Asia, Travel

Touring South-West China with Davide Melia

This week I’d like to introduce you to Davide Melia, creator of ‘South West China with Davide Melia’ on Patreon. Davide lives in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in south-west Yunnan and for several months his site has provided subscribers with an online portal to this special place.

Davide’s photographs, videos and stories illuminate daily life in this area. At a time when travel has been severely curtailed, these posts have provided a welcome—even therapeutic–escape. Whenever the stultifying sameness of the living room started getting to me, I knew I was only a few clicks away from Yunnan’s delicious food, spectacular landscapes and fascinating history. It’s been a bit like having a personal tour guide without having to go anywhere or to learn the language(s).

Davide was kind enough to agree to an interview talking about his life and the region. If you find this interview interesting, please consider subscribing and supporting his work.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your life before arriving in China?


Of course! Well, I was born in Perth, Western Australia at the end of 1982, and my parents are migrants from Italy who arrived in Australia in the 1970s.

Growing up, I lived in Huntingdale, an outer suburb about 1 hour’s drive from the centre of Perth city. I went through 12 years of Catholic primary and secondary school, then attended the University of Western Australia where I did a double major in English and History and then Honours in English. After that, I spent 6 years post-uni working as a doorman at different places, mainly big nightclubs and pubs, around Perth.

I was very involved in the punk scene in Perth. I was not a musician, though many of my friends were. At one point I worked as the head doorman of the Hyde Park Hotel, in many ways the home of punk in Perth, before it was taken over by a large conglomerate and turned into a cookie-cutter, sanitised suburban pub.

I’ve also been involved with anti-racist activism in Perth since I was a teenager. Why anti-racist activism? Well, Huntingdale (and the neighbouring suburbs, Thornlie and Maddington and Gosnells) have always had large populations of Indigenous Australian peoples, and of people from different parts of the world, but Gosnells was also the home of Jack van Tongeren, the leader of the Australian neo-Nazi group the Australian Nationalist Movement, and it was quite a racist place in some parts.

When I was very young, the ANM were very active in posting neo-Nazi propaganda, putting neo-Nazi graffiti everywhere, and making attacks on various people and their homes and businesses. They were all jailed when I was very young, but in the early 2000’s, they made a comeback, and started getting serious about doing the same kind of shit they did back in the late 80’s.

Jack van Tongeren with suggestive hairstyle and moustache


So, remembering them from when I was young, I was very active in disrupting their plans and goals, collecting information about who they were and what they were doing, and generally interfering with what they wanted to do. Thankfully, that time around, their group was broken up without them doing any serious harm to anyone – and van Tongeren was exiled out of the state (and is very old by now), so a third coming of the ANM has not and is not going to happen.

2. Where are you now and how did you get there?
 
I live in Mangshi, which is the capital city of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, which is located in south-west Yunnan, which is located in south-west China, right on the northern border of Myanmar.After I finished working as a doorman at the end of 2009, I went back to university to do my graduate diploma (I’d previously completed a BA in English and History, with Honours in English), and while I was there, I met a visiting scholar from China. We wrote a book together, and I mentioned to her that I knew very little about China, and that I would be interested in working there for a year or so.

Image from here


So she helped me find a job at a private English training school. That job lasted for 6 months until my boss tried to cheat me out of wages and I left after an extremely acrimonious argument which culminated in him throwing a chair at me. When I came back, in 2013, I went to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College. That job was great. It lasted for 3 years, but then I went back home because my grandfather was dying. And a good job I did – he passed away a week after I got back.

At the end of February, I am going back to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College.

3. How does your region relate to the rest of China? How is it different?
 
Where I live is right on the border with northern Myanmar.

Well, Mangshi city itself is a couple hundred kilometres away. It would be much less, except that this whole part of Yunnan consists of mountains, hills, rainforests and valleys. However, Ruili, which is like the commercial centre of Dehong, is literally on the border – the border crossing to Shan State in northern Myanmar is in Ruili itself. In fact, Ruili is a two-part city – the side on the Myanmar side of the border is called Muse, and it is a single city, more or less, with a national border going through it.

Riuli, on the border with Myanmar


So, as you can imagine, the geography and climate is very similar, in fact the same, as that in northern Myanmar. I’ve already mentioned the geography, but the climate is very sub-tropical, with two distinct seasons – cold and dry in the winter and autumn, and warm and very (very!) rainy in the spring and summer.

There’s also similarities in the people who live here. For one thing, 75% or so of the construction and hospitality sectors in Dehong is staffed by people from the Myanmar side of the border, and also, the same ethnic groups tend to live on both sides of the border. They might have different names in Myanmar – for example, Dai people are called Shan, and Jingpo people are called Kachin – but they are the same peoples.

There are also a lot of similarities in the foods that are eaten, the music that people like, and many other cultural aspects.

But as for similarities with the rest of China … well, it is very much still China, even if it has a very different culture as a result of being an ‘ethnic autonomous prefecture’ with a very varied population.

Shan State is largely neglected by the Myanmar government, given that the Myanmar government is dominated by Bamar people who don’t care very much for the ‘hill tribes’ living in the ‘ethnic areas’ on the border. So it’s very under-developed. It suffers from a gross lack of government investment and government funding. So even though the people are hard-working and do the best with what they have, Shan State is noticeably more run-down and under-developed than Dehong. You can see this clearly just by going to Ruili and comparing the Myanmar side of the border to the China side.


Dehong is a very low GDP-per-capita area in a very low GDP-per-capita province of China – Yunnan is the second-lowest GDP-per-capita area of China. In spite of this – or more accurately, because of this – it has received massive amounts of government investment over the last 10 or 15 years, and has developed very much in that time. Roads that were once treacherous and narrow have been replaced by multi-lane expressways leading to every other part of Yunnan and China, and even out of the country.

Villages and towns have received massive amounts of investment, which has meant that every aspect of life in them has improved. This is something which Dehong has in common with very many other, similar, areas all across China, and particularly in northern and western China.All of this sounds a lot like a PR job, or the outright P-word – but it is nothing more or less than the god’s honest truth. That’s one big issue with Western coverage of China – if it’s not outright negative, or at least laced with negativity, it’s largely regarded as propaganda. The well has been poisoned so thoroughly that just trying to give an accurate view of how things are here is somehow suspect.

Mangshi

4. You often mention your wife, Weina. Can you tell us a little bit about her background, how you met and her interests? What was the procedure in terms of your residency there?

Well, Weina is from Shandong province way on the other side of China. She did her degrees at universities in Kunming, which is the capital city of Yunnan, and after she was done, she got a job here at the teacher’s college, where she has worked ever since.

Weina’s very much involved in her work, and very serious and professional on that. Most Chinese academics and teachers are like this, especially those who work in marginal areas like this. But she also very much likes travelling, reading for pleasure, learning about different things, listening to music, watching television, and other things besides. In this sense, and many others besides, we’re pretty well matched with each other.

