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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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Sydney was abruptly a very different world. We were both suddenly very conscious that we had put Asia behind us and had returned to Western-style society. It was a large modern city with all that such a city had to offer. We could stay at the Loud Shop just off Crown Street, which was an interesting part of town. It seemed to be the area that the artists and young activists lived in. As soon as the Loud shop opened at ten in the morning, we were there on the doorstep carrying our heavy backpacks. Tiffy, an old girlfriend of Simon's who managed the shop, wasn't there. But we met Rose who showed us where we could sleep amongst stacks of clothes in the flat above the distinctly funky shop. Of course it was the first time that we seen a Loud shop and the clothes that we'd worked on for so long actually out for sale to the public. There was always great secrecy about the clothes in Bali and we were never allowed to wear them there in case they were copied. But out in the shop which had minimal lighting, a floor strewn with confetti and god knows what else, they looked a bit sad and tacky. Or perhaps we'd just seen them too much. Probably we'd seen too many clothes, which looked a lot too similar, or perhaps Loud saved their best clothes for their English outlets. But Rose, an attractive Italian, was a lot of fun and soon had us settled and fed. Then she arranged an itinerary for us that first day.

We met up with our Swedish friend Maria from Bali and she showed us some of the sights. Inevitably we checked out the famous Opera House which was actually as original and interesting as it always seemed in the photos that we'd seen. People were very friendly and Sydney seemed to be a very international city. Rose took us out to a pub to hear her boyfriend's rock band, "Inside Out", play that night and we were exhausted by the time we got to sleep back at the Loud shop. There was a lot to see and do in Sydney. We rode the Monorail, which made a short loop around the city and took a boat ride around the Harbour. And our new pal, Rose, took us to hear another good new group, a folksy duo called "Club Ho". But our stay in Sydney was to be very short and after only a few days we caught a bus up to Brisbane. This was a fifteen-hour trip along the coast, which gave us a chance to get a good look at urban and rural Australia.

My first impression was that the country resembled America -but a rural America circa 1970. It felt like a drive through Ohio, Illinois and Kansas and that we were passing through a landscape from a bygone era. Perhaps we had wandered down one of those elusive blue highways. We were met late that night by our friends Geoff and Liz whom we'd spent time with in Kovalum, India on our previous trip. They whisked us off to their house in Ashgrove, a suburb of Brisbane where we had arranged to stay for a few days. They were an easy-going couple who had just bought land in the country and dreamed of leaving the city for good. We did some sightseeing with them and even drove up the Gold Coast to Mooloolaba and Caloundra, two small resort towns. Our friend Phillip came from Mooloolaba where his family had run a caravan park for years and where I had often in the past written him letters. It was strange to finally be there only to find Phillip long gone. On our third day in Brisbane, we looked at the great public Art Gallery and got caught in a rain shower, which broke a three-month drought.

And then it was time to move on again. We took an early morning bus back down the coast to Byron Bay, a notorious hippie community on the furthermost Eastern tip of the whole continent. We stayed in a Backpacker's Hostel and borrowed bikes to cycle out to the lighthouse on the cape where we watched dolphins playing down below us in the water. Byron Bay could have existed in California, with its health restaurants, its bars with live music, its little galleries and shops and its heavy beach scene. It seemed to be mostly a long-haired crowd in the town but I think that I was looking for something more different, some place less Americanized and "new agey". We had had plenty of beach time in Bali all that past summer after all. But we also got to see another small part of this enormous Continent. By now, I think we knew that the real Australia lay far away outside of these coastal urban areas in the hidden outback places where the clocks ran on dreamtime. That's where the real natives of this huge country lived and where the landscape was exciting and alien. Some day I'll go back there and make the visit to Australia that I ought to have made.

We got back to Sydney after a long ride in the bus, which broke down sometime during the night. We had to watch awful videos for hours while a replacement vehicle was rounded up and came out to rescue us. As we drove South down the coast, we realized that the shadows of all the high-rise hotels along the famous Gold Coast were actually throwing their shadows across the beaches and blocking off the sun for most of the day. Japanese investors were buying up beach property as fast as they could but were destroying any charm that that stretch of Australia might once have had. Next time, we would just have to go further.

