From the plane again…
And King’s Canyon on Dusk
Up on Fairy Bower the webcam captures Manly, floating like a phantom city, amidst a winter night.
I’ve been working with a research assistant from Afghanistan. A Tajik, she grew up during the Taliban years a refugee in Pakistan, where her schooling was funded by Saudis.
Because you can only code so much data before your brain gives up, we’ve been chatting things, with her, a Sunni Muslim, asking me about science and Christianity. And me curiously learning more about her life and beliefs. Enjoyable conversations although, of course, I flunked the theological questions.
Which, in turn, started me thinking, what do I believe?
This is where I got.
As my rational, thoughtful, self, I am an agnostic. An agnostic fundamentalist. I don’t know. I don’t see how it’s possible to know. And I have no idea whatsoever how some people can think they know.
Yet, reason isn’t everything and, at my best, surfing, stargazing, or looking at long horizons, I feel like a Pantheist of sorts. It is consoling, almost exhilarating. And fleeting.
That’s what I think, and how I feel. But then there are my hopes. I hope — without any confidence what I hope for will be — for some form of reincarnation, in which we all get to experience many lives, because one short one amongst all that universe doesn’t seem nearly enough.
Lots of lives, but I wouldn’t want reincarnation, or anything for that matter, to go on forever. So I also hope that at some point, once there’s enough, we ebb away, back into the universe. And I hope that when this happens, it is so peaceful, and so kind, it redeems all the awful things we do, and atones all the sadness. I hope this cures things. And that everyone ends up happily ever after.
It’s a hokey, hippy, kindof hope. But, no one, certainly not any organised religion, has suggested any better to me.
I took them for granted, of course. And they were well hidden amidst the traffic snarl of suburbs. But Long Island had bits of magic, around the edges of its McMansions and strip malls. Raccoons raided our rubbish at night! And when you lay awake you could listen to the soft wail of trains speeding down the spine of the island, sounding their sirens at level crossings.
In the fall huge piles of fading leaves heaped on streets, and billowed about in the wind. And on Fire Island boozy holiday makers were replaced by quiet, watchful dear.
In spring nor’ east storms would tear surf from the icy sea and we would heap on wetsuits to buy us time as we waited for waves.
In summer at night thunder heads would trundle over off Long Island sound. Grumbling and flashing. Once a bolt of lightening hit a power-poll down the block from my girlfriend’s parents’ pace. It felled the poll and the burst of electricity turned the surge protector their TV was connected to into a molten blob of plastic and ended the television.
I’ve worked as a garbage collector, a hygiene technician, and a labourer. So I can’t legitimately complain about my office job. However, legitimacy is overrated. So: once step better than the standing desk…
I love the bit on Shakespeare at the end too.
At the end of the week Joe Hockey told Alan Jones the wind farm on Lake George’s eastern edge was a blight upon the landscape, my wife and I drove out there to celebrate her birthday.
We collected a friend, and zig-zaged to the edge of the city, where the suburbs are being swallowed by giant cars. We joined the motorway north. We chatted happily as we bounced off onto Mac’s Reef Road. We swayed up and down amongst the farm-clad hills. We turned left onto gravel. We stopped just short of the Quaker compound. And there we ate lunch, looking across the lake to the windmills, busy in the west wind, blighting the imaginations of angry men, and quietly trying to save the world.
Drive, then walk up into the Brindabellas, and as the sun slips from the sky, look nor’west, out into a continent.
A very useful post by aid data guru David Roodman on how to take care of your back.
For what it’s worth – as I’m desperately trying to keep enough mobility in my arthritic body – to stay a surfer (I actually had mild chronic back problems pre arthritis too) find that:
1. McKenzie rolls help.
2. A standing desk is great; although I can stand for half a working day at the absolute most.
3. Walking helps a lot.
4. Stretching is a big help too; just don’t push things too far.
At least, this seems to be working for me — and surfing is currently leading to less pain.
Delation: the feeling you experience as a PhD student upon completing a major task (marking essays, writing a consultancy report, organising a conference, writing a working paper…) and realising that all that work has not brought you even a single step closer to completing your thesis.
No doubt, just like development, much in parenting theory is contested. However, I think at least some useful learnings can be inferred from p7 of ‘Why Humans Cooperate‘:
We know there must be “human genes” that somehow allow for culturally acquired behavior, as chimpanzees reared (enculturated) alongside human children do not acquire anything approaching adult human behavioural patterns or social norms. Interestingly, although human-reared chimpanzees seem to acquire little from their human families via imitation, these families’ human children have been observed to readily acquire a number of behaviors from their physically more advanced chimpanzee “siblings,” including knuckle walking (even after achieving full bipedality), shoe-chewing, a habit of scraping their teeth against interior walls, excessive biting, and a range of sterotypical chimpanzee food grunts and hoots.
It would be an exaggeration to say Australia, or any country, redeemed itself through its protest songs. And yet, listening to this, for a few happy minutes at least, it feels that way.
Watch, while it’s only a sky filled with friendly, empty blue. And Mount Franklin daubed white by the last of the westerly gales. Colour climbing out of skeletal trees. People on their ways. Remember it now. While it’s warm. Before it bakes. Before the haze of bush fires. And before the air is thickened, clogged with thirst and heat.
Anti-arthritis medication and our brave little car took Jo and I along gravel roads, above the tree line, and hiking in the gale swept, snow-dusted Brindabella Ranges
On Mt Ainsie at the end of the day. High thin clouds. A skinny grey English artist wearing a rain coat loading a giant easel onto a tiny, skinny car. Chatty Chinese tourists with cameras. Street lights turning the suburbs into constellations. Ranges of hills losing their depth. Bending, coloured sky. The horizon taking the last of the light, folding it into tomorrow.