Weina and Davide


We worked at the same college for three years, from 2013-2016, but we didn’t meet during my time at the college. Well, we met a few days before I went back home, but then I went home and we didn’t talk again until the latter third of 2017, when we were introduced to each other by a colleague from the college. We talked a lot, got along very well, went on a holiday together at the beginning of 2018, and from there decided that we’d both like to stay together from that time on.

So at that point, we started preparing for me to come back to Mangshi. It wasn’t too difficult because I already had a passport and had a job lined up, so I went through the usual process involved in obtaining a work visa for China. That’s the first step. Once I had been issued a work visa, I flew to China, and from there, I obtained my residency permit, and I’ve been living here ever since.

5. How do locals react to your being a foreigner?

It varies quite a lot.

Children range from horror at my ogre-like presence, to treating me like a celebrity. I don’t mind either – it’s quite funny. Children are children, and their reactions have more to do with how they feel at a given moment than anything else.The reaction of adults also varies quite a lot, but isn’t so extreme. Dehong is already quite a multi-ethnic region – it has many different local ethnic groups, plus lots of people from Myanmar and other nearby countries. But not too many ‘Westerners’.

Kids from Davide’s post “Pictures from a Xinjiang Primary School, Kashgar, Xinjiang”.


So, the reaction of adults varies from friendliness, to utter indifference. Really old people, who associate Westerners with the Americans and others who were here during the war, are uniformly friendly. People who are a little older than that, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and the time in China’s history when foreigners never came here, are a bit more ambiguous … some are friendly, some are unfriendly, and some are obviously wondering what the hell I am doing here. Mind you, they wouldn’t have met a ‘foreigner’ who wasn’t from Myanmar until quite recently. At the earliest, they would have met foreigners maybe twenty years ago. So these kinds of reactions are understandable.

But I have never come across anyone who was openly rude to me, or hostile, or anything like that. The local people are wonderful and tolerant.

Well, once I was threatened with a big knife for taking photos of people who really, really didn’t want to be photographed, but that was at the jade market in Ruili, the border city with Myanmar. And even at that, he just brandished his knife at me and made me understand that I should stop taking photos, which I immediately did.

Jade market in Riuli



Another time, some dudes were sizing me up like a particularly juicy pork-chop – and not in a friendly way – but I’d stumbled into illegal stuff going on, and had a camera in my hand. On both occasions, even though there was an implicit or explicit threat, I was still shown a large amount of forbearance and tolerance, for which I can only be grateful. Neither of those events were because of my being a foreigner, though – my own ignorance caused them.

6. From your posts, I’ve learned that there are several different ethnic groups who live in the region and who maintain a sense of their distinct identity, for example the Dai,  De’ang and Jingpo. Can you talk about some of these minority groups –language and dialect, for example, and their relationship with the Han majority?

Dehong is a Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, after the two largest ‘ethnic minority’ groups who live here. However, Dehong is home to at least five different ethnicities besides the Han, Hui, Bamar, and others who live here – the Dehong Dai, Jingpo, De’ang, Lisu, and Achang.

First, there’s the De’ang people. As far as anyone knows, they’re actually the indigenous people of Dehong, and were living here when the Dai people arrived from further north-east over a thousand years ago.

De’ang language is part of the Austroasiatic language family, and is most closely related to certain other languages spoken in India, Bangladesh, and other areas around south-east Asia. They were pre-literate, and now use Dai script – they were introduced to it along with Buddhism by the Dai people when they arrived here – but have a long and rich history and culture.

De’ang people picking tea [Photo/Xinhua] china daily newspaper]


They were and are an agricultural people best known for tea planting- in fact, they may well have introduced tea to the Han people and other peoples of China. Tea is, after all, indigenous to this part of the world, and spread over the world from here. They believe that they are descended from primordial tea plants in an earlier era of the world (I can only compare this era to the Dreamtime, although this is an imperfect comparison to make)- and tea is an integral part of their culture, at every level.

Second, there’s the Dai people. The Dai people are from much further north-east in what is now China. They spread out over Yunnan, Myanmar (where they are called Shan), Thailand (where they are called Tai), and as far south as northern India, from the borderland of modern-day Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hunan provinces, although their ultimate origin is thought to be even further north-west still.

Over the centuries and millennia, they followed the rivers and mountains and hills and valleys to the south and west, where they formed smaller groups in suitable locations for rice-farming, which grew over time into powerful independent kingdoms and principalities. The modern-day Thai people, for example, are related to the various Dai/Tai/Shan peoples – Thai language is about 50% cognate with Dehong Dai language, with many shared vocabulary items (such as numbers).

That bring us to their language. There are many different Dai languages, all of which are mutually intelligible, but which have different influences and vocabularies based on the influence of their neighbours in a given area. Dai languages are part of the same family as Burmese, Thai, Sinhalese, Balinese, Kannada, Tamil, and other ‘south-east Asian languages’. The Dai language spoken in Dehong is referred to as Dehong Dai (or Tai Le or Tai Nua), and has a vast amount of literature, both sacred and secular, written in it, as well as a rich spoken heritage.


Women of the Dai minority


If the De’ang are associated mainly with tea, the Dai are associated mainly with rice planting. The Dai people may have been among the first rice-planting cultures, who introduced the crop, and the best ways of planting it, to many other cultures and peoples. Rice farming has always been the basis of their way of life, their prosperity, and their principalities and kingdoms which have been very powerful and influential in the past. Even today, Dai people are the main basis of the agricultural wealth of Dehong, which is mainly an agricultural area.

Then, there’s the Jingpo and Lisu, who I will deal with together, since much of what is true for the Jingpo is also true for the Lisu. The Jingpo and Lisu are actually two parts of what is called the ‘Jinghpaw Wunpong’, or ‘Jingpo Confederacy’ – a confederation of five different peoples. Or six or seven – it depends who you ask. However, only two of those peoples, the Jingpo and Lisu, live on this side of the China/Myanmar border.

Jingpo woman dancing, photo courtesy of Davide Melia. He has a fascinating explanation for the costume in the February 2021 post “The Dragon Woman, Ja Nang, the progenitor of Jingpo women”



The peoples of the Jinghpaw Wunpong originate from much further north, in central Asia, from a land which they call Ka-ang Shingra. From there, they slowly and gradually moved south – spending a lot of time in different areas along the way, such as Mongolia, modern-day Sichuan province, and many others besides – until they arrived in this part of the world about 500 years ago.

The Jingpo speak a number of languages but here in Dehong, they speak two – Jingpo and Zaiwa. Both of these are Sino-Tibetan languages, although part of a rather rarified branch; many of their closest relatives are in the mainly-extinct Luish/Asakian language group.

