Sunday, 30 March 2014

Why aren't we all at Whakatane?

A tentative title for this blog post was: "Please don't come to Whakatane, you'll spoil it".

However, being in a generous spirit I decided against this.

What is Whakatane (pronounced fark-a-tarnay)?

It's a small town in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty region and it feels like a perfect piece of South Pacific paradise.

This week I was there for work, but the idyllic setting certainly helped ease that burden.

Situated about a three-hour drive south-east of Auckland on the North Island, the town sits at the junction of the Whakatane River and the Pacific Ocean.

It's a laid back town that has plenty of appeal for visitors, yet didn't seem to be overrun by visitors.  In fact, the vast majority of people seemed be locals just getting on with their day.

Kiwi Boy overlooking the river
In town

Whakatane: where the river meets the sea
Unlike other picturesque coastal towns, like Australia's Byron Bay, there's a noticeable lack of "hippies" trying desperately to be alternative, or cashed-up, pretentious folk enthusing about a cup of coffee.   It's simple, unhurried and perfect.

The town's name commemorates an incident that occurred after the arrival of the Mataatua, one of the great voyaging canoes by which Polynesians migrated to New Zealand.   When the men were ashore and the canoe began to drift, Wairaka, a chieftainess, started to paddle (which women were not allowed to do) and saved the canoe.

This strong Maori connection to Whakatane is still evident today, including a statue commemorating Wairaka standing on a rock at the mouth of the river.

Statue of Wairaka looking back into Whakatane

Whale Island in the distance

Immediately offshore is Whale Island, while further away is White Island, New Zealand's most active cone volcano.

Whakatane is also renowned for having more sunshine than anywhere else in New Zealand, something I can certainly confirm.  With daylight savings still in effect, the evenings were long, mild and sunny.

The Whakatane River

Six kilometres away, "over the hill", is Ohope Beach, a 11km sandy stretch of beach leading to the Ohiwa Harbour entrance.

It has been named New Zealand's best beach and it's hard to dispute that.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Eurovision 2014 First Listen Party

Hello Europe!

After what seems like an eternity, it's Eurovison season once more.  Some say it's the best time of the year!

This year, 37 countries will be heading to Copenhagen for Eurovision, after Denmark won it last year.

To kick start the festivities, I've taken time out for my annual Eurovision 2014 First Listen Party.

The rules are simple:

  1. One invitee to the party and one attendee (me)
  2. Songs are played on random shuffle and I jot down my initial thoughts (though these do have a tendency to shift as time goes on!)

So let's dive into the audio buffet.

In a Danish nutshell

Overall, the songs sound much more contemporary than they have for several years.   There are quite a few darker-themed, slow-paced and reflective numbers, a marked departure from the usual party tunes and bubble-gum pop.  You could actually imagine many of these tracks being hits outside the Eurovision world, and it's not often you can say that.  I definitely detect less anthematic and kitchy songs this year (but don't worry there are still some).

Common themes

  1. Light and fire (Azerbaijan, Austria)
  2. Storm and rain (Sweden, Norway, Spain)
  3. Stars and sky (Switzerland, Georgia, FYR Macedonia, Austria, Russia)
  4. Food (Latvia, Belarus)
  5. A little bit of country and western (Malta, Netherlands)
  6. Mums (Latvia, Belgium)

The one everyone will talk about
Rise Like a Phoenix by Conchita Wurst (Austria)
This will be the song the grabs the headlines.  It's classic Eurovision.  Why?  Well, I don't want to spoil the surprise, but check it out the photo below and Youtube.  Importantly, it's also a solid song with strong singing to back up the theatrics.

The picture says it all really: Conchita Wurst

My top 10 picks (in no particular order)
Silent Storm by Carl Espen (Norway)
A simple, but strong contender from Norway.  Backed by a piano and some strings, Carl's vocals are evocative.  

Calm After The Storm by The Common Linnets (Netherlands)
It might be representing the Netherlands, but this song has strong country and western roots.  It's a chilled and reflective song by the duo and I really like it.

