Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Adios

We've had an awful lot of this sort of thing on this trip. Not that I'm complaining: it's been great, and an absolute revelation when we were in Lima, compared with my previous visit, when I had one good meal in three weeks. I'm just sorry I have to go home now to my own cooking - night flight to Auckland looming, yay. Not.

We left Easter Island early this morning and arrived mid-afternoon Santiago time, just about the right timing, South American-wise, for lunch at a winery outside the city. Matetic, it was called, and it also has a beautiful hacienda on the estate, where you can stay in 100+ year-old rooms that are so restful and elegant your heart slows down the moment you step over the threshold. What a lovely weekend that would be: a day poking around in pretty Valparaiso on the coast, maybe, then some wine-tasting before stopping in at La Cosana for dinner at the antique dining table and more of Matatic's red stuff. Or white, of course.

I always feel a fraud doing wine-tastings, having once confused chardonnay with cabernet on the wine list, to my great humiliation, and have been confident in the past only of being able to tell white from red in the glass. But I've learned with horror on this trip that there's such a thing as white cabernet, so now I've lost my nerve completely. But as long as you don't ask me any questions about it, I'll happily knock back a glass, thanks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Birds, boats and bikes

They were very serious about today's walk up to and around the crater rim. "It's a steep climb," they said. "We have sticks." I almost had second thoughts, but went ahead anyway - and it was a piece of weasel. The 132 Rahui Road steps did me proud, and I was up that piffling slope like a mountain goat - of which there were some, standing on the 45-degree crumbling 250-metre cliff that we walked along the top of, and which the lodge people hadn't thought worthy of mention. Nor the bull that was on our other side.

So it wasn't steep, but it was a long and sweaty walk, three hours up to the crater and around the rim to the ancient ceremonial village that's been reconstructed after the British came through heavy-footed, picking out the best bits of native art and leaving the rest rubble, tch. The views out over the sea were splendid, all blue water and black rocks and sweeping squalls of rain that fortunately didn't bother us.

We were down on that brilliantly blue water after lunch, bouncing out on a boat for a circuit of the islands that are part of the old birdman ritual which makes popping down to the henrun for the eggs seem such a doddle in comparison (climb down cliff - see above - swim 1.5km to the islands, avoid getting grated on the rocks, wait a couple of weeks, possibly, get a sooty tern's egg, and race back to the top of the cliff again, egg intact). They don't do it anymore - life is much more laid-back in Hanga Roa these days. This is about as busy as the main street gets:

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blue + white + black = gold

That's not a formula you'll find in any art room or paint shop, but it worked for me today. After a whole nine hours' sleep - luxury! - we went to the quarry where all the moai, or heads, were carved, and marvelled and puzzled over the mystery of how these huge, heavy statues were moved from the one source all over the island, over such rough terrain that our vehicle frequently had to crawl along the unpaved roads. Beno, our local guide, had no problem: "It's mana," he said, meaning power, knowledge, skill.

Then we had a treat: taken along the coast to where our lunch had been laid out with sun umbrellas and chairs on the rough black basalt rocks where the (sorry) azure blue sea was breaking in a most spectacular fashion in white foam and spray just metres from where we stood with pisco sours, beer and - whole new taste sensation! - a Buck's Fizz made with fresh raspberry juice, which not only perfectly matched my top, but tasted wonderful. Then a buffet for lunch followed by fruit and the perfect chocolate brownie. Explora does know how to look after its guests, truly.

And after lunch, more moai and caves and cairns and walls, a walk along the coast, and then today's climax, the Rapa Nui first fifteen: a row of moai on an ahu, or platform. Just like rugby players, they didn't have much above the eyes, but they were impressive, impassive and inexplicable. I don't care what Beno says, they are a mystery.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Happy Easter

This is such an interesting place. For a start, how crazy to come to the most remote island on the planet and find yourself grumbling about slow download speeds and having to go and sit in the bar to get connected. But more importantly, here we are further away from civilisation than anywhere else, yet the island is the perfect example of how ruinous man can be to an environment: no native vegetation left, the place overrun by horses, the sea clearer than anywhere else, but nothing much to see in it because of over-fishing. I was more than a bit dismayed by all this, and the dead horse we walked past this morning (they roam freely and eat the seedpods of lupins, which kill them) was especially horrible for me - as well as smelly.

