Monday, 28 December 2009

Two week world tour 3: Kris’s wedding…and going to the ATM

Pretty much as soon as we arrived in Singapore we went out with Kris for the pre-wedding meal....of Dallas chicken! Memories of placement year in Tooting where for a period of several weeks Kris ate there every night! One opened recently round the corner from Woody’s new flat, although he reckons this had nothing to do with his decision to move there. Good job though given he's banned from Maccas following the stag do.

After this fine meal we went to an Irish pub until about 1.30am, drinking quite a lot of Guinness just to get free gifts (also just like the old days!). Luggage tags, a shoe bag and a sporty bag! It was suggested much earlier that we should go home but Kris wanted to watch the Lions game and insisted we stay. I didn't even argue because in my experience if the groom is insistent on staying out, there is nothing you can do (at least until he goes face first into the floor in a nightclub).

Was a good drinking effort, but we had to be up early so alarms were set for 7am as we had to leave at 7.45 to get to Perrie's. At least that’s what woody said, but he got a call at 7 saying the car was outside and where were we? We had to be at Perrie’s at 7.45, not leave then. Good work Kris! But we were all showered and changed in 20 minutes although none of us felt that great. On arrival at Perrie's, just to get let in, Kris had to hand out several red packets with money in, and eat various things including durian, a fruit which smells horrible. In our fragile states, it may have got messy if we'd had to eat more than a token mouthful.

Finally Kris secured us entry to Perrie's flat, but he than had to come up with a load of flattering sentences involving a pre-determined words beginning with each of A-Z before he could actually see Perrie. Highly amusing and not as flattering as they could have been either! Various tea serving ceremonies involving Perrie's family then ensued before it was off back to Woody's where there were further tea ceremonies involving Woody's folks this time.

After that it was back to Perrie's for lunch. Me, al and Nathan who Kris works with were the 'brothers' for the day and on the way we said to our driver, Perrie's uncle (I think) that we needed to go to an ATM, but this was just an elaborate ploy to go to McDonalds as by this point we were desperate for greasy food to relieve our hangovers. Sorted us out nicely too, and we were just in time before they stopped serving breakfast! Don't think we've ever eaten a McMuffin as quick before. Perrie's uncle, who was parked round the corner suspected something but we just about pulled it off! Kris wasn't happy because he was absolutely desperate for some McFood too! If only we'd caught the moment we told him on camera. Going to the ATM is now the euphemism for going to Macca's!

After lunch we had a few hours off and Al had the cracking idea that we had to uphold at least one English wedding we went and bought a Toaster as a wedding present!

The evening kicked off with the formal wedding least it did when the solemniser turned up as he forgot about it to start with so was almost an hour late.

The 9 course mostly fish meal then started and there was a photo montage including plenty of embarrassing photos of Kris when he was young. I was on MC’ing duty. On the crib sheet it said that pronouncing names right is vital as it can cause great offence - oh dear. As was pointed out, my very presence was probably causing enough offence, so this wasn‘t good. I had to pronounce Leong Tak Seng, but there were no gasps so I think I did ok.

During the meal there were various loud toasts where you say "yam sing" or something like that. This involves shouting "yam" for a long time, then "sing" very quickly at the end. Statto would be able to explain as we called him later and did one.

Some of Perrie's friends and family marvelled at how much the western folk were drinking, hardly surprising given that during the meal me and Al had both red wine and beer on the go, both of which were constantly being topped up! In fact pretty much any time our glasses weren't full someone came and topped them up so thanks to Kris for having the waiters so well drilled.

After the meal we headed off to some bar and danced like idiots. I think me and Al only left in the end because we'd ran out of money. Getting back to Woody’s, Al passed out on Woody’s sofa (again) but luckily I had the presence of mind (again) to get photos.

And that was pretty much it. Was an absolutely top day and me and Al thoroughly enjoyed it, so cheers Kris and thanks for the honour of being brother, brother.

Like with Ninja's wedding, Jamie said I should get a photo of me pointing at the happy couple, but apparently pointing in considered offensive in Chinese culture. How rude Jamie. Bet you suggested I do that deliberately. Will have to make do with this.

Next day we just chilled out around Singapore - at least as much as you can chill when it’s 35 degrees and humid - before flying back to Sydney that night. Arrived in Sydney early morning and went straight to work pretty knackered - needed a holiday to recover.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Two week world tour 2: Flashpacking around Laos and a spot of cookery

When we arrived into Vientiane, the capital of Laos, there wasn’t time to do much but find somewhere to stay and head out for some fried rice and a couple of Beer Lao’s. There isn’t too much to see in Vientiane so we hailed a Tuk-Tuk first thing the next morning and went to the bus station and jumped on a bus to Luang Prabang, which took all day arriving early evening. Wasn’t the most comfortable bus either even though it was being advertised as the executive service, or something like that.

Luang Prabang is a chilled out little town on the Mekong River, and next day we ‘chartered’ a long-tail boat and headed to the Pak Ou caves. Chartering basically entails hanging around at the side of the river for no more than 30 seconds before someone asks you if you want to get a boat to the caves. After a small amount of negotiation resulting in us almost certainly being ripped off, a down payment was made, the bloke disappeared on a motorbike and 20 minutes later someone turns up and loads us into a boat.

The Pak Ou caves are pretty small and are full of literally hundreds of Buddha statues. On the way back there was the mandatory stop at Bang Xang Hai, which is better known as the Whiskey Village. Here the local moonshine - Lao Lao - is produced in significant quantities, so after brief demonstration on how it is made, we were introduced to the business end of the trip, the shop. We purchased a couple of bottles of something, although not sure what, as it was as cheap as chips.

That evening we climbed up Phu Si, a hill with various gardens and temples up it, as it’s quite a good spot to watch the sunset. On the way up Al had to disappear to lets just say use the bathroom. He wasn’t seen then for well over an hour but reappeared just in time for the sunset looking considerably better.

Next stop after Luang Prabang was Luang Nam Tha where we were going to do trek for a couple of days. If we had got public transport it would have taken all day so to get there , and meant we were spending too much time travelling having spent a full day on a bus in Laos already. So we did some more ‘chartering’ this time someone with a mini van. This basically entails going into a random tour office, telling them what you want, they suck in through their teeth as if its not possible, but then suggests it could be done for a price of around US$100. He then gets on the phone to someone, has a long conversation in a language you don’t understand (probably about something completely unrelated), hangs up, then explains that it can’t be done for less than US$130. Done…I think we probably had been.

This is the “ok I getcha” way of travelling, i.e. if something can’t be done, throwing a bit of money at the problem and greasing the wheels will suddenly make it possible.

But at least we got to spend an extra morning in Luang Prabang rather than on a bus, so we visited the Royal Palace Museum and just hung out really. We then caught our minivan and headed for Luang Nam Tha. I was in the front to get some extra leg room and this was a pretty scary trip, because in the towns en route, people and animals just hang out in the middle of the road. The people get out the way pretty easily, but the animals tend to leave it until the last second, and the amount of times I thought we were going to hit something… And of course the driver was never going to slow down. But somehow we managed to not kill anything.

We also picked up some locals en route. We were flagged down in a small town and asked if we minded if three local guys hitched a lift. It felt a bit tight to say no as hitching was probably their only way of getting there and there was space, so we agreed, although they dutifully crammed onto one row of seats leaving us with plenty of room to spread out still. The driver collected further monies from them, and even though we’d paid for a two person trip he wasn’t about to share with us. All we got was a free energy drink. Oh well…

When we arrived in Luang Nam Tha we were just told we’d arrived, at least that’s what I assume we were told as it wasn’t in English and we were being ushered out of the van. It took some time to work out where we were exactly and needed the help of some other tourists as any locals we asked to point to the map of the town didn’t recognise it!

Next morning we headed off on a two day trek. It was an organised trip and we were in a group of 5 people. The trek was neither short nor over easy terrain and we were walking pretty much 9-5 or so. For at least the first 10 minutes we tried to keep our feet dry, but it soon became obvious that this would be a futile task. I slipped on a log and drenched one foot after not long at all so after that there was no point bothering, and wet our feet stayed for two days.

Leeches were the other problem. If you stopped - or sometimes even if you didn’t - leeches would attach themselves to anything they could in the hope of getting to your skin to suck some blood, so you periodically had to de-leech yourself. I found one in my sock at the end of the day, so it probably had a good time. It won’t be doing it again though.

The food on the trek was pretty impressive. Lunch was pre-prepared in banana leaves, and we each got a big lump of sticky rice and there was a big selection of meat and stuff with it, as well as something ridiculously spicy that the guides wolfed down without a second thought.

That night we stayed in a local village. Another feast was cooked up by one of the locals and he even managed to rustle up some bottles of Beer Lao (for a fee obviously). After dinner a load of local girls aged from probably 10 to 16 marched into our hut and we were told it was massage time. Our first reaction to this was “errrrrrrrrr” thinking it was some sort of sting operation where the police would burst in and arrest us, but the guides said it was all legit and the girls practice how to do massages on tourists. Nobody explained why all the girls in the village needed to be fully qualified masseuses.

At this point I would just like to state for legal reasons that the girl giving me a massage was one of the ones over 16, no money changed hands, and that the massage stopped just above the knee. All the massage was was a bit of prodding and poking of the arms and legs and trying to pull fingers out the sockets, and probably didn’t do a lot to alleviate any aching from the days hiking.

Next day we set off for another full day of hiking. We filled our water bottles with some brown liquid you couldn’t see through which we were told was boiled water. It tasted horrendous but it was all were going to get so off we went.

On the trek there were lots of logs over small rivers and streams. Logs being logs they were round and they weren’t the easiest things to balance on and on several occasions both me and Al almost came to grief. It didn’t help that sometimes when one of us had got over, the other would get the camera out and set it to video to try and catch the fall on video!

When we got back to Luang Nam Tha we were still on a tight schedule and getting the public bus to the Thai border would have wasted half the next day as it was a 3 hour drive. So in much the same way as last time, we waved some US dollars around and secured a minivan to Huay Xai which is on the Laos-Thailand border. The guy we it organised through came along too because the driver didn’t know where he was going and needed a navigator. It was pretty clear he didn’t have much clue on how to drive either, but we made it in one piece and found some lodgings that night before heading to Thailand the next day.

The border crossing was pretty straight forward. You get stamped out of Laos, jump on a long motor boat type thing, get taken across the Mekong, and get stamped into Thailand. Then some bloke with a motorbike puts you on the back, your luggage on the front in front of him and takes you to some hotel where we’d arranged to be picked up to get a bus down to Chiang Mai.

One of the big things to do in Chiang Mai is a Thai cookery course, so we signed ourselves up for the next day. That night though we managed to stay up long enough to watch the England world cup qualifier against Andorra on the TV (just like we watched the Kazakhstan game in a pub in Luang Probing - its great experiencing local culture!). Had a fair few Chang Beers too which are pretty strong at around 6%, and didn’t get to bed until 4am and was up four hours later for the cooking.

Didn’t feel too bad early in the day (probably because I was still drunk) and we were taken to the market to buy various ingredients. We then headed out of town to where the place was we’d do the cooking, and it was on this journey in the back of a minivan that I started feeling a bit queasy. We were shown how to cook dish number one which was Thai yellow curry and through this I was sweating profusely, and not because I was slaving over a hot stove. Once I’d cooked it I was in a whole world of trouble and had to sneak off to the bathroom for a tactical chunder. Unfortunately I managed to pick the cubicle where the flush was broken, so I couldn’t get rid of the evidence. But on the plus side I felt a whole heap better and was able to eat the food I’d cooked. Have to say I wasn’t expecting to be sick before eating the food I’d cooked - after I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Recovered after that and we cooked six dishes in the end. Weren’t any major disasters either and most tasted pretty good, although whether the yellow curry was actually yellow is debatable…it was more brown.

That evening we went to a Muay Thai boxing event. This was blatantly put on for the benefit of tourists and every night they seemed to have some westerner on the bill. We saw some English guy, but on other nights there were Canadians, French etc. It was fun enough and the highlight was definitely when they blindfolded three guys and let them just swing around at each other. The ref pushed them in the right direction, and occasionally got hit himself, but when that happened he just hit them back.

Next day we got a tuk-tuk to the Ping River and did a trip up the river. Our tuk-tuk driver more or less insisted on waiting for us and taking us on a tour afterwards. She swapped the tuk-tuk for a car, and took us out of town to a snake sanctuary and tiger sanctuary. We watched a snake show where some snake handlers parade some snakes around to silly music and commentary. At one point it looked like they were trying to fish a snake out of a box with their snake stick, but then threw it into the crowd right in my direction. The snake was of course a piece of rope, but obviously this was a cloth touching moment. Everyone else found it highly amusing.

Then we went to the tiger sanctuary. The sell here is that you can go in their cages, obviously with guides. This was ok although it was a bit much when the guides pretty much insist on you hugging them. Photos of this hugging will not see the light of day.

After this we flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok where we had one night. We’d heard that table tennis was pretty big in Bangkok so we went to a ping pong show. You can obviously imagine our horror when ping pong turned out not to be table tennis…although ping pong balls were involved…as were candles, straws, darts, balloons, cigarettes, bananas…you get the picture. Course, some things are funny wherever you’re from in the world, and one of those things is some bald guy who’d amazingly managed to fall asleep through this getting hit on the head with a ping pong ball. And with only her second shot. There truly is some real talent on display. Anyway…

Next morning unfortunately all the knocked off DVD shops hadn’t opened and we had to get a flight to Singapore for Kris’s wedding, so we left empty handed - annoying because this was half the purpose of the trip.

Was a good week or so’s holiday although probably slightly too rushed. We didn’t really miss anything we really wanted to do but it was a lot of rushing around, so an extra couple of days would have been good. But when you have two weeks holiday and two weddings to get to…

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Two week world tour 1: Ninja and Jo’s wedding and Kris’s stag do

Back in May Ninja and Jo got married and me and Al decided to go back to the UK for the occasion. Worked out nice too as Kris was getting married in Singapore two weeks later so we could do both in the same trip, as well as give Kris a kind of stag do, see family and have a week or so’s holiday in Asia, all in about two and a half weeks!

So we set off on Thursday night straight from work to the airport, and 3 flights via Melbourne and Hong Kong and 28 hours later we were at Heathrow. After what felt like another 28 hours, but was closer to an hour and a half we’d made it to central London (Heathrow hasn’t changed). Friday night was our one night in London and managed to catch up with a fair few people which was really good. Barely felt like I’d been away seeing everyone again.

Next day we were up bright and early to get the train to Cheltenham for the wedding. Again was great to see everyone there. I was one of the witnesses for the marriage, and Ninja congratulated me in the groom speech for successfully managing to sign my own name. After all, it is a task I have been known to fail!

I did my best (although I think I could have done ‘better’) in trying to uphold the tradition of someone wearing a loud awful tie for a mates wedding. It was Jamie who started this tradition at Statto’s wedding by wearing a tie he wears anyway but thinks its tasteful. Ninja bought one especially for Jamie’s wedding, and Al would do it for Kris’s.

Due to the prevalence of pointing photos in my blog, Jamie insisted I had one of me pointing at the happy couple, so here we are.

Jet lag was occasionally causing a bit of an issue during the day but managed to successfully drink through it. Was a really good day and really enjoyed it, but after breakfast and a walk the next day, I had to go as it was time for the ‘see the parents’ leg of the trip. Course, as soon as I met my folks I hit the wall and slept most of the way home in the car. Must have been because I stopped drinking.

Only had a couple of days back home but had a nice day out with the folks and Richard and Dawn, and again was good to see family as it had been 9 months. But having arrived in the UK on Friday lunchtime, by Tuesday lunch it was time to get a train back to London to get a flight to Singapore. Still managed a couple of cheeky pints with some more people in London before heading to the airport though. So it was then onwards to Singapore for a kind of stag do for Kris. It was only me, Al and Kris and it wasn’t Kris’s official stag do but we had to take Kris out and get him smashed on behalf of the UK crowd. Thanks to Al for the following guest blogging

Well, I’d like to tell you what we did on the stag do, but frankly most of its very hazy. I can remember 2 things in particular. The first was at a bar where all the seats were wheelchairs. The drink came via drips, via the mouth before you ask. By this stage we were already well on our way and took great amusement in trying to race and bounce into each other. The staff found this less amusing. About the last thing I remember was seeing some stacked wine glasses and a fountain of some spirit cocktail being lit. Thanks for that Woody and I hope you enjoyed the one we subsequently got you. Seemingly there were 2 bars afterwards, but this was only confirmed the next day after Pete found some bar receipts in his wallet.

Anyway, we stumbled home, ordered home delivery McDonalds and instantly fell asleep before it arrived. Pete and I passed out sitting on the sofa upright, Woody flat on the floor. Pete later woke up and took great pleasure in taking photos of me and Woody asleep. Bizarrely, Pete then decided to go to sleep. On the floor. Later I woke up, confused to see both Woody and Pete sleeping on the floor (not together - PB). But not confused enough to realise that meant there were 2 beds going spare. Rising the next morning we took much pleasure in the thought that Woody was now blacklisted by McDonalds, following the 6 missed calls during the night.

Anyway, there were several bars, minimal food and we managed to spend a lot of money. Well, precisely all the money the UK people gave us for Woody’s wedding present….ok, we did replace it all later.

The stag do was a cracking night - I’m assuming this by the fact we can’t remember it all and felt like death the next day. Luckily me and Al had decided not to get the early flight to Laos the next day (we probably wouldn’t have made it). We were still up fairly early to get to Woody’s new flat (aka the new marital home) as he was getting new furniture delivered. More time was spent lying on the floor feeling ill, although this time there was no furniture to lie on so we didn’t even have a choice. We had a macca’s breakfast to try and recover, although obviously this was not delivered.

Then it was off to the airport to fly to Laos.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Fiji: Sea, sunshine, tropical islands….and a military coup

As Easter is a long weekend, decided to make the most of it and go somewhere, so me and Al went to Fiji. You can’t do that at Easter back home! Flew into a place called NadI, which is a 4 hour flight and two hours ahead, so by the time we arrived there wasn’t time to do much so we sat on the grey beach, had a few beers and enjoyed the afternoon rainstorm.

Next day we got a boat out to Mana Island. Fiji is made up of lots of small islands, many of which aren’t much more than some beaches, trees and a few places to stay. Pretty nice. Went kayaking in the afternoon and much like when I did it in Sydney, my inability to paddle consistently resulted in me going round in circles and ultimately the toys coming out of the pram again. Really must learn to kayak properly sometime. But as usual, the main objective was to try and splash as much water into Al’s kayak as possible.

There was one slightly hairy moment. A plane was coming in to land and we assumed it was just going to the airstrip on the island, but it seemed to be coming in a bit low. As it got closer realised it was a sea plane and it was heading straight for our bit of water. With my kayaking (lack of) ability there was no way I was going to get out of its way so it was a case of hoping it wouldn’t land near us. It obviously didn’t land near us as I probably wouldn’t be writing this, but it was looking interesting for a bit!

The hostel we were staying in was right on the beach so it was nice in the evening having some food and drink and generally just chilling out. The hostel put on a bit of a show where we got to watch various Polynesian Island dances and some bloke juggling fire,and we chatted to some of the other people in the hostel there were two Scandinavian looking girls. The conversation went something to the lines of “So where are you from?” “Norway.” “And what do you do in Norway?” “We’ve just finished high school.”

Next morning we went out with the hostel’s dive boat to a reef and while others dived we snorkelled. Saw a few sharks which was pretty cool. Were slightly worried for a bit as the boat disappeared and there are stories of snorkellers and divers just getting abandoned in the middle of the ocean.

After snorkelling for a while I started feeling a bit queasy, and this got progressively worse until I ended up treading water while being sick. Lovely. Still, I’m sure some fish would have ended up eating it. Probably would have made a nice change from normal plankton.

Felt much better but on the motor boat back to the island started feeling a bit iffy again, so ended up having round 2 hanging out the side. Anyone who has ever done this will know that it sprays upwards so I was hanging out as far as I could without falling out to avoid spraying it all over one of the aforementioned Norwegian girls. I managed this just, and amazingly according to Al nobody in the boat seemed to know what I was doing!

The moral to this story is obviously don't go snorkelling at 9 in the morning, nothing to do with alcohol consumption the night before.

We decided to head for another island after one night on Mana. Annoyingly because everyone wants you to go on their boats nobody tells you anything else, so we got a boat back to the mainland, then found another boat to take us to Bounty Island, but on the way stopped off at Mana Island about 100 yards down the beach from our hostel, so we ended up wasting 4 hours or so. But never mind.

Bounty Island was similar to Mana - small and not much there, but nice. The water was warm and clear, so did some swimming and snorkelling (where I managed to avoid being ill).
That’s pretty much all we had time to do though as we had to head back to the airport. Did have time though to buy some awful Hawaiian style shirts. They seem to be the only thing Fijian blokes wear, so it only seemed right to buy a couple. I’ve only worn one out in public once, but do wear them round the flat a bit, much to Nadia’s disgust!

At the airport, we saw the headlines on some of the newspapers and it turns out that the day we arrived there was a military coup of sorts. What happened was something like...a couple of years ago there was an actual military coup, and some General had been Prime Minister ever since, but the day we arrived the Judiciary had deemed it illegal and said he should no longer be in charge. The President’s response to this was to re-instate the General, sack the Judiciary, dissolve the Constitution, censor the press, and cancel any elections until 2014. Australia and New Zealand were threatening sanctions and calling for Fiji to be booted out of the Commonwealth. So Fiji was in political turmoil and we were completely oblivious the whole time we were there! Tourism just seem to carry on as normal.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The first couple of months down under

Four days after I arrived in Oz I started work, which wasn’t anywhere near as much of a culture shock as I was expecting. I also didn’t have too many problems staying awake which was my main concern having spent most of the previous 5 months not getting much sleep because when you’re travelling and not needing to use your brain much you don’t need as much sleep. I could still just about remember how to use Excel too - once you’re sad you never lose it!

Spent about a week and a half sleeping on Al’s kitchen floor albeit on a sofa bed, but after that moved into an apartment in the middle of the city for 2 weeks paid for by work as part of the secondment package. I had the choice of several apartments including one in a big block right next to work, but opted for one 15 minutes walk away as I didn’t fancy being able to see my desk from the window of the apartment. Its bad enough being able to see the building I work in from almost anywhere in the city given the monstrosity that is the E&Y building, so certainly didn’t want it to be the first thing I saw in the morning.

The apartment itself was ok. It was like living in a hotel room that didn’t get cleaned! It only had four working tv channels, two of which were porn channels, and not particularly good ones either … errr … not that I watched them obviously.

Despite not really getting properly lost in over 4 months travelling, I didn’t waste any time here. Walked to Woolloomooloo for drinks one night and it took 15 minutes. But it was light and someone else was in charge of directions. When I came back it was dark and I was on my own, and it took me quite a lot longer than that to find my way back When I found a big stretch of water between myself and the Opera House which was near where I was staying, I knew I’d gone wrong! The worst bit though was that by the time I did get back, Hungry Jacks (Burger King) had stopped serving just seconds before. Devastated…had to go to Macca’s. As one bloke in the same position said “Hungry Jacks has let us down…well f*** them.” Here here.

Anyway, started to look for somewhere to live that week. Looked in Bondi which along with Manly is where most Brits live, but that wasn’t the reason. It is by the beach which is different to London, it is a decent journey to work, and I know a few people around there. Was looking for a flat share as thought it would be a good way to meet new people.

As usual meeting randoms can be interesting! One ad I looked at said

“I’ve got to go away to work for 3 months so you’d be living with my girlfriend. Will post some photos later”

Was tempted to ask if that was photos of the flat or the girlfriend. Turned out it was the former. Another ad posted pictures of themselves rather than the flat, and you could see why as they were two not unattractive girls! Ended up looking at seven places in the end, and only one of those had any Aussies living there, and even then they were from out of town - people from Sydney really don’t live in Bondi.

One place I looked at, the girl was looking for someone who didn’t drink! And I noticed when I went to look round that she didn’t have a tv. Think that one wasn’t meant to be! Ended up living with an English girl - Nadia - in the nicest of the flats I looked at. Less than 5 minutes walk to the beach, sea views from the balcony, even a view of the harbour (just) from my bedroom window.

The day I moved in Nadia invited me to the beach to a one year old’s birthday party (said one year old belonged to one of her friends). Walking back along the beach carrying a plastic lorry for toddlers to ride on wasn’t exactly what I thought I’d be doing when I moved to Sydney! Did have to explain a couple of times though that I wouldn’t under any circumstances be doing any baby sitting!

Top tip though for when you move in with someone you don’t know - don’t refer to them as a “random” in front of them! Oops

Have also done a lot of watching sport, and some playing. Successfully proved that there is definitely an optimal amount of beer to drink when playing pool. Playing doubles with Al’s flatmate Brad, we wiped the floor with various hapless Aussies in some pub in town, playing progressively better as we had more to drink. This never lasts though as you pass the ‘optimal’ and things started to deteriorate. We still won, we just had to rely on dumb luck!

Managed to play football once too, or soccer as they like to incorrectly call it over here. I thought I’d kept reasonably fit on my travels but this said otherwise. An hour and half running around in the midday heat and I could barely move the rest of the day. Or the next day.

So it probably wasn’t the cleverest thing to do to go kayaking in the harbour the next day as sitting in the thing wasn’t the most comfortable. Add to that my inability to paddle consistently, and I ended up going round in circles half the time, and the toys came out the pram (or kayak) on more than one occasion. I even fell out of the kayak once (through incompetence though, not temper).

We paddled from Rose Bay to some nearby beaches, and then we were going to across to Shark Island, a small island in the harbour, but as we set off a regatta seemed to appear from nowhere, and we were surrounded by huge yachts flying by. They would have quite happily driven straight through us too. At one point it was “err, there seems to be a yacht coming straight for me”. Luckily it turned and missed me, but decided I‘d been lucky, so Shark Island was abandoned as too dangerous.

On the subject of sharks, there were quite a lot of shark attacks when I first arrived. They seemed to be happening everywhere including at surfing beaches like Bondi. But nevertheless agreed to go surfing…and what was the top news story while sitting eating breakfast before going … a shark attack that had happened that morning. Still went though and didn’t get eaten … but my surfing ability is still non-existent.

Also managed to play tennis once on the roof of someone’s apartment building in the middle of the city. Very surreal. We amazingly didn’t lose any balls over the side into the road seven storeys below!

Watched a decent amount of sport too. Disappointingly saw the Aussies beat the Kiwis at cricket in a one dayer and in a 20/20. Went to Super 14 rugby union - New South Wales Waratahs v Queensland Reds. Despite it being a local derby grudge match, it was fairly dull like most union games I seem to see. Went to rugby league too, seeing the Sydney Roosters, the team I have foolishly decided to support, lose heavily to the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Not sure what a rabbitoh actually is - I think its just a rabbit, but Australians have to add o to the end of everything. I thoroughly expect to be nicknamed Bezzo very soon.

Also made it over to Melbourne for the Formula One Grand Prix. Was a fun weekend. The cars were amazingly noisy and it is impressive how fast they go and equally how fast they can brake - you don‘t really appreciate this on the telly. We were two or three corners before the finish straight. While it was good, without a big screen it was difficult to know what was going on in terms of positions (there is commentary but you can’t hear it half the time). You know what is going on for the first few laps but as soon as pits stops start and people spin off etc it gets difficult.

Went to Aussie Rules at the MCG the day before the grand prix for Collingwood v Adelaide. The atmosphere was pretty good even though the 90,000 stadium was less than half full. Adelaide triumphed 90-86 so quite close and exciting. When I came to Oz in 2004 I adopted the West Coast Eagles as my AFL team, but was thinking of changing to someone closer to home as Perth is a good couple of time zones away, but having found out that the Sydney Swans hate the West Coast, decided I’d stick with them as it would be better banter! Subsequently found out that the whole of Australia hates the West Coast, so definitely sticking with them!

Since the last time I was in Melbourne a couple of years back, they've got themselves a new viewing tower - the Eureka Tower - so we went up it. (Its pretty much mandatory to go up a viewing tower if there is one). The big gimmick is standing in this pod thing that then slides out the side of the building and the floor suddenly goes transparent and you can see however many storeys down to the street. Lame. But not bad for $12!

Had a few drinks with Russ, another English guy we know, the Sunday night in Melbourne, and what was going to be a couple of quiet ones got a bit out of hand, and we were still in the pub after midnight despite needing to be up soon after 4 to get our flight back. Went straight to work from the airport and suffice to say it was not an easy day. The moral of the story is never go out drinking with people who don’t need to be in work the next day. This is a lesson we should have learnt a couple of weeks earlier, as we ended being bullied by Nadia into staying out until about 2.30am, and on a school night too. She had the day off after too.

Only seen one soccer/football match (delete as appropriate) here as its off season and that was a world cup qualifier at the Olympic Stadium between Australia (the socceroos) and Uzbekistan. Now I want the footballeroos to be at the world cup for the banter if nothing else, but was still struggling to want them to win just on general principle. They won 2-0 in the end and are as good as qualified. Although they will almost certainly beat England if they play them (which they will - World Cup draws like most football draws are fixed - you heard it here first!), they are rubbish. The standard was pretty much what I became accustomed to watching Forest in League One.

Watching English sport is a bit trickier. Six Nations involved going to bed, then getting up at 2am, watching the match and going back to bed. EPL - English Premier League - is on any time from midnight till about 6am. Intend to do the EPL all nighter at some point as I failed when here two years or so ago, but may have to wait for next season. Champions League is do-able as games kicked off about 6.45am before the clocks changed, but now its 4.45 so a bit tougher. Doesn’t exactly set you up for the day! Did that for England v Ukraine though and it wasn’t too bad.

Have also met up with some people I met travelling. Had a few beers with Jason in Melbourne who I’d met in Canada. Kate who I met in Rosario in Argentina and hung out with in Buenos Aires at Christmas is here too to work, and is living in Coogee just round the coast. And Antje from my Patagonia tour came over.

Apparently I didn’t mention Antje’s nationality in an earlier blog so have been asked to point out that she is German (although has a Dutch name). She has lived in Sydney before so was pretty much showing me around rather than the other way round, so went to places such as the Fish Market (had a massive mixed platter), Watson’s Bay and the Botanical Gardens. Was a nice weekend.

So that’s pretty much the first couple of months in Oz.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The sad, geeky stats summary bit

Come on, you knew it was coming, after all Microsoft Excel geek is my job title! So since last September when I left the UK (which seems a very long time ago now) I have travelled over 31,000 miles through 9 countries over three continents not including the start and end points, England and Australia. Ok so two of those countries – Brazil and Uruguay - were only day trips but still got the passport stamps! It would be ten countries if you count the fact I was in US waters at one point, but that is pushing it! I have now visited a total of 34 countries - 35 if you count the US...and 36 if you count the People's Republic of Tooting! See map for full route

I was away for almost four and a half months, which was 19 weeks or 135 days. By Andy McBean’s calculations (see earlier blog entry) in that time I would have spent over 40 hours going to the toilet! And you probably don't want to know this, so apologies, but three of those were in one session in a hotel room in Cuba, something that could be verified by Wim, my Belgian roommate, who could hear the whole episode through the wall. Poor guy is probably still mentally scarred.

I took a total of 14 flights, quite an impressive carbon footprint, and countless bus rides. The longest bus ride was only 23 hours which is pretty lame really compared to some of the rides that can be done in South America. Its bizarre, in the UK there is pretty much no way I’d even contemplate travelling by coach under normal circumstances, yet double figure hours duration journeys became the norm. The buses are better certainly in Argentina and Chile though.

Bolivia was my favourite place – did some enjoyable things you can’t really do anywhere else and met some good people. Chile was probably my second favourite place as really enjoyed San Pedro de Atacama, Torres Del Paine and Pucon. But there wasn’t anywhere I actually disliked.

I wouldn’t pick any one moment as being the best, but highlights would probably be

- Canada – the wapiti having a wander round our bus - Cuba – the whole time was just great fun with a great group

- Costa Rica – carrying the baby turtle to the water, and getting variously attacked by monkeys and racoons was pretty funny

- Ecuador – getting to the top of Cotopaxi, riding on the roof of the train in Riobamba, and the first day in Galapagos seeing so much stuff

- Bolivia – the slat flats trip was amazing scenery all the way and the mine in Potosi while scary was not something I’ll ever forget

- Argentina – the atmosphere at the Boca game, and in town when they won the title and the spectacular view when you first see Iguazu (although that was from Brazil!)

- Chile – sandboarding in San Pedro, the scenery in Torres del Paine, and Pucon generally from the people who were there to sliding down the mountain to the relief of finishing the hydrospeeding.

And travelling on my own was brilliant too. Won’t deny I wasn’t a little bit anxious about it before I went away, but ended up meeting so many people; barely spent any time without someone to talk to. Staying in hostels it’s pretty impossible not to meet people if you want to, although you do end up drinking too much because you inevitably end up drinking with whoever you meet! It was just really good meeting and talking to so many different people all the time. There are disadvantages to travelling alone but these were vastly outweighed by the good stuff.

Was also a bit anxious about not speaking any Spanish when I left beyond yes, no, please and thank you, but getting round was also much easier than I thought. I probably had get-by Spanish by the end in that I could always sort out what I wanted – food, accommodation, bus tickets….haircuts – without any major problems. English was spoken by some but I tried to have a go in Spanish in the first instance when I could. And at no point did I have to shout loudly in English about three inches from someone’s face to get them to understand me, a tactic that has been known to work in Europe (because everyone understands English if its spoken at the right volume) but with limited success in Latin America!

Now I just need to get used to not travelling, i.e. it's no longer ok to wear the same clothes for several days. On a couple of occasions when I was getting laundry done having not done any for a couple of weeks, I would have seven or so t-shirts that needed washing, yet could only find two pairs of boxer shorts that needed washing. Oops!

So the whole thing was great and really enjoyed it (and is much better than work!) Will have to start thinking about where to go next now!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

One last attempt to hurt myself so I don't have to go back to work

Not happy with having escaped death doing hydrospeeding, I decided one last attempt to hurt myself was appropriate; work was after all just over a week away and I had to try something to get out of it! I did canyoning in Costa Rica, and wasn't very good at it for no good reason really, so decided to give it another go. The tour agency had two trips on offer, one was river trekking and the other was rappelling down waterfalls, so signed up to the second one.

Turned up the next day only for the agency to realise that they'd booked me on the wrong one, and the one I wanted had left an hour ago. So had to postpone until the next day. Caught the bus to the Parque Nacional Huerquehue instead and walked around there. Was quite picturesque with forests and several lakes. Walked about 17km in 5 hours.

Next day did manage to do the canyoning though. The guide explained that we would rappel down three waterfalls, one 7m high, one 10m high and the other 85m high! Yikes. We were given wet suits, helmets and gloves and off we went. The 7m high one was a bit tricky because it was so slippery and did lose my footing and swing into the rocks once. The 10m one was ok, but el Puma was saved until the end. The first few steps were quite tricky as you had to put your feet in pretty exact spots, but after the first 10m you couldn't touch the rocks and was I just lowering myself down a rope with a really spectacular view. Pretty cool - I even dared look down a few times! Was great fun and glad I did it, and was in properly in control of my descent mostly, so a big improvement from Costa Rica.

Chilled on the beach for a couple of hours after the canyoning. While I was on the beach there was an aerobatics display by what I assume was the Chilean equivalent of the Red Arrows which was pretty good, especially when it looked like one of the planes was just falling out the sky towards the beach before the pilot the took control again. A big military helicopter also flew by a few times.

That night I left Pucon on an overnight bus back to Santiago. Would have loved to have stayed longer as this was one of the most fun hostels I stayed in on my whole trip. The people in my dorm were really good fun too. Sarah and Damien were kind of like two characters from Father Ted (description courtesy of Wikipedia): "'John and Mary O'Leary', a married couple who own a hardware shop on Craggy Island. The pair utterly hate each other and are constantly insulting and devising ways to maim and kill each other, yet they behave like a happily married couple to Ted." Brilliant. Charlotte was French but spoke in the best English accent any of us had ever heard (and one which we had never heard an English person talk in!) There were two English girls, Nicki and Susie, who were a good laugh too.

One night, Damien got asked to leave the room because he was snoring so loud so had to find a sofa. Next morning, there was an inquest as there was a crescendo of snoring going on apparently. Susie pleaded guilty and asked for two counts of talking in her sleep to also be taken into consideration, but outrageously I got accused too, allegations I strongly deny! And it was never proven! It was a really good laugh. I was sad to leave Pucon because it was a nice town, there was loads of good stuff to do and met some great people.

Got the overnight bus back to Santiago and generally just spent a couple of days wandering around. Did the walking tour suggested by the guide book which takes you via some of the main sites, then went up Cerro Santa Lucia, a small park in the middle of the city that gives pretty decent views over the city. The view from Cerro San Cristobal was even better though, as I got the funicular railway then a cable car to the top. Did an open top bus tour the next day to get a bit of history and see some of the more suburban parts of Santiago. Got off at the Museum of Fine Arts but didn’t really last long in there! Spent the rest of the day chilling on the roof terrace of the hostel before going to the airport to get my flight to Sydney.

Check in was slightly hairy. I was travelling on a dodgy student ticket as this saved me about a grand and a half, but that wasn’t the problem. For some reason the ticket wasn’t electronic so I’d been carrying around a paper ticket for my whole trip. It was still in tact, but apparently wasn’t actually a ticket; arguably I should have noticed this by the words “void for travel” plastered all over it. The check-in woman seemed to also be concerned by the lack of visa in my passport for Australia. If there was a problem with the visa work had organised, then I would have tried to organise an electronic tourist visa which tragically would have prevented me from working. But in the end she seemed happy that I had a visa and not bothered by my lack of proper ticket (although not sure why this wasn’t a problem), so I got through.

The plane was disappointing to say the least as it was the worst entertainment system ever (short of it being broken). 18 hours of flight and a choice of six films according to the brochure, but in reality one wasn’t anywhere to be found and four weren’t even remotely watchable. The airline was LAN who I flew with to Easter Island - what happened to the choice of 44 films they had on those planes? I’d almost planned what I was going to watch too. Luckily I managed more sleep than I normally do on flights.

We landed at Auckland at about 3am and were kicked off the plane. After a brief moment of panic when I got stuck in a toilet cubicle with an electronic lock – it took several attempts to get out – I was on the way to Sydney. Arrived at 7am, and I got through customs in no time, surprising considering I had ticked “yes” to five out of 11 boxes on the customs declaration form. But they weren’t concerned about my wooden moai from Easter Island, the mud on my shoes, the fact I’d come from South America, or anything else and pretty much waved me through.

It was nice to arrive at an airport and not have to size up the chances of the taxi driver robbing you, as my employers had laid on a car (there is probably less risk of that in Australia than the places I’d been the last few months). The driver was a bit late, and proceeded to tell me he was up late the night before. He didn’t say if he was drinking or not, but decided it best not to ask! Got dropped at an internet cafĂ© where I could leave my bag while I went to purchase some work clothes, as due to various cock ups, my stuff that was being shipped over would arrive almost three weeks after me. Was pretty much sorted by lunchtime though, possibly my most successful shopping trip ever! I did though say "si" and "gracias" a few times - being in an English speaking country for the first time in 4 months will take a bit of getting used to again!

It was really hot when I arrived, so after meeting up with Al went for swim at Bronte, then had an $8 steak at the pub, the first of many hopefully. Over the next few days, went for a couple more swims, watched some English sport in the middle of the night, and went to the one day cricket game between Australia and New Zealand at the SCG. Unfortunately Australia won but it was a good game. I might be here for two years but I have no intention of supporting Australia at sport, at least not most of the time, and definitely not at cricket.

The cricket was the day before my first day back at work and had it been a typical day at the cricket in England, I might not have created the best first impression next day. There have been times where I was struggling to even talk the next day after a full day session at the cricket. But aside from the fact I deliberately took it easy, this is Australia, where all they serve at cricket is mid strength beer, so all that happens is you go to the toilet a lot and run out money. The likelihood of getting drunk is slim. This was a big problem when I was over here in 2006/07 watching England take a 5-0 thumping in the Ashes – you need full strength alcohol and plenty of it to watch England play cricket. But in this case it was nice to enjoy the game and actually remember it.

And that was that, back to work!