26 February 2007

New digs

Thanks to friends-of-friends Eleanor and Aaron, I now have a roof over my head and a room of my own for the next few weeks, to tide me over until I can find a more enduring accommodation option. Their apartment is in Barnes, which is located in West London on a languid loop of the Thames. I've not explored much of the area yet, but the closest tube station is Hammersmith on the Piccadilly and District lines. It takes about 10 minutes to walk from the station over Hammersmith Bridge, and the apartment building is only 50 metres from the south end of the bridge. Here's a map to show you where it is. Eleanor and Aaron are both well-established NZ expat professionals who've lived in London for quite a while now.

I moved my gear here from Steve & Fiona's place with Felix & Gavin's help on Saturday - the help being necessary and most welcome because the apartment is on the 4th floor with no lift. Certainly a nice place once you get up top here, and there's commanding views over the nearby streets. The view from the living room - substantial school playing fields, the Thames and the Hammersmith Bridge - is certainly a rare treat. My bedroom looks out onto a sea of old chimney-pots and long lines of well maintained three and four storey red-bricked terraced houses marching down Riverview Gardens, which runs parallel to the Thames. All the houses are adorned with smartly-painted white stripes to mark each floor. In the distance I can see the tall elderly building marked clearly as "Harrod's Furniture Depository", which is as genteel as a heritage warehouse can be.

For those who appreciate details, the address is:

9 Castelnau Mansions
Castelnau Road
London SW13 9QX

Landline: +44 208 741-5990

At this stage the arrangement is likely to last until early April when E & A will be doing some house alterations, at which time I'll hopefully have found a room in a flat somewhere else. Long before that I hope to have sorted some sort of contract work to get some money rolling in. Am already on the books of two agencies, and will sign up with a third this week. Fingers crossed and all that, and I'll keep you posted!


p.s. You can pronounce it "Castle know", if you like. And yes, the weather is still very mild - 10 or 11 degrees.

23 February 2007

Oh no, I'm a trainspotter!

Actually, I promise I'm really not. I don't have an anorak, for starters, which is probably instant disqualification. Picture taken waiting for the DLR at Heron Quays, Docklands.

22 February 2007

We're not in Kansas anymore

Things that remind you that you're really in London:

- Someone talking loudly on a cellphone in a crowded train carriage can cause a bitter argument to break out.

- Pushy touts compete vigorously to force copies of free newspapers into your hands, which will then promptly be covered in cheap printers' ink. (Except the fantastically-named London Lite, which main promotional point is that its ink will not run).

- There's still smoking in pubs. Eww.

- There's no rubbish bins in McDonalds Liverpool Street station. Because someone might blow them up.

- Pret-a-Manger chicken stuffing sandwiches are still fab.

- You accidentally spot Oliver Cromwell's death mask in the British Museum, having never noticed it before. Cool.

- Tube carriage grafitti says "Doors may cause deafness". (Well, I suppose if you put your ear against them when the Central Line train goes around a sharp corner. "Screee...!!!!")

- Sometimes it's quicker to walk 500 metres rather than take the bus.

- On no account should you think of all the germs on the Underground's escalator handrails. No way.

- Clipboard-wielding flirty-fishing charity donation seekers must never be looked in the eye, or you'll turn to stone.

- The baby the Kosovan woman is clutching as she goes around the carriage begging for change looks suspiciously well-fed.

- Stand on the right, walk on the left. Stand on the right, walk on the left. Say it with me now.

- School half-term week is definitely not the right time to go to the Science Museum.

- 'Friends' is on TV every half-hour. Chandler still isn't funny.

19 February 2007

New mobile number

Hi from Deptford Bridge, SE13.
I've sorted out a new mobile phone to field all those lucrative job offers that are bound to flow in once the employers of London know I'm available :) 
It's a Nokia 2310, if you're interested.  The number is +44 793 640-6608
I wanted a fairly basic model to see me right until some money starts coming in.  I've only loaded it with 10 quid so far, so I won't be doing that much texting for the time being.  NZ residents: texting from an 021 mobile will cost you 30c.  Family types: if you need to call me on it, I suggest you give Telecom a ring to see how much the per-minute cost will be.  It might be easier to wait to chat when I've got access to a landline, which hopefully shouldn't be too long.  Or I'll just call you on Skype. 
As usual, latest reports from the front lines can be found on the blog.

