Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another Maths Medal for Marcus

The high school is so big, and full of kids and activities beyond our ken. So the school newsletter usually gets a cursory glance from me. This week it opened up on this beautiful picture and exciting news about Marcus. He hadn't heard about it and either had we.

It turns out he is going to Brisbane in early November to get his medal, presented by the Governor of Queensland. 17 medals have been awarded in Grades 7-10 across Australia. The rest of us are going along as well - we think that the Australian Mathematics Trust pays for Marcus and a parent to travel and stay, but all that of that is still to be confirmed.

I am very proud of course, but also a little excited as I have never been to Queensland in my life. I am imagining Government House will;
  1. be on stilts; and 
  2. be surrounded by pineapple plantations, mangroves and burning canefields.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Junior Master

Marcus is on his way back from Launceston as I write, where he has competed for Taroona High in the State Chess Finals.

I had a sneak peek online at the results - out of 9 games he won 5 and drew 1, lost three to highly rated players. His own rating has shot up 64 points to 1041, which makes him now a Junior Master at 12! He came 20th in open secondary, competing against kids up to 17 years old.

We are again very proud of him. A super kid.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


For the last 20 years I have struggled to brush my teeth twice a day. At some point I decided the toothpaste taste made me hungry. I thought I’d be able to stave off morning tea until 11 if I didn’t brush my teeth in the morning. I never verified that scientifically, but it was enough to get me out of the morning brushing habit.

My wife, granddaughter of a dentist, also does not brush in the morning and so we never got the boys doing it as a morning routine. A really good brush at night, but nothing in the morning. Wellllll - you are only going to food up your teeth all over again in a few hours aren’t you? Please don't report us.

After a few terse conversations with my modern-day dentist, I vowed to start brushing in the morning again, and cut back on my work-from-home morning-tea and afternoon-tea staple of honey sandwiches. I bought an electric toothbrush, as they are meant to do a better job, and I thought it might be fun.

I loathe my electric toothbrush. Every night I consider just going to be bed unbrushed, as the idea of a hard piece of plastic rattling against my teeth is just so unappealing. I know if you do it right that won't happen, but I am a bit clumsy and so I get that regularly.

Dentists now won't hear of any kind of toothbrush except soft. Soft, softer, softest, extra-softest. Whereas I remember a time when it was OK to have a good, firm toothbrush – in fact it was manly. I prided myself on giving my teeth a pretty damn serious working over with a brush - not a floppy floopy soft thing but a brush.

I have a throwback toothbrush that we picked up at a hotel I think. It is a firm no-nonsense unit that is quite prepared to make your gums bleed, and expects to be thanked for it. And I love it. So - my new approach is that I am going to bribe myself to brush in the morning by making that my morning brush, while I give the enamel a gentle caress in the evening with the electric.

Stay tuned, next week as I'll be discussing flossing and how to successfully lie to your dentist about it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

South America 1989: Lost in Lima

I got off the bus at 8.30am with a backpack, a day pack and a phone number for Manuel's uncle Pancho. We had just flown from Sydney to Santiago, then split up – he had flown and I had come by bus, 3000km north to Lima.

My first problem would have been finding a token for the public phone - in Peru you need to buy 'RIN' tokens to use payphones. Street vendors everywhere sell them so it would not have taken long to find one.

I called the number in my notebook, and a lady answered, in Spanish of course. I asked for Pancho Duharte, and the response, fast and dismissive was "Wrong number". I guessed I had misdialled, so I bought another few tokens and tried again. I got the same lady - I asked her if she spoke English and we got a little further, but it was clear this was not the right number.

I looked around for a phone book but there wasn't one. 25 years on I don't recall exactly what happened next, but by lunchtime I had humped my gear to the Plaza San Martin, and settled into a table at the Restaurant Versailles. The manager was a tall man in his sixties named Eloy, and he was very warm and friendly. He had some English, and I was able to explain my predicament.

There was a public phone in there and some ten-year old phone books. This was really a shock - I had always assumed that anywhere there are phones, there will up-to-date phone books. I rang six or eight F. Duhartes (Pancho is the diminutive for Francisco), but I got nowhere.

