korintomichi: (Default)
We're just back from a long weekend in Ukraine. We recently discovered that the Chernobyl exclusion zone had been considered safe enough for tourists to visit and we thought that it would be fascinating to make the trip there. "Why on earth would you want to go there?" many people have asked. Before we visited, the answer was that it partly had a busman's holiday element for M, an interest in the power industry, but we thought it would be interesting to see a ghost town where nature has reclaimed the area in just 30 years and also to see Communism frozen in time. This event happened in our lifetime, during the Cold War, and it's something we remember very clearly.
 
The first day was spent on a walking tour of Kiev. It's a lovely city and one which we'd like to explore further. As part of the tour we visited the Chernobyl museum to learn more about the circumstances of the accident and the brave people who rushed in to deal with it as well as the thousands of people who lost everything when they were compulsorily relocated.
The museum's theme is that of 'fallen apples' - those who cannot return home.

 
The following two days were spent in the zone, a two hour drive from Kiev. We visited the reactor - noting the astonishing engineering involved in constructing the safe confinement shelter - as well as the surrounding area.
There are two exclusion zones, one more contaminated than the other.
As we went into the exclusion zone there were a number of rules we had to follow. We had to wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts. Closed shoes. (We wore really old shoes that we intended to chuck at the end of the trip.) We were not allowed to eat berries or drink water. We weren't allowed to pet any of the cats or dogs we encountered because we didn't know what they might have been rolling in. One cat really, really, really wanted a hug. (We chucked the trousers at the end of the trip.)


We were advised that we should only eat food and drink bottled water inside the bus. We should stay on the asphalt if possible and avoid mud. Every time we left the zone we would have to be tested for radioactive contamination by passing through a machine. The coach's wheels were also tested.

It has been noted that wildlife has returned to the area in significant numbers - wolves, bears and lynx have all been sighted. We saw a fox, known to the guides as Simeon.
He popped out to greet us (hoping for some food) on the empty road to Pripyat.
 
It was fascinating to explore the ghost town. We were allowed inside the buildings although many of them are not particularly safe. While we were okay entering public buildings we felt uncomfortable entering people's homes, despite the fact that they had already been looted by unscrupulous thieves (to the extent that even wiring had been ripped from the walls in order to reclaim the copper) many years previously.
The city had accommodation blocks,
 
a hotel
a council building

and schools

What struck us was that many of the public buildings were designed for leisure activities. Pripyat had the Soviet Union's first ever supermarket (left), next to the restaurant,
a music centre,

a cinema,
a sports stadium,
with running track and football pitch, now entirely overgrown,
3 - count 'em - swimming pools, unbelievably luxurious,
 
and, probably the most iconic image from the town, a fairground which was never used. It was due to open 3 days after the accident took place.
 
We made a comparison with Ta Prohm in Cambodia - a temple complex abandoned centuries ago and reclaimed by the jungle.


The difference was that at Ta Prohm we could only really speculate what the buildings were used for but with Pripyat everything was entirely recognisable.
 
Chernobyl is the city the power plant was named for (much like the UK). It was less contaminated than Pripyat. There are number of people who live and work there - largely at the power plant, keeping it safe. Most work 2 weeks in the zone then have 2 weeks off. Workers will be working on clearing up the plant until 2065.
Chernobyl has a shop (with beer and souvenirs) and a hotel which was basic, but comfortable and clean. It also has one of the few remaining statues of Lenin left in Ukraine.
 
Less well known is the Chernobyl-2 radar installation, a relic from the Cold War. We visited this on the second day. It was a duga radar - the transmitter end (the receiver was at Liubech) - an installation 800m long and 100m high. It was known as the Russian Woodpecker because of the radio interference it generated. Residents of on the top floors of the Pripyat apartment blocks could see it, despite the artificial forest the Soviets had grown to hide it, but they had no idea what it was for...
 
It was astonishingly huge, so big, it was impossible to take a photo of the whole installation.
We were allowed to climb 5 m to the first level.


We visited the abandoned control room as well as the training centre, which was fascinating. It was chilling to see pictures of "our" nukes as the Soviets learned how to identify and raise the alarm on a potential attack. 

 
Polaris
Trident
We noted that the pictures of many missiles were set against a backdrop of sky or scenery.
Our return home to the UK was notable for how unremarkable it was. Fortunately we arrived back in the UK the day before the massive cyber attack which took out the airport and metro.
 
We reflected a lot about the trip both during and after. While Kiev was amazing and a place we would love to return to, it would be inappropriate to say that we enjoyed Chernobyl; it feels as though it would be belittling all the people who lost their lives or lost their homes. It was fascinating, educational and occasionally sobering. We know a little bit about having your life turned upside down but only on a very small, personal scale. What we've been through happened within a stable environment where we still had our house, my job and the support of family and friends, for which we are extremely grateful. This visit made us realise quite how lucky and privileged we are.

There are loads more photos here
 

korintomichi: (Default)
Have decided to import journal from LJ and delete that account as the new Ts and Cs are utterly unacceptable. Dreamwidth took its time but seems to have imported everything across without any fuss at all, so hurrah for that.

Here's a photo of the cat (I hope).

korintomichi: (Dune)
We went to the Galapagos recently, a trip that had had to be postponed some years ago, due to brain issues, so we were delighted finally to be able to make the trip to a place that we had long wanted to visit. Most people endure enjoy a cruise for visits to these islands but we decided to do a land-based tour. The primary reason for this is that M is utterly hopeless on boats. Suffers seasickness in the slightest swell. It's impossible to avoid boats for a trip to Galapagos, but we decided that day trips to the islands (couple of hours max in a boat) would provide enough opportunities to see the amazing wildlife and it meant that we could sleep in a comfy hotel in the evenings in a bed that didn't move.
After a particularly horrid trip from Santa Cruz to Isabela on the first day (we knew it was going to be rough when the speedboat crew handed out plastic bags) upon landing, all nausea vanished. The islands are truly amazing - there is wildlife everywhere - in fact, you have to be quite careful that you don't accidentally step on something.
One of the first trips we did was to Los Tuneles (Isabela island), a lava formation that encroaches into the sea and has the most amazing land/sea-scape. Amazing arches of lava have formed in the sea.

