A travel writer tries to blend in with birders!

I can’t even say I’m a cuckoo in this international nest – after all, a cuckoo is at least another bird – I feel like a completely alien species. I’ve read the Steve Braunias book ‘How to Watch a Bird’ so was sure I was well-prepared. It soon became obvious – I’m out of my depth.

It first became clear on the bus from Gujarat‘s Ahmedabad airport where, in the middle of the night, I meet a Welsh couple who have written a best-seller bird book and a South African birder, all presenters at this gathering – they’re talking a different language to me.

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Hours later, after a slow, bumpy trip, I’m checked into the Jamnagar hotel as “Vikitoria from Ukraine” then, after less than three hours sleep, at breakfast it becomes even clearer that I’m an imposter.

Steve says birders are passionate people and I start to see what he means. Beside most settings, along with the coffee, fruit, cereal and curry, was a piece of equipment. Olive green or black, obviously well-used, some with sticky-tape repairs, are huge binoculars. I’m pleased my little opera-type glasses are still in my suitcase – I don’t want to be outed so early. Telescopes and tripods lean against tables, chairs and walls. As I eat, a bird call fills the air: one of my table companions answers his phone, the bird stops singing. It seems a birders accessory is a bird call ringtone. My phone has the factory setting ring, it confirms my out-of-my-depth-ness: I come clean.

I tell everyone I meet I’m a kiwi, ‘quite likely the only person here named after a bird’. I also confess to not being a birder but a travel writer, there by invitation to cover the Global Bird Watchers Conference. Some 500 people have ‘flocked together’, as the conference title declares, in Gujarat, India, a mostly vegetarian, low-alcohol use state and birthplace of Gandhi, for some bird talk. I wonder, do they, will they, also twitter or tweet?

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Evidently bird watching is not only one of the biggest hobbies in the world; it seems avitourism is a niche activity among, often well-heeled, travellers. Sadly, as bird watching increases, the numbers of many birds are declining and soon presenters are telling us “we have not been able to halt the decline of bio-diversity”.

It seems twitching, a subset of birding – rather like train-spotting – raced around the world in a godwit-like migration. Birders, like trainspotters, are often obsessively ticking off, or creating lists. Most of the enthusiasts attending the conference know their exact place on the life-list ranking; a list of birdwatchers showing the number of species of birds they have seen during their lifetime. It appears there are over 9,000 bird species and according to the website Surfbirds, many have seen many more than 7,000 of those feathered creatures.

I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat's Chief Minister)
I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat’s Chief Minister)

I decide to tick off the birds I see, and appoint Alan, a travel writer, photographer and birder – as my go-to-person to identify birds in my photos. No longer will they be ‘a large black and white bird with pink legs and tail’ or one with ‘a cute hairstyle’, The first Indian bird I learn to name by its long v-shaped tail is a black drongo. No-one but me thought that was funny: it seems its only we down-unders who use the term ‘drongo’ for dim-witted and which I was now feeling.

While everyone seems supportive of each other in this particular flock there is no doubt birding is a competitive sport with people, or teams, trying to spot large numbers of species within a specified time. Others compete by attempting to increase their life, annual, national, or county list. No-one asks me about my status – after all, I’ve only just started ticking the bird book I’ve been given. They smile indulgently at me, a virgin twitcher: I’m slipping over to the ‘other side’ but I don’t know their language.

Travel writers learning to be birders
Travel writers learning to be birders … note the bird dog!

I overhear conversations about someone being ‘gripped’: it seems it has nothing to do with groping or being grabbed but being first to ‘tick’ a bird on a trip, especially a ‘lifer’ or a ‘mega-tick’. Evidently some of these people are not cooing doves, but hawks. Rivalry can sometimes mean they intentionally ‘grip’ a fellow birder with deliberate misinformation, or even scaring the bird away – I have a lot to learn!

While we crass travel-writers are looking at people, food, or lions, searching for stories, the birders have their bins – as I’ve learnt to call binoculars – trained on a spot in the distance, or pointing skywards.

One of the experts, American Ben King tells me birding is not usually a fatal disease but “it’s even worse than an addiction – it’s an obsession”. He also tells me some amateurs go bird-watching in white tops, ‘the very worst colour’. Two hours later I glance down and realise I’m wearing the offending colour.

My companions recount tales of birdwatchers who spent their lives trying to see most of the world’s bird species. They rarely died in bed. One spent her family inheritance travelling the world before dying in a road accident in Madagascar; another, who was leading a bird tour, was killed by a tiger; and yet another was killed in an air-crash in Ecuador. Clearly, these so-called ‘bird nerds’ don’t lead boring lives!

