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This chapter overlaps two countries that people in the northern hemisphere (and I was once among the guilty) often, a bit carelessly, like to lump together; Australia and New Zealand. And in fact, when an Aussie is successful on the world stage, many Kiwis are quite happy to have the two countries lumped together, as are many Aussies, when a Kiwi gets glory. So I reckon that those northerners have grounds for being forgiven. Lately, too, Aus-dwelling, Kiwi-born Russel Crowe made both corners happy and gave both camps the right to bask in the same reflected glory of his Oscar win. [And I'm not just mentioning Mr. Crowe to attract more traffic to my website; It's terms like "ICBM" and "biological warfare" that do that, cos I've a feeling that that's why a couple of extra hits have come from the American military! (ha ha! There's another one; military...] Also Anzac-traditions(perhaps I should spell it aNZac from here on) perpetuate the bond, sealed in blood early last century. A little more on just-past zNZac day later.
Antipodeans; Now there's a word I'm sure I used a fair few times in my younger and more reckless days, and which seems to set teeth on edge around here. I now understand that, as well as Kiwis and Aussies, it includes Southern Africans too, and, though I haven't delved deeper, possibly all those of Southern Hemisphere origin, including South Americans. But as the region covered is expanded, then the usefulness and meaningfulness of the word shrinks. There really doesn't seem to be anything connecting these regions' peoples, which doesn't connect humans in general, except, tenuously, the synchronicity of their seasons. Oh..and, er, well, maybe Rugby.
Rugby; Yes, that gentleman's game that the Kiwis' side, the All Blacks, herald with an aggressive Maori war cry; can it bind the southern nations? The Rugby Union code is trying to answer that, with Super Twelve, a competition between big teams from NZ, Aus and S.Africa. Which reminds me ,firstly;of my last days in the completely different country of Australia, and secondly; that I should start this chapter at the beginning.
Back in the warm summer days of a Sydney January, for the first time in a long time, I encountered hostility from a crowd with an unruly element. Shouts of "Rubbish!! Rubbish!!" were hurled at me, as I struggled to maintain composure and project a strong image, without showing the fear I could feel dampening my armpits.
But it wasn't a gang of street-hardened, Pom-hating thugs out for my blood, it was a gang of time-hardened, Pomme-hating octogenarians. Actually, I exaggerate a bit; only two of the bunch were in an ugly mood; the pommes that possibly some of them hated were the French Golden Delicious variety (apologies to those who had there own strong teeth still); and some were maybe younger. [That's just in case the Accuracy Patrol come a-calling, cos I can't seem to find my poetic license at the moment]. Anyhow, enough of being cryptic; Across Australia, I did a number of slide photograph presentations, free of charge, for senior citizens' homes and nursing homes, in Darwin, Alice Springs, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and finally, the this troubled one in Sydney. I had arranged a venue and eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeventually and right at the last minute, thanks to the Police, I had the use of a slide projector (Prehistoric technology now, so hard to find). After asking friends and searching at schools, churches, libraries, hotels, conference centres, local government offices, and camera shops, finally it was the Manly police desk-sergeant's mum who generously offered her projector, and rescued me from an even worse fate. Devil knows what atrocities would have happened to me, had I turned up at THAT nursing home without my full armoury. (Manly is an area of Sydney and the desk sergeant was a woman, by the way.)
Well, I was still only setting up, and testing a few slides, when the first volley hit. Two or three of my prized photographs were cruelly greeted with calls of "Rubbish!", "RUBBISH!"
Oh no!! My first ever heckler!...a sweet, darling old lady!
I tried to mask my anxiety and to win over the audience with my usual jovial introduction, warm smile, and by asking them their names and a little of their backgrounds. I hope I didn't stutter too much, and that I didn't force my smile to the extent of an Olympic synchronized swimmer. Even if not, I imagined that people who'd been around for as long as they had, could see right through me. On approaching one Sydney-born-and-bred woman (whose identity I shall not reveal), and on moving a bit closer to her, as she seemed to be more hard of hearing than the others, she entered into the spirit of things, and retorted, "You stupid bastard!" I'm sure my knees were shaking at this point. How did she know???! They're pretty canny, these old folk!
For some reason I still thought I could bluff my way through. Two out of twenty-or-so wasn't a totally lost cause yet. I had dealt with Tibetan Wolf Hounds, British Telecom, Egyptian camels, Chinese shop-keepers, Indian paperwork, Sudanese spies, Tanzanian baboons, Vietnamese money-changers, salmonella typhae, Italian drivers, Pakistani amoebae, drunk, Ugandan gun-waving check-post-guards and Kenyan mosquitoes, and survived, albeit with varying levels of success, to get to this point, and I wasn't going to let this beat me without a fight. I was going to entertain these people even if it killed me. So I pushed on, talked around the rest of the group and got into the show.
Gladly, it wasn't too long before my photos worked their magic, the rogue grannies calmed down, and the rest were absorbed and happily making comments, though I remained wary and unsettled. Previously, a group of "problem young adults", who some might call "drop-outs", who I'd given a presentation to in Brisbane, had been positive angels, so I never really expected resistance from people whose main problems were possibly dementia, immobility and fragile bones. On the other hand though, I was warmed to see their fighting spirit still potent.
Anyway, the first heckler had initially assumed that I was a nurse and had requested that I sit her next to her sister, over the other side of the room. I had passed on her request to the nurse in charge, but the move never happened. I suppose I had to shoulder the blame. Perhaps she was known for always asking to be moved, wherever she happened to be. I don't know. But at the end, one or two of the other ladies asked her why she had given me trouble, to which she replied, "He loved it really, he did." And, turning to me said, saucily, "You like us girls, don't you?" I had to reply in the affirmative, and said "That's why I do this." All was well. Until, that is, I found out that there had been an even worse problem! Two of my best friends ever, my good hosts, Arnie and Sara, and one of their friends, had been refused entry to that nursing home when they had arrived to view my presentation and to pay the residents a friendly visit. Friendly and interesting visitors are often a great pep up, for people who can't get out. They had been turned away by Ms. Reception Dragon (real name also withheld in order to protect my family, but there's no problem revealing her middle name; FireBreathing) because their "presence was inappropriate". And from the way she had greeted me, both on the telephone and on arrival, I had felt that she thought my presence had been inappropriate, too. My friends had left without kicking up a fuss, and I only found out later when I found them back at home.
It wasn't quite the kerosene-bath treatment (!!) given to some old people in some notorious residential homes, that I'd read about in the press in my early days in Australia, but the actions of Ms.Reception Dragon were certainly MEAN! I should say here, in a different paragraph, that I came across a good number of dedicated, tireless and kind-hearted people caring for the elderly and sometimes struggling with limited resources, but maintaining good humour.
But some people, in their little positions of power over the helpless, can unfortunately give the others a bad name (though not the worst of their iniquities, of course). However, one redeeming quality is that they have done me the favour of now having the long-awaited opportunity of quoting from a Chinese book I read on the road somewhere; "One rat's turd spoils the whole bowl of porridge!"
[[Other meanings:- Porridge: In prison // Doing time.. Nursing homes are necessary, but senior citizens shouldn't be treated this way.  Food suitable for babiesc.Nor should they be treated like children. ]]
Oooopse! I'm bordering on bombast again. I should get on with the main plot.
Can't See the Wood or the Tree. Quite satisfied with the way I'd handled the dangers of the nursing home, I decided to tackle the two and a half foot walls of death, on a "Malibu" surfboard on a messy, but blue day in North Curl Curl, and the cannons and fireworks of the Symphony Under the Stars at Sydney's Domain. And soon after that, relatively unscathed, I found myself checking in at Sydney Airport, trying to cut through the barbed-wire of formalities necessary for me to complete, in order to get myself, my bicycle and my cumbersome effects on a plane to New Zealand (Aotearoa).
Initially I had tried to avoid flying; surface travel being far more my thing. But at about A$1200 for passage on a container ship (standard is about US$110 per day), I could have just about flown to NZ and back three times for that! Funnily enough, the long distance cargo vessels which had berths for a few passengers, were just about fully booked up by, surprise surprise, old people with lots of time and money!!! It was senior citizens bumping up the prices; able and willing to fork out that kind of dough. There's a funny side to that somewhere, I think. So I swallowed my ideals and bought a ticket in a sky tube.
