Finding My Feet In The Kootenay Mountains

There is nothing like camping out for a full week at an unimaginably loud and dusty electronic music festival, to make you feel like relaxing by a nice and quiet hot spring, somewhere deep in the Canadian mountains. At least when you know it’s an option, it can easily become a semi-serious obsession as the party progresses and you find yourself peeling your sleeping bag off your grimy back in the mornings. I am speaking out of experience, of course.

A snapshot from the Shambhala Music Festival by the Salmo River

A snapshot from the Shambhala Music Festival by the Salmo River

I had been volunteering my carpentry skills at the legendary Shambhala Music Festival in the Kootenay mountains of British Columbia, and it had been a most delightful and wonderfully intense week of hard work and elaborate partying, but now I was positively pooped and – as per usual – down to my last 100 dollars. More importantly, I needed a long, hot bath and a 24-hour nap. More

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Tribute To A True Friend

I wrote this piece for a beautiful friend of mine who recently chose to end her life. I met her in Golden Bay on my first journey to New Zealand, and it was friendship at first sight. Cheyenne had a troubled background, and growing up she suffered severe trauma and abuse. Despite these hard odds, she was an inspiration and a joy to be around and I am honored to have known her. This is my tribute to a brief but powerful friendship that etched a strong impression in my being…

I could tell straight away that she was on a journey of sorts. Outside the nightclub, the fireplace in the cosy yard had caught her full attention. All around us carefree people were laughing and drinking, but as she sat on the ground and stared down the flames, her face was grave, with a strange hint of awe. I was a stranger in town and took my beer in a corner, observing the scene in silence. Suddenly she caught my eyes and fixed me with the most intense stare – piercingly hard and straight through me – yet it wasn’t aggressive but somehow almost pleading. Unusual. I could only return her gaze in hypnotic surprise. She was in a cosmic state of mind and seemed to be navigating a particularly rough patch of universe just then. A solitary psychonaut making her way home through a soulful storm.

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Eventually I sat by the fire next to her, but there wasn’t much of a conversation between us, just an easy, quiet understanding as we tended the fire. She asked me where a foreigner like myself was staying in this dull country town, and I told her about the building site where I had spotted a discreet place to take cover for the night. Her face lit up in approving recognition; she knew exactly what spot I was talking about. She told me she had never used it, since she already had a home. She looked proud of that, and offered me a place to stay for the night. I didn’t know it then, but even though she was a decade younger, she had at least a lifetime on me when it came to survival skills. I took her offer and my life is richer for it.

I stayed in the Bay around 3 months that first time, and I made a bunch of new friends. Cheyenne stood out amongst them all. She had her own category, like a beautiful and exotic migrating bird that you can’t look up in the book. What irony then, that she was truly the local. At the same time, she definitely came from a different world. The darkness and strife, that she had already lived in her young and intense life, were casually referred to in our conversations, but I knew I could never fully comprehend the pain that had been inflicted on her, even if she told me her story in detail. Somehow the Bay and its happy people seemed too innocent for Chey with her instinctive eye for conflict, always scanning her surroundings, unaccustomed with the absence of ill intent. As a man, and cursing my violating brothers around the world, I often felt honoured to have earned her trust.

One time, while I was hitch-hiking into town, she suddenly came speeding over a hill on a mountain-bike, drenched in sweat and cursing her form, but so proud of herself. By chance, we were exactly at her favourite spot on that stretch; a cliff-head by the sea near Pohara, where you can climb onto a ledge and take in the full view of the Bay. Despite her self-proclaimed lack of agility, she led the way like a puma and I scrambled after her. We had a smoke and spoke freely about what it feels like to be a human in this world. We never small-talked, and our conversations invariably turned spiritual. She had the wisdom of a warrior and the makings of a shaman inside her. She was a natural born poet.

She was healing herself, and – ever in my own healing process – I shared my own experiences of depression and substance abuse. They could never compare, of course. On so many levels we were opposite; from each end of the world, one brown and one white; one woman and one man; one younger and one older; one from a happy family and one from a broken home. I was often aware of my privileges, but Chey never seemed to care, except that she was always curious about my travels. She wanted to see Europe more than anything, and I recognized the look she got, when she dreamed of going abroad, as the look of a compulsive traveler. Takes one to know one.

