Saturday, 27 March 2010

LA woman

So here I am, right in the heart of Hollywood, and by jingo it's an unhappy place. The wannabe starlets are desperate, the people dressed up as Batman and Tinkerbell and the like outside the Kodak Theater, hustling for tips for having their photos taken with tourists, are desperate, and most of all the homeless people, who are everywhere here, are desperate.

Funnily enough, Downtown - which all the tourists are told to avoid at night because it's dangerous - is much more welcoming. I just spent the day there, looking at gorgeous architecture (from the metallic sails of Disney Hall to the Spanish Mission adobe buildings of the Pueblo, from the Art Deco-like City Hall to the wrought iron loveliness of the Bradbury Building, the location of Sebastian's apartment in Blade Runner). I also took in the Spanish stalls of the historic founding district, and soaked up the cheerful pandemonium of Chinatown. Tomorrow, more beauty - I'm heading out to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has one of the largest collections in the States.

Mind you, Hollywood's not all bad: I have enjoyed looking at Grauman's Chinese Theater, with all the stars' hand- and footprints outside; and the stars on the Walk of Fame (most of whom have since sunk into obscurity, though apparently Viggo Mortensen's star was being instituted today - sadly I didn't see him!); and this evening I went to a Mad Max double bill at Grauman's Egyptian Theater (gold-relief scarabs set into the ceiling; statues of Canubis in the lobby) and it was frigging awesome! And walking home past all the neon and the hustlers and the wannabes was pretty cool too. But I won't be sad to get on the road on Sunday - out into the desert again, with a few days in Vegas to reconnect with civilisation. American road trip - now we're talking...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Fiji time

Newly arrived in Los Angeles from the Pacific, which was 10 days of extremes and no mistake. It all started pretty badly - the day after I landed, Cyclone Tomas hit the outlying islands to the east, and suddenly we were all grounded. I was safely tucked up in Nadi (on the west of the mainland), confined in what was after all a pretty nice place, albeit not what I'd expected.

Now, Nadi is not where you'd choose to spend a holiday, despite the most awesome and unexpected Hindu temple downtown, and when there's a curfew and everything is shut it's worse. But while being bored and having my sailing trip cancelled was the worst thing that was happening to me, over on the other side of the mainland people's homes were being destroyed; a few people were even killed in the waves. It was incredibly uncomfortable, being a tourist and in an incredibly privileged position while the people working (and being totally cheerful the while) were worried for friends and family. What was worse was that I was the only person who'd watch the news with the staff to find out what was going on.

I did manage to spend some of my tourist dollars at least, when the curfew was lifted. Not a lot was going on because of the threat of rain/wind, but I headed out to a village on the outskirts of Nadi to meet some of the locals. Mind you, this hardly lessened the burden of guilt, not least because I was the only person on this tour so they were spending all day looking after just me! A charming young man called Adam (missing most of his teeth but gorgeous nonetheless) was my guide for the day because his English is the best in the village, and after being fed breakfast - cross-legged on the floor, which was a test for my knees - in the chief's hut, we wandered round the rainforest and down to the waterfalls. Along the way we met one of the men, who was setting a trap for a wild boar that had been stealing their root crops; the villagers mostly live on chickens and eggs, as well as the produce that they can grow, but still go hunting with spears for meat on occasion, though it's a dangerous business. Then it was back to another hut, and more food - even I was struggling by this time; no one wants to be rude but I'd had three meals by 12.30pm and had NO IDEA how much of the vast spread before me they wanted me to eat! I compromised by eating something from every plate, while Adam and two old ladies looked on, laughing like drains when I was caught unawares by a wild chilli.

So, an interesting but not a cosy experience for a Westerner - the huts are clean but basic, with corrugated iron roofs and bamboo walls; there's one tap in the whole village; it's clearly a hand-to-mouth existence when it comes to eating, and there are 70 mouths to feed with very little. They really need the money the tourists bring (Adam was furious to hear that I'd been hassled by two blokes on the street the night before; Fiji needs a good reputation, he said), and it was little enough. I'm glad I went, though, and didn't just hang out with the other tourists.

