Monday, August 31, 2009

Impossible to resist

I could have posted a photo of me with a booby and captioned it 'Trio of Boobies' but I think that would be trying too hard. This t-shirt will do nicely.

Blue-footed boobies are just one of a scad of bird species in the Galapagos Islands, but the marine iguanas and tortoises are probably better-known. Whatever - there's heaps of all of them there, and on Espanola Island we literally had to watch where we put our feet in case we stepped on a primly-disapproving-looking iguana or dainty lava lizard.

On Santa Cruz Island we saw Lonesome George's rear end: the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, he's a 90 year-old bachelor who has so far snubbed the female cousins from another island with whom he shares his enclosure. It's not too late: tortoises do nothing in a hurry, whether it's maturing sexually (25 years), digesting their food (2-5 weeks) or, of course, moving, which includes making a move.

Everybody give a cheer for George - with a couple of nudges and winks for good measure. And ignore everything you may hear about his being gay: it's a vicious rumour put about by the boobies.

Where are the troops when you need them?

Sigh.

Main avenue of Santiago in Chile, the curiously named Avenida General Bernardo O'Higgins. Three-thirty in the the afternoon. Four blocks away, there is a small and well-behaved demonstration of people of all ages remembering the Disappeared, watched by umpteen soldiers in boots, helmets, visors, bullet-proof jackets and guns, several armoured cars and a phalanx of mounted troops.

Further down, near the Sta Lucia hill, I'm walking along the footpath amongst all the people with my two friends, talking about the crime rate in South Auckland when at that very instant, I stagger as someone thumps into me from behind. I think, 'Careless youths playing the fool', then 'This is Santiago, they're going to grab my bag'. I feel a hand wrench at my collar and then they are gone, three of them, legging it round the corner and disappearing within seconds.

I stand there in disbelief, hand at my neck, feeling for the antique gold chain that I've worn constantly for the last twenty years since my husband gave it to me for my birthday. It's gone, of course, in some felon's pocket, probably broken, probably to be sold for a couple of dollars.

I thought I would be safe, in a group; I thought bossy Letitia was being alarmist when she told me, back in Guayaquil, that I should cover it; I thought Santiago was sophisticated and civilised. I was wrong.

It's nothing of course, compared with what the people along the avenue lost: but it's a lesson learnt.

One hat, two hat, straw hat, tall hat

How did this happen? I've unpacked my suitcase to find nine, count them, nine hats - only one of which I took with me (and never wore, natch). It must be an Ecuadorean thing.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thar she blows

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, it's 7 o'clock on a beautiful day and there are whales off the back of the boat."

That's a pretty good way to start a day, and a fine excuse to jump into shorts and a fleece (no time for underwear) and rush to get into the inflatable. We spent half an hour buzzing around in the bay here at Bartolome in the Galapagos Islands, watching for the oval of smooth water that's the whale's 'footprint' and shows where it's heading and where it's likely to surface. We had the slightly alarming thrill of leaning over the side and seeing the luminous blue of the whale's white underside passing right beneath the boat, just below in the clear water.

It was a humpback whale and her calf, and they hung around for ages, quite unperturbed, and even doing a bit of breaching later when we'd gone back to the ship, La Pinta, for breakfast. They were still in the bay when we returned from climbing Bartolome's stark, barren summit, crunching over volcanic scoria and spotting lava lizards.

Later we stepped over immobile marine iguanas, snorkelled past penguins, watched hawks and frigate birds soaring overhead, and got sniffed by a disconsolate sea lion cub on a red beach, who was crying for his mother, we presumed, before giving it up as a bad job and going to sleep on the sand.

All very wonderful - but now, after dinner, I'm in the library alongside the bar listening to an American family thrashing the karaoke machine: Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson and Queen. Sublime to ridiculous, I reckon.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Traveller beware

Why do I not find this reassuring?

Guayaquil is Ecuador's main port and has something of a reputation. Our guide, Letitia, who's so scary that I keep wanting to call her Lucrezia, sucked her breath in when she saw my modest gold chain and hissed, "Cover it!"

