Archive for July, 2007

Bad things to such good people

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This is a kind of ‘you had to be there’ blog. For those of you who were, then it was both an honour and a privilege to be there with you. But I guess you had to be there.

In a normal situation I would have had a good (or probably bad) 4 blogs done in the past week. By normal situation I mean living in NZ without all these terribly bothersome human beings getting in the way.

Instead I’ve spent a week with people, in fact I’ve spent barely an hour away from people since I got back. Indeed the one hour I did spend alone, I got a bit twitchy and unsettled that there was no one there.

Finished is my 12th year at New Horizon. Gained is a head full of songs, theology, conversations, meaning, hope and tears. I have spent time listening to the people of GOD singing, standing with my eyes closed to hide the fact that I’m crying, so full of joy that I am closer to home than I have been in my whole life.

And home is not Norn Iron, and not even, dare I say it Porteedown, but home is somewhere between ‘final breath’ and revelation 21. Home is not so far away from hope. Home is in fact, only 3 letters away from hope. Certain words acquire depth and meat and meaning after a week or so on them.

Being here has been taking my head out of the sand – for indeed in some aspects, NZ has been a long ‘time out’ and sticking my head in the sand and pretending that bad things do not happen to such good people as those I love so dearly.

In other aspects I wish I hadn’t been away. That when I left, I missed out on people’s lives, that when I left I kind of withdrew support that should have been given. I regret not being there – if not when I should have been, then at least when I could have been.

I have loved just sitting in the courtyard in Agherton, playing Woodsy’s detuned guitar and drinking coffee from my orange mug sitting on the windowsill and people watching. Getting 34 headers first time with Skeeno when it took us 3 hours in the dark last week to get 20. With the sweet hum of the Nerf over head and the constant stream of mini buses coming and going.

Before I indulge any further then I will tell you that there’s a Ben Folds line that goes ‘kids these days… they get nostalgic about the last 10 years before the last 10 years are past’.

I have had 100 conversations with people I haven’t seen in a year or longer. I even knew some of their names.

I have had countless chats with folk in the big tent as my eyes drift from focus on who I’m talking to, to who I may possibly talk to next. This is pretty universal, the sheer number of people leads to such distracted conversations. I briefly attempted to hold conversations where I never broke eye contact but found this hugely unnatural and rather freaky. I resorted to looking at my feet. It annoys me that despite the fact that I want to give someone my full attention – as politeness and love would dictate – I cannot avert my eyes from the possible next social engagement.

I suspect I have blanked people, people who know me, a few who have even said ‘hi Andy’ to which my body as replied with a ‘blank’ and an inward – ‘I have no idea who you are, what your name is or even why I should know you’.

Surprisingly I am not yet fed up with my ‘if I was a friendless orphan I would move to NZ’ conversation yet, though I suspect a lot of you are. I remain joyously, neither of the above.

I bet you look good on the dance floor

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I would like this to be an epiphany. But really it’s just more of a climb down. With cap in hand and sheepish look I confess, that I just may be a dancer.

By that, I in no way mean that I can dance, or indeed show an inkling of promise in the field. What I mean is that I just may enjoy it.

Background.

I have not danced, nor even tapped a foot in anger on the dance floor since a horrible ‘club’ experience when I was 19, when I first made a commitment never to dance in public again.

I dance in private regularly, head banging to Bloc Party with the best of them.

My problems with dancing are legion, but far and away the most significant is the self-consciousness of my white boy self making an idiot of himself in front of both beloved and complete strangers.

I am not alone in this I know.

Today I was at a friend’s wedding. Indeed this was a regression wedding. A wedding of a founder member of the GFA (Garden Football Association). The GFA was not as some suspect, a paramilitary organisation but a bunch of 15 year olds with two much time on their hands and a back garden and some footy.

This was a wedding of one of those guys that in many ways I don’t know nearly as well as I would like but just enough to know that it’s been well worth knowing him. One of those guys that you see once a year but remains solid in the ‘people I’m glad I’ve known in my life’ list.

The music was neither a dodgy cover band, nor a DJ, but just a ‘throw your iPod in the ring’ type of thing. And so we were all busy regressing into our 16/17/18 year old selves, and trying to reconcile this with our 26-year-old selves and catching up on what happened in between.

There was Mr Brightside, there was also Last Night, there was indeed most of the Nice Guy Eddie play list. There was Living on a prayer, and yes there was jumping up and down and realising that a high G is beyond my vocal range.

I loved it. This is no dirty, secret confession. This is proud and true, that dancing just may be an awful lot of fun. I will always be more comfortable dancing to Mr Brightside and Love will tear us apart than Build me up buttercup. I feel some kind of identity with the former. I feel nothing but contempt for the latter.

Today was in many ways ideal conditions for breaking my dance-fast. It may not happen again any time soon, but I am glad, no longer to be a secret dancer, but perhaps one who will require less encouragement to make a move on the dance floor. Though I would warn you still to keep your toes well clear.

