Wandering Thoughts

July 4, 2015

The Weather Coast

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:02 pm
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walking weather coast

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.

on trunkWe 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.

weather coast greyAs 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.

“Waiting?”

“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.

Reading the signs: Canberra

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 4:13 pm
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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?

October 23, 2014

Ceremony

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 9:36 pm

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.

August 20, 2014

More molten sky

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 4:33 pm

From the plane again…

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And King’s Canyon on Dusk

 

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August 17, 2014

Seizure

I turned up just after 2am. I found my self sitting on a bed. Sitting on our bed. Someone – Jo – was standing next to me. There was a woman at the end of the hall dressed in blue and white. I’d never seen her before but there wasn’t enough of me there yet for this to be unusual. For it to be anything.

Jo was speaking to me.

Do you know what’s happening?

No.

My neck was aching. One of the joints in my back hurt too.

You’ve had a seizure.

I was with it enough now to think first – driving – and then: shit, we were going surfing this weekend.

There were two women at the end of the corridor now.

They’re from the ambulance. They’re going to take you to hospital. I’ll drive our car.

How long did the seizure last?

You were convulsing for about two minutes. That was 15 minutes ago. I need to get you dressed.

I’d wet myself.

I was walked out to the ambulance, and then lay there as they put a needle into my arm and hooked me up to something. One of the nurses had worked in Solomon Islands; Jo was talking to her about that. Then we were driving.

I don’t recall much of the drive. Being wheeled into hospital was odd and upside down, but from then I found my way to a normal quite quickly.

I lay in a bed in A & E. Jo sat with me. And I felt sore ­­– my joints must have crunched convulsing – and sort of sick. Although once I was allowed to eat I felt less ill.

And that was me discovering I had epilepsy. A month ago now.

Ever since open heart surgery I have had spells of something akin to confusion. Deja vu, and a rush of memories of things which never happened.

Several years ago in Canberra I went and saw a neurologist: a chubby puffed-up man who thought way too much of himself, who told me I was suffering nothing more than anxiety.

I’ve suffered anxiety, and these spells were nothing like it. But while they weren’t pleasant, I couldn’t see the point of doing anything else after the dead end of that medical ‘professional’.

And so I went on, hoping I wouldn’t have an episode while giving a seminar, and not enjoying the spells when they occurred, but usually they were gone within 15 minutes. And I could live with that.

Then finally I had the tonic clonic seizure. And here I am now, struggling with not being able to drive. And wondering whether I can safely surf. And worrying about side effects of sodium valproate, and whether it will interact with warfarin. But at the same time better for having a proper diagnosis.

Some lessons:

As philosopher Havi Carel wrote, when you are ill, how you are treated makes a big difference. I’m very lucky to have the support of my wife and family. It would be very hard to navigate all this on my own. Also, two weeks ago I had my first neurology appointment at one of Canberra’s public hospitals. The appointment lasted over an hour. The registrar was incredibly thorough, and the consultant was considered and decent. And they went out of their way to explain, and to answer our questions. Which helped a lot. According to the consultant, the seizures probably stem from something akin to a small stroke, which I must have had shortly after open heart surgery.

Some advice:

If you end up with a serious chronic illness, address the illness itself as best you can, but also prepare for, and manage, non-biological changes to your life. There’s a lot more to it than your physical symptoms. Your relationships may change. Your career may be harder to maintain. Your goals may have to shift. You can’t cure any of this as such, but being aware and managing it helps. And hopefully you, like me, will find plenty of space to be happy, even if it’s a struggle at times.

And don’t worry (although always get symptoms checked by a medical professional): seizures in the wake of open heart surgery appear to be rare, and heart problems as a consequence of Reactive Arthritis or Ankylosing Spondylitis are not common.

And then:

Sometime around dawn they discharged me from A & E, and Jo and I decided to take the weekend we already had planned. We watched Brazil beat Chile in the soccer, then drove to Braidwood where we had coffee and food, and then made our way down to the coast, where we lay and read on the beach, under the winter sun, watching the sparkling sea.

July 18, 2014

The Tropics!

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 4:32 pm

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An end of a day across Langalanga Lagoon.

