Posted by: JLG | 23 February 2015

Big Plans Afoot

Last year, J2 and I met with an architect to talk about possibly expanding three of our guest rooms (the Park, Nest and Garden Rooms, which are in our annex building at the rear of the property). The architect drew up some plans, and we took those with us to our meetings with travel agents last year, eliciting a great deal of interest, since those rooms will go from being our smallest and most challenging to sell, to being our largest, and most desirable. In the ensuing months the architect has made a few changes to the design, both due to his own insights and due to input we have received from people we have consulted about the project.

A few weeks ago, we met with a local builder (who is also a friend of ours whom I met initially through the Rotary Club), and he has expressed interest in handling the build. On Sunday he came by to discuss some of his thoughts on how to improve the design, which would result in turning our currently smallest room, the Garden Room, into by far our largest. (I like the idea of this, since it’s like an architectural evocation of the adage that “the last shall be first”.) Today the architect came by to move things forward a bit, and we had him meet with the builder so that they can get on the same page. We also walked through the building to point out those elements that we will retain (doors, shower fittings, sinks, etc) and those we’ll replace (the bare minimum).

The next step is to ensure that Heritage NZ has no objection to our changing the building. Having spoken on the weekend with the people who first rebuilt that structure in the 1990s, I have learned that they encountered no heritage issues with their build, so I suspect that should not have changed (fingers crossed). Then we will need local Council approval (should not be too hard to get) and we’ll need to get the money for the build from the bank (that may be the big stumbling block).

If all goes well, we’ll start the project in early June, just in time for me to leave on my marketing trip, where I’ll be able to show off the new big rooms, and the rooms should be ready by October, when our travel season picks up speed. No longer will we have to dread the frequent questions from travel agents about the square meterage of our rooms, and no longer will we have to feel apologetic when guests are assigned to our annex rooms.

I am considering changing the names of the rooms when this all happens so that it will be obvious that there has been a change. My thought is to rename the Garden Room (remember, it’ll be our biggest) to “The Bulleid Room” in honour of the family who built the lodge, and the Park Room (our second-largest) to the “McDiarmid Room” to honour the next family to live here, from 1923 to 1994. That leaves the Nest Room to be renamed. One thought is to call it the “Wilson Room” after the third family here, the ones who converted it into a lodge, but their time here was limited, so another thought is to call it the Whitestone Room (for the local stone, out of which the building is constructed), or the “Waitaki Room” (our District) or even the “Oamaru Room”. Any thoughts?

Posted by: JLG | 16 February 2015

Photos from Chinese Guests

Forgot to attach these to my post just now!

Posted by: JLG | 16 February 2015

Frantic February is Upon Us!

When it comes to travel to New Zealand, February is the big month when it seems everyone wants to be here. We have had more sold-out days so far this month than ever before, and a week straight of not a single empty room. All that’s very good, of course, but it leads to two very tired boys (us) and two very upset boys (the dogs, who clearly miss spending time with us). So far this month we have had a few memorable guests, some for good reasons, and some for not so good reasons.

One of the good ones was our first celebrity rock-and-roller. To be honest, I had never heard of him prior to his booking, but I looked him up and he was the real deal, and I had definitely heard of his band. I confess that I had some preconceived notions about what a rocker would be like as a guest, but he turned out to be extremely gracious, and an interesting conversationalist and he turned out to be a real oenophile and turophile (look it up!). He and his wife are also avid wildlife lovers, so the penguins were on their agenda, and did not disappoint.

We have also had a good string of Chinese guests, most of whom have been guilty of the age-old habit of “forgetting” to mention that they would be checking in with a child. Fortunately, when this has happened we have been able to organise a rollaway bed for them, but what would we do if we did not have the bed available, or if the room they were checking into was one that cannot accommodate a bed? One of these groups arrived just the other day, saying how much they loved the house and how they had been reading our website ever since they made the booking, and looked forward to their stay. They also said that they had wished they could have stayed a second night, but we were full their hoped-for second night. I told them that in fact we were not full the second night, so they asked if I could help them cancel their other booking. Surprisingly, the other place (a motel in Dunedin where their room would cost a whopping $185) agreed to cancel without a penalty, so we got them for a second night, with dinner added in. They were really pleased with their meal, which was Chinese but not Sichuan (for the most part, anyway, since while the grandma is from Chongqing and likes her food spicy, grandpa is Shanghainese and cannot take chillies), and even asked to take some of the leftovers with them to take to their next destination. They even gave me a big hug on departing (not a common thing for Chinese to do) and took lots of photos with me.

