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Johnny Rotten Biography review

Clearly this book (No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish) has been out for quite some time. But it’s not got any less complex with age. As a huge Sex Pistols fan, I had been wanting to read it for a while. After finishing it I’m still not sure what to think of it. Is Rotten the world’s biggest wanker, humble lad come good, a charlatan or a Rhodes Scholar? What does he really think of his band mates? He clearly loves to create hyperbole and be the centre of it.

Perhaps the most interesting points of the book is him being groomed by Richard Branson. Being whisked off to Jamaica after the Sex Pistols break up to scout new reggae talent. Or perhaps how his dad and many of his mates had contributed chapters. Possibly him talking about going to a drag queen bar in redneck Atlanta in the deep south and upsetting the local queens.  But it doesn’t speak about any of the Public Image Limited days or anything. It’s almost like they never occurred. That was a bit disappointing. Especially given it would be a very interesting point ego wise for Mr Rotten.

It was always going to be full of Nancy Spungen hating drivel (well that’s not the word but there’s plenty of it). I’m just more perplexed for reading this book than having not about Mr Rotten. Although I can’t help but feel that was entirely the point. If I understood it correctly (and I think it’s perhaps too high falutin for me) he wants you to decide for yourself. I don’t recall one myth or rumour he tried to dispel in this book. Congratulations Mr Rotten, you’re still a jolly great enigma. But I still don’t know why I love you for it!

Please Kill Me. Punk Rock Book review

This has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while. After seeing Legs McNeil in The End Of the Century: The Story of the Ramones and the more recent CBGBs movie, it shot straight up the list.

It’s a motley collection of scrapbook entries and fanzine interviews from the heart and soul of seventies New York. Like you’d imagine it goes far deeper than say The Ramones or Television. Like psychotherapy deep. It starts with the Andy Warhol factory era and goes from there. Anyone and everyone is covered in between. Particularly Danny Fields, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Dee Dee Ramone, Sid Viscous and the Dead Boys amongst many, many others. Heaps of rag tag drag queens and star fuckers that made the scene back in the day.

At times it’s a dirty, gratuitous and obscene look at the New York that was. A place seemingly run by rent boys, junkies and starving artists with amphetamine habits and switch blade knives. Where girls made big money pulling tricks in massage parlors or in the back of some stranger’s Cadillac. Please Kill Me, spares nothing while taking you on this dark journey. This is not the sanitised Time Warner, Disneyland version of Time Square we know and loathe today with a Starbucks on each corner. And the sleaze drips from each scuzzy page as you read it.

The way Legs McNeil has managed to juxtapose all these clippings into something so meaningful and enjoyable is inspiring. At times it’s a little hard to read, but then equally hard to put down. These are not the stories your granddad will tell you. You wouldn’t have to anyway. If it were real you could see it in his track marks, tattoos and scars. This book is so nasty, I hid all the spoons before bringing it into the house. A definite must read.

The Lisbon thieves market

Once a place for gypsies to sell their stolen wares (thus the name) some things never change at the thieves market. They just get more trendy and organised. There’s honestly not much you won’t find at the thieves market, which is truly a Lisbon institution. You can catch the tram there on a Tuesday or a Saturday (an experience in itself) and truly lose yourself for a few hours.

Depending on which end of the market you go to is a measure of how ‘real’ it gets. Up one end there’s trendy clothes stores, designers, middle class types with weekend flea stalls and antiques. Up the other a lot of down trodden immigrant Portuguese selling mobile phones off a sheet on the ground that look like they were stolen yesterday. Honestly though, at no point did it feel unsafe (you have to watch out for pick pockets in Lisbon anyway). Europe being Europe, one bloke was selling hardcore porn and two dozen (unused) condoms and thought nothing of it. You have to be pretty hard on your luck when you’re selling off your last two dozen condoms. Hey it is a global financial crisis. EU leaders, time to act!

