Wednesday 28 December 2011

A Passion for Place

I picked up a book I've had for 10 or more years the other day. It was "About This Life', the autobiographical writings of Barry Lopez a North American storyteller and sage. He writes about the landscape and about people with an intimate knowledge of their land or their world. He moves from artic landscapes to intercontinental air freight and subjects them to the same incisive gaze and sense of discovery.

I was reading his essay "The American Geographies" where he grapples with the question of what is the land we live in? He sees that his country is often glibly represented by billboards and, in film by internationally recognised emblems of North America and he argues that this devalues the true nature of the landscape. He observes that true understanding 'resides with men and women more of less sworn to a place.' In saying that he also says that it's not an encyclopedic knowledge that these people have but a deep love and familiarity. They inhabit real spaces rather than inhabiting an idea of a place.

That got me thinking. I have an uncle Paddy like that. Every time I visit him in the Richmond River Vally where he was born he constantly talks about the weather and the river and the fish and hunting and seasons. It's as if he is a bird hovering above the land taking it all in. He can describe the route from his place to anywhere in the district as if by touch and feel rather than by street signs. Barbara Kingsolver does that in 'Prodigal Summer', the most remarkable book I've ever read. Everyone else in my circle loved 'The Poisonwood Bible' but I was captivated by her intimacy with the landscape and the people in 'Prodigal Summer'.

Barry and Paddy got me thinking. Thinking about what I'd read and written this past year. I realised that the books I most remember were set in places I knew or could know: "The Body in the Clouds" - Sydney; " All That I Am" - London and Germany between the wars; 'Spirit of Progress' - Melbourne. These are all Australian authors (I'm in a local Australian Authors Bookclub) but their stories are universal while specific to real places. I also read a series of books by young authors which were well constructed, well written and with interesting plots but, while they were set in recognizable landscapes, these landscapes were not named and the sense of place was not the same. I want to learn about a concrete world as well as a psychological world.

In terms of blogs, I've read less this year but the few I read I read regularly. On reflection I am drawn to sites which are grounded in place or accounts of place. Two of my favourites have been Sara Toa's 'A WineDark Sea' and Jennifer Morrison's 'Realia'.

Sara writes and photographs her fishing life and fishing community on the southwest coast of Western Australia. It's her writing I love. It is so true to daily experience. It is so deeply simple in the way she captures moments like launching a boat as the sun rises over the bay or loading crab pots or reading the weather. It's much more than notes about a good days fishing. Hers is writing with the intention of telling a story and capturing the reader in the moment.

Jennifer, similarly, captures moments in a very intentional way. Her moments are often about people she encounters on the bus or train on the way to work. Small observation of real life in Toronto, Canada. Jennifer teaches writing to adult groups and has a passion for storytelling and, in naming the streets and the destinations, she builds a picture you can step in to or could step into if you visited and followed in her footsteps. None of this is new. Writers have been documenting and capturing the world they live in since well before Dickens. I can still, forty years later, close my eyes and find myself in Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row'.

For my part I realised that my writing has also followed this path. I am more interested in writing stories of real experiences and real people than fictionalised accounts from my imagination. To my mind my stories are no less creative; the fundamentals of good storytelling are the same and that's where the craft and the creativity reside.

At this point my focus has been on my personal experiences and encounters I have with the interesting and absurd. Family and memoir has been a large part of my writing this year. It occurs to me that the landscapes that Barry Lopez talks about do not need to be the exotic; they could equally be the immediate locality, my community. How can I know my community and my local history better? What better way than to examine it, observe it and write about it.

I don't make New Year's resolutions but I'm hoping this idea might have a life beyond this immediate blog.

Happy New Year for next week.

Link to Barry Lopez on Storytelling

Tuesday 27 December 2011


I'm off to New Zealand for a few weeks from 1 January so see you all in the new year.

I'll take my computer but hopefully I'll be too busy to blog. That, or I'll be writing from the bottom of a crevasse after another South Island earthquake - we fly into Christchurch which has had another big one this week. But as one article reminded us all recently - the landscape we love in NZ is the result of milleniums of earthquake and volcanic activity.

Here's to fate, fun, rain, and unused travel insurance.

Monday 19 December 2011

Cryptic Christmas


I've aged only one year
but my children's combined tally
creeps closer to my maturing years.

