Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Kiwi Bites! vol.1

Random kiwi thoughts:
  • So much for the stereotype, I was here for a whole week before seeing a single sheep (today)! Saw lots of these instead:

             Including road warning signs:

  • Kiwis drive like madmen!!! And on 2-lane roads where in most places a reasonable speed limit would be 80 km/h - tops!-, but here the speed limit can be 100 kph... and you still get drivers speeding past you!

curves in deadly Dome Valley

  • Oh, and apparently you also have to watch out for strange things on the roads here, lol!:

Kiwi English:
  • flip-flops are called jandals

  • mosquitos are mozzies

  • a bach (pronounced batch) is like a second (holiday) residence... traditionally just a roof over a place to sleep and cook, sometimes without running water or electricity etc., but can be a fully equipped place as well.
More Kiwi English in future Kiwi Bites! For Americans, I've come across a blog chronicling a Round the World Trip with an interesting post on US vs Kiwi English. ;o)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Diving Knights

Ahhh... what a great way to start a trip! With a couple of days in one of New Zealand's best Marine Reserves right after Christmas. FA-BU-LOUS!!! :o)

The Poor Knights Marine Reserve was created in 1981 and was New Zealand's second Marine Reserve. It extends 800 metres offshore from the Poor Knights Islands, volcanic remnants which are located off the west coast of Northland (northernmost region of NZ), just off the harbour town of Tutukaka.

map up on a viewpoint overlooking Tutukaka harbour
Since the water around these islands is sub-tropical (temperature in the water was 22ºC when I went in!) there are a lot of sub-tropical species of fish and invertebrates that you don't see elsewhere in New Zealand. Also, since the islands basically end in steep cliffs that dive down into the ocean (sometimes to 100m depth) there are plenty of vertical walls to explore for invertebrate species, isolated columns or underwater archways which are a lot of fun to play around!

We headed out of Tutukaka Harbour early in the morning, under a beautiful sky and no wind, and quickly surrounded by a pod of playful bottlenose dolphins who were entertaining the local kayakers! :o)

After hanging around for a bit we sped away from the coast

and towards the islands.

As you can see, the sea was flat as a pancake! HUGE improvement on my previous trip here with my sister 3 years ago. The sea was so rough then I got seasick even in the water and actually vomited underwater! Not a pleasant experience, although I was compensated by being immediately surrounded by fish! lol!

On this map from New Zealand's Department of Conservation you can see our two dive sites for the day: Northern Arch and Middle Arch on the NW coast:

Northern Arch was both scary and fun!

northern side of N.Arch, I dove towards this shot, then around the head back to the cove

It's considered a premium dive spot but very difficult because of the strong currents through the Arch and around the headland. In fact it was all I could do to keep myself within the arch long enough to shoot a photo of this fabulous sponge,

and this scary yellow moray eel!

On the other side I found myself popping up through a beautiful green forest of stalked kelp:

Peaking through the kelp to the rock hidden beneath was rewarding since I spotted (among many other critters) a camouflaged scorpion fish:

this fabulous firebrick starfish:

Even better was coming up out of the kelp at one point and practically bumping into this short-tailed stingray! lol!

Was a short dive (1/2h) because my air ran out sooner than usual since it was such an effort fighting the current to get around the headland. In fact, I'm not sure I would have been able to make it around in a couple of points if I hadn't been pulling myself along with the help of the kelp! Now those are some sturdy stalks! ;o)

The second dive was at Middle Arch,

and since on this one I went down with my sister and her boyfriend (they were free-diving at the first spot), we mostly stayed under the arch so we could all practice our underwater macrophotography, or taking pictures of each other like this one my sister took of me at the entrance to the arch:

I enjoyed taking in all the details, like this school of fish following the archway up to the surface,

or this stalked kelp outlined in the blue waters:

There were some gorgeous sponges and gorgonias like this one:

and a several more moray eels hiding amongst the rocks

Also among the fishies, yummy (according to my sis) pink mao mao

and blue mao mao:

But the highlights were definitely all the small nudibranchs (small shell-less molluscs) we were searching for on rock and algae surface. Like this little (~5 cm?) clown nudibranch:

or these interestingly active Verco's Tambja nudibranch (huge! almost 10 cm!):

You can get a better idea of their size in these two pictures my sister took:

Then there was the fun of chasing after stingrays trying to get a decent photo, only got one, but it ain't half bad! ;o)

Almost as good (and lots of fun), following a trail of bubbles down the wall, into a little cave, and finding myself in an air bubble!


