Monday, November 21, 2016

Beautiful Ubud, Bali


The heat is different in Asia. It is a heat you can smell, as well as feel.  And maybe that is in part due to the sweet, pungent cigarettes that I only seem to smell in Bali. That everybody seems to smoke.  And I mean everybody.  The humidity is in the high 90s.  And your body (and some would say your hair) knows it.  And it tells you.  All the time. The only respite is a refreshing dip in the villa’s private pool.


We stayed at Ubud Padi Villas, somewhere I would highly recommend.  A short 10 minute shuttle transfer from the centre of Ubud, this is isolated enough to let you feel you are the only people here. There are 10 private villas, all around a lush green central area that doubles as the outdoor restaurant. That said, breakfast was served in the room in each day, eating on the deck by the soothing sounds of our pool.

Breakfast is served
Ubud is full of great food options, and we have some excellent choices for both lunch and dinner within walking distance. Terracotta was an inspired choice, but even this was topped with a splurge at Kubu restaurant, in the Ritz-Carlton resort, a 10 minute walk away (or 5 minute golf buggy ride) from our villa.

Kubu is a river front restaurant, where you get to sit in your own private cocoon.  And indulge in a world class menu, whilst listening to the Ayung river charge by.  We went for the 6 course degustation, which was excellent, complemented by the chef's complimentary numerous amuse bouches.  Not that we needed dessert, I had elegant sufficiency, but after my heads up to the wait staff, Victoria got serenaded with a rousing rendition of happy birthday, and was presented with a beautiful little cake.


I probably didn't make as great an impression on our first trip to Bali as a couple.  Indeed our very first holiday as a couple, just two years ago.  Not long being together, we had a romantic week booked in a fabulous hotel, on the beach in Nusa Dua, south of Denpasar airport.

“I'm not a fan of how close the bathroom is to the bedroom, are you?”
“What do you mean, close to the bedroom?  Aren't all bathrooms close to bedrooms in hotels?”
“Well, yeah, possibly.  It's just that usually there is a door you can close.  Rather than these louvre shutter things we have.  It just seems a little…”
“What?”
“...”
“A little what?”
“Oh god! You might want to put some music on.”
“Put some music on?  What are you talking about?  Is everything ok?  Where are you going?”
And with that I knew I was in a race against time.  And my odds weren't looking good.
“Just put some music on”, I shouted from the bathroom in desperation.  Not that I needed to shout. The was no noise cancellation created by the bloody louvre shutters.  And the lack of noise cancellation was my main concern.
“Oh god. Oh my god!  No. Oh no”

Mary J Blige came to the rescue, drowning out my first case of Bali belly.  And the point that our relationship was either about to blossom, or fade like a jacaranda tree at the end of Summer.

If you ever find yourself in Nusa Dua, I'd probably avoid the “Queen’s” Indian restaurant. Especially if you are trying to make a good impression with your paramour.

This time around, I have been a little more circumspect about what I eat.  Not that you really need to be.  As I've mentioned, the food options are excellent in Ubud.  It is more a case of deciding what you fancy that particular evening, and finding one of the many busy restaurants to suit your needs.  The only concession we did make, on occasion, was the amount of wine we would customarily drink on holiday.  Whilst food is cheap, wine prices are astronomical by comparative standards.  In keeping with my somewhat parsimonious nature, Bintang beer was often my drink of choice.


Whilst most of the trip was relaxation, and massages, we did get out and about a little. An activity I would recommend is taking an eBikes cycling tour. I was drawn to this both due to the effort required to cycle in this heat, and the fact that I had never ridden an ebike before.  Going out on the 3pm trip, our small group was led through little villages, to temples, and through the magnificent rice fields. One girl in our group even managed to cycle off the path and into the water ditch that ran alongside the narrow footpath we were cycling on.

