The Pin Man

Last year I got a pinched nerve in my shoulder.  Where do you go in Hong Kong if you have a pin chee nerve?  Your local pin man, of course!  (Acupuncture:  apparently also good for addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, insomnia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and asthma.  Probably also if you can’t remember where you parked your car, bought a non-refundable T-shirt in the wrong size, or dropped $20 down the gap when alighting the train.  I dunno, shit.  Seems like it’s positively indicated for everything.)  My GP recommended me to this particular acupuncturist because he’s the professor of the Chinese Medicine Institute of Hong Kong.  He’s master of the pins.  Sure, he’s pretty expensive, but if anyone knows the right place to stick a filiform needle three inches into a random meridian, it’s him – hopefully.  And really what price non-paralysis?

On my first visit, clutching an envelope containing a (Chinese) referral from my GP, I realise this is going to be the ultimate test to date for my Cantonese.  After cruising through initial pleasantries with the receptionist, I come up against a pretty large stumbling block in the form of my past medical history, to wit “ankylosing spondylitis”.  This is the sort of tricky term that even charades can’t help much with.  Hobbling around the room with my hand pressed against my lower back, moaning “Aiyaaah, my fucken back!” with Oscar-worthy pathos, I don’t quite manage to strike the light of recognition in the receptionist’s eyes.  There is a fleeting glimpse of the light of derision, but that’s no help.  We ultimately skip that part on the proforma and move on to the bit with the line drawings of a body.  I emphatically circle the shoulder region while repeating pin chee many times, and at last we have a connection.

I’m not going to lie, I’m a bundle of nerves.  I guess that’s a good thing in an acupuncture clinic.  But there is no turning back.  I pride myself on being a well-assimilated gweilo.  In Australia, I’d had acupuncture before, albeit the softcock laser version, but there was no way I could allow myself to back out of this tiny grimy shopfront in Shanghai Street, Mong Kok, without getting a few jabs of the real deal.  Pride is a curious thing, and I contemplate it as the receptionist draws up an illegible treatment plan.  How much pain would I put myself through to prove my willingness to integrate?  A bit, I think.  Probably at least 15, 20 needles.  As I look at the many-drawered Chinese medicine cabinet behind the desk, I add a caveat: 15-20 needles, but I’d only consider it a successful consultation if I get out of there without ingesting a powdered tiger penis.  Because really.  I am white as shit when it comes to ingesting the genitalia of our animal brethren, in any form whatsoever.

After being vetted by the receptionist, we proceed together down a narrow corridor with small rooms branching off.  All of these rooms, including the reception, are chocked with medical books, magazines, little stools, old pairs of shorts, wooden models of bodies, and an alarming selection of steel contraptions, good for realigning spines and/or extracting state secrets.

Left on my own in the first room, I choose to sit brazenly adjacent to an iron maiden.  I will not be broken, at least not without a good four seconds of torture.  The professor’s wife enters, followed by two nurses.  She’s in her 60s, with fat soft hands and a reassuring manner.  It’s her job to make an initial assessment of where to place the needles.  This is a two-part process, both equally uncomfortable: the first, I have to take my clothes off and put on a pair of elastic-waisted parachute shorts; the second, she pinches and pokes many tender areas.  “Pin chee shoulder, is it?”  “Ho ah.”  “Hurt here, is it?” (poking directly at the pin chee-ed part).  “Ho ahhhhh!”  “Also here?” (poking inexplicably at my ankle).  “Ho ah!”

Draped in one of those tie-closing hospital shirts, I am taken to the next room and interrogated as to sundry personal and medical conditions, also seemingly irrelevant ones like what I’d had for lunch.  But who am I question the wisdom of the ages?  And speaking of, here it comes.  The si fu approaches.  I quaver, not from his aura of mystical knowledge but because he looks, frankly, like the guy who drives my minibus.  Can millennia of oriental enlightenment really be clothed in trackpants and a T-shirt reading ‘Powerful Shot Tennis Players Group Heading For Awards’?  What mountebank chicanery is this?  I mean I can’t judge, I am wearing a pair of orange Slazenger shorts and a purple floral shirt tied up with a string; then again, I’m not proposing to stick needles in somebody else’s very nerve endings in between runs to the Hang Hau public transport interchange.  There is a fine distinction there, you have to agree.

The room is very small.  Hospital curtains separate the two beds, but I can see my room-mate’s stabbed calf poking out across the way.  Indeed I could have put out a hand and removed a few needles with only the slightest extension of the non-pin chee-ed arm.

Lying face down on the gurney, with pillows wedged all about by the chattering nurses, I close my eyes and try to still my heart.  It’s hard to have a procedure for the first time when no-one has been able to explain to you in your own language what’s about to happen, and all indications are that your practitioner works for the Kowloon Motor Bus Company.  I can see my medical notes pinned to the curtain next to my head, way too low for the si fu to read them.  I guess they’re just a back-up in the event of his wushu failing.

Tiny tiny reproduction of notes.
If I can’t read my own medical history, why should you, damn it!

And then the needles were sliding in, and it isn’t so bad!  Like, he’s possibly done this once or twice before!  He flicks them in very quickly, a bunch on the side of my face, in my neck, down my side, and a couple in my knee and ankle, letting the plastic casings drop to the ground as he went.  That’s it?  He leaves.  A nurse comes in and turns on a stopwatch for 20 minutes ah.  “Ho mm ho yi fun gao?”  (“Can I sleep?”)  Giggles.  “Ho yi!”  (Yep.)

Naturally as soon as she leaves the room, I don’t sleep but reached for my phone, intending to take lots of photos for this post.  Oh.  Any part with a needle in it is dead.  Can’t move at all.  Well that’s alarming.  That’s put the mockers on any “fun gao”.  I don’t know how long is left on the stopwatch but that’s how long I have to think about my potential future life with professionally crippling left-side paralysis.

After 20 minutes, the stopwatch ticks to a beeping end and the nurse is back to pull the needles out.  This hurts more than insertion.  I gingerly raise an arm as she blots the dots of blood away.  It functions perfectly.  Instantly I am a believer.  I am un-pin chee-ed!  Not only that, I can lift and drop my arm to pre-acupuncture levels of adduction!  Someone pass me a vial of powdered ballsack, I am a convert!

