Five ‘Baby’s

Driving isn’t our favourite thing but it’s a means to an end. I wanted to re-visit Cape Reinga, on the northern tip of North Island and we chose to to drive and visit some other places en route, rather then join a coach tour like Helen and I did 17 years ago!

Matauri Bay, like all the NZ beaches we’ve been to, is stunning. There were a few other people but on the whole, it was deserted.

Matauri Bay

As you can see, we really are honing our selfie-taking skills. But we’re taking plenty of time over the learning process.

Selfie of the day

The north of the island has lots of sand. Not just on the beaches and on building sites, but everywhere. There are sand dunes where you can slide down on a plastic board (or a piece of cardboard, I suppose). We decided not to take part in this activity, mainly because we didn’t want to walk back up afterwards. The tip of the island used to be separate but thousands of years of sea currents plugged the gap with more and more sand.

Sand dunes in the north

Again, I was surprised (but probably shouldn’t have been) by how much the area around the Cape and the light house has been developed since I was last here. There is a proper path to follow, so mostly, we keep off the fragile, and in some cases, unique, vegetation.

Cape Reinga light house

The wind kept us cool as we walked and it was fascinating again to see where the Tasman Sea and the Pacifc Ocean meet.

Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean

The rival currents cause plenty of eddies which bring nutrients to the surface and this can attract bigger and bigger creatures: even whales have been known to come right up to the rocks for a scratch, to get rid of their barnacles.

Bonus selfie, a long way from home

Lovers of the environment and of toilets will appreciate the eco-design of the public convenience here.

Eco-Design Toilet

We visited Rarawa Beach because it has the finest, whitest, squeakiest sand in the north. It did feel really nice on our feet, and, when you get the right movement going, you can achieve quite a good squeak.

Rarawa Beach

Because this beach was so nice to walk on, we did, for over a mile. We decided to give Ninety Mile Beach a miss, all thirty miles of it: we know it will still be there when we come back. Which, as we see more and more of New Zealand, becomes more and more certain.

Our second day on the road took us to see a tree. Not any old tree though, but the fourth largest in the world.

On the way, we passed through Omapere. Liesel couldn’t work out why a place in New Zealand was named after the German word for ‘grandma’ and the French word for ‘father’. No, I didn’t make her get out and walk. Of course, it’s a Māori word, four syllables, named after the local tall, plumed, native grass, mapere.

It also reminded me of my first visit to the area. The name rung a bell, but I couldn’t remember why. Maybe we just passed by on that occasion too.

Lookout point near Omapere

The day was grey and cool and we had a few spots of rain. Mainly on the most winding of roads when you don’t really need your view obstructed by windscreen wipers!

Some of the landcape reminded us of the Lord of the Rings films, so rugged and harsh.

Frodo and Sam are having a rest by that rock

Some of the hills in the distance were hidden in the mist and we were glad we didn’t have to drive through the clouds, especially as the road was so twisty.

Fields are littered with rocks and you have to admire the settlers, Maori and Pakeha, for their perseverance here.

2000-year old Tāne Mahuta is the largest known kauri tree. It’s in danger, as are all kauri, from kauri dieback disease which is spread by soil movement. So we had to wash our shoes before walking the short distance to see one of the wonders of the modern world.

Brush and wash your shoes properly

I’d told Liesel it was only a five or ten minute walk, and luckily my memory was correct, on this occasion.

I’m sure we’ve been able to walk up to and around Tāne Mahuta in the past, but not today. Sad for us, but good for the tree.

The majestic Tāne Mahuta
Lord of the Forest

The Māori guide had traditional tattoos on her chin and she told us about the tree and how they’re all being looked after. Including, would you believe, giving the trees injections to protect them against the fungal disease. There are over 120 other species living in Tāne’s canopy, plant and animal, which makes me feel better about the things I have living on my skin. The guide’s accent was fascinating. We pronounce ‘kauri’ almost as ‘cow-ry’, whereas she said something more like’coe-dee’.

You ain’t stopping me with your boardwalk

We try to pronounce Māori words correctly but their vowel sounds are very subtlely different to ours. I wonder whether they appreciate us making the effort? Or do they think we’re just taking the mickey?

The tree is the focal point of Waipoua Forest which we spent some time exploring. It’s a proper forest too, you can’t see the wood for the trees. The road is completely enclosed and there is no room for manoeuvre on either side.

A thing in someone’s garden

We have no idea whether this is some kind of scarecrow or a North Island attempt at steampunk metalwork, but it was very prominent.

We saw quite a few little churches in the middle of nowhere too: white walls and red roofs that really show up against the green, green and green background. We can’t see how they can survive, each must only serve a few dozen people.

A typical white and red church

Equally, there are small cemeteries here and there. Maybe each is for one family or one tribal group, but they’re all very neat and tidy.

Frodo and Sam under the cloak of invisibility

As we passed by one field, we saw a cow licking a horse. This is not a euphemism. Maybe the grass is hallucinogenic or aphrodisiac.

We passed a goat that was tethered by the side of the road. When we passed by on our return journey, it had gone. From which we can only deduce that it had been taken by a dinosaur during filming of the latest Jurassic Park sequel.

The Māoris made terraces in the past, for defence purposes and, presumably to grow more produce. Those terraces are still visible on some hills and it’s obvious to even this casual observer that some terrace-builders were more skilled than others! Maybe they should have called upon the services of Hire-a-Hubby (see a previous post).

The road surface was really good but in a few places, something had happened, a landslide or some kind of sinkhole collapse maybe, because the surface was (temporarily?) covered with loose chippings.

The other main decoration on the road was carcasses. Lots of unidentifiable but definitely dead critters, some being enjoyed by the birds, some just being left to rot.

There are lots of birds around. When we’re in the woods, we can hear them but usually not see them. When we’re driving along, we can see them, and occasionally identify them. Over two days, we saw birds of prey, turkeys, emus, quails, pukekos, sparrows, ordinary seagulls and southern black-backed gulls which are about twice the size, leading me to accuse one of being an albatross. In fact, one such came by and joined us for dinner.