There's not much vegetation, but cacti have managed to grow there, some of these are several decades old.
On climbing onto the lava we first encountered blue-footed boobies. This was one bird species we had particularly wanted to see and we were lucky that we were visiting during the breeding season. The blue-ness of the boobies' feet is derived from the algae they eat, but it also forms a significant part of their courting ritual.
The male makes a great display of showing his blue feet to his partner. One foot at a time.
He also shows his impressive wingspan to demonstrate what a catch he really is.



She watches on. His voice is a whistle, she honks. And if she is impressed, she will honk her approval.
It must be love.
We encountered many boobies. These were on North Seymour, an island about an hour's boat trip away from Santa Cruz. This female was completely unperturbed at the tourists taking photos of her as she incubated her eggs.
We also saw fledglings.
The boobies are wonderful birds. The name derives from the Spanish word "bobo", which means "stupid" or "clown". The great thing about Galapagos is that you can get so close to the animals as they have absolutely no fear of humans. Colin met a male booby and was challenged in a contest of 'who has the blue-est feet', Of course the booby won and Colin was deemed to be the beta male of the encounter.
On North Seymour we also saw the magnificent frigate birds. Which were magnificent. And great. 'Magnificent' and 'Great' being the two species of frigate birds. And they really are spectacular. You see them soaring all over the Galapagos islands, following the boats as we sailed across the sea, and even at the local fish market. (Also, note that pelicans and sealions lurk around the fish market as they are fully aware that they might pick up a tasty fish head or some delicious entrails).
Again, because we visited during the mating season we were able to see the male frigate birds trying to tantalise potential mates with their amazing scarlet throat pouches.
The females have less conspicuous markings.


More photos can be found here.
korintomichi: (Dune)
A little while ago we celebrated C's birthday by doing a Big Cat Zookeeper experience at Dartmoor Zoo. Dartmoor Zoo is famous for being that zoo from the film We Bought A Zoo starring *adopts Team America World Police voice* Matt Damon. We hadn't seen the film on the basis that we had seen the trailer about a thousand times (a small exaggeration) but the story of the zoo sounded interesting and we discovered that they offered zookeeper experiences.
Our day started really early as we were given a safety briefing and advised not to be too squeamish. Good advice - you come into contact with raw meat that was most definitely formerly part of an animal as well as copious amounts of poo. We met our keeper, Holly, and volunteer George, who we would be shadowing throughout the day. They had prepared and portioned the meat for all the animals we were to encounter. We were impressed to see that local farmers donate carcasses of farm animals that have died or been killed which are used to feed the carnivores, which strikes us as being a very sensible approach. Similarly, local supermarkets donate unsold food, some of which can also be used to feed the animals. As soon as we were wearing appropriate clothing (old clothes with wellies and gloves), we set about doing the morning rounds to make sure that all the animals were still in their cages and in good health. We had a wheelbarrow full of meat and an empty bucket and shovel for cleaning enclosures (read: poo collection).
Our first stop was the lions. There are two lions, an enormous male, Jasiri, who weighs about 200kg and Josie, a female. They were being kept inside for the day of our visit because the zoo was constructing an enclosure that would allow them to interact with each other. They have been kept separated (although in adjacent enclosures) and staff felt that a new system whereby they could meet could be good for them as well as any future breeding programme (neither of these lions is able to breed). Just as our domestic cat was mightily disgruntled at being kept inside for a few weeks when there were some poisonings in our area, the lions were none too chuffed either. Still, the zoo had left a couple of Christmas trees inside Jasiri's pen to keep him occupied.



We visited Josie to feed her. She snarled a little, unsurprisingly, and a grumpy lion is a pretty scary thing.


But she soon settled after her protest and was happy to wolf down the food presented to her by Holly.

Next stop was the jaguar. He's a 4 year old male called Chincha who is very curious. He was in gorgeous condition and had the most amazing fur coat. Jaguars are sort of the perfect combination of all cats - they excel at climbing, jumping, swimming and running.


We followed the same feeding/cleaning routine for all the animals we attended. They were lured inside their indoor enclosures using a piece of tasty meat, then locked in using a counter-weighted metal gate system. We were then free to enter the main enclosure. We had to search for poo and discarded bones, which we removed, and then provide some food for each animal. We tried to present a challenge for them, hiding the meat in various locations so that each animal would have to search for it - something that provided them with a good deal of stimulation.
On release, Chincha completely missed the obvious meat C had laid out on a rock (right hand side of the picture)...


...but managed to find some delicious ribs that we had hidden under a log. We watched him for a while and when we decided to move on, he put down his meal and accompanied us to the edge of his enclosure until we were out of sight.

We then moved onto meet the bears. Hayley is a European brown bear. At 38 years old she is probably the oldest bear in the world. She's certainly the oldest bear at any zoo (there is a database) and animals in captivity have longer lifespans than those in the wild. Her companion, Fudge, a Syrian bear, is no spring chicken at 30 years old. They were waiting for us.


We cleaned out their enclosure and can safely announce that the bear poo was the most disgusting we had to deal with - truly gag-worthy. Having cleaned the enclosure we provided food. We also set them a challenge - we hid some meat and fruit around their enclosure but also put a couple of eggs and some pellets into a container, then stuffed it with an old Christmas tree to see if they would work out how to get the food. Hayley knew there was food in there, but took some time to work out how to get it.

Then it was on to the tigers. Vladimir and Stripe are brother and sister, about 16 years old.


