Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Vanuatu 8 Week's End

This Vanuatu story could go on for many more posts such was the fullness of the week. A funeral; a full on tribal dance finale including a Johnson's Baby Powder surprise ending; more taro on my plate than I could carry in a wheelbarrow; and some fascinating conversations - but I'm going to jump to the end and leave you to imagine the missing bits.


The week is full of bizarre contrasts. A delegate arrives wearing nothing but a woven lap lap. He attaches his name tag to the pandanus string circling his waist. No one takes any notice (except me).
My mobile phone runs out of credit. At morning tea we eat french crepes cooked on the open fire and filled with island cabbage and capsicum while a local chief takes my money and recharges my phone via his mobile. He is a 'Digicell' agent. Digicell is the local carrier.

One of my colleagues has, for some inexplicable reason, decided to do his presentation as a Powerpoint. We have spent the past three days in the training room in, at times, near darkness - there is no power, no power-point. He runs a cable the 100 odd metres from the village generator to his laptop. The power keeps cutting in and out. He has no Plan B. It works

In a village proud of its Kastom ways and commitment to Kastom language and Kastom names the chief's 11 year old son is named Zinadine - after the French captain of the succesful 1998 World Cup soccer team. Pentecost is not even a French speaking island.
The building we are sleeping in has a kitchen, bathroom, and flush toilet all plumbed in. Each morning at 5am, one of the young village girls spends half an hour carting in buckets of water from the water tank nearby to fill the large tub we use each day for bathing and flushing the toilet. The plumbing has never been connected nor a pump installed. We flush and wash bucket by bucket. I love it.

I fear I have become one of those tragic westerners who romanticises the simple life of the native. I have fallen in love with this place. I sit on the porch of our concrete accommodation block and gaze misty eyed at the village green - there a young girl in a dress in need of a wash throws a rock at a half inflated soccer ball in a contented game she has made up.

Chickens and chicks and roosters scuttle about pecking at unseen morsels; laughter reaches me from my ni-Vanuatu colleagues who sit and wave at the odd utility filled with locals passing by on its way up or down the one road.

In the Nakamal men lie on benches, snoozing after lunch. They are dressed in the same shorts they have worn all week. Their chests glisten cocoa brown in the filtered light seeping through the woven walls.

Even the singing of Happy Birthday to our admin worker is suffused with island magic. The group sings the song in 10 part harmony, each person following their own melodic path. It becomes a sacred choral piece as they sing it slowly and with deeply felt meaning. I feel tears welling in the corners of my eyes. I join in with a joy I cannot fathom. I hate this song sung every year in such unattractive variations back home. Slow and rich and harmonic, it feels like a hymn.

I am a convert.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

My Found Family?

Oh my God! Talk about the potential for the internet to disseminate false information.

I have just finished a conversation with a lovely lady in Sydney. I am searching for documentation of my Grandfather's birth. I knew he had been born in a northern suburb of Sydney (Thornleigh). I am not able to source any official record of birth through the normal Birth Deaths and Marriages State records.

He was born to illiterate Italian parents in the mid 1880s. I decided to pursue Catholic Church parish records as another avenue. I started by phoning St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney figuring that they must get enquiries all the time and would give good advice.
'Hello. I'm looking for some advice about what records you have. My grandfather etc etc.'
'Go to the State Library.' the woman said bluntly.
'I've explored the NSW Births deaths etc do any parishes....'
'All our records are in the State Library'
I had hoped for a gentle helpful historian or to be referred on to one.

A sucker for punishment I made three more calls. The St Agnes (Pennant Hills) lady was nice enough.
'You should call the Waitara Cathedral. They're the regional centre. We only go back to 1925'
The Waitara lady (all women so far) said 'Call Sacred Heart at Pymble. They were the central church for that district in that period.'
Jenny at Pymble was very helpful.
'Send me some information and I'll see if I can find time to hunt something down in our archives.'
So off went an email.

And then the phone rang.
'Hell. It's Georgina here. I'm calling back from St Agnes. You called us a little while ago. I've done some searching and found your fathers birth date.'
Whacko I think.
'I googled his name and found information on the "Roots" website.'
'Wait. Let me have a look.' I was excited but couldn't figure our how she'd found this information so simply.

Oh my God (again)! There it was in all its inaccurate detail. My grandfather's birthdate was there, apparently official; in addition it told me he died in Sydney. Truth is he was in the front room of our house in Brisbane the week before he died in a local hospital.

