The Curse of Room 2153

Sunday, November 11, 2018

It started with the toaster.

Actually, let me back up. I sort of neglected to mention this, but after I left the sunny climes of Australia I had only the briefest of interludes at home on the boat before starting the next, thankfully shorter, adventure. It was so brief an interlude that when I was buying groceries after returning I actually hesitated before investing in a jar of mayonnaise. Then I came to my senses, because the mayonnaise cost 65p and what’s the point of being a well paid International Woman of Mystery if you can’t be a bit profligate with the condiments on occasion?

Having abandoned my mayonnaise, I flew to Abu Dhabi where I’m now working on another Abu Dhabi National Day show. It’s all a bit same-same as the last time I was here in 2015. It’s a somewhat different group of people to work with and a somewhat higher profile event than last time, but it’s the same stadium and ultimately it’s simply another big show. This year is a bit different because it’s the Year of Zayed, so-named because 2018 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE. It’s a significant milestone for the country, and it feels like our show is one of the key events of the year. No pressure!

So let's review quickly: Jakarta is ancient history. Australia is a fading memory. I'm in Abu Dhabi, and we’re back in the desert!

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Also back in a really fancy hotel which - I never tire of telling people about this - 
has a private beach!

It is unquestionably a nice hotel, and my room is lovely, spacious, and well-equipped. It’s got a kitchen area with a large fridge and a two-burner hob and a microwave and kettle and a washing machine (more on which later). And of course it came with a toaster. The hotel room also comes with an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet downstairs, which would seem to negate the need for a toaster, but bear with me. I know it sounds like the worst sort of ungratefulness, but sometimes I just don’t have the heart for the communal breakfast buffet at 7am on a work day. It’s great for a short stay, or for a treat, or for a slap-up day off brunch. But when you’re in for a long term stay and you’re working every day, sometimes it’s nice to have breakfast “at home” like you’re a normal person. It’s also good not to have to walk past the endless trays of pain au chocolate and muffins and donuts every morning. So a few times a week I shuffle into the kitchen and make myself coffee and a bowl of fruit and a soft boiled egg on toast, with Marmite (of course). It’s a less challenging start to the day. Or at least it’s meant to be.

What happened when I first tried my calming-at-home-breakfast was this: I got the egg boiling on the stove, prepped my bowl of mixed fruit, put the kettle on for coffee and popped a piece of bread in the toaster. Thirty seconds later the power went out in the entire room. Of course access to the breaker panel is locked so all I could do was call the hotel desk and wait for an electrician to come reset the breaker. I assumed that the wiring in the room just wasn’t up to the task of running a burner on the stove, a kettle and a toaster all at once. So while I was waiting for the guy to arrive I made coffee with the pretty-much-hot-enough water and I let the egg sit in formerly boiling water to finish cooking and I prepared my Marmite on warm bread. Eventually a lovely man came and unlocked the cabinet and reset the power and I asked him where I could plug in the toaster to avoid the same fate the next time I make breakfast. We identified an outlet next to the couch, he went on his way, and I ate my warm bread.

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A later, more successful breakfast

The next time I attempted toast was in the evening, to accompany an omelette for supper. While the frying pan was heating on the stove, I plugged in the toaster next to the couch and popped in the bread once again. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will not be surprised to learn that thirty seconds later I was standing in a dark room, with another slice of warm bread. This time I drew a different hotel electrician who was a bit livelier, and he could tell I had just enough knowledge to be worth the effort, so we did a bit of troubleshooting. We checked the wattage rating on the toaster (a mere 800w) and on the breakers. We even recreated the scene several times - stove on, toast in - and each time, after a tantalising moment of optimism, our hopes were dashed and we were left in the dark. Finally, we turned off everything else and just ran the toaster. And again… darkness. The toaster did it! It was the toaster all along! (It was like a really badly written murder mystery where the toaster, the hob and the kettle are all sitting nervously in a snow-bound drawing room while the famous detective paces the carpet and says, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here this evening…”)

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Finally, the friendly electrician took the evil toaster away for re-education and brought me this fancy new one.

Then I tried to plug the kettle back in where it had always been plugged, and realised it had a two-prong euro-style plug and the outlet is UK style. And I was baffled, because the kettle had always been plugged into the same place (until we started troubleshooting) and all I was doing was putting it back. I assumed the electrician had mistakenly taken an adapter that I hadn’t noticed was there. He hadn’t taken it, but he did offer to plug the kettle in for me. The kettle with the euro-style plug. Plugged into the UK-style outlet. Intrigued, I backed away and let him have a go. He flicked off the switch on the outlet, blithely inserted a screwdriver tip into the hole for the ground pin - thus neatly defeating the safety lock-out - and slid the plug into place.

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Well, played sir. Now if only you hadn’t accidentally left your toolkit in the breaker panel cabinet thus forcing the front desk to phone at 11:30pm while I was half asleep so I could let you in to retrieve it. Then again, we did do the Watts = Volts x Amps equation together twice, so I still feel we’ve bonded a bit.

As I said, it started with the toaster. Next was the fridge. The door wasn’t closing properly, which meant a lot of condensation from the humid air in the room was building up and it was basically raining in the fridge. I asked them to have a look at it one day while I was out. When I got home that evening I could see the workmen had emptied the contents of the fridge so they could fix it, because things had gone back a bit haphazardly (or not at all, like the dish of tuna salad that had been left on the counter). Then I looked a bit closer and realised that there was something missing. On arrival in Abu Dhabi I’d stocked up at the Duty Free shop, because it can be a bit of a faff buying alcohol in the UAE. So I was certain I had two bottles of white wine in the fridge. Not anymore. One bottle was clearly missing. I searched around to see if it had just been mis-filed but quickly realised it was simply gone.

This presented a dilemma. I was missing a bottle of wine. People had been in my room handling the bottles of wine. It not hard to think someone might have taken the bottle. Clearly that was not right, so it should have been simple for me to call the hotel and report the problem. Then again, it was just a £10 bottle of plonk and I suspect the punishment for that kind of thing in this country might be quite harsh. Alcohol can be a touchy subject here, and the UAE is already a tricky place for foreign workers. (And everyone in the service industry is a foreign worker. Everyone.) Did I really need to put someone in that position for a lousy bottle of Riesling? Then again, if someone had taken it hadn’t they put themselves in that position? Then again if you’re desperate enough that you need to steal a cheap bottle of wine, who am I to judge, sitting in my five star hotel room? Then again if it had been taken and I didn’t report it, would word spread that the chick in Room 2153 was an easy mark? I had another six weeks to go in this hotel. I went back and forth again and again. I consulted friends and family. I even checked with one of my local staff. Finally, I called. But I deliberately didn’t say “One of the guys fixing my fridge stole a bottle of wine.” I phrased it much more delicately, saying “I can see the guys who worked on the fridge moved a lot of things around and I can’t find one bottle of wine.”

Very shortly after I got a call from a manager who apologetically explained that while moving things in the fridge, one of the bottles of wine had accidentally been dropped and broken. (This also explained why a red plastic dustpan was left on the counter, the presence of which had been mysterious but ended up being independently corroborative evidence.) So faith in humanity was restored, the wine was replaced, and this time my sleep was not interrupted at midnight by any forgetful fridge repairmen who’d left their screwdrivers in the mayonnaise.

