Spare a thought for Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso

Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso

Above: 30 Year-old widowed Filipina mother of two another exploited S-E Asian domestic maid

Spare a thought for Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso a 30 year-old Filipina widowed mother of two, who is scheduled to be shot by an Indonesian firing squad along with the two Australians we have all heard about.

It is not hard to find articles about Chan and Sulumaran but you have to spend a bit of time to find out about this young Filipina and if you can get all worked up about the execution of the two Aussies, spare a thought for this young woman.

This is an excerpt from www.rappler.com a Philippines news website:

Veloso, who comes from a poor family in Bulacan, north of Manila, only finished high school. She was in Malaysia supposedly to work as a domestic helper, but her would-be employer failed to meet her, the court heard on Tuesday. With two children back home, she agreed to an offer by foreigners to bring two suitcases to Indonesia.

I know more than a few cynical Aussies who would say: “Yeah, O.K. I’ve heard that one before”. But as I write this I am sitting in a village in Isan, in the north east of Thailand up near the Laos border. I know a family here, a 40 year-old widowed mother of two. Her husband took six years to slowly die of colon cancer. There is no Carer’s Pension, no Disability Support Pension, no Newstart; nothing. To care for her dying husband she had to give up work, mortgage their home, mortgage her mother’s farm and mortgage her father-in-law’s farm. She was distraught; she didn’t want him to die but the longer he lived, the further her family sank into poverty. When he died she was left with a debt of $40,000 (AUD), not a great debt for a house and two rice fields by Australian standards but a one million Baht debt in Thai money that she will never pay off in her lifetime.

Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso left her children to look for work in Malaysia as a “domestic helper”.   She wasn’t looking to make her fortune, but like the Isan widow, she was just trying to survive. And could she be so naïve as not to know there were drugs in those bags? Well, yes. Poor simple country folk in South East Asia can be that naïve, believe me, I see it here every day.

When she faced court in Indonesia, on trial for her life, she could only speak Tagalog; no Indonesian and no English. She was given an interpreter, an unaccredited student. It was on this basis that lawyers later lodged her appeal. She lost, with the Indonesian prosecutor saying: “There are no rules about the interpreter having to meet certain qualifications.” Note the “lawyerspeak”: “there are no rules” . I know this language, I worked with it for twenty years. He is not saying a person doesn’t need a competent interpreter when they are on trial for their life, he is saying: because the rules don’t say we have to give you one, we won’t. This is cruel, amoral semantics at the expense of a human life.

Allegations of judicial corruption have been raised in the cases of Chan and Sukumaran, albeit a bit late in the day. But poor Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso never had a chance from the first day of her trial and the prosecutors knew it. We should be critical of Indonesia’s so-called criminal “justice” system, but put national sympathies aside for a moment. Put aside the “Aussie” element and spare a thought for Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has called upon Indonesia “to show the same mercy to the condemned Bali Nine pair as it is pursuing for Indonesian drug felons facing execution overseas”. But the Indonesian government doesn’t just lobby for it’s citizens who are convicted drug felons facing execution overseas. When an Indonesian maid was executed in Saudi Arabia after she allegedly confessed to killing the employer who had abused her, Indonesia banned it’s citizens from travelling overseas seeking employment as domestic maids. The exploitation of Asian women working overseas as maids is very well known in Indonesia, so much so that they are trying to stop it. To put a Filipina maid on trial for her life without a competent interpreter, knowing how she got caught up in and exploited by the drug trade, and then deny her appeal and stand her in front of a firing squad is the absolute height of hypocrisy. Bishop’s plea for Chan and Sukumaran pales in comparison.

And here’s the rub: there is no Philippine Freign Affairs minister making representations to the Indonesian government they are not going to “intervene”. Spare a thought for Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso.

Musings of a travelling muso

O.K., I’ve been slack with the blog.  In my defence, I thought people had stopped reading it but apparently not.  Thanks for the feedback and encouragement.

            Someone asked: what’s it like being a travelling musician?  Well, playing solo certainly helps.  I recall watching cowboy movies as a kid; the lone figure riding off into the sunset on his horse.  Let’s deconstruct that for a minute and you’ll get the idea.

