Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Great Flag Debate

Today the results of the New Zealand flag referendum were released, and we’ve opted to stay with the current flag, for the time being at least. I say ‘we’, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t permitted to vote. I applied to vote, but I’ve been living out of the country for too long for my opinion to be valid, it seems. Not long enough to avoid being chased for debt, but long enough not to be allowed to have a say in this important matter. But that’s another story.
In any case, the flag remains the same. Had I been able to vote, I would have chosen – well, you’ll see my thoughts if you keep reading, which I assume is why you’re here.
The arguments for and against changing the flag (at least the ones I heard) were as below, along with a few other relevant points:
  1. It looks like a beach towel. I never really liked this argument, and honestly it could be applied equally to either flag. As you can put literally any image on a beach towel, I found this to be a pointless thing to say.
  2. Our flag looks too much like Australia’s flag. True, although depending on how you define it, ours has been around longer, so maybe theirs is the one that should change. I find it strange, though, that we should consider such an important thing as changing the flag in relation to how we are perceived by others. What I mean is, why does it matter if our flag looks like Australia’s? Any self-respecting kiwi should have learned to identify the flag in their youth, and outsiders are going to compare us to Australia no matter how our flags look.
  3. We want the flag to be individual. Again, our flag isn’t ‘unique’ enough. I don’t really get the obsession with being different from everyone else. Poland and Monaco have basically the same flag, and you don’t see them getting bent out of shape about it. Just google ‘flags that look similar’ to find other examples.
  4. John’s Key’s personal crusade: let’s face it, he wanted to change the flag, so he could be known as the man who changed the flag. It would distract so well from all the terrible decisions he’d made while in office, and leave him some kind of legacy beyond hair pulling. As has been pointed out, though, the money could have been better spent. I’m not against spending money on issues like these when the time is right, but the time was not right, and Key failed (or refused) to see that.
  5. The Silver Fern: let’s put the silver fern on the flag. Another aspect championed by Mr Key, to the extent that most of the shortlisted designs had the fern on them. I get that most of us love the All Blacks, but they (and other sporting teams) don’t represent the interests of the entire country. We’re about more than sport. And I get that the fern is a plant which doesn’t grow anywhere else, but so is rangiora.
  6. Getting rid of the Union Jack: New Zealanders are fiercely independent, and despite that fact that we’re still part of the Commonwealth, and have to have our laws signed off by a Governor General, many of us dislike being thought of as a British colony. I don’t think that this historical (and current) connection is a bad thing, and I don’t think it can be erased simply by changing the flag. That kind of change must come in law, and an alteration to our national ensign is a bit like papering over a deeper crack. To my mind, the removal of the Union Jack would be more appropriate when NZ finally becomes a republic and/or leaves the influence of the Queen behind. This takes me to my next point.
  7. The timing was wrong. For me, as I said, the flag change should happen when NZ becomes truly independent (which I believe is inevitable). Countries change their flags after moments of great turmoil and upheaval. South Africa changed theirs to help the country move past the horrors of apartheid. Rwanda changed theirs after the 1994 genocide. Were we supposed to change ours because we didn’t like the way it looked?
  8. I think at the root of the flag argument is the fact that New Zealand is a young country, still struggling with its own identity, still trying to define itself and be represented on the world stage. But that’s also why I think we should wait to change the flag. We don’t appear to know ourselves well enough yet to be able to devise a meaningful flag. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, just that we’ve yet to fully define our own path, set our own agenda, even integrate our own peoples. We can’t even decide to call ourselves all New Zealanders without reference to whether we’re Maori or non-Maori. It’s no bad thing to wait until we are more unified and collected as a people to decide on our national symbols.
  9. Let’s be honest, many of us didn’t take it seriously. Laser Kiwi, anyone?
  10. World Wars, and all that. One of the most common comments I saw was that somebody’s grandfather fought and/or died for the flag. I have to say, while I understand people’s feelings of respect and honour towards those who went to war for us, let’s be honest, they didn’t do it for the flag. They did it for the people they loved, the country they loved, or out of a sense of duty. In fact, a lot of men still considered themselves to be a part of Britain, and went to fight for her unhesitatingly during the first and second world wars. So it’s hard to say that they were thinking of the national colours rather than their wives and families when they stepped on to foreign soil with rifles in their hands. Of course, I don’t really know what they were thinking, but I know what I would have thought if it were me. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to those men to want to have a flag which represents our national identity; that freedom of expression is one of the very things they fought for.

