Sunday, 14 July 2019

Winetopia 2019

As an occasional wine drinker but keen wine sampler, I am pretty spoilt with the wine tasting options in my neighbourhood. Each month we are visited by a winery or distributor with 6-8 wines available to sample for a princely sum of $5. Add free Friday night wine tasting at along with a few wine tasting trips and I have learnt a huge amount about what I like in wine, what I don't like and some surprising discoveries.

Winetopia hit Wellington this weekend. I hesitated to buy tickets. Other wine and food-type events we'd attended before either charged very expensive entry fees before any wine or food was consumed or were complete chaos. A very quick Twitter poll and last minute discounted tickets helped influence my decision: we'd give it our best shot.

With almost 60 wineries showcased, Mr Weka and I needed a solid strategy to maximise our wine tasting experience. Luckily we have similar tastes in wine and are also not averse to sharing germs on glasses (with each other - not anyone else), meaning we could share each 30 ml sample and try twice as many.

TSB Arena was helpfully organised into wine tasting regions. We decided to stay away from wineries we'd already visited or sampled. From there, our pecking order was sparkling wine (if available), sauvignon blanc and the occasional riesling or rosé. We set off for Hawkes Bay and Marlborough with wine glasses (real, not plastic) and five tokens each.

The next three or so hours were a flurry of 30 ml tastings and comparing notes. We added many wines to our yes list, one or two maybes and a couple of definite nos. It was good to see jugs of water available at every stand and some substantial food options. Crowds were well managed and, despite my initial hesitation, we had a great time.

How to maximise your Winetopia experience

  • Check the programme and go to the talks you're interested in as they come with two extra tastings (if you're quick enough before they run out)
  • Visit the Singapore Airlines Lounge and trading in your 'boarding pass' for a free sample of Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve Champagne. Delicious!
  • Explore a region you know you like or you'd like to learn more about. 
  • Pace yourself and drink plenty of water in between tastings. After a while it's gets hard to tell whether you like something or it's just blending in with something else you've sampled.

New additions to the yes list

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Cats - The Musical

The phenomenon that is Cats - The Musical is sweeping up and down the country this month. Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a collection of poems published in 1939 by TS Eliot, Cats is not so much a story as an exploration of feline mannerisms and sociological behaviour through music and dance. Cats has become one of the longest-running musicals in London's West End, on Broadway and around the world, with audience members considering themselves experts because they can sing a few lines from its most famous song, "Memory". It was one of many 1980s productions to cement Andrew Lloyd Webber's name as a legendary composer of musicals.

It was with much excitement that my two nephews and I headed out for their first musical experience on a busy Friday night in Wellington. Mr 11 and I had already shared the thrill of a live performance at the NZSO Christmas Pops in December. I knew it would be a gamble taking a 6-year-old out well past his bedtime. He tried his very best to stay awake but finally succumbed at the start of the second half, curling up in his seat and reportedly "dreaming of the show" performing in front of him.

Sadly, this performance of Cats fell short in so many ways. I've spent much of the weekend trying to pinpoint why. About half an hour into the show, I wondered what was going wrong. Lack of energy? No, the cast were giving it their all. The set design? No, although the giant paddle boat wheel was a little strange and out of context. (I'm not sure how it relates to the Christchurch earthquakes, which replaced the original junkyard setting.) The dancing? No. The choreography was good and some of the solo dances were spectacular.

On reflection, I think the show was poorly directed with little or no musical direction and weak orchestration. The chorus numbers were sloppy and the out-of-tune leads (Grizabella and Rum Tum Tugger especially) were painful to listen to. Like the dancers, some individuals shone but it seems like the cast were left to their own musical merits. If they could sing, great! If not ... never mind. Mr Mistoffelees' dance was show stopping but the score just ambled along afterwards, leaving him robbed of his much-deserved applause.

Lighting cues could have helped showcase the costumes, which looked dull and demure in the downlights, and a follow spot would have guided the action on stage, particularly for children trying to follow the plot and identify the characters. The whole performance came together like a school musical production - and I know first hand just how challenging it is to put on a show.

Also, no cats visited the audience during the show or before the second half began - a lost opportunity to encourage some much-needed audience interaction.

This review and its comments actually sums up the performance really well. Taking a risk by messing about with a tried and true formula just didn't work. It's too late now to say "save your money" and wait to see the show next time an international cast tours it, but I wish I had.

Monday, 11 March 2019

When you arrive but your luggage doesn't

I know it happens all the time. I'm not the first person to experience it and will not be the last. It's probably happened to someone you know, or maybe even you. It's something travellers prepare for when they decide what to carry on and what to pack. But when you arrive at an overseas airport and your luggage doesn't ... well, it's a different kind of travel experience.

Three weeks ago, I flew out of Wellington bound for Sydney, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with the same airline (including one partner flight). I had been advised that the SYD-SIN sector would be delayed but my luggage would follow me to Kuala Lumpur, even when my SIN-KUL flight was rebooked to a later time. "Don't worry," I was told repeatedly. "We do this all the time. We'll put a priority tag on it." I tried not to worry.

Apparently the final flight on any given day is most likely to have lost luggage, especially when there are connecting flights. It's even more challenging if different airlines are involved. It makes sense, really. Given the choice of having a passenger arrive without luggage or having them both stranded in an unintended port, the priority is usually to board the passenger and hope for the best. I'm told that most bags and owners are reunited within 24 hours. However, the feeling of watching the last bag make its way around a large airport conveyor belt and realising that it's not yours is quite surreal.

And then the real process starts. Where is my bag? Who can help me find it this late at night? Which of the lost property offices do I go to? Not this one ... where is the right one? How come my bag can't be traced if it was scanned at every port? (Apparently a sticker fell off on the way to Singapore, so it was not scanned there.) Shall we cross our fingers and assume it just missed the final flight, rather than the first or second? How will I know when it's found? (Giving your email address and a contact number is no guarantee they'll get it right when they email you.)

To cut a long story short, returning to the airport 24 hours later and navigating airport security meant I was on the scene when it was discovered that my bag was in fact on its way to me and perhaps was even on the runway as we speak ... by now, I was getting to know the lone lost luggage attendant quite well and wasn't ready to let him out of my sight until my bag and I were happily reunited.

I have never been to pleased to see an inanimate object. Count all those priorities tags!

Three priorities tags!
Here is my plan for future travel.

Lessons learnt

  • Pack one or even two changes of underwear. You'll be glad you did once you make it to your accommodation, shower and have to put your travel clothes on again.
  • Carry two (2) USB power packs and several cables in your carry on luggage. Don't assume you'll be able to charge it when you arrive, unless you also want to carry a wall plug and adaptor.
  • I travel with few toiletries but am glad I had a comb, deodorant, and anti-bacterial gel on me. A small toothbrush and soap could be handy if your hotel doesn't supply them.
  • Take a photo of your bag before you travel so you know which details to record on the lost property form (colour, dimensions, brand etc). 
Oh, and the number of bags that arrived at the same time as me on my return journey from Dhaka - Kuala Lumpur - Singapore - Sydney - Wellington? One. Whew!

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Travelling to Bangladesh: memories and reminders

Just a few days after returning to Wellington, life has quickly resumed its patterns and routines. Although there's a sense of comfort in familiarity, it's hard to comprehend just how different things were for me one week ago as I experienced a sensory overload on the other side of the world.

My short time in Bangladesh has taught me more than I could have imagined. I was excited but more than a little anxious before leaving New Zealand. Government travel advisories saying "don't go there" didn't help ease my anxiety and I learned that there is a big difference between helpful caution and destructive anxiety. Dhaka took the honour of being the second least liveable city in 2018, second only to war-town Damascus in Syria. Looking around the streets, it's easy to see why and it would be even easier to fall into a state of despair. But through it all, I was struck by the sense of hope that was visible every day among the people living in adverse conditions and poverty.

I experienced moments of satisfaction, pure joy, novelty and delight that far outweigh the one or two moments when I felt unsafe. This sunset is one of those special moments, as dawn and dusk last just a few minutes and the sun doesn't shine directly during the day. These are the memories that I want to capture and remember for next time, along with some helpful advice. Next time? Yes, I'd love for there to be a next time.

