Paradise islands

The major concern about travel blogging is not what to write, or even how to write it, but what to do with the paragraphs once they are written. The pinwheel turns, and turns and turns, but there is no following whoosh.

Not sent. Wifi is down again, or else the internet is flickering like a candle in a typhoon. I wonder how that guy watching a movie on his tablet in the lift in Seoul – or was it Hong Kong – would deal with such fragility? It really doesn’t matter whether I post these words tonight or next week, but it does remind me yet again that my work, my relationships, even my ability to check with an airline whether I have a ticket to fly, all depend on this laptop and its links with the ether.

Cook Islands sunsetSince leaving Auckland nearly two weeks ago we have been in the Cook Islands. I am now on Aitutaki, the second largest island in the southern group, writing this on the terrace of the darkened bungalow. The crickets and geckoes are hard at it, and so are the no-see-ums. There are two mosquito coils burning beside my ankles. Rain is dripping off the palm thatch. I can hear the surf on the reef that encloses the lagoon.

This little blip in the Pacific Ocean is perhaps 5 km long and 2 wide. An easy bike ride encircles it, not all on metalled road. Glossy hens and their chickens peck at the floor of the miniature airport, the lagoon glimmers turquoise when the sun appears. The highest point, a wooded hummock that you could hardly call a peak, lies about 200m above sea level.

The islands’ economy seems shaky, being heavily dependent on New Zealand, and there is visible poverty if you look beyond the pizza shacks and pareo sellers lining the coast road. The main industry is tourism but it’s not that tourist-friendly. Shops and businesses all close for the day at 4pm, and even the hotel restaurants are emptying by 8 in the evening.

It’s hard to get anyone to say yes, whatever the question.

‘You can’t get the staff for longer opening hours’, sighed the owner of the best café on Rarotonga, the main island. ‘Island people don’t want to work’.

In such an idyllic setting, with generations of forebears who could simply hook a fish out of the sea or pull a pawpaw or a coconut off a tree, who would have waiting tables or making beds in their blood? But everything has changed here, as the huge planes lumbering in from Auckland and LA daily indicate.

Tomorrow we will take the tiny Air Rarotonga 40-minute flight back to the main island.

And from there, onwards.

If I can confirm my plane ticket.

Otherwise I might just have to stay.

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Good and bad in Seoul

In Seoul we stayed in a tiny studio flat fourteen floors above the railway tracks snaking out of Seoul Station. Approximately the same distance below street level, the bullet-fast new subway trains zoom out to Incheon Airport. And in between these poles spreads a vast neon-lit city of white skyscraper blocks interspersed with tropical wooded hills. Of the glittering Asian cities we passed through, Seoul is the best. It avoids the catastrophic traffic of Beijing and the ruthless materialism of Hong Kong. It simply works, with cheerful efficiency, and it is not hard to see why it is home to the second biggest economy in Asia.

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Apart from touring the Royal Palaces (poignant, respectfully preserved) and going up the N Seoul Tower, we did just one tourist excursion. Apparently only Europeans have any interest in this one – the Chinese, Japanese and Singaporeans visit exclusively for the shopping (see below….). It was a guided bus trip up to the DMZ – the 3-kilometre wide de-militarised strip between South and North that slices straight across the Korean peninsula. It was fascinating, and deeply weird that this dividing line is treated as a visitor attraction, apparently by both sides. First we toured the eerily deserted Dorasan train station that will – some day – be not the last stop on the line up from the south but the first on the journey north. Until that happy day the departure boards show only one destination, Pyongyang, with no times or dates ventured. Next we put our coins in the slots of the powerful observation telescopes and trained them on the barbed wire and gun posts three kilometres away, and on the settlement just north of the line that S Koreans call Propaganda Village. The houses look solid and the fields well tended, although it’s said that no one actually lives there. The lights all go on at the same time every night. In the zone separating the barbed-wire lines, nothing stirs. It’s too heavily mined for anyone to venture into, although several species of otherwise endangered birds and mammals thrive amongst the tangled vegetation.

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The culmination of the trip was an underground excursion into one of the three spy tunnels penetrating under the DMZ – dug by the north and discovered before any invasion of the south could be launched. We put on hard hats and hunched over to descend several hundred metres of steep rocky tunnel. At the bottom was a heavily barred door, through a slit in which another armoured door could be glimpsed three metres away. Beyond the second door lies a third, we were told – the closed gateway to the armoured north. It was cold, claustrophobic, and deeply creepy. No hardship at all to turn tail and make the panting ascent to the sunshine once more.

Our little apartment lay just across the 6-lane highway from a giant shopping mall, housing outlets for every brand from Adidas to Zara. The football-pitch acreage of its food store was open 24 hours, so we were able to browse the sushi or salad aisles at 3 a.m. Not that we needed to. Food and restaurants are big in Korea. HUGE. I had plenty of kimchi, thanks.

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And that shopping? There are more and bigger and shinier malls than I have ever seen. It was hard to credit that so many designer handbags, pairs of sunglasses and cosmetics displays could be collected in one city. I bought nothing, save a carrier bag in one of the street markets. There is such a thing as too much choice.