As I sit in wonderment on my gurney, I catch a glimpse of the si fu trundling slowly down the corridor.  I try to say something but it’s futile.  I’ll not speak to him again, apart from when he’s inserting the needles.  That’s all he does.  He has his cast of helpers to do the rest, and now I’m about to meet another one – the tiny ancient massage lady.  She appears to be about 103, and looks like she weighs less than my thigh.  I can estimate this pretty accurately because said thigh is still poking out from the tennis shorts as she stands in front of me and tells me, with twinkling eyes, that I’m really fat.  That’s the Chinese way of course so I laugh along with her.

I lay face down again and she sits on my back, pressing her bony fists into my scapulae.  This wouldn’t be comfortable in any circumstance, but particularly not here, on this bed that isn’t a massage table.  There’s no head-hole cut out.  I can’t breathe.  There’s a bit of paper towel under my face for hygiene, and I begin to ingest it through my nostrils as she thumps me spectacularly in the middle of the spine, up and down with her fists, in and out with the Kimberly-Clark.  I gasp, for oxygen and relief, when she pokes me to indicate I should roll over, but any alleviation is short-lived as she begins her final assault: an excruciating armpit massage.  Where does her strength come from?  We both cry, me with pain, her with joie de vivre, because it’s funny to do cross-generational, bilingual therapeutic wrestling, what?  ESPECIALLY ON A SO FAT PERSON!

When she’s done, in comes a remarkably tall lady to complete the final step of slapping a reeking herb paste all over me.  As she covers it with a bandage and sticks it down with straight-up metres of elastoplast, she yells prohibitions at me:  “No mango!  No beer!  No Japanese food!  No salad!  No computer!”  “Ho ah, ho ah, ho ah”, I nod.  “You come back in two days!”

Um…ho ah?

But I did, and after a few more visits, I progressed from regular acupuncture to moxibustion. I can’t actually tell because I can’t lift my head, but what seems to happen is the si fu sticks about 30 needles in my neck, shoulder and hip, then someone else comes along and sets them all on fire with a cigarette lighter. I lay there clenching a floral pillow between my knees, inhaling the curious scent of scorched skin and mugwort, and listening to the tiny alarming sizzle of nape hairs burning.

***

It is magic though.  I won’t be told otherwise.  It has cured my pin chee nerve every time.  I’m recommending it to anyone suffering basically any ailment.  Go and get poked.

***

The first time I removed the herb poultice after the requisite six hours, I discovered it looks and smells exactly like the inside of a newborn baby’s nappy.

The price of the cure.
It’s a high one, I grant you.

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Hallelujah.

From 1941 to 1945, Japanese forces occupied Hong Kong. It’s unclear from my painstaking “research” whether that’s why Hongkongers now have a rabid obsession with Hello Kitty, and also Doraemon, who…I’m not actually sure is a train or a cat, or a picture of a cat on a train, or what. It does seem apparent though that both these suppurating calamities on my day-to-day life are as a direct result of the occupation.

Heinous war-time atrocities.

During the occupation, in the New Territories – where I live – a small territorial guerrilla force of about 400 soldiers formed to take on the Japanese. This hardy force of fishermen fighters notably rescued three or four significant Hong Kong personages who were being held as prisoners-of-war. They were the last men standing, as it were, in the resistance. You wouldn’t believe it if you walked through my town now – a hamlet of locals sleeping on benches and gweilos drunk on junks – but back in the day, this was the last line of defence. We might not have an MTR station or a traffic plan, we still have a herd of wild cattle roaming around the joint, and good luck if you come here looking for a shopping centre – but we are apparently the best if it comes to international war-time skirmishes.  And real estate agents.  I mean there are like 17 real estate agents on Chan Man Street alone.  TAKE THAT, SANRIO!

When the dust settled after the manful struggle and the occupiers withdrew, my town was left with a fortress built by the unlikely rural gladiators.

Shortly afterwards, when it became apparent a huge influx of people were looking to relocate to the area, desperate to live among the heroes of the resistance, the local eggheads were faced with trying to decide where to build a now direly necessary kindergarten.  And some early councillor was like, “You guys, forget using the 4th floor of all those squished-together low-rises in the middle of town.  Let’s leave them to be used for toddler dance studios and childcare centres in a few decades’ time.  If there’s anything people with prams really appreciate, it’s dingy staircases.  I really think the answer to this kindergarten conundrum is staring us right in the face.  DER, THE GARRISON!  We’ll just paint a huge rainbow on the front and no-one will even realise!  Stick a big cross on the roof!  And remove the turret guns la!”

So it was that my daughter came to attend school in an historical citadel. That was the least of her concerns, since classes are conducted entirely in Cantonese – a language she didn’t speak when we enrolled her. Yet even that was the second-least of her concerns, because her uniform was made out of yellow terry-towelling. And when we picked her up at the end of each day, her pants had been mysteriously pulled up under her armpits.  One can imagine the conversation in the staff mess:  “When will they learn to dress the baby ah? Pants up to nipples, looks really better wo!”

I had my own difficulties at the parent orientation, where I went in with a sense of confidence in my hard-won Cantonese progression – only to emerge crushed by two hours of speed-talking and cultural misunderstandings, and very little idea what the next two years of my daughter’s life would be like.  Luckily, they provided subtitles for myself and the other three Westerners in the crowd.

And then there was a bit at the start where everyone joined together to sing a song of Christian welcome in Chinese and that was before they put the subtitles up, and I was just swaying in my seat clapping and moving my mouth around randomly until the part where they said HALLELUJAH which I really sang with all the gusto of a native speaker.  (Even though I think that word is actually Hebraic.  AM I ALWAYS DESTINED TO BE A MINORITY?)

After two weeks in the barracks school, Zadie spoke Cantonese almost on a par with me, used chopsticks better than me, and was doing more homework than her older brother.

And now, after two years, she’s pretty well fluent in Cantonese, appears to do her maths in Chinese and then convert the answer into English, prefers steamed rice and shu mai over any other cuisine, calls me Mummy-ah, and is fully proficient at knowing how to “fold handkerchief and put inside pocket spontaneously after using it”.  And also, is Polite Angel.


