Witten's Christmas Letter for 2011
626 Tauwhare Road
New Zealand 3287
December 29, 2011
Our year 2011 divides sharply into two: the first half and the second half. Apart from a few local trips (and our horizons have now expanded to deem Australia “local”), we stayed put in New Zealand for six months. Then for the rest of the year we traveled: to Canada, Ireland, Italy, New York, Peru, Argentina, Chile—and also, albeit briefly, Brazil and Uruguay. Counting up, we stayed in 26 different places in 26 weeks!
Last year’s letter ended with us in staying with Anna and Dan in Brisbane, celebrating the birth of Stella and the exuberant energy of toddler Riley. And we begin writing this letter spending a few days with the same young family in Dan’s parents’ bach in Oakura, where the Wedding of the Century took place nearly five years ago.
A sad-for-us, happy-for-her event occurred on 16 Jan: Nikki left New Zealand bound for Belfast, Northern Ireland (again!). To remind you: having lived there with her partner John for a couple of years she returned to Hamilton for a further year’s study to convert her Waikato anthropology BA into an Honours degree. She achieved this with blazing success, garnering straight A’s. When she boarded the plane for Belfast she still had to write up an independent study course; she worked hard and was awarded with an A grade. So now she’s BA Hons, and all set for Masters study. Unfortunately it’s not feasible to undertake this in Belfast for various reasons (not all of them financial).
The job situation in Belfast is bleak—even bleaker than in the UK in general. John has an excellent job that he loves—he’s in IT—and is doing very well at it. But Nikki’s still surviving hand to mouth in temporary positions—boring old data entry, legal filing, and suchlike. She seems to be a highly valued employee whenever there’s a temporary position for her, but nothing permanent has emerged yet. Some months ago she gained an internee position at the N Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), a charity that supports migrants, including victims of racial harassment and discrimination. This is Nikki’s ideal place of work, but there are no paid vacancies right now and their funding is, predictably, insecure. Even for her unpaid internship she had to undergo a nerve-wracking interview! Anyway, she volunteers there one day a week and loves it. As part of her job she spends time in Stormont, N Ireland’s parliament building and seat of government. She will be in a quandary if any permanent positions come up elsewhere because she’d really prefer to save herself for NICEM. But at the moment that seems depressingly unlikely. Currently, she’s unemployed.
But happy! Nikki loves Belfast—one of the UK’s undiscovered tourist treasures, according to some accounts (and much to Ian’s surprise). She lives with John (and a lodger) in a little two-up two-down terraced house close to the centre of town. They can walk everywhere, which is just as well because they don’t have a car. She has a wide circle of friends, mostly centred round the N Ireland Young Walkers group— which doubles as a drinking club, a pub quiz team, and a general social circle. In August she went with them to Glencoe for a few days, which was beautiful, with excellent hiking and possibly a little beer as well. She was very proud of herself for ordering (and enjoying) haggis, served with mashed neeps, mashed tatties and whisky cream sauce—not a green in sight! She couldn’t participate in their trip to the Tatras in Poland (outside her budget), but she seems to know every corner of N Ireland, certainly far more than the natives. She occasionally sees Ian’s Mum, and sister Pippa, and brother Brian when he comes over from England, but not so often because of lack of transport—and time. She’s exceptionally busy.
As for Anna, we’ve seen a surprising amount of her this year, particularly considering that we’ve been away for half of it. Redcliffe, where she lives, was fortunately untouched by the extreme weather events that affected much of Queensland. In March she brought Riley and Stella to stay with us for a week. Riley swam briefly in our pool, but wasn’t impressed with the cold New Zealand water. We did all the usual things: walked on the beach at Raglan; Ian showed the kids off to his graduate students at the University; Anna visited some of her old friends. Most of the time Dan was away hunting with his dad Peter. With a family friend, they helicoptered into a remote wilderness area and were left to fend for themselves for several days with little to sustain them but a couple of cases of single malt Scotch. Dan returned with a chunk of venison that they’d shot, which he cooked for us.
Just before we left on our big trip we went to stay with them in Brisbane for a few days. We visited beaches and playparks, and went to Fish World on the Sunshine Coast. Pam saw the biggest locust in existence. The flight back was dodgy because a Chilean volcano was spreading ash around the southern hemisphere and some airlines had decided not to fly, making loud noises about the extreme danger; while others were flying, making much of how safe it all was. You pays your money and your airline makes the choice on your behalf. And it’s compulsory—no money back if you chicken out! In the event the flight was uncomfortably bumpy, apparently because we were flying low, under the ash cloud, and long, apparently because we were flying round its north end, and we were relieved to touch down in Hamilton. While in Brisbane Ian gave a seminar at Griffith University, and as a result has landed a visiting appointment at Queensland University of Technology, which compels him to visit Brisbane a couple of times a year—at their expense!
