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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Exchange student

My cash card didn't work. Again. I'm a bit confused - last time I came to Sydney I got an alert by SMS the second I tried to use it abroad in a way that was flagged as fraud. But here, the machines were telling me there was "no account link" or some odd message. I didn't understand, but Kevin had lent me a couple of hundred bucks and besides, most things are expensive enough to get away with using a credit card anyway, So of course, I went ahead and spent $63 on a weekly everything travel card as soon as I left the house, 'cos I didn't want to only get buses, but also ferries, including the Manly Ferry. That's Sydney's primary public transport tourist attraction, a half hour ride across the harbour. Lovely.

En route to Manly wharf I'd discovered that, contrary to my brother's assertion, something was different to two years ago: there are now readily available burritos without having to trek all the way to Bondi. Hurrah!

Had a slow wander around the CBD once off the boat, reacquainting myself with everything and lamenting the removal of the Sydney monorail. Heavy sigh. Stopped for a bit to do an official notification of travel to NatWest, in the hope that my card would start working the next day, and walked up to the Apple Store.

The AUD:GBP exchange rate got steadily and steeply worse every visit between 2006 and 2012, but in the last two years has got a bit more friendly for us Sterling wielders. While the effect on booze is that a pint in Sydney is now only in the £5-6 region, a much more pleasing and bizarre effect is that Apple kit is much cheaper than in the UK. So, I bought an iPad Air, 64gb wifi only slate grey, served up by the very happy smiley apple employee who was delighted I knew what I was on about. This model is £559 in the UK, and $799 here. According to my MBNA statement this has translated to £444, and what's more I'll get the GST (=VAT) back when I leave the country, which is another £40. So £150 saving, well worth it. What's more, this also was the catalyst for my plan to leave my existing iPad behind as a family hand me down present. Worked out nicely IMO.

Another thing I wanted to buy was a hat. As everyone knows, I have an enormous head and "one size fits all" is a lie where I'm concerned. I lost my Micky-from-Snatch trilby in Rome and wanted either a replacement, or a baseball cap, cos wandering around with a beanie on in 25°c+ every day was getting real old. In The Rocks, Sydney's historic bit near the bridge, there's a tat shop which has on two previous visits managed to stock caps which fit, but alas, not this time, So then I went to The Rocks Hattery, a hats only shop. And no, nothing fucking fit me.

All this had only taken me about 3.5 hours - Sydney centre is not big. I jumped on a boat, just for the hell of it, round to Darling Harbour, and as I approached Kevin called to see where I was. He came and met me, and we got the bus back home. The kids were there and chaos ensued. It's mealtime and bed time for a 2yo and 5yo, after all. Once the girls went to bed me, Kevin, and Rowlf the hound went walkies, first to retrieve the people carrier and second to go on a bit of a scavenger hunt around where the rich people live and discard perfectly good furniture, printers, paintings, antiques, etc by the roadside. The chair we were after had already gone to an earlier hunter, bah.

Top Gear came on the box, during which I claimed star in a reasonably priced car is done at Brooklands near where I live. In the course of proving myself wrong on the internet I discovered that Brooklands is a fantastic place I definitely want to visit, with an aerospace and bus museum, and a Concorde you can get in, and how the fuck have I lived in Surbiton for 13 years and not known this? So the day ended, my 10th away from home in my 4th different foreign country, with the realisation that my doorstep is awesome. DOING TOURISM RIGHT.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


My debut Nothing To Declare appearance did not materialise. As it turned out, I got through Sydney arrivals quicker than ever before: no chaos at the carousels, no quiz at quarantine, no issues at immigration, no cameras at customs. An absolute and amazing absence of Australian airport alliteration. Which meant, as it happened, that I was out landside before Kevin had made it there to pick me up. Good. I could have a nice sit down.

"Hey, mate, how you going?" came the half London, half Aussie accent over my shoulder. Hurrah! Kevin! Hurrah! My nieces were there too! Dressed fantastically as the gruffalo and Spider-Man, like a golf matchplay score Harry and Alex have moved from 0&2 to 2&5 since I last saw them. Uncle Darren, uncle Darren! I did smile. Heeding the request made before I realised I'd be there first, Kevin bought me a diet coke and the four of us trekked back to his huge bus of a people carrier. It was about 7am but the girls were already dressed for, and excited about, their party at 1030 - but before that we had to break a toll booth attempting to leave the car park, and then go to Maisy's in Neutral Bay for some massive breakfasts, banana bread, and for Harriette to lock the door from the inside, taking us all hostage.

I couldn't finish the breakfast at all. The hangover was actually kinda gone and I rehydrated a lot, plus I was just excited to see everyone and be on the relaxing, familiar, chill part of the holiday for the next 8 days. Drove back to the house, said hello to Rowlf and Sal, and alternated between chatting and helping the girls do their puzzles. At 1030 all three lasses went off to the aforementioned party and I considered taking a bit of a nap, but ended up deciding to try and power through. Me and Kevin caught up about all kinds of stuff, spoke about running, my diet, etc. We hadn't moved by the time everyone else returned, and with the nieces off for their lunchtime snooze I felt pretty dead. It was about 1pm I think, so a truly terrible time to go to sleep.

We came up with a plan. I wanted to get some money out, a diet coke, and an ice cream. And just to be active. So we walked into Seaforth and the ATMs refused my card. Bastards. Bought a bus ticket and a diet coke, borrowed a load of cash from Kevin, and we got a bus into Manly. It's a sunny hot summer afternoon, so let's go drinking in a pub overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which brews on the premises. Hello, Yardarm Taphouse, Manly!

The first tasting paddle was a struggle. We had four 1/3rds of their darkest beers, which were none of them outstanding. Well they might have been nicer if I'd not been struggling SO MUCH. But after them I perked up.. a couple of wheat beers, then off to the Steyne for two or three more. A garbled conversation with Sal as we attempted to coordinate our attempt to get home, we refused a lift and said we'd make our own way, which given the rubbish Sunday bus services meant getting a cab. A proper, bonzer, fair dinkum "ah yeah?" bona fide Bruce Australian racist driver 'n all: after asking where we were going, his next sentence started with "now I don't mean this to be a race issue, but..." and proceeded to tell us about this girl of Indian descent who'd got in and asked him if he knew Balgowlah Heights. After he'd said "a bloody sight better than you!" she'd taken offence and got out, and into the next cab. HOW DARE SHE. These bloody foreigners, I tell you, they're so rude and ... then he said that of course, they're not all bad - his cab firm supervisor is an Indian guy y'know. But he's sensible and makes sure he only employs proper Aussies to drive for him.

Thank fuck the drive wasn't long.

Back at the house, Sal had pie ready for us. Personalised pie. Mine had a pastry DAZ on its lid. It was lovely. Then out came the gin, I had two .. er .. trebles, apologised for being a bad influence on my brother, and apparently went to bed. With a mixture of exhaustion and drunkenness, I honestly have no idea what time or anything. The next thing I remember is waking up feeling wretched, in a spare/guest child's bed upstairs, with all my stuff in the guest adult room I should have been in. My nieces were laughing at me, attacking my belly with a balloon sword, as the house was getting ready for daycare, school, and work. I hung around for breakfast, and to walk Alex to school at 0830, and then went back to the house. Sal was working from home and I said, y'know, I think I'll just grab another hour's sleep before I head into the city.

When I woke up it was 1pm, and I apparently was feeling human again.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


So it was on Saturday that I woke up nice and early, with plenty of time to grab breakfast, a shower, and pack before the cab that there really was no excuse for me being 5 minutes late at reception. Nor was there any real excuse for me to cause such confusion about my minibar consumption that they sent someone to my room to count the number of missing diet cokes and sprites (drinks, not faeries), and print out three different bills. Oops.

Airport checkin opens 2 hours before my 1045 flight. We're leaving the hotel at 0845, though I am only 3km away. All the reviews from Australians on airlinequality.com still fresh in my mind, I know they exaggerated (to put it kindly) for the arrival process but departure sounded utterly dismal. So, deep breath as we turn the final corner to the terminal and...

