Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween-free zone

So, the OH opens the envelope containing the CD version of his English year book, then looks at the postmark. "Where's Port Louis?" he asks, puzzled. And, because I've been there, I can tell him it's in Mauritius, in fact the capital. What are the odds? (I have to stop asking that - regular readers (ha!) know all about me and coincidences.)

Last year, apparently, the Year Book came from Hong Kong, so even fancy, ancient professional associations aren't above shopping around the world for the cheapest mass mailer - and this time it's little Mauritius, a drop of land in the Indian Ocean, where I went in 2010 and *cough*dentally had a story about it published just three weeks ago in the NZ Listener. (That's not my only Mauritian story, I hasten to clarify, just in case there are any potential employers reading this: it was the seventh.)

So, Port Louis: big old fort up on top of the hill, built by the British when the French populace resisted the idea of the abolition of slavery, the dark stone rooms now full of arty souvenirs; swanky new waterside development with upmarket shops and live jazz and young people preening and parading in their fashionable gear; crowded back-street markets with sacks of beans, rice and spices, vendors shouting, cars squeezing past, people everywhere; cathedral, temples, mosque, churches; quaint little Natural History Museum with some sad remains of the dodo; verandas, balconies, shutters, palm trees, boabs, banyans. Noisy, hot, busy, interesting. Worth seeing.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Back from 'Nam

There should be more frolicking, I think. Not at the Ha Loa Prison in Hanoi, where this instruction was engraved in a marble panel on the wall, obviously: respect is the only fitting response to all the suffering that's gone on there; but generally. We should all frolic more.

I've come home to spring, when it's normally lambs that have sole rights to the use of the word: trees all in leaf, weeds springing long and unlovely and lush, mock orange in flower. It's good to be back - though it was good too to be away. There's nothing like a new country to stir up your interest, stimulate your thinking, inspire your photography. I really enjoyed my week in North Viet Nam: terrific scenery, really delicious food, and such nice people. They work so hard, but they still seem to have time for fun, and for themselves: those morning sessions of walking and exercise were very impressive; and you've never seen initiative till you've witnessed the inspired uses that a simple concrete bench can be put to. Gyms? Pft.

I also felt safe, wandering around (albeit clutching my backpack defensively to my chest): not a target for any sort of unwelcome attention other than as a potential customer, which is fair enough. It was good that there were no beggars at all - try saying the same about Queen Street. As usual, the trip was a bit rushed; but not because tourism people were trying to get as much value out of visiting travel writers as possible, since this was an actual tour that anyone could take: World Expeditions' Rocky Plateau Tour, to be precise. It was intensive because it has to be, to fit as much distance and experience into the time that most people have available. I think that's reasonable: no-one would go to North Viet Nam for a relaxing holiday, they go to see and taste and feel, which is exactly what we did. And we left the place a bit better off for our visit, thanks to World Expeditions' sponsorship of one of the schools we visited.

We were also, you'll be glad to hear, careful always to toilet in fixed places.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

HBTM, HBTM...

Huh. While there was singing of 'Happy Birthday' last night and multiple toasts of apricot and passionfruit liquors, today on my actual birthday nobody here has remembered. And to add insult to injured princess feelings, I'm spending the day travelling back to Auckland from Hanoi economy class. It's a horrible way to spend a birthday - even if I was starting to think I might dispense with the concept altogether.

But it began well enough, with chancing across St Joseph's in the old quarter as I strode along in the spitty rain fending off umbrella-vendors. Mass was well under way when I slipped in to enjoy the singing from an almost-capacity congregation, not one of them with a hymn book. They made a lovely sound in the equally lovely church.
And then I went to the other extreme by seeking out the Hanoi Hilton: the prison used by the French to inflict untold unpleasantnesses on the local people; and then by the Vietnamese to hold US prisoners of war. You can't blame them for presenting the two quite differently - there were beds and guitars and neatly-pressed clothes in the US section, and in the dark and gloomy wing where the Vietnamese had suffered, there was this - which kind of puts into perspective a soft seat, meal service with wine and unlimited movies, I have to admit.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Waiter, there's a...


... cricket in my salad. Yes, it's a crap photo: that's what happens when you're juggling low light, long shutter speeds, macro subject and a total inability to cope with the technology because of seven shots of rice wine inside you. This time, apricot liquor, with a powerful chilli afterburn. Two proper journos, one freelance, a videographer, a presenter, a tourism company director and a local director: check it out, it's a volatile mix when you add in the local firewater. I would like some credit here for my dedication in posting this entry with - literally - one eye shut for better focus, and multi back-spacing to cope with the keyboard-skills sabotage that results from just a sniff of alcohol, let alone a 20% share of three bottles of rice wine. Plus beer.

