(from college and such)
Excerpts from a few weeks in New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji
December 15, 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 is 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 cafes. 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 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.
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 will be worth the effort (and the back pains). ‘Majesty’ is what comes to mind when I look at the snow-peaked glacial remnants.
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. We 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. I swam to the base of the waterfall and gazed upward—a beautiful sight. So far it was the best part of the day. After an hour we resumed our march, refreshed and ready for more challenges. Jay walked so far ahead we didn’t see him again until the evening, but ‘I—I took the road less traveled by, and that made all the difference.’ More precisely, I got lost. Wandered ahead of my parents and accidentally took a detour from the main path, which consisted in climbing a long, steep stairway of loose rocks in a swiftly moving river. With my heavy backpack it was by no means an easy task, but it was the highpoint of my day. The challenge forced me to concentrate all my mental energy on not slipping into the stream, which caused me to stop wondering whether I was experiencing appropriate emotions. It was immediate and intense. I loved it. But when I was halfway up, my parents reached the base and, seeing me hiking on relatively dangerous terrain, yelled at me to descend. For a moment I ignored them: I was screeching coyote calls at the sky, enjoying my ‘animal spirits’—my ‘animus strenuus.’ But when I realized they had a good point, 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 featured 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. Finally 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.
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 was 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 one 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 a mere scratch. Somehow my ankles remained intact the whole day. My thighs, calves, feet, knees, back and shoulders were the parts that suffered. But I loved it. I’m a masochist.
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. Afterwards Terry and I continued walking together. As the day wore on, our trek grew more tiring and I found myself stumbling and my vision blurring. The experience ceased to be as perversely pleasurable as it had been. At last we reached an open field, swarming with sandflies, whence there was a detour to Sutherland Falls. We grabbed our swimsuits and walked the half-hour to the roaring waterfall, I not realizing I had forgotten to grab my sandals. When I did realize it, it was too late. Because I wasn’t eager to get my boots as sopping as they had been the day before, we didn’t venture behind the falls, as we’d planned. Instead we crossed the river and walked into the thick of the mist…which resulted, of course, in the soaking of my boots. Soon after, we returned to the building housing our bags, attempted to dry our shoes in the sun, failed, donned our packs, and continued the forced march to the hut. This last segment was pure misery—an hour of something approximating hell. Because it was already (“already”?!) after 6:30 I didn’t want to stop to rest, so the whole walk was essentially a postponed fall, a pitching-forward. Finally we reached the hut, only to be consumed alive by sandflies. Three hours later I was in bed; fifteen minutes after that I was asleep.
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 doesn't have 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?
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. Infusing her cheeks 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 forever.
Two 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, 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 saw 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 Terry. 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.
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 pathetic 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 phrase.
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 luminaries swam and swayed with the current: fish of flaming blue, green, red, yellow, orange, violet and the iridescent derivative colors; 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. I 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 I was by then used to the unusual 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, from 8 to 5, 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, civilization will be deprived of one of those rare natural formations that make life worth living. I want to save animals not for their own sake but for ours.
Ogling 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.
We’re in a small town called Yungaburra. We 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. Surely no existing theory of evolution can account for them satisfactorily.
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.
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—and 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 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 minor 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 Don John 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 years: 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 down 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.
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, excepting 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. They perform their duties diligently and spend 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 that 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 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.
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.
We’re back in the Nadi Bay Hotel. At 11:00 p.m. we’ll board our flight. 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 hard 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 necklace and my brown skin, of course. (Ha, vanity is fun.)
What struck me about the villagers was what strikes me about some Asians: they’re easygoing, trusting, and they don’t adopt airs as often as Westerners. They’re almost naïve. 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 gray 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.
