I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Can't sleep. Birds will anger me.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a news item on BBC Breakfast. It featured some pigs. My reaction was to shout KILL THEM WITH BIRDS.

I blame Phil.

As it goes that's twice I've blamed him for something this week. The first was for getting me to enter a half-marathon next April; this time it's for me being the UK's number one Angry Birds HD player. So that's the iPad game, not the iPhone one. Here, let me show you.

total score national leaderboard 3rd nov 2010
See that there 'dsf' is me. I've got the best score, as logged in the in-built online leaderboard system "Crystal", in the UK. I'm also 12th in the world.

Fuck me.

It's not down to Phil that I'm (currently) the best in the UK, of course. But it is down to him that I played the game in the first place. Back in mid-June a mate and I went to Warsaw for the Big Four Sonisphere debut, and we stayed in Phil's flat. The morning of the day of the gig, after a fucking huge night's drinking, out came Phil's iPad for us to have a play with. Actually just for me to play with; Chris refused to touch it because he knew that to touch was to want and to want was to buy. iPads ain't cheap.

I, on the other hand, was convinced I had no use for one. I touched, thinking, what use is this device? I don't like ebooks. What else can this thing do? So I had a bit of a browse, a bit of a tweet, a bit of a play with the UI. Yeah, it was alright, yeah, the keyboard wasn't as bad as I expected, yeah, it was shiny and pretty, but ... meh.

"Here, have a play of this".

Angry Birds HD. Level one. What do I do? Just fling the bird from the catapult to try and kill the pig and destroy the stuff around it. Oh, OK. *fling* *squawk* *oink* *snort* *crash* *cheer*.

Ooer. This is fun. This is lots of fun. This is lots and LOTS of fun. Yes, I know the gig starts soon, but look, I just need to get through the next level. And maybe the next one.

We made the gig, and it was fucking awesome (though Dave Mustaine's voice is shot to pieces now), but that was it. Seed sown. I needed an iPad. Even the fact that I pulled a few days later didn't detract from the fact that I had to play Angry Birds HD. My justification for this utterly frivolous and profligate purchase was this: it was my birthday a couple of weeks later.

First, I played through the levels. It was enormous fun. I stayed up 'til all hours playing it, and gave it 90 minutes or so each morning before work too. Then I went back to 3* every level -- though before managing this, I lost my save game and had to start from scratch, grr. I 3*ed everything, I checked my scores, and I was in the top 20 worldwide for each episode. Yay me!

Some terminology: when you fling birds to kill pigs, you're playing a level. The levels are grouped in 15s or 21s into worlds, which themselves are grouped 2 or 3 to an episode.

So, there are a lot of levels. Yet on a combined basis, I was pretty bloody good at this.

More levels came out while I was on holiday, for 2.5 weeks, without my iPad. Whoa! Got back and 3*ed them all in moderately short order. Things changed on the scoreboards, and you could now see your overall place, all scores combined. And I was getting higher, because I'd gone back to the start and played each level again until, on most of them, I eked out anything from a few hundred to tens of thousands more points (such improvements causing me to shout GET THE FUCK IN or HAVE THAT YOU CUNTS quite a lot).

I took a break... to play Angry Birds Halloween HD. No leaderboards for that; universal opinion is that it's a harder game. I 3*ed every level in 3 or 4 days.

Back to the original. By now I was checking my position on a per-episode or per-world basis, spotting where my deficiencies where -- because that was also where the most points available to me were, clearly. And I saw something I could achieve, a natural target: I wanted to be number one in the UK.

10 or so days ago I was about 170k points behind that guy. Firmly in number 2 spot, a good 170k or so ahead of number 3, the only way was up. I got to about 140k behind.

The bastard played it some more. He was 200k ahead.

I've put in about 20 hours of it in the past week I think. Maybe even more. Playing the same old levels. Figuring out where my 3*s resulted from getting a score only just above the threshold, thus meaning there was a lot more available to me. Hitting shots which gave me an extra 10, 12, or 15k on a level. Realising I'd missed out an entire world on my first rerun. The points came thick and fast.

Suddenly I was 120k behind.
Then 80k.
Then 40k.
Then 12k.
Then 6k.

Then last night. Fuelled by 5 post-work pints, I was simultaneously determined to not go to bed until I was number one, and pissed and drowsy enough that I almost missed my stop on the train on the way home. But I had to get there.

Then 500 points.

Then half an hour of frantically starting a level, throwing a bad shot, giving up. Picking levels at random. I'd completely forgotten which levels I had mentally noted were ripe for a few more points. I was just going all over the show, on the verge of achieving this desperately sad ambition...

... *fling* *squawk* *crash* *oink* *snort* *cheer*

An extra 1k.
500 points in the lead.
UK number fucking one.


I don't think, in my entire life before or after today, I will ever be the best at something in the UK in such a public and measurable way. The only score charts available are on Crystal, and I top them. It's a game that millions of people have downloaded and played, and of the hundreds of thousands to have done so on the iPad, I am 12th best in the world and best in the UK. In this insignificant (yet fun) sphere, I currently fucking own. Awesomes.

I know exactly why I like Angry Birds. The reasons are similar to why I like Guitar Hero so much, or pinball. Not to the exclusion of other game types, but these are, to me, games of pure skill. You have a task, this task is always the same, and you just have to do it. You don't have to do lateral thinking, you have no AI opponents, you have no real opponents, you just have a start point that's identical and an aim: to do better than you've done before. And because of the lack of opponents, because it's not a match with a win/lose outcome but only scores, and because there are no external factors weighing on what happens, games like this are the perfect experience of practice, improve, practice, improve, practice, improve. And I like improvement.

Like my newer hobby of running, fuelled as I am by times and distances (as well as weight loss and stuff), I am competitive against one main competitor: me. Beating me is what's most important; conversely, losing to me sucks. And if I can then, after beating myself repeatedly, look up, survey the landscape and see that I'm better than everyone else? Well fuck me, I call that an achievement.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Three months, 27 minutes and 51 seconds in the life of darrenf

I finally got my sense of achievement.

Warning: in what follows I lay on the misery and emo melodrama thicker than an Ed's Diner milkshake. But this isn't a negative post: I feel amazed, proud, impressed, happy; also, humbled and indebted. All because I did a 5km fun run for charity the other day, on October 24th, in 27 minutes 51 seconds.

We'd only been going out a month or so when Ellie told me of her theory -- no, her belief -- that pretty much anyone can run 5km, and she can teach them how. I say "pretty much" because we obviously discount people with proper physical barriers to doing so, but your common-or-garden fat fuck like me was a definite candidate. In 3 or 4 lessons she'd have me running 5k in one go.

I scoffed. Not like scoffing a pie (though, actually, I may well have been doing that at the time), but like pshaw, tish, pish, balderdash and piffle my dear. Not everyone can run 5k, I said. I can't run 5k, I said. See I've got dodgy lungs, have had forever, dad smoked 60 a day when I were a nipper and I've got bronchitis. Hospital one Christmas time when I was young, inhalers, steroids for me lungs. Broken. So, no, you won't get me running 5k, I said.

Bollocks, she said. Listen here, she said (I'm going to stop with this "I/she said" crap soon). Anyone can run 5k. The fact that I can walk 13 miles fucking proves it. All I needed to do was learn technique, to take her up on her offer of lessons. Thus the mutual challenge was laid, both of us wanting to be right... though, of course, I didn't really want to be right. I wanted to be fit enough to go running (I could write quite a lot about sibling jealousy/inspiration here, but I won't), but I honestly and genuinely believed it would, or could, never happen.

It's not my place to comment on Ellie's motivation for taking me on as a pupil. I think and hope she recognised that I wanted to do it, and didn't think I was doing it just to (try and) impress her. Though I certainly wasn't wanting to fail, I did expect to... (Ooh, lots of italics)

July 25th 2010. My first lesson. For the first time since those fucking horrible road runs at middle school in which I always came dead last, I went running.

We're not actually sure how far we ran because the GPS in use (my Sony Ericsson Elm) was, we later discovered, a load of horse shit in terms of accuracy in tracking. But it does seem that, er, we ran 5k. On my first attempt. And it didn't kill me.

She's good, is Ellie (she's great, in fact). We walked briskly to a local park; we did warm-up stretches; she got me running slower than walking speed. It's about technique, see. Running is a gait, not (necessarily) a speedier version of or progression from walking. It's just different. That's it, that's lesson one: this is how to run, slowly, on flat ground.

One lap in, my lungs were sounding like shit. I thought maybe I was going to be right. So did she. I was wheezin' and rattlin' and making all kinds of noises. Thing is, I sounded like it on the second lap too. And the third. Because, as it turns out, my lungs just sound(ed) like shit. That's all. They work. They're not awesome, but they work well enough, and fuck me if I hadn't just run 5km. I was amazed and happy and high and proud and all that stuff. We went out and celebrated with awesome Mexican food and then beer; I won at pool, and Born To Run came on the jukebox.

The high lasted all day.

And then, back at work, I came down. Hard.