I've written a small mountain of words
but the memoir in me
grows faster than I can capture it.

I've been a teacher in a Pacific idyll
but I've learnt more
than I've imparted.

I've immersed myself
in the history of my community
only to discover that I know very little.

I've lived my 37th year
in a partnership both
baffling and satisfying.

I've read a lot
becoming a better reader,
more discerning and insightful.

I've spent more time alone
and found good company within,
and out and about.

I haven't been paid
but I have worked hard
hoping the tax man is losing interest.

There were things lost -
a job, or two; a son leaves home
But I have no memory of funerals.

I have valued relationships and relatives
I have valued time and also tide
I am again a fortunate man.

Have a great holiday season everyone.
See you in 2012.

steve aka 'little hat'

Friday 16 December 2011

Starting Point

Is it possible to take inspiration from anything as the beginning point of writing a blog or a piece of creative/reflective writing?

Right now my toilet cistern is hissing at me. It's been hissing for a few weeks now as precious water flows constantly down the slightly stained porcelain walls through the S bend and on a journey ultimately to mix with waters polluted by poo and pee and other waste products.

Can I learn anything from this?

At the most practical level I have learnt that toilet cistern valves are not as easily sourced as I'd presumed. Two weeks later and a series of excuses and my local Tradelink plumbing shop still can't provide me with a simple piece of rubber. I could have flown to Malaysia, tapped a rubber tree, cured the sap and shaped a perfectly ordinary seal in the same time.

Of course I'd still be cursing and ruining the world on a number of fronts. One, the piece I would have made would be too big or too small or the wrong shape or too rough and I would have made no progress at all. Two, my trip to Malaysia would have added tons of carbon to the atmosphere and, so, more than counter balanced the good I am trying to achieve by stopping the leak. Three, let's leave three to your fertile imagination, because mine has run dry.

On the spiritual level I have learnt that acceptance of life's S bends, while challenging, can lead to an inner harmony and this, in turn, is good for one's bowel movements. I have also learnt that a calm reply and a logical account of progress to date can sooth the ire of those to whom saving the planet (not to mention the dollar cost of wasted water) is of paramount importance.

Finally, and there is always a final irony in most things (though I am told my friends in North America - the USA in particular do not get irony), my hissing toilet cistern has chosen to coincide its flush and flow with the release of tens of thousands of megalitres of water, not officially waste water, but certainly wasted, from the Wivenhoe Dam west of Brisbane to reduce its capacity to 75%.This is a precaution against a possible repeat of the January 2011 flood which devestated the community.

Are my efforts in vain. Can one person's cistern make a difference? Is the Kyoto protocol wasted on me? Did it ever get signed? What has waste water got to do with global warming? Answer: it can help keep things cool - for a while?

And to answer my opening question: The answer is yes. But the value of the result may very likely be questioned.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Harry loves Bindi

I've just spent a week watching a DVD of Bindi and the late Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame. I never was a fan but Bindi, age about 8 in the DVD, and Steve were quite a team. She's the mature straight man (if I can use that term) and he's the playful child messing with dangerous animals (and finally getting too close to one particular stingray).

I can remember where I was for a small number of major events in history as they unfolded over my lifetime.

I was walking past Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Norman Park, as a 13 year old when I learned about the assination of JFK from a passing motorist. (November 1963)

I was in the Music/Media Room under the University of Qld Refectory watching Neil Armstrong step on to the moon in the late 60s. (July 1969)

I watched the 9:11 drama unfold on my home TV screen early in the morning of that terrible day in 2001 and then watched it replayed hour after hour at work in my office at Indooroopilly. (September 2001)
In 2006 I was camped in remote Central Australia at Kings Canyon having a glass of wine in a camp chair watching the sunset when news swept the campground that Steve Irwin had died. there was no TV, no radio, no media. Someone had picked up the news via their CB Radio. The camp ground was stunned. (September 2006).

For a period Steve sat beside JFK, Neil Armstrong and the 9:11 event as a moment of international significance. How do you figure that? They all occured in the second half of their respective years; Steve and 9:11 both in September. It's not a hugh step to develop a conspiracy theory around those facts.

No I haven't gone potty - just the price of a visit from 7 year old nephew Harry all the way from London.