18 February 2007

Venice in peril?

The 13 hour flight from Hong Kong to London (via the night skies of China, Mongolia and Russia) was fairly uneventful, despite the activities of Seatkicker Boy, Hysterical Laughter Lady and Snoring Chinese Dad.  Siberian towns don't bother turning off the bright lights at night-time, it seems.  It was quite nostalgic to finally fly over London on arrival, admiring the flickering orange lights of millions of residents, which shined like a vast orange spiderweb in the clear night air. The chaotic scrum at the baggage carousels instantly reminded me that I'd arrived back in the UK – dozens of people fight for baggage trolleys and then crowd closer and closer to the edge of the carousel, so no-one can see the baggage floating along the rubber.  What they need is some good NZ queuing etiquette, obviously...

Richard Ngatai kindly met me at the aiport and helped me back to his & Sam's friends's place, six stops down the Piccadilly line. Gareth and Hella live in Osterley with their young son, and as is the way with these things, it turns out I'd actually met Gareth several years before at a Wadestown barbecue held by mutual work colleague Paquita. What are the odds?

After a well-deserved sleep interrupted only by the screeching of a fox outside the house at dawn, Richard, Sam and I headed off into the mild spring-like day for my next port of call, the home of Steve and Fiona in Deptford Bridge just south of Greenwich. S & F live in a new apartment complex right by the DLR station, and it's an impressive set-up. After dropping off my bags, we all wandered up to Greenwich for a traditional English lunch (so to speak) at Pizza Express. And yes, former Londoners, a portion of the price of a Pizza Veneziano still goes to the Venice in Peril restoration fund. (It's been a footnote to the PE menu for years – a nice touch of familiarity).  Note to self: 'Venice In Peril': great name for a band.  Perhaps there's a disco in Venice at which people could panic about the peril, do you think?

As I had a travelcard I decided to make use of it. I popped into town and emerged at Westminster into a storm of a hundred Italian schoolkids on tour, and then walked up Whitehall and Charing Cross Road looking at the people and the shops. Jarvis Cocker was playing that night at the London Astoria, which was a reminder of the gig opportunities here in the big city. Ever a glutton for punishment, I took a left turn and walked along Oxford Street into the crush of weekend shoppers. What made me feel truly back in London was the sight and sounds of a Hare Krishna plying his trade with the aid of a personal amp and a wraparound headset mic to assist his chanting. Now that's a little slice of London for you.

(And as a postscript, my slightly weirded-out body clock got me up at 5.45am this morning. I turned on Steve's TV to find the last overs of the NZ cricket ODI versus Australia at Eden Park playing out – what a super victory!  I managed to find a stray unsecured wireless connection to tap into, but I have to sit on the floor by the window to latch onto it properly.  The joys of borrowing free broadband!)

16 February 2007

The cleanest lift in China

Having failed to walk my feet off yesterday, I elected to do yet more footslogging around downtown, but with no real purpose in mind.  There was the first real hint of Asian winter in the air, with grey skies, drops of rain here and there, and an occasional chill breeze, but it was still shorts-wearing weather for me, if not for most other Hong Kongites.  Patrolling Queen's Road and Des Voeux Road in the main shopping district, I quickly tired of air-conditioned marble-floored malls decked out with luxury stores.  However, I did pay a quick visit to a Chinese-owned department store, Wing On, to explore the menswear section.  This was followed by a scouting run through the smallish Western Markets building, where the only item of interest was a peculiar shop devoted to selling model buses.  I accidentally took the escalator to the top floor restaurant, only to find that there wasn't one back down; if a customer is foolish enough to decline the opportunity to eat there, they obviously aren't worthy of a speedy exit.