Right. No chaos at kerbside. No queues, no one is doing security outside. Just inside the terminal building there's a queue of... one person for the x-ray. My bag is labelled as having been scanned and I'm through. There are a fair few people milling around at sundry checkin desks but no queues anything like as bad as, say, Paris, or Heathrow, or Kuala Lumpur, or, ...

Check-in for my flight is open and there's two desks, processing people plenty quickly enough. I get my boarding pass, as it seems my half-assed attempt to check in online hadn't scuppered anything. The next obstacle - the insanely hard to spot desk where you have to pay your departure fees - was right there, basically blocking the way to immigration. Paid my dues after being shunted around to an empty desk despite being happy to wait behind the one person in front of me. Got my receipt and handed it, my passport, and my departure card to an immigration official with whom I exchanged a tut and rolling of eyes, the both of us having been briefly delayed by the couple in front of me - the bloke hadn't filled out his departure form and they told him to piss off and fill it out. He insisted he didn't need to. I'm not sure arguing with the immigration officials about the immigration procedures was really too good an idea, but after they'd shooed him away three times and waved me forward I stepped up, only for him to block my way by jumping across to the next desk, cos he seemed convince THAT member of staff would be more likely to let him not abide by the fucking law. Arrogance and stupid alive and well in Denpasar airport.

Er, anyway, one more bag x-ray and... I'm through. I'm through. In fact, I've been to a deli counter and bought a diet coke, sat down, got my pad out, and looked at the time. From being dropped off in my cab to ensconced airside - after, it bears repeating: two security checks, check in, departure tax, and immigration - has taken me 18 minutes.

Dear reviewers on airlinequality.com: WHAT THE LIVING FUCK ARE YOU ON ABOUT?

Anyway. It's, like, 0910. I've ages to kill. There are two lounges but I'm not entitled to visit any of them, since I'm flying a *gasp* low cost carrier to Singapore. It's actually affiliated with, or owned by, Jetstar, who are themselves part of Qantas, but I don't fancy trying to explain that a Cathay Pacific gold card should let me in a shared lounge because I happen to understand the arcane corporate structure of the airline I am patronising. So I just wander, up and down, topping up my rage by checking out the other review facts, like there being not enough seats for customers in the departure area (there are, for the whole 90 minutes I'm there, easily plenty of seats for every departing aircraft, and more to spare). I walk around, stare at the electronics and do some currency arithmetic which brings a flutter to the heart as I find a MacBook Air for £600. But I don't need a MacBook Air. No, really.

Because data roaming was free in Indonesia I could also get embroiled in a late night (GMT) argument on a secret AFC Wimbledon messageboard about whether Wimbledon FC could possibly have played Manchester United in the FA cup in 2007, and whether Amazon are a profitable company or not. Huh.

The fact that there's a currency with the code PHP made me shiver, briefly. And, just as I was about to pull the trigger on a can of San Miguel, the "get thee to the gate" call came.

Tertiary security at the gate was even more of a joke than the chicken crossing the road on Friday, about as effective as the time I managed to get a full bottle of gin into a footy match despite having my bag searched. And then, boarding. Took my seat, which was just a regular one - being a budget airline I could have paid more for an exit row, or even more for a front row, but I hadn't bothered. Good move in the end, as the seat had more pitch than Malaysia Airlines economy. I had prebooked my meal though, and an attendant came up and addressed me by name, taking my order. More nasi lemak, please!

Take off was delayed a bit as they announced some paperwork was required to cope with the 8 people who hadn't shown up at checkin. And then there was some chaos and 8 people arrived, seemingly oblivious to their tardiness.

The nasi lemak gave me the hot food hiccups. That's pretty good going for budget airline food! And so, I crossed the equator south to north, again not bothering to do SCIENCE in the loos. And for the second flight of the trip I had no beer. Maybe I would arrive in Sydney feeling sober, alert, fresh...?

70% of the passengers were up on their feet, overhead bins open etc, way before the seatbelt sign was off. Rules schmules. I wasn't in a hurry - window seat, and 7 hours til my next flight, I wasn't sure what I was going to do, or what the possibilities were really. I grabbed some airport wifi and received a mail from kayak.co.uk telling me which carousel my flight's bags would be on, which I thought was superb service. Got my bag and the strap had broke. On my brand new "this is for travelling the world with" holdall. Sigh. I should have taken it off, but, still. Boo. BOO.

My flight to Australia was a completely separate booking, so I had to go landside. I'd filled out my landing card with "not applicable - in transit" for my address in Singapore, and once through customs - where I was explicitly told I had to go through the red "something to declare" channel - I headed straight to the departures level and looked for the BA desks. There was a sign saying that early check in is possible in a different aisle, from 1430. It was 1350, my flight was at 2000.

Found the early desks, with a bit of a queue and no one yet manning them, of course. Had a brief loiter, then out of boredom walked up to the printed out notice on a nearby desk to read it. It said what times and what flights the desks dealt with, but also, tantalisingly, "business and first class passengers should go to the premium check in lounge". Well, I happened to be stood right next to that, so I waltzed up. Got escorted to the BA desk, sat down, and given a sweet. Checked in by two people, had the lounge situation explained to me (namely, that they also weren't open yet) and waved through the super fast track lane. The folk in front of me were having their bags scanned so I waited behind them, or would have, but the guy just waved me past and straight to the staff and crew immigration line. An almost indiscernible eyebrow was raised as she searched for my entry stamp and saw it had today's date on it.

Singapore airport does special 2 hour bus tours of the city throughout the day, but you have to secure your space at least an hour beforehand. This meant the only one I could possibly do was the 4pm. What's more, the desk for it is in terminal 3 and I was in terminal 1. So this meant a monorail trip, woohoo!

The 4pm trip was fully booked. Back on the monorail and a quick look at the closed lounges, then a wander. This airport is amazing. It has a free cinema, swimming pool, food market, cactus garden, rain forest, hotel, ... it's an astonishing place. I went to the rooftop cactus garden and bar, took a couple of photos but it was brutally hot, doubled as the smoking area, and the bar had some guy doing covers on a guitar, Too soon, too soon.

Back inside, the lounges were open. Plural. The BA and Qantas lounges are next to one another, and I know from flyertalk that the Qantas one is better. Nonetheless I wanted to try both, so went to the BA one first. Second person in there, I served myself some champagne and took a horrific pair of selfies to display just how out of place the scruffy bastard with a pub crawl t-shirt and shorts was in this place. Stuffed myself with a few munchies from the buffet too, and had a couple of energetic conversations on Facebook messenger. Kept loading up with various kinds of fuel: champers, cheese, electricity for the gadgets. I love spending time in empty airport lounges.

Headed off to the Qantas one after a while. Much more crowded since a Qantas flight was actually taking off fairly soon, right near the entrance is a bar. Not a self service fridge of beer, but a bar with a barman and with stools. So I took my position and stayed there for 3 beers and one bourbon - which he really was not happy about serving me - while not one single other person sat at the bar for any longer than it took for them to retrieve their drinks. Maybe I really was the only solo traveller that day? Some lads asked specifically for a stubby beer instead of having it in a glass, but the only stubbies were light beers.

Dear lord, the calorie count was getting so so high, way higher than any day so far. As was the drunkenness. Mind you I must've burnt a few calories too with the crazily long walk the monorail trip had involved.

Lester put a Wurzels song in my head when I told him what I was drinking. "I am a Tiger drinker, ..."

Went back to the BA lounge for more champagne, and so I could overhear 4 loud simultaneous skype conversations. Tried to remember when the last time I'd been this lounge was, even though by now I was struggling to remember what country I'd started the day in without consulting my pad (blogging my holidays involves living like I'm Guy Pearce in Memento, except without the self harm). I think it was 2008? Had a brief chat with James as I realised it was parkrun o'clock back home, and then went to the gate.

Was very early at the gate, but strolled on at my leisure thanks to the business class boarding pass. My seat was the first aisle seat in the cabin, as with Malaysia chosen specifically so I wouldn't have to clamber over anyone nor be clambered over myself. BA business class is so so much nicer since I last flew it, making it a bona fide shame that I'd got too pissed to really enjoy it. Had a champagne anyway, and started to watch Luther S3. The amenity kit was rubbish, the seat was good, I don't remember what I ate, ... the flight is a bit of a blur really. I crossed the equator for the third time and it's perfectly possible my head started to spin in the opposite direction.

