The most fun you can have with a steno machine…

There’s a lot of information online about court reporting, deposition reporting, captioning and CART, but not much about stadium captioning, so I thought I’d put this post up.  If you are one of those writers who look at these photos and feel sick (and some people do say that when I post pics of stadium captioning on my Facebook), remember that while stadium captioning is steno at its least controlled, in an environment where anything can happen, you probably won’t die attempting it.  Unlike bungee jumping.  Statistically, there is a 2-in-1,000,000 chance of dying while bungee jumping, which is probably way higher than the chance of dying while doing stadium captioning.


It’s really just a job like any other, but with added production values and free dinner.  There are adverse writing conditions we’re not used to, but once you know what to expect, you might be prepared to give it a shot!  So, here are 15 easy steps to building your stadium-captioning confidence.

The very first one is to realise you are about to do something very cool.  It’s thrilling to write in front of this many people.

Step 1.  WHOO!

But there is one important element you must accept.  You will have to cede control of just about every element of what you do to other people, some of whom will be teenagers with ironic mullets because rawk.

The main reason we have no control is the output requirements.  In a stadium, you will be displaying captions on a movie screen or huge projectors.  Also on those screens will be roving floor shots, stage vision, clips, supers and graphics.  Whatever we or the audience may think, captioning is usually given the least consideration.  Some guy you’ve never seen before will stick a VGA or HDMI cable into your laptop and from that point he will be in control.  He will decide whether to output one line or two lines or four lines, black on white or white on black, what size font you’ll use.  Gallingly, he’ll also almost certainly tell you it doesn’t word-wrap.  This means no conflicts or lengthy phrases.  I wouldn’t recommend conflicts in stadium captioning anyway (would you want to see a conflict come up in six-foot-high letters?); but now you know that sometimes their use isn’t physically accommodated.  You will also be asked to check “no colour display” on your output, so typos aren’t red-underlined; to minimise or completely remove your buffer; and to activate smooth scrolling.

Step 2.  Drop the reins.  This is hard for us stenos, I really understand.  It’s necessary.

When you walk into the stadium, usually late the night before the event, after a flight, you won’t be able to see anything.  That’s because the lightning rig isn’t up yet, and you forgot your head torch.

Step 3.  Bring a head torch.  And wear it.  This isn’t the time for fancy hair; it’s the time for attaching illuminating devices around your head with a sweatband.  Otherwise you will never stop tripping over cables and falling through what you think are walls but are actually just empty spaces hung with black curtains.  This is unprofessional.  And possibly not covered by liability insurance.

The way in…


Except for you.  This is your way in.


As your eyes adjust, take a good look at the lay-out and how the audience is arranged.  I don’t know about you, but I always Google counsel before court hearings or arbitrations.  Knowing what everyone is going to look like gives me confidence when I walk into the room.  You can’t Google everyone that’s going to be in the stadium but if you see it empty first, you can at least see that they’re just normal seats lined up on a normal concrete floor that will be filled by normal people.

Step 4.  Sit on an audience chair.  Imagine the very normal person who’s going to be sitting in it for the event.  Even at the most glamorous events, the chair is probably still going to be upholstered in cheap, scratchy fabric.  Feel the itch.  Embrace the pedestrian elements.




Then it’s probably time to go backstage to your workspace.  Hundreds of production, tech and event staff will be swarming around with better head torches than you and surer footing.  They will inevitably be wearing metal t-shirts and have rolls of duct tape hanging from their belt loops.  These unlikely characters will be your saviours in the event of any problem so immediately give them any chocolate or money you have in your pockets.

Step 5.  Make friends with anyone dressed in black.  You can’t see any faces, of course, because you’ll be blinded by their head torches, so just smile generally at head height.

You may have thought your workspace would be luxurious, especially if you walked in on a red carpet or are stadium-captioning a particularly glamorous event.  Ba-bow.  Almost certainly it’s actually a wooden shed.  You can try to use filters to make it look better…


..but…it’s still a wooden shed.


The upside to the wooden shed: it can be relocated easily in case you can’t see properly.  The downside to the wooden shed: you won’t be able to see properly, and although the shed can be moved, it probably can’t be moved anywhere more conducive because it’s ugly.  Clients don’t want audiences to see these things.  The other downside to the wooden shed: everything else.  They aren’t soundproof, they’re hot, they’re too small, the desks are unstable, if you lean against a wall it will collapse, etc etc.  Sometimes they have equipment boxes stacked up all around them.


Step 6.  Don’t complain about the wooden shed.  If you complain that it’s less than ideal, you may end up with the alternative: the open floor backstage.


Or worse: the open floor front-of-house.


Set up your kit.  Ideally you would have brought two sets along, including two machines and two versions of your software.  This isn’t the sort of job where you can just pop you head out and ask for a couple of minutes to reboot.  Take two kits, and set them both up ready to go, including with an updated job dictionary on each one.

Step 7.  Don’t complain about how “they” ask you to set up.  There are so many other elements that are nothing to do with the captioning that simply can’t be altered at this stage.  You usually can’t ask them for an extension cord or a better location so you can “see the mouth” or anything like that.

Come again?

Well, you can try, but they’re usually not amenable to rewiring this sort of situation just so you can see a mouth.

People will talk near you and their phones will ring and your audio line will buzz with interference.  Waiters will walk past with trolleys of glasses.


