Archive for November 9th, 2011

Having been working in the city for the last three and a half years, first on Castlereagh Street and, since last October, George Street, I’ve developed something of a love-hate relationship with the place. It is, in its own way, rather ugly at times; crowded, noisy, busy and dotted with blackened gum. Along Pitt Street, the monorail sits like stitches on a sore, old wound; its pylons covered with grime and the ill-fitting papier maché of advertisements. In other places, the smog-darkened concrete, the dusty marble cladding, the spattered glass of the many tired, generic buildings, looms above the pavement. There are places where the skyline is boxy and dull, where contrasting architectural ambitions sit like class warfare writ large. There are places where aesthetics have not had a look in; where the roller-doors and security grills guard the crooked shopfronts that wear their clashing colours like bad fashion.

Yet there are also places where aesthetics have won out. Viewed from the Botanic Gardens, the skyline is certainly something to behold. Tall and impressively weightless, the more thoughtful and picturesque designs of architects like Renzo Piano give the city a distinctly timeless modernity. The clean sheen of the newly renovated Pitt Street Mall is a congenial oasis amidst the traffic-huddled streets. The open view of St Mary’s across Hyde Park is genuinely grandiose; the trees and fountains of this expanse, the pool of reflection, the long avenues under the canopy, all offer respite. The Art Gallery, the Gardens and Domain are arguably outside the CBD, yet so close as to have a very intrinsic relationship with it and give direct refuge from it.

Inside, behind the facades, beneath the pavements, countless holes in the wall offer a range of snacks and diversions. In these places in particular, the Asian-ification of Sydney moves apace. From Town Hall down to Railway Square, and even beyond, from Elizabeth Street down to Sussex Street, the dominance of Asian shops and business is very apparent. A whole range of new Korean and Japanese restaurants have opened in the last few years; along with ever more shops selling foreign groceries, Asian fashions, accessories and trinkets. The expansion of Chinatown might be commercially driven, yet it is also a cultural phenomenon that reflects the growth of one of the few true communities that inhabit the CDB. Personally, I see it as a great improvement. The new life downtown is not only far better than the empty wasteland of two decades ago, it has made the slummy end of the city centre truly exotic.

There is also a powerfully vibrant energy to the city. The old, carpeted pubs that hang on the corners from Park Street down to Central; the Windsor, the Criterion, the Coronation, the Edinburgh Castle, The Sir John Young, The Century Tavern, Stratton’s Hotel, all these places fill in the late afternoons and spill their noise and patrons onto the streets. It all seems, at times, rather cheap and tawdry; very lowest common denominator, tasteless and with little attention to detail, yet the pubs, the take-aways, the convenience stores, the internet dens, the gaming parlours, the multiplex, the discount fashion shops, the bubble tea and Ramen joints, the hairdressers and dry-cleaners, all give this end of town an exciting buzz.

The city does indeed make an interesting subject, and every day, when I get off the bus at Town Hall, it feels like being right in the middle of the mayhem. The buskers, homeless people, charity fundraisers, shoppers, students, suits, service staff, all mill about, busily doing either something or nothing. It’s oddly thrilling, if rather disappointingly unattractive. Still, such is life!

These photos, of course, don’t necessarily reflect all mentioned above. They are mostly taken downtown, but there are also some from Newtown and Glebe, and a couple from a very good Hallowe’en party. But still, I had to write something! Enjoy.

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“Give me back my broken night, my mirrored room, my secret life, it’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture.” – Leonard Cohen, The Future

On the 19th of June, 2009, I flew out from Sydney to Singapore to visit my girlfriend’s (S.) family for her mother’s birthday. It was the first leg of a five-week tour of South East Asia, taking in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and beyond, should time, money and will allow. In the preceding weeks, I had been doing nothing whatsoever but playing Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) all night and dragging my sorry ass to work the next day. Not an overly onerous burden, considering I was working part-time as an ESL teacher, yet, when I came to board the flight, I was physically and mentally exhausted.