I thought I might be able to get Manuel's contact details from the immigration officials. I asked around about this, and I was advised to ask out at the airport where he had arrived. I took a cab out there and started asking questions. I had a photocopy of Manuel's passport, but this just aroused suspicion. Why was I claiming this man who was obviously Peruvian was an Australian citizen? Look, it even says here place of birth: Lima. It gradually dawned on me that I was getting nowhere, and in fact I now had nowhere to sleep.

Back at the Versailles Eloy recommended a hotel, and I took a taxi there. It was in a fancy district not far from the US embassy, but its was pretty basic and I was exhausted so sleep wasn't a problem. In the morning I checked out and returned to the Versailles.

I had a backup plan, but it was going to be expensive; phoning Australia to speak to Manuel's mum. Eloy minded my gear while I went to the international telephone centre.

To make international calls most people in Peru used a place like this. A cashier took my money (it cost me $US20 per call) and the phone number I wanted to ring, then I sat in the waiting area for my name to be called. Then I went to a numbered booth, picked up the phone and was speaking to first a Peruvian operator, then Australian.  Lima is 15 hours behind Hobart, and for some reason I had to make my call in the small hours of Hobart time. I had decided to call my Dad, and give him the job of ringing Mrs Duharte at 3am to explain the problem.  I thought that if I rang her there might be some expensive hang ups and call backs, whereas if I called Dad twice an hour apart at least I knew he should be able to get the job done in that time.

It cost me $40 of the $650 I had budgeted for the whole 3 months, but at least it worked. When I phone back Dad had the correct number, and more importantly an address as well. I went back to Eloy beaming with delight, and called Pancho. He put me on to Manuel and I explained where I was and what had happened.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude to Eloy for his hospitality which had meant so much to me in my difficult situation. I thanked him as best as I could and took a taxi up Avenida Salaverry to the suburb of Jesús Maria, where I fell into the arms of the extended Duharte clan, where I would stay for the next month.

During that time I had plenty of opportunities to visit Eloy, patronise his etsablishment and introduce my mysterious disappearing friend, Manuel. Below is my journal entry for Lima.

Lima is a city of around 8 million people. 5 million live in the pueblos jovenes, literally the young towns. There is no electricity, sewerage, telephone or other government services. Travelling out of Lima by train brings you into the heart of the poverty. The main outlet roads are surrounded by a veneer of respectability, but nothing separates the shantytowns from the railway line. The houses are made of woven dried palm leaves, cardboard, fibro etc. Children throw rocks at the trains. 

When I look around the outskirts of Lima now, its pretty tidy and organised compared to what I wrote above in 1989. For instance the fire hydrant in the image above is a sign of municipal pride and progress. 25 years ago I saw a lot of areas like these in Tacna

The predominant car in Lima is the VW Beetle. I would conservatively estimate that 25% of cars are Beetles. 50% of taxis are Beetles. We were catching a lot of taxis, because it meant you didn’t get lost, and they were quite cheap (though later when the money was running low I was more circumspect about just jumping in a cab). After a while, just for fun, I was trying each time to get a more decrepit cab than the time before. None of them have indicators, so that was my starting point. I caught one with no indicators and no mirrors. Soon I was taking cabs with no indicators, mirrors, windscreen, boot lid, rear doors or glove box. But they all have working horns, and Jesus or Virgin Mary decals. Every car in Lima has a fully functional horn, sometimes several. Often they play Colonel Bogey, or something. Peruvians drive very aggressively, and have a finger on the horn constantly. Beep means “Turning left”, “Turning right”, “I’m stopping”, “Get out of the way” and also “I’m just glad to be alive and Peruvian”. 

A classic example. Still on the street and available for hire. Pic by F. H. Ehrenberger
Cars keep to the right in South America. When Limeños want to turn left, and someone else in front is waiting to turn left, they don’t queue behind them. They get up along side them, sometimes four or five abreast. If someone coming the other way wants to turn left at the same intersection, they nudge their way into the same scrum. Soon there may be ten cars lined up facing in different directions, waiting for a gap, revving their engines. When the gap appears, it is like the flag dropping at the start of a Grand Prix, as they burn rubber to get into it.