She’s finishing at the school next week. We’re very proud of our little rebel and what she’s achieved, even though she never won a prize in any of the competitions like, er, “Make a bookmark”. I know I’m not an educationalist or a childhood development…person or a psychologist, but I think it would be nice if everyone could just make a bookmark and use it to mark their place in a book, without it even being a competition!  You know, instead of seeing it as a decisive stepping stone on the path to the 2028 Olympics.  Maybe I’ll be proved wrong.  Maybe some of these award-winning bookmark-making kids will be standing on the podium in 14 years’ time, national kit hoiked up to their nips, singing March of the Volunteers with a patriotic tear on their cheek.

I’ll be in the crowd chucking in a heartfelt HALLELUJAH every now and then.

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July 2, 2014 · 3:14 pm

Year in Career: 2013

Q.  What’s white, has been wearing the same red hoodie for six days, and hasn’t moved off the couch in about as long?
A.  Me.  Because, this year.  See exhibit 1, attached.

[The laziest, most contrived and uninspired way to end any yearly review is by wondering what the following year will bring.  Being lazy, uninspired and a writer with a penchant for contrived devices, that's precisely how I ended my 2012 Year in Career post.  Little did I know how far 2013 would go in rising to the rhetorical challenge, with a whole lot of interesting jobs, some unquantifiably boring ones, a few amazing opportunities, and a partridge in a one really bad sickness.  As ever, I can't always take photos/talk about job details, but where I can, here we go...]

Most professional/heart-rending business card
(modification provided by my daughter):

Worst decision: that time I left home five minutes later than usual
and hit the morning peak hour.

Longest/most meaningful job: the Commission of Inquiry into the Lamma ferry collision.  This epic trial ended in March on Day 50.  I wrote every single day.  It was my honour to make the record of this commission for posterity for the Hong Kong people – and it feels like however long we stay here, through this job I’ve made a small but important contribution to this place that we currently call home.

The commission ended just in time for the annual Asian Film Awards.

This was my fourth time stadium-captioning the “Asian Oscars”, but my first time captioning it from a wooden bunker.  Located 100 metres from the stage, with poor audio and no ventilation, this was the ultimate in work-environment challenges.

Inaugural attempt at captioning from a shed:

(It was also my first time captioning it with an “intern” – hi, Karen! – who definitely picked the right time to drop by, after also shadowing the last two days of the Commission of Inquiry.)

Finally, I went back to “normal” work.  I was well tired.  This happened: the most ingenious use of toilet paper as white-shirt-makeup-blotter, followed by the most stylish move forgetting to remove it before arriving at the bus stop.

Biggest coffee-related disaster:

Second-biggest coffee-related disaster one public holiday:

Coldest workplace: Lands Tribunal.

Formerly the Kowloon Magistracy.  Interesting!
(But, most boring case of my entire life: anything that ever happens there.)

Meanwhile, back at headquarters,
the year’s most classified project progressed…

More Chinese steno to come in 2014?  I hope so…

Most pronounced mid-year blow-out.
Some people are the size of the house, but not many can say
they are the size of the International Commerce Centre:

Exhibits that inspire.
The start of a particularly painful government arbitration.
Some days, you see the exhibits and you know it’s going to be an interesting case.
This wasn’t one of those days.

About mid-year I started using the Wave, which was the best fisharsery (a saving of about US$3,000 – it’s “cheap” because it’s a “student” machine).  And it’s AWESOME.  I cannot big this machine up enough!


The Wave at the end of its first day at work.
We’ve written over 5 million strokes already!

Best in keeping those that matter happy:
tech/production team barbeque at our joint.

Best in keeping those that matter happy, reciprocated:
kids’ day in the office.

The one that got away – the Snowden extradition.
He left before any proceedings could kick off
and damn, I was disappointed…

The other one that got away – the “maid case” in the Court of Final Appeal.  Reporting in this court is one of my goals in the next few years.  This was happening next door to the Commission of Inquiry I was reporting at the start of the year.  Crazy and emotional scenes.

While I haven’t had a chance to report in the Court of Final Appeal yet, something almost more exciting happened when the world’s oldest dispute-resolution body, the Permanent Court of Arbitration from the Peace Palace in The Hague, came to town for a special Asian sitting.  It was Someone v Socialist Republic of Somewhere.


Interpreter headsets for people from the Socialist Republic of Somewhere;
breaking down the arbitration centre and building it back up as the PCA.

Everything has more gravitas in French, non?

Straight after that hearing wrapped up, it was off to India
for a dispute between the world’s big pharma companies.


Good morning, New Delhi!
(seriously, who knew New Delhi had a forest in the middle of it?)
Stunning hotel atrium.

This job gave me my most embarrassing moment, when I saw the former Chief Justice of India about to trip over my steno cable and yelled out “BE CAREFUL!”.  In Chinese.

Reporting in New Delhi was surprisingly not my weirdest travelling assignment this year.

Neither was Shanghai, but that was up next.


Good morning, Shanghai!


This job was the messiest and the most inexplicably situated (all 12 counsel, three arbitrators and eight witnesses were German, and they often reverted to their mother tongue, a language I can’t speak, can barely understand, and certainly can’t steno.)

But it was also an opportunity to work in the Shanghai World Financial Centre -
third-tallest building in the world and tallest in China.

What you don’t want to see
when you crack the blinds on your 83rd-floor bedroom window –
a loose screw rolling around on the outside windowsill.

Most incredible view of the year:
View from breakfast – 93rd floor.

Best in Post-its.
Everything’s going SO WELL!

Shit.

In September, it was off to Mongolia for a deposition.
This was obviously the weirdest assignment of the year.  The Mong?!


Good morning, Ulaanbaatar!



 

Surprisingly the dep wasn’t about yak-rustling, illegal building works on yurts, a steppeworks dispute, or one brocade caftan manufacturer suing another.  It did provide the best view from a deposition for the year though.

And also, one of the chairs from hell.

The other contender for chair from hell.
Why yes, it is actually a “desk” made out of a sideways bookshelf
with the shelves removed.

In September, I got really sick.  You know in this job, you basically don’t call in sick unless you’re (a) dead, (b) have broken a bone in your hand/arm, or (c) at a stretch, are in hospital.  Prior to this I hadn’t had a sick day in four years but that was cancelled out in style, with five hospital admissions and 17 days off work.  Link to consumption of Mongolian room service not established but suspected.