Southern Black-backed Gull

In the fields, we are still surprised at how many cattle we’re seeing compared with the number of sheep. We wondered whether there’s been a shift in New Zealand’s farming business over the last couple of decades. There are signs giving out a number to call if we need to report ‘wandering stock’.

These purple flowers are, amazingly, bindweed. I lost a 32-year battle against bindweed in our garden in Chessington: it kept invading from all the neighbours’ back yards. One day, it will take over the whole world, in a satanic deal with the cockroaches, probably. Horrible stuff, and just because it has pretty purple flowers here doesn’t make it any less evil.

Bindweed or concolvulus

Readers who aren’t interested in our musical entertainment while on the road can look away now and come back next time.

Thanks for staying: you will glean from where today’s title emanates!

I’ve commented previously on how ‘shuffle’ on my MP3 device seems to avoid playing some songs and even anything at all by some people. Well, hah, I had a brainwave. Play all the tracks in alphabetical order by song title. But the ASCII sort sequence puts special characters such as quotes and brackets, as well as numbers, before the actual alphabet. So before we could hear the first song beginning with the letter A, we had this sort of thing:

The first few songs on our playlist

You’ll notice something right away. There’s a duplicate track. There are quite a few duplicates, in fact. This is due to the unique way in which downloads are handled. I, the user, have great difficulty in controlling this. But we can just press ‘skip’.

Some tracks appear four times. Twice because of the double-downloading-by-mistake issue. And twice over because the same track appears on two different albums.

We got to the numbers and heard ‘5 Years’, ’50 Words for Snow’, ‘50,000 Watts’ then ‘500 Miles’. Yes, in that order, because of the comma.

And then came the letter A. Hooray!

The first few letter A songs

What a fantastic variety we have here. Well curated even if I do say so myself. Ofra Haza and The Unthanks are among those very rarely selected by so-called ‘shuffle’ mode.

The first treat was three different versions of ‘All the Young Dudes’. (For me, that is, not so much for Liesel: ‘skip’ was employed.)

By the end of the first day on the road, we had still not reached the end of the As. On the second day, the last half dozen or so A songs, were contenders to be the final one. We couldn’t wait for the As to finish.

But where else would you find ‘Aretha’,’Arienne’ and ‘Arnold Layne’ sitting next to each other?

The final few letter A songs

As A ends, B begins. But lo, what is this? BBC iPlayer file tags have names beginning with ‘b’. There are quite a few, probably intermingled with actual songs, so the ‘skip’ button might be required more often for a while.

And by the end of our second day, we hadn’t reached the end of the Bs. Who knew there were so many songs about ‘Baby’ something (‘Driver’, ‘Finn’, ‘Loves that way’, ‘Better start turnin’ ’em down’ and ”s Boat’), ‘Bad’ things, ‘Beautiful’ things or ‘Blackbirds’?

Here’s a tip: on your MP3 device or in your library, look at the alphabetic track list because it’s the best way to spot duplicates. I don’t mind a ‘studio’ and a ‘live’ version of the same song but it’s a bit of a waste having exact duplicates. Not that the higher population count helped the ‘shuffle’ mechanism find and play some of those duplicated tracks!

Sayōnara, Nihon

That was a very enjoyable five weeks in Japan. We’re now on our way to the next exciting destination: Fiji. I’m writing this at Narita Airport, Tokyo, before we hand in the Pocket Wifi. Then, we’ll be offline, set adrift, out of touch with the outside world.

Our last full day in Naha entailed a spot of shopping, first at the local arts and crafts shop and later at a more conventional shopping arcade. We could have spent far longer here in Naha, in wider Okinawa even, but I think we agree, it’s been a nice relaxing final week in Japan. Liesel knows how to plan a trip, thanks!

Selfie of the day in front of the chip shop

Liesel enjoyed a bag of cheesey chips at a shop devoted to potato chips, but not as we know them, Jim: there was a tomato flavouring too.

We passed a Monkey Bar with Monkey Girls inside but didn’t go in. There are, apparently, spider monkeys to play with while you eat your meal. Somehow, we’ve managed to avoid dining with and/or petting monkeys, dogs, cats, hedgehogs, owls, and otters since we’ve been here, and we’re not too sure about the place with dead snakes outside in jars, either.

Sadly, not girls in monkey suits

We went up to the roof garden of the shopping arcade which was ok, apart from, this was where the smokers gravitate. There were instructions on how to become a smoker, what skills are involved, and a bin for the dog ends.

Holy smoke!
Best view from the roof garden, Naha

We had a meal, a Japanese one, and again, it was disappointing. I showed the lady my crib sheet saying, “I’m a veggie, no meat, no fish”, she appeared to understand, but my noodles were still polluted by meat. I thought the dish smelt meaty but Liesel convinced me that it was just strong cabbage.

On the other hand, here in Narita Airport, we’ve just had a lovely vegan meal, Japanese in style, but no animal products.

Many restaurants display their offerings in the window, the plastic food often looks quite realistic.

Plastic food

Usually in restaurants, Liesel and I sit opposite each other. We’ll be given one copy of the menu to share, so we both read it sideways. It’s great that often, we are given an English version: I can’t imagine English restaurants going to the trouble of producing separate, say, Japanese menus. Some staff have a basic grasp of English, certainly superior to our Japanese, but not all: maybe 50-50.

If it weren’t for the fact that most food here is fish or meat based, I’m sure we would have eaten in Japanese restaurants more often. But even a basic meals such as pasta, mozzarella and tomato sauce came with free lumps of bacon in it. And, not that I am an expert on pig meat, not very nice looking bacon either, mostly fat, maybe 25% actual meat.

Usually the bill is left on your table when the meal is delivered. If you order dessert or coffee, you receive a second bill. It’s all added up at the till on the way out. I wonder how often the second bill is ‘forgotten’?

One thing we like is that tipping does not take place. Top service is given all the time, it’s what they’re paid for. If you try to tip, for exceptional service, the implication is that they usually don’t give such good service, and that is considered insulting.

Sometimes, it’s quite a long wait before you’re served and then another long time before the meal arrives. But so what? Just because we expect instant service at home doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn to be more relaxed and patient here. Equally, we don’t get pestered to vacate the premises as soon as we’ve finished the last mouthful to make room for the next customers.