June 29, 2014

From Fairy Bower

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 10:01 pm

Up on Fairy Bower the webcam captures Manly, floating like a phantom city, amidst a winter night.

manly at night 2

Theology

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:47 pm
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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

Long Island

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 11:10 am
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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.

April 30, 2014

The first evening’s Yoga class…

Filed under: Going Places,Reactive Arthritis,Staying Places — terence @ 11:26 pm

Years ago you fell out. Painfully.

You’ve hardly spoken since. Determined silence. Occasional incivility.

Then one day you had to spend time together. Socially. It was awkward at first. Then uncertain. It never actually became comfortable. And who knows how it will work out. But it was promising — your body and you.

April 21, 2014

A Picnic on the Edge of a Continent

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 11:51 am

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Drive, then walk up into the Brindabellas, and as the sun slips from the sky, look nor’west, out into a continent.

November 7, 2013

In the Pacific…

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 11:08 am
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…where the sea is as big as the sky.

September 30, 2013

Australia

Filed under: Going Places,Staying Places — terence @ 10:14 am
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Australia, old and empty, and lost beneath its sky.

 

August 8, 2013

Happy feet

Filed under: Going Places,Reactive Arthritis — terence @ 3:05 pm
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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

June 14, 2013

Suburban Escape Dreaming

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 7:34 pm
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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

The Bay

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 1:53 pm

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.

Surfing Escondido 97

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.

shapingbay2

“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.

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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.

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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.]

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June 2, 2013

Layla

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:17 am

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

September 22, 2012

At Sea

Filed under: Going Places,Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 10:50 am

The term the TV presenters use here in Australia is cell. Thunder cell. Like an al-Qaeda cell. Clouds gone bad. Mingling together in hidden valleys. Gathering. Spilling down from the hills. Darkening. Growing. Gathering.

Jo and I have figured a way of going surfing. If I use the soft, floaty, blue, learner’s longboard, I can catch waves and ride them on my knees. It’s exercise (in the sea!) and it doesn’t hurt that much, physically. Although I hide from other surfers. Trying to find quiet lonely corners of beaches where no one will laugh at a broken guy riding a soft foam board, awkwardly, on his knees.

And so that’s what we were doing – surfing – three evenings ago while the thunder cell massed. First there were just clouds, and then ‘it was looking a little dark to the south’, and then there was a big black wall, creeping up the coast from somewhere near Moruya.

We caught our waves a little anxiously, watching its progress. The lick of the lightning; the thump of the thunder. We rode small lefts down a sandbar, peeling into a bay. Not big enough for anyone else to be surfing but folding fast little sections for us to skim across, and bent by the curve of the coast so that the ebbing nor’easter was offshore.

Arms of cloud reached out off the edge of the storm, trailing soft curves of rain, blurring the horizon behind. And through that haze, on the other side of the weather, the sun was starting to set, burning colour around the edge of the clouds.

Jo was counting the seconds between lightning strikes and the sound of thunder.

The cell had crept north, maybe over Broulee.

“Time to take a wave in?”
“Yeah, that lightning’s getting close.”
“And it will be dark soon.”

So we caught one last set. I paddled into my wave, just off the edge of the peak. Paddle. Then the motion changes. Then I pull myself to my knees and turn down the line. And as I turned the sunset flared. The half of the sky yet to be swallowed by the black of the clouds was melted, molten, and reflected in the glassy water that I sped over. The impossibly red sea also reflecting, for a moment, then a moment, then a moment, the dance of lightening across the sky. I skimmed along laughing, shouting. If I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful surfing, I can’t remember it.

After, we hobbled up the beach, got changed into towels, and drove north away from the rain.

July 29, 2012

Not His Mother’s Story

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 9:08 pm
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“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)

“Sem” (Yes)

“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.

June 25, 2012

In the Dark

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:33 pm
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I think it is safe to take the bus at night in Honiara. It’s not Port Moresby or Rio. But people do still get murdered after dark. A young civil servant was stabbed to death just before dawn one morning recently. And the cousin of a friend of mine was run over and murdered as he tried to find somewhere to buy cigarettes one night earlier in the year.

It is about 8pm and I’m on the street in Point Cruz waiting for one of the modified Toyota Hiace’s that serve as buses across the Third World. Taxis and SUVs drive past, occupants invisible behind tinted glass.

