The Magic Hour

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Aegean tides gently bathe white shores

A purple sky, day’s end approaches

Bluish colours darken deep before

So stars, convinced, reveal their motions

and sands, still warm, are cooling

With his walking stick in one old hand

His sandals dangling in the other

In the evening beach there walks a man

Who, as he slowly walks, he wonders

just who the gods are fooling

Breathing the aroma of the sea

Watching the setting sun of twilight

His aging eyes peer the mystery

And admire the silk of nighttime;

how darkness starts to shimmer

Carefully, he collects seven stones

And placing the largest at his feet

He twirls around in the sand and combs

With his stick – he traces circle streaks

and maps the solar system

He places a stone in each new groove

Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Mars

Saturn, the Sun, and not last the Moon

Earth; to witness them and to the stars;

soon to wash away in waves

Little did he know of his drawings

Were all part of the long ancient spell

Of knowledge, wisdom’s magic scrawling

Enchanted science which would propel

he’d conjured up the space age

The Saxophonist

I entered a 300 word short story competition a few years ago, and although my entry didn’t get a place amongst the finalists, I always thought it was kind of cool…

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The SAXOPHONIST by DAVID COYLE

The saxophonist is dishevelled. His clothes are unloved by someone else before he un-loves them further. His shoes are old. He doesn’t tousle his hair deliberately, his erratic lifestyle does it for him. The frantic way in which he cuts through the streets, as if pupated by jazz itself, makes everyone think him a little mad. Nevertheless, he makes it to the bar on the east side of town just in time.

Unclipping the silver clasps of his saxophone’s black case, he takes out his golden horn. The other musicians start; the snap of the drum, the rain of the piano, the roll of the bass. The audience watches on, drinking in silent admiration. Then, with the chunky valves at his fingertips and the moan of a dead generation on his lips, in his breath, the saxophonist unleashes the raunchy howl into the night.

Everything in his life is otherwise meaningless and off, but for this sole purpose; the breathing of summer’s heat into winter’s evening. For this, he is exact; a sly master, perfectly formed, no longer out of place. Seemingly without effort, like an insect that lives only for a day, he is precise and brief.

With light on him, and all else dim, he takes his listeners to New Orleans, a Chicago noir, back alleys, drunken sophistication, that apartment with that girl, one woman listening even finds herself thinking – “What is life but the enjoyment of sweet delusion?” – and then they’re back to the bar.

To see anyone as good at any one thing is to know that people can be fine.

The saxophonist then backs out of the light on the stage, out of the only environment he suits. He dusts off his jacket and his soul and fades away, never to be seen again.

Nola Til You Die

I recently went back to New Orleans and it was even cooler than I remembered it. The last day of the Jazz Fest was probably one of the best days of my life!

I stayed in St Roch and saw some sad realities, however. I saw a shooting; thankfully not the gunfire but a guy with a bleeding stomach being led into a car. I later read in the newspaper that he died on his way to hospital. He can’t have been much older than me.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is still painfully present as well in St Roch; empty lots scattered around the neighbourhood, abandoned schools, and busted sidewalks. The only hints that the hurricane happened over a decade ago come in the form of overgrown weeds, too tall and numerous for the hurricane to have been recent.

The French Quarter and the Garden District are fine, that’s where the tourists go, but one can’t help but suspect that the government’s neglect of the outer neighbourhoods has something to do with the demographics of the people living in them.

At the Jazz Fest, I sat in the shade of a statue of Etta James and met a guy who claimed to be a voodoo priest. He told me the story of the name of the stage before us, Congo Square. Congo Square is a relatively nondescript area in Armstrong Park, on the northern edge of the French Quarter. A understated monument of dancing slaves marks what is nothing short of a remarkable location.

The voodoo priest explained to me, “New Orleans was the only place in the world to give slaves a day off, so each Sunday the slaves could congregate at Congo Square and see their family members and friends who were owned by different plantations. The musical traditions from far-ranging West African backgrounds were all pooled into this one place when the slaves would sing and dance in an effort to boost each others’ spirits and make the most of what little freedom they had. It’s because New Orleans gave slaves an afternoon off that we have music as we know it today.”

Escape from Mexico

We don’t fear sleeping just because we might have nightmares. In the same way, I don’t fear traveling or adventure just because it might go badly. Quite the opposite, I get tired of daily life and am always looking for somewhere to close my eyes and drift away to. So, when in December last year the opportunity to live and work as an English teacher in Zacatecas, Mexico, presented itself, I didn’t hesitate seizing it with both hands.

What I thought was a dream first began in early January this year by traveling to Auckland, where I spent a few nights with my friends, Gary and Alana; two film school sweethearts I’d met 11 years earlier at South Seas. I also caught up briefly with another old friend, Nic, who was on his way back to his adoptive home in Melbourne. After Auckland, I flew first to Hawaii, sitting next to an irritating American woman who asked me incessant questions about myself, told me incessant information about herself, and proceeded to claim knowing, on a personal level, every Hawaiian musician who appeared on the safety video with a ukelele. The airport in Honolulu had a distinctly 1970’s decor feel about it, lots of browns, tans, and oranges. I was only there for a few hours. Flying into Los Angeles always has an ominous feeling; the city is such an unapologetic monster, especially at night. This was true of this descent into Los Angeles, just as it always is. It was also my first time arriving in the mainland of Trump’s America. Screwing up my flight times, I had to book an earlier ticket to Zacatecas to avoid being cast adrift in Los Angeles for 24 hours at 1am. I finally boarded a Mexico-bound flight and began heading south towards the most magical country I’ve ever known.

