Thursday, 18 July 2019

Travel, then and now

Yesterday I was asked for a contribution to a newspaper feature about travel scams and, happily, had nothing to offer - apart from the story behind this photo, which pre-dates by decades the very word 'scam'. I wrote about it a couple of years ago here so I won't bore you with the details again, regular 😃 reader.

Looking it up though in the 1977 travel diary I wrote religiously and amazingly copiously at the time, I got sucked into reading a large section of it and, amongst many other amazements that include how innocent I was, how emotional and open - try scaling those walls today, reader, and brace yourself for the boiling oil - it was the sheer old-fashionedness of travel then that astonishes me now.

Yes, yes, the letter thing is an obvious one - such a slow and antiquated way to keep in touch (also, so time-consuming, writing those things out by hand). But, given the abysmal state of the postal service today, it was actually remarkably efficient. I kept anal account of all my letters written and received - using POSTE RESTANTE, people! - and noted that one of them, from NZ to Singapore, took only two days to arrive. Phenomenal. Plus the Poste Restante people would forward mail to the next address when you moved on.

As a counter-balance, though, telephone calls had to be booked at the PO or International Telephone Exchange, and cost money as soon as someone picked up the (landline) receiver at the other end, even if it wasn't the person you wanted to speak to. And when I changed my travel plans and sent a telegram ahead to my aunt in England, twenty words (I would be more succinct today) cost me over $20! That is Singapore dollars, though - US$8.50. But still plenty for me then, when I could buy myself dinner for S$2.60.
There's a lot in the diary about money. How expensive things were (and also how cheap), how I was always running out of cash - it wasn't always easy to find someone to cash a traveller's cheque even then - and lots of dithering about presents. Choosing, buying, wrapping and posting them took so much time and money, totally out of proportion I'm sure to the pleasure they gave to the bemused recipients back home. That's a weakness I haven't succumbed to for a long time - when I first started travel writing, I soon trained even my kids not to expect pressies when I came back, for exactly those reasons. I know. Harsh.

I had downtime in Perth, when I thought I'd try to catch up on news from home. I had to go to the State Research Library and request the latest newspaper they had, at the desk - and was given a copy of the Auckland Herald that was ten days old.

There are a couple of sad comments about seeing things I would have liked to photograph, but had run out of film; and a wondering comment about buying a couple of 36-exposure films from an in-town duty free store, and being given them in a sealed plastic bag to take away with me. That was the opposite of sending a postcard at the GPO in Jakarta, where I watched the stamp stuck on with glue at the counter and then was directed to carry it through into the cavernous back region to witness it being franked, so it wouldn't be literally ripped off - before being thrown into a huge and overflowing sack. I still have no idea if that one arrived.

Buses, trains and planes were polluted by smokers - even with pipes! - and you had to pay to access headphones to watch the movie that was shown on a big screen at the front of the cabin. On the other hand, when I bought a 20cm long sharp bronze paper knife during a stop-over in Bangkok, I was able to carry it back onto the plane...

But one thing hasn't changed. I still lose track of the days.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Getting the hump about cricket

