Tag Archives: travel


Contents page from "Special Problems," Life Library of Photography, 1971.

Contents page from “Special Problems,” Life Library of Photography, 1971.

1. Using Graininess to Make the Particular General

In a park under a roof he squats, gleaming with droplets of sweat, his nude back a constellation. Thread-like rain traces the air down from a darkening sky. He shouts something that is not a word; receives an answer. He plays music, and holds his hands in a shape that could be prayer of combat.

2. Stark Black and White for Emotional Power

He reaches the squat through a stretch that tests the strength of his leggings. They strain at his hip, making a contour of his underwear, visibly white through the black thread of his outer garment. As if disapproving, the grey sky rumbles.

3. Shadows to Startle the Eye

His retreating companion still shouts, scattering monkeys over the clearing. They cast the forest into relief, breaking its blackness into wide shadows.

4. Drama from the Misused Film

His martial pose is not a match for the soundtrack: a saccharine pop song for Chinese girls. There is nothing to channel except dance, which is the opposite of what he’s doing. Instead, the diamond formed by his hands is like a portal, offering a target to socmic energy. But no force could penetrate this cloud of pop, making depth shallow, force farce.

5. Making a Point by Chopping Off Heads

Sport shoes a shade too small, stretched over skin. Legs constrained and straining. Arms set like a mission to keep the hands in place. Torso bare and saturated with sweat, not pooling but patterned; a second scaly skin.

6. The Power of Distorted Perspective

Here my glasses fog arhythmically, as if given breath by the tropics. I switch my phone to a brighter setting, test sunglasses until it rains. The man enters the pagoda in which we’ve sheltered ourselves from four walls of rain. I want to look elsewhere, but can’t see anything, only what’s in front of me – the sweat on his back, neck and head.

7. Tampering with Lenses to Break Up the Light

Reading vertically down from the sky: grey, white, black, green, grey, green, grey. A spectrum of forest under cloud.

8. For Mystery, Focus on the Wrong Thing

His retreating companion continues to shout, scattering monkeys. He is without music, synching his rhythm to the animals’ advance and retreat. His path turns and ascends toward the waterfall, his voice lost among thunder.

9. Mellow Tints from Reciprocity Failure

As the monkeys scatter and regroup, elevating their tails, the white tips catch some element of the light, becoming iridescent. I squint and the earth deletes itself, along with the monkeys, an apocalypse survived only by the deep sea writhing of white tails.

10. Sun Shots to Turn Day into Night

On balance dark clouds lighten themselves by contrast with the earth they shadow. Like a bride, veiling the sun only makes us take notice. When it dims itself, there is nothing else to see. I look out and up at the point of whitest darkness.

11. Sacrificing Detail to Create a Mood

Across the sky: clouds. In the air: rain. On the mountain: forest. Over the clearing: monkeys. Under the roof: a diamond.

12. An Inferior Lens for Superior Effects

As he squats I write, copying an index from a guide to photography. It’s called “Special Problems,” as if art was something to solve. But if this scene is the answer, what is the puzzle?

13. Indoor Film to Create a New View of the Outdoor World

If this roof had walls it would be dark inside. The squatting man would be a monster, sensed by the ear, nose and skin. The pop music would start silly then turn sinister. I would not be writing this.



Spill 1

The owner delivers the cutlery himself, but it’s a ruse to corner his audience. “They’ve set me up just around the corner,” he enthuses, gesturing along the coast. “My friends back in KL are amazed when I tell them that I get to work in five minutes. I tell them, sometimes there’s traffic, though. Sometimes there’s a jam, and then it takes much longer. It takes six minutes!”

My tea arrives; it’s full to the brim but I stir it vigorously, clinking the edge as the condensed milk rises. Dark powder also swirls through the brew. Cloves, I guess, or something else from the garden. “I’ll leave you to enjoy your drink,” prattles the man, retreating. We sit in silence for a while, enjoying the sound of crickets. Then Julien says: “I’ve never had tea like this.”

We’re in the restaurant at the Tropical Spice Garden, a converted rubber plantation that now tells the story of fragrant plants from the region. Water flows through the ornate garden in a series of cascades. Visitors are lulled by the soundscape into uniform concentration, dutifully sniffing bark and leaves or plugging commands into their audioguides. At the far end of the garden water rushes past large teapots from which visitors can pour themselves a herbal blend of stevia and chrysanthemum. We drink several cups.

This is a marketing ploy for stevia, which a woman makes us chew as soon as we enter the gift shop. This in turn makes us crave the tea that the manage talkatively delives. It’s a kind of ecosystem in which visitors are nourished then harvested.

“Sir, would you like to see a monkey?” a waiter asks. Sure enough, high above the restaurant, a white-tailed monkey browses for food, testing fruit then discarding husks. They drop heavily onto the floor of the restaurant, narrowly missing tables. I peer the other way, off the edge of the balcony. The cliff beetles down to the coast road and the shallows. “Imagine if there was a landslide,” I say.

Spill 2

Back towards Georgetown, it’s mid-afternoon at the beach town of Betu Ferringhi. There’s a sense of siesta, even among those who are awake. We choose the massage place not for its name (Desire) but for its fish tank, visible enough to make us pause and get talked in by the tout. “You’ll see their hands,” he explains. “They’re vergy experienced.” But my guy is less about experience than brute strength. With each lunge at my legs his bicep creeps out from the sleeve of his polo-shirt. “SNAILS,” it says, “Ocean Spirig.” He’s fastened both of its buttons. His force is offset by a liberal approach to oil which he squirts into his hand every minute or so. When he pounds his fist into my sole it squelches. But again the soundtrack is aquatic. A group of friends is trying out the fish, gasping as they swallow dead skin from their feet. The aquarium filter is the parlour’s radio, drowning out my own inhalations.

Spill 3

We started the day on residential jetties, peering through grilles at the domestic lives of those who live over water. Their homes seemed perfectly standard apart from their stilts, which made them a fully signposted tourist attraction. There were floating shops and temples, too, seemingly kept from drifting only by buckets of concrete pierced by planks of wood. At the end of one pier a man was preparing incense sticks and joss paper for a ceremony. I stepped past him to a public toilet, realising too late that I was pissing right into the sea.

We walked back into our first tropical storm, sheltering awkwardly under a stranger’s verandah a few metres out from the short. “Should we get a coffee, or something?” Julien proposed. The same thing happened much later in the day, when pelting rain drove us from the beach into a food court. While Julien sought desserts I was asked if I was thirsty by three separate individuals. It’s as if they knew we tourists were coming, swept in from the beach like driftwood, serving an unseen ecosystem in which we stir, sip, spill.


type 1

“Take another one,” I said, handing Julien my phone – “with more of Luther.” I stepped closer to the statue, brushing aside a plant. “Smile,” said Julien, but I held my face in a stern arrangement, locking eyes with the lens, chanelling ingrained Protestantism. Later I would upload the double portrait to Instagram, tagged #lutheran4lyfe. Beside me Martin is dark blue, looking down at the Bible, as if embarrassed. “Do I look like him?” I ask. “Somewhat,” Julien politely replies. It’s clear that I need something to show for my unseen heritage, so unkonwn in my hometown. A German brow, a Lutheran chin. Here in KL I find my founding father, and newly resolve to read him one day.

type 2

We are leaving the capital for the province, tracing in reverse our migration journey. It’s also the highway on which I travelled to Taiping and Kuala Kangsar 15 years ago, in wide-eyes recovery from Bangladesh. We board a bus that features wide seats and gold curtains. Similarly unique vehicles pull out nearby: executive coach, club class, first class massage coach. If you will be delayed, you might as well do it comfortably.

What brings me back to this highway? I’m repeating something with a view to improving it, dooming myself in the attempt. As Gospodinov puts it in The Physics of Sorrow, I’m “longing for something lost or that had never taken place.” Having cancelled Calcutta I’m back in KL, seeking to repeat and refine the past. As we pull out of the bus station I see a future of further imperfect bus rides in which only the vehicles change: same quest, different curtains.

type 3

Before the trip we’d eaten at one of the Indian retaurants so prevalent in Kuala Lumpur. The menu hadn’t changed since my last visit fifteen years before. Teh tarik with roti canai, again, with a second roti for the same old road. “What menu item are you,” I asked Julien, “and why?” When my turn came I said I was the scoop-by-scoop buffet – ultimately generous, but somewhat hard to approach.

These restaurants always make me happy. Something about how successful ordering seems so easy to achieve. It’s the opposite of a Melburnian ordering coffee, knowing in advance that it won’t be the best she’s tasted. Teh tarik with roti canai. Why visit India?

Near the entrance to the restaurant an old man orders not one but two cups of tea – one milky, one black, with ice to stir through the black one. I am mesmerised, until I see the young man behind him who has also ordered two different teas. What have I been drinking for the last fifteen years? Clearly a sequence of two teas is what’s needed, moving from dark to light, cold to hot. A minute later friends of both men have arrived and taken their single teas. So it’s one or the other not both. But I can’t unsee my first impression.

type 4

We had stumbled on Martin Luther, but in Penang I was looking for a statue. This city was founded by Francis Light, father of Colonel William Light whose statue looks over Adelaide a block from where I lived during my first year of studies. Luther Seminary, attending St. Stephen’s Lutheran church at which I appeared as Jesus in the Easter play. This site of peak Lutheranism nourished my soul, associated in some way with wider pride in the colony of South Australia and the city of Adelaide, which Colonial Light (Francis’ illegitimate son) had planned.

They used this Adelaide statue as a likeness for his father’s, given equal prominence in Georgetown. Did they etch out any trace of his South-East Asian mother, or did some of this weirdly survive in the rendering of the old man, moving up a generation as it sailed back from Adelaide? I’ll have to check another time, or else live with the mystery, as Captain Francis was walled up in his fort when we passed, guarded by cannons.

We walked back to our hotel through the arcades of shophouses converted into hotels and cafes. “It’s like a toy city,” I said. Julien said: “It’s like Europe.”


commons 1

The day started with an interview about my grant. In hindsight it seems prescient, now that the government is pulling funding from the arts. Might I have done something that we might all need to do? I kept my answers personal, not political, wishing to protect the whimsy with which I invented the grant, and the naivety with which I awarded it. Like always Julien offered me language, saying that I was giving for the common good. And so we spent the day considering the commons.

Public spaces are sites of transition between private ones. We move through them as if we were alone. Unless we have poor boundaries, or are excessively extroverted, or both, in which case the experience of shared environments is riveting. I feel hardest in a crowded carriage, sucked and blown by the energy of those at hand. At the station Julien noticed this dramatic engagement with seemingly impersonal sites. I had said, about taxis: “They’re everywhere except where you are.” But how else do you explain a cab reversing as you approach it? Later, in a taxi, I felt we’d been kidnapped. We were on the wrong side of the freeway, climbing up and away. Julien took a more rational approach, and a more trusting one, outsourcing local driving to local people who drive. I’d actually considered walking the five kilometres between forest and station. Something would have happened – like a kidnapping. That’s my definition of adventure: foolishly trying to do things by yourself.

commons 2

“We not provide,” said the woman at FRIM’s “one stop centre.” Maps were not available; nor was food. The site’s main attraction – an elevated walk through the treetops – was closed for Ramadan, along with all the cafes. “So nothing to eat,” I confirmed. She pointed at the fridge, which contained cans of drink and some heart-shaped chocolate cakes. As she said “cake” her eyes glistened.

Had I seen her before? This look of satisfaction at my displeasure called to mind the woman from years before but just down the road who had blocked me from a concert because I was wearing shorts. I’d fled KL, after that, and met my first lover in a rotunda at Kuala Kangsar. We’d both been sheltering from the rain.

Anyway this guardian wanted us out of the forest. “You cannot go here,” she cautioned, covering most of her non-detachable map. “Unless you have a guide, for one hundred-seventy ringgit?” We went anyway, carrying water and our chocolate cake, climbing a steep path towards a closed attraction. Overhead, monkeys reached between branches, liberated from the turf wars of the more evolved.

