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Travelogue from "down under"

New Zealand. Otherwise known as paradise.

Some bloggers like to post accounts of their world travels. So—why not?—I'll do the same. Here are some journal entries from almost twenty years ago when I was in New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji for a few weeks. Their naïve literary quality is amusing: I was in that college phase of trying to be a good writer and only occasionally succeeding. I was also prone to philosophical reflection, so there's some of that here and there.


December 14, 2002— Mozart was meant to be played in New Zealand, where natural beauty is second nature. He is, as it were, an extension of the countryside; it seems almost incomplete in his absence. The mountains are comparatively flat, the foliage less colorful. This isn’t to say I need the spirit of Mozart beside me if I am to appreciate nature; it is to say, however, that his living soul imparts enthusiasm to mine. I live on a higher level when accompanied by him, and so have a greater appreciation of perfection.

Jay [my brother] and I reached Dunedin yesterday, after a thirty-hour trip. My parents drove us around the city, the architecture of which is modeled after Europe’s. The downtown area is quaint and full of character, with steeply sloped, narrow streets lined with small shops and cafés. It’s situated around a harbor in a valley, rolling hills hemming it in on all sides. I say ‘rolling’ because their slopes are gentle and their aggregate is a horizontal waterfall of meadows, one atop the other, tumbling into the ocean. Thousands of sheep speckle the blanket of lush green, nestled in its folds against the harsh wind. From a height one is overwhelmed by the proud beauty of the scenery and humbled by the knowledge that it required many millions of years to reach its present state. This land used to be a mass of churning lava, bubbling in fury and smoking from its collisions with the sea. Gradually it settled down, hardened with age, matured and grew weary of its youthful passion, and today it remains as a tribute to the power and wisdom of nature. The construction of a town within the cradle of these hills is its own special kind of wisdom.

Today we hiked along the peninsula, our destinations the soldier monument, Lover’s Leap and a precipitous chasm nearby. The wind whipped our faces into a pink rawness, but that only made the experience more invigorating. Unfortunately my allergies asserted their will to power, so I enjoyed the afternoon less than I might have. Tonight we’re seeing a play, a farce (“Noises Off”), which I’m sure to like.

Though I’ve only been here one day, I truly love Dunedin and New Zealand. Dunedin for its location and its charm, New Zealand for the reckless sublimity of its environment. Too bad I don’t live here.

December 18— Today we began the Milford Track, which is a four-day hike through a mountain region on the south island. The weather has been ideal so far—which is a fluke that probably won’t last through the night. We reached the first hut at 2:30, having walked for two hours on flat land. The next three days will be more strenuous, since we’ll be hiking up- and downhill six hours each day. But the views, I think, will be worth the effort (and the back pains). ‘Majesty’ is what comes to mind when I look at the snow-peaked glacial remnants.

December 19— To paraphrase Bill Watterson, this day was not only seized but throttled. At 9:30 we were underway. The first few hours offered the usual spectacular vistas, but I found them [i.e., the hours] otherwise uninspiring. Because the ground wasn’t hilly it wasn’t interesting. I was hungry, my shoulders ached, etc. But lunch rejuvenated me. We walked through an enormous valley, the sun hammering at us and sweat soaking us, until we saw a little pond fed by a 200-foot waterfall. I jumped in. Due to the gelid water I spent the first minute gasping for air, but as I became numb I could tolerate it better. Swam to the base of the waterfall and gazed upward—a beautiful sight. So far it was the best part of the day. [...] I decided to continue my climb to the top and then hike down a smoother path to the main trail. It turned out to be not as smooth as I had thought—my boots were drenched by the end—but by the grace of God I survived. Felt glorious afterwards. The last hour saw the steepest climb in all four days, and it seemed to go on and on. I kept thinking the hut was right around the corner, the next bend in the trail, but another stretch of rocks always emerged. Fortunately most of it was shaded by the walls and ceilings of boscage around and under which the trail weaved. Eventually I passed into a trance, a peculiar zombie-consciousness in which I was aware only of the need to trudge on, and the contact of my boots with the ground was the lodestone of my thoughts. In moments of lucidity I picked moss off trees and inhaled its earthy fragrance. At last I reached the hut, the promised land, unpacked my bags, exchanged boots for sandals, and lounged languidly until my parents arrived. In a few hours we were all eating dinner with the other hikers and conversing with Erin and Matt. Fun to talk to—Erin because she’s an adorable girl with a lisp and a pleasant personality, Matt because he’s enthusiastic and witty. They live in Sydney, where we’re heading in two weeks; Erin seemed amenable to the idea of accompanying us for a day or two, which would not bother me in the least.

