Tuesday 1 December 2009

What have we been doing?

It's rather difficult to explain what we have been doing, but it's very relevant to our RTW travel plans, so I will have to try. We have been buying a house in London.

In September, we went to London and settled down in the flat of a friend who was away for a month. He has a nice, central location in Bloomsbury, as near everything as you can get in London. But we weren't really there for the attractions of London. We immediately started going round agencies and looking at as many houses as possible. We established that in Bloomsbury we can afford a studio flat, and in Camden, which we would have quite liked, we can afford a one-bedroom flat. Moving further afield, out into transport zone 3, there are many areas where we can afford two-bedroom flats. We must have seen over 40 places in a week. Most of them had plenty wrong with them. We even toyed with the idea of (somehow) increasing our budget and looked at more expensive places, but they all had something wrong with them as well. After ten days we had so had enough of looking at houses, but I suppose we should be grateful that there are so many houses to look at in London.

Eventually, we discovered Stratford, in London's East End. Stratford is just in zone 3, but it is, shall we way, under-developed. And under-priced. At least we hope so. In Stratford, we can afford a (tiny) three-bedroom house all to ourselves. Three bedrooms is good for us, because it allows us an office room. We saw a few houses, most of which needed a lot of work, and then suddenly, we found the perfect house. It was all done up just how we would have done it, but with a bit of potential for additions if we feel inclined. It needs nothing done. It has a wonderful little garden and it's in a lovely street with a public garden opposite. At the moment it's a bit far from transport, but a new station is opening right at the end of the street in about a year. What can I say? We bought it. At least we are buying it, and hopefully it will be ours on Monday!

And what has this to do with the RTW travel plans? Having a place in London has always been a dream of ours, and now we've got one, we're going to want to live in it, right? Well..., maybe in a couple of years. In the meantime, its role is to contribute to financing our wanderings by getting itself rented out. Consequently, we are not out of the woods. On Sunday I begin another long drive up through the continent with a car full of miscellaneous stuff. I have to get into the house, start making sure it has the maintenance it needs, the furniture it needs, the inspections it needs, and an agent to take care of it for us. I rather suspect this trip is going to be a bit of a pain, but it must be done. I'm on my own, because my two are currently doing their Annual Thanksgiving Tour of the east coast family in the US. They'll be joining me about a week and a half after I arrive. We'll obviously spend most of Christmas at the new house while we're at it, so we get a bit more of London. I'll try to write more about London soon.

Is this house-in-London business a good idea? Well, I hope so, obviously. It has some major advantages: we now have a house in London, and a nice one at that; it sure won't be easy for us to spend our savings now that they're in the form of bricks, and that's good too. Still, those are not travel-related advantages, and I know that many who travel find their homes and possessions to be more of a liability than anything. I am hoping that this house will more or less take care of itself, and make some money for us, but we shall have to see.

Saturday 22 August 2009

The end of Holland

On Monday we got up, tried to wait for the dew to dry off the tent, gave up, and headed over to Vierhouten to collect Mike. After driving across the 30km dike through the Ijsselmeer, we were no longer in Holland, but still in the Netherlands. Mike's campsite was in a field by a lake, in the middle of thick woods. Although everyone else was packing up, Mike assured us we could stay there that night, so we set up the wet tent, then went to play in the lake and I went for a walk in the woods.

After I got back, we loaded the tent on top of a car and drove it to another field, where apparently, we really could stay for the night. We didn't unload it because this field was full of things laid out on the floor that people were trying to put away. Some time later, I discovered a field where people really did seem to be sleeping for the night, so we drove the tent over there.

At 6:30 am, we got up and began driving. We had two very full cars, which Mike and his friend insisted should stay together. I must admit that I don' t think much of this process. On the one hand, the fact that looking around to see if your friend is still behind you, or making sure you keep up with him is a distraction from the important things one should pay attention to while driving. For another, everything takes so much longer: you get to share in each other's navigational mistakes, stop each time the other needs to fill up the car whether you do or not, stop each time the other needs a rest or some food or to mess around with their car, whether you do or not. Sure enough, we were on the road for 16 hours (but only actually driving for about 10 of them). That's a nice solid one hour break for every two hours of driving!

I couldn't help feeling we could have been a bit more organised. Still, this is the first trip on which Antonia and I successfully kept up with her homeschooling and on which I successfully kept accounts. As a trial run for taking travel more seriously, that wasn't too bad.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Heron watching

Every evening, Antonia and I check to see if 'our' heron is fishing on our campsite again. This time it was back, and we got one shot of it catching a fish.

Antonia says that shortly after this, she was down by the canal in the twilight, and the heron accidentally flew into her. It's beak grazed her knee and she was able to touch its feathers for a few seconds.