But before I could get into it, I had to tackle a bike-box that was way too small and suffer blackmailing into buying a ticket to Fiji (because I didn't have an onward ticket to any place I was legally entitled to be). Fortunately these were both administered by very helpful and friendly Qantas staff, who nicely, in the rush created, managed to forget any excess baggage charges and also the charge for the inadequate box, which they hastily taped up around my protruding bike. A sad farewell to Australia, but a warm hello to New Zealand.
I was given a superb welcome by friends of friends of my Mum and Dad, being picked up at the airport of Auckland, the "City of Sails", and being treated to the luxury of hospitality at their cosy house.
One of the first things I was shown, was the historic One Tree Hill. But last year, the one tree, which had stood for a long time on top of this very prominent hill in Auckland, was chopped down by Maoris. Oh well, it was of a non-native species anyway, as I understand. But still the tree goes under the name;One Tree Hill. Mmmm..I wondered if the cheapest way of rectifying the signs might be to rename it Gone Tree Hill.
I then stayed in a typical Kiwi backpackers' hostel for a couple of nights and the great NZ welcome continued. I caught up with a friend who I'd played Rugby League with in London 13years previously, and who is related to the Tongan Royal Family. (Shhhh..Don't tell him that in my own country I'm a bit of an anti-royalist.) He's certainly never used that to make his way though, and he's been generous to a fault to me, even though we hadn't been in touch for all that time! He has leant me this computer that I am now typing this on. Thanks, Your Highness.
I cycled out of Auckland, south to where I am now, Pukekohe. Some of the way I was accompanied by a local, budding-international track-cyclist, who just happened to pass me. And then I was welcomed to Pukekohe, by one of the SoFresh Onion men I met way back in Hong Kong, 1997. He provided me with a couple of nights accommodation, and an invite to join his company staff and some UK buyers for a yacht trip in the harbour, next day
So my feet had barely touched NZ soil, yet I found myself experiencing one of the great, iconic, New Zealand thrills; a ride on an International America's Cup Class Yacht. I had my turn at the helm, and put my bit of effort into the "grinders" to hoist the sails, on a perfect day. Well, except that somehow we got becalmed because we got into a "hole" in the wind (?), and had to use the motor a little, to get back to port on time. But the whole thing was a real blast; the views of the forested, volcano island, Rangitoto, from the tilting vessel, were a treat and the company first rate. The buyers were from Sainsburys (a UK supermarket chain) so they tweaked some memories, and I met the export manager, the financial controller, the TV chef, Jo Seagar, the current of three generations of a large Onion growing company, and other directors, sometimes referred to as wives. All made me feel fully part of the group. We had a sumptuous Japanese meal at a fine restaurant to top off the day.
Back down to earth, back on dry land, and back to onion town. Basking in the back-end of summer. I had decided that this would be my base for a slightly longer period than my usual roll-in-roll-out stays. Friends were within easy reach and it was a quiet, rural backwater, ideal for immersing myself in my writing. I've got to pump out that book I've been promising... And so to a spot of nesting; The main event was the arrival of my fiancee, Haruyo, from Japan. [And how an itinerant, fly-free ICBM like myself could possibly entrap such a sweetheart is another story only to be divulged very selectively, and best over a comfortable dinner or coffee or the like. And even then possibly not. (ICBM=InterContinental Bicycle Man, for those who are new to my writing.)]
But it wasn't the most comfortable of reunions. We had a couple of sleep-deprived nights, partly because of the karaoke-till-late in the pub below our hotel, which caused us to rush into renting a tilted, one-bedroom cottage (ex-garage) by a little creek, with a potential flood problem. We had to furnish the place, plus there were lots of other time-consuming aspects of nesting that we had to go into, which I shall not mention, because they are probably the same practically the whole first-world over. Behind the cottage, a grove of trees, including apricots and lychees, lining the creek, emanated sounds of communication; strange insects snapping their fingers for attention, more-sophisticated crickets with ringing mobile phones, ducks just laughing in response to the gurgling waterfall overflowing a weir. On the washing line the occasional, peppermint green praying mantis sent transmissions in its own silent, spiritual manner. Beyond that, fringing and guarding the plot, stood a line of windmill banana trees and a row of proud, well laden corn stalks.
