Thursday 30 September 2010

Stepping up to the task

It's not raining, and I'm not at school so there was no excuse this morning not to resume my regular walking circuit. The high point - in the literal sense only - is the flight of 132 steps up through the bush from the beach which I once thought would supply my Rocky moment when I was preparing to walk the Inca Trail, but which I now realise will only ever make me breathless with, er, breathlessness. But puffing's good.
While travelling involves an ironic amount of sitting and standing around, there's also far more walking than is usual in one's day-to-day life, and inevitably lots of steps to climb. High points - literal, again - are part of the tourist's duty when exploring new places, city or countryside, and are often the metaphorical high point of a visit too.
When that's the Empire State Building or the London Eye or the Eiffel Tower or the Petronas Towers, that's one thing. But when it's the Kings Canyon Rim Walk (a glorious place, despite its somewhat insalubrious name) or the Inca Trail or the Milford Track or the Scott Memorial in Edinburgh, well, that's quite another, because the only way to get to the top is by putting one foot above the other.
It's always worth it, for the view and the personal satisfaction, and the knowledge that it's an achievement that deserves a bit of a sugary reward afterwards. Doing it the hard way also makes you feel more in touch with the environment, like in Malaysia at the Batu Caves where once a year 100,000 entranced pilgrims climb the 272 steps to honour Vishnu, many of them with weights on hooks pushed through their skin and tongues. It makes carrying merely a camera, even in 35 degree heat, even past bold monkeys, seem like a holiday.
Which it is, of course - but one it's wise to train for.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Go fish

There was a kingfisher sitting on the powerline facing into our garden this morning. I cleaned out the pond yesterday so the water's not (as) green any more and the goldfish are visible. Coincidence? I think not. I've never caught one in the act, but they've hung around here in the past and fish have gone missing, so that's good enough for me. Just because the evidence is circumstantial, it doesn't mean they're not guilty.
I have seen a kingfisher fishing from a dam in a paddock and I know how quick they are - flash of blue, splash of water and there they are back on the branch with a beakful of wriggle. Pretty impressive - but not as spectacular as gannets diving like arrows (so fast, as from a cross-bow) from a great height into the sea or, more colourfully, Galapagos boobies (which are also gannets). Or pelicans, which look so ungainly and cumbersome in flight, but are nimble enough to do the business in the water. Speaking of which, here is a couple of exhibitionist boobies.
Or sea eagles, improbably big and feathery for this game, but equally efficient - I've watched them on the Katherine River in the NT, and near Langkawi in Malaysia. You can go for a boat trip there where they call out to the eagles and kites that are just dots way up over the limestone peaks, and they come swooping down to scoop up fish that are thrown into the water. Not very eco, maybe, but it's astonishing to see the accuracy of the stoop, and the strength they show in climbing back into the air again.
Though, considering my biggest goldfish are just about the size of the kingfisher, that would be some feat too. One I don't want to see happen, I should add.

Friday 24 September 2010

Great Expectorations

The travel memories in this blog are stirred by all sorts of things in my everyday life: a news item, the weather, work, a chance remark. Today's madeleine however is a touch unsavoury, taking the form of the noises coming from the bathroom this morning as the Other Half performed his ablutions.
I was transported straight back to China. To Beijing, to be precise: the Dirt Market. That's the name we were given, though guide books more colourfully call it the Flea Market, or Panjiayuan. 'Dirt Market' refers to the goods originally being laid out on the ground, but it was gentrified five years ago and now the stall-holders have proper stalls under a roof, with a concrete floor.
You still have to watch where you put your feet, though, if you go in the early morning as we did because if there's one thing that Chinese men in particular are expert at, it's clearing the tubes - despite the warning signs put up no doubt by the tourism people. Honestly, I'm not squeamish, but it was revolting, especially at a time of day when I'm less robust than usual. You had to be nimble, I'm telling you.
That apart, it was colourful and interesting, and well worth visiting. It's a great place for souvenirs, if that's your thing: a little china (ha ha) Chairman Mao, maybe, or a strange painting of people with rictus grins, or a jade elephant, or some lanterns, or beautiful paintbrushes or an embroidered jacket.
I took photos instead, but there was a lot of vigorous bargaining going on as items were unwrapped from newspaper and put out on display, either on the stalls or outside for the big things like statues of horses and roly poly Buddhas. It's as interesting for the traders as the goods - I spotted Mongols with furry hats - and pretty much a must-see. Just be sure to wear closed-in shoes.