They were born at the zoo, hand reared, and the previous owners apparently used to allow them to be petted when they were cubs. They are utterly gorgeous creatures and very sociable. Stripe willingly comes inside and was happy to pose for us. She also rolls around like a kitten. We were struck by how many mannerisms we see with domestic cats can be seen with the big cats. It was marvellous to be able to get so close to them.

It was our day to feed the tigers as one of the zoo's attractions. Holly managed to lure both inside, then we went into the enclosure, performed poo duty and set up some food for both tigers. Holly's plan was to ensure that Vladimir was occupied with the obvious meat which would enable Stripe to find her meal without her brother dominating her. Vladimir would be released first and hopefully spot the easy pickings...



...then Stripe would find the meat that we had hung on a chain for her to enjoy.

Is it up there?


No, down here?


There it is!


It was kinda odd being inside the enclosure cleaning it up and preparing the food as lots of visitors watched on.
And finally it was the turn of Sita the Cheetah. Sita is a grand old lady, 19 years, an incredible age for her species.


She clearly looks her age, but we were impressed at how the staff at the zoo monitor her health. They have a highly experienced keeper who has worked in safari parks for many years who is called out to observe her if any of the keepers have concerns and they have no hesitation about calling the vet. However, despite her advanced years she is... a cat. And a princess at that. We followed the usual routine of enticing her indoors and Holly called her into her indoor enclosure. Despite knowing the drill, she wasn't ready to eat and certainly wasn't going to be coerced into doing anything she didn't want to.
Any cat owner will recognise this look:
Holly said that feeding usually happens on 'Sita time' and she adjusts her schedule to accommodate the cheetah. Eventually Sita made her way into the indoor room, was given meat and medicine (she takes it straight from a syringe) and, once locked in, we went inside the enclosure
to do final poo duty. We didn't hide the food for Sita, but simply left it right outside the door for her.
It was a fantastic day. We were so impressed by the zoo - particularly by the animals' good condition. Apart from Sita, who is very old, their fur is amazingly glossy, they are clearly in good health and also (lions being grumpy about being kept indoors aside) they all seemed to be happy. We drove back home to be greeted by our little cat... and a litter tray that needed to be emptied.
korintomichi: (Dune)
We went to Thailand in November. It was our first visit to this wonderful country and, rather than spending any time on a beach (we're hopeless on beaches, get bored after 5 mins), we did a tour which took us to the north of the country, where we visited Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
We spent two days at the Baan Chang elephant sanctuary a couple of hours' drive from Chiang Mai. The sanctuary is home to 47 elephants, all of whom have been rescued from the logging industry, begging or giving rides to tourists on iron chairs which really damage the elephants' backs. When the sanctuary learns about elephants that are being mistreated they locate the creature and offer as much money as they can afford to convince the owners/abusers to sell their elephants. Each elephant at the sanctuary has its own mahout who is responsible for its welfare. The sanctuary runs 'mahout' training days for tourists, which allow people to learn about these amazing creatures, as well as provide some income to contribute to the substantial feeding and upkeep costs. The eldest elephant living there is a 65 year old female, who is blind.
The sanctuary is set in 135 acres and the majority of the land is dedicated to growing food for the elephants. Interestingly, although the sanctuary produces about 14 tonnes of extremely fertile poo a week (I was tempted to bring some back for the allotment but couldn't really face carrying a load of dung in our luggage and would probably have had to face some tough questions at customs had our bags been opened up), it turns out that the elephants kinda know that crops have been grown using fertiliser used from their poo and won't eat the food. Hence, the vast quantities of dung are donated to local farmers.
Elephants are highly intelligent creatures. Their brains weigh about 5kg. They are also emotionally intelligent; they recognise and interact with  other elephants and have likes and dislikes just as we do. In fact, elephants that really hate each other need to be kept separated at the sanctuary. They bond with other elephants and experience jealousy as well. One of the bulls, Casanova, is known to be very popular with the lady elephants and the sanctuary are expecting 2 babies sired by him within the next couple of years. Elephants also make judgements about the humans they interact with and, if they decide they don't like someone, will refuse to co-operate with that person. Also - those cliches about elephants are true. They really have terrific memories. Thai people also believe that you can judge an elephant's character by the shape and quantity of its tail hair. Indeed, elephant tail hairs are considered a sign of good fortune (and are sometimes kept as a lucky charm).
Our first experience was feeding the elephants. We were given baskets of sugar cane and bananas and were given the task of feeding the assembled throng. The elephants were very happy to grasp the bunches of bananas and sticks of sugar cane that we offered them with their trunks.
Some simply helped themselves directly from the basket.

Baan Chang Elephant Park
Some of the elephants had learned behaviours if they had been trained to beg and one in particular enjoyed giving tourists a 'kiss' with his trunk - also getting a taste of salty skin.

Getting a kiss - Baan Chang Elephant Park
The next part of the experience involved learning basic commands and how to ride and elephant bareback. The commands we learned were:
No lo: kneel down - essential when you want to ride the elephant; it will kneel down while you attempt to climb onto its knee, grab its ears and attempt to, er, get your leg over its neck.
Bai: move forward
Kwae: turn. You select the desired direction by kicking the opposite ear of the elephant (it made sense at the time)
How: Stop. Most important.
We also learned how to praise the elephant if he obeyed these commands. Just say "dee". Loudly.
For extra praise you can pat the elephant, preferably on its forehead between the eyes, but you have to pat really hard. Their skin is 2" thick, so a light tap feels like an insect to them.
We had a practice session where we learned to ride bareback - climb on, sit as far forward on the neck as possible and rest your hands on its head. You can hold onto the ears if stabilty is necessary.
Baan Chang Elephant Park

Elephants are surprisingly hairy - although you think of them as having tough, grey skin, they actually have coarse hairs all over. You can be assured of a thorough exfoliation if any bare skin comes into contact with them while you are mounting/riding them.