The forests we walk through are enchanted. Spidery, luminescent tendrils of moss dangle from tree-limbs; ferns blanket the ground; brooks bubble over pebbles and boulders; ribbons of sunlight pierce the tangled canopy above. This is the kind of setting that Shakespeare intended for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It’s a temperate rainforest.

December 21— Yesterday was not easy. I slept restlessly during the night and woke up at 7:00, my entire body aching. The day began with a two-hour climb to McKinnon Pass, though I reached it in 90 minutes or so at my forced-march pace. Precipitous ascent. Incredibly tiring, but the more exhausted I got the more alive I felt. The magnificent scenery heightened the impression: as when listening to Mozart or Chopin, I was cleansed of every impurity, everything inessential and animalistic. The view from the promontory was even more unbelievable: a feast of boundless natural delights. For example, cirrus cloud-impostors that were level with us continually appeared from behind a cliff and floated away on a curved path that followed the contours of the land—for they were only a few feet above the peak. They were a perpetually regenerated marshy mist whose source seemed deep within the earth. That sight was itself striking, but it was made even more so by the presence, several hundred meters away, of clouds that were frozen in space. In over an hour they didn’t move at all, even as the others were propelled at a stunning pace from creation to dissipation fifty feet above us. We also saw a Kea bird, which is an intelligent and mischievous parrot that knows how to unzip bags and snatch food before anyone is the wiser.

Our next stop was a small hut nearby, from which we could see the long, lush valley we had traversed the day before. (For the third day in a row, miraculously, the sky was blue and the sun shining.) From there we descended a thousand meters in three hours. That was hard, since the descent was not what you’d call smooth. Every step was a jolt. Nor could I slow down, with gravity pulling hard at my backpack. Jogged the whole way, the heat strangling me and wringing out rivulets of sweat. I also had the one obligatory fall, the result of which was luckily a mere scratch. Somehow my ankles remained intact the whole day. My thighs, calves, feet, knees, back and shoulders were the parts that suffered.

We ate lunch in a shaded alcove in the woods, next to a stream and a huge boulder. It was an ideal location, well hidden from the scorching heat and colored with several layers of a glowing phosphorescent green. I felt as though I had traveled back in time to Middle Earth. [...]

December 23— Yesterday, Queenstown. The first thing that Jay, Terry and I did was luge down a mountain twice. That was as fun as could be expected. Because the weather was gorgeous—again—we were able to savor the sight of the Remarkables, which is a jagged range of serried razor blades silhouetted against the sky.[1] In the evening we checked in at a hotel and learned that Erin and Matt were staying there too. Quite a coincidence. After our delicious dinner we went to a Maori concert downtown. The Maoris are the indigenous people in New Zealand; their importance for tourism is immense. An industry has developed around them, of which their music is a significant sector. The concert was smashingly entertaining. Six half-naked men provided the background music, most of which involved ear-splittingly loud grunts and foot-banging. They tried to look as fearsome and ugly as possible—for instance by sticking out their tongues and grimacing—and succeeded marvelously. The women provided the melody and most of the harmony—some of the songs were surprisingly lovely. During the intermission the men in the audience were called to the stage to be taught the basic moves and noises of Maori music—which are, of course, squatting and grunting. Jay and I participated; we were among the most boisterous of the fools onstage. After the concert we ate ice-cream and toured the blithesome streets of this tourist haven.

Today we wanted to raft down the Shotover river, but since the water-level had risen during the nocturnal torrent we had to cancel our plans. Maybe we’ll do it tomorrow. Instead my brothers and I spent an hour on a jet-boat. It was an excellent ride: fast, wet, rocky—every time we hit a wave we might as well have hit cement—and damned exhilarating. Fantastic views, as always. Later I lay in the sun, got suitably burned and walked home.

December 24— It’s sometimes hard for me to ‘appreciate’ natural beauty.[2] In an effort to remedy this situation I’ve devised several alternative methods to experience the environment. The common thread through most of them is to increase the number of senses that partake in the absorption of relevant stimuli. For example, I’ll bury my nose in dirt as I gaze at a valley, or I’ll listen to the second movement of Chopin’s E minor concerto as I look at snowcapped mountains. Another method is to close my eyes, imagine I’m about to see hideous concrete skyscrapers, and then open them to witness the ‘surprising’ sight of New Zealand’s phantasmagoric natural effulgence.