The sky in Lima is grey for ten months of the year, and the temperature is between 20° and 25° The fog is called the garua. It almost never rains. We stayed with Manuel’s uncle Pancho Duharte, aunt Susana, and cousins Lorena and Panchito. They have a two storey house in Avenida Salaverry, in the suburb of Jesus Maria. The kitchen is open to the sky. It did actually rain one night when we were there, a very rare event. I bought some cheap watercolours and did some paintings in the kitchen. With all that natural light, it made a great studio.

The Duharte residence. Panchito runs his business from downstairs these days.

As I was walking out of the shop where I bought the watercolours, the owner was closing for siesta. He bought the iron grille down on my head, but was very apologetic. Everyone is very security minded. All shops have grilles and security alarms. Many buildings have conspicuous armed guards loitering out in the street in front. Weapons are either big and menacing, or, if small, unholstered and waved around to achieve an equal deterrent effect.

The sewer system of Lima is totally stuffed. Because of water shortages, toilets worked on a small trickle of water. Toilet paper is therefore thrown in a special bin instead of into the bowl. This freaked me out, but I have since learned that this is the way of things all over the world.

With no rain, everyone has flat roofs, which they make the most of. Susana’s laundry is on the roof. There is a good view from up there of the surrounding suburbs, the massive hospital and government buildings nearby, and the incredible goings on in the traffic. Jesus Maria is a fairly solid middle class area. Pancho is a bootmaker, employing about eight people. When he is carrying the payroll from the bank to his workshop, he wraps it around his body under his shirt, so he doesn’t appear to be carrying much.

The Duhartes are blancos - pure Spanish blood. The majority of the population are mestizos, mixed Indian and Spanish blood. The Duhartes worry about the millions living in poverty in the pueblos jovenes. They think that once they get organised, they will flood into the city and the army will be hopelessly outnumbered. This is a common feeling, and explains why so much of the national budget is spent on internal police and military strength. The fight against the Maoist terror organisation Sendero Luminoso is the other reason. Since we left Peru their leader Dr. Abimael Guzman has been captured. The terrorists are trying to extort his release by attacking civilians and tourists targets as well as the more common military and paramilitary targets.

Once when I was in the main plaza, I was approached by a young guy who asked where I was from, and had a bit of a chat, and then tried to sell me marijuana. I said no and took off quickly before I was framed up for something. Later, when I was out on the town with Manuel, Pancho and his friends, we ran into the guy again - he was a mate of José’s or something.

Pancho and Lorena’s friends were all quite well off young students or professionals. Many of them had been to the USA, or at least learned to speak American English. Manuel and I were often told how clever we were, speaking three languages (English, Spanish and Australian). One night we went out with them to a big dance hall by the beach, called Canta America. Down two sides were cafe tables and chairs everywhere, crowding the edge of a long dance floor. At either end of the dance floor was a big stage. There were three bands on the night we were there - as one would finish at one end, the next began at the other end. The first band were a small salsa band, singing in Spanish. Next was a big band, doing swing, salsa and rhumba gear - all the kids got into it just as much as the older people.

The ages were about 16 to 60. The last band did Police covers in phonetic English. Eg ‘So loo-loo-loo-loo-loonly without yo’. There were three bars.

The Peruvian kids were generally great dancers. They taught us to salsa, which for us meant mostly standing around pouting and looking mean while the girls danced around us, interspersed with some pretty close cuddly moves. Just for the hell of it, Manuel and I tried to teach them to jump up and down and pump their fists, the way Australian kids dance, but they couldn’t get into it.

Miraflores is the new centre of Lima. The old city is completely decrepit, dirty and uncared for by the Government, apart from the presidential palace, the old cathedral and a few other landmarks.

My favourite place in the old city was the Plaza San Martín, because it was easy to find, had cheap places to eat, no armed idiots, lots of taxis and usually something interesting going on.

In Miraflores, things were pretty different. Begging was discouraged with a bit of boot and baton work to the back of the head.

People there flaunted their wealth, whereas in the city, people took off their watches to go out in the street. We went to lunch once with some of Manuel’s relatives, and they brought their car stereo in with them, so no-one would break into their car.