Jingpo/Kachin people in this part of the world have been best known for living in the hills and mountains, where they have practiced various forms of agriculture such as swidden farming and raising cattle and other suitable livestock. Jingpo areas have a lot of mineral wealth – most famously, jade and emeralds – and the Jingpo people were well-known as miners.

Unlike the Dai, who were able to maintain large standing armies thanks to their style of agriculture, Jingpo people have long practiced a form of warfare which we might compare most accurately to guerrilla warfare, using smaller units and depending on precise manouvres and hit-and-run attacks. Most recently, they were instrumental in pushing the Japanese out of northern Burma and Yunnan in World War 2. They were organized and trained and armed by the British – although, by all accounts, they didn’t need that much training from the British in guerrilla fighting!

Unlike many other peoples in this part of the world, they are mainly Christians, and were converted by the China Inland Missions in the late 19th Century – although they also retain ideas and cultural elements from their previous animist beliefs.

And then there’s the Achang people. They are the least-known of the ‘ethnic minority’ groups of Dehong, among the people of Dehong themselves, which is a shame because they basically all live here. Their earliest recorded origins were in the region bordering modern-day Sichuan and Gansu provinces. About 2,000 years ago, they travelled to Dehong when their home region was placed under the control of a Han governor at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. At one time, they were tributaries to the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms based in Dali, and are well-known for rice farming.

Achang man



Like the De’ang people, the Achang have also been influenced quite a lot by the Dehong Dai. Achang people commonly speak their own language, which is related to Burmese and Arakanese and Zaiwa, but have also spoken Dehong Dai and Mandarin for trading purposes for hundreds of years.

Overall, though, the Achang are very little known – not a lot of work has been done on their history and culture, and even less has been published in the English language.

How do all of these ethnic groups relate to the Han? And how have they related to the Han in the past? Well, for a long time, the Han were not very well established here in south-west Yunnan. There has been a significant Han/Hui presence in Baoshan prefecture to the north-west for about 500 years, but for the most part, the region has been dominated by the various Dai peoples and by a wide variety of different ethnic groups depending on the locality. Various local kingdoms and principalities paid tribute to the Imperial court under the tusi system, but there weren’t really significant populations of Han people in this part of Yunnan for a long time. So, the story of inter-ethnic-group relations here has more to do with how the different non-Han ethnic groups have related to each other. That’s a question which could fill entire volumes of books!

7. What are the aspects you like best about living in Mangshi? What are some of the more challenging things?

Mangshi has a number of features which make it very attractive to live in.

First of all, as you’ll know from my photos and videos, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Dehong is about 1,000 metres above sea level, and it’s made up of 80% rainforest/mountain/hills, 15% rural land, and it’s only about 5% urbanised. It’s basically a giant ‘carbon sink’. So the environment is really good, the air and water are clean, and it has a lot of bio-diversity – even by the standards of Yunnan province, where much of China’s bio-diversity is to be found.

Mangshi River, flowing through a lush green landscape


Second, it has always been, and still is, multicultural and multiethnic. So, not only are there all kinds of different peoples and cultures here, tolerance and acceptances have long been ways of life here. With so many different peoples from so many different places living here, it had to be that way, otherwise society would have broken down a long time ago. Third – the necessities of life are very cheap here. Because it’s a low GDP-per-capita area, wages are quite low. And 2020 was very difficult – I myself was below the poverty level of income, even for here in China, for much of it. And yet, we still got along pretty well. Rent is relatively cheap, transportation is cheap, and food is very cheap indeed, as well as being good-quality.

One thing that is challenging about Dehong is that it is an isolated area. It’s very far from my home in Australia, and from Weina’s home in eastern China. So it’s difficult to see our families more than once a year or so – and lately, what with the virus, it’s been even longer in-between visits.

Another thing is that there are so many different peoples, and so many different cultures, and my eyes are bigger than my stomach. As much as I try, I can’t learn as much as I would like about everyone – so my knowledge is mainly limited to the Dehong Dai and Jingpo people, with a decent amount about De’ang people. So I continually feel like there’s stuff I don’t understand, or that I’m not getting.

8. I particularly like your photographic portraits and the stories you extract from people about their lives. You seem to have a knack for putting your subjects at their ease. Do you have a favorite portrait and accompanying story?

Well, that starts with choosing suitable people to photograph. Some people just don’t want to be photographed, and even asking them is likely to accomplish nothing but aggravating them. If you can clearly see that people look unhappy, or unfriendly, or are doing something that they wouldn’t like others to see – they’re probably not looking to be photographed.

Photographs of wedding guests from the January 2021 post “The wasteland/agricultural land near the new development, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan.”



I err on the side of caution on this one – as I said, I’ve been threatened with a big knife once, and had a group of guys out in the countryside regarding me in a very unfriendly fashion – and it would accomplish nothing for me to get tied up in anything like that here. I spent a lot of time in my twenties having people trying to stick me with knives, broken bottles, and so on, as part of my work, but it’s 10, 15 years on from that time in my life, and there is no possible way I could benefit from anything like that now.

From there, if it’s at all possible, I ask permission. It’s not difficult to ask people if they would like to be photographed, and it’s just good manners. It ensures that they’re going to be happy to be photographed, and if they’re happy, they’ll be more relaxed and the photo will turn out better. Sometimes they’d like to take a photo with me, or of me, as well!

I like to photograph people doing everyday things. People pose for photos in much the same way wherever you are in China, or in the world – but their normal body language is very different in different parts, and that difference is part of what makes photographing people so interesting.

I have a lot of favourite portraits, but if I was being prompted to pick one, I’d probably pick one of the pictures I took of an elderly Han woman, who had been foot-bound in her early days, sitting in her grand-daughter’s shop.

A grandmother with bound feet, from Davide’s December 2020 post “Intergenerational Change in rural China, Mangshi, Dehong, China”



Because it’s so isolated and out on the periphery of China, foot-binding actually kept on going here into the 1950s. This lady was one of the very last women who were foot-bound in China, maybe. This is a cultural practice that had been done in China for over 1,000 years, and it only stopped dead in the 1950s, when the Communist government made sustained efforts to stop it, and to remove it from the culture altogether.

But her own daughter didn’t have to go through that, and neither did her granddaughter. She was confined to her family’s home, but now, two generations on, her grand-daughter has her own business, owns the building that her business is in, and can do whatever she wants to do with her life … and didn’t have to go through her whole life functionally crippled.
 
And even though she has been basically crippled for her whole life, she’s pretty happy in her old age, because her daughter and grand-daughter never had to go through that.

9. What would you most like people to take away from ‘South-West China with Davide Melia’?

There’s been an absolutely massive, sustained, propaganda campaign against China, and against the peoples of China, for a long time now – but it’s really spiralled out of control since 2014, when Xi Jinping came to power. And I feel that nearly all of it is being done in bad faith, because many countries see China’s development and growth as an existential threat.

