A Travellerspoint blog

Disco dhow

sunny 34 °C
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

I am in the habit of climbing the highest point of many of the countries I visit if the peak is reasonably accessible and within my fitness level. Qatar's highest point is quite low. Qurayn Abu al-Bawl is a low sandy limestone outcrop about a hundred and twenty metres above sea level. It's quite accessible if you hire a car and driver, it is just off the main highway to Saudi Arabia with an access road all the way to the top. However, there is a military observation post. Other peak-baggers have reported that the post was unmanned and they encountered no obstacle; others report that they were turned away by stern policemen. That was before the long-running diplomatic crisis that has seen most neighbouring countries led by Saudi Arabia break off all relations with Qatar since 2017. Qurayn Abu al-Bawl is quite close to the Saudi border. And it would be just my luck to be speneing years rotting away in a Qatari jail without consular access for trespassing on military property.

So I decided that discretion is the better part of valour and spent the day in my hotel room instead.

I woke up at ten after thirteen hours of soul-renewing, blissful, refreshing sleep. I woke up feeling sufficiently alert and energised but didn't feel the urge to go outside. I just wanted to chill - literally chill in my room's agreeably freezing air conditioning. I have travelled enough now to know that when your body and mind tell you to rest, it's a good idea to do so. I often push myself way too hard when travelling, I often place myself under too much pressure to see as many things as possible, but I have learned over the years that even if I'm on holiday, I still need to look after myself and take things at an appropriate pace.

So I spent a few hours updating my blog and my online photo albums and chatting to friends on social media, and I didn't leave the Concorde Hotel until the early afternoon. My destination was the Villaggio Mall in Doha's western suburbs. I consulted Google Maps before leaving my hotel. I caught the metro one stop to Mshiereb station, and then exited the station to Salwa Road where there was a bus stop.

Getting to the bus stop was not easy. I found the right station exit but the way to the bus stop was blocked off by yet another construction site. So I went on a lengthy detour around back lanes until I reached the bus stop on Salwa Road. Or not.

I opened the offline map in Google Maps. I was definitely in the right place. But there was no bus stop. After about ten minutes a taxi finally stopped and we took off to the west along a very busy arterial that turned into a motorway.

Qatari driving is bad. It's not as shocking as in Sri Lanka, I cannot conceive that any place could have worse driving than Sri Lanka, but it is still very bad. The taxi driver kept alternating between revving the guts out of the engine and slamming on the brakes. A car in front would brake but the taxi driver would continue accelerating.

"Are you f×÷#ing blind! Do they not teach you how to drive? The car in front has its brake lights on! See those bright red things on either side of the back of the car? That means you brake too! Are you a f+×#ing congenital moron? For f+×#'s sake!" I wanted to shout at the driver but I didn't. Thinking back, I should have. How else are these imbeciles going to learn how to drive properly if they don't get a rightfully deserved ear-bashing from people who come from countries where people don't drive like psychopathic homicidal maniacs?

After about twenty minutes of a repetitive monotonous suburban scenario of strip malls, hotels and apartment complexes with every building coloured exactly the same bleached blonde sand colour as the Qatari desert, I arrived at the Villaggio Mall with the blood drained from my face. Villaggio is the most bizarre shopping centre I have seen. The entire centre is built to resemble a neighbourhood in Venice with a network of canals along the corridors and gondola rides on the canals. There is only one level of shopping on the ground floor but above the shopping level are fake Venetian apartments with lights behind the frosted windows and fake flower boxes hanging from the balconies. On the ceiling are paintings of blue skies with wispy clouds to give the illusion of being outdoors. It was contrived and it was cheesy and I absolutely loved it.

I had lunch at Applebee's, an American casual dining chain we don't have in Australia yet - it reminded me a lot of TGI Friday's which we do have Down Under. I would have liked something more authentically Qatari but it seems that generic American food is all that is available here.

I left the mall and crossed the road to Aspire Park. I read a blurb about this park in the Doha destination information on the in-flight enertainment system on the plane from Sydney. It was a nice park, a very large expanse of preternaturally emerald-green grass crisscrossed by walking tracks and bridle paths, whose centrepiece was an attractive lake with fountains and an ersatz mediaeval stone arch bridge. It was now approaching sunset - the sun sets very early in Qatar, before five o'clock - and Aspire Park was full of families enjoying a nice little stroll. By far the most pleasant time of day in Doha is the hour either side of sunset. The daytime heat and humidity has died down a bit and there is often a pleasant breeze. Later in the evening the air becomes very still and humid; midnight is far sweatier than 5pm. I enjoyed ambling around Aspire Park, they did a good job of turning what was once parched desert into a world-class recreational park, even though it was faker than Fairlie Arrow's kidnapping. Much like most things in Qatar, come to think of it.