            The first myth is the sunset bit; good for the visual effect but a bad time to start a journey.  Overlook that one for now.  But then there’s the blanket rolled up and tucked in behind the saddle: the second myth.  In the next scene the cowboy sits at the campfire, a pot of coffee rests neatly on the fire and he eats his pork and beans from his plate and sips coffee from a cup.  Where did all that come from?  There’s no room for it all in the blanket.  Maybe a fork and spoon, plate and cup but then there’s the coffee pot, the coffee and the food.  And how does he wash up the dishes?  Only later did filmmakers add a donkey towed behind, or a supply wagon which was usually driven by a scruffy, mean looking Donald Pleasance-type character in a bowler hat.  But that was when there was a group, never trailing along behind the lone cowboy.

            It’s much the same with a travelling musician.  It looks very romantic, but travelling, particularly international travel, with any instrument larger than a violin is, frankly, a pain in the arse.  I even bought a folding guitar that folds neatly into a case guaranteed to fit in the overhead lockers in international flights because I thought it might help, and it did, a bit.  A fine guitar that works brilliantly and plays well.  I took it across the USA, Finland and Germany.  But once you arrive and have to use a domestic flight you discover the lockers are smaller and you are left begging the trolley dollies for mercy.  “Is that really a guitar in there?”  And there’s the problem that even when it does fit in a locker there’s no room for anything else.

            Whatever you do to get the guitar on the plane and still in one piece when you arrive, there is still the problem of transporting it – and any accessories you may have – once you get where you’re going.  Guitars are bulky and you also have your normal luggage which means any form of local public transport becomes a challenge.

            It’s taken me a while to get it all sorted out.  The fold up guitar now remains folded up at home.  I’ve been travelling with a carbon fibre, short-scale Cargo model guitar.  It looks a bit weird, but it is immensely strong and I pack it in a strong case and it goes in the hold: so far, so good.  Not an ideal sound, but once plugged into a PA it does the job.  On one trip, at check-in I placed it in the oversize luggage cage as instructed and collected the receipt so I could pick it up at the oversize luggage collection area at the other end.  But on arriving, and after stressing out because it wasn’t there, I found it sitting next to the luggage carousel where anyone could have picked it up and walked.  Are some airlines worse than others?  Yes – avoid Qantas and Malaysian Airlines.  I always fly Emirates now.  Even if they eventually let me down, those hats the cabin crew wear are so cute!

            Chris Smither is an inveterate traveller and he had a system worked out.  Like me, he’s an old fart and dresses in a collared shirt and jacket and doesn’t have tatts – it helps, believe me (and him).  He used to carry his very expensive Collings guitar in a soft gig bag because once they see a hard case (I’m talking about the guitar, not the musician) they’ll direct you to the cargo hold.  He’d carry it discreetly and always managed to sneak it on board into an overhead locker.  The fact that it is a small guitar helped.  But he has seen that Australian domestic airlines (i.e. Qantas) have considerably toughened up so that now he has to book a second seat for the guitar.  They will do that but the guitar doesn’t actually get to sit alongside you.  Once carried on board they take it away and put it somewhere “safe” and the seat alongside you remains empty. 

            Now there’s a thought.  If I could afford it I’d carry two guitars, book two extra seats and have an empty one either side: no more crying kids, travellers with weak bladders or boring talkers too eager to share their opinions and their private life.

            All the hassle is worth it when you meet other musicians along the way.  One of the best times I had was sitting down with Aaro on an island in Finland’s archipelago and I accompanied him while he played Finnish Folk songs on his piano accordion.  He didn’t speak much English at all, but it was far better than my Finnish, and it didn’t matter at all, we communicated.   It sounds like a cliché but it is true: music is a universal language. Next time I’m going to tell you about some buskers I’ve met along the way.

            Send me an email: tinfishgeorge@gmail.com. 

The Sukhumvit Cat

 

            I was walking along Sukhumvit Road.  Anyone who has been to Bangkok knows it; the main drag, so to speak.  It is in the centre of a busy part of the city with lots of passing tourists, the footpaths are narrow and you have to slowly thread your way through street vendors and sensory-overloaded tourists.

            There was a Thai woman, a street vendor, sitting next to one of those plastic stools you see all through Asia.  The seat had a slot in it, like a post box slot, designed to slip your hand in so you can pick it up.  She was tapping the seat of the stool trying to catch the attention of a young cat, just grown out of being a kitten.  It sat up straight, looking up at her, as cats do, as if to say: “What are you on about?  Are you talking to me?”.  It sat right in the middle of the footpath.  People walking along Sukhumvit stepped around it  The woman ignored them too, her eyes were fixed on the cat,  trying to entice it up onto the stool. 

            It was hot.  It was the end of March in Bangkok; really hot and humid.  She called to the cat in Thai.  It sat there looking at her, not moving, not even for the pedestrian traffic.  She called again, this time louder; it was unmoved.  I was fascinated.  I was standing looking at a stall close by where magic tricks were on sale.  But this was better than the magic tricks.  How was she going to get this arrogant little feline to comply?

            She called again and the cat kept looking at her but ignored her calls.  Occasionally the cat would look up at a passing pedestrian and watch them pass by, following them with its eyes and then would look back up at the woman.  But it didn’t move.  People were stepping around it. 

            The woman put her arm under the chair and poked her fingers up through the hole in the seat, whispering in Thai and wiggling her fingers like worms sticking out of a hole.  The cat jumped up onto the seat.  The woman quickly produced a white hand towel from nowhere and carefully wiped the cat’s face, stroked the towel down its body and drew it close to her, giving it a hug.  She saw me looking.  I was smiling.  She laughed out loud.

            I turned to walk away and noticed that an over-dressed woman, dressed in typical Bangkok street-walker style had also been watching.  She looked at me as I passed, and didn’t come out with any of the usual pick-up lines, but just smiled, chuckled and nodded.

            Something simple was shared that day.

Meeting Miss Mut

The walk from Hua Lamphong subway station to the Hua Chiew traditional Chinese medicine clinic takes about twenty minutes.  It took a few trips to figure out how to do it without running the gauntlet of two busy Bangkok intersections.  Even though there are pedestrian crossing lights at one of them, this is Bangkok and pedestrians are at the very bottom of the food chain.  Even crossing with the green light, motorcyclists completely ignore their red light and drive straight through.  They usually just manage to avoid knocking you to the ground, even if they have to mount the footpath; they have no respect whatsoever for pedestrians, only for vehicles bigger than themselves.

At the last intersection before the clinic there is a giant overhead walkway designed to move pedestrians to any of the four corners of the intersecting roads.  Thirty three steep steps take you up and down.  But that still leaves two death-defying crossings to survive.  There just had to be another way.

I finally figured it out: I walked on the other side of the road, past the railway police station then alongside a khlong (a canal), and then over a lovely old ornate footbridge that emerged just before the overhead crossing.  I felt very proud of myself.  The khlong is much neglected; with not much of an effort the Bangkok city administration could make it quite attractive.  As it is, the water looks so polluted I first wondered whether any living thing could survive in there; then on two occasions I saw a one metre croc slowly cruising along the water’s edge and realised why these creatures had survived since prehistoric times.

The footbridge is close to the State Railway of Thailand’s head office.  It is a group of huge lovely old buildings housing masses of workers.  Stallholders set up opposite, next to the khlong under the trees selling food.   There’s also the usual mix of lottery ticket sellers, Thai Buddha pendant stalls, cheap clothing, and household products.  It’s a typical Asian street market.  They set up in mid morning and are gone by mid afternoon relying on the lunchtime trade from the railway workers.  On my walk I have to dodge around them as they camp on the footpath seizing the most strategic spot.

As I stepped onto the footbridge for the first time I saw that half of the passage way was blocked by a blanket spread out on the ground with a collection of a few dozen sandals and fake “crocs” slip-ons priced at around 150 Baht ($5) – cheap.  I was feeling pretty hot and sweaty – this is Bangkok in March, after all – and had to wait to let someone pass who was coming from the opposite direction.  And in my anal Anglo way felt a little irritated by this unregulated intrusion into my progress.  “here we go again”, I thought, looking down at the vendor’s wares, “another complete disregard for pedestrians”.  As I waited, the vendor, who was sitting next to her rather pathetic little display tucking into a plate of rice and whatever, eating with a spoon, as Thais do, looked up at me and flashed a beautiful, wide welcoming smile: “Sawadee ka”, she said.  That single action instantly made me feel like the grumpy old man that I am.  “Sawadee krap”  I said, nodded, smiled, and moved on.

The next day she was there again.  “Sawadee ka”.  “Sawadee krap”.  And so it went on like that for a few days until one day she started talking animatedly to me in Thai.  I shrugged: “an-grit” (English) I said.  She shrugged and then said: “Hello” and laughed.  Then, every time we met she would prattle on in Thai, smiling, laughing, and would point to something and slowly say the word in Thai.  I realised she was teaching me a new Thai word every time.  In return, I started teaching her some very basic English.  By the time I had done around twenty sessions at the clinic we had progressed to the point where she would greet me with “good morning” or “good afternoon” depending on the time of day, and I would continue to greet her in Thai and learned a few more words in the process.  Only once, on maybe the second or third time I met her did she point to her display and look at me searching my face for any sign of interest.  I shook my head and she smiled that same happy broad smile and never took it any further.

