Wednesday 27 May 2015

Memory laps

I've written before here about how senses make the best souvenirs, and I've just been reminded about how true that is. After days of wind and rain, this morning was calm and sunny, and I wandered down to our small pebbly beach. As usual, there was no-one there, just a single fresh footprint on a stray patch of sand, and there was no noise other than the tuis back in the bush. And the sea itself, of course: little waves lapping on the shore.

The last time I heard that sound, exactly that sound, was at the Anzac Dawn Service at Gallipoli, as one of a crowd of 10,500 standing silently in the chilly dark, listening and thinking. There had been a programme of reflection leading up to just before dawn: music, documentaries, soldiers' letters home, a light show picking out the impossibly steep cliffs behind. Then the lights were cut, and it was a time for thought as a recording of the sound of the waves - or, possibly, oars - washed over us. A hundred years before, that's how it would have been, before the onslaught began and the peace on that peninsula was chased away for eight long months.

It feels like a real dislocation, to think of battle and pain and death on a sunny Waiheke beach - but the men who died at Gallipoli, and in so many other places during that war, and others, came from places like this, sat on beaches like this one, breathed the same air. They were just like me; but they answered the call, whether for nationalistic reasons or just for the adventure, and ended up wounded and dead, their blood soaking into foreign soil, never to see home again. Gone, like that footprint in the sand, when the tide comes back in. But not forgotten.

Tuesday 26 May 2015


Whether by nature, nurture or necessity - and probably all three - I'm an irredeemably frugal traveller. I'll always walk when I can, or take a bus if I have to, rather than a taxi, and stay in modest hotels, skimp on meals, and rarely go shopping. It's just the way I am. Fortunately for the travel industry, though, there are plenty of people who more than make up for my meanness. Right now I'm writing a series of NZ stories for a luxury travel magazine and the brief included the description of the specific market for this particular campaign. They're called Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, worth $30 million plus. "Money is no object," the brief tells me helpfully. "A couple can spend well in excess of $100,000 on a holiday."

Quite apart from the impossibility of getting my head around that figure - "in-country spend only" the brief clarifies - there's the moral issue here. How many people's eyesight could that much money restore? How many rhino protected from poachers? How much life-saving medical research funded? But let's be generous and assume that the fortunate owners of this "extreme wealth" assign a decent portion of their lucre to deserving causes, and are simply looking for a carefree and memorable holiday that includes plenty of experiences that money can't necessarily buy. Except, of course, it does. Yes, they could take a picnic to a beach in the Bay of Islands and do a bit of swimming and snorkelling - who hasn't done that? Except their version is to be whisked by helicopter to an uninhabited islet and unpack a 5-star gourmet package with the very best chilled Cloudy Bay or Kim Crawford to sip with it. Because they're rich, and they can.
The selling-point of places like Kauri Cliffs, or Blanket Bay, or Huka Lodge is that they charge from around several thousand dollars a night so that you can feel that the place is yours, and you can wander about making wishes that are granted as magically as if there were a fairy godmother on the premises rather than low-profile focused managers calling in all their local knowledge and know-how. The food is always 5-star, Pacific Rim fusion, using local produce and much of it grown on the property. There will always be an infinity pool, uninterrupted views of mountains, lake or sea, a ferny spa, a marble bathroom, quantities of stone, glass and timber, and helicopters at the ready. It's another world, really - or, a parallel one, with the same scenery and type of experience (fishing, hiking, biking, sleeping in a strange bed, your food cooked for you) but on another level entirely.

I know: I've been there. Not paying, naturally, but lapping up freebies at Blanket Bay, Matakauri Lodge, Treetops, Eichardt's... And they've been gorgeous, truly. But pay all that money? I'd rather save a rhino. (Though, if you're reading this, Eagle's Nest, I'm happy to come for a gander.)

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Me on TV

It's kind of disturbing, to see your fourteen year-old face flash up on the TV screen at random times throughout an evening's viewing - like being a former child star, maybe, when you're now a faded celebrity. Think Macaulay Culkin! But that's what happens, when you respond to a Twitter request for old photos to help celebrate Air New Zealand's 75th birthday. I sent this one in, a professional one with deckle edges, that was taken on my very first aeroplane experience, and they've used it in their retrospective ad.