Through the pitch black of night, I flew high over the deserts of Mexico; a thin band of crimson appearing on the horizon to the east as the new day, and my new life, began to dawn. My plane landed at what I assumed was the airport in Zacatecas, however, I later learned we’d landed somewhere else entirely because of fog clogging the runway in Zacatecas. We waited a few hours on the tarmac as the rising sun revealed the dessert landscapes around us, tall mountains in the distance buttressing the brightening sky. In hindsight, the irritating American woman, the screwed up flight times in Los Angeles, and the fog delay in Zacatecas – these were all early signs my dream was swerving into a nightmare, I just didn’t realise it.

However, the first indication of this that I was truly aware of was when the Fluency First Institute school director, Francisco Lopez, picked me up from the airport and showed me the ‘accommodation’ that had been included in my employment package. It was filthy, looked more like a prison cell, and had no working water. I was a little shocked, but I reminded myself that Mexico is a poor country and I hadn’t moved there for glamour but to try and make a positive impact in the world. I was cautious of being a ‘precious westerner’. Besides, Francisco seemed like a nice enough sort of guy and he’d said he’d get the water fixed the following day.

Four days later, however, he still hadn’t contacted a plumber, and I was desperate for a shower, so I asked him if he knew of a nearby apartment building I could move into. He took me to a building nearby and introduced me to Jaime, the building owner. They showed me a room with a disgusting, but functioning, bathroom and with a balcony that had a spectacular view of the city. Unaware what the going rate for such an apartment was, I trusted Francisco had my back and signed a lease for six months, and signed my fate. In reality, Francisco didn’t have my back, and this place, this day, and this signature were together a ticking time bomb. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

I finally had my first shower since leaving Auckland and got my first classes ready for the following day. Francisco hadn’t told me anything about these classes, who the students were, how many there were, what level of English they were, or what was expected of this first lesson – but I assumed a general ‘breaking the ice’, ‘getting to know each other’ sort of thing was needed. The true extent of Francsico’s disastrous organizational skills, or rather the complete lack thereof, was revealed on this first day of classes, as a meeting with the other teachers took place that morning before the classes were due to begin. Us teachers didn’t know how the course was structured, what books we were using, the size and level of our classes, which assignments were expected or when – it was like Francisco was making it up as he went along.

But it wasn’t my job to orgainze the course, so I went with the flow and all things considered, my first day of classes and my first day in my new career as an English teacher went well. So did my first week; I gradually figured out what was expected of my classes, I got on well with the students and they seemed to like me, and I discovered just how much I loved teaching. I’d even made friends with someone, who I’ll keep nameless, who was also working in Zacatecas as a teacher. He would come to save my ass in the drama that would unfold in the coming weeks. He showed me around town and introduced me to his friends and I began making the most of being young, free, single, and relatively monied in a new and exciting place.

Zacatecas itself was beautiful and the lifestyle, full of wonderful music and food, was easy to get hooked on. I started writing the opening chapters of a new book. I went on a few dates. I visited the Museo Pedro Coronel, which was empty when I went one afternoon, giving me a private moment with walls of Picasso paintings and an exquisite piece by Salvador Dali. The only other person in the gallery was an old man asleep on a chair at the end of a hall.

The other teacher had been in Zacatecas since August and helped me with my Spanish and the general day to day stuff someone needs help with when moving to a new city. This was supposed to be Francisco’s job, but I was beginning to get the measure of this guy; always having to ask him to pay me and hearing stories from other teachers of his short temper. I began to notice more and more unpaid, last minute work cropping up; extra meetings, extra programmes, extra promotion of the school, etc., but I didn’t complain. I was enjoying life in Zacatecas.

The first serious crack, however, showed up a few weeks later when Francisco asked me into his office for a meeting, the point of which I’m still not sure of other than to tell me I was being “paid too much”. My hourly rate was 80 pesos an hour, just over US$4, and I was being given a food allowance of 500 pesos a week, though I always had to ask Francisco several times each week for him to actually give it to me. I told Francisco that I was sorry he felt that way but that was the deal his business parter in Utah, Jared Rhodes, had made with me before I’d started working for Fluency First and that any changes to this deal could cause a problem. Francisco lost his infamously short temper, refused to discuss it further with me because “you’re not listening”, and said that he needed to talk to Jared in Utah. I left his office feeling a little upset – and a lot concerned.

But everyone thinks their boss is a jerk, right? This wasn’t anything to be too worried about, right?

However, then the dream really started to turn into a nightmare when I got mugged one night outside my apartment building. I was walking home when some guy landed a solid punch square in the centre of my face. I’m pretty sure he broke my nose. In any case, I fell to the ground and he ran off with about 2,000 pesos out of my pocket. This kind of thing can happen in any city in the world – so I licked my wounds, laid low for a few weeks, taught my classes, and kept to myself. There were no cameras covering the part of the street I’d been attacked in and the police would never catch the bastard, so I sucked it up and let it go. Besides, there was a problem brewing which meant I couldn’t go to the police for help.

Despite telling me before I arrived and started working that he would arrange the visa I needed through the school, Francisco let it slip one afternoon that he’d done no such thing. I suddenly realised I was working illegally in Mexico. That night, I called the New Zealand embassy in Mexico City and asked them what I should do. Francisco owed me a large amount of money, so I didn’t want to simply leave in the middle of the night, but that was basically the advice from the embassy. They warned me that if the Mexican officials found out about my working illegally I could be detained for one or two months in jail and then deported. The amount I was willing to pay would probably determine how long I’d have to wait for a plane ride home. Fluency First would also get into trouble, but the only way I could ensure Francisco got into hot water too was if I was willing to go to jail myself as well. Catch-22.

So, I couldn’t turn to the police or immigration for help. Whenever I asked Francisco for my money, he always just said, “I’ll go to the bank tomorrow” – but he never did. It dawned on me that I was in a bad jam. I was owed money but had no way of getting it and I had to avoid the authorities. How the hell had this happened? I had been so distracted by moving to a foreign city, starting a new job, and learning a new language that I’d fallen into a serious trap.

