Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Deliveries

It's supposed to be freezing cold today but no-one said anything about the hurricane force wind. The laundry room door is blasted off its hinges again. This time there's no saving it - will have to remake it over the next week.

I'm up early but Marcia is sleeping in late today - the banging shutters kept her awake while I was snoring away in my bedroom. Reheated coffee, cut a slice of the chocolate cake and relatched some of the shutters and doors so they banged less and Marcia could sleep more.

Drove over to Bordighera to share Christmas with my mother and brother, who live there while Paul teaches some students there as part of an EU funded program. Good to see them, in good health and in the warmth of a wooden cabin on a campsite there. Much better than the damp, cold, concrete apartments of recent years.

Lots of presents, of food, of drink and of talk later, headed back home in the evening to a slightly chillier Marcia, who hates it when I visit the other side of my family.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Duty

I began dishing out the presents after dinner of the 24th, as is custom in Norway. This process took long enough that it was almost midnight by the time we opened Marcia's 'present to the house', which was the most popular Nintendo Wii. Unpacked, working, superb on the new LCD TV, we played bowling, tennis, boxing, golf and surfing till past 2am. Brilliant fun start to Christmas Day!

Of course that meant I woke late - like waaaay late - in the official morning. Just in time to call my brother to say I'd be over for lunch at his and my mother's place, some 60km away. Could we all have spent Christmas in one place? No. That's a long and unhappy story.

So anyway by lunch I was with my mother and brother in their rented cabin in a campsite in Ventimiglia. The presents I had bought in Dallas and Zurich on the way over were bang on. Marcia's gift of a hairdryer also. The basket of goodies - well the liquid portion for sure, but the snacks I carried back with me at the end of the day (OK they were the type of things I munch on when entertaining, but still).

Even though I had slept nine hours and had been up but five, I still managed a short siesta there. Reckon more to do with letting myself relax after checking everyone is still OK and in one piece. Paul continues to work, Mother is hanging in there, Marcia holds the fort so I can fight another day. The project in Brasil may terminate tomorrow but I have enough to get through the year ahead. All is well today.

End of the evening and I head on back home. Cheered up Marcia, who feels down as always when I visit the others.

I've done my duty on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve and the sun shines bright through the window again. Quick check of the internet and I'm down for a coffee, fix the garden gate, move TVs and wrap presents.

My next door neighbor tells me water is leaking through one of the terraces (I know already) and gives me a bottle of home made white wine for Christmas. Marcia gets upset and goes into one of her withdrawals, which is really unfortunate. I know she manages the distance and separation very well, and looks after everything the very best she can (which is a lot given my unfailing ability to leave things an unfinished mess).

It's very hard for a lovely women of 34 to live an isolate life in an unfriendly country, with little social life and an inability to find and hold good friends. Not what either of us intended those fifteen years ago when we first met on a warm, sunny beach in Copacabana.

The sun has gone, low clouds cover the sky. The wood fire is lit, the lights glisten on the tree. A cake is in the oven, soon to be followed by a roasting duck. Italian TV is showing 'Sissi' again for the ten millionth time.

It's Christmas Eve, and I'm home.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I'm home

I'm home. The sunlight is coming through the small window of my bedroom, Marcia has come on up with a cup of fresh coffee and I can stretch out in my bed and look at some familiar things.

Some of the work I did on the top terrace has created some problems; so that's something to do. The garden door needs fixing too. Plus several doors are jammed thanks to the humidity and rains these last few weeks. The list grows...

First it's some last Christmas shopping, stuff for my mother and Paul, stuff for the house. Marcia's been after this for some time, as have I : an LCD TV. So finally, in the rush of promotions for a Christmas sale, I bought a 32" LG monitor. Everyone was happy - only to find the dumb thing didn't work, provoking my frustration at the product and friction with Marcia, who was determined to make it work (on the shared conviction she has the patience to get these things to wok, and I do not). In the end she gave up at my insistence the TV was defective, so I tossed it back into the box and drove back to the store. Sure enough it was defective (hah!) so I got the showroom replacement which, of course, worked first time.

Don't know why, but in these last years I anger quickly at things that don't work, packets that don't open, things that block my way and slow me down, people who don't think or do their job as I think they should. If I'm not getting old I'm sure getting crotchety.

We settled down and flipped through channels, controls, input options and everything else you do when you buy a new gadget. Bu I'm concerned I've broken the magic of the last two days, which I desperately don't want to do.

