Witten's Christmas Letter for 2005

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
January 3, 2006
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Well, so much has happened this year that we could write a Christmas book. How can we cram it into just a letter? And we're starting late -- been out on the high seas since Boxing day. So here are the highlights, in case you're in a hurry or can't stomach any more. Anna got engaged! Nikki bought a house! We spent six months traveling around, mainly in Siena, Paris, New York, and Cape Town but with side trips to Sydney, Chicago, Toulouse, Belfast, Vienna, Prague, San Jose, and Tanzania. And during the half year we spent in New Zealand we did enough exciting things to fill an entire Christmas letter. Read on if you dare.

The year started on a big high when Anna and Dan announced their engagement. Actually, we knew before Anna! In a very touching (and greatly appreciated) moment Dan let us in beforehand on his plan to propose on the beach, and sought our blessing. We were overjoyed, but had to bottle up our emotions until he and Anna actually arrived at the beach in question, which was a few days later, after they departed for Dan's family seaside "bach" (NZ for cottage). Whereupon we immediately headed for said bach and beach, which is at beautiful Oakura bay, north of Whangarei and just south of the Bay of Islands. We spent the weekend there with Dan's family (who we had met briefly on Boxing Day) and the happy couple. As we arrived Anna was disembowelling scallops -- we had never seen her play such a domestic, or fishy, role before -- and Dan was preparing a sizeable octopus which they had hauled up on the anchor chain earlier that day. We spent the time fishing, eating glorious seafood -- scallops and crayfish until we were fit to bust -- and, of course, celebrating. Both families got on very well indeed and enjoyed rather drunken evenings (Dan's dad Peter shares Ian's love of single malt whisky). The wedding is planned for early 2007, on that very same beach.

Dan is a delight. When we left on sabbatical in June (of which much, much more below), Pam went to stay with them both for a few days in their Sydney home, where she was treated like royalty. Dan's an excellent cook and rustled up a big weekend breakfast featuring, amongst other delicacies, kanga bangas (alias roo sausages). Together they visited the Blue Mountains -- which should really be called the Blue Valleys, since the whole area is a high plateau slashed by deep, water-carved gorges. They hiked down a vertiginously steep and narrow winding staircase that provided strenuous exercise for the leg muscles, and returned on a cable car strung high across a valley with absolutely stupendous views. While Dan was working Anna took Pam on the ferry to Manly and then on a nice bush walk back towards Sydney, where they came across some ancient aboriginal rock drawings. She also took her to the last night of The Lion King.

Near the end of the year we heard that Anna had landed a big promotion in the firm that she has worked in for years (Just Jeans, a youthful clothing store). She is now the Visual Merchandiser (VM to the cognoscenti) responsible for about 25 stores ranging from Sydney all the way to way south of Canberra. She has a company car and petrol card, and will visit all these stores on a six-week schedule to create their displays for them, devising imaginative ways to model the new fashions and lay out the wares. No more slaving away as a lowly shop assistant.

This year Nikki officially became a qualified Legal Executive. Shortly after we departed on sabbatical she graduated with a diploma from the NZ Law Society, and now has her name on the company's letterhead. She works for a small family firm and is often left in charge of the office for days at a time to run affairs by herself -- a challenge she thrives on. And in September she bought a house! -- a substantial brick bungalow set in a spacious garden in suburban Hamilton. Her boyfriend John and three other friends live there with her. When we teased her that you don't buy a house, you merely rent it from the bank, she replied "no, no, it's my tenants who are renting it from the bank!" She's determined that being a homeowner will not curtail her upcoming traveling plans (now postponed until after Anna's wedding). She's excited about her property and is developing into quite the gardener.

We've done lots of things with Nikki this year. Together we all took up Tai Chi and learned exotic moves like "repulse the monkey" and "stroke the peacock's feathers" -- now, regrettably, mostly forgotten. In March we embarked on a three-day canoe trip with a party of about ten friends. The Wanganui River is a classic New Zealand wilderness experience. We paddled in pairs, in rented canoes. For the first two days we travelled in the Wanganui Gorge itself, an incredibly deep chasm cut between towering cliffs a hundred metres high. On either side streams came tumbling down waterfalls in cascades that had worked channels into the rock a metre or two wide and a hundred high. The river proceeds in stately fashion down this awesome chasm until finally opening out into hilly countryside. We camped on the banks, backcountry style.

