Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back to basics

The kitchen's being replaced today, so it's been all about unnerving thumps and bangs, tradesmen's radio full blast, anxious old pets prowling around not being able to relax, and having to fill the kettle from the bath tap and boil it in the bedroom. Lunch at 4pm: tea and biscuits, except I've no idea where the biscuits actually are, so it was dry cereal instead. But takeaways for dinner tonight, yay!

Over the weekend I pretty much emptied all the cupboards and drawers and it was kind of quaint to open a drawer and find three knives and forks, a handful of teaspoons and a tin opener. I liked being so basic, free of the tyranny of lemon zester, garlic press, ladle and sieve. If the weather were better, and we were allowed to here in suburbia, I'd really rather like to build myself a fire down in the henrun and cook a simple meal there, of the sort that I've enjoyed on various back-country outings.
Most recently that was in the Northern Territory, where I ate a roasted roo tail. That was really basic, I thought, though Craig who did the cooking made allowances for us wussy city types and after he'd singed off all the hair, he wrapped it in foil before throwing it into the embers. It wasn't bad, actually, quite like very tender lamb shanks, but we were fastidious about picking the meat out from the sinews and fat. Craig ate the lot.

More conventionally palatable was the meal Bob cooked for us the next day. Also Aboriginal, he'd worked as a chef, and whipped us up a very succulent feast, all cooked over the mulga wood campfire while we sat around and drank wine: bush dukkah, barbecued kangaroo fillet and white chocolate and wattle-seed steamed puddings. We don't eat that well here even with a proper kitchen.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Feast or famine

Another story of mine in the Herald on Sunday yesterday, about Kaikoura this time. That's two weeks in a row, with the Mauritius one in the NZ Herald proper tomorrow. After months with nothing, suddenly a clump! It always seems to work this way. It's a mystery.

There was another glitch with the photos this time, too: the photos that were supplied by the professional snapper who came with me on this assignment didn't get credited to him, which is embarrassing for me, disappointing for him, and sloppy work by the HoS. They also chose really predictable whales and mountains images: so I've put a couple of his more interesting ones in here. Credit to Dean Mackenzie!
Coincidentally, there's a story in today's paper about the seal cubs that I mentioned in mine - they follow a stream up into the bush to play under a waterfall, sometimes more than a hundred of them. It's a wonderful sight: so unexpected, so cute and so entertaining, as they clown and play in the water. They're wonderfully unafraid, and come right up to people watching to have a good look (or sniff) at them in return.
That's the problem, of course: so many people have heard about the seals that what was a local secret is now becoming a tourist attraction, and there are fears that some harm might come to the cubs from people being stupid or malicious. I did think twice about including it in the story, and made a point of not actually identifying the location - but the Herald's let the cat out of the bag and named the stream.

I hope it can remain as a charming gift from Nature to people who know how lucky they are to receive it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Winter fledgling

The Baby moved out today, gone flatting with four strange (though hopefully not actually strange at all) boys over in the city, and we've all moved on a stage. It's already odd, knowing she's not here - although in practice, when she was, she was always in her room anyway so it's not as if things have changed markedly, except that there's still icecream in the freezer. But knowing that she's gone, even if it turns out to be only temporary, makes the house feel different.

It's a very Western thing, I think. In so many of the places I've been, especially Peru and Ecuador, childhood is a much more independent time. These children above, for example, we came across just wandering along the road out in the country, all by themselves. They're well dressed, and it was school holiday time, so there was nothing odd about it - they were just out, looking after themselves while Mama was busy. They probably counted themselves lucky, able to play unsupervised (near, I remember, a spectacularly steep ravine), unlike this little girl, who had to help her mother with the shopping.
They'd been to market, come home on the back of a truck, and hired this donkey to get the shopping home around the rim of a volcanic crater lake. Then, I imagine, someone - possibly the little girl - would have to return the donkey and go home back again.
Children who grow up playing unsupervised on the roof of their house must see life very differently from our pampered, protected offspring with their computers and MP3 players and impatience at being asked to empty the dishwasher - and their mothers, too, with none of our leisure for fretting over what is nothing more than the natural course of events.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Not so ordinary

