26 November 2016

First days in India

At about half past five in the morning, the Sikh procession to the temple started up in the alley outside my room. The singing and drumming and clashing of what sounded like tambourines grew louder, peaking as it passed my window, then suddenly faded, not because they’d run out of enthusiasm, but because they’d turned the corner in the narrow alley. I didn’t mind being woken. The singing was surprisingly tuneful, the rhythm of the drum complex and interesting. Besides, the thought of a group of men kicking up a din like that at half past five in the morning in a New Zealand town was inconceivable – so much so that, even half asleep, I laughed a little. I was back in India and knew it beyond all doubt.

I dropped back to sleep but still woke early and knew I’d be unable to sleep more. I got up and walked down Chandi Wali Gali to see if I could withdraw some cash from the ATM in Main Bazaar near the end of the alley. A young guy fell in beside me as I walked.
   ‘You want something to smoke?’ he said. ‘I got weed, hash, what you like.’
   ‘No, I don’t want anything,’ I said, pleasantly enough, and although he continued to accompany me to the end of the alley, he clearly knew I was a lost cause. I had enough smoke in my lungs from Delhi’s awful pollution and didn’t want more.

The ease with which he gave up surprised me a little, but over the next few days I noticed the same thing: the few people who bothered trying to sell me something gave up quickly. Perhaps they had other things on their minds, like how on earth they were going to exchange their old 500 and 1000 rupee notes for valid currency after Prime Minister Modi had announced, out of the blue (or, more aptly, out of the brown-tinged blue-grey smog), that those notes were now useless and had either to be deposited into a bank account or exchanged for the new notes when those finally became available.

The consequence, as I soon discovered, was chaos: huge queues outside every bank and functional ATM. People with most of their cash in the form of 500 and 1000 rupee notes suddenly found themselves unable to buy anything; only 100 rupee notes and lesser denominations had any currency (so to speak).

The consequences for me were awkward, too. I had only a few hundred rupees and no hope of getting anywhere near a bank or ATM. When that cash had gone – and it’s easy to burn through far more than that in just a day – I’d be forced to rely on using my cash passport card, meaning my choices of where to eat would be limited to the more expensive, up-market restaurants. I wouldn’t be able to hire a rickshaw to get around, so I’d be limited to walking distance of Pahar Ganj; I couldn’t get to places like the Lodi Gardens or Haus Khas complex, where I could enjoy the relative peace and quiet, nor the birds, which were another important reason I was drawn back to India. I wouldn’t even be able to buy chai – no chai wallah accepts a card to pay 10 rupees for one of the great delights of daily life in India.

I wasn’t alone in this problem. At the smallest of the several Coffee Day places in Connaught Place, I met a small foreigner with a thin crew cut and vaguely hippie attire, including a double necklace of beads and a woven red shoulder-bag with tassels. He looked somewhere in his 60s and spoke slowly, like his actions, with a heavy accent. He asked where I came from, and when I said New Zealand he told me one of his friends, from Alaska, was travelling there. Mostly, though, he kept worrying about not having any cash. Like me, he was at the Coffee Day because they accepted cards; the passable food and coffee and friendly service was a bonus.
He was from Switzerland and had intended spending a month in Goa but was now in such a state of despair he was even contemplating flying out of India.
   ‘I have no money,’ he said, opening his hands wide. ‘I fly to Goa, but how I get from the airport to my hostel?’
That might be possible using a taxi that accepted cards, but his more general point was valid. For the time being, I was relaxed enough, knowing I wouldn’t be travelling onwards for at least another five days, but if I still hadn’t managed to withdraw cash from an ATM or bank as my departure date approached, I’d probably be getting as anxious as the little Swiss man.

Perhaps this, too, was part of the reason for the lack of energy among the traders along Main Bazaar. If the tourists – Indian as well as foreign – had to conserve what little cash they might have, they wouldn’t easily be persuaded to buy something they didn’t need. The most persistent were the drivers of auto and pedal-powered rickshaws, who had no doubt noticed a big upswing in the number of tourists walking to Connaught Place rather than taking a ride. As the days wore on, I was increasingly followed by drivers who insisted that cash was available, despite all evidence to the contrary. They must have been getting desperate as demand for their services dried up, and although I felt bad about not being able to use them, I couldn’t.

At breakfast one morning, I shared a table with a young, dark-haired woman struggling with the spiciness of the puri. She described herself as being from ‘the German part of France’, France being a country she clearly had a low opinion of. When, later, I asked where she’d most like to live, she laughed gently and replied, ‘Anywhere but France.’ The French accent in English, she said, was horrible. This surprised me, partly because her accent closely resembled a French accent, but mostly because I’d always liked it and thought it particularly appealing. But, no, she insisted, it was awful.

She was travelling alone through Rajasthan. The usual places: Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur, back to Jodhpur. Her boyfriend, an Indian, had been called home to help with a family problem, but before he’d left, he’d not only booked her entire itinerary but had paid for everything as well. She smiled often – a lovely smile – most often when mentioning him. She would meet his family soon, she said, but this time her smile looked anxious rather than joyful.
   ‘He’s the last one,’ she said. ‘Her mother made him, and now I’m taking him away.’
It was an odd way of saying it but an accurate way of looking at it, and I feared the meeting might justify her anxiety. I didn’t voice that, though, not wishing to reinforce it. She sounded like a young person overwhelmed by new love, but she didn’t sound naïve. I think she wanted to tell someone what she felt and feared, and I hope I listened the way she wanted. She hesitated as she left, as if she was going to say something else, but in the end we just exchanged the usual niceties: good to meet you, hope your travels go well, and so on.

