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  • I heard about a journalist who had a gig reviewing noodle soup, was jealous, then realised I could, if I put my mind to it, do that on my own, so I’m thankful for the idea.
  • I am once again appreciating our free medical services here in New Zealand, as over the last week or so an elderly relative has been going through diagnosis, ED (emergency department), hospitalisation, x-rays/CAT scans, tests, specialists, etc. We don’t have anything to worry about in terms of cost, and can focus on her ongoing comfort and well-being.
  • This is however unlike my travel insurance, where one incident – a fall that resulted in broken glasses and smashed up face – was treated as two separate claims, and so we had an excess payable both for my glasses and my medical costs; but I’m still grateful, as I got 75% of the costs of a new pair of glasses paid. I picked them up this morning, and I still like them (better than the ones I broke), which is a relief too.
  • A week or so ago I ran into someone I used to buy a lot of clothes from back in the late 90s and early 2000s, who charmingly said that I still looked as young as when she met me 20 years ago.
  • I’m currently going through all our holiday photographs to edit and put them into photobooks, and the whole process lets me relive the experiences all over again, which is an added bonus.
  • The free time I have currently is slightly bittersweet, as neither of us has any work right now, but it means that I can have an afternoon nap later (after two consecutive nights of watching the finals of the Wimbledon singles in the wee small hours) if I feel the need, and it meant that we could sit and watch the first episode of the latest series of Game of Thrones this afternoon, and that was fun.

 

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Our social media personas

It is common to say that our personas on social media are just characters we want to be, but I like to think our portrayals on social media are simply more selective but still reasonably accurate images of our lives. That’s largely true of whenever we go out in public, whether it is to work, or with friends, or family, isn’t it? Anyway, it got me thinking about who you see when I write here, or when I am on Facebook, and how accurate that is.

  • I’m actually not Mali (well, I am on Instagram as TravellingMali, and here on this blog, but not on Fb), but I don’t hide that fact, and after all these years, that’s not a surprise to most of you anyway. (Conclusion: Accurate)
  • I’m a traveller, and a wanna-be photographer (strictly amateur though), though in reality, I wish I was a much more frequent traveller than I actually am, and of course, I wish I was a much better photographer than I actually am. (Conclusion: Accurate)
  • I am someone who enjoys drinking wine, especially chardonnay, though in reality I have several non-alcoholic nights every week (a fact I know is shocking to some of my friends), and I probably drink more sauvignon blanc or red wine than chardonnay, so when I have it, it is a real treat (and therefore is Fb-able). (Conclusion: Reasonably accurate)
  • I’m a writer on A Separate Life, though in truth I write more broadly (or perhaps more specifically) than just here, and in some places I am brutally honest, and in others I hold back on expressing a lot of opinions on a lot of subjects, but then, that’s life too, isn’t it? (Conclusion: As accurate as general politeness allows)

How accurate is your own social media persona, or do you have more than one?

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Saying goodbye is hard

I have just cancelled my gym membership. I became a member at this chain of gyms in 2004, after my former personal trainer and physiotherapist, along with one of his colleagues (and one or two former clients as investors) set up their first gym. I’ve watched his company expand and achieve success, and have worked out at three of his gyms, each with a very different character and clientele, but each with high quality staff and facilities. Their own excellent physiotherapist clinics attached to the gym facilities have treated me with injured wrists, calves, knees, and a broken ankle. And every year I have enjoyed a free birthday massage, sometimes the only massages I get these days.

But I’m not driving into the city now on a daily basis, the only suburban gym in the group – the one with the amazing views and the wonderful drive around the bays to get there – is no longer working for me, given its distance from home, and the fact that other businesses are taking up all the available (and free) parking.

I need to change my workout routine, get into swimming, and have a cheaper gym membership nearby that I can visit regularly without taking up half of my day. But right now I’m mourning the loss of my lovely gym, the friendly people staff and the other members I have chatted to over the years, the views across Evans Bay, the scenic drive I took to get there, and the cafes where I would stop for a delicious coffee on the way home.

 

(Spoiler Alert)

Everyone is talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. When I knew that the TV series had been made and that my online streaming service was going to run it, I decided I needed to read the book first, and so immediately put a hold on it at the Library. I ended up reading it in Norway, fascinated and appalled in equal measure, wondering why I hadn’t read it before. Then, on my return home, I watched the whole series in about three or four sessions.

