Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Back in the U.S. of A.

Our month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand went off without a hitch (with one minor exception involving a pair of scissors, but that's another story -- see my earlier post). We left Auckland at 8 PM on December 31 and arrived in Los Angeles twelve hours later at 10 AM on ... December 31. Crossing the date line is really weird. (So is seeing the sun in the North, and Orion standing on his head. The world really is round.)

There apparently wasn't room for the plane to park at the terminal building, or maybe this is now procedure for all incoming international flights, but we got off the plane and they herded us all (a full 747's worth) onto busses. The bus was already looking pretty full when my wife and I got on, but they kept packing more and more people in. It was starting to feel like a Tokyo subway when someone said, "We're full, close the doors." The airport employee in charge of loading people onto the busses flew off the handle. "Don't tell me what to do!" she shouted, and just for emphasis she said it three times. The shock among the Kiwis, who are unfailingly polite, was palpable. I was ashamed for my country at that moment.

The airport employee (I'm not sure what her actual job title would be -- bus loader?) was, naturally, black, as were most of the people working customs and security that day. Part of me could understand where she was coming from. Here was a (I presume) poor black woman loading an overwhelmingly white crowd of affluent (I presume) travellers onto a bus when one of them barks what sounds to her like an order: "Close the door, nigger woman!" No, that's not what he said, but I suspect that's what it might have felt like to her. God damn it, she may have thought, this isn't 1864, it's 2004! Black people shouldn't have to take orders from white people any more! Don't tell me what to do! It was a very tense moment.

The really sad part was that there really wasn't any more room on that bus, and in the end there was nothing she could do but comply with the order/request.

We actually saw some hints that similar things happen in Australia with the Bama (which is what the Aborigines call themselves). The Bama are not doing nearly as well as the Maori's in New Zealand. When Europeans arrived, the Maoris were able to adapt. They dropped their tradition of warring amongst themselves, united, and managed to negotiate, by comparison to other indigenous peoples, a pretty good situation for themselves. Today the Maoris are probably, among indigenous peoples who had significant contact with Europeans during the Colonial age, among the best off. The Maori culture and language are thriving. There are Maori radio stations playing Maori rock and roll (even, alas, Maori rap). By comparison, the Bama are invisible. They were never able to unite (probably because Australia is so huge) and so the Europeans had them for lunch. Some of the abuses were truly horrific, not as bad as the institutionalized slavery practiced in the U.S., but in the same ballpark. (Some of these were dramatized in the recent movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence", which I recommend.) Their various languages and cultures are all but invisible to casual inspection. We did visit one Bama cultural center run by a tribe called the Tjapukai (pronounced Jabugai). Outside of that, the only aboriginees we saw were in Cairns, apparently homeless, and being hassled by the (white) police.

In a moment of rare lucidity, one of the Tjapukai, in the midst of a demonstration of how to play a dijeridoo (an astonishingly versatile instrument when played well), launched into a tirade about how Europeans had brainwashed his grandmother with the Bible, and made a joke about his BMW, which stood for "Black Man Walks." There seemed to be no such lantent bitterness among the Maoris. In fact, while in New Zealand I saw a newspaper article reporting poll results that Kiwis (as New Zealanders call themselves) were very optimistic about the future, and that the Maoris were even more optimistic than the national average (despite having lower incomes and life expectancies).

I didn't learn as much about the Bama as I would have liked, in part because we were warned not to raise the topic in polite company. We did learn that they have been in Australia for tens of thousands of years, and no one, not even the Bama themselves, know how they got there.

The Maoris were comparatively recent arrivals in New Zealand, having arrived only about a thousand years ago. They came from the same Polynesian peoples who populated Hawaii, and there are many interesting parallels in both culture and language.

Oops, I'm running late so I'll wrap this up by saying, Kyora! Which is Maori for Aloha. :-)

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