Windmills in the poulders

I wanted to see some old-fashioned Dutch windmills without the bother of going to a big museum like the Zaanse Schans. Although I have the best memories of the Zeiderzee museum, I just didn't feel I had the energy for another big day like that. So I just picked a place on the map that had lots of windmill icons drawn on it - it turned out to be the village of Schermerhorn - and went there. We wandered around for a while photographing windmills, and disovered that one was a small, and pleasantly inexpensive museum. When we got in, we found that this was the kind of windmill that pumps water by turning an Archimedes screw. Just what I had wanted to see! The lower floor of the windmill was also done up with old Dutch furnishings: cupboard beds and stoves of the kind we saw at Zeiderzee.

What was great about this little museum was that there were hardly any barriers to stop you getting really close to things. When they didn't want you to touch parts of the machinery, they put up a sign with a skull and crossbones instead! It seemed quite dangerous enough without that warning. At first I wondered why people only lived in the lower room of the tower. As the wind picked up speed and the whole structure started shaking and creaking, I had my answer. The machinery itself was so close and so simple that even Antonia, who is not very mechanically minded, was interested in examining it and figured out how it works. As we arrived late, we got to watch the guy put the mill away for the night. We learned that the big brake lever we had observed at the very top of the mill is operated from a rope hanging down outside the mill all the way to the ground. As each sail reached the ground, he stopped the mill, fastened the sheet up, then started the mill for another quarter turn.

We drove away along extremely narrow roads on the tops of dikes through the north of the ancient Beemster poulder area.

North Holland Beach Day

We absolutely had to have a beach day. Having seen quite a bit of the Ijsselmeer side of North Holland, I decided to drive across the peninsula to look at the North Sea beaches. We started off in beautiful, sunny weather, quite optimistic about our chances of getting into swimsuits. By the time we got to the line of sand dunes that mark the coast, we were glad that we were keeping our sweaters and coats in the car. It really felt as if these dunes were holding back, not just the sea, but the clouds and rain as well - whilst amplifying the wind that keeps Holland's wind turbines going. The weather conditions didn't stop scantily clad Dutch people from enjoying their day at the seaside.

I actually prefer my beaches to be on the bracing side, so I was well served. We walked along a few kilometres of sand, beachcombing. Eventually, we found lots of washed up bright blue jellyfish, which we spent a pleasant half hour examining and dissecting. This made the day for Antonia the naturalist. We also found cuttlefish bones and miscellaneous shells, before retiring back to our car for hot drinks. As soon as we drove away from the coast, it was sunny again!

Antonia faces up to the wind, while Penny discovers yet another use for the spare tee-shirt - turn it into an impromptu headscarf to stop hair blowing around.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Instant Amsterdam

I think we should have set off a bit earlier this morning, because by the time we got to Amsterdam Centraal, Antonia was starving and tire, and when she's starving and tired she's basically a dead weight. I had to quickly decide that the 'hop on hop off canal bus' would solve our problems. Obviously, it costs a bit of money, but that sort of thing has proved an effective means of dealing with big cities and a child before. As it turned out, Antonia found even the loudness of the commentary in the first bus pretty tough. We got off at the first stop, the Anne Frank house, and headed into town, looking for somewhere to eat. Sara's Pancake House seemed like a good bet, since Dutch pancakes were on my list of things for us to try. It has the atmosphere of a greasy spoon, so if the prices are anything to go by, Amsterdam must be pretty expensive. I doubt this is supposed to be an expensive place, since it seems to be patronized by parents with uncontrollable children. There were three individual tantrums whilst we were there. Out of justice to our host country, I have to say that none of them involved Dutch children (or mine).

Feeling slightly refreshed, we decided to walk across town taking silly pictures, catch the canal bus at the other side, then ride around on boats for the rest of the afternoon. I didn't think it was worth attempting any museums with Antonia so tired, and we probably would have been short of time anyway.

The Palace Square - our silly pictures were rather successful

The Red Light District

I had been sort of nervous about taking a small kid round Amsterdam, because I didn't really know where the red light district was. I thought I would prefer to avoid it, and the questions that might go with it. Well, I did not succeed in avoiding it, and all I can say is that the capacity of children for ignoring things they feel don't concern them is phenomenal. My kid notices nature and sculpture. Twitching red curtains with lingeried ladies were lost on her, as was the irony of coffee shops stinking of pot, only two buildings away from the police station. I thought she might have noticed the 'Condomerie' with its very decorative novelty condoms ... but no! She walked past all those things. Yet, when we came to the sculpture below, she positively pounced towards it. It is an homage to the 'ladies' of Amsterdam. Needless to say, she has no idea.

The posher bits

We eventually found our way to the parts of Amsterdam that grandma would reccommend and got back on our boat, not without purchasing a child's size of indispensible yellow fluffy clogs along the way.

In the end, we were both exhausted, but I felt that I had barely got a feel of Amsterdam. Maybe just enough to know my way around the next time I come.

