Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Like Edinburgh, but the opposite

I'm in Dunedin, a city which is beautiful in some respects but not famous, which is the main reason I like it. It has an otherworldly here-not-there-ness about it. It was settled mostly by Scots, and in fact Dunedin is a Gaelic way of saying Edinburgh. The hills resemble Scottish hills, but they are on the southern end of the South Island of New Zealand, on the opposite side of the world from Scotland, farther south, in fact, than I've ever been. As I walk to the Salvation Army this afternoon in search of a lamp, with every step I'll be farther south than I've ever been.

I spent a week in Wellington (on the North Island) where I rode the cable car and went to the planetarium and had Thanksgiving dinner with three kiwis and a transplanted P.E.Islander. Then I spent a week travelling the South Island where I visited a beach that popped like rice krispies, walked on a glacier, and bathed in sulfurous hot springs. The plan here, in Dunedin, is too settle in for three weeks and read and write in my yellow room on the top of a hill, with the sheaves of flax and the fireplace and the mismatched scarlet carpet. Communications will therefore be minimised.

In lieu of florid descriptions of flora or turgid descriptions of turf, here are just a few of the great southern-hemisphere Scrabble words I've collected in my notebook during my travels. I'll do my best to define them in future installments. I haven't so far looked them up in any dictionaries, so the floor is open to challenges.

7 letters: BILTONG. BETTONG. JANDALS. Some good Q words: QUOKKA. QUAGGA. QUOLL. QUERN. Some good W words: WETA. WEKA. WOMA. Words to make from other words: RORT (on "ort"). NEVE (on "eve"). PADYMELON (on "melon"). Some other words with high-scoring letters: JUDDER. KEA. SKUA. JABIRU. SANZA. And some others I just liked: THAR. BACH. SERAC. BILBY. GENET. SHAMBOLIC.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Over the ditch

I feel like an amnesiac who has come home to a city I don't remember. On the one hand, Wellington, NZ is new and disorienting and I feel the sense of drift and the elasticity of time and space that one feels after months of travel; on the other hand, though, its hills and harbours and wet sky and chilly winds seem very familiar to me, and Cuba Street feels like I had a hand in creating it, in a forgotten former life. Yesterday was sunny and I travelled with a carload of poets up the coast, where the landscape was rippled and green, to a boathouse retreat where we drank wine on the dock, then to Paekakariki to do a reading, and then another in Porirua. I glimpsed a breathtaking sunset through the curtains, as I sat on stage at an echoey community hall, on the edge of the Tasman Sea.

I plan to stay in New Zealand for the next five weeks.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Polar Bears v Reef Sharks

I find myself in Bundaberg, home of the world famous Bundaburger.

Complacently squatting among the fields of sugar-cane that produce Bundaberg Rum - the rum preferred by jaunty polar bears, or so the label seems to suggest - this town is my home for the next 5 hours as I wait for the Spirit of the Outback to roll into the station and spirit me away to the lights and exctement of the state capital, Brisbane. Estimated arrival time: 7:10 am. From there I will be spirited farther away to the Gold Coast town of Logan, where I will assuage the thirst for poetry of a small but desperate crowd that has assembled at the local library. Then I will be spirited back to Fortitude Valley in the city, where I will be spirited and otherwise nourished during a breathless crescendo of anticipation before the official opening of the Queensland Poetry Festival 2004.

I have been looking through the programme (www.queenslandpoetryfestival.net) and the bios of the participants, and I think it's going to be a very worthwhile weekend. In the meantime, though, I bide my time in Bundaberg, puzzled by my failure to spot any polar bears whatsoever. What brings me to this land of cane and imaginary arctic animals?

It's my last week in Australia, and I didn't want to leave without giving the tropical part of it a fair go, after weeks of shivery southern mornings and cold desert nights. So the obvious thing, it seemed, the vast, unmissable, visible-from-space thing that I should spend my last week getting to know, was the Great Barrier Reef. I had already had a fairly successful visit with the Great Ocean Road, and earlier Great Britain had been pretty fun too, so it occurred to me that if something has the word "great" as a part of its name, then maybe it's worth checking out. Even if a detour is involved.

The detour in this case seemed much longer than it needed to be: on the map, the Town of 1770 doesn't seem that far away from Brisbane, but as any Queenslander will tell you, Queensland is deceptively big. I spent eleven hours on two buses getting to Agnes Water, sister town to 1770. It's called 1770, by the way, because that's the year that Captain James Cook landed there in his big wooden ship The Endeavour and claimed the place for England. The two little towns are basically resort communities, with lots of houses on the beach and a marina and a few stores. Up until a couple of years ago, before the roads were finished, the only way to get there was in a 4X4 or a boat.

