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 June 25, 2008: 

Last Saturday was Winterfest, celebrating the winter solstice in our town, Katoomba. Last June we saw just the beginning of it as we were leaving later that day for Canada, but this year we stuck around for the parade and people-watched until, in the afternoon, the building shadows covered the street and a cold southerly came up, dropping the "perceived temperature" to about zero from its high of ten or so.

As you can see in the photo above, Katoomba Street was lined with stalls, selling everything from Thai food to native plants rescued from building sites (Christine got a tree fern for the back garden). The street was mobbed until, at about 11:30 am, the "firies" -- the blokes from the NSW Rural Fire Service in the yellow jumpsuits -- cleared a path through the crowd for the parade.

It was like being a part of a medieval street fair, as many of the observers and most of the paraders were in wonderful, colourful costumes, everything from gowns to rags to armour. Many wore masks. There was dancing and drumming and an air of gay abandon, as one used to say. We had the impression that anybody who wanted to just joined in. We, being inhibited, stayed on the sidelines of course.

In the afternoon there were open-air concerts on the plaza of the Carrington, the historic and grand hotel at the top of the street. And why shouldn't everyone feel happy, as the days are finally starting to get longer? Dark at 5, dawn at about 7:30 makes for a pretty tight day.

-and to update Iguanagate (from below), the fiery MP Belinda Neil, whose "Do You Know Who I Am?" harangue allegedly started the argument with the nightclub staff, has been "stood down" from her role as ... get this, the chair of the parliamentary Communications Committee! It was a stroke of genius worthy of Catch-22 for the prime minister to put such a personality in that role. Meanwhile, everyone is awaiting the police report, and the pundits are suggesting that if it can be proved that Neil bullied her staff into changing their statutory declarations she could do jail time.

-and, in the battle of the scientific studies, last week's report that Aussies were the world's fatsos was trumped by yesterday's, declaring Aussies to have the world's second-longest life expectancy (after Japan). A bit of a disconnect there... ?

 June 21, 2008: a few images from Taiwan ...

This is kind of what I expected -- an exquisitely carved Taoist temple -- except this one, the Zushih Temple in the city of Sansia near Taipei, sits in the middle of a warren of narrow streets rather than resplendent in a park or wherever. They say it was in ruins at the end of the Second World War and the restoration project took about 40 years ...

The low brick buildings of the old part of Sansia. There were surprisingly few cars but you had to be careful not to get knocked over by cycles or scooters....

One of the market streets in Sansia. It was hot hot hot, high 20s with brutal humidity (leading to a thunderstorm and downpour in the afternoon), but I don't recall suffering any of the two-stroke/diesel wheezing that I always associate with European cities. Apparently Taiwan exports scooters to Italy. On the outskirts of Sansia, rice paddies pushed up to the edge of highrise apartments, with market gardens occupying every piece of vacant land. On the bridge that crossed the river separating the new town from the old, women dried radish strips on the concrete balustrade and sold the day's excess vegetables from their gardens to passersby  ....

Yingge, aka "Pottery Heaven" in the travel brochures, was more groomed and tourist-eager. The 7-11 there was the only
identifiable piece of globalization other than car dealerships and a huge Carrefour (French) supermarket. Carrefour had been recently boycotted in (mainland) China because of the French government's outspoken support of the Tibetan cause.

This is such a crazy world. A few days after I took these pictures, still staggering a little from jet lag, we went on the monthly bushwalk with the Mount Wilson Club out into the area of the Zig-Zag railway at the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Compared with Taiwan, where every view contains hordes of people, there was not a soul to be seen. I'd forgotten to recharge my camera and managed only one photo by licking the battery.

We walked for hours (more than 10 footsore kilometres) along high ridges over heaths and through eucalyptus forest. Lunch was on the edge of a reservoir that is part of the water system for the nearby city of Lithgow, after which we climbed back onto the heath. The flash of open water is a rare sight in Thirsty Australia, reminiscent to me of British Columbia where you can hardly walk five miles without falling into a lake or river.

- we came back to New South Wales in the middle of Iguanagate, the latest scandal to beset the Labor state government. The NSW education minister and his wife, a federal Labor MP, got involved in a shouting match at a daggy nightclub called Iguanas in Gosford, a town on the coast north of Sydney. Apparently they refused to move to another table when the staff tried to rearrange things for dancing and, allegedly, they threatened the staff and management with the loss of their business license, etc. It's now the "battle of the stat decs" (statutory declarations), the politicians' vs. the staff's. After doing nothing for a week, the NSW premier finally "stood down" the minister; in the case of the wife, Prime Minister Rudd gave her a "last chance" order to take anger-management classes. Reading between the lines in the papers, it's her volcanic temper and sense of self-importance that started the stoush (i.e. battle in Ozspeak).

State politics is simply awful. The Labor government has been in power for 13 years and is arrogant and self-serving to the extreme. The list of scandals includes the former minister of Aboriginal affairs, who has just been sent to jail for 13 years for child-sex and drug charges during the time he held the portfolio. Their latest "success" has been to push through changes to planning legislation that effectively strip the power held by local councils to craft locally sensitive zoning, building and heritage-protection policies. Like its other big ploy -- the privatization of the energy industry -- it will doubtless benefit Labor's buddies and benefactors at the Big End of Town, as it's called here.

-and yesterday Australians were celebrating, in a grim way, the news that they had become the heavyweight champions of the world. That is, Oz has the most fat/obese people per capita in the world. It's hard to imagine that the USA has fallen to second place, but then we don't spend much time in the suburbs where the problem is said to lie (and occasionally get up and go to the fridge).

June 18, 2008: on the way home after 3 weeks in Vancouver, killing time in the Taipei airport waiting for the flight to Sydney. They have a wifi so why not try to post a first June-entry on the blog? It turned out I couldn't due to the way their web portal is set up, so had to wait till getting home after another 9 hour flight.

Home? Well, Vancouver seemed very much like home, too, with so much time for us spent with friends and family and so many opportunities for me to talk about my old books and new projects. As I go back to the almost solitary pursuit of finding a niche in Australia, it was great to have received so much feedback from Canadians who saw the new "people pictures" and some other small watercolours from our new life.

The stopover opened a window onto Taiwan aka the Republic of China, 23 million people (more than the population of Australia) on a set of islands in the western Pacific. Sansia, an old city near Taipei, was the highlight of a 5-hour tour that the government provides gratis for in-transit passengers like me: vibrant markets choked with people and their carts, scooters, bikes and umbrellas raised against the violent tropical sun, winding streets and a fantastic old Taoist temple. And just a little "education" thrown in: the ROC is independent and wants to stay that way; the people are Chinese and have been there a thousand years, they say, not just since the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949 which forced the Kuomintang to establish itself on Taiwan. I liked it enough that it's worth considering going back, perhaps renting a car and exploring the beautiful lush countryside with paintbox and sketchbook. I'd like to know more about mainland China too but have been put off by the need (as I understand it) to travel on a tour. 


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