Saturday, November 17, 2007

The case of North versus South

I've worked in the Pacific for a good number of years, and it's not uncommon to be sitting on any given evening, in any given city, under the ramshackle shelter of a "yacht" club, beside the gentle, lapping waters as the horizon turns from gold to a deep, dark crimson, and listening to some balding, grey-haired Australian of immense proportions, dubious qualifications and in an advanced stage of inebriation, banging-on about how lazy Pacific Islanders are, be it his maid, driver, staff or the greens-keeper at the golf course.

I'm sure you can appreciate that this is a bit rich coming from a man who, in his own country (and indeed even while he is working abroad), wakes up of a morning, steps into an instant, hot water shower, followed by a breakfast of hot coffee (the water for which was boiled in a matter of minutes in an electric kettle) and toast (made from bread he bought the night before, and cooked, again in minutes, in an electric toaster) with butter (kept at just the right temperature in his electric refrigerator). After breakfast, during which he's had time to cast a lazy eye over a newspaper that was delivered to his door early in the morning, our man gets into a ridiculously large vehicle and drives himself along immaculately maintained highways to an office with all the latest computer hardware and furniture and, as it happens, another electric kettle with which someone makes him another coffee before he kicks-off the day's work.

This typical, daily Australian scenario makes it pretty difficult to argue that any hunter-gatherer community, be it in the Pacific or elsewhere, could ever be compared with its Australian counterparts and come-up appearing lazy, and yet, the old stereotype of the lazy Pacific Islander continues to dominate the Western psyche. It has always perplexed me, until recently, when, here in Tibet, I stumbled across some very plausible evidence to suggest that Pacific Islanders are not lazy at all, but just appear to be on go-slow, because in comparison with everyone else in the world, they have more time in their day to get things done.

I can assure you that Donkey is not about to dust-off his Year 7 science project and start prognosticating on the average hours of daylight in the tropics compared with sub-polar regions. This new evidence has little to do with daily solar meanderings, and a great deal to do with what it takes for individuals in different parts of the world to get up and out into the world each day.

Take Donkey's daily routine at present. At 7.15am, the alarm goes off to bring Donkey back from his nocturnal land of liveried dwarves and go-go girls wearing nothing but knee-high boots and hula-hoops, but it's so ridiculously cold, he can't bring himself to emerge from under the doonas (note plural) until 8.30am. After ablutions and bathing, the making of the essential morning coffee takes twenty minutes because at this altitude, water takes much longer to boil (9.10am). With breakfast done (9.30am), it's time to head-off to work, but before this can happen, one has to get ready to step out of the front door – herein begins the real ordeal.

In addition to my regular work clothes, which are already on and looking a million bucks, if I do say so myself (I have to, really, 'cause my Mum's not around to tell me how spiffy I'm looking today), I must put on a scarf which I wrap very tightly around my neck and face. Over this is placed a polar fleece jacket, followed by a larger, puffy-type jacket which zips up over the whole ensemble. On the scone goes the beanie, and on the hands, the yak-skin gloves. With bags gathered and filled, I squeeze through the front door and waddle down to my bike, which I unlock and drag outside. I then go back inside to fetch my bags, which I fix to the bike, before fumbling in my pockets to produce both front and rear lights, which are placed in position, and finally I'm ready to go.

Now, if you were to see Donkey naked at present (urgh - easy stomach!), you truly wouldn't recognise him. Indeed, I myself am still a little uneasy when I look at this stranger in the mirror. I have lost so much weight since I arrived in Tibet that I've dropped four inches off my waste, and I have discovered the kind of defined, cat-walk class, high cheek bones that are the cosmetic surgery dreams of aspiring, teenage models along the entire length of the Gold Coast. I am also enjoying the relative silence that comes from no longer hearing the slap and smack of jowls each time I turn my head. Basically, I am a new Donkey, in peak physical condition, but each morning, as I climb up into my saddle, I am so rugged-up with layers and padding, that I look like the Michelin Man after he's had a sex change and been knocked-up with quintuplets!

By the time I set off for work, it's 10am, and just getting light. By contrast, our Pacific Island friends, due to the brightness and heat of the early-morning sun, and with some considerable assistance from the day-break activities of the numerous, vocal Pacific roosters, have been up for four hours. In this time, they've washed and dressed (simply by wrapping their single lavalava, or sarong, around their waists). By way of making breakfast, they have peeled taro and yams with the edge of an empty corned-beef tin, scraped the flesh from twenty open coconut shells to make cream, peeled three bunches of green bananas and gathered and chopped wood for a small fire, on which they have boiled their coffee and cooked all of these goodies. By the time they've eaten, it's still only about 7am, leaving them plenty of time to relax and talk ... or look lazy.

At 10.20am, I'm still struggling along on my bicycle, my painstaking progress as much to do with the lack of oxygen in the air, as the fact that the oxygen is covered in jagged, razor-sharp icicles which slash my windpipe and lungs with every breath. By the time I get to work, it's 2.30pm, and it takes me another twenty minutes to peel off my 1960s space suit. Straight away I need a cuppa to help me catch my breath which, again, at this altitude, takes a good twenty minutes or so, followed by a further quarter of an hour thawing-out in front of the heater.

By 3.30pm, I sit down to work, and get just enough time to check my emails and Facebook, before it's time to close up and start getting ready for home. I know what you're thinking; 3.45pm is a little early to be going home, but it'll take me an hour to layer-up again, and I have to get home before dark lest I freeze to death in the street. Do you remember, when you were a kid, they used to have those ice-blocks shaped like a rocket, with a little jelly astronaut frozen in the top? Well that's what homeless people end up looking like here if they get caught outside after dark, and there's no way I'm letting that happen to me! So by the time I've unlocked my bike, replaced all the lights, struggled home and then repeated all this in reverse-order, it's 8.30pm and time for tea and then bed. What a day!

So you see, Pacific Islanders aren't lazy, they just get a lot more time in the day to do what needs to be done, compared with those who live in colder climes. I mean, look at Tongans and Samoans - not exactly starving due to being too lazy to get a meal together, are they? No, to those fat, privileged Australian piss-heads in the yacht and golf clubs across the Pacific, I say that real laziness is having everything you want at the flick of a switch, or the handing-over of a wad of cash. To them I say that real laziness is not being willing to open your eyes and look around at the way your maid, driver, gardener, staff or greens-keepers at the golf course live, and not being willing to understand just how much they've already done each day when you're only just falling out of bed with your thumping hangover.

What's this? A bird's-eye view of Donkey riding to work.


Kate S said...

Absolutely LOVE the birds-eye graphic with this. :)

Ann O'Dyne said...


plus, in tonga and samoa it is always absolutely stinking humid hot. not conducive to exercise at all.

peace and love ...

Ann O'Dyne said...

over at Farcebook look for Bwca Bwican and please ask them to be yr frend?

sabrina said...

I am currently reading Bill Bryson's Down Under and i must say that i am totally in love with your country!!!!!

Can't wait to visit...tempted to journey the outback but it sounds too we'll see