Thursday, April 30

When pigs fly (around the world)


Swine flu is the headline de jour this week. It’s been the leading story in print and broadcast since the weekend. I must admit that it all sounds like hype. The tone and urgency of each report reminds me of the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in Asia. Between November 2002 and July 2003, 8,096 known infected cases were reported in 37 countries, resulting in 774 deaths (a case-fatality rate of 9.6%).

At the time I was managing my company’s Asia Pacific network. For months headlines across Asia screamed “panic”, with some reports claiming a 20% death rate among those infected. Business activity stalled for at least a quarter before the crisis was over. As the hype died away, it became clear the disease wasn’t highly infectious and hasn’t reappeared since.

Tonight the World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised its pandemic alert level to five, one notch short of a full-blown global pandemic. A phase five alert means human-to-human transmission is occurring in at least two countries. News reports claim at least 150 people have died in Mexico. One toddler has died in Texas, the first such case beyond Mexico. However, it’s difficult to determine from current reports if this death rate is higher than the average flu virus.

The only factor that currently seems different is that the young (aged 20-50) rather than the elderly are at greatest risk. It also clear that unlike SARS, the virus is easily passed between humans. In scene that resembled Asia in 2003, Mexican authorities have shut down bars, cafes, gyms, cinemas and tourist sites; including the world-famous Mayan pyramids that Garry and I visited last Summer.

Despite these precautions, in an era of regular, discounted air travel the virus is spreading rapidly. The UK now has five confirmed cases, Austria has one and the USA has 91. Most are linked to travellers returning from Mexico. The UK's first two confirmed cases were a honeymoon couple leaving Cancun, while the latest patient is a 12-year old girl travelling on their return flight.

The UK Government claims it’s prepared for the worst. Enhanced airport checks have been introduced, anti-viral stocks expanded from 35 million to 50 million within four weeks, extra face masks ordered and an information leaflet printed for every household. We can expect to receive our copy of the Swine Flu leaflet within days. I guess a global pandemic is a welcome change from months of global financial crisis doom and gloom.

Monday, April 27

Spring No.4


Another sunny day in London. Our fourth Spring in London is off to a great start. Garry and I spent the afternoon in Hackney with friends. Brian, Chris and Heath recently moved into new apartments within walking distance of each other. This was our first chance to see their new homes. Chris and Heath moved into a new complex, two doors apart, while Brian has moved into a 30s brick complex complete with a broad daisy-strewn lawn.

The afternoon started with a roast lunch at Brian's place which Garry and I reached via a pleasant 30-minute walk along Regents Canal. We joined the canal as its exits Islington Tunnel. At 886 metres it's the longest tunnel on the waterway and has been in continuous operation since 1818. Today we saw few active barges, but plenty of people out enjoying the Spring sunshine.

It was also time for the London Marathon today. More than 35,000 people participated this year including a friend from Australia. Allan reports that he finished in one piece, running the entire 26.2 mile course in an impresive 4 hours 19 minutes.

Sunday, April 26

Would you like the good news first?


We’ve enjoyed another week of warm weather – warm that is by UK standards. On Wednesday the temperature hit 21°C, almost 7°C above the average. The Met Office says we’re on track to experience the nation’s warmest April for at least a decade. The final few days of the month are predicted to be cooler, but the sunshine will continue. Hooray!

It seems the weather was only good news on Wednesday. The UK Government presented its annual budget the same day. The numbers were dire. The chancellor announced that the UK economy will shrink by 3.5% in 2009, before returning to positive territory in 2010 with growth of 1.25%. However, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its own estimates the following day, predicting that GDP would fall by 4.1% this year, and continue contracting by 0.4% next year. This is the economy's worst performance for more than 60 years.


The annual budget deficit will rise sharply to a staggering £175bn for the next two years. By 2013, government borrowing will hit 79% of GDP, twice the level of 2008. The budget won’t be balanced until 2018 at the earliest. To pay for all of this taxes are on the way up. A new 50% marginal tax rate for earnings over £150,000 comes into effect next April, while numerous tax free allowances for high income earners will end. Taxes on fuel, tobacco and alcohol will also rise, while public sector spending will fall £13 billion. Quite simply, the UK’s economy is a mess.