Friday 14 August 2009

Canoeing on Dutch waterways

We finally got a nice day and got hold of the canoes rented out by our campsite. The actual campsite looks a bit like a Little Venice, and backs onto a recreational wood. Very pretty, but we got the biggest thrills out of navigating under the main railway to Amsterdam and the A7 motorway, around the base of a modern electricity-producing windmill, and through the village of Berkhout. Also, the water is filled with many objects of great interest, such as several kinds of flowers, an enormous dead fish, a bloated dead water rat, and boats of varying shapes and conditions.

We tried to make a loop back round to the windmills, but found ourselves in a dead end canal - with a pub at the end of it. We tied up our boat using Antonia's shirt, since they hadn't provided us with a rope.

After an ice cream and a glass of white wine, we set off on the long paddle back round to the campsite, fortunately traveling mainly downwind. I had no idea a canoe could be pushed around by the wind so much, especially at canal intersections. Antonia has never done any canoeing before, so at first her strokes didn't achieve much, but after five hours, she was really very good at it. She worked in bursts, but she was effective help, especially against a crosswind. I was grateful for this - I don't know how many kilometres we did, but it was a lot, and I was almost too exhausted to stand up all evening.

Zeiderzee museum

What to do on a rainy day in Holland? Maybe go to an outdoor museum? Fortunately, it didn't rain hard, it only drizzled on an off all day! The Zeiderzee Museum inEnkhuizen is a collection of reconstructed old houses from various parts of Holland, with original landscaping, furnishings and workshops. It's a place for seeing how people used to live and how they carried out traditional crafts. It's a bit on the expensive side (30 Euros for a family + a 5 Euro parking charge), but you know you've got your money's worth when a museum offers far more than you can really take in. Plus, you get to ride there in a boat past the beautiful ships in the harbour of Enkhuizen.

The musuem also has some contemporary art, which we always quite like in our family. Some of it has got a little weather beaten. This poor man was part of a row of 50 mannequins on which a fashion designer had gone to town. They are supposed to evoke the wait for the return of the fishing boats:

We liked the fibre glass house with sea view, though it had a slightly abandoned feel:

The museum is divided into several villages which give what I call "an impressive impression of industriousness". You get the feeling that the Dutch were always constructing clever gadgets with gears and winches and working hard, so much so that I was feeling quite guilty by the end of the day. The inside of most of the houses was quite small and basic: beds in cupboards and a table and a few chairs in front of the stove. The gardens were filled with rows of cabbages and the meadows with geese or goats. It does seem very convenient to have water all round the fields, as I expect the animals mostly stay where they're put. It seems as though every kind of craft workshop and proto-industrial building you can imagine has been reconstructed, from the sailmaker's to a laundry powered by a steam engine. Although very practical, the museum villages are also very pretty, and in this day and age they have a number of pleasant canal-side cafes as well.

Of the crafts on offer, Antonia was a slightly shy learner of net-making and a very enthusiastic maker of her own rope ('Can we go to the rope-making now? Pleeeaaase? What about now?'):

Mike learned what the paddles on the sides of so many of the boats are for. Instead of having a permanent central keel, the boats lower one of these paddles on the side towards the wind. A sailing boat needs a keel to stop it being pushed sideways by the wind. I didn't ask why this system developed, but it may be because a lot of the water here is quite shallow and a permanent keel would be likely to scrape the bottom.

He also ate an eel sandwich and liked it! Meanwhile, I developed a strange aesthetic fascination with hanging fish that I wouldn't eat if you paid me!

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Edam and Hoorn

It's only when you start driving from the South of France to North Holland that you realise just how big Europe is, but we made it eventually. We decided to take a tiny detour to Edam, just so we could say that the tourist coaches groups don't see anything which we haven't. It is surely a cute village, with some obligatory cheese shops. We decided that possibly the local supermarket might have cheaper but otherwise equivalent cheese. Probably the most 'typical' thing we saw was a boat navigating through a series of small drawbridges that have to be lifted by hand. Mike asked the guy doing the lifting how he knew when a boat was arriving. He said he just keeps his eyes open, and he gets from bridge to bridge by bicycle. That seemed to explain some of the evident frustration of the lady on the boat.

Holland is as flat and full of water ways as advertised, rather strange for us mountain people! It is lucky for us that there is a windfarm near our campsite, as it acts as a kind of landmark. When we got into Hoorn, we discovered they had a funfair, with what is apparently the second-largest ferris wheel in Europe. I should think it is the highest point in the country at the moment, so of course we went up to catch the view.