There is a craft market in the evening in Miraflores. Plenty of jewellery, that’s all I can remember. In the old city, the whole city is a market. Everywhere people are sitting on the footpath, or on folding chairs. Some have a well organised spread of interesting looking stuff, some have a few pencils, a few avocados and a hair dryer for sale. Some have nothing - they just sit with their children around them with their hands out. 

Beggars were a new experience for me. At first I was making eye contact with them all the time, and when you do that it is very hard to not give them something. But I was on such a tight budget, I couldn’t afford to keep doing that. I ended up giving something very small about once a day, but resolving to take a real interest in the country and its’ problems when I got home. I’ve actually done nothing.

Some of the streets east of the Plaza San Martin are given over to special markets, such as books, or plumbing supplies, or electrical gear. The things you can buy at any market are; RIN phone tokens, warm Coke and Inca Kola, Sublime chocolate bars and Suave toilet paper.

There are no beggars in sight these days. Everyone in these pictures is pretty busy going somewhere, doing something. 

There is a pedestrian street in Miraflores called Calle Pizza, which is all pizza and pasta restaurants. As you walk along, waiters pull out chairs, beckon, smile, turn and head inside waving for you to follow, or just thrust a menu into your hands.

Manuel and I had pizza at another restaurant in San Ysidro, with his Uncle Oscar. The restaurant was in a very swish shopping centre, full of leather, furs and brushed aluminium. There were some children begging outside the front door, which was guarded by the usual brutish types. I made the mistake of meeting the eyes of one boy, who then tried to follow us in. One of the guards simply coshed him on the back of the head with his truncheon, and dragged him out by the arm.

This was Manuel's family's neighbourhood church when they lived in San Ysidro.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Not terribly bright

Winston forgets things sometimes, like how to sit on the stairs. Suddenly his front legs don’t seem long enough for the job. “I'm ... er ... at a funny angle and I don’t know why”.

Friday, August 01, 2014

August arrives with snow

It must be time for my annual snow pictures.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

South America 1989: Gormless tourist on the moon

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I have just added StreetView to my iPad, because I love cruising the mean streets of Mexico, Brazil and Rumania. I was bumbling about in Paraguay when I accidentally dropped the little guide man on the Pan American Highway on the Chilean coast. Then suddenly; I realised I was looking at a place I had actually been.  The most moon-scapey place I have ever been, and yes I have spent time in Queenstown. The Atacama Desert of coastal Chile and Peru is something else. Note; the top scene here is Chile (white lines), the lower one Peru (yellow lines). These spots are something like 700km apart. And in between is… pretty much the same.

This was my first trip overseas. Manuel and I flew from Sydney to Santiago on our way to Lima, Peru. He had more money to throw around than I, so he flew up the coast to LIma while I went all the way by bus, changing buses at the border. I was 21 years old, had a smattering of night school Spanish, and I was extremely gormless. I have just realised that next month is the 25th anniversary of our trip.

The two bus rides together took 40 hours. A large stretch of it went through the desert. You hear a lot these days about how deserts are actually full of LIFE and VARIETY and so on. This one is just your classic empty sandblasted sandsville. Silver grey sand stretches from the ocean as far as you can see inland, usually to the line of sandhills not far from the road. Now and then you see small groups of tiny huts. The only colour is Chilean flags flying from almost every possible spot.

Streetview screen grab. More pics here or just go to Google Street view itself obviously!
Here is my diary and a couple of drawings from the bus ride.

This story starts in Santiago. When planning, we had decided that we would split up there, and meet up again three days later in Lima. I was on a tighter budget than Manuel, and I couldn’t justify flying when the bus was one fifth the price.

The bus left Santiago at about six in the evening, and headed north on the Pan American Highway. The Pan American stretches from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, with the only break in Panama due to the impassable Darien Gap.

I was sitting next to a serious young man named Bernardo. We kept to ourselves until, when we were well out in the desert, I asked him if he would mind me taking a photo (he had the window seat). We started talking then, I told him where I was from and where I was going. He was the first South American I spoke to at any length. He was a student in Santiago, travelling to Calama I think.

I was headed for Arica, on the Chile/Peru border. This was supposed to take 28 hours (followed by 22 hours the next day from the border to Lima).

