A frank story, part 6 ( Afghan cafes, home birthing.)
A Frank Story .
The job at the Rail shed lasted till contracting work started coming in from previous contacts and I gave notice. I had enjoyed the high and dangerous but well paid work but also looked forward to working at my own business. The art painting was now going to be done in a converted garage attached by a small passageway to the main house. There were numerous ways to break into becoming known as an artist by entering as many municipal art competitions as possible. I was getting older and at 36 had not a great deal of time left to ‘make it’. A neighbour opposite seemed to win many first art prizes and had managed to get written up about every now and then. Not so much in my case though! In any case, a period seemed to have arrived whereby I was making lots of canvas stretchers and resulted by me applying paints and colours. It was difficult to find an oeuvre or style that was mine. Looking back, I should perhaps have tried some other form of expressing myself but, as I discovered years later, the honesty required to face the reality of certain things did not come easy. The realisation that I might not have the creative talent in painting art was not contemplated at that time. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in self admiration and too cocky to face the fact of failure. Not yet.
I also started teaching at home in the lounge and dining room which were fairly big and which could be spilled out into the outside veranda as well. So, in between painting contracting and art painting with teaching, the years went by quickly. Soon all three children went to the same primary school at the back of our street just a minute away.
Of times past.
Even in those late seventies years there were still some of the original habitants surviving in that part of Inner West Sydney, having resisted all lucrative offers from salivating estate agents, out for a killing. In our street, there was such a couple, the timber cottage not even connected to electricity, always those brown lager bottles on the footpath together with a slurred but friendly ‘howz’ee going matey, when walking past. She was bone skinny, always in cotton skirt and with thongs on gnarled feet, summer or winter. I was taking down the old rotten picket fence facing the street and had the footpath littered with those old timber slats with rusty nails sticking out. She happened to come down, a bit sloshed and keen for a yarn. She stepped on one of those bits of wood with upturned nail which impaled her thonged foot. I helped her away from the pile and wrenched the nailed bit away from her foot and went inside to get some iodine. She said, “I didn’t feel anything matey’, ‘don’t you worry the fucking mozzies for nuthin, she said.
She died well before him. Years later he was still going strong and seen, unperturbed by the “Johnys come lately’, rifling through all the Council litter bins in front of Woollies, the Town-hall, Cop-shop and parks. When he finally went to Rookwood Cemetery, the freestanding cottage was derelict and in the kitchen there was a kerosene cooker and stacks of Play Boys. That cottage sold for a fortune.
In the same street but opposite, lived a man and a woman. She an artist, he an artist by exterior only. You know the type, totally esoteric in giving answers to even the simplest question. Unable to straight talk and everything imbued with a deep meaning but totally away from comprehension. He was on his third marriage and happily ignored his kids from previous encounters but always ready to criticise the terrible ‘middle classes’. His latest wife was pregnant and ready to ‘unpack’ the baby. Both were ardent believers in the alternative world of Bach remedies and early morning Chakras aligning themselves to magic columns and circles. The birth was going to be a ‘home under water birth’ in the garden and after baby just born but still attached to umbilical cord, would be kept under water for the first five minutes of his or her life. This was all part of the essential but incomprehensible deeper involvement of mysticism and very Sufism related multiple and opposite meanings.
The whole street would be kept informed and noise be kept to a minimum. The husband had rigged up an old cast iron bath with an empty 40 gallon drum elevated on bricks with a wood fire underneath next to the bath, and our old above ground pool pump would be circulating warm water from drum to the bath. The time had arrived and being mid winter the fire under the drum was kept up with a never ending supply of old timber remnants from renovations that seemed to be going on all year around everywhere.
Majestically and totally very hirsute, the huge form of the wife appeared. We had front stall looks from the upper storey of our house direct into their garden across the road. She plunged into the bath, ready for the delivery of this sub-marine baby. The moaning started and the husband was flat out stoking the fire and holding the wife submerged. The pump was revving at fever pitch circulating the water that was getting so hot at one stage that the wife had to get out letting things cool down a bit. In the meantime, the husband in an act of supreme solidarity, (his astral travel the night before had taken him to powerful and hitherto unknown regions) stripped off and stepped in the bath behind his wife. Both squatted down and he held her from behind, shouting ‘push, push’, you bitch, push!
She now had much less space and was holding her legs up in the air above the bath but also sometimes against the rim to help the pushing and straining. The screaming increased in intensity and volume, the timbre of her voice not unlike a badly tuned hurdy gurdy being played in a tiled underground rail tunnel in Moscow. Our kids and their friends were hanging out of the windows and still no sign of the underwater miracle. The dogs were howling and barking in tune with the screaming wife. This went on for a few hours with both getting in and out of the bath, adjusting the temperature and fire. Some of the neighbours were shrugging their shoulders and others voicing disapproval. Not a baby in sight and the crowds started dissipating. Out of the blue, a siren was getting closer and closer. An ambulance appeared, a stretcher was produced and the poor woman dripping and with skin like a plucked chicken was without further ado strapped in and carried to the ambulance. The husband still starkers standing on the road near the ambulance, with hanging testicles like walnuts in a sock, was muttering incantations, but the baby was delivered at the hospital, a little girl.
Up until this day no one ever found out who called the ambulance. I am still wondering myself!