Up to my bedroom and, once my head hit the pillow, I didn't feel sleepy, so I watched a movie Marcia had downloaded - "Get Smart", another spy spoof where the guy who always screws up gets to be the hero. There' s some input by Mel Brooks, so it was humorously loopy. Good thing to go to sleep on.

Monday, December 22, 2008

From Chicago to home

Three hours late taking off, the apparent reason being the ice on various panels was delaying the unload and load of cargo, bags etc. Maybe. Like it isn't always cold up in the air and isn't snowy and icy in Zurich and Chicago during winter ..

This time I was stuck in the middle of the middle section of the seats and, naturally, the guy to my right was ugly and fat, a man who couldn't stop splaying his legs and elbows into my space. Fortunately on the other side of me was a chatty, humorous and happily non-conformist young woman. Family all over the place, conversant in at least three languages, confident enough to, in true American fashion, tell all in 15 minutes (something I'm always criticized for doing). Zany enough to laugh at my sense of the ridiculous. I enjoy traveling, notwithstanding my constant critiques of increasingly crappy service, and meeting people like this is always fun.

Like the transient sand art of Tibetan monks, part of the pleasure is in knowing that this is the one contact I will ever have with this person.

I managed to sleep most of the flight; the movie I saw was "Wanted", entirely forgettable and definitely not worth paying money for, either at the theater or as rental. Not even worth downloading.

The plane arrived way too late for me to connect to Nice. All of these airports now sprawl so much that it takes upwards of 20 minutes to get from gate to gate. I checked the transfers and fortunately could still get to Nice the same day, arriving about 4 hours later than the original schedule.

I went to the Swiss Air lounge and, surprise, I was allowed in. Not only that, but I was able to take a shower too, which after two days travel was a godsend. Chilled out there, wandered around the concourse, bought some more presents, went down to the departure gate and boarded the flight for Nice.

The sun was just setting, as we climbed, the dark silhouette of the Alps was framed by a deep red strip proclaiming the end of the day, slipping away from the indigo of the night. Some lights were visible in the valleys before they were lost beneath low lying clouds. It was a very magical flight down to the sea.

Got through pass control and customs very quickly and within a few minutes Marcia had arrived. We drove into the center of Nice, had a dinner at Buffalo Joe's, a Texas-style restaurant franchise that makes tasty food. Then we went home, where Marcia sohowed me all the things she had done for Christmas, including decorating the tree solo, wrapping presents. Marcia is very precious to me.

Within a short while, I was in bed and deep asleep.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

From Rio to Chicago

I can't believe it! I managed to get through Miami pass control, pick up bag, drop it off at connections, get through security control and get to the gate for the Dallas flight all within 25 minutes! That's stunning. I was fully expecting to lose the flight to Dallas. Instead I boarded with ease. I'm overwhelmed.

On the shuttle to pass control and again going through security I came face to face with a noted Brazilian comedian whom I've seen many times on TV. He was on the same flight from Rio as me also. I thought of getting him to autograph a book I've bought Marcia as a present, but I've never done that type f thing and any way he was in business class and they'd have thrown me out (and of course he was probably trying to sleep, as was I). In the shuttle he was most quiet, obviously avoiding eye contact with the several people who recognized him also, and keeping attentive eyes on a young girl I would take to be in granddaughter. I'm not the fan type of person - I'm happy to let him be private when not performing.

Flight out of Miami was fine, the guy next to me not so fat that he invaded my space. Looking out, it was a delight to see the Beach, the strip up towards Boca Raton and the way in which the condo developers have been able to introduce lagoons, islands, channels and canals in the design of their gated communities - it might be plastic commerce but at least its different and I'm sure more pleasant to see from the ground.

Strangely you can see something of the same thing flying into Dallas. The developers hare have used waterways, lakes and pools to create different vistas in their communities also. Must be a fashionable trend - and to be encouraged. Bringing water into a landscape is an old practice - the original paradise of the Persians had such features - and is infinitely pleasurable to see.

Landed in a fresh skied Dallas, to instantly feel the chill in the air. My bag came through almost straight away (twice in one day!), the shuttle turned up as I walked into the hall and I was checked in to the flight to Chicago instantly. Something just has to go wrong here. Sure enough, I was given a 'special search' code on my boarding card so my handbags were swabbed, but I'm used to that - it's happened at least five times this year.