View from the Top - Baan Chang Elephant Park


We then took an elephant for a brief walk around the park and bathed him in the river. Our elephant was the biggest of them all.

Baan Chang Elephant Park - Tom Parr
On the second day we helped prepare the bananas and sugar cane for the daily feeding sessions but also learned to prepare special balls of high energy food. These comprised sticky rice, rock salt, banana, grain pellets, calcium and tamarind all squelched together to form a bundle of food about the size of a tennis ball. Each elephant has its own mahout who is entirely responsible for its needs and he (exclusively he) will specify whether their elephant requires additional food. We made these food balls and fed each elephant according to the mahout's instructions; 0, 1 or 2 balls. Whereas on the previous day the elephants would take food with their sensitive trunks, these needed to be fed directly into their mouths.
Then we took an excursion into the jungle. Our elephant was called Tom Parr, a large male with long tusks. Tom Parr was very calm and co-operative, but was scared of chickens and cars. He adored going into the jungle - many elephants who have been rescued from the logging industry have mental scars and refuse to go back into the jungle; they are never forced to go where they do not wish to go. But Tom Parr had a marvellous time. So did we.

Baan Chang Elephant Park
We trekked for about an hour, Tom Parr sauntering across the fields and walking narrow trails with surprising grace, and arrived at a clearing in the jungle. We all had a picnic. We had brought some sugar cane with us and Tom Parr knew it. He wanted his reward for carrying us into the jungle on a blisteringly hot day and he deserved it. He followed us into the little hut, trunk demanding his prize.

Tom Parr - our elephant at the Baan Chang Elephant ParkTom Parr - our elephant at the Baan Chang Elephant Park
Once satisfied that we had indeed provided him with the requisite reward he wandered off into the jungle, munching on any tasty bamboo that he encountered along the way.
In the meantime our guide was busy hacking away at bamboo and lit a fire to provide our picnic. Because bamboo stalks are segmented and hollow  our meal was actually cooked inside it: Add sticky rice and water to a bamboo stalk, place over a fire for a few minutes and... yummy sticky rice! Pour some water into a stalk, add a teabag, place over the fire and a few minutes later... a 'pot' of tea! Best of all was the egg - crack open a couple of eggs, add some herbs, pour the mixture into the bamboo stalk, shake a bit, place over a fire (you guessed it) and a few minutes later... delicious cylindrical omelette.

After feasting, our mahout wandered about 100m into the jungle to fetch Tom Parr. We had sneakily retained a couple of stalks of sugar cane, so offered him those before climbing atop  once more and trekking back to the sanctuary with him. All the elephants are bathed at the sanctuary at least once a day. You know when an elephant needs a bath because their eyes water. Tom Parr was very much looking forward to his bath.
We went to the pool to give Tom Parr a well-deserved wash. Walking into the pond with him we showered him with water and scrubbed his skin and tusks.
Throughout the experience we had been wondering whether we would need to 'muck out' the elephants at any time, something we had been quite prepared to do. However, the sanctuary had made arrangements such that the tourists' exposure to poo was minimised. In fact, they even had a pooper-scooper chap on hand at the pond, ready to scoop any errant poo into a bag and prevent the tourists from having to wash the elephants in a dung-pool.

Tom Parr loved being bathed. He sat in the pool, trunk curled, eyes closed as we washed him down.
Baan Chang Elephant Park - Tom ParrBaan Chang Elephant Park - Tom ParrBaan Chang Elephant Park - washing Tom Parr
It was a marvellous experience getting up close and personal with these amazing creatures.
Photos from the rest of the trip are here.
korintomichi: (Dune)
We watched 467 films in 2015. Not a record (we used to watch over 500 pre-accident) but still a respectable total. 42 of those films were viewed in the fortnight running up to the Christmas break: no work + wet weather = bountiful viewing.

I wanted to list the best films that we saw. No top 10s or anything like that. This list reflects how much we are out of love with Hollywood. We only visited the cinema once in 2015; the experience is expensive and miserable (sticky floors, irritating audience, far too many ads and trailers). These days we head out to smaller DVD stores and stock up on world cinema. There are some absolutely brilliant films out there.

In no particular order (and not necessarily released recently):
Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Iran)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Japan)
When Marnie Was There (Japan)
Blind (Norway)
Fukuchan from Fuku Fuku Flats (Japan)
Theeb (UAE/Jordan/Qatar)
Tangerines (Estonia/Georgia)
No Man's Land (Serbia)
The Tracey Fragments (Canada)
Jan Dara (Thailand)
The Pope's Toilet (Uruguay)
The Light Thief (Kyrgyzstan)
Han Gong Ju (Korea)
P'tit Quinquin (France)
Exit (Hui guang zoumingqu) (Taiwan)
Carandiru (Brazil)

America did produce some good viewing. We particularly enjoyed:
Boyhood (although it should have been called Childhood)
Birdman
Whiplash

Special 'how on earth can we be cinephiles and not seen this' awards go to: Les Enfants Terribles, Harold and Maude, and In Cold Blood (one of the best constructed films we've ever seen).

And no, we haven't seen Star Wars yet. Really can't get excited about it. And have totally managed to avoid spoilers without even trying.
korintomichi: (Dune)

Last month we were lucky enough to travel to Ethiopia. It's a country we have long wanted to visit, ever since we had heard about the amazing rock hewn churches of Lalibela. Having done some research planning the trip, we discovered that there was far more to the country than we had initially imagined. It's quite timely that the fourth 'Band Aid' single has just been released, the original a response to the dreadful famine that occurred in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. It's a shame that the famine is the event that people most associate with Ethiopia: many of our guides asked us to describe what we knew about their country and - with apologies - we told them that it was best known for those events. As they all commented, "that happened once and it was 30 years ago." They were right. Ethiopia is an amazing country that is rapidly developing as a tourist destination.

