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.

australia day

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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New Zealand Snapshot Stories

Sometimes it is so much more descriptive to explain a story from a picture, and sometimes there are too many stories too tell in one blog post. So, I have put together this little gallery, showing you some of the memorable people and places I met and visited in New Zealand. There are scores more apart from these (I have had a very busy half a year in terms of meeting people) but I only had a camera for half of the time…

Anyway, hope you enjoy, click on a picture to begin!

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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5000!

Hey you!

Just thought I would share with you how thrilled I am that today I reached 5000 views! That’s roughly 10 views per day since I started this blog about 1½ years ago.

Initially thought as an extended version of a postcard (mostly for my mum!), this little project has turned into quite a focal point in my travels, not least because of all the feedback I get from you readers. I feel very very privileged to have somebody reading my posts and although many bloggers have readers in the millions, I am just overwhelmed that people from all over the world have taken the time to read about my experiences on the road. Thank you!

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Not all the amazing things I experience make it into my blog. Here is for instance a snap of me jamming with blues legend Taj Mahal, not to mention the equally amazing Francesca and little Francois. God I miss those guys…

Looking at my blog statistics I am proud to see that I have had readers from 67 countries! These include interesting places such as Fiji, Yemen, Uganda, Myanmar, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and Colombia. You lot are a mixed crowd it seems 🙂

Australia takes the lion’s share with just over 40% of the views and Denmark is riding shotgun at just over 20%. After that comes New Zealand, the US, Germany and then India on a 6th place with 103 views.

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Here’s a very recent photo of me, in case you have forgotten what I look like… This is from my campsite in Wellington. The dog is Tui – the best dog in all of NZ!

My most popular post is also my most recent one, dedicated to the incredible Kiwiburn Festival. That one has had no less than 410 views in 2 weeks – I must have hit a nerve there… The 2nd most popular post is about my beloved friends at Ponyland where I spent most of my time in Australia by far. Last on my top 3 of most read posts is the inspired piece I did on the Eclipse Festival in Australia where I got to see a total eclipse of the sun.

What a life! What a privilege! What a great support you guys are!

Thank you so much for reading this…

cornelius

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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a beach of few words

a visual poem reflecting on past love-relationships and choices. all pictures taken at the stunning wharariki beach on new zealand’s south island.

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