Passing by the window of a little McDonalds on Queen's Road West, I noticed an advertising tableaux for a local film.  It provided an example of how a crowded city advertises its movies – the poster crammed 15 characters into a tiny space, all gurning heroically for the camera.  There was Our Grinning Hero With A Sparkly Gold Magic Thing, Our Hero's Geeky Mate, Spunky Pirate Girl With A Big Brain, Sinister Villain With Bad Facial Hair, Goofy Witch Lady With Big Teeth, et cetera.  It must've been challenging for the actors to find 15 different poses for the promo shots.  Not to be topped by this iconography, a poster for a pork burger combo featured a comic actor wearing a giant pig head booting another version of himself wearing a giant dog head up the bum, to symbolise the passing of the old year and the arrival of the new.

Feeling footsore, I decided to ride up to the viewing level halfway up the Bank of China building.  As the day was overcast, the views from the 43rd floor weren't legendary, but the shiny lift was probably the cleanest elevator in China: a small plaque informed occupants that 'this lift car will be wiped with disinfectant every hour'.  I tried not to think why it needed to be.

After a break at the apartment to recover, I went for a stroll through the peculiar Hong Kong Park, which is remarkably artificial, like a Disneyland version of a park.  Fake rocks jut into the concrete lake, sporting signs saying "walking on rocks is prohibited".  In the conservatory, a fake rockface is punctured by a rectangular circuitboard, and the footpaths are bordered by faux wood railings.  Despite the element of unnatural weirdness, it's a refreshing open space in the middle of Hong Kong.

In the evening Reuben and Alex hired a babysitter for the boys and we headed out for dinner at Stanley on the other side of Hong Kong island, 15km south of Central Station.  We dined in a restaurant located in the historic Murray House (1846), a genteel collonaded structure moved from the central city to make way for the Bank of China building that I'd ascended earlier in the morning.  After a quick stroll on the waterfront promenade to round out the evening, we cabbed it back to Old Peak Road for a quick game of Nintendo Wii tennis and bowling.

Tomorrow, London!

15 February 2007

Sausage croissants are the new black

Reuben, Alex and the boys (Zach, Hugo and Angus) live on the 13th floor of a 36-storey tower in Hong Kong's Midlevels.  Their apartment is spacious and airy, with views north and south of soaring apartment buildings forming a chequerboard pattern of windows all around.  Old Peak Road is a precipitous and narrow thoroughfare, buzzing with taxis and minivans straining to cart Hong Kongers up the slope to their homes.  Zach and Hugo attend school nearby, and Reuben only has to walk five or ten minutes downhill to work.

Keen to take in the views, I stocked up on drinking water to combat the mid-20s winter temperature and pressed onwards up Old Peak Road, which became even steeper before turning into a pedestrian path to the summit.  I followed Alex's good advice and didn't rush it!  Here and there locals passed by exercising their dogs or taking the airs, but soon the path grew quiet and I continued the long haul to the top, step by step.  At the summit the Peak Tram centre has a swish shopping mall, including a Delifrance cafe selling 'sausage croissants', otherwise known as sausage rolls.  But the main reason to visit is the spectacular vista from the roof, with views of the entire downtown area of Hong Kong.  Broad-winged birds of prey soar below, riding thermals and keeping an eye out for tasty rodents in the hillside foliage. 

The air is cooler up at the peak, and several nature trails wend their way around the summit's parklands.  I took a clockwise route with excellent, if vertiginous, views down leafy slopes and onto the clustered roofs of high-rise buildings far below.  Every 50 metres the fenceline was plastered with posters reminding walkers of the severe punishments faced by owners of defecating dogs – something about being stretched on a rack while being forced to listen to Wing CDs, presumably.

After a break back at the apartment, I wandered down into the city proper, through the little zoological gardens with its lone jaguar in solitary confinement because its mate died a few years ago and a replacement has yet to be found.  I wandered around the clinical precision of the downtown malls and arcades for a while, and then headed west along Queen's Road Central to the more rambunctious and chaotic Cat Street markets, full of disposable tourist tat and 'interesting' smells.  The return to Midlevels was via the world's longest covered escalator, which takes about 20 minutes to ascend the steep slope.

