A GLIMPSE OF PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS
Mrs Blank, well-known to readers of Te Ao Hou, is at present visiting Europe with her Swiss-born husband.
I am always hesitant about venturing into strange places. I dislike the idea of leaving a haven of security for a place that may be insecure. But once I have been persuaded of the excitement of exotic travel it is not long before I overcome this feeling.
Travelling through strange places is perhaps a little like falling in love. One may have certain ideals about marriage and partnership in marriage, but when one does fall in love ideologies lose their significance in the ecstatic bewilderment of overwhelming feeling. The excitement, the novelty of this feeling is to me akin to that felt at the sight of new places, new faces, and the sound of exotic languages.
There is something definable about travel; it is rejuvenating. It gives us a chance to see, to hear, and to feel life in its complexity. You see places you like or dislike instantly. You hear the musical flow of a contended people, or the dull thud of another's discontent. You feel the strength, the weakness, the warmth, or the cold climate of a people's life. Yes! And you smell strange smells—bewildering, intoxicating, haunting. And out of this definable confusion comes a slow appreciation of people, places and things.
I bless civilization for one important contribution: communication. What would we do without it? We all know it has made the world grow smaller. Why? I don't have to dream of a magic carpet to carry me to strange places—I can earn enough money for a second-class passage on a comfortable boat and I know I don't just see the world through a looking glass, but face to face.
“A small world can be a dangerous place to live in”, my husband says, “for one can see the whole of it through the looking-glass of television, or of someone else's opinions, from books and magazines.”
So if you are sensitive to what my husband says, don't look through the looking glass, but use your hands, your feet, your eyes, your ears and your sense of smell; use this avenue of communication, travel on a big boat or in a fast aeroplane—feel the world at your feet.
I have only begun my travels. I have been away from New Zealand for four months. I cannot say that I am an impartial thinker, but at least I can say that I have gained in awareness of the richness and diversity of life.
Then I saw the ship on which we were going to sail—our ship, all big and white, and waiting for us to embark. I heard strange languages and I saw many people; some going up the gangway and some hurrying down. And there were crowds of people, friends bidding farewell; and amongst them were my own, all a confusion of sadness and excitement.
And suddenly I lost that frightened feeling of being landed on strange shores. I looked up at the big white ship with its crowded decks of colourful passengers and I looked at my parents with ill-concealed delight and I bubbled with thoughts.
“I am going on that boat! It's taking me to see the world! I wish I could hurry up the gangway! I wish my parents wouldn't look so sad! Anyone would think I wasn't coming back!”
Then we talked. My husband talked. I talked. My parents talked. Then a voice boomed out: “All passengers aboard!”
MAORI LAND COURT JUDGE VISITS AOTEA
FOR THE FIRST TIME since 1931 a judge of the Maori Land Court visited Aotea (Great Barrier Island) on the third and fourth of December, 1959. The visiting party included: Judge Porter of the Maori Court, J. Pou, District Maori Welfare Officer, Whangarei, J. Waetford, Administration Officer, Maori Affairs Department, Whangarei, M. Te Hau, Adult Education Officer, University of Auckland, and N. Roe, Vocational Guidance Officer. Transport was by Mr Ted Guy's launch Rehutai, which proved very efficient both in transport and fishing.
Departure was from Whangarei at 4 a.m., on the third December, and landfall at Kawa Bay at midday. Lunch was provided at the homestead of local elder Mahou Davis and was typical of the lavish hospitality that was to follow. Many of the party felt like the fat pet eel, thirty years old, that lazes in a pool nearby, surrounded by egg shells.
The first meeting of the tribal committee that afternoon took full advantage of the visiting experts while the launch crew sampled the famous fishing grounds of Aotea. After a meal of crayfish the Rehutai took Judge Porter to the guest house at Fitzroy. The rest of the party slept aboard.
An overland trip in the Davis landrover on Friday morning provided an experience in the flesh of the Barrier roads, but the views of mountain, bush and sea were ample reward. A further sitting of the tribal committee on Friday afternoon completed the agenda items. Additional topics such as the use of money from sale of surplus lands were also covered.