To balance it out there’s the trendy designers. My wife found a ring that was like a goat in an old fashioned kitchen jar. ‘In English a dog is a bitch’ said its designer. ‘But in Portuguese, a goat is a bitch. So this is my bitch ring’ she proudly proclaimed. If that isn’t originality I don’t know what is. Other weird and interesting stuff like a Sagres (Portuguese beer from the south coast) bottle from the 30s and some original 1955 Michelin road maps. These were like the Lonely Planet of their time, detailing Bed and Breakfasts and taverns on the journey between European cities. Not bad for 50 cents.

You will honestly find pretty much anything here. Not that I saw it, but I was told by some local Portuguese guys that there’s one or two stalls selling vintage World War II Nazi memorabilia. ‘I don’t like that kind of shit, but it was pretty impressive’ he said between sips of his pint in a local bar. This guy being a tour guide that takes foreigners there weekly. The odd piece of Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) propaganda also makes an appearance. These guys liberated Portugal the first time from its dictators. In these hard economic times the party is making a come back on the streets of Lisbon and Porto.

Amongst the bourgeois bric-a-brac I found a vintage 45 vinyl Kiss single and some killer punk vinyl. Even a bizarrely rare Portuguese vinyl pressing of a Rose Tattoo record, the seminal Aussie hard rock band. Times being tough, heaps of reluctant DJs are selling their vinyl. Luis, a one vendor looked a little pissed when I started to haggle over a Ramones record. He looked at me and then gave in ‘OK, because it’s going to a good home’ he said. Never relenting in his eye contact. He then spent the next 10 minutes taking me through his collection of rock and old Portuguese post punk. Luis reckoned there was only one club in Lisbon for punk and rock in the 1980s. It’s amazing how far this city has come. A story that the people here can tell you.

If there was one thing that the market lacked it was probably good food. Venture back into Rossio square for that. But a day at the thieves market is well spent. It’s definitely a Portuguese experience and nothing fake about it.

Tony Iommi biography review

Let’s get something clear. Tony is a Brummy. A laconic, hard as nails Birmingham underdog that made something of himself big time. Something put the fear of god in him at an early age and his determination assured his success.

How Black Sabbath managed to turn their upbringing in Nazi bomb levelled Birmingham into one of the most successful rock (I stress rock, not heavy metal) bands in history beggars belief. That is why this book is so worth a read. For blokes that couldn’t afford shoes AND a change of clothes, they’ve done well. Within five years of starting they were rolling in Rolls Royces.  This book walks you through the highs and lows of all of it – Sabbath and beyond.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the shortness of the chapters. The book starts in the most laconic possible way. He’s slow to open up, tight lipped and complex. But as you read it becomes very cool indeed. He even admits to a few home truths about the Spinal Tap film. Essential though, Iommi’s story is a rarified one of a factory worker come very, very good. In a time where rock and roll needed to explore its darker side. And who better than Tommy and Ozzy to bring it to life. This book is well worth a read.

Why internet cafes are different in Japan

Incessantly we walked. We were in Kyoto or possibly Osaka, god knows where. Japan has a way of overwhelming the senses. Anyone that says you don’t need a holiday after a Japanese holiday is clearly doing it wrong.

Just try catching a train there. For every train line you have in your city, Japan has seven. Probably run by three different companies too. My wife was on the ball. Despite speaking a fifth grade taxi driver proficiency level of Japanese, she understood the train lines much better than I did. She could work with the frenetic pace of this country. I just wanted a god damn beer.

As we traipsed at warp speed through some sleazier side of Osaka (or Kyoto) her mind was on the credit card. The forever faithful to the fiscal wife was wanting to make sure some sweet smiling hostess hadn’t fucked us over. Wise move, but we didn’t have our phones or iPads. Oh the simplicity of travelling three years ago. Who would’ve ever thought you could have a relaxing holiday without an iPad (fuck you Steve Jobs).

