Sunday, March 1, 2015

How's that again, Benedict?

I was swimming back to the beach this morning when I passed a little blue penguin heading out to sea. I looked at him (possibly her), he (she) looked at me, we considered each other, and then we continued on our separate ways, the penguin waggling its tail, me not. It wasn't a total surprise: I, sad to say, found a dead little blue washed up on the beach a few weeks ago, on the face of it uninjured, and, asking around amongst the long-term residents was told that they nest under a couple of the baches (= holiday homes) in the bay. I had thought, though, that penguins were dawn/dusk creatures, so I was surprised to come across one active mid-morning. Then again, it was Sunday morning, and who doesn't like a lie-in at the end of the week?
I have a short but pleasing history with penguins in the wild. The last ones I saw were down in the Catlins in the South Island, yellow-eyed ones. I watched them hopping remarkably nimbly, and remarkably far, up a hillside through the tussock and bush to their nesting holes in the late afternoon, as the low sun glazed with honeyed light the scattering of rocks beyond the lighthouse at Nugget Point. I had also seen them the previous day making their way across a petrified forest to their holes in the rocks at Curio Bay. To be honest, they're not the most appealing of penguins: small and cute from a distance, up close the yellow eyes are a bit off-putting, and I'd been far more entranced that afternoon by hanging out with the little Hector's dolphins at next-door Porpoise Bay.
There were what used to be called fairy penguins on Kangaroo Island off the South Australia coast, before they got all butch and switched to calling them little penguins instead. I went on an evening penguin-spotting walk with red-light torches, and we did see them and hear them as they squawked and squabbled in their burrows, but in the dark it's harder to get excited about something you only see as a shape. I liked the pelicans better.
The most remarkable penguin I've ever seen (so far - one day, who knows, I may get to Antarctica and see the Emperors) is the Galapagos penguin, on one of the first islands I visited on my cruise there. It's the only one to live north of the Equator, despite all those Christmas cards you've seen with polar bears and penguins on them, and then only just, so they're literally tropical penguins. Galapagos is full of wildlife anomalies, so that's not as remarkable as it might otherwise be - but they still find life a bit difficult, and have to go scouting around for the cold Humboldt current, which swirls through the island group. They're small, too, and decked out in that classic penguin formal attire that's so very appealing. Cute. Though, according to the people here, if they live under your deck you have to put up with noise, smells, and fleas. Fleas!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Onetangi Beach Races

I do admire those travel writers who produce stories on the move, flipping open their laptops in airports and on trains to patter out 1000 words of fresh impressions and accurate quotes. It's not something I've been able to do, myself, except very rarely, since my itineraries are generally so full-on that there's little chance during the day and by the time I close my bedroom door all I can think about is getting to sleep and knitting up a few ravell'd cares.
I did once write a New York story on the plane back home, and an Aitutaki one while sitting on the beach by that glorious lagoon, and they were the better for the immediacy of the experience. That's something that the tourism people ought to remember when they're packing their media programmes full of places and experiences: the usual quantity vs quality thing. Not, to be fair to myself, that the stories written afterwards from memory, notes and photographs are hugely inferior - just a bit less vivid, perhaps.
That's a good argument for doing more domestic stuff. Like the Onetangi Beach Races yesterday, about which I've been writing today, ending up with something satisfyingly pleasing. It helps, of course, that I really enjoy the Beach Races themselves - and it also made a difference
that this time, my second, I was able to see clearly what was going on, unlike previously when a rogue wave at Palm Beach had snatched my glasses from me a couple of hours before the events began. Thank goodness for autofocus, is all I can say about that experience.
Yesterday couldn't really have been better: clear sunny day, fluffy clouds, warm blue sea bobbing with moored boats, crowds of relaxed people strolling along the roadside food stalls and settling themselves with tables, chairs and chilly bins in the shade of the pohutukawa trees. The man doing the announcing was jolly, the marshals in charge of clearing swimmers from the beach before races were laid-back and pleasant, the music was Kiwi nostalgia, the vibe totally Waiheke chill. Charley Farley's and the 4th Avenue Eatery were busy but there were still benches to share on their decks to enjoy a beer under an umbrella.
There was the tug-of-war, the hidden treasure, the Fashion Parade, and of course the races themselves: Sealegs doing a tortoise and hare, fat little ponies hitched to miniature sulkies, lean fit horses ridden by lean fit girls, and chugging tractors in serious pursuit of the title of Fastest on Waiheke. All good fun, all relaxed and easy, everybody ready with a smile and a friendly comment. Classic.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Four years