I was captivated by the desert, as I had never seen one before. There are areas in the Atacama desert that have never in recorded history had rain. I have always been fascinated by the idea of such massive empty spaces, and had often painted such scenes at art school. There wasn’t the dead flat horizon of my paintings, but the emptiness was mind-boggling. I spent hour after hour just staring out the window at the panorama.
In places images have been formed by arranging dark stones on the lighter sand. Some massive examples date back to extinct pre-conquest tribes, but there are many smaller religious words and images and people’s names.

Much of the time we were travelling along the Pacific coast. One place sticks in my memory, called Gran Playa. It was a flyblown truck stop. There was all kinds of rubbish sticking out of the sand, half buried. Across the road from the grubby restaurant was about 400 meters of “beach”. It was just the same as the ground on the inland side of the road, but it had waves crashing on it. If the bus had waited, I’d have liked to walk down to the water and look back at Gran Playa and the vastness that surrounded it.

The drawing [above] was done two months later, passing through the same area in the other direction. Santiago is at the same latitude as Sydney, Arica about the same as Rockhampton. I’d never been further north in my life than Gosford, so the intensity of the sun was not something I was used to. It glinted fiercely off passing cars, and even the grey-yellow sand and rocks seemed to reflect back pure white.

The desert is chock-full of valuable minerals. It was formerly Peruvian and Bolivian territory, which the Chileans captured in the War of the Pacific in 1883.
Calama has the largest copper mine in the world, and mining is all that really goes on in northern Chile. Originally they mined nitrates, but when synthetic nitrates were invented in WW2, they came to rely on copper.

The Chilean bus was quite comfortable. It cost around US$30 for the trip. The trip was overnight, and a steward went down the aisle putting everyone’s seats back at about 9 o’clock. The same steward went down the aisle waking evryone and giving them a cup of wierd tea and a roll at about 7 o’clock the next morning. That afternoon they showed a video - a black and white bedroom farce apparently made in Argentina.

We stopped in Valparaiso, Copiapo, Antofagasta and Iquique on the way. I can only remember the stop at Antofagasta. We drove through the suburbs to the bus company’s terminal. It was hot and dusty, and the whole town smelled of fish. I sat with Bernardo and ate, probably chicken I think. I ate a lot of chicken on the trip, because it was plentiful everywhere and likely to be fresh. It was usually quite tasty too.

The company's bus station was up here in the hills above the port of Antofagasta.
I said goodbye to Bernardo and continued with the bus to Arica. It was around nine pm when we arrived. The desert sunset had been spellbinding, but the darkness fell quickly. I remember seeing the lights of Arica, and travelling along a modern expressway into the city. The bus terminal was over the river from the area where I wanted to stay. I felt a little scared, but I decided to walk and see a bit of the town. It was Saturday night. Several streets were blocked off, and there were many young people wandering around. Music floated through the warm air from many different dance halls and clubs.

I found the Residencial Nuñez in Calle Maípu. They had no free rooms, but they had one that was occupied by a shift worker. They rented it out to someone else at night at a cheaper rate. The SA on a Shoestring describes the Nuñez as “dreary”. It was very basic, but it had hot water - it cost around one dollar per night.

I wanted to take a photograph of Señora Nuñez with the Jesus and Mary teatowel hanging over the reception desk. My accent was and is terrible, and something I said made her look worried and annoyed. I think I said “camera”, because it sounds like one of those words that is basically the same in both languages. She may have thought I said “camela” which means “flirt”. I should have said “maquina fotographia” or just “foto”. When she cottoned on to my meaning, she sat at her desk and gave me a huge smile. I don’t have the photo - the film was in my pack when it was stolen 2 months later.

Calle Maípu in Arica - the Residencial Nuñez ius no longer listed.
The next day I shouldered my pack and headed downtown to find the train station. There is a short railway from Arica to Tacna, the first town on the Peruvian side. It is generally better to cross a border on a bus or train than on foot, or in a private car or taxi. Your driver and fare collector do the same trip every day, and know the border guards and the procedure. If there are any bribes to be paid, the company usually does it and factors it into the ticket price. It is a much neater may of ensuring you get over OK than giving the sergeant a few bills on the spot to give you an entry stamp.