Roots is part of and there, listed in detail, were dates ages birth death details and much of it wrong or at least contestable. Some well meaning family member has simply put up the best guesses and hand me down information with little attempt at cross referencing or the establisment of fact versus fiction.

I don't want to bag my relatives. They are just sharing what they know. It's the power of the internet and of sites such as I have a problem with. I know how unreliable even the reliable information can be. I am immersed in the unrelaible details of family life, trying to put the puzzle together for a book following my great-grandfather Lorenzo. He changed his name twice; left an unreliable trail of confused information and has at least three possible birthplaces in Italy recorded in varying documents. No birth records for him either. Like father like son.

I must be more cautious in the future when I read the 'truth' on Wikapedia and kindred websites.

By the look of the photo I may be related to the Jackson 5. That my grandfather on the right looking like a the little spiv he was and his brother and sister beside him. Where did she get that hair? My pops hair was always like a wire brush in crew cut style come to think of it. If only he'd let his hair grow.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Bus Bliss

My blog friend Jennifer at Realia has entranced me over the years with her snippets of life observed from the seat on a train or walking along ordinary streets to work. It's so easy to 'not notice'.

I'm on the City Glider bus this morning on a banking errand to the city. The City Glider bus service has a sugar glider as its emblem and, as with any flying possum, they slide past many passengers only picking up at limited stops. It's a prepaid service. You can't get on and pay cash.

The service follows Montague Road, a main thoroughfare through the industrial strip along the river and avoids the local traffic snarl. Half way along the bus pulls up and, though I'm engrossed in my book, I hear a voice from outside the bus say to the driver, 'Can you give me a ride to the supermarket mate?' Pause. 'I hav'n got a ticket or nothin'. Pause. 'Cos it too hot'. I can't hear the driver but can guess at his quiet questions. The passenger's words slur like he's been drinking.

Another pause. The driver says nothing and a midde aged man in a black t-shirt and black jeans carefully climbs aboard. His hair is mussed and his chin is grey stubble. He has the look of one who has seen a lot of hard times. He's not been drinking, just living.

'Thanks mate' he says and sits in the front seat for the one stop ride to Coles, his destination.

As I get off in the city five minutes later I make a point of walking to the front exit to compliment the driver on the good thing he's done for the 'mate'. 'Yeah,' he says, looking a little world weary himself, 'I see him pretty regularly'.

It's a beautiful simple thing this being human; and I offer this to Jennifer in her quest to reach 100 beautiful things in her Toronto life.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Suburban surprises

Went for a drive at lunchtime today to scout some of the elements I'm writing about for the forthcoming 'Walkers Guide to West End'. I needed to check out a couple of buildings built in the 30s as the area's first apartment buildings. One, Carmel Court, is a lovely simple Art Deco place on Vulture Street (I know a little more about Art Deco as a result of researching this project - more about the progress of the project another time).

I took a detour into a dead end street and drove to the end and as always it was the human presence which caught my eye rather than the houses. Buildings have stories and in my view that's what makes them interesting - even the story about why a designer might have chosen to build a modernist Art Deco building in the middle of a suburb of timber colonials. But I digress.

I saw
a man
under a floppy hat
wearing swim trunks
in a green backyard
sitting on a yoga mat
cross legged
straight backed
baking under the burning Brisbane sun

meditating i thought
until he reached out
to touch
the computer screen
resting on the grass
before him.

Photo courtesy of Cara and Brisbane Daily Photo blog.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Old friends over lunch - Brisbane

Old friends are marvellous aren't they? Had lunch today with a pair of work colleagues. We first worked together 21 years ago and last worked together 17 years ago. We were in the drama department at a university together. We are, each of us, very different. One, young, beautiful, talented and full of spunk, another, warm, energetic, a long term academic (but not a wanker) and the third always sitting slightly outside the mainstream though not loud and angry.

We like each other. Two women and a bloke. We shared a view of the academic world back in the 90s, seeing it for what it was (a place full of ambitious and often self serving people - with a smattering of the genuine and balanced) and could laugh about it. Feels like there is a more than an average representation of narcissists and mildly aspergers types in academia.

Today was the third time we'd got together in three years. The last time was in January this year at someone's retirement bash. Yes, it was one of ours.

