Ireland Revisited

I recently spent 3 fabulous weeks in Ireland with some good friends – new and old. (If you are just here to see some sweet pictures from my latest trip, then scroll down to the gallery part). It was probably my 7th trip there in the decade that has passed since my first impromptu immigration to Ireland. This near-mythical island fascinates me with its resilient culture, at home and abroad. Between 9 and 10 million people have emigrated from Ireland since the 1700’s, and today the Irish People and their descendants count more than 80 million humans. This post is an introduction into the migration-happy Ireland that i have come to know and love.

Fáilte go hÉirinn – Welcome to Ireland!

 

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Also known as “The Emerald Isle”, Ireland is indeed a very green place. Lots of old castles and rugged cliffs too. Just like the brochures really, except they don’t always mention the incessant rain…

Early Irish Impressions

When I was 20 years old, I was living in England’s “San Francisco” – the lively seaside town of Brighton – where young back packers and middle-aged party-addicts spontaneously get stuck until they run out of money or mental health.

I ran out of both after about a year of odd-jobs and shoestring-debauchery – but what a year it was! This was my first bit of proper impromptu migration, traveling alone and with nothing but opportunity and adventure ahead of me. Here I made friends from around the world, and one such friend was the Irishman Joe (Great Mystery rest his soul). More

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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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”.

Waitangi Day – Day Of The Wailing Waters

Just the other day it was Waitangi Day here in New Zealand and I bet you have no idea what that really means. And if I tell you that Waitangi means ‘waters of sorrowful cries’ in Maori, you’re probably still none the wiser. For most New Zealanders, Waitangi Day is just another welcome day off, yet for those in the know, this is a day that marks either a celebration or a lamentation of historic proportions.

It is often said that out of all the European colonies, New Zealand treated their indigenous Maori population best. Many Kiwis will happily reiterate this statement, often pointing the finger at their barbaric neighbours in Australia who still hold one of the worst track records in terms of racism and inequality. Compared to the Aussies, New Zealand is a veritable role model and a text-book example of how to establish a colony while still respecting the native population. This is certainly a convenient truth for the less than 170-year-old New Zealand government, largely consisting of European descendants…

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One of the ways this popular belief is upheld is by marking February the 6th every year. A public holiday in New Zealand, this day commemorates the signing of a treaty – the Waitangi Treaty – between some 45 Maori chiefs and the Queen of England, who thus annexed their land and made it part of the British Empire.

While the Waitangi Treaty has had obvious benefits for the Maori – such as being recognized as humans rather than animals like colonial powers did in South America, Africa, Australia etc. – the treaty was by no means a just affair, nor is it even, to this day, part of the domestic law of New Zealand.

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A Burner Is Born!

A first-time Burning Man participant shares the magic of New Zealand’s regional Kiwiburn. Meet the Festival Community at the frontiers of culture and see why burners never look back… A 15-minute engaging read, written to the soundtrack of Black Napkins, Happy & Solsbury Hill.

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This guy is what it’s all about. Photo: Randy Brophy

A Passionate Preface

I have lost my virginity to a burning sensation. My mind, body and soul has been cleansed by a week of thorough debauchery so spiritually charged that my life feels many times enhanced. Henceforth I shall identify as a “burner” with the explicit aim of setting large men on fire all around the world. Have I joined a cult? I really couldn’t care less, I just want to burn!

They say that burners leave a burn with instant withdrawal symptoms. I couldn’t agree more. I am literally dancing down the street looking by-passers in the eyes with a big smile for a gift and a heart so open you could pass a galaxy through it. Is this an addiction? I really couldn’t care less, I just want to burn!

Burn those old patterns away, burn away the barriers in my brain and burn up my life in a singularly meaningful, intentional and inspirational blaze of creativity and love. In other words; if you ever doubted that I had gone stark raving mad in the elusive eyes of society; doubt no more, because; I just want to burn!

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Okay, here’s your “naked” shot, now go perv somewhere else 😉

I honestly thought I knew what it would be like to go to a burn. Silly me. I have lived in communities for the past decade, steadily putting on festivals and parties and however many crazy concerts and ceremonies. In my life I have travelled and lived on 5 continents and randomly connected with thousands of beautiful strangers. But I have never seen anything burn so pure as the burning man at Kiwiburn.

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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 History Of New Zealand’s Discovery (According To Me)

This post is an attempt to sum up parts of New Zealand’s earliest history, so if you’re not into history and just want to know what I am up to, then you’re better off doing those dishes you postponed when you sat down quickly check your email and then ended up surfing the net for 3 hours.

New Zealand is indeed a new place. Not just as a nation, the actual land mass is still emerging from the sea at a rate fast enough to produce regular earthquakes. Mountains grow about 1 meter a year (but only a centimeter remains after the rest has crumbled away again). The soil is slipping and sliding everywhere as any motorist who has ever driven on New Zealand’s winding, crumbling roads will know. But long before New Zealand became what we know today as Australia’s innocent younger sister (sorry Kiwis but it’s true) and the last outpost of Western Civilization, the land had an altogether different culture; it was the land of the Maori – the normal people.