We woke up early this morning to raft the Shotover river. The weather, yet again, was incomparable. At 9:00 we struggled into our wet-suits and rode in a bus along Skipper’s Road, which is a winding avenue across sheer cliffs, constructed by gold-miners long ago. I can’t fathom how they were able to build it. (Greed conquers all obstacles.) Our raft was occupied by seven people: us and two Israeli men. The experience wasn’t wholly satisfying, since much of it consisted of paddling over long stretches of glassy, boring water. Moreover, all the rafts frequently had to land on beaches to deal with an inordinate number of accidents. One woman scratched her hand badly, several people lost their oars, one raft capsized—that was pretty cool—and so on. But there were some thrilling moments. When the guide yelled at us to “Get down and hold on!” we squatted in the center of the raft, held our breath, bowed our heads and yielded to fate. That moment of uncertainty was exciting, and one couldn’t help shouting gleefully as the waves crashed over us.

In the afternoon we left Queenstown. Staying now in a cute little backpacker’s place in Wanaka that reminds me of Paros (Greece): sun-soaked, whitewashed, laid-back, friendly, decorated with flowers. Attractive girls, too.

Prejudice against individuals and groups is akin to the tendency of some animals to segregate themselves. It is a fundamentally animalistic type of behavior. –I suppose my emerging worldview gets some of its inspiration from Nietzsche. “Animal, all too animal” is its motto. (“Tierisch[es?], allzutierisch[es?].”) It is a systematic rebellion against every human pretension to godliness; its purpose is to put us in our place in the vast scheme of things, yet in such a way as to avoid the temptations of nihilism and the unrestrained revolt against human dignity. It accepts Nietzsche’s central theme, even expands on it, while recognizing that it folds back on itself and thus makes inevitable a perpetual hovering between two positions, one of which we must courageously choose in order to have integrity. Either nihilism or a delicate balance between the animal and the ideally human. They are both difficult; I've chosen the latter because it permits me to live a more noble, ‘driven’ life.

December 26— Christmas did not feel like Christmas. No snow, no awful cold, no slushy streets, no garnished tree, no mountain of gifts. But it’s okay: at least the sun wasn’t shining. We went to “Puzzling World” in the afternoon. Entertaining, even fascinating—holograms are cool—but the cynosure was a shockingly sexy French girl traveling with her family. She was practically a force of nature. A glamorous, mascara-masked moviestar. That night we ate a tremendous potluck dinner with everyone at the hostel. I talked to a rotund Swiss girl with an appealing face for over an hour; she was delightful and friendly, but after our conversation lost momentum we floundered for a while and then I went to bed.

Today we took a ferry to Stewart Island. It was a remarkable ride: a virtual gale tossed the boat up and down, making me nearly seasick.

December 29— Dunedin again. Yesterday, weil das Wetter schön war, we trekked around Ulva Island, hoping to see a variety of birds. We didn’t. Steward Island was disappointing too: it doesn’t offer the breath-depriving vistas that the mainland does. One hasn't the opportunity to admire flecks of fuchsia tastefully arrayed along a stretch of mottled verdure. Why visit a part of New Zealand that suffers from a dearth of splendor?

December 30— Reading Hamlet. It has bowled me over. How can poetry be so pellucid and pithy at the same time? The immortal passages in which words are rhapsodic and wisdom is rapturous are ‘a consummation devoutly to be loved’. Language finds in them its apotheosis. I don’t know why my reaction to Macbeth was less extreme…but I’m ashamed not to have read more of Shakespeare’s plays by my age. No wonder I write like a hack! I haven’t assimilated the works of the greatest English bard in history! I’ll try to remedy this in the coming months.