Today was was so easy. What is that? Shared history. Shared disillusionment. Common interest in our children, in theatre. A mutual respect for our differences. An interest in listening to stories. None of us has changed (or so we tell each other). We're all growing to be more like ourselves year by year and that feels comfortable.

At the end of our 90 minute lunch we said let's do this again. One said that she'd be in the UK for five months next year enjoying her second grandchild due in early March. She suggested August.
We all looked at each other thinking the same thought. That seems like a long time I said. So we said lets try for February before she goes. But it probably will be August, or later more likely, by the time we all get in touch again.

Funny but it feels kind of normal. At least we have plenty to talk about in our 90 minutes per year.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Vanuatu 7 Kava

Monday 26 (evening)
The drum sounds its hollow call again. I hear no difference in the rhythm but everyone knows that this heralds dinner. Its 7:30pm. Paul and I accompany out ni-Vanuatu colleagues once more through the entrance to the Nakamal. This time the building hums with quiet activity. Smoke drifts towards the high roof from the three fires. Women busy themselves over steaming pots and among piles of banana leaves. Groups of men sit on the side benches sharing stories. The kava makers continue grinding.

We sit on the slatted bamboo bench on the right hand side of the building and watch and wait. There are about forty people in the building. Half of us are visitors, the rest, our hosts. Time is not of the essence here. My gaze traverses the scene and I become mesmerised by the slow kava ritual in front of me at the men's end of the building.

Outside two young men with long machetes slice and prepare the thin tubers of the kava plant. Each stroke peels away the earth coloured surface to reveal the pale flesh beneath. Inside four or five men sit on the earth floor, each with an oblong shaped wooden tray before them. A small mound of shaved roots sit beside each tray. The kava preparation continues without interruption. In one hand the craftsman holds a clutch of tubers and in the other a grinding tool. The village proudly follows century old traditions in this ritual. The tool is a shaft of coral about ten centimetres in diameter (a natural handspan) and forty centimetres long. It is tapered at one end. This tapered end sits int the cup of the kava filled hand and, one twist at a time from the right hand, grinds the roots to a pulp. These islands are mountains of volcanic rock and ancient coral deposits. It is slow rhythmic work. If kava is a relaxant this ritual is perfectly suited to the task.

I watch the pulp on the tray slowly grow in size. Then watch as water is added to the tray and kneaded to a wet doughy consistency. Finally the maestro takes a half shell of a small coconut, places it on the ground and, wrapping the kava pulp in a spiral of pandanus leaf, pours another cupful of water through the mixture and directs the filtered juice through the pandanus funnel to the cup.

Kava is drunk every day in these villages. Originally used only for ritual purposes to mark the resolution of a conflict or a significant event (marriage, achievement of chief status, death) it now has a central place in the daily life of the men of the community. It's a relaxant and mild hallucinogen. Pentecost kava is reputed to be the best and strongest. Our colleagues have mixed connections to this ritual, and much of it stems from which missionary group held dominance. The Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) eschew alcohol and intoxicants and decline, others only drink at traditional ceremonies, and others are willing regular partakers. I choose to be SDA for the moment.

I am already in a mild state of shock without the benefit of kava. My experience of travels in India and Indonesia in the seventies with associated stomach and bowel disruptions is still fresh in my mind thirty years later. I have premonitions of medical emergencies and dashes to the latrines and the last thing I need is a gutful of a mind altering substance.

As well as my Indian bowel experiences I am catapulted back to Nepal (on the same trip) where I walked alone to a remote village (having left my now wife to her own devices hovering over a squat toilet for two days - she has only recently begun to forgive me) and foolishly shared a joint being passed around a room full of young overland travellers. Anyone who remembers the streets of Katmandu lined with hashish in those years will understand that this was not a gentle local Australian mix of grass clippings and marijuana. This was a potent brew chipped from a block of refined and condensed chocolate coloured 100% madness. I had succumbed to hippie peer pressure. That night I clung to my straw covered bed, tied my foot to my backpack as I resisted the mad urge to walk out of that hut and traverse the ridges of Pokhara in the pitch black. I was not keen to repeat that episode.

I'm not sure why I'm so fearful. In two days I'll look back on this and wonder why it seemed such a big deal. My colleague Gideon promises to keep tempting me. "you haven't experienced Pentecost until you drink a shell of kava." he says. Tonight I decline.