Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bubble Boy

Don't know what the guy on the left is so excited about - I was the one who rolled down the hill in the big plastic bubble.

It's called Zorbing. Extreme? Not really. Extremely silly for sure. And well worth the 44 bucks.

Are you a traveller's friend?

It occurred to me a while back that the most prized thing for any traveller in a new town is a friend. If you are lucky enough to have one already, or at least have a contact name so that you can make a new friend (as has been the case for many of the places we've visited), then great - but that's not always going to be the case. Another great way to make friends is through Bookcrossing - we met Anne, Liz, Barbara, Aoife at the Wellington Bookcrossers meeting. And if you're very lucky indeed you'll come across gems like Di in Wellington.

But people like Di are a rare breed. There are many like her who feel a solidarity with strangers who are traveling (very often, they are travellers themselves), but there are very few indeed who would act on it spontaneously as she did. I wonder if there isn't some way of making it easier.

If you are reading this blog entry, and consider yourself the kind of person who likes to meet new people, show them the ropes in a new town, and swap travel stories over a coffee, let me know by commenting or emailing (brendan dot lawlor at gmail dot com). It's possible that there's a niche out there for a web-based service to exchange contact details between travellers to, and residents of, various cities around the world. When we get back to Ireland, I'd like to think that we could help somebody traveling there to orientate themselves, especially if they are in a similar situation to our one now (i.e. travelling with kids). Maybe you think the same way?

I know that Couchsurfing has an option to just offer a coffee rather than a place to stay, but the name and idea behind that site probably scare off most of my age. Dopplr has a "Who lives in this city" tab but doesn't allow you to meet anyone you don't already know. Perhaps there's something already out there that can do this - let me know if you have found it. I'd love to use it!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Walking on Fire, but not on Air. Yet.

When Nina was celebrating one of her earlier birthdays - probably fourth - she and her friends were running round the front garden when it started to rain. Letizia called from the house - "It's raining out there!!". Nina responded by rounding up her friends "It's raining out the front garden. Quick. Everyone round to the back garden."

We laughed at the time of course, but we've been playing a larger scale trick for the last month or so on the South Island. "It's raining East of the Alps - quick - let's head West". And it has by and large worked. We've seen a bit of rain, but nothing sustained, and nothing that didn't clear up about 100km into any given trip. Our luck has finally run out.

The last 4 nights - 2 in Taupo and 2 here in Rotorua have been rainy. Though we've dodged the worst of the showers (more though luck than planning) and succeeded in getting out and about, there was no getting around the fact that this was not jumping weather. Certainly not with a parachute, and probably not even a bungy. But don't count us out quite yet. The bungy site in Taupo is gorgeous. It's so beautiful that I've been overtaken by the desire to do it myself. It's only an hour back down the road, and if the Sunday weather forecast is what it promises (and we don't chicken out) we'll celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary by chucking ourselves off a cliff. Can you think of a better way?

In the meantime, our South Island glacial walk is being tidily balanced with a series of North Island geothermal experience. New Zealand lies, tectonically speaking (ahem), right along the line between the Australian plate and the Pacific Plate. As the Pacific pushes under the Australian it formed the Southern Alps and so indirectly the glacier we walked along. The action that has generated so much ice in the South Island creates fire in the North. Taupo, and even more so Rotorua, are bubbling, steaming, sulphurous centers of seismic, geothermal and volcanic instability. Every town we've visited since leaving Wellington has experienced some cataclysmic event thanks to the fault lines that lie below. Napier was wiped out by a 1931 earthquake, an eruption deleted an entire Maori town just over a hundred years ago near Rotorua, and Lake Taupo itself fills in a dormant caldera that when it last exploded about 1800 years ago, left its stroke in the writing of the Chinese and Romans, by means of a global ashen mark in the sky.

The signs of this volatility are everywhere. When you drive outside of Taupo, steam pours out of the greenery and across the road near the geothermal electricity generation station (7% of NZ's electricity is generated this way). Nearby, the Craters of the Moon Geothermal Walk offered us a way to get a closer look, and smell. But far more spectacular is the Wai-o-Tapu (Sacred Waters) site, 30km outside of Rotorua. We visited this today, luckily without getting rained on, and enjoyed scenery that until now I would not have said belongs on Earth. Letizia has taken some fantastic pictures, a few of which I've nicked. Don't tell her! Mind you, what's she gonna do? Chuck me off a cliff...? Oh.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Best Day So Far (Apparently)

"That was the best day of the trip so far" said Nina, with the typical exaggeration and amnesia of a nine-year-old. With so many UNESCO World Heritage sites under our belt, with Beijing, Sydney, Fraser Island and Fox Glacier still bearing 'Wet Paint' signs in my own mind, why in god's name did she choose Napier, pretty though it is, as The Best? You tell me.
Out of the various options Napier had to offer, Nina nad Sara chose the playground and Marine World. Letizia and I chose a self-guided tour of the Art Deco buildings, and the Earthquake Museum (Napier was flatted in 1935 by an 8.6 quake and subsequently rebuilt in an almost uniform Art Deco style).

