Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Me on TV

It's kind of disturbing, to see your fourteen year-old face flash up on the TV screen at random times throughout an evening's viewing - like being a former child star, maybe, when you're now a faded celebrity. Think Macaulay Culkin! But that's what happens, when you respond to a Twitter request for old photos to help celebrate Air New Zealand's 75th birthday. I sent this one in, a professional one with deckle edges, that was taken on my very first aeroplane experience, and they've used it in their retrospective ad.

Air NZ had, I think, a new plane, and were offering scenic flights over the Southern Alps, and my father shouted my older sister and me a joyride that lasted about an hour, all up. It was quite an occasion: I remember she was all dressed up, while I wore my old favourite hand-knitted blue jersey (which I've never been able to throw away and is still at the bottom of my drawer). It was thrilling to experience all that for the first time - and I've been a window person ever since - but if I'd known then that that was the just the first of what must be now hundreds of flights with a score or more different airlines all over the world, I would have popped with excitement.

I'm happy to be part of Air NZ's advertising: after a trip away, stepping aboard is always like coming home; and even just seeing the koru at an overseas airport will give me a warm and comforting glow. I don't think I'm alone in feeling connected to the airline in a way that I really doubt anyone does with British Airways, for example, or United. Qantas, maybe, though, for the Aussies (poor things).

And, just to underline the coincidence theme* that runs through these posts, I also appeared on TV recently in my 2015 incarnation, in the coverage of the Chunuk Bair service on Anzac Day. Please note how I'm almost the only one in the frame who is paying attention to the reading that Prince Harry is doing, instead of peering off to the side to see myself on the big screen. Pretty much just me, the hipster guy, tragic man and the girl who actually looks much more like Air NZ me than I do now.
* Also, Prince Harry is in NZ right now. We get about, he and I.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Street life

A city of 15 million will naturally seem crowded to someone who lives in one with a mere 1.5 million inhabitants, and nowhere is it more obvious than on the streets, which is where we spent most of our time today. The roads in Turkey are very good, but the pavements are crap. Full of holes and dips, with uneven pavers, crumbling kerbs, unexpected steps, sudden changes of level... you have to pay attention as you walk. A lot of the time we were actually on the road, trying to cross or to avoid a long detour around barriers. There are nominal zebra crossings, but they don't even bother to paint the stripes, they're just a different texture. Even that means nothing: Barçin repeatedly told us, "The Turkish are friendly, talkative, hospitable, but put them behind the wheel and they change." It's a concept Kiwis are familiar with.
So, keeping our wits about us, we walked to a shopping mall in the modern part of Istanbul, and, unimpressed, then transferred from the tour's fancy Renaissance Hotel to our more modest former hotel in the Old City, travelling by bus which meant creeping along choked roads at less than walking pace. Then we took  the funicular, and at the top dragged our cases across busy Taksim Square to the hotel, past a taxi organiser raging at a driver who had jumped the queue: shouting, thumping his fist on the bonnet, eyes flashing, teeth bared.

There was more drama opposite the hotel, as a gypsy family had a meltdown, the teenage girls stomping away, bawling, from their father who was shouting and lashing out, to the deep interest of the toddler in the family. They seem to live on the street, scraping some sort of living from selling packets of tissues, and begging. We saw lots of women begging today, holding babies, just sitting in busy places with their hands out. Or just sitting, looking miserable.
It's the May Day long weekend in Turkey and the streets were jammed - all the way down Istiklal Caddesi, to the tooting frustration of the old tram on that route, and across Galata Bridge with its thick fringe of fishing rods. We shuffled along the subway through to the heaving bus terminal and across the carpark of a road to the Spice Market and surrounds, where a solid mass of bodies choked the lanes and alleyways. Abandoning any idea of attempting the Grand Bazaar in these conditions, we fought our way back up again, fortified by an apple tea on a café terrace, serenaded by muezzins calling from the city's mosques, tooting car horns, roaring motorbikes, jangling tram bells and squealing wheels, people chattering and buskers up the hill playing clarinets, guitars, double bass, Pan pipes, a recorder, trumpet, violin, bagpipes, and singing.
Venturing out again for dinner, we were beset by restaurant touts on our cruise around the streets, and were finally snared by the clever Serdar at the Natural Grill House, who was funny, energetic, clever and hard-working. He spoke six languages and engaged instantly with passers-by, hooking, reeling in and landing group after group to fill his tables as we watched, totally entertained. Sitting down for a light meal of perhaps soup, we found ourselves persuaded to eat a delicious three-course dinner with beer, raqi and tea, using up all the cash we'd brought out with us, and not regretting it one bit. He was a star.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A,B,C,D - Avonside, Barcin, Cruise, Dinner

So a day that began with baklava for breakfast ended with a post-dinner hot chocolate and a chat about Miss McGahey, Miss Cree and Miss Moir with another AGHS old girl in a rooftop bar overlooking the Bosphorus. I take these things for granted now.

It was the last day of our Insight Vacations tour of Turkey, sadly. We did 2,850km on good roads, in a comfortable coach, with an excellent guide and saw so, so much that even though 10 days is nothing for such a huge country (especially with two of them spent at Gallipoli) I feel that I’ve got a good feel for the place now and can consider it properly visited, if not actually done.
Apart from the usual comfort stops and lunch at a service area (much pleasanter than it sounds), most of the day was spent driving from Ankara to Istanbul, listening to Barçin tell stories, or snoozing, or web-surfing – or, indeed, looking out of the window at farmland, forest, industry and suburbs. The first real event of the day was a Bosphorus cruise back to the Old City – yes, we did that before the tour began, but this was on a fancier boat and, really, you’d have to be a total curmudgeon not to enjoy looking again at castles and palaces, beautiful waterfront residences old and new (and all expensive – one recently sold for USD 125 million), tankers, ferries, fishing boats and launches, and crowds of people enjoying waterside restaurants.

The last thing today was our farewell dinner, all five Insight coaches together (there’s usually only one at a time on this route, but everything was different this time because of the Gallipoli centenary). It was jolly, the food was pretty good, and there were splendid 360-degree views right around from Galata Tower to the Suleymaniye Mosque as the sun lowered and set, before everything was lit up after dark. And finally there were drinks at the hotel’s rooftop bar, and goodbyes to all the nice Kiwis and Aussies we’ve got to know on this trip, some heading home, some on to further travels. It’s been a pleasure sharing their company. Thanks, Insight.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Cats, Cleopatra, calcium, crapper...

The pace of this tour is beginning to tell on most of the passengers, who have been taken by surprise by the early starts and long journeys. Our Anzac Day sleep deprivation is a major factor, of course. The thing is, though, that Turkey is so big, and its history and culture so rich, that there is just so much to see. And today we had variety.
We started with religion, visiting the Virgin Mary’s house up on a hill above Ephesus: a little two-roomed shrine, mostly reconstructed, with a holy spring and a Wishing Wall covered in multi-lingual begging prayers, most of them written, quite bizarrely, on toilet paper. One person had come prepared, though, with a laminated printed card. Another had used a hair ribbon and, not wanting to waste its length, requested all good things for family, friends, career, health, love, life… Thorough.
Then we were back in ancient history, exploring the city of Ephesus with the usual elements of processional avenue, tumbled columns, reconstructed archways, tiered theatre, and treacherously smooth and cracked marble flagstones once trodden on by Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, St Paul, St John, and now me. The differences this time were the latrines, a sociable arrangement of holes above a running stream, the holes perhaps a little too snugly spaced for modern sensibilities; and the library, now reduced to a magnificent façade of arches and pillars shading icy marble slabs. There were also, of course, cats and poppies, and this time dogs as well.
For a bit of a break from history and architecture, we visited one of the area’s many leather outlets, Emelda. They specialise in lamb leather here: very fine and smooth, not waterproof but beautiful, and made into super-stylish jackets that were very desirable but, even with all the various discounts applied, still around $1000 each. But some people bought them.
Then, passing distant snow-capped mountains, we went to Pamukkale, to see what we Kiwis recognised as White Terraces. Shame we lost ours to the Tarawera eruption: amazing! So brilliant white that we were glad not to be arriving at midday – even at 5pm they were dazzling. Stepped terraces of corrugated pools of aqua water (tepid, not warm) are hung with stalactites; we paddled through under the stern eye of the whistle-police, keeping us to our area. In a fairly familiar story, much of the calcium-rich springs are now diverted to hotels, but there’s still enough to keep tourists happy.


We finished the day arriving at the Thermal Hotel Pam at 7pm, having started it overlooking the Aegean at 6.15am. This holiday will take some recovering from…

Sunday, April 26, 2015

On with the Insight tour

Because of the length and depth of its history, all tour guides in Turkey have to have a university education. On top of that, Insight Vacations is very fussy in their choice of tour directors, and we’re appreciating the result of that: Barcin is excellent. Military history, architecture, Greek myths, religion, languge, traditions, economy, education and even circumcision – it’s all been detailed, illuminating, interesting and a good way to pass the time on the road.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been snoozing too. It’s a comfortable coach with ample leg-room, and we’re all still recovering from Anzac Day. It was good to get some fresh air and exercise at Pergamon, a gondola ride up a hill to the Acropolis, with long views of an aqueduct, and the steepest amphitheatre I’ve ever seen. “There will be an abundance of ancient pillars,” Barcin told us, and he wasn’t wrong: they were everywhere, upright and lying artistically in the grass, decorated with poppies. Some of the best stuff, as at other sites, is now in museums elsewhere – Berlin, Vienna, Boston, London – having been appropriated by archeologists, but there was still plenty to see.
We’re on a well-beaten tourist path, and it’s particularly busy at the moment with Kiwis and Aussies over here for Gallipoli, so the stall-holders were really going for it: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Best price here! Cheaper than K-Mart!” Bit wearing after a while.
It was a lot more peaceful down the hill at Asklepion, ancient Rome’s centre of medicine, as it was meant to be: sleep was an important part of the healing process (though the frogs might have interfered with that). It's a lovely place, with fig trees, pink-flowering Judas trees and lines of cypresses here and there, birds singing, masses of gorgeous poppies (yes, sorry to be harping on, but like the autumn foliage on the New England-Canada cruise in October, they’re both everywhere and glorious), and cats (ditto). And no Keep Off signs at all – they have so much antiquity here that they’re not precious about it. Lots of fun to roam amongst the ruins searching for that perfect cat/stone/poppy shot.

After a long drive through olive orchards and stony hills where solitary herders watched over flocks of sheep and goats, we finished the day on the shores of the Aegean, at a lovely hotel right on the water with a perfect view of the sunset.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Anzac Day, Gallipoli, 2015 - From the uttermost ends of the earth

Right from the beginning, the NZ Government’s stream of emails and texts had warned that visitors to Gallipoli would experience lengthy delays, and urged patience. Well, they weren’t wrong. A very, very long day – all 29 hours of it – was made to feel even longer by so much of it spent just waiting. That’s not a complaint, really, just a fact of life: this is a centenary commemoration, the first, and a very special occasion, and 10,500 people from NZ and Australia had come to be part of it. Even our super-efficient Insight Vacations tour director wasn't able to make 6 kilometres of coaches disappear.

We left our hotel at 5.30pm on the previous day, and struck our first real delay on the ferry taking us across the Dardanelles to Canakkale. Another ferry from the British ceremony at Helles, loaded with dignitaries including Princes Charles and Harry, and various Prime Ministers and ambassadors, was escorted past us by a flurry of coastguard and police boats as we circled in a holding pattern. Then it was a slow trip to the first checkpoint where each coach was eventually boarded by a cheery Australian viewing passes and issuing wristbands; followed by another slow trip to the next one, ditto, with security screening.

Here we waited under the pine trees, watching the programme on a big screen while room was made for us at the Anzac Commemorative Site. After we’d walked a couple of kilometres along the road and past Anzac Cove to the site, we understood: a number of those people who’d arrived earlier – by now, dear reader, it was 2am on Anzac Day, and we were, as the crow flies, really no great distance from our starting point at Assos – were spread out, fast asleep in sleeping bags, on the grassed areas that we’d all been repeatedly told had space for sitting only.

Full marks to the Aussie MC, though, who via the two giant screens jollied and cajoled them (once they’d been woken by a few sly kicks from the new arrivals – oops, sorry, did I wake you?) into making room. We all eventually found a space, though few of us were able to see down the slope to the centre of activity, which was disappointing if inevitable given the topography, and most of the time we stood. Those who’d scored the seats with a view had been there since about 2pm.
So we sat in the dark, watching on the screens the programme of music and documentary – well done, that didgeridoo player, especially – and absorbing the time and place. There were lots of personal touches: letters and epitaphs read, photos flashed up. Every so often we were told what had happened at that moment 100 years before, which was pretty special, and at one point the Sphinx and other cliffs behind us were lit up while we stood in the dark and listened to the recorded sound of oars in the water, and real nightingales singing.

The sky began to lighten, and, at 5.30am, 12 hours after we’d set off, the ceremony began. It was well done. John Key’s speech was good but Tony Abbott’s was too long and rambling and sent me briefly to sleep. Prince Charles did a reading, there were letters read by students, there were hymns and prayers, and three anthems, all sung well, even ours sounding jaunty and un-dirgelike for once. The Last Post and Reveille were sounded with only one bum note, and then it was all over.

Was it special? Yes: to be on the spot where it all happened, exactly 100 years later, to have visited the cemeteries, stood on the beach, looked at the gullied cliffs, was special. To be in a crowd that had come so far, who were my people, who included direct descendants, children of Gallipoli soldiers even, and war veterans, was special. Was it emotional? No. Perhaps because over the last few days we had heard so many stories about the battle, had become so familiar with the facts; or maybe because we were all so tired, having (apart from the selfish sods in the sleeping bags) had nothing more than snatched moments of sleep all night. Whatever, no-one I spoke to felt emotional at the Dawn Service, although everybody approved of it. The nearest I got to a lump in the throat was seeing the silent convoy of naval ships passing by in the background as the sky lightened and the bagpipes were played, perfectly spaced from the horizon to the foreground, cruising slowly, respectful.
Last in, first out. We shuffled away from the site and along the road again, watched by armed soldiers and hearing skylarks, and set off up Artillery Road, an unsealed track up the hill to Lone Pine. 
Here the Aussies split away for their service and, after peeling off a few thermal layers (it hadn’t rained or been seriously cold all night) we carried on another 3km up and down the narrow road past small cemeteries, past the Turkish memorial to the 57th Regiment, past the opposing trenches in the pine trees, to Chunuk Bair, where so many died, and we waited. And waited: for the Turks to have their service and for everyone to arrive. We ate our hotel-supplied breakfasts, and chatted and compared notes, and watched the Lone Pine service on the screen.
At 1pm we were allowed through from our holding area where the Defence Forces had been looking after us, and my seat was behind and to the side of the tall memorial, facing the dignitaries and with a clear view of the Ataturk statue (its unfinished plinth renovation hidden beneath Turkish flags). We had music from the band and the Youth Ambassadors, Charles and Harry arrived to press some flesh (“And have you been awake all night?”), all the bigwigs got settled, a soldier positioned himself with his semi-automatic on the rear platform with the TV cameras, looking outwards; and the service began.
It was good. It felt familiar, like family. John Key’s second speech was even better, Harry did a reading in his remarkably unposh accent, Charles laid a wreath, there was a solid Maori element, and the Last Post and Rouse, on a 100 year-old bugle engraved with battle names, was perfect.

So, was it all over? Hardly. We filed back to the marquees and waited another five hours for our bus to arrive. Five hours! But people were cheerful, the Forces and especially the MC were focused on maintaining morale (“Anyone feeling sick? We have a doctor here. Anyone feeling really sick? We’ve got a chaplain”) and though there was some fading, there was no real complaining. We were brought hot soup and tea and noodles, and when our buses finally arrived, there was a corridor of high-fiving Defence people to walk through. They did a great job.

We got back to the hotel sometime after 11pm, about 30 hours after we’d left, most of us having had nothing more than snatches of sleep. Was it worth it? Oh, yes.

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