“Buddy can you spare a dime?”

Fund raising is very much part of our lives right now. Et is going on a Scouts Jamboree in January, This is a BIG DEAL in the life of a scout because it only happens every three years which means few scouts get to attend more than one.

tentsIt involves a gathering of most of the Scouts in the country in one massive tent village. For ten days they get together a do Scout things – splash though mud, build rafts, swim, ride horses, sing songs around the camp fire and generally have equal amounts of fun and dirty washing.

Because it is far away and lasts a long time it costs a lot of money. So everyone gets together and does fundraising.  Now this is a complete industry in NZ and it is fascinating to observe. The society is geared towards charity and there are some products reserved for charity and fund raising.

mud

For example, the Girl Guides (like they do all over the world) sell cookies. But unlike the home-made, tasteless substances one usually has to ingest with a forced smile, these are baked by a large commercial concern and are like vanilla versions of Oreos. They are branded for the GGs and cannot be bought anywhere else. They are sought-after.

Then there are the chocolates. Cadbury’s has a special deal for anyone raising funds: you buy a box of 30 chocolates and the selling price is set at $2.50. So you get $75 per box for which you paid $14 so there’s $61 to be raised per box. Most often you’ll find these boxes in tea rooms at work with a note such as “XYZ Secondary School’s hockey trip to ABC” and then people take one and leave their money in the box. Cadbury’s moves mountains of chocolates in this way and people feel good about buying them: and they are the regular things you would normally get in the shops like Caramello, Top Deck, etc. Oreos (Nabisco) has a similar deal.

Then there is the profitable pastime of “The Sausage Sizzle”. Now South Africans would consider this to be quite sad. This is the Kiwi equivalent of selling boerewors rolls. Except that the sausages are pre-cooked, contain a blend of pork, beef, lamb and chicken, are virtually tasteless, are served on a slice of regular white bread folded over and the most exciting ingredient is grilled onions. For this people pay $2 (R15.40). Few people actually crave the taste, mostly they do it to support the charity. In fact some people just make a donation and (incomprehensibly) restrain themselves from having the sausage.

mitre101Yesterday we had our second Sausage Sizzle of the year. This one took place outside a Mitre-10 (like Builder’s Warehouse). They provide a little wooden shed which they place near the entrance to the shop. Inside is a gas barbecue and a full gas bottle. Everything else is provided by the charity. There is a $50 deposit to be paid and at the end of the day once you have cleaned everything and refilled the gas bottle, the store manager does an inspection and you get your deposit back less the cost of the gas. Simple. A forklift removes the little kiosk and parks it inside the warehouse till the next day or weekend. Every weekend of the year is booked up way in advance.

mitre102But the big hardware stores do more: all their stock taking is farmed out to charities. They pay minimum wage $13.5 (R104) per hour and you can earn quite a lot if a whole troop of scouts works for 5 hours. There is ample supervision and the parents are involved in counting and feeding the hungry mouths.

The cricket and rugby unions also subcontract all the cleaning of the stadiums after a big match to the charities – same deal, minimum wage and you get allocated a section to clean. The Kiwis are very clean anyway so there is little to pick up, but still, it is good money.

scrapOne of the biggest problems here is getting rid of stuff. Other than domestic waste and recycling it costs a lot of money to get rid of anything large and non biodegradable. So refuse collecting is another big fundraising opportunity. They have “metal drives” in which people get rid of bulky, obsolete metal things. The scouts collect the metal and sell it to scrap merchants. We got rid of an old fridge and metal shoe racks. It would have cost us a fortune to dispose of conventionally. The Scouts made $950 (R7,315) from a single day’s metal collecting.

Then there was the dinner I spoke about on Facebook about a week ago. In each case the people who participate earn points and the money that is collected is allocated according to the number of points you have earned. So for all the sausage sizzles, the metal collecting, the sponsored walks (still coming), book sale (still to come) the car washing, etc the Naudes have earned about $450 towards the trip – so we’re about a third of the way there.

Views to die for

We got the strangest notice the other day from the city council. Auckland has a city skyline which is dominated by the sky tower – big tourist attraction. But for those in the city looking out the trade-mark view is of the volcanic island just off the coast called Rangitoto (see previous blog). You can see this volcanic cone from just about anywhere in the city which is nice. rangitoto

What I did not know is that these view are not accidental. I guess the people out there who know about town planning may have heard of view shafts, but it was new to me. The letter from the council explained that our house was part of a view shaft and as a result there was a building limit of nine metres (!) which we could not exceed. Don’t know of many houses around which are taller than 9m but I think we’re OK on that score. view shafts

The Council explains that views of Rangitoto are part of the character of the city and there are key points throughout the area from which people expect to be able to see the island. View shafts are “protected” views in which nothing may be built which can obscure this view – even trees can be removed if they do. Remember all trees taller than 3m are protected by law and to cut one down requires lots of red tape and costs.

These view shafts are a great idea, I think. Here’s a view shaft map of the Auckland CBD and the one specifically for our peninsula. This also explains why there are not many high rises on the water front. view shaft 2

Meanwhile, on the job front…

Some of you may have heard through various grapevines that Pearson is withdrawing from the New Zealand market, pulling it publishing back to Australia and leaving the sales and marketing aspects with a local agent (who, until a few weeks ago, was my boss). This means that I will be made redundant at the end of August.

exitPearson is the last of the big educational publishers to move out and in the same time as we made the announcement two trade publishers (HarperCollins and Hachette Livre) announced they were doing the same thing leading to speculation about the future of the industry here.

The motives for each of these moves may be different, but they are all fuelled by a shift in consumer behaviour when it comes to buying and reading books and the relative size of the NZ market. With only 4.5 million people – even though they are avid readers – the market cannot compete with larger regions. The turnover our company made in a year is made by our China business in just a few days. Even though our profit was superb, our growth simply cannot be compared to the developing giants: China, Brazil, South Africa, India. Pearson is withdrawing from more than 100 markets of similar a size and with similar prospects as New Zealand.