Round and Round by Tinkara Kovac (Slovenia)
Is that a flute I hear?  Yes, Tinkara is a double threat, with strong vocals and some flute playing. Is she the Alexander Rybak (the violin-playing winner of Eurovision 2009) of 2014?  This is her fourth and only successful attempt to represent Slovenia at Eurovision.  And it's a catchy tune to boot.

Not Alone by Aram MP3 (Armenia)
A really strong contender from Armenia.  It starts off slow and low, but builds intensity and has an almost haunting finish.  Some parts sound a litlte bit Coldplay?

Running by Andras Kallay-Saunders (Hungry)
The verse is mellow before it switches to a higher octane chorus.  Another really strong contender.  Atmospheric.

Same Heart by Mei Feingold (Israel)
The first thing that hits you with this song is Mei's deep and powerful voice.  It gives this song more of a soft rock quality, something with a bit more edge than the usual pop.  One of the strongest entries from Israel in years.

Tick-Tock by Maria Yaremchuk (Ukraine)
An up-tempo, bubble-gum pop song from Ukraine this year.   It will gain attention because it's a) from the Ukraine and b) not as dark, slow and intense as many of this year's entrants.  It's got a catchy little chorus too.

Children of the Universe by Molly (United Kingdom)
What?!  No Englebert or Bonnie?  Well, that's probably for the best.  While I liked their songs, it seemed Europe didn't.  I think the UK is back on the right track with this strong entry by the hip and young Molly.  Could this be the song that elevates the UK from last place?

Cliche Love Song by Basim (Denmark)
I really like this song, even if it does seem to unnecessarily drop the f-bomb in there for no good reason (I wonder what they'll replace that with on the night?).  Sounds a little bit Bruno Mars.  On closer inspection, the lyrics seem to cry out against the usual pop songs, but ironically the melody is a great little pop tune.  

Undo by Sanna Nielsen (Sweden)
Starting off quiet, this is a captivating song from Sweden.  It's simple, but Sanna's vocals deliver.  And there's the obligatory key change towards the end.  

The "what were they on?" entry
Cheesecake by Teo (Belarus)
Yes.  It really is called Cheesecake.  And the song almost manages to reference Dirty Dancing.  It will be a novelty on the night, and then never mentioned again.

Cheesecake.  Probably best to eat rather than sing about

Other solid efforts (because everyone can't be in the top 10)
Dancing in the Rain by Ruth Lorenzo (Spain)
Ruth is a The X Factor UK alumni, and gives a solid English / Spanish song here encouraging us all to keep dancing in the rain no matter what.  Perhaps not the best advice for the kids, but a catchy tune aided by some power vocals none-the-less.

My Slowianie by Donatan and Cleo (Poland)
The title translates as Us Slavs and I get the feeling Cleo is the Nicki Minaj of Poland.  It's a bit street, but is musical enough to sustain interest, even with the folk interlude in the middle.

Start A Fire by Dilara Kazimova (Azerbaijan)
Azerbaijan has always been a strong contender in recent Eurovision years and 2014 isn't an exception.  It's a slower paced song compared to previous years and sometimes verges on the edge of wailing, but gets some points for featuring the national musical instrument, the balaban (a double-reed wind instrument).  

Coming Home by Firelight (Malta)
Another song that sounds a little bit country.  Perhaps Europe is gravitating towards Nashville these days.  A strong acoustic guitar propels this song along. 

Rise Up by Freaky Fortune featuring Riskykidd (Greece)
Starting with a bit of rap, this song had me worried.  However, it's a legitimate techno effort from Greece and doesn't fall into the kitchy or jokey formula they've adopted in more recent years.

Quero Ser Tua by Suzy (Portugal)
Translating as I want to be yours, how could you not like a song by someone called Suzy.  It sounds like a beach anthem that might blasting on a Portugal beach.  It feels at home at Eurovision, particularly in contrast to the more serious and reflective soft rock entries.  It will be fun on the night.

Is It Right by Elaiza (Germany)
For some reason I keep thinking Pink when I hear the lead singer, but it works for this song, which initially plods along but then picks up for the chorus.  This three-piece, all-female band features an accordion and string bass.  How can you go wrong?