Meetings were held in the Catherine Bay schoolroom. The Headmaster, Mr O'Brien, is also secretary of the tribal committee and an enthusiastic worker for the island. His roll is now six pupils. Mahou Davis, however, can remember when thirty-four attended the school. This decline reflects the exodus of Maori families to the mainland in recent years. Although a small mill and the whaling station now provide employment for about forty men, Aotea's employment opportunities are still limited. Many families depend on crayfishing. which provides a hazardous though sometimes profitable existence.
Wind and sea have sunk some twenty-three craft around Aotea. At Kawa Bay, in two small burial sites, lie some of the 121 victims of the Wairarapa, which struck at Mines Head in 1894. Local Maoris were the first to discover the wreck, and brought many survivors back to Kawa Bay for shelter. Aotea has a rich history, both before the arrival of the Pakeha and after. Its present economic decline from a Maori point of view presents a challenging problem for administrators.
We were on the main deck. The big white ship heaved her motionless body and edged her way into the blue Pacific.
We looked at our cabin. It was small, but what else can you expect? As a traveller you pay for limited space but you do see the unlimited.
A sea voyage is not spent in a narrow cabin. First you consign some of your more cumbersome luggage to the baggage room, then you push the rest of your possessions under the bottom bunk and these you pull out as little as possible. Next you find your way to the main deck, the sun deck, or to the bar, the pool or the sun deck lounge, and the confined limitations of a tiny cabin are forgotten in the mellowness of exotic wines and exotic company.
The first night was a pleasant confusion of a six-thirty dinner in a noisy excited dining room and a leisurely two hours of slow sipping of brandy in the sun-deck lounge. We sat at a greytopped table in this little lounge and sipped brandy till the harsh warnings of sea-sickness melted into oblivion. It was an intimate little room with a cream and brown patterned oval mosaic dance-floor. An Italian band was playing a mixture of Latin-American music, interpreted in an Italian way. Ah! Lovely intoxication! You are in love with everyone and the music plays on. A girl with blonde hair dances with … her husband? … her boyfriend?… Perhaps … soon find out … what a superb figure … like a Greek Goddess.
“That's a typical German girl out to have a good time,” says my husband.
The music softens. The room gets cosy. My clothes pinch me. No wonder! I've got my slacks on. I really ought to go and change. My eyes grow pleasantly heavy. I am in love with everyone. We go to bed.
We were both sea-sick for four days.
The weather was rough and our bunks wouldn't lie still. What a miserable feeling it is! There you lie sound in body and in mind and soon a slight dizziness overcomes you. Your legs seem to wither with every step you take. Then you smell the diesel oil of the engines. You hold on to your stomach. You rush to the nearest basin. You go backwards and forwards, up and down, and you are lucky if you reach the basin. It was the one time when I was sick and I didn't want any sympathy in my misery. I didn't want to go anywhere. I just wanted to lie down. The cabin steward visited us too frequently.
“You must get up to the main deck. You must not lie here.”
He made us furious! He made it sound as though it were a weakness to succumb to seasickness. We could not have reached the main deck if we had tried. It took much energy even to reach the basin. So we lay there. I wanted to go back to New Zealand. I thought the cabin was a dirty, stinking hole. I forgot the charm of the Italian waters. I saw only the bottom of the top bunk pressing down on me. I could smell the dirty oil. I could feel the ceaseless vibration from the unsympathetic ship's engines. And I was sick again.
On the fourth day at sea, we felt a little better. We dragged ourselves up to the main deck and we breathed very deeply. We looked at the still horizon. We looked down at the restless waves and slowly our feeling for life returned.
I remember that Saturday; everyone was talking about our first port of call—Tahiti. We were due there on the Sunday morning. The air was warm and the sun caressed our skins. And as we lay there I felt that if the same sun breathed on Tahiti, then what a wonderful island it must be. You could hear snippets of gossip from excited men:
“Boy! You just wait till you see Tahiti. You'll forget all about your wife. You just wait till you see Tahitian women. They're beautiful!”