There are other ways to travel than purely physical and we both knew that. She had tried every available substance to alter her mind, and I wasn’t far behind. Still, the gap was wide; I have never known the tight clutch of opiate addiction. We did share a love of entheogens, though, and she had clearly benefited greatly from journeying through her inner world, poring over questions unavailable to the daily self, as one does when ingesting psychedelics with intention. The world of ancient spiritual practice, and the millenia-old use of healing plants reverberated with her own experiences. She was well on her way to find peace, I thought.

I only met Cheyenne 8 times, and I remember every encounter clearly. Her mood could swing at any given time, but mostly she was level, and in any case she would nearly always welcome a laugh. Being around Chey was never boring. One time in sleepy Takaka, she was dressed like a proper punk going off to a drunken riot. She spewed on the pavement and sold me a bag of weed in a crusty back alley – all just for fun, she said. Another time we met, she was wearing a most colorful hippie getup and we drove to the top of the Hill where she wanted to show me the mummified cow, and go for a stroll in the bush.

Another time we hung out in the cosy bus where she lived, and she showed me an art-piece she had made. It was a collage of news-scraps and pictures detailing a terrible story of abuse that she had been subject to. It was a very powerful piece, to say the least, and a very honest and clever way for her to purge and share her story without alienating herself. There is no doubt in my mind, that she was both more intelligent and more able to think with her heart than most people will ever be.

Back on my own road again I was rarely in touch with Chey, but about a year later I came back to New Zealand for a few weeks. She had moved to Nelson where I was going to pass through at end of my trip. I had a late start that day and poor luck with getting a ride, so it wasn’t until I stranded in Nelson just after dusk, that I got a hold of her on the phone. She was working all night, but she promptly arranged for me to stay in her room that she was renting from two ”weird, old and uneducated crackheads”.

She had only been there for a week, but she was dead-on with her description of her flatmates. Their living room was literally a grungy crack-den, but Cheyenne’s room was a different world to that. There were stacks of books on spirituality, filosophy and great works of literature. Incense sticks and pretty rocks adorned an improvised altar under a Bob Marley poster and her amazing wardrobe made a feast of colour on the shelves. Once again my saving angel had come to my rescue, and I felt such gratitude as I fell asleep in this little oasis.

She didn’t wake me when she came back in the early morning. When I did wake up, we only talked for half an hour before I had to catch my bus to the ferry. That was the last time I saw Cheyenne. It was a beautiful half hour. She told me that she was saving up to go North, and that she was in love. She was straight as can be, despite her circumstances, and once again we spoke of following our dreams and navigating life and focusing on love. I am so thankful now, that our parting words were; ”I love you!”.

Cheyenne did go North shortly after that, and she reconnected with her whanau and worked on her her artisan skills. She learned more of her native tongue and, as far as I know, she worked out any outstanding matters with the authorites. She took her life back, slowly but surely. I drifted on in my restless fashion and by way of a broken heart, I ended up back home in Copenhagen, Denmark.

When, recently, I suddenly found out that Chey was in Wales of all places, my heart took a leap of joy for so many reasons. She had made the long and exciting journey to Europe, motivated by love, and she was happier than had I ever heard her; clean, relaxed, in love and enjoying her daily life. She had outsmarted the grim immigration system and found her own way back to her love, and I knew that she had found a happy, peaceful place inside herself. We talked excitedly about visiting each other, and I have learnt a painful lesson now, that I didn’t just buy that flight.

Not long after, and for reasons only known to herself, my beautiful sister in spirit, sweet Cheyenne, flew off on her final journey in this realm. She left behind an indelible impression in me, of a soul so strong and kind and loving, in a world so broken and evil. She proved to me that true friendship has no limit and that love conquers everything. She had as brave a spirit as I will ever meet, and it lingers on in the way I live now, as I am certain countless other very fortunate people carry her inspiration and power in their hearts.