Anyone can play guitar

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Among the myriad of things I missed when I was away was music. Not the piped music from my computer, but the sheer joy of making (and indeed simply regurgitating) music with other people.

I have had the pleasure of playing with some wonderful musicians, and some even more wonderful people. The only way you get better is by playing with people better than you. Though by that argument I should maybe be getting on better than I am.

Of the 5 weddings I’m at in the 6 weeks I’m home, I’m playing at two of them. The old Nice Guy Eddie reunited tour. The Spice Girls have nothing on us. And tonight we got round to practicing again.

I’ve been without an electric guitar for the guts (and indeed heart, liver and lungs) of a year. I can do G, after that it gets a bit fuzzy. I picked up the guitar from church before the practice. It took me a while to figure out where to plug things. I gave it a go. It sounded awful. I would like this to be the passage of time and old strings, and possibly a blown valve, but alas no.

The truth is I’m crap again. Now I’m still better than most of you. I’m still a decent guitarist. That doesn’t change. But I’m about 10 steps backward form where I was.

The guys play their new version of Mr Brightside that they came up with to cope without a guitar. And it’s stunning. It’s everything I love about the three of them. It’s them at their very best. And I realise I have missed out in being away a year.

It’s so good, I have no desire to find a niche to fit some guitar into the song. I like playing covers, cause I can copy what someone else played. I can copy other people quite well. When it comes to originality I struggle somewhat. Horrible noises come out of the guitar. I get more angry and frustrated at myself. I get angry and frustrated at my frustrated anger.

I am crap again. I know not why this annoys me as much as it does.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Part 4

Day 4

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Fried food is not the ideal sporting and fitness nutrition. It is tasty though. We began the day with a ‘full ulster’ (which bears no resemblance to a full monty), and left our cosy lodge behind in glorious sunshine.

This part of the upper bann begins to get a little more populated. The odd farmhouse appears on the hill sweeping down to the river. Cows stare balnkly at us. That’s all cows do it seems. It’s no wonder they’re so far down the food chain.

We see an otter. First of all we see a stick, then the stick moves and turns out to be an otter doing the backstroke. The otter makes our day. It dives under the water and reappears right beside us before scarpering away.

Near ski supreme (the outdoor pursuits centre) we meet banana boats and water skiers, throwing up a big wake all round them. We wave nervously and try not to tip the boat

Our last obstacles are the floodgates at the cutts, just outside Coleraine. From a mile away we can see the red flashing lights indicating the gates are open and the flow is too dangerous to get through. By this stage we’re past the last jetty and have to do a (only very slightly) panicked turn and paddle upstream to the car park we just passed.

Dad runs down to the lock and chats to the lock keeper about the feasibility or running it. He told us lots of horror stories about people being sucked in and drowning and how they never found the bodies. Well no, I made that up. But he put us off. For the record we think we could have ran it.

So we had to ‘portage’ the gear round the weir. This involved getting wee Liz (the original pudge) to drive up. We put the canoe on the roof and drove the mile past it and put the canoes back in the water.

To finish the trip we put all three of us in the Canadian, with minimal gear and paddled through Coleraine. We had a good reception. Well there were no youths throwing bucky bottles at us, so I consider that a good reception.

We stop at Coleraine Marina, having managed 70 miles of paddling in 4 days. My girly, hospital hands are blistered and sun burnt. Simon’s even girlier programmer hands are blistered despite his 3 quid gloves. The gloves have a hole on the back of the wrist, leaving him with a 3cm diameter burnt patch on the back of his white hands. This looks like ‘the all seeing eye’ and I imagine will be hard to explain when he goes back to work.

When I was in NZ I always told people that NI had very little going for it on objective terms. It was wet, we all hate each other, you can’t get a decent cup of coffee. But that I loved it simply cause it was home. But now I stand corrected. In 4 days I’ve seen NI from a point of view I’d never seen it from before, that it can be more beautiful than I had perhaps expected.

I imagine, like most things, that it was always this way, I just never bothered to notice. So I’ll take my “my country is better than your country” attitude and place it in the ever increasing box of unpleasant character traits that I’m slowly beginning to fill.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Part 3

Day 3

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We started the day in rain. Sorry to witter on about the rain but it’s a bit of a novelty. You’d think by now I’d be getting used to it.

From Ballyroney we got a clear crossing across the top of the lough. It was calm so we just braved it straight across the lough instead of hugging the coast. Our only company was a huge sand dredger. Apparently the sand from the bottom of the lough is big business. They take it from the edge of a 130 foot trench that forms the channel of the Bann before it leaves the lough at Toome.

I suppose now is the time to supply a little lough history (like most things courtesy of Peter the warden on Coney island). The lough used to be about 5 foot either than at was. But not consistently so, and that was the whole problem. The lough went up and down with the seasons, flooding all the farm land.

A bright spark somewhere came up with the idea of controlling the lough height using the upper Bann (seven rivers into the lough and only the upper Bann out). So they put in a mixture of massive floodgates and weirs along the upper Bann.