The sun setting over Dhaka

Bangladesh: memories and reminders

  • Pack tropical strength (80%) insect repellent in your carry on luggage if you're flying in at night. You'll need to apply it liberally as soon as you enter the airport and the moment the sun goes down every day. 
  • Check whether your antihistamine tablets are drowsy or non-drowsy before taking them in the morning. Falling asleep in the back of a car is ok. Falling asleep at a business meeting or workshop would not be good.
  • Bathrooms and toilets are referred to as "using the wash room".
  • Traffic.
  • The food is really goooood and, being considered an honoured guest, you will be fed constantly. Try to combat this by only eating breakfast and dinner. Also, walk up the stairs to your hotel room, even if you get strange looks as you pass a staff member waiting to open the elevator for you.
  • Stay away from raw salads, fruit you haven't peeled yourself and anything else that may have been washed in tap water until you've built up an immunity that complements your Hepatitis A immunisation. (Although ... how do you build immunity to something you can't/don't eat? Hmm.)
  • Sunrise and sunset happen really fast (within minutes). If you do capture one, it's a magical experience.
  • Don't wear jeans with a belt next time you travel internationally. Just buy smaller jeans or a pants without any potential for setting off metal detectors. It's one less thing to handle as you empty the contents of your backpack for inspection several times at every airport.
  • Although a large screen laptop is wonderful to work on, it's too darn heavy to lug around the world.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Traffic in Dhaka

Traffic in Dhaka is renown by anyone who has visited or knows about Bangladesh. The word Traffic always has a capital T. Sometimes it is referred to as 'the Traffic'.

A short journey of a few kilometres can take two hours depending on Traffic. What time will you pick me up tomorrow? We'll leave early because of Traffic. See that pile of cars on the other side of the road? Traffic. We're an hour late for a meeting because of the Traffic. Tomorrow (Friday) is the weekend, so no Traffic. I should easily make it to my flight on Saturday night, because no Traffic.

Dhaka is a city of 12 million people, including 7 million who commute into the city every day. Think about it. Traffic. Traffic intensifies during thunderstorms, but also seemingly when it's fine and sunny. Rush hour is complete mayhem, but sometimes there is also Traffic at other times of the day. The roads and footpaths are full of potholes that fill up with rain, making for a bumpy ride. It's all part of the Bengali experience.

Today, the city of Dhaka is officially closed for the mayoral elections. No motorised vehicles are allowed on the roads, although I've seen one or two. That means there is very little Traffic. Vehicles are not vying for open spaces, regardless of whether or not they're allowed to perform a U-turn at a busy intersection or drive on the other side of the road. The car horns and rickshaw bells are mostly quiet and it feels safer to walk around.

Here are some of the vehicles you will see on the road. I've been for a short rickshaw ride and hopefully will have an opportunity to ride in a CNG. Unfortunately I'm unable to take an aerial photo of a really good traffic jam in action, but the gif above almost captures it. (It's a bit more orderly than yesterday's spectacular traffic jam that our Uber was somehow in the middle of.)

An elaborate rickshaw
Rickshaw taxi stand
because it runs on ... CNG
Pedestrians, rickshaws, CNGs and motorised vehicles
all vie for space on busy roads
A commuter train at dusk
Zoom in to see children hitching a ride on the roof

Monday, 25 February 2019

Downtown Dhaka

After a very short visit to Malaysia, I have now arrived in Bangladesh. Yesterday, I took a stroll around the streets of downtown Dhaka. After arriving in the middle of the night then teaching a full day workshop, it was my first opportunity to actually go outside and experience the capital city. I'd been warned about the traffic, which areas were safe to walk and how to get back to the hotel. I was ready.

First impression: it's mayhem out there. Road rules, including lanes, speed limits and which side of the road to drive on all appear optional. People walk in and among the traffic, barely flinching as vehicles vie for space on the road. You must lock your doors while in the car as you'll be approached for money every time you stop. So far I've had a small child smile and press two bunches of roses into my window and an elderly man put his prosthetic leg onto the car bonnet. Neither left until the car started moving again.

Car horns and bicycle bells toot constantly, even at 3am. I think I've worked out why. They seem to be using horns in place of indicators and as a warning that they're approaching something anything. A car, a person, a corner, a bicycle ... anything. It makes for a very loud city.
Downtown Dhaka

And then there are the buildings. We may bemoan the rigor of our workplace health and safety rules in New Zealand. However, they're there to protect us. The construction site across the road from my hotel and the cabling I've seen on every power pole would be enough to scare even the toughest tradies!

Construction site
Power cables
This is not an internet meme!
I'm also a huge novelty. Everyone stares at the 'white' woman walking alone down the street. A few call out "hello!" and "you're pretty!", some offer rides on dubious forms of transport, but the staring and endless requests for selfies is sometime I'm not used to. This taxi driver was happy to pose for a photo but quickly lost interest once he realised I didn't require his services.
Taxi stand
Oh, Dhaka. You're like nothing else I've experienced.