September.  A write-off of not writing.

Two things came out of this marathon usage of sick leave.
1.  The most disturbing image of the year, seen online from my hospital bed.


This guy was my ultimate nemesis from my days of sports captioning and to see him fondling a Diamante made me immediately extend my hospital stay, all the better to access more free peth.

2.  The most excruciatingly awkward/simultaneously gratifying moment, when I went to hospital on day 1 of the British American Tobacco trial in the High Court, and despite best efforts no-one could fly in in time to write.  The judge delayed the hearing for a day because she wouldn’t go without realtime.
(a) Students, get realtime = be irreplaceable (and also experience the anguish of knowing your absence is probably causing millions of dollars in legal fees in delays, and yet being physically unable to change out of your tartan hospital-issue pyjamas to fix the problem).
(b) Brandy then provided the most courageous moment of the year by stepping into the breach on only her second trip here, having never written in a common-law court, and with 15 realtime connections going on.  I can’t think of many writers in the world who would take on a challenge like that.  Easily the most impressive professionalism all year.


ME: (vomits) Let’s swap seats.
EVERY OTHER REPORTER: No.
BRANDY: Oh…okay.

There were a few long arbitrations towards the end of the year,
including way more expert hot-tubs than should ever be contemplated.

Setting up for another sexy time expert hot-tub.

One hot-tub had four experts and one interpreter all squeezed into the jacuzzi comparing the length of each other’s base struts in a construction dispute.  Think about that next time you’re kicking back in the whirlpool.  I know I will.  Forever.

To banish the image, here are the best in views from arbitrations.




Then, my first opportunity to work in the Court of Appeal.

You know how the clerk knocks three times on the door before the judges walk out?  And there are three judges in the Court of Appeal?  So this one time, the clerk knocked three times, we all stood up and bowed, and only one judge walked out.  We all waited awkwardly and he turned around just in time to see his two colleagues trip over each other down the judiciary steps and literally fall into the courtroom.  That wasn’t the most entertaining thing that happened in that case, but it’s about the only one I can talk about.  This was the year of confidential cases involving tycoons and socialites and mega-divorces, and this CoA one was the biggest of the lot – on every level, including a massive 30 realtime connections.

In the absence of any juicier details, have some best in High Court photos.


Ignored at will by just about every court user every day.

Don’t even think about it, random lift users. 
We have a sign.

Biggest lie by a lawyer:
“Oh, there aren’t many documents.  The reporter won’t need to prep much.”
On arriving at court…

I went to Korea to cover an arbitration in November.

It wasn’t my first time there but it was my first time in the winter and,
being an Aussie, my first time in 0-degree temperatures.

PSY, you can have them.

Also this ridiculous girl group, who are omnipresent.

Good morning, Seoul!

The year ended with the ATV dispute (about the free-to-air broadcaster – very topical and even slightly interesting!), and an extremely challenging arbitration (of which the less said, the better.)

Contemplating harakiri into the harbour.


The bitter end.

And here are some other times when people should have said less:
some of my favourite moments in 2013 transcripts.

OR WILL YOU…

CONCEDE NOTHING.

That day ended at 2am. 
I have never been so gratified to have my work compared to a hamburger.

You can take the reporter out of Oz,
but you can never take the Oz out of the reporter.

*     *     *     *     *

I said I would only take the job in Korea if I could be guaranteed to get the last flight back to Hong Kong that night (since I was taking a ferry out to Macau the next day for the Alicia Keys concert).  Seoul traffic is notoriously shocking and even if we finished bang on 5.15 as scheduled (which we did), and I packed up my gear like a Tetris-loving speed addict (which I am.  I mean which I did), I would only just make it to the airport for my 8pm flight.  The most important thing in making this happen was that the hotel car had to pick me up from the job site on time.  It arrived half an hour late.  We sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic down Gangnam’s main boulevard for 20 minutes while I raged and screamed and cried at the hotel staff and the driver.  I guess I freaked him out so much, he suddenly peeled off the road, drove through some building sites and paddocks and eventually onto a freeway, and then proceeded to drive at 170km/h down the emergency lane.  ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY.  I stopped crying and started begging for my life, but my previous banshee-like exhortations could not be undone.  He just looked at me in the rear-view mirror and reckoned he could get me to the airport in time.

So we drove in the emergency lane for 45km to the airport.  I shut my eyes and prayed no little rocks would flick up and change our course directly into the concrete barrier alongside, and that no-one was broken down in that lane.  When we arrived, the tyres were literally smoking – but we had 10 minutes to spare before the gate closed.

At the gate, ready for a nice relaxing flight home in a suit.
Shown: tears.
Not shown: heart rate of about 300 bpm.
Also not shown: supposed glamour of international reporting.

Participating in a pro-am grand prix.  Sometimes it’s part of the job.  (And I made it to Alicia Keys.)  I guess what I’m saying is, organise your own damn taxi to airports.  And don’t order room service in Mongolia.  Report loose screws on 83rd floors of buildings.  Leave home on time.  BYO coffee in a flask.  Start using a student machine in year 14 of your career.  Don’t marry either a tycoon or a socialite.  And whatever you do, steer clear of hot-tubs.  That about sums it up.

I still feel like I have the best job in the world – and I feel like that not just at this point, looking back on a hard, exciting, exhausting, fulfilling year, but nearly every day.  How lucky is that?  Imagine that knowing which keys to press on a little plastic box can give you this much satisfaction (not to mention a free education on so many different subjects, insight into the current affairs of the day, oh and a trip to the Mong.  And so many complimentary pens!  I’ll literally never buy a pen again!).

I don’t know where I’m going to be pressing keys on a plastic box in 2014, but I do know if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d definitely still work.  (I mean, if I could find a job in a jurisdiction that sits about two days a week, and only between 11.00 and 3.00, obv.)  BUT I WOULDN’T QUIT.  That’s the litmus test, isn’t it?

2014.  Come at me bro.

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Trying to make your wish come true.

Flicking back through the passport I’ve been using for the past four years, it becomes apparent that since moving to Asia I’ve lived a rather nomadic lifestyle, travelling to 5-star hotels as frequently as six or seven times a year, with just my swag containing the bare essentials…


Swags: not as convenient as they used to be.

