A strange thing to like about Australia: rain. Staves off bush fires. Makes the garden happy. And leaves everything smelling like a quenched thirst.
November 1, 2015
The seizure meant more medicine. Both to reduce the risk of another one, and to try and eliminate the spells of confusion I’ve been having ever since surgery. That one fully fledged seizure had the neurologists more inclined, even if still uncertain, to classify the episodes of confusion as a type of epilepsy.
And so I started adding anti-epileptics on top of Warfarin, Losartan, and Humira. First came Sodium Valproate, smooth purple pills in soft plastic foil packaging. I was so worried about the side effects—hallucinations, depression, strange behaviour—that, because Jo was travelling, I asked a colleague to call Jo if I seemed weird, and asked a friend to check in on me.
There were no side effects. Nothing. And that was the problem with Sodium Valproate. I didn’t have any more tonic-clonic seizures, but I’d only ever had one in the eight years since surgery, so they weren’t frequent events. And the spells of confusion, which were the best yardstick of treatment efficacy, kept trundling through my life as they always had.
And so I added Kepra, starting on a low dose and slowly increasing it. Kepra did something, perhaps: about the time I got to a therapeutic dose I went six weeks without any spells of confusion. This was at least twice as long as I’d ever gone before. Jo and I started to hope intensely. I would be able to drive again. Jo wouldn’t have to accompany me every surf. Life would be normal in its unusual kind of way. But then the spells came back.
So I kept upping the dose of Kepra, but with this came a mild lethargy, and although the spells were less frequent they were still quite frequent.
Next I started Tegretol, increasing the dose while I weaned myself off Sodium Valproate. And now I’m on the full dose, with the useless Sodium Valproate no longer in my pill box. As I type this I’ve been about three weeks (and carefully counting) without any confused spells. This is long enough for the medicine to be promising me, but not yet making any guarantees—I’ve been three weeks often enough before. And I now know that even six weeks doesn’t necessarily mean problem solved.
Tegretol hasn’t been easy either. It impedes the absorption of Warfarin, so I’m on an ever increasing dose of Warfarin, wondering if my liver can cope (although there’s no medical reason to think it can’t). Worse, Tegretol is flattening me, in a slightly sad sort of way. It makes it hard to find the energy. It makes chores feel like a chore. It makes it harder to believe in things in the way you need to believe. This isn’t insufferable, or impenetrable: after surfing I still glow; and happy conversations still bounce along. Reading still works, more or less. And if I try I can push back against the effect.
So, here I am, mostly hoping the Tegretol works, but part of me hoping it doesn’t. Because if it doesn’t I will wean myself off it as-fast-as-I-can.
Disclaimer 1: I realise things could be worse.
Disclaimer 2: My medical situation is my medical situation. Yours will be different. Make your choices on the basis of what medical professionals tell you, not what you read here.
August 16, 2015
Here’s how it works.
There’s a shrieking nor’west gale, the sort that has Wellington clinging to its hillsides. It is sunny, but the sky’s muffled by salt haze. I get a glimpse of the ocean as I turn down the road to the beach at Titahi Bay – a torn, grey-green sea, tatters of foam and crests of waves stretched out to Mana Island.
I park in the bottom carpark, in the shelter of a low bank. It’s Friday, I’m recovering from a relapse and only working part time – this is my day off for the week. In the back I have a bigger than usual surfboard, to forgive the slowness that comes with arthritic limbs. I’m the only person there.
The day before we’d had our work Christmas do. The job had been a godsend, arriving when I needed it, coinciding with treatment and better mobility. Less pain and a new routine. The NGO was like a family too, friendly and happy for all its idiosyncrasies. Which made what happened at the Christmas party even worse. One of the guys, who everyone, including me, liked a lot, ended up shouting abuse at one of the women staff of the party venue. There’s more to the story: his explosion of anger, the words he used, the proximity to violence, the unfairness of his past and how it might forgive him, but that’s not my tale.
