Year-ender: a day in the life of Faces of Innocents

Thursday, July 21, was a day of it.

The following Monday we would launch – for the second time – our Faces of Innocents series: an investigation into New Zealand’s problem with killing its kids.

During the process, we found many Kiwis simply didn’t want to talk about the problem. Others didn’t want to listen.

That morning there happened to be two relevant sentencings in the High Court at Wellington.

First: Michael Kereopa was sentenced to eight years jail for the manslaughter of baby Gracie-May McSorley, who died in July the previous year.

I attended the second sentencing: that of Tawera Wichman, a young father who fatally shook one of his twins, Teegan. Sitting at the back among family members I took it all in, but didn’t take notes. I wasn’t there for a story; just — for lack of a better term — research.

Wichman was 17 when his 16-year-old girlfriend gave birth to the two babies. Now 24, he pleaded guilty after an unsuccessful three-year legal battle and was jailed for three years and 10 months.

I kept my gaze forward as the woman next to me yelled “I love you, son” as Wichman left court.

Once outside, I approached Teegan’s mother, who was standing surrounded by friends and family. Before I could say anything, she told me to f… off. Before I could give her my card, her posse repeated the message.

That afternoon, I visited another mother: Sharon Stephenson, whose daughter Lisa Hope was killed in 1998.

It was the week before Christmas and Lisa, 8, and her younger brother Tim, 7, were tucked up in bed. Hope entered the children’s bedroom and stabbed his daughter in the heart with a kitchen knife.

Later, while remanded on a murder charge, he took his own life in Sunnyside Hospital.

Stephenson was wearing a pink scarf when she welcomed me into her house that Thursday. Her fair hair was tied back. Tim was out. As soon as I sat down I spotted the wooden box of ashes in the glass cabinet.

If it wasn’t for Tim, Stephenson said, she wouldn’t go on. She felt as though the world had forgotten Lisa.

As she talked, she stared at a framed photograph of her daughter — blonde, freckled, smiling. She described how she tried to resuscitate Lisa’s cold body in the mortuary.

Stephenson looked at me as she wondered out loud what kind of woman her daughter would have become. She would have been my age. I think about that quite a lot.

Back in the office, I wrote a script for a video for the series.

“More than 200 New Zealand children have died of neglect, maltreatment, or abuse since 1992 …

“New Zealand remains one of the most dangerous countries in the developed world in which to grow up.”

What else can I say that will make the audience give a damn? They’re either not talking, or not listening.

It would be lousy of me, however, to say how I feel about that. I feel nothing – nothing compared to the pain these families experience every day.

On Friday, I would be working on another story.

Traversing Hong Kong with an actual travel writer: from Lamma Island IPA to socks milk tea

I could feel my last beer sloshing around in my stomach as we dashed for the departing ferry.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” I said to Siobhan, as I slowed to a jog.

We panicked at the gate, went up the wrong way, and ended up on the boat without paying. But who cared – not us – we were on the bloody boat.

Siobhan turned to me: “That was so ‘Sex and the City’, Season 3, Episode 1.”

Except we weren’t on the Staten Island, we were on Lamma Island. Oh, and I wasn’t wearing heels. Everything else was exactly the same, though. Exactly.

It was so good to see a friend from home.

Siobhan has also done a stint at the International New York Timesso she knows her way around the city. For that reason, we strayed from tourist traps in attempt to tick off activities that were new for both of us.

Almost as soon as she arrived, I whisked her off to dinner at Chungking Mansions – hub of so-called low-end globalisation, cheap guest-houses, and *very good* Indian food.

The following day we were keen to tick off a “fishing village” – given its proximity, Aberdeen, in Southern District, was it. No, we didn’t dine at Jumbo Kingdom, one of the world’s largest floating restaurants, but we saw it as we sailed by on a sampan.

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From there we sailed out to Lamma Island – one of my favourite spots in Hong Kong – for dinner and drinks and that mad dash home again. DSC_0110.jpg

Don’t stress – we managed to cram in some dim sum during her trip. Tim Ho Wan, of course, in Sham Shui Po Hot tip: pork buns and doggy bags don’t mix.

Siobhan had already visited Mei Ho House, formerly part of Shek Kip Mei Estate, but was willing to go again. It’s a lesser known museum, but free, and worth a visit. It’s also the last remaining example of a “Mark II” building in a single-block configuration.

A devastating fire in December 1953 left thousands homeless; the resettlement estate was built to house those survivors. By default, it kick-started the city’s public housing development.

From there it was a quick trip to Chi Lin Nunnery: a Buddhist temple complex in Diamond Hill. Founded in 1934 as a retreat for Buddhist nuns, it was rebuilt in the 1990s following the traditional Tang Dynasty architecture. It’s a breath of fresh air, literally, amid the chaos of Kowloon.

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After a spot of shopping and silk stocking milk tea, it was time for me to head back to work and Siobhan to head back to New Zealand.

It wouldn’t be long before I followed her.

Hong Kong: a note on foot traffic

I just packed my bags for the sixth time this trip. I wish I could say I was getting better at it. Tomorrow I move from Quarry Bay to Sheung Wan, my last stop in Hong Kong.

Each time I move, I ask: have I made the most of being in this area? Ticked off all the activities on my list that are relevant to this location? Checked out the recommended cafes and restaurants?

I may not be getting better at packing but I’m getting better at moving around the city.

Until people learn to walk in a straight line, Hong Kong will never truly be the New York of Asia.

In Causeway Bay during rush hour it would take me double, no triple, the amount of time to walk from the MTR to my apartment. The crowds aren’t overwhelming, just slow.

I find myself drawing from track cycling training while navigating the streets. As soon as a gap appears in the human wall I squeeze through, careful not to clip anyone. If I notice a fast walker going in my direction, I’ll slip behind him and follow his footsteps.

I had to shake my head today as I passed a man with one hand holding his phone and the other on the shoulder of his young son, who was also staring at his phone.

Depending on the area, it can feel like being in a different city. A different country, even.

It’s a 10-minute walk from my place in Quarry Bay to work in North Point. I pass: butchers chopping carcasses just off the sidewalk, overflowing fruit stalls, wet markets, rows of florists just down from the funeral home, lines of locals outside char siu restaurants, holes in walls selling egg waffles, and the odd coffee shop.

Head to Central and you could be in any international city – Eastern or Western.

Fortunately, it’s easy to escape the hustle and bustle. It’s a five-minute walk from my apartment to a track up Mount Parker. Five minutes in the other direction and I’m at the water.

Forget New York, this is the Wellington of Asia.

All seasons in Hong Kong

It’s Sunday night and I’m leaning over the kitchen sink gnawing at a 250-gram block of Mainland Tasty Cheese.

I’m leaning over the sink because the ice in the fridge melted leaving a soppy mess. Biting the block because a knife didn’t come with the apartment. Why cheese? It’s the main to an entrée of grapes. I couldn’t be bothered going out tonight.

That’s not to say I had a lazy day, I didn’t, I went hiking. Rather, tramping. Although it’s hardly tramping when the trails are paved and the stairs have handrails.

I stood on the spine of Hong Kong Island and looked at the high-rises to my left, and to my right, and finally understood why nobody I met seemed to come from the middle. Apparently, it’s a reserve. A hilly reserve.

People live in little boxes but within a short walk of the city centre there’s all this space. It’s stunning.

Last weekend we went further – to Sai Kung Town. From there we took a boat to another beach and hiked a short way to get to pools and a waterfall. If the water wasn’t so warm I could have been in New Zealand.

Rather than taking the boat again we hiked back to the township, which is known for its seafood. Large tanks out the front of restaurants serve as the menu – pick your own fish, or squid, or crab.

I struck it lucky, again, being able to tag along with locals who knew what they were doing.

dsc_0049It was the day of the typhoon when I broke my rule of never eating at the same place twice.

