Saturday 31 October 2009

Halloween denier

The trouble with having my daughter turn 20 today - quite apart from that making me feel so very old, of course - is that she's now past the home-party stage of guests, games, cake and balloons, so we no longer have that excuse to put up curmudgeonly notices at the gate deterring would-be Trick or Treaters. Except that we are still old-school curmudgeons, anti this American import that has been so enthusiastically promoted by manufacturers of environmentally-insensitive tat and tooth-rotting lollies, and seized upon with incredulous joy by greedy kids; and now we have to escape to an early-evening movie session in order to avoid the hordes of GKs swarming through the village in bright sunshine decked out as creatures of the night - or not, depending on their level of commitment vs degree of greed.

In America, however, it's a delight to see, and in Massachusetts we were charmed by the pumpkins on porches and the front-yard displays of imaginative and amusing ghouls and skeletons. It all fits so well with the autumn foliage, the early dusk, the edge of chill: like Christmas, Halloween is a cold-weather, short-day festival,and it loses much of its charm when transplanted into a southern hemisphere summer.

The pumpkins that are such a feature of Halloween are the link with the equally enthusiastic decorations for Thanksgiving, when they're joined by potted chrysanthemums on the steps and porches of the pretty wooden houses tucked under the trees. Autumn is a lovely time to go to the States - in New England particularly, where the leaves put on such a dazzling display. Once is not enough.
>>> ...When you nearly don’t notice a row of bright red and yellow tractors and harvesters because of the brilliance of the autumn foliage behind them, you realise that nothing you’ve heard about New England in the fall is exaggerated. If you come from Arrowtown, Christchurch or Cambridge, you may think you do a good leaf display at home, but in this case at least, it’s true that things are bigger and better in America.

On a day’s drive along Interstate 90, the Massachusetts Turnpike, from the Atlantic coast up into the Berkshire Hills in the west, it was woodland nearly all the way: chestnut, oak, ash, birch, beech, hickory and maple set off by the deep green of scattered firs. The orange, red and yellow of the deciduous trees became more intense as we climbed higher, like someone turning up the colour saturation on the television: if it hadn’t been real, we would have protested, ‘Too bright!’ Even when we strayed off the main road and into the pretty little towns, the trees were still everywhere, giving a warm cast to the light that fell on the painted clapboard houses tucked underneath them and that seemed concentrated in the cartoon-bright pumpkins that, this being October, decorated every porch.

Mostly, the Halloween decorations were restrained and elegant – a small round pumpkin on each step up to the verandah, a pot of russet chrysanthemums by the door or a bunch of mottled Indian corn cobs hanging from the knob – but some people clearly felt excess suited the spirit better, with ghosts, witches and bats in abundance. The prize for best effort had to go to the house featuring a CSI mock-up with multiple corpses on one side of the garden, a cluster of assorted life-sized ghouls and skeletons performing in an other-worldly band by the front steps, and a tableful of gruesome drinkers waving tankards as a vampire in cloak and Pilgrim hat leaned over a petrified woman...

[Pub. New Idea 31/3/07]

Thursday 29 October 2009

Two wheels bad

I spoke too soon about the boy next door: vrrrm, vrrrm, it's the throaty roar of his motorbike again, the sound bouncing off the wall of his house straight at our living room windows, just a few metres away. I'm hoping that he'll soon decide that he's fixed whatever he thought the problem was, and turn it off - although I suspect he really just wants to rattle his teeth with the noise, and that could take much longer.

I spent many years of my youth clattering around Christchurch on a Vespa 90, then on the back of a rattly Triumph 500, and then whining around Gloucester on a Honda 50, so I'm not totally anti-bike - although my experience in Bangkok earlier this year did leave me feeling a little jaundiced.