The streets of Naha are very narrow, not wide enough for pavements in some cases. Not even wide enough to paint a white line to separate pedestrians from vehicles!

Narrow street in Naha at night

And so to bed for our final time in Japan. We videoed a bedtime story for Martha and William and proceeded to have a restless night.

I’d lightened my bag by throwing away all the unnecessary paperwork, but it was still hard to zip up. Again. Our host had requested that we leave our bag of rubbish by the door of the flat below. I hope this was a mutual arrangement, and that we haven’t inadvertently contributed to generations of conflict and strife between two rival families.

Today is the day of the annual Naha Marathon. This is Japan’s biggest with about 30,000 runners coping with 25°C at 9am! We wished them all good luck as we set off on our own, easier marathon.

Early leaders in the Marathon

They were supported by Darth Vader and some Startroopers which seemed strangely appropriate. One thing we’ve noticed in Japan is that, if there are marshals telling you where to walk to avoid roadworks, or where to park in a car park, they’ll often be using sticks that light up. I don’t know if they’re, strictly speaking, ‘light sabres’ but I bet they have a good time when they return to base!

Stormtroopers
A man with his light sabre

At Naha Airport, there is a moving walkway, a travellator, that confuses some people. Well, me. If there’s nobody on it, you can’t tell whether it’s moving or not, because it’s not split into individual segments, it’s just one very big rubber band. That’s a tip for you: beware joke travellators.

Is it moving? Can you tell?

It was good to see that the Marathon was being covered on TV, but during the few minutes I watched at the airport, I didn’t see any non-Japanese runners. Mo Farah may have been here, but I didn’t see him.

The plane was half an hour late taking off due to excess traffic at the airport. That’ll be all the buses taking passengers to the aircraft from the departure gates, then! I boarded before Liesel because I had the window seat and window seat passengers board first, here, today. Always different.

One of Okinawa’s 363 islands

Two hours or so later, we landed here at Narita. I was hoping we’d fly over Tokyo, or at least see it and of course, I was hoping to see Mount Fuji one more time. But in the end, the approach to Narita was pretty good to look at.

Looking good, approaching Narita
Tee time

We posted some items at the post office and then left our big bags in the coin lockers while we ate our late lunch. Coin lockers have been a very useful facility at airports and railway stations, for leaving heavy bags while we explore. Well worth the money, so it’s worth keeping some loose change when you’re in Japan. Somehow, we acquired some Chinese and some American coins in our change. I think these must have been given in change from a vending machine, grrr, I’m pretty sure people in shops wouldn’t give us the wrong coins like that.

We’ve found the public transport systems here in Japan to be fantastic: yes, we’ve made a couple of mistakes and been frustrated by not understanding the system fully, but the service itself has been terrific. Trains, Shinkansen, buses, Yui monorail, ferries, even internal flights have all been a positive experience.

The trains run on time. They employ people at railway stations to adjust the clocks according to when the trains arrive. No, not really, but they could. We’ve only encountered a couple of delays, and one of them was due to an accident. The signage is is several languages, including English, which is good for us: but without that, maybe we would have been more diligent in trying to learn some of the language, written at least.

One thing we did have a problem with was that if you’re going to a particular destination, you really need to know the final stop for that train, because that’s the name you look out for. In some places, there is a rapid service, a semi-rapid service and a local service, one which stops at every station. So you also need to check that you’re on the correct type of train.

Platforms are marked out to show where the train doors will be. If you have reserved seats on car 3, you know exactly where to stand. On the Yui Rail system, there are footprints painted on the platform to show you where to stand while waiting, and which way to face. If you follow the instructions literally, you would bounce onto the train à la kangaroo.

Don’t trap your claws in the doors!

The buses like their announcements. So much so that occasionally, you hear two voices at the same time, one man, one woman. It’s like the worst possible radio breakfast show combo, except we can’t understand what either of them is saying and the lady isn’t cackling at the bloke’s hilarity. Sometimes, the battery runs down, and it sounds like a dalek is talking to you.

The best announcement was on the long bus ride to Emerald Beach. It starts out with birdsong, turns into music and then the lady tells you what the next stop will be. I tried to record this but, you know, sod’s law, after more than five minutes, she just lurched straight into her vocals without the birdsong preamble. Very disappointing.

Travelling on buses with backpacks on our backs was an experience not to be repeated if we can avoid it. On airport shuttles, it’s probably accepted, but I dread to think how many elderly Japanese ladies I’ve backpacked off a bus merely by turning round. Actually, I find it hard to wear a backpack in the first place. Some muscle in my neck really doesn’t like being stretched in that way.

At Kagoshima and Naha airports, for domestic flights, the check-in baggage is screened before you see it disappear behind the scenes. So, if there is an issue, you can discuss it with an officer at the time. You don’t see your bag disappear on the conveyor belt only to have it searched by a sweaty TSA officer who won’t repack it correctly. What a great idea. So it will never be adopted by ‘wastern’ airports.

It was good to see signs assuring us that the X-rays won’t damage camera film up to ISO 1600. Those were the days, when you had to worry about X-rays fogging up your film and messing up your photos.

Most of the country is very clean, not much litter despite the shortage of rubbish bins in many places. Sadly, on Okinawa island, we saw more litter than anywhere else. We also encountered our first lump of discarded dog shit. Very close to a children’s playground. Very sad to see, but I can live with one disgusting, antisocial dog owner every five weeks, rather than the dozens we encounter each day at home.

In Tokyo, most of the vending machines had litter bins close by. You’re supposed to consume your product straightaway and discard the packaging. Or, take it away completely. Eating and drinking while walking along is frowned upon and very rarely seen, probably just us foreigners, out of habit.

Walking along the pavements, or sidewalks, is very usually very pleasant. Smoking is prohibited while walking, and you’re unlucky if you pass too close to a designated smoking area. I remember the first discarded cigarette butt I saw at a train station a couple of weeks ago. In Tokyo, the rule was to keep left, but that’s not universal. You share pavements with cyclists and nobody’s bothered. Except when a teenage boy comes hurtling at you out of the blue – but this only happened once.

