Three weeks in the Congo

The fan overhead whirled slowly… Way too slowly to make any difference in this stifling humidity. In front of me stood two big white guys, obscuring my view of the rest of the queue, sweat patches already forming on the back of their shirts. They were chatting in Afrikaner and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

I was in a place I never thought I’d find myself in: Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Specifically, I was at the airport – a big brick fortress surrounded by black dudes with machine guns. As I’d walked towards them across the cracked, sun-baked tarmac, they looked bored… Perhaps a little too bored. It struck me that being that really bored with high-powered weaponry could be a recipe for disaster.

This big old room I’d stepped into was the customs area. It had a high ceiling, orange walls, uneven tiled floor and a couple of unhealthy-looking potted palms… Nothing like your modern airport with cordons, beeps and electronic gates. I was part of a long queue of expats and contractors sent here to work in the mines that dotted this minerals-rich, but otherwise dirt-poor, part of the world.

Next to me was the only person I knew for thousands of kilometres around – Peter, an IT consultant hired by my company, MMG, to accompany me into this heart of darkness. Our mission: to spend the next three weeks rolling out an intranet at Kinsevere, an isolated zinc mine some 50km away from where we were standing now.

After half an hour or so we made it past passport control and were promptly ushered into a tiny room to fill out a questionnaire in French, surrender our passports, show our Yellow Fever cards then get introduced to another Congolese man wearing a high-vis MMG shirt. The sight of this familiar orange apparel brought some relief, as it was dawning on me by now that this guy was pretty much the only thing that rendered us anything other than helpless fresh meat in what might as well be another planet – one with a fearsome reputation for crises and violence.

Andrey, as our man was called, then led us into another area – luggage pick-up. Suddenly there was yelling and shoving and body odour and confusion all around us: absolute madness. No gently whirling carousels showcasing the latest luggage haul… This was like a Black Friday sale from hell, except you’d already bought all your stuff and now needed to get it back.

I noticed that for whatever reason, my and Peter’s luggage had already been collected – by three very tall government dudes who were now standing beside it, demanding to see our luggage tags. “Ah, so that’s what those things were,” I thought, recalling how I’d thrown mine into a bin in Johannesburg airport. Andrey was not delighted with this information and proceeded to negotiate in French with the government agents. After some discussion they let us off, and we made haste for the door. “Next time you need luggage tag,” Andrey explained, sweating from a mixture of humidity and Encounter with Tall Government Dudes. “Otherwise, problem.”

“Problem” – pronounced with a French accent, “problemme” – is probably the Congolese’s favourite word. Everything bad is “problem”, everything fine is “no problem”. And when dudes with bloodshot eyes and AK-47s are involved, even the most trivial matter is “problem”.

Outside it’s comparatively quiet again. The air is hot but once again fresh. Andrey leads us across a carpark full of dusty, dirt-streaked vehicles. Congolese businessmen stand around getting their shoes waxed by teenage boys; big oafish expats trundle off to the respective mines which they’ll call home for the next fortnight, month or even longer.

Andrey puts Peter and I into an MMG mini-bus then returns to the airport to retrieve a third person. Eventually he returns with neither the person nor an explanation. “Maybe they lost their luggage tag one too many times” I thought, as he ignited the engine. And so began our long drive to Kinsevere mine, my own workplace and home for the next three weeks.

It was a bumpy ride, as tends to be the case on unpaved Third World roads. Along its muddy edge, locals walked with possessions stacked on their heads just like in National Geographic. Every now and then we’d pass a shanty-town; dwellings made of corrugated iron with rags for curtains and hand-painted signs indicating ‘hairdresser’, ‘restaurant’, even ‘first aid’… Something I guess you’d need in this part of the world. Just hours ago, in the pre-dawn quiet at Johannesburg airport, a TV was blaring one disturbing report after another about a rapidly-spreading Ebola outbreak in west Africa. “Perfect timing” I said to Peter as he watched, chewing his lip.

After some 40 kilometres of potholes and poverty, we turned into what looks like a high-security prison: MMG Kinsevere mine. As at the airport, armed guards man every entry point, and it’s hard to know from their demeanour whether they’re there to kill you or protect you. I have to say, in the daytime, the outside world they’re guarding against seems pretty harmless, even idyllic… An ocean of 6-foot grass dotted with wildflowers and fluttering butterflies. At night-time though, it transforms into a lawless pitch-black abyss, and you’re pretty happy you’ve got something between you and that unforgiving wilderness.

Even so, the barbed-wire parameter gets breached every so often. As luck would have it this happened on our very first night, not far from the dilapidated ‘governor’s house’ where we were staying. Some locals cut through the fence and stole several thousand dollars’ worth of industrial lawn-mowing equipment, as you do.

It was probably for the best that Peter and I slept soundly through this midnight raid. We’d had more than enough excitement already that day, what with flying halfway across the planet, losing luggage tags, meeting people and getting shown around this vast, strange new world… Then finally, upon sundown, being given reprieve to either catch up on sleep or go have a few drinks.

Naturally, we headed straight for the bar.

Oh, how well we’d come to know that outdoor boozing area. It was evident as we approached it for the first time that a solid drinking session was already underway. Jeers, yells, clinks and cackles cut through the steady chirping of crickets around the camp. Most of the men, still in their mining apparel, were just washing away the day’s hard yakka with frosty brown bottles of Simba, the local brew. But one Safa stood out immediately with his booming voice and presence. The next day, when I told a co-worker that I’d been dragged into an Olympic-scale drinking session, she immediately knew what had happened. “So you met Darren.”

Darren is one of the ‘characters’ on site, in much the same way Chopper Read or Charles Bronson are characters. Tall, beefy, tattooed, goateed and shaven-headed, Darren strikes an attention-commanding figure with the sort of unstable charisma that makes you want to get chummy with him but also observe anonymously from a distance.

I knew as soon as Peter and I perched on our stools that we wouldn’t be left alone for long. Sure enough, as soon as Darren downed his current glass of liquor, he strode up to his side of the bar and called loudly for “three drinks – one for me and two for those gents over there!” He’d been steadily knocking back tall glasses of Red Bull & vodka, and now decided these newcomers were to do exactly the same.

Neither me nor Peter were keen to accept Darren’s gifts as we desperately needed sleep – but Darren insisted and the barman began to pour. When Peter mumbled something about “having a quiet one” his joviality finally snapped. “Stop being cunts and come over here!” he barked – so all of a sudden, yes sir, of course, we’d love to make company of your good self and your band of merry men! In truth, I was secretly happy to be incorporated into my first authentic miners’ piss-up – unlike Peter, I felt – and joined the group with my complimentary albeit obligatory refreshment.

It was like some sort of testosterone-fuelled, audience-participation redneck cabaret. Arm-wrestling, arse-slapping and insult-trading formed the crux of the show, interspersed with regular intervals of Simba rounds. No-one kept track of whose round it was exactly: if you reached for a beer and there were bugger-all left, you got the next. “The spice must flow” on the planet Dune… and at Kinsevere, the zinc must flow by day and the Simba by night. At one point – it must’ve been close to midnight by now – Darren raised the ubiquitous RB & vodka in his hand and declared in his Safa accent, like some tribal warrior-chief:

“Welcome to Kinsevere, lad! Here, we work hard and we play hard. You can tell everyone back in Melbourne it’s a hell-hole… For us, it’s a paradise.”


The next morning I had diarrhoea. This was to become simply a part – indeed the very first part – of my day for the next three weeks: wake up, go to bathroom, take a liquid dump, then battle with the shower taps. I realised a few days in that this was being caused by the ice I was having with my whiskey every night, which also explained why everyone drank nothing but Simbas… Everyone, that is, except myself and Darren, who I later learned was single-handedly responsible for having Southern Comfort permanently removed from the bar menu. What a night that must’ve been.

I didn’t mind the daily squirts to be honest. But having to get up in the dark every day was brutal. Being a mine site, the shift at Kinsevere started early – me and Pete were expected in the IT building at 7am every morning, breakfasted and ready to go. The sun would just be easing out of its bed on the horizon as I stepped outside, adorned in fluorescent-orange apparel that reeked of anti-mosquito spray… A smell that stayed with you day and night in this godforsaken place, because there was one thing no amount of razor wire and weird-grinning machine gun-toting “security” could keep out: the mosquito.

The fear and loathing this tiny harbinger of disease inspires is evident all around the camp. Along the ceiling of the outdoor bar, blue halos of death glow 24/7, zapping any unlucky critter that comes into contact. Most afternoons, around sundown, a tank-like vehicle rumbles around the campground belching plumes of sweet-smelling citronella. And then there’s your standard-issue personal handgun in the war on mosquitos: fat green cans of Baygon Multi-Purpose Insect Spray, responsible for that smell which I’ll forever associate with the Congo… And which would probably be strong enough to fend off any more lawnmower robbers if, for some strange reason, there was no dude with a machine gun nearby.

Oh yeah – critically, there was also preventative anti-malaria medication. Everyone is issued these pink pills prior to visiting Africa and instructed to take one per night, or help you God. I quickly found that they caused insomnia and violent dreams about being crushed in rock-grinding equipment – which, after gruelling, 12-hour days of teaching uninterested, French-speaking, technologically illiterate miners on how to use SharePoint, made the whole experience slip from “out of my comfort zone” into “sanity breakdown incoming”.

So, I stopped taking the pills… And by George, you’ll never guess what happened next.

One lukewarm night as my second week merged into my third, I called it a day at the bar, flicked on my torch, and began walking towards my accommodation at the unlit far end of the camp. Suddenly, I plunged right into an ice bath – or that’s how it felt. I began shivering so uncontrollably I could hardly walk, and had to stop several times to squat, cradle myself and give myself little “you’re nearly there mate” pep talks.

I didn’t know it yet – and I think I was too mentally fatigued to really consider it – but sure enough, one of the little fuckers got me. I had malaria.

