Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Good news is no news - also, probably tempting fate now

I've just written an editorial about how nobody's interested in hearing about your holiday unless it was a disaster. It's true, isn't it? How was your holiday? Lovely. And that's the end of the conversation. None of those supplementary questions I used to coach my kids to ask of their friends' parents when they were playing in their houses, in order to look intelligent/ingratiate themselves. The only people who have the slightest interest in your trip are those who have just been, or are about to go, to the same place, so it's all entirely selfish - especially the first group, who just want to be able to reassure themselves that they had the better time.

Disasters, though. I've had a few - too many, in fact, to fit into 300 words. It was quite fun to recall them. Stand by.

Dislocating my shoulder by jumping off a moving boat in the Norfolk Broads. Falling off a staircase on Waiheke, knocking myself out and breaking my wrist. Tripping and falling down a flight of stone steps at the Red Fort in Delhi, hitting my head (again - explains a lot). Falling into the Tongariro River thirty seconds after setting off on a white-water rafting expedition. Falling over twice on a glacier in Iceland and whacking the same knee each time. Missing the train in Alice Springs and, out of money, having to subsist on a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter for three days till the next one. Getting mugged in Santiago, by having my antique gold chain snatched from my neck from behind by invisible ratbags. Having a man expose himself to me on the street at night in Brisbane as I waited for a bus. Watching my camera cartwheel down a rocky hillside on the Isle of Skye. Dropping a speeding Segway wheel into a pothole in Queenstown and falling off. Being dumped by a wave on Waiheke on two separate occasions and losing my glasses in the surf. Having my husband whisked away by airport authorities and waiting alone for him for half an hour in Moscow. Having to wade thigh-deep through freezing water along the flooded Milford Track. Being followed down a tunnel to an underground market in Delhi by a one-legged, long-haired beggar who was just a creepy silhouette against the light. Having the expedition ship I was on shudder to a halt as it ran aground on a rock. Breaking an arm off my glasses by sleeping on them on a plane and having to wear them like lorgnettes for half a holiday in France. Riding a horse in a bikini (me, not the horse) in South Australia through a shoulder-high thicket of spider webs. Flushing my hire car keys down a public loo in Brisbane, leaving me stranded at night with no money or phone.
There are doubtless more, that I've blotted out of my memory. Still, that's a good enough list to enable shameless name-dropping. Which is what it's all about, really, when you're back from travelling, isn't it? And probably why nobody else (see above) is interested. So what a good thing it is that I'm a travel writer, and get to describe all my trips in great detail, and even get paid [a pittance] for it. Funny, though, isn't it, how there's a call for travel stories in newspapers and magazines, but in person no-one's bothered? Or maybe it's just me...

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Takk, Benedikt Erlingsson

Yesterday I watched 'Woman at War' - a movie made in Iceland, about Halla who is a lone eco-warrior, fighting Rio Tinto. She's resourceful, brave, careful and determined, and a perfect inspirational Waiheke heroine, fighting Big Aluminium and never giving up. 
But I, of course, watched it for the locations. As soon as I saw the trailer, I wanted to see the movie and get a taste again of the five days I spent in Iceland. getting on for a year ago now. And I wasn't disappointed: there was Reykjavik's iconic Hallgrimskirkja, the concrete church on the hill that dominates the skyline. There were the colourful corrugated-iron houses and the narrow hilly streets that I happily trailed around for hours.
There was a scene at Ć¾ingvellir (Thingvellir, to you non-linguists unfamiliar with thorn) on the path beneath the cliff, with the flag flying. I walked along there. All tourists do.
But most of the exterior action took place in the lava fields: vast expanses of mossy rocks surrounding the volcanoes, and how bleak they did look. I was there in summer, when the sun actually shone occasionally (for the first time for six weeks) and the moss was green-gold under a sometimes blue sky, the grass was lush, and everywhere were sheets of purple lupins. This movie though was filmed in autumn or maybe spring, when the sky was grey, the days short, the light muted, and there were no colours. It looked sternly inhospitable country. Still striking, though, with steaming rivers and distant mountains, glaciers, and a big, big sky.
It was so pleasing to see it all again, to hear that incomprehensible language being spoken, recognise a few words, see those tall, well-built people, and remember so clearly the triumph of actually getting to go there.
And the movie was funny, quirky, serious, sweet, clever and unusual. I recommend it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Notre Dame du Monde

