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03/07/2008

A lot can happen in a year. After my brief reacquantance with the orchard industry I hit the road again this time crossing the ditch to the North Island of New Zealand, reacquainting myself with the landscape, old friends and relatives. Particularly pleasant was a couple of weeks on the Kapiti Coast in the gaze of Kapiti Island, one time stronghold of one of New Zealand's most famous warrior chiefs, Te Rauparaha of the Ngati Toa tribe. Te Rauparaha (a.k.a. "Old Blood and Guts") was an ambitious and fierce warrior whose forces terrorised much of the South Island during the early colonial period. The Haka (war dance) performed by New Zealand rugby teams before international matches was one of his compositions. (Ka mate, ka mate.....)

Back in the South Island I caught up with an old mate, Trace Hodgson. Trace and I played in a band in Nelson called R.O.T. ("Ring of Terror"). No one took us very seriously, less of all we ourselves but we had a lot of fun (at least I think we did, I would have marvelous memories if I could only remember them!). During the 1980s Trace was one of New Zealand's most prominent political cartoonists drawing funny pictures for "The New Zealand Listener" and other leading publications. His "Shafts of Strife" serial quickly became the stuff of legend. These days Trace works largely freelance but regularly contributes to The New Zealand Truth newspaper and the National Busines Review. He has kindly consented for In Sanity We Trust to present some of his work online.

Trace Hodgson Cartoon

Trace Hodgson - Not Cricket

Trace Hodgson Cartoons

Back in Dunedin I once again became part of the corporate death machine, this time performing menial tasks in the publishing department of the Otago Daily Times. It wasn't so bad, driving around all night dropping off newspapers, but wage slavery does tend to wear me down. I lasted a full six months before finally running screaming from the room. Perhaps my crowning achievement was the receipt of this marvelous little memo from the circulation department. They told me some of them work there for years before getting such correspondence. It's nice to be appreciated.

memo

Following my ground breaking work with the O.D.T. I checked out of New Zealand altogether on a one way ticket to Bangkok. The laughingly optimistic plan was to enter the ethnically diverse Yunnan Province of China overland through the North of Laos, then head up to Sichuan and Gansu Provinces to catch up on some old mates. It wasn't to be for various reasons, but I'll come to that.

One night in Bangkok as the song goes.....I wasn't particularly interested in spending time in Thailand, but the cheap fares made it the logical point to begin my adventures. I took off across the northeast, the Isaan region, historically part of Laos until the French conceded it to the Thais in exchange for giving them free reign over regions to the east of the Mekong, a decision that still rankles with some. Incidentally no one calls them "Laotians" these days, that sounds like some kind of extra-terrestrial skin cream! The Isaan region has not yet been completely overrun by backpackers so the "Land of Smiles" moniker may not be such a misnomer. It could be the locals are just happy to see you, not so much brimming at the prospect of emptying another falang's wallet. I made my way to the town of Phimai which contains an Angkor period relic, the Phimai Sanctuary. Continuing east I stopped in Buriram for a few days to check out another Angkorean Relic, Phanom Rung set in the crater of an extinct volcano. My achaeological oddyssey continued right across the border into southern Laos where I visited Wat Phu.

I arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos in time for the Lao New Year festival of Pii Mai which like its Thai and Cambodian counterparts involves copious amounts of water, alcohol, loud music and the odd bit of cross dressing. No one is safe as revellers lurk with buckets, hoses, water canons and flower bombs but it is nonetheless a welcome respite from the oppressive summer heat.

My main interest in Vientiane was procuring the visa I would need for crossing into China in the north. What used to be relatively straight forward had become problematic. The little robots had got into a bit of a tizz in anticipation of the Olympic Games, making you cross your eyes and dot all your teas, wary of potential rabble rousers in Tibet and smelly backpackers making the place look bad. To enter the middle kingdom you had to have onward plane tickets and hotel bookings and blah blah, woof woof. All a bit of a hassle when you are on the road. I blame it on the steroids personally. It would take another four days on top of that to process the visa and Vientiane being possibly the least interesting place in Laos, I was in no mind to linger. A lot of pissed off backpackers though some took consolation in the fact that while the visa fee was $30 for most of us, those carrying a $U.S. passport were required to pay a whopping $110.

O.K. so Chinese was off the menu, I decided to visit parts in Laos I had missed in 2004 starting with Phonsavan and the mysterious "Plain of Jars" in Xieng Khuong Province. Little is really known about the jars though it appears they were some kind of funerary device. The area is also liberally dotted with bomb craters. During the Vietnam War (a conflict the Vietnamese call "The American War") the Americans dropped a plane load of bombs on Laos every 8 minutes for the entire nine years, roughly a tonne of bombs for every Lao living in the country at the time, at a cost to the American taxpayer of about 2 million dollars a day. Per capita Laos is the most heavily bombed place on Earth.

