Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Porpoise-Driven Life

We set out at noon under a blazing sun
To see if we could see a whale
We searched the waters with eager eyes,
Our fists clenched on the boat-rail

And Oh! Look there! Thar’ she blows!
Out of the sea curves a tail
From an enormous head, the length of a man
Erupts a spout of exhaling whale
We drifted alongside him rapt with awe
And we watched him sedately float
Not twenty feet from where we stood
On the starboard side of the boat

And while we savored the remembered image
Of leviathan by our side
We chanced upon a hundred dolphins
Who wanted to take us for a ride

They darted and leapt around our craft
Sheer joy in motion at sea
If there was just one way to live
That would be the way to be
Not a care to trouble, no place to go,
No promises to keep;
No miles to go except on a whim
Before another dive in the deep

We turned around and headed back to the shore
Under the soft glow of an afternoon sun
With memories that would shimmer and dance with us
Long after the day was done

Monday, 26 February 2007

Point and Counterpoint

Queenstown and Rotorua are two towns that encapsulate essential and contrasting themes in modern New Zealand.

Rotorua suggests a sense of aged Maori dignity. The Maoris themselves take great pride in introducing their culture to others. They talk about their legends of colonizing New Zealand from the east, crossing the Pacific Ocean in boats, a journey that must have drawn on immensely deep reserves of courage and sea-craft. They demonstrate their arts, music and craft, and delight in intimidating visitors with the haka, their traditional war dance.

And they tell the story of Tutanekai and Hinemoa. Tutanekai was strong and clever and Hinemoa loved him. But her tribe thought him unworthy. So she decided to leave her tribe and join him on his island in the middle of Lake Rotorua. Her tribe hid away all the canoes but that did not stop her. She tied gourds around her waist so that she could float on the water and still reach Tutanekai. When her tribe saw the strength of her determination they relented, and Tutanekai and Hinemoa founded a new tribe.

After an evening spent listening to these stories in a recreated Maori village I had an impression of a culture that looked back proudly across the centuries and drew great strength and self-assurance from its heritage.

Queenstown, on the other hand, suggests neither age nor dignity. Instead it radiates exuberance. The town is tiny, a fraction of Rotorua’s size, but it is crammed with people looking for adventure and other people seeking to sell it. It has restaurants that stay open till 3am, even 5am. It’s a town that is the size of a village but has an unmistakable big-city buzz.

And as different as they are from each other, it is hard to imagine New Zealand without either. The Maori are central to the country. Their ways infuse what it means to live in New Zealand much more than the aborigines seem to do in Australia, or American Indians in the US. But the New Zealand of today is also forward-looking, with a strong sense of possibilities. It has an unassuming self-confidence which is displayed for instance in the country’s decision to disband their air force as an unnecessary anachronism (who are they going to defend against – Western Samoa?). It’s the same sort of self-confidence that looks at you cockily from posters inviting you to quad-bike, heli-ski, jet-boat, sky-dive or otherwise get your adrenaline pumping in the mountains and valleys around Queenstown.

Together, they represent the contrasting threads that intertwine to make travel in New Zealand unforgettable.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Letter From Middle Earth

Eric is a cheerful man of about sixty. He works as a tour guide on a large farm in northeastern New Zealand. But it’s not the farm that’s the tourist attraction, nor the 11,000 sheep that live on it. The attraction sits in a corner of one particular paddock that was rented by New Line Cinema. It is the remains of the Hobbiton set.

Standing on top of Bag End, looking out across Bagshot Row towards the Party Tree, Eric recalls a group of professors from Oxford who visited the site recently. One of them remarked that Tolkien must have lived in New Zealand in a previous life; after all, the scene that stretches out before us is uncannily like the Shire that Tolkien described in the Lord of the Rings.

Eric is tickled by the fancies of Tolkien fans.