But things were about to get a lot worse.

I came home to my apartment one day and noticed my iPod and cash were missing from my desk. I checked the doorframe and noticed a chunk of wood was missing from around the lock. I’d been robbed a second time. Despite this robbery coming without any physical harm, it was altogether more unsettling than the first – someone had been in my room and I had no idea who or when. I contacted the building owner, Jaime, and told him what happened. To my surprise, when he arrived 20 minutes later, he had the missing piece of wood from my door in his hand. He told me he’d smelt smoke coming from the room a few months before I’d arrived and needed to break in to make sure there wasn’t a fire. I’m not stupid; it struck me as unusual. I was immediately suspicious of Jaime, but as the apartment was always pitch black in the hallways, I couldn’t be 100% sure this piece of wood hadn’t always been missing. “Besides”, I thought to myself as Jaime was talking to me, “Why would a landlord break into one of his own apartments? Wouldn’t he just use a spare key? It’s not like there’s cameras in this building, it would be the perfect crime.”

Anyway, seeing as Francisco had landed me in a position of not being able to go to the police for fear of being detained and eventually deported, I decided an iPod and a few hundred dollars wasn’t worth risking my neck over. I asked Jaime if I could change rooms. He took me to a much smaller but slightly cheaper and probably safer room. He still charged me the full rent of the other apartment, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to be out of there, and this room didn’t have a toilet that leaked sewerage.

However, a few days later, my friends found out about my situation and were aghast to learn just how much rent Jaime had been charging me. It was double, nearly triple, the usual price. I was furious at Jaime, but even more so at Francisco – I’d moved to this city, this country, to help out his school for $4 an hour and this was how he was repaying me. I began formulating plans to move cities and change schools, but I was really enjoying Zacatecas; I had friends here, I’d been dating a beautiful woman named Gabriella, I loved my students, and found working with them to be really rewarding.

Despite everything my shady boss and landlord had done to me, I didn’t want to leave Zacatecas.

It was around this time that I began to suspect that it had been no accident that Francisco had shown me to this particular building and that I had been robbed from it. Other than suspicions, however, I had no proof. But my friends remained alarmed with my situation. They’d had similar problems with this extortionate landlord – even getting a lawyer involved when they ended their lease early because they didn’t feel safe there and Jaime had demanded months and months of rent paid as a ‘fee’. The lawyer described Jaime’s leases as legal garbage, having simply typed them up himself in Word, not numbering the pages, not providing copies to tenants, and operating outside of the law.

It was only a matter of time before this perfect storm of bullshit exploded completely and utterly, and on the morning of the 25th of February, only some eight weeks after I’d arrived in Mexico, I woke to discover I’d been robbed a third time, this time in my sleep. Someone had come into my bedroom, presumably with a spare key, while I was asleep and had taken my laptop, my phone, my credit card, my driving licence, my cash, my sunglasses – even my electric razor. They’d gutted me of virtually everything valuable I owned. All I had left were my clothes, my camera (which they can’t have seen, it being protected by a good luck charm I’d been given in Hiroshima in 2016), two pesos, and – thankfully – my passport.

But I had no way of contacting anyone, no way of buying a bottle of water or anything to eat, and no way of getting the police to help. I walked around the streets in a daze, sitting outside on the curb for an hour or two, desperately trying to figure out what to do next. I went back inside and knocked on my friend’s door but there was no reply, he must’ve been out somewhere. I began to panic when I realised the only way insurance would help me recoup some of my losses was if I had a police report – but I was too worried about being put in Mexican jail to go and get one. I had no idea what to do.

In the end, I approached a traffic cop, hoping they’d be the least likely to enquire of my immigration status, and asked for help. I told her I’d been robbed and needed help contacting my friends and family. She helped me contact a local friend of mine, Jose, who drove down and collected me from the side of the road. I reasoned that if I could get Jose to do the talking at the police station, telling him to ask for a police report and only a police report, then maybe I’d get away without further prying into my immigration status. Thankfully, at the police station – my plan worked and I got my police report.

Now, as much as it broke my heart to go, I needed to get the hell out of Mexico. My parents organized a flight home for me, but before I could go I needed my money from Francisco and my remaining stuff from Jaime’s building. I decided to get my money from Francisco first, but when I asked him to pay me, he lost his temper again, swearing at me (“Fuck you!”, “Fuck off!”), demanding I pay Jaime this absurd amount of money as a fee (in the clearest sign to date that they were old buddies), and even punching me. If it wasn’t such a pathetic punch, I probably would’ve returned it with a proper one, but I really didn’t want to get arrested so I simply walked out of Fluency First without fighting back.

With the help of my friends, I managed to sneak my belongings out of Jaime’s building and together we all went back to Fluency First. Jared, Francisco’s business partner, was thankfully in town from Utah and was easier to deal with. Aside from assuring me that Francisco “really is a great guy”, he did promise to pay me the money Fluency First owed me.

I spent the next few nights at my friends’ house and got my money from the school the day before I was due to fly out. They wanted to photocopy my passport before paying me but the last thing I was going to do was hand these people my passport. It was sad to say goodbye to my friends and to this beautiful city, but I was glad to be going. I needed to wake up from this nightmare. My only regret was never finding out Gabriella’s last name, so with my phone stolen I lost the ability to contact her and never got a chance to say goodbye. I hope that someday she finds out what happened what to me.

Then, the last hurdle was getting through customs at the airport without any questions about my two months in Mexico and what visa I had been using. It was a nervous wait as the customs official took my passport away to “check something” with his supervisor. I stood at the gate and tried to distract myself with my Spanish copy of The Lord of the Flies (El Señor de las Moscas). Luckily, when the official came back, it had simply been a matter of verifying that my ESTA Visa for the United States was indeed attached electronically to my passport.