We were not the only defiant walkers. Chinese locals joined us on the mountain, carrying folded umbrellas. We ate our cake at a waterfall decorated by people gently exercising. I recalled a sign from yesterday about which I’d been delighted: “No exercise.” Now, from what I could see, this sounded like segregation. Enter as a Muslim, or not at all. (The cake was delicious. “Made from the heart,” it said.)

commons 3

I’m writing this behind the Petronas Towers, at an artificial lake with half-hourly fountain displays. Jets pulse and sway imitating human dancers, only perfectly, forming a ring around a vertical line of water which holds itself until the music stops. The sound and light show forms a temporary audience, looking away from itself, turning its back on the towers that draw so many glances from across the city.

It’s a hot night. I imagine floating out to the heart of the spectacle, looking back through a cage of water at the shore. Would the jet carry me? How far would I fall?




You could walk for a day in this city without touching the ground. Take an escalator, a monorail, an elevated tunnel. If you see someone driving you’ve dropped too low. One covered bridge comes with a disclaimer, as if tracing an arch were a risk. These interlocking stars are decorative (and pious) – but will they hold you up?

This could be about climate, resisting the heat and rain with roofs and air-con. Or is it a fantasy of modernity in which our bodies have ascended, leaving the smooth earth for our wheels? There’s that moment as you step out of an airplane and feel the heat, momentarily, between long bouts of airconditioning. “It’s hot,” you think, already forgetting what it feels like. In many ways Kuala Lumpur resembles a jungle, only without people in it.



The cave walls are painted. “Vandalism,” the guide complains. But these marks predate my birth. How long between graffiti and sacred site? We’re asked to dim our torches. “There’s an alien species in here,” says the guide, before lighting up a bench. Imagine sitting here! Sharing a picnic with the roaches!

A pleasure of environmental tourism is harshly judging those who came differently before us, those who commemorated their journey with theft and paint. We’re not like them, although I suppose they didn’t have this path to stick to, this guide to chastise them. “We need your help,” he explains: “People don’t know.”

“People” in this case means Hindus, in whose neighbouring cave no bats sing. Religion as environmental destruction, outmoded by a new piety – cool worship of a godless world. (I’m with the cave-painters.)



The day started with teh tarik smoothly drained from a glass. Others hacked open coconuts, emptied durian of its flesh. Hollowing is a culinary verb.

Around the corner, a store sold 24-litre tubs, heavy duty, called “lava juice dispenser.” We pushed past and found tiny porcelain cups on sale, made a small tower of ten of them. Nearby there were plates with raised edges, shaped like a crescent moon. An amplified prayer drifted across the market, making the air full.

Only people weren’t actually eating. “People” in this case means Muslims, who were fasting until sundown. In the afternoon a queue of men formed outside the mosque, not for prayer but for food. Each one received a bag full of cooked rice, which they proudly held to show they weren’t eating.



“Airport?” asked a woman wearing a necklace of marigolds before stepping briskly onto the carriage. Not really, but there were enough tourists on board to reassure her.

Across from us, white people compared travel stories. “The best question I ever got was: ‘Do Western women shave down there, or are they born that way?'” Behind them a sign warned against “indecent behaviour,” illustrated by two people kissing, their hairstyles distinctly non-Muslim. “Sorry!” shouted a Chinese mother, in English. Her baby had dropped its bottle on a stranger, spilling milk.

The young man continued his stories about cultural exchange. “My Japanese girlfriend said, in Chinese: ‘I want to eat you. I want to devour your body.’ I dumped her after that. A year later I learned what she was trying to say. What’s the most awkward thing that’s happened to you on your travels?”

Literary Nanjing


“Down here,” said Julien, stepping onto a concrete ramp. We descended toward immense Chinese characters glowing above a French translation: Librairie Avant-Garde – the Avant Garde Bookstore. “It looks like a carpark,” I said. “It once was,” Julien replied. Inside, books decorated tunnels still marked with lanes and arrows; also, incongruously, an illuminated cross. I picked a book at random: a translation of Keats. “They read him here?” I asked, but Julien had wandered out of earshot toward an area where people sat in armchairs reading to themselves.  It was my first night in Nanjing, but I already saw a literary city…

Read more about my recent trip to China at The Writers Bloc – Literary Cities: Nanjing.