On the other side of the Villaggio Mall is the Khalifa International Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup venues, and The Torch, a striking high-rise hotel built in the shape of, well, a torch. Long-time readers of my blog might know that I have a thing for towers. I walled up to The Torch and asked the doorman if there was an observation deck. There wasn't, but there was a mocktail bar on the twenty-first floor that was open to the general public. So I went up to the mocktail bar, paid a lot of money for a strawberry and mint mocktail, and enjoyed the view over Doha's flat, sprawling suburbs as twilight gave way to night.

I headed back to the old town centre. Buses left from Al Waab Road opposite Villaggio Mall every ten minutes. I boarded a bus and then got stuck in gridlock. It took over an hour just to travel a few kilometres to the main bus station next to Souq Waqif. Doha traffic is insane. Qatar is an extremely car-dependent society, even more so than Australia. What happens is that in the early evening, Qataris like nothing better than to get into their Lexus four wheel drives with their families and sit in the same traffic jams as all other Qataris on their way to hang out in shopping malls for two hours. So the roads leading up to shopping malls - and there are a lot of malls - are choked for kilometres and kilometres. It seems like a bizarre way to pass an evening with your family, sitting in gridlock, but if that is how Qataris want to spend their spare time, who am I to judge?

I am glad I didn't choose to catch a taxi back to the city because the cab would have been stuck in exactly the same traffic as the bus and I would have paid a fortune. After an eternity I finally alighted near Souq Waqif. I made my way to the Corniche along the waterfront and paid eighty riyals to go on a half-hoir cruise on a motorised dhow. These interesting open-decked timber vessels are the traditional seacraft of the Persian Gulf. In the past they were powered by sails, and some sailing dhows still exist, but the vast majority now are motorised like the Sarona, on which I was an honoured guest.

There were three other tourists and two crew. The Sarona was lit up like a Christmas tree and on the deck were pulsating disco lights and loud Bollywood music. If you ever see a YouTube video of a fat balding bearded middle-aged white guy in a NASA t-shirt dancing awkwardly to blaring Indian pop music, it wasn't me! Honest! It's just someone who looks a bit like me! Seriously!

The Sarona cruised north from the Corniche next to the Museum of Islamic Art up to the new city centre at West Bay. This afforded excellent views of the colourful sksyscrapers along the waterfront with great photo opportunities. The skyline is impressive enough by day but at night it is simply wonderful.

The Sarona moored at the Corniche and I made my way to Souq Waqif. The Souq is the traditional marketplace of Doha, a labyrinth of narrow corridors lined with merchants selling everything you could ask for. One section sold pets, another jewellery, another textiles. Some alleys were open air while others were covered. All throughout Souq Waqif there was the pleasant aroma of spices and perfumes. Finally, I had found something that was authentically Qatari. What made the souq even more Qatari is that the covered sections had satisfyingly frigid air conditioning.

There was even a row of battered old eateries serving authentic Qatari food at open-air tables with luxuriously cushioned seats. I took a chair at one of them and ordered this platter of three represntative Qatari dishes: machboos (a type of chicken biryani but with different spices to the Indian version), makarony (macaroni pasta with chunks of lamb), and margoga (soaked bread mixed with meats and vegetables).

It was awful. The chicken in the machboos was so dry that it was impossible to eat. The makarony was just edible, but two mouthfuls of the margoga made me want to vomit. If this restaurant is a true representation of Qatari cuisine, it is probably a good thing that generic American-style international food has taken over Qatar.

As I returned on the bus to my hotel I thought about Qatar. I wonder how older Qataris see the changes that have taken place in their country. Within the lifetime of a senior citizen Qatar has turned from an impoverished protectorate of pearlers, mariners and subsistence fishermen with only a few hundred thousand people into a significant middle power, the world's richest country per capita with an enormous multicultural expatriate population of two million people from every corner of the earth, an immigrant community that far out numbers the native population. Qatar might not be a liberal democracy, labour standards for expatriates leave much to be desired, but the country is stable, peaceful, clean, reasonably well-governed and prosperous. Qatar has a major global TV news channel that is the closest thing the Middle East has to a free press, significant sporting events such as the Formula 1 grand prix, the international athletics championships and the 2022 soccer World Cup, a major airline that has one of the world's largest number of destinations and is consistently ranked one of the best international carriers, a top-notch airport and a welfare state most countries could only dream about. All this within a couple of generations thanks to the blessings of oil and gas resources and the prudent, judicious management of that wealth.