Laos had gained independence from France in 1953 and by 1958 the U.S. were their main source of aid. The Americans were deeply suspicious of a rising communist presence in the Pathet Lao (Laos Communist Party) and withdrew aid when they were included in government that year. The coalition failed and civil war resumed. In 1962 a confrence in Geneva ratified a second coalition of royalists, communists and neutral factions yet within months the C.I.A. were in there arming the Hmongs against the Communists, (all rubber stamped by JFK). Of course the Vietnamese were quite happily ignoring Laos neutrality as well. The Hmongs were told the Vietnamese would steal their lands and were given some vague promises of autonomy. They incidentally only really had one cash crop and by the end of the Vietnam war one third of G.I.s in the field were addicted to heroin. The Hmongs fought a guerilla campain against north Vietnamese forces occupying the Plain of Jars for the next 12 years with support from American bombers. Both the yanks and the Viets continued to supply their mates and when the Ho Chi Minh trail opened up through eastern Laos the bombings intensified, all in contravention of international treaties and all behind the backs of the American public until 1970. Bombing became so intense that the Pathet Lao retreated to a series of caves in remote Vieng Xai district where they built an underground city with banks, barracks, bakeries etc. and hosted foreign dignitaries and theatre troupes from Cuba, Russia and China. Meanwhile outside the bombing continued relentlessly. The Laos proudly claim to have shot down 1500 planes. Curiously one of the revolutionaries was known as "The Red Prince", an aristocrat who developed socialist notions after studying in Vietnam.

In many cases the local people wouldn't have known what hit them. I relate the following quotes from a recent article in Southeastern Globe;

"The bombs fell like the monsoon, we could only farm at night".

"The first time I saw a plane I thought it was a God. Then it spewed fire and I was very scared. There was even fire in the river and all the fish were dead".

You cannot hear the bombers, but suddenly the whole world around you explodes. At first you didn't even know who was doing this to us, where they were coming from and why they wanted to kill us".

--"Secrets, Lies and Laos" - Marc Eberle, (Southeastern Globe: May 2008)


The Laos are a pretty care free "come what may" bunch. It would be condescending to say they are simple but they seem to lack any undue concern about tomorrow or the past nor do they dwell on past wrongs. I never heard a bad thing said about America. Certainly if any people on this Earth were less deserving of what befell them it were the Laos. Coming back from Vieng Xai I noticed that the lady taking money from passengers was wearing a stars and stripes headscarf. An old guy got on the truck, his leg looked to have been made of whatever it was that destroyed the original part. He was full of beans, laughing and joking. When we dropped him off I saw a bloke walking along the road who appeared not to have any arms. Looking back the other way I saw a chap with a sleeve hanging limp and empty. A lot of these guys have tried to convert UXO to scrap. Farmers dig them up all the time. They are being dissuaded from doing it but when you can get something like 200,000kip (say about twenty bucks!) per bomb, maybe enough to feed your family for a couple of months, it gets pretty tempting.

While in the northeast I visited another archaeological curiosity, again one little is known about. The stoneage Hua Phan Menhirs about 60km out of Sam Neua. It was an interesting day. Setting off I still hadn't had any breakfast so I stopped in a place just on the road out of town. I asked the guy inside if they had chicken. He just shook his head lead me to the fridge and opened the door for me to see inside. The thing on the plate had two hind legs and a tail. "Can you eat?" he said optimistically. "Well I am pretty hungry I replied"......

Heading east from Vieng Xai I stopped in Sam Neua, Vieng Thong, Nong Khiaw and Udomxai before rolling into Muang Sing. The plan here was to take a trek to minority villages but I was told there was no trekking the following day as there was a "party" in town. Turned out to be the annual rocket festival, a Tai Lu ritual designed to bring on the rainy season. Massive home made rockets were fired into space all day long as the villagers got progressively drunker on the BeerLao (one of the finest beers in Asia by the way!).

Rocket Festival Slideshow

From Muang Sing I made my way gradually back to Bangkok, then on to Taiwan where I currently await further instructions.......



Derelict Farm House, Redwood Valley, Nelson

26/04/2007

I've been back in New Zealand/Aotearoa since a bit before Xmas and have enjoyed getting reacquainted with my homeland after about seven years abroad. Over the last couple of months I have had precious few opportunities to get online and update the site as I have been occupied in the agricultural sector, picking Dave's apples. Life on the orchard is a bit slow at times though it can have it's moments.....