In a novel turn for me, who lives a life of enviably self-regulated ease with a complete lack of work-related stress, I had to eschew my usual leisurely morning routine in order to meet an urgent deadline. I know! So unreasonable.
It was my own fault, having spotted a hook for a story, and pitching it to one of my editors. (Does that jargon make me sound like a proper journalist? Ha! Fooled you.) She then took me up on it and wanted it straight away, since the subject was actually news, of sorts: that the Hump Ridge Track in Fiordland has been added to the golden list of New Zealand's Great Walks. 
Regular 😃 readers will recall that I did this walk a few years ago and was lucky enough to strike lovely weather - by no means a given, in Fiordland, where annual rainfall is literally measured in metres. It was a really enjoyable tramp, starting with a helicopter ride across the bay and including two lodges, wine, venison, hot-smoked salmon, a hand-knitted hot-water bottle cover, 20km of much-appreciated boardwalk, lots of birds, spectacular views and some wonderfully picturesque sculpted tors reflected in still tarns. As well as lots of walking, scrambling, climbing, puffing and sweating, natch. It fully deserves its new status.
Sadly, though, it pipped the also-gorgeous Queen Charlotte Track to the title. Regular etc will remember that I did the first day of that tramp not so long ago, and was most taken with it - though the chance and, in NZ highly unusual, meeting with a couple of deer made it especially memorable. (Today's connection: the only other time I've met deer was the young white tail I surprised on Stewart Island on a ramble around the bays - where I went on the very same trip that I did Hump Ridge.)
Driven by the deadline, I worked solidly and filed the story, plus its images - always the most time-consuming bit of the whole process, by the way, since I've never yet had the self-discipline to sort my photos on return from a trip, so that they're selected, edited and captioned all ready to go when I need them. Yay, all done. And then the editor emails back: er, sorry, no room on the homepage today, something to do with cricket...* Sigh.
* Cricket World Cup, dear reader - strictly speaking, Men's Cricket World Cup, since the women's one has been and gone already. NZ v ENG at Lords, two draws and a subsequent debatable (and inevitably much debated) ruling giving it to England. The mere fact that I - me! - am writing these words at all tells you everything you need to know about the super-saturation this event has received here, despite taking place in the middle of the night.

UPDATE: Finally!

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Blatantly, and - ideally - chillingly, entitled

I like to think that my stories are pretty easy reading, and I feel particularly comfortable about being able to write an opening that sucks the reader in, but - titles? Mine just suck, full stop. I find it really hard to write something apt and catchy, frequently succumbing to the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of alliteration, and they rarely make it past the subbing process. Usually the editor, much more practised at such things than I am, comes up with something heaps catchier. But not today, for my Viking Sun story in the Sunday Star-Times.

Sun - eclipse: yes, I see that of course.  But even though It's obvious and pedestrian and absolutely the sort of thing that I might eventually have come up with myself, all inspiration sapped by producing the story itself (my only possible excuse), I would never have written it - because it's just not true. One full day on a mid-level ship sailing between Auckland and Wellington? Yes, it was nice, and they did everything properly, and I didn't write anything I wouldn't stand by, but... "hard to eclipse"? Yeah, nah.

Sorry, Viking, but I've sailed with Silversea, to Alaska, to Montreal, to North Cape,  to Antarctica! All those destinations are what I call properly hard to eclipse - so hard, in the case of Antarctica, that it has actually kind of sapped my enthusiasm for any subsequent cruising. You can keep your Mediterranean, your Pacific Islands, even your Caribbean. The only thing that would really er, float my boat these days is deep Arctic - Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, northern Canada. And I would want to do it on a smaller ship even than Viking Sun's 980 passengers. Half that is the maximum, thanks, preferably even less. Not fussed about fancy restaurants, big shows, pillow menus, all that - just a bit higher standard of living than I have at home will do nicely, plus cold and spectacular scenery, please. 

And *cough* for free, natch. Because I've just sold my SEVENTH Silversea Antarctica story to a fifth publication/website, bringing the total readership/coverage up to around 2.5 million. I think that's a decent return, don't you, Silversea/Seabourn/Windstar/National Geographic?

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

R D Robinson for God (unquote)

I've just finished reading When Running Made History by Roger Robinson. I'm not a runner. I was pretty fast as a kid, but that was very long ago, and now I rarely do even the downhill jogs that were an integral part of my morning routine until Tom Cruise ruined that for me (if you want to hear that story, you'll have to ask, regular 😃 reader).

No, the initial reason I read the book was purely because RDR was one of my lecturers at Canterbury University back in 1974, and the one who made the greatest impression on me during the whole four years I was at varsity. He was different from the others: English, droll, effortlessly learned, but also lean and fit. He made academia seem glamorous. It also helped that the subject was English III - The Novel, and he was lecturing us on Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Our Mutual Friend and North & South, amongst others. That sort of brilliance would reflect well on anyone. But Dr Robinson was so comfortable in those writers' company, so familiar with them, so clear-eyed about their failings, and also so honestly admiring of their achievements, that they all merged together, members of some enviable club of literary greatness which we mere students just peered in at through the windows. 