The playground turned out to be what Italians call a 'pacco' - a waste of time, something that doesn't deliver on its promise. A disappointment. It was relatively new, wit a quirky design that looked well against the Art Deco backdrop of the town. But it was ill-concieved and badly maintained. The girls squeezed what they could from it, but left knowing that, given the glowing reports we had received, it should have been better.

They endured the Art Deco tour before falling gratefully upon Marine World, fuelled with stories of being able to hold penguins. These girls have fed wild dolphins in Tangalooma, and seen dozens of them surf the bow waves of the catamaran on Milford Sound. They've seen truely spectacular synchronized dolphin shows in the Gold Coast. Napier's Marine World, on the face of it, should have been a let down. But that same childhood amnesia and fixation with the here and now prevailed. They loved the tricks of the single, ancient dolphin called Kerry. And although they've seen fur seals in the wild on at least 3 occasions here in New Zealand, they still adored the pup that was taken for walkies around the thin Winter crown that lay scattered about the small poolside terraces. The half-hearted applause sounded like piss dribbling out of a bucket onto concrete, but that didn't diminish their enthusiasm. And at the end of the show, they did get to hold a penguin; a Little Blue called Alfred who was missing one eye and blind in the other. An admission-paying parent might mistake this for a 'pacco', and a pathetic one at that. But Nina and Sara, as they posed with the shivering bundle (penguins, the girls reminded me, shiver from warmth rather than cold) just felt how good the moment was.

We duely visited the museum where the girls remained unmoved by an old lady's filmed testimony of the earthquake, whereas I was close to tears. But they were just words from an old lady with a lot of makeup. Words are rarely enough for kids.

After our relatively busy day, we relaxed in the hostel for a few hours. I tried to read but failed; I was dragged to the pool table where my daughters found themselves in unquestionable need of help (this was their first time playing pool) but unwilling to properly accept it. "We'll just use our own rules, Daddy". When I challenged Letizia to a game, and discovered that it was also her first time, Nina and Sara looked on, in open-mouthed thrall of their father's consummate skill. I'm a below-average player of pool. Well below average. I should have been a 'pacco'. I know that I'm a 'pacco'.

We ate dinner in a Mongolian BBQ, where most appealing characteristic for the girls was the unlimited supply of icecream and soft drinks that came with the meal. Letizia and I are unashamed hard-asses when it comes to eating healthily, but every now and then we ignore our own rules. Afterwards, we walked back to the hostel joking about all the funny made-up words the girls used by mistake just a few years ago (they love stories about when they were younger). And this was the contented atmosphere in which Nina proclaimed this to be The Best Day So Far.

More often than not, I don't respond in the positive to my daughters' requests to play. I'm stuck in a book, talking to Letizia, or worse - working on this stupid blog. Too often, I am missing one eye, and blind in the other. But not today. Today I played pool, joined in, laughed - I might even have skipped at one point. I did enough today for my amnesiac daughters to forget the fact that their father is often something of a 'pacco', and they just felt how good the moment was.
If it's this easy, this inanely, embarassingly easy to make them happy, why the hell can't I manage to do it every day?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Micro Blogging

I've finally given up and signed up for Twitter. To those who already know about Twitter and just don't get it - I know! Me neither! For those who don't know what twitter is, consider it like a micro-blog, where you can send a small message (140 characters) just to let your friends/colleagues/wardens know where you are and what you are doing. The limited size and format of the messages means that you can send text messages from your mobile phone to twitter's number and so keep your friends updated even when you are far from a computer.

In the spirit of intrepid exploration that defines this trip (ahem), I've decided to try it out. To the right of this blog you'll see a little window that shows the last five entries I've made on Twitter. My Twitter page is here.

To complete the picture, Facebook has an application that channels my tweets (for that is the noun employed to describe a Twitter message) into my Facebook micro-feed.

And to those of you who know what Facebook is, and just don't get it....I know! Me neither!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Flying Kites

It was our third time going to Te Papa, Wellington's famous museum. We were late getting there and Nina was stressed in an understated way visible only to her parents. We were supposed to be attending a Maori kite-making session, but Letizia and I had dawdled over our morning lattes - at least that's how Nina would have it (If only her respect for time-keeping extended to things that her parents cared about - like bedtime, for example).