Ethiopia has thousands of years of history, (millions if you include the fact that we saw 'Lucy' in Addis Ababa, one of the oldest humans ever discovered)...
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...spectacular landscapes (Ethiopia is described as the 'roof of Africa'. We were looking forward to visiting the Simien Mountains, but didn't realise that the whole of Northern Ethiopia is mountainous)....

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...amazing wildlife...

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...and some of the most astonishing architecture in the world.

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Ethiopian dates and time are different to the West. The country runs on the Julian calendar, so as soon as you arrive you are instantly seven years younger. Interestingly, the clocks also run differently to Western time. Ethiopia is close to the Equator, hence sunrise and sunset occur around 6pm each day (it varies by about half an hour over the year), so it makes sense that 6am is 12 o'clock in Ethiopian time. 7am is 1 o'clock, 8am is 2 o'clock and so on, until 6pm when the time reverts back to 12 o'clock (there is no 24 hour clock). It doesn't take long to get used to the system - just add 6 hours to whatever time the Ethiopian clock says.

Something else that intrigued us before we arrived was Ethiopian food: unusually for us, we had absolutely no idea about what to expect. A quick google revealed 'injera'. We still had no idea what to expect. Injera looks like a cross between a dirty dishcloth and a sponge. It is about the least appetising looking food on the planet. This was about as attractive as it got:
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Actually, it tastes good. It is made from teff, the world's latest superfood - a grain that is highly nutritious and gluten-free. Injera is made from teff using a sort of sourdough process and it takes a few days to ferment. It is used as a substitute for cutlery, i.e. it is often laid out flat with stew/meat/veg placed on top, and the injera is used like, say, a chapati; eat with your right hand and use the injera to scoop up the stew. While trying not to get too messy. Our hosts were quite surprised that a) we were willing to eat injera and b) we liked spicy food. Also, you've heard of Yorkshire portions, right? Forget those. Ethiopian portions are so enormous that we quickly discovered that one meal between two of us was more than enough to fill us up. We generally only needed to eat brekkie, then we shared other meals.

And the people, the people were so lovely. We've been doing so much writing this year that my elbow has been hurting quite persistently and I was looking forward to not touching a keyboard for a couple of weeks to give it a really good rest. Not a chance. Every day as we drove past fields and through villages, children would wave to greet us. We couldn't walk through a town without acquiring an entourage of kids who wanted to say 'Hello' or high five. If we stopped by a roadside to take photos, large groups of children would run down the road to see us and say 'Hello.' Everywhere we visited we were welcomed.

With a packed itinerary, including several internal flights, our tour ran like clockwork, something that we really, really appreciated. We travelled with an Ethiopian tour operator and were really pleased that all our guides and drivers were locals who were really passionate about showing us their country. We planned much napping throughout the trip and C did amazingly well. There are a bunch of photos here. Many more are going to be uploaded...



Petra

Dec. 13th, 2013 09:31 pm
korintomichi: (Dune)
I have been wanting to blog about Petra for a few weeks now, but have not had the chance. Looks like we're potentially going to be busy for the next few months, so I'm gonna post here now as I don't want to forget all the amazing things we saw.

Petra, like Machu Picchu, is a place we have always wanted to see. This trip was extra special because it was our first adventure hols since the accident. We got our old lives back, just for a week. (Paid for it big-time afterwards with megafatigue, but it was worth it.) Petra really is the most amazing place to visit. The images you usually see are that of The Treasury (the one in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and you know that you walk through the Siq, a dramatic canyon, to get there, but what you don't realise is that the site goes on for miles and miles. We had two full days to explore. We needed them. The first morning was guided, the rest of the time we spent exploring the place for ourselves. Not many people are visiting Jordan at the moment - when we told friends we were going there, we were surprised at how many people were shocked at us visiting the Middle East. When we first arrived our tour guide thanked us for visiting.Sure, there are problems in many of its neighbours, but Jordan is perfectly safe and the people are friendly and helpful. (In fact, the only unsafe bit about Jordan was trying to cross the road in Amman, which we were hopeless at. We remembered our green cross code and politely waited for a gap in the traffic. For 10 whole minutes. Eventually a taxi driver felt sorry for us and marched into the road to stop the cars, then beckoned us across.)  But because not many people are visiting Jordan, there are fewer people visiting its main tourist attraction, so there weren't hordes of tourists in Petra. Which was marvellous for us.
Plenty of Petra )

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After a full day's exploring we were pretty tired and there's not a lot to do at Wadi Musa. But we did manage a cookery course at the Petra Kitchen on one of the evenings. One of the chefs was the uncle of the guide who showed us around Petra. We learned to make Jordanian food and then eat it - a fine way to spend an evening. We made Shourbat Adas (lentil soup), Baba Ganoush, Fatoush, Tabbouleh, Tahina salad, Galayet Bandora, Araies Iahma (Bedouin pizza - pittas stuffed with minced meat and covered with Galayet Bandora) as a mezza. The main course was Maqluba, an upside-down hotpot which was scrummy.

More photos of the whole Jordan trip can be seen here.
korintomichi: (Dune)

We went to Jordan a few weeks ago. About 18 months ago I thought we might never travel again (and that would have been okay), so to get something of our pre-accident lives back and to be able to do something that we love – particularly an adventure holiday – was very, very special. We visited Jerash, Petra and the Wadi Rum, which were amazing experiences and will no doubt be blogged about imminently, but another thing that we had really wanted to do when we booked this trip was to bathe in the Dead Sea.

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Dead Sea Shenanigans )

More photos from the trip can be found here.

korintomichi: (Dune)

In June we were lucky enough to take part in a Taiko drumming workshop. It was a (much belated) 40th birthday present from my folks. I have only now found the time to blog about it.

