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Essay

 Half A World Away from Home

By Mike Smith

Auckland downtown. Photo Courtesy: Mike Smith

I recently visited New Zealand, where I met up with writer Jenny Purchase, whose collection of short stories Transit Lounge  has just been published. I was fortunate enough to read an earlier version of this in manuscript form, and it was good to meet up face to face with her at last; and to get my own proof copy of the then not yet published volume!

Reading a book written in and about a foreign country (where, it has been famously asserted, ‘they do things differently’) is a bit like travel itself. We are hit simultaneously by not only what is dissimilar from our own patch and experience, but also what is, unexpectedly perhaps, amazingly similar. It’s not just Maori culture that Jenny’s stories jolt the outsider into, but the wider society of this modern democracy, which is said, at least here in my country, to be like stepping back in time into a version of our own past.

That’s true to a very shallow extent. Buildings are reminiscent of British structures: but who could tell skyscraper London, from skyscraper Hong Kong, or Dallas, or tower packed City Centre Auckland if they’d never been in any of them before? I used to think a good TV game might be to fly contestants into night clubs around the world and ask them to guess which country they were in. It crossed my mind more than once that you could do something similar with shopping centres, or malls if you prefer it. There would be clues, but often not in the appearance of the shoppers, nor in the brands they were carrying. But what we in the UK call charity shops are in NZ called opportunity stores, which implies differences that cut much deeper than mere labelling.

Yet those low-rise suburbs of New Zealand’s largest city, the wood-framed clapper boarded houses that I think of as ‘chalet chic’, and especially the oldest of them, and which look so alien to my eyes, were once common in the UK, and I could take you to a few still rotting gently in Lake District lanes under pine trees, oak and ash. One house we stayed in, at the resort town of Akoroa, settled by the French in 1840, is said to have been imported in kit form from Britain in the 1850s, and to be same kit as the more famous ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi, except of course with an additional second storey.

The traffic, too, has that blend of the familiar and unfamiliar to European eyes, with the same private cars I would see on UK roads. But the lorries! Huge Mack trucks, often with trailers, that I’ve seen before only in the movies. There was the odd Chevy knocking about too. But they all drive on the left, just like in the UK.

When people get off the bus in Auckland, they thank the driver. Yet, I was told, the drive to get more people out of their cars and into public transport in the city was struggling against a deeply ingrained reluctance to take the bus. Snobbery was given as the explanation. And from the sound of engine noises in the night, and during the day, there are more drivers than I hear where I live who still think it’s clever to be audible three streets away. And don’t get me started on those who play their music louder than all the traffic noise within a hundred yards!

And what about the forests? Walking on the Queen Charlotte trail near Picton in South Island, it was the difference that struck me: the canopy of ferns and palms; leaf shapes that I couldn’t identify; the scars of recent landslips, which looked as if some giant had taken a massive ice-cream scoop to the hillside and peeled off a good helping, only to drop it a few hundred feet down the valley side, often into the sea where the path ran close above the shore. I got the feeling all along the coast that I was walking on sandcastles not yet reached by the rising tide. 

Yet, turn a corner and momentarily you could imagine yourself in an English glade or a Scottish glen, and in so many places the name given to it might well be of an English or Scottish general or politician, or any surname that you’re very familiar with. And, let’s be honest, in an English woodland I’m as likely to struggle with identifying those leaves except for a really obvious few! But the palm fronds and ferns exploding like huge green fireworks from an otherwise normal — to my eyes — New Zealand forest canopies always excite me!

Plants that at home are house plants on the windowsill, and never big enough to block the view are here growing outside, and above head height. Fruit that costs a fortune in English supermarkets falls here in back gardens like English apples and is left to rot.

The Fish and Chips are good, and celebrated both here and there, though it throws me for a second each time what we call crisps are referred to as ‘chips’. The coffee, ‘a long black a day keeps the senses in play’ is my take on the old saw, is the best I’ve ever had, though I’m doing my best to replicate it here in Cumbria!

Similarities and differences abound both in stories, and in the places they come from and reveal. They told me when I was young that travel broadens the mind, but I wonder if also, and perhaps more so, it sharpens our perception of where we’ve come from as well as that of where we’ve arrived, whether we travel by plane or on the page! 