Brisbane born and London raised he has an unusual take on his birth country - this last week we had daily visits from wallabies grazing in the backyard of the house we were renting on Stradbroke Island (plus families of kookas and butcherbirds which we fed from the verandah).

As far as Harry's concerned it's true, we have kangaroos bounding down our main streets in Australia. And Bindi is set to become the second female Prime Minister with young Harry as her consort.

Now what to buy harry for Christmas? A date with Bindi?

Friday 2 December 2011


I am surrounded by reminders of my mortality. I decide to visit Sydney to track down some family sites which I hope will help me fill in some gaps in the family saga. I call my cousin and suggest we spend a couple of days together exploring. The visit will coincide with an old friend's 60th birthday celebration.

I arrive three hours late after my flight out of Brisbane has been cancelled and a seat found for me on a later plane. Cousin Steve picks me up at the airport and we talk about the state of the nation and his state of health. The economy is pretty shaky and Steve's year hasn't been much better. He's had a hip operation and then a strange virus which doctors couldn't identify but which attacked his heart. He makes light of it but later his wife tells me he's definitely not running on all four cylinders. This is ironic for a man with a passion for cars. He has a 1950 something MG TF convertible in his garage which he has done up and in which he goes touring. He and the car both look pretty good but they are, to be honest, both getting on.

Steve and I spend a day mooching around inner city Leichhardt uncovering a series of Italian and Irish connections. Leichhardt was, and is, Sydney's 'Little Italy' and was the first port of call for many migrants looking for affordable housing. The Fruit and Vegetable shop from 1910 has gone but a few locals tell us there was still a fruit and vege business on the corner of Paramatta Rd and Norton Street until the recent past.

The Kilcoyne family (two Kilcoyne girls married two Capelin boys) had settled in Leichhardt in the early 1880s, about the same time Lorenzo, the original Italian connection, was disembarking from his disastrous venture to the Pacific with 200 other Italians. Their house is still there and the woman living there is home and shows us through. We are following a warm trail. We visit the local Catholic Church, St Fiacres, where the weddings took place and confirm that the wedding photos were definitely taken in front of a backdrop featuring fake pillars. I check out St Mary's Cathedral the next day hoping to find the very pillars there - but am again disappointed. We track down two other houses built by various members of the family and have a coffee at Bar Sport, a place that my Sydney friends tell me later is an icon of Norton Street. The coffee is good.

The next day I am at my friend Mark's house in Glebe, having slept on the floor overnight. He's the one turning 60. His family have arrived from Rockhampton and Perth and we are 11 in the house over three days. Well, most of them have. His sister in law can't make it as she is nursing her sister who is seriously unwell. I also learn that a cousin of Mark's wife has been knocked down by a car and taken to hospital the day before. She's from Israel and looked left instead of right as she went to jog across the road on her morning run. Her partner was well in front of her and didn't know she'd been hit, only that she never arrived back from the run. Sydney's like that. People disappear all the time. After a series of frantic phone calls they track her down. She's okay. It was only a glancing blow.

Around mid morning a call comes from another relative apologising that they won't be able to make the party. The husband has just been taken to hospital having suffered a heart attack. It's turning out to be quite a weekend.

Understandably the conversation for the remaining two days often revolves around health. The party goes well. No one is taken to hospital, though a few are going home a bit worse for wear thanks to Mark's generous bar tab.

I visit the Police Museum and am disappointed to find I don't have a National Security file - I was always too afraid to really stick my head up too high during the Vietnam protest years.

Next day Cousin Steve and I drive to Woollongong to visit our only remaining uncle on the Capelin side. Cyril is 83 and pretty unsteady on his feet but he has a memory of a teenager and tells us stories with people's names, dates and even the time of day. He swears his longevity is based around his heavy diet of dairy products and cream.

On the way back to Sydney for my flight home I get a text message from my wife, Andrea, telling me that my younger brother has completed his angiogram procedure and that they've inserted a stent into one of his major arteries. He's going to live. He retired three weeks ago and has been at the hospital every other day since then having tests after some chest pain. Can I pick him up from hospital the next day as his wife is on crutches after foot surgery and can't drive; Andrea isn't available as she'll be at work - its her third last week; she's been retrenched.

It seems I'm the only one left standing. I feel fine. But I do have strange thoughts as I swim my twenty laps of my local pool where I wonder how long it would take the other swimmers to notice my body on the bottom of the pool if I karked it mid swim.


I facilitated a sharing of stories at the AGM of my local community organisation last night. I began by noting that, while the January flood had defined the year, it was not the only thing we had all experienced in the past 12 months. I asked people to think about how the flood may have influenced their year. What had they learnt about themselves? About their community?

I didn't want people to re-experience the flood. It was hard enough the first time without doing it all over again in our imaginations. Still, the flood did dominate the conversation.

Two women who had never met before January had ended up working alongside each other for the whole year in a Flood Recovery Centre, 5 months of that as volunteers. They are chalk and cheese and yet now best friends. They met the Queen. One was overcome with excitement; the other, of Scottish heritage, was completely uninterested in Her Majesty. They laugh a lot and finish each others stories.

Norma is 84. She spoke of the good things to come from the flood; the people who had helped; the relatives rallying around. She's moved on. She is still reminded of the experience in strange ways. "Yesterday I wanted to thicken some cream but I couldn't find my eggbeater anywhere." Gone. Thrown out by helpful volunteers in the days after the flood. It's become her convenient excuse for not doing things she doesn't want to do. " Oh I can't, sorry, that got thrown out after the flood."

My neighbours moved in 12 months ago - November 2010. He had a book collection and stored them under his house while he organised shelving upstairs. He lost the lot. They moved out last week, 12 months to the day. I haven't spoken to them since the week of the flood when we delivered some food to them. I guess the thought of a repeat experience was too much to bear.

January will be a strange time for many people.

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.

Friday 28 October 2011

Vanuatu 6 Death

Monday September 26 (evening)

Bong Bong Bong. A drum sounds across the evening air. It's five-thirty. At six-fifteen it sounds again. I know this slit drum with its low throm will call us to the evening meal but no one moves. I am waiting for a sign. My colleagues will call me, I'm sure. Before seven it sounds twice more.

I'm wondering if the cooks are getting impatient with our tardiness. I crawl out from my mosquito net cave to see what is happening. I wander out to the front of our accommodation, pause and take in the scene of clusters of men in quiet conversation and go back to my room. By now it's dark.

Soon, one of my colleagues comes by to explain that the drum announces more than a call to meals. What we are hearing is the announcement of more deaths in the region. The news has reached us through neighbouring villages and, no doubt via the ever-present mobile phone. The drum marks the arrival of this information. It is a mark of respect.

I am told that a big chief has recently died and that the belief is that this will herald a string of other deaths. The big chief, it is held, should not travel unaccompanied into the next life. A wise man, a magic man, who claims to see the fiture says ten people will pass away over the next week. I am a sceptic when it comes to the paranormal, but sure enough the drum will beat out new deaths each day we are here. I lose count.

I am reminded of my parents deaths, both of which held an uncanny sense of timing. My mother's descent into a coma was slow and painful to watch. The dreaded breast cancer had come back to take her years after her masectomy. Though it was inevitable, the timing was unknowable and yet, she seemed to know. In her final hours she held on until all the family had arrived back from holidays and other out of town activities before offering us her last breath; my father, a man who acceded to my insistent urgings and lived two years more than he would have chosen, eventually made his quiet exit two weeks before my long planned overseas trip with my wife.

He was our big chief. He was also a believer in reincarnation so he knew he wouldn't lack company on the other side - requiring none of us to accompany him. He was always such a considerate man.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Vanuatu 5 Mourning

Monday 26 September (late afternoon)

Our plans for the week have been thrown into some confusion as the mother of the project coordinator has passed away. She died as we traversed the blue Pacific. We unpack our bags and create a rudimentary sense of home in our concrete floored room. We don't have any family photos to hang on the wall but with a rearrangement of chairs and the rough bush-built side table it feels pretty good; despite the fact that our tent style mosquito-proof beds dominate the room. It feels like we should be outside under the stars with these contraptions but, as the area has a reputation for sudden heavy downpours, the locals advise against it.

Our colleagues ask us to follow them to the Nakamal. The village has been summoned by a series of simple strokes on a slit drum, a hollowed out log with a lengthwise cut in the top to create resonance. The length and diameter of the log determine the pitch. Our coordinator's mother lies in Port Vila but there will be a Kastom mourning ceremony here this afternoon as a mark of respect for this well known old woman. She was a Pentecost woman (woman blong Pentecost). I am 'man blong Australia' - 'man Australia' for short.