It seems a cruel thing to wish upon a country: that its suburbs be swallowed by their hinterland. But when that hinterland is as magical as Australia’s it’s hard not to hope, at least on the grey days, and amongst the ugly bits.
Postcard: of Shark Bay, based on a photo taken by Trent Park, from the series Welcome to Nowhere. City: Sydney.
It’s hot, there is no wind, and the sun is starting to melt the day. I am sitting uncomfortably on the deck of a large leaf hut. In front of me are the leader of the local church and two village chiefs. They are asking questions in Pijin and I am doing my best to reply. I’m trying to concentrate. I need to concentrate, not just because of the language, but also because I need their permission to interview people about elections. It is less than 10 years since the Solomon Islands’ civil war swept over this part of Guadalcanal and the last foreigners to visit, who weren’t soldiers or police, were missionaries in the 1990s. So I am trying to explain carefully what I want to do and to reassure them. I’m trying, yet my efforts are being overcome by a distraction. An old, familiar distraction.
Behind the leaders’ heads, out beyond the village, across the shingle beach, on the edge of the South Pacific, a line of swell is bending in around a point, steepening on a shelf of coral reef, and starting to break.
I don’t have a board. I don’t surf anymore. And yet, once you’ve learnt how to read the sea, it’s hard to ignore. The swell is clean. The waves are mostly lefts. They aren’t perfect but they look fun.
In my mind I’m surfing: trimming down the line, racing the wall, swooping through a cutback…The church leader notices me staring.
He is a skinny, bumpy man, with a big, bald head and slightly sunken cheeks. His accent is strong and he speaks in anxious bursts of words that outwit my language skills.
“Luk luk long si?” (You’re looking at the sea?) He frowns.
“Um, yeah, um. Mi luk luk lo olketa waev saed go lo san bis?” (I’m looking at the waves on the other side of the beach.)
And then, because this sounds stupid on its own: “Taem mi iang man mi laek ski lo waev.” (When I was young I liked to surf in the waves.) Ski, according to my dictionary, is the Pijin word for surfing.
“Oh,” his mouth bends into a smile. “Iu laek sof? Mifala savi hao fo sof.”
The easiest sentences in another language are the ones I expect. Anticipation helps when matching sounds to words. On the other hand, I struggle when sentences come out of the blue, even if I know the words being used. And in this instance I have no idea what the ‘sof’ means. Sof?
I’m silent, trying to conjure sense from the sounds. And his smile is starting to fold back towards a frown.
Sof? Sof? Surf! He’s talking about surfing.
“Iu laek sof? Mifala savi how fo sof.” (You like to surf? We know how to surf.)
“Savi ski? Lo waev? Usim wanem? Kanu?” (You can surf? In the waves? What do you use? Canoes?)
“Nomoa. Usim sago fo makim ski.” (No, we make boards from sago palms). “Taem skul finis, bae me talem olketa pikinini mekem ski fo iu and soem iu hao fo kasim waev.” (When school’s finished I’ll tell the kids to make you a board and show you how to catch waves.)
I can still remember the first wave I ever caught. I was thirteen. After school one day I took the bus to Nick Coney’s house and we rode pushbikes in our wetsuits through the rain to the local surf spot. Our boards were ‘pollies’: three feet long, surfboard-shaped polystyrene beach toys brought from a department store. The wave was a shore break, inside Wellington Harbour, that only broke in Southerly storms. We paddled out down the beach from the older kids on fiberglass boards and tried to surf. At first the ocean got the better of me: I missed waves; I got caught inside; I wiped out into churning, sandy water. It was icy cold. My lungs started to rattle with asthma.
Then it happened, a steepening chunk of stormy sea rolled towards me, I spun around, and with a flailing paddle coaxed enough speed out of my polly to have a chance of catching it. The wave sucked me back, right to the critical point of its crest, and for a moment I hung there, on the edge of disaster. Then gravity took over and I was let go. Skimming, I flew down the face and out into the flats in front of the exploding swell. The white water swallowed me and then spat me out again. I shot towards the shore, lying prone, clinging to the bouncing piece of styrene foam and travelling faster than I ever imagined a wave would take me. I rode its surge all the way to the beach, where the swash carried me up the pebbly sand. There, I leapt up, giddy with happiness, and ran round in circles hollering victory to myself. I was so stoked. From that moment my path was set.
I surfed my way through high school, getting a fibreglass board and learning to stand on it. I got my driver’s licence and escaped the harbour. I cruised through university choosing courses that left me free to surf. I worked a bit, saved, and spent six months in Indonesia, followed by a winter in the Canaries. I worked in London and surfed wherever I could. Frozen beach breaks in New York, points in New Hampshire, sandy tubes in Mexico, giant green walls in Madeira, hidden lefts in Chile. There were flat spells and broken boards. And there were crowds and long hours worked in lonely, grey cities. But, all things told, it was a good surfing life.