I’m under a streetlight but its glow doesn’t carry far. Occasionally groups of young men saunter by. Shocks of hair, jandals slapping the pavement, walking slowly. Watching.

There is a woman waiting for the bus, and it feels better not to be alone. But she’s anxious too. Almost as uncomfortable as I am. She looks Melanesian but won’t speak to me in Pijin, complaining to me instead in loud, broken, Australian.

“The street light’s no good mate. The council should fix it. Blaardy no good corruption mate.”

When the bus arrives it’s piloted by youths. Hip hop music is pounding from the stereo. The driver is singing and rocking back and forth to the beat. The conductor is manic, howling catcalls to girls on the street. I sit in the front seat by the driver. The woman seats herself as far to the back of the bus as she can.

For a while I’m able to enjoy the anarchy of it all. The exotic and the different. And the fact that I can negotiate this city. But slowly the other passengers start to thin out. The woman with the strange Australian patois gets off. Then more passengers. Then, at the second to last stop, the bus empties.

While they watch the curves and sway of a young woman as she sets off towards her house, the driver and conductor are talking to each other about something I can’t quite understand. Taking money. Taking $100 off someone. Taking money from someone, but I can’t figure out who.

I am on my own.

The driver looks at me expectantly.

“Wea?”

“Savo Maket,” I tell him the name of my bus stop.

He turns, talking to the conductor and to me at once. Saying, in rapid-fire, slang-laden Pijin that I can’t quite follow, something about Savo, and danger and fright. I think he’s saying I should be afraid to go to Savo at this time of night. But I’m not really sure. All I know is that I am in the dark. Alone in the bus on the outskirts of town, on the edge of a squatter settlement, with two young men, who are talking about danger and taking things.

I’m swallowing and my mouth is dry. I imagine their plan: drive off further down the road. Where it is empty and unlit. It would be easy to mug me then. No one in Honiara, I think to myself, responds to cries for help from empty roads at night.

My mind races over a counter-plan. There’s the hand break. As we go past my stop I will pull on it as hard as I can and then jump. It won’t stop the bus but it might slow it enough for me to leap free.

We drive by the Reef Island settlement. Drunk men stagger about the road. Groups of youths look at the passing bus. The only reason I ever take the bus home at this time is that my bus stop is beyond the people here and the menace of young drunk men. But now isolation seems every bit as dangerous as street drunks.

Pull the hand break, jump and then run. The brake needs to work. My arthritic legs need to work. Pull the break, jump, run.

“Iu stay lo wea?” (where do you stay) the conductor asks me as we approach the market. The music is quiet now. The only noise in the bus is our voices. It is almost pitch black outside.

“Haus lo dea,” (the house over there) I say trying to sound confident. Trying, as if the tone of my voice alone might reach forward in time and change the end of the story. I point to home, where the front gate’s two concrete pillars are just visible down the road from the market. I’m not sure I should be letting them know where I live. But, I think, I need to keep talking to them. Need to sound confident.

“Ok,” the driver says, his face and voice unreadable. He passes the house, accelerates a bit and then pulls a big sweeping U turn off the space provided by a side road. We sweep round heading back towards town. And we bump to a stop in front of the gate

As we do I open the door. The car light comes on. And in its glow I see the young men aren’t men at all. They’re just boys. The conductor grins goofily.

“Good naet mate.”

I’m grinning goofily too. Just boys, and the only danger in that bus that night was that which they’d imagined for me walking around in the darkness on the end of town. That was what they were talking about when they delivered me to my gate.

“Um, yeah, thank you. Thank you. Gud naet.”

I hop out of the bus, fumble for my key ring penlight and use it do guide me the last few yards into the illuminated, understood world of home.

January 2, 2012

The Lake

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 12:27 pm
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My like for Lake George stems from the following:

1. No one else seems to notice it.
2. Something particularly Australian about a lake that’s been dry for years and only recently returned.
3. It’s the closest place to home that feels swallowing and spacious like Australia should.
4. What the clouds and light did.
5. Windmills!

