Witten's Christmas Letter for 1995

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
December, 1995


Well, hello again. We trust you had a great year. Ours has been fairly hectic; life just keeps on getting faster and faster and busier and busier. It's December already; this letter will be late and you will have been wondering whether we're still alive and together. And we're having some problems writing because Ian's computer bust on a speedboat trip at one of the offshore islands in Fiji; more of which later!

You'll no doubt be itching to hear how Ian got on in the ToURING MACHINES cycle ride to Whangamata before Christmas; well, he cut a further 35 minutes off his time and came in in five hours and three minutes. No more improvement is predicted. He was really fit this time last year because he was in training for climbing Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in southeast Asia. Leaving right after the Whangamata ride, he flew to Singapore at the beginning of a short but hectic tour of seminars and lectures in such exotic places as Kuala Lumpur, Kuching in Sarawak, in south-west Borneo, and Bangkok where he and a friend were giving a week-long course at the Asian Institute of Technology. As you probably know, Bangkok is nothing but a vast traffic jam these days; fortunately AIT is outside the city, not far from the airport, and we stayed a bit further out, in a town called Ayuttayah (or Ayudhyah) which is the ancient capital of Thailand. It's an amazing place, steeped in history and way off the Western tourist track -- they had a lot of trouble speaking English, even in our hotel. Shortly after arriving there was a knock at the door and Ian found a young woman trying to make herself understood with just one word of English -- "Massa, Massa" -- and plucking at her arms to try to explain: at last he caught on and declined the offer of a massage. As it happened, the week they were there Ayuttayah was celebrating because they had just been made into a World Heritage Site. One night Ian and Alistair went to a son et lumi¸re show at the place where all the ruins are. It was spectacular. They re-enacted the history of ancient Thailand, with whole armies of oriental soldiers, ceremonial elephants with all the trappings, hordes of invaders from the far East, scores of beautifully synchronised Thai dancers. The commentary was in Thai, in a deep, sonorous, amplified voice that resonated through the night; the only word that we understood was "Ayuttayah" so it was a bit hard to grasp just who was attacking whom. The audience was Thai: ours were virtually the only European faces. The ancient city was under siege several times, and was razed and torched, twice burning to the ground. Fire and fireworks was a real feature of this event -- western fireworks pale into insignificance compared with the kind of stuff that was going here. And the show ended with hundreds (yes literally hundreds) of airborne bonfires, raised aloft in the inky night by glowing paper hot-air balloons, each the size of a large man; individual fires floating high up above in a huge platoon and drifting slowly out of sight in the gentle breeze.

