Saturday, October 29, 2005

Slipper Ceremonies

I am afraid I have missed it - my time to join in the slipper ceremony has come and gone ...

I went totally barefoot for 8 years - inside, outside, everywhere. We were living on a tiny sandy island in the Torres Strait (between Australia and Papua New Guinea) and everyone went barefoot everywhere except the cemetery - for some reason that was the only place on the island where there were incredible "double-gees", big three-spiked prickles; we would wear plastic thongs on our feet to funerals, and come home a couple of inches taller with the layers of prickles embedded into the soles of the thongs. The islanders said that to wear shoes was like wearing a mask, hiding your identity (which can be seen in your footprints). But we never saw anyone reading the footprints in the sand. The fact is, most of the sand was too soft to leave decent legible footprints and everyone knows you can't wear any kind of shoes in soft sand without the sand ending up uncomfortably inside your shoes.

Here in China no one, but no one, goes barefoot. Except maybe that totally naked beggar man I saw lying by the roadside near Zhengzhou on a very hot day. And when you enter a home you slip off your shoes and walk in your socks or else slip into some slippers to pad around in. If you check into a decent hotel they will provide you with paper-thin towelling-covered cardboard slippers - more expensive hotels make the cardboard sturdy enough so you can actually slide your foot in and feel that there is something on your foot. Some people even wear their slippers down the street - like for instance if there is no bathroom in their apartment and they are going to the public facilities in their pajamas with their towels over their shoulders. Apparently, once a woman discovers she is pregnant she is entitled to wear her pajamas everywhere she goes. In fact, if the husband feels that it is a shared experience he can wear his too and they can go out to lunch in a restaurant and let everyone know what they've been doing.

When we moved into our apartment in Wuxi we were pleased to find that we don't have carpet on the floor as carpet raises a whole lot of special difficulties with keeping it clean. And we decided we would do the right thing and slip our shoes off every time we came in the door. There were two pairs of plastic sandals provided in the apartment - they seem to come as part of the furniture - but I indulged myself with a pair of pink and blue fluffy slippers from a department store, and Peter still has a sturdy pair of hotel slippers (from the Crowne Plaza in Zhengzhou). Sometimes, though, we still forget and do the Australian habitual thing of splatting around barefoot or padding around in socks.

We were asked if we wanted a lady to come and clean our flat for us on a regular basis. My first reaction was 'no thanks' - having a cleaner at LongHu had been mildly traumatic and we had been most relieved when the college had to let her go due to a shortage of funds. I figured with a cute little apartment like this I could keep it sparkling clean, no worries. I found that I could get the floor all mopped and clean in about half an hour. And if you walked barefoot you could feel that silky cleanness under your little pink soles. But within an hour or so the floor once again had that dusty feel. So I gave in and said yes, we would like someone to clean our apartment.

The office, our workplace, is always sparkling. The lady that cleans it is quiet, unobtrusive and efficient. So when they said she was willing to clean our apartment for two hours, twice a week, I was delighted. We let her in, and then go out to work or shopping or just for a walk along the canal, and come back to an apartment that looks like the happy little elves have been here. Not that we leave anything untidy - we don't really have enough stuff to make a mess around the place (another nice thing about this lifestyle, we have left all our stuff behind). Having made all the surfaces sparkle and gleam, she then can't resist putting everything that is lying around in neat rows - the shoes and slippers, the things on the dressing-table - it's so sweet. She is thoroughly worth the money.

But, I digress. What ceremonies are there involving slippers, I hear you mutter. Well, I didn't know about them until recently - and then, as I said, I was too late to join in. I thought someone was selling slippers out on the lawn we can see from our kitchen. That wasn't so surprising, people here do stuff like that. Sometimes on the edge of the pavement in the most inconvenient spot - so everyone will notice of course - people will set out their wares just where everyone is trying to cross the road, and remarkably there are people who stop to haggle over a price and buy. So I was watching this man in the apartments spreading his slippers in the sunshine on the grass - there were more than 25 pairs, many of them identical. Then the next day the lady in the apartment opposite ours put her slippers out. I am sure there are only three people that live there, but she also had about 20 pairs, again many of them were identical.