During those turbulent years when it seemed there would never come a time whereby the jackhammers and air compressors would finally be silenced during the Inner West Renovation Revolution, roughly between1968-1996. Yet, and out of the blue, there was a period of eerie quietness coming from next door. We managed to get a couple of neighbours, highly respectable journalists, who were not only quiet and disinterested in extending bathrooms or bedrooms, they also never seemed to talk to each other, never uttered a sound. The only time we were annoyed was at 4am each morning when loud music would be put on. It was a commercial station with lots of washing powder jingles. Our house was solid but did have a section joined onto theirs. Our bedroom shared a common wall but of solid sandstone. The radio started to rattle me and subsequent to holding out for a few weeks, (for the sake of good neighbourly manners) I asked for the radio to be turned down or preferably switched off. The request remained unheeded. With rising anger, reaching the stage I would now wake up at 3.45 am, in anticipation, I rushed out with murder intentions having grown fatter. I banged on the door. She opened and I announced; if you don’t fucking well switch of the radio I will fucking well ram it down your throat. Not a single note, ever. Total silence, almost!
One morning, at a decent time, a shrill voice from next door; Oh my god, I’ve got jelly all over me, oh no, no! Male voice; it is normal; it is normal, take a shower. Woman’s voice; No it is not, I was sleeping, go to Hospital; go to see the doctor, you bastard. You sicken me.
My guilt went into automatic. Is this why the radio was always on so loud, hiding sounds of healthy domesticity? Would it have made a difference if a classical music station was being played?
It was after the ‘jelly all over’ couple had moved out that a couple with a child moved in next door. They were very nice but did decide to have an in-ground pool and extension to veranda being built. The in-ground was in-rock, and the jackhammers were feasting on it for months. Finally, they ceased and water filled the pool. With the pool and the very large veranda eating almost into our lounge room space, the couple decided to have a friend’s wedding at their place. I suppose, it was also a way of showing off, with pride, the glory of their renovated and extended house.
The wedding would be day time and scaffolding with planking was erected over the pool and bride and groom would be joined in matrimony above water. Next door, on the other side there was a very large and high timber house of many stories and balconies. It was a perennial construction in progress with entire floors or verandas being added at the owner’s whim. The architect owner had a loose arrangement of many people living there, including students, musicians and others with undefinable aims or jobs. It could almost be seen as a neo Haight-Ashbury commune of The Inner West. It was totally predictable that the wedding would be overlooked by the hordes of marriage sceptics next door and it was. The architect owner, the essence of Aussie larrikin, in torn shorts and underpants bulging out on one side, shouting friendly greetings and best wishes to the couple to be married right underneath. Others joined in but with disparaging remarks such as ‘the best of luck’ or ‘you’ll be sinking it to-night’. All in all, it subdued the dignity of the occasion, lowered the standards a bit. The best was yet to come!
The evening was going to be the giving away of the bride with the bridal dance and then the white limousine with chauffeur would take the wedded couple to their honey moon abode in Terrigal. We were told that Spanish maids would be doing the serving of drinks and food. My brother who lived next door to the architect’s place had twin sons into their teen years. Being close to Sydney’s harbour foreshore and so many already doing the composting of scraps, there was an overabundance of rats which were often seen scurrying from bin to bin. One such rat had died and been lying around for a couple of days. The brother’s twins had decided to exercise balance and ingenuity by tying the rat with a piece of string to the end of a large bamboo stick. The architect’s house had a small forest of very high bamboo growing wild. The sound of the bamboo brushing up against each other during windy weather made a lovely sound. Anyway, the rat on a string at the end of this long stick was attached to the entrance gate of where the wedding evening was getting in full stride. The stick with rat hanging was cantilevered in such a way that whenever the gate was opened, a string that was tied over the back of a tree would raise the stick with the dead rat at the end in full view of the arriving quests. The quests did not want to spoil the trouble that the host had gone through and no one mentioned this strange welcome when going through the gate. It was only after the bride and groom were taken to their limousine that the rat popped up for its last time. My brother’s sons were immediately suspected and confessed after some questioning the next day.
Our friendly next door neighbour mentioned the rat debacle to me and I answered with a very insipid,’ oh you mean that rat, the one that has been lying around for a couple of days’. As if?
Above neighbour’s dining-table.
Our son who at the age of fourteen or so had befriended Ronald, a boy from his school who had been born disabled, his mother had used thalidomide during pregnancy, had some difficulties but had invented many ways in making the best of his less than perfect abilities. He could open doors and un-lock locks with his mouth and his strong jaws and teeth would see him turning keys or hold pen to write. He could climb stairs by wedging himself against the wall and ascend and descent sideways, taking a step at a time. Our son’s bedroom was upstairs and they both enjoyed playing those first computer games on the Commodore 64. Or was it the later 124 model? In any case, once his friend was upstairs they would stay for some time, enjoy themselves and when his friend Ronnie came down, which was a bit of a struggle, he would go home. I sometimes felt they were also trying out smoking dope which we were a bit apprehensive about and I spoke to his mother who was single. She knew about the use of dope and was reasonably tolerant about it, more tolerant than I was. She said his life is not easy growing up, and implied subtly that perhaps a bit of marihuana use could be seen as easing the burden of his lack of whole arms and legs. Our son Nick and Ronnie remained friends for the whole of their high-school years and when his mum decided to move to Perth they kept up corresponding still for some time.
But, going back to the earlier times, with Nick and Ronnie spending times upstairs playing computer games and listening to music, with smoking dope given the benefit of the doubt, to ease our parental concerns, there happened another one of those amusing if not poignant moments that seemed to connect renovating and having neighbours in close proximity of the magical Inner West of Sydney during that time. We had lived since our return from Holland since 1976 at the same address and while we had done very little to our house, this was not so concerning neighbours houses. Next door, no matter what renovations had transpired, as soon as it was sold the next lot would bang things down, different kitchens, more bathrooms or larger decks.