It's a degenerate end to a day that began so well with zen tai chi on the sun deck of the boat at dawn, as the - count them - 14 surrounding boats woke up, weighed anchor and set off for Surprise Grotto. We stood on one leg and stretched and reached and - personally - felt silly and possibly the butt of some Asian in-joke as we tried to follow the master, getting totally thrown at the point when he adjusted one of his tunic buttons.

What's the difference between a cave and a grotto? Apparently, a grotto you can go right through. And the surprise? Well, let's just say there's an accidental link to the name of Vietnamese currency. I'll save you googling it: it's the dong.

After trailing through the huge cave system with its unusual sculpted ceiling, we went back to our boat and were taken, reluctantly, back to the harbour at Halong and driven off again to Hanoi. There we went to a performance of the Water Puppets, which was a harmless and relatively inexpensive novelty, before going out tonight for our farewell dinner in a restaurant that, thankfully, didn't make us sit on the floor, but had cheat seats with a hidden footwell so we could be comfortable as we ate our spring rolls and sweet cucumber salad and crispy chicken (Col. Sanders, hide your face in shame) (and stop trying to look like Uncle Ho), Chinese lamb (shock, horror) and stupid beef noodles and probably something else, but it's all merging now - and the crickets, small and crispy and surprisingly flavoursome. Though the leg-between-the-teeth worry was a new one for me.

Good day, good evening. good company. Even though our World Expeditions local-guide know-how in selecting a genuine Vietnamese restaurant was mitigated somewhat by discovering in the corner of it a person from Albany, which is the next Auckland suburb over from mine. Tch.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Funny, peculiar and ha ha

 
I’m guessing the people dancing by the lake this morning weren’t the same ones we saw last night – respect for their stamina, if so. First thing, the pavements were busier than the roads, with a great surge of people striding anti-clockwise around the lake, sneakers on their feet and determination in their eyes. Others chose to get their exercise more competitively, playing badminton in teams with or without a net; and others still were dancing, some classical ballroom, others Gangnam style – that’s a very long and energetic dance, by the way, in such humid conditions, and respect again to the dancers who jumped and flailed their way right to the end.

Most fun to watch, though – literally – was the young man surrounded by a double circle of mostly middle-aged women with their arms linked, who were laughing for their exercise. Breathing first, and some chanting, but then a vigorous “Ho! Ho! Ho!” that ended every time in real laughter. It was peculiar but infectious, and as good a way as any to begin a day that might involve a lot of tedious sitting and not much human contact - or possibly too much of it.

Our day started with more – surprise! – driving, this time for just 3½ hours to Halong Bay, known for its thousands of scattered karst islands in a warm green sea. We were such a novelty up north, Western tourists, but here we’re just the raw material for a huge and efficient tourism machine that moves people out into the bay and back again in vast numbers. We set off in our junk-type boat with its fancy cabins across the bay into the network of islands – along with a flotilla of other boats doing exactly the same thing.

Being part of a mass tourism operation is a new experience for us here in north Viet Nam, but it's still worth it to see the beautiful and striking scenery, the floating fishing village with its accomplished stand-up rowers and cute schoolkids, the pearl farm where the shellfish were being seeded, and the sun setting behind these extraordinarily shaped islands with their sheer sides and fuzz of foliage. Limestone, eh: always such a star.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fun for some

Not for this guy, I suspect, judging by how much pork we've been served since we've been here: every lunch and dinner, and sometimes breakfast too. Probably not going to end well for him - though the baskets of piglets we also passed on the road, on the backs of motorbikes, were more likely just moving house. Today's most amazing motorbike loads were a roof truss on one and two 2-seater wooden benches on another. Yes, we were on the road again, heading back south to Hanoi - yet another long day in the van, but less of an ordeal today as the mountains were behind us and long sections of the road were pretty civilised.

You might think that spending so many hours in a van is a tedious waste of a holiday, but the simple fact is that to get to that amazing karst scenery up north, it's the only way, as there are no airstrips. And I wouldn't have missed seeing those mountains for anything. This is, after all, a World Expeditions trip; besides, as I keep saying, the entertainment value of the traffic itself simply has to be seen to be appreciated.

So here we are back in Hanoi, briefly, before heading off again tomorrow. There was a very good dinner at Quan An Ngon, a huge and efficient restaurant seething with staff; there were drinks beforehand at a rooftop bar overlooking the swirl of traffic circling a roundabout by the lake, and afterwards in the elegant splendour of the Metropole; but best of all there was life to enjoy - where else, but on the streets: children playing and shouting "Hello" before rushing away giggling, families eating, the surging tide of motorbikes to weave through crossing the road, goods laid out, bright and neat and ordered by type, so there seemed to be a book street, a bling street, a toy street, a whisky street and so on. We finished by strolling around the lake in the dark, the coloured lights reflected in the black water (hiding apparently a mythical turtle), alongside which people sat and rollerskated and talked and courted and laughed and played games and danced. And they were all having fun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Not comfortable - but so interesting

When the total journey's only about 150km, but it takes you 6 hours to do it, that tells you all you need to know about the road. Today we completed our circuit through the spectacular Dong Van Karst Plateau, looping back round and returning to the town of Yen Minh, near where we spent a couple of nights at the homestay. The road is narrow, winding, up and down, and also pot-holed and often unsealed, with slips and roadworks. As well, it's crazily busy with pedestrians as well as vehicles: mostly motorbikes carrying their usual absurd loads - we helped one guy out today who lost his balance and fell over, and was cast, his four big sacks of dried beans making the bike far too heavy for him to lift by himself. The guys set him back up again and he went on his way, over 100km to do while perched on the petrol tank.

