah well, I yell ferociously at backyard-dogs when their noise intrudes too much on my peace and privacy, especially very early in the morning. Ferocious yelling is pretty low-class too, I guess, but it’s all I’ve got. I don’t approve of feeding Paraquat sandwiches to backyard dogs who are allowed to bark all day and night, but I understand the temptation.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Children of Israel (speculations about Moses)

Like the song says: Don’t believe all you’re liable to read in the Bible: it ain’t necessarily so. [Ira Gershwin, 1935]

Generally, historians focus on individuals: no nuances, no details, no mention of the minions who did the dirty work down in the historical trenches. Wellington defeated Napoleon. Columbus discovered the Americas. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.

Some famous names aren’t even real. Stalin was a pseudonym, Caesar a nickname, Moses an Egyptian title. Roman Catholic Popes rarely use their own names. Germans were never Huns, and nor were Hungarians. One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian. Foreign names are translated (or transliterated) into English for our reading convenience. Columbus was not the man’s native name.

The more ancient the record, the less certain the names of individuals and nations are. Who were the Hittites of 3500 years ago? They spoke an Aryan language: was their name a variation of “Hindu”? The two names probably shared a common origin, at least. Were the people of Amurru the Amorites of the Bible, and the people of Mitanni the Midianites? Very likely, in both cases. Who was Jacob, and why was his name changed to Israel? The Bible is the official history of the tribe that called itself The Children of Israel; why couldn’t it be The Children of Jacob?

My own speculation is that Israel was a rendition of Isuwa-ili, the suffix -ili being found in the names of some Hittite rulers. Isuwa was a buffer state bordering two famed empires: the Hittite and Assyrian – and the wild mountains of Ur, familiar to us as Ararat. Isuwa-ili is a name that might have been borne by the leader of any swarm of Isuwan refugees displaced by a clash of the empires in south-central Anatolia.

Wandering refugees are a problem for settled peoples. The makeshift tribe calling itself the “children” of Isuwa-ili or Isra-el, seems to have been refused sanctuary by the nation of Amurru; the tribe’s bitter resentment of the Amorites was added to the history recited by the tribal bards. A similar refusal by Mitanni explains the tribe’s anger towards the Midianites – who were Moses’s wife’s people, for goodness sake. Such a betrayal. The wanderers eventually found a home in “the land of Egypt”. This would not have been Egypt proper, as we see it on modern maps, but more plausibly an area of northern Phoenicia that for several generations was part of the Egyptian Empire. Its major port serviced a flourishing trading route to and from the east.

This was where the Children of Israel presumably camped as refugees, in the interval between their escape from Isuwa and their escape to “the wilderness” under Moses. 400 years was a Biblical wild-ass guess; nobody knows how long they were there. The “wilderness” would not have been Sinai, but the sparsely settled hinterland of Lebanon and Palestine. The tribal bards of later times might have taken poetic liberties with the identity of “Egypt”; but the qualifier “the land of...” betrays the truth.

“Moses” is “Prince” in Egyptian. It was a strange name for the leader of a culturally Semitic troop of refugees, especially if he wasn’t fluent in the Egyptian language (Ex. 4.10 & 6.30 KJV). Perhaps it was an ironic title, or a code to hide his identity from government spies. The “Pharaoh” with whom Moses negotiated would have been the Egyptian governor of the northern province – a newly appointed governor: “... a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.”

The Children of Isuwa-ili may not all have spoken Hebrew to begin with, by the way. Moses may have chosen that language for his new warrior-tribe in order to unite them in a cultural bond with the legendary Abraham, who really was a Hebrew, as his name indicates. But that’s for another day.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Age of Irresponsibility (children going wild)

By the time a man reaches his 70s, he has passed through the stage of forgetting his youthful irresponsibility and is remembering it again. Whatever the irresponsible youth of today get up to, their grandfathers did similar things. Far too many of us in the older generations get our diapers in a twist about the threat to society posed by our grandchildren’s wildness.

Of course sometimes they go too far – further than we went, perhaps – but we ought to be more tolerant of the activities in principle. Children jumping off cliffs is the latest outrage; but didn’t we all do that when we were younger? We didn’t all drown, but that owed more to good luck than to good judgment. Young men driving cars too fast or too dangerously or too drunk, is a serious social problem; but hasn’t it always been? Those of us who did it in our time (when we ourselves were young and stupid) generally survived; but wasn’t that more by good luck than good judgment? Sure it was.

I fell asleep at the wheel once, late at night and sober, and in the days before seatbelts. A telegraph pole was two yards to the right of where the car stopped. If I’d stayed awake another fifth of a second, it would have been two yards to the left. Another tenth of a second, well... I once wound my crappy little Hillman Minx up to seventy miles an hour downhill with four of my National Service mates on board. The brakes were shot, at the time, and slowing down was achieved only by changing down the gears at high revs and by careful use of the handbrake. How stupid; how irresponsible; how lucky.