December 31— Went to the Octagon downtown to celebrate the new year. A band was playing to a throng of Dunedinites. Hundreds of delectable girls in sexy outfits milled about the square—tasty morsels to a ravenous wolf like me, with lips dripping saliva and fangs eager to be sunk in flesh. But the devouring was left to my eyes rather than my mouth. One girl in particular caught my attention, an angel who works in the hair salon I visited at the beginning of my trip. She is gorgeous. I was ‘gobsmacked’ when I saw her supernal countenance. Strands of russet hair dangled below her eyes, hiding them behind a stringy veil of deliberately casual beauty. A Crawfordesque mole marked her cheek beside her lip, a couple inches southwest of her aristocratic nose. Her eyes were brown, deep, spirited. Imprinted on her face was the natural blush of vitality (no need for makeup). Her firm buttocks were traced by her skin-hugging skirt; as she walked they jiggled with the confident buoyancy of the self-assured object of lust. It pained me to watch her walk out of my life.

January 1, 2003— A couple days ago my brother and I toured the peninsula on a bus that took us to an albatross nesting site on a hillside bordering the Pacific. It is one of only two such sites in the world. For an hour we learned about these amazing birds and ogled them in their natural-artificial habitat, taking pictures, intruding on their privacy behind glass panes and, on the whole, behaving like paparazzi. But I think we had just cause. Albatrosses are unlike any other bird: they live for forty years (one we saw is still breeding at 62); they’re behemoths relative to their cousins, with a wingspan of three meters and a height of 1.5; during flight they have a majesty unmatched by other birds, gliding before the distended jowls of the wind; they have a nuanced language, a complex culture and a sharp intelligence. Their behavior has affinities to our own: they’re usually monogamous—I suppose in this respect they’re different from us—they have quarrels arising from a lack of reciprocity in the relationship between mother and father; teenagers attend ‘parties’ for three or four years, in which they jabber and show off,[3] with the purpose of finding a suitable lifelong mate—and sometimes these youths are so roisterous that the grumpy adults holler at them to shut up. Albatrosses are essentially seafarers, spending most of their lives circumnavigating Antarctica at speeds of 500 kilometers a day. No one knows how they find their way around it, for they don’t go within sight of land even once. Yet they always return to the same nesting area in the same week of the year! How is it possible?

Later we observed yellow-eyed pigeons, but that was anticlimactic. They’re comparatively stupid, though mildly attractive, and they don’t have the human interest of the albatross. Yesterday we meandered through the Botanic Gardens—an excursion marred by the presence of too many people. I would have enjoyed myself had I been alone and able to write. Maybe to poeticize on my surroundings, thus intensifying the experience. Schade.

I’m intrigued by the relativity of all things in nature. We see mountains as intrinsically large, but to a giant they’d be molehills. Trees would be fungi covering the ground, as what we call fungi are trees to an ant. Earth is unimaginably large to us, but to the galaxy it doesn’t even exist. How odd! –I’m sure there’s some deep insight to be gleaned from this, but I’m not the one to glean it.

The problem of morality has been distracting me lately. If there’s really no such thing as morality in the strict sense, an objectively necessary (in some way) code of behavior, how does it show a lack of integrity to act on this sometimes? Even if we usually abide by values and only occasionally transgress them, we’re being honest by consoling ourselves in such cases with the thought that nihilism is ultimately true. At the same time we can recognize that in order to live a good life it’s necessary to act on the basis of values most of the time—so we’re not being cowards by oscillating between the two extremes, because there are good reasons for both and therefore the oscillation is a symptom of honesty. On the other hand, it’s easy. So…what? Where do I go from here? Where has this reasoning led me? Which option will I arbitrarily choose? It’s easy, but it’s honest. Bad yet good. I won’t fall back on the ready-to-wear assertion that a desire for ease rather than honesty is my real motive, and hence that the vacillation is to be rejected, because I don’t know what my real motive is. “Real motive” is probably an untenable concept. (See Nietzsche.) So—I’m lost.

January 3— Yesterday we left Dunedin. It was sad to say goodbye to New Zealand, but I hope to revisit this land in the future. Its wilderness is one of Earth’s treasures, its towns are among the coziest I’ve visited, and its people are as friendly as any Eastern European I've met. I’m annoyed I didn’t see the north island.