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A brand new road at the site of a big slip. Patience headlines the Kiwi road-worker job description with fresh landslides covering yesterdays work and floods washing away the precious tarmac (and some people) every year.

You see, the Polynesian descendants who first settled down in this wondrous place never even thought of themselves as one people until the Europeans started showing up. Until then, the first waves of canoeing explorers who landed on these pristine beaches had formed individual tribes and chiefdoms and fought each other over land and resources as humans have a tendency to do.

Then, when suddenly, gigantic “canoes” with massive sails blew in with their pale looking crew wearing pointy hats and crazy rags, the locals realized that they had a lot more in common with each other than they had with these strangers, and just like that they decided to call themselves Maori which means “regular” or “normal” people. The stranger, in turn, were from then on called Pakeha which means “stranger”. Pakeha is still in common use today and is mostly thought of as a neutral term or simply a necessary word for distinguishing newer settlers from Maori.

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It was in war canoes – Waka’s – like this, that the first Maori settlers are thought to have arrived from Polynesia.

It also wasn’t until the arrival of Europeans that the Maoris agreed on a common name for New Zealand, namely Aotearoa. Until then been considered to be hundreds of tribal chiefdoms (Iwi’s) rather than one united country and the name Aotearoa only applied top the North Island which had been discovered first. According to Maori legend, it was the great Polynesian navigator Kupe, who first set foot on this island when he chanced upon it during a long and epic chase after a giant octopus called Muturangi.

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Julinbah Yowarl Revisited

Some of you might remember a post I wrote about half a year ago (when I was still attempting to fit a novel into a blog-post) about a very special event called Rainbow Corroboree, or Julinbah Yowarl in the native tongue of the Bunjalung people.

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Every aboriginal ceremonial dance that I have seen so far, starts with a cleansing dance. Using branches with fresh leaves for “brooms” and lots of smoke, the cleansing dance is a way to clear away any bad spirits before the corroborree.

The Julinbah Yowarl Rainbow Corroborree is held twice a year on every equinox . Instigated by the Bunjalung steward and holder of the local songlines, Lewis Walker, the event is a colorful celebration of Aboriginal culture and a way of building bridges between white and black Australia.

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Cruelty & Creativity

I’ve just arrived in Cairns in the north-eastern part of Australia. It’s tropical here, and I am sitting on a veranda only a stone’s throw from the ocean. All around town there are backpackers hanging out in the parks and on the beach, eagerly awaiting the Total Solar Eclipse which can be seen from the area around Cairns early Wednesday morning.

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Mim Has Always Been Part Of Australia’s Alternative Scene

I feel incredibly lucky not having to wait in some anonymous guesthouse room or sleeping rough in the park, but instead staying in a beautiful old wooden house by the sea. The house belongs to my new friend Miriam whom I met at Ponyland when she was visiting her daughter.

“Mim” is one of the many incredibly friendly people who are helping me experience Australia beyond the tourist façade. I never knew this place was so wrought with wickedness…

My first big travel out of Europe was to the South of Senegal in West Africa where I first had a human being tugging my sleeves, crying and begging me to help her kids in the name of Red Cross and all things good in the world. Heart-wrenching.

Since then I’ve worked as a Human Rights Activist in Cambodia and as a journalist for the Tibetan cause in the Himalayas, and in my travels there has generally been a theme of going to hardship countries and fighting for the cause at hand.

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The Great Guruman

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First time I saw a Guruman he was skinned, gutted and cut up in a bucket. I was serving a young man, with Aboriginal paint-marks on his face, a piece of chocolate cake and a cup of chai, and I asked him how his day had been. As I spotted the long and powerful tail hanging out of his bucket, he replied; “ah, great mate, we just went hunting and caught a roo, yes please two sugars.”

That evening I had my first taste of kangaroo meat (splendid taste!) before I’d even seen a live one. I am not sure how that fits into the Aboriginal practice of taking on the spirit of Guruman – as he is called among the Aboriginals of New South Wales – but for what it’s worth I had a wonderful spring night.

To the Aboriginals, guruman is a powerful creature and a much revered and respected ancestor. But apparently a dead guruman isn’t above the need for food as they have been eating roos since they first threw spears. More interestingly, perhaps, they also used to stuff the scrotum (ball-sack) of the male guruman and play football with it!

It was the famous explorer James Cook who, in 1770, first recorded the name “kangooroo” and legend has it that when he pointed to one of these large hopping creatures and asked an aboriginal man what it was called, the man replied “kangooroo” which apparently meant “I don’t have a clue what you are saying mate”. In any case, the name caught on and in the typical Asutralian fashion of abbreviating nearly every word, this magnificent animal is now commonly known as a “roo”.