Being someone who has enjoyed a boom-bust cycle of personal discipline over the years, ranging between some quite emphatic extremes, I figured the trip was a good opportunity to put some distance between myself and the game that had, for the last two months in particular, swallowed up my life. I was, in truth, in the grip of a full-scale, hardcore addiction. I could think of nothing other than levelling my characters, working the auction house and teaming up with equally afflicted, yet entertaining and very companionable individuals the world over, to hack, slash and magic our way through hordes of enemies. I was sleeping roughly three to four hours a day and staying awake by drinking enough coffee to blow the head off a rhinoceros. The trip to Asia would be a chance to rest and heal, and to break away from the clawing cravings and heavy withdrawal I suffered whenever I was not logged into DDO.

That, at least, was the idea. However, as soon as I arrived in Singapore and logged into a local unsecured wireless network, I began to wonder how on earth I could stomach five weeks without even so much as the auction house. What, really, was the point of the internet after all? It was all very well reading the news, researching intended destinations, updating Facebook and sending the occasional e-mail, but it lacked the more direct interactivity of a gaming interface. Then I got curious. Travelling with just a carry-on sized day pack as I have always done, but having, as ever, found room for a laptop, in this case, my EEE PC, I began to wonder if this mini PC could handle running DDO. After all, it had roughly the same specs as my previous, considerably larger laptop on which I had initially played the game when in Cambridge two years before. There was only one way to find out, and, in one of those fateful and, I suppose I should say, regrettable moments, I went to the DDO website and set in train a download of the game, which was still being offered on a trial basis.

It took me a couple of days in various locations, on various wireless connections which I managed to snake, before the download and installation of the game was completed. In the meantime, I did my second best to be sociable and hold my end up in various family situations. I’ve always been rather crap at knowing where to put myself when surrounded by other people’s families, especially where children are involved, as I seem to lack the skill to talk to them. I hung around and made conversation, was polite and even jovial at times, yet I felt a strong inclination to retreat, whenever possible, to the privacy of whatever bed I was sleeping on at the time and surf the net. That is, of course, when not sightseeing or participating in some group activity such as dinner or lunch. I certainly did retire early a few times where I might have been social for longer, though this had as much to do with my shyness around people as it did with my internet addiction. I know that S. wasn’t exactly happy with me because I didn’t make enough of an effort socially, and she could detect my mental distraction, but I was out of sorts in more ways than one, and the colossal gaming withdrawals didn’t help. I was finding it very difficult to concentrate or shift my mind away from the narrative of the game.

When the time came to fly out from Singapore to Cambodia, I felt greatly relieved, largely because I knew that once there, the location and events would occupy both my time and mind and I would not have time to hunker down and watch the game files download. Anyone who is prone to watching downloads tick along, staring at bit-torrent data-rate graphs or hanging on every small creep of an installation bar, waiting for those satisfying forward thrusts, will know what I’m talking about. Visiting Angkor Wat was going to be a buzz and if that didn’t drag me out of my torpor and turn my mind back to its love of history, ancient societies and foreign cultures, then there was no hope for me whatsoever. After all, I did have a PhD in history.

The good news was that our flight to Siem Reap had this effect. Once on the ground and in the taxi with Panha (pronounced Pun-yah), who was to become our driver for the next five days, I was dragged back into the real world by the contrasts of Cambodia. Siem Reap was dusty and alarmingly poor, for the majority of the locals anyway. The tourists, who brought money and work opportunities, but also drove the local prices far higher than any Cambodian could afford, had the luxury of staying in nice hotels for next to nothing. There were all manner of services to cater for tourists, and not much of a local middle class to enjoy them. The tourists even had their own street, which I dubbed Tourist Street, where everything was comparatively clean, modern and freshly painted.

We stayed in a cheap but very nice hotel on a less touristy, muddy road, with a lean-to brothel opposite and men selling sun-dried chilli snails from old carts. Siem Reap seemed ostensibly to be a peaceful and functional place, but with the Global Economic Crisis kicking in, most of the locals dependent on tourist dollars were suffering, with follow-on effects for the rest of the very poor population. Panha dropped us off at the hotel and we negotiated a price with him for the next few days. Once we’d checked in and showered, we went straight back out and he drove us to Angkor Wat itself, where we had breakfast in a café, watching the temple through a haze of dust and orange sunlight.

