Notes from Afar 12: Wellington, New Zealand

 

Going away was in large part about returning. And it has been a strange and uneasy homecoming. Here are some observations. (And I am very aware that Wellington is far from completely representative of NZ.)

Kiwis are a funny looking bunch. Maybe we are an isolated population inbreeding. They tend to be unaccountably down on themselves, and emotionally withdrawn. We give each other so much space it is dysfunctional, and seem to require alcohol to reach a functional level of outgoingness. I shudder to think what our depression rates are, but there are a lot of obviously unhappy people around. (This is all in implicit contrast to other countries which have a much stronger sense of community and engagement and life lived on the street, particularly Morocco and Peru. Big cities in the West, well, no one shows any humanity, at all, on the street.)

New Zealand is a Pacific island, very far from the rest of the world. And almost devoid of people, at least in terms of global population density.  It runs at a totally different pace of life to anywhere else. The isolation lends an unreality to the rest of the world, and also a hyper-reality – so much of our media and news is all about this faraway world which we inevitably fetishise.

Kiwis seem politically apathetic and naive, and tolerate a truly pathetic and ineffective media. Brutal to be welcomed back by a farcical election – the lowest voter turnout in a 100 years – returning an embarrassing right wing government bent on environmental degradation for profit, led by a blatant slimy fuckwit millionaire merchant banker. With a majority of one vote, they will continue an adherence to failed economic ideology and gut the country and its resources to service the already wealthy. We have an unusual political history, one of the few existing countries that has not changed government by violence in the past hundred years. I suspect this lack of having to fight for anything at any point adds to our laxness. We have not fought for our identity, or what we have, and so do not resist it being taken away.

We are half-assed to the point of incompetence, and no one seems to mind. Life here is easy enough to allow that. The absence of population makes for an absence of competition. This is nice, in that it makes things chilled out, but lame, in that there is little to drive excellence.

The country itself is a little ludicrous in how effortlessly pretty it is compared to basically everywhere else on the planet. There are lots of pretty parts of the rest of the world. But here just does it, all the time, everywhere. I had missed our beautiful native birds, too. So many! And such song! New Zealand is green, green, everywhere. Nature swarming, but not seething, like the jungle. And the light is stunning. An absence of pollution, and ozone layer, both.

And yeah, we are chilled out and friendly compared to most places, and have a naive honesty, in that so much of the negative behaviours I encountered in the rest of the world would never occur to people in New Zealand – you just don’t treat people like that. Though also, because the population is small, if you are an asshole, it gets around swiftly, so there is pressure not to be a lying cheating sonofabitch.

While our race relations lack the obvious tension of overseas, perhaps it is just that we have the space to ignore each other, and no one is going to bother anyone else, because that would be effort, anyway.

More positively, Kiwis are also a pack of mad bastards. (Somewhere in the travels I observed that I felt a higher proportion of kiwis suited the description “dangerous lunatics” than any other culture I have encountered, with the possible exception of Americans.) The thing is, we have access to all the intellectual and technological fruits of the pinnacle of world culture, but are basically left floating alone in an isolated cultural void, free to concoct demented alchemical experiments in our sheds. We just get on and do stuff, with a “its rough and ready and mostly works and who gives a fuck anyway” attitude. Alchemical here meaning any flavour of weirdness that an individual has glommed onto, and decided to combine with whatever other obsessions, and sheds meaning the infinite space we have here, or your closet, or a shed. One of the truly great things here is you can do your own thing and no one will bother you if you aren’t bothering them.

Despite the resolute absence of culture pursued by the mainstream of NZ, we are also the most refined, open minded and wide ranging scholars I have encountered. (There is a bias there among those I know and cultivate.) We are outside it all, but plugged into it from the outside, often in the weirdest way. So far away but so aware of the rest of the world, to which we are invisible. A nation of scruffy low-key obsessive geniuses with no respect for anyone telling them what to do. Mutants on the periphery of the global empire.

 

Notes from Afar 11: Ireland

 

A week in Ireland rounded out the journey. Ireland felt the most like NZ of anywhere I have been. But with a whole Irish edge to it. Beneath the Guinness, charm and turn of phrase, there is a full on history, and a rapidly intensifying present. On the way in from the airport, I was struck by the number of billboards about homelessness, alarming statistics coming into winter. The Celtic Tiger of a few years back has tanked, and it is getting a bit brutal. My first day of wandering, came upon women with babies begging on the street, a massive student protest, and a very present Occupy movement.

