Saturday, October 31, 2009

Forty Nine

The sensation of gently falling from the sky in a graceful swoon always contrasts with the sounds the aircraft makes around me. The hydraulics working overtime, the flaps lowering, the engines straining to maintain lift while dropping speed. Coming in for the landing is my second-to-favourite part of flying. We touched the runway on the go and the sound of engines roared to full volume as we were pushed into our seat belts while the tube around us strained. Then we were back in our seats and taxiing sedately into the terminal. I looked past the two people between myself and the window (I always chose aisle seats) and saw the grey tarmac was littered with the expected planes of a dozen airlines. Suddenly a new plane pulled into view, and as we slid in next to a towering B747, the Air New Zealand Koru on the tail invoked a wave of homesickness and yearning ache in my heart.

But we weren't home yet. Geoff and I had landed in San Francisco. We walked up the air bridge and looked over at the computers near the gate next to ours. We each were hoping there would be an Air New Zealand stewardess waiting to call people to their flight, but while the electronic scrolling sign was advertising a flight home there was no one to talk to. We left the airport feeling as though we'd been away far too long.

The train in to SFO proper was uneventful, and it didn't seem that long before we'd navigated our way through the streets to find our hostel, checked in and claimed our bunks. From there we collected some pamphlets from the front desk and started to plan our stay. Geoff's must-see was Alcatraz, and I was hoping to see Muir Woods. But overall I was pretty cruisey about where we were going to go. I knew our couple of days here wouldn't be long enough to see everything and I really wanted to see the city with my Aunt (who used to live here), so I wasn't expecting a lot from this trip. It was going to be a taste. What a taste it turned out to be!

That afternoon we thought we'd walk through Chinatown and down to the wharf to get a feel for how long it was going to take us the next day. Chinatown was a vibrant place full of activity, sounds and smells. In some part I was disappointed that a lot of the shops were very similar to the occasional Asian shop found at home - full of souvenirs and two-dollar junk.

I found myself drawn to the shops selling swords and heavy wooden carvings as there was some beautiful-looking craftsmanship. People would stand at the entrance to their shops in an effort to entice customers into their domain. One promised me they would get the sword to NZ for me and was disappointed when I respectfully declined.

Through China town we only made it along a couple more blocks before we decided we were getting hungry and the wharf was a bit far away for this trip. We started to think we would take the cable cars tomorrow instead of walking. The reminder of San Fran's famous attraction set us off in the direction of some of the cable lines in order to investigate that avenue of transport. But not before we saw evidence of Christmas spirit in the park:

I was fascinated by the idea of the cable cars. In Wellington (NZ) there is a well-known cable car and I had used it a couple of times when staying with cousins. There are two cars which work in tandem - one being pulled up the hill as the other rides down. It is a simple system - cars go straight up and straight down the steep hill and the car doesn't have to turn around at either end. These cable cars were obviously very different, and I was caught by the sound of the cable which I could hear running under the street.

Despite our grumbling stomachs we resolved to follow the tracks to the top of the hill, and I'm glad we did because we chanced upon the Cable Car Museum. We hadn't seen anything about it in our tourist flimsies, and it wasn't an extravagant affair. But it was the building where the cables were powered from and there were some wonderful posters explaining how the system worked as well as the history of cable cars in San Francisco.

After the museum we kept up our mission to the top of the hill. I can't remember if the following photo was taken from the very top or not, but the island out in the harbour is Alcatraz, and that's where we were off to the next day!

The next morning we set out for the Wharf. This time we followed yesterday's decision and took the cable cars. They weren't a particularly expensive form of transport, but they had become such a tourist attraction that they wouldn't be worth using if one were to live in the city. The journey was interesting and it was great to see the principles we'd read about yesterday being put into practice!

We made it in time to buy our ticket out to the island and although there was a significant queue, it really wasn't long before we were on the ferry and on our way. Alcatraz was an amazing place and an amazing tour - I learnt so much about the place.
The island was initially a military prison, then a state penitentiary, home to some protesting Indians (of the 'Native American' kind) and finally a state park and tourist attraction. It really deserves a post of its own, so for this post I'll just put up some of my pictures which I especially like, and leave the explanation to another day.

Our next day in this fair city was spent with Dylan of Dylan's Tours. I've just been scouting around the internet to see if he has a website, and he doesn't, but there are a lot of reviews around and he's had positive comments all the way. I agree completely. IF YOU GO TO SAN FRANCISCO BOOK A DAY WITH DYLAN'S CITY TOURS! Even the locals think he's amazing! Dylan taught us so much about the city and took us to a little bit of everything. He managed to take us through most of the districts, including Mission, Marina, Castro, Tenderloin, Knob Hill and Twin Peaks. He even took us out to Muir Woods, so I was happy!
During our drive around I learnt that although people think of SFO as being all the populated areas around the bay, the city itself is actually squeezed into an area 7 miles by 7 miles, which makes it only 49 square miles in area. Combine this with the fact that the population of the area exploded around 1749 during the goldrush, and there is the reason for the football team calling themselves the 49ers!
Our fellow tourists were pretty much all Australian which made for great conversation and a little across-the-ditch teasing. Dylan had obviously had plenty of experience with the rivalry and put in his comedic two-cents in every now and then. Again I could write a post on its own about this day, and it would be filled with some amazing facts about the city, but I'll tease you with some photos instead:

At Twin Peaks, looking out over the city

Famous Hippie Hangout - Cnr of Haight & Ashbury

House of the Grateful Dead

The Bridge at the Gate to the Golden State

First Building to be erected in the area - the Chapel of St Francis of Assisi
(incidentally, the chapel at my high school was dedicated to the same)

Ju's Little Sister in front of the.. um.. pretty building. (hey, 12 months is a long time!)

Redwoods in Muir Woods

Hey! Where did New Zealand go?

That evening, although Dylan had recommended we go see the movie Milk, we were pretty done in from an exciting couple of days.

San Francisco was our last stop before we turned our noses in the direction of The Land Of The Long White Cloud (New Zealand) and I was glad we had booked more than a day in that great city. Though I was exhausted and ready to go home, I was entranced by San Fran and would love to return there some day. One day, I hope, I will be able to travel there with my Aunt and she can show me all her favourite places. Dylan's local and personal knowledge of the city was invaluable, but there were questions I wanted to ask here while I was there - questions I hope one day to have answered.
I'm not a city person. But I will be raving about this trip for a long time to come.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

Good books and a belated promise

Hi y'all.

I owe everyone a big apology! I promised a wicked post about my holiday at the end of my trip to Texas last year and I have failed to deliver. Yes, there were good books in the way.
Son of a Witch
The Magic Ship
The Lark and the Wren
umm.... I can't remember the rest.

Mum bought me both Don Quixote and Self Editing for Fiction Writers for my birthday - both at my request. I've not begun the Spanish saga yet but I'm looking forward to it.

But now! Photos and some textual dribble about my holiday in the states.


Geoff and I intended to take three weeks and travel out of Dallas to San Diego. We'd go to the zoo, see the city and take a day trip or an over-nighter to Mexico. From SD we'd fly to San Francisco, then up to Seattle. From Seattle we'd drive over the Northern Border to Fort Langley in Canada for a night or two, drive back to Seattle and fly to Pennsylvania. From there to New York, Washington DC, and then the train back to Dallas. When we found out we'd only have time for about ten days at the end of our deployment, we frantically re-shuffled. Pennsylvania was move to Thanksgiving and I've already posted about my stay there in the snow, and Geoff's ridiculous burger. We dropped San Diego, New York, Washington and the train.

First up - Seattle.

We were met at the airport by Geoff's Aunt and Uncle. They're kiwis but the family has moved to the states. Their three children also live in Seattle. As well as his family, there were two other attractions which provided a draw-card for us. The Museum of Flight and the Boeing Factory.


The Boeing Factory

Museum of Flight

I couldn't take pictures on our tour of the Boeing Factory, but since I work on planes it was all very fascinating. On the one side of the hangar is the 747 production line. We viewed them from a high balcony in the middle of the building, above the offices. It reduced the impact of their size but when I saw a man in the 'bucket' of a cherry picker, and how small he looked halfway up the vertical stabiliser (rudder/tail) I realised just how massive these birds are. Our tour guide was friendly, helpful and knew her stuff but it was obvious she wasn't an aircraft tradesperson. She did answer quite a few of my questions about employment there. It might be a great opportunity if I left NZ.
On the other side of the hangar there were plenty of other planes being constructed and at the head of them all the first Dreamliner. It had been all painted up for its presentation at a champagne unveiling, then returned to the 'shop as the work inside wasn't actually complete!

The Museum of Flight was pretty cool, and they had some great planes. They had the first Stealth Bomber and even a mock up of the Wright Brother's plane. (No Richard Pearce in sight however). It wasn't what I had expected though, and we didn't spend a great deal of time there.

Stearman C-3B

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15

Douglas A-4F Skyhawk II

The Royal New Zealand Air Force used to fly Douglas A-4K Skyhawks as our main Strike Fighter force. Before they disbanded the strike wing.