We met a Frenchmen who had been living in Whangarei and who was returning to Tahiti with his Tahitian-Chinese wife. He said to us, “you stay in Tahiti for a year, you stay there forever.”
Such was the fever of excitement about Tahiti—its women, its climate, its love of life—that we too could not wait until the morrow dawned. Many of the men planned to go ashore by them-selves. They did not wish to be encumbered with jady friends from the boat.
We slent in! People are already astir. We must have arrived, the boat is motionless. The cabin feels too warm. We struggle into our clothes. We hurry up to the deck. We breathe very deeply.
Palm trees reached out and up from the shore in graceful welcome. Slow mists of steam wafted up lazily into the limitless blue of the Tahitian sky. And the sun was everywhere. It drenched itself into the green of the ground below and the blue of the mountains above and it sparkled in the waiting lagoons. And we saw the sun again in the glow of the Tahitian smiles on the wharf below and in the warmth of the honey-coloured skins.
No garish signs of civilization greeted us. Before us was an island of incredible beauty. A few buildings badly needing a coat of paint interspersed themselves amongst coconut palms. Till about two miles inland the land inclined gently and then it rose to mountainous ridges of bearable height where the soft mists from the sundrenched earth hovered. ethereal cool I could smell the coconut oil—so I thought—it reminded me a little of sulphurous Rotorua. Indeed, the soft mists made the resemblance even stronger.
We ate a hurried breakfast. The Italian waiter
said to my husband rather drilly, “Lock your wife up in the cabin for the day.”
There were scooters for hire on shore and we managed to hire the last one for the day. Once we were on the scooter we forgot that we were going to drive 108 kilometres in our trip round the island, is a permanent fixture. Outside the is the one which encircles it.
Even if you paint Tahiti on the finest of Japanese silks, you cannot reproduce the beauty of its unfolding scenes. You have to be there to feel that beauty come out of the earth, into the trees, and into the mountains, and down again from the sun. And the smells! If it is true to say that countries have smells peculiar to themselves, then Tahiti is filled with the sweetest. They are a mixture of coconut oil, frangipani, and other tropical scents. On either side of us as we drove down the road were rows of coconut palms and here and there thatched houses browned to a deep brown; and outside those houses brown people and brown children sat and laughed. They passed us on the road—children and people—some walking, some riding on bicycles, or squeezed into old decrepit ranch wagons that creaked and groaned with the weight of the load. There were several of these wagons crammed to capacity—Henry Ford would surely turn in his grave at the sight of such a load. The crowds sang and played guitars and the singing, the laughing, the strumming soothed away the click of the wheels of civilisation. I remembered a few lines from Yeats's “Lake Isle of Innisfree” and they needed little adjusting to fit in with the flow of this island people, who seem to know the art of gracious living and who live in the sun:
“And I shall have some peace there
For peace comes dropping slow… dropping
To where the Tahitian sings….”
We saw little boys and girls in their Sundaybest—girls in the brightest hues of nylon and cotton, with hair black and falling to the waist, boys barefooted and lithe, and we felt that it was good to be alive amongst people that sang from the soul.
The men from the ship did not exaggerate the beauty of the women. They have warm beauty, a slenderness and barefooted grace that defies the convention of their European counterpart. Every where you see these brown slender women, with flowing rich black hair that caresses a waist and with hands that speak an elegance untutored.
A few kilometres out of Papeete we stopped on a clearing overlooking the harbour and there we sat and breathed in the warmth, the stillness of the green of the trees, of the brown of the houses and of the blue of the mountains, the sky and the sea. Then along came a crowd of chattering tourists and gone was the silence. So we departed.
