Saturday, 26 December 2009


On Christmas Eve, Tane and I landed back in NZ. It is great to be back, although the NZ accent seems stronger than ever and everything feels much quieter than I remember. It's great to be back and already is starting to feel like we were never away at all. Yay!

With my sisters and niece at Napier airport ...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Los Angeles, where the sky is smoggy-ish blue

Yesterday Tane and I arrived in Los Angeles from Guatemala City, our third visit to the USA this year and my fourth time in LA. Los Angeles is a strange city - the sky is a strange mix of smog and sun, there seem to be about 4 million cars too many, and the famous sites are fun to visit but feel incredibly gaudy at the same time.

Spirit fingers at Venice Beach. Note the colour of the sky as well.

We did have fun visiting Hollywood though, the Walk of Fame is interesting (did you know Mickey Mouse has his own star?), and the tat shops filled with fake Oscars and Hollywood bling hilarious.

And, it also turns out that Tane has larger feet that John Wayne. According to a guide Wayne's feet look smaller than they actually were because of his boots, but as I am too dense to follow that logic myself have decided to let this photo do the talking!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire

We have more than our fair share of volcanos in the North Island of New Zealand, but Guatemala leaves us for dead. The country has more eruptions than a spotty teenager. In a fit of machismo, I decided to climb one of the two live volcanos near Antigua (there´s also two huge dormant cones) - Volcan Pakaya. It has lava continuously flowing down it.

Pakaya. Dodgy.

But I smirk at danger!

Until I actually get close to something dangerous.

Kids aged 6-9 on an active lava flow, where the rocks that aren´t molten are very sharp. Hmmm.

The guides were a tad more relaxed about the lava.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Mayan Time

Ah ruins, our old friends. For us there´s nothing better than spending a few hours gazing at raggedly buildings and trying to imagine what they were like when they were at the heart of living cities. In our trip to Mexico we are getting into Mayan territory, which means there are scores of ruined cities waiting for us. We called it quits after six.

All the sites were cool, each having a different highlight. We started with the newest and most famous one, Chichen Itza, which is top of the pile for impressive buildings. The pyramid is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and deserves its title because of how brilliantly it was built. It is aligned so that when you clap in front of it you get an echo like a strange bird call, and at the spring and autumn solstices the light falls in such a way as to make a ´moving serpent´ illusion, a homage to the Feathered Serpent Kukulcan.

Uxmal was next, which had an unusual pyramid with circular corners, lots of beautiful carvings, a more laid-back atmosphere than Chichen and - bonus - iguanas.

The Pyramid of the Magician

Kabah is a relatively small but interesting site, with an amazing facade with more than 200 faces of the all-important rain god, Chaak, while Palenque is famous for its beautiful setting in jungle-covered hills, and was Lauren's favourite.

The Palace at Palenque

Bonampak's chief claim to fame is its amazing murals, probably the best in the Mayan world. Like the stonework the murals can be pretty grizzly though, as the Mayan kings loved to show themselves torturing, sacrificing and generally being mean to captives.

Captive bleeding after his nails were removed.

My pick of the bunch though was Yaxchilan, which is deep in the Lacadon Rainforest on the Guatemalan border. Getting there required a 22km trip through the jungle down a crocodile-inhabited river, which was almost worth the journey in itself. There was hardly anyone at the site and best of all, there were howler monkeys in the trees. You would not believe the racket they make. If you did not know they were monkeys you would think they were jaguars, or the smoke monster from Lost.

Yaxchilan´s main plaza.

Sadly we did not have time to fit in what is said to be the most amazing city of all, Tikal, or Copan in Honduras, famous for its stonework. But at least that gives us another excuse to come back to Central America!

Random fact about Mexico number four - Crocodiles

I discovered while in Mexico that crocodiles seen up close are ugly scary looking mo fos that I would never like to see closer than this. Tane, though, really enjoyed it so is cleary less of a wuss than I.

Random fact about Mexico number three - Guadalupe

We were lucky to be in Mexico during the Festival of Guadalupe on 12 December. The festival first came to our attention while on the long bus trip from Palenque to San Cristobel when we kept passing people running up the hills carrying torches, being followed by decorated trucks. Later we learned that they were running a relay for Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary) which covered 220 km.
Guadalupe Church

The relay ended at Guadalupe Church in San Cristabel, where the tired but jubilant relay teams arrived, yelling their praises to Guadalupe and putting out their torches outside of the church. It was an amazing sight to see, and I was impressed at the commitment of those teams for their cause whether I believe in worshipping the Virgin Mary myself or not. The festival really was the cherry on our good-time-in-Mexico cake.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Random facts about Mexico number two - The Mayans

There are almost four million Mayans living in the area covering Southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and some of Hondurous. Where we are at present, San Cristabel, Mayans make up the majority of the population. The Mayans are an interesting people with a facinating history, which the massive pyramids (that Tane will blog about later) are testament to. I am more interested in the modern Maya though, so here are some random facts about them:

1. Many Maya believe that if someone takes a photo of you they take your spirit. This also means that you can't take photos of certain churches, or people participating in religious rites. Lucky the girl above (and her mother that gave me permission) didn't mind.

2. In Mayan records, the date 22 December 2012 is an important one, leading to speculation as to why. Pity that the Spanish burnt most of the information about it so we can only speculate about it (until that date of course).
3. We have talked to three Mayan people on seperate occasions about Mel Gibson's Apocolypto. Two of them loved it, said it was funny and excellent to see the Mayan people and culture on the big screen like that. One other Mayan hated it for being historically inaccurate, which is very much is. Either way I am looking forward to seeing that movie again when I get home.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Random fact about Mexico number one - the cars

Tane and I are currently travelling around Mexico, and soon Guatemala. As I am feeling very lazy at present I have decided to break my impressions on Mexico up into bite-sized random facts. Here is random fact about Mexico number one.

In Mexico, Volkswagens are everywhere. Apparently they are still made in Mexico City, which is why they are such a popular form of transport. We haven't seen so many old cars since Bulgaria, AKA land of the Lada. Needless to say, I would much rather see a Volkswagen' than the Lada. No wonder Mexican's are so much cheerier than the Bulgarians.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Highs and lows in Southern Italy

One of the few downsides about traveling in the cities and towns of Europe is that, after a while, you get the feeling you´ve seen almost everything before, in different forms. The castle on the hill beside the river, the grand church, the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town. Caucasians and some immigrants walking around in the same clothes you´d see on the streets of Wellington or Toronto. Sure, in Stockholm you see considerably more blondes. In the UK it´s terraced houses rather than the apartment blocks of the Continent. There´s differences in architecture and culture. But really it´s usually variations on the same themes.

Sunday morning in Sorrento's old town

So Southern Italy came as a bit of a shock. In terms of the people it´s the most distinctive area of Europe I´ve been to. There's such uniformity: almost everyone has black hair, olive skin, strong noses and shiny, puffy and ugly jackets. It´s also as close to the Developing World as you get in the European Union. Lauren lived here for most of a year in her teens and has mixed feelings about the place. Me too - Southern Italy is all about highs and lows.
What's not to love about hideous apartment blocks and manky train stations?

The reputation of Italy is that the further south of Rome you get, the poorer, more corrupt and crime-ridden it is. There´s certainly a lot of scuminess around, but also plenty of gems. Take Naples. There are some of the ugliest decaying apartment blocks you´ll see outside of Cambodia. There´s an air of dodginess around the train station. There´s the murder rate, easily the highest in the country. But there are also plenty of elegant apartment blocks, spectacular state and religious buildings, a superb ancient history museum and real buzz in the air at night.
Then there was the day we spent trying to get to the famous Greek ruins of Paestum. We started off in lovely Sorrento, which is perched on the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, then took a graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train to our accommodation near Pompeii. Unfortunately, turns out near is a relative term. We were actually in Scafarti, a non-too-nice town next to Pompeii. To get to our b&b we had to trek from the train station, with its distinctive spraypaint, rubbish and concrete decor, in our backpacks down a busy road with no footpaths.
Happily, it turned out the b&b was lovely, with really nice owners and a cute garden. But we then had to get another train to Paestum, on a different Circumvesuviana line, from a different Scafarti station. That station was a whole other level of dirtiness, the ticket machine was broken and the store we were directed to for a ticket was closed.

Scafarti Stazione. Bella.

By now we were pushing it to get to Paestum in time. Some freeriding and transfers later, and a long wait at yet another ugly station, and we were finally there. Ten minutes after the gates closed. But after the day we had, that was not going to stop us. We managed to get in and as the setting sun turned the temples to gold, it was magic.

And, maybe best of all, the pizza place down the road from the b&b was sensationally cheap and sensationally good. So at the end of the day, like Southern Italy as a whole, the highs definitely outnumbered the lows.

All for just two Euros and fifty cents

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The most beautiful buildings on Earth

I don't know much about architecture, but one of the highlights of most trips for me is seeing the grand buildings. In Spain we saw two of the most famous and fantastic buildings in the world, the Alhambra and as Lauren blogged below, Sagrada Familia. For me they're up there with the Taj Mahal and Sacre Coeur in Paris as the most beautiful buildings in the world.

Part of the Alhambra
Granada's Alhambra was the last and greatest flourishing of Islamic architecture in Spain. Unlike the Mezquita in Cordoba, it has not been partly spoilt by an obscenely gaudy church plonked into the middle of it. It's jaw-droppingly detailed, but being Islamic the decorations are geometric rather than images of animals and people, so it does not seem as over-the-top as the interiors of many European churches and palaces.

While the Alhambra has been around for more than half a millenium, the Sagrada Familia will not be finished for decades. But it is still one of the most stunning things I have ever seen. Normally a great building reminds you of others of the type you have seen, be it a Mughal palace, a Hindu temple or a Gothic cathedral. The Sagrada is like nothing I have ever seen before, and I can't say how much that impressed me.

Gaudi was inspired by nature, so the Sagrada is all about curves and organic forms. It looks like it has grown out of a coral reef, or leaf litter. There are snail and lizards for gargoyles, pillars like tree trunks, steepletops like flowers. Go and see it.

A stairwell in one of the Sagrada's towers.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Andalucia - a few thoughts

Andalucia in Southern Spain is an amazing province. As discussed below, we went to Barcelona and I was whelmed. We then went to Valencia and was very relaxed, happy and full of paella, but still whelmed. When we arrived in Seville at the end of the week though I finally fell for Spain, and after visiting Cordoba and Granada as well I have decided Andalucia is probably my favourite region in Europe.

Tane in Cordoba

First, the tapas and paella are amazing. I also really love the Moorish architechture down here. We haven´t been to the Alhambra yet (although we did have a good look at the outside at sunset tonight) but the Mezquita in Cordoba and the Alcazar in Seville are fabulous. The Islamic influence offers a welcome change to the cherub overload suffered by the rest of Europe, and the buildings are spectacular.

We have been especially lucky with our time in Andalucia as well as we´ve met interesting travellers, and learnt a lot about Spain. We´ve been given freee sangria, and have seen a local band performing flamenco music. We´ve also been given excellent recommendations for places to eat, and I´ve had ample chances to practice my very average Spanish.

Mmmmm. Tapas. Made even nicer after using the old point and randomly select options method of ordering

I am already sad about leaving Andalucia in a few days time, which is saying something about how great it is here. Lucky we have one more month of travel to get over it, eh? ;)

Super mega awesome

As my sister Erin would say, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is super mega awesome. One wonders what went on in Gaudi´s head when he came up with the designs, but it is still amazing. It´s still under construction, and I can´t wait to see it when it´s finished.

In general though I was not overwhelmed or underwhelmed by Barcelona, simply whelmed. I am not sure if that is a word, if not, it ought to be. Barcelona is a nice place, and I can´t even put a finger on why I didn´t love it as much as Rome or the Andalucian cities we are travelling around at present. The best I can come up with is that it doesn´t have the atmosphere of other places I´ve been recently. It is still worth a visit though, if not for the Sagrada Familia alone.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


There are ruins and then there are Pompeii and Herculaneum.

History geeks that we are, we have seen a lot of ruins in our travels. But the volcano-buried towns below Mt Vesuvius take the cake. Ephesus, Paestum, Pergamon, Angkor, Luxor, Karnak, the Forum and the other ruins of Rome are all superb, but Pompeii and Herculaneum take it to another level.

Lauren and Stephen in Pompeii

With other ruins, almost always what you see are the big religious, military, cultural or political buildings - the likes of your Pyramids, baths, theatres, temples, palaces and castles. They´re splendid, but they don´t give you much of an insight into Joe Ancient´s everyday life. After all, what´s more likely to survive down the ages - Westminster Abbey or your flat? P & H were drowned in ash and mud respectively, so they were in a way frozen in time. Everyday life is there to see, from the ´pubs´ with their holes for amphoras of wine, to the ´beware of the dog´ mosaic in the doorway, to the frescoes on the walls. The pyroclastic flow that covered Herculaneum even partially preserved wood, bones and food.

Stephen in a building in Herculaneum. Note the 2000 year old charred beams.

Lauren, Stephen and I had a great time wandering around both towns, poking our heads in the doorways and bedrooms of 2000 year old houses, walking the cobbled streets with their cart ruts, doing silly jumping photos in the forum.

But every now and then we would get a reminder that a vast and terrible tragedy happened there. One house in Herculaneum is full of skeletons. In Pompeii the bones are gone, but the hollows left by the bodies remained to be filled in by plaster. Stilled in the moment of death, they are chilling.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

This one's for Bill and Jack

Like many New Zealanders, my grandparents´ generation was the one that lived through the Second World War. My grandad Jack drove trucks in the Pacific and died with shrapnel from a Japanese shell still in his leg, while my great-uncle Bill served in Italy, including during the prolonged, brutal battle of Monte Cassino. On the way south from Rome we visited the town.

Cassino was a key point on the road to Rome and during the battle for it 45,000 Allied troops and many Germans were killed, and most infamously, the historic hilltop monastery (founded in the 6th Century AD) was bombed into rubble by Allied bombing.

Today there´s little to remind you of the devastation. The town has been rebuilt as nondescript apartment blocks, while the new monastery again sits atop its steep, strategic peak. It´s part of the lovely backdrop to the town, along with the Appiennes rising in the near distance, the higher peaks covered in snow.

The town´s museum was closed for the winter and we didn´t time it right to take a bus up to the monastery, but the Commonwealth War Cemetary was open.

In this sublimely peaceful place are some 4000 graves, each with its words and symbols. There are crosses, Stars of David, verses from the Koran in Arabic, Hindu scriptures. There are the many emblems of the British regiments, the crossed knives of the Gurkhas, the maple leaves of the Canadians, the Springboks of the South Africans, even a solitary star for one of the Soviet Red Army. And row after row, more than 400 silver ferns.

In the New Zealand section, with Monte Cassino in the background.

There were two other visitors to the cemetary, an elderly woman wearing a poppy and her son. It was Remembrance Day in the UK and they were there to lay a wreath on a British grave. The ring of poppies was marked with a poem and a note with one word: Dad. He was 28. She probably barely knew him.

Grandad Jack died when I was too young to talk to him about the war, though I have his medals and memories of playing darts in the garage with he and my father. Uncle Bill I met once, on a trip to the South Island with Dad. He shared some war stories with us. I remember one about a little Italian girl raped and murdered by some Algerians fighting with the Allies, and another about Bill taking a body out of a tank. The man had popped his head out the top and a shell had taken it clean off, the heat sealing the wound.

Bill is gone now too. In the cemetary, surrounded by the graves on a beautiful autumn day, I thought about Bill and Jack and the others who went to war. This entry is for them.

Roma: Numero Uno

Ah, Rome. This is my second visit here and about Lauren's fourth, and we have decided that is (against a lot of tough competition) our favourite place to be tourists in. We don´t count London, as somewhere you have lived is different. You don´t think of things like a tourist. You value things like parks, supermarkets and movie theatres a lot more, for a start.

We were thinking about how to rank cities as places to visit. For us, it comes down to five things.

1. Coolness of sights
St Peters. The Vatican Museum. The Forum. The Pantheon. Some of the most amazing buildings, ruins and museums in the world are here. Including this little feat of engineering:
Stephen at the Colloseum

2. Range and number of things to do and see
After two years in London, in which we saw something every weekend we were in the city, there's still a few things I've not seen that I'd like to. Rome's like that. There are more wonderful churches and fountains than you can shake a stick at, and you can't walk without falling over a Roman ruin. Our Western Europe Lonely Planet doesn't even mention the huge city walls, or the aqueducts running through and far beyond the city, or the extraordinary Theatre of Marcellus. These would be among the must-see sights of most cities.

Part of the Theatre of Marcellus complex.

3. Atmosphere
That X factor. The vibe, the feeling in the air, the people. Glasgow on a Saturday night, Paris in the spring. Rome, with its piazzas, rust-red apartments and gelataries, has atmosphere in spades. It´s a mix of chic, chaotic, historic and modern.

4. Transport
Boring but important. Rome´s public transport is only okay, but the beauty of the city is that almost all of the major sights are in a very walkable area from Piazza del Populo in the north, to the Vatican City in the west, to Termini in the east, to the Circus Maximus in the south. Pretty much the only time we left this was to see some fascinating catacombs just south of the city where the early Christians secretly buried their dead.

The Palatine Hill, where the emperors has their palaces.

5. The food
It´s Italy. Pizza. Pasta. Gelato. Salads. A hundred tasty deserts. Enough said.

of course, other people would have different ways of rating a place. Nightlife or shopping, say. But what about you? What´s your favourite city to be a tourist in?

Saturday, 31 October 2009


I don't usually like autumn. Granted it's pretty, but it also means that summer Pimms, long days, green trees and sunny mini-breaks are over for another year. Given that we are leaving the Northern Hemisphere at just the right time this year though I feel like I can really enjoy the autumn as I'm not so worried about months of barren grey and it getting dark mid-afternoon. It's quite nice this way, because it really is pretty isn't it?

The Old St Pancras church in North London

Saturday, 24 October 2009


When I told my workmates we were heading up to Liverpool for the weekend, they said I must be looking for a reason to leave the UK. Apparently the city doesn't have the nicest reputation in Britain.

Maybe the reputation was deserved back in the '80s, when the only good thing about the city was the all-conquering football team. But not now. Liverpool was European Capital of Culture last year, it's had some serious money poured into making it look good.

The Liver Building. Legend has it that if the statues of birds on top fly off, the city will fall.

As Liverpool is a port town - once one of the world's most important - the main attractions are by the sea. We particularly liked the Merseyside Maritime Museum, which had lots on three great doomed ships that sailed from there (the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Empress of Ireland), the Battle of the Atlantic and, commendably, history of slavery and how Liverpool benefitted from it.Sarah, Lauren and Erica hanging out by the docks

Liverpool's not just famous for the port and football though. There's the small matter of a mop-topped band who had a few hits back in the '60s.

Though we avoided doing a Beatles tour, we did wade through some of the Beatles tat (as The Sound of Music is to Salzburg, so are The Beatles to Liverpool) and did the other obligatory musically-touristy thing in Liverpool.

So the next time someone tells you Liverpool is rubbish - don't believe them. Any city that's been home to Gerry and the Pacemakers, Fernando Torres and John Lennon is definitely worth a day trip.