Thursday 23 September 2010

The good oil

Firstborn on the front page again, called in to work at the Herald because "there's too much news" - and so there is, with people in Avonside getting understandably stroppy about still having no water or sewage, nearly three weeks after the earthquake (over 700 aftershocks can't be helping their nerves). Then there's more snow in Otago and Southland affecting around a million animals, plus people; and wild weather all the way up both islands with flooding and flying roofs; and now more stranded whales in the Far North.
They're pilot whales, ironically, that have run aground, the same as a few weeks ago, when rescuers ended up trucking nine of them to a more sheltered beach to re-float them. The surf is even bigger this time, so they'll have to try the same thing with as many as they can of the 24 that survived the night. Big job. Four cheers for the volunteers roughing it there in the cold, the wet and the wind, fighting for the whales.
Now, don't tell them, but there's a lot of fascinating stuff about whaling in Nantucket, which was the centre of the whaling world for over 100 years from 1720 till petroleum was discovered and demand for whale oil dropped right away.  We had a lovely, if bumpy, time cycling round town over the cobbles - it's so pretty, but there are just enough rough edges for it to seem still real although, my goodness, it's an expensive place to live. The bus tour round the island was good value too, with lots of information, pretty views of light houses and cranberry bogs, and some local gossip (Bill Clinton was refused entry to the golf club - shock, horror).
The Whaling Museum was the highlight, though: full of interesting things, including Captain Bligh's tea box and a display telling the story of the Nantucket whaler the Essex, when in 1820 the hunter became the hunted, the ship rammed and sunk by a sperm whale. Sound familiar? Yes, it was the inspiration for Moby Dick. The crew's survivors were reduced to cannibalism before the last of them were rescued.

It's a ripping yarn, that I heard again last year, told as a (relatively) local story. Where? In the Galapagos Islands, on La Pinta, the motor yacht that was our home for a three night cruise. From which we watched whales. Oh yes, more connections: lovely!

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Our soles

Good grief, it's raining again. We've had such a long and very wet winter, and though there are lots of flowers out, the birds are singing, it's generally warmer and officially spring, winter just can't seem to let go of us. Down south they're having a terrible time with snow and freezing winds, and so many lambs have perished, poor little things. Up here we've got strong winds and rain, rain, rain.

I wouldn't mind so much if my shoes didn't leak. My old faithful winter shoes, the blue ones, the black ones and the brown ones, have all sprung leaks. The cobbler laughed in my face when I took them in for resoling, and I can't replace them because the shops are full of summery sandals. Trying to avoid puddles as I walk, but ending up with wet socks anyway makes me feel as though I'm in a Dickens novel.

Shoes are a them and us sort of thing. Have you noticed national preferences? Like the Chinese preferring to shuffle along in scuffs? Or the universal jandals throughout the Pacific? Or the elastic-sided boots by Blundstone or RM Williams they favour in the Australian Outback?
In Peru it's sandals made from car tyres. The soles are cut to shape and rubber straps riveted on, and they last almost forever. There's no support or precise fitting, of course, which makes it all the more amazing that they're what the porters wear on the Inca Trail, trotting up and down that steep track with its uneven steps, huge loads towering over their heads, while we soft tourists lean back against the mountain to let them pass to go ahead and set up our lunch table, all of us togged up in fancy tramping boots with collapsible aluminium sticks and ergonomically-designed day packs to carry our cameras and snack bars.