I survived, obviously. Exactly how I’m not sure, but there are different strains of malaria and while I never got proper medication (the pink pills aren’t much good once you’re actually infected), I did spend my return stopover in a luxurious five-star hotel, was miraculously upgraded to first-class for the flight home, managed to suppress my chronic cough and lie my way through the Zambian and Australian airport checks (“What, any of the symptoms on this form? Nope, never felt better! I’m not flushed, that’s just a bit of robust African sun on my pasty face…”).

Somehow I kept myself together until I got all the way home, then promptly collapsed into bed. I stayed there for literally an entire week, getting up only to visit the toilet… Or so I presume, since I don’t actually remember any of it. Six days of my life literally vanished in a fog of sleep and feverish delirium, before the sickness finally passed and normality resumed. Pete, I later found out, had contracted it too and was hospitalised two days after we got back.


On one of my final days at Kinsevere, I volunteered to be part of a group that was heading into town to host an Easter party for local orphans. We got there nice and early to unload presents, blow up balloons and distribute Easter eggs around the sports field/gardens/play equipment at the back of the restaurant. Then we waited until finally, in quick succession, three buses showed up.

I had no idea what to expect. Life outside the mine was pretty rough, after all, and these young’uns counted as among the most underprivileged of all. But as they stepped out and formed lines I was pleasantly surprised to see well-groomed teens and infants, with funky hairdos, clean colourful clothes, and – perhaps most surprisingly – remarkable discipline and manners.

Someone gave a brief welcome speech and then, without further ado, a bell started clanging and the Easter egg hunt was on! I had my camera ready to capture the joyful, manic shrieking and running around… but bizarrely, the kids didn’t move. We had to wave our arms and yell encouragement for them to break out and start scouring the ground for treats – which they did more like cats than dogs; carefully, uncertainly – quickening their pace only once they’d found a few and, of course, wanted more.

It was all a far cry from my Aussie childhood. I helped destroy several Pizza Huts and their immediate surroundings back in the day, but when the egg hunt was over and it was time for lunch, these kids didn’t so much as throw a cupcake or dunk it into their Fanta. Some actually broke up their cupcake into pieces for sharing, while others tucked away their soft drink cans for later. Thinking about it now, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised after all – food and drink are things to be savoured in a place like the Congo, not frivolously wasted.

The teenage girls were particularly funny and full of character. Both Peter and I were propositioned for marriage several times, and took part in many a “pich” – apparently the Congolese pronunciation of “pic”. These young ladies were sassy, lively and in as good shape as anyone you’d see in Lubumbashi or, for that matter, Melbourne. The orphanage matriarchs, meanwhile, sat under the cool fans inside the restaurant, knitting quietly and letting their ducklings have their fun.

The Easter day out, and the Congo experience in general, really brought home that cliched but undeniable truth – be grateful for what you have. As I sat in the taxi on the way home, looking out at all the lights of Melbourne CBD, I felt excitement and gratitude to know I’m back in this world-class city with endless fresh, delicious food options and miles of sparkling beach and ice cubes that don’t give you diarrohea. Best of all, I had opportunity and freedom from having to worry about whether the things I need to enjoy life, let alone stay alive, will still be there for me tomorrow.

So yes, the Congo was definitely an experience out of my comfort zone… and for that very reason, a unique and rewarding one I’ll never forget.

1522993_10152067880607058_5479901256314757392_oPete with some of his new wives.

1932594_10152067890427058_1421210177115795000_oMe with one of mine. Vanilla Ice got nothin’ on that hairdo!

10255160_10152067878997058_6461473518193513908_oCan’t believe I’ve already forgotten this guy’s name… A mine engineer and veteran volunteer who’s helped brighten many an Easter for these kids.

10256568_10152067877787058_5324547541166441120_oThe laydeez.

10269263_10152089185962058_8448930324007471294_oLubumbashi, regional capital of Katanga Province, south-eastern DRC.

Shanty-town along the road to Kinsevere.

10264064_10152064360392058_5568483471758676732_oTo be fair, some of the mining machinery was probably responsible for those violent dreams too.

IMG_1104Lifesavers. Quite literally.

10003708_10152054332052058_846381331_oAs much as I loathed the early mornings, the sunrises could be undeniably beautiful.

1979914_10152054329137058_1643385113_oThe big first night. Uncle Darren in centre.

1079009_10152064356202058_6636337269904821155_oMoi, sometime in the final week. The fatigue and sickness were starting to show – as was the lack of a razor – but I was happy to be having such a unique experience… and to be going home soon.


Japan 2016 – Part 1

Tokyo is basically the world’s most immersive and expansive video game.

This thought occurred to me as I stood in the queue for train tickets at Narita Airport. Above me, a huge screen broadcast a cartoon depicting the dangers of selfie sticks (e.g. if they touch the overhead electrified train lines, you die). To the left, people bustled in a store that sold nothing but underwear in bizarre prints (popcorn, kitten faces etc). Over to the right, several cartoon characters wandered around clumsily, guided by very serious men in suits… which I realised is because the costumes have no eye-holes, so the grave-faced suit-men would whisper to the poor bastards inside when to stop and wave for photo ops with eager kids and amused tourists.

It has to be said, Japanese people love a queue. Whether for something as tedious as train tickets, or the latest wasabi-spiced Hello Kitty-endorsed rainbow-coloured sultanas (or whatever), they will happily line up for it… Not only that, but people are actually employed whose sole job it is to manage the line, ensuring it doesn’t take up the wrong bit of pavement or whatever.

Which is very Japanese in itself. If you’re familiar with their tea ceremonies, you’d know it’s deeply ingrained in Japanese culture to manage things down to the most granular movements and gestures – very politely, very gently, but also with utmost seriousness. Hence why here, you even line up for the train, instead of just crowding around the nearest door… Because in Japan, door finds you – you line up at the designated marker and voila, there it is right in front of you, sliding open with an elegant smoothness as if to say ‘welcome sir to my carriage’.

So what am I doing here in Tokyo? Basically, I’m part of a group that’s gathered here to celebrate my sister’s 30th in her all-time favourite country. And I do mean ‘all-time favourite’ – she and her boyfriend Shane have been here SIX TIMES since popping their cherry-blossom cherry some years ago. Me, this is my third time. For the other people in our group – and I’ll introduce the whole cast shortly – this is their virginal visit to the Land of the Rising Toilet Seat.

Now, back to Narita.

Our first action upon collecting our luggage was to make a beeline for Lawson’s. Lawson’s is basically a Japanese 7-Eleven but better. We were on a very specific mission: to locate a decidedly Western foodstuff with a Japanese twist. The twist comes in the form of special mayonnaise, known as kewpie, that must tap with great force & immediacy into the dopamine-pumpers of the brain, because god DAMN – one bite of this stuff and it’s like your taste buds are getting oral sex. The legendary snack I’m referring to is Egg Sandwiches – or as my sister likes to call them, with mock Japanese accent, egg sand-he-wicho.

I don’t know why purchasing egg sandwiches at Lawson’s merits a mention, but the truth is not a day went by during our time in Japan that we did not pay our daily pilgrimage to a conveni (convenience store) for this ever-tasty, ever-ready snack… that flavour-bomb mayonnaise encased between two of the lightest, fluffiest, whitest (and no doubt nutrition-freest) slices of bread you’ve ever held in your soft, trembling hands… All for a loose-change price tag of about 200 yen (~AU$1).

But enough about egg sandwiches. We need to press on.

Right now I’m on the train to Tokyo proper and feel, once again, like I’m in a video game. Every little development along this journey – train arrives at station; train doors open; train is now departing – is accompanied by a little chiptune ditty straight out of The Legend of Zelda. Whoever made those top-loader washing machines that play a sea shanty once they’ve finished – that person was surely Japanese, coz they live and breathe that kinda stuff. And I’ve just noticed – to make things even more interesting – that there’s actually a different ditty for every station. My sister tells me this is so that Japanese salarymen who use their commute to sleep – so ~90% of them – train their brains to recognise & wake up to their station’s particular melody.

Ahhh, the Japanese. Are they actually a race of cyborgs, powered by gluteinous rice? Perhaps they are.

I should probably introduce you now to this gang of five I’m travelling with. Like I said, I’m here with my sister Matylda, her boyfriend Shane, another couple – Stef and Nicki (keep in mind Stef’s a dude – this initially threw me too) – and James, or ‘The James/TJ Bones’ as my sister refers to him with a mixture of amusement and affection.


I quickly learned why. James is a heart-of-gold kind of guy who has a refreshingly undeveloped self-consciousness – one of those characters who’ll happily say whatever pops into his head, appropriateness filter be damned. It’d only be a few more hours until I was acquainted with his left testicle, which he popped out of his jim-jams for a giggle… But what really defined TJ on this trip though was his addiction to food. I’m not saying this guy’s a foodie, coz that’s half of Melbourne these days… I’m saying he has a mental disorder; the gastronomic equivalent of a crack addiction. On more than one occasion The James put us in real threat of missing a train, coz he’d gotten a whiff of something on the way and just had to stop and try it… Usually catching up with us at the last second, clutching a paper tray of octopus balls or whatever, half-apologising, half-eating, and mostly not giving a fuck coz he got the food and that’s all that really matters. James isn’t fat by the way – just standard-issue post-30-year-old dadbod – which makes this all the more extraordinary.

To be honest though you can’t blame him. Cheap, quick, delicious food is abundant in Nippon. Pokey little ramen bars with a curtain for the front door, emanating tantilising smells and noise… Little katsu don eateries, ‘katsu’ being (as far as I can tell) some form of meat on rice (inagi, or eel, being my favourite)… And even littler sushi outlets without a single seat, coz frankly the sushi is so fucking amazing you WILL be happy to stand while you eat it, the immaculately fresh, tender morsels melting in your mouth like butter. You eventually leave not so much coz you’ve had enough, but only to be fair to the inevitable gaggle of people gathered outside, awaiting their turn to intake some of this shiny, briny mouth heroin.