Strolled through the shopping areas, bought magazines for myself and presents for Marcia, Mother and Paul. Grabbed a coffee and muffin at Starbucks and connected the Mac and iPod to power to charge myself for the next jump.

The flight to Chicago was delayed by almost two hours; fortunately my flight from Chicago was late enough in the evening that this wasn't going to matter. The reason for the delay, I thought, was the snow storm passing over the mid-west and through New England. In this case it was the consequence of a Continental flight going off the runway at Denver and bursting into flames the previous night.

Landing in Chicago the effects of the storm was evident however, with snow shovelled off roads and runways of the airport. Walking out into the boom from the plane my breathe froze in a cloud before me. Definitely below zero...

Finding my way to Terminal 5 was most frustrating. In this terminal signs represent the way things were before they restructured everything for security reasons.

So you find yourself going in circles. I grabbed someone, who was kind enough to show me the way and commiserate with me - and yes she had to do the same several times a day. And here I am criticizing the airports in Brasil. Chicago O'Hare is right up there with them ...

Got through controls in time for the scheduled Swiss Air flight to Zurich - which of course is also delayed 'thanks to weather conditions'. And in this area of the concourse there is no area to eat or relax; just the usual seats and the floor, where I 'camped', connected the Mac to power and wrote up this blog.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

From Belo to Rio

I didn't sleep at all well during the night - having bad nights for many weeks now. Even dreaming that I'm dreaming and within the dream. All to do with work, stress, eating badly, no exercise and all that stuff.

Worked on a few things on the computer, downloaded some more old books about voyages from Google and Gutenberg.

Went back to bed, woke up a bit later than normal, struggled with things to do that were of any use.

Sun broke weak and what strength there was was soon masked by light clouds. At least it isn't raining today.

Remembered just in time to take the sheets to the laundry, shopped for useless snacks to munch on so I didn't have to cook lunch. Drank too much Chilean wine, packed and headed for the airport.

What would look like the usual chaos of travel at Christmas time greeted me. The difference was the milling crowds weren't milling because there was an excessive number - just that check in for three flights was being handled by three people.

I managed to select a slightly shorter queue in 'domestic' even though my flight was connecting to an international flight in Rio de Janeiro.

Of course then there was the x-ray check and pass control. Another long queue that went in fits and starts. Eventually I discovered why: there were only two x-ray machines for three international flights. And after them, in the same small hall, pass control.

Which of course was also being handled by two people. At every stage no-one really seemed to know what they were doing and were constantly asking their colleagues.

I already know from bitter experience how disorganized Sao Paulo airports are, and how dishevelled Rio's are. Belo's airport was obviously designed, built and equipped by the same company that has done airports in Italy. Same soulless metal, p[astic and tortured 'work' flow. It always amazes me that so many architects never seem to live in the same world as those who must suffer the consequences of their 'innovative, advanced, concepts'. In Brasil its worse as they all seem to suffer from the Niemeyer Syndrome - man reduced to automaton by swirls of brutal concrete wastelands.

One thing for sure is that in every airport I have been in in Brasil, even the idea of organization and service is non-existent. 'Ordem e progreso' - order and progress - the motto on Brasil's flag, can only mean disorder and decline when having anything to do with its transport network (amongst other things).

We landed, way too late as the plane waited for people to dribble through the controls in Belo, in Rio. Where of course there was absolutely no help and no support.

By the time I had worked my way through the entire length of its two terminals, the gate was closed. Fine - if ever I am in Brasil again, I will not fly TAM (for what that's worth - Gol/Varig are just as bad. Its like flying in Italy. Avoid it if possible.

No matter in the end - OK to take the even-later (1am) American Airlines flight to Miami and then Dallas. Wandered around the brutally desolate departure area in Rio's airport, bought Marcia the recipe book she wanted, a tasteless coffee for me and found a power outlet for the Mac so I'm OK for part of the flight.

The American Airlines plane arrived a little late, but not so much to delay departure significantly. AA still uses old planes on these flights - old heavy monitors with their worn out color, scuffed and rubbed chairs and tables. Who cares? I'm going to sleep.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas spirit

I'm not using this blog for work, but it is good to recount that some things that the people I work with were hoping for apparently is coming to happen - and with it the rains stopped after two weeks and the place 'lit up' literally and figuratively.

