Witten's Christmas Letter for 1986

2429 Cherokee Drive
Calgary, Alberta
November, 1986


Hello again! Thank you for renewing your subscription to the Witten saga. Our inaugural issue last year stimulated such an overwhelmingly positive response that we have no choice but to try again now. Not only are we irredeemable yuppies, with our mass-produced computer-generated seasonal greetings, but so are all our friends it seems! So, oracle, spill the beans. What did 1986 bring the Wittens?

The year began unusually early, at the beginning of December in fact, when Ian succumbed to overwhelming temptation and whacked Pam in the chops with a squash racquet. With the effrontery to sneak into the lead, what else did she expect? He offered her a let but she chose to salvage some teeth from the court and head for the hospital. Unfortunately the kids had been watching us play -- it was a glass-backed court -- and were somewhat upset by the river of blood and teeth issuing from Mom's mouth. At the hospital they did a fine job of stitching her lower gum and upper lip and temporarily capping three broken front teeth (hospitals are wonderful here). Our dentist was dismayed though for there were just a few days left before the great silver bird whisked us off to the antipodes. With no time for a more thorough job, he did some hasty root canal work and left the temporary caps in place. Now, 12 months later, she still does not have a "permanent" fix. She plays squash with a mouthguard and has very sensibly given up that silly business of beating Ian, at least for the moment. But revenge came recently when, due no doubt to her and the kids having been on his back so much, Ian injured himself in a recent game with someone else. The result was a trapped nerve in the lumbar region and about 2 weeks on his back, all day, every day. It's well into the second week now and, believe it or not, he's typing this recumbent on the floor with keyboard on his belly and VDU screen propped on a lower desk drawer. And if you've never tried to touch type in that position, we suggest you give it a shot. You'll appreciate every word all the more!

Back to December. From shovelling snow one day (14th) -- last year we had an exceptionally bad Fall -- it was a magical transformation to lazing on a sunny beach the next (16th, work it out for yourself). In between were several hours in Los Angeles, where we joined America's destitute and took a bus (yes a bus) downtown to the Children's Museum. Next stop Honolulu, where the airport Christmas tree was decorated with lei's (gorgeous necklaces made out of real living flowers) and Nikki, gazing at all the beautiful dark-skinned Hawaiians, showed blithe disregard for race by exclaiming "Look Mummy, everyone's got black hair just like me!"

In Auckland, having survived the flight remarkably well, we were picked up by cousins Rod and Lorraine and taken to their home in Dargaville (out with the atlas -- it's about halfway between Auckland and the top, on the west coast. And you'll need the atlas later too.) Pam and Ian slept in the basement where the jacuzzi (hot tub) was, and the tone of the visit was set by Rod, who is quarter Maori, explaining to the kids how it was really a cooking pot and what cannibals like him usually ate for Christmas, would they please jump in? We had a wonderful time. We took off for the Bay of Islands in the old Cortina estate car that Rod had got for us and camped at Kerikeri for a few days. Yes, Air New Zealand had thoughtfully carried a tent and all our sleepingbags right across the Pacific. We walked through mangrove swamps, took a boat trip to Russell, and visited the museum at Waitangi, historic site of treatys between whites and Maoris. We swam in real sea and the kids got bowled over by waves. We played in the sand with bucket and spade, damming streams and building sandcastles (to get an idea of how exciting this was, remember we're from Alberta -- look it up in your atlas!).

Back in Dargaville we dug tuatuas. You head for the beach, select a spot, wade in thigh-deep, and sort of do the twist. Sound funny? You should see everyone else -- the shallows are dotted with twisting bodies for miles. In a former life Chubby Checker was probably a Maori. The purpose of twisting is to sink your heel in and locate a tuatua. Quick -- once they feel you coming they dig down to get away. When your heel has exposed the shell, bend over and grab it. This is the cue for a big wave to break, sweep you off your feet, liberate the poor shellfish. "Up and down and round and round you go-o-o-o-o!" When eventually you get one, it sort of pees all over you and you stuff it into your gunny sack. With Rod and Lorraine, we collected a couple of bags full. Then you shell them with a knife, mince the flesh, and fry it in patties. (NZers say "munce" for mince. The best phrase we got was "Nukki's lig" -- translated, Nikki's leg". They're also crazy about patties.)

