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A graduate of Sports Studies at Paisley University, which is about as rewarding as being the best dancer in the Spinal Unit.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Things About Australia I Didn't Know - Part 1

One of my first jobs when I arrived in Australia was volunteering for a local organisation that was running an activity club for Armadale’s disadvantaged “at-risk” youth.
The night itself was mayhem. I was there solely as a youth work volunteer, keeping myself occupied until formal employment came along. Helmed by a team of well intentioned but inexperienced staff, the program consisted of a couple of activities that the young people, largely Aboriginal, could take part in; art, bike building, dodgeball, video games etc. The venue, an old disused post office was working against us from the start being as it was too small and inadequate to house twenty five Red Bull fuelled teenagers.

Art was the first port of call where the leader of the session set out a focus for the group to paint how drugs affect their lives. Cue twenty five beautifully rendered, hand drawn pictures of bongs of varying shapes, sizes and colours. Imagine an Andy Warhol tribute, but with less Marilyn Monroe. 

On to the dodge-ball then. This was played outside on the pavement beside a road and featured routine dashes across traffic like a human version of Frogger, as the ball ricocheted off the post office. As a facilitator of youth activities for the last ten years, it went against all fundamental health and safety practices on a basic level. As a first time outsider to this particular set-up, I hoped it would be called to a halt by the session leader without the inconvenient death of a participant. Part of me just figured they surely knew what they were doing here and that I should stop worrying. Both these activities were strung together by the most torrid, disrespectful, human rights violating abuse by the young people I think i’ve ever seen. They just didn’t give a shit what they were saying or who they were saying it to. From the 6pm start through to the midnight finish it was a hurricane of screaming, fighting, swearing, vandalism, stealing, spitting, threatening and general dismissing of fundamental decency towards staff, the very people who were trying to help them. 

As part of the service, the young people were given a bus ride home. This went as well as you could guess if you put any fifteen angry, confused and violent creatures in a steel capsule and hurtled it around at fifty miles an hour. Often we would arrive at houses where there were no parents or there were parents but they were in the midst of a spirited bout of domestic violence. We would bring the kids back to the centre, wait a while and return them when things had quietened down/someone had passed out. In one instance of dropping the kids off with a parent or guardian, they opened the door in front of me and revealed a house that had all the hallmarks of a poorly maintained crack den.

All of this may not surprise anyone who works in these communities in Australia. It might not even seem extreme and I've certainly seen and experienced worse over the last three years. The shock came from my naivety (I was essentially straight off the boat) and the fact my perceptions of Australia were vastly different as a person originating from the other side of the world. We are fed an image of this country that has ingrained itself in popular culture. Barbecues, Beaches, surfing, sunshine and a nationwide laid-back attitude to life that permeated every citizen.  To my eternal shame, my entire understanding of Aboriginal People before I arrived was based on the cameo in Crocodile Dundee. I can’t remember a single black guy ever gracing the screen in an episode of Neighbours or Home and Away. You hear very little to nothing of Aboriginal Australians if you’re living outside of Australia.

On a vast scale, the majority of Indigenous people are treated as second class. A nuisance. The sigh inducing weight to bear on white shoulders. I talked to as many people as a I could and attended several “Cultural Awareness” courses that went through history, recent history, about what took place here. I joined a room of middle class white people who were asked what percentage of Aboriginal history they were aware of. We went round the room and not one of them said more than 1%. Bear in mind these people (who were between 18 and 60) had lived in this country all their lives.
This amazed me. The fault, I discovered, was because Aboriginal history isn’t taught in schools. Generally, all children are taught Captain Cook discovered Australia and they wonder why young Indigenous people get disillusioned with state education.

There is a reason substantial history isn’t taught. It’s because to educate on even one aspect is to open up a can of worms that may have potentially devastating consequences for the government. Colonial frontiers featured regular massacres of European settlers killing thousands upon thousands of Indigenous Australians. An entire generation of children were stolen from families (under official government instruction) and rehoused in white communities with the direct intention of ‘breeding out’ the Aboriginal element over time. This was conceived in 1937 at a Commonwealth State-Native Welfare Conference where they question was posed as what to do about the ‘Aboriginal Problem’. Discussion revolved around the ‘absorption’ by the people of the commonwealth, with the idea among non-indigenous people that there was no value in Indigenous culture. The children removed from their parents were placed in institutions or foster families where they received a lower standard of education or none at all. In addition, they were told to forget their language and heritage. First hand stories, aside from the obvious trauma of loss and separation include neglect, isolation, deplorable living conditions, abuse and molestation. I’ve met Aboriginal people who went to primary school and were not even looked at as human, with the government classing them as Flora and Fauna.
The result of these policies is seen today with vastly reduced Aboriginal numbers, huge levels of disadvantage, drug use, obesity, alcoholism, broken families, domestic violence, early pregnancies and despite being 3% of the population, they make up 30% of Australia’s prisoners. So many of the young people I've worked with through my own youth program have no issue with spending time in jail. In fact, they expect it. Its part of growing up.