Typhoon Haima, named after the Chinese word for sea horse, triggered the first Number 8 storm warning in October for two decades. Great timing.

Reports suggest it may have cost the city an HK$5 billion in lost business. The way the city reacted, I’m not surprised.

I panicked when I saw the main doors to our building were closed, but at a back entrance a guard took my ID number and let me inside. A handful of colleagues had also made it to the newsroom. The surrounding offices and shops were shut.

When I realised this, my one Granny Smith apple spiked in value. Fortunately, there was plenty of coffee and – we later discovered – a vending machine which stocked M&Ms.

Causeway Bay, where I was staying, is the shopping centre of Hong Kong. The streets, usually congested at all hours, were empty.

I’m from Wellington, the windiest city on earth, and if I can remain upright on two feet, let-alone open an umbrella, I’m sorry Hong Kong, but it ain’t windy.

Feeling optimistic, I walked past closed cafes, bars, and restaurants heading for the hole-in-the-wall which had sold me char siu the day before. Bless them, their light was on.

When the market reopened to following day, I added to my survival kit, just in case: beer, grapes, cheese.

Obviously it’s depleted already, but I’ll top it up tomorrow.

The colourful streets of Kathmandu

I wish I had taken more photos of the streets in Kathmandu.

But the camera couldn’t capture hot and dusty. I could have shown you people wearing masks. All the colours. Of course the smog makes everything look a little hazy.

I took notes at one point of the colours I passed: bricks, dirt, concrete, shops, greenery, flowers, art work, rubbish.

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Just off New Road: the financial hub of the city

There were slogans spray-painted on walls: “Make bubbles kill germ troubles.” And another: “Women never surrender.”

I shared the road with cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, buses, mini vans, dogs, goats, cattle, people. So many people.

When I went to meet a contact in a different part of the city I wondered how he would recognise me. I had looked up his photo but he might not have done the same. Then I remembered I was white.

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Alleyway off New Road

I enjoyed walking, it was a better way of experiencing the streets than sitting in traffic.

While there’s always the risk you’ll get run over by one of the aforementioned road users I understand there’s very little crime in Nepal. For what it’s worth, I felt safe.

People ask each other for directions all the time so I didn’t get any funny looks when I went up to strangers asking for help. The locals seemed particularly keen on Kiwis – perhaps I’ve got Sir Edmund Hillary to thank for that.

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Refraining from patting the dogs was my biggest challenge

And no, I didn’t get food poisoning. Even though I forgot to use bottled water to clean my teeth, even though I ate with my hands, even though I patted dogs. (Don’t follow my example, I have a superhuman stomach.)

The food was delicious, healthy, and cheap. Even cheaper considering the heat reduced my appetite.

Oh, the heat. One minute you were drenched in your own sweat and the next drenched in a downpour. The upside to the fickle weather was that the roads would clear – briefly.

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Handicrafts for sale on the roadside

The first time this happened I was walking with a friend and we ducked into a shop to shelter. The shopkeeper’s assistant went to fetch a couple of umbrellas to sell to us.

My friend is a good haggler. When she refused to take the umbrellas because he wouldn’t drop the price by the equivalent of 60 cents, I widened my eyes and shook my head and hissed: “I’ll take it!”

“Not yet,” she said. Sure enough, he lowered the price. Later, I worked out the maths: NZ$3 each.

I wish I had taken more photos, and bought more umbrellas.

A two-part tale: hiking Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park

PART ONE:

I didn’t see any mountains when I was in Nepal, but I did climb a big hill.

Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park is about an hour out of Kathmandu.

Transport within the city is relatively cheap and easy – walk, rickshaw, or taxi. Going further is more difficult. The road network is one of the least developed in the world. Aircraft are a crucial component of the transport infrastructure.

I wouldn’t have been able to see nearly as much of the surrounding area if it wasn’t for a friend who speaks the language and knows his way around.

He really proved his worth at bus stations, which are chaotic with destinations broadcast only by word-of-mouth.

The buses go further than taxis and are much cheaper: around NZ 40 cents per ride.

No doubt child labour helps keep the prices down. Children and teenagers work as ticket collectors and conductors. When the vehicle slows they jump off and advertise the route.

One boy, aged around 15, was particularly good at his job. He was strong and loud. He had a Justin Bieber-style haircut and was wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the pop star’s face. Of course, I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but he said it with such conviction.

PART TWO:

Once in the national park we went the wrong way.

We headed up another peak: Chisapani. We paused too often to make it to the top but we saw plenty along the way – terraced fields and whitewater rivers and sprawling forests.

Note to tourists: bring chocolate. We were on our way down when a little face appeared between crops.

“Namaste,” the young boy said. I looked around assuming he was greeting someone else.

“Namaste,” he said again.

Finally, I replied: “Namaste.”

This pleased him as he had another line ready: “Namaste, please give me chocolate.”

Others were quieter but just as curious.

One young girl playing on the porch stopped and stared as we approached, before pressing her hands together to say a silent hello.

We passed children on their way to school, and on their way back again. Their uniforms were neat – shirts and shorts. The girls wore their hair in slick plaits.

So yes, the scenery was beautiful.

But people > places.

A day of religion in Nepal

The temples around Kathmandu are an impressive display of syncretism with the mingling of Hinduism and Buddhism. The religions share temples, gods, symbols, and festivals.

In the morning we visited Swayambhunath. The complex consists of the iconic dome-shaped Buddhist shrine or stupa and a variety of other shrines and temples.

We took the longer, winding path to the hilltop and the steep steps down. Apparently there are 365 steps, not that I counted.

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Buddha statues at the base of Swayambhunath

On the way up I got sidetracked by the monkeys – it’s known as Monkey Temple for a reason. They were bathing and playing and fighting. They didn’t much care for humans but they weren’t scared of us, either.

Like just about everywhere else we visited, it dates back to ancient times. The earliest written record of the Great Stupa of Swayambhu is a 5th century stone inscription.

Although some of the structures around the dome crumbled during the earthquake, the dome and spire were unharmed. From the four sides of the spire Buddha’s eyes watch over the city.

Despite the poverty here, I haven’t seen many beggars. Honestly, I get hassled more on the streets of Wellington. Go figure.

But at the bottom of the steps was a young girl rocking an infant with one arm and holding the other out for cash. Giving money would have only condoned the behaviour, I thought.

As a journalist I like to think of myself as level-headed bordering on heartless, but that sight still bothers me. I’m not sure what I should have done.

It was a day of religion with the next stop being Pashupatinath, one of the holiest sites in the country. The Hindu temple apparently draws pilgrims from Nepal and India.

Ancient scripture has described Pashupatinath as “Lord of the entire living beings and the source of eternal bliss and peace”.

There’s no record showing when the temple was built, however it’s recorded it was rebuilt around 1120AD.

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The view from Swayambhunath

Pashupatinath is generally worshiped as the deity with five faces and the Nepalese people also have a tradition of worshiping Pashupatinath as the Buddha.

The Bagmati, which flows through the area, is a sacred river. However it’s been blackened by the ashes of bodies cremated on its banks. Orange marigolds and pieces of rubbish dot its surface.

This is the site of the main burning ghats in Kathmandu.

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Pashupatinath

Several bodies were burning when we arrived. One more was being prepared, the logs already stacked.

I should point out, I wasn’t invited to a funeral, it’s all carried out in public.

Sadhus, holy men recognisable by their unusual clothing and makeup, look on.

Mourners crowd the platform where their loved-one burns. One group blends into the next. Sons of the deceased stand out, wearing all white clothing.

There are 11 platforms in total along the river.

A “burner” will stoke the fire until the body is reduced to ash.

Afterwards, the platform is washed and readied for the next body.