To sum up, my principal objection to the flag change was that the timing was wrong. The flag should be changed when the country becomes fully its own, and when we have a better idea of who we are as a people. I also think it was a costly exercise, started for the wrong reasons. I have no doubt that the flag will change one day, and I have no objection to this. But we’re stuck with old four-starred Jack for now, and I’m just fine with that.

Monday, 14 March 2016

A brief sojourn, in South America


The sky outside the windows is red fire, nature elemental, obscured only by the curve of a man’s head as he reclines his seat. I massage the small of my back and shift in my seat, trying to ease the pressure on my tailbone. Outside and to the right, the clouds cover expanses of green, part momentarily, and close again.
The day is warm and close. I step into a cab without haggling, and watch the world go by. The driver never indicates, part one of the strange thing they call ‘culture’ here. Outside, the world is derelict; half-built or half-maintained, buildings fall apart before they are obscured by partitions erected at the side of the highway. A graffito declares ‘Rio 450 anos corruptos politicos’. Others are drawings underneath flyovers, in impossible places. As we slow, men sell popcorn strung around their necks. The police sit with their red lights on, and watch the traffic.
Mercifully, I am allowed to check in early, instead of spending hours nervously carting my bag of beautiful possessions around an unfamiliar city. I shower, cold water only, and snooze, unable to get the AC working.
I ask directions to the beach, which is easy to find. In the midday sun I walk as slowly as possible, limping from shade to shade. The beach bars offer more shade, food which has the same names as food I know, but different consistencies. I eat, and drink, and watch the waves crash in and out. I pay and leave, a big tip? Who knows? I walk, new jandals cutting slightly. In the sand leading down to the sun chairs they have laid hose pipe with small holes, which keeps the sand wet and cool enough to tread.
Along the waterfront people ride bikes and jog, which is hard to believe in this heat. Half the men I see disdain shirts. Old men and women are turned brown with the sun, crinkly, dried out like fruit, or maybe tough and protected. Other people are at work, hauling carts or shifting produce. I want one of those drinks which is basically just a cut open coconut, but I don’t order one. I wander back to the hotel and wash the sand off my feet.

Rio is beautiful in that European way, with grand vistas and mountains, while much of the pavement is dilapidated and smells of piss.
My friends are here. Instead of taking a cab, I decide to walk. It’s half an hour, but the night is warm and I like to walk. I stroll (see: power walk) along the Copacabana, under shady trees and past shady characters. I am accosted by a whore; she asks for a light and then rubs herself against me unceremoniously. Rebuffed, she asks if I’m gay. I tell her I have a girlfriend, the lie covering the truth: I don’t feel like risking HIV or a mugging.
I arrive at the hotel unscathed, embrace my friends, receive candy. We go up to the roof, drink caipirinhas, and survey the beach at night. The world is beautiful, from up here.

The next day I visit giant stone Jesus, along with thousands of others. He stares down across the city with either benevolence or indifference. The holes in his hands are fake: they don’t go all the way through. I wonder how big a cross would have been needed to crucify a giant stone Jesus.
The tour van stops outside the Maracana in the baking heat. I buy water which would be cheap in London but is expensive here. The guy knows what he’s doing. There’s a statue of a famous footballer holding the World Cup aloft but not looking thrilled about it. In front of the statue a man poses in a Brazil shirt, taking money from people for pictures of him with a football. I snap one of the statue without him, and go to stand in the shade.