But things improved when we got to see the moai, the famous heads that I could never remember which way they faced. It's looking inland, people! Except for the ones that look seaward - but there are only 7 of them. Strangely, in most of my photos of this row of heads, there are only 6, and I was tempted to get a bit supernatural about the missing one (these are three metres high, how could I miss one?) but then I looked at all my horizons, 30 degrees off to a man, and blamed sheer fatigue.

But it's a puzzle, how these massive lumps of stone were carved in one crater and hauled across the island to stand along the coast. The aliens explanation is much neater than all the others - but tomorrow we go to the quarry and perhaps it will all be made clear. Or perhaps not...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

On, on

They have hairless dogs in Peru, did you know? About the size of a Dobermann, but totally bald.

Today we had the city tour, of cathedrals and plazas and streets and suburbs and the coast, and an enormous and enormously long and very delicious lunch then more suburbs and painted houses and old-fashioned fishing boats and relaxed families. Then more eating and then packing up again and back to the airport for the next flight to Easter Island, leaving at midnight and arriving at 5am local time - don't ask me how long the flight is. I'm hoping to get my head down and not notice.

Then it's walking and climbing and looking at moai, carved stone heads - and probably more eating, at a guess. This, if you haven't got the message by now, is not a holiday. (But I am having fun.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

From all sides now

Today was all about the waterfalls, which we've now seen from the air, from the water, from the Brazilian side and the Argentinian side. The helicopter view would have been terrific, had I not been sitting at the back in the middle with a column in front of me, a large man with an iPad on one side and a keen photographer on the other - if you do it, it's sauve qui peut: race for the front seat. Because these falls are so spectacular, you mustn't miss any of them. (Thank goodness for live view on my camera - it got a better view than I was able to.)

We drove back to the Argentinian side to walk right along the edge of the falls on a metal walkway with huge catfish lurking below and delicate butterflies floating above, and it was amazing to see so much water pouring and roaring over the drop. But it's not just spectacular: it's pretty too, with fresh green grasses growing on rocks in the river, flowering plants on the islands, and the butterflies. It helped, too, that after two days of cloud and rain, today was brilliantly sunny, with rainbows everywhere. (When it's a full moon, you can go out at night to see the falls under moonlight with moonbows.)

And then it was time to pack up again without really enjoying our lovely hotel with its inviting pool and wandering coati and pretty rooms and all, sigh. So tonight I'm in another fancy hotel, in Lima, and it's 1am here, which means 3am in Brazil, and I still have my homework to do, sorting out my afternoon activities for tomorrow. "Think about it overnight," suggested Johanna, without apparent irony.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dam fine

More cute coatis on the way to breakfast this morning. I'm soldiering on through epic jet lag and off-the-scale blood iron thanks to a paleolithic intake of red meat: possibly a connection? Who knows. Anyway, after yesterday's 'Whoa, nature showing off, here' moments with the waterfalls, today was about how man can whip up the odd marvel too, given some time and co-operation. So we were taken to the Itaipu Dam, 65 storeys high, 18km long, 20 turbines using 10 times the volume of the Falls... er, an hour? a day? The statistics became a blur, after a movie, a bus tour, the commentary - what is more impressive, is that it's a bi-national project by Brazil and Paraguay, the river forming their border. The construction, the maintenance, the power, they're all split 50:50 in a shining example of international co-operation.

Then lunchtime brought another revelation: my first churrascaria, a barbecue restaurant where you fill your plate with a selection of fresh salads and vegetables (or chips) and then a succession of waiters arrive at your table with what could be a heart attack on a stick, but is so delicious, who cares? We were offered from long skewers every type of barbecued meat imaginable, and some not (like chicken hearts) - filet mignon, rump steak, pork tenderloin, lamb, plus onions, cheese balls, sausages... all hot and crusty outside and meltingly tender inside. Delicious! And afterwards the completely unnecessary dessert selection recalled the very best in children's parties, with every permutation of sugar and cream possible. And it was only lunchtime!

At the bird park my zip toggle was gently examined by a toucan with his huge orange beak; a rhea came rushing excitably up to the fence and immediately fell asleep leaning against it; blue and yellow macaws swooped low overhead; we were frowned at by a harpy eagle and, happily, ignored by a large hairy tarantula; we went crazy trying to focus on super fast-forward hummingbirds and were draped with an anaconda; and my camera got into a snit and let me down, sniff.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wet and wild in Brazil

"You will get 100% wet." That was Anderson, here at the Hotel das Cataratas in Brazil at Iguazu Falls, when we were preparing for our boat trip not just along the river but, disquietingly, "under the falls". These would be the falls where 1.4 million litres of water thunder over the escarpment every second. Images of boats full of water, disappearing under the surface, never to be seen again...

