Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.
Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.

This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.

Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door:
The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia
What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!

I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor.
Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti
Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem:
Graffiti in Melbourne Australia
So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!

Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.

Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

Brain worms: A Love Story

I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.

This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.

The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).

A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.

 

Experience the nectar

Bhutan by Ashley Kalagian BluntIn 2015 I visited the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country wedged between China and India, like a pea delicately set between two butt cheeks. Bhutan is world renowned for its Gross National Happiness philosophy, which the government believes is a more important metric than the standard GDP. It’s less renowned for its history of ethnic cleansing, which forced more than 100,000 people out of the country and into refugee camps in the 1990s.

One other notable cultural aspect of Bhutan is that everyone is really into anatomy, specifically one region of male anatomy.  For example, one of the local drinking establishments is named Phallus Bar. Their slogan is  –  this is true  – Experience the nectar of Phallus Bar.

(I didn’t experience the nectar. I kind of regret it.)

Bhutan folk art tooIn villages in Bhutan, if you, as a male property owner, want to indicate to your neighbours that you’re strong and virile, you paint a giant phallus on your house. This is one of those cultural aesthetics that is perfectly acceptable in the region it originated in, but if that same Bhutanese guy were to move to the West, his neighbours may not appreciate his exterior decorating style. Or they might. It really depends what neighbourhood he ends up in.

Bhutan folk artThis obsession dates back to a Bhutanese religious folk hero, the Divine Madman. He was both a Buddhist master and ladies’ man, judging by his reputation as the “Saint of 5000 Women.” The Divine Madman used his “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom” (his term, not mine) to kill evil spirits. He was basically an x-rated Buddhist superhero.

This is all to let you know that in May, a monologue I wrote after my Bhutanese travels is being performed at Voices of Women in Sydney. It’s called “Tonight’s Performance: You’ve Definitely Got Rabies” and it doesn’t require you to know about the Divine Madman, Phallus Bar or anything about Bhutan. But aren’t you glad you do?

 

What I learned in Singapore part 1: How to avoid being grilled on a red hot pillar

The best part of travelling is learning about the values and traditions of other cultures. Like the Ten Courts of Hell, a vision of the afterlife recreated in dioramas at Haw Par Villa in Singapore.

Built in 1937, Haw Par still attracts local school groups and confused tourists. The Ten Courts is its most baffling exhibition. A sign out front reads: The “Ten Courts of Hell” is dedicated to the teachings of traditional Chinese folklore. Due to the graphics nature of the exhibits, viewers’ discretion and parental guidance are advised.

Despite this warning, the cavern containing the Ten Courts of Hell was full of children learning every gruesome details of the very bureaucratic division of committed crimes and corresponding punishments among the ten courts.

When you die, you either go straight to Heaven or end up at the First Court of Hell, which is guarded by ‘Horse-Face’ and ‘Ox-Head.’ 1st-horse-faceYou pass through each court and are judged based on your particular crimes. As you can see, the punishments are specific and inventive:

Second Court of Hell
Crime Punishment
Inflicting physical injury Thrown into volcanic pit
Conmen and robbers
Corruption Frozen into blocks of ice
Stealing and gambling
Prostitutes Thrown into a pool of blood and drowned
Third Court of Hell
Crime Punishment
Ungratefulness Heart cut-out
Disrespect to elders
Escape from prison
Drug addits & traffickers Tied to red hot copper pillar and grilled
Tomb robbers
Urging people into crime and social unrest

Each court has its own diorama, positioned at the eye-level of a typical primary-school student. Here you can see a prison escapee having his heart cut out, and what might be a tomb robber being grilled on a pole. 3rd-heart-cut-out-grilled

The crimes become very specific, such as in the ‘forth’ court:

Forth Court of Hell  
Crime Punishment
Tax dodger, business fraud Pounded by stone mallet
Refusal to pay rent  
   
Disobedience to one’s siblings Grounded by a large stone
Lack of filial piety  

Here are either some tax dodgers being pounded, or some disobedient family members being grounded, I’m not sure:
4th-pounded-by-stone-mallet

Fifth Court of Hell
Crime Punishment
Plotted another’s death for his property or money Thrown onto a hill of knives
Money lenders with exorbitant interest rates
The Viewing Home Tower is for the evildoers to see how their relatives and family are suffering as a result of their wrong-doings.

I’m not sure about that last bit of info on the Viewing Home Tower – does it mean you can just stop by and see how your ancestors are being tortured? This would be an effective deterrent to plotting another’s death.

Courts six through eight offer more examples of creative punishment – and fashion sense!