Sunday 30 September 2012

Bem vindo a Portugal!

There are worse ways, I guess, to spend a sunny Sunday than sprawled in Emirates’ business class watching movies – but I’m glad the journey’s over at last and we’re finally here in Portugal. We swooped in low over Lisbon’s cathedrals and its hills clad with tiled roofs and headed straight out of town to the north-east, into the region of Alentejo, which we’re already learning is Portugal’s forgotten land: less well-known, less glamorous than the Algarve where most tourists (especially the English) go. So it’s quiet and rural, unspoiled and very pretty: connoisseur country.

We drove through rolling countryside where huge boulders lay like sleeping elephants amongst the olive and cork trees, through small villages where mostly old people lived, sitting on benches in the sun or standing at doorways keeping an eye on things. Up on the hills there are forts, built for repelling all the invaders who have swept through here during the last couple of thousand years or so: stone-walled with watch-towers and battlements, above a sprawl of white houses. We visited one, Marvao, driving through the narrow and carefully-designed offset gateways (the stone full of scrape-marks, ouch) into the tangle of little cobbled lanes. In a hurry, as ever, I leaped up flights of steps to the top where there was a long view over the countryside from a lovely parterre garden with a fountain just below the castle – beautiful in the evening sunshine.

And then we went (eventually) to dinner, to eat generous proportions of peasant food: chorizo, venison, pork and hare, all tender and tasty and some of it boiling hot, literally, served with heaps of carbs: clearly we won’t be wasting away here. Nearly every dish, including puddings, includes bread, so this is no place for the gluten-free fusspots. We even got the recipe for our dessert, a sweet and delicious almond-based dish called Golden Soup. Yum. And then our driver, Antonio, who’s solicitous and keen to please (and who enjoyed the dinner even more than we did, scoring several souvenir “medals" of drips on his red tie) whisked us back along the dark winding road to bed, finally.

Saturday 29 September 2012

From both sides, then

Six ear-pops and 124 floors up from the ground, this is part of the view from the world's tallest building (currently - Saudi Arabia is closing in on that claim). The fountain pond is virtually the only splash (ha ha) of colour in the whole scene, everything else being concrete or sand. Well, there is a surprising amount of green too, especially since it's all planted and artificially irrigated - but mainly it's the expanses of empty sand, both within the city and all around it, that dominates the view. It's a pretty stunning demonstration of how busy they've been here making something out of nothing.

The whole place is artificial, and despite the miles of manicured gardens, trimmed hedges and avenues of date palms, life here takes place indoors for the most part - well, with summer temperatures of 50 degrees, how else would you live? The Emirates man we dined with tonight talked about the summer the way we do winter: "It seemed such a long summer this year, with the kids cooped up inside the house." He took us back to the Dubai Mall to eat at a restaurant nearby, in the block connected by the bridge in the photo to the mall on the left. It was all very pretty, floodlit and with fairy lights twined all around the palm trunks, reflecting in the ponds - and throughout the evening, at half-hour intervals, the fountains perform to music, swirling and shooting up high in a very entertaining manner. And of course, it was very, very warm, even in the dark.

Today we did shopping: or rather, saw what shopping could be done here, which is a major industry. There was a cliche Aladdin's Cave of a warehouse market with dimly-lit narrow aisles crammed with handicrafts not just from here but from 27 countries - life-sized wooden camels, pretty glass lanterns, Santa Claus carvings, jewellery boxes, pashminas, carpets and framed scorpions and bats. Oh, and a diver's helmet and a pair of giant wooden clogs. Bizarre. And at the other end of the scale, fabulously expensive and occasionally fabulous-looking embroidered wall-hangings with gold, silver and jewels, silk carpets, huge copper tea pots, inlaid marble table tops, furniture made from camel bone... Kind of interesting, but easy to resist, though apparently most people drool over the variety and the prices. Meh. I'd rather have spent the morning in the desert being shown how to fly a falcon. Yes, the actual bird. Next time?