We next saw Anna in August—in Belfast (see below). And again just now, when, after spending Christmas in Auckland with Pam’s mother and her brother Graham and partner Julie, we drove up to Oakura for a few days. It’s lovely to see her little family doing so well, and of course Riley and Stella are a joy. Anna herself is thriving. Motherhood really suits her, and so does getting out of the house! She spends time at the gym, at one point contemplating becoming a fitness instructor. She did her first 10 km run recently, finishing among the top few women. And she works in a café a couple of days a week, which is a lovely working environment. It was as well that she decided not to get back into visual marketing after having kids, because the company she worked for has shed most of their visual marketing staff. But she’s become the one in the café who does all the artistic arrangements, and she hopes that something more will open up some time. Meanwhile she loves chatting with the customers, which—in the relaxed atmosphere of the café—is part of her job!
There are many other things we’d like to tell you about. Brian didn’t visit NZ this year, so Ian went sailing with his friend David. Rather than the usual free and easy itinerary driven by wind and weather, they had an intricate plan to rendezvous in the Bay of Islands, David with friends for a hike and Ian with Pam for a few days sailing around. (She likes the Bay of Islands, but not the adventurous journey up and down the coast.) But storms put paid to all that. The sailors made it, and holed up in a sheltered bay, but the landlubbers turned back because roads were closed, torrential downpours having caused mudslides.
Two friends from our university days came by in February, Sir John and Lady Wendy, and stayed for a couple of knights. John had received this honour for services to education. They narrowly missed our fabulous open air Sunset Symphony Extravaganza in the Hamilton Summer Festival, where our orchestra joined with a 120- voice choir for items including O Fortuna from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. The finale was stunning: the Ode to Joy section of Beethoven’s Ninth, accompanied by an impressive firework display. We raised a large donation for the Christchurch earthquake relief fund from the audience of 10,000. Pam and I both played in the May concert as well, with a contemporary NZ piano concerto by Anthony Ritchie, featuring a very talented, and also very young, soloist (still at school!), and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.
We’d like to tell you much more. Clarinet playing weekends in Auckland, a trip together to the New Zealand Research Student Conference in Palmerston North, the massive alterations to Woodside House on Waiheke Island which have taken most of the year, Ian’s frenetic teaching schedule in the first half of the year (because these days one pays dearly for sabbaticals). But no, let’s get on with the BIG TRIP. In the best traditions of reporting, we’ll cover this “as it happened” by quoting a few entries from Pam’s email diary. This is long. Of course, you don’t have to read it! We left New Zealand on 1 July for Vancouver.
Lethbridge, Alberta, 18 July
Well, here we are in Lethbridge at last. We had a lovely time in Vancouver staying with Edie and Paul, and especially enjoyed catching up with friends and former Calgary colleagues on various islands in the Gulf. We had a four-ferry, four-island day traveling from David and Shelagh on Bowen Island to Jo and her new partner Craig on Hornby, one of the smaller and most remote islands. Following our arrival late one afternoon we began the next day with a trip to the island recycling and exchange dump! Everything’s sorted: you leave off what you don’t want and take home for free anything you think might be useful. Jo got a bike stand and we got Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; fair exchange for some old tyres and plastic plant pots! Craig’s into companion planting: tomatoes and marijuana; Jo’s into different herbs.
After visiting a farmers’ market set in the forest, Craig took Pam kayaking round the shore to a small bay, while Ian and Jo walked. Ian swam, and we admired the great blue heron, seals and more bald eagles than we could count. After an icecream Jo took us for another walk through a park and along some cliffs with stunning views of the mountains on the mainland, to look at more seals. But there was a surprise in store when Jo spotted a sea otter swimming in our direction from some rocks off shore. It turned out to be an adult (much larger than we expected) with three pups. They swam right into the bay and came ashore just below where we were watching! What a treat. A magical day—and it happened to be our 40th wedding anniversary. Then on to Victoria to visit Brian (Blob) and Shawna, calling in on Brian and Mildred en route.
We had an uneventful drive through BC and over the Crowsnest Pass to Lethbridge, staying with Joan and Wolf. They became good friends when we visited previously, and have twice come to see us in NZ. We arrived on Friday evening and left with them early Saturday for a Nature Conservancy of Canada work party, clearing garbage from an area known as 40 Mile Coulee on a ranch west of Medicine Hat that has been opened to the public. After an hour or so the leader took us all on a guided nature walk down into the coulee for a couple of hours. Yesterday the four of us went hiking again, close to the US border, through coulees and canyons, watching hawks and discovering a pair of Great Horned Owls at close quarters in a narrow box (i.e., dead-end) canyon. We watched them—and they warily watched us!—for ages. Another treat.