The Welsh couple I met on the bus, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, gave up their jobs and sold their home for a year-long twitching trip, resulting in a book “The Biggest Twitch”.

It’s interesting to be surrounded by this flock of mostly interesting, sometimes obsessive, people from all over the world, keen to see Gujarat’s resident and migrant birds. It’s obvious more and more bird tours will arrive there, and around the world, for twitchers to add to their many lists.

Ted Floyd, American Birding Association, says in his blog, “Birding is “just” a hobby, I realize. It’s mere sport, some would say, or avocation. Yes, but it’s also a lifestyle, a way of life. Birding brings out the best in us, imagine if there were far more birders. Imagine if birding were to catch on in a huge way in, say, Israel and Palestine. Imagine if everyone in Washington and Tehran were birders. No harm could come of that. In all likelihood, it would do a world of good.’ I wonder.

I finally meet ‘Vikitoria from Ukraine’. She is young, blonde, and gorgeous: I tick off some 100 birds but it seems I’m just a ‘dude’ – a casual birder who prefers pleasant surroundings and nice weather.

Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat
Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat

New York, New York: so good they named it twice

Autumn colours in New York
Autumn colours in New York

‘New York, New York – so good they named it twice and, despite that, I do have fears.

I’m told, ‘The Big Apple is full of crime; they won’t help you if you fall over; don’t travel by the subway,’ warnings, often given by American people who have never been there, fueled the fear

I have to find my way to the youth hostel on Amsterdam and 108th Street – travelling on the subway that I’ve been warned to stay away from. I often feel vulnerable when arriving in a new place – a pack on my back and not knowing where I’m going – each new city raises minor fears.

Adrenalin running and money tucked out of sight, I find my way downtown, to Manhattan, the spiritual and geographical epicentre of New York. Following my guidebook I arrive at the correct station, buy a ticket in the graffiti-festooned underground then get off at the right station. Back up at ground level it’s only a short block to the large old hostel and mentally tick off another obstacle. ‘Welcome to Noo Yawk’ says the young man on reception.

I’m sure my eyeballs will freeze as I walk into the fierce wind towards the Hudson, my eyelashes have ice on them and my eyeballs are cold, achingly sore. The wind blows me down the canyon-like streets with their cliff-like buildings and I’m sure my tourist status is obvious with my upward gaze and open mouth. I’m excited to be walking down Broadway: a place that seems so glamorous, so seedy, so awfully wonderful and dangerous when seen in movies or TV.

It’s snowed and after breakfast, with five others, I walk around Central Park with a guide from the youth hostel – a local who loves his city and gives these free mini-tours every week. I feel concerned for the homeless man sleeping under a bridge: it’s not weather for sleeping out. The pond is frozen and the trees beautiful: hung with hoarfrost they look like they have crystals hanging from the branches and we leave the park via Strawberry Fields, the garden commemorating John Lennon who lived and died across the road.

I spend the day rubbernecking: at the Empire State Building, the art deco Chrysler Building, the World Trade Centre and talk to locals. The people are not the churlish big city bores I was told to expect, yet another fallacy gone and I’m invited to join two out-of-work actors and a teacher in their favourite Italian restaurant. They combine their knowledge and tell me their special places that I ‘must not miss.’

The Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums on 5th Avenue are on the top of their list as well as Little Italy, Soho and Lower East Side. They draw a map on the tablecloth – plain white newsprint – using three large crayons provided for the grown-up kids who eat here and I rip the map off the tablecloth for future reference.

More snow has fallen overnight and snowplows, the first I’ve ever seen, are busy on the streets and, while writing my journal, realise it’s impossible to be indifferent to this city. The ethnic stew, or salad, makes it a vibrant place and not once have I experienced the emotional coldness I was told to expect.

An intriguing notice on the board in the lobby catches my eye. Help needed at the University Soup Kitchen. Meet Saturday 9 am – here in foyer, if you can give us some time. Thinking of the man under the bridge I offer my labour and next morning join two Australians and we’re taken by underground to the venue.

‘Welcome to the University Soup Kitchen,’ a conservatively dressed woman addresses us: we can hear capital letters stressed in her speech. ‘We are commonly called the Meat-Loaf Kitchen because that is what we Cook Every Week.