With the complete lack of mandatory education on this subject, you can’t help notice the attitude of many White Australians when the topic is brought up. I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve heard, “They should just get over it”.

Something else I've noticed is the number of bumper stickers that express interesting opinions on immigration. Considering the vast majority of the country is made up of people who have roots from all over the world, a common banner emblazoned to the back of pick-up trucks or Utes is, “Fit In or Fuck Off”.

Sage advice, 150 years too late.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


I'm going to start with a story that you can commit to memory and, if you like, re-tell at work appraisals and kids birthday parties. I've been told this is absolutely true and like my favouite movie, The Human Centipede, 100% medically accurate.

In Borneo, there are leeches everywhere you go in the jungle. You'll be walking along and after even a few hundred feet, you'll be shocked to find that several may have hitched a ride from plants or whatnot and are now underneath your clothing, latched on and relocating your blood. In a village not too far from where I ended up staying, there was a young girl, around 12, who was down by the waters edge washing her families clothes. Unbeknownst to her, a river leech was making its way up her leg and found its merry way into her vagina. By the time she had felt something, it had all but disappeared. Not feeling any discomfort, she neglected to tell anyone about it. Fast forward an undisclosed time later and the said girl was the shame of the village as she sported an engorged stomach not unlike she was pregnant. Her parents took her angrily to the doctor who used an ultrasound and discovered hundreds of leeches inside her womb. Tragically, there was nothing they could do at that point and they literally ate her from the inside until she died shortly afterwards.

I wasn't actually planning to come to Borneo, but seeing how close I was in relation to Kuala Lumpur it seemed stupid not to. I was still looking for my fair share of wildlife and there's no better place for it. They say almost half of all animals on the planet are here, so you would be pretty unlucky to end up disappointed.

My plan was to head into the jungle on the homestay (I found one, recommended to me by my dorm mate, Robert) but before that I got to that I was going to hang out with a couple of folk in Kota Kinabalu, Sandra and her friend, Alex. Sandra is widely accredited with getting me my degree in University as she was responsible for writing notes for the dyslexic members of our course. I'm actually quite capable of writing them myself, but unfortunately i'm also struck down with a crippling laziness and it would mean I would have had to take time away from my real passion of that era, which was drawing awesome helicopters.

So we spent the next few days island hopping, snorkling, attending Orangatan sanctuaries (where, thanks to Sandra's gift of the gab, we were granted an illegal private audience with one of the babies, and i'm pretty sure I started ovulating.) sunbathing and attempting to swim in a soup of jellyfish. In the event of all of us getting stung, I suggested a Threeway Peeway to eleviate the pain. And y'know, for kicks.

With a pretty fun week done and the women heading back home, I boarded the bus to a Homestay in Sukau. Its about 6 hours journey to the junction, which is surrounded by palm oil plantations literally as far as the eye can see. A twelve year old kid captains a seven foot craft that looks like he whittled himself and whisks you down the Kinabatangan River towards the house. It's a fairly basic place, elevated to avoid flooding, with holes in the floor and a toilet that during my whole time there, I never really figured out. With the river about 20 yards from the front veranda, the backyard is the rainforest with a variety of monkeys and enough elephant tracks and shit to suggest they are never far away. The wife of the main guide greeted me warmly at the front porch and as I dumped my bags off, I realised she is tirelessly running the business at the same time as looking after six kids.

The other two guests were Americans Carol and Ashwin, who like me, had barely come to grips with surroundings before we were back on the boat for the River Safari.
All of us commented that the main guide (i'll call him Bob as I don't want their business affected) was inexplicably absent and we were instead being ferried around by his father-in-law. Regardless, the next two days were phenomenal. We saw literally everything there is to see, from monkeys to crocs and vast monitor lizards to snakes. The main draw for anyone visiting is the wild Pygmy Elephants (about 3/4's the size) and after almost two straight days of searching, we tracked them down. One of the perks of living with an independent homestay is the lack of safety procedeures that might go with more expensive lodges dotted along the river. This meant that we were the only ones of several boats (that eventually turned up) to get off and be within touching distance. One local guy made sure that we kept low, didn't make too much noise and weren't trampled to death.


