Monday, November 30, 2009

Mind the gap

Such bravery today! Walking the streets by ourselves! Taking the Metro! Travelling by tuk tuk round the city!

And yet not so intrepid really, thanks to the kindness of randomly-met Indians from the schoolboy shyly pointing us to the right platform to the business man in his immaculate suit recommending shops and settling on a fare with our tuk tuk driver to the young man in a t-shirt so earnestly and intensely insisting that all he wanted was to save us from being hassled by strangers. Close talkers one and all - but not so close as the other passengers on the new Metro system. Sardines aren't in it.

Buying a few trinkets cost us little money but vast amounts of time and effort, mostly convincing the driver that no, we didn't want to go to another State Emporium, we wanted a market - and then being delivered to guess where? All part of the Indian retail experience, I know.

Everyone asks where we're from as an opener, but it turns out "New Zealand" is the kiss of death to any conversation. "Australia" works better, we find, though it's galling to have to agree that yes, Australia is bound to do well at the Commonwealth Games here next year. But at least we get our own back when we recoil from their offerings as too expensive and leave shops empty-handed while they tut behind our backs at the cheapness of Australians.

Respect. Please!

Back in Delhi at the Bajaj Homestay, this time in the penthouse room on the roof by the terrace, which is less posh than it sounds, but more comfortable than our previous room which had no window but did have a pigeon living in the ventilation opening which was rather nice.

It's been an exhausting few days and I have to say that the forts and palaces have rather merged for the moment, though I know I'll sort them out once I get home and coordinate my notes and photos. Lots of cows, camels and elephants, and this morning bits of goats by the road when we ventured out of the manicured perfection of the Raj Palace into Jaipur's busy streets.

I wasn't able to write about the Taj as I had no internet, but it was a little sad. The building is still gorgeous, untouchably perfect, gloriously serene and symmetrical - the trouble is the 40,000 tourists who visit every day. They have no manners and no respect, and are encouraged by the professional photographers to treat the poor Taj like a prop for a series of cheap and gimmicky photos - pretending to hold the top of the dome, for instance and for goodness sake. The so-called Diana bench? A scrum, nothing less. And inside, good grief, whistles blown by guards and guides, and people shouting for the echo. It was like a sports hall - but it's a mausoleum!

We were unfortunate to arrive mid-afternoon on a Thursday - it's closed on Fridays - so the crowds were at their worst. Far better to have got there at 6am, if the programme had allowed. But it was still worth visiting and I would still recommend it to anyone, with those provisos.

A whole day to fill in Delhi tomorrow, by ourselves. Some shopping seems called for.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Butting out

Our elephant was a bit of a speed merchant this morning, overtaking the others on the way up to the Amber Fort. That's not the sort of traffic jam you'd want to get caught in on foot.

Today we've seen palaces, harems, mausoleums and an extraordinary observatory; as well as the usual melée of people, vehicles and animals in the streets. Not so many goats today though - it's not a good day for goats. Bakr-Eid is a Muslim festival when goats are slaughtered and eaten, and for days we've been passing temporary markets of hundreds of goats, painted, dyed, decorated with tinsel, all being dickered over and for none of whom it was going to end well.

Back here at the Raj Palace, it's all soothing piped music, fountains and super-attentive staff (I'm sure that's the norm anyway, but we're also almost the only guests at the moment). The maitre d' walks backwards most of the time, bowing, and was stern about my lunch. "Please don't compromise, if it's not to your taste I'll remove it and make you another."

Sheesh, it was only a tuna sandwich. Good thing my knife wasn't dirty.

Living like a king - or maharajah

In Jaipur after a day on roads shared with camel carts, painted elephants, buses with people on top, wandering cows, herded sheep and goats - and also a corpse on a bier. Fascinating but exhausting to be watching like a tennis match that lasts 6 hours, so this hotel is a haven.

The Raj Palace is truly an actual maharajah's palace still owned by royalty, with doormen in curly slippers with moustaches to match, marble everywhere, fountains, a velvety croquet lawn and a palmist on the staff. And swan taps in the bathroom and a TV over the bath.