See, it all came too easy. I did it first time. I thought I was embarking on some kind of project, lasting few weeks at least, a journey from zero to 5k. But I did it straight away. Running wasn't easy in itself, but what I mean is, it just took one attempt. Now this isn't Guitar Hero, where I love playing through entire games just once and never putting the disc in again, 5*ing every song as I go. I was expecting, and (despite what I may have claimed at the time) wanting, it to be a challenge. I wanted to work for it. I wanted that feeling of doing something repeatedly and improving, improving, improving, striving for and attaining a goal. The fact I just turned up and did it started to piss me off.

What's more, I felt daft and a bit miserable and regretful about the past. I'm a fat unfit fuck. I never believed I could be otherwise, and I never felt like anyone else had thought I could either. That was me. Occasionally I'd gone through periods of weight loss, and of doing a lot of walking, but it never really made me feel fit. I used to play a lot of table tennis too, but that was, well, just me playing games. Suddenly I kind of felt like I'd wasted a lot of time being unhealthy without properly knowing it didn't have to be like that. I'm not a stupid bloke, but I felt bloody stupid. It should have been a "wow, OK, I can get fit!" high but I looked backwards instead of forwards.

There's a standard anecdote I wheel out on occasion about my family: mum couldn't swim, didn't have great skin, and was great with money, whereas dad was an ex-RAF physical training instructor plus inveterate drinker and gambler. My brother and I are very much the products of our parents: he got the fitness and fiscal prudence, I got the bad skin, drinking, and gambling. "Who got the better deal?"

Anyway, lesson 2 had hills. None of Ellie's prior pupils had ever managed the hill twice in their first attempt, but I did. Again, I ran 5k. Again, the surprised happiness and pride was shortlived, replaced by another bout of, oh, so it's actually easy, even for me. Why the fuck did no-one tell me this before? The bigger sense of discovery was about the wasted time, not that I had this ability which I should take advantage of.

I can't half be a miserable fuck sometimes.

A couple of weeks later, I went out for my first solo run (my first one fueled by negative emotion too, for that matter). I hated it. But I ran again not long after. And again. And again. Sometime in August I went for 6 runs in 9 days (I also dropped in a 13.1 mile walk home from work). And toward the end of the month, I decided I needed a target. I entered a charity race, for 2 months later, deciding that by then I would run under 30 minutes.

I should say here that I'm under no illusions that I'm a decent runner or ever will be. I know 30 minutes is a very modest time. But considering I was running 34-36 minutes I thought it was realistic. I like realistic targets.

Then, still in August, I ran 31:08 and 31:20. In early September, while coming down with a cold, I ran 30:59. Huh! 30 minutes by late October was going to be a breeze, I thought...

Pride comes before a fall. I couldn't get close to those times again. People and The Internet led me to believe I would be enjoying running soon enough, but I was convinced I wasn't. Nor was I losing weight. My times weren't improving. I took part in some organised races having discovered parkrun, yet I ran slower, despite being given the impression that race situations would improve my speed. I was kind of fucked off by all this. I wasn't enjoying it, so I needed motivation, and the only one I could think of was times. I play games, I like scores, and I want to score better. My role models told me to ignore times, but they themselves care about them, so, y'know...

For a while I tried to just treat running like a chore which had to be done, like washing up -- "if I want to be less fat I have to do this", and hoped I would then at least enjoy the feeling of having got that day's run out of the way. It didn't work. No, I needed scores, and I had a plan to improve them. I was going to Australia on holiday, taking my kicks, and would run sub-30 before I got back god-motherfucking-dammit. I knew I'd have loads of spare time and that Sydney and Melbourne are full of good running. 29:xx would be mine upon my return, a full 10 days before the race.

It wasn't. On my first run, I was so slow to 5km that I thought, OK, I'm not that knackered so I'll just keep running, see what a 45 minute run feels like... and actually carried on for an hour. 8.26km. Slow. Again came the temporary high of having done something beyond what I'd done before, again came the longer low of, oh, so running for an hour also comes easy.

I ran 5k. It was slow. I did a lot of walking, including hills, and got some moderate sense of being fitter than (ever) before, which was positive. Then I went to Melbourne and stood in the MCG surrounded by tens of thousands of runners, 10ks and half-marathons and marathons, feeling pretty shitty about myself. Everyone looked so pleased (except my bro, who was fucked off at only running a marathon in 3 hours and 7 minutes for fucks sake), yet muggins here who'd never run in his life 2 months previously was fucked off because he couldn't knock a minute off his PB.

The following morning I went for another anger run. 3 weeks until the charity run and I had still only broken 31 minutes once. I had never run a single kilometre under 6 minutes, yet somehow I had to run 5 of them back to back. So I set off around the park running as fast as I could, desperate to get a sub-6 minute kilometre under my belt and see how I felt after that. But I didn't even manage one. I ran 30:54, a personal best for sure, but only the tiniest slither had come off and it was still nothing close to my target. 3 days of my holiday left and 2 weeks 'til Kempton.

Next day I ran 10k. You know how this works. First attempt, first success. Except... there was a glimmer. The downer didn't really happen. I kind of hurt after the run. My legs knew they'd done some work. Sure, during the run I'd been miserable as fuck -- in particular I remember an almost physical sensation of being punched in the stomach when I first looked at my phone to see how far I'd gone, convinced it was about 4.5km only to discover it was 3.3km. I felt like crap and dreaded the fact I had so far to go.

But at the turn, I felt OK. I thought, fine, I'm just doing the same as I've already done. There was a 200 metre stretch or so where I had the wind blowing hard directly at me, which was unpleasant, but towards the end of the run I was even speeding up. I finished on a high. I, uh, might have enjoyed it. The pride and the happiness stayed. The reaction from my bro, no, the repeated reactions from him, because he takes so many attempts to take information in (yes, I ran 10k. yes, in one go. yes, in 1:06:11. yes, me. yes, 10k. yes, 1:06:11...) delighted me. I like making my bro proud. I like making Ellie proud. I felt pretty good. And I came back to the UK.

On the Saturday, I did another parkrun. I was better than before, felt better, was even hard for Ellie to catch up at a couple of points, but still not close to sub-30. And then, and then...

Sunday. Another anger run. Angrier than before, almost than ever before. Not just anger related to running. I was in a desperately low and hateful mood. And I ran 29:23. So, er, 90 seconds off my personal best. What the fuck? Where did that come from? I'd actually set out to run 10km and had no intention of pegging it; I guess the adrenaline just fuelled me. But fuck me my mood was so low that the high was shorter than ever. I did it. Great. So what? I was on my own, miserable, bored on a Sunday afternoon, going back to work the next day after 2.5 weeks off. I texted Ellie and posted my result to the internet, but got no reactions from anywhere until quite a while later, which in my parlous state was too late to make me feel any good about myself. I convinced myself it was a one-off. Fine, my body has it in me, but is it repeatable, will I do it when it matters, at Kempton? Will I fuck as like. After finally running sub-30 with a week to go, somehow my confidence was at its lowest yet. Miserable twat.

I didn't run (and hardly slept or ate, but that's a different matter) for the next week. Skipped parkrun the day before. Went to Kempton. Ran 27:51.

What. The. Fuck.

I didn't realise how fast I set off. If anything the kms seemed to be arriving slowly. I didn't check my watch and Ellie was carrying my phone. I was struggling hard at the end, the last km was pretty tortuous. Yet even that would have been a personal best for a single km prior to that day. I ran the first 2 both under 5:20. How the hell did that happen? But I don't think it was a fluke. Sure I need to run another sub-30 to say that "that's my time", but my body can do it, has done it.

Like a score on my xbox 360, I only need to do it once to get the (sense of) achievement. And doing it by such a margin, on deadline day, when it really mattered to me, I finally got it. I get to say "go me!" and mean it. Go me!

My bro and everyone else who listened to me bitch and whine and moan about how my running was going when manifestly it was going well. Would I listen to them? Would I fuck. Sorry about that.

But I owe the most to Ellie, who has (figuratively) added a string to my bow, and given me a way to get and keep fitter and healthier. That's awesomes (yeah, you heard me, plural). She also had to put up with a boyfriend and pupil full of all the complaints and shit that I've detailed up there, having no clue about my largely involuntary beat-myself-up technique for self-motivation. Like I said: awesomes.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

a week in Sydney

I'm going to give a somewhat digested account of my time here in Sydney. Anything fuller would involve a lot of recounting episodes of The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad. Yes, I watched a lot of TV...when it worked.

On arrival day I managed to stay awake until about 4pm. Walking the dogs was basically the final straw. I slept in 3 sessions, about 3 or 4 hours each I guess, interspersed with films and sport on TV (the Ryder Cup was on, the only exciting golf event there is). The hotel was OK-ish. I mean, the room was nice enough and the TV was a big moderately fancy flat screen thing mounted on the wall. But it was mounted badly, with a huge inset way bigger than the set and all the wires and stuff protruding. And it hadn't been painted. Also throughout the week it kept breaking -- hotels don't tend to provide normal TVs, but ones which are permanently "tuned" to something provided by a computer, with promotional clips of the city and access to pay-per-view porn and stuff. Well, the Diamant's computer was fucked a lot of the time. They gave free internet access to everyone in lieu (I already qualified for it). For the first few days the connection was about as reliable as the one in Istanbul airport had been.