Then, in 1999, while chasing waves off beaches of Harmattan-blown sand in the Cape Verde Islands, I caught dysentery, which led to Reactive Arthritis, an auto-immune disease, and surfing was replaced painful uncertainty. Since then ill-health has come and gone along with doctors, diets and medications. At times I’ve been well enough to surf, other times I’ve been unable to walk. Recoveries are slow, relapses happen overnight. And the inflammation has started to damage my body. In 2008 I had open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve, which had been wrecked by inflammation, and an acute relapse in the wake of surgery lead to permanent damage in my hip. I haven’t surfed a short board since then; I’m too slow to my feet. At times I’ve been able to longboard, but two hours of surfing are followed by a two days of pain. Worth it. But hard. By the time I made it to Solomon Islands, my hip and back were bad enough that I wasn’t even really able to longboard. I guess I could have travelled with a body-board, but that didn’t seem like surfing to me. I didn’t even consider it.
Around all this the rest of my life has kept moving. Travel in developing countries sparked an interest in aid, and work for the New Zealand government’s aid programme. From this I became interested in Solomon Island electoral politics, and that became the subject of my PhD. Fieldwork was the start of a road of its own, taking my wife and I weaving from coast to coast and island to island through Solomons. In November 2011 we travelled along the southern shore of Guadalcanal: the Weather Coast.
When it rains on Weather Coast, paths turn into rivers and rivers torrents. Some years it rains nonstop for months. Trade-winds blow clouds against the island’s jungle-tangled dividing range, and the water falls with a fury. The heart of the Coast is hemmed in between mountains and a shoreline of gravel beaches and surf bashed cliffs. There are no harbours and when the swell is big sea travel is impossible. When the winds blow and the rains come, villages become isolated, islands of their own, and people go hungry. Schools close and health clinics run out of supplies. The soil becomes too wet to grow anything except Swamp Taro.
On fine days the Weather Coast is stunning – big, empty, and beautiful. But it is not an easy place to live. It isn’t far from the bustle of Honiara, Solomon Islands’ capital, which lies on the other side of Guadalcanal, but it might as well be another country.
Indeed, Solomon Islands only became a country thanks to the colonial carve up of the Pacific. There was nothing resembling a nation there before the British arrived and drew lines around a bunch of islands north east of Australia, calling it a colony. Bundled into it were speakers of more than 90 different languages. Villages and clans were the only real coherent pre-colonial political entities and there were thousands of these. In Europe nations grew over centuries, in the Western Pacific they were dreamed up in days.
Colonial rule in Solomons wasn’t as cruel or as bloody as it was in parts of Africa but it wasn’t a time of nation building either. Independence was granted in 1978 and shortly afterwards the logging companies arrived, corrupting politics with money. Life for ordinary Solomon Islanders got worse.
In 1998, this led to conflict. Groups of young men from Guadalcanal drove migrants from the neighbouring island of Malaita off land on which they had settled. And the Malaitans formed their own armed groups. The inter-island conflict quickly reached a stalemate but at this point the armed groups of youths morphed into criminal gangs. On Malaita drunk young men with guns terrorised businesses. In Honiara armed groups extorted money from government departments. In rural Guadalcanal the Weather Coast had the misfortune of becoming a base for the most notorious of all the militant leaders: Harold Keke.
Keke’s troops were based first at the eastern end of the Coast but, harried by armed police, he marched them west to a camp close to the surf spot that would distract me eight years later.
I didn’t ask questions about the conflict years while we were on the Weather Coast, and for the most part people avoided the subject. We heard bits – in Keke’s home village our host kept apologising for not having cutlery, hers had all been lost when police burnt the village – but it was only near the village of the surf spot anyone offered me real detail about the time of Keke’s soldiers. Even then it was just one man. He can’t have been any older than me but he had the frail, stooped posture of a 60 year old. He spoke with a quiet, careful voice and one day he started telling me about Keke’s time at their end of the coast.
“He told us to feed his troops, but we couldn’t. We didn’t have enough food for ourselves. When I told him this he lined some of us up on the beach and gave a gun to one of his soldiers and told him to shoot us. But the soldier wouldn’t. He was just a young boy. He didn’t want to murder people. So Keke took his gun, shouted at him and gave it to another soldier, telling him to kill us. But the other soldier couldn’t either. He started crying. So Keke took the gun and threw it to the ground and told us. ‘You are lucky; god doesn’t want you to die today. Go home.’”
“You see the tree, the large one on the edge of the beach. One time some of his soldiers tried to run away, but he caught them. And he tied them to the tree and beat them to death. He made us watch.”
Finally, after nearly five years of conflict, Australia led a peacekeeping mission into Solomon Islands. Australian troops swept up the Weather Coast, Keke surrendered and the militia disarmed. By that point no one wanted to fight anymore, least of all the soldiers, who were just village boys pumped up on power and promises of victory. Militia men went home to their gardens, and a few of the leaders went to jail. Keke is in prison. The conflict stopped, and people’s lives went back to normal. Which on the Weather Coast meant hard and isolated.
When school ended on the afternoon of our first day in the village kids swept past our leaf house laughing and shouting, and pointing at us. Shortly afterwards a group of teenage boys arrived armed with large machetes. There was some hushed discussion in the local Ko’o language, and they raced off into the jungle, returning ten minutes later with the long slender trunks of freshly cut sago palms. Then the machetes were put to work. Trunks were cut into three foot long pieces and their green outer layer sliced off. Underneath, the wood was light, white and soft, a bit like polystyrene. Then they cut long thin ‘nails’ from the branches of another tree and used these to pin the peeled sago trunks together into rafts about 18 inches wide. And then they carefully rounded the fronts of their rafts. The result was three foot long, light and kind of surfboard shaped. A lot like the polly that I had caught my first wave on all those years ago.
“Now they can teach you how to surf” John, the church leader said laughing. I wasn’t sure that trying to go surfing with the local kids was the best way of convincing him that I was a serious researcher. But, on the other hand, he looked happy, and there was still surf. It had been a long time since I’d ridden waves.
