Shanghai: A (partial) apology

Still the best skyline in the world

Back in May 2014, in the second most recent entry to this ever-prolific blog, I published an article that may have been a tiny bit negative about Shanghai and its residents. 

I suggested that the city populace lacked even the most basic social graces; that walking down the street required the dodging a near-constant tsunami of saliva; that even if you avoided the spit then you would almost certainly be mown down by a reckless motorist (or at least deafened by the ever-present fanfare of car horns); that to be white in Shanghai is to be gawked at like a Victorian circus freak and, finally that the Shanghaiese had bulldozed much of the city’s rich history in a relentless stampede towards modernity and money.

Well, I revisited the city last month and so it’s time to revisit those opinions. 

We hear much about the breakneck rate of development of China but it’s something else to witness the change firsthand.  The cashless society has well and truly arrived – during our stay, we were the only people I saw pay for anything with paper money.  Everyone else uses Wei Chat (an all-purpose social media app, communications hub and payments platform) or Alipay (the Chinese version of PayPal) via their phones. 

Incredibly this even included an elderly lady – to all intents a destitute – who appeared at our restaurant table one night, desperately pleading with us to buy one of her flowers to try and raise a few cents.  No chance of getting away with the old pat-of-the-pockets-shrug-of-the shoulders-sorry-I-haven’t-got-any-change routine as she accepted payment by Ali Pay.  So we told her to fuck off instead.

But more impressive than the technical advances are the changes in behaviour – spitting, for example, has both metaphorically and literally dried up.  The traditional soundtrack to Shanghaiese life – hawking Chinese on the vocals with accompanying horn section courtesy of gridlocked traffic has fallen silent.

A ban on horns within the city centre is largely respected but that’s not to say that there has been an accompanying improvement in driving standards.  Just that the regular traffic atrocities are now carried out in silence.  Traffic lights are still considered at best advisory and there are regular near misses involving the constant flow of electric scooters but, overall, the feel is of an organised, efficient chaos.

Patriotism is a concept that manifests itself in a variety of ways.  At best it can be a joyous and inclusive celebration of national identity, at worst a poisonous bigotry.  A sliding scale from St Patrick’s Day to Donald Trump. 

Saluting the flag

And the Chinese are nothing if not patriotic, something that is ingrained into them from a young age as we were able to witness first-hand.  Presumably with an eye on the paedophile market, our hotel room had been positioned overlooking the playground of the local junior school.  From memory, my mornings before school were spent milling around the playground or hurriedly finishing homework that had to be in that day.  For the Chinese student, the school day starts at 7.30 with exercises followed by marching around the playground, the forming of perfectly straight lines and saluting the Chinese flag whilst singing the national anthem.  Whether you think this is a positive reinforcement of national identity or the creepy brainwashing of impressionable young children almost certainly depends on whether you are Chinese or not.

It can be difficult to understand the Chinese mindset from a western perspective.  We fret (rightly) about the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the protestors in Hong Kong and, more broadly, about the suppression of personal freedoms but for most Chinese these issues just doesn’t cut through.  Partly this is down to the Communist Party’s massive censorship operation but, for many, the struggle for survival is too recent a memory for anything else to matter.  To put it another way, when your living standard has increased so greatly and so rapidly, it’s difficult to worry about the darker side of the government that created it. 

This rapid development has left parts of central Shanghai homogenised and looking like any other city.  Costa Coffee shops – established in London in 1971, their sign proudly proclaims – appear on every corner.  There is definitely a sense that traditions and history are dying but for many those traditions were contiguous with a shorter life expectancy, lower income and a lack of indoor plumbing.  I think that we can all agree that an increase in ubiquitous western coffee chains is a price worth paying for not having to defecate in a bucket.   

An oak-lined street in the French Concession

A booming city tends to bring with it a booming property market and Shanghai is no exception with sky-high prices commonplace.  We saw an ancient 60m2 in the city’s desirable French Concession area selling for $1.3M.  Housing affordability is hardly an issue unique to Shanghai and the government has introduced rules to try and address this. 

One example is limiting the number of properties that a married couple can own but we heard of one long-married couple who circumvented this in the most obvious way: they split up (on paper only) and proceeded with building their property portfolio.  A divorce of convenience if you like.     

Another rule states that only married holders of a Shanghai employment permit card can buy property in the city.  Shanghai operates a quasi-immigration system that limits the rights – and therefore flow – of citizens from other parts of the country.  We heard a story of a cosmetic surgeon who was granted this permit and moved to Shanghai.  However the surgeon’s brother and his fiancée were not able to secure a permit but wished to buy an apartment in the city.  In a bizarre turn of events, the surgeon ended up marrying the brother’s fiancée and the newlyweds bought a flat together which the brother now lives in with his sibling’s ‘wife’. 

The sanctity of marriage is alive and well in Shanghai.

Times have changed

So where does this ramble leave us?  Was my first impression of Shanghai wrong?  Maybe although I should add in the caveat that we more or less stayed in the French Concession for the entire trip which is a bit like judging London without leaving Mayfair.

Nonetheless, the streets are definitely cleaner (they are almost constantly attended to by an army of hose-wielding cleaners), standards of behaviour have improved and the city is as vibrant as ever.  Shanghai was always worth visiting but now it’s actually worth sticking around.

Posted in Asia, Uncategorized | Tagged | Comments Off on Shanghai: A (partial) apology

The Australia Dairy Company

 The Australia Dairy Company was founded in 1970 in the Hong Kong suburb of Jordan and has established itself as something of an icon in the island’s budget dining scene.  Despite the name, the restaurant’s only Antipodean connection is the somewhat tenuous claim that one of the original owners worked on a farm down under in the 1940s.

As it transpired, the dubious name was the least of the crimes committed against dining norms by this particular establishment.

The restaurant is famous for the long queue of eager punters that normally forms outside its door so we were delighted that none was in sight when we arrived on a warm Saturday evening.  Sarah carefully examined the menu (in Chinese, obviously, no quarter given to the tourist here) displayed in the window before attracting the attention of a passing staff member to ask if this was the daytime or evening menu.  The waiter, head cocked to one side, regarded her coolly, his expression a heady mixture of pity, contempt, incredulity and indifference.  Finally, after a short period of time, he apparently decided that that the question was so idiotic that he wasn’t going to bother answering it at all and walked off.

We looked at each other in slight disbelief for a few seconds before a different waiter appeared and Sarah asked him the same question.  He barked in the affirmative that this was indeed a menu so, deciding not to risk any further enquiries, we headed inside.

To be fair at least we couldn’t say we weren’t warned.  Describing the service in the Australia Dairy Company as rude would be to do the word a massive disservice.  This was studied, practiced, performed rudeness; the art of the abrupt; a burlesque of the brusque; Fawlty-esque, pantomime stuff.  It’s all part of the show and we lapped it up.

I would like to say that the waiter showed us to our table but that would give undue credit to the ledge he gestured dismissively towards.  A cloth used for wiping tables hung from the partition separating it from the adjoining table and two miniature stools sat below it.  These were fine for Sarah but, as I am a normal-sized human, it was something of an effort to contort my body sufficiently to perch under our shelf for two.

The shelf, cloth just in shot.

We quickly ordered.  We knew what we were getting – everyone knows what they are getting at the Australia Dairy Company – the set menu; although we jazzed up ours with some Hong Kong style French toast.  In the seconds (this is not an exaggeration) that passed before our food arrived we gazed at the tumult erupting around us in the fluorescently lit restaurant.  The noise level was incredible as white-coated waiters scurried around, seeking new and imaginative ways to abuse the patrons; to our left a bemused looking tourist couple looked even more confounded when they were ordered to shuffle round their tiny table to accommodate two local Chinese.

Masters at work

First to arrive was a cup of Hong Kong tea which was banged down with such force that half of it slopped all over the ledge.  No apology was sought or, obviously, offered.  The rest of the dinner followed quickly (and I mean quickly) – scrambled egg on toast with ham, a bowl of macaroni and the aforementioned French toast.  The tea was unspeakably vile – a consequence of using condensed milk – and the bowl of macaroni was everything you can hope for from a bowl of macaroni.

The scrambled egg, however, was something to behold – rich, creamy (as befits something that was probably 60% cream) and moreish.  Hong Kong French toast is basically the same as the western style other than the fact that a slab of butter is placed on the top slice which melts quickly and drizzles over the bread, combining with an (un)healthy glug of maple syrup.  I could feel my arteries hardening just looking at it.  As you would anticipate from a small plate of food containing more than one thousand calories, it tasted marvellous.

A final insult awaited when we asked for the bill.  The summoned waiter poked each plate dismissively with his pen, scrawled down the total before theatrically ripping the top sheet off his notepad and thrusting it in my direction.  Instinctively, and equally theatrically, I snatched it from him before he gestured towards the door twice with his thumb, an action that has only verbal translation; the second word being “off”.  He did at least have the good humour to break into a broad, toothy grin at this final affront which we could only reciprocate.