The hotel had no bar, nor kitchen; room service was only provided from 6pm-10pm each day, with pasta/pizza or Indian food provided at a premium from a couple of local restaurants. I had pizza and cheesecake twice during the week and they were bloody nice. The minibar was an auto-charging don't-touch-what-you-can't-afford thing, yet when I checked out earlier today I had only been charged for 2 beers instead of the 5 or 6 I had throughout the week. Go figure.

The bathroom was nice enough. No bath, just a walk-in shower. The view was of a tower block and 24hr convenience store. There was a Holiday Inn about 20 yards away that I'd have stayed in if I'd known about it (translation: I didn't do my research well enough). Mind you, if I had done my research I'd not have stayed in the Cross at all: lots of hobos, mutton, seedy strip joints, and backpacker places. I wish I'd stayed in the Rocks.

Australia loves pies. I love pies. Harry's Cafe de Wheels does ace pies; I had tiger pie and mash and peas. Mmm.

Sydney is a gloriously picturesque and beautiful city. I went for a couple of runs along the harbour front around the Domain and the Botanical Gardens and the Opera House and through Circular Quay to the Rocks. Beautiful. I managed to run for an hour non-stop, by going slow, then stupidly convinced myself that this meant I was getting better in general -- so when I dismally failed to get anything close to a personal best for a 5km 3 days later, I got really pissed off. Seems all I proved was that if I do it slower, I can do it for longer. Well, dur. I could say the same about any other chore, like washing up or whatever. Ho hum.

On the Sunday, it rained. A lot. But only while I was outside; while we were having breakfast at Bondi Beach, and later on inside watching the NRL Grand Final (supporting St George, of course) it was dry. On Monday it was a nice morning until I left the hotel to meet me bro and niece for breakfast, at which point the heavens properly opened and we got soaked. Exploration of the Cross cut short we went for breakfast next to where his "car" was parked, got undercover, and the rain stopped. And, to be fair, it mostly stopped for the rest of the week at that point.

Monday afternoon I did some tourism. We went to the Middle Head fortifications, and then to HMAS Sydney at Bradley's Point. We walked along the foreshore about 2/3rds of the way to the Taronga Zoo wharf, stopping roughly at a point where there was a sign to it. At that point, quite literally, we were asked for directions to it by a couple of tourists. We told them it was that way, they said "well, you agree with the signs, so that's 2 opinions", but the fella still seemed strangely reluctant to believe it was correct. Very odd.

On Tuesday I went to Cronulla. Not for long, initially; I had planned (and told people) that I would be getting the ferry to Bundeena, and then going bushwalking in the Royal National Park. But instead of that, I opted to do the coastal walk to Kernell and Botany Bay Park, Cook's landing spot and the birthplace of modern Australia. Online I'd seen a really vague guide to doing this in reverse and figured it couldn't be that hard. Actually I originally tried to do it as the page had described, but the first instruction was "get the 987 bus from Cronulla" and I couldn't find a stop for it.

So, I walked along the path next to Cronulla beach until it started to kind of head vaguely inland and pavements disappeared on the edge of town, at which point I went onto the beach itself. Walking on soft deep sand is hard. I only managed it for a couple hundred yards before fighting my way up a dune towards a path and a nature reserve. The path was grassy and rocky for a bit before I was soon clambering over dunes again. My legs were really getting a workout.

The ocean was never far away on my right and this felt correct, from what I'd read; all I had to do was hug the coast and I'd end up at Kernell. After a while I was in full on scrubland, and followed a couple of random paths towards the beach until hitting dead-ends and beating a retreat. Parallel to a barbed-wire fence, erected while they do dune stabilisation work, I carried on until hitting what I later learnt was Boat Harbour beach, one of the most polluted in New South Wales. At the time I was a bit freaked out; having turned a corner, I was presented with a view of various shacks, trailers, caravans, like a stereotypical redneck US desert community. Each had an Australian flag hoisted. I got as close as I dared while feeling that I wasn't about to end up getting shot, having discerned no route off the beach and back into park on the other side. So I followed the sand/road out, round the back, and... ended up on a road. With no pavement. Right seemed to be the direction I wanted, so that's where I headed, past a desalination plant and lube dock and all kinds of other industrial units. Bleh. When some form of civilisation loomed ahead, I'd convinced myself it was going to be nowhere near where I actually wanted to be, and just wanted there to be a bus stop so I could get back somewhere sensible.

It was Kernell. Huzzah! Followed a few roads all named after Cook or something about him, and ended up at the park. I'd been there before, in fact earlier this year, on my last full day in Sydney. And like that time, I went to the kiosk and bought a Golden Gaytime. Heh. Snigger. Got the fabled 987 back to Cronulla and at one point passed one of those signs you get outside churches and schools, where they change the message all the time. Like the one outside the church in the Simpsons. This was outside a school, and it said "Congratulations to all year 13 students on completing 12 years of education". Now, I'm no expert in schools, and I know how confusing they are in the UK where even neighbouring London boroughs can't agree on structure and naming of years etc, but really, year 13 means 12 years? What kind of off-by-one nonsense is that? Meh.

Back in Cronulla I went for beer at Northies, the "safest in the Shire" back in 2008. Nothing special, but after walking 13km beer was definitely required. My legs and thighs did hurt.

My bro had most of Wednesday off and I'd decided it would be a rest day so far as exercise was concerned. Which kinda meant the 11km walk including loads of hills (but crossing the Harbour Bridge, yay!) most of the way towards his house was a bit daft. However, it did mean I accidentally ended up at a great place for lunch, for fish, chips and beer. Walked the dogs, did family stuff, got the bus back into central Sydney then failed dismally to walk back to the hotel and ended up buying a train ticket to go one stop.

Thursday, my 6th day in Sydney, I finally got a boat. The Manly Ferry is the best waterborne public transport I know. 30 minute ride through the harbour and ends up at a beach on the Pacific Ocean (pretty much) and a Bavarian Bier Cafe where the beer is, fucking hell, £7.95 a pint. Ouch. I walked the length of the beach and back, had just one drink, and formulated a plan for the afternoon. Inspired by a suggestion from Ellie in the morning, I resolved to buy a book (Nothing To Envy, about lives in North Korea) and then go sit in the Marble Bar at the Hilton for a couple of hours, nursing a beer or two and having a read.

The book, which I later ordered for £4.99 including delivery from Amazon UK, was priced 35 Aussie dollars. That's about £22. Screw that. And the Marble Bar was shut for a function until 8.30pm. Oh. So my plan was in tatters and I just wandered around the city, up to Town Hall, around to Darling Harbour, along the back streets to The Rocks, got to the Fortune Of War but just didn't feel like a drink by now, and went to get a bus back to the hotel. Gave up waiting after about half an hour and got a train instead. Was kind of annoyed that everything got scuppered. And even on this genuine rest day from exercise I'd managed to walk ~10km.

I'm kind of bored of Sydney. Visiting my family is great, but meh, this is my 5th visit and on my own, with stuff to miss at home, stuck in a hotel in an area I didn't like, in no mood to drown any sorrows (or drink alone in the evenings for any other reason, tbh), I was often bored when the days finished. Which was at about 6 or 7pm. So I watched a lot of TV.

I've had 3 nightmares in the last 8 or 9 days. The one on the plane, when I woke up at the point of being scimitared through the eyes by BMX-riding muggers/thugs somewhere in South London; one where I was some kind of investigative journalist in North Korea who stumbled across these terrifying graves of people whose flesh had been melted off their bones, and their bodies dismembered, and we got caught by the authorities while trying to escape; and the one this morning, where, um, let's see... I had volunteered to help out with the website of some sports club (I can't actually remember what sport it was), then left early to go for a drink with someone from that club. We were in Waddon, they led me to Croydon and then just fucked off, leaving me to find my way back. I was familiar with the area but couldn't find my way, wandering around the back streets of having encounter after encounter with chav thug scrotes and just about escaping them until finally getting shit beat out of me (and then waking up). I don't like these dreams. It's kind of rare for me to remember dreams at all, let alone 3 in a week and certainly not 3 nightmares. Oh well.

Palm Beach, the Barrenjoey Lighthouse, and the Newport Arms are glorious places. Basically the northernmost part of what could be considered Greater Sydney (it's 40km north of the CBD), there was a peninsula with beaches both on the ocean and inland, a nice steep climb to the lookouts, a mediocre pint of Guinness and a magnificent burger. Such was Friday, my brother's response to my "I'm kind of bored of Sydney" statement on Thursday, his successful attempt to show me stuff I'd not seen before and was unlikely to ever get to on public transport. Followed swiftly by his admission that that's now me lot, I've basically done everything he can recommend for me. Hopefully next time I visit I won't be on my own, and/or I'll make it two 2/3 day visits with a side-trip to New Zealand or summat in the middle.

I'm in the Qantas domestic terminal at Sydney airport as I write this, waiting for QF435 to Melbourne. Never been there. May have more interesting stuff to report, who knows.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Sydney, finally

Actually I had no idea how to transit at Istanbul airport either. At Helsinki they gave me boarding passes to Bangkok and checked my bags all the way to Sydney. They also gave me a fast-track exit card for Istanbul, which initially made me worry there was no such thing as transit, and I'd have to pay for a visa to go landside and then go back through. With that in mind, I was initially heartened to see a big "transit passengers this way" sign, pointing at some doors through which was an escalator.

The doors were locked. A Turkish bloke shouted at me, realised I didn't understand, and shouted English at me. I had to walk on down the corridor and then turn right. But of course!

At Bangkok it was a bit easier, though this time around I was wondering how to go about getting my boarding pass for the next flight. First, I went up an escalator and through some security, all without showing any proof that I was actually meant to be in transit. Then I wandered up to a Thai airways desk and handed over my passport. She gave me a boarding pass marked TRANSFER PASSENGER and told me to get to the lounge by going upstairs, to where all the shops were; she also said I'd need to "check-in again later at the lounge".

Upstairs was indeed where all the shops were, but the first sign to the lounge said to go straight back downstairs. I kind of walked in a sphere for a few minutes, up and down between levels while retracing my dazed steps over old ground as I failed dismally to actually find the entrance to any of the 5 or so lounges Thai airways have. Eventually I came to one close to -- and on the same bloody level as -- the transit desk, and sat down with some orange juice. Got my laptop out and couldn't get either to twitter.com nor www.facebook.com, but the mobile URLs both worked. I assumed it was some ham-fisted attempt at censorship. This lounge was tiny, not the one I'd been in before next to the free massages, and with much of the internet I wanted to use being out of action I gave up and went hunting.

As I walked around the airport in a bit of a stupor, I realised one of the reasons I was having so much difficulty compared to last time I was there (when, indeed, I went straight to the lounge I was looking for) was because that time I'd been sober as fuck. This time I was shattered and probably a bit pissed, or at least hungover. Ah well. I did eventually find the right lounge, and after a bit of food and some caffeine, and some electricity for my laptop and phone, I asked if there were showers I could use. No, there weren't, but there were some at the other lounge(s)...including the one I'd been in first. Fucking fail. I buggered off to a different one, showered, and had beer and sausage and pie. Mmm, beer. Then I went and had a "head and neck" massage which actually catered for the entire upper body, preceded by some odd cold green tea that was disgusting, and a huge argument between the reception staff and a group of women which at one point had the former threatening to call airport security on them. Ace.

Post-massage, I went to the main lounge and asked if I had to be issued a new boarding pass, based on what the transit desk woman had said. They said no, my pass was fine, and that I had about half an hour to spare before I should go to the gate since it was quite a way away. So I had a few solids and another beer, then set off.

The gate was at the end of a different concourse, but still really not that far. I was there very early, again, but at least this gave me the opportunity to witness some real reality TV-style chaos. A family trying to go through the secondary security were being told they had too much alcohol in their bags to be allowed through. They were properly kicking off, having a huge shouting match and bringing out the "where's your supervisor? I want to talk to your supervisor!" guns despite being calmly and clearly and repeatedly told that they'd simply gone over their limit. The family's main defence was some small print written on, er, the generic sealed carrier bags the booze was in, and nothing to do with the rules at either end of the journey. At one point the woman was screaming about it having cost over 200 (Aussie) dollars and volunteering to pour half of it away. Nyers.

Immediately after the boarding pass check there was an Australian official asking questions of everyone. "What's your reason for travelling to Sydney today?" "I'm visiting my brother" "OK, does he live in Sydney? Whereabouts?" etc. I was a bit flummoxed and flustered and gave a host of rambling answers that, miraculously, appeared to satisfy him.

The gate was populated by a lot of Australian families heading home. When they announced boarding, they said it was for people travelling with children, plus business and first class passengers and Star Alliance gold card holders. That basically meant everyone. I had a bit of a scramble to get through some of the few people who couldn't yet board, but then general boarding was announced before I'd reached the gate. Basically it was pretty chaotic. Thank fuck I was sitting in the first row of business class seats so got to duck out sharpish.

The flight itself was kind of nondescript. I had a bit of a chinwag with the oilrig worker sat next to me, the food was pretty good, etc. Thai's business seats are good but not as good as Turkish Airlines, especially as they go flat but not at a 180 degree angle (so at full recline you slip forwards). I watched The A-Team movie, slept for a bit, woke up and watched some crap Jennifer Aniston/Gerard Butler film -- oh christ, Butler's American accent was poor -- and then Get Smart. Oh, the meal service finished with Kahlua, which was nice. But in all honesty, films aside, the flight didn't leave much of an impression. It was a shitload better than my last Thai flight, but I was by this point a bit of a frazzled mess.

Sydney's arrivals didn't help. There are a raft of arrivals in the early mornings, most of the flights from Europe and a few from Asia and the USA are all scheduled to get in in the first 2 hours the airport opens. I arrived at 0715 (because my originally picked flight got removed from Thai's schedule, boo!). Thai passengers are not handed fast track immigration stickers, unlike, say, Qantas, BA, or Air New Zealand passengers. Then someone official said the computer systems were down so immigration was being processed "the old fashioned way", which meant big queues.

Baggage reclaim was carnage. My bag was something like 3rd off, but the queues for customs and quarantine were fucking massive, snaking all around the carousels and full of tired, fractious people. One guy was having a huge rant at some security staff, saying how he'd been there since 6am and the queues needed managing because people were just all out for themselves and stuff. I quietly joined the back of a queue.

After moving not very far, I texted my bro telling him what was going on (he was waiting for me landside), and said that despite the fact I was going to be a while, could he get me a diet coke. Just after this, an official appeared about 5 people in front of me and started to do preliminary checks of our queue's declaration forms. If you had zero food, wood, and all that other bad stuff, then he was stamping the card and sending you to a fast track queue at the other end of the hall. That meant me! And hey presto, I was out.

The whole family were there, Kevin, his wife Sal and my niece AJ. Littl'un got her present sharpish, a reindeer I'd bought at Helsinki Airport. Went down a treat. Plus she'd said my name when I appeared. Huzzah!

The weather was fucking shit. We wandered through the car park to their vehicle of heft, a Mitsubishi something or other which you have to climb to get into and which beeps when in reverse. It's basically a bus. It's preposterous. It's awesome. We drove in the pissing rain to their flat. Travelling done, holiday started.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Wide and long

Yeah. Wide and long. I'm talking about the plane from Istanbul to Bangkok (widebody, long-haul). But first, Istanbul airport.

Like most business class lounges the CIP lounge has separate bits for sitting down to eat, chilling on armchairs, PCs and printers for "working", a creche/kids room, a quiet bit, etc. Unlike most lounges, though, in Istanbul all the different sections are of different designs to one another. I didn't find it particularly jarring, but some do. I couldn't get a space in the comfy chair bit so I was in the more kitchen-barry sit-and-eat/drink part. Which was fine, because much like all my waking hours en route to Sydney, I was eating and drinking. A couple of Efes beers, a lot of frustration with the internet connection, a bunch of pastry goods, and I packed up to go explore the terminal. I was a bit drunk and very angry, pointlessly so, and the wander around outside chilled me out as I forced myself to be less of a cock.

Then I went back to the lounge and got more free alcohol. A mint liqueur, to be precise. Mmmmm.

One of the reasons I took such a circuitous route to Sydney was because I wanted to sample a new airline and a couple of new aircraft. What can I say? I like trying out new bits of comfort, and from what I'd read the Turkish Airlines 77w planes (borrowed from Air India) were supposed to be awesome. They are new, have very fancy seats, great service, but only fly the Bangkok route a few times a week -- and even then they sometimes swap to older planes at a moment's notice. So I crossed my fingers and took solace in the fact that at no point was my seat number shifted (a surefire sign that the plane type has changed) whenever my boarding pass was checked.

Got on the plane and had hit paydirt. The 77W with the awesome seats. With the huge screens and the amazing remote controls and the super-comfort and the just general fucking aceness and win. Christ, I had a thirst on me. The daft cocklike mood from the lounge lifted, replaced briefly with a feeling of remorse for having ever been in it, then that went and I was just back in childlike "this is ace!" and humble "how the fuck do I keep managing to travel like this?" bipolarity.

A bloke who looked like a stereotypical Nepalese Everest sherpar, and who spoke no English, showed me his boarding pass. It had the same seat number as mine on it. He was looking very confused. A flight attendant came along and pointed out to him (eventually) that he was showing a boarding pass from a Helsinki-Istanbul flight (spooky coincidence), not this Istanbul-Bangkok one. He was shunted off, and I relaxed back into my seat.

A chef appeared, and he gave me a Godiva chocolate. Then I got some champagne. Then I played with the controls a bit, noticing the reading light was this crazy little orb/probe thing like something out of a sci-fi/horror movie; I scrawled BUY PHANTASM/II on my pad.

People on planes always associate beeps with the seatbelt signs. After take-off, the first beep always seems to cause lots of people to unbelt and stand-up; the same happens after landing. But those beeps are different, they're the single beeps which always -- through observation -- seem to always mean "crew, do your stuff". And they don't coincide with the seatbelt lights going off, an event which does coincide with a different kind of beep. Why doesn't anyone else notice this? Christ, I can be so anal at times.

A flight attendant gave me some slippers and offered me a paper. Also some toiletries and a choice of magazines. I declined the reading material, and started watching a Korean movie called Blades of Blood. I wrote THIS IS AWESOME in my bad, followed closely by CHEESE AND COGNAC. Think I was in quite a good mood at this point. I also wrote "you crazy bloke", because I thought it was quite a funny line from the subtitles in the film, and then "Stop writing" because, er, the film was subtitled and I was missing too much through writing all these notes.

The first offer of drinks was a choice between orange juice or a cocktail, but both looked the same and I picked the OJ. The attendant gave me a real, er, are you sure? look. Guess I seemed to be the kind of person who likes his alcohol. Not sure how I ever give that impression. No siree.

Fuck, the food service was awesome. A menu with my name written on it was presented; I had to order breakfast in advance, like in a hotel room where you tick boxes and shove it on the door handle outside. I had salmon then soup then ravioli then dessert chosen from a trolley wheeled through the cabin by a chef, who prepared and served the dish on my table. I remembered not being as impressed, mind, as I was with the short-haul meal a few hours previous, but as I write this my memory of the long-haul meal is fonder. Perhaps it was the presentation; definitely as an overall experience it was shit-hot. Especially because it finished off with the aforementioned cheese and cognac.

Watched some Simpsons episodes, then fell asleep for 3 hours or so. I woke up from a nightmare, which was slightly influenced by the swordfighting movie I'd watched before, but mostly it was a normal chase nightmare and it was fucking horrible. I was convinced it was a recurring dream, but that feeling went away within a few minutes of waking up -- like I dreamt that emotion. Fucking odd. Perhaps all this travel and alcohol and exhaustion was getting to me.

Breakfast was OK. The Simpsons episodes were new (2010 vintage) and unseen by me. An episode of National Geographic's World's Toughest Fixes was entertaining. I think this was the first time I'd ever been on a long-haul flight and only watched one film. I broke the screen by stowing it at the end, and had no idea how to be a transit passenger at Bangkok airport.

Friday, October 01, 2010

HEL ain't a bad place to be

I didn't eat reindeer. I ate a bowl of peanuts and a chicken+bacon+bbq sauce sandwich (which was, actually, gorgeous). I also didn't have vodka, being too scared to ask how much it was after reading the beer menu.

I know as much about Helsinki and Finland as I do about Seoul and Korea. Which is to say I know what it's like to stay overnight in an airport near the hotel, doing nothing but free shuttle bus / hotel bar / sleep / free shuttle bus. Occasionally I think to myself, Foreman, what the fuck are you playing at? Go and see these places you twat. But then I think, meh, I kinda like doing the in-and-out passport stamp box-tick incursion. Because those are the only reasons I've been to either place, really; that and the expedience (by which I mean cost saving) of flying through each city rather than a more direct route.

So. The Holiday Inn Helsinki-Vantaa. My room was basic, small. The shower is just a slightly dipped part of the floor with a hole and a curtain. It was also massively powerful, and I kind of maybe sort of broke the switch which turns it from normal shower to power painful jet of doom. Perhaps. The TV had more channels on crap quality analog than half-decent digital, and BBC World rolls its news every 30 minutes or so these days. Bah. BBC Entertainment wasn't very entertaining. I fell asleep catching up on videos from vbs.tv (there's a 3rd series of Thumbs Up, in China! Yay!) before going to the hotel bar.

It was €7 for my first beer, 400ml of a Finnish brew whose name I can't recall. Not Lapin Kulta though; that's what some of the Swedes who pitched up to buy beer for their sauna visit got. €7 is about 6 quid; 400ml is 70% of a pint. The Guinness was €8,20 for a 440ml can. The Budvar Dark was the same price for a 500ml bottle. Finland is not a cheap place for the sauce.

Slept for 8 hours or so, which is unlike me. Skipped breakfast, preferring instead to just loiter in my room listening to music until check-out at midday. Before leaving the UK I had thought I would make use of the hotel gym on both Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. Meh. Bothered. I think that was the first hotel room I've ever stayed in which didn't have a clock, either a bedside thing or summat built into the TV.

Back at the airport courtesy of another almost-empty trip on FREE BUS, I checked in immediately for my flight. This despite worrying I'd be stuck landside a while because the website led me to believe check-in might not open 'til 90 minutes before departure. They sent my bags all the way through to Sydney, but I could only get boarding passes to Bangkok. Last leg wasn't yet open for check-in. Directions were given to the lounge, including the warning that it was at the opposite end of the terminal and in the Schengen area, but the flight was leaving from a satellite gate in the non-Schengen bit requiring a bus ride out to the plane.

Had beer. And some kind of salad stuff which claimed to have shrimp in it but didn't. Free wireless worked fine. It always does in airports, right? Oh, no, of course not.

Heeding the check-in girl's warning I set off moderately early to the gate. There was a long queue at passport control between Schengen and non-Schengen, but I realised after a minute or so that it was for the "all passports" line; the EU/EEA line was empty. So I scooted through unhindered. Was at the gate way too early. Bah.

They announced boarding, and said business class and star alliance gold passengers could board at their leisure, in the separate line. But they didn't open up this separate line for 10 minutes or so, and when they did I was the only person to use it. As promised we were bussed to the plane, which was parked out on a stand, nearest the gate the lounge was next to. Bah. Thought for a while I'd be the only person in business, but eventually there were 2 of us. Or 6. I got confused by row 6.

Take-off was delayed by 30 minutes. I had champagne. Food service started pretty promptly once airborne and I can say without hesitation that Turkish Airlines do the best short-haul business class food I've ever had. Not that I've masses of experience with short-haul business class flights (hmm, BA, Qantas, AA, think that's the lot) but really, this spread rivalled some of the long-haul meals I've had. I've got photos which I'll put up soon. Though photos of plane food really is a niche interest...

I realised onboard that Helsinki is the furthest north I've ever been, and on the way home I'm transitting Auckland, the furthest south I've ever been. That and a circumnavigation; I am really putting in a shift on this trip.

With the post-meal beer in hand, I tried to recline my seat. It went with a jolt and I only narrowly escaped full-scale spillage disaster. Twat.

Put my mp3 player on. I'm trying to be good, and not fast forward tracks I don't like in a knee jerk fashion. Open my mind a bit. So far this plan is doing nothing but make me hate wedding dress music even more than before. Ebony Ark and Epica are just dreadful, dreadful bands. Fell asleep with music on; woke up to a Righteous Pigs song about dying in a plane crash. Awesomes. Why am I sleeping so much?

I made a note on my mp3 player that I need to make more notes on my pad, so I can write more that I remember. But now I'm looking at this 'ere post and thinking, shit, if this is how much I write without proper notes, how bored are people going to get reading the rest? Fucking hell.

I took lots of photos of clouds, and experimented with the fake HDR and "commercial" settings. I also have an HDR photo of my face, which may or may not be made public. The Black Sea looked nice, as did the Bosphorus.

Istanbul airport was way more impressive, modern, airy, and large than I remember it being from the last time I was there. I found the CIP lounge and got angry at the wifi. Many many people had iPads, more than I've seen on commutes in London. I guess Angry Birds is a worldwide phenomenon.

Right. I need a shower and a massage and to buy something for t'missus and then to get back on the sauce. Oh, one last thing: you can fly from Helsinki to Tallinn. Yes, there's water in the way, but there's a regular ferry service. A 63 mile flight just seems ridiculous.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

the wifi in the Turkish Airlines CIP lounge at Istanbul Airport is fucking useless

I was going to write a blog post, but it has just taken me 15 minutes or so to bring up the "new post" page. I am epically annoyed. The internet access here would be quicker if I wrote URLs on scraps of paper, handed them to a street urchin to go get someone in central Istanbul to bring the page up, print it out, and bring it back to me. I swear I had more reliable and faster access over a mobile phone in 1999-2000. I would rather there was no access than the promise of some, only for it to be frustratingy slow, fluctuating in strength, with periodic complete drops in service. Also it said it would be free, yet there was no "click here to get your username and password" link as promised by the instructions. So I paid. After paying, I got booted off. When I eventually got back online, the link was there. But, of course, I'd already spent my cash by then.

Fucking fail. And Turkish Airlines were doing so well up 'til now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

the road to HEL

Ooh, a bed. I like beds. I slept in one last night, and as I type I'm lying on the one in which I'll sleep tonight. It's Wednesday 29th September 2010, and I'm in the Holiday Inn Helsinki-Vantaa, a hotel close to Vantaa airport which serves Helsinki. I'm sure you could have figured that out from the name.

Tomorrow and Friday night I will not be sleeping in beds.

Well, I guess I will, kind of. Not proper beds, but big fancy seats which kind of turn into beds, in the business class cabins of Turkish Airlines and Thai Airways planes. This is assuming I get the types of plane I'm expecting (and, in fact, deliberately engineered my trip to try out). Unfortunately both of these airlines are moderately notorious for swapping out their planes at late notice, so I'm just keeping my fingers crossed for now.

Aaaaanyway. I'm in Helsinki. This morning I was in Surbiton. This is how I got here.

Last night I booked a cab for 9am today to take me to Heathrow terminal 3. This morning a cab turned up at about 8.43am ready to take me to Gatwick. Score minus one for Mogul Cars, Surbiton.

Cab driver was friendly but boring and didn't really want to talk. Think he thought the same of me, but really I was just finding him sort of hard work. So instead I had conversations over SMS and twitter. Some of the SMSes were keeping up with t'other Darren, who happened to also have a flight from T3 this morning, leaving 35 minutes before me. We'd arranged to meet airside for a pint and some breakfast before making our way to our respective gates.

Check-in was a bit messy. T'other Darren was embroiled in lengthy process grief with a Virgin agent, while I was foiled by BA's policy of only opening bag drop 2 hours before the flight. I'm sure it used to be 3 hours. Sure.

From check-in to sitting down with a pint took 20 minutes. People bitch about security lines at Heathrow all the time, but even the long lines really don't take that long to get through. This without fast-track, on an economy ticket, etc. Meh. The whole place is a fucking zoo though, so so crowded land- and airside.

Guinness. T'other Darren wanted an ale, which looked like it was going to be Bass on tap until at the bar I spotted London Pride on draught. Phew! Also ordered two breakfasts, and sat back down. T'other Darren then consulted his boarding pass, which said he should start boarding at 1015 for an 1130 departure. You what? Even for transatlantic that seems like a huge lead time. Nonetheless, it was already quite beyond 1015 so he cancelled his breakfast, got a refund, and buggered off.

Unfortunately (and through no fault of his own, just misunderstanding with the bar staff) he also cancelled my breakfast. And I couldn't be bothered to order again, so I just finished my pint and started taking notes. Tell you what, my new pen's nice. Not that it's particularly new -- I was presented with it as a gift on my last day of a 2 week work trip to India back in February, and have only now got round to using it. Interesting, huh? Moving on...

Point is, I was now on me own. When I first started travelling around the world by meself, I took incessant notes and wrote loads of blog posts. I lost myself for 90 minutes just reliving my own trip from September 2006 the other day, and am trying to blog this trip (as you can see). It's all a bit different now: lots of the experience isn't new, and I've got someone at home to think about and miss. Will I be more boring, less boring, will I sustain it? Who knows.

On my last foreign trip, the only way to sustain a useful UK plug-adaptor-wall socket relationship was to construct a banana/travel hairbrush contraption on which to balance the various parts. Since I'm travelling solo and thus have no hairbrush, I figured I'd buy a new adaptor. Yes, I could have bought a hairbrush, but I'd have felt a bit daft doing that.

Gate 24 at T3 is more like a bus station than an airport gate. Especially because you can't board planes from it, only buses. Which take you to planes, admittedly, but still.

I left the UK without Marmite.

BA flights within Europe are thoroughly unremarkable. I had an exit row seat which didn't feel particularly legroomy, but I did think it felt wider than usual. Which actually means I feel/am narrower than I used to be.

The food was an egg and ham roll, in a plastic bag which was all blown up and mine made the loudest pop in the cabin when opened. Had a beer and water to wash it down, then there was a second drinks run. "Did you want another beer?" I was asked, to which I (of course) answered "yes". The bloke next to me asked for a coffee; she said "OK, but you'll have to wait. Beer is easier, see". SCORE ONE (more) FOR BEER.

Other than that, I spent most of the journey alternating between reading the Independent/flight magazines, listening to music, dozing off. and dicking around with the note taking stuff on my mp3 player. My phone has no such app, what the fuck? The Cowon one allows for 60 notes of 200 characters each. The on-screen keyboard is nice, but it could do with the word completion and mis-hit detection that the HTC has,

The approach to Helsinki was gorgeous. Loads of lagoony lakey watery bits, loads of trees and fields, very sunny, it was just all lovely. But I have no photos (even if I had my camera out it was "turn yer devices off" time).

At the airport, there was no-one else at immigration when I went through. Don't know how that worked really, I was nothing like first or last off, and neither hurried nor dallied. Anyway, the guy didn't even stop chatting on his mobile as he waved me through. My bag was 3rd on the carousel and I headed out into a very very empty arrivals bit landside. Couldn't find an ATM nor easily spot my hotel shuttle bus stop, so asked about both at tourist information. I'd walked past the (rather large and obvious) ATM twice. There are 2 slots to put cards in and I chose the wrong one first (it told me so). Odd.

The free bus to the hotel is called "Free bus" and has "FREE BUS" written on the side in massive letters. Handy.

I might go eat reindeer. Except it doesn't sound too appetising. But the Finns do do good vodka.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Round and round

Ooh, I'm going on holiday again. Hurrah! Even considering my travel habits of the last 4 years, this is a fairly crazy trip, and the first time I'll have circumnavigated the globe twice in a calendar year. In January/February I flew London to Sydney via LA and Auckland, and came home via Incheon (Seoul). 2 airlines, 3 hotels, one new passport stamp, nigh-on 24,000 miles (great circle distance). This time beats that.

On Wednesday I'm flying to Helsinki. A new country for me, on a paid ticket with BA. Which means no lounge access, 'cos the days of me having a silver or gold card with them are long gone. However, this is what's known in certain frequent flying circles as a positioning flight: I'm heading to Finland not (just) to tick a box, but because that's where my part cash/part miles ticket to Australia starts on Thursday. It was about the same price to do this as to start in the UK, thanks to Air Passenger Duty and a few other taxes, so I thought, why not? I am indulging my flight geekery quite a bit here. It's quite a journey.

First, I fly from Helsinki to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. Contrary to my brother's eyebrow-raising and smirk, they're actually a top notch airline with real, safe planes and everything. Mind you I've never flown with them before, so can't say much more about their service yet. I'm looking forward to giving 'em a go, not particularly on this leg but on the second leg, which (after 5 hours or so in the lounge) takes me to Bangkok. This is onboard one of the posh new planes they've borrowed from some other airline, which have awesome seats and a bar at the front of the business class cabin. A bar. Apparently their solids are none too shabby 'n all.

Last time I flew through Bangkok I had about 18 hours between flights, so I went off and did a day trip around some temple or other in the city. This time I was meant to have 11 hours, but in fact I only have 6, because the flight I was originally booked on got pulled from the timetable. Bah. Still it's a fairly nice airport to hang around in, especially when there's a free massage available. The problem for me, though, is that I'm now going to arrive in Sydney at 7.15am on Saturday instead of 1pm. Which means I need to try harder than usual to sleep on the plane, and then stay awake all day in the city. Can't even go to the hotel and check-in for 6 or 7 hours! And to top it off, the clocks change in Sydney on Saturday night, giving me an hour's less kip. Not that it makes much odds to me.

That last flight is with Thai Airways, who I've flown with before, but never on this type of plane. Last time I did Bangkok to Sydney it was on a rotten old plane with shit seats and crap entertainment. This time it's on some modern Airbus thing with good versions of both (I hope).

After a week in Sydney, I'm flying to Melbourne with Qantas. Never been there before. And I'm not going solo - all the southern hemisphere Foremans are heading there too, 'cos me bro's running a marathon there on the Sunday. Ace.

Oh, I have dicked around a lot with my return flight. Originally I booked Melbourne to Hong Kong to London, then a few weeks ago I changed it to Melbourne to Hong Kong to Amsterdam to London. Then I cancelled it and instead booked Melbourne to Auckland to LA to London. Hence the circumnavigation. It's a lot more miles this way round, but massively preferable in lots of ways. It's all with Air New Zealand, who are fantastic, and I get back to Heathrow at about 11am, so no rush hour to deal with. This'll be the 3rd time I've flown between Auckland and London and I am proper looking forward to it. Best business class flights in the sky, some would say ... and a huge bargain considering I got it for less than £300 (plus a bunch of BMI miles). That there is full-on win.

All in all, in the space of 15 days I'm taking 8 flights on 5 airlines coming to almost 26,000 miles. I'm staying at 4 hotels, and have 3 or 4 overnight flights. Is NZ2 from Auckland to LA overnight? It takes 12 hours, but lands 8 hours before it takes off. You heard.

Monday, June 07, 2010

North Korean hip-hop

I'm a bit of a Pyongyangophile, by which I mean I'm utterly intrigued and fascinated by the way North Korea operates, projects itself, is based around this massive personality cult, etc etc. I've watched a few documentaries about the DPRK (highly recommend the stuff on vbs.tv), read quite a few articles, and can't wait to see them play in the World Cup.

I particularly love the way their official news agency is at once accusatory, adversarial, delusional, and more eloquent than I could ever hope to be. And most of all I like how they're sneaking hip-hop into their news reports. Here's a paragraph from a recent article, commentating on the ongoing spat about who destroyed that South Korean ship earlier this year.
It is traitor Lee Myung Bak and his puppet conservative group that should be responsible for the said case, apologize for it and face a punishment as it is a tragic product of their despicable sycophantic and treacherous moves and reckless actions for escalating confrontation with fellow countrymen.
-- CPRK Declares Resolute Actions against S. Korea, Korean News Service
A fantastic sentence/paragraph. Beautiful. And properly hip-hop. What leapt out at me when I read this was how Despicable Sycophantic and Treacherous Moves are superb names for rappers; they should make a debut album called Reckless Actions, swiftly followed up by Escalating Confrontation. The latter, perhaps, should be a collaboration with the Fellow Countrymen. I reckon I'll use Despicable Sycophantic as my name if I buy Rapstar.

