Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The gizzard of Oz

This month I spent ten days in Australia on what they call a ‘familiarisation’ trip (also known as a ‘fam’ or ‘famil’), whereby one or more journalists are transported someplace to experience and report the sights, sounds and smells. Standard operating procedure on a fam is to feed said journalists so consistently and so much that they become incapable of any acts of communication other than a strangled ‘mmmm’—sometimes because the food is so good, and sometimes just because their digestive tracts are backed up to the uvula, and no other sound is possible.

That was me, backed up to the point where I worried that I would part my lips to say ‘Heya goin’, mite’ (which is Australian for ‘Hello’) and bits of yesterday’s lunch would fall out of my mouth. It was consistently great lunch, and I had no desire to lose any part of it, so often the only option was to speak as little as possible and just keep up a constant pre-emptive chewing of cud.

Australia, of course, has no national cuisine, a fact for which many Australians are somewhat apologetic. “Wail,” they’ll say sadly, ‘we’re eating et a Thoy plice, bat they ya goy, thet’s Strine foid for ya—a beet of averything.” I didn’t mind one bit—there was plenty of excellent Thai and French, Italian and molecular food—but native curiosity did demand that I get my palate on an authentically Strine non-vegetarian food.

In their natural state these meats are embarrassingly cuddly. One morning in New South Wales we drove about half an hour out of Sydney to Wollongong, which not only has an entertaining name but is also very beautiful. Here, at the family-owned Symbio Wildlife Park, we saw a range of uniquely Australian fauna: koalas, Tasmanian devils, echidnas, wallabies, and wombats.

The wombat is a devastatingly cute, stout, shambling little creature with a unique form of self-preservation in the form of a posterior as hard as concrete; it dives head first into its burrow, thus exposing only a granite-like butt on which a predatory dingo or Tassie devil can expect to break a tooth. I don’t think anyone eats them.

Nobody seems to eat koala either, perhaps because these animals eat toxin-rich eucalyptus leaves, and also perhaps because it’s somehow unsporting to slay a creature that you first have to wake up.

But kangaroo is another story. At Symbio I walked among a knot of these grazing marsupials and caressed their soft furry heads, looking into their limpid eyes as they twitched their strangely beak-like noses, and so it was odd, that evening, to be tucking into a plateful of them, though not so odd that I couldn’t get through it. “There are soy minny of them they’re a paste in Strylia,” the waitress reassured me with an encouraging wink.

Kangaroo meat is very healthy, because it is an active, low-fat beast, and as far as we know refrains from drinking, smoking and drugs, though nobody can be completely sure what goes on in the Outback. The meat is slightly gamey, and has to be seared quickly because overcooking makes it unpalatably tough—medium rare is the ticket. It’s delicious, and can be found as steak and fillets and as pizza topping, along with emu and wallaby.

I didn’t get to try everything; I was too busy fending off our well-meaning hosts, who were under the impression that all Indians travelling away from India must crave Indian food, and accordingly attempted to steer us considerately towards Indian restaurants all over Australia just as fast as we could dodge them. Next time: crocodoyle.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Thanks, but no thanks

I’m no good at thanking people. Some people are wonderful at writing thoughtful notes on pretty stationery, sending flowers, calling or presenting a gift. Me, I just feel intensely and really and truly grateful, and then I’m pretty much done.

Guilt about this comes and goes in the style of acid flashbacks, but usually not strongly enough to motivate actual action. I have a long List of Shame filled with the names of people without whom I’d have been sunk, or without whom I’d have fewer nice things, but just at the moment, as I’m in the middle of lots of tightly-scheduled travel, I’m strongly reminded of one particular unsung hero.

My sister, who is a writer, won a short story competition in Hong Kong in 1999. The prize was two tickets to New York on Air Canada—a prize unusual in the world of writing prizes, which typically consist of a note reading: ‘Congratulations, at least one person who isn’t your friend or relative has at least pretended to read whatever it was you wrote. Go ahead and feel smug for a few fleeting moments’.

Anyway, she won these tickets and, in a display of native discernment and taste, invited me to come along. I had to fly from Delhi to Hong Kong, and then we would fly from Hong Kong via Vancouver to New York, where we would visit our respective friends.

