Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Goodbye Willie Booth

Today I went to Westminster to celebrate the life of The Reverend Prebendary Willie Booth, a much loved friend of many and a significant figure in my own formative years at the palace.

It was a lovely memorial service, full of fond anecdotes as well as many musical and literary delights and this passage particularly struck a chord:

Success

To laugh often and love much;
to win the respect of intelligent persons
and the affection of children;
to earn the approbation of honest critics
and to endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to give of one's self;
to leave the world a little better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to have played and laughed with enthusiasm
and sung with exultation;
to know that even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived -
this is to have succeeded.

attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, 19 October 2009

Life meets Death at Wapping Project


It’s rare that we are actually made to confront death so boldly as we are at the Wapping Project’s Death Drive exhibition where nine evocative photographs by Dean Rogers meticulously capture the scenes of iconic celebratory deaths.


Rogers took the photos on the anniversary and at the exact time and place that Jayne Mansfield, Marc Bolan, Albert Camus, Grace Kelly, Eddie Cochrane, Princess Diana, James Dean, Jackson Pollock ad Helmut Newton met their end. The results are morbidly fascinating and eerily beautiful.

The show, which runs until 1 November also includes a fabulous ‘Crash’ type a-z by Deborah Levy..."a perilous road trip through death, celebrity and the automobile". Then, in the back room is ‘Signal 30’, an Ohio Highway Patrol road safety film for schools made in 1959. Nothing is spared and it’s not for the faint hearted. They’d never get away with it now, although perhaps they should. The horrid waste of it all. More here at one of the most irritating websites ever.

If that sounds a bit too sinister but you haven’t been to the Wapping Project, go anyway. Once a hydraulic power station, the gallery is such a unique space and free to enter, and the spacious restaurant, though a bit pricey, serves really imaginative food. The real draw though is that you eat surrounded by the original pulleys and machinery - a legacy of the building’s past.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

I Love My Postcode


What a clever idea. There are so many different postcodes in London, each with their own character, history and fans.

Now you can share your enthusiasm for yours at ilovemypostcode.com.

Read an interview I did about E1 in the blog.

Autumn in my favourite city

Days and weeks and months have flashed by and now we are in Autumn.

So many days of sun, friends, fun and cycling around this marvellous city have passed, making it difficult to believe I've been back for over five months.

My new bfcf (best female cycling friend) Vanessa and I have explored canals...

cycled to city farms...

done the (Mayor of London's) Skyride, got stuck in to the Bicycle Film Festival...
and many other wonderful things besides; both of us, in different ways and with individual needs trying to figure out the course of our futures. Sounds serious but is proving a lot of fun.

I have greatly enjoyed working for Stacey and the rest of the bright, energetic, expert Lavish team and am proud to have helped, even just a little, with the development of the new charity arm of the business, Lavish Connect. However, although I have much to learn and would stay there for much, much longer if I could, I must turn to new ventures.

So now it's back to thinking about what I'm good at, what I want to achieve and how to get that message across to potential employers!

In some ways I feel far more knowledgeable about a plethora of creative services, project management and charities but I am woefully lacking in confidence, experience and purpose. I feel unskilled in these sectors, an insecurity which no doubt comes across in the workplace, despite the effort I put it. I feel I am always disappointing.

Having said that, it's apparent that the massive uptake of social media trends such as Twitter in recent months makes it a very exciting time to be in new media and the geek in me knows I will soon find my niche. Meanwhile, Lavish will continue to prop me up while I soak up as much 'inside knowledge' as I possibly can. I am so grateful to them.

So, while I look ahead to the future, I must add that I am loving the present and feel very lucky to be able to cycle around the capital making the most of these glorious, crisp and cloudless days of Autumn. Having decided against buying a new stead, instead I am pimping the old one with these from Bobbin Bicycles in Islington:


Much to my delight, I've also become Newsletter Editor of Southwark Cyclists. Check out my work on The Needle!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

July...already??

Wow. It feels strange to be back on my blog after so long.

Can it really be almost a year since we first arrived in Australia, after all that traveling around Asia?

Have we already been back in London for 3 months?!

Things have been fantastically busy since our return. After several weeks of trying to elbow my way back in to the BBC, calling on just about every contact I still have there, I have decided to retrain in Project Management. I never wanted to be a civil servant anyway.

Stacey, my biggest supporter (aside from my parents) and inspiration, has bravely taken me on and is teaching me the ways of the Creative industry.

I know so little. My interest in all things geeky and tech related goes only so far when it comes to making steps in this new world. She and Mr. Madge are imbuing me with mountains of knowledge, born of years of hard work, and allowing me access to all facets of their business.

It's a very exciting place to be right now, even more so with this recession, and I am grateful to be here.

The weather, an ever-important subject for a cyclist, is erratic but hardly grey at the moment and I can ride in a t-shirt or frock every day and I am truly happy to be back in London.

I will write again soon but for now, I implore you kind friends to yet again sponsor me on a charity ride. This time it's for Leukemia. I promise not to ask again for at least three months!
Neil D'Souza is one of my team mates and he set up the JustGiving page.

ttfn xxx

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Photos

All my travel photos are now on Picasa!

http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/alexecrawford

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Bank Holiday in the East End

I have a terrible pain. I think I have injured myself again. Too much running or cycling or something. Hip in agony and pain spreading down my leg.

So I must force myself to rest. This must be a Bank Holiday weekend of job applications and research and getting used to being in the new flat.

Outside are constant noises; familiar London peeps, sirens, honks, engine rumbles, clip-clopping shoes, screeches, shouts. The flat also has its own weird sounds - creaking pipes, rattles, bubbling boilers, footsteps up above, echoes etc.

