On Drinking Starbucks While Abroad

Firstly, lets make it clear that we should all be boycotting Gloria Jeans. No ifs, no buts. Gloria Jeans is owned by a ghastly man who stands for nothing but hate, I don't care what way you want to spin it.
Now that I've got that off my chest, can I just say how fabulous Starbucks is?
I know, friends will tell me that I'm just throwing my support behind another multinational chain. Guilty. I really don't have a problem with that.
Sure, they charge $6 for a coffee, and I almost never go to Starbucks in Australia - who's got the cash? But while on holiday in Asia, there is nothing more exquisite than sliding into a comfy Starbucks chair and enjoying your first good coffee for days, revelling in the air-conditioning and the English-language magazines and the caramel latte that has totally blown your budget for the day. No beggars, staff you can understand, and the same over-priced and slightly too dry day-old pain au chocolat you can enjoy in Starbucks all over the world. Maybe its the same one?
Starbucks on Convent Rd in Bangkok is probably the best one in the world - hyper-aggressive air conditioning and yuppie gay-boys in the upstairs lounge mean you could spend an entire afternoon here, and I have. Starbucks in the Dongmen pedestrian precinct in Shenzhen is also a winner, as is the one on the Largo do Senado in Macau. This is a pic of me being deliriously happy at Starbucks in Langham Place, Mongkok.
One day they'll open a Starbucks in Ho Chi Minh City, and then my life will be perfect.

Vietnamese Holy Picture

Further to my obsession with Holy Pictures, here's one I bought at a wonderful Catholic church in Ho Chi Minh City. It has the world's BEST range of HPs, as well as a dazzling array of religious tat. You just have to run the gauntlet of aggressive old-lady beggars to get in there.


Just a picture of the Virgin from Macau, because it's so pretty.
Did you know that Australia is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary?


I am giving a talk on Kwan Yin in a couple of weeks, and I really want to convey a sense of how important and ubiquitous her image is in popular Buddhist culture. I am trying to capture as much as possible the presence of Kwan Yin in everyday lives - I want to photograph shrines to Kwan Yin in people's houses and gardens. I am also hunting down ways in which her image is used commercially, and here is an incense wrapper from Vietnam that I've just scanned.
I use a lot of incense - I'm constantly praying, and my house has a constant smell about it of sandalwood. Mostly I buy it from the Vietnamese grocery store in Cabramatta called Dong Khanh - it has the biggest range of Buddhist devotional products that I know of. Well, perhaps Leung Wai Kee in Chinatown has more, but they are much more expensive, and their range of incense more limited.
Occasionally I will also stock up at Indian grocery stores - my favourite is in Wentworthville. Normally I favour the Satya Sai incense there, and the various types of Nag Champa and fluxo incense. I also buy Himani Gold Turmeric Cream - my all-time favourite cosmetic.
If I'm feeling particularly holy I'll buy expensive incense from work, but I only ever burn one stick at a time (at those prices!).
I love receiving incense as a gift, though a friend from Hong Kong told me it is immensely inauspicious to receive it - incense being used to memorialise the dead.
I know a lot of people complain about incense and its smell, claiming to react badly to it. Such people invariably bore me.

Holy Pictures

I have a thing for Holy Pictures.
As a child I always envied my Catholic cousins, whose books and belongings were always jam-packed with Holy Pictures, gifts from Nuns and Priests and Italian Nonnas and other impossibly exotic personages. Lifting a bible off the shelf in my cousin's house would reward you with a veritable shower of these exquisitely decorated little cards, gilt-edged, syrupy recreations of the BVM or St. Teresa.
When I stay at St. Benedict's and am permitted to sit in choir with the monks, I am always gratified to see that their psalters and hymn books have places liberally marked with HPs of all descriptions.
I'm not the only one, either. I have just recently purchased a beautiful coffee table book of reproductions of vintage Holy Pictures - there's obviously a market out there!
Here is my favourite Guardian Angel Picture, with its accompanying prayer. May you be blessed with Angelic protection!

At the beach - Pt. 2

This is a wonderful pic of my Father-In-Law and my niece enjoying themselves on the beach in Vung Tau, Vietnam.
Now, any resident of Saigon knows that an annual trip to Vung Tau is one of the necessities of life. It is about 90 minutes drive from Ho Chi Minh City, and used to have the much more glamorous name of Cap St. Jacques. Naturally the communists stopped all that, and tried to turn it into a functional fishing village. But Vung Tau's glamorous past was always going to catch up with it, and it wasn't long till it became, once again, a weekend destination for stressed-out Saigonese.
This pic was taken on the private beach. Let me recommend the private beach. The public beaches in Vietnam have almost as many beggars, panhandlers and ruffians as genuine bathers, and if you want to go unmolested, you really should go the private route. It may seem a little elitist, I know, but even my patience has limits - particularly on the beach.
The People's Committee for the Vung Tau area was always a lot more lenient than that of Ho Chi Minh City, and as a result it became something of a religious centre - monks discovered they could establish monasteries relatively unharassed, and so the road to Vung Tau is littered with literally dozens of religious institutions of various stamps. It can be a fascinating trip for anyone interested in religion.
Ironically, Vung Tau has also became THE place for Saigonese to take mistresses/boyfriends etc. for dirty weekends, and the mid-priced hotels along the beach do a roaring trade in star-crossed (temporary) lovers.
For the most part, Vung Tau has nothing much to offer the average Western tourist save some warm, muddy water and some excellent seafood restaurants. But spend any time in Saigon and you'll soon be invited on a trip to Vung Tau - for whatever purpose.

