Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I am ashamed to admit that over the years I had continually avoided New Zealand, instead visiting exotic countries like Turkey or Uzbekistan, Jordan or Macau.  New Zealand is our closest neighbour, our next door neighbour to be exact.  Apart from a few language oddities I always thought of it as an extension of us, of Australia;  a country so conveniently close  I could always take a gander some time in the future...but not right now.  There were other agendas I considered far more enticing.

How wrong I was. 

The reluctant traveller, my husband,  had agreed to take another trip and we soon found ourselves in New Zealand’s South Island where we instantly fell in love with its people, its breath taking beauty and even, though I suspect we were lucky that particular year, with the climate.

Neither rain, hail, shine nor snow will stop him wearing those shorts.

We soon realised New Zealand was to some extent a clone of our homeland, a time warp as we had been some years before; a country that moved slowly, comfortable in itself, yet to taste the influence of foreign television and the excesses of American culture, a country of Kiwi entrepreneurs with a sense of humour.

We hired a car, bought an esky, frying pan, cutlery and a few plates at a second hand store and set off from Christchurch with the vague idea we would just saunter around as the will took us finding accommodation wherever we chose to rest our heads, picnicking along the way.

With a map in hand but no intention of slavishly following it we chose roads at random our progress slowed by a constant need to stop and gape at a landscape so beautiful and startling we could only stare in amazement.  Snow capped mountains, vistas of rolling hills and rushing streams and small towns with not a fast food shop in sight.

We bought fresh smoked salmon from roadside stalls, Chardonnay to die for from vineyards dotted along the way.  Crusty bread fresh baked in local bakeries; even the milk tasted different to home, somehow more like real milk should taste.

At one point we stopped in a desolate area on a simple country road to puzzle over a barbed wire fence.  An ordinary fence used here for an unusual if not extraordinary purpose.

Unheralded and anonymous the Shoe Fence was the only way I could describe it. Strung along a good 200 yards or so were shoes and boots of all description and size; elegant ladies court shoes,  leather boots, aging sand shoes, adults and children’s, all in pairs and some very desirable. 

I eyed off a pair of imported shoes I would gladly have exchanged for the pair I was wearing but they really weren’t suitable for rugged touring.  Besides it didn’t seem right to interfere with this ingenious display.

My only regret as we drove away was our inability to add to this anonymous collection.

A few days later we had cause to remember the vagaries of sleep deprivation and instant slumber we had witnessed  in Japan some years earlier.

During our New Zealand meandering we chanced upon a small airfield offering light aircraft flights over Mt Cook and the snow fields.  A plane was due to leave within minutes with one solitary passenger. There was room enough for us, so we clambered aboard.

The other gentleman was an elderly Japanese tourist, his daughter had declined to accompany him but he was obviously looking forward to the experience and we all shook hands and exchanged smiles with the pilot.

The oriental gentleman had taken his seat behind the pilot, my husband won the toss to sit up front at the controls, and I was snug against the window behind Stan.  The engine roared to life, the props turned and we were off.
But we hadn’t even taxied down the runway before I realised the Japanese gentleman beside me was fast asleep.

The flight over snow bound Mt Cook was incredible,  one we would never forget, but all the time the foreign passenger continued to sleep.  I considered shaking him gently awake but he really looked so peaceful I found I simply couldn’t disturb him.

All too soon the flight was over and we made a perfect landing taxiing to a stop by the ticket office.  As the engines gradually shut down I glanced across to see the old fellow blinking, his eyes now open, his expression inscrutable.

We alighted and the old man’s daughter rushed up, excited and voluble, chatting to him no doubt about the flight, how he enjoyed it.  They wandered off to their car leaving me shaking my head in disbelief.

The cost had not been all that much, certainly well worth it from our point of view.  But simply to accommodate a comfy seat and an afternoon nap? I don’t think so.



My husband can be deviously surprising.  One of New Zealand’s claims to fame is the invention of the Bungy Jump.  A suicidal leap from a high platform separated from certain death by a long rope attached to ones ankles.

Detouring through Arrowtown, we came across a local bridge, a huge crowd, a rushing river beneath and a queue of what I termed were idiots waiting to launch themselves voluntarily into oblivion.  We spent perhaps three quarters of an hour watching this steady stream of jumpers with me looking on in horror and finally relieved when we drove off to find that night’s accommodation.