All this for five foot of slightly damp, grotty looking land on the shore of lough Neagh. Not sure if I’m convinced. Then I’m a softy townie so what would I know.

Immediately after the floodgates lie the eel traps, cages sunk in the water to trap the slimy little creatures as they pass through. And the eels too I suppose. On a further, fascinating lough Neagh fact, the lough Neagh eel actually originates and breeds in the Caribbean. Why on earth it crosses the Atlantic to end up in lough Neagh is beyond me.

So in the shadow of the floodgates we find a canal and a lock gate, complete with lock keeper and all. We pay 50 pence for each canoe to got through the lock. What can you buy for 50 pence these days?

The Bann runs for about 2 miles before it enters Lough Begg, as if it’s not quite ready for a sprint yet, and could do with a sit down and a quick ciggie before getting into it proper. Lough Begg is deserted, no roads run near it, there’s barely any houses visible. In flood, half the trees at the edge are underwater, forming mangrove-like swamps that you can paddle under. I didn’t think anywhere this deserted in NI still existed.

We stop in Portglenone for chips, just before the rain hits. The proper, thunderstorm rain, with lightning and hail and drops so big they look like they’re hitting tarmac when they hit the river. I find new definitions of wet. We take our chances and hide under the trees at the edge of the river, hoping the lightning doesn’t hit. The clouds turn all shades of grey and black in front of us. The Roman Empire had no word for grey till they reached Britain. Though I presume they had no word for ‘metrosexual’ or ‘Paris Hilton’, but they coped just fine without them it seems.

We sneak from under the trees into glorious sunshine, when we get more sunburn. This seems all wrong. It is July I remind myself. Already in the distance we see another Armageddon cloud mounting on the horizon behind us. Advancing toward us quicker than the river will carry us away.

As we approach Kilrea, the rain and hail hits again. On our left is a jetty, with a suspiciously placed travel lodge attached. Indeed there may even be a shaft of light sneaking through the clouds to illuminate all it’s prefabricated glory. The flow drags us past it before it even registers. It’s amazing how the call of a warm bed and hot shower enables you to paddle back upstream. We leave the already sodden tent under the canoe in the garden.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Part 2

Day 2

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Da got up at 0600 to pee. Well I don’t think he even had to wake up as he never slept. I’d dozed on and off, even at one point sleeping on my back. An almost unheard of phenomenon.

Dad did his usual, rolled over onto me, kicked off the sleeping bag, took cramp, rolled back onto me, eventually made it out of the tent, peed, took cramp again and made it back to the tent.

We feasted on bacon, soda and potato bread, washed down with the little packet cappuccinos, that have the annoying tendency to coagulate when you add hot water forming little, submerged coffee croutons that surprise you like a fly in your drink. The flies in the cappuccinos weren’t a surprise at all.

It was sunny. This took us all by surprise. The lough was like a mirror. This also took us by surprise. Instead of the plan of cautiously hugging the shoreline up the west coast lough, we abandoned sense and reason and set off straight down the middle for the top left of the lough.

We could see as far as the land went, from the shadows of the mournes behind us to Divis at the north east and Slieve Gallion on our left. Lough Neagh was a little oasis of blue sky surrounded by clouds. Huge, billowing clouds, stacked up on each other like hay bales in a barn. Great big James and the giant peach clouds.

I felt like something out of Lord of the Rings, or Narnia. Simon said he was listening to Sigur Ros in his head. That type of a scene.

We had lunch beside a graveyard, where a cow was drinking out of a motorboat. As one does. And it was then the wind began to pick up. It was then I started to get wet.

On the trip we have a proper kayak, with skirt and all the rest. Designed to take a bit of chop. We also had a Canadian style canoe. The lime green wonder boat pudge the first as she’s been christened.

Pudge isn’t really designed for chop. More for keeping my Da busy with redoing the wood bits, or for cows to drink out of in graveyards. It may, at a push manage a drift down the river Bann.

There was at most a foot and a half swell. A bit of chop for a lake, but nothing wild. But if felt like that. We were broad siding a lot of the waves, up and down the crests and troughs. We were on our knees in the canoe, largely for balance but the occasional petition along the way.

I doubt there was ever any danger of death or even injury. But there was definite danger of getting pretty wet and losing a barrel or two.

After an hour of this we began to settle into the routine of zig-zagging to and from the shore, to avoid broad siding on the bigger waves, or worst of all, when a shallow sand bar would push the swell up into breakers. We made almost 3 mph. Not bad considering. I have no idea how many knots we were making. I’m not even sure we were supposed to make knots.

In the end we made Ballyronan marina for 4pm. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the crowds were out to see us. Well, what I mean is that the crowds were out to see the sunny Sunday afternoon and happened to see us.

And so we got the first wash in two days and realized how burnt we’d got. (Despite the factor 30 we’d all applied religiously Liz.) We’re staying in a campsite, conveniently placed right beside the marina and yes – a Chinese restaurant. Oh how I have missed monosodium glutamate.