We drive past people in the street; a young boy mimes shooting an old man in the face, the old man looks both horrified and disgusted. He steps forward.
We pass on, around the lagoon, where people jog in the afternoon heat, without breaking a sweat. I retreat to the hotel and apply more sunscreen, make my way to the roof, and sloth about in the pool. From there I can see a mountain, in the deep curve of which, if I stand on tip toes, I can see over to Jesus, guarding the city.
Later, I message my friends and we have drinks and catch cabs up to Pão de Açúcar. My friends fall asleep in the back, well-travelled as they are. The mountain is at its grandest when you cannot see it; perched atop the hill we ignore the visitor centre and take handfuls of photos. I know in my heart they’ll always be a pale imitation of the sights which flood into my eyes, and the happiness I feel here, with my friends around me. Tomorrow, I will fly from the little airport; we see the planes bank hard and sweep in to land, and then we get in the capsule and head back down to the ground.

Porto Alegre

I fly in and cruise to the hotel, find an exquisite room with patio doors which aren’t supposed to open but do, and take snaps of the view. My friends and I go up to the pool and dick around; the water is warm and waist high.
We head out for dinner, walking in the evening heat to a local mall. On the way in, we see a castle surrounded by a massive ball pit. The question is raised: can we play? The answer is yes. We take our jandals off and pile in. We tackle each other, dive around, throw balls, and generally act like happy idiots. I feel dirty, exhilarated, and tired all at the same time.
Dinner is excellent: meat and slabs of melted cheese, and beer to wash it down. I ask how to say toothpick in Portuguese.

The big day arrives. We dress for the wedding, and the boys and I head down for a gathering of men tying ties. There’s tapas and whisky, and joie de vivre. David had brought presents from Australia, for the groom: a digeridoo, a boomerang, a stuffed koala.
We jump in cabs and head to the venue, a beautiful deck overlooking the river, blue skies and a mild breeze. The ceremony is lovely, and even though we don’t speak the language, we get choked up when Alex and Carol say their vows.
The reception is amazing. There’s great food, dancing, and plenty of booze. My friends and I dance like maniacs, and don’t feel ashamed. The waiters top drinks up with skill and timing, fuelling the carnival atmosphere. Samba dancers and musicians arrive, ramping up the tempo even further. Ties and high heels are discarded, as are inhibitions. We donate money and receive pieces of the groom’s tie; we throw the bride and groom into the air, almost recklessly. People are happy and friendly.
Later in the evening, there are cigars and whisky, and quiet conversation. Six hours have flown past, more quickly than I could have imagined. We head back to the hotel, and drink another drink, before heading to bed.

The day after is blissfully lazy. We invited to the bride’s father’s house for drinks, conversation, and some of the best barbecue you have ever tasted. Salted beef, and pork with crackling. Even the potato salad is amazing. We chat and sit in the shade, made to feel so welcome and so at ease.

Buenos Aires

I arrive in the middle of the day and leave my luggage at the desk, too tired to worry about taking my laptop and passport with me. I saunter down sun-baked streets, in search of a reputable ATM and adventure.
The Plaza de Mayo is covered in sun, and some tourists. There are banners and political graffiti around, and I feel safe, but edgy. There’s a famous monument, and a church. I stop in for a rest and some cool air. If there were candles, I would have lit one for my mother, but there are not. I wander the city, blend in; people hand me flyers for things I can’t read. I walk up to another large monument, find a café, and have lunch.
Later, after I have been able to check in and drop my bags, I wander the city some more, and have dinner; the café is charming in an unassuming way, and I watch football teams whose names I don’t know while I eat. The game is frenetic; I sip cold beer and eat slowly. Well, slowly by my standards.

The next day I ask how to use the tube and ride it to the zoo. The place is almost deserted; it’s a weekday and cold by their standards (18 degrees). I finally see elephants after years of trying (well, intermittently trying), and they are beautiful, if bored.
I visit the Cementerio de Recoleta, which is amazing in a sad way. Some of the tombs are majestic, others unkempt. As I pass one by, I am sure I can see the white of a skull in a broken coffin. I wander around, taking photographs, and leave again soon, tired of thinking about death.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city; it’s European, with Spanish, Italian, French, even English influences on the architecture. The grid system reminds me in places of New York, which can only be a favourable comparison. I feel more comfortable here, given that my small amount of Spanish is much better than my small amount of Portuguese.