Timed from first insult to last, the entire Australia Dairy Company experience lasted less than fifteen minutes but the memories will linger a lot longer than that.  We emerged into the pulsating streets of Hong Kong dazed, ever so slightly nauseous from the richness of the food but both wearing unshakeable smiles.  I’ve had whole nights at stand-up comedy gigs where I’ve laughed less than I did in the quarter of an hour spent in the Australian Dairy Company. I found myself craving bad service afterwards, desperate to be scorned or derided by some inhospitable hospitality worker somewhere.

The next evening we dined in the two Michelin star Shang Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kowloon.  The staff were unfailingly polite in every respect – they bowed, they scraped, no request was too difficult, no enquiry was met with anything less than immediate and helpful assistance.  Truly world-class service.

How boring.

A more sanitised version of this blog will soon appear at  

Posted in Hong Kong | Tagged | Comments Off on The Australia Dairy Company

Japan: Beer, bowing and bewilderment

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

Is there a more ludicrous statement than the airplane pilot telling you to “sit back, relax and enjoy the flight”? Enjoy? Unless you are one of the fortunate few with the means to make the fabled left turn when entering the aircraft, surely the best you can hope for is to endure?

It was with these optimistic words from the pilot that the start of my most recent holiday was marked: two weeks in Japan which had been at least six months in the planning. Planning, needless to say, that was meticulously undertaken by my wife although her preparations unfortunately didn’t include actually packing her pre-loaded debit card with her resulting in half of her holiday money being left in Sydney.

Arrival in Tokyo got off to a less than auspicious start when I was yelled at by a taxi driver for the crime of trying to close my own door.  Little did I know that this demanding task is taken care of by the driver simply pressing a button on the steering column which opens and closes the door automatically.  It is striking how common automation is in Tokyo – why have a staircase when you can have an escalator?  Why order from a waitress when you can press a button on a vending machine? Why wipe your bottom when the toilet automatically shoots a jet of water up your arse instead?  There are so many buttons on the average Japanese toilet that it can feel like an IT degree is required before you dare use the thing.

Tokyo is a hulking, heaving, seething behemoth of a city with a population of thirteen million making it fifty percent larger than London or New York.  It’s said that everything is bigger in America, well in Tokyo everything is brighter, shinier and louder.  Take, for example, slot machines – the UK has fruit machines, Australia has the insidious pokies and Japan has Pachinko – pinball on speed if you will, played to an ear-splitting soundtrack of cartoon pop music.  Every street in downtown Tokyo is ablaze with neon signage and arrival in each subway station is greeted by an electronic music-box style tune piped through the station.  Tokyo is truly an assault on the senses but, like any major city, there is a slightly seedy underbelly if you look hard enough for it.  Which obviously I did.

A trip to the electronics district of Akahibra offers a glimpse into the slightly unsettling Japanese view of women and, in particular, the merging of cartoons and pornography.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Japanese men like ’em young.  Young and preferably dressed in school uniforms or maid outfits judging by what was on display in Akahibra.  Most people are familiar with Japanese style anime cartoons but it is striking how weirdly suggestive they are there – every girl wears the shortest of skirts, has the biggest of chests and, oddly, no discernible nose.  Whatever floats your boat I suppose but it was all a bit Saville-esque for my taste.

Not to suggest that all Japanese men are deviants but, conversely, women-only carriages operate on the Tokyo subway at peak times. They were introduced to tackle the problem of persistent groping by unscrupulous male passengers which is apparently a major problem during the sardine-like conditions of rush hour in Tokyo. Apparently two-thirds of Japanese women aged between twenty and thirty have been groped whilst travelling to work. I’m torn between shock at how commonplace this behaviour is in Japan and disappointment that I never received so much as a friendly smile in all my journeys on the Central Line.

The most bizarre aspect of the sexual, er, peculiarities of the Japanese is that they are so completely at odds with their public persona which is ultra-polite, excruciatingly so at times.  Being born English makes you no stranger to the extremes of politeness – the inability to complete a single transaction in a newsagent without saying “thanks” and “please” at least five times for example.  This is taken to the next level in Japan with their bowing etiquette – someone gets in your way, they bow, you get in someone else’s way, they bow.  They bow to say hello, they bow to say goodbye – usually multiple times.  I watched a group of five friends part and the farewell process must have included in excess of thirty bows.  It’s all very charming but being bowed to for buying a can of Coke from 7-11 is a slightly curious feeling especially as reciprocating will undoubtedly elicit another bow.

Bowing is the most obvious example of the culture of respect in Japan – respect for each other and an obvious respect for the environment judging by the lack of litter and graffiti even in Tokyo.  For example on the subway system, paper adverts hang down from the ceiling throughout the carriages.  You could practically guarantee that on the London Underground these would have been defaced / used for roach material / set on fire but they remain pristine on the Tokyo metro.  This isn’t to suggest that Japan is in the grip of an authoritarian regime with the population cowed by a harsh system of arbitrary rules enforced by an overbearing and intrusive police force in the manner of, say, North Korea or Australia; more that anti-social actions just aren’t the done thing.  There is plenty of personal freedom as far as I could make out.

Lunch on our first day took a controversial turn when, unable to help myself after spotting it on the menu and much to Sarah’s disgust, I ordered a dish of whale sashimi.  Japanese whaling is never far from the news but, interestingly, whale-eating is actually very much a minority interest these days with five thousand tonnes of unsold meat in deep freeze storage.  Whale hunting is also extremely expensive so the industry constantly runs at a loss and has to be heavily subsidised by the government.  In short it would be no great loss to the country if it disappeared; so why do the Japanese defend it so vehemently? This is partly down the whaling industry being well connected politically but mainly because the Japanese simply don’t like being told what to do by other nations, “cultural imperialism” as they see it.

Anyway, politics aside, how did it taste?  Pretty underwhelming if I’m honest – very meaty to the point of being closer to beef than any fish I’ve eaten but not with any hugely noticeable flavour.  I think Shamu can sleep safely tonight – I don’t see whale gracing many western menus any time soon.

A night out in Tokyo is obviously a must do and the brief taste I got of the social scene didn’t disappoint. Unusually for Asians, the Japanese are big drinkers and, luckily as Sake is off-limits to me due to a previous unsavoury incident with rice-based alcohol, they can knock up a decent beer.  A typical Japanese night of drinking is punctuated throughout with small dishes of food served throughout the evening.  This style is typified by the beautifully named ‘Piss Alley’ in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.  Piss Alley is actually a block of narrow laneways that feature dozens of small bars, most only seating a handful of people and all containing a grill on which the chef prepares traditional Yakitori (skewers of slightly dubious meat) whilst engaging the patrons in conversation.  These bars are packed in the evening when they fill up with the identically attired (white shirt, dark suit, brief case) Tokyo ‘salary men’.

We made our way down Piss Alley and Sarah managed to find a bar with two free seats where the owner indicated she could sit down.  I say ‘she’ because when he noticed my paler, western features it became clear that we wouldn’t be quite so welcome and he growled “upstairs” in my general direction.  Never having been the victim of racial discrimination before I was tempted to sit down anyway much like a latter-day Rosa Parks but, on reflection, I thought it best not to tempt the ire of a man with so many knives in easy reach.

Favouritism of their own (or racism as it would be called in the west) is not an uncommon feature of Asian life (different prices for natives and foreigners for example) but Tokyo, in stark contrast to most major capital cities, is strikingly homogenous.  Apart from in the major tourist areas, there are few white faces and even fewer black or south Asian ones.  In fact the only sizeable group of non-Japanese that we saw were the Nigerian touts who have bizarrely carved out a niche for themselves harassing people leaving Rompongi subway station in the hope of luring them into a nearby bar.

I suspect that one of the reasons why there are so few ex-pats in Tokyo may be the language barrier – less of a barrier, more of a fifteen metre high reinforced iron gate, topped with electrified razor wire, surrounded by an alligator infested moat and protected by snipers.  Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, English doesn’t get you far in Japan.

Signage uses a mixture of English, Chinese and two different Japanese alphabets which would be confusing at the best of times but on the already fiendishly complex Tokyo train system it is a recipe for missed trains, incorrectly bought tickets and general, all-round confusion.  Fortunately Sarah can read Chinese otherwise I can’t imagine where I would be – probably still lost on the Tokyo subway.  Spoken Japanese isn’t any easier: to the untrained ear “excuse me” sounds exactly like “welcome”, “thank you” sounds the same as “good morning” and the word “Hai” seems to mean almost anything depending on the context.