Dublin is a city full of Irish pubs. Guinness in Ireland is a totally different drink, smooth, creamy, and, well, nice. (I had never liked it in NZ, stale and thick and kinda grainy.) I did a couple of walking tours, which were pretty cool for getting a sense of the history layered in to the place – and a bloody and interesting one at that – again, something we don’t quite have in awareness in NZ.

The weather was grey and gloomy, and I was missing folks in Italy.

My reason to be in Ireland was Smokin Craic, the Irish decompression – a party in a castle. Seemed like a fitting way to cap the journey off, the last hurrah of the trip. It was a pretty great night, though a shame it was only one night – the true magic of a burn takes a little time to unfold. I helped a bit with set up and clean up, and met some good folks, and reconnected with some excellent companions of the journey. And partied in a motherfucking castle.

Back to Dublin, a charming CS host, and a random reunion with a dude who had been to all three northern burn festivals with me, who I had only got to chatting with at the castle. We had a good night with many Guinness. Saw some amazing ancient celtic art and goldwork. Wandered the sights, such as they are.

And then it was 30 plus hours of planes and airports. And then Wellington, and this great beauty, and exploding greenery, and amazing light.

Waking from this mad and beautiful dream has not been easy. Strangely, I never felt homesick for New Zealand, but I am feeling something like homesickness for the rest of the world, the whole travel modality, and the people I met.

Ui mai koe ki ahau he aha te mea nui o te ao, Māku e kī atu he tangata, he tangata, he tangata!

“Ask me what is the greatest thing in the world, I will reply: It is people, it is people, it is people!”

Notes from Afar 10: Art Monastery, Italy

So I have spent the last month at the Art Monastery Project. The project is about fusing artistic production and monastic discipline – or something, it is an evolving process – and living in community.

The Art Monastery project is based in Labro, a tiny old hilltop town in the Italian countryside. The Monastery itself dates back to the 1200s. The first references to Labro are from sometime in the 900s. Labro is all old stones and seriously cute. There are two winding roads in the town, that’s it. There used to be a gigantic tower here, but then they murdered the priest and the town was excommunicated. The price of getting back into the religion was destroying the tower.

Life here has been a radical shift from the chaos of the road.This is very much their downtime of the year, so there are not lots of weird shows being put on. While that would have been cool, this actually suits my purposes pretty well. Mostly I have been splitting wood and cleaning, and rewriting Mosaic, which is coming along nicely, and becoming a pretty unusual fantasy novel. And getting to know the artmonks, who are a pretty fascinating cast of characters. There are only three of them here at the moment, so we are a small crew. But we are getting through the astoundingly cheap 5 litre jugs of wine. And it has been great making deeper connections after the intense but brief way of things on the road. We are pretty isolated, and the interaction is pretty intensive, as there is not much space, and everyone is caught up in the project.

One definite highlight was singing Compline a couple of times in the medieval church of the monastery. (Compline is the Gregorian chant monks sang, the last of singing the hours.) 

Autumn here is staggeringly beautiful. Lots more colours of autumn than I am used to, a range of fire, yellow and red and orange and brown. The Italian countryside, at least around here, with its hills and lakes and green, is the closest thing to New Zealand I have encountered. (Other than generally, every time I get somewhere beautiful, kind of nodding and going, yeah, that’s kind of like a part of NZ.) There is not much public transport and nowhere much to go, though it is all very pretty. I walked to a ruined castle on a nearby hill, and wandered around Labro. 

But yeah. A quiet, productive time. We have quasi-adopted a bunch of stray cats, but are keeping them at arms length, as everyone leaves for winter and they can’t start thinking of it as home. 

Have booked tickets to Ireland, and back to NZ. I am not quite ready for this mad and beautiful dream to end, but so it goes. And I will definitely miss this place, and these people. Good times, good times.

returning to NZ in a couple of weeks.

Hey all. This mad and beautiful dream of travel will be ending soon, for now anyway. I will be back in NZ just before the election. Will be great to catch up with familiar faces again, and deeply fascinating to see NZ anew.