Christmas was a riot. Unfortunately it rained, so we had to have our picnic in the garage along with the 35 other guests. We should say that one of Pam's caps came off on Christmas Eve, so we scoured Dargaville for a dentist so that she didn't meet all the long-lost relatives looking like a broken-toothed witch. Amazingly we found one, low-tech but effective and inexpensive. Anyway Christmas day was a chance to meet all those relatives we'd only seen once before, on Christmas day 9 years ago. Furthermore, Blob and Jo dropped in from Calgary and spent an unplanned Christmas with us. (We know this sounds unlikely -- but its true.) Boxing day was picnic weather, with waterskiing (barefoot for the braver of the cousins). We thought sympathetically of our Calgarian friends skiing too. The next day was 3-wheeled motorbikes, two for the six of us (with Rod and Lorraine), haring for miles and miles along a deserted beach to a remote disused lighthouse, kids screaming with delight at the wind and sun in their face. Rod and Ian played among the sandhills with the bikes. 3-wheelers are an amazing experience, for all your 2-wheel reactions are wrong and mind must conquer instinct.

Look, we're nearly 2 pages into this letter and its not yet 1986! Highlights only, henceforth. Climbing on a volcano at Tongariro National Park and lunching en famille in a crater (with Blob, Jo, and their 2-month old). Dinner at the Chateau there to see if the food had improved in 9 years. (It hadn't.) Through the famous spiral railway tunnel at Raurimu (there's another near Lake Louise which we've been through too; anyone know of any more?) on an open railway maintenance buggy powered by a motor-cycle engine, kids hanging on for grim death. (Fortunately no trains came the other way -- it's single track!) Numerous "throw-up" stops, as they came to be called -- poor Nikki was so brave about her car-sickness on steep and winding NZ roads. Arriving at Graham's (Pam's brother's) place in Wellington on New Year's Eve to find no party arranged -- and fixing one up on the spot with two other families from Calgary who happened to be in Wellington. Pulling in to a campsite at Golden Bay (north-west tip of South Island), setting up the tent, only to look round and notice Blob and Jo's tent next door -- surprise, surprise! Four adults, two kids, one baby, hiking a couple of miles down the beach to camp on the sand, by a stream, deserted, for a few days. Introducing nude sunbathing to an astounded New Zealand. School of 30 killer whales playing close offshore. More deserted beaches with weird caves of eroded rock, lonely miles of sand dunes, up near Farewell Spit. Delicious New Zealand fish and chips, traditionally wrapped up in the day's events -- the world's very best buy. Seals upon seals basking in the sun. Trying to distract the kids so they wouldn't see a mob of seagulls pecking another luckless bird to death. Then at last Christchurch, our home for a few months.

We all loved Christchurch -- including the kids. For us had been rented a University house whose chief distinction was an absolutely enormous garden containing a small wooded depression through which (a minor tributary of) the River Avon flowed. There were ducks, and wild cats, and hideouts. The house was right beside the Campus and was tended by the University gardeners. Ian used to put his feet up and watch them at work. There was a suntrap beside the house and we did lots of sunbathing. The kids spent February and March in a wonderful school and both built the best relationships with their respective teachers that they've ever had. Ian walked them to school and they came back by themselves, frequently bringing friends to share the excitement of our "own" river. Both our prairie-bred offspring had to demonstrate their exemplary swimming skills to their classes. Anna went to Brownies in her quaint Canadian uniform. During February, Pam's parents, deciding to kill 5/6 of the family with one stone (whoops -- sorry about the metaphor), came to visit NZ, first Graham in Wellington and then us four in Christchurch. They drove around on bus tours and saw quite a bit of the country. Getting away from lamb and fish 'n chips for once, we took them to a superb vegetarian restaurant for their birthday treat.