It's been a hot, dry summer and Thursday morning was another in a long series of blue-sky days. It was the kind of weather that makes water-blasting the house seem like a treat, compared with, for example, mowing the lawns or weeding. So that was how it happened that I was up close with the window frames and noticed that here and there the paintwork is starting to show sun damage. And although I struggle to remember where I've left my phone or what I had for dinner last night, I know exactly how long it is since the painter was here: four years.
Because four years ago today, he and I were standing in my living room at lunchtime, watching in disbelief and horror the pictures coming from Christchurch, my home town. Christchurch, reduced by a 6.3 earthquake at 12.51pm to a cracked and broken disaster zone where 185 people died, instantly or slowly, in nightmarish scenarios that seconds earlier had been boringly mundane: office, shop, bus. Christchurch, the Garden City, more English than England, a place of wide tree-lined avenues and willows dipping into the placid Avon River, stately mock-Gothic public buildings, neat parks and gardens, and an iconic Cathedral smaller than many English parish churches but truly the heart of the city. In just a couple of terrifying minutes, it became - and has remained - unrecognisable, buildings collapsed, towers leaning, roads cracked and manhole covers risen up, stinking grey liquefaction seeping everywhere like ectoplasm, and everybody's lives changed forever.
In the four years since, progress has been made in resurrecting the city, although shamefully slowly. Whole areas, like where I grew up and first went to school, have been abandoned to nature while new suburbs have sprung up on the western, safer side of the city. The CBD, though still characterised by too many bare blocks of dusty gravel, is taking new shape, coming to life, drawing back the people. John Robert Godley's statue has just been put up again in the Square, though it's a bit damaged and faces a cathedral still in ruins with a future under threat. In some areas, you wouldn't know anything had ever happened - except when you speak to the people living there. Even those who escaped major damage to their homes still see their lives as split into Before and After, and that will never change.
The old Christchurch has gone. The new Christchurch will be a different place: newer, flatter, lower, more spacious. Eventually the ruined suburbs will be attractive parkland. The remaining heritage buildings will be stronger and more valued. Will the Cathedral be one of them? I do hope so. Abandoned by the Church, it's up to the people to save it, which is how it should be.
And then there are the 185 lives lost: all ages, all sorts of nationalities, residents and visitors, some suddenly, some agonisingly slowly in unimaginable terror. They will always be remembered, and not only at the memorial that will be built in time for the next anniversary, beside the Avon as it glides slowly to the sea.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Waswas - if only...

Arriving at the mall this morning for the first time on foot, and hence seeing it somewhat differently, I was in full imaginative flight about how I could easily have been in the US. You know, how what we take for granted and just don't see any more at home is exactly the sort of ordinary thing that becomes exciting when visited in another country. Literally exactly, since the totally interchangeable Westfield malls seem to be everywhere these days, especially in the States (which is quite a coup for an Australian company). I could even summon up the anticipatory buzz that I would have felt if I was travelling and not just filling in time at the local mall while my car was being serviced.

I had already got to the bit in this pattern of thought where I value the after-effect of travelling that has you, if you pay attention, looking around yourself when you get home and seeing things with new eyes and appreciating what had become completely ordinary - the neatness, convenience, safety, beauty - when, approaching the entrance by a different route, I passed a series of columns with inspirational quotes on them including this one by Eleanor Roosevelt. While it's hard to equate this particular bit of hopeful thinking with Westfield's seen-one-seen-them-all shopping machines, it did remind me of the last time I came across the sainted Eleanor.

It was in Washington DC, on an evening bus tour along the National Mall, when we stopped at the end to see that cluster of monuments - Lincoln, Vietnam, Korea, MLK and FDR - and I was delighted to discover that Eleanor has been accorded her own memorial near to her husband's. Though it's rather tucked away, it's still good to see that she was appreciated for the work she did and wasn't just seen as an adjunct to her husband - who probably wouldn't even have become President if it weren't for her. This was the first time a FLOTUS had ever been honoured like this. At first I thought the statue made her look a bit ordinary, in a coat, hands clasped as if waiting in a queue at the grocer's - but really that is her legacy, that anyone can make a difference if they want to enough. And the quote beside the statue could hardly be more apposite in these turbulent times where, actually, nowhere feels totally safe any more: "The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation... It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world."

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Fly, my pretty!

