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PERSONAL BLOG - 2004 Q1: January - March

 

4 February 2004

Today I gave a speech to a conference in New Delhi. When I asked the organisers last night how many people would be there, they said over a thousand. I thought they were just exaggerating, but when I arrived at the conference hall, I believed them. I have never seen so many people jammed into a conference hall – they were sitting shoulder to shoulder and the rows of seats were closer than what you find on budget airlines, and standing two deep around the outside of the hall. I was told there were actually 1,100 people in the audience. I’ve made plenty of speeches to audiences of 200-300 people, but this was the first time I had done one for over a thousand.

10 February 2004

Today I took the ferry over from Hong Kong to Macau for some meetings. My hosts took me to lunch at a well known Macanese restaurant (Macanese food is predominantly Portuguese but with Indian, Chinese and Malay influences) and suggested I have a fish dish which was a Macanese delicacy. They ordered Chinese food, so I was happy to agree to their suggestion because I am not a great fan of Chinese food. However, when the dish arrived I couldn’t believe how large it was. It was enough for four people. I ate as much as I could to be polite, but I felt absolutely bloated on the ferry back to Hong Kong in the afternoon. I am writing this at midnight on a night flight down to Brisbane, and I still feel full from lunch. (I later read in an old issue of Time magazine that the Macanese judge a restaurant not only on the quality of its food but also on whether quantity is sufficient to warrant a table-side stomach pump – I can vouch for that!)

20 February 2004

I have been in Nadi, Fiji, for the past three days attending a Commonwealth conference. The weather is very hot and very humid, and most people are sensibly dressed in an open neck shirt (many had purchased some colourful Fijian floral shirts from the hotel shop) and shorts or light cotton slacks. However, the African delegates all turned up in suits and ties and looked most uncomfortable throughout conference. I couldn’t understand why people were coming to Fiji from Africa and wearing suits and ties. One of the Australian delegates said his ‘theory’ was that by wearing suits and ties, the Africans were making a ‘statement’ that they were no longer a primitive race and had caught up with the modern world. I told him that sounded a bit racist, to which he responded: “Well you tell me why they are all dolled up in suits”. I couldn’t think of a reason straightaway, but was thinking about it later, so when I got back to my room I googled “Why do Africans wear suits in hot climates?” There are lots of interesting articles on the Internet debating this question including one BBC report which described how MPs were thrown out of the Kenyan Parliament in 2003 for not wearing suits and ties – apparently the MPs had turned up wearing the brightly-coloured Agbada, a flowing Nigerian-style robe. I couldn’t find a direct answer to my question – other than references to the fact that suits and ties were colonial hand-me-downs – but there were certainly lots of debates about whether Africans should throw out western clothes and adopt more traditional African clothing. Interestingly, quite a lot of people opposed making the ‘madiba’ shirts acceptable for formal wear because people though it looked too casual (the madiba shirt is similar to the Indonesian batik shirt and was worn a lot by Nelson Mandela when he was President of South Africa). This is surprising because in Malaysia and Indonesia, open-necked long-sleeved batik shirts are the accepted formal wear at Government functions, so I can’t see why it would not be acceptable in hot countries in Africa.

On the second night of the conference we were taken to Beachcomber Island, about 45 minutes offshore, for a barbeque. I had been there about two years before. As we approached the island in our high-speed catamaran, just before sunset, I thought that the island looked a lot smaller than how I remembered it. One of the locals later told me that one end of the island had been washed away in a cyclone. In fact, the area where I had had a barbeque on the beach was no longer there, now being covered by the ocean.