Usually Stan holds off the search until it is almost dark, he is always loath to waste a moment of driving time.  Entreaties by me as we pass delightful little establishments in broad daylight are met by a look at his watch and the comment “Too early to turn in yet”. So I should have smelt a rat when he drove back to Arrowtown pulled in to the first motel we saw and promptly broke open one of our gorgeous bottles of New Zealand wine.

Next morning we headed off on what I thought would be the direction of Milford Sound when I realised he was pulling into the Bungy Jump office.

Honestly, is there any need to explain further.  He filled in his particulars, signed the responsibility clause, paid over his money and joined a small queue of much younger volunteers all waiting to defy gravity and death.
We are talking here of a man then well in his seventies, supposedly of sane mind. 

His turn came, he made a joke about being the oldest bungy jumper, then with a wave to me and the adoring crowd, he took a deep breath and with a perfect swallow dive leapt into the air.

The jump was successful and more to the point I survived the whole nerve wracking affair;  but Stan’s boast about being the oldest jumper was dashed, a 90 year old had well and truly gazumped him the year before.  One consolation though, he could now jump at any bungy post in New Zealand for half price...

Again, I don’t think so.

The bridge...




Robyn Mortimer ©2011

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The big cities of China offer a fascinating insight into the people and their culture; Hong Kong and Shanghai are two favourite destinations.  Nothing however can match the bubbling vivacity of smaller towns where life moves at its own pace, sometimes to the tune of the visitor, more often to the whim of the resident.

Kunming featured prominently in one trip.

Guilin was another destination I fell in love with.  When I delivered my multinational charges, the French Canadians and the Japanese couple, into the care of their tour guide at Guilin’s airport I thought that was my job done.  I had seen them through customs, organised their entry forms and bade them goodbye.

Then I took a taxi to the hotel for foreign visitors where for the first time ever I had been told that I must share a room with another visitor, a stranger.  Unless there was absolutely no room in the Inn, I told reception, I really wanted a room to myself.  They seemed surprised, one person one room, how strange; but they finally agreed and I checked in.

This was winter and Guilin was freezing.  The flight had arrived late in the afternoon and I took a brisk walk through surrounding streets, had a snack and decided on an early night.  The next day would be a busy one.

So I was extremely surprised next morning at breakfast to find myself sharing a table with the same two couples I had assumed responsibility for back in Hong Kong.  And the surprise didn’t end there.  The night before I had booked a boat trip on the Li Jiang River through reception and when it came time to board the bus there were the two couples, plus the rest of their tour group, a mixture of Americans and Germans, and their Chinese guide.

There was no escaping them, not any one of them.  As it turned out they were an interesting group, and their young, American educated Chinese guide, Percy, proved the most interesting of all.  He was a bridge fanatic and quickly sussed out the tour groups card playing aficionados. 

From that moment on the bridge players took every opportunity to huddle together, a card playing cartel.  Consequently the four people I had accompanied from Hong Kong sought me out first whenever they had a query or a complaint.  And there were a few of those.

Don’t get me wrong, they were very pleasant people, but I would have enjoyed their company more had they been able to speak even a bit of English. They just didn’t seem to understand that I wasn’t their official nursemaid.

Of course appreciation of the spectacular needs no interpretation at all, and the Li Jiang River winding through the incredibly beautiful limestone mountain peaks is a joy none of us could ever forget.

Our small boat meandered twisting mile upon mile between towering karst pinnacles interspersed here and there with small splashes of civilisation, a farmhouse or a tiny village.  Flat engineless barges poled by strong young men carrying supplies and passengers passed by, fishermen in small bamboo rafts with trained cormorants fished the shallow depths.

 The boat wended its way through sparsely populated country. We waved and helloed to farm workers on the riverbank.  And at lunch enjoyed a meal of chilli spiced meat prepared in a tiny kitchen in the depths of our boat.  The meal was fine but we couldn’t work out what the meat was.

One of the older Americans, a biologist suggested the animal was probably a type of large rat.  I thought it might have been a guinea pig; but the consensus was that the meal itself, no matter its origin was utterly delicious, and none of us had any after affects to suggest otherwise.

Back in Guilin at the tourist hotel following a night at Guilin’s version of a discotheque, I slept through a middle of the night fire alarm.  At breakfast next morning, served by waitresses shivering in thick winter coats, I heard the story of guests being herded down the stairs and into the courtyard huddled in an assortment of coats and pyjamas; receiving the final advice that it had indeed been a false alarm, and then their overall inability to get back to sleep.

Fully rested and smug to boot, I blamed my non-participation on some exceedingly strong local alcohol the night before.  I was a little worried though that obviously no head count of guests had been taken. The bliss of ignorance.

And I thought losing my car in a multi story car park was a nightmare.

Where you and I walk our dogs, these gentleman in China take their birds for a stroll.

And a Happy New Year to you too!

Dali, 400 kilometres west of Kunming, about an hour-long flight, was another small town that captured my heart.  Daughter Jenny had heard about its amazing beauty from a University friend and on a later trip to Hong Kong we took a long detour to Yunnan province in the north west. 

Dali's main thoroughfare.

Join me for breakfast?

 Dali proved to be a small market town clustered close to the foothills of the Himalayas.  Its streets were mainly cobblestone and many of the older homes appeared quite ancient.  The town itself was relatively small and a short walk in any direction soon brought us to rural countryside.

Bordered on one side by Lake Erhai and on the other by the snow splashed foot hills of the Cangshan Mountains a chair lift takes lazy visitors, us,  to the thousand year old Daoist Zhonghe temple with its wide panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

The town was gearing up for the Chinese New Year festivities, a festival I fervently hope I never have to live through again.  As with all such events in a small town the children were eager to get down to the business of noise and mayhem; thus began a good four lead up days of fireworks.  From late afternoon well into the evening there were the sounds of loud bangs and spiralling crackers.  Not only was the noise utterly deafening, but the smell of smoke and cordite hung over everything and everyone.
The idea was to rid houses and streets of evil spirits and sometimes I think the younger boys thought we gweilo’s were the devil incarnate; they targeted us enough times with exploding bungers and spiralling fizzers.  We took our life in our hands whenever we ventured out of doors.  
The New Year also signalled the dance of the dragon, and various groups sent their own particular dragon on practice runs through the centre of Dali accompanied by the intense beating of drums. 

On the day itself all the children appeared in their very best clothes, little girls with huge ribbons in their hair, the Bai tribal girls in ethnic costume in some cases combined with blue jeans, visitors from far afield, some even from nearby Bhutan.

Tribal treasures and blue jeans – the Bai girls of Yunnan Province.

A gentleman from Bhutan and his children.

Despite the noise and the smoke the celebrations were fun.  But it was only later after Jen and I got back to Hong Kong and processed our film that we noticed something very curious.

The streets of Dali are narrow and on any given day, festival or not there is always a huge crowd of young men and women milling about the shops and stalls, many of them from ethnic out of town groups in town to shop or study.  There is also a Chinese Army camp bivouacked right in the heart of the market area, and need I say there is little love lost between the two, ethnic locals and Chinese military.

On the day we took the photographs there had been at least two or three local dragons sponsored by sports groups, running through the streets gathering a great deal of comment and appreciation from onlookers.

Then late in the afternoon the Chinese Army fielded their dragon, a striking creation winding and twisting to the beat of drums as it writhed along the streets in an up and down flowing movement; it was a beastie of much beauty.  After that dragon passed by it was followed by a marching squad of Chinese soldiers in uniform. 
We snapped the dragon, the soldiers and the crowds lining the street.

And only later did we realise, as our photo clearly showed, while the militia strode down the narrow thoroughfare locals to the last man and woman all turned their backs to the street and to the marching men and stayed that way until the small army procession had passed.  A small demonstration of protest but an effective one.


On way to the Lake- it must be washday
  Together with locals and the few other Europeans in Dali at the time, we took the boat ride across to the huge Wase Markets on the opposite site of Lake Erhai. The boat itself was a rickety old craft with a diesel engine which the skipper continually drained and refuelled during the hour and half long journey.

Wase was very small, nothing more than a trading centre, a meeting place where the hill people came to sell and buy.  The market turned out to be a huge open air cacophony of mules and horses, pigs and poultry, geese and vegetables and suppliers of plastic goods and cooking pots.  There were peddlers and barbers, men repairing shoes, butchers slaughtering beasts and dentists extracting human teeth; all in the open alternately ignored or mobbed by the passing parade.  It was huge fun.

Tell me, which tooth hurts?

Short back and sides?

