Denver airport plans to start limited operations at noon on Friday, 22 December. I hope those limited operations include the flights I'm booked on. I arrive from LAX just after 17h00 local time and depart for Winnipeg an hour later - according to my schedule.
It would also be nice if the system that just hit Denver with a pile of snow moved up to Winnipeg and arrived shortly after I will. But that would just be a bonus.
It's been a great time out here. I made the right decision in planing this trip at this time in my life. Thanks to all of you who have been praying for me and writing to me, keeping in touch. I actually feel like I've got to know some of you better while I've been gone and we've been forced to communicate over e-mail in concentrated packets of thought.
But face to face meetings are always preferred.
See many of you quite soon.
Generally, I have tried to compare Australia to Canada. Canada's and Australia's beginnings were significantly different, but both started off as British colonies and maintain a relationship with Britain and Her Majesty. White Australians seem more distinctly British, however, than do Canadians. There's more of a sense that a white aristocracy still exists that holds some allegiance to Britain. Like Canadians, Australians seem generally good natured and content with their place in the world. Politically, as you know, Australia has recently aligned itself with the B. administration and that perturbs many Australians in a similar way that some Canadians are dismayed with our current government's political leaning.
I get a sense that, if possible, rural Australia is even more isolated from the major cities and more sparsely populated than rural Canada. The difference is that you can drive to most of the isolated parts of Australia.
Quite a few of the 20-somethings I've met have been to North America and Europe - better traveled than many of my acquaintances of the same age and socio-economic profile in Canada and the U.S. Perhaps that is because of Australia's great distance from anywhere.
So those are some of my impressions from my short time here. Australians, especially, feel free to comment.
1. Coffee. I've traveled a bit in the last few years and always wonder, before I arrive in a country, how the coffee will be. For the last few years in Canada, I've been drinking a lot of Starbucks, so that was my benchmark.
Finland met my expectations: good coffee was available everywhere (prepared in bulk through a drip filter, but much better than your average cup of Canadian coffee, and more mellow than Starbucks), but a little expensive at 1 euro 80 for a cup the size of a Tim Horton's small.
On the contrary, I was most disappointed with Norwegian coffee when I travelled there 3 years ago.
Going to Pakistan I knew what to expect. They don't drink coffee so it's not available at shops or hotels (even the posh places serve instant prepared in a teapot). But my host, a man of means, stocked his place with Starbucks beans and each morning I ground 20 or 30 beans and brewed my fix in a French press - bonus.
In Afghanistan, as you know if you've read my blog regularly, I was introduced to an espresso bar run by an American, also stocked with Starbucks where I could completely escape from the dust on the street and be transported to my comfortable life from far away - nice.
But this post is supposed to be about Australia. Thanks to the many Italian immigrants, I understand, the Australian's have developed a taste for Italian, espresso-based coffee. Espresso machines abound. Every cafe (and there are plenty of these serving great sandwiches on Italian bread (like Focaccia)) has one. Even gas stations, McDonalds and climbing gyms have espresso machines. You couldn't get drip coffee if you wanted it. There are Starbucks here in Sydney, but after the first couple of days I realized that you can get much better coffee on every street corner. So I am impressed. Now I know why cappuccinos were so important to an Australian family that worked in Pakistan with my parents-they brought out an ingenious stove-top espresso machine, complete with a milk steamer. The only drawback here is that espresso-based coffee is more expensive per cup, around $3.00 (Australian Dollars, about 90 cents Canadian) at most places - but entirely worth it.
2. Chinese Food. My exposure to Chinese food has been very limited. And I know few people who are connoisseurs of the cuisine. My host's father, however, cooks Chinese quite proficiently. So, for the first time in my life, I have been treated to a home-cooked Chinese meal, simple noodle stir-fries, baked pork, dumplings that taste genuine with subtle broth and soy/fish sauce accents. On Wednesday night last week (13th), I went with my friend and a group from his church to a Chinese restaurant in Ashfield where we had fabulous pork and cilantro dumplings dipped in soy sauce mixed with a rich chili sauce - excellent.
3. The Belgian Beer Cafe, Adelaide. This must be my third mention of this place, so you can guess it was great. Belgian beer (I had a dark, chocolaty Leffe) is always fine. The feature at this restaurant is mussels, boiled in various broths with onions, mushrooms and white wine served in hug pots with chips (french fries, thick cut) and whipped mayonnaise. I've never had mussels before. These were great. Such simple food that is so satisfying.