The Aged Ps learned of the course when the Mugen Kyo Taiko drummers performed at the Alderney Island Hall a few years ago. Mugen Kyo – the name means 'limitless reverberation' – have been established for 20 years. The founders trained in Japan and set up a dojo near Glasgow. They run courses and workshops and also perform, touring the UK regularly. They recently toured Japan and were invited to participate in a Taiko festival in Japan – the first Europeans ever to participate.

The group happened to be touring a couple of weeks before our course, so we went along to see them at Leamington. They were terrific – energetic, dynamic, exciting.

So, we joined the course having done a brief tour of the north east – visiting Yorkshire (bloody foggy – didn't see a single centimetre of the North York Moors), Whitby (gothicly misty),
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Berwick upon Tweed (clear skies and nice bridges) and

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Lindisfarne (sunny and misty and we regretted that we didn't pack a dress for C so that he could do his Donald Pleasance in Polanski's Cul-de-Sac impersonation).

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Then we crossed the border into Scotland in order to join the course which began on Saturday morning. We were a group of 18 including two chaps who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for but were determined to enjoy it. The instructors introduced themselves – we were to be taught by the group's founders as well as two members of the group who had just finished touring. They had nine drums so we each paired up and took it in turns. This was a really good system – the course was very intense so it was great to have a break from actual drumming to rest legs (not arms) and learn the pieces while the other group practised.

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We both found many similarities with martial arts: getting into a strong stance, letting gravity do most of the work hitting the drum but maintaining control as the bachi (stick) hits the hara (centre of the drumskin). We learned breathing techniques and the principles of channelling 'ki' (energy). And lots of shouting – very similar to the "kiai" in karate – used at random, in this instance to encourage your team rather than scare your opponent.

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We were taught three pieces and learned to play them as a group. You learn the rhythms by chanting, then chant whilst practicing the hand movements with your bachi in the air. We counted in using:

"One, two, so, re" – on 're' raise your hands dramatically to begin drumming.

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There were lots of subtleties to the drumming process that we found fascinating. This included the Japanese concept of 'ma' (negative space) where the lack of sound is as important as the sound itself. These are represented by 'tsuku'. It's kinda similar to traditional Japanese paintings, where much of the image area has no image.

We learned about the Ji-uchi or base rhythms:

Gobu-Gobu (doko doko): 5 – 5

Mitsu-uchi (don doko): three hits

Shichi-san (donko donko): 7 –3

These were played for us by the pros so that we could keep time.

Here are the pieces we learned:

DON KA KI DAIKO

DOKO DOKO DON DON

R  L     R  L      R      L

DON DON DODNKO DON (shout) ha!                                                                    x5

R      R      R  L    L    R                          (jump to next drum, next in line jumps in)          

DO-N DO-N KARA KA KA (the karas involve hitting the side of the drum)

R        L       R  L    R   L

DO-N DO-N KI KI KI (the kis involve hitting the bachi together)                                   x4

R        L

DON DOKO DON DOKO DON DOKO DON DON                                             x4

R     R   L    R     R   L       R     R   L     R      L

DON DON DON DON DON DON DON DON                                                         x2

R      L       R      L         R      L      R      L    (crescendo)

DON ha!

We played this as a group with a line up of 5 drums at the front and 4 at the back. The first brave soul did a solo of the first two lines, then on "Ha!" jumped to the next drum and the next in line jumped in. This was repeated until all 9 drummers had completed their line. Two drummers were on the O-daiko (the really big drum) and joined in for the next part of the piece. Playing the O-daiko was a brilliant experience – it has such a deep, resonant sound. It's hard work though.

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KAMITSUKI KIYARI DAIKO (MIYAKE)

DON (tsuku) DON (tsuku) DON DON (tsuku)

L                  R                   L        R

DON (tsuku) DON (tsuku) DON DON

L                  R                   L        R

DO DON KO DON DON

L     R      L     R      R

DO TOTO KO DON DON

L     RR     L     R      R


CHICHIBU YATAI BAYASHI
Traditionally played at matsuri (festivals), the drummers are located inside huge floats and these are carried through the streets. It's pretty cramped in there. The drum is positioned at a 45deg angle, you sit with it between your legs, lean back and…

DOKO-N (x3)

R        L

DorororoRON (x3)

R  L  R L  R

DOKO-N (x3)

R        L

DorororoRON (x3)

R  L  R L  R

DOKONKONKODON DOKO-N DON

R   L      L       L    R       R             L      R
korintomichi: (Dune)
Just back from a trip to the Cotswolds. On the way to Chedworth Roman villa we spotted a sign for The Museum of Mechanical Music. Both glanced across at each other and instantly decided that we'd like to visit that. So we did. And it was completely brilliant.

You first enter via a shop which has a few twee musical boxes in the window, a bunch of clocks and some cool 'build your own' gadget kits. The tours were guided so we had to hang around until the appointed time (actually we didn't, we went to the local pub for a swift half), after which we were ushered into a room, whereupon our guide introduced us to the mechanical musical marvels within. The tour was supposed to last an hour, we were in there for nearly two. We received a detailed explanation about the design and construction of the machines, then heard each of them play.

First we were shown the cylinder musical boxes. These are gorgeously constructed boxes with a pinned cylinder inside. Some of the more complex cylinders had up to 10,000 pins, each designed to trigger a particular note as the cylinder turned. They had been restored by the museum to provide pitch perfect tunes at the exact tempo for the piece.

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The more sophisticated boxes had a range of sounds, from music combs to snare drums to reed organs and saucer bells. Each could play 10 or so tunes - a full programme of classical music.

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The tune cards list the tunes available on each cylinder. Some of the boxes would allow a repeat function but if you missed the track you liked, you'd have to wait for the cylinder to turn full circle before you could hear it again. Mendelssohn's Wedding March seemed to be particularly popular.

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There were a number of barrel organs and disc players.