..and powered by an undeniable wanderlust (where “wanderlust” means “contractual employment obligation”).

I guess you’re wondering when I began to foster the spirit of adventure that’s led me to this point.  You’re right, I did grow up in West Brunswick, less know for its wide expanses and being a birthplace of intrepid explorers than for its tiny cladding houses and disproportionate number of Italian migrants watering their concrete driveways.  Yet from this unlikely departure point, I travelled north-west every Wednesday night to the 3rd Strathmore Brownie Guides, where the vagabond came alive/we danced around a papier-mache mushroom.


The group was divided into “sixes”, and I was a Tintookie, and we had to hold hands and skip around singing “We’re Tintookies, what we do, is try to make your wish come true.”  Anyway, I loved it, and proudly moved up to Guides when the time came, where we were too old to be in sixes named after fairies, and instead were split into “patrols” named after Australian mammals.  I became a Wombat, because that’s the sort of graceful, lissome being all pre-teen girls aspire to emulate.

Dib-dib-dib.  Dig-dig-digity.

I rose quickly to the dizzing heights of patrol “sixer”.  We were far too mature to dance around toadstools anymore obviously, and instead, if I recall correctly, we spent most of our weekly meetings decorating Marie biscuits with icing and lollies, and then cleaning the Scout Hall toilets.  But somehow in between these character-moulding activities, I acquired some other invaluable life skills from my time in the Girl Guides, ie:

-I can make a pineapple upside-down cake in a billy can.
-I know what a woggle is (it is that leather thing that you put around your scarf.  Not to be confused with aglets, which are the bits of plastic on the end of shoelaces.  Or, our pack leader, whose Guiding name was Wagga.  What the?)
-I have the ability to construct a dish-draining rack out of some sticks and old pantyhose.
-Dilly bag.  Groundsheet.  Bone pillow.

Etc.  I just don’t think you can underestimate the usefulness of this knowledge.  If any 5-star hotel I’m in comes under terrorist attack or catastrophic long-lasting power failure, all someone has to provide me with is a large empty tin can, some flour, sugar, pineapple chunks, water, some firelighters, a box of matches, a bunch of sticks, a large plastic tub, some detergent, and about 10 pairs of pantyhose, and I’m fair chance to not only be able to make a somewhat edible dessert for four but ALSO be able to do the washing up.

Most of these skills were learned on a yearly camping competition called the Lady Stradbroke Cup, the highlight of the Guiding camping roster.  You can probably compare it to the race to the South Pole Prince Harry is currently participating in with a band of limb-deficient veterans in a way, because…10-year-olds camping for a weekend in the Australian bush, while competing in challenges, most of which involved open fire?  It’s well dangerous.

The lead-up to the event involved camping out every weekend for months in Wagga’s backyard in Pascoe Vale South, cooking spaghetti and pineapple upside-down cakes in her barbecue pit for her fat son.  Was this the premise for the whole enterprise?  I’ll never know.

We’d hoist a flagpole against her back verandah and raise our Wombat colours.  We’d practice constructing our bedrolls (plastic ground sheet, mattress, fitted and flat sheet, camp blanket, doona, pillow, tied up with string.  We were going to experience true Australian bush life, but with only the mildest of discomfort.)  We pitched and struck bell tents and tripped over guy lines and feebly hoisted mallets over our 10-year-old shoulders while the fat son shoved cake into his mouth from a rainbow-striped banana lounge.

And a couple of months later, we were ready.

The back lawn is fucked girls, simply COVERED in divots,
but you’re ready!  LET’S ROLL.

Laden with provisions that would have seen Burke and Wills well back to safety, we began the arduous journey up the Hume Highway in our parents’ Ford Falcons to the inhospitable plains of the Riddell’s Creek scout camp.

Everyone’s dad driving to camp in the ’90s.

There we laid eyes on our campsite for the first time, complete with a reasonably luxurious toilet block and within shouting distance of Wagga, who would spend the weekend on her lilo in the comfort of the storage shed.  We rushed to have our bell tents up by dark, and then after a feast of hot chocolate and marshmallows roasted on a gas barbecue (“the last supper”), we retired for the night to our mildly uncomfortable bedrolls, eating the contraband chocolate-heavy scroggin everyone’s mum had supplied.

Fuck natural almonds though.

It was hard to find room in the tend for our meagre provisions of three pairs of sturdy walking shoes each, five changes of waterproof clothing, beanies, teddies, board games, cameras optional.

Dramatic representation of encampment.
(Dilly bags not shown.)

Over the next gruelling day and a half, we had to construct one simple gadget (a wash stand), one complex gadget (the dish-drying rack), cook our meals on the open fire, and keep our campsite well tidy, all while experiencing a rugged temperature range of between 18-25C.

A wash stand.
Which one of you dickheads was meant to bring the pantyhose…

I led my patrol of Wombats to an unlikely victory one year.  I’m guessing I was no older than 11, because in the photo of me victoriously holding the Lady Stradbroke Cup aloft, I’m wearing jungle-print culottes with matching shirt that my nan coutured from a Butterick pattern.  And I have to believe even I wouldn’t have asked for that if I were much older than 11.  I just have to.  That means while I was still in primary school, I was entrusted with the survival of a pack of other young girls in a fucking forest, and was better than some other 11-year-olds at doing it!

This could very well be that moment in your past that you draw a reminder of your inner strength from in the hard times like, for example, when the complimentary slippers in the hotel in Seoul were too big last week.  It’s not even a thing when you’ve been a Tintookie.  You can just wear your socks in the hotel room if your feet get too cold HELLO! #wombatsecrets

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Chinggis v Chingy: Reporting in Mongolia

I believe Genghis Khan, as we know him in the West, has one of the most variably spelled names in world history.  In his own land of Mongolia, they call him Chinggis Khaan, and when I saw the sign outside the airport in Ulaanbaatar proclaiming it the Chinggis Khaan International, it immediately – and shamefully – invoked a lesser cultural identity, largely forgotten early 2000s hip-hopper Chingy.


You can see why I made the instant comparison.
Noble bearings ahoy.
One likes grilling meat; one has grills.
Both have stupid hats.