In typical Pearson fashion they have done the descent thing and have contracted a group of career consultants to work with the staff to help prepare them for the job market and to advise them on things like CVs, interviews etc. It is always sad to see talent being haemorrhaged by corporates, but it is quite an interesting ecosystem and I am sure I will see some of my colleagues again in different business circumstances. 

It is a time of uncertainty for us and of tightening belts, but I am at this stage confident of getting something new. There are four prospective jobs in the pipeline and I am on the hunt daily. Three of the four jobs are based in Australia. Watch this space for more information. I might have to do many more sausage sizzles …

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Fever Pitch

Sam Whitelock, the man with six legs.

Tomorrow night the All Blacks play the Springboks at Eden Park. EP is to NZ what fortress Loftus is to the Bulls. The ABs have won their previous 30 encounters at EP and the last time the Springboks won there was before the Second World War. But despite the odds most New Zealanders look forward to the test and all agree that the Springboks are the only side in World rugby today that the ABs really fear.

Hakuna Ma-Haka

These two rivals have equal amounts of determination and respect – which accounts for the sell-out stadium and the AB fever which has gripped Auckland. For most people a match such as this involves some form of festivity. Rugby matches at this level (and for Super 15) are always played at night, usually at 19:35 local time. So we will be gathering with some other expats and each will decide who to support and what to wear. There is no animosity either way. Etienne is a rabid Springbok supporter, as is Jules. Karen is not always sure who is playing whom. I am truly on the fence and want to see a good, hard game. I’ll be dressed in grey.

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Vat hom fluffie

But rugby, albeit the most popular religion in New Zealand, is not the only sport grabbing headlines. Few South Africans will be aware of the tension building up in San Francisco bay where the 34th Americas Cup is being contested between New Zealand and the USA.

Yachting is not high on the SA sporting agenda but here it is very high – for several reasons. It is the premier yachting event in the world. The format is unusual (to the untrained eye – like mine). There is a pre-amble called the Louis Vuitton Cup during which various nations battle it out to decide the ultimate winner. The winner actually wins the right to challenge the USA in the Americas Cup. I thought it was many nations over a long distance, but in fact it is always only two and the course is relatively short in nautical terms – a race is completed in about 20 minutes!

The trick is that there are many such short races all around the same course usually just off shore of a big city. The Cup is decided in a tournament of 17 races – so the first to gain 9 victories wins. And they win not only the coveted trophy but also the right to host the next event – in four years time. This year the Kiwis have been spectacular and currently lead the Americans 6 to -1. Yup the yanks started on -2 because they were penalised for cheating. But the deficit cannot just be blamed only on the loss of two crew members (another penalty) it is really about tactics and boat design. Many millions of dollars goes into these yachts and they resemble a Formula 1 racing car in many respects. There is usually very little contact with the water and the speeds are around 100km/h – which is fast for a yacht. So it looks highly likely that Team New Zealand will win and that Auckland will host the cup in 2017 which is estimated to pump $500 million into the city’s economy, something which it really needs. More cause for celebration.

Sailing is part of the Kiwi way of life. Kids start very young and the environment lends itself to water sports. Auckland is not called the City of Sails for nothing – there are MANY yachts around here. Not large fancy ones as in Monaco, but real sailing ones. Kids spend many weekends getting coached on yachts and this accounts for the country’s unusual record in the Cup. We also won it in 2000 – the winning yacht is mounted outside the Maritime Museum at the waterfront.

A bridge too far

The reason Auckland needs the money is because there are ambitious plans to improve public transport. By SA standards the transport is brilliant but by international standards it leaves much to be desired. There are legacy issues, like five privately-owned bus companies competing in various parts of the city, making a single ticketing system a problem. Then there is the link between the city and the North Shore currently serviced by the Auckland harbour bridge which has already been extended to double its capacity. The new plans will see rail and commuter tunnels go under the sea to alleviate congestion.

One view of Len …

All these plans are the mastermind of Auckland’s Mayor – Len Brown. The other activity reaching fever pitch is the local council and mayoral election. Len is the first mayor of a newly unified Auckland which, until 2010, consisted of five separate councils (hence the five bus services). He is fighting for survival based on a number of development plans and promises and chances are he will be re-elected. He is usually to be seen walking up the main street sipping a coffee.

… and another…

It also means there are local elections. So each town/borough/group of suburbs has a town council which determines how money is spent locally (parks, sports fields, libraries, community centres etc.) Then each of these councils has at least one representative on the main Auckland council. I have already written about our local guy Dick Quax. Again, on the weekend when nominations took place, Dick and all the other contenders were on the street talking to people.

The local MP (Jami-Lee Ross) was there too and after the outing, as the town quietened down on the Saturday afternoon, we were in the parking lot of a shopping centre when the local MP and his choice candidate walked back to their cars to go home. No cavalcade, no body guards, just two regular people. The MP got into a 2004 Nissan Micra and drove off. Not even a single blue light – not even a Merc!

Jamie

Jami-Lee Ross also has a sense of humour as the billboard above his offices on Red Nose Day testify.

The municipal elections illustrate why we think NZ is great and why some people think it is a backwater. The ballots are posted to each registered voter. You then have about a week to complete the ballot and post it back. No finger prints and no long queues. Quaint!

But it does not mean that the election is taken lightly – the council uses the opportunity to train the next generation in the skill of being a discerning voter.

It turns out that our man Dick and his running mate were unopposed so they will automatically be in the council for another three years!  As the poster says (and to the delight of a 13-year old mind) Dick stands up for Howick!

dickKiwiSaver is one way the government is encouraging young Kiwis to save for their retirement, knowing that in a few years the longevity of the population will outstrip its ability to pay pensions. In typical nanny-state fashion it uses subsidies to encourage saving. If you do nothing more than open a KiwiSaver account (no deposit necessary, just open an account) the government gives you $1,000 (R8,000) in the account. So we opened accounts the moment we set foot in the country. In addition the government contributes an additional 50% of anything you put into the account, up to about R4,000 per year. A 50% subsidy is just unheard of. Needless to say we have all been contributing as has our employers (by law) and the government has been giving its share too. After two years the four of us have accumulated nearly ZAR200,000. It cannot be touched until the account holder turns 65 so it is a real pension, but there are loopholes for people who are buying their first home and when there is real financial hardship.

