Moving welcome to Edinburgh

It was a privilege to be able to attend a ‘Welcome Refugees’ concert in the stunning St Mary’s Cathedral, Palmerston Place, Edinburgh last night. This was organised by a local Amnesty International group and included an interval performance by the new Welcoming Choir – where newcomers and local sing together. In the horribleness that surrounds us today, we need to come together and remember that we have more in common than different. As a migrant myself, I find it essential to add my voice to those welcoming others to the UK. Thanks to this group of volunteers for such a lovely opportunity to do this.


Cambridge – ‘Bicycle capital of the UK’

Bike facilities at YHA Cambridge

I knew there were lots of bikes and cyclists in Cambridge but nothing prepares you for the reality of it. Even in the Artic conditions of this weekend, the streets are full of bicycles. Bikes are used to carry children (often more than one), shopping, dogs and anything else that needs to be transported. YHA hostels always have bike ‘sheds’ but the Cambridge one has a range of bike lockers AND a maintenance point – so I didn’t need to bring my pump or multi-tool kit.

Alternative antlers in the Old Bicycle Shop restaurant

There are so many bikes that the riders don’t need to be afraid of the motorised traffic. Bicycles were here first, after all.  However, some of the manoeuvres are startling – cyclists in dark clothing just dart across the traffic wherever they like. It’s even more hair-raising (if you weren’t wearing a hat to stay warm) in the dark where bicycle lights are clearly considered a waste of energy. Make a stand against climate change – ride your bike without lights. Eeek!

I was sad not to have adventures on my bike here. It is really too cold for recreational cycling – at least for this softie! But the city is beautiful and
the history so interesting. Bikes are not at all a modern invention, relatively, and so it should not seem so incongruous to see this bowler-hatted College porter behind all the bikes at this College gate. There is an ‘illumination’ festival on just now during which complex lighting shows are played on many of the old buildings in the city – gorgeous.

Note to self: come back with a bike in warmer weather!


Korea – a visit to the Border

Unification Piano with barbed wire for strings

South Korea is an energetic, efficient and scrupulously polite place to visit. I ‘discovered’ it on a one-night stopover and have now come for a slightly longer visit. The highlight of any time spent here must be a trip to the border with North Korea. On the way we learnt some of the history of the division, which is a source of great distress to people in the South. Those in the North can’t be all that happy either, if one accepts reports of starvation and lack of everyday freedoms. Only the army are well fed in the North – young men serve 10 years in the military and women serve seven. Ouch! We heard about Korean families who have been separated for decades, with absolutely no contact possible.

Putting the country back together

There is a demarcated area (the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ or ‘DMZ’) of two kilometers on either side of the border in order to avoid war-starting skirmishes. This no-man’s land is an ecological haven for birds and wildlife, has very clean air and great quality land. It would – there are no humans interfering with it. We were able to look across the border but it was snowing and so the visibility was very poor. However, the music continued – this is the ‘peace weapon’ of choice of the South – they broadcast loud music at their neighbours. We were able to walk into one of the tunnels. Tunnels are dug from the North with the apparent intention of attacking Seoul. Several have been discovered but it is likely there are many more – this seems to be the stuff of Holywood but is real enough here in Korea.

The South lives in hope of reunification and, to that end, have built a train line. You can ride the train to the border and they hope to extend the line North as soon as peace is restored. Everywhere that we stopped there are monuments and pieces of art reflecting the separation and the tensions. My ‘favourite’ is the ‘Unification Piano‘ in which the strings are replaced by barbed wire. Eeek!

On returning south to Seoul the contrast between the bleak border area and the bustling, colourful city is very striking. Here in Seoul there is the now-regular Saturday protest about the impeachment of their President. It is a lively, colourful event with flowers being used when protesters feel the need to throw something. I detect a theme here in terms of weapons of choice – music and flowers. I do love this country and hope its partition is resolved before too long. That seems optimistic but let’s be optimistic – they are!


Sydney – a quick visit

I have fallen in love with Sydney in spite of the unpredictable weather. It can go from a heatwave to damp and cool in a day – and then back again. But it is so varied. Walking from Bondi Beach to Coogee in a heatwave (as you do!) I snapped this chap with his surfboard on his bicycle and the dog too! Reminiscent of Japan where cycling your board to the beach seemed commonplace.
Back in the city, I love lots of things. Going to the opera at the Sydney Opera House was an experience to treasure forever. Eating there in the evening, watching the Harbour Bridge light up and ferries going to and fro was magical. The huge cruise liner heading out of town was a bit terrifying size-wise and raises issues about whether these cruise ships are good for the city or not.

Recycling is strong here in Sydney – you can post your recyclable waste in these machines and get points on a card, which are presumably exchangeable for something useable – in a recyclable container, of course. And so it goes on. If your offering is not recyclable there, it politely rejects it. For people living in places without easy access to a recyclables collections, this is a great idea. Wonder if you can get gin and tonic with those points?

Tourist tip: look out for the Susannah Place museum. It’s a set of houses from the 1800s – preserved, rather than restored. Well worth a visit – only open 2 – 4 pm.


The joy of independent bookshops

Independent bookshops are such an endangered species in the face of the relentless march of online shopping. How lovely, then, to find two very different indie bookshops in Auckland.

The Women’s Bookshop in Posonby has become a go-to place if you want to find good and interesting books of all kinds. Their purpose is to promote women’s writing and to provide a range of books that meets the diverse interests of women, though there are many male authors represented there and many male customers too. Everyone likes the different focus here.  I enjoyed the hand-written mini-reviews of many of the books on display. This review task is clearly shared among the staff as each one is signed. The walls, where not covered in books, present articles about women writers’ lives and achievements. Generally this is an uplifting place – do bring your credit card as it is hard to leave empty-handed.