Now it is raining, and has been raining for a couple of days. And I have missed my chance to show off my slippers. I don't have many to show, though. Maybe next year when I have bought pink-and-blue-fluffies markII and even III, and I could get Peter a few more pairs.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Nipple-pinching mad-man

A few paces down the alley behind our place there is a tiny restaurant where they sell the most delicious "jiaozi" - dumplings. Inside each one there is a meat-ball, and a spoonful of soup that has the sticky quality of oxtail but a sweeter taste. They are a tad too big to put into your mouth all at one go, but to try to eat them with two bites is a disaster of the splashy kind. And however you try to eat them, it has to be accomplished with chopsticks ...

Usually we buy half a dozen each (for a mere 9 kuai, or $1.50) in a polystyrene take-away dish, and devour them in the privacy of our own living room, or even sitting on the bank of the Grand Canal. Today we decided to eat in. This meant the added privelege of a bowl of soup - a clear soup, like greasy water, with pieces of chopped chives and some sprigs of fluffy purple sea-weed floating around - a slight salty taste, and not bad. And there was a tiny bowl to put soy sauce and/or vinegar and/or chili in, for dipping the dumplings. So, after putting sauce in my bowl, I wrangled my chopsticks around a dumpling and had it dangling over my bowl. I tried to bite it, it broke, slipped, splashed - and all the time the guy in the doorway never took his eyes off me, barely blinked. Seeing my attempts to reach the packet of tissues on the counter - the waitress was in my way - he slowly came over and held them out for me. I tried to believe he did so because he cared ...

They were delicious, though. Peter was happy - only his sleeve had been splashed - and I had made a firm decision that next time I would eat at home. Trying to ignore my be-speckled shirt, I headed off with Peter further down the back alley to the supermarket. We smiled at and greeted the people we passed, and wondered what was really in those delicious-looking pastry parcels on one stall. I saw a man come the other way with his brown pants pulled up too high - but not high enough to cover his white underwear that was pulled even higher and peeping over the waistband. The cuffs of his trousers were also rolled up revealing the other extreme of his winter undies. We passed him and walked on, but a little further he turned and came up to us, chattering incessantly in a mixture of poor English and some other language - if it was Mandarin we couldn't pick up on any words at all.

His social distance was all wrong, he kept leaning on Peter, and he was very "touchy-feely". I tried to move away every time he turned towards me. He carried on about being American, or having an American brother, or maybe we were his brother/sister/mother, and there was something special he wanted to tell us about Washington. He kept wanting to give Peter cigarettes, and after a number of refusals Peter gave in and accepted one for "later". We tried to walk away, but then he grabbed Peter's arm and started insisting that we go to see his home.

Now this is something that Peter has always wanted - to see into people's homes and find out how they live - and it was obviously too good an offer to miss. As we turned to follow the man, people round about started to look quite concerned, and some of them grabbed me by the arm and indicated with a twirling finger near their ear that the man was deranged. But what could I do, I wasn't about to abandon Peter.

So we followed him down a side alley - the crowd of onlookers growing all the time. He fooled around with his key, getting Peter to unlock his door for him. We stood in the doorway of his single dingy room, and the village people followed, becoming increasingly frantic in their attempts to draw us away. The room contained little more than a large bed, chair, and TV and DVD player. The man kept trying to offer Peter gifts, including a DVD with "sex" written on the front. He forcibly put the rest of his packet of cigarettes in Peter's shirt pocket, and then some nuts and some small pieces of money. He noticed I also had a top pocket in my gravy-splattered shirt, so he came across to me, thrusting a handful of nuts into my pocket and giving my nipple a hard tweak through my clothing as he did so. I grabbed his hand and thrust it away, removed the nuts from my pocket and put them in someone's bike-basket that was in the hallway, and left the room. The people standing about were looking genuinely concerned, so I pulled on Peter's arm and said loudly that I was going to the supermarket.

Of course, the friendly man followed us all the way there, grabbing Peter and whispering stuff to him, but I walked quickly ahead, grabbed what I needed at the shop and we headed back. We were very relieved when he left us alone at the corner where we originally met him. I don't believe I will be shopping in that alley again - although the rest of the people there seem like they are really sweet, caring people.

And I'm sorry, I don't have a photo of him. But I did draw a picture:

Sunday, October 23, 2005

I thought you would be bigger

We went to see "The Big Buddha" with friends visiting from Australia.