>>> ...Although the SkyTrain on its elevated track snakes efficiently through the city’s CBD in a futuristic, streamlined world far removed from the snarl of traffic below, no visit to Bangkok is complete without a hands-on tuk-tuk experience. The hard-edged clatter of so many two-stroke engines is cheerfully familiar, recalling the heady days of my newly-independent teens when I buzzed around Christchurch on an elegant Vespa 90; but the machines that duck and dive along these clogged city streets are no-nonsense work-horses compared to that show pony. With three wheels, a roofed cab and seating for three slim passengers — or, obviously, just one of me — it’s only the scooter handlebars, the unmistakeable noise and the cloud of blue smoke trailing behind that give away the tuk-tuk’s origins.

Hovering hesitantly on the footpath, I’m daunted by the prospect of hailing one from the horde barrelling past, but another Thai characteristic comes to my rescue. Friendliness is endemic, even in the big city, and a smiling lady stops to ask what I want, beckons a tuk-tuk out of the throng, bargains with the driver for a fare to my destination, and sees me settled on the slippery plastic seat before waving me on my way. Hardly have we gone a hundred metres, however, before it all goes horribly wrong: tilting to one side, we lurch drunkenly off the road, where the driver sighs and tuts over his flat tyre and I guiltily remember all those marathon dinners I’ve eaten, the extravagant breakfasts, the sweet, gaudy cocktails and the glasses of Singha beer. Popping a button after over-eating is one thing: bursting a tyre is in another category altogether...

Pub. Press 13 July 2009

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Bon anniversaire!

C'est aujourd'hui mon anniversaire and I was called in to school for a day of relieving French. Dommage! Particularly as it was such a lovely day but there you go: c'est la vie.

French in NZ schools is as much palm trees as the Eiffel Tower: New Caledonia and Tahiti are the closest French-speaking countries, and lots of students go there on school trips. Lucky them. I was at university before I got to go to New Caledonia and see real people - even little kids! - speaking French as though it was normal.

There are some lovely bits to la Nouvelle-Caledonie, but my money (and you need plenty of that) is on Tahiti for the best French South Pacific experience. Tahiti et Ses Isles, as they say there, and it's the Isles that you want: Tahiti itself is, around the edges anyway, rather messy and unappealing, although the middle is spectacular, with lots of tall green pointy bits.

But it's the outer islands of French Polynesia that I like best, and Fakarava, as well as being mildly titillating to say, is a good 'un: huge lagoon in the Tuamoto Archipeligo surrounded by a white foaming reef, an island with classic beachside resorts and lots of little motu, or islets, like this one.

It's like a cartoon desert island: tiny, round and empty apart from the tracks of seabirds. The sand really is pink - crushed shell and coral - as well as fine and soft. We got there by buzzing along the lagoon in a flying fish boat, the breeze warm in our faces, past pearl farms where Tahiti's signature green-black pearls are seeded into oysters in little stilted huts over the water. Ah, the water! Such a quandary for the travel writer, tropical lagoons: how to avoid the dread word 'azure'? Turquoise, Nile green, aquamarine, cobalt? They all sound like cliches, because they are, because cliches by definition hit the nail right on the head. So to speak.

I sat under a palm tree eating coconut tuna salad, crusty French bread and soft Camembert, with wine and afterwards papaya, tree-ripened bananas and starfruit, and didn't think about the matter at all. But later, on a trip to fabulous Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, I tried a different tack -

>>> ...I have colour on my mind this morning. I am going on a lagoon cruise and there will be shimmering water in too many shades of blue and green for my vocabulary to cope with, so I have brought reference. I pull the paint charts from my suitcase and stow them in my day bag: the scorned word ‘azure’ will not pass my lips today.

The Titi ai Tonga is a traditional-looking boat with carved double prows and a thatched roof, crewed by three young men with a lively line of patter and musical talents too. Captain/Cook steers the boat with his knees and sings as his big fingers pluck the strings of his tiny ukulele; when we reach our lunch-stop he deftly slices up the albacore tuna and bananas, sizzling them on the barbecue as we snorkel gently over the coral.