She looks around the room of helpers, eyeballing us, daring us to show any prejudice against her customers. I’m to set tables, then serve coffee. The boss-lady adds a postscript, ‘People are allowed Second Helpings Only after All have been Served. They can have as much Coffee as they want. We Pour coffee for people At the Tables. You would Expect that if You were in a Restaurant and They are to Get the Same Good Service.’ Her voice fills the large hall at the back of the church and the Aussies and I exchange raised eyebrows.

I carry two coffee-pots to the first table. ‘Hi guys, coffee anyone?’ Silently they all indicate yes and I pour out six mugs, before going to the next table. ‘Hi everyone, coffee all around?’ This table is more vocal and we talk about the weather.

‘It’s going to snow some more,’ a man tells me and for two hours I’m in and out of the kitchen refilling the coffee-pots as well as responding to cries for more sugar or another plate of bread. While stragglers remain over the last of their meal I help sweep the floor and tidy up. As we find our way back to the hostel even more light snow falls – the forecasters in the soup kitchen were right.

Next morning, from my third floor window, the scene’s been transformed, it’s snowed heavily and cars parked on the roadside are nearly covered. I’m excited and bundle myself up to go out – I’ve never seen so much whiteness except on a ski field. There are few vehicles around, with the exception of snowploughs and the pavements are slippery. I fall and as I’m clambering to my feet, two men help me up: another fallacy gone – New Yorkers do help if you fall.

All day the snow continues, the TV tells of power cuts in Quebec and other places around New York City and state. We have power but the transport system, except for the subway, has stopped. Airports are closed and the foyer is full of people who can’t get to their next destination. The hostel is full and staff are busy with requests for beds and to explain, ‘No I don’t know when the airport will be open.’

A news flash tells us that the 24-hour post office has closed, the first time in its history. A state of emergency is declared: the all-day-all-night-city has ground to a halt and I think of the people I poured coffee for yesterday; the TV is already reporting deaths of homeless people.

Outside the hostel, cars are stranded and I photograph taxis in the middle of the street – snow up to their roof. An enterprising person is hiring out skis and Broadway has become a ski field. ‘The blizzard of 96’ the storm has been named, the worst snowstorm in 50 years.

Days later I leave for Europe: New York New York, absolutely well worth naming twice.’

Re-posted this extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad. Available on Amazon

 

 

Matiu Somes Island, Wellington harbour (NZ)

In the middle of Wellington Harbour, New Zealand, is a fabulous island. Easy to visit, by the Dom Post Ferry, I have been there quite often and have even stayed overnight a few times.

Matiu Somes Island is a predator-free scientific and historic reserve with a rich multicultural history.

The island is owned by local iwi (Te Atiawa) following a Treaty (of Waitangi) settlement. It is governed by a Kaitiaki Board – of local Maori and DoC (Dept of Conservation)

Since the mid 1800s, it’s been a quarantine station, for people and animals, and during World War 2 was a prison for non-New Zealand citizens.

I had planned a trip there last week but was unable to go, but because of that its been on my mind so thought I’d post a few photos for you. See a previous post about the island here

Xiamen Sister City BBQ. Wellington

A reunion of our trip to Xiamen, China earlier this year. See some of my many blogs about our exploring.  Wonder if there will be another one …

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A non traditional Chinese BBQ

A slide show from South-eastern Fujian Province

Last week I blogged about the tulou I visited: here is a 25 picture slide show from the area.  So this is the Nanjing Tulou area and Yun Shui Yao village. Enjoy🙂

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Visiting one of the oldest Tulou: China’s ancient earth buildings

During my trip to Fujian province in China we visited the Nanjing tulou area which I found absolutely fascinating. Built between the 12th and 20th centuries these earthen buildings are unique to the Hakka people in the mountainous areas of south-east Fujian.

very thick walls ... this one is 5 stories high
very thick walls … this one is 5 stories high

These, mostly round, enclosed buildings with thick rammed-earth walls, are many stories high, and can often house about 800 people.

Forty-six tulou sites were inscribed (2008) by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, and as “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment.

Self explanatory
Self explanatory

We only spent a few hours in the area, and as I knew nothing about them before visiting, I will let my photos do the talking – hover over the  picture to see the captions.

However, Wikipedia tells me that the one we visited is called “Yuchanglou (裕昌樓) is a five-storey tulou located at Nanjing County, Shuyang Town, Xiabanliao Village. It was built in 1308 Yuan dynasty by the Liu family clan. It is one of the oldest and tallest tulou in China. Yuchanglou has been nicknamed the “zigzag building”, because the vertical wooden post structure is not straight and perpendicular, but zigzags left and right. It was built that way due to an error measuring the building materials. But in spite of this apparent infirmity, this tall tulou withstood 700 years of natural elements and social turmoil. Yuchanglou’s outer ring is 36 m in diameter and boasts five storeys, with 50 rooms on each floor, 270 in total.