One day, on my return trip, a bit later than usual, she had packed up and gone.  As I walked further toward Hua Lamphong  I could see her waiting at a bus stop.  She had her goods all wrapped up and stored away in a small trolley bag, wearing a backpack, wrapped up against the sun with long sleeves and wearing a tattered, grubby old baseball cap.  It was getting into the afternoon and it was hot.  She saw me approaching; that smile again.  As I drew near: “good afternoon”, she said.  “Sawadee krap” I said as I stopped.  I was sweating.  She looked closely at me and frowned, dipped into a bag and produced a cold bottle of mineral water.  She handed it to me and I thanked her: “kop kun krap”.  I opened my wallet and handed her a twenty baht note but she pushed my hand away shaking her head and laughing.  She looked over my shoulder, pointing. “Seven” she said with some pride and a big grin.  I turned and saw an old number seven bus approaching.  In a few seconds she was gone.

There has been no “come on”, no touting, just two people communicating with each other, sharing the time of day, so to speak.  All I know about her is that her name is “Mut”, she lives in Chinatown and camps out on the footbridge every weekday selling to the office workers.  On weekends she sells at one of the markets.  It is a precarious and subsistence-level existence.  But the simple open and warm humanity of the woman and the kindness she showed to a complete stranger without expecting anything in return restored my faith in human nature.   I  wondered whether an Asian or African person visiting my country would be welcomed in such a way.

So the other morning as I was on my way to my local subway station I walked past a street stall selling hats.  They had some nice women’s broad-brimmed sun hats.  Remembering Ms Mut’s old baseball cap, I picked out a nice one, bought it and gave it to her when I passed on the way to the clinic.  It was very cheap, costing the same as the sandals she sells – 150 baht ($5) – but from her reaction you would have thought I’d given her a one-off piece of exotic millinery, hand made for the Melbourne Cup fashion parade.  This person is at the opposite polar end of the spectrum of human beings with someone like Gina Reinhart being at the other.

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33 Steps

Thailand tendonitis treatment

 

I have had a few enquiries about my tendonitis treatment.  People have asked what’s involved so I start this blog with a WARNING: This is the least interesting blog posted yet – but I am responding to requests!  If you are a first time visitor have a look at the last one, or Welcome to Bangkok or if it’s only music news you’re into: Chiang Mai Blues.

My treatment involves a few different aspects.  The first is rest.  Any of you compulsive guitar pickers out there will know this is a hard one.  A lot of self-discipline is required and even though I managed to kick the nicotine habit, self-discipline is not one of my stronger points.

Stretching exercises are part of the treatment but that’s a boring topic for a blog; they are the same exercises wherever you go, what is interesting is the Thai stuff.  Thailand is well known for its massages.  Well known for all the wrong reasons of course.  But in addition to the “happy ending” massage they have a very fine and long tradition of therapeutic massage.  A daily massage at one of the temples can be had for a few dollars, and they are very good.  You can also learn the techniques there.  But it is the acupuncture here that is the main attraction for me.

I have started daily visits to the Hua Chiew TCM hospital.  The “TCM” stands for traditional Chinese medicine.  There are two Hua Chiew hospitals.  The other one, which is next door, is for western medicine.  The Chinese medicine hospital is a world leader in traditional Chinese medicine and particularly in acupuncture.  There are a couple of photos below.  When I arrive I am weighed and my blood pressure taken.  I then go upstairs into a standard looking hospital ward.  They put me on a bed, draw the curtains and a young Thai, Chinese trained doctor and a nurse come in to start the treatment.  Everything is carefully explained and the doctor speaks English well.  He spends some time feeling around my arm before he inserts several very fine acupuncture needles into the muscles.  Everything is of surgical standard: all sterilized packed and sealed.  He then instructs the nurse and tells me that they will be connecting up electrodes to some of the needles and a current will pass through the muscles: “Lie back, relax, have a sleep, enjoy!  I will be back in thirty minutes.”

One of the nurses stays behind.  Her English isn’t all that flash.  She giggles and says “electric” as she connects me up.  She manages though to tell me to say when I feel a pulsing sensation.  She starts to slowly dial in the current.  All the time she is watching the needles.  I notice that when I feel the pulse start in, some of the needles start twitching in time.  When I tell her, she sets the machine.  Then she lowers a heat lamp over my arm.