Actually, the striking parallels go beyond their names.  Both obviously enjoy(ed) music, though from the divergent genres of rap and throat-singing.  And both left indelible legacies – Chinggis going on to indirectly sire literally 0.5% of the entire male population today; and of course Chingy had his epoch-defining hit Right Thurr.  There are probably far deeper depths to be plumbed in re Chingy (he went on to contribute such classic tunes as Holidae In and make a classic cameo appearance in Scary Movie 4), but for now, let’s stick to the Mongolian warrior legend.


As I waited at the airport for my ride to the hotel, no doubt delayed by some sort of yak-related traffic jam, an old man put a postcard of Chinggis in my handbag.  “For free”, he said.  “Dor-jeh!” I responded, continuing my recent tradition of just speaking Cantonese in any country I happen to end up in.  I don’t know whether he understood the Guangdong-ian tongue or just took an opportunistic opening, but he quickly handed me a piece of paper outlining (in English) that his wife and kids had died last year in a yurt fire.  I touched my heart in what I hoped was a universal gesture of sympathy but he indicated that he would prefer money of any currency.  The Hong Kong change I handed him didn’t suffice, and he demanded HK$100 for his postcard.  My sympathy turned to indignation and a distinct feeling of being about to get mugged as he reached into my handbag to try to get my wallet.  At that moment my driver, a large youth in a black puffer jacket, finally arrived.  He seemed nonplussed at my predicament, merely uttering a few laconic throat gargles toward my elderly harasser before leading the way to the car, where he told me to sit in the front and then proceeded to reach over me to put my seatbelt on – a wholly unappreciated and alarming service.

As we drove out of the airport, I was ready to turn back and return to Hong Kong, would there be any more frequent than every-two-days flights there.  So far I’d had dealings with two people, and both had finely upheld the barbarian reputation.

I longed to see a ruddy-faced child in national costume, or a white brumby, or some lovely cashmere to balance the ledger, but alas the road from Chinggis International to Ulaanbaatar proper is a journey in depression.  It starts promisingly with this welcoming archway…

..but doesn’t continue as it began, with mile after mile of potholed road lined with mounds of dirt.  This is a city under rapid construction, and apparently they get all the excavated earth and rocks from every building site and dump it down the side of the main road, where it serves as an open pissing trough for the gentlemen of the outlying suburbs.  In the distance I could see some hopeful glimpses of colourful yurt-type accommodations, but they were largely concealed by belching smoke stacks.  I saw a single straggly pack of yaks wending their way over the uric dirt.

Everyone was wearing black or grey, and the prevailing transport arrangement appeared to be to simply wait on the dirt verge and try to hitch a ride with any passing car.  Very few cars stopped and I have to wonder how businesses operate here.  How can you get to work on time when your arrival depends on whether a jalopy stops or not – and when it does, whether you can fight your countrymen for a seat?  Or, maybe work start times aren’t a thing in a country like Mongolia.

As I nervously did that thing where you dodge potential collisions with your head while inside the car, my driver – confusingly driving in the “right” side of the car but also on the right side of the road – executed complex pothole-avoiding manoeuvres, along with every other driver on the road.  A fraught situation.  I looked desperately for a sign of what made this a country so beloved of the marauding hordes.  What made Chinggis keep returning here?

Actually, it wasn’t too hard to see – pending much better eyesight and open-mindedness than mine these days.  Behind the monochromatic mounds of mud, downtrodden faces, drab clothes, and unsealed roads masquerading as proper highways, was this:

This:

This:

I just had to open my eyes (and also change from sunglasses to my prescription specs).  But I could see it.  I could see what Chinggis must have seen as he drove his magnificent steed over the ridges of the Khangai mountain range, his band of boors following behind with woollen hats and frosted breath and lots of joints of meat.  He would have thought, “Yep, this is alright.  I can start siring my 16 million descendants in the joint.  Pitch the yurts you guys.”

**

Ulaanbaatar is a city of only 800,000 people.  It has the only international airport in Mongolia.  The Trans-Siberian railway runs through on its journey from Beijing to Moscow.  Considering these mitigations with a kindlier (and better-seeing) eye, I began to find the potholes rustic and the slight variation in shades of grey trenchcoat charming reflections of individuality.

The open pissing was still foul.

**

My hotel was fittingly called the Blue Sky.


When I woke up on the second morning, and the weather had moved on from the light storm of the night before to glorious sunshine, I instantly understood why this land is almost as famous for its sky as its warrior legend.  The rising sun was so huge and bright I couldn’t take a photo of it.  BUT YOU KNOW I MADE SOME SHITTY ATTEMPTS.

The job I was here to do was a deposition, being conducted in the hotel room of the taking attorney and his wife.  I had a number of technical problems, caused either by my bag coming off the plane soaking wet from melted ice, or else my plugging everything in without checking voltage/grounding requirements.  It was satisfying to be able to resolve every problem that arose with either ingenuity or luck, and the clients received the seamless realtime they had ordered, none the wiser to my travails.  That was pleasing.  So was the view from the room.

There were a lot of breaks, where the Mongolian interpreter told us about the development of the Mongolian language and its devolution away from its traditional form, and Russian.  They had also never seen realtime, or indeed stenography, so we all learned something.

The job finished early enough for me to cruise across the street to Sakhbaatar Square, home of the Mongolian parliament, government house, stock exchange – and a random dinosaur museum in a shipping container.  And, at last, a collection of adorable ruddy-faced kids.

I walked around the massive square for two hours or so, enraptured by the quaint Mongolian-ness of everything.

Wildflowers!  Couples on tandem bikes!  Ubiquitous gatherings of old men interfering in each other’s games of chess!

 

This singular excursion was one of the more magical experiences of my life.

Ultimately, Mongolia gave me one awful day and one truly breath-taking one, with an interesting job in the middle.  That’s probably a win, despite my complete failure to ride a yak or consume any snack food made from one, or set foot inside a yurt.

**

On the flight home, on little-known airline Hunnus Air’s prestige service of three flights a week to Hong Kong, in one of its fleet of tiny unstable planes that appear to be made of balsa wood and get airborne using Wright-brothers-style aviation techniques, I sat next to two Australian travelling companions.  The far elder of the two was a 92-year-old New South Welshman who was “in property” and had been looking at Mongolian joints to get his hands on, I guess.  He took photos out the plane window as we flew low over central Chinese villages using an actual film camera.  This anachronistic behaviour encouraged me to do this blog by pen WHAT.

