Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Qatar famil, Day One - It actually really was the business!

With thanks to Qatar Airways for this trip
Normally, when you turn up to the airport to start a famil, and there's a hiccup at the check-in desk, it's not a good start - but today it really was. Arriving a bit grumpily for my flight with Qatar Airways to Doha, resigned after having had the golden enticement of travelling in the airline's new and enticing QSuite business class whisked away in a brief email just yesterday, I stood in the queue for ordinary business class and tried to remember to be grateful for that. And straight away, payback! A Qatar lady pulled me out of even that short queue to deliver the news that yes, in fact this was a plane with QSuite fitted, come and check in over here, and get your pass to the lounge. Result!

It was only the Qantas lounge, but it had everything I needed, I met my two other famil companions, one of whom was at school with my daughters - no, I don't feel old, why do you ask - and after some useful charging time (new camera!) we were escorted onto the plane ahead of the other passengers, to have a quick once-over. 
For the airline of a dry country, there was a lot of wine. The colour, that is, which combined with grey, gave a muted and sophisticated air to the décor. A glance back down the plane at economy showed rows of seats in 3:4:3 on this Boeing 777 - very standard, nothing enticing about that. But QSuite - now that is the business. 
Single seats on the sides, alternately rear-facing; and in the middle, what they understandably boast about: sets of four seats that, with some sliding of partitions, means that you can sit facing each other to work or socialise, in virtual privacy thanks to the doors that slide across along the aisles. Clever. And yet everyone in the foursome still has their own space, TV screen and multiple stowage places, and the option when desired to pull the screens back across again for total isolation. Even more remarkably, it's possible to create an actual double bed in one half of the quartet - the only one in the world outside actual first class. (This does not enable a cushy entry to the Mile High Club, note: you're both still meant to wear your seatbelts at all times; and the walls are only chest-high, so anyone can peep over, any time.)
Of course I didn't want any of that, so I had a window seat, facing backwards for a novelty - which I then had to give up for someone who wanted to sit alongside her friends, pft, and ended up sitting facing forwards and not quite next to the window, though I could see out of it if I leaned over a bit. Still, there were lots of good things to explore and enjoy - multiple seat positions, lots of nooks for gear stowage, a cute little pillow with a slogan in Arabic and English which I was told I could take with me, a set of pyjamas to change into - tracksuit, basically, but stylish - food and wine menus to peruse, the TV entertainment library to scroll through... and cheerful Sun welcoming me, leaping forward with a cry of dismay when I went to load my bag into the overhead locker by myself, and then delivering a Buck's Fizz. (Though Qatar is officially dry, you can get alcohol on the airline, and in some restaurants and hotels, and expats can buy it from the one liquor store in Doha - and they certainly aren't stingy about it on the airline).
And so we set off for our 17+ hour flight to Qatar, most of it spent crossing Australia's red and hazy Outback, and then the Indian Ocean. I ate early - asparagus soup, mezze, a spicy chicken rice dish, with champagne - got into my pjs, broke out the mattress and the plush blanket, and settled in to watch four movies and sleep, Which I did, lying completely flat and comfortable. I've had similar pod comforts on Emirates, but the sliding door is the big difference, and a very welcome one too, adding mental comfort to the physical. I really like to get into my own zone when I fly, even with a companion, and this made it literal.

We arrived at Doha in the middle of a very warm night, and were whisked through the special system they offer, which means being met off the plane and taken to a lounge while checked-in baggage is collected for you, bypassing queues for customs and immigration (we'd had the same back in Auckland), and then being escorted out to our taxi. Very smooth operation, and so lovely to skip the queues.

We did have a bit of a transport hiccup at this point, but it was soon sorted and we drove into the city along a wide, new motorway, lit by streetlights with decorative solar-powered patterning up the poles. The city was lit up too, in all colours, the buildings modern and soaring, all shapes, heaps of glittery glass and the overall effect very 21st century, and attractive.
We checked into Hotel W, all very upper and comfortable, and finally hit our soft beds at around 1.30am local time, after about 20 hours of travel. Tough life...

Monday, 29 April 2019

That's (not) the business...

I have deliberately done something out of the ordinary, for me. It's an experiment, a bold step into the unknown. Actually, it's exactly the opposite: a well-prepared step into the completely known, thanks to research (by which I mean Google). What I am currently doing - brace yourself, regular 😃 reader - is finding out about my destination before I go there.  I KNOW!!! Crazy.

Tomorrow I flit off to Qatar for a couple of days. Literally, a couple of days. Auckland to Doha is 17 hours, which is currently the longest commercial flight-time available (equalling Singapore to Newark, Sydney to London), so my total time in the air will be not far behind my total time on the ground. Who would want to wreck the climate and kill polar bears for that, you ask? As well as inflicting jetlag on myself for what will probably be about ten times longer? 