After thirty minutes the machine starts playing an irritating little single note, electronic tune that sounds a bit like a strangled mobile phone.  The first time I heard it I thought someone in the next bed had left their phone on.  I was about to scream “answer the bloody phone” when the doctor returned, the nurse disconnected the leads and I was free to go.  When I leave they give me some powder to take home.  I put it boiling water, reduce it to a simmer and hold my arm over it for twenty minutes while slowly massaging the muscles.  It smells good enough to eat and it provides instant relief.  I have to do that twice a day.

Each consultation costs the equivalent of $12.65.  He says it could take ten visits depending upon how my arm responds.  I reckon a $120 would get me an initial consultation in Sydney!

Travel to and from the clinic involves a subway ride into Chinatown, to the Hua Lamphong train station, then either walk or get a taxi to the clinic.  It is a twenty minute walk which is quite pleasant when the weather is OK, but crossing two intersections on foot is always a challenge in Bangkok.   I catch a bus back to the station, just for the fun of it.  I’ve posted a picture of the inside of the bus below: an ancient old rattler with no windows and no air conditioning.  They are old manual transmission diesels and the drivers look like they have to wrestle the things into gear accompanied by  a lot of loud crunching.  The fare is six and a half Baht (21 cents) which is well worth it for a circuitous ride around Chinatown.

Of course, these daily visits severely restrict my ability to take on teaching work but if I can leave here having gotten rid of the tendonitis it will be well worth it.

Stay tuned, the blog will get back to the usual stuff, like prostitutes, ladyboys, other scandalous stuff and pictures of girls in short skirts riding pillion side-saddle, soon.  (You can click on the pics to enlarge: the bus is worth a closer look – don’t complain about your buses at home!)

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Welcome to Bangkok

This was written soon after I arrived in Thailand.  I hesitated posting it and ran it past some friends.  Opinions were divided.  It’s not about music, it’s personal and it might make some folks feel a little uncomfortable and even give a bad impression of Thailand.  But hey!  The blog was set up because people asked to hear my travel tales and this is one, sad but all too true: abject poverty meets relative affluence.  And if I were concerned about upsetting people I wouldn’t have recorded “Plastic Jesus”, would I? 

 

On my first day back in Bangkok I was having an afternoon nap when the phone rang.  Not my mobile but the bedside phone.  I picked it up, half asleep to hear a purring, sultry Thai female voice:

“Hello darling.”

“Huh?”

“Hello darling.”

“Is that you Malinee?”  I was expecting a call, but not one like this.

“Hello Darling.”

“Who is this?”

“You remember me, darling?  How are you?”

“Sorry, but who are you?”

“You see me again tonight, darling?”

Of course! I had just moved in – “I think the guy you are after has left, honey.”

“Huh?”

“Your farang, he gone – gone.”

“Oh!  Where you from darling?  You on holiday?  We have holiday.  You meet me?  Soi Cowboy?  Tonight.  You call me?”

The penny was starting to drop, Soi Cowboy: the notorious girly bar street in central Bangkok.  She clearly wasn’t fussy.  I hung up but she rang back to try again.

She wanted to leave her number, completely unshaken by the fact that her “boyfriend” had left; another farang, another income.  What’s the difference?  We all look the same anyway.

I must be finally acting my age because I turned down the invitation to stay in and read “Lucky Jim” which I had been meaning to read for ages.  And it was worth it.

The next night I caught the underground into central Bangkok to eat at Cabbages and Condoms.  Yep, that’s right!  A chain of restaurants set up by a Thai philanthropist who uses all the profits to fund safe sex projects.  Great food but it’s worth a visit just for the décor.  Amazing what you can make out of condoms.  Greeting you at the entrance is a life size chap made entirely of the things.

On my way there a plainly dressed young woman in jeans and a polo shirt flashed a smile.  It’s like Pavlov’s dog to me: I smiled back.

Quick as a flash she said:  “I go with you?”  I shook my head and kept walking.

After eating I walked by the only quiet park on Sukhumvit Road – Chuvit Garden.  It has trees, ponds, the sound of trickling water; all in the middle of this mad 10 million-peopled city.  An island of tranquility in a sea of chaos.  I walked in and headed for a bench near the pond.  There she was, same woman.  Same big smile.  She was eating.  She beckoned me over.  Forever curious, I sat with her and we talked.  She told me about her German “boyfriend”.  Seventy five years old, who used to look after her but now he can’t come back to Thailand – on doctor’s orders.  “Four doctor say he no come Thailand no more” – Sure.  Another young, unskilled, uneducated woman hoping for a farang to pull her and her family out of survival level.