Excerpts from time in South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand
June 24, 2004
[Went on a short trip with a couple of female friends to the South Korean island Jeju.] I’m back. Too tired to rehash all the details. We climbed Mt. Halla (a volcano), walked through caves made of petrified lava, went to parks, beaches, waterfalls and traditional villages. The weather gods doted on us until today, when a storm killed our plans to see the little island of Udo. While Jeju’s beauty, culture and whatever don’t compare with those of most countries I’ve been to, it does have majesty and charm and more attractions than any other place in Korea. (So much the worse for Korea.) We spent most of our time driving—well, the girls drove; I don’t have an international license. Those hours on the road were hard for me. Eun-sung is the worst driver I’ve ever encountered, Hyo-jung the second worst. We almost crashed a dozen times, almost ran over a little girl once, didn’t park the car correctly more than five times or so. My eyes were riveted to the road ahead of us the whole time, as much to prepare myself for the inevitable crash as to point out to the driver that we were in the wrong lane and a car was speeding for us headlong. By the way, this was the first time I’ve experienced the wonders of the GPS navigation system. We had only to touch a few numbers on a remote control and there would appear on the small screen in front of us the route we had to take from our present location to our destination! When we had to make a turn a tinny voice would tell us so! I was blown away. How—how is that possible?? How is such technology possible? Am I to believe that a satellite orbiting Earth is watching us, able to pinpoint our precise location and send us electronic directions through the atmosphere every half-a-second? I’m pleased that maps are going out-of-date, since I’m incompetent at reading them, but I’m frightened that we humans are fast losing our ability to operate independently of machines—partly because independence is fun—as it’s fun and satisfying to plan a trip while huddled over an old map uncrumpled on the kitchen table—and to have need of a (human) navigator in the passenger seat—and to have the stress of getting lost in an unfamiliar country and having to rely on your own wits to save yourself.
The companionship on this trip could have been closer, and would have been had we spoken the same language—and wasn’t, I’d like to think, only because we don’t speak the same language—but it wasn’t all ‘them against me’:—we talked a lot, joked, suffered almost no awkwardness—though often I was irritated at being ignored by Eun-sung, who’s less friendly and more moody than Hyo-jung—and whose prima facie unpretty face grew in ugliness as unpleasant character-traits manifested themselves—but she always returned to gaiety after the clouds had passed—as societies pass through upheavals and catastrophes like those that happened to Rome in 69 (I was just reading a history of it) but always return to stability in the long run—the Shakespearean theme that’s truer than his idea that murderers are tortured by their consciences—for they aren’t, unless they’re Raskolnikov or Macbeth—and that is, I suppose, why they become murderers in the first place. But getting back to the trip….what made the greatest impression on me was the Yakcheonsa temple, which we saw at night: its size was “heavenly” (to quote Schumann’s judgment of the length of Schubert’s great piano sonata), but that wasn’t its most awesome aspect—or rather, none was, in isolation, for all its aspects—its size, its artistry, the gold leaf on the walls, the silence inside as old women knelt to pray on cushions and stood up to bow to the giant Buddha and knelt again and stood up again hundreds of times (literally), the semi-nirvana that washed over me as I washed away into nothingness and prayed and bowed myself to enter fully into the spirit of the place—all these things, taken together, were over-awesome and made the experience what it was—a sudden and shocking refascination with Buddhism, with escape from noise and strife, which those old disabled women had left behind in the simplicity of their faith in those moments of undegrading, dignified prostration before the smiling idol on the altar—so dignified, so voluntary in comparison with the abject submission to God and Prejudice sermonized in most Christian churches, where there’s a mediator between the high and the low (despite the pretensions of Protestantism) who somehow by his mere existence detracts from the human dignity (autonomy) of people who could have a direct relationship with nirvana if they so chose by worshiping in the cacophonous silence of temples rather than communally in the sanctimonious air of good God-fearing citizens being harangued by a holy fool who by forcing his own (bigoted?) ideas on them saves them from the hardship of having to work things out for themselves. I wanted to spend hours in the temple, but the girls wanted to leave after a few minutes. When I’m an old man—when the “passions of youth” have subsided and the time is right for tranquility—I’ll write my own interpretation of Buddhism and become a revisionist Buddhist myself.