Right now the fountain is tinkling in the coutyard outside, pigeons are cooing and the muezzin is calling.

So foreign but so fabulous.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Celebrity

Temples today - the fabulous Lotus Temple that looks related to Sydney's Opera House and which was perfectly reflected in turquoise pools; and the astonishing Swaminarayan Akshardham, a vast red sandstone complex with an enchanting frieze of 148 stone elephants around the base of the main building - and where we were brave with food and it paid off (or so far...)

We know what celebrities feel like now. Young men especially eye us up (yes, me too!) in traffic jams and whenever we're walking; and we had to pose with some for photos before they ran off chortling excitedly. It's been a diversion, but the last stop today put it all in perspective.

The Gandi Museum is such a heart-felt place. It's in the house where he lived, next to the garden where he was assassinated, and it was very well-used. Heaps of information, his hard low bed, statues, cute dioramas and an unexpectedly affecting animation. Plus terracotta footprints tracing the last steps of his enormously long journey.

Well worth a visit, even at the end of a tiring day - which isn't over yet: light show at the Red Fort tonight.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Traffic? What traffic?

Today has been goats, monuments, mosques, silk rugs, parrots, chipmunks, outbreaks of order in amongst dust and rubble, and cute children in neat school uniform everywhere - but mainly traffic. Horrendous, astonishing, mind-blowing traffic, made of cars, brightly-painted trucks, tuk tuks, rickshaws, horses, bikes and motorbikes woven through by insoucient pedestrians, dogs, and even a cow.

Though the noise is miles worse than a Manhattan jam - the horn is as vital as the brakes here - the patience is extraordinary, and a lesson to all tetchy Kiwi drivers.

Busy day, lots to see, not much to eat, not too hot - went well. More of the same tomorrow (hopefully more sleep too).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oh yes!

Cathay Pacific, you little beauty! Pods for both of us! And my unexcitable daughter? THRILLED.

Also, ruined for any future economy flight.

Ah, here come the hot towels, sigh. And the champers...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Here I go again



It really is a wonderful thing to be a travel writer, and I do love it - being sent FOR FREE to amazing places to do fun and interesting things and then to turn it all into stories which I then get the glory of seeing in print. And then I get paid for them! (Even if not that much.) It's surely only a matter of time before I'm found out.

But I do hate the packing. It's so hard to imagine hot when I'm cold, and vice versa; and to choose travelling clothes that are smart enough for a business upgrade (please, please!) and yet still comfortable for sleeping in and that won't show the inevitable food spills.

You'd think I'd have it all sorted by now, you really would - but no. Every time, a voyage of discovery before I've even left the house.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

They're growing our cabbage trees over there



My vegetable garden is looking so ordered. The beans are just reaching for their poles, the tomatoes are forming their first flowers, the broccoli and cauli leaves are fresh and perfect, and there aren't any weeds. Yet. When I come home after 9 days away, it's going to be a jungle with everything gone sideways, kinked and feral. That's what gardening is, in Auckland: it's all about control, hacking back and disposing of the bodies.

Not like England, where gardeners nurture and cosset, primp and titivate - and like as not have everything they've worked for get blown to shreds or turn grey and slimy under leaden skies. But when the weather's kind, there's nowhere more lovesome than an English garden, God wot, and the Cotswolds is prime gardening country. Honey stone cottages and walls, mellow old brick and tiles, all set off by perfect flowers in neat gardens with manicured lawns and hedges, and hung with baskets and edged with pots, all brimming with colour and the result of loving care and months of planning. It's beautiful.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sky high



Coffee today with Martin, who's retired at the great age of 42 from press photography and who came along on the trip earlier this year to Thailand - and whose grab shot of this amazing bar in Bangkok was SO much better than mine.

It didn't help me to concentrate on getting my settings right that there was a man in a suit calling "No photo! No photo!" from the bottom of the steps. The official reason was that people had tripped and fallen while doing what I had, but what do you think - minutes later, camera safely tucked away, we were drinking cocktails and hanging over that simple glass balustrade with the street 64 storeys below and nothing in the way of a safety net other than a bit of wood and chicken wire.