Most commentators expect the UK’s rate of growth to fall behind most developed nations for the next four years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says government must close a £90bn hole to bring the budget into balance. This represents additional taxes of £2,840 for every family annually in 2017, or the equivalent in public spending cuts.

The numbers are so depressing it’s increasingly unlikely Garry and I will bother extending our work permits beyond 2010. We’re probably better off in Australia. At least we’re both fully employed, unlike 2.1 million others in the UK. Garry’s contract was renewed for another three months last week. With a little luck, it will continue to roll over at three-month intervals for the foreseeable future. Happy ANZAC Day!

Tuesday, April 21

Adventures in Andalucia


We're back from our Easter vacation in Andalucia. We've enjoyed six days of sunshine, noisy Catholic festivity and postcard-perfect whitewashed villages. In the days ahead I'll post highlights such as:

Naturally, there are plenty of photos to share. Check this post again for fresh links as I progressively activate them. Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 19

Pollen blitz


Regular readers will recall my annual battle with hayfever as every plant in England simultaneously erupts in a cloud of pollen. However, with Spring well underway, I've yet to start sneezing my way through town this year. It still amazes me that almost everything here seems to burst into flower, trees included. Flowers were never such a dramatic feature of Spring in Australia, certainly not on trees.


Tree pollen seems to the main enemy. I read this week that the worst offending tree is the birch. April is its peak pollen period. Three years ago an enormous yellow dust cloud swept across the country at this time. Satellite images confirmed it as a vast expanse of birch pollen from Denmark. Favourable winds had blown across the North Sea as Nordics trees to shed their pollen during perfect, warm weather conditions.


Spring is currently making itself known in our back yard. The lawn has burst into patches of lively purple flowers while the trees above are smothered in blossoms. I've also been active in our front yard reconstructing the gateway flower garden. Last year I built a simple wooden border around one of our gateway garden. It's weathered well.


A recent sale at the local hardware store inspired me to upgrade the opposing garden. I spent an afternoon digging up a crude border of old broken concrete lumps and carting it off to the local refuse centre, before planting a few drought resistant plants. Once again our entrance looks smart and welcoming.

We've also been enjoying the return of warmer weather. A couple of weekends back we enjoyed a lesiurely, sunny lunch at St Catherine's Wharf, a stone's throw from Tower Bridge. It was a joy to be outdoors, walking along the bank of the Thames and across the famous bridge itself. London's not so bad in the sunshine.

Happy Birthday Adam!


Happy Birthday Adam!
Lots of love from Garry and Andrew in London.

Saturday, April 18

Granada


Mention Granada and everyone will ask about the Alhambra and the Generalife. The Alhambra is a collection of elegant palaces, squares and gardens contained in one large complex that sits on a prominent hill, overlooking today’s modern city. The Generalife is a series of landscaped gardens sitting opposite the Alhambra on a neighbouring hillside. Alhambra has three prominent venues; Alcazaba, the remains of Moor’s fort; Palacios Nazaríes, a series of Moor palace buildings constructed in classic Islamic forms; and finally a series of Catholic era sites including a church and the 17th Century Carlos V Palace.


So much of Andalucía’s colourful history is tied up in this attraction. The Moors (Muslium invaders from North Africa) concentrated their power in Granada, before finally making their last stand here in 1491. The Moors most famous emirate, the Nasrid, ruled from the buildings of the Alhambra for 250 years. Many of the site’s most widely reproduced images depict buildings from this era.


The Catholic conquerors who swept the Moors from power then set up court within Alhambra. Today, Isabel and Fernando, are commonly known as the Royal Catholics, or Catholic Monarchs. Within months of retaking Granada for the Christian world, Isabel agreed to fund Christopher Columbus and his search for a new trade route to India. Within a generation, Spain was the centre one of the largest and wealthiest empires the world had ever seen.


Garry and I spent most of Saturday afternoon touring the Alhambra and Generalife. The buildings were genuinely fascinating, with enduring visual moments coming thick and fast each time we rounded another corner. However, given that we’d seen the grand palaces and mosques of the Ottoman’s in Istanbul, some of the ‘wow’ factor was ultimately lost on us. Without this comparison I’m sure the overall impression would have been far more overwhelming. Our tour was also handicapped by intermittent cloud. The buildings really did seem to come alive every time the sun appeared, as did the many impressive gardens.