These things are never mixed, mind you. The Melbourne thing of selling sushi and hot food at the same place, for example, is a big no-no in Japan. Every type of food – ramen, katsu, sushi, teppenyaki – is an art and you specialise in one only. There’s a place near where I live called ‘Wong’s Café’ that sells sushi rolls and Chinese food. To a Jap, that’s basically like having a combined brothel/ library – madness. And I tend to agree.

I should mention that the alcohol here is likewise top-notch. Most of the mainstream brews are made by Suntory – that’s the same Suntory that Bill Murray/Bob Harris advertises for in Lost in Translation – and it’s probably the best beer I’ve had outside of Poland and the Czech Republic. Now that I think about it, it’s weird we don’t get Suntory beers in Aus given Asahi’s so prominent… Asahi’s not bad by any standard, but it’s really just a Japanese Crown Lager. Suntory’s brews, on the other hand, are deliciously smooth, even slightly creamy in the way that Polish beers are… and, like Polish beers, they’re dirt cheap.

Japanese whiskey – again, dominated by the omnipresent Suntory label – is also top notch. Later in the trip I bought a fine-looking bottle of rum at a bottle shop which I thought was authentically South American, given it had a Spanish name and palm trees on the label, with no sign of that quintessential Asian tendency to misconstrue any culture outside of their own… Only to realise later it was produced in Japan. It was the best rum I’ve had to date.

The only alcohol category that the Japs fail at is vodka. There’s only one Japanese vodka label – basically an acknowledgement that they suck in this area – and instead of at least giving it a pseudo-Slavic name (like the pseudo-Spanish name for the rum), they just call it ‘Gibley’s’, as if vodka originated in fucking Wales or something. With its text-only white-and-navy label, it’s definitely no Belvedere – but this didn’t stop me and my sister from mixing generous quantities with fruit juice & downing it with Polish gusto on several occasions… For the vitamin C content, of course.

Wow. I’ve written extensively about egg sandwiches and liquor and haven’t even made it off the train to Tokyo yet. So yes, indeed – we’re all sitting in these big Gold Class-style seats whizzing at high speed through a semi-rural landscape – and speaking of alcohol, we’re all happily sipping cans of booze nestled on our fold-out trays. I’ve got a can of frothy Yebisu beer – another excellent & popular brand here – and my sister’s enthusiastically tucking into a can of ‘Strong’, a lemon-gin premix that lives up to its name in both flavour and potency. In Melbourne, of course, we’d all be issued $200+ fines and muscled off at the next station for doing this, but in Japan – completely acceptable. And they give you your change back like it’s a piece of the True Cross.

There’s actually an entire blog entry one could write about that fact – why DO we have such fascist drinking laws in Australia, and why, admittedly, are we so bad as a collective at drinking? Because don’t get me wrong: the Japanese get smashed. There’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to the phenomenon of uber-pissed Japanese salarymen passed out on in public places and transport – I saw it first-hand on a previous trip; a group of middle-aged men in impeccable business suits, faces flushed, laughing all with their ties inexplicably tied around their heads. The difference is they didn’t cause anyone any trouble. My sister told me a story, also from a previous trip, of a businessman so drunk that he had no choice but to puke… So what did he do? Opened up his suitcase and vomited all over his work papers. Not one globule of half-digested rice made it onto the floor of the train.

Whereas Down Under, getting drunk too often means acting like a moron – trying to draw as much attention as possible to you and your mates; hitting on women who don’t want a bar of you; and, depending on how the night pans out, perhaps starting a fight or destroying some property depending on what’s around. “This is why we can’t have nice things”, as the saying goes… While here in Japan, women literally walk up and down the train carriages with a cart offering you half a bar’s worth of liquor.

Yet it’s funny that here we are, all Aussies, all drinking yet behaving with utmost civility and self-control. Maybe the Japs have sent off all their fuckwit drunks to hard labour in Okinawan quarries or something, and left the rest of their citizens alone… Which, if true, I couldn’t applaud more. We should do the same instead of punishing everyone – coz who doesn’t feel like a bit of a drinky on a long, boring commute?

Anyway. Our first proper taste of Tokyo came with a stop in Shibuya. Shibuya is what probably comes to most people’s minds when they think ‘Tokyo’: it’s the district with that massive Times Square-esque intersection where, in Lost In Translation, Charlotte is lost in a sea of colourful umbrellas and looks up to see a huge projection of a brontosaurus saunter by. Me, I saw a bunch of men in suits ice-skating in ridiculous formations, for what seemed to be an ad for fruit juice. Who knows. At first you laugh, then you try to figure it out, then you give up trying to figure it out and just enjoy the surrealism. This is a country that, I think, knows it’s weird by other people’s standards and revels in it. The bizarre ads; the anthropomorphised ambulances with cat and dog faces; the eyebrow-raising Jinglish (everywhere I saw an ad featuring nothing but a woman and the words “Moist Diane” – again, who knows)… Collectively it says something pretty clear: This is Japan, and ordinary notions of ‘normal’ do not apply or matter. Reverence and irreverence, what’s important and what isn’t, is very different in the brilliant, quirky land that gave us samurai, sake and Sonic the Hedgehog.

One example that randomly comes to mind is how in Melbourne, you’ll grab a $2 sushi roll from any old joint (usually Chinese-owned) but you’d spend that lunch break catching up with someone, running errands or hitting the gym – being ‘productive’. In Japan, an adult might waste an entire lunch break reading semi-pornographic comics at a 7-Eleven or sleeping in a car, but the sushi consumption would be undertaken with the sort of thoughtfulness you’d reserve for a trip to the art gallery – careful consideration of the menu followed by full, devoted attention on the flavours in play. Sushi is not something you shove into a plastic box with a tiny plastic fish of soy sauce and scoff down at your desk while reading clickbait news on the web. It’s serious business.

And takeaway sushi is exactly what we had in Shibuya. We decided to ‘camp’ for a while at a statue of a dog that, no joke, has a photograph taken of it probably every 10 seconds during daylight hours. The dog, called Hachikō, used to leave home and make its way to Shibuya station every day to wait for the arrival of his owner, a uni professor. One day the professor died and never came home, but the dog continued the ritual every single day for almost 10 years until his own death – a moving example of dogs’ unrelenting loyalty to their master. It’s no surprise that the Japanese were impressed by this and in the words of the Wikipedia page I just brought up, to remind myself of the dog’s name –  “Hachikō’s legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty, particularly to the person and institution of the Emperor.”

After our own obligatory group shot, complete with peace signs, the girls went off to a sushi outlet we’d seen on the way out of the station, while us guys guarded the luggage, observing the insane level of public excitement at this otherwise unexceptional bit of bronze, while tentatively sipping on cans of beer/Strong. I say ‘tentatively’ coz at this point, it still seemed weird to be able to drink anything alcoholic in public. The Great Southern Nanny State had indoctrinated us deeply.


Anyway, at one point I attempted to balance a pile of sushi and soy sauce on one of the backpacks and it promptly fell over, leaving a massive dark-brown stain on the hallowed ground surrounding Hachikō’s likeness… So we decided this was our cue to leave.  We each grabbed our respective luggage and once again, began dragging it noisily along the concrete and bitumen onto another train, and finally – after some assistance from a traffic controller, spiffily dressed in what looked like a crisp Navy uniform – made it to our flat.

The problems started as soon as we stepped through the door. The flat, an AirBnB owned by some expat Yank, was tiny. There were two very small bedrooms – one of which smelled bad, due (we surmised) to an uncleaned tatami mat – and five of us. After much deliberation and back-of-head scratching , the pieces settled thus: Stef & Nicki in the stale-smelling room; me, Matylda & Shane in the other room (I had a mattress on the floor – #luxury); and TJ on the couch in a ‘room’ that was just a cramped walkway between the kitchen and balcony. Not quite the Sofitel Deluxe Suites, and there was a serious lack of bedding to boot – at least justifying my decision to bring my own pillow, as I’m rather fussy in the evening headrest area.

The room/bed allocation process had gotten us all a bit tense, so we did what anyone would do in that situation – step out onto the balcony and have a smoke and beer. By the time we were done, with malty breath and tar-infused jackets, watching cherry blossoms flutter off a tree like pink confetti, we felt much better. Hey, we were in Japan. Everything’s gonna be cool.


Me & Matylda at the cherry blossom tree on our street. Part 2 will come eventually – in the meantime check out my Instagram for more Japan pics!

Outback Adventure – Part 2

Part 1 hopefully set the stage for what the Australian Outback is like, so now I’m gonna turn to what Catalina and I actually did over our 4.5 days there.

Jetstar flight JQ664 to Ayers Rock was scheduled for 9:20am, and we got to the airport at around quarter to – cutting it fine, but in a matter of minutes we’d checked in our luggage, shuffled through security and found ourselves in the brand-new Terminal 4 with 30 minutes or so still to go. So of course we did what anyone else does upon arriving at an airport in the morning: have breakfast at Macca’s.

Catalina had her first McMuffin ever that day – the first of several firsts on this trip, not all of them as benign as an egg & bacon roll unfortunately. We scoffed down our greasy deliciousness, scrunched up & disposed of the paper bag, and began strolling towards the gate, my McCoffee or whatever in hand. At one point I spotted our plane through a window so stopped to take a couple of photos – something to post on the ol’ IG/Fb while it taxis up to the runway, seconds before obeying the instructions to turn on Flight Mode…

We kept going and it was then that we happened to pass by a monitor listing all upcoming flights, and realised we’d fucked up royally:


I looked at Catalina, looked down at my ticket – yep, that says ‘Gate 49’ – and back up to the screen.


Boy did we run.

Coffee was erupting out of my McCup all over my hand but ain’t nobody got time for that when your plane’s about to shoot off into the sky without you – all because we decided to stop for some shitty McBreakfast.