Japan might be on its knees now, but the main reason it’s not knee deep is because it built a society around trains and efficiency. America built a society around chrome, V8 Chevrolets and Firestone tyres. To be honest they’re both fucked but my money is on Japan. When those oil fields run out, you will still be able to travel the length and breadth of Japan easily. Long after your gasoline is 50 bucks a gallon. But I digress.

Without a 3G phone and without a laptop we had to find an internet cafe. No big deal right? We thought nothing of it. Aside from the irritation of having to do some accountancy. I rolled my eyes and we headed to an internet cafe to take care of business.

Not more than five minutes later we found an internet cafe in a basement. Now Japan and Korea commonly make use of basements, second and third floors. So that didn’t seem unusual. But when we walked downstairs the place was vast. I’ve worked in smaller corporate offices. You don’t get an Officeworks special desk, you get a partitioned off room with a door and everything. It took us a minute or two to walk to our cubicle. That was enough of a shock.

Walking to our cubicle, there were the obligatory vending machines and coffee makers. Then miles and miles and miles of comics. It was like half a state library but full of Manga. We made it to our cubicle and there were two computers, a bean bag and some vinyl roll up mattresses like something you’d have for a Japanese sleepover when you’re 12. The cubicle walls are maybe four foot tall max.

Suddenly I couldn’t help but notice that everything in this cubicle was designed to be wiped down quickly. I just did-n’t-want-to-touch-a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. I just wanted to get the hell out of there before I caught something. There was more than enough room for two people to do more than drink coffee and read comics. My wife was ever myopic, despite the easy wipe down nature of our room. Even if there was some bizarre bukkake porno scene filmed in this cubicle only minutes ago, which to my mind was  likely, she could persevere just long enough to check the credit card. Don’t ever get between an Asian girl and a credit card. Lesson learnt. She would brave a fucking minefield riddled with leprocy to make sure her credit card is in the black.

We checked the credit card and everything was kosher. Lo and behold our room was  not a porn set. It was just an incredibly cheap hotel room. In Japan the trains stop just after midnight like they do in Australia. But here you beat somebody up jumping a taxi, or catch a Night Rider bus or frankly with Melbourne’s police, you get arrested and wake up in the drunk tank.

In Japan you get a cubicle in the internet cafe for five bucks an hour, have some coffee, browse the interweb, pass out and catch the train home in the morning. God knows what actually happens in them but  it seems the Otaku of Japan probably just sleep and head off home. Only Japan could turn an internet cafe into something this bizarre. These places must really party.

Football, meat pies, kangaroos and apartheid.

A bit of car nostalgia is a good thing. If you think the Monaro and the VE Commodore getting sent stateside was awesome, Holden’s exports in the seventies were far more impressive. The Kingswood and Statesman weren’t just sent to New Zealand and Oceania. Some models made it all over Asia:  Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, you name it!  This collection of Holden brochures on FlickR alone will keep me up for a few hours heart palpating.  But I found something the other day that truly amazed me. Not only was the HQ Holden Statesman marketed in South Africa as the Chevrolet Kommando, they saved a quid by copying the Australian ‘football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars‘ ad.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Just adapt the lyrics to the Afrikaaners and put it on the telly. Job done! The problem was in the early seventies there was no TV in South Africa. Here I was wondering why some idiot put still images up on YouTube. They didn’t. It was taken from a radio ad. They had to. TV was the peril of apartheid. They feared not that TV would give delusions of emancipation to the vast majority of South Africans who were black and coloured. Oh it was far more rational than that.