Elaiza from Germany

Moustache by Twin Twin (France)
Never shy of pushing the boat out a little bit further than the rest, this year we have the French band Twin Twin.  Apparently it's not a joke song but provides biting social commentary about a guy who has everything, but can't grow the one thing he wants... a moustache.

Attention by Vilija Mataciunaite (Lithuania)
A little bit of pop punk from Vilija that grabs attention, in a good way.  The chorus is quite catchy.

To The Sky by Tijana Dapcevic (FYR Macedonia)
Sounds like Macedonia's answer to Pink.  This is a solid entry and should do well. 

Amazing by Tanja (Estonia)
A slightly techno entry from Tanja, almost bordering on anthematic.  Not sure it's as catchy as it should be to live up to its title.

Wild Soul by Cristina Scarlat (Moldova)
A strong beat and equally strong vocals by Cristina gives this song a very theatrical feel.  It will be interesting to see what they do on the Copenhagen stage.  

Mother by Axel Hirsoux (Belgium)
A dramatic number from Axel and lyrically quite a departure from the usual Eurovision "this is the night", "let's party", "let's dance" fodder.  A truly heartfelt track that will probably come across well on stage.

Shine by Tolmachevy Sisters (Russia)
I'm hoping the Russian dressing room is situated far away from the Ukrainian one.  I can't help but think Russia's geopolitical actions may overshadow this catchy tune from a set of Russian twins (who actually won Junior Eurovision in 2006).  Still, if anything can elevate us above politics, it has to be Eurovision

Moj Svijet by Sergej Cetkovic (Montenegro)
The song title means My World and it's a pretty little ditty sung in Montenegrin.  I have a growing appreciation for artists who perform songs in their mother tongue.

Miracle by Paula and Ovi (Romania)
They're back!  After playing with fire in 2010, this duo is back with another solid pop track.  There's even a obligatory key change in the middle.  I wonder if they will be bringing their perspex piano again.  Fingers crossed.

Not raving about these (but maybe they'll grow on me?)
No Prejudice by Pollaponk (Iceland)
This song feels a little over the place.  It has a bit of message in there, then sometimes feels like a '90s band, and I'm sure I heard some disco in the middle.  Well, that's Pollaponk for you (I guess?).

Not the Wiggles, but Pollaponk

One Night's Anger by Hersi Matmuja (Albania)
Hersi's angelic little voice is a contrast to the title of this song.  There's lots of lyrics in this one, which are spit out at a fairly high pitch, broken by an electric guitar rift in the middle.  Not for me I'm afraid.

Hunter of Stars by Sebalter (Switzerland)
This fast, folk-sounding song even comes with some whistling for good measure.  The lyrics come thick and fast, so not quite sure what it's all about when all is said and done.

Three Minutes to Earth by The Shin and Mariko (Georgia)
This sounds like experimental music at its finest.  The tempo switches, there's wailing and I don't really know what they're saying, though it is English.  Something about skydivers, love.  I'm just not sure.

Maybe by Valentina Monetta (San Marino)
I question how many singers there must be in San Marino as this is Valentina's third year in a row representing her country.  Sadly, I will always remember her for her awful The Social Network Song in 2012.  While this song is better, I don't think we'll be heading to San Marino next year.

La Mia Citta by Emma Marrone (Italy)
One of the few rock sounding entries this year, La Mia Citta (My City) is a sound effort and it is automatically in the final because of Italy's "Big Five" status.  A winner?  I don't think so.

Cake to Bake by Aarzemnieki (Latvia)
A fun, acoustic and light-hearted entry from Latvia that might prove to be a shining light among the more intense and atmospheric entries that dominate this year's entries.  Yep, he's got a cake to bake and he's got no clue at all.  New theme song for Masterchef?

Something Better by Softengine (Finland)
A rock entry from Finland this year, but it's not Lorde.

Heartbeat by Can-Linn featuring Kasey Smith (Ireland)
Ireland tends to go one of two ways: traditional complete with fiddles or pure pop (hello Jedward).  This year they're doing pop again.  It's a good effort but it never seems to really lift off as Eurovision songs need to do.   But hey, at least it isn't Jedward.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Auckland weekend wanderings

I've only been to Auckland once before.  Very briefly.