One of my early impressions of Vietnam: people don’t make love here. They don’t do something as beautiful and romantic as making love. Instead they rut. In the dirt. The heat, the filth, the poverty, the masses teeming like maggots. It’s a rutting culture.
But first impressions are one-sided, often meaningless. Hanoi is…. I don’t know. What is Hanoi?— Thousands of motorcycles on every street weaving and dodging pedestrians who are weaving and dodging motorcycles. Drivers chasing tourists yelling “Hello! Motorbike?”—most taxis aren’t cabs. Vendors beckoning you incessantly to rip you off if they can. Opportunistic friendliness. Few English-speakers. A sprawling confusing Old Quarter from colonial times with crumbling European architecture—kept nice-looking in parts—and narrow streets and few traffic lights. Organized chaos. Every man for himself—good luck not getting run over! Astonishment at the ability of this city to function. —The invisible hand guides human pawns even here.— Sultry weather that doesn’t deaden the vitality that seeps from their pores like sweat. Great palpable crystallized love of life around every corner in the gutter and the wrinkles on the elderly and the cigarette smoke. A determined optimistic carpe diem character like Lisbon’s.
I’m staying in the Old Quarter—haven’t been anywhere else—don’t care to see ugly communistic capitalism—living on a street with lots of vendors selling toys. A man nearby is playing with a wooden life-like snake on the street; two girls screeched and jumped when they saw it. People here are fascinated with toys.
What seem to be peasants walk with their conical wicker hats carrying a device over their shoulders—a stick with rope from each end on which hangs a bucket on each side that they put fruits and vegetables in. Men pedal things like rickshaws alongside cars (which are rare) and motorcycles. Old Europe in the buildings and new/old Vietnam in the streets. –This country is a collision of worlds.
September 21: explored the neighborhood—took motorbike to the lake—walked to Dan chu hotel for hour-long naked massage. My guesthouse manager (my age) asked about my plans—I said I had none—he suggested three or four places to visit and said he’d arrange the trips—I was hesitant but he pushed and pushed and finally convinced me—so I gave him $400 to pay for all the train, bus and plane tickets he was to schedule. Friendly guy. “You like boom-boom?” he asked. “What do you mean? What’s boom-boom?” “With a girl…”—various gestures. “Oh. Yeah that’s fun.” “I go to nightclub. Boom-boom. You want to come?” “Uhh…okay…maybe later.” No thanks.
Took overnight train Monday evening to the coastal town of Hoi An. Met a Malay and two Brits at the station. Friendly people but typical budget travelers: pushy, rude to natives and maniacal about saving a buck. I followed them around the hotel neighborhood for an hour as they sniffed out the cheapest place. Had I been alone I’d have chosen the first one I saw, as I usually do. (Bargaining is another thing I’m bad at. Money matters so little to me that I have trouble acting serious enough to insist on a low price.) I haven’t seen them since we got our rooms. Wanted to be alone—didn’t like their control-freakish style—and hate all groups anyway. Uneventful evening. Didn’t explore much of the town. –By the way, the reason Hoi An is worth seeing is that it used to be the main international port in Southeast Asia, 500 years ago. So it was a crossroads for the Chinese, Portuguese, French etc. cultures. The old section is famous and why I came. –At night the locals had their autumn festival—a 2- or 3-day celebration around the country—in honor of those days’ being the exact middle of the something in the lunar calendar—good timing for my trip b/c the festival is a great chance to see the "natives" let loose. I saw it in Sapa—more on Sapa later—and Hanoi—more on Hanoi later—and now here. As I was eating dinner some guys playing drums and cymbals marched past, an elaborate dragon composed of 2 costumed men dancing in front of them. Several dragons, actually. They stopped walking and performed for a crowd, impressively twirling and jumping and rearing like horses. The guy in the front