Japan is a diverse and disparate country and after Tokyo we witnessed the stunning bloom of the Sakura (cherry blossom), the Jigokudani national park where the monkeys descend from the mountains to bathe in the hot springs and pose for pictures with tourists, the majestic Alpine Route where coaches wind through mountain roads with snow piled up eighteen metres high on either side.  We dined on melt-in-the-mouth marbled Hida beef as well as the deadly Fugu fish and we marvelled at the UNESCO-listed historic Shirakawago village and the raked gravel of the Ryōan-ji garden in Kyoto (although I may possibly be missing something there).

No, Japan certainly doesn’t begin and end with Tokyo but this blog, quite literally, does.


Posted in Asia | Tagged , | Comments Off on Japan: Beer, bowing and bewilderment

Shanghai Stories

Futuristic Shanghai skyline by night.

The futuristic Shanghai skyline

Deng Xiaping, the historical leader of China responsible for many of the economic reforms that have led to the explosion in the country’s growth famously said:

“Not only should we push up the economy, we should also create a good social order and a good social mood.”

Well, one out of three isn’t bad right?

Before I describe what’s wrong with Shanghai and risk accusations of blatant racism, I’m going unashamedly trot out a “some of my best friends are black” type mitigation:  I am happily married to a Chinese girl whose family all seemed (as well as anyone can when they speak even less English than I do Mandarin) pleasant, friendly and generous

Now that caveat is out the way, let’s get to it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the problem with Shanghai is the people.  There, I said it.  In many ways Shanghai is the epitome of a 21st century city – a skyline to die for (the highlight being the brilliantly alienesque Oriental Pearl TV Tower), an excellent public transport system, fantastic shopping, buzzing nightlife, superb food (although I would personally recommend staying clear of the duck feet which taste as vile as you would expect them too and the pork ligaments which manage to be both stringy and fatty) and, obviously, a thriving economy.

All this is fatally undermined, however, when much of the population are still “pig farming peasants from the village” as memorably described to me by an (Asian) friend.  Let me give you an example:  The Huangpu River is a huge waterway cutting majestically through downtown Shanghai but, unfortunately, I’m firmly convinced that the majority of its great flow can be attributed to the saliva that is continually gobbed out by the populace of the city.  There are two dominant noises in Shanghai – the beeping of car horns (more on the traffic later) and the continual sound of energetic nasal hawking followed by spitting.  Sarah assured me that the fact that most of the culprits at least make a cursory effort to aim their spit at a bin (if there happens to be one nearby) represents considerable progress.

Another example:  The Shanghai subway has sprung up in the past fifteen years and now provides comprehensive coverage across the vast city.  It is frequent, reliable, cheap and clean.  Again this is all to naught when every attempt to board a train degenerates into an orgy of pushing, shoving and elbowing.  The concept of standing aside to let other passengers off clearly hasn’t reached Shanghai whereas the concept of ‘every man for himself’ seems to be the default position.  It is rudeness on a staggering scale and the only real option is to laugh at it.  I’m not quite sure how funny it would be if you had to endure it every day though.

Third exhibit for the prosecution:  Staring.  If you happen to be white and want to experience life as a celebrity – not an A-Lister such as a Beckham or a Clooney, you understand, more a C-grader: the sort of celebrity who attract unwanted stares rather than positive attention; a Chegwin, a Blackburn, a Davro, if you will – then venture fifteen minutes from the centre of Shanghai.  I could probably cartwheel naked down the middle of Regent Street and not receive so much as a second glance but my Caucasian features drew gawking across Shanghai.  And I’m not even talking about furtive, fleeting looks – people would literally stop what they were doing to inspect me as you would an artefact in a museum.  Like the pushing and spitting you become used to it after a while but it remains unsettling.

Fourth and final exhibit:  Shanghai traffic.  I have lived and worked in London and spent a reasonable amount of time in Asian cities so I am relatively immune to erratic driving and constant noise.  However, the taxi ride from Pudong airport to downtown Shanghai taxi goes straight in to my top five most terrifying journeys of all time.  The weaving in and out of traffic, cutting up of other vehicles and excessive speed would be bad enough normally but, bizarrely, the cabbie seemed to be convinced that she was a dab-hand behind the wheel.  “I am an excellent driver” she declared, whilst simultaneously cutting across three lanes of traffic and nearly into a head-on collision with a bus.  The instinct was to hold on for dear life but the cab was so filthy (like much of Shanghai; I saw several dogs wearing shoes) that to touch anything within it was probably to risk a dose of the bubonic plague.  “Foreigners behave disgustingly” came another pearl of wisdom as she nonchalantly threw an empty Coke can out the window.  A little light relief came when she congratulated Sarah on marrying an Englishman as “they are all very rich”.  How little she knows.

It’s said that crossing the road in Hanoi in Vietnam is a life-changing experience – thousands of motorbikes throng the streets and the only way to get across is to steadily walk out into them whilst, like a sea of Kawasakis parting for Moses, they drive around you as you make it safely to the other side.  The situation in Shanghai is similar in that there is no point in waiting for cars to stop as nobody obeys traffic lights anyway.  The difference is that I’m convinced that most Shanghai drivers wouldn’t think twice about mowing you down.  A life-ending, rather than life-changing experience.

If life is cheap in Shanghai, it’s one of the few things that is.  For a country that has really only started developing towards western standards in the past twenty years, they seem to have got the hang of capitalism pretty quickly.  Coffee, for some reason, is absurdly expensive – $9 seemed to be a common price and we even saw one café charging $25 for two ice creams.  That’s not to say that there aren’t bargains to be had – taxis are very cheap (possibly because they kill so many of their passengers) and you can eat for next to nothing but some of the ludicrous prices on display are quite jarring when you see the abject poverty that many Chinese live in.

Nowhere is this huge inequality more evident than on one of the main roads in downtown Shanghai – The Bund.  At street level witness people living on the very edge of existence, collecting rubbish or begging, but take a lift up ten floors and you enter Bar Rouge where cocktails are $25 and attitude comes for free.  The bar’s main selling point is the fantastic view it affords across the Huangpu to the stunning skyline but it is primarily a place to show off.  The main bar is surrounded by roped off table service areas where ex-pats and rich Chinese sit, looking miserable and playing on their iPhones with untouched bottles of Grey Goose in front of them.  Fortunately the horrendous sound track of R&B and commercial house music is played at such a high volume that it drowns out the distant sound of Chairman Mao spinning furiously in his grave.  Communism this ain’t.

The embrace of turbo-charged capitalism to escape to an impoverished past and pursue higher standards of living is understandable.  What is more depressing is that this process seems to have led to a wholesale junking of Shanghai’s past, architecturally and culturally.  This is evident in the French Concession area of the city where many of the traditional Shikumen dwellings have been bulldozed and replaced with a soulless Canary Wharf-style development complete with high-end shops and the aforementioned $25 ice creams.  Bizarrely they have attempted to model the area on the Shikumen style but the result is a total loss of the original character.  According to Sarah the area is a suitable metaphor for the Chinese character now – superficial, money-obsessed and with absolutely no regard for their history.

Despite all this I would still recommend a visit to Shanghai – although it would probably be more accurately described as an ‘experience’ rather than a holiday; it certainly isn’t one for Asia virgins.  I found it to be a bit like a cross between Hong Kong (the downtown area itself) and Bangkok or Saigon (the chaos) but populated by, to western eyes at least, an essentially alien life form with few redeeming features.  The native Shanghaiese will tell you that many of the behavioural problems lay with migrant workers (Xiang Wo Nin, pronounced Shao-wen-ee – which roughly translates as peasant) who travel to Shanghai from across China in search of a better life (the mind boggles at what they must be leaving behind) but are basically treated as foreigners with few rights.

It’s a shame as Shanghai has many plus points as I mentioned at the start of what has turned into a rather unsavoury rant but the truth is that you can’t divorce a place from its people.  Londoners can be rude, miserable and cynical (or maybe that’s just me) but they generally have a sense of humour that redeems many of these faults.  Maybe in a generation or two, the social behaviour of Shanghai’s residents will have caught up with its rapid economic development and the city wouldn’t be such an ordeal but, until then, it will always largely be a place to endure rather than enjoy.

Posted in Asia | Tagged | Comments Off on Shanghai Stories

New Zealand: Geo-Porn

If the north island of New Zealand is pretty then the south island, as I was to find out, is frankly geographical pornography. It is a source of amazement that such a small country could incorporate so many amazing topographical features. Before I was able to head south and explore further I had to negotiate a weekend in Christchurch where I was to be hosted by a previous colleague and verbal sparring partner from my brief, ill-fated foreign exchange days in London, Chris Kensington. It had been two years since Chris had left London which meant that we had two years’ worth of shit to give each other once hostilities were resumed.