And when the sandals finally fall off the owner's feet, they're still not thrown away. They begin a whole new life as, for example, a gate hinge. And we in the west fondly think of recycling as a modern notion.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Tingle = little thrill

My forefinger's tingling again. It does that now, from time to time, ever since I stupidly poked it into a parrot's cage at Cooberrie Park in Queensland, and the blasted bird bit me. The wound has healed, but it's left some nerve damage, obviously, that causes this intermittent tingle.
It was buzzing silently all the way to work this morning, and made me think about the bird that did it: an eclectus parrot, a vision in green and red, that I'd only ever come across once before. That was also in a cage, also in Australia - in Broome, which I always remember in vivid shades of red, blue and orange. It's a great place to visit, interesting and quirky and in a gloriously beautiful part of the country.
Our hotel was interesting and quirky, too. McAlpine House, 100 years old, is a classic tropical Master Pearler's house with wide eaves, spacious shady verandas with white-painted trellis, leisurely ceiling fans, wide old timbers on the floors, dim woody library, a swimming pool under a sun-shade, lots of big armchairs scattered about, and more loungers out on the deck beneath a huge mango tree. It's very relaxing and welcoming and we loved staying there. There was an aviary with a pair of eclectus parrots on the deck, which fitted well with the general ambience of idiosyncratic luxury.
Lord Alistair McAlpine, who built it, was the 10th richest man in Britain at the time, thanks to the famous McAlpine construction company. The firm was founded by his grandfather Sir Robert McAlpine, also known as Concrete Bob, who built, amongst many other Scottish landmarks, the wonderful Glenfinnan Viaduct in the west. It has 21 arches, is built on a curve, and is well-known to all Harry Potter fans from the scenes in the movie where the Hogwarts Express crosses it. The train is actually The Jacobite, a classic black, brass and maroon steam train that takes tourists from Fort William to the coast.
I haven't ridden it, but I did stand thigh-deep in wet heather once to take a photo of it, and it was a great sight - and sound. Another sort of tingle entirely. Gosh, I love it when stuff joins up like this: it's almost worth not being young any more.

Commonwealth countdown

Two tourists from Taiwan were shot and wounded on Sunday by random gunmen on a motorbike at the Jama Masjid mosque in New Delhi: possibly terrorists, possibly linked with threats to the security of the Commonwealth Games that begin there in a fortnight, possibly not.

The Baby and I went there when we were in New Delhi last November, all tourists do, it's a stunning place: old red stone, wide staircase up to the entrance, obligatory robe over our clothes, and then inside to a vast open area which must be an astonishing sight when it's full of men praying, though of course then we wouldn't be allowed in. The views over the city, though hazy, are tremendous too.
I do hope the Games go ahead as they should. It's disappointing to hear that even now it's not certain that the NZ team will attend because of security fears. Not that I'm a big (or even miniscule) sports fan, but I can understand how much work the athletes have put into priming themselves for the competition, and I certainly know how eager they are in India to host the event.
The traffic was even more horrendous than usual in November, thanks to road closures and construction going on at a frantic pace to get ready for the opening - and two weeks out, apparently they're still not quite ready, so I can only imagine the 24/7 feverish work taking place right now. But there was also great excitement, and pride, and anticipation, and such huge effort going into it, that it would be tragic if terrorists were to get their way and prevent the Games going ahead, or even to diminish them.

I know a lot of poor people have been evicted without compensation to build the facilities, and that looks - is - bad. There's so very much poverty in India though, it's always, will always, be part of life there. It's something that's hard to grasp the reality of, until you've seen it for yourself: the people living on the streets, on traffic islands, under bridges.

Stopped at traffic lights, we watched a little boy wearing a false Maharajah-type moustache and playing a drum while his even littler sister danced and did somersaults. It was disturbing but also kind of heartening that they were trying so hard to make a living. I'm still sorry the lights changed before I could get my purse out. But when the Games are on, times should be good for them.