You may be called an “English Typewriter”.


You will probably be sitting nowhere near the stage.


I actually find knowing I CAN’T control nearly any element of what I’m doing makes me less nervous.  The decisions are out of our hands.  The only thing we can control is our writing.

Do some tests.  The tests involve you just writing stuff and the production guys making it look however they like.




You are ready to go, but depending on the event, you will now sit there for about 12 hours of rehearsals.  Various people of unknown identity continually stick their head in the booth and ask you to stay put because something involving you is about to start.  It never does.  You can’t read because you forgot your head torch, remember.


You’re probably overseas so you can’t surf your phone because of crippling international roaming fees.  You may have bought a local SIM card from a convenience store outside the venue but, inconveniently, you’re sitting in a shed deep in a cavernous stadium – internet isn’t going to happen.  You can’t rest (see earlier about flimsy nature of shed walls.  They will collapse under the weight of a dozing head.)  All you can do is practice steno, and you probably should because soon 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 people are going to be watching your work.

Typo!  Typo! *Mexican wave*

The venues are enormous, and the closest food vendor is usually a 4km walk away.  (Luckily, the toilet is only about 2km away).  Don’t worry though, you won’t go hungry.  You will eat the crew lunch/dinner.  Not immediately.  When you first see it, you will lose your appetite and you’ll put it under the desk for later, all the better for the salmonella to fester by the time you really get hungry enough to realise you actually will have to eat it.

Step 8.  Bring food.  A lot of it, not just snacks.  You will be in there for hours.  Don’t bring water.  In the space in your bag where you would put water bottles, put more food.  There are lots of people on these events whose only job is to continually hand out water bottles.  Drink sparingly (see above re Himalayas-like hike to nearest toilet).


Try to stand up and do those exercises people do on planes to prevent deep-vein thrombosis.  You may be already standing up because you may not have a chair.

Step 9.  Be accommodating of the chair situation.  If you have a chair, it’s going to be a fold-out tiny plastic one, or maybe a canvas director’s chair.  Both are hard to write in.  Luckily you have lots of time to practice.


Sometimes, there are no chairs.  In this instance you either have to quickly learn to steno standing up, or do your best with what’s around you, like this one time I had to borrow the piano stool from the area grand piano.  Again, you can try to pretend it’s glamorous but ultimately no-one could make stenoing on a piano stool look okay, probably not even Alicia Keys.


As the event approaches, there may be a two- or three-hour lull between rehearsals and “showtime”.   The production staff go to sleep on trolleys and equipment cases.  Your piano stool won’t quite be long enough to stretch out on, so take the chance to go outside.  If it’s a special event, you might do some celebrity spotting (BYO selfie stick).  If it’s more a corporate thing, you may try to psyche yourself up by looking at the building crowds.

Step 10.  Try to get out from backstage before it starts and experience some of the atmosphere.  I find it helps calm the nerves.  I am generally a pretty confident writer/person but I’ll admit the bile rises before an event like this.  Try to get amongst it so your excitement can push down your fear.




Say the show is set to begin at 8pm.  Be in your seat at 7.30 pm.  Of course, the show will actually start at 8.30 pm, by which time you’ll be desperate for the toilet and will also have resorted to eating a corner of that sandwich of unidentifiable filling, but please.  Be at your piano stool WELL in advance.  The last thing your nerves need is to be rushing back to the booth with minutes to spare.  It will be most likely be noisy in your booth.  Get someone from outside to duct-tape the door shut.  It helps a bit.

Step 11.  FEEL EXCITED!  You are ready!  This is going to be AWESOME!  At this point I really usually do feel more wired than nervous.  This is WAY more fun than sticking dog biscuits on the number bar so your dog “stenos”.


It’s very important to get a good first session.  This will set your confidence for the rest of the event.  Especially if you’re in for a long session (and at corporate events, they like to do two- or three-hour sessions sometimes), don’t think about how long it’s going to go for.  Just concentrate intensely on each stroke.  I kind of treat it like a game, one of those games where you go back to zero if you stuff it up.  Because that’s the effect it has on my confidence.

Do not pass Go.

Bash each word out deliberately.  Fingerspell anything you’re not 1,000% sure of (I fingerspell a lot of stuff I even am 1,000% sure of.  I’m not sure what the real confidence threshold is.  Maybe like 2,000% or 5,000%.)  If you can get in a clean first session, you’ll be calmer for the rest of the sessions and you may even start to enjoy it!

Step 12.  Look up sometimes and see what you’re doing.  How amazing!  You are enabling so many people to participate!



One of the great things about doing these events in Asia is the opportunity of working with Chinese stenos.



It’s very humbling to work with Chinese stenos.  One, THEY WRITE IN CHINESE HELLO.  Two, they’re used to working in difficult conditions, and nothing fazes them.  On one recent job, in order to get both my English output and his Chinese output onto the screen, my Chinese counterpart had to have his screen squished down so far it wouldn’t scroll.  This is his tech guy manually scrolling the feed down line by line, like a carriage return on an old typewriter.  DING!

(The mixed-up audio is the dual input – floor audio, and interpreter feed.)

Speaking of audio…

Step 13(a).  Be prepared for ruptured eardrums and bleeding eyeballs.  This is the sort of light/sound conditions you will sometimes work under at these events.  At this particular event, I had earplugs in under my earphones.  Bring earplugs.