After Thailand, Kinabalu. Ian and Alistair flew to Kota Kinabalu, in the far-flung Malaysian province of Sabah, in the northern corner of the island of Borneo, right on the equator. The mountain is truly awesome. From Kota Kinabalu on the coast you look inland and see hilly countryside, topped by a layer of cloud, and wonder which is Kinabalu. Then you glance upward and towering right above the cloud is this magnificent, huge, majestic (etc etc) jagged granite lump. Adjectives fail you. We stayed a night on the coast with Alistair's Chinese in-laws, then took a long and bumpy taxi-ride to the base of the mountain, 5000 feet up and refreshingly cool (yes, cool) after the stifling equatorial heat of Borneo. Early the next morning we went to the information centre to meet our guide. And then up, up, up, on a well-trodden path through the tropical rain-forest, never too steep but always relentlessly climbing. It's cool and cloudy. You pass through several different vegetation zones, one of the most striking being the cloud forest, where ferns and gaudy tropical flowers grow high up in the crooks of trees, watered by moisture from the clouds, and every branch and limb is covered by mossy green vegetation. Gradually, as you climb (and climb, and climb) the trees grow smaller and thin out into bush, you rise above the clouds into the bright sunshine, and the awesome jagged bare rocky peaks appear far overhead. Two native women pass us, laundry-size baskets strapped to their heads with tumplines, full of some rich party's gear. By early afternoon we have reached our hut for the night, a relatively luxurious affair where you can buy meals, and even -- would you believe it? -- cans of Guinness! (not wasted on Ian, we can assure you). By now the sun is really hot, the air is thin, and walking even a few yards leaves you breathless. And in the shade it's freezing. After a nervous and restless night we start out at 3 AM, climbing in the dark, panting with each step from lack of oxygen. The trail is really steep now, and emerges onto bare granite with not a scrap of vegetation. There are fixed ropes to hold on to -- not really necessary for climbing, but nice for balance. Our party of three is faster than others: we pass one small group resting, including a girl speaking English, and Ian gives her a breezy "top of the morning" (for it's already 4:30) as he passes, only to learn later on (at the top) that this was exactly the point at which she threw up from altitude sickness: some bloody Irishman was the last straw! We gain the summit, 4101 metres (13,455 feet) well in time for dawn. Several parties are already there, and more join us all the time. It really is freezing cold at this altitude. Gloves, hats, every scrap of clothing is on and everyone is still shivering: if this is the equator, heaven help the poles. The sun finally pokes up through a misty horizon, a satisfying if not spectacular sunrise, and we look down several thousand vertical feet, past a few wispy clouds, into Low's gully where a few months earlier a British army training party got lost in disarray: you might have heard. You can also see the countryside ten thousand feet below, looking down past the odd scattered cloud, it really is just like being in a plane. And then the descent, which we did (foolishly, it transpired) in just a few hours. Back to Kota Kinabalu for a night, then off the next day for a long flight back to New Zealand via Singapore. Ian's legs seized up completely. He could only walk on the flat, and then with great pain. You know the way the jetway slopes slightly downhill to the plane? -- he couldn't manage that and had to crab down sideways, a hair's- breadth from calling for a wheelchair. Kinabalu was a fabulous experience: everyone should do it.

At the very end of the year, Pam, Ian and Nikki drove down to Christchurch. Anna had a New Year's Eve engagement in Gisborne, and flew down by herself a couple of days later. We took about three days to drive down, including a fearful four hours on the Cook Strait ferry -- the roughest stretch of water in the world, they say; but we were lucky and no-one was sick. We spent some time in Kaikoura, which since we were last there in 1985 has become the whale watching capital of the world. We seal-watched instead, and even saw a penguin. Smelly, but interesting. One reason for the trip was that Ian had been invited to play in Tim Bell's group "Barock" on New Years Eve, so we all spent the evening in a Christchurch hotel lobby, Ian playing and Pam and Nikki hanging out with other groupies. We visited Akaroa where some friends are building a house on a hill with a million-dollar view out over the bay, which is an extinct volcano crater. We went sailing in the bay with other friends, where we met up with a small school of "Hector's" dolphins. The next day Ian was sailing in a tiny catamaran and several more dolphins played around it for nearly half an hour. The cat was creaming through the water and the dolphins were all around us: at first Ian tried to steer to avoid them, but soon he realised it was pointless: they were far more manoeuvrable than the boat, and swooped and veered around the bow waves. Magical!

Back to Hamilton for a few days before the real sailing trip. We had rented a boat in the Bay of Islands, way up north of Auckland, with some friends. There were seven of us on board at any one time, though we had some (planned!) crew switches. It was an adults-only trip; Nikki was at rowing camp and Anna, predictably, was somewhere else. The week was a gastronomic adventure. Everyone had to prepare a day's worth of meals, including drinks, and many evenings were spent in a pleasant nautical haze of Margueritas, sangria, gin-and- tonic, ... There was also a bit of falling-in. And a whole lot of swimming: whenever we anchored the whole crew would leap overboard and make for the beach, and the last one out had to take the dinghy with a supply of shoes and suntan oil. We passed a week very happily, pottering around the islands and exploring the bays. Ian, the captain, wore a huge grin the whole time (and little else). The trip was such a success that we're planning to do more sailing again this summer -- with a difference (see next year's episode).

1995 will be remembered as the year of the visitors. We had a wonderfully full and varied household for the best part of three months. Saul and Judy came from Calgary for a couple of months with their two sons, the youngest of whom became besotted with our van, for him, "Pam's bus". Adam, the elder, helped Saul and Ian build a chicken coop, for this summer we diversified into poultry. It's a handsome affair, the Hilton of henhouses. Other visitors from Calgary were the Svoboda family, with Eli, Nikki's very best friend of all time. Eli also stayed with us while her parents went down to the South island, and did a great job of comforting Nikki after a gruesome mouth operation involving the extraction of two impacted wisdom teeth and two over-crowded eye teeth (canines). Meanwhile, Saul and Judy toured Northland to make room for the Svobodas. And Ian's brother Brian, with Rosaleen and young Michael, came over from England. Michael learned to swim in our pool, and also had a glorious time driving the tractor. At one point we had twelve people living in the house, from four different families, and with the help of a few other shorter-term visitors we filled several pages of the visitor's book. It was just great to see family and old friends, and be able to show them our neck of the woods.

We've mentioned the chickens. There are six. Amelia was the first to learn to fly, followed by Lindy Lindberg, Wilbur, and Orville. At this point we clipped their wings and now we don't know which is which. But five of them lay an egg nearly every day; and the sixth is due for the cooking pot just as soon as we find out which one it is. Nikki's calf Rata unfortunately died of pneumonia when she was about a year old. She had been boarding in a grassy patch down the road for some time, so luckily we were spared the pain of dealing with a dying animal. Pam decided that we shouldn't have lambs this year, as a serious epidemic of incest has broken out in our small flock, so we put many of our sheep in the freezer to keep them out of trouble. However, life seemed so lonely in the springtime that she found an orphan lamb in a neighbour's field for us to take care of. Nikki named her Urshula Wednesday (yes, you must pronounce the sh), and has been feeding her powered milk out of a Coke bottle every day. Urshy comes bounding across the field, bleating like crazy, whenever you so much as open a door, and we find ourselves creeping around the back yard so as not to attract her attention and shatter the peace of the neighbourhood. Another exciting domestic event was when a huge gum tree fell down in a storm, shaking the house to its foundations but luckily falling the other way. Out here in the country, such events assume momentous proportions. We were pleased that it didn't disturb the blue herons that nest in the tree beside.

In October we held our annual Canadian Thanksgiving party, rounding up our Canadian friends, many of them from Calgary. This year we were delighted to welcome Sue and Bruce MacDonald and their family, friends for many years in Calgary and recently returned to New Zealand to live in Auckland.

This was also the year of the kitchen. We had our kitchen completely re-designed and kitted out with these great new fittings, such as a microwave (have you tried them? -- they're amazing!) and cappuccino machine. And it looks really excellent, makes a real difference to the house. It also makes great food.

Having become stage-struck after being in a school production of Oliver last year, Nikki participated enthusiastically in this year's musical Barnum, about P.T. Barnum who began Barnum and Bailey's circus in the US in the middle of last century. And Ian was in the band! There was a lot of music, both a band and an orchestra (mostly band though), jazzy stuff, circus stuff, some schmalzy waltzes, the lot. The musicians were mostly music teachers from other schools; they were all very good and it was a bit of a challenge keeping up. The highlight for Ian was a dixieland clarinet solo that he got to play; he improvised a different one every night of the week (which strained his creative resources!). The story is a fascinating one: P.T. Barnum makes a living out of "humbugging" people into believing blown-up stories while his wife desperately tries to keep his feet on the ground and get him to settle for a less flamboyant lifestyle; they split up, get together again, he becomes mayor, runs for Congress, she dies tragically, and at the very end he meets Bailey and goes back into showbiz to start up the circus. Nikki had a part in the chorus. All the actors were very good. We had on stage the largest elephant in the world; Tom Thumb, the smallest man; the oldest woman (George Washington's nanny); the Swedish Nightingale (an opera singer); and plenty of student acrobatics, unicycling, gymnastics. They had got dozens of kids to learn to juggle, and it was quite a sight when they all did it together! The rehearsal schedule was very demanding, but Nikki and Ian both enjoyed the joint involvement.

Another of Nikki's musical accomplishments this year was winning the senior school piano competition. As a result she now thinks we should buy a concert grand piano to replace the $200 upright model she currently practises on at home! She plays simply but with much expression, and finds it hard to walk past the piano without sitting down for a quick tune. But, of course, real practice -- scales and stuff -- is not so popular.

Anna had a successful last rowing season at school. Her lightweight four crew won a bronze medal in the North Island school championships, and her eight crew came fifth in the New Zealand school championships -- for which feats she deservedly earned school rowing colours. However, she had been becoming increasingly frustrated and despondent about school as a whole, and once the rowing season finished she changed schools in mid-year. She hung in there at the new school, and completed the year by sitting her seventh form Bursary exams. For a long time she talked of going off to Calgary in the middle of next year. However, she interviewed for a programme in Travel and Tourism at the local polytechnic, a course which is very popular and hotly contested, and to her great credit she got a place. The programme can be either one, two, or three years, and you come out with a new qualification after each year. Her current plan is to study for a year and then take a year's break, travelling to Canada, before resuming in the second year.

For over a year now Anna has been working part-time in McDonalds. She seems to excel in this service role-, and it's a real pleasure to watch her interacting with customers. However, while she enjoyed it at first, she soon found its limitations frustrating and is now looking for something more rewarding, both financially and personally. But the pay is quite good, although the work is very hard, and her skills have been recognised with the odd bonus. Her boyfriend is trying to teach her to surf and after weekends at the beach she comes home black and blue. She has a lot of guts but, so far, no skill!

Both Pam and Ian played a lot of music this year -- sometimes it seemed like seven nights a week for each of us though on reflection we think it only got up to six. Pam was elected President of the Hamilton Recorder Society and turned the Society around completely by hiring a room to play in once a month and starting lots of new activities, guest conductors, joint weekends with other recorder groups from far-flung Auckland, Rotorua, Tauranga, and Matamata, and so on. Membership has already tripled. Her great achievement this year was to take the Trinity College grade seven recorder exam, which involved many lessons in Auckland, a huge amount of work and practice, and terrible nerves and sleepless nights leading up to the test, which was very demanding. Needless to say, she passed with flying colours. She visits the recorder group in Auckland once a month and was recently elected on to their committee and attended a recorder weekend there. She has also been organising a small recorder group, teaching occasionally at Hamilton's Saturday morning music school, tutoring at a weekend children's workshop in Raglan, on the west coast, and teaching a private adult pupil. She has discovered that teaching music is what she loves to do most of all, and wants to make it her career when she grows up.

Meanwhile, she has been working at a local primary school assessing and teaching severely intellectually and handicapped children who are integrated into regular classrooms. She had a terrible fright in September when one of her charges fell asleep in a wheelchair during assembly. Pam picked her up and cuddled her to make her more comfortable, and the child promptly stopped breathing and turned blue. Pam was frantically trying to attract her boss's attention without alarming the children nearby. They eventually got the child breathing again, only to be reprimanded by the parents when they were informed -- apparently they have a non-resuscitation order on the child. However, a call to the Ministry of Education confirmed that they had done the right thing and should follow the same course of action in the future, if necessary. It was a shattering occasion, one which made Pam's first experience of handling a child's grand mal seizure a trifle by comparison.

Ian started a jazz trio late last year; they played in a cafe for a while but have not managed to break into any big-time recording contracts yet. They're called Rubato, which literally means "robbed time" (they steal time from their university commitments to play) and has a number of different musical connotations, including not being able to play properly in time, and taking time out for espresso (oops, expression). He started a new, mainly classical, clarinet quartet -- the other three players are really good and he tags along somehow. He play duets regularly with a lady who used to be a professional orchestral player. And then there's the Waikato Symphony Orchestra and the clarinet quintet. Things have wound down now a bit with summer coming in, which is something of a relief -- the playing is wonderful but there's such a lot of it and it's hard to juggle commitments. And in late November, he went to a conference in Dunedin and got inveigled into jamming along with a school jazz band who were playing at the conference reception: it was quite an experience, playing with a group of bow-tied fourth- and fifth-formers.

Ian visited the US twice this year, but Canada not at all. He went to the data compression conference at Snowbird, Utah, as he does every year, and managed to fit in a little skiing on the powdery slopes at what must be one of the best ski resorts in the world, plus a bit of lounging in hot tubs on the roof in gently falling snow, etc etc (you must have heard this before because he does it every year!) At the same time he took a brief side trip to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, right in the very heart of Mormon country. Stayed the night with a family with eight kids (only one wife, though; ha ha ha) and ended up playing music with some of them. This is just a small family, someone else in the Computer Science department there has fourteen kids. Ian is involved in a project examining the application of text compression techniques to the renowned Mormon genealogical database (44 Gbytes of it, for you computer people, plus six million rolls of microfilmed parish records stored in a vault in a mountain, yet to be digitised). The reason for collecting this information is because people can apparently be "saved" posthumously, if you know who they are -- in Maori terms, if you can recite their whakapapa or family history. Saves all the bother of deathbed conversions, too. Ian's host there was keen to impress him by looking up preceding generations of Wittens, but, to his amazement, drew a blank: our past is murkier than most.

The second trip, a couple of months later, was to Tahoe City on Lake Tahoe at the border between California and Nevada. With some students from Waikato who were also attending the conference, he rented a car in San Francisco and drove north and east, stopping in the Napa Valley for mandatory winery tours, up to Tahoe. And, afterwards, he drove with Dave (an ex-graduate student from Calgary) and Craig (from Waikato) all the way across Nevada into Utah. Maybe they do the nuclear tests in Nevada because a few bomb craters might improve the scenery? -- seriously, though, it's stark, scrubby semi-desert, with arid ranges of hills, and virtually no settlements. The only campsites on the map are army camps, vast tracts of land marked "forbidden" and looking forbidding. Gambling and instant marriages are Nevada's chief contribution to contemporary culture: there's a state-wide chain of wedding chapels with branches in every little town. As soon as you cross the border to Utah, all signs of love and liquor abruptly cease. The great salt flats await, shimmering in the heat right through to the horizon, where distant bare-rock mountains seem to float in the air like huge, ageless, derelict hulks. You can park the car by the four-lane highway and walk out on the flats. The salt is a kind of crust on muddy clay, surprisingly moist, and seems corrosive, almost evil. There is nowhere to sit, it's absolutely flat and featureless. It's hard even to stop walking, for every place is absolutely identical to every other and there is no reason for singling out any particular point to take a rest. You could walk for miles here, totally alone in the vast open desert, away from the road, towards the distant hills, and you wonder how long it would take to get to them -- one hour? two? It turns out when you look at the roadmap that they are thirty or more miles away. There is no water and you begin to feel a little thirsty. Anyway, dropping Dave off in Salt Lake City, Ian and Craig turned south to spend a weekend in Canyonlands, well south of Provo. This also is a weird place! They went to Arches National Park (you must have seen pictures of the hundreds of massive rock arches) , camped on the slickrock, visited the great, grey, greasy, Colorado river, hiked through the desert. Then to Provo for another visit to Brigham Young before heading home.

We're really sorry this letter comes so late. It's a lovely sunny day today as we finish it off, cooped up inside slaving over a hot computer: this is just not the letter-writing season. Perhaps we should move to a mid-year letter, written on some cold rainy day in July. But another reason for the delay is that a couple of months ago Ian fell in love with a lady from New Zealand, just a little older than he. Called Mahara (which in Maori means "thought"), she is really beautiful, with classic good looks, and it was love at first sight. Pam and Ian were strolling around the shore at Devonport, on the north side of Auckland harbour, when they met, and much to Ian's surprise Pam really liked her too! -- we were both knocked out by her fabulous looks despite the fact that (as we found out later) she is a little older than us. So, after a period of serious soul-searching and courtship, and countless trips up to Auckland, we had her surveyed with a view to forming a long-term liaison -- only to find that three of her ribs were cracked! Not a serious flaw, perhaps, for they could easily be mended, but we felt that it didn't bode well for the future: no sense in getting into a serious relationship only to find that the lady of your dreams isn't structurally sound. Well, the long and short of it is that we've just bought a different yacht, and the search has been occupying much time and mental energy over the last few weeks. But more of all that next year.

And the accident in Fiji? Sorry, this is already too long. You'll have to imagine that one yourself.

Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you.

Pam, Ian, Anna, and Nikki