I’d spent the morning trying not to think about it. Trying. The words he used; the way he flipped; so near to violence; would he lose his job? Amongst all the things that go wrong on our planet it was nothing, of course. But it was sad enough, and close enough, for me to be chewing it over, again and again.
I get out of the car, holding the door against the wind, walk to a perch where I can watch the sea, and look out to the south end of the bay. There at the base of low cliffs, a point of slippery, angled rocks juts out. I try to watch, but it’s too windy: in between the salt spray and sand I can’t stare long enough to gauge the quality of the waves. I trudge back to the car, open the door, holding it with one hand, and fish out some cheap, scratched service station sunglasses with the other.
You know enough about surfing to know how it works. Toned young men in board shorts, yoga-enabled women. Gold beaches with warm water. Perfect waves, healthy bodies, ability, youth, mates. The appeal is obvious. That’s how it works.
The sunglasses did the trick, they stopped the sand and spray, and I could watch the sea.
Titahi Bay wants for a lot: most of the time the northern end of the South Island deprives it of groundswells, the cornerstone of good surf. (These are swells from far away storms, groomed by travel, which arrive ready to be perfect – think surf from distant cyclones on the East Coast of Australia, or swells from the Southern Indian Ocean in Bali). Then there are the sand shoals off Mana Island that further sap the waves of their strength. Then there are Wellington’s endless nor’westerlies, which are onshore. And yet, Titahi Bay has its tricks. Somehow bathymetry and the bay’s bend tidy up the storm surf that bashes Wellington’s west coast and make it manageable. And, just a little, the wind rides up over the hills, meaning that out in the line-up it’s a bit less windy than anywhere else. Then there’s that rocky point at the bay’s southern end.
Hunched against the wind, I watch a stormy wave stand up on it, lurching, breaking over a shallow ledge, peeling, slowing for a moment, and then unfolding quickly along an underwater finger of rock. I imagine the feel of riding it, the lines to take, the race to the shallows…
I run back to the car, contort myself into my wetsuit and wetsuit boots. I pull on a wetsuit hood. I stretch. I jog down to the water’s edge, past dilapidated boatsheds, my board kicking under my arm in the wind.
In the water I’m alone: no one in the surf, no one else even checking the surf. The sea’s turbulent and my eyes are stinging, but I’ve been surfing the rock point half my life, so I know where to wait, lined up with a gully in the hill and a pyramid shaped rock. A big set comes, signalled by blown foam on the outside sandbanks. The waves start to crumble out there, then back off in the deeper water just out from the point. I paddle over the first wave, and spin in front of the second. It’s big, perhaps twice my height. I’m close to the rocks, above the underwater ledge, the right place to catch it. I paddle, just one or two strokes, enough to have me moving forward as the wave pulls me to its crest. As the ledge trips it, the wave changes in a moment from a mound of swell to a vertical drop off. I get to my feet with the sea falling under me. I’m mid-air. I land, the edge of my board’s rail getting purchase. I’m hit by breaking water, but I’m there, tilting, angling, turning, using momentum, and the water’s curve to drive myself out onto the wall. I change my line, trimming over the slower part of the wave, adjusting again, then I fly along the last section, racing as it crashes across the shallow inside reef. Drop, turn, speed, turn, flight. As the wave reaches deeper water off the point I angle over the back. I’m not Kelly Slater. I did nothing spectacular. The wave was tricky rather than perfect. The water is so murky I can’t see my hands as I paddle. The salt spray is nearly blinding. But: drop, turn, speed, turn, flight! I paddle back out as fast as I can, singing happily.
Two hours later the sun is lower, the green-grey has hints of yellow and orange. I’m worn out. Wave after wave, on my own. Back in the carpark I have an after-exercise glow, and a calm—from the storm, from finding the right line, ride after ride. And from making the waves, from the rock ledge to the inside shallows. I’m not thinking about other things.