One of our craft tipped over right at the very beginning, a salutary reminder that in a canoe bad things can happen astonishingly quickly. After that we negotiated dozens of minor but exciting rapids day by day without mishap, until near the end of the last morning when we encountered the dreaded big three. Despite being all practiced up, we had some exceptionally hairy moments on two of them and on the third Pam and Ian (along with most of the others) ended up in the water, swimming for dear life in turbulent currents, trying to avoid being dashed to smithereens against the rocks. Pam found the river murky to the eye, green on the nose, herbacious to the palate, with a bitter aftertaste, and best not drunk on the rocks. Then we spent a sunny couple of hours drying ourselves and shooting the rapids again for sport.

Some weeks later Nikki and Ian returned for a day's kayaking down the more adventurous upper reaches of the same river with many of the same friends. This time John came along, persuaded by Nikki's enthusiastic account of the earlier trip. There were a few more mishaps this time, though Nikki and Ian both stayed dry. John had a couple of dousings, including one prolonged immersion, and got thoroughly cold and a little dispirited. After Ian helped him through it, getting him out of the river and into a cup of hot soup, John commented to Nikki that I was just like a real dad! But his spirit soared up from the depths the very moment we caught sight, round a bend, of the taking-out place, and -- greatly to his credit -- he immediately resumed laughing and joking as though the trip had been a Sunday picnic. He now refers to this episode as his "submarine experience."

For our Christmas present Nikki booked us into a beachfront backpackers for the world-famous Art Deco weekend at Napier in the middle of February. Ian was a little leery, but Pam hired 1930-style costumes for each of us from the repertory theatre in Hamilton. It turned out to be a great weekend. Napier was virtually destroyed by a dramatic earthquake and fire in 1931 and rebuilt with (they say) the greatest concentration of Art Deco style buildings in the world. The weekend was a gas. We paraded in our duds with all the other revellers, watched the ancient car parade, gasped at the vintage aerobatics display, cheered on the soapbox derby, danced in the streets to live jazz, drank martinis (and smoked the last of the Havanas), took the Art Deco tour, watched a classic 1930s movie. The weekend culminates in the legendary Gatsby Picnic. And we were prepared. Embroidered linen tablecloth spread on the grass with tall silver candlesticks, white damask napkins upon our knees, we ate pate de fois gras and drank chilled champers from crystal glasses. But we were rude country bumpkins compared to the rest of them. People brought tables and camping pavilions, rocking chairs, three-tiered silver cake stands with delicate cucumber sandwiches, wind-up gramophones, birds in gilded cages, old magazines -- and even antique furniture.

In January Pam flew to Armidale in Australia for a 10 day recorder festival with three musician friends from Auckland, to work and learn together as a quartet. They overdosed on music, getting to grips with the scores they had taken and reading many new ones -- some new to them and some newly written. As an extra Pam took a short course in West African drum and dance, which was enormous fun but, in 34 degrees C heat, quite exhausting. Later, in March, she spent a recorder-playing residential weekend at a friend's bach in Kawhia on the west coast a couple of hours from Hamilton. On the teaching front she retired from the Saturday morning music classes that she had enjoyed for several years, but continued with a two-term stint at Cambridge Primary School, one day a week. As before, parents had to decide whether to send their child to her lessons and pay an additional fee; both enthusiasm and class size grew from last year. She taught recorders and tuned percussion, and ended with a concert: many recorders backed up by four marimbas (three borrowed) and a drum kit. For one number they joined forces with the school's senior choir.