Beyond the Alhambra, Garry and I also took time to visit Granada’s others popular attractions. We locked in the three main ‘venues’ including a leisurely wander through the city’s old quarters, or Albayzin; the city’s truly astonishing Cathedral and the Capilla Real, which is essentially a mausoleum for Isabel, Fernando and their extended family.


I loved the morning we spent in the Albayzin where our steady hill climbing was eventually rewarded with a stunning view of the Alhambra from Mirador San Nicolas, a bustling cobblestone viewing platform. We also stopped for a beer and tapas, that cost us the grand total of four euros. Real bargains can still be found in Europe! We later finished our tour of the area with a leisurely lunch in a traditional Arabian tea house we discovered in a narrow laneway.


The Capilla Real and neighbouring Cathedral were truly grand buildings. The scale alone is awe-inspiring, while the decoration and architecture are classic Catholic grandeur made large. We were also spoilt by the rare opportunity to see the city’s Semana Santa pasos floats on display in the Cathedral’s cavernous interior. As for the Capilla Real, the main altar is a towering masterpiece of sculpture, gold paint and ornamentation. The wealth of the Spanish empire is clearly on display.


Finally, I cannot talk about our time in Granada without mentioning our hotel. We splashed out and booked ourselves into the Alhambra Palace Hotel. This mock Moor venue is painted in a terracotta shade and sits on the edge of prominent hill. It offers an unobstructed view across the city and on toward the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. We were given a large room with a balcony overlooking all of these highlights. Every morning I woke and marveled at view and our luck in securing this room. Without a doubt the entire stay was pure luxury and made for a truly memorable experience.

Souless Costa del Sol


We finished our Andalucían adventures in Malaga. On our final night in Spain we booked ourselves into a beachside hotel just so we could cross off our list, “a package tour experience on the Costa del Sol.” Our hotel booking included book dinner and breakfast. It was also the cheapest accommodation we’d booked on the entire trip. 24 hours there was more than enough.


Our room was small, but clean. The hotel restaurant was a classic package tour experience; noisy children, overweight chavs and old ladies in sequins queuing for a bland starch-laden buffet. Even the beachside vista was pure package tour. Each hotel has its own sun-baking zone on the beach where row after row of sun-loungers resolutely stand vigil over the Mediterranean. Only the lagoon pool came close to matching its brochure photo. Souless is the only word I can find to describe the entire experience.


Needless to say, aside from a couple of boardwalk strolls, we kept well away from the beach. Instead we spent our last day wandering the streets of old Malaga, exploring its meretriciously restored Moorish castle and its equally majestic Cathedral. Both offered highlights.


The castle has its own water features similar to that of the Alhambra, but on a more modest scale. The Cathedral soars skyward with a dramatic bell tower, which seems perfectly normal, until you notice the foundations for a second tower directly opposite. Malaga’s cathedral has sat unfinished for more than two hundred years, leaving a distinctly lop-sided profile that never quite makes onto postcards displayed nearby.

I’d loved this final quirky surprise - almost as much as our last-minute tour of the airport's industrial zone. As the clock began counting down for our flight's departure we searched vainly for the rental car company's depot. Just as we began to despair, the remote site came into view. We paid our bill and caught a shuttle bus to terminal, reaching the check-in counter minutes before it closed.

Friday, April 17

Pueblos Blancos


On Monday afternoon we took a leisurely drive through the mountains from Ronda to Malaga. We chose a scenic route that winds its way to the coast through half a dozen Pueblos Blancos. This term literally translates as white villages; which is exactly what they are. Each village consists of white-washed dwellings, generally built on a steep hillside or the edge or a dramatic chasm. The overall effect is pure postcard material.


Each Pueblos Blancos was more scenic than the last. We stopped at one strategic lookout offering a bird's eye view of the deep Guadiaro and Genal valleys. From our vantage point we could see at least six separate, tiny white blobs on the surrounding hillside; each another white-washed village.

Then, just when you think the Pueblos Blancos can’t get any more picturesque, Gaucin comes into view. The village itself has a unique sense of symmetry, crowned by a 13th century ruined castle on local rock outcrop. The effect is truly dramatic. The photo below barely does it justice.


Gaucin has a population of only 2000 and is perched 626 metres above sea level. Like so much of Andalucia, it has had a fascinating, if tumultuous history. Derived from the Arab word, "guazan" (strong rock), the village is perched on the crest of the Sierra del Hacho, and due to its key strategic position was once a major Roman settlement.


Its magnificent castle, Castillo del Aguila (Eagle's Castle) dates from this era and was later expanded by the Arabs into a fortress. Every one of the villages in this area has its own long and colourful history. At times their story is almost as captivating as their white-washed profiles. This is one scenic drive I’d happily take again and again.


Our first Pueblos Blancos encounter actually occured the day we arrived in Spain. Rather than take the main freeway from Malaga to Granada we took a winding route of hairpin turns over the Boquete de Zafarraya. This spectacular cleft in the coastal mountain range looks like a typical mountain pass, but it’s actually the gateway to a plateau that makes up Andalucia’s interior. We stopped for lunch at Alhama de Granada, a white-washed village on the edge of a small ravine, framed by the distant snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains.


After taking in the spectacular view from the town's cliff-side position, we stooped for a light tapas lunch in the village square. Our dining spot sat in the shadow of two wonderful old brown sandstone churches. One church sits on a rocky prominence, creating a memorable contrast to its white-washed surrounds, the other sits precariously close to the town's gorge.


While there we almost got more local culture than we’d bargained for. A funeral procession pulled up outside the church where our car was parked, attended to by some rather casually dressed locals. The forboding hearse blocked our route back to the highway, forcing us to take a detour through the narrow cobblestone lanes. You can see Garry navigating his way above. On more than one occasion we found ourselves backing up and taking an alternative wing mirror scrapping route. It’s a wonderful way to get literally lost in history.

Ronda


Garry’s reaction was priceless. I knew it would be. The first time you see Ronda’s breath-taking escarpment everyone instinctively gasps. His reaction was identical to my own 19 years ago. In fact, every memory I have of Ronda has stood the test of time. This is still one of the most surprisingly places I’ve ever visited. At first, as you enter the town, it feels like another dull, and not particularly attractive, old town. You soon learn that nothing could be further from the truth.


Not only is Ronda the largest of Andalucia’s pableo blancos, it’s also home for some of the region’s most surprising highlights. The town sits on the edge of stunning cliff face that plunges more than 100 metres without warning. One moment you’re walking towards just another scenic outlook, the next moment you’re staring straight down toward a distant valley floor. This is just the first highlight.


Follow the cliff’s sheer edge towards the old town and it suddenly splits into a narrow, worn and rocky El Tajo gorge. This is Ronda’s second highlight. Here the Guadalevin river flows through the town separating its old medieval heart from a more modern urban centre. Modern still means dwellings constructed more than a century ago. We stopped in one such establishment for a leisurely tapas lunch, where customers are invited to draw their own beer from tabletop tap.


Crossing between the two halves of the town is made possible by the third highlight; Puente Nuevo. This is a dramatic, stone arch bridge rising boldly up from the river bed below. This majestic feat of engineering draws instant accolades from every visitor. A narrow, almost death-defying flight of stairs take you down the side of the gorge, inside the bridge’s main arch where a small exhibition tells the history of its construction and the gorge itself


Highlight number four is the Plaza de Toros, or bullring. It sits in the centre of the modern town. The traditions of modern bullfighting were first created here in the 18th Century by a Pedro Romero. This bullfighter broke away from the established art of bullfighting on horseback, choosing to challenge the bull on foot instead. Today you can visit a small museum underneath its tiered seating, as well as stand in the middle of the dirt ring itself


Ronda’s final highlight is the old town itself, La Ciudad. This is the original urban centre. It consists of winding cobbled streets, where handsome town mansions have been lovingly restored. Some are still occupied by Ronda's titled families. Many of the buildings were erected during Ronda's brief reign as a minor Moorish Caliphate under Córdoba in the 12th century.


We spent a soul-restoring morning wandering La Ciudad's quiet lanes, as well as stopping at Plaza del Campillo where steep steps and a zigzagging pathway take you down to a dramatic eye-level through the Puente Nuevo’s span. At the edge of town you can also find the remnants of an old city wall, including a dramatic Moorish gateway.

It’s not often reality matches fading memories. Ronda does. I’ll be back in another 19 years to relive the magic of this wonderful town.