Tuesday 31 December 2013

2013: mega!

Last day of the year, and newspapers around the world are full of what I think should be called their Smiling Dead Spreads: a chequerboard of cheerful faces that would probably have been smiling somewhat less chirpily had the subjects foreseen the last use of that photo. Fortunately, I have no candidates for a similar spread of my own - even the old cat made it through another year - so, this New Year's Eve, I'm going for an overall theme.
Last year was crazy for travel: 2013 was much more restrained - but it was quality stuff, and there was a link between the overseas trips that is, in every sense, mega. The Silversea cruise along the Alaskan coast was superb and to be thoroughly recommended for its comfort and service; the scenery was magnificent, the weather fortunately brilliant and the towns we called at quirky and colourful. But it was the animals that stole the show: the bears, the whales, the sea-otters. We saw so many of them, but they were a thrill to encounter, each one. And the first two species are, literally, megafauna.
Africa, though, has megafauna er, for Africa. Having grown up in a land of birds learning my letters from an alphabet that, tantalisingly, began with A for ape and ended with Z for zebra, it was truly a glorious treat finally to be in the home of elephant, hippo, giraffe, lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo and, of course, rhinoceros. To see all of those animals just wandering around, loose, as though they lived there, was immense; and to stand less than 30 metres away from a black rhino, as a species treading the earth for some 50 million years, was awesome in its truest sense. So though there were trips around New Zealand too, with wild kiwi, and dolphins and albatross; and tramping and horse-riding and cycling, it was Africa that stole the show this year, closely followed by Alaska. Because of the animals. More, please?

Sunday 15 December 2013

China, again.

Bunnies. Soft, fluffy bunnies with floppy ears and big brown eyes. They're up there with pandas and kittens and polar bear cubs in the aww department. And yet, I learned today, angora rabbits - even softer and fluffier than your bog-standard bunny - are having their fur torn off every three months by workers in China to supply the demand by fashion houses in the UK and presumably elsewhere in the western world. Ripped out, by hand, while the rabbits scream, and are then shoved back, totally traumatised, into their little cages. According to SumOfUs, companies like H&M and Topshop have stopped stocking angora garments from this source, though Zara, to its shame, still sells them.

With China's long history of abuse of human rights, it maybe seems a bit trivial to bother about the rabbits. It's not as though there isn't plenty of horror in the clothing industry in many other countries as well; but I'm particularly attuned to Chinese abuse of animals, both direct and indirect. Of course there's the indisputable fact that China, closely followed by Vietnam, is the major market for rhino horn. It has been for a very long time, as a traditional medicine (odd, how the Chinese, so clever at so much, haven't sussed that keratin does nothing for fever or anything else. It's fingernail, for goodness sake!) - and now, with increased affluence, the demand is even greater. Having been to South Africa and been literally awed by seeing rhino in the wild - so immense, so ancient, so inoffensive - and meeting some of the people who risk their lives daily to protect them from the poachers, I'm thoroughly disgusted that in the 21st century this is still going on.

The rhino will all be gone in 10 years at this rate. And so, I read elsewhere yesterday, will the elephant, currently still in large numbers but being poached so much faster that they too are doomed. Again, so the Chinese demand for ivory can be sated. It's all about money, of course, all along the line from poacher to purchaser. But it's not just the greed that's so dismaying: it's the total disregard for animal rights that incenses me. When I was in China, I saw no wild birds, but plenty imprisoned in tiny, tiny cages - in Macau, I came across some left on the grass in a park, for the fresh air, I presumed, that I was really tempted to let fly free. But in Qingdao, even worse, I found a man selling baby goldfish sealed alive inside small water-filled plastic pouches attached to keyrings. As a symbol for Chinese (dis)regard for animals, I think that's an image even more powerful than a screaming rabbit.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Buen apetito!

Mmm, yes, I know what this reminds you of. Creepy, eh? But it's apparently a Mexican wrestling mask, and it was given to me at a special Roll Your Own Burrito session put on for some media people at Mad Mex, newly opened in Fort Street, in Auckland. Yes, there was tequila too - we started with a shot of the cheap stuff, 50% agave, plus salt and lime, and worked our way up through the mid-range liquor to the 100% agave which was much smoother and sippable. Though still throat-grabbingly strong, hack, hack.

But Mad Mex isn't about the drink (they're not licensed yet): it's the food that will be bringing people back and back again. Delicious! And really filling, once you've worked your way, Subway-style, through all the options of meat and salads and sauces. Regular punters don't get to roll their own, but we were given tuition (it's harder than it looks) in heating the tortilla "till it screams" and then adding the insides - for me, rice, pulled pork, black beans, sour cream, salsa, lettuce, guacamole, hot sauce. It makes a very substantial package once it's assembled. What's especially pleasing is that it's all healthy, fresh, authentic and ethically-produced food. But most people will just keep coming back because it tastes so good.

Things fell apart a bit (not our tightly-rolled burritos, though) after the tequila came out. Oddly - or perhaps not - the last time I was knocking back shots was in Vietnam last year, again with Kathy who organised yesterday's get-together. There, it's rice wine, pretty much tasteless fire-water that I wasn't so bothered about until I was introduced to the flavoured version - apricot is best - which led to a somewhat blurred experience but I believe the evening involved a thwarted art heist. It's probably just as well that I haven't been to Mexico. (But if you're offering, the answer's Yes!)

Saturday 7 December 2013

Knowing me, knowing Norfolk

Today I went to see Alpha Papa with Steve Coogan. It's a lot of fun and I would have enjoyed it anyway, but it was an extra little treat that it was set in Norfolk, and I recognised the locations. That's something I've come to take for granted in so many American movies: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston are all regularly on screen and going to those places for the first time was oddly disorientating (except not, the opposite, because they were so familiar). It applies too to London, of course. But with this movie it was the other way around, because I'd been there but never seen it on screen before.

Actually, who has? Norfolk, though it's an easy drive from London, is a rather neglected part of England, tourist-wise. Foreign tourist, that is - it's a popular enough seaside destination for the Brits. Why, even the Queen has a holiday home there, at Sandringham. But otherwise, it's really only known for Alan Partridge, who's fictional after all, and Stephen Fry who actually lives there. There are prettier bits of England - Norfolk is rather flat and marshy - but it has its own peculiar charms, and even though the weather was mostly dampish and the second half of my short stay there was rather blighted by having dislocated my shoulder, I liked it, and would have been pleased to have had more time there to poke around.

Norwich itself is an ancient city with a splendid cathedral, the market (above) is colourful and lively, it has quaint lanes and good restaurants, there's a very solid castle on a hill, and a river with swans. What more could you ask? It even has a dedicated teddy bear shop down a steep cobbled lane. And up on the coast there's Cromer, whose pier featured in the movie's climactic scene - a classic English seaside town with rows of colourful beach huts along its pebbly beach. I wouldn't be tempted to swim, though, even in the summer. That's the North Sea there. Never been called 'azure' in its life.

Friday 6 December 2013

Nelson Mandela: black or white?

That's not such a stupid question. It's worth considering now that he is finally at rest, after such a long time with death hovering at his elbow (this photo of a life-size beaded statue of him was taken at Johannesburg airport way back in September, while he was at home elsewhere in the city after nearly dying in hospital). Not everybody in South Africa is a total fan, I was surprised to learn while I was there.

Although I wasn't living in New Zealand in 1981 when the Springbok rugby tour was on, it was well reported in England and I watched the news in astonishment, seeing my peaceful country torn in two with protests, riots and bloodshed. If I had been there, I would have been one of the protesters, marching against the Rugby Union's self-centred, tunnel-visioned, denialist and stubborn refusal to admit that inviting the Springboks to tour was to support apartheid. I would have been cheering when the Hamilton game was cancelled. And I would have been amongst those chanting "Mandela! Mandela!"

When he was released from prison after that incredible 27 years - twenty-seven years! - I was delighted, and in 1994 when he was elected I was thrilled. It was all black or white to me. But when I went to South Africa this year I met lovely, educated, enlightened, generous people who, while they acknowledged what Mandela had done for their country and his countrymen, have not forgotten that the ANC that he led was a terrorist organisation, responsible for the deaths of innocent people, and that he had co-operated with dictators. They regret that their current government is self-serving and corrupt, and that their children - white, expensively educated because public education standards are worse today for all children (as I saw for myself) than back in apartheid days - are now a near-unemployable underclass.

Mandela himself never claimed to be a saint. He did great things, and made a huge difference, and South Africa is the better for his actions - but he's neither black nor white, and the country still has a long way to go. If I hadn't travelled there, I wouldn't know that. Consider my mind broadened. Is yours?

Monday 2 December 2013

The things you see when you haven't got your gun!

That was what my unreconstructed HOD back at Newent Community School said when he saw one of the ancillary staff heading off to the gym in her exercise gear, to a roar of laughter from the other men in the staffroom. Her name was Julie; I'm pleased to say it took me 3 days to remember his name was Bob. It was 1983 and male chauvinism was still rampant, especially amongst middle-aged, fat, bored English blokes like Bob: when you tut over how PC life has become, remember how uncomfortable it could be back then. But his comment came back to me the other day because I heard myself echo it with "The things you see when you haven't got your camera" - having just witnessed a duck flying right in front of me, quacking loudly, with another flapping behind it, the first bird's tail feathers clamped in its bill.

These days such sights are captured forever thanks to cell phone cameras, and if I had any pockets in my exercise clothes, I would have got that one too. Out walking is the only time I'm separated from my phone now: so different from my blasé attitude to my first little clockwork Nokia. Then, Nokia was #1 - now, it's stopped doing phones entirely. It was only when I met some Finns at Colleith Lodge in Tairua that I learned it was a Finnish company (that had previously made gumboots). That's the nice thing about staying in upper-end accommodation: you meet the other guests and often dine with them, which can be interesting and entertaining. That's what fabulous places like Treetops near Rotorua have in common with backpacker hostels, and it's a real plus.

Stay instead in a regular hotel, even top-range ones like the Fairmonts we recently enjoyed in Canada, or the Peninsula Hong Kong, or any other of the swanky places where I've been lucky to lay my head, and you never get to exchange a single word with the other guests. The Pen (as we old hands call it) makes a feature of it - we were checked in in our actual room, not even having to linger in public at the reception desk. And the really exclusive guests there helicopter onto the roof and go straight to their suite without having to slum it by walking through the lobby at all. Maybe that's important if you're a celebrity and tired of having the same conversation with everyone you meet: but for us ordinary people, whether travelling alone or as a couple, it's nice to have the chance to chat with different people from different places, to learn things, swap experiences, and hear new jokes.

You can also make observations, such as that Germans speaking English say 'actually' a lot as a kind of filler, giving them time to think of the word they want. Whereas English-speakers - speaking English of course: what else - say 'um'. And that's kind of satisfying, in terms of national stereotypes, don't you think?


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