21 February 2004

After the conference finished in Nadi, I hired a car to drive to Suva. I had been told that the 185km journey would take me three hours, but in fact it took five hours because it was raining heavily for part of the way and several sections of the road were flooded. The hire car was full of mosquitoes, and they were distracting me as I was driving. So shortly after leaving Nadi, I stopped at a petrol station shop to buy some insect spray. It was clear that this area had some robbery or shoplifting problems because the shop looked like a high security prison. The whole of the inside of the shop was screened by floor to ceiling steel grilles, with a narrow passageway down the middle through which you could walk to the cashier’s counter at the far end. You could not physically touch anything in the shop, but only look at what was on display through the steel grilles. I asked for a can of insect spray, and one of the assistants walked to a shelf and brought it back to the cashier’s counter. After paying for the spray through a small open window about the size of my notebook computer screen, which was cut in the steel grille, the cashier handed me my insect spray through same window. This was probably the first shop that I had been into in the world that had absolutely 100% security – and 0% trust.

I noticed on the road to Suva that there were quite a few people hitchhiking. About 30-40 people tried to flag me down to give them a lift during the five hours that I was on the road. They weren’t backpackers, they were locals, about half men and half women – probably just seeking a lift to the next village. I didn’t stop for any of them because most of them were soaking wet, and many were carrying sticks from which were hanging fish and crabs. Even on a dry day, I would have been very nervous about giving some of the, a lift. One very muscular man, dressed in a Fijian sulu and no top (he looked like a Fijian warrior) was carrying a large machete. Only a brave driver would have stopped to give him a lift.

I stopped at Sigatoka for lunch – a quaint little town that reminded me of some of the small sugar cane towns in North Queensland, as they looked about 30 years ago. After Sigatoka there was the occasional glimpse of the ocean, but mostly the road was 2 – 5 kms inland from the ocean, so making a detour to see any of the beaches or resorts along this stretch of coastline, known as the ‘Coral Coast’, would have been quite time-consuming.

A couple of hours later, I stopped briefly for an afternoon coffee at a small café in a ‘cultural centre’ complex at Pacific Harbour. Surprisingly the coffee was very good for such an out of the way place. After reaching Suva, the rain stopped. My meetings there were not until the next day, so I had an hour or so to look around the town. It was larger and more interesting than Nadi, but I didn’t need much more than an hour to see it all.

22 February 2004

The next day, as I was being shown to the office of the first person that I was meeting, I noticed a lot of cabinets had large dents in them. The person escorting me saw me looking, and explained that the dents were the result of their offices being trashed by a mob during the 2000 coup led by George Speight. He told me that Speight (who had subsequently been sentenced to life imprisonment) was now being held as a prisoner on an island offshore from Suva, which used to be a popular weekend picnic spot for the locals. He said Speight was the only prisoner on the island and he spent most of his time watching satellite TV. It sounded like Speight was serving out his life sentence in some comfort.

At the end of the day, when my meetings were over, I decided to check out the drive to the airport at Nausori as one of the persons I had been meeting with had told me that the main road – Kings Road – might be jammed at the time I was due to leave in the following morning. He recommended that I take a back road known as Princes Road instead. He said the back road would take only about 20 minutes. I drove out to the airport along Kings Road, and it wasn’t too crowded, but there were a lot of traffic lights and it took over 30 minutes. So I guessed that in the morning peak hour it would take much longer. However, when I drove back along Princes Road, I found that took 45 minutes, even without much traffic. At one stage when the road was winding its way up into thickly forested hills, I wondered whether I was on the right road, but it turned out that I was. I don’t know how anyone could have possibly driven that in 20 minutes. It was however a very scenic route, passing through lush rural countryside and obviously less likely to get jammed in the morning rush hour. So I decided to take that route to the airport in the morning.