For the first two weeks I was looking everywhere for guruman with no luck. Not even on the long drive to remote Tabulam did I see one and I was getting really impatient. I guess I had thought they would be hopping around on the tarmac already as I got out of the airplane, knowing that guruman is an endemic species on the continent. Alas, there were only uptight customs officers to greet me, also an endemic species according to some of the travellers I have met here.

Roos live in flocks also known as “mobs” or “troops” with 10 or more individuals in them. This provides safety for some of the weaker members of the mob, for instance the little ones which are known as “joeys”. A grown female guruman is called a “doe”, a “flyer” or a “jill” while a male guruman can be called a “buck”, a “boomer”, a “jack” or simply “old man”. As we say in Denmark; “cherished children have many names…”

It wasn’t until the third morning of my stay here in Ponyland (a newly formed community near Nimbin of which you will hear more later) that I saw the next guruman. I was slumbering in my tent in the wee hours of budding daylight when I felt the earth beneath me vibrate from the impact of large feet. Still not quite used to the extravagant assortment of wildlife in Australia, I admit that I was a bit worried despite my half-conscious, half-sleeping state of mind. The thundering thuds ended abruptly right in front of my tent, but before I could even spell the word panic, I heard a friendly voice call out; “Cornelius, come and join us in the shed, we’re skinning a roo, you’ll love it!”

It was Dave, the multi-talented and incredibly energetic guy who is a founding member of the Pony-Club. He had just returned from Sydney and late in the evening as he was approaching home, he’d found a dead roo on the road. Roadkill, as they call it. True to his conservationist ideals, he’d thrown it in the back of his car and as soon as the sun shone on the land he got up to rip the skin off of the unfortunate bugger and proceeded to separate the good meat from the bad. He’d been hopping out of joy over his find when he went to get me so I could wittness the butchering. It seemed a bit early for me to have my first lesson in skinning a roo, but hey, how often do you get that kind of opportunity? I immediately got up and had a go at ripping the furry skin off with a sharp knife.

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Dave the Butcher

When we got to the tricky part around the anus, however, I left it for Dave to finish the job while I cooked up a healthy porridge, just as my soul mate Isabelle has taught me. But even the lovely smell of cinnamon and cardamom couldn’t mask the pungent odour that the dead animal gave off as the process of decay slowly kicked in. I always fancied myself as a would-be hunter and butcher if the need arose, but as I helped Dave with the skinning and gutting, I started to have my doubts as my porridge began edging its way back up through my throat…

Truth be told, it wasn’t even a real roo, but a specimen of guruman’s smaller cousin, the wallaby. Wallabys look very much like kangaroos, and for every practical aspect of the animal, the two are almost identical if not for the difference in size. So the following morning, when I awoke to finally see what I thought was a real living guruman hopping about on the cow-field where I have pitched my modest tent, it was merely a local wallaby in pursuit of whatever food it could find. Beautiful as it was, and impressed as I was, it still wasn’t the real deal. I wanted to see a genuine (or as they say here; “fair dinkum”) guruman, and I still do.

The wallaby I had seen was little more than a meter tall and it was rather scared of me as I rose from my bedding in the metallic-grey igloo, so out of place in the natural setting. A real guruman wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at my strange appearance; they grow to be 2 metres tall and weigh up to 90 kg. Throw in some pretty good boxing skills, a maximum speed of 70 km/h and the ability to swim, and you have one mean opponent staring you right in the face. Maybe it’s a good thing that I haven’t seen one up close yet..?

The first Europeans to describe a guruman explained that it was an animal with the head of a deer (without the antlers) which stood upright like a man, jumped like a frog and sometimes had a second head sticking out of the belly. Needless to say, no one believed in these crazy tales from the end of the world. Of course, the head on the belly is just a tiny guruman in his/her mother’s pouch into which they crawl immediately after birth to continue growing until they can do the jumping by themselves. Possibly one of the cutest images from the animal kingdom if you ask me. Most of us know about the “baby in the bag” but I was quite surprised to find out that a female guruman can put her pregnancy on pause if the first joey hasn’t left the sack yet or if there isn’t enough food or water to grow the embryo. The wonders of nature…

In this day and age the guruman has become subject of a very curious study; how to eliminate the methane gasses released into the atmsophere by farting cows, thus posing a threat to our life-sustaining atmosphere. Thing is, roos don’t fart! Instead they have a bacteria in their intestines which breaks down the methane and converts it into more energy for jumping around. This is of great interests to a group of dedicated scientists, who wants to introduce guruman’s helpful bacterias into the stomachs of cows all over the world. Oh science… At this point my frantic imagination is feeding my mind with some great images of jumping cows and supermarket shelves stocked with kangaroo-milk.

I’d better stop here before it all gets too strange. Thank you for showing interest in guruman, Australia’s finest national animal, found on everything from coins and emblems to the twisted bull-bars of roaring road-trains, plowing through mobs of roos in the desolate deserts of this weird and wonderful country. I hope that I get to see a real and living guruman some day, and I promise that I will take a picture of him and show it to you as soon as I do!

 

 

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