Thursday, December 11, 2014

What a difference a year (or 20) makes

Yup, believe it or not, and I am not quite sure I do, I was first in Bali 20 years ago.  I agree, I don’t look old enough do I?  It was the second stop on the trip that lit the travel fire in my belly.  The trip that changed my life for the better.  The trip that made me realise what life was about, and what I needed to do to enjoy it.

A chance conversation, one lunch, with a work colleague (who has become a life long friend), quickly escalated into us jointly leaving our jobs and embarking on a 12-month working holiday to Australia.  1994.  That is where it all started.

Prior to this, the longest I had ever left the UK was for 7 days.  For various holidays to the usual spots, across Europe.

So, describing us as wet behind the ears would be something of an understatement.  This could probably explain why, within 2 hours of being in Bali, I had been robbed of all my money.  That sounds dramatic doesn’t it?  Every self-respecting travellers’ rite of passage.  Being robbed.

Maybe I should add a few clarifications.  When I say “robbed”, I mean quite purposefully distracted by some of the smallest kids you had ever seen, whilst their erstwhile friends unzipped my bum bag (YES, I did say we were wet behind the ears), and cleaned me out of rupiahs, the local currency.  And by cleaned out, I mean the sum total of the few quid that I had allowed myself as my budget for the night.  Anybody reading this, who knows me well enough, will know that spending money is not one of my strengths.  I think it is the Yorkshire genes.  So I may have lost about £5.76 in real money. Still…I was robbed.

Bali, 20 years ago.  Apart from the trauma of the robbery, the things that stick in my mind from that very first trip in June 1994, was arriving at a very small, ramshackle airport.  Very different to the gargantuan, gleaming terminal, just opened this year.  Staying in Kuta, boy how that has changed, we found THE place to drink, a happening little place called Sari Club on Legian Street.  Many of you will know the Sari Club as the place that terrorists struck on October 12th 2002, decimating the club, and the surrounding area, taking the lives of 202 people. 

Bali bomb memorial
 Kuta looks to have recovered in many ways from this atrocity, and the development now seems rampant, to the extent that, like many places I’ve seen through southern Thailand, the tipping point has been breached, between tourism, and over development.  There are no moments of peace available at the memorial for the bomb attacks, on the site of what was Paddy’s bar, another of the bomb sites, as open air night clubs blast out tunes from the turntables, drowning out even the traffic. Some feat in itself.

The place is now unrecognisable, yet, there is one thing that will never change.  And that is the wonder of the setting sun, which we viewed from a little plastic stool, on the beach, with an ice cold Bintang.  THAT is what brought travellers to Bali all those years ago.

One other thing that doesn’t change, and gets much worse, is the traffic situation.  Why the roads have lines, and traffic lights, is beyond me.  It literally is everyman, and woman, for themselves. Scooters and motorbikes weave in and out of traffic, taking their life into their own hands.  And as you can see, not just their lives, but those of almost every member of the family too.  As a seasoned scooter rider, on the mean streets of Sydney, I had a change of heart from my original plan to hire my own wheels and rip up Bali.

Just 6 hours from Sydney, Bali is a different world.  And it wasn’t just a result of the wines, and whisky, and gin that was consumed on the flight.   Much alcohol was required after the stress of making it through some of the longest queues I had ever seen at Sydney airport.  And then equally long queues on arrival at Denpasar airport in Bali.  That said, the long queues gave plenty time to read and absorb the warning signs regarding ebola, and how you could catch it, such as “touching a dead body”, something that I then made a studious effort to avoid whilst I was there.

The week was spent in a great hotel in Tanjung Benoa, slightly north of Nusa Dua, in the south of Bali.  A far cry from my humble abode whilst in Kuta on my second visit in 1999, where I stayed in a very quaint little bungalow.  With a fresh flask of tea and banana pancakes served up first thing every morning.

Seven days flew by in a whizz of all you can eat breakfasts (it turns out I can actually eat quite a lot.  Who knew?), mid day beers at the swim up bar in the pool, trekking with elephants and hugging orang utangs, and lots of pork, a staple of every Balinese dinnertime.  There were satays aplenty, and large Bintangs all around.  One of the days was spent on the Bali Fun Ship, its actual name, where much fun was had on a day trip to a little island off the east coast of Bali, Nusa Lembongan.

I can’t go without mentioning the fact that I fell victim to the infamous Bali belly.  Probably as a result of the curry I had, that did in fact taste very good whilst eating it.  What I didn’t anticipate was the poo-snami that it would bring on the day, and subsequent days after. 