As we approach the entrance to the large unlit building we are greeted by a wailing and crying which sets my teeth on edge. Our group enters quietly with Paul and I at the rear watching for cues as to what is expected. We join most of the group sitting on a bamboo bench sited along the side of the building. As I take my seat, two or three of my colleagues join the mourning with such intensity and suddenness that I am taken by surprise. A moment ago I had been in conversation with them seeking a little advice as to where I should stand, what was the local custom re head-cover etc.

I can remember being intimidated at large Catholic funerals by rows of elderly women, the stalwarts of the church, chanting the Mysteries of the Rosary from the Sorrowful through the Glorious to the Joyful, from beginning to end, for over forty minutes in the lead-in to the funeral of a local 'big man' of the community. But this was beyond that. Their chanting was just a mumble, a burble compared to this.

I see a woman rocking back and forth and swaying as she sobs and presses a handkerchief to her reddening eyes. One of my colleagues is transformed, transported into another state. Other women, and men, close relatives, are also sobbing and convulsing in a deep and shuddering tribute to the deceased. It is an odd feeling. I am a stranger. I have no real emotional connection. I am intent on being respectful, but at the same time I am a curious bystander.

As the keening settles our host Chief John, invites Paul and I to follow him. He leads us through the mourners to a small slightly built woman standing alone. She looks to be in her eighties. Her eyes meet mine. They carry a deep sadness in their brown and still gaze. She extends her hand. John introduces her as the sister of the deceased and she clasps my hand above the wrist and gently holds on. I know this is a moment of introduction and of expressing condolences but we have no shared language. My rudimentary Bislama deserts me. Sori, I say, and wait until I feel her grip relax and we softly let go, our hands sliding apart, the touch exchanging a kindness that my words are not capable of.

John then directs Paul and I to a rough bench-top table occupying the centre of the upper half, the women's half, of the Nakamal. Paul and I have missed the traditional welcome ceremony earlier in the day and this is our combined welcome, introduction and expression of condolence. We are being invited to share this food first. I feel humbled. I should not be given this status, especially given the circumstances, but John is clear. We must eat. I select something from two dishes. On one side of my plate I place a piece of chicken, on the other a rectangle of lap lap, a ground tuber (manioc or yam or taro) mixed with coconut milk, formed into a slab and baked in coals. It's soft and mild, not beyond my Western palate, but an acquired taste nevertheless. The chicken, highly prized I expect, is bony and chewy. In my stay in this and other traditional locations I will never see chicken breast - I wonder if the nation has a population of wingless chickens, chickens whose wings miraculously grow back, as this is the chicken piece served consistently with rice and in other dishes.

I eat respectfully. I eat everything. After a period people begin to drift out of the Nakamal leaving a team of men sitting on the dirt floor hard at work grinding kava roots to prepare kava for later consumption. Kava is a mild relaxant and hallucinogen, a drink consumed by the men as a sunset ritual. The women exit from the top of the building, the women's end ; the men from the bottom, the kava end.

Outside I learn that the older woman I have met is, in fact, Chief John's mother. John expresses his deep and sincere thanks for observing the traditional customs of the village. I also know that kava drinking is part of traditional culture and I will be faced with a decision about participating in this men's business before the end of the evening. I am conscious of being under observation. It's four thirty.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Vanuatu 4 Ataftabunga Village

Monday 26 September

The trip up the range from Sara airport is a demonstration of the toughness of Japanese 4WD vehicles. Standing and hanging on to the cabin rails Paul and I ride in the back of a Toyota utility seeing ahead of us what looks like a path only passable on foot. A brown strip, graded and cleared of vegetation and then left to fend for itself. It looks like my worst efforts at cooking pavlova. Every peak is outstripped by a trough twice as deep, the roadway ahead crumbling and cross hatched with holes big enough to swallow a small car. I stand bracing myself for every ditch, every bump, every certain roll-over as we inch up the path. I am planning my exit as we approach each obstacle. Will I leap left or right?

In the meantime a few locals in the back with us chat and laugh and introduce themselves. One is a young chief, the other confides that he thinks the whole chief thing is a bit overrated. On Pentecost there are a series of rankings that a young man can progress through. If you can provide the required number of pigs and demonstrate your wealth by hosting a big celebration you can get to the next level. The younger one thinks this is a waste of good pigs and money - both of which are hard to come by in a largely subsistence economy.

Forty minutes later we have travelled about ten kilometres and reached the level road which follows the ridge to our village. When we suddenly swerve off the road and pull up on an open expanse of grass I am taken by surprise. A collection of thatched huts are scattered across a plateau, their browns and ochres creating a rich contrast to the deep green of the grass and the surrounding wildness. Everything is in order. Family huts are surrounded by a cleared area freshly raked free of leaves and sprouting recently planted saplings sporting an array of variegated leaves. They appear to be off cuts which have simply been stuck in the ground. If only gardening were so simple back in my tough burnt off back yard in Brisbane.

A series of rectangular mounds marked out by piles of volcanic rock, sit in front of the concrete building which will be home for the next seven nights. I'm told they are burial sites. Someone has had the poor judgment to build this building (a former kava export business) over a pre-existing burial ground.

Inside the blockhouse I inspect the room Paul and I will share. It has two beds, two mattresses and a thin cotton blanket with each. We've been told to bring an extra if we feel the cold. The building has four former office spaces which are now accommodation. There's a pedestal toilet and bathroom at one end of the building and a kitchen beside that. The kitchen has a sink and crockery and a few pots. Everything is plumbed ready for water but there's no power, so a pump has never been a reality; nor is there any high point or tank stand to create any water pressure. Each morning and afternoon, one of the young women of the village will cart a dozen buckets of water from a rainwater tank nearby to fill a large plastic drum in this toilet/bathroom for manual flushing of the toilet and for beautifully simple bucket showers. A thermos of hot water appears every morning in the kitchen for coffee.

There is a large open space which takes up half the building where fifty people will gather to join our community workshop. No power outlets, no light fittings; John supplies us with a battery powered light for each room. Paul and I set about setting up two free-standing mosquito proof tents in our room and move the mattresses off the beds and on to the floor. I text my wife to describe our arrival and paint a fairly basic picture.

She's joining me for a week after this workshop. She wants reassurance that I haven't planned one of my 'challenging' or 'extreme' experiences. She hates sleeping on floors. She's looking for a relaxing week. She wants to be pampered. I assure her that the bungalows I have booked on Efate will be simple but delightful.

I have no evidence for this save the comments of people I've never met on a website I've stumbled across in the week before leaving Australia. In Australian parlance I'm trusting that "She'll be right mate".

Monday 17 October 2011

Vanuatu 3. Flight

Monday September 26.

Yesterday we flew from Port Vila on the island of Efete to Sara on North Pentecost. The Twin engined Hawker de Havilland (Twin Otter) roared and strained as it took to the skies and headed towards our destination.

Like my carnivore life, I am out of touch with the up close and personal aspect of flying. I've been seduced into a false sense of complacency by many trips on large interstate and international carriers alongside hundreds of fellow passengers with faith in the gods of engineering and electronics. In these sardine cans I relax and listen to my iPod or watch the films on offer while sipping wine and eating altitude food. I'm only ever a little disconcerted on these flights; mainly when I turn my mobile phone off and wonder how such a simple device could be the cause of my demise. What if someone on board accidently overlooks this apparently serious request? What if someone accidently dials home as they toss and turn in their allotted one square metre of cabin space (dreaming of falling). Why haven't the stewards frisked each of us for these devices? why haven't we been required to stow these lethal weapons in our check-in luggage? why haven't these killers been confiscated?

On board the Twin Otter I have the dubious pleasure of sitting in the front seat. I am seated behind the two pilots who have left the door to their cabin wide open (or perhaps there is no door). I would like to be reading my book (I'm reading 'Atlantic' by Simon Winchester and here we are only a few thousand metres above the much bigger Pacific) but I'm transfixed by the scene before me. A dozen dials offer themselves and I have no idea what any of them tell me.