Anyway, from Seattle we drove North and once again crossed the border into Canada to visit my cousins. Viki and Maurice live east of Vancouver in a little place called Fort Langley. It took less than two hours for us drive up.

I know it ain't llamas, but it was the best I could find!

I recommend clicking on this one to make it larger. It was such a beautiful sight. I love the mountains so much and really missed them when I was in Texas. Seeing the sun leave his last golden rays on this peak made me think tenderly of home.

After favouring the snowy peaks, the sun decided to light up the whole sky.

After an hilarious kerfuffle with mistaken houses, lost phone numbers and a cup of tea with some pommy ex-pats who live next door, we finally made it inside for a family catch up and some dinner.

Ju's Little Sister and Cousin Vicki

While I talked the night away about family and Canada and New Zealand, Geoff was happily entertained by the Wii. With a little hand-held controller he could play tennis against a character on the TV, go ten pin bowling or a goodly number of other games. It started snowing that night and before breakfast the next morning I took a picture of the little kiwi sitting in the back lawn. Another little wave of homesickness settled about me, but I was with family and home wouldn't be too far away. Besides - there was still so much to see!

When everything but the head is covered they know they've had a decent snowfall!!

Vicki decided she would take us to the fort before she went to work so we wrapped up warm and jumped in the car. There was a thick layer of snow on the window and the town looked very picturesque. It also looked very cold and not much fun to be in! I'm glad our Christmases are full of sunshine and fun. I like being warm!

Before we made it to the fort, we took a quick detour to the river. I'm sorry I can't remember the name of it anymore but Vicki thought it would be worth seeing. We parked in the lot a little way away from the ferry terminal and had to walk along a jetty. There was no one else around. Vicki decided the ferry would not be running today. Something about a new snow which always makes me marvel is how quiet it is. Heavy flakes come softly down around but never make a sound. The birds and insects must have huddled away somewhere. Only humans are stupid enough to venture outdoors.

It was still snowing too

No ferry today

We didn't go right into the fort either but had a look in the foyer of an info centre at the bottom of the hill. It had a large map of the area on one wall with all the forts and old trader routes mapped on it along with some Indian tribal camps. Vicki explained it wasn't a military fort but a trading centre from which the town got its name. There were some flint arrows and a couple of other odds and ends in glass cases but nothing that caught my real interest.

After dropping my cuz off at her work Geoff and I made our way back to Seattle. In the blizzard.

One thing I noticed about Canada was the friendliness of the people. It just reminded me so much of home. Not two hours away were people who wouldn't meet your eye in the street, and here living next door to my cousins was a wonderful family who invited two strangers into their home, fed them and plied them with funny stories until the neighbours came home. I know they're originally from the UK but to me it just confirms my belief that the Commonwealth is cooler than the USA.

Anyway, back to Seattle. Geoff's uncle took us for a drive around the city. It was definitely a bonus having a local tour guide who also understood how and what we would be thinking. He was informative and intelligent and understood both the American & the Kiwi view on life. It helped me understand some of the prejudices I had been harbouring while in Texas and I found I appreciated Americans a little bit more.

He took us to see:




Some of his Cars:

Then we were off to visit even more of Geoff's family for a big reunion dinner. Thankfully everyone there was friendly and I never really felt out of place. The house was warm, the food delicious and the company just like home.


Coming up next: SAN FRANCISCO!!!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Black Cat

I had some sad news on the phone today. The sweetest member of our family has finally past away. She turned 20 years old just before Christmas 2008, and met her end only a couple of weeks ago. She was having trouble remaining upright and had lost her appetite and so the family decided it would be cruel to have her suffer much longer. I have known The Black Cat for more than three quarters of my own young life - even my Nan was not a part of my life this long. She was universally loved (even by my cat-disliking father) by all who met her. She was always up for a cuddle and a tummy rub but never forced herself on anyone. She caught her own rabbits, left us birds as gifts, and tried to teach us to hunt mice. This never stopped her from loving the rabbit mince Mum would buy her, or from quietly waiting all morning for something - anything - from a can of Chef.

Even the paparazzi loved her...

I remember the day we collected her - a frightened young kitten in a dark old shed. We picked her brother out first - I had always wanted a ginger cat, and the sweetest little red and orange kitten there ever was immediately captured my heart. We put him in the box. He jumped out. We put him in again. Then we went after Her. I remember seeing a tortie in the litter. I can't remember why we didn't go for her. It might have been Mum's decision. Mum would have known how flighty torties can be - probably not a good choice for a farming family.