To their great credit, Nina and Sara can amuse themselves for many hours with nothing but scissors, stickytape and cardboard foolishly discarded from the Adult World. These are the basic elements and implements in the Junior Alchemy Set. From these, all Art springs forth. The transformation of base cardboard to precious artifact is unstoppable when catalysed with enough self-belief, perseverance and Pritt-Stick. This is the core dogma of the religion of Make and Do, to which my daughters fervently adhere. Deep indeed is their conviction in redemption through the transformative power of handicraft. The very thought of a creative opportunity lost to the whims of their parents (an unhurried breakfast, for example, or an irreverent haste in disposing of beer cartons) weighs heavily on their tender hearts.

In the name of this religion, we have left a trail of cut-out houses and paper hats across two continents and three countries. For this have our generous hosts found, after our departure, tell-tale traces of paper clippings on their carpets, leading to mutilated egg-cartons and water-bottles stuffed hastily into shallow-grave cupboards. And for this did we race to the fourth floor of Te Papa, and elbow ourselves a place at the altar of Arts and Crafts.

I never knew that the Maori made kites, but apparently it was an important part of celebrating Matariki, or Maori New Year. Not that I knew this at the time. The Te Papa staff probably explained this at the start (when we were still looking for space in the car park) but even if they had told us on our arrival I probably wouldn't have been very receptive. All I knew was that I was perspiring like a pig, breathing like an ill-hinged bellows and surrounded by a confusion of sticks, crepe-paper and strangers. And all because of Nina and Sara's fundamentalist and irrational beliefs vis-a-vis Making Things With Paper. This is not a state of mind that lends itself to making new friends.

And yet that's exactly what happened. That new friend was an Aussie woman with a broad smile, a disarming openness, and a positive attitude made of reinforced concrete. Di, and her beautiful daughter Trinity, had the misfortune to share not only the table but the only serviceable roll of stickytape with us, and it cost her dearly. Di has done her fair share of traveling, and living beyond her native borders and explained that as a result, she feels a certain solidarity with travellers. It's one thing to feel sorry for strangers (and god knows that our demeanour evoked pity), but it's another matter entirely to do what Di did next: to invite those strangers to dinner. To make such a leap of faith in your fellow man takes something special. When we got over the initial shock, we of course accepted the invitation.

Di, thanks for your kindness. If one day back in Cork I scare the bejeezus out of some unsuspecting backpackers by inviting them home for dinner, it will be entirely your fault.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bachelor no more!

Some Facebook buddies were already a little concerned to see the message "Brendan Lawlor and Letizia Aresu are now friends", given that Letizia and I will be 11 years married in a week or so. Well, it gets stranger. I have learned that I am no more to be a bachelor. In 1990 I became a Bachelor of Science and never thought I'd look back. But all that is to change. No longer a Bachelor, I am to become a Master of Science (at this rate of backwards titles, I'll be a Sonny-Jim of Science in a few years, and then an Infant of Engineering). The exam board of the Cork Institute of Technology met today to consider, amongst many other things, my meagre thesis. I've just this it has been accepted.

It's about time I became a Master of something, and I can't think of anything I'd prefer to be a master of more than science. I owe my brother Stephen a great deal for suggesting that I do this in the first place (and taking care of the printing in my absence), Letizia for her helping me see it through, and this trip, whose looming departure date basically scared me into finishing on time. Well - kinda on time. I owe at least one more thank-you: to Simon and Leah, who as well as giving us somewhere to stay, and excellent company (which we still miss), also offered me a Real Computer to complete some necessary corrections to the thesis during our stay with them.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Troublesome Treaties

Since we've left Ireland almost 6 months ago, the Irish people gave Bertie Aherne an early bath, albeit indirectly, and now have rejected the Lisbon Treaty as well. The best political commentator I know (that's you Jim if you're reading) predicted a year ago or more that Bertie would finally have to go if and when the economy started to splutter, and I'm in no doubt that he was right on this. I wonder if the fact that it continues to splutter, belch and occasionally fart is partly responsible for the treaty's rejection as well. In any case, the Irish had the opportunity to decide whether the Treaty was a good idea or not, and their voice was duly heard, even it it's hard to tell what it's saying.

The Lisbon treaty was negotiated and redrafted over years by expert civil servants and lawyers, translated into every official European language by dedicated teams of polyglots, and debated for months by various national parliaments and the Irish electorate. The Treaty of Waitangi (1840) by contrast was drafted in 4 days by three men (and not one of them a lawyer), translated badly by a missionary, and debated by a subset of Maori chiefs, none of whom really had the authority to sign it on behalf of their people, and for whom many of the concepts of modern statecraft meant nothing. But sign it they did, and in so doing transferred sovereignty of the islands of New Zealand, considered at that point to lie in the hands of the United Tribes of New Zealand, to Queen Victoria of England.