A brilliant sunset dropped behind the desert in the distance as I walked out of the terminal and onto the tarmac. My last breaths of evening air in Mexico. My heart was broken into a thousand pieces – I loved Mexico and didn’t want to go. Flying away, the scattered desert towns illuminated in artificial light below, spread across the black velvet of the night, appeared to me to represent all the broken shards of my heart, flung far and wide across the desert.

I didn’t truly feel safe until we were flying low over the gargantuan sprawl of Los Angeles. It struck me that it was always nighttime in Trump’s America, dark, with thick black ink blotting out the sky. I thought of Shakespeare’s “Unto the kingdom of perpetual night”.

With 11 hours to kill in Los Angeles before my flight back to Honolulu, retracing the steps I’d made only eight weeks earlier, I decided to get a cab to a nearby bar to do some writing, have a drink, and meet some of America’s characters. The cabbie reeked of marijuana and I think I caught him mid-smoke, so he was happy to oblige my request to “take me somewhere nearby”, whereas most taxi drivers in LA will only take you to a specific address. He ended up taking me to a bar called ‘Melody’s’, about ten minutes down the road from the airport.

The first person I struck up a conversation with was a woman studying political science at UCLA. She asked me what the political scene in New Zealand is like and I said, “Well, there’s an unmarried pregnant woman in charge. She’s also young, and liberal, and probably an atheist, but nobody really cares enough about that to ask.” The look this young American student gave me, her whole lifetime probably being told America is the greatest democracy in the world, was one of total disbelief. “Any one of those things would bury an American politician”, she said, flabbergasted, “But you have a Prime Minister who is ALL of them?!”

I later met someone else, his name was Devon. I told him what had happened to me and he cracked up laughing, “You stupid fuck! What did you go to Mexico for? There’s a difference between being humanitarian and being an idiot!” I liked his candid approach. We shared a drink and then I figured I should probably go back to their airport. When I got to the Hawaiian Airlines check-in desk, however, it was still four hours away from opening, so I tried to get some sleep on a nearby row of seats. A few hours later, a cop woke me up, “Is this what they do in New Zealand, fall asleep and miss their flights?” I thanked him for waking me up and he said, “C’mon, go home.”

Some hours later, I was in Hawaii again, and some hours after that I was in Auckland. I crashed the night in an airport hotel before flying to Wellington the next morning. One hell of a surreal trip finally coming to an end.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot I can do to Fluency First from here in New Zealand. I’ve had a meeting with the Mexican embassy and told them my story, hopefully beginning a process whereby the school will be investigated by the Mexican authorities, but other than that – the bastards pretty much got away with it. To think, all I wanted to do was teach English and learn Spanish. The only other thing I can do is blog about them, spread the word and warn others to avoid them. One of the books they’re getting the students to read, even though it’s absurdly difficult for someone learning English, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is often misquoted as saying something which seems relevant to this situation, regardless of who actually said it:

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

Lest We Regress?

Given the many and dramatic events of our current time, it may seem strange that I would choose, on this day of December 4th 2017, to focus on the deeds of an empire that collapsed a century or so ago. In the face of the growing threat of nuclear war in Korea, our perpetual and collective nightmare that is the conflagration of the Middle East, the looming havoc of our destroyed environment and exceedingly unfair economic system, alongside that ultimately sophisticated propaganda machine, a genocide in Myanmar, and, of course, the compromised and morally bankrupt US government nearing the completion of the corporate takeover of the world’s only superpower (USA™), why then, on this complex and urgent Earth, would I turn my pen to the Ottoman Empire? Surely those other things are more pressing (besides, isn’t an Ottoman a piece of furniture, or something?)? Well, yeah – but what is the underlining themes of all of these events?

Fear, ignorance, hatred, and greed.

And what are the antidotes?

Trust, knowledge, love, and compassion.

& – Knowledge – this is the one I want to specifically focus on here. In WWI, during the death of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire, they committed an horrific act: the Armenian Genocide. A fact that approximately 2 million people, the majority of whom were Armenian (some were Greek and Syrian), were deliberately murdered is indisputable. The Republic of Turkey, which for all intents and purposes inherited the Ottoman Empire, denies that this mass slaughter of all those innocent people ever took place.

Now then, being that Turkey is located in the geopolitical nexus of the world, the control of it, or at least the allegiance of it, is incalculably valuable to the world powers of today. And, as it stands today, Turkey is a key NATO ally. However, with their recent ‘slip’ into Islamist autocracy, it’s unclear what the future would actually hold in regards to Turkey if NATO’s resolve was ever truly tested. It might depend on who is the aggressor – and who is the victim. Anyway, the point I’m making is that keeping Turkey ‘on side’, even in the face of their ‘transgressions’, is a crucial facet of their relationship with NATO. It is for this reason that the USA and the UK (in other words: two thirds of NATO’s nuclear heavyweights) do not officially recognise that the Armenian genocide ever took place. This is in no way any different than if they were to deny the Holocaust.

Last week, a curious political incident involving Golriz Garamahn took place here in New Zealand. Basically, the Green Party (of which she is a member) promoted the fact that she worked on the prosecution teams for various war criminals, but entirely glossed over the fact she also worked on the defense teams of some of those people.

Nobody serious denies that war criminals require defense lawyers, for otherwise the verdicts condemning them would hold no legal validity. Defending war criminals is an unpleasant but necessary job. What made the mini-scandal worse for Golriz, however, was the photograph of her smiling with one of the people she was defending. In the end – this was basically a ‘scandal’ where a politician learnt the ins and outs of politics. But it was the irate accusations that she was a genocide denier that caught my attention, for here is a fact that I suspect most of those ‘irate’ New Zealanders do not know, and indeed a fact which most non-irate New Zealanders probably do not know either – a fact which ties into my earlier point about knowledge being the antidote to ignorance:

NEW ZEALAND DENIES THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE.