After that, there was just time for beer ... and tapas. Having observed our neighbours in the cafe in Bruges last night, I had decided that tapas was the way to go in this part of the world. I think I was right! The tapas don't particularly imitate the Spanish variety, they're just a convenient description for small plates of interesting food - we had grilled mussels and jalapenos with guacamole. Otherwise, the menus around here rather tend to the 'stodge and grease' school of cooking. I don't think the French side of me can really accept that chips ('French' fries) are a proper substitute for bread!

We spent a lovely half hour of the evening watching a heron fish from the canal passing through our campsite. It stood on the bank, leaning over the water, tense and focused. Then it would pounce and flounder back out clumsily with a tiny streak of silver in its beak. It's the quietest time we've had in two days.

Night walk in Bruges

After 11 hours in the car, first through a deluge, then throught pale blue skies and blond fields in north-eastern France, we made it to Bruges. On the way, Mike decided to show up at his convention on the 12th, not the 11th, so he is spending an extra night with us in Holland. Of course, we arrived with barely time to visit Bruges, especially after we got our tent set up, but we took the bus in to have dinner anyway, planning to take the night bus back. I'm afraid I'm just getting too old for all this stuff, which is why, when we eventually picked some random cafe to eat in, I suggested walking back instead. I love night walks and we have our umbrellas, right! And if I'm walking, I'm less likely to drop with exhaustion, yes?

The mermaid of Bruges' fountain by the concert hall

A bit of window shopping

Bruges at night

Windmills outside the walls of Bruges

After seeing the sights of Bruges in twilight, we had a couple of km walk down a suburban road, through woods. When we saw the lights of the campsite, Mike said we could take a shortcut. I was dubious, but after we trekked through the very dark woods for a few minutes, he did eventually find a gate to the campsite. We got to bed feeling jet lagged, having been up for nearly 20 hours.

Sunday 9 August 2009

Off to Holland

We're off tomorrow before the crack of dawn, in the hope of hitting the streets of Bruges before 16:00. The next day, we drop Mike off at Hacking at Random 2009 in the Netherlands. What is that? In their own words: "Hacking at Random 2009 is an international technology & security conference. Four days of technology, ideological debates and hands-on tinkering."

A number of Mike's friends and acquaintances will be there also, but we are not allowed on the field unless we fork out the full price of the conference. I thought we would be missing nothing at all, but actually some of the 'ideological' parts of the program are quite up my street. Hopefully Mike will fill us in on how it goes. I gather HAR 2009 is sold out, by the way.

Antonia and I are going camping in North Holland, near Hoorn, in a place carefully selected for being near a train station to Amsterdam, beaches, walks, and so on. I decided to sign up for this trip pretty much on a whim. It was only recently that I realised that Hoorn is at the same latitude as my parent's home in the UK - a place where nothing on Earth would induce me to camp! I've been flying around packing more and more wet and cold weather and obsessively checking the weather forecast in the hope that it improves.

Lost in Louisiana, Part 4

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is the trip where I got culture shock in the USA. Hope it doesn't make too many Americans laugh at me too much!

This was our final and possibly most interesting day visiting the city of New Orleans. We began the morning with coffee and beignets at a cafe where we were to meet a group for a walking tour of the French Quarter and cemeteries. These so called 'French' beignets are very similar to something sold in France, with the exception that they are about 20 times bigger, and one feeds a family of four easily. On the other hand, several cups of American coffee are needed to wash them down. By the time I finished, I was ready for a walk!

Our guide was a Cajun girl who did actually speak French fluently, owing to the fact that her husband was French and she was very funny and interesting. She told us many things about life in the French Quarter in the old days. As an example of the 'good life' for which the city is famous, we saw the 'flats' for young men attached to the houses. The purpose of these was to allow them to entertain ladies at will before they eventually settled down into marriage. Stories about the problems with disease and flooding and the high death rate led us naturally to the cemetery. Early attempts at burying the dead had resulted in them being 'dug back up' by the river, fueling stories of corpses floating down the streets. This led to the practice of above ground burial, though it must be said that New Orleans cemeteries are mostly different from French ones in virtue of their overcrowding and poor upkeep. Death was such a common occurrence that it was hard to find adequate space for all the corpses. Poorer people got shoved into a pigeon hole in the wall where, due to the heat, they decomposed very quickly. Only a short time later their bones would be pushed back to make room for another corpse. On one occasion, the wall collapsed and all the bones tumbled out into the street.

Our walk finished with a visit to Miss Miriam, a voodoo priestess. After she said a few words to us, we visited her church in which objects from all religions were gathered together in great profusion.

In the afternoon, I was not ready to stop walking and thought we would visit the city park. This involved walking down a long main street lined with old and beautiful buildings. True, it was in the part of the city we had been warned away from but we just made an effort not to look like tourists and went. When we reached the park we realised for the first time that it was Easter Sunday. The side of the park we had arrived at was filled with people having celebratory barbecues and picnics. Many of them had hired inflatable castles for the children, and were using boom boxes for music. Michael thought many of them were church groups. The strange thing was that 99% or more of the people there were black. When we eventually reached the shores of Lake Pontchartrain we discovered that people were holding picnics there too and 85% of them were white. There seemed to be some strange kind of unofficial apartheid going on. The favourite type of car among the black party-goers was the four-wheel drive truck, whereas the white people at the lake preferred small sporty-looking cars (?!)