Lethbridge, Alberta, 26 July
We’ve been out and about, loving the yin and yang of the prairies and mountains. The weather’s been glorious. A short drive from Lethbridge is the Waterton/Glacier Peace Park, spanning the border between Canada and the US. We did hikes on both sides. In fact we’ve been south of the border four times, twice legally (with passports) and twice sneaking across while hiking, just for the hell of it. There’s a marker, fence and padlocked gate at these small unofficial crossings—sometimes on a rutted road, sometimes in a field—and an irregular border patrol, so it’s easy to climb over the gate, have a quick look around and scurry back into Canada. This past winter was unusually harsh and prolonged, and as a result the spring wild flowers in the high alpine meadows and along the tracks are still glorious, even this late in the season. It never ceases to amaze us that such delicate looking things can survive, even thrive, in such harsh and inhospitable conditions.
What a busy time in Lethbridge! We thought it might quieten down when Joan and Wolf left us house-sitting, but no! Waterton is one of our favourite hiking areas. Although popular, it doesn’t have the same high profile as Banff and consequently the trails are relatively uncrowded. Wendy, a U of Lethbridge colleague, took us to hike the 14 km trail along Waterton Lake to Goat Haunt passport control, 6_ km over the border. It’s not often that we need to take our passports on a hike! Shortly after stopping at the border marker for lunch, the three of us rounded a bend in the trail and came (almost literally) face to face with a black bear and two cubs, breaking rule #1: never surprise a bear with cubs. She instantly reared up on her hind legs to sniff the air and check us out. The sight of this HUGE black Momma guarding the track while her cubs scampered away is etched onto our retinas. We retreated out of sight as slowly as our instincts would allow, somehow obeying rule #2: don’t run. After several minutes we checked again and she was still there, so another retreat for us. Deciding to make one last attempt before returning the 7_ km to our starting point, we picked up hefty sticks to make ourselves look larger, started shouting, and carried on apprehensively, singing, whistling and hollering and generally making enough noise to scare away any wildlife within 10 km. It seemed to work, and we eventually reached Goat Haunt passport control hoarse and still shaken, to catch the oh-so-relaxing boat back to Canada and Waterton township. And no, Pam didn’t get photos.
Yesterday we returned to Waterton and played it safe by walking two popular short trails. We did manage to see another bear though—a young grizzly bounding across an open field—but this time from the safety of our car. In the next few evenings we’ll be taking walks after Ian’s work to rediscover trails by the river and in the coulees around the university, hoping to see beavers, porcupines, coyotes and maybe rattlesnakes. So as you can see, we’re having a lovely time here and greatly appreciating the variety and abundance of wildlife. The only flies in the ointment, so to speak, are the mozzies. Pam seems to have lost her immunity, and the itchy bites wake her up at night.
Calgary, Alberta, 3 August
Our old friends from up north Jim and Marie were visiting Fort McLeod, so we joined them for a day of geo-caching near Pincher Creek. This was a new activity for us and a fun way to explore out-of-the-way trails. We drove to Writing-on-Stone Park and had a long, very hot walk through the hoodoos to see the petroglyphs. Nothing had changed since the last time, but it was good to re-visit. We stopped to rehydrate in the pub at Milk River afterwards and were the only customers, despite it being Saturday evening. Perhaps all the locals were away as it was a long weekend, but we were surprised. And on Sunday we returned to the mountains and hiked to Wall Lake in BC, finding much snow and ice at the end of the trail. In the car on our way back to Waterton township for dinner (bison burgers) we saw two bears, possibly grizzlies, in the shrubs at the side of the road. Exciting and less stressful than our previous bear experience!
We had several dinner invitations from members of the Department, which was kind, so we didn’t have the quiet evenings we’d anticipated. But we did manage a couple of evening walks, one to what we call Rattlesnake Park because on a previous visit we saw a snake there. Not this time, though—it was too late and too cool. But another evening we had a wonderful sighting of a beaver on the bank of a pond, nibbling away at a clump of vetch. He (or she) was aware of us, only a couple of metres away, but nevertheless stayed for ages before lumbering down the bank and swimming away. Joan and Wolf returned yesterday so we had a last evening together, christening their new deck which had been finished while they were away.
We arrived in Calgary at noon today by bus, met by Carl in his truck. He took us up Cherokee Drive past our old home. Big alterations are going on there: the front re- finished, the study extended, a big porch over the front door, riverstones around the base and the bank by the drive which our kids used to toboggan down removed and replaced with huge rocks. It looks very nice, and generally the neighbourhood is pretty much unchanged. Then a big welcome from Chris, lunch in the garden, making our nest in the basement, and catching up with emails.
Canmore, Alberta, 26 August
In Calgary we returned to being city dwellers, and had a lovely time rediscovering our neighbourhood, with many strolls round the streets and favourite parks. We had a busy social calendar catching up with long-time friends, all somewhat greyer (like us) but still recognisable. And it was fun to unexpectedly bump into people we hadn’t seen for years. It felt very comfortable. Ian enjoyed seeing former colleagues at the University, although he’s happy to have moved on.