Another amazing institution is the ‘Hard to find’ secondhand bookshop in Onehunga. Keeping part of the orignal window from its time as a fruiterer’s, it’s a maze of small rooms and under-stair spaces with books on subjects ‘from the rare to the recent’ as their blurb says. So bookworms will never be bored in Auckland!


A loo with a view – on Tiritiri Matangi Island

Yes, I should write more like a travel writer – maybe – and less like a loo-obsessed nomad, but this is too good not to share.

The travel guide bit first: Tiritiri Matangi is a wildlife sanctuary, just a ferry ride from Auckland. It’s a magical place where volunteers are an essential part of its establishment and continuing maintenance. It is free of mammals which prey on native birds so rare native birds are safe here. They don’t know to be scared of humans so you can walk among them and enjoy their calls and their antics.

Everything about the island is eco-friendly – of necessity as well as because that is the ethos of the place. This was my second visit and it was even more magical because I knew the history of the place and what to look out for in terms of the birds.

The toilets are set a little bit away from the visitor centre and I admired the view while I waited for my turn. It was a sociable wait, with much chatting about walking sandals and comparing views from other toilets. The most spectacular loo-view I have seen was in Ethiopia in 2009 but this one comes a respectable second.


House-sitting: a win-win solution

I have (temporarily) reinvented myself as a house-sitter here in New Zealand. It seems a perfect way to get free accommodation in exchange, usually, for a bit of pet care and giving the house a lived-in look. My charges are a cat and a goldfish. Neither are very challenging though the cat seems to have trouble remembering that I don’t wish to be clawed when she sits on me. Cats like to stay at home – they don’t seem much to mind who feeds them, as long as they are fed and can sit on a lap in the evening. The goldfish is even less demanding – and prettier!

No money changes hands in a typical house-sit. I was amazed at how competitive it is, though. This is a reflection of the huge problems people in so many countries have in getting a home of their own. They spend many years in insecure housing situations, staying with parents, friends, etc. House-sitting gives them a space of their own while they save up for a deposit or get their finances back on track. When I started looking for a ‘sit’ I thought that house-owners would be pleased to hear from me. Not a bit of it. You have to make a pitch with your first response to their advert (it is normally arranged via a website) and make your offer stand out – just like applying for a job. Once I learnt that I had more success.

I’ve had a lovely time in an airy and bright house with ‘my’ cat and fish. In the next week I will add the neighbour’s cats to my duties. I am becoming a bit of a community resource which feels just fine. I am sure that some arrangements don’t work out but most of them do and, when they do, everyone wins.


Christmas Eve – French style in Auckland

What a lovely way to spend Christmas Eve! We went shopping in the French Market in Auckland. As well as an outdoor area full of fascinating stalls (Sicilian liqueurs, Italian pasta and, of course, various patisseries) there is an indoor food area. We had the best coffee along with a chocolate tart that was just to die for. To add to the ambience a French family were chatting at the next table. The main speaker looked very French. As you know, I am getting more and more intrusive with my camera but, even with my bad manners, this was the best image I could capture. He wore a striped top and a flat cap – deliciously French.

Laden with goodies to top up our already-full fridge and cupboards, we then had lunch on the Auckland waterfront, which is such a lovely public space, shared by diners, families and just people enjoying the start of the holidays.


Great bus services in New Zealand

West Coast view

I must give a ‘shout-out’ for Intercity buses in New Zealand. I know that there are other companies and I am sure they are great but the Intercity ones really do go that extra mile … or two.

In my experience over two weeks of travel, the drivers introduce themselves and give a bit of chat about the areas we are passing through. They make sure that they have the correct number of passengers before moving off from all of the numerous comfort or food stops. But, to cap it all, if it is raining, the driver will take you home. When I arrived at Franz Josef it was raining cats and dogs. At the penultimate stop, the driver asked each person where they were staying. He then mapped out a route around the town and dropped everyone to the door of their hostel, motel or hotel. I gather that this is not an isolated incident.

Another driver, on arrival in Nelson, where it was not raining, stood by the bus directing everyone to where they were staying. This was after a 12 hour working day for him. Bravo these drivers! Go Intercity!


Orange is the new Black

Coordination in orange

It seems that orange is now the colour of choice of young backpackers – well the ‘parents’ money’ group anyway. I have no problem with the colour – it’s fine. My attention was drawn to it, however, by a petulant young ‘miss’ on one of my long-distance buses here in New Zealand. Apart from her entertaining (if you were not the driver) behaviour, I was mesmerised by her coordinating flip-flops, rucksack and laptop. It was a bit rude to take photos of her but I hope you get the idea from this image. Whoever heard of coordinating your laptop with your shoes? Maybe I have just lived too sheltered a life.

When joining the bus she seemed alarmed that there would not be a food stop for four hours. She complained that she hadn’t eaten today (it was 2 pm). When the driver asked why, she explained that she hadn’t had time. He was a gentleman so did not comment that she’d obviously had time to do her make-up, though dressing wouldn’t have taken her very long. When she was given 10 minutes to go to a shop, she returned with the complaint that they had no ‘normal’ food. She then ate her purchase, which was a sandwich. At the next (toilet) stop, she found a supermarket and seemed pleased to have ‘won’ some kind of battle with the bus driver – the most patient man you could meet. From her shopping bag she produced and ate a punnet of strawberries – this is, presumably, her ‘normal’ food. I am sure her parents feel that their money is being well spent on her travelling experiences.