That evening, we were all sat on the veranda when a boat pulls up in the darkness and a figure stomps past us. He then returns to the veranda, without introduction, to say, "My family are trying to kill me with black magic. This is true. I bleeding from the nose, mouth, from here (points to crotch) and from my droppings (points to bottom)."

This, we deduced, was Bob. Now, I'm a guy who appreciates bypassing small talk, but with new people I usually leave it twenty minutes before discussing the blood in my stool.

He continued, "You have ten thousand Ringgit? I can have someone killed for you with black magic. I hide in the jungle, many days. I pray that an aggressive animal come and kill me. The voices are talking to me. Voices all the time in my head. I feel if it doesn't stop I will kill myself, my family, kill a tourist."

There isn't a huge lot of places you can go conversationally from here, so we all just stood in silence, realised the remoteness of our location and kind of nodded contemplatively. This continued for a while with him explaining that he has been hiding in the rain forest for days, hasn't slept in weeks, suspects his wife has been having an affair with the next door neighbour, thinks only one of the six kids are his and reiterated that indeed, murders will be taking place.

When he went inside, the three of us had a lively discussion about it and decided that while probably bullshit, it would be best to go to bed and exercise a little caution. I spoke to his wife and she seemed exhausted by the guy and with no let up (several families arriving the next morning), I said I would stay for a while and help where I could. So for the next week, I took phone bookings, greeted guests and even did some river guiding (this benefitting precisely no one as I discovered my animal knowledge barely stretches past correctly identifying my own pets).

The next morning when the families arrived, Bob was still around and suddenly acting like a kids TV presenter. The previous nights demeanor was completely gone and he spent the next week doing a pretty good job. As first impressions seem to stick, we didn't really get on that well and I was fairly wary of the guy.
 And he is a crazy bastard. At one point as we were in the jungle and had tracked the elephants down, we all crouched low and took pictures from 100 yards away. Bob then got bored, turned to the both families (who were sporting kids of twelve and fourteen and mothers and fathers in sandals) said, "You want to see something?", before he started making barking noises.
This sent them apeshit (the elephants, not the families) and we suddenly realised by the trumpeting in every direction there were about fifteen more milling beyond what we could see. Bob starts shouting "BACK, BACK!" as the sound of stampeding and broken trees begins towards us. Most of the kids and parents scamper desperately through the jungle and back to the boat. The elephants saw us and were severely pissed off, one ploughing towards Bob and almost knocking him in to the water. We were told beforehand that when a wild Elephant charges, which they do reguarly, if they're female you stand your ground and they will stop where you are. A Bull will go right over the top of you. As another one came after him at a decent pace, he stood dead still before it was about to make contact and stamped his foot, growling at it. Sure enough, it stopped almost eyeball to eyeball with him. Say what you like, but the man has full size balls.

The routine for the week consisted of camping in the garden, getting up at 6am and accompanying any guide who didn't speak much english for the safari. Lunch at one, followed by a jungle trek with the guests at 3pm followed by dinner where we all sat round Malaysian style on the living room floor and eat whatever Bob's wife put together, which was always delicious.

 I took a trip on the second last day to the Gomateng Caves, which is both incredible and completely terrifying. On the outside it's just a hole in a rock, but as you venture in its the stuff of actual nightmares. The inside is vast, hundreds of feet high with a concentration of bats and swifts packed in such numbers that the entire middle of the floor is a mountain of shit. As you squint in the darkness you wonder why its moving, until you realise that its teeming with cockroaches. I can't stress this enough.
 The walkway ventures skirts around the sides and the 'roaches swarm all over the handrail and the floor meaning you have to keep moving or they will find you and run up your trouser legs. In addition to this, the cockroaches aren't even the worst aspect.  Scutigerid Centipedes (I hadn't even heard of them) have put my fear of spiders in severe perspective. Lightning fast and capable of putting you in a hospital for weeks, they were strewn all over the place. Also, I should mention a half dead bat fell off the roof and hit me on the head.

 With that over, the main event comes at dusk when what seems like millions of bats streak out the cave and spiral into the air, looking like a plume of smoke. This went on for about an hour and a half and was just phenomenal.

As I was leaving the next morning, Bob's wife got a call from Robert, my previous dorm-mate. I explained about Bob and how we didn't exactly get off on the right foot. He said, "Yeah, we think he's been spending all the families money on opium".

Well that made sense. A few of us headed to Sandakan and Bob ended up coming with us, curled up in the front seat and intending to see a doctor. I really hope for the family things work out, but if he's blaming his addiction on 'black magic' then who knows.