Thanks for having me for a couple of nights, Qatar. It's an interesting place and well worth a quick look to break up the painfully long and tiring journey between Australia and Europe.

Villaggio Mall

Villaggio Mall

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

The Torch from Aspire Park

The Torch from Aspire Park

Mosque at the Corniche

Mosque at the Corniche

Sarona, the disco dhow

Sarona, the disco dhow

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Horrible Qatari food at Souq Waqif

Horrible Qatari food at Souq Waqif

Posted by urbanreverie 07:04 Archived in Qatar Tagged qatar souq dhow doha torch corniche villaggio Comments (1)

Base Qatar

35 °C
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Qatar Airways has been judged the world's best airline by Skytrax five times, and I concur with their judgment. The seats are comfortable, the service was professional, the interior was decorated in tasteful maroons and restrained creams, nothing went wrong. I can certainly recommend flying with Qatar.

One thing surprised me though - just how generic and international Qatar Airways is. I knew that a large proportion of their crew were expatriates, but I wasn't expecting all of them to be. Asians, Africans, Europeans, Australians - but not a single Arab was to be seen among the cabin crew. Much the same can be said for the menu - penne pasta with Mediterranean vegetables, omelettes, focaccias, chocolate mousse, sausages; all decent enough but scarcely a window into Qatari culture. I admire how many airlines are essentially an introduction to their country's culture. Think of AirAsia's nasi lemak or Asiana's bulgogi or Qantas's Aboriginal dot-painting uniforms or KLM's safety video produced using stop motion photography of Delft blue chinaware.

As pleasant as Qatar Airways' A380 was, fifteen and a half hours is far too long to sit in one seat. I am jealous of people who sleep easily on aeroplanes; I only got about three and a half hours of extremely interrupted sleep. I was hoping that I would sleep far longer as I only got about three hours sleep the night before with my eye trouble.

It was with great relief that I left the plane at Hamad International Airport shortly before six in the morning, a very nice and nearly brand new airport. Even though there were only five people in front of me at my immigration counter, I still had to wait forever. It wasn't because the immigration officers were lazy and inefficient, but because they are extremely strict and thorough. As an Australian citizen I had it easy but they still demanded to know every last detail of my stay and I had to show my hotel booking. In front of me were some Chinese citizens and the officer was putting them in the star chamber.

I withdrew some Qatari riyals from an ATM and caught a nearly empty bus to my hotel. You need to buy a fare smart card for ten riyals (note: one riyal equals forty Australian cents) and add as many more riyals for a balance to pay your fare (in my case, the fare was three riyals). Luckily there is a smart card purchasing machine in the airport bus terminal.

While I was waiting for my route 747 bus (747 bus? To the airport? Geddit? Hahaha), I saw an unusual pedestrian crossing sign. It featured a woman wearing a long dress. I've never seen women represented on road signs before. I never knew that Qatar was such a paragon of gender inclusiveness. I took a photo and a security guard went crazy, he said all photography was strictly forbidden. He didn't make me delete it, so you get to see it for your enjoyment.

I was hoping that the Concorde Hotel would give me an early check-in at eight o'clock, but no such joy. I had to come back after two. This is probably a good thing - if I had gone to sleep at eight, my body clock would be out of whack for days afterward. So I started exploring. My hotel is right next to al-Doha al-Jadeda station on the brand new Doha Metro, the most bizarre public transport system I have ever encountered.

There are significant similarities betwen the Sydney Metro and the Doha Metro. They both opened in May 2019 (though Doha's is eighteen days older) and they both consist of driverless trains operating along a single partially completed line.

That's where the similarities end. So how bizarre is the Doha Metro? Let's see. There are three classes of travel - Gold, Family and Standard. Three classes for a metro line with only thirteen stations. At most stations the railway staff outnumbered the passengers by orders of magnitude. I know it's a Saturday but it was uncanny just how empty the trains and stations were. The entire system stank of hospital-grade disinfectant, the kind of stuff the World Health Organisation would use at a field hospital in the Congo after an Ebola outbreak. The security was extremely officious and intrusive, and they are everywhere. At one station I was feeling a little hungry and I saw a nearly empty vending machine in an alcove in a distant corner. I walked over to the vending machine and a security guard intercepted me to ask what I was doing. I said I wanted to buy a snack and he insisted on standing with me and watching like a hawk as I decided to decline to buy a pack of peanuts, the only product on offer.