Of course our gate was right at the far end of the terminal. People at other gates stared at us careening up the walkway as if we were being shot at – until we arrived at the uninhabited Gate 49, where two women in uniform awaited us, their faces securely locked to Bitch Mode as we came to a pathetic halt before them, panting and flustered, trying to look sorry and innocent and desperate at the same time.

“You can only board if they haven’t taken your luggage off yet,” one of them declared in a Pauline Hanson-esque monotone. “Wait here while we check.”

She did and praise the Lord, our stuff was still on board. We were handed our tickets with a stern reprimand and, feeling like told-off first-graders, released out onto the tarmac to power-walk to the plane and up the steps for a final walk of shame to our seats. At least we’d made it on board.

After another 15 minutes’ delay (nothing to do with us) the plane roared off into the clouds, and once it’d leveled out and the seatbelt sign switched off, we were informed we both had a $5 in-flight voucher to use – which was just as well since I’d already pressed the assistance button for some beer. Minutes later a couple of Pure Blondes were placed in front of us complete with cups of ice. I felt at ease again. Things were back on track.


Some 3 hours later – a mere smoko by Australian flight standards – we landed at Ayers Rock. It’s worth mentioning at this point that 3 or 4 years earlier I’d gone on a similar trip to Darwin, and still vividly remember stepping off the air-conditioned cabin into what literally felt like a blast furnace – the contrast so sudden and extreme it was like walking into something solid; a thick, invisible padded wall of roasting heat.

Alas, no such thing this time. Overcast grey sky and if anything, the temperature was actually cooler outside thanks to a mild breeze. It was like we’d never left Melbourne.

You can probably imagine that Ayers Rock regional airport isn’t exactly a bustling mini-city of PA announcements, upmarket duty-free goods and immaculately dressed multinational flight crews walking around like prim cyborgs. You just hop off the plane, walk a few metres to a sliding door, step through, and find yourself in a space that’s probably smaller than the inside of Flinders St station. There’s the one luggage carousel, there’s the toilets, here are some rental car counters, and there’s the exit. So naturally, we went to the toilet, picked up our luggage (first off the carousel – almost missing flights does have its perks), and picked up our rental car – a little Mitsubishi Something, ketchup-red to go with the desert soil.

A short drive later we pulled into Ayers Rock Resort, a big loop of road around which there’s a fancy hotel, serviced ‘Emu Walk’ apartments, a campground, a Shell servo, and a ‘town square’ with a few shops and eateries. And let me tell you now – if ever you wanted to emulate ‘Humans of New York’ and set up a ‘Bogans and Retirees of Aus’ Facebook page, Ayers Rock town square would be a rich fountain of content indeed.

We turned right into the campground and within minutes were standing inside a little reception building in front of a big, unsmiling, mumbling Indigenous guy who informed us we were on lawn 14 then gave us one of those “OK to drink alcohol” passes I mentioned. Catalina took the opportunity to ask him whether Uluru’s open for climbing today, and I think it’s safe to say that if he wasn’t exactly winning the Excellence in Customer Service Award to begin with – and he wasn’t – he certainly wasn’t interested in even acknowledging her presence after that. We hastily took our maps and alcohol pass and left.

Happily, lawn 14 was at the far edge of the campground and devoid of campers – we had the whole grassy patch to ourselves. Nearby was a surprisingly clean and functional toilet block/showers/laundry/mosquito sanctuary, and each lawn came with power sockets so you could charge your phone… Coz let’s face it, if you’re under 35 and you’re on holiday, if there’s no pics it didn’t happen.

We set up our tent (another first for Cata, who’d never so much as been in one) and finally it was time to do the fun stuff. It was time to see the Rock.


Uluru – or ‘Ayers Rock’ as it used to be more commonly known – is pretty much to Aboriginal culture what the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to Christians. It’s a very old, very sacred site – which is why our Indigenous friend at reception did not take well to Catalina’s query, since although tourists are permitted to climb the Rock (bar certain conditions – strong winds, extreme heat etc), it’s simultaneously discouraged as a disrespectful act. At any rate, the climb was closed that day so after poring over the map we’d been given, we decided to be ambitious and do the full 10km ‘base walk’ around the perimetre – an undertaking estimated to take 3.5 hours, but which I figured we could do in one less.


The Rock itself is striking. Like most famous monuments – the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji – the first moment you see it with your own eyes you’re kind of caught by surprise, like “OMG there it is”, and it looks even grander than you’d imagined: larger than life, radiating an energy generated as much by its renown as by its sheer scale. Even against the dreary, colourless sky that afternoon, it was an impressive sight: this massive, brooding edifice the colour of dried blood standing guard over the surrounding desert… A silent, powerful sentinel of this ageless Dreamtime landscape.


For those who don’t know, the Dreamtime is the Aboriginal version of Genesis – a Creation myth of how the world came to be. The way it goes rings somewhat familiar: The world used be a featureless void, until a time – the Dreamtime – when giant, magical beings emerged and began wandering the land, and through their actions (playing, fighting, love-making etc) they transformed the world into a rich, vibrant environment teeming with animals, plants and landmarks – Uluru being a crowning example of the latter.

There seem to be varying accounts of how Uluru itself came to be. A series of signs near the car park tell a bizarre tale involving ‘Sleeping Lizard Women’ and pissed-off tribesmen who summon an evil dingo from mud, but its ending – that the earth rose in grief at the bloodshed between two warring tribes, forming Uluru – was quite poignant, and makes all the more sense once you explore the Rock and notice how it resembles scarred, petrified flesh in many places. According to another Dreamtime story, the grooves running up and down Uluru are the legacy of a struggle between two huge serpents wrestling on top of the monolith.


Of course, these grooves were actually created by rainwater, and there are black streaks all over the Rock that show where the water flows down during the wet season. The scientific explanation for this remarkable piece of geology is, naturally, less colourful than the myth, but still fascinating, as it reveals that the vast bulk of Uluru is actually underground. What we see looming over the desert is merely the tip of a vast sandstone iceberg… The fin of a colossal subterranean megalodon of which the Olgas is another component.


In his excellent Australian travelogue ‘In A Sunburned Country’, Bill Bryson quips that this “big red rock” would be a brilliant navigational marker should a spaceship ever need to land and wait for interstellar roadside assistance:

the obvious directions to rescuers would be: ‘Go to the third planet and fly around till you see the big red rock. You can’t miss it.’

I’d go one further and say that the Rock itself is so bizarre, so seemingly out of place in this otherwise flat, relatively featureless terrain, that you could almost imagine it as the façade for some sort of gigantic military facility – an Australian Area 51, with a secret opening somewhere that slides sideways to reveal a high-tech UFO hangar inside… Ripe fodder for a David Icke conspiracy theory if there ever was one.

But I digress.

We set off on the base walk and walked… and walked… and walked. The first third of the walk is actually some distance away from the Rock itself (possibly to hide that secret entrance) but happily, it gets closer and closer until you’re walking right up alongside it, able to appreciate its multifarious surface up close. It really is visually captivating – far from having the usual jagged/smooth rock texture you’ve seen on countless cliffs, it’s patterned with all sorts of random caves and curves and cuts, some of which you’d swear were indeed sculpted or inflicted by conscious entities rather than natural processes. Signs around the walk inform you of ‘sensitive sites’ – a particular part of the rock associated with a Dreamtime story – and they tend to coincide with a particularly striking feature in the rock wall, resembling the lips of a titanic sea creature or, dare I say it, a giant vagina.


Up close Uluru has such a variety of form and texture… At times resembling a soft cheese or a mousse that’s been scooped in parts with a spoon… Other times the rock wall is smooth and looms up high and straight like a stone tsunami… Some parts have bizarre markings resembling scars and orifices on some gigantic organic entity… Others contain curious collections of boulders as if they’ve actually gathered there to form still, silent communities of their own. Had he ever seen it, I’ve no doubt Salvador Dali would’ve been obsessed with this incredible landform and its multitude of faces, accentuated all the more at the sunset by black shadows and deep red luminescence.

That’s a caption for one of my Instagram videos, which I think sums it up nicely.

As we traversed the final part of the walk, our feet getting sore, the sun finally broke through the grey sheets that had been curtaining the sky all day and set its spotlight directly on our side of the rock. It was like a lava lamp being switched on – the rock, which by now had been looking rather dull and lifeless under the darkening sky, was suddenly brought to life, glowing hot-sauce red, its weird pockmarks and protrusions made all the more dramatic by the stark contrast of light and shadow…


Finally, we arrived back at the car, still patiently waiting for us in the parking lot, its compatriots long gone. We drove back to the campground tired but satisfied, had dinner at a box noodle place called Ayers Wok (geddit?), showered, and consummated our brand-new double air mattress in the cold but cosy confines of our portable home.

Day one was over… Three glorious more to go.


Outback Adventure – Part 1

I just got back from a whirlwind trip around the Outback and gotta say, it was amazing. The ‘Outback’ – that vast swath of flat, dry, rust-coloured territory across central Australia – is like being on another planet: looking out the airplane window as you touch down, you could swear you’re landing on the barren red surface of Mars, albeit it at a colony settled by white and black Australians.

Much of this world is familiar to anyone coming from any other part of Australia, yet at the same time it’s markedly different. The beer selections, for example, are same-old: Carlton Draught, XXXX, Cooper’s, Heineken… Yet to buy a beer at any campground/resort, you need to produce a little piece of paper you’re given upon arriving there – at least in theory, since I was never asked, since (I suspect) I don’t look overly Aboriginal. The road signs, too, come in familiar formats – e.g. the trusty black-on-yellow triangles that tell you what to expect ahead – but instead of heralding a T-junction or people crossing, they warn you to ‘BEWARE OF WANDERING STOCK’, ‘WATCH FOR WILDLIFE’ and, most commonly, to flag an upcoming ‘floodway’ – a low point in the road where rainwater accumulates during the brief but intense wet season.