The lights went off quite early - it's an 8pm departure, 7am arrival, taking only 8 hours so the best plan, and what most people do, is ignore the food and entertainment and just sleep. In my stupid haze I insisted on trying to watch stuff and stay awake, meaning in the end I had 2 hours of dreadful quality sleep, wolfed down the breakfast (pig bacon!), and arrived in Sydney feeling shattered, hungover, dehydrated, sweaty, and various other ropey adjectives. What's more, I know from experience rather than hearsay that early morning arrivals at Sydney really ARE chaos and take forever to process, as about a hundred long haul flights arrive within 10 minutes of one another. It felt like it was going to be a challenge just to not pass out while queuing for immigration/customs/quarantine, and if the Nothing To Declare camera crew were around I was not looking fit for my debut Aussie TV appearance...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Anybody got any Viras?

Monstrous breakfast buffet on Friday. Three plates full of rice and noodles and stuff. Back to the room, via a stop in the Vira Bali reading room while waiting for housekeeping to finish cleaning my room and replenishing the mini bar diet coke. Most of the books were not English, but my eye was caught by the Mills and Boon book from its "medical" genre - "the surgeon she never forgot". That's, like, really really wrong, isn't it?

Spent the whole morning debating with myself whether I should leave the hotel that day, maybe do a tour. I was already way too late for a full day tour, but there were a lot of half day tours available which start any time between 2pm and 3pm, in particular ones which involve going to see spectacular sunsets.  And, I had a shitload of currency I could have done with spending especially as it wasn't enough to bother changing back to Aussie dollars or British shekels. There was a half day tour to a monkey forest, a temple, and then one more temple for sunset - so at 2pm I went down to reception and said, am I too late to geta driver to take me to see monkeys and the sunset? They said no, it would be fine, go get a beer while they sort it out.

He was gonna turn up at 1530, which seemed fair enough since I was only doing 2 out of 3 attractions. And I had no clue about where these things were, and trusted them. The bloke ended up arriving a bit late, but off we went. Chatted a bit about football, cos he was a Liverpool fan. But he didn't seem very chatty and it got a bit quiet as we drove. And drove. And drove. And drove. Turns out it was a bloody long way.

I got to see a fair bit of Bali's internals. The residential areas were littered by temples, which seemed to be at the start of little gated areas. There were massive amounts of craft shops, mostly stuff made of wood, which confused me - I've seen enough episodes of Nothing To Declare/Border Security to know you can't take wood into Australia, and since every tourist here is Aussie...

Also, it's election season, by which I mean every 20 yards there was a giant billboard with a picture of a man displaying fine millinery, asking for the vote. Like those ham faced David Cameron photos from 2010, only these guys hopefully aren't total cunts.

Eventually got to the monkey forest at 5pm. Sunset is about 6.40pm and an hour or 90 minutes to drive. Eek. Thankfully I probably couldn't have lasted the heat and mosquitoes much longer than 20 minutes anyway, and I was very happy with how much I saw - it's not a big place, the monkey forest, just a pretty small complex of trees and temples with free roaming macaques all over the place, from big angry adults to tiny ickle baby ones who wouldn't stay still for a photo. I didn't feed them but if you do, they crawl over you. Very cool. Less angry or outright thieving than the ones on Gibraltar.

So, back in the car for a race against the sun to Tanah Lot, a temple complex on the coast with the main temple actually built on a rock you can only get to at low tide. The driver took a few short cuts off the main roads to try and get there quicker, so we went through some seriously non-tourist areas, full of animals all over and kids playing with fires. Had to slam the brakes on at one point so as not to kill a bird. Why did that chicken cross the road? What a joke.

We just, and only just, lost the race, largely due to being stuck for 10 minutes behind a tourist who couldn't cope overly well with the driving on the ropey roads. We tried very hard to overtake him, on blind hills and corners with liberal use of the "I'm here and doing stuff" horn. The sun was obviously setting and the views across fields of extraordinarily vivid blues and greens and yellows were decent, but the brightness was just disappearing at Tanah Lot. I got one decent photo which I was very happy with, and it was a pretty cool place to explore but everything was shutting and I was swimming against a huge crowd of people leaving. At least I was late enough that the entry fee booth was closed...

Drove back to the hotel, another hour or so. I have no idea how you are meant to fit three attractions into one afternoon, even starting at 1400. Apparently this wasn't even bad traffic, and it's definitely low season. Still never mind - I did see what I wanted, just not for very long. Still hadn't seen a beach though.

Back at the Vira, Friday night was in full swing. This meant a really, really poor cover band covering Australian music like Men At Work and AC/DC, presumably to fix the homesickness all the Aussie tourists must be suffering in this alien environment. And they covered it badly. Very, very badly. But the worst was their version of Nothing Else Matters, which for some reason they played twice. I was almost out off music for life. Jesus.

Had a nasi goreng and a couple of beers. Thought about wandering down the road to the Irish pub just to get a Guinness, but apparently it was some kind of comedy night, and besides I had a long Saturday ahead of me starting with an early flight in the morning - and as I already knew, leaving Bali airport is a truly terrible experience, even worse than arriving. I'd tried to check in for both of Saturday's flights on my phone and had a bit of grief with each, so I figured, y'know, just go to bed, Arranged a cab for 0830, and fell asleep to the dulcet sounds of CNBC.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Water, hops, and Bali

Thursday's bacon was made of pig. I think. It was certainly a better approximation than the dreadful crap in KL. Breakfast largely consisted of nasi goreng and singapore chilli noodles though. Nom. I did toy with the idea of just staying in the hotel all day but, after watching the remake of Shaft, decided it would be a bit of a shame if I didn't at least do some vague exploration of my surroundings. So I slapped on a cwt of factor 50, grabbed my rucksack and set off to walk into Kuta.

I'd read that the streets would be full of people trying to get your business, and that even eye contact was considered an "in", so the best way to deal with it is just to not look at anyone, keep walking, maintain your pace. Being a long term user of London public transport, ignorance and rudeness is second nature so I easily escaped, with only one woman being particularly insistent that I go to her massage parlour for sexy massage with young girls. The bloke who said my beard made me look like Chuck Norris deserved a bit of love too. It all was a bit mad though - the streets are as crowded as a Tour de France hill stage, with everyone offering me transport/SIM cards/hats/massage/young girls. And in a role reversal, the cabs slow down and try to hail passengers. But I just kept walking, with no map or real clue as to where I wanted to go.

In the end it was about a 6km trot through street after street of awful bar, massage parlour, western fast food joint, surf/skate shop (with public mini ramp in the DC shop), magic mushroom seller, authorised money changer (with rates written up, and an 8% variance!) and stall after stall of tat. Like an Australian focused hybrid of Blackpool and New Orleans but without many redeeming features, I can't really say that I liked it. The tat stalls with their comedy slogan t-shirts, I've seen them the world over, but who wants a shirt that says "I'm not gay, but $20 is $20" or a fridge magnet that reads "WASH MY CUM RAG"?

I failed dismally to find the beach, but I refused to stop even for a second lest I appear interested in something someone had to offer. Instead I just walked until I thought I couldn't cope with the heat much more, and was almost out of water, and walked straight back. The shouts of "yes boss" kept coming, interspersed with the odd fauxstralian "g'day mate" with an Indonesian twang.

Kuta is like Ibiza for Australians. Everything is geared towards them - flags on the bars, "we show Aussie sport" signs, etc. I couldn't for the life of me figure out the attraction - we Brits need to go to the med to get sunshine and nice beaches, but Australians already have all that. Why do they go here? The beer is cheap but the time and cost of getting there doesn't make that a valid reason either. WTF? I saw some greenpeace posters saying "protect paradise". Bit late...

Back at the hotel I wrote down notes for all the stuff I'd seen and heard and done. It felt like my own little version of the generation game final round. And then I showered, blogged, and went to have some beer by the pool. Bintang pilsner is "international quality", apparently. No strength on the label. Had 3 bottles while I finished the Brixton Academy book, which wound me up quite a bit towards the end. And I got really angry at autocorrect on my phone, as it turned "drunk" into "drink" twice, only to then turn "drink" into "drunk". FUCK OFF.

Battery died on my phone so I went back to my room to get a bit of juice, and watch some TV before getting some food. But instead I fell asleep until midnight, and then failed to get back to sleep. Go go jet lag Darren! So I watched a comedy Irish creature feature called Grabbers, starring the bloke from Coupling who looks like Martin Sheen, the plot of which is "a village full of Irish people get pissed to destroy a killer octopus thing". Odd. The dialogue "5 nautical miles" was subtitled as "8 kilometers", which I found strange. Then I watched a Louis CK gig, to remind me of Tom. And then I fell asleep.

Normally I don't dream much, though travel sometimes brings it out in me. On one trip over here I had recurring dreams about North Korea. In Paris I'd dreamt that I could fly, in fact everyone could, and I had an airborne argument with Wooj and Arnold about whether Behemoth are a black metal band or a death metal band, and whether black metal is shit. In Bali, however, I dreamt that I was at a gig seeing Gwar supporting DOA, in a school hall. When the stage lights failed during the second song, a mass fight broke out amongst the 30 or so people in attendance, which included Jesse Pintado from Napalm Death and his girlfriend. It turned nasty and people were handing out bottles to use as weapons. After a while the carnage calmed down and I realised I'd lost my phone, so started hunting for it. There were loads of iPhones on the floor, but it took me a while to find mine - I was repeating "40% more bacon, 40% more bacon" to everyone. Then I thought I saw Calum, and woke up, a bit freaked out by this bizarre and vivid nature of it all.

Fell back akip pretty simply, only to wake up less than half hour later to a massive explosion sound, a siren going off outside, and a power cut. I'm not sure what happened, or even whether the explosion was real - I have exploding head syndrome, which is a real actual thing. Go look it up. There didn't seem to be any real urgency on display by the guy cleaning the pool, so I assumed there wasn't a bomb or anything, and very shortly the siren stopped, power returned, and my heart rate fell back to normal.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Fueled by H8

Tuesday's bacon was made of cow. Wednesday's bacon was made of chicken. Followed up the omelette with a double helping of yummy nasi lemak, and chose not to read the local rag after the first story I read on Tues had been one of those "no, Malaysia and Indonesia will not be declaring war, of course not" stories. So here I sat, on my last day in Malaysia with a flight to Indonesia that afternoon.

I spent a while reading up on the procedures for arrival at Bali airport, especially the visa process. Pretty much every word written about it on the internet is a bona fide horror story. Bali opened a new international terminal late last year but despite this, or in fact because of it, loads of reviews on airlinequality.com and the like were all full of NO NO NO AWFUL AWFUL AWFUL tales of sweaty time consuming woe. I was not looking forward to this at all.

Ended up not bothering with a quick HOHO trip to the aviary, rather I just chilled, blogged, watched CNBC, and lost my wallet and passport. Which wasn't particularly pleasing, but I remembered - after having packed both my bags to the brim - that I'd been carting them round in the bottom of my rucksack all the time. Sigh.

I had a few ringgit left, no US dollars, and no Indonesian rupiah. I needed USD for the visa and IDR for tipping. And I had 3 hours til my flight. Checked out of the hotel, into the flight right there in KL Sentral train station. Missed the every-20-minutes service by 20 seconds or so, so hung around fretting and getting itchy (the mosquito bite on my hand didn't help with that). Journey to the airport was sound, though I snobbishly shuddered at the advert for KLIA2, "the world's biggest dedicated low cost carrier terminal".

KUL entry was a breeze. Immigration, security, all very very simple and quick. My gate was H8, as if in some kinda nudge, wink, fight club way the world understood me - the first words I'd seen on the magazine waiting for me in my KL hotel room had been "magnificently miserable", y'know. Anyway I got my bearings and set off on a currency hunt. The nearest stall told me they can't give currency off credit or debit cards, only cash. Well, I didn't have anything like the cash required to get what I needed for Bali. He said terminal C - a monorail ride away, oh noes! - would sort me out.

Well. Sort of. First I tried the "we dispense various currencies" ATMs which didn't accept Visa or MasterCard. Then I went to a change counter, who said they too were cash only. The ATM around the corner had some guy using it, for ages, and ages, until he finished and told me it was out of service now. Thanks mate. Found another one, and had my debit card refused twice. So I ended up getting a cash advance on a credit card, in a foreign currency, in order to immediately exchange it all at airport rates to two other foreign currencies. What a fucking costly palaver. However, I was now a MILLIONAIRE thanks to the bonkers Indonesian exchange rate.

Monorail back to the H gates didn't cheer me up much, and the positive effect of getting into the lounge for a quick 10 minute ice cream break was countered by the fact there was no booze. Mind, I'd faffed so much that before I knew it the plane was boarding. Stress levels rose again as the guy in front of me loudly complained "bullshit!" when gate security found and confiscated his bottle of water. Are the rules so hard to follow? He'd already been through terminal security with the same restrictions ffhs!

MH853 KUL-DPS. Gate H8 was crowded so I set about wielding my Cathay card to get on quicker, and hey presto it worked - I was on second of the whole economy cabin. Got a very nice greeting from the crew and took my seat - well, I call it a seat, the legroom was so small I may as well have been standing, and during the flight the reclining guy in front of me did so with such a judder he almost broke my fucking jaw. But as with the flight from Paris, the entertainment system was excellent, streets ahead of anything I've seen on short haul economy apart from Air New Zealand. Even has a USB socket for plugging your own stuff in (though, sadly, not for charging it). Not that I took advantage - for a start, I couldn't find the headphone socket, but mostly I was just interested in starting one of the two books I'd brought with me - the one that just came out about the story of the Brixton Academy. I did not expect to get a full 214 pages through it on a 3hr flight.

Having failed to have any beer on the first Malaysia airlines flight, I finally had some on here. Though I've no idea what - I asked for beer, and got around 100ml poured into a plastic glass, without the rest of the can to follow. The same happened later. I estimate I had about a 3rd of a pint, like it was kölsch in Köln, except it wasn't, it was warm crap stuff. Whatever. I also estimate that 13 hours is the longest I've gone without beer on any airline, even the cheapo carriers where you have to pay I normally fork out (though, as I type, I've just declined to do so on ValuAir VF242 DPS-SIN). The food was some spicy fish deal, without any discernible spice. The meal kit came with a spoon, but no food which required it ever materialised, which made me feel a bit "where's Paul?" from. Friday the 13th part 2. Seriously, where does he go? What was the spoon for? Are they linked?

This flight was also my first equator crossing of 4 on this holiday. It was only after crossing it that I realised I should have gone to the loo at the right time, and both flushed it and drained a sink just to watch the amazing HONEST TRUE FACT that water going down a hole somehow gives a flying fuck whereabouts it is on the planet*. (note to Mike Wood: that's a genuine footnote)

Indonesian border entry cards had been handed out at the gate in Kuala Lumpur. They are pretty extensive, and terrifying. There's a lot they don't like, and drug dealers get killed in a very stern red font. Despite all baggage desk staff so far telling me I'd need proof that I had a ticket out of the country I was about to enter, it once again failed to happen, at immigration in either Kuala Lumpur or Denpasar. Also I read somewhere that in the list of prohibited items for import was "reading material in Chinese". Really?

Not that I had anything to concern me in legal terms, but honestly the reviews of Bali airport were not making me look forward to my arrival. I was one of the last to get off cos I didn't see the point in hurrying (I rarely do), but I did think it was likely to add to my delay. So, deep breath, ...

Walked off into a nice air conditioned terminal, airy, and not very crowded. No hawkers or scammers offering VIP escort service. Visa on arrival desk queue was minimal and for fucks sake I've just spilt milk on my iPad. Hang on. There. Right. Yes, got to the desk and saw that you can actually pay in loads of currencies, not just USD, so I hadn't needed such a faff at KL (I'm off to the USA in August anyway so the spare won't go to waste). I had been confused by how quite a few people had turned up not knowing it was even required, and being directed to the ATMs. Who travels without knowing the entry requirements for where they're going??

