Tuesday, September 01, 2009


When I tell people that I am going to Africa the response is often either excitement or the question, “why?” The most memorable instance of this occurring was when I was in the chemists shop (pharmacy) on campus, picking up my prescription stomach illness packet that my doctor had prescribed just in case. When I presented my prescriptions, the pharmacist had to explain, loudly the purpose of each drug. “This one is for bloody diarrhea!” and so forth. That would have been fine except a woman I know was also in the store. When the pharmacist went to get my medicine, the woman slid over and asked softly, “are you ok?” That is when I explained that I was going to Africa and when she asked in surprise, “why?”. The response that I gave to her and to everyone else who asked the same was, “why not?”

I have been to the other continents other than Antarctica (it’s on the list) and so it was definitely time to turn my attention to Africa. The idea for this trip began several months ago when my friend, Brian emailed me his travel itinerary for 2009. Brian and I were volunteer teachers in China as part of the WorldTeach program in 2000. Of our group, Brian was probably the most keen to have a true China experience. He really tried to learn the language and he rarely turned down an invitation to go bowling or to go out singing karaoke. After not seeing each other for years, Brian and I met up again by chance when I returned to Yantai in October, 2008 after attending a conference in Shanghai. Brian and I did not plan it, but he was in Yantai at the same time as I was and it was really fun wandering around the city with him and reminiscing about our experiences and how the city used to look. Brian has the enviable position of having a unique deal with his employer. Brian only works a few months a year to earn enough money to travel and the rest of the year, he travels. When I saw that his travel plan for 2009 included southern Africa, I wrote that I would be eager to join him. As the plans grew to include more people, the group divided into two groups of two for ease of travel. I am now travelling with Sue, my constant travel companion and we arrive about a week earlier than Brian and his companion.

The travel plan includes Botswana and Namibia. These two countries are two of the most stable countries in Africa and I have long wanted to visit Namibia. All of us going on this trip booked our flights without too much research beyond which cities we would fly into and out of as we travelled. After all, we have travelled in developing countries before and we were counting on the excitement and affordability that developing countries offer. However, once we began our serious planning, we all were in for a tremendous sticker shock.

Botswana, it turns out is the playground of the rich who want to go on safari. At the start of the travel planning, we had each budgeted various amounts per day, but typically under US $100 per day. We researched various options for seeing animals by visiting the lodges in the parks and we sent off requests to various companies and agents for quotes. The responses we received were shocking. Many of the lodges charged in excess of US $1000 per person per night. The least expensive lodges were around US $500 per night. The lodges charge so much in part because they offer luxury accommodation in the middle of the bush. Alternatively, there are campsites available in some of the parks, but these must be reserved, sometimes months in advance and also require the use of a 4x4 vehicle which were also expensive. In fact, according to the guide books, organizing your own safari can be as expensive as one of the lower cost guided safaris and without the safety net of having a guide. We consulted the Lonely Planet Botswana and Namibia, the book that budget travelers count on to find low cost accommodation and travel options. However, the guide lists the expensive lodges and offers little in the way of budget options. We were on our own to try to wade through all of the options to find the diamond in the rough that we could afford.

We wound up spending a lot of time planning. And by a lot, I mean hours every day for weeks on end spent contacting agents and reviewing impossible quotes before we ran out of options. What was really frustrating was that we often contacted a safari operator and responded favorably to a quote only to have them never return our emails asking how we could pay. Never in the history of my travel have I spent so much time planning. And even as I sit here, writing while on the plane to Sydney, we still don’t have all of the pieces in place. We supposedly have bookings in Namibia, but we don’t have confirmation of this or vouchers to present. Nor do we have transport in Namibia quite yet.

Our flights into Africa will take us to Gaborone, Botswana via Johannesburg. We realized early on that if we wanted to go on safari, we would need to fly on from Gaborone to Kasane or Maun and that required making bookings on Air Botswana. Kasane but especially Maun are launching off points for many of the safaris. We had a lot of trouble booking our flights, but I discovered a website in the UK which allowed online bookings and Brian discovered a 800 number to make bookings from the US. Taking busses would have been far cheaper, but at the expense of time and some of the bus routes listed in the Lonely Planet were found not to exist.

There are a number of options for seeing the critters and there are a large number of places to see them. According to the LP, Botswana has long pursued a far-sighted policy of sustainable tourism that is aimed at preserving the country’s natural environment. In total, about 17% of Botswana is designated as a national park or reserve while another 20% is defined as wildlife management areas which together is an astoundingly large percentage of land for a country where cattle is herded and to have a large herd of tens of thousands of cattle is the dream. According to the US Department of State, prior to independence in 1966, cattle raising dominated Botswana's social and economic life. More recently, even the former president of Botswana is said to have commented during a meeting in a lodge that overlooked the wildlife below that it was all very nice, but it would be better if they were cows, much to the dismay of those who support the parks.

In addition to the parks there are also private concessions. These privately owned areas offer accommodation and activities for visitors. The private concessions can be more expensive than the national parks, but with the advantage that there are not restrictions about park hours which then opens the possibility for night safaris.

So there are lots of places to visit, but there really aren’t a lot of budget ways of seeing the critters. You could hire a 4x4 but this requires decking it out with extra fuel cans, food, tires and equipment you will need to get it out of mud or sand. However, the self-safari does not include a guide to help you find the critters and can be more expensive than the cheaper safari options which include a guide. It has been stressed to me in the past by members of the Christchurch Photographic Society that a really good guide is an essential part of taking really good photographs of animals. The main goal of our time in Botswana is to see and to photograph critters, so the guide was really important to us.

The least expensive guided options were mobile safaris in a large group in large trucks or a caravan of SUVs. Depending on the number of people in the group, there could be 3 people per row in the car meaning that not everyone gets a window. There could also be a lot of people per each guide. Some of these safaris included support staff and others required that the customers set up their own tents and cook their own meals. Some included drinks and others required the customers to bring their own drinking water.

Another option was to stay in lodges. Typically, the lodge customers are flown in small aircraft to the lodges where they are pampered. Alcohol may or may not be included in the cost of the lodge. In the morning, the guests are taken on a safari drive and then are back at lunch. In the late afternoon another game drive occurs and the guests are back by dinner. We were told that the schedule of the morning drive and in by lunch and then out again at 4PM is very common and most guides at the lodges and the mobile safaris have agreed to this code. The cost of the lodges begins around US $600 per person per night during the high season. Not a cheap option.

Since the cost of the safaris is so expensive, there are also day trips and short safaris on offer. These might include a mokoro trip in the Okavango Delta and spending a night in a camp. A mokoro is a shallow, dugout canoe traditionally hewn from an ebony or a sausage-tree log. There are also lodges which offer a night out in the salt pans at the cost of several hundreds of dollars per person per night. But these would just be expensive teasers rather than a true safari experience.

During our travels we found out that there is also another way to see the critters which involves an illegal safari of which we saw several. In order to offer safaris, a company must pay a lot of money to the government of Botswana for licensing fees and the like. Guides must also pay P1500 to keep their licenses current. To enter a park, the safari company must pay the park fees for the guests. In the past, the support staff including the guide paid a lower fee for the park, but this is now changing. A fee for the campsite must also be paid and people from the parks will go around during the day to check to make certain that campers had paid the fee.

Illegal safaris are operated by an individual, not a company and so therefore the safari company fees which must be paid to the government are avoided. The guide of the illegal safari will typically lead a caravan of cars into the park on the basis that they are individuals travelling together, not a safari. This also therefore avoids the licensing fees for the guides. The customers, however aren’t really reaping the benefits since they apparently still pay a lot of money for the safari. According to one guide we met, he found people illegally camping on the border between two parks. Apparently, there is a web site which lists the GPS coordinates of several such sites which it advertises as free places to park. The guide we spoke to confronted the illegal campers and told them that he was reporting them. When he returned, the illegal campers had disappeared to a new site, probably one deeper in the bush.

After so many hours of searching and so many emails, Sue and I finally found a local safari company in Maun called Ulinda which was mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Ulinda is run by a woman named Jane who made a name for herself both as a hunter and as a photographer. We contacted one of her former customers who is a doctor in California and he raved about his time with Jane. He told us that he has been to Botswana three times and has done the lodge option. He told us that if you want pampering in the woods, that is a good option, but if you want to see wildlife, what Jane is offering is a superior option.

Jane disappeared a few times during our negotiations, but we finally were able to make a booking. She will be picking us up at the airport in Maun at 8AM and then taking us out into the bush for six nights / seven days. We really hope that she will be there since as part of the booking, we had to wire the full cost of the safari to her in Botswana. At the time of writing, we are her only customers for those six days and so we basically have a private guide which is exciting. She will drive us to various locations and at night her crew sets up our tent and prepares our food. Since we will be out in the wild, there is danger from the wildlife such as lions, but it seems that as long as we are in our tent after dark, we will be fine.