There was a steady log of objections being lodged with Council, with the inevitable stream of Councillors and Aldermen strolling through our house to observe projected shadows or overhanging rafters and eaves, even possible stormwater run offs through our bedroom. No matter how much or how many objections were lodged, not once were we successful in getting a reprieve from jackhammers and nail-guns. This was one of the reasons why we threw in the towel and retired to our over hundred acre glorious farm in 1996 with not a jackhammer within cooee ever since.
During one of the many renovations, I’ve forgotten the exact couple, perhaps the ‘jelly all over’ neighbours, put a large sky-light in above their dining room ceiling. We objected in vain, pointing out that the sky-light was directly below the window of our son’s bedroom upstairs. If, for one reason or another, (fire perhaps?) the stairs could not be used for an escape route, he could at least get out through his window onto the single storey roof about one metre below it. The new sky-light might not carry his weight either! The sky-light would also enable us to look straight into their dining room. The objections were over ruled when the neighbours changed the material to laminate and opaque but letting light-through polymer. Of course, the house was sold soon after. We sometimes saw the new neighbours at the dining table from Nick’s room, but apart from seeing arms scooping up food onto dishes or perhaps someone gesticulating while talking, the details were foggy and unfocussed. I had trouble even distinguishing between the sexes. It was as if looking through a cloudy milk-bottle bottom. Decades earlier and in Holland we would sometimes use these milk bottle bottoms as a primitive lens and focus the sun’s light on a shoelace until it started smouldering and then stink teacher Kohler’s class-room out.
Anyway, the new couple had just about gotten over the jeering neighbours on the other side during the above pool wedding, with the suspended rat during the bridal waltz evening, and just when we were getting on a bit more neighbourly: she had even returned our prized hugely expensive French enamelled baking dish with lid, when the next drama occurred. Ronnie had visited our son again and the age had arrived where the Commodore computer games and listening to music with the occasional bong, was now being enhanced by some beer consumption as well. Ronnie was amazingly deft with lifting his full glass with his strong teeth and with his shortened arm and splayed two fingered hand, heave it up and drink like the best of us. They were having a good time upstairs and even though the evening had arrived, it was still light.
It was about 7 o’clock pm when there was an almighty banging on the door. It was her, the neighbour of the ‘above the pool wedding and Spanish maids’, with a complaint; while having dinner at the table with friends, someone had been pissing and urinating on their roof, on THEIR skylight. She said she at first could not believe it, but when she and all the guests looked up, it was agreed by all that it was definitely not water; it was yellow! It was yellow, she repeated. Almost as if she was forestalling another objection by us to Council.
I immediately went upstairs to investigate about yellow liquid but had already guessed what had transpired. Ronnie found it far more logical, if not extremely convenient as well, to use the open window to piss out to his heart’s content. The struggle for him to go downstairs would have taken too much time, and the urge was so instant. Ronnie was so sorry and said he would apologize. He struggled downstairs to our neighbour lady with the previous hanging dead rat experience. When she saw him hobbling down the stairs on his stick legs, she instantly also recognized what might have occurred.
She was more apologetic than he was. She did not go as far as saying; “Oh well, any time; just feel free, please, go ahead, whenever”! Even so, they moved the dining table away from underneath the sky-light. Just in case.
It was during those skyrocketing Real Estate increases in the Inner West of Sydney that many small industries were being squeezed out. This was a pity, because those small industries had made the area so liveable. The combination of being able to work in the very area where one was living was one of the reasons that the Inner Western Suburbs were so popular, not just a stone throw from Sydney, but also just a stroll away to work. This combination of work and living became totally lost when the sub-divisions in outer areas overtook common sense and planning. Now people spend hours to get to work and suburbia sprawl has become a very hostile and spiritually dehydrated area in which to spend once life in.
On our street and at the very end of it, facing the harbour was a small company called Harry West. They had been there for decades and specialised in sail making and other activities connected to boating and sailing. There was also a slipway where medium sized boats and yachts would be ‘slipped’ and de-fouled of barnacles and recoated with anti-fouling paints. They employed about thirty or forty people in its hay-day with perhaps 20 still employed when we were living there, just a bit higher up from them. Every morning and every afternoon we would watch those workers walking past our house to and from work. Our kids got to know some of them and were often allowed to enter the factory and see the workings of sail making in progress. There were many of those enterprises around Sydney’s harbour foreshores but their numbers were shrinking.
On the other side of Harry West at the end of the dead end street where we were living were a few acres of disused harbour foreshore land which had, through blissful neglect by its owners, become a children’s paradise. They called it ‘the Cane fields’. It had patches of very tall cane type grasses growing which was ideal for cubby houses and hiding places. By dinner time, all one had to do was stroll down and call out and soon kids heads would be popping up from between the reeds of cane. Once, coming back from a week’s camping down the coast, we noticed our house had been entered by someone, not immediately, but later on when going to bed, I shouted to my wife ‘ why did you take the donah away?’ I didn’t, she said. All the kid’s beds were without donahs as well. Yet, the glass jars filled with coins or anything else of value had not been taken, just only the donahs. The police were called and scratched their heads, could not make anything out of it. These donahs had been bought in Holland and made in Norway from 100% eider down. Expensive, but very warm in winter and yet not sweaty in summer, the ideal bed covers for insomniacs like me. We could only think of someone in need of sleeping out rough or a vagrant that would just take bedding and yet not money. The first thing we did was search all the cubbies in the Cane fields, but even though we found bits and ends of blankets and rags, no donahs. The mystery was never solved. How did the thief know we had those Norwegian donahs? Was it a close friend or family member, who knows?