But we're waiting for our flight to the Galapagos Islands, where our greatest danger will be being accosted by a blue-footed booby.

Transparency in advertising?

The Hilton is the last place I would have expected to be quite this honest.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mad for hats

If you thought Panama hats were made in Panama, you're annoying a whole nation of Ecuadorians. They come from Cuenca, a beautiful little city in the south, and wherever you go, you'll see old ladies in short, full skirts with heavy embroidery around the hem, shawls and hats, busily knotting away, a bundle of sun-bleached palm fronds tucked under their arms.

We went to the factory, where all the hand-woven hats are sent to be washed, bleached, steamed and pressed, and sold according to the fineness of the weave - $15 for cheap ones, up to $1000 for the super-fine ones that can be folded without creasing. We all bought some, as they give their wearers a jaunty air. Whether that will go down as well in suburban Auckland remains to be seen.

We have in our group a person with a rather large head, whose mission has been to find one to fit him, but even after an extensive search out the back by the girl, he had to come away hatless.

"Ecuador - small country, big hearts" (but also small heads).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is is a bus? Is it a train?

The Chiva Express is a bus that runs on the railway lines from Quito south, and we rode it for about two hours. It was better than a movie: people all along the line going about their everyday lives, that look so exotic even though they're only doing shopping and looking after their kids. We had two motorbike outriders who were thoroughly enjoying themselves roaring alongside to stop the traffic at intersections, which didn't stop the driver from using his horn to full effect as well. One of the outriders was wearing a Royal Mail badge, which was a bit incongruous. Despite their best efforts, a box truck lurching alongside managed to swipe off the driver's door handle, causing some consternation.

The countryside was pretty and very like parts of NZ, apart from the tethered cows and pigs, the waving children playing on their own by the line, the people working in the fields with mattocks and other old world tools. We were agog. Then suddenly there were cowboys cantering alongside in hats and furry chaps - from Hacienda Alegria, where we had lunch and a tour. The cowshed left us unmoved, but the lassoing of bulls and the herd of llamas and alpacas we saw afterwards were great to see.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Copping an eyeful

Now apparently, when investigating the novel feature of a shower in your hotel bidet, the thing is to stand WELL BACK when operating the taps, because what you actually have here is a fountain. Or a geyser, that rivals Pohutu (or Old Faithful) in exuberance.

I speak as one who knows. Now.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Eating duck, salmon and ham, but mainly words

Ok,so this is where I guess I have to take it all back - seems it's the hotel's dodgy WiFi that's at fault. I'm in the foyer now and it's working fine. Shame we leave tomorrow.

Tonight was a special treat: we had dinner (catered by the Hilton) in the private home of a woman who's VP of the touring company we're working with, a charming lady even if she is unfairly slim and glamorous for a mother of 3 boys. It was a typical Quito house: pretty much a blank wall to the city street, but inside spacious and modern, with a couple of courtyards open to the sky. Lovely. It was a jolly evening and now we've walked back to the hotel to pack for tomorrow's trip into the country.

Buenas noches!

Rotten Apple

My new iPhone has let me down and won´t connect to the internet and I´m very disappointed and frustrated. ¿!ñÇ·%&!¡ (That´s Spanish keyboard swearing.)

After a full 24 hours of travelling, I got to Quito, and into my room, which is fabulous and I would post a photo if I could but I can´t, so imagine quantities of marble, dark polished wood full of scrolls and curlicues, tapestry curtains and bed canopy, supersoft sheets and goosedown pillows, chandeliers, gold and beige striped wallpaper and a liberal scattering of rose petals in the bathroom and on the bed that make me feel guilty for not being a honeymoon couple. Hotel Plaza Grande - well named.

Today we´ve toiled around the old town´s narrow cobbled streets: balconies, pastel painted stucco, flags, balconies, potted flowers, smily kids, Indians with shawls and baskets on their backs, hats and long plaits, little yellow taxis, crawling buses with the conductor hanging out of the door shouting the route, people crouched in bright caves of shops, the odd horse and carriage and a creepy clown complete with red nose who I saw at least five times. And churches. Lots and lots of churches, with elaborate ceilings, Moorish patterns, heavy on the gold and almost lasciviously fond of Christ statues dripping blood and covered in bruises.

We put on silly chef hats and aprons AND rubber gloves AND masks and made ceviche, which was a nonsense as all we did was assemble it from the ingredients all laid out. But it did taste nice.

And there was a small incident, where I paused to take a photo and when I went to catch up with the others, they had completely disappeared. I was boxed in on the footpath, and when I got to the corner I couldn't see them round there either. So I stood in an obvious place in the square, gloomily thinking that it turns out I´m the group needy person. There was lots of local colour to entertain me, but I was feeling very guilty when I finally spotted the others, almost half an hour later, and dashed across to join them. "Have you been looking for me?" I panted. "I'm so sorry!" They looked puzzled. They´d been in a Panama hat shop and hadn't even noticed that I was missing.

So.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where am I?


Which is the better indicator that I'm in a Latin American country: that just across the runway there are the Andes, impossibly high; or that here is a middle-aged businessman intent on the pleasure he's getting from his manicure?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bien viaje!


At the airport eavesdropping on Spanish-speakers also heading for Santiago. Everyone was at the rendezvous in good time, so the group needy person has yet to be revealed. Time will tell!

Friday, August 14, 2009

La pluma di mia tia esta en la tabla

It's like the Tower of Babel in here. Up the front there are two language assistants teaching Japanese: Watashi wa, ohayoo gozai masu, sayonara Sugiyama sensei... Alongside me there are girls chatting in Korean, Mandarin and English; and here am I in the corner of the classroom, officially supervising but actually struggling to revise some basic Spanish: Permiso, puedo sacar una foto?

Before I went to Peru last year, I went to night school, did Linguaphone and other courses at home, worked through a textbook the Spanish teacher here at school gave me, and swotted up the Lonely Planet phrase book that told me how to say I'm high, and Easy, tiger! So when I got there, I could read all the signs, understand when the guide's friend was being disparaging about us (Are they trekkers or just tourists?) and even have some simple conversations with local people. It was great, I felt connected to my surroundings, and I couldn't understand why no-one else on the tour had bothered to learn even the most elementary things.

But now I know: I've been busy lately, and my trip to Ecuador is suddenly next week, and what Spanish I knew seems to have evaporated. So here I am, scrabbling to revise, at the same time (right now) as learning to write a post here on my new iPhone, so that when I'm away this can be the proper Travel Blog I intended it to be. I don't know which is harder.

>>> It was when I passed a pair of policemen patrolling the footpath in leather boots laced to the knee and double gun holsters, each with a Rottweiler on the end of a chain, and they looked surprised to see me, that I seriously rethought my plan. I had already begun to wonder how far it really was to Lima’s famous Gold Museum: on paper it hadn’t seemed a great distance, but then again, it’s a city of nine million, and hotel tourist maps are not always as particular as they should be about boring things like scale.

This was certainly a lived-in area — lived-out might be a better description, to judge by all the eating, working, sleeping, playing, laughing and shouting going on around me. I had noticed the increase in volume as soon as I crossed over the expressway from the neat tourist precinct of Miraflores: lots more noise, plus more litter, more traffic and many more people, all of them looking so much more at home on the footpath than I was currently feeling.

I cursed once again the false economy that had made me leave my trusty — but heavy — Lonely Planet guide at home. I did, however, remember its advice not to flap open a map in public in case I made myself conspicuous to predators. Apparently, a fair-haired, fair-skinned woman, on her own, wearing sensible shoes and an anxious expression would be completely invisible in a crowd of Peruvians right up to the moment that she unfolded her Globetrotter. Yeah, as they say, right.

One person who had already noticed me was a private security guard on duty outside a shop. In my best night-school Spanish, I asked him how far it was to the museum, and could I walk there. It was well-practised tourist vocabulary, and came out so fluently that Miguel responded with several rapid paragraphs in which only “no, no, muy peligroso” were recognisable. Never mind the ‘very’, at this stage just ‘dangerous’ was all I needed to hear, and I decided to turn back — but Miguel had some questions of his own. Once he had established that my husband was back in New Zealand I had just enough time, while he scribbled out his phone number, to remember the name of a different hotel from mine to tell him when he asked. Which he did, naturally: not for nothing is machismo a Spanish word...

[Pub NZ Herald 19/5/09]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Loveliest of trees

This morning when I went down to feed the hens, there was a single blossom petal floating in the bucket of water I use to mix their mash. It's been a long, cold winter, but still - it doesn't seem that long ago when I found the first orange leaf floating there last autumn.

It was a lovely deep pink, the petal, probably off someone's cherry tree though I can't see one nearby. The plum tree behind the henhouse has pure white blossom, and the apple tree I planted nearby is pale pink.

Though our native bush is beautiful too, a million shades of green, it looks pretty much the same, year round, and sometimes it can seem a little sombre: for heart-lightening glory, it's hard to beat the blossom trees in spring, and the deciduous trees in autumn. That was something to look forward to when I lived in England, a kind compensation for the end of summer, and I always wanted to go to New England in the fall to see what everyone raved about.

A couple of years ago I finally went there, and it fulfilled every expectation - driving across Massachusetts into the Berkshires used up all my adjectives, the colour getting more intense the further north and higher we got. The locals were a bit critical of that year's display, but I was blown away, and never more so than when I joined a big and cheerful crowd on Columbus Day and climbed Mt Greylock. It was glorious.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

You can never go home again

At my sister's house last night, we were reminiscing about Saturday afternoons with Dad at the ice rink, wearing clunky brown leather boots and whizzing (or not) round in that cold, damp, cavernous space before driving home ALL the way across Christchurch (about 12kms) for tea and Robin Hood on TV ("Feared by the bad, Loved by the good, Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood..." - they knew how to write theme songs in those days).

I was in Christchurch a couple of months ago on a car review assignment, and after I'd picked up the sporty little Mazda3 ("Here are the keys. There's the car," said the guy at the yard. No ID, no licence, nothing) I went for a spin around the old haunts. Except they weren't there any more - in Cathedral Square I had to hop out of the way of an unexpected tram, the old University's been gentrified, the hill in the Botanical Gardens where I ate my lunch has been shrunk to a mound - and out in the suburbs, the shopping centre a couple of blocks from my old home is unrecognisable. My intermediate school and the Methodist church opposite still look the same, but where the corner dairy stood, and the butcher and giftshop and sweetshop and haberdashery (haberdashery!) used to be is now a fancy big mall with bars and cafes.

I was past my old driveway before I knew it, and there was so much traffic I couldn't turn around. The horse paddocks I practically lived in, climbing trees and playing long pretend games, are gone under houses; the old church I used to go to, where I developed a love for the words of the 1662 service, and Hymns Ancient and Modern, that has outlasted any religious belief, is just an outline on the ground in the middle of the graveyard alongside some soulless (ha) modern building; and at the end of the road lined by houses all the way, at New Brighton, there was a long new concrete pier.

An old guy fishing off the end saw me with my camera and asked "Are you a tourist?" and I had to say, "Yes, I suppose I am."

Friday, August 7, 2009

Four wheels bad

Travelling over the Harbour Bridge this morning (on the bus - I am so green), there was fog on the city side, and seeing it through the superstructure with the sun glittering on the sea put me in mind of San Francisco. We had one fabulous night at the Inn Above Tide in Sausalito, where the sea slopped against the piles all through the night and in the morning there was the city across the harbour, the spike of the TransAmerica building poking up out of the fog, and a guy in a suit gliding past in a kayak.

