Friday, 15 July 2022

So long ago and so far away. Psy.

It's likely that, in an attempt to leave you feeling slightly less gloomy at the end of today's inevitably depressing news, the presenters will have drawn to your attention the fact that it's the ten-year anniversary of the release of 'Gangnam Style'. The YouTube views are up to 4 billion, so there's no doubt at all that you now have that catchy tune buzzing in your head, and can see Psy bouncing along to the rhythm, wrists inexplicably crossed.

The song was an instant hit, so it was no surprise to come across a huge, golden statue of those hands when I did a quick trip to Seoul in 2019. It was towards the end of my visit there, courtesy of Air NZ, who were about to start flying that route, and we'd done all the proper stuff - culture, architecture, national dress, all sorts of wonderful food, history, even a trip to the DMZ. We were finally let loose and I spent the last afternoon doing something authentically Korean - after visiting a reptile café (lizards, tortoises and snakes in cages and enclosures, more of a  pet shop-cum-coffee bar, no handling going on), prowling round a shopping mall, and getting a taste of K-pop.

The Starfield Mall - in the Gangnam district - is both huge and beautifully presented, full of tempting shops (including Uniqlo, yay!), a 16-screen cinema, an aquarium, an atrium public library with a grand piano, a gorgeous coloured glass artwork, and a stage across which a series of K-pop groups paraded in a free concert.

The big statue was outside, near a food truck called Luxury Bear - after my tour that morning through a busy food alley, where there were live eels in tanks and octopus hanging from hooks, I was wary, but it turns out they just do pizza. Then I had to go to the airport to fly home, after too short a time in Seoul - there's a lot to see and enjoy there. Would go again. One day.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Maiden voyage - well, cruise

A couple of posts ago, I was marvelling at reviving a trip I did back in 2014 to Kakadu in the Northern Territory, for a recent story. Well, today I beat that, with a story published about a Captain Cook cruise I did in Fiji way, way back in 2005. That even predated my note-taking routine - I did take a notebook, duly labelled, but was dismayed to find, when researching for this (requested) story, that I wrote nothing in it. Tch - amateur!

So, thank you again, internet, for enabling both reconstruction and updating. I did remember the trip pretty well too - it was my first-ever cruise, and I was sucked straight in, and came home hoping that I would go on another one day. If I'd known then that there were 20 more lying ahead of me, eight of them in the luxurious embrace of Silversea, and including such diverse destinations as Alaska, China, Turkey, Norway, the Amazon, Galapagos, Ireland and, best of all, Antarctica, my mind would have been blown, truly.

I'm not sure now that I would rush to go on another - still too Covid-nervous not to remember the Petri-dish phenomenon - but I certainly feel lucky to have been on so many, and most of them so very, very good.

2005, though - that means little Lusi will be 22 now. She was the cute 5 year-old new entrant who showed me so proudly around her bare-bones school on one of the remote Yasawa Islands. Though it was the holidays, the kids all came to school to welcome us sunburnt strangers from that fancy white ship out in the bay, and sang songs to us that included 'The Wheels on the Bus' - on an island that had no buses, or cars, or probably even much in the way of wheels. I wonder what Lusi is doing now?

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Reluctant record

There are some horribly big numbers out there right now: the US recently reached the chilling milestone of one million Covid deaths, and there've been over 6 million world-wide. Not long ago NZ scored a million cases since the start of the pandemic - one fifth of the population - and then today we finally, inevitably, not only reached but surpassed 1000 deaths from/with Covid - 90% of them people aged 60+. It's pretty scary how fast that last number shot up after Omicron arrived, because back in only February, we still had just 55 deaths overall since the start of this whole sorry business, and there were long periods with no deaths reported at all. Things have changed so quickly.

So, even though we’ve also scored another big number - 95% eligible population double-vaxxed, plus over half so far also boosted, it feels a bit dodgy that the border, already now open to lots of countries, will reopen to everyone from the end of July. Of course the tourism industry is desperate for that to happen, and my travel writer colleagues, sick and tired of dredging up old material, and competing with each other for local stories, are already heading off overseas, despite flight uncertainty and general infection risks.

It certainly is tempting, seeing their photos of overseas destinations looking so adorably and excitingly foreign. I’d love to go. Maybe, since the experts are gloomily predicting another five years of all this, we should just lump Covid in with all the other risks and uncertainties that give travel its addictive frisson? 

Monday, 9 May 2022

Who, where and what

While I was otherwise occupied, my brain drifted off this morning and dredged up Mnangagwa from ages ago. I'm guessing it was prompted by reading about Ncuti Gatwa being selected as the next Doctor Who, which is causing exactly the sort of kerfuffle you might expect. Mnangagwa, though definitely sounding familiar, I had to Google to identify - and, of course, it's Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is President of Zimbabwe.