A light onshore had come up but the surf looked alright: small and shifting about the reef, bumped up by wind wobble. The young teenagers couldn’t speak much Pijin and I didn’t know any Ko’o but we didn’t really need to communicate what we were going to do next. I grabbed the board I was given and, along with about ten of the teenagers, paddled out into the line-up.
I wish I could tell you about the great waves I got, and how I amazed the locals by getting barrelled on the inside, but the ocean got the better of me that evening. A three foot long 18 inch wide board is fine when you’re thirteen, but I almost sunk mine. Without flippers I couldn’t kick effectively and if I tried to paddle into waves the board would twist out underneath me. I didn’t catch a single wave. The locals, on the other hand, caught plenty. They knew what they were doing, scooting around sliding into anything that broke.
That night, covered in mosquito repellent sitting under the waning light of a solar powered lamp, I asked John who had taught them about surfing.
“No one. Kids here have always known how to surf”. And so it was, one day I spoke to an ancient old man who told me he’d surfed the reef with his brothers just after the Second World War. Each generation of kids would learn from their older siblings. They’d learn how to ride waves when they were six or seven, eventually giving up in their late teens. Surfing wasn’t considered an adult sport, although the older men did still catch the occasional wave in their canoes as they paddled home after fishing.
John and I spoke some more. They’d never seen fiberglass boards or anyone stand on a surfboard. The only other foreigner who’d tried to ride waves there was a missionary in the 1980s or 90s who’d been made a sago palm board like me.
I asked John if they’d ever seen a surfing magazine. They hadn’t. All that they knew about surfing came from a few photos of men riding waves inside a bible printed by Australian Christian surfers, delivered to the village by a friend of the wave riding missionary. It was the bible that had also given them the word ‘sof’, their attempt to pronounce ‘surf’.
That was their sole connection to the rest of the surfing world. Everything else they had learned about riding waves had evolved in isolation.
Convergent evolution is the term biologists use to describe the process through which different species evolve similar features via natural selection. It explains why hummingbird moths look almost identical to hummingbirds. In an environment rich with nectar filled flowers high up trees there is a niche to be filled by a creature that can hover and extract the nectar. So both a species of bird and a type of moth evolved to fill the niche. Bird and moth look remarkably similar. Form follows function. And, I thought to myself, the next afternoon as I tried again to catch waves, something similar to this explained a lot of what I saw around me. Much that would be familiar to a surfer in Wellington, or Cornwall, had evolved in in the village too. The kids would paddle out through the channel behind the peak – the easiest and quickest way to the line-up. When large waves broke in front of them they duck dived exactly as you or I would do. The kids surfed waves too, rather than white water, and they rode along them angling across the face.
Some things were different. No one stood on their boards. And in between waves I was told tales of the crocodile that had moved into the swamp in the next bay. This, I thought anxiously, was something I hadn’t had to worry about back home. The biggest difference though, was how friendly they were. While they despaired of my surfing ability they kept offering tips and they made me a board. There aren’t many surf spots on Earth where a chubby, limping beginner would be welcomed, let alone offered pride of place.
As I mulled this over, my thoughts were interrupted – the tropical sea finally sent a wave straight to me. I barely needed to paddle. The wave pulled me back, up to its crest, where I hung for an instant, and then let me go with the familiar sensation that every surfer knows: the start of a ride. Sago palm bouncing underneath me, I shot down the face, clinging to the board, marvelling at how fast the water sped by, just inches away.
After the first ride, it became easier. Along with my local companions I surfed for hours.
Later, I stood on the beach, holding my board while the evening light folded gold over the mountains behind the village, and I thought about things. My muscles were aching in a pleasant, exercised way. I was stoked. Riding waves lying down would never bring me the same happiness that surfing had but it promised a lot more joy than a life spent trying to forget about the sea. And so I decided that I would become a body boarder for the time being.
As I thought about this, a slender woman with a shock of curly hair strode down to the beach and started shouting at one of the kids still in the water. She waved her hands and he called something back. She shouted some more.
The conversation was entirely in Ko’o but I knew exactly what was being said.
“Get out of the water Henri, you have chores to do, and dinner is almost ready!”
“Ok mum, just one more wave.”
“No! Get out now!”
“Just one more.”
In a world of conflict and poverty, the freedom to surf is a tiny, trivial thing. And yet often it’s the trivial things that thread much of the happiness through our lives. Likewise, the tale of the point and its return from being a place of fear to a surf spot, is a small story when set amongst the on-going struggles of the Solomon Islands. But, small as it may be, it is also a happy story. From war to surfing.
While his mother continued shouting, Henri paddled out to sea, spinning at the last moment to catch a set wave. He sped down the face, turned, and flew past section after section, taking that last ride the length of the point and into the sunset-coloured bay.
[This story was published in the Surfer's Path earlier this year.]
After a delightful evening out at a cozy restaurant in a safe part of the suburbs Eric Clapton’s music is mugged on the way home by a posse of lesbian cowpunks. Anarchy ensues. And the song Layla becomes much better, and so much more alive.
As one of the audience members cries out: “play forever!”
h/t The Guardian
Cups of tea and coffee propelled me around university and to the drive back down the coast.
Early evening, gentle autumn sky, the tall, tall poplars that line the road coloured fall-gold, glowing, almost, against the clouds.
The coffee and tea had their revenge, and I stopped to use the public toilets in drowsy, country Braidwood.
The writing on the walls was the same as it always is:
“Troy is gay”.
