February 25, 2015

Bangkok's World Puppet Carnival

Strings, Masks and Marionettes

The puppets are packed away, costumes are back in storage and the stages dismantled. But the smiles on the faces of the local people are still seen across the city and the recent Harmony World Puppet Carnival, held for the first time in Bangkok, is the only topic of conversation.

The success of the festival is a reminder that people from all over the world are stirred by the same fundamental passions. You'd think that the modern world, where we carry films, comedy and culture around on our phones would render puppets on strings, dancing dolls and age-old tales as passé. But every show at the Carnival was packed – heroes were cheered, villains booed and young and old alike were awed by the puppets and ingenuity of the puppeteers.

The Harmony World Puppet Carnival (held 1-10 November, 2014), was the largest international gathering of puppets (and their owners) ever brought together with more than 150 puppet troupes from over 70 countries represented. Shows were held all over Bangkok and puppet lovers agreed that Thailand was the perfect venue.

Thailand has a rich tradition of puppetry, from courtly dramas played out by exquisitely made marionettes, to shadow puppet shows, with characters cut from cowhide and taken from village to village. For centuries, Thailand's best known epics and folk tales; such as, the Ramakien were passed down through the medium of puppet shows. So the Carnival was a timely reminder that these traditions and skills need to be preserved.

The interest of the public was piqued from the start, thanks to a colourful parade from Maha Jessadabodin Pavilion to the main stages at Sanam Luang. This fun procession was made up of the performers and their mesmerising creations, ranging in size from a few inches, to huge marionettes that towered over the crowds and required several operators.

The main events took place around the landmarks of Rattanakosin Island. The National Gallery, Theatre and Museum all provided stunning backdrops for the shows and to ensure that the Carnival reached out to everyone, Siam Paragon hosted events so that office workers and shoppers could get their fix of the fun.

Sanam Luang staged the biggest shows – the beautiful backdrop of the Grand Palace, with its glittering spires and towers added to the theatre. Culture lovers and tourists waited with anticipation for each act and those who had chairs were soon outnumbered by people crowding the wings, happy to be a part of this huge event.

The kids loved it. Even a generation raised on the Internet and special effects found something magical about the moving dolls and mannequins who seemed so eerily human. The first few rows were made up of children of all nationalities, eager to volunteer or content to gaze in wonder.

And there were wonders to see. Among the shows this writer saw were a magical dancing couple who turned out to be one talented and flexible Russian artiste (when he stood up for his applause jaws dropped); a ten-foot devil from Iran that required audience participation to subdue; snakes, lizards turtles and dragons from Vietnam and even a 6-inch doll from New Zealand who was able (thanks to skilful manipulation from the puppeteer) to draw a tiny portrait of a delighted audience member.

Vietnamese troupe, the Vietnam Puppetry Theatre took advantage of the evening dusk to stage a mesmerising celebration of rural life. Black clad figures, barely discernable to the audience manipulated costumes and puppets, and we got to see scarecrows moving supernaturally across the stage while chickens, with human hands for feet danced and laid eggs.

The Harmony World Puppet Carnival educated people in exhibitions and workshops about puppet traditions from all around the world. The wonderful and distinctive Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Arts Centre, hosted an exhibition about Thailand's distinctive puppet types as well as films and videos about puppets in art and culture.

The event came to a glorious finale on 10 November when puppets and performers took their last bows. Everyone had fun and the legacy of the carnival should be felt for a long time to come. It has been a reminder that even in an ultra-modern world, we're ready to suspend disbelief for a while to enjoy exquisite craftsmanship, fine storytelling and interact with otherworldly creatures. Surely this is something worth preserving.

February 23, 2015

Struth! A little bit of Portofino in North Wales

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says it looks picturesquely historic Italian – but in fact this village is in the north of Wales, and was built over a fifty year period between 1925 and 1975.

English architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis both designed and built what he called Portmeirion on the site of a one-time 18th century foundry and shipyard, and while he said he'd designed it in tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean, he always denied having copied much of it from the Italian town of Portofino.

Today it is a major tourist attraction with a castellated mansion a boutique hotel named Castell Deudraeth after some remains close-by of a castle dating back to 1188, and fifteen original cottages available for rent as self-contained holiday accommodation.

There're also a half dozen shops and boutiques, six tea-rooms and cafés and a public restaurant in Castell Deudraeth.

Portmeirion attracts 250,000 visitors a year with the village open every day except Christmas Day. As well as the architectural attractions of the village itself there are public gardens, adjacent beaches, and woodlands with extensive walking trails.