I happened to wake very early this morning, and reached out, of course, for my phone, to find out what had happened overnight. And learned that something awful was still happening, in fact - the fire in Notre Dame had only just taken hold, and I was getting tweets and newsflashes that updated me almost instantly with every new, and horrifying, stage of the inferno. I saw that beautiful lacy wooden spire tip, drop and disappear into the flames. I saw the roof collapse. I saw the flames leaping high from the body of the cathedral, and the smoke billowing around the bell towers. And I watched as Parisians stood across the river, and sang hymns together facing the fire still burning in their beautiful old cathedral.
Then I had to write a piece about it for Stuff, so I looked up my old notebooks, delved deep into my photo files, even looked at actual photos dating back to 1978 when I visited Paris for the first time. Enough memory came back for 600 words' worth, and I sent it off, and it was uploaded straight away, in a time-sensitive process that gave me a tiny inkling of how my life might have been as a real journalist. Except, the editor cut the first sentence that - of course - I thought introduced the main idea of the piece. Maybe, though, she just doesn't know French - or reckons the readers don't.
'Notre Dame: the name says it all' was how it should have begun. The point I was hoping to make was that a fire in a cathedral in a country on the other side of the world isn't the remote and irrelevant event that that description implies. The grand buildings of the world belong to us all, enrich us all, whether (ideally) we get to see them in person, or not. They're all ours - Notre Dame, Westminster, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Capitol, the Blue Mosque and all the very many others we are so lucky to have scattered all over the planet. Whatever our nationality, our culture, even our religion, or lack of it, these buildings are part of our heritage as members of homo sapiens (not actually so sure about the sapiens bit these days). We can all recognise the beauty and stateliness of these buildings, and the impressiveness of their design, construction and decoration. We can all take simple human pride in their existence, wherever they are. And we should all be sad when they are damaged. 
Notre Dame has not been destroyed, thank goodness. It will be back, eventually, and look just as good. It's heart-breaking to see it now, and so sad that the fire happened at all, through probably what will turn out to be sheer carelessness or stupidity. But we haven't lost it. 

This photo was something else that didn't make it into the story: too frivolous, perhaps? It makes me hope that the day is not too distant when people can play with the cathedral like this again.

Thursday, April 4, 2019


I've been revisiting Australia. Not in person, you understand, but through the media of my notebooks and photos, and, to a much lesser extent, my memory. The impetus for this was a call from one of my editors for content to fill an Aussie-special issue coming up. "I can do that!" I thought. "I've been there so often, I've used it up! I've been everywhere!"
And (referring you here to the title of this blog), that's no way an exaggeration. I've been sent there for work many times, all over the continent, from the Tiwi Islands to Tasmania, from Ningaloo to the Great Barrier Reef. So you'd think coming up with story material would be a piece of cake. But - you'll have guessed this already - it wasn't. See, the thing is, you forget, don't you? Stuff merges, or evaporates entirely, and flicking through the notes and the pics is almost a revelation: Oh, yeah, that camel ride! The beanie festival! Boab trees! All those bats!
Maybe this is why those pedestrian types keep going back to the Gold Coast every year: because the detail slips out of their memories within weeks of getting back home, and all they remember is that they had a good time. So they're like my old grandmother, who had a pile of Agatha Christies by her bed that she just read one after the other, instantly forgetting each plot so that it was fresh next time she got to it.
That's fine for them, but what about me? I've been to so many amazing places that I'll never get back to, and it's all disappearing. Yes, yes, I'm getting old, I can't even remember where I left my phone or what was on the shopping list I forgot to take to the supermarket with me; but this is serious!
Is this why people have latched onto Instagram with such fervid zeal? Is it not really so much about impressing their friends, as compiling a file of memory aids? And writing blogs, ditto? A propos of which, it's a marvel to me that Moleskine (WHY that final e? Drives me crazy!) maintains such a presence in fancy stationery shops. People may buy those elegant notebooks with great intentions, but I've never seen anyone writing in one - whereas me, with my trusty Back to School-5c-special 3B1s, I'm jotting stuff down all the time.
Because I'm doing it on the run, though, they're untidy and scribbled, and full of destination-specific abbreviations that seem so obvious to me at the time, and which are totally unintelligible when I'm trying to decipher them back home again. I'm never going to sit down with one and read it like a book. Equally, I'm not going to set my editing program to Slideshow and just lie back to watch - mainly because I take so many photos that whittling them down back home is just too daunting a job and so I lazily just file them all away, with the result that the good stuff is smothered by all the crap shots. (Speaking of which, have you ever seen a professional photographer at work and noticed HOW MANY shots they take, constantly referring to their screens to review them? Maybe they're checking their histograms, but it still looks to me as though they're winging it. Shouldn't they know what settings to use?)
And there's another downside to fading travel memories: now and then, when my brain's in neutral (so, quite often, actually) I'll get a sudden vivid impression of somewhere I've been - a town square, a castle, some lookout - and it'll drive me crazy for ages trying to remember where it was. Lisbon? Regensburg? Santiago? Honestly, the choice is so wide and the memory so tenuous, quite often I never get to the answer.
What's the solution? Don't go to so many places? Yeah, right. Only go to strikingly individual places, like Antarctica or Easter Island? Take clearer notes? Do memory-improvement exercises? Or just shrug and accept the loss and the drawing-in of the borders? Cripes. Depressing, much?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Whistle blower x2