As you probably know the company I worked for, Pearson, has closed its New Zealand office and is using a local agent to conduct its business. It means that as from 1 September I am unemployed and looking for jobs. Although I got a good pay-out and a bonus (plus I sold all my Pearson shares) it still means we are being very careful until we have two salaries coming in again. IT does mean I have more time on my hands – to write blogs and to walk the dog. The DOG?!

spud 2

Yup we have a dog called Spud – and the reason isn’t very hard to see: like all decent dogs in Auckland he has been desexed. He is also very friendly and we believe is predominantly a Staffie with an indeterminate cross. A South African couple gave him up for adoption after 9 months because they were finding it difficult to secure rental accommodation with a dog and three small children. All is going well, for now. I am at home a lot and can give him the attention and exercise he needs. He gets on very well with the kids and is well socialised.

Council license fees cost around R670 per dog per year which is why there are no strays. This fee can be reduced down to R440 if you submit to a premises inspection, prove that your dog has been neutered and if the dog does not attract any citations (for disturbance or for straying).

spud 1

Most dogs cost a fortune here (not only in upkeep but just to purchase). A popular mongrel here is a Poodle/Labrador known as a Labradoodle. They are friendly and love water but shed very little hair in the house.

A mongrel such as this with a good temperament will cost around R7,500 – no kidding, and people are prepared to pay that price. Spud was “free to a good home”. Every time he steals food or crushes a flower Karen stares him in the eyes and says in a threatening tone “S P C A” – which he seems to understand. Other than getting us out of bed very early in the morning his prime function is to burn Etienne’s calories – which he does with great affection.

Some snippets:

Karen spotted this little article in the local rag. Where else do you get croquet at secondary school!?

croquet

I recently had a pair of trousers dry cleaned – don’t you love the name?

starch

And here’s an interesting comparison about house prices in Auckland. They are just shooting through the roof and we are very lucky to have bought one, small as it is. To understand the relative values multiply a Kiwi Dollar by eight to get ZARs (current exchange rate). We live in the Eastern Beaches.

houses

We have also discovered a shop that we really like – called the Bin Inn. It sells everything in large containers – you bring your own smaller containers and decant. No more plastic waste. They have everything from organic potato flour to dish-washing liquid. Such a modern idea? No, they have been around for decades, in fact so long that they have gone out of fashion and back in again. This is the first branch in Auckland for many years, but there are apparently 24 branches across the country.

bin2

And I’ll leave you with something that came through recently about church billboards – warnings apply.

http://www.listener.co.nz/commentary/the-internaut/church-billboards-10-of-the-funniest/

 

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These foots are made for walking

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As I am sure none of you know, today is the Queen’s birthday – actually not. Her real birthday is around April but each of the loyal colonies celebrates the day on a convenient day with a public holiday – Long live the Queen!

So today we decided to climb a mountain – actually not. It is a high hill – actually not, it is a volcanic island with a cone: Rangitoto. This island dominates the the Auckland seascape and is as much the emblem of the city as Table Mountain is of the “Visdorpie”.

For us getting to the top of Rangitoto involves taking two ferries (one into town and another to the island). Despite the public holiday we were up at 6:45 and on the ferry by 8:30. Mark Sainsbury joined us. The ferry journey is very short and by 9:45 we were tramping (that’s what they call hiking here) up the hill. 

Rangitoto is New Zealand’s most recent volcano. It started erupting in about 1200 and finished about 1400 – each eruption spewing out another layer of lava. The island is remarkably symmetrical and looks exactly the same from any vantage point in Auckland. From a distance is looks black whereas all the neighbouring islands look verdant and inviting. Rangitoto looks stark and ominous, so when we decided to climb it I pictured miles of sun burnt rock with not a spot of vegetation. There are indeed massive fields of scoria which are barren except for patches of lichen and moss. But there are also beautiful and well-established forests, especially near the summit. The walk is fairly gentle to begin with but near the summit the going gets tougher. We spent just half an hour on the summit before we split up and I walked back down to the ferry to see off Jules who had to go back home to attend a choir practice.

A view of Auckland from Rangitoto.

As an aside, Karen and I mumbled about how amazing it is to put one’s daughter on a series of ferries, unaccompanied (and she would need to walk about 3 kms from the terminal to our house) and she would need to spend about two hours alone in the centre of the city between ferries, and not worrying about whether she will make it home in one piece. 

While I was rushing down the mountain the other three were browsing around lava caves (which form when the crust of lava solidifies but the lava under the surface is still liquid and flows away).

Islington Bay – between Rangitoto and Motutapu islands.

Then there was the hike to meet up with the other three and that took place in a most beautiful place called Islington Bay Wharf – a tranquil little bay between the islands of Rangitoto and Motutapu. I absorbed the beauty of the place for about 20 minutes while waiting for the others and thought that all this visual simplicity and soul stirring beauty is adding days to my lifespan. It is just so peaceful and centring to look at scenes like this. 

But the tranquillity evaporated with the sound of four galloping feet belonging to Mark and Etienne. We briefly crossed over to Motutapu and then turned for home to catch the last ferry off the island. Having walked 18kms we were exhausted and happy to be off our feet.

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But, just like Jules, we had a long wait between ferries so Mark gallantly led us up Queen Street (how appropriate) to an alley where we found the Belgian Beer Café. I thought I was dead and in heaven. There is nothing better after a long day’s walking than a tankard of Belgian Wit bier (wheat bear) with its spicy, aromatic flavours. We had time on our hands so we had some supper too which was equally brilliant: spicy meatballs, Caesar salad, pomme frites, and a burger for Et. We still had time so I allowed Mark to force down a dark, Belgian beer before we headed for the ferry, then home for one of the most enjoyable hot showers in memory – and I am sure my entire family was as relieved as me. 