The village is owned by the Clough Williams-Ellis Foundation that was established to protect and ensure its conservation. Details www.portmeirionvillage.com


February 16, 2015

Fiji Airways making history



David Ellis


WHEN they boarded P&O's ship Borda at Southampton back in 1921, Frank and Lucy Fleming appeared just another happy married couple migrating to a new life on the other side of the world in far-off Australia.


But they were anything than "just another couple." For starters Lucy was Lucy Fleming alright – but not because she was married to Frank, but because she was actually married to Frank's brother Bernard Fleming, who'd started divorce proceedings when he'd learned of the affair between his wife and his brother.


And Frank and Lucy weren't really heading to Australia, but were secretly escaping further afield to remote little Fiji in the nearby South Pacific, where some of Frank's forebears had set up businesses even further back in the late 1800s, running island trading vessels, trade-stores, coconut plantations and making sails.


And as well as the travel trunks of clothes and household items Frank and Lucy had taken aboard the Borda, they also had an extraordinarily large wooden crate – not filled with furniture or such, but with a World War I RAF bi-plane broken down into dozens of parts, and which was to go on to become part of Fiji's colourful aviation history…  


Soon after he and Lucy's arrival in Suva, word got out that this unusually-private, ex-RAF officer had built an aeroplane in a hangar alongside a beach near town, and when rumoured he planned to test-fly it one afternoon in June 1922, the local Fiji Times newspaper sent a reporter out to witness the event.


But an angry Frank told the man (as later quoted in the newspaper) that he had no intention of flying his aeroplane that day, and that in any case "it's not a bob-a-head show for you lot to watch me break my neck! "


But after the reporter left, Frank and his Indian mechanic wheeled the plane onto the beach, Frank clambered into the cockpit and as the propeller was spun by the mechanic, gunned the engine and roared off along the firm moist sand. He'd got just a short distance when the wheels sank into an unexpected wet patch at speed, and the plane pitched violently forward, cartwheeling tail over on nose…


Uninjured, Frank Fleming climbed out, surveyed the wreck and pronounced his plane a write-off – Fiji's first-ever attempted flight had crashed without ever leaving the ground.


Some ten years later a ship's captain-cum-aviator, Gordon Fenton also assembled (on a Suva street to the amusement of locals) a Simmonds Spartan bi-plane he'd shipped out from England, but which he simply couldn't get airborne. A mechanically-minded friend examined the plane, and then the assembly booklet – and told Captain Fenton he'd got the wings on backwards.


Making the necessary changes, Fenton was soon literally off and flying – with local businessmen ecstatic at his "speedy" 1hr 35min substitute for the otherwise 216km road-trip between the main business centres of Suva and Lautoka. He registered his company as Fiji Airways in 1933, but with the Great Depression soon reaching into Fiji, the fledgling airline faltered and then folded.


Another enthusiastic aviator, builder Alf Marlow then imported three small Dornier Libelle flying boats from Germany, but he too did not last long. (Old-timers claimed the charismatic Mr Marlow often tired of flying the long, slow route from Suva to Lautoka, so would manoeuvre his little plane above sugar-cane trains of the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company, and when train and plane were doing the same speed would "belly-flop" on top of the soft sugar cane for a free ride the rest of the way. Well, that's what the old-timers said…)


Then in the 1950s famed Australian aviator, Harold Gatty set up Katafanga Estates Airways to service his new holiday resort on Katafanga Island to the east of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu.


A year later he changed the name to Fiji Airways and as the airline grew and expanded internationally, and with ownership in 1971 now including seven Pacific Island governments, this was re-registered as Air Pacific.


But in May 2012, Air Pacific reverted to Fiji Airways – last year celebrating carrying more than 1-million passengers for the first time ever in a single year.


If they were alive today, those Fiji aviation pioneers would be pleased… and we'd say Bula to that!






[] BIRTH of an airline: Katafanga Island off Viti Levu where Australian aviator

   Harold Gatty laid this airstrip for his resort's fledgling airline that would go on to

   become Fiji Airways. (Katafanga Island Resort & Spa)

[] GATTY's first plane in the 1950s. (Fiji Airways)

[] HAROLD Gatty (centre) who flew as navigator with American pilot Wiley Post (left)

   when they established a new round-the-world flying record in 1931. (Wikipedia)

[] FIJI's national airline was known for over 40 years as Air Pacific until being re-

   registered as Fiji Airways in 2012. (Fiji Airways)

[] IN today's stand-out Fiji Airways livery. (Fiji Airways)


February 09, 2015

Struth! World Pie Eating Champion wins in split decision

IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of the traveller, David Ellis says the 22nd Annual World Pie Eating Championships at Harry's Bar at Wigan in England's Manchester, have ended in something of Pie Noon.