Just before Pam returned from Armidale Brian (Ian's brother) and Ros arrived for three weeks. On her return Pam and Ros went tripping around Northland. They spent a few days with Graham seeing the sights of Auckland, then to Whangarei to stay with cousin Lorraine and Rod, and visit Dan's mum Jeannie, then through Kawakawa where the main attraction, believe it or not, is the public loo, which is a work of art (by Austrian-born NZ-domiciled artist Hundertwasser). They passed a couple of nights in the Tree House at Kohukohu, a quiet backwater on the north side of the Hokianga harbour on the west coast where Pam and Ian stayed in early 2000. Kohu means fog, but they were lucky not to get any -- the only fog was internal and self-inflicted. Finally they returned through the west coast beaches of Piha and Karekare (where the movie The Piano opens) and back home.

Meanwhile, Brian and Ian went sailing. (Did you really imagine you were going to get away without any sailing stories? Let's get it over with, and keep it short.) Beulah had a major engine replacement over the summer, which dragged on and on and wasn't quite finished in time for Brian's visit. Nevertheless after a bit of haranguing we got it into a usable (though still incomplete) state and set off. After a stopover at favourite island Moturekareka (appropriately enough the site of a large wreck) we hesitated in agonies of indecision due to stormy weather, but eventually plucked up courage and embarked on a windy, exciting, and rather wet sail over to Great Barrier Island. My favourite place!

And then we set sail across the open sea for the tiny remote islets of Mokohinau. In 2002, on Brian and Ian's first epic voyage, we had visited there and glimpsed an incredible anchorage, almost unseen from the outside world except through a large hole in the huge rock that protects it from the elements. To enter in the big swell involves a narrow and risky passage, and at that point our courage deserted us and we headed back for the "civilization" (or so it seemed from out there!) of Great Barrier, vowing to return. Well, this year, feeling bullish with the new engine, we made it, nosing into the cove behind Arch Rock. We anchored for lunch but couldn't stay overnight because the bottom was very poor holding, nothing but loose boulders. The scenery was awesome and indescribably dramatic, like anchoring in a cathedral. Fish were queuing up to take the bait, and before leaving we caught a snapper and a big red cod. Back at the Barrier, supper was raw snapper sashimi and pan fried cod fillets.

The next day while drifting in light weather towards the Broken Islands we spied much splashing in the distance. Then the splashes moved closer -- one to two hundred whales and bottlenose dolphins, spread over a large area. The whales (we think they were whales) were up to 7 metres long, black and torpedo-shaped; we also saw a couple of babies. They were in various groupings and generally heading north, but after passing us several groups turned and came back. Dolphins and whales swam and played all around Beulah, close up. They cavorted and breached, individually and in harmonious synchrony. You could see baby dolphins swimming under mothers and hear their high-pitched calls. The whole episode lasted about 40 minutes; it was just amazing and we were both awestruck.

The year saw many shorter sailing trips, mostly the two of us. We encountered dolphins, a couple of sharks, and caught (and ate) quite a few fish. Scanning through Beulah's log reveals much chat about good food and wine, and idyllic sun-soaked weekends. However, the sailing season was truncated by our overseas trip; we finally resumed the day after Boxing Day.

Enough sailing! Shortly before we departed on sabbatical, a Ukrainian graduate student treated us and some of her friends to a pierogi party at our house. We had encountered pierogis -- boiled morsels of cheese or meat wrapped thinly in potato dough -- in Alberta, where there is a large community of Ukrainian descent. But here we learned to make them. Our party had ten people from ten different countries (counting Ian as Irish): the Ukraine, Canada, China, England, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Korea, New Zealand, and the USA.

In June we were off, Ian to a librarian's conference in Chicago and Pam to Sydney to visit Anna and Dan. During the conference Ian had an afternoon sail on Lake Michigan. The boat's owner could stroll from her high-rise apartment near the city centre to the marina and set sail. There were no islands, just a few artificial 19th Century structures called "cribs," a few miles out, that protect the intake to the city's water system. So we sailed round one and back, in a light breeze, gazing over lumpy seas at the smoggy Chicago cityscape.

After a few days apart we rendezvous'd in Frankfurt airport and flew to Florence for a night. By coincidence our hosts in Siena had booked us into the same hotel that we stayed in a few years ago. It was lovely to walk around Florence and feel its familiarity, even better to know that we were leaving this international tourist trap the next day for a month in Tuscany. And thanks to Italian evening classes earlier in the year, Pam could actually speaka da lingo.