Also, I will need to replenish the war chest, which has been mauled by the past six months, so am interested in any random job stuff that is coming up that people know of. And any options of places to live, be it a flat, or a house sit, or even a couch or a backyard for a while, anywhere in the country really… everything is wide open. Surprise me. 🙂

Notes from Afar 9: Berlin and Italy

 

Flew back to London from Peru, seem to be getting better at long distance flights etc. A bit hectic changing in Paris, as it involved getting from Charles de Gaulle to Orly, on opposite sides of Paris, and the plane was late, so the transfer time was super tight. A couple of days in London, catching up with folks and planning next steps. Came down with a helluva sickness the couple of days in London, not helped by spending a night in the airport on the way out, so when I arrived in Berlin, I was pretty unwell.

Stayed with my friend Jorri, who couchsurfed with me in NZ. Had a brief explore, then it rained. Went home and collapsed in a heap. Had an early night, which turned into a long night of fever and chills. Felt bad enough in the morning to go to a hospital to get checked for malaria, since I was just coming back from the jungle and it had been long enough to incubate, and I haven’t been sick enough to need a doctor in over a decade. Six hours and epic bureaucracy later, it transpired I didn’t have malaria, or dengue, or anything else, so it was probably just four and a bit months of non-stop travel plus switching hemispheres into a cold autumn all piling up. Made for some interesting paranoia, though. 

So I didn’t really get out and about much in Berlin. At least, not so much at night, and it seems like the nightlife is what makes the place. Like, thirty dance parties a night on the *underground* party listing website. In general Berlin has a nice lived in feel. It is covered in graffiti, and kind of shabby, but in a way that feels like people live there, rather than a way that it feels fucked up. That there are loads of artists and creative people is obvious. Crazy art is everywhere.

Yeah. A nice town. An easy place to be. Would like to return in better health someday, and go dancing. Seems like a place where you could have a hell of a lot of fun. It is just chilled out. Lots of stuff that shouldn’t be an issue just isn’t. You can drink beer on the bus, or train, or tram. People still smoke in bars, and smoke spliffs in bars. It is all a bit cruisy, and seems like it would be awesome to be in one’s early 20’s here.

Felt better after a couple of days, and started riding around town. It is a nice size. Berlin is about the least European looking city I have seen. So much is modern, rather than old, though there is still lots of impressive old shit scattered about. Crazy history all over the place. Holocaust memorial and Berlin wall remnants. Walking streets where Hitler once marched. (And Napoleon.) A museum – Topography of Terror – where the SS used to have its headquarters. Having to confront their history must be a truly weird shaping of the national psyche, and I can see how there is massive pressure for things to never get out of hand. (Though, weirdly, in the countryside, the neo-nazis are still strong. This was explained to me as being people in the country who actually were better off during the Cold War socialism, and miss the good old times.) Caught up with some folks from Nowhere, drank some beer.

One thing: on the trams and trains, no one checks tickets. Like, apparently there are undercover people who check sometimes, but it can be months between being checked. However, no one would consider not having a ticket. This seems a curious thing, a remnant of a culture of informers, and the Stasi; the fact that they are out there is enough. In NZ, if they tried it, lots of people would take their chances and not pay.

Italy. It is the little details and differences between the European countries. It started at the airport, where there was no passport check at all. Catching the train from the airport was weirdly chaotic. Then a train to the countryside, then a bus into the middle of nowhere. Then being picked up and taken to the Art Monastery project. Spent a couple of days there, then went to Italian Burning Weekend, the Italian decompression.

225 people for what becomes a three-day weekend party, actually a burn, there was a wee temple and a man. (And to be fair, that is about the scale of my first two Kiwiburns.) Was really excellent to reconnect with many faces from Nowhere, and people I had met elsewhere around Europe. It really brought home the community side of things. Nowhere could have been a one off random thing, but this solidified connections, and allowed new ones. So yeah. A tiny awesome burn, where, being Italy, they provide two meals a day in the ticket price, and the whole thing is really based around the kitchen (and the fire, as it was pretty damn cold.)

Also, IBW was in Narni. Which is where Narnia got its name. CS Lewis spent some time writing there, it seems. Funny. Has been a journey of collecting fantasy kingdoms. On the hill opposite the monastery is the medieval town of Labro, which is pretty like a fairytale.