Friday 28 September 2012

Onwards and upwards

This is part of a series of advertisements that's been running for some weeks now to mark the recent transition of the NZ Herald, after 149 years as a broadsheet, to what they insist on calling 'compact format' - tabloid to the rest of us. I like the series: it includes the Springbok Tour, the anti-nuclear declaration, the February earthquake and a few other events when the country was, for one reason or another, united (or not - see above, Springbok Tour). This one seems to have been used the most; or maybe I just notice it more because 1953 was such a particularly good year.

I met both Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay, and shook their hands, when they visited my high school as a favour to horrible Mrs Hardy, whose climber husband was good friends with Hillary. I had to give a speech and welcome them to Avonside Girls, and then sit without fidgeting on the stage while Sir Ed spoke, I presume now about climbing Everest and hard work and ambition and other suitably inspiring stuff. Mainly, I just remember how tall he was; and how quiet, Tenzing. It wasn't actually hard to imagine them both on top of Everest - it was clear they would have felt much more at home there than in our hall with the eyes of 1100 girls on them.

I saw Everest, years later when flying from Burma to Nepal, where we didn't do any sort of tramping, unfortunately - just spent a few days in Kathmandu. It was very crowded and dirty, but fascinating with its medieval-feeling narrow streets, dark little shops, wandering cows and rickety carved wooden buildings. I was amazed by the size of the loads that were being carried in bags hung from a handle passing round the foreheads of the wiry men sweating along underneath them. We hired bikes and went out into the countryside where it was really pretty, to visit a temple with prayer wheels, flags and monkeys, and more short, wiry men in baggy white trousers all carrying huge black umbrellas. I wonder if Kathmandu is still as vivid a place now as it was in 1980? Or whether it's been diluted by years of tourism. Blasted tourists, tch.

And now I'm off to stow my stuff in my trusty Kathmandu-branded backpack and head away to the airport this afternoon to go to Dubai (where it's 39 degrees) to make my own much less strenuous ascent of the world's highest building, and then continue to Lisbon; all to encourage more people to get in more planes and go to more places and dilute them too. Sorry.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Silver's gold

Today I broke free from the sofa to get a typhoid jab at the Travel Clinic, which was remarkably full of jeans-wearing Baby Boomers studiously equipping their medical kits before heading off overseas on all sorts of adventures; and where the doctor, who has perfected the art of both reading and - more unusually - writing upside down so his patients across the desk can follow his annotations to the Clinic's rather daunting list of vaccinations, scrolled through his email inbox to show me how many people had been in touch with him recently having been bitten - by dogs, mainly, but also by monkeys. "And one man wasn't even a tourist!" he said, clearly thinking this was a dirty trick by the dog in question. "He was there on business!" But it's too late for me to get vaccinated against rabies, so I'll just have to spend my time in Viet Nam whirling like a ninja, fending off all the rabid mammals.

Then I collected our family photos from the North & South office, where they've been scanned ready to be laid out for the November issue with my Stalag Luft 3 story, which I'm really looking forward to seeing. We chose November because of Remembrance Day then, which was never much of a thing for most of my life, but has now become a minor Anzac Day here in New Zealand, with poppies and all. Interesting how the further away we get from the War, the bigger it has become: I wonder if the Vietnam War will ever stop skulking around at the back? And then I picked up my passport with its Vietnam visa, the first entry in its pristine pages.

Finally I trotted off to the the O'Connell Street Bistro for a very nice lunch indeed, thank you, hosted by Silversea and thoroughly enjoyed by a roomful of editors, and me. It was Silversea standard dining, which is high praise, because Silversea is the best type of ocean cruising you can do. Small ships - well, small enough to fit under Tower Bridge, but not so small that it feels at all cramped, and certainly not in the suites, which have walk-in wardrobes, a seating area and marble bathroom as well as the big bed - with around 300 guests. Compared with the massive, ugly cities that they're building these days, the Silversea ships are canoes. Canoes with personal butlers, bottomless champagne in the rooms, waiters carrying your breakfast buffet selection to your table for you... it goes on. The week I spent on Silver Whisper, from Hong Kong to Shanghai by way of Beijing's port, was pretty much the definition of sybaritic - with class. Happy to repeat anytime, Silversea!

Saturday 22 September 2012

Living in fragments

I've just finished watching the 1992 Merchant-Ivory movie of Howards End which reminded me how much I love EM Forster, and that I must re-read him - it's been years. So should you. Also, cast your eyes to the right, and there is the dedication from that novel: "Only connect", which I use in a very superficial manner, but the concept of which of course simply suffuses his story, about the buttoned-up Wilcoxes and the intense Schlegels, about the prose and the passion, and unconnected arches.

The 21 arches in my photo are beautifully connected, and curved: McAlpine's Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland, and that's the Jacobite crossing it, which stood in for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. There were a lot of lovely steam trains in the Forster movie, and echoing railway stations - such a gift to directors, almost a cliché, they're such romantic places, as full of meetings and partings as airports, but so much more atmospheric.

Having written 26 stories and 28 blog entries (not this one: Air France) since getting back from Europe in June, I've got just two more to do next week to complete my commissions and clear the decks ready for the next lot of travel - and those two are about travelling around Europe by train. I didn't have the time to do a proper expedition, but on one day going from Dijon to Surrey I took 7 separate trains; and on another I spent the entire day on the train from Berlin to Budapest, not reading but looking out of the window and watching the day pass in real time as Germany and the Czech Republic and Hungary went by outside. Some people might have found it boring, but I loved the feeling of being both unconnected, or unplugged, in the sense of having nothing to do but sit and gaze and daydream, as well as connected to the journey in a way you never are in the limbo of an aircraft. Though, I have to say, modern trains, while faster and more comfortable, have lost a lot of their romance after years of 'improvements'.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Feeling stuffed

Not as in had it, but as in having it all. After months of famine, it's feast time again, publication-wise: last week stories in the Press on Monday, Herald on Tuesday and DomPost on Wednesday. And today two in the Herald, the prime spots of Page 3 (Samantha Fox territory!) and the central dps, as we in the trade call it. Double-page spread. Er, that makes it sound like Sam Fox again. I don't know why it works this way, but it always does. People start saying, "Are you still doing that travel writing thing?" and then, when there's been a flurry, swap to a slightly disparaging, "I keep seeing your name everywhere".

And the travel is the same. I had a South American tour at the end of March, followed by five weeks in Europe just a fortnight later - and then, nothing. For nearly four months. Nothing but sitting on the sofa with a cat at each elbow, tapping away day after day. But that famine's almost over now, too: next Friday I'm away to Portugal for 10 days, then back on a Sunday and off again on the Monday to the Cooks with scarcely enough time in between to wash my smalls. After that, back for four days and then away to Viet Nam for another 10 days - and that's October taken care of. Goodness knows how the cats will cope; and I'm a bit worried about myself to be honest. Plus I'll be spending my entire birthday on a plane. In Economy! Sob.

Thank goodness the one in the middle is an actual holiday: nothing to do but lie on the beach, snorkel, go on a boat trip across the world's most beautiful lagoon, eat, read and sleep. What a treat! The sort of thing, in fact, that's the whole purpose of all the stories I've been writing. Go away, take some time off, relax, experience something different. It's what ordinary people (that's you: no slight intended) do several times a year. I can't remember the last time I did that. It's going to be a real novelty. But first, I'm off with the notebook and camera, flying Business with Emirates on the A380 to Dubai again, and then Lisbon. Yay!

Sunday 16 September 2012

What's wrong with this picture?

Shop-front in Vienna with a glaring mistake - you know what it is, of course. Did you also know that crocodiles (for that's what this is, alligators having much blunter noses) can bite through a cow's - or, indeed, person's - leg like butter, but are feeble weeds when it comes to opening their jaws, so a simple bit of tape around their mouths is enough to defuse them? This snippet could save your life - glad to be of service.

I know this because I've been to Australia so often, and spent lots of my time there in the Top End: Queensland, WA and the Territory, where crocs are a fact of life. I've been to Australia so many times, in fact, that when I did a displacement-activity count up sometime last year, I was pretty astonished to realise that I'd had 85 Oz stories published. I sent off a Hey! Guess what? email to the head of Tourism Australia here, followed quite quickly by another admitting that Actually, that would have been more impressive if I'd hung on a bit and waited for my century, eh. But then the week before Christmas came and with it the Could we have it yesterday? assignment writing for the AustraliaAmazing100 campaign, and that bumped my total up to way over 100.

So it was really sweet and pleasing to have a moment of glory at the Australia on a Plate event a week or so ago, when Jenny called me up front for some praise and thanks and to give me a beautiful bouquet which is still going strong. And really, it's all been such a pleasure. When I scored my first famil, to Tasmania, I was thrilled; and the second, to South Australia, was just as lovely; and then when the third trip was to Queensland, I thought, Oh, Australia again. But I'm so over that: every time I cross the Ditch, I know I'm going to have fun, see fabulous scenery, eat delicious food, spend time with interesting, enthusiastic people and find out extraordinary things. I'm happy to go to Australia any time I'm asked. Me and my roll of insulation tape.

Friday 14 September 2012

Non summa sequere

There's more bad news for Christchurch, and what's making it worse is that it's not a random seismic event, it's being caused deliberately by the Government. The Ministry of Education has decided that 13 schools in the city and surrounds are to close, with a further 18 merging. All my old schools are on the list: my primary school, Banks Avenue, where, aged 10, I gave a speech at the opening of our new hall, which now looks rather sad; and Shirley Intermediate, which seemed perfectly functional when I went past it recently; and my secondary school, Avonside Girls' High, which it's planned will be subsumed by ChCh Girls' High. Our brother school, Shirley Boys, will be swallowed up by ChCh Boys. To add insult to injury, both of those schools are arch rivals to ours.

When I was at AGHS last month, the Principal (in the job less than a year before the February earthquake, poor thing) told me that it would be two years before she expected a decision on the stability of the land and the future of the school, so she will be reeling, like everyone else connected with the schools. Which is pretty much everybody in those communities. It's a given that in Wellington, you're asked what you do; in Auckland, where you live; but in Christchurch, the first question people ask you is what school you went to. It's not snobbery: it just establishes where you fit in the city, what community you belong to, what your connections are. It's a shorthand.

Apart from the loss of all those years of tradition and identity for the schools themselves, it seems so unfair to me to snatch away what for many students, their teachers and support staff, and all their families too, is the one of the few stable things left in their lives. To expect them to leave all that's familiar and start again, on top of everything else, is harsh. It's taking the cheap route. It's certainly not aspiring to be the best.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

US 9/11 = NZ 12/09

Today it's bright and sunny, sharp and clear, with a cold wind blowing up from the south where there's been a big dump of snow. It was a sunny spring day like this 11 years ago when I strolled into work across the road, all unknowing, to be met by shocked faces; and it was sunny and cold and spring just like this when I went to New York five years later, for the first time.

It was so exciting to be there: so strange and yet so familiar; so scary by reputation and yet in actuality so friendly and safe. I had such a great time exploring Manhattan mostly on my own, trusting to serendipity and the kindness of strangers and being repaid in spades: nice locals helping me out with directions ("I want to you enjoy my city") and sorting me out on the subway ("I never usually get to help people"); scoring a cancellation ticket for Spamalot; happening across CSI:NY being filmed, complete with dead mermaid on the jetty underneath Brooklyn Bridge heartlessly kept wet in the icy wind by someone with a water spray; the friendly FDNY guy who let me try on his helmet and amazingly heavy jacket; the choir and orchestra rehearsal of Bach's St John Passion in a church with perfect acoustics.

