Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bugga Off Snake

I am in the newly mown garden with the boys. It is the first time we have been able to play outside, since I got hold of the strongest local brand of (organic) pesticide and temporarily freed the garden of mosquitoes and ants. It's called Bugga Off and is remarkably effectiev, plus it can only be bought from a specialist store which means you can have all sorts of fun ringing up to check they've got it in "I was wondering if you had any insect repellant" "What kind? Miss Moffet's revenge or Bugga Off?" "Sorry, did you just say Bugga Off?" Cheap fun.

I am lying on the sunlounger thinking that I really ought to put some suncream on (if you are resident in New Zealand take a deep breath and take your hands away from your keyboard, I KNOW, no ozone layer, I am constantly lectured about it, they even write it on your prescriptions here, if I had a penny for everyone who has launched at me with a glint in their eye saying "Now I must tell you about the sun here, you have to be REALLY CAREFUL" we would not be worrying about the cost of therapy) when I see a snake ooze past me, quite a small one by snaky standards I suppose, but at least forty cm. I sit up, draw up my feet, remember I am with the children and try not to scream. But New Zealand DOESN'T HAVE SNAKES, I think.

It's not an adder. We can't have brought it from England. I am sure of that. I start panicking about our shipping container having somehow acquired a tropical snake as it changed ships in Singapore, and whether we are personally going to be responsible for the idyllic snake-free Long White Cloud becoming a venomous snake-pit where no one will step outside. I realise that I am being ridiculous, take a deep breath, remind myself that THIS IS NOT SOUTH AFRICA, (I have to do this every morning, to stop myself from yelling at my children to shake their boots upside down to get rid of the scorpions) and look more closely. It looks like an earthworm, now I am studying it closely rather than cowering away in a fit of panic with my eyes closed. A huge earthworm. That's probably what it is, then. But bigger, much bigger, than any English one. My heartrate returns to normal. That night, we check online and find that I have probably seen a North Auckland earthworm, which is increasingly rare and found in forest reserves and old gardens (we are clearly the latter). Since they grow up to 1.4 metres I have only seen a small one. It gives off a nightlight strong enough to read by. Wow. I start fantasising about reading in our garden at night, but when I check after dark the worm has gone, probably put off by the combination of anti-pest insecticide and children who are determined to dig BIG HOLES under the house. (I should probably worry about the foundations, but frankly with the cost of airfares I might as well let them see if they really can get to England that way, it seems as likely a way to visit as any other right now)

It really shakes me, this encounter, because I am so frightened of snakes. This is not just neurosis, it is training. When I first looked around this house, the South African estate agent said, as my children trampled into the long grass "Hey, don't worry about the snakes, OK? There aren't any." I was grateful, because the instinct is a deep one: I was brought up to associate warm climates with not being able to walk in the undergrowth or play in bushes. When the boys and I walk in the reserve down the road, it takes willpower not to scream at them to watch out for snakes. My reflexes are out of synch with my environment.

It's a bit like behavioural stuff and Special Needs. Once a diagnosis is made or suspected, it is possible to worry about perfectly normal (or normal-ish) behaviour which in an undiagnosed child one would write off as a "phase." And it takes willpower and knowledge - more knowledge than any parent can possibly have - to know the difference, to know what is of clinical concern, what won't be "grown out of" and needs to be challenged with training and therapy and what is a harmless habit that will fade of its own accord.

I find something of the same in my deep, visceral response to the seemingly segregated society in which I have arrived. Maori are not absent in this area. The school my sons will attend has 20 per cent Maori on the roll (plus many Pacific Islanders on top of that). Yet, having lived in this community for over a month now, I can still count on my fingers the numbers of Maori I have seen in working roles. There have been two binmen, some guys working in hard hats on a building site, the removal men who lugged in our furniture, and a guy cutting the grass in the park. Plus a woman who put out the flags for a free playday organised by the local council. Not all of these roles are necessarily menial - as a friend has reminded me, park wardens in the UK are often trained - but the emphasis does seem on manual labour. My reflexes are in overdrive. Shocked by an aspect of local culture I did not in the least expect, I am vividly reminded of South Africa, where the gardener and the maid and the cleaner are inevitably black or mixed race. Of course, South Africa is changing: there is now ten times more diversity at a managerial level than a generation ago. Of course, too, New Zealand is a different country with a very different history. I am desperately hoping that my reflexes are giving me false alarm signals, just as with the snake: it looks like something I have been brought up to fear, but actually it is a local and different phenomenon. Will I heave a huge sigh of relief, in due course, realising that the situation is a more complex one than it seems, and that actually being born Maori does not hold you back in the New Zealand of today? Or will I find that my UK friend was right, the one who had travelled widely here and asked if I was sure I could manage the move, that she thought I would struggle with the racism?

I don't know. I won't know the answer for several years. The situation is so complex. Is this a case of low expectations amongst a historically disadvantaged community, so that although opportunities for professional advancement exist, they are not always taken up? Is my area very untypical? Is this the result of local politics, historical choices, or current discrimation? Or just a total accident, so that in a year's time I will look back and laugh at how I misread the summer holidays, not realising that all the local professional Maori were temporarily out of town?

I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. You can't know. Just as you can't know whether your son whirling around the room for the first time is the development of an obsessive stim, or a harmless and socially appropriate way of letting off steam. Distinguishing a worm from a snake is easy, you just check on the Web. You can train yourself not to shake your boots for scorpions. But not every reflex can be dealt with so easily. Sometimes you just have to live with the feeling of unease, and wait and see.


  1. How many of the working people that you've met and seen so far have been skilled and/or professional? How many of the manual workers you've seen have been pakeha? It is an interesting perspective looking at this from the viewpoint of South Africa.

    I can't even imagine what it is like to live in a country with snakes. The worm sounds impressive though wish I'd seen one did you get a photo of it?

    1. I didn't ,I should have done, but TBH I was kind of not wanting to draw the children's attention to it in case they freaked out! :-) At least not until I could explain what it was.

      "How many of the working people that you've met and seen so far have been skilled and/or professional?" I would say 40%. Mainly the resource base that I banks, mortgage companies, estate agents, medical institutions, organisations like autism outreach, teachers.