It seemed we always met the biggest trucks on the sharpest corners with sheer drop-offs hundreds of metres down to the river - no exaggeration, the scenery is Andean-epic. The endless lumpy peaks shaded off into the distance, green to purple to silver, the terraces stepped away down to the river, and everywhere there were people, local H'mong, the women in neon-bright pink and turquoise, orange and purple: headscarves and skirts with trousers, all of them carrying babies in slings or huge bundles of firewood or baskets of some sort of crop. We're over taking photos of the buffaloes on the road, the goats with bells round their necks or the pigs - that's all so two days ago; but the people are endlessly fascinating, and so friendly. Quite often, we've seen them taking photos of us, Westerners being such a novelty here.

The journey seemed harder today because two of us were sick, one very, poor thing, which meant lots of stops for her to chunder and the rest of us to enjoy being still for a few minutes. It was a huge relief to get to our destination for the night: another echoing hotel room with high ceiling, bare floor ornate furniture and idiosyncratic light switches. Also, this time, the hardest bed ever - honestly, it's like a divan base that they forgot to put the mattress on. But it doesn't matter at all, because I'm so tired (and empty - no dinner for me tonight, though I went along anyway and slipped lots of treats to the little cats prowling round under the tables in the restaurant) that nothing's going to stop me getting a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

By the way...

...what should be hanging on the wall of my rather basic but perfectly clean and comfortable room here at the Rocky Plateau Hotel in Dong Van in north-eastern Vietnam but a presumably locally-produced oil copy of Van Gogh's Cafe de Nuit - a painting which I last saw in April this year in Arles, where I walked past the very cafe that was his subject?

Also BTW, I've had occasion to observe that another everyday invention that has so far escaped the Vietnamese, besides the clothes peg (they use hangers, or just drape the clothes over the line) is toilet paper perforations. Don't ask me how I know.

Steep

It was another long day in the van today, which was all about rocks and children. We drove further north, into the World Heritage area of the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, which is a wordy title for somewhere that's quite honestly OTT spectacular. We went up to 1000m, but the peaks were still high above us, green and black and pointy like a dragon's back, and yet still astonishingly cultivated, with terraces and zigzag roads and tracks carved into their sides. It's phenomenal what can be achieved by simple tools, a bit of know-how and a whole lot of hard work.

Duke shared some history with us today, and it's clear that this country is all about blood, sweat and tears: 1000 years of warfare, and such things as the road we were on today, built by the Vietnamese under French domination, with great loss of life. And today, though the blood and tears are hopefully things of the past, the sweat continues, with the people scratching a hard living by incredible hard work. The loads we saw being carried today, by young and old! Huge loads of firewood and bamboo, big wicker baskets full of turnips - they were bent double, as they climbed up steep rough tracks. We saw groups of women threshing rice by hand, men breaking rocks... And also young people in modern gear checking cellphones, whisking past on shiny motorscooters; and satellite dishes on adobe houses.

We also saw lots of children as we bumped and bounced along the narrow road: they weren't sure of us, suspicious but hopeful that something nice might come of our all pointing our cameras at them. And fortunately two of us had had the forethought to buy lollies and stickers to give them, to their shy delight. They looked very poor - but the ones in the little school we visited were clean and earnest and studious, 6 year-olds already doing algebra, working out the sums written neatly on the blackboard. That was good to see; though the odds are that they'll end up out in the fields, continuing the same backbreaking toil that's been going on here for centuries. With, I have to say, quite remarkable good cheer, to judge by the laughter that floated up to us from the terraces below.

Monday, October 22, 2012

On foot



It was very First World of me to lie in bed last night, listening to the heavy rain and mistrusting the thatched roof above us, but of course it kept us all dry. It had stopped by the time we set out this morning for our 15 kilometre walk through the paddy fields and little hamlets up to the top of a hill; though it was still damp and misty and moody, the peaks hidden in mist and the colours muted as we followed the path. We passed the houses scattered through the fields, and the people about their work: the boy sheltering in a big new drainpipe as he kept an eye on the water buffaloes as they grazed, the woman cutting out diseased rice-plant heads one by one, the others tending their super-neat vegetable beds.