It is 9pm. All three of us are in bed. There is a three year playing with his trike outside the tent. Must be well past his bed time…

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Part 1

Day 1

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Canoeing and kayaking has become something of an obsession in the Neill household. Maybe not an obsession, but definitely a past-time. In my absence, both Dad and Simon have got their own canoes and associated gear. They now look quite the part.

Some may remember a few blogs on family canoe trips from before I went to NZ. Some remember something along the lines of Douglas Coupland’s ‘all families are psychotic’. No one got killed. We’re all still talking.

One of the plans for when I’m home was to canoe from Portadown to Coleraine. A trip we got a third of the way through last year.

We had a brief planning session for this trip a month ago. When I was in NZ, Da was in Porteedown and Si was in Manilla with work. The wonders of conference calling with skype.

We left Shillington car park at 11 am. It was sunny. The drunks on the bank were smiling. Though they weren’t even drinking yet. The sun was not yet over the yardarm. Not that I could see a yardarm anywhere about.

20 minutes later we were sheltered under a tree and our US army surplus ponchos in a rain storm. There was thunder. And yes, this is the middle of summer I remind myself.

The advantage of all the recent rain means that there is a good flow in the river. We don’t so much have to paddle as just direct the canoe.

At lunch we’re shivering and squatting in our tent-like ponchos. I’m feeling like it would be a good idea to return to civilization, or at least Portadown. Si is hopelessly optimistic.

It picks up.

Our first camp is Coney island (no not the Van Morrisson one), where we stayed last year. It’s a Craigavon council run site, and has the rare exception of being well run. This has most to do with the warden, peter, who lives there. I’ll spare you the history of the place, it’s in the blog from when we were there last time.

It remains, a fantastic gem of a place. When the sun shines you could be somewhere else entirely as opposed to a pile of mud and trees in the middle of lough Neagh.

In the midst of this glorious isolation and tranquility a motor boat turns up carrying one of the nurses I used to work with in Craigavon ICU. He has a pint of milk for Peter the warden. I am definitely home. Only NI could be this small.

Over the course of the evening about 20 people go through the place. Including three boat loads of drunken (but very civilized and good bant) men from Antrim and a dog on a jet ski.

At dusk the sky fills with flies. Fills in a way I’ve never seen before. Brief natural history of the lough Neagh fly. Spends 90% of its time as larvae on the bed of the lough, eating whatever fly larvae eat – probably McDonalds. They emerge from the lough in three major ‘hatches’ a year, filling the sky like clouds. After a sharp frost one year, Peter found them 2 inches deep on the island.

They do all their eating underwater, so the good lord felt it superfluous to provide them with mouthparts for the airborne form. As a result they can’t eat, and most importantly can’t bite. The 10% remaining of their lives they spend trying to mate and flying up my nose, occasionally trying to do both at the same time. They do this until their supplies of energy run out, and they fall from the sky to form the next layer of protinaceous sludge in the food cycle.

It’s a life I suppose.

We spend the night sitting round a camp fire with the drunken men from Antrim talking about the flies (hence the above) and trees (hence below).

NI used to be covered in trees. At least I suppose so. Anywhere this wet must have been covered in trees at some point. They’ve been gone for a while now. Shortly after the humans arrived I imagine.

We were talking about new laws saying that you’re meant to cut down non-native trees, to preserve the natives. Apparently on Coney, they were talking about cutting down an 800 year old elm as it was non-native. Makes you wonder what a tree has to do get a passport. Considering the Normans only turned up 800 years ago, then most of us would be non-native and worth chopping down too.

yenruoj eht

This may get a bit disorientating. There will be a lot of interruptions and changes of scenery. Forgive me.

(1818)

Sitting in Napier airport. Well, more of a nice room with an espresso machine.

(1847 – listening to the TV3 news in the airport)

Last 20 mins chatting to one of the nurses who just arrived in from Auckland. It is a small world, smaller even than home.

I woke up this morning and stared at the cabinet for a while. The daily ritual of waking, confused, mostly disorientated. Asking myself, what time is it, where am I, what country am I in, whose underwear am I wearing. I woke today with the nagging notion that I had something important to do today. I just couldn’t put my narcoleptic finger on it.

There was a slow dawning. I’m going home. Today I’m going home. I grinned ear to ear. Staring at the cabinet in the dark I grinned.

I have spent all day twitchy and nervous and excited. Feeling like I’d had 20 coffees as opposed to 2. I have grown increasingly impatient as my short life as progressed. I think that’s why I like ICU. Lots of drugs that work very quickly and wear off almost as quick. Instant gratification. Now I was wanting to be home before I’d even got on the plane

I filled the day with laundry and cleaning and present shopping. It was a struggle.

At least now I feel I’m getting somewhere. Even if the airport is only 5 mins from the flat.

