Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Big Adventure - Christchurch Earthquake

24th December 2011

Three weeks ago the skies were blue as we flew into Christchurch and, as we descended for our landing, I was struck by how you could see the flat green Canterbury plains stretching out to the south of the city until they hit the high mountain ridge of the Southern Alps to the west, beyond which you could then glimpse the wide blue ocean again.

New Zealand's south island is effectively long but relatively narrow which makes crossing from one side to the other reasonably easy and offers up some spectacular mountain passes. All looked so beautiful and tranquil in that afternoon sunshine, but as we have travelled around New Zealand in these recent weeks, we have come to understand so much better what a volatile piece of land this country is. From its formation in ancient times when it broke from the supercontinent of Gondwanaland and drifted west across the ocean, was then almost submerged before rising again with the deep forces within this mighty planet of ours, New Zealand is a land under constant physical tension from the tectonic plates which grind and shift far far below it.

As we came to the end of our campervan adventure yesterday in Auckland, we learned of the earthquake which had again rocked the city of Christchurch in the south island, already damaged beyond repair in the massive earthquake of February this year. The doorman who greeted us at our hotel comes from Christchurch and had just confirmed with a telephone conversation that his family were all ok. He still owns a property down there and was just about to get his insurance hand-out from the February quake, but the new quake means it will have to be re-assessed and he will have to wait nearly another year before he may get some compensation.

The residents of Christchurch are tiring of the quakes - the fault line which no-one realised Christchurch had been built on until relatively recently. Many are moving south towards Dunedin, others are choosing to emigrate to Australia where wages are significantly higher for the blue collar worker.

Watching the news coverage this morning, there is something rather unGodly about the fact that this has happened so close to Christmas. Having suffered up to 15 aftershocks all through the night and now dealing with the liquefaction which happens after a quake (when liquid silt bubbles up from underground and floods the streets and houses), it surely must be testing their faith. Not such a Happy Christmas for those poor folk who, as they waded through the grey sludgy mess around the base of their Christmas trees, announced quite simply, in world-weary voices, how they are sick of it.

The financial and economic implications of the situation are of course obvious. It is a city truly in crisis.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Big Adventure - Bangkok, Thailand

'One night in Bangkok' as the song goes. Well, actually it was two...

Bangkok: big, busy, brash and boisterous. Less polluted than many Asian cities, despite the motorised three-wheel tuk-tuks, but also a little less exotic than we were expecting. The 'haves' and the 'have nots' juxtaposed as they so often are the further you travel east: smart high-rise next to low-rise shabby chaos; pockets of sophistication side by side with basic existence. A city, inevitably of contrasts; changing its identity, losing its identity? Who knows what the future holds for Bangkok with its population of 11 million (although many of whom are now moving out to the northern provinces to avoid the increasing risk of flooding). A city where tall neon towers light up with 'Long live the King and Queen' and where shrines bedecked with yellow flowers where incense gently burns sit side by side with temples of materialism such as shopping malls and fast food chains. A city in flux as globalisation sweeps the world.

We had just one full day to see the sights but were keen not to try and cram in too much. The humid heat was intense and exhausting and, of course, you need to wear appropriately modest clothing for the temples - especially the Grand Palace, the main tourist attraction in the city. All of this is not conducive to staying cool. After a hearty breakfast at the hotel - a feast of Asian, European, Indian, Japanese and Arabian choices - we squeezed into a pink metered taxi and headed to the older part of town, stopping at a temple (Wat Trimitri) on the way where a man took our photos without us knowing and slapped them onto badges which he then tried to flog us. They made me laugh, so I persuaded The Accountant to get his wallet out. Then another taxi, hailed easily on the street, to take us to the Grand Palace where we experienced our first ripp-off by an official-looking bloke who told us it was shut until 3.30pm and 'helpfully' suggested we take a tuk-tuk (which materialised miraculously by his side) to take us to the river to do a private trip on a long boat along the river and canals. This was all good fun until we arrived down some grotty back street and were met by some mate of his who was pleased to be asking an exhorbitant price (twice what we had been advised at the hotel), for the boat ride. Much negotiation from The Accountant ensued (you can imagine...). Got the price to something more like we were expecting and off we set.

We spotted an intriguing temple (Wat Arun) looking like a tiered wedding cake on the other side of the river and asked if we could pop off to see it. We were told we had five minutes, which was just enough to go and have a closer look. Back on the boat, the heavens duly opened and inadequate umbrellas were brought over to us as we sat getting soaked. The choppy brown river was a good metre higher than normal and, as we went down one of the back canals, we could see house after waterside house sadly ruined by the recent floods: abandoned terraces, once bedecked with flowers and chairs; confused cats climbing on roofs; pumps still pumping out gallons of water. As riverside home owners across the globe know, this is always the risk with waterfront locations, especially with our increasingly unpredictable climate. You take your chances.

The river was awash with broken greenery, sometimes with a flock of birds sitting smugly amongst it as they were swept effortlessly downstream. Colourful, golden temples sprung up from time to time amongst the riverside rhododendrons and the ramshackle abodes. Friends of the longboat owner came over in another boat to sell things - unspeakable tourist trash, of course, and cold beers. I was tempted by some colourful little elephants, but we went for the beers and it was suggested we get one for the 'driver' which we duly did. There gets to a certain point where resistance is hopeless...