I was dismayed by the expense and uncertainty of tipping, and irritated by all the bossy notices. Everything else, though, was just as it should have been: the continuous whistles and sirens, the policeman writing up his notes on top of his imperturbable horse in Times Square, the five ear-pops on the way up the Empire State, the yellow cabs and absurdly long stretch limos, the ice-skaters at the Rockefeller Centre, the incidental foot-massage I got from the shoe-shine guy, the young man in a beanie doing tai chi in Central Park... I even went to see the Blue Man Group [Homer Simpson: "They're a total rip-off of the Smurfs!"] which was lots of fun; and today's tenuous connection, since I'm writing about Berlin, where they were also playing.

Saturday 8 September 2012


Blog statistics are a mysterious beast. Please don't run away, but I can see who's visiting, or rather what city you live in, and have come to recognise my regular lurkers. You're very welcome here! Please keep coming! If you ever feel like de-lurking, don't hold back - I would love to be able to say, "Oh look, [insert name here] has called in", instead of nodding and thinking, "Ah, Mountain View, CA", or "Bonjour, Paris". Don't be shy!

Besides the select few of you who come here directly, many more arrive as the result of a search for what is often something very esoteric and even exotic. This is where you're expecting to read a funny list of wild and crazy search terms, and I wish I'd thought to record the more eyebrow-raising ones, but sorry, I haven't done that (though I will from now on). I do know what the more common ones are though, because Blogger keeps them for me. They're pretty dull and predictable: the Emirates A380 Review is far and away the most-searched and most-read (which teaches me that I should go for the dull titles if I want lots of traffic). Second-most read post, though, is Vive la France, which is curious. The most-common search term is 'French flag' which to me suggests hundreds of schoolchildren with projects on the go, but perhaps not. I imagine they're stealing this image of the flag, which would be sort of annoying, since flags are very capricious things to photograph.

But why so many people typing in 'Vive la France'? I hope it's not because they're wanting a translation, quelle horreur. And why so many in the last couple of days? There's been a sudden spike, people! Fifteen in the last day and a bit alone! What's going on there? What's France up to that's not making it into the news here? Surely the dreadful Alpes murders aren't prompting it? It's very intriguing. Anyway, I hope they're grateful, all 2015* of them, having got here to receive a small dose of New Zealand history and an introduction to Akaroa. Which is doing very well out of the earthquakes, by the way: instead of cruise liners mooring at Lyttelton, which was very shaken, they've been calling into Akaroa for a little taste of France. A quelque chose malheur est bon! And speaking of tastes of France, there's a mille feuilles in the kitchen calling to me, that's going to be almost as good as the one I bought in Tain-l'Hermitage...
* UPDATE: Make that 2107 of them, with 627 'French flag' searches (plus one 'do fish eggs stick on you?')

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Australia on a plate

Well, that was fun: an evening spent playing at Masterchef, with an Australian flavour. We assembled in teams of four, each assigned a state - mine was South Australia - and a menu based on select produce from there, to cook in an hour for Josh Emett to judge. Some people cruised through, but I felt pressured, especially as my prawn croquettes required several time-consuming stages to prepare; and it didn't help that Josh told a graphic story about how he'd set a kitchen on fire while trying to deep-fry something similar. But he was impressed with my egg-separating skills.

In the background of the photo is Richard Till, another celebrity cook, who was on the Queensland team and told the person in charge of the banana-coconut filo parcel to ignore the recipe and "stick it in a pot and boil the fuck out of it". It was that kind of gathering. The wine helped. Our seared tuna was "well done, in both senses" and my croquettes were insufficiently seasoned (I'd been so impressed by the scary lady at the start telling us not to "compromise our food with dipped fingers" that I quite forgot to taste-test the mixture). And Josh delegated the oyster-tasting - presumably, allergic to shellfish. Bit of a handicap for a chef. But it was all ok, no-one was humiliated or voted off, and afterwards we all sat down to a series of bite-sized versions of what all the teams had made, done properly by the kitchen out the back.