'Twas a fabulous day! Wish we could have gone again but the weather was against us the next day so we only went out in the afternoon along the coast for some free-diving and spear-fishing for the spearos...

I'll have to see if I can get another dive day in when I'm in the South Island! (if I can afford it, gulp!)

Interesting little video on the DOC website.
Want more info/photos/stories? Seafriends NZ

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Haere-mai Aotearoa!

Or in other words:


Welcome to a land proud of its Maori heritage.

To a land of magnificent beaches,
Karekare beach

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Musical London, a Mamma Mia! evening

Fabulous! :o)

Seeing a Musical in London is one of "the things to do", if you're lucky enough to be able to get a ticket, 'cause most of the popular ones are sold out every weekend. Fortunately with a sister living in the area one has easy access to the right info (!) and so once train tickets were purchased a month and a half ago, tickets for the show were acquired just a couple of days later!

On previous visits I'd seen Chicago (leaves you feeling totally jazzed!) with a couple of friends, The Phantom of the Opera with my dad (10 years I'd been wanting to see that! Read the book as a teenager several times, knew most of the songs by heart...), and then Wicked when I came to visit my sister last summer (well, 2009), which as she kept saying was "wicked awesome!". :p

This time I finally got to see ABBA extravaganza Mamma Mia!

ABBA for me is my childhood. Some of my earliest musical memories are listening to their songs 'cause my parents were fans, and "Thank You For The Music" is one of my all-time favourite songs.

We started out with pretty good seats (for the price we paid) in the very back row, where we could see everything.

But since the room wasn't packed and one of the balconies was empty... we were able to switch to a balcony overlooking the stage during the intermission and got an even more intense experience!

I couldn't stop myself from singing along, and at the end everyone was on their feet clapping and singing and dancing. FUN! :o)

I've seen the movie lord knows how many times, and I'm still amazed at how the women behind this could bring together all these songs and weave them into a story! I'm not going to compare it to the movie, since they're two completely different animals. But I can say the singing is better! :p

Here's the trailer for the London show (the two leads I saw were blonds! so different cast?):

damn! I can't get the youtube video to embed for some reason so just go see it here.

Why London, why now?

Why London? That's easy! My sister lives just outside of the city so I get the double pleasure of hanging out with her, plus continuing my ongoing exploration of the British capital! :o)
So, how come I get to take a nice long weekend to come to London? 4 days off work just because???

Nope! In Belgium (and France) November 11th is a holiday! It's Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I in 1918. I was surprised it wasn't a holiday in England, considering World War I is still called "The Great War" and all that... but it turns out even though they don't take a day off, they still commemorate it as Remembrance Day, sometimes called "Poppy Day" 'cause everyone wears red poppies to honour those fallen in the line of duty (in various wars, not just WWI).

You can find people spread out across the city (all week my sister says!), exchanging these poppies for a few coins.

My grandfather served in WWII, but he died before I was born, so I've never talked to anyone who served in a war. I look forward to some future when they will no longer take place. I may be naïve, but I have hope in humanity that that day will come. In the mean time, here's to those who serve(d) and died fighting to defend their countries!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

London calling...

I'm off again! I love it when a holiday lands on a Thursday and the University grants us an extra long weekend... (I believe they're granting a recuperation day since May 1st was a Sunday this year) So 4-day weekend, here I come!!! :o)

logo by S.Walker
One can't be expected to stay home with 4 marvellous days ahead, can one? Not unless friends are visiting (like 10 days ago for All Saint's). Which means... I'm out of here!!! Here being Liège of course. And Belgium. I'm crossing the Channel!  Going under it actually (I love the Chunnel!). I'm going to spend 4 full days with my "little" sister who lives just outside of London. We'll head into town a couple of days and catch a few sights I haven't seen on my previous visits (I've lost track, I think I've been to London at least 6 times. Or is it 7?), catch a musical, a few movies and then visit a few other spots along the North Sea coast or in the countryside. Dunno yet, nothing planned except for Mamma Mia! Thursday night. But I have to make to St Paul's Cathedral this trip. It's the one big monument I haven't visited yet! In any case I'm just looking forward to spending time with my sis, everything else is a bonus.

I'm scheduling this post to be published right when I get on the Eurostar from Brussels to London. And I'm also "activating" a couple of posts I imported from I other blog. I wrote them after my last trip to London in summer 2009 when I did the "touristy" thing of going up the London Eye for the first time, got really frustrated because I wasn't allowed to take pictures in Westminster Abbey, and got to visit a Norman castle (with Roman ruins under it!) in Colchester. I'll see about writing while I'm there, if not I'll tell a few tales when I get back. I might also dip into my photographic treasure box and pull out a few older tales... ;o)

In the meantime the draft posts I haven't finished about visiting Roman cities in Germany (Trier) and Belgium (Tongeren) will have to wait. *sigh* Too much to write, too little time! :p

Friday, October 15, 2010

Welcome to Belgium!

 When the name Belgium comes up, what are the first thoughts that cross your mind?

Go on. Think about it. Write them down on a scrap of paper next to your computer. I'll wait...


Then write them in the comments section on this post, I'm quite curious about them!

When I first came to Belgium in September 1999 all I knew about the place was that they made my favourite chocolate (at the time): Côte d'Or Double Lait.

That French Fries should be called Belgian Fries. 

That Tintin was Belgian. 

And that Cesar thought the Belgians the bravest of the Gauls -much to Asterix and Obelix's chagrin! 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Basel-Bâle-Basilea: where Switzerland meets France and Germany!

Map adapted from
Well, that went by in a flash! They say time flies when you're having fun - which is true - but when you're only in a city for 40h and have a packed program (centred around a housewarming party, yay!), then it's like time is even more condensed and everything feels more intense!

So, instead of starting this blog off with Mallorca (back when I started fidgeting with the layout and name in August), or Belgium (where I'm spending the Fall), I'm inaugurating it with a little corner of Switzerland, nudged in a tiny corner (or should I say triangle?) between the French and German borders!

Basel, Basle, Bâle (French), Basilea (Italian, Spanish) might be small (only ~166'000 inhabitants) by most countries' standards, but it is Switzerland's third largest city! In fact, when you consider the "transborder" population, the numbers rise to 830'000 inhabitants and it becomes Switzerland's second largest city! "Transborder" you say? Sorry, my brain is making up its own words again! Most of the people who work in Basel (major pharmaceutical industries and research centres) actually live just across the borders in France and Germany where the cost of living is much lower. Talk about commuting to another country to work! But one of the towns on the French side, St Louis, is basically just a suburb of Basel, and when we drove through there to get to our friends' house, you couldn't tell where one finished and the other started except for the Border control booth... which was empty! (and which is why we went that way instead of via the highway, better for smuggling Belgian chocolate into the country, you don't want the Swiss knowing you're bringing in the higher-quality competition! lol!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Off to Neverland! Second star on the right and straight on 'till morning! 


Sorry 'bout that... for some reason it just popped into my head right after I wrote the title for this post... must have Peter Pan on my brain or something! :p

I'm afraid Never-Neverland isn't on my current travel itinerary, but if do manage to get hold of some pixie dust, rest assured I promise to take you all along with me! :D Until then we'll just have to make do with this little blue marble we live on called planet Earth (I still don't get why it's not called planet Ocean, but that's the oceanographer in me raising her scientific head).

I started setting this blog up back in August and had intended to launch it with a visit to Mallorca, but my cousins kept me so busy there it was all I could do to find a bit of time to check y e-mails and download my photos! Then I wanted to wait until I could set up all the fancy trappings (tabs, widgets, background pics etc.), but was so busy with other things couldn't do that either and the 2 months later this blog has yet to be inaugurated! So I figured hell with the layout, I'll fiddle with it over the next couple of months whenever I have time, and was planning on beginning with a "Welcome to Belgium" post since I'm going to be spending the Fall here... but it looks like I might start with a short trip to Switzerland instead since I'm heading out to Basel this weekend!

The tabs will be set up with general info (the who and why of this blog) as well as some dedicated to continents or countries I'm living in (i.e. Spain and Belgium) with links to related posts. Occasionally you'll see a blog post appear with nothing in it but a country name because I'll be updating it with links to posts about that country as I write about it. The labels will be continent, country and city related to help you find your way around my globe.

I had thought of importing posts already written on my other blog that would fit in here... but I think when the subjects come up I'll just summarize and link to them over there, unless they're 100% travel related in which case I'll just transfer them here and have them "published" on the date they were originally published on the other blog.

What to expect from this new experiment of mine? Well honestly I'm not sure! I'll try to keep it lively and original, and still provide you with some practical or basic information on wherever it is I'm talking about. There will be plenty of pictures since one of the things I like about blogging is it gives me an excuse to do something with all the photos I love shooting. Oh, and keep an eye out for Pol the travelling octopod... he might show up in some of the most random places! ;o)

Hope you enjoy the ride!
CrazyCris, globetrotter extraordinaire.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Semana Santa: Domingo de Ramos en Elche

Palm Sunday. Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while a festive populace laid palms down at his feet. In many Spanish cities a "procesión" is held commemorating this joyous day, with a figure of Jesus on a donkey being carried through the city on the shoulders of the faithful, to the sound of marching bands and the murmur (for Spaniards can rarely ever be quiet!) of the people walking either ahead, behind or watching from the sides. Most carry white palms as a symbol of participation in the ritual, some simple tall leaves from palm trees, others more elaborately twisted or woven together into a lovely design or even a "sculpture" of sorts.

Pope Benedict with palm from Elche
With the excuse of a friend visiting from Mexico, my family and I went to witness this year's procession in Elche, a millenial city just 20km from Alicante, and famous for the "Huerto del Cura" also called the "Palmeral", a.k.a. Europe's biggest palm tree forest and a Unesco World Heritage Site. According to my mom (I don't have any other sources for this, but she's a walking encyclopedia!), Elche's is one of the most famous Palm Sunday processions in Spain, mainly due to this reverence for the city's palms and the fact that they are the only place that still prepares elaborate handmade white palms for the procession (one is even sent to the Pope every year! sample photo which was in last week's newspaper, is from Getty images, the "good" versions aren't available unless you buy them). It has been declared a "Fiesta de interés turístico internacional" (an honorific title given to certain Spanish festivities whose cultural value and popular tradition are recognised due to their ethnologic characteristics and are deemed to be important for tourism, more -in Spanish- on Wikipedia).

So off we went on a gorgeous sunny Sunday to admire the Palms and enjoy the festive ambiance. We arrived a bit late to see the throne be carried out of the Basilica de Santa Maria (main church in Elche) to the site where the procession was going to begin. But we did make it just in time to catch the marching band heading off and were able to hang around admiring the throne (the platforms on which the figures are carried during the processions) and watch the people begin to gather with their palms.

Here's the band leaving and a glimpse of the "costaleros" (people who carry the thrones, this year women from the cofradía de Santa Veronica) catching their breath and gathering their energy before the procession really begins:

Little by little people kept arriving to the meeting point, some carrying plain white palms, others more elaborate works of art:

The lady who made this one didn't say exactly how long it took her, just "several mornings":

She also made this one for her friend in 3 days:

And how about this?

She made sure to ask me if I'd noticed the details at the top: musicians and a flag-bearer from a procession, with a "throne" carrying Christ on the Cross:

So, everyone here? Everyone ready?

The priest steps up to his microphone to read from the Bible,  then blesses the Palms and thanks the "costaleras" for shouldering their/our burden and then invites the people to take their places and let the procession begin.

The costaleras get into position, hoist the throne, turn it around so it is facing down the avenue in the direction the procession will be following and then stand at the ready.

(you'll get an explanation for that bell later)

Everyone lines up, starting with a marching band, then dignitaries and representatives of the other "cofradías" -who will be participating in other processions later in the week- who take the lead, followed by part of the crowd with their palms, then the throne, then the priests and more dignitaries.

The ladies of the Cofradía de Santa Veronica are all in position. A clang on the bell is the signal to lift, another to start walking, and later will give them a few moments to rest. And so on and so forth as they make their way through the streets of the city until they reach the Basilica de Santa María.

Hey! Want to play a game of "Where's Cris"? ;o)

Before leaving town we thought we'd visit the Basilica to see how everything looked... and found ourselves face to face with the procession again!

Over an hour later and the front of the line was just reaching the church! So tourism will just have to wait for another visit...

Recognise the two ladies at the top right-hand side of this next photo?

It's the lady I talked to at the beginning and her beautiful palm! :o) Heading with the others towards the Basilica:

More people bearing palms:

check out the top of that one on the left:

I thought this little girl was really cute...

A few more palms (because I have trouble restraining myself when it comes to choosing photos,  lol!)...

 and as we say here in Spain: "Colorín, colorado. Este cuento se ha terminado!" (a.k.a. THE END!)

(Hope that wasn't too long... I tend to get carried away when telling a tale with images, I have ever so much trouble limiting the number of pictures used!)
I'll try to put out two more posts on other processions another day. Selecting and editing photos and video clips takes a lot of time!