At the end of our hour on the river, the longboat driver manoevred us swiftly and skilfully onto a wooden quayside where, in the surrounding alleyways, the floods had barely receded. We made our way through the quayside cafes onto a street packed on both sides of a wooden walkboard with stalls offering street food in all shapes and sizes - fried fish and other unrecognisable bits; thai curries; noodles; soup; sweet delicacies, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice...the choice was endless and enticing. We stopped at one with yellow table cloths over metal tables with faded pink plastic stools serving up the most delicious beef and noodle soup for about a quid as we watched the world go by. An elderly lady with a walnut-brown wrinkled face lay next to us on a delapidated old sunbed beside the pots and pans and the washing tubs having a nap in the heat of the day. Behind her a guard in smart grey uniform stood erect and stern in front of the gates to the naval academy.

Replete, we then walked the short distance back to the Palace only to be told by a more official looking gentleman than the previous one we'd dealt with that, at 3.30pm, it was now closed for the afternoon. We'd been truly had. So, resolving to get there the next morning instead (and to be honest, I was glad as I was suffering mightily with a bad cold I'd begun as we left the UK), we headed back to the river and waited for the next river boat to take us down to the overhead metro stop that we needed to take us back to within shouting distance of the hotel. The train was modern and efficient, packed with tourists, English language teachers, locals and the occasional serene-looking monk swathed in orange cloak. It was fascinating seeing Bangkok from on high, such as the green, elegant racecourse and golfcourse, which was otherwise hidden behind high walls from street level. We got off at Siam, the happening young shopping district of central Bangkok where a live band was pumping out music at an impossible volume and there were huge shopping malls boasting Vera Wang, Gucci, and so many other designer labels. From here we grabbed a tuk-tuk and as we settled down for the white-knuckle ride, I did think that we should have checked the price first. Sure enough he wanted 400 baht for having driven like a lunatic and done a U-turn in a hugely busy four-lane highway which had G turning pale and seeing her life flash before her eyes. (To put this in context, the air-conditioned taxi which took us to the Grand Palace that morning, about five times the distance, had cost just 70 baht.) More embarrassing arguments ensued with The Accountant, so in the end the girls and I just slipped quietly into the hotel and left them to it. It was going to run and run and the pool beckoned!

I had a fancy that evening for finding somewhere local to eat. We walked the long street outside the hotel in search of something typical until we gave up and took a taxi to somewhere the taxi driver recommended offering fresh fish specialities. Ten minutes or so later we stepped out into a minor horror show of strip lighting, fake flowers, fresh fish and over-attentive staff. A pretty good meal followed, however, of freshly fried calamares, prawn cakes, spring rolls and a couple of noodle and meat dishes. Too much food, of course, but all good, if a bit pricey (despite the decor). As we left, the French couple next to us were busily disputing the bill (having ill-adviseably chosen lobster) and declaring it the most expensive meal they'd ever had in Bangkok and that they weren't going to pay...(would love to have seen the outcome of that one - probably ended up in one of the tanks with the lobsters in question...).

And so we finally made it to the Grand Palace the next day as the sun shone out of a blue sky, sweltering in head to toe trousers and shirts, but in awe of the buildings we encountered. Gleaming gold rooves, sparkling mirrored and coloured glass mosaics, exquisite wall paintings, shaded collonades, green expanses of lawn - a pristine, eye-opening spectacle of Thai history, authority and opulence. Not to be missed.

On the way back, we dropped into the flower market - a wonderfully heady mixture of flowers and vegetables, Bangkok at its teeming, honest best. Thence a quick cool off and lunch beside the pool at the hotel before taking our taxi to the modern splendour of Bangkok airport - an airy, light-filled glass and metal construction putting Heathrow and Gatwick to shame - and as the golden sun set on Bangkok our plane wings reached up into the wide blue yonder and bore us off into the night and the next destination on our Big Adventure.

Bangkok Highlights:-

Street food
Grand Palace
Low life, High Life, River Life, Street life
Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks side by side with bright yellow flower-bedecked street shrines
Neon signs saying 'Long live the King and Queen'
Poverty, wealth
Materialism, buddhism
A city changing its identity, or losing its identity?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Big Adventure

Years ago N and I talked of how one day, were we to get married and have children, we would love to bob around the Mediterranean on a boat with the children for a year. The idea was inspired by a family we came across one evening on a beach in Rhodes over two decades ago. There was a yacht moored out in the bay on a milky evening as the beach was emptying. A small dinghy was launched from the boat and as it came towards shore we saw three little blond heads rowing their way towards the sand. They were sun-tanned and sun-kissed on that golden evening and we learnt that their father was retired from the RAF and they were taking a year out just sailing around the Med. I held that idea in my head for all these years, urging N to take some time out so we could do something similar with our three girls before it was too late.

I persuaded him to pencil some extended time out in his diary just over a year ago, he having decided that December and Christmas was the best time for him to be absent from the office. And then I held my breath. I kept waiting for the excuses to start, for this special time to be eroded by the pressures of work. Sure enough he came back from our summer holiday (having worked almost every day of it) and declared that it would be much better for him to take the time out next year rather than this. I said no. It was now or never. Next year wouldn't work for the girls, because of educational commitments, and that it was going to get even more difficult the year after that. I was quite forceful and said a whole lot of other stuff too about perspectives and priorities, health and happiness. I didn't think it would make any difference. Yet he went to work the following day and came back with provisional flights booked with Trailfinders. So something I said must have hit home.

The next few weeks was spent finalising hotel accommodation and other bits and pieces - and now here we are: bags packed, taxi to the airport on its way. Our plans may have morphed over time from a year out, to six months, to three months to six weeks - but we're finally off to the other side of the world on our Big Adventure. We're heading to New Zealand, via Bangkok and Sydney, for some fabulous new experiences and, perhaps most importantly, precious time together as a family.

Can't wait!

Sunday 27th November 2011

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