The afternoon before I was leaving I discovered that I needed a Canadian visa to even transit through the airport at Vancouver; my US visa, my free tickets, my two weeks in the Big Apple would be to no avail unless I could go through Canada. I raced to the embassy in Delhi, where a line of people was waiting to collect their visa, and explained my situation to one of the grim little official faces in the grim little official window, begging him to grant me a visa out of turn. He told me to sod off, which was fair enough, and I stood holding my passport forlornly, watching my New York holiday splinter into a thousand pieces, and making a mental note to immolate myself later that night.

Just then a casually dressed gentleman who looked like a Canadian stepped out of the embassy to smoke a cigarette. Perhaps because I was younger than anyone there, or perhaps because he was trained to spot a soul in distress, he walked up to the magic cordon that separates the people who want things to the people who can make it happen, and leaned over to where I was wilting in the afternoon sun and hiccupping with sorrow.

“Can I help you?” he asked. I told him my miserable tale, moaning that my sister was going to be furious about the wasted ticket. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “I’ll help you.” I didn’t think I’d heard right. “Yeah,” he repeated. “Give me your passport and come back in two hours.” The document pretty much dropped from my nerveless fingers into his hand. “Tell them Bill Marshall sent you,” he said, flicked the last of his ash off the cigarette butt, and disappeared into the side door from which he had emerged.

I didn’t have to ask for him, because when I came back my visa was waiting for me at the window. As I got on my plane the next day I fervently swore I’d send him flowers upon my return; a few weeks later I was back to just feeling everlastingly grateful. It’s been a long time, and I’m not even sure whether I remember his name right. But just for the record, Bill, and better late than never: Thank you.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Star quality

This whole Hillary versus Obama contest reminds me of my own brush with the US presidency, which sounds exactly like the buildup-with-an-anticlimax-in-store that it is.

One morning at Bryn Mawr College, circa 1993, the sun rose on a normal day of two-hour lunches, fighting sleep, imagining that the world is a rosy place filled with promise, and padding term papers with adjectives, which turns out to be one of the most useful skills contributed by a higher education.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon a whole posse of grim-looking men in black sunglasses and suits arrived in a car with blacked out windows that looked as if it was wearing a flak jacket, which it was. They parked—with some nerve, I thought—on the lawns, and wandered about looking grim and shady, which is how their rigorous training prepares them to blend seamlessly into a casually dressed all-female population in the 17-25 age bracket.

Soon the strange car had sprouted all sorts of antennae, and passing undergraduates who caught a glimpse through a window or door and lived to tell the tale, spoke of an inside full of mysterious flashing lights and screens. Some of them weren’t even smoking anything. Eventually news trickled out: It was the Secret Service! They were reading all our emails! Bill Clinton was coming to campus!

We loved Bill Clinton—even those of us who professed to hate him, loved him. Our papers suddenly got written. We ate very fast. We remembered to get righteously mad about suits reading our emails (pigs! pigs!) but we had to put it on a bit. The world, we figured, must really be rosy and filled with promise, if Bill was coming to see us.

Plus, while reading our emails, the Secret Service unearthed an amateur bomber we hadn’t known we had, right there on our campus; they found her mixing chemicals with an insane gleam in her eye, and gave her a ride home forever—or so the rumour went.

A couple of days later we lined up behind a security cordon on the path to the gymnasium. When President Clinton began to walk along this path, you could tell where he was just by listening: his location was marked by catcalls and whistles just ahead of it, a sort of breathy hush around it, and hysterical chatter just after it.

He was using both hands to reach into the crowd, so when he got to me I grabbed the left one (he’s left-handed! it’s the one which signs all the important stuff!). It was pink and yellow and very large. It’s a strange thing, star power. I had something to say, but as I gaped up at his pink face and yellow and white hair, my brain shut down and the only thing that came out of my mouth was “You’re great.” And he said, “Thank you,” exactly as if he wasn’t thinking, That’s the 26,359th blistering idiot I’ve had to make nice with this week.

It was not my finest hour, though it was no worse than when Zakir Hussain kissed my hand and said “When is your birthday, darling?” while looking wearily over my shoulder, and I earnestly replied, “Beugh.” I really wish I’d had the √©lan of the woman nearby who, a few seconds later, said: “You’re the first man I voted for, Mr. President, and a girl never forgets her first.”

Watching Hillary and Obama, I have prepared a speech for just in case either of them ever wants to shake my hand. They’re both Democrats, and I like them both, so I will draw myself up, smile warmly, and say, “Gah.”