I wasn't the only one smitten. I know of others who worked tenuous references to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner into their essays about the narrative role of Nelly Dean, or didacticism in nineteenth-century literature, in the hope of ingratiating themselves with a man we all knew ran marathons. I never stooped so low. So I've never forgotten going to his office to pick up my marked (handwritten!) essay and getting a grin and a "Super-good!" as he handed it over. And I kept the essay, warmed to the core by the margin comment about my style, and the final one about my cogent argument and fluent writing. The sliding off-topic criticism, not so much; though it was, and still is, accurate, I'm perfectly comfortable with admitting. I've made it my thing, actually.

Anyway, the book. I'm not going to review it properly, because that would be stretching the remit of this blog - but it is entertaining, and interesting, and very readable, and much more relevant to non-runners than you might expect. RDR (can't call him Roger. Or Robinson) traces the growth of running as, originally, an eccentric past-time/obsession mostly through his own lifetime but with historical references, right up to the present where it's both an unremarkable everyday habit and an important sport. He shows how running links with, demonstrates, even drives, some important social changes during that time. What really makes the story riveting, though, is his fortuitously - or possibly not - being on the spot for a number of major events - not just world record-breaks, but internationally pivotal things like the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings.

So that's interesting whoever you are - but, for me, there's the extra enjoyment of so many of the places he mentions where he's run, or reported on running, being part of my life experience, too. From Wellington to Ross-on-Wye, Central Park to Hyde Park, Rome to Sydney, Kenya to Christchurch - every couple of pages, there was a ping! of recognition, and instant mental transportation. And that, of course, is what this blog is about, eh: connections.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Seoul, Day Four - A long walk and then a long sit

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil.

Saturday today, so we got off to a later start – the shops don’t open till 10am at weekends here. We drove north again, along wide avenues and past some amazing buildings, including one big silver job that was all curves – a stadium of fashion, apparently. It was a high-end area with some very fancy shops, but our aim was Insadong market, a pedestrian street with offshoots – arty, quirky, colourful. There was a private Toy Museum with a life-size Homer and Marge outside, and small models of Wallace and Gromit inside amongst thousands of others. We passed a takeaway cocktail stall, a handmade traditional porcelain doll studio, lovely individual fashion shops (tailored exclusively for those with waists, sadly), bags, shoes – and, our first stop, a cat café.

Of course these are everywhere now, even in Auckland, but it turns out variations on this are a big thing in Seoul – there’s a sheep café, a raccoon one, reptiles, puppies and, we discovered a bit later, meerkats. We had a look at that one, and it wasn’t good – their raccoon was missing his tail, a lemur in a cage was agitated, and the meerkats were penned in a glass room. This cat one was nice, though – prettily decorated and inhabited by about a dozen mostly bored cats, some rescued, some donated. There was a munchkin, a hairless one, various coloured shorthairs, and one immensely fat cat who, they told us delightedly, weighed 7kg. That was a bit confronting, since mine at home recently weighed in at 7.5 – but he looks nowhere near as fat as this one. It’s all muscle!

We stroked and gave ear scratchies, drank our coffee, and moved on. I think the cat cafés are ok, knowing cats, but can’t approve of the others, which are just too unnatural. We carried on wandering along the streets and alleys, past an extraordinary number of skin-care shops where masks were the big thing. Not just face masks, but masks for lips, feet, thighs, bellies, buttocks and even breasts. We were given samples of face masks made from snails, even. Not sure that stuff would ever wash off.

We passed through an area of big glass buildings, street sculpture, neat landscaping, and it was all immaculate, despite there being no litter bins anywhere – honestly, I carried a paper wrapper for an hour before finding somewhere to leave it. We crossed over a small river that runs below road level through the city for about 14km, that long ago was built over, until one forward-thinking mayor decided, against strong public opinion, to resurrect it at huge expense. Now it’s just lovely – a natural-looking shallow river bubbling along over rocks, fringed with trees and well-used paths each side, and everybody loves it, especially in summer when they come down for a cooling paddle.