Sunday 19 September 2010


Spring is here at last: three tui squabbling in the kowhai tree this morning, freesias out and scenting the air, blossom on the plum tree and green buds on the fig. How nice to live in Auckland and not Invercargill, where what the media are excitably calling a 'weather bomb' dropped heavy snow on them yesterday, bringing down both the temperature and the sports stadium, which collapsed under the weight of it. We've had our share of squalls and heavy rain, but in between the sun is shining and it's warm. Lovely!

And how perverse of us to be planning to go away next month and swap all this burgeoning for autumn's dying fall. Actually, fall is right - we'll be in Washington state, driving around in a circuit through the North Cascades from Seattle, so though we'll undoubtedly see rain, there'll also be plenty of colour. Just orange and red rather than blue and yellow.

We don't mind: it's a beautiful time to be in the US, and we loved every bit of Massachusetts a few years ago, especially the Berkshires. Oh, and Cape Cod, of course. And Nantucket. Boston, naturally. Ahem. We loved every bit of Massachusetts. Especially the colour.

Friday 17 September 2010

It ruled an empire, once...

Year 9 student: What does 'le Pays de Galles' mean?
Teacher (me): Wales. Do you know where that is?
Student: Isn't it in that island above France?

Thursday 16 September 2010

High in the Andes

Great excitement in the household yesterday when the Firstborn, who's doing a week's internship at the NZ Herald, got a story on the front page. All her own work: idea, undercover research, interviews and writing. And she wouldn't tell me her source - very professional. Even more thrilling, the story was taken up by National Radio, featured on TVNZ and even got into the Sydney Morning Herald. What glory!

It was about how to cheat urine drug tests at work, which are evidently becoming quite mainstream here. When I was in Peru, I was faintly astonished that Chuck from St Louis steadfastly refused even to sip a cup of coca tea because he was worried that it would show up in tests back at work three weeks later. Though the leaves are what cocaine is derived from, in this form the effects are very mild, we were told.

The rest of us were drinking it several times daily, to combat the effects of altitude sickness. You'd never drink it for its taste, which was like green tea but more bitter though fortunately weaker. It was kind of a mission for me though, because it was part of the reason I was in Peru in the first place, having studied South America in Geography in the sixth form and been fascinated to learn about the Andean Indians and their physical adaptations to living at high altitude (short stature, larger lungs, more blood to transport what oxygen they could get) and also their dependence on coca leaves. The tea is so mainstream that you can buy it in teabag form, but we drank it like in the photo - our hotels had baskets of dried leaves on the breakfast buffet.

I didn't notice much effect from drinking it, though when I chewed the leaves, which you're meant to do with a lump of wood ash to help convert the chemicals, it certainly made my lips numb. I didn't get any sort of high. Our driver chewed the leaves constantly, to keep from getting sleepy on the long, long, long Panamerican Highway, and on the winding roads up through the Andes. All the Indian people did: it's such an old custom that statues and portraits of them have one bulging cheek.

Our highest point was the pass between Arequipa and Chivay, at 4800 metres. We certainly felt the effects of that: nausea, blinding headache, gasping for air but never quite able to take enough in. Our guide, Joana, watched us like a hawk and wouldn't let us nod off even though we were sleepy, because then we'd breathe more shallowly and feel even worse.
We stopped at the pass which was scattered with cairns of stones: apparently not just a Been Here thing, but a way to get a wish. Bending over made the headache worse, so I just put one pebble on top of someone else's cairn. Afterwards Joana told me I'd just reinforced that person's wish - but by then we were lower down and I'd got what I'd wanted anyway: no more headache.

That trip around Peru, it was a struggle at times, but it was absolutely brilliant.