“Call XXXXXX for a good time.”
“Braidwood crew are fags.”
Except. In humble black pen, “Kia Kaha Aroha.”
The author had scrawled the translation underneath, for the benefit of Australian readers.
Me, I felt warm in my ebbing caffeine daze. And slightly homesick. Maori words on a scungy wall, glowing, almost, like poplar trees, against the autumn clouds.
I must have blogged this before. But ANZAC day reminded me. Radiohead’s tribute to Passchendaele survivor Harry Patch. It always brings me to tears. The first line alone enough to remind me exactly why I am anti-war.
I am the only one who got through.
I agree with John Quiggin:
“As we reflect on the sacrifices made by those who went to war nearly 100 years ago, we should also remember, and condemn, the crimes of those, on all sides, who made and carried on that war.”
1. You are a masochist and enjoy suffering.
2. You are an internationalist and enjoy long pointless conversations with call centre workers in other countries.
3. You are a communist and wish to hasten the demise of capitalism by supporting a company that routinely shafts its customers by doing its best to artificially foster a natural monopoly while at the same time not actually providing the services it claims to provide.
4. You feel sorry for stratospherically wealthy white men and seek to donate money to them even if they don’t provide the services they claim to.
5. You are a creature from a distant dimension, living under the depths of the deepest sea. You despise light, love and humanity.
6. You are not sure about communism but have read Slavoj Žižek and like the idea of ‘heightening the contradictions’ even if it happens at your own expense.
7. You don’t like the internet and did not want to use it anyhow.
Reasons why you should not purchase Telstra Elite Pre-Paid Mobile Broadband services:
1. You live in Australia and wish to use the internet.
I was feeling unduly pleased with myself. The caper wasn’t really that smart, but it came off. I saved a 50 dollar taxi fare and managed to thread the local buses together to get me all the way from White River to Honiara airport. I dodged the intimidating drunks at the KG6 bus interchange and arrived on time for Jo’s flight. The trade winds kept the air almost cool; tufts of cloud sailed across the pretty tropical sky.
There is no arrivals terminal at Honiara airport, you just wait on an extended concrete footpath adjacent to the car park, under the shade of the overhanging roof, for people to emerge from immigration. This is where I was when passengers from the Nadi to Honaira flight started coming out. Everyone re-united with someone. Smiles and hugs, and chatter in different local dialects.
Watching, I was humming cheerily to myself when the young man walked out of the exit. He was limping — visibly but not terribly. He had a baseball cap on and was slightly chubby, in his very early twenties. His skin was quite pale, and his hair was frizzy, coloured the rusty blond common in Western Melanesia. I’m a limper and, by the standards of these things, he wasn’t that bad. I would have forgotten him within the hour were it not for the cry.
I’d hardly noticed the group of women behind me. There were maybe ten of them. Some young teenagers, some my age, at least one in her sixties. When they saw the young man they all began to cry out. I want to call it a wail, but that word sounds wrong, suggestive of a high-pitched or unpleasant sound. The noise they made ached, but it wasn’t unpleasant. There were no words. Just anguish, rising and falling like ocean swells as he hobbled their way. As he got closer he started to weep and, at the last minute, the women broke formation, flooding forward round him. Still calling out. That sound — so mournful — told tales. A student whose study in Fiji was ended by a terrible injury. A long, lonely recuperation in Suva hospital. Or a poorly understood illness with treatment gone wrong. Or a car crash and dead friends. They were all trying to hold him at once. Then shepherding him to a truck. The noise was almost a song. The saddest one you ever heard.
Jo arrived in his wake. Close enough to hear it all. We hugged longer than usual. And then stumbled off into the car park. Smudging our own tears across our faces. Holding hands, waiting until the need to plan our journey home overcame the sorrow of the cry.
Yesterday, the sky was perfect, uninterrupted, not a cloud. Just a big thirsty blue, that stretched in an unnerving way between faint horizons. It was the sort of sky you could imagine dying of thirst under. The day baked. Grass and trees wilted. And we drove around Canberra’s empty wide streets running errands.
The super-market was easy. The barber’s more difficult. There I had to talk. But the barber and I lacked enough shared words to converse. We tried, but our sentences fell to the floor like cut hair.
“Summer Nats this week mate.”
“Oh, um, yes, all those noisy cars.”
“We went home to New Zealand for Christmas.”
“Cold there? You been watchin the cricket?”
“Um no not really, are we playing you guys?”
“You’re bein’ thrashed by the South Africans.”
“You’re bein’ thrashed by the South Africans.”
The tire place was worse. The guy was friendly, bearded and tattooed. He knew everything there was to know about tires, I knew nothing. We tried. I should have pretended to like the Summer Nats car show.
And so I realised later, as Jo and I sat atop mount Ainslee, almost cool in the evening breeze, watching the land grow gold as the sun fell from its empty sky, that somewhere in my life I’d failed to learn an important language. I can speak reasonable Pijin. My Portuguese was passable once. And I had alright traveller’s Spanish. There was even a time when I could at least navigate in Bahasa Indonesian. And yet, despite growing up in the Hutt, I never learnt bloke. I can’t talk rugby, or cars, or common sense. All I can do is stare at my shoes awkwardly, and fudge for a bit until my accent gives me away.
Not that I really mind: I yearn to be a lusophone more than I’ll ever yearn to be a bloke. But there are times, I confess, when I wish I knew what to say when someone says in a confident drawl: “Mate did you hear the Kiwis got bowled out for 44.”