After lunch we cruise on to One Foot Island, named for its shape, where many happy people have stood in pairs on the white sand: it's one of the Cook Islands’ favourite sites for weddings, one for each of the young coconut palms planted on the beach. I watch the other passengers peel off in twos, hand in hand, then I stump off on my own to the other side of the island where I look out at a classic tropical island scene and decide that the colour of the water is Mint Tulip deepening into Riptide with a band of Curious Blue under an Oxymoron sky. It’s beautiful, but there’s only a couple of white terns to share it with plus a rooster on island time lustily crowing somewhere in the bush behind me...

[Pub. Destinations Spring 2008]

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Lions and tigers and

I've been cold all day today. When I got dressed the morning was bright, but it was an illusion and outside it was chilly and the short sleeves were a mistake. Not like Saturday. Saturday was one out of the box: brilliantly blue sky, bright warm sunshine, every edge clear and sharp, and just enough freshness when I went for my walk to give me the feel of Sequoia National Park on the equally perfect autumn day that I climbed Moro Rock. I love getting random sensations like that, that link so evocatively to a moment ages ago that I'd completely forgotten about, and bring it back in a rush.

I could smell the fallen leaves, see their rich yellows and reds, feel the soft burgundy velvet of the sequoia trunks, hear the rustle of the chipmunk in the undergrowth - and remember the sudden stomach-lurch when that noise reminded me that I was all alone in the forest, walking quietly, and that America's not like New Zealand, with only some nasty little nocturnal possums sharing the bush with me: that here, they have BEARS.

And a couple of days later, at Yosemite? This.

Saturday 24 October 2009


Our frog is growing up. He's an Australian green and golden bell frog, a type of tree frog, and he appeared in our pond one day about three weeks before Christmas last year.

It was so lovely to see him there, our unexpected guest who came out of nowhere, and he gave us a huge amount of pleasure just sitting there on the rim, or plopping into the water to rest on the weed. I googled him, naturally, and found that his sort aren't uncommon in the top half of the North Island, having been introduced here in the 1860s. A true Aussie, he loves the sun, and bakes all day in the sunshine.

He disappeared as suddenly as he'd come one day in early autumn, and I hoped he'd be back again when the weather warmed up - and so he was, reappearing about a month ago. I was enormously pleased. But he's not the same frog: he's an adolescent now, as I realised one morning lying in bed listening to the dawn chorus and suddenly realising that the unfamiliar, odd call I could hear wasn't some new sort of bird, but the frog trying out his new croak like a boy whose voice has broken.

He sits by the pond now with his throat swelling, croaking hesitantly; some days he's missing, and I wonder if he's wandering around the garden looking for a girlfriend. It would be nice if he found one, but the goldfish would eat the eggs and tadpoles, so I'd have to net the frogspawn and hope to hatch the eggs in a bucket or somewhere. That would be fun - although Google tells me that lots of bell frogs calling together can sound like motorbikes, which would be ironic, as the boy next door has only just grown out of revving his.

Frogs can be remarkably noisy...

>>> Further down the coast we see what else the current has attracted: from the top of the Cape Naturaliste light-house, a 100 year-old classic in white-painted stone, we are watching big red kangaroos grazing in the scrub directly below when someone spots whales cruising around the point. People flock to nearby Dunsborough to watch humpbacked and right whales migrating past in spring, and the town has plenty to keep holiday-makers happy the rest of the year; but we find all we need at Quay West Resort Bunker Bay tucked into a secluded bay.

There’s a range of chalets and apartments here set in gardens behind the dunes, and at first I covet one of the villas where guests are enjoying drinks on their decks over a big pond, but when I go past again at dusk after watching the sunset from the lovely beach, I am astonished by the creaks, croaks, pops and peeps produced by the frogs living here, and am glad of the peace in my swish apartment up the slope.