The premise of this blog, that every day brings reminders of and connections to your travel, does mean that there have been a lot of references to world events that are less than cheerful. Terrorist attacks, floods, cyclones, earthquakes, pollution, eruptions... they've all featured here, and will doubtless continue to pop up at fairly depressing intervals. But today we'll take a break.
Today, I saw the first of the seven monarch chrysalises that I've been overseeing hatch into a beautiful butterfly, and I was as delighted and proud as if I'd birthed it myself. Her, in fact - the spots on the wings are the giveaway. It's been a long process, watching them first as hungry caterpillars, munching relentlessly through my swan plants, getting bigger and bigger. Fearful of wasp attacks like those that nixed them all last year, I brought them inside, to be astonished at the volume of poop - frass! - that they produce. Then, suddenly and always while I was looking elsewhere, they became pupae, in elegant green and gold. Long wait, then a colour change, and today, finally, I saw one that had emerged and uncrumpled its - her - wings, getting ready to fly. Magic, and a miracle, and a marvel, truly.
And of course, it reminded me of somewhere I've been: Iguassu Falls in Argentina/Brazil/Paraguay, where the magnificent, astonishing, overwhelming size and volume of the waterfalls were offset by the small, delicate and dainty beauty of the yellow butterflies that flocked to drink from a muddy puddle beside the path.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Art v. nature? Art + nature!

Art, eh? Never lets you down. Either it's glorious, or awful, or so meh that you can hardly believe anyone spent time on it, let alone would consider handing over hard-earned for it. So, one way or another, you always get a return on your time going to look at it - and Waiheke's biennial headland Sculpture on the Gulf would be a rewarding hour spent even without the art.

It's on now, and on a golden summer evening when the fussy crowds that irritated me last time had disappeared, I thoroughly enjoyed my walk along the two-kilometre trail that ends (or begins) at Matiatia near the ferry wharf. This year there are 31 artworks along the route, and I think it was good going to find five or six that I really admired. It's art, it's personal, the people behind it come at life differently, you can't expect to aim much higher, I think.
There was a satisfying number of pieces that had me going Pft! and gasping in real astonishment at the price being asked: a tree hut, for example, a real tree hut of assorted scrap timber, not big, not high, in no way exceptional - $20,000. There were plastic bird-like things in the trees made from coloured cable ties, there was an app to download from a QR code, that I couldn't get to work, there were telegraph cables strung a metre off the ground with a recording of wailing, there was a messy thing made of disparate bits that you were meant to hit with padded sticks. Art.
But there were also some gorgeous tall, silver dandelion clocks, a delicate-looking silver tent, an elaborately carved wooden spinning top, a metal pohutukawa flower dome that wasn't so special from the outside (though lots of work went into it - a more well-deserved $30,000) but from inside strikingly framed the harbour scenery. And that, for me, is really the best bit about Waiheke's sculpture trail: that the art is designed for its setting, so that when it works it enhances what is already a strikingly beautiful scene - and, with a camera, lets people like me make art of our own. The sculptures will be there until 15 February - and it's another two years until the next one. Go and see what you think.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Fifty years on

It hardly seems possible, but 1965 was 50 years ago, and I have connections with 30/1/65 (other, of course, than being so very young on that date). It was Sir Winston Churchill's funeral, and I remember it clearly. Not because I was especially knowledgeable, then, about who he was, and certainly not because I even saw the funeral on TV - we were away on our family summer holiday, staying in a caravan at Kaiteriteri camp ground at the top of the South Island and, to be frank, the main event for me of that stay was falling out of the top bunk in my sleep and injuring my arm. (Not that there was any possibility of my visiting a doctor, let alone the hospital: a former-nurse mother and family tradition of frugality saw to that. A day in a home-made sling was the sum total of my treatment.)

No, what really struck me was hearing on the radio that there would be a 90-gun salute in England to mark the event, one shot a minute: ridiculously young as I then was, I could still work out that that meant they would be firing the cannons for a whole hour and a half, and I was astonished. Of course, any visitor to England is hard put not to rub up against the great man in one way or another: his hulking statue near the Houses of Parliament; the unexpected maroon velvet jumpsuit he favoured while taking shelter in the underground bunker of the War Rooms in Westminster; the display of his childish auburn curls and letters home from boarding school displayed at Blenheim Palace near Woodstock ("Papa, I will take your advice about the cigars and don't think I shall often smoke more than one or two a day"); his unpretentious grave at Bladon nearby.
I've been to all those places and understand the respect, and feel it myself of course - but, as a New Zealander, not quite as whole-heartedly as the Brits. There's a one-word explanation: Gallipoli. It was a disastrous campaign, responsible for the carnage of cannon-fire Kiwi and Aussie soldiers beginning on April 25 coming up to twice as long ago - 1915 - and whose idea was it? None other than Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Not his finest hour (although as we all know his reputation was more than redeemed during WW2) and he was sacked from the war cabinet for it.

Naturally, it's not as black and white as that, and he was right to see the importance of trying to bail out the Russians by the only route possible; but from the Anzac perspective the predominant colour is poppy-red, and when I'm at the centenary in Turkey this year I doubt there'll be many apologists for Winston there.

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