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My Modern-Day Molotov Cocktail

I never ate shrimp on any regular basis when I was a kid. I really don’t remember having prawns as part of any childhood meal, certainly before man landed on the moon, the commercial introduction of the jumbo jet, and probably not until after Elvis’s untimely death. In the ‘70s a shrimp cocktail was the fancy appetizer of choice when you could afford to take a girl out on one of those rare real dates that included nourishment—also if she was fortunate enough to be allowed a starter. Nevertheless I found that I loved the stuff: At corporate functions a few years later in the ‘80s I could usually be found, drink in hand, in prawn proximity. Ah the lure of that bitter, crimson, horse-radished glop, complemented by freshly sliced lemons.

Since then, it seems that I’ve been living in shrimptopia, with large circular aluminum plates festooned with magnificent pink swirls of marine decapod crustaceans on a bed of smashed ice, continually within arm’s reach. Even when I find myself occasionally and inexplicably in a supermarket, there are shrimper dishes apparently everywhere: little blue or white rectangular plastic-wrapped polystyrene plates, packed with tiny anemic de-shelled prawns, identifiable only by their naturally convenient little red finger-food tails. Furthermore, the small frozen ones are dead cheap and they taste ok with a splosh of lemon and a dollop of magic sauce.

Sadly, I’ve never really thought to question the sheer abundance, availability, affordability and wholesomeness of this agreeable source of sustenance. I read online newspapers daily, I’m generally curious by nature and I travel a lot; heck I’m even a fairly avid diver and snorkeler. I always thought that shrimp was a good thing all around: nutritious, copiously available, and harvested honestly, in all weather by solid guys like Lieutenant Dan. Yet only now has it come to my full attention that I have been instrumental in helping to build the Death Star, one prawn at a time: One big modern-day Molotov cocktail.

Staying recently at the fabulous Tangalooma resort on Australia’s Moreton Island, I was engaging in various aquatic and other healthy outdoor activities: snorkeling the wrecks, whale watching, feeding the wild dolphins and so on. Between these marvelous activities I spent an hour in Tangalooma’s marine education center, which was fairly rudimentary though informative on ocean-saving topics ranging from turtle troubles to shark suffering. However, one small laminated flyer on the center’s window really caught my attention, and had the elevator speech on shrimp farming.

As I was now to understand, prawns were not good for my cholesterol, were processed by Asian slaves, and ultimately responsible for ongoing decimation of the world’s mangrove forests. Say what? Well I had read about the Thailand slavery issue a few months earlier and the European Union’s import ban threats, but the tropical shrubbery destruction was news to me, and since then I’ve read up on it a bit, and basically Asian shrimp farming appears to be responsible for obliterating large tracts of mangrove forest. I won’t repeat all the stats as they are a few clicks away for anyone, but those that jumped out at me are: five square miles of mangrove devastation yields only a few pounds of shrimp, after ten years the depleted land is useless for another forty, and twenty percent of the world’s mangrove forests are now lost to this inefficient practice (many sources including treehugger.com). Furthermore, when compared to the carbon footprint of beef raised to the detriment of tropical rainforest, shrimping is ten times worse! That’s ten times worse than pretty darn bad already. To me, these inefficiencies and collateral damage are truly staggering in any reasonable analysis of twenty-first century agriculture practices. The stats are also ugly for wild catch: For every two pounds of prawns that make it to your table, there are twenty-six pounds of ill-fated, unused by-catch.

So that’s it, I’m afraid. Deal me out on prawn Provencal and Szechwan shrimp and I must apologize to mother earth for unwittingly treating her like dirt these past few decades. I may be one step closer to veganism, but certainly slightly closer towards more responsible global citizenry. I thought I was doing my part already with all the recycling, energy efficient practices, and blacklisting other dodgy food sources, but the Cajun shrimp casserole came at me out of nowhere.