When she had finished eating:  “Come on”  I said,  “I’ll buy you a drink.”

 So we sat for an hour, she nursing an orange juice, me a Heineken while she struggled to speak English.  She is thirty-one and hitched her wagon to a German man older than her mother, who, she told me was sixty eight. The story of the medical problem is a common one; used by these guys who no longer want to be bothered.

Making conversation I asked her where she lived.  She asked where I lived:  “You sleep alone?”  She asked.  “Yes I do,”  and knowing what was coming:  “My hotel boss not want me bring Thai lady to room.”   That was something she understood because a lot of places actually do have rules, especially for their farang teacher guests.  Frankly I don’t know if I could or not but I know the family who run my place well enough that I would be acutely embarrassed to even try.  So then she suggested we go to a “short time hotel”.  She was literally a street walker, but a rather amateur, soft one. The thought of booking in to a dingy, seedy  little place renting a room by the hour with this sad girl latching onto anybody who would pay her was not exactly a turn-on.  Jesus H Christ – how do guys suspend reality enough to do this?

I’m not a social worker, but I am a bleeding heart, I admit.  “Just let me give you a big hug, honey,” I said, and gave her 500 baht ($15), wished her luck and started to walk.  You would think she had just won the lotto jackpot: holding her hands in the Thai (“wai”) prayer style and bowing.  “Thank you, thank you.” 

I turned and looked.  She was waving.  The easiest 500 baht she’d made, I guess.

Bangkok is a tough place for a bleeding heart.

Why is the comments link off?

This blog was a long time in the planning.  People heard I had taken a break from playing and was doing a lot of travelling.  Telling stories has been part of my “act” and I’m grateful that they have been so well received and even more grateful that people started telling me they wanted to hear about my travels.  And it was the interesting stuff people wanted to hear about: the encounters with characters and my experiences along the way rather than descriptions of tours, fine scenery and interesting restaurants.

I’m a “bleeding heart”, a born defender of the underdog; that’s just the kind of guy I am.  I’m not afraid of controversy and that should be obvious from my choice of material: just listen to Plastic Jesus, Kylie Does Takeaway, MBA Rag, to mention a few.  So if I see or hear of something in my travels and it presses my buttons, I’ll write about it.  If I don’t then press a few buttons in turn, and make people think, then there’s no point, the blog just becomes a boring travelogue.

For example, I’ve been approached by prostitutes in Bangkok, Berlin, Helsinki and Los Angeles (in alphabetical order).  That’s a capital city in every country I’ve visited.  At first I thought; Gee, I must have that sort of look – women must think “with a face like that, this guy surely has to pay for it!”  But my psychological defence mechanisms tell me that I’m in the age group of men who patronise sex workers and, I travel alone so I’m a moving target.  Some of those encounters have been very sad, some funny, but they’re worth writing about even though it will possibly make some people feel uncomfortable.

Of course unlike Facebook a blog it isn’t just circulated to friends.  As a musician this is a good thing because it reaches a wider audience.  On the other hand, once something is posted it is “out there” in the big wide world; anyone anywhere, wherever they are, can read it.  After looking at some of the comments posted on You Tube and internet forums I have seen how inane, uninformed and downright stupid, some people are, particularly when they can post an anonymous comment.  Then someone else gets on and posts another comment to counter that one and on and on it goes.  As the teachers say: “There’s one in every classroom”: the lowest common denominator; the basic unit.  And it only takes one to start the ball rolling.

So the “comments” link is off.

People who really want to get in contact with me are most welcome and will know how, they only have to go to the web site.  Hopefully the extra effort required for that will be a bit of a cognitive hurdle in the way of the basic units out there.

And if you take the time to get in touch you will get a reply.

Stay healthy and stay sane,

George.

Chiang Mai Blues

I like trains so I caught the “express” from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  I have enclosed that word in quotation marks because that’s what the Thai railway people call it, not what anyone else would call it.

The train crawls along and stops frequently; it leaves early and arrives after dark.  But at least the scenery is nice – well, for some of the way.  For the return trip I took the overnight sleeper and that’s most definitely my recommendation if you’re going to do the trip by train at all.