Then back to the Art Monastery. Will get to that in a later post, as I will be here for most of a month. It has been amusingly hectic, with many visitors, and only now is getting into something like a rhythm. I have started rewriting the novel I finished a draft of just before leaving NZ, and hope to get another draft done before leaving… nice to have some stability after a lot of chaos, and nice to get into some focused work.

I haven’t actually seen much of Italy, and may well not. Went to the tallest waterfall in Europe, which is nearby, and an unbelievably good restaurant. But it is autumn, the countryside is very pretty, and I am with good people. As they say here, good times, good times.

Notes from Afar 8: the Jungle

 

Did an 8 day amazon jungle tour, in the Manu National Park, which is way over a million hectares of protected jungle, and one of the highest regions of biodiversity on Earth, encompassing the cloud forest in the mountains and the Amazon basin itself. This is a relatively small chunk of the Amazon in Peru. It is pretty remote. A day of driving over dirt roads in the mountains to the end of the roads, then a day on a boat heading upriver. There are still tribes living out in the park. It is illegal to contact them, and it is possible there are uncontacted peoples out there. So yeah. Remote.

Saw lots of birds and bugs and critters. Quite a few monkeys, at a distance. A troop went by 40 metres overhead, and threw poo at us, raining down through the leaves. Luckily they were bad shots. Highlights were macaws, capybara (giant guinea pigs, utterly ridiculous looking) and tapir (an early ancestor of the horse? a rhino’s bum, horseish body, weird long rubbery mouth). However, my main focus was to just be in the jungle, to experience it as an environment, rather than to see wildlife.

The jungle is intense. Just so crammed full of life. Everything is adapted to a specific niche. Humans have no niche here. At least, not any niche we of the modern world understand. Two metres off the trail it becomes a dense impenetrable mess. There is no relaxing in the jungle. You cannot sit down comfortably anywhere. Even the ants bite, painfully. There are lots of poisonous things. Freaky noises fill the night, and the day. Howler monkeys are insane. The jungle is almost the best argument against untrammeled nature. The first natural environment I have encountered that did not feel innately peaceful. It is not a place people go for fun.

The jungle is also humid and hot. Like, five minutes after a cold shower, you are soaking again, from sweat. This, along with a dose of diarrhea, coloured my experience somewhat. Luckily, our group was very small – me and two others – which made for a much better experience than trampling around in a group of 15. Our guide was also really excellent, passionate, and knowledgeable. Random highlight was playing soccer on a makeshift pitch in the jungle, with our cook, and guide, and boatmen, against the staff of the lodge next door. There are soccer fields everywhere in Peru. Very expensive for what it was, but I am glad I got to do it.

Then everything got hectic.

From there took a 21 hour bus back to Lima, then a flight to Pucallpa, which is a small town in the Amazon. From there ended up in a remote jungle village without power or running water, and participated in a traditional healing ceremony, drinking the local plant medicine, under the guidance of a 75 year old Shipibo shaman. This was an utterly extraordinary experience, but not one I will blog about now. It was a real privilege to be there. (If you know what this was, ask me about it sometime.)

Flight back to Lima (internal transport in Peru is fucked, generally always involves having to return to Lima), overnight bus to Trujillo. Stayed in Huanchaco, visited some pre-Inca ruins from the Moche civilisation, the Huaca de la Luna, and Chan-Chan. The Huaca is pretty amazing, and the relation between their art and the Polynesians was striking. A very mental and foreign culture, the museum is really fascinating. Chan-Chan is gigantic and impressive but somehow bland. Ancient stuff is deeply weird to my kiwi mind.

Was going to go to more ruins further North the next day, but ended up out on the town with my hosts. The next day we went to a bullfight, which I didn’t even know they did in Peru. It was a bit sad, really, and frankly a custom which can be abandoned, though I can see how it would have meant something different hundreds of years ago, when humanity’s dominance over nature was less established. Weirdest thing about it was the way it was a family day out. And the crazed hysteria at the tiny entry gate.

From there another overnight bus back to Lima, watching a twisted Japanese movie with Spanish subtitles at a friends place, then hopping on a flight to London… Peru was a fantastic experience overall, and I am really glad I made it there. One of the three places I had really wanted to go, originally it had seemed there was no way I would be able to get there…

Oh, and apparently the last post was the 1000th post on undulatingungulate!

Notes from Afar 7: Lima and Cusco

So yeah, farewelled London via an excellent wee burner party Thameside, last tube to Heathrow, waiting around, then 15 hours or so later I landed in Peru. Still haven’t figured out sleeping on planes.