During the New Year festivities, drinking bars spring up along the mainland like mushrooms. The French government gives the owners licences to open for ten days. So for ten days there is continuous drinking and dancing. My husband decided that we should visit a few of these gay places where we anticipated a riotous afternoon of good drinking and colourful dancing. We visited the famous Quin's bar which is very close to the wharf and is the mecca of all adventurous tourists. This place, unlike those dotted around the island, is a permanent fixture. Outside the bar tourists sat and sipped Tahitian beer to cool themselves from the heat of the day. We walked into a very hot and stuffy room crowded with people who, streaming with perspiration, danced vigorously to the monotonous beat of a two step tune strummed by a group of carefree Tahitians. While I stood and stared, my husband hurried off excitedly to get us some drinks. Before he returned an elderly, rather dignified lady approached me with garlands of threaded flowers. She placed one of these round my head, said a few words and pointed to the flowers. I beamed at her in delight. She placed another garland around my neck and I was enchanted.
“They're just like Maoris,” I thought, “She's giving me these to make me feel welcome.”
I smiled profusely. She pointed again to the flowers and she said a few words. But I understood her not. I grabbed my husband's arm on his return and introduced him to the lady.
“Look!” I said excitedly, “She's given me these.”
And then the lady presented my husband with identical garlands and again she spoke and pointed.
“This lady says that each of these garlands costs twenty francs!” my husband informed me.
But twenty francs each! I never felt so foolish. It wasn't that I didn't want to pay…. It was just that I thought….My husband grinned most eloquently and paid the eighty francs—for my naiveté. I swore that I was never again going to be caught by wily hawkers of the tourist trade.
We saw the men from the boat dancing with the Tahitian women in complete abandon. It was good to sit and watch. The women charmed their willing partners into wriggling their hips and waving their arms and they danced such as I never saw them dance on the boat. The love-making and the caressing all seemed part of the dance.
A few of these exuberant young men and women later decided that we should really make a night of it by visiting another of these drinking bars; so we left this place close on midnight. The taxi which we hired was one of those ranchwagons we'd seen earlier during the day—open at the sides and well used. Two drivers stood and waited for us to climb in. One was huge and looked like a body guard. I remember we were quite a cosmopolitan group—Dutch, German, Australian, a Samoan girl and her English husband, my husband who is Swiss and I, a Maori; and we were all overflowing with high spirits. About half way to our destination the wagon stopped. The drivers got out. There was a great deal of talking and much waving of arms and then we understood. We
have to pay our fares here and now! Perhaps they thought we'd be too drunk by the time we'd arrive at the bar and that we wouldn't pay our fares. Anyway it was all rather bewildering. The two drivers stood, one on either side of the windowless wagon, and with great haste collected the money. The chirpy younger members of the party were so bemused with liquor that they handed out their money with reckless generosity. I was flabbergastered! I think I was a little befuddled too; for we had passed the bottle round. I got out of the wagon and I stormed up to the drivers, as though I was doing a Maori haka:
“I think this is disgusting! We haven't reached the bar yet. Why collect the money now?”
Whether they understood me or not, I don't know. I only remember that I grabbed all the money that they were holding and even succeeded in producing some they had already pocketed. My husband, a more experienced traveller than I am, came at this stage to sooth my indignant feathers.
“Now, now,” he said, “Don't be too hasty. Keep calm.”
Together we counted the dirty notes and administered justice. The balance we distributed to the passengers amidst much laughter and merriment. Once arrived at our destination, we enjoyed more dancing, beer and vigorous music, till we were a group of very tired people who wisely departed at a time when it looked as looked as though we too would get involved in a boxing match between seamen and taxi drivers. The incident over the taxi fares was never forgotten by my fellow passengers. Particularly the men came up repeatedly and complimented me:
“Remember Tahiti? Gee, you were great. You fixed those taxi drivers. We wouldn't have known what to do without you.”
There was much sighing from the men as we left Tahiti.
“No, the women on board are not as beautiful! Can't tell you why. No, they're not the same.”
My husband and I both sighed because in Tahiti we had found beauty—the sun, the women, a people with a great charm. We had no need of our faded garlands. We had a memory.
PEOPLE AND THEIR TALK
And crowds become faces and faces become individuals, with whom you meet and talk and become familiar. You begin to know how some people think and how they feel or react to certain topics of conversation. With some companions conversation is stimulating, with some it is pleasant, and with others it is limited to the weather, gossip, and grumbling. On a boat you cannot avoid meeting the latter but at least you have a choice of attaching yourself to those who most interest you. There are days when you feel like a jelly fish—no bones, no living flesh, just a mass of floating, unthinking protoplasm. On such occasions you seek the company of the controversial thinker, who soon shakes you out of this limpid state of mind.