I hadn’t gone there with any hope of hearing music.  I was just having a break, decided to put my dislike of commercialised tourism aside and check out the elephant treks, the tiger sanctuary and whatever else they had on offer: chill out time.

I found a nice place to stay and set off in the evening for the market.  I love the evenings in Thailand, when the sun has gone down, and the humidity has (marginally) dropped.  Just walking around, taking it all in: the sights, sounds and the smells of street food.

As I walked around I could hear the unmistakeable voice of a black blues man singing and playing acoustic guitar.  It wasn’t a recording; unmistakeably, it was live, it was quality blues fingerpicking and great vocals.  I was thinking: How the hell did he get a work permit?  Any foreigner (farang) who does any work here, “work” being paid or unpaid, has to have a work permit.  To get a work permit you need a sponsor, it takes weeks or even months and you have to jump through hoops.   And a black blues guy would be so conspicuous he’d definitely need one.  Without it you face the possibility of jail if you can’t bribe your way out of it, and Thai jails are not nice places.

There was an open area in the middle of the market with a raised stage surrounded by tables where people sat, ate and drank.  It wasn’t a black blues guy after all.  When I closed my eyes I heard an old black blues man but when I opened them I saw a middle-aged Thai man.  Sitting alongside of him playing exquisite understated lead solos was another Thai, leaning back in his chair, a tall, skinny guy with his eyes closed, a shock of long curly hair and a charismatic grin with a mouth full of gleaming white teeth.  They were both playing plugged in acoustic guitars and were a class act.  Unfortunately I only caught their last two songs.

Disappointed, I wandered around the market.

Half an hour later I heard some electric blues coming from somewhere upstairs.  I made my way up to a dark, smoky interesting little bar on the mezzanine.  The lead guitarist from downstairs was leading a trio and as I walked in he was ripping into “Little Wing”.  The guy was playing Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version note-for-note.  Just as I was thinking: You’ve got to be good to play that, but still, he’s an imitator like his mate downstairs,  he might have read my mind because at that moment he segued into his own original solo and then seamlessly back into Stevie Ray to finish the number.  As he played he stood still, eyes closed, the same grin, playing this cheap Les Paul copy through a no-name amp. No theatrics, he wasn’t a wanker, he wasn’t playing with his weenie (to borrow from the late Frank Zappa), this guy was the real deal.  And he knew when to back off and give his bass player and drummer space for their solos.

I took a seat and just marveled.  This was real high quality electric blues and I was captivated.  These guys were so good that if I had the money I’d be trying to get them to tour overseas.  They made most of the bands I’ve heard in this genre sound sloppy and amateur.  And they didn’t even have any brand name gear.  They personified the saying: You don’t need a $5,000 guitar, you need $5,000 worth of lessons.  These guys had had their lessons and practised hard.

When they took a break he came to my table.  Maybe he saw how I was watching his finger work.  Maybe he just saw the look of appreciation on my face, I don’t know, but I felt pretty honoured.  He spoke English and we started to talk music.  He knew about Piedmont picking, ragtime, delta blues: the guy was a die-hard and well-read blues man.  A Thai friend who was there told him about my CD (I’d held back on that one, it sounds so bloody pretentious).  He invited me to play with him.  I hadn’t brought my guitar or even a thumb pick; and I can’t play my style without one.  And one thing I’ve learned is never to get up in front of a paying crowd completely unprepared without even a thumb pick.  It would be like a violinist without a bow!  Besides, I was nursing tendonitis and supposed to be resting my arm.  I had to decline  Anyway, it was his gig and the crowd loved him and rightly so.  I sat back and enjoyed it.

That was on my last trip.  I’m going back to Chiang Mai and I’m taking my gear – just in case.  I’ve given it a lot of thought and I don’t care about the tendonitis; if he’s there and the invitation still stands I’m going to join him for the ride this time.  But I don’t think I’ll be taking the train, that’s one ride I’m happy to miss.

What’s happening with the music?

You would have seen on the website and in the first blog post that I have tendonitis.

It was a sports medicine doctor who diagnosed it and said that the kind I had was commonly called “golfer’s elbow”.

Now here’s a tip for you musicians out there.   He quizzed me about my playing, rehearsals and practice.  It was my gig rehearsals that were the problem.  When I sat down to rehearse a set and got to a song like “St. James Infirmary Blues” I’d play the first few bars and think: “I’ve been playing this song since I was sixteen, I know it already”.  So I’d stop and go onto the next one.  I know most of my repertoire well enough that I don’t have to practice to remember lyrics or the music, so my rehearsal set would only last ten to fifteen minutes at most.  And that was the problem.  When I walked on stage to play two forty-five minute sets I had not prepared my body for it.  Sort of like an athlete training for 100 metres and then trying to run a marathon.