However, for all that the second part of my holiday was your typical Western experience - the cyclone over, boats were again bound for theYasawas (islands to the west), and I spent six days in Botaira Resort on Naviti Island, the largest in the group (and it's tiny). This couldn't have been a greater constrast - I slept in a bure (a kind of bungalow) right on the beach - I could see the sea from my bed. There were never more than 10 people staying in the whole resort because it's off season - and for the last few days there were only two of us! Everywhere there were palm trees and hibiscus flowers, with nothing to do but go snorkelling right off the beach (literally - you could wade out to the coral and be right among all the glorious tropical fish). And in the evening we'd have dinner looking out at pink-and-orange sunsets from a bamboo verandah, while the crabs skittered over the sand below.

My fellow guests were lovely, and the staff were incredibly friendly. Though my favourite was the enchanting Cookie, the son of the chef (appropriately enough!), who turned three while I was there and whose big treat was to head out on the launch every afternoon when they were dropping off guests to the catamaran. He was terribly shy, but by the end of my stay he was saying "Bula!" (hello) and waving quite happily. As for myself I managed to subdue my guilt to a dull roar, and had a wonderful time - and who could fail to, really? And as it's likely to be my one and only luxury tropical holiday I'm glad I got to go!

Now I'm in the City of Angels and pounding the city streets, which is yet another contrast. More on that later, but I'm sorry to leave Fiji - like everyone, I have fallen in love with it.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Goodbye, Pork Pie

So here I am in Auckland for my last day in NZ, and everything is conspiring, God bless it, to make me feel not too sad about moving on. Since I landed it's been damp, grey, congested, expensive and thoroughly miserable - just like London, in fact, and I can't say I'm feeling homesick. Plus the bunk above me is so low I feel like Alice in Wonderland.

So it's off to Fiji iwth a glad heart, for 10 days of boats, beaches and bronzing (sounds better than "sun, sea and, er, precious little of the other"!). I don't think there's much in the way of internet access out there, so this is adios until Hollywood. I'll be an LA woman before you know it...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Decorated hero

All of which brings me neatly on to Napier, the Art Deco capital of New Zealand, where I've broken my journey up to Auckland for two nights. I spent yesterday afternoon taking in the town, which is a ridiculous, glorious riot of sugar-pink and peppermint-green facades, with tall palms crowning the effect: I feel like I'm in an Agatha Christie novel, set in Torquay.

And perhaps this extravagance is entirely apt, since it sprang from such an extravagant catastrophe. The 1931 earthquake razed the previous town to the ground - the museum has pictures, oral histories and newspaper accounts, and it really was as though the world had ended. Yet in response to all that violence they rebuilt something glorious. I begin to see the importance of the history of design and fashion; before, austerely, I felt it was irrelevant. Now, although it's an effect of history rather than a cause, I don't think you can understand people from the past unless you also know how they decorated their homes and themselves.

There are so many resonances in Napier, for example - the desire to be modern, yet also to follow Santa Barbara out of disaster; to make something distinctively different than before yet very much of its time; to be as fashionable as the rest of the world but keep their New Zealand character - that you cannot ignore the Art Deco. Though I understand why, if you lived here, it and all the related tourist industry would become stifling. Like living in an Agatha Christie novel...

Artistic licence

I've just spent a glorious three days in Wellington, gorging myself on the Arts Festival and generally being a black-bereted, pretentious type. Wonderful. I finally saw Schiller's Mary Stuart - good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the RSC's production of The Duchess of Malfi with Harriet Walter, which sounds like faint praise but isn't - and also a Swedish circus troupe called Cirkus Cirkor, who were amazing: from the white-painted ringmaster to the (supposed) audience members who suddenly turned out to be able to dangle from ropes above the stage by the power of their calf muscles alone, it was an abandoned, joyful experience - with that faintly sinister edge that all good circuses have. Plus it was set to a live soundtrack of dreamy indie pop by Irya's Playground - the kind of music that David Lynch used for Twin Peaks.