Suddenly we discovered we had nothing to read. So far we had not missed the companionship of a book, but as we felt pleasantly relaxed we longed for the printed page. We browsed through the ship's library but found little to satisfy our curiosity. One morning I saw my husband speak to a well-built gentleman who was reading a volume of short stories by Somerset Maughan, just the kind of reading for a boat. We borrowed the book and this made a contact which led to a friendship. Our new friend is a professor of classics from a New Zealand university, on leave for a year. Beneath his rather awesome curiosity we discovered a great simplicity. He loved to dance and sing, so at least we had a common ground of conversation if intellectual topics grew rather weighty. He also loved drinking, and when he was merry, he'd sit on the deck and recite a few lines from Virgil, or tell us of the wonderful age of Greek supremacy, or he'd compose a poem and never quite succeed.
There was another face which fascinated us. He was a Dutchman, full of life and successful in business. He was always ready for an argument about religion or the colour-bar or the exploitation of the black man by the white. I remember one night; we were almost ready to go to bed when he came up to wish us goodnight. Somehow an argument developed over communism. A young New Zealand girl had expressed her admiration for communism, and an Englishman who had recently entered the Roman Catholic church was shocked. There was a man from East Germany at the table too. He supported her by commenting that as far as he was concerned beliefs did not matter very much as long as people's material wants were satisfied. Somehow the argument went astray when the East German replied to someone else:
“I like all people no matter what colour or creed.”
This comment was rapidly taken up by our Dutch friend:
“Ah! You tell me you like all people no matter what colour or creed. Now, would you agree to your son marrying a negro?”
The answer came rather haltingly.
“Well, I'd say to my son, ‘It's your life, please yourself’,”
“That's not what I meant,” said the Dutchman, “Would you welcome the idea?”
“I don't know,” was the honest reply of the German.
Sometimes I liked our Dutch friend, sometimes I didn't. He was so insistent in his own logic that your own convictions about certain things—perhaps religion or corpulency—started to lost shape. (For him corpulency was the outward sign of laziness and helplessness, of passive acceptance of what life brings.) My husband always sought his company when life was a little dull.
Our Dutch friend was an extreme egotist. I couldn't help but admire him; he knew his own mind. At the same time it irritated me that he
had an answer for everything. It may be that I am envious; though I called him a “know-all” I had a sneaky feeling that I wished to be like him in many respects. One of his most exasperating traits was the fact that by his cold unyielding logic he won every argument. There was, however, one field in which I could disagree with him with conviction—the art of dancing. For him there was only one type of dance—the sophisticated intricacy of ballroom dance steps. To me is was quite obvious that for some inexplicable reason he had not witnessed the girls in Tahiti—untutored, yet so graceful in their own interpretation of music and movement.
There are some people whom you do wish to meet and somehow you never get intimate with. Sometimes they fascinate you even from a distance. I enjoyed the company of the New Zealand girls. They were friendly. Some were attractivelooking. They were all proud of being New Zealanders. I was the only New Zealander who didn't wear a greenstone kiwi on my chest and to make matters worse I didn't have a piupiu. As I was the only Maori on board the rest of my fellow countrymen felt that I should have flaunted my native dress at one of the fancy-dress parties. The New Zealand girls carried bathing towels whenever they went sun bathing and all of these were printed with the usual New Zealand emblems of the kiwi or the native fern. Somehow I had no desire to make it known that I too was a Kiwi. I also intrigued quite a few people—even a New Zealander thought I was a Tahitian. The Italians used to ask me if I were Spanish or South American. One suggested that I was a Sicilian.