We finished at a little uninspiring coffee plantation, where the main attraction seemed to be the civets that were kept in captivity. Civets are a little cat like animal that eats, amongst other things, the coffee cherries off the trees. These are digested by the civet, and disposed of, in the most natural of ways. The “waste” is then rummaged in, and the passed through coffee beans are retrieved, washed (thankfully), subsequently roasted, and ground, to make Kopi Luwak coffee, which is sold at a premium.  If you are waiting for me to explain the reason behind this whole bizarre procedure, I'm afraid I don't know.  Either what possessed the first people to start checking civet shit for coffee beans, or what then drove them to think it would be a good idea to use that for making their morning coffee.  One of life's mysteries I guess.

Balinese petrol station
I would like to tell you how much Ubud has changed in the many years since I've been, but I honestly couldn't tell you.  The whole place was unrecognisable, which tells its own story.  No doubt “aided” by Elizabeth Gilbert's infamous memoir, Eat Pray Love, Ubud has seen an exponential rise in visitor numbers over the last ten years.  And the traffic, or more accurately, the limited road infrastructure in Ubud is bearing the brunt of all these visitors.

It is a very precarious balancing act, appealing to tourists, and bringing in much welcome income to the economy, whilst trying to maintain the beauty of what attracted people there in the first place.  I have seen this done wrong in places, most notably Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.   I hope Ubud, and Bali manage to keep the balance right, and hold on to the magic this little island undoubtedly has.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie...oi, oi oi

My dad wrote a porno.  I didn't think I would ever write those words.  Well you wouldn't would you? If your dad hailed from the northern extremities of Scotland.  All the way from Buckie, on the Moray Firth coast.  And yet this is how I start the blog.  Why, you may wonder?

Well, this month, a friend of mine put me onto the podcast of the very same name.  And I can’t tell you how deranged I have looked since, hysterically laughing out loud on the commute home from a staid day in the office.  This is when you can justifiably use the acronym “lol” when instant messaging your mates about it.  

It is not the “erotic” content of the book.  It is so far removed from erotic to be laughable.  Literally.  It is more “50 Shades of an old perv’s mind”, than the Christian Grey variety.  The podcast takes the form of the author’s son reading a chapter, whilst getting critiqued (read, taking the piss) by a couple of his friends.  If you like typical British humour, of the “saucy seaside postcard” variety.  Download a few episodes.   Just don't blame me if the men in white coats come to cart you off the bus, due to your inability to stop inanely giggling in public places.

Talking of “50 Shades”, and old pervs, it has been quite a month since we bade farewell to my old mate Steve.  I’m glad to hear he is able to stave off poverty for a while longer, now that he has again found himself gainful employment.  Your retirement plans will need to go on the back burner for now squire.  But on the plus side, you will be able to treat yourself to a more sumptuous breakfast than sliced toast and tea.

And for me?  I have given notice to end my experiment with employment as a permanent member of staff.  It seems it did not sit well with me.  All the internal politics, and associated brouhaha.  And so, I will imminently be returning to the contract (freelance) market.  Something that I am very excited at the prospect of.

I will be taking up a 6 month contract, back into IT project management with one of the smaller banks here in Australia.  I will be starting at the outset of a 2 year programme, so hopefully, I will get my head down, make an impression, and I will have work beyond the initial 6 months.  If not, there are plenty of items on the travel bucket list, just screaming out to be attended to.

The other significant news this month is that I have now completed, and had approved, my application for Australian citizenship.  Along with the reams of bureaucratic paperwork all these things demand, it also entailed sitting a citizenship test, which was passed in quicker time than it took me to just tell you about it.  Twenty questions, multiple choice, with just a few wriggly ones in there.  I now know what a wattle is.  And the colours of the Torres Strait Islanders flag. This knowledge alone should hold me in good stead for the future.

All that remains now is the formality of an official ceremony, which is likely to be some time early in the new year.  This is the final step before I can get my Aussie passport.  I will no doubt devote more time on my whole road to citizenship, since arriving in 2012, in a future post.

A jacaranda in full bloom
Since we last spoke, spring has well and truly sprung.  The clocks have changed.  The trees have started blossoming.  My beloved jacaranda trees are once again in full bloom.  And walking through the Botanic Gardens early one Sunday morning recently, you couldn't escape the unmistakeable aroma of eucalyptus.  Without doubt the one smell that I immediately associate with my new home.

