Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Feeling responsible

Sometimes I wonder whether I've got this blog back to front. That it's not about going places and finding connections with it for ever after. That, actually, my going somewhere is the kiss of death for that place and it is automatically doomed to suffer some sort of disaster in fairly short order. Fires, floods, earthquakes, shootings, terrorist attacks - they've all happened in places I'd recently visited.

Louisiana's on my mind, of course: much of it under water right now, even more than normal for such a swampy place. Even though disastrous floods are pretty much a news staple these days, just the location changing, the footage of brown water right up to the eaves of houses makes pretty grim viewing. And by now everyone must have seen that amazing rescue from a sinking car of not only the woman driver, but her little dog as well. I see that Lafayette and New Iberia have been badly affected, the Vermilion River very far from living up to its name. I'm wondering about the beautiful plantation house I visited in New Iberia, Shadows-on-the-Teche, built right next to the bayou which even when I was there was running pretty high.
I've just been writing about Louisiana this week, about the loop I took through the state, by train from Houston down to Lafayette, and then on to New Orleans, and by bus up north through St Francisville and Alexandria and Shreveport back into Texas at Dallas. Water was a constant all the way: swamps, rivers, bayous, lakes. Recent rains meant I didn't see any alligators in the Atchafalaya Swamp because all their sunbathing banks were under water - I can only imagine now how high the water must be.
I read about a woman trapped in her house who battled for ages to break through the wall to escape, using just a screwdriver and a saw. Crumbs, having been to the Katrina exhibition at the Presbytere in New Orleans, even I know you need to keep an axe in the attic in Louisiana. If only to beat off the gators...

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cheers to Oregon hospitality

Most of a travel writer's life - like any writer's, really - is solitary. The writing part is self-explanatory, but add to that the nuts and bolts of the travel bit: all the standing, sitting, walking and eating alone; plus holding your own in a guide-plus-just-you scenario, which can get wearing on a multi-day trip. But occasionally there are social episodes, like on a group famil (only if the group gels well, though, which doesn't always happen), and at events like yesterday's lunch in Ponsonby.
Travel Oregon were our hosts this time, and very welcoming they were too. The media gatherings that I get invited to (separate from the travel agent do's - they have different requirements and priorities) are usually held in a bar or restaurant, involve name badges, business card lucky dips, free-flowing drinks, plenty of food, not too much in the way of speechifying, and a bag of gifts.
Since it's Oregon, and there can't be anyone now who doesn't know about Portland's craft beer culture, there was plenty of beer and beer talk, and an associated rise in the amount and volume of non-beer talk. I enjoyed the beer, especially the Bridgeport Kingpin red ale, and even the stout - though the suggestion of taking it with a scoop of icecream in it was more alarming than enticing, for me. Wine is a thing there too now, but the focus was on the brown stuff for this event, so I only got a taste of the pinot noir and too fleeting a glimpse of the label to identify it - but it was very nice too.
Of course there were sliders - when are there not, these days (and that isn't a complaint) - and pulled pork and beef, plus Dungeness crab cakes and chicken in hot sauce, and salads and yummy super-crispy chips, and lots more good stuff like salmon chowder. It was a feast, the most food I've eaten in one go since Christmas, so well done Travel Oregon and Ponsonby Central.

I was lucky to win a prize, my third this year after the Keith Urban-signed guitar in New Orleans, and a trip to Indonesia at another event of this sort (which probably isn't going to happen because it's travel agent-focused, see above) - so I suppose that's it for the year. This time it was a really stylish pair of wooden-framed sunglasses, and a hoodie. Again, thank you, Travel Oregon.
I was invited because I've made it known that I would like to go there next year, so I hope it happens. Coast, mountains, forest, good food, wine and beer - yes, I know we've got all that here in NZ, just as accessibly; but it's bigger there, and the flavours are all different, and there's bound to be lots besides that's properly unique, so I hope it happens. Especially so I can get a chance to hoe into more of that delicious gourmet Moose Munch popcorn. Chocolate coated, y'all*!
*Yes, I know that's southern, but it's a hard habit to break.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Whanganui: why not?