After we got through the crowds of picnickers in the park, I had to deal with my worst culture shock of the whole trip. The park was utterly deserted from here on, and in addition it did not have any paths in it, only roads. The roads didn't even have pavements for walkers. Clearly this park was not intended for walking in and I had never imagined such a thing. The roads took huge detours around waterways and we ended up having to walk twice as far as expected. The only souls we saw were the occasional policemen cruising past in their cars and the feeling began to grow on me that I was where I shouldn't be and might at any moment be arrested for loitering. Suddenly out of the blue, we came on a peculiar sight. A highway ran over the park on stilts, and right under it were arranged some white concrete picnic tables and chairs. Nobody was using them, needless to say. It would have been a very strange place for a picnic.

After we left the park, we walked along a long levee by the side of a canal. On either side of this was an area Mike told me was posh, though it was a bit hard for me to tell the difference. At the end of the levee was the lake with the white people's Easter parties I mentioned earlier. At the end of this walk, we came upon a restaurant overlooking the lake. This was one of those picturesque but appalling types of restaurants where you spend your time admiring the strange objects such as plastic sharks hanging from the ceiling and try to avoid tasting the food. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that this was also the only place where we had too much food and we spent the next two days eating it for our lunches.

By now it was nighttime and we were exhausted. There was no question of our walking back, so we had to ask the restaurant to call a taxi for us. Mike had a nice time on the drive home, letting the taxi driver know how crazy we were and how far we had walked.

Friday 7 August 2009

Lost in Louisiana, part 3

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is the trip where I got culture shock in the USA. Hope it doesn't make too many Americans laugh at me too much!


As part of our plan to enjoy all of New Orleans' tourist attractions we spent the day taking one of the old trams through the modern-American looking part of the town. These trams are amusing but also incredibly noisy. Our first stop was the Garden City, an area of New Orleans in which many old homes belonging to the wealthy have been preserved. After a quick lunch of gumbo in a roadside cafe we went and looked around, following the suggested route on our tourist map. The houses were certainly very pretty and larger and more luxurious than the plantations we saw later. It was fun to stroll around the shady streets in the warm weather.

After this we continued with the tram until we got to Audubon zoo. From here a shuttle bus waits to take you through the park, but we decided that being young and healthy we were capable of walking. Unfortunately the park turned out to be not so much a park as a golf course and we had to make a huge detour to eventually reach the zoo gate. I did not learn my lesson from this as you will find on the next page.

The zoo was rather unlike any zoo I have ever been to, in that animals did not seem to take up any large amount of the space. Most of the space was taken up with shops, restaurants, gardens, fountains, theme sculptures and other general stuff. I wondered if they were planning to expand at some stage or if this is just the way American zoos are. The zoo's most famous exhibit is Jazz, a wild cat kitten whose surrogate mother is a domestic cat. However I was most interested in the Mississippi section, although here, as elsewhere, the artificial 'theme' of wooden cabins and walkways was more in evidence than the animals themselves.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Lost in Louisiana, part 2

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is the trip where I got culture shock in the USA. Hope it doesn't make too many Americans laugh at me too much!

We were in New Orleans to do touristy things so on our very first full day we had to get to grips with the 'packages' that are on offer just about everywhere. For example, if you go to the aquarium, you can buy a special ticket that includes, say, a paddleboat ride on the Mississipi. This is what we naively did. We did explain at the time that we wanted to take the evening boat ride, which we hoped would be less busy and more interesting. We were told by the ticket seller that it would be no problem but we soon discovered when we went to buy our tickets for the boat that evening rides were not covered in the 'package'. Since we remained resolute there followed a very long process in which we attempted to get our ticket reimbursed and buy new individual tickets. After that, we left the packages alone, having discovered that they were arranged for the convenience of the commercial process rather than for ours.

The aquarium at New Orleans is a nice aquarium, and the IMAX cinema is a nice IMAX cinema. We have seen such things before, but we are quite fond of undersea creatures, so are always willing to see some more. The most interesting exhibits at the aquarium are the leafy sea-dragons and the sea combs, but it was also interesting to see the exhibits on the Lousiana bayou fish and learn more about the ecosystem of the area we were visiting. Apart from that, I was just revelling in the nice warm sunlight after a long, cold winter at home. The restaurant in which we ate lunch surpassed all my expectations. It turned out to be the best food of the trip in a laid back atmosphere, though I was a bit purturbed by our neighbours who cheerfully revealed everything everything there is to know about their investment portfolios and best acquaintances' love lives by speaking in very loud voices.