After more fuss and waiting about than you could imagine (apparently, it's a Brazilian thing; it's strangely un-mollifying to consider that it would be worse in India) we got settled into our inflatable and set off upstream over churning, moiling water and some actual rapids, for a view of part of this astonishingly long series of waterfalls. Then it was time to tuck our cameras away as we entered The Devil's Throat, a canyon obscured by swirling clouds of spray, where the boat flirted with some heavy-duty falls, skipping around the edge, close enough for us to feel the wind and be blinded by the spray - and then nosed up into the cascading water, which drenched us completely without - some skill here, happily - filling the boat.

It was fun, if silly, and the water was pleasantly warm; and then afterwards we zipped along fast enough to blow-dry our hair; though we were stuck with the historical sensation of wet pants for the rest of the afternoon. I was completely diverted, though, by a large family of coatis, busily looking for food up and down tree-trunks, on top of rubbish bins and inside people's bags left carelessly on the ground. Very sweet and cute, and the symbol of Iguazu Falls my brochure tells me, saying they "may occasionally be seen". Only everywhere we went.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Doing BA our way

So far today has been about cafes, subways and opera. Let loose on the city, we were thrown into disarray, unused to such freedom, dithering about a ferry trip to Colonia in Uruguay across the wide brown river (weather too iffy) and a religious theme park -watch Jesus rise from the dead every half hour!- but it was closed. So we took on the subway and triumphed, clattering through the dark on the A-line, on original 1930s wooden carriages with lampshades and open windows, and 21st century graffiti on the outside.

We went to Cafe Tortoni to spy on snappily-dressed local men having pre-work coffees with colleagues they greeted with a kiss, and be served by a very cool waiter in short jacket, bow tie and cloth folded over his arm like something out of Monty Python. The place had ambience in spades. Cafe Violetas was more brightly-lit, and its waiters wore white jackets, but it had fabulous cakes and pies and hand-made chocolates in its adjoining shop. In an intestinal link, we next went to Teatro Colon, the opera house recently reopened after an obsessive renovation, and now a symphony of marble, 24 carat gold leaf and tall mirrors. Our guide was Lucia, who impressed us by singing a couple of snatches of La Traviata and Carmen, but disarmingly confessed that she'd learnt the latter by watching 'The Simpsons'.

Then we walked and walked through the rain back to the hotel, past little squares surrounded by tall houses with balconies and half-hipped slate roofs that could have been in Paris; and a pub called Jack the Ripper; and the oddly-named Christ, a shop selling German leather goods, which was having an even more unfortunate liquidation sale. And now I'm going to have High Tea arranged by the hotel tea sommelier, and then get ready for an evening of tango during which I intend to stay firmly seated.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Buen apetito!

Lawks amercy, as people somewhere used to say sometime, long before they had to struggle with the dual trials of far more wine than usual plus the exigencies of autocorrect.

Long dinner tonight with the jolly and hospitable marketing manager of the Cesar Park Hotel (recommended!) in Ricoleta, good old (young) Alejandro. We spoke of football (he supports Rio Plate, alas (relegated)), wood-fired barbecues, white Shiraz, too much about Australia, a Jesus theme-park, the French (spit), sharks, Evita (Don't Cry etc still gives him goosebumps - nice work, Sir Andrew) and how Chile gets offside with the rest of Latin America.

Very pleasant evening of good food (prawns and thick rib-eye - with a bone! - served with appealing 'cripsy potatoes' and three puds) and far too much wine - and then, back to the room to find a plate of macarons and a little bottle of the lovely dessert Malbec we'd just enjoyed, Malamado. Nice work, Alejandro!

Then bed, exhausted by so much one-eyed back-spacing, sigh.

Los animales de Buenos Aires

So, the usual sort of busy day that a city tour involves: cathedral, monuments, government buildings, outdoor artworks, parks and gardens. All necessary to get the feel of a place, establish its history and position in the modern world. But as always, it's the people who do furnish a city, give it a personality (literally) and allow you to connect.