You can say that life overcame Cheyenne in the end, or you can say that she overcame the final fear that we all have. Ultimately, death is only for the living, but life is also for the dead and Chey is still among us. She has joined our ancestors, who brought us into this world and who are all around us and inside us. She is no where and every where. She is in my heart. I see her in the clouds sometimes. She is making faces and traveling the sky at her own will. She was, and is, a Free Spirit.

Safe journey sister,

Love you forever!

cornelius

Killer Coffee

Muscat, Oman – January 2016

Sultan Qaboos was staring right at me in full regalia, armed with a sable and a dagger. I counted 20-odd medallions on his wide and ribboned chest. He was looking sharp and merciful.

Next to him was another photograph of the Sultan, wearing army fatigues and looking 40 years younger. All shops in Oman hang pictures of their beloved leader on their walls, but this coffee-shop was more dedicated than most. All across its tea-stained walls, Sultan Qaboos was stepping in and out of private jets, shaking hands with world-leaders, inspecting parading soldiers and waving at his minions.

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His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman

I was near the capital’s busy and touristy market, the Mutrah Souq, waiting for a round of instant coffee as it were. Made generously with milk and sugar, the way they take it, and the way I love it. From their halwar kameez dress, I figured the staff was Pakistani, but the customers wore mostly Omani dishdashas. I was definitely the blond one out… More

Tui Turns 30!

Almost 9 months ago, I promised you to write about my experience of living in one of New Zealand’s most remarkable communities – Tui. Then life happened and swept me onto new adventures and I forgot all about it. But as Tui is turning 30 this year, they have asked friends of the community to write a little something for the occasion and I realized that this was my chance to both give them my story and redeem myself to you, dear reader…

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Daylight full moon rising over a corner of Tui with the Abel Tasman National Park in the back.

 

Here is what I sent to the Tuis:

 

My name is Cornelius and I am a Danish globetrotter and community enthusiast who first learnt about community-living in the 1000-people strong Freetown of Christiania – a famous and controversial community in the middle of Copenhagen. From small grungy squats to large scale utopian projects around the world, I have since visited and studied a great deal of communities. Some of them – like Tui – I visited for the purpose of making a radio documentary. My focus with this is to document intentional communities that are long-standing and non-religious, in an attempt to uncover what makes an alternative and individually diversified community last through the generations, without succumbing to the all-too-common problems of fanaticism, commercialism and inter-personal conflict.

 

Stumbling Upon A Gem

I was hitch-hiking near Nimbin in Australia, when I first heard of Tui,  A lady who picked me up, turned out to be a fellow community aficionado and I told her about my community documentary project and that my next destination was New Zealand. Her response was to tell me about one of Tui’s founding members, Robina McCurdy, who happened to have just visited the Nimbin area to give a talk about permaculture. She then told me about Tui community and I decided then and there to visit the place, as soon as I got to New Zealand.

My second impression of Tui came from their website. I was curious to know a bit more about the community, and keen to arrange for me to stay there for a while, so I tried googling them. Having seen so many unkempt community websites over the years, I was very impressed with Tui’s home in cyberspace. Here was a community that, not only updated their website more than once every couple of years, they had also posted relevant information and up-to-date contact details!

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Me and my favourite three co-wwoofers; Ine, the Beast & Mari. A very special time that was for 4 strangers turned family.

I wrote to Tyson, the current (excellent!) visitor coordinator, and told him that I was hoping to do some work, in exchange for a few weeks of accommodation and possibly some food. I also wrote that I was interested in conducting a few interviews for my community documentary. Little did I know that I was going to spend 3 whole months there, working for the community as well as nearly every household, doing more than 20 interviews and no doubt winning some genuine friends for many years to come!

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Tonga & The Tropical Trouble

If I say ‘tropical island kingdom in the Pacific’, would you think of political riots, racial tension, corrupt authorities, roadside pollution, feudal rule, poverty, alcoholism and natural disasters? I’m guessing no.

Nonetheless, this is also part of the otherwise picture-perfect postcard that you get here in Tonga. It would be easy to write yet another envy-inducing traveller’s blog about how cute all the traditional costumes are, how friendly the people are, how white the sandy beaches are and how fresh the cheap coconuts taste.

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Even though the World Cup is on these days, local rugby matches draw more attention than any soccer game will ever do.