Someone who's been offered Qatar Airways QSuite business class for free, that's who. QSuite? Otherwise known as First in Business - the nearest, I am confident, that I will ever get in my life to your actual, fabled First Class. Try to imagine the vast amount of personal space, the interesting configurations (backwards-facing! Foursomes!), plush duvets, privacy, DOORS! As well as all the fancy food and drinks that are standard with such luxury. All a bit thrilling, and in my view worth the ridiculousness of flying so far for such a short visit - because this time, it really is all about the journey.
Or was. Ten minutes ago I got an email from the PR lady organising it all to say, er, sorry, it turns out they haven't actually been able to organise a QSuite plane for this one flight after all, so we'll have to slum it in business class. But, she added brightly, when Qatar Airways it begins its regular QSuite service to NZ in June, I can always go out to the airport then and have a look at it while it's between flights. 

Pft. Of course I acknowledge here the first-worldness of being disappointed that my free flight will now be only in regular business class - but, heck! That was the whole point of the exercise, dammit. I mean, look at what I'm going to have to put up with tomorrow: big seats, expensive toiletries, complimentary pyjamas, lie-flat, food on demand - for goodness sake, I might just as well be flying Emirates! 

So that's taken the shine off the trip, truly. Sigh. But what I started this post by talking about will still apply - instead of dropping into the unknown, as I usually do, where everything is a discovery and (mostly) a delight, I have genned up on what to expect. I've seen all the classic views of the city, read all about the history, the culture, the politics, the food, the geography. I know what not to miss, as well as what to miss, I know about the climate and, forewarned about the conservative dress, spent literally hours yesterday working through my wardrobe trying to assemble outfits that will cope with the blast of desert heat as well as the equal but opposite blast of indoor air-conditioning, and at the same time meet the requirement to keep my shoulders, upper arms and most of my legs under cover. Not easy, I promise you, and there is going to be discomfort, guaranteed.

I will be able to ask informed questions of my guides, and to recognise where I am much of the time. It will be all about Ah! Yes, instead of Ooh! Look! 

Will it be a better way to travel? I'm suspecting not, to be honest; but I'll let you know. Now I must go and brace myself for the rigours of 17 hours of standard business class tomorrow. I will not be holding my breath for sympathy from one single soul.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Remembering the war - with added guns

Anzac Day has been a bit different this year. Six weeks on from the Christchurch terror attack, the national security level has only just been reduced to medium, and there were still sufficient concerns about public safety that nearly 60 services around the country were cancelled because the police would be spread too thinly. It wasn't a popular decision. There were objections, and disappointment, and mutterings about disobedience.

Fortunately, here on Waiheke our little services - at dawn, and the 11am one - were allowed to go ahead, presumably because being an island makes it a less practical place to plan an attack. Even so, it was a sobering sight to see at least half a dozen policemen, with pistols in holsters on their hips and semi-automatics in their hands, positioned around the perimeter. That's a sight we're not used to seeing in New Zealand, and we all fervently hope will never become routine.
There was one advantage to there being fewer services around the city, and country, than usual: we got a flypast for once. A Hercules clattered overhead before the service, and afterwards we had the thrill of seeing two Spitfires roar over, followed by five planes in formation trailing smoke. For an airman's daughter, it was an especially fine sight.
The service was respectful and sincere, and endearingly clunky here and there (the accompaniment was too fast for us to keep up with in Abide With Me) but for me its main value was in taking me back to Gallipoli in 2015 - to the crowds, the cold and dark, the ships out in the bay, the lights on the monuments, and on the towering rock behind called The Sphinx, the music and the silence, the dawn. It was very special. But I don't need an annual Anzac service to remind me: the beach in the cove where the troops landed and were stranded for so long is pebbled. The waves washing gently in and out there make a very particular sound. Our bay down the track from the house is pebbly too, and when I'm standing there hearing the sea lapping in, it brings it back, every time: standing there in Anzac Cove, in the sun, with the sea blue and sparkling, the headstones in neat lines just up from the beach, the tents and fencing behind erected for the centenary. 

I was lucky to be there, then, and not a hundred years earlier.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Good news is no news - also, probably tempting fate now


I've just written an editorial about how nobody's interested in hearing about your holiday unless it was a disaster. It's true, isn't it? How was your holiday? Lovely. And that's the end of the conversation. None of those supplementary questions I used to coach my kids to ask of their friends' parents when they were playing in their houses, in order to look intelligent/ingratiate themselves. The only people who have the slightest interest in your trip are those who have just been, or are about to go, to the same place, so it's all entirely selfish - especially the first group, who just want to be able to reassure themselves that they had the better time.