That afternoon, I’d almost got back to my hostel when I remembered the tea shop I’d visited on my previous journeys to India. I turned back and walked the short distance to the main chowk. The proprietor of the tea shop was leaning at the entrance to his shop, eating an apple. As I approached, he saw me and began smiling, and when I was still a few metres away he held out his hand. I shook it and he offered me half his apple. I refused politely, so he broke the half and offered me a quarter. I thanked him and refused again, as politely as possible. We’d only spoken for a few minutes when he ordered chai for us and ushered me into the gloom of his little shop. His friend, a small, traditionally dressed woman with an impish manner that matched her smile, joined us and switched on a dim lamp, apparently chastising him for leaving his guest in the dark. She had even less English than I had Hindi.

The proprietor’s name was Mr Bal Singh. ‘B.A.L.,’ he said, spelling it out for me. He asked how old I was. I told him and he looked gleeful.
   ‘Sixty-seven,’ he said, pointing to himself. He pointed to his friend – he always referred to her as his friend – and said, ‘She is thirty-seven. No marriage.’

He asked how many children I had and uttered a little ‘Oh,’ of sympathy when I said I had none. The status of his friend remained unclear. They clearly regarded each other with great affection, but he freely offered the information that his wife was back in the Punjab. He pointed again at his friend.
   ‘She is from UP,’ he said (Uttar Pradesh). ‘No marriage,’ he repeated, as if determined to make me understand she was still available for a prospective husband.

I felt bad I couldn’t buy tea from him and promised to do so when I could finally withdraw some cash. It wasn’t an idle promise, and I was looking forward to buying some white tea or first flush Darjeeling from him.

However, I had other priorities for my meagre remaining cash, like using it to buy a cheap meal from the one of the dhabas opposite New Delhi Railway Station: specifically, the Capital Hotel Restaurant; ‘100% Pure Vegetarian’. It was an upmarket name for a small restaurant with a kitchen on the street and no front, but I liked the atmosphere, the staff treated me with a kind of amiable amusement, and the food was cheap and good.
I asked the waiter about the difference between dal fry urad and dal fry arahar.
 ‘Urad means black,’ he said, ‘arahar means yellow.’
As simple as that. I ordered dal makhani urad with ‘half rice’ – a reference to the amount, not type – and a plain naan. It was delicious, it cost just 85 rupees, and I ate the lot.

I walked into town early one morning, thinking I might find an open ATM without a queue. I did, but there was a reason for the lack of queues: any ATM open was out of service. I looked questioningly at a man who had just stepped away from one.
   ‘No cash,’ he said, and shrugged. It was hard to tell whether the gesture was one of resignation or despair.

As I’d walked down Chelmsford Road towards Connaught Place, a small but strongly-built man fell in step beside me. Inevitably, he wanted to know where I was from, and after I’d told him and he’d noted that New Zealand was a small but beautiful country, I pointed out it had just had a big earthquake. He laughed happily, but I was sure he had no idea what I was saying.

I asked whether he worked in town – a stupid question, but he understood I was interested in talking with him.
   ‘I am a yoga teacher,’ he said. ‘I work there,’ and he waved at much of Delhi.
He had a swastika tattoed on his forehead. In many countries this would have seen him abused, avoided, or even beaten up – or, unfortunately, accepted into the fold – but here it would have added to his gravitas as a teacher. When we parted ways at Connaught Circus, he offered me advice about where to find tourist information like free maps of Delhi. I’d heard it all innumerable times before, but this time I think he was genuinely trying to be helpful. I liked him.

At breakfast I shared a table with a mother and daughter from London. Andretta, the mother, was quietly spoken and gentle; Perrin was more animated and talkative. Andretta had just two weeks in India. Perrin would stay until January, meeting her boyfriend in Goa before flying south with him to Pondicherry.  Today they’d booked a day tour to Agra. Perrin admitted this rather than sharing it with me; she seemed aware  that this was the most touristy thing anyone could do in India. I assured her that with limited time and the cash problem still acute, a tour with all expenses paid using a card was a sensible idea.

They were good company, and if they’d invited me to join them, which I suspect they’d have done if they’d thought I was interested, I’d have seriously considered it, not because I wanted to see the Taj Mahal – I have far more interest in NOT seeing it. But they had to leave hurriedly for their tour, and I had things to do before I could have joined them. I was looking forward to hearing about their trip, but I never met them again.

I walked back to Connaught Place later in the morning – my life seemed to have reduced to a series of walks between there and Pahar Ganj, along with increasing frustration and concern about the inaccessibility of cash – and ate lunch at the Coffee Day where I’d met the Swiss man, whom I suspected I was beginning to resemble in my grumbling about cash. The place was empty of other customers, other than a young couple sitting at the mezzanine window. They appeared to spend more time on their phones than they did talking to each other, or, more accurately, she – fashionably dressed and heavily made up – spent much of the time on her phone while he talked and they shared the chore of taking selfies. When she wasn’t concentrating on her phone, she studied herself in the mirror wall, sometimes overtly, sometimes surreptitiously.

The sound system played Dido’s ‘White flag’ yet again. The floor trembled, although no one was walking around, and I thought of New Zealand and my badly shaken friends. The old, tattered, oily-looking house crow cawed occasionally from the safety of its usual high perch on one of the shop signs slung beneath the balcony, and two pigeons fought viciously, going for the neck and head, until one finally threw the other off the edge. Birds have an advantage like that: throw them over a cliff and they just fly off. What’s fatal for us is an escape for them.

