New Zealand, A curious land. Part 5

Text read by Mary Peters

The “Tranzalpine” Railway to Christchurch

We took the bus from Punakaiki to Greymouth, where we boarded the Tranzalpine Express from Greymouth to Christchurch, from the west coast to the east coast. For the fans of Lord of the Rings, the line crosses a few places where the films were made.   

New Zealand has three passenger train lines. The Tranzalpine Express and the Coastal Pacific on the South Island and the Northern Explorer on the North Island.

The Tranzalpine Express is a beautiful train. We sat in a “scenic coach” which gave us spectacular views of the landscape.

The train passed through the Arnold River Valley and along the banks of Lake Brunner. We drove through mountain valleys and broad riverbeds. Once we had gone through the Otira Tunnel (which is over 8km long), the landscape began to change. We had left the West Coast Region but had not yet arrived at the Canterbury Plains outside of Christchurch.

We stopped at Arthur’s Pass. It is a small town, roughly at the mid-point of the journey. From here to the next stop, Springfield, the journey is spectacular. We passed through many tunnels and crossed four long and high viaducts. We felt as if we were floating in the air.  

In Springfield, we left the Alpine region. The descent is quite remarkable.

About 60km outside of Christchurch, the landscape becomes flatter and more agricultural. The Canterbury Plains are one of New Zealand’s main farming areas.

The TranzAlpine is one of the world’s great train journeys. The distance is over 200 kilometres, and it takes just under 5 hours. We were not bored by the constantly changing and beautiful landscape. The carriage was calm and quiet, people whispered. Everybody just looked out, too afraid to miss something.

Welcome to Christchurch

We only spent 1.5 days in Christchurch. It was a stopover to change for the trip to Kaikoura. So, we just concentrated on the old town.
Reality catches up with you in Christchurch. The destruction after the 2011 earthquake was still quite visible, even 8 years later, in 2019. The buildings that are now being constructed are earthquake-proof.

Quake City is a museum that tells the story of what happened and also provides a good education on how to prepare for earthquakes and explains the science of earthquakes.  Christchurch still suffers from a certain trauma after the quake. People are very silent when they go to the earthquake museum. Everybody speaks in very hushed tones to respect the victims. There is a memorial with 100 white chairs to commemorate the people who died in the quake. We saw this when we left Christchurch on the bus to Kaikoura. It was a moving sight and gave me goose pimples. Although New Zealand is a quake area, this particular one was the strongest on record. There were two in a relatively short space of time, which is why the experience was so phenomenal. The emotional impact of the earthquake can be really felt in the museum and is difficult to explain it outside the museum. At our accommodation, our host explained to us that many of the local population are still traumatised eight years later, especially those who lost loved ones on that day.  

The city has a population of 350,000 making it the largest city in the South Island. It celebrates its English heritage like nowhere else in New Zealand. It is geographically diverse; you can drive from the beach to the mountains in less than two hours.

We also saw a beautiful park with oversized trees. Christchurch’s old town is very much in the English Victorian Style. Many buildings were rescued and consolidated to preserve them.

We also went to the Canterbury Museum to explore a little bit about the Māori culture and to really learn about the development of New Zealand into the place it is today. You can also see the world’s largest collection of moa bones. (An extinct bird, which could not fly and was bigger than an Emu).

Regretfully, we did not have the time to go to Akaroa. It was a former French settlement, about 90 minutes from Christchurch. It is situated on a peninsula. It is part of the mainland but detached enough to be different. The streets have pretty French names and are lined with charming cottages, cloaked in roses.

Christchurch offers a lot, but we wanted to continue to New Zealand’s Ocean playground, Kaikoura.

A new home in England

Emilie provides an interesting insight on her own particular happiness by moving from France to England.

Emilie and Frédéric – taking a break in Copenhagen.
Text read by Mary Peters

Fifteen years ago, Emilie moved from her native Normandy and joined her partner in England. Frédéric had already been living and working there for some time. It was a huge step for her, not speaking the language, a different culture, leaving her family…would it work out, or would it end up in failure? She had a simple plan B – if it doesn’t work, pack-up, go back home and “book the trip to experience”.