At the beach

Not wanting to bore you with my health problems (Why stop now? I hear you ask), I have had an ongoing problem with my big toe which is causing me a lot of grief. I have been susceptible to big toe problems ever since I was a small child, so some are right when they say I was born an old man. But really, I have been in a lot of pain for over three months now, and it does get to me. People like Louise Hay say that problems with the big toe indicate an undue worry about the future, a lack of clarity about one's direction in life. Well, that just about sums me up....
Anyway, on a drizzly but blissful Easter Monday morning we drove down to Helensburgh to visit the Hindu temple there. After my prayers we kept driving to the nearby Stanwell Park so that I could bathe in the saltwater, something friends have been telling me to do for some time now. It was an awful lot of fun, though the water was freezing. It definitely had some psychic benefit, if no actual physical response. Stanwell Park is such a wonderful place, the perfect beach village. I could spend my final days in a shack on the cliffside there. Unfortunately the shack would probably set me back a million dollars or so, but a man can dream can't he?


I hate gift vouchers.
I hate giving them, because I think it smacks of a lack of imagination, or simply an unwillingness to spend more than a few minutes imagining what another person would actually like to receive.
And I hate receiving them. Not that I am judging the person who gave them to me - I appreciate any gesture of affection and generosity. But I am normally just too embarrassed to use them. I am afraid that the person behind the counter will think that I am a difficult customer who has a credit from previously returned items. And I hate the way it's normally a big fuss when you present one - "Evelyn, do you know how to process a gift voucher?" - everyone behind you in the line snarling and shifting angrily.
I realise that this is a problem. I also hate discount vouchers - especially for paltry amounts - and I refuse to use them. I figure the shame involved is simply not worth any monetary gains. And loyalty programs - MAN I hate those. And coffee cards. I'd rather just hand over the money and get out.
I think this is partly a result of being brought up to cause a minimum of fuss - my childhood mantra was "don't cause any trouble for anyone else." It's also a result of working in retail for so many years and witnessing how abominably people will behave in order to get something free or cheap. I hate the sense of entitlement, and the way it demeans everyone and causes so many to dispense with any sense of manners or reserve. I once witnessed a woman go into a screaming fit because a staff member unwittingly neglected to give her a 40 cent discount.
Call me arrogant, call me stupid, but I'd just rather pay full price for things and leave with my dignity intact.

Waking up with a headache

About 3 this morning I started to be aware of pain in my head. By 4 I was tossing and turning, and by 5 I had a full-on, all systems go migraine. Nothing is more depressing, more soul-destroying than waking up with a headache. I had planned to do several things today, but even before I got out of bed I knew I wouldn't be capable of any of them. Not even a visit to the doctor!
I've taken medication twice already this morning, but there is no let up. I just feel drowsy, depressed and aware of a slightly dulled pain in the right side of my brain.
How to fill a whole day feeling like this?
I really understand the connections between suicide and migraine. If ever there was a day to top oneself, it would be a day like this.

Reasons Why

This is a pic of my Great-Grandfather teaching Sunday School at the Assemblies of God Church in Halifax, North Queensland, probably some time around the turn of the 20th century. He was a lay-preacher, as were almost all of his brothers. They would preach at any church that would have them, so I suppose they had a catch-all kind of theology that could sit well at a variety of venues - mostly, I'd imagine, Pentecostal, Baptist, Salvationist and Methodist. One of my Great-Uncles was a famous itinerant preacher who rode a bicycle around North Queensland preaching the gospel for many years. Later they pretty much settled down in either the AOG or the Salvation Army. My Grandfather totally abandoned religion, and ended up marrying a good Methodist girl.
Anyway, the reason for all this is that I suppose the reason for my wanting to be a minister, just like the reason for me wanting to be a writer, is tied up in some kind of genetic code. And this photo is my evidence.


I like to go on retreat a few times a year, and I have only just returned from three days at my favourite spot, the Benedictine Monastery at Arcadia. This time I took my Mum, which was a novel experience. Because "ladies" are not allowed in the guest quarters attached to the monastery we stayed in a cottage on the monastery grounds. This was an amazing place, filled to the brim with religious tat, fake flowers and a truly eclectic collection of furniture other people no longer wanted in their homes. It was remarkable. Rather than retreat I could have spent several days just cataloguing the remarkable collection.
But I was good. I slept a lot, and read carefully Merton's little book on the Psalms. Much as I love singing the Psalms, their content STILL bothers me, no matter how much of a spiritual spin you want to put on the bloodthirsty words! Once during Office I almost burst out laughing at the contrast between the exquisite singing and contemplative atmosphere and the slash fiction text that was actually being sung. Something about murdering babies....
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