Don’t go on a Fasting Retreat with Chocolate in your Pocket.

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A Fasting Retreat? For a week? You’ve got to be kidding. The whole concept was as remote as refusing a giant piece of pavlova.  ‘Fast’ to me, was a way of moving, the speed of my bike, the passing of time. I never for a moment had considered going on a ‘fast’. This was something Jesus and Moses did in the desert, Muslims recognize as an essence of spiritual cleansing, and Hindi gurus propound.

However, in a moment of madness and of perceived fatness I allowed my good friend Julie to persuade me to join her on a Fasting Retreat. Indeed, her excitement when sending me the link to a Aio Wira Retreat was hard to ignore. “It’s so good for you” she said, “It’s been known to improve brain performance, lower risk of diabetes and so many other benefits.”

The pre-fast information sheet advised us to moderate eating in the days leading up to the retreat, stick to salads and vegetables, cut out the caffeine and alcohol (are you getting the picture?) By preparing our bodies it would be easier to slide into the regime of daily juices, herbal teas, body brushing and giving ourselves enemas. Yes. You heard me. Enemas, not enigmas, nor the pretty little anemone flowers! There is nothing pretty nor enigmatic about an enema.

Aio Wira Retreat Centre is just 40 minutes from Auckland and tucked away on four hectares of native bush in the Waitakere Ranges. Founded in 1970 by a group of yoga students, the centre which is not based on any fixed spiritual philosophy, has developed to become a centre for many types of, body, mind and spirit gatherings and holds workshops from yoga, pilates and meditation to Qi Gong, mindfulness and wordless weekends. So many wonderful options for seeking and finding physical health, spiritual wellness and self-fulfilment, which leaves me wondering how I ever ended up on the fasting retreat.

Before arriving on a Thursday night, we stopped and had our last, light meal at the closest café to the centre. The last solid food for five days, then drove the last ten kilometres before turning onto a short gravel road. It was late but never too late to be greeted enthusiastically by the woofer (seasonal worker) and a fasting regular who had returned for his fifth fast in that many years.

We were shown to a row of homely rooms set up with wool blankets, crochet covers, cushions and hot water bottles, (or were they the enema bladders?) While unpacking, I happened to find a lost, lonely row of dark chocolate. Honest. I’m not kidding. They were not hidden there deliberately. Those four squares of chocolate were to test my willpower like nothing else. Well, nothing except the fact there was no cell phone coverage. I contemplated the best course of action. I could quietly eat the chocolate straight away, but, strictly speaking the fast had already started. To eat them would be to cheat. Wouldn’t it? I could tell the others and they would keep me on the straight and narrow or, they might make me share it! The final choice was to just forget I had it, which is what I tried to do.

We soon settled into the routine at Aio Wira beginning with a lesson on how to use the enema kits, accompanied by nervous giggles from those of the 17 participants who were first timers.  A daily timetable was hung up detailing sessions for yoga, meditation, Tai Chi and sharing sessions with empty spaces for signing up for other optional health regimes including seaweed wraps, posture alignment and counselling offered by independent consultants.

By day two the growling and squeaking of empty stomachs dominated the sharing sessions along with more personal reflections of how people were coping. Strangely enough after the first 24 hours I felt no real desire to eat. The fruit juices and evening broth were doing their job. However, by Day Three, I was getting hangry and restless for contact with the outside world.  All the talk of people’s bowel habits and enema encounters was becoming too much. It was time for a drive to Bethells Beach in search of wide open spaces, cell phone coverage, a coffee cart perhaps and, maybe, just a nibble on the chocolate. Gosh. I was beginning to behave like a teenager sneaking out after dark. Fortunately, I was not alone in my cravings and clandestine escapades.

By Day Four I had little energy for anything, even contemplating unwrapping those four squares of delicious, dark chocolate was exhausting. I began counting down and dreaming of the date-filled baked apple they had promised us for breakfast as a gentle breaking of our fast.

Tuesday morning began with much excitement. The thought of food made it difficult for me to meditate. The morning walk was just a mere stroll as we drawled over what we would eat when we left. And then it was over.

In small groups we took ourselves off to our cars and headed home. How many of the women would jump on the scales and how many of the men would down a quick pint was anyone’s guess. The only thing for certain was that most of us would be on cell phones as soon as we were in signal and that the four squares of chocolate wouldn’t last much longer.

bty

                                                        ©www.angiebelcherwriter.com

 

New Plymouth-You Rock!