The adventure started with catching a bus from the main bus station next to the train station. As soon as we arrived at the appropriate bus bay people came from all sides with brochures and offers to drive us to MaShan to tour the buddha - with them as tour guides. Of course, westerners like us can be charged a much higher price than local people. But we had decided we would take the bus and so we repeatedly insisted that we did not want their offer.

We knew that the bus trip was about 45minutes long, and there were only a few seats, so it would be necessary to get right in there and push our way onto the bus - polite people have to stand up all the way. The bus arrived - an old boneshaker vehicle - and we duly elbowed and pushed our way on. Our friends, with Peter's arm giving them a firm shove from behind, got in ahead of us and snagged seats up the front of the bus. We sat in the very back on hard wooden seats. I knew that sitting in the back of a bus in China is not always a good idea - on bumpy rides you can become totally airborne - but they were already the only seats left. The wishful tour operators clamboured onto the bus as well, for one last attempt to gain customers. Then more people arrived, the bus was packed. The bus conductor climbed aboard - this is different from a city bus where you put your money in a container by the driver - and pushed his way among the crowd, collecting money, and giving everyone tiny flimsy tickets.

The bus set off through the city, stopping at a few places, unbelievably picking up more passengers. The young people near us were sitting on each other's laps and using each other's backs as leaning posts to keep themselves steady. The bus stopped right near our apartment, but we realised if we had waited there to get on we would have been squeezing on like these last people.

The trip seemed longer than an hour, and was indeed very bumpy - the roads out this way were under repair and so we had to drive along temporary tracks part of the way. A few times we were in fact airborne, along with those around us, and the wooden seats were not properly fastened to the back of the bus making it very painful to actually lean against the back of the seat. The people standing just in front of us on the crowded bus were leaning against our legs because there was so little room, we could not see through them to our friends at the front of the bus, we could only catch a glimpse of where we were out the side of the back window.

At one stage Peter received a phone call from the husband of our friend who was at the front of the bus, asking him to give her the phone, or get her to answer hers. The noise on the bus was deafening, between the cranky engine and the young people talking and laughing. Peter carefully stood at his seat - he could just see the top of her head at the front of the bus. "Lee-Anne!" he called in his best teacher voice. Instantly everyone in the bus fell silent - though she didn't actually hear him. In the moment of quiet he called again: "Lee-Anne! Answer your phone!" Probably no one on the bus understood what he said exactly, but they found it very amusing.

Finally we arrived and we once again assailed by tour guides and taxi drivers - we thought maybe we would refer to them on the way back.

So we paid our 88RMB each, and made our way up through the park to the 88metre tall buddha on the hillside. Along the way we passed the fountain area - there is a special display there at certain times, and we wanted to get up to see the buddha and back in time for the fountain show. Along the way there are a number of other smaller statues and buddhas. The fat one (most westerners think of buddhas as fat) had lots of tiny, naughty buddha babies climbing all over it, and was fun to see.

And then there was a big bronze buddha hand sticking out of the ground. Unlike tourist attractions in Australia where everything has railings and "look but don't touch", Chinese people like to touch and rub everything - for good luck - and there are always shiny worn patches at the favourite spots.

And finally we reached the stairs up to the big buddha itself. And, yes, it's big. But it didn't feel so big close up. Maybe because of the hill right behind it.

When you look at this photo you have to notice the people standing around his feet to get an idea how big he is.

We got back in time for the fountain show. And there was music and it was a good show. But I can't tell you, in case you ever get to see it, and I don't want to spoil it for you.

We left the park and went to talk to the taxi drivers - some of them had vans big enough to carry the five of us. They wanted 100 RMB - the bus trip was only 4RMB each. So we used our few words of Chinese to express our disgust and walked away. He came back with an offer of 80 RMB, and we walked again. Finally we agreed to 60, and had a much nicer ride home than on the way out.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sheep Upstairs

I'm not sure that I have even met the lady (man? person) who lives upstairs from us, but I feel that I know her really well. She is Little Bo Peep. And she has a flock of little pointy-footed sheep who hide from her. I have heard the sheep pattering away on the wooden floor - by the sound of their feet there are about three of them. And then she puts on her mother's shoes that are obviously too big for her and clatters around looking for them. Or maybe they shed, and she has to go around to every part of the apartment picking up their little bits of fluff ...