That the United Tribes of New Zealand was non-existent in any functional sense didn't seem to matter. There was no political union under Maori - the Maori name for New Zealand (Aotearoa) was unlikely to have been used by Maori, and was probably a romantic invention of European missionaries. The very word Maori was only coined by Maori as a way to distinguish themselves from the Pakeha (Europeans), and means simply 'ordinary' or 'normal'.

That key words from the treaty like, em, sovereignty for example, were translated badly (and inconsistently with previous English/Maori documents), was overlooked or ignored.

British motives behind the treaty are interesting to look at. It's easy to imagine the Treaty as the product of rapacious imperialism, but the kind of people behind its creation (James Stephen, Lord Glenelg) were those who pushed successfully for an end to slavery in the British Empire. Conditions for the Maori had become particularly difficult since whalers had started operating from New Zealand's shores, and it was felt that something had to be done to protect and conserve New Zealand for the Maori. But the unseemly haste, which made the treaty such a flawed document, was driven by baser motives: a race against time to prevent The New Zealand Company from seeing though its plans of 'Systematic [private] Colonisation' of the islands. And the way in which colonisation was seen through was far from the 'New Zealand for the Maori' sentiments nurtured by the Treaty's creators and sponsors. Settlers and Crown authorities often interpreted the treaty in ways that favoured Pakeha over Maori, or else disregarded the provisions of the Treaty entirely.

The very fact that there was a treaty at all is another indication of the difference between the fates of Australian aboriginal and Maori societies (no - I'm not through with this topic yet). A treaty was required because New Zealand, unlike Australia, was not deemed to be Terra Nullius by the British. It was occupied and defended in a way that Europeans could related to. Farming was well established, and a continuous state of war between tribes, with alliances chopping and changing regularly, meant that the technology and organisation available to Maori for their first contacts with Europeans was enough to keep them at arms length for quite a while.

Tasman arrived in 1642, lost four sailors to Maori spears, and buggered off. A full 127 years passed before the next European explorer, James Cook, passed by, and despite his famous ability to negotiate with locals, and the advantage of a Polynesian language speaker on board, still managed to get into several skirmishes. Although the Maori came off worst in these clashes, the belligerence of the natives was reported back to London and surely had some influence on the selection of New South Wales over New Zealand as a suitable place to set up a penal colony. And that relative proximity of a British outpost in Sydney just 10 years after Cook's voyage allowed the Maori to build up a relationship with London gradually. Sixty years passed between the settlement of Sydney and the Treaty of Waitangi, during which there was much trade and exchange of people, and the gradual establishment of private whaling stations on New Zealand coasts.

For the first New Zealanders, almost 200 years passed between first contact with Europe and final colonisation. Compare that with 10 years for the Eora people of Sydney, and consider also that Australian colonisation took place without a treaty, and with complete and total disregard for the First Owners of Australia. No provision was made for the protection of their rights or property, as happened in New Zealand. Although technically subjects of the Crown, those who attempted to repel the invasion of their lands were officially considered on a par with enemies of the state. This ambiguity in law left the Aboriginals to the tender mercy of settlers, by whom they were considered at best competition, and at worst, vermin. I've already mentioned the fact that Australian aboriginals were still hunter-gathers, given Jared Diamond's reasons for why this was so, and outlined how this left the Aboriginal less prepared, technologically and socially, for invasion and sustained warfare. This lack of preparedness, the speed of colonisation, and its ferocity, meant that Aboriginal societies in Australia (and in the case of Tasmania, even the population itself) were destroyed. And it's not at all clear to me if they will ever recover. It was an exact analogue of what happened to the Moriori of the Chatham islands, except in this case the both the aggressors and the vanquished were Polynesians. The Maori suffered terribly but were able to defend themselves better and their society was not dealt quite the same killer blow and in the case of Australian aboriginals.

Through a mixture of base and noble purposes, the Treaty of Waitangi was more or less thrust upon the Maori, but I wonder what would have happened if it had not? The fates of other Polynesian peoples, under the "broad sweep of history" that Jared Diamond describes in Guns, Germs and Steel which I blogged about recently, was varied and ranged from absolute annihilation to a retained and functioning independence. There's no safe assumption that things would have been any better for the Maori without Waitangi.

The unity of Europe was conceived with noble reasons - to end the wars that had raged between the constantly switching alliances of European tribes, to protect itself from external aggression, and to create and environment suitable for mutual prosperity (some of which seems remarkably similar to the situation that pertained amongst Maori before Waitangi). Europe has rejected unity attempted in the past by horse, sword and panzer, until it's more recent acquiescence to the pen. The Treaty of Lisbon, written in dense legalese and referring to many other previous treaties, may have been effectively just as open to misinterpretation (and misrepresentation) to Irish voters as Waitangi was to the Maori. It might have been put in force over the heads of all EU countries other then Ireland. I'm happy we had our opportunity to vote on it, but I think that the arguments for the treaty was made very badly indeed, and I'm not sure sure that we'll be any better off for having rejected it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I Got the Paua