Warm water, perfect swells, flawless reefs, I’ve surfed all that. It’s great, easier to enjoy, but the essential ingredients were there at Titahi Bay that afternoon. That’s how it works.
July 29, 2015
We were of an age when mothers were starting to worry about marijuana. This was a reasonable concern. I was starting to dabble. And some of my friends were beginning long druggy journeys. But on this evening we were innocent. The culprit was nothing more sinister than the fish and chip shop at Riversdale Beach. A small square building nestled down near the northern end of a long beach that is empty for all but two weeks of the year.
Dave, Jerry and I were in the midst of an Easter surf adventure. We’d started at White Rock, Dave weaving my mother’s Toyota along the tightly-wound gravel road, and over the almost washed away track at the end. We’d surfed thick glassy walls along the point at Seconds, and lonely reef break peaks at the end of the Spit. We’d marvelled at how early the sun set behind the mountains, and we’d gazed, spooked at a decomposed shark’s head that lay on the rocks. Then we moved to the tricky reefs of Dolphin Bay, and after that Riversdale, where there were beach breaks, a place to stay with our friend Barney, whose mother had rented a farm cottage with some other adults, and food that wasn’t two minute noodles.
We arrived in Riversdale in the late evening, which is when the fish and chip shop betrayed us. We ordered and then waited, waited and waited. All the while orders, which weren’t ours, started piling up, uncollected, on the counter. At some point one of us started giggling. Not stoned, just childish, provoked by the absurdity of having to wait 45 minutes in a fish and chip shop that was busy cooking food for non-existent people.
From there it was downhill. We spluttered our way through dinner at a picnic table. Then our merriment was fuelled by nerves as we drove to the farm house (we were arriving unannounced; how would Barney’s mother react?), before being set fully ablaze by the fact that if we arrived amidst clouds of laughter all the adults would think we were stoned. We knew that much. And so, try as we might, we couldn’t stop laughing. When we thought the giggles were done, they would erupt again.
We got through the front door, stifling ourselves, “Hi Mrs G., we were just um he..he..here to see Barne..he..he”. “Oh ha..ha..hey Barney.” “Would it be alrigh..h..ht..t if we stayed tonight.”
We looked at our shoes. We tried not to look at each other. We spluttered. We stank of self-consciousness. Our cheeks puffed from holding in guffaws. We were saved by the fact Barney’s mum was cool.
“Of course you can stay. There’s a great spare room.”
The moment Barney had us alone in that room he castigated us. “You! Can’t! Come! Here! Stoned!”
“We’re not, honest. It was just the fish and ch..hi..hi..hip sh..hh..op.”
And with that I collapsed again, accompanied by Dave and Jerry, into what must have been for the three of us, one of our last true bouts of giddy childhood laughter.
July 21, 2015
If you want to picture Port Moresby start with Western Melanesia. That is, diversity. Hundreds of languages. Different customs. Different legends. Distinct regions. And a weak state in which all these fragments are bound together by interpersonal ties and something akin to a softness of manner, where most people — though not always young men — try hard not to unnecessarily antagonise because conflict, once started, is hard to dowse.
Next, if like me your frame of reference is Honiara, where all of the above is also the case, add in some Suva. This means an obvious indigenous upper middle class, which populates shopping malls and has its own fashion magazines and mores, and style. Honiara is bereft of most of this.
Then, take a big leap, and blend in your imagined Sao Paulo. Mineral wealth has brought inequality to PNG big time, and even before it did Moresby was a dangerous city. There’s a motorway, and cranes, and grand hotels, and more shopping malls on their way. But there’s also giant tangles of slums. And there is razor wire, and compounds, and nervous expats driving SUVs with doors locked anxiously awaiting car-jacking.
That’s Port Moresby, or at least how it seemed to me on my first visit.
July 8, 2015
Sometimes, after dusk, Kangaroos invade our suburb — infiltrating, filtering down from amidst the gums on the slopes of Mount Majura.