According to Time Magazine, god fearing Afrikaner folk (well men frankly) feared the raping and pillaging of the wife if TV penetrated the sanctum of their middle class houses. You know, when cleaning up after the entitled elites all day everyday, one glimpse of seventies Farah Fawcett on the silver screen would’ve given black and coloured servants such an insatiable thirst for white sugar, that it would send them into a rape frenzy. It’s all so lucid and logical isn’t it? So for many years there was no TV channels at all thank you very much until 1976 (the same year Australia finally got colour TV). That’s the screen of the devil. So the only way you’d see the voaaasssst (sorry trying to do a Seth Efrikan accent) new Chevrolet was to  schlep  on down to your dealer. What a sobering reminder of how far times have come. When TV finally did come to the SA, it was kept so boring that even a trainspotter couldn’t get a chubby. Besides, did Afrikaans ever turn anyone on?

Anyway I digress. Back to the car  advertisement. They changed the lyrcs to [we like..] Braaivlais (WTF?!), rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet. It’s disappointing they didn’t get to do a TV ad. Because in Kommando kit, the old Holden looked pretty bloody good. But I get the impression even a mystery meat pie at the footy would taste better than Braaivlais.


and here’s the original Holden Ad

Ace Frehley No Regrets review

After reading Peter Criss’ Make Up to Break Up, I saved a plane ride for this book. After all you need a good book on a long haul flight. Sadly Ace didn’t deliver the goods.

Worse still, his two writers did little to help him either. Joe Ostrosky is one of the culprits. He’s a pod caster who must’ve known how to flatter Ace’s copious ego. By flatter I mean lick and by ego I mean arse. He’s notorious for the Talking Metal podcast show where they counted down the launch of Chinese Democracy (by the Axl Rose project, formerly loved as Guns N Roses) in poor taste. Often stalking store managers of department stores asking them when the album would be out (like they’d know). The other guy I know nothing about. Other than he’s done nothing but string together a list of Ace’s cocaine addled drinking stories. Honestly, between the three of them, they couldn’t even caption the 12 pages of photos in the book. Talk about half arsed.

It’s a moot point he was coked out of head the whole time. But not one story in Criss’ book comes up in this book, even though many of them involved Frehley. It’s like they worked in the same company in different departments, in different cities, in different years.

What really shat me about this book is that there’s nothing really about the band. Yes he talks about when the band overdubbed his solos with someone else’s, or when Gene screwed him over. But honestly he clearly wasn’t all there after the Alive! album, as a member of the band or a person. It’s disappointing to read a biography of someone and think less of them after it.  There just isn’t a lot of depth to the guy. Talented sure. Interesting? Not anymore. Frehley is a self centred douche. Arguably a talented  one, but a douche with the emotional depth of a postage stamp nonetheless. Well until Gene Simmons’ biography comes out.

The Beer Gardens of Bukit OUG

For better or for worse, I spent some time in Malaysia in the early noughties. Just outside of Kuala Lumpur was a suburb called Bukit OUG (or Overseas Union Garden). The locals considered it quite a posh suburb with expensive bungalows and lots of jungle and big yards. I’d found myself a condominium close by. While it was a nice suburb it’s hardly expat friendly. They mostly stay in Bangsar or Sri Hartamas. Bukit OUG is a place that definitely requires a car. As a proper expat, you’d need a driver in OUG. I don’t care what you say, no whitey can really drive on those roads everyday. The epic potholes, the chaos, or as I witnessed once assassination attempts constantly remind you you’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.

One thing OUG did have going for it was a burgeoning hawker stand scene. At night it was the place to be. At least 60 odd hawkers (or mamaks) sold anything and everything well into the night, preparing amazing food. It was a primitive scene. The better stores had semi permanent structures, rather than tarpaulins and camp ovens to cook on. Young guys would cruise by in their cars, slowly driving over the speed humps, improvised form timber logs. Many would do laps of the mamaks all night. It was the real deal. More often than not I was the only Johnny foreigner I could see there. It certainly wasn’t a touristy place.

A huge highlight was Steven’s Corner. They had tandoors made from converted washing machine drums scattered all over. Their naans and juices were legendary. Yes it’s still around but it’s been modernised into a franchise worthy store and frankly lost its charm.