It was good to chat to Josh over dinner and ask about his long years under Gordon Ramsay (perhaps why he's gone grey already) and his new Queenstown restaurant, Rata, which I was writing about a couple of weeks ago. I explained how cruel I'd found it, having to research all those restaurants, look at close-up photos of the dishes and read the menu descriptions, without a single morsel passing my lips, and he sympathised - but he didn't offer me a dinner-voucher for when I'm down there next. Tch.

Monday 3 September 2012

Links and connections: not the same thing

In a waiting room today, I picked up a dog-eared copy of Mindfood magazine to read an article about Kiva, the micro-loan scheme I'd heard about when I was down in Queenstown doing the Ziptrek off Bob's Peak. It's a great idea: think about it. Anyway, then I looked for the travel section and saw a story titled 'Great Northern Land', referencing the song and unofficial Oz anthem 'Great Southern Land', just re-released by Tourism Australia accompanying a video of scenery with assorted Aussies singing along, and which I watched only this morning.

I recognised the images in the magazine instantly, having used several of the same ones myself for a story about a campervan trip through the Northern Territory a couple of years ago - and, in fact, I recognised myself in one of them, at our elegantly-set table beside the Katherine River, halfway through a kayak trip along that croc-infested river. Over the back of my chair is my faithful red jacket, which I happened to be wearing as I read Lorna's story (which mentioned how she went down most of the rapids backwards - she was a great sport about our heartless laughter). It was a good trip, lots of fun and with plenty of different experiences, and the company was very congenial too. We even had a photographer along, Peter Eve, who took this one, which took the pressure off us writers to produce our own worthy images.

The editor of Mindfood is Michael McHugh, who was also on the trip to Macau last year, a destination I perhaps unkindly slated yesterday. It's not that the place has nothing to offer - on the contrary, it's  an interesting mix of Chinese and Portuguese, it's pretty, the food is excellent, there are plenty of sights and activities to occupy a visitor popping across during a Hong Kong stopover, and some of the hotels are amazing. That was the problem, though: we saw far, far too many of them, the organiser of the famil treating us more like travel agents than travel writers. We spent so much time surrounded by marble and chandeliers and huge floral arrangements that we only had about 20 minutes with the pandas. And that's just tragic.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Polystyrene floats too, of course

So, three things came together today: the strong, blustery wind blowing away all the cobwebs and also the moulded polystyrene that misguided householders are putting out today for next week's inorganic collection (They don't take polystyrene, people! It's going to blow down the street and end up wedged in a bush till kingdom come! Don't do it!); my new glasses, which may not be a total success since they're making me cross-eyed when I read, which isn't the aim, I believe; and a story by my colleague Angela in the Sunday Star-Times about one day on our Rhone cruise, when we toured Arles, went to Les Baux and visited an olive mill.

The connection is the wind, which in France was the Mistral blowing icily from the north down the river valley, and so strongly that it whipped my glasses off my face and sent them bowling merrily over the cobblestones of pretty little Les Baux, perched on its hilltop. The glasses had already been broken, by me trying to straighten a bent arm/leg/wing after sleeping on them on the flight from Abu Dhabi, and instead snapping it right off, so that I had to wear them from then on as a kind of pince-nez, which made me feel silly and - rightly, as it turned out - insecure. That was back in mid-April, and I only got my new glasses yesterday, which is a long time to walk around behind a screen of scratches (though I did get a new arm a week later, for FREE! in Lyon).

That was also the first full day on the boat, Uniworld's River Royale - my stories have yet to be published, but I've been doing my best since then to sell the concept of river cruising to anyone who will listen, and was enthusing about it just yesterday at a party. I pretty much always enjoy all my trips (Macau and the Gold Coast are the stand-out exceptions) but the two river cruises I've done, along the Rhine and the Rhone, were both so exceptionally and completely lovely that I'm wondering already how I could wangle myself another. So much to enjoy: great food, comfortable cabins/suites (even if not huge), excellent friendly staff, unpacking only once, always having something to look at, and being deposited every time right in the centre of the towns and cities we visited. It's a brilliant way to travel, truly: not cheap (so I'm told, cough) but really worth treating yourself. Do it!


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