Of cycling and reconnoitring the neighbourhood back then, I wrote; Apart from onion smell, manure smell and fairly localised dust from onion wash-, grade-, and pack-houses, the air around here is crystal. The boundaries are clearly drawn and patrolled; electric fences; high-spirited horses; legions of giant cabbages; staccato arcs of field irrigators ticking round; lines of uprooted, curing onions; wide-wheeled tractors, double-trailer-trucks transporting crates of onions spreading onion-skin confetti and scent; nonchalant sheep; gigantic, 8metre high, windbreak hedgerows; and watchful cows, also breaking wind (or at least that's how I hear they contribute to global warming). I am myself under surveillance. There is order. Though those tall hedgerows look slender and flimsy, and speak of an attempt to tame the untameable. And the land still looks windswept and wild.
But for now, it's a very hospitable Indian summer. In more ways than one. There's a high Indian population here. Or, more precisely, there's a high Punjabi population. And a lot of them originate from small towns I passed by on the Grand Trunk Road from the Pakistan border to New Delhi. A large number are fork-hoist-drivers, sorting- or grading-machine-operatives, assisting a few billion onions on the start of their way around the world.
Sometimes brightly coloured saris doubled over in the fields take me back to my sojourn through India. When is the next stop for chai (tea) and alu paratha (kind of fried chapatti stuffed with potato)? So I fit in here.
One friendly Punjabi man made me real chapattis and chicken curry. He slapped the chapattis from hand to hand, and they inflated on the hot plate. And there was real zing in the curry. Ahhhh!! I was really back in the heated, hazy planes and minaretted onion domes. But he told me that he'd been in New Zealand for five years while his family were continuing without him back in India. In order to stake his claim for residency in NZ, he had been unable to leave NZ to visit his children in all that time. The shadows under his eyes told of a life of little but work, taking priority over even sleep. He is still waiting. His is a sad tale, but by Indian standards of institutionalised sad tales, it's probably a fairytale. I count a few more of my lucky stars, which I can now see with the enhanced resolution of NZ air, dazzling down on a moonless night. But I wonder how much the depleted ozone layer helps.
I haven't had much to do with Maoris just yet, except receiving freshly-harvested, fat and juicy sweet-corn from the Australian wife of the Maori guy next door, who I've only talked to sufficiently to ascertain his name, so far. Oh...and one of the neighbourhood kids; a girl delightfully named Destiny. In fact, a large group of the kids on our street, of various races, gathered round me as I rode in one evening, showing off their "razor" scooters and bicycles. They all proudly announced their names when I asked, and they now call "Hello, Richard!" to me when I ride by. Perhaps I'm the Long White Clown. I feel accepted. This stranger feels at home. But I'm living not far from a historic church pocked with bullet holes (so I've been told, though we couldn't find any when we visited) from the days of a fierce battle between Maoris and settling British soldiers, at Mauku.
After my big world ride, I sometimes notice the small-town-ishness in my town. And it's attempts at slickening up it's image, only seem to serve to highlight it's provinciality. It has a motor-racing circuit next to its horse-racing track, with a small grandstand. There is a 24hour supermarket, where many towns of substantially larger size don't. (So it's good that we can't run out of stuff anymore. Well, except money.) And just up the road is a "drive through" tomato shop with a "trust box" for the couple of dollars for a Kilo bag. It's also 24hours, and the light triggers on if I cycle in after dark. But most of the town closes down early on sleepy Saturday afternoons. I don't think I've seen a single passenger train pass along the main line through Pukekohe, let alone stop at the station. There are about three a day! A ridiculously meagre service to Auckland. But if you try to drive the 55Km into the heart of Auckland at commuter time, the tailbacks are horrendous.
There are other tailbacks of cars, though, caused by the weekend convoys of the local custom-car brigade, all following each other to the tops of the same hills and stopping at the same cafes. I think that Kiwis have the biggest TV sets in the world too.
