Wednesday 28 November 2012

Moving pictures

If I were techier (as opposed to tetchier than usual, having tried it and failed) you would be able to click on the image above to view the video - but I'm not, so you'll have to follow this link instead. What you will then be treated to is the end result of a quite extraordinary amount of work on the part of two of the guys on the Viet Nam trip, who were up early most mornings out filming, thinking all the time about what would be good material and how they could link it all together, looking for angles and experiences, and hauling around with them an amazingly heavy collection of eye-poppingly expensive gear. So expensive and preciousss, in fact, that when Brendon's feet went out from under him as he negotiated the treacherous algae-slimed concrete path down a steep hillside that had us all slithering, he went down on his elbow to protect the camera he was carrying.

There was blood and dirt and a flap of skin, and afterwards pain and swelling and difficulty, but he kept filming and photographing, and Dean kept eating the insects and stupid fish and braving the torrents of traffic at the big intersection, and now we've got the result. It was an interesting glimpse into the enormous effort it takes to produce something so fleeting, so I'm all the more respectful of what's getting them all excited down in Wellington this afternoon.

It's the big premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey after who knows (somebody will, given the rabidness of Tolkien fans) how much work by how many people over how much time. I read, for instance, that some of the dwarves had to carry 30kg of costume and prosthetics, and then act with/through all that, so perhaps Dean should stop his cheerful whingeing about hauling around Brendon's gear. They're all going to have fun down there today, celebrating the final result, and good for them. Most of the actors have flown here on Air NZ's specially-themed 777 and will be working their way right now along 600m of red carpet towards the Embassy Theatre past an estimated 100,000 fans to see the movie. Can hardly wait, myself.
PS: Like Peter Jackson in many of his movies (but not this one), I have a small cameo in the video, leaping in a sprightly manner off a bank in the background. Did you spot it?

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Geegaws and gimcracks

So the physiotherapist said today there's nothing he can do for me. Wait. He said there's nothing more he can do for me. That's better, right? That means that, after nearly 7 months since stupidly, and clumsily, leaping off the back of a moving boat onto the river bank thereby dislocating and fracturing my shoulder, followed by one distinctly non-urgent ambulance ride, half a tank of Entonox, three hours in the tender loving care of the NHS in Norfolk, one doctor's visit, several X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI, two consultations with an orthopaedic surgeon, 20 decreasingly painful sessions with John the physio, and the best part of $700, I'm on my own again. Which is not the same as being back to normal, because the arm is still weak, the range of motion is still restricted and the muscles still ache - but time and normal use should take care of all that. Says John.

As souvenirs go, I've had better. I long ago stopped buying the t-shirts with place-names on the front (is 2008 long ago? Maybe not. But nobody walks the Inca Trail without buying the t-shirt, surely? That's in a separate category entirely) or coffee mugs, stickers and embroidered badges. I don't often buy the other stuff either, apart from a little moonstone dodo from a lovely Mauritian stallholder who invited me and my friend home for dinner, and a patently machine-made and probably synthetic but still warm and cosy "handknitted llama wool cardigan" in Inca patterns from a rather tired-looking but friendly lady in the street on a chilly night in Puno next to Lake Titicaca. Having done so much travelling over the last 10 years (and yet having been to far fewer places than so many people who don't write about it for a living - what are they thinking?) I really couldn't buy souvenirs on each trip and still have room to move in my house.

People do though, all the time: I see them in markets and souvenir shops and at the airport, spending up big on local stuff for themselves and as gifts, and I wonder what will happen to most of it. Op shops, most likely, or the dump. And though it is a waste of resources and no good for the planet, it does of course serve an important purpose economically, and in tourist spots all over the world millions of people depend on the income from making (or importing from China) and selling it all. Aesthetically, though, it would be nice if tourists could be persuaded to buy beautiful, or at least pretty, things that they will actually put to some useful purpose, or genuinely take pleasure from every time they see them; instead of wasting their money on dust-collecting, jokey, junky plastic stuff that they wouldn't normally look at even once back at home. All of which reminds me, soon it will be time to put the tree up...

Saturday 24 November 2012

Hobbit-fever plane to see

The world premiere in Wellington of the first Hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey, is just a few days away now and excitement is bubbling away very entertainingly. The latest thrill is Air NZ's new livery on a Boeing 777-300, revealed today: the world's biggest graphic ever applied to an aircraft, 73 metres long. The plane is to fly the Auckland - LA - London route and will probably end up being also the world's most-photographed plane once it's been in operation for a few months.
How Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and the rest feel about seeing their faces so huge and flying through the sky halfway round the world er, there and back again, hasn't been reported yet, but Peter Jackson is very pleased, as well he might be with all this extra publicity. Air NZ has certainly entered into the spirit of things, with their new safety video and all - they're promising that the plane will make a brief appearance "on the red carpet at the premiere" though I'm hoping that's a bit of over-excited exaggeration. There's already a huge hobbit hole and towering Gandalf erected outside the Embassy Theatre - a jumbo jet as well would make dwarves of everybody. Maybe that's the idea.

(Update 28/11: this is what they meant, of course -
Anyway, well done Air NZ for entering into the fun; and I really hope I get to fly in that plane at some stage. I've heard that in the amenity packs everyone's given, some of the flight socks are made like hairy hobbit feet. Cool!

Ooh look, here they are:
UPDATE: Is anyone else beginning to feel that perhaps Air NZ is taking things just a smidge too far?

Thursday 22 November 2012

Shaken to bits

Well, I don't want to go to Istanbul now, not since James Bond broke all the tiles by riding someone's motorbike over the roofs of the houses near the Grand Bazaar, and wrecked the market and everything. I suppose we should just be grateful he left the minarets standing. Skyfall was very entertaining throughout its afterwards surprising length, but my goodness there was a lot of smashing and breaking and general destruction. I seem to have become my father, who could never see a car on TV driven over a cliff without muttering, "What a waste of a perfectly good Vauxhall" or sucking in his breath in disapproval when one roared along a beach with salty, rusting seawater spraying up underneath.

All the other Skyfall locations - London, Shanghai, Macau, Scotland - were places I have been, and it was fun to see them on the screen, some of them looking so much more glamorous than they were in reality. Sensible shoes and a backpack are no competition for a slinky gown and tuxedo, of course, but all those aerial nighttime shots of Shanghai really showed off its fantastic buildings to their best; although that flash casino in Macau with the Komodo dragons? Never saw that: it was clearly way beyond the pale for humble travel writers on group famils. Glencoe, though, really is that huge and barren and inhospitable -
As for London, it was fun to see so many familiar places, looking so ordinary: Temple tube station, the Eye, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery... Leaving aside wondering about the daunting logistics of filming in such busy places, and controlling such quantities of extras, I'm back to the thing about being distracted from the action by the locations. Of course it's a James Bond specialty to film in famous, glamorous places all over the world, but still - all that effort put into the special effects and stunts and so on to convince the viewers that it's all real, and yet so very many of them will have one part of their brains keeping up a running, and distancing, commentary about the scenery: "Look, I've seen that painting, I've driven along the A9, a pigeon crapped on me next to that fountain..."

Seems like a bit of a shame, from the creative angle; but with the first Hobbit movie coming out soon, the trilogy made with such generous tax concessions from our government, we'll be hoping to see a nice boost in tourism income from millions of viewers doing just that: taking notice of the background, and deciding to come here and see it for themselves.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Behind you!

Now of these two volcanoes, which would you pick as being the most troublesome this year, in terms of eruptions, ash clouds, sulphurous fumes and disruption to air traffic and ground activities? The little classic cone, or the big shattered one? Trick question! It's actually the one that's so insignificant from the air that it's skulking under the cloud to the left of the photo.
Here it is, Tongariro, that negligible-looking lump on the left of Ngauruhoe's lovely cone. It erupted this afternoon, surprising all the seismic bods who were giving their attention to Ruapehu, which they had bumped up from alert level green to yellow because the crater lake was causing them concern. They'll no doubt be doing a lot of throat-clearing on the news tonight, feeling a little silly perhaps that they were looking the wrong way.

As this is Tongariro's second hissy fit this year, I know that we're in for diverted flights, reports of ash and sulphur smells from way downwind, and lots of frustrated Alpine Crossing walkers who'll be banned from the mountain, to the regret of local businesses. (They'll remember the date this time: it's a palindrome today - 21.11.12.)

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Less v. more

The Year of Getting Rid of Stuff has not been the smoothly continuous event that I originally intended, but today I tackled the garage and jerked us a little closer to a more Zen-like existence. It reminded me of what Kathy said when we were at our homestay in northern Viet Nam on our brilliant World Expeditions tour, that she rather envied the sparse decor of the house, compared to her clutter of possessions at home. And it was: mostly as bare as you see above - barer, in fact, as the table and mat only come out at meal times - with just one small area that had anything non-functional in it, obviously treasures.

We had been a bit apprehensive about the homestay, wondering how uncomfortable it was going to be, but it was perfectly civilised (we were all immensely relieved - literally - to find flush toilets and hot showers, having already encountered some truly alarming squatters on the trip). Those mattresses were on the hard side, but then so were most of the hotel beds: must be a Vietnamese thing. We had pillows and mosquito nets and privacy, it was quiet at night - apart from the 4am rooster and the kittens at dawn - and the food was really delicious.

We didn't realise that it was actually pretty upmarket, as traditional stilt houses go, till we got to the lunch stop on our trekking day and saw a more authentic one: much dimmer and barer, no windows, with instead of a kitchen a concrete pad and an open fire, and of course no flush toilet but a squatter downstairs in a shed. Presumably with income from the tour company, though, they still had their luxuries: the fridge for cold beer, a TV, phone, wardrobe with mirror and even a Nintendo. And again, the food was excellent: a fire, a wok, a casserole, that's all that was needed for a tastier meal than I produce in my kitchen with all its mod cons.
Then we called into another house a bit later, which was barer still, with far fewer amenities. But they made us welcome, and brewed a pot of green tea for us, and told us, through Duke (who took the photos above) that he is 70 and she is 49 - Duke was full of respect for the old man, hearing this - and both still work for their living, as they must - or starve. They did have their own rice thresher downstairs, though, which must have been a source of income for them at harvest time.

I really liked that we got to see real life on that trip, instead of just hotels. Even if it does make me feel as though I'm being smothered by all my possessions (though glad I have a soft sofa to sit on instead of a wooden stool 5cm high).

Monday 19 November 2012

Zooming out

When I'm in a new country, I always like to get a photo of their flag. No real reason, except to help me remember it, and it's fun to try to snatch it mid-flap. So when I was in northern Viet Nam with World Expeditions and saw this motorbike parked at a viewpoint in Ha Giang province, I snapped it. See how the angle of the bamboo the flag's tied to mirrors the angle of the peak behind it? Entirely accidental.
Of course, I'm not the only person to think of doing this, so Brendon was there too, taking a better one despite his mangled elbow; and Kathy behind me - never my best angle - was recording the moment...
... while further back still, Duke was photographing her photographing us photographing the flag. And each one of us was working, I'll have you know.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Tarts and the Titanic

Random connections today: out of nowhere, a What's On in Macau in November promotion arrived in the post, personally addressed. Amongst the many attractions listed are the Grand Prix - as in Monaco, it's right through the central city, and would be exciting, if that were your thing - and the Fringe Festival with buskers on the streets (hopefully at a different time from the Grand Prix) which includes the usual sorts of acts plus, thrillingly, a presentation called 'Marathon Stories about Land Reclamation'. But the Food Festival sounds more promising, especially as the 'five top taste bud zones' includes Dessert - featuring egg custard tarts, no doubt. It's a local specialty they're very proud of which was introduced by the Portuguese who, and I say this having tasted both, make it better, especially at Casa Pasteis de Belem Restaurant in Lisbon, where they churn out thousands every day, each one flakily sweet and delicious.

There's a note about the calligraphy exhibition on in the Handover Gifts Museum, and those of you who've been paying attention know what that building is all about; and a respectful reminder that in Macau you may only stay in licensed accommodation "to avoid potential hazards such as fire and unsanitary conditions". Heaven forbid.

Another attraction coming to Macau is Titanic: the Exhibition. I've seen that and it's really good, with masses of artifacts from the Titanic and its identical sister ship the Olympic, and lots of individual passenger stories with items like watches and children's shoes. There's a big model of the ship cutaway on one side, which was interesting - and even an iceberg. No, really, a huge wall of ice that you can put your hand on and make the whole experience literally chilling. It's a travelling exhibition that I caught in Copenhagen last year. It was in a building across the road from the imposing and historic brick Town Hall, which I keep seeing as a location in Forbrydelsen, a terrific police murder investigation three-season TV series being played here end-to-end that I'm about 20 episodes into, all subtitled Danish, and which is the best thing I've seen for years (I spit upon the jazzed-up American version - this is dark and slow and detailed and brilliantly done). Worth seeking out.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Triple eclipse

Yay, for once when there's something interesting happening in the sky, Auckland laid on a clear blue one - well, mostly, and even when a bit of cloud covered the sun during today's eclipse, it only made it possible to snatch a quick look up there. (Well, so I thought... thank goodness I can touch-type.) But the pinhole camera effect worked well, though there was drooping of the hand holding the card - and then, we discovered, you could see it happen just as well with a fist-bump. I was surprised that with 87% coverage here and only a thumbnail smile at the peak, it was still so bright outside. Really, you wouldn't have known.

Queensland (pft, trust the Aussies) went for the full 100%, which would have had them excited in Charleville, at the Cosmos Centre. There they've got a row of fancy 12-inch barrel telescopes through which we looked at the stars on an inky black Outback night: the Jewel Box cluster sparkling away, Southern Cross pointer Alpha Centauri, our closest neighbour at a distance of just the 4.3 light years, and Saturn, its rings edge-on to us and wonderfully sharp in the viewfinder. Then the spoilsport full moon rose and blotted them all out - though it was great to see all its craters crisp and clear.

The most amazing thing about the Cosmos Centre, though, is that we were able to go back the next day, since it was a cool one and less than 25 degrees, and actually look at the surface of the sun - obviously using an industrial-strength filter. It was really special: it looked curiously like the Outback itself, rough and reddy-orange, and glowing. Also, it moved like the clappers - it kept disappearing out of the telescope's focus. It didn't seem to go so fast today; in fact, we wandered off well before it was finished. Mental grasshoppers, tch - which reminds me, Queensland that year was hopping with them...

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Spot the difference (no spots included)

As the thunder grumbles rather thrillingly around the sky, I offer you this: one of these places is where I last heard thunder, and is half a world away from the other. What are the links, and what are the differences?

Of course, the links are obvious, with the architecture and the pattern of the cobbles which, apart from the surface being treacherously slippery, is also as bad as yesterday's Floating Pavilion for making you feel drunk when not a drop of the drink has passed your lips. The other is that they're both Portuguese, which means that now you know the difference, if you've been paying attention as you've dutifully been reading this blog.

Yes, on the left is Macau, and on the right, Cascais near Lisbon. Back in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese were all over the world like a rash: Africa, Mauritius, India, Japan, Macau, Brazil... They beat the British to the world's first global empire by quite a margin, and hung onto it longer too, because they weren't made to hand back Macau till 1999, which was two years after the Brits reluctantly let go of Hong Kong. They were fully occupied with slaves, sugar and spices for centuries; but they did export a few things too: they claim that when they went to Japan, where they founded the city of Nagasaki, they gave them their word for 'thank you'. Obrigado - arigatoo: you decide.

What's certain is that Japanese tourists are a lot more adventurous these days than back when they moved about en masse and only emerged from their coaches to take photos of each other... Oh, well, all right, maybe things don't change that much. But that's a 150 metre sheer drop right there. [Capo da Roca, north of Lisbon, Europe's westernmost point.]

Monday 12 November 2012

There was a young man from Limerick...

... whose surname was Brazil, which is just confusing. At least the lovely lady from the local Tourism Ireland branch, who were hosting today's lunch, is helpfully named Galway. We travel people of various descriptions were there to meet a delegation of Irish tourism operation representatives, who gave considerately short speeches of introduction either side of our lunch in the Floating Pavilion, which is on the face of it an appealing venue but in practice possibly counter-productive, the gentle swaying making as it did everyone wonder how much they'd had to drink before in fact they'd even started.

Which was a shame, especially as the digestif was a 'Hot Irishman' - what used to be called an Irish coffee, before the marketing people got at it. It was a bit superfluous anyway, as there was a good number of, ahem, most attractive young Irishmen there anyway, with the dark hair and the blue eyes and that accent; plus, in the nature of the event, loads of enthusiasm and an eagerness to please. That's a bundle of attributes right there that simply can't fail.

What they were being especially enthusiastic about is The Gathering: next year, the whole world is invited to be Irish and to go there to join in a host of events that are being held all over the island (there was a lot of "the island of Ireland" - both north and south work together in tourism). Co Clare, for example, is inviting everyone called Clare/Claire to come. It's like St Pat's spread out over a whole year, when everyone can call themselves Irish and take part in the fun. And there's no doubt that fun will be had: no-one knows better how to party. Begorrah.

Sunday 11 November 2012

"And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine"

I'm sorry, I'm in mourning and feeling sad, so this is all I've got: I just this second came in from planting out some hollyhocks to find this in my Feedjit list of arrivals on my blog -
Auckland arrived from on "TravelSkite: July 2011" by searching for growing hollyhocks in nz.

But I did get a random email yesterday from Lynne, an old friend suggesting that as it was looking like rain, perhaps we should have a drink instead of a game. I replied saying that I would like nothing better, but as she's living in northern Spain and I'm here in New Zealand, perhaps she was meaning another Pam of her acquaintance. Nothing particularly remarkable there, you're thinking - but when other friends came to dinner last night, they asked if we knew Stratford. "Upon Avon?" I enquired, about to expand on seeing The Merchant of Venice there (from which the above deathless line is taken, of course. What, you didn't know? Philistine). And where, in an antique jewellery shop, the gold chain was purchased that, 20 years later, was untimely ripp'd (once you get into the Shakespearean quotes, it's hard to stop) from my neck in Santiago, Chile. Also where, now I come to think of it, I last year bought the very shoes I'm wearing right now.

No, they said. Stratford here, under the mountain. Well no, said the OH, unprompted, but we had some friends in England who lived there when they came to NZ before we met them, haven't seen them for about 30 years or so, what was her name again? "Lynne," I said.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

And now my feet are cold...

... because today the cataracts, deafness, lameness, heart arrhythmia and fluid on the lungs finally all reached critical mass and dear old Fudge departed this life at the vet's, two days after Toby. She'd been on borrowed time for ages - you could even say for years, if you factor in the time she chewed through a live cable, the time she was hit by a car, and the several times she OD'd on stolen chocolate, including helping herself to an unguarded almost full carton of charity chocolate bars. She bounced back every time, unfazed, appetite intact, wondering what all the fuss was about.

The only fuss she ever made was when we got up in the mornings, and when we came home: it'll be hard not to be met by her welcome every day. She was never more ecstatic than when I got home from a trip, just about turning herself inside out in delight at seeing me again. I'll miss that. (And that's the only travel connection today, too.)
She was a beauty in her day, talent-spotted for a dogfood label, the photo-shoot set up in the garage, the main prop her treasured dinner bowl. It's the great Labrador tragedy, that they need so little food and inhale it in seconds, leaving a whole 23 hours and 59 minutes to wait till the next feed. I made sure she left this life with the fullest stomach she's ever had - chocolate binge excepted. RIP, Fudge.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

They're off? No, that's off

Well, I was going to write about the Melbourne Cup today and whinge about how the Aussies stole Phar Lap, and about seeing his hide at the museum in Melbourne, and his skeleton in Te Papa in Wellington, and how everything shuts down in Oz for the race, and how big it is here too, and even perhaps referencing Makybe Diva at Port Lincoln in South Australia - but I've done all that before, as no doubt you well remember. So instead here's another coincidence.

Months ago I was nailed to this very sofa painfully putting together a story about Queenstown restaurants (without having been to most of them) for Vacations & Travel magazine, an Australian-based publication. When it eventually came out, they sent me a pdf but not a hard copy of the magazine (tch - black mark) and I tried to buy one but couldn't find it. Then, travelling home from Viet Nam, I came across it in a bookshop in Singapore Airport, but didn't have any local currency to pay for it.

So today I put my faith in a little magazine-only shop in Takapuna, and there it was. With, on the cover, a view of Halong Bay that was instantly familiar. Just as well really, because the photo wasn't labelled anywhere - nor, oddly, was there a story inside about Viet Nam, although I found a couple of references to the Mekong hidden inside a story about river cruises (which I could have written for them from personal experience, pft). It's a bit naughty, I think - though understandable, as the view from high up at the exit from Surprise Grotto really is cover-worthy. Why, I even took a snap of it myself.

Monday 5 November 2012

My leg is cold...

... and my heart is heavy. Poor old Toby went for the Long Sleep today, after more than 18 years as part of our family. Most of them were spent in the bedrooms, after the dog moved in, but for the last three or so years, once he'd decided enough was enough, he's been at my side while I work, mostly here on the sofa in the sun, enjoying the warm air on his neck from the laptop fan. (He was never a laptop fan himself: it was the auld enemy, always hogging the prime position.)

There's no travel connection today, other than his being here for story after story, something soft to stroke when I got stuck, and being the source of the hairs on the keyboard, providing me with yet another displacement activity hooking them out from between the keys. He hated to see me get the suitcase out, but he didn't hold it against me and was always pleased to see me come back.

He was the smoochiest cat I've ever known, and he loved me. I loved him too, and completely forgive him for the time he lay on my chest and dribbled into my open mouth. RIP, Tobes.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Bon appetit

Now, I've just cleared up the kitchen and dining room after an evening hosting a family dinner that took all afternoon to prepare and felt almost like Christmas. It was fun though, and the food - though I says it myself - was very tasty, the creamy potato and apple-layered baked dish that I copied from one I tasted when I was in Portugal being a particular success. I have to admit, though, that it wasn't a patch on the dinners we were served in our up-country homestay in Viet Nam on our World Expeditions Rocky Plateau tour.

It was, however, much more comfortable, sitting on padded chairs at a proper table instead of sprawled awkwardly on the hard floor alongside a table literally nine inches high. Totally unable, in our useless Western way, to either cross our legs for more than five minutes or to squat flat-footed, we propped ourselves up somehow, legs all over the place, feet poking up in inconvenient places. It's testament to the deliciousness of the food that the discomfort mattered not at all, as we eagerly worked our way through the usual assortment of plates of pork and beef and rice and crispy vegetables and rice: so hot and fresh and yummy, healthy and filling and tasty. In this photo it looks a bit sparse, but it was honestly a feast, after a day spent hiking up and down hills and grappling with slippery steep paths through the rice paddies.

My kitchen's fitted out with a fancy oven and microwave and fridge and dishwasher and hot running water and double sink and so on. Theirs had a double gas burner, a stack of enamel bowls on the floor, a tap, and very little else. It's kind of embarrassing, how much better their food was than mine. All I've got going in my favour is the pork crackling - which was magnificent tonight, believe me.

These are Isaac Davison's photos, by the way: thanks for that, Isaac. If I could offer you another half-finished drink, I would.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Road safety, Vietnamese style

Yes, still harping on about Vietnamese traffic - it made that big an impression on me, you see. Not, fortunately, physically, though the same can't be said for the 31 people who apparently die on the roads there every day. There are all sorts of figures if you go Googling, and I'm no statistician, but some of them look pretty official, and are very interesting. There's a list, for example, of world annual road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles: New Zealand is 11, the UK is 7, the US 15 - and Viet Nam? 1,238. (To put that in perspective, though, most of the African nations are much higher in the thousands, with Togo at 14,050 - remind me never to go there - while Malta and Iceland are lowest at 5.)

But back to Viet Nam (they prefer it spelled as two words, incidentally, though the rest of the world seems to ignore that). Helmets have been made compulsory, and we were told it's the equivalent of a US$10 fine if you're caught without one - but only after the age of 8, children's heads being apparently less vulnerable. Or valuable. Anyway, that's all very well, except that most of the helmets worn would be less use than a colander with a chinstrap, being made of thin plastic (but with cool Burberry or Ralph Lauren patterns on the sides); and many of the girls choose ones with an open slot up the back to accommodate their pony-tails. Can you see the one in the photo below? (Note also the cat's cradle of electricity cables strung from that lamp-post - absolutely typical.)
Other points to note in the photo below: phone use while in motion (texting also seen); even pedestrians ignoring the zebra crossing as nothing more meaningful than paint on the road; family of three in the centre; face masks (available shaped, padded and in nattily-patterned fabrics); someone blithely riding the wrong way along the street. It's a circus, it really is.

Friday 2 November 2012

Man on a wire

It's hardly a conventional selling-point, but one of the great pluses of a road trip in northern Viet Nam has to be the entertainment value of the traffic and sundry maintenance that goes on along what is laughably termed the main road. Here, for example, is a lineman engaged on some cable-related task with I'm hoping some sort of harness attached, though I wouldn't necessarily bet on it. He was hanging above a two-lane carriageway supporting at least four lanes of assorted vehicles as we headed north out of Hanoi for our upcountry hike and chunder (as it turned out) - and, when we returned three nights later, lo! There he was again; or still, even. But at least he wasn't a smear on the tarmac.

And then there are the fantastic loads carried on motorbikes. In a country of 85 million, there are, our guide Duke estimated, about 21 million motorbikes and scooters (many Vespas, I fondly noted) which are the sole vehicle for the huge majority of families. So when something has to be transported, it's lashed onto the back of the bike with straps and string and what must be some pretty serious knots, as well as plenty of ingenuity and lateral thinking, and then away he goes, puttering along dwarfed by the load, often perched uncomfortably on the petrol tank, and somehow - though, as we saw, not always - without coming a cropper in the crush of free-form traffic swirling around an obstacle course of treacherous potholes.

The constant hooting and tooting that goes on is entirely non-aggressive, being more a shorthand for 'I'm here' or 'May I pass?', and we didn't see a single episode of road rage in all the hundreds of kilometres we travelled, despite the outrageously idiosyncratic manoeuvres that frequently occurred (overtaking on the wrong side, even driving the wrong way, that sort of thing). It's made driving back here in Auckland seem a Zen-like experience: so quiet and calm, so detached from other people, so orderly. And that's something I never thought I'd say.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Fly, you fools!

There are several reasons for rejoicing over Air New Zealand's new safety video. For a start, whoever would have thought a tedious instruction video about how to do up a safety belt, and turning off mobile phones would ever inspire anyone? Yet the clever clogs on Air NZ's team have been stirring up interest for years now, with a series of videos that have mostly hit the mark, and a couple of times missed it by a country mile (hideous slimy double-entendre puppet Rocco, I'm thinking of you). They've always been a talking point, though, and got people paying attention, which is the whole purpose of the exercise, of course.

In the past, I've enjoyed (surprisingly) the All Black ones, and the body paint one, and become rather fond of William, the blond flight attendant who stars in most of them and seems to enjoy himself so much - it was actually a bit of a thrill to be on a flight that he was working, once. The most recent one was a cartoon with Melanie Lynskey and Ed O'Neill, which was actually not one of the better efforts, but this one, also with a show-biz theme, really scores.

Of course, the first Hobbit movie is due out this month, so maybe the theme was predictable: but it's so well done, with the plane full of hobbits, orcs, elves and dwarves in what looks like authentic Weta Workshop makeup, lots of visual jokes, a suitably Tolkienesque script and - good for him! - a cameo by Peter Jackson. And that's the other great thing about this video: I can't really imagine this kind of backing and participation by busy, busy people anywhere else but in New Zealand. Snif. It makes me proud.


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