José Simsa – Part 1

Excerpts from José’s Blog – Part 1

How amazing to have an outlet for those thoughts that would normally lay dormant in the thinking process and never be uttered.  ‘Musings’ can ponder on life’s happenings, reactions and responses.

In this part of life the mind is paramount – it is a daily companion that affirms or disagrees with thoughts.  It is pleasing to note that confidence in the mind and its processes still rank high.  I still trust the mind and revel in exchanges with others.

In my life I have an escape in the form of two music groups of which I am a member.  One is called AllSorts (probably best described as a world music group), while the other – a fledgling jazz group – still remains to be named.  I play a keyboard and, for a few hours every week, I become an invincible being that transcends this life of an ageing person with mobility issues.   Jazz is my forte – since I discovered syncopation at the age where I should have been embarking on a classical career.  How fortunate that in the Third Age I found a group of musos who’ve been together now for 14+ years.

26 Sep 2019

This morning I opened up my blog to the outside world.

It’s quite scary to go public, as blogging isn’t necessarily all froth and bubble.  Some posts lay bare my real feelings on specific issues.  I console myself with the fact that most people know I have strong opinions with a political bent!  I’m bracing myself for their comments.  It’s a glorious day today.  One of those days when you look out at your immediate environment and a smile grows on your face.  Even Sophy Wu, my old, demented dog is running up and down the back garden with an idiotic look of joy on her face.

I’m reading The Lost Man by Jane Harper.  It evokes memories of a wonderful time way back when I was governess on Mt Willoughby cattle station in middle Oz.  It was 3000 sq miles and ran 6,000 head of cattle.  Nearest neighbours 45 miles east, 60 miles north, and nothing west until you hit WA.  Nearest town (?) was Oodnadatta, used for trucking cattle down south.  Oodna (as it was called) had a pub, store, an AIM health outpost with 2 nurses, and a one-teacher school.  Most of the stations in the area had a house (previously RAAF buildings from WW2) in Oodna.  We’d go in when the stockmen were trucking and there would be a film and a dance put on in the Hall.   All stations had their own flying strip to facilitate the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and communication was conducted by radio.  I was there for three years (1954, ’55, & ’56) until the youngest child was old enough to go to boarding school in Adelaide.  That period of my life still ranks highly in my memory.

27 Sep 2019

Yesterday I was wandering down memory lane and it has led me on to other periods in my life.

I recall very clearly when Gough Whitlam not only made tertiary education more or less free, but encouraged mature-aged people to apply.  A friend and I decided to embark on this together.  Our previous matriculation qualifications were considered out-of-date, but we could upgrade by doing three subjects at Year 12 level.

We approached the Principal of one of the local High Schools and he was somewhat thrown by our request to join Year 12 classes.  However, he soon came on-side when he realised it would bring good publicity and kudos to the school by being the first to accept mature-age students under the Whitlam education program.

In consultation, we chose English Lit., History, and Biology as our three subjects and we were duly enrolled.  The Principal said he wouldn’t ask us to wear uniform – this had never entered our minds and we thought he may be joking, but one look at his face told us he was not only serious, but also granting us a huge concession.  To this day, I often ask myself if I would have gone on had it been mandatory to wear uniform at 39!

We survived the year and passed with flying colours despite having full-time work and family commitments.  In the beginning of the new year we were invited to sit an entrance exam to university.  This hurdle too was jumped and we enrolled at Flinders University in SA – my friend in an English/Drama degree, while I enrolled in Sociology and Politics.

We had the good fortune to be studying in the 70s with Don Dunstan as Premier of SA and Gough Whitlam in Canberra.  Campuses were alive with luminaries on teaching staff and active students who went on to become luminaries in their own right later.  It was heady, exciting and the best atmosphere in which to soak up knowledge. In the refectory was an enormous mural of Don Dunstan as Superman, and Daddy Cool entertained us in the quad.  Halcyon days!

1 Oct 2019

Today my eldest grandson flies out to Iran and that has triggered memories of when I went to Iran way back in 1991.

To begin this story I must return to another significant part of my fortunate life.  In 1985 I joined the Overseas Service Bureau (OSB) as a Field Officer.  OSB, or the Bureau as it was more commonly known, ran a program, Australian Volunteers Abroad, where Australians with specific skills were matched to developing countries that needed those skills.