The afternoon included a trip to the local supermarket to buy food for our breakfasts. This was more interesting than you might imagine. I think Mike has been out of America too long because he can be completely thrown by everyday life there. This supermarket was quite large, but it seemed as if the only things it contained were a hundred types of orange juice, a hundred types of cream cheese, and a hundred types of bagels. Mike wanted plain ordinary orange juice, made from oranges. Unfortunately what was available was orange juice without pulp and no calcium, orange juice without pulp and with calcium, orange juice with extra pulp and without calcium, orange juice with extra pulp and with calcium. I was equally phased since I ended up choosing cream cheese with chilli peppers in and bagels with blueberries in. I only realised afterwards that the two do not go well together. And the most amazing thing is that the reverse combination would also have been possible.

Evening came, and with it our hard won boat ride. I had always dreamed of riding in a paddle boat and now I was to get my chance. It was still light when we boarded and we soon realised what a wise thing we had done coming in the evening. We had seen the boat leave a couple of times during the day, with people packed in like sardines. In the evening, there was a seat for everyone who wanted one, and no queue at the bar.

With the blare of a horn we set off, and spent much of the next hour admiring brightly painted tugs, oil ships and other industrial types of boats while drinking cocktails and listening to the music of the live band. After a while, we got a bit cold and went to explore the boat. We spent a long time trying to photograph the paddles that drove it, then discovered that the engine room was open to be viewed and that it was warm in there. I have always been very interested in engines but perhaps not quite so much as Mike. He soon got into conversation with the driver and dug himself into the engine room for the rest of the night. Rather a mistake on his part, since no sooner was I back on the deck when a guy started talking with me. His conversation, which was about my camera and the methods of photographing cities at night, seemed so innocent that I might not even have suspected he was chatting me up, if he had not vanished in a flash when I mentioned my husband.

Lost in Louisiana, part 1

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is the trip where I got culture shock in the USA. Hope it doesn't make too many Americans laugh at me too much!


These pages are a record of our 6-day visit to New Orleans in April 2000. The first day began with an unexpected visit of Chicago O'Hare airport after we were grounded there by bad weather. We spent several hours in the shops and cafes of the new terminal and the artistic subway between the two. The most astonishing thing is the absence of Gate 13 at any terminal. I don't know if this is typical of airports in general but I never noticed it before and can hardly believe a folk superstition being condoned by an airport, or any other 'serious' organisation.

Once we won through to New Orleans airport our only problem was to discover how to get to the city centre. First, we went to a desk marked Tourist Information and asked the lady there. In retrospect I suspect her job is to sell tourists the package deals that are so popular in New Orleans rather than to provide information. After this we went and stood by what looked like a bus stop. After we gave that up, we found some mini-buses but we discovered that they will only take you if you are staying in the French Quarter. We were staying a couple of blocks away in the Banlieue so that was no good. So finally we took the first taxi that came along.

The place we had chosen to stay was a self-catering flatlet. I had chosen this based on my previous experience with the amount of food people give you in America. I thought it would allow us to eat as small a breakfast as we wanted and store our 'doggy bags' in the refrigerator, prior to making them into packed lunches for the day. Our flatlet turned out to be a small, nicely renovated cabin in the backyard of a larger house, and we were very comfortable there. Our hosts were very nice to us, considering how late we showed up, and gave us lots of advice about the restaurants that served the largest portions of food. I regret to say that we filed these in our minds as places to avoid.

Late in the afternoon we set off to explore the French Quarter and get dinner. Our short walk to get there took us along a main street. We were sauntering fairly aimlessly, and I supposed we must have looked like tourists who were lost because a man approached us out of the blue and warned us off exploring on the other side of this main street. Hmm..

The French quarter is extremely pretty and I would have been quite willing to live there, though Mike told me I would feel differently in summer. As all the books say, it looks far more Spanish than French. Also, a surprising amount of it is very quiet, it is mostly the end near the modern city which is festooned with bars and nightclubs. Coming from the Banlieue you walk through pleasant residential backstreets, with a few craft or antique shops. I had come prepared with a list of restaurants to try, so we went immediately to the one I thought would be best. Here we discovered that the only time they could seat us in the whole week was for lunch the following day. We found that we could make a reservation, but that we would be expected to ring and confirm it later and this happened at several other restaurants. We quickly adapted to this as being the 'New Orleans reservation system', and I felt very glad we had a cell phone with us. For that evening, we went to one of the types of restaurants where you queue. It had a huge and very noisy dining room, but Mike managed to wangle a more intimate corner for us. I must say that the food was excellent: Mike tried alligator and liked it whereas I had some kind of blackened fish, followed by New Orleans bread and butter pudding. And the portions were not too large! Already I was enjoying myself.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Antonia in India

Antonia wanted to tell us what she remembers about India, when she was aged 5-6:

Antonia with our auto driver's daughters

I liked India because all the kids were saying "one penny, please", "one school pen, please", "one chocolate bar, please". But I love the "one penny, please" the best, because each time they say that I think in my mind "no way, I'm not going to give my Mummy away"! (Mummy's name is Penny)

I had my birthday in India and for my birthday cake I had a giant crepe with petunias on it. It was filled with chocolate. Yum! It was a very yummy birthday cake. I went to my Uncle and Aunty's wedding afterwards. People popped my balloons, so I was a tiny bit annoyed.