Now we’re in Canmore, a few km east of Banff, for ten days or so. We’re temporarily house-sitting for Saul and Judy in their lovely home with a mountain view from every window. We bussed up to the ski fields at Sunshine Meadows and walked around the high alpine meadows and lakes and through a mass of wildflowers with stunning views of snow-topped Mt. Assiniboine, the Matterhorn of the Rockies; then down to Banff hot pools for a relaxing soak before heading back into Canmore for dinner. A fantastic way to spend Pam’s birthday!
Enough exercise, you think? Well, being gluttons for punishment and staying with active and persuasive friends, we spent much of yesterday afternoon mountain biking along the Bow River. Pam’s first time on a bike for many years, and needless to say she is feeling saddle-sore today. Serves her right perhaps, but the air is so energizing it’s hard to say no. Another restorative trip to Banff hot pools could be called for! A 30 km bike ride Monday, canoeing in Banff on Tuesday, 12 km hike up Iceline trail (740 m elevation gain of over 6 km) yesterday … then back to Calgary for a rest. Music and lunch with Pat Barton from The Early Byrds, the early music group Pam used to belong to, and dinner with our former neighbours (still on Cherokee Drive) Rein and Heather.
Parma, Italy, 16 September
After a varied and energetic stay in Alberta we welcomed our relaxing family time in N Ireland. With the 10°C drop in temperature we donned jeans and sweaters for the first time since leaving home. Of course, Nikki’s there. Also, Anna came across from Oz with Stella! We had a great, full-on time together, starting with a huge family picnic, moved at the last minute to Pippa’s house due to the Irish summer weather! Four generations and 23 people, ranging from 5 months to 95 years, and including seven babies under four. Bedlam but fun. Anna and Nikki took us out for a birthday Afternoon High Tea. We went to The Merchant, a former bank now converted to a hotel, whose foyer, the tea parlour, is decorated in High Victorian style—marble pillars, dramatic statues, florid gold decoration and plush red carpet. All very OTT and quite the experience. Much to Ian’s delight we managed a couple of sails on Strangford Lough, and even stayed dry. We also hiked up a nearby hill with Nikki in pouring rain and got very wet. Ian’s Mum turned 96 on 9/11 and we celebrated early with a grown- up lunch; Brian, Ros and son Michael flew in from England to join us.
In Milan we returned to summer clothes and enjoyed hearing Italian again. We knew we were in Italy when our taxi from the airport drove into town at 140 km/hr despite the 90 km/hr limit. We walked our legs off sightseeing and (strictly!) window- shopping around the haute couture houses. People here are expensively dressed, with extraordinary shoes—but certainly not suitable for stomping the streets. Snakeskin accessories are a “must have” for the coming winter, in case you’d like to know. We visited the modern art gallery and stumbled across an avant-garde musical “happening” among the artworks. Weird! The next night’s concert at La Scala, Beethoven’s Fidelio, was less challenging—awesome, in fact. A gorgeous venue, excellent acoustics, fabulous orchestra, and well worth the big bucks for the experience. Milan suffered severe bomb damage during the war, and while there are pockets of elegant buildings they’re interspersed with hideous 1960s concrete edifices. So while undoubtedly a vibrant and cultured place, it’s not the most attractive of cities.
We arrived in Parma last weekend. It’s still 30°C. Our hotel is down a quiet alley close to the city centre. This is a more relaxed, user-friendly city than Milan. It’s a treat to wander along the cobbled pedestrian streets enjoying the architecture. There are even some remains of the original Roman city. The food, unsurprisingly, is based on pasta, ham and cheese, with horse also featuring on many menus. (We didn’t try that.) The local wine is Lambrusco, a light, sparkling red wine served chilled. Not really to our taste, but it does complement the ham and cheese. This weekend we’ll spend a couple of days walking part of the Cinque Terre trail along the Ligurian coast … and we’re certainly looking forward to some sea breezes!
Parma, Italy, 23 September
Our plans to walk the Cinque Terre fell through because we arrived at the station to discover that there was a train strike. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and this meant that we were in Parma for the Palio. We didn’t realise they held one here, but we saw a discreet poster and checked it out. It was definitely for the locals, and great fun. It had the feel of a huge medieval village fair—archery competition, birds of prey, games for kids, jugglers, musicians, dancers, excellent bands, flag displays that outclassed Siena’s, and relay races for the ragazzi (youth), all dressed in medieval costume. There was even a donkey race down the main street for the kids, a jovial dig at the Siena Palio. It was hilarious: a lovely light-hearted, sportsman-like affair with everyone cheering and encouraging the other participants.