October 15th found us flying East into Auckland, New Zealand. It was a cool evening, I remember and I didn't really get much sense of the capital city of the country. We moved on early the following morning, taking a bus down through a lovely rolling green countryside to Taupo, which lay, by a great lake in the center of the North Island. I had family there and had come a long way to see them.

We were met by Cousin Roland, the aforementioned master baker in the Sunderland of my youth. His daughter Carol had immigrated to New Zealand as a schoolteacher, years before. Eventually she had met and married Basil and they had settled in Taupo and raised a family. When he retired, Roland had come out to live nearby with his wife who had died some years before. I had vivid memories of going to visit this branch of the family in Sunderland in the NE of England as a young boy and watching cousin Roland bake his famous meat pies. The experience stayed with me and no doubt lead to my being a good baker and enjoying baking a great deal. Being able to bake has been a useful talent during my years in America. I have always been able to find work as a baker and it's a useful skill to have when you go to visit people.

Roland was rather elderly and a little frail following a stroke but drove us around to Carol's house and then showed us the Home that he lived in. Taupo itself was a small town with a fine view of extinct volcanoes on the far shore of the lake, the highest of which were snow peaked. We had a very nice time meeting my long-lost relatives. We really had to get to know each other for I hadn't seen Carol in more than thirty years. I liked Basil at once. He was a slow speaking farmer who now operated heavy machinery and was somehow incredibly familiar to me. I had vague memories of Carol and found that she hadn't changed all that much. She had stopped teaching and now worked for the local newspaper as a proofreader. They had three children, Ian who had dropped out to live and farm with a Maori woman, John the tearaway and Kim who had trained to be a teacher but wanted to be an artist and to travel. We immediately felt very comfortable with the family. It felt as if I had in some way stepped back through time to make a connection with my long abandoned family and English roots. If Australia felt like America, New Zealand, with its green landscape, its farming and its gently paced lifestyle, made me think of the England of my youth.

On our second day in Taupo, Walter, who was Dutch and the local radio weatherman, came by and carried us off to climb the snow peaks that we could see across the lake. We drove to the foot of the mountain, then climbed the steep path that wound its way through the forest on the lower slopes and finally up across the loose rocks towards the summit. Walter was pretty entertaining. A professional mountain guide and ex-school teacher, he was determined to teach us something on this hike. He told us the names of all the trees and plants that we passed, which would have been alright if he hadn't started to test us rather formally on the way down to see if we remembered all the information. Fortunately Catherine had a more retentive memory than I and managed to satisfy his questions.


Our climb up the mountain was really wonderful. Above the stone path, we found ourselves amongst bubbling hot mud pools and streams where steam burst out of the earth at our feet. There was a pungent smell of sulphur in the air. New Zealand was apparently full of these areas of intense volcanic activity. Once again I was reminded of my childhood when I had seen such thermal activity in East Africa. I remembered boiling eggs in a thermal pool in Uganda on a picnic with the family. We eventually reached a cabin high on the mountain with a spectacular view of the whole region and had a rest and a bite to eat up there. We climbed up beyond the hut but soon found ourselves in deep snow and as we were only wearing sneakers, were forced to turn back. It was a good twenty-kilometer hike by the time we got back down to the car and we took Walter for a hot tub in Taupo when we got back.

The following day was Carol's birthday and I gave her a "Tiger Lily" batik, which she had framed immediately. We found ourselves taking over the cooking and kitchen work at the house which was pleasant after so much travel and so many restaurant meals. I gave a slide show and a little talk about art and being an artist to Kim's little art group, "Exposure". I remember emphasizing the fantastic freedom and excitement I experienced as a professional artist but balanced that with the lack of security that every artist had to learn to live with. Learning to trust that somehow, work and money would always appear sooner or later was what made living the life of an artist possible. I told them that it was a wonderful life, that I couldn't imagine living any other way but that it wasn't for the faint-hearted. When I suggested that they could make a living in a small town like Taupo putting on music and dance events or organizing raves, they sounded a lot less convinced.