From Maun we fly on Air Botswana to Kasane where we have booked in at a relatively inexpensive lodge which offers drives and boat trips along the Chobe Riverfront. The LP describes the Chobe Riverfront as a place that rarely disappoints and where we are almost guaranteed an up-close encounter with some of the largest elephant herds on the continent.

From Kasane, we will travel overland across the border with Zimbabwe to stay in Victoria Falls to see the world famous falls which have been called one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The choice to go to Zimbabwe made me a bit uneasy since I don’t want to support the Mugabe government. Plus the New Zealand government has a travel advisory against going to Zimbabwe and advises against all tourist and other non-essential travel due to a high risk to travelers’ security. The high risk advisory was stressed to me when I purchased my travel insurance since they would not cover travel to Zimbabwe. However, I explained that we would only be in Victoria Falls for less than two days which changed everything and I was told by the insurance agent to have a good time and that I would be fully covered. Friends from my church in Boston were recently in Zimbabwe and they went to Victoria Falls as well. They told me that they thought it was reasonably safe, but was devoid of tourists. They were the only ones staying at their hotel.

From Victoria Falls, we will fly to Johannesburg and then to Windhoek, Namibia. Compared to Botswana, Namibia has been really easy to plan. Older friends from Christchurch have told me that they had no problem driving around in a 2 WD car since the roads are very good so we could be mobile rather than to depend on a tour operator. The hard part for Sue and I was deciding where to go since we only have a few days in a large country. Fortunately, we had the help of an agent at Expert Africa which has a fantastic website which describes the various places and lodges in detail. Our agent there was a Kiwi who was happy to help and was able to get us exactly what we decided to do in the end.

We decided to concentrate on the Namib Desert which was highly recommended both by my friend Karen who lived in Namibia during her time with the Peace Corps and by my photography friends in Christchurch. The lodges we chose for early morning access to the park were expensive, but nowhere near the insane level of those in Botswana. We decided to splurge for one night by staying at a recommended lodge called the Kulala Desert Lodge which has its own gate to allow its guided tours to get into the park before the sunrise, something essential for photographers. The other nights we will be staying at another lodge in the park from which we will drive ourselves into the park. I have seen such spectacular photographs coming out of the Namib Desert and so I am really excited to go.

So, after months of painful planning on all of our parts, lots of jabs including Polio since it is a real problem in Africa and lots of emails flying around the globe, the trip has finally arrived. Unfortunately, it is on the heals of another trip, this one to the US. I spent three weeks in the US, two of which were to visit my family in the Boston area. My girlfriend, Joanna flew up a few days after I did to join me and then we both flew to Ottawa for a conference which was the main purpose of the trip since my tickets were booked by the university. The trip and the conference were both really good. On Saturday, 29 August, we flew across the US and then down to New Zealand where we arrived on 31 August. I had a day to quickly scurry around to unpack, pack and to get my affairs in order before boarding a flight to Sydney on 1 September. I was originally supposed to fly on the morning of the 2nd, but Air New Zealand canceled my flight. Air New Zealand agreed to put me on a flight on the 1st, but they insisted that I had to fly out at 7AM to Sydney and sit there for a day before connecting to my flight to Africa. My agent told me that they had tried to persuade Air New Zealand that this was a bad idea, but without fruit. After a lot of stress, I contacted Air New Zealand directly and they quickly agreed with me that it was ridiculous to require me to fly at 7AM rather than later in the day given my situation and so that problem was solved and I spent the night in Sydney. I am now writing during the 14 hour Qantas flight from Sydney to Johannesburg. We will be flying down the coast of Australia and then dip down towards Antarctica before heading north to South Africa. If all goes well, I will be meeting Sue at the gate after I run to make my connecting flight. Then to Gaborone where we will have a few hours of sleep before catching our next flight. Will I make the connection? Will we be awake on our first day of safari? Will be we eaten by cats? Stayed tuned.

Read more about Botwana in a very old, but therefore interesting Time Magazine article here:

US State Department summary of Botswana:

Friday, November 30, 2007

Christchurch in November

Feral Students
Overall, I think that the undergraduate students at the university are no more destructive than their US counterparts. There is the issue of binge drinking, but that is accepted as a problem faced by Kiwi society in general rather than just the student population. (There are advertising campaign on the television directed at this issue with the expressed theme of “It’s not how much we’re drinking, its how we’re drinking). The university hosts concerts and events during the year and although there will be beer bottles littering the grounds and toilet paper hanging from trees trees afterwards, overall the destruction is no worse than the aftermath of WILD at Washington University in St. Louis. There are also student social groups which host parties and other events and these are well organized. ENSOC, the engineering social group even owns its own fire engine (a train would obviously have been a better purchase, but it is far less practical) and has offices in the engineering building. However, there are a few times a year where all bets on the behavior of the students are off because some of the students seem to turn feral for a day.

The first of these is the Undie 500 which is an annual road trip between Christchurch and the university in Dunedin. To participate in this very large event, students decorate cars, each of which must be worth less than $500 and have a current registration and warrant of fitness. The event is really well organized and there are strict rules about drunk driving as well as about littering. Some of the students get really into the trip and come up with elaborate decorations for their cars and costumes as you can see in the video link from TV2. However, once the students got to Dunedin this past year, riots broke out. That is not to say that the Undie 500 participants rioted, but rather in the festivities afterwards there were riots. A common thing for hooligans to do in New Zealand is to burn couches and several were burnt this past year.


There were signs up at the university in Dunedein warning students “it’s not just a couch, it’s your degree” because they risk getting thrown out for rioting. Unlike past years, however, the police are using videos from the riots to track down students to prosecute them.

More recently, New Zealand celebrated Guy Fawkes Day. Guy Fawkes was part of a conspiracy to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. He was caught and he and the other conspirators were hung, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated on November 5 in the UK and former British colonies to mark the foiling of the plot with bonfires, fireworks and the burning of the ‘guy’, usually an effigy. In New Zealand, stores can legally sell fireworks for the three days preceding the holiday and the night of November 5 is marked by professional fireworks on the beach and amateur fireworks everywhere else. Here at the university, the day was also marked by burning couches and even a random car in the car park was burned.

The warm, summer weather marks the start of the Cricket season and the pitch near where I live is packed with payers every weekend. There are tents on the sidelines, flags marking the differing playing fields and a lot of people dressed in all white, including white hats. Cricket is a sport that I don’t pretend to understand quite yet. One of these days, I should sit down with someone who is willing to teach me and watch a few games on television.

Fishing Tales

A few weeks ago, my friends Sascha and Daniella, Daniel and Julie and I drove up to Kaikoura for a day of fishing. Kaikoura is about a 2 1/2 hour drive and is where the whale and dolphin watching tours are located. We had chartered a boat from Kaikoura Fishing Charters which was a company that some of my friends had used in the past and they highly recommended the trip. We arrived at the company’s office a little early and found it empty, so we sat at a nearby picnic table to eat lunch. As we ate, a man walked up and after bidding us hello, climbed into a nearby tractor with a very large boat trailer on it and drove off towards the harbor. We discussed this and debated about whether they were bringing the boat up, because surely not. But, a few minutes later the very large boat was being towed up the hill towards us.

We were introduced to our crew of two men and after we climbed on board the boat, the tractor was started and we were driven the few hundred feet down the road to the harbor. As we made our way to the harbor, we came to the realization that it was just the five of us on the charter. We had originally been told that there was space for ten and so we were pleased to be a small group and to have the boat to ourselves.

The tractor backed the boat into the water and once the boat started floating, the crew fired up the motors and we were off. It was a gorgeous day and the ocean was really calm. As we cleared the harbor, we saw our first seal frolicking nearby. The crew slowed the boat so that we could take photos and then we were off again.

Once we were out of the harbor, our first stop was to pick up some crayfish pots which the fishing company had placed. Crayfish look a lot like lobster, but lack the front claws. We pulled up two different pots which were loaded with the crayfish. Any crayfish that was too small or had eggs was thrown back, but we were left with eight crayfish to take home. At $80 each if you order them in the restaurant, we were already ahead on what we had paid for the trip!