These are the early days. I haven't been rejected from anywhere yet so the opportunities presenting themselves seem boundless. The recession has little to do with my life yet while I live in this bubble of hope and while I am enjoying seeing friends, reading the news and contributing (all to frequently) to various social networking sites.

While I was in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore I was on holiday, with a view to becoming a writer. In the Philippines I thought about making films. In Thailand I considered starting a PhD on my return. In Cambodia and Laos, I thought I was losing my mind. In China, I was longing to get to Australia. In Australia I found I was pretty good at finance and law. Now after New Zealand and California I am back trying to be determined, trying to be steady and decisive.

Writing has my heart but I do not have enough focus (or financial means) to write a novel now. Broadcasting is what I am trained to do and the career with which I define myself. The extrovert in me is desperate to put things out there, make programmes, share stories with the world and help others know truth, while the fragile child-like imp is hurt by criticism, stung by knock-backs, consumed by fear and longing to be approved of, valued, given directions and told that everything is going to be OK.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Skydive flash back

ha ha ha ha - skydive photos

I'll stick the video up too once I have swallowed my pride...

Please sponsor me in the Thames Bridge Ride

I hate asking for sponsorship and for suggesting that people should give me dosh for doing something fun, if challenging, but this is a very good cause and I need all the motivation I can get after a year out of the saddle (and so far all my 'Spokey Dokes' team mates have raised more than me!).

If you can spare a few squid, please just follow the links here:

http://www.justgiving.com/alexonwheels


THANK YOU!!!

Thursday, 30 April 2009

swine flu?



I have a terrible cold.
Have been coughing and spluttering for days now.
Job hunting is a horrible, boring, soul destroying process.
All I want to do is ride my bike around town and play with my mum's new puppy...

Back in Blighty

So, we're back in that there London. At first we went to Camberwell and stayed with my mum, sister, brother and new puppy. In the first few jobless, homeless, jet-lagged days I showed Ric around Peckham, Walworth, Dulwich and other parts of south east London – poor thing really had no idea where on the map we were.

At least we have had loads of friends to catch up with in other parts of London.

We also spent a couple of days looking for a place to live and to our surprise found London not half as bad as we liked to remember it. It really looks rather old and charming, even Peckham. Better still, there's hardly been a drop of rain since we got back. We have been blessed with long, warm and sunny days. We quickly found a spacious two bed warehouse conversion in Aldgate East, a place I had only ever been to at night for a curry. The price was good and the central location, a big draw but perhaps we were a bit quick to snap it up as we failed to notice the damp air, the wee stained passage our front door faces in to and the fact that our upstairs neighbours can peer in on us in the bedroom from the skylights.

Now we are here with all our dozens of boxes and my bike and loving it. I have never had so much room for my things! I am so excited about exploring the whole area, the seemingly endless curry restaurants, the markets and the cobbled wharfs and docks just south of us. I can get to the river in five minutes on my bike and Oxford Circus in fifteen.

We still have to find jobs and the place needs some personal touches but we are happy to be here as long as we can get rid of the damp smell.

Friday, 10 April 2009

London here we come

I can't really believe it but this is the last blog of my year-long travels.

After visiting 14 countries, staying in countless hotels, motels, vans and hostels, making a whole host of new friends and meeting up with old ones, we are finally on our way home.

Tonight we climbed up Westmoor Hill with Ric's cousin and his girlfriend so that we could look out across San Francisco. There we were, just the four of us, high above the city with no fog to obscure the view - we could see everything so clearly. So many little yellow lights. So many people down below.

I am so excited about going home especially since my mum has bought an eight week old black Labrador puppy, but I also have many fears for the future days and weeks and many regrets about the way this year has panned out, specifically, the way I have failed to overcome my demons.

Ah well. Onwards and upwards. I'm coming home!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Salinas and San Francisco


We're now in San Francisco, recovering from the sensory overload of Vegas and to an extent, LA which I have decided would be far too big, brash and car-obsessed for me to ever live in, despite the numerous vegan restaurants!

We drove out of LA, past Miami Beach along the Pacific Highway and then joined Route 101 to get here, stopping off only at the Getty Villa, Santa Barbara, Monterey and Salinas, the pretty childhood home of John Steinbeck, one of my favorite American writers.

I was charmed by Santa Barbara and could easily have spent a few days there soaking up the friendly, holiday vibes and wandering around the many shops and restaurants which, although mostly hip and modern have an old fashioned sensibility. I must admit that while I once craved spring rolls, stir fries and all things tofu for every meal, I am becoming rather addicted to burritos, cheese and brown rice. I think would easily become very fat if I did move here.

After a late lunch here we drove in to the night until we reached Monterey, a small-ish town on the coast. The only place open for food was Denny's diner right next door to the Motel we crashed in for the night. The only things on the menu which didn't have meat were onion rings and coleslaw, so I had both. I can't wait to be able to cook for myself once again!

Visiting Steinbeck's childhood town was a real treat and, for me, a highlight of our California visit. The Steinbeck Centre was interesting and well done, even for the uninitiated (Ric). From there it was just a couple of hours until we arrived in San Francisco.

I love it here. It's not hot, it's often foggy, there are bums on the street but it has character. It has an edgy, artsy, multi-ethnic (and obviously, mutli-sexual) feel without being too busy or overcrowded. It is very photogenic, has masses of cool places to eat, has fantastic murals and pretty buildings and there are runners and cyclists all over the place!

The city and its residents are so vastly different from Los Angeles that it is hard to believe they exist in the same state. I can't help but liken it to London, well London's best bits.