Monday 13 September 2010

Hier le monde

It's a French day today: teaching it at school and talking to the French assistante in the staffroom, writing a Reunion story in my free periods, answering a request for captions for a New Caledonia piece in next week's Herald (I think). Oh, and a friend is going to Paris soon for the first time, and is naturally excited about that.
So, France? Reunion? Mauritius? Tahiti? Monaco? New Caledonia? Akaroa? There are so many French-speaking countries that I haven't been to: Vietnam, Switzerland, Belgium, the Seychelles, Vanuatu, Quebec... and that's not mentioning all of those in Africa, where I have yet to set foot. The French were all over Africa like a rash: the British were such busy colonists, you can forget that the Frogs were at it equally enthusiastically. But they were, and just as insensitively.
That was the nub of the New Caledonia story: that after years and years of being dispossessed and oppressed, the native Kanaks are gaining standing, pride and a future in the tourist industry. Naming the fabulously designed, yet curiously empty, Cultural Centre after the indigenous rights leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou (a brave man despite his girly name) was a start - but even better is their adoption in July of the Kanak Freedom Flag as the second official flag of New Caledonia, to fly in tandem with the Tricolour: the only country in the world to have two flags. Maybe one day, they'll all get along well enough to agree on one flag for everybody.
(Having said all that, I ought to mention that only this year was it agreed that the Tino Rangatiratanga flag should be allowed to be flown here on Waitingi Day.)

Saturday 11 September 2010


I went to the launch the other night of the new Tourism Australia ad campaign here: "There's nothing like Australia". It's their latest attempt to come up with something as brilliantly effective as 100% Pure New Zealand. They've had some spectacular failures, it has to be said, such as the famously duff "Where the bloody hell are you?" in which the controversial line was delivered with an astonishing lack of conviction by the, er, distinguished Lara Bingle. Then there was the $40 million they invested a series of ads directed by Baz Luhrmann linked with Australia the movie - which unfortunately turned out to be a real clunker (though the scenery was spectacular).
This one also has its critics. "So negative to have 'nothing' as the key word" one told me. "Hokey," said another - and sure, that irritating earworm of a jingle is musically pretty uninspired. But it sure is belted out with great enthusiasm, the photography is excellent, and they even managed to get a bit of humour in there ("That's not a bear"). The whole feel of it evokes Paul Hogan's "Throw another shrimp on the barbie" ads so many years ago, and the casual, unsophisticated, fun image is clearly what the Aussies feel comfortable with - and why not? Let's hope it does the business for them.

It's a clever move to have got the Australian public contributing to the website, and even cleverer to have made provision for Kiwis to insert their own recommendations. New media - the way of the future.
The presentation was pretty dramatic, in a black room in the Hilton with dry ice swirling about, the whole thing started with a tremendous didgeridoo performance by a man wearing a suit of lights, followed by dancers ditto. Simple but effective.

The didge was the best bit for me, played with an electric guitar accompaniment: an unlikely combination, until you've heard it. I came across it for the first time at an Aboriginal arts festival last year at Barunga in the Northern Territory. We'd sampled the roasted turtle in the daytime, watched the spear-throwing competition, admired the art, listened to stories and then, after dark, sat on the grass to listen to the concert. It was our second of the trip, and Nicky Bamba at Merrepin had been so good that this one wasn't measuring up at all - until Yilila came onstage. They were brilliant: didge with electric guitar and drums, energetic dancing, great singing, traditional dress. Unique. (Photo by Peter Eve)

Friday 10 September 2010

Tremor-ndously sad

In sympathy with the Canterbury earthquake, we've had a sinkhole of our own open up in the henrun, quite big enough to swallow a dozen chickens.This one's caused by stormwater and is, so far, a mystery to the three separate contingents of Council workmen who've come to look at it and suck their teeth before going back to the depot and passing the buck to yet another department. It looks like being a saga that will run and run.

Auckland isn't much bothered by earthquakes, not being near a fault-line (though, it must be said, the one under Christchurch was a surprise to all the experts) - our threat is the arguably more dramatic possibility of a volcanic eruption. Further down the North Island, they've had a bit of seismic action this week, raising the eyebrows of the general population though the geologists are unexcited. Down in Canterbury, they've had more than 300 after-shocks up to 5.4 on the Richter scale, which are prolonging the agony for the people who are tired and edgy, and pushing some buildings into the next category of damage: green to yellow to red.