Breakfast by the pool overlooking the bay is made even better by the world’s best muesli, but we have to shift ourselves: Sean is picking us up for a tour of the area. He’s a local, and bubbling with enthusiasm as he drives us in his luxury Land Rover to show us its secret gems. We bump off-road past mobs of sunbathing grey roos down to the actual Margaret River, where we glide in a canoe along its still waters, spotting birds and ancient rocks. A short drive away, where the river meets the sea, things are a lot livelier: the surf is up at one of the coast’s best breaks, and the waves are busy. Out beyond we see more whales, and later, when we have walked along part of the Cape to Cape track and are resting on 60 million year-old rocks, one breaches and its tail is black against the sun-gold water. We pause under peppermint gums to taste honey made from its flowers; we hear Aboriginal legends by a mossy waterfall; we stop again and again to admire the drifts of wildflowers: white, pink, blue, yellow. Sean takes us for a picnic lunch in the barrel room of the Fraser Gallop Estate, not open to the public, and we eat fresh local produce and try some of the wines contained in the huge wooden barrels behind us...

[Pub. TravelTrade 8/5/09]

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Glory be to God

There's a sign outside a house that I walk past quite often with the dog. It says "If God DID exist, what would you ask?" It's pretty clever psychology, and I get sucked into considering my question every time. It's usually a good fifty metres before I get distracted by something else, and then don't give it another thought until I go that way again.

I did the God thing when I was a teenager, following custom and precedent; also enjoying a good hymn. In those days we sang them at school assemblies, too, incredible as it is to think of that now; and I got a lot of pleasure from the words and the ritual. But science triumphed in the end, and it's a long time since I was even ambivalent.

Now the only time I go near churches is when I'm travelling - but then I make a meal of it. I may mutter to myself about all the wars, oppression and evil that have occurred because of religion; but if there were no God for people to worship, how much beauty we would miss. I love churches and cathedrals: they're simultaneously homely and awe-inspiring, and it's glorious when I'm in one if the organ's being played or the choir practising - or even just a few people scattered through the pews, praying.

I look at those amazing soaring ceilings, the puddles of soft colours from the windows thrown at the bases of the pillars, the gleam of gold, the wear in the wood, and I don't need God, I'm just happy with the physical beauty that's been created in his name, all over the world.

The photo's of the ceiling in La Compania de Jesus in Quito, by the way: totally over the top, but when we're talking seven tonnes of gold leaf, I find I can forgive a degree of excess.

Sunday 11 October 2009

The call of nature

This is the view from the loo of Hill View, the farmhouse where I boarded when I spent my first winter in England working as a groom. It was a pretty, interesting and ever-changing outlook, and when the sun shone in there in the mornings, the loo was a tempting place to linger - particularly as a refuge from the unpredictable moods of Doris, my very weird landlady. One of the many strange things about her was that she looked as though she'd been drawn with a ruler: tall and thin, with shoulder-length straight hair, and eyes and mouth that vanished into slits when she smiled her creepy and untrustworthy smile. Urghhhh!

My next two loos were unremarkable, if you don't count the purple carpet in the Churchdown one or the fact that the Longhope one was visible from the front entrance - a perpetual problem for an open-door policy person like me.

This is the view from the loo of my favourite house in the world, The Croft, a 300 year-old stone cottage on a Herefordshire hill. It was better than the one at Hill View because even when there wasn't a lorry with one wheel caught in the broken concrete lid of the underground rainwater tank, it had a focal point in the village church, St Mary's (where Michael Palin's great-grandfather Edward was once the vicar. I snatch at celebrity connections wherever I can).

The morning sun shone in here, too, there was a big radiator on the wall as well as a fan heater on a timer, the room was spacious, and it was also a place to linger in comfort; although the large mirror above the vanity unit directly opposite did not always reflect an edifying sight.

