Friday 25 April 2014

This year, next year

Anzac Day, and I was at Devonport again for the parade and service. The RSA veterans got their usual warm applause as they marched along Victoria Road to the war memorial, all smartly turned out and their medals glinting in the sunshine. This year they were joined by Con Thode, a youthful-looking 103 year-old who is the only New Zealander to have commanded a British submarine, which sent an impressed murmur through the crowd when it was announced at the start of the service.
There were hymns, readings by marvellously assured young children, prayers, the Ode in Maori as well as English this time, a particularly military speech this year, wreath-laying by groups both obvious and obscure, and again the singing of the Australian anthem as well as ours, which is a nice touch even though theirs grates slightly, being somewhat boastful (golden soil, nature's gifts, beauty rich and rare...) and enviably livelier than our dirge.
The Last Post was especially well done this year, the lingering notes perfectly sounded; and I looked around at the crowd, from littlies in shorts and jandals to old people in blazers and sensible shoes, all colourful in the bright autumn sunshine, and thought how different next Anzac Day will be, when I'm standing in the cold pre-dawn dark of a Turkish spring on the Gallipoli peninsula for the 100th anniversary of the battle that started it all.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Choosing Chicago

Here I am (centre), about to shake the hand of the Mayor of Chicago, the oddly-named Rahm Emanuel, a professional charmer (that's my excuse for my possum-in-the-headlights impression) and enthusiastic proponent of tourism to his city. We met - if you can call it that - at the IPW media brunch in the Observatory at the top of the Hancock building with its extensive views over the city and the lake. There was also a bird's eye view of a greeting written in the sand of the beach 94 storeys below, which was just one of the many, many thoughtful touches that made us all feel that Chicago was really pleased to have us there.
I'm really looking forward to returning to the city in October, and having a proper look at it. I'm going to do the architectural cruise that others told me they enjoyed so much; I'm going to ride the El out to a couple of the score or so of distinctive neighbourhoods; I'm going to have a proper look around the Field Museum in which so far I've only seen Sue the T.Rex and about a thousand birds; I'll look at some art; I'll try the deep-dish pizza and local hot dog, though I don't expect to enjoy either of them; I'll catch some comedy if I can; and I may even venture into a shop or two. And, who knows, if the series goes into play-offs, I may get to see a baseball game at Wrigley Field. Now that would be a proper visit.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Getting the birders in a flap

They're a touchy lot, birders. Look at Aaron here, frothing at the mouth, randomly capitalising, spraying quote-marks, and delivering a classic telling-off, the like of which I haven't been on the receiving end of since I was in the fourth form and involved in a bit of lunch-time out-of-bounds mischief. He's upset because of an - admittedly - inaccurate introduction written by the editor to my story about Stewart Island, which describes the island as "predator-free". It's not, of course, as I make quite clear in a paragraph halfway through: "... cats, rats and possums require constant vigilance".

But let's give Aaron a bit of leeway here - he's a biology teacher, after all, not English (like me) and reading comprehension skills are clearly not his forte. (In a follow-up email, he misses the point again.) He's anxious about the birds and, even if he's somewhat irrational in his belief that the erroneous use of the phrase in question "will mean more birds die", I can sympathise with that. I'm quite fond of birds myself, as regular readers (!) well know, and am happy to have spotted plenty of them in my travels.

I have, though, been effectively black-listed by the NZ Parks and Conservation Foundation, thanks to a frivolous column I wrote long ago for the Herald during the summer silly season:
There is a standard joke in the UK that when you visit New Zealand you have to set your watch back 30 years. That would still put you 100 years ahead of Pamela Wade though, judging from the views expressed in her article in Wednesday's Herald. Ms Wade bemoans the poor quality of the native songbirds, which she compares unfavourably to the "heart-lifting glory" of the exotic species introduced by the "pioneers in the 19th century - people who have since been vilified for their insensitivity to biological purity". When gardeners can augment their beds with the best that other countries have to offer, why, she asks, should we not be able similarly to enhance our parks and gardens with pretty and tuneful birds from around the world? 

What does all this prove? That apparently people who officially care about birds have no sense of humour or irony, and are so hot-headed about their beliefs that they can't actually read properly. It's a bit sad, really. So here's one of my (many, many) nice pictures of birds to make us all feel better:

Saturday 12 April 2014

Spoiled for choice

Phew! So many riches today, in just one small part of one pretty much overlooked state - and no time to do them all justice before I must put out the light. You'll have to call back in here later for the detail; but the day began with sunshine and loons on the lake and a squirrel on the porch. Then there was home-made quiche at 1920s-themed Baker House in Lake Geneva, where the server wore black lacy pantaloons and I wore a feathered hat.

At Madison, Wisconsin's capital, there was the Capitol, and a beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright building beside the lake and an Otis Redding memorial on its roof (his plane crashed into Lake Monona). There was more FLW later, at his own house, but before that we went to The House on the Rock, which will have to have a post on its own because it is INCREDIBLE and ASTONISHING and enormous FUN. Truly.

And finally there were deep-fried, crumbed cheese curds at Captain Bill's back in Middleton, so sinfully delicious it's a relief we don't have them at home; and pie at the Hubbard Avenue Diner, a classic 1950s chrome and red vinyl affair with a great line in pie/pi puns, some of them in Spanish. An excellent day.
Geddit? Spanish for "I have pie"!

Thursday 10 April 2014

No honour amongst fishermen

This is Rich, who was beaming with the double delight of a warm, sunny afternoon and the triumph of having caught two fine brown trout. Or so he claimed, at least. I was impressed, not just with the size of the fish, but the fact that he caught them right in the city, within earshot of traffic and against a background of skyscrapers.

Looking the other way, though, the lake looked like the Pacific Ocean, stretching clear and turquoise all the way to the horizon. Beautiful.

Rich was anxious that people here had treated me well, and was pleased to hear that everyone I'd met had been friendly, helpful and sincerely flattering about New Zealand. "They're lightening up again now it's getting warmer," he said, "after the winter we've had." (On the gates of the marina jetties there are signs forbidding both swimming and ice-skating, which strikes me as pretty unique.)

And then we shook hands and he went back to his fishing, me still impressed with his catch - until I met his mate further along the shore, who told me with great indignation that the bigger fish was his. Fishermen, eh? Untrustworthy the world over.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

I have only one eye open

Near help me, autocorrect. PRty. Free boozy, caged dancers, thanks vestige, dancing LPOPCOEM THtsd pulp corn popcorn, sncient danced moves resurrected, lots if fun. ThNk you San Francisco!
Note: Posted on my return to my room, before bed, and un-corrected. But you realised that, of course.

Another theory blown up

This afternoon, duty done at the convention, I escaped to breathe some fresh air and get some Vitamin D and exercise, so I walked from McCormick Place (the flat white building at the top right) all the way to the Willis Tower, which is what you're meant to call the Sears Tower these days, where this photo was taken, and then back to the Hilton, which is that triple brick building catching the sun in the photo. I didn't actually mean to walk all that way, but my dimness continues and I couldn't find a station to take the El, although I was walking right along the line.

Never mind, it was good to be out walking on a sunny afternoon, looking at all the fine buildings - very pretty wooden homes all in a line, super-grand Library, the backdrop of skyscrapers that are starting to become familiar - and at the people. Black kids playing basketball on a street corner, cool dudes skimming past on bikes, fat ladies waddling, beggars offering blessings in the hope of spare change, a friendly young guy promoting Greenpeace.
And then I went up the Tower, 103 floors, tallest in the Western Hemisphere ( ~ ) to have my photo taken standing on the glass ledge with tiny people scuttling along the pavement so very far below. No biggie. What was more disturbing was reading a story board claiming that the atomic age began in 1942 when some scientists at Chicago University set off a chain reaction: "the initial step in building the nuclear bomb".

So, nothing to do with Sir Ernest Rutherford beginning his work towards splitting the atom in the basement of Canterbury University in 1917, then?

Tuesday 8 April 2014

This is a long way from relief teaching - or, maybe not.

Route 66 - the Mother Road - begins here in Chicago. You knew that, of course; but did you know that there was never a sign marking its beginning? Well, now there is, and it was unveiled this morning at the IPW media conference here in the overwhelmingly massive McCormick Convention Centre ("The biggest Convention Centre in the Western hemisphere!" I keep hearing, said with great pride - but that just makes me wonder where exactly the western hemisphere begins and ends, and couldn't it start anywhere depending on where you were standing - or floating - so that in fact it could exclude the whole of the USA? Since there's no West Pole, so to speak? And by the time I've stopped thinking all that through, they've generally moved on some distance in what they're saying, and I've lost the thread entirely. Which is the sort of thing that happens a lot when you're as tired as I am.)

The days here are long, and air-conditioned, and artificially lit - remarkably like Las Vegas, but without the chatter of the ubiquitous slot machines - and there's so much talking, much of it repeating the same stuff over and over, that quite quickly my head starts spinning. It doesn't help that there are bizarre things happening like the entertainment after lunch today - in a cavernous room, tables set for six thousand people, and good luck finding your friends in that lot - being a deafening session from a band made up of (possibly the only surviving) members of bands like Steppenwolf and Lynyrd Skynyrd. That might go down well in the small hours of a Saturday night in a stadium, but it's a bit intense for a Monday lunchtime at a business conference.

And now it's almost time for the Reverse Media Marketplace, where I set out my table, literally, and wait for Them To Come. Which they may well not, in which case I might use the technique I have often observed employed by Asian students back home in Period 4, and have a sly zizz.

UPDATE: Four, count them, four visitors. In an hour and a half - though the pair from Tennessee took up a lot of that with their spiel and slideshow... Oh, and because you're thinking how dim and geographically-challenged I clearly am, please read the comments.

Monday 7 April 2014

Top of the morning

McDonald's began in Chicago (first skyscraper, Ferris wheel and zipper too, amongst a good number of other firsts) so here I am at the Rock 'n Roll Macca's. It's across the road from a Hard Rock Cafe and also Portillo's, where a nice lady who offered me directions, unasked, said I should go for the city's best hot dogs (also invented here).

Eight o'clock on a Sunday morning's a bit early for that sort of thing though - and besides, I'm on my way to the John Hancock building for the big Media Brunch on the 94th floor. I'm really enjoying walking there on this bright, shiny spring morning, with all the glorious buildings crisp and sharp against a clear blue sky.

I was out so early that there was no one else at the Cloud Gate, all the sky scrapers bent around its edges like a fringe; and it doesn't matter to me that all the fancy shops along the Magnificent Mile aren't open yet. Trader Joe's was, though - where they sell New Zealand wine cheaper than we can buy it back home. Tch.

Sunday 6 April 2014

But not windy!

Chicago! Cold (like, 5 degrees), crisp, but thankfully sunny - bare trees, brown grass, squirrels, muffled-up people, brick everywhere, elegant old skyscrapers that aren't too high.... I'm looking forward to exploring, though I'm caught up in this conference now and will be in windowless rooms a lot of the time, sigh.

I did get to go on a bus tour this afternoon, though, weaving through the city centre, crossing the river that they dye green every St Patrick's day, and skimming along the edge of the lake about which everyone - that's EVERYONE -  says, "It looks like the ocean!" because it truly is that vast, blue right to the horizon and, presumably, beyond. We were lucky that it was blue today - actually, tropical turquoise - on this bright spring morning, and our boat cruise on the Spirit of Chicago along the waterfront towards Navy Pier was a real delight.

To me the city looks like a more manageable New York: smaller, less daunting, friendlier, but with all the same elements of interesting architecture, river, parks, distinctive neighbourhoods, eateries, bars and music. Plus sandy beaches! I like it, and have already decided that instead of passing straight through in October, I should stop over for the proper look it deserves, and which I'm not going to have the time for now.

Saturday 5 April 2014

Looking forward to bouncing back

I'm at the flash new airport waiting for my flight to chilly Chicago, looking forward to somewhere real. Vegas was fun, but it's also very silly, and nothing is what it seems, from the buildings to the shows to the people on the streets. In one block of the Strip, I saw Marilyn, Elvis, the Super Mario Brothers, Dora the Explorer and a couple of Minions, most of them pretty tatty, all touting for photo ops; as well as sundry beggars, buskers, grifters and hustlers, and one man peeing against a wall while he was using both hands to check his phone. Which was kind of impressive, but not in a good way.

All the glitz is still there, but when you're short of sleep, your feet hurt and your eyes are stinging from the air freshener constantly squirted into the air in the casinos to mask the cigarette smoke, it's less easy to accentuate the positive.

So I'll be glad not to see slot machines everywhere (they're even here at the departure gates) and to get somewhere real. And damper. My sinuses haven't appreciated being taken to Nevada, and my hair could do with some bounce back.

Friday 4 April 2014

Nobody mess with me

Because it turns out I'm a mean shot with not just a hand gun and a shotgun, but automatic weapons too (that's machine guns to you). Or at least, I am when the target is large, stationary, 7 yards away and, rather crucially, made of paper. Stationary and stationery, then.