In the city, we spent a morning in a dinky GoCar, a little yellow electric Noddy car built so low that we looked up at motorcyclists. Another couple hired a car at the same time we did, lanky John from Georgia, y'all, and his Russian internet bride, Tatiana. Because of my Vespa experience, I drove (it's a 3-wheeler with scooter handlebars) and John tucked in right behind, nervous of the traffic - "Thank God for y'all, I nearly had a wreck in the first five seconds!" - and we bounced along over the cable car tracks down to the Embarcadero and all the way along to the bottom of the Golden Gate bridge, waving at the tourists taking photos of us. It was lots of fun and thanks to the (unexpected) consideration of the SF traffic, much less scary than we had feared - though I did get grounded on one of the cork-screw corners on Lombard, the famous super-steep street.

We were a tourist attraction in Sausalito too, where we went for a waterfront tour on Segways, which was absolutely the most fun I've ever had upright.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Connections

Our city beaches are in the news: dead pilchards by the thousand, dead penguins, dead dolphins, even dead dogs. It's a mystery and a worry. Thank goodness it's not summer - then it would strike to the very heart of daily life here, if the beaches were out of bounds (I have faith it will be sorted by then).

It's one of the main glories of Auckland, that we have beautiful sandy beaches edging all the suburbs - usually pretty sheltered and safe (the surfies have to go over to the west coast for the wild black-sand beaches) and always a balm for the eyes and soul. Only a balm, etc, at the moment - but that's still worth a lot.

Yesterday I was in Takapuna, where I love to go shopping simply because I can be buzzing along the road between boutiques and cafes and there, at the end of the street, is the sea, blue and shining, with always a yacht gliding past. It's lovely.

Takapuna Beach is long and broad at low tide, and Charles Kingsford Smith landed his plane the Southern Cross there in 1932, a stop on his tour around the country celebrating, amongst other notable firsts, his pioneer flight across the Tasman. When he got down to Dunedin, my father, a boy, was thrilled to win a lucky draw for a joy-flight with him. It gave him the flying bug and led him to leave the farm when he was older to go to Christchurch to take lessons. Then the war began, he joined the Air Force, went to Britain and met my mother, crash-landed on a bombing mission over northern France, was helped by the Resistance, captured by the Germans and ended up in Stalag Luft III in Poland, the Great Escape prison camp, where he spent the next 4 years.

He disliked talking about it, and there's a lot we don't know, but I would like one day to make a sort of pilgrimage to Sagan. My nephew has been, and says the pine forest has grown back over the site of the camp, but still...

Most people look down The Strand and just see a beach.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Flying through the Dark

I was at a promotional event this morning put on by the Las Vegas tourism people - reps from Treasure Island, Planet Hollywood, Cirque du Soleil and so on - in Mollie's Hotel in St Mary's Bay just the other side of the Harbour Bridge. It's a beautiful little boutique hotel in an old wooden villa with high moulded ceilings and a narrow staircase - very charming, if self-consciously so (swags of Trelise Cooper fabrics over the windows, opera musak) and the morning tea, pretty little cakes on tiered stands and a variety of fine old china almost made me forget their error in calling it a High Tea. Anyway, it was in total contrast to what was on show from Vegas, where a 2500-room hotel is what they consider a boutique hotel there.

The main man was called Rafael, who gave a perfectly-timed speech fitting in with his accidental background music of Nessun Dorma, and who was particularly enthusiastic about the zipline activity there, which he was busily slimming down to be able to go on. Turns out it's a flying fox, but still and all, it sounds pretty exciting: a series of runs high over canyons through the mountains.

I love flying foxes: there was a great long one we found at a motel on the West Coast years ago, when the girls were too young to go alone, so we took them in front of us - handy for padding the bump at the end. Then there was the one at the end of the high ropes course on Outward Bound which was not only super-long, but we did it in the dark - that was pretty exciting, flying through the bush, night-sight shot by the spotlights we'd been under doing the course. But best of all was the one I did at Waitomo, in a cave deep underground that I'd had to abseil into, and then stood there all alone for a time in the dark until my guide joined me. Not the place to be thinking about balrogs and Shelob and such. We scrambled through tunnels and came to a place that blazed in our headlamps, crystals sparkling everywhere, and then I was hooked onto the flying fox and we turned out our lamps, and I whizzed through absolute dark, whistling past stalagmites and stalactites with total faith in my safety. It was a blast.

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