I've just finished off the left-over rice pudding: it was calling to me through the quiet house. I thought I would only tidy up the edges a bit, but that was never going to work, and the dish is now scraped clean. It was a particularly good one, which I'm putting down to the fact that I used real Mauritian vanilla extract instead of the cheap local make of essence.
Whenever I read a recipe that calls for a vanilla pod, my heart sinks a little - but now I know why they're so expensive. The vanilla plant is an orchid, did you know that? It's native to Mexico, where it's pollinated by a local species of bee that's specially adapted to the vanilla flower: that's why attempts to grow it elsewhere continually failed, even after this fact was discovered. But in 1841 a slave named Edmond Albius, who was only 12 years old, worked out a way of pollinating the flowers by hand. And where did this happen? Reunion Island!
We went to a really interesting plantation there called Escale Bleue, where a very jolly man called Aime Leichnig demonstrated (with a commentary including a series of faintly risque jokes) how to do the pollination. It's ironic that Edmond's discovery led to even more work for the slaves, crouched over the vines fiddling with tiny flowers.
Once the grown pods, the size of round beans, are picked, they're dipped in hot water then dried in the sun, turned several times a day and shaded if they're drying too fast - they're constantly being checked. Then Aime wraps them in cloth and puts them into polystyrene chests to mature for 9 months (more jokes), being regularly sniffed, until they're ready to sell 12-18 months after picking. So there you have it: labour intensive.

We saw them in bundles at the markets in both Reunion and Maritius where they're also grown as a crop: 20 euros for a bunch of 100. That's $36 - whereas in the local supermarket here, they're $7.44 for a measly three. Rip-off! There was an enterprising young man with a machine at the beachside market in St-Gilles busily sealing them inside plastic bags for tourists wanting to take them home through customs. Clever.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cuatro meses!

Amazing news from Chile about the 33 miners discovered alive 17 days after a cave-in. There will be a lot of prayers being said for them over the next - possibly, incredibly - four months or so while a new tunnel is dug to release them. It's impossible to imagine what that will be like for the men underground, even with outside support. The Beaconsfield duo emerged after their two weeks trapped in a Tasmanian mine looking pretty chirpy, but afterwards they admitted it had been very hard. Four months! I really hope they have a faith to sustain them.
For me, Chile is all about mountains. Mountains and dogs. And lovers. Mountains and dogs and lovers. And crime - but we won't dwell on that episode. I liked Santiago, and I would like to see more of Chile: there's some amazing scenery in that long, long, narrow country. That's what I would be thinking about, if I were trapped underground. For four months.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mine of Harlech

Despite the credit to Lonely Planet, this is unmistakeably (the flags caught mid-flap are the giveaway) my photo on this cover: fourth time this year, yay. Inside is a story about Wales. The castle is the one at Harlech, almost a cliche castle, and very impressive, especially the fact that in 1294 it was successfully defended against the entire Welsh army by just 37 Englishmen. There were five seiges here, one of them lasting 5 long years.

We almost got castled out in Wales, we went to so many in such a short time - but still only a tiny fraction of the hundred-plus still standing. I do remember them individually, though - Raglan with the cat on the lawn and a commanding view of the A40; Abergavenny, in ruins and still bearing a grudge of betrayal from the thirteenth century; rotted-tooth castle stumps on hills around Llandovery; Harlech; stately Caernarfon where Prince Charles was invested, "the best castle in the world" according to the caretaker; and stripey Beaumaris on Anglesey, a triumph of design, the last and cleverest of Edward I's castles but not quite finished and never actually used.

It still demands respect, though, as a dangerous place - according to this amusingly graphic sign:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Good clean fun

The only link today is that I'm still writing Mauritius stories. I was amazed, frankly, to come across a scene like this there: a couple of dozen women thigh-deep in a river, shirts and dresses draped over rocks being scrubbed with actual scrubbing brushes. The grassy river bank behind them was almost covered with clothes and sheets spread out to dry, and their children were all playing together in and out of the water.

They did seem to be enjoying doing this menial chore so sociably, though, and there was a lot of talking and laughing going on, so I suppose it could have even been something that they looked forward to. It was just such a contrast with what we'd seen a short time before in the city, Port Louis, where there were fancy watches and handbags in the shop windows along the waterfront, and a live jazz band playing.
This is where the young people came to pose and parade, and in their modern clothing looked a world away from the women in the river with their skirts tucked up into their knickers. I've never seen so many carefully-spiked hairdos in one place before. The couple above is typically good-looking - the girls below, to be honest, less so (especially when glaring suspiciously at middle-aged frumpy white tourists pointing long lenses at them) but that doesn't mean they don't get their share of admiring glances.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Highs and lows

Rain, rain, rain and endless grey skies - until this afternoon, that is, when the sun finally broke through and, seemingly within minutes, the icecream van was cruising the neighbourhood cranking out 'Home, Home on the Range' and reminding us all that when deer and antelope play, can summer be far behind?

