Saturday, April 03, 2010

The moral of this tale from Michael Palin? Maybe that the world is both bigger and smaller than we usually think?


A gamelan orchestra accompanies this traditional
Javanese dance from the court of Yogyakarta.

by Ken

I'm still in my Michael Palin Period, and at the moment have just crossed with Michael from Indonesia to Australia and New Zealand in the companion book to his travel series Full Circle, his 50,000-mile 1995-96 journey around the Pacific Rim, starting from the Alaskan island of Little Diomede in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia (we've actually watched the kickoff of the trip), then moving counter-clockwise around the Pacific: to Siberia and on around the Pacific Rim of Asia and on to Australia and New Zealand, then across to the southern tip of South America and up the Pacific coast of the Americas, all the way back almost to Little Diomede, stopping in all the countries that border the Pacific except North Korea, to which he got as close as he could via a visit to the Korean DMZ.

One of the things that puzzled me about the series as broadcast was the disconnect between Indonesia and Australia. After Michael and the BBC crew made their way across the length of Java, from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in the west to Surabaya in the east, the plan was to continue finding small boats to travel a mere thousand miles across Indonesia and the short hop across the Timor Sea to Darwin in the far north of Australia. But at that time of year they were unable to find any captain willing to take them any farther east. Only then, there they are in Darwin!

It turns out that two members of the party, Michael and crew member Steve, made the trip via London, for family concerns. While still on Java, each had received fairly terrifying news from home. Steve, who thought his great concern was the imminent arrival of his third child, learned that one of his daughters had fallen and hit her head, extent of injury unknown (and then several hours later his third daughter was born). Michael had learned that his wife Helen, suffering unbearable headaches, had been diagnosed with a benign meningioma near the brain, for which immediate surgery was indicated.

After intense consultation with his wife and the doctor, Michael had agreed that there was no point in his dropping everything and making the round-the-world trip home, where there was nothing for him to do before the surgery, which the doctor considered relatively straightforward. On arrival in Yogyakarta in central Java, Michael had found out that the surgery was successfully completed. ("Textbook" is what he's told half an hour after the surgery, and when he sends his love, "she is already conscious enough to send hers back.")

Meanwhile, in the heart of gamelan country, the Full Circle team finds that, as another consequence of their traveling through this predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan, "the recitals of gamelan -- the best known and most admired of Java's traditional music -- have been suspended. A large blackboard explains, crisply: 'During Ramadan, there'll be no music, no dance'." And yet, to Michael's pleasure, they get "a chance to hear a gamelan orchestra at work at an impromptu session organized in the garden of a house in a quiet neighbourhood not far from the centre of Yogya." And this scene ensues:
While [the musicians] are warming up under the mango and jackfruit trees that offer some cover from the occasional drifting shower, I make a phone call to the surgeon who has performed Helen's operation and who has been so patient and reassuring with all my questions over the past few days. He confirms that all went well, that the meningioma was benign and has been completely and successfully removed. Then he breaks off and asks me what the noise is in the background.

"It's something called a gamelan orchestra," I begin, about to embark on a long explanation.

"I thought so!" he exclaims. "The man who's teaching me to play the saxophone leads a gamelan orchestra."

"In London?"


This unlikely piece of synchronicity is oddly comforting. Ridiculous, I know, but when I go back into the garden the music of Java reminds me of home.

(We learn in the first entry from Darwin that while the crew found their way, presumably by whatever air connections they could make from Surabaya to Darwin, Steve and Michael had made the trip via London. At the small cost of 16,000 miles added to the 1200-mile distance from Surabaya to Darwin, and "the short, sharp shock of exposure to a northern winter," before plunging right back into the tropics, both travelers have been well rewarded. Michael found Helen recovering well, and Steve found his daughters "old and new" fine.)

[Note: The DVD issue of Full Circleis available by itself, but if you have any interest in Michael Palin's other remarkable travel series, you should instead get the nearly complete Michael Palin Collection.As we've discussed several times, though, if you can play regionally encoded PAL DVDs, you should buy directly from the U.K. The newer Travels with Palin set includes the Around the World in 20 Years sequel and costs a fraction of the U.S. price. For that matter, is currently listing the Full Circle DVDs for £7.47 (less than $13) as opposed to's $45. Both Amazons list an abundance of copies of the Full Circle book (here, for example) at ridiculously low prices.]

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At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

I LOVE Michael Palin. I think I missed a chance to pick these up in a resale store in VHS for nothing.

How do we know if our "stuff" will play PAL? Will G4 powerbooks play them? Newer intel chip IMACS?

Thanks Keni.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Good question, Bil. Does anyone know?

Once, several years ago, I tried to play a DVD on my Mac that I think was NTSC but had a "foreign" regional code, and a got a dire-sounding message that the machine was prepared to reset the regional code, but that it would only do so a certain number of times (two? three?) and then I was on my own. It wasn't clear whether I could expect a visit from the Apple Corporate Solidarity Enforcement authorities.

I'm sure Apple can answer the question, but a person might get in trouble for asking. It might be advisable to use an alias. (I suppose I could be brave and slip a U.K. PAL DVD into my home or office Mac and see what happens. I guess I don't have that kind of courage.)

There's a good assortment of multisystem DVD players in the $100 range (more than covered just by my Palin Collection purchase) from the major electronics manufacturers, the catch being, as I understand it, that these models aren't intended for sale in the U.S. and aren't sold through the companies' U.S. distributors, meaning that any warranty has to come from the seller. I haven't had any problems with my Pioneer model, though, and at this point I've bought a slew of DVDs from the U.K. that either aren't available here at all or are available here at two or three times the price (sometimes even more on "specials").

By the way, I see that has finally stopped offering a "bargain" combo "package" of the expanded Michael Palin Collection (which includes the New Europe series omitted from an earlier version of the Collection) along with a stand-alone copy of New Europe. I speculated here about how thrilled buyers who gulped hard and paid the U.S. prices must have been to find that they'd double-bought New Europe.

And now that I've finished my imported copy of the second volume of Michael's remarkable diaries, still unavailable in the U.S., let me second my previous recommendation of them. The first volume covered The Python Years, 1969-79. The second volumes carries forward from 1980 through the day before his departure on the first big BBC journey, his Around the World in 80 Days, Sept. 25, 1988.



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