It was a few years later, when our kids had grown past ‘cubby’ house phases that new and young families with younger kids had moved into our street, that the advantage of the Cane fields was continued. But not for long. It was noticed that dark suited men wearing sinister sun glasses had driven down in BMW’s and been seen spreading maps out on rocks and pointing with a wave of their arms to the expansive water views, then shaking hands followed by demonic laughter. Was the end of the Cane fields in sight? It did not take long and the dreaded letter with Councils envelope arrived with plans for a sub-division of the Cane fields into numerous small blocks. Right in the middle would be a bitumen driveway with allotments on both sides. With no thoroughfare to exit elsewhere it meant extra traffic up and down a very narrow street. The land, apart from the bushes of cane and a profusion of weeds also had the remnants of a maritime past. There was a huge ship’s propeller and steel cabling, square timber logs, a heap of anchors and a mountain of metal cleats. The best part of the Cane fields was its magic smell of industrial harbour, the lovely smell of tarred ropes and at low tide the rusted bodies of mangled bows that still were still telling stories.
The objections by residents were many and very vocal. Some had access to media and soon the TV cameras began to roll. Of course, every possible angle was exploited and crying children were thrust in front telling how they played in the canes and mothers weeping about losing a valuable children’s park and playground. Indeed, the creative future of entire generation of youth would be risked if the subdivision would be allowed to go ahead. Then, at 7pm the commercial channels would be switched on to see whose child or mother would appear on Telly and phone calls made, ‘did you see me on TV? Yes, ‘you were good’, ‘I am sure your protest will help stop the project.’ The protests grew louder but when the developer ceded the last ten metres along the water facing the harbour as public open space, Council approved.
Soon the bulldozers arrived and in a single hour, decades of magic and history in children’s adventures was growled and grunted away with the might of the dozer’s blade. A puff of blue diesel and that was it. The cane all ploughed and churned to death.
Bitches of Milk bar& Afghan Cafe.
The demise of the cane fields also coincided with the closing of an old milk-bar cum sandwich shop run by a couple of old biddies from hell. They were sisters and husbands were rumoured to have either shot through or perished in Belgium being shot. At the same times there was also the start of a unique cafe/ restaurant called ‘The Afghan Cafe’ a bit further down the road. The Inner West lived in hope!
The ‘old biddies from hell’ milk-bar was just around the corner from where the primary school was situated in East Balmain. It dated from pre-war, either the first 1914-1918 or the second 1940-1945. It would not have mattered, the service was the same as that Sunday arrival at Fremantle 1956, when all those dapper migrants in suits and white shirts sauntered off-board to get their first taste of Australia after the long five week ship journey from Europe. To be seen as helpful was grovelling to the Gov’nr and those old shop’s milk-bar traditions such as the one my dad tried to buy lamingtons from in Fremantle 1956 had passed on their sullen services across the Nullarbor and survived well into the 1980’s at East Balmain. To enter the shop for a packet of ciggies was risky and such a downer, that the only rightful response was to immediately light up in the shop and blow the first lungful towards the old hag and make a run for it.
The kids who had no option but to sometimes order the school lunch there soon also learned to give as much as they were receiving. The shop and its owners showed their contempt for kids and adults by selling the minimum of goods and with such vehement reluctance, that only the foolhardy and the most determined would enter. They refused to display what they were selling. The shopwindow’s only items on display were a yellowed packet of Bex powders and a Camel cigarettes poster with goggled US fighter pilots lighting up, stuck on a piece of ancient vitrage hanging there to obscure any view into the shop… The flies were old and spiders spun webs to keep a balance between the different species but would prefer only the freshest and largest. Inside the glass counter with chrome edges and sloping menacingly towards the customer, there were live flies (but no webs) zooming in onto lamingtons and custard tarts sprinkled with cinnamon. One of the old girls was doubled over with osteoporosis; the other one in charge of sandwich making, had a permanent dripping nose which she kept on wiping on her left arm which was inside a raglan sleeved cardigan, while taking the Edgell pre-sliced beetroot out of its tin and placing it with gnarled fingers onto the pre-buttered Tiptop.
The relationship between schoolkids, customers and shop owners was symbiotic but that’s all, nothing more, nothing less. This is why the business was stagnant and had been for many, many years. They each accepted the exchange of money for the goods as an almost necessary evil. Our neighbours’ daughter told the old ladies to get fucked and was hence banned. There were standards to uphold. The owners of the shop were totally unconcerned though. Sick as!
The Afghan Cafe was the opposite. She was beautiful and could be seen above her counter at the back of her small cafe, in the semi darkness of a cosily lit up area. She was Afghan, dark skinned with large kohl eyes which would look out and scan the passing scene for possible customers, or possible future husband. It was situated on a very busy street but away from the main shopping centre. We were told by a friend of a friend that her brother had put her there in the business to earn some money and hopefully also find a suitable partner. At the time, around the late eighties the only connection to Afghanistan were the thousands of Afghan camels roaming the North and North West of Australia as a result of those early goods and telegraph services between Southern Australia and Northern territory by camel trains led by their Afghan camel drivers. We knew of course that the development of outback Australia would have been very difficult if not impossible if not for those early Afghans coming to Australia as early as the 1830’s.