It was the first of several very long, hot and exhausting but rewarding days, and it was always a relief to return to the hotel to eat and refresh. The hotel had advertised wireless internet, though when I tried to access it on our first evening, I found that the signal did not reach as far as our room. I moved into the reception area where it was usable, but very slow, only really suitable for checking Hotmail and Facebook. I was annoyed about this, but let it go, knowing that I was, after all, in Cambodia, where internet access was not my top priority. Still, when on day two, they offered us the chance to move to a room at the front of the hotel, near reception, we took it.

I shan’t here describe the many pleasures of the sightseeing we did with Panha over the next few days, suffice to say that we visited most of the major temples and spent hours wandering through them.

It was remarkable experience, despite the thirty-seven degree heat and hundred percent humidity. I was especially out of sorts with the weather, but inspired by the overgrown ruins and hungry to get good photographs. On the latter score, it turned out to be more hit than miss,  partly because I was so hot and bothered that it was difficult to concentrate, but also on account of problems with haze and glare, which were exacerbated by my cost-cutting purchase of a cheap UV filter. Still, we saw everything we had come to see, along with plenty of other extras courtesy of Panha’s local knowledge.

On the fourth day we decided to take a break from the temples and Panha drove us to the floating village of Chong Khneash on the edge of Lake Tonle Sap. This long collection of houseboats and barges along the river mouth left us filled with wonder and despair; both for their remarkable way of life, and their almost complete lack of facilities and services.

I took a lot of photographs, but shooting these truly dirt-poor people felt almost pornographic, and I still feel guilty about how little we tipped the two guys who took us up the river. We had paid for tickets and thought the boat operators received some of this money, but only found out later that the company selling the tickets kept all the money and the boatmen lived solely on tips.

Spending so many days immersed in ancient ruins, and, indeed, modern ones, it was inevitable that I should crave a game of Civilization at the end of the day. This not being an option (I had already tested Civilization IV on the EEE PC and whilst it ran on minimum specs, it was too frustrating to be worth the effort) and, with the internet now available in our new room, albeit, at the pace of a sun-dried chilli snail, I used the hours at the end of the day to complete the installation of Dungeons & Dragons Online. It was only on our final evening, as we prepared to leave, that I at last had the opportunity to see if it would actually run.

I fired it up and was surprised to see that it did indeed run, albeit jerkily, with the sound off, and all the graphics turned down to minimum. I would also only be able to play it solo, as the computer could not handle rendering too many toons on screen at once. The cooling fan was already whirring and whistling at the highest pitch. It was hardly ideal, and I soon thought about abandoning it altogether. Yet, rather than doing so, partly fuelled by a passion to experiment with different character builds, I created a character called Byronne of the Sword Coast in honour of my favourite campaign world, The Forgotten Realms. It was another fateful moment: I had the chance to walk away, to give up in the face of such graphical retardation, yet, rather than giving up and uninstalling the game, Byronne was to become our fourth travel companion, much to the detriment of the rest of the journey. If you’re wondering who number three was, well, it was Bilby 1.0, of course.

When we arrived in Hoi An in Vietnam the following day, I discovered, much to my displeasure, that there was no internet connection in the hotel. Again, I knew it was not exactly the end of the world, and probably to be expected, but I did feel a deep sense of disappointment. I should probably point out at this stage that I have been, on and off, rather spoiled for internet since having had broadband at Cambridge from 1999. Indeed, it was then that I first really started to use the internet on an everyday basis, having previously been a here and there hotmailer. Despite using an old Pentium 1 or some equally dire rig back then, the cable connection was extremely fast, for the whole town had been wired up. After four years of this, I just assumed this was how the internet was for everybody. Even at the British School at Rome in 2003 we had a relatively fast internet connection, despite being attached to the Vatican’s server. This naturally prompted me to download as much porn as possible, partly for my own depraved entertainment requirements, and partly to see if they would hit me with the cosiddetto Inquisition Virus, about which we often joked.

When I returned to Australia at the end of 2003 to discover the joys of dial-up, I nearly died of shock. How people could be living in such backward circumstances in what was ostensibly a modern country, if a little intellectually and technologically retarded, was beyond me. For the next couple of years I struggled, before returning to England to find the entire country wired up to broadband and many cafés and pubs offering free wireless internet. I found this to be the case across much of Europe as well, even enjoying free, fast wireless internet at the airport in Bratislava, of all places. If poor old Slovakia could get its shit together in 2006, why on Earth couldn’t Australia, or Vietnam for that matter in 2008?

