austral asia

Don't know how many times I've flown across the Tasman Sea ... only that it's either an odd or an even number. I should be able to work out which, since I started in New Zealand way back in 1981 and, inevitably, like now, end up here. Odd how certain things recur. I remember how determined I was, when I left New Zealand the first time, not to come to Australia ... I went the other way, to California, New York, London, Amsterdam; then back the same way some years later to Auckland. From thence to here, because I had to get out and could not then afford the northern hemisphere. There is a certain inevitablility about Australia for New Zealanders and I wasn't expecting much that rainy May day 25 years or so ago ... it was the sheer geniality of the people at the airport that struck me first, so unlike the buttoned down puritanism of New Zealand officialdom. The way they cracked jokes at you, or, if they didn't actually crack them, looked as if they might any moment. That pervasive irony, always squinting into the gap between what's meant to be and what is. New Zealanders have that quality too, in spades, but they don't bring it out for official inspection much. This time was like a strange repeat of that first trip. I was stung at Auckland Airport for an incredible sum of money for excess baggage; first time that's ever happened to me though I don't believe it's the first time I've travelled heavy. I could tell from the check-in clerk that this was new; she was embarrassed and would have liked to have helped but was unable, as they used to be, to wink and let you through. There was a queue at the excess baggage counter, which I haven't seen before either. And this was about 6.30 am. The guy was full of false bonhommie, pretending it wasn't the rort that it was. I paid with as much good grace as I could and continued on. Sydney airport was hellish, queues everywhere but ... different. I was carrying electronic goods, a cd and a dvd player which, while neither new nor expensive, could have attracted interest or even duty. Some Aussie at the security end of things, where your luggage was x-rayed, gave me one of those looks and said "Just walk down there, mate." There was the concourse into the terminal; I was free. Later on, waiting for a taxi, in another queue, the guy behind me, a Slav of some kind probably, and a family man with a wife and a couple of kids, became irate at the senselessness of the procedure, which required us to shuffle slowly along in full view of literally hundreds of empty taxis while we waited our turn, and they waited theirs. My cabbie had been there half an hour, just as I had; you used to be able to walk out and get into the first one in a line at the cerbside. Anyway, this Slav guy started ranting: at the despatcher at the head of the queue, who was a young Polynesian boy of 18 or so in a uniform. The Slav yelled and waved his arms; the Polynesian smiled serenely and took no notice whatsoever; the rest of the people waiting took sides, mostly with the Slav. It was serious but it was also somehow comical; and therefore fun. Everyone felt better, blowing off a bit of steam. And this wouldn't have happened in New Zealand. In New Zealand people would have complained to each other, or sighed, or fumed, or simply suffered in silence; no-one would have dared take the stage, as it were, and say what everyone was feeling. In many ways Australia is harsher, crueller, more disillusioned and disillusioning than New Zealand; but it isn't more repressed. And that's something I can't help but like about it.


last rites

Here I am sitting in Room 522 in the Arts Building on the City Campus of the University of Auckland. I've packed everything up, taken the bits and pieces off the wall, recycled the waste paper, dusted down most of the surfaces, deleted all the emails, copied my documents to CDW ... an impulse to erase all casual traces of my fellowship here, which ends with the month. Yesterday I gave a copy of the manuscript of Luca Antara to Special Collections at the University Library, along with the Report I had to write for the Departmental Files. The Librarian suggested we embargo the ms until it's published. Then the question: what if it doesn't get published? I didn't want to go there.

All endings are melancholy, I guess, though perhaps for different reasons. I know I will miss the fortnightly paychecks but then I always knew they would cease when the year ended. I don't think I'll miss the physical space much, though I did like the separation of workplace and living place which I've enjoyed only intermittently over the years. The friends I have here, and the friends I've made, will, I trust, stay friends. The City of Auckland ... I don't know. It's a town of ghosts to me, I heard myself saying to someone last night. That's, I don't know, sometimes true.

Over the weekend I went up to stay at a friend's holiday place in Mangawhai, a couple of hours north of here. We went fishing out by the Hen and Chickens one day, with a conspicuous lack of success; to the beach another day; I had my first swim since dipping in the Flores Sea back in November. I was worried about my ears, which have still not unblocked, but, if anything, the swim seems to have helped. The milky aqua sea, the jagged profile of the Hen offshore, the faded red of the last flowering of the pohutukawas on the white-grey sand ... such a familiar landscape.

On the way up we had a look at Puhoi, a little village off the main road which was settled by some Bohemians in the 19th century: Catholic farmers from central Europe, not artie wastrels from big cities. I lived near there for the best part of the year 1973, in a house in Pukapuka Road. We went and looked at that too. It's still standing, renovated, the residence of people with a boutique farm growing, among other things, olive trees. When I knew it, it was a small tumbledown wooden cottage in amongst swampy paddocks where farm animals grazed and arum lilies grew in a profusion I've not seen since.

My Report on the Fellowship suggests that I might write an account of my year here as a way back into those early 1970s years I spent as a student, an artie wastrel, an inept rural labourer, which culminated in that fairly disastrous sojourn in Pukapuka Road. But now I don't know. Do I want to revive those ghosts? For what reason? To lay them once and for all? Perhaps it's better just to shut the door on all that and go looking for something more prospective? These are questions I can't answer now, I'll just have to put them aside until they either lose their force or demand answers.