Emilie was in for a surprise! She eventually settled in the town of Horley, just north of Gatwick Airport, about 30 minutes south of London and about 40 minutes north of Brighton on the south coast. It has to be said that this is a very dynamic, multi-cultural and diverse part of England, combining many different worlds. 

Very early, she encountered the British attitude of, “getting on with it”. Moaning about something will not solve the problem. Life is not perfect, but it is what you make of it. It was different from her experiences in France where people seemed to complain more and do less to rectify it. So, accepting that “getting on with it” was the path forward, she and Frédéric developed a quality of life that uniquely suited them.

But what were the major differences in attitude and culture that they discovered and adapted to along their way? As they stepped forward, they discovered a people who seemed more adventurous. There was a wide choice of things to do, people to meet, all within a short radius of home. It was this choice, made by the people offering it and appreciated by those accepting it, that made life easier. And the acceptance that mistakes are allowed – you learn from them. What you do may not (yet) be perfect, but it’s what you make of it.

Aside from learning to drive on the left (and now, when they visit France, trying to remember to drive on the right), people seemed more tolerant, less aggressive, more respectful of another person’s space, in fact, even more laissez-faire than the French.

It wasn’t long before Emilie and Frédéric found themselves in that unique British institution, “the Pub”. Known for their great atmosphere, the high quality but still down to earth food and a decent selection of drinks, the pub is THE place to meet people. You strike up a conversation and engage in pleasant small talk. You make acquaintances and begin interacting with other people and become part of the local community. You are invited to afternoon tea, BBQs, to social events. But always with that particular “British reserve”, keeping a respectful distance, “not wanting to cause a fuss.”  

Settling down, having, and raising two children and building a business took up the couple’s time. Emilie soon learnt that juggling responsibilities required a support network. The working day was and is comparably shorter than in France. In Normandy, she was still working in the early evening. In Horley, and working from home, the working day is done by about 5.30pm. Perhaps the biggest cultural difference is lunch. “We stop for a quick lunch here, not like in France, where everything closes for two hours. And the children are home from school much earlier too.”

All in all, they found that, with flexibility, they had more time to spend as a family unit and to go out and do things, socialise, and enjoy what the area has to offer. Further flexibility came with the huge support network provided by small businesses. Setting up a company in England is done in a matter of hours. As a result, there are many small businesses which offer a wide range of services at reasonable prices. Once a month, somebody comes by to wash the windows. Their four-bedroom house? The price is 30 €. Their two cars are washed for the same price once a month. It is more expensive than going to a car wash, but you get a cleaner car. For 60 € once a every three months, their dog is pampered from head to toe. You have the choices and the options. It’s what you make of it. Somebody in the pub, on local community notice boards or the other mums you meet on the school run, will recommend somebody.

Freeing up time is also made possible by one significant fact: a different shopping culture. The major supermarkets are open 24 hours. Most shops are open on a Sunday. Online shopping is more developed. Instead of going to a “drive”, all supermarkets deliver to your home. “Once I have finished the day, the kids are in bed, and it’s let’s say, 9pm, I can still go to the supermarket and buy my groceries, if I want to.” Emilie knows she can do it. It is one possibility in a range of options available to make life easier.

One major difference is the way families interact. Families in France are closer than in England. They live in close proximity, have more support from grandparents, the family gatherings on Sundays are important. “That is less here. The Sunday newspapers are so thick, people sit somewhere in their own space and “read the Sunday papers.”

Frédéric and Emilie together with one further employee own a small but highly efficient company. They are the connection between some of the UK’s biggest supermarket groups and family run cheese producers in France. Competing with the likes of Lactalis, this trio of people “make life easier” for everybody. Tesco Supermarket has over 2000 stores, and Waitrose has more than 400 stores. Frédéric and Emilie’s company “QST – Quality Sales Team” is the one face to the customer in the UK. On the other side of the channel, the company provides full support for French cheese producers who wish to export their cheese to the UK.
Brexit? “Nobody knows what will happen. It will mean more paperwork. You just have to get on with it.”