The lady was the owner of one of the biggest sheepholdings in Australia (somewhere in Adelaide).  She was heading home because an ex-Argentinian president and his casual entourage of 75 people were coming to stay on her farm to learn about carbon credit in grasslands.  I don’t know how she’d paired up with Ole Manual Focus Property Mogul, but her business in Ulaanbaatar had been helping Mongolian officials see that if they can get their international currency situation stabilised, they are ripe to make a nation-changing amount of credit from their endless community-owned steppeland.  Chinggis was too busy marauding, and also just by dint of existing in the 11th century, to conceive of trading grass for carbon credits, but he’d surely approve.  It’s a brash scheme perfectly suited to these brassy-faced people under their golden sun and infinite sky – and with a nice full-circle link to the nomadic past.  In fact maybe they’re already savvy to it and that’s why they whiz freely on the dirt mounds – fertilising their future.

**

Once again, the things I have been lucky to learn simply by knowing how to press a few buttons on a little machine.  To cite one of Chingy’s more apropos lyrics, “Twerk ya meat, go get it till it hurts ya feet” (er…what the hell?).  (Turns out Chingy doesn’t actually have any apropos lyrics.  Of anything.)

PS It’s a statistical probability that Chinggis is actually Chingy’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (claim made without reference to any DNA sequencing research).  The circle of life.  Freaks me the f*@# out!


I was down with Right Thurr
but you’re dead to me after that twerking thing, idiot.

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Reporting in India

International airports are pretty much all the same.  I step off planes sniffing the air, with an automatic sensory expectation of being able to identify my location.  But they all smell similar – like aircon, and the inside of a plastic box.  They are all lit to the same circadian-defying ambiance, they all have people running vacuum-cleaners over yellow and blue carpet, they are all navigable by travelator.  Or those little beeping carts which imperil the very lives of the disembarked passengers moving slowly between travelators, encumbered by awkwardly overstuffed rolling suitcases and jetlag-depleted responsiveness, to get that one lazy guy to the arrivals hall first.  At least he looks like a stupid prick as he rolls past at 30km/h in his tiny ride, like a slightly oversized Tonka truck.

Yep.  Pretty much all the same.  Same shops, same eyes-dead-bored staff, same broken-down Coke machines.  Some have slightly worse negative points, like Manila (where it’s like a giant shed, and you have to pay to go into a leaking, secret upstairs lounge to use the internet); and Nairobi (where not only are there guys walking around with machine guns, but they’re not actually in any sanctioned armed force).  But generally, the same, and so it was when I landed at Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi last night.  The Coke machines were Pepsi, and the carpet had some rogue magenta elements, but there was no mistaking it was an international airport.  It was only as I progressed down my 27th travelator that I became aware of a very noticeable difference.

This was an airport (and, now that I’m outside, is a city) of men.  There weren’t one or two men running vacuum-cleaners over the carpet – there were 20.  There were groups of five or six of them sitting along the walkways on the long journey to arrivals.  There were at least 100 of them waiting with cardboard signs at the gate to pick up guests.  Two of them were  there to take me to my hotel, tucked safely inside the green pocket of the diplomatic enclave.  I stuck close to the hotel concierge as the chauffeur pushed the baggage trolley ahead of us through groups of men vacuuming, arriving, departing, wandering.  They all stared and one licked his lips.  Not aggressively, just in a way that made me realise Oh, so it’s not just a media thing.  The last time I really felt like this on such a widely uncomfortable scale was walking through the market in Arusha, Tanzania in an ill-advised short skirt in the year 2000.

We followed in the air draft the chauffeur created through the thick night humidity to the carpark and waited next to a grimy underground florist while he brought the car around.  I felt sorry for the concierge, straightened in his jacket and tie.  I was struggling in my jeans, worn because Hong Kong Airport is like ice.  In Delhi, they don’t put so much money into aircon.  (Or their Thomas Cook franchise, which, beneath its standard sign, consisted of employees rolling around on broke-down chairs with one arm and foam bulging out of slashed leather, and cupboards with doors swinging off broken hinges.  Their rupees appeared to be legal tender though, which is one of the main things, if not the main thing.)

Once the car had pulled around and I’d piled into the back with my bag of steno machine, the chauffeur offered me an ice-cold water from some mysterious boot esky.  I was really grateful because on the plane, when served my vegetarian dinner, I assumed the curry contained green beans, one of which I munched into with a combination of hunger and eagerness to show my cultural assimilation.  You know it was a green chili right.  You just know it.  My eyes and nose had been watering for 30,000 feet and 27 travelators, and I was hungry, and I was wearing jeans, but I had iced water, and we were off, past the stray dogs loitering around the carpark entrance and over a series of hundreds of very small speedhumps that necessitated the driver almost completely stopping the car.  We were 6km from the diplomatic enclave where my hotel is, but it was an epic 30-minute stop-bump-stop-bump-stop-bump journey through the initial 500 metres.

As with airports, I had also come to Delhi with a stereotypical sensory expectation, that of bombardment, and it was rewarded on the drive to the hotel.  Initially I thought it seemed like any other airport transfer, through a flat outer industrial suburb, surrounded by taxis, but I was disabused of that as I noticed every other vehicle on the road was a big-rig truck painted in gypsy style, with coloured ribbons flying around the wheelwells, and no door (see above re not putting much money into aircon).  These trucks reminded me a little of the jeepneys in the Philippines, with their unique paintjobs and death-defying ideas about what constitutes a driving technique.  The bums of the trucks had Horns Please painted across them, and indeed the road echoed constantly with the sound of horns pleasing.  It was baffling to try to figure out the meaning of the cacophany.  Do you honk for left, right, move it, go round, what?

But then you know that when you’re overseas, you do become indulgently unconcerned about road rules.  In Africa they use the same horn-based traffic system.  Sure, some African nations have the highest road toll in the world by a multiplier in the double digits, but still: another country, a driver wearing a hotel cap, and you get almost complete nonchalance on my part.  Sure enough, as we very shortly passed our first accident, after ascertaining the involved parties were safely standing away from their crushed vehicles, already lighting up smokes, I almost felt whimsically affirmed.  And when we later drove directly through a train crossing that was on the flashing red light, I merely smiled insouciantly.  Why not?  My driver had used his horn with authority, and that would definitely be sufficient to alert any oncoming locomotives.