Down on the ground outside the café, four men loitering around a small, grubby, white, four-door VW were engaged in some kind of negotiation that involved repeated rapid counting of notes from a huge wad of what looked like 500 or 1000 rupee notes. I’d seldom paid attention to banknotes, but now my own lack of them made me acutely aware of the sight. This must be a little like being desperately poor, I thought, except I wasn’t. I had plenty of money for the start of the trip; I just had almost no cash.

As I looked down from the window – I’d commandeered the young couple’s table after they’d gone, she carefully checking herself in the mirror as she descended the stairs – a foreigner with a striking resemblance to a mate back in Palmerston North, walked past in an olive-dun t-shirt, poison green knee length shorts, and a small backpack. He looked worn out, defeated. I wondered what Greg would make of the chaos of India, and the thought of his reaction cheered me and even made me smile a little.

When I left, I strolled around, noticing everything and wondering why I felt so joyful at the sight of things most people would consider squalor or worse: a crow pecking at a dead rat; plastered walls stained with probably unspeakable filth; rubbish everywhere; scrawny dogs, some with mange, curled up asleep on broken footpaths or looking up at me with slow, sad eyes as I walked past. Maybe it was all so hopeless that the only thing left was hope – hope for something, anything better. Or maybe it was the encouragement that when everything was as awful as it could be, life was not only still possible, but possible to enjoy. The yoga teacher lived in this every day, like millions of others, yet he took the opportunity to enjoy a conversation with me.

In the end, I didn’t know why I felt so happy. All the reasons I could think of felt like rationalisations. I was happy. What more did I need?

Several days after arriving in Delhi, the queues at the banks and ATMs showed no sign of abating. Unusually, breakfast was a little late appearing in the hostel’s rooftop eating area, so I walked down the alleyway to Main Bazaar to check the ATMs there. They were all closed, of course, but the late start to breakfast gave me a chance to scribble a few lines while I waited, and I noticed someone at another table also writing diligently by hand in a notebook. Middle-aged, with short, greying hair, she looked French. She wore a loose, pale scarf, a tan top, and loose red trousers. Her reading glasses were fashionable, with dark red frames.

As I steeped my tea bag (I hadn’t been able to buy tea from Mr Singh, so had to resort to the hostel’s bags), I commented on her writing by hand.
   ‘I thought I was the only one,’ I said, gesturing to my table with my pens and cahier.
She laughed and looked delighted.
   ‘I write postcards, too,’ she said.
   ‘I didn’t know you could still get them.’
   ‘They’re hard to find,’ she said, in the accent the German-French woman had thought so horrible and I thought so delightful, ‘but even the …,’ she hesitated, and raised her hands to mime photographing, ‘… the digital people like them.’
   ‘It must be a delight to get one,’ I said, and she smiled.
   ‘It’s an effort.’
I think she meant the digital people appreciated the effort. I guess you can’t write a postcard now without a lot of effort, at least in trying to buy or make one.

We talked a little about writing by hand.
   ‘It’s so tactile,’ she said. I agreed.
   ‘I love the physical sensation of writing by hand,’ I said, but then the breakfast man, small, young, and sombre, interrupted us to check her room number.
   ‘Oh,’ she said, putting her hands to her face, ‘I think it’s …,’ and she mentioned a number I didn’t hear.
   ‘Monica,’ she said, and looked at his clipboard. ‘Yes, that’s me.’
   ‘Two people?’ he asked.
   ‘Yes. My daughter is still sleeping. They sleep a lot at that age.’
We both laughed, and I took my tea back to my table and we resumed writing. Monica’s daughter never appeared while I was there, but a young, strong-looking guy in camo shorts, faded black t-shirt, and a military-style peaked cap came and sat down at her table. He pulled his phone out of the cargo pocket in his shorts and began studying it. I never heard him utter a word, and whenever I looked up from my writing he was still focused on his phone. Even while eating his breakfast with one hand he used the other to peck and swipe at his phone. I saw him later, sitting on the steps of the hostel, smoking a cigarette and taking care to avoid eye contact.

As the days wore on, all I was achieving was a strengthening level of belief that the cash crisis wouldn’t resolve itself any time soon. Despite this, I kept getting reassurances that not only was the crisis starting to show signs of improving, it was already over. Sometimes these were obvious attempts to get me to part with what little cash I had left, but more often they seemed like genuine efforts to ease my worries, even if that meant bending the truth to breaking point.

One evening after dark, I struck up a conversation with a man sitting outside the inappropriately named Drunkyard café in Main Bazaar. Mustafah looked to be in his early thirties, with a thin beard, a good nature, and excellent English. He sympathised with my situation and pointed out how it wasn’t just the tourists having difficulty. He told me what I already knew: that the locals needed somehow not only to get cash but deposit into a bank account whatever 500 and 1000 rupee notes they were stuck with. He also confirmed my suspicions that the vendors in Pahar Ganj (and presumably everywhere in India) had noticed a definite downturn in business as buying reduced to what was essential. The impact on the Indian economy must have been enormous.

I saw Mustafah the following day, in Connaught Place. He was standing at the back of a queue outside a bank, and looked startled, then pleased I’d recognised him. We chatted briefly, and I asked how long he thought he’d have to wait. He shrugged and wobbled his head in the typical Indian gesture that means whatever you’d like it to mean.
   ‘About an hour,’ he said.
I thought briefly of joining the queue, and in hindsight I should have, but instead I shook hands with Mustafah and carried on.

By now, I was thinking seriously of flying to Nepal, where I could spend a few weeks enjoying cash, inexpensive living, and Bardia National Park. At some point in the trip I had to leave India and return because each stay was limited to a maximum of 90 days, so I might as well do that early in the trip instead of leaving it until near the end. I found a cheap flight online and later that day allowed myself to be ushered into one of the innumerable ‘official government’ tourist offices, where I was quoted just over twice the price for the same flight to Kathmandu, with the assurance that this was the absolute cheapest flight available. No thanks.