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Next we saw this polyphon.

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An early jukebox, you wind it up, name your tune (from a choice of 10 discs) and put a coin in the slot (and literally hear the penny drop). The machine selects the metal disc and raises it up to playing position. This polyphon played the most sublime version of Bach's Ave Maria – it was just gorgeous. It's available to buy for a 'mere' £15,000. If I had a spare £15,000 kicking about I would buy it.

Later instruments worked on a weight system. This is a weight driven barrel piano orchestrion, coin operated, with mandolin attachment, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, and triangle.
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This has a magnetic device which could detect whether whatever 'coin' had been dropped into the slot was made of nickel and therefore whether it really was money.

We saw some of the Edison phonograph cylinders and some gramophones. You can see the Edison phonograph in the background of the polyphon picture. The bell moves along the cylinder itself. The cylinders are incredibly brittle and hideously expensive. It's no surprise that records became more popular as they were easy to produce and store.

There were also a number of gramophones. This beauty has the most outrageous horn – it's effectively made from papier mache but covered with snakeskin to form a smooth exterior.
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The sound is rich and mellow. Volume control for gramophones was literally to put a sock in it (hence the phrase), although in this case you'd probably need to use a woolly jumper. It used bamboo 'needles', which could be sharpened using a cutter, rather than conventional steel needles. This had the effect of the discs wearing down the needle rather than the other way round, which helped preserve the discs. Unfortunately someone had put Glenn Miller's In the Mood disc onto a gramophone which used steel needles and wrecked the disc. Oh, and the chair underneath the desk? Sit on it and a pin drops, activating the mechanism to play a tune. You'd never lose at musical chairs!

Finally we were shown the player pianos. These included a gorgeous 100 year old Steinway. In the early 20th Century a technique was developed whereby composers and famous pianists could 'record' their playing using electrical signals generated by each key press pushing a rod into a pool of mercury at the base of the piano which was linked to a device that created a marked out roll of sheet music which could then be perforated and played on other player pianos, accurately representing the playing of the music. The museum had rolls from many composers playing their own compositions. It's a reproduction, rather than a recording; as C commented, really early MIDI. We heard several minutes from Grieg's Piano Concerto played Olga Samaroff, one of the few female pianists around at the time (she was the first female to play Carnegie Hall). It was so good we didn't make a single Morecambe and Wise joke.

This was a little beauty.
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It was over 80 years old. The museum had a number of scrolls available for it to play (as it did with all the instruments). We chose Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. That's Rhapsody in Blue as played by Gershwin. Apparently the piano part is so difficult he had to play a duet with himself, recording it twice. We heard the piece all the way through. It was just marvellous.

We'd thoroughly recommend a visit to the place if you like old things or mechanical things or musical things or all of those things. It's not just a museum, there are skilled craftsmen who restore these instruments. Many were available for purchase. You are even allowed to have a go at 'playing' some of the instruments yourself – C managed to play us a merry tune on this:

korintomichi: (Default)
...That attracts loud, pretentious idiots who just can't shut up? We went to see Modified Stockhausen featuring the Modified Toy Orchestra last night at the Mac. They were very good, although the pieces were challenging, as expected. But the experience was blighted by the people sitting behind us. First of all, they refused to stand up to let other people get past them to reach their seats as they were coming into the auditoriom. So these people had to struggle to get by. The consequence was that C was hit on the head with a bag. And a large chunk of his skull is missing right now. Fortunately he was wearing his hard hat but that's not the point. 

Then between MTO's pieces, after the applause, this couple started talking. That's talking, not whispering. Explaining to each other, in deeply pretentious tones, how absurd the pieces were but that that was the point. Thanks. We knew that already. We are quite capable of making our own minds up. Furthermore, when the next piece started up they didn't stop talking. That's just bloody rude. It needed me to turn around and glare for them to shut up.

We haven't had to tell anyone at our local multiplex to stop talking for years. So why is it that arts centre patrons, who clearly consider themselves to be cultured and enlightened, feel compelled to express their opinions loudly when, in fact, no one gives a shit about what they have to say? 

Rant over.

korintomichi: (Default)
Last week we decided to go to see the Contemporary Japanese Photobooks exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery in London. The gallery had effectively created a reading room, filled it with photobooks, issued white gloves to all visitors and gave you carte blanche to create your own exhibition. There was a sign on the wall saying Please Do Not Touch! The photography on offer covered about as broad a range of subjects as you could wish – from conventional photojournalism and portraits to the abstract and avant-garde.



A plethora of photobooks )

What was particularly nice about the exhibition was that it was effectively many exhibitions in one and you got to choose which artist's work to explore. If one book wasn't to your taste, there were plenty more to browse through.

Images of all the photobooks at the exhibition can be found here.



I had a go at making photobooks a couple of years ago. They were mainly comprised of good shots taken on holiday and I was pleased with the way they had turned out. It was a really interesting (and surprisingly lengthy) process pulling the images together and trying to set them out on a page in such a way that they complemented each other. I don't want to make holiday books anymore because looking at the images makes me feel sad. Even when C has had his third (and hopefully final) round of surgery we won't be able to travel for many months. But the style and format of these Japanese photobooks has inspired me to have another go, this time pulling together a themed collection of photos. There are thousands on flickr.

korintomichi: (Default)
I'm pretty appalled that I've only discovered this week that we are supposed to be voting for whether we want an elected mayor for Coventry. Okay, our lives have been entirely taken up with health and hospitals for the last 7 weeks, but I would have thought someone would have popped something through the letterbox with information or arguments to convince me to vote one way or another. I found I was so ill informed that I didn't have an opinion. So I will be voting based on a conversation at the pub last night and a google for further info this morning.
On balance, I can't see the benefit of an elected mayor, especially for a small city. I worry about extra cost and cronyism. There also seem to be an awful lot of unknowns - i.e. I can't find any information about the powers an elected mayor would have. And I actually think our council are doing a pretty reasonable job.