Having read the name three times now, you too will have it filed away in your memory recesses ready for when that question pops up in your next game of Trivial Pursuit. Which is entirely why I learnt it in the first place, since over the last dozen years or so, the only time I've played TP has been on cruises, and more often than not it was on a Silversea cruise with Moss Hills as quizmaster. Moss, though looking and sounding proper Home Counties, was born and brought up in Zimbabwe, so it was a reasonable expectation that one of his questions might at some point be about the president. (Sadly, though, never.)

We came across Moss on three separate cruises with Silversea, and always enjoyed his work as Cruise Director, organising and presenting the entertainment programme, and being approachable and sociable around the ship. In all those interactions, though, he never mentioned this major life event which, for no obvious reason, has had him popping up recently in various media including a BBC podcast that I've been following for ages.

Turns out, in 1991, back when he was a long-haired guitarist on board the Greek liner Oceanos, he ended up supervising the evacuation of the ship when it was sinking off the coast of southern Africa in a big storm. It's a terrific story, and he comes out of it deservedly well, putting himself in real danger as, in the absence of the ship's officers who had commandeered the first lifeboat and blithely saved themselves, he and the other entertainers helped guests into the other lifeboats and lowered them into the sea. Then the ship listed too far for that so, after managing to contact help, Moss supervised loading passengers into rescue helicopters. He and his wife were the last to leave the ship, which then sank. No lives were lost, thanks to him, plus the other entertainers who included a magician. The ship's captain and senior officers were later found guilty of 'negligence'.

It doesn't take much effort to work out why Moss never mentioned this adventure while we were all sailing the high seas in a cruise ship. But since you're no doubt sitting safely at home, you can read all about it here and here.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Up right out back

 All hail the internet! It was way back in 2014 when I did this trip to Kakadu in the Northern Territory, but it was easy to check up on the facts before I submitted this story in response to a request for Australian material. It was a bit of a shame then that, having written and sent in six assorted stories, the bubble with our neighbour burst again, and they had to be filed away. But at least I was paid, in advance! Which is rare, very rare... Now though, finally, the borders are open again, and this story has finally seen the light of day.

So I look forward to seeing the others, about Ningaloo, and the Bibbulmun, and Rottnest, Broome and the Stuart Highway, in the coming weeks. I do enjoy remembering those colourful trips and, as ever, hope that the stories will prompt Kiwis to break away from their boring Melbourne-Sydney-Gold Coast mindset, and explore other bits of Australia, especially the amazing Outback.

It's kind of a shame that 'The Tourist' on HBO Max isn't as gripping as it should be, given its Outback setting, and its cast; because it might otherwise intrigue some viewers enough to make them want to get a taste of that location. Never mind, though: season 2 of Tim Minchin's 'Upright' is about to be filmed. Season 1 was about a journey across the Nullabor Plain heading to Perth, and it was glorious - not even just for the scenery, either. It's a funny, sad and original story and, of course, has excellent music, notably for me 'Carry You', sung over the final credits by Missy Higgins

The song starts with a mention of fish and chips on Perth's Cottesloe beach, where I went to do a story about their annual sculpture exhibition. I really enjoyed it, and not just because I got, for the first and only time ever, a per diem - what a thrill! But the exhibition was great too, and it was the perfect place to stage it, along that gorgeous beach.

Connections? Well, Cottesloe’s sculpture exhibition is on again right now; plus Sculpture on the Gulf is currently running here on Waiheke, which I've written about, of course. And I did go to see Tim Minchin last year, performing at the Civic, a theatre I've also written about, of course. Upright S2 is going to be filmed in Queensland, but I have faith that Tim will break away from the boring bits and take us viewers into less familiar, but far more spectacular, locations. Can't wait.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Slava Ukraini!

I haven't been to Ukraine, but I have been to Russia. Well, Moscow, for just a couple of nights, on our multi-hop return from NZ to the UK in 1980. We flew there from Delhi, and couldn't work out why, when we landed, there was applause throughout the plane - because everyone was thankful to have survived the ramshackle Air India flight? Or just glad to be back in the motherland? It was less than a fortnight before the Olympics were to be held there, so it was surprising that the airport immigration procedures were so slow and inefficient. And it was very unnerving, given Russia's reputation, when the OH was whisked away out of sight after I'd been admitted, because his new beard didn't match his visa and passport photos.

They did let him through, after a fraught hour and a half, but our nerves were shot and we never felt comfortable after that. It didn't help everything feeling so foreign that Intourist at the airport gave us no choice of hotel - it had to be the Soyuz, way out in the suburbs, where we had to pay in advance. 
Next day we took a smelly taxi to Red Square where there was a long queue of what looked like Russians waiting to file through Lenin's tomb. We went instead to St Basil's which, with its fantastic and colourful domes and turrets, looked very out of place against the high, brick walls of the Kremlin. It's all small chapels inside, not like a cathedral at all, and very disorientating. And of course it's a museum now.