We traveled the whole day, flying first to Sydney and then to Cairns. Though we reached our hotel at 11 p.m., the weather was muggy, hot and oppressive. ’Twas an ill omen. Today was the same quality with more quantity: unpleasant at 8:30, stifling at 2:30. But whatever. In the morning we rode in a shuttle to Kuranda, which was once an aboriginal village and is now an aboriginal tourist attraction. Our first order of business was to walk along a “Jungle Walk” beside a river. It was ‘of interest’, but not ‘of excitement’ or ‘of gratuitous beauty’, like New Zealand. It was jungly, though. Terry and I hunted for exotic insects, making several discoveries that are sure to have a far-reaching impact on entomology. For example, we learned that ants need not be black, red or brown, but can be green instead. We also observed a glittering fluorescent beetle in its unspoiled home on a railroad track. At one point I picked up a diminutive toad hopping across the path which we all dutifully admired for a moment, unaware that it was poisonous and we were flirting with temporary blindness. At last we returned to the village and the joys of aboriginal tourism, manifested in this instance as a marketplace where one could buy thousands of goods hand-carved and hand-painted by authentic real live dark-skinned natives. We bought a didgeridoo. Our next stop was Bird World. The flighted and flightless creatures on display were dazzlingly colorful. We were especially taken with a gigantic bird called the Cassowary, which seemed to have been teleported from the Jurassic period. It is supposedly the largest land animal in Australia—which sounds far-fetched. It is also one of the most awkward-looking: on the crown of its head is a jutting brown leathery helmet whose purpose I cannot fathom; the folds of flesh at the base of the back of its neck look like blood-red wrinkles in the brain; its head is arbitrarily attached to a disproportionately bulky body covered in hair rather than feathers, seeming to belong to another species altogether. The other birds made more sense.

We sailed along a sky-rail back to Cairns, which allowed us to view the jungle from above. The trip ended at the Tjapukai cultural center, which is a museum of—the aborigines! It was a damn letdown. We saw six unimpressive dancers, an embarrassing attempt to create fire aboriginal-style in front of an audience, a boring film explaining the outlandish autochthonic theories of creation, and a disturbing movie outlining the history of British barbarism as it affected the natives. I felt such rage as I watched it that I wished a Spartacus had led a wholesale massacre of the colonizers. “British justice and fair play”? What a revoltingly disingenuous slogan.

January 5— Yesterday was a life-experience. It’s not every day that one swims in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Early in the morning we and sixty other explorers boarded a ship that carried us to a designated portion of the reef. The sun tyrannized over the sky: its beams held dominion over all creation, electrifying the air, scorching the skin and slicing through waves to become spectral shards igniting corals. A prismatic world teeming with life was revealed to me when I dipped my face in its lucency. Underwater creatures swam and swayed with the current: fish of flaming blue, green, red, yellow, orange, violet and the iridescent derivative colors with names worthy of them; finger-like anemone, tentacles undulating so as to be nearly liquid themselves; coruscating coral of chiaroscuric neon tones seemingly unnatural. Muffled swishing and munching, mesmerizing and potentially soporific, perpetually resonated through an undersea Eden. My pores drank the ‘warm waters of Lethe’ and my mind grew drunk, as my body ceased its thrashing to partake in the blissful, tranquil isolation of the reef. I was in a magical and unreal world.

I snorkeled in two distinct sections of the reef, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Initially it was an uncomfortable sensation—the forced breathing, the large mouthpiece, the leaky goggles, the sore salty throat, the cumbersome flippers, the constant need to empty the headgear of water and cough out gobs of mucus—but with time I grew accustomed to it. Learned to flap my feet efficiently and could eventually swim for extended periods without raising my head. The afternoon was more satisfying than the morning because there was a greater variety of fish and by then I was used to the feeling of trusting myself to breathe underwater. I had to squeeze my nose the whole time to prevent water from dribbling into it.

In the morning I scuba-dived for half an hour. It was an eerie though wonderful experience. For the first few minutes I was a bit afraid—and came close to panicking at one point. All the elements of scuba-diving seemed to hem me in and oppress me: the deep breathing that was necessary to have enough air; the sluggish movement of my limbs; the irresistible urge to free my mouth of that damned device and really breathe, and the awareness that I’d probably drown as a result; the rasping sound of my breaths reverberating in my head; the difficulty in maneuvering. I was in a ghostly realm where everything occurred in slow motion. But I got the hang of it quickly. Felt some slimy soft corals with my hand and caused the hundreds of beady little eyes to shoot inward. Unfortunately it was hard for me to ‘appreciate’ such beauty, concentrating as I was on survival and the remarkable nature of the diving itself. Nor were the colors as resplendent as they are in photographs (though they approached that intensity when I snorkeled, since the water was shallower, brighter and clearer). –Be that as it may, during the course of the day I was taught to cherish the reef as one of the world’s great wonders. Its treasures are miraculous; you have to see them to believe them. If it’s allowed to wither out of existence, as it will if global warming continues at its present rate,[5] civilization will be deprived of one of those rare natural formations that make life worth living.

