Flotsam and Jetsam, the lot of us.

The detritus the winds and currents deposit on this island fills me with both wonder and consternation. The endless pieces of plastic that we now ingest in the food chain, bottle tops, plastic water bottles, shopping bags, tooth brushes, throngs, take away food containers is now what makes up the flotsam and jetsam of our era.

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Over its ‘settled’ history to coin a Tony Abottism, TI has seen that detritus fall layer upon layer into the sand, as many of the beaches were slipways servicing the hundreds of pearling luggers the proliferated in the late 19th Century, right up until the 1970’s.

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A pearling lugger on the a Thursday Island slip in 1958, quite possibly on my backyard beach.

A pearling lugger on the a Thursday Island slip in 1958, quite possibly on my backyard beach.

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Shards of Japanese rice bowls are still occasionally revealed by the shifting sands, from the many Japanese pearlers that inhabited the Island, many of whom now lie in the cemetery.

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Today all that remains of the slipways are calcified twists of rusty rail tracks, cogs and skeletons of old motors  and the middens of broken beer bottles. So much shards of glass is shattered through the beaches, it is often referred as ‘TI Coral.’

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But today’s flotsam swirls into the five oceanic gyres as perpetual islands of suspended plastic particles or scattered across every beach on the planet, serving as a reminder of our pandemic of consumer insanity.

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But ultimately we are all flotsam and jetsam, star dust scattered by the cosmic winds, temporarily manifested into a group of atoms bouncing around making up the ‘here and now’ we all get so lost in. Mass extinctions, climate change, meteorites smashing into us and annihilating everything, all just grains of sand – dust particles the lot of us.

TI, AKA The Rock, an allegory for the planet, is always making apparent the transience of everything. What the seaspray doesn’t corrode or the isolation and remoteness drive insane, everything comes, and goes here – buildings, dreams and people.

One of these transience friends, a fellow itinerant worker, lovingly but wearily described life on TI as ‘living in a caravan park.’

A dream within a dream, a manifestation appeared in an abandoned field recently, smoke and mirrors – the Carnies came to town. Gilmore’s Travelling Tropical Amusements to be more precise, an intergenerational family the endlessly traipse the country towns of outback Australia. An apparition of wonder for my two year old, complete with ectoplasmic fairy floss, forbidden fruits of dagwood dogs, jumping castles, dodge’em cars and shooting galleries, all under the incandescent gloss of coloured lights.

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Matt Gilmore proprietor of this season’s show said it was a hard life, “Holus Bolus, I’ve lost everything I own on the road, three times, caravans, boats, trucks, just smashed to pieces before my eyes. But I love coming to a new town and giving the kiddies this entertainment – but I could never stay somewhere for more than two weeks, I’d go crazy.” And with a puff of diesel smoke they were gone.

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Again illuminating the allegory of life on the rock, which is a metaphor of the transience of existence on the whole.

So now when I go to the beach that is my backyard, I try to resist my bleeding heart liberal, urbane sensibilities and take in my time here as a complete whole, the good, the bad, the corrosion, the erosion and the detritus of my mind as it washes up against the flotsam and jetsam of the world at my backdoor.

Out of this detritus I have built a little Zen garden, all found objects donated by the tides. I rake the sand, subjugate the weeds and absorb the particles into an expression of fleeting existence here and now.

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I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

 

Thinking Strait.

AN office job in paradise may be the best way to describe my position up here in the Strait. I can see the sea from my desk, its ever tempting and tantalizing turquoise water bristling with large, sharp-toothed beasties.

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The remote isolated nature of the region and the shoe-string budget the paper runs on, means getting to the Outer Islands is limited to the occasional generosity of others, cadging a lift with a politician or talking my way onto a corporate junket, I whore myself and my camera. This both increases exposure of the paper I edit across the width and breadth of the Strait and satisfies my own boyish spirit of adventure.

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That said, tradesmen often get to see a lot more of the region than I do, a chopper often the only way a sparky or a plumber can get out and service these isolated communities.

I was fortunate to hitch a ride last month with the Board of the local supermarket chain up here to cover their store openings on three islands.

I saw the swamps of Saibai, where the graveyard has been inundated by the sea and PNG is visible only a couple of clicks across a narrow channel.

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PNG fisherman comes to market.