The trains are tiny little three-car things, but the stations are six cars long so provision has been made for the day when people actually use the trains. Of the three carriages, two carriages are Standard class, half of one carriage is Family (for families and lone women only) and the other half is Gold class. I bought a 30 riyal daily Gold class ticket and I was the only Gold passenger on every train I took. The station staff are so numerous and so bored that all you have to do is look slightly puzzled and you will have a crowd of polite yet smothering employees asking if they can help you.

I rode the entire length of the red line and back, and then went to the Museum of Islamic Art. A bus took me part of the way from Msherieb metro station and I walked the rest of the way along the Corniche, a waterfront boulevard and parkland that hugs Doha Bay. It was hard work. It is extremely hot and humid here. Today was 35 °C. I was expecting it to be hot, Qatar is desert, but I was not expecting humidity. I have never heard of a humid desert before. I don't understand how the air can have so much moisture but it never falls as rain. There is no vegetation in Qatar at all; the view of the countryside from the outskirts of Doha presents a bleak prospect of nothing but bleached sand stretching to the horizon.

I had a good view while I was walking. The new Doha city centre, West Bay, is on the other side of the bay. I have never seen a more impressive skyline. Not even Singapore comes close. A collection of dozens of super-tall skyscrapers clustered along the bayfront as if they were competing against one another to be the tallest and most ostentatiously extravagant. I fail to see how a country with a population of two million can generate such an amazing skyline. Brisbane has a population of two million but doesn't have a skyline one tenth as dense.

The hard walk in the torrid heat was worth it. The Emir of Qatar is a keen art collector and has put part of his collection from the Muslim world into a museum open to the public. The museum is housed in a large octagonal palace jutting out into Doha Bay with tinkling fountains inside and out. It was a majestic building for a majestic collection. Calligraphy, jewellery, ceramics, utensils, scientific instruments, some over a thousand years old and showing the most exquisitely intricate handiwork. You couldn't buy jewellery half as good at Angus & Coote nowadays.

White nationalists and some conservatives claim that Islam is an inherently backward religion incapable of innovation. Let them come to Doha. Islamic civilisation gave the world a wealth of scientific knowledge. Modern psychiatry, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry owe a great deal of debt to the Islamic Golden Age.

By the time I finished with the museum, it was almost time for me to check into my hotel. It wasn't that far, about three kilometres, and by the time I found a bus stop and waited for a bus I could have walked there. The heat and humidity toned down a bit in the early afternoon so I resolved to leg it.

I set off on my way. After about a kilometre I reached a construction site that was blocking the footpath. So I crossed the busy four-lane arterial road but the other footpath was also blocked by a construction site. The road was too busy to walk on, so I walked along the median strip, only to find that the median strip was also blocked by a construction site a few hundred metres down the road. So I had to double back along the median and find a detour. Every detour was also blocked by construction. I ended up taking twice the time I expected to get back to my hotel.

I checked into the hotel, rested for a while and got hungry so I decided to head out in the early evening to grab a bite to eat. It is curiously difficult to find a place to eat in Doha. I had imagined that due to the presence of hundreds of thousands of South Asian expatriates that there would be yummy biryani restaurants on every street corner. Perhaps those places do exist, but they were hidden away, because on my travels through Doha so far places to eat are conspicuous through their absence.

I didn't feel like paying fifty Australian dollars at my hotel's restaurant so I headed for West Bay, Doha's brand new central business district north of the old city centre. I got off the metro at DECC station and found myself in a forest of skyscrapers lit up in a discotheque of dancing colours. There were plenty of people around, and people need to eat, so I reasoned that there must be restaurants in the area. I saw a shopping mall across a major multi-lane highway with a restaurant on an upper floor, but there was simply no way to cross the road. No pedestrian crossing, no traffic lights, no subway, no footbridge.

I decided to follow all the other people to see where they were going. Many were crossing this side street that led to a car park entrance. They were walking through the car park into another shopping mall. The City Centre mall was doing a roaring trade, every shop was still open at 7pm on a Saturday and the place echoed with the plaintive cries of hundreds of babies and toddlers being pushed around in strollers. So this is how Qatari families spend their spare time. I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that Doha is Desert Singapore.

I ended up buying dinner from Arby's, an American fast food chain that specialises in roast beef rolls of astounding blandness, and for dessert I tried disgustingly cloying doughnuts from Tim Horton's, a famous Canadian chain that thankfully has not yet reached Australia.