Praia de Pipa

I awaken at 3am and take a cab to the airport, flying to Natal airport via Rio. The time passes quickly enough, and soon I arrive. Noah and Helen have waited several hours for me, drinking and playing cards, so we can take the hour and a half cab ride together. For this, I am extremely grateful.
We arrive late, and miss the sunset. Our friends have been chilling and drinking all day; I’d expect nothing less. We have a drink and walk back across rickety planks, back to the pousada to drop off our bags and take an evening swim. I practice my diving and my floating. Life is as good as it’s ever been in that moment.
The pousada is quiet and lovely, with a beach view to break your heart. At night, I talk with Lisa and David, and sip red wine.

The next day is stormy and wet, but still warm. We muck about, wander into the town, past restaurants and shops full of beer, sunscreen, and jandals. We find a restaurant nestled back from the road, amid a cooling cover of trees, and we eat. The food is fantastic, like everything here.
That evening, two of us leave. I bid them farewell, sit back down with a lump in my throat, sip vodka and coke. The rest of us chat, and tell stories.

In the morning I eat breakfast, cooked personally by Vera, the pousada’s owner. She also makes fresh smoothies every day, with berries from a tree in her garden. I laze about in the hammock, and then we wander down to the beach. The ocean is choppy, but so warm; I cannot help but jump in. It’s been far too long since I was in the ocean.
We sit about under umbrellas, and take pictures of sand crabs scuttling out of holes in the sand. Time passes slowly and quickly at the same time. We leave the beach and go riding quadbikes, an idea I am nervous about at first but quickly learn to love. The drive is thrilling, the scenery almost too much to take in. We pass rafts ferrying cars across a river, local kids playing football. It would be fun to join in, if time permitted, and if they wouldn’t put us to shame.
I head back to the pousada to relax for a while and change. Vera tells me, I am not alone. I will always remember her saying it. We converse in broken English, and I go up to spend an hour snoozing in my hammock. I decide I need a hammock, when I get around to buying a house.
Dinner that night is excellent, topped off by a game of poker using improvised chips: acorns, matches, and pinecones. I am terrible at poker, and always will be.

Noah and Helen leave the next morning, and it’s another day at the beach for Alex, Carol and I, and more swimming. Or, more being smashed around by waves. I get sunburn, but what the hell. Time does that thing is does once more, swimming away out of reach. We head out later for dinner, and talk about learning languages and having ambition. The cause of all suffering, is desire.

The next day is the last. We eat breakfast and take a ride to the airport. If I had my way, I’d have been two hours early; instead I trust the locals and we arrive in perfect time. I hug my friends, and head inside to catch my flight home. I think about the trip: one of the best I’ve ever had, and over far too soon.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Snap shots of New York City - Part III

Times Square

A man dressed as Spiderman looks at his phone, wanders, looks at his phone. Maybe he really is Spiderman, waiting for people to save. Spidey-sense: we have an app for that.

Behind me an old man sits, black skin contrasting a long white beard. He has a blue beanie and a straw coming out of his mouth. He sits comfortably, leaned back, one leg over the other. A plastic bag and a disposable cup of coffee rest on the table in front of him. The tables here are red and made of steel.

There are more people dressed up here, running around. Minions, Hulk, Predator. I can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing. Lure the kids in, then Predator jumps out to scare them? That would be entertaining. The air is chilly but easily tolerable, the breeze light. My back hurts so I sit some more, look at my watch. In my left back pocket is a bunch of change I’ll give away.

Further behind me a Latino man in a black hoodie and blue baseball cap sits, a bag between his feet, a phone sideways in his hands. He leans on the table, taps the buttons. A cord snakes up to his ears.

A family use a selfie stick, a white-haired lady and probably her son; neon is the backdrop, but that’s true almost anywhere you look here. The square wears a false skin, made of light.

Two cops wander by, discussing the time in the loud way New Yorkers talk. One hangs his hat from his belt. I look at my watch as they stand, confidently, kings of the city. There are a lot of them. I am a Londoner. I am a New Zealander disguised as a Londoner. I am a New Zealander disguised as a Londoner disguised as a New Yorker. I want to be everything. Well, not everything.