Back at the hostel, I got back online and found the cheap flight and booked it.

I was leaving India and going to Nepal.

1. The quality of these photographs relies mostly on guesswork and the major shortcomings of android tablets. I hope they're OK.

1. Sukhnath, one of the workers at a joinery in Basanta Road, Pahar Ganj. I think he may have been the foreman.
2. The cash crisis was headline news in India, and the television crews were out filming the queues.
3. Mr Bal Singh, of the Uttam Tea Centre in Pahar Ganj.
4. For the cattle, though, it was life as usual.
5. This dog isn't dead. It had just made itself comfortable in a pothole in the niddle of one of the alleys behind Main Bazaar, and assumed (correctly) that the motorbikes and scooters would avoid it.
6. Rickshaw downtime.
7. Subash, a vendor at the New Delhi Railway Station end of Main Bazaar.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

13 November 2016


I was leaving the valley in November, when the season couldn’t decide whether it was spring or autumn. Everything seemed to be waiting for a decision except for the birds, which had clearly decided this was the time to reproduce. The starlings had made that decision early – not surprising, for such an intelligent and unfairly maligned bird – and already, unseen broods squealed from the nest box on top of the deer fence and from the inside of the rolled-up, disused roller door hanging from the roof of the implement shed next to my car. Those chicks must have had hearing as well developed as their inability to distinguish the bearer of food from the bringer of horrible death. Maybe when I walked past to my car, I sounded more like a parent starling than a rat, stoat, or cat, or maybe they knew they were safe from all those predators. More likely, the only part of their tiny baby brains that had developed was the part that recognised insatiable hunger.

The sparrows had taken longer to decide to nest, or perhaps their nests had required more effort, because they’d only now finished their incessant flights with beaks full of dry grass, baler twine, chook feathers, and anything else capable of being woven into a nest. Now, they did little other than mate, and they did so with a diligence that suggested practice did NOT make perfect. Every time I glanced out the kitchen window, it seemed, they were at it.

At some stage the sparrows would presumably stop shagging, the female would lay the last of her eggs, and incubation would begin. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the sound of tiny blind sparrow chicks squeaking in the kitchen ceiling, though. I’d be long gone by then. The likelihood was high that I’d be listening instead to the caw of crows, the chattering babble of rose-tinted parakeets, the murmur of various kinds of doves, the clockwork chikking of palm squirrels, and the sound of lots of other animals and birds, too, almost none to be found in New Zealand.

And not just the sounds of wildlife, either. Mostly, I’d be hearing the cacophony of human activity – a sometimes ear-splitting shrieking and bellowing and roaring – from an almost inconceivable number of people: one point two something billion, in fact, and more by the day. Maybe by the minute. Sometimes, sitting in an auto-rickshaw in a sea of blaring traffic, each vehicle little more than a layer of paint from its neighbours, I’d wonder whether the entire 1.2 billion had converged on where I happened to be trapped. It should have been a nightmare but it wasn’t. I was looking forward to it, and I didn’t know why.

The contrast between where I was, in a quiet, beautiful, out-of-the-way valley in an out-of-the-way, by world standards almost unpopulated, corner of the world, could hardly have been greater. I love the valley, and I knew I’d miss my friends – not just the human friends, but the chooks and pigeons, and the wild birds making themselves at home in and around my home; the deer, especially the wild deer who so often visited the hill only a few hundred metres from my back door; the rabbits, who I hoped would survive until I returned at the end of February; the scraggly sheep always on the lookout to be hand-fed old bread or vegetable scraps (the sheep who used my house as a scratching post and who inadvertently bashed their heads on the underside of my floor when they sheltered there in bad weather or on cold nights); and even the little spiders who hung about in the corners and the mason wasps who built their clay nests in all sorts of inconvenient places inside the house. So many other kinds of animals, too – I knew I’d miss them all, yet I was still looking forward to my time in India, now only a few days away.

I thought of all those friends I’d be leaving, and a gentle melancholy settled on me.

 ‘See you in three-and-a-half months,’ I said.

1. I'm in New Delhi now. The long journey here proved surprisingly comfortable (a relative term, of course). All I need to do now is find an ATM that isn't attached to a queue of several hundred people: my arrival coincided with Prime Minister Modi's surprise announcement that banknotes of 500 and 1000 rupees were being immediately withdrawn. I can use my cards for some things, but not the small, essential, everyday things like, ... well, ... eating. Looks as if I'll have to eat at expensive restaurants that accept cards :-( 

1. This is my current problem: every functional ATM looks like this or worse.
2. But I'm still enjoying India. This is Mr Bal Singh, proprieter of the Uttam tea centre ('Tea, Spices, Saffron'). I met him on my first trip to India, and each time I've returned, he's greeted me with a smile of recognition and a hand outstretched to shake. He bought me chai, and we sat in his little shop and tried our best to converse. 

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

10 September 2016

Suppositions about a man and his rabbits

Suppose a man had been watching rabbits in his front paddock all summer, and on all through autumn, and into winter when most rabbits would have disappeared because they’d been killed by the cold and rain or by other men with guns who shoot rabbits because they consider them pests that eat grass that sheep could eat, or just because they like shooting things, especially things that die when you shoot them.