Next, baggage: again, no sign of the scammers, only a well signed desk offering the official porter service for 5000 IDR (that's a mere 25 of your earth pence - I told you the exchange rate was bonkers). No one hassling people to take it, or pay more. MH853's bags were already on the carousel and mine was right there as I walked up to it. Picked it up and strolled up to immigration. A breeze. They were fast and chatting amongst themselves and waving people through. Lastly, customs. Some luggage spot checks but I didn't get that treatment. And then, out landside. A few taxi touts but mostly prearranged transport with names on cards. One guy shouted "yes boss, taxi!" at me but I just ignored him, found the guy with my name on his card, gave him my bag and away we went. Up 2 levels and into the car park, then a short drive to the hotel. I was in my room taking a photo of the pool from the balcony 40 minutes from stepping off the plane.

So, what the fuck are all these reviews talking about? They each specifically mention that they are recent, in the new but unfinished terminal (and yes, it isn't finished), but I experienced not one single hint of any of the bad stuff mentioned, and saw no one else suffering it either. What gives? I genuinely don't understand,and actually was a bit pissed off about all the disinformation. I know bad news travels faster than good, but, really, this is ridiculous. I will leave a review myself, but it's a bit lonely to be one word against many. Can it really have got so much better so quickly?

My hotel was lovely. The staff had all greeted me by name, the porter taking my bag while the receptionist checked me in and another girl gave me a welcome drink. The view was great and, as luck would have it, I'd arrived just after their weekly mosquito fogging, so the dengue fever could hold off a little bit. Chucked the TV on, of course, and there were a million channels including 3 movie ones. And CNBC. Everything in the mini bar was under a quid, including the beer. There was wifi in the room.

So, it was now 8pm. What with such an arduous journey, and the jet lag from changing timezone from MYT (GMT+8) to CIT (GMT+8), I thought I'd have a quick lie down before a night cap at the bar. Obviously, then, I slept for 11 hours. And it was wonderful.

* in 1992, in the first month or so of uni, my flat had a big argument about this and resolved to put it to the test. We filled up the 5 sinks in our shared bathroom and let them get very very still by leaving them an hour or so. Then we pulled all 5 plugs. 2 went down clockwise, 2 anti-clockwise, and one kinda didn't spin at all but just seemed to drain straight. SCIENCE.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ogdenville, North Haverbrook, Brockway and Kuala Lumpur

For over 10 years, watching CNBC has been one of my go-to activities in foreign hotel rooms. The whole channel is a manic hypnotic relentless cavalcade of financial information with seemingly 4 presenters on every show and interviews with random people from companies I've never heard of every 10 minutes. I barely understand a word, usually, but my faith in the fact that whatever they're on about must be important was shaken on Tuesday morning, as first they had a brief moment where they seemed to consider bitcoin a legitimate financial instrument, and then had some ridiculous primary school-esque segment with one presenter "solving the 747 problem" by drawing some dreadful diagrams on the back of napkins. What?

Breakfast. I was there early enough on Monday to take advantage, but didn't. On Tuesday I fixed that, getting down there for 0730 or so and queuing to be seated at the enormous buffet restaurant. In the queue I was given an "eye-opener" morning shot, which may have been alcoholic. Wait, I already wrote about this stuff at the start of the other day's post. Did I mention the bacon was made of cow? Because it was. Cow.

I'd decided on a few things to do that day. Of primary importance was taking a trip on the monorail, the form of transport which really legitimises a city's existence. As with sundry other forms of transport, it went from KL Sentral just over the road...well, sort of. Actually the signs pointed up some fenced off escalators, with temporary signs directing me through some building works, down stairs into the indoor bus station with people trying to shepherd me onto an AirAsia bus to the airport. Leaving the bus station and walking past some more building works, then crossing two roads, past a parade of shops, and FINALLY there was a monorail station. Christ. This had best be worth it...

It wasn't worth it. Not looking anything like so space age as an HDR photo of Sydney's monorail, it was a hot and uncomfortable ride a few stops to Bukit Bintang, a district on the "must see" list comprising... building works, shops, and malls. A pretty uninspiring area, I found not one but two shops which only sold DC comic book hero merchandise. What? And I wandered through a mail which was staggeringly reminiscent of Westfield, Shepherds Bush, only without the burrito stall. Lots of people taking selfies though. We Londoners are so spoilt. People long for this stuff, while we're cynical about it. Ah whatever. It really did look like Westfield though, especially as I made it outside to a pedestrianised walkway flanked by bars (including another branch of Malones, with its easy to resist Guinness) and restaurants and coffee shops. Snagged some wifi before taking the bridge walk to KLCC, all covered, some parts surprisingly steep, and security posted at most corners. Came out right next to where I'd eaten on Monday, stormed through to KLCC and I made my way to Kuala Lumpur.

Yes, yes, I know I was already in Kuala Lumpur, but listen. KLCC LRT to KL Sentral then KTM Komuter - on whose platforms I misguidedly wandered all around the women only bit, oops - one stop takes you (well, took me) to the actual train station called Kuala Lumpur. A grand old overground station, historic building, and also the nearest station to the walk in aviary I was thinking of going to. It's also a stop on the way to Batu Caves, which I'd considered going to just to take a photo of a massive Buddha but screw climbing 272 steps in 33°c. Anyway, it took long enough just to get to Kuala Lumpur as the trains aren't right often, and very very briefly I actually thought about getting the international service to Singapore just to see what it was like. Instead I just wandered around the station inside and out, failing to find much worth taking photos of and not finding any directions to the aviary nor anyone who knew. I did very much enjoy the smell of the plants on platform 1 though.

Back to the hotel for a shower and change of shirt and back out, I made a second attempt to get the hop on hop off bus service which I'd narrowly missed pre-monorail. Only waited about 2 minutes, got on to discover their commentary system was mostly broken so it was speakers only, English only. That suited me, or would have if I could have heard it over top of the endless chattering mob I was sharing the top deck with. There's nowt of huge interest near Sentral so the first impressive thing I saw was a truck full of goats.

My plan, sort of, was to get this either to the aviary, or do a circuit and the on the second time round get off at the most interesting thing. In actuality, it ended up being an uncomfortable 3 hour bus ride through crazy rush hour traffic in the pissing rain. Just in case I was missing London. Though plenty of it was interesting and informative - I didn't know Malaysia was so new overall, let alone so recently independent (1957 or so, iirc). We drove past a whole bunch of green belt stuff, to museums and an unmentioned henge I was intrigued by. The bird park was terrifyingly popular, and actually by the time we reached it only open for another hour or so, so I skipped it. Also the entrance sign put scare quotes around 'welcome', which worried me.

One park was mentioned as being "approximately 48562 square metres", which I thought was a bizarrely specific number to use as an approximation. There was also a fairly interesting monument to some kind of emergency anti-communist thing which had briefly flourished in the 50s. I've also written down "6000 butterflies!" so I assume we went past the butterfly park too.

It occurred to me that Mark Steel should turn his "Mark Steel's in town" radio/comedy show into a series of bus tour commentaries as well. I might even visit Birkenhead if he did.

The rain and traffic jams coincided perfectly, both being stereotypically intense. The stops became ever more distant in time terms, and I gave up any hope of a second circuit or getting odd anywhere other than back at the hotel. One couple still took photos of basically everything - shops, bars, traffic, clouds, malls, etc - but I was just commuting now, and to ram that point home the people in front of me started playing music through their shitty phone speaker. Though there was still the odd bit of interest left - the telecoms museum, and learning Kuala Lumpur means "muddy confluence". As my flight wasn't until 3pm the next day and my ticket was valid for 24hrs from purchase, I thought I'd try the aviary or telecoms museum in the morning.

They ended up dropping us off on a side street near Sentral, still in traffic, with no pavement. Ladies and gentlemen, we're done for the day, everyone off. Nice. I had my bearings but the couple behind me were mortified, "this isn't the stop!". Weaved through a lot of bikes and up to my room, get the free drink voucher I'd failed to redeem on Monday, and perched at the bar. Turns out it wasn't valid there, as the mythical Latitude '03 really was just the coffee place not called Latitude '03, so my free gift was fucking pointless. Bah.

Had some meatballs. They were ropey. Had some Asahi, which was nice. The bar sold it in "towers", which are gumball/bubble gum dispenser style things with taps on. Neat.