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The German Channel

When first I heard mention of the German Channel I immediately thought of Das Boot reruns: The 1980’s subtitled epic adventure of a motley bunch of ruggedly handsome Deutsche submariners scuttling assorted allied ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic during World War II. My second thought was that of a pant-suited Chancellor Angela Merkel giving some long and detailed speech on the state of the European economy in the Bundestag.

But this was a markedly different German channel, more sound than vision: A massive, manmade water passage joining two remote islands in faraway Micronesia. Created over one hundred years ago, this fritzian furrow is an underwater gully flowing with color in an otherwise monotonic and unimpressive shallow sandy sea. Turns out that the corralled crevasse, originally dredged for commerce, von den Deutschen, has become a fabulous, world-class Scuba diving site.

The walls of the manmade trench appear to have created a near-perfect environment for coral colonies to prosper, and as we know, with healthy, vibrant coral comes almost everything else we want to thrive in our waters. Furthermore, strong ocean currents funnel the water through the trench like a burgeoning monsoon river. This curious combination of rush and reef makes for an aquatic adventure that would impress and excite even Squidward. Never mind the Scuba, just float on the surface with snorkel gear and fly like Eddie the Eagle ray over large diverse coral colonies, shivers of reef sharks, balls of parrotfish, groupies of grouper and regiments of Napoleon wrasse: And some of these fish are pretty darn big. Importantly, have your knowledgeable boat operator drop you at the starting line and follow you all the way to the end so that you can focus exclusively on taking in the world class views below.

My Korean Barbecue

Awareness gradually nears as my mind flickers erratically back and forth between alternate realities, until the present context and situation presents itself. Coming out of sleep is always a little weirder and takes just a little more time for me to find myself when I’m on travel. However, this morning I feel oddly different as awareness ripples gently from my mind throughout my musculoskeletal system towards my extremities. My neck feels strange and there’s an unusual indication coming from my left scapula. Further down I start sensing additional scattered alarms here and there, including my right wrist, my left bicep, both shins, and miscellaneous toes. Brusquely, I realize it’s pain. Ouch, I think to myself and I’m now starting to hurt all over.

As full consciousness approaches I wonder: Have I been running with the bulls in Pamplona? Sitting near the Russians at a Euro Soccer match? No—suddenly it all comes back to me: I had a massage at the Foot Shop in Dongdaemun, Seoul, in South Korea. Two unremarkable little women with naturally formed boney knuckledusters: Kneading, rolling, compressing, squishing, and tenderizing my flesh. It’s not like I didn’t try to give them feedback—I was groaning like a multi-car accident, but to no avail as they continued to pound away, mechanically, as though they were basting pork for a Korean barbecue.

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This was the best part: At the beginning in our jim-jams and so full of hope.

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Still a lot of expectant hope here …

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.. and the shattering of illusions ..

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Big Red Rash

It was a long and difficult trip for John: Impossible at night, highly dangerous at dusk and dawn, and barely realizable during the limited hours of winter’s solstice. The distance was immense: A nonstop round trip of eight hundred and twenty two miles from Mount Isa to Birdsville. Driving in the light of day one could barely comprehend the abject horrors of the previous night: Cows strewn asunder to the left and right, legs sticking straight up like upside down garden tables after some drunken picnic. Either side of the faint white dashed line, dead marsupials and other slain beasts endlessly blotched and stained the road. More than clues, this was cogent evidence of road trains: giant, snarling, heavy trucks with massive metal jowls and menacing lights dragging four or five trailers measuring over 150 feet long. Nocturnal land-based creatures on the roadways have no chance as these pummeling Pullmans stop strictly for destinations and nothing else.