was the head and neck, the (crouching, hidden) guy in the back the arse. Wearing golden, red, blue, green… cloths. The Vietnamese crowd just ate it up. They liked it more than the tourists did! For hours the show went on—actors taking turns to catch their breath—the procession (with its huge entourage) marching ten steps, then performing for ten minutes (drumming and dancing), then marching ten more steps and so on, making its way around the town. The daredevils climbed on each other’s backs until there were three levels, the top being the head half of the dragon twisting and barely keeping his balance, potentially falling face-first onto the cement. But the dangerous part was a different set of acrobats nearby breathing fire out of their dragon costume. You know, that thing you’ve seen a thousand times with the torch and the gasoline-drinking and the spitting it at the fire. The spectators were enthralled like no one I’ve seen in the West. They were most delighted when the head caught fire and the spitter threw it down from his perch on shoulders into the crowd, where, still flaming, it was kicked around and trampled on by bare feet and could have caused a tragedy. The people laughed and cheered and didn’t give a hoot that it was fire they were kicking at each other. Then it was doused and the danger started all over again, the mask eventually catching fire and being thrown into the crowd. No policemen around. The behavior of the masses was exactly the opposite of what it would have been in all but the most insane Western social gatherings. Even grandmothers were screaming with glee. I was like ‘Hey people—you know—that flamy orange stuff there—that’s, um—that’s fire—you might wanna stay away from it.’ But I learned that at the heart of this culture, despite poverty and oppression and the past, is a carefree Latinish love of fun and pushing the boundary. (I guess that used to be at the heart of our culture too (sort of), but in this age of litigation and political correctness it’s been mostly killed.) Developing Southeast Asian countries tend to have that optimistic character, it seems.
Ultra-heat today. I walked through the Old Town drenched. Extraordinary number of art galleries. On the river, boats similar to the one in Apocalypse Now that has the puppies and the Vietnamese who are killed by Martin Sheen’s gunners floated, waiting for tourists. As always, everybody wanted to sell me something and I had to say no to each person ten times—you think I exaggerate—before he’d leave me alone—and as it was I gave away a lot of money out of compassion. Saw some Chinese architecture—two communal buildings or meeting-places or temples or something—in courtyards—peaceful and indescribably beautiful. Later I rode a bike three miles to the beach on the South China sea. Palm trees, white sand, the soughing of the gentle water—old ladies walking around wearing heavy clothes and wide-brimmed hats as protection against the sun selling pineapples and bracelets and blankets. Whole pineapples that they cut up and carved in front of you and you ate like an apple with an irregular shape.
Bangkok. Exploring the area around Wat Po (which is a temple with a colossal reclining Buddha, symbolizing his passage into nirvana). It’s more incredible than anything South Korea has [where I had been for a year], but it doesn’t really impress me—almost nothing does—I’m as hard as the tile-fragments that encrust the roofs of the temples—and everything I see reminds me of what I don’t have [a girlfriend]—and I’m just wandering around because that’s what I’m supposed to do, and my heart isn’t in it. Tonight I’ll take a bus to the southern beaches and islands of Thailand. I arrived here yesterday. Bangkok isn’t as crazy as Hanoi—well, it’s very different—and more Western from what I’ve seen, with more and better restaurants, and more cultural attractions, so I like it better. A taxi drove me to various sites, waiting as I looked at them—and offered to take me to a massage parlor, showing pictures that made my mouth water—but I have no interest in prostitution—loveless love—so I turned it down.
Sunday, October 17
Nothing to do, so I’ll jot down memories of the days I didn’t write about.