On the spur of the moment, since I was back doing things in the office after an enforced absence, I went out and bought Christmas presents for the staff, these presents to add to the ones everyone had bought everyone else as a 'Santa gift'. I've not seen this custom before: everyone buys one gift for one other colleague then, gathered in a circle, each gives the gift to the other after first making a short speech of appreciation.

By evening it was back to dark storm clouds again, keeping me inside the apartment until a break allowed me to escape and go to the supermarket to buy something. That was not to be, as a generator had blown and the place was closed down.

So I went to the local sushi bar, selected a sushi/sashimi mix which, with a small flask of warm sake, made the end of the day very comfortable.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Everything is bleak

Everything is bleak - work, play and the environment. Rains are washing down off the buildings in torrents; what there is of a skyline in Belo is blotted out by mists and squalls.

Thanks to a series of events I'm working from the apartment these last few days, so in spare time I've been doing things like setting up a couple of other blogs (which seems a better place to put these things than on Facebook), figuring out how to do things in FileMaker (it's not bad once you get used to it) and downloading copies of books from the 17th through 18th centuries about voyages to the East Indies from two sites: Gutenberg, which I know from before but have 'discovered' the HTML versions are better than the .txt versions; and Google books, which are both PDF and text (at least before you download them).

That's fun.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Staying in Belo

Haven't done much this week. Had planned to go to Iguazu over the long weekend but that isn't going to be possible: I have to count the pennies in case things go sour.

It's lousy weather anyway, so I doubt any trip would alleviate the general gloom at present.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Escape by Internet

There's really not much to say about the passing of November. Its been mostly work and definitely no social life. Where I am in this apartment the sun doesn't strike directly, so there's no 'wild sunbathing'. Anyway the climate is quite variable and the nights are surprisingly cool.

The angle of the windows and the bristle of high rises around me cuts me off from seeing dawns that are worthy of being recorded. So the only shots I have are really of sunsets and storms from the office windows.

I have no urge to 'document' this place - like most places in Brazil the city is too ugly to be an inspiration for a foto essay. Down-out-people I can find anywhere in the world, and I've really never liked taking 'negative' shots. And, contrary to stereotype, most Brazilians are chubby to fat; that limits me when it comes to street scenes.

I've walked three times around the center of Belo, which is entirely foregettable. Not very interested in doing it again. No redeeming feature other than the park in the center, and that's saying a lot.

So I stay in the apartment, connect to the Internet, and fly away from here.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Back to work in Belo

Well during this week I've managed to get some papers sorted out for the project I'm engaged on, including renting an apartment. My client wanted two bedroomed place, so for the budget that meant unfurnished. I've chosen a location which is convenient, on Rua Curitiba, only a few blocks to a supermarket, laundry, restaurants, hotels and a mall. Taxis pass by frequently so transport isn't a problem.

So that means I have to find some inexpensive furniture in Brasil, which is by no means easy, as I recall. Until I do, I'm in the hotel.

Below the hotel itself and just in front of the municipal park, on Sundays there is a street market. They tell me its like the famous Hippy market in Ipanema, but with lots of local handcrafts and commerce.

I wandered around it and noticed that much of the stuff is the same as that in Rio, Salvador and also in Fortaleza, but of something local that stands out distinct from those cities, well, nothing in particular. With the exception of some be covers, which are very pretty quilts, I didn't see anything I couldn't find better in the other places - and as to variety Belo is much more limited.

Its strange, but I always get this sensation that the street art of Brazil is stuck in the 1970s and early 80s. Other than the naive 'folklore' stuff, all art is that popularized at that time - the semi-polished semi-precious stones in white metal settings, the air brush paintings, the metallized figurines, the wooden sculptures and, above all, the colored glass vases and wind chimes.

Nice stuff, don't get me wrong, and more 'innocnet' than the world-branded plastic accessories that most people seem happy buying today.

But where is the exuberance of Mexico, brilliance of color in India, the fine detail from Indonesia, or the sparkle of Malaysia? OK I know, you are all probably fed up with my constant critique of Brazil compared to other places. I agree - maybe because I know that 'new worlds' lack something that 'old worlds' do - and it isn't because of the folk art.

Something else is missing I think - a culture that supports and appreciates a strong artisan tradition as part of its sense of identity. In Brasil that doesn't exist, except in verbal 'homage'. People came here to grab the quick opportunity, an easy slice of the pie, something better than the misery of impoverished lives elsewhere. They brought no intrinsic wealth with them, unlike the Spanish in the other regions of Latin America.