And through all this pandemonium sauntered one humongous sow, placid and oblivious to human presence as she made her way up and down the thorough-fares pushing in and between the milling throng with her huge black snout.  Searching for her master, or perhaps her mate who just may have turned up in some of the pork chops I later saw adorning a meat sellers blood splattered table.

She seeks her piglets there...

....and here....

As is inevitable I soon found it necessary to spend a penny.  This can often be a problem for westerners in China.  There are public amenities of the open drain one straddles across type but it takes a brave or desperate soul to enter such an establishment without succumbing to death by asphyxiation or worse.

I figured there had to be an Inn or some sort of accommodation house on the edge of the markets and set out to find one.  It was a case of every man for himself and I had no time to find daughter Jen.  A pity because I did find a small house of fairly modern appearance that I figured just had to have a toilet somewhere.

The problem then was explaining what I urgently needed and why.  The family group, young husband and wife with baby and an old grandmother looked on with polite patience as I tried to remember the word for loo.  I could see they were straining to understand, while understandably I was straining to hold back.   Finally I screwed up my face and half squatted, an Oscar performance, the young man jumped to my rescue and raced me across a courtyard to their thunder box.   Thankfully it only smelled half as bad as the public one.


Robyn Mortimer.

Monday, September 27, 2010



When daughter Jenny and son in law Chris relocated to their South American idyll I for one couldn't wait to check it all out.  My reluctant traveller feigned indifference, he couldn't care less one way or the other, so he said; but I knew better.  Underneath he was dying to see their new home, and so we made the long trek across the Pacific to Ecuador, to the high Andes province of Azuay.

Cuenca was everything Jen and Chris had promised and more.  We walked the city from one end to the other enjoying its diversity, its colour, its tolerance and its humour.  And just as well.  We may have been prepared for Cuenca, but was Cuenca prepared for us?  In particular my reluctant traveller?

In Australia my husband and I live on a small island in tropical Queensland.  He prefers to wear shorts.  In fact Stan owns only one pair of long trousers and these he avoids with a passion.  Ecuador on the other hand is a country where modesty in dress is still the norm and excessively bared limbs in young women at least, are seen only on visiting touristas.

So you can imagine the glances and comments he received as we walked the highways and byways of beautiful Cuenca.  Small children holding their mother’s hand turned themselves inside out to catch that last unbelieving glimpse of my elderly husband’s uncovered legs. Had they perhaps never seen their own father’s legs bared in such a way?

Indeed it became a game and some of the children in Calderon Parque who like us were regular partakers of the sights, over time greeted him fondly with much laughter.  As the weather warmed a few young sportsman in soccer gear appeared on the streets and then my husband would be the one who swivelled around to sneak a glimpse pointing out to me that his weren’t the only legs worth admiring in Ecuador. 

Our daily wandering often took us to the city's centre where like everyone else we too joined the crowd, peering over shoulders, trying to get a better glimpse of the days attraction. 

We weren't the only ones striving to catch a glimpse of fiesta and fun.   But I assure you this gentleman in the chef's cap was not exposing his legs to the elements, as someone I know rather well was.

I include the above snap only to prove that he is indeed a rare my eyes at least.


To insure or not to insure was a question I often asked myself before embarking on a trip to who knows where; and invariably I always took the safe option.  Better to be sure the family back home suffered no long term financial consequence as a result of my irresponsible love for overseas adventure.  But in all my solo travels and even those with my daughter in tow never once did I need make any claim against the insurance company of my choice.

That first time distinction I saved until I was in my seventies, travelling in Ecuador with Stan my eighty year old husband, better known as the reluctant traveller, when first off I mislaid my reading glasses in a taxi, and then later he had his pocket picked on a local bus.

The language in Ecuador is Spanish.  Unlike Europe where in any given week you could travel through all the languages from Italian through French, Spanish, German and Scandinavian yet always find a helpful someone who spoke English, in most cases far better than you did, but in Ecuador chances are you would have to rely on pantomime or just sheer guesswork.  Not really the best way to ask a policeman to authenticate your intended insurance claim.

Our daughter who speaks a generous smattering of Spanish was tied up with her renovation-building site and in all naivety, I reckoned how hard could it be to explain the necessity of an official signature on a legal document.  I soon found out it was very hard indeed.

With my reluctant husband in tow I approached the nearest police station a short stroll away in Louis Cordero and put my request to a young policeman sitting at a desk.  A big smile, but no English.  How to mime a pair of missing spectacles, to stress the word insurance and convey the need of an official signature. I tried as best I could attracting after a short while a large audience.

My impromptu performance was beginning to attract both policemen and women and their dubious clients from other parts of the building.  I had the feeling it was all getting out of hand and presenting no solution when a young female in uniform appeared, informed me in the loud voice one uses on deaf or foreign people that we were in the wrong police station.  We must go here, and she wrote out an address.

 Cuenca’s friendly policeman, ever ready for a photo shoot.

Across the other side of Cuenca’s central Plaza Calderon, some blocks away,  we finally found the police building marked as it was with national flags and two police paddy wagons parked conspicuously outside in the absolute middle of the narrow one way street.  Inside was bedlam, this was no ordinary police station, this one specialised in family violence with notaries in various small offices, two to a room busy typing claimants accusations directly onto computer keyboards.

I approached two well dressed gentleman conversing in the middle of the courtyard, no English, but they would find someone who could help.  They did and we were shown into one of the notary offices.
On the wall were posters showing various family scenarios I couldn’t imagine occurring in this peaceful and beautiful country.  Our notary was a young pregnant woman looking darn close to motherhood.  I was wrong though, we were to meet her again a month later when she confided she was hopefully due to produce the next day.  I laughingly suggested naming the child Stanley after my husband whose claim on that second occasion was his picked pocket, and her English had improved enough to laugh that Stan was inappropriate for a girl child.

After much sign language and stressing that the glasses for reading were gone for good in one of Cuenca’s thousand odd yellow taxi’s and should I want recompense back in Australia this notarised report would clinch the deal, she finally got the message.

But she must have been unsure of the whole procedure because after a short while a gentleman of authority appeared.  Her boss, the court lawyer.  A suave gentleman who glanced through the typed document and asked a few questions in fluent yet halting English. His manner with me was polite but distant.

Then his eyes alighted on my husband’s wrist watch.  “Ah,” he said “a Rolex!”  and I knew my lost eye glasses had been relegated to the finished and done with bin.  The man was obviously besotted with Rolex.

Crumbs I thought, he must be wondering why we’re putting through an insurance claim for a paltry pair of plastic spectacles when my other half is sporting an expensive watch to die for.  With me quickly shunted to the side he now had my Stanley’s arm in his grip and was fairly drooling over the gaudy time piece.

I hissed to Stan, for god’s sake tell him it’s only a fake.

But of course my husband by now was enjoying the attention.

“You buy in America?’ asked the notary.

“Hong Kong actually’, replied Stan.  By now I think he realised honesty was the best policy.

“How much you pay for this watch?”

“Well, um, I didn’t actually buy it, my son did...” he looked to me wildly.  Maybe he suddenly wondered if admitting to wearing a fake Rolex was a chargeable offence.

“Tell him’ I hissed ‘you’ve left a better watch at home so it doesn’t get stolen”.

But now Stan tells him he isn’t really sure, maybe a couple of hundred dollars.

“U.S. dollars?” asks the notary.  He is really in love with this watch.

I watch in amazement as my husband takes the watch off and hands it to its admirer.  The man is in raptures.  Now he wants to know how much a real Rolex would cost, and the two exchange wild guesses, for of course we emphatically do not own, not even the watch at home, a dinky di Rolex.  By now I’m beginning to wonder if that  baby’s birth date is imminent, maybe quite soon?  A diversion would be welcome.

The notary fondles the watch, tries it on his wrist, I get the feeling this is the closest he has ever come to the real thing.  Maybe he thinks we’re fibbing, that the watch is the real McCoy.  The queue outside is getting longer, our pregnant typist is stretching her back trying to get comfortable.

Enough is enough I say to myself, let’s get this show back on the road.  I cough and smile,  “Do we need add anything else to this statement?” I ask.

Instantly businesslike he hands the watch back to my husband and for the first time acknowledges my presence.  

“You must sign here, and here Senora.”

I do so as he signs his name after mine, then he snaps “That will be $5.  Come with me while I have your statement stamped by the policia.”

At last Stan has his fake Rolex back on his wrist, I have my lost spectacles insurance form stamped.  But it is a telling insight that the pickpocket who some weeks later relieved my husband of $183 on that bus in Cuenca showed not the slightest interest in the shiny, splendid Rolex that, I imagine, to his professional eyes at least, was quite obviously a fake and not worth the taking.

©Robyn Mortimer 2010