Each of the 25 kitchens on the ground floor at the back half of the circle has a private water well beside its stove. This is the only tulou in all Fujian with such convenient water supply”.

 

I’d certainly visit here again, and stay longer if possible – apparently you can be hosted in one of the tulou.

What is ecotourism?

Not everyone can travel. Living in New Zealand means we have a better chance than many. We have a far higher rate of people with passports than most countries, and countries which are poorer are much more likely to be visited than to produce travellers.row of travel books

I’m a travelophile. Like Asians need rice, Italians pasta, British curry, Kiwi’s fish and chips: I need to travel. When I travel I feel good and being a traveller who writes means I get to visit where I want to go to and not have to go the flavour of the month.

Sometimes it's hard to be a travel writer with view like this. Not! My view from Doubtless bay Villas
Sometimes it’s hard to be a travel writer with view like this. Not!
My view from Doubtless bay Villas

 

This means I often arrive in places that are not on the tourist trail. I get to be a cultural tourist in that I stay longer in places and get to know people; absorb the local flavour.

This means that although I don’t often sign up for an eco-tour, I practise many of the principles of ecotourism. But what is ecotourism?

My understanding of the word and the concepts behind it are, very briefly, that’s it an activity that has least impact while providing greatest benefits.

Independent travellers are the ones most likely be the closest to being real eco travellers. They leave much of their travel money in the country while those who travel on tours have often paid for their whole trip before they leave home – giving very little to the country they are travelling in but adding huge costs – in water, sewerage, rubbish, roads.P1124662 travel tips web

Worldwide many places say they are providing an ecotourism experience but is that really so? It seems that as long as it has a nature component many claim it to be eco-friendly. That has not always been my experience.

Life on a marine reserve sounds wonderful right? A great eco experience? Yes, the natural sites and walks are fantastic; money spent on food and accommodation does stay with the locals providing it. Unfortunately, the big money is creamed the off the islands in diving lessons given by Europeans who come in for the tourist season then leave  – taking the money with them. Because of the lack of a robust infrastructure, the rubbish – that travellers complain about – usually bought to the island by them: water bottles are not refilled, plastic bags abound.

The kiwitravelwriter, arrives on Talang-Taland Island, Sarwawak, Malaysian Borneo. photo by Gustino from Sarawak Tourism Board, who hotested me)
The kiwitravelwriter, arrives on Talang-Taland Island, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. photo by Gustino from Sarawak Tourism Board, who hosted me)

We think of New Zealand as a clean green destination but pollution is not just rubbish on the ground or dirty air. So, are we conservation minded or is it just our low population that produces less rubbish? Have we have sold the visitor a too narrow view of places to visit; given them a list of sights they must see, activities they should take part in? This produces problems such as Milford Sound has. Buses arriving in droves, disgorging visitors (and fumes) to see wonderful pristine sights. An oxymoron? This is not a New Zealand only problem.

It reminds me of Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, where I too was a body disgorged from a bus to see the great views. I have proof that I was there – a photo of me sitting with the lake and mountains as the backdrop – it looks idyllic. However, I know that beside me, waiting for their turn, to record the moment, is another busload of chattering travellers.

eat local
eat local

The problems of being poured into the tourist funnel will continue if we rely on unimaginative travel agents (and of course not all are) and the forceful marketing of those who have invested in areas. While it is more economical for planes and hotels to have us arrive together and stay in the same places it also creates problems for them – not the least is the strong chance of killing the goose that lays the golden egg such as the warning in the child’s story.

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This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made. Tell others you are going to Bali (or Timbuktu) and immediately you will be told “you should have gone there ten (2, 5, 50 years ago,) before it was discovered.”

However, help maybe at hand. An organisation called Green Globe 21 is on the rise in New Zealand. Some 200 companies have embraced its ten different indicators for sustainable environmental codes. What is even better is that many local authorities have signed up too. (www.greenglobe21.com)

What can I do? Shop at locally owned places wherever I am; support companies that practice high standards; (e.g. Kiwi Host, Green Globe) are a good start.

Combining the universal codes of pack it in pack it out and take only photos, leave only footprints along with getting off the well-worn tourist trails means I’ll be able to enjoy my travels with a clearer conscience.

A LoveLetter to Malaysian BorneoIf you’re interested in this topic see my small book about travelling in Borneo which looks at some of these issues too.