I’ve said goodbye to my trusty ruck. I’ll not see it till Belfast. Or more likely it’ll not turn up in Belfast at all and will get lost in the wormhole that lies between terminals 1 and 4 inHeathrow airport. And it will be delivered by a taxi the next day when the wormhole spits it out. This has happened to me twice. As long as it turns up at some point I don’t mind.

(1917 – listening to: sky blue sky – Wilco)

I have boarding passes for all my flights. From here to Belfast. 8A will carry my twitchy frame from Hawke’s bay to the big smoke. 68G, no doubt an aisle seat will carry me across the two biggest oceans on earth. Trapped between the chunky snoring American business man and the crying baby next to me. I’ll be peeing in a bottle by the end.

And 9F, oh sweet 9F, you will take me home. Another window seat so I can see Strangford lough, the city hospital, the power station out past Jordanstown I can never remember the name of. And in 9F I’ll feel like crying, as I always do. My eyes will fill, my heart will feel like jumping out my throat. And it’ll be raining. And I’ll know I’m home.

(2115 – Auckland. Gate 2. Listening to: poison oak – Bright Eyes)

A brief and slightly panicked note.

Spent the flight from Napier finishing off some wonderful Roald Dahl short stories about second world war fighter pilots crashing. Not ideal on a bumpy flight beside a panicked lady who had to hold my hand on the flight into Auckland.

The flight landed late and I’d only left an hour to change flights. This left me 40 mins to change terminals, pay the departure tax, get through passport control, and undergo the ritual humiliation of security.

I was trying to make it through this with a kiwi girl who was running about like a mad thing, thinking she was gonna miss the flight. When the locals panic I panic.

(2136 – 68G. Aisle seat. Listening to: Josh Ritter)

Two seats across from me is a stocky young guy in an all blacks top. I’m in my Ireland top. I’m running through a conversation in my head that ends in LA, when I say ‘see you in the quarter finals’.

The flight is under filled, I’m in the very back row with two spare seats beside me. This is gonna be a good flight.

(0307 – 27000 feet, listening to: comfortably numb – the live one with Van Morrisson in it)

Turns out the guy in the all black top is an English kid on a gap year. I think he appreciated the joke. Though perhaps not when I said that the English wouldn’t even make it that far.

We had turbulence for the first 90 mins. The type that keeps the stewards and esses in their seats. The type that makes you think of your own mortality. Makes you think of the flash back scenes in Lost. Makes you think of all those useless facts you learned about how long an unsupported human being would last in the south pacific. Makes you think of how after the first few hundred meters of a fall to water that when you hit you may as well be hitting concrete.

Statistically, as always, this is safer than most of my everyday life. It’ll be a car accident or heart disease that gets me. But maybe it’s just gravity and the altitude that gives you the perspective.

Each bump in the turbulence – at the back of the plane which seems to catch it more. At each bump my heart leaps, my pulse quickens. I am no zen master singing ‘JESUS loves me’ as the flames leap higher. This surprises only my ego.

This is the type of nonsense (maybe) that goes through my head every day. Don’t let it worry you.

(0906 – off the west coast of the US. Listening to: queens of the stone age)

The little LCD display on my wrist says 0906. I believe it. The little LCD read out in my head says the same. It says I haven’t slept in 24 hours. Off the west coast of the US it’s 1506. Not sure I can believe that.

(1611 – ok so I’ve succumbed to US time…)

LAX (the airport) sucks. Well the transit lounge sucks. I can’t say much else for the rest of the airport. You get off the plane to stand in a long queue to pass through immigration. Even though I have no desire to be any form of immigrant in this country. I merely want to waste two hours of my life in this transit lounge.

No sir you’re not listening to me, you do not need to get fingerprints and a photo. I merely want to transit. I do not need to fill in a visa waiver declaration form and tick the boxes saying I am not a terrorist and do not suffer from mental illness. But you, good man, with your bulky frame and eastern European sounding name badge aren’t in a mood to listen. At least I presume you aren’t. None of this passes my lips.

So I stand in the queue and fill in the totally unergonomically designed form. I’m convinced the queue merely goes round the corner and ends up back on the plane again. I say this to the pretty girl beside me. Mostly just to initiate conversation. Cause conversation passes time better than sitting staring at the men in yellow jackets unloading the luggage off the plane.

(1722 – back in 68G. Same plane, different stewards and esses. Same tannoy nonsense. If we depressurize at 30000 ft I’ll be unconscious in 15 seconds, whether or not I get my 2L/min from the mask. Never mind the fact that if we depressurize at 30000 feet we’ll most likely be hitting the ground/water within about 5-10mins. Fire exits in the same place they were before. The illusion of safety…)

Conversation with pretty girls is of course different from conversation to pass the time. It certainly seems that way. Conversations with pretty girls in an airport queue on the far side of the world is again a million miles distant from conversations with pretty girls I know.

So I spend 90 mins in a mingy LAX transit lounge with Jo, a reflexologist from Devon on her way back home from 3 months traveling round NZ. Jo is the type of girl I see from a far at Duke Special gigs, wearing indie type clothes, a hat and a satchel type bag.