This always disappoints me. Brasil could have been so much more.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A photographic challenge

Dawn breaks over Belo Horizonte, which from this hotel overlooking the municipal park, it quite impressive (dawn, that is).

So frequently the only impressive thing about Brazil is its natural setting and its nature. Check the photos on Flickr - so few are of what the Brazilians and their immigrant forebears have actually done to the place these last 50 years. I promise I will try to find something in the life of the country worth recording other than what the place can happily do every day without human presence. Now there's a photographic challenge!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Off to Belo Horizonte

Today I have to fly to Brazil to carry on with the project there. Dawn flight from Nice to Lisbon, then connect to Belo Horizonte.

Coming in over Lisbon I could see the Torre de Belem and the Monument to the Navigators that I once tramped around many years ago with Marcia. The wait in Lisbon Airport was the usual stagger from over-priced boutique to over-priced cafe to over-priced bookstore. All in a setting that, if I didn't know better, was deliberately retro 1970s. It wasn't retro, it was the original.

Total confusion at the gate for embarking; hardly surprising given general style of the place. The second attempt to get on board the transfer bus (the first attempt having failed for confusion over destination and a 'technical' problem with the plane - the crew hadn't turned up) and we did a total tour of the airport perimeter before deciding that, yes, this was our plane.

We're on, nothing happens untoward, I land in Brazil. This airport is woefully equipped to handle international traffic. Two people to check passports (one for Brazilians, one for everyone else). The baggage retrieval system was a farce. Too small to carry anything but the baggage of passengers from a Cessna, this was attempting to disgorge an avalanche of accumulated essentials and souvenirs from an Airbus 320. That there was no-one from the airport even aware of the fact that the bags were jammed up like the elephants in Walt Disney's Jungle Book, well you can imagine the scene. Passengers were scrambling over bags, conveyor belts and each other in a scramble to grab their bags before they disappeared into a tunnel or were crushed by the en suite of others' bags. Women screamed 'that one! that one!' then elbowed their way to one side of the belt so their men could to do the heavy lifting. Children twirled, men leapt to the challenge, officials determined this wasn't part of their duties. And so on for a good hour. Don't fly to Belo Horizonte direct unless you have hand baggage only. Unless, of course, you like a good show.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Back home again

Earlyish flight home. The rain was pounding down so it was good I left the hotel early; and of course all the streets are being reconfigured because tomorrow is Singapore's first Formula 1 Grand Prix. I'll be able to see it from home and point out all the curves and sights seeing (ad nauseam) "that's the ... and here I was only yesterday when I ....".

George came out to see me off, which was really sweet of him. I managed to make a scene at Starbuck's because the table I put the coffee on tipped and sent the coffee flying - over my trousers too. I was completely "prima donna" about the whole episode, in part because the service was already poor (waitress more interested in doing things other than serving). Thr manager came out, gave me a new coffee and a voucher for another for me to use -which since I'm sure I had embarrassed George enough (I was even embarrassing myself) I gave to him.

Usual long, cramped flight home with dead time in airports.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bungee jumping in Singapore!

Last day of work done, I had dinner out with George, whom I had first met yesterday. Dinner was after my convincing him to clamber aboard the mini-bungee apparatus that is mounted at the end of Clark's Quay.

This version is an open 'barrel' of a three-seater, with a great stanchion underneath it to hold it down as the elastic cords are tensioned. With a click the stanchion unhooks and the barrel is sent hurtling up into dark space before being tossed down to the deck, bouncing back up to be tossed down again several times until the cords exhaust themselves of their energy and the barrel comes to rest - though its temporary passegers don't.

George hadn't done this before so it was yes-no-yes-no until he gave in and I got to mix up his innards for a few minutes. A short while in the queue - front of the queue mind you, along with a delightfully vivacious French lady as passenger number three - and we were ushered up to the platform. There we were made to take our personal effects out of our pockets and put them in a large plastic box at the front of the stage. Very theatrical - is this how people felt when being led to the scaffold, block or guillotine, I wondered. Buckled in, with the lady between us, and in short order we were taking a closer look at the stars. Then the deck, the river, the stars again, the deck ..... wel you know how it goes.