PNG fisherman comes to market.

Saibai market.

Saibai market.

To Duaun, Saibai’s picturesque neighbor.

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  And down to Mer, home of Eddie Mabo the slayer of terra nullius and where tiger sharks loll around lazily just meters from the beach.

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In return they got a good spread in the paper, my fee – jet fuel and sausage sizzles.

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In and out of small aircraft and helicopters for two days, gave me little more than ‘overview’ of the region, something Federal Minister for Border Control Scott Morrison said in his recent visit to the region, where he was not allowed to land on one of Outer Islands, Boigu, as nobody had thought to seek permission from traditional landowners. The supermarket had luckily, so I got a whistle-stop taste of life on these remote islands.

The dignitary wheeled in to cut the ribbon, Queensland Assistant Minister for Indigenous Affairs, David Kempten, who has a certain disdain for flying, said dryly as were taxiing down the runway: “I don’t mind flying, as long as the number of takeoffs match the number of landings.”

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Despite covering the Strait from its most Northern, Southern and Eastern territories, really experiencing the heart of the region happened in my own backyard, at Thursday Island cemetery.

At a modest memorial unveiling for a Bernard Namok Snr, the man who designed the Torres Strait flag, community leaders choked up with genuine pride and gratitude for the legacy this man left his people – a symbol of their unity – despite the tyranny of distance and isolation by water. It was a humble and quiet affair, but a rare glimpse at what Islanders hold dear, an aspiration for autonomy.

One community leader said: “Torres Strait is a pearling region, but it has a diamond potential.”

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Later on that same day, I ran into the film crew for BBC Two show, Coast, who have been in the region for a couple weeks filming a show for the Australian Coast series. They are a funny breed TV people, they are your best mate while they need you, but will drop you without a moment’s thought as they follow a new whim.

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I don’t mind the show, but the Scottish presenter Neil Oliver, clinging to a lost youth, really could use a haircut and I don’t know why he needs the canvas manbag, which he insists on holding in each shot. I actually got a peak inside it, it had hand cream, sanitizing gel and a spare cravat – I imagine all vital items for a ‘man of the box.’

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As the crew fussed and groomed a spot on the beach to shoot a scene, snapping off low lying branches, kicking rubbish out of frame or covering it with sand – all to make it look more ‘authentic,’ I had a yarn with their interviewee, living legend and Indigenous music icon, Uncle Seaman Dan. At 84, no teeth and a twinkle in his eye, Uncle Dan shared a pearl of wisdom and wit.

“We used to drink at the Mangrove Hotel,” he chuckled.

“When we were working on the pearling boats, we were underage, so we would get someone to buy rum and wine from the pub, then we would sneak into the mangrove swamp to have a party, they were simple, happy days. But now the Doc says no more hard stuff.” (Uncle Dan, who has just finished recording another album, is recovering from a heart issue).

The Coast producers had been liaising with me for few weeks for tips on what to film and who to interview, the producer promising ‘beer tax’ for my time. He even tried sprinkling a little star dust over me, with promises interviewing me on the Horn Island Ferry, Australia Fair, a former Sydney Harbour ferry, but they upped and left as abruptly as they arrived, with not so much as note on the bedside table.

However it was Uncle Dan’s diamond in the rough humour that really glittered in my memory.

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The Rock

As an allegory for the planet, Thursday Island, also known to those too long on it as ‘The Rock’, is like a microcosm of our third rock from the sun.

On this microcosm, like the world, if you sit in the one place for long enough everyone in it will walk past you. It has certainly felt like that over the last couple of weeks. From dawn service on ANZAC Day till last week, it felt more like Canberra than Australia’s remote northern border. The rhetoric flowed as thick as molasses.

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First there was the Chief of the Australian Army, the highest ranking officer to visit the region, his lip service acknowledging the largely ignored contribution of Indigenous diggers was long overdue.

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Here in the Strait we have a regiment known as Sarpeye, creole slang for Sharp Eyes, as they are known as the eyes of the north. They represent a tradition of Islander soldiers than goes back to WWII when the Torres Strait Light Infantry represented the only all Indigenous regiment at a time when they were not even recognized as having the rights of humans let alone citizens.