And with the spring, comes the warmer months, and thoughts of summer, and xmas.  After being on the road in Australia for last two December 25, this year I will be celebrating my birthday at home, with friends and family.  Having been warned that my guests enjoy a tipple or two, I can no longer close the cupboard doors for wine and beer bottles. Keep this to yourself, but I have had to resort to hiding the good stuff. Anybody know where I can buy Fosters in Sydney?

For the day itself, Xmas, I live in hope that Sydney smiles down on me.  The two years that I have spent at home since arriving in 2012 have been dampened by the ubiquitous Sydney rainfall.  Grand plans of champagne and picnic on the beach, sporting ridiculous xmas hats,  were washed away. This year I am hoping all will be different.  The weather.  I’m not sure about the hats.

Ubud, Bali
But before then, we have a holiday to Bali.  In November.  This trip will be to Ubud, a place I have not visited in over 16 years.  I am sure the once quaint little town, quietly hidden away amongst the rice paddy fields, in the centre of Bali, has changed immeasurably.  In some part as a result of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love”, which resulted in half of America descending on Ubud, in the same way that Rome, and all the ashrams in India benefitted (suffered?).  

If I can find time to put down my piña colada, and book(s), I will dedicate my next blog post to the trip.

Until then, adios amigos.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Party like it is 1994

One of the pleasures in living in such a beautiful city, is being able to showcase it to visiting friends and family.  Seeing the city through the eyes of a tourist brings to life how amazing it is.  How picturesque it is.  As sometimes you can take it all a little for granted.

I had the opportunity to do this again this month, albeit one of my visitors has indeed previously lived briefly in the Harbour City.

He had last visited Australia 16 years ago, but it was our original backpacking trip, many lifetimes ago, that we mostly reminisced on, having a great time catching up, visiting haunts old and new.

I don't think we have changed a bit!
The last time we roamed these streets together was back in 1994.  When we arrived as fresh faced 23 year olds, landing at the Youth Hostel in Glebe as our first port of call.  Little did we know just how much that first stop on the grand tour would eventually go on to shape parts of our life. That we were very green behind the ears in terms of travelling would be an understatement.  

Indeed, before embarking on our 12 month backpacking trip down under, I had only previously left the UK for as long as 1 week.  And only twice.  Formative trips to Ibiza, and Tunisia, were my maiden overseas journeys from England.  And these were on 1 year passports, that were made of cardboard.  Who is old enough to remember these?


And there we were, transitioning from colleagues at "the Halifax", into friends who were planning (a term used in a VERY loose sense), to jet off down under, with nothing more than an over stuffed backpack, and a sleeping bag appended that looked more like a tog 32 quilt.  Something I soon dispensed of in a St Vincent's charity bin.

Steve had packed his so full that he couldn't even carry his on day one, his dad having to traipse through Manchester airport with a 65 litre Eurohike pack on his diminutive frame.

Fast forward 22 years, and on a wet Friday afternoon, I logged off for the week, packed away the laptop, and I made my way around the corner to Kent Street for our first drinks together in Sydney in many a long year. For the Down Under leg of the "annual boy's reunion tour".  Albeit without two key members.  Fear not chaps, we drank your share too.

Any of you that know me well will know that I love a spreadsheet.  Be that judging burgers, tracking my spending, or making sure I am in the right place, on the right day when I visit the UK.  Laugh as you might, the spreadsheet is an indispensable tool in my armoury.  One that people soon see the benefit of, and then request their own, tailored version.  Steve's spreadsheet was under my aegis, baselined via a Skype call, and subject to change control.

Now, whether a daily breakfast of white toast, and a cup of tea, made in his hotel room, was in my version of the spreadsheet is debatable.  Once I had reiterated that Sydney, and Australia as a whole, is famed for the brunch offerings, he did finally venture out.

Then again, if the only eggs you will eat are of the fried variety, you don't need to venture too far to satisfy your cravings. An insatiable desire for pineapple, on everything, proved a little more difficult to accommodate.

I used to, in fact I still do, to be honest, give my old mate some stick about his reluctance to part with any unnecessary cash. However, he gives me enough ammunition.  He may not like actually buying a newspaper, rather he treats WHSmiths as his own personal library. But as they say, look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. And how else would he be able to act like the late Pablo Escobar, and
roll around on his bed full of notes.