4. Chocolate. A bigger chain of chocolate cafes is Max Brener. On Monday I had a mocha - melted dark chocolate mixed into an espresso with steamed milk. Then yesterday I went to the Lindt cafe (that's right, of the Lindt chocolate makers from Switzerland) where I had a cappuccino graced with shreds of dark chocolate and a chocolate hazelnut cake. The person I was with had a hot chocolate consisting of melted dark chocolate and steamed milk served separately so you can mix your own drink.
5. The Australian Hotel, the Rocks, Sydney. Here I went for another Australian experience - beer and pizza with exotic Australian toppings. Like saltwater crocodile. The crocodile, white, slightly rubbery strips of meat was married with coconut milk, sweet basil and red capsicum - not bad. We also had pizza topped with roast duck - amazing. Our beer of choice was Little Creatures pale ale (not available in Winnipeg, unfortunately), a great ale with a perky fruit taste up front and a crisp bitter finish.
And I'll wrap this post up on that note.
On Monday (19th) I had an Australian moment. I had just taken the train back to the CBD (Central Business District of Sydney - we call it the downtown, I think) and alighted at Circular Quay. The day was perfect - sunny and probably 25 degrees with a breeze coming off the water. I knew the cricket must almost be finished and was eager to know if Australia had won. Sure enough, I arrived at the giant outdoor TV on the East side of the Quay to see the Australian team involved in a giant group hug, stumps waving wildly in their hands and the commentators repeating the fact that Australia had won the Ashes. Ricky Ponting grabbed a flag from a fan in the crowed and trotted his victory lap around the grounds (Waca, as the Perth cricket ground is called - I think it stands for something) hugging various teammates as he passed them. And there I was, leaning up against a palm tree surrounded by sunbathers on the grass and suited business people toting briefcases with the Bridge and Opera House looming behind me, participating in a celebration of national pride - a muted national pride, not overwhelming or obnoxious, just strong enough to give me a feeling of being Australian for a fleeting moment.
Then I went to the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) to look at large squares of Belgium linen painted with areas of solid black, brown and white outlined with white dots - genius :)
That done, I bought a milkshake at Copenhagen's and boarded the train to the Inner Western Suburbs.
That's just one day out of 14 so I'll spit the rest of my notes into different posts.
I must report, first off, that I secured an exit row seat on BA009 from London, Heathrow to Sydney. It wasn't just an emergency exit by which I sat, it was a full-blown exit giving me more room to stretch my legs then I could use. See, it pays to arrive at the airport 10 hours before your flight.
I won't say much about the flight. It was long, broken by a stop in Bangkok where we got out for a 2 km walk to a security screening area and back to the point where we started, to re-board the aircraft. The new airport, on the outside, is quite striking. On the inside it is steel gray - everything- and has the air of a medical research centre, or maybe a high-tech, ultra-modern prison block.
In Sydney, I was whisked through the efficient passport control area. My bag was waiting for me And then I got to customs. There too, queue control was well engineered, but then I got to the customs agent, a stout Fijian woman who made mild small talk about driver's license while laying all of my earthly possessions out on her stainless steel counter top and picking through them, asking me this and that - trying to figure out if my excursions to Afghanistan and Pakistan (well known for all kinds of things you should never mention in an airport or to a customs agent) were legitimate. In the end (sans strip-search, I was relieved to find) I was declared clean and quited the area.
So that's that. I'm at my host's house, I've had another cup of coffee and will sit down and watch a bit of cricket, perhaps.
I was looking around absently at one point and realized that right in front of me is a glass display of some festive lingerie. Around the top of the display reads the enigmatic phrase: "Discover Christmas at the Airport."
Christmas - I had pleasantly forgotten about its imminent commercial approach in Pakistan. Suddenly I emerge from the 4-mile long line at the intra-terminal security check and there are red things and tinsel and large posters announcing that it is now time to BUY!! because Christmas is coming. Starbucks is now red and green and peppermint and gingerbread syrups (the drinks they enhance, actually)emphasizedsised. And red thongs are on display with Christmas tree ornaments under halogen lights.
Outside the sun is setting through the London smog and lighting the vast side panels of the 747-400 located directly outside my window. I thought it was a mountain again and snapped a few.
Anyway. here I am, back in the "free world".
