There are two kinds of people in this world and I'm one of them.

Friday, March 06, 2009

'Kok of the north

One night in Bangkok: makes the tough guys crumble, apparently. Lucky, then, that I was there for two nights, where after an admittedly crumbly start I could slowly reassemble yourself. Around 25 journalists were flown out by the tourist board to witness the fact that Bangkok is back to normal after its bi-annual bloodless military coup.

I used to go all the time, but I hadn’t been to Thailand for three years. Within minutes of leaving the airport, though, it felt pretty normal – i.e. you sit in traffic for about half a day while moving three blocks.

I like Bangkok a lot. Despite the horrendous traffic, there’s an energy and a buzz about the place and it’s a cliché, but the people that live there (that would be the Thai people) DO seem genuinely happy. I figure it’s the Buddhism, one of the few religions where you don’t need to fear fundamentalists (What would they do? Excessive meditation? Force you to go meat free?), and where serenity and peace are promoted rather than guilt, judgment and killing people who disagree with you.

The first night we were taken out to a fashionable but gimmicky restaurant, Long Table, which is the kind of place where people wear sunglasses indoors and has the spurious boast of “what is thought to be one of the longest tables in the world”.

Hell, my bedroom desk could be “thought to be” one of the longest tables in the world – let’s have some official documentation, or at least lie to us – who’s going to check? (It reminded me of when I was being driven through Poland and my guide pointed out excitedly – “Look! It’s our country’s fourth largest Police Museum!” Like, thanks.)

The next day, half of us – the misguided half – went for Thai boxing classes, which was essentially a remedial workout in a sweaty gym full of hard looking Thais and slightly less hard looking, though certainly harder looking than me, Europeans. After being taught the basic stance and a couple of kicks and punches, we sparred with our trainers in the blistering heat and humidity. Luckily, my trainer was about a hundred years old, and thanks to his slow reactions, I didn’t look like the complete physical wreck that I coincidentally am.

The afternoon was slightly less hard work, but in some ways more painful. We were hosted at a Thai Massage school, and given a demonstration and then complete massage. I like Thai massage a lot, but I always forget how much they worm into your joints and cartilage – as trained fingers poked at some of the more inaccessible knots, I thought that this is how crabmeat must feel when diners stick their tiny forks in to get those last few atoms of meat.

We all had dinner at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, the biggest excitement coming when we found out that the philandering Crown Prince (kind of like the Thai Prince Andrew) was there as well. Well, it was exciting until we found out we couldn’t go anywhere near him or take photos or trade bawdy tales over a couple of tequila shots or anything.

Then it was into Pat Pong for a highly cultural evening, or at least that was the plan until we found out that the city’s best bar – Radio City (daily bill of Thai Tom Jones, Thai Elvis and Thai Tina Turner) – was closed for a refurb. Then it just turned into trying to find way to drink without getting coerced into bars called things like “Pussy Connection”, which is exhausting in that part of town. I stayed out too late considering my 4am start the next day. Bad me with my stupid staying out.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Mardi Bum

I’ve been so many times now that I didn’t think I needed any more reasons to love New Orleans. Well, whoa Nelly, was I wrong.

I’ve been for the 4th July and Halloween and surprise house parties and food and drink festivals and nondescript weeks in May that turned magical, but never for Mardi Gras. If I’m honest, parades and dressing up and enforced jollity (like New Years Eve) have never really bloated my float, but spending a week in a city dedicating itself to enjoyment with so much energy and conviction was something I won’t ever forget.

Random moments:

Arriving at midnight after a hellish flight delay, only to remember that it’s actually the perfect time to arrive in this city, and still very much a civilised hour to hit the local Irish pub with a bunch of people you’d really missed. As the cab driver pulled up to my friends’ perfectly Mardi Gras-decorated house, I’d forgotten the number, and he was asking if I’d recognise it. “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll recognise it,” I told him.

Waking up late morning and wandering into the French Quarter with the sun beaming down and finding a short but chatty queue at the best breakfast joint in the neighbourhood. Not only that, but the breakfast in question involves Mimosas (Buck’s Fizz, but stronger), Eggs Jonathan (Eggs Benedict, but better) and Brandy Milk Punch (a milkshake, but, er, brandier). Every day should start like this. You’d only live about a year, obviously, but what a year.

My friend Jean flew in from Chicago, and we overlapped for one stolen day, which is way too rare for us.

The first parade uptown on St Charles Avenue. Mine was Krewe D’Etat (Krewes are the mysterious societies that organise the various parades), and nothing can really prepare you for the crowds, colours, noises and the clamour for the essentially worthless cheap plastic beads that the floats dispense as they pass by. They become the most precious things in the world, even though you can buy them for pennies in the local gift shops. Best float: An Amy Winehouse-fronted behemoth, complete with mechanised arm bringing fag up to mouth.

With so many people, getting uptown and back without massive preparation can be a pain, I guess – who wants to plan where they'll get a last minute cocktail? Luckily, our super kind friend Jean had opened up her nearby house for a few select people, and so not only could we step back from the parade for food and drinks, but we could also meet a constant stream of great people.

Joining the semi-anarchist sound terrorists of the Noisition Coalition for two guerrilla parades. You have to dress in red, black and white and carry a home-made instrument, in my case home made by our amazing friend Angie – the megarocker, a four foot high maraca made of fibreglass. The first was a daytime parade down the official carnival route, the second an improvised romp down the French Quarter, cutting into bars to acoustically turf the place up for a few minutes (there are maybe 30 of us), dispersing when the police arrived and regrouping somewhere else to go to the next joint. The finale in the backroom of
Flannagan’s Irish pub was unbelievable, and I think we’d still be going if we hadn’t needed a drink so much.

Spending an entire night sat around in a fabulous bar where the only seven customers all night are friends of the bartender, our friend Rhiannon, who just happens to be one of the city’s most amazing cocktail makers. The drinks came, and we chased the conversation around the bar.

Walking around the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day itself with people in three of the best costumes I saw that day, an opinion repeatedly backed up by countless bypassers. My friends Todd, Ben and Chris going as Jackie Onassis post-motorcade, a candy store and a golden duck named (what else?) Foie Gras respectively.

Hanging out at a post-Mardi Gras party at my friends Todd and Ben’s incredible house, where lots of people you really like drop in, just as they would if there was a takeaway service that delivered your friends to your door.

Even though I was a little too spaced out to fully appreciate it, going out on the hide-under-a-duvet day of Ash Wednesday to one of the city’s best restaurants and eating turtle soup and red snapper with great company.

Too many other things to even list, new bars, new friends, familiar hangovers, but coming away with the feeling of a week lived to the full, a smile on my face as wide as a house that this place can still surprise me, and the memory of more “you should move here” conversations than the cocktails will let me remember.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A polar to love (pt. II)

I was girding myself for a big entry about the 8 days or so I spent tooling about the Antarctic coast, but having just written the feature and spent a week putting the film together, I'm a bit polar-ed out. Not so much bi-polar as past-polar.

There's not much I can add to the photos, the scenery so good that even a point and shoot monkey like me can get stunning shots by aiming the camera in vaguely the right direction. The thing that struck me, besides the sheer choice of the all-you-can-eat buffet, was that the landscape was like nothing I'd ever seen before. This white bit at the bottom of the Earth is pristine, like no-one's ever been there before, and the air is so clean my lungs, used to London's oily muck of an atmosphere, almost rejected it. The icebergs might as well have been alien spaceships for all the familiarity they had. I don't want to get all eco-emotional, but seeing the ice caps and flows really makes you think what the planet was like before Starbucks and crisp packets and stuff.

As for the wildlife, the best, and simultaneously most disappointing, were the whales. Killer, Minki and Sperm, so I'm told. They're amazing because you catch your breath when you see this majestic grey mass moving around just below the surface, but then they don't really DO much apart from be grey masses just below the surface, and being the MTV generation, I lose interest quickly.