We have a flair, it would appear, for reaching southernmost points. Today we drove to Cape Palliser for almost no other reason than it was in a corner we could easily reach - my travel strategy is the same as my tooth brushing technique. We were expecting to find a lighthouse, and a seal colony there. Or would that be a seal dominion now? Or a constitutional monarchy of seals, perhaps? In any case, we found ourselves traveling a one-way road, that finished in Cape Palliser itself and frayed quite a bit towards the end. The road seemed far too close, and at too similar a height, to the waves of Cook Strait which thrashed menacingly on one side with high mountains just a hundred meters inland of us. One big wave would have sorted us out. But we made it to the Cape, and we could see the lighthouse alright (it wouldn't be much of a lighthouse if we couldn't, now would it) but there wasn't a seal in sight.

This was supposed to be one of NZ's largest colonies. I thought we'd be deafened with the noise of barking (and the odd rendition of Crazy). But when we stepped from the car, and began to walk along the verge that separated the barren soil from the stony beach, there was nothing but the wind and the waves pushing back at us, asking us what the hell we wanted anyway.

Good question, actually. A seal, perhaps? We had driven for 2 hours to get here so a New Zealand fur seal would be nice. We've seen one or two before, but we we don't have any back home so we're not ready turn up our noses at them quite yet. We looked out upon the stones and the waves, and implored the Maori spirit of the sea to reward us for our trip but all he did was blow Letizia's beanie off (yes - that beanie) and along the beach. We gave chase and eventually caught the beanie just before it was lost to us forever. Incredibly (in the sense that it sounds made up, and probably is) the flyaway headwear led us to a treasure, a collection of paua shells just lying there on the grass, unclaimed. We had already paid 12 bucks a pop for a lot of these mother-of-pearl shells back in Christchurch, so we obviously took a few as, er, consolation for the missing seals.

As we started to make our way back to the car, Letizia managed to hear the call of nature over the noise of the wind and waves, and made her way towards the nearest bit of scrub at the edge of the shore. The girls and I prepared ourselves for a wait, but we needn't have bothered. Letizia had barely disappeared from view when suddenly, there she was again, running towards the car at a speed that was all the more impressive for the headwind she had to content with.

She had found the seals.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Wellington Fits Like a Glove

The Southern Cross bar on Abel Smith Street is large - it must hold as many as 200 drinkers when full, and many of them sit outside when the weather permits or (in the case of smokers) when the law insists. It's the outdoor voices that you can hear the most from our apartment. But from six floors up, the distance is sufficient to filter out all content, just leaving the carrier signal, a white noise that is distinctly human in its cadence but devoid of even a single recognisable word. Tomorrow morning, that's how these conversations will be remembered even by those who are engaged in them now. I'm hearing 8 hours into their future.

I love the noise. I love being back in the city. The only thing you could hear in our Christchurch house was Willard the cat occasionally mewing and the canary next door whistling the first two lines of Happy Birthday To You. That was very peaceful and welcome for a while, but by the end it was the constantly murmured rosary of city life that I was praying for.

I love Wellington. I love the fact that we exit our apartment practically onto Cuba Street which feels a bit like Newtown in Sydney. Undeniably smaller, but unmistakeably urban and confidant. Using my recently developed Index of School Uniform Skirt Length (which I recognize is borderline perv, but I am a Man of Science, dammit, and data are data) I can report that the atmosphere in Wellington is much less austere than Christchurch. I love the fact that there are too many museums and places of historical and political interest here, and that I will have to choose carefully the ones I plan to visit. I love that at the end of every day here so far I feel I've seen something worthwhile and only added to the list of things to be seen before we leave.

Let me give you an example of a day well spent. Letizia went to get her hair done today, something that ladies (and especially Italian ladies) will know is the kind of service that one can only safely look for in a town that you either know very well, or trust based on its appearance of sophistication. Together with Nina and Sara, I toured the parliament house and executive wing and then crossed the road to see the decomposed remains of an original Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi (the 1840 'agreement' between Queen Victoria and the collected heads of the various Maori tribes that brought New Zealand into the British Empire as a colony - a document held in such disdain by Maori that the National Archive provides a wooden bowl of water outside the Constitution Room where it is displayed room, so visiting Maori may symbolically decontaminate themselves after viewing it).

This evening, after chilling out at home for an hour, we went to the Opera House to see a superb performance of Cats. Well I'm assuming it was superb. A man can only be expected to devote a minimum of attention to the appreciation of music, when he is watching a troupe of lithe actresses, dressed in figure-hugging body stockings, crawling around the stage on all fours. Oh look, people clapped a lot. I clapped a lot. It was all good.