Towrads the end of the night I had a long chat with Chris and Mark online about my depressing bachelorhood. Random encounters on GCERC notwithstanding, I've barely spoken to any lass that isn't a colleague, friend's other half/ex, or serving me beer/food/tickets, in almost a year - last March-May, when I had an all too brief friendship with a gorgeous girl off okcupid, who had contacted me originally just to say "thanks for being honest" after I'd updated my "what am I doing with my life?" essay to say "honestly ,I have no fucking clue". As with my previous successes (measured by whether I saw the girl more than once, regardless of if it was as friends or bf/gf), I managed to get some female interest while in the grips of pretty bad depression. Yet now, when I'm in pretty good mental shape, not to mention physically half decent, have quit my crappy job, and am back in the saddle of doing and enjoying what I like when I like regardless of being single, rather than moping around all, like, I'd do x, y, z but it's no fun on my own emo etc - ie, when feeling pretty good about myself and in the mood to share it all, not find a crutch - I seem entirely unable to even strike up a conversation with anyone on a dating site, let alone get an actual date. Sigh, ho hum. Chris kept telling me to take up night school or join drama class or whatever, but I was pretty insistent on not wanting to fake an interest in something just to meet small groups of strangers who aren't actually there looking for a fella. Honestly, I'm pretty much already doing all the things I'm really interested in, can't really think of any skills I'm desperate to learn ... meh. MEH.

Ahem. Anyway. Left the bar a split second too late to share the lift with the astonishingly drunk girls stumbling over their heels. Classy. At the room shoved the tv on and watched as much as I could bear of SPG TV, the channel devoted to the hotel's loyalty scheme. It's worse than it sounds and I lasted just a couple minutes until bookending the day by reverting to CNBC, on which Mort Goldman from Family Guy seemed to have become a human called Barney Frank, and oddly for the channel was claiming that income inequality is a bad thing. He surely should have said oh it's just awful, terrible.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A bewildering array of acronyms

So maybe I was a bit jet lagged after all. Fell asleep about 8.30am and had 7 hours interrupted kip - as happens the world over, putting a "do not disturb" sign on your door guarantees a disturbance, as housekeeping phoned my room at about half midday to query whether I was actually there or not. I've had this happen in San Francisco and Sydney too. For fucks sake: DO NOT DISTURB.

I should probably have been thankful, and got up to go touring the city, but instead just fell back to sleep and eventually got up about 3:30pm. Exactly UK time, in other words - I'd slept from 0030 GMT to 0730 GMT. Not that I was bothered; I'm in KL for not long and very much tourism a la darrenf: the flights are as important as the destinations, I'm not fussed by immersing myself in some deeply authentic and western-romanticised version of mingling with the real locals nor cramming as much as I can into my time. No, I'm collecting passport stamps en route to my brother, staying in a decent hotel next to a big train station in the country's biggest city and, even though it's Asia, about it find it a relaxing change from the madness of London.

Also it's too fucking hot.

Went out at 4pm. Ever since Rome on GCERC I have been trilby-free, and I forgot to hunt out any baseball caps, so to guard from the sun I put my beanie on. This, plus long sleeves and trousers, ensured I garnered a lot of "aren't you hot?" looks from lots of the numerous westerners I encountered on my trip. Yes, I was hot. Happy now?

One of the guides I'd read on how to navigate KL said that at Sentral I would be confronted with a "bewildering array of acronyms".  As with most scare stories so far on this trip, I mistakenly took it at face value only to subsequently find nothing of the sort. I guess in this instance it should have been obvious I wouldn't be bewildered or intimidated, what with having been chatting to a few folk about this trip in advance in terms of it being "CDG-KUL in MH J, KUL-DPS in. MH Y, DPS-SIN in VF Y, SIN-SYD in BA J, ..." anyway. So yeah, there's the LRT and KTM and I needed to get to the KLCC station, not a big deal.

My first, and pretty much only nailed on, destination was to go gawp at the Petronas Towers, the biggest twin towers in the world and previously the tallest buildings full stop, until Taipei 101 was built. The journey was a breeze - KL Sentral is simple to get around and the train network tiny and easy to navigate. Street level, a bit less so, but at least they drive on the left. On the train I felt tall, as all the holding handles were at about nose level.

KLCC station comes out in a shopping mall. Shopping malls are big tourist attractions here, but this was ... just a mall. I walked all the way through it and found an exit by the orchestra's home, which took me out to the postcard picture frontage. It was a bit cloudy, but they are undeniably impressive buildings, very starkly designed. Grabbed a couple of photos and turned down the offer of a smartphone off some bloke wandering around hitting up tourists. Took a gander around the streets and found precisely nothing of interest, so went back indoors and tucked into some spicy chicken Burmese food which was pretty decent. During the meal I got accosted by some legit seeming charity collector - he had an ID badge I couldn't possibly understand, and a laminated catalogue of ill/poor/deformed/orphaned kids, each priced up. I didn't really want one but handed over 50RM to get them some medicine or food or summat. Aren't I courteous?

I'd got the normal "welcome to $FOREIGN" text when my phone had locked onto a network. except it wasn't the normal one at all - it just said "calls cost, texts cost, there's no data". Well OK then. Since I was without data, couldn't find any wifi, and of course I didn't have anything like a map or owt on me, I was a bit lost. My technique is to do a bit of research in the hotel over a coke light, then go out and do stuff from memory. In this instance, my memory had said "this area is where all the pubs are" but I couldn't find any. So I resorted to plan B, which was to text Mark - who by my reckoning should have just about been getting to work - and get him to tell me how to get a Guinness in Central Kuala Lumpur.

Mark found basically nothing. Bah. Some hotel bar at the Hyatt was not what I was after. During the conversation I'd stumbled across the KLCC park, with its jogging track and unkempt grass and Traders hotel little train thing and, oh, some place apparently called MALONE'S, written in Celtic script, and full of white folk. I wonder if I can get a Guinness there...

After twitching with annoyance at the rude "I'm not bloody used to waiting" guy giving the barman a hard time for pouring drinks only as fast as the taps poured them, I got my pint. Jesus, it was horrid. The second one too. Why did I even have a second? The Heineken in between the two was much better. Originally I'd intended to just have one drink but, well, that rarely works out. And besides, time was ticking and in my book (literally), sticking around until after dark in order to see the towers all lit up 'n that counted as legitimate tourism. and, honestly, it was worth it. They do look very very cool. As do the coloured fountains in the park. Grabbed some photos, though they won't be as cool as the Buddhist monk selfies that were being taken in abundance. Very incongruous to these prejudiced western eyes.

For a brief while in Malones I'd been mentally transported back to the mid 80s, as I sang along in my head with the 12" mix of Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" that came on. One of two songs I remember impressing my school mates by knowing all the lyrics (including the opening rap), the other being the Um Bongo advert.

Wandered back to KLCC station and jumped on the LRT back to Sentral. It was all too simple. No bustle, no crowds of hawkers, no one trying to get me into their shops or brothels or restaurants, just...easy. Though the train was crowded, it wasn't yer stereotypical Asian chaos. Mostly I felt like I was in a London suburb with a large Malay contingent and no iPhones, only giant comedy Samsung phablets. Sadly I failed to get a photo of the sign on the train about the priority seating, which says "we give up these seats for elderly people, pregnant ladies, and disabled. AREN'T WE COURTEOUS?" Superb passive aggression there.

As everyone knows, all people in distant countries are absolutely guaranteed to look EXACTLY like the prettiest and most famous example of their gender and nationality combo. So before coming to Malaysia I was sure I would fall in love while here, because all the women were going to be Michelle Yeoh lookalikes. But there's nothing quite like actually visiting a place to both indulge and, unfortunately, dispel this idea.

Back at the hotel, I grabbed my free drink voucher and headed to Latitude '03, the bar it was valid at. Well, I would, if I could have found it. The lift, literature, and Internet all said it was at the lobby but all that's there is a thing called ArtCacao, a coffee bar, and I hate coffee. I sat at a few different seats trying to find somewhere I liked until settling at a table near some people who had booze. I'd barely sat down before a man came and asked what I wanted to drink, and while he was getting it I realised I'd lost my phone. Fuck. Did a circuit of the seats I'd tried out, couldn't find it, did another circuit with the waiter and he found it...on a seat opposite the one I'd sat on, and pretty much camouflaged. I was a bit panicky about having no phone for a bit there, but at least I had a beer.