I see the Viking Star is now safely in port in Norway after its engine failure and the dramatic helicopter rescue of its passengers and crew. Not great publicity for the cruise line - and here's some more.

While briefly on board Viking Sun recently, en route from Auckland to Wellington, I mentioned in one of my posts about the cruise that I had met a US government whistle-blower. Her name is Gwenyth Todd and it was quite by chance that we met - her Trivial Pursuit team had moved me on from where I had chosen to sit in the theatre, and she came to apologise, which was nice of her.

She lit up when she heard I was a travel writer, equating that with 'journalist', which is far from the truth, sadly. She was bursting with indignation and shocked hurt at her treatment by Viking, and eager to share. Turns out she’s a well-known whistle-blower, previously high-up in the Pentagon and White House, who fled the US in 2007 after upsetting the wrong people by revealing too much inside government stuff about Iran. She lives in Australia now, as she doesn't feel safe returning home ever again, and was invited by Viking to come on board in Valparaiso to give some enrichment lectures about sexual harassment in governmental/military institutions. Surprised to be asked, she accepted, and forwarded copies of her speeches for approval beforehand, which was given.

Unfortunately, after the first two of her six scheduled lectures, one of which had been about the Bill Clinton sex-scandal cover-up, some of the many very vocal ex-military passengers on board objected to what she was saying, and demanded the manager remove Gwenyth from the programme. That was a disappointment not only to her but also, she said, to the majority of her audience. She was especially wound up because the latest #MeToo scandal had just broken, about Senator Martha McSally, so what she was saying was especially apposite.

There was, however, no undoing the deed – and, in fact, the General Manager on Viking Sun became actively hostile towards her, in front of witnesses. Her presence on the ship was made so unpleasant by the cold-shouldering, black looks and non-accidental bumpings-into by the aggrieved passengers, that she had abandoned the plan to stay on board till Sydney, and wanted to fly home from Wellington the following day. I found what she had to say very unexpected, shocking and scandalous; and I was just sorry I’m not a proper journalist.

So I did the next best thing: I tipped off my newsdesk contacts, and they took it up. It was a little bit thrilling, I must say. I felt especially vindicated when, later that day, I had a chat with the Cruise Director, Heather, a forceful type who answered all my standard travel writer statistics questions with authoritative bonhomie and slightly bored ease. Until I asked about the bit of bother with Gwenyth: then all the shutters immediately slammed down, and she looked at me quite differently.

She marched us off to see the General Manager who freely admitted Gwenyth's invitation was a mistake and though he said, “We love her!” then made a less positive reference to “yesterday” which is when she said she was threatened. It was all very intriguing; and they were both anxious that I wasn’t going to make a feature of this incident in my cruise story. Suddenly, I wasn’t such a tedious travel writer any more. I told them that no, it wasn’t really appropriate, or relevant, to the sort of story I write. But I couldn’t say the same for other reporters, I added mildly.

I disembarked the next day, in Wellington, perfectly happy with my cruise experience, but quite startled by my brief encounter with heavy-handed pro-(Republican)-American censorship. The story was in the following morning's local paper, and there was more detail in Stuff's online version:

And if you'd like to read other comments on this from people on the same cruise, here you go:


There was no follow-up: the story died straight away. Unlike Finding Neverland...