Oh, god, no.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bringing in Spring

For those of you that missed me and wondered if I was still alive, I am.  For those of you that never even noticed there had been a slight hiatus between blog posts, I'm upset and a little bit offended :-)

Life has been rolling along nicely since we last spoke.  A cheeky weekend in Singapore lifted the spirits at the end of August where I took souvenir shopping to new heights and brought home something to spruce up the apartment.  And who can resist a visit to the beautiful Raffles hotel, to the Long Bar for a famous (at least amongst tourists) Singapore Sling cocktail!

View from dinner in Singapore

September brought in Spring, and how I was needing it.  Maybe my blood is thinning with living in Australia, or perhaps I'm just becoming soft, but this year I even had to resort to buying a heater for home.  I was in grave danger of dying from hypothermia so the extra dollars added to my electricity bill was a small price to pay to live to see another summer. 

As the heater got put away, out came the thongs.  Yes English readers, I mean flip flops.  Or jandals if anybody from across the Tasman is reading. 

And the first thing you do when bringing out your feet from hibernation?  Why, you have a pedicure of course!  Don't you?  To protect my very macho image, I must add a disclaimer to this, saying that it wasn't actually my idea.  I think it was suggested more in jest, but in the spirit of trying everything once, there I was, one Saturday afternoon, sat in my chair getting pampered. And I must confess, it was a very pleasant experience.  At least once I had convinced them that no, actually my toe nails do NOT need painting.  I am now wondering whether I need a manicure, for my over worked hands.  Thoughts anybody?

The start of October allowed my to show off my newly pedicured toes, as we bade farewell to a couple of friends who are leaving Australia for a while to travel the world (lucky buggers).  We descended into Longueville, for my second shot at barefoot bowling.  For the uninitiated, this is crown green bowls.  MInus your shoes.  Plus lots of alcohol.  

When the idea is first pitched to you it is not something you immediately think you would enjoy.  However, I think everybody was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was (which could have been the amount of beer they drank).  What is interesting to see is how competitive people get.  We ended up having inter-european challenges, where we smashed the Germans :-), and poms v the rest of world, where results were a little more mixed.  

I had thought I may have found my sport for when I retire.  However, if you had seen me trying to roll out of bed the following morning, and subsequently rolling on to the floor, you may disagree.  I think I need to find a less strenuous sport for these ageing bones. 

Just look at that technique

All in, a fantastic day, that somehow finished in the Crows Nest Hotel.  Those of you that know, or who have frequented the Crows Nest Hotel, will have an idea of how the night went.  But as they saying goes, "what happens in the Crowle, stays in the Crowie". 

What else has been happening since my last post?  We have had a long bank holiday weekend.  But whereas in the UK everybody runs to spend the day in the pub, here they run to spend the day by the water.  Me?  I like to combine the two, and with a night staying over in the city, a leisurely Monday was spent walking around Sydney, with stops by the water for cold refreshments (for this, read beer).  

Over the same weekend, the South Sydney Rabbitohs broke a 40+ year drought by winning the rugby league grand final.  Powered on by our very own Burgess brothers from Yorkshire.  I'm sure the South's co-owner, Russell Crowe is a very happy man.  

Also, the real sport has started again, football, and finally Utd now have some points on the board and the jokes on social media seemed to have died down, or at least are now being redirected to the hapless Brendan Rodgers.  Talking of hapless, a visit was paid to watch Sydney FC this weekend.  Or in reality, to see David Villa make his A-League debut on his 10 game stint down under before heading to play for New York City.  And he made an immediate impact.  Scoring with a touch of class not seen since Alesandro del Piero sadly left these shores. 

Since we last spoke I have also obtained my full riders licence, which means, rather scarily, I could now go and purchase a large, fast, and powerful motorbike and be let loose on the streets.  Thankfully, I am still in love with my scooter, and that will remain my mode of transport for the time being.  But now having a full licence, I am able to give “backers”.  Funnily enough, nobody seems very keen to jump on the back!  Once I buy that second helmet, there will be no excuses J

That about wraps up the last month and bit of my life.  Summer, and the holiday season is just around the corner, so keep reading to find out what the Yorkshire Expat gets up to next. 

Until the next time

Sunday, August 3, 2014

And so, into year 3...

Yeah, I had to read that twice as well.  I am actually in year 3 already of my move from sunny Yorkshire, down under to the sun kissed shores of Australia.  To Sydney, to be more specific.

If you have been reading the travails of the Yorkshire Expat from the very beginning, from the embryonic outset of And we are off (a blog from exactly 2 years ago today), you will see that it has been quite a journey so far.