It was midnight, but we passed two men taking formal shots of each other under an underpass.  I saw another guy walking on top of a doorless petrol tanker parked on the side of the road.  Maybe that chili was having some sort of psychedelic peyote effect on me, or maybe just – India.

We trundled past a tuk-tuk station with scores of the little green vehicles scuttling in and out like grubby, battered aluminium insects.  This was after I had the idea about the peyote by the way but I think it did still happen.

And then we were in the hotel grounds – a hotel which overtakes the Intercontinental in Seoul, and Hullett House in Hong Kong, and the Windsor in Melbourne, as the most luxurious I’ve stayed in.

Barack Obama stays here when he’s in India.  So does Bill Clinton.  And that’s an interesting denouement because the last time I stayed in a hotel that had anything to do with Bill Clinton (when I was in Shanghai to transcribe him and other world leaders at an economic summit), it was actually the worst hotel of my life – a complete dive in Pudong where people poked business cards for escorts under the door in the night, where the books were plastic decorations, where the bed appeared to be a deconstructed packing crate.

I like this one better, Bill.

I stayed on an all-lady floor, with lady security staff and lady bellboys.

I won’t mention details here of the job I’m doing, for obvious confidentiality purposes.  But I just want to mention that the female counsel are (naturally) wearing saris.  You know what that means – THONGS (/flip-flops) in the hearing room!  It’s one of my longest-held career dreams to wear thongs to work.  I had a taste of it when I used to caption from home in my pyjamas, but these days it’s all stockings and shoes and stricture.

So I told my husband I’m probably going to buy some saris while I’m here and start wearing them to work in Hong Kong, and he told me not to try to circumvent dress standards by pretending to be from another culture.  And sure, some people probably WOULD say “But you’re not even Indian”, but I’d be like “Please, I am from the highest caste, with this super-white skin that’s actually whiter than a regular white person and in the right light has translucent properties (not the good kind like Nicole Kidman, just the kind that burns and gets freckles).  Namaste, innit!”  Because you can’t really tell people what nationality they are these days.  It’s not appropriate.

Delhi, Day1: Shoes Today, Thongs Tomorrow?

Delhi, Day2:  Nope, Still Shoes.  But Some Day, Thongs!

This trip is incredible.  Where will we go next, steno machine?

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Dragons, Pigs, Hotties and Notties (Redux)

There are 17 public holidays a year in Hong Kong that fall on regular work days, which is the most in the world (apparently Sri Lanka has 25, but most of them fall on weekends). Still, whoo the Lank! Obviously that’s where we’re moving next if things don’t work out here!

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This week’s holiday is one of the best: Tuen Ng Festival, or the Dragonboat Festival. The origins of this holiday date back to about 200BC and centre on a famous poet and courtier (and possible lover of the emperor), Qu Yuan. He wrote a number of epic lamentations on the corruption of the political state. In protest, he eventually committed ritual suicide by walking into the sea carrying a large rock. Apparently the villagers took to their boats and raced unsuccessfully to save him. Then they dumped rice and dumplings into the sea for the fish to eat, rather than Qu Yuan’s body. And they smacked the water with their paddles to scare away evil spirits.

Now, on the anniversary of his death, people re-enact the villagers’ desperate rescue mission by competing in dragonboat races. But these events aren’t like the re-enactments of the “passion plays” of my childhood, with a guy wearing a tunic made out of a potato sack, covered in tomato sauce blood and being whipped by a Roman legionnaire wearing a viking helmet and wielding a plastic cutlass from the $2 Shop. These dragonboat racers are serious athletes. The festival always yields a huge contingent of Hong Kong Hotties:

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Is this hot? Hong Kong lycra bums shown to best effect:

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These are the boats they race:

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Unfortunately, though the historical cornerstone of this festival is the people’s great communal effort, and the modern races are billed as community events, it isn’t usually possible to see much of the actual racing. This is because, just like at the footy at home, nearly all the prime viewing areas are partitioned off for VIPs/”Honorable Guests”.

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All these marquees usually remain empty for the first three hours of the event, but jack-booted policemen ensured no-one dishonourable dares step past the rope. NOT HOT. Frustrated, I eventually use my gweilo exclusion zone to my advantage to get close to the front of the packed public spectator area. It’s crucial to be near the front because I’m only reasonably adept at taking photos (“reasonably adept” used in the sense of “almost completely unable to do so, even under ideal circumstances”). For the festival a couple of years ago, Joel had affixed a zoom lens to the camera but when he was explaining how to use it, I was too busy thinking about what tinned fruit I was going to put on my Special K. So my plan (apart from peaches in heavy syrup, OBVIOUSLY) was to get as close as I could to the action, lean far over the railing, and reach the camera out and snapping randomly, while looking like I was executing a legitimate photography technique, and not dropping the extremely front-weighted camera into the drink. Surely by this method I thought I would have to get a few good shots.

But I was stymied by a lady who insisted on raising her umbrella in the front row. I got about 300 photos that look just like this:

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If I had have been able to see anything, this is the team I would have been barracking for – “The Fat Dragons”:

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A team with less athletic physiques, but probably a far nimbler grasp of prepositions and conjunctions, the “Sai Kung Dragon Boat English Ambassadors”.

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Some of the hotties dunking themselves after their heat. Pun intended.

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On festival days, you see this everywhere – roasted whole pigs decorated with flowers and wrapped in red cellophane. I’ve seen a guy loading two whole roasted pigs into the boot of a taxi one time. I also walked past this open van and got an eyeful of roasted pig arseholes.

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Poor piggies :(

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The pig courier. I don’t think anyone thinks it’s hot to be pushing dead pigs around on a trolley, but he did have some impressive dragon tattoos. Which means he’s triad. That’s hot? Under duress?

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Dad, Zadie and I. You can’t tell, but it was about 35 degrees and 200% humidity. That’s why dad’s wearing a sweat-wicking bike shirt and I’m attempting Arab linen covering styles. That’s definitely hot. Only in terms of ambient temperature.

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Denouement – a Hong Kong Nottie:

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