We get separated at the end of the queue by the bulky eastern European homeland security operative (sorry if I’m getting all Orwellian). I sit in the corner of the lounge listening to a short story on the iPod about the difference between alone and lonely. I find myself disappointed that we got separated. I find myself thinking this is silly. I find myself starting to write this. I find myself crossing from alone to lonely.

Jo finds me (finds me? Perhaps not finds me, that implies looking…) and offers me a game of hang man to pass the time. I do not often get offers of hangman from pretty, indie, reflexologists on a regular basis.

I lose horribly. We tell our kiwi travel stories. We laugh. She’s just got ‘Dunedin’ in two guesses (before I’d even drawn a gallows) when the gate is called. I knew the gate would be called, I knew it was only 90 mins or so of transit. But is that disappointment I feel when the gate is sounded? I am again surprised.

So now I’m back in 68G beside Tim the English guy in the all blacks top. And Jo is somewhere else on the plane. And I’ll never see her again, and by tomorrow (or maybe next week…) I’ll have forgotten.

The surprising thing is not that this happened. This happens every other day. This means nothing, though perhaps an everyday occurrence should not imply meaninglessness. There’s a reindeer section song that sings ‘I fell in love again today, I think that’s been every day this week, I don’t need to know a thing about them, I don’t need to know their name or hear them speak… I’m still angry that I thought she thought I cared’. I construct fantasy relationships with lots of girls I meet. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that the veggie crisps I got handed when I got on board where actually perfectly edible and indeed surprisingly tasty.

(2358 – south of Greenland. Watching Lord of the Rings – the Two Towers, trying to get the three in a row done…)

10 months in NZ and I’ve yet to meet someone who got to be an orc. I’ve met some guys who did film work and set building for the films. But no orcs. I must move in the wrong social circles.

(1014 now UK time. Exactly 11275 m above Portadown.)

Why the flight path from LA flies directly over Portadown i have no idea. I got out of my seat and looked out both windows. I could see nothing but cloud as far as the eye could see. Good to knowNorn Iron is keeping up the standards.

So now I’ll fly on for another 40 mins and land in Heathrow and spend two hours fighting to get back to where I’ve just flown over. It would be easier, though perhaps with a little bit more risk, if I just flipped the handle round 270 degrees on the door a few feet from my seat. Let the whole place depressurize and get sucked out the door with it. I might even regain consciousness before I hit.

Oh they’ve just put on the seat belt signs for descent. Guess i’ll have to save the jump for next time.

(1139 – bus between terminal 3 and 1.)

Two things I’ve noticed about London. One, it smells of fuel and decaying rubbish. Two, Gwen Steani unfortunately appears to be popular here also.

(1157 – Terminal 1)
Queues, flippin queues. That sweep cruelly back and forth in parallel lines, the same tannoy repeating over and over. Get me out of London… so I can say something nice…

(1307 – gate 2, terminal 1 Heathrow airport.)

I love gate 2. Like a norn irish ex-pats community. Of the 6 or 7 times I’ve flown from there I’ve ended up meeting folk I know about 3 or 4 of them.

Today is no different. I meet Raymie, a guy I grew up with through church and BB. He’s getting married soon. Everything’s changing eh?

I buy a coffee (alas not nearly up to the NZ standard, almost through with complaints honestly…) from the same eastern European women who was working in the same stand when I was here last time (Jun 06). Her English is vastly improved. I even get the correct change.

I rejoice in the accents. All around me people are chatting and talking into phones and to each other with the sweet, sweet sound of home. It turns my head every time. Cause every time I heard it in acafé or in a pub or in town in NZ I’d pounce on them and have a mini NI reunion right there and then. I refrain from doing it in gate 2.

I realize I smell. At this stage I’m allowed to smell I suppose. I have a nasty honey stain down the inside leg of my trousers from my brekkie pancakes on the plane this morning. However, I feel great. A little twitchy and excitable, but I don’t feel like I haven’t slept in 36 hours.

(1608 – tucked up in my bed listening to pedro the lion.)

It’s a small, hard bed. These are foreign things to me.

I’m home. My heart leaped and floated as I got into Belfast, when I hugged my parents. It is grey and it is green. Just as I left it. I can no longer remember NZ. Not in the ‘you were there in another life 48 hours ago’ type of way. I’m home and no longer remember being away. I’m feeling disorientated. I shall sleep on the small hard bed I love so dearly and it’ll all make more sense eventually.

One more drifter in the snow

Almost home. Not quite but almost. Just enough time to fit another wee trip. This time – skiing. To summarize a blog I’ll never write. Skiing is an indulgent middle class past time, that requires so much money, energy and destruction to the environment that it is unlikely ever to be justified on an ecological, social or monetary basis. It is, however, simply wonderful. Very few things I do live up to the above justifications. Deal with it. Or at least struggle. I do.