One day, we drove over to visit with their son Ian and his -it transpired- Maori princess wife. Ian too was pretty familiar to me and I thought that he would have not have felt out of place in the mountains of West Virginia. He had several young children and they all lived in a very hand-made house on a plot of land by a river. The house was patched together from various different materials and the family was obviously surviving on very little money. They all seemed to be very happy. Ian was attempting to farm the land, had a few animals and a lot of rocks to deal with. So I found myself "cousie bro'" to a real Maori princess and wished the family all the luck in the world, knowing that they would need it. Ian was trying to do something very difficult, I realized, in making a union with a very alien culture to his. At the same time, he was trying to become self-sufficient on his little farm, which in itself would be no mean feat. I realized too, that the immigrants who had settled in New Zealand, had treated the indigenous people, the Maoris, much better and with far greater care than in any other colonial situation. In Australia, for example, we had seen very little sign of the original Aboriginal inhabitants of the continent and tales of their bad treatment and the prejudices held against them were legion. But in New Zealand, we saw many more Maoris, many more people of mixed race and any prejudices seemed to be kept under wraps. The New Zealanders had kept many of the Maori place names too and most towns and street names were of Maori origin. I suppose that, as a late colony, they had had more time to learn from the lessons and mistakes of other colonies.

I had a friend in Christchurch on the South Island, a New Zealander called Peter whom I had met in West Virginia and having come so far, I felt that we had to go down and visit him. So we left before dawn one morning and hitchhiked rather easily down to Wellington, the capital city. We had to wait a little while for the four o'clock ferry but crossed over to the South Island by early evening. We were lucky and caught another ride down to Christchurch just as the light was fading and we were wondering where we were going to spend the night. The landscape we passed through was lovely, green fields and rolling hills with enough sheep to send even the heaviest insomniac to sleep. It was a fertile, still relatively underdeveloped country and I hoped it would stay that way.

We got into Christchurch at midnight, were picked up by Peter on the steps of the Cathedral in the town center and whisked out to his house in New Brighton by the sea. He lived in a group house with his girlfriend and her children. I had known him on Lobelia Road, West Virginia when he had worked at the Snowshoe Ski center and had kept in touch with him by mail for a few years. Now he was working on a graduate degree in History and at coming to terms with a new relationship and an impending child.

In retrospect, we probably showed up to visit him at a very bad time. He was obviously distracted by his changing circumstances but did his best to give us a good time. Peter drove us high up a hill outside the city and we climbed up rocks to get a panoramic view of Christchurch. The city had a great museum and art center and put me very much in mind of a southern English College town with its old buildings, book and antique shops, small galleries and narrow streets. The New Zealand accents further reinforced the South England similarities. Catherine and I got around by bus and made long walks along the beach in New Brighton. It felt strange to be in a rather familiar situation but remote from anywhere, right out at the edge of the world. For New Zealand felt -and was- very far from anywhere else. To the East, one would eventually find South America and to the South, nothing much lay between Antarctica and us. As if to remind of us of that fact, the weather suddenly turned very cold and wet. We were reminded too that we would have to be North in Hawaii in less than a week. Peter took us out for a final day of sightseeing in Arthur's Pass to the West, where we walked around in the woods, saw incredible waterfalls and lots of kookaburra birds. We also visited Gricklegrass Commune, a hippie community where he used to live. We were shown around the large farm and all the gardens and buildings and took a wonderful sauna there. We could have been back in West Virginia quite easily.

We left the following morning after too brief a visit. We ought to have left ourselves more time to visit and explore the west coast of the South Island where the most spectacular scenery was apparently to be found. We hitched back to Picton easily and caught the mid-afternoon ferry back to the North Island and Wellington. There we were picked up by some construction workers returning from a job in the south and driven up to Otaki where we arrived just as the light went. Here we experienced the famed New Zealand hospitality that we had often heard about. Ian, the boss of the little company, invited us back to his home to eat and sleep. It was a great night for we had a barbecue with all the family outside and then crashed in their spare bedroom. Ian seemed to expect nothing of us except that we talk a little about our lives and travels. People always appeared to be eager for outside information for there was always that sense of being cut off from the rest of the world in New Zealand. It's about as far as you can get from anywhere else.


Another easy hitch took us back to Taupo the following day. Our last days in Taupo were spent trying to deal with the cold wet weather, which had suddenly arrived, and hanging out with the family there. Probably because we were vegetarians and Carol didn't know what to feed us, we found ourselves doing all the cooking at the house. I knew that we had to move on before we both put on too much weight.


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