All that walking had got us a bit peckish, so Sue took us into a very ordinary café for dumplings. We should have realised from the long queue for takeaways outside that it was a little gem. We squeezed inside and around the worktable where people were kneading, rolling and shaping dough, up a steep wooden staircase and into a small room crowded with Formica tables, almost every place taken by women. They shuffled along though and we were able to sit down and wait for Sue’s choice of our dumplings to be delivered – which they were, very quickly.

There are few things less appetising, to my eye, than Asian dumplings: pale and sweaty: they never look cooked, and are totally untempting. Also, tricky to handle with slippery stainless steel chopsticks – but turns out it’s worth the effort. They were so yummy! Just the right level of spicy, and the fillings really tasty. We all ate far more than we’d intended, and Simon actually said it was the best food he’d had all trip – which was a bit of an insult to Dosa, the Michelin-featured restaurant, and the famous Bamboo House, but there you go. The people's food, eh? Hard to beat.

We kept walking, and eventually emerged from the maze of shopping streets back at the big avenue, by a gateway pavilion and section of the old city wall, and in amongst the traffic again, where faithful Mr Kim was waiting in the van, summoned by the super-efficient Sue. She was so good, friendly and well-informed and organised, she really did make our brief flit to Seoul feel like a proper visit, and gave us a proper handle on the city. But her job was now over, so we hugged and said goodbye back at the hotel.

The others were beginning their IATA conference stuff, so I sloped off to check out the reptile café – tortoises, lizards, a snake, check – which looked like more of a pet shop really, and then got sucked back into the Starfield mall beneath the COEX centre.

It’s vast – wide, airy halls past endless shops, many of them Western, and busy with well-dressed people. I went back to the free library Sue had shown us on the first day, and the art installation that was then draped in white plastic was now on display: shimmering rainbow panes in a big circle. Very lovely. As were the cakes in the little shop up on the mezzanine. There were people there to watch a grand piano recital but, truly, most were either doing homework at the desks or simply sitting reading books. It was good to see.

I also caught a K-pop concert near the food hall: two groups, one boys, one girls, doing all the moves to that catchy music, watched by tiers of fans. That K-pop thing, it’s so much more than the music – it’s an industry. We saw band names and faces everywhere, advertising everything from biscuits to face masks. I understand that exploitation of the artists has been/even is, a thing in some cases. The companies behind them are huge.

And then that was that: time for me to head home. Mr Kim picked me up, and we had a good run out to the airport, 1hr 10, and I enjoyed seeing those magnificent bridges again in the evening sunshine. Not so impressed to notice a Trump tower this time. My flight with Singapore Airlines left promptly at 11.45pm, and I slept despite being in a restricted-recline economy seat. Five hours later at Changi I triumphantly secured my tentatively-promised business class seat, and spent the Air New Zealand flight home in my own little lie-flat pod, mothered by the friendly cabin staff. I ate lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, all of it very nice, had a sleep, watched a boxed set of The Good Place, and arrived back in Auckland safe and sound at 10.25pm. 

Friday, 31 May 2019

Seoul, Day Three - Serious and silly

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil

Today guide Sue really came into her own. She rearranged our programme to avoid the crowds, took us straight to the important bits, and showed us fun things we would certainly have missed on our own. Plus, she talked to us candidly and thoughtfully about South Korea's history and politics, and gave our fleeting visit to Seoul much more depth than it would otherwise have had.

We started the day by driving across the Han River to the northern part of the city, and up Namsan, a steep and wooded hill, to the N Seoul Tower. The tower itself is 240m high, and has a great view of Seoul, which is vast - and also surprisingly green, despite all the apartment buildings and towers. And all around are rocky peaks and wooded hills, much of it well-used national parks. The observation deck (enclosed) has windows with helpful captions on - and also foreign city names and distances, on the appropriate sides. It was, I confess it, a thrill to see Auckland and Wellington included (we are very used to New Zealand being overlooked). Sue pointed out the sights, including surviving sections of the ancient city wall, and then took us to the toilets - honestly, the most fun bit of all. The cubicles' outer walls are glass, so you can sit there and gaze down at the city nearly 500m below - which might help with proceedings, possibly. Or the opposite.