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A week later I had to wade through a turbid three hour committee meeting with nine federal MPs and senators from all the major parties trying to get their head around what the region needs to develop economically. They met with various community leaders and groups. An Indigenous member of the traditional owners, the Kaurareg people, provided a novel insight in between the requests for cheaper freight costs and eliminating communication and IT blackspots.

He said: “It’s like the coke bottle syndrome, from the movie the Gods Must be Crazy,where a coke bottle falls from the sky from a passing plane and an African tribesman picks it up. Until that point his community had everything they ever needed, provided by God, and also no knowledge of the outside world. But when the coke bottle arrived, it divided the community who all wanted to own it. Until that moment they did not know they ‘needed’ anything than what they already had.”

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Later that same day I had to meet with Olympic Marathon runner and Aussie icon Rob de Castella, who was holding trials for the Indigenous Marathon Project on the foreshore. At the same time I was keeping a lookout for Minister for Border Protection Scott Morrison, whose PA had refused to return my repeated emails and phone calls to schedule an interview during his ‘cloak and dagger’ PR trip to the Strait.

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But with my ‘Island intell’ I knew when the Minister arrived, so I ‘intercepted’ his boat at the dock and the only way he could step onto dry land was through me, my camera and curly questions. He came up with a cock and bull story about the new border threat was not stopping the boats but stopping bikies in boats, who were apparently colluding with West African gangs in PNG, running drugs and guns. The gutter press hand picked by the Minister splashed headlines equating it to something like the Colombian coke cartels or the Malacca Strait pirates,while the Minister used it as an excuse to buy shiny new boats. Sounds like another coke bottle to me…

I hope they wheel Don Johnston out of retirement with his dinner jacket to be at the helm.

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Subsequent inquires  from police inspectors on both sides of the border had no knowledge of this ‘new international syndicate,’nor did the annual national crime audit report. It just seemed like an excuse for a boys on adventure, cruising around in Customs boats and choppers to the Outer Islands (where he was not allowed to land as his PA forgot to get permission from Traditional Owners) – all at the expense of his tax paying wage slaves.

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It never ceases to amaze me how politicians can talk so much without actually saying anything of worth.

It was Rob de Castella or ‘Deeks’ that had the more poignant message to say, “This is will be one of the most fulfilling journey you will ever take, in fact it is all about the journey.”

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He was referring to the gruelling six months of training and competing in the New York Marathon, but as allegories go and as another yarn on the rock, I couldn’t help but think ain’t that the truth.

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Steady steady…

There is never a shortage of characters up here in the Strait, nor is the a sparsity of tall stories. However some of the true ones seem the most fanciful.
Seaman Dan, or ‘Uncle Seaman Dan’ is the stuff of living legend, his trademark expression is “Steady, steady,” followed by a ‘whoopee’ sound of glee, a smile and a wink.
In his mid eighties, he still has a spark and zest for life that is enviable.
Catching the ferry back to Horn Island last year, I sat next to Uncle Dan and had a yarn. He squeezed my knee, winked and said, “Arhhh, it’s a beautiful day to be alive, whoopee.”

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Born on TI in 1929, His grandfather was a boat captain from Jamaica and his great grand mother a chief’s daughter from New Caledonia.

By 11 he told me he was on horseback mustering cattle in Far North Queensland, then as a young man he worked on the pearl luggers as both a diver and a captain. I asked if he ever met Mr Crocodile.

“Oooh, sometimes working around the mouth of the Jardine River, it was very cloudy, the water so dirty you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I never saw a crocodile, but it was pretty scary. But if you didn’t come up with a bagful of pearl the skipper would just send you down again,” he said chuckling.

Uncle Dan always chuckles.

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Oh did I mention, he’s also a two time Aria winning musician, with five albums under his belt, who last year received a Hall of Fame Award at the National Indigenous Music Awards? He didn’t start his music career until he was 69.

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His fusion style blends Polynesian, Melanesian, with Nat King Cole and a dash of Sinatra, and TI ‘Hula’ tunes. He is a bonafide charismatic croner that has toured the country from Australia’s most northerly pub, to Tassie’s Ten Days on the Island, and everywhere in between.

Welcome to the Torres Strait

Until a recent health scare, he played two gigs a week in the Torres Strait, now recuperating, he still strums his guitar at home enjoying his ‘semi’ retirement.