There are also the usual white-on-green billboards displaying how far to go until the next few towns – the numbers usually in triple figures, reinforcing the ‘tyranny of distance’ that characterizes this wide brown land. Visiting just three places in four days – Uluru, King’s Canyon, Alice Springs then back to Uluru – my girlfriend and I racked up more than 1,000 kilometres of road travel, which cost us a pretty penny in petrol and extra mileage charges. But it was totes worth it.

Driving is really the way to ‘do’ the Outback – just you and the open road, metallic pools shimmering in the distance as the heat plays tricks on your eyes. Speed cameras are absent along these remote stretches of tarmac so you can move at a nice brisk speed – 130, 140 kilometres an hour… Occasionally a vehicle will appear in the opposite direction, a tiny speck that within seconds becomes a clearly discernible tour bus or camper van or road train that in another few seconds roars by with a ferocious rush of air, and is suddenly gone – an insignificant speck in the rear-view mirror, leaving you alone and intimate with the landscape once more… Just you, your music, the sun-cooked dashboard and the faint, constant whoosh of air con.


And what a landscape it is! Contrary to what I imagined, the Outback is actually covered in vegetation, albeit of a semi-arid variety… Low-growing, thin, with the bleached greens and browns of old army disposals apparel, all growing somehow out of the fine, bone-dry red dust. Far from being monotonous, this primitive but striking flora changes markedly every half-hour or so, as if you’re time-travelling through the great eras of prehistory – now Cretaceous, then Jurassic, then the other one… At times the orange-red ground is barely visible for all the dense shrubbery and tussocks of spiky grass; then you notice it’s become mostly bare and exposed but populated by black-stumped trees with limp branches and long, wispy leaves like green hair.

You also see the occasional animal – most of them dead; unlucky critters who chose the wrong moment to cross the road. Within our first hour of driving down the Lasseter Highway we came across a fly-bitten red kangaroo corpse with empty eye sockets, then a stinking big lump of a cow, then a poor lizard still strangely intact with blood around its mouth:


By far the most common encounters are with birds – cute, fluttery little things that swoop in front of your vehicle like acrobats. No joke, these little thrill-seekers actually dive into the middle of the tarmac to let the car pass over them – the first time it happened I thought I’d hit one, then realised when I watched in the rear-view mirror that the little blighters take off again once we’d whooshed right over the top of them. Gotta get your kicks in the desert somehow, I guess.

Not all the birds are cute and fluttery though. Every now and then you see the broad wingspan of a much larger bird silhouetted against the shining blue sky… Carnivorous scavengers scouring the ground from high up for something dead or dying to pick at, their shadow slowly swirling across the road, a subtly ominous element in the otherwise bright and radiant day.

On foot, your boots dusted with what looks like dried paprika powder, you experience some of Australia’s less endearing animals. Flies are a serious pest in the Outback, and the hotter the day, the more numerous they are, relentlessly bullying you until you become one sweaty, swatting, swearing epitome of futility and frustration. Cata and I experienced this on our last full day, bushwalking up the Olgas on what was the warmest afternoon of our trip, and it was like the worst summer barbeque you’ve ever had – a merciless barrage of buzzing that simply wouldn’t let up, the little black vermin honing in on our faces again and again as if compelled by some magnetic force. Selfies had to be retaken several times as one of us would inevitably turn away or pull a face at the critical moment, thanks to a fly shooting up a nostril or into an ear… And I’ve been told not to share those dud pics under threat of death. So bad was it that many of the older (and obviously wiser) hikers we passed wore beekeeper-style netted hats over their heads, wandering the desert like women in an Islamic theocracy… So yeah – if persistence is a virtue, flies are its most fanatical disciples… And indeed we wondered, as we retraced our steps back to the car park, swinging at the air in vain with folded maps, whether it’s the same group of flies the whole time or new ones coming and going. But that’s another subject for another time.

Of course ants, spiders and snakes also made an appearance. Luckily I noticed the little huntsman when I did, scurrying across one side of Catalina’s suitcase when I flung it into the back seat of the car – which, of course, saw said suitcase immediately hurled back out of the car onto the red dirt. I say ‘luckily’ because if I’d felt that thing crawling up my leg 20 minutes later, hurtling along Lasseter Highway at Formula One speeds… Well, let’s just say there’s been a long history of unexplained car crashes in Australia. God bless ’em for keeping the flies in check but let’s face it, nobody likes a hairy eight-legged arachnid upon their person, at any time or place.

The snake, on the other hand, was actually kind of cute – clearly an infant, about 50cm long, frantically wriggling across the walking path and disappearing into the undergrowth just as I’d rushed up to it with my smartphone camera at the ready.

Ever-present, of course, were Nature’s tireless little toilers, the ants – forming dotted black lines that criss-crossed all the walking tracks, carrying little bits of whatever down into their underground kingdom of tunnels. Catalina was quite smitten with this particular lot at Uluru, their pretty blue-black exoskeletons giving them the appearance of nanobots:


Finally, of course, there were dingos. The ‘resort’ we stayed in at King’s Canyon was rife with these, as suggested from the outset by signs imploring visitors to ‘keep dingos wild’ and not leave food lying around. Although long tarnished with a negative reputation, dingos are actually pretty tame, casually trotting around the edges of car parks and campgrounds without any apparent fear of or aggression towards humans. Where we stayed, every toilet block had a gate you had to swing open to enter and on the first night we discovered why – as I parked the car, a dingo suddenly scampered out of the shadows, made its way briskly across the lawn and without hesitation let itself through the ajar gate into the brightly lit Gents, emerging a few seconds later to return to the bush as though this was perfectly standard procedure. When I went inside later I discovered why – the bin, filled with paper towel and food scraps, had been tipped over. It made me wonder how many unwitting campers have copped a shock as a result of these shenanigans… Quietly brushing their teeth in their jim-jams only to have a wild dog burst in and start rifling through the garbage. Later that night another dingo (or perhaps the same cheeky bugger) wandered right past our tent, his four-legged silhouette clearly visible through the fabric… But there were no babies around so all good.


Basically, when it comes to the wildlife in Australia, the usual logic is reversed. Our answer to the wolf/coyote is basically a Bangkok street dog, and our bears are little more than perpetually sleepy soft toys… While our pint-sized critters – the spiders, snakes and jellyfish – can kill you in an hour flat.

Well, them and the crocs I guess.

Note: This is the first part of what I hope will be a broader piece about me and my girlfriend’s 4-day tour of the Outback – part 2 will focus less on road signage and insects and more on what we actually did and saw. In the meantime, you can check out some of the photos from our trip on Instagram.

Eurotrip 2015 – Part 5


Currently sitting on a bus on the way from Wroclaw to Krakow. While the crimson-coloured PKP (Polish National Railways) trains of old had their charm, this bus is a reminder of how things have changed – zooming along an autobahn on cushy red leather seats, with free wifi, everything so clean it looks like it came off the factory line just this morning. Outside, blanketed in fog under a low grey sky, is the Polish landscape: utterly flat; the only landscape I’ve seen in Europe reminiscent of rural Victoria, with its similarly flat, relatively featureless fields stretching out to the horizon. This is unsurprising given that Poland comes from the word Polanie, meaning ‘people of the fields’… A fantastic piece of territory for farming; not so great for defending against invasions.

I guess I should go back to where I last finished, which, speaking of invasions, was Germany. We had just one more stop to go – Cologne – which I had high hopes for, as a big city with a famously impressive cathedral. Actually it was the most underwhelming destination of the entire cruise. The cathedral is undoubtedly impressive – Gothic on steroids – but the rest is pretty mediocre, like the crappiest parts of Melbourne’s CBD cobbled together. That’s all I gotta say about it really.

At around dawn the next day we got to Amsterdam, world capital of sex and weed. In this way Amsterdam’s very different to your typical European city: it’s gritty, grimy, chaotic, noisy, freakish. Grandiose structures from the glory days of the Dutch Empire are surrounded by American junk food chains, novelty shops selling shishas and sex toys, and of course the infamous ‘coffee houses’ which are far more about cannabis than caffeine. Through the windows you can see ’em packed to the rafters with backpackers, idly sitting around, staring back not so much at you as through you with pink glazed eyes… And as you pass the door you get a strong, sharp whiff of the herb responsible for their vacant expressions.

Both me and Josh were here for the second time, and Josh hated it all over again from the outset. While I can’t say I loved it myself – and Amsterdam’s definitely a culture shock after several days of quaint, quiet little German townships – I was still interested enough to want to walk around and explore. With its endless waves of hobos, freaks and tourists flowing down the city’s main drag and in and out of its ghetto-ish laneways, it’s probably not a place I’d want to live in, but it’s a fascinating urban jungle to get lost for a while– especially in a hemp daze. Unfortunately we didn’t sample any as Josh wasn’t up for it, but I did treat myself to a cannabis ice-cream – basically a vanilla Choc Top infused with ganja – which disappointingly didn’t have much of an effect, if any.

It’s like the 70s never quite died in Amsterdam… Though really, I guess, it’s just a city that famously panders to the weed culture – not just in making cannabis readily available (though contrary to common belief, it’s not actually legal – just tolerated), but in all the associated paraphernalia of that lifestyle, from tie-dyed shirts to iron-on peace signs… Basically everything you’d pack for Rainbow Serpent. And if you’ve ever experienced the munchies after a few joints or cookies, you’d understand why the place is so totally inundated with junk food outlets – from ‘kabab’ (as it’s spelled in Europe) to pizza by the slice, and of course the city’s famous vlaamse frites – thick-cut chips served in a cone with a dollop of delicious yellow mayonnaise.