It is sad to see so many American shops here: McDonalds, Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Hard Rock Café, useful though they sometimes are, and a lot of American and European fashion shops. Which is strange, because Japanese clothing is so much more elegant than ours. Maybe it’s just the novelty. But we’ve seen very few locals who we would describe as scruffy. Liesel has more of an eye for that sort of thing than I do, but she hasn’t really mentioned scruffy dressers. Some people’s shoes are funny though. The sumo wrestler with his platforms. Actual platforms, like little wooden pallets.

She’s got diamonds on the tops of her shoes

Some behaviours that I thought were just British turn out to be more universal. Like standing around and chatting in doorways. Like getting off a moving escalator and stopping dead to decide where to go next. Like not walking in a straight line along the pavement. Girls especially do like taking pictures of each other and there are some facial expressions that have caught on here too, duck lip pouts (not sure of the technical term), V-fingers at various angles. It seems that using a mobile phone renders the user unable to walk in a straight line, even though there’s a nice wide yellow stripe on the pavement to follow. And sad to say that even here, it’s mostly little old ladies who queue for ages in a supermarket, wait for everything to be scanned, see the bill and then, and only then, start fishing in the depths of their bags for the money.

Kawaii, the idea of Japanes cuteness, is adorable. Usually. Little 3-year olds being blessed look really cute in their grown-up outfits. Grown-up ladies look fabulous in their kimonos. Some of the cartoon characters can only be described as cute with those big old Asian eyes. Pastel colours will always remind us of our childhoods. But sometimes, just sometimes, it goes too far. At one place, we had a very nice kettle. It was half white and half pastel pink. The shape was very curvy. Very cute, But the spout was wrong. A proper spout points away from the kettle so that it pours without dribbling. To give a more aerodynamic, cute shape, the spout of this kettle bent inwards towards the top. So, you had to tilt it further than normal to pour water out, and then, when you put it upright again, it dribbled. Water dribbling? That’s not really a problem in someone else’s house, you might be thinking. But this is boiling water, remember and it’s dribbling down my leg. Looks cute, but zero points for usefulness.

Airbnb places here are a bit hit and miss. They’re great for a few days but not for a longer period. Imagine a kitchen without running hot water, or without a draining board, or without a work surface, or without cooking utensils or cutlery. We’ve had all those. Imagine a toilet with a seat that wants to toast your derrière rather than just warm it up a bit. Or a small useless bathtub. We’ve had those. Places with little to no storage, no seats to sit on, no tables or shelves to put stuff on. We’ve been there. But I think everyone has had a TV set. Everyone has had an air con/heating sytem, which we’re just getting used to being able to control after several weeks, as the controls only have Japanese text on the buttons.

Hotel rooms are smaller here than anywhere else we’ve been. I think every hotel bed has had one side right against the wall. Again, very little space to spread out, no wardrobe, no worktop, no chairs.

Toilets in Japan, well, I’ve written about them before. And yes, the second-worst ever invention (after car alarms) is the little ‘lid’ they have above the toilet roll. What’s it there for? The paper is perforated so you don’t need a straight edge to tear it against. (Yes, the perforations aren’t that good sometimes, so you get most of the sheet but then a long trail of thin toilet paper is left behind.) It just gets in the way when you can’t immediately see the edge, so you have to lift the lid, roll the roll around and around until you find the edge again. All this while you’re sitting there, business complete, trying to be quiet because the door between you and the person in the next room is very thin and might even have a grill in the bottom half. And as for all those controls, bidet, front wash, back wash, harder, softer, heated seat, hotter, cooler, auto flush or not, all that technology built in to a toilet that’s squeezed into the smallest possible space. We’ve made notes on what we need should we ever remodel our bathroom now we have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

And so here we are, waiting for our flight to appear on the board so we can retrieve our luggage, check in and then look forward to an eight-hour flight, overnight. We’ll reconnect with a Fijian pocket wifi device as soon as we can.

Over and out, for now.

Anchors Aweigh

All good things come to an end. I will miss my all but daily trips to Kaladi Brothers Coffee shops. I don’t think I’ve visited all possible branches, but I’ve been to quite a few!

On the way back home on Sunday afternoon, I noticed how bald the trees are now. They were green when we arrived, yellow for a while and now devoid of all foliage.

Naked trees

Aaron, Jodi, Asa and Gideon joined us for dinner one more time. It reinforced how hard it will be to move on.

That, plus we’d chatted with Martha and William on Whatsapp (and Jenny and Liam to a lesser extent) earlier; and on this day, William’s 11th month birthday, the slippery slope to homesickness beckoned for the first time, really.

Lovely William

On our last full day in Alaska, we started packing. We’re still tryig to travel light but somehow our bags are now heavier than they used to be! I have a couple of new shirts, but I did throw away a holey, bloody pair of socks (blood from small stone burrowing into my heel).

Liesel had her final appointment with the physiotherapist who showed me the spot on Liesel’s back where I can poke and prod in an effort to ease her discomfort. (By spot, I mean the location an inch to the right of Liesel’s sacral shelf, not an actual spot, although there is a nearby freckle to help guide me.)

We visited Amy and her folks Wayne and Cathy one last time. This was another emotional parting.

After another spell of packing (here’s a tip: refolding items and rotating them doesn’t reduce their weight), we went to see the boys one last time. Amongst other things, we grown-ups discussed whether the boys should be allowed to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I don’t know, all I could remember was the song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. We also mentioned the the larger-than-life character Mr Creosote who came to grief in The Meaning of Life. Could such a person really exist?

Again, saying goodbye was hard but they, and Anchorage, will still be there, and we hope they visit us in England one day (hint, hint).

Jodi, Gideon, Aaron, Asa
Klaus and Leslie

In the evening, we joined Una, Phil and Kiran at Seoul Casa. As the name implies (does it?) this is a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant. The kimchi-rito was a very fat burrito with cabbage and tofu and very nice but again, too much for this Englsih stomach.

Seoul Casa

Another sad but fond farewell. We’re going to miss the people and places of Anchorage but, let’s be positive, we are continuing our adventure for several more months and that can only be a good thing.

We rose at sparrowfart Tuesday morning for our early flight to Seattle. I finished my packing just in time before Klaus and Leslie drove us to the airport. The final emotional goodbye but we soon forgot about that when we entered the airport.