When I travel the first part of me to arrive is always my imagination. It scouts the route ahead, sketching scenes and picturing people. Empty open spaces make it uneasy. Given a chance it races to fill them.
I had been imagining the Weather Coast for months before we actually got there. It was at the heart of the civil conflict that submerged the Solomon Islands from 1999 until 2003. It was another land, people in Honiara assured me, only 15 minutes away by helicopter but in every other aspect as distant as the archipelago’s most remote atolls. When it rains I was told, paths become rivers and rivers rise to torrents. When the swell picks up, people said, it becomes impossible to launch or land boats off the shingle beaches; villages are cut off for months. While people talked, I pictured steep cliffs falling into a groaning, grey ocean. And I day-dreamt of floods and swallowing seas.
Of the three villages we planned to visit the one that captured my imagination most was Sughu, our second destination. Sughu had been home to Harold Keke, the most notorious of all the militia leaders. A man who had terrorised the Weather Coast, evading government forces and killing their soldiers. He executed priests, villagers and his own troops too. As people told me this, I dwelt upon the legacy of war, and decommissioned fighters returned to their villages.
I imagined our welcome in Sughu. Unlike most of the places we were visiting for my study, I wasn’t confident that people in Sughu knew we were coming. There was no cell phone access, no road access, no regular postal service, no regular boat. No way if finding out if we’d be welcome. One afternoon a friend of mine drove me down to the Honiara wharves and found a boat that was heading to a village about eight hours walk from Sughu. On board that he found a relative of his who was going to be walking that way. We gave the relative a letter for the chief of Sughu, sealed in an optimistic yellow envelope, and that was my introduction, hopefully destined to arrive in advance of Jo and I.
From Kuma (our first stop on the Weather Coast) we had hoped to take a boat down to Sughu. But on the day the boat never arrived. Eventually the captain sent us a message. To travel to Sughu we would have to pay an extortionate fare. And so we decided to walk. Abandoning as much of our gear as possible in Kuma.
For the residents of the Weather Coast walking is the main way of getting anywhere. A two day traverse of steep mountain passes is how many travel to Honiara. A two hour walk to tend hillside gardens is common. It is a land of amazing walkers. Locals assured us that they could walk from Kuma to Sughu in two hours. Although, after a considered look, they figured it would take us four.
We left Kuma in the early afternoon, accompanied by the chief’s daughter, who was heading to her high school between Kuma and Sughu, and two women who took pity on us after they spotted us wading precariously across the Kuma river.
We rotated packs, the women making much lighter work of the load than we did. After two hours of trudging, kept almost cool by intermittent puffs of trade wind we finally rounded a corner and saw in the distance a headland that our guides identified as Sughu. It was nothing more than a silhouette, smothered in clouds, but at least we could see it.
As we walked further the cloud came to greet us, wandering in on the wind, arcs of rain in its wake. And as the showers closed in, our companions departed. The chief’s daughter turning off towards her school and the other two young women turning back to Kuma, seeking to avoid the impending deluge and to make it home before dusk. Jo and I walked on, Jo carrying the largest backpack and me carrying the small pack along with the day bag. Walking, wondering what lay in wait for us behind the cloud.
Solomon Islands fell into conflict in the late 1990s. First, militants from Guadalcanal expelled Malaitan settlers from ‘their’ Island, then Malaitan resistance arose, taking control of Honiara. Combatants began to extort money from the government and then from their own people. In rural Guadalcanal the armed militia splintered and then retreated in the face of government policing operations. Keke, in charge of one of the militia groups, based himself on the Weather Coast, marching from Sughu to the other end of the Weather Coast and then inland. His troops caught and executed a band of Malaitan ‘commandos’ that had been sent to hunt them, and Sughu was razed by government troops. Keke flayed some of his own soldiers to death on trees. Possibly as a result of injuries, his mental health frayed until he was, by all accounts, insane. In the end he surrendered without a fight to Australian peacekeepers.
As I chewed over this, plodding over the shingle, the clouds grew to fill the sky and rain started to patter on the beach around us. Keke was safely in prison now, and there was no reason to expect Sughu to be any different from any of the other villages we had visited as part of my study. But it was also unknown, and I filled that unknown with worry.
After a while we were joined by a group of boys who materialised as we passed a small coastal village. They weren’t unfriendly, but they weren’t smiling either. If they exuded anything it was uncertainty. Most of them hung back, watching, silent, leaving two of the younger boys to come up and speak to us.
“You going where?”
“What country you coming from?”
They tried to speak to us in English, but their accents and broken grammar made understanding them almost impossible. And when I tried to speak in Pijin, my questions drew confused stares, my own grammar and accent rendering Solomons’ lingua franca unintelligible. Not being able to communicate we couldn’t ask the questions we wanted to ask (How far was it to Sughu? Had anyone there mentioned us?) and we couldn’t explain what brought us to be walking along their isolated stretch of beach. But despite all this they wanted to help.
“We carry you bags?”
It was help I didn’t really want. I didn’t want to hand over my research notes or the EPERB, our lifeline to the outside world. And I didn’t want to think about whether we could trust this group of boys in the middle of nowhere, with whom we could hardly communicate. But equally I didn’t want to offend them, to turn the tentative friendliness into resentment. And so we unburdened ourselves and, as the rain came and went, acquired an entourage, the two talkative kids confidently shouldering our packs, and their mob of teenage accomplices walking along with us, watching quietly.
Eventually, we arrived.
“Displace Sughu,” one of the boys announced.
It was almost dusk. The village sat beyond a rise on the South East side of a bay. As we walked across the shingle we could see a few houses on top of the rise but nothing of the rest of the village.