Step 13(b).  And probably don’t be prone to epileptic seizures.

As you get relaxed, don’t let exhilaration overcome you.  Try to maintain your composure, because apart from not wanting to make a mistake in front of such a big live audience, you’ll probably have to turn in a transcript very shortly after each session ends – or it may even be being live-streamed.

Step 14.  If you’re using CART window or the CaseCat equivalent, do edit your transcript in applause breaks.  If you’re not, DON’T.  Don’t do things on your computer that could possibly be “broadcast”, remembering your screen is connected to a bigger operation with a VGA or HDMI.  Don’t “show desktop” or open other documents or files.

One thing to keep telling yourself throughout the show, if you find your eyes straying to the size of the crowd: the larger the audience, the slower the speakers.  This isn’t always true, but it usually is.

38wpm baby.

Step 15.  In pure steno terms, these events usually aren’t as challenging as other jobs we do.

And then suddenly, that’s it.  The show/event usually flies past and they’re saying “And the winner of Best Film is…” and you’re like “Wait I haven’t even finished my sandwich of unidentifiable filling yet!”


The closing remarks are made, sprays of fireworks light up both sides of the stage, and possibly a confetti bomb explodes over your head.  Try not to write “Ah I’ve been shot!”  Again, unprofessional.  You haven’t.  It is merely metallic streamers being released at high velocity from a cannon.

You deserve it.

See you in the booth!

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Year in Career: 2014

In the five years I’ve lived in Asia, there’s been a lot of work-related travel. My passport is nearly full…

..which THANK GOD because I accidentally look like notorious Melbourne drug lord Tony Mokbel in my picture and I can’t wait to get a new one.

Since moving to here, I’ve been lucky enough to report in the following places, some of them often: Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, mainland China, the Philippines, Japan, India, and Mongolia (see Year in Career 2012 and Year in Career 2013). I expected much the same this year, maybe with a trip to Malaysia or Brunei or somewhere new to round out my Asian adventures in drug distributorship court reporting. Instead, at the start of this year, I found out I’d spend most of the year covering a high-profile corruption trial in the High Court in my “home” city of Hong Kong.

It was originally set down for 70 days but ended up sitting 133, finishing up on 23 December after a week-long jury deliberation.  I wrote most of this post from the comfort, catering and Christmas lights of the Shangri-La Hotel business lounge while they were sequestered. It seems like there would be nothing much to write about, given a huge block of the year was spent on the one job, but looking back through my photos, in fact there’s a fair bit. So please, replenish your complimentary mint supply, settle down in your hotel armchair (wait that’s just me…) and join me in a review of the year in international reporting, 2014 edition. As ever, not all things are photographable/disclosable, but where they are, here we go…

First hotel room of the year, in Taiwan.  Standard nice business accommodation:

I rushed to sweep aside the drapes and reveal the glorious vista:

Well shit.

Back in Hong Kong, my first High Court job of the year was a Bernie Madoff case.  Which was obviously the most times all year (also all life) writing “Ponzi”, and also the prettiest transcript of the year, with detailed citation of a spectacular historical case of price deviation and speculative economic bubbles – tulip mania in the Netherlands in the 17th century.

Please, more talking about flowers in court!

Then it was March, which is my annual most (and possibly only) glamorous job: stadium-captioning the Asian Film Awards.

This time it was at the City of Dreams strip in Macau. Rustic-est doors, most luxurious hotel suite…

..and yet I was once again captioning from a wooden shed.

After 12 hours of sitting through dress rehearsals and continually updating rundowns, the captions display was optimised…

..I’d slapped this sleeping tech on the way back to the booth…

..and it was showtime.

This was my fifth time doing this event and the first time I wasn’t almost vomiting with nerves in a corner of the shed.

I found a short clip on YouTube showing my captions this year:

Sometimes writers ask how this sort of stuff (in many languages) is captioned/reported here, and using this clip I can give a brief explanation. The two presenters are trilingual, and swap between English, Cantonese and Mandarin. I wear headphones in the captioning booth/shed. I listen to an auxiliary channel that plays English when it’s English, but when someone speaks another language, the interpreter for that particular language cuts in and I hear THEM simultaneously translating into English. (There are about 12 interpreters in booths next to mine for this job.) This is a pretty good system, except you need the interpreters to be on top of their game – if they forget to switch off their button when it goes back to English, you can miss the first few words of English speech. A couple of years back I had one Japanese interpreter who kept her button depressed for about 30 seconds and I could hear her rustling papers and uncapping her water bottle and muttering to herself, until my tech guy, who had been running down the line of booths tapping on flimsy doors, managed to locate her and flick the switch!

This clip also demonstrates why this job, while one of the most exciting of the year (and certainly the most glittering), is one of the trickiest – nominees come from all over Asia and the Middle East. You can see here there was “witty” banter between the hosts in three languages, and then the winner spoke English is an extremely thick accent.

Shortly after all the statuettes were awarded, I put away the sequins and headed off to Singapore. Singapore is one of my favourite places to work, even though it involves a late-night arrival from Hong Kong.  Swings and roundabouts, though – best breakfast buffet in Asia:

 

The international arbitration centre in the old Customs House:

This looks like a pretty standard arbitration in a pretty standard hearing room, but I’ll always remember this one because it was my first time reporting the Hoff – yes, THE (Lord) Hoff, of the House of Lords. There are some eminent jurists that you’ll be lucky to report once in your career, if ever – and I was lucky enough to report Hoff twice this year.