Whatever the motive, the beautiful eyed single Afghan lady sat in this restaurant cafe from late afternoon till the last of the customers would leave. The restaurant’s fare was supposed to be Afghan dishes. They were always tasty but not too spicy, more sweetish than chilli with raisins and dates, much use of lemon juice and yoghurt. The cafe/ restaurant was small and seated perhaps not much more than twelve or fifteen people. We loved going there and then all of a sudden it was closed and it became a laundry. She would have found a partner. This is what we all thought and hoped. She was too beautiful to be sitting there forever. Or did she go back to Afghanistan?
To Market, to market.
Another memorable aspect of those times in The Inner West was the markets in church yards on each Saturday. They are still going but many have now turned into new goods markets, mainly selling cheap trinkets, Chinese socks and aluminium sauce pan with anodized pink lids. The best part of the ’old’ markets were the food stalls. We knew a couple that used to live near us but had moved to somewhere far away. He was a steady husband but seemed more interested in jazz than earn money to keep family. She was German and the pillar of that family. Then, as mysteriously they had disappeared they turned up as stall holders of organic fruit and vegetables. They had become vegetarians but on many occasions I had seen him slip away from his greens and leave the wife to man the stall and he would be munching on a meaty Chinese spring roll.
Years earlier, when they were still living in the Inner West, the wife had taken on the franchise of organic cosmetics. It was supposed to have been made from mink oil and was credited with having miraculous properties and healing powers. She was struggling but forever optimistic hoping to keep their house and family together while he would be glued to the radio, listening to jazz. He claimed to be a trumpet player but no one had actually ever heard him play.
Anyway, a mink oil party was arranged at someone’s place on the waterfront and the host was kind enough to cater and provide coffee, cool drinks. The evening proceeded well and the different mink oil products were displayed at the front on trestle table with a nice table cloth. The wife took the stand and started explaining the benefits of the products and some clients of her who had already purchased the products were in agreement that it had helped them obtain better skins. Blemishes had disappeared and they even felt better.
The magic of the mink animal and its well known healing properties throughout the centuries were touched upon, when out of the blue another German, a man this time, got up to say that his wife had tried it and her skin had broken out in rashes. The product was expensive and he felt it was a waste of money!
The evening turned sour and the seller of the products was seen to cry and wipe tears. She did so much her best to make things work out. The cruel fate and general difficulties tipped the bucket over. Soon after, they disappeared from the scene, only to pop up as organic fruit and vegies sellers at the Saturday markets years later. One of their sons must have inherited some of the perceived trumpet skills of his father from mouth to fingers as he played the violin extremely well. He had become a very confident boy and earned good money busking in front of the church were the markets were being held.
At one stage, we had stalls as well and sold like hot cakes garments that we had made in Holland from pure New Zealand wool on our knitting machine. I had taken a liking to the swishing backwards and forwards on the knitting machine and would turn out tops or bottoms within an hour or so. You bought the pattern and added or reduced stiches manually and then followed the instruction on the number of rows to be knitted. It was easy, and any fool could do it. The stall selling our kids used clothing and other bits and pieces were followed by an attempt at selling food, chicken sate with rice and a spicy peanut sauce done on a portable gas stove. The evening before I would marinate the cubed chicken fillet pieces in a mixture of soy sauce and lemon juice with some chilli and sugar added as well. The chicken would then be put on genuine bamboo skewers ready to be cooked. The peanut sauce was home made by frying some crunchy peanut butter into some oil and adding cream of coconut, sugar, salt and chilli. The rice would be boiled on the spot together with the barbequing of the chicken skewers. The rice, chicken and sauce would be garnished with freshly chopped coriander.
The first Saturday I was flat out and people came for seconds, some even commenting on how lovely it all tasted. The next Saturday, the queue was ready as the word had got around; Gerard’s sate with peanut sauce is great! I sold out within a couple of hours, but luckily the overflow of customers was soaked up by the Indian curry man. The husband of the vegetarian couple, (previous mink oil merchants) bought two lots of my sate chicken but refrained from looking me in the eye. I was tempted to ask details about his trumpet playing but refrained from doing so.
The third week was even better, but as we had discovered, the Saturdays were now spent squatting down on our haunches and cooking raw chicken. The Friday night we were cubing chicken and skewering them. There is a peculiar smell to raw chicken that became somewhat repugnant especially when it came to bed with us. We both smelt of raw chicken and the children also were sniffing us out. It even went so far as them saying; don’t tell my friends you are selling chicken at the market. All in all, markets are very enjoyable when being an observer or a buyer but not when selling, especially not when one is a reluctant chicken seller. I mean, it’s not as if I would go around the market place shouting “chicken here, come and get Gerard’s sate here, come and get it”. The commercial salesman gene was sadly lacking.
It was a few years later that, out of the blue, we decided to travel again and we caught the plane to Buenos Aires via New Zealand sometime during the Easter period of 1991. We felt safe to let our kids go without us for a while. The youngest, our son was now sixteen and our eldest twenty. We would only be gone for 21 days and had hand-stitched money belts stuffed with US dollars for use in Argentina and Chile, the maximum amount that one could legally take with you. Those cotton money belts had an elastic waistband and a Velcro slip as lid, keeping the money safe, unable to escape. A month or so before I listened to a radio interview of an experienced world traveller. The only way to travel, he had stated, is to travel as light as possible. This expert traveller never travelled with more that what he could stow in the overhead luggage compartment on the plane. In other words, he never had more than a shoulder-bag or satchel. He never had to wait at those carrousels for luggage to appear, nor, of course, could he loose his luggage in transit.