 

Of course, all of that is true and the weather is great too, but you know me; I can’t help but digging up the dirt and the quirk. So here we are – welcome to an alternative peak into the Kingdom of Tonga.

A Cash-Conscious Church

Tonga is the only Polynesian island nation that has never lost its sovereignty to a foreign power. In other words; they were never colonized. For that reason, it is probably also the best living example of uninterrupted Polynesian culture with all the feudalism and taboo that this entails.

That is not to say that new ideas and cultural traits haven’t been introduced. Take Christianity for instance. In the 1800’s Tonga started receiving missionaries of all sorts of Christian denominations; Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Catholics, Wesleyans, Lutherans, you name it. In modern day Tonga this translates into a 99% Christian population.

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Even the smurfs have their own church in Tonga!

 

Yet, the Tongans didn’t so much get converted as they converted the church practices into a distinctively Tongan version. One example of that is the widespread practice of drinking the anaesthetic juice made from the roots of the Kava plant. In the Free Church of Tonga, the preacher and the congregation thus get moderately stoned together right before and immediately after church services.

Another uniquely Tongan church practice is the in-your-face money collection, which happens during service and ends with a public counting of the loot and a subsequent public reading from a list of givers and their contributions. Talk about peer-pressure.

 

Traditional Pressures

Where Westerners often feel pressure and expectation in their work-environments, Tongans feel their societal obligations most strongly within their families and churches. Tongans will apparently often take out expensive loans just to afford an ‘appropriate’ donation to the church and when a family member dies, the family absolutely must perform certain rites that are often cripplingly expensive.

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Love & Loathing In Alice Springs

I had wanted her for years. I kept meeting her former lovers, still spellbound from her presence, and I knew that she was truly hot. She has golden red features and is passionately worshipped by black and white alike. So spirited is she, that yet no one has known her depth. So honestly, beautifully brutal and indifferent is she, that both women and men draw their last breath with her. And yet, I had to embrace her – I had to be inside her, if only just once: I had to go to Alice…

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What was I getting into this time?

ALICE WAS A GUY

There is no denying it; Alice Springs is a female town. And let’s be honest about it; as far as towns go, she ain’t too pretty. We love her and she will suck you in with her incredible charm, but her looks, well, they will just have to grow on you.

Her straight and barren streets get you lost in a grid of buttoned-up suburban houses and except for the feeble curves of the dry Todd riverbed, Alice is very straight and fairly boring to behold. But houses and streets and cars and shops, are only Alice’s latest layers. Before she got her name from a telegraphist’s wife, her name was actually Stuart.

That’s almost a hundred years ago now. She weren’t too pretty then, either. That was her pioneer macho phase, where suddenly thousands of desperate white men with guns and cattle and pieces of paper, decided to scratch out a living in the desert (and maybe a bit of gold).

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A landscape from just outside Alice Springs.

NO PROPERTY – NO PROBLEM

They needed a place for transport and trade, and as fate would have it, they put up a telegraph station for their “singing line”, right in the middle of a songline junction. Black fellas’ pathways have always crossed on this sacred site. White fella only slapped a bit of tarmac on them and proceeded to squat the place and call it theirs.

Trying to be a town in a desert is a pretty terrible idea. Maybe that’s why the original locals, the Arrernte people, never built a town in their tens of thousands of years of belonging to this place. They call Alice Springs for “Mparntwe” – ‘Meeting Place’ – and they don’t claim to own her, they only look after her.

On Arrernte land there are 8 different “skin-names”. Each skin is a tribe and a story about the country it belongs to. Each tribe has a right to travel, but it’s also the caretaker of it’s neighbours’ land, by way of their complex kinship structure. You are, so to speak, related to the land. No property – no problem. Different story now.

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FRESH WOUNDS

The last Aboriginal family in Australia to be exposed to the wicked ways of the white man, came out of the Gibson Desert near Alice Springs only 30 years ago, in 1984. I presume they had been hiding from the slaughtering of their people and protecting their culture. When they finally came out, they encountered a world where blacks and whites live in the same place, yet in different realities.