One of the very first pics, August 2012
And this is perhaps not a blog that you, let alone me, maybe envisaged me writing maybe 12 months ago.  The move from familiar surroundings, ones that have cossetted you for the first 40 years of your life, to a land down under, some 11,000kms away, is not one without its ups and downs.

Give it at least 12 months people said.  More seasoned observers advised making that 18 months.  Here I am, 24 months in, and I have to say that they are right.  Not until you have lived through certain milestones, celebrated at least 2 of an annual event, do you really get a sense of “being”.

Having a secure(ish), enjoyable job helps.  I work, and have worked, with some great people, and have made some good friends.  I am settled in my apartment and have been here almost 2 years, in a great suburb, with everything I could ask for.  An amazing beach on my doorstep, great cafes and restaurants, and a choice of commute into the city by bus or ferry.

One of the many friends I have made
I have now gone through 2 winters here, and know how much I appreciate summer.  Readers in the northern hemisphere may scoff when I say this, but in a country where properties don’t have heating, including my apartment, this place feels bloody cold some days, and most nights through winter.

It is now spring and how I yearn for the long summer days of November and December.  Days when I can reacquaint myself with sunscreen, flip flops, and my, currently cast aside like an old lover, BBQ.  Where I can sit on my balcony, with a cold sauvignon blanc, watching the planes fly overhead, piercing the azure sky, on their way to destinations near and far.

The esky needs dusting down and I again start my, now annual, hope that this year is third time lucky.  In that I get sun on my birthday, Christmas Day.  The gods have been against me the last two occasions and I am determined to be quaffing champagne on the beach, with the seas lapping against my feet, come December 25th.

If life is about chapters, I have read of few over the last couple of years.  Chapters about change, and transition.  Chapters about dealing with grief, from a distance, across the lonely seas, as the circle of life marches inexorably on.  People have been taken from me.  And new people have come into the world to replace them.

Xmas 2013, not on the beach

As an expat, it is as though you watch these scenes unfold from behind a pane of glass.  You can see, and hear all that happens, but the main characters are heart breakingly out of reach. 

As I turn yet another page, a new chapter is about to start.  Year 3 brings new beginnings, in economic parlance, “green shoots of recovery”.  An exciting chapter, that in a sense feels like the start of a new book.  A book I don’t know the end of yet.  I don’t even know the next chapter, but I know how the plot goes.  I’m writing that part myself.

A friend once asked me, over a year ago, what the chances were of me remaining in Australia for a full 2 years.  I think I replied “17%”, without skipping a heartbeat.  Obviously a totally arbitrary figure, but one that gave a sense where my head was.  If that same friend was to ask me know, I would need a moments reflection.  However, after that short contemplation, I would say that the chances are considerably greater.

We don’t know where life will take us.  And although we are in charge of our own destinies, life happens whilst you are making plans.  A John Lennon quote that I know I’ve used before.  But it is so true. 

A lot of life’s journey relies on timing.  And sometimes that timing is just not right.  But then, every once in a while, the stars align and the world intervenes.  And this is when you know you have to grab your moment.

So all we can do for now, is keep making those plans, and hope life is kind to us.  And with that in mind, I see no reason why I won’t be writing a similar blog in 2 years time, as a citizen of this great country.  Four years being the qualifying criteria for an Australian passport, something I thought would be out of reach this time last year.

But right now, I may only have a 17% chance of still being here in 2 years.  It could be a 77% chance. 

All I can do is take it one chapter at a time.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Vegas revisited

Conventional wisdom dictates that "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas".  Right?  However, I’m not often accused of being conventional.  Plus, this would be a very dull blog.  Yes some of you are shouting, even more dull than usual.

So this blog is more along the lines of "almost all of what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas".

If last month was an ode to how much I love my mum, this month is an ode to how much I love my friends. And I mean my REAL friends. Not the Facebook variety. And by that I don't mean I don't have real friends on Facebook. I do. Lots of you.

But I mean real, get drunk with, argue with, fight with, joust with pool cues with, tell ALL your secrets to, play wing-man with, type of friends.  The ones you fall out over football with.  The ones you sit up with through the night drinking and putting the world to rights with.  The ones you watch grow, get married, have families.  And through all the changes life throws at us, we remain friends. These type of friends are my best friends.

I went to Vegas recently with 3 of these very same type of friends, and as we always find, before we have even finished our first pint, the banter is flowing like we have never been apart.  Dissecting previous years trips, and the absurdity of our discussions.  Who has ever heard of playing a guitar upside down?  And had discussions about there "being winners and losers in this life"?  I'm laughing just at the recollection.  Greg Wallace has a lot to answer for.  