George's body was suitably shook up and he was definitely wobbly as he unbuckled from his seat. Me too - in fact I felt queazier than the last time I did this in Monaco a few years ago. Anyway, George was over the moon figuratively) after this and was bouncy all through dinner at the Italian restaurant nearby. Good - I always enjoy how people act when they've done something they never thought they'd do. The realization of achievement is a great thing to feel for oneself and see in others.

We said our goodbyes at the MRT - first time I'd been on it today and it really is good, almost better than the HongKong one - headed for the hotel and crashed out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reflections on Indonesia

Today it was fly-back-to-Singapore day, as I had arranged some more business there before heading back home. As the last time, Ilham came to the airport to see me off, which is a real pleasure. You know you have a friend when he does that for you.

Didn't do much work this time round, only a couple of meetings, but it was as interesting and as rewarding being in Indonesia and Jakarta the first time round.

I am beginning to get a real appreciation for the quiet pride and confidence the Indonesians have in themselves. Although not a nation in the formal way it is now, Indonesia always had a very high level of culture and society from very early times. Both its pre-Islamic and Islamic origins are obscured to the general world view by its many centuries of dominance by the Dutch (God knows how they managed that, if the island leaders had united earlier the Dutch could have been kicked out in very short order), to the point that the perception is that it is a young country. It is a young state, but it is an old civilization and ancient culture.

There is much to see and learn here. And the climate in the uplands is an absolute delight. It would be most rewarding to live here awhile. Bahasa Indonesia is no more difficult (or easier) than Tagalog. The market is greater, the process of facilitating it the same. Hmmmm...

Back in Singapore I was quickly through the controls (what a delight!). I had booked back in the same hotel as before, but a different room this time (it's nice to be able to look out of a window).

Dinner was, yes, back at the street restaurant and then after walking around again to stretch my legs I went back to the same bar (I'm getting to be a local) where an English guy of part Italian origin introduced himself. There on a project, staying longer. Lucky guy - I'd love to live in Singapore for a while...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Jakarta work day

Today was a work day, so the only thing I did of consequence was eat dinner out at a Chinese restaurant (the worst Peking Duck ever) and go to the movies with Ilham.

I wanted to see Mongol, the latest version of the life of Temugin Genghis Khan, but it wasn't showing, so we saw XXX instead. Usual afterwards - back to hotel and crash.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Day trip to Bogor

I had no business on Monday so Ilham came by again and we headed off by train to another Jakarta weekend getaway called Bogor.

This place was once called Buitenzorg by the Dutch, and from time 'immemorial' it has been one of the preferred places for Batavians, Jayakartans and Jakartans to spend time in. Its only an hour away from Jakarta by train, so very convenient for everyone.

We had time to wait at the station in Jakarta, so it was interesting to see the people come and go. Mostly they were commuters, but some were families visiting and others were local traders bringing or taking their bagged produce from one stop to another.

The train we took was a simple commute train with narrow wooden benches along the carriage walls and a large open space where the start and end of the daily grind of city work plays itself out. Traders strode up and down the train offering their wares - drinks, snacks, gadgets and things.

One trader offered up a poem to the passengers in return for small change. Didn't understand a word but his delivery was most exuberant and effective. To me it brought back a memory of what I've read in tales of old Islam - the ancient appreciation and respect for literature and poetry - and for those who recount them.

After a few minutes waiting at the station in Bogor, the surrounds of which are the exclusive domain of street stalls and a cascade of motorbikes, scooters and rickshaw taxis, we met up with XXX, a friend of Ilham's from his college days.

She jumped into one of the minibus taxis; these have room for about eight people but most times the driver manages to squeeze in ten or twelve. The roof is low, so for someone like me, who jumped in straight after, legs are pinned and head is not far from knees.

We zoomed around the center of town, past the main shopping street, square and entrance to the President's summer residence, finally stopping beside the gate of the large park that surrounds the residence.

This park was first laid out by the Dutch (the residence was once the Governor's) and has been maintained through time. As before, its serves as the lungs of the city, a place to break away from the constant clash of commuting and a place to see some plants from other parts of Indonesia - and indeed the world.

The gate we were planted by the minibus at was closed, so after my attempt to climb over the spiked railings failed (I was told to stop, I would be arrested and I was embarrassing everyone, not that they would say), we walked up the hill to another entrance that was open (with payment of ticket) and headed over to a bungalow set on a low hill that serves as the park's restaurant.