But it was certainly spectacular, watching the sun set over that huge city, the wide brown river cutting a swathe through the temples and skyscrapers, and all the lights coming on. Plus there was a delicious dinner, live music from a dramatic dame up even higher, her gown trailing behind her in the breeze, and good company. Well worth a few baht (or more) - Sky Bar, Sirocco, State Tower.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In her father's footsteps



This time next week the Baby and I will be in Agra where the highlight of the visit - and quite probably of the whole 8 days we're in India - will be going to see the Taj Mahal.

It's nearly 30 years since I was there, and yet I remember it perfectly (don't ask what I had for tea the day before yesterday. Or even yesterday) because it's one of those places which is so perfect, and so beautiful, and that lives so triumphantly up to every expectation, that it's totally unforgettable.

Most famous places you've heard all about, when you get there they're smaller, or dirtier, or smellier than you were expecting - but the Taj is every bit as fabulous as you've been led to believe. There are very few other places in this exclusive club: Machu Picchu, Ayers Rock, the Grand Canyon - that's about it, in my experience so far.

I do expect that it will be more crowded than in my photo here; and instead of the slim young man in his surprisingly short shorts, I'll be photographing his slim young daughter who was many years from even being thought of when this one was taken. I'll probably include her feet this time.

And I'm equally confident that I'll be coming home with more than just six photos of this astonishingly beautiful building. Hooray for digital!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Swings and roundabouts

They're promising us some hot weather soon. That'll be nice - it's about time. It's a present from Oz, some of the sweltering temperatures they've been suffering with over the last few weeks. Southern Australia has been having a one-in-100-years heat wave - for the third time this year, up in the high 30s for day after day after day, and night time too, which is almost worse.

The Lucky Country is also a very harsh place, and even in the cities life can get uncomfortable, with heat, dust storms and the smoke from bush fires that occasionally get worryingly close. And the people who live out in the bush really have it hard - the Victoria fires this year just the latest horrific example.

When I went out for a Wilderness Wander from Port Lincoln with Phil and Amanda, they let me cuddle Steve, above, a 7-month grey kangaroo orphaned joey, the sixth they've raised, mostly as a result of car accidents with the mothers. I keep writing about Steve because he was so wonderfully cute, and it was such a novelty to be nuzzled by a baby roo - but today's link is that Amanda told me that in the '05 fires in the Eyre Peninsula, they got caught by a sudden leap-frog of the flames from miles away, and found themselves having to grab their children, who were wearing only their swimmers, and running for their lives. There was no time to snatch up anything else, so they lost absolutely everything - including the kangaroo that they had raised, like Steve, from a tiny baby.

They were so sad about it, but they weren't able to mention it to anybody and grieve properly. Because in their small community the fires also killed nine people.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Woo hoo


Yesterday in a lucky draw at a fancy luncheon (bit of tautology there - when is a luncheon not fancy?) I won three nights at Pacific Resort on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. To them that have, shall be given, eh? Because I went to Aitutaki last year - but it was kind of cruel, because I only had one night there. But a kind cruelty, because that night was spent in an over-water thatched villa at Lagoon Resort. Although only after having been to the Pacific Resort for a sundown cocktail and nothing else. Which was cruel, because it looked kind of fabulous. Anyway, now I get to see for real.

The photo was taken over the pilot's shoulder on an Air Raro flight to Aitutaki from Atiu - I'd been alarmed earlier in the flight when there was a sudden rush of air through the cabin, but it was only the co-pilot opening his little sliding window to take a photo of another little island we were passing over. Aitutaki Lagoon is really that colour, so is the sea - it's a spectacular first sight, and when you see it you just know that you're going to have a classically glorious South Pacific experience. And you're right.