It's easier in the controlled conditions of Machine Guns Vegas than you'd think - none of that wild and bruising kicking I was fearing, thanks to pro Jackie right behind me. It was disturbingly fun, actually.

Genghis Cohen (real name), the Kiwi who owns the business, isn't a gun fanatic, though, which is reassuring, and even the MGV driver who took me away isn't rabid about them, despite the image we foreigners have of American gun fever. He was much more interested in discussing how you would take out attacking zombies (you can choose a zombie target in the VIP Experience) - through the head, apparently. Everyone needs to know that.

Time warp in Vegas

Losing a day flying from New Zealand to Tahiti was one thing; climbing into a massive 17-ton excavator here in Las Vegas and losing a hour is quite another. I went to Dig This, another Kiwi operation here in this crazy city, and could have sworn I was in that cab for just a matter of minutes.

Under Walt's calm, clear and humorous tutelage, I drove that huge machine around, tipped it up, spun it in circles, dug a trench, picked up monster tyres and piled them up, and finally got dainty with basketballs perched on cones, picking them up and dropping them into another tyre. Didn't drop one!

It was glorious fun, and immensely satisfying, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Do it!

Thursday 3 April 2014

From ghastly reality to glorious imagination

After the journey from hell, involving an incorrect itinerary, a missed international flight, two hours sweating on standby with a programme of events hanging in the balance, food poisoning, queues, more waiting and rather a lot of expense, I finally arrived in Las Vegas. Even woozy after 24 hours of travel, frazzled and with a dodgy tummy, it's impossible not to be diverted from all that and amused by the city's ridiculousness and the determination of everyone here to have a good time. 

It's many years since I was last here, and Vegas is continuously reinventing itself, but I did remember the Bellagio fountain - I think. Or is that just from having seen it so often on the screen? Or even from having been to Macau, which is a mini-Vegas? Doesn't matter. I was there last night to see Cirque du Soleil's O, a play on 'eau' because it's a water spectacular. And 'spectacular' is right: it's the usual - astonishing - Cirque stuff with clowns, recurring images and themes and clearly a story of some sort, though I couldn't explain it to save my life, and people doing such incredible things that really it's hard to accept they are just regular people under the makeup and costumes. Acrobatics, strength, contortion, trapezes, balancing, humour, music... and it all involves water, falling and fountaining but mainly as a constantly changing stage. The mechanics of that were in their way as marvellous as the girl high on her trapeze balancing on the bar, on her head. There was a standing ovation at the end, natch. 

And walking back to Mandalay Bay afterwards was an entertainment, too, with the lights and colour and fantasies - castle next door to Brooklyn Bridge next to pyramid next to Eiffel Tower - and all the people. Girls tottering, and not just because of their heels, bemused Baby Boomers, amazed children, bored men in beanies handing out business cards for hookers, tourists like me constantly swivelling taking phone photos, getting in the way of shrieking hen parties and other groups cheerfully gathering up stray individuals as they swept along the walkways, chattering in English, French, Spanish. Great energy. It kept me going till, whoa, ten o'clock!

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Vous êtes toute seule?

Though there are good things about solo travel, it can be a little lonely occasionally - and that is never more the case than at dinner time. Discomfort eating, is what it is. Especially when the waiter rubs it in by asking this particularly wounding question - it's the 'toute' that really stings. ("For one?" feels much less painful.) You see? There are downsides to being in Tahiti.

Another is the crappy internet that is so rarely free - I have no confidence that this will actually upload, so I'm not investing a lot of time here. I've just been to Moorea for the first time (see above for odd sunset effect tonight above the island now I'm back in Tahiti). It was lovely there, and there was fun with sharks and rays and quad bikes, and a charming local hostess who made me feel part of the family at her waterside beach house where I had an elevated villa. Taoahere Beach House, if you're tempted.

It's also been also meltingly hot and sweaty, the traffic's horrendous here in Papeete, and everything is expensive. There you go: feeling better about not being here? That's good, because now I can  tell you about the clear, clear, luminous turquoise sea that's so amazingly warm and full of colourful fish; and the gorgeous people, especially the girls; and how friendly they are; and the cute wild chickens and the strange birds that make pterodactyl noises in the palm trees at night; and that peculiarly Pacific lassitude that infuses everything and is so different from the wound-up lives we live back home. Ah, c'est si belle ici!


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