We used a machine to check in. It knew about Liesel but not about me. So we had to go to a desk and get help. There, we were told how busy it was, the security queue was miles long and we only had ten minutes! Holy moly. Because we’d checked in at different desks, we were seated ten rows apart. I was randomly given TSA Pre-check status so I went striaght to the front of the security queue while ordinary people such as Liesel waited and waited and waited.

We made the flight ok, and we were both in the middle seat of our respective rows. The other day, we found out that airline etiquette says that if you’re in the middle seat, you have the right to use both armrests. But guess who I was sitting next to? That’s right: Mr Creosote. There was no way I could pull down the armrest between me and him!

We appreciated the entertainment provided by the Alaskan Air crew. The girl at the gate sang for us and the chief steward on the plane was very funny too, with her commentary, especially telling people to wait for the ‘ding’ before being allowed to stand up when the plane finished taxiing.

I read for the duration of the flight

We were a little late arriveing at Seattle and our next flight is delayed even further.

We checked in for our next flight on the only airline that I know of named after a John Wayne film: Hainan. There was a problem with my passport (I think) but I don’t know what it was, or why it took so long to check me in. Confusion between UK, EU and GBR? We don’t know whether our veggie meals are still on the system, so we’ve acquired some snacks, just in case.

We had a nice lunch at Floret, a vegetarian restaurant in the A Gates area. Don’t be put off by the fact that it looks like a wine bar. I had shepherds pie made with lentils, very nice, but not as nice as Jyoti’s dahl, of course.

So here we are, sleepless in Seattle waiting to board our flight to… wait for it… Beijing…

Talkeetna

Plans to get up early to exercise were thwarted. We had a bit of a lie-in instead.

Talkeetna is a small town about 80 miles north of Anchorage. If you’re planning to climb the highest mountain in north America, Denali, this is where you’ll come to prepare.

Model of Denali as seen in the Museum

Jyoti was kind enough to drive us to Talkeetna for a couple of days. She has a Mazda. Liesel and I have a Mazda at home too. But Jyoti’s is twice the size.

In fact, most cars in Alaska are twice the size of what we’re used to seeing on the roads in England. They’re small trucks, really. But at least the spaces marked in car parks reflect this, you don’t usually feel you’re going to hit the next car if you open your door too wide.

On the way to Talkeetna and on the way back, we stopped for a coffee in Wasilla, at yet another branch of Kaladi Bros. Here’s a top tip. If you visit, beware their toilet, it’s booby-trapped. Not only does the door lock not work properly, but when you flush, the lever springs up and hits your fingers. Once bitten, twice bitten.

Wasilla (to be added to the collection of missing letters)

This isn’t going to become a regular feature, don’t worry, but here is a picture of my lunch today. We stopped at the Denali Brewing Company and tasted some very tasty beer, ale and mead.

Before
After

A good friend of Jyoti’s, Diane, has a lovely log cabin in the woods a few miles outside the town and this is where we were spending the night.

Diane’s cabin in the woods

So we dropped our stuff off and then Liesel and I drove into town.

We’d had our wedding reception at the Roadhouse in Talkeetna all those years ago. We’d nailed the bottle top from our celebratory champagne to the doorframe and we were delighted to see that it’s still there.

Our bottle top from 12½ years ago

We walked around town, even though it was drizzling slightly. The potholes are something to write home about: Talkeetna’s very own little lake district.

Potholes worse than Surrey and Manchester

The museum was interesting too: again, more artefacts from the early days, especailly describing the building of the Alaska railroad.

Total Eclipse of the Sun, 1963
Probably not what it says on the tin
Making good use of local furry wildlife

We wandered down to the river, also named Talkeetna, which flows into the. Susitna. Because of all the rain recently, it was very high, hiding the beach, and flowing very fast. There are plans to dam the Susitna and of course there is a big campaign against the dam.

Talkeetna
No explination

The mountain climbing season is very short, April to June and numbers are limited to a mere 1500 a year. It must be like Piccadilly Circus up there sometimes! It would have been great to hire a small plane and fly round Denali National Park, or even to get on the train. But as subtlely hinted at elsewhere, the weather wasn’t really conducive to good seeing conditions.

We had our evening meal with Diane, her husband Jim, a pilot, and their son Luke. It was only a 5-minute walk between the cabin and their house, but we drove and probably just as well, because over there, through the trees, we caught sight of a moose with her twin calves.

Where are the mooses?

After a good night’s sleep disturbed only by the usual calls of nature, we went to Diane’s again for breakfast. During the night, in the gloom, I thought I’d seen a moose right outside the cabin. It wasn’t moving much. But in the cold light of day, I walked round and discovered it was just a fallen tree pretending to be a small moose.

Jyoti, Liesel and I went for a walk along the trails that had been prepared by Jyoti, her husband Mike and others, years ago. We were close to Z Lake, walked around X Lake and passed close to Y Lake. No, I haven’t forgotten their names: those are the names.

Unless you’re a bear

It was an undulating trail and again I was grateful to be walking it rather than failing to ski it.

We picked and ate cranberries (very tart), rosehips (pithy and seedy) and blueberries (quite sweet) on the way round, but we left the mushrooms and toadstools for someone else. The grasses were fascinating too and I know Sarah would have been interested. Not as much poop on the ground as there’d been at Hope last week.

Poisonous things and cranberries
Blueberries

The views of the lake were stunning, it was quite calm and would have been inviting were it not for the leeches that live there.

X Lake
X Lake

We were joined on our walk by a couple of other visitors to the state. Hannah is from Germany, here with her daughter Viktoria (not sure about the spellings). Viktoria is also on a gap year so Liesel gave her our details, and who knows, maybe we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.

Just a few puddles to negotiate

It was mostly dry as we hiked the trail, but it did begin to spit slightly when we drove back to a bakery/café called Flying Squirrel. We had a good lunch of soup and bread (Mick) and grilled cheese sandwich (Liesel). Diane appeared too as did our new German friends.

The drive back to Anchorage was uneventful, apart from the stop at Wasilla and the rain becoming more and more torrential. Over the Knik Bridge, it was pure white outside, we couldn’t see anything: this must be what it’s like driving through a cloud.