Lima is easily my least favourite place I have traveled to so far. Possibly compounded by my first real bout of jet lag, a sort of brain dead tiredness for a couple of days, and my lamentable lack of Spanish, but still. Lima is different. I was staying with a cool person via CS in Callao, which may not be one of the best neighbourhoods. At least, I hope not, since it was characterised by giant iron gates capable of locking off entire streets, and armed, flak-jacketed security guards in front of lots of stores, and just a general sense of 10 million people being ground down into a feral paranoid mess in a big dirty city, and that maybe being out after dark wasn´t such a smart thing. The place felt besieged. Just not the way you want your city to go. Apparently most of it is a hangover from the Shining Path terrorism a couple of decades ago, but obviously all is not well in an ongoing capacity.

A couple of days of that was more than enough. Future recommendation: get an onward flight out as soon as you land. Be jetlagged somewhere else. Got a 21 hour bus to Cusco. Peru does nature big. The Andes are pretty choice, and driving through them kinda makes the bus worth it, rather than flying. Plus the random glimpses of life in the middle of nowhere. So many unknown stories.

Cusco is way nicer than Lima. A cute little mountain city. They aren´t kidding about the altitude. Wheezed my way to a hostel with someone I met on the bus, an Austrian-Iraqi who thankfully spoke Spanish fluently. (Couldn´t find a local host in Cusco, which rendered me inescapably a tourist for the first time, and I stayed in my first hostel of the trip, which is a totally different sort of vibe and experience from going solo or couchsurfing.) Next day, went for a hike in the local mountains, which was a bit brutal on the way up, unacclimated heart at a sprint. Inca ruins abound, the ones we saw were only discovered a couple of years ago. And it was great to get the hell out of cities and into nature. Had been far too long. (Europe does not have nature – some nice parks, yeah, but not nature – and that absence has had a definite and subtle warping effect on Europeans.)

You know that almost cliched idea of South America, where there is a festival every day, with everyone dressed up in bright colours, parading about, dancing and brass and flute bands playing? It is actually like that here. We arrived during the Nativity Festival of the Virgin, or something, which seems to mean days of that sort of thing. After dinner last night, I just followed the ruckus and found another small night procession for Santa Teresa. The community thing underlying this place must be huge and awesome. It would be great to get inside the culture more, but with the language gap it is much harder. So here I am tourist guy.

Went to Machu Picchu via the cheapest route, which turns out to be driving in a van to the end of the road, walking the last 9 kilometres, sleeping in Aguas Caliente, getting up at 4am and walking up to Machu Picchu. Being the start of rainy season, it was wet and misty in the morning, and burned off to be blistering by 10. I stayed an extra night in Aguas Caliente, which meant I got to spend all day at Machu Picchu, rather than having to leave at midday to get the van back. The downside was that the next day when I walked back, there was no van waiting for me, since clusterfuck is their middle name. Luckily some other random minibus took me. I don´t actually recommend this method of getting to MP; at least, the organisers are disorganised bastards, everything included is the lowest quality they can get away with, and if they didn´t write it on your receipt, you don´t get it, no matter what they said when you signed up. So beware any Machu Picchu by car 2D/1N deals, since they all fold into each other. The one good thing was the guide at MP, who knew his shit. But if you do do it, definitely stay the extra night, as the ruins are big. I also climbed mountain Machu Picchu, the big ass mountain the city is nestled in the slope of, which was epic but hard going. My legs felt it for days.

Machu Picchu itself is pretty choice, bigger than I expected, and worth getting to. Particularly the mountains surrounding, which the Inca regarded as having spirits/being gods, and I could feel why. And the big stone altar on the highest temple. Lay your hands on that sucker. Yup. (Also, weird numbers of people took photos of me at Machu Picchu. Clearly, hair is more interesting than ancient rocks?)

Other than that, random hanging out with randoms, wandering Cusco. Spent a couple of days in the Sacred Valley, stayed in Urubamba with a CSer there, explored the ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisac. Pisac is also pretty huge, spread out over a couple of mountain sides. But I have definitely had enough walking up giant stone staircases in the mountains and looking at ruins for a while.