September 22: took a bus in the morning to Halong Bay. Vietnamese tour guide, woman, aged 27, married, cute, is permanently in my memory as having the most personality of any Asian girl I’ve met. Bearabilized the cramped trip in a bus bursting with fifteen people’s luggage by singing for us, talking about herself and asking each of us to introduce ourselves--which would have been the tedious “My name is so-and-so, I’m from this place, I have a job as such-and-such, I’m in Vietnam for this amount of time…” if she hadn’t intuited our not-caring-about those details and instead interrogated us on our relationships past and present and advised that we acquire Vietnamese girlfriends because they’re devoted and they like handsome Western men and besides it’s good to “experience” the women of every country you go to--and she herself is often tempted to sleep with Western men but has to remind herself that she has a husband--and her observations on the appearance and personality of each of us were consistently incisive and funny. We split up at the ferry; she went with another group. Three Aussies and I were placed together--talkative guys; we had a good time--along with a bunch of people we hadn’t met, mostly Japanese. I don’t know how the bay was formed, but it’s unlike anything else in the world: hundreds of towers of stone and small mountains covered with foliage jut out of the water, little islands arbitrarily stuck here and there, a majestic sight especially when you’re reclining in a chair on top of the ferry under a radiant sky listening to Handel on your headphones. The boat stopped for a while so we could swim in the saltiest water I’ve ever tasted--or maybe Fiji’s was worse. I followed the others in jumping off the top of the boat once, twenty or thirty feet high--not easy for me--I’m still surprised I overcame the reluctance of my gut. We also walked through an enormous cave that had sheltered the Viet Cong’s wounded during the American War as bombs were dropped all around outside: it must have been pitch-black and terrifying. And now thirty years later it’s a tourist site. Everything yields to tourism in the end (meaning ‘eventually’ and--in the end). The ceiling of the cave was rippled like water, with aspiring droplets frozen in stone. We stayed in a hotel somewhere on Cat Ba island.
September 23: went back across the bay, took a bus to Hanoi. It made a stop at something like a handicraft manufactory, where sixty girls sat at tables creating paintings in thread, heedless of the swarming tourists who watched them and walked around the adjoining shop that sold thousands of products they’d made. One girl noticed I was looking thoughtfully at some bracelets and came over to sell me one. Spoke good English. Petite, warm-hearted, friendly, lovely; she asked where I was from, how old I was, whether I had a girlfriend--the stock questions--but with more interest than I’d come to expect. A fondness for her grew in me and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving in a few minutes. Instantaneous emotional connection between us. I said I was in Vietnam for only ten days; she wished I could stay forever. I wished I could take her home with me--and later I wished I’d said so. My remaining hour on the bus was defined by sadness. That evening I rode a night train to Sapa. The Korean girl in my compartment was shocked to learn I spoke her language.
September 24: Sapa is a poor town in the north of Vietnam near the Chinese border. A mountainous region. I arrived at 6:30, ate breakfast in the hotel, and was assigned a guide who would lead me and two Japanese on a hike that day and the next. Hundreds of little kids from tiny neighboring villages ran around the town in their colorful tribal clothes selling trinkets to tourists, speaking English well--having learned it from the tourists themselves, school being not a very serious pursuit in the middle of nowhere. While hiking I saw a couple of schoolhouses--I think that’s what they were--near the villages several hours away, but they were so small and dilapidated that I’m sure not much learning goes on there. That day my group walked two miles into a valley and out the other side. On the way down, as we grew distant from the vestiges of civilization in Sapa, we passed a single family’s home, a corrugated-roofed two-roomed hut with no beds, no kitchen, no bathroom that I saw, and a porch where a young mother was holding her baby and a grandmother and three or four other people were sitting. It seemed inappropriate to invade their home like this, with the guide explaining to us in his Englimese their customs and how they lived. But I soon realized they appreciated our presence: it was a chance for them to sell the bracelets and necklaces they’d made. For fifteen minutes they trapped us inside their house and reiterated robotically the one phrase they knew and could barely pronounce: “Hello you want this, hello you want this, hello you want this, hello you want this.” When I said no and tried to turn away they grabbed me and out came “Hello you want this.” It was impossible to discourage them. Finally I bought something from one, which encouraged the others who redoubled their efforts--the guide just standing in the background oblivious to our desperation. Somehow we pried ourselves from them.
The landscape reminded me of New Zealand, but on a larger scale. The terraces on the mountainsides covered in yellow stalks of rice added a human element to the grandeur. Hundreds of terraces everywhere, golden horizontally and green vertically, steps nearly to the summits of hills, perfectly geometrically regular, carved by plows pulled by oxen, a periodic human figure wading in the grass to harvest the rice. Beside the river running through the valleys stood men shaking bowls of rice to separate the chaff in the wind. The whole scene was from a different time, an epic time, though rumblings of tractor-trailers and jeeps and dynamite explosions in the cliffs where a road was being built proved that modernity reaches even into the bowels of the wilderness.