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It’s not a Riesling, but I’m sure it will be fine. Sadly, the next morning when I opened the fridge to get the bag of coffee for breakfast I realised the bottle of wine wasn’t the only thing missing. I couldn't find the coffee. This time, rather than tying myself in knots again I’ve chosen to believe it was accidentally discarded during cleanup and I simply bought another bag. There’s only so much moral debate I can handle in the morning. 
Especially before I’ve had a coffee.

So there was the demon toaster. And there was WinebottleGate. But all that was nothing compared to the main event, and the true proof that this hotel room is cursed. I already mentioned the room has a washing machine, and I took advantage of it on the first day off, putting in a load before going down for breakfast. (It was a day off, so I was in just the right mood for the buffet.) When I got back I could hear the machine was on the spin cycle and a bit off-balance because it was making quite a racket inside its cabinet. I didn’t think much of it, and once the cycle finished I happily festooned the room with damp socks and underwear. (Because the retractable clothesline in the bathtub is exactly four inches too short to reach the bracket on the other side, but I wasn’t about to call the hotel AGAIN. Who knows what mayhem could result from that?)

The next week I put a bigger load in and decamped to the dining room for brunch once again. But this time I came back to a scene that was like the opening sequence to that "the-toaster-done-it" murder mystery from earlier. It was the establishing shot of the murder victim lying prone in an expanding pool of vital fluids. Except this victim was a front-loading washer. Or perhaps it was simply that the challenge of life in Room 2153 had proved too much for the poor washing machine because when I opened the door it looked like the thing had tried to fling itself to its death by launching from its cabinet and landing face down on the kitchen floor.

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This is the scene I came home to, with the machine still running, desperately grinding itself into the tilework. The plumbing connection had also ripped apart, which meant that water was spouting energetically from the open pipework and flooding the kitchen floor. All it needed was a bit of police tape and it could have been the first episode of Law & Order LAU (Large Appliance Unit).

Considering the seriousness of the situation, I was a bit surprised at how long it took for one of the hotel engineers to arrive. Sure, I’d closed the cut-off valve for the water so it wasn’t actively flooding the room. But I was still expecting a slightly more energetic response than one mostly disinterested guy. Then again, as soon as that one guy took in the entire scene of the crime it didn’t take long for a whole team of people to arrive. Soon there were two workers and a supervisor and a manager splashing around and the supervisor guy quickly diagnosed the problem. Apparently in the two years since the machine was installed no other guest had ever used it. Because if they had, they would have been the ones to discover that the stabilising bolts that are put in place at the factory to hold the internal drum solidly for shipping had not been removed when the machine was set up in the room. This meant that the drum couldn’t move freely on its shock-absorbing mounting and instead any imbalance in the load was transmitted through the whole appliance while the drum was spinning at 600 RPM. It must have sounded like someone swinging a sledgehammer around inside an oil drum.

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The offending parts. They are not small. 

At this point I feel like I should put the hotel maintenance staff on my Christmas card list. They’re here so often they’re practically family. My colleague Kieran and I have discussed setting up an pool to predict what might go wrong next. I think it’ll be something that takes out the phone, so I’m unable to call to for assistance. Kieran suggested that if blood starts to seep out of the walls I should really ask to move rooms, but I’m sort of enjoying the frisson of anticipation that comes every time I get home.

In fact things have settled down, though I’m nervous saying that out loud. And I hasten to add the really, the hotel is lovely and the staff are very friendly and helpful and good with a mop when called on. And despite the suicidal washing machine I did manage to salvage most of my day off and went down to the beach to enjoy the end of the afternoon.

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There really wasn’t much wrong with this at all.

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And definitely nothing wrong with this.


Ways I didn't die in Australia

Sunday, October 28, 2018

There was a time in the late 1980’s that the more mature Go Stay Work Play Live Reader may recall. It was shortly after the release of the movie “Crocodile Dundee”, when a tide of what I can only describe as Australiamania swept across North America. You couldn’t swing a didgeridoo without hitting a can of Foster’s lager or hearing some twat spout out a “G’day mate” while brandishing a boomerang. I found the whole business really boring. Now that I’ve actually been to Australia, I can confidently say that whole Australiamania business genuinely was really boring, but that Australia itself is pretty fantastic. Sure, at the time I visited I was exhausted with Jakarta in particular, Indonesia in general, and the basic concept of Asia as a whole. Plus anywhere I didn’t have to endure 32 degree temperatures and one million percent humidity was bound to be popular. And you really can’t overstate how much easier it is getting on in a place where they speak a passingly understandable dialect of English. But all that would be true in Minot, North Dakota or Sudbury, Ontario and Australia is definitely more fun than either of those places.

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Bondi Beach. And apologies to Minot and Sudbury, but let’s be real here.

Before my Oz Adventure I had the supreme pleasure of re-reading Bill Bryson’s book about the place, “In a Sunburned Country”. It’s perfectly excellent and I recommend it highly, especially to Karen, who persists in claiming that she hates Bill Bryson’s writing, which is one of the things we have to agree to disagree on. (Other such topics include my staunch belief in the inherent interestingness of gears and industrial machinery in general, and her slight obsession with jewellery of all kinds.) One of the things Bryson goes on about at some length is the many and varied ways it’s possible to die in Australia. And I’m not talking here about the usual western civilisation killers like heart disease or diabetes or say, being hit by a bus. No, Australia has a lot more interesting ways of bumping you off than that.

It’s relatively common knowledge that the wildlife in Australia is surpassingly deadly. I had to keep reminding myself of that while I was there because it reminded me a lot of Canada so it was easy to get complacent. There’s a “we’re all Commonwealth here” feeling with an appropriate smattering of war memorials and familiar place names and pictures of the Queen, and with the more relaxed vibe I associate with Canada rather than with the mother country. Then again, because Canada is squashed up against that cultural juggernaut to the south, we ended up with baseball and "American" football and hot dogs. Whereas Australia is so ridiculously isolated that even after the colonial influence faded they carried on with cricket and rugby and even managed to evolve their own Australian Rules version of football (it’s like the Madagascar of field sport - an evolutionary one-off). Still, Australia feels familiar, especially for me who can speak fluent baseball and just about keep up when someone starts prattling about square leg and silly mid off.

The size of Australia also means it’s geographically spread out in a way that’s a lot like home. There are wide streets and long highways and a general sense that there’s no need to bunch up. Case in point: I was invited on a road trip up the east coast wherein the plan was to leave Sydney Monday morning and arrive near Byron Bay in time for dinner. It’s a distance of about 900km, and true proof that Canadians and Australians really are soulmates because when I was presented with this plan my instinctive thought was, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” In England the notion of traveling 900km in a day would be greeted with howls of derision and a detailed explanation that merely to get from Central London to Reading would take at least a day, and really one should be prepared to overnight in Slough, just in case.

But back to how Australia can kill you. Everyone is probably aware that the spiders and snakes in Australia are really not to be trifled with. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, ALL are Australian. The native funnel-web spider is the world’s most toxic and a nip from the redback spider will also definitely make you late for dinner. One of my hosts in Sydney, in a typically blasé Australian way, told me that these days they tend not to give you anti-venom for some spider bites. “They’ll just see how you get on at first” she said, which was not reassuring. Then again, the typical Aussie would probably be pretty unnerved by the notion of digging a car out of a four foot snowbank in -30 degree blizzard, so I guess we all have our blind spots.

In any case, after that lovely 900k trip up the coast, including a mandatory detour for a photo op at The Big Banana, we fetched up at our home for the night and had a lovely dinner of lamb and talked about what the next day’s activities should be.

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More evidence that Canadians and Australians are alike. We both love a giant thing by the side of a road. Sadly, we missed the Giant Prawn.

Our hosts suggested there were some nice nature walks in the area and even handed over a small guide book that seemed to be comprised of equal parts walking directions and careful notes on things you should really avoid encountering while walking. And even though I thought I was pretty au fait with the lavishly lethal nature of the country, I was still alarmed when the first entry I saw was for the Giant Stinging Tree. A tree that can sting you? That’s just offside. Needless to say, I declined to go for a walk in the woods.

What we did instead was spend the day at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, which was great. Apparently many Australians of a certain age have traumatic memories of being taken to Currumbin as a child and being subjected to the “lorikeet feeding” ordeal, which is a particular form of child torture that involves being equipped with bird feed and then covered in an alarming number of lorikeets - a type of small, colourful parrot - while screaming bloody murder and having one’s photo taken. I wisely skipped the lorikeet feeding, but I did get to pet a kangaroo and see koalas, Tasmanian devils, dingos, crocodiles AND a spiny echidna! Even the lorikeet-scarred Paula admitted that modern Currumbin was an excellent day out. Sure, it was kind of cheating to see the animals in captivity (the “koala crossing” signs we saw on the highway were clearly hoaxes) but for a kid from Canada it was pretty great.

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I could have paid for a photo op cuddling a koala, but I decided to spend my money on seafood and beer. I have no regrets.

After Currumbin we ended up in South Golden Beach, at another house generously provided by the previously mentioned network of Australian friends and acquaintances. And that’s when I had to remind myself again about Australian wildlife, because that night as I was getting ready to brush my teeth I dropped my toothbrush beside the sink. When I bent down to pick it up, I saw it had landed right next to an occupied spider web. At first I took no notice. Then I took a mental step back. And then I took a physical step back. And then I called Paula, because you can’t beat an Australian when it comes to identifying deadly wildlife. She came to check it out, and was generously derisive when she saw the beast, which was apparently microscopic and harmless, but my policy is you can’t be too careful in Australia. And Paula can laugh all she wants but she better not call me the next time she needs someone to dig her out of a snowdrift, that’s all I’m saying.

The next morning I got up for a run and was struck - and not for the first time - with the surpassing beauty and ubiquity of Australian beaches, because this is what was at the end of the block:

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South Golden Beach. One of a countless string of stunning beaches along Australia’s east coast. It’s a wonder anyone gets anything done over there.

Aside from the spider in the bathroom, the house at South Golden Beach was fantastic. However, lest we get too misty-eyed about the beach itself, remember that it’s not just things on land that can kill you in Australia. The sea is home to a lively variety of deadliness. Of course there are the sharks and the stingrays. And don’t forget the tiny-but-murderous blue-ringed octopus and the famously painful box jellyfish. Yes, the waters around Australia are full of deadly delights. But that’s not all. Even if the ocean were utterly devoid of life you’d still want to keep your wits about you when you go for a dip.

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I only understand about half of what this sign is saying, but the strong inference here is that even the water can kill you.

When I decided I wanted to go for a quick swim at South Golden, Paula cautioned me. “It’s pretty rippy out there” she said, meaning it looked like there could be a strong rip current. I’m still not really sure what that means, but it seems significant that they call it a RIP current and not, say, a joyful current or a mellow current or fluffy bunny current. Paula tried to explain it to me - something about how the waves were breaking creating a current that can pull you far out from shore. She told me not to go in too deep. When I pressed her about how deep was too deep - Chest? Waist? Ankles? - she sighed and said, “Why don’t I just come with you?” (Subtext: “So I can video you being pulled out towards New Zealand and give the Coast Guard rough coordinates.") Like I said: even the water can kill you. For the record, I did go for a very short swim and didn’t get sucked into an international shipping lane or fatally stung or have any appendages bitten off.

In fact, the closest I came to snuffing it was when Paula tried to kill me with red wine on our last night at South Golden Beach. Then again, that wasn’t Australia’s fault. And I didn’t actually come that close to death, I only prayed for it fervently when I woke up the next morning. Which is why it’s all the more admirable that after I’d been delivered to the airport for the short flight back to Sydney, survived the flight, schlepped my things back to the guest room, and had a short but very very very necessary nap, I managed to rouse myself in time to go out for what turned out to be a perfectly quintessential Aussie evening. My lovely hosts dragged me out to the Returned Services League Club at Paddington (not that Paddington). The RSL is the Australian equivalent of the Canadian Legion - a club nominally for current and former members of the armed services. They're all over Australia that serve food and cheap alcohol and usually have sports betting and other gambling, and maybe a dance floor. Membership is open to anyone, and entitles you to even cheaper beer and extra chances at the many many draw prizes, and profits support the aforementioned servicemen and women.

The trip that night was somewhat calculated, as we'd planned a barbecue for my last day in Australia, and Friday night at the Paddo RSL is Meat Tray Night! What better excuse for a night out than a chance to drink cheap beer, watch Australian Rules Football and try to win a meat tray for the barbie? Despite my fragile state I did manage to enjoy a couple of beers and had a very credible seafood basket. And Nick did his best to explain Aussie Rules Football to me. As far as I can tell, it involves large men running around on a pitch approximately the size of Wales in very tight shorts. There’s a ball that looks like a rugby ball and you can run with it (for a while) or kick it but you can’t throw it. You can, however, do a pseudo-volleyball-bump thing to pass it to someone else. To score you have to kick the ball between a set of four posts, which makes the whole field look a bit like a Quidditch pitch. It’s actually quite fun to watch. It's fast and rough and the action is continuous, so it’s quite like hockey in a way.

The main event though, was the meat draw! There were more that 20 different meat trays in the cooler so early winners could choose from steaks, lamb, whole chickens, roasts, sausages, chops, and various other treats. Our table spent $60 on tickets, so we were getting quite nervous as the night wore on and we were left empty-handed. And then finally, with only three trays left (including the dreaded breakfast tray which was really just sausage, bacon and a dozen eggs) at last our number came up!

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Behold the winner! Pork chops, pork steaks and pork sausages for lucky number 4169! Especially cherished because I’d spent the previous six months in a pork-hostile environment.

And so ended the perfect Australian evening. I had beer and deep-fried seafood at the Returned Services Club. I watched the footy. And I won a meat tray. All while hungover.

And that was my vacation in Australia. I think you'll all agree that basically, I nailed it.

Cockatoo Island

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Brace yourself for another industrial wonder from down under! Cockatoo Island was the pick of a friend in Australia who clearly understands me well. When he said “Go to Cockatoo Island” and I asked “What’s that?” He came back with, “Don’t ask, just go.” And he could not have been more spot on. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend a whole Saturday wandering around an abandoned convict prison and shipyard?

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It’s also a fast and pleasant ferry ride from Circular Quay, and the day was hot and sunny. 
And check out those cranes!

Largest of the islands in Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its association with Australia’s convict history, which began in 1839 when the island was designated a penal establishment. It remained so for 30 years, with convicts first being employed in the construction of their own prisons and guardhouses (#twisttheknife). The island itself, like, it seems,  much of Sydney, is basically a big chunk of sandstone, so once they’d adequately imprisoned themselves they went on to quarry stone for other building projects in the area, including the seawall at Circular Quay.

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This is what’s left of one of the convict-built guardhouses. It’s actually much nicer than the cell buildings, with windows to provide some ventilation in the blazing Antipodean heat.

Getting to Cockatoo was easy, and as I mentioned, the weather was gorgeous. There’s also a nice information centre right near the ferry dock where they offer reasonably priced audioguides. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall I love a good audioguide, so I pounced on that and headed to the convict precinct of the island, which is sort of high up in the middle. Happily, the Cockatoo audioguide was quite good (unlike others in my experience - Roman Forum, I'm looking at you) and I liked that I could move at my own pace around the island, following the directions past the island's campsite.

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Bring your own tent, or go glamping in one of the ready-made tents shown here. Or if you really want to splash out, several of the historic building on the island have been converted for short term rental. Apparently it’s really popular for New Year’s Eve, which I hasten to remind readers is in the middle of summer. Summer in January… I swear I’ll never get used to that.

Along with quarrying limestone, the convicts of Cockatoo were set to the construction of Australia’s first dry dock - the Fitzroy Dock - which was built to service the Royal Navy. Not long after the dock was finished, the convicts were moved to the mainland Darlinghurst Jail (or Gaol, if you insist) and the convict cells and related buildings were turned into a reformatory for wayward girls. Around the same time, just offshore, a large, wooden, three-masted sailing ship was anchored and became a home and school for neglected boys. The girls were split between two institutions - one a reform school for those who had broken the law, and one an industrial school intended to operate more like an orphanage. In practise, the two halves intermingled as the girls were all housed in the same dire cells the convicts had recently vacated, drinking from troughs, eating without utensils and sometimes forced to sleep on the flagstone floor as a punishment. The boys, on the other hand, were led by relatively benevolent masters who, while strict, taught them nautical skills, gardening (in a plot on the island), shoe-making and other useful skills. The intent was to reform the boys into useful citizens. The girls, on the other hand, were treated as a lost cause, trained for life as servants, locked in gloomy cells twelve hours each night, and left with little to occupy them. Charming.

There are quite a few of the old stone convict-built building left, including homes for the island governors and other staff. And while the main buildings have been tidied up you can still get a sense of how miserable they must have been, especially in the intense heat of an Australian summer. But convict prisons were not really what I went to Cockatoo Island for, so I was very pleased to head to the industrial side of the island.

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Which was extra exciting because I got to there through this tunnel carved right through the island!

Even while the reforms schools were still in operation, ship repair and ship building activities  occupied the Fitzroy dock and surrounding area on the lower level of the island while the hapless girls were housed on the higher level of the island and the boys came and went from their ship, The Vernon, moored just offshore. The mix of shipyard workers with neglected boys and downtrodden girls led, inevitably, to some fraternisation, with the mistreated girls often seen as the source of the trouble. This went on until 1880 when the girls were transferred back to shore, though the boys stayed in The Vernon and then later in The Sobraon, until 1911.

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Fitzroy Dock as it appears today. (Well, actually as it appears when someone else took a picture, because mine didn't turn out.)

Once the juvenile delinquents finally left, shipyard activities became the sole focus of life on Cockatoo. Sutherland Dock, a second, even larger dry dock was built, and was for a time the largest dry dock in the world. Even before World War One, the island had produced more than 150 vessels - mostly dredges and barges. By 1913 Cockatoo Island was the official dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. World War Two saw the island become the main ship repair facility in the southwest Pacific, converting commercial vessels for wartime use and repairing Allied ships who limped to its docks after suffering sometimes debilitating damage. After the war Cockatoo was busy converting ships back to civilian use and building new and impressive vessels, like the Empress of Australia. Launched in 1964, it was the largest passenger ferry in the world at the time, travelling between Sydney and Tasmania.

And this is where things got exciting for your humble blogger, because once I’d got through the tunnel, the audioguide turned its attention to the minutiae of ship-building and sent me through sensational, giant, abandoned cathedrals of industry.

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Like this enormous beauty where they did…you know... ship stuff.

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And I have no idea what this machine does but I LOVE IT. It’s like a set designer said, “Make me something with lots of winding handles and cogs and unexplained bits that could chew up your fingers. And it’s gotta be on wheels. No wait! Rails! Put it on rails!"

It was great. I listened to the audioguide talk about the different stages of shipbuilding, and wandered back and forth among the mostly empty halls. There was a lot of emphasis on telling the stories of the workers, which was absorbing. One of the upper island buildings had an extensive exhibit of old photos - again, mostly about the workers. There were also audio recordings of stories from former Cockatoo Island workers - apprentices, old hands, and union organisers. For a long time Cockatoo Island was a significant force in the Australian labour movement. Immigrant workers from English shipyards brought a strong tradition of trade unionism with them and as early as World War One there were more than 21 different unions representing Cockatoo Island workers, among them "boilermakers, blacksmiths, ship painters and dockers, gas fitters and plumbers, electricians, shipwrights, storemen and packers, timber workers and the biggest group of all, ironworkers.” (From the Cockatoo Island Website.)

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Gratuitous picture inserted for no reason other than that this is a lovely overhead traveling crane. My blog, my rules.

The tour also led through what was called the Mould Loft - the massive upper floor of one of the biggest buildings on site. While the plans for each ship would be created in the large drawing office on the ground level, the Mould Loft was where each piece of the ship - like the giant curved ribs and each steel plate that made up the hull - would be laid out in full scale with absolute accuracy. From that layout, wooden templates were made and sent for manufacture in the island’s workshops. This was the practice until computers arrived to assist in the 1980s.

Sadly, even as early as the mid-1960s, the logistical challenges of running a huge shipyard without rail or road access to ease the flow of materials, along with general decline in manufacturing in Australia, led to the dwindling of Cockatoo as a industrial powerhouse. For a time the shipyard survived largely on a government contract to refit the Australian navy’s submarine fleet, but in 1987 the government announced it would close the shipyard and in 1992 the site was shut, machinery sold off and many buildings demolished.

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Poor Sam. Out of a job.