Any Malaysian can eat like a king in Malaysia. In a country that’s meant to be a prodigious leader in multi-culturalism that might not sound like a big deal. But one night in the OUG taught me a lot about the real Malaysia. My mates would often take me there for a Sunday night feed and plenty of beers. This particular night Mohammed, who worked in the hugely profitable but massively unethical palm oil industry was on a winner.

“My boss gave me 5 thousand Ringgit to take out some Indonesian clients. He said don’t bring back any change”. Despite a night of abalone and shark fin soup, Mohammed still had about a thousand Ringgit burning a hole in his pocket. He looked to be of mixed Malay and Indian extraction. His other mate Manpreet was a darker skinned Indian. Manpreet and I knew we were in for a big night. And we headed off to the OUG beer garden.

Even amongst their own ranks there was dissention. Manpreet warned me about the Sikh Indians in our block and their fondness for ghee as an anal lubricant. I’ve never seen tins of ghee the same way since! Not partial to the gay scene, we left then be and got stuck into a night of great food and drinking.

As the night wore on, we’d sampled most of the hawker stands and were getting stuck into long neck bottles of Carlsberg beer. Most of the hawker stands were beginning to close. Only the most eager or desperate vendors still remained. Mohammed still hadn’t spend his wad by the wee hours. We were clearly in for an all nighter in the beer garden. The three of us were left alone but you could hear it getting rowdier. Strange jungle animals were making themselves heard, probably because we were stealing the night from them in their beer garden.

At roughly 4am, the police were doing their rounds on motor scooters. The police are nearly without exception all Malays. No Chinese or Indians in their ranks. Two coppers were quietly riding up to us in the dead of night. They had a look of “we’re going to fuck with you” in their eyes, making me feel more than slightly uneasy. You wont hear many Malaysians that sing the praises of their constabulary. Everyone’s been scared into fearing them by a corrupt cop or police brutality story. Mohammed and Manpreet kept drinking.

As the cops got closer, they could see I was clearly a ‘mat salleh’ or a foreigner. Their whole menacing look changed. Suddenly it was like I was the boys’ get out of jail free card. Their look changed instantly and they ventured off the way they came. Given they could easily be victims of unwanted police attention, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Mohammed and Manpreet had an ulterior motive in inviting me out. It’s left a sour taste in my mouth for the so called multi-cultural success story that Malaysia portrays itself to be.

The whole time I was there, a typical response to being Australian was ‘oh you’re so racist. I see it all the time on the TV. Like that Pauline Hanson woman’. Hanson was a notorious middle aged, independent politician. A baby boomer with a long drawn out Queensland accent that was none to fond of ‘the yellow peril’ or Aboriginals. All the Malaysians kept saying how they love Canada and would prefer to live their than the redneck Australia.

But while the Bukit OUG hangover came and went, the feeling of profound, engrained Malaysian racism prevailed. I really got a feel for how much the Chinese, the Muslim Malays and the Indians are at war, not peace with each other. Manpreet always joked that because less than 10% of jobs were open to Indians by law, you had to be a doctor, lawyer or a hit man. Their was a bitter truth to it though. Apparently the vast majority of jobs were only open to Malays by law.

On reflection, there was a great irony to the Malaysian perception of Australian racism. Pauline Hanson was a middle aged, fish and chip shop owner for a country town (or at least Brisbane). As per party rose to prominence, it very quickly fell based on public outcry and the mediocrity of her policies. But would she have ever got a chance to stand on the soap box in Malaysian politics? No way lah. Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

I wonder how many other white guys are being used as designated cop deterrents in Bukit OUG today?

The taxi driver named Jihad

For the traveling I’ve done I am forever grateful to have seen Syria. It is a place full of beauty, history and incredible people. The fact it’s not on everyone’s gap year bucket list makes it even better. There’s never going to be a Syrian Disneyland, Israel maybe, but this place is made of stronger stuff. You come to Syria for the souqs, the castles and citadels and ancient cities. Oh and the world’s smallest bar where the smallest room in the house is a sizeable chunk of the house.

This article is the most difficult to write. Because despite the lovely people and fantastic times had, the Syria I saw was one that wanted to just get on with it. A Syria sick of trying to invade its neighbours and conquer more territory, sick of losing all its good people overseas. They just wanted a normal bloody life. Now sadly that has been very callously taken away from them. That get on with it stance has hit boiling point and living a normal life means fighting to the death for it. It’s sad but it’s very true.

After a few days in Aleppo (now almost completely destroyed) we decided to head south back down to Damascus. Aleppo is a very European city very close to Turkey. I’ve forgotten how we found our driver but he was a very humble and sincere middle aged man. Without a word of a lie, his first name was Jihad. I’m convinced jihad must have many meanings. Because we even saw a women’s clothing store named Jihad. And none of the burkas or lovely dresses had ‘death to America’ embroided on them. It was just a regular store.

Jihad took us right into the desert to see an old monastery. It’s a hit with hippy chic French back packers. We went down undulating desert roads in the middle of absolute nowhere to get there. Nothing to see but sand and dodgy military checkpoints. One checkpoint was meant to be run by Interpol. There were three guys on duty there in track suit pants with a grey Chevy Suburban. Yeah right. But who are we to argue? They checked our passports, jeered at my Chinese wife (no doubt the only Asian they’d seen in a while) and lifted up their shitty boom gate and we were off.

Once we’d checked out the monastery, I had the scariest experience of my Middle Easter trek. We got back in the taxi and Jihad was acting a little weird. His was very short, driving off slowly and looking around. He stopped where there was no one around, went to the boot and pulled out a hessian sack. At this point I thought ‘dear boy the war for you is over!’. It was a tense moment.

He got back in the car with the little sack, looking over his shoulder. Assured no one was looking he pulled out a bottle of sweet wine and two polystyrene cups. It was an unbelievably awkward but funny moment when he tells us as a muslim he’s not allowed to drink. But you know, in the middle of nowhere, in good company, why not. God bless him.

We drove along sipping the terribly sweet Syrian wine like something out of the Borat movie. Jihad spoke wonderful English. Something he’d learnt from a steady flow of Belgian tourists he’d worked hard to get together. He told us how Hama used to be the major city of Syria, now it’s all Damascus and Aleppo. Back in the day, his father had bought him a house there. That was now a thing of the past. Even though he was striving to the same for his son. I fear that now basic survival has taken precedence.

We spent two days driving around with Jihad. He took us within 60 kilometres of Baghdad, the last Aramaic speaking village in the word and through the ancient city of Hama and back to Damascus. When nowhere was open for dinner, he’d find a hotel and have them cook for us. The hospitality of Syrian people like Jihad has made a profound impression on me. I’m not a religious man, but I hope and pray that they can one day get on with their lives the way they clearly wanted to. It is simply an amazing place that I hope is not forever destroyed.

The taxi from Amman to Damascus

Coming from Australia, people always joke about catching a taxi from Melbourne to Sydney (some 900 kilometres) let alone to another country. Well in Jordan and Syria, things are different. They will take you anywhere.

One night we’re driving around in a yellow taxi when we mention we’re heading to Damascus the next day. Necessity is the mother of all enterprise in the Middle East. People are genuinely friendly, but they need to earn the extra Dinar any way they can. No sooner than we had mentioned it and our taxi driver is hooking us up with a ride to Damascus. No dirty Greyhound busses or backpacker coaches. No sir! How about a nice clean Camry, or an E Class Mercedes to schlep across the border in style?! Why not we thought.

So he drives us to his depot, which actually wasn’t bad for a taxi place anywhere. Mind you there were military cargo nets, the obligatory hookah pipe and cigarette smoke. Plus the full-wall sized print of the King of Jordan in full Khakis, beret, Ray Bans posing with his assault rifle. You know as our negro friends would say ‘gettin’ his military on’. Strangely though it wasn’t out of place. I swear there’s someone from the government comes around and checks you have posters of the relevant dictators in full view, on pane of death. Because they’re everywhere. But thankfully we were here to do business and not wax lyrical about the king.

Yes the yellow taxis do the normal grind, the white ones will take you to Israel (with the right documents of course), Damascus, Beirut, you name it! It’s all part of that Middle Eastern, scare the shit out of you on one hand and loveable on the other charm. We hooked up a driver to take us to Damascus the next day. Basically door to door service. So we left wondering what tomorrow had in store for us.

The next day there’s our taxi driver in the hotel foyer, smoking and chatting. Don’t ever ask a Middle Eastern taxi driver to stop smoking, you may not like where he leaves you in the desert. Just a heads up. But our driver was jovial and in good spirits and I wasn’t about to start badly.

Driving out of Amman was mostly uneventful. Jordan must be like the Sweden or Singapore of the Middle East. They get along with their neighbours and pretty much everything is uneventful, well frankly boring. I was glad for my time in Amman but as a city it doesn’t do much for me. As our taxi driver opened up, he reminded me of a Terry Savales or young Omar Sharif. He was a charming bloke who seemed to know everyone wherever he went as the five hour journey unfolded.

Small town life in Jordan is really ramshackle villages and grafting a living day by day. You can see it in the potholes on the road, the perpetually unfinished buildings and the lines on peoples’ faces. There’s a lot going on but not a lot of material wealth to show for it. Oh except for the cops and their shiny Audi sedan police cars. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan looks after them very well.

Before a lengthy border crossing, we stopped in a cafe for a Turkish coffee. Lo and behold of course he knew these guys well too. Then it was back in the Merc for our final descent on Syria. We stopped in a car queue about 150 metres from the gate. At that point a local bloke who looked like a bit of an Arabic hobo approached the car. I forgot, in these interstate taxis you pay for a seat, not the whole car and we had two vacant seats. Stupidly I was in the front and my wife in the back. It was a bit strange that he got in so close to the border. Even stranger he reminded me of Aussie backpacker murderer Ivan Milat. But when in Arabia, you smile and keep your cool.

When we got to the customs point, there’s miles of semi trailers parked waiting for clearance. Lax Jordanian soldiers wearing half a uniform and half track suit pants are laughing and joking with our driver. Some of them almost leaning on their rifles for comfort whilst having a smoke. Guess what our driver knew those guys too. I was actually kind of thankful for it as it subdued the situation.

As we went into customs, we lost our new mysterious passenger and the mood gets a bit more serious. Women wearing full head to toe black burkas are everywhere and it’s a typical airport scene. Some moody customers clerk looked at each page in my passport, between glaring at me to ensure I hadn’t been to Israel. Thankfully Australian tourists aren’t high on their shit list and within twenty minutes or so, we’re back in the Merc heading into Syria.

Driving into Syria is a strange experience. Our mystery passenger got out at the first highway exit past the border. Perhaps the customs guys don’t like people literally walking across the border. Either way we stopped in the middle of nowhere and he started the long schlep home on foot and that was the last we saw of him.

It’s strange how a political border changes everything within about 20 minutes. Syria is much poorer than its neighbours. An impression indelibly left when the first Syrian patrol car we say was a 1986 Toyota Camry (I was there in 2011). The roads are in worse shape and you don’t see much of anything for the first hour or so. I just remember it being like wasteland until an hour before Damascus.

Fortunately Damascus was an instant hive of activity. Our cabby dropped us off at his favourite cafe outside of town, leaving us to get a yellow cab into the old city. Instantly he’s hugging the owner of the cafe and having another smoke. It was the strangest damn taxi ride I ever took in my life.