Line of the trip following a farewell dinner in Mosman...

"What is the fastest and easiest way to get back to the city?"

"A taxi."

"What is the second fastest?"

I'm gonna miss you mate.  We had fun. Safe trip back to the UK, and, subject to you securing gainful employment, I'm looking forward to taking the Annual Lads reunion to Spain next year.  This time with a full complement.  ¡Adios amigo!

For me, it is time to repurpose the spreadsheet, and start afresh, so that our visitors at Xmas, get the full benefit.  

I need to start by checking those brunch options.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Things they don't tell you...

About living in Sydney...

Having just passed my 4 year anniversary of living in Australia, I thought it very timely to write about the things they don't tell you in the glossy brochures.  Or at the fancy work expos for working down under.  Or that you don't find out from other friends living here.

Australia is a fantastic place to live.  I love Sydney.  Every day I am reminded of how lucky I am to be here, passing the glorious Opera House on my daily commute, the sun reflecting off the harbour, with the famous green and gold ferries bringing in commuters to the city. But you know me well enough now to realise I can also find something to gripe about.  Find the cloud in the silver lining.  And here are my top gripes.  At least for this month.

1.  Having to do your personal tax return every year.  By law.  And for the last couple of years, still getting a hefty tax bill.  Despite paying (what you think is the right levels of tax) each month direct from your employer.  How do you work that one out?  Medicare levies.  Surcharges.  Blah blah blah.  Stop.  It is not going to change anything.  But I can still complain about it.

2.  Despite a country renowned for its weather, and love of the outdoors, there a surprisingly few (very few) beer gardens.  How disappointing is that?  Mr Sunshine comes out on another glorious summers day, and you want to have a refreshing cold pint of beer, al fresco.  I still look back very fondly on such sunny days, sat out the back of Dicey's bar in Dublin, having a few ice cold Magners.  Instead, you are stuck indoors, the sounds of pokies ringing in your ear, and being blasted by sub zero temperature air conditioner units.  Or so it feels.  

3.  Football.  Oh god.  Now you have got me started.  You have to either give up your love of the beautiful game, or resign yourself to very late nights, And/or very early mornings.  And going to work bleary eyed after a mid week feature, yet again putting the scousers to the sword.  Ok, ok, less so in recent years.  But now we have the Special One, teamed up again with the Special Juan.  And the good times are coming back.  I can just feel it.  

4.  They call "rugby" football.  And also, some other game, played by men in vests and shorts that were fashionable in the 1980s, in Melbourne, gets called football.  It is very confusing.  The world game is football.  The one actually played with your feet.  The one with the egg, the niche sport, is played with the hands.  And is rugby.  Or Aussie Rules.  Or League.  Strewth.  I can't keep up.  

5.  It rains.  It rains a lot.  More than London.  Here is an actual fact.  Well, if you can believe what you read on Wikipedia.  I didn't get time to get to the State Library to check the official records from the Bureau of Meteorology.  The annual rainfall in Sydney through 2015 was 1337mm.  This compared to London of 594mm.  There should be a salary supplement just to buy umbrellas as they seem to blow inside out so often in the gales that whip through Sydney CBD.  And woe betide if you don't wear the right footwear to work, or you will be sitting with wet feet all day.  

6.  People are always "looking after you".  Despite making it to adulthood in one piece, it seems you can't be trusted to look after yourself in Sydney.  So people are employed to do it for you.  Take a trip to the football as an example.  You and your mates want a beer?  Let's hope there are not more than four of you.  Otherwise you will need a chaperone to go and actually buy the drinks.  The thing is, you can only buy four drinks at once.  So no buying in rounds.  This is to protect you from getting drunk.  Yes, just like when you were back in school, and the teachers were looking out for you.  Sydney is so kind to continue this service well into adulthood.  Even if the bar person can see your 5, or 6, or 7 other mates.  Right besides you.  Oh no no no.  Far too dangerous.  You have to get one of your other mates to stand at the side of you, get their own money out, and buy any beers that exceed your quota.  I kid you not.  This has actually happened.  