“I guess we need to find the chief?”
“Mifala nid fo tok tok wetem seif. Iu save findem?” I tried asking one of the boys.
It was then, as I was trying to convey this message, that we noticed a woman standing on the top of the rise, waving her arms, calling out something. At first I thought she was shouting at the boys but then it became clear her attention was directed at us. She strode in our direction. Calling out. I tried to figure out what she was saying.
She was short and slender, with an angled face that was framed by an explosion of black, curly hair. When she reached us she spoke again. This time I could almost make out what she was saying
“Hello-i’m-Gladys-we’ve-been-waiting-all-day-for-you,” her English was clear but so rapid fire that her sentences tumbled out as if one big long word.
“Yes. We thought you were going to arrive this morning, and we organised a welcome party for you. Everyone’s gone home now. But the kids are still waiting in the church. They are going to sing you some songs.”
“A welcome party?” If my imagination had been scouting ahead trying to picture Sughu, my conscious thought was now struggling to keep up with the reality of the place. “You knew we were coming?”
“Yes. We had most of the village out here waiting for you. The kids were going to sing.”
“It’s ok for us to stay?”
“Of course”, she smiled, “you will stay in the church guest house. We’ve prepared it for you. The pastor’s wife has cooked for you. I will take you to the guest house. But can we go to the church first? The kids are still waiting there? They want to sing.”
“Um. Sure. Sure. That sounds great.”
And so we wandered up into the village, over the coral pebbles that they used to cover the ground, and past poor but tidy houses. From doorways people waved. We stumbled into the old wooden church and sat down on pews at the front. And on Gladys’ urging a group of teenagers in clean white shirts began to sing.
We were tired and we were damp. And the hard work of my research still lay ahead. But we had arrived. And to a far friendlier reality than any I’d dared imagine. And so, as puddles formed on the wooden floor around my feet, I soaked up the hospitality, gave into relief, and set my imagination to thinking about dinner.
This time, four years ago today, as I listened to analysis of the US election I was feeling deeply troubled.
Troubled, not by the election, but by aches in my knees and back that had been progressively getting worse all day. This, I worried, felt like a relapse.
It was. The next morning (my wife being away for work) I had to ring my parents and ask them to come and help me. I couldn’t dress myself. Within 24 hours I went from: have survived open heart surgery; arthritis in remission; looking forwards. To: can’t move; worrying about damage to my heart; wondering if I can work enough to keep my job.
That relapse eventually quietened somewhat, but has never fully gone. And over the last few months – temporary steroid induced respite not withstanding – things have slowly got worse again. Not nearly as bad as they were the day after the election in 2008 but bad enough to make things difficult.
I think the main point of this post is simply to say that it doesn’t feel like four years has passed. Or, on the other hand, maybe it does: I feel tired enough.
More cheerily, under low grey skies I snuck away from my computer this morning and found myself a quiet little river bar, with glassy waist high waves rolling down it. I kneeboarded a few and pulled myself slowly to my feet on a few. And boy did that leave me feeling happy.
I’m pretty happy about the election results too, of course.
…it is very hard to trust research on the efficacy and side effects of medication. This situation is insane, and technically could be cured, but thanks to the chronic problems of political economy it probably won’t be. Depressing. All the more so when you’re trying to figure out what to take.
Possibly my jandals were the culprit. Maybe I wore them too much, and they were too hard on my feet. Or perhaps inflammation returned because of my poor diet. Or perhaps the cause was exhaustion in those last few, too-busy, weeks in Honiara. Or maybe my arthritis just came back because that’s what it does.
Really, this time it had barely gone away. After the major relapse in 2008 it got better in 2009, was quite good in 2010, and then got a bit worse in 2011. Since 2008 I’ve never been well enough to surf properly, and sleep’s been hard. But I have been able to walk a fair bit, and day to day life had been ok.
But in June sometime the underside of my right foot started to hurt. Usually when I have a relapse it happens overnight, but this was slow, up and down, but with downs outweighing the ups. By the time I got to Wellington in the end of June I was too sore to surf. And a few weeks later struggling to walk. My hip, shoulder and back have joined in now. My back gets me when I sit. My hip when I lie. And my foot when I walk. And with the pain comes fatigue and inertia. And I’m worrying about my heart. I’m worn out. And sick of being sick.
I’m lucky too: helped by my wife and parents, and money. And being a PhD student is easier than if I were someone who made a living from physical labour. Lucky and tired.
For complicated reasons I can’t take methotrexate right now. But I need to get my inflammation under control (along with anything else I can’t risk any more damage to my heart). I probably won’t be able to get on TNF inhibitors unless I’ve been taking methotrexate (and I don’t know if you can travel when taking these anyhow). So my plan is a few months on steroids. Which don’t work that well but will help. The trouble is, it looks like I now have to wait, several months possibly, until I can see a rheumatologist to get steroids prescribed.
If I’ve learnt anything from all this it’s simply that actual illness is only a small part of being ill. The real story is you, and the intersection between you, disease, uncertainty, your friends and family, the country you live in, what you hope to do, and what you’ re happy doing without.
“I want to be your friend.”
Christian was tall and skinny. I was drunk. Swaying about the dance floor of a ramshackle bar. In a tiny port town where trade winds covered everything in fine Saharan sand.