Penguins are a bit more engaging. At least they waddle about, and jump (though it looks like falling) into the water and have their young eaten by birds of prey as you watch on in horror, etc. But again, there are downsides. The thing is that they spend most of the time just sat around in their own doings, and what the guidebooks call a "barnyard" smell is actually really rank, depending on what barnyards you usually hang around in, obviously.

The only other thing I wanted to mention was the competitive spotting element of the trip, which got more desperate as time went on. At first people were boasting about whales and albino penguins, but once everyone had seen them, there was nowhere for the braggers to go. I remember coming down to breakfast and being boasted at that I had missed "two big brown birds", and, towards the very end, "a really big wave". OK, we're on an ocean that's tipping the boat up horizontally for fun, and we're WAVE SPOTTING? Pardon me if I duck out of the spotting game here.

Er, there's probably more stuff, but the time has passed and new pastures beckon, specifically temporary unemployment, which handily coincides with a week in New Orleans so I don't have to think about it. Off tomorrow. Gentlemen, start your livers.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Falk handles

The UK is one of THOSE know, the ones that own weird islands a million miles from where they are because of historic badness that probably involved offing a bunch of "aggressive" natives, wiping out a potnetially humourous bird species, that kind of thing.

One of our great possessions are the Falkland Islands, just off the coast of Argentina (obviously), which in 1982, we fought a short but fairly brutal war for against, er, Argentina (obviously). I don't know what the rights and wrongs of this were. They did invade, albeit peacefully-ish. We had to defend ourselves, but Thatcher DID need a war, and perhaps it was a slight overreaction to possibly illegally sink one of their ships that was running away from us, killing 250 Argentine sea cadets and also sacrificing 200 odd of our own boys just to prove a point. It's a bleak rock covered in penguins...I'm sure we could have come to terms somehow. And I do like the description of that war as being "two bald old men fighting over a comb".

Anyway, I went. You fly with the Royal Air Force which is like a normal passenger plane but much more expensive and without anything nice on it like basic comforts, nice food, a video screen that doesn't look like it's from 1985, etc. As you approach, some bad ass fighter jets come up alongside, and after you've stopped bricking it, you realise they're escorting you, which is vaguely cool.

As a press group, we were met at the airport and taken to the military facility. We were allowed to interview the Chief of Staff, even though I'm not sure any of us wanted to, but he was affable enough, until we started asking questions about what it was they did there.

There are roughly 2,000 military on the islands. All the guide books say this, most people you ask on the island know's pretty much accepted. But try and get that confirmed.

Me: "How many military are there on the island, roughly?"

Him (suddenly scowling): "Enough."

Me: "The guide books say around 2,000 - is that right?"

Him: "I say around ENOUGH."

Me: "..."

And then you get this nonsense.

Me: "What kind of alert are you on?"

Him: "Very high at all times."

Me: "So do you expect Argentina to..."

Him: "WHOAH! Who said anything about Argentina?!? I didn't say Argentina! YOU said Argentina!"

Me: "..."

Like we're preparing for Finland or the Maldives to take a pop at us. OK, as Oscar Wilde once said, whatevs. Then they showed us the bad ass planes, which, again, was vaguely cool.

Considering all I had in the way of memories of the islands were TV pictures from '82 showing men negotiating ugly, landmine-filled moors (in some ways, it was the last 'analogue' style war, where we had to actually go there instead of lobbing expensive bombs from 500 miles away), I thought the Falklands were really picturesque. A bit like the Scottish Highlands but with more penguins. The people were friendly, although you DO have to talk about The War a lot. Almost all the time, in fact, which is slightly wearing after a bit.