7.  Whilst I am on drink, as it's a good subject, Sydney seems to be regressing in to a nanny state.  Lots has been written about Sydney lock out laws, and how they are having a negative affect on the city's nighttime vibrancy, so I won't touch on that.  But, just try and order a whisky past a certain time.  Neat you say?  You want your whisky neat?  Oh no.  We can't be having you behaving like a lout.  You are likely to get drunk and punch the nearest person if you do that.  A much better idea would be to spoil your 16 year old Lagavulin single malt with a dash of cola.  And not just any old cola, but roller cola.  Surely.  There's a good boy.  

8.  Bouncers.  All of this is if you can even get past the bouncers, who are a different breed in Sydney.  On a night out, you will be stopped and asked, "have you been drinking tonight?".  How do you answer that ludicrous question?  With a straight face?  "Oh no, we have all just come out tonight, round all these busy, noisy pubs, drinking water.  It seemed the most fun thing to do."  What you actually do is quickly, mentally make a decision on what is the "right" number of drinks to have had by 10pm.  Apparently "four" is the wrong answer.  As I have found out to my detriment.  Things reached the nadir when one pal was asked to leave 3 pubs in one night, for being inebriated.  Funny thing was, he looked markedly sober compared to some of the other people in the pub.  But, we were in an Irish bar I suppose.  Imagine the ignominy of being asked to leave an Irish bar for being drunk.

9.  This last one is not a gripe.  It's a labor of love.  Burgers, and the analysis of.  Yes.  There really is a spreadsheet.  It all started as a Burger Off, with colleagues.  A bit of fun, with fellow burger loving friends.  Until Sydney took over, and burger loving became very hip and fashionable.  So typical of Sydney.  Now, there are probably as many places selling all varieties of burgers, as there are Facebook groups extolling the virtues of each.  Something I saw last week just captured the zeitgeist perfectly.  Ladies and gentlemen, I leave you with the Pokeman burger.  I am out of words.    

         

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Fran versus food

I have never been an advocate of diets.  Too short-term-ism thinking.  As though your health is a mini goal to be achieved.  It is much better to become a jerf.  No, not a jerk.  Somebody who "just eats real food".  Do this.  With the right portion sizes.  Keep active.  Sleep well, and for the right durations (for you), and let nature do the rest.

If I ever needed proof that this was as "scientific" as it got, the 4 weeks prior to the recent holiday provided it.  In spades.

The Body Coach, 90 day plan.  Shift, shape, and sustain, each in a 4 week cycle.  The first cycle completed before heading off to the land of food.  Where the unofficial motto is "go big, or go home".

Initially, I was skeptical.  Firstly, of the amount of food that you can actually eat.  But also, the cost of it.  Good food isn't' cheap.  Let's not start on the opportunity cost.  Of spending most of my waking hours trawling around supermarkets for obscure ingredients, such as kinowa.  What?  That is not how you pronounce it?  Silly me.  Quinoa (keen-wah), the magical grain of the Andes in South America.

However, all that aside, I soon stopped complaining once the magic started happening.  Week 1 done.  Good sized portions of food consumed, with regular high intensity training sessions, and the kilos started falling away.  Four weeks in, and on the cusp of the overseas trip, 4 kilos had been shed.  Just like that.  As I say, magic.

Now it was time to throw it all out of the window, and binge of some of the world's best comfort foods.

1.    Burger - Stout  (Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles)

I could write on and on about burgers.  Believe me, I could.  Limiting it to just one was difficult.  So I have gone for the very first one we had on the trip.  Which was as good as anything else we had the 3 weeks we were away.  Yes, I finally got to try the famous Californian chain of "In-N-Out", which I loved.  But they were more a fast food style cheese burger.  Whereas the ones at Stout we more substantial.  Gourmet burgers.  Thick juicy, homemade patties.  In a soft brioche bun.  Washed down with a local craft beer.  A heavenly start to the trip.