From The Straits Times to the Upper Yarra Mail!

This picture about sums up the three-day period in April when I returned from Singapore to Hong Kong, washed some undies, and then flew on with my family to Australia for a holiday, where I found this relic in the storage unit – my Phoenix Theory notes!  Worst handwriting, but memories of the struggle.
Just quickly, while I was there – Melbourne’s 1884 Supreme Court, scene of my swearing in as a reporter circa year 2000:

A spectacle familiar to reporters in Australia, Asia and the UK, but perhaps foreign to our American colleagues – barristers (“my learned friend”) in wigs and gowns.

I also swung past Channel 7’s broadcast centre, where I had my first captioning job.  Biggest hair, and biggest number outside a workplace (surely? – that’s me sat like an idiot on the rock in the bottom right corner for scale).

In my “baby reporter” days, at the Federal Court in Melbourne, I covered my first big trial, Ruddock v Vadarlis, aka the Tampa (boat people) case.  It was an injunction hearing that sat through multiple nights, with Australia’s Solicitor General appearing. My colleagues and I ran back and forth from the courtroom to our office, down dark Melbourne alleyways, clutching 15-minute tapes, to deliver completed transcripts by dawn. At that stage, I wondered whether I would ever do another case with so much attendant media attention, or potential to change relevant societal precedents in real ways.

Well, this year, I was lucky enough to report what was called Hong Kong’s biggest ever corruption trial.  For stenos out there who are interested in these details, this was a trial with 20ish realtime connections and daily delivery.  I did all the writing, except for two days, but I was accompanied by scopist extraordinaire Jane in court, and we had our completed transcript delivered by 5.30pm every day.  The transcript production pressure was immense, as was the amount of eyes on the realtime feed, and the intense media interest from outlets worldwide.

The case was front-page news for much of the year:

Some of the most famous lawyers at the criminal bar were over for this case, barristers who have advised world leaders and contest disputes between nations.  Such was the money involved in this case and the personages in the dock – Hong Kong’s former no.2 in government, and property developers on the Forbes billionaire list.

We had a shaky start, with the initial jury discharged and a new one having to be empanelled.  Again, this will only mean something to stenos, but please imagine the pain of empanelling TWICE from jury pools of 200, with a list of names alphabetised in Chinese, a language I can speak but not read, with realtime voir dire.  This is the stuff reporting nightmares are made of.  But luckily the second jury stuck and the trial got underway in July after an eye-popping (dropping?) 21 days of legal and selection voir dire.

Inside the courtroom, there were 20 seats reserved for media, 20 for the public, 20 for family/lawyers.  And although my chair wasn’t comfortable, it was in the very front row, and it was reserved.  I didn’t have to sleep in my car outside the court overnight to be first in the queue at dawn for a press ticket or a public ticket.  Sometimes I had to pinch myself that one of the things that motivated me when I was teaching myself steno in my bedroom at the age of 19 – the so-called “front-row seat to history” – was beneath my very arse.  If you know what I mean.  Judicially, this is the frontest-row seat I’ve sat in yet, and it was an exciting privilege.  This was a case where every word was noted by 20+ sets of eyes, with realtime screens sprinkled amongst the 18 counsel, in the dock, and in the public gallery.  This was not the case to have a failure of either nerves, preparation, equipment, or ability.  See here one counsel’s set-up.  Note he can see six screens at any one time.  I call it saturation realtime.  Or: mate, you only have two eyes.

If I could offer a tip to baby reporters, it is this: nail your speaker tokens.  I won’t reproduce my seating map here for confidentiality reasons, but it was a little bit frightening.  You better believe when they all started walking in on the second day and sitting wherever they felt like it, someone was there yelling out YOU MUST SIT IN YOUR ASSIGNED SEATS!
PS It was me.

For people who didn’t get a seat inside, the judiciary had set up this viewing gallery outside the courtroom, which was the biggest contributing factor to me wearing shoes for a larger percentage of court time than in any other year.

Nicest lunch view.

Anyway, assume this case is just going on in the background for pretty much the whole rest of the year. As a result, I missed the NCRA conference in San Francisco, which I really wanted to go to this year because of the big Aussie contingent in attendance, and also to meet mates from my steno group on Facebook. One of them had these nifty Hello Kitty ribbons made up for the delegates and sent me a bunch in Hong Kong. I stuck one on my machine and also wore one around court because gravitas. Thank you, Laci!

Other dubious personal attire to come out of the group this year. I swear we do talk about steno sometimes! (Proud to break rules with you, Regina!)

Weekend airline commission job.

Favourite double view! (My laptop desktop view is a picture taken from an arbitration on the 93rd floor of the World Financial Centre in Shanghai last year; the table it’s sitting on is in a hearing room on the 38th floor at Exchange Square, Hong Kong).

When I packed up my kit after this job and headed out into the crush of Central commuters, there was definitely something in the air. I’m not talking about stinky tofu – the arbitration centre isn’t even near any street food vendors. I’m talking about apprehension, and a markedly increased police presence, with side whiffs of diesel fuel and 7/11 noodles (Hong Kong forever!) Yes, this was the weekend Occupy Central began – except it began in Admiralty, right outside the High Court.