I dunno. When your mission is to give tourism publicity to a place that's generally considered to be a bit of a backwater, is it a good idea to meet your media guests at the airport with a row of vintage cars? It was certainly a novelty to be driven into town in a 1938 Dodge (I wasn't important enough for the 1975 gold Rolls Royce - the TV people got that one) though it made me very twitchy not to have a seat belt - just as well it's less than a 10-minute drive. Where it paid off, though, was in introducing me to Keith, the first of a dayful of super-enthusiastic locals who were hell-bent on selling the town to me.
Next was Mark, in his flash new Jag, who was to show me around. He's a born and bred local, and spent much of our drives tooting and waving at friends, and winding down the window to say hello. Clearly, Whanganui is a Waiheke sort of place. Much older, though - in fact, one of NZ's oldest towns - and with a real wealth of heritage buildings. How much wealth? Eleven percent, that's how much. I heard that figure more than once. Certainly, the town centre is full of pretty Victorian and Edwardian buildings in brick, stone and plaster: colourful, stately and ornate. A little too ornate, however - the locals have been cursing Christchurch roundly since 2011, when that city's quakes led to stringent - and expensive - earthquake strengthening regulations throughout the country.
The town centre wasn't on my itinerary, however, and nor were the Sarjeant Art Gallery, the Moutoa Gardens, the Opera House, museum, Observatory, or, to my real regret, any of the many and talented local glass artists. No, I went out to the Havoc Coffee Roastery to meet Sheryl, who cheerfully admits to her addiction and told me how the beans pop, like corn, as they roast. It certainly smelled good, but I didn't get a taste.
Next I met Rennie, at Bushy Park which is a lovely old 1906 homestead out in the country, in the middle of a predator-free wildlife sanctuary of native bush that was full of birds, including a noisy saddleback. On a winter's day the house looked lovely, all high ceilings, varnished wood, tall fireplaces and a gorgeous leaded light window in the entrance hall - but boy, it was chilly. George Moore designed it for efficient ventilation, to help his TB. It's a characterful homestay, but I recommend a summer visit.
Lunch at the Union Boatshed followed, the walls lined with ornamental oars and framed photos of men in caps. Whanganui's other name (apart from Wanganui, which is still the source of much grumpiness from old white males) is the River City, and it certainly features strongly in daily life - as the reason for the city's existence, for sport, for tourism, as a flooding threat. Industry too, as I discovered at Q-West boat builders, about which I posted yesterday.
Everyone knows about the Durie Hill elevator, which was built in 1919 and is still running, on request. Zena is in charge, and has been for 45 years, clanking up and down the 66 metre shaft for 12 days out of every 14 until recently sharing the job with her daughter. Kids take it up to school with their bikes, pedalling along the 213 metre tunnel - and then back again at the end of the day. The school forbids them from riding down the hill because it's so steep. It wasn't always so white: there was a painting by Rolf Harris at the entranceway until relatively recently, when it became an embarrassment. There's a couple of towers at the top.
We finished the day with Witerina Koopa, who welcomed us into the highly-decorated St Paul's Memorial Church at Putiki, as full of Maori carvings, tukutuku and kowhaiwhai panels as the one at Tikitiki on East Cape. Photos weren't allowed, but in compensation, Witerina's talk about the various features inside was interesting.

So that was Whanganui. There's also unemployment there, some crime, gangs and empty shops - but it's still worth a visit, I reckon. I'd be happy to spend a bit more time there.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Lafayette link

I bet you never thought I'd be able to connect Waiheke, Whanganui and Lafayette, Louisiana. Nor did I, until a minute ago, when I was researching a boat-building company that I visited yesterday in Whanganui, a town of around 40,000 on the coast down the line. I went there on a junket to publicise the first flight from Auckland to WAG by Air Chathams, which has taken over a route abandoned by Air New Zealand because they're much too busy and important to bother with Whanganui any more.
Despite having to get up at 5am to catch the first Fullers ferry of the day into the city, and then the Skybus, and then the little Saab twin-prop that took us to Whanganui, 50 minutes south; and then reverse it all at the end of the day with the added excitement of missing my ferry by two whole minutes and having to wait an hour and a half for the next one, it was a good day. Whanganui is full of enthusiastic locals who are keen to spread the word that the town is worth a visit, and we were treated very well. They took us all in different directions, and one of my visits wasn't tourist-focused at all, but actually turned out to be pretty much the highlight.
Q-West is a boat-building company in a couple of big sheds down by the Whanganui River, and there I was introduced to the two new catamarans that will be Fullers' newest boats on the Waiheke service. They're being pieced together like some huge and immensely complicated puzzle from variously-shaped and -sized bits of aluminium, and while one doesn't look anything like a boat yet, the other that is meant to be finished for November is quite excitingly recognisable. We walked underneath and then up and through it, into the cabins, past the bar, out onto the bow, up to the bridge, and then even further up, onto the new roof level that the last new boat it's modelled on, Te Kotuku, doesn't have.
These new ones, with the extra space, can carry 401 passengers - that's 63 fewer people to be left stranded on the jetty in the height of the summer season, which has to be a good thing, eh Fullers? There were men welding and sanding, up ladders and lying on their stomachs, and it was remarkable to see what 44 people can achieve in a year, and interesting too, to look at the bare bones of a boat I'll be spending plenty of time sitting on in the future, standing at that bar, climbing those stairs, leaning on those rails.

Oh, and the Lafayette connection? The Australian company that designed the boats, Incat Crowther, has an office there, not far from the Kaliste Saloom/Pinhook intersection. I drove through there about 6 weeks ago.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Keep travelling

We're living in dispiriting times. Watching the news, reading the paper, they're a real downer these days. What I find makes it worse is the idea behind this blog, Only Connect (thanks, EM) so that when people get mown down on the Promenade des Anglais, or a bomb explodes outside the Blue Mosque, or policemen get shot in Louisiana, I don't just read the words and see the pictures on the screen, I can smell the air and feel the sun on my skin. I know that those people running along the road in panic, or lying bleeding on the ground, or suddenly dead, are people just like me, tourists visiting somewhere they liked the look of, to have a good time and discover new things; or are people who simply live there, doing their jobs, going home at the end of the day to their families, their cats, their homes. Or not.