I needed the loo then, and it was a mission to find anywhere. We ended up trying to get into the Hotel Rossiya, blocked by one of the suspicious armed guards who were absolutely everywhere. I was finally allowed in, without my bag. So it was unexpected, after wandering across the Moskva River and back again, to find ourselves entering, unimpeded, the grounds of the Kremlin. The cathedrals/museums in there were pretty spectacular, but we were most fascinated by a soda-water vending machine that filled a glass you washed beforehand.

We did an Intourist bus tour then around the city. Our guide was a uniquely slim and pretty young woman - honestly, all the other women we saw, like the men, were very fat and very dowdy. Everything looked neat and tidy, though that might just have been because of the Olympics, and despite Stalin's architectural efforts, overall it seemed a pretty city. 

Later, after a very average dinner, we went out into the rainy evening to watch the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. Squashed in the crowd, I heard everyone suddenly fall silent, and then the hissing tramp of boots on wet cobbles - very creepy. Three guards goose-stepped into view, paused by the tomb while the Kremlin clock struck the hour, and then swapped with the old guard with such machine-like precision that they made the Buckingham Palace lot look positively sloppy.

Next day we walked past people queuing to buy manky cauliflowers to brave the Metro into the city, and were very impressed by its meticulous cleanliness, cheap fares, and the stateliness of the marble stations. 

Back in Red Square, we went into Gumm, which looked elegant from outside, but inside was dripping with rain through the roof windows. We'd expected a department store, but it was instead three floors of tiny shops, many of them with very bare shelves. There were still plenty of shoppers, though, who seemed to have no concept of personal space, and bumped into me a lot. We saw lots of queues - one, of 40-50 people, was for toothbrushes.

We wandered along Gorky Street where we found actual department stores but they didn't have much for sale, and most of that anyway was behind counters so you couldn't see it properly. The rain didn't help, of course, but honestly, wandering the city streets was a depressing experience. Then our taxi driver got into a rage when we asked to be taken to the airport, and threw us out of his car; and when we got there finally, there was more tension throughout the departure process. We had to open our suitcases, the OH's books attracting much suspicion; and then at passport control the officer inspected every single page of my passport, and the OH had to give a specimen signature to prove he was himself.

It was a huge relief to board the SAS plane to Sweden, and this time we felt like applauding as it took off, suddenly realising how tense we had been the whole time in Moscow. It was interesting to see the city, but no fun at all. We were astonished how uptight everything was, and couldn't understand how they were going to cope during the Olympics. Stately buildings apart, everything also seemed so poor and basic, and even if it hadn't rained, my impression would still have been of universal greyness.

Since then, of course, oligarchs have become a thing, though I'm sure their riches are/were the exception. Life probably did become freer and more colourful for the general population for a while there; and certainly St Petersburg became a go-to destination, especially for cruisers. Now, though, with all the sanctions being imposed internationally, Russia will be going backwards. Tough for the people. Shame Putin won't feel it.

Shackleton, yes - but also Worsley

It's lovely to be distracted from all the horrible world news by the discovery in Antarctica, 3000m underneath the increasingly solid surface of the Weddell Sea, of the amazingly well-preserved wreck of the Endurance. It sank in 1915, on an ill-judged voyage towards a crossing of the continent by Ernest Shackleton - he was strongly advised not to go, because winter had started early that year, but he was stubborn and went anyway, with his crew of 27 men, 69 dogs and one cat.

The discovery was announced on the 100th anniversary of Shackleton's funeral, in South Georgia, where he had gone again to attempt another Antarctic expedition, his fourth. He died in Grytviken of a second heart attack, the first having happened in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil en route to South Georgia - which he had brushed aside. Antarctica does that to you, you know - gets under your skin, draws you back, won't let go.

I'd go there again like a shot, offered the chance. It's unique, stunningly beautiful, and pitilessly inhospitable. On my Silversea cruise there, despite it being so expensive (*cough* to regular punters, not freebie-grabbing travel writers like me), several of the passengers guests had already been there at least once.

We visited Shackleton's grave there, and toasted 'The Boss' with a glass of champagne; and later visited dauntingly barren and rocky Elephant Island, where his crew had clung for four and a half unimaginably brutal months while awaiting rescue. That they were indeed all saved is due in huge part to the comparatively-unsung hero Frank Worsley - of Akaroa, NZ - who managed to navigate their little lifeboat in almost impossible conditions over 1300 stormy kilometres to South Georgia, to summon a ship for rescue. 

It's also thanks to Worsley's excellent mapping skills that the discoverers of the Endurance knew to look in pretty much the right place for the wreck. And, another Kiwi connection, one of the photography team who took these amazing images is James Blake, son of Sir Peter, famous sailor, who was killed by pirates while on an expedition up the Amazon. In Brazil.

PS While writing this entry, a Silversea email popped into my inbox about - you guessed it - expedition cruises to polar regions, focussing on a giant petrel feeding frenzy in South Georgia and Zodiac explorations in Antarctica. Connections, people.


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