The first few days in the village I spent in my room, or out walking along the coast on sandy tracks that wiggled amongst ancient lava. Reading, exploring , avoiding. In my room and by the sea’s edge things were familiar. Elsewhere, I was out of place. The one visiting surfer in a village with no visiting surfers. A very strange stranger. A guy who’d turned up dragging an oversized bag filled with boards, wetsuits and a leaking ding repair kit. A self-conscious traveller with thinning sun-blond hair, frayed blue jeans and a purple hooded sweatshirt. A young man struggling to separate the Africa of his slightly frightened imagination from the Africa he was actually in.
Not a lot of language, a shyness which travelled with me as reliably as my passport, an exaggerated sense of my own difference, and just a little fear. It left me solitary at first – I spent my birthday alone – but in time it ebbed. Slowly I started to socialise: starting with the kids who watched as I fixed the dings on my boards. And then the teenagers, and curious families who came to look at the tent I’d set up to keep the ants off me at night. Day by day my interactions grew, culminating with an invite to the disco.
I can’t have seemed a particularly promising friend that night, babbling in badly broken Portuguese. But Christian persisted. We were neighbours, living in the same rectangular row of half-built concrete flats.
“I want to be your friend.” My memory of his voice on that night is as clear as everything else is blurry. The start of our story.
Over the following weeks, on the days I didn’t disappear down the coast chasing Atlantic groundswells, we’d hang out and chat. Drinking beer in the evenings or smoking spindly little joints, sometimes with other friends of Christian’s, sometimes alone. I paid for it all but it was cheap.
With the help of my small green dictionary, and his slow, patient Portuguese, Christian deciphered village life for me. Who worked on the fishing boats. Who didn’t work. Stories about the slender, beautiful girls who danced elusively every Friday at the discos. About his father, who’d lost his legs in a motorcycle accident. About his sister who lived with cousins. About an old guy in the village whose local celebrity stemmed from his claim to have once gotten stoned with Bob Marley. About the woman in the room next to mine. The woman who talked to herself day and night in agitated, muttered bursts that carried through the gaps between the concrete walls of our apartments and their corrugated iron roves, forcing me to sleep listening to my Walkman.
“Quien e a mulher que sempre falar?” (Who is that woman, who always talks?) I asked Christian, with unconcealed exasperation, one afternoon.
“A minha mae.” My mother.
My exasperation fled. Retreating amongst an army of a thousand jerks.
“I’m sorry. I’m…um…sorry. Que paso?” I’m sorry. I’m a fucking idiot. I am sorry. What happened?
“Nao estava por causo de deus. Estava por causo do homme. It is not because of God. It is because of man.” He translated this one into English to make sure I got it.
As a young woman his mother had gone to work in Italy as a maid. She had come back insane. Not God, man.
A few days later he showed me a photo of her. On the beach with friends in Italy. The paper was curled, the sky and sea were fading. She was young, pretty and laughing.
A week or so later he took me in to visit her. They shared a room. Sleeping in beds on opposite walls.
My visit was a short one. She lay in bed. Her hair was un-brushed. Her skin was pale. African brown still, but overlaid with the dusty pallor of the sun deprived. When he introduced us she didn’t acknowledge me, but started an agitated mutter instead.
If there was an ounce of justice in this world this story would become hers. And it would tell you what god-awful things some powerful Italian man (not God, man) had inflicted on a poor immigrant African maid. Or, at the very least, the story would be of how Christian and I talked and talked of her situation. And how I tried to help. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I left the room that day shocked and sad, and with a better appreciation of Christian’s lot, but beyond that nothing much changed. Christian and I continued on our previous course of hanging out and talking and laughing, with the ease life affords young men.
I kept paying for the beer and we kept enjoying the evenings socialising, while I chased waves in the day. And my story of Christian ends up being about a more mundane dilemma.
At the other end of the island I ran into Benjamin, a French surfing buddy and we hatched a plot to head off to another part of the archipelago in search of undiscovered waves. We booked our ferry tickets and I bade my farewells to Christian. And that was when he hit me up for money.
“Um, yeah, um, ok. Mais eu nao posso dar te muito. Nao tenho muito.” (I can’t give you much, I don’t have much).
“Eu sei.” (I know.) Whether he thought I was lying I’ll never know.
“Ok here’s um $100, ta bem?”(is that ok)
“Ok well nao uso para comprar ceveja” I was starting to flail inside and so added the obligatory line about not spending money on beer. I’d paid for things before but he’d never asked. He assured me he would just spend the money on food for him and his sister.
I don’t think I told Benjamin about the incident. Instead, that night as we chugged out to sea on the rusty old freight ferry I chased it round and round in my head.
First I started to doubt Christian. Was he really my friend? Or was the whole point of his befriending me simply a plan to get money from me? Was any of that real?
Then, mercifully, providing at least a little bit of evidence that I wasn’t a terminally shallow person, I started doubting myself. Oh come on. I can’t even believe you are worrying about this. You saw his life. You mightn’t have a lot of money, but he will likely struggle with next to nothing forever.
But what if he just spends the money on beer?
What would have you spent it on?
What if I see him again? He’ll ask me again. I don’t have much money.
And he has none.
Benjamin, who was an infinitely better traveller than me, was already asleep on the hard wooden bench.
I felt bad, and then I felt bad about feeling bad, and then I felt ridiculous for the way my thoughts kept coming back to things. I lay down. I sat up again.
Over the ship’s stern our port of departure vanished into the dark. There was no moon, but a star or planet was shining bright enough to lay a swaying silver path across the water.
Waves came and went. Thoughts came and went. And eventually, the two sides to my self-torment wearied, their voices grew quiet, I stopped thinking about things, and fell into uncomfortable sleep.