Raising A Trowel

Seen from the Auckland waterfront, where the pedestrian swing bridge salutes the boats as they enter and exit the inner harbour, city centre offers an intense, almost intimidating backdrop of close-packed tower blocks of concrete and glass, overtopped by the sharp needle of the skytower a few blocks further up the hillside beyond the historical shoreline.

But turn around and follow the embedded railway tracks left over from the days of steam trains and sailing ships, all the way to where the old industrial silos have been decorated with lights and festooned with climbing plants and find the single track spur that slips away to the right, splitting almost immediately into two again before entering the double-track tram shed, and you will have arrived at what we were told is the last of the Auckland Community Gardens.

Lying alongside the long building are some forty raised beds, tended by volunteers, each bed that I saw, carrying the name of its gardener. Hard up to the tram shed wall (here decorated with images of old tickets), sits a row of composters for food waste and wormeries in plastic barrels. There’s a greenhouse and a traditional pallet-built compost heap. Water runs from the tap.

There were many such gardens in Auckland at one time. I recall encountering one unexpectedly on a small site on one of the steeper city centre streets during a previous visit. But I’m told that all save this one have gone now, the land taken for the far more valuable purpose, in monetary terms and for other reasons, of squeezing in another tower block. This last of them is fighting to keep its plot, and I hope it does. Buildings, from what I’ve seen, sit tight in their boundaries in Auckland. It’s a city that doesn’t seem to see the need for growing space. And perhaps, with a country more or less the size of the United Kingdom but with only about one fourteenth of its population, that shouldn’t surprise us.

Two tomato plants were pressed on us, for our daughter’s nascent garden out in the suburbs. My guess is that I will never eat tomatoes grown in such valuable land, on a dollar per acre basis. But the clue is in the name. This is a Community Garden, and the community, which it not only serves but also creates, is an inclusive one.

Community Gardens offer more than a source of ‘home grown’ food, paid for in care rather than cash. I would guess that even a city like this, which to the outsider’s eyes can seem remarkably relaxed and laid back at first glance, could use those benefits.

The names on those raised beds confirmed the story told by the volunteer who we chatted with on our stroll past. The garden brings together people whose languages and skin colour vary enormously, but they are united by their green fingers and that remarkable thing, the human smile, and much more.

Back on my own plot now, bound fast in winter frost, harsher and earlier this year than we have become used to over the last decade, I raise a trowel from the iron hard soil, in salute to fellow gardeners everywhere.

A Cacophony of Voices

The variations we hear around us, in accent and in language itself, I suspect, offer different perspectives of reality rather than merely alternative words for it. Perhaps that’s why I came home from my recent trip to New Zealand with a beginner’s guide to Maori!

‘Yis’ and ‘yes’ are both similar and different at the same time, and so are ‘iggs’, though the latter perhaps weighs more heavily on the difference side of the scale. But in the North of England, yes and aye carry a much older distinction, despite both being used without forethought locally. Though my skin is more or less the same colour as that of almost all my neighbours, and though I’ve lived in this part of the world for over half a century now, any school kid, and any old codger of my own age would know as soon as I opened my mouth that I’m ‘nut frum rahnd ‘ere’. Old codgers, fifty years ago, in a Cumbrian pub told me that during their childhood, people from villages only two miles apart could be distinguished by the way they spoke.

Only the outsider is fooled into thinking that rural England has a homogenous population, and perhaps that’s true elsewhere. But in the cities, it is cosmopolitan around the world, and visibly so. More interesting to me is the cacophony of voices, none of which I believe, have been genetically inherited. We speak as we have heard. We speak as we have listened, and in the accents of those we have listened to and consciously or unconsciously, copied.  Until a couple of generations ago that would have been limited almost completely to geographically close family and neighbours.

Several years after my visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, it suddenly struck me what I had overlooked, though it was obvious from the beginning. The Treaty was signed by many Maori leaders in 1840, but on behalf of a single Monarch-Emperor. Our perceptions of others, and of ourselves, evolve over time. As part of that process we forget, deny, re-interpret and re-invent both our own narratives and those of people we have encountered. We redefine who ‘we’ are, and who ‘they’ are. ‘Us’ and ‘them’, are perhaps the two most unstable words in the English language.