But the truth is, China has gone through many positive changes in that time. Hundreds of millions of people have been raised out of the most awful poverty imaginable. The country is developing at an absolutely unprecedented rate. Even here, in one of the lowest GDP areas in the entire country, this process is going on. Things are getting better for the majority of people in China.

And the people of China are not a mass of evil-doers and brainwashed drones. They are some of the kindest, most friendly, most intellectually curious, and dedicated and committed people I’ve had the pleasure to live amongst.

If people are going to take just two overarching ideas away from my photos and videos, that would be it, I think.

From the October 2020 post “A Red De’ang lady at the mobile phone shop, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the region, please consider subscribing to Davide’s Patreon page. A very low price gives you access to all previous posts. Plus, Davide is very responsive to feedback and willing to create posts according to subscriber questions and interests.

Asia, Original Fiction, Travel

The Case of the Missing Shadow

One-Eye woke up one day to discover his shadow had gone. He made some preliminary researches. First, he twisted around to bite his back, thinking the shadow might have gotten bunched up where he couldn’t see it. Then he sniffed about on the ground thinking it might have slid into the ditch or blown over the road into a rice paddy. He even trotted along the road to the bits-and-pieces store to glare at the orange cat sleeping on a tree stump. It opened its eyes, glared back and yawned. The cat seemed lazy and insolent, as usual, but not gloating, not as if it had succeeded in stealing his shadow. It was as puzzling and maddening as an unbitten flea.

 

Norwegian Forest Cat Breed Pictures 01

 

When anyone in the village had a question they needed answered, there was only one place to go: Old Maria’s. It was a short walk to the cottage, which stood opposite an old stone church whose enormous dark stone bulk was now surrounded by banana trees, coconut palms, passionfruit vines and bouganvillea. By comparison, the little hut seemed ephemeral as a butterfly, like a leaf about to blow away in the wind. This crooked little structure of thin branches and palm fronds was the home of Pinto and Ana, their two children Ernesto and Fernanda and Ana’s mother Maria, who was a very skinny woman with leather-brown skin, white wisps of hair and one front tooth.

 

fam

 

Every morning, the whole family except for Maria climbed on a little motorbike and rode away to the city. Ana was a teacher so she and the children went to school while Pinto stood outside in the street, in the shade of the trees, selling ice-cream and drinks out of a polystyrene icebox. When school finished, Pinto packed everything up and they all rode back home to the cottage. Meanwhile, Old Maria spent the day keeping house. She washed the family’s clothes in a big plastic bucket, wrung them out with her strong hands, then hung them out to dry. She shook out woven mats. With one twig-broom, she swept the dirt floors and with another she tidied the garden path of dead beetles, fallen leaves and fruit. She moved slowly but got a lot done. When noon came, she retreated to a large cane chair just inside the front door, where she fanned herself slowly and gazed at the tops of distant hills until her eyelids closed.

It was at this time, when Maria was safely drowsing and unlikely to throw slippers at visitors, that One-Eye ventured into the garden.

Not far from the hut, under the shade of an ancient banyan tree, an enormous pig lay snoring gently in his mud bath. This was Porphyry the Sage, an intellectual giant. Although he was an expert in Psychology, Philosophy, Logic, Classical History, Medicine, Botany and Astronomy, his forte was in Problem Solving.

He’d received his education from his late mother Nellie, a precocious sow who’d given the world 33 other fine little piglets. During her youth Nellie had taught herself to read with the help of an English dictionary that had fallen out of a schoolgirl’s backpack and landed on the roadside near the cottage. One of Nellie’s numerous siblings had chewed from ‘Aardvark’ to ‘Chrysanthemum’ then, finding it dry, left the rest to his sister. She’d carried it over in her teeth to the edge of the property and stowed it in a hollow stump. Something drove her to treasure this book greatly, spending hours gazing at it. Over time, she realized that the small dark patterns were not just pleasing to the eye; they added up to something. She started recognizing the same little shapes wherever she trotted: on signs, cardboard boxes, newspapers.

 

dic

 

Being the runt of the litter, Nellie was adopted as a pet by Ana and was sometimes allowed to sit on the step next to her as she helped the children with their homework. As Ana quizzed them on their ABC’s, Nellie sat attentively at her feet. In this way, she learned that the letters corresponded to sounds and that, depending on how they were arranged, they could invoke things that weren’t actually there.

As soon as Nellie realized this, she cherished her mangled dictionary even more. She decided that one day she would know what each and every word meant. Furthermore, when she saw any item with writing on it, she would take it up and carry it back to her nook, the tree-hollow at the edge of the property, to add to the collection. In this way, over the years, she built up a large and eclectic library including a physics textbook, a King James Bible (hardcover), an English-language reader of Robinson Crusoe, a history of philosophy, five cereal boxes, assembly instructions for a wardrobe, a German newspaper and a book about how to make birthday cakes.

In recognition of how important the dictionary was to her, she gave each of her 34 piglets a name beginning with her favorite letter, ‘p’. Porphyry was one of her fifth and final litter, as were Porcupine, Plato, Pluck, Pride, Peace, Peep, Pyx and Paracelsus. She imparted what knowledge she had to her offspring and all of them were able to read, though some of them didn’t really like to. Alas, Nellie was gone now and most of the piglets had scattered far and wide. Now it was only Porphyry who snuffled about the native homestead, meditating on the Nature of things.

 

800px-Pig_in_a_bucket

 

It was to Porphyry that One-Eye the dog now repaired.

There was, everyone knew, an accepted procedure for these visits. The supplicant would sidle up to the massive authority, ask him politely whether he had eaten yet and (without waiting for a reply) gently place an offering of food at the side of the mud pool—a mango, perhaps, or a boiled egg or a clump of cooked rice taken from some slop pile. The donation made, the supplicant then respectfully ask for advice. After rising to ingest the offering, Porphyry would then return to his bath, close his eyes and twitch his snout, the only visible sign that he was cogitating. Just as the anxious supplicant began to think that the Sage had gone to sleep, an answer came.

As soon as he saw the large mud-soaked bulk of Porphyry, One-Eye’s tail began to wag gently with renewed cheer. The pig exuded intelligence. Carefully, One-Eye placed his offering at the side of the mud pool. It was especially choice—half a grilled fish wrapped in a banana leaf. He’d snatched it from a roadside barbecue where it had been dropped the night before. With incredible self-restraint, the dog had only taken a single bite, with his small, sharp front teeth.

 

One-Eye coughed politely to get Porphyry’s attention, then delivered the time-honored formula (quietly, so as not to wake Old Maria):

 

“Your honor, Porphyry the Wise and Well-brained, I come in the name of all questioners to question Thee, the Trusted Source of All-seeing and Corpulent Spring of Truth. With this fish, I humbly entreat thee, Plump Prophet, assist me in my confusion. This is the knot I wish to untie and this is the darkness I wish to light: I have lost my shadow. The question is where did it go?”