My current bathroom has none of these features. I do, though, spend more time than perhaps I should standing at the window gazing out at this much less extensive view, which despite the blot of the trusty Hills Hoist at least has some bush, including a kauri tree, and many birds, some resident, others transient.

The hens are my main interest, but there's also a flock of gentle spotted doves who wait for me to give them wheat every morning, as well as fantails, silvereyes, blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows, starlings, mynahs, tui, wood pigeons, invisible grey warblers and even a pair of African peach-faced lovebirds escaped from someone's aviary.

And, yesterday, there was a harrier hawk causing panic in the ranks. They're not unusual here: while hanging out the washing, I've several times heard the chickens give their alarm call as they rush for cover, and looked up to see a hawk high above. The hens are eagle-eyed and sharp, by the way: they can distinguish between a hawk and a seagull, even way up in the sky (although the new entrants, ex-barn, had to learn the difference). Yesterday, though, the hawk was hovering below the tops of the trees, clearly deciding whether it was worth a go; and I was thankful that Titch, my only bantam, was nowhere to be seen.

When I lived in England, sometimes down at the washing line I would hear faint cries, the essence of wildness, high, high above, and see a pair of buzzards circling; and once I rushed out of the house when there was a commotion in the paddock, expecting to see a fox and finding instead a rather confused young buzzard struggling to get airborne again after a misguided attempt to nail one of my hens.

But there's one raptor that's enraptured me. The Andean condor I saw at Colca in Peru, lazily spiralling higher and higher out of the canyon as the morning warmed and the thermals got going: wings spread astonishingly wide, primary feathers splayed like fingers, circling up and up until it disappeared into the blue.

Friday 2 October 2009

Ho hum

In six hours' time this will be us, on our way to Hong Kong and then Auckland, hopefully - oh how hopefully - tucked up in Cathay Pacific's sinfully spacious business class, every whim catered to.

Here in Putney, beneath the Heathrow flight path, people scarcely glance up when another plane passes over - it's literally a minute-ly occurrence. The buses throb across the bridge, the trains rumble past, dogs, cycles and mounted police go through the gate into Wandsworth Park next door, and mothers with high-tech push chairs trot past glued to their cellphones.

It's a busy place; there's a lot going on here. We've been busy too, over the last three weeks: it feels like months since we were at home. We've covered so much ground, seen so many places, been told so much history, said "That's so interesting!" and "Isn't it beautiful here?" so many times. And the glasses of cider, the pork pies, the Marks & Sparks sandwiches, the Walkers crisps, the Soreen malt loaf...

It's been a brilliant trip and already I want to come again - but right now? I want to click my heels together and be home.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Hooray for minimalism

London is like my Auntie Marjorie's house: full of assorted family mementoes, some beautiful, some quirkily personal, some quite simply bizarrre, all jumbled into her house wherever they will fit and all cheerfully dusted the same, whether they're fancy porcelain or made of glued macaroni.

Walking today from St Paul's cathedral to Marble Arch (and beyond), a journey that required three hours of non-stop trekking despite its being such a small distance on the map, I was constantly diverted by the statues, plaques, churches, fingerposts and monuments along the route. A church full of RAF memorabilia, a 10 metre high sculpture of a horse's head, Prince Albert gaily doffing his hat on a trotting horse, a black-and-white pub right next to a soaring glass building full of (presumably gloomy) financiers - these all helped to distract me from the grim task of beating my way through phalanxes of suits in Newgate so intent on cellphone conversations that they cannoned into me without noticing; and negotiating throngs of rabid shoppers in Oxford Street ditto.

It was such a relief to get to Hyde Park and off the hard footpath onto the grass; and away from the crowds to space amongst trees, where the new NZ War Memorial turned out to be not the cluster of girder stumps impaled in a hillock that I had feared, but a suitably sombre and authentically Kiwi honouring of the dead.

Like Auntie Marjorie's house, London is fun to visit, but if I ever had to live there, all that clutter would do my head in.


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