It’s a silent invasion: Kangaroos are built to blend in, with gumtrees and termite mounds originally, but their trick works just as well with letterboxes and lampposts. Even in flight, somehow they hop without sharp transitions, which means you can find yourself cycling along the poorly-lit streets of suburban Canberra, accompanied by a kangaroo, grey and ghost-like. You unaware, and it trying to distance itself from you, unable for the time being, hemmed in as it is, by the fences and houses of your neighbours.
July 4, 2015
When I travel the first part of me to arrive is my imagination. It scouts the route ahead, sketching scenes and picturing people. Empty spaces make it uneasy. Given the 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 war 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 remote as the archipelago’s most distant atolls. For Jo and I it was unavoidable — one of my PhD field sites.
When it rains on the Weather Coast, people said, paths become rivers and rivers torrents. And when the swell picks up, they told me, it becomes impossible to land boats on 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 caught 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 thought about the legacy of war, and decommissioned fighters returned to their villages.
I imagined our welcome in Sughu. Unlike most of the places we were to visit, 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 of finding out if we were welcome. One afternoon a friend of mine from the Weather Coast 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 he found a relative of his who was from a village near Sughu. 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’d 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. An 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 turned off towards her school and the other two young women turned back to Kuma, seeking 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.
Solomon Islands fell into conflict in the late 1990s. First, militants from Guadalcanal expelled Malaitan settlers, 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 across 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. But equally I didn’t want to offend them and turn their 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 topped 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’s 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. 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.
“You — strange as angels.”
Quite possibly the best pop song simile ever.
Good ol’ Canberra. Here’s a question for a philosopher: even if you view an individual as possessing right to get high, can you also argue that it is someone else’s responsibility to slow down for them when they go for a walk to the nearest servo to address their munchies?
December 18, 2014
cause I keep wanting to sing along
and no one is pretending this is as beautiful as the real thing. yet that almost makes it better…
oh, and this too!
October 23, 2014
Graduation ceremonies are not for me. I imagine wilting pomp and standing, bored. I don’t begrudge other people wanting to mark their achievement with this, but it wouldn’t make me happy.
And so, instead, two days after I handed in that final hard-bound thesis, to make something of the flush of relief, and to give me a full stop, Jo and I drove out to Lake George.
There, the west wind, already summery-warm and dry, had the windmills busy, and purple flowers were splashed up the hillsides. Gallahs and Rosellas flew about while we sat eating sandwiches, and I thought about old uncertainties. Could I get a research permit? Could I get access to villages? Would people speak to me? Could we manage my health? What would the travel be like? Could I find questions? Answers?
I also thought about the work: the chasing, the making contacts, the organising, the re-organising. And I could have thought about the small group of people who made it harder than it should have been. But it was too nice a day for this. And it was a celebration. So instead, Jo and I talked about everyone who had helped. And we thought back over the adventure — the travel, around parts of the Solomon Islands that we would have seen no other way. Rainforest tumbling down mountainsides into the grey seas of the Weather Coast. The sunsets of Langalanga lagoon. The flower-clad villages of Gao-Bugotu. The way thunder storms thumped over Iron Bottom Sound.
I’m still waiting for the university to confer my degree “in absentia” but, fuck it, we had our ceremony. That was graduation. And as Jo could make out from my happy chatter, it felt as good as it should.
October 9, 2014
August 20, 2014
August 17, 2014
August 16, 2014
August 12, 2014
July 18, 2014
June 29, 2014
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.
June 19, 2014
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.
June 12, 2014
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.
May 12, 2014
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.
April 30, 2014
April 21, 2014
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.
April 18, 2014
January 31, 2014
December 12, 2013
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.
November 7, 2013
October 30, 2013
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.
October 11, 2013
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.
October 6, 2013
September 30, 2013
August 24, 2013
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.
August 18, 2013
August 8, 2013
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
July 28, 2013
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.
June 14, 2013
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.
June 12, 2013
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.]
June 2, 2013
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