Looking at the sleek tanned bodies of half-naked women was an added pleasure. I felt quite hircine at times—had an overwhelming impulse to carry some of the girls into a bathroom. But I ended the day alone with my frustration, as usual. How long will this last?! Zeus must have it in for me, or Aphrodite. Whenever I see a pretty girl I see a mysterious fleshy cleft beckoning me.

January 8— We’re in a small town called Yungaburra. Spent most of the day driving here; our journey took us through a part of the Outback, which is the desolate expanse constituting most of Australia. The land was spattered with immense termite mounds that rose four feet off the ground and were rock-hard. Incredible. I was dumbfounded that such tiny creatures had built these crudely beautiful works of modern art. The achievement of Stonehenge not only pales but blanches in comparison. The infinite power of ‘mere instinct’ lay crystallized before our eyes. The complexity of the termite and ant hierarchy is, of course, another example of nature’s fine-tuning itself to create an uncannily human organization. I find these phenomena rather disturbing, in that no existing theory of evolution, surely, can fully account for them. (Not that religion has anything to say about the matter!)

We also admired a volcanic crater and a towering fig tree—the “curtain fig tree”, named for its appearance. In the evening we looked for platypuses in a river near our hostel, but not a single one surfaced. It probably wouldn’t have been an orgasmic experience anyway.

January 11— Like all cities, Sydney radiates a magnetic charge—both positive and negative. Unlike all cities, its architecture and its scenic background and its harbors and its plazas are magnificent—so its ‘charge’ is primarily positive. It has a European, Old World flair with an exuberance approaching Paris’. While it lacks inimitably charming cafes, marble palaces and the Champs-Elysées, it has a spirit of ebullience that draws its sustenance from buildings like the Town Hall, boulevards like George Street, harbors like the Darling, and street-performers like the comedic juggler we saw yesterday. It would take more than four days to tap the riches of this city. Unfortunately four days are all we have.

We arrived on the afternoon of the 9th. After unloading our bags at the Sydney Central YHA we ate dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown. A singer regaled us with Neil Diamond songs the whole time; after hearing one, we had heard them all. (Dana Carvey: “This is every Neil Diamond song you’ve ever heard…”) We then walked to Darling Harbor, where a Latin band was playing to a crowd of thousands. It was part of the Bacardi festival, which is part of the Sydney festival, which lasts the whole of January.

On the 10th we didn’t get started until the afternoon, for reasons I’ve forgotten. When we finally got our act together we went to the Sky Tower, the view from which extends to the Blue Mountains when they aren’t shrouded in fog, as they were yesterday. Later we walked through the Queen Victoria building—old-fashioned, “the most beautiful shopping center in the world”—the Strand Arcade and Martin Place. In the evening we saw the juggler on the Circular Quay, which is on Sydney Harbor. The Opera House, a masterpiece of modern architecture with some of the best acoustics in the world, is on the harbor as well. Everybody has seen photographs of this unique building; it’s world-renowned. The mere sight of it is memorable—but Jay and I saw an opera in it! And the opera was none other than Don Giovanni! It was a bit of a coincidence that this particular one was being performed, for I had remarked offhandedly the previous day that I'd like to see Don Giovanni here. We had no idea it was playing: we went into the lobby to check the schedule for upcoming events and noticed that Donny Johnny was set for that night at 7:30. It was 7:15 at the time. At 7:25 we learned that no more tickets were available, but at 7:28 we learned that that wasn’t true: two partial-view seats were left. Mom and Dad bought the tickets and then returned to the city with Terry, while Jay and I enjoyed three hours of Mozart. The singers were superb, especially the lead—Teddy Tahu Rhodes—whose voice was as mellifluous and sonorous as Josef Spacek’s, and Ali MacGregor (or Lisa Russell?), who played Zerlina. The set and costumes were in the style of the eighteenth century, which was a relief and a respite from the misguided trend to ‘modernize’ operas. It was a spectacular production, from start to finish. One theatrical flourish will be etched in my memory for a long time: when the Commendatore appeared behind the tall window at the beginning of the climactic scene and chillingly intoned the name of his murderer, the window collapsed into the stage at the moment that the two columns crashed onto the stage on either side of the Don. He cowered in the shadow of the spirit, hugging the road to perdition lined with the palatial ruins of his own rakish existence. The symbolism was both dramatically compelling and meaningful in its own right. Then the scene began in earnest, as demons from hell gallivanted around the set, Leporello leapt from corner to corner in sheer terror, Giovanni vied with the embodiment of doom through his heroically impious refusal to repent, the music grew increasingly impassioned and chaotic—though only on the surface; Mozart is never chaotic—and finally the trap-door gaped to swallow the evildoer in flames. It was a moving climax, but it would have given me shudders had our seats been closer to the action and afforded a view of more than two-thirds of the stage. Two-thirds isn’t bad, mind you, but it isn’t great. My chief bone of contention, however, was not with my seating but with myself: I couldn’t leave self-awareness by the wayside. I had to bear the burthen yet again, and my bliss was not uncorrupted. –But ‘be still’, my über-meditations and hypochondriacal delusions. Be still, my stuttering pen. You are as fertile as the Sahara desert.