Air NZ had, I think, a new plane, and were offering scenic flights over the Southern Alps, and my father shouted my older sister and me a joyride that lasted about an hour, all up. It was quite an occasion: I remember she was all dressed up, while I wore my old favourite hand-knitted blue jersey (which I've never been able to throw away and is still at the bottom of my drawer). It was thrilling to experience all that for the first time - and I've been a window person ever since - but if I'd known then that that was the just the first of what must be now hundreds of flights with a score or more different airlines all over the world, I would have popped with excitement.

I'm happy to be part of Air NZ's advertising: after a trip away, stepping aboard is always like coming home; and even just seeing the koru at an overseas airport will give me a warm and comforting glow. I don't think I'm alone in feeling connected to the airline in a way that I really doubt anyone does with British Airways, for example, or United. Qantas, maybe, though, for the Aussies (poor things).

And, just to underline the coincidence theme* that runs through these posts, I also appeared on TV recently in my 2015 incarnation, in the coverage of the Chunuk Bair service on Anzac Day. Please note how I'm almost the only one in the frame who is paying attention to the reading that Prince Harry is doing, instead of peering off to the side to see myself on the big screen. Pretty much just me, the hipster guy, tragic man and the girl who actually looks much more like Air NZ me than I do now.
* Also, Prince Harry is in NZ right now. We get about, he and I.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Teşekkür, Turkey

I wonder how many times now I’ve walked either up or down Istiklal Caddesi? It was the last time this morning, anyway, and it’s an achievement to have done it so many times and not to have tripped on the treacherous kerbing, fallen down the unexpected steps or been mown down by the old tram. I did see one young man with a broken nose, wandering along with his hands still in his pockets. Slow learner.

This morning’s focus was shopping, and with great determination we hit the Spice Market, the maze of streets behind, and then the Grand Bazaar. All sorts of things were bought from cheerful vendors – “Yes! Beautiful carpet? Just like you!” “Excuse me, yes? Bag? Carpet? Spice? Lamp? Jacket? Perfume?” “We have everything except customers…” “It’s all free!” but our main mission was to find again two particular stalls in the Grand Bazaar.
This was a challenge. The covered market covers 75 acres and comprises 3,000 stalls, most of them selling similar goods – and it’s not a grid system. It was more like an episode of The Amazing Race than anything else, with time ticking away and an amused audience of stall-holders beginning to recognise us. “Second time!” But, and you must recognise the achievement here, we found them both, and then, of course, were obliged by the effort involved, to buy. There was haggling, frowning, lip-biting, periods of silent consideration, sighing, much tapping of calculator keys but, in the end, they sold, we bought and all were satisfied.
As a reward for so much effort, we emerged at the top of the hill and went for an icecream. This is different in Turkey. Both the product itself, which is kind of chewy and needs constant working by the vendor presumably to prevent its turning into a solid mass, and the buying experience. It’s a thing, to make it an exercise in sleight-of-hand, and it’s real entertainment to watch the cone filled and then magicked out of the customer’s grasping hand over and over again. It’s very funny, though some of the little kids we watched didn’t much appreciate the joke, strangely.

And then that was it, for Turkey, for me. Tram, bus, plane, van, car and I was home again, and it was all over. Usually I’m pleased to get home but this time I was sorry. I had such a great time in Turkey. Gallipoli was so special, the Insight Vacations tour was so good, Barcin was a brilliant tour director, and Turkey itself was friendly, safe, interesting, historic, colourful and beautiful. And to have the Firstborn as my travel buddy for all of it was just the best.

Monday 4 May 2015

Making like a local

With what felt like half the population of Istanbul on this holiday weekend, we hit the ferries today, on an excursion out to the Princes Islands. They’re an archipelago in the Sea of Marmara, only four of the nine properly inhabited, and very popular with Istanbullus for day trips and as summer retreats. Pine trees, sandy beaches, hills, little towns of narrow cobbled streets between pretty Victorian villas, some smartly painted, others peeling picturesquely – what’s not to like? Especially as, big attraction for me, there are no private cars, and the main mode of transport is carts drawn by pairs of horses. (The Turkish name is fayton, which sounds exactly like phaeton, which is what they are.)

The main island is Büyükada and that’s where most people went, but we got off at the previous stop, Heybeliada, and were very glad we’d made that choice. For a start, it was much less crowded than the other turned out to be, and less touristy – but mainly it was just so pretty. The town is draped over the saddle between two wooded hills, one of them topped with an old monastery, and down at the waterfront there are cafés and restaurants looking cheerful with umbrellas and awnings, and there were small boys playing football, and dogs asleep everywhere, even in the middle of the road.