The crafts are amazing, and for the first time I have succumbed to buying cool stuff, because it is too cheap and cool not to. The Peruvians are way nicer and more chilled out salespeople than the Moroccans. Peru in general is far less foreign than Morocco. Cusco is cool. I would definitely like to explore further in South America, but won´t have the time on this venture. Bolivia and Columbia are getting the good rap from fellow travelers.

Hopefully will be heading into the jungle for a week in the next couple of days…

 

notes from afar 6: Amsterdam and Paris

 

Ended up hanging around Amsterdam for a couple of weeks, long enough that the raw data of experience began shaping itself into patterns of meaning; began to understand the place better. The last week and a half I was staying well out of the centre, in a neighbourhood with a very different demographic and feel, away from the tourists and embedded in everyday life. Over time, the race thing became weirder, and, harsh as it sounds, I can see how the Dutch gave rise to South Africa. There is nothing overt or hostile, just a sort of standard that is kept to – Dutch culture is very rules and order based – and it is implicit that the blacks don’t often meet that standard. And if you can’t keep up, you fall off, and no one will stop to pick you up. I think perhaps once I saw an inter-racial grouping hanging out on the street.

But anyway. It is a beautiful city, and an easy place to be. Riding around is great fun, and time passes pleasantly.

Amsterdam is very expensive, so I didn’t do much other than wander around lots. The budget I am on means my experience is quite particular. It is like going from borderline poverty in New Zealand, to borderline poverty in Europe. This makes it much the same; however, this gliding along the surface is what I am used to, my mode of analysis into society.I also realized how much of my experience of cities is of the night-time-city, a different world from the day time, and it was fun to explore Amsterdam by night. Different currents, a little darker, still safe and easy. Amsterdam has the biggest nightlife I have ever seen. The whole centre city is full of bars, pockets distributed over a vast area, all busy.

 

Paris. After a week and a half here, the French make a lot more sense. A couple of hundred years ago, this must have been the most amazing place on Earth. Grand beautiful buildings, parks and boulevards are implanted in the fabric of the city. The culture has found a sweet spot – all of the basic things are easy, and good – good food, good wine, a pleasant lifestyle in a city that has been lived in long enough that the patterns are established (Amsterdam had this too – double edged, in that while the prevailing pattern is pretty sweet, it would implicitly be much harder to change things – coasting on the patterns created centuries ago when extreme wealth descended for a brief golden age and all the amazing buildings were built. in an important sense we are our patterns of interaction with our environments, and these patterns were laid down long ago… well, long ago in the New Zealand mentality…).

The French thing in general, the reputation and attitude they are famed for, seems just to be this: that they have a culture, they have a way of doing things, it is actually pretty sweet, and if you aren’t participating in it they aren’ t really interested in you; and if you turn up and aren’t participating, you are somewhat annoying. Even within that, the culture is somewhat cliquey, compared to the pub culture of the UK. But ultimately it just seemed to be that sense of “we have a good thing going here, leave us to it”. The downside is a kind of backward looking insularity in fast-changing times, and a problem integrating those with different cultures, who may not be at all interested in “becoming French”.

Which leads to: the race thing in Paris was pretty insane. Like, it felt openly tense and hostile at times. Have never encountered that before. These people just need to learn to talk to each other. Not that NZ is any kind of enlightened paradise, but at least we can talk to each other, you know? And the stories from my host – a charming little vegan rock DJ – of the number of fights he had gotten in, and how and why, all involving really fucked up and unwarranted behaviour with a racial angle, was startling.

Anyway. In brief: the Louvre is incredible. Putting all this historic art in a palace itself opulently decorated in a style which reflects that history of art is a stroke of brilliance. The Venus de Milo is genuinely amazing – living flesh captured in marble. The Mona Lisa, who knows, you view it from a quarter of a mile away amid a throng of people taking photos. You could look up a photo of it on the internet and have a better experience of it. I dug the Akkadian/Mesopotamian stuff in particular, it just has this totally otherwordly feel. But in general the Louvre is way too vast to get around even half of in a day. Notre Dame is cool. Hanging out by the Seine or a canal and getting happily boozed is nice. The underground music scene feels about a similar size to Wellington’s, but a bit more active. And in general, while big, Paris is surprisingly small. Though somehow very disorienting, on the street.

Booze is cheaper than food here. The drinking culture in Europe really puts Kiwi drinking culture to shame. Courtenay Place is actually an international disgrace, not just a local one.

Stayed with burners at Monkeytown, really excellent and interesting people, with more passing through. Interesting how much of our obscure cultural taste was shared. Went to a really excellent party at the Time Machine, a ridiculously epic apartment (4 bedrooms, library, 2 bathrooms, huge living areas, hallways, etc, with art and statues all over the place) – apparently the end of an era, the last party there. Great conversations, booze and dancing.

Being from the Hutt, I do find it surreal that I am somehow in with this amazing network of cool people; the jetset side of things adds to it. Tonight I will go to a party on the sand of the Thames, I hope to get to Italian Burning Weekend, and Smoking Craic in Ireland (a party in a freaking castle!), three parties in three countries in three months, all just part of this network. Whose life is this?

Back in London briefly – the Chunnel was a bit of a let down, the bus packed into a weird iron train carriage – again lots of fun to catch up with people. Went to Tuttle, a random discussion group, and ended up staying most of the day having amazing and unexpected conversations. The C4CC is an amazing space, would love to see something like that in Wellington. Then ended up out in Camden, having a blast.

Off to Peru for a month tomorrow morning. Feel shockingly unprepared, no plan, almost no language ability. I don’ t actually feel particularly adventurous or intrepid as a traveller, so it will be interesting. Wish me luck!

notes from afar 5: Edinburgh and Amsterdam

 

The English countryside is really rather flat, and well tamed by long constant inhabitation. Approaching Scotland it gets hillier and prettier and more interesting.

Edinburgh is really pretty. Just daft, really. A host of amazing buildings, a castle on a fist of rock in the middle of the city, and a weird multi-layered thing – suddenly you find yourself on a bridge looking down on a street below, with no sense of how the hell it is geographically possible that there is a street below. Caught up with a bunch of good people, climbed Arthur’s seat, ate a haggis, boggled slightly at the whisky flavoured condoms in the mens room, walked around a whole lot, visited the castle, sat about on the Meadows in the sun…

After London, Edinburgh was just so friendly. I had forgotten that people might actually smile at each other on the street, and, god forbid, interact. It had a really nice vibe, and yeah, would be an easy place to live. (Except maybe for the winter, which does sound epicly shit.) But nice as it was, I felt no particular urge to be there.

Took a surreal bus ride back to London, with two Scottish drivers who were either drunk, mad, or lost, or a combination of those, but they weren’t telling anyone what was going on, and the bus was two hours late. Weirdly, returning to London felt like coming home. Straight to a pub to meet people, since that is how socialising works in London.

Caught up with a few more people in London, saw a few more whatsits and thingamys, drank beer in pubs. On the whole I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed London, though that is probably largely due to the people I know there. Facing it alone would be colder and greyer and more grinding.

Then hopped on a plane to Amsterdam. Whee. The different security protocols around the world are pretty weird. Britain has the most stringent and unamused I have encountered yet. Ran into a kiwi waiting to board the same plane to Amsterdam – again, no idea they were in the country. We ended up sitting next to each other since they didn’ t assign seats, and had a random catchup.

Amsterdam. Flat. Lush. Very efficient. The impressions from the bus from the airport, anyway.

Crossing the street is pretty mad at first, with bike lanes, tram lines, cars, and pedestrians, all kind of happening at once until you grasp how it works. Much ringing of little bells on bikes, and the clonk of the tram, warning to get out of the way.

Ended up staying in a compact top floor flat on the Prinsengracht, one of the three big canals in the middle of town, with a cat, a dog, and two lovely lesbians. When I booked the flight at random, needing an onward ticket to enter the UK, I didn’ t realise I was arriving two days before Amsterdam Gay Pride weekend, one of the biggest parties of the year. Just hordes of people. A really long canal, chock full of floats and lined with people in boats. Street parties so thick with people you can hardly move. Weirdest moment was bits of 2×4 being thrown back and forth between the guys who were jumping into the canal to splash people on boats, and an unamused dude on a boat. Lots of people and booze is always messy.

Since the parade takes place on boats on the canal which goes by the flat, naturally there was a party. The whole weekend was a bit of a blur, with loads of people – Nowhere folks, mostly – crashing at the flat, sort of a big slumber party.