Last night we walked over to the lively Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 to see the resident sea-lions, wander around the novelty shops and sample the clam chowder in a bun offerings. We could just about see the Golden Gate Bridge too as the sun went down.

Today we wandered over to Union Square and mooched around the shops before going to see Monsters vs Aliens at the IMAX 3D cinema. I've never been to an IMAX before and was blown away by the effects!

We then met up with Ric's young cousin John who has lived here for five years and is a non-smoking, non-drinking, vegan cyclist - at last, someone even straighter than me!

He is a real delight to socialise with and tomorrow, on his day off from studies, he is going to take us across the Golden Gate Bridge to show us some of the rural highlights of this region.

On a totally different subject, I have been avidly following the Obamas' European tour and am glad Michelle has proved such a hit in London, especially with the Queen it seems. Doesn't the media just love a Queen story?

With the assistance of some glossy magazines I have also been keeping up to date with poor old Jade Goody's cancer battle and although I didn't particularly like the girl, I was really upset about her sorry tale. I hope it prompts at least a few girls to make sure they get themselves checked.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Viva Las Vegas, and all the other cliches


Some Las Vegas Photos

As soon as we had booked our hotel in Las Vegas I started thinking about what to expect, based largely on what I had seen in the movies.

I thought of Elvis Priestly, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, fancy casinos, women in ball gowns, Indecent Proposal, strip clubs, tuxedos, rom-coms where the guys go on crazy drunken stag weekends and where ill-matched characters tie the knot in one of the various hotel wedding chapels.

We arrived here at dusk after a five hour drive through almost barren, sometimes desert, landscape (we even spotted tumbleweed on the motorway).

Like a mirage the city seemed to spring out of the dust and before long we were driving down Las Vegas Boulevard gawping up at the vast, brightly lit themed hotels, listening to the music each of their casinos were pumping out and watching the swathes of people bustling past each other on the pavements. Wow.

This was my first impression but I don't think any of this or my movie knowledge could have prepared me for the full onslaught of Vegas' glorious, tacky extravagance. If the USA is known for not doing things by half then Vegas does things by the double.

We are staying at The Paris, a grand hotel complex which includes a replica of the Eiffel Tower (which you can pay to climb!), the Arch de Triomphe, as well as a big round roof top pool, a spa, a plush casino and a large series of undercover corridors full of tempting boutiques, gift shops, wine sellers, bars and restaurants and where it is always minutes before sunset. As we walked to the reception from the car park (we were allowed to self park thankfully - we weren't up for the valet malarkey) we felt pretty overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all and the hundreds of people wandering about. On closer inspection it was obvious that this place isn't as fancy as it looks - indeed, not only is every thing a replica (thus fake) but also rather cheaply made. The cobbled streets, framed wall paintings, handmade wooden furniture, chandeliers, marble bathroom surfaces etc. reveal themselves to be almost exclusively plastic and plaster and probably made in China. That's not to say it isn't fun. Let's just say it's more mainstream than I expected. And why not? Everyone here looks like they are having a great time, especially where the Margaritas are flowing.

It feels a lot like a Disneyland for grown-ups although there are as many families here as there are wealthy business people. There's obviously a lot more gambling and drinking going on too.

Since arriving on Monday night we have spent three days wandering along the 'strip' and exploring most of the main hotels including the iconic MGM Grand with it's live lion house, Caesars Palace with it's Atlantis show (which run every hour on the hour), New York-New York (we also did the roller coaster on it's roof), Planet Hollywood, Rio, Luxor, ultra tacky Circus Circus, Bellagio and it's spectacular fountain shows, Bally's, Excalibur, Monte Carlo, The Mirage, Treasure Island and the ridiculous but wonderful Venetian which houses its own canals and singing gondoliers. Aside from the casinos and bars which are all quite similar to each other, these hotels are home to a vast array of other attractions including shows, restaurants and shops. Many bars offer novelty drinking vessels such as ceramic Eiffel Towers, guitars, cowboy boots and the more traditional 'yards' and many people wander from casino to casino drinking these as they go. All the way up and down the strip Mexican workers were handing out cards for 'sexy girls' who will come to your door within 20 minutes.

Vegas is fun to explore during the day and there is always somewhere good to go for food (and there is a whole four-level store devoted to M&Ms) but it's at night that the place really comes in to its own. Every inch of wall space on the main strip seems to be covered with neon signs, bright flashing advertisements, water displays or video screens and the pavements are filled with tourists, many with a bottle or an aforementioned novelty glass in hand. There doesn't seem to be a specific dress code here. Some dress up (the clubbers and serious gamblers I suppose) but most are in shorts or jeans. We haven't tried our luck on any gambling games. Somewhere between the Luxor's toilets and the Bodies Show, I lost a lovely brand new bikini which I had spent three hours choosing in the Bikini Bay in the Miracle Mile shopping arcade. That was a loss enough. I went back there twice but no one had handed it in :(

Thinking we'd best see a show while in town, we went to see the comedy magicians Penn & Teller (Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller). Ric remembers watching them on the telly in the '90s and Penn continues to make all sorts of television and radio appearances as a political commentator, atheist, libertarian, comedy presenter etc.

They were mostly excellent and their energetic show involves a lot of witty banter and dramatic tricks. Considering they have been living here in Vegas for years, they seemed very fresh and happy to be there. I wasn't forced on to the stage at any point thank God.