Leaving aside those so-called specialists who are paid by the bosses to say it doesn’t exist, one thing everyone says about tendonitis is that the best treatment is rest.  Then there’s physio, acupuncture, massage, an exercise regime and in extreme cases, surgery.

I had an opportunity to go to Thailand to teach English.  Its also a place where treatment for tendonitis is a lot cheaper than at home.  And because I had to stop playing guitar for a while, the trip was also a sufficient distraction to stop me from going nuts.  Playing is a compulsion, an obsession, for me.  Even though I have worked day jobs all my life, the playing has been a constant; its been like therapy.  I met a guy who worked in a hotel in Ohio but was from Kentucky.  He plays a Telecaster in a Southern Gospel band.  He started playing when  he was four years old with his dad in church.  “After a hard day I sit down and strum my flat-top and after 30 minutes everything is OK” he said in his Kentucky drawl.

I am hoping I will eventually get over this thing.  Leo Kottke did although I believe it took him a year.  So I am hoping to get back into some serious playing by mid next year.  By that time I hope to have enough material to put together one more CD.  And I know they will very soon be old technology but they are still good for selling at gigs back home.

One more thing –  Saturday 24th of November 2012 is a date to remember because it will be the last broadcast of the Saturday Blues Show (Radio Adelaide) by Big Mike.  The show will continue but Mike is moving on.  This guy has done heaps to keep blues out there on the radio waves and even more to promote local musicians.  Too few radio and other media people promote local musicians, Big Mike is the exception; I for one, owe him a lot.

Good luck in your new ventures Big Mike you are a legend!

All generalisations are false …

The full quote is: “All generalisations are false including this one”

I have covered some territory over the last 18 months: Finland, Germany, the USA and Thailand. And along with my check-in and carry on baggage I took my built-in baggage. We all have it.

One of the things I have learned in life is just how ingrained our prejudices are; three years of working for an anti-discrimination commission consolidated that view. That’s what makes that kind of legislation so problematic for the regulators: it challenges the very nature of human beings.

Every Social Anthropology 101 student learns how communities throughout history have circled their wagons in the face of outsiders. Victorians disparage South Australians and vice versa, and Tasmanians are fair game to both. I once heard an Arnhem Land Aboriginal elder dismiss a fellow Aboriginal as “only a desert man“. A Vietnamese friend said, when Thais were mentioned: “Thais – the men are pirates and the women are prostitutes“.

Some of these prejudices come from personal experience. The Vietnamese woman suffered terribly at the hand of Thai pirates. Her anger and resentment is understandable; prejudice can be the result of an extrapolation from that personal experience to a whole race or nationality. But too often there is no rational underlying reason, just ignorance and the unquestioning acceptance of the prejudice of others.

On my first trip to Thailand I was ripped off by a taxi driver. But it also happened to me in Sydney. On a subsequent trip I was in Phuket waiting to board my flight and when the call came I moved to the departure gate. I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned around and a young Thai girl extended a hand toward me: “Excuse me Sir, did you drop this?” and handed me my wallet.

In the USA an LA street walker introduced herself as Kathy and when I declined her offer of services she took a swing at me calling me “A fucking faggot“. Later in Columbus, Ohio, I broke my glasses and an optometrist called Kathy spent over an hour making me a new pair and then didn’t want any money for doing it.

In Berlin a young hotel receptionist grumpily barked: “I’m not an IT expert” when I told her I was having trouble accessing the hotel Wi-Fi. Thinking of Faulty Towers: “Don’t mention the war“, and the humourless German stereotype, I retreated to a café over the road. I ordered a flat white. “You’re Australian!” the proprietor said with a big smile. It turned out some customers had ordered flat whites before and not knowing what a flat white was, he Googled it and found it was an Australian expression. He sat down with me and chatted.

Andrew Denton once interviewed three taxi drivers with over a century of experience between them. He asked the Sydney cabbie: “You’ve been driving cabs for over forty years, what have you learned about human nature?” He replied: “I don’t care where you come from, what colour you are, what you do for a crust – we’re all just trying to get by, make our way through life“.

What have I learned in my travels so far? Exactly that.