 

Having said his piece, One-Eye gave one last wag of his tail, then respectfully sat down on his haunches to wait.

Porphyry grunted. After a couple of minutes, with a great squelching, he hauled his bulk up out of the cool muck and wobbled over to the fish. After a couple of snuffles, he addressed himself to the meal, cast an approving glance over to One-Eye, then returned to his couch.

Birds twittered and zipped overhead. So confident was One-Eye in the sage’s abilities that a pleasant drowsiness, almost trance-like, washed over him. He forgot, for the moment, the catastrophe. In fact, his eyes had just fluttered shut when Porphyry finally spoke.

“Where did you see it last?” drawled the hieratic hog..

Suddenly awake, One-Eye shook himself to the task of memory.

 

shad
Photo from NYT

 

“It was…ah yes. It was yesterday evening. I’d gone to visit the herd of white horses at Three-Tree Beach. On my way home, my shadow was in front of me and had changed shape. Usually it looks more or less like a dog, but this time is legs had grown like vines and the body was high and small. I was worried at the time. Now I realize that may have been the beginning of the end. And later in the night, when I sat outside the church door there, listening to the singing, I saw it had changed again—it was weaker.”

“You didn’t see it this morning?” Porphyry asked, with a soft, tired voice that sounded as if it came from a great distance.

“I didn’t,” said One-Eye. “But then,” he added, “I didn’t wake until just a little while ago. In fact, as soon as I realized it had gone, I came straight to you.”

“I see the problem,” said Porphyry. “You did the prudent thing by consulting me so quickly. The diagnosis is a Restless Shadow. I’m afraid it’s rather serious and that if you hadn’t come as you did, then the situation might have gone even further and the shadow would have become permanently unlatched.”

One-Eye looked at him, his head cocked worriedly.

“As it is,” Porphyry intoned, “We can act now and halt the progress. What I want you to do is to repeat after me the following rhyme:

 

Shadow, shadow, stick to me,

Not to the boy and not to the widow

Nor for sorrow and neither for joy

Nor to grass nor yet the harrow

But here, where a shadow ought to be.

 

“In this case, the shadow will still waver but cannot possibly leave you altogether.”

 

One-Eye, after a few false starts, duly uttered the rhyme. He then glanced around and looked at Porphyry indignantly.

“It didn’t work,” he woofed. “I don’t see it!”

“If you look under your feet, you will see that it is skulking under there.”

One-Eye jumped up, saw that it was true and gave it a good bite, to teach it a lesson.

“You will find,” Porphyry said, “That from now on it will be hardest to find at noon, since it resents being attached to you and will always remember the hour when you finally enthralled it. But in the mornings and afternoons it will calm down a little.”

“I see!” the dog wagged happily. “How can I ever repay you for the service you have rendered me?”

“Well…” the pig eyed him shrewdly, “Just to make sure that the cure sticks, I would recommend bringing a few more of those fish, let’s say once a week? That should do it.”

“Certainly, I would be only to happy to–Ouch!”

One-Eye’s speech was interrupted by a Maria’s ‘throwing shoe’ landing on his backside. Seeing the proprietress coming for him with a broom, he excused himself and hurried away, along with his shadow.

 

shoe

 

Asia, Travel

A Tiny Taste of Tokyo 2020

A lot of aspects of Japan’s culture appeal strongly to me. The beautiful Kanji script, wabi-sabi, the serene and sad painting and literature, the Japanese artisan’s obsessive attention to detail, bonsai, sashiko, artistic quirkiness, an identification with the cute and tiny, forest-bathing and sushi. And, of course, the national obsession with cream puffs. So I was thrilled when a trans-Pacific flight offered the perfect excuse to stop in Tokyo for a few days.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Arrival

The first thing I noticed at Narita Airport were banners advertising Toto toilets. These space-age bogs are fitted with heated seats, music buttons to disguise unsavory noises, water jets every which way and various other bells and whistles that put your average dunny literally in the shit house. I know because they are everywhere: in the airport, in parks, in malls. For all I know, there is nowhere in Japan that you are not forced to have a luxury bathroom experience.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

After marveling at this toilet technology and collecting our luggage, we left most of it at the Japan Airlines Counter so we wouldn’t have to drag it around for three days. Then we got on the Kei Sei Electric Railway from the station just downstairs from the Arrivals Hall—it was a 90-minute comfortable ride direct to Asakusa, the area where we were staying.

Despite the cold air that kept sneaking into the train whenever the doors opened, the sun was shining, the sky bright blue and dotted with fluffy white clouds. The landscape was prettier and more rural than I’d expected. Near Lake Inba-Nuba you could see Dutch windmills and tulip fields, knolls covered with spinneys, towering bamboo groves and small market gardens.

 

26377593551_c46991a312_k
The Sakura tulip festival starts April 1

 

Floating over the scintillating lake I saw a bird of prey—possibly a hawk or osprey. The effect was very odd considering I’d come expecting a concrete jungle ala Blade Runner.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Skytree

 

When we got to Asakusa station, we popped up one block away from the famous Kaminarimon Gate and right next to the red Azuma bashi Bridge. Across the way we saw the tall Skytree tower and the Asahi Beer HQ, instantly recognizable for the large thingummy sitting on top of one of the office buildings. I thought it looked like a giant golden chilli pepper.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Sushi

Check-in time in Tokyo hotels is generally around four o’clock in the afternoon. Because we were a couple of hours early and hungry, we left our backpack at the hotel with the receptionist and set off in search of lunch.

This was not as easy as you might expect. It was a Sunday afternoon and the place was deserted. Most of the shops were closed, there were very few pedestrians or cars and only a few cyclists. Eventually, after roving for ten blocks, I caught sight of an establishment whose banners were standing proudly outside fluttering in the chilly wind. Sure enough, when we arrived, we saw a menu in the window that told us we’d arrived at a sushi place.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Plastic sushi is a big-selling souvenir 

 

The interior was dark and inhabited by two people who looked utterly astonished to see us: a man with a fillet headband standing behind the counter and a woman in a kimono who might have been his mother.

I saw to our left, that there was a shelf full of shoes.

“Um, I think we need to take our shoes off,” I murmured to John.

As we bent down to untie our shoelaces, the pair looked horrified and the woman approached protesting and making gestures to indicate that we should immediately desist.

Abashed, we went to the wooden bench where she pointed.

The man behind the counter solemnly handed us menus. We read them intently, the blush of shame still fresh on our cheeks. As we did so, the chef carefully placed two rectangular trays in front of us, they looked like symmetrical slabs of slate.

Meanwhile, the woman brought us two hot flannel cloths, which seemed to be for washing our hands. When I finished wiping mine, I carefully folded up the cloth and wondered where to put it. Then it occurred to me that it was supposed to go on that slate tray.