In Christchurch we went to a Hangi, a sort of traditional Maori barbecue which involves burying an enormous fire, along with mountains of well-wrapped food, then keeping vigil for several hours while consuming beer to pass the time. At the moment of truth the food is unearthed, unwrapped, and hopefully still unearthy. Some is (predictably) unearthly. Mutton is good and it's the best way to eat kumara (sweet potatoes), but cabbage and other vegetables suffer from being cooked like roots. You have to dig elsewhere for the icecream for dessert! This was a Maori-less hangi for NZ middle-class university types and their families. We also went windsurfing (Pam for the first time), Ian went backpacking in the NZ rain, we camped a bit in the mountains, and were even introduced to caving. Near Christchurch is a long cave through which a river runs underground. Equipped with torches and a guide (John Cleary from Calgary) we spent a damp and dark hour traversing it. Nikki decided not to go, but Anna and James (John's boy) made it even though they were out of their depth at times. Some real climbing (with a rope) was required to get out, but by that time we appreciated the full significance of "the light at the end of the tunnel" and even Pam scrambled up eagerly.

You don't want to know about work but we'll tell you briefly. Ian was involved in organizing a conference in Christchurch, to which many people came from Calgary. It was a huge success. He gave a course on "Expert systems", attracting numerous staff as well as the students it was aimed at, and lots of seminars -- to the Royal Society, Computer Science Department, Law Department, and (of course) Electrical Engineering who hosted us.

Easter was spent in Sydney with Phil McCrea and other old friends from Essex days. Sydney is an enormous city with a feeling that somehow combines California with the Mediterranean. The first day we hired a boat and went sailing with Phil round Sydney Harbour -- what an introduction! We hiked in the Blue Mountains nearby, where you park your car at the top and walk on cliff-hanging paths down spectacular gorges. We wandered round the Opera House and the hippie areas downtown. We went surfing on Palm Beach with Phil's boogie board (mini-surfboard, teflon coated for extra thrills); Anna was a whiz. We saw koalas, wombats, fed tame 'roos. The kids reached the height of sophistication in a Sydney restaurant with Nikki exclaiming "Goodee Anna -- it's octopus rings!" (deep-fried calamari).

We took two days out of Sydney to visit (the other) Ian Witten and Hugh Witten in Barraba near Tamworth (maps out -- from Sydney head 200 miles due north). We had an amazing warm welcome from the Witten clan there, arranged by tireless Margaret Crowley. They are all descended from Ian's greatgrandfather's elder brother Arthur Witten, born 100 years to the day before Pam. The hospitality was quite overwhelming -- we felt like long-lost kin. We were treated to a real taste of Australian farming life, feasting on lamb for several meals a day, and the kids milked cows, fed hens, and generally had a wonderful time. We even saw wild 'roos (did you know there are hundreds of different species?). We were sorry to leave but have persuaded Ian's father to follow up his one-day visit in 1934 with a month-long jaunt to Ozzie next February with Mum.

We all flew back to Christchurch and parted on the airport tarmac, Pam and the kids to Calgary and Ian back to our University house for another month. Shivering in the NZ autumn in his Sydney clothes -- Tshirt, shorts, straw hat, he envied the others their Fiji stopover. But he was well looked after by John and Molly Andreae, dining with them every day (much to Pam's disgust; she was hoping that boiled eggs and baked beans would sharpen his appreciation of home cooking!). Pam and the kids, after a hot but pleasant two days in Fiji, returned home without mishap. This was a relief because Ian needed her Canadian passport in NZ to get her a China visa in Wellington, so she travelled on her British one which was missing NZ entry stamps. Had she been closely questioned it would have been hard for her to account for her movements! On the plane from Los Angeles she met the family who were renting our Calgary house, much to their horror for they were expecting her a day later. It turned out that our plans had been foiled once again by the International Date Line.

Ian spent another few days in Australia at the end of April, with a 1-day trip to Brisbane to give a seminar there. Having lived the bachelor life with little sleeping and a great deal of drinking, he was completely washed out when he left for Hong Kong. (Sydney airport was a real zoo; avoid it at all costs. Cathay Pacific refused to acknowledge the reservation, booked 6 months in advance, but in the end he was "lucky" enough to get a seat and avoid standing Pam up in Hong Kong. This was not a pleasant episode.) And who should be waiting in Hong Kong but Pam, having arrived a few hours earlier from Calgary. Minus the girls, of course -- we had dumped them on Ian's parents in Calgary (perhaps that should be the other way round!) for our China visit, on the assumption -- quite correct, as it turned out -- that the kids would find the strange food, language, ways, and (especially) toilets too much of a trial.