It's a good thing, I think, to see them as actual people, to be able to identify with them and feel their fear and outrage; not just more faceless victims.We really do need to think that way, hard and tiring though it can be in the face of such a relentless onslaught of horrors everywhere around the world. Sympathy and empathy: those are important but rarely mentioned benefits of travel. That's why we shouldn't cop out and stay at home. Go wherever you fancy. Don't cross Turkey off your list. Doing that would not only mean you're depriving yourself of seeing a beautiful, friendly, interesting country unlike any other; but it also means all those people who depend on tourism for their living - like my Insight Vacations Tour Director, Barcin, who keeps posting hopeful photos of lovely places on Instagram - are victimised too. None of us can let terrorism win.*
*Or even random acts of violence, such as the cinema shooting that I've just been reminded happened a year ago in Lafayette, which I've been describing as a friendly, safe-feeling place in my stories about it. Which it is, of course.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

14 Juillet: Laissez les bon temps rouler!*

C'est aujourd'hui le quatorze juillet et je viens d'être en Louisiane où ils parlent français. That's not just the odd word, like grand or beaucoup flung into an otherwise English sentence, though that happens all the time; or titles for places like Salle de Danse and Presbytère; or even joke French like Geaux Cajuns! or Buy Leauxcal.
No, there are actual Americans who've lived there all their lives, who speak French naturally and as their first language; which is kind of chastening for those of us who take a bit of comfort from what we thought was the fact that being monoglot in an English-speaking country is the default position. Well, it probably is, actually - but when you come across these effortlessly bilingual people, as you certainly will in Louisiana, it's hard not to be envious.
Of course, here in particular it's celebrated as a point of difference, since the locals like to vaunt their separation from the rest of the US both historically - "We're 80 years older," I was told several times - and culturally. Both the Cajuns (descended from the French settlers evicted by the British from Acadia, now Nova Scotia) and the Creoles (locally-born of settler stock originating from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, including native Americans and both slaves and free people of colour, all intermingled) spoke and still use French. Sadly, since its use was forbidden (and punished) in schools after the Constitution of 1921, it's declined as a first language and now it's only the elderly who speak it fluently. Like Wallace here, at Johnson's Boucanière, who greeted us all in French as we arrived on our Cajun Food Tour to try their very tasty Sausage and Tasso with Sauce Piquante.
But they're trying to revive it. I hope they succeed. Bonne chance!

* Yes, this is not correct French - but it's Louisiana French, and they use this sentence all the time, so ne t'en fais pas.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

All praise to the mealworm!

When you visit Lafayette, it's non-negotiable that you go to Vermilionville. It's one of those historical villages that isn't real, but has been built out of genuine old buildings that have been relocated, and others that have been reconstructed. You find them everywhere - we've got them all over the place here in New Zealand - and they're usually worth a leisurely stroll around.
Lafayette's is done with customary thoroughness, the story boards throughout telling you the basics, and the costumed artisans inside filling in with the quirky details. Plus, the grounds are pretty, full of mature trees, gardens and neat lawns, beside the Bayou Vermilion. In June, it was sweltering outside, but inside is cool, not because the original inhabitants succeeded at ventilating their homes - though they tried - but because they cheat with air conditioning, to preserve the furnishings. So I spent most of my time poking around inside the buildings looking at portraits made with human hair, quilts that held secret instructions for escaping slaves, the bath-sieve system (line it with a bed sheet that you can take out to shake off the bits as the entire family takes their turn with the same water) and listening to the impassioned - if hard to understand - speech of a Creole fiddler in the school house where some pre-Bart child has had to write 100 times "I must not speak French".
To be honest, though, the most important bit of information I came away with wasn't historical at all, but a recent, and accidental, discovery. In the building given over to the Bayou Vermilion District's environmental display, I met a ranger who showed me a most astonishing thing: it was an open glass tank, like an aquarium, the inside filled to the top with bits of broken polystyrene. The bottom few inches were taken up with a yellowy, grainy substance. Not very interesting? I tell you, this is SPECTACULAR! (Though, sadly, not so spectacular that I thought to take a photo of it. My bad.)

What was happening here, was that a few handfuls of mealworms, those wriggling invertebrates used for fish food and other lowly functions, were busy living full and productive lives eating nothing but polystyrene and converting it to an organic soil conditioner.  Just think: all that unrecyclable polystyrene clogging up landfills all over the world, floating in rivers and the sea, blowing along city streets, that's been impossible up till now to dispose of in an environmentally-sound manner - IT CAN BE EATEN BY MEALWORMS.

I think that's a huge discovery. Everyone should know about
it. Pass it on.


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