We decided to try the walk again next day, and were pleased to find the trains running. The Cinque Terre trail is an internationally popular coastal walk between five villages that for a long time were inaccessible except by sea, linked only by the footpath. Today there’s a train service and a road, and the area is a national park. Many people walk to the first three villages along the easy Via d’Amore and then bus or train between the others, but we planned to walk the entire way, staying overnight at the middle (third) village, Corniglia. It turned out the coastal path from the second village was closed due to a landslide, so while most other walkers opted to turn round or take public transport, we stopped for a gelato and took the alternative hiking path inland, despite the heat wave. It was hard! Long, steep, at times vertiginous, winding high up and around a narrow, terraced valley and back down towards the ocean. Quite scary at times, but the views were superb and our destination almost continuously in sight. We were spurred on not only by the thought of a cold beer at the end but also by a huge storm out to sea. We watched, fascinated, as a tornado formed in the storm clouds, a tiny thread touching down in the ocean—and growing. Was it coming our way, and would we reach Corniglia before it did? Well, it wasn’t and we did. We downed the beer, found our B&B and a gelato, and then ate a delicious seafood dinner in the piazza—fresh anchovies, spaghetti marinara, seared swordfish … yum!
Next morning we set out along an equally challenging path, stopping for a couple of hours to explore Vernazza, find coffee, gelato (notice a trend here?), pizza, and admire the local fishing boats that had been hauled up in the steep, cobbled main street. Then (sigh!) back up the steep trail and down to the last village and a very welcome swim in the Mediterranean, with beer and dinner before catching the train back to Parma. Quite a full-on couple of days, but the views were spectacular—steep, colourful jewels of villages with tiny fishing harbours, all set in gaps in the cliffs along the steep rocky coastline with pounding waves.
Manhattan, USA, 6 October
Next stop after Parma (Ian finally stopped hamming it up with cheesy jokes about the food there) was to visit Marco (“Trust me. Follow me”), Cecilia and Eddy just outside Florence where we shared Italian-style meals in the garden with a large extended family and many courses. Then off to Siena for three days, staying in Marco’s aerie of an apartment with views over the rooftops to the Torre in the Piazza del Campo, and to the Duomo. We visited our favourite haunts, including a coffee on a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Campo (also a good spot for a sundowner prosecco), lunchtime pizza place, negroni bar …
We’re now in New York staying with Craig and Kirsten. The culture shock was softened by an excellent concert the day after we arrived of Monteverdi secular songs accompanied by a vast assortment of renaissance stringed instruments. It’s been a few years since we were here and there have been many changes, especially the re-building around Ground Zero, which is well on the way to completion. The footprints of the twin towers are huge rectangular waterfalls that start at ground level and disappear into deep holes in the ground: impressive and subduing. Manhattan is such an exciting and interesting city to walk around rubbernecking. We love the combination of early 1900’s architecture and ultra-modern skyscrapers. There are few signs of recession in this (wealthy) part of the city, though we stumbled upon a large peaceful protest that turned into the beginning of what became the Occupy Wall Street movement. There’s a groundswell of popular outrage at the continued excessive paychecks of bankers and big-business CEOs.
It was gorgeous warm autumn—sorry, fall—weather, so we walked a lot. And there’s so much variety. Take yesterday. We walked up the Hudson river, along Bleeker Street to the Italian quarter … probably 80% of people speaking Italian, classy restaurants, very European, smart and lovely … strolled through, and crossed Canal St. into the Chinese quarter, with a different language, ethnicity, food and feel … scruffy, tacky, smelly, chaotic. And just one street away from Little Italy. That’s one example of the many things that make New York so fascinating.
Last night we went to a “members only” bar on the Lower East Side, among tenements where new immigrant groups traditionally settle until they become established and a new wave arrives—first the Irish, then the Jews, Eastern Europeans, and now the Chinese. This is a dubious area to be visiting at night. Access to the bar is through one of many narrow brick entrances: an unmarked, heavy metal door covered in graffiti, with one small, blacked out, grille-covered window at ground level. Ring the bell and eventually the door opens a crack, a face appears, and upon giving your name and business you’re ushered through two heavy floor-to-ceiling black curtains into a long, narrow, gloomy room. The ceiling is pressed tin, and patrons occupy small wood booths with leather upholstery. The only lighting is candles, except for just one low- wattage naked bulb over the bar. In the background, quiet jazz plays. It feels very much like a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Uber cool, except that we half expected machine-gun-toting gangsters to burst in at any minute! The waiter comes to chat about what you’d like to drink: sweet or bitter; gin or vodka or whisky, Scotch, Irish, rye or bourbon; creamy or fruity; maybe a raw egg mixed in … suggests a concoction or two … next time round there’s more discussion, different suggestions and so on and on and on … and no nibbles. This is not a café.
Ian took a break from long-distance supervision of Waikato graduate students and paper writing by giving a talk at Google. We met at MoMA, and then, after dinner, drove upstate to Kirsten and Craig’s “cottage” for a couple of nights. They warned us they’d be working, and they do work hard, day and night, on call around the world— one of the downsides of our world of instant, constant, 24/7 global communication. As far as Pam can see, social email and Skyping with Nikki and Anna is the only upside of global communication.