“Here, you have to put the cloth on that tray,” I whispered to John, who’d just left his willy nilly on the bench beside his plate mat. Accordingly, he picked up the cloth and put it dutifully on his tray.

The chef returned, probably to take our orders, but his eye fell on the trays and he froze before he could even lift his pen to his notebook. When the shock had subsided, he glared good and long at each of us, then said (very slowly and clearly) “This not for cloth. This is dish.” Disgusted, he carried the contaminated dishes away, with one final backwards glance of revulsion.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

“Oh my God,” I whispered, mortified.

“Do you get the feeling,” John mused, “That we might not be entirely welcome here?”

“Possibly.” My stomach rumbled. “Oh well, we’re here now.” Hunger conquers all. 

The chef returned anon, his jaw clenched in readiness for the next foreign outrage.

“I’ll have Set C please,” I said with a conciliatory smile.

Both of you?” he inquired with a sarcastic lift of one eyebrow.

Oh hell, what was it now? I thought grumpily. Is there some eighth-century Samurai code that a woman can’t order sushi before a man?

“Yes, two,” John nodded, throwing me a warning glance.

Eventually, the chef brought out new dishes, this time containing identical morsels of nigiri sushi: a little mound of rice topped with a translucent piece of white fish and a strip of seaweed. I pincered it with the chopsticks and raised it to my mouth praying that it wouldn’t jump out and splash into the miso soup. Miraculously, I managed it. The result was salty and exciting—vastly superior to any sushi I’d had in my life before. The fish was fishy in the sense that it tasted like it had still been swimming around a minute ago. You could taste the seawater and the texture was silky but firm. Every grain of rice was discrete but held together with the sweetness of mirin. Wasabi was there, but not in thick nose-clubbing clumps—it just melded seamlessly into the whole. I chewed it with extreme pleasure.

The miso soup was also better than usual. It wasn’t even very salty but had flavorful ribbons of seaweed, a hint of sweetness and dice-sized cubes of tofu.

The woman in the kimono brought us green tea in charming ceramic mugs. Mine was in the shape of a dog-faced puffer fish (nothing personal, I hope) and John’s featured the design of a crab.

The chef, meanwhile, was busying himself with his next creation: little seaweed-baskets of rice and orange roe—tiny balls of slippery sweetness that went down a treat. Next up was smoked eel, which I never in a million years thought I’d like. One bite, though, and I was entranced by its rich, creamy, delicious darkness.

Finally, we faced a kind of cake made out of a sweet, rice-filled omlette, which I didn’t like at all. However, with Tojo standing there with a sharp knife in his hand, I was obviously going to eat it all and not leave a thing.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
From then on it was ramen ticket-machines for us. Safer.

 

Sumidagawa River

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Running through Asakusa down to Tokyo Bay is the Sumida River. Walking paths stretch alongside it for several kilometers, making it the perfect place to walk, run or simply experience the eerie serenity of this part of one of the world’s mega cities. The paths are beautiful in the understated Japanese way, with the muted colors of winter’s grasses and shrubs, and the pleasing geometry of stones and concrete patterns. There is even quite a lot of birdlife: big cormorants, coots, shelducks, gulls and terns. Along the way, you see monuments set up to villas of the Edo period that used to stand there, or plaques mentioning old large rice warehouses where peasants sent a share of their harvest for Samurai, or photographs of times when it flooded its banks.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The locks are so beautiful they could be temple gates

 

Hama-rikyu Gardens

Another way to experience the river is on the Water Bus . We decided to take this one morning down to the Hama-rikyu Gardens, an historic site that used to belong to the family of Tokugawa Shogun but has been a public park since 1946.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

The first thing we saw there was a pretty avenue lined with blossoming plum trees–the Ume garden. Each tree came with its own deadly serious photographer, so I decided to join them with my beat-up little Olympus model.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

At the end of the avenue was a little shrine to Kyu-Inabu, complete with a small stone gate, a water container and a stone worn down (I like to think) by centuries of worshipful feet and knees.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Past the temple was a garden of dazzling yellow–flowering rape. Perched on the stalks were large knife-beaked birds with a hint of blue in their foliage–I had no idea what they were. Walking past this scene was a young couple in traditional dress–possibly newlyweds–being diligently followed by a professional photographer.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Beyond them was a huge gangly-branched pine tree, a celebrity in the garden for being more than 300 years old. In keeping with its old-man status, its twisted limbs were propped up on sturdy supports and its trunk wrapped lovingly in what looked like tatami bandages.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

At this point in the proceedings, I was extremely ready for breakfast. Spying a small canteen in the bushes, I dragged John over and ordered a couple of coffees, along with a box of glutinous yam cakes, which I didn’t like. I prefer red-bean cakes.

Having refreshed ourselves, we set off for the (rebuilt–it was destroyed in WWII) Pine Teahouse (Matsu-no-ochaya) where the Shogun & Co. used to gaze at the beautiful park scenery. These days this is surrounded by glitzy highrises but the effect is still impressive.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Further on was a salt-water pond, called Shioiri-no-iki (Incoming-tide pond) because it is fed by Tokyo Bay and therefore rises and falls with the tide. Aside from that, it is inhabited by several species of salt-water fish and, crucially, ducks. This is the area where the Shogun and other nobles liked to crouch in hides and shoot at a bunch of ducks. 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Salt-water pond, with a hide visible on the left

 

We didn’t dawdle too long there, though, because our return boat was nearly due to arrive. Instead, we wandered through a short stretch of lovely, tree-shaded paths back to the landing area. 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Asia, Museum, Travel

Thailand Works

During our latest stay in Bangkok, we were lucky to meet some people willing to discuss the history of this region and to introduce us to some of the city’s hidden treasures. One of these kindly souls, a Thai-speaking Briton, took us to the Labor Museum. A small building near Makkasan station run by donation and volunteers, this lovingly curated museum illustrates the history of Thai workers—an accessible and illuminating view of the country’s general history.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Before the nineteenth century, Siamese society adhered to a strict hierarchy, with the King at the top, nai—nobles beneath him (each of which controlled a mueang or fortified town), phrai—commoners or freedmen, and slaves. Phrai were actually not all that different from slaves as they were required to carry out corvée labor and the kinds of work they did was essentially the same as that of slaves. Royal officials would keep tabs on numbers by going about the country conducting mass tattooings for phrai.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Teak logging in teak

Thailand has the largest Chinese population of any country outside China—about fourteen percent are ethnically Chinese, though many of them are fully assimilated and identify as Thai. In the late eighteenth century, King Taksin (whose mother was Chinese from Guangdong Province), actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. During the nineteenth century, particularly as European powers became aware of Siam’s teak forests (coveted by European shipbuilders), pewter and tin deposits, there was an increased need for cheap labor. Chinese men poured into the country to work rickshaw-pullers, blacksmiths and railroad builders (the first railway line was started in 1891). Because they were usually single, many of them married Thai women. In 1876, the Angyee Riots were a big uprising of Chinese tin miners protesting the fact that mine owners laid off so many of them or even stopped paying them wages.

smelter
Chinese tin smelter

King Rama IV (reigned 1851-1868) was the first Thai monarch to have a western education and to speak English. Although, he is perhaps best known to English-speakers as the ‘King’ of Margaret London’s semi-fictional book Anna and the King of Siam, that book and all of its cinematic manifestations are banned in Thailand for being deemed offensive to the King. His son Prince Chulalongkorn, (reigned 1868-1910), implemented a number of reforms including the abolition of serfdom and the conscription of commoners for slave labor. He is still regarded with worshipfulness by Thais today and you often see his portrait hanging in shops and offices.