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It’s been forty years since I was last in New Plymouth. The hometown of my first love.  Oh how I remember those clandestine snogging sessions parked up by the Fitzroy Life Saving Club. However, the love was not reciprocated, and life moved on. New Plymouth is now memorable to me for all the right reasons:  scaling Paratutu, the peaked rock jutting from the coastline, Mount Taranaki giving us a shy glimpse of her beauty from beneath a veil of cloud, the ever-so-shiny, rolling, convoluted curves of the Govette-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre with it’s mesmerizing, shaking, quivering, oh-most-famous art work “The Blade”, and those 200+ parks and gardens full of rhododendron and other exotic species. It is no wonder that New Plymouth was voted Lonely Planet’s Second-Best Region in the World to visit in 2017.

There is nothing about this area that doesn’t enchant and energise me. Art adorns walls and buildings in the form of giant murals and towering Len Lye kinetic sculptures, historic buildings like The Gables in Brooklyn Park give a hint of the past and opportunities for exercise are everywhere: yoga in the lupins, cyclists and walkers vying for position on the 11km coastal walkway (although I wonder if it is aptly named as the cycles far outnumber walkers), nippers paddling surf skis furiously and surfers alongside stand up paddle boarders riding long swells.

Strangely enough we chose to visit New Plymouth for none of these reasons. We came for the Floatation Sanctuary, a chance to experience the sensation and healing therapy of floating. Not that either of us are unwell, just that we like to experience different things. Eleanor of the New Plymouth Floatation Centre welcomed us into her very professional premises. We filled in a few forms, listened to her briefing on the benefits and processes and then were taken to the floatation room. In the subdued lighting emanating from Himalayan Salt Lamps was a large ‘egg-like’ capsule. I immediately envisage Robin Williams in the ever-popular series “Mork and Mindy” stepping out of his egg space capsule and saying ‘Nanu Nanu”. My little chuckle was fortunately interpreted as nerves by those present. While my partner had the first session I used the time to bike the short distance back into town for a wonderful tea drinking experience at the Empire Tea Rooms. If you ever go, they have the most amazing cinnamon pin wheels which I will pretend I didn’t eat as it is best to ‘float’ on an empty stomach. Back at the centre it was sooon my turn. I began with a thorough shower, ridding myself of any grime or beauty creams or in this case the grim that had stuck to beauty creams as I climbed Paratutu. Then cautiously lifted the lid of the capsule. An alien glow illuminated the water. Ever-so-carefully, I step in. It’s not deep, just deep enough to float in and float you most certainly do, aided by 30kg of Epsom salts which will help replace minerals lost. Just a tad nervously, I pulled the lid down and when I felt safe in this wee nest, reached for the button and switch off the light. Even with earplugs I could hear the hypnotic music being played, soothing me, calming me, lulling me into nothingness and sending me floating into space. I was not aware of when that music stopped but once deprived of all senses and supported by the water my mind shut off and there is nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sometime later I become aware of where I was, music played once more, it was time to emerge from my cacoon, wash off the mineral water and burst forth into life with a renewed energy or …..not.

Like having a long bath in the middle of a summer’s afternoon I felt the need to go back to the bus and sleep. And I did. A deep exhausted sleep. The effects and benefits of Floating are said to be varied and many, for some they are instantaneous, for others, it takes a while to recognize the benefits. Whether it was the float or the sleep afterwards, I was soon ready to head into the city again to experience more of its culture, history and people. I loved it.

There is an air of affluence about New Plymouth but not in any poncy way, it simply feels like a city that knows it’s past, knows where it’s going and has a positive outlook for the future.

New Plymouth, you rock!

 

The Road to Whangamomona

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It’s a strange thing when you realise that you’ve become caught up in the BookaBach system and suddenly, in the middle of everyday life, have to pack up your stuff, put the things you need in the camperbus, secure any personal items in the lock up room and head out of your house for nine days, or whatever period it might be. But that’s how it’s been with us for the holiday periods. The income generated pays for our next holiday as well as, in most cases, leaves us with a surplus.

So, here we are, on the road again, this time heading for New Plymouth via the Forgotten Highway. It’s a bit of a round about trip from Rotorua but there is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, Whangamomona. I’ve been saying it for years, I can spell it and I can even pronounce it properly and now, it has become a reality. There are a few teething problems as we consult google on the best route but eventually we decide to head to our destination via Bennydale. Where you ask? It’s a little hard to describe, hidden away in the middle of nowhere, miss and you blink it. Just a few scattered houses and the Wooden Heart Café which is having peak rush hour when we arrive. A dozen foreigners speaking a language I fail to recognize, are trying to decipher the chalk-board with the help of a heavily full-face tattooed local who gives them a local experience which money can’t buy and which they will take back to whichever country they come from.  We are not surprised by the fact that we are the only New Zealanders in the café (apart from the staff) 75% of the traffic we have seen has been campervans, caravans and farm quad bikes.

The area which has been little known for so long, is now part of the Timber Trail, a section of bike-riding on the NZ cycling circuit. A route following old tramlines and special cut tracks from Pureora to Ongarue, which you’ve probably never heard of either.  Accommodation is limited but among the few local houses and their flaking paint which peels off and blows in the wind, there is an immaculate wee house, the BikeaBach which caters for cyclists, and others.

We pass old pongas with their old leaves falling like brown skirts, moss -covered fence posts, musters of sheep and stop for a spot of blackberry picking by the side of the road and finally arrive at Ohura, yip, I’d never heard of it either. No one is at home in this town. The main street is wide, every shop is closed, we stand in the middle of the road feeling like displaced people. Suddenly I see a familiar sign, toilets, I wander down a side street to a water tank kitted out as public conveniences, they are meticulously clean, so someone must live here. There is a bunch of plastic flowers placed on the floor by the toilets, the kind that you see faded in cemeteries, or by the side of the road.  I wonder if someone is “repurposing” them or maybe they are genuinely there to brighten the place up.

The drive through gorges and saddle roads opening out to spectacular high country scenery is stunning. It is real heartland New Zealand.  And then we arrive. Whangamomona. Permanent population of 12. IT is everything I imagined. This tiny village is its own republic, complete with president and it’s own passport and fast becoming added to many backpackers bucket list.  We arrive in the late afternoon and as we pass the hotel it’s hard not to notice all the patron’s heads turn and follow us as we turn towards the Camping ground.

The manager is a man of few words. Like those in the Australian outback he appears to be a stranger to polite conversation and pleasantries but speaks volumes without actually saying a word. He takes our payment and points towards the carefully manicured grounds and hedge along which we can hook to power. The facilities are in an old school house and are ever so clean. In the ‘ladies’ there is a set of scales. One can only assume that the weight conscious must arrive with regularity. Me, I have done nothing but sit in our camperbus and eat all day so the scales will have to remain unemployed for tonight at least.

It is a still night filled with stars and a moon so bright we have to pull the bus curtains. It is the kind of night that you only find in a place like Whangamomona.

The Farmyard Idol

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An ideal read-aloud book for 4-9 year olds from the Read and Colour Collection.

“A collaboration between well known children’s writer Angie Belcher, respected artist Debbie Tipuna and book designer Sarah Elworthy, this book is an absolute gem. The story follows farmer Fred and his marvellously musical animals. When farmhand Joe suggestions a competition to find out which animal is the best, ‘Farmyard Idol’ is born. A poster advertises the competition and milk shed venue. Hen decides to enter, as does Dog, Horse, Rooster, Sheep and Pig. The animals take their turn to perform in the ‘Farmyard Idol’ with Fred, his wife Betty and farmhand Joe as the judges. It’s a hard decision as to which animal is best!

This A4 sized picture book is lavishly illustrated and full of wonderful whimsical touches throughout. The exciting design features an opportunity for children (or adults!) to colour in some of the illustrations. This isn’t essential, however, as the book works really well as it is with the mixture of eye-catching coloured and uncoloured illustrations.

The copyright page is set against a delightful background map of the farm. This is followed by the intriguing addition of four illustrated postcards which can be removed and sent through the post – a charming marketing tool. The cover is bright and attractive, sure to appeal to children. I especially love the two rows of bunting which are repeated during the story. The book has been brought together very nicely and I can easily see it becoming a family favourite and, in time, a New Zealand children’s classic.”

DEBBIE McCAULEY CHILDREN’S LIBRARIAN

farmyard idol cover - angie belcher

Blokzijl

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The campervan squeezes along the narrow streets. We suck in our breath and pray that nothing comes the other way. I’m grateful that our friends discovered Blokzijl in the northern Netherlands by canal boat and told us about it, otherwise we would never have found it.
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Now we sit in an old café. The owner seems as old as the building. He creeps in the darkness amidst tables set with candles and surrounded by art work in the style of the Dutch Masters. The rain and gloom is fitting with the atmosphere but somehow adds to the experience of visiting this medieval fortress built in the 1600’s. We are the only patrons.
Outside the rain quietly fills the gaps in the cobblestones spraying afar as red cape-clad cyclists pedal passed. They stop momentarily and peer in the window. No doubt we do not make a suitable display and they pedal on in the rain. Barry Manilow sings on the radio in contrast to what I see and feel.
As I finish my coffee and yet another slice of Dutch appeltaart the music changes, the radio now plays “You can be a Champion” transporting me back to Vanuatu where Facebook reminds me that I was two years ago. The song was sung loudly and enthusiastically by my Grade Six class as they graduated from primary school, many of them departing to boarding schools in more developed countries. How life changes, so quickly, and yet Blokzijl reminds me that in reality, some things never change, they just wear the markings of time.

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Ski Soar

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I’m sitting in the café at the top of the Bergisel ski jump in Austria, site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. It’s a nauseating height. The kind that even spectacular panoramic views can’t help you ignore. I feel as if the collective nerves and adrenalin of the hundreds of competitors who have launched themselves into record books have gathered in my stomach.
I order a strong espresso but it only seems to heighten the nausea, so, I order an apple Strudel in an attempt to take my mind off the scenery and onto my stomach.

Then I saw it. The reason I was so nervous. A young Austrian jumper, on the slope, preparing to jump. Perhaps I had been channeling his nerves?
Heart racing, perspiration pouring down, a quick prayer as the seconds ticked by….and that was just me! In contrast, this athlete appeared as cool as an Austrian snowflake. His lithe body bends, clips onto the two ski rails , adjusted his vest and soars.

Skis crossed, sky high and then a graceful landing down the artificial grass slope. A terrain watered and tendered like a prize cricket pitch. Visons of Eddie the Eagle flashed through my mind. I was in awe.
Thinking how lucky I was to witness this in the height of summer I make my way slowly step by step, slope by slope….down the path. Suddenly the jumper runs passed me, back to the cable car, back to the top. Unlike me, he didn’t need to stop for coffee and cake at the café. I rushed to the bottom to get a shot from below. A group of Indian tourists were gathered on the teared seating getting an informative brief from an English speaking, Austrian coach. I stop, and listen in. Discretely of course.
Huge sprinklers spray water droplets into the sky creating rainbows and sparkles like thousands of Swarovski crystals.

As soon as they stop, a tiny speck appears at the top of the jump then soars through the sky. The crowd applauds and break into a clacker of disbelief. The smiling ski-jumper takes time to approach the group, pause for a few quick photos, then its “auf wiedersehen” and back to the top. Me, well, I head down to the next coffee shop. All that exercise and energy has made me exhausted.

 

Freewheeling in Holland

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“Look out for the bikes” my friends warned as I left for Holland, little did they know that I was the real danger, not the Dutch! Fortunately for me other cyclists were tolerant when I erred to the wrong side of the path and cars had no option other to avoid me. In Holland, bikes rule.
The Dutch and their long term love affair with cycling has been long known but I had not anticipated the depth of use. Within days of arriving we had seen every make, model and adaptation possible; singles, tandems, trikes and tandem trikes. Babies on the front, babies on the back, mothers with babies on the front AND on the back. Dogs in baskets, flowers in baskets and flowers around baskets. Paniers and carriers carrying cargo, bikes towing trailers, pushing trailers and carrying kids in trailers. Electric powered or pedal-powered you cannot miss them. They are an intrigal part of the Dutch way of life. For leisure, pleasure, transport and sport, every age, size and shape are pedaling their way somewhere.
To cater for the masses the government has constructed more than 32,000 kilometers of bike tracks. They run alongside but separated from main roads or as cleverly signposted routes. Amsterdam alone has more bikes than citizens (population 811,000). More than 800,000 bikes are stolen in Holland every year so we are careful to lock them rather than loose them.
The bike is more than a mode of transport, it is a way of life and the trails, tracks and roads are built to accommodate them, even having bike traffic lights on some pathways.
My Dutch partner Dirk, comes from the east, a predominantly rural area. Perfectly grassed fields are carefully mowed and the grass fed to cows housed in long cow sheds. This is the farmer’s way of maximizing grass growth in a country with little spare arable land, and in keeping with the tradition of keeping the cows inside, especially during the long harsh winters. Large thatched farmhouses beside the sheds make the area one of “chocolate box” images.
A short distance away is the Veluwe National Park. An area perfect for trying out our new bikes. The riding is easy, choosing a route was difficult. Do we follow the orange signs for the Royal Route, sunflowers for artistic inspiration, clogs for farmland ? Or do we follow the river some distance, crossing the John Frost Bridge also known as The Bridge too Far and passing airborne landing sites where thousands of paratroopers dropped from the sky in September 1944? The myriads of routes are numbered with a system which also allows you to create your own itinerary taking in watermills in the Veluwezoom region, a Taste of Van Gogh at various cafes and historic Hanseatic architecture. We choose to “pick and mix” making sure we have lots of coffee and apple cake (a Dutch favourite) on the way.
If this all sounds a bit sedate cyclists can ride more difficult trails, following three of the stages of the 2016 Giro Italia or go mountain biking, although bear in mind that with a country one metre below sea level the hills are not what we would experience in New Zealand.
One of the best things is….NO helmets! This is a country where bikes rule and cars giving way to cyclists. So, dangers aside, I was soon freewheeling passed heathlands, marshlands, woodlands, farmlands, and sampling enough Dutch product along the way to make me a roly poly cheese look-a-like! Hopefully all the cycling will counteract the calories. And, if I have a few speed wobbles…so be it.

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