I suggested that we could also travel light, follow the advice of the intransient travel expert, and try going without those burdensome suitcases. We figured that if an item of clothing was required we would simply buy it. So, with a shoulder-bag each (but with many compartments within) and money belts secure around waists and inconspicuous, we had, after a short night flight over the Antarctica, landed at Buenos Aires in the afternoon. While standing in the aeroplane waiting for the queue to move on and out, I mentioned to a man I had briefly spoken with on the plane, whether he knew a reasonable place to stay at in Buenos Aires. He worked as a sheep and wool trader and had lived on and off in South America. Sure, he said. There is a reasonable hotel right in the middle of the city on Avenida Paraguay, called The Diplomat. Try and go as high as possible was his sanguine advice. If you have trouble, phone my office and secretary will find you something, he added. A friendly Kiwi.
After the taxi for $ 1.-unloaded us at the ‘Diplomat’ we booked in for a very reasonable rate on the 9th floor. We had a clean room with comfy bed, bathroom and towels, what more could one want?
Prior to our trip we were told that in Chile with Pinochet in power that it would be wise to avoid demonstrations or join crowds. Argentina was safer but also affected by the politics of the day. In Buenos Aires the hyper inflation of that time meant that US dollars were the preferred currency. The inflation rate at that time was close to 400% and the local currency reflected that. This is why we followed the advice and took with us American Dollars in different denominations. The Yankee dollar looks all the same no matter what denomination, very tricky to get used to. At the time we were there, the taxi would simply charge $ 1-. – No matter what the destination. Coffee $0.50c, Meals $4. – . A beer for $1. – All the major attractions are within walking distance. The advantage of people living close together certainly showed up in that city. The amazing thing was that everyone just seemed to spend time in coffee and restaurant places. From morning till late at night, the whole of the 11.000.000 million population of that city seemed to live in cafes or restaurants. The city proper has 13800 people living per square kilometre. The cemetery of La Recoleta was not far and a must for any visitor, as is of course, the Tango district at La Bocca with their brightly painted houses.
Just before getting to La Bocca district a few neatly dressed people were kind of strolling about when suddenly one of them tapped me on the shoulder and pointed upwards, some children he said. I looked up but did not see any kids hanging from windows. Your coat; he said, mustard on your coat. Ah, I realised I was ripe for the old ‘mustard trick’. They get you to take of coat with the pretence of cleaning the mustard from the back of your coat but of course make a run for it as soon as you take it off and hand it to them. Every travel book worth its salt will describe in great details the ‘mustard trick’. In Djakarta Indonesia there is supposed to be a different version, an old lady will all of a sudden fall down in front of you, as you bend down to offer assistance you will find that when getting up, you have been fleeced. Of course, those tricks are now conjured up almost anywhere. Even in Sydney, while we were in the garden, all doors open, a man calmly walked in, went straight to the bedroom and took my wife’s wallet, and walked out again. I chased him but he was running with running shoes and I bare-footed.
In Buenos Aires the Thursdays Mothers are still there each Thursday with their placards and photos of their missing sons and husbands. If heartstring were plucked at, while attending the Anzac Day Parade or the vigil at 5am in Martin Place Sydney, nothing prepared me for the experience of the Mothers at the Plaza De Mayo on that Thursday when we visited. They stood there with their placards taking shifts with other mothers and wives wanting answers about the sons and husbands, part of the ‘desaparacedos’ during the era of anti-communist reigning President of Leopoldo Galtieiri. He was preceded by Carlos Lacosta, another anti communist. It is claimed about 30 000 people disappeared during those anti-communist purges by the military Governments of the two Presidents. The women stand there quietly, holding photos of loved ones, right in front of Casa Rosada the Presidential Palace, year in year out!
The planned visit to Santiago Chile was to be done with a combination of trains and buses. The train tickets were bought when the whole transport system went on strike. We changed tack and booked a flight to Mendoza via Cordoba. After landing at Mendoza we booked a bus to take us across the Andes via bus to Santiago two days later. Mendoza is at the very centre of Argentina’s wine growing district. A lovely town, with water coming down from The Andean mountains rushing willy nilly through the town at unexpected places.
But like Buenos Aires, everyone seems to meet in cafes and like B A, no one starts even thinking of eating out before 9pm. We noticed that, not only does everyone sit in a cafe early each morning before going to work; they don’t dine till well after 9pm. I don’t know when they sleep. Perhaps with all the excitement, not much sleep is needed, or, they don’t all go out all the time or perhaps it just seems like that and the outgoing is staggered somewhat. In any case, social intercourse and interactions with each other is of the highest order in both Argentina and Chile. It was rare not to hear people talk to each other. No matter day or night, you would always hear voices somewhere. Another fascinating difference between the Latinas and Aussie girls is the way they dress. Nothing casual for the population of Latin America and certainly no tracksuit pants. The girls especially were always immaculately groomed and dressed. The washing lines strung up everywhere were not often empty. The males were just as particular and it would be a poor man indeed if they could not afford to have their shoes shined as well.
One memory of Mendoza was the meal out in a restaurant where we had ordered chicken dishes. The meal arrived when we noticed some commotion at the back with lots of men staring at a television, it turned out a porn movie was being watched. The chicken dish was superb and we had a bottle of fine wine with it. The wine industry in Argentina is huge, with the white grape mainly for Chardonnay, the red for Malbec and the pink-skinned grapes for the cheaper varieties and grape concentrates. Some of the very early sixteenth century wineries started by the Jesuit missionaries are still going at the Andean foothills. The descendant of these early grape vines are used today to produce the Criolla grape, the country’s staple grape.