To complete the picture, almost not a day goes by when we don't hear the wail of the siren to call in the volunteers of the part-time fire service. Nor does about five minutes pass without hearing rubber being transferred from tyre to road, despite the conspicuous, bright, plastic flowers and things which adorn the roadside crosses signifying Maori road deaths, or the plainer ones which mark those of the Pakehas (white people). [Maori graves also often have bright plastic windmills covering them.]
Perhaps all the agricultural stuff is going to my head; On a trip to Auckland to see an afternoon of free bands in Albert Park, in a slight rush of internationalism I bumped into an American iceberg-scientist, fresh from Antarctica. He told me that there's an enormous iceberg some hundreds of kilometres across, which might threaten shipping lanes in the not-too-distant future. Wow!!! I didn't know lettuces could get that big!
He also told me that George W. Bush was like Dan Quail without the experience. And I think the scientist was a Republican! I like that, straight from the horses mouth, so to speak.
I've heard that there's a pretty major "brain drain" going on here in, or rather exiting, New Zealand, too. I don't think I should really say much about that, eh? Nothing to do with watching too much big-screen TV, I don't think.
Gone With the Blues and Wind
What perhaps shows more on those big screens than Coronation Street (an ancient English soap opera) is, of course, the Rugby. Maybe New Zealand's official religion. At least for the male half. Anyway, I really joined the Long White Crowd one time (so far), by actually going to a SuperTwelve game with my mate Paul and his partner. We went to the hallowed Eden Park in Auckland, home of The Blues. There's a whole lot of razzmatazz connected to the game these days, which kind of makes me feel I've been away for a long time; cheerleaders; a band high on the roof, a golf-cart stretcher-carrier for the wounded; free sweets; and even larger screens than in NZ homes. But the same old fan-stuff is reassuringly still there; the team-colours, painted faces and wigs; the crowd's enthusiastic roar; and post-match traffic congestion. The game was scrappy and unexciting, until close to the end where even I found myself punching the air when one of the Blues went over for a wing try. [For those of you who don't understand that jargon, don't worry, because I'm not going to explain it] I've since transferred what few allegiances I have, to our local team, the Chiefs, though. It's nice to be free like the wind, sometimes. Perhaps I couldn't feel totally at home in Pukekohe if I hadn't.
So how to wind up this instalment; Hows about a bit about aNZac day; Haru and I went down to watch some of the goings on at Pukekohe's new town square, which now has a new snazzy fountain, but which was rumoured to have held a grove of trees not so long back (until sometime last year, I think.) Firstly we watched a Scots bagpipe band, with kilts, sporrans bearskin hats, the whole regalia. Then some Maori musicians; sort of half-jazz-half-folk, with maybe a bit of country thrown in, came on stage. One of them (in jeans, cowboy boots, Stetson etc, you know), a celebrity who, I gathered from what he said, got no recognition in record sales locally, tried to get people singing. He succeeded somewhat with the kids, but not without the carrot of lollypops. But the adults largely remained just attentive rather than participating. It seems that people around here are as apathetic at singing their national anthem as I would be about singing my national anthem, God Save the Queen. Anyway, the celeb questioned the crowd about Anzac Day, to which one active denizen answered something like, "To remember the war." Mr. Celeb at the microphone then went on to explain that, had those soldiers not fought, those present would all have been speaking Japanese instead of English that day. He said this as if it were the single, most terrible thing. For a native English speaker, I could just about grant that that might just qualify as a symbol of a greater oppression, but for a Maori already speaking a foreign tongue, I had to question the sentiment. Was he making a subtle swipe at, but also intended to go over, the heads gathered, I wonder? His words, a double edged sword?
I finish with an observation I made in McD. fast food establishments across Australia, and which has nothing really to do with anything. I noticed that they were heavily promoting something called chicken Mcwrap. If read out loud, especially with a strong 'c', does it sound like McD*****'s are finally getting honest?
Well, I hope you've got a PC that's "grunty" enough to download this, eh? [<< grunty means powerful in NZ, and c.eh? is a very common NZ-ism at the end of most sentences, as in; I'll hev fush 'n' chups, eh?
Unite against the Cabbage White!!!
Cairns to Sydney
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