After dinner I headed back down to Reuben's office building; he buzzed down in the lift from the 42nd floor and we hopped on a train to go one stop under the harbour to Kowloon, where we watched the spectacular nightly light and laser show flickering across the buildings of Hong Kong, which was set to cheesy synth music.  Then we legged it up hectic Nathan Road, full of garish lights and pushy street vendors, but with scarcely any space for tactical deployment of Asian phlegm-hoicking, and took a brief look at the Temple Street night markets before taking one of the famous lozenge-shaped double-decker Star Ferries back to Hong Kong and a well-earned rest.

14 February 2007

Rumble at the docks

After accompanying Alex down to the pier for his morning ferry ride to work, and bidding him thanks and farewell, I took a detour past some ramshackle fishing huts on wooden stilts in a small bay hidden behind the headland.  The owners of the old shacks were offered land by the authorities to encourage them to move out of their decrepit accommodation, but being enterprising sorts, instead of moving out they built rental properties on the offered land and stayed put in their hovels.  Their fishing dinghies are parked alongside on the mudflats, and fish-hungry cats lurk on nearby rooftops hoping for a free meal.  The shacks are built so close together that the public path narrows drastically, and the way is almost obstructed by aging lean-to walls daubed with old magazine advertisements and lucky charms.  
Later in the morning I met Sarah at the pier returning from dropping Lily at pre-school, and we wandered amongst the bayfront shops of Yung Shue Wan, along to a bazaar being held at a concrete pier behind the village football pitch.  Sarah had been told about the market the day before by local Chinese retailer Doris, who could conceivably be someone who might have a sharp tongue if crossed.  At the venue, dozens of kumquat and tangelo bushes in plastic pots sat ready for deployment in homes across the island in honour of the Chinese New Year.  (pic); But as fevered shopping ravaged the stock, the supply of plants dwindled and a crazed tinge crept into the eyes of the local shoppers.  Sarah was elbowed away from one plant by a woman exclaiming, "Get away, get away!  It's mine!".  The melee was almost too much for Doris, who was racing back and forth to keep an eye on all the primal do-or-die commerce being undertaken.  But in the end Sarah secured some suitable vegetation for the Wilson balconies, and we loaded up the smaller ones into the pram, while the larger ones would be delivered later by one of the island's quad-bike delivery vehicles. 

After Sarah set off to town to see Alex for their 8th wedding anniversary, I strolled back into Yung Shue Wan for lunch, and then walked southwards to explore a little more of the island.  I ventured up the hill to see Lamma's 800kw wind turbine, which has 50m diameter rotors and makes an impressively ominous swooping noise as it cuts the air.  The view from the site was impressive too, with most of the southern coast of Hong Kong Island to the northeast.  In the opposite direction the mammoth Lamma coal-fired power station also thrummed menacingly, and its three smoke-stacks dominated the island's skyline.  Luckily the station itself is hidden from sight if you live in Yung Shue Wan or Tai Ping, and only the stacks are visible, lurking over the hill crest like a trio of industrial giants. 

Heading back down the hill, I followed the trail further to pretty Hung Shing Yeh beach, which was being tended by rake-wielding beach groomers wearing broad-brimmed basket hats to keep the sun off.  Deciding that the heat was getting to me, I paused for a cool drink in the shade, before turning back to Tai Ping. 

As I said farewell to Sarah and the kids, poor little Charlotte expressed her grief at my departure in the time-honoured method of all little ones: she let forth a veritable torrent of vomit onto one of the sofas and burst into tears.  Surprising how much one tiny stomach can - or, more precisely, can't - hold. 

After an arm-stretching baggage haul down to the pier, I bade farewell to pretty Lamma and headed for the bustle and grime of Hong Kong proper.  A short NZ$8 taxi ride took me up the hill to the Midlevels, and I disembarked at 8 Old Peak Road to begin the second phase of my Hong Kong visit - staying with Reuben and Alex and the boys in their fab Hong Kong apartment. 

13 February 2007

Anticipating the auspicious pig

It's nearly Chinese New Year here in Hong Kong, and the Year of the Dog is shuffling off, to be replaced by the sparkling new Year of the Pig. Lively cartoon pigs juggling stacks of pretty gold coins are on posters everywhere, and the entire city is planning to pay close attention to the prohibition on setting off celebratory fireworks. And then completely ignore it, in order to set off loads of fireworks.

Atop the hill on Lamma, the my cousin Alex and his family live in Tai Ping Village – a jamboree of old and new low-rise apartment buildings, nothing more than three storeys. Alex & Sarah have bought a great apartment with plenty of space plus a roof area that currently serves as an open-air play area for their little girls, decked out with toys, plastic slides and a mini-trampoline with a safety net. The family needs a bit of space, as the house must accommodate Alex, Sarah, Lily (4), Charlotte (14 months), Jasmine their household helper from the Philippines, Bella the shadow-chasing dog and two fluffy pug-faced felines. (And a guest from New Zealand). It's a lovely lively place.

On my first full day in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (to give it its formal title), Alex had the morning off from work, so we strolled down the hill to Yung Shue Wan near the ferry dock and had a tasty breakfast and coffee at Green Planet, an organic vegetarian place on the main thoroughfare. Plenty of people stopped by to say hello to the Wilsons, particularly ex-pat families with small kids; Lamma has that small-town feel about it, where everyone seems to know everyone else.

After breakfast we loaded Charlotte in the stroller and walked to Pak Kok Pier on the northern tip of Lamma to catch the ferry to high-rise Aberdeen. As the ferry neared the city pier it had to negotiate a narrow channel full of dozens of tied-up fishing boats, with the odd puttering sampan thrown into the mix. Giant apartment blocks loomed over the bay on all sides, with fluttering laundry hung out to dry a hundred metres up, secured by pincer-sharp pegs.

We collected Lily from her pre-school in Aberdeen and took a bus into the middle of Hong Kong, where we bade farewell to Alex, who went off to work. I accompanied Sarah on some city errands, acting as a spare pair of hands and chief pram-minder and bottle-washer. Then we loaded everything onto the 3.15pm ferry back to Lamma, which was chock full of excited squeakers just out of school.

After some reviving down-time back at Casa Wilson, we met Alex and went for a nice curry at an Indian place down by the water. The food was excellent, and even more importantly, the sound-system was playing a stylish mix of Manchester and Britpop sounds (Loose Fit by the Happy Mondays, Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode, There She Goes by the La's, and Connected by the Stereo MCs). Tune!

As a nightcap we started to watch the French free-running movie, Yamakazi ('Les samourais des temps modernes'). The opening scenes of the seven chaps free-climbing a 20-storey apartment block ( i.e. no ropes) was very impressive, but the storyline itself was rather pants. I half expected the irascible police chief character to fume, "Bah! I'll catch those pesky kids if it's the last thing I do!". And then bite a piece out of the police-station doorframe. Despite their nifty stunts, we gave up on the limber Parisians and called it a day.

12 February 2007

Seven league boots

It takes only 11 hours to cross the Pacific from Auckland to Hong Kong these days. As long as you can get to the plane, that is. The snakey queue to get past Auckland Customs takes an age, and could've taken even longer if any official-type people had noticed the unattended cabin bag that had been left in the queue by a long-gone traveller. Most of the queue occupants glanced at it and then ignored it; one portly German with a handlebar moustache shifted it closer to the front of the queue each time he passed it in the S-shaped waiting line. When I pointed the bag out to him, the Customs dude at the counter cracked a minor 'bomb joke' under his breath, which was quite a relief as I'd had to stifle the exact same joke a moment earlier, for fear of starting my journey in the penitentiary.

Cathay's A340 swooped me away from Mangere and over the city for one last view of the Harbour Bridge. Flying north-northwest, we crossed the coast over the Kaipara Heads (pic) and headed for Australia. The economy section was full of young Asian students returning from New Zealand. The one I was sitting next to, a young chap from Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. He called himself Hank (a Taiwanese cowboy?) and was just returning home from a 3-week English course at Waikato University.

As the jet swept towards the Queensland coast, I took in The World's Fastest Indian, which proved to be an entertaining and likeable local feel-good story. Tim Shadbolt got three lines! This was followed by Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, which was fizzy but slightly superficial. Ending a movie about Marie Antoinette at the point she leaves Versailles in captivity rather misses the most important bit of the story, I would've thought. But for music fans, there's a nice bit when Bow Wow Wow's cover of I Want Candy soundtracks a montage of conspicuous royal consumption and giddy regal excess.

After buzzing over Whitsunday Island and crossing northern Queensland north of Cairns, we clipped the south coast of Papua and then crossed Philippine islands galore. A boiling golden sunset (pic) enlivened the evening, and justified my window seat decision. Cathay's flight service was okay, but their seatbelt policy was over-zealous, with really long periods of seat confinement in conditions that are typical in most flights around New Zealand. Turbulence? That's not real turbulence!

Arrival at Hong Kong's space-age airport was straightforward, and I was soon slicing through the big city evening on the rapid train to Central Station for only $20. The night sky was tinged orange from all the city lights, and a smoky murk limited visibility. Kindly cousin Alex Wilson met me (and more importantly, my four bags totalling nearly 40kg plus my full-length coat) and helped me board the ferry at the nearby pier, and we chugged off on the 30 minute trip to Lamma Island, where the Wilson family lives. We pushed my luggage through the empty alleys of quiet little Lamma (pic), as there are no cars (or, more importantly, taxis) on the island. Getting up the steep slope to Tai Ping Village on the crest of the hill required a fair bit of sweating but we made it in the end, Alex being used to the strenuous climb, and having very sensibly brought the family trolley along to ease the load.

I settled into the spare bed for the night at about 3.30am NZ time, happy to have got the first day of my new travels under my belt.

p.s. I did manage to sell my trusty Mitsubishi before I left. I took it to a carfair in town on Saturday morning and had it sold within 10 minutes of getting there. Later that evening I had the pleasure of attending a farewell BBQ at Jennifer & Andrew's place in One Tree Hill, and catching up with some groovy Auckland pals before I left (pic).

08 February 2007

Now with 25% less franticness

At least my time in Auckland hasn't been as frantic as my week in Wellington after finishing work!  Maybe 75% as frantic though.  Score one for the good guys - I bought a new laptop yesterday.  Pity it's got Windows Vista on it, but you can't have everything, can you.  One plus is that it makes Hearts and Spider Solitaire run like a dream.  Now all I have to do is to get it to run anything else...

Selling the trusty veehickle looks to be the hardest task of the week.  Am taking it to a carfair on Saturday morning, but despite its all-round goodness I doubt anyone will fork out for a 258,000km 17-year-old car.  Maybe some skint backpackers. 

In a moment of diversion from the tasks at hand, I went to see The History Boys with Jennifer & Andrew at the Lido in Epsom on Waitangi Day.   A likeable film, certainly, but I didn't really warm to the students.  Perhaps they were just a little too smug, or perhaps I was jealous of their smarts!


04 February 2007

The gratitude of the humble traveller

So I've hit the road finally - I drove up from Tawa to Hamilton today.  Hot and blue skies to start with for the first few hours, but then the glowering rain clouds boiled over and most of the rest of the journey was wet.  Still balmy though.  The faithful car served me well yet again - still a trooper.  Tonight I had an enjoyable dinner with the Mortons and Woodlarens and Spike at Greta Street, and watched a bit of the NZ v Aus ODI. 
Umpteen thankyous must go out to those super pals in Wellington who helped no end in my last couple of days: Trayner & Bryce and Bec & Hugh for very kindly letting me store stuff at their places while I'm away, the aforementioned Trayner & Bryce again for hosting me overnight at their lovely home (where we sat up chatting & watching the warm-hearted and witty State & Main), and Super Will, whose tireless assistance with the shifting van on Saturday was an absolute lifesaver, particularly given his exertions at the Sevens the night before.
I was quite sorry to drive away from the folornly empty Kano Street flat after 2 1/2 years there - but glad to know that Former Flatmate Al will be taking up residence there shortly, so I may yet be able to enjoy the view again as a visitor sometime.
Tomorrow: Onehunga.  After that: the world...