I wondered whether I’d have any difficulty getting in to the court on the Monday morning. I left an hour early just to be sure. The exits at my train station were shut and when I finally made it to street level, tear gas still filled the air. All the arterial buildings leading to the court precinct were shut and eventually I jumped a fence adjacent to the tramline on Queensway, wearing stockings, throwing my 15kg suitcase in front of me. It was quiet. Admiralty is filled with mainly government buildings and they were all shut down. The usual noise of the street – thousands of people, cars, trucks, the ding-ding of the trams – was absent. Silent but for the scrape of boots, a couple of hundred exhausted policemen filed past, carrying helmets and small kit bags, sweaty hair dishevelled, every fourth or fifth man wearing a tear-gas gun on his back like a recurve bow. It would have been the work photo of the year, but of course I couldn’t snap it…

Occupy continued right up just about until Christmas, in parallel with the court case. It was incredible to be working on this case, the biggest corruption trial in Hong Kong history, which will set a precedent for how business and the government relate in the future, while Occupy was happening literally outside the front door of the court building. I’ll never forget being here and doing this for the rest of my life.

Worst in triads.  This was right outside the High Court one lunchtime!

Queensway, one of the city’s biggest thoroughfares, running right outside the High Court, which was occupied for nine weeks.

One day, the High Court caught on fire. The fire alarms had been switched off on our floor so as not to interrupt the big case, but the judge had it under control.

I took one of my two days off in this time to attend my daughter’s first day of school. Thanks to Jenny for stepping in! When a Wave and a LightSpeed change places for the day…
Chairs from hell.  Pick one of these to sit on for 133 days!

In the corner in disgrace:

Ultimate “winner”:

Most irritating injury:

If you’re like me, you (and your significant other) are very protective of your arms/hands. You’re not allowed to use knives, walk on wet surfaces, wear unsturdy footwear, play thumb wars, hammer nails etc. But performing ablutions are a fundamental human right – they can never stop us from showering, right?

WELL MAYBE THEY SHOULD. Because this was my arm after I slipped in the shower. I grabbed at the first thing I saw, which was a net bag containing a bunch of foam kids’ toys suction-capped to the wall. It detached, and the loud sucking noise it made only just masked the sound of my arm smashing into the solid plaster soapdish, and didn’t mask the sound of me swearing at all. I saw stars, but after a long panicked cry and a sleep embracing an ice pack, it didn’t appear to be broken – just swollen, bruised, and really sore. My fingers and wrist weren’t having any difficulty but I had no arm strength at all. I’ve recently been practicing writing side-saddle, mainly as a technique for staying awake, but it came in handy as I had to prop an InStand under my arm in order to keep it upright. Hey, it worked!

Another tip, students: learn to write side-saddle. You never know when you’re going to take an embarrassing nude fall and then be required to write with one dead arm.

Next up, Venice! Just kidding, it was the Venetian in Macau for a global economy/tourism ministerial forum.

This event was kind of a big deal, and the venue was accordingly fancy and massive. And we were seated nowhere near the stage.

The thing with reporting in Asia (and elsewhere!) is, we’re seen and not heard. We don’t really get to complain about where we sit; they usually start talking before we have a chance.

The vice-president of Iran was one of the speakers at this event, so security was tight and I got my first glimpse of the People’s Liberation Army dog squad in action.

I also got to work alongside a Chinese steno team again. The Chinese writers are so impressive, with their incredible skill – their method requires far more mental agility than ours, with pictorial output meaning it’s not entirely based on phonetics, so they’ve got to think all the time. They’re also generally much more pragmatic than Western stenographers. I remember the first time I came across some, reporting Bill Clinton in Shanghai at an economic forum a few years ago (see here and here), and I was shocked to see them arrive 10 minutes before kick-off, sit anywhere in the crowd, pull their machines out of their handbags, and live-caption everything without any drama. I was embarrassed by what I required to produce the same result – tech guy(s), a table full of AV equipment, the ability to “see the mouth”, and a much higher salary. Working with the Chinese stenos is a lesson in humility and appreciation.

This particular job gave me one of my favourite moments in international reporting yet, when an Indian minister stood up and started speaking at what sounded like 400wpm. The Chinese writer was taking it through a Mandarin interpreter in her headphones; I had the live English feed, but it was probably hardly more comprehensible. After the first 30 seconds of finger-flying chaos, we both slowly raised our heads and turned to look at each other. We didn’t share a common language but at that moment her face mirrored mine: the universal, culture-transcending court reporter look of disgust/solidarity.

Worst in dinners. (Seriously! How can you get served up a turd not once but twice in one year!)

Final order of business on all international reporting assignments:

Favourite travelling meal. Again, with only four offshore trips this year, the pickings were slim. But this delicious Persian cuisine on the banks of the Alexandra Canal in Singapore takes the baklava.

Heads out of the fridge and back to the High Court for the corruption trial, which had by now well surpassed the 70 days it was initially set down for…

..and hit day 100. Jane and I started to lose it.

This is what a folder of court documents looks like after 100 days. I mean the flags aren’t even remotely useful when there are so many.

And this is what my glossary looked like. Also not that useful, with the thousands of handwritten additions.