She was in the shed. I don't remember when we spotted her. But she knew we were Big and Bad and we'd come to shake up her wee life. She hid behind some big green 40-gallon drums. We tied some paper to a piece of string and spent HOURS coaxing and tempting her from her hiding place. Okay I was only six, so it might not have been hours, but I don't think I've ever been so patient ever again. She was worth it though.

Favourite scratching places: Tummy and chin

She set a precedent that day hiding behind the drums. From then on the story of her kitten-hood is pretty much hiding behind things. The couch, the deep-freezer, the bed, the TV. She liked it under the house. Her brother was finally named (by me) Marmalade. Seeing it written down now it actually looks a bit girlie, but it ultimately doesn't matter as he was always referred to as Ginge anyway. Interestingly I am currently flatting with a man named Ginge. I bet Freud would have a field day.
She was never named. She officially belonged to my two older sisters (Ju, and Ju's Twin) and it wasn't that they couldn't agree on a name - it was a matter of 'no name is good enough for her.' Her whole life she was simply The Black Cat.

The Black Cat was almost the perfect pet. She could feed herself, she didn't worry if we were away for a long weekend. She loved the sun, she loved laps, she loved being cradled like a baby with her tummy being tickled. If visitors came she would wander over for a nosey and a possible pat. If Dad tossed her off HIS chair, she'd wait for him to get settled then jump up and sleep on his lap.
She was a silent cat. She'd sit by the door for half an hour waiting for it to open without once making a meow. Next to her brother - who clawed his laps, dribbled on his cuddler and let out a rousing Siamese yeowl every 20 seconds (that's an average, often it was every 2 seconds) - she was an angel.

The Black Cat accepting her prize for Most Popular Cat

Often we would come home from school and find the two cats on the back lawn. The Black Cat would be eating a rabbit like a mighty lioness and growling while her brother paced around her - the jackal who wanted her catch. We would frighten him away so she could eat her catch in piece. It wasn't until years later - long after I had left home and Ginge/Marmalade had gone - that we learned it was much more likely he had done the hunting, and she had stolen the rabbit off him. This made a rather embarrassing sense as we remembered it was always Ginge who caught lizards, skinks and mice.

There were other ways she wasn't quite the angel she made out to be. She disappeared for a few weeks with no word as to where and why she had left - not even a message with her brother. We worried and stressed. There are stray cats on the farm - people tend to dump their unwanted kittens out in the 'wilderness' where we come from. Had she been beaten up by another cat?
She came home pregnant and quite unrepentant without an apology but definitely with a sense of "Well I'll just cuddle you a lot more these next couple of days to make up for it."

(Possibly evil)

She had four kittens, each given away to become Prince, Minty, Toya, and Mother Cat.
Prince and Minty fell victim to tragic accidents involving a backing car and a swimming pool respectively, and Toya went to live with the local doctor and her young Dalmatian dog. Presumably the three are still living together today. Mother Cat was so named because she stayed in the valley where we are from with the local school teacher and her daughter. True to form Mother Cat followed in her mother's footsteps and disappeared into the wilderness for weeks, only to return with a rounder belly and four little future kittens. Smokey and Katie were given away, but when Mother Cat returned to the wilderness - this time pretty much for ever - Tiger and Fluffy stayed in the family. Two beautiful big - BIG and LEAN - tabby cats who loved a cuddle as much as their Grandmother. The school teacher and her daughter always referred to The Black Cat as Grandmother Cat, but it never really caught on.

Years later when us kids had all moved out and Mum and Dad had almost moved to Ashburton (a nearby town) there wasn't really anyone at home to look after an ageing Black Cat. She was getting too skinny, and a bit wobbly for any of us to believe she could still be catching her own food. My sister (Ju's Twin) was managing the farm but living in a cottage. She would come and feed her but it was proving a logistical pain in the proverbial. So it was decided The Black Cat would move to the cottage to live.
Well! Goodness me but it must have been like Heaven on Earth for the old girl. She was suddenly warm again, fed again, and most importantly, loved again.
In her older age she became more vocal and voiced both her love and her hunger with quick meows which held at their core the Siamese in her blood. She was always attended instantly and with compassion. But mostly she slept, and gave the most delicious hugs of her life - pressing her head and shoulders against her cuddler with such fervour you'd think she'd never been hugged. Her claws grew long as she stopped sharpening them and they would hook into your jumper like a physical manifestation of her desire never to be let go.

More recently she couldn't stand or walk so well - 'wobble' grew into 'unsteady' and became 'unstable.' Her appetite waned and 'skinny' was really rather 'anorexic.' So, in an Of Mice and Men moment, she was put down.
She won't be at home the next time I visit.
And home will be a little bit lonelier because of it.

Goodbye Black Cat. You'll never be forgotten.