January 1, 2012

Australia, Decoding the Signs: the Beach

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 11:16 am
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Australia, where even trips to the beach are exercises in managed peril…

October 28, 2011

The Giant Hunter

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:35 pm
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[Update: the giant hunter has his own blog! In Polish and English. There is a sad beauty to it, I think. Oddly enough, given the vast differences in our research subject matter, and beliefs about the world, I can still relate, just a little bit, to his travails: field research is rarely easy. No matter what you’re studying and no matter how much you think it matters.]

We met our first ever giant hunter in a port town on the island of Malaita. He was a great big man with a tidy beard and short brown hair. He wore clean black t-shirts and a National Geographic hat. He strode about purposefully. We got to talking with him in the dimly lit general store, surrounded by jars of Chinese peanut butter and Indonesian soft drink.

“Hey mate, how’s it going?”

“I am good. How are you?” He spoke deep, purposeful words with a German accent.

“Good. Good. What brings you to Malaita?”

“Giants. I am studying Giants.”

“Oh. You’re an anthropologist. I’m studying political science. Have you collected many legends of giants? I didn’t know giant stories were part of the culture here.”

“No. I am not collecting legends. I am here to study giants.”

“ ”

“ ”

“G-giants. Um, ah, have you seen any yet?”

“No. I am going into the mountains to find them this week.”

“Oh. Um, what are you going to do when you find them?”

“I don’t know. Maybe take some photos.”

“Oh…okay…um…Good luck.”

The next day we headed off to the Langa Langa lagoon in search of answers to electoral questions.

Three weeks later, laden down with data, we clattered back, riding a wheezing old bus. The giant hunting German was there again too. Still walking around with great big strides. Still looking tidy, but also unravelling just a bit, on the way to becoming dishevelled. When he walked by, the guys at the general store joked in a way that suggested they’d situated him as weird. Feeling awkward, I avoided him.

The last we saw of him was on the ship back to Guadalcanal. As we came into berth he descended the stairs from the first class compartment, ignored us, heaved his great big pack, covered with an XXL rain shield, onto his great big shoulders and strode off into the sweaty streets of Honiara.
As he walked away I felt sorry. Great big forlorn strides. I imagined the sorts of sad stories that might send a mildly delusional German man to Western Melanesia in search of creatures that don’t exist. I wondered what would become of him.

And then, for the briefest of moments, I entertained the thought…maybe this wasn’t a tale of delusions at all. Or of a lonely, slightly-odd guy striding in search of apparitions around a lost little tropical island.

Maybe the joke will end up on me and the guys in the store after all. Maybe that pack was filled with film.

Let me know if the National Geographic starts publishing pictures of the ‘Giant Men of Malaita’ any time soon.

July 10, 2011

Iron Bottom Sound

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 9:19 pm
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Welcome to the Twentieth Century.

Rain squall over IBS

From 1942 until 1945 the Second World War bashed through the Solomon Islands. Sea battles, land campaigns, dog fights. Tens of thousands dead. So many ships were sunk in the strait between Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands that it’s now called Iron Bottom Sound.

We went snorkelling this morning on the South Western edge of the sound. Swimming in grey, pre-trade wind calm. There’s a wreck on the edge of the beach, a Japanese troop ship bombed full of holes. The hull is worn and rusted now, torn iron giving into the sea; an attraction for divers who clamber through what’s left. It wasn’t the wreck we went to see though. Over the years coral has covered the steel. Grown like flowers. Slender fronds and solid swirls. Fish everywhere amongst the polyps’ sculptures. Colour, shape, movement, colour. Darting, schooling.

We bobbed above it all, low-tech divers peering out of swimming goggles. As we floated, the sun started to filter through the clouds and the grey sea turned to blue. Golden lines of light bounced about. Striped orange characters from Disney movies floated amongst sea anemones and little fish coloured like rainbows watched us from just beyond our reach.

Most war memorials make me uneasy. Too martial and too little remorse. Too proud. Yet this morning watching that grave returned to life, I found a war memorial which felt right. The softness of the sea, the patterns of colour, the sway of the swell. The way time was patiently covering the ruins with living things. The fact that Jo and I had dinner with a Japanese friend the other night. How peaceful it was.

That is the way to commemorate war, by growing its alternative.

May your weapons rust.

February 6, 2011

Webs

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 10:04 pm
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For the first two weeks of the year it rained almost every day. The sky was cluttered with damp, dreary clouds and the air almost cool.