The Australian girls were amongst the most attractive on board. Most of them were tall, and very slender. They were also friendly and if you sat alone it was not long before they came to make conversation with you. I never got to know them intimately, but I admired their happy faces and their extremely elegant figures. There was one Australian woman with whom we were rather friendly. She was a beautiful blonde with a child of two years and all the men admired her. Some of the women envied her. She was so friendly that really you couldn't dislike her, even if she did have all those assets which you longed for—lovely face, pleasant speaking voice and a superb figure. She was dated by several admirers and the snippets of gossip from her fellow women were always amusing….
“That's not her husband!. I wonder if he's still in Australia….I wonder if she's divorced…She looks the type!”
Then she had a mild flirtation with a romantic Italian. He gave her Italian lessons and she assured us she was getting on rather splendidly. Soon there was more gossip….
“I don't know what she sees in Joseph. He's so morose…. And oh! So sentimental.”
Joseph was extremely generous. If ever we sat with beautiful Barbara he would buy us a glass of the most select wine. He was also very knowledgeable on ships, strange people and new countries. The beautiful blonde Barbara was a schoolteacher like ourselves. So we had something in common. And then she knew how to enjoy herself. She was never bored.
I remember how I admired too, the Italian waiters and cabin stewards. They have a charm rather like the Tahitians and they are another handsome people. Their dark swarthy beauty and their extreme politeness won them many admirers amongst the women. Their speech too is like music. A friend of ours said that to hear them speak is like listening to an Italian opera.
The Italian orchestra was extremely popular with everyone. But they had one rather annoying habit. They were never ready on time for the afternoon concerts. It was certain that the violinist was wooing a passenger round the corner; they are as romantic as you think them to be. If the five members of the band were occasionally on time they would never begin until the ladies were all seated. There would be an interminable performance of bowing and smiling and frequent kissing of hand to the ladies. Sometimes one of them would forget his music sheet in his fervid admiration of his latest love who would sit as close as possible to the front of the stage. The dining room stewards were also Italians and the younger ones annoyed some of the middle-aged ladies. They also loved feminine company and some of them would forget to bring a prim old lady's soup when they saw the glances of promising flirtations from younger women. We never got tired of the Italians, who looked so serious and were so courteous that it was difficult to imagine that their flirtations were as shortlived as the journey.
Oh, there were other people—Mac the Englishman, married to a Samoan girl and converted to her religion, that of the Roman Catholic faith. He was a curious mixture of beliefs. He loved those shady places where the women entertained men for a small fee. He had one queer idea which always started an argument—namely—that all women were meant to suffer. Then he'd argue about the beneficient power of the Roman Catholic church. Our Dutch friend would point out the number of poverty stricken countries dominated by Catholicism—Spain, Italy, Mexico and Mac would fall silent, for a moment, After the heated argument in which, as usual, nobody really won and nobody really changed his views, we would all buy one another drinks to show that we were still friends.
And time passes and friendships grow or fade.
There are more faces. We meet a lot of Germans, a few Austrians, and more Dutch people. All are returning from Australia to their home countries. Some are discontented with life in Australia, some think it is a country with opportunities. Looking back at the discontented ones, I do feel in sympathy with some of them—with strangers in a strange country.
The sun beat down on the deck. We swam to keep ourselves cool, we drank to keep ourselves cool and we talked and we argued to keep ourselves alive. Then we saw the Panama Canal.
That day I saw before me a narrow stretch of water. On either side of this stretch of water was a wall of cliff. This little opening was made by man to shorten his journey around the world. Huge gates opened slowly to let the boat pass through. And the genius of man thrust itself upon you. For centuries the Panama must have lain like a waiting woman, and man said to himself,
“I am master of all things. I will sever this woman's body, that we may pass through, that we may hold the world in our hands.”
And they severed her body in twain. Her limbs they thrust up as cliffs of protective strength. But they gave her life in the trees that grow, in the houses and people that keep the traffic moving between her divided body.