The last van I saw was on Mauritius, when we stopped at a beachside picnic place on the Morne Peninsula where we found many groups of people out enjoying the day, including this party of elderly Indian ladies. They were making simple music with a drum, bell, tambourine and these wooden blocks, and several of them were dancing in the centre of their circle. Typically for Mauritians, when they saw us watching, they invited us in to join the dance - and were amused to find that their 80-plus year-old hips were a lot more mobile than our stiff Western ones.

Apparently, old people get a lot of free treats like that, which is good to hear. We passed a very flash-looking building on our drive, called the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Recreation Centre for Senior Citizens. (I didn't have to look that name up to get it right: I hope you're impressed. 'Father of the nation', it's everywhere, starting at the airport.)

The Morne Peninsula is pretty spectacular, with a sudden rocky outcrop shooting up to 556m where in the nineteenth century runaway slaves hid out on the top of the mountain. At the bottom there's a monument to resistance to slavery, which includes a reference to the story that some of them, unaware that slavery had subsequently been abolished, panicked when they saw soldiers climbing towards them, and leaped to their deaths.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

So shoot me

Another little tussle of conscience here. Nice picture, eh? I've submitted it, and others, along with a story about Mauritius and think it may well end up on the cover of the travel section. And that's a bit embarrassing, as I was only able to take this photo because my friend and colleague, a keen and expert photographer, had spotted the shot on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide book, and asked our driver to take us to the spot so she could take her own (hopefully better) version.

She was fussy. The first time we went, there wasn't much sun, it was a bit windy so the water wasn't so blue, and there was a sinister bag floating in the water. We both took heaps of shots, but none really pleased us. So when, on our last day in Mauritius, we were going through Mahebourg again with a bit of time to spare, she was eager to go and have another try. This time the conditions were much better and I got this one, at a different angle from her because I wanted the boat in the foreground. I don't know what hers look like but I'm sure they're sharper and better exposed - still, I like this one.

But, even though we went to this spot specifically because my friend wanted to take her own version of a published photo, I still feel a bit of a copy-cat, and as though it's not truly my own photo.

This one, though, this is an exclusive.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In the midst of life

I've had a conversation today about my mother's ashes, read an article about the heroic war exploits of the father of our former butcher (best pork chipolatas ever!) with a photo of his grave in Malaysia, and contemplated going to see Cemetery Junction: so clearly that's today's link.

This cemetery is in Mauritius, at Mahebourg on the east coast. I like cemeteries. They're so much the same everywhere that the differences stand out better, and it's always interesting to wander through them. At this one there was a number of tombs, one of which was being opened with a fair amount of chatter and hammering as the seal was broken around the big stone in the front. There certainly wasn't any hushed respect or apprehension: it was just a job that needed to be done. Part of life. It reminded me of a man I met in Rarotonga, who was busy building a tomb for himself and his wife, just metres from their home. He was doing a nice job installing halogen spotlights and fancy handles on the door.
What I particularly liked here were the glazed china wreaths on many of the crosses: I hadn't seen them before, and they were pretty. Pansies and roses seemed to be popular.

I also liked the standard wording on the gravestones. 'Ici repose...' Sounds so much more restful than 'Here lies...' doesn't it?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Showy

What a dreary day: cool, damp and dull with not even the slightest gleam of sunshine. It's the kind of wrist-slittingly depressing weather that England does so well and for such long periods at a time, and I feel especially vulnerable having had heat and bright sunshine so recently.

I took this photo exactly a week ago, to the minute almost: sitting on the beach at Le Grand Hotel du Lagon on Reunion Island, as the sun slipped down into the Indian Ocean behind a bank of cloud after shining all day. The previous evening the sky was clear and we had the green flash: about the sixth time I've seen it, and still a thrill, fleeting though it is. It astonishes me that some people have been able to capture it in a photo.

The absolute best sunset I've ever seen, so good that it made me late for dinner, was from the beach near Cullen Bay in Darwin. There were good clouds and it was a scarlet and purple sunset, unlike the sepia one above. Besides me with my basic point-and-shoot, there was a friendly lad with a brand-new fancy digital that had a sunset programme (cheating, I reckoned - also unnecessary) and a stand-offish man with a tripod. After the sun disappeared, Tripod Man packed up his equipment and went home, leaving Digital Boy and me to gloat over the fact that the after-glow was even better - literally brilliant - getting more intense by the moment, and lasting for ages.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Catching air

Big winds at the moment: 1200 people stranded overnight at Mt Hutt by 200+kmh nor-westers swooping across the mountain; and pretty blustery here too, though without the snow and 300 over-excited ten year-olds (not) sleeping on piled-up coats.