The end of the rain came one morning when, instead of gathering, the clouds gave way to the insistent sun. And from then on it was dry, defying the weather bureau who kept confidently predicting showers. The dry built. Culminating one day with temperatures of nearly 40 degrees and a hot, arid wind that felt like it was blowing from a desert somewhere. And then the whether turned again. Still hot but humid now, with most days ending in booming thunderstorms, purple strokes of lightening and flooded streets.

With it the water brings life. After the rain, the park behind our house fills with what we think are tiny whistling frogs chirping from the tops of trees. Insects too. Our flat is home to a bunch of gangly, spindly house spiders that hunt mosquitoes, moths, and the little black flies that are everywhere now. At night either these spiders, or some secretive cousin of theirs has taken to criss-crossing the flat. Abseiling from ceilings, and sailing across the spaces between walls, trailing thread in their wake. I don’t know why they do it, the single strands can’t possibly catch anything. Maybe they’re safety ropes for arachnid alpinists, or the bungees of base jumping bugs. Either way they’re left waiting for us in the morning, long after their owners have retreated to dark distant corners.

And so the barely awake stumblings of our early mornings are accompanied by gossamer tickles. It’s too fine, and not sticky enough, to be unpleasant. Just an almost intangible aid to awakening, courtesy of the Canberra rains, and everything that flows from them.

January 4, 2011

Present

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings,Staying Places,Surfing — terence @ 7:43 pm
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For all intents and purposes Christmas day begins on the eastern end of Lyall Bay Beach. It’s not yet 7am but the stretched out summer day is already under way. The water is clear. The sky is clear. The wind is light. The surf is flat. The wave models were wrong. Out on the sand a couple of early risers are walking their dogs. In my car I’m chewing glumly over the absence of waves. No surf, I’m short of sleep, and my arthritic aches are more severe than usual.  Each of these things combining to add to my gloom. Slightly teary (the arthritis does that to me) and topped up with self-doubt, I’m trying to calculate my options. I could go for a swim or a paddle. But neither really seem worth the discomfort of contorting myself into my wetsuit for. So the real choice is going home and keeping mum company while she cooks, or chasing the remnants of the northwest wind swell on the west coast.

I’m good at doubting myself. So I make the decision to head west several times only to have it repealed by something akin to guilt. What sort of man chases waves on Christmas morning? The empty ocean in front of you is a sign, you should go home. It’s at least 10 dollars petrol extra if you go to the west coast. Think about how much money you’ve spent already. Think about the CO2 emissions. Anyhow, the tide’s wrong up there. And you’ll be late home.

Fortunately I’m even better at ignoring my doubts, eventually, once they’ve kicked me around a bit. And so, next I know, I’m speeding along an almost empty SH1 and into an empty car park at Titahi Bay.

Waves!

The tide’s wrong. But the swell’s there. Slow sloping lefts peeling across the bay. Not bad for an arthritic old guy on a longboard. Barely pausing to look I’m shoving protesting limbs into neoprene. Hoping that my joints will actually let me get to my feet when I’m out there.

Did they?

Of course they did. Slow and sore, sure. But able to get there in the end. In time to make it down the line.

Wave after wave, after wave. And then I’m driving home, endorphins or whatever they are, conspiring with replayed rides, ridding me of aches and doubts. And the morning’s impossibly nice. Like Christmas in Wellington never is. Still and sunny.

As I drive choral music plays on the radio. And I wonder about that. Enjoying it. Agnostic. The sound is sweet – devine. First I figure maybe it really is evidence of god. Could something so beautiful really arise by chance? Could it? In the end I decide it could. Which seems forlorn in a way. All that effort and beauty misdirected. All those appeals unheard. Eventually, though, I conclude, cheery again, that, no, any god that could create something as beautiful as this music deserves some credit. It’s quite an achievement — especially if you don’t exist.

December 2, 2010

Dusk

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:37 pm
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From melting midday heat in Honiara, to chilled, fragile aeroplane oxygen, to Brisbane on dusk.

Outside the terminal the warmth is striking. Not hot, warm. Still t-shirt and shorts but also move-without-sweating.