Things got off to a promising start when Chris collected me from Christchurch airport and, in an uncharacteristic display of generosity, even bought me a cup of tea from a cafe near his flat. Had I known that was where the bonhomie was to end, I might have considered different accommodation options for the weekend. Shortly after we entered his flat Chris gestured towards his couch and muttered:

“That’s your beard”.
“Sorry?” I replied, confused.
“That’s your beard” he reiterated, “You know, where you will be sleeping tonight”.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that Kiwis do have some pronunciation issues – ‘six’ is pronounced “sux” and ‘tent’ would be “tint’ for example hence why Chris (or perhaps “Chrus”) was having such difficulty with the word bed.

Disgusted both by Chris’s unwillingness to surrender his own bed to his overseas visitor and also by his inability to pronounce the most simple of monsyllabic words correctly, I dejectedly deposited my backpack on the floor and resigned myself to a couple of nights on a sofa. At this point Chris perched an absurdly camp Trilby atop his head and announced that we were off to a garden party that he had somehow been invited to. I searched around vainly in my bag for a suitable garden party outfit and settled on a shirt and a pair of jeans – in fairness a backpack does somewhat limit you in terms of the amount of clothing that you can carry, therefore my ‘garden party’ outfit was the same as my ‘wedding’, ‘funeral’ or indeed ‘meet the Pope’ outfit would have been. Chris had decided to accessorise his gay hat with a pair of equally gay sunglasses so, praying that I wouldn’t be recognised in his company (an unlikely event given that I didn’t know anyone within 1500 miles), we set off for the wilds of the Canterbury Plains, an area around 100KM outside of Christchurch. Enroute I asked Chris how he knew the host of the party, “I don’t, I’ve never met her” came the slightly worrying reply. Fair enough, who did he know at the party who had invited him along? “Nobody. I don’t know anyone there” was the alarming response.

Reeling from the revelation that we were heading to a party where Chris knew absolutely no one and I knew less than that, it seemed a good time for a display of ‘good New Zealand values’ as my host described it – a stop at the side of the road for a bottle of cider. Slightly refreshed although still very concerned, we were soon at the garden party and I found myself mingling with what is probably best described as a young New Zealand farmers’ convention. I’m not sure if there is a Kiwi equivalent to the phrase ‘Hooray Henry’ or if that is even appropriate to describe this motley crew but if I point out that there were a disturbing number of cravats and even, in a few cases, jumpers tied casually around necks you should get a reasonable idea of the type of gathering that I found myself embroiled in. After meeting our host (think a Kiwi version of Carol Thatcher) I reluctantly threw myself into the occasion and engaged in conversation with the great and the good of the New Zealand farming community – not an easy task if, like me, your knowledge of agricultural practices and politics, extends to the fact that I once lived in a house that backed onto a field. Midway through one conversation about the annual dairy yield from a cow (or somesuch fascinating topic of conversation) Chris sidled up to me and announced that he was pissed so I would need to drive us back to Christchurch after the party. An unwelcome turn of events given that I was relying on a prodigious consumption of alcohol to get me through the occasion.

Nevertheless I battled through the rest of the garden party and was soon negotiating my way back to Christchurch in Chris’s car my ‘host’ having passed out on the passenger seat, stirring only occasionally to deliberately infuriate me with comments such as “doing well Rich” and “watch out for that car”. Avoiding the temptation to spite Chris by driving his Mazda into a wall, I eventually got us back to Christchurch and after Chris atoned for his reprehensible conduct during the day by buying me a Chinese, I set about preparing for a night out. Despite being a small town by English standards (even though the Kiwis insist on calling it a city), Christchurch has a lively nightlife with the ‘Sol Square’ area a hive of activity after dark.

Chris had warned me that Christchurch was lacking in sights and his tour the following day reinforced this, apart from a bland stretch of coastline punctuated by a hideously ugly concrete pier, a few earthquake-damaged buildings and a large cathedral in the centre of town, there was little to captivate the tourist; Christchurch seems to serve mainly as a gateway to the rest of the island.

After one final insult from Chris whereby he lured me from his flat ostensibly to show me where I would be collected by bus the following morning but in reality to assist him with his torturous monthly shopping trip around the local supermarket, I was heading out of Christchurch bound for Greymouth where I would be picking up a tour bus.

The road from Christchurch to Greymouth goes via the tourist route of Arthur’s Pass and is famously scenic as it passes through an incredible mountain range – a truly astounding drive. Or at least it would have been if the cloud hadn’t been so low as to all but obliterate the surrounding views and the bus that we were travelling in so old that it barely managed ten miles per hour on some of the steeper climbs. A far from ideal situation which was probably not helped by the vehicle being terribly overloaded with people and luggage, making what should have been a memorable journey something of an ordeal.

The bus deposited me at Greymouth (scene of the Pike River mining disaster) where I was met by a Stray Bus. For the uninitiated, there are several tour companies that run buses that criss-cross New Zealand, stopping at various points of interest. Whilst they do have some drawbacks – I quickly tired of my fellow travellers’ taste in music (German death metal and Swedish happy hardcore anyone?) – the tour buses do provide plenty of opportunity to meet people and are certainly preferable to travelling on your own; it was a Stray bus that took me on my previous excursion up to the Bay of Islands and also the company where all the drivers have unusual names. My driver this time was a lesbian called Curry (“because I’m hot and spicy” she somewhat dubiously claimed) and soon we were en route for Franz Josef – home of one of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers.

The following morning we set off on our full day hike up the glacier – a distance of around eleven kilometres with a climb of about four hundred vertical metres. We travelled to the base of a glacier in a group of around one hundred intrepid explorers (bearing in mind each were paying around $160, it’s obvious that there is plenty of money in this adventure tourism lark) before being split into smaller groups to actually climb the glacier. After my previous exploits on the Tongariro Crossing on the North Island I considered myself a seasoned mountaineer but not quite seasoned enough to go with the group who professed themselves to be “very physically fit”. I tactically positioned myself in one of the middle groups which included three Dutch girls, a couple of guys from Britain and an annoying American from Chicago called Charles who thought it was highly amusing to constantly sing “Sunshine and Lollipops” especially when it started raining (which happens extremely frequently on the glacier).

Whilst the conditions on the glacier would be described as challenging in places, the fact that we were fully equipped with boots, crampons, ice-picks and full wet weather clothing meant that it didn’t present too many problems and on several occasions we actually found ourselves twiddling our thumbs whilst our guide skillfully carved a path through the ice ahead of us. We managed to use this spare time constructively by hacking away at the glacier with our ice-picks (I’m sure the sea levels probably rose another few inches because of our activities that day) or by throwing small pieces of ice at the annoying Charles’s head. Hours of fun.

The following day we left Franz Josef to embark on the drive down the east coast to Makarora – a drive that has been voted one of the top ten scenic drives in the world and, leaving aside the disappointment of the famous Lake Matheson being shrouded in fog, it was easy to see why. We passed a constant parade of waterfalls, beautiful icy blue rivers, stunning snow-capped mountain ranges and magnificent lakes and meadows. It’s absolutely staggering how much exquisite, unspoilt scenery has been packed into such a relatively small country (New Zealand is around the same size as the UK) and I have to admit that by the end of the drive I was becoming slightly blasé to my surroundings and suffering slightly from scenery fatigue and my camera’s battery was rapidly declining from being called into action so many times.

The only real disappointment about the Franz Josef to Makarora drive was that it had to end in Makarora. When Curry told us that we would be staying in a hostel in the town of Makarora, she neglected to point out that the hostel was the town – there was literally nothing else for hundreds of miles although, bizarrely enough, the two guys that worked in the hostel were from Kent. Small world. The lack of facilities was no major blow though as most people were feeling the effects of the previous day’s glacial exertions and an early night was probably in order.

The next stop was Queenstown which bills itself as the ‘Party Capital of New Zealand’ and the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’ and neither of these titles are easily disputed. The town itself is set in a stunning location (I had come to expect nothing else in New Zealand) on the banks of Lake Waktipu and surrounded by a mountain range known as ‘The Remarkables’ – so-called as they run north-to-south rather than east-to-west across New Zealand, topography fans.

A few nights were spent out exploring a few of Queenstown’s (reputedly) three hundred bars but the highlight for me was a day trip to Milford Sound, located on the south west coast. The Sound should technically be known as a fjord (for all you geography pedants out there) and is basically an inlet where the Tasman Sea meets the coast of New Zealand. It also features highly on any ‘Must Do’ list of attractions for New Zealand and I was soon to discover why. After a seemingly never-ending journey from Queenstown, most of which was spent on a road unnervingly similar to the mountain pass in the final scenes of the Italian Job (the original, not the Jason Statham insult) we eventually reached Milford Sound itself and boarded our vessel which was to take us round the feature.

The word ‘magnificent’ is perhaps used slightly too freely these days but there was no doubt that it is an appropriate adjective for Milford Sound (stunning, eerie, moody and atmospheric would also have been fitting). The general chatter of those on the boat was hushed by the majestic scenery that we sailed through; sheer rock faces rose sharply out of the calm waters to heights of over 1200 metres in places with dozens of waterfalls cascading down them. The only other signs of life were the occasional tour boats that we passed as well as some local wildlife – seals and dolphins were spotted enroute. I took endless pictures but none of them were ever going to do such an amazing landscape justice – absolutely incredible and well worth the six hour round trip from Queenstown to get there.