Yesterday I bought V. S. Naipaul's "Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey" written just after the Iranian revolution based on travels to 4 Moslem nations to try to understand the revolutionary aspect of Islam and what it is that unites (and divides) Moslems to create space for themselves in the world. A world that the "free world" wishes would smarten up, see the light, start consuming like civilized people and relegate religion to personal spirituality or simply dispense with it all together.
My week in Islamabad was perfect for debriefing after my two months in Gilgit (which, on reflection, appear as the blink of an eye). And a topic that came up more than once (almost in every significant conversation I had over the week) was: is it possible for development workers to see beyond their ethno-centric paradigm? In other words, is it possible for me to stop thinking of development (at a core, sub-conscious level) as "them" moving in my direction?
This dilemma was highlighted in conversation I had just last night with an American working on dispersing a huge amount of money from USAID to reconstruct heath care and educational facilities in three areas of Pakistan hardest hit by the October 05 earthquake. He recounted a conversation with a highly educated Pakistani working in Geneva. In Geneva, his children are getting a fine education in a local school. He realizes, that even at the ages of 10 and 12 they are learning to think much more critically than he did in all his years of post-secondary education in Pakistan. So he is reluctant to bring them back to Pakistan (though torn at the same time because he knows that they will likely be hard-pressed to return to Pakistan in the long run if they complete their secondary education in Switzerland). My American friend expressed dismay at the vast amount of human capital that is "going to waste" because of the deficient education system in Pakistan. And there our conversation came to an awkward pause. What do we say? What can be done? The scale of the problem is too large. The prospects for a solution seem grim. "They" will continue to suffer because they are not being educated like "us".
Now, I personally agree that a liberal education emphasizing critical thinking and analysis is extremely valuable. And I can see the disadvantages of an education based on rote and a command structure where the teacher is "above" the student and can't be questioned. But is the answer simply to export "our" system to Pakistan? My friend and I didn't assume this to be so. And it doesn't seem like many other answers are being suggested.
Development in Pakistan is ethno-centric, politically motivated, inefficiently distributed and makes only small differences to the vast majority of Pakistanis. Of course that's a blanket statement, made by disproportionately inexperienced person (me). But this appears to be so.
I could go on, but I realize this post is drawing out. Comment if you will. Again' I certainly donÂ't know the answers to these questions.
I took lunch on Friday with good friends at an old restaurant that continues to serve great northern Pakistani cuisine. I had chicken tikka, for the first time on this trip, together with another flatbread variety - rogani naan, thicker than ever with butter drizzled on top, lots of sesame seems. The air was grey and cool. The hills were green and close and coal smoke hung in the air. Leaves from stately trees carpet the vast grounds of the renowned Army Burn Hall School for Boys.
In the evening I met an old family friend. We walked in the chill night through twisting back lanes and suddenly, into the warmth of a cheery home with a gas heater burning and hot food waiting and Swedish peppering the air and conversation. Later we talked about Canada and what all this curfuffle is about regarding Quebec "as a nation within Canada" and then about how Swedes feel about how Fins feel about Sweden. Still later, I sat and chatted about holistic development, and then I turned off the heater in my room and lay under the covers in the dark listening to the night watchman whistle.
Back in Islamabad the clouds hang low. I meet a retired Brigadier (an old friend of old friends) for lunch. He has invited his nephew and we chat over decent food in a stodgy club.
Then I pack, say thanks to my hosts who are off for dinner, publish this post, turn off my computer, the last thing to pack and arrange a taxi for the morning.
Thanks for sticking with me thus far good readers.
More from Down Under.
Today I handed in my report, the culmination of the work I did in Gilgit. That felt good and right. A friend living in London suggested I celebrate "with a cold beer, or whatever is appropriate". What was very appropriate, and accessible today was hot chai and a samosa fresh out of the oil. The price was right as well, CAN$0.40 for the lot.
Then I hailed a taxi and rode back to my hosts' house reveling in the warm sunshine and the green. And trying not to breathe the smog.
I'm dashing up to my old hometown, the military and colonial Abbotabad tomorrow to visit family friends and then back down to Islamabad on Saturday for an early departure on Sunday morning.
I will attempt more summing up at a later date, but I will say now that I am entirely this trip was exactly the right thing for me to do at the right time in my life. The pace has been right. Time allotments in each place have been sufficient. And I expect that the last segment Down Under and will follow this pattern.