23 February 2004

This morning I reached the outskirts of Nausori in about 40 minutes, but then got held up at the bridge crossing the river where the police were only letting the traffic cross in one direction at a time (the previous day traffic was crossing in both directions). This was at the point where Princes Road joined Kings Road, so I wouldn’t have avoided the hold-up even if I had taken the main road. I recalled reading in the local paper that recently two spans on the bridge had broken when two heavy logging trucks had crossed the bridge together, and another ten cracks in the steel girders had been repaired at a cost of $200,000. I wondered whether more cracks had been found overnight and whether that was why the police were only allowing one line of traffic to use the bridge at one time. After a half hour wait, we were eventually allowed to cross the bridge. As we did so, I unbuckled my seat belt and wound the windows down. I figured that if the bridge were to collapse and we were to fall into the river, I’d have a better chance of not drowning if my seat belt was already undone and the windows of the car were already open!

29 February 2004

I was having lunch in the Mid-Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur today, and I passed by a photo shop and noticed what looked like a familiar picture on all their computer screens. On a second look I realised that it was a photograph that I had taken in Sri Lanka about ten months ago. It was a picture of a fisherman derigging his oruva boat (a type of outrigger canoe with sail) on the beach at Ethukala, silhouetted against the setting sun. I remembered that I had some prints of that shot run off at that shop the previous year. I was tempted to go in and tell them that using my photograph as computer wallpaper was a breach of copyright, but then told myself that I should feel honored that they had chosen one of my photographs to use as wallpaper (out of the thousands that they must process every week) so decided not to say anything.

5 March 2004

Today I had a meeting in 2 International Finance Centre – Hong Kong’s tallest building, and the fifth tallest building in the world. In my view it should be rated equal third along with the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur because the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai only takes honours as the fourth tallest building in the world because of a spire on top. 2IFC was completed last year and has 90 floors reaching up over 400 metres above the waterfront on Hong Kong Island. My meeting was on the top floors, and at that level we were eye level with The Peak. Looking down on Central Plaza and the Bank of China Building, they looked so small – even though both were 360-370 metres high. But even the impressive 2IFC is going to look small in 2007 when the International Commerce Centre is completed as that will reach 484 metres with no towers or spires on top to ‘cheat’. The IFC may be able to claim to be the tallest building in the world for a short time, if it is finished before the Shanghai World Financial Centre (492 metres) which is due for completion in the same year. But both will be dwarfed two years later when Burj Dubai in the UAE is completed because that will be an incredible 705 metres high. I wonder if I will see a 1000 metres (one kilometre) high building before I die?

7 March 2004

I arrived in Jakarta from Hong Kong yesterday afternoon, and as I had today (Sunday) free before three days of meetings starting tomorrow, I hired a Kajang four wheel drive to go and see the world famous botanic gardens at Bogor, and the tea plantations in the foothills of Gunung Gede, about 80 kilometres south of Jakarta. The drive down to Bogor on the highway was easy, and I wandered around the botanic gardens for about half an hour before it started to rain. When I got back to the jeep parked on the road outside, it really started to pour, and as I headed south towards Sukabumi, on much narrower roads through rural villages, the rain set in for the day. I stopped for a late lunch at Sukabumi and at that point gave up on the idea of driving up into the hills to see the tea plantations because the rain was too heavy.

I decided to drive back via the Puncak mountainous region, but that turned out to be much longer than I expected, and by the time I got to Cisarua it was dark. The descent back down to the plains near Bogor was a bit hair-raising on the winding road, in the dark and in the rain – mainly because of the number of motorbikes without lights that would suddenly appear out of nowhere!

I arrived back in Jakarta about 10.30 pm but took an hour and a half to find my hotel. Driving out of the city was easy – all I had to do was follow the signs to Bogor – but driving back in was a different story. I had to use a road map, which looked easy, but every time I thought I was on the right road, it would suddenly veer off in a different direction to that shown on the map. I passed my hotel three times – on the wrong side of the road – and at one stage I was tempted to leave the jeep on the other side of the road, but there was a fence in the middle of the road that would have been difficult to climb with my camera gear. Eventually I managed to find the way back to the hotel and pulled into the driveway right on the stroke of midnight. It had been a long day, not very productive, but at least I’d seen the Bogor botanic gardens at last.