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  • Writer's pictureTom

And now for something completely different!

View of the 'Three Sisters' from Canmore, Alberta
View of the 'Three Sisters' from Canmore, Alberta

After a year posting about sailing, tropical islands and our adventures on SV Skyfall, I thought it was time for something completely different. Don't worry. You are not about to be 'stomped on' by one of Terry Gillian's marauding feet (Monty Python reference in the title). We just decided to let you know what we have been up to for the past six weeks away from the boat.

As soon as Skyfall had been 'put to bed' in Whangarei, Annick's priorities have focused on seeing the children again. We did not plan to have a 'Collins family Christmas' this year as Laura, our eldest daughter would be in New York visiting friends and Sean is planning to be in Berlin with the family of his partner, Ricarda. So the solution was to find a weekend when everyone was free at the end of November for a 'pre-Christmas' get together in Gent. I was sorry I missed it - and not just because I missed the children. Historically, with Annick dominating the kitchen most of the year, Christmas dinner was always my responsibility and I took some pride in preparing turkey with all the trimmings. That started to change when Laura started dating Patrick (who used to be a professional chef). Initially he accepted the role of 'sous chef'. Well, for one year. The following year I became the sous chef. And over the ensuing years, and as Laura and Patrick have hosted the family event, I have been slowly 'edged' out of the kitchen (the family prefer good food to saving their dad's pride).

So perhaps, with the celebration being on 'home turf', I thought I might have managed to re-establish a forgotten role, if only for one year. Although, judging by the spread, Skyfall's galley is probably the only place I will get to cook again.

Collins family about to start Christmas dinner
Annick, Patrick, Laura, Ellen, Oliver, Sean and Ricarda about to enjoy a 'Pre-Christmas' dinner

Obviously, Annick has had a hundred and one things to address in Belgium, including renewing SIM cards (her phone got 'lost' on passage from Tonga to New Zealand), seeing friends and (Belgian) family and getting health checks done, etc. She is slowly re-adjusting to the 'live-at-home', normal lifestyle.

Meanwhile, the Skipper spent four weeks in China. I have been to China so often but this time I got the opportunity to see a little more than airports, factories and hotels. Whilst in Wuhan I visited the Hubei Provincial Museum which houses many bronze age artifacts from the various archeologicasl digs in the area. The finds include a set of bronze bells 3500 years old

The famous 3500 year old bells in Hubei provincial museum
The famous 3500 year old bells in Hubei provincial museum

It takes four or five musicians running up and down to realise the full potential of the bells. I know this because the museum made a replica set and there are performances throughout the day with traditional dancers. Very impressive. Wuhan stands on the banks of the Yangtse river (time for another Monty Python reference!) and, in pride of place is a 1800 year old building: The yellow crane tower. I admit the name had me wondering if the Chinese were the first to develop tall lifting devices for building sites but I learned that the tower was actually named after a type of bird. Now, when I say the building was 1800 years remember the story of the medieval hammer? Completely authentic except it has had two replacement heads and three replacement shafts! Well the yellow crane tower is similar. Fire has destroyed the building(s) multiple times and the current tourist attraction dates from 1985! That notwithstanding, the replica sits on the same site, with a labyrinth of interesting paths through a park.

Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan
Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan

Each floor of the tower houses something to view, admire, etc.

I also visited the Hubei Museum of Art. The first two floors are filled with temporary exhibits of modern art following a certain theme. The 'photographs of China' was simply amazing. If only I could take pictures like that. I liked several, not just for their composition and technique, but for what they said about how China has evolved. In particular, this photo of two workers building a skyscraper has to be very recent. How do I know that? Well the workers are wearing a safety harness (which would never have been the case 10 years ago)

Photo from Hubei Art Museum depicting two workers on a skyscraper
two workers building a Skyscraper overlooking the Yangtze

Another had more abstract art, but each of them relatively easy to conceptualise and understand the point that the artist was trying to make. For instance, there was a sculture of a 'human size' lobster pot. Lobsters crawl in because they are tempted by something inside. Then they cannot get out and are trapped. In the human size version, the 'temptation' in the centre is a depiction of a house.

The human (lobster) pot, Hubei Art Museum
The human (lobster) pot

In China property is ridiculously expensive yet people take on debt they will spend a lifetime paying off because, for years, prices have gone up rapidly and property was seen as a good investment. Until now. The 'ponzi scheme' (or bubble) has just burst. This is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the Chinese economy. I also spent time in Xiamen, which is a seaside 'holiday resort' just across the strait from Taiwan. Xiamen is famous for seafood which you can eat with rice, noodles or anything you want. I walked around the old fishing port and bumped into a celebration for the launching of a new fishing boat. The whole village turrned out. In front of one of the temples, a Chinese version of Morris dancers were putting on a show. They had their own percussion (a drum not bells) and waved flags as they pranced around. The only giveaway that these were not Morris dancers was that they were dressed in red and there was no Maypole!

Celebration dance for ship launch, Xiamen
Celebration dance for ship launch, Xiamen

Ten years ago, I was surprised at the widespread use of phone apps to pay for things. Alipay and Wepay are the Chinese equivalent of Applepay or GooglePay. We understand the concept in the west, but, even today, the majority in the west use cards or cash. This time, I was shocked at how biometrics (facial recognition, fingerprint) is taking over. Go to the supermarket and you do not need cash, card or smartphone (if you have opened an account with them). After scanning all your purchases, simply look at the camera, you will be instantly recognised and the bill added to your account (or subtracted from your bank account). Similarly, when you return to your (relatively modern) apartment you will not open the door with a key. Instead you will use fingerprint or facial recognition to open the door.

And the use of robots is widespread. Last year, slightly more than half a million robots were sold worldwide with more than half being used in China. Ordering room service in a hotel, when you open the door you will find that a robot is there to deliver the food!

Room service, Chinese style
Room service, Chinese style

I do not offer an opinion if all this is desirable or not, I simply comment that this is what China is embracing. How long before we see the same trends in the west?

After a month in China, I flew to Canada to visit my friend, Paul, who lives close to Calgary. There were two shocks to the system; one from yet another time zone and the other from the weather. The outstanding natural beauty of the area (see top photo) is awe-inspiring yet going for walks in -10 deg C takes some doing after a season cruising palm fringed anchorages.

It is a while since I have been in North America and I enjoyed meeting Paul's friends in the various bars he frequents. One of them, Stan, is an ex-professional rugby player (for Harlequins) and it gave the opportunity to discuss the recent World Cup with an expert. Stan pointed out that, although England lost the semi-final, the team performance has been a huge boost to the reputation of Englishmen in the bedroom (how many nations can be on top for seventy minutes and still come second!)

As Christmas approaches I am now back on the boat with six weeks for boat maintenance. So all that is left is to wish you all a very Merry Christmas (Happy Holidays for the politically correct) and all the best for 2024.

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