This is life on the street.

So many things look familiar here.

The main road, pockmarked with potholes. Reddish brown sores on black skin. The sandy gravel sidewalk that constantly, irritatingly surrenders its upper layers. A fine film of dust insinuates itself into the folds of my pants, covers my exposed toes, sticks onto the velcro straps of my expensive sandals, subverting the trappings of another more affluent world. Not a good place for video cameras, recording devices or jogging with headphones.

Even the people look familiar here. I feel like I know them. Sure, they look different. But I recognise the types. I know their life. I know who they are. At least I think I do. But they don’t know me.

The vibrant atmosphere on the streets is irresistible. I am drawn to it. An assault on the senses.

Little boys in rags, playing and fighting on the street. Some of them working. Shoeshine boys, same brush for black or brown shoes, haggling over the special price for the foreigner. Kids who should be learning in school, learning on the street. Ten year olds kicking in to support the family. One of them wants to polish my sandals.
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tilesEverything seemed so normal the next day. I saw Raju sober, walking down the street, a basket of empty bottles and old papers balanced precariously on his head as he shuffled slowly on his way to the market. Raju’s wife was outside, sweeping the compound. Head and face covered by a scarf, eyes lowered in shame, avoiding the stares of the neighbours. Burying her pride and dignity in the tidy well swept front yard.

Life went on as usual.

She had woken up early, washed her small children and sent them off to the local government school. Neatly dressed, their innocent impassive faces masked the horror of yet another Continue reading

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Violence across the road

The family of ‘Bothal Karayas’, was loud raucous and violent. The men would drink all weekend, argue with each other and regularly beat the women in the compound.

One lazy Sunday afternoon as I was playing by myself I heard the screams. The screams of a woman. The sound of terror and pain. I ran to the front of the house and looked over the fence. The screaming continued followed by a sickening thud; the sound of wood on flesh. I then saw Raju, the man I recognised as our local ‘bottle man’ chasing his wife around the hut, repeatedly striking her with a piece of wood, hurling abuse at her as he chased her around the compound. The sound of the beating and the woman’s screams filled me with terror as I vomited onto the road by the front gate. Other members of Raju’s extended family, voices raised in anger, jostled with each other trying to intervene.

Raju’s alcohol fuelled brain would listen to no reason. His inflamed eyes saw only hatred. I stood there staring at the horror unfolding before me. I felt numb, terrified and powerless as I witnessed the merciless beating.
Even as a child I think I understood the frustration and despair of some of the families around me. The frustration that causes people to behave like animals and the helplessness that makes others Continue reading

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Us and Them

The street we lived in, like the country, was home to a diverse mix of people. A Buddhist businessman and his family lived a few doors down from us. They lived in a large house, had two cars and three servants. They were obviously very well off. Further down the street was a large Muslim family. They too appeared to be doing well. Their large, expensive, black, chauffer driven Mercedes would glide past, curtains shielding the women and girls in the back seat from the prying eyes of strange men and the outside world.

Next door to us was a Burgher family whose trendy westernised daughters terrified me with their fashionable clothes, worldly ways and short skirts. I never knew whether I should stare at their legs or not. They excited me but were definitely too scary to talk to or look at directly. The three girls lived with their mother and an uncle. They were outgoing and very friendly and laughed a lot. They would always look me in the eye, smile, say hello and ask me about myself, while I would avoid their eyes, feel embarrassed and mumble and stutter while looking at the ground.

The two younger girls were always going out to parties and to the beach with their boyfriends. Very cool guys, who drove their own cars, had the only surfboards in the country and wore board shorts that had to be from overseas. I would sneak envious looks at them and let my Continue reading

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Alice and her hoppers

I used to look forward to eating Hoppers on Sunday mornings. A typical Sunday of my childhood would start with seven thirty mass at St Anthony’s and then back home to hot hoppers for breakfast. Quite often, my cousins would stay over the weekend with us and the children would rush home and head straight for the hoppers that we knew would be waiting for us. Ignoring the circular soft centre of the hopper we would all go for the crispy thin wafer like edges. Smothered in butter, and folded in with jam or sugar they would be devoured in an instant .The soft spongy centre of the hopper left for the adults. The fragrance of fresh coconut milk would waft up as we stuffed ourselves. Sometimes we’d eat them with a hot sambol and curry. Delicious.


Alice was an excellent cook and I loved her food. She was quick and deft with her hands. She didn’t follow any recipes and knew exactly how everything went together. A handful of chilies here, a couple of teaspoons of Continue reading

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The New Arrival

Velu and I were about the same age. Although I couldn’t really tell how old he was.

Our servants would be sent to us from villages some distance away from the city. Mostly adolescents, they were small, skinny, malnourished, and generally looked a lot younger than they actually were. They were sent into the city to earn a living by families too poor to feed, school and clothe them. Slight fifteen year olds who looked eleven or twelve. Velu’s hair was very closely cropped, head almost shaved.

I first saw him when he arrived at my grandmother’s house with his father.

He stood at the front door looking overdressed and uncomfortable. He wore a freshly ironed, ridiculously Continue reading

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It rained heavily that night; my first night back after many years overseas. The South West monsoon roared its welcome as streaks of lightning lit up the black sky outside my window. I listened to the familiar sound of the torrential rain pummel the tin roof: The sound of a thousand drummers pounding an unrelenting rhythm that kept me awake as I lay on my bed, staring into the dark space above me.