They were perfectly safe: the horse carts went around them, titupping along on their wooden shoes (a noise-pollution measure) as they took people and goods up and down the hilly streets. We had a 20 minute spin around, bumping around a circuit that passed a park busy with picnickers on the other side of the island, overtaking cyclists and pedestrians, brakes scraping and bell jingling as we went. Lovely!

Then we walked past the shops and homes and all the many cats up the hill to the monastery, where the gardener was tipping cabbages over the wall for the sheep and goats in one enclosure while hens scratched around the beds of tulips in front of the building and a most unexpected peacock displayed his tail to a frankly unimpressed rooster. There was a bride in frothy pink, with a bunch of balloons, posing for photos around the streets, old ladies in long coats and scarves plodded along, electric three-wheelers whined past laden with big shopping, and people sat drinking coffee, the thick and horrible Turkish version necessarily served in tiny cups with a glass of water to wash the taste away afterwards.

The ferry ride back was enlivened by the feeding of the gulls – an established custom with a simit (bagel) seller coming on board with his basket on his head, to sell the rolls to passengers. They then spent the journey leaning over the railings, holding out torn bits to the gulls gliding alongside in confident expectation of a feed. Which they got, either by snatching it from fingers or swooping to pick it up from the water. Lots of simple fun for both feeders and photographers.

There was more satisfying photography to play with that evening down at Galata Bridge where the fishermen’s rods made a thick fringe along both sides as the sun set and the mosques were lit up and the muezzins called. It felt very calming, to sit in the courtyard of the New Mosque watching the worshippers wash themselves (sometimes rather perfunctorily) before going inside to pray while their kids played around the cloisters and a full moon rose behind the minarets. I really do like Istanbul.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Street life

A city of 15 million will naturally seem crowded to someone who lives in one with a mere 1.5 million inhabitants, and nowhere is it more obvious than on the streets, which is where we spent most of our time today. The roads in Turkey are very good, but the pavements are crap. Full of holes and dips, with uneven pavers, crumbling kerbs, unexpected steps, sudden changes of level... you have to pay attention as you walk. A lot of the time we were actually on the road, trying to cross or to avoid a long detour around barriers. There are nominal zebra crossings, but they don't even bother to paint the stripes, they're just a different texture. Even that means nothing: Barçin repeatedly told us, "The Turkish are friendly, talkative, hospitable, but put them behind the wheel and they change." It's a concept Kiwis are familiar with.
So, keeping our wits about us, we walked to a shopping mall in the modern part of Istanbul, and, unimpressed, then transferred from the tour's fancy Renaissance Hotel to our more modest former hotel in the Old City, travelling by bus which meant creeping along choked roads at less than walking pace. Then we took  the funicular, and at the top dragged our cases across busy Taksim Square to the hotel, past a taxi organiser raging at a driver who had jumped the queue: shouting, thumping his fist on the bonnet, eyes flashing, teeth bared.

There was more drama opposite the hotel, as a gypsy family had a meltdown, the teenage girls stomping away, bawling, from their father who was shouting and lashing out, to the deep interest of the toddler in the family. They seem to live on the street, scraping some sort of living from selling packets of tissues, and begging. We saw lots of women begging today, holding babies, just sitting in busy places with their hands out. Or just sitting, looking miserable.
It's the May Day long weekend in Turkey and the streets were jammed - all the way down Istiklal Caddesi, to the tooting frustration of the old tram on that route, and across Galata Bridge with its thick fringe of fishing rods. We shuffled along the subway through to the heaving bus terminal and across the carpark of a road to the Spice Market and surrounds, where a solid mass of bodies choked the lanes and alleyways. Abandoning any idea of attempting the Grand Bazaar in these conditions, we fought our way back up again, fortified by an apple tea on a café terrace, serenaded by muezzins calling from the city's mosques, tooting car horns, roaring motorbikes, jangling tram bells and squealing wheels, people chattering and buskers up the hill playing clarinets, guitars, double bass, Pan pipes, a recorder, trumpet, violin, bagpipes, and singing.
Venturing out again for dinner, we were beset by restaurant touts on our cruise around the streets, and were finally snared by the clever Serdar at the Natural Grill House, who was funny, energetic, clever and hard-working. He spoke six languages and engaged instantly with passers-by, hooking, reeling in and landing group after group to fill his tables as we watched, totally entertained. Sitting down for a light meal of perhaps soup, we found ourselves persuaded to eat a delicious three-course dinner with beer, raqi and tea, using up all the cash we'd brought out with us, and not regretting it one bit. He was a star.

Saturday 2 May 2015

A,B,C,D - Avonside, Barcin, Cruise, Dinner

So a day that began with baklava for breakfast ended with a post-dinner hot chocolate and a chat about Miss McGahey, Miss Cree and Miss Moir with another AGHS old girl in a rooftop bar overlooking the Bosphorus. I take these things for granted now.

It was the last day of our Insight Vacations tour of Turkey, sadly. We did 2,850km on good roads, in a comfortable coach, with an excellent guide and saw so, so much that even though 10 days is nothing for such a huge country (especially with two of them spent at Gallipoli) I feel that I’ve got a good feel for the place now and can consider it properly visited, if not actually done.
Apart from the usual comfort stops and lunch at a service area (much pleasanter than it sounds), most of the day was spent driving from Ankara to Istanbul, listening to Barçin tell stories, or snoozing, or web-surfing – or, indeed, looking out of the window at farmland, forest, industry and suburbs. The first real event of the day was a Bosphorus cruise back to the Old City – yes, we did that before the tour began, but this was on a fancier boat and, really, you’d have to be a total curmudgeon not to enjoy looking again at castles and palaces, beautiful waterfront residences old and new (and all expensive – one recently sold for USD 125 million), tankers, ferries, fishing boats and launches, and crowds of people enjoying waterside restaurants.

The last thing today was our farewell dinner, all five Insight coaches together (there’s usually only one at a time on this route, but everything was different this time because of the Gallipoli centenary). It was jolly, the food was pretty good, and there were splendid 360-degree views right around from Galata Tower to the Suleymaniye Mosque as the sun lowered and set, before everything was lit up after dark. And finally there were drinks at the hotel’s rooftop bar, and goodbyes to all the nice Kiwis and Aussies we’ve got to know on this trip, some heading home, some on to further travels. It’s been a pleasure sharing their company. Thanks, Insight.

Friday 1 May 2015

Away, but not up, up

It was a conflicted sort of way to start the day. Leaping out of bed, having been woken by the unmistakeable guttural hiss of a hot air balloon's burners, I flung on some clothes and ran across the road and up the rocks opposite, to watch, both entranced and curdled with envy, at least 100 balloons (that's the good thing about balloons: you can count them) drift overhead in the first rays of sunshine. It was a marvellous sight, full of colour both from the rocks and the balloons, and the sheer number of them was astonishing. They were mostly pretty low, too, so I could clearly see the lucky sods in them, gazing around them in delight. It was a remarkable sight, really, and well worth getting the stitch.
Amazingly, they took about two hours to pass over (so there would have been time to put on underwear...) and as we were about to board our coach after breakfast, one of the last, very low, actually hit the powerlines right by the hotel and caused a flash - so maybe we weren't so unlucky after all.
Our first stop was one of my favourite things: watching pottery made. Especially when the potter is such an expert on the kick wheel, and can magic a complicated thing like a ring-shaped wine flask with spout, foot and handle in no time at all. Very impressive. So was all the work done in the Venessa Seramik factory, and I did get sucked into buying some decorated dishes, which I don't regret one bit. Beautiful stuff.
Then we left Cappadocia and had a long drive to Ankara, hearing more stories from Barcin about Turkish life and his own experiences of military service and marriage traditions. Interesting. We also learned more about Ataturk, in preparation for visiting his tomb at the Mausoleum, a deliberately huge and impressive building on a hill, where uniformed soldiers stood motionless and impassive as swarms of tourists posed for photos beside them.

Here too is the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, which sounds a bit dry but is full of quite fascinating things, most of it unbelievably old. Bronze Age urns, 3,000 years old but so well made I'd put one in my living room, divorce documents inscribed on pottery inside pottery envelopes, beautiful gold jewellery, sweet carved geese and much more, all inside a soaring and neatly-built building of brick domes. So much more rewarding than the Ankara Hilton, that had most on the coach in a bit of a buzz of anticipation, but which didn't live up to it at all.


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