And the films! I finally broke and took a Lord of the Rings tour (I've been so good, but I could no longer resist). Quite a few of the locations were close to Wellington, including (and fans will know what I mean) the place where the hobbits hid from their first sight of a Black Rider - remember those hooves? But the real draw was the Weta Cave, where they've put some of the artefacts on show. It's a glory hole of swords and chainmail, full-size models of Gollum and the Uruk-hai Lurtz, plus the Sumatran rat-monkey (Brain Dead) and some of District 9's guns, as well as a new series of ray guns that might be the basis of a film one day. Basically, it's a film geek's idea of heaven and I LOVED IT. They were even selling Doctor Who merchandise, presumably on the grounds that a nerd with a jones for Lord of the Rings will also be a Who fan. They're right, of course, much as I hate to admit it!

More highbrow was my tour of the Parliament buildings, from the ultra-modern Beehive (which reminded me of the Barbican, all brushed concrete and curves), to the Library, a ridiculous pink-and-white birthday cake of a building in Victorian Gothic, and absolutely delightful to someone with a quirky sense of humour! The tour itself was interesting, though the guide lost a shade of her friendliness when I asked some smart-alec questions about freedom of information (oops). And after that it was on to the new St Paul's Cathedral, a monstrosity in pink concrete, quite the ugliest church I have ever seen. But just as I was recoiling from the evangelical stained glass, this bloke came up to me and invited me into the bell tower. No, not for any nefarious reason, but because he's an enthusiast. He's been ringing bells for 40 years in one or other of New Zealand's seven bell towers, and delights in showing off his knowledge. He and the rest of his crew were going to be ringing a quarter peal for a delegation of visiting campaniles from GB later that day, and I was lucky enough to be passing by as they were ringing that afternoon - I felt quite touched by stardom, knowing one of the band, so to speak.

All that, and Katherine Mansfield's birthplace, the New Zealand film archive (where I saw an NZ cult classic, Goodbye Pork Pie, whose incredibly slow car chases down unsealed and winding roads in a Mini were worth the entry fee alone), the Wellington Museum, the art gallery, Te Papa (New Zealand's national museum) and some lovely second-hand bookshops too. Who said New Zealand had no arts scene?!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Ouch. No, really, ouch

Have finally got around to reading the New York Times Bestseller (TM) "Eat, Pray, Love", and have been gripped by a dark and savage jealousy. I wondered why everyone I met was urging me to get it: like me, Elizabeth Gilbert is a woman in her mid-thirties who threw everything up and went travelling to seek enlightenment. Except that she's done it more wittily than me and in print. The bitch.

She has also, as the title suggests, fallen in love. And the closest I've got to male attention is to be told, very kindly, by Christie the 18-year-old Geordie lad that people his age still go clubbing, so they like to hear the indie tunes remixed when they're out (we were listening to the indie tunes on my iPod at this point; boy, did that put a dent in my cool self-image).

And I can't even hate her as she's great! I guess I should turn jealousy into envy and spur myself on to emulate her success. After I've finished sobbing brokenly into my pillow, of course...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

I made it!

I've just finished walking the Queen Charlotte Track - four days, 71km (plus side tracks, making it about 80km in all), 1,700m ascent and a real sense of achievement: six months ago I could barely walk up a hill; now I'm climbing 1,200ft before breakfast. I'm really proud of myself; exhausted, but proud!

Actually, although people call this the "easy" tramp, because you don't have to carry your cooking utensils, sleeping bag etc, it's about the longest walk in NZ, and is pretty gruelling in parts - particularly day three, which is officially 24km, not counting the climbs to lookouts, and climbs up some very steep hills! But in fairness the nights are more comfortable than other tramps, as you can get your head down on a nice soft bed in one of the hostels and homestays along the way.