On route to Christchurch two years ago, an elderly lady suffered a heart attack and so our plane was diverted to Auckland mid-flight.

Apart from experiencing quite possibly the world's fastest taxi from the runway to the terminal to meet waiting medical staff, I didn't get to see to much more of the city.

Fast forward to this weekend and I've enjoyed discovering more of what the city has to offer.

Auckland's Skytower in the CBD 
Funky little cafe-filled streets

Australians often like to talk New Zealand and its residents down.

However, the more I travel to New Zealand, the more I'm convinced this is simply a manifestation of the green-eyed monster.

Auckland's CBD from the water

I wasn't sure what to expect from Auckland, but what I found was a vibrant and green city, whose rolling hills overlook a beautiful harbour and outlying beaches.

It reminded me of a better, more compact version of Sydney.

Auckland's harbour

The University of Auckland's CBD campus and hordes of young international backpackers give the city a vibrant and casual vibe, while the city's eastern beachside suburbs radiate an enviable seaside lifestyle.

While the city's stately old buildings serve as a reminder of Auckland's European history, it doesn't feel as though this is a place that's living in the past.   Instead, it's modern and funky, but without being pretentious.

One of Auckland's historic buildings
Auckland's old and new

Auckland's Waitemata Harbour is the real showpiece of the city, with numerous islands within easy reach of the CBD across the turquoise waters.

Auckland's harbour

From the central Ferry Building, I took the 12-minute ferry ride to Devonport, a suburb on the North Shore peninsula across the harbour.
Auckland's Ferry Building

This seaside village is a great little spot for a daytrip; not too far away, but far enough to feel like you're somewhere different.

Devonport on a sunny day

Devonport almost has a Victorian seaside town feel, thanks to the grand looking Esplanade Hotel.   But unlike its English counterparts, Devonport has sunshine and lots of shady waterfront parks.
The Esplanade Hotel

On this Sunday, it was a hive of activity as locals and visitors enjoyed lunch and soaked up the sunshine.
Devonport seaside

Devonport's King Edward Parade Reserve is a shady park that weaves its way along the waterfront, taking you to quieter stretches of Auckland's North Shore.

King Edward Parade Reserve

Back in the CBD, a giant cruise ship is sounding its horn as it slowly makes it way out to sea.

After just a brief time in Auckland, it's no surprise to me that this little Pacific city is on the cruise ship route.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Following Gandhi's last steps

The raised concrete footprints chart the last steps of Mahatma Gandhi.

They lead from the door of his simple room and stop a short distance away, where he was shot dead on his way to evening prayers on 30 January 1948.

Gandhi's last footsteps
They are a simple, but poignant, reminder of the last moments of Gandhi's epic 78 years; a life that saw him transform from lawyer to politician to civil rights campaigner to "Father of India".

It was here at Gandhi Smriti, formerly Old Birla House, in New Delhi that Gandhi lived the last 144 days of his life.

The footsteps leading from his simple accommodation
Apart from his footsteps, Gandhi Smriti also preserves the room where Gandhi lived, complete with his simple belongings, such as his walking stick, spectacles, spinning wheel and sandals.

As part of his non-cooperation platform, Gandhi invented a small, portable spinning wheel that could be easily transported, encouraging fellow Indians to boycott foreign-made goods, including cloth.

Gandhi's simple accommodation and meagre possessions

Elsewhere in the complex, the Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum remembers his life and his feats.

In line with Gandhi's humble and nonviolent resistance, Gandhi Smriti itself has been kept small and intimate.  I get the feeling that little has changed in the house and the grounds since the day Gandhi was shot dead by a Hindu extremist.

At the entrance is a statue of Gandhi, flanked by a boy and girl holding a dove, emerging from a globe, meant to symbolise his universal concern for the poor and deprived.  The base of the sculpture reads: "My life is my message".

Like most who learn about his life, I admire his honesty, compassion, fairness and peaceful approach, and it is little wonder he continues to be praised in his homeland and abroad.  Sadly, I can't help but think they don't make leaders like this anymore.