For Emilie, this “British way of life” has one source, and she is an absolute fan of it. It is the Royal Family. The Royal Family is responsible for the cohesion of the country”, she said. It sets the example on how to live. Especially when their roles have not been earned through hard work but given to them by birth. “The Queen is such a strong woman”.  There is the notion of “charity”. The Royal Family’s dedication to charities, the giving, if you can and what you can, is one of the backbones of the United Kingdom. Charity shops now dominate the High Street. But they have no negative stigma about them. However, when Meghan forced Prince Harry to break “with the family” the outcry was enormous. Both had broken with family values and tradition. But William and Kate had done wonders to bridge the gap.  “I am really angry at Meghan” Emilie said.

Life in England is a jigsaw puzzle. You pick the pieces you require to build the lifestyle you need or want. For Emilie, it is less stressful and more enriching. Would she and Frédéric return to France?  “Only if absolutely necessary and if there were no alternative.” England is home. But, if France, then to the Alsace.

What does she miss? “The Boulangerie” she said. Whenever I visit my mother, I simply have to go to the Boulangerie across the road from her house. The smell, the taste… we have fresh bread in the Coop, but it’s not the same.”

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Be curious and follow your instincts!

Text read by Mary Peters

Carolina, from Wissembourg, continues her story
about learning in Sri Lanka

The next morning, I took the bus to Polonnaruwa. It was a seven-hour drive, but time flew by! The trip by bus was in itself an adventure. I was the only tourist, so I could not go unnoticed. I was surrounded by locals only. The first minutes were uncomfortable, but soon they began to talk to me, just out of curiosity.

There was so much to see along the way that I could not get bored. One local explained many things to me, (where we passed, history of Sri Lanka, sights not to be missed, “look, look, an elephant!) At the same time the only traffic rule seemed to be “don’t die”.

What was different? I had a book, my travel diary, movies on my mobile phone, something to eat. I expected I would have too much time and wanted to use it and not be bored. But that did not happen. My fellow travellers shared their delicious food with me, and there was always plenty to see and talk about, so I did not have the time nor the inclination to do anything else.

Welcome to Polonnaruwa, an ancient city in the Northern Central Province! My plan was, just check-in, leave my backpack in the “hut”, rent a bike and ride to the centre to see the town. My accommodation was a lakeside hut surrounded by jungle. On the right side, only 5 meters from the balcony was a large group of water buffalos, trees full of monkeys and all kinds of birds. If you looked to the left you could see the lake, also with water buffalos and the locals fishing in small boats. It looked extraordinary. I forgot about my plan and followed my heart. It wanted me to stay in that special mood. I spent hours watching animals and drinking fresh pineapple juice.

The next morning, I visited Sigiriya, probably the most visited destination in Sri Lanka. The Sigiriya Rock is an old palace and fortress complex. I arrived early, but the place was already crowded. I visited the museum to learn about its history.

There were many mosquitoes, so I took a few seconds to apply mosquito repellent. Meanwhile, I was robbed!!! I was sitting on a bench when a monkey came towards me. I thought, “oh how cute, I’ll take a picture”. He snatched my phone. At the same time his accomplices, one from behind and one from above, took my rucksack. I put up resistance, however, the monkeys, (small but incredibly strong), bared their teeth and I gave in. A local helped me, and after a few stones and some patience, my bag fell from the tree. I had my water, sunscreen, mobile phone, documents, and my cash back with me. But not my lunch! We laughed and I started to become more careful. I learned, you never have to be afraid, but you have to be careful. The monkeys followed their instinct and just wanted to eat. Wild animals are not pets.    

Afterwards, I went to a temple nearby and then hiked to Pidurangala Rock. The trail is very wild, just for the fit and adventurous. But it is absolutely worth it, and the view is fascinating. Then I returned to my jungle hut, watched the animals and ate fish from the lake accompanied by vegetables and finished off with some ice cream for dinner.

The next day I rented a bike and discovered the historic town of Polonnaruwa. I saw many ruins and impressive archaeological structures and monuments.

I was impressed that people constructed buildings so well back then (5000 years ago). Today we build more, yet the quality of the buildings is lower. Why, I ask myself?

The area is enormous, it is visitor friendly with information boards. Riding a bike there was simply perfect. A little tip: if you visit religious sites, you have to cover your shoulders and go barefoot.

To be continued.

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Wisdom can also be found by whilst travelling.

Text read by Mary Peters

Just before the lockdown in France, Carolina from Wissembourg took a big leap.