We have eaten a lot of buffets here and they are good but by far the best meal we have had here was at Ah Sin in Paris. I'm glad I didn't read the terrible reviews I have just found on the Internet before I went (crikey)! We didn't order the rather boring and too-good-too-be-true sounding ALL YOU CAN EAT SUSHI. Instead, Ric had half a duck which he said was done to perfection while I had some green bean tempura, cucumber and seaweed salad, spicy grilled eggplant and an asparagus and mushroom dish. All of these were great. Here are the hilarious reviews though:

http://las-vegas-hotels.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g45963-d449420-Reviews-Ah_Sin-Las_Vegas_Nevada.html

We haven't spotted anyone famous yet but we did pass a very glamorous bride and groom and their entire wedding party on Las Vegas Boulevard.

So that's a little bit about Vegas for you. I would definitely come again but not for a while and perhaps with group of friends for more of a party vibe. I'm just about getting used to the tax and tipping maths one has to apply to almost everything here.

My OCD and eating are bad and I get upset and annoyed with myself a hundred times a day for it, but I am hanging in here and clinging on to the fact that soon will be home and getting back to some sort of routine. I can't wait to see my family and friends again and ploughing my energies in to finding a fulfilling job. Ric has been so supportive during this year away and I adore him for it.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Shopping and Strip Clubs

We had a great, if bizarre day today starting with a bit of shopping.

I managed to spend $150 on Benefit cosmetics within just ten minutes of arriving at Bloomingdales. Before I had a chance to even look at anything else, I was sitting on the sales girl's stool having my eye brows 'fixed up', my cheeks 'primed', my blemishes zapped with a magic wand and my lips painted pink. I was completely sucked in by these gorgeously packaged, girly, sweet-smelling products which are called delightfully American things like Boo Boo Zap, Brow Zings and Bad Gal and make you feel a million dollars by just looking at them. They became even less resistible when I was told that I qualified for a free gift. As my eyes lit up, Ric's rolled.

But then we went and found him a very smart Calvin Klein jacket so he is chuffed with that. All these brands are so much cheaper here! I tried to find a dress for our imminent trip to Vegas but my interest and patience quickly waned so we headed back to Hollywood (Boulevard - the locals chop off the Blvd, Street, Road etc, part of each address so they sound cooler) and ate an early dinner at a popular but cosy vegan restaurant I had been eyeing up since we got to Hollywood. They have an amazing menu which offers everything from succulent mock chicken and mock peppered steak burgers (with non-diary cheese) to protein salads, tofu and vegetable stir-fries, soups, curries, noodles and shabu-shabu, most of which are served with a bowl of nutty brown rice. And that was just the savoury menu! For once I was totally spoilt for choice and even Ric (who had a burger) said he couldn't fault it.

Afterwards, we had a weird night out. We went to meet Ric's friend (who happens to be a vegan) at a bar in West Hollywood. He'd been invited to some gig there and asked us to join him. We got there first, paid to park, paid to go in and looked around to find Ric was pretty much the only guy in there and that in fact, most of the clientele were gay - we found out later that this was a very popualr lesbian bar. Ric's friend whipped us out of there as soon as he found us and we decided to check out a comedy bar called Improv down the road (ie. a 2 mile drive away). I wasn't sure I coud sit through some bad commedy but we went anyway. We got there and the tickets had sold out so we just hung around the bar for a few hours before it was suggested that we try Jumbos, a strip club a couple of miles east of our Motel which stays open til late. I was assured that this joint was as popular with the girls as the boys and that the strippers don't even take their tops off. So off we went in the car again to watch some poles dancing at 1am. The traffic was truly terrible by now and we couldn't find a free parking spot anywhere but we finally made it in and found Lemmy from Motorhead standing outside the entrance smoking a cigarette. Ric was far more excited about that than seeing the semi-naked ladies. The things they can do in 8 inch heels and half way up a pole are amazing though.

We're learning fast that a night out in LA is nothing like London. First of all, you need to plan it far more precisely with your friends as everything is so spread out and you can't really do anything without driving. Then, because you need to drive, you can't really drink. If you want to park, you have to pay through the teeth. Most bars have a valet service which seems a bit of a joke to me especially when they only park it out the front. The traffic you have to sit in to get from one place to another somewhat kills the party mood too so the whole evening can feel drawn out before you've even done anything. At least there's always some up-beat rock tune on the radio.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

LA LA Land




Bright, brash, frantic, flashy, trashy, kitsch, psychedelic, sprawling, smoggy, oozing with old school and 'nu' cool; we have arrived in LA, California.

After six weeks in the relative tranquility of New Zealand and a twelve hour flight, this heavily populated state feels like a rush of blood to the head and has attitude to boot!

We booked a Dodge Caliber through Thrifty Rentals but much to Ric's delight, ended up with a cool black Mustang which sure has a lot of kick! It's possibly the lowest vehicle I have ever sat in and for the first few hours I felt sure Ric was going to scrape the right hand side of the car off along with me. He's never driven on the right before, let alone in a sports car in LA so thank God we got Sat Nav as I was far too terrified to do any map reading.

The first thing I wanted to do after our long flight and lengthily wait for our baggage, even before finding a hotel was to go for a walk so we headed off to Venice Beach, trusting that our new electronic guide would get us there. The beach is a long and sandy and the Ocean Front Walk is a hive of fun and games which reminded me of Brighton Beach. As we walked along the shore we watched huge pelicans dive bomb in to the sea to catch fish, spotted a few Asian women trying and failing to surf and observed the pinky haze spread out like a blanket from one horizon to the other.

I just kept pinching myself - I'm in America! People here are real Americans, just like in the movies, and they are just as loud, proud, demonstrative and characterful as I imagined. I have lots of American friends but to see so many of them and in their own environment is somewhat overwhelming. Does that sound really weird, or rude?

People here talk loudly on their 'cell phones' so broadcasting their private lives. They get in to full-on shouting matches with traffic wardens. They paint their eyebrows on their faces. They have large, impressive tattoos, drive big cars and run red lights. They eat a lot of tacos, pizza, hot dogs, burgers and sushi and are served BIG portions. They walk around with their tiny toy dogs and some dress up as Superman, Homer Simpson, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp and stand outside the Chinese Theatre posing with the tourists. There are more liquor stores and smoke shops than local supermarkets. There are advertisements on the telly for sex drugs, Catheters and 'Personal Massagers' and some radio stations only broadcast religious diatribe.

We are staying in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard right next to the famous Kodak Theatre (where the Oscars are held) and various other showbiz attractions. We can't quite see the sign from here but it's behind us. This Motel 6 isn't luxurious but after 42 nights in a camper van it is ace and we're got free wifi!

So far we've driven through Bel Air, past Beverly Hills, down Melrose, Rodeo Drive, Sunset Blvd and Santa Monica and went to see Ric's friend in Pasedena - all these place I have only ever seen on the big screen! Today we drove over to the J. Paul Getty Center, an impressive museum and research institute which houses hundreds of European paintings, furniture, drawings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, decorative arts and photographs. The surrounding gardens and buildings which housed the artworks were interesting and impressive in themselves and the view across LA were great (except for the smog).

It seems to take at least an hour to get anywhere and parking aint cheap but we're getting used to that. We're also getting better at asserting ourselves in the traffic and not getting caught in lanes we don't want to be in. It would be good if the Sat Nav gave us a bit more warning sometimes so we don't get spat off the motorways by being in the right hand lane.

All is good really and I think I am growing to like this funny place. I LOVE all the vegan restaurants!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Skydive, Rotorua, Lady Knox Geyser, Waiotapu Geothermal Wonderland and Waihi

19/03/09

Today, after putting it off for several days we did the thing for which we came to Taupo - that's right, today we did a skydive.

15,000 feet!

60 seconds of free fall!

200 miles per hour!

I screamed virtually all the way down but more out of excitement than terror - overall I felt surprisingly calm and so did Ric, although he is complaining that it gave him an eyebrow headache. The worst bit was going up in a tiny plane, packed with ten other people and with your dive-master strapped tightly behind you knowing that the only exit was above the clouds. The first three seconds when you hurl yourself out and feel the rush as your body's fall is accelerating are pretty scary too!

Ric went first. While they were descending Ric's dive master Andrew asked him if he'd seen the viral email and news of the bloke in New Zealand whose parachute failed to open and who amazingly lived to tell the tale whilst filming the whole experience on his head-top camera.

Well, that guy was him! His parachute had only partially opened and he careered to earth saying goodbye to the camera but landed in a blackberry bush and got off with just a punctured lung, concussion and a broken ankle. Fortunately he told Ric about all of this long after the parachute was released.

After our skydives, we succumbed to the hard-selling sales girl and ended up buying the whole package (skydive, video, photos and a t-shirt) so we'll be able to show our friends and family for years to come! Was it worth it? Well it's a lot of money but I'm glad to have done it once.

After that we drove on to Rotorua passing through a bizarre Mud Pool on the way. You wouldn't last long in there! They bottle this thermal mud and flog it in the shops for at least $20 a pop!
It does wonders for your skin apparently.

Ironically, well when you consider than Rotorua is sitting on boundless supplies of natural water, the tap water here tastes more stagnant or treated than anywhere else. Ric is quite a water connoisseur and notices these things acutely.

20/03/09

We finally saw a kiwi today. It wasn't in the wild or anything but at the Kiwi Encounter Centre here in Rotorua where they hatch wild eggs and reintroduce them to the wild once the birds are 1kg. Only 5% of kiwi survive to adulthood because of all the predators (especially stoats) which the Europeans brought over. So this conservation programme, although not an ideal solution, gives them a far better chance.

They are quirky little creatures and we learnt lots about them. If you took away their bill they would look a bit like fat rats. The can't fly as they have dense bones and a totally useless wing formation, they don't have a tail, their nostrils are at the end of their bill rather than near their eyes like other birds, their 'feathers' are really more like fur, they mate for life and once their eggs have hatched the parents naff off and leave them totally to their own devices with just a week's worth of yolk inside them to keep them going.

We didn't spend much longer in Rotorua. The various hot baths and spas are nice but it's not a very attractive town and feels a bit dodgy. I did go for a great massage at one of the thermal spas which is affiliated with a hospital and that was fantastic. Don't understand how Ric doesn't enjoy massages.

The occasional but very strong wafts of eggy sulphur smell all around the town amused us.

After Rotorua we thought we'd squeeze in a couple more destinations so went back south a bit to The Lady Knox Geyser and Waiotapu Geothermal Wonderland which is a large thermal park full of truly bizarre geysers, bubbling ponds, smoking earth and colourful rock. It was extremely popular and well worth the $27 ticket price. Every day at 10.30am one of the staff pours a soap-like but biodegradable substance in to the geyser to set it off for the crowd...it goes crazy!

Apparently this explosive characteristic was first discovered by inmates who tried washing their clothes on the site as the prison facilities were so terrible. What a shock they must have had!

22/03/09

Waihi beach was our next stop, the last before Auckland. It is a gorgeous sandy stretch of the Coromandel coastline and was warm and relaxed. The holiday park right next to the beach was by far the best we have stayed at - the swimming pool was opened by none other than the previous Prime minister! We have generally found the Top 10 resorts excellent. So much for roughing it on the road-side!

When we went in to Waihi town the next day we inadvertently stumbled upon a gold mine, a massive pit in the middle of town! So the next day we went on a tour which gave us a bit of background about the place. I never thought I could get excited about a mine but it all looked so impressive - their diggers are huge!

24/03/09

On to Auckland. There really is nothing much to say about Auckland except that it is a big, sprawling city with a tall tower and loads of tricky motorways and raised freeways to navigate. We didn't even bother exploring it before we handed our van back to Jucy Rentals (all in tact thankfully) and flew off to Los Angeles where we would experience the 25th March 2009 for the second time because of the time difference!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Prawn Park and getting in to hot water



18/03/09

Another busy day today (well, for people on holiday). The weather improved massively so we went off to meet Shawn the prawn and try to catch some of his buddies at Huka Prawn Park in Taupo. I was reluctant to go as I didn't want to catch anything but I tagged along anyway as the riding stable was booked up.

The Prawn Park is a funny place. Ric paid $20 (about 8 quid) to fish all day in the four large ponds. He was given a bamboo rod, a bucket of icy water and some cubed Ox heart for bait and sent on his way. The park keeper said I should do the baiting because female pheromones attract sea-creatures and that once we caught our first prawn we should prize the flesh out and use it to bait the rest - so we learned than the prawn is also cannibalistic creature!

Unsurprisingly, without a rod I started to get bored very quickly. I went off to make Ric a sandwich, then walked right round the park, had a go on the some of the interactive attractions including the 'water bikes' (which were pretty lame), cleaned out the car, and then had a go with Ric's rod, thinking I wouldn't catch anything of course...and then I snagged one!

I felt really confused - elated on the one hand but guilty on the other. I couldn't kill this creature could I? What a bad vegetarian! But it was quite exciting. Perhaps I could get myself a rod anyway to pass the time...

So that's what I did. I became a vegetarian who, when very very bored, is prepared to fish for prawns. I only caught three but one of them seemed to be about to spawn thousands of tiny yellow eggs - I would have put it back if it hadn't died in the bucket straight away. Ric also caught three. There should, in total be enough for a small sandwich.

After a day's worth of fishing excitement we went back to the Spa Thermal Park for a soak. It seemed much hotter than yesterday, and busier - I think a whole bus load of student travelers had been dropped off, with their crates of beer.

Our new hypnotherapist friend was there again and this time with, of all people, his teacher Brian Cattermole who founded the "ZennaE" program and has been treating people with everything from anxiety disorders to cancer for 20 years (when he's not being an electrician). It was a strange coincidence indeed. Reiterating what was said to me the day before, Brian spoke of how in a relatively short space of time he could release me of my problems by enabling me to explore their roots. His theory is that most of us carry unresolved 'issues' or emotions from our early childhood in to adulthood and that by tapping in to our memory we can unleash some of these feelings which can in turn restore good health - or something like that.

So his method is basically to combine theories of psychoanalysis with hypnosis and something 'other' of which not even he can speak.

I didn't want to come across as a cynic and he is an interesting guy who clearly believes in what he does but I have seen a lot of therapists and read a lot of books in my time and he wasn't giving me enough hard facts or evidence to suggest his method would help me. I'm not prepared to place faith in miracles as wonderful as they sound.

It's very easy to sum up the causal factors and believe systems of a typical anorexic, bulimic, OCD sufferer and the like. In a way he was right to say bulimia is largely about self-loathing and a desire to purge and punish but that's not all it is about. Sure, the first seven years of our lives are important in shaping our future, but that's not where all the damage is done or where the answers lie. If I had $240 floating about and wasn't rushing to get to Auckland in a week I probably would have done it out of curiosity, but the more I read and read in to his aphoristic materials and think about what he said, the less I am inclined to take him seriously, especially when he describes cancer as a 'black energy form' and something he can 'squeeze out' of a patient's body. He goes on to say that 'cancer is all about emotions originally suppressed by the child'. I'm sorry but I just can't take this seriously. If you really have found a 'cure' for cancer then go and test it thoroughly and get it officiated!

Once we had boiled ourselves at the thermal river again we went for a bite to eat in town. While crossing a roundabout we were honked at very loudly and for a long time by some scum-bag on our tail. Annoyed by this unprovoked aural abuse, Ric stuck a finger up to the driver and thought nothing more of it, that is until he pulled up beside us when we parked, leaped out of his seat and threatened Ric with all sorts of obscenities, even telling us that he'd come back to get us later.
That was probably the least relaxing dinner we have ever eaten. All was well in the end though.

It's a shame how incidents like that can really put one of place. I don't fancy returning to Manila after that beggar woman mugged me.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Strange and beautiful Taupo







17/03/09

We're now staying in Taupo which is right next to Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. It can fit the whole of Singapore in to it! All around us are sites of thermal activity and everywhere you look you can see hot steam rising out of the land or smell pungent gusts of sulphur.

Today, in spite of the onset of rain in the area, we did a 45 minute loop walk around the Craters Of The Moon, a bizarre patch of land dotted with hyperactive geothermal pot holes and craters which rumble and bubble noisily whilst belching out thick eggy-smelling steam. We were warned not to deviate from the path at any stage or wear open shoes because of the hot ground. The only species of flora there were very hardy reeds and heather-like plants.

Then we went to check out the Huka Falls where the entire flow of the huge, clear Waitomo River funnels in to a narrow chasm before shooting down a ten metre shelf in to another pool below at a speed of around 400 tonnes per second. This speed and volume make it look far more powerful than it sounds on paper and the water was so white because of all the bubbles! I'm not sure if anyone has ever tried rafting over it but it looks like a lot of fun!

After the falls we drove a short distance to the Spa Thermal Park in which visitors can take a dip at the point where a fast stream of geothermally heated water meets the Waitomo river. It was quite crowded there and since the hottest areas are those closest to the stream, people were congregated in a fairly small space trying to find a spot which was neither unbearably hot nor too cold. It was a weird experience scrambling down slimy, jagged rocks into what looks like a river but in places feels like a hot scalding bath while being rained on heavily for an hour or so.

It is also evidently a very sociable place. We chatted to loads of people including one intriguing chap from India who told us he lived in Taupo and was a psychotherapist who does hypnotherapy. He told us he was one of only four or five people in the world trained to practise this so-called ZennaE method of treatment and that his master, a nomadic kiwi, had cured his bowel cancer and many other cancer sufferers before. "Oh really?" Ric and I said simultaneously; "So can you help with problems like OCD and Bulimia?". He smiled and threw his head back a bit and proffered that these were two very difficult illnesses to treat (don't I know it!) but then, without doing a hard sell, he had a think and said he'd like to try a quick half hour session there and then to see if I would be receptive to a longer one where he promised I would become more emotional and ultimately happier than ever before. Cynical as ever but fascinated by what he was telling me, I allowed him to do it.

I can't say it was a great experience and I'm a long way from 'healed' but it wasn't bad either. I tried hard to keep my eyes closed and my brain focused for half an hour despite the people chatting all around me and the slippery rocks I had to cling on to. Overall, aside from it being a surreal thing to be doing in an extraordinary setting it was interesting and quite meditative but I would like to know more about his (I don't even know his name!) techniques as he seemed a bit hesitant when asked about its creator and origin and even the procedure itself. All he as said was that in an intense two hour session he can tackle the emotions more deeply than they have ever been tackled before. I would love to give him my unreserved confidence but I don't think I have time left to really achieve anything.

Tomorrow Ric wants to go to Huka Prawn Park (prawn fishing capital of the world apparently) to catch himself some dinner. Gawd.

I must say, the Kiwis are very good at finding multiple sources of income from one main business/trade. This is a functioning prawn farm but also pitched to tourists as a fun family day out where we can meet Shawn the prawn and all his little friends. Ric is really excited. They give you an umbrella if it rains but even if the heavens open again I would rather leave him there and go on another horse trek. I'm sure I will be persuaded in to it eventually though.

Over to the North





13/03/09

We legged it to Picton this morning to catch the three hour crossing to Wellington along with a ferry load of other camper vans. It was quite windy on the deck!

We were strangely drawn to the $4 mood rings they were selling in the ferry shop and Ric wouldn't leave without us each getting one. I remember having one as a child and thinking then they changed colour according to one's on temperature alone, but they are still amusing things to have! Mine is always a different colour to Ric's.

I don't want to offend anyone and it may well be the capital of New Zealand but Wellington didn't seem particularly exciting and it was damn windy, so rather than hanging around there for a few days to try to get to know it better, we quickly headed north west to New Plymouth which is situated right next to the volcano Taranaki (or Mt Egmont as it is also known), just in time for Womad, a world music, art and dance festival.

Having been sober and without other friends to hang out with for some time, we decided not to bother with the three day ticket and just went for the Saturday instead. It was good fun; the weather couldn't have been better, the music was easy on the ear and the Pukekura Park setting is gorgeous but it was very different from the festivals with which we (particuarly Ric) are so familiar back home. There were plenty of strange looking hippy types so in that sense it was like Glastonbury and there were a lot of people just chilling on the lawns much like they do at Big Chill (and the others when the weather is conducive), but this was moreover a festival for families (with children of all ages) and was about drinking coffee, not beer, about eating gourmet pizzas, not illegal drugs and about flushing loos and wash basins instead of filthy long-drops.

Some of the Maori music was interesting but none of it was especially captivating and we found ourselves feeling restless a few times. I'm sure that if we were locals here it would be much more exciting and we would be a lot more involved. We noticed quite a few mixed race families. more so than anywhere else we have been so far. Aside from the usual coconut hat, jewellery and food stalls, was the more unusual festival offering of a tattoo 'studio' where people (us included) gathered to watch members of the public subjecting themselves to the tattooist's needle (don't worry, I wasn't even a little bit tempted Mummy).

In between the main stage and its audience was a large pond and it was highly amusing hearing the occasional quack and watching the ducks preen themselves, flap about, squabble with each other and/or sleep on the water as if they were oblivious to the several thousand people sitting there in front of them.

Poor Ric; we weren't searched on our way in to the park the first time but on our re-entry (we went back to the van to change in to shorts and flip-flops) security searched Ric's bag and told him he couldn't take his three bottles of beer in. Not wanting it to go to waste he opted to drink them at the gate, much to the amusement of all the ladies doing the ticket checks. I wish I could have helped but that Steinlager tastes foul!

Tomorrow, with just ten days left here in New Zealand, we are off to Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Bencarri Nature Park and Rawhiti Cave








09/03/09

Brilliant day today, marred only by my persistent OCD madness this morning when Ric went the 'wrong' way around a tap in the campsite and I couldn't get the thought out of my head. God - I need to get on top of my obsessions. At least we can laugh about it, most of the time.

No rain for a week now so we've enjoyed lots of sun and gentle breezes. We're getting up and hitting the road a bit bit earlier too now which means we get more done.

The seemingly endless winding roads in this region do make me feel rather car sick. I can't read many magazines on the road...even looking at the map is a bad idea sometimes.

First we stopped by at the fantastic Bencarri Nature Park (and cafe) which is on the road north to Takaki. The lady running it had all sorts: dogs, cats, donkeys, geese, ducks, chickens, pigs, goats, rams with huge spiralled horns, sheep, cows, a massive Texan Long horn cow, a Highland calf, two vicious emus, llamas, a moody white Shetland pony, guinea pigs, rabbits (some of which were for sale for $25) and some tame eels in the river next door which we fed mince meat to! We were like two excited children and could have spent all day there stroking and feeding the animals, some of which followed us right round the park in the hope of being fed. The emus were nasty little creatures though.

One of the resident cats, Pumpkin, even came to feed the eels with us and seemed totally fearless around them as they writhed about, sliding in and out of the water with their jaws wide open. Ric later told the lady about his virtual eels and she seems rather keen to have a look: http://www.bedroomlab.com/games/eel/

Determined to find more caves in which to make use of our new head torch we then spent over two hours driving around the Abel Tasman region desperately trying to find the badly signposted Rawhiti Cave. When we finally got there, we hopped out of the van armed only with our cameras and torches and set off towards what we thought was its entrance. It was not.

After a long walk across a couple fields, along a dried up river and half an hour of hiking up a very steep, knobbly, winding and narrow forest path we reached it and although we were sweating and dying of thirst, it was well worth it. We just stood there for a few minutes catching our breath and taking in its magnificence. No photograph we took could do it justice as it was so vast and so full of long, intricately detailed stalactites, textured rock and other strange forms of flora. I made a crappy video to try to capture it a bit better...

Here's some info about the cave.

I have observed, during many hours of driving the wrong way down rural side roads (sometimes twice), that the residents of this area often have really ornate, characterful and/or unusual mailboxes- statement boxes if you like. Some depict the family name, others the name of the house, others are brightly coloured, shaped like giraffes and birds or covered with jade stones, If I wasn't map reading or trying to work out where on earth we were half the time, I would have taken some pictures. I appreciate this quirkiness and sense of humour.

We're finally catching the ferry from Picton to Wellington tomorrow. North Island here we come!

PuPu Springs





Sunday, 8 March 2009

Riding, Caving, Kayaking and reading magazines




Here we are on the 8th March already and we've been all the way up the West coast (well as far as we could, Karamea, before the road became a gravel track-that was a wasted day!). During this stretch and to my great joy, I finally managed to persuade Ric to come on a horse trek around the lovely valleys, rivers and beach at Punakaiki (between Greymouth and Westport, both of which we stopped in briefly but didn't linger) which even he admitted enjoying, possibly because of the three German girls who also came. While in the area, we visited Cape Foulwind, Westport's most amusing and evocatively titled stretch of coastline. Yet again it is Captain Cook, who battled against horrendous weather there in 1770, to whom we can attribute this naming.

From our horse ride we went on to the magnificent, bizarre and aptly named Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. Every road we go down seems to take us to yet another site of natural beauty and/or strangeness!

Since then we have traveled right over to the east side of the island again, via the old gold mining town of Murchison, then Nelson, again a pleasant enough port town and apparently the sunniest place in the whole of New Zealand.

Now we are in Motueka, a pivotal point for tourists wanting to explore the Abel Tasman National Park (Tasman was the first European to discover New Zealand even though he never set foot on it for fear of the Maori). The weather is certainly warmer here than further south and there are lots of orchards and vineyards in the area.

After our lousy Kayaking experience in The Philippines where we got caught in a thunderstorm whilst wearing just our swimming togs and spent nearly an hour trying to turn the kayak around, I decided to give it another whirl so today we got up early (7.30am nearly killed us after three weeks of lazy lie-ins) and headed over to Kaiteriteri where we joined Kahu Kayaks and went on a half day trip from Mahahau to Stephens Bay passing all sorts of fascinating coastal scenery including the famous Split Apple Rock, several nesting cormorants (or shags as they call them here), caves and some cute little beaches which have an odd but pretty black and gold sand. With gorgeous weather, surroundings and the aid of a rudder it was a much better experience than the last one! Think we caught the sun a bit too.

Then we drove a bit higher north to the huge and ancient (we're talking millions and millions of years old) Ngarua Caves where we had to have a guided tour. Ric was a bit miffed about that since we've just bought a special head-torch for exploring such caves solo. The caves which remain at 11 degrees celcius all year round, were full of stalactites, some stalagmites and ancient bones of now extinct bird-like dinosaurs. No glow worms though and when the guide turned the lights of we were in total darkness - no amount of staring and squinting could help us see a thing - imagine discovering these caves by candle light! The mountains in this area are like honeycomb and water is constantly seeping through including caves like these making them constantly damp. Would you believe that some nutters have chosen to get married inside them? Chamber orchestras have also played inside the large 'cathedral' area - great acoustics apparently.

With energy still to burn we went to the idyllic (am running out of adjectives for this stunning country) PuPu Springs, the clearest freshwater springs in the world, where we were warned not to touch the water in any way (we weren't even allowed to fill up water bottles) to prevent the spread of Didymo. Seems a bit over the top considering how fast the water comes out of the ground and washes away into the rivers around. I wont tell you if we obeyed the rules...

Despite the books we brought with us to NZ, Ric and I have been devouring magazines, especially New Scientist, Scientific American Mind (and OK - well we all need some light relief occasionally). It's amazing to find even the smallest back of beyond newsagents selling these publications. Ric is rather alarmed by the all too frequent articles in New Scientist about depression, eating and anxiety disorders. This week they write about how people with bulimia have the highest suicide rate of all psychological conditions and many people kill themselves because they feel such a strong sense of failure and shame. There seems to be a lot of interest in that area of medicine, perhaps because these illnesses are on the rise?

I am getting by but feeling hampered and frustrated every day by problems which I am longing to sort out but scared to let go of. I wish I could pop and pill and rid myself of these endless irrational fears and my love/hate addictive relationship with food. So bored of even talking about them.

We are seeing a lot of Wekas by the way...clumsy looking birds.