The next day, Saturday, was a hell of a day. We were up at 6:30am, bags hauled off the ship by 7, then breakfast and farewelling the various people Josh and I had befriended over our two weeks on board. Then it was off to Schiphol Airport by bus, then on to a plane to Frankfurt after a 45-minute delay, then on to another plane to Wroclaw (which I had to run for like a crazy person), then, finally, a drive home to the residential outskirts of the city. It wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet when I stepped through the Machalowskis’ gate and up to the front door, but this was not the time to retreat to a soft private place and crash. It was family reunion time, on for one and all – Uncle Jurek, Aunt Ewa, my cousins Kasia and Milena and their partners Adam and Michael. As luck would have it, Michael was celebrating his 40th in town that night so after some tomato soup, bigos and two shots of wodka, off we went – me still dressed in the stale flanny and jeans I’d been wearing for two days straight now, as my luggage was sitting somewhere back in Frankfurt thanks to a strike at Lufthansa.

There’s not a great deal to write about my two nights in Wroclaw: it was, like I said, one big long family reunion; a whole lot of sitting around and talking and eating and drinking. It was the typical Polish experience – conversations fueled by shots of ice-cold spirits and an endless procession of hearty meals, cakes and coffee. I reunited not only with relatives but met the next generation of my family – suddenly coming to terms with the fact I’m an uncle – as well as people I’d met on my trip 11 years ago… One of these being Jeremy, an old Brit who lives with his Polish wife (Michael’s mum) in Duszniki, a mountain town near Wroclaw, with whom Paul and I had spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve back in 2004-5.

KRAKOW / WARSZAWA – 22 November

“Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination.” – Jonathan Carroll

Our two final destinations were Krakow and Warszawa – the former and current capitals of Poland. Where to begin? To be back in Krakow made my heart soar. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful young women, as one of its many cultural treasures is the 800-year-old Jagellion University which attracts young people from all over Poland and the world. As a happy result, this immaculately preserved medieval city is also full of bars: reportedly the 800m x 800m market square in the centre of the Old Town has the highest density of bars in Europe. Yet it doesn’t seem that way at first glance; you have to explore a bit… Step curiously through an arched entry-way off the street and walk along until you come across an open wooden door, with the sound of conversation and laughter faintly emanating from below… Step through, down the staircase and suddenly you’re in a gorgeous old subterranean space, a centuries-old brick cellar that’s been converted into a funky bar.

Krakow is the site of what is probably Poland’s single most important monument: the Wawel, a collective term for the old royal castle and cathedral, set atop a hill near the heart of the city. Sadly we didn’t get to go inside – tickets had already sold out the day we went, even though we’d got there around midday – but we did walk around and take in everything from the outside, including the barracks that the Austrians built during Poland’s 19th-century partition, and where Hans Frank later stationed himself as Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland… The building adding to Wawel’s significance, in a way, as a reminder of Poland’s troubled history.

In Warszawa you get even more of a taste of this history, at least the tumultuous last 100 years. It’s a markedly different city to Krakow – the moment you step out into the open from the Metro, you’re immediately struck by this: Warszawa is a modern, bustling city. You emerge into a square full of people and noise and see a skyline of shimmering glass skyscrapers rather than Gothic spires or Baroque towers … Then you turn around and there it is, looming over you: the Palace of Culture and Science, a brooding, majestic building constructed, originally, as an expression of Communist power. The building is therefore as controversial as it is iconic of the city – it used to be derisively called the ‘Russian wedding cake’ – and in the 90s, I believe there was even debate about whether it should be torn down. But like the initially maligned Eiffel Tower, most Varsovians these days no longer see the Palace as a blight on the city’s skyline, and have embraced it as an emblematic landmark which adds to Warszawa’s unique historical tapestry. I took this picture on our way to the Palace because it summed up Warszawa for me (and innumerable shots like this can be taken from various parts of the city): the old, the new and the Soviet Realist, all co-existing in a city that’s still rebuilding.


(That’s a temporary Christmas installation in the foreground, by the way.)

Warszawa was completely destroyed in World War 2 – systematically dynamited and flame-throwered to the ground by German forces in 1944, following the ill-fated Uprising to liberate the city – and when US forces inspected the rubble in 1945, they suggested the Poles move their capital back to Krakow. But this would have meant Hitler won, in a sense: the Nazis demolished the city on his orders so that it could no longer function as a ferocious, unrelenting bull-ant’s nest of Polish nationalism and defiance. And so the laborious task of postwar reconstruction began, under Soviet watch, without any of the monetary aid Germany and other European countries enjoyed from America… Domino-style mass housing; utilitarian office buildings; everything made of beige stone and grey concrete – colourless, devoid of the decoration that once defined this ‘Paris of eastern Europe’. For better or worse, these Communist-era buildings still form the bulk of Warszawa’s infrastructure, interspersed with the odd reminder of the city’s former beauty… And now, increasingly, shiny glass testaments to its status as the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most promising economies.

So anyway. There’s probably not much point in a day-by-day narrative of what we did – essentially it was sight-seeing, eating, drinking and acting like retards to amuse ourselves. Josh fell in love with pierogi so we ingested plenty of these hearty ravioli-style dumplings, at the expense of our waistline – perfect for the cold temperatures that had kicked in by this time. On our last night we went out with Piotr – a family friend of mine, a few years younger than us and a Warsaw local – which perfectly wrapped up our boozy bachelors’ tour of Europe.

(ALMOST) MELBOURNE – 22 November

That night and indeed our whole stay in Poland made me realise that while I’m Polish and love hearing the Polish language around me, and seeing the red-and-white flag everywhere and being in these places with their incredible history which I’ve read so much about… At the end of the day, I’m a foreigner in Poland. People pick up on my accent straightaway and sometimes even switch over to English, assuming (not incorrectly, I guess) that I’d be more comfortable conversing in that. I may have a name few can spell and even fewer can pronounce; I may have the hair and cheekbones of someone who’s clearly from the north of Europe; and several of my closest friends are Polish, our shared heritage an important catalyst for our friendship. But I’m Aussie before I am Polish; Australian English is my primary language; and the Australian way of life is the one I live – the only one I know, in fact, having lived my whole life in Melbourne bar a half-year in Poland when I was 5. And while I have friends from all backgrounds – Serbian to Swedish, Chinese to Peruvian – they are all, at the end of the day, Aussies too. And so it’s great to be coming back. Just a few minutes ago, Josh interrupted me to point out the Martian red landscape outside the plane window: that surefire sign we’re flying over ‘Straya, the great rust-coloured continent so very, very far from the ornate lamp-posts and cobbled squares of Krakow. And as deeply as I miss those things already, I’m also happy to be coming home.

EPILOGUE – 3 December

So it’s been over a week since we’ve got back, and I wanted to add this before publishing the above coz I feel reflecting back is perhaps what’s most important in a journal.

The final week, in Poland, definitely cranked up the emotion-meter: catching up with relatives, seeing nephews for the first time, seeing my grandma for possibly the last time, and then finishing off the trip with five nights in the two great cities of my ancestral homeland – the cultural treasure chest of Krakow and the hero city with myriad faces, Warszawa. I still recall the feeling of joy I got when I opened up the windows of our flat in Krakow, smelling the crisp icy air and looking out over Dietla (the main drag we were on) with its rows of oak trees, shedding the last of their yellow leaves onto the footpath and tram tracks below. I got the same feeling three days later, when we’d lugged our luggage up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building on Warszawa’s Old Town Market Square, and looked out: over the square (at that point a construction zone as preparations were underway for the Christmas market) to the red-tiled roofs and fresco-painted facades of the Old Town; and beyond that, a series of lit-up skyscrapers and the ever-present Palace of Culture and Science. It seriously tripped me out to wake up at 5am on Monday and remember I’m now back in little ol’ Elsternwick on the eastern side of sunny, suburban Melbourne, half a planet and an entire reality away.

I feel, therefore I am.

It’s an artist’s take on Descarte’s famous statement, and it vaguely encapsulates what travel does to me. Because undoubtedly there was emotion, in fact as soon as I went for my first walk around Budapest I was almost moved to tears, swept up in the staggering beauty and history all around me. It felt almost surreal, like being sucked into a movie you love but haven’t seen in ages.

This was not a relaxing trip, by any means. It raised questions rather than answered them; put gaps and issues in my life that I’d swept under the carpet back to centre stage. Burned into my mind’s eye is my grandma’s face when she asked me, a mere minute into seeing me for the first time in 11 years… “Mateusz, when are you going to get married? Why haven’t you got a girl? It’s such a shame for you not to have a girl.”

We’ve heard it before, ol’ gran’ma telling you to eat more and hurry up and get married. It’s a cliche we like to chuckle at. But the way she said it to me, face scrunched up with worry and slight disapproval, was like the way you’d ask someone when they’re going to straighten the fuck out and give up heroin. She looked pained by the situation. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised maybe she’s got a point. Maybe our Australian culture of hooking up and going out and dating endlessly through your teens, 20s and well into your 30s is bullshit. Maybe our Tinder/Snapchat generation is heading for a middle age of hollowness and loneliness, having never committed ourselves to true love when we had the chance – playing the grasshopper when we should’ve started playing the ant, setting the foundations for a supportive family life. This is going down a totally different path – and there’s a reason why I’ve personally missed the marriage bus so far – but it’s the question this trip raised perhaps above all: Why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I taking that more seriously? As I sat beside my grandma – now a fragile shell of her former self, ravaged by old age and Parkinson’s – I realised the clock is always ticking, slowly but relentlessly… That life is passing all of us by, and it’s dangerous to forget this as you go about the same old shit back home day after day, week after week, very slowly progressing towards… Well, what? Not much at all, if you don’t bother to stop, examine your life and consciously set it on course for love, fulfillment and meaning.

The answer doesn’t necessarily in a new place – as tempted as I am to spend 6-12 months back in Krakow and see how that life goes. But absolutely, at least as a start, it demands a deep, fresh, charged, big-picture outlook… And that, I believe, is the real purpose of travel: to reset your mind and soul and put you back in tune with yourself and your destiny. In which case, I can happily say that this trip was a great success 🙂

What 2014 taught me (Part 1)

With the new year just a couple of days away, I thought I’d look back on 2014 and try to capture, tangibly in written words, some of the things it taught me. There are two things that made this year unique for me: it was the first time I’d been in a serious relationship, which ‘became official’ in March and fell apart at the end of November, and it was a year of travels – some for business, some for pleasure, all enjoyable and eye-opening in some way. It’s this latter aspect I want to focus on, so I’m going to break up this blog entry into a series of mini-chapters – one for each trip – and hopefully draw some kind of lesson or insight from each.