The younger of the two pilots keeps reaching above and behind him and making adjustments to various knobs and levers. He seems relaxed and after a takeoff, having reached an altitude of about 4500 feet (metres?) he pops open a packet of Twisties and settles in for the afternoon. About half an hour into the flight, with my eyes still glued to the altimeter (the only dial I have guessed the name of - only because it is the only one whose dial rotates and rotates clockwise as we rise) I notice the very dial begin to wind backwards. I have understood this to be a direct flight and my ticket tells me it is an hour plus trip.

The dial rotates back through 4000, 3500, 3000, 2500. 2000. I have a feeling of unease as we continue to lose altitude while still clearly over an unbroken expanse of water. Baby pilot seems unaware of this development and continues to stuff his face with bright orange Twisties. 1500, 1000. 900, 800. I can see the dark shapes of cruising sharks in the water just out of reach below.
I am tempted to reach out and tap him on the arm and point to the altimeter with a quizzical look on my face. Or I could just scream. But I look around at the 19 other passengers, all of whom show no signs of panic so I suppress mine in the interest of 'not looking silly'. I later wonder at the wisdom of 'not looking silly' in a critical situation. I would look even worse if we did ditch in the Pacific and I could have been the one to avert certain disaster.

As it turns out we make an unexpected landing on Ambae. We're island hopping. What a relief. Ten minutes later we take off and turn sharply eastward and head over more open waters. I am less concerned by the altimeter this time and get back to reading about the Atlantic and the perils of flight over expanses of open ocean, but this is short lived. Before us, fifteen minutes later, what I presume is Pentecost looms below and we begin another descent; this time towards what appears to be an alarmingly short grassy runway.

The Twisties completed, our twin pilots wake up and, out of my sightlines, daddy pilot eases the steering wheel forward and back (is there another name? Joystick - sounds right but feels all wrong) and places the Twin Otter gently on the volcanic and coral runway and with the engines working even harder than on take off slows us before we run off the end of the green strip and into the fast approaching jungle and taxis us towards the terminal, a concrete building the size of the average footie change room. I love flying.

Friday 14 October 2011

Vanuatu 1.Kastom House 2. Butcher

I've returned from three weeks in Vanuatu with a swag of notes and a journal swollen with stories. My week in a remote village on Pentecost was quite amazing.

I'll post a few and write up the rest for my "one day I'll publish a book of travel stories". Some of the early ones are a bit graphic. I hope you enjoy them.

1. Kastom House

Tuesday September 27

The dismembered carcass of a bullock lies at one end of the Nakamal, its eyes staring at me from its head lying alongside a bloody pile of flesh.

Three fires burn at that end of the meeting house. A small one burns 24 hours a day and has spiritual significance. I am told it is the same fire that burns in the national council of chief’s Nakamal in the capital Port Vila on the island of Efete. We are on Pentecost Island.

The other two much larger fires occupy the far end of the 30 metre long building. One is a pit fire in which the bullock will be cooked wrapped in banana leaves on hot rocks. The other is a smaller fire used to heat giant iron pots of hot water, of rice, of kilos of taro, enough to feed the fifty attending the five day gathering in this remote highland village.

Seen from the outside the smoke and steam rising through the thatched roof creates an ethereal feeling in an environment infused with magic and the forces of nature. Above us, storm clouds swirl across the rainforest slowing the passage of daylight and time.

2. Butcher.

A group of young men, shirtless and wielding large machetes, work to one side carving and preparing the sides of beef hanging from the bamboo beams.

It’s like any butchery in any culture except the offal lies in a pile on the dirt floor and there is no refrigeration. I recall the sawdust strewn floor of butchers’ shops of my childhood and am comforted by the similarity; and yet I am somewhat disconcerted, a little confronted.

As a meat eater I know perfectly well that the meat on my plate has been slaughtered for my consumption. I know that the best meat is slaughtered in abattoirs where animals suffer minimal distress. I know that the best meat is fresh and, a day previously, will have been wandering a paddock or standing mutely in a holding yard awaiting its fate. I know all this but have never been quite close enough to witness the process.

My father was brought up on a farm and worked in a small goods factory as a young man. He had seen animals slaughtered, had begun his working life on the factory floor in the killing room. For him this was life. I too worked in the boning room of the local bacon factory as one of my stints of student employment. This was one step removed from the slaughter yard but as a young 18 year old the scene of lines of men carving and preparing the sides of beef was mesmerising, not to mention the loud and cheeky banter between the lads and the young women. The atmosphere was charged with energy.