1200px-Chulalongkorn_LoC

Underplayed in the Labor Museum was the Siamese Revolution of 1932, a bloodless coup instigated by intellectuals who’d studied abroad, were sick of royal mismanagement and wanted to try new methods of government. These intellectuals gains some popular support, staged a coup and absolute monarchy was changed to constitutional monarchy. Soon afterwards, Pridi Banomyong, one of the tiny group that organized the coup, presented radical economic plans that would involve nationalizing land, public ownership and universal basic income. These plans were rejected by royalists and in 1933 he went into exile, accused of being a Communist. He returned to the country in 1934, but increasingly found himself to the left of his colleagues.

Pridi_Banomyong_1947

In 1938, Defence Minister Major General Phibun became Prime Minister and the country took a militaristic turn. He passed authoritarian laws that gave the government powers of complete censorship, he had political opponents arrested and exiled, and he launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. On June 23, 1939, he renamed Siam ‘Phrathet Thai,’ meaning ‘land of the free’ and meant to include Tai-speaking peoples and exclude Chinese. The country’s slogan become ‘Thailand for the Thai.’ Phibun admired leaders who employed a cult of personality, such as Hitler and Mussolini. In places where you would ordinarily expect to find the King’s portrait, he put his own.

250px-Plaek_Pibulsonggram_said_Chulalongkorn_university_student_on_8_October_1940
In 1940, Phibun delivers an ultranationalistic speech outside the Grand Palace

At the outbreak of World War II, Phibun formed an alliance with Japan. Thailand’s government split into two factions: the Phibun Regime and the Free Thai Movement, which included about 90,000 pro-Allied guerillas. As the war progressed, Phibun’s leadership became increasingly unpopular thanks to economic hardship, strategic bombing of Bangkok by Allied Forces and Japanese arrogance towards Thais, whom they treated more as a conquered people than an ally.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The notorious Siam-Burma Railroad, otherwise known as the Death Railroad, was ordered by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to facilitate transport of supplies to Burma. It was built thanks to at least 180,000 laborers and POWs who suffered maltreatment, sickness and starvation. About 100,000 of them died during its construction. English-language accounts by POWs include Railroad of Death by John Coast, Last Man Out, and In the Shadow of Death by Idris James Barwick. In Asia, the railway’s construction is still considered a war crime committed by Japan. The bridge’s construction was the occasion for Pierre Boulle’s book (and the film based on it) called Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Bridge_over_the_River_Kwai_Art.IWMARTLD6035
Bridge over the River Kwai by Leo Rawlings, a POW who was involved in the line’s construction (sketch dated to 1943).

After World War II, Thailand received financial aid from the USA, partly (no doubt) in return for acting as a staunch anti-Communist ally in the region during the Cold War. Americans effectively gave the green light to coup makers to overthrow Thailand’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong and CIA reports at the time frequently linked the left-leaning Pridi to Chinese Communism and also to the Viet Minh. Naturally, the US was much more comfortable with Phibun, who offered a stable military regime rather than an unpredictable democratic civilian-led government. So the US looked on indulgently as Phibun crushed Pridi supporter and assassinated key members of the opposition, particularly in Isan, in the country’s north-east.

220px-Chit

Ironically, according to legend anyway, it was US meddling in Thai politics that was responsible for the creation of one of Thailand’s most famous Communist poets, Somchit Phumisak (Chit for short). The story goes that he was first exposed to Marxism when hired by William J. Gedney, working for the US Embassy, to help translate The Communist Manifesto into Thai. The idea was that if Thai officials could read the thing, they’d take the Communist threat more seriously. Phumisak pretty soon joined the Communist Party and wrote (under pseudonyms) The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and several volumes of poetry before being shot to death in a village at the age of 35. In the Labor Museum there is a whole room devoted to poetry and song, and it is dominated by images of this young bespectacled guy. The rest of the room is more or less taken up with paraphernalia related to a folk-band called Caravan, originally student activists who sympathized with Isan farmers. Their songs criticize US interference in Thai politics and celebrate the love between a man and his water buffalo.

ANTARAI-WEB-6001
Cover of Caravan album “American Antarai” (1976)

October 14 1973, theDay of Sorrow, marked the largest democratic uprising in Thai history. More than 200,000 students gathered in Bangkok to protest against the expulsion of student activists by the Thanom Kittikachorn, the pro-US, anti-Communist junta leader since 1963. When the army moved in to break up the crowd, between 50 and 70 people were killed, with 870 wounded. The effect of the uprising was that Thanom fled and there was an eerie calm until the next far-right junta took power in 1976, soon after another massacre of protests, the Thammasat University massacre.

uprising

One of the most poignant exhibits in the museum is devoted to the Kader Tragedy of 1993. This was a massive fire in a shoddily built toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok. Most of the workers were women from poor rural areas. Because there were no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire escapes, the women learned of the fire too late and when they tried to escape they were trapped. Officially, 188 people died and more than 469 were injured, making it the worst industrial fire in history. Outside the museum there is a monument to the victims featuring images of Bart Simpson, as the world was at the height of The Simpsons craze.

kadertoys
Toys salvaged from the fire.

Note: This article has been edited because there were factual errors conflating Chulalonghorn with his father Rama IV. Thank you to Siam Rat for the corrections! Please check out his great blog for more information about Thailand.

Asia, Running, Travel

MaxPhht Bangkok

When we arrived in Bangkok, the first thing I noticed was that it would not be practical to run outside. The sky was a sludgy color and the evening sun looked like a bright-orange moon over hazy high-rise silhouettes. Traffic on the expressway next to our hotel stretched bumper-to-bumper day and night. Even the little sideroad had no sidewalk and heavy traffic—a mix of giant tour buses and scooter taxis. The scent of gasoline fumes combined with a pungent smell emanating from a nearby canal made breathing something of a chore. And apart from that, it was 33 degrees centigrade on a cool day.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

All the same, I did definitely need to run because running calms me down. Two days before, the Indian government had inexplicably refused John’s visa 24 hours before we were all set to fly there and 48 hours before we were required to leave Sri Lanka. The shock of this unexpected set-back, combined with the mental effort of making new arrangements, had left me fit for a strait-jacket.