February   |   Century mine, Queensland, Australia

The travel motif started not long after the year did. When I returned to the office in January, the main thing I had to get working on was a research piece examining how MMG’s intranet could be improved – i.e. made more practical and user-friendly – for our blue-collar employees. (In case anyone reading this doesn’t know me, MMG’s a mining company whose head office I work at.) It was soon decided that this project called for a visit to one of our operations, and that I was to accompany the two consultants we’d engaged to help facilitate the consultation, build relationships within the company and get a taste of Life on Site.

We decided straightaway on Century, one of MMG’s three Australian mines and the biggest open-pit zinc mine in the country. It’s located in a very remote part of Queensland somewhere near Mount Isa, which is somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria which is that top bit of Australia that juts out trying to touch Papua New Guinea across the sea. To get there I had to fly up to Townsville from Melbourne, spend the night there then catch a charter flight with about 50 miners at some ungodly hour the next morning, the radio in the taxi already preparing me for what was to come…

“God made the sugar cane grow where it’s hot,
And teetotal abstainers to grow where it’s not.
Let the sin bosun warn of perdition to come;
We’ll drink it and chance it, so bring on the rum…”

I made the rookie mistake of getting all jacked up on coffee at Townsville airport, unlike the miners who lumbered onto the plane, exchanging g’days after a few weeks of R&R apart, then as soon as the thing took off, slumped their heads back on the seat or against the window and promptly dozed off for the next 1.5 hours. I didn’t regret it though. While these blokes had obviously seen it all before, it was my first time ever seeing the Great Australian Landscape from a charter-flight altitude, which is substantially lower than a commercial aircraft and gives you an amazing view of what’s passing by below unfettered by clouds or excessive distance – an abstract painting of red and brown hues with patches of dark green, veined blue with little rivers and creeks… At points, breath-taking sights like this shimmering opal-like lake:


As I watched this topographic artwork roll past below me I felt genuinely moved; the primeval grumble of didgeridoo began playing through my head, overlaid with the lilting flute melodies of those early Anglo-Irish settlers who explored and set up industry in this wide brown land… Industry which I was about to witness on a truly colossal, mechanized 21st-century scale.

An open-cut mine the size of Century’s is an impressive sight to behold, a man-made Grand Canyon so vast you can’t actually see the whole thing from any one vantage point. Beyond this Titanic crevice on the earth’s crust, from the top of the pit where the yellow trucks below look like Micro Machines, you see the same Martian terrain stretching out as far as the eye can see – flat, red-brown, barren… Epic.


It’s not the most interesting or original revelation, but I guess this little trip reminded me how damn big the world is. I hadn’t even left Australia, yet in less than 24 hours I’d travelled roughly 3000 kilometres into a completely different climate and environment – from temperate Melbourne to tropical Townsville then north-west into Queensland’s semi-arid gateway to the Outback. But I’m not so much talking physical scales and distances as the fact that even around this colossal hole in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of people toil like an army of bull ants every single day – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for weeks on end before catching that charter plane out again… Driving trucks, taking tea breaks in ‘cribs’, necking beers post-shift before showering and settling down in little jail cell-like rooms called ‘dongas’, perhaps calling their partner and kids on Skype before passing out on a creaky bed that was someone else’s just a week or day before…

“The world turns, but we don’t feel it move.”

This quote from Gangs of New York kind of sums up the sentiment. As individuals we tend to get locked inside of our own little reality, our awareness confined to the immediate place and present. But the world is incomprehensibly bigger than that, and that’s something worth remembering. Every single second there are billions of people on this planet doing something: chopping up vegetables for soup or sipping wine on a plane; weeping at funerals or celebrating as a newborn baby’s brought home from the maternity ward; fulfilling lifelong dreams or beginning an endeavour or adventure or relationship that will change their lives, even if they’re not aware of it yet…

This is a good thing. Whatever you’re feeling or going through, be mindful that you’re not alone in it, nor is it the end of the world. Life goes on. Important and valued though we are in our own little spheres, we’re just a tiny part of an incredible production that spans many continents, cultures and centuries. “No man is an island,” as John Donne wrote, so take heart: If life’s a roller-coaster, there are many others on the ride along with you, experiencing the same ups and downs, thrills and spills.

I left Century mine after three days. I’d ridden around in a truck the size of a house, in a hole the size of a meteorite crater; pigged out nightly on choc mousse and jelly at the all-you-can-eat dessert buffet (see my first-ever food pic below); and joked freely, discussed seriously and drank heavily with people whose lives are very different to mine and with whom I’ll probably never cross paths again, but I’m glad I did. Because realising the world is a busy and enormous place that goes on regardless of you, peppered all over with individuals from all walks of life, each carrying their own reality and story inside of them… This is a humbling, even calming realisation that helps put things in perspective. Indeed: Even as I’m writing this, somewhere out there right now, hundreds of people in orange vests are digging up ore from the ground and transporting it and putting it through a processor, and that big beautiful world I saw from the plane keeps turning slowly but surely without end…

And yes, the mousse. Ohh the mousse.

“We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning.”

Henry W. Beecher


April   |   Kinsevere mine, Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo

The second trip brought this home too. It sent me to a part of the world that, as remote as Century is, made it seem like your local corner milk bar by comparison. This was the Congo – a place where you see more machine guns than computers, in a continent known to us mainly through grim stories on the evening news… This year of course it was Ebola, its resurgence wiping out almost 8000 Africans since March.

The outbreak hit the mainstream media around the same time Peter and I (Peter being the consultant I was dispatched with) landed in South Africa at the start of April. The first I heard of it was when we were sitting in the lounge at Johannesburg airport, trying in vain to connect to the wifi, when an alarming story on the TV above us caught my attention: Ebola was spreading like wildfire through west Africa. I knew three basic things about Ebola: it was highly contagious, it killed quickly, and it originated in exactly the place where me and Peter were heading: the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I didn’t end up catching Ebola, although I did develop something nasty during my final week which turned my three-week absence from the office into a four-week one. (Peter himself ended up being hospitalized, with what doctors said was “either pneumonia or malaria” – probably the latter, and probably what I had as well.)

As I wrote in previous blog entries, the Congo wasn’t necessarily what the imagination conjures up. There’s little jungle or gorillas, at least in the south-east where I was – in fact there were very few trees at all, since poor people everywhere have cut them down to get charcoal for either fuel or money. You see these same people trudging down the long dirt road between Kinsevere and Lubumbashi, the regional capital, where they head daily – huge sacks on head or on an old bike bent under the strain, alongside which they walk for up to 20 kilometres a day… A scene that correlates a lot more closely with the Africa we see on TV.

Like I said, this trip definitely impressed upon me how vast and contrasting the world is too. There’s nothing like chilling in the business lounge at Perth airport, sipping scotch & Cokes next to some polo shirt-clad dude, deeply tanned from his ’business meetings’ at the golf course with Sharon Stone-esque wife in tow… then roughly 24 hours later, finding yourself in a mini-van bouncing along a sometimes-paved road past shantytowns full of half-naked black kids sitting on barrels staring in to what you realise is an equally exotic sight for them: a pale white Westerner with hay-blonde hair and denim jeans.

DSC_0531 v2

It made me realise how lucky I am as one of those Westerners – lucky, above all, to have opportunity in my life. Of course there’s food and water and shelter to be grateful for too, no doubt, but even in these shanty-towns people have that – which, not to belittle their situation, I’m happy to say, ’cause it would’ve been heart-breaking to pass malnourished or hopelessly crippled people, especially on the way to a place where food and medical attention are available 24/7.

What’s awful though is that even though these people have things to eat and drink, and some rudimentary roof over their heads – even self-styled shanty medical clinics – what they definitely don’t have is opportunity. They’re doomed to eat more or less the same shit and carry sacks twice their own body weight up and down that endless road, half of it made of dust or mud depending on the weather, forever, like Sisyphus and his rock. Without education, without welfare, without a relative who can loan them some money or do some hustling to get them a job, these shanty-town inhabitants have virtually zero chance of improving their lot in life or getting some lucky break.

It’s unpleasant to even think about but in another life, that could be me or you staring into the windows of that white mini-van as it whizzes past a few times a day, carrying people with their well-paid jobs afforded by their education afforded by their parents afforded by their citizenship in a country where these things are ‘rights’, not hopes and dreams. I distinctly remember sitting in the taxi on the way home from Melbourne Airport, after three weeks of tough meat and lukewarm veg, and being excited – literally excited – about the prospect of eating a ramen: hot and buttery with a Japanese-style boiled egg. Having the opportunity to do, back in this city with all manner of cuisines ready to be served up in front of you, delicious and affordable and fresh, felt like winning Tattslotto… And indeed, all of us who live here have.

“I have a very good life – I’m lucky enough not to be deprived.” – Meryl Streep



May   |   Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Like Century, Sydney was just a three-day thing, a short trip to attend an intranet conference at a big posh hotel in the CBD (the Amora, if anyone cares). It’s hard to articulate or even understand in concrete terms what the ‘meaning’ of this trip was, but I felt it very intensely – walking along King St Wharf the first two nights, eventually settling on one of the harbourside restaurants for dinner, ordering a table-for-one and a beer, and soaking up the ambience of this dazzling world-class city so close yet so different to Melbourne… Then wandering aimlessly some more, before returning at around 10pm to my little room at the Ibis hotel, with its window overlooking a highway and a bunch of high-rises.