Hopefully soon they'll issue a statement along these lines:
General Secretary Kim Jong Il today issued a statement regarding traitor Lee Myung Bak and his lapdog supporters in Tokyo and the US, insisting that they could come one at a time or come all at once, and while they might pop strong game, they are in fact nothing but punks. Should these treacherous nefarious and insidious fools keep steppin', the DPRK will not shrink from bustin' caps in they ass. Lastly, the Dear Leader informed party officials that he was close to fulfilling President Kim Il Sung's plans for the reunification of Korea, unveiling a new military strategy document entitled "Pop pop pop goes the nine".
In reality I suspect we'll just get more stories about fruit farms.

(with credit, and apologies, to Grandmaster Melle Mel, EPMD, Das EFX, and, well, just basically everyone I guess)

Mouthy and ethical

I was thinking of starting to write stuff here again. Not for the sake of it; I just need to try and get back into one or two mindsets: that someone might give a crap about something I've written, and/or that I actually do just like writing anyway. It feels like in the last few weeks, allied to a spectacularly busy and productive period at work, my mind is spinning faster than it has for a while; I'm getting all mouthy and opinionated and might as well find an outlet greater than 140 characters every so often.

So, on that note, which twat decided the word "ethical" described a particular way of living? It's a load of bollocks, and it winds me up. Now don't get me wrong, http://ethicsdebate.org/ is actually quite funny (and thus props due to my bro' for sending it in my direction), but I have a problem with the wording. "Ethical" means little more than "living according to a code"; which code is up to the individual, either through choice or belief. Hijacking it so it applies to just one is a load of prescriptive bollocks. See the wikipedia page on ethics for examples of many such codes. I'm particularly fond, on occasion, of a bit of Cyrenaic hedonism:
"Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Even fleeting desires should be indulged, for fear the opportunity should be forever lost.
I could easily live by a code of ethics that supports a religion, or that says raping the environment is fine, or whatever. My ethics are subjective to me. And the irony (if it is such) of stealing the word "ethical" to give it a particular set of connotations -- complete with "the opposite is irrational/bad/stupid" overtones -- is that it's as much a load of bullshit as any religious text.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

from London to Lisbon

I wanted some time away, a new passport stamp -- not literally, but to notch up another country visited -- and a 5 day weekend. So I booked the Thursday and Friday off before the May Day bank holiday weekend, and fucked off to Lisbon.

The flight was about a hundred quid. The hotel was 36 quid a night. This was not an expensive holiday!

Got a bus to Heathrow. It was quicker, cheaper, and less racist than getting a cab. Generally I'll get a cab if I've got a bag I'm checking in, but for a 48hr trip I was rucksack only and thought paying 25 sheets or so to get to the bloody airport, considering the cost of the trip overall, would be a bit fucking profligate even by my ridiculous standards.

I'd printed out my boarding pass at work the day before, so I pegged it straight through security and into the BMI lounge. This is the lounge I'd dismally failed to sample when I flew with Air New Zealand to Auckland back in January, thinking that the generic "Star Alliance" lounge was good enough. And, I mean, it was, I guess... except I now know the BMI lounge has a bar area called "The Local", which stocks bottled London Pride. BOTTLED LONDON PRIDE, d'you hear? A drink of majesty. So I had me one of those, and a bunch of shitty lounge food, while waiting for me flight.

The BMI lounge is near gate 5 (this is in Terminal 1). My flight was from gate 49. This is, quite literally, the furthest gate there is from gate 5. The complete opposite end of the terminal. I left the lounge in plenty of time, in true-to-form bit-nervous-about-arriving-late fashion, and was just about to tweet from the gate about being too bloody early when boarding started. In fact we were all boarded about 10 minutes before the scheduled take-off time, except for ONE woman. She looked proper sheepish as she got on.

I'd never flown TAP before. Here's my impressions of that first flight (since I'm writing this while waiting for the return). Service, pretty friendly. Legroom, not the best. Plane interior a bit tatty. They made some announcement about a Portuguese law limiting the consumption of alcohol onboard, but they went into no more detail and I've not looked it up yet. They were dishing out booze though, so I guess you're only allowed a certain amount or summat. Either way I didn't have any. The food they served wasn't bad, and they did 2 drinks runs (mind you, it was a 3hr flight near enough).

There are no personal screens for entertainment, but there are dropdown screens every 3 rows or so, much like most of these sorts of planes. The picture looked much better than any I'd seen before though, and the moving map showed not only major towns and cities, but shipwrecks, along with their years! WTF? It cycled through the map, some Portugal tourist board stuff, some hidden camera trick the public skits, and a bunch of Charlie Chaplin shorts. Very odd mixture.

The landing was one of the bumpiest and SLAM THE BRAKES ON style I've ever experienced. Most people were gripping the headrests of the seat in front of them. I was giggling. Heh.

As I was disembarking I let a girl go in front of me. She had a bag.

Landside, I went straight to the tourist information desk and bought a Lisboa card. This is like a travelcard plus entry to loads of museums and shit, plus an awkward size and shape pamphlet thing explaining all what it gives you. I got the 48hr version, and went outside to the Aerobus stop.

The girl I let in front of me was there. Without a bag. She got on the same bus, alone (ie no-one else with her carrying her bag). Odd.

As far as I could remember, my hotel was near Campo Pequeno, and actually the bus stop confirmed this, because it listed nearby hotels for each stop. Campo Pequeno was only 2 stops into the journey. Cool. I had no maps of Lisbon, street or bus or metro or otherwise, but I figured, meh, the hotel must be easy to spot, right? Anyway I knew the name of the road it was on. How hard could it be?

Got off the bus stop right opposite the bullring (that's what Campo Pequeno means) and couldn't see the hotel. In fact I couldn't see any hotels. I was on Avenida da Republica. Without a map. So I just picked a random direction, then turning, and ended up getting to my hotel by the shortest route possible. It was 2 blocks away from the stop and round a blind corner, but score one for mapless, unprepared tourism!

The receptionist at the Holiday Inn seemed to go to great lengths explaining to me the rate I'd already paid, as if there was an undercurrent of "you motherfucker, our economy's in the shit and you scored a 2-nights-for-the-price-of-1 deal, and I'm supposed to be happy to serve you, well FUCK YOU". Oh well.

My room had a view. Of a hospital and a train station and some tower blocks. It also had a TV whose channel guide was kind of sort of vaguely accurate. BBC World was indeed on Channel 44, but BBC Prime was nowhere to be seen and Channel 22, instead of being something Portuguese, was the previously unheard of (by me) "BBC Entertainment". Also there was PPV porn. Of course. It's a Holiday Inn!

I chilled briefly, drank my free water, and went out.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Spit Bridge to Manly

Monday 25th January 2010. Kevin had the day off work. I hadn't suffered any jetlag. Time to go for a walk!

This was my 4th visit to Sydney (or 6th, depending on how you count it -- on two visits I've been on 3 or 4 day side-trips in the middle). But it was only the second time I was staying in a hotel, and the first time I've had to fend for myself. Most importantly, related to what I'm talkin' about 'ere, I had to get some public transport BY MYSELF like a BIG BRAVE BOY. Which wasn't something new, come to think of it; what's new was I was meeting me bro' somewhere I'd never been before, namely the Spit Bridge.

I needed a Diet Coke before the bus, so popped in a newsagent next to where they all start from. While I was in there someone appeared basically from nowhere, in a robe, and asked where the swimming pool is. Turns out there's an entrance directly into the shop from the hotel in the building next door. Freaked me out though.

Monday rush hour traffic in Sydney by the bus terminus is mental. Very unpleasant. But my bus was on time and got me to the Spit nice and quickly. There was nothing remotely difficult about getting off at the right place, and in fact I surprised Kevin by getting there so early. He was playing with AJ, but once I got there he got her sorted, shoved her in the backpack, and off we went.

The Spit Bridge to Manly walkway is ace. My type of walk: a boardwalk, mostly signed, a feeling of being miles away from the city despite being in the centre of it, water, trees, wildlife, a half-decent climb, and it ends at a Bavarian pub next to a ferry port.

Not much to say about it that other sites can't say better. But I can show you a picture of an Eastern Water Dragon, one of the many that we spotted en route.

Eastern Water Dragon
AJ was well behaved pretty much the whole way, as I recall. The climb around the head was a bit more than I expected, but that was a good thing. Part of the walk goes past a beach and park which Kevin and Sally had taken Ruth and I to, back in 2008, which was my first Golden Gaytime experience. Yum. But this time I just stuck with water.

The weather was pretty grey, which was actually perfect. It meant I didn't get any decent photos (wildlife notwithstanding), but it also meant I didn't get sunburnt or die of dehydration etc. By the time we finally reached Manly, me bro was more fucked than I was, blaming the fact that he'd carried a backpack with his daughter in it the whole way. I pointed out this only just about made him weigh the same as me, but he legitimately countered with the fact that he's not used to weighing that much. Bah.