The next morning I was sick. Contemplated staying in bed and skipping the six-hour hike, but that didn’t seem right. So we set off at 9:00. Soon I realized I’d made a mistake. The terrain was rough and it rained off-and-on and I didn’t have an umbrella or a jacket. Hour after hour dragged by as I worsened, barely able to walk. Aching muscles, fatigue, runny nose, fever, nausea, chills, hacking cough. Staggering along absorbed all my energy, so I couldn’t talk. We passed villages and a lot of cultural oddities I took no notice of. At lunch I suggested I had malaria; one of my companions agreed and put forward many arguments in support of it. I had all the symptoms; I was in a malaria-infested region; I hadn’t taken my pills (left them in Korea); I remembered being bitten by a large mosquito the previous day, and he said it was only large mosquitoes that carried the disease (probably bullshit). Finally we made it to the jeep that drove us for an hour on a distressingly narrow road along a cliff back to town. The weather was cold and I was shivering uncontrollably and beginning to have serious worries. Told the guide I thought I had malaria; he didn’t understand. (His English was far from perfect.) Told him I wanted a blood test; his response was “Buh-lut? What? Buh-lut?” He took me to a pharmacy where I bought medicine. But I insisted on going to the hospital. Was in a foul mood and desperate to find somebody I could talk to. He took me to Sapa’s hospital, which seemed more like a place to die than to get healthy. Fairly large--an open-air building with a courtyard in the middle and two floors--but almost empty and very unsanitary. After roaming through hallways looking for a doctor we found a nurse who said he’d gone home for the night. Yes. The one doctor was gone, leaving his patients to fend for themselves. With gestures I told her I wanted a blood test; she showed me to a room and asked me to wait. On the counter was a stray needle and small bottles of medicines, like morphine. My guide asked me which I wanted. I stared at him in disbelief. I was supposed to choose my own medicine, which would be administered on me by that lone needle, and which I didn’t even want in the first place. “No medicine! Blood test! Take blood out! Blood!” Gestures simulating extraction. “Buh-lut?” The nurse came back and took my temperature. More discussion between them, more anger from me, more uncommunication between us. Finally I left. Rode a motorbike to the hotel. But first went on the internet to learn what I could about malaria. None of the information was reassuring until I read that it takes at least seven days for the symptoms to appear. In my case there’d been only one day. Phew! That night I heard drums and yelling on the streets: the autumn festival. The receptionist wanted to go to a bar with me but I was stuck in bed for fifteen hours.
September 26: hiked again with two Israeli girls and a Kiwi guy. Still sick but not as much. More of the same sights. Villagers shrunken and prematurely aged from malnutrition. 30-year-olds looking like 50-year-olds. But friendly and cheerful. Chickens and naked little boys hopping around. Great open spaces in the valley--a lot of farmland, where men were harvesting crops--and occasional villages with eight or so homes, people waving to us outside or watching TV inside--in houses that barely had places to sleep and nothing but a hole in the ground for a bathroom, and no toilet paper. (Strange priorities they have.) Took a train to Hanoi that night--worse than a Portuguese train, slower and more cramped. Ate prison food for breakfast: plain rice, leaf soup and bean sprouts.
Asked the guide if villagers get married and where they have sex in such close quarters. If I understood rightly, he said that on the weekend there’s a “love market”: young girls and boys come to town and display themselves to each other. If they like what they see they go off to rut--I don’t know where--and if the girl is impregnated they get married. I wasn’t satisfied with that explanation but couldn’t understand anything else he said. --That custom certainly has the benefit of simplicity. None of this complicated “relationship” crap.
Well, anyway, after a year in Asia I'm headed back to a foreign land, to America and its wonderful mass alienation. Can't wait.