We also had a string of Americans, and some of them have been not so lovely. One couple included a wife with a string of allergies (that somehow were not an issue when it involved a dish that looked enticing and tasted good) who not only made my life a bit of a pain, but she even managed to annoy our friend Toni, since she visited Toni’s café for a bite to eat one day and pronounced that the roll she was served would “kill me if I ate it” since it bore seeds on the surface and she is allergic to nuts. Toni tried to explain that seeds are not nuts, but the guest just said “take it away, and replace it with a croissant”, which Toni dutifully did, not even charging her for the more expensive item. But bad as the wife was, the husband turned out to be worse. He arrived with a sore knee from a long hike, and asked if we could arrange a massage for him. Since it was Valentine’s weekend, it was a bit hard to schedule, but we managed it, and he went off on Saturday for his massage at a new facility not too far away. Today, the facility rang me to ask if he was still checked in with us (they left yesterday), and to let me know that the masseuse had complained to the owner that the guest had requested “additional services” at the end of his massage (!!). I had no words to apologise for his behaviour, and tried to assure her that this was not typical of our guests (I hope…), and I’m not sure why she told me (what, was I supposed to confront him about it??) but it made me dislike this pair even more than I had.

If you have not already heard, I have booked my trip to the US (and Canada) for this June and July, and expect to be visiting DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Connecticut and New York, with a possible side trip to Denver and/or Houston, and then finally LA. I hope to be able to see as many of my friends in those places as possible, so if you’ll be around in any of those, let’s talk!

Posted by: JLG | 24 January 2015

Summer is Here!

It’s the height of summer here in Oamaru, and in contrast with the past couple of years (last year especially) this one actually feels like summer. In fact, the weather has been so summery, and dry, that some of the area’s farmers are experiencing a bit of a drought. Happily, the dry, warm, conditions have been a boon for local stone fruit orchards, whose fruit has been benefiting enormously. Our garden has been benefitting too, with a record-breaking harvest of blackcurrants, raspberries, fava beans and peas coming out of our little vegetable patch. I’ve managed to harvest a huge number of cucumbers at the point when they’re still good for pickling, and have already churned out a couple of batches of pickles worthy of Gus’s on Hester Street. Ashley has been making great use of our patch on our dinner plates, especially with baby vegetables that have delighted our guests (nothing is as cute as a baby striped beet or a baby purple carrot on the plate), which in turn has kept J2 busy starting seeds and tending to the garden even while keeping up with his other responsibilities around the lodge.

Speaking of the lodge, we have been keeping very busy with guests ever since Christmas, and thanks to our good relations with a number of high-end travel agents that focus on some more ‘exotic’ parts of the world, we have seen guests come from places as exotic as Azerbaijan. In fact, with the Azerbaijan guests, I was a bit apprehensive about them, since I wondered what Azeris wealthy enough to afford a trip to NZ and a stay at a lodge like ours would be like. I anticipated a corrupt oil industry official or something along those lines, and girded myself for a challenging stay. Imagine my surprise, then, when the guests turned out to be an absolutely lovely group comprising a young Azeri man working for one of the big accounting firms, his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law! In fact, they wound up being some of our favourite guests in a while. In contrast, we had a set of guests coming from Belgium whom we very much looked forward to arriving, since our gingerbread house this year was based on a building in Belgium. We even kept the gingerbread house up longer than usual so they’d be able to see it. Unfortunately, they turned out to be a rather dour group who barely even acknowledged the gingerbread, and even impressed another (lovely) group staying at the same time as them with their apparent lack of taking any pleasure in being on holiday. Oh, well, their loss.

Seems we are not the only ones working on promoting Oamaru and the Waitaki District to outsiders (ref. our new website for the Waitaki Tourism Association and associated app). In recent days a group of young and dynamic local business people have formed a group they’re calling Grow North Otago, aimed at promoting the area as a place for other young and dynamic types to migrate to and set up their own businesses. They have produced a video that highlights the area’s attractions and appeal for young business owners who have moved here to set up their operations. (I was a bit miffed at first that we were not interviewed, but then it hit me that I’m not exactly a “young” business owner. Sob.) Take a look at their video below:

Not much else to report just now. I have to get back to the kitchen and put another batch of pickles up…

Posted by: JLG | 23 December 2014

Fifth Anniversary

Under normal circumstances, the arrival of an email message would not be the sort of thing that would be especially memorable. Who remembers when any particular message arrives, and who would even bother to commemorate such a mundane occurrence? But when the email in question is one that changes your life, it takes on a bit more meaning, and the date of its arrival becomes one imbued with extra meaning.

And thus the arrival of an otherwise unremarkable email on 23 December 2009 in J2’s inbox, and its subsequent forwarding to mine, is one that I tend to commemorate. That email, from a real estate agent in Christchurch, set the ball rolling that led us to where we are today. The subject line was “Here’s the place for you…” and it started with this prophetic sentence: “I’ve attached a place I think could be suitable for you. It’s in Oamaru.” We had never heard of Oamaru, and in fact didn’t even know how to pronounce it (I initially thought it would be pronounced like “Wamaru” for some reason), but through the power of Google Maps’ street view function we were soon familiar with the layout of the town, the range of its shops, and decided it was worth a look. You of course know the rest of the story if you have been reading this blog.

