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The Antipodes and Dubai

29 Dec 2008

Didn’t realise it had been so long since I updated this Blog. Have just got back from Australia and New Zealand where I caught up with old friends and family and attended my parents 50th wedding anniversary. What a hectic time it has been and the weather and environment were just fantastic. Lovely and warm, had a chance to swim in a cold stream in Neerim South, climb Mount(!!!!) Paritutu and tramp down to Bushranger Bay, one of the best kept secrets in Victoria and every bit as beautiful as it was when I used to visit with my friends decades ago.
Sad to see though that in the ten years since I left Australia so many things have not changed for the better. Climate change has devastated so much of the country and continues to threaten the Australian lifestyle, This is obvious. Many parts of the country have seen up to six years without rain (I’m sure some have gone longer), the ultraviolet levels are noticeably higher than they are in the northern hemisphere and exposure to the sun for any length of time (in any temperature) is dangerous. This is due to the hole in the ozone layer, a phenomena that many in the northern hemisphere seem unaware of but one which continues to threaten the wellbeing of generations of people in Australia and New Zealand.

It is also was clear that successive Victorian governments have not learnt the lessons of London and other cities. They continue to try to solve the problem of traffic by putting in more roads. The state capital is criss-crossed with freeways that make getting from A to B a breeze in the non-peak times but result in hours-long queues when the system breaks down due to congestion or accidents. It wasn’t at all obvious that anything has changed on the public transport network. I hope I’m wrong.

The city of Melbourne itself is busier than ever, fantastic mix of cultures and personalities but still predominantly pale skins in evidence. Not necessarily a result of a white Australia policy that existed for too long, partly a reflection of massive S.E. Asian immigration rather than that from the Indian Sub-continent or Caribean. The food was, as ever, awesome, fresh and tasty. Visiting Melbourne and eating there is like putting your taste=buds on steroids for a time. How do UK growers and manufacturers manage to remove so much flavour from the food we get here?

New Zealand was also a roller coaster of the good and the bad. Two of my old friends, people who made a big impact on my life, have died in the past twelve months. I caught up with other old friends, Ken, Peter, Valerie, Greg, TinTin, Julie, Demetrius, Darren, Ali, Karen, Jenny, Trent, Louise, Greg, and even Vic. I bet I have forgotten someone. Auckland was warm, humid and layed-back. The Viaduct Basin still humming with activity, great food and Steinlager beer. I promise you will not regret trying the green lipped mussels with blue cheese and cream sauce. We spent a day or two there before driving across the North Island to Tauranga to catch up with dear friends within spitting distance of the Mount. From there a day trip to Rotorua, a visit to the famous prawn farm near Huka falls before returning to smoke some fish and celebrate life with some Tequila.

The drive from Tauranga to New Plymouth is still one of the great drives that you can do. It only takes a few hours during which you can enjoy mountain ranges, the mighty Waikato River, beautiful gorges and the rugged Taranaki coastline.

The worst let down of the trip was to hear on the radio just how much of the opportunity that the country had, the last government squandered. New Zealand at the time of writing has been in recession for a full twelve months. The health system is very average with preventative therapies such as statin drugs to reduce cholesterol and heart disease still restricted and a six month waiting list for critical care in the nation’s hospitals. Initiatives, started years ago, to boost innovation and try to develop a “clever” economy lie in tatters and the country is suffering a brain-drain to Australia the likes of which are unprecedented. Despite all of this people seemed happy and relatively content but I was saddened because I know how much more the nation could achieve.

Which brings me to the last part of the trip, I know as a travelogue this is very light once-over but I can’t go without mentioning Dubai. The city with the largest carbon footprint on the planet. It proudly advertises that it is tax free and that the shopping is wonderful. We were disappointed to find that the goods in many of the shops were selling at least 20% above London prices and that a meal was charged at the advertised price plus service fee plus 10% Municipal Charge (surely a tax by any other name…?). The air in Dubai is brown and still, similar to Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s, but the locals will tell you that “it’s not pollution”, “it’s just a light fog”. Light fog, my arse, everyone is driving big engine muscle cars, petrol is 25 pence a litre (and I’m not sure mind you, but I suspect that there are no emission standards). The city is run by Indians and Pakistanis who are helpful and friendly and made some of the visit worthwhile. There are knock-off goods for sale freely so clearly the Emir is unconcerned about intellectual property. I was most put off by the extravagant waste, a sort of pissing-away of our future, like Mahatir’s “fingers to the West” but in a meaningful and irredeemable way. I couldn’t help thinking, if you were the Emir of an area where the oil was running out, and you wanted to build something for your peoples’ future., would you built this atrocity, this monument to the stupidity and self-destructive nature of people? or something sustainable, a model for the world, a city to aspire to?

There is nothing to aspire to in Dubai, a stagnant sea, big buildings, and filthy air. They can keep it.

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