As I wander to the train station the world glows with the falling sun. Pools of red form on metal panels, occasional orange strokes of cloud hang over the horizon, and the light is kind enough for even the concrete and tarmac to look forgiven.

Next train 4 minutes

Over the road from the platform giant, billowing purple trees, sway back and forth in the breeze. The air smells sweet, like purple flowers.

In the distance, out in the suburbs, lights are being turned on and I day dream about a 1,000 barbecues, imagining happy tanned people in tidy backyards. Deciding, as the train pulls into the station, that the nicest place is probably the one where you never actually stay but just get to glimpse as the evening gives out and you continue on your way.

 

November 21, 2010

Dawn

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 6:34 pm
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On the edge of dawn. Somewhere between Goulburn and Mildura. Outside, the stars ebb back into the sky while, inside, we wait for breakfast, our bus stopped at a truck stop. Fluorescent light, pastel plastic, and “serve yourself and pay at the counter, mate.” I feel grimy and unslept. Hungry and queezy at once.

I load my plate with egg-like stuff, chewy toast and collapsing fried-tomato, and sit down, hardly noticing the woman next to me. Instead I stare at the TV on the wall. It’s evangelical hour — a broadcast from an American mega-church. The thing is like a stadium. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people, in row after row of cinema chairs. It’s clean, glitzy and ugly. The preacher’s doll-like, decked out in a suit and tie. His voice rises and falls, loves and condemns, advises and exhorts. The parishioners are ecstatic.

“Looks like a horrible place”

That’s the lady next to me. I’ve nothing against churches but she’s right: this one looks appalling.

“Yeah. I guess  it doesn’t look that nice”. I glance at her then down at my plate, wary of speaking to people met on bus journeys. It’s still hours until Mildura…

“I used to go to a church like that”.

I look over at her. She’s middle aged with dark curly hair.

“Oh, um, what was it like?”

“Awful. They manipulated us. We had to give so much money. And when we left they threatened us and then told our friends never to speak to us again.”

“That sounds really wrong.” I’m looking at her more closely now. She’s lucid, sensible, suburban. Not rich or trendy, but tidy. In her 40s I guess. Her face is kind-of round, criss-crossed with care lines. By the looks of it, she’s dealing with sleep deprivation a lot better than me. How, I wonder to myself, did she end up beholden to religion?

“At first we thought they were wonderful. Just like a family. Felt at home. So secure. But they wanted to control our lives. And take our money. You had to pay so much.”

“So what did you do? How’d you leave?”

“Oh, it was awful. In the end we had to move houses. And the people we’d met there, our friends, none of them spoke to us again.”

On TV the audience was cheering. The preacher bathing in adulation.

“Oh, that’s um…so why are you going to Mildura?”

“I’m not. All the way to Adelaide for me.”

“A holiday?”

“No my daughter lives there, but she’s in trouble. Trouble with her husband. So I’m off to bring her home.”

“Oh god – that sounds like a difficult trip.”

“Yeah.”

When the bus driver announces it’s time to go we get up. Leave the TV behind. She’s short. Not slender but not chubby either. She moves carefully and deliberately. Outside, the tarmac’s speckled with litter. And determined, thirsty little trees are bracing themselves for the sun.

She’s seated near the front. My seat is down the back.

“Hey, um, nice to meet you and, um, good luck with Adelaide.”

“Thanks.”

Once the bus has pulled back onto the road, I put my walkman on, and sit there, looking out at the unending land. Mulling over people and gods, children and parents, lives and stories. And hoping for a happy ending to the story I’d just heard. Hoping for this lady, and the daughter I’d never met.

November 6, 2010

Honiara

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 7:45 pm
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If you wanted to you could: focus on the air so hot and humid it makes you sweat in streams; or the grubby tilted footpaths daubed with blood-red pools of betelnut spit; or the angry addled Quazo-drunks. You could. But if you did you’d likely miss the market’s busy business chatter, and the soft-friendliness of the people. And you’d probably never get to marvel at the bus conductors’ slang as you wove around the city. Worst of all, if you hunkered down away from it all, like I did from time to time, gulping in quiet and refrigerated air, you might miss your chance to stare out at the morning sea, pretty, patient, glassy-smooth, and punctuated with islands.