Hmmm. *Ponders some more.*

Grrrrr

Jan. 23rd, 2012 05:08 pm
korintomichi: (Default)
<angry consumer>

Dear Scottish Power. Why have you increased my direct debit payment for energy ? I am extremely miffed for the following reasons:
  1. My account is in credit
  2. You will be reducing your gas prices
  3. I now generate some of my own electricity so need less of yours
  4. You didn't even bother to tell me, let alone discuss it with me
</angry consumer> 

J-Books

Jun. 2nd, 2011 09:50 am
korintomichi: (Default)

When C had his accident I had to learn to live alone for a few weeks. It was hard, especially as C and I do pretty much everything together (except work), and had probably spent fewer than 25 nights apart in over 18 years, but I managed. We have a fantastic bunch of friends who were massively supportive. I missed him like you wouldn't believe, but I found that I was quite happy keeping my own company. I talk to myself quite a lot but, hey, there was no one else listening to call me crazy. Except the cat, of course, but she's a little bit nuts herself. One thing I couldn't do was watch films though – it just didn't feel right without him. I managed to view just one film in 6 odd weeks and that was only because it was for work so I watched it on the PC and made notes while viewing.

What I did start doing was reading again. When you watch around 500 films a year you don't have much time for novels and what with researching books at lot of the time non-fiction tended to get priority on the reading list. I was bloody busy – working all day (no point in sitting at home wringing my hands in despair), visiting C in hospital in the late afternoon/evening (I didn't miss a single day) and I had a fair amount to keep me busy at night anyway, running the film website we'd just started editing, proofing the Carpenter book, making photo books and keeping in touch with everyone re C's progress. But it was much easier to read myself to sleep rather than lie awake worrying.

Turns out I've read around 30 novels this year. I'm still reading loads because C gets tired very easily and goes to bed early.

I set out to discover Japanese literature and found some terrific reads. I had read and enjoyed some J-novels before, notably well known authors such as Harumi Murakami and Yukio Mishima, but also decided to check out the works of various random authors and then read further novels if it turned out that I liked their stuff. The books ranged from classics to modern literature. This may have been a coincidence but what has struck me is the number of similar themes that ran through many of the works, no matter when they were written. It was interesting to see the clear influence of early authors on some of the more modern works. I'm not going to review them properly, haven't got time, but I kinda wanted to get my impressions of some them into words as I continue to discover more.

Favourite author was Yasutaka Tsutsui, described by Nicholas Lezard as "like a manic JG Ballard but with an even darker past to resolve". He's just fab, a real discovery. His mind is mercurial, his imagination vast and he has a wicked sense of humour. I couldn't resist the title Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, which turned out to be a collection of short stories. The titular story is a scream (it's also SF, SF fans) and had me giggling from start to finish. Some of his writing kind of reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut in that he can make sad stories feel funny in a way that doesn't make you feel guilty about laughing at them. Hell was about a disparate bunch of dead people or people who were about to die and heading for the afterlife and explores the way they were connected with each other during their lives. With a vast array of characters it feels very Ballard until he finishes weaving his web and all becomes (relatively) clear, if completely unresolved. But then that would be the nature of hell. A number of Tsutsui's books have been made into anime and feature films, notably Paprika, directed by the late, great Satoshi Kon, a delicious SF novel about scientists who have discovered how to help psychiatric patients by tapping into their dreams, complete with all the chaos and warped realities and dreams within dreams that that inevitably result. I wholeheartedly recommend the anime (and all of Satoshi Kon's films cause he's just fantastic). Tsutsui also wrote The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the film of which we had already seen and thoroughly enjoyed. It's kind of a step down from his more manic work, gentle and wistful.

It's way too late to start on any of the other authors and this has already turned into a ramblathon, but I'm gonna put the list up and may (or may not) get round to writing about the others.

A list... )
korintomichi: (Default)

We had a voucher for a massive discount at the Lomography store. I love wide angle lenses but we haven't got a DSLR so was pleasantly surprised to see a ridiculously cheap toy camera with a fisheye lens at the store. A couple of clicks and a few days later it arrived. It's terribly old fashioned - uses 35mm film and has no user controlled functionality other than a flash - but is small enough to chuck in your pocket and handy to just snap away. So, we've been experimenting with fisheye fotography. It's odd having to wait for processing these days and not be able to see the finished results immediately so it was particularly interesting to find out what worked with the fisheye and what didn't. You can shove the lens really close to the subject and still maintain focus so the camera's viewfinder was pretty pointless but it was very difficult having no control over exposure at all. You also learn that pretty much everything appears in the frame. I bought ISO 100 and 800 film and just took snaps. I'm pleased with some of the results...

Coventry Cathedral

 

Through a glass darkly... )
korintomichi: (Default)
... we are going to visit Japan before June 2012. Nothing is going to stop us - no evil Uzbek consuls, no near fatal accidents. The Ghibli museum have an exhibition with a GIANT CATBUS THAT ADULTS WILL BE ABLE TO RIDE IN.

korintomichi: (Default)
Dear Govt,

Please do not screw up the NHS. I mean it. I know people whinge about it and that it can be frustrating waiting for some services, but we have had reason to use the NHS a lot over the last 4 months and, with the exception of the world's most irritating and expensive car park, one admin cock-up and one grumpy nurse (who was unnecessarily mean to the visitor, not the patient), it has been nothing short of fantastic. And our experience of services ranges from ambulance paramedics, A&E staff, consultant surgeons, doctors, critical care staff, recovery wards, outpatient clinics and community rehab. Patient care is really quite remarkable and the staff have been absolutely brilliant. They all work bloody hard and deserve far, far more pay than they receive.

When you really need the NHS the service is second to none.

That is all.
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