This was the rain of my childhood. Monsoonal rain, pouring out of the heavens. Scouring the red mud brick walls of the village huts, churning up the narrow roads and even narrower laneways into rivers of mud. God’s fury and anger spewing forth on the hapless souls below.

“Washing away our sins”, my grandmother would say. “Lightning and thunder is Continue reading

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Mango dreamtime

I feel alarmed, then alarmed and nauseous, hoping he won’t force me to eat it, accompanied by a lecture on nutrition and the benefits of fish eyes and fish oil. He should have been a doctor, my father. He claimed to know everything about nutrition. Raw eggs, cod liver oil, green leafy vegetables. I got to know them well as a kid. Not my best friends at mealtime but I had to get to know them well, even pretend to like them. No chance of getting up from the table ’til every trace gone from my plate, supervised relentlessly by my father only doing what was best for me.

The gulls squabble and struggle over the gills, pulling and tearing until interrupted by a cat. A stray cat. The dogs lying lifeless in the afternoon heat couldn’t care less.

No one here seems to own any pets. All the cats and dogs appear to be strays. Of course, pets are a luxury in countries like this. The cat look looks scrawny, just like all the others. Life is tough for a cat here. Always looking for a meal, sometimes it becomes the meal. Cats are a delicacy in some parts.

The gulls win again, flying off with the head. Blood, guts and skin remain for the cat.

Across the road, a line of coconut palms struggle as well. These are not like the ones I’m used to. The coconut trees of my childhood and youth were angular and cranky. Trunks bent in impossible directions by the wind. Some of them almost bent in two like Continue reading

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Fish eyes under the mango tree

The sun burns my forehead as I seek refuge under the mango tree on the way back to my hotel. Beads of sweat run down my forehead and drip down my nose. Droplets suspended momentarily like little bubbles before bursting as they hit my chest. I use the back of my hand to wipe my nose, take my handkerchief out of my pocket and wipe the back of my neck. I feel rivers of sweat soak into my shirt as I lower myself onto someone’s wooden stool thrown carelessly against the tree. I look up as the smell of the ripening fruit wafts down, demanding my attention. Bulging yellowish green chubby temptations look down on me, ready to be plucked and devoured. I am tempted, but not sure if it is the right thing to do. Mangos have always been one of my favourite fruits. Mangos, pineapples and mangosteens. Fruits of the gods.

Children play nearby. Wide bright smiles as they Continue reading

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Another new best friend

“Hey Mister. Mister. Mister White”. The butcher is yelling out. “White man. Look! Want to buy?” I turn around and suddenly realise he is talking to me. The tourist group is nowhere in sight. The butcher holds up a slimy bundle of entrails slipping through his bloody hands. “Hey white man”, he laughs. Good for you. Cheap. Special price. I feel shocked and alarmed that he has called me a white man. I want to tell him I’m not. That, where I come from we too have markets like this, butchers like him. My father ate everything. Me too. Tripe, liver, heart and even spleen. I grew up with these smells.

His friends laugh and jeer. I feel defensive. Want to explain who I am. They keep referring to me as Mr. White. This is a new one for me. This is the first time I’ve been called white and it won’t be the last. Surely they must see the difference between Continue reading

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Hard bargaining is the order of the day as I try to find my way out of the labyrinth that is the market. I am surrounded by loud animated conversations, shouting and gesturing. Raised voices firing bullets of tonal syllables hit me from all directions. A strange unfamiliar sound that challenges me and forces me out of my comfort zone.

I’m grateful that people also speak English. A version of English anyway.

A part of me feels self-conscious. I am a voyeur. I am an intruder trying not to behave like the tourists I’m so scathing of. I hate the sight of affluent Westerners getting their third world experience from the air-conditioned comfort of the five-star. Terrified of the runny stomach and excited by the close touch and smell of the exotic local.  Wandering through the markets in their sensible shoes, stupid hats and water bottles slung around their shoulders in Kente cloth bags. Ridiculous, ill-fitting loose ‘pyjama’ pants seems to be their preferred look. ‘Traditional’ African gear. “When did ridiculous designs printed on wax cloth made in Holland become traditional African gear?” I snigger as another group of flushed, sweaty, red-faced tourists hustle past me.

I don’t see myself like them. I am different. I am the culturally aware traveller, exchanging ideas and experiences with the locals. After all I am from the third world. Though I have lived for many years now in the affluent West where I am still treated as a foreigner in my new home in Australia. A migrant. Not an immigrant. I have lived overseas for twenty-five years now. Longer than I have lived in my country of birth, but I’m still an intruder.  I wonder how long it would take me to claim my new nationality. To say I belong.

A different skin colour may have helped. May have stopped people asking me where I come from. Definitions of nationality, identity and self bombard my mind as I walk. Here too I am a stranger. But I feel comfortable. I feel like I know these people. I don’t feel like a tourist. Don’t feel like I am exploiting the locals. But I don’t think they feel the same way. I am aware that they see me as a tourist.  I am aware I look different, dress different. Just another foreigner. A handy new best friend to rely on in the future.

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