Next stop -- China. We don't really know what to say about China. It's indescribable. The only way to find out what it's like is to go there yourself. We took the train to Guangzhou (Canton), flew to Wuhan for three weeks, took a boat down the Yangtze to Nanjing for a week, flew to Beijing (Peking) for a week, and then returned to HK. Imagine one billion people, 80% of them peasants. Feed them with rice (rationed), transplanted and harvested by hand, shoot by shoot. Endless paddy fields dotted with stooping peasants. Some grain and tea too, but mostly rice. Most of the country is covered with 6 inches of water! To make this possible, the land has been flattened, by hand, over the last 4 (yes four) millenia. Terraces climb up valleys, staircases with flat steps each 6 inches deep in water. Ever-present humidity hangs in the air, so China always looks misty and mysterious (eventually you long for the crisp clear air of Alberta!).

We were treated like film stars. As a "foreign expert" (Ian's official status) he was there to "help China" (their phrase), and the hospitality was overwhelming. We had a car, driver, and interpreter wherever we went. (People are cheap in China. You don't hire self-drive cars; the driver comes virtually free in comparison with the value of the car. So does the interpreter.) We stayed in university "foreign visitors" accommodation, where available, or failing that in top hotels, expenses paid. With an interpreter we were flown from Wuhan to the famous "three gorges" on the Yangtze river for a weekend. For another weekend we traveled to a mountainous resort area in a posh air-conditioned Mitsubishi bus with one other Western foreign expert and about 6 Chinese -- driver, head of the University's foreign affairs department, head of the regional foreign affairs department, and a handful of dogsbodies.

Let's have a mouth-watering paragraph on food. They eat rats, of course, in times of famine, but luckily 1986 saw reasonable harvests. We were guests of honour at banquets with enormous numbers of dishes, including special treats like real no-mockery turtle soup (by mistake Pam received the head and neck, which were hard for to chew), stomach of duck, fish boiled alive, eels, 1,000 year old eggs (not really, they just call them that), and other things we didn't dare enquire about. Generally the food was quite reasonable, even though ingredients were limited. We were there in May when green beans came back on the market, and witnessed the sheer joy of other Westerners after 6 months with cabbage as the only green vegetable. They eat a lot of fish in China and we had some wonderful fish dishes. But after about 3 weeks we started hallucinating Western food. It's amazing how you can long for a cheese sandwich with a crisp salad. Beer in China is excellent; we drank that, Coca-cola, and -- of course -- tea. We were introduced to a sort of Chinese schnapps, fiery liquor made from rice, and Chinese wine (not so good).

While most of our meals were eaten on campus or in hotels, we did go to the original greasy chopstick restaurant. The floor was slimy with either mud or spit or a combination of both, and covered with bottle caps and soggy, trampled fag-ends. We were given hot greasy washcloths (dishcloths?) to wipe our hands on which had previously been used for the table and probably lots more besides. Chopsticks really were greasy and even the tea had a suspicious shiny film on it. Surprisingly the food tasted quite reasonable but we didn't have much of an appetite! In desperation Pam used the loo, the worst yet, squatting over a communal concrete trench. Believe it or not, Ian managed never to have to visit any loo outside our living quarters in five whole weeks! China is not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. It has a long way to go in terms of sanitation and hygiene. And while we're on the disgusting stuff, a word about spitting. Wherever you are, from left, right, and centre, people clear their throats noisily from ankles up and deposit globs of thick, yellow spit in the dust. There are spittoons everywhere in public places, and to be fair, spitting has been banned in some major cities. We were told Wuhan is one of the worst places. Unfortunately we spent most of our time there so this was little comfort. China is also pre-Kleenex, but we ought to leave these unsavoury topics so that you can get on with your Christmas dinner.