The Saga of Toerag and Shit-for-Brains

Toerag and Shit-for-Brains showed up on the orchard looking for work and hung around like a bad smell. In the time they graced our presense They managed to piss just about everyone off before finally pissing off themselves. Neither of them did a lot of work. Toerag spent more time hooning around the orchard in his car than picking apples. With random precision he managed to work his way up the nose of pretty much everyone in the place, while Shit-for-Brains was just a general dickhead. The poor old Pom is sitting in his car eating his sammies one day as Toerag screams past showering him with gravel. The Pom doesn't rile easily, it has to be said, but on this occasion he was incensed. One day I heard the Dickheads consortium conspiring to fill up Brains's bin with green apples and then apply a nice red veneer of red apples from the tops to make it look good. Little did they know that the boss reaches right down into them bins to check out the state of his apples. It's quality control at least a foot deep and the boss is up and down all over the place. He doesn't like bruising. One day he puts a rocket up Toerag for chucking apples, Toerag does it again immediately of course. The boss is on his case about his "smart attitude".

Toerag says "I can't be f#%ked any more," and walks off. Brains says he's going too and they leave hand in hand, off into the sunset in a cloud of dust and gravel. The boss returns to the yard singing "The wankers are gone, the wankers are gone."

But the wankers weren't gone. A week later they came back and did the place over.

Anatomy of a Burglary

There are two blocks. In our block reside a young guy from the Check Republic, four Chileans and myself. Toerag had stayed in the same block while Brains occupied a caravan. In the other block where the toilets are is a long time orchard resident, on the dole, and his girlfriend with a couple in a camper van nearby.

Saturday night Check Boy and the Chileans head into the city for a party, I decline the invitation to go with them. Around 8:30 I head out to find a paper but the local dairy is closed so I head on into Richmond where I buy a paper and an ice cream. As I sat in the car eating the ice cream I toss up whether or not to invite the POm out for a drink and catch some Super 14 rugby on the telly, but decide against it and head straight back out to the orchard. The right move as it turns out. I would have been gone for 1/2 hour at most. I come back in to find my room ransacked, travel bag gone, along with computer, iPod and other stuff. There is a pile of clothes sleeping bags and sundry items at the door of the Chilean's dorm, the lock has been forced. I go to the other block, hear anything? No. Campervaners? No. Shit! I try to find the boss, no reply, he's watching the rugby, call the cops. The guys from the other block meanwhile have found some bags that were dropped around the back in the cabbage patch. It looks like the burglar(s) left in a hurry and couldn't quite get away with all of it. There is a trail of woman's clothing along a treeline heading toward the road. (I put that down to Toerag, sick little pervert!) My travel case is there and computer inside (iPod too!) this is where being a bit of an old soak has worked in my favour as the half a slab of beer and three bottles of wine they took from my room cleary weighed the case down to the point where they couldn't carry it off. An attempt had been made to open the case during the flight, but abandonned. This was my lucky day, Check boy lost his laptop and the Chileans lost some expensive clothing. I got pretty much everything back apart from a small quantity of the unmentionable.

So how do we know it was them?

The burglars knew the layout of the orchard, they knew what people had and they knew when everyone in our block was gone. Check boy received a text message from Brains the day of the burglary to ask if he was still living on the orchard. He responded "yes" and got no reply. On-the-dole's mother-in-law says she saw Toerag's Toyota Corolla parked in an odd place nearby the orchard, shortly before the burglary. Toerag had a couple of MP3 players on hime when he arrived, didn't know how to charge them, most probably ripped off from the last orchard he was at.

The Aftermath

The cops came out again the next day to check my booze for prints but it seemed that they were wearing gloves. We are pretty sure we know who it was and the cops assured us that both creeps had criminal records as long as your arm but unless they are caught with the items it's pretty hard to make anything stick. What made it all that more insidious was the way Toerag had struck up a friendship with Check boy and then quite happily ripped him off. Toerag had mentioned having to face up to court on Monday in Christchurch so our guess is they have staked the place out, watched until everyone in our block went out and then hit the place before getting the hell out of Dodge, a carload of beer for the trip to Christchurch.

So if you see a Silver Toyota Corolla parked by the side of the road do everyone a favour and let the air out of the tyres or something.

O.K.so it's not the greatest anecdote of all time but like I said, life is pretty slow on the orchard. We're getting laid off shortly so I'm set to wander kiwiland seeking new purpose and meaning. If ytou are still wondering who the fuck I am, the dirty details are right here: bio Speaking of my homelands I have just registered the domain http://www.oldnewzealand.info which I hope to develop into a portal for NZ history resources. Watch this space.....