We continued on our way and the day was just gorgeous. The sun was shining and the snow covered Alps were just a short distance away. We went a bit further into the ocean before the crew cut the engines and began to hand out fishing rods. Each rod came with a line with three hooks and a weight so that the line would sink to the bottom, about 100m below. Each of the hooks was baited with scraps from other fish which had been caught on prior trips and we dropped our lines into the ocean, allowing the reel to unwind until it stopped. What was amazing was that after only a minute or two, the fishing pole began to bob, the sign that a fish was on the end. So began the several minute process of reeling in 100m of line but once we did, we usually had two or three fish on the line! We were mostly catching sea perch which are beautiful, orange fish with gigantic eyes. For every eight perch we also caught a blue cod, some of which were quite large.

This process went on all afternoon. We would drop our line, wait a few minutes, reel in and bring two or three fish onboard. In the meantime, the crew was busy filleting the fish that we caught. From each fish, they were able to get two good filets, with the rest of the fish being saved as bait for the crayfish pots. For some reason, in no time we accumulated a crowd of birds around the boat. There were cormorants which would dive after the bait on our lines as we dropped them into the water. It was amazing to see them go down after the line and sometimes they would actually grab the bait. There were albatrosses which were amazing to watch as they ran across the water, flapping their massive wings to get themselves into the air. And there of course were seagulls which would land when no one was looking and swipe goodies from the bait container. We even had a visit from a group of dolphins which jumped out of the water to see what we were doing as they swam past.

In all, we spent five hours in the water. Five hours of pulling in fish after fish. In the end, I would just take breaks because how many fish could we get and five hours in the New Zealand sun is a long time. The crew provided us with coffee during the day and they cut up a fish for us to eat as sushi as well. Some of it was raw and some of it they cooked in vinegar to be eaten with sauce.

We estimated that the five of us caught over 300 fish. Judging by the number of fillets that I have in my freezer, this is a conservative estimate. Once back in the harbor, the boat was pulled back up onto the trailer and we were driven to the office. The crew busied themselves by bagging up all of the filets and the few whole fish that we had opted to keep intact. We had brought coolers with us and these were filled by all of the filets, fish and crays. As we were packing up, friends of the owners came over and offered all of us beers. So, we wound up hanging out in the boat, drinking beer and chatting with everyone for a while. It was a nice end to the day. We eventually got down, paid our $110 for the day and got back into the car. Everyone was really happy with the day and how much value we got for the money. It was easily the best value thing we had done in NZ because we came back with hundreds of dollars of fish each. Does the glacier give you ice to take home with you? No.

That night, we cooked the crayfish. The really odd thing is that we were told to first drown the crayfish in tap water for twenty minutes before cooking them. Failure to drown them would result in them freaking out in the boiling water and dropping off all of their legs. OK. Anyway, they were delicious as were the filets that we cooked. We divided up all of the fish and once home, I further divided up my fish into smaller bags to put into the freezer. That way, I just needed to pull out a bag each time I wanted to cook a meal rather than having to deal with a gigantic block of frozen fish.

In all, it was a fantastic day and we are just waiting to clean out our freezers before going again. I should be done eating fish sometime next April.

Lastly, one of the classic TV advertisements during the summer here in New Zealand. Enjoy

Monday, September 03, 2007

Épinal , France

The German train company, DB considers a few minutes to be plenty of time to change trains which can be a bit stressful, especially when the trains are located on opposite sides of a large station. To travel from Frankfurt, Germany to Épinal, France I had to change trains three times. In the German city of Offenburg, my ICE train from Frankfurt arrived at one end of the station and I only had three minutes to get to my connection which of course was on a track at the opposite end of the large, outdoor station. I scurried downstairs to cross under the tracks and then ran with my bags to reach the train in time. My knees are not as forgiving as they used to be and so I would not like to have to do that too often with heavy bags, but at least I made it.

I got onto a very small and very crowded train that would take me from Offenburg to Strasbourg, a city on the other side of the French-German border. The train only had a few cars and was more of a tram than an intercity train. There were middle school students with bicycles and lots of mothers with big trams and lots of children in tow going to spend the day in France. I found a spot to sit near the door so that my bags could sit out of the way at my feet which worked well. Once I arrived in Strasbourg, I had to wait for an hour until my next train to Nancy was ready for boarding. During that time, I got to see several of the high speed, TVG trains. The TVG holds the record for the fastest wheeled train, having reached 574.8 km/h (357 mph) on 3 April 2007 and also holds the world's highest average speed for a regular passenger service.

I was going to Épinal to visit my friends Renee, Mark and their children. I know Renee from when I
was a student at Washington University in St. Louis and both she and Mark have been mentioned in my travel emails in the past. I stopped to visit them in Los Angeles during my first trip to New Zealand in 2004. Renee has had a huge influence on my life over the years and in keeping with that tradition, she introduced me to her friend, Ruth who showed to me that it was possible for someone to successfully sell their photographs. Mark works for a large company and he was offered the chance for an overseas assignment in France. Renee and Mark have been living in Épinal for about 20 months when I visited them. Their daughter Helena was born in France and has dual citizenship.

Renee met me in the train station in Nancy and we then drove the 45 minutes to Épinal which is a is a small city nestled in the French Vosges. Épinal has a population of only 36,000 (according to the 1999 census) but there is a lot going on in the city. It is the main city in the department of the Vosges, so many of the neighboring towns go to Épinal for shopping or for fun. The city also sports four Olympic-sized pools, an ice-skating rink, a public gymnasium (basketball, handball, fencing, archery, judo, and ping-pong dedicated rooms), and the town sponsors walking, rollerblading, biking and running events during the year. The Moselle river is channeled through canals in the city center and the city created a series of gates and obstacles for kayakers. One can stand on the sidewalk over the canal and watch the plethora of kayakers practicing going through the gates.

Épinal is the terminus of the Canal des Vosges and the town has a harbor where barges can be docked. There are well maintained walking trains along the canal which are a nice place to spend a few hours. Across the street from Renee and Mark’s flat is a large park with flower beds that are constantly being rotated during the year. Renee told me that French cities are given ratings for their gardens and Épinal makes a concerted effort to be highly rated each year.

Through conversations with Renee, Mark and their friends, I learned a bit about what it is like to adjust to living in France. Renee mentioned a book called Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoit Nadeau which describes the French from the perspective of someone who is originally from Canada. The author notes that although the French look like people from North America, it would be a mistake to assume that our cultures are identical.

A French trait which takes some getting used to is the constant kissing of cheeks. Renee told me that when Mark goes to work each day, he must meet each woman who he sees at work with kisses on each cheek and he must shake hands with each man. It is very important to remember whose cheek you have kisses and whose hand you have shaken. If you see someone at the end of the day who you have not yet kissed, it is expected that you will do so. However, to kiss someone’s cheek or to shake someone’s hand after you have already done so that day is frowned upon. It must take some effort to follow this custom when working in a large company as Mark was doing.

Renee’s friend, Kris told me that the custom of kisses even extend to the gym. While people are working out, if someone they know enters the gym, they are expected stop whatever they are doing to bestow kisses because it would be rude not to do so. As you can imagine, at larger gyms the kisses could be a big distraction from a workout because you would have to constantly stop what you are doing. Kris told me that when she goes, she puts in her earbuds and just gets in her workout because everyone knows that she is a foreigner and she plays that card so that she can get her workout completed in a reasonable amount of time and without interruption.

An activity which was an option during my stay was to go to one of the swimming pools in town. However, Mark pointed out that I did not have a state sanctioned swimsuit to wear and that I would not be allowed to wear my swimming trunks. Men are only allowed to wear small Speedos in the pool because they are seen as being more hygienic than shorts. If shorts were allowed, someone might wear a pair of short in which they had been working out and therefore they might be sweaty. People have pointed out that the concern for the cleanliness of the shorts is rather funny considering that the cleanliness of the person wearing them might be a bigger issue. However, others who have gone to pools in France and who have had to rent a pair of Speedos reported that they had to enter a series of showers before getting to the pool area.

A visit to a local market introduced me to another custom which is to prepare meat with the head still on the animal. In one butcher’s display case were rabbits which had been skinned but which still had their heads and most importantly, they still had their eyes. It was explained to me that people feel that they can gauge the health of the animal (the health prior to the visit to the butcher) by looking into the eye. Therefore, the head is kept on the animal when it is served.

Mark and Renee have a really nice, spacious flat in the downtown area with a large park just across the street. One day while Renee and I were sitting on a bench in the park, talking and watching Luke ride his bicycle, I was startled to hear the sound of running water behind us. I turned to see a little boy standing with his pants down, peeing on a tree while pedestrians walked by as if nothing was going on. Renee explained that it is common for little boys to open use trees in the park as bathrooms and therefore no one gives it much mind.

A related point that gets a lot of press from time to time are the dog droppings which can litter the walkways. I had read a story in the New York Times a few years ago that the dog droppings are a problem in the big cities like Paris where there can be a lot of dogs out for a walk.

On Tuesday, Renee planned an outing in the countryside while her son was in school and we were joined by her friend Kris who is from the US, but has lived in France for a number of years. The plan was to drive out into the mountains and maybe do a bit of walking if the weather cooperated. We visited some stores along the way and Renee told me that it is expected that the store keeper and customers will exchange “bonjour” when the customer enters the store. This custom goes back to when shopkeepers often lived above the shops and therefore, when someone entered the shop they were entering an extension of the shopkeeper’s house and so it was expected that the visitor be greeted.

While driving along a road that was originally built during World War I, we saw signs for fondue and so decided to give it a go for lunch. We turned at the sign and drove down a dirt road to a wooden building perched on the side of a hill that was a restaurant. After some half-hearted joking about Hansel and Gretel, we wandered inside. We met at the door by German hikers who were also coming in for lunch as the restaurant was located along the hiking trails. The restaurant was nice, but they just had a set menu and no fondue. After extracting ourselves, we found the actual fondue restaurant which was a farm building and we walked past stables for the cows on the way in. We ordered cheese fondue with meat and cheese as well as salad. We got a basket with cubes of bread and a platter with a few strips of meat. The fondue came in a pot which was set down on a sterno heater. The cheese in the fondue was muster cheese which is a specialty of the region and quite rich and decadent.

That evening, Renee, Mark and I continued a tradition that we unknowingly have been following every time we have been together for the past decade, we ate pie, homemade apple in this case. We knew that we had a pie obsession extending back to when I had visited them in California, but upon discussing it further, we discovered every time that the three of us have gotten together, pie has been eaten even though we didn’t realize that we were following tradition at first.

On Wednesday, Renee and I walked down to a museum in the city center called cite de l'image. The museum is dedicated to the popular prints created by a local company, the Imagerie d'Épinal, formerly known as the Imagerie Pellerin. The stencil-colored woodcuts of military subjects, Napoleonic history, storybook characters and other folk themes were widely distributed throughout the 19th century. The images include Le Chat Botté, or Puss in Boots who recently appeared in the Shrek movies. Part of the museum is the musee de l'image where you can have guided tours of the old machines used to make the prints. There was also the imagerie d'Épinal where there was a permanent display of prints as well as a temporary display of prints from the 50’s era. Amongst the displays in the temporary exhibit were Martine books. Martine is the title character in a series of books for children written in French by the belgians Marcel Marlier and Gilbert Delahaye. and edited by Casterman. The first one, Martine à la ferme (Martine at the farm), was published in 1954, followed by over 50 other books, which have been translated into many different languages. There was a store as well and one of the prints that was offered was a sketch of what Épinal looked like many years ago when the chateau was intact and the city walls enclosed much of the city.

That afternoon, I met up with Isabelle who I knew from DTU where we both were studying for our masters degrees. She has been mentioned in many of my emails from Denmark because we travelled together in Denmark and we often we at dinner parties together. Isabelle (who is French) now lives in Paris where she is working for the French government. Her job is to monitor the pollution of the environment caused by explosives or explosive chemicals. She visits factories that use the explosives to ensure that they are containing the pollution properly. In my opinion, that she is an explosives expert is pretty neat, but what is even neater is that her work will be taking her to French Guiana in a few months. French Guiana (which is located in South America), is is an overseas region of France and therefore falls under Isabelle’s jurisdiction. As an integral part of France, French Guiana is part of the European Union's territory, and its currency is the euro. French Guiana is home to the Guiana Space Centre (in French: Centre Spatial Guyanais or CSG) which is a French spaceport for launching satellites. Of course, the spaceport uses explosive materials to launch the space vehicles which is why Isabelle must visit. She will be going at the same time that a launch is scheduled and so will be able to see it.

Isabelle and I had lunch at a crêperie. Isabelle was a bit put off with crêpes because Épinal is not the crepe region (Brittany is the correct region), but I thought that they were good. We each started with a savory crepe that we chose from the extensive menu of crêpes fillings. We also drank cider which is a popular drink to accompany crêpes. For dessert, we had crêpes smothered in chocolate sauce. It was really decadent and almost too much chocolate, if you can believe that possible. Unfortunately, right after lunch we went to a bakery to pick up dessert for dinner that night. I say unfortunately, because after the chocolate crepe, I didn’t want to think about more sugar. While in the bakery, the baker explained about a few of the loaves of bread that he had set to one side. He told us that he used wet yeast for the special loaves instead of dry yeast. Many artisan bakers produce their own yeast by preparing a 'growth culture' which they then use in the making of bread. In any case, the bread was delicious.

We also needed to stop in a grocery store and it was the first time that Isabelle had been into a grocery store in years. In Paris, she is part of a group of people who pay an organic farmer months in advance for his produce. Each week, he brings a shipment of fruits and vegetables into the city for the group members and periodically, the group will go out to his farm to work.

Afterwards, we went for a walk along the Canal des Vosges and I was surprised to see that the canal did not necessarily follow the river. In fact, at one point, the canal actually went over the river and was carried by a large, stone viaduct. I was surprised at this because although the boats which we saw in Épinal were not gigantic, they were large enough that I did not expect them to be able to go over the bridge.

That night, Renee outdid herself by preparing a multi-course dinner which was really good. We had a lovely, organic wine that Isabelle had purchased. After dinner, Isabelle left to continue her holiday and I set about the task of packing which is a task that I hate. However, it had to be done since I would be leaving early the next morning from Épinal by train to go to visit my friend, Gerke in Hamburg.

For more information about Épinal

http://www.ville-Épinal .fr/

A website about Imagerie d'Épinal

Sunday, September 02, 2007


At the conclusion of my conference in Istanbul, I flew to Frankfurt, Germany where I saw all sorts of crazy happenings at the airport. When we landed, the plane taxied to a place where we would have to exit the plane directly onto the tarmac rather than into the gate. We were told that immigration would be meeting us at the exits of the plane and we were asked to have our passports at the ready. It turned out that they were looking for one person and he knew it because he was the last to get off. As the rest of us were taken by bus to the terminal, he was escorted to a waiting police car. At the immigration desk which permitted people out of the airport and into Germany, I saw a man being refused entry which is the first time that I saw that. Once through immigration, I found a man yelling at a customs official, claiming that the official was tricking him to go through the wrong customs line so that he would be taxed. Fortunately, I just walked through it all and found my friend Steff on the other side of baggage claim. It is always nice to be met in the airport when you are flying to another country.

Steff and I know each other from when she was a law student at the University of Canterbury. There are a good number of Germans in the masters program at the law school and in fact, this year the program is 100% German students. I have met or have lived with a number of the law students and none of them expected to find so many other Germans in the program. They each thought that they were taking a great opportunity to spend a year in New Zealand, primarily to improve their English skills since they don’t really need the masters degree to practice law in Germany. The university likes the Germans to come because although the students pay domestic tuition rates (currently NZ $4664 per year), the German government subsidizes their studies by paying the university the difference between the international (currently NZ $24700 per year) and domestic tuition rates which is substantial.

Most of my friends, including Steff have just recently departed from New Zealand and are in various points in the process of becoming a lawyer. The process of becoming a lawyer in Germany includes four to five years of study followed by an internship and tests. The geographic location of the internship depends on where your parents live, not where you want to live. The availability of internships is limited. If there aren’t enough spots for all of the people who want one, those who don’t get a spot must sit and wait until internships are offered again in a few months.

Generally, after about 21 months of internship, the would be lawyer takes a written test followed by another few months of internship and then an oral test. Once the school, internship and tests are completed, the process of finding a job begins. Even at this early stage, the lawyer can apply to become a judge. Being a judge, especially a female judge is seen as being advantageous because you are a state employee. In the rare event that a German woman wants to have a baby (the state is currently paying women to have children to stop the negative population growth), she can take advantage of the long maternity leave for state employees and she knows that her job is secure.

My former flatmate, Sebastian is also from the Frankfurt region and he wanted to meet up with us, but we were unsure about how to get in touch with him. As we were discussing it, Sebastian called. He had managed to track down Steff’s new mobile number by contacting mutual friends in StudiVZ, the German equivalent of Facebook. While we waited for Sebastian to get to the airport to meet us, Steff patiently waited with me in line at the Deutch Bahn (DB) office in the terminal. There is a very convenient train station right in the airport, but there was a not very convenient long queue to speak with a clerk.

I would be using a Eurail pass for my travels in Europe. While living in Europe, I had not been allowed to use of the passes which was fine because flying is usually less expensive and can be less time consuming that taking the train. But for this trip, I would be visiting a lot of people and the pass worked out to be very convenient. There are several different types of Eurail passes available, depending on how many countries you want to travel through and for how many days. I had chosen a Select Pass which allowed travel in five countries for five days over a period of two months. Each time that I used the pass, I was required to write the day and month in the assigned space on my pass. The exception to this was if I was taking a night train that departed after 7PM for which I was allowed to enter the next day’s date. Therefore, it required some strategic planning to take full advantage of the pass. Once aboard the train, I would need to show my pass and my passport to the conductor who would then stamp over the date that I had written to prevent fraud. Unfortunately, Select Passes are only offered to individual travelers (as opposed to groups) if they are willing to travel first class, so I had to suffer through that. The pass cost €393 which was equivalent of only two of my five days of travel and so was very worth the cost.

However, simply having the pass does not guarantee you a seat. Seat reservations can be purchased for Inter City Express (ICE) trains in Germany and equivalent fast trains in other countries. Reservations are compulsory on all trains in Denmark and are required for night trains if you want to book a sleeper. I later found out that seat reservations are €3.50 for most trains and are more for sleeper cars. I paid €65 for a bunk in a two person sleeper between Frankfurt and Milan. I would discover that seat reservations were not actually necessary for many of the 1st class cars because there could be a lot of seats. However, there were some trains such as those that passed through Frankfurt that were full and so I was very glad that I had seat reservations. I think that it just takes experience to know when a reservation is needed which I didn’t have and I didn’t want to risk not getting a seat, so the cost was worth it to me. However, my friend Gerke usually opts not to get a reservation. If she cant find a seat, she goes to the café car to buy a coffee for less than €3.50 and then spends the duration of her travel nursing her coffee in one of the café car seats.

I had fortunately, printed out a detailed list of all the trains that I wanted to take including the date, the number and the destinations thanks to the fantastic website, www.db.de. I say fortunately, because the man behind the counter at the DB office where I was buying my seat reservations was a bit frazzled and was even more so when his printer ran out of paper. His disorganization would later be a problem for me, but when I finally got my tickets and got over the sticker shock, I was pleased to leave the DB office after only an hour of waiting.

Steff and I sat in a café to wait for Sebastian who for some reason had trouble finding us in Europe’s largest airport. Sebastian was one of my flat mates in Flat 54 which was a really good flat. Unfortunately, the term ended last June and Sebastian and Gerke went back to Germany. Sebastian was only in New Zealand for six months as part of his studies and was now back in the Frankfurt area, waiting to resume his studies.

Once we finally met, we set off for Sachsenhausen which is a neighborhood of Frankfurt, located on the south side of the Main River. We parked our car and instantly, I was aware that I was in Germany. It was around seven in the evening and the sun had already set. We walked along the sidewalk of cobble stoned streets, closely lined with four story buildings on each side. Trees lined the sidewalks and the occasional tram rumbled along the tracks on the street. We passed staircases to take us down to the subway below, connecting the neighborhoods with everything. There were cafes and stores on the first floors of the buildings and the clinking of cutlery and the laughter of the patrons sitting outside could be softly heard on the quiet streets. I was mesmerized by the neighborhoods and was certain that I would want to live there if I were to work in the area.

We found a very traditional looking café with seating outside on covered, wooden benches. Unfortunately, traditional food doesn’t offer much for a vegetarian like Steff, but I was in heaven with my brat and sauerkraut. There is nothing quite like the good sausages that are made in Germany. My former flat mate, Henrik had always complained about the sausages available in Christchurch and now I understood what he was talking about. Sebastian and I drank Apfelwein (apple wine) which is a traditional specialty of the area. The Apfelwein is served in a Bembel (jug) which is salt-glazed stoneware usually grey in color with blue detailing. After dinner, we wandered over to a Greek café so that Steff could eat as well.

I know that I was worn out when Sebastian brought Steff and I back to the airport and bid us farewell. Steff had offered me a place to stay at her family’s house in Manheim, I city about 70km south of Frankfurt. With 307,640 inhabitants, Manheim is the second largest city in the state of Baden-Württemberg after the capital Stuttgart. It was at his workshop in Mannheim that Carl Benz produced in 1886 a light weight three wheeled vehicle powered by a single cylinder petrol/gasoline fueled motor. Today, Daimler AG still assembles cars and trucks in Mannheim. Other industries in Manheim include BB, BASF, Roche, Freudenberg, John Deere and Siemens.

The downtown area is laid out in a grid, but there are no street names. Instead, the 143 square blocks of the downtown area take the form of a grid reference. Using the large castle which is located downtown as a reference, the first block to the left of the castle is A1 followed by A2, A3, etc and to the right of the castle is L1 then L2, L3, etc. The street numbers go around each block starting at the corner which is closest to the castle. The addresses include the block number and the house number. For example, a building could be L3, 21 which is the 21st building on block L3. Many of the streets have now received proper names, but the grid reference system is still used.

We arrived at Steff’s house to discover that her father had cleared out the parent’s room so that I could stay there and have my own bathroom which was really nice of him. The next morning, he went out early to get special rolls from the bakery for breakfast for us. Although I took German in high school and university, I did not appreciate at the time just how very important speaking another language would be at the time. I really wish that I had paid more attention and had not wasted so many years studying Latin so that I might have a much better base in German. I can guess at a lot of written words and if I know the topic and can catch a few words I know, I can guess at what is being said, but my spoken German is nonexistent. So, I could not speak with Steff’s father directly because he didn’t speak English. He had recently retired after forty years at Siemens where he had taught how to design telecommunications systems. It turned out that he had a collection of antique telephones dating back to the early 20th century. I think that the old phones are fantastic because the handsets have a heft to them that feels like quality. And, I am old enough that I still remember rotary phones and the joy of trying to dial a number quickly (and the inevitable sore dialing finger from trying to make the dial go around faster).

I hadn’t been sure what my quick visit to Frankfurt was going to look like when I arrived because we had made no plans and I had anticipated spending the night in a hotel. It turned out to be a really fantastic experience and it was really good to reconnect with Steff and Sebastian. From their end, it sounded like they were excited to meet with a connection from New Zealand because both were going through degrees of reverse culture shock. Especially since their time in Christchurch had been stressful at times, but overall really nice and a sort of holiday from the frantic pace that was about to overtake their education process now that they were back in Germany.

I would be catching a train from Frankfurt to the town of Epinal France that morning and had bought a seat reservation from the main train station. However, Steff was clever and discovered that the train passed through Manheim and so saved us a lot of driving because I could catch the train right there and almost an hour later than if I had caught it in Frankfurt. Steff’s father took us to the station where I discovered that seat reservations are canceled if you are not in your seat fifteen minutes after departure. Seat reservations are indicated on a digital display above each seat which turns off after fifteen minutes to free the seat for people without reservations if no one has yet sat down. I was worried about this since it was my first train of the trip, but fortunately, there were a lot of seats available and so I was able to quickly settle down for the first of four legs of my journey.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Istanbul Part 2

The Inter-noise conference which I was attending in Istanbul went well and there were sessions for building acoustics or room acoustics everyday which was brilliant. In all, there were 1000 participants from 50 countries around the world. I never know who I will see at the conferences and therefore I am always pleased to see people that I know. There were several professors from DTU at the conference as well as people who I have met at prior conferences. Plus I had the chance to meet most of the people who are publishing in my area of research which is one of the main reasons to attend the conferences. I am always exhausted at the end of a day of listening to presentations and speaking with people during the coffee breaks because you have to be on the whole time. But it is certainly worth it for the chance to learn what other people are researching.

There is always a banquet at a conference and this year it was held at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in the old town part of the city. We traveled to the old town by bus and entered the gates of the Topkapi Palace beyond which was a beautiful grass covered and tree lined courtyard. We walked along one of the stone walkways down to the museum and were greeted by about 100 tables ringed by chairs wrapped in cloth which was tied in a bow on the back.

We were told that the museum would remain open for twenty minutes so that we could have a private viewing and so we quickly entered the large, stone building. The award-winning museum has been undergoing renovation throughout the past decade, winning the Council of Europe’s Museum Award in 1993. The museum contains numerous works carved from stone including the very ornate Alexander the Great sarcophagus which was so named because it was believed to be the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great because he is featured prominently in several of the scenes carved into the sides of the sarcophagus. However, after the sarcophagus was named, it was found that the resident was not Alexander the Great but someone else. Nonetheless, it is an amazing piece of work. The museum also contains the first written peace treaty in the world, concluded after the Battle of Kadesh fought between Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittite king Muvatallish in the 13th century BC. The treaty itself is written on stone tablets. If you are ever in Istanbul, the museum is certainly worth a visit.

As we exited the museum, we were met by waiters with trays of drinks and tables spread out in the courtyard with hors d'oeuvre including the best green olives that I have ever tasted in my life. Seriously, they were amazing and I fear that they have absolutely ruined the now tasteless olives that I grew up with. During the dinner, entertainment was provided in the form of dances. The very first dance was performed by members of the Mevlevi Order.

The Mevlevi Order or the Mevleviye are a Sufi order founded by the followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi in 1273 in present-day Turkey. They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah). The ritual whirling of the dervishes is described as an act of love and a drama of faith. The whirling possesses a highly structured form within which the gentle turns become increasingly dynamic as the individual dervishes strive to achieve a state of trance. The music that accompanies the whirling from beginning to end ranges from somber to rhapsodical and its effect is intended to be mesmerizing. It is said that the chanting of poetry, rhythmic rotation, and incessant music create a synthesis which, according to the faithful, induces a feeling of soaring, of ecstasy, of mystical flight.

As the Whirling Dervishes were introduced, we were all asked to stop eating and talking out of respect for the dancers and then drums and flutes began to play their mesmerizing tune and the Whirling Dervishes who were dressed in white robes with long, cylindrical headpieces began to spin. At the start of the spinning, they had their arms folded across their chests, but soon they raised their arms so that their bodies were in the shape of a Y. They held this pose for the rest of the whirling. The whirling went on and on for quite a while as they shuffled their feet to keep themselves in motion. It was interesting to watch.

The morning after the conference ended, I arranged to meet my friend and colleague, Lars-Göran from Sweden at the Blue Mosque in the old town. It took me an hour to get to the old town via the funicular and tram, but it was an interesting way to travel rather than to take a taxi. The Blue Mosque with its domes, semidonmes and six slender minarets is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Istanbul. The mosque is so named for the blue tiles on many of the walls of the interior. The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I to placate Allah after humiliating defeats of wars with Persia. He ordered Architect Mehmet Pa?a to begin construction in 1609 and the whole complex was completed in 1616. Like many other mosques, it also comprises a tomb of the founder, a madrasah and a hospice. When the number of minarets at the Blue Mosque was revealed, the Sultan was criticized for presumption, since this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque of the Ka'aba in Mecca. He overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at the Mecca mosque.

I had expected to have to queue to enter the mosque, but we were able to join the other tourists passing the long line of sinks on the side of the mosque to arrive at a side door. The sinks or ablution fountains are for people who are getting prepared to pray in the mosque. Before praying, one should wash his/her face, arms, neck and feet as well as their mouth and nose. Signs near the side entrance to the mosque noted that women were to cover their bare heads, arms and legs and everyone was to remove their shoes. Shawls were provided if needed and plastic bags were available so that you could easily carry your shoes with you. As you approached the door, your feet welcomed a very thick carpet which was over the entire floor of the mosque.

The mosque is nearly a square and covered with a dome that is 24m in diameter and 43m high. The dome is supported by four colossal columns which are 5m in diameter. These "elephant feet" consist of multiple convex marble grooves at their base, while the upper half is painted, separated from the base by an inscriptive band with gilded words. The mosque has 260 windows which let the sunlight diffuse into the building and today are assisted by chandeliers. At its lower levels and at every pier, the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles. At the upper levels, the walls are painted.

A three foot high gate which ran the length of the mosque separated the tourists from the area where prayers were said. On the far end was a staircase which led up to the minber, or pulpit, where the Imam stands when he is delivering his sermon at the time of noon prayer on Fridays or on holy days. However, the priest never climbs to the very top as a respect to Prophet Muhammed.

The Blue Mosque is open to visitors outside of prayer times. The prayers occur five times a day and the times rotate according to the sun’s position.

After leaving the Blue Mosque, I bid farewell to Lars-Göran who had to go to the airport to catch his flight home and I went over to see the Aya Sofia which is next door to the Blue Mosque. The Aya Sofia is not as ornate as the Blue Mosque, but it is important to remember that it predates the Blue Mosque by 1000 years and is a marvel of engineering.

The Aya Sofia or “Church of Divine Wisdom” was constructed between 532 and 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian as a monument to Christianity and the rise of the eastern Roman empire. It was the patriarchal church of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the religious focus point of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire for nearly 1000 years. The Aya Sofia remained for centuries the biggest church in the world only being surpassed by the church of St Peter in Rome several centuries later. The dome of Aya Sofia is a spectacular feat of architecture especially considering the limited building methods that were available at the time of construction. The massive dome was designed to give the visitor an impression of the greatness of God and until it was completed, no one was sure that it could actually stand. Only the best materials were used for building the Aya Sofia, including marble walls and flooring and gold wall and ceiling decorations. More than ten thousand people were employed during this construction.

Unfortunately, Istanbul is located on a fault line. Earthquakes in 553 and 557 caused cracks in the main dome and the eastern half-dome to appear. The main dome collapsed completely during an earthquake on 7 May 558. The emperor ordered an immediate restoration. This time, the architect used lighter materials and elevated the dome by 6.25 meters, thus giving the building its current interior height of 55.60 meters.

In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Sultan Mehmed II ordered the building to be converted into a mosque. The items of Christian worship were removed, and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over. Islamic features were added over the course of its history under the Ottomans.

Christans claimed that the Aya Sofia was rightfully a church and Muslims claimed that it was a mosque. To end the fighting, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, cleverly transformed the building into a museum. The carpets were removed and the marble floor decorations appeared for the first time in centuries, while the white plaster covering the mosaics was painstakingly removed by expert restorers. The massive church has undergone other renovations over time and even today, the dome was filled with scaffolding as the latest renovation is being completed.

The Aya Sofia was quite busy when I visited and the stairways leading to the second floor were stiflingly hot. However, I was rewarded with great views of the city and of the Blue Mosque through the windows. Touts were all around the entrance and many people wanted to take me to see some sort of cistern that I am sure was next to a carpet store / antique store / postcard shop. I declined.

On Saturday evening, I had the privilege of attending a wedding celebration which was held on a boat cruising the Bosporus. The wedding was between my friends Claus who is Danish and Emine who is Turkish. I knew Claus from DTU and I had met Emine at the Inter-Noise conference in Rio de Janeiro two years prior. The actual marriage ceremony had taken place in Denmark a year before but they wanted to have a second celebration in Turkey for their Turkish friends and family, many of who could not get visas to Denmark. The timing of the conference was not coincidental because both Claus and Emine are acousticians and knew that a lot of people would be in town for the conference.

In the invitation which had been sent out, the guests had been given two locations for pickup by the boat, one on the Asian side and one on the European side. I opted to take the funicular to the dock and so left plenty of time for the trip, just in case something went wrong because I did not want to miss the boat. I was so punctual in fact, that I was an hour early. I knew that I was in the right place because I saw other wedding parties boarding boats, but it was a relief once other guests who I recognized began to show up a half an hour after I arrived. A short time later, the bride and groom arrived shortly after that in their wedding dress and tuxedo. Claus’s family from Denmark had come as well as a lot of Emine’s classmates from Aalborg University where she had gone to school in Denmark.

Once the boat arrived, everyone boarded and there were drinks and hors d'oeuvres on the top deck as we set sail. After a while, everyone was invited downstairs to where dinner was to be served. There wasn’t actually a wedding ceremony as one had already occurred which was disappointing because that would have been really interesting. But, the dinner was a lot of fun. I was at a table with a professor from DTU and his partner as well as several women who were friends of Emine from high school and a friend from Istanbul. Dinner was a buffet and included lots of food and lots of sticky desserts. Afterwards there was dancing to Turkish music as the boat moved up and down the river until it was time to go. Most people got off on the European side and after goodbyes, I head off in a taxi with a few of Emine’s friends to Taksim square where they were going out for the evening. I was invited to go out with them and in hindsight, it probably would have been fun, but my mind was on packing for my flight in the morning and I didn’t want to be out in the rain in my suit for long since it would soon be stuffed into the bottom of my backpack for a few weeks.

The next morning, I had my last breakfast at the hotel and met my ride to the airport which had been arranged through the conference. The Istanbul airport was large and busy and had a security checkpoint as soon as you entered the door for people and bags which I haven’t decided is a comforting or worrisome thing. I had a Leatherman in the bag that I was going to check and when security saw it, they asked to make sure that I would check the bag. Once I told them that I would check it, everything was fine. I was a bit surprised by this and was pleased that Lufthansa had a second security checkpoint at the gate. I had a bit of trouble at check in because my carryon was too heavy. This was the first time that I had my carry on weighed and I was in trouble because I was carrying both my laptop and my SLR with its heavy lens in the same bag. But, it worked itself out and later that afternoon I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany.

The following were referenced for information about the Blue Mosque
Guide Istanbul

Monday, August 27, 2007


Ankara is the capitol of Turkey, but Istanbul is seen by many as the cultural heart of Turkey. Originally called Byzantium when it was founded in 660 BC, the city straddles two continents, Europe and Asia with the narrow body of water called the Bosphorus lying between them. In AD 330, the city was renamed Constantinople by Constantine the Great, who made it the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The history of the city includes being sacked by the Crusaders in 1204 and being captured by the Turks in 1453. In 1930, the name of the city was changed to Istanbul. Today Istanbul with its skyline studded with domes and minarets, is home to 14+ million of the 68 million people living in Turkey.

That Istanbul is a crossroads is shown in the way that its inhabitants dress. Men were generally dressed in long pants and a button down shirt, but women’s dress ranged quite widely. One would see women dressed in western clothes next to women wearing headscarves or burqas. One of the people at the conference told me that he had met a couple wearing western clothing and flashy jewelry and he was surprised to learn that they were visitors from Iran. He also told me that he had been up to the pool on the roof of his hotel and was surprised to see women in bathing suits that must have been sold by the centimeter, they were so small.

That women can choose whether or not to wear a headscarf is due to the secular government of Turkey. The constitution of Turkey asserts that the country is a secular and democratic republic, deriving its sovereignty from the people. Although an overwhelming majority of the population, at least nominally, adheres to Islam, the state neither has an official religion nor promotes any, and it actively monitors ("active neutrality") the area between the religions. All of which is why when Abdullah Gül became the 11th president of Turkey on August 28, 2007 there was strong and highly vocal opposition from ardent supporters of secularism in Turkey. Central to the controversy, were concerns that Gül has an Islamist agenda based on views that Gül expressed earlier in his political career. Furthermore, the president’s wife wears a headscarf, which is seen by some as a symbol of political Islam. The army, which has long regarded itself as the guardian of the country's secular constitution, voiced its opposition to Gül’s candidacy during the election process and there were street protests in Istanbul and Ankara leading up to the election.

The parts of the city which I visited were modern and the streets were wide and tree lined. Even the back streets were tree lined. The buildings around Taskim Square where I haunted were mostly four story tall, light colored buildings. The bottom floor of the buildings were mostly shops including cafes, restaurants and electronics stores. The sidewalks on both sides of the street were often busy with people. On the back streets near my hotel, the sidewalk was separated from the road by metal pylons attached to the brick of the sidewalk. However, I saw people loosening these and moving them in order to park the cars on the sidewalk. There were touts on the streets who were more annoying than anything. I was asked several times where I was from and if I would like to see their antique / carpet / souvenir store. The touts were mostly around my hotel and in the old town.

There were a lot of cars on the street, especially at night when the city seemed more alive than during the day. The traffic was more orderly than in China, for example, but not nearly as orderly as New Zealand. There were, however many more people concerned with directing traffic. My hotel was located up a series of small, one way street and I saw men standing at the corners, directing the large busses and the cars one way or another. It seemed that was their job because the men were always there directing traffic.

The public transportation in the city included busses and a subway as well as trams on the European side that rumbled down the street. From Taskim square there was also an underground funicular which only had two stops. I didn’t realize this the first time that I took it and wound up going down then up before going back down. Not such a great ride for 1.20 ($1 US), but it saved me a trip up and down the hill. Only some of the trams cross Golden Bay which divides the European side and none of the trams or trains connect the European and Asian sides. To get across, one must take a ferry or cross over the Bosporus via one of the two bridges. A subway tunnel and a third bridge are planned, but the government does not want to announce its proposed location out of fear that the property values in the area will skyrocket.

The weather was definitely warm when I was there at the end of August, but not terribly so. However, walking up the street when the sun was high in the sky was no fun in a dark, wool suit. I spent most of my time in the city in the Taskim Square area which is the financial center of the city. Radiating off from Taskim Square was a pedestrian mall lined with hip restaurants, cafes and bars where both men and women crowded the streets. The later the hour, the more crowded the pedestrian mall became. However, several people who ventured out of the tourist areas told me that they only saw men on the streets.

My hotel in Taskim had been chosen from a list of hotels on the conference website. I chose one that was about ten minute walk from the conference and certainly not the most expensive on the list. I chose well because a number of other people from the conference were also at the hotel and so it was nice to be around people that I knew. Hotels in Turkey are rated with stars and my hotel was a four star. However, everyone agreed that the hotel would not be four stars elsewhere in the world because the rooms were just ok and exceedingly dark. It was suggested that the number of stars may be an indication of the service offered rather than the quality of the hotel room because the service was very good. Bellboys were all around and I never had a problem communicating or when I needed to get my magnetic key car magnetized again. Breakfast was included and was fantastic. The extensive buffet included about a half dozen olives, both black and green. I have never tasted olives like the ones that I had in Istanbul. There was also an entire shelf of cheese. Most appeared to be variations on feta cheese with some being really creamy. There were also dried dates, apricots and other fruit, a entire honeycomb from which you could break off pieces to get honey and lots of different breads. Breakfast was a treat.

Food was something that was not at all a problem to find in Istanbul and I was sure to visit Saray Muhallebicisi, which translated means "Rosewater Pudding Palace". The name comes from a popular treat enjoyed during Ottoman times. I had been advised to visit the shop to try the baklavas which were absolutely sinful. They were just dripping in syrup to the point where they were simply uber sweet. There were other sweet shops on the streets as well selling sweets such as Turkish Delight from display cases.

There were sit down restaurants, but of course there were also Donner stores where you could buy kebabs. Typically, there would be a large cylindrically shaped piece of processed meat, about two feet high, spinning on a pole in front of a heater. If there were two pieces of meat, one was lamb and the other chicken. Some of these restaurants had tables inside or on the sidewalk. Others were takeaway. If you ordered one of the Donner, the man standing by the rotating pieces of meat would sharpen his long knife before proceeding to shave off several of pieces of meat for you. The meat was put inside a loaf of bread cut in half in addition to lettuce, hot peppers and maybe a pickle.

Many of the restaurants that I saw doing a bustling lunch trade had the food displayed on the widow. You just went in and indicated what you would like to have and it was rung up per item. My friend, Lars-Göran and I went to one of these for lunch and it was a great experience. We indicated what we wanted and were told to pick up a plastic container of water to drink and rolls form a bin. The restaurant was small, but we had arrived at a good time and got seats at one of the few tables inside the restaurant. The place was bustling and we shared the four person table with others and they came and went. I had chosen two of the items from the counter and I was really full when we returned to the conference.

One popular chain restaurant that I saw was several stories tall and always busting. On the first floor was a counter and behind the glass were all sorts of breads. One favorite was a flakey bread stuffed with meat or cheese or olives. There were also really good cakes. The chocolate cake that I had there was one of the best that I have had. You could also get coffee and I first opted for the Turkish coffee. I didn’t realize when I ordered that I would have to specify how much sugar that I wanted and at the staff’s prompting, I went for medium. What you receive is a espresso glass that is half full of coffee grounds. The coffee is really strong and sweet and is good, but you get too little for my tastes. After the first time, I went with regular espresso. Tea is served in clear, curvy glasses that are about four inches tall.

One of my favorite meals that I had on my own was at a hole in the wall near my hotel. I had seen that the restaurant was always bustling and so one night when I saw that there was a table free outside, I decided to give it a go. I entered and the owner shook my hand and gave me a menu. I decided that the mixed grill looked good and turned to go back outside, but the table was snatched by arriving customers. Instead I grabbed an inside table that was on a landing at the back so that I could see everything that was going on in the restaurant. The owner then brought me a big basket of bread which I had just seen him cut up for me. Fortunately, I got a brand new loaf because I saw that any bread leftover on tables after customers left was reissued to other customers. While the bread was being served, the man at the front behind the counter on the side of the restaurant was busy on the grill. A few minutes later, the waiter appeared with a plate full of grilled chicken, beef, rice and an assortment of grilled vegetables including hot peppers. A sealed cup of water also appeared. The meal was really good and fun because I could watch everyone else. As I finished up, the busy waiter appeared and swept off the cleared plate and my remaining bread and brought me a glass of strong, black tea. The whole meal cost 12 Lira ($10 US) and was really good.