Now to expunge the last traces of my presence here ...


a note on the above (below)

"From Sind to Sunda" is a proverb I use in Luca Antara, it means spanning the known world. 'Sind' is said to have been a word for 'sea' and the origin of the name India; present day Sind is a province of Pakistan in the Indus Valley. Sunda, likewise of unknown provenance, is an old name for a kingdom in eastern Java. The drowned peninsular of Sundaland was twice the size of India in its heyday; it must indeed have seemed that around these two poles the whole world did revolve. I sometimes wonder if the now popular way of spelling Sindbad with a 'd' has a relationship with Sind ... quite possibly, since the voyages of Sindbad tell the story of the Arab - or perhaps earlier - exploration of the Indian Ocean. It is interesting also to note that the very first utopia we have a record of, written by the Greek Euhemerus circa 316 BCE, is about an imaginary voyage to uncharted islands in the Indian Ocean. From Sind to Sunda ... It is perplexing to me now where this proverb came from. I no longer know if it popped up somewhere in the reading I did in and around the writing of Luca Antara; or whether it is something I invented. But then, most of the book is like that: an inquiry into the precise status of the 'non' in non-fiction perhaps.


from Sind to Sunda

I sent the manuscript of the (perhaps) book from which the title of this weblog is derived to my agent today. Now I don't know what to think. Most of what I have posted here, however disparate, has had some kind of connection to this book, which predates the weblog by some months or even years. I do remember how it came about. I had written an essay, called "Fenua Imi, the Pacific in History and Imaginary", for Alan Brunton's imprint, Bumper Books. It was the last thing Bumper published while he lived. In the interim between its publication and his untimely death in June, 2002, we were tossing ideas back and forth for another essay, one which might give his New Zealand based imprint greater access into the Australian market. I suggested, perhaps naively, that I could follow up "Fenua Imi" with a book about the Indian Ocean ... unaware at the time how vast that subject is, how much human history is (literally) submerged there. Anyway, after that project was unavoidably curtailed, I could not get the ocean out of my mind. It was my attempt to grapple with the histories of the seas lying to the west and north of Australia which led me in to the writing of Luca Antara, the (perhaps) book. In fact it does no more than toe-dip into those, to us, western seas. The first part of it ventures from Sydney out into the eastern Pacific and then follows late 18th and early 19th century trails back to Europe. Part two is largely set on the coast of Western Australia. Part three goes up into Southeast Asia, but only to describe a 17th century voyage from there to here. The last part is a description of my travels in those countries of Southeast Asia where the (perhaps) voyage originated. None of these distant locations is exclusive, in that all sections of the book are narrated from a point of view anchored, if that is the word, on the east coast of Australia: Sydney and environs. Now I don't know what to think. There is a tsunami in Luca Antara, one of the images in the book is an evocation of the catastrophe that drowned Sundaland circa 8000 BC. Not much is made of it, in that it doesn't occupy much space in the text, but to me it is central. This is why the event of 26 December 2004 seems so strangely like a memory ... but is it a memory of the future or the past? Or a present memory? Or immemorial? Or memorial? I don't know ... what to think?


from ... the Aitreya Brahmanan of the Rig Veda

There is no happiness for he who does not travel, Rohita! Thus we have heard. Living in the society of man, the best man becomes a sinner ... Therefore, wander!

The feet of the wanderer are like the flowers, his soul is growing and reaping the fruit; and all his sins are destroyed by his fatigues in wandering. Therefore, wander!

The fortune of him who is sitting, sits; it rises when he rises; it sleeps when he sleeps; it moves when he moves. Therefore, wander!

quoted in Anita Desai's JOURNEY TO ITHACA, p 196


Gate of Grief

The recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean is the latest in a series of catastrophic events in that part of the world, most of which have disappeared from human memory. One of the oldest in our experience is the Toba Explosion, a volcanic eruption in northern Sumatra circa 74,000 years ago. This was the largest event of its kind in the last two million years, causing a six year long nuclear winter and covering India, Pakistan and the Gulf in layers of ash up to five metres deep. A one thousand year long mini-ice age followed. At this time modern humans were already on their way south and east from Africa; many must have been wiped out by the event; the survivors may have numbered as few as ten thousand. In a book published a few years ago now, called Eden in the East: the Drowned Continent of South East Asia, British pediatrician Stephen Oppenheimer reconstructs another catastrophe, this one at the end of the last Ice Age perhaps 8ooo years ago, when melting ice caused a series of tsunami-type events which inundated most of the low-lying land areas in what is now the South China Sea. He traces myths of the Flood back to these tidal waves and speculates that refugees from a civilization flourishing in old Sundaland carried both knowledge and stories out of the east into the Indus Valley and the Fertile Crescent. Oppenheimer's latest book is called Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World; it reconstructs the movement of modern humans out of Africa and into the rest of the world, using genetic keys on the one hand and climatic evidence on the other. There were, he suggests, only two ways out of Africa, a northern route across the head of the Red Sea into the Levant, only available during the brief warmings known as interglacials; and a southern route at the other end of the same sea, crossing from Eritrea into Yemen at the Bab al-Mandab or Gate of Grief. It is this path, he concludes, which was not closed during glacials, that our ancestors took in a single migration some 85,000 years ago. One of the curious facts derived from his synthesis is that all modern humans with the exception of Africans are derived from those same intrepid ancestors who came through the Gate of Grief; and that, further, those populations we now know as European originated in South Asia, perhaps even as far south as Sri Lanka. Oppenheimer's work, which is well-informed, readable and highly civilized in itself, confirms Africa's place as the crucible of humanity as well as restoring Asia as our second home, as it were, the place from which we radiated out to populate the rest of the world. The Gate of Grief is so called because of the many shoals and reefs which exist in the narrows at that closest point between Africa and Arabia; but we can hardly fail to hear in the words the cries of all humans faced with the calamities of tectonics, climate and weather.