We had a really fabulous time in Siena. It was even nicer than we remembered. We arrived two days before the Palio, a legendary horse-race around the huge cobbled main piazza, Il Campo. In this magical medieval event neighbourhoods (called "contrada") enter a twice-yearly competition for an elaborate banner, Il Palio itself, designed and made for the occasion by a local artist. The rivalry is intense, the competition cutthroat. Each contrada throws immense neighbourhood street parties; on one occasion we saw trestle tables and folding wooden chairs, all decorated with the contrada's own symbol, laid out for 1200 people in a large piazza and neighbouring streets. On our very first evening in Siena we went to a rehearsal and watched jockeys race in front of a huge crowd. Horses are chosen by ballot just a few days before the event, and from then on are treated like royalty by the contrada -- they even have a special place at the banquets!

For the real thing you have to either book expensive seats years before or elbow yourself into a place in Il Campo several hours in advance. Which we did. Along with hundreds of thousands of others -- and this is not for tourists, it's for the Sienese! -- we first watched a colourful medieval parade, with hundreds of men in different suits of armour, some on armoured horses, with flag-bearers and ritual standard-tossing, with drums and ritual chanting and singing. Then, finally, the race, three times round the square bareback, lasting approximately 90 seconds. Anything goes. With your crop you can whip your opponent's horse, or your opponent. Four riders were flung off just a few feet in front of us. The one from our contrada, where we were staying, ignominiously lost his trousers, but limped away. Another must have been killed by a hoof blow to the head. The crowd roared, and immediately dissolved into grievous wailing and sobbing. Not, it turned out, for the rider, but because we were standing amongst the Torre district supporters who hadn't won the Palio for 40 years, and this ended their chance of glory once again. Another contrada won, to intense jubilation from that corner of Il Campo, and Il Palio was paraded round in a lap of honour accompanied by flags, music, and supporters.

Meanwhile the dying rider was carried onto the patio of the building opposite. Ambulances had no chance of entering Il Campo in the swell of people. Through the crowd we could see the blood bag held up as medics tried to save his life. Eventually the people began to disperse; us too, in a state of some shock. The next day Ian was talking (in English) to our landlady and mentioned that we had been at the event. "It was a good race this year," she said, "no horses were hurt." But what about the rider we saw? "No," she repeated, "no horses were hurt." But the rider? "Oh, don't worry about him, they're like chewing-gum," she said. "The horses were OK." It turned out that, amazingly, the rider survived. But we never discovered whether the chewing-gum metaphor referred to his resilience or his disposability.

We could go on about Siena for pages: the fabulous food, wine, incessant triumphant Palio processions by the winners. The raucous weekend visit from Ian's brother and sister, with spouses. And our day-long countryside tour on the "band train," teeming with excited Italian families. We though at first the name referred to the three musicians who wandered up and down the carriages (trumpet, saxophone, and percussion -- and not very good). But at the first stop, a country station, we were greeted, to our astonishment, by a large brass band complete with pom-pom girls. We all piled out for snacks and wine in the village square, listened to the music, and piled back in again -- with the band. At the next station, another tiny village, we were met by an unruly Caribbean-style street band with half-clad Mardi Gras-style dancers. It was a great way to see the countryside. We ended at a village square festival (we were the festival!) for a massive 3 1/2 hour jam session by the bands that had joined the train en route. We decided to explore the neighbourhood and had a lovely long walk past vineyards, old stone farmhouses, an ancient abbey, and over the crest of a hill with a view across a valley to the next village perched on the side of another steep hill. It was gorgeous! Back down the hill in the sunset with the landscape turning the most lovely shades of warm pinks and browns and purples, to the glow of the railway station and the bands still playing!

After an all-too-short month in Italy we flew to Paris for six weeks. We were staying in a residence at the Cite Internationale Universitaire de Paris, a huge marble mansion allegedly modeled after Fontainebleau. It has an impressive facade, entrance, hallway, staircases, and grounds. But our penthouse garret was shabby and uncomfortable, with an awkward trip to a shared kitchen and paint peeling off the ceiling above the bath. We know Paris well from previous trips and only have space for a few highlights. We loved the Rodin sculpture garden, the Marais district, the Place des Vosges. We watched a 1932 Maurice Chevalier movie outdoors in a park, One hour with you. Never has the first word of dialogue been anticipated more keenly: we waited with bated breath to see if it was in English (it was, with French subtitles). It was hilarious, particularly in that setting.