There are many weird tensions in Amsterdam, several cities overlaid on each other. Pride was weird, if only for the sheer scale of gayness, a lot of which must be imported for the weekend. The red light district is weird, just as an environment, as tourists wander bemused, taking window shopping to a new place; lurid but unerotic. The coffee shop thing is weird, if only because something that has so long been tinged with furtiveness is now just a bored guy at a counter selling weed, and at a glance many of the shops don’t have a good ambience. This city would be mecca for 20 year old frat boys.

Part of what is weird is the contrast with the Dutch themselves, who seem notably conservative, but benignly tolerant of difference. The other part is that something weird happens to subculture when it goes overground – it becomes formally appropriated by capitalism – and this really changes the vibe of it, the explicit out-to-make-a-buck thing changes it. Also from an identity perspective: when identity is carved by being an outsider, this is somewhat defanged. Yet even while legal, these things are not really welcome or accepted. It is not a utopia, and the criminal element is present in how these trades are conducted, especially the sex trade.

But yeah. Amsterdam is a pretty city to wander around. The canals are nice, though hard to tell apart, and it is pretty disorienting at first, as many of them are long and curve slowly. It often looks like a painting from a few hundred years ago. Pleasant, but somehow distant. The ex-pats living here have all commented on the difficulty in breaking into Dutch society.

Good times, good people. I am learning a lot, and processing a lot. Still not really sure what next, or where; feeling no strong pull, and finding a lot of the skimming along the surface of travel a bit empty. Missing the depth and engagement of being involved in creative projects. Though surprisingly the other day I realised I have written maybe 40000 words of diary so far while traveling.

Most of this was written a week or so ago now. It has been pretty grey and damp since. I have pottered about, and have enjoyed getting to spend time with people I have known for ages but never hung out with alone much.

Will probably do some random tiki touring of Europe, then head to Peru.

Note from afar 4: funny old town, London

 

Ten days in London so far. Feels like longer.

Often, it hardly feels like being in another country. It’s not really foreign, just a bit different on the surface. It is more like my idea of Rome than I expected, in the sense of there being ridiculous amounts of old ornate buildings all over the place. The kind of stuff which in NZ would be like a big amazing building, kind of an attraction, here is just one of a dozen in the neighbourhood. There are very few skyscrapers. Most of the city is 6 storeys tall, but not much above that.

London turned on the grey and wet in midsummer. Very much like a Wellington winter, without the wind. The grey adds to the impersonality; a place that can definitely grind you down. There seems to be a taboo against looking at people or interacting; not just on the tube but in general, millions of people tuning each other out.

Weather aside, London is kind of amazing. It is huge and busy. There is so much going on here that it is impossible to keep track of. Crazy amounts of free culture, museums, art galleries; and if you have the money, theatre, and music, and other stuff. It would be easy to spend time here, especially once integrated into the culture, connected to the flows of happenings. Just walk around a corner in the city centre and something kind of epic is going on.

A true world centre of culture. I am conscious of coming from the periphery of empire, where access to the fruits of culture is limited, and precious. In a way it seems wasted on the people here; it is like they have seen everything and none of it means anything to them. Hard to justify, given I have actually interacted with so few actual English people, but yeah, the sense is there, attitudes overheard.

In ten days I have now run into two kiwis that I did not know were in the UK; I had heard this happened but didn’t quite believe it. The first one took a week.

Just saw possibly the weirdest gig of my life. Two hours of Godspeed You Black Emperor, then a silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, with a live score, then a chunk of Swans, then Alan Moore doing spoken word with accompaniment from a guy from Sunn O))), then a bit of Grinderman, then Portishead. Then ran a mile or so to get the last tube, well, the last tube that was halfway useful to me, and made it by about ten seconds, and caromed home.

Specifics, in brief: St Pauls was filled with more memorials to fallen soldiers than religious iconography. Camden is indeed kinda cool. Soho seems fun. I have wandered around Jack the Ripper murder sites, kind of incidentally rather than by design, passing by a lamppost where intestines were once hung. There are obelisks and crazy churches as promised by Moore. Council flats do look a bit shit. The tube is amazing and awful simultaneously.

The place is much more than can be typed in one post by a tired moose.

I will move on soon. It has been fun but already I feel myself growing stagnant. This is not quite travel, more a lull, or a pause, before heading back into the breach and dealing with survival in an alien environment. It would be easy to spend a lot of time being distracted here without really achieving anything.

 

 

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