Here in the canal ten thousand people are employed to keep it in working order. Negroes drive the ‘donkeys’—engines which pull the boats through the locks. The officious American patrol officers in khaki proclaim their rank in the bulge of pistols from swaggering hip pockets, while the negroes, quiet and strong, work the machinery. You see the huge steel gates riveted to perfection, you see the little homes of these ten thousand people who help to keep the incessant flow of traffic through the Panama. Yes! It was good that man severed her body. It conquered distance. I felt I could stretch out my hand and touch the trees, the houses and the people. I could feel the pulse of human endeavour. But then my reflections were interrupted by the disembodied voice of an American announcer, who reminded you that Panama is a monument to the dollar. Never in my life did I hear so many superlatives and so many statistics! I was very pleased when the droning voice of the announcer was disconnected at the request of passengers who seemed to share my views.
Cristobal-Colon was our next port of call. We knew it was custom free port so we were determined to spend our money. What an odd place it is. It is just a stretch of wharf about half a mile wide. A railway line separates one part of the town from the other. Do not be disappointed if you don't find genuine native ware. These little ports of call after the Panama are very cosmopolitan. They are dumping grounds for the products of the Western world. Here you can buy the latest, from a Phillips electric razor to a nylon waterproof, snowproof jacket, to a Rolleiflex camera. Look for a South American handbag, or shoe, or ornament, and you are disappointed. Everything disappointed me. I didn't want a camera. I didn't need a snowproof jacket. The Chinese, the Hindu, the Jews, the negro shop owners annoyed me as they stood and waited for customers. Perhaps I saw too many transistors. It may be that I was trying to recapture the mood of Tahiti….I don't know.
Next day, we saw on the boat reminders of the latest shopping spree: transistors, transistors, transistors, nylon jackets and imitation-leather plastic handbags.
A week passed by and we saw Curacao. Once you know it is a Dutch port, you expect of it two things. Firstly that it will be neat and tidy, and secondly, that business transactions will be efficient. Both expectations proved right. Orangeroofed white-washed two-storeyed houses line the waterfront and you feel you are seeing perhaps a little bit of Europe. Curacao looks very prosperous. Huge oil tanks give the clue to this prosperity. Once you are in the heart of the town, long American limousines obliterate your view of the shops on the opposite side of the street. At none of the preceding ports did I see such an evident sign of prosperity. The town was filled with these long, sleek, fast, flash American cars. They reared their ugly tails everywhere. Sometimes they crawled up on to the pavements, where you walked, to avoid collision with their passing brothers. Half of these vehicles were driven by negroes, arrogant, nonchalant, sometimes friendly—a refreshing change from the usual stories of the servile negro.
On the same day of our visit an American luxury cruiser had berthed opposite our boat. Perhaps the Americans were spending the winter season away from home. They too toured the town. Most of the elderly American men wore Bermuda shorts, held up over their prosperous bellies with elastic braces. Their heads they kept cool with banded straw boaters. Some of them smoked the famous cigar. Their women walked beside them with bulging handbags. Whichever shop you walked into, you were obstructed by their haggling voices….
“Say, you got any of them brass candlesticks? Ooh, Edward I say. This is a honey!”
I was quite keen to buy an Indian cotton jacket but was immediately discouraged at the sight of an American lady squeezing herself into one several sizes too small—“to take home as a souvenir for Alfie,” I guess. Of course in such ports the American tourist is extremely popular; he is a generous if rather vulgar spender.
My husband and I shared a bottle of Dutch beer and returned to the boat rather tired from walking the hot, narrow pavements.
We began to grow weary of boat-travel. As the journey nears its end you soon know everyone's business and everyone knows yours. You want to avoid people with whom you have talked and laughed. Instead of it you lose yourself in a game of chess or in a hand of cards. And time passes.
Once we reached Portugal we felt the presence of Europe. We walked on cobbled pavements along the shop fronts and I knew that Queen Street with its verandahs was thousands of miles away. I was excited at the prospect of seeing Portugal as I have a strong link with these people; many of my relations have Portuguese blood flowing in their veins. It is again like magic to think that a hundred years ago some of these people landed in New Zealand as sealers, whalers and traders and that they married Maoris. From these marriages are descended some of the most handsome of the Maori people. My own little village boasts of quite a few.