2.  Clam chowder - Chowder Hut Grill (Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco)

This is my second visit to the Chowder Hut Grill.  The first being over 10 years ago.  And I had the exact same dish.  Second time around?  Amazing.  Even better than I had remembered it to be.  The clam chowder was delicious, with a hint of spice.  And the sourdough bread bowl holds up well whilst you eat the chowder, but then is soft enough to break up when you have finished, to enjoy with the residual chowder.  This is not the fanciest of places, but the chowder speaks for itself.









3.  Fish Tacos - Cheryl's on 12th (1135 SW Washington, Portland)

If you want to try fish tacos anywhere in Portland, try them at Cheryl's.  You won't be disappointed.  The fish portions were immense.  And the salsa probably one of the best I have had.  That's before I start on the guacamole!  And as an aside, Cheryl's was one of the best diners we visited on the whole trip.  A fabulous place in the heart of downtown Portland.







4.  Mac and Cheese - Beechers Hand Made Cheese (Pike Place Market, Seattle)

Like mac and cheese?  Like it as much as I do?  Well, I doubt that, but lovers of this culinary delight should head to Beechers, at Pike Place market.  Avoid the queues of misguided tourists down the street at the "original" Starbucks, and get in line here.
Beechers self proclaim their version of mac and cheese to be the "world's best".
After two portions, I am inclined to agree.  Using the cheese made fresh on site, which you can watch them making, the finished goods are probably the freshest, tastiest mac and cheese you will ever taste.  Ever.  Take no notice of a little thing such as they don't actually use macaroni.  It is substituted by penne, but who cares!







5.  Corned Beef Hash - Glo's café  (1621 E Olive Way, Seattle)

Corned beef hash.  Not the first dish that springs to mind for a lot of people when talking about foods you crave.  But me, I have always loved a good hash.  And nowhere does it better than the good old US of A.
When we were researching food options (believe me when I say we spend a lot of time doing this) in Seattle, Glo’s corned beef hash was described in terms so glowing (no pun intended) I knew I just HAD to have it.  Soon.
Oh.  My.  God.  Literally…OMG!  If the portion sizes weren’t so gargantuan, I would have ordered and eaten it all over again.  As it was, I couldn’t walk out of the diner, and had to be rolled down the hill sideways back into town.






6. Hot Dogs - Dog Gone It (801 Government Street, Victoria, BC)

If you have ever seen the “Hot Diggedy Dawg” stand at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Fran, and was remiss enough to not get a dog, you would also be spending the rest of the vacation hunting down one of these treats.
It did look as though the dog tasting may have passed us by, but thankfully, we did find this place on Vancouver Island.  And what a treat it was.
A classic wiener, with onions, emitting a glorious aroma, reminiscent of fairgrounds of my youth, and one with bacon and cheese, topped with ketchup and mustard.  My mouth is watering just at the memory of it.
And I’m not sure anybody does the “classic” shake better.  Wow.






The one that got away...

Cherry Pie - the quintessential end to any meal in the States, is with a bit of pie.  And I do love me a bit of pie.  In my opinion, the king of pies is the cherry pie.  This harks back to a previous backpacking trip through South America, where I washed up at dusty San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, with enough money for the last piece of cherry pie in a little bakery I found, and a coffee.  All ATMs were out of cash, and I was about to spend my last pesos on this pie.  But lord was it ever worth it.  It kept me happy until the next day when the town's two cash machines were replenished.  And I have lived on the memory, sat in the plaza in San Pedro, strains of rapid fire Spanish piercing the air, like gun fire, as the sun set, ever since.  A perfect moment in my life.

So, on the trip, it was on my hit list to try.  But, like always, when you want something, you never seem to see it.  I could get everything from pumpkin, to pecan, to pizza pie.  But my beloved cherry eluded me.

The one I didn't understand...


Having hit Canada, and found a decent bar for some liquid refreshments, we started getting asked if we wanted any "Caesars".  At this point we weren't hungry, and only wanted drinks, so politely declined.  It was only after we noticed every bar advertising Caesars that I decided to do a little research, and found that we weren't actually being offered a salad, but in fact a local drink.  A Canadian take on the Bloody Mary.  It turns out that this Canadian concoction is little known outside it's shores, so I felt a little less stupid.  However, I never did get to try a Caesar and will have to keep it on my list for the next time that I am in that beautiful country.