I left Queenstown the following morning for my penultimate destination in New Zealand – Palmerston on the south east coast of the south island. Palmerston is not really on the tourist trail but Chris (my Christchurch-dwelling) friend mentioned earlier had kindly arranged for me to spend a night on his dad’s sheep farm for a truly authentic Kiwi experience. Stopping only at Dunedin Airport to collect a hire car – a Hyundai Getz, simultaneously the most embarrassing looking and worst-performing car I have ever had the misfortune to drive – I headed for the farm and was over-taken by a near-constant procession of traffic on the way.

When I arrived at the farm it was clear that in terms of taking the piss, the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree when it came to Chris and his dad, Steve: “Being a Pom, I’d imagine you’ll be wanting a cup of tea?” came the opening salvo. After a chat with Steve about life on the farm, he announced he was off to slaughter a lamb for our dinner that evening (I politely declined the invitation to watch) and soon disappeared off in his tractor, stopping only briefly to declare my vehicle a “wee woman’s car” and a “wee shopping cart” and helpfully pointing out that although the Moeraki Boulders (a tourist spot that I was going to visit that afternoon) were ‘five minutes up the road, it will probably take you half an hour in that thing”.

It did in fact take me half an hour to reach the boulders but this was more down to my chronic lack of direction than the performance of the “shopping cart”. The Moeraki Boulders are large round stones with unusual honeycomb-style markings found on the Koekohe Beach and despite the fact that most Kiwis I spoke to decried them as something of a waste of time, I actually found them pretty cool. Probably not worth heading massively out your way for but certainly worth an hour of your time if you ever happen to be in the Palmerston area of New Zealand (which, let’s face it, you probably won’t).

After an hour with the boulders doing the tourist thing, I headed back to the Kensington farm and tucked into probably the best roast lamb I have ever eaten – freshly slaughtered is clearly the way to go – and a very pleasant bottle of wine whilst putting the world to rights with Steve. An early night followed as I was flying back to Sydney the following morning.

And so ended my New Zealand adventure; I honestly cannot recommend the country highly enough – it’s not just the friendliness of the people, the laid-back lifestyle, the sparse population (and therefore lack of traffic) or the stunning landscape but a combination of all these things and more. That said, would I live here? Probably not – Wellington aside (where I only spent a very short period of time) – it’s probably a bit too quiet for me and I think I would miss the hustle and bustle of a big city after a while. As a holiday destination though, it truly is second to none.

As the Kiwis say – sweet as.

* Apologies for the lack of pictures on this post – technical problems at this end which may, or may not be resolved by me taking a hammer to my laptop.

Posted in New Zealand | Comments Off on New Zealand: Geo-Porn

New Zealand: Godzone

Obscenely beautiful New Zealand countryside enroute to Corremandle Beach

After a brief few days in Sydney following an action-packed week in America I found myself on board yet another flight, this time bound for Auckland on the north island of New Zealand for a month in the country that the natives call ‘Godzone’ i.e. ‘God’s own country’. Based on what I had heard from friends and relatives who have visited New Zealand I was expecting big things and, at time of writing, I am yet to be disappointed.

I was, however, told not to expect too much from Auckland and once again this advice proved accurate: The city struck me slightly as a poor man’s Sydney with inferior versions of the Harbour Bridge, Tower and ‘Star City’ casino, (the Kiwi version being called ‘Sky City’). Auckland is called home by around a quarter of the residents of New Zealand – around one million people – which means they are often referred to as ‘Jafas’ i.e. ‘Just Another Fucking Aucklander’. Charming.

I flew to New Zealand with my cousin Paul and his girlfriend Lou with the idea of travelling round some of the north island together in a car which we were to buy as soon as we got to Auckland. Lou went to stay with family on the second day so Paul and I set out to delve into the (very) used car market of Auckland. I have a pretty much flawless record of catastrophic car purchases so I was happy to let

Rod the Car

Paul take the lead on this one and we soon found ourselves the new owners of a tasty little Subaru Legacy (subsequently and inexplicably to be called ‘Rod’ by Lou) with only 280,000 kilometres on the clock and only 300,000 dents and scrapes on the bodywork (a total which was later to be added to twice – once when I reversed into a picnic table and then again when an idiotic Maori drove into the back of us). Paul and I decided to celebrate the purchase with a marathon drinking session, a particularly reckless decision given that I was to be collected at 7AM the next morning for the start of a trip north of Auckland.

By luck rather than judgement, I awoke with fifteen minutes to spare the following morning and managed to get myself onto the bus in time but stupidly managed to leave four days worth of laundry in a bag in the hostel which subsequently ‘disappeared’; I suspect that the Nomads hostel in Auckland now has some particularly snappily dressed cleaners. Annoying but these things happen though.

The trip was a four day excursion to include the Bay of Islands, Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga (the northern most point of New Zealand) and despite my phenomenal hangover, I was looking forward to seeing some of the country and escaping the urban sprawl of Auckland. Our driver / guide for the first part of the journey up to Paihia in the Bay of Islands introduced himself as ‘Metro’ which struck me as a slightly odd name but my fellow travellers soon informed me that all the tour bus drivers have unusual monikers – ‘Scratch’, ‘Handbrake’, ‘The Hoff’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Captain Planet’ were amongst other examples. Metro did provide some interesting commentary on the route up to the Bay of Islands though, albeit lifted directly from the Lonely Planet guidebook, but I did harbour some slight concerns about his geographical knowledge of that part of the island especially when, during one toilet stop, I asked him how much further it would be to our destination. “No idea” came the encouraging reply.

In fairness Metro managed to get us to Paihia intact although a quick scope round the town on my part revealed it to be a fairly standard tourist trap with the usual assortment of bars, restaurants and travel agents that normally fill these type of areas. Faced with such an uninspiring sight I did the only sensible thing and headed to the nearest bar with some new found friends from the bus. As a consequence, the following morning I was heading further north towards Cape Reinga on yet another bus with yet another hangover. My headache and feelings of nausea were soon forgotten once we headed into the countryside of Northland – which can probably be best described as the English countryside on acid and is reminiscent of the landscape of Greendale (home, of course, to Postman Pat).

The rest of the trip incorporated a drive along the spectacular, if erroneously named ninety mile beach (it is only actually forty miles long), some more sand-boarding (more successfully than my last

Ninety Mile Beach

foray in Port Stephens – the key appears to be to lie face down on the board rather than sit on it) and a trip to Cape Reinga itself where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. All hugely scenic with the trip sound tracked by a running commentary from our enthusiastic and likeable bus driver (didn’t catch his name but I’m sure it would have been something ludicrous) who clearly took great pleasure in describing this often overlooked part of New Zealand; he was typical of the Kiwis though – probably the most genuinely friendly and welcoming nation of people I have come across.

Over a few beers the following evening I met a few more of my fellow-travellers including a few from the ‘Kiwi Experience’ tour – a company with something of an 18-30 style reputation. A notoriety that one of the guys by the name of Panda seemed determined to live up to by exposing himself on a fairly regular basis; it came as no real surprise that the next time I bumped into him, a few days later in Auckland, he was midway through a cat food eating contest.

A couple of days later I returned to Auckland to be reunited with Paul, Lou and Rod and we were also to be joined for a few days by a former colleague of mine from Sydney – the memorably named Penny Lane. After a traumatic exit from the city which was punctuated by repeatedly getting lost as well as some disturbing noises and smells emitting from Rod we headed south to our first stop, Corremandle Beach.

New Zealand is roughly the same size as the UK but has only one twelfth of the population and this difference is obvious as soon as you leave an urban area – you can drive for hours and only see two or three other vehicles; a far cry from the daily horrors of the M25 and it makes driving a truly enjoyable experience. Or at least it would have done if we weren’t living in constant fear of the car’s engine exploding.

We were due to be camping and Lou’s uncle had kindly lent us a tent, a decision which he probably now regrets as we managed to rip a hole in the fly sheet within minutes of removing it from its bag. As it turned out we only spent one night under canvas at that site – the following morning it looked like rain so, hardy campers that we are, we retreated to the more salubrious confines of a log cabin.

