Coming home not for laughs

Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

Poor Andy. He's come home from holiday and is sad. It's not unusual, writes Joe Bennett

When you go on holiday, you escape from behind the tall walls of habit and are reminded that there's a whole other world, a million other worlds. But then back you come to the grisly details of the world you've chosen, or that's chosen you, or that you merely fell into. However it happened, it's calcified into what you are. The house is littered with your past. You can't believe you chose that wallpaper. But you know you're not going to change it. You can hear the walls whispering, 'This is it.'

It's like a prisoner returning to his cell after exercise, except that most prisoners have a release date to look forward to. You're doing life. Though you always thought you were free.

Andy lives in a cool, rich country. For his holiday he went to a hot, poor one. Hot and poor are pretty much the same thing with countries. It's as if the heat saps the drive to make money. It is too tempting to sit in the shade and just be. The few hot countries that are rich are sitting on oil and they continue to sit while the stuff gushes into their wallets. The men doing the drilling come from the cool countries. They need the heat.

The Americans fought a war in the country that Andy visited. That's not unusual either. Since World War II, America has fought dozens of wars and the number of those wars that have been waged on its own soil totals - pause while I reach for the calculator, tap tap tap - none. Few of the wars have done any good. Most have been disastrous at the time and catastrophic afterwards. The war in the country that Andy's just visited left a legacy of amputees, orphans, ruins, poisoned soil and unexploded ordnance. At the time it was deemed a victory.

The Americans thought they were fighting an idea. For 40 years that idea was communism. In the end communism defeated itself and left the Americans without an idea to fight. It took a while to find a new one. But that new one's a belter. It's terror. Terror is always with us, so there's no need for fighting it to stop, which will please the armament makers and the military, and their cheerleaders on Fox News. And the US can continue to maintain a defence force infinitely larger than anything it might need to defend itself at a cost of $700 billion dollars a year. Meanwhile it owes 16 trillion dollars (at the time of writing. By the time of reading, it will be a few billion more.) It's a wonderful world.

Andy liked the hot, poor country. He describes how he sat on his third-floor balcony and watched it and smelt it and heard it. Heard the street dogs barking in the dawn. Heard a gecko clicking. Watched the skinny chooks scrabble on the dusty roads. Smelt the fierce food of the street vendors. Watched the squabbles in the slums. The beautiful young women at a standpipe. The 20 young men piling onto a flatbed truck to be driven to work standing. The evening cluster round an outdoor television the size of a tomb. The sheer open variety of life on the street. People lived with people, and, Andy said, they laughed a lot. There's truth there. Public smiling increases in inverse proportion to wealth. And now he's gone home to London drizzle. And many of the people in the hot, poor country would have loved to go with him. They dream of London drizzle, London wealth. That, they imagine, is where people should smile.

But Andy says no. He describes London as a place where, "women stomp, men barge, charm hides, respect is two-faced and people don't say hello".

For sure, he is partly lamenting the end of his holiday and the resumption of self. But there's truth there, too.

After the earthquakes it was commonly remarked that people came together. Faced with adversity, we got to know our neighbours, people we had previously only grunted at. Now, 30 months later, most of us have withdrawn again behind the tall walls of habit. We're back to grunting.

Wealth breeds isolation. The rich have always built walls or dug moats. The munitions millionaire retires to a gated community. His reason is fear, the terror of loss. But, fortunately, the Americans are waging war on terror. Expect to see it conquered any day now.

The Southland Times