As this fifth year ends and we look forward to the impending fifth anniversary of our arrival in our new hometown, it is interesting to see how much has changed here in the time since we arrived in Oamaru. When we arrived, the Lonely Planet guidebook dedicated a scant two pages or so to Oamaru and the surrounding area; today we merit a full nine pages, and in the edition just released a few months ago they even state that Oamaru is “quite simply, New Zealand’s coolest town”. A NZ television show held a contest to choose the country’s “sharpest town” and Oamaru ran away with it. New shops and restaurants open regularly, and their calibre continuously improves.

When we arrived we knew that we wanted to get involved in local affairs beyond the confines of our own little business, but I don’t think we ever thought that it would happen so quickly. I am now on no fewer than four local boards: the local farmers’ market (which I helped set up); the trust that oversees the maintenance and restoration of the town’s historic buildings; a voluntary association of tourism businesses; and the local council-owned tourism authority cum economic development board. Even J2–normally somewhat more shy about getting involved in things–has joined in, designing a smartphone app for the tourism association to help visitors find their way among the district’s tourist sites, while also promoting the association’s members’ businesses (you can download it at www.oamaru.me/wta-android or www.oamaru.me/wta-iphone and check it out, though the iPhone version is still awaiting approval at the App Store). This has had the unexpected effect of luring more local businesses to join the association, and spurring more of them to become a bit more internet-friendly and tech-savvy. The development of the app has, in turn, prodded the group to embrace the creation of a website, which I took on, and which you can visit at waitaki.wordpress.com.

In addition to all these things that we’ve had a hand in, other Oamaruvians have also been pushing in the same direction, with a bevy of creative types firming up the town’s reputation as the Steampunk capital of NZ, if not the world, and sporty outdoorsy types have pushed for the creation of the country’s longest cycle trail that terminates at the Oamaru harbour. The national tourism agency just released a video of this trail, which you can view below (it’ll start right before a certain lodge that we all hold dearly makes its entrance, but please do watch the whole thing):

In addition, enterprising young people have made Oamaru into the home of not one, but two of the country’s best craft brewers, several new food businesses, and quirky shops. A critical mass has yet to be achieved, but the days when Oamaru was known as the place where your grandparents retired to are coming to an end.

We certainly thought we saw some unrealised potential when we first arrived in Oamaru for a look at the house that we now call our own, but we never thought that so much of it would be realised quite so quickly. We feel that, for once in our life, we have managed to be on the cutting edge of an emerging trend. Though perhaps that email from five years ago today was right when the sender wrote “…there’s lot’s of potential [and] enthusiastic people would do well here.” Well, we certainly don’t lack for enthusiasm!

Posted by: JLG | 24 October 2014

My New Job(s)

A few weeks ago there was a resignation on the board of the local council-owned business that runs our regional tourism board. The person who resigned was the chairman of the business, and previously had been the general manager of the tourism board until she resigned from that position to have her first baby (in the intervening time–which is no more than three years–she has gone on to have two other babies, which is what prompted this latest resignation). I contacted the mayor to see if it would be reasonable for me to submit an application to join the board, given the fact that I’m also on a few other boards, including the one that looks after our farmers’ market and the one responsible for managing the historic buildings in the centre of town, as well as a local tourism business association and of course the luxury lodge association. He saw no problem, and in fact rather encouraged me to apply, since he thought my background would be of use, and that he would also like me to get on a board that pays a stipend, since all my other work is uncompensated.

I submitted an application and soon got word that I was one of four people short-listed who would be brought in for an interview. I had the interview, which I thought went pretty well, but as I left I saw that the next person going in was the husband of the outgoing member of the board. I pretty much figured that it was an inside job, and that I’d be passed over, but as it turns out, I was wrong and I was told that very evening that I had blown the other candidates out of the water and would be confirmed at an upcoming meeting of council. Before long I was called in for an induction meeting with the GM of the tourism board (someone I know pretty well already), and to turn in my tax forms, and in a few weeks I’ll attend my first meeting.

So that was pretty exciting, but then earlier in the week I was approached to take on another new job, that of kitchen hand at a new cafe in town. Now, to be fair, it was relatively informal, and the approach was made by my sous chef, Ashley, who was leaving her day job to become the chef at this new cafe. The new place is owned by a young couple with great ideas about providing Oamaru with a hip new place to have some interesting food that no one else is doing, such as Turkish eggs, steamed Chinese dumplings, and gourmet sandwiches, many of which I actually recommended to them (and some of which use my recipes). So as the opening day approached, Ashley was getting more and more nervous, and in the end she asked if I would help out on opening day. Thus I found myself at the cafe this morning at 8am, a full two-and-a-half hours after Ashley and a kitchen hand arrived to bake their sourdough bread (using my starter, btw), and I spent the next six hours as a short-order cook, helping to poach and scramble eggs, steam dumplings, assemble sandwiches, fry Thai-style squid strips, prep condiments etc. It was tremendously fun, and pretty busy from start to finish, and I managed to convince Ashley that my way of poaching eggs was better than hers, and to persuade her to switch from a North Island bacon supplier to a local one, who even came by to see what it was we wanted him to prepare for them. I plan to go back in tomorrow and help them find their feet, and then will leave it to them to manage on their own for the rest of this long weekend.