This man, however, doesn’t like shooting rabbits, although he used to do that when he was younger and hadn’t yet learned to think maybe rabbits were more than just meat and fur, muscle and bone, blood and brain. Now he likes to watch them: the way they scamper about, thinking rabbit thoughts and eating grass and weeds and sometimes something from the vegetable garden which now lies dormant and untended in the middle of winter, so the rabbits aren't really pests. He watches them stretch like cats, with their front paws outstretched and their bums in the air, and then the long ripple as their arses lower and their back legs stretch out, first one, then the other, and their shoulders rise up, and finally their back legs and bums catch up with the rest of the rabbit’s body and they look like real rabbits again, not cats or other yoga gurus.

Now suppose one day months ago in the summer this man saw a small rabbit, not long out of its mother’s nest — a small rabbit with a curious kink in both ears so the man knew instantly that this rabbit was the one that would appear in the paddock in front of his kitchen window — and because he never saw it actually arrive from somewhere but always saw it just the instant after it materialised like Spock being transported from the Enterprise to the paddock in front of this man’s kitchen but without the sparkly CGI effects of the transporter, so the rabbit was just there like Spock but instantly, among the sheep and a prowling magpie and the earthworms being yanked out of the damp ground and eaten by thirteen blackbirds, and suppose this man saw the rabbit grow, until by the middle of winter it was a big healthy happy rabbit still with kinked ears.

Wouldn’t this man get a little buzz of happiness every time he saw that rabbit nibbling grass there in his paddock? Wouldn’t he sometimes open the door very slowly and quietly, and softly and slowly walk along the verandah and sit on one of the old blue chairs and enjoyably and deliciously drink his bowl of Yunnan Dian Hong Ancient Wild Tree black tea and just sit there for a little while, delighted, as the evening grew dark? Wouldn’t he just sit there with the rabbit for a few minutes while nothing mattered except the warmth and taste of the tea and the soft fading light and the fresh cold of the night brushing his face and the rabbit with kinked ears not too close but not too far away either? Wouldn’t he do this? Probably he would.

Suppose, too, that this man also saw two other rabbits in his paddock, and these two were already full grown healthy rabbits when he first saw them, and neither had kinked ears but he knew these were the same rabbits because they always hung out together and one was slightly larger than the other, and when you’ve watched animals for long enough they begin to become individuals even though you can’t put your finger on exactly why this one’s that rabbit and not another one.

Suppose he sometimes saw these two and the rabbit with kinked ears in the paddock at the same time. Then he’d know he had three rabbits living healthy happy lives, month after month, in front of his house, wouldn’t he? This is undeniable because you don’t see three simultaneous rabbits and say you have only two in your front paddock. You might have more than three because, well, you know what rabbits are famous for, but we’re talking simultaneous rabbits here, so the best you can say is you have at least three rabbits living in your front paddock.

So let's suppose this man had three rabbits (at least) living in his front paddock, along with at least thirteen blackbirds, and on the small hill behind his house he had at least ten wild deer (seen on one occasion simultaneously) visiting from time to time, and let’s also suppose he had three chooks and six pigeons, and a kingfisher in the magnolia, and a pair of putangitangi in the back paddock, and a pair of spur-winged plovers in one or another of the paddocks, and magpies and tui and korimako and starlings and sparrows and yellowhammers and goldfinches, and at least one kahu cruising slowly around the edge of the terrace hoping for roadkill, and lots more birds and other animals besides, not to mention all the wonderful little armoured spineless things living everywhere (some even sharing the house with him). Let’s suppose that.

Wouldn’t he be a happy man? Probably he would. This is undeniable.

Now let’s suppose one night he’s in his kitchen with the curtains drawn, and suddenly he hears a gunshot, and, soon after, he hears another one, and he jumps up and looks out into the black night and sees a spotlight sweeping across the front paddock (which is not actually his but belongs to his neighbours) and the light’s sliding across the part of the paddock where his rabbits hang out. (He thinks of the rabbits as his now, even though he knows they’re not, but they sure as hell belong to no one else.)

Let’s suppose this, but here’s where the supposing stops, because you’d then have to suppose what the man would feel, and that’s not something anyone should have to feel, even though they’re only rabbits.

1. '...other men with guns who shoot rabbits ...'  — this is not intended as condemnation of all hunters, nor hunting in general.

1 & 2. Rabbits in this man's front paddock
3. Spur-winged plover pair at Massey University

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor

26 July 2016

Aliens drink in the old New Railway Hotel

We met at the café as arranged, but she’d no sooner arrived than she wanted to go to a pub.

‘The one over there,’ she said, waving towards half of Palmerston North. I tried to think of pubs in that general direction, but because I don’t frequent pubs and seldom drive in that area of the city, I couldn’t think which one she meant. We started walking, and she led me further away from the centre of the city.

‘The old one over there,’ she said, pointing to the New Railway Hotel which was, as she’d indicated, old, not new. I asked whether she knew what it was like, but my question was more a statement — a warning, in fact — than a question. She laughed a little, but was that a note of apprehension in her voice?

We stepped inside and an old man studying the dregs of his beer looked up. He looked shocked. So too did the half dozen haggard guys leaning on one of the bench tables on the far side of the bar. Every pair of eyes in the place looked at us. Even the guys slumped over with their backs to us sat up and turned around and stared, no doubt alerted to this extraordinary sight by the stunned expressions on their mates’ faces.

Perhaps the shock arose from seeing someone new, but I suspect it had little to do with me and everything to do with the sudden appearance of an attractive woman. In the entire time we spent there, the clientele remained resolutely male, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a week passed without that bar being graced by the presence of a woman. Maybe the atmosphere would change on a Saturday night, but I couldn’t guess, because this was late on a Thursday afternoon.