Let that sink in. New Zealand, the place we all love to think of as being the progressive, inclusive, egalitarian, tolerant light in the oft-darkened world of human affairs denies a genocide of 2 million people. It’s fucking disgusting.

The reason for this denial, so far as I can assume, is because of our ‘special relationship’ with Turkey – i.e. we unsuccessfully invaded the Ottoman Empire over a century ago at the behest of our British colonial masters and as a result there are a couple of thousand dead New Zealanders buried underneath Turkish soil. If the New Zealand government was to recognise the Armenian genocide, would the remains/grave sites of those New Zealanders be desecrated? Would early 20-something New Zealanders on their O.E piss-up tours of Europe not be able to solemnly pretend to give a shit on the 25th of April each year in their hour or so detour out of Istanbul, probably while nursing a hangover they’ve had since Bucharest? (Wait, what is Constantinople?) Well, fuck – wouldn’t that just be awful?

To the people who have (legitimate) concerns that their ancestors’ remains or grave sites might be impacted upon by an official New Zealand recognition of the Armenian genocide, all I can suggest is that you consider how those ancestors of yours might answer this question; would they prefer to have a monument in their honour or for the country they died for to retain its own honour?

Disclaimer: I don’t really know what I’m talking about here. The only time I’ve ever spent in a university lecture theatre was when I worked as a caretaker at Victoria University here in Wellington, wiping the whiteboard clean of maths questions (which despite what Goodwill Hunting had lead me to believe, I was not the only person able to solve – in fact, I couldn’t solve them at all!). I’ve never been in a government funded intellectual policy think tank (in all honesty, I can’t think of anything worse). I don’t know shit about the international community, diplomatic relations, trade agreements, promises, pledges, corruption, nepotism – it all sounds like bullshit humans make up to make simple things sound complex so they can feel important. I’m an artist. My job is to scream out loud the obvious solutions to the simple problems society has decided must be complex. You’re well within your right to say, “What does this guy know?” I don’t know anything. All I know is the power of love, knowledge, trust, and compassion.

And I know that New Zealand, my country, my homeland, the nation born of a imperial treaty with the indigenous people in 1840, the place that gave women the right to vote in 1893, the place that fought fascism and stood up to apartheid and nuclear testing, cannot let this man be proven right:

“I have issued the command — and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

– Adolf Hitler

Here, Hitler is suggesting that because nobody remembers the genocide of the Armenians that the genocide of the Polish Jews, the Holocaust, will eventually be forgotten too. This is the very real danger in denying genocide; it emboldens hatred to play its hand again. And again. And Again.

I didn’t vote in the flag referendum, not because I didn’t care about the result, but because I couldn’t decide what was worse; the colonial Swastika that is the Union Jack or the neoliberal vanity project of ‘Sir’ John Key. “Colonial Swastika?” you ask, incensed and outraged. Yeah. Do the deliberate famines in Ireland and India – and that’s just the places that start with I – not offend you in the same way as the pogroms of industrial, assembly line murders committed by the Nazis? Why not? The crimes of the British Empire make the Nazis look like street punks. In fact, the British Empire are the root cause of the current situation in Myanmar. So you see, knowledge and recognition of the past does impact the ignorance of the present – and indeed the hateful dying of the future.

Your move, New Zealand.

100th Anniversary of Nothing Much

100 years ago, on November 14th, 1917, nothing much of any significance really happened in World War I. It was just another day of the Great War.

Those who died on this day weren’t part of any major glorious meat-grinding offensive, at least nothing on the scale and infamy as the Somme, Passchendaele, or Verdun. In fact, as far as dates go, the Battle of Passchendaele had just ended a few days earlier on the 10th. There were a few attacks on this day, probably, some shells were fired, presumably, and some sons and brothers and husbands were ripped from this world in agonising horror, but nothing really happened. Certainly nothing worth commemorating.

No wreaths, no politicians, no sombre television journalists, no heart felt declarations of mistakes never being repeated, no dawn parades, no holidays, no nationalist narratives, not even any surviving good old fashioned imperial pieces of propaganda. Nothing! Just death fading into the watery abyss of history’s long and painful memory.

Maybe it’s best that way? Maybe the overwhelming scale of it all is best only reflected upon on the dates where it would be a sin not to? I don’t know. I’m certainly not trying to disparage commemoration events, I think as long as they aren’t used for nationalism then they’re probably OK. And I’m neither suggesting we live in nor forget the past. I guess all I’m trying to say is that I feel for the poor bastards who experienced utter hell on an otherwise tedious day.

In my time researching the events of a century ago, I’ve come into contact with a great many photographs taken during the war, from all sides; Russian, German, French, Austrian, British, Turkish, American, Kiwi. Naturally, the photographs of people always make a strong emotional impact, however, it’s another type of photograph that has really come to haunt me. As ghastly and terrible as the pictures of dead bodies strewn across battlefields are, as devastating as the pictures of ruined villages are, and as worrying as the images of insane mechanisms of destruction are – it’s the aerial shots of the Western Front that’ve stayed with me.

Completely void of any feeling, they’re absent of any humanity, however grim the humanity would be if it were present. They’re often shockingly vast and totally alien; the earth doesn’t looks like the earth anymore, it’s insane animal children have perverted it with terror and hellfire and the surface now looks like that of the moon. The millions of shells have stripped the landscape of any trees and littered the surface with craters. Towns have been erased. And then there’s the trenches; these sickening, twisted strings of abject despair cracking their way across the surface of this mangled world. The humans have resorted to hiding in these jagged lines, like termites stripping the earth and themselves of any dignity.

The planet looks infected with war.

They remind me of some other images, like these viruses under a microscope, including AIDS, ebola, HIV, and smallpox:

And also under the microscope, human tears:

Donald the Bitch

Words courtesy of Eminem, sentiment courtesy of everyone.

This the calm before the storm right here
Wait, how was I gonna start this off?
I forgot… oh, yeah…
That’s an awfully hot coffee pot
Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Prob’ly not
But that’s all I got ’til I come up with a solid plot
Got a plan and now I gotta hatch it
Like a damn Apache with a tomahawk
I’ma walk inside a mosque on Ramadan
And say a prayer that every time Melania talks
She gets a mou—ahh, I’ma stop
But we better give Obama props
‘Cause what we got in office now’s a kamikaze
That’ll prob’ly cause a nuclear holocaust
And while the drama pops
And he waits for shit to quiet down he’ll just gas his plane up and fly around ’til the bombing stops
Intensities heightened, tensions are risin’
Trump, when it comes to giving a shit, you’re stingy as I am
Except when it comes to having the balls to go against me, you hide ’em
‘Cause you don’t got the fucking nuts like an empty asylum
Racism’s the only thing he’s fantastic for
‘Cause that’s how he gets his fucking rocks off and he’s orange
Yeah, sick tan
That’s why he wants us to disband
‘Cause he can not withstand
The fact we’re not afraid of Trump
Fuck walkin’ on egg shells, I came to stomp
That’s why he keeps screamin’, “Drain the swamp!”
‘Cause he’s in quicksand
It’s like we take a step forwards, then backwards
But this is his form of distraction
Plus, he gets an enormous reaction
When he attacks the NFL so we focus on that in
-stead of talking Puerto Rico or gun reform for Nevada
All these horrible tragedies and he’s bored and would rather
Cause a Twitter storm with the Packers
Then says he wants to lower our taxes
Then who’s gonna pay for his extravagant trips
Back and forth with his fam to his golf resorts and his mansions?
Same shit that he tormented Hillary for and he slandered
Then does it more
From his endorsement of Bannon
Support from the Klansmen
Tiki torches in hand for the soldier that’s black
And comes home from Iraq
And is still told to go back to Africa
Fork and a dagger in this racist 94-year-old grandpa
Who keeps ignoring our past historical, deplorable factors
Now if you’re a black athlete you’re a spoiled little brat for
Tryna use your platform or your stature
To try to give those a voice who don’t have one
He says, “You’re spittin’ in the face of vets who fought for us, you bastards!”
Unless you’re a POW who’s tortured and battered
‘Cause to him you’re zeros
‘Cause he don’t like his war heroes captured
That’s not disrespecting the military
Fuck that! This is for Colin, ball up a fist!
And keep that shit balled like Donald the bitch!
“He’s gonna get rid of all immigrants!”
“He’s gonna build that thing up taller than this!”
Well, if he does build it, I hope it’s rock solid with bricks
‘Cause like him in politics, I’m using all of his tricks
‘Cause I’m throwin’ that piece of shit against the wall ’til it sticks
And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his
I’m drawing in the sand a line: you’re either for or against
And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split
On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this:
“Fuck you!”
The rest of America stand up
We love our military, and we love our country
But we fucking hate Trump

Writer vs South East Asia

PHNOM PENH.

It wasn’t until I was on the road out of Phnom Penh that my experience there really began to dawn on me; and it wouldn’t be until I left Cambodia later that week that the significance of my time in the country would begin to sink in.

When I first arrived in the Cambodian capital, fresh off the back of ten months in Wellington, I went for a walk around the streets, down a couple of alleys and backroads, making for the occasional landmark in the distance. It was on this first casual walk through the city that I began to feel an unnamed and unidentifiable gnawing sense of unease. Though I could not yet put my finger on it, it was as real as the tuktuk-polluted air I was breathing and the hot sun warming my skin. There was something in the corner of my eye, but whenever I turned to look at it – it was gone. It was as if the streets were filled with a piercing howl on mute.

If I hadn’t known any of the history of this country, I feel I would’ve suspected something terrible had happened fairly recently anyway. Though, those suspicions would’ve been woefully short of the imagination, sheer depravity, and total bizarre horror required to be anywhere near the truth of what had happened on these streets just 40 years prior to me walking them.

Knowing the history, or at least thinking I knew it, helped me understand why this looming shadow cooled the otherwise stifling hot urban hustle. Scooters and trucks, street food, the glaring sun, the crowds, the rush of South East Asian sprawling chaos – all the energies were there, and yet; an abject silence echoed in the streets of Phnom Penh.

Maybe I was just imagining it.

I passed gorgeous Buddhist temples and saw monks praying in silence. Candles burnt. Kids played tag as their parents cooked food. A couple of dogs lay dead in the street. Mechanics fixed the endless supply of motorbike engines in an endless supply of soot-covered workshops. People sat on the streets and smoked cigarettes. Fruit hung outside of stores. Some toddlers sat naked on busted concrete sidewalks. Trash was strewn so completely everywhere. Poverty and life mixed in hot sun. Thousands of scooters zoomed down long French avenues. The French were here once, not so long ago.

At some point on this first day, I met my buddy Jack who I had first met in Mexico City a year ago. We looked at each other with those same cool grins, as if to say, “Here we go again.” I was out of practice, I’d forgotten how to cross the road in a city so heaving in motion, so it was good to see a friendly face.

Over the next couple of days, Jack and I explored the city, with its temples and rivers and monuments, its people, food, the streets, bars, cafes, the traffic, the suffocating fumes of a million scooters all needing an oil change. I was finding my feet again; this is how you see the world. After ten months in Wellington, I had finally came back to life.

Then we visited the outskirts of the city. We made the unavoidable trip. I’d heard of the killing fields, I had a basic idea of who Pol Pot was, and I even knew a tiny bit about the Khmer Rouge, or so I thought.

Upon arriving at Choeung Ek, about a half hour tuktuk ride out of the city, I began walking towards a large tower in the distance. I saw other people walking towards it, so I thought nothing of it, it sort of looked like another temple, the kind I’d seen dotting many horizons. However, it wasn’t until I got closer to it that I saw them, when I was in the shade of them; the tower was full of human skulls. Hollow sockets of white bone staring back at me – thousands and thousands of them. I had to crane my neck back to see the top row of dead faces. The silent piercing howl coming into pitch, like a screech.

Walking around the fields themselves; the green fields were broken into ripples, waves, bumps in the grass made by mass graves, pits where countless lives were ended with hammers, axes, iron ox-cart axles, knives, shovels, hoes, and the razor sharp edges of the nearby trees. One tree, ‘the killing tree’, was used to smash babies against until they were dead. The executioners would simply hold them by a limb and bash them against the trunk. I stood underneath this tree and looked up at its leaves, watching the sunlight pass through them, unsure what to think. I walked around some more. The sun was shining, there was a lake nearby. It was a nice place, peaceful with farmlands and wetlands – but it was once the scene of misery and despair. You have to be careful walking in a place like this, even after the horror is over, not just because of the victims’ clothes and bones still on the ground, but because you have to make sure the ill feeling doesn’t snag inside you and linger, that it doesn’t attach itself to you, that you can walk away from it.

A man was begging behind a barbed wire fence by the lake. How did he get there? How did any of these people get to this calm and scenic and otherwise normal piece of countryside? The answer, as I would discover, is one of the most terrifying, absurd, insane, and dramatic human occurrences in history.

Saloth Sar, who had changed his name to Pol Pot, was like a night animal afraid of the light and kept such a low profile that not even his own family knew who this ‘Pol Pot’ was and were themselves subjugated to his communist party’s rule, the Khmer Rouge. He unleashed something so unusual and horrible, a new term had to be invented to describe it: ‘auto-genocide’; the genocide of a people by itself. Of all the events of the 20th century, this one manages to go beyond. Why would an ancient culture, a nation of millions, try to commit suicide? Why would people impose an apocalypse on themselves in such a complete and degrading way?

The Khmer Rouge referred to themselves as ‘Angkar’ (‘The Organization’). To simplify the history of how the Organization took control of Cambodia is to do a great disservice to the truth, but in essence: colonialism, communism, the Cold War, a proxy war, a civil war, and the deception of Pol Pot came together in 1975 to create a strange manifestation of absolute human misery. The Organization wanted a purely agrarian Cambodia where communes would be self-sufficient. Anything that threatened this was to be eradicated.

Anyone with a high school education was massacred, hacked, beaten, butchered; all the students, all the doctors, all the artists, all the engineers, all the nurses, all the teachers, all the scientists, all the monks, all the historians, all the accountants, all the politicians, anyone, anyone, who showed an interest in living in a more complex society, anyone with soft hands, anyone with glasses – auto-genocide, the suicide of a nation, the erasing of a people by themselves.

Thinking too much was outlawed. Family life was outlawed. The new family was the Organization. The citizens of Phnom Penh and the other urban centres had been driven into the countryside and were forced to farm. Farming was the only acceptable occupation now and because modern technology was considered evil, all the farming had to be done with basic equipment. The city dwellers didn’t know how to farm, least of all like degraded beasts, dragging ploughs across fields all day, everyday.

Thousands were worked to death. Thousands starved. Disease was rampant, but doctors were killed and medicine was not consistent with the ‘self-sufficiency’ manifesto of the Organization. Millions, between 25% and 30% of Cambodia, would not survive this insane incarnation of hell. Children who were young enough not to recollect too strongly how things had once been, in other words they were immune to so-called ‘memory sickness’, were ripped from their parents and turned into the brainwashed guards, torturers, and murderers of the Organization.

To quote the film The Killing Fields, “God is dead.”

One of the few buildings in Phnom Penh that still had people inside it was an old high school. It wasn’t a high school anymore, however, it was S-21; a torture and execution centre. It’s where Jack and I visited after the killing fields. It’s a museum now. It’s the darkest place on earth I’ve ever stood.

I read accounts of this place as I walked its rooms. I stood in a tiny cell and felt an awful pressure on my chest. I had to step out of the cell. Then I saw blood on the floor. There were rooms full of thousands of faces, photographs of the victims. I was familiar with only one, I had seen it before. I remembered his eyes.

The torture was extreme in this place. People lost names and became only numbers. Their number was decided upon based on their position shackled to an iron bar. The bar held four people, so you were one, two, three, or four. Wearing only a loin cloth and shackled to this bar with three other people, you had to lie down in silence on the floor in a room full of other four sets of people on the floor until it was your turn to be tortured. If you spoke or moved or your shackle made a noise while you waited, you would be beaten. The torture was to force an admission of your crimes against the Organization. It was sadistic. If you passed out from the pain, your face was submerged in human shit until you woke up, then you would be tortured some more. Once you made your confession, you would be sent to the killing fields. You were not allowed to cry or speak or scream.

But of course they cried. Of course they screamed. Leaving this place, I could finally hear the howls of agony of this city’s streets in full volume. Memory sickness. I finally understood why it had felt like so many people were in a state of PTSD. I understood why it felt like a place where people had gathered after an apocalypse – because it is. Everyone over 40 years old was there. Most are victims. Some are guilty. The Khmer Rouge regime only ended when it provoked Vietnam into invading it in 1979. However, Pol Pot escaped to the jungle and never faced justice. Before he died in 1998, he claimed that he was one of the most misunderstood people in history.

 

SIEM REAP.

Siem Reap was the exact opposite experience to Phnom Penh. After making the six hour drive from the capital through the flat green countryside to Siem Reap, I was immediately struck by how much brighter life felt here. It’s a smaller place, yet no less hectic. However, the light just seemed brighter, the air just seemed warmer, the pace felt a little slower, the trees looked a little greener, the people a little happier.