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A very memorable day and I am pleased we ticked that one off the list. We need to go back in summer to spend a night or two in some of the Baches which can be found on the eastern shores. 

 

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A life in ticket stubs

Lots has happened since the last episode. We have moved in. This means we are no longer outside. It does not mean we are unpacked – that may never happen. But we are settled. We have unpacked as much as will fit into the house and stored the rest in the garage. It is no longer a garage.

We have sold quite a lot of surplus goods on TradeMe where most Kiwis do their trading. It is like eBay for locals and very popular. An honour system dives the whole site. We have made about as much money as we paid for the goods – which is better than having to pay for disposal.

While we are slowly settling in we are also enjoying life as can be seen from our various ticket stubs.

trevor

Yup Clever Trevor made it all the way down here and the show was an instant sell-out. In fact he had to put on a second show on the same night. As the doorman mumbled to me as we filed in “Brown’s Bay must be deserted tonight” because every Saffer in town was in the audience. I am not sure Trevor understood that there were only about 5% Kiwis present – he kept trying to explain things that everyone knew. But we all laughed until we cried. Etienne is still doing renditions of the Zambian escalator sketch, and we keep calling each other “Profanity” – you had to be there. Catch him on YouTube.

stormers

Then Rob Tilney and I decided to see Bryan Habana‘s final appearance in NZ at the North Harbour Stadium – just a few minutes from where I work. What a terrible game. it had rained earlier in the day and the field was wet. Both teams played an aerial game and there were a huge number of handling errors because of a slippery ball and poor concentration.

The Stormers supporters were there in force – probably the same crowd who went to see Trevor. They even imported their own praise singers in the form of a Kaapse Klopse troop – it confused the hell out of the locals. Here’s a clip I took of them – pity WordPress won’t allow it to be embedded without payment. The stadium does not lend itself to great atmosphere and despite the fact that the game was decided in the last seconds by a failed drop kick and that the final score was 19-18 to the Blues there was really very little tension and nothing much to watch.

butterflyNothing like variety, so after Trevor and Bryan we went to see Giacomo. The NZ Opera have a great scheme where they sell tickets to their final dress rehearsal exclusively to schools. Instead of $70 (R525) for the cheapest ticket, they go for $10 (R75). Groups of 10 kids get accompanied by a parent or teacher. The theatre was packed to capacity and 16 of Jules’s friends paid to come along. It was an absolutely magnificent production. The singing was great and the staging was so innovative and enthralling that the kids (some quite young) sat through all three Acts without a sound. Even though the action does slow down at times and there is a lot of waiting, the director kept people spell-bound with lighting and set effects.

I think it was quite significant that the tenor who sang Pinkerton was booed by the audience, not because of his singing (which was good) but because the kids despised the behaviour of his character. It reminded me a little of the audience reaction during one of Janice Honeyman’s pantomimes. What was really surprising was that in some of the real performances that followed he was booed by adults! This from a nation that would never be that impolite in public. An indication of good acting from the tenor (Piero Pretti) and I would not be surprised if the Prime Minister phones him to apologise for the reaction of the nation.

paul simon

OK – we missed this one but the MAN was here. I thought I would just throw in the advert to make certain people jealous. One of the people working for me actually just wanted to see Rufus Wainwright – didn’t much care for the second half of the programme…

And then there was Sixto. On the first leg of his Australasian tour Rodriquez popped into Auckland for a one-only show. Again the audience was mostly South African. Unlike the myth created by the documentary he was actually known in NZ and Aus to the extent that he toured here in the early 80s. The doccie seems to suggest that outside of SA he was a complete nonentity.

I guess most people have seen him on stage by now – and although I enjoyed the music I was quite astonished by his lack of stage personality and his frailty. He had to be led on and off stage by two helpers. He was about 20 minutes late and then shuffled on like a very old man. He stood dead still and sang – not moving about at all. His eyesight seems to be very bad – a band member had to whisper the next song into his ear. He cracked two jokes and for the rest it was just song after song. Obviously a deep introvert who has been thrust into the limelight – literally. The audience was very appreciative and got him to do an encore which was another excruciating logistical feat. Karen kept marvelling at his arms – they are huge because of his manual labour.

While on the topic of music I am extremely proud of Jules who has again been selected to take part on the school musical production – this year it is Les Miserables. And not just any old part mind you – a prostitute, a MAIN prostitute. I think it is wonderful the way schools try to multi-skill their pupils. Skills for living.

Not the local production – just a shot off the web.

Needless to say we have been teasing her incessantly. We have even devised a new nickname for her (actually it was Mark). We were discussing gardening and I mentioned that really needed to get into the weeds with a “skoffel” – which is her new nickname because everyone knows the English inequivalent is “hoe” or “ho”…

In between all this music we had a chance to take a breath and head over the bridge to Devonport. It is a Victorian suburb with a Nouveau-style cinema (we watched Great Expecations – an outstanding new production with a stellar cast including Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham and Hagrid as Jaggers). It also has a very interesting array of small shops – antiques, bookshops, weird stuff, bakeries, coffee shops and peculiar little alleys.

IMG_0374The main street had knitted lamp-posts. No, I am sober – look at the pictures. Each lamp post had a different pattern or theme and the intricacies of the handicraft was fascinating. Devonport also has a famous ferry terminal which runs a very short leg to the CBD. We ended the day with a short drive up Mount Victoria (another volcano) which rises up above Devonport and affords great views of the city – especially when there are Turner clouds overhead.

IMG_0378We were amused by the fact that one alley housed the Anglican Community Shop as well as Cauldron Craft (a pseudo wicked shop selling hocus pocus artefacts). Must make for very interesting conversations at the Java House Café. We discovered a coffee importer and wholesaler, a factory shop that specialised in clothes for skateboarders, we had lunch at the StoneOven Cafe and enjoyed many other earthly delights. Our favourite ice-cream shop was closed for the winter.

IMG_0424The most recent event was Skoffel’s School Ball (read Matric Dance) even though she is only in Standard 9 / Grade 11 / Year 12. She looked stunning – even if I say so myself – with a figure that would make most teens weep and a hairdo that was reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. She carried herself very well and looked positively regal. I guess we may need to reconsider that nickname. Naaah.IMG_0420IMG_0414

So that’s enough for now. I leave you with a snap and a clip from my drive home yesterday.  

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The weather here has been very South African – long dry autumn with sunny days and mild temperatures. Here it is called a drought. It has had a serious impact on the agricultural sector and we are expecting brilliant wines this year. The price of lamb has plummeted as farmers slaughter because there is little fodder. A leg of lamb costs $7.99 (R60) which is cheaper than chicken. Anyway the rain has come eventually but we still have spectacular sunsets every now and again. Here’s another clip I took from the car. Small mercies.

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Hattaway Cottage or not

We have FINALLY bought a house. After two years of hunting I feel like a rodent who has given birth to an ostrich. We have spent MANY weekends looking through at least 756,870,324 houses, studying floor plans, learning about the way property works here in NZ and attending many auctions to understand the process. We have neglected the kids or dragged them along.

Etienne likes houses with dark, thick carpets where there is room for a snooker table in the garage – sweet dreams. Jules likes houses with a garden big enough for a dog. In the end we were down to three properties, two were great investments but only the third was a great place to stay (and not such a brilliant investment) – and that’s the one we got. Light carpets and unless the dog can fit under your bra strap it ain’t gonna be a happy pet in this garden. But both kids just love it.

So we will be living 700m down the road. Same neighbourhood, same schools, same friends for the kids. Karen’s “must have” list just flew out the window: “ocean view” – add R750k; “forest view” – add R500k. So we bought an ordinary house in extraordinarily good condition with many great interior spaces and buggerall view of anything except its own driveway and the house immediately in front of it. It is almost invisible from the road being on a pan handle (or “right of way” as it is known here).

Admittedly it is only 230m from the water’s edge – but there will be no sunset cocktails on the balcony overlooking the (non-existent) crashing waves. You can see the sea and its proximity if you go to Google maps, select the pedestrian and click this link as your starting point and the destination is 38 The Parade, Bucklands Beach and then do a street view to look around. There are these little alleyways all through the neighbourhood to help people get to key points (schools, buses, shops, the sea front) quickly and easily. It is 220 m to the nearest bus stop, 2.3km to Jules’s school, 2.2 to Et’s – and that is also the distance to the nearest bottle store (no coincidence).

It was not an uncomplicated birth either – first many dollars spent on research and legal preparation, then a failed auction, then late-night meetings, then deadline-driven counter-offers and lots of haggling. Finally in a tense final hour where Karen was on the phone at an auction for house number 2 we got the green light from the agent that the deal was done. I think exhaustion got the better of all parties, but finally a bouncy 3-bed with lots of storage space was delivered. AGPAR score of 10.

 

Marie Raos is the most tenacious and patient agent imaginable - which is why she is #2 in New Zealand.

Marie Raos is the most tenacious and patient agent imaginable – which is why she is #2 in New Zealand.

Here’s a link to the estate agent’s website (pretty amazing info hey?). Now our little house does not compare to Anne Hathaway’s cottage in terms of cosy comfort or quaintness. In fact the Saffers will think she is a tad ugly from the outside. But here in NZ the issues are rainwater and how to keep it out, and sunshine and how to let it in. Many houses are built of wood with either terraced weatherboard (looks like an armadillo) which is ours, or brick, or a smooth finish (“cladding”) which is pretty but not necessarily so good for the rain. The latter is often treated with suspicion by most Kiwis because the building rules were relaxed a little too much around 1998 – 2004 and the resulting houses are called “leaky homes” because the water gets into the wooden frame and rots it. There are entire suburbs which are riddled with leaky homes and they have depressed prices and not much interest from the public. So ours might not be the swan of the real estate world, but our toes will be dry and rot-free (sorry, not a nice image).

Because we will be going back to SA over Xmas we have negotiated a delayed occupation date (called “settlement”) of 1 February, so we can start packing now and we will still rush like ants the night before.

In the meantime it is bank negotiations, lawyers, movers etc. We have sworn a blood oath not to do this again for at least 425 years. But there were some interesting sounding properties that could be good investments when our SA property is finally sold [thinks while scratching chin and avoiding Karen’s glare].

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Better never than late?

 

 

It has been eight months since my last post which is (in Social Media terms) about as long as they took to build the pyramids. I have accumulated so many interesting bits of information that the task of compiling and sending them has become massive, so I have decided just to do them a bit at a time. No more long, glamorous posts covering the history and psyche of an entire country. Now it is going to be bite-sized snippets but more frequently (at least every 4 months).

So let me begin with an Ode to the Auckland City Council – yes I’m serious and mostly sober. Now unlike many other city councils in the world this one works hard for the people who pay rates. Things happen promptly and properly.

I have already sung the praises of the library services but I’ve added a new verse to my praise – look what they’ve done now…

Rubbish is collected weekly, recycling is collected bi-weekly and “inorganics” is collected annually. Inorganics is a politically correct term for junk: any old furniture, equipment, fittings or toys are stacked on the pavement around November and then there is a mad and very amusing rush of bargain hunters who swoop through the streets looking for TVs that they think they can fix or for couches which are in slightly better condition than theirs. There is an amazing swapping ritual that involves someone (let’s say they’re looking for a “new” couch) picking one up, but then driving further until they see a better one. Then they offload the one they have and pick up the better one, but they keep driving looking for something better. This means that what you put out on your front lawn one evening could be completely different to the pile you see there the nest day. But eventually the council comes along with a massive truck and picks up all the junk and removes it. This is a very symbiotic process.

Unfortunately Karen got into the mood of the event and came home with some “interesting” finds which are now neatly stacked in the corner of our garage waiting for the next inorganics day…

The City Council also does random acts of kindness, such as the “Movies in the Park” events throughout the city in summer. At various public places they show the latest movies on the side of a building on an erected screen in a park – totally free of charge just to get people out and together. They have music in the parks too.