His grandson Patrick Mau is now carrying the gauntlet, carving a name for himself as an emerging Hip Hop artist, who after doing several underground mix tapes, has just completed his first studio recorded album, the aptly titled, “The Show Must Go on,” which he has just toured nationally.

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 Here’s the single off the album

As we berthed at Horn Island, Uncle Seaman Dan hobbled off on his zimmer frame, but not before he showed me his favourite fishing spot. He then he disappeared into the afternoon haze heartily humming a tune.

Steady Steady…

reading Strait between the lines

Editing a newspaper (that’s not owned by Murdoch), I never thought I would need to be censored, but in a strange way it happens often up here in the Torres Strait.

Now the media cherry-picking quotes to suit a particular end is common knowledge. Most people have a certain disdain for media hacks who subvert the truth to suit the flavour of the day.

Take this interview Dire Straits our ‘Aunty’, ABC, did with me just before the Federal election in 2013, when all the hyperbole was around “stopping the boats” in order to win the votes of a xenophobic, bogan sub-class in marginal seats of Westie Sydney. It’s about an expected flow of asylum seekers coming to Australia via PNG.

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Although Auntie gave a reasonable review of the situation, some of my comments were ‘not included’, in particular where I mentioned that the numbers of asylum seekers that year were no worse than last year, and that number being less than a dozen, it hardly constituted a big problem. But it didn’t suit the sensationalist angle they were pursuing.

There are other forms of censorship up here though. For one , it’s company policy not to mention the names of people involved in criminal activity, if they live here. Why? Well personal safety of me the editor, my boss warns me. With family and the family name of such significance here, the public shaming (and the fact we all live on a small island), may have nasty outcomes. (I do have a Louisville Slugger by the front door – company issued!).

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When prominent Torres Strait artist Dennis Nona was charged with raping an underage girl, a story splashed across National media, my story was pulled by my boss. I was muzzled only for my own protection.

One of the weirder forms of media muzzling I have not succumbed to up here is stories about the many stray dogs that cause havoc in the community. I wrote an article about how a 14 yr old fox terrier was torn apart by a neighbor’s dog, and although i did not mention the neighbor’s name, I sure felt the heat from the community. People (mainly middle age white women), would confront me hostilely about how I had divided the community and that the little terrier deserved the mauling.

As an Islander mate explained to me, there are layers of bitter bickering and politics on the island, but on the surface everyone is nice to each other because we all go to the same social gatherings and bump into each other at the only supermarket, bank and post office daily.

It make my job tougher than getting blood out of a stone at times.

Even the disenchanted youth can not express themselves like their more urbane counterparts, tagging toilet walls with graffiti is rarely anonymous. A recent youth AKA Squid, lasted only a couple of weeks before he was brought undone and busted.

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It’s part of maintaining that polite exterior under which lies the seething anger off isolation, racial vilification, domestic violence and the ‘gap’ between indigenous and non-indigenous, not to mention family feuds that may date back generations. But overall ‘Ailan’ folk are a happy, yet conservative bunch.

BEFORE...

BEFORE…

AFTER.

AFTER.

On Goods island which is uninhabited since the second world war, where a scattering of deserted bunkers and artillery batteries are all that remains, I discovered this ‘tag’.

Is that a Banksy???

Is that a Banksy???

But when it’s something important to Islanders, the information flows. The QLD government, on its continued campaign of penny pinching decided to not publish the annual Tide Times Book, something regarded as a bible for Islanders. As the minister’s office said to me, “it is available fro free online to be printed or downloaded to your phone.”

However not everybody has access to the internet or a printer and there are black spots in mobile phone coverage, not great when the sea if their only form of transport. However, a couple of weeks of front page stories have seen the government break under community pressure and they are now preparing hard copies to be gived out to those who need – too bad if all 6,500 Torres Strait Islander decide to ask for a couple, could mean the government bean counters banked on a false economy not offering the book people previously happily paid for.

One happy reader even dropped me off a gift for my efforts a bottle of ‘Muralag Moonshine’ a homebrew of coconut milk, brandy and rum. The bottle has a quote by Oliver Goldsmith: “Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain with grammar, and nonsense, and learning. Good liquor I stoutly maintain, gives genius a better discerning.”