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Typical road train with multiple trailers

Nevertheless, John was given an essential task: To deliver a replacement alternator to a client that had broken down in the middle of Australia’s Simpson Desert. Of course, it was my car, a Toyota Land Cruiser that I rented to do a bit of light off-roading on the way to and from Australia’s renowned Big Red Bash. It was a powerful diesel 200 series truck that performed ably for me in the deep silky sands of Fraser Island the week before. Traveling to the Bash from Brisbane, there wasn’t a hint of the problem during the first two long weary days. However, on the third day, the battery warning light illuminated unceremoniously in the dullest possible shade of red. My fellow road warriors turned their full attention to my car’s dual batteries: multiple voltmeters and iPads were produced and the battery was pronounced marginally OK at 12.25 Volts, but to be checked periodically as we traveled further and further into the desert. As our convoy lead, Dave, walked back to his truck he called out to me nonchalantly, “don’t run anything in the car that uses the battery.” Well with no A/C or fans and the swirling dust and sand requiring windows up, this was going to be a sauna: Another two days of continual motoring and this would surely be the Big Red Rash.

For the next 24 hours the voltage continued to check in at a steady 12.25 volts. For my part, on several occasions I tried unsuccessfully to use Vulcan mind control techniques to extinguish the annoying little red battery light. Then, on the fourth day, on the final approach to the campsite I watched the voltage needle plunge swiftly, like the Dow Jones on Brexit. The car’s alternator had died, and I was over one thousand miles away, in the middle of nowhere.

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The car was sweet when it was running

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Poor baby in the shop

I cannot thank John and Ben at Fleet Crew rentals enough for their service, which goes way and beyond the call of duty. Also, I need to thank the crusty but soft-centered manager at the Birdsville Roadhouse garage, Peter Barnes, as well as my wonderful convoy compadres: Dave, Mike, Paul and Johnny. Gentlemen, what a fabulous trip and thanks for allowing me to ride along!

 

The Swagsman Swagger

Almost cinnamon in appearance, the powdery sand had a deep red color. It was dense, gritty and fine, perpetually sticky, and threatened to coat anything that it touched—from aluminum car paneling, to rubber tires, trailer hook-ups and hitches, and humans. Eerily, the pigment would find it’s way into sealed compartments, your cups and dishes, inside your socks, and it would line up unevenly under your fingernails giving you that unwanted wilderness look. For this was no ordinary sand; it was a parting gift from the world’s largest parallel dunes in Australia’s Simpson Desert, known to the locals as Nappanerica, or branded contemporaneously by the colonists as Big Red.

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After a hard rain the coarse red sand re-emerges

Anything but a proper shower would simply move the crimson granules about your person, temporarily banishing them to the least visited creases and folds in your skin. Thankfully, we found such a shower at the Swagsman Quality Inn at Miles, the gateway to the Australian Outback. Like a Vietnamese monsoon, abundant steamy hot waters flowed generously from the showerhead in room 11 of the Swagsman. An overhead heater in the bathroom furthered our comfort as our fragile human bodies attempted to regain normal body temperature after an adventurous week surviving the winter desert nights with only a cloth tent between the outback and us.

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The sticky red sand started its 2,000 km journey to the Swagsman from here

I watched triumphantly as erratic rivulets of sand flowed downward from my torso, thighs and legs, and swirled with resignation around the new aluminum drain (I forgot to note whether the swirl was clockwise or not since we were in the southern hemisphere). The hotel’s state of-the-art laundry facilities similarly expunged the grime and grit from our clothes, aiding in our return to normalcy and our typical personal hygiene standards after a fantastic challenging camping trip in the outback.

We stayed in the Swagsman for one night either side of a weeklong camping trip in the outback and it felt like a Ritz Carlton. It is a new hotel, with Wi-Fi, had a great shower and the dinner and breakfast was fabulous. It was also accommodating to park extra long camper trailers, a skill that I have otherwise yet to acquire.

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With my limited trailer driving skill-set I needed areas the size of a small aircraft landing strip to park this behemoth.