My favourite time in all Seoul was discovered in a seedy block five minutes’ walk from ours, under a neon sign saying ‘Silloam Spa’. It might have been a love hotel or even a brothel, but in fact it was five floors of heaven. The Koreans adore a spa, and so do I. Although the interior décor was brown plastic and fake foliage it was sparklingly clean, a labyrinth of miraculous sauna chambers offering heat and chill and pumped-oxygen or charcoal-filtered air, and jade fountains and heated clay beds, rest rooms and jacuzzi pools and even dormitories on the top floor where you can sleep overnight if you wish. I had the best non-sleazy massage of my life, and found the segregated women’s areas nakedly relaxed and even sisterly. (Not a word I often reach for.) All this, for a maximum stay of 12 hours, for $8.

Five days in Korea was far too short. I didn’t even get to Nami Island, let alone down to Busan or the east or west seas. Must come back again, soon.

Screen time

Cultural divides: travelling down from Hong Kong to Seoul I have noticed with relief (see last post re digital dependence) that I am a dilettante only. In the lift down from the umpteenth floor of the Hong Kong hotel was a man holding a large-size tablet an inch from his face, a martial arts movie playing with sound track at full volume. He strode into the lobby without lifting his eyes, a diminuendo of karate chopping and screaming trailing in his wake.

In the long queue for immigration at Seoul every single person was poking at a mobile phone. And now, looking out of the fourteenth floor window of a tiny studio apartment, where the tv screen is bigger than the bed, I can see a neon nightscape of flashing Samsung ads.

Any novelist – or creator of long-form narrative, as we have now been re-titled – would feel a twist of dismay. I certainly do…

AND another thing. The bathroom business. See picture.

I have been to Japan, therefore I have encountered this sort of thing before, but in Tokyo there were informative pictograms, even a word or two of English. But here– which button to press? What scalding jet or torrent or blast will sear the areas? Close the eyes, hope and pray for the best…..

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You are in China

‘You are in mainland China’, the hotel receptionist said severely.

I was actually aware of this since we were setting off to watch the evening flag-lowering ceremony in front of the giant picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square, and had only thought to check the time of sunset first. We went anyway, waited for the sun to sink, and amidst marching and saluting the flag came down. There was a big crowd, including many small children, looking on in respectful silence. These military setpieces always seem quite camp to me (not including our own lovely Trooping of the Colour, of course) and the show in Tiananmen Square was no exception. The wasp waists cinched with white belts and boat-shaped caps of the uniformed ranks beside the not-a-bit-conspicuous starched white shirts and tight black trousers of the plainclothes men, all of whom had cheekbones like Nureyev, seemed ready to break into a high-kicking number at any moment. Perhaps it was not quite as chorus-line as the pouting and strutting at the India/Pakistan nightly border-closing ceremony, but it was close.

And then, in the thickening dusk, at the very second when the officer handed the tail of the tightly furled flag to his second in command, all the lamps in the huge square blinked on and the portrait of Mao blazed in a rim of light. Genuine theatre, and very effective.

The business about the hour of sunset was just one of the numerous times in China when I reached for Google or Wikipedia or Twitter. When was the Great Wall built? What’s the difference between T’ang and Ming? Where to eat the best Peking duck? Ah. None of these American-biased information sources is available, of course.

Ashamed to discover my own dependence on digital access to facts, history, instant news, opinion. Not to mention the ability to post pictures of spider kebabs, me on the Great Wall, me in noodle bar, my plate of Peking duck, and to exchange messages via Facebook and Gmail.

So, we had a fascinating visit to China – too short – and I was deeply impressed, even inspired, by the changes that have taken place since my last visit, eighteen years ago. It’s a huge, pulsating, varied and chaotic city. But apart from the asphyxiating traffic it seems generally a happier and less challenging place to inhabit than London.

This comes from Hong Kong, where I’m watching the zigzag flashes of an electrical storm reflected in the glass towers surrounding the harbour. Drama upon drama. And even though Hong Kong now belongs to China, I’ve got Facebook and Safari and Gmail. More to come.

Keep in touch please…it’s a long road ahead.

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Let’s go!

It’s time to set off again. I’m extra keen on the prospect because the writing hasn’t been going well. Maybe I’m stuck because I’m about to go away, or maybe I’m going away because I know the inspiration isn’t there, but either way it’ll be a relief. So this evening I have tied up my belongings in a red spotted hanky, and tomorrow I will hoist it on a stick over my shoulder and head for the horizon. Or Heathrow. With my wheelie case.

Next stop:

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Out today

IMG_2205 Daughter of the House is published today. It feels as though it’s been a long time coming, but it should be in bookshops and available on line right now. There have already been some great reviews in the press and in the book blogs. Saga magazine has a good one – I love the idea of being the thinking woman’s popular novelist. Maybe I’ll make this my motto! Daughter Saga Review Today I’m out doing interviews, and all the time I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the real readers – you – will enjoy it.

Where do you get your ideas from?

London Library I love doing the research for a novel, especially when it calls for travel to somewhere exciting. Daughter of the House involved thinking myself back in time, though, instead of getting on a plane. Wikipedia and Google are useful for chasing facts and getting dates correct, but not much more than that. The trick of researching a novel is that you don’t know what you’re searching for until you stumble across it. You can’t beat a slow browse along the shelves, picking up books almost at random. I use the London Library, and can easily lose a few hours wandering in the stacks. A million books on open shelving soon lead to a notebook full of scribbled notions. Writer’s gold. IMG_2334