October has been a very slow month for us, with only a handful of guests, but it all picks up quickly next month, so I’m not too sure when my next post will be.

Posted by: JLG | 7 September 2014

Visiting Sydney

IMG_7083It has long surprised our friends and neighbours here in NZ that, with all the travelling we’ve done over the years, and especially given that we now live in NZ, we have never visited Australia. There are a couple of reasons for this, and the one that I’ve always told our Australian guests is that I was traumatised by being taken by my father to see Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout as a young child (it was on a double-bill with one of the Planet of the Apes movies) and I begged him never to take me to the horrible, terrifying country where it took place. (If you never saw the film–and it seems very few people have–it’s about a pair of spoiled kids from Sydney whose unhinged father strands them in the outback, leaving them to fend for themselves as they struggle to get back to the city, with only their meagre possessions and an Aborigine boy on his ritual walkabout, to help them.) But probably the main reason was lack of interest, since prior to moving here the country seemed too far away, and too similar to the US, to be worth travelling to when there were more exotic places we had yet to visit.

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So why did I go now? It was purely to attend a luxury trade show that our lodge association had negotiated a good deal for, and since it was coming so soon after our return from our big trip, J2 decided that he would stay behind and take care of the house (and the dogs) while I made the trip on my own. 

The trade show lasted three days, but I decided to spend six days to give me a chance to spend a bit of time actually enjoying the city. Flying in early on Friday, and with the first trade show events only on Sunday, I had two full days to explore before having to get down to work. I fully expected Sydney, with its reputation for sun and warmth, to be, well, sunny and warm, so I was a bit disappointed to find that it was in fact grey, rainy and actually pretty chilly. As a result, my first impressions of the city were decidedly mixed, since it seemed like just an antipodean version of Vancouver. Happily for me, and the future of my relationship with our big neighbour, the weather improved markedly on Sunday (naturally, the day that I started having to spend most of my time indoors) and I developed a much greater fondness for the city.

jg-20140831-8594I found Sydney to be extremely easy to navigate, something that became a bit of a joke since my lodge-owner colleagues kept coming to me for help getting around the place even though all of them had been before and it was my first time. Perhaps it’s due to my having been raised in NYC and being used to public transportation, or perhaps it’s because I am good at using Google Maps, but I certainly became very familiar with Sydney’s numerous ferries, buses and trains very quickly. It didn’t hurt that Sydney offers some very visitor-friendly public transport fares, including a Sunday deal where you can ride as much as you like and spend just AUS$2.50. 

On my first day I really didn’t do anything much other than wander more or less aimlessly through the centre of town, visiting bookstores, clothing shops etc but buying nothing. The guy I was staying with through AirBNB took me out for a drink in the evening at a very happening place in a converted old department store before I met up with Malcolm, a fellow lodge owner, for dinner at Tetsuya’s. Tetsuya’s is probably Sydney’s first real world-class restaurant, set up 25 years ago and always winning top awards in annual restaurant rankings. I had wanted to visit ever since I first heard of it, so when Malcolm suggested it, since he once worked with Tetsuya himself a number of years ago, I leapt at the chance, even though it promised to be a very expensive evening. In the end, the food was exceptional but the service left me a bit cold, as did the plating, which was kind of boring, but Malcolm and I had a great time enjoying the experience and a chance to spend a bit of time together for a change.

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Exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art

On Saturday I got a bit touristy, starting off my morning with a short visit to The Rocks market (a weekend event in the neighbourhood where Sydney was first established) and a  lengthy stop at the impressive Museum of Contemporary Art. Even though the day continued to be rainy and chilly, I decided to venture out a bit further from the centre, riding the ferry to Manly for lunch. As the ferry proceeded across the bay, an unintelligible announcement came over the loudspeakers. I had no idea what they were telling us until suddenly the boat began rocking and rolling as we hit a stretch of open water where the weather had more of an impact on the waves. Once in Manly, I found a little place for lunch where I had my first taste of barramundi, a fish that I see prepared a lot on Masterchef Australia. It’s a delicious fish, and the place’s chef managed to turn it into the best fish and chips I have ever had. In the evening, in contrast with the previous night’s blow-out dinner at Testuya’s, I decided to try Japanese food at the other extreme of the price spectrum, having an ethereal bowl of ramen noodles at a stall in a food court. Even though it cost 1/20 what I paid at Tetsuya’s, I imagine I’ll remember those noodles much longer!