The Letter

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Close-Up of The Letter. 1988. Ink. 80cm x 61cm

Like some low-budget, sorry-ass version of Groundhog Day the postman arrived somewhat later than usual once again. He’d have clutches of loose, assorted mail for number fourteen in both hands, a large brown, scotch-taped package for number sixteen, and then, on cue, he’d stop to look studiously at his watch, then tilt his neck almost straight up, as if to check on the weather for some curious and unexplained reason. Finally, approaching my house he’d fumble around expectantly in his now empty-looking bag, building tension for effect. Shortly thereafter, I’d hear the discernable faint shuffle of ubiquitous black Clarks coming up the driveway.

Wrought with anticipation, like the very last kid on Santa’s route I’d wait eagerly for my turn. Against an eternally overcast and leaden sky, the soft shadow of his oversized standard issue postal hat would creep upwards on the opaque Neo Georgian glass of the front door. Behind the door, I’d sit patiently and quietly on the hallway stairs waiting for that special letter, as I had the day before, and before that, for more days than I could remember. Maybe today, I hoped, the letter would arrive.

The Homemaker

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The Homemaker. 1987. Ink. 43cm x 65cm.

The image of domestic bliss, my neighbor, Terry’s wife was good-looking, genuinely friendly, a great cook and worked part time in the village post office. Moving from bedsit central in the heart of London to the pastoral patchwork of villages and farms dotting the landscape of Buckinghamshire County, I could not help but perceive immediately, the stark contrast in lifestyles. In most cases, the village men would trek to the city daily by train while the womenfolk catered to kids, the house, and nightly dinner preparation. So, for the most part, I’d meet the guys daily at the station and the wives at the weekends around the village. To this day, I really don’t know why I moved there from Central London in the 1980s.

In this red and black ink drawing, I imagined Terry’s wife as The Homemaker, hanging out the clothes to dry on a blustery, temperamental but otherwise typical southern English morning. In some quest for local authenticity I was careful to draw only a variety of windblown oak leaves that you would genuinely find in the region. I think an errant ink spill was responsible for my adoption of the strange jacket pattern, which I adorned with symbols of domesticity, such as those you’d find on the laundry labels. A woman who lived around the corner did my laundry, just sayin’, but I meticulously copied the little instruction labels for this rendering.

Trailer Trepidation

Trepidation is probably fairly accurate in describing my lovely wife’s unease and foreboding of camping to come: When there are so many variables and important tiny details that you’ll have to deal with on the fly, but your thorough preparation is just the bits and bobs you could think of after a few Google searches based on your entire inexperience with the subject. Nine days we had planned in Australia’s magnificent red Simpson Desert, traveling over thousands of miles of dry dirt roads and dunes, sleeping in a pop up trailer that we tow with a rented Toyota Land Cruiser. So many questions. “Will we have access to power, facilities, food sources and clean towels on the journey?” my wife asked with a measured modulation of hope. “Dunno,” I said flatly while wondering if I ever towed anything in my life and whether I would be able to erect and deconstruct this complicated-looking NASA space station trailer in the dark, all without access to YouTube.

On the brochure, the compact trailer’s exterior looked like one of those shiny little square carts you find at 5th and 48th in Manhattan, complete with secret flaps and nooks for pretzels and gyros, and hooks for potato chips that you can’t find in stores like Dark Red Tomato, or Yellow Cheese and Bacon. But when erected, on the inside it becomes Dr. Who’s Tardis, though decorated by some budget-constrained Sultan who only had access to the L.L. Bean catalog.

The brochure said that just one random person could erect the trailer in less than ten minutes, but anyone who has ever tried assembling a desk from IKEA or a gas grill from Home Depot doesn’t buy that crap anymore. In considering the unexpected and what might be ultimately required of me, I was glad that I had recently seen The Martian.

 

The Taxi

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The Taxi. 1985. Ink. 68cm x 48cm.