After a couple of relaxing days in Corremandle we departed for Hot Water Beach, so named because if you dig down a couple of feet in certain areas of the sand you can discover pools of water warmed by underground thermal activity. The Rough Guide did warn that the beach can be busy and that ‘altercations’ had occurred when people had become overly territorial about their holes; bearing that in mind we tooled up with a couple of rented spades and headed for the beach at low tide. What greeted us was something akin to Benidorm at its worst – hundreds of people crammed into a small area of the beach, some smugly sitting in their steaming pool, others digging desperately as close to the thermal area as possible. I can easily imagine how ‘altercations’ could occur – in peak season the beach probably resembles the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. After skulking around this scene of chaos for a few minutes it became clear that we were not going to be able to get a spot in a prime location so we improvised and started digging a deeper than average hole a few feet from the main area. The plan, I’m sorry to report, was not successful and after digging down about four feet and spending ten minutes sitting in tepid water pretending to ourselves that it was getting warmer – during which time we were mockingly photographed by a group of tourists – we admitted defeat and retreated to our cabin to be consoled by a cheap box of wine.

The next day we headed to Rotorua – a town which you can smell long before you see it as it is the site of some major volcanic activity. This is obvious from the all-pervading Sulphur smell which, admittedly, you stop noticing fairly quickly and also by random plumes of smoke emerging from the ground and bubbling pools of mud dotted across the town. It’s a pleasant enough place to stay though with plenty of activities to keep you occupied including luging which I tried my hand at. Luging is basically a cross between go-karting and tobogganing whereby you career down a hill whilst simultaneously trying to crash into other people and knock them off the track. Or at least that’s the way that we did it anyway. Great fun.

Penny and I also visited the nearby ‘Thermal Wonderland’ of the Wai-o-Tapu volcanic park which featured a geyser which is primed to erupt each morning by dropping a bar of soap into it and

Luminous lake at Wai-O-Tapu

various other bubbling, steaming and (in a couple of cases) luminous-coloured lakes. Much of it was indeed spectacular but the whole park did have a slightly sterile, Disney-esque feel to it from the staged geyser eruption right through to the paved path which led around the entire area; this did detract slightly from the experience but it was still well worth a visit.

After Rotorua where we bid farewell to Penny Lane as she was heading to the south island, Paul, Lou and I headed to the enormous Lake Taupo which covers approximately 616 square kilometres and is overlooked in the distance by a huge snow-covered mountain – another stunning scene. New Zealand really is enormously pretty and, seeing as most people say that the North Island is the least attractive of the two, I could only wonder at what lay in store on the South Island.

The two days we spent in Taupo were marked by steadily rising temperatures which actually seemed to increase as the day went on, not that I was complaining – the weather in Sydney before I left had been less than pleasing and there is actually a cyclone predicted for when I return just before Christmas which could make camping an interesting and potentially airborne experience.

Our next stop of was at the hilariously named Whakupapa, admittedly this is only hilarious if you are aware that the correct Maori pronunciation is ‘Fuckapapa’ which caused no end of amusement for us as you can imagine, particularly when it was repeatedly mentioned by an elderly lady. Whakupapa was to be our base for the feared Tongaririo Alpine Crossing and when I say ‘feared’ I should clarify that it was mainly feared by me due to my aversion to any strenuous physical activity. The crossing is a relatively challenging 19KM hike across Mount Tongariro and, despite the fact that it was about twenty five degrees by 8AM and I

Volcanic lake on Tongariro Crossing

felt like I lost at least a stone during the walk, it was absolutely worth it. The eight hour journey demonstrated perfectly the diversity of New Zealand’s geography and also how rapidly it can change – one minute you would be walking alongside a babbling stream cutting through a rocky landscape, the next crossing a barren Martian scene, then scaling a steep mountain before descending through scrub land and into a thick forest. The crossing also took in a mountain which had literally exploded under the force of some previous volcanic activity – a truly awesome sight as well as, bizarrely considering the temperature, a few patches of densely packed snow. A tough but rewarding experience although my legs weren’t feeling particularly rewarded the following morning.

After Whakupapa we headed to Napier on the east coast of the North Island – rated as on of the top-thirty ‘must do’ things in New Zealand by the Rough Guide. One can only speculate at the financial inducements or sexual favours bestowed upon the authors of said travel guide by the tourism board of Napier in order to secure this endorsement as the town would be on my personal ‘must not do’ list. Napier’s main selling point is its architecture – the town was razed by an earthquake in 1931 and the decision was made to rebuild the town’s buildings in the ‘Art Deco’ style popular at the time. Admittedly this decision has left the town with some mildly diverting structures but unfortunately these have been used to house pretty bog-standard shops which could be found in any crappy little town. Combining this unhappy setting with a horrible, filthy pebble beach makes Napier one to avoid in my humble opinion and luckily the following day I was on my way to Wellington,my final stop in the North Island.

Wellington was recently voted ‘Coolest Small Capital in the World’ and, despite my all-too-short time in the nation’s capital – it was easy to see why: It’s an enormously attractive, laid-back city with a great night-life, beautiful harbour and some very pleasing buildings. It was unfortunate that I only had a few hours in the city to explore before boarding my flight to Christchurch, gateway to the South Island.

More next time.

Posted in New Zealand | Comments Off on New Zealand: Godzone

Viva Las Vegas

Vegas Wedding: (Left to Right) Paul (the groom's brother), Simon (the groom) and Matt (best man)

According to the cliché , if you can remember the 1960s you weren’t there and I’m going to use a similar excuse for this lame attempt at a post about my five days in Las Vegas; frankly I can’t remember a great deal of it*

The purpose of the trip was to attend my cousin Simon’s wedding which was to be held at the Special Memory Chapel in Las Vegas and after a busy few days in Los Angeles (see previous post), Carly and I headed into the desert en route to Sin City. The drive from LA takes around five hours, the majority of which is spent crossing the otherworldly landscape of the badlands of California and Nevada. We drove for hours passing nothing other than the very occasional petrol station before the ludicrous city-scape of Las Vegas eventually appeared on the horizon.

…and this is when details start to get a bit sketchy. The next few days passed in a whirl-wind of unsuccessful gambling, successful drinking and continued astonishment at the sheer vastness of this Mecca of pleasure: Just to walk from my suite (check me out) to the reception of the hotel would take around twenty minutes; to walk from our hotel (The Palazzo) to the hotel next door (The Venetian) would take another fifteen, the ‘strip’, an area marked at one end by the Stratosphere and at the other by the Mandalay Bay, is more than six miles in length. You get the idea anyway – Vegas is big on an industrial scale.

Luckily I am able to recall slightly more about Simon and Jo’s nuptials – an event that will remain in the memory of those lucky enough to attend (and also those who were watching via the simultaneous webcast) for many years to come. The wedding had something of an Elvis theme with the groom, best man and the groom’s brother all tastefully kitted out in full Elvis regalia; white jump suits, wigs, medallions and sunglasses all round. It was certainly a spectacle, as was the bling-tastic stretched Hummer complete with plasma screen and pumping R&B music that collected us from our hotel and ferried twenty of us to the chapel. During the service itself an actual Elvis singer (who bore more than a passing resemblance to Cliff Richard in his hay-day) provided the music and entertainment, highlights of which included ‘Love me Tender’ as the bride walked down the aisle and a particularly stirring rendition of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ at the end of the service which the entire congregation joined in with. A surreal but extremely enjoyable occasion and I can honestly say that I have never laughed so much during a wedding.

Unfortunately that is pretty much the limit of my memories of Las Vegas which is usually an indication of a good time in my experience. I flew back to Sydney on the following Friday for a couple of days of recuperation before flying to New Zealand a couple of days later. More to follow on that and I will try and cobble something more acceptable together next time

*Yes this is a massive cop-out.

Posted in USA | Comments Off on Viva Las Vegas

Drinkin’ in LA

Riding Segways on Venice Beach

Does anyone have a good word to say about Los Angeles?  If they do they certainly say it quietly as some of the comments I heard in the build up to my long weekend there didn’t exactly inspire much confidence or excitement:  Going to Hollywood?  It’s a dump.  Going down town?  You’ll be mugged.  Venice Beach?  Nice if you like your sand with added needles.  Driving?  Drive-bying more like.  You get the idea anyway – I was not expecting a great deal from the city but, as it transpired, I was pleasantly surprised.

The trip began in a slightly surreal way due to the time difference between the west coast of America and the east coast of Australia –we took off at 12PM Sydney time, flew for thirteen hours and then landed at 7.30AM the same day.  An extremely disorienting experience.   I was also slightly fortunate to get my suitcase onto the plane at all as it was a mere two hundred grams short of their absolute weight limit although this luck was slightly negated by the handle snapping off later in the trip.

We hired a car as soon as we got to LA, a decision that nearly ended in tragedy when, literally minutes after leaving the airport, I forgot the basic fact that Americans drive on the right and headed down a four lane highway in the wrong direction, stupidly responding to Carly’s terrified cries of “Right!  Right!  Right!” with “Yes, I’ve turned right!”.  Fortunately no cars were coming in the opposite direction otherwise we would have been making a swift and sheepish return to Hertz with a totalled Corolla.  LA is generally a fairly car-friendly city though (just as well as public transport is pretty much non-existent) and the rest of the drive passed off without incident before we arrived at our hotel situated right on Venice Beach.  We dropped off our bags and began a slightly jet-lagged, zombie-like wander around the area.

I had heard mixed things about Venice before I got here (see previous ‘needles in the sand’ comment) but I have to say I loved the place.  The beach itself is fairly non-descript – a huge expanse of featureless sand peppered with an inexplicable amount of bird shit – but the life that exists on the boardwalk that runs alongside the

Venice Beach Resident

beach is something to behold:  Bikers, hobos, Segway-riders, tourists, locals, hawkers, touts, weirdoes, wannabe rappers, wannabe gangsters, club kids, rockers, the very poor, the very rich all mingle together in a collage of humanity unlike anything I have ever seen.  This seething mass of life is sound-tracked by music pumping from the various shops and bars along the strip and also by whatever instruments the locals have managed to get their hands on to busk with.  That’s not to say that the area doesn’t have its downside – I wouldn’t particularly recommend walking around there at 2AM for instance but as a people-watching spot it is second to none.

Another interesting feature of Venice Beach (and California in general) is the prevalence of ‘Medicinal’ Marijuana shops where you

Medical Marijuana Centre

can turn up and, if the resident doctor considers you suitably ‘ill’, can be prescribed cannabis.  I had a peer into one of the waiting rooms and, call me cynical if you will, I have to say that none of the people in there looked particularly poorly.  On inspecting the sign outside the shop, it would appear that weed can be prescribed for anything varying from AIDS to loss of appetite so I don’t think you would find it too difficult to find an appropriate symptom if you so wished.  California recently voted on ‘Proposition 19’ which would have completely decriminalised marijuana but this was narrowly defeated by forty-five percent to fifty-five percent although to be honest I was surprised that the pro-weed vote was that high:  I would guess that most of their core vote would be too stoned to turn up at the polling station or would perhaps roll a spliff out of the ballot paper rather than actually voting with it.

The next day we decided to head into LA proper with Carly, sensibly, behind the wheel this time.  It must be pointed out that on this journey it became clear to me that some of the criticism levelled at Los Angeles has merit to it.  The majority of the suburbs we drove through were characterless, ugly and dull and literally every other shop seemed to be a fast food restaurant.  Nonetheless we drove on before reaching the equally underwhelming Hollywood Boulevard to take the obligatory snaps of the Chinese Theatre (most of which was obscured due to a premiere that was taking place that evening) and the famous Hollywood sign.  After being inexplicably shouted at by some militant evangelical black preachers we decided to head back to the hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation before checking out LA after dark.

Carly and I left the hotel at around 7PM and strolled down Venice Beach Boardwalk with the intention of checking out one of the many bars on offer.  Before we could reach such an establishment though we stumbled across a curious doorway which appeared to lead into someone’s flat but which had a neon ‘Open’ sign above the entrance and a smaller sign below that displaying the words ‘Live Tree Show’.  Intrigued, we ventured cautiously into the darkened hallway of the building where a television showing footage of what can only be described as a man dressed in a giant tree costume parading around Los Angeles.  Bizarre to say the least.  Unperturbed we moved on through the hallway and down a small flight of stairs before reaching a further doorway which was curtained off but from which the sounds of frantic bongo-playing could clearly be heard.  This proved to be the final straw and, lacking in Dutch courage as we were, we made a hasty exit.

Five pints of Dutch courage later it seemed like a good idea to return to the house and with new-found confidence we strode into the front room to be confronted by, well, not very much to be honest.  It transpired that the flat was owned by a guy who goes by the name of Treeman who is evidently a major exhibitionist and enjoys inviting randoms into his home as well as donning a pair of stilts and tree costume.  Unfortunately the Treeman wasn’t in when we called (apparently he was out rollerblading which immediately brought to mind images of a Silver Birch skating up and down Venice Beach) so it was left to Matt (a friend of the Treeman’s who minds his house when he is out) to show us around.  In fairness the flat was fairly normal, save for an odd water feature in the corner and Matt suggested we liven things up by calling the ‘Tree Emergency Line’ (+1 4247-03333 if you’re interested) which would apparently have brought the Treeman rushing to see us.  Unfortunately we were getting pushed for time by that point so we had to politely decline his invitation and head straight into the next surreal situation of the night.

We were planning to go clubbing that night and the chosen venue was Avalon in Hollywood so we jumped into a taxi and I immediately spotted a microphone lying on the back seat.  “What’s this for? Karaoke?” I joked, forgetting I was in California where, frankly, anything is possible.  “Yes” replied the driver.  Emboldened as we were by the Dutch courage from earlier as well as a walking

Carly and a Walking Stick full of alcohol

stick full of alcohol (see picture) we proceeded to murder various hits by the Pet Shop Boys, Ace of Base as well as a particularly stirring rendition of ‘Living Next Door to Alice”.  Quite why a taxi driver would want to actively encourage drunks to sing in his cab is beyond me but it certainly made the journey pass quickly and we were soon deposited outside the club.

Two hours later we were inside having the time of our lives getting deep down and dirty to the sounds of Sebastian Ingrosso…is what I would like to be writing but in reality two hours later we were still queuing outside the venue and when a fire engine appeared it became obvious that all was not well.  Shortly afterwards it was announced that the Fire Department had shut the club due to overcrowding and our night was left in the hands of Crazy Mark.  Crazy Mark was a random who we met in the queue (he did actually introduce himself as ‘Crazy Mark’, a moniker that he somewhat dubiously claimed was endowed on him by Judas Priest when he was thirteen) and who assured us that even if we couldn’t get into Avalon he knew various club owners and managers in the area and would definitely get us in somewhere.  Crazy Mark was as good as his word and shortly afterwards we were hitting the dance floor in an even better club around the corner…is what I would like to be writing but it appeared that Crazy Mark had somewhat exaggerated his knowledge of LA clubland and we spent the next hour wandering aimlessly around Hollywood.  To be fair Crazy Mark was a genuinely nice guy but by 3AM it became obvious that this was not our night and we hailed a, sadly, karaoke-free taxi and headed back to the hotel.

On our last full day in LA I managed to achieve two long-standing ambitions – I rode on a Segway and managed to visit an real-life freak show, something that I imagined had been outlawed early in the last century.

The freak show came first and naturally this was found in Venice Beach, the boardwalk of which would probably pass as something of a freak show in itself in most countries.  I was slightly dubious about entering the show on moral grounds, not that morality is something that troubles me normally but is it right to capitalise and exploit someone’s terrible birth defect for the pleasure of others?  An ethical question that was soon put to bed by the discovery that it was only $5 to get in.  Apparently there is a price on my conscience.

The show contained an assortment of multi-limbed animals such as terrapins with two heads, a dog with five legs and various other creatures with various other amusing physical disabilities.  There was also a short show featuring a sword swallower who also hammered nails into his nose as well as a resident ‘electric girl’ who bore a striking resemblance to Charlotte Church and could pass a high enough voltage through her body to allow her to light matches

Me, Larry the Wolf Boy and the Five-Legged Dog

off her tongue.  Highlight of the show though was a Mexican Wolf Boy by the name of Larry Gomez who happily posed for photos and shook my hand at the end of the performance; conversely his palm was curiously hair-free (unlike the rest of him), I’m not sure whether this indicates too much or, perhaps, too little masturbation.  Either way it was $5 well spent, a diverting rather than massively exciting way to spend an hour.

Next up were the Segways.  Unperturbed by the recent news that the UK distributor of the Segway had recently driven one of his machines over a cliff, Carly and I paid for a three hour tour around the environs of Venice Beach accompanied by a guide by the name of Axel.  The Segways themselves are very easy to negotiate and after fifteen minutes of orientation we soon found ourselves whizzing around at the top speed, albeit twelve miles per hour.  They are great fun though and allowed us to see a whole new side to the Venice area – the Venice Canals.  These were constructed in 1905 by a gentleman called Abbot Kinney and now form a luxurious area of Los Angeles where, down the years, Jimi Hendrix, Julia Roberts and Matt Groening (of Simpsons fame) among others have lived.  Axel proved to be a very knowledgeable guide and it was a hugely enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

The weekend in Los Angeles had proved to be both eventful and surprising – I was expecting little more than a three day stop over before Las Vegas, most of which would be spent in the hotel either recovering from jet lag or hiding from the villains of LA.  It turned out to be interesting and enjoyable and I will happily return one day – there are aspects of the city such as Universal Studios and Beverley Hills that we did not get a chance to see this time.

The next morning we embarked on a five hour drive across the desert to Las Vegas although I’m not sure that I can remember enough about the five days that followed to piece a worthy blog entry together.

Posted in USA | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Drinkin’ in LA

A Cautionary Tale

Bali: Beautiful coastline, not such beautiful hospitals

Insurance companies. Tossers aren’t they? Slippery, mendacious, faceless behemoths who are quick enough to take your premiums but equally quick to wriggle out of their obligations should you be unfortunate enough to need to claim. All, arguably, valid statements but having heard the story of my flatmate Greig and his recent ill-fated trip to Bali, I’ve started to appreciate that one day an insurance company might just save your life.

