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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cape York Birding: Day 1 (Gunning for the Golden-Shouldered Parrot)

Two months ago I flew to far-north Queensland with my father (pictured, directly below) to flee the southern winter and also spot some birds, which are his specialty and his big love in life. After hanging out in Cairns for a while we winged it further north up to Cape York, a vast peninsula riven by monsoonal rivers, saturated with tropical savannah, and timbered with millions of termite mounds, all of them artfully erected to avoid the blistering sun. Cape York teems, too, with birds: brolgas, jabirus, Papuan frogmouths are just some of the species to be found, palm cockatoos smart enough to use tools, and flocks of rainbow lorikeets so prodigious they literally blot out the whole sky. Of the 900 or so bird species that inhabit Australia, Dad and I identified more than 100 during the six days we spent up there, dodging the roadtrains, and crunching the corrugations. That was cool and all, but from the outset my father had his heart set on snaring two specimens which are rare, kind of endangered even: I'm speaking here of the red goshawk (Erythrotriorchis radiates), and the golden-shouldered parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius). To hunt them we enlisted the aid of gregarious guide David (Chook) Crawford, of Close-Up Birding Adventures. Chook actually has a golden-shouldered parrot painted (second photo below) on his vehicle, and commands an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Cape. He knows its trails and creek beds like the lines of his hands, and he has plenty of entertaining yarns to tell (most of them custom-crafted for the campfire!) He is the original Crocodile Dundee, to be frank, and he did not disappoint us... he found us the parrots which were his emblem, and he found them fast enough (on the first day of our adventure to be precise!) That was the highlight of our Cape York birding expedition, day one: my father got his wish, well half of it; I meanwhile had the chance to explore a part of the world which is as exotic as it is isolated, and penetrate right up close to the northernmost tip of Australia. If we had gone just a little bit further, we would have reached New Guinea. Where, quite possibly, another Chook might have awaited us!

Dad watches brolgas fly over the Nifold Plain, on the Cape York peninsula (Australia, 2011)
Chook collected us early at the Bohemia Resort, which had become our base in Cairns. Despite my hangover I was excited to be getting out of town and traversing some fresh territory. Excited I was, but also apprehensive, as I have had enough panic attacks on the freeway in recent months to know that driving can be treacherous for me. We struck off across the verdant farmland north of Cairns, cutting through the canefields and lush country, heading for the nearby hills. I was seated in the back; my Dad, meanwhile, rode shotgun. I might not have known it at the time, but this was to be the first of many missions across the mountains, east to west, west to east, then east to west again, as the peninsula narrowed inexorably towards the tip. Chook confessed to being in something of a hurry, due to reports of bushfires in the vicinity of Musgrave Roadhouse, which was our beeline for the day. He wanted to get up there as fast as possible, in other words, in case the fire closed in. So, there wouldn't be much time for twitching on the way. We were immediately consoled with the promise of a healthy flock of golden-shouldered parrots flapping around in the bush near Musgrave. "He's up there right now," Chook said; "we'll find him." I wondered briefly why Chook had chosen to refer to the parrots as "he". They couldn't all possibly be males, could they? And even if they were, a flock of "he's" still constitutes a "they", surely?

Chook's Pajero, adorned with the endangered golden-shouldered parrot, sitting on a termite mound (Australia, 2011)

Ascending the Atherton Tableland towards Kuranda, Cairn's answer to Katoomba, I felt my anxiety climb... in direct proportion to our altitude. The reality of my plight had sunk in: this was to be a 1300km round trip all the way to the top of Australia and back, and the journey had only just begun. And there was no possible way I could pike out this late in the game! To take my mind off things I chatted to Chook, who turned out to be quite a captivating guy. He disclosed that he used to work as a guide at the nearby Mareeba Wetlands, then decided to start his own business chasing birds. He claimed that while birdwatching had something of a geeky reputation, he wanted to bring a bit of mystery and manliness into the equation, a bit of the Aussie larrikin spirit you might say. Glancing ahead at my Dad in his greygreen shorts and T-shirt and his goofy greygreen hat, I couldn't help but feel that the geeky birder stereotype might be here to stay, though, for a few more years at least. Best not to say so openly, I supposed... I might get shot down for blaspheming like that! So, I reclined in my seat, and tugged the handgrip by my shoulder, which for some reason soothed my spirits somewhat. Chook ploughed on, tearing up the Mulligan Highway through Kuranda to Mareeba (16°59′0″S, 145°25′0″E), where we paused to pick up some supplies and fuel. From the windows of the Pajero, Mareeba appeared to be a classic Outback Australian town, just pimped up with palms. While Chook filled the tank I wandered into the service station to buy a Coke or something like that, and maybe a bottle of water to hydrate myself. I would have loved to stay and have a look around, but that fire up north was moving in... there was no time to linger.

Just a quiet country street, in Mareeba (Australia, 2011)

So we rolled on, mauling Mt Molloy (population 273), Mt Carbine, Desailly, and finally landing on a prick on the map called Lakeland, where we halted for lunch. Somewhere along the way, my iPhone lost connectivity with the rest of the world, and the Internet died. I could no longer check my earnings from Google AdSense, or post updates to Twitter. I took plenty of photos though, of all the scenes that passed my window... most of them were blurred and rubbishy. My camera, nonetheless, was recording a more accurate depiction than my brain, which was clouded with fear, and subpanic: derealization flattened my senses and my perceptions, rendering the world two-dimensional, like a screen. You might call it tunnel vision. I clutched the handgrip besides me, and tried my best to relax. Thankfully, traffic was light: a few grey nomads in their campervans, 4WDs coated with red dust, and the occasional piece of mining kit being hauled up to Weipa. Chook explained that campervans would be useless once we hit the corrugations; from that point on it was 4WD territory, 4WDs and road trains only LOL. Pineapple and peanut farms surged past along with the telegraph poles, and miles and miles of open bush. The sky was a euphoric blue.

Pausing to take in the view, on Route 81 (Australia, 2011)
Beyond the Cooktown turnoff, the road mounted a ridge, and presently we were presented a spectacular view of the surrounding country (16°46′0″S, 144°88′0″E). This was something worth stopping for, so Chook pulled up, and we all got out...

Dad checking his watch, in his goofy greygreen birding hat (Australia, 2011)

... to join a small scrum of sightseers. It was evidently a popular vantagepoint, and every conceivable surface (road, railings, cliff-face) was covered with graffiti. We paused to take in the view, which was righteous, nonetheless.

Across the canyon, looking east (Australia, 2011)
I was surprised how hot it was outside, in contrast to the air-con comfort of Chook's Pajero. It was something like 30°C (86°F), and getting hotter all the time.

Mysterious tree with yellow flowers, possibly a kapok, alongside an aluminium can (Australia, 2011)

Curiosity satiated, we repaired to the car, to resume our ride. The road raced on, across stony, bone-dry territory. Chook pointed out various birds as we sped, quite a few of them raptors. He declared that you could tell how interesting a raptor was by the way it flew... those with upturned wings were the ones worth watching. When we arrived at Lakeland Roadhouse, I noticed some kind of bird of prey was circling the plains below. Its wings, disappointingly, were lowered. "Probably a whistling kite," Chook remarked.

Welcome to Lakeland Roadhouse (Australia, 2011)
We sauntered inside and ordered lunch. Chook recommended the house hamburger. I was about to discover that dining on the Cape revolves around hamburgers, steak and toasted cheese sandwiches (which they serve with cute little pickles here.) My burger was good, though; I gobbled it down, then paced around the roadhouse for a while, trying to keep my anxiety at bay. Something about being trapped in a restaurant ramps my blood pressure up: it might be the acoustics, the loud voices, all the cutlery clanging together? Chairs being dragged over tiled floors don't help one bit.

The sign says $2 for a shower at Lakeland Roadhouse (Australia, 2011)
I took a note how much it cost to use the bathroom. One day when I am traveling across Australia on my own this information might be useful, as raw data in an algorithm (or a comparison chart). The bathroom reminded me of a dream I had sometime, somewhere... was that the dream I was over there in the Congo, fleeing with the refugees down that rust-red jungle highway? Yes, that might have been the one.

There was a small gifts shop inside the roadhouse (Australia, 2011) 
I explored the small giftshop, with its local paraphernalia...

On to the dirt (Australia, 2011)
... and then, gratefully, it was time to bail. Leaving Lakeland, we abandoned the Mulligan Highway, and picked up the gauntlet offered us by the Peninsula Development Highway. More a rut than a road, the highway tailgated what remained of the former telegraph line, built in colonial times to connect Brisbane with its farflung northern domains. Like the colonial telegraph, the highway was decaying, disintegrating, and returning to the bush; before too long bitumen dropped away, to be replaced by rutted corrugations. Right about this moment I realized: this is the real Outback, right here, this is what it is all about! Termite mounds lifted themselves from the earth, the first of them short and scrappylooking, spaced far apart, but as time flew by they grew larger and more confident, some of them fashioned like the smashed chimneys left behind by country housefires, others like miniature Ulurus. Roadtrains, those apex predators of the Australian road, emerged from the woodwork, dragging their own dust storms in their wake. Chook withdrew to the side of the road whenever one passed, allowing it plenty of room. "The road's all yours, big boy," he would said, or words to that effect. And I would ask myself, again: Why does everything up here get called a "he"?

Road etiquette of the North: the small give way to the large (Australia, 2011)
As Chook disclosed, this was the road etiquette of Cape York: the small give way to the large. And there are none larger out here than the roadtrain, 100 tonnes of torment, 22 wheels of whiplash and whiteout. Chook implored us all to wind up our windows as it barrelled towards us. The Pajero rocked, side to side, as the shockwave hit, and then we were splattered with sand and soil. Looking around, I noticed that all the roadside trees and bushes were smeared red with this kind of abuse.

Throwing out the anchor, and battening down the hatches (Australia, 2011)
We were entering a strange world, a Gulliverian domain where everything was larger than life: bugs, men, trucks, even the farms which carved up the land here. The farms, actually cattle stations, were the size of European principalities, and most of them boasted airstrips. One of the principalities was called Artemis Station, and it was on this sprawling property that Chook had last sighted golden-shouldered parrots. We dropped in at the homestead to see if they were still around. The station owners did a lot of work helping the local parrot population, Chook informed us. They monitored their movements, and their numbers, and reported it all to the relevant authorities.

Arriving at Artemis Station (Australia, 2011)
Inside the house, I felt like I had stepped back in time, into the rustic décor of my wheat belt youth. The lady of the house put a cuppa on and we talked to the Boss about various topics, most pressingly the bushfire at Musgrave. It was moving in fast, our host confided... in fact, it seemed to be gunning straight for the roadhouse herself! Alarming stuff, but the Boss had a piece of good news, too, something that lifted our spirits: the birds were here, he divulged, and naturally we could visit them right away. Bullseye! I thought. This is how the west was won! But first there was a coffee or a cup of tea to drink, a coffee or a cold beverage, and a biscuit or two to chew upon. I stood up the whole time, fighting the urge to panic, wishing we could all just get on with it, and stampede out the door. Standing up always renders me restless, for whatever reason... it gives me vertigo, not just the fear of heights kind, but the crazy headspin version too. I suppose I could have just sat down on the nearest chair, but that might not have been polite. And it would not have been the knightly thing to do, in this land of He-Men, and He-Women...

Looking for golden-shouldered parrots, on Artemis Station (Australia, 2011)
Eventually we were back outside roughroading across rugged terrain, the Lady of the House in her vehicle, us bringing up the rear in the Pajero. The spirit of the chase had finally gripped me, and I was fondling a pair of binoculars excitedly, in expectation of an imminent glimpse. The Lady screeched to a halt, so suddenly we nearly rammed her. This was evidently a significant vantagepoint, so we all scurried out... to join about a dozen golden-shouldered parrots frolicking in a clearing. Yatta! I rejoiced, lifting my binoculars for a closer look. We've found the birds. Only problem was, my Dad couldn't see them, not unaided anyway. By the time we pointed them out to him, and his atrophied brain had registered the  headings and coordinates, processed all this information, and relayed appropriate instructions to his eyes and limbs, the birds were gone, a puff of brilliant feathers, a burst of green on green. For a moment it seemed this whole expedition would be in vain, like Burke and Wills' quest for the Gulf of Carpentaria... doomed by a lack of vision. I could sense Chook's frustration: you can lead a horse to water, but how do you make him drink? Some kind of elegant solution was called for. Thankfully, Chook provided one. Retreating to the Pajero momentarily, he returned with a tripod-mounted scope, fitted with a video camera display. Now all he had to do was focus on the parrots, and my Dad could stand behind him, enjoying a close-up view on the screen, without needing to make any fiddly moves. Up close and personal, that's the way Chook rolls. My Dad, suffice to say, was in twitcher heaven.

Remnant of the old telegraph line, at Musgrave Roadhouse (Australia, 2011)
The day was dragging on, and the westering sun had turned the bush a peculiar shade of burnt sienna. I was looking forward to getting a beer, and putting my feet up. Fortunately it wasn't that much further to Musgrave Station (14°46'50"S, 143°30'14"E), our deadline for the day. Located halfway between Cairns and Weipa, 570km south of The Top, Musgrave Station sits atop the aforementioned telegraph line, remnants of which are still visible, as are other interesting relics...

Posting box, beneath the rafters at Musgrave Station (Australia, 2011)
... such as the grave of Samuel Thomas, a pioneer and local identity, lying in a dusty corner of the carpark.

The grave of Samuel Thomas, killed in 1919 (Australia, 2011)
As late as the 1930s there were Aborigines running around in the bush, Chook admitted. Musgrave served as a fort as well as a telegraph relay station in the frontier war. Thomas was apparently a victim in one of the skirmishes. A victim or a perpetrator, it is always hard to tell.

Waiting for a beer, and then maybe a steak or hamburger (Australia, 2011)

Finally, after a long day rushing around, clutching my handgrip, biting my tongue, etc, I could crack open a cold VB, and kick back. Watch some Imparja TV at the downstairs bar, as a harvest moon rose in the clear night sky... who could ask for more than that? A hot shower, and then the chance to fall asleep in a cabin with the air-con on, while wallabies jumped around in the dark outside.

Shine on harvest moon (Australia, 2011)
Only problem was that bushfire closing in just over the airstrip. We could see it after nightfall, an ominous orange glow on the horizon. And if we survived that, another day of gunning around the bush awaited me. Because while Dad could cross the golden-shouldered parrot off his bucket list, there was still one significant critter left to go. Whether he would be able to see it unaided or no, that was the question.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pham Luc, North Vietnam's Soldier-Painter, and Living Legend

I received an email yesterday from a certain Mr Phuc (of Vietnam Pathfinder Travel) in Hà Nội which read: "I found your website and contact at Crowded World and would like to sell some paintings of Pham Luc Artists in my collection (at attached files). Pham Luc artist live in Hanoi, Vietnam. He is around 70years old now and some of my paintings bought from him that was painted during Vietnam war time (60-70)."

Nude, painted by Pham Luc from Hanoi.
Nude with flowers, by Pham Luc (courtesy Vietnam Pathfinder Travel)
In a land which reveres patriots, Phạm Lực occupies a particularly hallowed position among the pantheon of heroes: he served in the North Vietnamese army as a painter-propagandist, using art not just as a witness, but as a weapon. That said, his paintings don't appear particularly militaristic: nudes, still lifes and pastoral idylls are among his most common motifs. While the Americans and other counter-revolutionary forces that he confronted brandished state-of-the-art cameras to record their side of the war, Phạm had to make do with good old-fashioned paint, canvas and brush. When canvas dried up, he reverted to painting on burlap rice sacks, as one foreigner who visited his home in Hà Nội remarked. "The paintings from the war are rat-eaten and shrapnel-ridden but embody an irrepressible spirit," the visitor wrote. "They are darker in composition and content than his later works, which are equally fine. The painting which I call Forbidden was painted in 1974 at the close of the war. This painting of a beautiful woman during wartime conditions was against socialist dictum of the time. Phạm Lực hid the work for over a decade before he could display it." (Note: this is not the nude painting depicted above, which I received from Mr Phuc, but there is doubtless some resemblance between the works. It all goes to show that despite being a nationalist and patriot, Phạm was no stooge. In his mind, perhaps, the revolution could never be curtailed by dogma, or realpolitik. As Trotsky famously proclaimed, the revolution should be eternal! But that is my take on the story, so it ought to be disclosed as such.)

Still life, painted by Pham Luc from Hanoi.
Flowers with lamp, by Pham Luc (courtesy Vietnam Pathfinder Travel)
The picture above is a still life, one of the literally thousands of paintings Phạm Lực has produced over the years. If you are in Hà Nội and have the chance, you can visit the artist at his home, and perhaps even have your portrait painted by him. He has become something of a celebrity in the northern art scene, something of a living legend. Ambassadors from other countries own his works.

Landscape, painted by Pham Luc from Hanoi.
Pastoral landscape by Pham Luc (courtesy Vietnam Pathfinder Travel)
The landscape above has something of a pastoral dimension. As with the two other paintings featured on this page, it is available from Vietnam Pathfinder Travel in Hà Nội. If you represent an artist or gallery in Vietnam and would like to promote your works on this site, please let me know. Leave a comment below, contact me on Facebook or Soundcloud or YouTube or Quora or Twitter or whatever, or just send me an email. I am always keen to make new friends!

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Accident Waiting to Happen, in Cairns (Part 1)

Isn't it strange how many of the great discoveries were made by accident? Penicillin was first isolated by scientist Alexander Fleming who, returning from holiday, noticed that fungus growing feral on petri dishes in his lab killed any bacteria they came into contact with. Naddoðr, legendary Viking king, was sailing home to the Faroe Islands when he lost his bearings and got barreled on to the eastern coast of Iceland, which was then uninhabited, and unexplored. Christopher Columbus found America on the way to China and in doing so, confounded the prevailing wisdom of his age. It was totally an accident that I discovered Cairns last week, fleeing as I was the triple tragedy in Japan, or more precisely my persistent panic attacks, which have pestered me like a plague for more than two years now, plagued me like a pestilence, and promise me plenty of fresh pain in the foreseeable future. Cairns is not the kind of place I would have chosen to travel to otherwise, but destiny drove me there... destiny and the deadly Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, which dislodged me from my Japanese home of a decade, shook me from my sloth and my slumber, and sent me packing with nothing save my suitcase and the shoes on my feet. Like all Australians I knew Cairns, I understood it was a resort on the Barrier Reef, realized that it was touristy in nature, and during my many years in Japan I had also learnt that it was popular with Japanese visitors. Not surprisingly, then, the place had never really appealed to me. It didn't feel edgy enough, or so I thought, it didn't seem exotic. It sounded, basically, the kind of place bogans went for their holidays, and I would much rather embark for Bangkok, or Berlin, or even Bali, ffs!) A few days after the great quake of March 11, with relentless aftershocks rattling my apartment in eastern Tokyo, and radiation bleeding from the breached reactors up on the beach at Fukushima (福島), I saluted Japan with a sad sayonara, and then scrambled out the door. Changed the departure date on my Jetstar Airlines ticket, informed my boss it was over, and scurried out the fucking door. Of all three actions, giving notice to my boss was actually the most awkward, which speaks sagas of the sway he had hitherto held over me. For a long time, it seemed that I would be his bitch forever, a servant in the outhouse, the kouhai to his Koresh. It just shows that when the chips are down, when your life is actually at stake, self-preservation will always victor over subservience, and submissiveness (and don't fall for their piety, even the most devout religious types secretly fear their deaths!) Stockholm Syndrome be damned... I wasn't going to die from caesium contamination! Like the earthquake itself, the break with my boss was an inevitability that was long overdue, but something which neither of us had had the heart to hasten. Fittingly, it had to be forced upon us, by fate. According to my new Jetstar booking, I was supposed to stay in Cairns for a few hours on Sunday morning, just long enough to change planes, and possibly crunch on a croissant. But then destiny intervened, once again, this time more benignly. I missed my connecting flight, and was thus free to enjoy a full day strolling the streets and shores of this captivating tropical city, the capital of the cane fields, gateway to Cape York. This is the story of how that happened, and what I discovered there. In the meantime, let's wind the clock back a few days, to that crazy and chaotic aftermath of 3/11, when I honestly feared that my life was about to end, crushed by collapsing masonry, or felled by fallout. This is the story of how I became a nuclear refugee, and how the Moving House project met its indignant demise, dumped out on the pavement with the rest of the trash. Quite a few narratives met their demise on the same day, in fact, all of them indignantly. Let's give thanks to them, now, while we can, all of them one by one! They all deserve to be honored such, after what they have given me.

Soil liquefaction brings a pond of water to the surface, on the bank of the Edo River, where the baseball teams play (Japan, 2011)
On Wednesday morning last week (March 16) my boss rang me and told me not to bother reporting to work for the next week or so, as the school would be closed on account of the radiation. When I pressed him further on exactly how long this recess would last, he conceded it could indeed be more than a week... possibly two weeks, a month, who knew? Until the crisis was over, in other words (not there was a crisis of course, and not that he used so many words (typical Japanese doublespeak in action!)) Parents were too scared to send their kids to class (he didn't say that, but that's what I inferred.) Everyone was hunkering down, as if under siege (that was his unspoken gist.) "Don't go outside, ne," he added (meaning: deadly particles might be wafting down from the reactors.) "By all means, chant to the gohonzon on your own. But we don't do gongyou today." Hanging up the phone, I reclined on my futon, imagining a whole free week ahead of me... no, not a week, possibly even a month, a whole month free of work, a month cleared of chanting,  and possibly even purged of panic too! I thought to myself: Is this not yet more proof that the Third Free Month has arrived at last, in these dying days of my life in Japan? With every day, my life is becoming more free... freedom is breaking out all over the map! Maybe I could celebrate this change in fortune, I figured, by taking a nap? Because God knows, I needed one! So I sprawled out on the mattress, inserted my earplugs, and attempted to sleep. Try as I might to suppress them, however, thoughts kept arising in my mind, unsettling thoughts: what exactly was going on up there at Fukushima, and why were people so concerned? ... what if there was a powerful aftershock while I was asleep? would I have time to save myself? ... how am I going to survive without a job, especially now that I have retired from Telephone English, and am already living off my credit card? They were, in fact, much the same thoughts which had thwarted my efforts to sleep and eat a decent meal since the great quake struck, five days previously. Unlike my panic phobias, the fears that motivated these thoughts were real, and demanded respect: from time to time an actual aftershock did arrive, a seismic jolt shifting my bookcase on its foundations, and jiggling my windchime judiciously. One of the reactors up at Fukushima had indeed blown up, and I had watched it happen on CNN, and NHK (and all the other networks). I would now be completely unemployed, with no income save Google Adsense, and Chitika. That was reality, not hyperbole. My life seemed to be crumbling around me. On top of that, I couldn't even go out for a walk!

Sleep was out of the question, so I sat up, and dug out the letter I had started writing to N. earlier in the week. Sleep deprivation had rendered me emotional, and I rapidly scribbled out a page or two about how much I missed her, how this entanglement had inspired me to appreciate her love, and how much I was looking forward to living with her in Việt Nam if I ever got out of this mess, blah blah blah. Soppy, sycophantic shit it was, and I had a feeling that it might embarrass her to read it, as she is way less sentimental about these matters than myself. But what was I going to do: this could be my last transmission before the caesium cloud descended, my last will and testament if you might! Since she never replies to my emails these days, or even answers the fucking phone, launching a letter at her was the only way I could get her attention. And this made me ponder: Why does she make herself so hard to reach? It's strange behavior considering that I am giving up my life in Japan to be with her...

The windchime was jiggling before I felt the jolt. My bookcase shifted immediately after that, and began buckling on its legs, jumping like a catfish on a pole. I bolted up from the futon, and made for the back door, and my escape pod. While I was standing there on the back step, preparing to abandon ship, I noticed an announcement flash up on the TV: a magnitude 6.0 aftershock had hit off the coast of Chiba Prefecture, beneath the Pacific floor. While it rated only a 3 (out of 7) on the subjective Shindo scale here in Edogawa Ward, over at Choushi, on the headland I walked on New Years Day, the shaking measured an alarming 6. Across the Edo River, in places like Funabashi (船橋市), vibrations were recorded at Shindo 4. I know a guy who lives over that way (Jim from Telephone English (TE)), and I wondered how he was going. Shindo 4 is pretty serious, I have only suffered it a few times in my life, all of them in Japan of course, and most of them in the past week! According to Wikipedia, at Shindo 4 "hanging objects swing considerably and dishes in a cupboard rattle. Unstable ornaments fall occasionally. Very loud noises." This aftershock, prominent as it was, triggered its own family of afteraftershocks which erupted all around the east coast, each one answering the previous one, as if they were subterranean deities communicating, stocky dwarfs ringing their hammers of iron on the bedrock beneath my feet. I stood in the doorway until the commotion died down, and then some. This game was getting old. I was over it. I had to get out.

Official advice be damned, I decided to go outside for a walk. Just to be on the safe side, I switched over to the weather channel briefly, to see which way the wind was blowing. To my delight, Tokyo seemed to be enjoying a westerly breeze. What a relief, I thought, all that Fukushima fallout is being blown out to sea! I picked up N.'s letter, put on my coat, and bundled out the door. Happy to be outside, rather than cooped up inside, watching my death on TV. It was sunny out, and the wind felt kind of strong. There weren't many people around, giving the streets an eerily apocalyptic feel.

I mailed off N.'s letter at a post office nearby, and then shopped for some groceries at the Yamaichi supermarket on the old salt route (Shinozaki Highway), in Minami-Shinozaki (南篠崎). It was a place I discovered by chance, walking home from work one magic afternoon in the summer of 2007, when life seemed fresh and full of promise. The magic was all gone today, however, and the aisles of the supermarket were deserted. None of their sushi trays, or curated cuttlefish, looked particularly enticing to me. Perhaps all the good stuff had been snapped up already. I picked up some items nonetheless, and shuffled out. Out on the street, the wind blew, menacingly. It was rather a strong breeze, stronger than the weather channel had prepared me for. Possibly it was my imagination, but there seemed to be something caustic riding on that breeze too, something biting, something even luminous. It was only until I returned home, and switched on the TV, that I realized that the wind had changed direction during my walk, and was now blowing down from the north... down from the reactors... down from the fields of death in Tohoku...

I remembered that I had Jim's phone number in my address book, so I gave him a call. I hadn't spoken to him since my abrupt disappearance from Telephone English, and I figured I owed him an explanation. As it turned out, he was flat on his back, literally, across the river in Chiba Prefecture. He told me he was working at TE on Friday afternoon when the great quake struck. The temblor was so terrifying that all the edutainers rushed downstairs to take cover on the street (which, it seems, is a typical gaijin thing to do in this situation!) The phone lines went down, so they couldn't work. But the train lines were down too, so they couldn't get home either. They ended up camping out in the office, and Jim said he did his back in trying to sleep on the hard floor. Surprisingly, he didn't seem as rattled as I was by all the aftershocks. "The earthquake is over, it's finished, we had it on Friday... what you have to worry about is the meltdown," he said. "My folks have been on the phone, telling me to get out, saying you'd have to be crazy to remain here. That is, indeed, what I am planning to do... get out."

"You're going to leave?" I asked him, feeling a little jealous.

"I will only be gone for a week or so," he replied. "Long enough for things to cool down."

"I can imagine there would be a mass exodus, if things got really dire," I said. "You probably wouldn't even be able to leave... the flights would be booked out, the highways gridlocked with traffic."

"Most Japanese would stay, because they have nowhere else to go," Jim said. "We, on the other hand... we have options."

I remembered Ken-san asking me yesterday if I planned to leave Japan. Until that point, I hadn't even considered it. I mean, I was leaving on account of my panic attacks, I had a ticket booked and all, but I hadn't considered hastening my departure due to the disaster. Now, listening to Jim talk, I felt myself brimming with resentment, and envy. How come he could leave, and I had to stay behind? Why was it that I felt so burdened by commitments, and restraints (including financial restraints), that I had to quell my natural instincts to flee? If I was a true Vagabond, I thought to myself, I could leave at any time, I would just pack up my suitcase and leave. Stockholm Syndrome be damned: I never wanted to be a resident! A true Vagabond would just get a train out to the airport, and leave. And in one blinding epiphany, talking to Jim in the radioactive breeze, that is what I decided to do! I decided to pack my suitcase, and leave.

But first, I needed to call my Mum.
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