I left the City Centre mall by another entrance and got lost. I found myself on streets where it was impossible to cross the road. Footpaths would end forcing me to return the way I came or walk on busy highways. A couple of times I had to walk on garden beds. It is obvious that the huge numers of highly paid town planners and civil engineers who designed West Bay never stopped to consider that people might need to walk two blocks and cross the roads while doing so. At least I got to admire all the dizzying colourdd lights on all the buildings while I attempted to find my way back to the metro station so I could have a well-deserved sleep in my hotel.

The Forbidden Sign at the airport

The Forbidden Sign at the airport


Gold class on Doha Metro

Gold class on Doha Metro

Train on the Doha Metro

Train on the Doha Metro

Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art

Arabic calligraphy at Museum of Islamic Art

Arabic calligraphy at Museum of Islamic Art

Mediaeval jewellery from Syria

Mediaeval jewellery from Syria

Battle standard with Arabic calligraphy

Battle standard with Arabic calligraphy

Doha skyline

Doha skyline

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

Posted by urbanreverie 02:10 Archived in Qatar Tagged metro public_transport museum qatar airways doha Comments (0)

The beam out of thine own eye

I have probably had worse starts to holidays. It's just that right now I can't remember them.

BC6F4297-7EF3-4179-A2D9-651BF038CAEE.jpeg

I went to bed at about half past midnight after a productive, busy night of packing, laundry, tying loose ends and my customary pre-holiday housework binge. My intention was to get up a little bit earlier than usual to finish my packing, ensure that my apartment was secure and in good order, then take my backpack into the office and work my usual hours. My flight isn't until 10:15pm and it would not be worth going to the office, doubling back home to pick up my luggage, and then going from home to the airport as I would have to pass through Central Station opposite my office again.

I fell asleep unusually quickly at about one o'clock, and then I woke up at a quarter past three in agony. It felt as if a shard of glass were embedded beneath my left eyelid. Every blink, every eyeball movement, resulted in wincing pain and watering eyes. I turned on the bathroom light and spent half an hour with my head under the running tap or the shower head trying to flush the damned thing out of my eye, but it only made things worse. I went back to bed, and every time I fell asleep, ten minutes later I woke up again due to my eyeball moving.
4F9C0DC2-8E44-48B8-A604-686205E9A414.jpeg
Instead of going to work at my usual time, I went to my local general practice clinic. The doctor had to turn my left upper eyelid inside out and she scraped out the offending item with a flattened cotton swab - a tiny, flat, dark orange piece of debris, shaped like a Google Maps location pin, no more than a millimetre long and a third of a millimetre wide. Neither the doctor or I could identify what it was, but if I had to guess, I would say a tiny little timber splinter. It was amazing how much pain and irritation something so tiny could cause.

I went back home and rested for a couple of hours - I was delirious with fatigue after getting so little sleep - and caught the bus to work, arriving a bit after midday. A few of the boys in the office and I went out for dumplings in Chinatown for lunch. Some decent company and great food made things a little bit better.

I finished work, bought antibiotic eyedrops at a pharmacy, and did the same Urban Reverie's Tightarse Method of Travel to Kingsford Smith Airport as I described in my Sri Lankan blog - namely, catch a train on the Airport Line to Mascot one station before the airport and then change to a 400 or 420 bus to the terminal. For maths nerds, here's the comparison:
67C1D146-B502-407E-93EF-9CF6103B4F48.jpeg
TRAIN DIRECT FROM CENTRAL STATION TO AIRPORT: $2.52 off-peak fare × 50% Opal weekly travel reward + $14.87 "airport station access extortion... ahem, fee" = $16.13

URBAN REVERIE'S TIGHTARSE METHOD = ($2.52 off-peak train fare + $2.24 bus - $2.00 Opal transfer discount) × 50% Opal weekly travel reward = $1.38

So, $16.13 versus $1.38. Worth the inconvenience of the transfer, I reckon. The fact that I have reached my weekly Opal travel reward of half-price fares due to making more than eight trips by commuting to and from work makes it even better. The weekly reward discount does not apply to the "airport station access armed robb... ahem, fee".

I spent forty-five minutes in a typically glacial check-in queue, and then endured an equally irksome security screening queue. I then paid five dollars for a bottle of water for the privilege of having to use this extortionate claustrophobic cesspit called Kingsford Smith Airport. I cannot wait to board Qatar Airways Flight QR909 in a few minutes time. Believe me, I cannot wait.

Posted by urbanreverie 00:51 Archived in Australia Tagged sydney chinatown airport public_transport Comments (0)

LATE 2019 TRIP: PROLOGUE: Jumping off the hamster wheel


View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Sydney, Australia
Thursday, 17 October 2019

"Only those who toil six long days out of the seven, and all the year round, save for one brief glorious fortnight or ten days in the summer time, know the exquisite sensations of the First Holiday Morning. All the dreary, uninteresting routine drops from you suddenly, your chains fall about your feet. . . . There were thrushes in the Richmond Road, and a lark on Putney Heath. The freshness of dew was in the air; dew or the relics of an overnight shower glittered on the leaves and grass. . . . He wheeled his machine up Putney Hill, and his heart sang within him."

--"The Wheels of Chance", H.G. Wells

Now that I have almost reached the maximum amount of annual leave one may accrue in the service of my employer, it's time once again to explore the world, only the sixth time I have left Australia, and the first time I have went overseas twice in the one year.

It will be a welcome break. It is not that my life is particularly unpleasant. My job has become far more tolerable this year, perhaps even approaching enjoyable at times. I am grateful for the company of friends and family when I get the chance to see them, I finally met some long-lost cousins I never knew existed before I signed up for an ancestry.com account, my health both physical and mental is improving.

It's just that life as a white-collar inner-urban middle-aged bachelor tends to be rather Groundhog Day. It sometimes feels as if my life is a never-ending hamster wheel of crawling out of bed in the morning, catching the 480 or 483 bus down Parramatta Road to work, doing enough work to keep my manager and the long-suffering citizens of New South Wales happy, hitting the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre after work for some laps, grocery shopping, cooking, dreary household chores and sleeping, only to do the same thing the next day and the day after that. It often feels like the only relaxation I get is learning languages on Duolingo on my phone during the commute to and from work.

Duolingo, the famous mobile phone app that has revolutionised how people learn foreign languages, is my inspiration for this journey I am about to take. About four months ago I was looking for a new language to start on Duolingo and unable to decide on one, I picked the weirdest, most esoteric, most difficult language on offer just for the hell of it. I then got sucked into the vortex of learning more about the country where this language is spoken and its history and its culture, and then I searched for air fares on Google Flights, and well, here I am.

So it is time for me to jump off the hamster wheel and go on another one of my adventures for a few weeks. And as always, I will be sharing tales of my adventures on Travellers Point. I would be enormously honoured if you were to follow along with me.

Posted by urbanreverie 18:42 Archived in Australia Tagged sydney prologue duolingo Comments (1)

When all of the ships come back to the shore


View Urban Reverie 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Sydney, Australia
Thursday, 21 February 2019

About halfway through the eight-hour flight from Singapore to Sydney on Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 211, I saw a coastline hove into view. It was a desolate, messy sort of coastline between Derby and Broome, a spilled trifle-bowl of mangroves, desert scrub, sand dunes, beaches, serpentine estuaries and mudflats where the border between land and sea wasn't entirely clear.

I still smiled though because although it was an unattractive coastline, it is my coastline. On my mother's side I descend from Aboriginals of the Birpai tribe on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. On my father's side I descend from a female English convict and a Royal Marine private who were sent out on the First Fleet, that armada of Royal Navy vessels carrying prisoners and soldiers from England which founded Sydney, Australia's first European settlement, in 1788.

I'm as Australian as you can get and however much I might occasionally wish it were otherwise, there is no changing it. I might criticise my country - and only the most blinkered jingoist or Liberal Party member could deny that Australia has its serious flaws, flaws that a country so wealthy and fortunate should not have; I might even laugh at it, I might whinge about Australia's crappy weather and dream about rolling around naked in a snowbank in Finland during yet another heatwave, but this country thirty-eight thousand feet below me is my home.

The past two times I went overseas, I visited Europe. Both times I returned in a jealous rage. Why can't Australia be as civilised and educated and cultivated and efficient and orderly and egalitarian and environmentally sustainable as Northern Europe? Not fair!

What a terrible lack of perspective. Yes, I still believe that Northern Europeans enjoy, on average, better conditions of living than Australians and the people there in general entertain far more progressive political attitudes that are more in line with my own. But, as I said in the prologue to this blog, there are some two hundred countries in the world. And how many are truly more pleasant to live in Australia? Maybe ten or twenty, if that? That's a pretty good innings.

So what I lacked was perspective. Going to Sri Lanka helped sharpen my focus. This was the first time I have ever visited an underdeveloped country. (Middle-income Malaysia and six hours in Bali don't count.)

I come back with a greatly enhanced appreciation for the benefits of Western civilisation. If you have never been to a Third World country - Sri Lanka has a gross domestic product per capita of around US$4,000 per capita; Australia about US$50,000 - you simply cannot appreciate how lucky we are to live in the West. You might be aware of our relative good fortune in the abstract, you might even be able to recite GDP per capita figures by heart, but you cannot have the full emotional awareness that makes you think to yourself, "gee, what did I ever do to deserve to be born into such a fortunate country?"

Australia, and all Western countries, enjoy not only a high average standard of living. We enjoy something a bit more important, the thing without which that standard of living would be impossible - good government. Ignore individual buffoon politicians like Donald Trump or Scott Morrison. You can trust our government officials to perform their duties with integrity and relative efficiency. Our police services enforce laws fairly, rigorously and competently, including the highway codes and food safety regulations. Few bureaucrats will ever solicit a bribe. Railway employees won't lie through their teeth and tell you that the train will be moving in fifteen minutes when they know it will be stuck for six hours. (Yes, I am still cut up over that frustrating night at Bandarawela. Just thinking about it elevates my blood pressure.)

This integrity extends to the greater citizenry. Foreign visitors to Western cities will rarely encounter touts or con artists. Taxi drivers will charge you the metered price and not a cent more. Restaurant owners won't knowingly put unsafe tap water on guest's tables just to save money.

So I come back to Australia more grateful for the benefits of Western civilisation. I can also see more sharply the detriments of Western civilisation. Life in the West can be lonely. So many of us live atomised, unhappy, lonely lives isolated from everyone else, even isolated from our true selves. With nearly every Sri Lankan I met, the first thing they would talk about was their family. They would recite their children's names and ages like some monastic chant. In many houses, multiple generations live under one roof. Sri Lankans might be much poorer than us, but they do seem happier. I don't even remember seeing a mentally ill person, certainly not one whose affliction was obvious. On the streets of Sydney the mentally ill are sixpence a dozen.

We Westerners have loose-knit extended families we only occasionally see that we can't really rely on in times of crisis. But during the twentieth century thanks to the uniquely Western innovations of socialism and trade unionism, we built comprehensive welfare states that would catch us if things went awry in our lives - a chronic illness, a family breakdown, a factory that went bankrupt throwing thousands out of work. Conservative parties are currently very busily and happily destroying our welfare systems.

On the train from Anuradhapura to Negombo, I was reading Australian news on my phone. I read a news story about how there were hundreds of excess deaths among vicitims of the robo-debt scandal. (For my non-Australian readers, the robo-debt scandal consisted of Australia's social security department sending thousands of debt collection notices to welfare recipients for entirely fictitious computer-generated debts of thousands of dollars with demands to pay immediately or face criminal sanctions. The onus was placed on the recipients to prove that they didn't owe these fake debts. Of course, few people keep pay slips and tax assessment notices from seven years ago and can't prove they don't owe the government money.) The stress and anxiety caused by robo-debt likely tipped some of Australia's most vulnerable people over the edge.

So Westerners can't really rely on their distant, loose-knit families. Increasingly we cannot rely on the welfare state, in the English-speaking countries at least where the free-market neoliberal cancer has metastasised the most. In the West, we are on our own. Is it any wonder that half the population in Western countries are doped up to their eyeballs on anti-depressants, that the suicide rate is so high? Next time you are on a bus or a train in a Western metropolis like Sydney, look at the passengers around you and take note of how many are unhappy. It's a lot. I don't mean merely bored or indifferent or blank-faced, but actively, oppressively unhappy.

In Sri Lanka I saw few truly unhappy people. Poor people, people doing it tough, people who work harder than they should just to get enough food for the day, people desperate enough to lie and cheat and beg, certainly. But very little unhappiness.

Western civilisation has given us many blessings. This epidemic of loneliness, anxiety and depression, this growing sense of helplessness and that there's nobody we can rely on, is not among them.

It will be a very long time before Sri Lanka joins the ranks of the developed countries. Things are progressing. The country is having a massive tourism boom, the government is going on an infrastructure spending spree with new motorways and ports appearing everywhere, I have never seen so many cranes in my life as I did in Colombo. But it will take a lot of effort and discipline to bring the bloated bureaucracy under control, bring the education system into the twenty-first century and improve the efficiency and skill base and accuracy of its workforce so that it produces high-value, high-quality goods and services that can bring in export revenue and raise the standard of living.