Because it was Sunday the train wasn’t running - that left me the choices of a walk back to the bus terminal for an international bus, taking a colectivo (an irregular minibus/taxi) or waiting another day. Because I was in a hurry to rejoin Manuel, I decided to get a colectivo to Tacna.

First I did a bit of sightseeing. Arica is dominated by the Morro de Arica, a big headland (notable because it doesn’t have a giant cement Jesus erected on it.) I walked around the shore below the Morro, and sat under an equestrian statue to watch big pelicans diving for fish in the water. I’m not sure who the statue was - it could have been San Martin, Bolivar, Grau, Pierola, O’Higgins or Salaverry, but probably Grau. Everything in South America is named after one of these people, from countries to soccer teams to hamburgers. 

The plaza by the Morro de Arica
While I was staring out to sea a young man approached and asked me for a cigarette. He assumed I was an American, and wanted to practise his English on me. His name was Alejandro, and he told me he was an orphan. His parents had died in an air crash, and he cried as he told me about it. Then he told me he hadn’t eaten for three days. I doubted a lot of his story, but when I bought him some empanadas, he gobbled them so fast he was choking. Empanadas are like a meat pie that is all pastry and salt, with a bit of meat accidentally left in.

We sat outside a cafe for a while, and he told me about what had happened in Chile in the last ten years. He said a lot of people were prepared to forget about the disappearances and other human rights abuses because the Pinochet regime had turned the Chilean economy around, and had inflation under control. (I later heard Peruvians say that they needed someone like Pinochet to fix their economy and crush the Shining Path. Alejandro volunteered the information that he hated Pinochet - I never heard anyone else voice an opinion.

I got up to find a moneychanger, as I had run out of pesos. Alejandro insisted I follow him to where I would get a better exchange rate, I think he wanted me to tip him. I decided to get rid of him, and said “This is not a very good rate at all - you’ve taken me out of my way for nothing”. He skulked away, and I took my pesos to where the colectivos gather. There were three ladies and a man looking for one more person to share their colectivo across the border, so I joined them.

Looking back at Chile at the Chile-Peru border.
So far, 2069km by bus and 22km by colectivo. Still nearly 1000km to Lima.
My first border crossing went well, except: when we were in no man’s land, I suddenly said “I think I left a plastic bag on the ground at the last checkpoint”. The driver briefly panicked, until he realised where we were. It is illegal to stop or turn around between a border marker and a checkpoint. We were between the Chilean marker and the Peruvian marker, and out of sight of either checkpoint, so he stopped and unlocked the boot - my bag was right there.

We drove into Tacna, Peru, and I changed my pesos and some dollars into intis. The rate was then 3300 intis to the dollar. The peso rate in Tacna was very poor; the pesos I had paid a dollar for over the border were now worth about 2600 intis. Travelling towards a border, you always have to tread a fine line between ensuring sufficient funds and getting stuck with nearly worthless currency. I changed my watch as well as my money - Peru is one hour behind Chile.

I didn’t feel very comfortable in Tacna, and I decided to just sit on my pack for the two hours before the next bus to Lima. I tried talking to a man who was also waiting, but he spoke too rapidly.

One of the older parts of Tacna ...
.. and one of the up-and-coming newer parts of Tacna.
The Peruvian bus was a rattletrap compared with the Chilean version. The passengers seemed to mostly be smuggling Chilean goods into Peru. Tacna seemed to be some sort of free trade zone, possible because it was Chilean territory from the War of the Pacific until 1929 (as a legacy it still has the highest education standard in Peru). The bus was stopped and searched twice by the customs police (who looked like the army - maybe they were the customs army). I was sitting next to a woman who had lots of silver jewellry sewn into the hem of her skirt - she showed me. Another man had a radio, which he hid in a crate of bananas when we were searched, but played at top volume and sang along to the rest of the time.

The bus to Lima went via Arequipa, Nazca, Ica and Pisco, but I can’t remember any of my impressions then - I saw them all again later. It was probably dark. I  remember dreaming that I was sitting next to Pippa, our labrador who had died a year earlier, and feeling very content just to sit next to her. I woke up and realised it was the woman with the jewellery leaning against me.

We arrived in Lima at 8.30 am. Ten minutes later I was lost. (To be continued)