My father had no hesitation in helping, what had become, the pet duck to the chopping block in the backyard. This waddling feathered friend had shared our sixteen perch block for a month or more leading up to Christmas unaware of its fate. We fed it bread and water and scraps and became quite comfortable with its company. But when the time came, I remember the sight of the headless body careering around the yard after my father's swift and accurate blow with his axe, as comic rather than tragic. I can still smell the rich musky odour of the feathers plucked soon after, having been scalded in my mother's large copper full of boiling water. The copper was a family essential, one day scalding a duck, another boiling a sugar bag full of crabs and then another boiling the white coats my father wore as a small goods salesman; heavily soiled from lumping sides of beef and pork into local butcher shops on his daily round.

This afternoon I had become distracted from our workshop program in Ataftabunga by a parade of young men, like my father (even of his then age), crossing the open village green-space, each carrying a hind leg or a side of beef towards the thatched roofed Nakamal. The last of these carried the head, horns circling his own head like a pair of reindeer antlers.

I'm here for seven days as part of a community development project. I am one of the two westerners who are accompanying the team of thirteen Ni-Vanuatu facilitators who will deliver a training program. My colleague Paul and I are here as the back-up team. We'll help when asked.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Pentecost Island Vanuatu

I am a lucky man. I am off to Vanuatu for the fourth time in twelve months to work with the local National Council of Chiefs (Malvatumari) on a community development capacity building project. My colleague, Paul Toon, and i will spend three days in Port Vila working with our twelve ni-Vanuatu colleagues to review and develop a five day Komuniti Aksen workshop to be delivered to a group of forty leaders on Pentecost Island.

Pentecost is the home of the original bungy jumpers. Young men dive from tall towers built from local materials and hurtle towards the earth attached by a length of vine tied to one leg. It is a fertility ritual and to be most effective the diver is required to graze the ground below with his head. Predictably this sometimes goes terribly wrong.

My wife will be joining me at the end of our 12 day program for a week of well deserved R&R.
We will rendevous in Port Vila andl then spend eight days exploring the island in an anti-clockwise direction ( I'm not superstitious!). We'll have four nghts in P. Vila, then three in a village bungalow on the beach in the north, and a final night at a resort within striking distance of the airport. Andrea wants to relax, snorkle and be pampered. I hope we get at least two out of the three in spades.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Pen Pals - Byron Bay

It’s kind of old fashioned isn’t it, to write to someone you’ve never met. A pen-pal, in this era, just doesn’t quite fit. I was reminded of that this weekend just gone, when I encountered a woman standing on a platform overlooking the beautiful beach at Byron Bay (where Andrea and I had gone camping for three nights).

I walked past her as I was heading for a swim and, out of the blue, she announced out loud, to no one in particular (though i was the only person within earshot) how wonderful it was to be standing there and being in Byron Bay. I hesitated and we got to talking. She was in her seventies and had always wanted to visit Byron and wander the streets with the hippies – it was once the home of the flower people, though it’s now more likely to be over-run by backpackers and boozing young people whose parents may have been into peace, and mind-bending drugs in a former life (now most likely high flying solicitors or stock brokers). This is the area where the Australian version of Woodstock (the Aquarius Festival) took place in 1973. The hinterland is still full of alternative life-stylers living life in rainforest retreats and surviving on love and organic vegetables.

I suggested that, perhaps she had once been one, and she quickly assured me that no, that was never the case. She was from Western Australia, five days drive away on the West coast of Australia. She was having her exotic late life adventure.

I asked her what her plans were and it turned out she was doing a trip down the East coast with her husband and, I assumed, towing a caravan. But no, she was visiting her ‘pen-pals’.

She had already dropped in on one in Hervey Bay (about five hours drive North) and stayed there a few days and was now visiting another in nearby Ballina. She had her next lined up somewhere near Newcastle, another five hours drive South. These were people, she told me, she had been corresponding with for over twenty five years but had never met.

She was absolutely confident that her friendship with these strangers was genuine and felt no hesitation in assuming that she would be a welcome visitor for a decent stay in each place. She certainly hadn’t come all this way to drop in for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

It reminded me that facebook and internet friendships were preceded by other forms of international and distant connections with unseen strangers – people who craved links to other cultures and who became friends by dint of written correspondence.