But a scant 5 hours earlier, in a different corner of the country, I had had the same thought as that Oxford Don who so amused Eric…

At Waitomo, about 200Km to the west, there is a small cave system. The caves are limestone, with stalactites and stalagmites that catch the light of an electric torch with such delicate grace that I can only try to imagine what they would look like in the flicker of a flame. And in the deeper recesses of the cave there is a colony of glow-worms.

We saw them from below as we glided in a boat along an underground river. Above our heads there was an immense black ceiling embroidered with a thousands of glittering lights. In the dark and silence under that cavernous ceiling it was easy to lose sense of distance and scale. I could easily imagine that what I was seeing was a rich star-field stretching across miles of sky. Or that I was seeing the Glittering Caves of Aglarond, which Gimli so excitedly explored in The Two Towers, the second part of Tolkien’s trilogy.

The night before I really had seen the most incredible star-field. We’d gone a few kilometers out of the town, to a spot where there was no light at all. It was a clear night, in a place hundreds of miles from any kind of smog or smoke. And up above there was a tapestry of stars so bright and so vivid that they looked painted onto a screen. That sounds like a strange comparison, but the truth is that that night sky was so rich and gluttonously dense with stars that it was beautiful to the point of being unnatural.

Across a broad swath of sky there was a band of powdery whiteness that I imagine must have been the Milky Way. It certainly was milky! It looked like someone had sprayed milk powder across a black canvas stretched out on a frame miles overhead. It gave me a thrill just to know that for the first time ever I was looking at a night sky I had never seen before, a totally new set of stars and constellations; for the first time I was looking up at the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere.

But although I was seeing this sky for the first time, I could still recognize it as the one that Tolkien had described so often. I’m not a complete fanboy, so I did not try to find all the same stars and constellations as the ones in the book. Nevertheless it was a sky that appeared so eerily close to the ground that it was not impossible to imagine Earendil gliding across it in his ship, a Silmaril shining on his brow to be seen on here on Middle-Earth.

Down here on Middle-Earth where men wander, and perhaps Hobbits do too.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Wonderful Things I Heard in New York

Laura Thomas is a star in the making. I saw her perform with her band on Saturday night. She had one of the best singing voices I've ever heard. Every song sounded terrific. She was as accomplished when she was throatily introspective, as when she opened her throat wide for a full-bodied rant, or when she took on a couple of Led Zeppelin covers to finish the set (Kashmir and Whole Lotta Love, in case you're wondering). At her very best she sounded a little like Joan Baez, a little like Morissette, and a lot like no one I had heard before.

And she was feisty. Always in control of the stage and the crowd, you knew that she could burst into pure bitchiness any second. It didn't hurt that she had a more-than-competent violinist(!), a guitarist with great tone, and a backup singer with terrific vocal range. Pity about the drummer.

By the time she had finished her set, both Brave and I were wide-eyed with admiration. We went off to look for his girlfriend Natasha.

As I was talking to her over the din at the bar, our conversation turned to the bigger events in life - parenthood, marriage, that sort of thing. She said something that sounded like "...when I got engaged..." and I just stared. That's an awkward thing to have heard but not be sure that you heard correctly. I gathered my courage and asked whether I had heard right - were she and Brave engaged? Yes, they were. A hug for her. Abuse for him for not having remembered to mention this little thing.

By then this was easily the best Saturday night I'd had in ages. Natasha is really terrific; I was thrilled that Brave had asked her to marry him. That's what I told her then, and I'm sticking with my story. (Just kidding, Natasha, I am really really glad that he asked you. And I have faith in your sense of humor; please don't blacklist me).

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Cats. With a K. And a Z.

Here I am, sitting in my friend's apartment in Manhattan, when I see Trouble walking up to me. I stretch out a toe and scratch the side of his neck. He accepts the gesture with uncommon enthusiasm for a cat, arching his back with a scarcely audible purr. I've just made a new friend.

My friend Brave (one reason I'll call him that is because he is a young Indian man in America; the other reason I'll keep to myself) offered the explanation that Trouble is 'dog-like'. That's an unusual thing to say about a cat, but it soon becomes clear that Trouble is an unusual cat. He (the cat) is friendly, likes company and is extremely interactive with humans. I'm a dog-lover, and I can vouch for Trouble's dog-likeness.

Truth to tell, Trouble is the first cat I've actively liked. Usually I'll ignore cats, or maybe humor them with minimal attention. But I find myself seeking out Trouble's company. And he seems to like mine.

A little while later we go out to the East Village to sample some live music. I'm impressed by the venues. They are small, unpretentious annexes to bars, with room to seat about 50 people. But the music is excellent and so are the acoustics.

In 2003 Norah Jones played at The Living Room as a member of a band called the The Little Willies. Tonight the stage is occupied by Devin Doherty and his band. They perform against a backdrop of beige walls and ceiling, from which several giant maroon acoustic panels are suspended. I tap my foot to the country-rock music. The music is simple and well-crafted. I can't quite keep up with the lyrics but Devin's voice makes them sound thoughtful. The combination is wonderfully relaxing.

We take a short kebab break and then head to Arlene's Grocery. I have no idea why it's called that. It certainly doesn't look like a grocery store. What it does look like is a straightforward bar with a short staircase leading down into the performance area. Everything here is black. The walls are black. The ceiling is black. The Silver Spiders are on stage, dressed in black. They're a fun bunch. They look too old to still retain credible ambitions of breaking into the big time; but they enjoy their music, and it shows. They are loud, rude and very good to listen to as they serve straight-up guitar-rock.

We're now ready to call it a night, but first I have to eat a sandwich at Katz's deli. I can see the sign outside and I remember it from a Nokia commercial in which Gary Oldman gets a sandwich from Katz. It looked really good on TV and I want to know if it tastes as good as it looked.

I ask for a pastrami sandwich. Allan, the man preparing my order, passes me a slice of pastrami to keep me occupied while he carves away out of my sight under the counter-top. About a minute later he presents me a plate. Between two slices of bread he has placed about three inches of sliced beef. And then he's done it once more. I'm intimidated, but will not surrender without a fight. I brace myself for a titanic struggle between man and meat. As I walk away from the counter I see a jar out of the corner of my eye, labeled 'Tips for Allan'. By this time I've been in the US for a few hours, long enough to have been reminded that to overlook a tipping opportunity is to commit a mortal sin. I slip in a couple of dollars.

Then I sit down and attack the first sandwich with gusto. The first bite is astounding. This sandwich is great. Even better than it looked on TV!

A couple of bites later I've started to slow down. It takes real effort to work my way through the meat. An amused member of the staff encourages me to keep on going, I will win in the end. But I can only manage one sandwich and decide to get the other one bagged to take home.

The bagging is to be done by the aforementioned staff member / eating coach. With great deliberation he wraps my food in a paper towel and slips it into a brown paper bag. Then he holds it to his bosom and announces to me "I've wrapped it with love, like it was one of my own." I fear for his children and the fate that apparently awaits them - to be swaddled in paper for a stranger to take home and eat. I am also sufficiently irritated by this shameless plug for a tip to decide that in this instance I will sin mortally. No tip for the smart aleck. It doesn't require me to be particularly brave. I'll never have the courage to wrestle with the meat here again, so smart-mouth will not have a chance to poison me in revenge.

As we walk to the cashier, Brave points out something that perhaps I should have seen for myself. This is the place where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, which just happens to be my all-time favorite movie. Instantly, everything I see around me snaps into place, like a favorite childhood photograph.

The cashier rings up $13.45; I don't even consider leaving a tip...

...It's early in the morning (and still pitch-dark). I'm sprawled across a mattress in the living room of Brave's apartment. Something steps on my legs and walks over to peer at me. It's Trouble, delighted to share this quiet moment with me. I tickle his ear, he nips at my finger and we silently bid each other goodnight and go back to sleep.