The island was neglected for about a decade until the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust started extensive renovations in 2001, eventually opening to the public in 2007. I was really captivated by Cockatoo Island - it’s presented well, and on the day I went there weren’t a lot of people around despite it being a weekend. I sense it’s not high up on the list for a lot of tourists. I suppose most people who visit Sydney want to tick off the big things like the Opera House and the Rocks and the Botanic Gardens and the ferry to Manly. (For the record - I also did all of those.) Clearly they don't have the discerning tastes of your humble blogger, or lack expert advice. Once I’d finally had my fill of Cockatoo I walked back to the dock through the other tunnel (Because of course there are two.) and caught the next ferry back to the mainland. By the time I made it to the apartment the full day of sun, wind, and giant rusty machinery had me craving a nap. But alas, there was just enough time for a short collapse followed by a shower because that evening I went out for something completely different but also excellent. I went to hear the Sydney Symphony play live to a screening of the original film of Mary Poppins (the one with Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke and the world's worst Cockney accent). It was at the Sydney Opera House main concert hall.

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You could barely move for the number of 8 year old girls in attendance.  And sure, I love a good rusty bit of industrial machinery, but… Mary Poppins!!!

It was great. I love the movie anyway and seeing in that context, with the live music, was really fun. Plus I got to see the inside of the Opera House and (big bonus) I didn’t have to sit through an opera to do it! And then I had a gelato on the walk home. And when I got there I slept like the dead and took the next day off. There is, however, still more to tell about my Australian adventures, so watch this space.

On top of the bottom of the world

Sunday, September 30, 2018

There is a lot to say about Australia and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. It turns out I’ve got a bit of a network of Aussie friends, many of whom are surprisingly willing to house me in their spare rooms or buy me dinner or chauffeur me around the country for days on end, which is both humbling and excellent. Now that I think about it, I guess I also may have a gang like that in Athens, and in New York City and probably in a few other places I can’t think of right now. This is one of the many fringe benefits of doing the kind of work I do. You end up with a widely scattered network of people you’ve been through the wars with who will almost always be happy to stand you a few drinks and give you a place to lay your head.

There's lots to say about Australia but for today we will concentrate on an iconic symbol of Sydney in particular and Australia in general, and one which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will be supremely unsurprised to learn captured my attention quite thoroughly: the Sydney Harbour Bridge!

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Here it is in twilight, as seen from the very charming Opera Bar, just across Circular Quay at the foot of the equally iconic Sydney Opera House.

There’s now a fairly extensive back-catalogue of bridge blogs, so truly devoted fans should have a troll through the archives for fond remembrances of the Golden Gate, Tower Bridge, the Rolling Bridge, Iron Bridge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Ah, bridges. It’s no secret I’m fond of a bit of mechanical or sturctural engineering in general, but bridges in particular are a firm favourite. In buildings and tunnels the engineering is there but it’s mostly hidden. Bridges are where engineers get to show off. It’s like they're shouting, “Look what we can make because we know how stuff works!”

(Standby for mandatory bridge backstory, because I actually bought a book!)

European settlement of Australia started with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788, and by the time the last convict ship docked in 1840, Sydney was a thriving community on both the north and south sides of the harbour. The more the city grew, the more inconvenient the 50km trip around the harbour, or across by ferry, became. There were many proposals to link Sydney’s two halves, including a pontoon bridge, tram tunnel and even a earthwork causeway. In 1900 the New South Wales government formally advertised for tenders for the design and construction of a bridge but that project was scrapped after a change in government, despite having attracted twelve submissions over two rounds of tenders. It wasn’t until 1922 that legislation was finally passed to enable construction.

In the interim, an Australian engineer named John Bradfield was named Chief Engineer Metropolitan Railway Construction and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Bradfield spent several years traveling the world studying underground railways and long span bridges at the request of the New South Wales government. (It's like we’re we’re soulmates, Bradfield and I, except the government of New South Wales does not pay me to travel the world blogging about tunnels and bridges. I pay for that myself. However, any and all donations are gratefully accepted.) Bradfield's initial inclinations were towards a cantilever bridge design, but during his travels, he visited the gorgeously arched Hell’s Gate Bridge in New York, and the twice-failed cantilever bridge in Quebec and at the last minute allowed submission of arched bridge designs - mostly, I suspect, because he calculated it would cost £400,000 less.

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Tender C1 and C2 are cantilever bridges. The rest are through-arch designs. So-named because the roadway goes through the arch as opposed to passing over it (like this other famous arch bridge).

Whatever the reason, the proposal that eventually won out was the now-iconic design from Dorman Long & Co. from Middlesborough in the UK. Construction began in 1923 and the bridge was finally opened to traffic in 1932. Being an arch, the whole enormous load of the bridge itself (the arch alone weighs 39,00 tons) is supported where the bottoms of the arch rest on giant main bearings on the north and south shores. Each bearing is actually a huge hinge that allows for the expansion and contraction of the arch’s steelwork - in high temperatures the overall height can increase by as much as 180mm. Also, the arch itself was cleverly constructed with no supporting falsework underneath! Moving creeper cranes assembled the sections of the arch ahead of themselves, advancing as each was completed. The whole business was prevented from collapsing into the harbour by 128 heavy restraint cables on each side, which were anchored in tunnels in the sandstone.

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Once each side of the arch was complete the cables were gradually loosened over the course of three and a half weeks before the two sides eventually met. And you notice how the granite pylon towers at the ends of the bridge aren’t there yet? That’s because they have no structural purpose - they’re simply to give better visual balance to the bridge. Bradfield was apparently fond of quoting John Ruskin on that score: “Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.”

But enough of bridge history - even though I could go on for at least three more posts about the bridge and its construction and the 6,000,000 steel rivets that hold it together, and how I find it disturbing that the top chord of the arch doesn’t appear to anchor into anything very much. (Which prompted a short conversation and series of back-of-the-cocktail napkin sketches while sitting at the aforementioned Opera Bar and almost culminated in an email to one of the two different structural engineers I met on this gig, until Nick and I decided we’d pretty much figured it out.) Nope, no more about the history and engineering of the bridge - let’s get on with my up close and personal encounters with the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

First, I got driven across the bridge, and as a pedestrian I visited the southeast pylon, which now houses a nice little museum and gives you access to the lookout platform at the top of the tower for some pretty impressive views of the harbour.

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Mmmm… steel trusses!

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Yes, the pylon lookout is a pretty good way to appreciate the harbour and the bridge.

But wait, there’s more! It’s also possible to experience the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a particular and unique way: by climbing right over the top! BridgeClimb has been operating since 1998 and allows visitors to climb up through the structure of the bridge and walk along the top of the arch, right to the highest point. This activity was recommended to me by two (very) different people, so despite the hefty price ($303 Australian for the standard three hour experience!) I decided this was a chance not to be missed.

The BridgeClimb did not disappoint. It was a three-hour experience that I prepared for with a proper Aussie breakfast of smashed avocado and poached egg on toast and a flat white (If you think Hackney is a hotbed of smashed avocado on toast, think again. They can’t even hold Sydney’s coat in that department. It’s inescapable. I’m pretty sure if I’d gone to McDonald’s I could have ordered a McAvoSmash.) Unsurprisingly, there’s a fairly extensive health and safety briefing when you first arrive. This is reassuring, since the summit of the bridge is 134m above sea level and takes you over eight active lanes of traffic and a couple of working rail lines. The potential for mayhem is, shall we say, significant.

Everyone in my group of seven was assigned a fetching grey and blue jumpsuit. The colours are designed to blend in with the bridge and be less distracting to motorists, but I predict they will not be appearing on a fashion runway near you anytime soon. We were also instructed to leave everything in pockets behind: no loose change, no mobile phones, no watches, no cameras. Sunglasses were allowed, but they were tethered to the jumpsuits. We were also assigned a waist harness safety belt with a sliding tether line, a fleece jacket in case it got cold, a handkerchief, a yours-to-keep-just-for-playing Sydney Bridge Climb baseball cap, and a radio headset to be able to hear our guide, whose name might have been Brian.

Brian (or was it Brad?) ran us through a sort of BridgeClimb simulator set of stairs, ladders and catwalks that demonstrated how the continuous safety line worked. (I suspect I was the only one in the group who found the rigging of the safety system just a bit fascinating.) Then we were off to clip in and walk along underside of the roadway and up through the southeast pylon before climbing over the arch itself. Even though the elevation gain was large, it was a comfortable climb. We walked over the actual upper chord of the arch, on catwalks laid on top of the steelwork so the incline was fairly gentle. Brian (possibly Bruce) stopped at key points and chatted to us in the way of experienced tour guides - knowledgeable, peppered with well-worn jokes, slightly world-weary, but still charming. He knew a lot about the bridge, and graciously tolerated my unusual fascination with the stainless steel brackets and anchor system for the continuous safety line that runs throughout the catwalk system.

I said no cameras or phones were allowed, but Brian (Brent?) had a special (tethered) camera and we stopped at several points along the way for photo ops. Naturally, BridgeClimb were happy to take more of my money to have a couple of photos provided at the end of the experience, which is why I can show you this:

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Everyone got this cheesy group photo.

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And here’s me near the top, with Circular Quay and the Opera House in the background. (Can I also add that this photo in the flattering grey jumpsuit makes it look like I’ve eaten at lot more than my fair share of smashed avocado but really it’s just that the jumpsuit was roomy and the wind was at my back. I promise I didn't actually come home from Indonesian looking like the Michelin Man.)

We finally made it to the very top, where there is a very very small platform that occasionally hosts special events like weddings or tiny expensive parties or those annoying segments on local television morning shows.

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One more photo at the summit before the climb down.

By the time it was all over three hours had elapsed, which coincided neatly with the arrival at a nearby pub of my two hosts for a well-deserved beer and lunch. The Australian Heritage Hotel is another Sydney icon, where I was able to sample the famous Coat of Arms pizza - featuring emu meat on one half and kangaroo meat on the other! This allows me to segue neatly into this fun but utterly unsupported fact I heard somewhere: Australians are the only people that eat both the animals on their coat of arms. Also, it's popularly believed that the reason the kangaroo and the emu are featured on the coat of arms is because neither animal can go backwards, which is supposed to be a metaphor for something noble, though of course if a kangaroo or an emu wants to retreat from something clearly all they need to do is turn around and run away like everything else on the planet.

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Good pizza. Though as with most exotic meat, it didn’t really have a distinctive flavour. I am, however, happy to say it didn’t really taste like chicken.

I was feeling pretty smug about my Australia experience by this point - climbed iconic bridge, ate iconic animals, had a nice beer - tick, tick, tick. That was to become the theme for my visit, as you’ll learn in weeks to come. So stay tuned for more kangaroos and associated odd animals, more engineering, more smashed avocado, a surfeit of ridiculously beautiful beaches, and an evening that turned out to be so quintessentially Australian it may as well have been scripted. Advance, Australia Fair!

One app to rule them all

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hey, it’s been a while! Almost four months, I guess. I’ll admit I didn’t plan to pack in the blogging quite as early as I did on this job but sometimes life gets away from you. For those of you who need a reminder I was in Jakarta, Indonesia for six months working on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Asian Games. In the end it all went pretty well. Opening especially was a triumph, despite a few hiccups backstage that were exhilarating/terrifying at the time and now make for great stories to dine out on. The next time I see you, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about the Oman flag. Oh, and the torches… you gotta hear about the torches. (For the truly dedicated and Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader, here's the official ceremony video, complete with loud and incessant commentary in Bahasa.)

And now it’s all over again. Every prop has been photographed and catalogued and swathed in bubblewrap. The Parties have been had. The farewell dinners have been eaten.

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The Props Tent that was once so packed with rolling carts of miscellaneous objects it was difficult to move around looked like this when I finally handed back the keys.

We’re finished a bit earlier than expected so I had a couple days to shop for souvenirs and sort through my apartment and pack before going for two weeks of vacation in Sydney, Australia! I’m actually there now, comfortably ensconced in the central Sydney guest room of a couple of welcoming and generous friends. This is super exciting and I’m enjoying it very much. Now though, with Indonesia fading in the rear view mirror, there’s one thing I’ve just got to tell you about before putting Indonesia to bed, blog-ically speaking: the magic of Go-Jek.

In Indonesia, “ojek” is the word for a motorcycle taxi. It’s a simple concept: you hop on behind a guy on a motorcycle and, for a small fee, he takes you where you’re going. Go-Jek is the 21st century app-based upgrade to the traditional ojek experience and it is simply brilliant. At its heart, Go-Jek is an easy way to order a motorcycle taxi without having to haggle about price or explain where you’re going. It’s the Indonesian equivalent of Uber - a simple but effective ride hailing service. It started in 2010 with 20 drivers and now has more than one million. That’s one million DRIVERS. Not one million users. One million Go-Jek drivers.

Go Jek Driver
The drivers all wear this iconic green jacket, and they all carry a spare green helmet for the passenger.

Getting around by Go-Jek is much much faster than taking a taxi in Jakarta traffic. Motorcycles can weave in and out of the lanes of jammed traffic saving a lot of time. It’s also incredibly cheap. Even a proper taxi is cheap - usually the fare from hotel to stadium was about 20,000 rupiah, roughly £1. For the same ride on a Go-Jek I think you’d pay around 8,000. 40 pence. Sure, you end up breathing in a lot more toxic exhaust fumes than if you were in a car (or probably if you were walking along the sidewalk, if there actually was a sidewalk). And of course even in a more docile environment, motorcycles are just generally dangerous, let alone riding pillion on a motorcycle in the overcrowded and somewhat haphazard nature of vehicular traffic in Jakarta.

There’s also almost always a problem with actually finding your Go-jek once they arrive to pick you up. As with Uber, the app shows you a little map with your location and the location of your driver, which should, in theory, make it simple and easy to find your guy. In reality, both positions on the map are a bit approximate, which usually results in some frustrated wandering around and very often a phone call from the driver in which he’ll speak at length in Bahasa trying to explain where he is, which is irritating and unhelpful. The few times I used a Go-Jek I often had to simply hand my phone to a local colleague, or a security guard at the hotel so that they could explain what was happening, which almost always involved the word “bule” (BOO-lay, meaning Western foreigner.) Nonetheless once you actually connect with your driver, Go-Jek is a handy way of getting around, especially for short trips.

But the brilliance of Go-Jek doesn’t stop there. Oh no. You can also get a Go-Car, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can now even order a Bluebird Taxi - a car from a rival company - through the Go-Jek app. But wait, what if you don’t want to move yourself, but an object? No problem! Go-Jek has you covered. It it’s a small item, you can have it delivered by a Go-Jek driver acting as a courier using Go-Send, also through the app. And what if you need to move a couch? Or a dining room table? Or, say, three truckloads of rehearsal props? (Or is that just me?) Go-Jek has you covered. Simply order a Go-Box, in one of 4 convenient sizes.

Go-Box
In practice, you rarely see a liveried Go-Box truck. Usually they’re pretty beaten-up and generic, open topped flatbeds with high sides. But useful. Very, very useful.

But wait… there’s more! Go-Send has a natural and very useful cousin - Go-Food! Like other food-delivery apps out there, you get a choice of restaurants, order what you want on the app, and it comes. However, where Go-Jek differs is in how the orders are placed and processed. With Deliveroo, Uber Eats and other Western-based apps like that, the order gets sent directly to the restaurant. Not so with Go-Jek. Here’s what happened when, one exceptionally lazy morning, I ordered two coffees and two almond croissants from a nearby Starbucks, using Go-Food:

1. The order was placed in the app and assigned to a driver.
2. The driver physically went to the Starbucks I chose and placed the order at the counter.
3. The driver paid for the order out of his own pocket.
4. The driver waited at the Starbucks while the order was being filled.
5. When the order was filled he brought the coffee and croissants to the office.

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Embarrassingly, the Starbucks in question was approximately a 4 minute walk away. But, you know, it was like TWENTY FOUR FLOORS down from the office and then ALL THE WAY TO THE MALL and then TWENTY FOUR FLOORS back up. I didn't have time for that! We had a ceremony to put on!

It’s not unusual to see Go-Jek drivers in their iconic green jackets hanging around at restaurants waiting for orders. Sometimes there are a few at the same place, and some restaurants even designate a place for them to wait. And in the end, it probably would have been quicker to walk to Starbucks and back because when using Go-Food - like when trying to find your Go-Jek motorcycle - there’s almost always a series of texts or phonecalls with the driver, though in this case it’s partly because he wants to make sure you’re the real deal before he forks out his own money for your Grande Vanilla Sweet Cream Iced Latte. However, this too can be mitigated through another Go-Jek service: Go-Pay!

Go-Pay is a digital payment system that you top up (with your Indonesian bank card) and use for any Go-Jek service, meaning payment for your Go-Food order is guaranteed and the poor driver isn't taking on any risk by paying for your lunch. You can can also top up by giving cash to a Go-Jek driver who’ll credit your account. Importantly, you can also transfer Go-Pay credit to other app users so it’s become a kind of default e-wallet for a lot of people. This means that if you’re a bule without an Indonesian bank account but with local staff you can give cash to one of your local kids and they do something with their phones and then you have Go-Pay credit. (This system also works when you need mobile phone credit!) (Or you can use Go-Pay to get mobile phone credit using Go-Pulsa. Of course.)

What else can you do with the Go-Jek app? Well, you can get your grocery shopping delivered through Go-Mart, or buy other items through Go-Shop. Pay your bills through Go-Bills, get tickets for events from Go-Tix, or get medicine delivered by Go-Med. Get you car washed or maintained with Go-Auto and your home cleaned with Go-Clean.

App Choices
All in one app


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And then kick back with a relaxing Go-Massage in the comfort of your home. And have your hair and nails done at the same time by Go-Glam. I’m not kidding. Those are all real things. With Go-Glam someone shows up with a kit of tools (probably having arrived on a Go-Jek) and gives you a manicure in your own home.

As you might imagine, this whole Go-Jek universe was a remarkable discovery for me. It’s also completely infiltrated life in Jakarta. I’m truly not sure how we’d have managed those ceremonies without it. On other gigs I’ve had a full-time driver/runner with a van. No need for that in Jakarta when you can just Go-Send or Go-Box something. And I can’t count how often I called out from my desk to one of my lovely local staff and said something like, “Misha! We need another 1,000 tiny cable ties! Can you do that thing with your phone and make there be cable ties?” And then an hour or two later cable ties would appear (or tape or charcoal or fishing reels or turpentine or tubes of acrylic paint or wood chips or… whatever) and Misha would screenshot the receipts and WhatsApp it to me and I would give him pettycash to cover the cost and we’d get on with things. It’s very easy to become totally dependent on the Go-Jek universe, and it’s hard to overstate how thoroughly it seems to have become part of life.

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You can even buy a genuine Go-Jek driver's jacket online and have it delivered by a Go-Jek driver, which is, as the kids say, totally meta. This is Nathan modelling his Go-Jek jacket and Anne showing off her much rarer Ok-Jek jacket. (Ok-Jek is a sit-com on Indonesian TV about the lives of online motorcycle taxi drivers and staff in the fictional Ok-Jek office. You need connections to get one of those!)

As usual, there's a lot more I could tell you about life in Jakarta. Like batik -  there's so much to say about that ancient and beautiful art form - like how every Friday is Batik Friday! Just like Casual Friday in offices in the West, but in Indonesia you wear a batik shirt on Fridays. And like about how when you get served in a traditional Indonesian restaurant you get a fork and a spoon but no knife. And why, the whole time I was in Indonesia did I never find a pencil harder than 2B? And why, in a city where the temperature is normally 33 degrees and humid, did the mall next door have two stores selling down-filled winter jackets? And what is the fascination with "salted egg (yolk)" flavour? And why does everyone walk so slowly? And why are there A&Ws in Jakarta, but if you go there you can't actually get onion rings or a Teen Burger but you can get a fried egg (salted I'm sure) on top of your side of steamed rice?

Yes, there's a lot to say about Indonesia but frankly, I'm pretty much done. It was a long and difficult six months and Jakarta is a hard place to live. The climate, the traffic, the pollution and the chaotic, jumbled and haphazard streets made it a place to be endured rather than enjoyed. That city is tough and I'm ready to be home on my little boat, but not without telling you a few of the amazing things I've been up to here in Sydney, which is many of the things Jakarta is not: clean, open, ordered, temperate, walkable and beautiful.

Then again, the city may not be easy, but the people were amazing.

The Team
For now I'll just be grateful to these lovely people for getting us through some very long days and for smiling the whole time. Thank you Props People!

Random thoughts on Indonesia

Sunday, May 27, 2018

I’m still not really succeeding at being a tourist in Jakarta, and time’s a-wastin’. I’m clinging desperately to five-day work weeks, but that’s only going to last until rehearsals start in earnest and it’ll be time to put my head down and not look up until September. Until then I should really be taking advantage of my weekends to do Things. Colleagues are known to bring a carryon bag to the office on Friday and go straight from their desks to the airport to visit Bali or Yogyakarta or go diving or see Komodo Dragons or something. Maybe this is a sign that the novelty of this sort of work is wearing off for me - the fact that all I really want to do on a weekend is sleep in, make myself a nice breakfast, relax in air-conditioned comfort and maybe sit in a quiet coffee shop with the crossword. Still even with that agenda, there are things I can tell you about because everyday life continues and sometimes it’s different or notable or just plain weird.

On the freelance nature of traffic control:

I may have mentioned before that traffic in Jakarta is a problem. In fact, it's simply an inescapable fact of life. There are too many cars on the road, which, added to a seemingly infinite number of motorcycles that fill any gap like an angry swarm of insects, added to a somewhat approximate sense of the rules of the road mean that something as simple as turning or parking can become a real challenge.

Here’s where the entrepreneurial spirit emerges in the form of the freelance traffic warden. Known locally as “Coin Police” or “Parking Masters” these are men who stand at intersections or turning points or parking spots and direct traffic. Note that I’m not talking about actual uniformed municipal police here. Those also exist in a small number of places, but the freelance guys are much more common.

Here’s how it works. Your car approaches an intersection - often this is a designated place for a u-turn, which are a very common here. Standing in the road, among the moving vehicles, will be a guy who’s basically putting this body between you and the oncoming cars to help you filter into the flow of traffic. He waves his arms and holds up a hand to try and stop or slow the cars enough that you can merge. Sometimes it works, sometimes he gets ignored. He does this for tips, usually between 2,000 and 5,000 rupiah, which is between 10 and 30 pence. So if you're inclined, you roll down the window and slip the guy a bit of cash as you roll past.

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This is an exceptionally well-equipped guy in Jember, complete with hi-vis vest and flag. His corner was pretty slow, making me wonder how this line of work could ever pay off, especially with the overhead of flag and vest to consider.

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Here’s another guy in Jember, who’s even got a bucket for collecting his money. Again, this is a very tame intersection. In Jakarta it’s a much more hectic scene.

The Coin Police also work a parking angle, where they’ll stop traffic to allow you to turn into a spot or help you exit and merge back into traffic. The parking guys also get some money for the actual "rental" of the parking spot. I assume it’s entirely unregulated and simply a case of one guy having a “patch” he works by general agreement, but who knows? Maybe there’s a central ministry that assigns dominion over parking spots on a fair rota. (Sure…)

I find the whole thing alternately charming and terrifying. But I do have a soft spot for the guys who works one particular intersection that’s on my morning 5k running route.

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Here’s my guy!

Recently on morning runs I’ve been packing 1,000 rupiah in coins and giving it to the guy at this intersection as I run past. I figure anything I can do to help cross smoothly and easily is worth it. However, this is highly unusual or perhaps even unprecedented. I told some local colleagues about my habit and they found it utterly hilarious that I would tip the coin police as a pedestrian. But I find it fun to think about this guy going home at the end of a shift and telling his buddies about the crazy giant foreign woman who tips him when she runs past. I’m going to make an impression anyways, so why not?


On the horrors of the food court:

I know I talked about inappropriate cheese already but I really can’t let this particular nugget go without a special mention. The food hall in the big mall next door has a lot of odd offerings that I’ve yet to tell you about. For instance, there’s the Cheese Tea (Actual slogan: “Where cake meets cheese. Yum!”) and there’s the Pizza Cones (Actually overheard: “The macaroni was… unexpected”) and squid balls and… well I could go on and on. Recently a cheap-and-cheerful takeaway sushi place has popped up and I’ve taken advantage on a couple nights when I couldn’t be bothered to cook. It’s definitely on the low-rent end of the sushi spectrum, but even so, I was shocked and appalled to see this on offer.

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This is exactly what is looks like. Half a processed cheese slice on top of sushi rice, drizzled with yet more plastic cheese, this time in liquid form. For the love of all that is holy people… how can this actually be a thing? Words fail me.

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And it doesn’t stop there, because you can get the same thing in a roll! Please Indonesia! Please stop! And Japan… where’s the quality control here? This is your thing. Surely you should have some kind of monitoring system in place to prevent these kind of atrocities.


On the holy month of Ramadan:

And finally, Ramadan Mubarek! Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is set aside as a period of fasting and increased piety for Muslims. Observance of Ramadan is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam and this is the first time I’ve been in a really religious Muslim country during the holy month. (Azerbaijan is a much more secular place so there was little impact on day to day life.) The chief feature of Ramadan is the fast, which is observed during daylight hours, meaning that no food or drink is consumed between sunrise and sunset (and yes that includes water, which in a country with a climate like this must be particularly challenging). Fasting is mandatory for all adult Muslims (with a few exceptions). The term sawm is used to refer to fasting but it translates more literally as “refrain” which encompasses a more general abstinence from more than just food and drink, but also smoking, sex, impure thoughts and evil deeds.

My first inkling that things would be a bit different during Ramadan was when I went for dinner and ordered a beer to accompany my meal. It was after sunset, but even so the waiter informed me that because it’s Ramadan, they serve beer in a coffee mug. Because… I don’t really know. I guess because everyone is trying to be more devout so they want to conceal the fact that alcohol is being drunk. Also, some local restaurants in the area that have outdoor patios put up curtains between the patio and the street during the day. I suppose this is to shield those fasting from seeing those who aren’t.

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Mmmmm... mug o' beer!

Also, a notice appeared last week at the hotel informing us that a special breakfast buffet would be available from 3:30am to 5:30am for sahur - the pre-fast morning meal.

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That little sticker correcting the start date is probably because the start of Ramadan is based on visual sighting of the crescent moon so can only be estimated until it actually happens.

More significant though, is breaking the fast at sunset, called iftar in arabic, but known in Indonesia as buku puasa. Apparently it’s traditional to break the fast first by eating an odd number of dates. So when I and some colleagues went out to watch the royal wedding at a local ex-pat bar and had beer and curry, they brought us a little plate of dates first (because I’d ordered the special “break your fast” thali tray, also thankfully available to the non-observant).

(Aside - and at that moment I was struck once again with how odd my life is sometimes. Sitting in a quasi-Irish pub in Jakarta with American, Irish and Australian colleagues, eating a buku puasa of curry and watching an English prince marry an American actress. It reminded me of a dinner not so long ago in a Georgian restaurant in Azerbaijan when my companions were Greek and Australian and we watched a Russian news network’s coverage of Donald Trump being sworn in. I guess if they gave out points for cross-cultural-ness I’d have a pretty healthy balance.)

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And cheers to a good thali tray! Not quite up to the level of Adam’s Curry in Baku, but we take what we can get.

Anyway, back to Ramadan. There hasn’t been much change to the routine in the office. However many of the local staff are fasting so us infidels have been asked to eat our lunches and drink our coffee in a spare meeting room instead of stuffing our faces in front of our more devout colleagues. Ramadan lasts for a lunar month, so this will continue until mid June when there’s a big holiday - the most important of the year. Edul Fitri, also known as Lebaran in Indonesia, is the feast of fast-breaking. It’s the rough cultural analogue to Christmas in Western culture, not because of any religious equivalence, but simply because it’s the longest holiday of the year and the one where most people travel home. This means all our local staff have about a week off and much of the normal activity in the country will shut down while people celebrate with friends and family. I'll be taking advantage of this lull in activity to sneak in a week’s vacation before the real madness starts, at a location that promises to be highly blog-worthy, as long as I can find the time to write about it.

And that's all I've got for you this week. I think I've got one or two posts left in me before I abandon the blog again until the end of this job, so enjoy it while it lasts. In the mean time I'm off to the mall for a snack that definitely will not include processed cheese slices.