Because the meat and potato pies for the Championships were delivered by mistake to revellers at a Divorce Party down the road – leaving the 24 competition Pie Eaters facing a table-load of pies that had been intended for that divorce celebration, and were double the Championship's regulation 25cm diameter.

And although their pies were cut in half for health-safety reasons, and a former champion Barry Rigby (who remarkably for a pie-eater is a part-time professional fitness instructor) chomped through his half in a fastest time of 42.6 seconds, organisers decided the 22nd Annual Championships were a non-event.

The bizarre Championships originally centred on the most pies eaten in three minutes (the record was 7,) but Government Healthy Eating regulations introduced in 2006 saw the rules changed to the fastest time to consume a single pie (currently 35.86 seconds.)

And past winners have included former Australian Rugby player Matt Dunning, who won the event for fastest time in 2006.


[] PIE eater: fastest at the 22nd Annual World Pie Eating Championship, Barry Rigby – but the event was declared a non-event as the wrong pies were offered up. (Pic: Wigan Today)

This Robinson Crusoe was a woman



David Ellis


THE plight of Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk who was abandoned on a South Pacific island in 1704, and which inspired Daniel Defoe's classic Treasure Island (this column last week,) was not the first such case of a marooning on a proverbial desert island that was to go on to enthral the reading public.


Because a near-150 years earlier another yarn had been published about a galleon dropping anchor off a barren dot in the sea – and in this case not one of its seaman, but one of its passengers being callously cast ashore to confront a fate unknown.


And more bizarrely, in this actual true-life event that passenger was anything than a rambunctious Alexander Selkirk-like seaman, but rather a young, affluent and well-bred member of France's social elite… and to the shock of those who were to read the story in years to come, a woman at that.


The extraordinary tale of Marguerite de La Rocque was first recounted in fictionalised form in a book published  in 1558 and titled Heptameron, a collection of short stories written by Queen Marguerite of Navarre (originally a part of Spain, later France.)


Marguerite de La Rocque was born around 1515 and by the age of 20 owned substantial landholdings in Languedoc in Southern France, and jointly with her cousin Jean-Francois de Roberval, other properties inherited upon the deaths of inter-related family.


De Roberval, an unabashed social-climber, ingratiated himself with anyone he perceived of use including even France's young King Francis I, with the two regularly indulging in weekends of game-hunting and womanising. De Roberval even convinced the King to appoint him as Lieutenant-General of New France – at that stage the St Lawrence River, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in what was later to become Canada.


And extraordinarily in April 1542 the 27 years old Marguerite sailed off to the wild and unknown New France with the fast-talking de Roberval aboard the ship Valentine, one of three galleons carrying 200 colonists, livestock and farming equipment. Just why an attractive, single and well-to-do woman from a well-placed family and with extensive lands in France would do so, has been a point of conjecture ever since…


But it's fair to assume that de Roberval, who had become heavily in debt while keeping up with the playboy lifestyle of his mate the King, had Marguerite's wealth and inheritance-potential in mind when talking her into venturing with him far from home…


And when on the long sea journey she became unabashedly smitten with a young fellow passenger, de Roberval decided he had grounds to act: as the-now Lieutenant- General of New France, when their ship approached the uninhabited Island of Demons in the Gulf of St Lawrence, he ordered that for bringing such disrepute on their family with her scandalous onboard behaviour, she be cast ashore on the bleak island.


Thus Marguerite, her faithful maid Damienne and her lover (who has never been identified) were abandoned there with a blunderbus, gunpowder and shot, several knives and a Bible… with Marguerite discovering soon after arriving that she was pregnant, but before the birth of her child seeing both her maid and lover die in the harsh conditions.


Alone, Marguerite gave birth to her baby, which survived just days. Somehow the gutsy French socialite continued on, at one stage shooting dead a large bear which she skinned with her knife – using the skin to keep warm, and living in a cave the trio had found when first dumped on the island.


Then in late 1544, two-and-a-half years after she'd been put ashore, a group of fishermen exploring the island were shocked to come across a bedraggled white woman in a bearskin cape…


They took her back to their home port in Newfoundland from where Marguerite returned to France, founded a private school for girls, and lived comfortably for the rest of her life in the luxurious Chateau de la Mothe in the little town of Nontron.