My reasons for going there had nothing to do with glory or world domination or wealth, unlike some earlier visitors. I went for one thing: I wanted to swim with the great fishes of the Great Barrier Reef. So I booked a ticket on the Spirit of 1770, a catamaran that makes daily trips to Lady Musgrave Island, a 14-hectare (tiny) coral cay about 32 nautical miles (far) offshore and part of the southernmost fingers of the reef. I wasn't sure what spirit exactly was being commemorated in the christening of the boat - discovery, colonialism, rum? - but I was looking forward to being spirited out to my first real desert island experience. I was so excited about it, having seen the pictures, that I slept through my alarm, or thought I had. My eyelids suddenly and painfully snapped open around 6:30 and I was relieved to see that it wasn't 10 o'clock and I hadn't missed the boat.

There were, unfortunately, 70 or so other pilgrims sharing my journey of discovery, but this was in one way a relief to me, because I was a little nervous about the actual underwater part of the underwater odyssey, and when I saw that many of the passengers were small children or golden-age adults of limited mobility, I knew that I would probably seem rather intrepid and adventurous in comparison. We skimmed across the waves for about an hour and a quarter, out of the sight of land, and then suddenly in what seemed like the middle of the open ocean a leafy island arose - yes, like a mirage - and then a couple of other little islands. In fact, Lady Musgrave Island (it's named after the US-born socialite wife of a former governor - she wasn't a famous writer or scientist or leader, but boy could she throw a good tea party) is not an island in the normal sense, or made of rock and soil in the normal sense; it's just the accumulation of thousands of years of coral dying and breaking and being swept into a pile by wind and waves, and building up until it was a flat oval no longer covered by water, which was then inhabited by birds which ate lots of fish and then produced lots of guano, which gradually accumulated to form a kind of humus that allowed seeds transported by wind and wildlife to sprout and produce a low forest which shed leaves which decomposed and formed an even richer surface for plant growth. And stretching in a large circle around this pseudo-island is a coral reef several kilometers in diameter, with a shallow blue-green lagoon in the middle. The island has no water, just trees and driftwood and black noddy terns and frigate birds and turtle nesting grounds. It's exactly what you imagine when you play desert island discs.

Even more amazing than the island, though, is what's in the water around it: some two thousands species of fishes and part of the largest organic structure in the world, the coral reef itself. We started by snorkelling right off the beach. In the shallows were sea slugs and sea cucumbers and dead coral, but after a few paddles the wall of coral sank away to a depth of six or seven metres and I swam along its edge (I didn't mind the underwater part so much with an artificial breathing orifice on the top of my head) as its edge turned blue and brown and white and bright pink, and the coral morphed into spiny trees, huge involuted domes like brains, and craggy pinnacles, all inhabited by hundreds of thousands of fishes big and small. I hadn't been out very long when a shark swam by only a couple of metres from my face. I was so startled by this sight that I didn't react at all, at first. Nobody had warned us that there would be sharks, but nobody had warned us how beautiful and otherworldly it all would be, either, so a shark didn't register as a big surprise. And it was only a small one, after all, a reef shark, which I am told doesn't bite. Not hard, anyway. Shortly after that I came to the spot we'd been told about, a turtle hang-out, and sure enough I swam above a green turtle about the size of my torso. The water kept going warm and cold as I swam through it, and eventually I had to go back to shore to warm up a bit in the sun. But by then it was already time for lunch on the boat.

After lunch, though, we were offered the coral lagoon as a snorkelling playground: we dove right off the back of the boat into deeper water, and I saw things there that made me think the world is a truly bizarre place. I found myself uttering syllables of awe into my mouthpiece which would then echo spookily up the snorkel and past my ear. The top of the reef was too shallow to swim above (and walking on it would kill the coral and cut your feet), but a couple hundred metres from the boat was a narrow gap in the reef wall that one could swim through to enter a small enclosed lagoon-within-the-lagoon that is known to the regulars as the aquarium. I chased another turtle through the water and between the walls of living rock - it was such a strange, dreamy feeling - into this bowl that had huge brain coral at the bottom, with phrenological fishes darting in and out of the folds like little lightning bolts. I saw Finding-Nemo-esque clown fish, zebra-striped fish, long yellow flute-mouthed fish, opal-coloured frisbee fish, fish with fluttery fins, fish that looked like snakes, fish that looked like kites, fish that looked nothing like fish. One fish, two fish, red fish... I suddenly swam into a whole school of coin-sized blue fish that sparkled in the sun, and they swam along with me moving as one, surrounding me, above and below me, thousands of them. And then I turned, and when looked at from a different angle the school of tiny blue fish became a school of tiny golden fish. Wow, I said, forgetting that I had a snorkel in my mouth.

On the ride back to the mainland, I stood at the front of the boat with the wind in my face and my eyes on the water, looking for whales. I didn't see any, but alongside the boat there were flying fish soaring out of the bow waves and gliding above the water for impossible distances. When I first saw them, I mistook them for birds.

We got back as the sun was setting. The next day I lay on the beach in Agnes Water and considered it all.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Worlds of Foam and Curtains of Syrup

After a successful Sydney gig and some follow-up celebration at the Town Hall Hotel in Newtown, I made my drowsy way to the airport on Botany Bay, fell asleep in the departures lounge, and woke up in time to get on an early flight to Melbourne on snack-less, movie-less (but cheap) Virgin Blue Airlines.

Melbourne was just as I had left it - cool in both major senses of the word. The Fringe Festival was on, and in addition it was Footy Finals weekend; there is possibly no better time to be in Melbourne (as long as you don't mind wearing a sweater). This year, though, the Finals frenzy and the mayhem which normally grips the city, apparently, was lessened by the lamentable fact that neither team in the final was from Melbourne, the origin and traditional home of Ozzie Rules Football and (still) home to the majority of the teams in the league. It was the Brisbane Lions - three-time champions who have at least some connection to the city as the Lions used to be the team of Fitzroy, a Melbourne suburb - versus the Port Adelaide Power, an upstart 8-year-old team who have never won the premiership and have a silly lightning bolt for a mascot. Followers of Worldwide Flux will note that they have appeared here before, and may be disappointed, as were my friends in Fitzroy, to learn that they won.

I watched some of the game at Sean's house in Fitzroy/Collingwood, where a tight-knit contingent of supporters of the Lions had assembled. Which team are you rooting for? I asked them. I was reminded that it was probably better not to use that term to describe one's affiliation with a men's football club. Which team do you support is a less-easily-misinterpreted choice of words. As the game wound down and it became clear that Brisbane's winning streak would end, the room grew grumpy and despondent. Let's go out and punch somebody, said my usually pacific friend.

One of my Melbourne friends, Emily, had a much better vantage point for the game: on the field, right next to the close-up camera that is positioned to capture all those crushing collisions between players as they literally jump on each others' shoulders to catch the ball. Emily is a part-time mascot: she gets to dress up in foam and fake fur on a regular basis and strut her mute antics in front of crazed sports lovers. Although usually she plays the Collingwood Magpie, during the final she was the St.Kilda Saint, a grinning man in robes with a plastic halo suspended above his cartoony prosthetic head, which has mesh across the mouth for Emily to (partially) see through. "My world was a world of foam," she later told me. She participated in a race between all the Melbourne-based mascots, and if you were in the live audience you know that she came fourth. What you don't know, though - I do because she told me - and I'm sorry if I shock you by saying this, what you don't know is that the race was FIXED.

I could have gone out after the game and started fights or joined in with those underway, but instead I chose to go to see a butoh performance. It was actually the second time I was seeing it - my friend Alys generously gave me two free tickets - but I enjoyed it even more the second time around. I won't try to describe it because it may not sound like much, but if you know butoh you know there was some very slow movement, and this was followed by some rather fast movement, and you may not be surprised to hear that some clothing was removed and non-verbal noises were emitted. The overall effect, though, was really quite moving.

The next few days I spent travelling the Great Ocean Road, to the west and south of Melbourne. I walked among the ferns on the floor of a rainforest of giant mountain ash. Then I walked among the treetops on a steel catwalk built some 40 metres above the ground. I spotted a wallaby in the car's headlights and an echidna on the side of the road. I strolled along the beach by moonlight and slept in a fake-wood-panelled caravan in a caravan park. I was attacked by a voracious but friendly flock of rosellas and lorikeets - vibrant red and green parrots who made amazingly quick work of the sunflower seeds in my hand. I went for a swim in crashing waves that resembled snowbanks in size and temperature. I took touristy photos of the Twelve Apostles, huge free-standing maritime rock formations formerly known as the Sow and Piglets. I don't know why they changed the name.

Like all good things my days of shivering in Melbourne came to an end and I reluctantly flew to the sunny warmth and expansive beachs of the north. Currently I am in Brisbane, where tonight I appeared on a panel with Jane Urquhart, Austin Clarke, and Isabel Huggan, moderated by Australian Gillian Whitlock. The topic: Behind the Maple Syrup Curtain. Basically, we revealed to our unsuspecting Queensland audience some of the closely guarded secrets of What It Means To Be Canadian. They did not seem too flabbergasted, curiously. But nevertheless they seemed to want to buy our books and have them signed. The Brisbanites are beautiful and mysterious, and their city has a beguilingly sinuous river, called appropriately the Brisbane River. On Sunday I will perform a couple of pieces at a session with Australian poets, which is called "Poetry Live!" I will try to live up to that exclamation mark.

Let me know if you have any questions.