And this was a typical day for us here in Wellington. Not every day involves leotard-clan feline impersonation of course, but at the end of the day, when we relax back 'home', there is generally a feeling of having seen something worthwhile. Accompanied as ever by the satisfying background music of people with more stamina and fewer responsibilities than us having a good time into the wee hours.

In point of fact, as I write this I've noticed that the noise has faded away. It must be damn late. And there's lots more to do tomorrow. Goodnight, and pleasant dreams (purrrrr).

Learn Italian (then read my wife's blog)

The folks who have helped me learn Chinese have now started a similar service to learn Italian. It's Europe's most beautiful language, all the more pleasing as it offers no commercial advantage whatsoever. So check it out, and then check out Letizia's blog to see how much you've learned!

Monday, June 9, 2008

How not to be a Racist

When Europeans first went sailing around the globe, and bumped into (or more accurately, collided with) other more primitive societies, they asked themselves the question "How is it that we have the ships, guns, horses, writing and all the other trappings of civilization that allow us to conquer those others who have little of none of these advantages?". In the absence of any scientific explanation of how Man came to spread himself over the earth, Europe explained its success in terms of racial superiority, or believing in the 'right' God, or both. Five hundred years later, the same science that developed the ships and guns finally delivered the answer to that question.

It has been the consensus for some time now, and expressed in an accessible way by writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, that all currently living members of the genus Homo are, genetically speaking, brothers. We are Homo Sapiens sapiens, distinguished from our ancestors (say some) by our faculty for language, and we probably first appeared in Africa about 100,000 years ago. If you read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel you'll find a patiently paced description of the "broad sweep of history": the initial many colonizations of the globe by Homo Sapiens sapiens, and the more recent one that led to the Eurasian conquest of the rest of the planet (the result of which is clearly visible both here in New Zealand and back in Australia).

If you don't read Diamond's book, let me try to lay out its thesis in a nutshell. It was Europeans' guns, ships, germs, horses and political/societal size and sophistication that led to its victory over North- and South-Americans, SE Asians, Polynesians, Africans and Australian Aboriginals. These are the self-evident proximate causes of conquest. The ultimate causes lie in Eurasia's early transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming. The production of excess food created a positive feedback loop with increased population densities - the more food, the more people, the more labour, the more food. This led to a necessary stratification in society: chiefdoms and kingdoms - a means by which strangers living in close proximity could co-exist more or less in peace, with the kingdom acting as arbiter, and central point of trade. (Smaller societies, based around the tribe structure, kept the peace and managed trade through personal ties and reputation: Everyone knew everyone else, perhaps even related.) Stratification led to a specialised craftsman class, freed from the direct production of food, able to invest energy inventing better tools, methods, metallurgy and so on. This was the initial vector whose trajectory finally brought literacy, science and technology.

The domestication of animals, and their subsequent living in close quarters with man (very close, according to what Australians say about New Zealanders ;-) ) led to the co-evolution of epidemic diseases, and partial human immunity in farming populations. Most of the fatalities in subsequent collisions between Old and New Worlds were due to disease rather than warfare.

So that's a very basic description of the connection between the switch to farming and its consequences in terms of the proximate causes of Eurasian conquest.

So the question now can be reduced to: how and why did Eurasians switch to farming earlier than their global cousins? Those disposed to race-based answered will have the opportunity here to insist that Eurasians were simply smarter than their cousins. This is an easy solution but there is no reputable evidence for this. Diamond's gives an extremely comprehensive answer that can be reduced to one word: luck. Culo. Bald, unearned fortune. The more extended answer, in three words, is location, location, location. The fertile crescent and the Yangtze and Yellow rivers where agriculture first began, were home to the great bulk of those wild cereals, roots fruit and animals that firstly lent themselves to domestication and secondly provided enough calories in a single 'package' to compete with and displace hunter-gatherer modes of existence. While Man experimented globally with farming, Eurasia was by a wide margin the best-equipped laboratory (and also has a geographical axis that was best disposed to a transmission of newly domesticated crops, animals and techniques).

Maori vs Australian Aboriginal

Some peoples suffered more than others during the Eurasian conquest. Few fell apart quite as much as the Australian Aboriginal. In a later post, I'll finally try to make a comparison between what happened here in New Zealand to the Maori, and what happened in Australia, based on what I've seen in both places and what I've been reading since hitting the road. This much is clear to me: there's no need to lean on race as an explanation.

If some day, science finds that Europeans are genetically so different from Australian Aboriginals as to indicate that we do not come from the same stock - that we are effectively different species - then the government of Australia will have a very difficult ethical issue on its hands. How can you apply Man's law and confer human rights on a race other than the human one? But it would make some things simpler for the likes of you and me. It would give rational expression to that part of us that looks at the state of the Aboriginals today and asks "what the hell is wrong with them anyway?".