After two days we caught the bus to Santiago in Chile. The taking of a bus in Latin America is the most common form of public transport. The bus stations are huge with dozens of buses coming and going at any given time. The bus that we had booked was full with a mixture of young and old. We had already seen a glimpse of the snow covered mountains at Mendoza and were looking forward to the trip. The distance is about four hundred kilometres and takes about 6 hours depending on conditions. We had been told that at times there could be a landslide or a hold up by a car accident. The route is very scenic and the road going through some hair-bends with steep ravines alternating from side to side of the bus, that Helvi preferred not to look at too much. Often she would push against me when the ravine was on her side. The view sometimes included the carcases of buses and cars that had tumbled down hundreds of meters. It also included lengths of rail tracks alongside the road that had boulders across them the size of houses.
But the scenery was outstanding and soon we entered above the snow line but with the roads being cleared of snow and ice we felt quite safe. As we were getting closer to the border of Chile I noticed lots of food lying along the road. Chunks of water melon, fruit even bits of loaves of bread and other edibles. Apparently, the taking of any food across the Andean mountains into Chile was strictly forbidden and we were given a paper to sign in the bus that we had no foodstuffs on us.
All of a sudden the bus stopped and the driver stood up and gave a little speech, there were some smiles and nods of approval and understanding. Helvi’s Spanish was not that good that we could make out what the issue was, but from the smiles and good humour of our fellow travellers we felt that something was going to happen with the customs at the border. We were right. Two large bags were opened by the driver and to our surprise everyone started putting on leather jackets that came from those bags that were now being handed around to everyone in the bus, men and women alike. Old or young, it did not matter. Soon the bus was on its way again and after a couple of kilometres we stopped again and proceeded to exit the bus for food inspection by custom officers. All luggage was to be put on planks supported by trestles and everybody was kept well away from it during inspection. There we stood, all in leather coats, nice and warm; we were at a very high altitude in thin air and with temperature well below zero. Short women with sleaves going well past their hands and the coats reaching to their knees, no one blinked and eyelid. The inspection was thorough and a few salamis were confiscated from passengers that might have thought they could get away with it. The inspection of buses is random, so…Take the risk and face the consequences, as they say. They must have known about the leather jackets smuggling. Heaven knows, perhaps there was a cosy relationship between bus drivers and custom officers? The bus would have smuggled at least sixty fine leather coats just in one trip, a good little earner along the way. Isn’t it? Argentina is not only known for fine wine but also for good leather!
Of course, it would be a brave soul that would omit to mention ‘steak’. Steaks and eating them has been elevated to an art form in Argentina as nowhere else. Restaurants and widows facing the street have entire cows stretched and skewered circulating around glowing heaps of charcoal. No one can claim to have eaten quality beef unless they have eaten in an Argentinean steak restaurant. ‘Bife de Chorizo’, grilled around a good fire to your requirements, straight from the side of the cow and all for a reasonable prize in a restaurant with hundreds doing the same is an experience you would not want to miss, unless you are a vegetarian.
After arrival at the bus station in Santiago we took a taxi and just asked driver to take us to a reasonable place to stay for a week or so. We had a travel guide with us and showed him a few addresses but he seemed to think they had all turned into brothels, he kept saying, non ‘puta casa, puta casa.’ It seemed odd that since publication of cheap stays in Chile that, according to this driver, all the recommendations had all turned into brothels. He kept emphasizing the fact of ‘puta casa’ with his finger grinding backwards and forwards inside his hand and shaking his head disapprovingly. He was truly exercising his form of Esperanto perhaps?
He finally dropped us off at a rather imposing double storey house not far from the centre and introduced us to the owner. He was happy to let a room with bath and shower above it, also an old BW television, all included for US $30. – a night. Well, we were happy with it and not a whiff or sign of anything’ puta casa’ about it. The taxi driver and owner seemed to know each other. Perhaps the prevalence of brothels was a bit of a put on job by him and he thought he could put us up at the acquaintance and perhaps get a bit of a sling out of it. Perhaps it was just an extension of ‘leather-coat smuggling’ schemes.
We immediately set forth and walked towards the city and had a coffee and obligatory ‘media Luna’, which is kind of sweet bread or heavier type of croissant. We were somewhat disconcerted to find men with machine guns standing here and there at corners but we liked the feel of the place, and like Buenos Aires, there were people about and crowds, excitement and being Easter most were on holidays. The Augusto Pinochet’s era of the Military Dictatorship, which had only ended the previous year was a period of initial economic reform with the privatisation of public utilities, but when the differences between rich and poor became too much, inequality spilled over into outbreaks of riots and the brutal suppression that followed with scores of people picked up by the military and vanishing without a trace, severely tainted the image of Pinochet. While we were there he was still commander in Chief of the Chilean army. At the time of his death in 2006, there were still three hundred criminal charges against him including embezzlement, tax evasion and torture, assassination, forced disappearance etc. While we were there, the evenings were somewhat scary. We were on a stroll and came upon a street of stall holders selling all sorts of items, when suddenly, like an electric shock, everyone quickly picked up their goods and run for it. Within a minute tanks were racing through the street and we all scattered. The shopkeepers all of a sudden pulled down metal shutters and all lights were switched off. We had trouble finding out guest house as everything looked different. The city had boarded up and people had vanished. On the walk to our room, soldiers with machine guns looked at us, but, we supposed being a bit elderly might have given us some leeway in not being questioned.