Because I read the book so close to watching the TV series, I was a little discombobulated at first by the variations in the story, but soon embraced them as it was so well told by both the writers and actors. It was stimulating, but I also found it deeply disturbing. You’d think that, as a woman who wasn’t able to have children, the fertility issues in the book and TV series might have bothered me. But I felt for both the fertile women forced into slavery, and for the infertile women who were either enslaved in domestic service, enslaved as Wives to powerful Commanders, or enslaved as Non-Women (though I’ll admit that this name delivered a painful pinch) in “the colonies.” All women were defined solely on the basis of their fertility. They weren’t seen as individuals in their own right, they weren’t allowed to choose their path in life. To me, The Handmaid’s Tale is much less about fertility, and much more about feminism, about how the world sees and behaves towards women.

As a feminist, I recognised a lot of the slights against women, the obvious and the more subtle, and cringed at the fact that they are still so familiar. So much of what was normal and accepted by men in this dystopian world is, in fact, also seen as normal and accepted unquestionably by men today. The Gilead world in the TV series may look very different, with the red uniforms for the Handmaids and the required green for the Wives, but the similarities were at the same time shocking and not shocking; the small and not-so-small slights, insults, and denial of women’s rights that are either not recognised as such, or are deemed acceptable in both worlds – the dystopian world and our own.

The dismissing of Serena Joy, despite the important part she played in the birth of the new regime of Gilead, is not that far from the dismissals we see of women’s views in workplaces and boardrooms and TV studios today. The scene where she was kept out of the room to discuss the very policies she had developed was not so different to my own experiences as the only female director of a company, when my comments and suggestions at the board table were dismissed by the male directors, only to be blatantly proposed again shortly afterwards by one of the men, to the acclaim and acceptance of his fellow male directors. This situation is such a cliché that there was a cartoon about it in Punch in the 1980s. Sadly, 30 years on this hasn’t changed.

The forced relinquishment of the babies, when Janine, for example, has to give up her baby and move on, reminded me of the not-too-distant past in some of our own countries, when forced adoptions occurred, frequently sanctioned by the church and state. Our own government in NZ has recently refused to open an inquiry into this situation, and that infuriates me.

The differences in control over women’s bodies and lives in fictional Gilead and NZ (and much of the world) today is merely a matter of degree. Abortion in NZ is rarely a political issue, simply because neither major party has the political will (ie courage) to discuss it; scared of the debate, they shut it down and refuse to engage. Whilst abortions are available in NZ, they are not available on demand, and women have to go through the process of getting two doctors’ to sign off on the procedure, treated as if they are not responsible enough to control their own bodies. (Though at least birth control is publicly funded and readily available).

I have to say, too, that the dehumanisation of the Handmaids’ name changes, defining them only in terms of their relationship with the man who was intended to father children on them, wasn’t so very different from how I felt (and still feel) about the pressure women face to take our husband’s names at marriage.

Back to Serena Joy. There is a scene where she is embroidering (or knitting?), sitting before the fire on her own. This is virtually the only leisure activity she is permitted. Reading is now prohibited. Did she really want that, when she wrote these laws and this policy? Did she foresee how far the men could take these policies when she was involved? Did she deserve this? Maybe, but I still felt real empathy for her and all the other women in Gilead, sitting in front of the fire on their own, stripped of all power and respect, not even allowed to read or write. They had lost power, recognition, and respect in this new world.

But seriously, how much power, recognition and respect do we have now? Patriarchies still rule most/all of the world. The rooms full of men making decisions about and for women don’t occur only in Gilead, or in regimes ruled by fundamentalists or dictators. We see them here today, in our own countries and in similar cultures, most pointedly and disturbingly at the moment, in the US. It is a demonstration of how quickly things can turn against us. Within six months, women have been forced to take a back seat in policy-making. The US Vice-President would welcome a Gilead-like environment. He (along with others in the administration) doesn’t see women as equals in business and wants to control women’s reproductive rights based on religious principles. I’ve seen changes occur here too, though to a much lesser extent. The heady days when we had a female Governor-General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and CEO of our largest company have passed. Sure, we once again have a female Governor-General, the Chief Justice is still in her position, and both major political parties have women as deputies. But women in the executive branch of government are still in the minority, and we have made little progress in increasing the numbers of women in boardrooms and as CEOs over the last ten or twenty years. Sadly, the change of just a few key people at the top can suddenly remind over 50% of the population that we are still yet to take a rightful fair share of control in the world.

And yet it seems that we let this happen. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Whilst I’ve tried to lead by example in the past as the Chair of a company, I’m currently not employed, fighting against sexism and ageism in trying to find new employment, and I’ve never been politically active. There’s a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale when the new regime is just taking power, where Moira and June are discussing the changes, and say incredulously, “but they can’t do that, can they?” That’s our problem, I think. It is too easy to sit here and say this. From NZ, we look at the US and say, “but they can’t do that, can they?” And it seems they can, and will. I see my friends talking about calling and pressuring their representatives, and wish I could help them. Though the situation is far less urgent, and I hope we will continue to go the opposite direction, I am painfully aware that things could change in an instant, or an election.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling to me, was the scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where the women are sent home from work and their bank accounts frozen. June’s husband, thinking he is being supportive, says, “I’ll take care of you.” That scene screamed out to me. He was trying to mollify the women who were upset. Yes, he was trying to calm them, trying to help. But in doing so, he seemed to be accepting the new normal (even if he didn’t agree with it) because it hadn’t yet really affected him. Even the good guys don’t really get it. Neither do many women (like Serena Joy). They certainly don’t feel the fear or outrage to the same extent, or won’t until it is too late. And that’s what scares me more than anything.