We were invited to the Governor's house for dinner, one of those impossibly posh nights where I spend most of the time feeling like a farmhand who has wandered into a royal wedding by mistake. There was a lot of talk about The War, and we had a formal dinner at a long table with about twelve pictures of the Queen looking down, checking we were using the right spoons. These outposts of the former empire seem to specialise in these overly-British throwbacks, all gin and tonics and cucumber cricket bats and earl grey tea served in wellington boots.

I do like to spend time on obscure islands, though. The last day, we took 4x4s out to the penguin colony, and ate some of the best home baked food I've ever had at the local cafe. The sun beat down (without the benefit of an ozone layer, my burns told me the next day), I got bitten by a penguin flea and I learned how much cute birds stink. And if that's not worth inappropriate military intervention, I don't know what is.

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tell 'em about the honey

I don't usually go into the "bespoke" bakery round the corner from the flat, a bit because I'm not too sure what a "bespoke" bakery is, but mostly because it sells overly-complicated bread that you can't fit into the toaster properly and it's about five quid a throw. I was caught short, bread-wise, this morning, though, and I had to go and face up to the full, sundried tomato-infused horror.

The least intricate item seemed to be a white loaf being billed as Pain de Miel - bread made with honey, so it's a little bit sweet and you can whack a 200 per cent markup on the price. I asked for it in my best French accent, even though we're in Southwark, and the assistant, coincidentally the World's Poshest Woman, gingerly picked it off the shelf and wrapped it, all the time eyeing me suspiciously.

"Have you had this kind of bread before?" she asked, making it sound like it was some fabulously mysterious item, baked from flour ground underfoot by unicorns.

"Er, i don't think so," I said, not sure if she was even going to let me buy it. I should mention at this point I was wearing a track suit, and not my best tweeds, ribboned bonnets, etc, like the rest of the queue.

"It' honey in it..." she snarled. I felt like I was ordering something unethical, like I'd gone in demanding a pound of panda livers or humming birds on sticks. I think she imagined that people in track suits didn't have palates sophisticated enough to enjoy bread with honey in it.

"Er, yes, I know. Thanks." By now I was almost having to wrestle it from her hands.

"I'm asking because I've never tried it myself," she (probably) lied. "Will you come back and tell me what it tastes like?"

"No problem," I said, already turning for the door, thinking well, it IS made on the premises, surely you can just go in the back and tear a bit off, or buy one with what I imagine is a sizeable employee discount?

Sadly I'll only be going back as a last resort. And besides, you couldn't taste the honey.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I got a polar to love

Back, then, from two weeks guffing around the Antarctic Peninsula, a tale of derring do, seas rougher than a sandpaper facial and as many penguins as you could feasibly snort with frozen nostrils. It's way too much to write about in one boring fell swoop, so I will add episodes and bore you slowly. So slowly you'll hardly realise you're being bored at all, like a frog in a pan of gradually heated water. Before you know it, you'll be an exploded amphibian with boiling ennui for guts.

I'm going to fast forward through the first bit, which was an 18-hour flight to the Falkland Islands (via Ascension Island) and then two days there which need some reflection before writing about. More reflection, I mean. Anywackers, we joined our vessel - which had set off from Buenos Aires some days earlier - there, and set off for two days at sea. With nothing to see, but sea. See? Now read on...

Passenger's log: Day 2, Somewhere in the sea.

I’m on a ship. Or is it a boat? I know that one term is fantastically insulting to nautical types, and marks you out as a hateful Johnny Land-lubber, but I’m too embarrassed to ask which, so I just alternate usage to minimize the damage. I joined it (sorry, HER) at the Falkland Islands after the rest of the passengers had already been at sea for around five days, and apparently the best idea for newcomers is to beat the living crap out of someone on your first day so that they respect…no, hang on, that’s prison.

I’ve never really been at sea for more than a few hours, certainly not for two days without getting off or indeed seeing any land whatsoever. I’m obviously something of a salty old seadog now, apart from the ship/boat fiasco, but living at sea is mainly like trying to go about your normal business while someone randomly messes with the gravity settings. Your body is almost imperceptibly pulled in weird directions, even as you sleep, and then suddenly there can be a huge fluctuation that can be potentially awkward if you’re carrying soup or trying to look sober after one too many after-dinner ports.

Also, being on a ship is what it must be like to be OCD. To minimise the chances of an outbreak of something sinister in the trousers department, you have to wash your hands ALL THE TIME. There are handwipes on every available surface and you can’t go into a room without dipping your hands in something antibacterial.

The good side of the OCD behaviour is that you also can’t leave your cabin for more than ten seconds without the staff compulsively plopping some kind of present in there, from passable Belgian chocolates to newsletters telling you that Boy George has been sent to prison. I recommend the combination.

There’s not much to do, although there IS an important briefing going on in the lounge about the next days' landing, being conducted by the team of beardie on-board bird experts, which I miss to go for a well-earned massage by the non-beardie on-board relaxation expert(ess). I figure it will all become apparent in good time - we're going to see a lot of penguins I GET IT.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

To do...

Let's see now...wake up - check...pack - check...take car to RAF base for midnight flight to the Falkland Islands - check. I'm off for two weeks to go and bother some penguins and set foot on my seventh continent, which is fairly exciting, and spend ten days afloat with 300 assorted senior citizens which, well, is what it is, I suppose. The cruise is billed as The Far Side of the World (though everywhere is the far side of the world to someone) which makes me feel like Russell Crowe in Master and Commander, except hopefully without the crude surgical procedures and eating the weevils out of biscuits, etc. Flying from a military facility is a bit scary (I get nervous around squaddies) - I just hope the inflight entertainment stretches beyond someone screaming 'Drop and give me twenty!" every hour.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Mixed bag of ZOOg

Unless SpecSavers know something I don’t (lots about optometry and how the high street optical retail market works, but that goes without saying), I wasn’t beknighted in the New Year’s Honours List. I’d ordered some prescription sunglasses from them, and the store texted me to say they had arrived, only the text was addressed to ‘Lord Oswell’. Although it gave me five solid minutes of vicarious thrills, knocking the title around in my head and thinking of ways I could exploit people, I realised there’s nothing in this world that I have done to deserve any such honour, unless they’re dishing out gongs for Services to Work Displacement Activities, my long and varied napping career or my kindness to animals.

That last one is the least likely of all, as I am not kind to animals (at least, not since the death of my three fish of eleven years standing, Freeman, Hardy and Willis.) I’m not UNkind to animals, it’s just I don’t really know them on the whole. Not even to say hello to.

Hence my satisfaction at having successfully looked after the neighbour’s cat for seven whole days without a medical incident or some kind of comedy misplacement scenario which entails me hooning round pet stores with a photo, trying to find an exact replica before she got back. My allergy-riddled system meant I couldn’t dispense much in the way of actual affection, but I did let him brush up against my calves, or more specifically the thick denim around my calves, as I spooned his food out and tried not to breath in.

The cat’s survival formed one of the plus points to the mixed bag of a beginning to 2009, or ZOOg, as the kids aren’t calling it. The others include the aforementioned hilarious Lord incident, the Portuguese guy at the coffee shop I go to on the way to work giving me a free tub of hot porridge (I saw him make it by mistake for someone else and them palm it off on me as a “Happy New Year gift”, but I was still pleased) and my visiting friend Shannon buying a whole camembert to take back to the States with her and then leaving it behind in my fridge by mistake. I offered to post it, but in the end we just agreed it was best all round for me to look after it.

These rays of sunshine were of course counterbalanced with the news of ongoing violent war in the Middle East, the Current Economic Whatnot meaning I’ll probably only get about four day’s work this year and the general lack of enthusiasm for calling 2009 “ZOOg”.

So a finely balanced start, all told, and the next few weeks look to hold that pattern: I do get two weeks off work, but I do have to spend them on a boat with 300 pensioners. I sense a year of breaking even at best. Which I'll take, obviously.