My booth at the show

My booth at the show

These trade shows inevitably include a lot of socialising, and with a luxury travel show you’d think they’d take you to the crème de la crème of the host city. So I was a bit surprised that the opening reception was to be held at Luna Park, an amusement park on the other side of the harbour from the central business district. One advantage of this location was that it afforded me a chance to ride the ferry over in the evening, giving me a chance to get some nice shots of the city. And in fact the reception was in a fairly nondescript building that could have been anywhere, though the food and drinks they served were pretty good (and no, there was no cotton candy or popcorn). On the second night the organisers invited high-end consumers to the trade show and had a leading Sydney restaurant, Quay, cater a cocktail party for them. Unfortunately, the servers were under orders not to let any exhibitors near the food (even though we were the ones paying to be there), so a bunch of us decided to leave and fend for ourselves for dinner. When we got to our chosen restaurant, Mr Wong’s, which had been recommended to me by many former guests of ours and is even owned by a former guest, we were surprised to find that a huge contingent of NZ lodge owners and managers had made the same choice! Happily for all of us, the food was excellent.

The trade show was held in a converted wharf on the inside of the harbour, just under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like most of these events, the days of the show were filled with 15-minute meetings with agents from around the world, some of whom were aware of us but most of whom were not (I purposely chose to meet more with new agents, since that seemed to me to have the most potential impact on our business). Even though I started the show with a bit of nervousness (“what am I doing here, alongside all these super-lodges and Ritz-Carltons?”) after a couple of very positive meetings that dissipated and I got into a bit of a groove. All together I had about 50 meetings, and only one or two were duds, or seemed to be, and I ended the show feeling very glad that I went. Now I’ll have to plan to return some day for a proper visit, and perhaps even bring J2 along.

 

Posted by: JLG | 20 August 2014

Election Fever

As I am sure all my readers around the world are only too painfully aware, New Zealand will be going to the polls in a few short weeks to select the people who will run the country for the next three years. (What, NZ’s election is not front-page news around the world? How can that be??) Well, be that as it may, this is the first time that we are eligible to vote in a national election, so I have been paying more attention this time around than I did in 2011, when after all, all the candidates, parties, positions and issues were completely opaque to me. Back in those early days of our time in the country, I had only ever really encountered two NZ politicians–the Prime Minister, John Key, and our local MP, Jacqui Dean, both of whom are from the right-of-centre National Party, affectionately known to some as “the Nats”. When I met Mr Key in Shanghai at a business roundtable not long before our  move, he struck me as an intelligent guy, who clearly was listening to what the business people were saying, and able to distill those comments into coherent thoughts. I would therefore have had no reason not to support him in the 2011 election, as indeed most of the country did, since he won the election by a large margin.

This time around, I am not quite so sure about Mr Key and the National Party. In recent months there have been a number of reports of misgovernment by the ruling party, and even some allegations of inappropriate snooping by the party into the activities of some of the opposition parties, especially the Labour Party, which is the main opposition party (if you are at all familiar with NZ politics, you may have heard of Helen Clark, who was the PM before Mr Key took over in 2008; she was from the Labour Party). But there are many other parties in the country, including the Maori Party, which is left-wing; the Greens (left-wing); the Conservative Party (right-wing); ACT (don’t ask me what that stands for, but they are right-wing); NZ First (right-wing); and the Mana Party (an off-shoot of the Maori Party, and also left-wing). To add further colour to this mix, there is also a new Internet Party (left-wing), set up by the very colourful German-Finnish immigrant Kim Dotcom. Mr Dotcom moved to NZ not too long before we did, achieving residency despite the fact that he was a convicted criminal in not one but two jurisdictions (he was convicted of internet piracy and violating copyrights, I believe). In 2011 or so the FBI tried to get him extradited to the US to stand trial there, but the raid on his mansion was so incredibly bungled, and so badly handled by the NZ counterpart of the FBI that Mr Dotcom has not only managed to avoid deportation, but he has even become a cause célèbre for all sorts of people who feel that the current government is too much of a lapdog of the Americans (this view is bolstered by Mr Key’s frequent photo-ops with President Obama at golf outings and the like when Mr Key visits his getaway home in Hawaii). So Kim Dotcom set up the Internet Party basically as a tool to oust John Key from power, and he even managed to orchestrate the merging of that new party with Mana, which already has seats in Parliament, so he’s very likely to get at least a few candidates elected.

NZ Electoral Districts

You  might wonder, how would such a marginal party get into Parliament? Well, NZ has the most bizarre electoral system I have ever seen (and yes, I know that this sounds hard to believe when you consider the American system, with its Electoral College and its weird conventions and all that stuff, but just wait a second). In NZ they have a system called MMP (I think it stands for “Many, Many Politicians”) in which each voter votes not just for the preferred candidate for the parliamentary seat in his or her district, but also for a preferred party. So, as an example, I might vote for the Labour Party candidate for our district, since I think he or she is the best person for that job, but I may have a preference for, say, the Green Party, so I’d give them my party vote. At the end of the voting, they count up the party votes and depending on how many votes each party gets, they get to put a certain number of “list candidates” into Parliament. As a result of this, as long as a party gets at least 1% of the party votes, it will get at least one candidate into Parliament. (There’s yet another vote that goes on, but only for people who register as Maori voters; they get to vote also for a candidate in the country’s Maori districts, which are distinct from the regular districts and overlap with them.)