But, really, I am quite baffled. The only activity I can think of that would require as many hurried trips back and forth across the bedroom is ... no, I don't know. "She's tidying up", I suggest to Peter. But what, and why so often? Maybe every day someone (the sheep?) opens her undies drawer and scatters its contents to the four corners, and then her other clothes as well, and the rule is that she can only pick up one item at a time and carry it daintily back to its place - ?

The very first morning I woke up here I was intrigued, and a little concerned, that I could hear her humming, slopping around in slippers, and sweeping the floor. Concerned because, if such small sounds carried so well, what about - ? And that day she started renovating the apartment. For the next week and more we had to be up and out of our apartment about 7am, or not try to hold any conversations herein. When the noise of drilling, sawing (electric, that is) and hammering finally settled down we got to know her better : we know that she does not have carpet on the floor, and she does not take off her shoes when she comes in ...

Wuxi is so much noisier anyway than LongHu was, with traffic noise and all kinds of people noise. In LongHu one day I was startled to hear a cuckoo say "Cuckoo!" - because I hadn't heard one since I left England in 1970 and it hadn't occured to me that they are in China too. Peter was also startled because he had never heard one and didn't realise that they really do say "Cuckoo" just like their name and just like a cuckoo clock. And it was pleasant to hear them because, just like in England, they herald the coming of summer - after a very severe winter as we had that yeat in LongHu. The only other troublesome sounds in our LongHu apartment were when people outside cleared there throat (and spat) - people don't seem to do that quite so much here - and when George (upstairs) wore his cowboy boots, and then took them off one (Thunk!) by one (... ... Thunk!)

So its the little nearby noises that are much more of a problem than the outside "white noise". This afternoon, still feeling queasy from a few days ago, and regretting just slightly the delicious "jaozi" (meat dumplings) that I had so enjoyed at lunch time, I took a little Sunday afternoon nap. Well, for a few minutes at least. Aparently Little Bo Peep found a patch of wall where she had to hammer in some picture hooks for some of the pictures she found while tidying up. She was being thoughtful, tapping ever so gently, but aahhhh!

Its ok, I'm awake now. I think she's gone out. And the sheep seem to be asleep.

Happy's new home

Happy the hamster has lived in various boxes and containers - more or less successfully, depending on how much she chewed her surroundings. When we came to Wuxi on our way through to Australia for our holiday we were concerned about our friends here having to look after her in our absence. So we bought her a proper little cage. But it was very small, and she is a lot bigger and fatter than when we first got her. So we have been looking for, and thinking about, somewhere bigger for her to live. We thought about buying an aquarium, many people keep hamsters and mice in aquariums.

But then one day we were sitting in our loungeroom here watching TV, which is next to the glass cupboard / bookshelf and Peter said "Why don't we put Happy in the cupboard. That way she would be up at eye level, easy to watch and interact with, she'd have much more space ... " The question was, how secure is a cupboard with glass doors and magnetic latches of the kind that you push to close and push again to release?

So we put her in there on the middle shelf which is glass. She pattered happpily up and down her shelf area, and stood up and put her tiny hands against the glass, and all seemed secure. But during the night Peter woke to the sound SPLAT! of the fat little hamster body hitting the floor followed by scuttle scuttle as she set off to explore. He got out of bed and approached her, and she stood up tall on her hind legs to say "Hi!" , like she does, and happily let him pick her up and put her back on her shelf. Apparently one of the glass door catches didn't work too well, and simply needed a piece of cardboard jammed in it ...

The next night as we were watching TV as well as our new hamster-cam, she discovered that the glass shelf doesn't quite meet up with the glass door. As is the nature of hamsters when they find any small space or crack, she immediately started pushing her head downwards between the door and the shelf. Hamsters are loose-skinned, their skin fits loosely because of their cheek pouches that go all the way from their mouths to their back legs, and they can sort of slide around inside their skin. In no time at all she had squeezed like a maggot through the tiny gap, and was swinging by her tiny back legs from the edge of the shelf. Then sproing went the door and splat she landed on the shelf below.

So now she lives on the bottom shelf. The shelf itself is laminated and extends out under the edge of the glass door - which she has not managed to unlatch since. It makes for a much more interesting bookshelf, having a hamster running up and down on it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Buses, Taxis, and Feeling Queasy

Peter has joined the gym and I have been thinking about joining a pool here ... but thinking about water quality is a bit scary. There is a pool nearby, just across the Grand Canal from us, only about 10 minutes walk away. Its right on the bank of the canal. It's not open in the mornings, which is a bit of a blob because that's when I'd most like to go swimming - no classes, and most other people are at work. Friends of ours here told us that the students at their school do swimming lessons there - that's a little bit off-putting. And they also said that they don't have a filter-purification system like we're used to, they simply empty the water and replace it every day. Well, that totally puts me off. Much as I hate chlorine, at least I know what it does.