When we finally arrived, the house was locked and no light. It took some banging on the door to be let in. The man, who we noticed drove an expensive four wheel van, was grumpy and did not want to explain what all the commotion was about. We figured that the upheaval was an example of how quickly things can change in countries with unstable governments and a volatile population. Both Argentina and Chile had some turbulent periods behind them. The Falkland war had not endeared the British to the Argentineans and we were at pains to let it be known we were Dutch and Finnish. I still remember years later in 1995 when Princess Diana visited Buenos Aires and a woman who had lost her son on the boat The Belgrano that the British Navy sank, calling out to her,’ puta, puta.’ (Whore)Princess Diana, who did not speak Spanish, kept on smiling, saying, thank you, yes please and uttered the usual British pleasantries and kept on her walk. Some carried placards, ‘Diana go home.’ The sinking of the Belgrano caused the loss of 323 Argentineans. Total number of lives lost was 649. No wonder, grieving mothers had it in for Diana. All over some small Islands that should have been handed to Argentina years ago. They are in their neck of the woods, aren’t they?
Next morning when we walked down stairs to go to town, we noticed that the blackboard with the names of quests on it had the Oosterman name joined to $US 30. – EACH. No big deal, but our image of ‘friendly and hospitable Chileans,’ as described by the Lonely Planet travel book needed a bit of adjusting and tune-up. The machine guns one can put down to the vagaries of politics and Latino passions with fondness for blood and tango all at the same time, but the calm doubling of an agreed rate was something a bit different. We finally agreed to just put the incident down to the owners being sour- puss Margaret Thatcher loving pro Pinochet’s, probably rich people who extorted the poor for years and now felt threatened by the upcoming ‘left’ movement of Chile. We had the most threadbare of towels the size of hankies, we asked for normal towels and were charged $US 5. – EACH again.
The next phase of our journey was a bus to Valparaiso and visit the Vina del Mar beach resort area. The Vina del Mar has been the place to be seen by the rich and famous, not just the Santiaguinos but also the rich Germans, Japanese or Australians. We just spent a day there walking around and had a lovely seafood meal at the Renaca beach which is a must for the world wide connoisseur of famous beaches. While there, we checked out the prices of houses with phantasies of eventually living there. We had done the same in Buenos Aires and were adding up the differences of what we would receive for our house back in Balmain and what would be left after buying in South America. I would teach art and in no time would we be fluent in Spanish, make many interesting friends and become part of society, like so many had done during its time in history when hundreds and thousands were flocking to Argentina and other South American Countries. Looking up telephone directories and names such as O’Brian, Johnson, Gerhard, and Tripoli or Mascagni are common, indicating European influences. Then there are large Japanese and Korean enclaves and societies. The ex Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was the son of Japanese immigrants.
The walks up the San Cristobel hills, both in Santiago and Valparaiso was worth it, not just the view, but also for the smooching and kissing couples. The dominant religion is of course the catholic religion with the elders impressing on the young to preserve virginity and no sex before marriage. They might not have penetrative sex but everything else is pursued instead. The kissing and smooching of couples in public is almost nonstop and ‘de rigueur’ in public parks. All benches are occupied, and while we might just feed the pigeons or sea gulls back in Australia, in Latin America the parks and benches feed lust. The San Cristobal Hills are alight and on fire all day but it is at dusk when couples that have found their way to the top are not just holding hands and gazing in each other eyes, but also find the salvation of love, lust and sexual relief . There is straining against the inside of trousers, and swooning sobs hardly held back. All under the eyes of a giant religious statue of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Those countries are not just Catholic; the birth-control is firmly in the hands of the church or indeed in the hands of the couples straining against each other on those hills. Once married however, the couples are busy with the babies and children and one rarely see the marital consummated couples with babies straining anymore on those saturated hills of love.
The other phenomena of both Argentina and Chile are the success of the American based Evangelical movement. They have taken a slice away from the lower classes of the Roman Catholic church, and while we were there, witnessed several processions of people, with the usual eye rolling and hysterical expressions of religious fanaticism. Like in America, you get the sense, that they are not secular but intend on imposing theocracy on society. The Catholicism of South America, while losing some believers to Evangelism, will surely never turn to the accepted type of the maniacal and extreme right of US style of the dominant religion.
The return from Chile’s Valparaiso to Buenos Aires was on an overnight and lengthy bus-trip. We stayed again in the friendly and unimposing Hotel Diplomat, stayed a few more days, whereby we visited the enormous cemetery of La Recoleta. Now here is the ultimate of burial services. No plastic flowers or forlorn graveyards there. If a culture could be defined by how we look after our dearly departed than Buenos Aires or Argentina would be placed on top. Whole streets of multi storied mausoleums, with marbled statues and immaculately kept tombs. Whole books of verse carved out in stone or with gold leaf embellishments. The graves include many Presidents and of course Eva Peron. One unique part of the cemetery with some of the main tree lined streets and sidewalks having mausoleums as big as entire galleries, are the colonies of feral cats which are sometimes seen to get fed at closing time. Another feature is that the dates of death are engraved in bronze, stone or marble but no birthdates are recorded. Another person buried there is the grandchild of Napoleon Bonaparte, Isabel Walewski Colonna, aged just 6 days.
It was time to say goodbye, pack our hand luggage including presents for our children. The flight back was via Tierra del Fuego, the most southern part of Chile and Argentina. We landed at Punta Arenas and walked across a freezing landscape towards the terminal, waited for an hour or so and took off for New Zealand and Australia. We landed in Sydney and took a taxi through the totally empty and forlorn looking cityscape of lonely looking streets with giant advertising hoardings urging us to buy Toyota Cars or Coca Cola ‘It is it’ suburbia with no people about. We had come home.