These are some of my favourite pictures from around the High Court this year.

Lunchtime!

If I was lucky enough to actually have a break for lunch, it was often here at Hong Kong Park:

Worst in squashing at a pre-trial hearing:

Ricketiest in on-the-turn lecterns:

Early starts…

Gorgeous early afternoons…

Late-night finishes…

Big buildings, big sky…

Streets of gold…

A giant zip…

Lots of giant koalas…

Giant dumplings, raised higher than the flag, in case you forget where you are…

Second-best in dumplings…when Rich was in town!

Who I wouldn’t have probably even known if Brandy (see Brandy’s tale of adventure!) hadn’t moved here. Shown: giant pancake on Brandy’s first night as a resident reporter in Asia.

The corruption trial continued through all this enormous food and architecture, but I continued to do other jobs occasionally, such as this evening hearing at the Securities Commission…

..which had a beautiful view over Government House:

And one of the latest finishes:

Speaking of late finishes, worst in parenting: continually getting home right on bedtime (if I was lucky) during a late-sitting shipping arbitration.

But best in parenting: my kids’ advancing knowledge of creating job dictionaries and reading steno.

I’ve thought about not including the next few photos, because I know certain people will say they’re self-serving, but ultimately I am going to because autonomy. The next bit is mainly for students.

If you’re not into boredom or controversy, scroll past this down to the BABY DEER WHAT.

It’s currently fashionable to bash the theory I taught myself, Phoenix, and I both can’t understand why and feel a duty to defend it with more than just words. This is a theory that has produced a large number of realtime-ready, very successful writers in all disciplines. Whereas it seems people who write Phoenix and other “stroke-intensive” theories can generally see the merits of shorter theories as well, often proponents of shorter theories can only find negative things to say about Phoenix, in spite of its proven success. There’s a dangerous idea being pushed by students to other students, or new reporters with limited experience in only one area of stenography, that speed is everything. I’m suggesting to you, students, as someone with experience around the world in court reporting, captioning, and CART, that you be smart about the advice you take. Look for results that match up with what you want to achieve, not just words. Look for things that correlate with your aims – for example, do you want to be realtime-ready when you finish school, or get out of school as quickly as you can? Do you want to win a speed contest once a year, or do you want to be ready to step into high-paying realtime work? These things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but some of the claims going around online steno forums are NOT RELEVANT to the ultimate aim you’re probably all going for: a great job founded on realtime excellence. And that, I promise you, isn’t just speed. It’s not. It’s comfort. Comfort buys you the time to keep up, to use your general knowledge, your ability to “hear” and take two or more speakers at once, to fingerspell, to punctuate correctly all the time, to produce a realtime feed that looks about as good as the final product. How you get that comfort depends on your brain. For some people, it’s writing short and memorising brief families. For others, like me, it’s writing everything out.

So these photos are particularly for those who are learning a “long” theory, or doubting themselves. Look around at how many long writers are out there working successfully, and have been for decades. Me and my writer-out colleagues aren’t flailing about desperately trying to keep up. We don’t have overuse injuries. And I’m not an anomaly.   Find YOUR best way to the comfort that will bring you the best realtime results. Examples of short writers’ great stats are available in forums. Here are some of mine, as – I hope – a balance, and a boost to other long writers.

Some of my 300wpm or above 0%-ish days:

(I know that bottom right one is only 166wpm.
At this point there’s no way I’m going back to remake that photo grid.
Bloody Phoenix writers.)

Some examples of other clean days at lower speeds, in case people want to say it’s a fluke:

It’s not luck, it’s not certs, and it’s not just speed. It’s comfort.  Get there whichever way works for you.  I wish you all realtime success whether you write long, short, or with one hand tied behind your back.

One last thing. You’ll find people to argue with you whatever way you do anything. It doesn’t actually matter. Pick your priority – making bank, supporting your family, intellectual fulfilment, performing an important role in society – and if you’re walking out the door achieving it every day, that’s what matters. Be fidelitous to your own idea of success, and be meritorious, and any other relevant -ous words. And PS that’s not necessarily linked to certifications.  “Certifications” doesn’t even end in -ous, so…

ANYWAY. Let’s see a couple of the stupidest realtime mistakes to prove some people’s point ;) This unexpected mention of “it’s a little legalistic” was galling:

(Along those lines, don’t have Father’s Day and Mother’s Day like so in your dictionary, because one day someone’s gonna say “What were things like in your Father’s Day?” and that looks stupid.)

And check “hassle [hyphen]” to make sure it’s not going to bring up this traumatic mental picture of the red Speedos, SPEAKING OF THE HOFF (oh wait wrong Hoff):

And now for something cute we all want to look at.

However, here’s something you don’t want to see when you bump in on a Friday night for an oil/gas arbitration that’s been heard in various countries since 2010.

This was definitely the hardest job of the year and I was happy to only do a single day of it. A hell of a lot of prep for, ultimately, a pretty bad Saturday thrashing!

I think this was the most realtime connections of the year (pushing 30), and I had to download a panorama app to take this photo of the room.

Quite miserable outside too.

Some other views from the International Arbitration Centre through the year.