Nee how

Ruapehu is a large volcano in the middle of the north island. So big in fact that lake Taupo (imagine lough Neagh) is the crater of the same system. Ruapehu is the mountain at the south end of the lake, most recently active about 10 years ago when it blew. Forbes (one my consultants) has an amazing photo about 6km from the crater in a ski hut. The crater lake burst its banks about 6 months ago causing a lahar that closed roads and swept out to sea.

So of course, one of the southern hemisphere’s largest ski resorts is based there.

I left Napier on Friday, drove the good old Napier to Taupo road (which provides the tastiest, and most violent of our trauma in Hawke’s bay) for two hours and walked about Taupo in the rain waiting for the cinema to open.

I watched ‘bridge to Terabithia’ with a bunch of 7 year olds. I expected Narnia. I was disappointed. So disappointed that I didn’t wait the extra half hour and watch transformers instead.

I was staying with Forbes and his wife’s cousin and family. They just hadn’t turned up yet, hence the cinema. They have a bach (a beach house, all kiwis have one. You do know this is the best country in the world don’t you?)

I was greeted with pizza and hospitality that I have been flooded with throughout my time in NZ. Well the hospitality, if not the pizza. I slept on their sofa bed and filled with porridge and fried eggs in the morning.

Taupo is about an hour and a half from the mountain. The far side of the lake. Which makes for a lovely drive from one end to the other, with the gleaming snow fields in view. I’m torn between stopping to take quality photos and getting to the ski field early.

Forbes is the person to go skiing with. He did ski patrol (as the medic) for years, he knows the area inside out. He knows all the huts and a lot of the people. I have a tour guides talk on the origin of the names (from Maori legend) and the geology of the area and which roofs of which huts he’s skied off.

It’s a Saturday, it’s the best day of the early season. It’s packed. Flippin people. Flippin people, flippin snow boarding (I was skiing not boarding today).

It takes us 45 mins to get to the top of the mountain on the lifts. We meet, very randomly, but most fortuitously, JT (another doc from the hospital) on the first lift and he joins us for the day.

The mountain is stunning. Nothing like skiing in Europe with its carefully pisted slopes and well marked runs. This is chaos. Bluffs and cliffs at every turn, rocks sticking up everywhere. It’s fantastic.

I end the day sharing a t-bar with a pretty kiwi girl who has at least spent time in Scandinavia (and got a funny accent out of it) and therefore fulfills my ‘pretty Scandinavian’ rule. We have a good chat but the t-bar runs out too quickly before she gets to find out I’m a doctor (which I can’t tell her, she has to ask, there are lots of rules remember), which, in my scale of talking to young pretty women who once visited Scandinavia, is perhaps my top trumph.

If the former paragraph makes no sense, don’t worry…

To end the day the lot of us (me, Forbes, his wife’s cousin, his wife’s cousin’s wife, his wife’s cousin’s 17 year old, and his wife’s cousins 17 year old’s mate – sorry for the horrible use of apostrophes) go to the local hot springs. They are kind enough to provide me with togs I forgot to bring. These turn out to be speedos so pornographic that I wear my boxers over the top. Good times.

Me, Forbes and Spence (Forbe’s wife’s cousin), talk late into the night, covering religion, ethics and why vinyl still beats digital. I’m treated to Spence’s collection of 45s (not 33s) including early Elvis and some dodgy Elton John. I play finger-picked detuned versions of Iain Archer and Pedro songs in the corner. Spence’s wife eventually tells us to shut up. Good times indeed.

Immigrant song

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I remember last night, just after the Elvis, that there was a plan to get up at 6.30 and get to the mountain for when the lifts open (at 8.00). I vaguely remember it at 6.30 when I wake first. I remember it at 7.00 when the first hints of brightness are making their way through the curtains. I remember slightly more clearly at 7.30 when I hear the first chopper of the day taking its load of tourists on a flight over the lake. It hits me at 8.00, when my stomach starts to growl with hunger, that perhaps we missed the boat.

The mountain is crisp and white and blue screened by the sky when we get there at 11.30. It takes a good photo.

As we approach the road up the mountain, a flickering LCD sign tells us ‘Bruce road closed, ski area full’. In 30 years of skiing at Ruapehu, Forbes has never seen this. The car parks at the top end are full. Full, it seems of Philippino and Japanese tourists who have no intention of skiing, just going up and down the lifts and laughing as their kids make snow angels and stick snow down their siblings backs.

We wait 45 mins to get a coach to the field. One is not amused. Just bitter and remorseful, that sleeping bags are far too hard to get out of at 6.30.

We get three hours quality skiing. Well Forbes gets 3 hours quality skiing, I get three hours of uncontrolled, gravity driven descent. Snow is soft enough I discover.

We say our goodbyes at the end of the day. Yes I will see them again in 2 months, which isn’t a long time but still awkward. Forbes departs to buy vegetables (one of the ski villages is, bizarrely the NZ capital of carrot growing. Indeed it has a 20 foot high fibre glass carrot at its entrance. Like the giant trout, or the giant kiwi fruit, or the giant wellie boot, that grace other NZ towns. No accounting for taste) and eave for Ohakune – a village at the south end of the mountain.