I remember in India I had a big laugh because this guy was introducing himself and his friends nicely. When he got to one of them he said 'Badmash' and of course it means 'rascal' in Indian and now, whenever Mummy is being bad, I call her a 'bad-mash'.

In India, Little Rabbit was with me. I had a very nice time in India.

Antonia's birthday party, and the wedding celebration.

Today, that's what she remembers, which is perhaps what really counts. At the time I was watching as only a mother would. I still remember how her experience of India developed.

I think I always knew India might not be easy for Antonia, but it really hit me when we went to Paris for a two-day trip, to pick up our visas. Antonia found Paris noisy, smelly and over-crowded, and was more or less in shock after taking the metro! She was used to a peaceful mountain home. Still she was looking forward to the trip, and conscious of her status as a world-traveller amongst her friends.

For the first three days in India, Antonia didn't say much. In that time, she had walked, rickshawed and taxied around a steamy Mumbai, got used to taking bucket showers in Indian hotels, picked out a bridesmaid's dress with her aunt and uncle, also picked out a kid's movie she absolutely had to see, taken a 17-hour train ride and watched us negotiate a 3-hour taxi drive with a group of people who shared no common language with us.

Now, she was bouncing over the potholes in the back of the taxi, with no seatbelt (let alone a car seat), and with hot dusty wind as air-conditioning. I was holding tight to her because at this stage, she had no idea how to adapt to the bumps and would have banged her head on the roof of the car three times a minute. It was then that she spoke, or rather yelled "Well, I have to say, India is quite a big surprise!"

One of many, many, group photoshoots for Antonia

It became a bigger surprise when she realised that everybody, at least all the Indian tourists visiting the same sites as ourselves, wanted to ask her name, class at school, country, could they have a photo with her, and worst of all, pinch her cheeks. That's what Indians do to cute little children, and I'm afraid she didn't like it one bit. We felt that we were somehow representing our countries to people who perhaps rarely travelled abroad, that we were in their country and in a sense, their guests, and that we should be as polite and friendly as possible. Of course, European children are a particular curiosity. She understood all this perfectly and was invariably gracious - I was proud of her -but so much attention was stressful for her and she was often glad to isolate herself in her drawing book. This turned out to be a very good defense for her.

It was in Mandhu that she experienced her turn-around. We rented bicycles - a common choice in this village where the only car is lying on its side in a ditch. From the back of my bike, she had immunity, people could call out to her, but they couldn't get her! "What's your name?", they cried. "Antonia, what's yours?" she yelled back at the top of her voice. "Goodbye!", "Goodbye!". That night, she broke her bread, rice and crisp diet and ate most of my half of a Tandoori chicken we had ordered, leaving me to make do with raita.

Look how relaxed she is now!

By the time she got to Orchha, she was quite at home, asking the other kids for chocolate practically before they asked her. When we saw a little girl approach her with bracelets for sale, we took no notice, knowing that she had no money anyway. Before we knew it, she had somehow induced the other girl to swap a flower for one of these bracelets!

We did do some kid-oriented things. For her birthday, I had made sure we stayed in a hotel next to a 'theme park'. This was not quite like a theme park in Europe but it had swings and slides and other things. I went out of my way to get hotels with usable pools, and in them, she occasionally found friends to play with. In Indore, I took her to Pizza Hut, though she was so suspicious of Indian sauces by now that she insisted on being served plain pasta. After that, we went to see the film she had wanted, Bal Ganesh. It was in Hindi, but she was already used to watching foreign language films. She loved it then, and loves her dvd of it to this day. We also re-read her children's version of the Ramayana, a story she loves.

On the other hand I don't think it's strictly necessary to do things just for kids. From the very start, Antonia had a special relationship with Hindu and Buddhist sculpture. By the time we got to Kajuraho, she was so entranced by the sculptures (she only saw polite ones! the rude ones are not so obvious!), that she decided she needed to try sculpture herself as soon as she got home. She was ready for home by now. At first, I had planned a rest day for her every three or four days. Now, she was taking naps almost every afternoon.

Antonia in the lap of the gods and goddesses of India

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Geography Lesson, part 1

Want to travel the world and don't know where to start? Not sure if the city you're visiting is the capital of its country? Confused about the difference between North Korea and Australia? Popping over to London and thought you'd take in the Parthenon?