There was a sort of intense, uplifting loneliness to this stay in Sydney, and looking back on it, it seems distinctly longer than three days – as if three days doesn’t seem long enough to generate that sort of intensity. I felt it too at Kinsevere, of course – in that miniscule dot of light in a vast, pitch-black ocean of grassland-wilderness at the bottom of the Congo. But I was there with a consultant who practically became a buddy of mine, along with dozens of expats whose faces and names I got to know either through the training room where I spent most of my day or, more commonly, at the bar afterwards where most of us wound down for the night. Even a total stranger doesn’t feel like a total stranger when he’s wearing the same bright-orange shirt with the same familiar red logo as you, not to mention his full name.

In Sydney though, once the conference concluded at 4 or 5pm each day, the hours afterwards were all mine and mine alone… And so I’d go wandering, along George St and King St and Pitt St, through glitzy shopping centres and past waterfront casinos the size of ancient wonders and bars busting at the seams with people, the smokers and drunks noisily congregated outside… And towering over all this, when you step back far enough from the music and traffic and humanity and look up, you see looming over you like a mountain range clusters of skyscrapers adorned with hundreds of tiny lit windows and crowned with neon signs, spectacular and silent in their glory… And high above even them, hundreds more tiny lights that form the equally spectacular and silent night sky.

”You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder… And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”

– Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Vivid city 3


Dining at the waterfront and exploring the city by myself after my day at the Amora was done felt like a Hemingway short story at times: the meaning is far from obvious; it’s much more about the atmosphere and that strange, deep, bittersweet feeling you’re left with…

I remember messaging my girlfriend at the time, ‘Wish you were here’ and all that stuff… and I did, very much. I had my own hotel room in this gorgeous part of town, dinners and taxis paid for… And as I strolled for hours along that King St boulevard past all the parked boats and fancy restaurants with people wining and dining, conversing and laughing, I wished she could be there with me, so that together we could be like so many of the other young people I passed – hand in hand or arm over shoulder, perhaps sitting on the wooden decking by the water, taking in the magical ambience during pauses between make-out sessions.

Again, it’s a hard thing to describe, and kind of a paradox – because although I was yearning for romantic company, I loved that being so alone – this tiny atom of consciousness in this awe-inspiring metropolis with all of its grit and glamour – gave me such power of introspection, allowed me to dive right into my core and nurture and embrace this yearning, and use it to imagine what could be and in doing so, perhaps manifest it and relish it all the more if and when it does… If that makes any sense.

For many of those young (and not-so-young) people I passed, it was probably just another night, the same way I march down Southbank boulevard at half past 5 every weekday to catch the train from Flinders St station. But for me, on those three nights, it was like a conversation took place deep inside me between me and the world, and everything seemed intense and full of beauty like a van Gogh painting, there was soul in everything, and the entire evening glowed with a vibrant magic that I learned will make itself quietly apparent to you if you just tune into the right frequency.

“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

–    Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

Adventures in the Congo – Part 3

I’m writing this from the comfort of my living room, having been home for about a week. This is no longer Mateusz Buczko reporting live from the ground at Kinsevere, coordinates: bar. Although my intent was to wrap up my journal while still over there, a debilitating cold & cough meant I lost the willpower to do so… So here’s my belated, final dump of thoughts & impressions from this wild African safari.

An easy way to structure this might be to actually examine what made me sick – coz there were a number of factors, I think, that came together to tear down the walls of my immune system and keep me bedridden for days after arriving back in Melbourne. While my sickness is hardly the point, they serve as interesting stepping stones for one last literary tour of the Congo.

An obvious starting point is the weather. I landed in the country at the end of the wet season/beginning of the dry season, and I gotta say, for metereological schizophrenia, Congo aces Melbourne hands down. One moment things can be dead calm & still, then nek minnit – not rain, but a torrent of water bucketing down from the heavens, like standing over a waterfall. This colossal downpour doesn’t just pitter away like normal rain either – it vanishes in a flash, literally like a tap has been abruptly wound back. It’s incredibly sudden, and on several occasions I was caught out by what seemed like the second coming of the Great Flood, unable to see more than a couple of metres in front of me.

In drought-prone Oz we’ve been ingrained to appreciate rainfall – “it’s good for the farmers” and all that – but the mining sector hates it. Wet weather turns dirt roads into mud slides and pit bottoms into swamps, bogging down vehicles and making work doubly difficult. Several people remarked to me out of the blue that they’re happy the wet season’s nearly over… Not only do dry conditions suit mining activity much better, at the end of the day it also means less puddles which is where Public Enemy Number One – the mosquito – hangs out and spawns.

Sickness cause #2 would be the long, regimented days of mine life. A mine’s much like a prison in many ways – you wear standard-issue bright orange garb, eat meals at particular times of the day in a mess, wake up early and go to bed early, have to wear identification at all times, and at Kinsevere, you’re even surrounded by a barbed wire fence guarded by uniformed security. Out of these, it’s the waking up early that got me… Coz at a mine, ‘early’ doesn’t mean 7am, it means 5am, and that’s 7 days a week. There are no weekends here; shifts at Kinsevere are generally 6 weeks on, 3 weeks off, with occasional ‘fatigue days’ granted for when a miner’s had a big night and probably won’t pass breath testing the next morning.

If you’re not an early riser, it’s a brutal regime and it really puts the ‘severe’ in Kinsevere when you’re dropped in and put to work jetlagged after 20+ hours of flying and airports… The final iteration being a concrete Pac Man maze filled with wild-eyed machine gun-clutching ‘authorities’.

But wet weather, jetlag and early mornings aren’t all that uncommon, especially for work trips… What really did it, I think, was the training itself, the whole rationale for my being there.

This was probably something to mention way back in Part 1, but the purpose of my going-over to Kinsevere was to oversee the launch of, and train people in how to use, ‘Magnet’ – Magnet being MMG’s global intranet. For those familiar with this kind of stuff, it’s a SharePoint 2010-based thing split up into a number of mirrors – one mirror per mine site – and it’s a heavily customized, incredibly complex beast – part website, part applications portal, part document and multimedia repository, part collaboration workspace, part news channel… You get the idea.

Training people in how to use it, even the basics, isn’t easy. Training people who need to know how to create and manage content is considerably harder… And that’s still assuming they speak English, are well-versed in computers and possess, shall we say, Western sensibilities vis a vis training and professional development. This assumption is fatally wrong on all counts at Kinsevere.

The problem isn’t simply the language barrier. Most of the Congolese, in addition to their native Swahili and French, do have a reasonable command of English. But this means nothing if the desire to learn isn’t there, and that’s an issue I wasn’t expecting but which certainly made its presence felt – like the mosquito bite itch you wish would go away but it won’t, and you just gotta suck it up and deal with it.

There’s that joke, ‘If all else fails, read the instructions’. We’re all guilty. But at Kinsevere it’s beyond a joke – it’s an excruciatingly frustrating reality, with trainees refusing to refer to the step-by-step guides that I painstakingly put together for weeks prior to the trip. They’d simply sit there and click aimlessly at the screen or just stare at it blankly like a cat, a behaviour I found difficult to comprehend… But like so many things, it’s easy to forget the cultural divide that gives rise to such misunderstandings – in this case, the fact that most of these locals did not attend a First World school followed by six years of university, and do not understand in the way I do the value of referencing information or sharing it…. Which yes, made training them in a fairly user-unfriendly IT/communications platform – designed for storing and sharing information – one of the most challenging work experiences of my life to date.

The happy and bizarre upside though is the kids were completely the opposite.

On one of my last days at Kinsevere, a bunch of MMG volunteers including myself travelled into town to host a ‘day out’ for kids and teens from three local orphanages. I had no idea what to expect, but I know I was pleasantly surprised… Far from being an anarchic bunch of delinquents, these kids were well-dressed in bright clean clothes, with funky, carefully styled hairdos and gentle manners. They lined up diligently upon arrival and even when the call was made to commence the Easter egg hunt, and we waved our arms to get ’em to start scrambling, it was not at all the Pamplona Running of the Bulls that I expected… Just a calm, measured search of the grounds for whatever tinfoil-wrapped treats they could find.

This is of course a far cry from Aussie kids. I helped destroy several Pizza Huts and their immediate surroundings in my childhood, yet these kids didn’t so much as throw a cupcake or tip a Fanta onto their leftovers… Instead they instinctively broke their cupcakes into pieces which they then shared, and some tucked away their soft drink cans into their handbags for later consumption. It wasn’t what I expected and thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – food and drink are not things to be frivolously wasted in a place like the Congo.

The girls were particularly funny and full of character. Both Peter and I were asked to be husbands and on several occasions I was requested to take part in a “pich” (I eventually figured out they meant ‘pic’)… Most of which have been lost as whoever did the honours didn’t know how to operate my camera. But these young ladies were chirpy, sassy and in as good shape as anyone you’d see in Lubumbashi or, for that matter, Melbourne.

Nevertheless, the orphan day out and the DRC trip in general brought home that old adage that’s so easy to forget – Be grateful for what you have. It’s yawn-inducing to read or hear but when you go overseas to a place like the Congo, boy do you remember and recognise its truth. Being a First Worlder isn’t all fun and games either, as we all know – commuting to work and sitting in an office all day isn’t most people’s cup of tea either, but at the end of the day, when you’ve done your sitting and you’ve caught that crowded Metro carriage back to suburbia, you’ve got your own nice neat home with nice neat stuff and plenty of food and clean water and heaters and soft beds and Medicare and the option to go to a restaurant or a movie or the beach or pretty much whatever the hell you feel like. Right? Spare a thought for how awesome that is coz speaking for myself, right now, as I’m finally getting over my sickness and can feel my energy returning, I could pretty much make myself high just reflecting on how lucky I am to be in this world-class city with all this stuff and all these opportunities just waiting for me, without ever having to worry about whether the essentials will still be there for me tomorrow.

So yep – it was an adventure. It was a lesson. It was a workout. Like all travel, well worth doing and an excellent reset button for one’s perspective on the world at large…. as well as appreciation of the precious little world you get to call your own.