I love the Bavarian Bier Cafe at Manly. I think I've been there on every trip to Sydney (when you count them as 4). This is at least in part due to the fact that the Manly Ferry is yet to get boring, what with it being a superb picturesque 30 minute boat ride in Sydney harbour with ace views of, um, everything, and it just being public transport. Nothing special about it. Manly itself is actually not part of Sydney, or something...I could look it up right now but can't be arsed, but my understanding is it's not a suburb like, say, Wimbledon, but actually a separate place like, um, I dunno. Woking? Except it's better than Woking, because it has a ferry and a huge beach on the Pacific Ocean and a Bavarian pub and no fucking pikey-ass Wetherspoons.

The first time I went there because "you've never been here before, the Manly Ferry is a box to tick and there's a Bavarian pub there". The second time was exactly the same reason, but aimed at Ruth instead of me (that was the best visit; there are photos of our crazy drinks and my bro attempting some kind of schnitzel challenge somewhere). The third time was because I wanted somewhere nice to have an angry drink by myself because I was hurting lots -- though the bar staff took my Oktoberfest 2002 t-shirt to mean that I was German and felt homesick. No, not German...

This visit was because we needed some calories after the walk. Of course there are abundant choices in Manly of places to sit and eat/drink, but I wanted to go here because it's a Bavarian pub for fucks sake. AJ was ... less well-behaved than she might have been, but not awful. Most thing stayed on the table most of the time. I showed off my fearsome beer knowledge by recommending we drink Stiegl (it is a great lager), and then we got the ferry back.

I don't recall what the rest of the day consisted of. I suspect I just sat in my hotel room dicking around on the internet, and then watched a load of tennis. Those things happened quite a lot o this holiday.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Birthdays in Sydney

Kevin's birthday was better than mine, even if it, too, didn't go according to plan. See after a couple of beers on his last night as a 39 year old, we were headed for one more when he got a call from Sal (who was already ill herself). AJ had a cough and she was worried. Kevin hot-footed it back, and the party for the following day was called off. The following day being my bro's actual birthday, though the party was really all about the nipper having turned 1 a few days previous.

So, in the absence of a party in the park, there was a gathering in their house. Which turned out to be much the preferable option anyway, as it was 39 degrees celsius outside but air-conditioned inside. Alex had been to the docs in the morning and the cough was diagnosed as, er, just a cough. Pfft! I got to Willoughby about 1130 and immediately started making headway into the huge amount of breaded goods in the kitchen. Sal's folks were there, plus her sisters Mara and Jo; but they all left to go elsewhere at about 1pm. A couple of Kevin's mates came over later in the afternoon and out came the beer. We played with the dogs briefly while fetching more beer from the cellar; toys were assembled or inflated; friends went, family returned; Thai food was ordered (and some of it was HOT); Eddie Izzard DVD was watched; I got a lift back to my hotel.

Sunday went like this: walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, met Kevin who was exercising Rowlf in a park underneath the north end in Kirribilli, walked harbourside past Luna Park and a couple of beaches, wandered through a park and up some steps, found somewhere to eat breakfast, struggled to keep Rowlf under control while we munched. Then we walked back to their house. Littl'un was still coughing, Sal was a bit better. Rest of the day was spent chilling, I got me a bus back to town in the early evening (having forgotten it was Sunday and not looked up the timetable, upshot being I had to wait a fair while).

Monday was much more interesting. So I'll write about it some other time, as right now I need to get my shit together and go get on a plane to London. OZ521 ICN-LHR seat 6k if you're interested.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A long 'un round the wrong 'un

Wow. Did I really used to blog all my travelling? 'cos I'm trying to write about this trip and finding it pretty hard. Everything just seems so fucking dull. So, y'know, I wouldn't really bother reading on if I were you.

My cab to Heathrow turned up 10 minutes early. What kind of cab driver does that? Thankfully I was ready to go. Air New Zealand check-in was great, considering I was being an awkward bastard. I was flying the return portion of a paid (ie, with money) Auckland-London ticket, then immediately starting a miles-bought one way, err, Auckland-London ticket. With a stopover in Sydney. I asked if they could check my bags through to Australia and they did; in fact they went further than that, and checked me in and issued my boarding pass for the flight across the Tasman. Quite surprising, to me, considering it was Wednesday and that flight wasn't until Friday afternoon. "We like to do things properly", she said. She also said that seat 1A was Victoria Beckham's favourite seat, but if she happened to be on NZ119 on Friday I needn't worry about getting kicked out.

The Star Alliance lounge at Heathrow terminal 1 is a pretty fucking pedestrian affair. But of course there's free grog, and I had my first alcohol of 2010 there. 20 days in -- probably the longest I've ever gone without a drink and without being on medication since 1992. I could have gone to the BMI lounge as well, but I couldn't be arsed moving. Some other time.

My flight was from, I swear, the furthest fucking gate possible. Bah. And because it was US-bound, I expected a lot of hassleful secondary security checks since the failed pants-bomber bloke at Christmas caused another round of jerking knees. And indeed there was a secondary security checkpoint there, but I was waved straight past it. Not sure if that's because I was flying business class, or if they were just being selective. Anyway. Took advantage of priority boarding and got on the plane, then changed seat to 5k 'cos a couple wanted to sit in 6k and 7k. Dunno why really -- you can hardly class any of the seats in the nose as "together" apart from 1A/1K. Oh well.

I was at least 10-15 years younger than everyone else in the cabin. I also appeared to be the only one travelling alone, which did fucking wonders for my self-esteem.

Air New Zealand have the in-flight entertainment running on the ground, gate-to-gate. So I started watching Zombieland before take-off. Good film, I liked it. I also wrote "Zombieland needs to be a film" on my pad, which seems a bit fucking stupid. Clearly I meant video game. Public Enemies was my next choice, and I was thoroughly disappointed with it, so didn't even try and struggle against the urge to doze off.

The starter for the meal was the nicest beef I'd ever tasted. Later, when I was looking back at the menu to properly note down what I ate, I saw that it was actually duck. You should all FEAR and RESPECT my appalling, unsophisticated palate. This is why I should never go to fancy restaurants which cost £350 a head.

They dimmed the lights and a bunch of people slept. Why? It was a daytime flight: 3.45pm departure, west-bound, 7.15pm landing. Even for those of us carrying on to Auckland, it made no sense to kip on this flight.

Third film was Whatever Works. Larry David's so full of win. There's a death metal gig scene where the band is called ANAL SPHINCTER. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Inglourious Basterds was, hmm, well it was OK I guess. Better than Public Enemies. I like Brad Pitt. Why did I write "Piers???" in my notebook? I wasn't even drunk.

I gave up on films. Listened to some of the radio channels. HATED the DJ's voice. By fuck I cannot stand strong Kiwi accents. I also watched a bunch of the moving map stuff, 'cos it's a bit fancy, certainly in comparison to the BA one. They didn't turn it off while we were over the USA, again contrary to expectations.

Lots of Simpsons, an entire season! Kept dozing, which was starting to annoy me, as I wanted to save my sleep for the second flight. HELP ME, MAYONNAISE!

At LA I had to go landside in order to go airside so that I could use the business class lounge. Thanks to the huge fail that is US airport security, this took me, er, a total of 35 minutes. From still being on the plane to being in the lounge. Customs, immigration, security, the lot. Why does this stuff get such bad press?

Couldn't get a shower in the lounge, too busy. So instead, I drank vodka. 42below Kiwi fruit flavour. Gorgeous.

The flight left LA at about 9.30pm local time. Still Wednesday 20th January. THE PAST. This leg was taking me to THE FUTURE, from GMT-8 to GMT+13, landing at 0715 on Friday 22nd. Take that, Thursday! I fell asleep before take-off, basically as soon as the security demo was done. One of the attendants woke me up to ask if I wanted to eat; I didn't, but now that I was awake I turned my seat into a bed and laid down. Had about 7 hours kip, possibly the most I've ever had on a single flight (though it wasn't uninterrupted). I was awake when we crossed the international date line: one moment it was 5am on the 21st, then it was 5am on the 22nd. Timezones are so full of win.

At Auckland airport it took 7 minutes from still being on NZ1 to get through transit security and upstairs to the lounge. I had breakfast - fruit and stuff. I also had beer, and took a photo of myself I actually quite like. I would have had vodka but they only had Smirnoff and I'm a snob. Grabbed a shower, another beer, sat in the "no mobiles" section and glowered at the prick who walked into it chatting on his mobile really loudly.

Victoria Beckham didn't kick me out of seat 1A, but a bloke did ask if he could swap. His colleague was in 1C while he was in 1F. I shunted across. No biggie. Man, I put away a LOT of Steinlager on this flight. The attendant just kept bringing me new beer, already opened. "Oh, you're dry!" and "I got a stash of them for you". Definitely pissed by the time I arrived.

It was 35 celsius in Sydney when I landed. The train to the city is not air-conditioned. Nor was the station. Carting my luggage while wearing a long-sleeved hoodie was perhaps not the best plan. I was a sweaty mess by the time I got to my hotel, but that didn't stop them merging my two bookings (6 nights paid for with points, 3 with cash) and upgrading my room. Sydney Opera House view! 42 hours, 4 timezones, 3 flights, all done. Got on the blower to my brother and went for beer. Hello, Sydney!