The contrast was so clear that I came to appreciate my time in Phnom Penh for what it had been. My time in Siem Reap would soon come to make me speechless, as the depth of what my Cambodian journey meant for me on a personal level became apparent. I was halfway to Vietnam when it hit me.

Walking through Siem Reap, I felt at home along the long avenues lined with tall trees. The French influence made me reminisce of New Orleans; that muggy, swampy fauna and those long streets of trees and romantic architecture. The ruins of Angkor, the ancient capital of the great Khmer Empire, were nearby and their presence attracted tourists like me in droves. Money, opportunity, and energy were pouring into Siem Reap. The long deceased ancestors of this devastated country were doing their best to help it come back to life. It’s a good place.

Jack and I checked out the markets (and ate scorpions and tarantulas!) and visited the local bars and nightlife. Bustling and frantic – yet the ease of life returning.

Over the next few days, we visited Angkor. Temples so majestic and intricate, wonderful and awesome, grand monuments to enlightenment and peace, surrounded by the thick green jungle humming with life and birdsong. The sun aged the stone as the jungle tried to reclaim it, but the figures of wisdom stood tall. Walls and corridors engraved in minute detail of patterns and story. The famous Angkor Wat, the reclusive and exquisite Ta Prohm, and the still beating heart of Cambodia – Bayon. At Bayon, enormous faces with calm smiles tower over the jungle canopy and point in the four directions of the earth, radiating peace and gentleness outwards. The faces seem so quietly certain that all can be overcome and everything, in the long end of time, will be alright.

I was speechless.

To see places of such sweeping and peaceful grandeur so soon after seeing the darkness I had seen in Phnom Penh was one of the most moving experiences of my entire life. The two halves of mankind; one presented in its tedious banality, only to be obliterated by the other, in all its endless love, light, truth, and goodness.

I was humbled by this experience of the Cambodian nation, traveling as I had down the road between these two opposite halves of human nature. I was honoured to have this experience. I felt privileged and eternally grateful.

I try not to be self-centered as I travel from place to place, but I couldn’t help it on this occasion. This experience forced me to reflect inwards and consider what had just been shown to me. You see, I tried to kill myself once. July 7th, 2009. I was 21 years old. I don’t talk about it often, but I think about it daily. Sometimes I write about it. Anyway, thankfully, I’m still here. Thankful is how I feel most of the time, but every now and then that nagging voice inside me makes itself known. I think this is why Cambodia shook me so deeply and why it’s taken me some weeks to write about. It was like visiting my own mind, my mind on a countrywide scale, with the pointless darkness in one place and the overwhelming light in another. It helped me reach the place of permanent light. Standing in Bayon, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt free of the darkness, at last.

As I say, I usually try to shy away from this level of self-centeredness, but my short week in Cambodia was the single most significant spiritual journey I’ve ever been on.

 

NHA TRANG.

By comparison to Cambodia, my time in Vietnam was a lot simpler. This is not to say it wasn’t interesting and exciting and wonderful, it was all of those things, but what happened to me in Cambodia is not something that could be repeated. Vietnam was a lot more relaxed. I had been through the emotional and spiritual gauntlet, so I spent a lot of time in my first Vietnamese stop, the coastal city of Nha Trang, simply enjoying life.

Jack and I had met a Vietnamese girl in Cambodia. She let us stay with her at her grandmother’s house in Cam Ranh. The three of us then booked a room in the tallest building in Nha Trang, overlooking the beach and distant curl of the blue horizon. I swam a lot in the ocean. I ran to the great white Buddha that watches over the city. I ate good food. I even met another cool Vietnamese girl, she showed me a good time. Rooftop bars, early morning sunrises, swimming in the South China Sea – Nha Trang was like a wonderful dream, the kind you try desperately to return to after you’ve woken up slightly and can feel it slipping away.

Nha Trang’s dreamlike quality is made so by a couple of really cool and rather unique features. Firstly, being a communist country, there’s the red flags of the defunct Soviet Union lining the streets, that crimson banner with the golden hammer and sickle. To add to this, there are flights direct from Moscow, so the entire city is full of Russian tourists. I never saw any Americans. It all combines to create an illusion that you’ve stepped into an alternate timeline where the Soviets won the Cold War. It’s totally fucking badass.

The other thing that makes Nha Trang not seem real is Vinpearl in the distance. Built on one of the islands in the distance, Vinpearl is a resort/tourist extravaganza. With a massive sign in the hills reading ‘VINPEARL’, an amazing ocean-crossing gondola connecting it to the mainland, several towering castle buildings, and a ferris wheel off to one side – it simply looks like a fantasy out at sea. Then at nighttime the lighting of it just renders the whole place unimaginably magic, like no place that can exist in the real world. All the while, you’re eating dinner on the warm sands of the mainland, looking out at a dream tethered to a fantasy.

 

HO CHI MINH CITY.

My last stop. Jack and I had parted ways in Nha Trang. Our paths will cross again. When and where? Who knows, but it’ll happen. I now understand his role in my life; he’s how I know I’ve been caught up again in that space where one truly comes to life – where real life becomes the dream, the mask, the thing that isn’t real, and the dream becomes what you’re living.

I wasn’t long in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon. Three nights. I ran a lot, looping around this noisy place, along the rivers, over bridges, around parks, ducking and weaving between the traffic which flows like a river of scooters. Caught up with an old friend from Wellington too. I visited the war museum but what comment on the war can I possibly make that you haven’t already heard?

I liked this city. I liked this country. I need to come back someday and see more of it. It has a lot of charm. So does Saigon. It’s like a dirty Tokyo. Tokyo with a bit of edge. And a shit load of scooters.