Next stop Lima. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.
Lima, Peru, 23 October
We found Lima challenging, basically because of the poverty, grime and traffic. But it didn’t stop us appreciating the vibrant mix of people and such fascinating history; we had no idea. Our accommodation for the fortnight was with a friend who Ian had met just once before in his small apartment, with his 8 year old son (tragically, his wife died a couple of years ago). Despite the conditions we survived and managed to avoid Montezuma’s revenge (or—this is Peru!—should that be Atahualpa’s revenge?). Next time we want to visit Iquitos and experience the Amazon jungle, maybe hike the Inca trail.
First impressions: chaotic traffic, overcast skies, warm people. Here people introduce themselves with a hug, not a handshake. It feels very much in the third world, with desperate poverty and small pockets of wealth. Lima has wonderful museums: we learned so much. The national museum of anthropology concentrates on the pre-Inca eras and includes ancient, fascinating, varied fabrics and especially pots, beautifully made and in shapes depicting scenes from everyday life—animals, trades, crafts, food and a veritable karma sutra of very explicit sexual positions. There was even one shaped as a man’s head with a huge erect penis as the spout. Maybe its maker was hallucinating after drinking too much fermented cactus juice? There were beautiful ceremonial Inca artifacts in gold and silver, as well as everyday tools and household items. Ian’s courses conveniently ran 7–10 pm, which left daytimes free to explore together, shown around by our librarian hosts and braving the traffic in rattletrap taxis and local buses.
We flew through the Andes to Cusco, the centre of the Inca empire, for three nights. It’s high—3300 m—and arid. Altitude sickness can be a problem. We were lucky and only suffered background headaches, mild nausea, and extreme breathlessness at the slightest exertion, despite taking western medication and drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves like the natives. Our travel package, organised by our hosts, included a good hotel and guided tours in excellent English: around the city, to the Sacred Valley, and to Machu Picchu. The Peruvians are very proud of their pre-Spanish heritage, and the Spanish conquistadors don’t come out looking too good. Nowadays there’s an interesting blend of Andean/Spanish architecture, customs and skin colour.
This is a wobbly country, but the Incas had seismic activity all under control. Their buildings were constructed from huge interlocking stone blocks of varying shapes and sizes, like an enormous three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The walls are wider at ground level, with a 6° incline towards the top; doorways are the same. The stonework is amazing, particularly considering that the only metals they had, gold and silver, are soft, so they used obsidian to cut and shape the stone. Then along came the Spanish, who imposed Catholicism on a people who had no concept of an underworld, let alone hell. They destroyed Inca walls and recycled them into Baroque cathedrals, built on top of the temples. Said cathedrals promptly fell down at the first tremor, while the Inca buildings remained intact. Divine justice?
Driving through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, following the river along roughly paved roads, gave us close-up views of the rural way of life. Mountainous territory with occasional glimpses of snow and glaciers. Small adobe dwellings with two small “good luck” bull statues on the roof-ridge, sometimes a cross as well as if hedging their bets. Steep terraces and dusty fields tended by small groups of people using primitive hand tools. Wooden ploughs pulled by a single ox and steered/pushed from behind by the farmer, while a woman followed planting corn or sweet potatoes by hand. We saw one tractor the entire day. And that beautiful, colourful Peruvian weaving isn’t just for tourists. We saw many women carrying babies or heavy loads on their backs, secured in bright shawls. Donkeys have similarly woven blankets under primitive saddles. And the hats!—it seems every community has its own style. Older women were dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing, while youngsters were more inclined to jeans and t- shirts. We stopped at Ollantaytambo, a market town that looked like a Trade Aid emporium, lunched at an up-market hotel in the middle of nowhere, and on our return to Cusco drove across a high plateau with stunning views of the snow-capped Andes to a village of spinners and weavers. The women spin all day—when walking, cooking, “even when kissing our husbands!” It was extremely interesting, although obviously a tourist destination. We bought alpaca kebabs from a roadside stall. Delicious!
Our last full day was the highlight: a four-hour bus and train journey to Machu Picchu, much of it through jungly valleys between massive mountains. We were prepared to be impressed, but this place surpassed our greatest expectations. Not only are the buildings and terraces impressive, but the location is just fabulous—perched among huge, dizzyingly vertical, jungle-covered, mountains, with narrow winding valleys so steep you feel you’ll topple over trying to see the bottom. Inca-redible! We had neither time nor breath (nor in Pam’s case nerve!) to climb Huayna Picchu, the steep peak that dominates the site, but Ian vows “next time!” The city was abandoned to the jungle to avoid discovery by the Spanish, and was rediscovered 100 years ago (though some Peruvians were living there at the time) by a Yale University professor. He promptly removed 3,000 artifacts and sent them to the US. 300 have been returned but, like the Elgin Marbles, it’s an on-going battle to restore the rest to their rightful home.
Back in Lima for a conference, more historical sight-seeing, hairless Peruvian dogs, an evening of Peruvian folk-dance and music, a family day at the seaside, the excellent “dancing fountains” park, a walk along the cliffs beside the ocean. We drank pisco sour, cervesa, leche de tigre (tiger’s milk, the juice from making ceviche), chicha morada made from purple corn, and Inca Kola, whose taste belies its lurid colour. We ate delicious tropical fruit ice cream, more ceviche, more alpaca, lots of fish, and Chinese food—once in a restaurant in an old railway carriage. A memorable couple of weeks in the company of our kind, helpful and warm-hearted new Peruvian friends.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 17 November
Buenos Aires is HUGE! San Telmo, our neighbourhood, is the original settlement, with wide, tree-lined boulevards joined by scuzzy, litter-filled side streets where the homeless and disreputable hang out at night. We live on a boulevard! Many of the older mansions remind us of Paris: multistorey, plaster decorations, wrought iron balconies, impressive front doors. There are four bistro-style restaurants down the road, a leafy park and museum, and on the corner a couple of traditional cafe/pubs. We’re half an hour’s walk from the main square, the famous Plaza de Mayo where the mothers of the “disappeared” gather, and even closer to a small cobbled square full of restaurants and tango dancers where a vast antiques flea market is held on Sundays.
We’ve had a couple of three-hour group tango lessons. They’re physically and mentally exhausting, but heaps of fun—and the teachers are very encouraging. At the end of each lesson participants have to demo what they’ve learned—very embarrassing for us, but we always get a big cheer and applause. Perhaps they see us as some kind of mascot! This is a very cultured city. The gorgeous and recently refurbished Theatro Colon was a marvellous venue for a concert of modern music. One piece, involving 14(!) percussionists, particularly appealed to Pam. We discovered a bookshop in an old theatre, where the former boxes are now reading rooms, and another bookshop at the back of a traditional pub. Having coffee with Diego close to our apartment, we were approached by an elderly, slightly down-at-heel gentleman, who started declaiming. It turned out he was a poet, and was advertising his poems, which we were encouraged to buy “for whatever you think they’re worth.”
One weekend we took the slow boat (3 hrs) across the Rio de la Plata to the small old Spanish/Portuguese community of Colonia in Uruguay. It was charming—cobbled streets, old single-storey buildings, quiet, laid back: a welcome break from the chaos of Lima and the bustle of Buenos Aires. We had afternoon tea (English Breakfast, no less!) and carrot cake under a weeping willow in a garden overlooking the river. Not like S America at all. We also spent a few days in lovely Cordoba, a Jesuit centre in the 1700s whose architecture is well preserved, simple (on the outside, but inside the churches are as OTT as you’d expect from baroque Spanish Catholicism), and beautifully lit at night. We attended a couple of concerts, one featuring a concerto for bass trombone, which was unusual—to put it politely! We took a bus to Alta Gracia to see the Jesuit estancia there. But more interesting was Che Guevara’s museum, in his childhood home. It was interesting to learn about the man, not just the revolutionary. There was a short home movie shot by his parents and even, in the bathroom, a photo of him as a wee baby sitting on his potty, which was a nice touch. And it was moving to read his letters to his children, just typical father stuff. As a bonus we discovered that Manuel de Falla spent his last years in Alta Gracia and his home is also a museum. His music was playing as we wandered around, including Ritual Fire Dance, which we’d performed with the Waikato Symphony Orchestra … it gave us goosebumps!
Yesterday we had a family day out to Tigre on the Plate delta with our hosts Diego, Lorena and their two children, who had already treated us to wonderful Argentine barbecues at their home on previous weekends. We took a small train along the coast. Once there, we cruised a boat tour along a maze of narrow channels edged with reeds and tall trees around the many islands—some large with several houses; others small with just one, and almost all of them second homes. The area is named after the tigers—actually jaguars—that used to be found there, though long gone now.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 30 November
Wherever we’ve been Ian’s been giving workshops, lectures, invited talks at conferences, etc., even flying to a conference in Kansas City for four days. This means that Pam has had to fend for herself quite a bit. The biggest challenge is not speaking Spanish. Most people here don’t speak English, so she has had to rely on pantomime and her trusty dictionary, sometimes with unexpected results—especially in restaurants! The language varies from country to country, with different accents, pronunciation, and even words, so just when she thinks she’s beginning to pick out a few stock phrases we move on and she’s back to square one. Its rather like being in John O’Groats today and Land’s End tomorrow.