We spent a lovely and quintessentially French day with our hosts Gerard and Dijana, picnicking in the woods outside Fontainebleau, then a few games of petanque, followed by a glass of anise at an outside pub and a traditional Breton meal of gallettes washed down with cider. We visited Versailles and were lucky enough to see the fountains in action, dozens of elaborate ones in many different styles. We also spent a lovely day in Chartres. In the space of a week we enjoyed brief visits from New Zealand neighbours passing through the Gare du Nord, Canadian friends Tammy and Danny spending a few days in the city, and old friends from England who came over to see us for lunch! We went to Toulouse to spend a weekend with Pam's brother Steve and family. With them we visited the foire (country fair) at Tanus (a nearby village) and ate a belly-busting fairground country lunch: jambon de pais and aligot (very thick cheese sauce with the consistency of poured concrete), spit-roasted veaux, fromage blanc and quince jelly. We also visited the spectacular ancient sites of Castlenau and Brousse le Chateau, and the triple-walled medieval city of Tours.

Then to Northern Ireland for Ian's mum's 90th birthday. The three kids, Pippa Ian and Brian, and their three (original!) spouses, took the old lady to a luxurious stately home in Eire for a night -- and memorable meals and craic. With Pippa we hiked up the Mourne Mountains, right from where they sweep down to the sea. Ian spent just one busy week in Northern Ireland; Pam stayed on for two more, visiting many lovely stately homes and gardens nearby. She got to know Pippa's grandchildren Patrick and Grace. Patrick found a huge jellyfish on the seashore which he observed with Pam over a period of several days until it was finally washed out to sea on a high tide. Pam and Pippa spent a day in Dublin. One highlight was the Guinness factory. They couldn't finish their complimentary pints(!), served in a room with a panoramic view of Dublin's fair city, landmarks identified with quotations from local authors like James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Another was the Book of Kells, beautifully displayed in the Trinity College Library, which Pam had long wanted to see.

Meanwhile Ian attended conferences in Vienna and San Jose, California, and spent an intervening long weekend with our old friends in Prague. Prague is so lovely it's indescribable (lucky, because there isn't space in this letter). He attended a jazz concert in a crypt underneath the ancient castle; among the audience were the Presidents of the Czech Republic and Bulgaria! Incidentally, our previous jazz concert was at midnight in the open air at Il Campo.

We re-met in Manhattan, arriving within hours of each other from opposite directions (London and California) and at different New York airports. We stayed for six weeks in Google's Greenwich Village apartment, sharing with other Googlers, within a few steps of prime jazz clubs and an easy walk to the swanky shops on 5th Avenue, the trendy boutiques and coffee shops in SoHo and the Hudson River walkway to Ground Zero. Ian strolled to work at Times Square every day, sometimes down 5th Avenue, sometimes 6th -- only one block away, but a world apart. The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade went past the end of our street. It took 2 1/2 hours and Pam joined the estimated two million onlookers (Ian was at a ghastly conference in North Carolina). There were some splendid, spectacularly spooky, floats and lots of fun cross-dressing -- for "The Village" has a large and (ahem) active gay community. It was interesting to see the NY cops in action. They were charming: friendly and good humoured, they took a lot of teasing from the crowd and bantered back in good spirit. Not the image you get from TV or movies. In fact, Manhattan as a whole was far gentler and softer-centred than we had expected. Fierce-looking black teenage thugs politely offer you their seats on the subway. You need only stand bewildered on a street corner for a moment before someone asks whether they can help you find your way. Almost despite ourselves, and most unexpectedly, we fell in love with New York. Washington and Bush's Evil Empire seemed a long way away.