Outside there was a section for the cliché lovers' padlock thing, completely over the top and really just a photo op - of which there were many today. It's early summer here and the trees are in fresh leaf, with a beautiful cluster of bronze maples contrasting with the green. Sue said in autumn the hill is at its busiest - very beautiful, but more visitors than leaves. As we walked back down to the car, we were delighted to hear, and see, a cuckoo calling loudly above us.

Then we headed along the motorway out of the city, past the World Cup stadium from 2002, through the DMC - Digital Media Centre, that tells you a lot about South Korea's economy - and under a bridge with a huge billboard on it depicting futuristic-looking soldiers. I thought it was a video game ad, but it's actually promoting the army, and the bridge itself is designed to be blown up in case of invasion from the north, to prevent entry to the city. Sobering stuff, and an appropriate introduction to our focus for the day: the DMZ.

After a fresh and dainty multi-course lunch served in small dishes at a pretty little fusion restaurant Sue chose, we continued along beside the Han River into the country past neatly-planted rice paddies. All very rural and pleasant - but then we turned to follow the Imjin River, which is separated from the road by a continuous high wire fence topped with coils of razor wire, with regular security cameras on high poles, and wooden guard huts, all facing north. It looked distinctly grim, so it was disconcerting to stop next at a funfair with rides and games. But that was where we transferred to our bus to the DMZ, in which, after passport checks and head counts, we drove over the Unification Bridge, zigzagging round a series of barriers at each end.

Our first stop was at the futuristic Dorasan railway station which was built to serve passengers travelling between South and North Korea, and, eventually enable people to travel by train from Seoul all the way to Paris. But of course politics have got in the way, it's been repeatedly opened and closed, and currently sits unused, a sad symbol of hope and the unfulfilled dream of unification. Inside there's a display of framed photographs showing leaders' handshakes and grins - but no progress.

The bus then took us to the Dora Observatory, a sleek and modern building on top of a hill, where Sue whisked us up to the open area on the roof with a row of telescopes. We looked across rolling green countryside and the river into North Korea, to a distant city and beyond it wooded hills, all hazy in the sunshine. We could see the South's tall flagpole, and the North's even taller one. It was just countryside, the same on each bank of the river, the north not bristling with fortifications, or laid bare - just a continuation of what is, or should be, the same country.

It was all a little anticlimactic, to be honest. I'd expected soldiers, guns, bare earth, fortifications, but more than anything it was a slick tourist operation, efficiently shuffling hundreds of visitors through newly-built halls every day. There was one soldier - a life-size cutout in fatigues, for posing with. If we'd been able to visit the JSA - Joint Security Area - where the blue buildings are and the table that straddles the border, it would have been more dramatic; but it's more often than not closed to the public, and was today.

Back on the bus, we were taken next to Tunnel 3, where Sue rushed us into a theatre to catch most of an excitable video telling the story of the discovery of four tunnels dug from the north, as a means of sneaking south to invade. There were maps with arrows, converging lines, and explosions over Seoul, and the bald statement that there are without doubt other undiscovered tunnels. And then the narrator suddenly switched to saying how the wildlife had benefited from the 4km-wide exclusion zone, where the animals and birds can flourish undisturbed. So that's all right, then.

We left all our gear in a locker, got helmets, and set off down the steeply sloping chute that's been dug to take visitors to a section of the original tunnel. This is roughly hacked out of the stone, with yellow paint showing where the dynamite used in their construction has been detected. The tunnel was narrow, steep, low, damp and claustrophobic, with every so often disturbing perspex cases of gas masks for emergency use. Right at the bottom was a concrete wall, and an electronic counter showing the number of days since the Armistice in 1953 - it read 24,000-something. There was also a security camera, which swivelled as not one, but two men took their forbidden cellphones out of their pockets, and took forbidden photos.