So as we enter into the final weeks of the campaign, I have to confess I have no idea who will get my vote. My sympathies are with the Labour Party in general, but their leadership are just too unimpressive to support (and the candidate for our district has made very little effort to sway voters, since this is a strongly National district). I like a lot of what the Green Party stands for, but I think they are a bit too crunchy to run an actual country. And the other parties are just not my style at all. Regardless, it seems a sure thing that National will win the election, so we can look forward to three more years of the same old thing, only more so.

Posted by: JLG | 17 August 2014

Inle Lake

Our second stop on our tour of Burma was Inle Lake, located a short flight from Bagan, more or less in the centre of the country. When Abdo and I were communicating by email to plan this holiday, he could not find anything online about “the wonders of Inle Lake”, despite our friend Hnin Hnin recommending it as a top destination in the country, and my conviction that the place, as one of the few places open to tourists back in the bad old days of Slorc, should warrant a few days’ visit. As a result, I was persuaded to limit our time in the area to just one full day, together with the afternoon of our arrival. This was a mistake, I think we would all agree, since Inle Lake is a lovely area, well worth exploring in more depth than a 42 hour visit would allow.

Arriving at Inle Lake

To get to Inle you have to fly to the town of Heho, and then drive about an hour or so to the jetty town of Nyaungshwe, and then catch a boat to wherever it is you are staying. Our travel agent arranged all the transfers for us, and they worked like a charm. The first thing we noticed on arrival in Heho was that the weather was noticeably cooler here than in Bagan, since we were a bit higher up in the mountains. Also, the scenery was completely different from Bagan–much greener, hillier and considerably richer looking in terms of the productivity of the land. This was clearly a more agricultural area, and we passed through loads of farming areas on our drive to the lake. This is also one of the semi-autonomous states that make up a lot of the periphery of the country. This one is Shan State, and if Lonely Planet is to be believed, the term “Shan” is a corruption of the word “Siam”, since the people of Shan state are close to the Thais, and indeed the state borders on Thailand. Not that Shan cuisine is all that similar to Thai cuisine; while the Shan dishes we had were distinct from Burmese cuisine, they were nothing like the sour, spicy, and rich dishes of Thailand.

House in Inle Lake

When we got to the jetty in Nyaungshwe we had no time to explore the town at all before boarding our little boat to make our way to the hotel. I don’t know quite what I was expecting from the boats on the lake, but what we got was a lot simpler and more open to the elements than Abdo was probably hoping for. In fact, all the boat appeared to be was a long canoe sort of thing with a couple of wooden chairs lined up along the middle of the thing, and with no cover whatsoever. Since we were no longer in the “dry zone”, and it was still very much the rainy season, as we boarded the boat I began to wonder what they would have done if it were raining. Well, the answer came soon enough, since before long after we set off the rain set in, and a few pink plastic ponchos were sent down the line for us to put on. Between the wind, the rain and my concern not to somehow fall into the water, I decided not to try to figure out how to wear the actual poncho, and instead just used it to keep my legs and camera dry, and to minimise some of the wind, which was actually making the temperature a bit cooler than comfortable.

Inle Lake town

Before long we got to our hotel, the Inle Paramount Resort. Calling it a resort was a bit of a stretch, since the accommodations were a bit basic, though certainly comfortable. There should have been WiFi available, but there was a problem with the modem, so it had to be sent to Yangon for repair, a situation for which the owner/manager could not stop apologising. Once we put our stuff away, J2 and I decided to maximise our time in the area by exploring a bit, since our boat was at our disposal and Abdo and Barbara opted to relax at the “resort”. The thing that was really interesting about the lake to me is that when I had heard that a lot of people live “on the lake”, I had understood that to mean that they lived on the shores of the lake, but in fact they really do live “on the lake”, in houses that are built on stilts over shallow (and perhaps not so shallow) sections of the lake. More than that, they even plant crops on floating islands that are sort of skewered to the lake bottom by lengths of bamboo, with acres of tomatoes, beans and squashes, along with plenty of other things, growing on bobbing islets all over the lake. So instead of having to water their plants, we actually saw people adding more soil to their plants to replace soil that got washed away by rain, wakes, or whatever else.

“Soiling” the plants

During our little cruise around the lake, we stopped for a lovely lunch of Shan-style noodles at one of many restaurants that dot the area, and we paid a visit to some of the artists’ and craftsmen’s shops nearby, including one Shan silversmith. While in Yangon we had seen a beautiful little curio that I was interested in buying, a pair of miniature covered baskets made of woven silver that could be connected by a little silver “yoke”. The vendor told us it was a Shan specialty to make such woven silverworks, so we figured we’d wait and see if we could find something similar while in Shan state itself. Sure enough, we found that every silversmith in the Inle Lake area made the exact same, or very similar, item, but here the price was no less than double what it was in Yangon! Happily for us, we would have time back in Yangon to return to that same store and pick it up (assuming it would still be there, which it was). This was to be a recurrent theme of our visits to shops in the Inle Lake area–pricing was a lot higher here than elsewhere, and way out of kilter with what we saw as the value of what was being sold. A prime example of this came up during our full-day tour of the area with Abdo and Barbara the next day. We visited a workshop where they make lotus silk, something we had never heard of. The work begins when one of the staff scores the long stems of a lotus flower, breaking the stem in such a way as to leave the fibres running the length of the stem intact; she then twists the fibres together, forming long strands that then get dried, spun, and then used to make garments. The fibres are not particularly soft, and the resulting fabrics are not that attractive, but because of the labour involved in producing them they cost 40 times the price of silk. Why bother then??

Making lotus silk

On our full day in Inle we ventured out in the morning to the morning market in one of the nearby towns on the lake. The markets in the area work on a five-day rotation, so you have to know which town the market will be at on any given day to find it. We were lucky that on our day it was at one of the larger venues, so there was a lot of stuff on offer, and loads of photo-worthy things and people to look at. The people of the lake include not just Shan and Bamar people, but also Inntha people who wear distinctive outfits (chiefly distinguished by what looks like a towel that they wear on top of their heads), in addition to the famed Kayan, whose women elongate their necks with brass rings. [We didn’t see any Kayan women at the market (I think they would find all the movement involved rather straining), but we did see them in some of the lakeside shops, clearly there to lure tourists to photograph them and then charge them for the privilege. We had read that the reason for the rings was to make the women unappealing for neighbouring tribes to abduct, and that nowadays it is imposed on them solely to earn money from tourists, so we followed the advice of the guidebook and avoided the temptation.] At the market there were a number of people selling prepared food that I was really interested in trying, but I felt that some of my fellow travellers were opposed to the idea from a hygiene perspective so I also withstood this temptation, though not without some grumbling. Instead we focused our attention on gifts and photographs, coming away with a good number of both.

 

Inntha Women at Market

I’d have eaten here

…or here

Temple near the market

Not all our visits on the lake were to shops, though. We also made a stop with Abdo and Barbara at an important temple about which we knew absolutely nothing as we entered. However, the objects of veneration in the centre of the temple were so bizarre that I had to break out my Lonely Planet to see if it would shed any light on them. They looked to us like nothing more than golden blobs, reminding us of something that you might have seen in a Star Trek episode when an away team landed on an obscure planet where the locals worshipped formless entities of pure energy or something. What these things turned out to be was in fact five Buddha statues that have been venerated for so long by people who would add little sheets of gold to their surfaces, that their forms had been completely obliterated, turning them into what the guidebook calls “amorphous blobs”. Once a year these statuettes are paraded around the lake on a special barge (which can be seen next door), but some years ago the boat tipped over, causing the Buddhas to tumble into the water. Divers were able to retrieve all but one of them, but when they returned them to their spot in the temple they found that the fifth one was already back! A miracle!! As a result, that one is no longer taken out of the temple on the barge, apparently. It is still the custom for people to affix gold leaf to the statues, so we figured I would join in and have Barbara take my photo doing so, as you can see here.

Adding my 50 cents (-worth of gold)

On the day we left Inle, we set off from the hotel at the crack of dawn for the boat ride back to Nyaungshwe, from where we drove to that day’s market town, Pindaya. As it turns out, Pindaya is famous for its tea, and it’s one of the top sources for laphet, the fermented green tea leaves that I mentioned before. So of course I had to buy some to go with the laphet dish that I bought in Bagan. Here I also managed to persuade Barbara and J2 to join me for a bite to eat at one of the market stalls, and we wound up having what was easily the best dish of the trip thus far, just a simple dish of noodles with a great mixture of aromatic spices and dressings. Like all meals in Burma, this one came with a bowl of soup, as you can see below.

Eating our Shan noodles

Pindaya is also home to a massive cave that has been turned into a shrine of sorts (for reasons that are a bit mysterious, but one argument is that some maidens were imprisoned here by a giant spider that was vanquished by Rama or something, or at least that’s why we think there’s a huge spider statue at the entrance being shot at by a bow-and-arrow-bearing Rama).

Entrance to Pindaya Cave

Inside the cave are something like 8700 Buddha statues, which is certainly enough Buddhas for anyone, or at least I could have done with seeing only the first thousand or so, since once again we were barefoot in this hallowed space, and the walkways were damp and sticky with a combination of humidity, cave drippings, and the detritus of countless pious feet. Yuck.

 

A bevy of Buddhas

I think our driver was surprised at how little time we had spent in the cave, and he scrambled a bit to find something else to do before we had to go to the airport to catch our flight to Yangon. So we just sort of meandered a bit, stopping at a little stall to buy some tea (we had seen that he had bought quite a few packs, at the request of a friend of his back in his hometown) and then walking through a field of baobab trees. Then we had a bit of a highlight by stopping at a traditional paper-making workshop where we got to see how they make beautiful rustic paper and then turn the paper into umbrellas. The techniques they employ to make these things were very impressive, and we could hardly leave without buying something, even if it meant having to come up with a way to schlep a rather bulky and fragile item all over the place.

 

Traditional umbrella

With that our time upcountry was over, and we returned to Yangon for a few final days in this great country.

Posted by: JLG | 14 August 2014

Bagan-Pagan

Once our friends Abdo and Barbara joined us in Yangon (after we had already been there two nights) our holiday began in earnest. Our first destination was to be the old capital of the Burmese kingdoms, Bagan (formerly known as Pagan), famed as home to countless temples, stupas, pagodas etc. There is a proliferation of private airlines in Burma these days (though many supposedly still have government connections of one kind or another) but all the flights seem to go to the same places at more or less the same time. As a result there was a decent amount of confusion at the airport since the flight announcements are impossible to understand (even when in English) and the airlines are named things like “Air Bagan” and “Yangon Air” and of course they’re flying to towns like Mandalay and Bagan (in our case, we were on Air Mandalay, flying to Bagan). But we arrived in Bagan in good shape and good time, and were surprised to find that the rainy season does not seem to affect Bagan, even though it’s only an hour or so away from rainy Yangon. Perhaps that’s why they call this part of Burma “the dry zone”.

Bagan Transport Options

Our travel agency had booked us a car and driver for only our first day in Bagan, but as soon as we realised just how spread out the sites are, and how hot it can get in Bagan, we decided to engage him for the other two days we would be in town. Mr Ko was a great guide, though his English was a bit iffy, and he made sure to show us the temples in a sensible order, and to pepper the day with “highlight” temples (not all the temples are exactly ‘detour worthy’, but with three days in town, we had time to see more than just the top ten).

Going native in Bagan

When visiting a Burmese temple there are a few issues of protocol that must be observed. Chief among them is that no shoes or socks may be worn on the temple premises, though also you may not wear “spaghetti strap” blouses or short shorts (though these latter rules seem not as strictly enforced). Thus when you get to a temple, whether in Bagan or Yangon, you will see a pile of shoes–actually, mostly flip-flops–at the entrance, and then you’ll see a bunch of tenderfooted tourists hopping around on the baking-hot paving stones, seeking out shaded areas to stand on while they shoot their photos. Luckily for us tourists, the grounds are well maintained (for the most part) so there are few if any errant pebbles to worry about poking the soles of your feet, though many of the steps leading up to the viewing platforms are a bit narrow or crumbly, so they pose a bit of a hazard.

Bagan Temple

It would be impossible to recount (or even to recall) all the temples that we visited in Bagan, since there were dozens of them, and they vary considerably, though there are certain themes that repeat a lot. There are the temples that are based on golden stupas like Shwedagon in Yangon; there are temples that have multiple Buddha images in the interior; there are temples with viewing platforms upstairs; and there are others, too (you can read all about them at Bagan’s Wikipedia article).

Bagan traffic jam

Aside from temples, Bagan is also known for its lacquer work. I had no appreciation for the difficult process involved in producing lacquer, and so could not understand why so many of the nicer pieces we saw in Yangon were so expensive. But it turns out that a quality lacquer product can take six months or more to finish, and involves numerous labour-intensive steps. The materials used are all natural (in high-quality pieces, anyway), and we had a chance to see several workshops where they make some beautiful pieces, some of which we of course wound up taking home.

Lacquerware Workshop

Bagan resembles Siem Reap, home of Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat and other temples, as it was when I first visited in 1999 or so, before it was truly open to the outside world. Hotels and restaurants were a bit basic, though serviceable, and the number of tourists was pretty modest (though this could have had something to do with the season). Even so, as you can see below, some of the temples did get pretty busy for the ever-popular sunset viewing. Happily for us, our guide Mr Ko managed to steer us to some quieter places, so we had a lot of our temples all to ourselves.

Crowds viewing the sunset

There was one stop we made during our time in Bagan that I wasn’t quite thrilled with. On our first day we stopped at a small village where a young girl with very good English showed us around. To me it smacked of “poverty voyeurism”, giving visitors from the developed world a chance to see what the developing world is really like for the lower rungs of society. With that comes the requisite chance to see a typical house, the owner of which is only too happy for you to take all the photos you want, but then of course comes the outstretched hand asking for money. I don’t begrudge the money, per se, but something about it just strikes me as smarmy. We were happy when one of our stops was a little microscopic business selling longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, so we could buy one for J2 to wear while visiting temples. And sure, it was interesting to see how simple Burmese rural people live, but still I felt really wrong poking my nose around the place.

In the village

Sunset in Bagan

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