September 11, 2010

Travelling Light

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 10:45 pm
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I once met a girl in Central America. She was a New Yorker, her parents were Yemeni, I think. She was pretty, and smart. And I was seeing someone else at the time. So, over the few days we shared a dorm room, I busied myself trying not to develop a crush on her.  Tried – she was striking. Although the thing that strikes me most now was just how light she travelled. A comfortably stuffed day-pack was enough to keep her clad, clean and groomed over several months of travel. This contrasted with me. A great hulking board bag, packed with two or maybe three boards. And still smelling of the ding repair kit which had leaked in it on the way to Mexico. In addition to the boardbag I had a day-pack that would barely close, filled with books, and note books, and tapes, and a walkman, and a camera. And then I had my pack. Contents – a tent, a sleeping bag, warm clothes for the south, cool clothes for the north, a few more books, a camp stove, and cooking utensils. I was cumbersome. I moved like a camel train. When she left for Honduras she just picked up her day-pack, scribbled me a note goodbye and sailed off over the border.

I’ve never travelled light. In the Cape Verde Islands I carried all the usual plus the wheels and axle from a pram, which I’d strap to my board bag so I could drag it rather than carry it.

I’ve never travelled light. Which must explain why, tomorrow, Jo and I, who are off to the Northern Territory for a week’s holiday – no surf, one temperature zone, no stove – are laden with my bulging-at-the-seams backpack. Key contents: deckchairs.

Yes people. I am travelling with deck chairs. Like I said, I never travel light.

August 1, 2010

Water’s Edge

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:39 pm
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The risk, I guess, is that this becomes the first ever Lake George fan blog, but we were out there again today. Lured by the promise of the water’s edge, the return of the long lost lake, and weather we woke up to. The west wind and the scudding clouds, and me thinking it was the sort of day best enjoyed surrounded by space.

And so we drove out there, to find it bigger, closer, but still out of reach of the road. So we satisfied our lake hunting impulse by walking out across the flat land of the lake bed towards the glint of water. In front of us the windmills spiraling and light and shade surfing with the clouds riding rising storm.

We turned around with the first drops of rain, just beating the cloudburst to the car, and with me enthusing about the beauty of windmills and as jubilant in my way as the passing westerly storm.

July 27, 2010

Star Harbour

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:14 pm
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Ok, so generally English language place names are pretty bleak – Johnsonville, Lower Hutt, Palmerston North – but there’s an exception to every rule. Star Harbour, in this case – a place name poetic enough to make me want to go there simply for its sound alone.

June 25, 2010

And now wet is the new dry…

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:53 pm

Apologies in advance for the continued weather blogging…

The sun shone for a spell round the middle of the day but by dusk a sulking grey sky gave way to rain. Thick and thorough, filling puddles and quenching drains. Adding an edge to the traffic. And soaking the cyclists, including me.

Rain.

June 19, 2010

Flood

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:16 pm
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And the rain continues.

Lake Bed

Flying back from Melbourne yesterday I finally saw lake George, which so far has been nothing more than a great big, flat field. The ghost of a lake, left empty by drought.

Today that view, snatched from a plane window, took us out lake-hunting. Although, in the end, we couldn’t find a way to the part of the lake bed that was actually covered with water. Still we found space, and the sweeping patterns of clouds, trailing east on the winter winds.

On the other side, across the lake bed, and over a distant strip of water, that same wind had brought the wind farm to life. Long loping arms making electricity.

Windmills Swallowed by Cellphone Pixels

Plenty of people hate windmills and what they do to the view, but looking across that ‘lake’ today I realised that, above and beyond the environmental benefits, I love the damn things. Count me a fan for aesthetic reasons. Take a ridge, long ago denuded of trees, and whack up windmills, and the horizon becomes more interesting, more peaceful in a way. And more beautiful too.

June 17, 2010

Rain

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 12:26 pm
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In March, we arrived in the rain. Sunday evening, Canberra airport, and a thick clingy drizzle. Being Wellingtonians this wasn’t anything particularly new. We just adopted our weather posture (a hunch, shrinking back into one’s clothes like a tortoise into its shell) and hurried to the rent-a-car, trying to keep our bags dry.

Rain in Wellington is so common it doesn’t even warrant comment. This isn’t the case in Canberra though. Over the next few days people advised us that the drizzle which had welcomed us to the city was really quite something.

“Several days of it.”

“Most rain we’ve had in 4 years, mate.”

Over time, and with the occasional intermittent deluge, that number increased.

“Dams haven’t been this high in 7 years.”

“Hasn’t been this much rain for 14 years.”

Finally the TV weatherman gave the official verdict.

“Canberra has had its wettest month in 20 years. The drought is over.”

That last comment made me chuckle. The drought breaking weather we’ve been experiencing – the most rain in 20 years! – equates to one, maybe two, days of rain a fortnight. Small bursts of wetness punctuating otherwise blue skies.

I’m pretty sure Canberra’s recent wet-spell would qualify as a plant destroying drought in Wellington.

Anyhow, I’m not complaining. Although, today, the weather is actually really, really bad. Even by New Zealand standards. A low, grey, damp, blanket of clouds across the sky. Windy, wet and cold.

Safe to say, I’m feeling more or less at home.

May 30, 2010

Just like Jesus with a Jet-ski?

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 12:28 pm
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This one’s for all those who don’t believe in miracles. Make sure you watch it right through (the real miraculous stuff starts about two minutes in).

HT: Chris Blattman again. The pedantic among you might want to read comments under his blog post.

May 8, 2010

Lit

Filed under: Going Places,Surfing — terence @ 7:37 pm

I was camped by the coast and keen on surfing alone. The plan was to get up pre-dawn and paddle out in the twilight. I set my alarm for six: early enough, I thought, and drifted into uncomfortable sleep.

I woke up in the light. No alarm, just light. I must have slept in. Or maybe dawn was earlier than I thought? I was bone tired and hazy, but – loyal to my plan – I pulled on my clothes in a hurry, joints protesting the contortions, and crawled out of the tent. Outside, where it wasn’t dawn at all. Instead the moon hung in the sky. A mirror for the sun, full enough and bright enough to have the campground lit up. I could see the trees and cars and tents around me. Shaking my head I climbed back into bed.

Although I didn’t last weekend, there have been times, camped at the coast, where I’ve sat in the moonlight watching the waves. Listening to the crack and swash and imagining myself riding on silvered water.

Like almost everything about the sport, night surfing is easier to imagine than to do. It’s cold in the middle of the night. And the sea is black proper. Sharky and eerie. And so, although I’ve thought about it a lot, I’ve only ever tried night surfing once, in small glassy waves at Freshwater. Late summer in Sydney, with a friend to accompany me, and the vague thought that night surfing had to be safer in a bay.

The moon that night was bright but not quite enough. Waves arrived unannounced and the half-light skewed perception. Which made it pretty hard to surf. All the more so in the short sharp beach break waves. Still, in between spills we got rides, enough to be happy. And in between rides we marveled at the patterns the moonlight made in the shallows, white ripples, refracted by the sea, crisscrossing the sand. And just that once, as we sat waiting for waves we were free not to about the dreaded crowds of the northern beaches. At one point I managed to duck my head into a little barrel, watching it spin, without colour, only light.

Like everything else about surfing, riding waves in the moonlight is difficult. Difficult, but on that one night at least – worth it.

April 4, 2010

Canberra in a nutshell

Filed under: Going Places,Staying Places — terence @ 3:49 pm
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My friend Paul, over for work, summed it up perfectly:

This isn’t a capital city; it’s a capital suburb.

Which isn’t a bad thing. At least for an arch-suburbanite like myself.

March 30, 2010

New Things

Filed under: Going Places,Staying Places — terence @ 9:27 pm
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Things I like:

Sunset on Mount Ainslie, waiting as is Canberra is mapped out by its street lights, watching as the last of the red ebbs from the continent and into the sky.

Driving east on the Kings Highway, on dawn, down towards the coast, in and out of half asleep mist. On the way to the beach, anxiously watching for Roos.

March 22, 2010

Australia

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings,Staying Places — terence @ 9:23 am
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Well it’s indisputable, I’m definitely in Australia now: I’m listening to the AM programme on ABC Radio National (think morning report on Radio NZ) where an extended debate is taking place between Bob McTavish and Dick Brewer on who invented the shortboard…like nowhere else on Earth except maybe Hawaii  surfing is part of the Australian national story.

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