Jelly Wrestling

I have just come back from eight weeks, mostly in Eastern in Europe, some of which I spent walking about 600K from Sopron in Hungary to Trieste in Italy.

I brought my iPhone with me and the idea was that I would blog stuff to my website as I wandered along. I think I did it once. So much for that idea! I suppose other things – drinking super cheap beer and dealing with blisters and blackened toe nails – got in the way.

I had a wonderful and memorable time and I kept thinking how boring my home in Australia is when compared with the sights and scenes throughout Eastern Europe.

I returned home last week and I went down to my local – boring – pub for a quick pint before dinner. In recent years, the place has been tarted up so that on one side is the “family-oriented bistro” and on the other side is the so-called “sports bar” joined to the TAB or betting shop where a few elderly men hang out, watching the races or footy on the large screen TV’s.

This night the car park was unusually full and I thought there might be a “skimpy” serving the drinks as they usually drum up custom. As I walked up the back steps to the sports bar, I overheard some guy on the phone excitedly explaining why he couldn’t leave just yet because of the “jelly wrestling”! What?

Inside, the place was packed with tradies, still in their work boots and hi-vis clothes of yellow and orange, talking animatedly and drinking up a storm – it was Friday night after all.

In the middle of the floor was an inflatable child’s paddling pool filled with blue, gelatinous, soft, squishy beads. In the pool itself were two bikini-clad girls grappling with each other, slipping and sliding around in the blue goo.

Whenever one girl managed to “throw” the other, the victor would mount the victim and cursorily simulate sex with a few thrusts of her glistening hips, to the uproar and applause of the watching men.

Well, I never saw that in the country towns and villages in Slovenia or Croatia for sure, I thought to myself. I just wish Australian beer was as good and as cheap as it was there!

Footloose & Fancy Free or Footsore & Weary

Started this European Peace Walk — this is me on the first day – on Tuesday July 04, from Sopron in Hungary and ending in Trieste in Italy, passing through Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Italy. In Croatia now and about half way there but the blisters are mounting. So far, great food, interesting people and cheap beer. On the down side, I am sick of trudging through muddy, ploughed up corn and wheat fields and getting lost in dark forests where I am a main course for voracious insects and fair game for stinging nettles!

In Krapina, Croatia, letting the blisters heal. Seems like a fantastic little kip – loads of bars and cafes and there is even a museaum devoted to Neantherthal Man!

South America Summary

A rather amazing trip, from Cuba in the far north, down to Ecuador and on to Peru, where I ate guinea pig, alpaca and llama, missing out on Machu Pichu but taking a 22 hour bus ride from Lima up to Cusco in the heart of the Andes. Over then to Lake Titicaca and a boat trip out to the weird, artificial islands of floating reeds and over the border into Bolivia where the bus seemed to climb endlessly and I lay sprawled in my seat, munching coca leaves and gasping for breath as we topped 4800 metres. A gradual descent then, of only 200 metres towards La Paz, only to find the city blocaded by local indigenous people who had thrown up ramparts of earth and rubble blocking the main highway into the city. Eventually we had to stop and take on an Incan guide who showed the bus driver how to thread his way rough narrow, grimy back streets until we eventually arrived, me exhausted and still panting, in La Paz. The next day, the whole city ground to a standstill as angry miners paraded through the city centre, while heavily armed police with pump-action grenade launchers stood on every street corner, heavy steel chains in their hands ready to seal off any street disturbance. The next day it was the turn of the students and again the city centre was paralysed. Enough was enough for me, and, still breathless, I managed to get a bus out and south, although that took unneccesary hours as again we had to thread our way past endless blockades. Finally, a train, one of the noisiest and decrepit trains I have ever been on, down as far as the Argentinian border. What a relief – an ordered, organised city with working traffic lights, freeways and highway diamonds and gorgeous wine. Even better was the black market In foreign currency – the official rate for US dollars being about 9 pesos to the dollar. Unofficially, the rate was about 16 to the dollar, and quite openly so – touts hanging around outside banks and exchanges. Made quite a difference to the budget and was able to afford some very decent wine. On from Salta, on the border into serious wine country, thought the most magnificent canyon and arid countryside to the little town of Cafayate where I spent more than a week eating huge steaks and plundering their bodegas. Down to Tucuman and Córdoba (cities I had never heard of, where accomodation was hard to come by as it was the middle of an exceptionally long holiday weekend. On again to Mendoza , the real heart of Argentinean wine and more steaks, huge 500 g slabs of bleeding cow on a plate washed down with more than a bottle of red wine. Bliss. I seem to have adopted a paleolithic style diet where all I ate was meat – no veg or fruit, just meat and gulped wine.

I made enquirers about a bus over the Andes to Santiago in Chile, only to be informed  that all bus services over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago had been suspended due to bad weather and snow. So more steak and red wine and eventually I managed to get a ticket for Saturday but no guarantee that the bus would run the 8 hour trip.

What a ride! Probably the most exciting and certainly most scenic bus trip I have ever taken.

Finally the end of the trip approaching in the form of Santiago, Chile and I could breath again, altitude a mere 480 metres only. A few days there, more steaks, and yes, more red wine but now that I have arrived in Valpariaso, it is gorgeous seared tuna fish with a salad of avocado, asparagus and tomato and white wine.

I must admit, with tales of the Gringo Trail in mind, I was expecting to be offered tons of coke and weed, but it was a surprisingly sober trip. I bought a gram of coke in Ecuador for $15 and approached it with trepidation, rolling up $100 bills in expectation. I thought it might be best to do it straight and then go for a beer and that is what I did. A tiny bit of speed, maybe, and nothing else.

Bought another gram somewhere else and marginally better – I was only doing this, of course to help with the breathing. Somewhere else, in one of the hostels, got chatting with one of the guys working there, I think he was a Brit, and he invited me to share an actual lump of coke which was – I think – much better but as I stayed up until 5:00 am, I’m not too sure. I then had to face a 14 hour bus trip so I was a subdued little man for a while.

General Observations

Cuba – very fat ladies squeezed in to tight Lycra pants; very generous measures of rum; great music in the bars, mildewed buildings.

Ecuador – organised and efficient, gorgeous ceviche, panic buttons in this taxis, dry Sundays!

Peru – no pepper in restaurants, crap coffee, grey Pacific, rum served with whipped egg white, coca leaves for chewing with a lump of stevia (to help with altitude), super clean wet markets, amazing displays of fruit, veg never seen before, enormous servings of meat, inca women with very long plaited hair, shawls and bowler hats perched on their heads

Bolivia – a shambles, road blocks condoning off La Paz from the outskirts, erected by local indigenous in protest at …, huge street protests in La Paz, seriously armed police with pump action tear gas shotguns, trouble breathing most of the time.

Argentine – easy border crossing with no paperwork at all, bus searched by troops at a military checkpoint, huge highways and flyovers, a modern country (compared to Cuba and Bolivia), a black market in U.S. Dollars.

Chile – Lovely wines – Colchuagua Valley (despite the fact that I never made that pilgrimage) being one of my favourites.

Lounged my time away in Valparaiso and small coastal towns like Viña del Mar, bravong myself for the long flight actoss the pacific to Sydney na d onwards to perth.

 

Going back to the Roots

Given that the original reason for this blog thing was to blow my own horn with regard to the book I wrote and self published on Smashwords – and yes, it is still available on Amazon but I have no idea where that money goes as I seem to have failed to set up a banking account with them.  Anyway, never mind, live and learn.  So, to return to origins – this blog thingy was meant to be about my book Raiding Cooley (or Cúailnge, if you prefer) in particular and other writings that I come across, do myself, admire and so on.  In that vein, here is a scene I have been working on recently.  It is going to be part of something much larger and this scene takes place fairly near the start of a much longer story.  Anyway, comments, likes, dislikes, objections, that sort of thing – basically any feedback at all would be most gratefully accepted.  I can’t really give you any more as this is very much part of a work in progress and I might never actually use this scene.  Wonderful, ain’t it!

The Argument

” You ungrateful whelp, you will do as I say,” Calpurnius crashed his gnarled fist down on the polished table, making the goblets jump. “Don’t you understand what this means to us all? Do you think I want to give up all of this?” he shouted, gesturing at the tilled fields stretching from the walls around the villa down the hillside bounded by the blue line of the sea below them.

Maewyn stood up abruptly, pushing his stool back roughly so that it crashed on the mosaic floor. “You can’t make me do this. I don’t care, it’s your job – not mine,” but even as his stomach roiled in fear at this rebellion, he could hear the petulance in his own voice and was ashamed of himself.

Ignoring his mother reproachful looks, he brushed past his father and rushed out of the villa, past the fountain in the vestibule.

His parents’ Pelagian Christianity meant nothing to him and Maewyn looked with youthful scorn upon his father’s attempt to evade his duties as a tax collector and councillor by taking shelter in his relaxed form of religious orders. Certainly he had no intention of assuming his father’s harsh and ruthless role exacting taxes from the local Ordovices people rather than making up the deficit from his own land and slave holdings. Nevertheless, he had to admit that his family’s way of life was comfortable and he enjoyed the respect his father and his father, Potitus, before him had garnered over the years, landowners who had long accepted Roman ways and customs. Their cultured way of life was in sharp contrast to the local Brythonic tribes from whom they exacted the heavy tax that Rome demanded from its provinces and localities. The whole idea of collecting taxes for the Romans was pointless now that the empire was collapsing, Maewyn told himself. Even the legate, Stilicho would be recalled to Rome shortly despite what he had overheard the previous night.

“You know the law” Stilicho had insisted, enjoying the power his position afforded him in Britannia Prima. The Roman was powerfully built with blunt, heavy features, thick dark hair swept back from a broad forehead above a long bulbous nose creased heavily at the bridge. His thin mouth was accentuated by the persistent shadow on his square jaw, despite the ministrations with an obsidian blade. Hard, grey eyes had assessed, understood and despised the fawning attempts of Calpurnius and Conchessa to distract him with a beaker of the dark yellow wine he favoured.

“But you know these raids on the coastal districts make collecting the taxes difficult,” Calpurnius had pleaded. It was true, Goidelic raids were becoming more frequent as Roman power declined in the west and although the last stronghold of the Celts on the island of Mona had been replaced almost three and a half centuries before with a permanently garrisoned fort at Seguntium, the raids had increased in frequency and daring recently. Stilicho, as the newly appointed legate to the western province of Britannia Prima, was keen to lead a retaliatory raid on Hibernia. Broad, muscular shoulders and pale scars on his thick forearms were proof of his military bearing and experience.

“You know the law,” he repeated implacably. “What is not collected must be made up from your own pocket. You can always sell your slaves to raise the necessary portion.”

Cuba and Beyond – part 6

CHILE

I arrived in Santiago after I dragged my beef and wine sodden carcass on to a coach in Mendoza for the most amazing and hair raising bus ride over the Andes to Santiago in Chile. Definitely one of the highlights of this trip so far, with the coach following the original route of Los Liberadores. They first crossed over the Andes on their march to kick the Spanish out of Chile way back in January 1817, gallantly led by San Martin and his illegitimate half-Irish sidekick, Bernardo O’Higgins. The Paso Los Libertadores is now the main transport route connecting the city of Mendoza to the Chilean capital, Santiago via Aconcagua, aka ‘High Mountain’.IMG_0250

I didn’t really notice the bus climbing up into the Andes, it was all so gradual and easy, faraway snow capped mountains seemed like they were from another planet and then we were in the midst of them. IMG_0299

Upstairs in the very front of the bus with two spacious seats to myself (super executivo class), the views were absolutely breathtaking while we weaved and slithered through snow-capped mountains.IMG_0316

An easy crossover at Las Cuevas the border point between Argentine and Chile and then, from the Chilean side, the most, incredible series of at least 30 sheer hairpin bends where the bus was reduced to a 5kph crawl with snow and ice on both sides the road, one of which was a sheer drop to the bottom of the world, while the mountains towered over and all around us. Mind blowing and me panting away as usual.

A magnificent central Plaza des Armas in Santiago that my taxi from the bus station was unable to completely navigate, for reasons best known to its surly driver. Decided to celebrate my safe arrival in Chile by having a boozy seafood lunch in the central fish market in Santiago. I have almost got tired of my semi-Palaeolithic diet of red wine and huge, thick and juicy steaks with an occasional cup of coffee so have decided to move on to the fish. IMG_0382I started off with a Pisco Sour – no sign of the egg white here – and then a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanco Leon de Tarapaca, to accompany this huge plate of albacore covered in a salsa Santa Margarita, which appears to be small prawns and rings of squid in a white sauce, bread and a spicy dip of toms and onions and god knows what else.

Disputed with the waiter as to whether the fish was albacore, aka Spanish Mackerel. It certainly wasn’t the usual, across the backbone, cut of albacore with the central spine bone. See how wrong you can be! The waiter graphically explained, much flashing of sharp knives and glinting teeth, that my cut was “un filetto“, vertically along the spine. Not sure I liked his grazing the back of my neck with his filet knife, so I agreed with his conclusion of “Bueno, bonito y barato.”  He then presented with a gratuitous, but vile looking, glass of green stuff, “una menthe,” as a digestivo.

Plaza des Armas – where I’m staying in this funky place right on the square -seems like a mad place. Last night as I wandered around it was packed with punters, hop off my thumbs, jugglers, tricksters and fly by nights – wonderful. Fountains, palm trees and mad fellas – a bit like Hyde Park corner.IMG_0360

Despite my sudden change of diet to fish and white wine, I decided to have a relaxing afternoon, sitting by the open window of my 4th floor hostel looking out over Plaza des Armas in the very centre of Santiago while enjoying a bottle of superb Viu Manent Cab Sauvignon from one of my favourite vineyards – Colchagua Valley and thinking about where to go for my last week of semi indulgence.

Sunday night was a bit quiet here, rather like Ecuador. I went out around 10 pm for aIMG_0359 quiet drink in the only place open in Plaza de Armas. I ordered a pint of beer for a change and was absorbed reading in a cafe with maybe four or five other tables scattered around. I rather rudely ignored some mad punter who came up to my table and started jabbering away at me. I didn’t even look up until suddenly he grabbed my pint and started swilling it down. (Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks – “you’re drinking my beer and I’m gonna punch your teeth out”). I rather surprised myself by erupting, like an angry belch, up on the hind legs and grabbing him by the shirtfront, one arm raised to punch his lights out while roaring, in English of course, “I’ll f@#king kill you, you c**t”. Startled by my violent reaction, he twisted away while other punters at the outdoor cafe applauded and the waitress bustled over apologising and whisking my (nearly finished) pint off for a fresh one. No harm done, I suppose and a free pint, so I can’t complain. A promenade around the square later on, a surprising number of punters wrapped up in rugs, sleeping on the long park benches, despite police patrolling fairly regularly.

Probably going to stay another night here before heading off – perhaps- to Valparaiso. I suppose I could end up anywhere in my last few days. A different ball game to all the places that I have been to so far. First impressions, a bit of a laugh here, I like it.

IMG_0487One hour forty five minutes by bus from Santiago and arrived in Valparaiso shortly after12 noon. The first guest house was looking for 36,000 pesos a night so I moved a bit down market, private room with bathroom across the hall for 15,000. I’ll stay two nights and then look for something else – maybe at Viña del Mar, just down the road. Lovely to be beside the ocean again, although I am looking down at it as my hostel is up quite a steep hill but with no altitude, no problem.

IMG_0432Drinking a 750 ml bottle of Altamirs Amber ale, lovely but a bit pricey at $15 Australian. Waiting for a “tun de mediterraneo” for lunch. “Que rico” (as they say here.) The place looks great, hundreds of hills and houses clustered around, all the colours of the rainbow. Pleasantly warm at the moment, t-shirt weather.

IMG_0447Valparaiso must be one of the most perpendicular cities I have ever been in. Hugging the coast, it clings to sheer hills that are accessed by elevators! Everywhere is a blaze of colour from the murals – think Banksy – on walls and hoarding and even the steps leading to my pensione. A stroll along the beach at Vina del Mar where the pelicans clusters at Castillo Wulff IMG_0466before returning to a tiny bar to watch the rugby between South Africa and New Zealand. Managed to swill down three pints in the company of a few South Africans.

Rather a nice dinner later that night but then at a bit of a loose end – choices – drink more here or somewhere else, go to bed (it’s only 10:15pm) wander around lost, find a cafe and drink coffee and read my book or back to the hostel to hang around until Lethe wards I sink

Leaving Valparaiso tomorrow for Santiago to catch my long haul flight back to Perth. I may very well have to go on the dry for a few days to recover my lissom figure. Goodbye South America probably for the very last time.

 

 

Octopus Salad

In accordance with the Cantonese obsession with fresh seafood, every imaginable mollusc, crustacean and fish were available in open seafood tanks near the pier in Sai Kung, in the New Territories in Hong Kong. Restaurant punters touting for the string of seafood restaurants along the pier would recommend specific fish or shellfish and scrawny youths in oversized Wellington boots would clamber awkwardly along the rims of the tanks and net the particular item ready to be cooked any way you liked.

Out of curiosity, one afternoon, I asked the boy if he had any octopus and he began to scramble over the tanks, net in hand. Amazingly, the octopus saw him coming and made a determined and exciting bid for freedom, rapidly climbing out of its tank into an adjoining one diagonally opposite the net boy. Again and again, he evaded the increasingly frustrated attempts to snare him and I swear I heard it squawk in anguish as it clambered desperately from tank to tank. Enough is enough, I thought and I cancelled my order and had an insensate lobster instead.

So much for the live beast and here in Fremantle, octopus, ready cleaned and vacuum packed, has a justifiable reputation as being one of the world’s best seafood feasts on account of its size, flavour and tenderness.

Ingredients

IMG_0338

1 kg. Raw, cleaned octopus ½ cup white vinegar 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp lemon juice Fresh thyme Fresh mint
1 red chilli (optional) Salt & ground black pepper ½ Tbsp smoky paprika
Romaine / Iceberg lettuce Lemon wedges

Method

  • IMG_0339Wash the octopus by rubbing vigourously with a handful of coarse salt. Rinse well and remove central beak by pushing through from the underside.
  • Bring 3 to 4 litres of water to the boil in a large pot, add the vinegar and place the whole octopus in the boiling water. Simmer for 25 to 30 minutes until the octopus swells in size and turns a delicate pinky-red colour. Test to see if cooked by tearing a tentacle off. If it comes away easily, the octopus is cooked to perfection.
  • Drain and cool.IMG_0346
  • Remove tentacles and cut into bite-sized chunks. Cut the central part of the body up into similarly sized pieces.IMG_0351
  • Deseed and chop the chilli, remove the thyme and mint leaves from their stalks.
  • Place the olive oil and lemon juice, salt and freshly IMG_0349ground black pepper in a large bowl and mix. Add the octopus, chopped red chilli and the roughly torn mint and thyme leaves. Stir to coat the octopus with the dressing and set aside for 1 hour (preferably over night in the fridge) to absorb the flavours. If kept in the fridge, take out 1 hour before serving.IMG_0355
  • Arrange crisp, lettuce leaves on a platter, spoon octopus pieces and dressing over the lettuce and sprinkle with smoky paprika. Garnish with fresh mint and lemon wedges.

Amazing Grace*

I was in an outdoor cafe recently when I met a bloke who told me how he had suddenly woken up blind! It was terrifying, as you can imagine. He had had a stroke and a blood clot had formed in the occipital cortex of his brain, slowly starving his vision centres of blood and oxygen.

I have nothing to compare with that but in a recent eye test I was told that I had cataracts in both eyes with one being far worse than the other and that henceforth, driving would be at my own risk. Ah hah, I thought, that was why I was seeing double when I looked at the moon.

Eye surgery, as pioneered by the Australian Dr. Fred Hollows is a fairly simple procedure where, after cataract extraction, an inter-ocular lens (IOL) is implanted, usually resulting in a massive improvement in sight for more than 99% of patients.

I had my right eye done several months ago and the effect was immediate. Within a day or two, I was up and running, as it were, with no side effects. The second operation on my worst eye was a different matter. Itchy, red, uncomfortable and incredibly blurred vision, so much so that, for more than three weeks, I was unable to drive and any bright light was intolerable.IMG_0320

This was all normal, the surgeon informed me, after a major operation and he cautioned me against “using the eye too much”! Twenty-two days later, my vision is still quite blurry in the recently operated upon eye and I can expect another three weeks or so before the eye fully heals. Amazing!

Even more amazing is the surgery. The inter-ocular lens is manufactured in both Nepal and Eritrea for approximately $8 in factories set up by the Fred Hollows Foundation and the cataract extraction and IOL implant can be performed for $25. Not so in Australia, as I discovered, where the mark-up is, roughly, $2500 per eye. The fee is made up in three parts – the surgeon’s fee, the anaesthetist’s fee and finally the rental of the surgical theatre.  Thank God for public health, which is what I used for both eyes and thank God for the Fred Hollows Foundation for all the afflicted punters in those less developed countries where the Foundation works.

I suppose the above is an excuse for the total neglect of my blog after I uploaded the 100th post quite some time ago. Anyway, YIPPEE, I can see again and it is only going to get better. Thank you to my doctor and all the people who have put up with my semi-incapacity. All I have to do now is get new ears and possibly a bigger brain!

*  I once was lost but now I’m found.
Was blind but now I see.