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A Wide Open Weekend

 

Follow me on my first trip into the arid heart of Australia as I get my brains blown out at a small big festival and spit a doctor in the face before I finally understand what race an Australian doof’er belongs to…

 

THE REDHEADS MADE ME DO IT!

It was Ginger who invited me. I’d hardly ever spoken to her but I knew who she was and I knew she was a good one. Wired to the moon and family straight away. Voice like a cyclone. The Ghost by her side is another good one. Subtle smile, humble hat and a treasure-chest brain he has; music he simply is. More than performers, these guys together are passionate focus incarnate.

They were my neighbours in Sydney and they were playing their hypnotic show at Australia’s “biggest small festival” – the Wide Open Space festival. Since I both wanted to see Ginger & the Ghost as well as the famous Australian land mark Uluru in the desert, I decided to travel with them to the very middle of the oldest continent on Earth.

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In Australia they call redheads for “rangers” as in orangutang. Here are my two favourite ones, Beautiful Ben and Mish the Miracle, breathing meditatively at sunset over the MacDonnell ranges.

It didn’t take much convincing to get my two new best friends to come along. Ben – who runs an artisan warehouse space – Mish the Miracle, and yours truly had been working like beasts for weeks on end, and the sudden prospect of a festival holiday was beyond temptation. This was going to be epic!

Two weeks later, we were all on a desert-bound plane. None of us knew it then, but most of the passengers on that carrier were heading to that same little beautiful spot in the MacDonnell Ranges, some 80 km out of Alice Springs. On board was a motley crew of artists, volunteers, punters and organizers. Most were strangers to each other, yet only days away from becoming friends and future colleagues. No doubt Sydney’s warehouse scene got a network upgrade on that jet full of shakers and makers.

And although this was just another disgustingly early low-budget national flight, this trip into the sky was the first leg on a journey around the world for some, for others the last leg into the mystical heart of Australia for the first time.

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The incredibly talented and highly innovative Ginger & the Ghost had the honor of playing up an 800-year-old tree while a unicorn pole dancer performed on the ground. The ghost said the view was unbelievable…

DESERT IN THE PARTY

Outdoor raves around here are called doofs. Doof doof doof, you get it…. In Australia, throwing an outdoor party means negotiating merciless forces of nature, majestic logistics and kilometres of red tape, not to mention a corporate government’s corrupt law enforcement. But Aussies like a party and bloody oath if anything will stand between them and a good time.

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Leaving New Zealand aka Paradise On Earth

Last week I left the End of the World (aka Paradise on Earth) with a little lump in my throat. After riding a magnificent ½ year long wave of  luck and friendships, bureaucratic regulations finally put an end to my legal stay in New Zealand and so here I am in Sydney, contemplating my next move.

It’s going to be very difficult to match anything like what I experienced in New Zealand. In fact, I am even finding it hard to stop thinking about all the beauty and the good times I saw across “the ditch” – the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand.

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On the edge at the end of the world.

What makes New Zealand so special? The innocent and incredibly ingenious people? The absolutely STUNNING countryside? The friendly presence of freshwater everywhere – and ditto absence of poisonous critters? The crisp, clean mountain air? The unique mix of Maori and European culture?

It is, of course, all of that in a perfect blend. Yet I think the main reason behind the country’s magnificence, is its isolation.  Since New Zealand broke free from ancient Gondwanaland, there has always been a couple of thousand kilometers to the nearest mainland – Australia.

Almost everywhere you go in New Zealand there is a creek, a lake, a waterfall; the sensation, sound and life of water is never far away.

Almost everywhere you go in New Zealand there is a creek, a lake, a waterfall; the sensation, sound and life of water is never far away.

As the last large land mass to be populated, New Zealand just hasn’t had that much exposure to the destructive human civilization – or mammals in general for that matter. There are no overgrown temples in the rain forest, no millennia-old trade-routes cutting north to south, just bush and mountains and beaches, and lots and lots and lots of it.

It is such a new place for us humans,that we are still exploring it. Here is space to live. About a thousand years ago, the Polynesians who first arrived in their Waka’s from the pacific islands, must have marveled at the size of these new islands. Today, immigrants marvel at the low population density.

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Even the parliament building (the so-called “beehive”) has a backdrop of wild bush!

There is a promise in the air of unpolluted nature, sustainable lifestyles and egalitarian politics. Following the global trend, all of that is rapidly being undermined by corporate governments. But when the shit hits the fan New Zealand – with its low population and relative isolation – strikes me as the perfect hide-out for survivalists and doomsday opportunists.

Leaving this land of lushness and opportunity was a strange affair; part of me was sad to say goodbye to all the amazing new friends. I also haven’t seen more than a fraction of what I wanted. But another part of me was thrilled to be going back to places with more people and more of a cultural flow.

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No matter where you are coming from, New Zealand is just far away. Nearest neighbours are Australia and even more remote Antarctica.

But perhaps this could be a place for me to settle down one fine day, just like my 67-year-old Danish friend Walter who moved here 15 years ago after more than 30 years on the road. I like the way he put it: “Once you have seen all the gurus and all the holy places and the monuments and you have found your spirituality inside you, New Zealand is where you go. Here is only the spacious, gentle land as a beautiful blank canvas, quietly supporting you and accepting who you are”.

Christchurch Rising From The Ruins

This is a piece about a broken city where socialists are saints, where scaffolds are high and the church is made of toilet paper rolls.

My traveling compadre Javi and myself (aka Beauty & The Beast) get a 6-hour ride to Christchurch with Doug – a Kiwi Philosophy Major turned concrete truck driver and quad-lingual tour guide. We pass through the stunning McKenzie Country and behold the vast mountain-rimmed glacial plains while discussing ethical dilemmas and etymological theory. In true Kiwi style he puts us up for the night and after a lovely family pancake breakfast, we go busking in the streets.

Playing Up The Strip With Cliff Richard

City Mall is a vibrant oasis in a strangely desolate cityscape. Javi and I play our quirky music to hundreds of by-passers. Enough people smile to make us continue for hours, and enough people throw a coin or buy our CD to make it worth our while too. We sit in the improvised main street where brightly colored shipping containers make up a funky shopping environment and buskers on every corner vie for attention.

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Past meet present on high street Christchurch. In front of the spiced-up shipping containers, native plants like flax has been planted.

The old pop-singer Sir Cliff Richard (who obviously had a paid gig) also walked this strip recently, and remarked; “it looks fantastic. I think you should keep it that way.” Being the one and only place in town where there is some kind of business-as-usual feeling, the place attracts everyone out for a downtown stroll.

Eventually it is time for a picnic in the park. As we enjoy our lunch, Wiremu comes to the creek for a smoke. We offer him some tea but he’s alright. It is Sunday arvo and the weather is fine. His son is stoned on cheap wine and doesn’t say much, but father likes a yarn: “Wheah yu from den ae? Nut from around hia are yuz?” Maori English never fails to charm me. Especially when spoken by a friendly face like Wiremu’s.

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The Hitchhiker’s Promised Land – A True Story

You are standing in the prettiest place in the world. Sun is up, and filters pleasantly through an elusive variation of clouds. The camp-fire smell in your clothes reminds you of the glorious conversations and last night’s one-pot stew. This morning’s cowboy-coffee takes the edge of the relentless sand-flies’ bites, but you don’t really care:

In front of you is Mount Cook and his range of snow-capped alpine cousins. Towering so near – pouring clean, crisp water down their arms, and into the hands of the forest and the bush. Silent lakes and strong-headed rivers. Drowsy pastures and the odd farm-house. Over litter-less beaches and into the patiently pulsating Pacific Ocean. This is the last place we got to – the freshest land on the planet.

Back down again, Javi and I are setting out on an epic hitchhike down the most beautiful part of New Zealand; the West Coast of the South Island. Unfortunately without a camera...

Javi and I are setting out on an epic hitchhike down the most beautiful part of New Zealand; the West Coast of the South Island. Unfortunately without a camera…

Time is not an issue. Your thumb is the agenda, and your camp is on your back. Cars passing by allow for another tea and another story – another belly laugh. Nature talks back with subtle critters in the grass, whooshing leaves and the distant crash of tidal waves. The road is warm and life is happy. Someone always picks you up.

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