The story begins in the heady days of the summer of 2008. Shoppers were busy indulging in the last days of credit-fuelled hedonism prior to the economy imploding, Gordon Brown (remember him?) was busy enjoying his short-lived political honeymoon and Greig was busy getting kicked by a horse. The horse in question had already been responsible for breaking several of Greig’s brother-in-law’s ribs in a previous assault which, to my mind, makes it a prime candidate for a trip to the glue factory but they seem to be more tolerant of these equine misdemeanours in Scotland.

Anyway, using the sort of logic whereby you deal with an alarming noise coming from your car’s engine by turning up the stereo to drown it out, Greig chose to ignore the pain in his leg which began that day and never truly subsided; a ticking medical time-bomb that ultimately nearly proved fatal.

Spot the Difference

Fast forward two-and-a-bit years and Greig is in Bali, enjoying the last day of a week’s holiday with his friend Vivian in a restaurant. It had been an enjoyable few days and Greig and Vivian were busy taking some final pictures before flying back to Australia that evening. At one point Greig crouched down on his knees to take a photograph from a slightly different angle and found that he had some difficulty getting back on his feet again. He also noticed that one of his legs had turned completely white. It’s worth pointing out that Greig is a ginger Scottish man so the fact that the lightening of his skin colour was noticeable was a cause for immediate concern. The change in skin tone was accompanied by a shooting pain in his lower leg and after a few minutes of procrastination, they decided that a trip to hospital was required and jumped into a taxi.

The first doctor they saw took one look at Greig’s leg, shuddered and sent him off to a better hospital, after relieving them of £200 for the consultation, naturally. This was the first of many, many medical expenses; initially Greig and Vivian were able to settle them on their credit card but, for reasons that will soon become apparent, the insurance company had to step in and this is the reason for my Damascene conversion to their virtues.

At the second hospital Greig underwent two ultrasound scans (£500 each) which identified a blood clot in his left leg that was apparently causing the flow of blood to be restricted to his calf and foot. They immediately diagnosed deep vein thrombosis and put Greig on a course of Warfaran (£250 per day), a coagulate which, it was hoped would thin the blood and dissolve the blood clot.

This was obviously a major inconvenience especially as Greig clearly wouldn’t be able to fly until the clot had been cleared and certainly not that day but fortunately both Greig and Vivian were between jobs at the time so work was not an issue at least. They therefore accepted their fate; Greig was admitted to hospital (£550 per night) and Vivian returned to the hotel as they both prepared for a few more days in Bali.

The Indonesian Ritz

Comically, three days after Greig began his stay in hospital, he had some well-needed company when Vivian was also admitted after suffering an unfortunate reaction to some hair dye. Laurel and Hardy have got nothing on those two.

Five days and another cancelled flight later, it became apparent that Greig was not responding to the treatment so the doctors ordered a CAT scan and things began to take a turn for the serious.

The doctor informed Greig that the CAT scan had identified an aneurysm on the back of his left knee and this was the actual cause of the restricted blood flow to his lower leg; this was the legacy of the horse-inflicted injury. The doctor informed him that this would need to be immediately removed or Greig risked amputation, paralysis or even death and, oh, the operation will be £10,000 which we need before we will start and, just to be difficult, we don’t accept bank transfers.

Prior to this Greig, in order to stop them worrying, had kept his parents in the dark with regard to his ongoing medical plight but this turn of events meant that he had little option now but to ring them and drop the bombshell. You can only imagine the reaction of Greig’s dad at the other end of the phone line upon hearing that his only son might at best be returning home with a wooden leg, at worst in a wooden box. Fortunately Greig’s parents are reasonably well off so were able pay the £10,000 on their credit card. Another hasty phone call to Scotland was made when, twenty minutes before the operation was due to start, the surgeon informed Greig that they would be undertaking a slightly different procedure than first anticipated and that the new procedure would be another £3,000.

Unfortunately it would appear while £13,000 may get you an operation in Indonesia, it does not necessarily guarantee a decent anaesthetist as Greig actually woke up mid-way through the surgery. He came round just as the surgeon was cutting the light-bulb sized aneurysm from his leg but, whilst he was conscious and could feel pain, he was still sufficiently anaesthetised to stop him alerting the medical staff. A situation that could literally be described as a waking nightmare.

To rub salt into the wound (not a standard medical procedure in Bali but it wouldn’t be a complete surprise), it quickly became apparent that the surgery had, in fact, been a complete waste of time (and, obviously, money). The basic premise of the operation had been to remove the aneurysm and then divert the artery, via an artificial plastic vein, to a working vein further down the leg and return the flow of blood to Greig’s foot. It doesn’t exactly take Quincy to work out that diverting the artery to a vein that is completely blocked with congealed blood is not going to work does it?

It was clear that they had reached the limits of medical ‘expertise’ in Bali and with Greig’s prognosis deteriorating by the hour, the decision was taken to transfer him to the nearest hospital that would be able to treat him with some degree of competence. Unfortunately the nearest such institution was in Singapore and Greig’s condition did not allow them the time to wait for the next charter flight so, naturally, a private jet was called for (£40,000)

Air ambulance Singaporean style

and Greig headed swiftly to Bali airport. The patient was accompanied on this trip by fifteen different people including four whose sole occupation were to hold umbrellas over his stretcher whilst he was being loaded onto the plane as well as the obligatory nurse who, helpfully, instantly fell asleep the minute they were aboard.

Two hours later they arrived at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore and Vivian (she was still with him at this point) asked the doctor if Greig would be allowed to fly home in the next day or so. The doctor looked at her quizzically before pointing out that there was still a very real chance that he could lose his leg, suffer major paralysis or even die.

The situation was still very much critical.

Another five hour operation followed in which the Singaporean surgeon attempted to remove the pointless plastic vein inserted in Bali and basically re-wire Greig’s left leg with veins removed from

This is what £76,000 buys you in Singapore

his other leg. This time round the operation was much more successful or, more accurately, just ‘successful’ and Greig settled into the £5,000 per night intensive care to begin his recovery with his leg held together by 130 staples and 20 stitches.

The following period is slightly sketchy in Greig’s memory which he attributes to the major loss of blood he suffered at this time including one occasion where he was talking on Skype to his parents and failed to notice that his leg had completely opened up and blood was literally flooding out of it – the drugs prescribed at the time inhibited the ability of the blood to clot – and the first of two blood transfusions was swiftly administered. The second transfusion followed a slightly less sympathetic episode when Greig, against doctor’s orders went out drinking and the alcohol reacted unfavourably with the Warfaran causing another massive haemorrhaging of blood.

One month and £76,000 worth of Singaporean medical expenses later Greig was allowed to fly back to Australia with the conditions attached that he had to travel in Business Class and be accompanied by a nurse – total cost: £11,000.

The result of the injury and subsequent surgery is going to be with Greig long after the insurance company has paid up the total claim which will be in excess of £150,000: He now has to undergo six months of intensive physiotherapy, cannot have any exposure to cigarette smoke whatsoever and can only fly business class for the rest of his life as his leg must be kept elevated at all times when flying.

There’s two real morals to this story that I can see – as I always suspected horses are inherently malevolent and untrustworthy animals and secondly, whilst those two adjectives could also be applied to insurance companies, it’s well worth paying a bit more for a better policy. It’s a dangerous world out there.

Posted in Asia, Random Ramblings | Tagged , | Comments Off on A Cautionary Tale

The Liar and The Lizard – a Footnote

Faced with such a depressing choice the Australian electorate did the only right thing in the circumstances and elected neither Abbot nor Gillard leading to a hung parliament and the unedifying sight of a few, normally irrelevant independent MPs being elevated to the roles of kingmakers and clearly revelling in the media spotlight.  In the end, after one of the independents quite literally milked his fifteen minutes of fame for all it was worth by delivering his verdict on who he would be backing only after a tedious fifteen minute sermon, the independents went with Gillard.  Very much the best of a bad bunch.

Tony Abbott has been in something of a sulk ever since and recently accused Gillard of “Machiavellian bastardry”, a frankly outstanding phrase that would surely have secured the election for him if only he had uttered it a few weeks ago.  For fans of insulting Australian political rhetoric Julia Gillard is on record as referring to a member of the opposition as a “mincing poodle” but my all time favourite term of abuse comes from the archives:

During a particularly rowdy session in the chamber, an increasingly agitated MP from the now defunct Country Party by the name of Sir Winston Turnbull tried to make a point by shouting “I am a Country Member!”  To which a loan voice replied:  “Yeah, we remember”.

Posted in Australia, Random Ramblings | Comments Off on The Liar and The Lizard – a Footnote