The thing is that when you’re young, you’re invincible. If life were a comic-book you’d be a superhero. And what kind of superhero ever took advice from wusses? Warning notices at Pedro? As some poster in the CNS forums pointed out, the notices will come in handy as alternative jumping-off platforms. Don’t speed down the middle lane of West Bay Road? Hey, bring it on: catch me if you can. Don’t do drugs? Peace, man: go chase the bad guys. Girls, don’t have babies? Well, but my babies love me.

It’s not that we can’t understand our irresponsible youths, it’s that we pretend not to understand them. They are us. Older readers of this blog who never, ever, drove fast or played fast: stay out of the debate; you have nothing to offer. Those who did, know that the reason why they’re here today is sheer bloody luck.

If only we could get inside their heads, these irresponsible young idiots... But we’d be surprised by what we find in there. We would find images from electronic games, TV and movies, of fast cars and dangerous jumps and ferocious fights and mass slaughters, rapes and disrespect, intoxication (mainly alcohol) and promiscuity. How can signposts at Pedro and lectures from policemen and churchmen hope to compete with those exciting images? What’s the solution? All I know is, until we get rid of the humbug we’ll never find a solution. Putting small-time thieves in jail while letting big-time ones go free: that’s humbug. Going after low-class gangs while ignoring “establishment” gangs: more humbug.

Who else besides me remembers “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”? What a great movie that was! Remember when Butch and Sundance were trapped by law-enforcement agents on a high, high, rock, and escaped by leaping two hundred feet down into the rapids, and Sundance couldn’t even swim? Wow. That was a pretty cool jump, eh?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Zorba The Greek (T 2 - Greece 1960s)

As with the item titled “Checkpoint Charlie” a few weeks ago, this present posting is written for my grandchildren, so that they will know just a little of what their grandpa did in his younger days. He wasn’t always a tired old man.

There were two strangers in the apartment one day when I got home from work. Linda worked for a tour company at this time (1972), greeting each plane-load of visitors to Efate in the New Hebrides - a group of islands in the South Pacific now called Vanuatu. This couple had asked her to recommend a cheap place to stay, but they were backpackers, and we had been backpackers once, so...

“This is Pam and Bruce! Pam and I have just discovered that we went to the same church retreat when we were fifteen! Small world! Bruce is Canadian!” Exclamation points were bouncing off the walls.

“Bruce Stephenson. Hmm. The name rings a faint bell,” I said. “Have we met before?”

My address book of the time had a host of names from my travels dating from nine years ago. And there he was: Bruce Stephenson, mother’s address in Canada, Thessaloniki, Greece, October 1964. “I don’t remember you, either”, I said, “but the book doesn’t lie”.

We thought about it, then, “Zorba the Greek!” Bruce cried. And so it was. Eight or ten of us foreigners from the hostel watched the movie in the town cinema, in English with Greek sub-titles. We laughed at the funny lines a second before the locals did, which made it even funnier. We sat around drinking coffee back at the hostel, and some of us exchanged names and addresses. “If you ever get to Canada...” - that sort of thing.

Next day, or the one after, I was ready to hit the road again, going east. I had already promised a lift to two fellows, each of whom stuffed an alarmingly large pack into my Beetle. Then some girl from the Zorba session asked if I had room for one more. Well, not really, but what can you do? The boys got out where they wanted, but over the next few months she and I drifted eastward, then westward, then north, then west again... She’s still here, somewhere around the house as I write this. What can you do?

Zorba the Greek” influenced my life, indirectly. We might not have been in the New Hebrides at all, except for the lure of Crete, where the movie had been filmed. Somebody on our travels had told us about the caves of Crete, which had become a hippy hangout. We were never hippies, but we were low-budget travellers, and living in caves on a Greek island with eccentrics like Zorba became part of the dream. In 1970 we decided we were rich enough to retire there. Linda took a course on teaching English to Greeks, I taught myself how to make a fortune playing the stock market. What could go wrong?

At the same time as I was wondering what had gone wrong, a trust company in the New Hebrides was advertising for professional staff. I went there and did my thing, while Linda showed tourists around the island and met visitors off the planes.

We never did make it to the caves of Crete, and nor did Bruce and Pam. I don’t know what happened to the hippies in residence there, if anything. In idle moments, I wonder if any of them ever got stoned for sexual misbehaviour like the widow in the movie. Linda and I got stoned in Egypt**, once, not in the nice way; but that’s another story. [**"Stoned in Alexandria", posted June 2012]