The Digital Adventures

Theo Meier-CH10

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Theo’s stay in Australia was very brief It was winter and the weather was cold and not to his liking. He had grown quite accustomed to the tropics and did not want to linger. Besides, there was a great deal of noisy commotion going on at the time. The HMS Sydney, a light cruiser of the Royal Australian Navy, had arrived in port and the entire town came down to the waterfront to see the pride of the Australian navy. Added to the confusion, the 1933 Sydney Carnival had just opened, marking the eighth celebration of the Australian National Football Carnival. The town was too noisy for Theo.

Theo and Lucas wasted no time and headed straight to the Swiss consul to contact Mr. Eric Bloch, and present him with the letter of introduction the Ethnological Museum in Berne had given them. Scanning the letter, the consul suddenly burst out laughing, and he then handed it over to Theo to read. “Dear-Friend,” it said, “this will introduce Theo Meier, a painter friend, who, filled with enthusiasm, decided to follow in the steps of Gauguin to the South Sea. By the time he arrives in Sydney he is bound to be stone-broke.”

Lucas laughed too, along with the consul, but Theo didn’t think it was funny at all. He didn’t mind the mention that it was likely that he would be broke, but what he didn’t like was the reference to his following in the steps of Gauguin. There it goes again, he thought. He again was being tagged as a follower of Gauguin. He resented it. “I am only treading where Gauguin had gone,” Theo snapped at the two men. ”As for Gauguin’s style of painting, I follow no one but my own.” The opening of a good bottle of schnapps by the consul ended Theo’s anger.

Theo did not care for Sydney, although he did like the pubs where beer was hosed out to fill empty glasses. Sydney, founded by convicts shipped out from England, had served as a penal colony, and Theo wondered if it was still a city of convicts. He did realize, with his heavy German accent, that everyone treated him with suspicion, that he might be German, and Germany was not in everyone’s favor in Australia at the time. Hitler had been appointed chancellor of Germany. Theo wondered now what would become of the impressionist painters he knew in Germany, those who hadn’t fled. It was written in the books that once Hider became Chancellor he would quickly establish his vision of an autocratic, single party dictatorship. There would be no place for artists who disagreed with totalitarianism.

Theo made a note in his journal that there was little in Sydney that inspired him to take up his paint and brushes. Sydney was not unlike most Europeans cities and he felt he didn’t have to travel half way around the world to find the very thing he was escaping from. He was looking for something else than old Europe. He gave thought to heading into the Outback, to paint the primitive people there, the aborigines but, he reasoned, they were not far distant from their cousins, the Melanesians of the New Hebrides. And like the aborigines he saw in Sydney, had they too completely lost their culture and identity? No, it was time that he moved on to new horizons. China and the tropical islands of Dutch East Indies were waiting.

Theo and Lucas had planned their agenda long before they came to Sydney. Their travel plans included the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and China. There was not enough time for them to do all that they wanted to do and, besides, their funds were rapidly diminishing. On top of this, the Idiot’s Club back in Basel was waiting for their paintings and 1heo was far behind schedule. And for Lucas, his mother wanted her son back. Since she controlled his purse strings, there wasn’t much he could do about it.

One place that Theo had his heart set on seeing was the island of Bali in the Dutch East Indies. Here even the farmers and fishermen were painters and the music these people created was the music of the gods. Theo had heard so much about Bali he longed to visit the place. He also heard about a German artist and musician who lived there among the people. And there were the women of Bali that touched Theo the deepest. They went around naked, or half naked. There on Bali the artists did not need to beg the women to take off their clothes, as they had to do with the women of Tahiti and Polynesia. Here was the artist’s dream.

Theo and Lucas decided they would have to split up. They agreed to toss a coin to see who would go where. Lucas won the Dutch East Indies and Theo the Philippines and China. They would meet in Singapore in three months-time, swap notes on their experiences and return home to Europe by freighter. Theo, disappointed as he was, would have to wait to see Bali on his next trip. .

Theo booked passage on the Kamo Maru, a small Japanese tramp steamship, bound for Hong Kong. Kamo Maru was hardly first class, or even second class, and more like steerage, but Theo didn’t mind at all. In fact, he found it exciting. When Lucas saw the vessel he screamed in horror. “You are not going to sail in that tub,” he ranted. But Theo assured him he was. He had booked his passage.

Theo bid the consul farewell at his house, and at the dock side he said good-bye to Lucas. Lucas was in good spirits. He had met up with some old friends, was introduced to new ones and planned to remain a while longer in Sydney. Theo was sad at heart to part from his old friend, wondering if they would ever meet again, but he was excited about the unknown that lay ahead, Adventure was calling him. He set sail on the Kamo Maru.

Theo learned on this voyage the true meaning of the word tramp steamer. There were no fixed schedules and no published ports-of-call. The captain in his frayed white uniform pointed the bow towards Hong Kong and trusted in luck that they would make it there. The poor old vessel did hammer and pound and after the first day out Theo began to wonder about Lady Luck. But to the captain and his crew there seemed to be no need for concern. The officers aboard seemed more concerned with the ports they visited than with cargo they collected. In fact, Theo came to realize the cargo didn’t seem to be important at all; it didn’t take a government snoop to reach the conclusion that the photographs they were taking had a purpose other than showing them off to the family back home. Theo thought it strange at first that every time they came to port, the captain insisted Theo come on deck and stand near the bridge. Theo was their decoy. Theo laughed at the thought, that he was a spy for the Japanese. Nevertheless, he took note that the Japanese didn’t let a tower, a godown, nor a fuel tank in any port pass their scrutiny.

When the Kamo Maru arrived in Zamboanga in the southern Philippines, Theo was beyond himself. He came near to jumping ship. He had no complaints about the voyage. It wasn’t that. It was Zamboanga that caught his fancy. Here was a Conradesque port you read about only in adventure books. Here was old Spain, with it walled fortresses and tiled plazas blending with the Oriental life of the Filipinos. Sailing craft from the Sulu Sea, Macassar schooners from the Celebes, tramp steamers from ports in China, private yachts, American and Philippine Men-of-War and every sort of ship flying the colors from every nation in the world, or what seemed like every nation, were all anchored in the roads pulling at their anchors. And gliding among them were fast, double rigger skiffs propelled by noisy outboard engines and slow moving sampans being sculled along. Here was the pulse beat of Asia where coffee-eyed women in lace trimmed skirts and cotton blouses that were about to pop their buttons sat in open-air cafes with smiles on their faces and guitars on their laps. A bottle of rum here was cheaper than a cup of coffee in Basel. Theo could have stayed here forever, and he knew it, but the Idiot’s Club in Basel was waiting for the paintings he had promised. When the Kamo Maru departed for Hong Kong, and Theo was aboard, he prided himself for his diligence. He had to tear himself away from Zamboanga. But he did vow, he would be back.

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