The rain is relentless: not heavy like a monsoon, but persistent and continuous like an old style shower that hasn’t been fitted with one of those new environmentally friendly flow restrictors. The time and place is West London, November 1985, and the Theaters have just closed in and around Shaftsbury Avenue. Cold dark sticky rain coats everything as it beads on the black paintwork, windshield and windows of the Hackney Cab. Wedged inside, and trapped together in the back seat, the older, well-heeled couple sits reluctantly and in silence. Once again, she’s not talking to him for some unknown reason as she stares blankly through the window at the rain-soaked streets and reflecting red brake lights. He ponders how many times he has been here, sitting silently, in the taxi, in the rain.

I had never really described the context of this work completed back in the 1980s and thought I would share the motivation and thinking behind it. Drawn over a period of weeks in blue India ink I channeled some of the settings and events I came across generally when I lived close to London’s Theater district. As one does, I went through a phase of going to various shows weekly when it was available and nearby. The fellow is the quiet and respectable Mr. Fisher, the Managing Director at one of the large professional institutions in Knightsbridge, London, while I merely imagined his wife for the rendering.

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Fate of the One-Thousandth Turtle

What’s all the fuss about saving sea turtles? Around for over one hundred million years already but on a sure path to rapid extinction, many marine scientists tell us that turtle sea grass feeding is central to that watery plants’ productivity and nutrient content, which in turn enhances the entire food chain all the way up to us humans. Other substantial undersea and landlubber benefits attributed to these shelled submersibles include coral health and vitality, and sand dune stabilization around nesting habitats. Coral condition directly dictates the wellbeing of reef ecosystems. So yes, these diving dinosaurs are pretty darn important it would seem in this world, as we now know it. A healthy turtle population means vigorous plant and coral life, reef welfare, and all of the links in the food chain up to your local fish and chip shop. Furthermore, it goes without saying that they are very cute and delightful to encounter in the wild whether one is boating, diving, snorkeling, or just meandering along the beach.

Now that we appreciate and understand their natural importance, what’s going on with these armored ambassadors? For the past few centuries the population has decreased dramatically due to loss of land and sea habitat, commercial fishing operations, poaching, and changes in our climate. All seven seagoing species of our finned-flippered friends are currently either endangered or threatened with extinction at this challenging time for mankind. And it’s hard enough already for these majestic encased egg-layers, which can live for over a century—traditionally, only one in a thousand survives to breeding age, although the demise of the other nine hundred and some play lesser but generally laudable and edible roles in the environment.

After successfully completing the one-in-a-thousand gauntlet around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, when one of these threatened reptiles gags on ocean plastic, is damaged by fishing operations, or can no longer find natural food sources it becomes a “floater,” helplessly bobbing about like a big beleaguered buoy. In some close encounters of the keratin kind, these briny beaked beasts may be lucky to be rescued and brought to the rehabilitation center at Fitzroy Island near Cairns, Australia. Here, Gillian Houston and her enthusiastic collaborators will care it for until it is healthy enough to be released back into the ocean. Gillian et al. will clean, mend, feed, and provide endless love and encouragement to each and every carapacious caller, regardless of type, sex, age, or any other factor. Whether it’s a famished floating Flatback, a gagged Green, a harangued Hawksbill, a line-caught Leatherback, a listless Loggerhead, or a ravished Ripley, the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Center has helped over 170 of these magnificent creatures in recent years, and boasts an 85% success report card to boot.

These may be small numbers in the grand scheme of things, but of vital importance nonetheless, as every single turtle counts. While society and our distracted governments need urgently to address the gravity of the root problems, this little motley crew of motivated volunteers will continue to help clean up the mess we’ve created.

The photos show a variety of the prehistoric patients currently at the center. Angie, an Olive Ridley, is over 100 years old and was caught up in a discarded illegal fishing net, known as a “ghost net.” Rinnie, a 15 year old Green, was found in an oil slick, while Lou, a 40 year old Olive Ridley was also a victim of a ghost net. The largest is Margaret, weighing in at about 180 kg (400 lbs), while one of the smallest is Nellie, who was found starving and had ingested marine debris.