We had it windy in Mauritius, too, especially on the day we went to Ile des Cerfs, which is an island with a pretty, turquoise-water beach that's a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland. While we waited for the boat to come for us, we watched these kite-surfers who had got bored with waiting for punters to come and hire the gear, and gone for a spin themselves.

Posing is part of the sport, of course, especially when there are long lenses involved, and this guy zipped back and forth right in front of us even though there was a 500m stretch of beach at his disposal. Good for him. We certainly enjoyed the show.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Duds for dudes

Metro indeed. This is what I meant before, because I can't think of a single person or occasion in the whole of New Zealand that could even dream of associating with shoes like these - but they were simply the most eye-catching item in the window display of a whole line of men's clothing shops in the pedestrian centre of St-Denis, the capital of Reunion. They were a revelation, what with the embroidered shirts, the striped pants, the coolly-English tagged t-shirts...

And they weren't just in the windows, these hip duds for dudes - have a look at Jean-Bernard here with his collar up and his cap on backwards. When we first saw him he had that lilac jumper tied around his neck over a black jacket. Angelique didn't put in so much effort. She didn't have to.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

I had my phone obediently turned off as we began our descent over Auckland, so when I saw that we were coming in right over the city centre, it was a race to turn it (disobediently) back on in time for this photo. As you see, it was a race I pretty much lost - but still, reflections and all, it's one of my favourite sights at the end of any trip. Skytower, harbour and bridge: home again, safe and sound.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Looks are still something

We've had a lovely wander around St Denis, the capital of Reunion, poking into backstreets and finding all sorts of pretty pastel-painted houses with shutters and dormer windows, fripperied up with fretwork lace under the eaves and wrought iron gates.

The people here in this little city are more varied than along the tourist strip by the lagoon, or in the mountain villages: Muslim men in robes and caps, splendid African ladies in colourful long dresses with scarves wrapped around their heads.

How dull it's going to be back at home, where everyone dresses the same.

Au revoir a l'Ile Reunion

The spell-check just wanted to correct 'revoir' to 'reboot' and I suppose that says it all: last morning, last dawn wander along the pearly-pink lagoon, last cruise around the breakfast buffet with all its exotic fruits and buttery pastries. Ahead lie three flights totalling 16 hours.

I've enjoyed this taste of France. It's been great to hear French spoken all around me, to see the style and insouciance, to appreciate the joie de vivre. They do seem to live with enthusiasm: for their partners, their children, their dogs, their food, for nature, for exercise as well as sitting doing nothing.

Sixteen hours of sitting doing nothing holds no joie for me.

Hot stuff

This is Philippe, who has guided, informed, entertained and scared us silly over the last four days. Sometimes several of those things at once: I had no idea, for example, that it was possible to drive for so very many seconds at 110kmh with both hands off the steering wheel without crashing. (Philippe is a great gesticulator.)

But he knows his stuff, and enjoys sharing it, which is exactly what you want in a guide. Here he's spiking our cynicism by proving that you can indeed - and in no time at all - light a fire with the heat still coming from the lava flow that swept down to the sea more than three years ago.

His trick with the chilli, though, that was just mean.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Today Anaheim, tomorrow the world!

Can anyone see Pluto here?

Reunion's central cirque area is the latest (as of last Sunday) addition to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. And rightly so: it's spectacular.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bon appetit

If anything tells you we're in a part of France, it's that after rushing through the morning everything stutters to a complete halt at lunchtime.Today we drove around 420 corners in 31km and up 1300m for an astonishing view over Cilaos, another cirque that could stand in for the Andes with its steep green ravines and isolated villages. It was an exciting drive, thanks to Philippe's verve behind the wheel - but a doddle compared with the palanquin that used to be the only alternative to Shanks's pony.

And after hurtling around all those hairpin bends, now we're at Le Vieil Alambic spending two hours sitting over our Creole lunch of yummy vegetable beignets, fish curry and dessert that's an "invention de la maison" according to Madame, who's come out to introduce each course and get the verdict afterwards. Which was, genuinely, delicieux.

Highs and lows

Anyone noticing a theme here?

I've just finished a lovely meal at the fine dining restaurant here at Le Grand Hotel du Lagon, that began with this rum, coconut and caramel cocktail and ended with a snort of rum with vanilla and, and - damn, it's literally on the tip of my tongue still, I can taste it, but can I remember what it is?* That's what happens when you bookend a meal with rum. I wouldn't have done it, but the waiter said it would make his heart cry if I didn't. He claimed the rum wasn't strong, but it's a bit of a giveaway when you lift up the glass and your eyes instantly water.

Today there were incredibly steep and winding narrow roads made even more exciting by Philippe's being what you might call an eager driver (not to say a tailgater). There was a fanfare of tooted horns along our route.

We saw Andes-type high mountains cut by dramatic ravines dotted with remote villages (less remote since the local baker bought a couple of copters), a plunging waterfall, beaches with gorgeous young women who would have worn plunging necklines had they had anything on their top halves at all, and finished by stepping off our own beach here at the hotel to plunge into the midst of schools of yellow and black striped angel fish, beautifully patterned Picasso fish, fat little puffer fish, and lots of others. Great snorkelling! Topped off by the sun plunging (have I overdone this?) into the sea with a distinct green flash.

*Ginger!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Alcohol-induced confusion

Gimme a bourbon! Eh, what?

Les oiseaux! Les oiseaux!

Good thing there were more croissants in the basket. Next time I fetch my cup of tea first.

NZ scores nil

Checked out the Score supermarket here in Reunion today, wearing my NZ trade commissioner hat, and was deeply disappointed. No Anchor anything, no Montana or Cloudy Bay, no Steinlager, no lamb. Tch. Those French and their protectionist policies.

Ah, but the cheeses! Twenty local ones made from cow, goat and sheep milk, plus a good selection of France's 500-odd. I love to watch the cheese ladies wielding their double-handled cleaver on the big wheels. Take it from me, Parmesan is the most fun.

A rum do

I don't know how it is that I've been to three rum distilleries so far this year, but I feel confident I could turn out a decent drop myself now, if only I had access to sugar cane.The Isautier one here "only" turns out a million bottles a year. A small player in the rum world, but it's quality stuff.

The tour was well presented, but I was feeling that the Bundaberg operation had the edge, simply because of its vast and mouthwatering vats of molasses - until we got to the end and settled in for eight, count them, eight sample shots. Vanilla and ginger was tops, if you're wondering.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A close escape

What a good thing I noticed this sign advising me that, in case of fire, the safest way out of my second-floor hotel room is through the door. I might have flung myself off the balcony otherwise.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Au revoir a l'Ile Maurice

Today we leave this beautiful hotel, and Mauritius too, to travel to Reunion Island, a 40 minute flight south to a little piece of France in the Indian Ocean.

If Reunion's anything near as lovely as Mauritius, we'll be very happy.

Still in Mauritius

This is Stefan, the head chef at Beau Rivage, showing us his impressively well-designed kitchen: a brightly-lit and busy place in total contrast to the relaxing, peaceful restaurant outside overlooking the pool, candles flickering on the tables.

Stefan has a new approach to food, using essential oils to add a subtle new dimension to the flavour: either what he called harmonic, where seven different mints are blended, for example, or alliance, which might join together basil, geranium and pink pepper. It's about scent as much as flavour, science as much as cooking - but the oyster champagne sabayon we ate right there in the kitchen was simply fabulous.

It did help us to make knowledgeable comments, that we'd visited an ylang ylang distillery that afternoon: a primitive affair of wood fire, boiler, hosepipes and glass bottles, reducing 50kg of flowers to just one litre of oil, which is sent from this simple tin shed to the high-tech perfume factories of Chanel. Apparently, two drops added to your daily shampoo will also help with hair loss: you might like to know that.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The unkindest cut?

Now, while this (very poor) photo shows men cutting the sugar cane by hand, most of the workers we saw this morning on the smaller, non- mechanised, fields were women. All rigged up in boots and hats, machetes flasing in the sun, they were hard at it under the eye of the old man who owned the land, who was leaning on a rake and happy to chat with us while the women sweated.

Mind you, the men who were gathering up the canes into bundles and carrying them on their heads to the trailer had it even harder, I think.

Easy to say

Even though on our long drives around this island we've seen shanty houses and people bent double in the fields weeding crops and carrying loads on their heads, it was a surprise to come across women like this one doing their washing on rocks in the river.

"Cheaper than a machine," said our driver nonchalantly. Guess which sex?

Adorable ananas

Isn't this just the cutest little pineapple you ever saw in your life?

(I do hope that's a New Zealand kiwifruit. I bought a dear wee moonstone dodo from a lovely man at a stall who horrified us by saying that he loved to eat kiwis because they're so healthy. KiwiFRUIT, we established.)

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