Hmmm... time for some basic geography. Sheppard Software is the very best site we've found. Antonia has been using in her homeschooling for over a year. Yes, you really can't learn all that stuff all at once. The site has countries, capital cities and aspects of physical geography like lakes and rivers.

There is just one tiny thing that we think could be better. There are sections for the states of the USA, Canada and Mexico, but not for any other countries. It would be nice to add some of the other larger countries of the world - China, Russia and India are incomprehensibly large and could use some breakdown. Maybe one day!

Monday 3 August 2009

Stopover in Japan

It's a funny thing. When we first learned that we were making a 10-hour stopover in Japan, on our way to New Zealland, we were not thrilled. But the idea started to grow on us. I did research and learned how easy it is to get from Narita (Tokyo) Airport to Narita City, a small town nearby. We decided to avoid Tokyo. Then our stopover was nearly reduced to 3 hours by Travelocity wantonly rebooking our flights without telling us, and Lufthansa being unable to get their computers to work, and we were actually disappointed. Fortunately, things sorted themselves out, as they so often do, and we were on our way to Germany in a nearly empty plane, escorted through Frankfurt Airport at mach speed, and settling down to a sushi starter on a flight to Japan.

We woke up in the morning over some part of Siberia. Below us was a snowy landscape which seemed to be crossed by endless rivers, or maybe branches of one river, meandering across a plain, creating beautiful ox-bow lakes along the way. Soon, over Japan, we saw rugged snow-topped mountains that looked as though nobody lived there at all. I was surprised, Mike having told me how over-populated Japan was. In the distance we recognised Mount Fuji. (Julia later photographed a poster of it in the airport, and kidded Mike on that she had snapped it from the plane!) Finally a flat plain emerged from the clouds. broken into little rectangular fields, grey and brown in the winter, and many areas of yellow mazes against dark green backgrounds. Mike says the Japanese are passionate about golf and these are golf courses seen from the sky (he worked in Japan for a few months so I guess he would know).

Julia and I decided we were quite at home in Japan very quickly. It was a beautiful crisp day and all the infrastructures work pretty much as at home so getting around was easy. The areas we went through on the train reminded me of the south of France, despite the pagoda-ish tendency of the rooves and the thickets of bamboo. We spent the morning walking around the small town of Narita, looking at the interesting foods and the kitsch trinkets. We confined ourselves to eating hot buns stuffed with bean paste and bought one small souvenir each. We had intended to go to the big shrine and park in Narita before lunch but we took so long looking around that we found ourselves with our back against other unavoidable commitments. Just before leaving, we had agreed that Mike's cousin would meet us in the MacDonalds in Narita (it being a recognisable landmark), between 12.00 and 12.30. Mike's cousin is in the US Navy who are decommissioning a ship in Japan. I have no idea why they would be doing such a thing in such a place.

We had sushi for lunch then made a great effort to head for the temple complex in a disciplined way, hardly looking at anything. The complex turned out far larger and more impressive than we had imagined. I suppose that the religion represented is shinto (in retrospect, perhaps it is buddhism, which seems deeply entangled with shinto - I am certainly not experienced enought to tease them apart), but I didn't really understand everything I was seeing. The park contained numerous temples with an architecture that was not completely dissimilar to buddhist architecture of Nepal. Some buildings were more brightly painted than others. There are also administrative buildings and market stalls selling offerings, charms and so on. There are flags, bells and frequently vessels of water with ladles attached. Then there is the park, which is full of very beautiful old trees, of course, but just about everywhere, there are steles of rock of various sizes with inscriptions. We had seen other complexes of these in the morning around the city, and they rather reminded us of cemeteries. Another thing we had seen were little figures, about 40 cm high, roughly carved and sometimes repaired, sometimes dressed in strange little red caps or capes, to which offerings are given. We went to peek inside a shrine from which the sound of drumming was emerging, and it was rather like a Buddhist temple in there. Along the back wall were four of five deities, with a buffet covered in offerings in front of them, pink and yellow sweets in great pyramids. We also saw a procession of priest dressed in striking green costumes with parasols carried by assisstants in black.

As soon as the sun went down, which was early, the temperature became extremely cold and we were glad to get back to our airport and snuggle up on our plane. We had to stop for more steamed buns on the way, and discovered to our horror that each of the three people in front of us in the queue was ordering about 50 each! Mike and Antonia actually fell asleep in the queue while waiting. Fortunately, the local people seem used to jet-lagged refugees from the airport and looked on them with amused tolerance. They crashed again in the departure lounge, Antonia wouldn't even wake up to board and had to be carried on. There was a distinctly New Zealandish feel to our new environment, so our nice Japanese interlude was over, and our real holiday was starting.