Luckily for moral philosophers and Aussie lawmakers, there is no such challenge to face. The rest of us have to get our heads around a more complex, but ultimately more satisfying, answer to silence that persistent suspicion that they are not like us.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Some News from Sichuan

I mentioned a few weeks back that I had contacted what few people I knew or had met who live in and around Chengdu in the Sichuan province, to see how they were faring since the earthquake. This evening I got an email from Sim's Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu. Since the crackdown in Tibet and the earthquake centred in Wenchuan county, Chengdu tourism is seeing a dramatic fall off (Chengdu is a launching pad for travelers to Tibet). Here's what Sim has to say:

Recently, some of our guests called us to ask if Chengdu is safe to come, and others just skipped or cancelled to come to Chengdu (or Sichuan ). Here one thing we would like to announce to everyone is that you are safe at Chengdu , so please come to visit us! We luckily did not affected by this earthquake, and except some people who are afraid to sleep in their apartment buildings are sleeping in tents in parks, but the city is operating properly. You are able to visit Panda Center , Mt. Emei , Leshan Grand Buddha, Yibin Bamboo Forest and so on.
If your friends want to come but going to skip Sichuan because of the disaster, we really hope that you can tell them to get the accurate information from us and judge if it’s worth to visit. Please do not just be away from Sichuan . Disaster area is recovering everyday, and situation is changing all the time. Also, if there is anyone interested in volunteer work, we know some groups who are in actions and we try our best to make it work out.

Best Wishes
Sim and Maki
P.S. According to the latest notice, Tibet is going to be open for foreigners in the end of June after the torch relay finished in Lhasa .

I'm just passing on the message to anyone interested in visiting Sichuan. Inform yourself as to the real situation before discounting it out of hand. And if you do decide to visit Chengdu, you can do no better for cheap, confortable friendly accommodation than Sim's Cozy Guesthouse.

Wellington for the Rugby

We're in Wellington, on the North Island, where it's Ireland vs All-Blacks (that's rugby, for readers from the US) tonight at 7:30 local time. We don't have tickets of course (and even if we had, Nina and Sara would have spat the dummy at the prospect of being forced to watch the game from the windswept terraces), but we are living around the corner from the very lively Cuba Street, and will probably take this opportunity to go to the nearest Irish bar and watch the match on the big screen. That's assuming we don't get kicked out or deported for bringing minors to the pub.

In 100 years of playing the New Zealand team, Ireland has a perfect record. We've never beaten them. When Munster beat a visiting All-Black some time back in the 1950's, the euphoria was such that somebody wrote a play about it. But all is not well in the NZ camp. Eight months ago, they lost to Wales, and judging by the tone of sports commentators you'd think it happened yesterday. To Kiwis, rugby is more, much more, than a game. It is a symbol of national pride, and the very idea of losing is something that perhaps due to a lack of practise, they are not comfortable with.

If there is an upset tonight, then I suspect that any advantage my Oirish accent has given me up till now will vanish. I suspect I'm very safe though.

Friday, June 6, 2008

How much for the whale?

If you get into a boat in Kaikoura and head East for just a few minutes, you will go over the edge of a vertical cliff with a drop of about 800 meters. The drop leads down further to a canyon 1300m at its deepest point. Within easy sight of the shore, you are off the continental shelf and into deep ocean water. The combination of the deep canyon and the intersection of two opposing ocean currents in these waters, brings nutrient rich deep-water closer to the surface, creating an ecosystem all of its own. The krill and plankton attract the fish, the fish attract the squid, the squid attract the whales and the whales attract the tourists.

They used to attract the whaling industry of course, but in New Zealand that all came to an end at the end of the 1970s. Apart from the ecological considerations behind the decision to ban whaling in NZ waters, the economic results are interesting. Whales in Kaikoura are like the trees on Fraser Island in Queensland, in that they are worth more alive than dead. The tourist industry here in New Zealand isn't just about bungy jumping and tequila slamming. It's about hiking through nature reserves and observing wildlife in its natural context. Conservation-based tourism is big business. Just about every reserve or animal encounter we have seen on the South Island is in private hands, and in each case the result of tourism is increased stocks and greater understanding of the creatures in question. The inclusion of wildlife in the global money-go-round seems to be working to the mutual benefit of economy and ecology alike. Economic pressures tend to operate in favour of conservation at the moment, but what happens in the case of a downturn?