Great beams of teak comprise the greater part of the restaurant, from its columns to its railings, all standing on a cool grey stone floor. There were some guests - Dutch and Australian if I heard them right - otherwise the place was mostly empty.

In fact I was surprised it was open at all, given that we are in the middle of Ramadhan. Again, the relaxed way with religion - those who want to observe, may; those who don't, need not - impresses me, and is a pleasant counterpoint to the in-your-face variety that Malaysia pushes. Not the Indonesia is one whit the less religious.

Lunch over and the resident cat suitably disappointed at not receiving any, though it did lounge most cutely at my feet for a while, we walked through the park with one purpose - to find the rotten-egg flower.

This flower is a monster, almost 2 meters across, it rises out of a thicket of leaves like a dark pink bomb, only to break open and with its stinking sweat scream 'Feed me!" like some freak creation in a florist's shop.

You would imagine we just needed our noses to find this one, but apparently this is not the flowering season. Over a bridge that crosses one of the streams that run through the park, itself fetid with the detritus thrown in from city streets above the park, we asked several people who I think work there.

The result of their counsel was to walk a giant pretzel shape around the park, admiring flowering shrubs, fans of palm trees, the back entrance to the Residence and even a swinging liana which I did my best to Tarzanize (to the exasperation of the others), but no flor horribilis.

No luck then. We could see the horizon darkening with rain clouds so it made sense to head back to the streets and grab another knee-cracking minibus back to the station. A commuter trip back to Jakarta and I was ready for a long shower and a lazy evening.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Train ride to Bandung

Saturday morning Ilham came by. We had no specific plan so in the end we decided to grab a train and head out to Bandung. I had been reading something of the history of Java and thought we were heading to Bantem. So for me the voyage turned out to be a ery pleasant surprise - we were headed into the interior of the island, through valleys and across hills, higher and higher until the air of the Jakarta plain gave way to bright, light, exhiliarating fresh air of the central highlands.

All around the hills were greener, the flowers more colorful, the buildings more spacious and the villages more beautifully set than i would have imagined.

Ilham told me that most people from Jakarta head for the hills every weekend in order to relax, visit family and generally get away from the constant buzz of the city. I can understand.

At the station Ilham negotiated a taxi for the day - all of 250,000 rupiah (less than 25 dollars). We jumped aboard and headed out of Bandung for a restaurant he knew of further up in the hills behind the town itself.

We were in the period of Ramadhan so I wasn't sure that there would be much on offer. It turns out that Indonesians are less rigid about observing the daily fast than in the Gulf, so, embarrassingly, there was plenty to choose from, although the number of guests were few.

Lunch over, I asked the local manager what there was to see in the area, other than some much-quoted, totally forgettable conference hall that was built for an international summit many decades ago. Not much, was the answer.

Ilham hit on the idea of heading for the place where the strawberries we had eaten for dessert were grown. Evidently these are grown locally and the area is famous for them. That really surprised me, so it sounded like a great, totally off-the wall way of seeing something.

And we did - the taxi driver got delightfully lost on the roads that wind through and over the hill tops behind Bandung. So what I saw were the beautifully kept villages and verandahed houses with gardens of mangoes and papayas that seem to be a hallmark of Java. The people were well dressed, well fed and obviously content. Kids played in the open spaces between one house and another; in one more open area monkeys were cavorting.

Up and down we went, past nurseries full of all the plants and flowers that you normally buy in the supermarkets and garden malls of Europe. So this is where they come from, al those ficus, alanchoe and red leaved climbers. Only here they look so much more natural, sheltered by veritable halls of 'geenhouses', here made of bamboo and used more to shelter the plants from the direct sun than to encourage then they are back on a warm, tropical island.

Every time the taxi driver asked if anyone knew the way to the strawberry plantation they smiled and pointed over the next hill. Eventually we saw some signs and, continuing our way through this open labyrinth, we eventually came upon a steep hill overshadowing a small, deep and narrow vale. Here it was, Rumah Stroberi, the source of our luchtime strawberies.

Rumah Stoberi knows how to market its strawberries. Here there is a garden restaurant where you can have a dish of them, drink strawberry sharbat or have them as a milkshake, following if you like, with strawberry tart or ice cream. Or both, whichever takes your fancy.