Monday, November 16, 2009

To the rescue

There's a blackbird nest in one of our trees and this morning both parents were agitated, making that extremely effective irritating alarm call of theirs: cat, obviously. And there he was, Won Ton next door, sitting in the landing window just a couple of metres from the nest, chittering away and clearly there for the duration. What to do? His people were out, I couldn't throw anything at the window... but yes, I could! I grabbed the hose, turned the head to the jet stream setting, and let fly with a stream of water. Result!

The other bird rescue I was involved in this year was in South Australia, on a safari in the Gawler Ranges with Geoff and his wife Rene. We'd stopped for coffee on our 4WD drive through the bush and Geoff cocked his head, saying, "That's an emu." I could just hear something, more vibration than noise, but there was nothing to be seen - till, a couple of minutes along the track, Geoff slammed on the brakes and leaped down the bank to where he'd spotted a big emu upside down, its leg caught in a wire fence it had tried to jump. The emu grunted, Geoff grunted as he strained to pull the wires apart, the emu's other leg flailed about with its solid claws, and then it was free, running off with a bit of a limp. We did feel good.

Then we came across some more, and Geoff demonstrated how to get them up close for a photo: you make a fool of yourself to pique their curiosity. Who'd have thought it?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This non-sporting life

So, last night the NZ soccer team, the All Whites, qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year, and "a jubilant nation erupted". Apparently.

We're not a sporting household. I didn't grow up in one and nor are my children. People say, "How about the big game, then?" and, never mind the teams, I won't even know what sport they've been playing.

It's hard for some people to understand not being the least bit interested in sport; and the kindest of them are sorry that I'm missing out on the thrills and camaraderie - but as far as I can see, if you're a Kiwi, there's not a lot in the way of thrills. More like a ton of misery. Even the All Blacks, I understand, can't be relied on to deliver in crucial games. No, I'm perfectly content for my ups and downs to be controlled by sunshine and rain, and leave rabbles of unpredictable, badly-behaved and overpaid young men well out of my life.

Having said which, I did enjoy the gaelic football All-Ireland final at Croke Park in Dublin a couple of months ago. True, I felt a bit of an imposter amongst 82,000+ rabid fans all painted and dressed in their colours; and because of my red jacket, chose to support Cork, who lost, so that was disappointing. But it was a grand spectacle, and highly entertaining being such a fast and clearly skilful game, and for me was absolutely a novelty - so it was a well-spent afternoon that I don't regret. But it was part of my tourist experience: I couldn't keep it up back home.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm meant to be writing about the other sort...



Whales have been big in the news this week (ha ha).

There's a story in today's paper about the resident population of Bryde's whales right here in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf. While they're not endangered globally, it's rare for them to live so close to a big city, so that's special - but it's also a problem because they keep getting whacked by ships buzzing in and out of the harbour. The marine biologists want to research their movements and habits to try to come up with a strategy.

It'd be really cool to see them - so far I haven't even seen the orca that visit here frequently; though a big pod of dolphins cruising right past Devonport wharf was a brilliant gift one bright morning.

The other news was that Whale Watch Kaikoura has just won the Supreme Award in the Responsible Tourism Awards in London, ahead of 5000 entries from around the world. Good for them: they've been working hard for years building up the business, while the town has been feeding off the visitors they've generated, and they put on a great trip.

We went out with them some years ago, and it was a smooth operation, with comfortable seats, sonograph, big screen TV showing the movements of the whales, and plenty of action. Not that much of it came from the whales, it must be said - we would rush to where a whale had been seen rising, look at a black hump in the water for 10 minutes while it rested on the surface and re-oxygenated, and then there would be a rush of excitement and shutter-clicking as it gathered itself to dive again and the tail came clear of the water, and that would be it for 40 minutes till it came up again.

We did manage to see five that afternoon, and it was impressive and all, but the most entertainment came from a huge pod of dolphins that were putting on an incredible SeaWorld display - leaping, crossing over, falling backwards, and all apparently just for the fun of it.

Kaikoura's whales, a resident population of sperm whales, plus other species that pass through attracted by the deep trench just offshore, its cold waters full of fish, can also be viewed from the air - when I went up with Kaikoura Helicopters earlier this year, I could see their size and shape perfectly, and it was really impressive. Also, huge fun! Whichever way you do it, though, you get practically instant whales - gotta be better than steaming along for hours just on the off-chance (Boston Whale Watch, I'm looking at you!)

The photo is a cheat: it's one of the humpbacks I saw in Galapagos. But you'd never have known, if I hadn't said, would you? Now, back to writing my story about Mt Snowdon. In Wales.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Never too late to remember



Yes, it's two days since Remembrance Day, so the link is even more strained than usual, but we can overlook that.

It's interesting that not only has Anzac Day got bigger and bigger over the last 10 years or so, but now Remembrance Day is also an annual feature in the news here.

Visiting Gallipoli has become so mainstream that a new road put in to deal with the visitors destroyed part of what they go to see; but overall it's a heartening phenomenon and good to see.

I've visited a number of war cemeteries, the most impressive because of their size the ones in Normandy, like the American one above, on the cliff above Omaha Beach; and the less austere British one at Bayeux where there are roses by the crosses; and the understated German one outside the town behind a high hedge where low black crosses are grouped on the grass surrounding a huge mound. Then there's the one at Oxford, where my uncle is buried, killed on a training flight when his wings iced up - it was a long way to come from Dunedin to die in England's friendly fields. The youngest son, it was a terrible blow for the family; his medal and the letter from the king were framed and hung over my grandmother's bed.

And then there's the lovely peaceful one in near Tiendanite in New Caledonia - a NZ one, this, with the plaques set into the grass in a long curve leading to the memorial against a backdrop of the wild mountains.

In Australia the one at Adelaide River is unique in my experience for having personal messages included on the brass plaques - "He was my all. Mother" - which makes them even more moving; and in the National War Memorial at Canberra the long, long wall of names has poppies stuck under the edges where people have come on a pilgrimage.

What they all have in common is that they are lovingly cared-for: neat, clean, pretty and peaceful. They are places of respect, honour and remembrance, and always worth visiting.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Breakfasting like royalty - sometimes



There was no milk for breakfast this morning. I'm happy to say that this doesn't often happen in our house - but that does then mean that it's even more ruinous to the morning routine. The First-Born kindly went to the dairy when it opened and brought some back, but by then the pattern was shattered and the day already dislocated.

Breakfast to me is tea and cereal, currently porridge, both with lots of milk. To do without it was to re-live some of the worst breakfasts I've eaten, most notably in Peru.

In our three-star experience there, breakfast was invariable: a saucer with one dry-scrambled egg on it, some slices of tomato, a sliver or two of avocado if we were lucky, and a stale bread roll with jam washed down with a cup of coca tea (or feeble coffee). Every morning, the same. It's just as well the country itself is so colourful and fascinating, because those breakfasts were nothing to get out of bed for.

Joana, our local guide, was inured to it, but Chuck from St Louis found it a tough row to hoe. I think his experience with saucers was previously non-existent, particularly when used as a main course plate. It was a (heartlessly) comical sight to see his disappointment at this restaurant where we had brunch after an early start, when he ordered eggs and bacon and got the usual saucer of hackingly dry scramble with some diced ham sprinkled sparingly over the top. It drove him to drink, hence his frothy pisco sour at 11 o'clock in the morning. He didn't like that either. Bless him, he tried to stay cheerful, but he went home half the man he was when he arrived. (He did look the better for it though.)

I've had other horrible breakfasts - the hard-boiled eggs and Fanta in a Moscow hotel are still memorable after 30 years - but there have been excellent ones too, even just this year. Duck hash at Hapuku Lodge in Kaikoura was inspired and delicious; and having the waiter on the Silverseas ship Silver Whisper trail behind me back to the table carrying my choice from the buffet was a novelty - but best of all was at Indigo Pearl Resort on Phuket, Thailand.

The resort's decor is industrial chic - iron, concrete and bolts combined with super-fine sheets, silk throws and richly polished wood - which was a nice change from the usual bamboo. The restaurant kept the theme going with cutlery like spanners and so on, but it was the food that blew us away, especially the breakfast buffet. Every sort of tropical fruit, juice, cereal, pastry and bread, a toaster (yay!) and friendly staff standing behind little stalls just waiting to whip up our choice of eggs, or waffles, or crepes, or noodles, fried rice or congee... And tables outside under palm trees with manicured gardens full of bright waxy scented flowers, peaceful fountains and immaculate lawns. Now that's the way to start a day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ein Guter Tag



When the Berlin Wall went up, I was only a child, and it passed me by as one of those unfathomable things that grown-ups got up to, and Germany was impossibly remote and foreign.

When it came down, I was much older, much closer, and I'd not only learnt German, but had been to Germany - yet it all still pretty much passed me by. In my defence, the First-Born was little more than a week old, and I was in such a fog that everything outside a very tight little circle was passing me by.

I do recall sitting by the fire watching it on TV with the First-Born in my arms thinking "Wow, this is big", but not actually able to summon up the energy to get excited about it.

I've never been to Berlin. After all those years of learning German, and living for 17 years just across the Channel, I've only spent 3 days in Hamburg - but the Baby, who wasn't even thought of 20 years ago, has been to Germany on exchange for two months, and visited Berlin, and Munich, and even Neuschwanstein, which I had a poster of on my wall for years.

But Hamburg was fun: we stayed at a B&B with a nice lady whose spare room had the BIGGEST BED I've ever seen, before or since - honestly, you could have fitted an extended family in there - and wandered around the city centre admiring all the wonderful old buildings that somehow escaped the Allied bombs (the landlord of our local pub, an ex-RAF pilot, said he'd never been to Hamburg "but I have seen it from the air"). We had a delicious meal at a restaurant where the starter was so tasty but so filling that we weren't able to do justice to the main course, and the chef came marching out of his kitchen when the plates were cleared to ask what was wrong. It was a chilling moment, but I was proud to be able to explain to his satisfaction what the reason was.

Unfortunately, our other restaurant experience was more shaming: we had taken the ferry across the city's pretty lake (impressed by the efficiency and brilliance of using electro-magnets to moor the boat at the jetties) and wandered around the leafy suburbs before having another lovely meal. We were into our last few hours in Germany, and after spending the previous couple of months working our way back to the UK from NZ through about 16 countries, it had become a game to be left with as little local currency as possible. So we chose our courses carefully and chortled when we worked out that we would have no change left over this time. Except, sitting there with the bill and a pile of notes and coins, our nicely full stomachs sank as we suddenly realised that we hadn't factored in the tip.

So we ran. Another dark day in the history of Anglo-German relations.

And the photo? An Irish wall - so much prettier than that ugly concrete thing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Best view in the world



The new tent arrived today. It's a replacement for my old - very old - one that was given to me by Jean-Claude and his wife (cough) 36 years ago. It's a bit of a museum piece these days - but it's given good service. The last time I used it was when I was on the Great New Zealand Trek's second sector, from the Hokianga Harbour to the Kaipara - a distance of about 200 km that I covered on horseback, along with about 80 others, while another contingent rode bikes, and even more hardy souls walked.

It's a wonderful idea: to travel the length of NZ one week a year, so it will take about 12 years to complete the journey. Steve, whose inspiration it was, wanted to combine his horsemastership and experience organising treks with a fund-raising effort, and on the first couple of sectors the participants were all sponsored to collect money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, as Steve's mother had suffered from that disease. So it was all for a good cause, but that was just the icing on the cake, because the trek itself was so much fun and such a glorious thing to do.

We spent about six hours in the saddle each day, riding through forests, along the beach and over private land, and fetching up each afternoon at the camp, which had been magically relocated since we left it in the morning. It was a major logistical operation that was wonderfully well organised, and we had proper toilets and showers on a truck, a big dining marquee serving lovely food, and even a massage tent. The horses were all safely contained for the night, while we enjoyed local entertainers before going to bed in our tents.

The weather was beautiful, the scenery ditto, the camaraderie heartening, and a great time was had by all - certainly by me. Some people are in it for the long haul, determined to go the whole distance; but I'll be happy if they'll have me along again when they reach the South Island and the real scenery.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Feeling fruity



The loquats are coming ripe now - it's a race between us and the tui and woodpigeons. Already the lowest ones have been picked by other people who walk the same route that I do, so I'm having to add stretches to the daily routine. Soft, yellow and juicy, with attractively smooth and shiny pits, they're something to look forward to - though it still seems odd to be picking fruit in spring.

Later there'll be plums and feijoas growing along the roads - very welcome, but it's a shame that we haven't the climate for the mangoes that grow so freely - in both senses - in northern Queensland. When we re-entered civilisation after our week-long safari down from Cape York and I wandered the wide, wide streets of quaint little Cooktown, I was amazed and delighted to find juicy, ripe mangoes just lying on the grass verges, so common that no-one bothered to pick them up. Well I did - and I can tell you here and now that there is such a thing as too many mangoes.

I gathered sticky armfuls to carry back to my hotel room where I indulged in a private orgy of sucking and slurping, juice dripping off my chin and elbows. It wasn't a pretty sight (I was bent over the bathroom basin throughout the whole shameful business, so I can say that with authority) and it had internal consequences much worse than simply leaving me with teeth like a baleen whale's.

Much more civilised was the fruit picnic I had in a deserted bay of white sand and Bombay Gin-coloured water on Atiu, in the Cook Islands. Birdman George had taken Eileen and me for a tour of the island, searching for the elusive kura, and he'd stopped off to shin up a coconut palm to twist off some young nuts ("These ones will taste like Sprite!" he promised, and they sort of did) and whack off some leaves with his machete. While we sucked the coconut milk and scooped out the soft flesh with a shell spoon, he deftly wove the leaves into a mat, and at the bay he arranged on it baby bananas - until you've eaten bananas picked ripe from the tree, you haven't properly tasted bananas - passionfruit, crunchy starfruit, and soft papaya sprinkled with freshly-grated coconut and drizzled with lime juice. What a feast!

Thank goodness I wasn't alone, or it could have been the mango debacle all over again.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wusses welcome



I'm rather dismayed that the reaction of a couple of people to this story has been "Oooh, scary! I wouldn't want to go there!" - not at all the desired effect, and my hosts at Tourism Northern Territory will be disappointed if that's the general feeling.

One of the main reasons I enjoy going to Australia is that their wildlife is so much more interesting than ours, which mainly amounts to a bunch of birds - that's interesting as in bizarre, and also as in dangerous. Snakes, crocodiles, spiders, scorpions, box jellyfish, cone shells, sharks... it really adds a frisson to a trip outside the cities (and occasionally inside them too). But although I've walked, ridden, camped and kayaked through the Outback, and slept under the stars more than once (so, twice) I've never been troubled by so much as a mosquito. No snakes sharing my swag, no scorpions in my boots, no spiders down my neck - the worst I've had is a frog in the loo, and to be honest, the state of the loo itself was the scariest part of that experience.

My most frequent encounters with unpleasant Australian wildlife have been courtesy of their white-tailed spiders which are now established here in Auckland, and of which we have a sizeable population in our house. They apparently have a nasty bite which some claim can cause necrotising fasciitis, they're smallish hunting spiders and they like to lurk inside clothing dropped on the floor (still not a horrifying enough prospect to persuade my older daughter to use hangers) - I did once find one on my bra when I was getting UNdressed.

The one in the photo? A golden orb female - huge but harmless (unless you're the tiny golden orb male and she notices you mating with her). Just another story to tell after a lively but entirely survivable trip to Oz.

No, I didn't order fush and chups

Watching an old episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' last night, I was thrown by Lucy Lawless appearing as herself and speaking in her own Newzild accent. Even though I'm getting used to Aussies in mainstream American programmes like 'House' and 'ER', it's still odd to come across Kiwis speaking in our accent over there: it kind of destroys the fourth wall (though of course it was one of the many joys of 'Flight of the Conchords').

Accents can lead to some dislocating moments: like when I was in Scotland - home to some pretty impenetrable accents itself - and in a pub in Bonnyrigg outside Edinburgh, our waitress seemed to have none at all. Turned out she was from Christchurch - probably the only non-Polish waitress in the whole of Scotland. I was so busy asking her about what she was doing there that I completely forgot to request an explanation of this banner on the wall outside, which still has me foxed.

And my English sister-in-law, despite having already spent some days with us on our recent visit, was still sufficiently caught out by my accent when I was talking about a service in Dublin Cathedral, to say in astonishment, "A circus? In the cathedral?"

Friday, November 6, 2009

Making hay



It's far too lovely a morning to spend sitting inside crouched over a keyboard, either working or playing with my blog. It's warm and sunny and the colour saturation's turned right up. The bottlebrush is in full flower, the opening act for the OTT glories of the pohutukawa next month when the big gnarled trees rise up from puddles of red made by fallen petals.

The air was fresh on my walk this morning, tui were swooping low with a rustle of wings, blackbirds singing, doves cooing and for once the tide was in, concealing the mud on our little mangrovey beach, so that was good too.

The next few days are meant to be dull and damp again, so today I'll be mowing the lawn, fussing with more pot protectors for my runner beans, and pulling up some weeds in the hen run to expose some fresh soil to get the chickens excited. I'll pick some sweet peas and creep up on the frog.

Today I'm not going to write about exotic places I've been: I'm going outside to enjoy where I am.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Remember, remember...



... the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot."

It's Guy Fawkes today and tonight there will be lots of bangs and crackles in the sky and trembling animals inside, including our Labrador who's a disgrace to all gundogs everywhere. I don't think that many kids now remember about Fawkes and the plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament - not here, anyway - and it's more usually known as Bonfire Night. It's a damp morning and no doubt firemen up and down the country are crossing their fingers for discouragingly steady rain tonight.

The best fireworks display I ever saw was in Kuala Lumpur, on Merdeka Day, their independence celebration - something Fawkes would have sympathised with, I guess, breaking free from British rule.

It was a huge day: it began with a parade that went on for hours -

>>> Involving 24,000 participants, it included 12,500 marching past where we sat awed by the sheer scale of the production. We had been expecting a fuss as the entire city was draped with flags and banners, but even the huge image projected onto the skyscraper opposite was upstaged by the living flag in Merdeka Square. Made up of hundreds of children dressed from head to toe in red, white, blue and yellow, it occasionally morphed seamlessly into other patriotic shapes. Behind them in the grandstand were more child professionals, who with an arsenal of coloured cloths, streamers, pompoms and banners flawlessly spelled out messages and executed complicated Mexican waves despite sitting in 30 degree sunshine for the whole three hours.

It was a phenomenal display: after the arrival of the sultans, princes, presidents, prime ministers and Malaysia’s own king and queen, there were children singing and dancing, 1000 drummers, military personnel marching with rifles, missile launchers and huge tanks (note to Helen: don’t fall out with Malaysia), veteran soldiers, vintage cars, decorated floats, fireworks, dog handlers and mounted police, bands with lots of brass and a remarkable number of bagpipes, plus contingents representing industry, commerce and the professions all vying to have the most colourful costumes: those in the blue and silver Flash Gordon outfits got my vote. Whenever it began to feel as though the marchers were surely circling round behind us for another go, the pattern was broken by a fly-over of heavy-duty helicopters dangling flags or MiGs and Hornets screaming overhead trailing coloured vapour trails as they did barrel rolls and other aerobatics. Amazed, I turned to our guide Hamida and said, “I’ve never seen anything on this scale before, have you?” and she replied, “Oh yes. You should see when the Formula One drivers come to town: now that’s what I call a parade.”

[Pub. Press 26/11/07]

And that night, over the city, with the Petronas Towers stunningly stark against the black, amazing fireworks scribbled the sky with colour.

Today is also my father's birthday. Or was. Miss you, Dad.

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