Who Am I? Ice Edition

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Image: Anne Noble


Antarctica. The word often conjours to mind images of eery icebergs, immense glaciers, classical symphonies, and penguins. Lots of penguins. For most people it exists on the very fringes of their existence, as that white smudge protruding from the bottom of the world map, or an exotic location ventured into only by explorers, scientists, photographers and madmen. For others it is the face of climate change, projected onto screens in living rooms throughout the globe, where it exists as a symbol but is disconnected from its physical presence of 14,000,000 square km of ice.

Antarctica is much more than the ice at the end of the world, or a convenient location from which to shoot footage of calving glaciers to accompany reports on the state of the environment. Instead it is a continent, host to many dynamic ecosystems, diverse environments, and a sprinkling of scientists who live and eat and sleep and go to the bathroom sheltered in the haven of their Antarctic bases. That’s right, I just used ‘bathroom’ and ‘antarctica’ in the same sentence. It’s a side of the continent we don’t often think about, but for the 5000 summer and 1000 winter workers who live there, it is far more ‘real’ than pan shots of emperor penguins or the brilliant reflections of icebergs under the midnight sun.

Antarctica has been cast in many ways over the past 100 years – so many, that if the continent were a film star it would be guaranteed an Oscar or two by now. The Ice, as Antarctica is known by those who live or have spent time there, has been used to stand for many different ideas. Whether or not they represent reality is another question, but some of the most prevalent associations are below:

Untouched Wilderness. This is the version of Antarctica that is typically accompanied by a soundtrack of howling wind and panning shots showing snow, ice, more snow, and maybe a wee small man in the corner, where he remains dwarfed by the expanse of white. You know the typical man-never-set-foot-here-before kind of a heroic pose, featuring the subject leaning into the blizzard, and typically presented in grainy black and white even though it was shot in full colour high definition in billboard resolution? Yeah, that’s this idea in a snapshot, capturing the moment the untouched becomes claimed. And this leads us on nicely to…

The Last Frontier. Once upon a time California was the wild west, a place where cowboys roamed, gold was abundant, and adventure guaranteed. These days you’re more likely to see film stars than bareback riders in LA, but down South the romance is alive and well. Antarctica may be the most surveilled place on earth, but satellite imagery doesn’t hold the same sort of appeal as flesh and blood, traipsing just that little bit further in order to stand where no man has ever stood before. The untapped oil resources (which will remain untapped under the current provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System) just add to the mystique. Then there is the visual side of things, namely…

Beauty, or The Sublime. These two concepts have a rich history, and have been distinct since the eighteenth century. Beauty is pleasing and pleasurable, while the sublime is overwhelming and too much for the senses to handle. Sublime goes beyond beauty, extending into the realms of terror. Traditionally, the Great Ice Barrier and the tempestuous weather of Antarctica have been associated with the former, but these days the line seems to be getting blurred. When travelling to Antarctica involves a 5 star cruise liner rather than a wooden sailing vessel, fear tends to take a back seat and aesthetics take the lion’s share of the emotional response to the landscape. That’s a pity really, but just in case you were thinking the dangers had all been conquered, just shift your gaze to the next version of Antarctica, where the melting ice is used to…

Personify Climate Change. You know the images: The Larsen B ice shelf breaking up and departing from the Antarctic Peninsula, as viewed from space; chunks of the Pine Island Glacier tumbling down into the sea below. Because we believe that melting looks a certain way, we seek out images to match. Forget the invisible effects of ocean erosion as the sea gnaws out the ice from below, and leave the complicated dynamics of the ice cap to one side, lest anyone ask questions that require technical knowledge to answer: calving glaciers tick the box. Antarctica may be located at the end of the earth, but we are slowly realising that our whole world is driven by an interconnected system. Plus all photos taken in Antarctica are automatically photogenic enough to make the cut come prime time news.

Photos may make Antarctica seem closer and more familiar to an everyday audience, but its geographic remoteness holds the key to its appeal for those travellers wanting to tick off all seven continents. For those who have been to Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Americas, a two day crossing of the Drake Passage is all that stands between 85% and a full seven out of seven. Visiting Antarctica is a pilgrimage that allows such travellers to ‘collect a set,’ as it were.

So, there you have it: five sides of Antarctica. The continent is not a pentohedron by any means, and there are many more sides to be explored. 900 words is barely enough to make a dent, but at least the icebergs, symphonies and penguins have been given a nudge to make room for the new perspectives that are waiting in the wings.

A Taste to Call Your Home

In recent weeks there has been much discussion about what Mid Canterbury is like for newcomers. Auckland is no Asia or Africa, but the being new part is something that resonates, wherever you have moved from. It can be hard to start a life in a new location, as distance sees differences in attitudes, habits and cultures loom out of proportion. From shopping hours to the foods available in said shops, there is much to adjust to.

Sometimes you have to go far away from the familiar in order to be able to see of what those adjustments might consist. I first found out what it is like to be different when visiting family in Denmark. My (then) blonde hair and blue eyes went down well, right up until I opened my mouth. It’s often said that when people speak Danish it sounds like they have a hot potato in their mouth, but apparently my potato was a Dargaville kumara because all I got back were puzzled brows and the polite suggestion that perhaps I should try again, in English. Soon after that it became apparent that I had a real taste for Marmite, and my citizenship was revoked with immediate effect. (The spread is not approved for human consumption under local laws, while the immigration minister at the time pointed to any weakness for the salty black stuff as proof of questionable national allegiance: no Dane could ever stand the stuff).

Getting fired from Denmark was hard, as a tangible link to my heritage was amputated with a single official letter. It took away a sense of belonging, but at the same time it made me take note of the many small and forgotten ways I belong to New Zealand. There’s the taste for yeast spreads, the pride in prize-winning A&P show produce, and the unmistakable ‘Nuzild’ twang. And yet, down here I still don’t qualify as a local.

When I arrived in Ashburton I was told very matter of factly that people either stayed for 3 years or more than 30. While this statistic is unlikely to have passed through a rigorous peer reviewed process, it’s an interesting anecdote about how long it can take to find your place as get to know the one you’re living in. Three years may not sound like much, but it’s the same amount of time many devote to studying at universities up and down the country. After 3 years, surely newcomers deserve a certificate too: Degree in Midcantabrian Studies, signed by two locals who have roads named after their families or recognize Hakatere as their tūrangawaewae.

That graduation could also be a way to facilitate conversation between new and old. It is often easier to meet foreigners or people who are new to a place than those who have been in the area for many years and live deep in the maze of their day to day lives and habits. Being new to a place has many advantages, as outsiders’ eyes often see everyday things from a new perspective. Certificates or not, a little openness, a friendly smile and a thin spread of Marmite can go a long way towards carving a place called home in the midst of a landscape of firsts, that’s for sure.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Hoi An: Symphony of Lights

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In Hoi An Old Town night lanterns sway in the breeze, painting a symphony of lights as they reflect off the meandering river below. This is a place for the senses and the sensual, where lovers stroll hand in hand and the tang of the ocean mingles with the aroma of freshly cooked dumplings. Thanks to the piped music that drifts down from speakers throughout the precinct, the Old Town is heard before it is seen. From the moment the notes meet the light of the lamps you are in another world.

Hoi An means ‘peaceful meeting place’, and it lives up to its name. Located just 30km south of the bustling city of Danang, this small coastal town is the perfect location for a relaxing getaway that is layered with the sights, tastes and styles of Vietnam.

By day Hoi An is a bustling maze of tailor shops and cafes, all with wooden facades and shutters that open directly onto the street. These facades have remained unchanged since the fifteenth century, leading to the area being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. History may be alive and well within the confines of the Old Town, but modern design has its place when it comes to attire. Famed as Vietnam’s hub of tailor-made clothing, tourists flock to the town with fashion magazines and fabric swatches in tow. Whether you are looking for a clone of your favourite worn out pants, in need of fitted business shirts, or seeking to turn a rough pencil sketch of a lavish frock into a reality, this is a place where anything is possible.

For those who are all shopped out, boat tours to the surrounding islands abound, while the Old Town boasts several museums that provide a glimpse of what life was like in the trading port in previous centuries. When stepping into the cool courtyards of the ancient houses, the weights of the shadows and of history are tangible in equal measure. Then there is the nearby beach, where exhausted shoppers can relax on deck chairs in the shade of the palms, while the more adventurous types hire jet skis or try paragliding in the afternoon sun.