Drank slowly, got more beer, drank slowly. People disappeared, some lights went off, the bar (which I was nowhere near) got roped off. Just past midnight I went over and in, to try and sign for the drinks. The staff were very confused by this and I had to explain it 3 times: I'd been at the seats just outside the entrance, and I hadn't paid. Could I pay please? They seemed insistent that it wasn't necessary, until finally a woman went "oh, there's this bill for two beers at one of the outside tables, is that you?". Well, duh.

Stumbled back up to my room feeling contentedly sloshed, and with no plan at all for Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The big bird

Woke up on Sunday with a hangover as unwelcome as it was predictable. Bleurgh. The news of a lottery win did little to help, not least because a combination of terribly flaky wireless and the lottery's stupid "you can't look at your account if you're not in the UK" policy made me jump through more hoops than a Crufts best in show performance to find out I'd won £25 and not millions and millions.

Anyway. It was early. I'd gone to Paris on Saturday for two reasons: because flying from Paris is much cheaper in cash and BA miles terms than London, and because the one flight a day leaves at midday. I'd never been to CDG before and had been warned repeatedly that it's a horrific place to change terminals at, and there's no flight from London that gets in early enough to allow me to do it. Shame, as I'd rather have not left on Saturday 'cos I wanted to go to Pompey vs AFC Wimbledon; in retrospect, I'd done the right thing. Stupid football.

Nige was right. CDG is awful. The shuttle train was easy enough and first impressions weren't too bad, but it soon became this dystopian nightmare of tunnels and tubes. Found the Malaysia airlines desks easy enough and despite having bought a new holdall specifically so I can travel hand luggage only these days, I ummed and ahhed and went to check it in anyway, even though my boarding pass was on my phone. This was a good move in the end: the cabin bag limit is a ludicrously low 7kg and my bag is about 9kg. What's more, I needed a special invite card for the lounge despite having a business class ticket AND they needed proof that I was going to leave Malaysia too, so good job I'd panicked and printed out my onward flight details on Friday. She said to keep it handy as they'd want to see it on arrival at KL too.

The queue for immigration was very long and very slow. Yawn. No x-rays or other security so I wondered what would have happened to my bag had I not checked it in. Ho hum. Breakfast o'clock rang out in my stomach.

The Salon ICARE lounge at CDG T1 is accessed via a tiny lift and along a narrow corridor which felt like I was wandering lost around a hospital. Handed my invite over and surveyed the place, in all of 3 seconds. Tiny with maybe just 25-30 seats, it had the air of a room in a hospice where you go to gather your thoughts or wait for a chaplain. Except it had free beer. But as it wasn't yet 1000 I resisted, opting instead for juice and pastry and a giant mutant apple. And then free beer, while people watching the slew of people who turned up only to be turned away.

At the desk they'd said boarding would officially be 1030 but I could wait til at least 1100 and besides, they'd call it at the lounge. I got twitchy though, so headed off early. It was a huge trek through yet more tubes and with a travelator out of action it took a long while. The flight of 52 steps at the end was particularly unwelcome, as was the loooong security queue. Most of my fellow lounge lizards turned up soon after me, each in turn attempting the fast track barcode gate, being rejected, tutting, trying again, walking around to find someone, trying a third time, and eventually having wasted enough time that 8 or so others had joined the main queue, joined the main queue. Some quality and pointless "don't you know who I am?" behaviour. I'm regularly bemused by people who can't gauge a situation pretty much straight away. Gate rejects you? Join the queue. It's not hard. You aren't special.

The 52 steps had been good practice for the next flight of steps, as I went through the empty gate for business and first class boarding and went UPSTAIRS ON A MOTHERFUCKING PLANE. I know, it's not new, I first flew upstairs on a 747 in May 2006 - but I've wanted to fly on an A380 double decker behemoth for ages and here I finally was, woohoo!

I'd chosen seat 6G, the bulkhead seat in a centre pairing to ensure I had to climb over no one and no one had to climb over me throughout the journey, which was a hefty 12hr trip. Malaysia don't serve alcohol on the ground so no welcome fizz, I had an orange juice and fiddled around getting my pad, ipad, book, etc in the right places. Mr 6D said hello, and then NOTHING ELSE ALL FLIGHT, thankfully.

Leg room was monstrous. The personal TV screen is huge for a plane, and pretty high def too. After the headphones were dished out I started watching Family Guy, which was interrupted as we pushed back exactly on time and they activated tail cam.

Oh my god. Tail cam is FANTASTIC. It's a camera attached to the top of the plane's tail, facing forwards. You get to watch what take off looks like. I was hopelessly mesmerised and would have watched it all flight if I could, but unfortunately it's not part of the moving map options. So back to Family Guy, three episodes back to back none of which is seen before. So far, very impressed with Malaysia Airlines, but still 11 hours to go...

Oh, hello, champagne. Hello, refills. Hic.

Also nuts. And satay, 2 skewers each of chicken and beef. One of the beef ones was a bit crap, but the others were delicious. Who knew satay was nice? For the main dish I hadn't bothered to consult the menu cos I'd ordered in advance: Malaysia have a system called "chef on call" with a wider range of choice, available online the week up to departure. I seemed to be the only person who'd done this, and got a kick when they came and did the whole "Mr Foreman, you ordered xyz, yes?" thing. And a different kick from the "some more champagne?" thing.

The whole AVOD system is great. Nice chunky modern controller with a bit of colour screen bling, easy to use, loads and loads of choice and the headphone socket was in the least awkward place of any airline seat ever. My biggest complaint is that in Family Guy someone pronounced séance "see 'n say". What the deuce?

In 2010 I made another roundabout trip to Australia, flying London to Helsinki to Istanbul to Bangkok to Sydney. Like this time, it was to pick up passport stamps, save money, and try new airlines and aircraft - in that instance, to fly Turkish Airlines. Their food was magnificent. It has now been beaten. Christ on a bike, the seared chicken on MH21 CDG-KUL was gorgeous. Dessert less impressive, but a welcome cuppa was had. No cheese plate, which is odd for business class.

The booze stopped and actually I found the staff to be pretty distant and inattentive. But it didn't really matter too much as I was engrossed in movies now. First, since I was heading to KL, a Malay gangster movie called KL GANGSTER 2. I kinda dozed during it and struggled to concentrate on the subtitles, I think the plot was basically "Kuala Lumpur is violent and dangerous". Whatever. Next, New Police Story - a Jackie Chan redemption story, pretty good. Then Escape Plan, my second disappointing Stallone movie in 3 days.

Needed a break. The onboard loo was bigger than my bathroom, wow. And there was a galley of snacks including individual cheese plates, yay for cheese! No self service booze though, and no staff. I think this actually ended up being my driest long haul flight ever - 3 or 4 glasses of fizz, no beer, no port, no g&t, no brandy. I'll fix that later in the trip.

Played with the seat a lot, various positions for lounging. It goes basically completely flat, certainly if you're only 5'9". Kept hitting the back massage button, I'm a sucker for that lumbar shit.

More AVOD. Runner Runner is good but, wow, the dubbing was awful. No swear words, and they got people who sounded NOTHING LIKE Timberlake et al to say terrible replacement phrases. Worst censorship since Hertbreak Ridge was on ITV before the watershed. You melon farmer.

The documentary about Mark Cavendish was pretty boring. I ate breakfast during it, again ordered in advance. Huge sausage ahoy. Last up on the TV, an Andy Lau mahjong movie called Fat Choi Spirit. I missed the last 10 minutes cos we started our final descent - presumably he wins and gets married...? I could have done with knowing the rules of mahjong though, and should have sniggered less at all the references to "self touch". 'cos, y'know. Wanking 'n that.

I didn't mind missing the end of the film because it was replaced with MORE TAIL CAM. Again, mesmerising. It was dark, just after 6am, so lots of lights around. We landed dead straight on the runway's centre line. Beautiful. In such a massive machine falling out of the sky. God I love flying.

Left via an air bridge attached to the top deck, and was one of the first people out. Strolled through the unfamiliar airport while surrounded by confused and bleary folk. Straight through immigration with a shiny new stamp, and no questions about where I was staying or when and how I was leaving. Paris lady lied! Actually I realised there hadn't even been a landing card or owt - Malaysia requires nothing, so simple to waltz into.

My bag was one of the first out and I'd already grabbed some Ringgit from an ATM. Pleasingly empty of taxi touts, arrivals was nothing like any other Asian airport at which I've landed. Made my way to KLIA Ekspres, bought an oyster-esque Touch-n-Go ticket loaded with 100RM and got on the train. My plane had been scheduled to land at 0700 - I got the 0715 train and was at KL Sentral (oddly, not in the centre of town) before 0745. LIKE A BOSS. And just as I left the airport I got a "hey, you should check in for your Wednesday flight" alert. Now come on, gimme a chance to visit the place first...

Had made a note of how to find the hotel (Le Meridien) from a thread on flyertalk which had made it sound almost hard to find and not pedestrian friendly.  Pfft. Piece of piss to find, directly opposite the station front, obvious signage, and a pedestrian crossing - which wasn't even needed, cos I just strolled across through the traffic. Checked in and was offered a free option because of my gold card - no free internet cos I was entitled to that anyway so, bonus loyalty points or a free drink? Well, duh...

Despite barely sleeping on the plane, I'd arrived feeling probably better than off any long haul red eye ever. Probably because of a relative lack of booze, plus the A380 cabin really is much nicer than older planes. I wasn't dehydrated at all. I was only slightly tired, so I thought - ok, it's morning but you've got 2 days here now - check out the room, have a couple hours shut eye, and head out to explore KL at midday or so. Right?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

KL ain't a bad place to be

I'm on the 29th floor of a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, in a large hotel room with its own balcony looking out over the varied KL sky line. Just got back from breakfast, a sumptuous buffet offering of which I made heavy use: it started, while waiting to be seated, with an "eye-opener" greeting drink which I thought was alcoholic, but I'm not sure (though it was not being offered to the obviously Muslim). It's half eight in the morning and I'm feeling rested. How did I get here?

Back on, er, Saturday was it? Yeah, Saturday - it was meant to be a nicely alliterative day involving parkrun, packing, and Paris, but I skipped the run (fuck that wind!) and had already packed almost everything in an uncharacteristic panic more than 36 hours before I was due to leave. So in actuality I got out of bed about 1015 and watched WWE Smackdown. Can't remember what happened, but Smackdown is normally poor anyway. I presume the Shield had a match and, er, something else probably happened.

Er, anyway. I digress.  Left the flat about 1400 to make my way to a hotel next to Paris CDG terminal 3 via 4 trains. Started off with what I thought was a staggeringly priced £1.70 for a bottle of diet coke, holy shit Surbiton! Trekked across London to St Pancras, first time on Eurostar since the glory of GCERC but this time I was making use of my Amex platinum's benefit of getting me into the lounge, easily accessed after I somehow accidentally talked my way into the fast track lane because, oddly, I wasn't in a hurry. I pay a lot for this Amex card but this is the first time I've used the Eurostar lounge since December 2011 -- when I was, coincidentally, there on the way to an overnight stay in a hotel next to a European airport prior to spunking a raft of air miles on a trip to Australia while unemployed. Such a creature of habit. Though on this occasion for reasons of circumstance and instruction, I am not travelling with a hot girl, which will save me from being dumped while away or upon my return. Couldn't help but get a bit emo over Ellie though, ho hum. I almost wrote that I'd be travelling solo even if I did somehow manage to pull again, but that's probably a lie.

Once in the lounge Phil texted me, saying something about going for beer with a hot girl in Australia. Heh. I sat there kicking my diet firmly into touch by consuming London Pride and assorted nuts as if my life depended on it. Spent some time being annoyed by loud children running around, and lamenting that I'd not been able to change seats on Friday because the train was so busy. Also drew the Nasum logo off my shirt, for no good reason other than to waste ink I guess. I was impressed with the beer score in the fridges: England 1 France 1 Belgium 1. Well played, €*! But I was less impressed with the full length mirror on the inside of the loo door. Reminiscent of a terrifying EVERYTHING IS A MIRROR cubicle I once experienced in Paris. What the hell? Who wants to see themselves shit?

Being unable to change my seat wasn't a bad thing. I forgot until boarding that I'd already picked for myself the nearest seat to the bar, with a UK plug socket. Turned my frown upside down and plugged in me phone, got a magazine out, waited for the off. I seemed to be sat next to just a shopping bag, placed by someone I didn't notice. Some guy asked me if the seat was free, I explained the situation while also thinking, you what? You must have a seat, mate. You can't get on without one ffhs. He ended up perching across the aisle, until he got booted out at Ashford by the rightful occupier. So eventually he went to his own seat. Seriously, mate, what the fuck?

I could brew beer quicker than the onboard staff serve it (and maybe I will: my leaving gift from Amazon was a BEER MACHINE). Over 20 minutes to serve a queue of 4 people two cups of coffee, a toasted sandwich, and two tiny bottles of wine to the guy with his missus who waved an Amex gold around asking how much for champagne? oh, that much...what about the smaller bottles...? oh, ... ok two bottles of the red please. No, 4 bottles! But we'll come back later for the second two. Smooth work Mr gold card, you romantic beast you. Also, Eurostar sells Leffe in cans. Not seen that before.

During the wait, my seat mate had been upgraded from shopping bag to middle aged French woman who'd plugged her iPad mini into my USB cable and hoped I didn't mind. At the end of the journey she seemed so taken by my electrical generosity that she gave the gadget to me, well, she would have inadvertently done so had I not reached over numerous shoulders in the vestibule to tap hers and hand it back. I'd not have been a hard thief to catch anyway, what with the seat numbers 'n that...

A can of Stella and bottle of water cost an eye watering €8.70. Maybe that diet coke had been reasonable after all. I read Uncut magazine for the first time in about 3 years, and it hasn't changed at all. Bought it for the 40 years Ramones retrospective and got VERY annoyed at them using the band members' real names.

Going into France I had to change my watch's time. It's bizarre - I have a pebble smartwatch, supposedly this super modern high tech gadget, yet it has no support for multiple timezones and no downloadable things which do it well either, so here I am listening to the "where the local time is..." announcements and fiddling with the thing like it's the 1980s. Bleh. Also its battery life is shit.

Three let me buy a euro internet pass for roaming, then put me in a redirect loop telling me I needed one, I already had one, I needed one, I already had one. Suddenly I'm mentally transported back to last July and the second day of GCERC. Grr. Also got a text as we approached Paris from supercasino.com, offering entry into a competition to win a trip to Paris. Good skills.

Got off at Gare du Nord and paid €0.70 for a piss. Liquids are expensive in or out, it seems. Bought an RER ticket and waited on the shifty shady smelly platform for a bit. There was a lot going on trainside at GdN but it didn't all seem wholesome. Express service, headphones on and I relaxed. Was at my hotel less than half an hour from getting off €*, got my room number which started with a 2 but was on the 4th floor. But I was a bit drunk, and got off at the second floor. For fucks sake. Eventually got to 2406, dumped my stuff, had a panic at what briefly seemed like the only hotel TV ever without BBC World, then went to Bar Rendezvous. Spoke to a few folk by SMS, especially Mark, who asked "You in the hotel bar, or being sensible?" to which I replied with a photo of my beer. It was comfortably the nicest pint of Kronenbourg, which I don't normally like, that I had ever had. Until the second one.

Got a bit paranoid about my Sunday flight - there's only one service a day to KL from Paris, and that day's had been delayed by 3 hours. CDG airport, I had been warned, is shit and so not a place to be delayed. Tried to stop fretting about it and instead busied myself with a few Wikipedia articles on fatal plane accidents at CDG over the years (RIP Concorde) while being appalled by the appalling music. Who covers Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy with instruments? Who manages to make a worse cover of If You Don't Know Me By Now than Simply Red? Christ almighty.

I was now very drunk. Forgot to eat since midday. Caught a tiny bit of self-loathing until I remembered that, holy crap, I was finally getting I an A380 the next day! Yes! Yes! Yes! And so, to bed, to bed. Bon nuit, Paris.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


GCERC notes
GCERC notes, originally uploaded by Darren Foreman.

This memory made me smile.