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Choppy seas and a chopper flight

Oops. At this moment, an identical sister ship of Viking Sun (on which regular readers šŸ˜ƒ wiil recall I briefly sailed a couple of weeks ago), the Viking Star, is listing and rolling in the North Sea near Bergen, as her passengers are winched off by helicopter. The captain sent out a Mayday call at 2pm after the failure of all four engines left the ship wallowing helplessly in swells of 6-8 metres, and being blown towards land in an area that has many reefs.

Of course it's all over Instagram and Twitter: clips of furniture in the elegant lounge sliding from side to side past the (fortunately secured) grand piano as the ship tips about 30 degrees, a soundtrack of crashing glassware and crockery, people laughing in disbelief, and then the seven blasts on the siren, followed by one long one, summoning passengers to their muster stations. 

Pretty terrifying, definitely: there are even clips showing water swilling about on board. After a bit, the engineers managed to get one engine going again, and an anchor down, but the main effort is to get all passengers - some of them injured - off the ship, by the laborious, and scary, procedure of winching them, in ones and twos, up into five choppers and flying the short distance to land. There are 1300 people on board, including crew, so it's going to take forever. I wonder what their criteria are for prioritising people on the list? If the passengers are anything like those I saw on the Sun, mostly British and American, they'll all be oldish, and some very elderly indeed. This really is an adventure they could do without.

The Star is the same age as the Sun, built in the same shipyard, as are the other four ships in their ocean fleet, so Viking will soon be pretty busy checking them all over, I presume. And those eight diehards on board the Sun, now halfway through its 130-day world cruise, who are already signed up for its Ultimate World Cruise of 245 days, beginning in August, might they now be having second thoughts?

I can empathise with the Star's passengers, a little: on our Silversea junket along the Norwegian coast last June, we had to hunker down in Tromso for an extra couple of nights because of 6m swells out in the Norwegian Sea, and miss out on three ports because of it. Weather, eh? Nothing you can do about it. Afterwards, Silversea did give everyone a $500 credit towards their next cruise. I wonder what Viking will do?

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Waiheke Sculpture on the Gulf. Yay.

It's been a rough week, so it was a gift to wake up to a glorious sunny autumn morning and head out on the biennial Waiheke Sculpture on the Gulf trail. I don't know if it's a result of the shooting, or because I'm especially sensitive after it, but everyone I met was so friendly today: the ticket lady, the shuttle bus driver, the volunteers along the route, the other walkers. Lots of smiles and cheerfulness - it was good to see.
I was out early so the trail was quiet, which added to the enjoyment (it will be really crowded later, and especially over the coming, final, weekend) - birds singing, waves lapping, ferries buzzing past. The sculptures were the usual mix of pleasing shapes, impressive workmanship and ridiculous arty pretension - so, all just as it should be.
Metal, as rusted iron or polished stainless steel, seemed to be the material of choice this time; so it was pleasing to see some beautifully shaped and engineered wood being used.
This year's prize for pretentiousness goes from me to Garden Shed, which is a very faithfully reproduced scruffy tin garden shed full of tools and spider webs, with a screen showing drone footage of a garden. I didn't bother to photograph it, but this actual shed a bit further along the track was similar, if a bit tidier.
I have to say, though, the caption accompanying another work was a close contender for that award: "The artist aims to reconstruct Moholy-Nagy's concept into a participatory transitional approach of perceiving light and colour which visitors will experience in the work through navigating the Walkway". 
But it looked pretty (although, confusingly, no navigation was required. It's a box).
The Dance that lasts Forever was a variety of single-use plastic blowing in the wind, and of course that's a statement rather than art, and a valid one too - but it was hard not to notice that a lot less work went into stringing up a bunch of carrier and rubbish bags than, say, welding, painting and polishing the spheres in Round and Round.
As ever, it was the gloriously natural backdrop that stole the show: the sea, the islands, the sky, the trees. And there were some enviable houses, too.
But considering the art did - temporarily, natch - tune my brain into seeing art everywhere, suddenly noticing a pole with a plastic bag over the sign on top of it, and wondering what the message was (Er, this road sign is not yet operational?), or the interruption of horizontal planes by um, a crane on a building site. And how about this, for expressing the ephemeral nature of the human footprint, in contrast with the dark foreboding permanence of polythene?
Of course, it's a soapy shoe-washing spongemat for preventing the spread of kauri dieback disease. But you get my point. Anyway, Waiheke Sculpture on the Gulf. Always worth it.


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