Disasters, though. I've had a few - too many, in fact, to fit into 300 words. It was quite fun to recall them. Stand by.

Dislocating my shoulder by jumping off a moving boat in the Norfolk Broads. Falling off a staircase on Waiheke, knocking myself out and breaking my wrist. Tripping and falling down a flight of stone steps at the Red Fort in Delhi, hitting my head (again - explains a lot). Falling into the Tongariro River thirty seconds after setting off on a white-water rafting expedition. Falling over twice on a glacier in Iceland and whacking the same knee each time. Missing the train in Alice Springs and, out of money, having to subsist on a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter for three days till the next one. Getting mugged in Santiago, by having my antique gold chain snatched from my neck from behind by invisible ratbags. Having a man expose himself to me on the street at night in Brisbane as I waited for a bus. Watching my camera cartwheel down a rocky hillside on the Isle of Skye. Dropping a speeding Segway wheel into a pothole in Queenstown and falling off. Being dumped by a wave on Waiheke on two separate occasions and losing my glasses in the surf. Having my husband whisked away by airport authorities and waiting alone for him for half an hour in Moscow. Having to wade thigh-deep through freezing water along the flooded Milford Track. Being followed down a tunnel to an underground market in Delhi by a one-legged, long-haired beggar who was just a creepy silhouette against the light. Having the expedition ship I was on shudder to a halt as it ran aground on a rock. Breaking an arm off my glasses by sleeping on them on a plane and having to wear them like lorgnettes for half a holiday in France. Riding a horse in a bikini (me, not the horse) in South Australia through a shoulder-high thicket of spider webs. Flushing my hire car keys down a public loo in Brisbane, leaving me stranded at night with no money or phone.
There are doubtless more, that I've blotted out of my memory. Still, that's a good enough list to enable shameless name-dropping. Which is what it's all about, really, when you're back from travelling, isn't it? And probably why nobody else (see above) is interested. So what a good thing it is that I'm a travel writer, and get to describe all my trips in great detail, and even get paid [a pittance] for it. Funny, though, isn't it, how there's a call for travel stories in newspapers and magazines, but in person no-one's bothered? Or maybe it's just me...

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Takk, Benedikt Erlingsson

Yesterday I watched 'Woman at War' - a movie made in Iceland, about Halla who is a lone eco-warrior, fighting Rio Tinto. She's resourceful, brave, careful and determined, and a perfect inspirational Waiheke heroine, fighting Big Aluminium and never giving up. 
But I, of course, watched it for the locations. As soon as I saw the trailer, I wanted to see the movie and get a taste again of the five days I spent in Iceland. getting on for a year ago now. And I wasn't disappointed: there was Reykjavik's iconic Hallgrimskirkja, the concrete church on the hill that dominates the skyline. There were the colourful corrugated-iron houses and the narrow hilly streets that I happily trailed around for hours.
There was a scene at þingvellir (Thingvellir, to you non-linguists unfamiliar with thorn) on the path beneath the cliff, with the flag flying. I walked along there. All tourists do.
But most of the exterior action took place in the lava fields: vast expanses of mossy rocks surrounding the volcanoes, and how bleak they did look. I was there in summer, when the sun actually shone occasionally (for the first time for six weeks) and the moss was green-gold under a sometimes blue sky, the grass was lush, and everywhere were sheets of purple lupins. This movie though was filmed in autumn or maybe spring, when the sky was grey, the days short, the light muted, and there were no colours. It looked sternly inhospitable country. Still striking, though, with steaming rivers and distant mountains, glaciers, and a big, big sky.
It was so pleasing to see it all again, to hear that incomprehensible language being spoken, recognise a few words, see those tall, well-built people, and remember so clearly the triumph of actually getting to go there.
And the movie was funny, quirky, serious, sweet, clever and unusual. I recommend it.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Notre Dame du Monde