As a Field Officer, I was initially responsible for the program in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Botswana and Zimbabwe.  The job entailed receiving and researching requests from both the government and non-government sectors while in ‘my’ countries.  Upon return to Australia I, along with the other FOs, would participate in interviewing applicants in every state and, when final numbers had been selected, begin to match their skills to the requests.  It was a huge and demanding job, but it never ceased to delight and/or dismay (depending on the success of placements).  It was a job that gave the highest work satisfaction, and the one where I stayed the longest (seven years).

In Pakistan, a large percentage of my work centred on the Afghan refugees in the camps of the North West Frontier and Quetta during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.  On one occasion, I had time off while in-country and I popped over to Iran for a week in Isfahan.  After the harrowing and hectic times in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Isfahan was a haven of peace, culture and beauty!

At the time I was at the Bureau (1985-92) there was a stunning group of people on staff.  We undertook and managed a mammoth program in countries of the Pacific, South-East Asia, South Asia, Southern Africa and Central and South America.  These days we meet rarely but when it happens it’s like the intervening years never existed and we all agree that it was a period of great impact in our lives.

There are funny stories too and I’ll share some of those later . . .

5 Oct 2019

It’s Saturday already and a promising spring day is ahead.  Sunshine is such a tonic – I drop 20 years as I bask in its glory!

Reading Bob Woodward’s ‘FEAR’ – on Trump in the White House.  When a significant period of your life has been spent in many other countries and you can recall the wonderful people and their cultures whom you have had the good fortune to get to know and to live amongst, then you treasure this time to reflect and realise how you have received the ultimate gift and how it has enriched your life.  This is what I’d rather think about – not the consequences of erratic actions and decisions emanating from madmen around the globe.

10 Oct 2019

Seniors Festival has begun and there are two weeks of events in the City of Port Phillip.  Last Monday was the opening Spectacular and AllSorts opened the program.  It was a mixture of dancing and musical items, accompanied by an abundant afternoon tea. Both AllSorts and Jazz Tomorrow have further gigs during the Festival.

I recall participating in a festival of a far different nature in the wilds of Sabah when I was a field officer for OSB.

I was visiting John Kelly, a forester, whom I’d placed in a reafforestation project in Sabah.  To get there, I went by car to a river in the west of Sabah, then by motorised dinghy to the other side, where a local Iban took me on the back of a motor bike to the camp where John lived and worked.  It was a very isolated location but John had familiarised himself with his surroundings and, during the week I was there, I not only saw the project and its workings, but John also took me to his friends in a Long House some miles away from the camp.   A Long House is traditional community living accommodating many families, usually along the banks of a river.  As couples marry, another room is built on and they share the communal cooking and washing facilities.

We attended a wedding and welcome ceremony, a very formal but festive occasion.   The local brew was very potent and the music mesmerising.  The Headman made us very welcome and it was obvious John was a special visitor.

On Saturday night John said “Righto FO (me) put on your glad rags we’re going out”.  I thought he was joking, but we went for miles on the motorbike until we reached a building, literally in the middle of nowhere!  It was a grocery and haberdashery shop run by a Chinese couple, and although there were no obvious settlements around, it was well stocked.  We were ushered into a back room where meals and alcohol were served.  We were the only customers and again John was well-known and welcomed.

My admiration for the Australians we placed in developing countries knew no bounds.  John would stay and work in the project camp for months on end before going into KK for some R&R.  Yet he had created a social life and become a welcome visitor to the scattered communities that he met.

16 Oct 2019

I’m looking forward to Saturday.  Mr Thanh who was on the community health team of my staff in Vietnam is in Australia with his wife, settling their daughter (who gained a scholarship) into a school in Sydney. They are travelling to Melbourne as we speak and we will have the day together.  I last saw them in 2017 when I was in Vietnam for our 20-year reunion.  The project was centred on ethnic minorities in the mountains of Binh Thuan Province and was based in Phan Thiet where I lived on the South China Sea.  I, plus a Frenchman, were the only foreigners in the whole province.  I was there for 14 months and it stays forever in my heart, mainly due to the wonderful & dedicated Vietnamese with whom I worked.

22 Oct 2019

One of my old staff in Vietnam – Vo Thi Hong – phoned today and said Thanh and his wife (who visited me last Saturday) had told her that I lived alone and she felt very sad.  It is interesting how people see life so differently.  Hong lives with her husband and son in the same compound as her parents and siblings with their families.  Besides being an accountant in a travel agency, Hong has a small shop in her locality in Saigon that is run by her mother and one sister.  The whole family support each other in all their endeavours and raise each other’s families as needed.  Despite Vietnam modernising at a prodigious rate, the clan system still reigns supreme, and long may it do so.