Of course - remember, I used to be a teacher, and rules are rules - I told Sue on them when we rejoined her at the top, and she told the guards, but they had missed seeing it on the bank of TV screens above them, so the perps got away with it. Peeving - I would have liked to take photos myself, but instead I did as I was told.

Naturally, we exited the DMZ through the gift shop, where we could have bought bags of DMZ rice, or DMZ soybeans, or packs of DMZ chocolate, or DMZ anything else, it seemed. Commerce rules, after all.

And that was that for the Demilitarised Zone. We drove all the way back into Seoul again, having a long and interesting talk with Sue about Korea's past, present and ideal future, and learning lots of unexpected facts - for instance, that young men in the south must do 18 months in the army, but in the north, it's ten years, and seven for women. And you have to dress neatly to visit the JSA because North Korea likes to take photos of people in fashionably-distressed jeans to show their people how badly the West is doing. We got stuck, inevitably, in traffic as we neared the city again - but were compensated by low golden sun lighting up the splendid bridges across the Han, the riverside parks where people played basketball and tennis, and walked their dogs, and lit up the tower blocks and wonderfully varied skyscrapers. It was a beautiful evening, and entirely compensated for the traffic jams.

It made us late, though, so it was a rush to get out for dinner at Bamboo House, the venue that had made Sue audibly gasp when we told her about it yesterday. We did a bit of gasping ourselves on the taxi ride there: we'd been stuck motionless in a jam for quite some time, and were cheerfully chatting amongst ourselves when the driver suddenly snapped and, without saying a word, suddenly wrenched the car onto the other side of the road, nearly collecting a pedestrian, and shot through an narrow gap, ending up nose-to-nose with another car coming the other way. It was a stand-off, then the other car backed off and our driver gunned away and around a corner to the restaurant, which was fortunately not far away. 

But all was calm and friendly at Bamboo House, where we were shown into a separate room with a long table set with barbecue grills. We were served entrées of bean soup, salad, pancakes and sauces, and then the main course arrived: two sorts of steak cooked by our chatty waiters (one of whom had lived in Auckland), cut up with scissors and served, sizzling, to us. Delicious. And of course the traditional drink of soju helped - 25% proof rice wine mixed with beer. I would happily have stopped at the steak, but then came noodle soup and dried fish, and finally yoghurt with berries.

It had been a long day, and we were now full to bursting, but it wasn't bedtime yet. Karaoke is a Korean obsession, and so we wandered along the busy street to find a karaoke bar. The first one required that we bought two bottles of whisky to hire the room and equipment, but the second was more reasonable and we had beers in a dark room with a spangly light, a screen and remote, two microphones and two tambourines. It was my first karaoke experience but the others were old hands, and we were soon scoring as high as 99 with songs from Abba to A-ha, by way of the Beatles and Beyoncé. It was fun, but one session was enough for two of us and we headed home, courtesy of yet another crazy taxi driver, while the others kept going, went to bars, were amazed by the increasing crowds of young people on the streets as the night wore on, and equally shocked by the drunkenness, and finally got back to the hotel at 3am.

Sad in Seoul

Oh dear. I've just woken up here in Seoul, and heard on RNZ radio news about the sightseeing boat sunk on the Danube in the centre of Budapest, killing seven South Korean tourists, with 21 still missing, currently. That's a bunch of connections I'd rather not have had.

I've both done a similar sightseeing cruise in Budapest - during the day, up the river, under those impressive bridges, past the magnificent Parliament building, possibly even in the Mermaid itself, it's entirely possible - and also begun a Danube cruise there on a river boat like the one that hit the smaller vessel. My cruise was with Avalon, but Viking is a company I'm familiar with, having recently had a few days on board one of their ocean cruisers, Viking Sun, from Auckland to Wellington. I can so very easily imagine it all happening - that is one busy river. And also one that has seen so much human tragedy, much of it caused by people, just like today.

Of course the local news on TV is all over it - all the passengers were from South Korea - and everyone here will be shocked and saddened. What a horrific thing to happen. I'm so sorry.


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