Her evil cousin Jean-Francois de Roberval fared less well. After his return to Paris from his role in New France, he and several others were leaving a Huguenot (Reformist Protestant) church meeting one night in 1560, when they were set upon by a hostile Catholic mob and all of them beaten to death.






[] HARRINGTON Harbour that was harsh, uninhabited and known as The Island of

   Demons when Marguerite de la Rocque was abandoned here; today fewer than

   300 live on the near-barren island. (WikiMedia.)

[] QUEEN Marguerite of Navarre heard of the strange tale of Marguerite de la

   Rocque and fictionalised it in her book of short stories, Heptameron. (National Library

   of France.)

[] THE Heptameron was published under the name Queen Marguerite in France and

   Anglicised as Queen Margaret elsewhere. (National Library of France.) 

[] AFTER her rescue Marguerite de la Rocque returned to France, opened a private

   school for girls and lived in the luxury of Chateau de la Mothe in Nontron.



February 07, 2015

Nicky Pellegrino travels to Italy to research One Summer In Venice

Most of us have plenty of things to be happy about. However in the headlong rush of everyday life it's easy to fail to appreciate them and instead let great chunks of our time drift by existing in a fug of so-so-ness – not depressed exactly, just not really happy./div>

So what if you made a list of the ten things that make you happy? Not the universal stuff like family, friends, holidays and chocolate but the ones particular to you – your own personal happiness recipe – and then try to design a life around it. After reading Gretchin Rubin's The Happiness Project, bestselling New Zealand author and journalist Nicky Pellegrino decided that she should do just that. Not only should she undertake this project, but why not write a novel, based around a character who decides to do just that too. So she picks up her life, and decides to move to Venice.

Praise for Nicky's previous title, RECIPE FOR LIFE
RECIPE FOR LIFE pulls off the rare trick of being both gritty and lyrical, heartrending and compelling. A novel about how easy it is to become an observer in your own life, and the joy of learning to live again. It also made me very hungry! — Jojo Moyes

 Published by Hachette Australia in April 2015, format, RRP $29.99, Ebook RRP$16.99


'This isn't a mid-life crisis OK? For a start I'm not old enough yet to have one of those. I'm calling it a happiness project. I've stolen an entire summer from my life and by the time it's over I plan to leave this place with a list in my hand. The ten things that make me happy, that's all I want to know. How difficult can it be? They may be small things - a perfect cup of coffee, a day without rain - or bigger ones. It's still the beginning so how can I know?'

Addolorata Martinelli knows she should be happy. She has everything she thought she wanted - her own business, a husband, a child. So why does she feel as if something is missing? Then when her restaurant, Little Italy, is slated by a reviewer, she realises that she's lost the one thing she thought she could always count on, her love of food.

So Addolorata heads to Venice for a summer alone, aiming to find the ten things that make her happy. Once she's found them, she'll construct a new life around her ten things, but will they include her life in London?

It was Nicky Pellegrino's Italian father who gave her family a true passion for food. Now living in New Zealand, working as a journalist, Nicky hordes her holidays so that she and her husband can return to Italy to see family, eat mozzarella and research her books.

Nicky was the former editor of the New Zealand Women's Weekly, and still works as regular columnist for the magazine. One Summer in Venice was born after Nicky read Gretchin Rubin's The Happiness Project, and decided to try and design her life around it, and create her own personal happiness recipe.

February 02, 2015

Struth! On a cruise ship for seven years

A CRUISEY life – the lady, her ship and her cabin:
"If a country's got a port, I've been there,"
she says. (Images Crystal Cruises)
IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that when Fort Lauderdale woman Lee Wachtstetter's husband died their daughter suggested her mother take herself off "on a nice long cruise" on board the luxury liner Crystal Serenity.

That was in 2008 – and seven years later and now aged 86, Mrs Wachtstetter is still cruising...

The widow and her late banker husband Mason sailed 89 cruises during their 50 years of married life, and when he died their daughter convinced her Mum that her 5-bedroom family home on 4ha in Fort Lauderdale was too big for one person, and that she should sell-up and take that long cruise.

Since then Mrs Wachtstetter – fondly known amongst the crew as "Mama Lee" – has sailed well over 100 Crystal Serenity long-haul and 15 world cruises, and says she gave up counting the number of countries she's visited after reaching her 100th. "I just say that if it's got a port, I've been there," she says.