Ian had no commitments for our last week in Buenos Aires, so we took the opportunity to see some more of the country. Patagonia was top of our “must see” list but, the ash from an(other) erupting volcano in southern Chile was disrupting flights. Since we were expected in Santiago the following week we opted instead to visit Iguacu to see the falls. There are over 200 waterfalls in all and they span the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. We first saw them from the Argentine side, where you stand on the brink of the cataracts, dizzy with the power, rush and roar of the water. Feeling brave, we rode in a jetboat along the river below the falls, through the spray and into the deluge. We were promised we’d get wet “to our souls”—and they were right! It was a scary, heart-stopping adrenalin rush of a ride, and we loved it. Next day, passports in hand, we viewed the falls from across the river in Brazil. This is where you see them in all their glory: countless cascades of varying intensity, numerous rainbows, more soaking spray. We went out onto a walkway suspended over the river and felt the force of the water—we didn’t linger!
Back in Buenos Aires for a couple of days, final farewells, and a last drink in our local, the Hippopatamo. On the very last subway ride our bag was slashed and the camera (with the Iguacu photos) stolen. Bad luck, and a sad end to a wonderful six weeks.
Santiago, Chile, 14 December
From Buenos Aires we flew low over the snowy Andes and settled into Santiago. We recently read Inès of my Soul by Isabel Allende about the true adventures of a young Spanish woman who joined the conquistadors in Peru, travelled with them to Chile, and participated in the founding and defense of Santiago. We’ve seen landmarks and paintings confirming what we’d read, and this helped to bring the city alive for us. It’s an orderly, modern city with a conservative feel and an excellent and efficient subway system. We’re staying with our Greenstone host Felipe in his small two-bedroom apartment near the top of a new highrise. Through the smog and haze we have great views of the Andes. The mountains, with snow on the highest peaks, are very close to the city, and dwarf the skyscrapers. On Saturday we went into the foothills for lunch … individual “corn pies” made with minced beef, chicken pieces, egg, onion, a bit of carrot all covered with roughly ground sweetcorn and baked in a shallow cast-iron bowl. Very sweet and very filling. Next day we went to a pottery village south of the city. Just one long, narrow, dirt street lined with open-fronted barns and shacks of various sizes, almost all of which sold nothing but unglazed dark brown pottery— cookware, tableware and lots of piggy banks! We wondered how any of the vendors could make a decent living, despite the street being crowded with people.
As elsewhere in S America, no other English voices were to be heard. We’re a minority group (of two!) here, which while not uncomfortable is certainly unusual. You can travel throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, without hearing any language but Spanish. But it varies tremendously from country to country. Pam was beginning to get the hang of it in Argentina, managing to pick out a few words in a torrent of Spanish, but here she’s back to square one with a totally different dialect.
We had Chilean empanadas for lunch. Empanadas are S America’s answer to the Kiwi meat pie, but with a local twist: cubed beef, onions, egg, a few olives, wrapped in thick tortillas and baked. Huge. Condiments are delicious green salsa and hot-as chili sauce. These empanadas are quite different from those in Argentina, which are smaller and lighter, wrapped in pastry, and come with a selection of fillings, like minced meat, chicken, spinach, or ham and cheese. Lunch is the main meal of the day here, eaten at any time between noon and 4 pm, usually closer to four. There’s a snack called “onces”—e.g. bread and cheese—at around 9 pm. This contrasts with Buenos Aires, where the main meal is late in the evening, usually after 10 pm and certainly not before 8. We’ve been introduced to such delights as an Earthquake, a drink made from local sweet, young, white wine, strong liquor and—yes!—pineapple icecream. A second round is known as an Aftershock. We’ve enjoyed many seafood meals, for which Chile is rightfully renowned.
We drove with Felipe and his girlfriend Ingrid to Valparaiso for a weekend. Although some distance from Santiago, it’s the main port (now in decline since a large earthquake) serving the city. It’s home to the Chilean navy, some fishing boats, and a large fleet of more or less disreputable boats offering tours of the coast. It sits on many steep hills covered with small, colourful, graffiti-covered corrugated iron buildings, and has a strong alternative feel. It’s easy to imagine this as a hotbed of left-wing political activity. We spent a memorable night at an intimate and smoky bar, where we were entertained by a series of geriatric singers who had the entire place mesmerised with their renditions of songs from way back. We were there till 3 am!
Chileans are proud of Pablo Neruda, a surrealist poet who won a Nobel prize for literature. He had three homes, now museums, in and around Santiago, and we visited them all, starting with Valparaiso. As well as a poet he was also a diplomat and an obsessive collector with a passion for the sea—though he didn’t sail. His homes are full of his collections of figureheads, naval instruments, maps, books, bottles and you- name-it. He had so many things he had to keep extending all his homes. Definitely an unusual character.
We made the long journey (42 hours; don’t ask about the route) home for a quick turnaround before heading to Auckland and Oakura for Christmas/New Year with our S Hemisphere family. Maybe it’s taken you almost as long to get this far! If you have, congratulations!—there’ll be less to read next year, we promise. Until then, may peace be with you, and best wishes for 2012.
Pam and Ian