My “desk” in one of the hearing rooms. I’ve seen kites soaring and swooping, window cleaners recklessly operating at terrifying heights from unsafe buggies, cruise ships meandering through the harbour, Star Ferries somehow avoiding collisions all day long as they ply their three-minute course between Island side and Kowloon side, insane storms, and tycoons’ choppers criss-crossing the skyscrapers like flies from this window. But one of the coolest things I saw was formation SPEEDBOATING by the People’s Liberation Army. If your country is in dispute with China, warn your government: if it descends to inflatable vessel warfare, you’re in trouble. Figures-of-8 with noses elevated at identical angles and all sorts of shit! I mean it’s not militarily intimidating, but it looked tight!

The finance district at night.

Getting our Connection Magic on with eight realtime connections in the room, one in Singapore, and one in London. Go, Eclipse!

Best in buildings that look like they’ve just been chucked there (outside Exchange Square):

Panorama view from the last arbitration of the year, inside and out:

This particular arbitration was the second time in one year I was privileged enough to report THE (Lord) Hoff. He’s going to have the last word in this never-ending post, but first, some other words. Yes, it’s the best in transcripts.

**
MOST PAINFUL ATTEMPT TO ADDUCE EVIDENCE:

COUNSEL: …she could have been called as a witness. She wasn’t. They tried to get the evidence through the backdoor of Ms Y, who quite understandably couldn’t remember anything about it. As an attempt, with respect, it’s woeful.

**

THE CLOAK OF ELOQUENCE IS DEPLOYED AT LAST:

COUNSEL: I need to demonstrate to you that if you think that some of [opposing counsel’s] criticisms were worthwhile, you have very likely fallen under the spell of his brilliant advocacy. But beware of brilliant advocacy, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Beware of this art which could be employed to mask shadowy and shady arguments underneath a cloak of eloquence.

**

I’LL SEE YOUR CLOAK OF ELOQUENCE AND RAISE YOU ONE MONKEY WITH TANGERINE.

COUNSEL: The prosecutor, like a monkey with a tangerine, would have showed off his prize: “Here it is. Here’s the evidence.” And all he’s left with is saying, “Well, it’s a matter, strictly speaking, of English law. You don’t have to worry about the merits of the decision.” But you do. Oh, yes, you do.

**

THE RABBITHOLE NOT TO FALL INTO WITH A 150kg WITNESS:

Q.  Let me just give you an example, Ms Z. If I know that the chair you’re sitting on has got a broken leg and is liable to break, but you don’t know it, the first time you’re going to complain is when the leg of the chair breaks, isn’t it? And the reason for that is because the only time you’re going to know that there is a risk of the chair breaking is when you’re on the floor with a broken chair in pieces around you.

(EVERYONE IN COURT:  JUST PLEASE STOP TALKING!!)

**

WHAT DID YOU DO AT WORK TODAY? OH, JUST STOLE A FEW POST-ITS. AND INADVERTENTLY DESTROYED THE BEAUTY OF THE COMMON LAW SYSTEM.

COUNSEL: Because if one is to embark upon an exercise to distinguish authorities that contain ratio that is directly applicable to this case and those which are not, and further to distinguish cases of situations factually similar to this case or not, one would have perhaps inadvertently destroyed the beauty of the common law system in relying on case law authorities and unfairly ignore the wisdom transpiring in those judgments. It all depends.

**

THE FOOT BONE’S CONNECTED TO THE…

COUNSEL: I pause here. They misdescribe the proposition, or at least half of it. Because it is not the favourable disposition that we are dealing with. It is the fact that one had caused that favourable disposition in the mind of the latter that we are dealing with here. They cut the head and the legs off this submission and say that the body remains the body. They fail to see that the thinking mind remains in the mind, in the heart. And what brings the mind home is the feet.

**

THIS…ISN’T HOW IT WORKS.

COUNSEL: Is what the prosecutor said there an example of what I think you sometimes say here of a ghost slapping him on the back of the head? The ghost slapped him on the back of the head and the truth popped out?

**

SCHOOLED IN HISTORY + FINGERSPELLING.

COUNSEL: If [opposing counsel] were right, if I can just lighten things for a moment, there would be no need to resort to tax evasion for Al Capone; he could just be prosecuted for the St Valentine’s Day massacre. There would be no need to date when King Henry said, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”, because it was his three knights in any event. And “If my brother committed a fraud, therefore so must I.” It’s a nonsense. It’s contrary to all logic.

**

INTERPRETER WINS IN TOTAL KNOCK-OUT.

Q.   And the metal plate conducted heat from I guess the heating plate of the humidifier, into the water? I’m sorry.  That’s a terrible question.
INTERPRETER: Yes.  What do you want to do?

**

MOST SHOCKING WAKE-UP FROM A POST-LUNCH WORKING NAP:

COUNSEL:  All right. The letter goes on:
“I will, of course, do everything from my end to improve communication with them. I don’t believe she has any major issues with me. Of course, I could be wrong and she thinks I’m a total jackass as well.”

**

BRITNEY. CUE IT UP.

COUNSEL: The best the prosecutor can do is to suggest it’s fanciful that the manager of a karaoke bar gets drunk and vomits every night. I suppose it’s just possible that the prosecutor’s knowledge of Chinese karaoke bars isn’t what it might be.

**

SOMETHING LIKE THAT.

COUNSEL: …the right not to self-incriminate oneself in what their Lordships in the case of X refer to with the phrase “nemo debet prodere se ipsum” – or something like that.

**

BEAUTIFUL, SIMPLE OBSERVATIONS ON LAW.

The law is really just sophisticated applied common sense, in many ways. Lawyers perhaps complicate it.

The law is about practical affairs of people. It’s not some mysterious art of science; it’s about how we conduct our lives. The law is designed to make it easier for us to live in societies.

And it’s an experience about when people lie. When people lie, they become involved in a tangled web, because they have to tell another lie to keep the lie going. The truth effectively tells itself, because you’re not manufacturing the truth; the truth exists.

**

REGRETS.

CHAIRMAN: This is about the good old days in Wan Chai when they used to pinch mama-sans. Is that right? Splendid days. We all regret their passing.

**

METAPHORS PART 1.

COURT: To rap [counsel] over the knuckles in a vacuum, if I can mix my metaphors, I think is a recipe for disaster.

**

METAPHORS PART 2.

COURT: So that is evidence before me, even if I don’t look at the transcript.
COUNSEL: I think, with respect, your Ladyship has put your finger right in the pie. This is very well put.

**

THIS IS WHAT YOUR TAX DOLLARS PAY FOR.

COURT: So in terms of that case, there is a difference, you would say, between the public perception of a police officer standing by doing nothing while somebody is beaten to death, and the chairman of a public authority doing nothing as his committee and the board vote to renew a lease from a company with whom he has a connection?
COUNSEL: My Lord, I think there is a big difference. There, we are talking about a constable whose main job was to maintain peace. It was his job to ensure that members of the public would not be beaten to death on the streets.

**

AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT.

COUNSEL: My Lord, when I said this morning “yau doi”, apparently I repeatedly told your Lordship that I “have a pocket”. I, of course, did not intend to say to your Lordship that I have a pocket, although indeed I do have a pocket. I hope your Lordship understood my appalling Cantonese better than those who were born here.
COURT: Yes, yes. Thank you.

**

THE NEVER-ENDING WATER ANALOGY.

COURT: But once you tap on the two permissible sources, the only two taps, you are drinking up the two bottles, and once depleted, as [opposing counsel] said, “Sorry, I only have two bottles and I can only administer two bottles. If you say there was another tap, go to another tap; it has nothing to do with us. But after you drank up, we will not provide another cup.”
COUNSEL: Correct, sir, and the claimant’s case is exactly that. We did not drink from this bottle for the extra sip.

**

MOST UNFORTUNATE LITERAL SCRIPT TRANSLATION:

ANNOUNCER: Our next two presenters are two strong creative forces. In fact, we are in the uterus of one of his creations now.

**

HAPPY WIFE, HAPPY LIFE.

THE WITNESS: Do I have to come back tomorrow?
COURT: We will see. Is that difficult?
THE WITNESS: I can, I can.
COURT: Yes. Well —
THE WITNESS: Because I promised my wife to do something, but I can return.
COURT: All right. We’ll have to wait and see.

**

But this was the best one.  Whatever the justice system can mete out, just remember, you’re going to get smote by the ultimate higher court anyway.

COURT: If they have some doubt that this may not be a genuine thing and they still sell it, then I think they should be condemned not just in this world —
COUNSEL: My Lord, although —
COURT: –but also by the eternal fire.
COUNSEL: Yes. Although, my Lord, I dare say that the test is not so high.

The epic corruption case seemed like it was never going to end, but of course, it did roll to a conclusion.

But not before giving me something I’ve waited my whole career for – my head in a judicial cartoon in the newspaper.

Uncanny.  Is THIS my new passport photo? Hint: I’m not wearing a wig. Still can’t spot me?

Yep. Yep. I’d like to thank Faber Castell for giving me such a smooth head – stretching artistic licence, frankly, in this humidity.

Out on the street, the police finally cleared the occupied zone.

We waited FIVE tense days while the jury deliberated. We went off the record about 8.30pm every night and then descended into the media scrum on the way home to bed (while the jury made their way to the High Court bunks).  It was a week of boredom with an undercurrent of intense anticipation, punctuated with neck cricks from looking constantly at my phone so as not to miss the call-back.

Finally, the jury made their (many) decisions. To report the verdicts and sentencing were two of the most nerve-wracking days of the year and in fact of my entire career. I was sure the people around me could hear my heart hammering. While so many people in that room had a whole lot more invested in the outcome than me, these were the final episodes of a case I wrote nearly 150 days of realtime on (including the preliminary hearings), with daily delivery. We didn’t have a single tech problem. We got all out transcripts out by 5.30pm. Jane and I are still talking. All are achievements I’m proud of. Also how far I managed to stretch my work wardrobe. I mean that sort of length trial requires a budget-busting bundle of blazers.

I zipped up my suitcase for the final time on 23 December. The judge said the trial would finish before Christmas and geez that was a close call. Judges are wise. They know what they’re talking about. And so I’ll leave the last word to one of them, Hoff, who in his Speedos wisdom (wisdom! Wrong Hoff!) summed up what we do. It is special, but also it’s really simple:

That’s the kernel, crystallised by the pre-eminent legal brain. There might be a whole lot of travel, prep, tears, boredom, satisfaction and fulfilment, and I’ve tried to reflect that here, but getting it all down is what it’s all about. Nothing more, nothing less.

2015 – TURN DOWN FOR WHAT?

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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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