The eyes followed us. I didn’t need to see them to know. Her presence must surely have encouraged the barflies to make a special effort to return on subsequent Thursday afternoons — not that encouragement to frequent the old New Railway Hotel looked necessary — hoping she might return one day, preferably alone. Hope, though, had seemed, if not in desperately short supply, at least not evident, but now just enough of it had been kindled to be dashed. Even while we were there, it began to fade, and our own conversation turned out to be more animated, and possibly louder, than the subdued murmuring from the sombre men. We were enjoying ourselves, but whether they were wasn’t certain. It’s possible, of course, that their conversation livened up after we left and they were free to speculate.

The old man disappeared while we ordered drinks. His expression suggested he couldn’t cope with the apparition that had just walked through the door, but maybe he’d just been unsettled by the disruption of the usual pattern of his Thursday afternoons, or maybe he’d finished his beer and was about to leave, although that last hypothesis seemed the least likely.

Adrian, the barman, was big and bearded and young and my friend’s request for a gin and soda stumped him. He stood there, not sure how to respond, until she rescued him by suggesting perhaps a gin and tonic would be easier if they didn’t have any soda, but even that almost defeated him until he remembered they had little bottles of premixed gin and tonic. He disappeared and returned with a tiny bottle of Gordon’s. He popped the top off and placed it on the bar, where it began rapidly beading with condensation. A glass wasn’t forthcoming, but she was happy to swig it from the bottle, and I liked her more for that.

Adrian asked what I wanted. I had a choice of four identical beers with different names, so I chose an Export Gold. He stood waiting. I wondered what I’d forgotten to say, but this time it was his turn to rescue me.

‘Handle?’ he said.

‘Yeah. Thanks,’ I said, and he drew a handle.

The bar did have EFTPOS: we hadn’t, as I’d begun to wonder, stepped through a wormhole and tumbled into the mid twentieth century. While she paid, we chatted with Adrian, who had recovered from his cognitive dissonance and told us how the even older, historic building across the road was scheduled for imminent demolition. It had been gutted by fire, and while the insurance would cover some of the losses, the building couldn’t be insured unless it was fire-proofed, and (here’s the catch) the insurance company wouldn’t pay for fire-proofing because it hadn’t been in place when the fire had ripped through — if it had, the fire wouldn’t have gutted the building. Something didn’t feel right about that, but I had better things to do than whinge about insurance companies, which in any case was too easy.

We took our drinks to the table vacated by the old guy. All the seating comprised bar stools at bench tables designed to accommodate large numbers of people standing, with the tabletops being about the right height on which to lean hairy tattooed forearms while their owners assessed how much beer remained in their handles. Suspended out of reach, a TV screened Indian Premier League cricket while another showed greyhound racing, but no one was watching.

A sign near the bar said ‘He rules the roost but I rule the rooster’. No one seemed to be ruling anything, though.

A guy in casual clothes and a daypack arrived. Despite the midwinter cold, he wore jandals, and this impressed my friend. As he ambled past she remarked on his footwear but he took it in his stride. He was an electrician, he said, so he wore work boots all day.

‘Bit of a relief to get out of them?’ I said, and he nodded. He’d just come up from Christchurch, which was even colder and damper than Palmerston North, making his choice of footwear even more impressive.

‘Tough guy,’ she said, making it sound like a compliment, and he pretended not to hear. He, at least, had a chance of fitting in, but we were and always would be aliens in the bar of the old New Railway Hotel, and even if we’d struck up a conversation with the sombre barflies on the far side of the room, we’d have remained misfits, aberrations, the Other who didn’t and couldn’t belong. Even with the best of intentions and a genuine effort to fit in and to understand attitudes that might have differed wildly from our own, we couldn’t fit in because we had no shared experience — well, I had no shared experience of any significance even if I’d been able to guess what that might have been. I didn’t know her well enough to speak for her, although her previous occupations might have given her some contact with people who had that kind of experience: the kind, in other words, that resulted in long periods in bars like the Railway Hotel on afternoons when luckier people were working and earning an adequate wage.

I’d been thinking along those lines when I realised, to my shame, that I’d been speculating wildly, making enormous assumptions about the circumstances that had left those men (who might actually have been members of a local philosophy group) melancholy and muttering quietly among themselves, but I had no basis for what I imagined other than what I’d imagined. I’d assumed their conversation most probably focused on sport or cars — undoubtedly Holdens vs Fords — and possibly a little about politics; and I’d imagined opinions were in short supply compared to statements of obvious fact; and questions, … well, what were those? Questions are admissions of weakness among blokes, for whom questions are redundant because they already know the answers.

But, as I've said, I was speculating (itself an admission I don’t qualify as a real bloke, because in real-bloke conversations the indicators of speculation — ‘maybe’, and ‘perhaps’, and suchlike — don’t occur; they’ve been replaced by indicators of certainty, like ‘the fact is...’, or ‘the real reason why...’), and I might have been way off the mark. For all I knew, the quiet men might have been having a deep, civilised colloquy about the merits of a deontological approach to resolving homelessness, or about semiotics and the novels of Jane Austen.

In the end, I decided I was probably wrong about everything. The one thing I might have been right about, I decided, was that even if we’d wanted to fit into the inner circle gathered around that rectangular table, we couldn’t.

1. The barman's name has been changed.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

21 June 2016

Waiting for winter

Four days out from the winter solstice, the trees still hadn't finished dropping their leaves. Some were still far from it, smothered in yellow and russet, some even with a few green-tinged leaves, as if they knew mid-winter hadn't officially arrived so were hanging onto their leaves because, hey, it's still autumn. Officially they were wrong, of course — winter had begun two-and-a-half weeks ago — and they should have fallen into line with the other, season-compliant trees that had scattered most of their leaves on the damp ground like golden dandruff, but who doesn't like a rebel?

I'd wandered along the edge of the terrace, stopping to look out over the valley. The scene looked bleak and grim: the river mud-grey and deep enough to slide unbroken over the now-drowned rapids; the paddocks the dull blue-tinged green of a fading bruise; the bush dark. Even the poplars still clinging to their leaves offered little relief, needing sunlight to glow golden, and the heavy cloud had no intention of letting that happen. Nothing could even cast a shadow, and I almost wished to see the paper wasps, for no other reason than to be cheered by their bright yellow-and-black and the energy and grace of their slender bodies as they trailed their slender legs through the heavy air.

But the cold and damp had proved too much for them. If they'd even survived the recent heavy rain that had in all likelihood turned their paper nests into papier-mâché, they certainly weren't keen on working in this weather.
For three days the laundry had hung on the line beneath the verandah roof, slowly getting damper. I reasoned that if the socks and towels and the fleece and merino had been sucking moisture from the air, the air must be getting dryer, but that reasoning seemed neither logical nor comforting. Meanwhile, the laundry had also been absorbing the smoke drifting from next door's chimney, so my damp clothing now not only smelled damp but also smelled like creosote.

I carried on, skirting the fallen sycamore. Uprooted and cast onto its side by a storm a few years ago, it had somehow survived, a reminder that even when life skittles you, uproots you and bowls you over, not only is survival possible but you can become more interesting precisely because you survived. A standing sycamore can be a beautiful tree (notwithstanding that here in Aotearoa sycamores are often considered weeds), but a fallen sycamore that flushes with new leaves each spring and continues to flower and set its helicopter seeds is an inspiration — and it's beautiful, too, in its own damaged way.

I'd expected the chainsaw to come out and dismember the tree soon after the storm toppled it, but only one broken limb had been amputated and sawn into firewood-length logs, and even they, still littering the ground and rotting quietly among the grazed grasses and mouldering leaves, added a little character.

Damp from the recent rain muffled the soft rustle carpet of alder and sycamore leaves underfoot. A rabbit materialised a short distance away on the far side of the old road cutting, and while it watched me, I managed two photographs. A rabbit; the scattered yellow and brown leaves; the old fence with its rust-tarnished barbed wire and weathered battens; the indistinct blur of the paddock in front of my house: every element of that photograph had been introduced to New Zealand within the last couple of hundred years. Nothing obvious was native, yet I still loved the feeling it evoked.

Now, looking at it again, I wonder what would ruin it. The answer's clearer than I'd have guessed: a new, tight, fully functional fence in the background; a tidy, leafless, ryegrass-and-white-clover pasture; a white plastic electric fence standard. Anything modern and efficient. Anything giving the impression of neatness, of tidiness and efficiency, of human domination (and you can count out that old fence, whose days of dominating anything had long passed).

I wandered on, wondering why I dislike well-maintained, efficient farms without rabbits. I knew those places — places like the farm across the valley with its tree-less, lawn-like, weed-free, highly productive paddocks enclosed by professionally-strained netting deer fences — and they seemed so sterile they horrified me, but that was just another way of saying the same thing.

Maybe what I needed was the possibility of being surprised. I walked on, hoping a pheasant rooster might suddenly burst into the air from a patch of long grass in an explosion of wings and colour. It didn't, but it might have, and that, for the moment, was comfort enough.

1. The cloud broke in the afternoon and the sun dried the laundry. No rewash necessary.

1. Morning, late autumn, in the valley.
2. Asian paper wasp on another old fence at the edge of the terrace.
3. Rabbits along the old fence earlier in the year.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

11 June 2016

The pigeon post

The pigeons had been let out with trepidation. One was a homer, and we wondered whether, even after months of incarceration, it would embark on its own odyssey, taking the other one with it back to the place it had come from, the place that had been its home: the place, in other words, where the owner had threatened to shoot them if they returned.

I didn't know the full story. As usual, all I'd heard had been hints and snippets, enough to know the danger but little more. But I needn't have worried, because both pigeons decided the implement shed was a better bet than either their old shack, where they'd been cooped up with the barnevelder and the golden-laced wyandotte and the mad Silkie, or their even older and now potentially lethal former home. The implement shed had a lot going for it from a pigeon's perspective: freedom; ease of escape; proximity to the three pigeons still immured in a less-than-lofty cage of chicken wire, two-by-one laths, and plywood; and—maybe most important—my car to crap on.

I could put up with that, though. By the time their crap had corroded the paintwork — the paintwork, that is, that the sun hadn't yet blistered or faded, or that hadn't been abraded by the licking of heifers — the car would probably be nearing the end of its days. Maybe I'd even take to washing the pigeon poo off each day, which would mean some parts of the car would actually get washed. The last time that had happened had been so long ago I couldn't remember it.

Besides, if it came to a contest between pigeons and car cosmetics, the birds would always win. I've loved pigeons ever since my parents refused to allow me to keep them. I'd have been about eight, give or take a year, and the ostensible reason for the refusal was because of the diseases they were supposed to carry ('psittacosis' might have been the first really big word I ever learned). A more plausible explanation was that keeping them would have required buying pigeon food, with neither meat nor eggs as compensation.

It's not that my parents didn't like animals — they did, and I grew up with chooks, cattle, goats, geese, and plenty of wildlife — but that money wasn't abundant. The favoured animals were those that offered some kind of practical, as well as aesthetic or recreational, payback for the cost of being fed.