Take the yellow-eyed penguins we saw on the Otago Peninsula. They are the rarest penguins in the world and their fate is now inextricably linked to the bottom line in the privately-owned Penguin Parade, and by extension to the global human economy. In this case, Penguin Parade isn't just an organization that brings you to see the animals in their natural environment, they are the animals' landlords. They own the patch of land that is the Yellow-Eyed Penguins' remaining breeding colony. Any number of international conservation charities would happily contribute towards the stabilization of Yellow-Eyed Penguin numbers, but Penguin Parade prefers NOT to take their money in order to continue running the business as they see fit. To be fair, they put their money into replanting the tree and shrub cover whose loss originally led to the dwindling number of this rarest of penguins. But if Penguin Parade ever goes out of business (perhaps tourist numbers will drop in the future thanks to increasing costs in flying?) then the penguins are on their own again. Or worse - evicted from their only remaining habitat in order for that land to realise a greater economic value. Many want to see the environmental cost of flying reflected in the cost of airfares. But economies can be as complicated as ecologies, and one side-effect of this move might be the collapse of global wildlife-based tourism, with consequent collapses in conservation efforts. I have no idea of course - I'm just speculating.

But I wasn't thinking any of these things on Thursday morning as we motored out of South Bay, and off the edge of the continental shelf, with the privately-owned Kaikoura Whalewatching company. All I was interested in was seeing some whales, and I got what I wanted. In two hours on the water we had three close encounters with Sperm Whales. The way we used to find them was the same hunting technique as formerly used by whalers. These mammals are deep divers, resting at the surface to breathe for 10-15 minutes, re-oxygenating their muscles, before diving for 30-40 minutes. They announced ithemselves with 2-meter spumes from their blowholes, giving us time to race over to them to watch their heads and torsos bob above the surface for a short while. Then finally, as they began their next dive, they lifted their powerful tails gracefully above the waterline, sinking out of sight and leaving a growing circle of flat water known as the whale's footprint.

When we drive along a coast road, we mistake the sea for its surface, and consider the waves and swell to be all there is. For the Sperm Whale, the surface is the place where it spends the least time, the place where it comes by necessity rather than choice. It's nothing more than a filling station. A necessary but inconvenient stop to fuel its deeper activities. It is also the interface where man and whale interact, where the whale becomes an agent in the human economy. I hope that its market as a target for the camera-shutter rather than the harpoon remains viable.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Plans and their Enemies

"No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy". I've heard this quote a number of times and it makes sense to me. I thought we would learn how to roller-blade together in Sydney, ice-skate in Christchurch, and ski in Queenstown. But once we got to these places, things took their own course. But that's OK. The adage is meant to reassure that it's not so much the plan as the planning that really prepares you for the fight.

But what fight? What is the enemy in a round the world trip? It's the same one we all fight back home. Time. Eight months sounds like a long time, but it's not. It ambushes you each time you look at the calendar. Eventually you ask, so much time has passed already, and what do we have to show for it?

When we started traveling in China I was expecting chaos without, and turmoil within. But it wasn't like that. Despite our strange and sometimes chaotic surroundings, it was still us. We were still the Lawlors, operating as ever we did, dealing with new situations. And that was a good thing. Now, with two-thirds of the trip-of-a-lifetime behind us, living in a city that is similar (too similar?) to what we left behind, we are still the same family. And somehow that feels not so good anymore.

I was as certain as I could be about anything that this journey would change us as individuals and as a family. And yet I see no evidence of it. Perhaps we will only see the full picture in the rear-view mirror when this trip is behind us. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of fragments of that picture here and there, scattered along the road we are traveling, blurred by the speed at which we're moving. But probably it's just the product of a mind that demands signs and patterns even where there are none.

We're leaving Christchurch first thing tomorrow morning. It has been the perfect base from which to visit the rest of the island, and thanks to the home swap (which included the use of a car) we're slightly under budget, for a pleasant change. We're taking two days to get up to Wellington, and we expect to find a very different city there. It would be reasonable to say that Christchurch is more like a very big suburb than a city, and a conservative one at that. (One of the things that caught my attention here was - don't laugh - the length of school uniform skirts. The poor unfortunate girls of Christchurch have to wear ankle-length tartan curtains that to me seem practically Taliban. The length and the pattern give away the Scottish influence that I think lies behind this conservatism.)

Museums here in Christchurch were not up to much (especially the Science Museum), whereas Wellington is home to the famous Te Papa museum - walking distance from our apartment. For the first time since Shanghai we'll be living in the centre of a city, and the idea is very appealing.

There are some great cafes and restaurants here. Tonight, for example, we will have our last meal in a Sichuanese restaurant called Ginkgo, where we can enjoy the same dishes that we had in Chengdu: Kungpo Chicken, Mapo Tofu and 'fish-flavoured pork' (!).

Despite my various misgivings about the town itself, I'm still experiencing some pathetic sentimentality leaving it behind. This house has been a good home for us, and we will surely miss Willard and Satie, the two cats of the house, whose very different personalities mirror to some extent the differences between Nina and Sara.

Inevitably, the fact that we are already leaving another place behind serves as another irritating reminder of how quickly time is going by. In the end, time is all we really have, and that just makes it harder to watch it flow though our fingers.