Not a pleasant drive back to Anchorage

Early plans to see a movie were dealt a severe blow: tickets had sold out. So while Liesel and her girlfriends went to The Beartooth for a meal, I went to the gym for a quick go on the treadmill. I decided that rather than just plodding along on it for a long period of time, I’d walk/run a mile as quickly as possible. 13 minutes, 52 seconds.

I had a look at the other medieval torture machines available for use, each designed to cause pain to different groups of muscles. The only ones I’d be interested in using are the stationary bikes, although the saddles tend to be too wide, and the rowing machines because at least I can see what I’m supposed to be doing!

I had a coffee at Kaladi while listening to the conclusion of The Scarlet Pimpernel, I browsed the books again at Title Wave, and met up with Liesel and Jyoti later.

We’re Off!

We’re off! After a couple of rather hectic and busy days in Northenden, we are now in London for the weekend. The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. And today, although not planned, we walked just short of 20,000 steps. I feel fine but Liesel’s piriformis is a PITA still.

We think we’ve done all the last minute jobs that need doing when you go away from home for a while, but I keep thinking of things. Did we turn off all the devices? Computer? TV? Internet? Yes, yes and yes. Windows all closed and locked? Yes. Gas turned off? We don’t have a gas supply so that shouldn’t be a problem, but it still crossed my mind.

When we go abroad for a break, whether short or long like this one, we ask each other, do you know where the plug adapters are? No. Of course not. They’re all together in a small basket somewhere. But we’ve moved house, and they could be anywhere in the spare room and its 99 boxes, crates and piles of stuff. Oh well, we’ll just have to buy a new one, or two.

In between overseas trips, we sometimes come across the collection of plug adapters and we wonder why we have so many. Funny, that.

Yes, we have our passports and our tooth brushes, thanks for asking. Anything else is a bonus. Each of our backpacks weighs 9.9 kg, 11 lb, which we hope will satisfy the airlines’ limits. Plus, we each have a ‘handbag’. And that’s it: we are travelling very light.

On Thursday, before serious packing ensued, we joined Jenny to watch Martha and William swimming. Both were great and very happy in the water. But trying to undress William when he’s all sweaty is not very easy. Babies aren’t supposed to have temperature control, but he was having a jolly good try! After her swim, all Martha was interested in was a snack. Fair enough. We had coffee and a snack and Martha had a babyccino with bonus, unexpected marshmallows on top. Not sure her Mum was too pleased about that!

After lunch at Jenny’s, we went home and sweltered in the sweltering heat, yearning for, craving for, almost begging for a thunderstorm.

Everything, packing, printing stuff, moving around, was hard work. No, not a lot got done.

On Friday, we drove to Jenny’s and handed over the car key plus keys to our flat. She has been volunteered to pay a visit every few weeks to check everything is hunky dory. Our car will blot the view from the children’s playroom for a while, but I think they’re too little to worry about that, for now.

Here’s today’s obligatory ‘Martha’s brilliant’ paragraph. There’s a map of the world on the wall of the playroom, carefully hand-painted by Liam. When asked where Grandad and Oma are going on holiday, she points to Alaska, says ‘America’. Where does Auntie Linda live? Also America, but she points towards New England. Auntie Helen? Australia and she knows where that is. Unfortunately, England is hidden by a decorative leaf but she knows that’s where we all live.
She noticed that the blue of Greenland (I know, weird) was the same colour as the blue key on her toy piano. ‘I will get down, show you which one blue is’, she said, a 10-word sentence. She expands on ideas too. Mummy was packing for a trip, and she asked Martha to ask Daddy for his PJs. ‘Can I have your PJs, Mummy wants to pack them’, she said.

Martha planning her own travels

William is good fun too. He’s just turned eight months, and is a wriggler. He now crawls at full speed, blink and you’ll miss him spotting the smallest scrap of paper on the floor, or making a beeline for the cables near the TV. His head is magnetically attracted to the coffee table, that’s where he chooses to do most of his rolling over and sitting up. He understands a lot, can make a lot of noise but despite my best effforts, I don’t think ‘Grandad’ will be his first proper word.

We had lunch again with them all before we left. We had no car, now, so we walked to the bus stop. But I hadn’t anticipated such an emotional parting. Suddenly, the enormity of going away and leaving this lovely family behind hit us. We’ll talk to them and even see them online of course, but not for a long time in real life.

We had a sorbet on the way home as it was still very hot out, and we caught the bus the rest of the way. Last minute jobs all ticked off. A rubbish night’s sleep with some happy but forgotten dreams preceded an early rise.

Last night was the fantastic sight of the longest duration lunar eclipse this century. Not for us in the UK though where the clouds won. I had a quick look out of the window and could see there was no point going outside for a clearer view.

Everything was turned off, unplugged, locked and bags zipped and strapped. We left. We bade farewell to our new home and set off on our adventures. What a strange feeling. It still feels like we’re on holiday living in a new place, never mind going away for an actual holiday.

We took the bus into Manchester, walked to Piccadilly Station, caught the train to London Euston. It rained en route but not for long. In London, a bus to Kings Cross and then the Piccadilly line to Northfields where we are staying in an Airbnb for a couple nights. I realised what a good idea this was: if we have forgotten something important, there’s a sporting chance of being able to go home and pick it up. Hope we don’t need to, though.

Roseanna, our host, is very nice and friendly and knows how to make her guests feel welcome.

After a rest, we got the tube back to Leicester Square: Roseanna advised us that a bus, while more pleasant, would take far too long to get there.

It was cooler now, with a nice breeze to ruffle our hair a bit: Liesel’s more than mine, of course, since she has much more. We visited some tat shops looking for a specific item of tat, ‘a souvenir of London’, so to speak. But I remember the song of that name by Procol Harum, and we don’t need that sort of souvenir!

We stopped for a coffee and a snack at what we thought was a Japanese place. Nope: it’s Turkish. An easy mistake to make. We can recommend Simit Sarayi.

English might not be their first language

We walked towards Piccadilly Circus then to Trafalgar Square. Today was the day of Ride London, when a lot of otherwise busy roads are closed to motorised vehicles so that cyclists can have a go. And what a pleasant sight that is: we were slightly envious when we saw lots of families riding by St Martin’s in the Field.

We wandered through Charing Cross station where they were playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, for some reason. Then over the Millennium Bridge. ‘Bob Marley’ was singing one of my favourite songs, No Woman, No Cry. And, for the first time ever, after giving a busker some cash, I received a fist bump. Rasta.

On the South Bank, we decided not to walk on the beach.

The tide is high

Liesel called her Mom while I had a wander and tracked down an apple. Yes, still got to have an apple a day.

David in the Southbank skateboard park

We then walked along as far as and up onto Blackfriars Bridge where we waited for a bus. Not a sign. I looked at the app on my phone and it said there wouldn’t be one for at least half an hour. So we walked on, towards Kings Cross. A young Chinese girl had been waiting for the bus too, so we told her there wouldn’t be one for a while. We saw her several times on the way, also walking towards Kings Cross, or thereabouts.

There is a newly opened branch of Mildred’s and we were lucky enough to get a table straightaway. The original branch in Soho, where we’ve been a few times, is always packed and busy. And so was this new one. The food, all vegetarian and often vegan is terrific. We came away sated. Another recommendation for visitors to London.

Sitting next to us was a girl in a yellow skirt and her friend. She could talk the hind legs off a donkey and chose to do so, very loudly. Even the couple sitting on our other side kept giving her looks. No idea what she was blabbing on about, really, something about work, I think, but she didn’t waste a lot of time and energy breathing in. As they were getting ready to leave, I looked at Yellow Skirt’s friend. She had aged about thirty years in that time and looked bored stiff. Maybe it was her mother all along. It was noticeably quieter in the restaurant after they’d left.

A short walk to Kings Cross again, Piccadilly line again, back to our accommodation. The lighting in our room isn’t that bright but I can just see the keys on the keyboard. Liesel’s reading, listening to some music and nodding off.

Night night, Sooty, night night. No idea where that came from.

Water Sports

Early Thursday morning, I drove Liesel to the railway station. Gatley is the closest, but Stockport made more sense. From Gatley, to go to London Euston, you’d have to change at Manchester Piccadilly or Crewe. It’s a 2-hour trip from Stockport. The train was packed, and Liesel had the pleasure of standing up in the train manager’s special little compartment. She was standing and chatting with a barrister, both really needed a seat for medical reasons. The train manager gave them permission to go and sit in First Class. Which was great, but the air conditioning was on full blast. But it would have been churlish to complain about that, so they did the British thing, whinged to each other, assumed stiff upper lips and enjoyed siting down, at least!

Meanwhile, I was having more fun, taking the first car-load of rubbish to the local tip. Lots of our packaging material that can’t really be reused, although the hundreds of emptied cardboard boxes are up for grabs.

The long process of informing businesses of our new address continues. Thames Water have sent their final bill from our old house. Great. But somehow, we have acquired two different account numbers with United Utilities, our new water supplier. This is the company that didn’t even know it had installed a new water meter here, so that I wondered whether I’d just read the wrong one! Fun and games with water companies!

Our solicitor sent another form for me to sign. He sent it by email, a PDF attachment. I was to print it out, sign it and post it back. So I had to set up my computer and the printer. But before that, I had to build the desk for the PC, the shelf unit for the printer and find all the other bits and pieces and cables. Here’s a tip: make sure all the tools and the nuts and bolts and screws for furniture are easy to find!

And we have no internet yet either, so it was with a great sense of relief that I was able to copy the PDF file to the computer via a USB cable. Not sure I could have done that with the old iPhone: top marks, nice, new Samsung Galaxy!

Form printed and signed. Now, where are the envelopes and the stamps?

In the local newsagent and the local Post Office of course. This was my cue (and excuse) to go for a walk in the local neighbourhood. Errands complete, I continued along Palantine Road to the bridge over the river Mersey. Yes, that river Mersey, the famous one. I followed it for a while and took the first interesting photo in this neck of the woods.

Mersey at Northenden

I suspect, in the fullness of time, when we’re more settled, we’ll be walking and cycling along the towpath a lot.

On Friday, I waited in for the Futon to be delivered. I was told it weighed 250kg and my first thought was, I hope it doesn’t fall through the floor.

I knew I’d never carry it upstairs on my own, and I suspect Liesel and I would have struggled together. So I went onto Grindr and looked for two, strong, strapping young men to come round and (help me!) carry the Futon up two flights of stairs. No, not Grindr. Google. I Googled a local removal company in the hope that they would help out at short notice. And I found one.

The delivery guy left our furniture on a pallet outside at the back of the flats. He wasn’t allowed to enter the premises for cock and bull ‘not insured’ reasons. So thanks to Dave and his mate who came by and did the heavy lifting for me.

And just in time too. I had to collect Liesel from the station after her very short return visit to Chessington.

She’d met up with our friend Sarah, up from Exeter, at Waterloo Station. Then in the evening, she went to the WI Book Group meeting, and they were kind enough to give her a £45 book token for Waterstones. This, plus the M&S vouchers she was given by the WI group as a whole is a sign of real affection and gratitude. Much more generous than Liesel’s former employers: she’s well out of that company.

It took Liesel and me about an hour to construct the Futon and it is really comfortable. Much nicer than the sofa we’d left behind 😉

We went round to Jenny’s for fish and chips (cheese and onion pie for me). Poor Martha was heart-broken when Mummy and Daddy ‘went out to the shops’. I remember when Jenny was inconsolable whenever her Mum went out too. I know it’s just a phase, but it’s horrible to watch, because there’s nothing really you can do. Except, on this occasion, they took Martha with them and she fell asleep in the car.

Today, Saturday, though, we went round to look after the children again. And again, Mummy and Daddy went out but this time, they couldn’t take Martha. It was lunchtime, and all we could do was try and distract her with Peppa Pig and encourage her to eat her lunch.

Which she did. Hollow legs has Martha: two Babybels, yellow pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, bread, crisps, cake, water melon, ice cream with a Flake. She was, by now a really happy bunny!

Martha

William’s a wonderfully laid-back little guy. He’s really happy playing by himself but he likes company too. Liesel had her first really dirty nappy changing experience with him! He is so close to crawling, but he just can’t quite get pushing his little legs. He can push himself backwards, rotate on his belly, roll over onto his back and onto his front. But not move forwards, yet!