We were all very taken by the dog-walkers we saw everywhere this morning, with handfuls of leads attached to a variety of canines, trotting purposefully along pavements and through parks. This young man had 25 that he was escorting - the pooper scooping that that must involve doesn't bear thinking about - and at around 250 pesos per dog per month, was easily bringing in a healthy average wage in just a couple of hours' work per day.

We were also fascinated by an actual necropolis, the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried, like everyone else in the basement of a tomb lining the narrow lanes of this peaceful and attractive place peopled by stone angels and stray cats. There were more cats at La Boca, the suburb that appears in every collection of photos of Buenos Aires - poor housing of corrugated iron and wood painted in bright reds, greens, yellows, originally using left-over cans of paint from the shipyards. It's a no-go area at night, because it's still lived in by poor people who can be a bit desperate, but during the day it's full of tourists and tango-dancers and artists, and the mood is cheerful: like the young man in the blue and gold of a Boca Juniors football supporter walking along singing about love in English. "I don't sing well, but I'm a happy boy."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Salud!

Eleven hours to Santiago, three hours on the ground there, then another 90 minutes to Buenos Aires... I'm just glad I'm not the guy in our group from Perth, who started his journey on Saturday morning. I had my nose to the window for crossing the Andes, but after that it was flat green pampas all the way, till we got to the huge sprawl of this city of 14 million, at around 5.30pm.

We whizzed in along a fancy highway, through what they would call in Australia a linear park where masses of family groups were happily picknicking and flying kites right beside the busy road - how peculiarly English of them. There was just time for a quick shower before we were out again, walking a few blocks to the Sunday flea market around this lovely church. It was the usual crafts and snacks, but with a laid-back feel to it, helped by a live band and lots of locals just chilling out on the grass in the warm evening air.

Then three of us lost our guide and the fourth member, and ended up by ourselves in a busy and cheerful downstairs restaurant where we had local beer and empanadas, and I discovered that locra is not for me. I do hope these aren't ill omens.

Bienvenidos a Santiago de Chile

Once upon a time, long ago, I collected sets of airline cutlery, sneaking them into my bag as souvenirs. I still have them at home, but they're an embarrassment now.

I see others still try to do that, but are foiled by the security check. The Swiss Army knife people must love those things.

Buen viaje!

There's only one thing to drink as you wait for all the plebs to fill up the seats back in steerage on a flight to Santiago de Chile: a pisco sour. Yum!

I was asked at check-in if I would mind giving up my business class seat to travel economy, as the flight is overbooked. Pft! Only one answer to that question ahead of an 11-hour journey, no matter how much compensation they offer.

Now, let me stretch out my legs and see if they'll reach the bulkhead... Uh, no chance.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Woo woo

Jet lag coming up. Changing time-zones, heading east against the sun, a long time in the pleasant but dislocating (literally) out-of-time capsule of the aeroplane cabin... it's the price to be paid for long-distance travel (in other words, virtually all travel from New Zealand). Not complaining, really, but it makes that zoned-out feeling of unreality on arrival in a foreign country just that much more intense.

You know how repeating some perfectly innocuous word over and over makes it eventually sound peculiar? And look odd, too, written down? That's similar to the phenomenon of depersonalisation, when you look at yourself in the mirror and wonder who that person is, even though you know it's you. All you can see is a stranger. It happens often when people are very tired. It's a kind of jamais vu - you think you've never seen that face before. Really messes with your head, but it's also kind of fun, to see yourself as, presumably, everybody else does - as long as it's only temporary, of course.

Travel has an effect a bit like that. You go to strange places and spend all your time looking around you, noticing the buildings all the way up to the roof, staring at the people, admiring the scenery, remarking on all the things that seem so different. So far, so normal. But then you get back home again, to your familiar surroundings, and because you've got into the habit of using your eyes properly instead of just manoeuvring through your day on automatic, you look around you and see things as a stranger would: the buildings, the people, the gardens, roads, shops, landscape. It's all fresh and attractive and somehow exotic, and you feel like a tourist in your own country.

If  people could just conjure up a bit of depersonalisation, or derealisation, on demand, they could have all the stimulation and novelty of an overseas holiday with none of the expense. But as I'm a small part of the travel industry and my job is to encourage people to buy flights, tours and accommodation, you didn't read that here.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

That was never 11 days we had just then

Why yes, that was rather a long gap between posts. Mainly it was because of marketing: selling stories linked to events and dates, and though the ones I've been fully occupied writing about are marking the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic a whole month from now, and Anzac Day even further away on April 25, there's been a bit of a rush to do it because I've got some travelling coming up. On Sunday I'm being whisked off to Buenos Aires on LAN's lovely business class, and thence to Iguazu Falls, Lima (again) and then, most excitingly, Easter Island. I once reviewed a book that was set there - rather unimaginatively titled 'Easter Island' - by Jennifer Vanderbes, who had clearly done a great deal of research into ancient angiosperms that she didn't want to waste, so by the end of the book I was quite the expert (temporarily) on fossilised pollen. Never heard the term 'palynology' before? Now you have.

Then after I've been home for less than a fortnight, I'm away again, for an incredible 6 weeks this time, to Europe: partly private but mostly work, and it's going to be very busy. Fun and interesting, but busy, and tiring. It doesn't help that there are three very old animals in this house, who miss me when I'm gone, and who so far have always been here when I've got back from a trip but, one day...

So anyway, the Titanic. I keep bumping into it, so to speak - of course, in Ireland last year, when we went to Cobh which was the ship's last port of call before setting off across the Atlantic, and where there was a really good exhibition in the old railway station there. Then there was an astonishingly, not to say anally, comprehensive travelling exhibition that I came across while I was in Copenhagen, that absorbed me for the best part of two hours while rampaging Hamburg football fans laid waste to the city outside (well, almost). We'll be going to a new one at Greenwich Maritime Museum while we're in London; there are, I discovered, others in Southampton, Liverpool and Cherbourg, all Titanic sister cities that I've been to; and several in Halifax, Nova Scotia where I haven't been, but have been increasingly hankering to go to over the last few years. Lots of the recovered bodies were buried there, including one J. Dawson, who was actually James, a boiler-room hand, but that doesn't stop a steady stream of fans of Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack going there to leave red roses on the gravestone:

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mellow

Perfect, perfect day today: clear, sunny, warm after early freshness, the colours bright and saturated. And on a Sunday, too! It was perhaps especially precious having come straight after what the media are in the habit these days of excitably calling a 'weather bomb', the word 'storm' apparently not dramatic enough any more. It was more of a damp squib (always want to say damp squid) here in Auckland, a bit of wind and rain that blew a bucket across the back lawn - but further south in Taranaki, where I went in November, it really was very violent and ripped the roofs off many houses and punched holes in walls with flying fence posts. Nothing on the scale of the terrifying tornadoes in the US, but bad enough for us, who've had more than enough lately in the way of natural disasters.

Where do I go from here? I could focus on Taranaki, and my Parihaka story, because I was at a meeting a couple of days ago that was addressed by some people from Maori Tourism, that began with an unexpected reference to flatulence and moved smartly on to some fairly abstract concepts and included a lot more te reo than I was expecting or, to be honest, understood (to my shame). Thank goodness I wasn't MCing, the person who was fortunately much more fluent in public-occasion Maori than I could dream of being. The atmosphere was very friendly and down-to-earth, but there were some delicate matters glanced over that it would have been good to be able to talk about properly: like Maori people getting tetchy when offenders are called Maori in news reports, that being a term that they don't really use themselves, identifying much more with their tribes. Fair enough - though 'Caucasian' is just as general, of course.

Or I could branch off from the disasters reference to say how appalled I am that the Bishop of Christchurch has just announced the decision to pull the cathedral down as it's too expensive to try to repair what is now a dangerously unstable building. It's very hard not to come over all xenophobic and say that it's because she's a Canadian, in the job only 3 years, and doesn't understand what the cathedral means to the people of Christchurch and the country as a whole. Doesn't matter if you're Anglican or not, religious or not - that building is the heart and soul, symbol and icon of Christchurch and it has to be saved.

Or I could go with the weather, how lovely it was to be out in the garden unbitten by mozzies, doing some weeding in the hen run, much to the girls' delight (all those worms and other tasty insects revealed), remembering with nostalgia how a blitz like that back at our country cottage in England would have finished with a satisfying bonfire down in the paddock: happy hours of raking and poking, finally and reluctantly going back up to the house, thoroughly kippered. And, as I pulled out armful after armful of the crocosmias that have taken over the hen run, thinking how true it is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. Viz: this photo of the gardens at Muckross House in Killarney, Ireland, of crocosmia, in the right place.

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