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Attached was a note that read: “may your automatic bilge pump or self-draining floor do you justice in the weather.” (its the wet season up here). I guess that’s a compliment…

Tropical Scrumping

From Urban Dictionary:

scrumping
Stealing fruit, especially apples, from someone else’s trees. British. It’s considered less bad than, say, shoplifting, but adults still disapprove.
My Dad, from the Midlands of England used to get a kick out of scrumping as a boy, and continuing this tradition, albeit misplaced on a remote tropical island on the other side of the planet, I took my young two year old daughter Sass on her first raiding party.
Red-handed, picking limes...

Red-handed, picking limes…

However, on Thursday Island (TI), there is not a single apple tree – there are however mangoes everywhere, to the point I become blase about them. They fill the gutters, ferment in piles and perfume the air with a rich sweet odor. We still felt the adrenaline race as we raided gardens for the unwanted fruit. Sass has developed ‘mango fever’, where the word ‘Mangos?’ is always said a s a request.

"Mangoes, where are you," she said after inspecting a barren tree.

“Mangoes, where are you,” she said after inspecting a barren tree.

 

As well as mangoes there are coconuts – but they prove a little bit harder to grab, as well as a Tamarind tree, which I scrumped, but am unsure what do to with the bounty.

scrumping tamarind.

scrumping tamarind.

 

My wife Vivi squealed with excitement when she discover a Caju Tree in someone’s garden, a fruit she has not seen since leaving Brasil. We managed to liberate enough to make a fresh juice.

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Liberating Caju.

Liberating Caju.

Also on the Island, the local TAFE Horticulture teacher, George Ernst, has established some 58 ‘Kai Kai’ (Ailan for food) Community gardens, which are grown in public space – for, well the public to enjoy. SO not technically ‘scrumping’, this increased our haul to include limes, pineapples, watermelon, chilli and lemongrass.

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However in all their omnipotent wisdom, the co-ordinators of TAFE have decided to end George’s Horticulture course and effectively kill off the chance of survival of these Kai Kai Gardens, which he tended to in his free time. Apparently TAFE saw no intrinsic value in horticulture in the Torres Strait.  I sure can through…

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Sass enjoying the spoils of the raid.

Sass enjoying the spoils of the raid.

 

 

Getting priorities Strait

The Islanders have really got their priorities Strait up here. Some times the regional Councillors go missing for days, weeks sometimes. They may just drop everything to fishing, even though it’s annoying for me trying to get that quote I need, the ever grinding quest for the front page pic and the front page story, I can’t blame them. In the greater scheme of things, they may have their priorities right.

Let me illustrate island priorities with an anecdote.

I recently attended the 40th anniversary  lunch of the Aboriginal Hostel Association, and organisation that provides temporary shelter to transients, homeless, or people travelling fro remote communities on the outer islands.

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There were passionate speeches, dancing and feasting on kupmurrie wild pig, crayfish, prawns, sop sop and all the other amazing array of island food.

IMG_8491In comparison, a few days later Australia’s Governor General Quinton Bryce arrived up at the Strait, to grace us common folk with her ‘excellency-ness’ (at the expense of tax payers).

Now its not like the GG didn’t get a a genuine, warm welcome, she did, but…

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Let me put it this way, the canapes before lunch were spring rolls and deep-fried dim sims (Ok there was also smattering of California rolls and some curry puffs too).

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And the Kaurareg Elder who gave the ‘Welcome to Country’ did manage to still stick a knife in,

“We were driven from this land by gunpoint, but our connection to this land is through our blood and our culture survives through song lines and dance. Since then we have been put in the too hard basket.

“From human being to another, I appeal to you to help our struggle for equality as it still seems to fall on deaf ears.

“Due to the short notice of your arrival I could not organise the Kaurareg Elders to be present, nor did I dress up for this occasion as I thought it important for you to accept me the way I am,” he said.

Hmmm, need I say anymore…

After the speeches and dimmy canapes, GG ended up up at the army barracks for a late lunch with Defense and emergency services.

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Now here’s the kicker…

The Australian Defense force laid on a lavish lunch of corned beef and pickle sangers on a platter with a centerpiece to die for.

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YES That’s an orange speared with toothpicks of cocktail onions and artificial cherries. A far cry from Hostel banquet of crayfish and kupmurries roasted wild pig…