 

Then there’s the communal fence issue: the advert says it all. Can you believe them asking you demand money from them!?!?

And finally there’s the City Councillors. Mine is called Dick Quax (look at his web-page here if you don’t believe me). Not only is he very active, but he sends me an e-mail at least once a month. Each e-mail contains his contact details and he encourages people to use it. Do you know who your city councillor is?

To take things to the next level our MP (Maurice Williamson) not only advertises as rigorously as Dick Quax but he sponsors events – like Jule’s concert in the cathedral.

More later.

 

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Travels with my voice

We all have a little voice that screams at us when we are about to do something stupid. Mine has been a loyal companion for all these years. Loyal because I frequently ignore it,  yet without any hurt feelings it quietly steps up and helps me remove streaks of egg from my face and never stoops to squealing “I told you so”.

But on this trip (actually completed more than a month ago) I think I have pushed it too far. My little voice has reached the end of its tether; it has sulked off into a corner and joined the Inaudible Vocal Conscience and Allied Workers Union (IVoCAWU). It has screeched itself hoarse so often and has been ignored so persistently that it is experiencing not only a crisis of confidence, but an existential vacuum. “Is a conscience a conscience when it is permanently ignored?”  “What is the sound of one conscience talking to itself?” etc.

I write this form a room in the Grand Dorsett Hotel in Subang. I hear you groan “where the *(& is Subang and who cares?” Well Subang is partly the cause of my conscientious hissy fit. It is a semi-industrial, semi-city on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (look at a map). Why, pray, do I find myselff in a hotell that choosess to double the finall syllables of a perfectly normall west-English county? And why, as I write, am I trying to make as little contact between any part of my body and any part of this hotell roomm? Well, therein lies the blog.

My business travel plan is to visit each of the 11 markets in my territory by March 2012 and also ensure that I visit the ones I have already seen about once every 3 months. So this is a hectic schedule. And the ancient truth has to be acknowledged: “de ludo pilae ovum radix malorum est” or you can use Google Translate. “Rugby is the root of all evil”. I wanted to get my next trip over and done with before the quarter finals and semis of the World Cup took place so I inflicted a major trip on myself barely a week after returning from the previous one.

Now you know why Singaporeans are so clever.

It would give me the opportunity to make contact with our most loyal customer in Singapore on my way to new territory – Malaysia. So I started working on the itinerary quite a while ago and right from the start the indications were not good.  Most of my customers were within a one kilometre radius in an industrial area about 40 minutes outside Kuala Lumpur. Then I started looking at flights and accidentally I found a flight to an airport very close to this industrial airport – rejoice! Then I saw that the Malaysia Airlines flight from Singapore to Subang was operated by a subsidiary airline called Firefly. My little voice started with a discreet whisper, almost nothing more than a clearing of its well-used throat. “Walk away!” Would you fly with an airline called Firefly? What about Midge? Mosquito? Gnat? You want things that soar majestically and safely (Eagle, Hawk, Pelican) not things that buzz and irritate, and are prone to being swatted. “Walk away!”

But I didn’t. I dutifully booked the flights and hotels through our very patient and long-suffering travel agency, Tandem. On my last trip I realised Air New Zealand must have had cashflow issues for not giving its economy passengers bottled water or convenience pouches, so I wrote them a stinky customer questionnaire and decided to explore alternatives. JetStar is the budget brand of Qantas. As a jet gets too old and embarrassing to be part of the Qantas fleet it gets a new coat of paint, a set of funky hostesses and a new price tag – Jetstar Asia Airlines.

“Why would I feel it necessary to look beyond a regular airline?” I hear you ask. Well 11 hours is a long time to fly and it is best flown as comfortably as possible. Since the company policy states economy class only, I figured I could pay close to economy fares while flying business class on a budget plane! Oh, the genius of it. Problems arose almost at once: Jetstar does not fly to Singapore every day and it does not have an overnight flight. Mmmm. I try to keep my dreams intact and set off on a Sunday mid-day. I fight my way through swarms of in-bound tourists to the exit gates and saunter to the front of the short queue designated for business class passengers. My walk is lighter than usual and I dispense condescending nods of encouragement to the poor unfortunate souls in the economy class queue which winds its way out of sight.

The flight was pleasant and uneventful, even though the “budget” aspect of it was very interesting. The poor bastards in economy had to pay for everything that passed their lips and anything electronic that passed through their eyes. How do you control which passengers have paid for entertainment and which haven’t? Well there are no in-seat screens. If you buy entertainment you get given a large Pod which contains all the movies, music and games you want – with a headset. Very clever. The range of movies was older and more limited than one would get on a regular airline, but still it was a good experience. The food was OK and generally the trip went off very well.

From an open-air temple near my hotel in Singapore

In fact the Singapore leg of the journey was excellent. My customer took me to a new type of restaurant. He is my Asian Food tour guide – as it were. This time it was an interesting mix of Malaysian and Chinese food. As usual many different courses, none of which can be finished and there are no hard feelings if you pull a funny face and don’t like a dish. There were dumplings, stir fries, steamed fish and fruity tea. There was also a desert – something the Chinese don’t really do. It was a sweet dumpling. At first I thought the filling was similar to marzipan, but then I was told it is in fact yam (Sweet potato).

I had some spare time between appointments so I bought a travel card which is the Singaporean equivalent of an Oyster card – it is good for all public transport and is super intelligent. In the evening I had an appointment with an friend at his hotel and thought I would try my hand at navigating the transportation system – after all it is a well-organised city, how difficult could it be?

Needless to say I was a novice and got it all very wrong. I got on the right bus but got off at the wrong stop. I did not have a map with me and so I was not sure how far I was from my destination, but after a long walk and a short taxi ride I finally reached my very patient host – an hour late. In fact had I walked from my hotel and known where I was going it would have been quicker.

I had a mid-day flight the next morning so I spent a few hours at the most amazing exhibition space: the Singapore ArtScience Museum. The name is intentional – they believe the difference between art and science is fictitious and they strive to eradicate the forced separation. There are permament displays of the work of artists (Leonardo to name just one) and scientists whose work span the divide. And all this in a building that is itself a work of great beauty while being an engineering feat, art and science married yet again.

Despite what appears to be an awkward space, the museum has four stories of very good exhibition space which allows plenty of natural light to filter in through the long lily leaves which give it that distinctive look. It sits on a lake across from the main city area, so it is truly a floating water lily. Behind it towers the controversial Marina May Sands hotel which is either a brilliant design achievement or a permanent eye-sore on the Singaporean horizon. I spent a few minutes in the Marina Bay shopping centre which is vast, expensive and pretentious. The hotel is apparently very similar.

But other than the permanent exhibition at the museum there were two additional temporary ones which I eagerly attended. The first was a huge audio-visual Van Gogh display. There were none of his originals, but a very informative description of his life, work, influences and style. This was followed by enormous projections of his works on various surfaces and screens in a darkened arena. The display was dynamic in that each surface showed a different element of the painting and, seen as a whole, one was exposed to his colour and style in many ways: all of this accompanied by appropriate classical music. It was a wonderful experience. I sat through three cycles just to see all the different facets of the works. Halfway through the display a group of about 6 mentally handicapped children and their carers entered and watched the show sitting on the same bench as me. They were enthralled by the sensual bombardment. Although not able to understand more than the colours and the sounds those two elements in themselves were sufficient sources of stimulation – an important message, I think.

But the main draw card was the Dali exhibition – this time of real pieces, and hundreds of them. I have no idea how they managed to gather so many pieces in one place but it was a huge, flowing exhibition of many hundreds of his drawings, hundreds again of his paintings and more than a hundred of his sculptures of all sizes.

Like so many great artists his real genius lay in his understanding of the link between his art, his audience’s expectations and his subsequent design, distribution and maintenance of the brand which is Dali – a brand that exists to this day. His work is inspired, but in some senses repetitious. His appearance is always as expected, and he was the master of the spin off – a theme repeated with variations which produced a large amount of very lucrative work while still being entirely recognisable and (arguably) easy to produce. I am not suggesting that he was frivolous, he just possessed a great understanding of what makes good art and what makes good business sense. Had he stopped being controversial in everything he said, did or the way he dressed his legacy would have been diminished.  But that is enough of a few hours spent in the gallery; the real drama lay outside its tranquil, fluted spires.

I have mentioned Singapore’s Changi  airport before: a marvel of commercial excess and transportation efficiency. Every brand the world can offer is there. You can be over-0charged in any currency you like. You can buy anything you don’t need and there is always time be lured into the tasteful boutiques and glistening showcases. This is for Terminals 1 – 3. Firefly airlines flies from the “budget terminal”.  “Walk away!”

It is remotely situated and requires a shuttle bus journey. I am not sure about the history of the building, but I think it must either have been the original airport from the 1940s or an aircraft repair hangar. It lacks any charm, efficiency or appeal. Within this beige behemoth lies another world. Luxury is entirely absent. For food there is a Macdonalds. Not the vast range of eateries in the main terminals. Firely had one person manning one counter – on wheels. The boarding pass was completed by hand. There was a long line of people in the security checkpoint queue because there was only one, surly security guard.

Once through I had to spend 40 minutes pacing around the “boutiques” which comprised cheap or imitation goods usually found only at flea markets.

No, not Firefly, this was one with a jet engine - just a pretty shot.

After a very long wait I went through to the boarding gate. It reminded me of a 1970s hospital ward. Beige everything with vinyl tiles hallway to the ceilings. Lethargic, lop-sided ceiling fans made absolutely no difference to the stodgy air. There was a moment of amusement when the same girl who had checked me in arrived at the boarding gate pushing the same desk used to check me in – hence the wheels! We waited for another half and hour, and then she checked us all in. And then we waited again on the other side of her … there was no aeroplane to board! It had probably been swatted by a pigeon, or a lightning bolt. “Walk away!”

Eventually a twin-prop plane trundled towards us in cheerful orange livery and came to a halt just outside the window. I looked inquisitively at the passengers to find traces of injury, trauma or nausea, but found none. Boarding takes place through some rickety stairs which enter the plane where an engineer would probably have inserted a thermometer to take its temperature.

The destinations of the flights were very far off the vapour-trailed tracks, as it were; and the passengers were an odd assortment of mostly workers and the odd adventurous holiday maker. There was, as always in Asia, at least one British expat who was now settled in some obscure outpost like Denpasar (look it up, carefully). And this expat sat next to me on the plane. He was a lot less anxious than me.

Despite the engine noise and the exhaust fumes, the cramped seats, the absence of over-head storage and the apologetic demeanour of the crew the flight was uneventful. I was reassured while paging through the emergency escape card that the plane was manufactured by the most talented engineers and the finest materials – in Brazil, where the nuts come from.

On board I had a few moments to consider what had brought me here. I was booked into a hotel that later sent through a message that it was closed due to a gas explosion and recommended that I try the Grand Dorsett. It checked out OK and I looked at TripAdvisor as I usually do. There were no overwhelmingly negative reviews so I told the agent to go for it.

Many years ago the Sheraton group decided to build a hotel on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in what promised to be a burgeoning suburb. I think they regretted their decision. After many years the hotel needed serious renovation and the accountants figured that the cost of repairs was more than the predicted returns so they put it up for sale. The new owners did half their maths and bought the building. The load they got was enough for the purchase price but definitely not enough for any improvements or maintenance. So, just like so many Third World cities, the place retains all its physical grandeur but any closer inspection reveals huge cracks (literally) in the façade. Sweeping staircases abound, but the carpets that cover them are thread-bare, just like the uniforms of the check-in staff and the concierge.

I did not take photos of the hotel, but this from the Dali exhibition was how I felt.

As I stepped into my room I was struck by a musty smell of a room in the tropics that had not seen fresh air in ages. But that was the least concern. The carpet was worn through and stained beyond repair. The furniture was still sound but badly faded. Damage to the surface of the writing desk and head board had been left unrepaired. “Dingy” was the first word that leapt into my mind, mercilessly elbowing the repetitive pleading of my little voice out of the way. I called reception and asked for an upgrade to a new, renovated room. No luck, but they would send someone to help with the musty smell. A repairman arrived and suggested I open the window and he kindly left me a can of air freshener. After 5 minutes the in-coming mosquitos persuaded me to grin and bear the smell. And so it was that I ended up sitting on tiptoes on the seat (with a thread-bare towel draped over it in defence) typing a blog. I ignored the peeling wall-paper, the Poly-filla left unpainted on the walls, the aged décor and the non-functioning bath plug. I also paid little attention to the electricity sockets which were drooping out of the wall. I even laughed at the fact that when I filled the iron with water it simply poured out the bottom! It was replaced with an iron which was recently stolen from the museum.

I was booked into the hotel for two days so I thought I would make the most of the amenities. Breakfast was OK but you could see that all expense was spared. The cutlery was scratched and old, the knives blunt. The organisation was silly too – I was shown to a table only to return with a plate of food to find someone else there. When he realised what had happened he was petrified that he was using my cutlery and demanded to know whether I had eaten with it.

The gym was amazing, old machines, old towels and showers where you could hear the choirs of foot fungus singing in joyful harmony. I even ventured into the sauna, thinking that only volcanic bacteria would survive. It was grimy and derelict. Holes in the wall had never been repaired. Benches were broken, the light was in a broken housing. I did not linger nor did I dare enter the adjacent Jacuzzi which I presumed was what primordial puddles must have looked like, and I am sure they both contained similar organisms.  I spent as little time as possible in the hotel. I found a shopping centre nearby and got to know it quite well.

The Sunway Centre and Casino is about the same size as the Vatican and has every conceivable shop – even a Nandos and a New Zealand Natural Ice-cream shop. After a day of work I would go to the mall instead of the hotel. To my dismay Malaysia has a strong Islamic culture which means many of the restaurants sold no alcohol. Thank God for TGIF! Beer on tap and old-fashioned American pub grub. I had a salad, a beer and another beer.

On the second night I was in the hotel and did not want to catch a taxi back to the mall so I thought I would just go to the hotel’s own Chinese restaurant.

28 tables, 7pm and I am the only patron – “Walk away!” There is one waitress and she catches my eye and I sit down with a weak grin. I chose the Chinese restaurant because I believe that most of the food is freshly prepared even if it is fried. The menu is several pages long and the range is vast – every morally objectionable dish is offered with three different sauces. Bird’s nest soup, shark-fin soup, sea cucumber and possibly dog but I did not tarry. But there were many dishes, many tables, one customer, one waitress. I did the maths and realised that there could not be much that was fresh.

I sought out the hot and sour soup (now a favourite) and chicken dumplings. For good measure I order a bottle of Nederburg wine which required the waitress to trot down two floors to the other restaurant. It is fortunately very cheap so I took a whole bottle thinking that alcohol in my veins would at least intimidate any other inquisitive micro-organisms. It was, after all my birthday and I needed some compensation for spending it is such a god-forsaken hovel.

Not all hot and sour soups are created equal, I discovered. This one’s recipe was simple: take, in equal parts, MSG, gloop, mud-coloured food dye, indescribable fragments of predominantly protein origin, 3 pieces of noodle and chillies. Simmer until a customer orders it. I don’t eat MSG as a rule because it gives me nightmares, but I figured in this hotel that would be an improvement.

I was very glad to check out of the hotel and I have taken a solemn oath to pay more attention to my little voice.

Three positive things about this trip stand out and deserve mention. Stephen Fry’s latest memoir (The Fry Chronicles) has been out for about a year but I bought the audiobook and his companionship was much appreciated as I pounded the streets of Singapore and the desk of my hotel in Subang. It is definitely worth a read. He is so typical a British celebrity: devoid of aspirations to fame, sobriety, propriety and hygiene. Anything which can take him further away from conventional behaviour or ability is embraced.

Secondly my favourite iPhone app is definitely TripCase. My travel agent gives me a code which I enter and my entire itinerary is instantly imported. It lists every hotel, its address and contact number, my reservation number, a map, local weather. For flights it has all the usual information including real-time updates (e.g. for delays), seat maps, boarding gates and terminals (but not even it knew about the budget terminal at Singapore!)  but also the carousel on which one’s luggage will be off-loaded. It also sends confirmatory messages to selected third parties (Karen) about departures and arrivals. It has an expense calculator, a conversion tool for everything from currencies to temperatures (both are necessary in Asia). It even has special offers related to your trip (from airlines and hotels) it has directions, maps and traffic alerts. It even has a feature to find alternative flights in case of cancellation. It is also free! A really great app for travellers.

Finally a piece of Kiwi genius called a Swiftpoint mouse. For use in confined spaces like airplane seats but also generally for use with a laptop, it is a USB-linked micro-mouse that uses just one’s fingertips for controls and the clear surface of the laptop (next to the touchpad) as the mouse pad. It charges from nought to one-hour’s use in one minute! The USB stub that plugs into one’s computer is also its docking station to get out of the way and to charge. It is also intelligent to movement, so you leave it on the keyboard while you type and bump it around, but it won’t move the cursor unless it detects that your finger is on the right place. Just a brilliant tool – with one draw-back: it does not switch off.

I have now reconciled with my little voice. It has only gently grumbled while I have been planning my next journey (two weeks’ time). This time I take in 4 countries in 13 days. My little voice is tapping its foot, drumming its fingers on folded arms and whistling while avoiding eye contact. I am trying very hard to listen, but there’s this brilliant hotel on the outskirts of Jakarta, not far from the airport. The review says “away from the hustle and bustle of city life”. Sounds good to me.

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