By night Hoi An Old Town transforms into a tourist attraction in its own right, with access to the lantern-lit quarter and its range of open-air musical performances by ticket only. Restaurants offering al fresco dining line the promenade and entice the custom of passerby with local delicacies such as the White Rose shrimp dumpling. After dinner, a stroll through the traffic free streets reveals a town full of dancing shadows. Shopkeepers chat outside alongside their wares, illuminated from behind by the light box that is their storefront. Old women sit by the bridge, selling lanterns and the chance to make a wish as the fragile basket of paper and flame is lowered onto the water below, where it drifts away to the distant strains of the nightly soundtrack. Gradually, crowds disperse, guided by the light of the lanterns. Still, the memory of the town lingers as notes float over still waters.

Vertigo and Verve at Crazy House

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Nestled atop a hillside in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam stands a hotel that makes concrete one architect’s wildest dreams. The organic tumble of plaster is reminiscent of the works of Gaudi, with dripping edges and rounded corners abounding. A model giraffe’s head peers down on the courtyard, wreathed by bougainvillea, while fairy lights trace out giant spider webs in the leafy canopy. This is Crazy House.

Our stay at Crazy House – or Hang Nga Villa, as it is also known – was crazy from the hour we arrived; we knocked on the door at 5am, fresh off a night bus. As we entered the gates we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had lapsed back into the dream world, because the looming facades of the surrounding buildings were on a surreal tilt. Plaster vines radiate out from the high peak of the central building, twining themselves into dizzying bridges and collecting mosaic turrets as they ramble downwards. These perspective-denying angles are coupled with the kinds of stairs that would give an OSH inspector a heart attack, as we soon found out as we were taken for a tour of our accommodation.

The ten rooms at Crazy House are all themed to particular animals, with names like ‘The Bear Room’, ‘The Pheasant Room’ and ‘The Kangaroo Room’ apt descriptors. The latter boasts a life sized kangaroo sculpture, complete with glowing red eyes and a fireplace in its pouch. Thankfully the marsupial was unavailable, thus sparing us from Australian-inspired nightmares. Instead, the Ant Room was to be our abode for the night. Room is something of a misnomer, as the suite consists of three parts: bedroom, bathroom and a living area, complete with an ant shaped fireplace. This was not just a place to stay, but a place to really experience.

Crazy House is the brainchild of Vietnamese architect Dr. Dang Viet Nga. After studying architecture in Moscow, she returned home to work for the Vietnamese government for many years before embarking on her own personal project. Started in 1990, the Crazy House is constantly evolving. The buildings are based off paintings, which are then transformed into reality by a team of local craftsmen. The project continues to have environmental concerns as a central theme, as Dr Dang Viet Nga explains: ‘with the voice of architecture I wish to lead men to come back to nature.’ At Crazy House, human habitats and natural shapes combine to create a new vision of architecture that pays close attention to organic detail, whilst setting no limits for the imagination.

Crazy House opens as a tourist attraction during the day, but daylight only reveals half the picture. By night the layered fairy lights and a symphony of frogs combine to create an other-worldly spectacle in the gardens. The chirping amphibians are a far cry from the bustling traffic noise of Ho Chi Minh City, which is just a day’s drive away, but their song lingers longer in the memory. Call me crazy, but that’s just the way I like it.

Crazy House (Hang Nga Villa) Da Lat City, Vietnam. Open Mon-Fri. www.crazyhouse.vn

Talking Trash: The Penguins of Vietnam

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Vietnam might be an unlikely choice of destination for avid penguin spotters, but a recent trip to South East Asia has shown me that things are not always as they seem. Animal lovers fear not, this is not a tale of animal cruelty and broiled birds. Instead, it is a lesson in international approaches to spreading the clean green message, and the use of penguins as receptacles to this effect. In short, it is about penguin rubbish bins.

The first time we saw a little black and white bird with an upturned beak and an empty Fanta bottle protruding from its jaws we thought ‘Aaaw, how sweet. What a novel way of dealing with the eyesore of public rubbish bins.’ It was somewhat out of place in the 40 degree heat, but the lush tropical surrounds just made the dichromatic colour scheme all the more noticeable. We duly deposited our Oreos packet into penguin’s beak as we exited the park and enjoyed the brief virtuous glow that such an action precipitated.

The second time we came across such a penguin was in the depths of a meandering limestone cave. While Antarctic species are not known for their spelunking abilities, New Zealand’s own Little Blue Penguins do nest in burrows, so the subterranean location of this critter was understandable. Most people continued on their way, photographing the gaudily lit stalactites and paying the form of the trash can no heed. I turned my camera in the other direction to capture the happy coincidence, then bought a fresh pack of Oreos at the snack stand by the exit.

The fourth time we saw a penguin rubbish bin we thought that perhaps there had been an extra zero added to an order at some point in the past. Maybe there was a surplus, so penguin bins were going cheap? There was a suspicious lack of mammalian or reptilian rubbish receptacles, so either it was an issue of supply and demand, or someone really didn’t like the polar critters. We were leaning towards the first option, right up until we visited the mines at Marble Mountain.

There, in the depths of a cave that was rich with geological and social history, we came face to face with a part of the mountain that was no longer mountain shaped at all. Instead, it boasted two flippers, two webbed feet, and a gaping mouth. This penguin shaped rubbish bin took the cake, both because of the craftsmanship demonstrated in the carving process and because of the way it blew our earlier theories out the window.

The penguin shaped rubbish bins weren’t an accident after all. There is something about their compact, oval form and protruding bellies that makes these critters a prime target for urban planners and their waste management division. If Happy Feet has been sending subliminal ecological messages to a generation of children, who knows what effect these penguin bins will have. Will they lead to the mass donation of crumpled food packaging to Penguin Rescue Shelters in coming years? If so, our marine birds had better develop a taste for High Fructose Corn Syrup quick-smart.

It’s a long shot, but so was heading to Vietnam on a penguin-themed holiday in the first place.




Defenders of the Urban Jungle


One drizzly Thursday night we were at home, curled in front of the fire watching prime time TV, when I had an epiphany: not everything you see on TV is true. While this may seem obvious to the point of obsoleteness, seeing the way my home town is portrayed to the rest of the country really hammered the point home.

First up was Police 10-7, featuring the story of a man found wandering on the motorway with a road cone on his head for ‘safety’. It is important to note that this is not the usual behaviour of the Aucklanders in their native habitat, but one specific to a sub breed of city dwellers known as ‘Westies.’ A David Attenborough-style comment to this effect would have made this segment much more educationally accurate.

Next up was motorway patrol, 30 minutes of the most spectacular incidents involving flying cars, motorists giving false details and the epic saga of the dog on the motorway. In Methven a wandering dog is an everyday sight, but not so in Auckland. Motorways typically boast 3 lanes of traffic in both directions, and in comparison to Canterbury roads they are remarkable for their lack of wandering livestock. Hence an entire segment was devoted to the Houdini hound, with several squad cars dispatched to herd it to safety. Just to clarify, this is not normal practice. We do have dog control up north, and our boys in blue are usually preoccupied reminding the populous they should ‘always blow on the pie’ to tend to AWOL animals.

Just in case such light hearted stories were starting to give the wrong impression of Auckland as a relatively safe place where people are concerned with animal welfare and the safety of bogans, these humourous snippets were interspersed with images of hardened criminals on the loose. Assaults, murders and various other criminal acts were outlined to remind the viewer of the dangers of everyday life in the Big Smoke. (It’s not that bad, honest!) The end result of these shows was that gridlock has never appeared so riveting – I can assure you that the excitement factor quickly dwindles after waiting 45 minutes to reach your off ramp less than 2km up the road.

Just as native city dwellers think of the Southern Isles as a giant diary paddock spotted with the odd Hobbit set, this TV line up would have viewers believe that Auckland is a dangerous metropolis, bustling with speedsters and potential criminals just waiting for their 15 minutes of fame on Police 10-7. There is definitely more to Auckland than fodder for cop shows like motorway patrol, but sometimes it is good to be reminded that pies can be hot.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian