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Swimming (or not) with dolphins

Bay of Islands

You know when some days start off with such boundless enthusiasm and inspiring optimism that you’re convinced that nothing in the world can dampen your spirits or threaten your march to perfection? This was one of them. Unfortunately, hammerhead sharks managed to get in the way of my girlish excitement and the opportunity to swim with wild bottlenose dolphins. Come lunchtime, I was a deflated ball of insolent teenager.

I booked myself on a four hour cruise of the Bay of Islands that departed at 8am, in the hopes of spotting some marine mammals, from whales to dolphins, to orcas, and maybe even getting to splash about with some dolphins. After 90 minutes spent looking, unsuccessfully, for a pod of orcas that had been spotted earlier that morning in the Bay, the boat scurried off between Rupert Murdoch’s island and some other spit of land to locate some dolphins. Find them we did. But they were utterly uninterested in interacting with a group of humans, and high-tailed it out of that cove.

Onwards, then, elsewhere. Don’t ask me where we were this time: there are 144 islands in the Bay and the captain wasn’t overly fond of providing a running commentary on the direction of travel or the geography of the Bay. When the crew had ascertained that there were no juveniles in the pod, we were all about to unload ourselves into the water when a sharp shout of ‘Hammerheads!’ went up. Seeing as none of us much fancied being lunch for a passing shark or two, we abandoned that drop and found ourselves pretty much out of time and having to head back to port.

By the time that I’d disembarked at Russell, I was feeling all rather disappointed. To a degree, I still am. But a beer at the first licensed premises in New Zealand (The Duke of Marlborough, Russell), helped to salve the wound. (And neither should I feel that hard-done-by; I have, after all, both scuba dived and snorkelled with dolphins before now.)

Auckland

Auckland

Auckland felt somehow familiar from the moment that I arrived. If I’d been to New Zealand before, that might have been somehow understandable, but I’ve not. Certain things are the same as back home: cars drive on the left, so I automatically check in the correct direction when I cross the road and there are plenty of shops that you’d find on the High Street in some random market town in Suffok, but that isn’t really it. And I still can’t quite put my finger on it.

The changeability of the weather is remarkable, though. From brilliant sunshine to heavily overcast to brilliant sunshine with pouring rain within a matter of minutes. And of course, I arrived to discover that I’d left my raincoat somewhere improbable. I’d my waterproof trousers and my super-smart hat-in-a-bag, but not my waterproof jacket. An emergency replacement was found. It’s an attractive turquoise colour and means that my winter-weight orange anorak can now be dispatched to the UK. It is, of course, summer here. When it isn’t raining, it is very definitely summer. Factor 50 sunscreen isn’t having all that much impact and I woke in the middle of the night perplexed as to why I felt so warm. That’d be the blanket, Bowker.

Auckland is also expensive. Property might be cheap, but food and drink are not. We’re talking in excess of London prices for pints (or close enough, what with these guys being all metrificated), for coffee, and for plates of food. And don’t get me started on toiletries. Okay, do. A tube of Nivea costs the equivalent of £10 here. I pay about £2.50 in the UK. I’d selected Nivea as my moisturiser of choice before I left, thinking that it’d be easy to acquire anywhere on my travels. I’ve just had to revise that.

Whilst vegetarianism isn’t quite as well catered for as in the UK, gluten-free is better handled. Almost everywhere has gluten-free options and some restaurants even have designated gluten-free menus. Of course, eating fish means that I’m never really that stuck, so it’s all good. (If pricey.)

And wi-fi in cafés in and coffee houses hasn’t caught on quite as much here as in the UK and USA. This presents minor problems for the regular updating of Twitter, but I’ll survive.

Auckland’s nick-named the City of Sails. I couldn’t possibly dispute that. The ferry terminal, where the Queen Elizabeth and the Sun Princess are both currently docked, is at the end of the major shopping thoroughfare, Queen’s Street. It’d be a bit like having Tilbury at the end of Oxford Street. Either side of these hulking great terminals (where incidentally, commuters flood into and out of Auckland every morning and evening) are quays crammed with yachts of every size, shape, and capacity. And there’s always something to watch on the water here.

I think I could get used to Auckland.

Feeling Port Townsend

Port Townsend

Port Townsend is a very pretty town. It feels as if it is suspended in a time warp. Around 1870, Seattle and Port Townsend vied for the Pacific sea trade routes. The railroad went to Seattle, and Seattle emerged victorious on the economic battleground. Port Townsend, then, stagnated. Downtown, by the waterfront, is a time capsule of divine late 19th century Pacific Northwest architecture. You can imagine bustled harlots emerging from their bordellos to tempt passing seaman with an hour of their paid-for love.

The major trade, now, however is tourism. And these bordellos and saloons of my mind’s eye are mostly gift and trinket shops catering to the visitors who descend – primarily in the summer months – for the variety of music and literary festivals hosted there. Of course, being a holiday town in the dead of winter means that it exudes the feeling of being in hibernation. You know that it is ful of potential, but right now it is preparing for the summer onslaught and in just too sleepy.

Being on a peninsular also gives it a particular sense of isolation. It’s windswept and exposed. If you walk to the end of the peninsular, you can quite easily conceive of being at the ends of the earth. This feeling is helped by access to Port Townsend being either via the ferry from Seattle, or a two hour drive down the peninsular and around the Sound.

There is, however, life in this quiet town. Residents take up their quarrels in the letters page of the weekly newspaper; I counted I think nine different places of worship; and on Saturday night Katy and I went to a Valentine’s Dance at the Unitarian church, followed by live music at one of the bars downtown. We danced. Lots. Apart from being tremendous fun, it gave me an excuse to wear a pair of shoes that weren’t my hiking boots for the first time in a month. My feet appreciated that. Doubtless my dancing partners did, too.

I loved Port Townsend in winter, so I’m sure that I would adore it in summer, with more walks on the beach that are less windswept; the opportunity to go sailing; lots more live music; and less time spent being soaked through from the incessant rain. This is, so I’m told, unusual. Mostly the winter weather is swirling mists of wet hanging in the air. But seeing as I was there, it had to be different. Never mind, I might’ve been damp, but my enthusiasm didn’t suffer.

A very long train journey

Davis, California to Portland, Oregon

Breathtaking. That feels to be the only word adequate to describe the journey from Davis to Portland. From the delays, to the examples of parenting, to the evidence of poverty, to the scenery: breathtaking.

It’s a little after three in the afternoon, Pacific Standard Time, and I’ve been on this train since 05:15. We’re somewhere north of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The train should have rolled into Davis at 01:28, but a fallen tree that caused extensive damage to the track meant an initial delay of almost four hours. With no clear indication as to when the track would be cleared and repaired, I had little option than to wait at the station, sharing the company of the very sweet station staff, the most voyeuristic television programme imaginable, and a man whose snoring made the window panes reverberate.

We’re passing through a blizzard right now; the swirling snow is obscuring a pine forrest laden with several inches of snow. It might be an entrance to Narnia. The climate and the terrain is deathly inhospitable, but the effect is majestic.

I can’t be certain which was worse: the gentleman’s snoring or the television programme that tracked individuals suspected of infidelity, presented the evidence to their cuckolded other halves, and then encouraged a confrontation. Why anyone would willingly subject themselves to public humiliation to such a degree is beyond me. I can only hope that the viewership is restricted to stranded travellers waiting for severely delayed trains in the early hours of the morning. As for the snoring; it was phenomenal. I doubt that you would be able to share a house with this man, let alone a bed, without suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. It was the perfect embodiment of cartoon snoring.

Everything has just turned to white. Everything. There is nothing to see save for a blanket of white extending to the horizon. The occasional fence post is peeking above the parapet of snow, and a line of telegraph poles has bisected the landscape, but that’s it.

The seats in coach class are a far cry from First Great Western’s finest. They are more comparable with business class airline seats. No, they don’t recline fully, but the leg room is extensive and together with the leg rest extension and a selection of pillows, it makes for a comfortable cocoon. Breakfast in the dining car was served on proper china with stainless steel cutlery and linen napkins. My scrambled eggs were cooked to order and my coffee mug was refilled three times. I’m sure that the MD of First Great Western would toss himself from the roof of this train if he knew that I paid $92 for this ticket, and that was expensive because it was a weekend. If I had been able to travel midweek, it would have been somewhere between $56 and $72.

At breakfast I was seated opposite a Mennonite lady who was travelling to Albany to take care of her elderly mother who is undergoing surgery tomorrow. I was sorely tempted to ask her about the Mennonite church, but my fear that she might attempt to proselytise overwhelmed my curiosity. I remain ignorant of the Mennonite church, but I know that Nancy has two sons who live in San Diego and her brother’s recent dental surgery has precluded him from taking care of their mother.

There’s a ridge banking steeply to the near-side of the train. A valley is dropping away sharply on the off-side. We’re intrepidly snaking a narrow precipice, a sliver of silver through the snow white and tree green.

I was the only person who boarded the train at Davis, but at Sacramento, a hoard was waiting. As soon as I heard the screeches of ‘Damien, get back here!’ a shudder slid down my back and I raised a small prayer that they wouldn’t be anywhere near me. No such luck. Damien, Chris, and Alyssa were seated next to me. Three year old Damien has spent almost the entirety of the journey being scolded, chastised, and castigated by his mother. It would be easy to assume that he is the devil-child, but really, he’s just a bored little boy having to endure a 16 hour train journey with parents who are ill-prepared and seem to lack some basic parenting skills.

Other than a Nintendo DS, he has nothing else to occupy him. There are no storybooks, no colouring books, no games, and no puzzles in evidence. Every time that he shuffles in his seat, his mother threatens to spank him. Whenever he raises his voice, she tells him to shut up. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to her that perhaps taking him for a walk up and down the train would help to release some of his extensive energy; or that if she were to explain that his raised voice disturbs everyone in their vicinity, instead of just demanding he be quiet, he might sit more quietly.

He’s a sweet kid who has just learned how to make clip-clopping noises with his tongue, but I’m not sure that I can hold out much hope for him.

A lake is just about discernible through the mist on the off-side. The icy water and the cloak of grey damp are merging into an eerie tableau.

The area north of Sacramento is fruit-growing territory. My arboreal knowledge is insufficient to identify the forlorn and denuded trees, regimented in their orchards that stretch across the flatlands, right the way to the horizon, but I would suppose that there are plums, apples, cherries, apricots, and peaches. I’m certain that I saw some walnuts, too. In spring it must be a glorious medley of blossoms and summer must feel lush and verdant, but right now, it feels almost hopeless.

That sense of hopelessness is inescapable when combined with the evidence of back-breaking poverty along the track. The sense of desperation that I felt when, aged six, I first experienced the high-rise tower blocks that border the train line into Kings Cross, around Highbury, is not something that I shall ever forget. All I could mouth was: ‘Mummy, do people really live like this?’ Twenty-six years later, and it’s virtually the same statement made about a situation that’s infinitely worse.

We passed by trailer parks where even the speed of the train and the distance between us could do nothing to prevent the sense of your spirit being sucked out of you. There were dilapidated and isolated houses, crumbling amidst rusting cars and trucks and piles of junk that you know are home to people scratching a living and struggling to make ends meet. And then there are the rows of bivouacs dotted along the trackside, slung with drying clothes and the evidence of campfires; the vestiges of the last resort.

This is a whole different dimension of poverty and an entirely new sense of desperation.

I’m in Narnia again, with snow-covered trees and icy, streams rushing downhill.

Chris and Alyssa are struggling for money, badly. They’re hoping that this move across country will bring about a change in their fortunes, and work. Their financial situation is that constrained that they’ve been discussing what, if anything, they can afford from the dining car for supper. The gentleman sitting a row ahead of them has just given them a $20 bill. He said that he didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but that they should get themselves some dinner and hopefully it would help.

Peering down into the valley, there are swirls of cloud sitting above the trees whilst snow capped peaks rise on the other side.

If you can envisage the scenery from an epic American pioneering story, desolate and bleak but perhaps tinged with hope, this journey has captivated it. Yellow-earthed plains have slid carelessly over the horizon; we’ve emerged from tunnels to gaze across the sweep of Lake Shasta; the vast, icy Sacramento River has been spanned by gravity-defying bridges; occasional cattle and shaggy-maned horses have dotted the landscape; and plunging valleys have been banked by soaring, snow-capped mountains.

Dusk. It’s easier to see the reflection of the train carriage in the window than what lies beyond it.

Despite the delay, this is everything that rail travel should be. It’s been breathtaking.

A whole new respect for cabin crew

London Heathrow to San Francisco

It might be fairly easy to imagine the life of a long haul flight cabin crew member to be endlessly glamourous and constantly thrilling. They get to travel to all manner of exotic locations – Monday is Shanghai and Thursday is Auckland, before they reach Bogota on Sunday – not to mention that they get paid to do this. But really, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that it’s a long way from sipping mojitos and prancing about in Gucci shades.

They’re on their feet for an unholy number of hours and they have to deal with us: stressed, grouchy, demanding, rude, and pedantic passengers.

The people sitting in the two metre square vicinity of my seat on my flight from Heathrow to San Francisco yesterday embodied every trait that is undesirable in someone flying for eleven hours.

First, we had Mr and Mrs Check-in Late and Complain About Our Seats. I’m sure that airlines don’t really go out of their way to split up couples, but if you check in late and the flight is full, you have to take what you’re given. Put it this way, you’re on the flight. If it’s full, the chances are that there were a handful of people that were bumped. So please don’t whine and mewl that you’re separated from each other by a few seats. You could, you know, always ask the people sitting around you politely if one of them wouldn’t mind moving.

Then we have Mr I-don’t-want-this. I always experience a slight frisson of expectation when meals start to be served on planes. I can’t exactly say that it’s because I’m relishing the delights of ice-cold salad and the soggy mushroom-whatever-it-is that I’m due to attempt to eat in a vaguely dignified fashion from a tray table that’s at the wrong height with plastic cutlery, or because of the prospect of having to re-stack the collection of foil containers and plastic packaging in a Krypton Factor-esque game when I’m finished. No, I’m just waiting for my pre-ordered vegetarian meal to make it to me at all. Too often my meal has been forgotten or mysteriously given to someone else and I’ve been left with crackers and cheese to last me from London to Chicago.

I don’t expect a menu, and I don’t expect the chefs from Wild Honey to have knocked up softly poached quails eggs with asparagus and foaming hollandaise for me, either. Something vaguely edible and without any meat in it is great. Thank you. This is cattle class, after all. Not to mention a plane, with weight and space constraints.

This means that, no, Mr I-don’t-want-this, there isn’t a different version of your pre-ordered special meal hanging around for you on the plane just in case you fancy chicken instead of lamb. And declaring ‘I don’t want lamb’ isn’t going to change it, either. You asked to be catered for specially, and you got it.

Finally, we have Mr and Ms Disorganised. (Or: vegetarian meals should be requested in advance.) It would be absolutely wonderful if vegetarian meals were carried on planes as standard, so instead of being asked ‘Chicken or beef?’ It’d be ‘Chicken, beef, or veggie?’ But space is at a premium and weight needs to be kept to a minimum, which means that anything that deviates even vaguely – a tiny, teeny, weeny bit – from the norm (because let’s face it, vegetarianism isn’t exactly a concept from the Planet Zog) needs to be accommodated on an individual basis. It ensures that vegetarians get their meals (allegedly, in some cases), vegans don’t have to starve, Muslims don’t commit a sin by eating something that isn’t Halal, and Hindus can rest assured that nothing in their meal contains beef. And the airline needs to know this. Don’t rock up and expect them to have two vegetarian meals waiting for you if you’ve not ordered them, and then pout when there aren’t any. Trust me, pouting does not operate time machines and neither does it enable flight attendants to magic meals out of pressurised, recycled cabin air.

None of this is aerodynamics, people. That’s down to the captain and he’s flying the plane.

When the flight attendant reached me, proffering the much-anticipated glass of wine, I asked him how he was doing. After a moment of shock whilst he processed that someone might be interested in him and not harrying him, he smiled, said not too bad, and gave two miniature plastic bottles of Spanish Tempranillo-Garnacha instead of one.

There’s a moral in there somewhere.