A few months ago, I decided to travel to Sri Lanka for 3 weeks, on my own. After some reading about the “jewel of the Indian Ocean,” it captivated my attention, and I felt the urge to visit it as soon as possible. It was February, cold and rainy in northern Europe, so going on an adventure and simultaneously escaping the winter blues? It seemed like a great idea! If not now, then when?

Normally I would take time to prepare, but this time I did not feel the need for planning or rethinking the idea. I decided to simply go and enjoy. And so, it was. At the end of that same month, me and my 11 kg backpack arrived at Colombo Airport, Sri Lanka.

As soon as I arrived, I exchanged Euros into Sri Lankan Rupees, bought a mobile SIM-Card, and got a Tuk-Tuk to the first hotel in Negombo. I was doing just fine! It was very warm and extremely humid. It felt like a dream, not real at all, I was alone in a completely unknown and unfamiliar place and that was exciting and scary at the same time. Everything was different. The landscape, the people, the energy, the traffic, the noises, the smells and of course the weather. All seemed a little disorganized however people were very friendly and helpful.

I arrived in Negombo, a fishing town only 30 minutes’ drive by tuk-tuk from the airport. It was stunning. By this time, I still could not really believe where I was, what I was doing and why. I felt so out of place yet relaxed, amazed by everything around and so grateful for this opportunity.

For two days, I explored Negombo, visiting the fish market, a Buddhist temple, the medicinal botanical garden, had an ayurvedic massage, tried many delicious fruits and seafood and drank King Coconuts! Negombo is a very easy-going town, just the perfect start for a Sri Lankan trip.

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Introducing Iran

Text read by Mary Peters

Kayvan, who has lived in France since 2016, introduces his country of origin.

He and Frank worked in French but also translated from Farsi to French and English.  

Iran is located in the Middle East region of Western Asia. It is surrounded by the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea to the south.

Iran’s neighbours in the northeast are Turkmenistan, north is the Caspian Sea, east are Afghanistan and Pakistan, northwest are Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey, to the west is Iraq, southwest lies Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and finally, Oman. In total, Iran is surrounded by 13 other countries.

The country has an area of over 1.65 million km²; making it the 17th largest country in the world. It is larger than Europe but has a population of only 83 million people, divided into 31 different provinces.

The history of the region in which Iran has located dates back to around 3000-3500 BC, and is linked to the Sumerian and Jiroft civilizations, which were both located in this region.

Persians speak various local languages, especially in the border regions of Iran. For example, in the north-western part, near Azerbaijan and Turkey, we speak a Turkish dialect. In the east, it is the Persian “Dari” dialect, in the south-western part, Arabic, and in the western part, people speak Kurdish.

I was born in 1974 in the city of Kermanshah in western Iran. We lived there with my family until I was seven. After the Iran-Iraq war, we moved to central Iran, to Tehran.

The city of Kermanshah and its surroundings is one of the most ancient parts of Iran because of its proximity to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and parts of the region have been populated for more than 7000 years, as can be found in some inscriptions near the city. The most important of these inscriptions are Biston of Kermanshah and Biston Arch of Kermanshah.

When visiting Iran, I suggest staying in Teheran and from there, visit the cities of Yazd, Isfahan and Shiraz. From Shiraz you can go to Persepolis, Pasargad and Naghsh-e Rostam, where you can see the splendid antiques of these regions. Also, in Isfahan, you can visit
Naghsh-e Jahan Square and other places such as Aali Qapo, Chehelston.

Then return to Teheran and go to Kermanshah to see the inscriptions of Biston and Biston Arch.

In Teheran, I recommend you visit the historic sites of the Naser al-Din Shah Palace Bazaar and the Shah Palaces in the summer areas of Damavand Mountain and other places.

In addition to oil and gas, Iranian products include handicrafts and its native products such as pistachio nuts and saffron. Don’t forget our carpets and other handicrafts from Isfahan.

Iranian cuisine and especially traditional Iranian cuisine is rich. You should really try the meat juice from the Fosanjan stew. The Nowruz table is decorated with 7 elements called Haftsin and all the dishes start with the letter S.

Like all people around the world, we too love our festivals. At one particular festival, people jump over fire and say that all the problems of Sharia and Sharia law are far away from them.

That is, for the moment, my brief introduction and I look forward to sharing more about my country with you later.