 

joan-crawford-straight-jacket

 

Our hotel, which boasted of a fitness center on booking.com, mysteriously did not actually have a fitness center. It also, despite attractive ads featuring martinis in the elevator, did not have a ‘sky bar’, so seeking solace in drink was also out. Luckily, one of the non-imaginary services the hotel did provide was a free shuttle service to any destination within 5 kilometers. Accordingly, I searched for a gym and found something called Maxfit Performance exactly five kilometers from the hotel.

So the next morning I got into the van bright and early dressed in an old T-shirt, a little snug around the middle perhaps, and trackpants. The driver, avoiding choked-up main arteries, took me through a maze of roads and I looked with interest at the goings-on. Children in crisp white blouses and shirts headed off to school. Street-food vendors in wide-brimmed hats grilled tiny sausages, chopped mangoes and papaya, and neatly bagged soups and curries. Stray dogs trotted by the side of the road, expert traffic dodgers. Thousands of scooter riders wove between the cars—some of them carrying an entire family with the father driving, toddler squished in between (sometimes standing up!) and mother behind holding on to the child. Interestingly, there were taxi-scooters, identifiable by official orange vests complete with taxi ID stuck to the front. Women passengers in short skirts sometimes rode side-saddle.

 

SONY DSC

 

After about half an hour, the van dropped me off at the address I’d given. It seemed to be an upscale, brand-new outdoor mall with a dog-centred theme. There was a dog-food bakery, a pet-accessories store, a tea shop with puppy pictures on the walls. I couldn’t immediately see the gym but the helpful driver asked a cleaning lady and she pointed me up a set of stairs.

At the top, I entered a big room that had zero treadmills or exercycles. There was a group of people jumping around holding weights and a guy in a baseball cap who gave me a big toothy smile and Mickey Mouse wave. I started backing away but before I could get out the door, a young guy with bulky upper arms emerged from his lair and asked if he could help me.

“Hi, I’m Adam,” he said in Australian accent. “Come into the office and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

I followed him. The office also contained a beefy blond fellow, an American named Jake who might have been in the United States Marine Corps and done five million push-ups before breakfast. Adam pointed to a chair and I dutifully sat down.

“What are you looking for today?” he said earnestly.

“I was just wanting somewhere to run,” I said, “With it being so hot,” I waved at the window.

He nodded seriously. I could see him taking in my sloppy attire.

“Have you ever been to a place like this?”

“Er, actually, what kind of place is this?” I asked.

“I’m glad you asked. We provide a service that is just like personal training except that it is done in small, supportive groups. Our customers come from all kinds of different backgrounds—yoga, weightlifting, pilates—and we all learn from each other.”

“Well, I was really looking for somewhere to run in the heat. Do you…run?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Do you have treadmills?” I asked hopefully.

“You can find treadmills in any of the commercial gyms on the street,” he grimaced.

“Oh. OK,” I felt heartened by the implication that there were thousands of them out there. I only had to walk a block before tripping over one.

“So let me tell you a little bit about what we do here. You’ve probably heard of the Body Mass Index, the BMI?”

I nodded.

“Well, where most gyms go wrong is not focusing on the fat-to-muscle ration of the body mass.”

Uh oh, I thought and sucked my stomach in a bit.

“How much do you weigh, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Er, I’m not sure. I haven’t weighed myself recently.”

“Probably 63 kilograms,” he shrugged. “And how tall are you?”

“About a meter sixty-five.”

“Right,” he nodded. “And,” he titled his head and looked at my middle, “Probably fourteen per cent fat.”

“Hmmm,” I said. He had the self-satisfied look of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, demonstrating his personal-trainer expertise. What really surprised me, though, was that there was no outward evidence of him having any sustained serious injuries. His nose had never been broken, for example. If his job was coolly estimating women’s fat percentage to their faces, it seemed like it would entail grave risks. He was safe with me because I have iron self-control where violent urges are concerned, but another day he would not be so lucky.

 

th7F3V9ZGX
A case for the side eye

 

“If you joined us, we’d make a point of measuring your muscle-to-fat ration in order to accurately track your process.”

Over my fat, dead body, I thought.

He produced a folder from his shelf and opened it to a page full of headless female bellies. There was the ab-tastic ideal at the top left and things got fuller and floppier from there.

“Now,” Adam said, “I would say, considering your percentage, you would be somewhere around here,” he jabbed a scientific finger at number eleven, a wobbly paunch that looked like the ‘before’ photo from an infomercial for liposuction.

“Huh,” I said. Inside, I brooded. “What kind of lousy sales pitch is this? This gym should be renamed ‘Masochist Fat Gym’! FFS, I just want to run off some anxiety and now I’m getting lectured about diet by a juvenile steroid casualty! SMGDH.” I’m not saying that there wasn’t justice in young Adam’s remarks. I’m just saying that his approach revealed a lack insight into female psychology, particularly the psychology of a stressed female who just wants to go for a run and doesn’t care to focus on her love handles just at this moment thank you very much.

“The way we measure it,” Adam continued, warming to his subject, “Is with this fat caliper.”

 

skinfoldcaliper

 

I stared with dull horror at the plastic instrument he was waving around like some kind of deformed lobster pincer. Surely he did not intend to apply it now? If he did, I decided then and there, I would fight him. To the death. Sure he had the big muscles, but I had the crazy. The element of surprise would be an advantage—he’d never see it coming.

“But,” I sputtered, “Why does it matter?”

He looked amazed.

“Less fat means a fitter you,” he explained, as if to a confused child. “If you have a greater ratio of muscle then you will be stronger, faster and fitter. Have you ever done any exercise in the past?”

“Yes, I run,” I said through gritted teeth. Clearly he had not noticed that my T-shirt said ‘Patagonia Marathon’.

“Right!” he smiled brightly. “So with less fat you will be faster.”

“But I don’t want to win any races, I just like running.”

He looked perplexed. He knew I was wrong but I was so wrong that he couldn’t think of any logical way to respond.

“Well, to be honest I just want to run and not do other stuff,” I said, getting up “So I’m not sure this is the right fat–I mean fit–for me.”

“Well, why not sign up for a trial session?” He asked. “What have you got to lose?”

Possible answers: time, money, patience, self-esteem…

“Oh no, I think I’ll just…I’m only here for a few weeks, so I’ll just go to a commercial gym. Thanks very much!” 

As I went down the stairs I thought it was kind of funny that this gym didn’t consider itself commercial. After all, it wasn’t exactly free. What did it think it was? A spiritual gym?

 

SpiritualFitnessCover