Only at the best of times does patience become me. With the stifling, coffin heat knocking me for six, alongside the frustration of nagging DDO withdrawals, I found an outlet for my agitation in the hotel swimming pool. Fortunately, there was much to see and do and, despite some tensions between S. and myself, we found Hoi An to be a very beautiful place. It was when we arrived in Hanoi, after visiting Hue, that the trouble started.

Hanoi is a pretty incredible place. It was wonderfully chaotic, dirty, run-down, ramshackle, and hung with the most captivating electrical wiring. Countless wires ran from each pole, stretching across and along the streets to a plethora of fuse boxes. In some places the electrical wires hung down to street level and had to be ducked under to access the pavement.

There were cables lying unattached on the ground, cables dangling precariously from junctions, cables crawling through tree-tops like a spawning of snakes. Everything seemed shabby and neglected. The state of the buildings in the old quarter was a sorry sight, some with no rooves, some with tarpaulins across the front, most in dire need of repair and paint, yet it was all very beautiful in the eyes of someone who loves decay and ruin. It was also crazily busy with constant traffic and activity.

The first night we arrived in Hanoi marked a terrible turning point in our journey. As we stepped off the coach that evening to be surrounded by taxi drivers, whom we tried initially to ignore as we had a map and planned to walk to our hotel, S. , in dodging our would-be chauffeurs, stepped awkwardly and went down hard on her ankle. Two minutes later, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of a building coming to terms with the fact that her ankle was in fact quite badly hurt and that she would not be able to walk. I was highly annoyed, not with her, but with the circumstances, as I had been determined to avoid taking a ride and was instead, looking forward to walking to the hotel. I have never liked depending on anyone when I travel, especially not people who thrust themselves in my face. Ultimately, despite my having told the drivers to clear off because they were hanging around like seagulls, too obviously gleeful that S. could not walk, we had no choice but to take a taxi to our hotel. It was when the taxi dropped us off on the wrong street and we were left standing there with absolutely no idea where we were and S. unable to move, that my frustration overwhelmed me. I’ve had only a few such moments in my life, but the end result is a sort of Tourettes supernova, wherein I scream “Fucken cunts! Fucken cunts! Cunts!” at the top of my voice for a minute or two. I did so, and having vented, stood like a prat, wondering what in hell to do next.

The sad upshot of all this was that, despite being an expression of my frustration and anger at finding ourselves in these circumstances, after a long and unbearably humid day, it inevitably seemed to S. as though it were partly directed at her. I think she was both shocked and deeply hurt, and understandably so. When I become angry, it takes me a while to achieve equilibrium and wasn’t until we finally made it to our hotel room, via a rickshaw driver, that I got around to apologising. It was an apology which, I think, was ultimately insufficient to assuage the bad taste left by my brain flip. I was also deeply ashamed of myself, having travelled alone for so long and in so many places and having dealt with difficult situations with far greater panache. In rather childish manner, having an audience was all that was needed for me to vent. It was, no less, a tanty of the worst sort, and was in no way dignified by my failure to throw myself on the ground and writhe.

It didn’t help matters that, over the next five days, finding myself with an internet connection in the hotel room at last, I spent much of the time when we weren’t sightseeing, playing DDO. Instead of giving my attention to S. and attempting to make amends through good behaviour and general sweetness, I was instead running an extremely low-res Byronne of the Sword Coast through low-level quests in Stormreach harbour, on the easiest difficulty level, collecting collectables and putting them up for auction.

I lay there at night, long after S. had gone to sleep, beating living hell out of kobolds and making packets of virtual cash from selling Deadly Feverblanch. Admittedly, we weren’t used to spending a lot of time together, but my detachment only made things more awkward. The fact was, however, that I was in the full grip of an addiction and, as is so often the case, almost all other concerns were completely eclipsed.

The trip to Halong Bay, where we spent a rainy night on a junk, proved to be something of a tonic. Kayaking around the limestone karsts, and, indeed, through a low, flat hole in one to a secluded bay, was a lot of fun, as was bombing from the top of the boat.

Yet, when a day later, we flew out of Vietnam and arrived in Bangkok, it was time to talk again about where things were going. I tried to apologise further for my behaviour overall, only now realising just how awkward I had made our time together, but the greatest impressions are always left by deeds and not words. The fact was that I could not get the desire to play DDO out of my head and it had completely skewed my sense of priority. I had, on the whole, been irritable, restless, bored and frustrated, despite the many awesome experiences we enjoyed. I do hold the heat and humidity to account to some degree, as humidity has always been my kryptonite, but there was no excuse for not being more consistently nice to S. She knew it, and I knew it, and when she flew back to Australia after a couple of days in Bangkok, as had always been planned, I had a lot of soul-searching to do.

I was, however, also entirely free to game! That night I changed hotels in Bangkok to ensure I had an internet connection, booked a flight to Chiang Mai, went out and got some dinner, then bunkered down with my computer. It was the first time I had had internet access for a couple of days and I now found myself slapped in the face. The trial period had expired and I could not get into the game without an active account. In order to start the trial, I had been forced to create a new account with a different e-mail address, as for some reason they would not allow me to log in with my active account. Simple, I thought, I just need to pay and have the account upgraded to full status and all will be well. This should have been simple enough, but as they were, at that time, still selling the game at retail outlets, the only way to activate the account was, in effect, to buy a copy and insert the serial number.

I was filled with despair, for I had been hoping to indulge myself throughout the rest of my trip after long days of sightseeing and photography. The following day I set off into Bangkok, wondering where on earth I might find a computer game store. I’d done some research on the internet and lined up a couple of shopping malls with games shops, but once downtown and in the thick of it, I found the shops mostly sold console games and next to nothing for PCs. What were the chances, I wondered, of finding DDO here in Bangkok? I tried to remember if I’d run with any Thais in game, but could only recall Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean gamers. I asked one of the chaps in a shop and he directed me to another shopping mall, two block s away, but once I got outside, I had no real way to orient and my map was inadequate to the task, so I wandered about ineffectually for some time. I was about to give up altogether and pursue other missions, when I finally spotted this huge shopping centre across a footbridge.

I hurried on in to find myself in a veritable warren of commerce. This place had dispensed entirely with the spacious, luxurious shoppig experience, and gone instead for cramming as much as humanly possible into the space. And the space was massive. The building contained level upon level of countless tiny shops, counters and hole in the wall outlets. Different levels seemed to be dedicated to different products – one was electronics, another was mobile phones, and another seemed entirely dedicated to computer games. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, and went to town flipping through thousands of games in plastic folders, no doubt illegal copies produced locally or in China. I was having no luck, however, and noticed that none of the games sold in these shops were MMOs. No doubt because there is no getting around registering online, and thus the need for a unique serial number. I pushed on with my quest through the forest of shops, and finally, after almost an hour, found what appeared to be the only honest retailer, who sold games in original boxes. It would be an understatement to say I was astonished when I spotted Dungeons & Dragons Online sitting on the shelf.

Back at the hotel, I went straight to the website and tried to insert the serial number and update the account. Yet there was another hitch. The account would not accept my credit card and gave me an error message. When I searched online to find discussions of said message in forums, I soon learned that the problem was caused by my attempting to use an Australian credit/debit card, with an account I’d registered to Australia, whilst in a foreign country. It was clear immediately that the only option was to get someone in Australia to log in for me. But who could I trust with this task, who would be available, and just how sad would I look when the purpose of the task became clear?

I turned the Facebook instant messaging service on (I loathe its intrusiveness and leave it off at all times) and got busy contacting friends. I first tried a work colleague, Chris, then another friend, until finally I manage to rouse my old buddy Demitri to take care of it for me. This had all taken several anxious hours where my frustration at being so close and yet so far was building all the while. In the end, already frustrated from not having been running for a month, I went downstairs to thrash it out in the hotel pool.

Finally, around ten PM that evening, Demitri had sorted things for me and I was free to log back in. When I ran Byronne of the Sword Coast across to the mailbox to collect the fruits of my previous labours, I felt like a junkie shooting up after a long, long wait. It was a case of goodbye Bangkok, hello Stormreach.

When I arrived in Chiang Mai two days later, I found I had booked a very appealing old hotel room with polished wooden floors and a vast, built-in wooden bed. It was a large room on the top floor which opened onto a wide balcony with a table and chairs on it. The view across town to the mountains was stunning, especially at dawn and sunset, and over the next few days I was to spend a lot of time out on the balcony taking photographs.

Already somewhat disappointed with my attitude throughout the holiday, and realising that the only way to avoid further regret was to make sure I used my time wisely, I signed up for a couple of excursions on my first two days. On the first day I visited a Hmong village, up a dodgy road through the forested hills in heavy fog, then visited a gorgeous Buddhist temple on top of a mountain. That evening I attended a banquet with traditional Thai dancers as entertainment.

On the second day I went on a longer journey to an elephant “school” where I rode one of these magnificent beasts.

At the end of each day I would lie down in bed, armed with milk and cookies, and farm the hell out of quests for collectables. I was very content here in Chiang Mai and had no intention of going anywhere in a hurry, despite the clock ticking before my flight back to Australia out of Singapore. I took things easy on day 3 and wandered around town, but when it started to rain, I had every excuse to return to the hotel and game. It was on day four in Chiang Mai that the sickness really set in. I was attempting to book a flight to head elsewhere in Thailand, when the internet crashed. I contacted reception to get them to sort it, going down there in person to encourage them as politely as possible, for the staff at the hotel were lovely, but there was no progress whatsoever. I paced about my room, cursing and shaking my fists at this horrible twist of fate. Give me internet! Come on! But there was no progress whatsoever and, whilst the signal remained strong and I was connected, there was no internet in the pipe.

My frustration grew over the next four hours, until I knew the only solution was to take matters into my own hands. They had reset the internet on at reception, so I figured the problem must lie with the local wireless router on my level. I had already had a cursory look about the place for it, but hadn’t seen it anywhere. After wandering about with my EEE PC, however, testing signal strength to get some idea of the router’s location, I finally found it in a cleaning cupboard. I restarted the little bastard and, hey presto! the internet was back on.

Having gotten so used to the internet over the last few days, I was flooded with relief when I regained access. And, just as a desperately thirsty man drinks insatiably when he finds water, I booked the ticket then plunged straight into an orgy of gaming. With my flight back to Hong Kong via Bangkok not leaving for another two days, I thought about the many options before me in Chiang Mai, but ultimately, spent most of the time gaming. Be it on the bed with milk and cookies, or out on that wonderfully spacious balcony, I was a happy man. I swam in the hotel pool in the morning, ate a hearty breakfast, then went back to bed to game. I made sure I took a trip around town each day, venturing to some very interesting places like the local, non-touristy markets and taking a lot of photographs of workers.

Yet, after two or three hours, in need of another shower, I would buy a carton of milk and two packets of cookies then head back to the hotel room. I always planned only to stay a while before going out again, but this didn’t exactly transpire. What baffles me is how, in retrospect, it all seems rather foolish, whilst I recall at the time being extremely happy. I loved that hotel room, I loved Chiang Mai, and I loved every bit of what I was doing there.

When I finally returned to Sydney after five and a half weeks away, having spent the final week in Hong Kong and Singapore, it wasn’t long before I had the chance to log in at last on my desktop and give Byronne of the Sword Coast a proper run for his money. How big he looked, how magnificently detailed, and how wonderfully rich he was after all my efforts! I now had two paid accounts on Dungeons & Dragons Online and, it soon turned out, one less girlfriend. I was in a state of emotional flux, both caring and not caring in equal measure, and I did what any hardcore gamer would do in such circumstances. I went out, spent some of my last few dollars on a big fat bag of weed and settled in for a total lock-down for the next few days. Editing the photographs could wait, for there was much ado in the city of Stormreach.

Inevitably, those days would stretch into weeks and the weeks into months. Far from putting any distance between myself and my obsession, I had managed instead to become even more deeply immersed in the game. With no one other than myself for company and not especially interested in anything other than reading the New Scientist and going to the cinema, there was little that could distract me from gaming. I was now free to give the bulk of my time to DDO. Bring it on!

ps. This was first posted in April 2011, then taken down some months later. I wasn’t comfortable with the content and thought it reflected poorly on my character, but in retrospect, I’d prefer to have it out there as it stands, as it belongs with the other pieces in the series.

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