We saw shows: Stomp and Wicked (Oz from the point of view of the so-called, but widely misunderstood, Wicked Witch of the West). Movies: Wallace and Gromit on a Google outing (young Americans sadly miss much of the British humour) and The Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio (with our friends, who knew the principal character). Food: we ate mile-high warm pastrami sandwiches at Katz's diner, and pickles, pickles, pickles, washed down with club sodas and milk -- watery milkshakes without the shake. This is where the famous orgasm scene was filmed in the movie When Harry met Sally (don't know it? -- never mind). Art: we visited exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and a magnificent collection of Van Gogh drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walks: we strolled across Brooklyn Bridge (and back again), and took the A train to Harlem and hiked all the way back through Central Park and down 5th Avenue. Pubs: round the corner from us was Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock's local: Jack was ejected for pissing in an ashtray and Jackson for ripping the men's-room door from its hinges. Crypt-dark at noon or midnight, the captain's-chair barstools and dilapidated decor stand unchanged by time, trend or tide. And the pub motto is 'cause tonight we're going to party like it's 1959! We toured the United Nations building, watched the New York Marathon, goggled at Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building. With just a week left here we discovered the Juilliard School of Music and attended a couple of truly wonderful faculty concerts. (Fancy being the Professor of Percussion!) Both, as it happened, were quintets: one classical, 20th Century wind music; the other jazz, a fabulously tight and well-rehearsed ensemble. Both were free, and possibly the best live music we've ever heard. On our last night in New York Craig and Kirsten treated us to dinner at a posh hotel where Woody Allen (yes!) was playing jazz clarinet. Dinner was fabulous, music was ... er ... interesting. Woody may be a great comedian but he's an appalling musician.

We spent a weekend at Greenwich in the Connecticut countryside, near the sea. You enter our friends' rented house through the garage into a basement containing a room with ten different weight-lifting-style gym machines. And outside is a big fountain and waterfall. We drank champagne, and martinis, all out of paper cups; Ian had to mix the martini in a coffee plunger! (It's a long story.) Next morning, western breakfast with buck's fizz and excellent coffee. We barbecued in the pouring rain and ate everything with plastic cutlery off paper plates. No washing up the whole weekend -- but we filled two big bags of garbage. It was totally bizarre.

Google, in case you hadn't noticed, is making lots of money for its early employees, and our friends -- Ian's ex graduate student Craig and his wife Kirsten -- are no exception. They live in a huge two-storey penthouse with panoramic views, including the Empire State Building and the Hudson river. Harvey Keitel lives downstairs, David Letterman across the street, Nicole Kidman and Martha Stewart around the corner -- but none of them in penthouses. Everything here is marble. We spent a few days house-sitting: we quaffed cocktails overlooking the night-time NY skyline and bathed in a deep double bath hewn out of a solid lump of marble. But even for wealthy New Yorkers life isn't all wine and roses. The apartment leaks, and the lawyers who are supposed to determine who's responsible are having a feeding frenzy. Craig's new Steinway piano will have to be hoisted up by crane, which means closing the street and knocking out a window. The crane will also come in handy for installing fully-grown trees into their two (yes!) roof gardens. Life's tough at the top in New York!

We left New York for Cape Town on the same day but in different directions: Ian via Frankfurt and Pam via Los Angeles, 7 hours in Auckland, and Singapore (yes, that's completely insane; another long story, this one connected with air-points travel). Ian arrived first; Pam had only just joined him a day later when he left again, this time for Arusha, Tanzania. What's the worst thing that can happen when you check in at the airport at 6 AM on Saturday morning? "Can I see your Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, sir?" Ian decided to take the risk (the alternative was cancelling the trip) and try to obtain one during a quick connection at Johannesburg. There he bounded out of the aircraft and eight minutes later was the proud owner of the required certificate!

Remember the genocide in Rwanda in 1994? In its wake a United Nations International Criminal Tribunal was established which sits in Arusha. Ian was there to give a five-day course on digital libraries at the Tribunal's Library. Seven of the nine participants were black Africans (from Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, etc), the others were Europeans (Bulgarian and English). Two had flown in from Kigali. They were all enthusiastic and the course felt very worthwhile. The Library publishes records of the trials and reconciliation process which are absolutely central to the recovery of Rwanda from its ghastly past, and they plan to use our Greenstone software. Incidentally, while on professional matters, Ian had another book published in 2005, a second edition of Data Mining. He also picked up another couple of awards: the international SIGKDD Service Award, which is the highest service award in the field of data mining, and the 2005 Hector Medal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, which is awarded every six years "to the investigator who, working within New Zealand, has undertaken work of great scientific or technological merit and has made an outstanding contribution to mathematical and information sciences."

