Sunday, August 7, 2011

Halong Bay ~ Where the dragon descends to the sea

Managed to fit in one more experience. Halong Bay was created by a dragon that lived in the mountains and as it charged toward the coast its tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. The biggest threat these days, tourism. 3000 limestone islands arising from the Gulf of Tonkin. We had to join the maddening crowds for this one but I feel sad because we met a guy who was on a project for the problems including pollution in the area, how did it get this bad. I was reading a ten year old Lonely Planet that stated not to go out on a boat because the pirates would get ya. Pity the pirtates were driven out.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hoi An and Hue and some heady bike riding

Took the night train, soft sleeper to Hanoi, quick reorganise before heading south on another night train to Da Nang and Hoi An. Originally a port town and the gateway to Cochin China over the centuries, Hoi An shows the influence of Japanese, Chinese and French culture. Now the main stay of the economy is tourism, especially tailored clothing. The area features beautiful white beaches, and the inevitable tourist resort style development. Flat countryside made biking a dream.
We attended a cooking class, got clothes made, Julie biked and Jo snorkeled.

We ate great food and relaxed, novel for us. Next step a bit of harder exercise and a bike ride up to Hue. Had a guide Tao and a driver Tong, biked up over the Hai Van Pass, 10 km 500 m altitude in 35+ degree heat. The 10km climb was oh so hot relieved by the spectacular views up and down the central coast. Two hours of hard work rewarded with 30 mins of freewheeling exhilarates down the other side. After picnic lunch under a bridge, watching fisher wives gamble and fishermen drinking beer, we set off on the bikes again north towards Hue, down a dusty back road past ancient tombs and farming communities. The heat became too much for Jo, had to give up and retreat into the support van for the last 10km.

Hue and a piece of Vietnamese history. The Citadel is a 10km long, two metre wide stretch of wall and a moat that surrounds a significant area of the city. It was from here that the powerful 19th century emperors ruled the country. Inside the Citadel is the emperor's residence, "Forbidden Purple City." It has largely been decimated over the course of the four major Vietnamese wars of the 20th century, but reconstruction is being carried out.

North East, away from the maddening tourists

By now enjoying the company of our newfound friends from Oz, together organised a car and driver to take us to the northeast, roads seldom travelled by westerners and only recently opened up owing to the proximity of the Chinese border. Landscape of rounded limestone crags, remote farming villages, mountains and gorges. New markets with new minority people for us and not one other Westerner. The driver, Mr Tung, spoke no English but he got on his cellphone and let us talk to an interpreter, a great resource as the language was pretty difficult with its use of inflection. Pointed to everything we wanted to eat, gesturing, writing numbers and trying to second guess what people were saying because there was no English there.

Ended our trip at Lao Cai, border town to China and gateway to Sa Pa, tourist town near Vietnams highest mountain, Franispan. Heaps of tourists, crass hotels, restaurants and liberally interspersed with Black Hmong, smaller, less colourful cousins of the Flower people from Bac Ha. They have harder land to till, colder, higher, only one crop of rice, so plenty of time to pan handle the tourists. Did a trek, nine westerners and a gaggle of Black Hmong women and kids. Stayed at a home stay set in a rice paddy by the river,good local food and a chance to talk to other travellers and formulate our itinerary.

Off for a walk, not sure which way to go, but.....

Tried to follow rudimentary hotel maps for a walk but got lost almost immediately crossing creeks and rice paddy dikes. A chance enquiry at a house produced a young Flower Hmong woman, Mee, who not only spoke good English but was prepared to guide us for a few hours, although 9 months pregnant. Enjoyed a wonderful interpretive hike through narrow farm tracks, through some mountains to a town then back to Bac Ha.
The following day we hired motorcycles for a spin over to another market. Great to be riding, cool though sunburn on the wrists and fingers. More minority traders and trade goods stalls, food stalls and handicrafts. Took the bikes north towards the Chinese border, roadworks meant we got covered in red dust, found some people making soya milk, bought a kilo or so of tofu and ate it on the spot, delicious!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bac Ha way out East Vietnam

Took the train up the Red River valley to Bac Ha. A local bus up into the hills, to a dusty agricultural town, where the local ethnic minority, Flower Hmong come to sell their produce. Breathtaking, the women dressed in bright hand-woven dresses, with colourful headgear and matching wrap around putties. All manner of local produce for sale, plums, corn liquor and vegetables to be traded for orange juice, bikkies, ag implements, pesticides livestock and pretty baubles for embellish the clothing. 5pm it was all over, the market empty, tourist buses gone, we had the town, hotel and the staff who became our friends all to ourselves, just how we love it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Exotic place to meet, Vietnam

Unbelievable to see a man with a board with my name on it emerge out of the haze at Hanoi airport, Jo who had arrived before me had it sorted. Taxi driver and I drove past motorcycles with no lights and laiden with flowers at 12am to sleeping bodies in the hotel lobby and at last sleepy Jo.
Hanoi, leafy with zillions of swarming motorcycles and the typical look of conical hats alongside trendy silks in boutiques, men resurrecting spare parts we would have chucked out years ago and pho stalls. Noodle soup that is, lime and rich herb flavour with chewy beef, delicious. A city of 6 million Hanoi old town has retained an olde worlde look with the French architecture.

Before long we headed North for Bac Ha on the train,making friends with the locals who pulled Jos hairy chest and exclaimed. The Sunday trading market seemed to be a great place for friends and family to meet, attracting throngs of villagers from the surrounding hill tribes. Some walk several hours for the weekly opportunity to trade and barter food, animals, clothes and household goods. Most locals paid little attention to us, rather choosing to focus on their business and the opportunity that the Sunday market bought. Visually it was a feast for our eyes, we were incredulous at the women and their bright clothing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hiking in the Italian Alps with the Alpine Club

    One of the highlights of my time in Italy was 'finding CAI' : Club Alpine Italy. As usual, it took alot of time trolling to hunt down a group that would take me to the heart of the matter, the people and the wilderness of Italy. Reference on the web to a bookshop, that led me to the photo shop who led me to the Club. Had wonderful commune and connection with the people. The best was this trip over a long weekend. Looking out from the refuge to the drizzle on the day we were going over the Pass, the Italians were umming and ahhing about heading out. I explained that this was piss water and when it is horizontal thats when its raining in NZ. Not to loose face the leaders decided we better go. Worse moment when the rain while not exactly horizontal, was freezing cold and pretty unpleasant! A few stressed sidelong glances at me. Passed a collection of stone buildings on the tops where shepards make cheese for a few months every year, sampled that night for dinner along with a delicious meal of bacon pasta, beef stew and torte. Gotta give it to the Italians, they know how to do things with finesse, best food ever and here we were in the mountains.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Marrakesh Express

Finally! Marrakesh, and the dreams were as good as the reality....spices and souqs, story tellers and smiles from the warm Arabs, great to be back with them. It felt just like home, when I was welcomed time and time again. Oh there was the odd shark but they fade as I remember the goodness of people. Plop into the labyrinth of artisans, dyers, leather and metal workers, faded palaces and mosques. Djamaa el Fna the UNESCO acclaimed street theatre. Just normal life for these folks I marveled, goggle eyed over the storytellers embellishing histories of local heroes and tragic love affairs. The poor old snakes who were prodded to rise up and thrown round snap happy tourists, clearly suffering the heat, horrible. The poverty and rubbish despite the sheer numbers of tourists pouring money into the economy, well whats new, eh.

The Marrakesh Express

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call
Animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you

Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
They're taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I've been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair

Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellebas we can wear at home Well, let me hear you now

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Weekend in Siena and San Gimignano

Every weekend must hold some sort of adventure for me, after all I am not here that long. A weekend in Siena was just the thing, a grand medieval city with a gothic ensemble and it was a good choice for fitness as I walked endlessly, eating delicious food and ogling at the sights. The heart is the lovely scallop shaped piazza with every building in fitting, stylie architecture in an astonishing state of preservation. Apparently it is pretty prosperous thanks to tourism and to a bank founded in Siena in 1472, the cities largest employer, a major player in Italian finance sponsoring much of Sienas cultural life. Its all about the politics you see.
The Duomo was a conglomeration of black and white marble, a cathedral so over the top you had to love it. Depicting an eccentric mix to do with all sorts of themes.
The gold statue was a busker. I ate artichokes and pesto spagetti at a cute restaurant with brown paper table mats. These fellas were placed with me and a lively couple they were. An interesting discussion about regional differences ensued. I was a bit tipsy after beer, red vino and sweet dessert wine to dip my biscotti into, wonderful.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Julie Joined the Alpine Club

Online I found some vague reference to the Pisan Alpine Club, with the name of a bookshop. So I went to the bookshop only to be told to go to the photo shop. There I met the treasurer of the club who told me to meet at 9.30pm! on Wednesday at the club rooms. With trepidation at the clandestine meeting and following a map in the dark, came across a sleezy bar. Finally worked out the club was upstairs. Feeling a bit more warmed as I saw heads huddled over a map I signed up for Sundays walk to the marble caves. Traveled with these two,one a local doctor and the other a PHD student here from Romania. They both spoke perfect English and they made great companions. After days of sun it rained but cleared as we reached the top and we walked in hail on the way back down. just like home. Beautiful white pathway, fantastic and unique experience. This is where Mick Angelo came to choose his pieces for sculpture.

The Coast of Tuscany

On the other hand, my visit to the beach was a one off. Awful beach umbrella compounds squeezed onto every bit of sand. The non paying areas had litter scattered and was chocker with bodies. This is still out of the season. Now, how do I get into them there mountains up the back there....

Villa in Tuscanny

Ah, so this is what people get so wide eyed about. Tuscany, an idyll of olive groves, vineyards, rolling hill towns. We get the TV programmes at home of the English who sell up and move here, renovating old places. I got a first hand experience of a beautiful villa when I went to a child from my schools birthday party. It was pretty gorgeous.

Cooking in Italy

In the absence of cooking books and the abundance of fresh ingredients, I made up the following lasagne recipe....* forget the mince meat.
Using layers of fresh lasagne from the supermarket ~ so much tastier here than NZ, make random layers of fresh washed spinach and a mix of ricotta, tomatoes, red onion, tomato sauce ready made, and drizzled red wine, chef to slug the red wine throughout the making. For all you meat eaters that have tuned out add layers of prosciutto. Of course top with Parmesan OM it is so good here. And, wallah! a most unusual but easy and tasty treat.
Followed by a gelato, my fav ice cream hole has always got a queue.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Easter , a week off what a lucky break...

Had really good meals in a couple of Rome eating institutions. Fried cod is big and so are artichokes, delicious.

I learned that the Roman Empire was bigger than big. Rome was a treat, on a grand scale. Every corner revealed lovely sights.

Bring back your credit card he called as I sadly left without this lovely leather jacket.

Flagged the museums in Florence to head up the hill and eat pizza. I have clearly overindulged.

I just love the curves and cobblestones. Biking round Lucca was nice, a beautiful little Tuscan town protected by massively thick 16th-century walls. Much of the centre is free of traffic another plus.

Walked the Cinque Terre, named five lands. The area is named for five tiny villages wedged into a series of coves between sheer cliffs walking between them afforded stunning coastline vistas.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

First impressions...

Italian chic and this is just for the kids. Many of the children from my school will be wearing this gear out of school.

Food do I need to say any more it is better than than I could ever hope for.....But the food! Fresh and plentiful fruit, olive oil and fish. Pizza oh la in wood fired ovens and even the supermarkets stock the best fresh pasta and ravioli with spinach and ricotta. artichokes and fried cod were the local specialties of Rome.

Family... The children from my school, both girls and boys flock around a pram to admire a baby. However here is the lowest birth rate in Europe. Dogs appeared to be cherished too.
Leather and jeans, studied, expensive casual. Even on warm days people here wear jackets. My pink and red pants set me apart, denim is the only way to go, apparently.
Loads of smokers but living in 2011 is great, smoking indoors is banned.
Italy does not seem to have a single cultural identity. From the north to the south many regions lie and in particular it seems people are proud of their own food specialties.
I think the systems here are a bit antiquated for example, the post office and supermarket have queues oh so long, the train station difficult to work out how to validate your ticket - not too different to what I experienced in Cairo last year, though this could never be called a third world country.
I did not know what an absolute treat was in store for me in Rome, what an empire. Seen to be believed.
Personal space does not seem to be important. Rubbing shoulders or even an odd hit every now and then is all part of sharing the pavement.

My school is in an renovated old building with a head sculpture of Mr Giuseppe as I walk in. The 11 children are between 3 and 5 and I sing and play with them. Their names all end in an o. We play in the park, a fortified area is also known as Fortezza Nuova, built by the Florentines after the conquest of Pisa 1406.