And fidget. Boy, does he fidget. Always moving, arms twitching, legs kicking. I can hear my old teachers saying to him in the future, “Sit still, William”, “Stop fidgeting, William”, “Have you got ants in your pants, William?”

William

It’s been a joy to spend time with both of them after being so caught up in our own little house-move for so long. In the garden Martha had a great time in her paddling pool. Even William had a bit of a paddle. Fun and games with water!

In the pool

After a while, I realised he was in need of a kip, so I carried him back inside and he very quickly fell asleep.

But all good things come to an end. And when Jenny and Liam came home this afternoon, Liesel and I went to a little bit of Sweden while their football team played England in the World Cup quarter finals. Yes, we bought some more furniture and other bits and pieces from Ikea. More heavy stuff to lug upstairs, but we manged this time. Here’s a tip: it’s OK to unpack Ikea furniture at the bottom of the stairs and carry it up piece by piece!

Never mind the World Cup, though, the Tour de France started today. Unusually, today’s first stage was a proper road race in which most of the main contenders fell off, broke wheeels or got held up by other crashes.

M minus 4 days

This week has been the hottest of the year so far. In some places, even hotter than the long, hot Summer of 1976. That was the year they had to appoint a Minister for the Drought.

So hot, in fact, that all we want to do is sit still, enjoy some cold drinks and relax. Instead, we’ve both been working really hard to finish off the packing.

I spent about 5 hours this morning dismantling the tandem and packing it up into its two Samsonite cases. This should only take about 20 minutes, according to the DVD. The first thing that happened when I walked into the garage brought back happy memories of when I worked. I got a faceful of newly spun spiders’ web. Yuck. I can’t say I miss that feeling, nor the taste and I didn’t need to see the size of the tarantula that escaped. It was huge. And no, it didn’t offer to help with the tandem.

Meanwhile, Liesel was upstairs cleaning every available surface, and there are a lot of surfaces available when the things that used to live there have been packed. And there are a lot of things that sit around for years causing little to no trouble, until you want to take them to a new place. One day, I’ll let you know how many boxes we have, but there are literally too many to count accurately now. Dozens. Scores, even.

Sadly, we’ve packed the tools so a couple of last minute fixes won’t get done. The middle hook on the back of the bathroom door broke years ago and it’s still there. Not the useful part, the hook, just the backing plate.

There are lots of challenges that you don’t think about until it comes to the crunch. What should be take with us in the car so that we have it straightaway? Valuables? My PC? Important paperwork? Decisions, decisions!

What can we leave until the last minute? Bedding? TV, DVD player, Freeview box and all the associated cables? Breakfast stuff?

Yes, apart from all the physically hard work of moving stuff around, putting it into boxes, then moving the boxes around, it’s been quite a challenge knowing what to do next. So many lists have been compiled:

  • Things to do
  • What to take with us in the car
  • Businesses that need to know our new address
  • Things to do in the new place before we go travelling!

Liesel has been a trouper, despite her aches and pains. We’ve both used muscles we forgot we had. Here’s a tip: buy shares in Ibuprofen.

It was strange on Summer Solstice day: we brought everything down from the loft and Liesel was re-packing all the Christmas decorations. One day, well, one Christmas, we’ll get a nice big tree and show them off. Not this year though: we’ll be somewhere exotic. The travel plans keep changing. But we can’t concentrate on that until we have settled in our new place.

It’s been too busy for me to be too emotionally distracted. I’ve lived here for 33 years, lots of happy memories and some sad ones. It is definitely Liesel’s house now though, rather than Sarah’s. I think it’s fair to say that because we’ve been thinking about moving on from here for so long, I’ve been ‘grieving’ for this old house for a while, so it won’t be such a shock on the day we close the door for the last time. 33 years in one place: more than half of that time without Sarah, which just doesn’t seem right.

Facebook Marketplace should be a great place to give things away. But I’ve had responses from Bulgaria, USA and Switzerland. They’re not seriously going to come to Chessington just to pick up a free item of furniture. The way it usually worls is:

I put an item up on Facebook Marketplace with a price of £0, ie Free.

Within a minute someone asks: Is it available?

Within another minute, I respond: Yes, can you collect from Chessington today or tomorrow.

Then I sit back and watch the tumbleweed drift by. Never hear from them again.

But now and then, maybe one time in ten, someone follows through and does turn up to take the item away. And as I sit here in front of a fan (that somehow escaped being packed in a box) in the living, surrounded by nn boxes, three people have expressed interest in my old office desk but none of them have committed to coming over to take it away. The good news is, this is the last item of furniture that we need to dispose of. John, the rubbish man, is coming over tomorrow to take away the old washing machine and some other bits and pieces and if he ends up taking away the desk too, that would be a shame, but we can’t take it with us.

Yes, the old washing machine. The one that Sarah bought soon after she started work again once Helen started school. It’s done well, 26 years hard labour, but it leaks a bit and the on/off switch is broken. The kickboard hiding the thing that you unscrew when there’s a blockage has been kicked off. And it’s very slow by modern standards. We can’t responsibly pass it on to someone else, but everyone has their price…

I had a dream last night in which a nice looking iced bun the size of a loaf of bread had packing paper screwed up inside. In fact, apart from the icing, it was all paper. Such a disappointment. But I haven’t had a work-related dream for a while. The one in which, along with everyone else, I am being asked to perform a task so ridiculous, so time-wasting, so pointless, that we just know we won’t have time to complete the day’s delivery. But then, within the dream, I suddenly remember I’ve retired, I don’t even have to be here any more… and I wake up with a great sense of relief and a big smile on my face.

Liesel designed a beautiful card that we will send out once we’ve moved and we know with 100% certainty that nothing will go wrong with this whole project!

While I’ve been blogging, Liesel’s been writing the envelopes for the cards. It’s preferable to her other option: CPD. Continued Professional Development would entail sitting down with a hot laptop on her lap, and today’s weather is not conducive to such an enterprise. The smell of macaroni cheese is drifting through the door: a hot meal for a hot day, Liesel is to be praised for slaving over a hot stove. No wonder she doesn’t want to get up close and personal with a laptop as well!