Our sweet little Chinese teacher has warned us that we have a test next Tuesday and we should practise our vocab. The fact is, though, it's hard work. And we need to find opportunities to use what we learn. It's difficult to learn stuff "just in case" and then bring it to remembrance when the occasion suddenly calls for it.

But one thing we have found we need is; "Please get out of the way, I'm getting off the bus." People are understandably very protective of their little bit of space in a bus, even if it is directly in front of the door, and they are very reluctant to give it up unless they are sure someone is just passing through. So Peter is practising that one at least before he goes to the gym this afternoon.

Today is our day off, but I don't feel like going out anywhere - feeling a bit washed out after a couple of days of upset tum. On Thursday as we were finishing our Chinese lesson, I was about to head down to the street to meet my ride to the company where I teach, when our office receptionist popped in to say my lesson was cancelled.

So Peter and I wandered down the street instead for some late (4pm) lunch at KFC. I had a slight queasy feeling already, which I mistook, understandably at that time, for hunger. But after eating my KFC I had some more definite discomfort. Peter headed off to the gym and I stood at a bus stop to wait for a bus. Bad time of day for that, school kids all heading home, there were a good 40 - 50 people at the bus stop. A couple of buses I didn't want came, and about 10 people got on each, and a double-decker came and 30 or so squeezed on there. Then another bus ... but as fast as people were leaving on buses more people were arriving at the stop.

By this stage my stomach was complaining to me quite severely. You know, when you start to feel all sweaty and prickly, something serious is about to happen.

Finally a number 211 bus arrived, and the crowd I was with surged forward and started the usual pushing rituals ... I looked at the bus and there were already people standing up from the back of the bus to the front two or three deep. And I couldn't even remember the "get out of my way I want to get off" sentence for if I did get myself wedged in there. I didn't dare get on!

So I stuck my arm out and flagged a taxi instead. They are good and very reliable. Its great to know that whenever we look like getting stuck somewhere there's bound to be a taxi nearby. Nice little man driving - wanted to be friendly and chat with the few English words he knew, I was hardly in the mood! He was asking me something. I told him in my best Chinese that I was a teacher. He looked puzzled and tried his question again, pointing to himself and saying "China" and then to me with a "--?" Once again using my best Chinese I told him I was an "Ao-da-lee-ya" (Australia) person and he beamed at me.

The traffic was heavy and the trip was slow, with a lot of honking and jerky start-stop motions that are necessary to intimidate pedestrians and bikes in heavy traffic and help them remember their place and keep out of the way.

Then he wanted to know if I wanted to go to the back gate (where we had arrived) or the front gate of the apartment complex, and I assured him with a "hao! hao!" - good! good! - that just here was fine.

Yesterday I felt a bit better, and managed to teach a "conversation" class last night. Its funny, the evening classes (which this language school is mostly about) are all 6.30 - 8.3- or 7-9pm. But the building we are in (on the 2nd floor) has a gatekeeper who lives in a room just inside the front door of the building. And he goes to bed about 8pm. Regardless. Locks up the door, turns off the lift, and goes bye-byes. And no one can change his mind. So after lessons we have to make our way down the stairwell (no lights) to the basement and out through the car park into the laneway at the side.

So this morning I woke up feeling grotty again. Peter has been listening to the cricket, but he's restless so he's learnt his phrases and gone in to the gym, and to have a bit of an explore around the city. He just phoned me excitedly to say he wandered down a laneway where he hasn't been before and found a huge fabric warehouse setup that he is eager for me to look at with him next time.

So now I'm regretting the lunch I just had - but I was sooo hungry - and I might take a little kip and listen to our Chinese lesson tape and try to learn a few tones.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Sucked Out

You may have heard of the expression "Sucked in", meaning of course I was tricked into doing something foolish.

Well, I am more afraid of being sucked out.

I had never seen these roll-up fly-screen windows before. Our kitchen window and the lounge-room window that opens onto the roadway (four storeys below) have no middle strut. When you close the plastic-framed sliding glass windows there is no frame that they shut to, they just meet in the middle. But there is a flyscreen, which you pull out of the two side frames and pull together until they magnetically hang onto each other in the middle.

So, normally, when the windows are open it looks ok, because there is still the flyscreen meeting across the middle of the open space. But every now and then the magnets in the flyscreen edge suddenly say "Nope, we're not doing this any more.." and they let go. And with an alarming zzzzzzrrrt!!! sound that makes me spin my head around to see what is about to get me, the flyscreen flies open. And suddenly there is this huge open hole, about two metres wide. I feel like I need to hang on carefully to furniture as I stumble across the room to drag the flyscreens back across the open space before I get sucked out ...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Chili With Everything

I just don't like foods with chili in them, my throat closes over and I can't breathe - not fun.

The other day I bought some sultanas - wanted to add a little interest to my morning porridge. I thought I might get stuck into a couple before dropping them into the mix. Phew! Chili sultanas - why didn't I think of that? I decided against putting them in the porridge.

Last year in Henan it was much worse. It was almost impossible to find food without chili. And to ask to have something with NO chilis brought stares of disbelief - and this was usually then interpreted as "Not too many chilis please" because they just couldn't resist putting in a few - otherwise nothing would have any taste, would it now?

In autumn there were chaps selling a kind of muesli cake. They would make a huge cake, filling the whole trailer of one of those three-wheeled carts. It was all sorts of nuts and seeds and dried fruits, stuck together with sticky sweet honey or some such, decorated beautifully all over the outside with glace cherries and the like. When you wanted a piece, they would cut off a tiny slice - but it would grow in size once it was further away from the whole cake, and it was easy to forget how deep one of those trailers is in terms of a slice of something you are contemplating eating. So we always ended up with a much bigger piece than we thought, which was always a bit more expensive than we wanted to pay - but, after all, it was big! And, we had to admit, it not only looked very healthy but it was quite delicious - at first. Especially if you don't find the chili bits in the first bite or two ...

Even sweet biscuits - they look harmless enough. And they taste ok, sort of, not as sweet as little biscuits back home - so why does my tongue burn after eating them?

One day some student friends invited us out for "fried chicken" - and it was a long time since we'd had anything like KFC, or decent chicken, especially fried. Eagerly we went along, mouths watering. Well, for a start, what do you call it when you boil a whole chicken in a bowl of water - fried? Hm. There were potatoes in there too. And chilis. Maybe more chilis than chicken in fact. After we struggled with the first few mouthfuls - it was just inedible to us - they suggested maybe some noodles would help? Oh, yes, hungry now we fancied a bowl of bland noodles. Out came the noodles, and into the pot with the chicken. Nooo! Gingerly we pulled out noodles with our chopsticks, but it was too late, they had absorbed the chili already. Our hosts were eating away, chattering happily, apparently thoroughly enjoying the burning hot food. Their lips were red and swollen, all the way from their noses to their chins looked painful and sore. But they simply called for more beer, and chuckled about who was going to eat the head of the chicken ...

Everything, gingerly on the end of my tongue and wait a while first - never just dive in there and eat!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Splooshie Pavers

So today, after getting all "thing" about people lighting fires in and around the building, I was washing dishes and I looked out to see half a dozen firemen - one of them carrying an orange rolled-up hose - running up the road from the complex back gate. They disappeared between some of the apartment blocks, and some interested onlookers followed them. I couldn't see or smell smoke, and I could hear an ambulance or fire-engine out on the main road at the back gate - the back gate has been blocked to traffic for some weeks now due to road-works, only pedestrians can pass.

Well, talk about a damp squib. Nothing happened. They walked back out after a few minutes. False alarm I guess.

The road outside the front of our complex is very well used. There are the usual four traffic lanes - two central ones, and then bike lanes at each side separated by trees/bushes/kerbing from the main flow. In our street there have been large trees doing the separating job, but some are considerably worse for wear and some have been removed by sawing them off a couple of inches above the level of the road and leaving the stump of a stump firmly embedded in the bitumen. Quite a trap for unwary riders and pedestrians and even larger vehicles. The road surface itself is a bit of a rollercoaster ride with undermining tree-roots and wear and tear from heavy vehicles, plus of course the frequent patches where the road has been "fixed".

The pavement seems to be the safest place to walk, although it is unusually narrow. As this is a red-light district, there is plenty of friendly banter as you pass by. And there are numerous little shops and businesses along the way to turn your head and peer into, so it's never a boring stroll.

Further down the road the businesses mostly involve welding, painting, constructing iron and steel furniture or utilities of various sorts. The shops themselves are tiny, no more than a suburban garage, and are inhabited by the wife and kids (who are sitting around watching TV, eating lunch, washing clothes etc.) and also used as a show-room for the product under construction. So naturally, the actual business of manufacturing takes place on the narrow sidewalk, even out into the bike-lane if necessary.

With all this happening, walking home from work is always a bit of an adventure. Dodging around ... many obstacles , and smiling at and greeting all the curious locals as you go. Every now and then you come to a little bit of an open space on the side-walk, no obstruction, stride out. The pavers here are a little unevenly laid, and then SPLOOSH! You turn around and look back - nothing! But your feet are definitely wet.

Its scary to think what is just under the surface of those trick pavers! The water must be very close, and just schloops up over the edge as the paver tips slightly. It doesn't always have a sweet perfume either ...

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Bells and Smells

Instead of the squeaking of bike brakes, dog's barking, and guards calling "hao! hao!" (good! good!) instructions to anxious motorists trying to extricate their status symbols from the narrow roadway through the apartment complex, yesterday morning's waking sound was a man's voice in song, strong and tuneful. It was a relaxing, almost mystical song, that felt like it had no real beginning or end.

As the day wore on, the singer apparently could not find the end. The song was punctuated with a tinkling symbol and occasional light drum beats. And there were interesting and unusual cooking smells - not unusual in an apartment complex, but much stronger than usual.

We decided to go out for a spell, and halfway down the stairs we came across a bowl of ... well, who knows. It looked disgusting. It may have been food. Or - ? we just couldn't tell. It was in the middle of the steps on the second floor landing. We had to step over it or squeeze around it, and we ignored the urge to move it or tip it out - there was no one around. As we passed the the ground floor we noted that the security door had been propped open. Well, it's our door too, our security, so we kicked the prop aside and let the door slam.

Later in the day I came home on the bus. The security door was propped open again, and the stairwell was full of voices and the smell of incense. A crowd had gathered on the second floor landing, and the door to 202 was open. I could see a table had been set just inside the door, and a yellow-robed priest was there, still singing. Others were beating various small instruments - cymbals, little hand-drums and gourds. They were all dressed in dark clothes, and there seemed to be incense and foodstuffs on the table.

I pushed my way past the crowd, and on up the stairs. Once inside our apartment, I opened up the windows. Once again, the smell of burning - it is probably worth checking on these things in a building with no fire-escapes, smoke alarms, escape plan etc. Out the kitchen window I saw a group sweeping up the embers of a fire that had been lit on the edge of the roadway. Maybe someone has died, I know they light fires like that when someone dies.

As I settled down to relax with a DVD to shut out the sound, I felt like there was more going on, I could hear more singing and instruments and there seemed to be more and more incense. I went out onto our balcony at the other side of the building, and noticed a white circle had been drawn in the middle of the pathway I had just passed to return to the apartment. Yellow man and his friends were there, some with hands pressed together in front of them as if in prayer, others beating their tiny instruments. In the centre of the white circle was - I held my breath momentarily afraid that maybe they were about to cremate the body, but there was no body. There were a number of pink carrier bags and parcels with red ribbons. They were having a problem with the wind blowing away some little wisps of paper - I remembered the other day there was a woman in the road just outside the apartment with some of those little golden bits of paper that were blowing away and she seemed quite upset about it.

Then they lit the pile of stuff. Some of the tiny pieces blew away after they were lit, but mostly they stayed within the circle and in the bags as they burnt fiercely and were quickly reduced to a pile of ... funny little yellow things, like what we saw in the bowl on the stairs.

bells and smells

A couple of people remained with the smouldering remains until it was safe to sweep them up. Yellow man and the rest went back inside, and the smoke and singing came floating up the stairwell and pouring through every tiny gap around our burglar-proof metal front door. It continued until dark, when yellow man presumably went home.

This morning the white circle is still down there, with remnants of yellow stuff in the centre. I've noticed that no one walks or rides through it, they all go around it. And all is quiet. Just the squeak of bike brakes, and barking of dogs, and guards telling people how to park their cars.