But I have no doubt that Sri Lanka is capable of joining the First World. There is so much untapped potential in that beautiful country. If Sri Lankans can marry the very best that Western civilisation has to offer - rationalism, liberalism, democracy, equality before the law, respect for human rights - with the very best of their own imperishable traditions - compassion, hospitality, politeness, supportive close-knit families, respect for animals and nature - then their future is assured. Japan and the other East Asian democracies have pulled off something similar. I believe Sri Lanka and other countries like it can do the same. I have faith in Sri Lanka, that marvellous, magical island of which I shall have intense memories both good and bad for the rest of my life, and I wish her all the best on her journey and will watch her with interest from afar.

As for my journey, it was almost over. I got no sleep on the flight from Singapore. I was just about to fall asleep a few minutes after Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 211 took off from Changi, but right at the moment I was starting to sleep a baby started screaming. And that set the other babies off. There must have been about four infants in my section of the cabin alone. They didn't stop until we reached Sydney. I got my free earphones, plugged them into the Krisworld in-flight entertainment system, played ABBA at maximum volume and I could still hear them screaming. What angered me was that there was no effort on the part of the parents to soothe and quieten their howling brats. Surely airlines can slip a small dose of Valium into the infants' meals just to give the rest of us a chance to sleep? I was meant to return to work the next day. Needless to say, I didn't. Thankfully my boss is understanding.

We flew over the Simpson Desert, the ruler-straight red sand dunes stretching to the horizon. It looked like a vast Martian ocean. The shadows cast by the dunes became thicker as the sun sank in the sky.

The sun set as the plane was over the Central West of New South Wales and we began our approach to Sydney from somewhere near Goulburn. We landed a bit early at nine o'clock and I set foot in my native land for the first time in three weeks.

Baggage claim took forever as it usually does at Sydney Airport. The chute would spit out maybe one or two bags onto the carousel every minute. I declared souvenirs and the fact that I went to wilderness areas at quarantine, was cleared, and at ten to ten I finally emerged into the arrivals hall and met my friend Alan.

Alan is a good friend of mine, we are both transport and urban planning enthusiasts, and we meet for dinner every Wednesday to engage in long, nerdy yet mutually satisfying conversations. I flew into Sydney on a Wednesday night so it should have been no exception. After all that I had been through in Sri Lanka it was so awesome to see a friendly face.

Both of us being cheapskates, we caught the bus to Mascot station and the train from there to Central. It was my birthday so Alan shouted me dinner - McDonald's at Railway Square. It was the only thing still open. I shared some of my travel stories, Alan asked me lots of questions about Sri Lanka, I gave him some souvenirs.

At midnight we farewelled each other, I had to go to the bathroom. The one in McDonald's was locked so I went to a pub across the road. I ended up buying a beer to soothe my nerves and relax and unwind after an unpleasant flight. But the pub was so full of boorish, drunken loudmouths that it did exactly the reverse. That's one thing I did not miss about Australia - how loud and uncouth the people here can be.

I could have caught a bus home down Parramatta Road but I couldn't have been bothered. I splashed out twenty-two dollars on a taxi. The driver was a polite young student from Pakistan. I described some of the things I saw in Sri Lanka and he said it was similar to his homeland.

I stepped over my threshold, turned the hot water system back on, and sank into a deep sleep until four in the afternoon, interrupted only by a phone call from my manager to ask me where I was.

This adventure is at an end. But not the adventure called life. Tomorrow I return to my work, the soul-crushing routine of a white-collar government job in a stuffy little office with stuffy little people which I only put up with because of the salary that enables me to save up enough money to travel overseas, the job security and the fact that I actually get a thrill out of knowing that my work isn't about making some rich posh bastard even richer but benefits all the people of New South Wales. My job also enables me to pursue my new life goal - to save up a million dollars in superannuation, savings and investments by the time I am sixty. If all goes to plan, I will have enough money then to quit my job, cash out my superannuation and unused long service leave, put all my stuff in storage, and spend the rest of my life travelling the world exploring everything this amazing planet has to offer until the day I drop dead because I am only ever happy when I travel.

And I know with certainty that, starting from tomorrow as I sit at my desk in that stuffy little office, I will start dreaming about my next overseas adventure.

Simpson Desert sand dunes

Simpson Desert sand dunes

Bali Strait separating Bali on the left and Java on the right

Bali Strait separating Bali on the left and Java on the right

Sunset over Central West New South Wales

Sunset over Central West New South Wales

The journey ends

The journey ends

Posted by urbanreverie 05:43 Archived in Australia Tagged sydney australia sri_lanka homecoming Comments (0)

(Entries 26 - 30 of 55) « Page 1 2 3 4 5 [6] 7 8 9 10 .. »