But all this doesn't come cheaply – US$164,000 a year (around AU$212,000) gets her a Deck 7 stateroom, all meals and drinks to go with them, shipboard shows and movies whenever she likes, regular cocktail parties, lecture sessions and talks, and even tips…

And while she rarely goes ashore because she's already seen most places her ship visits, she never misses Istanbul's Grand Bazaar that she says she absolutely loves.

The other adventures of Robinson Crusoe

David Ellis

IT was back in December 1721 that the world lost Alexander Selkirk, the extraordinary Scottish seaman who provided the real-life story that was to be tweaked, played-with and immortalised by author Daniel Defoe into his classic tale for all ages, Robinson Crusoe.

And while it was Selkirk's four years and four months cast-adrift on a miniscule South Pacific island 700km off Chile that Defoe was able to turn into such a rollicking yarn that's as popular today as it was when written 295 years ago, there's enough still largely unknown about the sailor to make for another equally rollicking read…

Alexander Selkirk was Mate aboard Cinque Ports, a British privateer (an armed merchant ship authorised to attack foreign enemies) and one tempestuous day in 1704 feuded with its Captain about beaching the galleon for repairs to increasingly problematic leaks.

Captain Stradling refused, so Selkirk asked to be put ashore at the next sighting of land and, glad to be rid of his troublesome Mate, Stradling steered to the uninhabited little Juan Fernandez Island. Realizing he'd been duped, Selkirk pleaded remorse but nevertheless was put ashore with just a hammock, hatchet, knife, kettle, matches, personal navigation instruments, a Bible and a couple of day's food.
Cinque Ports, along with an accompanying privateer St George captained by later Australia explorer William Dampier, then sailed off for Cape Horn – sinking along the way from the leaks Selkirk had complained about.…

Selkirk meanwhile lived an extraordinary life on his desolate island, amongst other things teaching feral cats to dance on two legs, parrots to sing crude sea shanties, and running down on foot and wrestling to the ground wild goats whose meat he ate and skins he used for clothing. He lived in a cave and under a bush sun-shelter he built, and when his matches ran out kept a fire going 24 hours a day for cooking and to deter rats from gnawing at his goatskin clothes and his feet while he slept …

He also caught lobsters and fish with his bare hands and from a hilltop look-out watched daily for any possibly passing ships… eventually in 1709 sighting, signalling and being rescued by the British privateer Duke – whose officers coincidentally included William Dampier who'd seen him put ashore on the island all those years before…

Aboard Duke Selkirk made a speedy recovering from his isolation and so impressed its Captain, Woodes Rogers that he made him Second Mate on a privateering raid and later included Selkirk and his adventurous life in his own memoirs. Writer Richard Steele adapted Captain Rogers' memoirs in an article of his own about Selkirk in The Englishman newspaper, and this in turn is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe to create Robinson Crusoe.

And Selkirk's life on return to Scotland could make for another book in itself. He had earned an amazing 800 English pounds as his share of privateering (about AU$160,000 today) and which he'd carefully salted away, and added to his new "life of ease" by giving talks in pubs of his extraordinary isolation in return for meals and drinks.

Yet wealthy as he was, he told enquiring journalists that he doubted he "would ever be as happy again as I was then, with not a single quarter penny…"

Selkirk spontaneously eloped from Scotland to London in 1717 with a 16 year old dairymaid, then equally-spontaneously joined the Navy and went back to sea… and when his ship visited Plymouth, he met and spontaneously once more, married a local widowed innkeeper – never returning to his dairymaid in London.
On December 13 1721 while serving on HMS Weymouth on an anti-piracy patrol off Africa's west coast, Alexander Selkirk died aboard ship from Yellow Fever and was buried at sea.

Today his Juan Fernandez is officially called Robinson Crusoe Island and is inhabited by under 900 islanders who live largely by exporting the spiny lobsters that helped sustain Selkirk for so long, and on small-scale tourism – it is part of Chile and a 3-hour small-plane flight from Santiago.

Archaeologists recently found the remains of Selkirk's 24hr fireplace at his cave, four holes for posts that supported his adjacent sun-shelter… and pieces of what they believe were his navigational instruments.

NEXT WEEK: France's amazing female Robinson Crusoe…


[] THE cave that Alexander Selkirk called home on isolated Juan Fernandez Island for four years and four months from 1704.
[] FIRST edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe published in 1719.
[] STATUE dedicated to Alexander Selkirk in his home town of Lower Largo in Scotland.
[] THE only township on remote Juan Fernandez is home to fewer than 900 islanders.
[] LOCALS make the bulk of their income from the export of spiny lobsters, and to a lesser degree on small-scale tourism.

(All images Wikipedia)

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