January 15— This morning we flew in a seaplane from one of Fiji’s two main islands, Viti Levu, to a tiny paradise named Nanuya Lailai. Its neighbor is Turtle Island, which is where The Blue Lagoon was filmed. The water here is liquid glass, cooled to body temperature after melting. We’re staying on the side of the island that faces the ocean rather than the lagoon, but the atmosphere is the same: laid back and sheltered from the world. Outside events have no significance here; the natives live according to their own rhythm and routine, which is tranquil to say the least. Virtually no hint of Westernization taints their lifestyle, except the tourists who provide them with their livelihood. The burres, or (thatched) huts, in which we and they live have few modern conveniences. The small community neighboring ours (called Sunrise) has electricity and a radio, but Seaspray lives more primitively. After 7:30 we have to carry lanterns into the shower, into our huts and to dinner. The food isn’t wonderful; tonight’s supper included some kind of meat that wasn’t. But most of it is edible. The friendliness of the Fijians compensates for the inadequacy of their meals. The two young ladies who are the nieces of the couple that runs the place, Maria and Katarina, are shy but extremely kind, performing their duties diligently and spending the rest of the day giggling and whispering. Apparently they think Terry is cute: whenever he talks they laugh and chatter delightedly in their own language. Their aunt and uncle are personable hosts.

This environment in which one lounges and swims in the sun all day long is so foreign and provincial I don’t understand it. How can people live here? Don’t they get restless? Don’t they crave something new? (Maria does, from what I gather.) There is no Other to impress! My obsessions and ambitions would dissolve away if this island were my home, and my mind would probably lose its inquisitiveness. Or, more accurately, if I had been born here my mind would never have had the chance to fully mature. But I’d be incredibly bored nonetheless. –Yet to visit this island is an eye-opening experience. It makes me feel as though my usual thoughts are petty and miss the point of life. I suspect that Levin’s fascination with the peasantry [in Anna Karenina], typified in the famous mowing scene, springs from the same source. Such a life is simple, rustic and real.

January 16— At 5:00 yesterday we walked along the coast to the Blue Lagoon, guided by Daniel, who is the head honcho’s husband. The sand on the beaches is so fine as to feel like clay squishing through your toes. At one point Daniel shimmied up a palm tree, knocked some coconuts down and expertly carved two for us to eat. I didn’t relish the taste of either the soft or the hard meat, or the milk, although the soft meat was a tad more sapid. We reached the lagoon at 6:30, admired the cloudy sunset, and climbed a lot of hills back to our base. The journey was as beautiful and uplifting as we had expected, with one exception: Daniel showed us a site on which a resort will be built in a few years, marring the lagoon’s unspoiled appearance.

After dinner all the tourists watched a show performed by the natives, which featured them dancing and singing Fijian-style. The songs were surprisingly euphonic, with proper melodies and harmonies and a festive ‘joi-de-vivre’. After the concert they taught us two traditional Fijian dances—one involving couples, one not—and then we played ‘follow the leader’ in a thirty-person chain. I doubt that anyone present didn’t enjoy the evening. A halo shone around the near-full moon.

January 17— What a life these people lead! You have to see it to believe it—or rather, disbelieve it, for you can believe anything abstractly. Stranded on this isle—idyllic for a vacation but devilish for a home—they’re lazy and hardworking at the same time. Their drudgery lasts a good portion of the day, but the rest of the time they idle in the shade or the water, playing the guitar and singing love-songs. I don’t blame them: the heat is unforgiving. I wonder if they envy the ambassadors from the West who visit them continually.