Totally sober...honest

Our annual tradition, for the last few years at least, has been to catch up somewhere in the world.  The first agenda item on this year's Annual General Meeting was where we will go next year.  Previous trips have seen us have quiet, cultural visits to Prague, the home of Kafka.  And Munich, Germany's third largest city, and home many lederhosen clad gentlemen.

This year we revisited an old haunt.  The same venue for my 40th birthday celebrations. Back to the very famous Las Vegas, Nevada.  Named by a Mexican in 1829, Las Vegas (The Meadows when translated from the Spanish), has a very long and illustrious history.

Initially used as a water stop on trips between Los Angeles and eastern outposts, many of us are more familiar with Vegas's sin city reputation.  The building of the Hoover Dam, which started in 1931, saw the population of Las Vegas swell and to entertain the mainly male working population, the casinos and show girls were born into Vegas history.

Organised crime wasn't far behind, and financed by the infamous Meyer Lansky (incidentally portrayed as Hyman Roth in the Godfather movie), Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo hotel and casino.  Still proudly standing pride of place on the Strip opposite our home for 4 nights, Caesar’s Palace.

I travelled from Sydney and took a very circuitous route, with a 2 hour delay in Sydney, and then an unscheduled stop in Honolulu, before travelling through San Francisco, changing planes, and culminating in a short hop to McCarran airport, Las Vegas. 

I should probably be grateful I got there at all as when I checked in I was greeted by a very furrowed brow on the face of the check in assistant.  "You don't seem to have a visa for entry into the United States sir".  Oh yes I do.  And I dug out the email to confirm it.  

The email which states "approval to travel".  

I was told "They don't mean anything.  If there is a subsequent issue that confirmation is useless".  It seems the "subsequent issue" was some problem with the actual processing of my visa.  Oh dear.  However, as you know, we eventually resolved this, and I did get to travel.

Having arrived more than 7 hours later than planned, my friends were already well on their way to their 2nd, or 3rd pint.  I lost count, and evidentally so did they.  By about 3pm it seems.  I had managed to avail myself of numerous complimentary alcoholic beverages in the business class lounge at Sydney, and managed to keep suitably topped up en route.  I hadn't planned to imbibe quite so much in the lounge, but the kind hostess kept bringing me beers.  And I felt obliged to accept.  I have read that declining such generous hospitality is seen as a slight in some cultures.  Right?

Much of my travails of actually getting there faded away as we made our decent into the desert.  Is there a better sight than flying into Las Vegas at night, with all the flashing neon lights looking resplendent?

The result of all of the proceeding hospitality (thanks Singapore Airlines for my gold card allowing business class lounge access) being that I was soon talking as much nonsense as they were not long after my arrival at Caesar's Palace.  Not, I hasten to add, where the actual Caesar used to live.  Just in case anybody was wondering.

Our quiet first night, turned into a quiet early morning.  As is wont to happen in Vegas, where there are no clocks in the casinos, the early hours of the morning soon creep up on you.  As we turned in slightly later than planned, we all agreed to a small adjustment to the itinerary.  A little lie in in the morning, and reluctantly cross off library and museum visits planned for the following day, due to time constraints.

The following day was the England v Uruguay match, and by the 12pm kick off we were settled in front of a large TV screen in Gordon Ramsey's "Pub and Grill", with large burgers, and exceptional pints of Guinness.  Hoping that Luis Suarez was not going to take a large bite out of England’s ambitions of progressing through the group stages.  Alas.

Whisky and cokes...with a ladyboy chaser

The less said about the football the better.  But the afternoon drinking set the tone for the rest of the trip.  Maybe except for one of our travelling party.  Know as “the bambino” for his predilection to warm milky drinks, and pineapple with every meal, at times I thought I was with Alan Partridge, and was going to have to order a “lady boy chaser”, also known as a Baileys.  Indeed, at one point I did.  The look on the waitresses face was a picture as she waited for the punchline from the Bambino.  There wasn’t one.  He simply wanted to enjoy a Baileys.

Things didn’t improve in Jimmy Buffet’s.  Whilst we sampled what looked like the world’s largest margarita, the bambino plumped for a nice milkshake.  I had to draw the line at him ordering a snowball.  Things were crazy enough.

The days, and nights rolled on and we had a great time laughing and catching up.  Probably more “Last Vegas”, than “The Hangover”, but we are very sensible chaps, what did you expect?

Our time together came to an end all too soon, and with sadness we parted on a hot and sultry Sunday afternoon.  Already the conversation turned to our next trip, and possible venue.  Reykjav√≠k was mooted, as were the German hedonistic hotspots of Berlin and Hamburg.

Auf wiedersehen!