We hired a taxi—destination “Chez Maxim”, the famous night-club of Lisbon. We were ushered into a room by red liveried boys of charming appearance. Nothing was too much trouble there. No wonder, for a bottle of wine wrapped in a white napkin the fee was three pounds. If you looked at the jewellery, and then retured to your table, a little red waiter appeared at your elbow:
“Madame,” he would say in in enticing whisper, “the bracelet for Madame is fifty dollars” … or …“For you, Madame, the skirt in the window is thirty dollars”.
Huge concierges stood around to keep law and order in this dimly lit, crowded night club. It was a fantastic nightmare of hot-beat music, masked women, drunk men, and the pressing attentions of these liveried waiters. It was my first glimpse of a flash night-club and it was far from what I had imagined.
There were two stages for the bands who between them kept up a non-stop dance beat—rock-and-roll and South American rhythm. The masked women were intriguing me. I thought they were there to entice the men to drink, but apparently they were celebrating fashing. Later in the night we saw a floor show. A troupe of illclad dancers appeared on to the floor, one after the other till they stood side by side in a row. By that time we'd seen how they looked from a side view, a back view and now a front view. Each dancer carried an ostrich feather which modestly covered her naked thighs. None of them could sing, none of them could dance. Their faces were like painted grinning masks. Once you'd seen the back view, the side view and the front view of each dancer's body the act was completed. I should have appreciated their modestly-clad bodies if they had been well proportioned. But the sight of those huge, naked thighs, just there for the purpose of vulgar display, made me ill. Never was I made more aware of the difference between nakedness and nudity—between vulgarity and beauty.
When drinks are thrust upon you and entertainment fails to satisfy you, where do you go? Back to the boat. I walked those cobbled streets in my silly high heels and I felt very cold.
LONDON: THE END OF THE VOYAGE
We have passed Spain and are now nearing the end of the journey in our isolated, yet intimate world of boat-life. The main topic of the day is now the English weather and people shiver at the thought of the damp, foggy London winter. There is also gossip about concluding flirtations and there are sighs and tears amidst laughter and merriment. We have arrived in the harbour of Southampton; it is midnight, the second of February.
People had waited all day for the mail to arrive. At long last it was here. There were looks of surprise, of delight, of disappointment. Yes. nothing is more heartening than to receive letters at the end of a long journey, good news from the friends and relations far, far away; letters of welcome from the friends you are going to meet.
People make a country. You feel that you will be able to put up with much hardship if you are made welcome. I well remember that Tuesday night before our arrival. From about midnight till 2 a.m. there were transport and luggage officials on board—friendly English people in cloth caps and dark overcoats, standing at tables, helping, caring for the passenger who is worried about his luggage, who wants to send a telegram, who wants to book a rail ticket. They have a confidence and assurance born of years of dutiful labour.
It was a drizzly grey morning when we stepped on land. For some reason unknown to me I was terribly excited as I set foot on English soil. It is not that Southampton is an especially attractive port. No, it is the sense of tradition you feel and see in the cloth caps and thick overcoats, the friendly faces of the porters, and the old stony houses; the trees, and the black, rich soil of the carefully tended fields which you pass on the train journey to London.
Then we reached Waterloo Station. From there we took a tube to the heart of London—Piccadilly. We walked down the streets which are worn with age and we saw people. There were women wearing the most elegant fashions and those like myself, in flat heels. Men in bowler hats swung elegant umbrellas elegantly, wore tapering trousers and knee-length coats; everyone hurried hither and thither.
The weather? Not very cold—just like a Wellington winter. London on such a day? Grey. Smoky, dirty, sprawling. Streets grow up out of the earth for little rhyme or reason. Is it a wonderful city? Yes. It is impersonal, yet friendly. You can walk down the streets and lose yourself. You can always stop someone for help if you get lost in the criss-cross of streets. I like to see the people walking, people who are walking to a place I know not, people I did not know.
And now it is Spring and the greyness is going
and the trees are green and the birds sing and everyone with a garden goes out to dig. I feel warmth and gayness. Maybe, I'm all inside out too, for I love Tahiti—a far cry from London—and I still like London too.
And I shall come back to New Zealand where the grass is greenest—where I can take off my shoes.