Perhaps a more socially interesting achievement is a certificate on our desk declaring that "This is to certify that Ian Witten successfully entertained jazz lovers at Stiggy's Restaurant in Arusha, Tanzania." Whenever visiting musicians hit town, Stiggy organizes an ad hoc jazz evening. Ian was the grizzled old leader of a scratch band of young neophytes, and together they had the whole place a'rockin' till the wee small hours. Apparently getting people up on the floor to dance was a first at Stiggy's.

Meanwhile Pam was left in suburban Cape Town, a complete contrast from Greenwich Village. The weather was hot and sunny, but always very windy -- and good use was made of our landlady's swimming pool. We lived in a lovely leafy neighbourhood, very tidy and well-maintained, not far from our friends Gary and Gil and their visiting family from Ireland. But we found all the security precautions a bit disconcerting: bars on the windows and eight foot garden walls with spikes on top and intercoms at the gate. And although it was quite safe to walk around, suburbia was a bit boring -- the walls preclude snooping at other people's lifestyles! The birds were fascinating; we often met families of guinea-fowl walking down the road, and saw weaver birds and their astonishing nests hanging over the local pond.

After Ian returned we were taken to a notorious "township" called Khayelitsha with a population of up to a million people living in shacks. There we visited Learn to Earn, a light and airy building in the midst of slums where they run courses and help people get started in business. They began several years ago with needlework and sewing, and progressed to carpentry, cooking, and computers. Almost all the students are women, who pay a token amount for a 4-month course, with follow-up advice and assistance in getting employment or starting a small home business.

We climbed Table Mountain, Ian on foot and Pam by cable car, met at the top for a walk and picnic lunch, and Pam descended the same way while Ian hiked across the top and down into Kirstenbosch, a beautiful public garden on the slopes of the mountain. We took a tour of Robben Island and were shown around by an ex-inmate, who was knowledgeable, authoritative and extremely articulate; he showed us the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 straight years with one 15-minute visit from outside every six months. We looked around the museum of the notorious District Six, a thriving multiracial district that was razed by the apartheid government to the world's outrage and is still a wasteland 30 years on because everything that they tried to build there disappeared quietly overnight in surreptitious "midnight shopping" expeditions by ex-residents. Placing guards didn't help: they disappeared overnight too. It was forced relocation from poor but neighbourly places like District Six that created the dysfunctional slums like Khayelitsha. We rubbed shoulders with tourists in Cape Town's splendid Waterfront district, listened to dynamic marimbas and a township vocal group with call and response songs, and to an old black gentleman who played harmonious standards on a guitar whose body was an old Castrol oil can. We drove down to Cape Point and walked to the Cape of Good Hope, saw ostriches and Cape zebra in the wild, walked on lonely sandy beaches as white and fine as salt. We had a three-course dinner in the lion's cage at the zoo (true!).

And we toured the wine-growing areas, sampled the wine, drove into the desert of the Klein Karoo. But that's another story, and this one has been going on for far too long.

In mid-December we returned home, happy but exhausted -- and vowing (for the umpteenth time) never to board another plane again in our lives. Our house and garden had been well looked after, and the dog, cat, and yacht were alive and kicking. Within a week we had overseas visitors for Christmas: Pippa's daughter Claire and her new husband Paddy, from Northern Ireland. And over the next day or two Pam's mum Peggy, brother Graham with daughter Emily and partner Julie, friends Anita and Lyn, and of course Nikki and John. Another full house! Ian escaped after Boxing Day to take Claire and Paddy sailing (not much of a honeymoon, three in a small boat, but we all enjoyed it).

It's been a busy year. Our New Year's resolution is to do less and write a shorter letter next year. Congratulations for getting all the way through to the end, and may peace be with you!

Pam and Ian