Although everywhere was comfortable, my favourite night's stay was with Noeline and Tuppence - the former being a 79-year-old lady who rents out beds in her house to fund her travels during the off season. She's been to 48 countries in the last 15 years, and is considering a trip down the Amazon in a canoe this winter! Tuppence has just as much character - she's a little terrier who has a penchant for men's underpants; she steals them out of the guests' bedrooms and hides them under Noeline's chair. Luckily she didn't get hold of my bra, but she did spirit away my knee support before I knew where I was.

The days were lovely, too - two of them were overcast and showery, but this in fact makes walking more pleasant. Plus, the greens of all the ferns in the undergrowth really come out during the rain, and you get to see the sea in all its different colours in the different weather - from today's sparkling blue to an opaque, almost milky turquoise yesterday, and the slate blue of a Persian cat (and an angry one at that) the day before. Throw in the usual rolling hills, cicadas and bird calls (plus cheeky weka on the path - the size of a small chicken, they think they're the baddest thing in the forest and are totally fearless!), and you have a brilliant four days. And now I'm heading for bed and a well-deserved rest before gearing up for my last days in NZ. There's a lot to see and not enough time to see it in!

And just so as you can see where I went, below is the map of the track...

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Mud, mud, glorious mud

It's been a funny old week and no mistake. I did manage to make a few new friends among the fresh Flying Kiwi-ers - I even hung out quite a lot with the 18-year-old Geordie lads, once they'd decided that my music was OK for an oldie, and I knew my rugby! (They played quite seriously for a local league.) But it wasn't quite the same, and there was another serious disappointment when the Tongariro Crossing was cancelled due to bad weather - an alpine walk and 70kph gale-force winds being uneasy bedfellows. However, there were a few high points to make up for it - and most of them included mud.

Yes, it was time to hit Rotorua, and it was awesome. The first day we had free time and I went alone to the Maori village and thermal pools while most others headed straight for the spa. It may have been touristy, but I think I got the better deal: Te Puia houses a replica village, carving and weaving schools, mud pools and hot springs, and the Pohutu geyser. The village was a little kitsch, but still interesting, particularly the replica whare [meeting house], one of the few that tourists are allowed to enter. Sadly I was there too late to see the carvers and weavers at work, but I saw their stuff on display (and sale - it was a miracle I didn't leave bankrupt!). And the mud pools and hot springs were fabulous - there was even a cooking spring, where Maori women would have boiled their food in woven flax bags; you could even cook at different temperatures depending on the pool. The geyser was great, too - the Prince of Wales geyser (so named because it looks like three feathers, his symbol) gushes continuously, and the Pohutu every 20 minutes or so, spraying viewers in sulphur-scented water and generally delighting all concerned.

The next day was Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which many consider to be superior. It was certainly spectacular, starting with the Lady Knox geyser, which is ignominiously induced to perform every morning at 10.15am by pouring soap into the opening (this breaks the tension between the layers of hot and cold water inside, and brings the hot water rushing to the surface). Three prisoners discovered this phenomenon while they were washing their clothes years ago, and it still has the power to send shivers up the spine - not so much because of the water rushing out, but because of the rumbles beneath your seat just before it comes. Quite unnerving.

Not so unnerving but really cool were the mud pools - from the brilliant lime green water of the Devil's Bath, to the sulphur yellow caves and the pink and orange of the Champagne Pools, this is the most extensive area of thermal activity in the world. The smell was indescribable - no matter what they say, you don't get used to it, at least not in a couple of hours - but the colours, and the plop-plop-plopping sound of the mud making a bid for freedom, were a delight. We spent a happy few hours there, basking near the warmth of the water, and because of its uniqueness it was another highlight for me.

And that was it, really - the next few days were mostly spent on the bus or sheltering from the rain, apart from a few hours in Taupo, looking at the lake in the afternoon sunshine, and spending a lovely few hours in the bonkers local museum, a riot of eccentricity (it included a replica Sixties caravan with original fixtures and fittings, to demonstrate the height of Taupo's tourist era, and a local man had willed it his collection of model aeroplanes!). And now I'm walking the Queen Charlotte track, of which more when I get to the end - currently I'm resting my much abused knees (most of it seems to be uphill) and gearing up for the last push! So it's goodbye from me until then...