I, on the other hand, enjoy the lifestyle chosen for my old age.  I have an apartment where I am alone when I choose and in company when I want.   A garden to potter and enjoy breakfast in, and the beach a block away.  The location in the City of Port Phillip is the envy of a lot of my friends while the accessibility to all services, cinema, and shopping is very close.

Two very different lifestyles but both Hong & I are content.

26 Oct 2019

Ah Melbourne – hot one day and freezing the next!  Capricious in the extreme – pounding heat yesterday and a storm today with thunder, gale winds, and rain.  Melbourne will tantalise us with its fickle weather and hay fever – yet it ranks highly among ‘the most liveable cities’. When it’s stormy, memories are evoked of other cataclysmic events.

I was in the Maldives, travelling to one of the northern islands where I would visit an Australian medical science technologist.  She was based there to establish a laboratory for blood testing under the OSB program.  On board the dhow (local sea craft) was the son of the chief whose island we were heading towards.  Accompanying him was his wife who was heavily pregnant with their first child, and one other local man.  The captain (who steered the craft by standing with his back to the tiller and controlling it with his toes) had one crewman, whose main duty was to bale.  The day was sunny (naturally) and appeared to be balmy.

Out of nowhere, a monsoonal storm struck.  The friendly sea became the most terrifying monster whipping up huge walls of seawater that we climbed up and dropped down the other side, only to be confronted by yet another seawall!  The wind literally shrieked all around our craft, the most frightening noise encircling us.  The crewman indicated a pole I should hold; I clung to it and prayed to every deity that is and was.

Then above the noise of the storm, I heard the young woman screaming.  I wondered if she had gone into precipitate labour – and then I realised I was the only other woman on the boat and I would be expected to help if she was in labour!!   She was in the covered area while I was out on deck.  I thought “if they expect me to assist her then they’ll have to unclench my hands from MY pole and drag me across the deck”!

In the midst of all the monsoon could throw at us, the captain remained completely unruffled.  The only concession he made was to use the tiller with his hands as he rode the seawalls one after the other.  When he looked my way, he would give a reassuring smile and then returned to looking straight ahead.  It was obvious that he had done this many times before.

After some thirty minutes of seeing nothing but water and hearing only the cacophony of wind, the captain looked at me and pointed ahead.  I could see nothing but he knew the island was looming.  With a last vicious swipe, the sea picked up the dhow and spewed us on to the island where we sat like Noah’s Ark on the sand.  People appeared and helped us, our luggage and the supplies out of the boat.  The young couple moved off.  She was not screaming and fortunately for me (and her!) she had not been in labour but very scared.

The next morning the Chief visited me where I was staying.  He came to thank me for my assistance to his son and his wife!   I felt such a fraud because I knew that I had had no sympathy for, and no skills to offer the young woman.  But I thanked him in return for his courtesy as we engaged in diplomatic small talk.  All’s well that ends well – that Lab technologist was one of my outstanding successes.  She learned the language and took to the life like the proverbial duck.  The laboratory was well set-up and well used by a cluster of islands in the north of the atoll.

Not all turned out that way, but that’s for another time.

2 Nov 2019

When I first joined the Bureau in 1985, I said I wasn’t good on water – “that’s okay we won’t give you any of the Pacific countries”.

Initially, I was made responsible for developing the program in Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Republic of the Maldives.  The first three were entities, but the Maldives??  To top it all, my first field trip was to Pulau Bidong, an island off the coast of Kuala Trengganu, where Malaysia had a detention camp for Vietnamese refugees.  The sea was subject to swells and the wharf on Pulau Bidong was ridiculously high above the water.  Old hands waited for the appropriate swell and jumped, until I was the last one left on the ship (I had no idea how to jump upwards) – they all called encouragingly and promised to catch me (with the best will in the world I couldn’t imagine how the lightly-built Malays and Vietnamese could do that!)  After a nightmare wait, a good swell came that almost allowed me to walk onto the wharf.  Such relief!

Pulau Bidong was a hellhole where rats outnumbered the camp inmates by many hundreds.  The Malaysian military paid the Vietnamese so much per rat killed and provided them with a pole in which a long, thick, sharp-pointed nail was embedded as a weapon.  The island was not large and had beautiful beaches but the Vietnamese were not allowed on the beaches in case they took the risk of swimming away.

The accommodation for the refugees was open-sided large sheds with three layers of wooden bunks.  Staff was housed in long buildings of small rooms that were very hot.  While I was there, I slept with the light on and sweated off a couple of kilos while watching for rats.  I observed the education and medical programs where we had teaching and health workers.  It was obvious the Australians with their friendly professional manner were popular with the refugees.  At night we’d walk to a spot where the Vietnamese had ingeniously set up a very basic ice cream making venture and had the most delicious durian ice cream.

The Australians came back with me to Kuala Trengganu for an in-country meeting.  I was sharing a room with one of the teachers and, looking out the window at the stunning view, I brought her attention to the beautiful scene.  She was revelling in the luxury of soft, laundered sheets and towels and enjoying the room service.  She looked out and commented ‘Just another tropical island . . .’ Priceless!

13 Nov 2019

Today is Remembrance Day – and I honour all service personnel who have participated in theatres of war over the history of colonisation in Australia.  While I deplore war as the most primitive form of failed diplomacy, I respect the women and men who are in the defence forces.  Part of that is due to my early history as an anti-war activist in the Vietnam years and then being confronted with the dreadful attitude that was meted out to the returning Viet Vets.  A shameful part of our history.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve had cause to be at close quarters with the ADF.  In the early 90s I was working with Mozambican refugees in five camps along the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  I was quite friendly with our Deputy High Commissioner and I accompanied her on an official visit to Rwanda following the dreadful internal strife and massacres.  We were billeted with the ADF and it was very apparent that the ADF members were very respectful and supportive to the local population.

The second occasion was in 1999-2000 when I was in East Timor following the departure of the Indonesians.  The ADF under the command of Peter Cosgrove were the peacekeeping force while the UN prepared to reinstate the governance of the East Timor.  The whole country had been devastated by the retreating Indonesian army, so there were no utilities, no food, very bad roads and no infrastructure.  We found a building that wasn’t too badly damaged and the ADF threw cables across from their camp so we could get power.  East Timor looked like a moonscape it was so damaged, but the ADF just quietly helped in bringing back some semblance of civil life while maintaining peace.

All of the above leaves me quite conflicted in my opinion of war and the military and I guess it always will.

Sometimes memories are triggered by casual comments.  Last Monday, a group of us had gathered in the foyer of St Kilda Town Hall waiting to be escorted to the meeting room on the 1st floor for the OPCC (Older Persons Consultative Committee to the City of Port Phillip) monthly meeting.  One of our number is not long back from a trip in Europe and UK and commented how she was really impressed by the apparently comfortable integration of the population in Portugal.  Ouch! Back flew my mind to the three years I spent in Zimbabwe working in five refugee camps along the border of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  I remembered how the Portuguese had been quite vindictive when it became clear they had to leave their colonial lifestyle in Mozambique.  They poisoned water sources and destroyed infrastructure as they left and covertly fostered the internal strife that erupted into Civil War that led to many thousands of people being displaced.  Hence the refugee camps.

Then I recalled the most rewarding and successful program that our organisation undertook during those three years.  UNHCR approached IPA (International People’s Aid) where I was the head honcho and asked if we could devise and run a program of landmine awareness in all five camps before repatriation as Mozambique was riddled with landmines.  Five Engineers from the Zimbabwean Army would be seconded to IPA and training for them, and me, would be provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council.  I made only one stipulation, the engineers must be in civilian dress as the Mozambican refugees had been terrorised by military uniforms before their escape.

The biggest obstacle was illiteracy as the majority of the refugees had never been to a school, so we had to plan a program that didn’t rely on the printed word.  Those Engineers were brilliant!  They built mock minefields in each camp and ran programs with groups of refugees, while refugee artists designed posters depicting risks, what to look for, and taking that information to the mine clearing agencies.  We had fantastic gatherings where leading refugees would role-play finding landmines on the smallholdings of villagers.  To reinforce the messages, we had competitions for the best posters and best storytelling.

The visiting UNHCR senior manager was taken through one of the mock minefields and commented that she was sweating during the exercise due to its realism.  On returning to Geneva our program of Landmine Awareness Training was cited as the flagship in all UNHCR supported programs.  Princess Diana also visited the camps and did a walk through a ‘minefield’.

I was still there when repatriation took place, and as far as I know, there were no fatalities among the returning Mozambicans.  I visited many rural villages and was very proud to see that many of the posters had been replicated and placed in prominent points of the village.

A lovely PS:  when I was finally leaving Zimbabwe, those five Army Engineers came to me and said if I ever had to run a Landmine Awareness Training program in any other country they would leave the army and come with me.

To be continued . . .

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