Gandhi statue at Gandhi Smriti entrance
I visited Gandhi Smriti on my first day in New Delhi and my first day in India.

It was an introduction to a man I was to be constantly reminded of during my remaining time in India, such was his impact on the country as it forged its independence from Britain (achieved in 1947).

His last moments may be preserved here at Gandhi Smriti, but it feels as though anyone visiting India will see traces of Gandhi's footsteps across the country.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Pick and mix: the art of choosing travel destinations

For me, this week has been all about travel planning.

Apart from locking in where I'm off to during the next 12 months, I also enjoyed plotting with work colleagues where they'd like to go on their honeymoons.

The world's a big place and I started to think how myself and others select our holiday destinations.

I must admit I often feel a bit of pressure picking my next travel destination as I want to make sure I get it "right".  After all, it takes a bit of money and time to just get out of Australia so I want to make sure the final destination is worth it.

It seems choosing the next holiday hot spot boils down to one or a few of the following:

1.  Referrals:  "You simply MUST go to...", "You would LOVE..."
It's no surprise that you and your friends have often been to many of the same countries.  We assume that if anyone is going to be able to reassure us that we'll have a good time a particular destination it would have to be those who have the same interests as ours.
Forbidden City in Beijing

2.  Family ties
Around the River Kwai I was surprised to discover quite a few Dutch tourists, but then I discovered that many Dutch POWs worked on the Thai-Burma railway during WWII.  Family and national links with another country seem to be a strong drawcard for us.  I guess that's why so many Aussies end up in the UK.
Hellfire Pass in Thailand

3.  Films, TV, books, legends and songs:  "Edelweiss, edelweiss..."
I always wanted to go to Salzburg after watching the Sound of Music.  The influence of popular culture is everywhere, so why not on our travel choices.  Films, book and the rest do a great job of inspiring us and selling new places.  In the case of the film Casablanca, it seems the fact that none of it was ever shot in the city hasn't been a barrier to the throng of tourists jetting there seeking Rick's Cafe.

"Let's start at the very beginning..." in Salzburg

4.  The big hitters
I've always thought it would be so easy marketing places like London, Rome, Venice, Paris and New York.  Their status as some of the world's premier cities means tourists will always visit there no matter what.  It's no surprise that most people's first big international jaunt involves one of these cities.

Some cities will always be popular destinations

5.  Deals and bargains
Just as people buy eight rolls of toilet paper for $4, so too they pick their holiday destination because it's either cheap to get there, cheap when you're there or both.  Throw in cheap alcohol and you're guaranteed a flock of Australians.

Temples in Cambodia

6.  Off the beaten track
The anti-tourist will seek out places no one has ever heard of, often just to say they've been to that place no one has ever heard of.

Somewhere in Mongolia

7.  Hobbies
Whether it's cycling, skiing, surfing or some other sport or hobby, sometimes there's only selected places in the world where you can do these things.   Many destinations have established themselves as the "Mecca of (insert interest here)" so you're bound to want to go.

Sometimes you've just got to go where there's snow

8.  It's close
It takes an awful long time to get anywhere from Australia so it's no surprise that the countries closest to us, like New Zealand and those in Asia, are more likely to get our attention.  Sometimes the thought of spending more than 20 hours on a plane to get somewhere is just too much to contemplate.

Nha Trang in Vietname

9.  A little bit of history
This aspect has particular appeal to some Australians as our cities have very little in them that isn't more than a few decades old.  For us, it's pretty astounding to see something that has been standing around for centuries.  Contrast this to the attitude of some Europeans you come across who seem a bit bored with all the "old stuff".

By Scotland's Loch Ness

10.  The pretty things:  buildings, art, monuments and landscapes
Let's face it.  We like pretty things and we'll travel around the world to look at them.  Whether they are natural landscapes, or man-made buildings, monuments and art, we aspire to be inspired by the beauty.

Taj Mahal

11.  Food, glorious food
If you add in flight and accommodation costs, that cup of coffee in Italy or tapas in Spain is ridiculously expensive.  But sometimes you'll think that tasty dish is totally worth it.
Food, glorious food, in Spain