Language itself is unstable. New languages are formed by the coalescence of older languages – English is a prime example of this, and not yet a thousand years old as a national, let alone an international tongue. They are formed too from the disintegration of an earlier single language – Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Welsh among others, all derive from a single widespread early European language. Which process the language of any people is undergoing at any moment, that of coming together or that off moving apart, must be an indicator of wider social, political and religious evolutions.

The biblical story of Babel’s Tower, and its cataclysmic dividing of us, of being struck down as it were by the curse of having different languages rather than one, is a story that raises ideas we might do well to ponder and examine more than it seems to me that we have.  Harari’s book Sapiens makes the simple assertion that once upon a time a monkey had two offspring, with the astonishing addition that one was a human being. My question is did their offspring develop a single language from which all our languages grew? Or did they disperse into separate communities each of which developed their own languages?

A history of the North American Indian that I came across asserted that those first people had dispersed across the continent before the development of language, which implies that by the time we had spread that widely across the world we were still, apart from, perhaps, something like birdcalls, mute. Yet we all carried the genes that would predispose us to develop language, and that when the American Indians did so it was in quite as many unrelated languages. The Maori came to New Zealand less than a millennium ago and brought with them languages with shared roots despite their many tribes.

Of course, I have no answers, though it seems likely to me that communities and individuals who are open to strangers are more likely to see the amalgamation of languages, and that those who are not will encourage their disintegration. And I do have the suspicion that language, to use a modern analogy, is like a TV channel. Each one carries its own agenda and its own programmes. Each presents the world from its own perspective and its own focus. There may be overlap. There will be difference. But as language using beings we can, with varying degrees of competence and effort no doubt, tune in to any, and who knows, perhaps to all of them, if we wish to do so.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Categories
Slices from Life

Near-Life Experiences: Hiking in New Zealand

Sometimes all it takes is a short break to get away from the stresses of your life to realise you have been too busy to be truly living the life you really desire. Sometimes all you need are some near-life experiences to bring you back to Earth. Keith Lyons escapes city life to find his happy place. 

Abel Tasman National Park. Courtesy: Creative Commons

It was almost midday when I finally started to relax and instinctively know that everything was going to be alright. But before then, things had been a little bit rushed. With just 15 minutes before the flight boarding call, the taxi was still spinning a few blocks away on the Uber app tracker. I counted down the minutes, worried not so much about the high fare but about missing the flight. 

Still half asleep, I kept a lookout from my window seat at the snow on the ridges of the Alps, finding amid the peaks and valleys an emerald alpine lake, impossible to reach. Half-an-hour later after the plane touched down, I walked from the airport to the neighbourhood where I grew up, locating the supermarket, and assembling my late breakfast with provisions I’d bought for the journey: half a dozen multi-grain bread rolls, a bag of salad greens, and a small block of extra tasty mature cheese. Suitably fortified, I found camping gas sold in the hunting and fishing shop, though when I walked out of Gun City having purchased one canister, I got a nasty look from the mother with her young child, as if I had just bought a semi-automatic rifle to run riot in a primary school. Seeking the best cafe in town to enjoy a cup of coffee, I found it further along the street, a man in a wheelchair mobility scooter leaving with a broad grin as if he had been given a new lease on life a good enough sign for me. The owner gave me a friendly welcome and a cafe latte in a real cup. With blood sugar and caffeine levels now elevated, it was time to hit the road, to hitchhike to the trailhead, but some primitive drive kicked in when I went past the pizza parlour, so I gave in and commenced carbo-loading on a 12-inch pizza, justifying to myself that I’d be walking it off. 

And I did walk. First, out of town to the crossroads where I only had to wait a few minutes until a science teacher on her way to pick up her children stopped. She told me about their financial struggles and how a generous government allowance kept their family afloat. She dropped me in the next town, and I ducked into the last supermarket just to cram one more packet of crackers into my day pack. 

It was now early afternoon, and the logical part of my brain was asking why I hadn’t started on the hike, which would take four hours. The other part of my brain reassured me that it didn’t really matter what’s ahead, what was here and now was more important. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun felt hot on my skin. I walked to the edge of town, but with not so much traffic I was tempted to have a handmade ice cream with local frozen berries. By the time I cleaned my sticky hands with sanitiser, I looked up to see another car had stopped for me. A man with no legs. I moved the wheels of his chair further over in the back seat; later I worried he might not be able to reach them when he arrived at his destination. I was almost at mine. 

One final ride, with a former real estate agent who imparted some wisdom: Live your life to the full while you can, don’t wait till you are old, for then it might be too late, and health problems might blight your life. 

Inside, I felt that I needed this. To be on the road. To be travelling again after Covid lockdowns and fears about venturing out. I needed this to look beyond my day job, my family concerns, and my dilemmas with what to do to secure a long-term future. It seems ages ago, but when I woke up in the morning, the first email I had seen through bleary eyes was a quote from George Addair: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.”

I felt buoyed by the interactions, the sharing of truths, and the lifelong lessons. I almost wanted to continue this hitchhiking, this random experiment, at the mercy of the road and its drivers. But I had a reservation for a bunk bed in a park hut, and the holiday I’d planned at the start of the year was now taking shape. 

The trail, the Abel Tasman National Park ‘Great Walk’ (in New Zealand’s South Island) was familiar enough that I felt like I was coming home. I recalled walking part of this track as a child and in recent years I’d hiked sections, including the first four hours. Despite its familiarity, I saw new things, noticed details, and lingered to take it all in. I was in no hurry. So much depended on your mood, your pace, and your company. I took detours down to sandy beaches. I got breathless climbing and climbing and climbing to viewpoints. I stopped to drink the water still cold in my bottle. I sat at strategically placed seats to marvel at the panorama of sea, sand, forest and the horizon. From dazzling sunlight, the route drops into the gloom of forest cover, where I could smell the earthy sweetness of honey-dew on the breeze. The landscape was scenic, but there was more it was doing for my soul. Moving through it was to be immersed in it, to be nourished by the sight, the colours of life, the contrasts, and the abundance of nature. In my head, my soundtrack had songs on repeat, repeat, repeat. Then it skipped to another, to repeat a few times. I needed to upgrade my internal Spotify. I noticed my breathing, and how it deepened. I still had some tension, but slowly it was seeping away, dissipating. Yes, I would like some more of this. Yes, please. 

Every few minutes walkers heading out from day trips or longer multi-day hikes passed by, with ‘hellos’. The Europeans and North Americans invariably walked on the ‘wrong’ side of the trail. Some were seeking suitable places for Instagram pictures. Others clutched the cardboard containers that once held their packed lunch from the ferry operator, looking for a trash bin, despite the notices that everyone must take out whatever they bring in. 

At the hut, most had larger packs than mine, apart from an American who seemed to be staying overnight without any food. We watched him sitting outside using the free wifi, as if he was Googling ‘nearest store’ or finding out if any delivery services worked there. They don’t. The wood fire was lit in the main dining area, and exhausted souls sat around eating camp food and sipping hot drinks. And laughing. It was only just 9.30pm but already half the 30 or so guests had retired to their bunk rooms. There was talk about the need to rise early to take advantage of the low tide crossing, saving an hour or so of extra slog. 

I was woken by the rustling of plastic bags, the clomping of hiking boots on the deck outside, and the hiss of gas cookers preparing porridge and tea. I rolled over and tried to sleep, as I was still tired, a tiredness residual from late nights, long hours working, and the demands of modern life. 

When I finally got out of my sleeping bag and squinted my eyes out at the day, the last of the overnighters were getting ready to leave. I found myself alone. And here I found it. Peace. Stillness. Calm. It is in that place. And it was inside me. 

Framed by the gable roof of the dining hall, through the trees, it was misty across the sheltered bay. The water was still and flat, but I could hear the distant breaking on the shore like a lullaby. I slowly sipped a cup of Lady Grey tea to add clarity. I heard just the twitter of birdsong and saw two tiny birds flit here and there. From a treetop, came the chimes and whirls and clicks of a native bird. Light rain was soft on the tin roof. I was content just to sit and gaze out at the scene, reduced to flat grey tones. I was happy enough just to be breathing the air, which was moist and life-giving. My warm scarf wrapped around my neck gave the embodiment of love, while the woollen hat on my heat topped it off. I was complete.

I felt the need to move, but not to go out in the rain which was getting heavier. Instead, I remembered some Qi Gong exercises, my arms flailing out, torso twisting, rotating. I pulled up energy from the earth below. And with that movement, and in that space, there was nothing I wanted. Just being fully present was enough. It was all I could be at that moment. 

And you. How about you? When will you stop over-thinking, obsessing, and worrying? Just breathe and believe that everything will work out.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles