Wednesday 31 December 2014

People and places. But mainly people.

So, here we are on the last day of the year - again! - and it's time, apparently, to review 2014. As I write, bodies are being retrieved from the sea after the Air Asia crash, so it's tempting to conclude that it hasn't been a great year for air travel, what with Malaysia Airline's two ill-fated jets plus a scattering of small-plane crashes over the last week. Of course, horrific as all those are, you're still safer in a plane than driving to the airport.

Certainly, in all the long-haul flights I did this year, there wasn't a moment of disquiet, not one. But I'm not going to list them all, or count the different airlines, or countries, or modes of transport (helicopters! horse!) or hotels I stayed in, or thousands of photos taken, or even the number of trips I went on (or, "holidays" unquote, tch). Not tonight, anyway. Instead I'm going to remember some of the people I met, all different nationalities and ages but who all had - have - in common a wonderful enthusiasm and positiveness, and an eagerness to share.

There was Suree, best guide ever, in Thailand - funny, patient, interesting, interested, knowledgeable, professional and honest. She was the very best bit about my famil to Bangkok and points north, and I especially admired her passion for her country and her eagerness that we should understand that Thailand is safe, and welcoming, and beautiful and fascinating. She was in tears at the end, as she said goodbye to us, urging us to pass on the message that Thailand is open and waiting for visitors.

I really liked Tehei too, at Taoahere Beach House on Moorea in Thailand, who was so motherly and hospitable, and took pity on me up in the honeymoon villa all on my own, and brought me meals and flowers and baskets of bread, and invited me for a family dinner with her children to eat poisson cru she'd prepared herself, which we ate alongside the lagoon, with fish jumping in the dark.

Then there was Dan, our guide in northern Australia, who looked like your typical Territorian: khaki shorts, stout boots, hat, tanned, a bit rough round the edges maybe - but he was lyrical about Kakadu, and so respectful of Aboriginal culture, and clearly in love with the land. Also, he had a most unexpected imagination, that kept him amused on long drives when all his passengers had fallen asleep, and in his head wrote screenplays for movies which he was keen to share in generous detail. I honestly hope Drop Bear: the Movie gets made - sounds like a classic.

There's no way I could ever forget Sean, at the Lindisfarne Hotel on that island, who thought he was so funny, which made him funny, but not how he intended, not that he'll ever know. He had a routine, you see, a set piece full of jokes that he trotted out as each roomful of guests turned up for breakfast, without ever being hampered by the fact that the previous audience was still sitting there, listening to it again. And again. But he threw himself into it so enthusiastically that it felt mean, to criticise.

On my first trip to the US this year, I met Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago. Well, I shook his hand at a tourism do that was all about schmoozing as he worked the room full of travel writers and tourism promoters. He was keen, I'll give him that. We were up on the Observatory of the Hancock Tower, with fabulous views on a sunny day out over the lake and city, and down to the welcome sand sculpture on the beach 94 storeys below.

The second time I went to the States, it was Jerry from Georgia, elderly and bald as a coot but full of life, who made the strongest impression. He was another passenger on the Silver Whisper cruise from Boston to Montreal, and a stalwart of our Trivial Pursuit team. At the end of each day's competition, he gave me his share of the place-getter's tokens, and he was olde-worldly flattering and complimentary, which was sweet. Excellent lesson in not writing off old people as just, well, old. So much more than that!

Down in Queenstown - or Glenorchy, more accurately - it was Kate and Matt, and his father Laurence who charmed me with their friendly enthusiasm and eagerness to share this particularly beautiful bit of New Zealand with the people on their bike tour. Even I, who hadn't been on a bike for years, felt inspired and capable, and with their encouragement not only kept pedalling along the far shore of Lake Wakatipu, but actually enjoyed it. And Laurence's dinner at the (sadly now burnt down) Paradise Lodge was genuinely 5-star.

In Scotland it was two people: John and Paul, who run 94DR which is a classy and comfortable B&B in Edinburgh. They were indefatigably cheerful and enthusiastic, full of suggestions for how to spend our time in the city, and effortlessly welcoming. Breakfast there was as much of a show as at Lindisfarne, but genuinely fun and really delicious: raspberry and rhubarb compote, homemade granola, porridge made (of course) the proper way with salt in it, avocado and bacon bagel... Yum. And Molly the dog was friendly too.

At the World Youth Rhino Conference at iMfolosi in KZN in South Africa, there were lots of inspiring people, most notably Dr Ian Player, then very frail and alas now no longer with us, a giant in conservation and a figure accorded the greatest respect by everyone there. But I'd like to pick Trang Nguyen, a young Vietnamese woman who got caught up almost by chance in conservation, bore the burden nobly of representing one of the two nations behind most poaching, and has achieved tremendous things back home in educating the public and spreading the word. She is a marvel.

So many other countries, so many other people - it was a very busy year - but I want to finish with a guy I never even spoke to. Just some random dude relaxing above a waterfall at Gunlom in Kakadu, he provided the perfect focal point for my favourite photo of all of the thousands I took in 2014. Thanks for coming along for the ride. See you next year?

Friday 26 December 2014

Not a drumstick in sight

Turkey was the one thing missing from a Christmas dinner table yesterday that was crowded with every other sort of seasonally delicious food you could name (except for the pavlovas, which had been forgotten, but which will be remembered at every family Christmas yet to come, ad infinitum - although there were meringues, so the day was saved by Rosa from Honduras who has definitively proved her Kiwi credentials if ever they were in doubt). So it was just as well that I had unwrapped this book, earlier.

Part-written by a mate, it will be the start of my preparation for next year's momentous expedition to Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary commemorations on Anzac Day, 25th April.  I must confess that research in advance of a trip is not my strong point, and perhaps a contributory factor to the disquiet described in the previous post - but this is a special one, and I need to know as much as I can learn about the country as well, as course, about the disastrous campaign.

As well as attending the commemoration services, I'll be doing a two-week coach tour around the western half of Turkey, and will have a few days free at each end for some personal poking about, and I want to make the most of that time for pleasure and interest as well as story material. It will help that the Firstborn, now a legitimate traveller in her own right, will be my companion; and there is no doubt that public nudity will be part of the experience (at the Baths, natch - where else? Tch!)

I'm going there with Emirates, paid for this time with my personal money, and almost certainly (though a faint hope will persist, until the final shoulder-drooping moment of death at the boarding gate) down the back in cattle class, with the hot nuts, soft mattresses and bar upstairs just a painful memory.

Meantime, though, it's still Christmas here on Waiheke Island, and this is what it looks like:

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Yes, well.

It's Christmas Eve, so I'm not going to write about Martin Place in Sydney, or Cairns, or the Torres Straits Islands, or Brooklyn, or Glasgow's George Square, or any of all the other places I've been that are currently featuring in the news for horrible reasons. I'm ignoring Phuket despite the 2004 tsunami retrospectives. I'm not going to mention South Africa even though the latest rhino poaching total there has reached a record 1173 animals slaughtered for their horn. Today I'm going to ignore this blog's theme of how travel connects you with bits of the world for ever after, because right now that's looking like a disadvantage.

Instead, I'm going to make a confession: I'm feeling a bit of a fraud about this travel-writing lark. In the dozen or so years I've been going on famils (free trips arranged by tourism people) and writing about the destinations and experiences afterwards, I've been thinking more and more that I'm nothing more than the most superficial sort of tourist. When I was the age my daughters are now, the thing was to be a traveller - out there, winging it, getting uncomfortable (and diarrhoea), rubbing elbows with the locals and being real. Not having some sort of sanitised, dislocated experience, being escorted from airport to resort/tour coach/cruise and back again. (Viz. the American on my recent Danube river cruise, asking his wife "Are we in Bratislavia yet?")

The more I hear about what the girls have been doing (which is, I have to say, very much less and far more infrequently than I would like), the more I see the difference. Cycling the length of France, free-camping and self-catering; working long hours crewing on a yacht in the Med and Caribbean; summiting several 5,000-metre Andean peaks; sleeping in the Amazon jungle; getting hands-on with a sloth; 24 hours on a bus with chickens; snorkelling with turtles in the Galapagos Islands; taking a boat from Colombia to Panama; learning to ski at Whistler. I've touched on this stuff, I've been to most of those places, I've had a bit of a go at some of those things - but that's it. I haven't really experienced it at all. I've just flitted in, skimmed over the surface, and flitted out again, to come home and write about one specific moment or person in a sea of generalisations that's meant to sum up the destination for the reader. Isn't that a bit of a con?

Or, given that I'm a Baby Boomer and most of the readers of my publications are in that demographic too, should I just assume that for all of us our traveller days are over and that what we want now is exactly that: a taste of the authentically exotic couched in insulating and reassuring comfort? It isn't very inspiring, really. Kind of depressing, in fact - though that may be largely age-related rather than an indictment of the international tourism industry. I'm still going to keep doing it, if they'll let me; I'm just feeling that the 'travel writer' label is a cheat. Any suggestions for a more accurate term?

Oh, Merry Christmas, by the way.

Thursday 18 December 2014

No, you can't actually stay at Downton Abbey

There's a rather misleading headline on which claims that you can now stay at the stately home where Downton Abbey is filmed. That's Highclere Castle, near Newbury, and it's instantly recognisable now to millions of TV viewers all around the world.

What you can actually do, as the story goes on to explain, is stay in a renovated self-catering farm cottage on the grounds, which is hardly the same thing as dining beneath the huge Van Dyck portrait of Charles I, sitting at Napoleon's desk in the library and then climbing the stairs overlooking the saloon with its hand-painted leather wallpaper before bedding down in Lady Mary's four-poster. Even Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the current custodians, don't sleep there much, though when I was there a couple of years ago, some of the bedrooms did look quite lived-in, with books and jars of pills on the bedside tables.

Fiona, Lady Carnarvon, is the driving force behind the commercialisation of the castle, necessarily so because when they inherited it, it was sadly run down, and I understand the upper floor is even now not habitable because of damp and decay. She initiated its opening to the public, and listing it as a wedding venue (Katie Price was married there, and George Clooney considered it), but the real money started rolling in once it was used as the location for the TV series. That was the original intention of the writer, Julian Fellowes, who she told me is a family friend and a long-time and frequent visitor to Highclere.

As stately homes go, it's no Blenheim Palace, but the smaller scale makes it more accessible, and it does have its unique attractions, such as all the Tutankhamen relics in the cellar collected by the fifth Earl, who funded and accompanied Howard Carter's expedition to discover the pharaoh's tomb. And now, being so familiar, inside and out, to Downton fans, it has an extra appeal that will last for ages. So good for Fiona: she's a bit scary, but her single-minded authority and energy are just what's needed to save the castle.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

One less reason to go to San Diego

It was too cold when I was in Chicago in October for the Lincoln Park Zoo rhinos to venture out. I went three times to see if they'd emerged, but though I could hear them thumping around inside their stable, they stayed tucked away in the warm. I sympathised - I was finding it pretty chilly myself - but it was disappointing, especially as they had a baby black rhino.

I have seen, and had my toes sucked by, babies before, in South Africa at an orphanage that takes in the survivors from poaching attacks. Sometimes they have to have wounds dressed from being slashed at with the poachers' machetes, to keep them away from the mother, while the horns are being hacked off her face to send to China and Vietnam for huge sums of money to make pretend medicine. The babies wail, and it's a heart-breaking sound.

It's a noise that's echoed through the African bush more often this year than ever before. In 2000, for comparison, just six rhino were killed by poachers in South Africa. That was the end of the good times for rhino. Last year the toll was 1004 - and this year, so far, it's reached 1116. That's a lot of wailing, and not just from orphaned babies. There are so many people working so hard in all the African countries that still have rhino populations, to protect and preserve them, and it's getting more and more difficult not to see it as a losing battle.
Don't be fooled by the apparently big numbers: 20,000 white rhino still alive in Africa, and 5,000 black rhino. The tipping point has now been reached, where reproduction rates can't cancel out the poaching losses. It's all downhill from here, unless something more is done. Just the other day, at San Diego Zoo, one of the last 6 northern white rhino, a sub-species, died of old age. Now there are only 5 left in the entire world, all of them in zoos, and all getting older and older.

There is a plan to take 100 rhino to Botswana - where they have a shoot-to-kill policy with poachers - to keep them as an insurance policy against their loss elsewhere. There's even a project, still in its early stages, to do the same thing in Australia. How strange it would be, to see rhino grazing in the Outback! These are immensely expensive undertakings, and it's heartening that people are prepared to take them on - but they're stop-gap measures. What's really needed is to halt the demand from the end markets, to make it harder, physically and socially, to be a poacher, and to strengthen the protection already being given to rhino in Africa (and Nepal, and Java, and Sumatra).

All those things are happening already, but it costs money. Can you send some to help? I have.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Nothing says 'Christmas' like a Tae Kwan Do panda in a Santa hat

Oh, the bliss of sleeping for 12 hours solid and waking up at a normal hour! Magic. Returning from Dubai was not as good as going there, simply because of the timing: day vs night. The lie-flat bed was as comfortable as ever, especially with the under-duvet-type mattress that Emirates supplies, and the food was as good and the drinks as free-flowing ("You can have anything you like!" I was assured, eagerly); but there's no getting around the fact that if it's bright daylight outside, your body won't be fooled. So thank goodness for an entire season of Breaking Bad to pass the time, that's all I can say. In regard to which, yay for television and its multi-episode series available on aircraft entertainment systems - so much more absorbing than a piffling 90-minute movie. And they say that our attention spans are diminishing! Pft.

I could have slept for longer, in fact, but it was the unusual sound of bagpipes that brought me around. That distinctive skirl is unavoidable on the streets of Edinburgh or Glasgow but it's not common in my leafy Auckland suburb. It means only one thing: the Christmas parade. So there were children and dogs and parents and old people, costumes and tinsel and Santa hats, leisure groups and school and kindergarten, Guides and Pippins and Sea Scouts and Pony Club. The latter was on foot, sadly, and presumably for some officious health-and-safety pseudo-reason; instead there were vintage cars. Again, pft.

While I was on the Uniworld Christmas Markets cruise, many of the Americans I spoke to marvelled at how odd it must be to have a warm Christmas, and while I in turn marvelled at the double-think of the Californians, I did have to admit that cold is better. After growing up with and enjoying 24 summer Christmases, it took only one cold Christmas to turn me. It is better in winter. All the customs and trimmings of the festival were developed for cold weather and that's when they work best, from the lights to the turkey. And the single-focus makes it more special too, undiluted by end-of-school-year functions and looming summer holidays.

Having said all which, though, there's no getting past that a cold Christmas is exactly that: cold. And maybe it's worth foregoing some of the distinctly chilly northern delights I was enjoying earlier this week, to be able instead to stand in the sun with bare arms and legs, and watch a cutter full of kids in Santa hats pulled by a vintage John Deere tractor pass by on its way to the park for a sausage sizzle.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Auf Wiedersehen

My last night on the ship was broken by a bump in the stilly watches: had to be a lock. And it was, right there outside the veranda window, so close I could touch the concrete, which I did. And then I went back to sleep again until my usual 4am, which has pretty much been the pattern for all of us on this trip. Still think being a travel writer is all fun and freebies? Jetlag is no respecter of Business class, you know.

Anyway, on the bright side, it was literally bright when I opened the curtains. Not actually, you know, sunny, but there was an area of cloud that was less grey than the rest, and it was possible to imagine that somewhere behind it there was the sun, shining. It was a novelty, and a popular topic of conversation at breakfast over the Bircher muesli and eggs Benedict. The other passengers were heading in the afternoon into the Wachau Valley, a section of the Danube with wooded hills, the odd castle, vineyards, and they were pleased to think they might be able to stand on the so far hypothetically-labelled sun deck to enjoy it. But not us: we would be in a minivan on our way back to Vienna’s murk.
In the meantime, though, there was a Benedictine monastery on the top of a nearby hill with a grand staircase, painted ceilings and a lovely Baroque church where an organ played for us. And a Christmas market - but you probably guessed that. This one included great wheels of cheese, adding a savoury element to the usual cinnamon and ginger smells.
Back in the little town of Krems there were more shiny things as well as an appealing pedestrian street, onion-domed churches and a remarkable variety of dogs on leashes.

And then we left the others to continue their cruise towards Passau while we started our long journey home. Thanks though to an eminently efficient and practical public transport system, we were able to pop from the airport into the city again for a final dose of culture: the National Library, a high, dim hall lined with leather-bound books and displayed copies of illuminated manuscripts dating back to 1430. Beautiful, and astonishingly detailed work - though it should be noted that cats all over the internet isn’t a new phenomenon:
Finally, we went to the Albertina art gallery to look at the ornately-decorated staterooms and an impressive collection from Monet to Miro. It also includes the actual, original, 1502 The Hare, by Albrecht Durer, which was a personal excitement to see, despite discovering that the image was prostituted in the gift shop as fridge magnet, pen, wine-glass lampshade, pack of tissues… Best souvenir prize though has to go to the yellow diamond road sign novelties stating ‘No Kangaroos in Austria’ - apparently, so many American tourists arrive here asking where the roos are, that it’s become a thing. What a hoot.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Wieder in Wien

On my third visit to Vienna, I'm still surprised by how grand it is, how neat, and how compact - everything I wanted was just around the corner, or next door. It wasn't actually raining, either, which helped, though the cobbles were still wet. That meant that the guard of honour we came across for some Japanese dignitary made a somewhat creepily evocative sound as their boots slapped down in unison as they marched away. Much nicer was the clatter of hooves, from the carriage horses all over the place and also some of the Spanish Riding School horses being taken across the road to their stables.
I wasn't able to go to their morning training session but the next best thing was to do a stable tour. It started off in that magnificent arena where the wood shavings had been neatly raked and the roof was an architectural marvel of its time. We heard all about the horses and their riders before going over to the stable yard complete with barrows of hay, a Christmas tree and a very friendly cat, where a few of the horses were looking out at us. Inside, the loose boxes were all deep golden straw, iron bars and wooden partitions, with ornamental horses' heads on the wall and each horse labelled with its lineage and name. They're stallions, of course, but are called by their dam's name, which seems a bit emasculating. Their feed schedules were written up, too: I liked that their grain mix is called muesli.
We weren't allowed to take photos in there, or to touch the horses, sadly, but I did shoot this one sneakily from the hip, which is why it's crooked. The horses were surprisingly regular-looking, only just over 15 hands, very round, with drooping Hapsburg lower lips, and not all of them were grey (white). Which is not to say that they weren't also beautiful creatures. And then there was the obligatory visit to Cafe Hawelka, all dim and old and cosy.
The day also included a visit to the Jewish museum behind the stark memorial to the 65,000 Viennese Holocaust victims, a sobering counterbalance to the frivolity of the many Christmas markets scented with cinnamon and ginger, and sparklingly pretty.
We finished with a classical concert for us alone, in a beautiful private music salon with a high, ornately carved wooden ceiling and perfect acoustics. The small orchestra of ten made a glorious sound, and almost as enjoyable as the Strauss and Mozart pops was the evident pleasure of the musicians at being able to play in such a perfect place. It was a brilliant way to end the day.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Nothing to see here. Just, you know, more of the usual.

Europe has so many small, charming towns. You know, river, hill, castle, winding cobbled streets, market square, cosy coffee shops, grand buildings, battered and busy trams, history, churches... Bratislava's just another. And that's exactly why it's worth visiting, of course. Such a delight! Even on a perishing cold day with rain that really feels as though it should be sleet.
The afternoon tour was for that reason a bit of an ordeal, as the day and I got colder and colder - but after a return to the ship for some more layers (six, on the top half, and two on the bottom) everything got better. It helped that the wind dropped, but also as it got darker the lights shone more brightly, and then the locals finished work and came out to play. Near the Opera House, they were ice-skating, and in the main square the tables in the centre filled up with people enjoying mulled wine and punch, standing laughing and chatting. Families wandered the stalls, the children as entranced as I was by the colourful displays of crafts, Christmas decorations, live sheep and goats in the nativity scene, and food.
As for that, well, it was all about potatoes, it seemed. First there was a big, deep fried hash brown, hot and crispy. Then one of those irresistible spiral-cut spuds on a stick that are essentially one long potato chip. Then, for pudding, a potato pancake rolled up with chocolate inside - hot and messy, but much more chocolate than potato. There were also baked potatoes, sautéed potatoes, potato crepes...
Our guide had told us all about the history, invasions, politics, literature, music of the city, but it was the recommended chocolate shop that stuck in my mind, so I escaped from the cold and dark into its warmth to have one. Once I'd sorted my fogged-up glasses and peeled off the layers, the hat, the gloves, and got comfortable, I must say I was a bit disconcerted. Hot chocolate here is nothing like at home. For a start, it's barely liquid. It does come in a cup, but it's really melted chocolate, as easy to drink as lava for temperature and viscosity. And so rich!

Really, the mulled wine afterwards was just practical, to unstick my tongue from my teeth.

The day finished with two local musicians in the ship lounge performing some remarkably athletic music on a variety of instruments that included a stick. Well, ok, a tube, but with no other holes - it was amazing how tuneful it was. Those Aboriginals need to up their game.

Monday 1 December 2014

Goodbye to Budapest

The decorations on the Christmas tree were trembling. Otherwise, there was little to show for our being underway, once we'd cleared the city's floodlit bridges and buildings. The River Beatrice set off this evening at 6pm from Budapest, next stop tomorrow noon at Bratislava - where, according to the Captain, it will also be raining.

It was at least gentle, vertical rain - unlike Auckland's - so my umbrella did a decent job of keeping most of me dry. Gazing upwards like a tourist, though, did mean that I stepped several times into surprisingly deep puddles - but, dutiful as ever, I ploughed on.
In the morning I took the city tour with Barbara, a lovely local with an English accent and a sense of humour much drier than the weather. We did the usual circuit - Andrassy Avenue, House of Terror, Heroes Square (shining wet and empty), over the river to Matthias Church (warm and colourful) and then to our first Christmas market back in Pest. It was a good start: lovely, unique crafts and tempting food and mulled wine, chocolates and pastries. Pretty, colourful, smelt good - I liked it.
Up Andrassy Avenue I popped into the Book Cafe, where they sell both wine and books - what a civilised combination - and where upstairs there's a gorgeous Art Deco cafe where waiters with trays whisk between the tables, reflected in huge mirrors, and beneath an ornate ceiling. There are a lot of bookshops in Budapest, I noticed, always a good sign, and proper ones too, like libraries.

Things got more serious at the Grand Synagogue where I walked past a garden containing the remains of more than 2,000 unnamed Jews who died of cold or starvation in the last years of the war, "a memorial to an era when all human feeling was lost". Upstairs there's a small but intense Holocaust Museum with photos of the ghetto, the dispossessed, the victims. In the garden outside names are engraved on the lower leaves of a stainless steel sculpture of a weeping willow tree.
The rain continued to fall and the only way to keep warm - other than being sensible and civilised,
and going into one of the many inviting-looking cafes (but that would have taken money, and I had no forints) - was to keep walking briskly, so it didn't take that long to get to the lovely covered market, all coloured tiles outside and high ceiling inside. It's a proper market and full of local touches: plaits of chilli peppers on the vegetable stalls, lots of pork (including heads and trotters) at the butchers', paprika in every imaginable form.

And then I was back at the boat, and that was it for Budapest: colder, wetter and gloomier than I was hoping, but still with enough interest, pleasure and delight to please those who have never seen the city's summer face. And, after all, it is December now.

RIP Dr Ian Player - I hope

I've met two great men so far in my life. The first was Sir Edmund Hillary and the second was Dr Ian Player, who has just died.

When I met him in the South African bush in September, he was clearly very frail, and it was remarkable the care and respect with which he was treated by all the hard men who surrounded him. Despite having to be supported in a chair, he spoke with real passion to the 140 students of the World Youth Rhino Summit, and he was an inspiration.

In the 1960s he saved the white rhino from certain extinction, and it was so special to hear him talk about the cause in the same park, iMfelozi, where he did that. He spent his life doing practical work to save the rhino as well as travelling and talking and organising, to inspire others to do the same.

Passion, inspiration, respect, greatness: words that get cheapened with overuse these days - but every one of them is true and accurate in this case. It was a real privilege to meet Dr Player. He will only rest in peace if we carry on his cause.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Back in Budapest

The last time I was in Budapest, I arrived by train and left by coach; this time, I've come by plane and will leave on a boat, which is kind of satisfying. There were a lot of snowy mountains (including Ararat, above) on the 6-hour flight from Dubai but here it's just damp and grey and gloomy. And cold, one degree C, which is chillier than my fridge back home. It's not the sort of weather that does any city any favours, and I'm glad to have seen Budapest in summertime, as a balance to its rather forbidding face right now.

My home for the next four nights will be Uniworld's River Beatrice, which is a fairly new river cruiser catering for 130 passengers, most of them it seems American Baby Boomers. My cabin is neat, plush, comfortable and a touch on the cramped side, but since there's only me in it, and I expect to be out most of the time, it hardly matters. There are much bigger suites just along the corridor, I couldn't help but notice...
Arriving at midday jet-lagged after an early start, though, I didn't do a great deal beyond settling in and getting my bearings. We're moored near the green Liberty Bridge, across the river from the Gellert thermal baths and the castle on the hilltop of Buda. Here on the Pest side, the yellow trams trundle past, there are other river cruisers, sight-seeing boats and floating restaurants and bars lining the bank and, despite the weather, quite a lot of other tourists shuffling along, hands in pockets.

I was one of them, regretting leaving my scarf on the boat, tripping over the cobbles as I followed the bank towards the Houses of Parliament. My goal was a memorial I'd read about only after my last visit: Shoes on the bank of the Danube. It's an installation of 60 cast-iron pairs of assorted 1940s shoes, a memorial to all the Jews lined up beside the river in 1944-45, and shot by the Arrow Cross - a Hungarian fascist group with Nazi-style beliefs. Their victims had to remove their shoes first, because they were a commodity during the war, but the people of course were expendable, and the Danube was a handy way of disposing of the bodies.

It's a grim bit of history, and the worn, battered shoes - men's, women's, children's - speak volumes, arranged untidily along a section of the bank. Flowers and flickering candles gave the rusty brown shoes some colour, but it was a literally chilling sight that was perfectly suited by the greyness of the day.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Oh! Natural.

The last time I was in Dubai, I stood on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and marvelled at both man and nature: at the extraordinary collection of buildings at the foot of the Burj, the tower itself, and the artificial islands built along the coast; and also at the flat, brown expanse of the desert that not only reaches to the horizon, and beyond, but is still in evidence within the city, in areas not yet claimed.

People here in transit, like me, generally head for the malls with their thousands of shops and novelties like ice rink, aquarium, snow slope, to make the most of the man-made attractions. Some also go on a desert safari with Arabian Adventures and other companies, as I have a couple of times, getting closer to nature though most of it is through a car window - or, you can do what I did.

It was still a tourist activity, but I really enjoyed my camel and horse rides today at Al Sahra Desert Resort, and felt my experience was more authentic than anything else I’ve tried so far. I certainly got dirtier.
First I went for the camel ride aboard Jumeelah, an obliging dromedary camel who, unlike her colleague, didn’t complain at all when she was saddled. They can live to 50, did you know? And are smarter than horses, apparently. Strung in a line, the six of us riding four camels had a wonderfully relaxing, surprisingly comfortable and gloriously peaceful hour swaying through the sand dunes as the wind reshaped the ripples and obscured the city skyscrapers on the horizon. No-one wanted to get off at the end, but we were offered a shot of camel milk as an inducement. It was interesting – rich and slightly salty. (The Americans, natch, turned it down.)
Then I went for a horse ride on another Jumeelah – not an Arab, as I’d hoped, but an untaxing chestnut quarter-horse. The guide was riding one, though, the glamorous Roxy, all high head and tail and fine features, so I was able to admire her as we walked and trotted through the dunes. With novices along, it was a fairly subdued ride (if you discount the moment of drama when a couple of gazelles sprang out from behind a bush and bounded away, taking us all by surprise). At the end, though, we were allowed to go ahead and Jumelia, so close to home, indulged in a bit of bucking and galloping that was briefly exciting.

What with that and the sunset, it was just lovely, and such a treat to escape concrete and air-conditioning for a while.

So of course, on the way back, I stopped to investigate an outlet mall, and was fascinated to discover Comicave, stuffed with comics and all-sized models including Darth Vader, Wolverine, a Dark Rider next to the Godfather, and a 2.8 metre Incredible Hulk. Yours for just the $13,000, since you ask.

The same, but different

Wafted here overnight on the A380's spacious upper deck, the 14 hours from Melbourne were no bother at all; though, plus the 3 hours from Auckland, the 9 hour time difference and the fact that we arrived in Dubai at around 5.30am, it still means that it's going to be a very, very long day. Never mind. The Pullman Hotel is very comfortable and accommodating, and it's also right next to the Deira City Centre Mall - adjoining, in fact, so there's not even any need to go out into what is already 27 degrees on a sunny, cloudless day.

There are very few local people who live in Dubai. They're hugely outnumbered by the ex-pats who work here and that fact, plus that the city is the hub of Emirates' huge network, means that it's a really cosmopolitan place, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the malls. This one has M&S, Debenhams, TGIF Friday, Zara, Starbucks, Carrefour, even Tim Horton's, amongst many many more. It's modern and bright and shiny, and full of all sorts of people in all sorts of dress - even the black head-to-toe robes are quite varied if you look closely and, underneath them, pretty much anything goes.
I always enjoy a good mooch around a foreign supermarket, noting the cultural differences, and the Carrefour had a big Christmas display right alongside the women's clothing with scanty tops and sexy underwear as well as cover-alls. There was also a big carpet/rug department, a section with maids'  uniforms, and a jewellery counter with lots of real gold bling. The fresh food was beautifully displayed, with heaped spices, lots and lots of nuts and dates, and very neat fruit and veg, all labelled with the country of origin. Australia is doing pretty well in this respect - for New Zealand, just the Jazz apples, which was disappointing. Could do better. I usually check out the wines in this respect, too, but obviously not here.

It was interesting too to note the courtesy policy outlined in the mall directory brochure - just in case you get carried away browsing the racks in Victoria's Secret and forget where you are.


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