A guy dressed as Elmo walks by on my right. His Elmo laugh is creepy.

In the middle of Times Square is a US Armed Forces recruiting station, with Old Glory brightly-lit on the side. That, and the barrage of flashing advertisements, endless unceasing, are all you need to know about Times Square. That, and the people, so many of them dressed up; so many of them cops. I think about going into Starbucks. Maybe later.

The floats don’t get down this way until gone nine o’clock. I could’ve slept in. The guide said arrive at seven am for a good spot. I said, you must be ’avin’ a bubble.

I don’t talk to the pigeons, not yet. I sit up and rub my back. I wonder if the ihop is open today.

People talk in that way that’s normal here. it’s hard to come to New York and then complain about American accents. My phone tells me the word of the day is gormandize. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

The Rail Line Diner, Part Two

At the table across from me they discuss politics: the evils of Donald Trump, the blatant racism of Fox News. He wears a red hoodie, and has a beard. He talks of ideological differences. He scratches his face and declares: ‘If Trump wins I’m moving to Canada.’ I can’t hear what she says. They refuse more coffee, and leave.

There’s a ball game on TV. Philadelphia – Detroit. Tempting to stay and watch, even. But the TVs face the opposite direction to the tables. The food is good – as usual it’s a lot. I control myself – a little. The waitress is friendly, attentive. She drops off the cheque. ‘Happy holidays. Spend it with your family. Have a few drinks but don’t get drunk.’ I smile. Maybe I will.

Central Park

Central Park is unseasonably busy, due to the unseasonably warm weather (there’s still ice skating though). I buy a hot dog from a vendor. As I wait, the vendor gives a man some ice, free of charge, for his son who bumped his head. I walk past the rocks and the water, and find a seat. I think about reading my book.

A guy plays guitar, and sings. Wild Horses, All Along the Watchtower, Stairway to Heaven. His voice is gritty, his beard long, and he is happy. He collects tips in a suitcase with water bottles atop. In my back pocket, my change digs into my butt.

If I lived in New York, I’d miss all the grass. Sure, it has grass, but most of it is caged.

People take pictures and throw bread to the ducks (even though it’s bad for them), and then take pictures of the ducks. I have jumped on the picture wagon. I have five or six of Central Park, which I’ll put on my computer and never look at again. I really should rename the images so they make sense when I’m older, but aint nobody got time for that.

Selfie sticks. Whatever happened to holding the camera? They must be a city invention. Do we mistrust all strangers, or are we alone so much? Is this progress?

If I lived in New York I would walk its streets for hours.

The player stops playing. On the bench next to me, girls discuss… something. Look at pictures of cats, make dinner plans. I find them attractive and repulsive at the same time. Is it my fault? I look at my watch.

People feed squirrels. I guess that’s a novelty. I was glad to see black ones at the zoo, so it’s one more life experience in the bag, I guess. The squirrel runs behind the bench. The girls comment on it, then ignore it. Or is that me? Beside me, a toddler shushes herself and points at the squirrel. (My friend’s dog is fine with people, but barks at toddlers. What does that mean?) The girls out down empty ice tea cups. One wears mittens and light brown boots, and waits to catch me looking at her. She is the prettier one and probably used to it. The other one wears jeans and a short brown coat. They get up and walk off. I think that I might not be cool, but at least I don’t wear mittens.

A girl with a hat slashed with dark green flowers walks past; her hair matches the hat, and you can’t help but see it. She pretends to hat attention. She talks to her friends in a voice at once fast and slow. The guitar man still isn’t playing, but there’s some kind of brass instrument from somewhere. The green girl and her friends walk on up the slope; she seems a little self-conscious about her weight, the way she moves (I can tell). But, it might be my assumption; the way she’s dressed, it’s perfect for autumn weather.

More photos of ducks and scenery, with expensive cameras. A heavy man in a grey and black tracksuit sits down next to me. I hope he doesn’t want to talk. I am getting hungry, so I decide to leave. I head towards 59th Street, but it will be another hour before I eat.