I happened to wake very early this morning, and reached out, of course, for my phone, to find out what had happened overnight. And learned that something awful was still happening, in fact - the fire in Notre Dame had only just taken hold, and I was getting tweets and newsflashes that updated me almost instantly with every new, and horrifying, stage of the inferno. I saw that beautiful lacy wooden spire tip, drop and disappear into the flames. I saw the roof collapse. I saw the flames leaping high from the body of the cathedral, and the smoke billowing around the bell towers. And I watched as Parisians stood across the river, and sang hymns together facing the fire still burning in their beautiful old cathedral.
Then I had to write a piece about it for Stuff, so I looked up my old notebooks, delved deep into my photo files, even looked at actual photos dating back to 1978 when I visited Paris for the first time. Enough memory came back for 600 words' worth, and I sent it off, and it was uploaded straight away, in a time-sensitive process that gave me a tiny inkling of how my life might have been as a real journalist. Except, the editor cut the first sentence that - of course - I thought introduced the main idea of the piece. Maybe, though, she just doesn't know French - or reckons the readers don't.
'Notre Dame: the name says it all' was how it should have begun. The point I was hoping to make was that a fire in a cathedral in a country on the other side of the world isn't the remote and irrelevant event that that description implies. The grand buildings of the world belong to us all, enrich us all, whether (ideally) we get to see them in person, or not. They're all ours - Notre Dame, Westminster, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Capitol, the Blue Mosque and all the very many others we are so lucky to have scattered all over the planet. Whatever our nationality, our culture, even our religion, or lack of it, these buildings are part of our heritage as members of homo sapiens (not actually so sure about the sapiens bit these days). We can all recognise the beauty and stateliness of these buildings, and the impressiveness of their design, construction and decoration. We can all take simple human pride in their existence, wherever they are. And we should all be sad when they are damaged. 
Notre Dame has not been destroyed, thank goodness. It will be back, eventually, and look just as good. It's heart-breaking to see it now, and so sad that the fire happened at all, through probably what will turn out to be sheer carelessness or stupidity. But we haven't lost it. 

This photo was something else that didn't make it into the story: too frivolous, perhaps? It makes me hope that the day is not too distant when people can play with the cathedral like this again.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Umm...

I've been revisiting Australia. Not in person, you understand, but through the media of my notebooks and photos, and, to a much lesser extent, my memory. The impetus for this was a call from one of my editors for content to fill an Aussie-special issue coming up. "I can do that!" I thought. "I've been there so often, I've used it up! I've been everywhere!"
And (referring you here to the title of this blog), that's no way an exaggeration. I've been sent there for work many times, all over the continent, from the Tiwi Islands to Tasmania, from Ningaloo to the Great Barrier Reef. So you'd think coming up with story material would be a piece of cake. But - you'll have guessed this already - it wasn't. See, the thing is, you forget, don't you? Stuff merges, or evaporates entirely, and flicking through the notes and the pics is almost a revelation: Oh, yeah, that camel ride! The beanie festival! Boab trees! All those bats!
Maybe this is why those pedestrian types keep going back to the Gold Coast every year: because the detail slips out of their memories within weeks of getting back home, and all they remember is that they had a good time. So they're like my old grandmother, who had a pile of Agatha Christies by her bed that she just read one after the other, instantly forgetting each plot so that it was fresh next time she got to it.
That's fine for them, but what about me? I've been to so many amazing places that I'll never get back to, and it's all disappearing. Yes, yes, I'm getting old, I can't even remember where I left my phone or what was on the shopping list I forgot to take to the supermarket with me; but this is serious!
Is this why people have latched onto Instagram with such fervid zeal? Is it not really so much about impressing their friends, as compiling a file of memory aids? And writing blogs, ditto? A propos of which, it's a marvel to me that Moleskine (WHY that final e? Drives me crazy!) maintains such a presence in fancy stationery shops. People may buy those elegant notebooks with great intentions, but I've never seen anyone writing in one - whereas me, with my trusty Back to School-5c-special 3B1s, I'm jotting stuff down all the time.
Because I'm doing it on the run, though, they're untidy and scribbled, and full of destination-specific abbreviations that seem so obvious to me at the time, and which are totally unintelligible when I'm trying to decipher them back home again. I'm never going to sit down with one and read it like a book. Equally, I'm not going to set my editing program to Slideshow and just lie back to watch - mainly because I take so many photos that whittling them down back home is just too daunting a job and so I lazily just file them all away, with the result that the good stuff is smothered by all the crap shots. (Speaking of which, have you ever seen a professional photographer at work and noticed HOW MANY shots they take, constantly referring to their screens to review them? Maybe they're checking their histograms, but it still looks to me as though they're winging it. Shouldn't they know what settings to use?)
And there's another downside to fading travel memories: now and then, when my brain's in neutral (so, quite often, actually) I'll get a sudden vivid impression of somewhere I've been - a town square, a castle, some lookout - and it'll drive me crazy for ages trying to remember where it was. Lisbon? Regensburg? Santiago? Honestly, the choice is so wide and the memory so tenuous, quite often I never get to the answer.
What's the solution? Don't go to so many places? Yeah, right. Only go to strikingly individual places, like Antarctica or Easter Island? Take clearer notes? Do memory-improvement exercises? Or just shrug and accept the loss and the drawing-in of the borders? Cripes. Depressing, much?

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