Sunday, May 29, 2011


Today we went to the Exmouth whale shark festival. Well we almost went. By the time we got there they were already packing up all of the stalls. All the whale shark displays, dive and tour operator tents, craft market and food stalls. All finished. We did have a program for the festival back in the van but nobody actually looked at it, so we were quite surprised when we got there and it was all over. We milled around for a little while amongst the vendors dismantling tents before heading back home despondantly to our van. All that was left was to go along later in the evening to the amusement zone that had been set up in the field across the road from the caravan park. It was run by the typical bunch of carnival operators that seem to tour the country. They have interchangeable faces but common ways of parting you from your money. Exorbitantly priced rides and the myriad of sideshow games where you pay a lot to try and win prizes that you don't really want and would usually cost less to buy than you spent on the game anyway. Carnivals like this are such a magnet for kids. I used to love them myself. Flashing coloured lights. Loud music. The sound of people shrieking on rides. Jazzy and Finn were so excited at the prospect of going to the carnival, so after dinner we ventured across the road. They'd already checked it out on the day it had been set up. Finn was already taken in by the basketball game and the prospect of winning a giant monkey with a banana. We were doomed to be playing it right from the start. Once years ago, when Tori and I were up in Cairns, I sashayed up to one of these basketball stalls, shot the two required baskets to win the stuffed toy, gave it to my girl and swaggered out of there. Of course this story had been told to the kids and so Finn now had visions of a repeat performance. The economics of the stall weren't good to begin with. Four baskets were required to win the giant monkey. The price to play was six bucks for two shots or ten bucks for five shots. After some discussion the guy said he'd give us the monkey for three baskets. Three from five. Well that seemed possible and I fancied our chances. Some few minutes later and five shots that didn't come close to threatening the net and we walked away emptyhanded, my pocket ten dollars lighter. Any chance of a basketball comeback for me looking completely dashed. Finn was slightly disappointed that his father couldn't come through for him and also with his own poor shots. Another couple of victims separated quite easily from their money by the carnies. At least it was all above board and I was a knowing and willing victim.

When we were in the little Provenรงal village of Barbentane the carnies came to town. Real carnies. Not just fair ground ride merchants with a few sideshows, but hardened circus veterans who travelled across Europe taking money from anybody who crossed their path in whichever way it presented itself. Their circus was a throwback to the days when all circuses had poorly treated animals that travelled around with them in their small cages, along with the acrobats, the ring master, the fat lady and so on. Tori, a very young Jazzy, baby Finn, our friend Andy who had come on holiday with us and I, all headed up the street along with the local villagers, for the circus was in town. We got there to find that there were monkeys being held in a small barred trailer. A lion was on display in a similarly tiny cage. In the show were dancing horses with bridles that were on so tightly that the horses appeared to be smiling, their mouths stretched back so far. Animal cruelty clearly wasn't an issue for these folk. An elephant was brought into the ring and was running around wildly, not seeming to be really under control. We were in the front row with only a small barrier between us and the gallivanting elephant. It seemed like it could all go horribly wrong at any moment and that the giant elephant, who probably wasn't treated the best by his masters, would decide he'd had enough and go stampeding through the barrier and into the crowd. I was relieved when he was led out of the ring and the disaster was averted. At intermission Andy went off to buy us all icecreams. He passed across a 20 euro note for the 8 euros worth of icecream he had ordered and on receiving the goods waited for his change. And waited. And waited. The carnie ice cream seller had just decided to keep the change and completely ignored Andy. Having no doubt detected Andy's inability to speak French, he figured that he'd have no real objections to deal with. Not normally at a loss for words, Andy came back to where we were sitting, without his money and stunned at the audacity of the icecream seller. I'd had a similar situation with the program seller. I gave him a ten euro note and waited for my change also to no avail. When I looked around he seemed to have vanished. They were so blatant in the way they were ripping everybody off. I have no doubt there were many others who suffered a similar fate. After the show, the carnies would pack up and move on to the next little French town to rip off the people there.

In Australia, there seems a bit more control over the way that fairs or carnivals are conducted. Here they just rip you off in legal ways. A five minute ride for nine dollars. A lucky numbers game where you pay two dollars for a card with four numbers on it that are certain not to match the "magic" numbers listed on the wall. We gave the kids some cash and told them they could have a couple of rides, play the games or whatever. And they had a ball, as kids do at these places. Well after all it's not their money. But as a parent, seeing the happy faces of your kids running around excitedly trying to determine which ride to go on, building up the courage to go on the Gravitron or having a crack at shooting the tin cans that you know will never fall down, along with memories of having had that same excitement so long ago whilst at a fair, it does seem worth it. And of course, that's what the carnies are banking on.

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