Now to explain why I’m in Ohakune instead of Napier. Some of you may find it beneficial to google for a map of NZ to have along the side of the blog.

Let me begin. I have a ‘working holiday’ visa. A visa which I got over the net in 2 days without having to prove I even had a passport. This visa is designed for people to come to NZ to pick fruit and work in cafes and of course not stay in the job for longer than three months at a time. I’ve been in mine about 10 months now. I pay tax. Maybe that’s why they don’t mind. My ‘working (your whole life’s a) holiday’ visa runs out 4 days after I come back to NZ.

I imagine this won’t look good to immigration on the way in. It will look worse for reasons outlined below.

The UK medical work force is upward of 30% (NZ is 41% I read in the paper) foreign trained. In other words we need to look overseas to fill the jobs. These jobs are most often filled by excellent doctors who’ve trained in far flung corners of the planet. The UK in general and the NHS in particular is greatly enriched and indeed indebted to their contribution.

There are however a few, how shall I put it – useless idiots – imported. Just as we seem to train some useless idiots ourselves. When I worked in Craigavon there was briefly a group of 4 (out of several hundred docs) who became know as the horsemen. As in the 4 horseman of the apocalypse. In my absence I’m told the term has evolved into dee-effs. Or dangerous foreigners. This is of course hugely racist and neglects many important issues. It is also really quite humorous.

I told Forbes this. In light of recent critical terror threat levels, and multiple high profile arrests, Forbes has renamed them ee-effs. Or exploding foreigners. This is also hugely racist and discriminatory. But also quite funny.

In the ICU here we have two non-white doctors. One a third generation English guy (indeed more English than most people I’ve met – and I mean that, surprisingly in nothing but a positive way) with Indian ancestors and a Hindu background. The other is an immensely gracious and gently mannered Malaysian, also with Hindu, Indian background. Both will be picked out at the airport as potential threats, just cause they’re not white.

In the same way, my mate, Mohsin, who I used to work with in A&E, will be pulled up and searched at every point. As a leader in both bleary and Lisburn rd mosque, perhaps he is a more suitable candidate to stop and search. Though he’s also gutted and appalled at what is done in the name of Islam (as I am about what is done in the name of Christianity) by a mixture of psychopaths and bitter, angry men. Indeed he is more receptive about religion and the gospel than most ‘Christians’, even if he has that rather annoying trait of saying we’re all on a bus going the same direction (I paraphrase). When a man says I am the way the truth and the life he means it I think.

Goodness. That was a tangent.

I’m in Ohakune. Why am I in Ohakune again? Oh yes, cause it’s nearly half way between Taupo and Palmerston north.

Another tangent. Palmerston north has the unfortunate title of suicide capital of NZ. John Cleese, for whatever reason, latched onto this and launched a diatribe of abuse against the place as the worst place in NZ (which in truth it probably is). He citizens of Palmerston North retaliated and renamed their rubbish dump ‘Mt Cleese’. I love kiwis.

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I need to got to Palmerston North cause that’s where, in their wisdom, they’ve put the immigration office. So tomorrow morning I’ll dander into the office and smile politely and graciously and ask them if they’ll grant me a visa to do the job I’ve already been doing for 10 months and a visa to stay legally instead of illegally in their country. This within a week of five doctors being arrested in the gold coast in Australia, prompting a review of all registration and immigration procedures for doctors. And me being from a country, famous perhaps for its long history of violence and terrorism.

Wish me well.

Subterranean homesick alien

Coming home, is just sort of a holiday. A nice, well filled 6 week holiday. And I have to remind myself of this. That it’s just a holiday, and that I’m coming back. I have to think about it that way, cause I’m not quite ready to get used to the idea of leaving this place. Not even the place, more ‘the life’ (whatever that means) that I’ve carved out for myself/had thrust upon me/undeservedly received.

Today was my last day in work before I come home. I knew that I was just saying ‘have a nice winter’ and that I’d see them all again, but I couldn’t avoid the awful feeling that 6 months from now I will be saying good bye. I don’t like good byes. I don’t like the finality, I don’t like the un-kept promises (‘yes I’ll keep in touch’) which I never keep. I don’t like the loss of whatever may have been. I don’t like the thought of regrets about how I should have loved them.

What perhaps annoys me most is the tension you’re left with. I know, that right now, I want to be at home, in the warm, fuzzy, nostalgic place I call home. I know it doesn’t actually exist (the way I think it) but I want it all the more for that. I also know that a year from now I will be at home (no longer now the warm, fuzzy, nostalgic place I created) and wanting to be where I sit at this moment.

I hate that the grass is always greener. That I break the principle of ‘being happy when you’re happy’. I hate that all the people I know and love don’t all live within walking distance of each other, or at least within a nice sunny drive in the country side.

But even if they did all live so close, I’d still spend my time in a room, with a book and a guitar wondering why I never loved them quite the way I thought I did.


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July 2007
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