But some of my school friends kept pigeons. They claimed they'd climbed the crumbling volcanic cliffs where the big flocks of feral pigeons roosted and had stolen squabs. The idea seems utterly implausible now, even if they'd done it without their parents' permission, but the fact remains: they had pigeons, and they sometimes brought one to school to show off, and the bright eye and iridescence and sheer birdness of a pigeon held in the hand captivated me.

Many decades later the Christchurch earthquakes brought down and reshaped most of the pigeon cliffs, and I heard that for a long time the pigeons had gone. I don't blame them.

What never disappeared, though, was my fondness for pigeons. If anything, that fondness has grown, but the funny thing is that I've never owned pigeons of my own, in any sense of that objectionable word, 'owned'. The closest I've come has been looking after these five — the two now liberated and the three still caged — for three weeks while their nominal owners were overseas.

I think my pigeon-fondness increased markedly during my overseas travels. I've seen them, in one form or another, in most places I've travelled. I've seen them everywhere I've been in India, from the great and small cities of Gujarat and Rajasthan to the high, sere Himalaya; in the Karni Mata rat temple at Deshnoke; flying in scattered flocks around the great dome of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, where the height obliterated the sense of scale and they could have been angels, or maybe souls, trying to find the way to heaven. I've seen them at dusk as the bus drove into Jaipur and they gazed at us from their twilight roosts on either side of the small canyon. That memory is indistinct yet vivid: the kind of memory I no longer trust because it feels too much like imagination or a congeries of dreams and other memories and expectations, the only thing in common to all those workings of the mind being the slightly surprised yet somehow self-contained stare of countless pigeons.

I've seen them inhabiting the quake-fractured stone towers and cracked walls of buildings in Bhuj, in Gujarat, the buildings still standing as if waiting for the next quake when they can complete their transformation into ruins. Meanwhile the pigeons flutter and shuffle and rearrange themselves onto small ledges and stare down at people who no longer notice them. No one notices pigeons until they're a nuisance or, maybe, until they're no longer there. Then they say, 'Where have all the pigeons gone?' and their voices fill with uneasiness.

I've seen them in the Rumbak Valley in Ladakh's Hemis National Park. I watched a flock take flight with a roar of wings, and as I saw the flash of white on their tails a thrill ran through me because I realised these were hill pigeons, close cousins of the feral pigeons we no longer notice in our cities. That flock would surely at some time have been watched by a snow leopard, and it's not utterly beyond the bounds of possibility that I too, during my short time there, might have been watched by a snow leopard. Many things connect me to the snow leopard — bharal; the local people I met at Rumbak, some of whom have seen shan; Matthiessen's book, which I've read many times including during both visits to Nepal; and so on — and now, pigeons.

I've seen pigeons in Almaty, in Kazakhstan, too. There, they were the only common birds and even they weren't as abundant as I'd expected. They were darker than usual, with a greasy sheen as if they'd flown through a fine spray of sump oil, and they looked a little wrong. Almaty had its charms, but it felt too much under human control and even the pigeons had a hard time treating us as if we didn't matter.

And that's one of the things I love about pigeons: they way they use us and offer nothing in return except the opportunity for us to appreciate their independence. They use our buildings and monuments and bridges — those things we think of as major accomplishments of architecture and art and engineering: as symbols of our greatness and superiority, in other words — and they pay us neither rent nor homage. They put us in our place by pooing on our greatness and —here's the wonderful thing — they don't even bother doing it with contempt or malice. We're beneath them, literally and figuratively, except when we feed them either deliberately or inadvertently, and in either case, guess who's the superior being?

But, most of all, I find comfort in knowing pigeons are there. You can rely on pigeons: they're there in most places in one form or another to remind you that no matter how difficult the circumstances, survival is possible. Pigeons thrive in places where the horror of the human condition could easily overwhelm you. If you want inspiration, if you want to know success is achievable no matter what — just look for the pigeons.

1. Yes, I know some people eat pigeons, and others are obsessed with fancy breeds or racing pigeons, but I've chosen to ignore those inconvenient truths. It's even OK for you not to share my pigeon-enthusiasms.
2. Shan is the name of the snow leopard in Ladakh.

These are the two pigeons now free to make the implement shed their home (and my car their toilet).

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor

12 May 2016

Deer on the hill

The deer had returned to the face of the hill and as the sun crept up behind the southern Ruahine I watched them from my back door. The stag was nowhere to be seen, even though I’d seen him just yesterday with the five now feeding there. Had he become bored with these few, or become exhausted and fed up with trying to keep them under control? Maybe he recognised that if the hinds weren’t now carrying his genes into the future they never would; maybe he understood in some subliminal, animal way that if he wanted the best chance to perpetuate his genes, he’d do better looking for other hinds.

Another possibility, but one I hoped hadn’t happened, was that he’d been shot. But that seemed unlikely, because even if the landowner had given permission for someone to hunt the area where I assumed the stag and hinds were living, who would shoot a rank, rutting stag with skinny little antlers when a yearling or one of the hinds would provide much better meat?

I watched the five deer grazing in the dawn light. The face of the hill was still in shadow, but sunlight had already arrowed through a saddle on the hills to light up the silver birch and bead tree by the little woolshed. The gold and brown and dull green birch leaves trembled in a cold, gusting breeze and the bronze bead tree leaves shimmered in the wind and sun. I stepped back slightly into the shade of the doorway and put the binoculars back to my eyes. The deer had come further down the hill, closer, almost to the fence at the foot of the slope. I could have watched them all day, but I had tea to drink, breakfast to eat, and work to do.

I wished them luck and turned back to the day’s tasks.

Since writing this, I've seen the stag back with the others on the hill on many occasions.

At one stage a month or two ago, the mob had increased to eight. This was one of the few times I've seen them in the sun; usually they wait until the face is in shadow.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor