On the other side of the world
11 April - 9 May 2012
Wednesday 11 April
Storm clouds over Maidstone West
After all of the months of planning & preparation, the innumerable emails trying to find a combination of flights & workshops that suited everyone, the delicate discussions with my employers about taking way more than my allotted holiday time and the toe-curling quotes for the tickets things had finally come together and I was due to set off! A four week trip to the Antipodes, visiting Dunedin and Whitianga in New Zealand, then Newcastle, Hobart and Perth in Australia, with dance workshops on every weekend. Some old friends and some new ones, some familiar places and some new vistas, and over 40,000km of air travel. Whatever happened it would be quite a trip.
I'd begun to think that my global travel days were long gone but in recent years I'd found myself hanging around in International Departures once again. Last year had been relatively quiet but 2010 had seen new stamps in my passport from Brazil, Croatia and the USA. However I'm still something of a passive traveller, very happy to be invited to teach or visit or to be a travelling companion but lacking the urge to just head off somewhere for the hell of it. Going on a 'busman's holiday' does have its drawbacks but it certainly suits my style, having something to focus on (rather than just taking in the sights) and providing the comforts and local insight & perspective of being with, er, locals. The prospect of working the weekends and holidaying the weekdays sounded pretty good to me.
One of the advantages of flying from the UK to Australia is that the flights usually set off in the evening, which for me translates to a relaxed day doing my final preparations and lots of time to get to the airport. My journey began at the very civilised hour of four in the afternoon when I was expecting a taxi to take me to my local train station. This wasn't quite as casual as it might have been as the week before I'd been left high and dry by a local taxi company (despite several, increasingly animated calls asking WHERE WAS MY CAB!) and had missed my train but this time (with a different company) the taxi was there early and whisked me effortlessly to the station with time to spare.
As the time ticked towards four the clouds gathered menacingly overhead, finally erupting into thunder & lightning and sharp deluges of rain. I was dressed for a warm Australasian autumn rather than a churlish English spring and could probably have done with a warmer coat but soon the first of my trains chugged into view and I settled into its toasty interior.
Three trains and a tube later I drew into Heathrow airport. A minor hiccup came when the electronic check-in machine I was directed to declared that my journey was too complicated for it to cope with but after a bit more queuing all was sorted and I waved my case goodbye (until Aukland, all being well) and headed for the departure lounge.
I've done a fair bit of flying in my time and over the years I've developed a collection of techniques & strategies for easing the stresses of airline travel. One of these has been to never eat airline food, so before my flight was called I chose a rather nice looking restaurant and treated myself to an excellent pizza with a big slice of tiramisu to follow. Suitably fortified I made my way to the gate and found my seat, and soon after taking off the drowsiness of digestion led me to wrap myself in my blanket and let my eyelids fall.
From London to Singapore takes over 12 hours by modern airliner, so it was a delightful surprise to find that 9 of those had already passed as I emerged from my sleep. Once I'd established that I wasn't going to return to the Land of Nod I unpacked the newest addition to my Air Travel Survival Kit, a Kindle ebook reader. I'd heard good reports about these from friends and had spotted more and more of them being used out and about so I decided to give one a try rather than haul a bunch of physical books along with me. A quick visit to amazon.co.uk had loaded my new toy with four lengthy tomes to set me up for my lengthy trip.
The Kindle was a wonderful reading device. Its screen doesn't emit any light itself so you have to be in some light to read it (as with a physical book) and this seemed to make it much easier on the eyes than reading from a computer screen or watching a film or TV show on the seatback display. As someone who works with interface design a lot it was a real joy to use a device that does a limited number of things very well and within a very short time I was totally immersed in my book (Reamde by Neil Stephenson) and almost unaware of the mechanics of the Kindle itself. A very good discovery.
Sunrise over Sydney Airport
It was early evening when we arrived in Singapore but I wasn't really aware of a time of day by this point. The air was warm and the sun was low but after a long sleep it just felt like generic airport environment. We had about an hour to get off the plane and enjoy being on terra firma before queuing up to get back onto it again and setting off on the next leg, to Sydney.
I dozed and read my way through the next 7 hours and then found myself in Sydney airport at 5am, a good while before dawn. By this point I'd lost any sense of time and walking through an almost deserted terminal only added to the sense of abstract disassociation. A misreading of my itinerary made me think I had several hours in this limbolike existence but my dogged subconscious persuaded me to check it again and 90 minutes after touching down I was taking off again, heading west to Aukland.
In Aukland it was lunchtime, but by now I'd resigned myself to finding a randomly chosen time of day whenever the aircraft doors opened. I reunited myself with my case (I'd be travelling domestically for the last flight) and set off towards immigration, customs and biological border control accompanied by what seemed like hundreds of Chinese schoolboys dressed in identical blazers, shirts, ties & hairstyles. Was the sensory deprivation of over twenty hours of air travel pushing my brain into hallucinatory breakdown? No, I'm pretty sure they were actually there.
My first experiences of New Zealand were, sadly, of things not quite working. While standing in line to get my bags x-rayed the official responsible for my queue just wandered away for ten minutes, leaving us immobile while the other queues continued to move on and through. (They were predominantly composed of identical Chinese schoolboys so may have been imaginary.) Next stop was the newly automated domestic check-in machines, neither of which seemed to work without the active intervention of (at least) one person from the bag drop-off desks, meaning that the process took longer than if we'd just checked in normally. Finally, to get from the international terminal to the domestic one you followed a large, friendly green stripe painted on the ground, which unfortunately divided in two at one point with no explanation as to which branch you should follow. Despite all of this I managed to find a nice lunch of spicy noodles, check my bag & get my boarding card, text Catherine (who was meeting me in Dunedin) to let her know the flight was on time, and start to reconnect with the Real World by walking to the other terminal rather than taking the shuttle bus. Aukland was warm & damp with big puddles on the ground and I strolled through it with unquestioning acceptance, at least the Chinese schoolboys hadn't followed me this time.
Two hours later I was touching down in Dunedin and feeling my brain restarting the social interaction processes that had been put on hold for the past day or so. It felt like coming out of a retreat or some other form of intense personal process, despite being closely surrounded by lots and lots of people for the entire time I'd only interacted with them in the most formalised of ways and had been, essentially, alone for the whole journey. Not just alone but in a very passive state, sleeping, reading and following signs & instructions. It was as if, knowing how unpleasant airline travel can be, my mind had decided that it wasn't worth burdening my conscious with the experience and had put it away somewhere until it was needed again.
But finally here I was and 'I' could be brought back to run things again. I was remarkably present & coherent (or my greeters were being very polite) as we drove into Dunedin and after a light but well-needed supper I decided to join my housemates in going to the Meet & Greet session for Festival organisers and presenters.
I'd been invited to teach a couple of workshops on Dancing To Unusual Rhythms as part of the MEDANZ (Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand) annual Festival, mostly through the intervention of my dear friend Catherine who had invited me to teach circle dance workshops back when she lived in the UK. Now a New Zealand resident (& citizen) and a MEDANZ member she'd suggested that my teaching style & fascination with unusual rhythms would fit nicely with the increasing interest in uneven rhythms in the belly dance world and, after a small flurry of emails, I was booked and listed as a Guest Teacher at the event.
The upshot of all this was finding myself in a room almost exclusively populated with women and with a very high proportion of sparkly accoutrements and visible midriffs. I chatted for a while (and was only called a Pommie Bastard once) but the effects of the journey were starting to make themselves felt and after a shortish while I retreated back home and to my bed.
Saturday 14 April
My home for the MEDANZ Festival
My first night passed remarkably easily, considering the mayhem that the previous 24 hours had put my bodyrhythms through. I dropped off to sleep almost instantly and although I awoke at 4:30am I was able to get back to sleep and stay there (more or less) until 8-ish in the morning proper. Joining my housemates for breakfast I decided that I was feeling pretty good and should go with my plan to see if I could sit in at one of the Festival sessions - a drumming workshop on 'Unusual Rhythms'! All was OK and the presenter was fine with the idea - so fine that within a few minutes of starting I was invited to show the steps of a dance that the students were learning the rhythm for.
It was fun to be there with the drummers as they came to grips with some odd-numbered rhythms and I enjoyed the experience of gently introducing myself to the participants this way. Talking to the teacher afterwards brought up all sorts of evidence that it was a Small World, that we had some friends in common wasn't that startling (they're musicians in the Balkan/Middle Eastern folk music sphere, not an extensive group of people) but that we'd both grown up in South Essex was a little more unexpected. I came away feeling a bit more closely engaged with the Festival, which was nice.
The day had brightened up by the time the workshop was over so I decided to take a stroll along the beach, or at least to see if I could find the beach. I'd been told that being out in the sun was a good way to help your body recover from jet lag so with an increasingly blue sky overhead I set off in search of the surf.
St. Kilda beach
It wasn't hard to find. Following the 'To The Beach' signs from my chalet in Dunedin Holiday Park I crested a small ridge to find a beautiful stretch of pale yellow sand and a bay full of white capped waves. At one end the outskirts of Dunedin rose up the hillside, the other was a bare rocky headland, pounded by the relentless waves. The onshore breeze, although slight, was a reminder that there was nothing between this beach and Antarctica so rather than roll up my socks and paddle I strolled along the ridgetop, taking in the views and soaking up the rays.
After a frugal lunch we had an Expedition planned - a boat trip out beyond Otago Harbour (at the head of which Dunedin sits) and into the open sea, in search of rare & exotic fauna. A 20 minute taxi ride along the waterside took us to a short pier where we joined the crew of the Monarch and set sail (in a metaphorical sense) for the briny.
(Editors note - the following paragraph contains childish humour and should be skipped over by people with refined or delicate sensibilities.)
I've known Kiwis, Aussies and (a few) people from South Africa and the concept of 'vowel creep' has often emerged when talking about the respective accents - how an 'a' sound becomes an 'e', an 'e' becomes an 'i' and so on. This tendency can be very pronounced in the New Zealand accent, I'd already chuckled about being asked to 'walk up the steers' to board an aircraft and someone at the Festival had told about a neighbour who'd invited people to 'come and sit on my dick' (deck, as in decking in a garden). The commentator on the boat had a very strong accent and I wasn't the only person grinning when she encouraged us to 'stand on the dick while we find some shags'. (A shag is sea bird.)
On the Monarch with Catherine
The boat trip was really nice. After a short stop by the entrance to the bay to see some fur seals lounging on the rocks we set out for the open ocean, 'out into the Roaring Forties' as we were reminded several times. There was a bit of a swell as we ventured beyond the sheltering shore but in ocean terms it was calm and placid (maybe even pacific) and with virtually no wind I felt in no danger of losing my lunch (or myself) over the side.
I'd made a point of bringing my camera along but, alas, as soon as I turned it on it said there wasn't enough battery power to take any pictures. Sigh! I've had this problem before with rechargeable batteries but somehow always retain my naive optimism that they will work the next time. So, no pictures of wildlife I'm afraid.
Within minutes we saw albatrosses (four types apparently, although I had to take their word for this) flying overhead - huge, majestic birds slipping through the air with barely a movement of their wings. They weren't so impressive when they landed on the water, where they looked just like oversized gulls, but there was still something imposing about such large birds. And then we were visited by a pod of dolphins who were delightful, swimming around and under the boat before starting to leap out of the water and diving or loudly splashing back in. They were a rare and unusual type of dolphin but I forgot all of the details and just enjoyed seeing them being so playful and at home in their element. A balm for the soul.
Rather than repeat our taxi journey back we took the opportunity to return to Dunedin on the boat, a 90 minute journey through millpond still water following the twists & turns of Otago Harbour. With the sun slowly sinking it was an idyllic way to relax, unwind and watch the world slowly drift by. From the quayside at Dunedin we were driven home and along the way passed a group of statues of individual teeth - very bizarre. Apparently Dunedin has a high reputation for dental training but even so, it was definitely odd.
That evening there was a performance by some of the teachers at the Festival but I decided that as I was teaching myself the next day it would be better for me to have a quiet evening in and an early night. And so it was.
Sunday 15 April
View over Dunedin
Today was to be the first of my workshop days so I'd set my alarm clock for an early start. Apart from feeling a bit woozy at times I seemed to have come through my huge time zone change relatively unscathed and was worried that it would suddenly catch up with me. No such problems arose, I did wake at 6 but it was fairly easy to fall back asleep and be roused at 7:30 by the gentle tune of my alarm. After a light breakfast I waved my housemates away for their first workshops and did my final set of preparations and writing of lists. With what felt like a workable programme (and a long list of alternatives & other options) I packed up my iPod and water bottle and set out for the venue.
Due to the number of bookings for my workshop I'd been bumped up from the relative obscurity of the drum studio to the glamour of one of the primary dance spaces. In reality they were both just classrooms in the local primary school but it was nice to feel I was in demand. I arrived early (of course) and while waiting outside the studio I was joined by several of the participants who said how much they were looking forward to the workshop, which set me up nicely. Once in the room I found a familiar and excellent quality sound system, big whiteboards and markers, and enough space for my circle of dancers. My promised 'Angel' assistant/gopher wasn't in evidence but Catherine took on the role and doffed the tinsel halo that went with it - a very practical way of making Angels easy to find by both presenters & participants. The floor was carpeted but I could live with that.
The workshop was entitled Dancing to a Different Beat and was intended to give an experience of dancing to unusual and uneven rhythms. I chose a selection of easy(-ish) dances with different rhythms and over the next two hours I led my 17 students on a voyage of discovery through these strange and exotic beats.
It was a very unusual group for me - the students were all dancers and familiar with the sounds of Balkan & Middle-Eastern music but they were used to dancing solo (or at least without joining hands) and to regular, 'divide by four' rhythms. There were some definite wobbles as we encountered our first 'lumpy' rhythm (a Lesnoto in 7/8) but people soon got the hang of it and over the course of the session we got to know all sorts of strange patterns - 3/4 (not a waltz!), 11/8, 17/8 and 18/8. The workshop went really well, people had fun and got a real experience of dancing to these Different Beats and there were lots of smiles, thanks and very appreciative words by the end. I tidied up with a real sense of a job well done.
Lunch was a very acceptable vegiburger at the Wandering Snail café, after which I returned to my chalet to write up dance lists and notes on the music I used. In theory these were to go up on my website along with this blog and some emails that I'd written but after an hour's playing around trying to get the campsite's Wi-Fi working I had to admit defeat.
The evenings entertainment was a Hafla, a (relatively) informal setting for some of the teachers & participants from the Festival to perform. Sited in the assembly hall of the school there was a theatrical stage area at one end but this was only used by a group of musicians, the dance performers all stayed at floor level with the seating laid out in curves to leave a semicircular performance space. As we got our hands stamped in exchange for the tickets and nabbed good seats at the front we were surrounded by women in costumes that ranged from the exotic to the very exotic. This included Catherine and Jo from our little household who would be performing a dance together and who had been practicing and preening (very successfully) up until we'd set out.
It soon became apparent that the event's organisation was not going to be an example of shining efficiency. Under glaring fluorescent light and with decidedly non-Middle Eastern music coming through the PA system the start time came and went with no sign of anything about to begin. At one point one of the organisers made an unamplified announcement that seemed to produce excitement & applause but it was totally inaudible from where I was sitting. After about half an hour of waiting we were told that the buffet dinner, which was due to be served during an intermission in the programme, was now available so we got up and munched our way through that. Eventually things seemed to come together and a different (although also unamplified) compere announced the first couple of performers.
The show (it developed into a general dance party later on but I'd left by then) was a succession of single, double, triple and larger collections of performers - all women and of all shapes & sizes. I'm no expert in the styles and subdivisions of the belly dancing world so the subtleties were sadly lost on me but I was royally entertained by the dances on show, which ranged from a sensual solo piece through to a massed group of sixteen (or maybe more) women who spun & wheeled in synchrony while providing a chorus line for smaller groups to show off their individual displays. The performances were very polished & professional but the most impressive things for me was seeing these women glorying in the shape & movement of their bodies, proudly resplendent in themselves regardless of whether they fitted the conventional image of attractiveness or not. And having a great time while they were doing it.