January 18— We’re back in the Nadi Bay Hotel. At 11:00 p.m. we’ll board our flight home. In the meantime I’ll relate to you what we did on the 14th: we drove along the Coral Coast. Drove and drove and drove. The dirt road to Natadola beach extended into infinity but its preposterous underdeveloped convolutedness was amusing rather than annoying. We ate dinner at a restaurant whose dusky atmosphere was ‘fertile soil for the seeds of love’. But I was with my family, so my pleasure was asexual.

I’m fed up with the lie I live. It’s time to tread the primrose path of dalliance, recking not my rede (to quote Shakespeare). I should sip from the hedonism residing permanently in the dregs of my soul, conjure it to the level of appearance, tempt it with the succulent promise of raw pink flesh—transmute myself into a peripatetic libertine who fritters away his hours in profligacy refueled by a diet of literary and philosophical nourishment. (A daily soupçon of such sham saintliness ought to be sufficient to humor my deceived spiritual desires.) I am, after all, not terribly hard to look at—especially when graced with a Fijian tan—so it shouldn’t be difficult to find ladies willing to debauch themselves in my company. Just a few minutes ago I noticed one eyeing me greedily five or six times. She liked my brown skin, of course. (Vanity and self-delusion are fun.)

What struck me about the villagers was what strikes me about some Asians: they’re easygoing, trusting, and they don’t seem to adopt airs as often as Westerners. I suppose that the more worldly one is, the ‘harder’ one (usually) is. A social carapace grows, an exoskeleton that isn’t needed in village life. Many obvious reasons explain this phenomenon. It’s lucky that Fiji in the 1870s elected to join the British empire instead of the American. Had the latter country gained ascendancy over Fiji, the land would by now be partitioned into thousands of private properties, the islands forbidden to common folk and owned by Richard Evanson clones. (Evanson owns Turtle Island, on which no one is allowed except fourteen couples who pay $1000 a night.) England was fairer and juster.

The beauty of this world is devastating. Millions of sterile scientific facts cooperate to form a unity that includes such details as the blazing full moon sitting in the armpit of the palm tree in front of me. The moon revolves around the earth, a blue dusty object obeying dry Newtonian physics flavored with a pinch of Einstein, floating in the desolate vacuum of space two hundred thousand miles away, and it looks like that! What sheer spontaneous perfection! If I squint my eyes, everything but a circle of light is blotted out.

January 20— The traditional equation of the Good Life with moderation in all things is imprecise and wrong. Moderation = ‘morality’, propriety, the ‘good’ life. Intoxication = the Lived Life. Both are prerequisites of the Good Life, which consists of moderating intoxication such that it is distributed through all facets of being. Breadth is as necessary as depth, because life’s potential is as broad as it is deep. Great passion with many outlets, tempered by worthy values: that is my formula for the Good Life, much as I may not always abide by it. This awareness constitutes one side of my torment; the other lies in my uncertainty as to which values are best.

January 21— Bach’s Prelude in C minor, BWV 999,[5] as transcribed for guitar, has a wavering, wraith-like, waif-like, lonely, dreamy quality, as though it doesn’t quite exist or is an outcast from the world. It’s a musical vignette, a story of sweet sadness, with a quiet wisdom lulling from behind the plucked tones. The repetitive pattern so exquisitely Bachian, ebbing and flowing in the minor key for eighty seconds, prepares the partaker for the unexpected major third—and the following three chords—as a pregnant woman is prepared for the birth of her child after nine months of waiting. That single note is the rustling of the silken undergarments on a teary-eyed virgin deep within the soul of her lover. It is the soundlessness of Venice at dawn. It is the surcease of strife and the end of history.

[1] I write that last phrase not because I want to add an artificial poeticism to the sentence but because the mountains, when they’re viewed from a distance, look like a two-dimensional cutout superimposed on the sky. [2] The reasons are that I have mediocre eyesight and I forget to wear glasses. But I’ll be less absent-minded now that I remember how much more attractive the world is when I can see it. [3] We witnessed one of these gatherings from behind the window. I might as well have been watching humans transformed by Circe into birds. [4] Higher water temperatures have already killed much of the reef—and the fish feed on the corals, so they’re dying too.

[5] [Unfortunately I can't find a very good version on YouTube]



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