News footage of big diggers biting away at old friends on the streets has been upsetting: architects have said, "Pah, they were thrown up in the first place and had no great aesthetic merit" - but we ordinary people liked them, they were part of our daily lives and it's sad to see them go. It's hard not to suspect the demolition people of a certain gung-ho enthusiasm, and the architects of salivating over all those opportunities to make their own mark on Christchurch.

It's such a pretty place, with its brick and stone buildings, green parks and big trees, with the Avon gliding through the centre of the city edged by weeping willows and busy with bossy Mallard ducks. It's the Garden City.

Monday 6 September 2010


Poor old Christchurch is battling with high winds now - just what you want when an earthquake has wrecked your roof and left buildings teetering. There have been some amazing pictures coming through, of gaping cracks in roads, crazy-paved paddocks and huge changes of level, and horrifying cracks in the walls of the brick and stone buildings that give Christchurch its character - but most dispiriting of all are the districts where liquefaction took place, the water-logged sandy soil pouring up to the surface and burying floors, gardens and roads under a thick grey sludge.

One of the worst-affected parts of the city is Avonside, built on the floodplain of the river, where there's been lots of damage to houses. I'm wondering how my old school has coped, Avonside Girls' High. In the city, thankfully the Cathedral and the Arts Centre (formerly the Canterbury University Townsite, where I did most of my degree) were earthquake-proofed a few years ago, and have apparently stood up well to the shaking. I remember when I was at school, the engineers came through and we had scaffolding up for ages as various bits of decorative mouldings were removed from the roof and frontage as they were deemed quake hazards - but when I was there in '02 for the 75th Jubilee, they appeared to have been replaced. Does this look earthquake-proof to you?

We used to have earthquake drills at school, as well as fire drills. At the command "Drop!" we had to scramble under our desks, or kneel down with our hands over our necks, facing away from the windows if we were in the hall, until the shaking stopped, and then use the fire exits. My fourth form teacher was Miss Oliver, a short, immensely fat woman with an even more immense double frontage, who amazed and appalled us all by not only crawling under her table too but, with a great deal of puffing, then got back to her feet and, defying the laws of physics, squeezed herself through the hole in the platform outside the window (our classroom was in the old homestead of the property the school was built on) and climbed down the ladder. An astonishing sight. I bet she boasted about it for years.

The new Art Gallery, by the way, it turns out is the Civil Defence command HQ: what faith that shows in the trustworthiness of tempered glass.

Saturday 4 September 2010

Feeling shaken

Whoa, 7.1 earthquake in Christchurch early this morning! Centred only 30km outside the city and, even onlier, 10km deep - or shallow, rather. News shots are showing collapsed buildings in the city centre, rubble in the streets from fallen masonry, huge cracks in the roads, sink holes, lots of flooding from burst water pipes, state of emergency declared, curfew in place tonight. Nobody - so far - killed, thank goodness. And it's a sunny day there today, which is a blessing.
I remember the Inangahua earthquake in 1968, also 7.1, but centred about 160km north-west of ChCh. That one happened early morning too, and I woke with my bed shaking, the blinds banging against the window frame and all the neighbourhood dogs barking. That's the only big one I've ever felt, and from what people are saying, it was nowhere near as violent, prolonged and frightening as this one.
There's been talk of having to rebuild the city, but that sounds rather alarmist: it's not like the 7.8 Napier quake that really did destroy the town in 1931 (so it was recreated as an Art Deco city). This one looks to have done a tiresome amount of infrastructure damage - amazingly though not to the futuristic, all-glass Art Gallery - but probably Christchurch will look much the same again once it's all fixed. Eventually: it's going to take ages. I hope it will get back to its familiar, pretty self, anyway. It's my home town!


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