It was a hot and humid climb, steady and sticky, but rewarded at the top by lunch in a local couple’s house, like our homestay but less tarted-up, more real, where an open fire burnt on a concrete pad, pork hung in the smoke above it, the boards were bare and the only light came through the doors. They made us welcome, the food was good and hot, and the rice wine generously shared.

Then we headed downhill, following a treacherous footpath over streams and rocks, through the fields, past more houses with duck ponds full of fish. We all slipped and slithered, and some of us fell, and one of us hurt his elbow really badly, but the sun was out and the ricefields so luminously green and neat and beautiful that it was worth all the drama; and when we got to the bottom, the villagers were all busy in the fields with the mobile thresher like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel, but with cone hats and plastic sandals, and with buffaloes and jungly limestone peaks in the background. It was a great day, real and authentic, and with a bit of excitement too – plus Moc the dog came with us the whole way. Excellent experience.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On the road


Today it’s felt as though we’re properly living up to the name of the travel company hosting this trip: World Expeditions. We left the city bustle of Hanoi this morning and drove all day north-west through fascinating countryside to finish up in a small village of 500 where we’re staying in a traditional thatched stilt house, all in together on mattresses on the floor like at a marae.

Such a long drive could have been a penance, but there was so much to look at that there was no danger of nodding off (perhaps also thanks due there to Flyhidrate?) For a start, being part of the traffic was highly entertaining, especially as our driver had the universal Vietnamese disregard of the white line – there clearly only as a suggestion – and was as often on the wrong side as on the right. There were endlessly diverting episodes of near-collisions when overtaking on blind bends, or meeting vehicles doing the same thing – trucks and cars, this is, the ubiquitous motorbikes always there on the fringe of things. Only the modest speeds saved us from extinction – the one road rule to be rigidly enforced. None of this was unusual, you understand: it's just how things work here; and it does seem to work, oddly enough. We saw lots of dinged vehicles, but no actual prangs.

The motorbikes – universally referred to as Hondas, whatever the make - were actually most entertaining of all, as we met more and more unlikely loads being carried: two glass doors, a more-than 44 gallon drum, a pile of mattresses, two-metre high bonsai trees, and three pigs, full-size, trussed up in baskets and slung on the back of the bike, almost as astonishing a sight as the wrestling session that must have preceded it.

The towns were full of activity, and so was the countryside, most of the latter seemingly to do with making neat bundles of various bits of it. In fact, there was so much work going on and so much physical energy being expended that I felt quite exhausted just observing it: sweeping, scraping, building, chopping, digging, bending, straightening… What with all that, and the neat tea plantations and jungly peaks and rice paddies and duck-herding and water buffaloes and sweetcorn plantations, it was especially bizarre that our cheerful local guide Duke, announcing that he would play some “nice Vietnamese music” then had us listening to ‘It had to be you’ and ‘Those were the days’ as though we were standing in some Westfield mall elevator.

And now we’re full of rice wine and yummy spring rolls and noodle soup and chicken and pork and vegetables and fruit, and looking forward to doing battle with mosquito nets and shutters and mattresses on the floor tonight. It’ll be fun!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The longest day

I've never known a 20 October quite like it.  Began at Auckland Airport, took me through a night on the plane to Singapore Airport where, unexpectedly, there were fish and orchids and sunflowers, then on again to Hanoi where there's been incredible traffic, distinctive houses, people everywhere, horns tooting incessantly, oppressive heat, strong beer and a delicious meal and then finally an early bed at about 8.30pm that felt like the wee small hours again so that when I woke a couple of hours later at 10.30 I was totally confused by the numbers and couldn't understand why it was dark and people weren't hammering at my door.

Interesting, though. Hanoi is like Jakarta and Delhi in the traffic and noise and press of people on the streets - but also peculiarly Vietnamese. The typical houses are 3 to 6 storeys high, the more expensive with balconies and wooden shutters, painted and pretty with potplants - but all only one room wide. So there's not much living space inside, and people spend most of their time outdoors. The Central Lake was particularly busy today because it's Ladies' Day when flowers are given and fusses made, and also apparently popular for weddings, as there were more brides being photographed along the lakeside than you could shake a stick at.

The main first impression of Hanoi though is the traffic: a constant tide of scooters ridden by one to four or even five people wearing thin plastic helmets, roaring along with their thumbs on the hooters. There are zebra crossings and sometimes even crossing lights but in practice the only way to cross is to forget a lifetime's training and simply step out into the road and keep walking, slowly. I wasn't above taking shelter behind old men and  women at first, but then found that it does work: the bikes and cars part for you, and as long as you don't confuse things by losing your nerve and stopping in the middle, you'll reach the other side. I'm not brave enough to try it on my own yet though.

Squeezies

Ten and a half hours to Singapore overnight, economy: could have been worse. (Could have been better - I'll never again whinge about Business lie-flat beds that don't lie completely flat.)

The Flyhidrate was a pleasant drink and I'm happy to say probably contributed to my feeling both alert and relaxed as I sit here in Changi Airport - though some of that has to be down to the automatic foot-massage machine that's currently squeezing and rubbing my feet and calves very effectively.

All for free, as is the Wifi. Good airport - quiet and laid-back vibe despite being so big and busy. So different from Dubai's acres of marble and soaring ceilings. I'm putting it down to the carpet. Next time through, I'm hoping to try the rooftop pool. For now, where's the orchid garden and butterfly house...?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Away I go again

So here I am back at the airport, at night this time heading off to Hanoi via Singapore. Doing it tough: economy!

Haven't flown with Singapore Airlines for many years, so that'll be interesting, though it's a night flight and I'm hoping to be unconscious for most of it. And another novelty is this Flyhidtate stuff: three bottles to chug at different stages of the flight, with the purpose of easing the experience and combatting the enemy of jetlag. It's an experiment. Come back to find out how it goes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pacific Resort Aitutaki - review

I love this place. I've stayed here twice now, each time in the same Ultimate Beachfront Suite with the water just 10 metres from the bottom of the staircase down from the deck. We had our own loungers on the sand and on the lower deck and chairs on the top deck; a huge bed, lots of room, a double bathroom up some steps, and a double shower with glass walls looking into a private walled garden, where there was another outside shower. Bvlgari toiletries, not stinted. Bidet. It was very quiet, apart from the waves lapping on the sand and of course distant roosters crowing (impossible to avoid in the Cooks). Big screen TV (though few channels - pft, who cares?), aircon and a fan.
The gardens are lush and lovely, full of flowers, the entrance is elegant and cool with lily ponds and open to the air, and the equally open two-tier dining room allows everybody views over the sea to the western horizon. Breakfast is served there too, watched over by rowdy mynah birds alert for unguarded bread rolls. Down the steps is the beautiful infinity pool with its ferny waterfall, where you can go into a trance with your chin hooked over the edge, mesmerised by the surf breaking on the reef.

There's a bar near the pool, for cocktails, beer etc and lunch, and tables with umbrellas. There are loungers, a big round comfortable double sofa bed, and chairs looking out to sea. There is also a private dining table hidden amongst the rocks under a thatched roof that I bet has seen many a romantic proposal.
There are kayaks, snorkels and masks to borrow, and the lagoon, while not teeming, has enough fish and clams to keep the idle snorkeller happy, though I found the current quite strong. The sea is really warm. They have regular Island Night shows of singing, dancing and drumming, and fire dancing too - well done and worth seeing.

The staff were all lovely: friendly and cheerful, and happy to help. There's a spa, if you're not relaxed enough by the general ambiance.

Downsides? Nit-picking, really. The servicing of our room was quirkily random in what was done and when. The sheets were surprisingly low thread-count. The loop tape of musac in the dining room was a bit short - three repeats during one meal is at least one too many. I found the food just a little bland, though the ingredients were fresh. There are mosquitoes, alas - not the resort's fault, they do spray, and there are coils in the room; but you do have to watch for them when you're lounging on your deck.

I suppose that's how you know that you're not actually in Paradise...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Proud

It's exciting to see my Stalag Luft 3 story on the newsstands now, in the November issue of North & South magazine. I'm so sorry that my father's no longer here to read it, as he'd be so proud - of my achievement. Really though, I'd hope that he'd see from the story that he had real reason to be proud of himself, and that his war hadn't been a wasted effort, as he described it in letters from the prison camp back home to his mother. It's awful to think that he was ashamed of having been knocked out of the game so early, after flying only seven missions against the Germans; when in fact it took real grit to endure not only the grinding boredom and harsh conditions of the camp, but also the terrifying fugitive period beforehand and the horrendous Long March afterwards. It's the sort of thing that marks you forever; or that makes you.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Making a joyful noise

To church this morning, the oldest in the Cook Islands, dating from 1839, built from coral and last time we were here looking rather sad and battered. Today it was back to its presumably former glory, the handpainted frieze inside bright, the simple stained glass windows glowing in the sunshine, and best of all full of people in Sunday white and hats with flowers. We were welcomed in warmly, and treated to a stirring experience of Pacific Island singing.

I've heard it before, on Rarotonga, in Fiji and in Tahiti, and it's always the same: unaccompanied harmonising, both shrill and tuneful, at full volume. It's wonderful to hear, echoing around the church and broadcasting from the open windows that look out onto the lagoon and the coconut palms. The congregation gave it all their effort, and when the men got going, I could feel the vibrations through my hands on the pew in front. The older, stoutest ladies were belting it out, their eyes closed, no hymn books needed; while the young people were a bit more inhibited.

Most of the service was in Maori, so I didn't have to pay attention, and had the opportunity to notice an anchor hanging from the ceiling, with Ereba 6:19 written on it. I idly thought I would Google that when I got home, and then realised, d'oh, that there was a Bible on the seat next to me. The verse, in Hebrews, is "...this hope we have as an anchor of the soul..." which in a lightbulb moment explained the derivation of the common English pub name Hope and Anchor - there's one in Ross-on-Wye. So that was that explained. How fitting to have had a revelation in church. Possibly an epiphany.

There were little kids playing in the aisles, babies being amused, some chatting and laughing going on and some boredom being felt by the teenagers; but their moment came at the end, when the Girl Guide and Brownie troops, and the Boys' Brigade, got to march out of the church behind their flags and then down the road, to their own brass band music.

And now it's time to go home, sadly, and leave all this warmth and beauty, and the friendly people, and fly back to comparatively chilly Auckland. But only for 4 days, because then I'm off to North Viet Nam...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Channelling RLS

Today I worked. This was my office. Some cubicle, huh? Knocked off a story, felt smug. Watched a black heron also working, catching small fish. It's about the same colour as what we call blue herons back home, but here they know what blue means.

I also felt unwarrantably smug that we chose yesterday for the lagoon cruise, since today was windier and overcast, and though still warm, nowhere near as classically, tropically perfect as yesterday.

There's been a spot of snorkelling just off the beach, some hanging by my chin over the edge of the infinity pool, some eating of lunch, some reading, a sarong-tying lesson demonstrating half-a-dozen methods which I instantly forgot, and rather a lot of gazing at the horizon, brain in neutral. Which is not very productive, blog-wise. Sorry.

Friday, October 12, 2012

One perfect day

It begins with waking up at 8am instead of 4.30am, as it's been for the last three weeks, and then walking barefoot along the beach to breakfast, on sand showing the prints only of lizards and birds. And it's spending the day out on the WMBL (world's most beautiful lagoon) on a calm day with scattered clouds and the sea so blue and so turquoise and so many shades in between that you'd need a colour chart to name them - and, indeed, the last time I did the Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise, I brought some along for that very purpose: "...the colour of the water is Mint Tulip deepening into Riptide with a band of Curious Blue under an Oxymoron sky..." We even had some BPs (beautiful people) along today, for focal points.

Leo was our Captain/Cook again, having jumped ship from the competitors, but still making the same jokes (viz. captain/cook) and whipping up a mean barbecued tuna and wahoo with bananas feast for our lunch after a morning of cruising, snorkelling and swimming. There were huge (friendly) trevally in the water, plenty of smaller colourful fish to fail to get in the frame of the underwater camera with its fatal digital delay, and the water was brilliantly warm and clear. We were dropped off on the sandbar beside One Foot Island to walk and wade our way across to where we ate surrounded by begging chickens and chicks, before doing some slothful wallowing in the water and then heading home again.

Leo's been doing the job for nearly 20 years and is a bit tired of it, frankly. He tried to break away and get a job in a petrol station instead, but it didn't work out and he's ended up back spending his days cruising across the lagoon, frying fish in a thatched hut and plinking away at a ukulele while the guests eat. Rough.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

And stirred

This is more like it! Rarotonga can be classically lovely, but it wasn’t while we were there, purely because of the wind that kept things cool (in tropical terms); but now we’re on Aitutaki, just a 45 minute flight away, and I’m having to mop the drips of sweat off my keyboard with my sarong, under which I’m wearing nothing because, you know, tropics!

It helps too that the Pacific Resort here is in another realm entirely from the one on Rarotonga: in a nutshell, there it was families, here it’s honeymooners. We’re in a separate villa with steps down to our own bit of beach complete with loungers, if the ones on the deck won’t suffice. Inside it’s polished wood floors and woven tapa ceiling, the shower is all glass looking onto a walled ferny garden, where there’s another outside shower (plus there’s one at the bottom of the steps). It’s all Bulgari and bidet, need I say more? The personal welcome from the manager, the fruit bowl and bottle of bubbles, and the cock(t)ail of the day being the Wade (vodka, passion fruit liqueur, syrup and fruit juice) all gave us extra-positive vibes, as they were meant to. We’ve settled in very nicely, spending the afternoon by the glorious infinity pool just up from the beach. The most work I’ve done all day is to pluck a hibiscus flower out of the pool. It's regrettable that there's only one couple I've spotted so far who are suitably BP (beautiful people) the rest of us being stout German Hausfraus, Julia Gillard sound-alike Aussies and me with my sunburn pink shin-high socks and elbow-length gloves; but you can't have it all, I guess.

Though I was seated over the wing again, sigh, there was still a decent view of the lagoon, which I would be happy to fight anyone to defend my claim that it’s the world’s most beautiful: big, bright turquoise against the deep blue outside the white-foaming reef, set about with green islands and swirls of creamy sand… perfect. What makes it even nicer being here is that last time we were only a couple of weeks after Cyclone Pat had ripped through in 2010, and the place was frankly stripped and battered – coconut palms like chimney brushes, not a skerrick of green on them, corrugated iron wrapped around tree trunks, houses collapsed, debris everywhere. Now it’s green, lush and beautiful again, and tomorrow we’ll be out on the lagoon on a day cruise, heading for One Foot Island for lunch, which we missed out on last time.

It’s not totally idyllic, you’ll be pleased to hear. There are ants and mozzies and – well, ants and mozzies. Does that make you feel better?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pacific Resort Rarotonga - review

This is the second time I’ve stayed at this resort, and I’d be happy to come again. I like that it’s not huge – just 50 rooms of different types scattered through the grounds. Last time I had the fancy 2 bedroom beachfront villa with the upper storey and nothing between me and any incoming tsunami; this time it’s a less grand premium beachfront suite, ground floor, which has been perfectly pleasant. Huge bed, lots of space, ranchsliders onto a little deck and lawn (with passing dogs and chickens) and a couple of very-hard-to-leave beanbag loungers (I have the sunburn to prove it).

Breakfast is in Sandals Restaurant, over the water of a little stream and nicely landscaped: I’ve only had the buffet this time, and it was fine if not very lavish. Fruit, usual cereals, some cheese and ham, muffins, breads – nothing exciting, but adequate. We had a lunch in the beachfront dining area, under canvas and on the sand, which is nice, especially if the wind’s not blowing (though if it is, there’s a plastic window they roll down) – my BELT was huge and filling, with rather more tomato sauce than I would have preferred. I’ve only had starters for dinner in the Barefoot Bar, and they were both very tasty, especially the pork belly, which I’m going to have again tonight.

The gardens are amazingly neat and pretty – think tiare bushes, frangipani, hibiscus, protons, various types of palm, totally dominated grass – and continuously maintained by a cheerful gardener undaunted by the Augean task of sweeping sand off the paths. He even dealt to the calling card left by a passing dog before much time had passed, for which I was grateful. There’s a pool too, out of the wind, where you can have scuba lessons if you like; and on the beach you can borrow kayaks, be shown how to windsurf, and do stand-up paddling. The beach isn’t wide, but the sand is beautifully soft, and in the shallow lagoon there is coral to snorkel over; and a couple of islands that are just the right distance away for a mini-expedition. Just along the beach there are cafes and restaurants, kite-surfers for hire, a glass-bottomed boat cruise, and other diversions. Along the road, at the associated very flash Te Manava Villas, there’s a spa for massages and similar indulgences: I enjoyed my massage yesterday and found it relaxing, although I was as slippery as an eel at the end of it.

The staff are all friendly and efficient, doing their jobs without fuss. The other guests are mostly Kiwis, with a fair sprinkling of English, a few Americans and Australians. There are a lot of family groups at the moment, and it’s been lovely to see the children having fun: they haven’t been annoying, not even the baby next door. I have no complaints! It must be that famously laid-back Cooks Islands vibe…

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Only connecting


“Tibby… proceeded into the dining room to eat Elvas plums.” Today’s connection is especially random. Here I am, in Rarotonga on actual holiday, with time for reading which I’m using to revisit Howards End, having chanced across the movie on TV recently – and what do I find in Chapter 8, but a passing reference to Elvas, an ancient walled city in Alentejo in Portugal, which I explored just a week ago, never having heard of the place before (apart from apparently reading that sentence in 1975 and, pre-Google, not being bothered enough to look it up). By the way, Forster would never have dreamed of writing such an unwieldy sentence as that, in all his life.

That Elvas is known for its plums was not touched on during our visit, curiously, given the intense food-focus of the famil. We went there after yet another long, long lunch in another town, when the conversation was entirely about the dishes (“ad nauseum”, I grimly noted at the time) and trailed about the cobbles after an eager guide who was anxious that we should learn all about the town’s history of defence. The walls are certainly striking, built in consecutive star-shaped sets, making Elvas a World Heritage site because of its fortifications: it’s only 10km from Spain, so there’s been a lot of argy-bargy here over the last couple of millennia. I’m guessing that if I ever re-entered my Bernard Cornwell Sharpe phase I’d find it featured  there too. Elvas has “seven bulwarks, four half-bulwarks and a redan connected to each other with curtain walls” if you were wondering. What that means is that it’s simply spectacular from the air, where the shape of the city walls and its outlying forts are clear to see.

On the ground, they’re still impressive, but even better I reckon is the Amoreira Aqueduct, which is 8km long and up to 30m high right beside the town: that’s four levels of arches in creamy limestone – beautiful and amazing, the product of 90 years’ work from 1537 – and which I didn’t get to photograph or even properly look at (we just drove past it without stopping) because of that blasted food writer getting lost at the previous town and making us late. I feel like fasting just to spite her; but instead I’ll go for the massage that the Pacific Resort people have kindly given me a voucher for, and try my damndest to stay awake this time.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Zzzzzzz


In the short interludes today when I was actually awake and not carked unconscious on a lounger getting stupidly sunburnt, it occurred to me that the Cook Islands are New Zealand’s tropical extension. It feels so familiar here: they use our money, the accent’s the same (there are far more Cook Islanders in NZ than here - 80%), there’s TVOne news and Shortland Street on TV, and they play our music here too. The people are friendlier, gentler and more religious than at home, but otherwise it’s Cable Bay with coconuts and chickens. Just the same.

The wind has blown strongly all day and the lagoon’s been busy with little P-class dinghies scudding about in groups, looking as though they were being herded by the half-dozen kite-surfers skimming back and forth, catching air on the turns: looks fantastic, but also very strenuous, legs, abs, shoulders… Probably not something I’ll be trying. The greatest drama of the day was when a coconut with attached frond plummeted out of a tree and splashed into the pond next to where we were sitting eating breakfast, to the shock and horror of the fish and mynahs. We were a bit horrified too – but we’re assured that the trees beneath which anyone is likely to walk are all kept trimmed of their nuts.

Otherwise it’s been a quiet day of sleeping, eating, observing passing dogs, the eternal and deadly-serious chicken vs mynah feud, the Kids’ Club keeping busy, and thinking that possibly tomorrow we might venture further from our room than the 100m radius that’s contained us so far…

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Kia orana!


That was a new experience. Arrived back in Auckland at 2pm, drove home to catch up with family, pets and the washing of smalls (but not, alas, sleep) and then next morning headed off back to the airport again to fly out to Rarotonga. Altogether too confusing for the old dog and old cats – and for what is increasingly feeling like an old brain and body. This must be how it is for the international jet-setting community of rock stars and heads of governments. And cabin crew.

So here I am in the Cook Islands again. Third time, hoping for better weather than the second visit’s post-cyclone cool grey skies, but not so far getting it although despite the strong wind there is more sunshine. Papa Jake Numanga was there at the airport again, strumming and singing away as he has done for so long now, meeting and farewelling every plane; and as we landed there were locals on motorscooters along the road beside the runway, waving at the plane before riding on again, small children sitting behind them tied on with a length of sarong, not a helmet in sight. And we were draped with tiare flower eis, so fragrant and such an intrinsic part of the tropical experience.

We’re at Pacific Resort on Muri Beach, right on the water with the beach a scant 10 metres from our ranchsliders, kite-surfers already busy on the lagoon, the reef and its constant border of white breakers well within sight. And sound: there was a woman on the bus in from the airport complaining about having to move on her previous visit because “it was too noisy where we were, with the breakers”. Well. To me that’s white noise, and soothingly soporific, and I’m glad to be able to hear it. Or not – I’m expecting it to waft me off to sleep, day as well as night. This here, it’s a holiday.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Homeward bound


So here I am, back on the A380-800, upstairs, ensconced finally in what I knew would be my favourite seat out of the four trips I’ve made on this aircraft: 11A. The number’s not so important – in fact, smaller would be better as it would make me just a bit further in front of the wing – but the A is because it’s the window seat. There’s one on the other side, obviously, but left has always been good to me, view-wise.
 
Today, leaving Dubai after six, count them, hours kicking my heels in the Business lounge of the long white slug that is Dubai Airport – a new and shiny slug, that is, amazing in both the sheer numbers of people swirling about inside, and the miles you have to walk to get to your gate – during which I snacked, showered, surfed and snoozed, and even found a copy of the NZ Herald, the view was of the city as we circled round the Burj Khalifa. On the right, I could have seen the Palm and The World artificial islands, but the BK and I have a thing going on now. It was fun to see it from above this time.
It was 7+ hours from Lisbon to Dubai, and it’ll be the best part of 13 to Sydney; there’s about an hour on the ground there, and then it’s another 2½ home to Auckland. We were often asked in Portugal how long our journey had been to get there, and when they guessed, they thought 10 hours sounded sufficiently epic; so they were to a man blown away when we said it amounted to more than a day. Apparently, though, it’s common for lottery winners there to nominate NZ and Australia as their dream destinations, so the urge to set out on a great voyage of discovery is clearly still an important element of the modern Portuguese psyche.

There’s no need to do a Vasco da Gama any more, of course: it’s far easier these days, especially courtesy of Emirates Business class, tucked away here in my private little enclosure surrounded by shiny blonde walnut veneers, a nice big screen with a huge library of entertainment and information, my own mini bar, lots of cubby holes to stow my gear, and an almost-flat bed with a cotton mattress. There’s also the bar down the back, though I reckon that’s really just a novelty. But, wonder of wonders, there’s wifi, which I’ll use now to upload this post, just for the novelty of it, even though I’ll have to – gasp – pay for it: a whole US$5 for 30MB. Appalling.

UPDATE: Wifi there and connectible, but that’s as far as it went, disappointingly. I knew that some airspaces didn’t allow it, but though I tried periodically, nothing worked on this journey, tch. So this is coming to you from Sydney – after crossing over the city, harbour, bridge and Opera House, all on the left. QED.

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