Entertainment. Apart from Ian's lectures (ha ha), we went to see acrobats, Beijing opera, and a concert. The acrobats were apparently a third-rate troupe, but we thought them wonderful. It was the audience that was third-rate; possibly worse. We sat for 2 hours on backless wooden benches. It was a largely male audience and children stood at the front by the edge of the stage. We were the main source of fascination and amusement to people around us, who hung on our every reaction to the show. The Beijing opera is best likened to the Goon show, and we almost disgraced ourselves by bursting into uncontrollable laughter. The long, drawn-out, singsong intonation bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the Goon characters. The costumes were exotic, richly embroidered silk, with traditional platform shoes (dating from the days of crippling footbinding) and extraordinary headpieces. There were a lot of acrobatics in the opera too. Generally we found the audiences as much fun as the shows. Typically two-thirds arrive on time and sit wherever there is a space. The remaining third drift in during the first 20 minutes of the show and ask half of the early comers to move out of their seats, so all is discussion and disruption until the end of the first act. They don't applaud at the end, more when they approve of the moment -- loud cheers and applause for the heros, and uproarious, spontaneous laughter in the comic bits. If the action is a bit slow, they just strike up a conversation with their neighbours! All delightfully unsophisticated.

Sights. Yes, we saw a lot of them. Once you've seen one Ming tomb, Bhuddist temple, ancient museum, you've seen them all -- and we saw them all. The Emperor Hong Wu's tomb in Nanjing is approached by a very impressive road (as indeed are the other Ming tombs in Beijing), with larger-than-life statues of animals standing and lying in pairs along the first part, followed by soldiers along the second part. Both animals and soldiers are in pairs so that one can stand guard while the other sleeps, and thus the way is always protected. The tomb itself is a monstrosity, a hideous, huge, rectangular construction with peeling maroon and yellow paint. It has a fine view, though. The tourist sights that impressed us most were the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but you can read all about those in your travel guide. (Two hundred years ago the price of admission to the latter would have been instant death, but we got in for just 5 cents.) The Chinese are very keen on gardens, dusty ones, full of gnarly lumps of strange rock (decorative? -- presumably so, but not to us), grotty grottoes where you clamber up steps and disappear through holes, mucky ponds with waterlilies. Gardens are full of old men, strolling about with silver-covered exercise balls in their hand. Many carry covered wicker cages with birds inside. In the early morning and evening, they remove the cover and hang the cages in trees. The birds love it -- they sing like mad.

History. There's a lot of it about in China. We learned a great deal of the imperial ways of the Dynasties, how emperors exploited the peasants and were frequently buried together with dozens of live concubines, the evil Empress Dowager Cixi (died in 1908), and Sun Yat-Sen, the universal People's hero. One of the most impressive monuments we saw was his mausoleum near Nanjing. Chairman Mao's gigantic picture still hangs in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and we did see one enormous statue of him outside the ironworks in Wuhan (which incidentally employs 100,000 people!), but his reputation as the architect of communist China is badly tarnished by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. "Mao created modern China, and then nearly destroyed it," we were told. We were impressed and surprised that people were prepared to talk openly and freely about their awful experiences during the Cultural Revolution, but then most of those we met were "intellectuals" (who suffered most).

Question -- What does CAAC stand for? China Airlines Always Cancels (or Almost Crashes). Like flying in an old tin can, punctured. Going through cloud the cloud comes into the plane, all along the luggage rack and over the top of the emergency doors. We found this a little disconcerting. One's first impression is that the plane is suddenly filling with smoke. It's only when you notice that seasoned travellers are still unconcernedly reading their newspapers that you realize this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Besides which, we couldn't get out of the plane if we wanted to (and we wanted to), because everyone carries their luggage on to the plane with them for the flight attendants to pile in front of the emergency exits. It's a hoot boarding the plane in the first place. Most of your fellow passengers have never flown before and immediately begin playing with all the gadgets -- putting tables down and up, reclining their seats, switching off the lights. Since, being China, most things don't work properly, we now enter a new phase, trying to fix up those tables that keep falling down etc. They do have seat belts, but you wonder if you wouldn't stand a better chance on your own instead of being strapped to the infernal and decrepit machine. There's no other safety equipment, and don't expect a demo by your friendly stewardess.

However, despite all hazards we did return safely to Hong Kong and eventually to Calgary, since when we have been composing this chronicle of the year's events. We've only got as far as June but we're stopping here. Stay tuned for a rather briefer epistle recounting a more mundane story next year.

Lots of love and Christmas greetings,

Pam, Ian, Anna, Nikki