Travel Business Confidence

I’m going to drip-feed a few travel stories from my trip, but I need more than eight sentences, so won’t be doing it on Mondays. I wrote a first story on the weekend here (The Great Puffin Hunt), and may continue writing on a new travel blog.

Yes, I know I have been procrastinating about restarting a travel blog for a long time, but the thing is, it is all bound up with procrastination over relaunching a travel business (designing custom-made itineraries for travellers) that I started many years ago. Back then, at the same time that I was starting to get clients, I also began getting a lot more (and better paid) consulting work that took all my time and energy. Consequently, my fledgling little business was sadly neglected and has effectively been put on hold for the last decade or so.

Times have changed, and whilst there is much more information available on the internet now to assist travellers, it can also be overwhelming and extremely time-consuming, so I still believe there is a market out there. I’m almost ready to relaunch it now, but I am still figuring a few things out, at the same time trying to boost my confidence. So at this stage, all I can say is watch this space.

 

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The Great Puffin Hunt

The hunters crossed the globe in search of these small, cute, ungainly birds. Okay, they were crossing the globe anyway, but the birds provided an extra degree of motivation. They knew that it was early in the season, but reckoned that if they missed them at the beginning of their trip, there would be another chance towards the end of the trip. They went armed, not heavily, but with zoom lenses and a tripod, and were full of hope, though had fewer expectations.

Their first serious hunt was in Dyrhólaey in southern Iceland, where dramatic rocky cliffs soared from the North Atlantic, icy winds whipped and cowed even the hardiest of hunters, and any overly optimistic hunter’s tripod would have taken flight towards the ocean below.  Conditions were, therefore, perfect for the little birds to be at home in their nests.

Dyrhólaey cliffs

Dyrhólaey

But the puffins had yet to return from the ocean this year, a little later than usual, the hunters were informed by the staff at the nearby hotel. That explained, they figured, why even the commercial boats that took puffin watchers out near Reykjavik had not been operating. Or maybe it was just that the current, stormy weather had kept them, and the puffin hunters, safely inside, dry and warm. There was some disappointment, but there had been so many other wonders to behold in Iceland that the little birds were forgiven.

So the hunters left bleak, windswept but beautiful Iceland and continued on their journey, forgetting about the puffins until several weeks later. Hopeful and thorough research before their departure had identified a little island on the Atlantic coast of Norway. The island is called Runde, and websites and guide books grandly describe it as a bird island, with a population of around 25,000 puffins, and about the same number of other birds. It turned out that a fully booked hotel elsewhere had presented our puffin hunters an extra day in the area, and so – given that a day exploring Art Nouveau architecture wasn’t really their thing – they decided to take up the hunt again. They set off in the middle of the day, despite knowing that this wasn’t prime puffin-hunting time, and were rewarded with a wonderfully scenic drive, island hopping by ferry, causeway, bridges and tunnels. At first, the countryside was classic Norway, with forest-covered hills and mountains, swooping down to green fields on the banks of a blue fjord. Later, as the hunters came closer to the coast, the islands turned barren, rocky and mossy, typical of the famous Atlantic Coastal Road further north, stark but still beautiful.

The puffin hunters arrived in the mid-afternoon and were buoyed by the encouragement of the guy in the information centre, who advised that although it was early in the day, it was also windy, and that meant some of the puffins would not have gone to sea for the day.

So the puffin hunters drove to the carpark, and looked up, further up, and up again at their intended destination. It seemed that their venture involved climbing to the very top of the island to reach the high cliffs where puffins love to nest. Considering one of the puffin-hunters had been limping around Copenhagen just a few days earlier, they were doing this with crossed fingers. They consulted the map and, in an attempt to minimise the effort required, opted to try the route to the nearest cliffs. The initial ascent was steep, but on a wide, easy gravel path, through a few gates to keep the sheep away from the few houses scattered at the entrance.

They set off, pacing themselves, but enthusiastic. They passed one puffin hunter having a rest. He was heavily armed with tripods and heavy long lenses. It didn’t bode well for him at this early stage that he was using his asthma inhaler already. It was, however, reflective of the steepness of the climb. The ground was a peat bog, and so was soft, with water oozing out all over the place. It was slippery in parts, but not too bad, and the intrepid hunters ploughed on upwards. The carpark got further and further away, the view of all the coastal islands stretched out before them, but the top didn’t seem to get any closer.

There was a moment when disaster almost struck. The soft ground wobbled, the weak ankle tweaked with a shot of pain, and they both worried that this might have been the end of their quest. The ankle stabilised, but they took it slower and more carefully from then on. Their steep climb continued. Eventually, after an hour or so, they reached the first cliffs. There were a few birds soaring around above them, but they were too big and flying far too swiftly and gracefully to be the sought after little birds. The abundant bird life that had been promised by websites and guide books had not yet emerged, however. There weren’t even that many gulls.

The hunters passed a few other trekkers, and asked, hopefully, if they had seen any. Some shook their heads, and one said that she had seen some in the distance only, right at the top. They turned south along the ridge, towards the cliffs at the back of the island, and tried to keep up the pace. The sunny day had turned dark, the clouds had lowered and engulfed the puffin hunters, reducing visibility to metres. They continued on, trying to keep up their spirits. One hunter said, “we’re those tourists we hear about on the news at home. They venture off on a hike when it is fune and sunny, with only a bottle of water between them, the weather closes in and they become a cautionary tale!”

The weak ankle was holding up, but the stronger of the two had disturbing thoughts going through his mind. He was trying to figure out how he’d get his partner down if her ankle ceased up again. His best idea, he confessed later, was to lay one of their windbreakers down on the ground, and have her slide down the slope on it. Fortunately, they didn’t have to put this concept into practice.

Eventually, they came to the other side of the island and cautiously started down to the other cliffs. A slip and a turned ankle here would not be a good idea, toboggan-option or not!  They emerged out of the mist, and found they were not alone on the island. Other hunters had made their way up via another, lower and much easier route, one they had seen several hours earlier, one that had stone paving stones laid out (but which hadn’t been obvious at the junction) all the way. Along with the others, they found a large, flat rock on which to sit and rest and wait. Some of the others set up tripods. Our hunters laughed with each other ruefully; their tripod was still in the car, but they also knew it would have made the climb even harder than it had been.

It was peaceful. The mist rose, the wind died down a little, and the sun even shone for a while. A friendly crow kept them amused as they waited.

P1050488 friendly crow cr ed web

They noticed birds starting to fly in from the sea, and briefly, some excited activity ensued amongst those with the huge cameras and long lenses and tripods. The birds though kept their distance, and it was getting cold, and late, given that the hunters had a couple of hours drive back to their hotel.

In the cliffs below them, they saw an ungainly bird fly in. It was the right size and shape and colour (black and white) with the right flight patterns to be a puffin. Then they saw another one. Anticipation grew, then waned. The birds were all simply too far away to determine if they were puffins. The photographs of the island on the internet, showing puffins within arms reach of photographers, seemed like a cruel joke at this point. It was getting cold. Really cold. Dusk was hours away – in fact, in these northern climes, dusk only lasted a few hours around midnight, and they weren’t so committed that they would stay that late.

So the puffin hunters admitted defeat and made their way down the ridiculously easy path they should have taken in the first place.

Path down and Atlantic view

About half-way down on the road more travelled

Runde nesting birds

One of the few birds we saw on the island

They had to put the disappointment behind them. The day had been an adventure. The drive back was beautiful. But ultimately, these were the only positive puffin sightings of the whole trip:

P1000512 puffin stockings web

 

 

 

The joys of coming home

There’s a difference between travelling to a destination and coming home, which I know is stating the obvious. Whilst coming home does not have the same excitement of new or exotic pleasures, the relief of the familiar, and the pure comforts of home at the end of the journey are nonetheless worth celebrating.

It’s always a pleasure turning on the tap and drinking delicious water after a trip overseas, but I have to admit that on this trip, both Iceland and Norway provided very drinkable and even quite tasty water, unlike the ghastly stuff that comes out of the taps in places like France and Italy and the rest of Europe.

Even though it is winter here, the light seems so much brighter than the early summer light in Scandinavia; here, the colours are vivid and the landscape sparkles.

After five weeks away, it is nice to have a washing machine on call!

Cooking again, and not having to pay the exorbitant prices of Iceland and Norway for food, is fun – or it will be once I recover fully from the jet lag.

Speaking of jet lag, according to the experts it generally takes about one day for each time zone changed (with eastward travel, because you lose time), which means that we still have two or three days to go to consider ourselves fully recovered. I can usually tell when I have adjusted back to NZ time when I stop waking up early, so I figure that I’m almost there, as I noticed a familiar desire to stay in my warm, cosy bed this morning!

 

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