I was being educated in the divisions & differentiations of belly dance culture by my companions and was starting to identify the different styles & groupings. In most cases I could recognise aspects of Middle Eastern dance I'd seen in different places & contexts but there was one group who were totally new to me - the Tribal dancers. With black the predominant colour and 'distressed' netting tops matched with full skirts they were like Goths dressed as flamenco dancers or Morticia Adams going to a hoe down. Pale, ashen makeup with (presumably) tribal markings on the face - most commonly a vertical line down the chin - completed the look. It was certainly an arresting image (especially when lots of them danced together) but the combination of sullen 90s teenager with sensual Middle Eastern dancer was one that I'd never have anticipated in my wildest dreams. You never know what you might find in this strange world of ours.
I'd done pretty well in coping with my jet lag but long evenings were still a bit much for me. Before the performances ended I found my eyelids growing heavy so I made my excuses and retired to my bed
Monday 16 April
The approach to Tunnel Beach
With my second workshop not until mid-afternoon I had the morning free, so Alistair and I jumped into a rental car and headed off to do some sightseeing. Our first stop was the enigmatically named Tunnel Beach, a little way along the coast and described by the guide as an 'easy walk' - just the thing for a dance teacher not wanting to push himself too far on a working day. Although not particularly well signposted - if Alistair hadn't spotted the 'Tunnel Beach Road' street name we'd have sailed past it - we found our way to the car park, parked and began our descent.
A long, moderately steep path led us down through open fields towards the sea. The early clouds had evaporated into a clear blue sky and the southern ocean stretched away to the distant horizon, there was a real sense of being on the edge of nothingness. This provided a strange contrast to the comfortable familiarity of the farmland which could easily have been British, even down to the patches of gorse along the way. An odd juxtaposition which continued to strike me as I travelled through New Zealand, how the landscape could lull me into feeling almost back home before suddenly producing palm trees, an exotic bird call or a glorious stretch of sandy beach.
The path wove its way down towards the sealine but stopped short in a stretch of low cliffs that extended either side as far as could be seen, clearly this part of the land was being slowly but inexorably reclaimed by the ocean. After taking in the views we discovered, totally unsignposted or marked in any way, the eponymous tunnel that led down to a small, secluded cove with a real sandy beach. From the guide book we learned that the tunnel had been commissioned by a local politician who wanted a private beach for his daughters, away from the prying eyes of the townspeople and other unsuitable types. Sadly it ended in tragedy when one of the daughters was swept away and drowned, no surprise to my eyes as the waves & currents in the small bay looked powerful & treacherous.
But from a non-swimmer's perspective the beach was beautiful, enclosed in tall, sandstone cliffs and bathed in warm sunlight. The tunnel itself looked hand-hewn and must have been quite a project.
After making our way back up to the car park we found that it was still relatively early and there was time for another trip, so we headed off up the Otago Peninsula to see Larnach Castle. This wasn't a castle (no big surprise there) but a large, quirky building dating from the late 1800's, perched high on a hill with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside & coast. Around the house its gardens had been very creatively managed with a formal lawn and flowerbeds at the front and botanical collections, notably of native plants, off to the sides. With the day continuing with sunshine and blue skies it was the perfect location for a gentle walk followed by a rather nice outdoor lunch.
Returning to Dunedin I led my second workshop. This was initially intended to be the 'Level Two' session for those who wanted to progress on from the first one but with a couple of new people joining it ended up being 'more, but different' which seemed to suit everybody.
To celebrate our last night in Dunedin we drove down to the city centre and found a Japanese restaurant that could cope with our varied dietary requirements. Then it was back home and an early night in preparation for tomorrow's day of travelling.
View from Tunnel Beach
Climbing up the tunnel
The neighbouring bay
Larnach Castle (note the lions)
A view from Larnach Castle
Plants in the native garden