I had little problem communicating with people during my stay. I am hesitant to ask people to speak English to me in a foreign country and when in doubt, I try to communicate by gestures. This usually works, especially if I can point to the food that I want. When I once got a Donner, when the waiter appeared, I pointed to the meat that I wanted and indicated one. He then showed me the bread and the vegetables and asked “ok?” to which I nodded yes. However, a lot of the people that I interfaced with could speak some English and would do so. In fact, I probably could have conducted the entire transaction in English if I had started it that way. The only time that I really needed to be able to understand 100% of what was being said was when I was trying to figure out the trams. I would say the name of where I was going and conductors would point me in the correct direction and so I managed.

ilkopedia, Lonely Planet Turkey and the BBC website were all referenced for this blog.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hong Kong

Only hours before I was to go to the airport to catch my flight to Auckland and then to Hong Kong, I received an unwanted call from Air New Zealand. The customer service representative explained that the plane that I would be flying on that evening had experienced mechanical trouble and although the flight would still go, they were replacing the original aircraft with a smaller one. The customer service representative painted a picture of hundreds of people now needing to be rerouted because there weren’t enough seats on the smaller aircraft for everyone and I was one of those lucky people. I responded that I really didn’t want to be rerouted because I wanted the time in Hong Kong, and although they still would not put me on the original flight, the routed me through Shanghai and then on a Chinese Airline to Hong Kong. However, my travel agent told me a different story when I contacted her. She told me that there were only a few people being bumped and that I should get to the airport early to see if I could get onto the original flight.

I arrived at the airport early, but anyone who has checked in for an international flight on Air New Zealand in Christchurch can vouch that quick is not a word that one would use to describe the agents that check people into international flights. I waited for a while and when I did get to the desk, I tried to get on the original flight. The agent walked me over to ticketing to see what could be done, but to no avail, I was going to Shanghai and would arrive in Hong Kong with only a few hours to spare before my next flight. (I have made my peace with Air New Zealand since then, but it was really disappointing at the time.) The agent was very nice and she even offered me access to the lounge to make up for the problems which I appreciated. I must say, if you ever get the chance to go to the lounge in Christchurch, definitely do it. It was a really nice series of rooms made with wood and stone materials. There were scrumptious pastries, small snacks, coffee and lots of wine for the customers to help themselves to during their stay. In the rush to get to the airport, I had forgotten to eat dinner, so I was very happy with the spread.

My flight to Shanghai departed at 11PM and I arrived in at 8AM. I have never shown up in China without a visa before and never expected to do so, but it wasn’t an issue since I was only staying in the airport. When I reached the immigration officer, I was asked to wait to one side until I was collected by another officer who issued me a transit visa. Unfortunately, I was only in Shanghai for four hours, so I didn’t have time to take the Maglev train into the city which would have been a treat. Instead, I checked in for my China Eastern flight and discovered that although Air New Zealand has put a hold on the seat for my flight, they had failed to give China Eastern the billing code or something like that and so my reservation had been canceled. Unless something could be done, I would be stuck in Shanghai without a flight. Fortunately, China Eastern got me on the plane which was otherwise fully booked. Unfortunately, China Eastern put a new luggage tag on my bag that was only to Munich, not to Istanbul, something that would later haunt me. So, after just a whistle stop in Shanghai, I was off to Hong Kong.

The last time that I was in Hong Kong was seven years ago when I broke my ankle while teaching in Yantai, China. WorldTeach, the organization through which I was teaching, flew me down to Hong Kong to see a specialist because I was getting mixed diagnosis in Yantai. My visit at that time was only for a few days and being on crutches had reduced my mobility a bit. This trip unfortunately would be even shorter, but so I was just hoping to eat some dim sum, to look at the architecture in Hong Kong, to take the ferry to Kowloon and then to wander the streets until it was time to go. However, due to the stop in Shanghai, I did not arrive in the city center until close to 3PM.

To get from the airport, I took the Airport Express train which makes the trip from the airport to the city center in only 24 minutes. In addition to the main line, there is now also a spur to serve Hong Kong Disneyland which opened in 2005. The special, Disney themed cars can carry up to 10,000 people per hour. Hong Kong Disneyland is the smallest of the five kingdoms and the resort was built with many settings following the rules of Feng Shui. However, the park is expected to expand over the next fifteen years to reduce the complaints of overcrowding.

During my prior visit, I had found a fantastic dim sum restaurant that was multi-floored and each floor was bustling with people. Waiters would wander though the restaurant with carts of wooden baskets of dim sum with different treats inside and you would simply indicate that you wanted a basket to have it added to the pile on your table. Each basket held three or four dim sum, depending on what was wrapped inside. I had wanted to return to the same restaurant and although I had an inclination as to where it was located I was so hungry by the time that I arrived that I decided to go to a restaurant near the train station that the guide book had highly recommended. The dim sum in the restaurant I chose was unbelievable, but I had arrived mid afternoon just as the bustle was ending and so at one point I was the only one in the restaurant. And this restaurant had its patrons order off a menu rather than a cart, so it was not as much fun as the time before, but still good.

After breakfast / lunch, I walked along one of the many overhead walkways that connect the buildings in Hong Kong till I arrived at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSHC) headquarters which opened in 1986 after seven years of construction. The building was designed by Lord Norman Foster and was based upon the principles of Feng Shui as are many of the buildings in Hong Kong. According to Feng Shui, the old Government House should be accessible in a straight line by foot from the main point of arrival on the island, the ferry terminal, but the location of the HSHC building would interrupt this line. To prevent this violation of Feng Shui, the entire HSHC building was designed to be raised off the ground and supported on eight groups of giant pillars so that people can walk under the building. One can stand under the building and look up through the glass floors through the large atrium that occupies the first three floors.

Because the area under the building is protected from the strong afternoon sun, it has become a very popular meeting place for the Filipino house cleaners on Sunday, their day off. When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, there were people sitting on blankets or mats which covered every available square centimeter of the shade with the exception of clearings where people could walk. People chatted, ate, had their hair done and generally enjoyed their day off.

From the HSHC building, I wandered over to the tram going up to Mt Victoria which offers fantastic views of Hong Kong and Kowloon on nice days, but was met by a huge queue. The last time that I was in the city, I was able to walk right up to the tram to get on, but that was a rainy weekday. I would have really liked to have gotten views of the city from the peak, but my short schedule prevented it and I would have to be content with my photos from before.

I made my way down to the Star Ferry which has been described as one of the “greatest ferry rides in the world” by the Rough Guides because it offers great views of both Hong Kong and Kowloon as it makes the seven minute journey across the very polluted harbor. Once on the Kowloon side, I went over to the observation decks on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront where crowds were taking photographs of the Hong Kong skyline. Every night on which there is good weather, at 8PM, there is an orchestrated light and laser show featured on buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor. The show is called Symphony of Lights and is put on by the Hong Kong Tourism Board and has been declared by Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest, permanent light show. Unfortunately, I had a geocache to find and then I would need to be making my way to the airport and so I didn’t get to see the show.

I stopped by the tourist information office to inquire about the station for the train to the airport and learned that there was a free shuttle to the station from a nearby hotel. Free shuttle? I was on it. The woman in the office marked on a map where the station was located and I set off in search of a quick bite to eat. Fortunately, I decided to pursue the station stop first because it turned out to be impossible to find. I was on the correct street and I actually saw the shuttle twice, but I could not find the stop. I walked all over looking for the stop with my heavy backpack on my back and fear of arriving at the airport late on my mind, but to no avail. I broke down and started to inquire in the various hotels nearby as to where the station was as the time that I had planned to catch the shuttle drew near and then passed. In a panic because I do not like showing up to the airport late, I decided to cross back to Hong Kong where I knew the location of the train station. I was walking along one street when I just happened to spot a sign for the bus I wanted. The sign was inside the parking garage of one of the hotels which clearly explained why I had not seen it before. I allowed ten minutes for the shuttle to arrive before I ran out and grabbed a cab, but it came and I made it to the train station.

The airport train is really well setup because as soon as I entered the station, I was directed to a check in counter for the various airlines. I went up to the Lufthansa counter to check in and fortunately inquired about the destination of my checked bag which was still at the airport. As I feared, the bag was only going to Munich, not to Istanbul. The woman behind the counter was very nice and called baggage to ask if they could find my bag and to put a new baggage ticket on it to make sure that it went to Istanbul. I waited for about 20 minutes after which I received confirmation that my bag was found and I hopped onto the train.

Being my second time in Hong Kong, I knew to look after the immigration form that I was issued upon arrival because I needed it to leave the country. Once I was through security, I had to get to my gate. Hong Kong is a really big airport with 80 gates in a row. I had forgotten this fact and I really had to walk quickly to finally get to my gate as my plane was boarding. The flight to Munich would be an overnight flight and I would have a few hour layover before taking my next flight to Istanbul the next morning.