The garden is obviously used for parties - and I suspect very good ones too. There's a store where you can buy fresh, conserved and frozen strawberries, in a basket, in a box, in a jar and in a bag - all with strawberry designs and logos. There are strawberry trinkets, magnetic buttons, lamps and other souvenirs that are at the same level of commercial excellence and pushiness as ever I've seen at Marineworld or Disneyland. What great vision and purpose in introducing a (strawberry) slice of the entrepreneurial spirit here, in a quiet, almost idyllic, vale in the heart of Java.

The afternoon quickly muted into evening, then evening into night. We were back at the station, a little bit early so we went to a snickets store Ilham knew of, bought a whole bunch of stuff that ruins a diet and headed back to the station. The train turned up and left on time (something I've gotten used to in SE Asia is that the infrastructure, even if modest, works). Most of the time I dozed, as I always do when I'm a passenger in something and there's nothing much to see out.

Back in Jakarta we jumped into a rickshaw taxi that works more or less like the ones in India, headed to the hotel and, since it was too late for dinner, crashed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

From Manila to Jakarta

Another day, another flight. This time early in the morning (again) back to Singapore. I didnt have a ticket to Jakarta but fortunately there was space on midday flight so I jumped aboard and was in Jakarta by the middle of the afternoon.

Headed for my usual hotel, the Millenium Sirih, mostly because it as a good swimming pool, sauna and masseurs. Dumped the bags, headed straight for the maseur so I could have the six flights in three days rubbed out of me.

In the evening I just stayed in the hotel, ate a curry and - you guessed it, crashed out.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

One day in HongKong

The flight out from Manila was terrifyingly early, the reason being I had to be downtown HongKong by 9am. There were more people than I expected at the airport at this hour, locals heading places, tourists going home, workers heading to who knows where. Mostly filipinos on their way back to the many jobs they have in other places.

I had forgotten the 'exit tax' process here, a brazen excuse like in several other places to levy an extra tax on people traveling through - and of course provide extra sources of patronage for local government officials.

The flight out was the usual - i slept. Arriving early in HongKong was an event in itself - swept through pass control with the politest of smiles from the various authorities, bags delivered in about 30 seconds and speedily onto the train that effortlessly takes you to the heart of the city.

Doesn't matter how many times I'm in Asia, I enjoy the mix of history, culture, civility, vibrancy and focus on making today's lifestyle less of a hassle and more of a rewarding part of whatever it is you are doing that day.

The day was for work, which is never the purpose of this blog. However one things I have t mention in passing - lunch was at the HongKong Yacht club, which juts out into Victoria Harbor and gives you a brilliant view of both the Island and Kowloon.

From here, my host told me, many people gathered to see the scenes they shot for the latest Batman movie - the part where he grabs the Chinese bad guy and is pulled out of a building by skyhook from a passing plane. There, above the newly built stadium, was the tower. Evidently the director had the plane pass so closely to the skyscrapers that everyone was convinced it was going to crash - which is why they were all at the Yacht Club watching (several of the buildings' owners being members of the Club).

Work over, it was back to the airport and another flight back to Manila. Arriving late, I really didn't do much - wandered to a bar in Malate, had a couple of drinks, crashed out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reflections on the Philippines

Two days of intense work. No particular events to report; tomorrow I'm office to HongKong and although I'm back in Manila overnight this is really my last day day here. I liked the Philippines the moment I visited the first time in 2005, I'm sure in part because of the friendships I had with Filipinos before I arrived. I like their warmth and personableness, their hospitality and their intellectual flexibility.

I'm sure that, as in many countries and cultures, what a stranger sees on the surface of a society isn't necessarily what that society or individual truly feels - but since the mask exists in all places I prefer it is a polite one, rather than the hard and hostile one I've seen in a few places I can mention. The true way to a culture's soul is t learn its language - learning Tagalog and/or Visayan would be a challenge, but it would be a fun one.

I'm sure this is completely erroneous, but I always come back to comparing the Philippines with Mexico - they are almost sister countries, tied by Spanish steel, Spanish trade and Spanish mores. Both are fusions, but of quite different histories. The overt Hispanic presence has been subsumed into a melanged identity, more evident in Mexico because the principal language is still Spanish, but still very much there in the Visayan tongues also.

This is a place I could live in - the infectious warmth of the people and the beauty of the country has got to me - but what I could do I don't know, especially as Manila, the hub of everything in the country, is not an attractive place. Let's see what time brings - for sure there is business potential.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Viva México!

The greater part of the day was work. This took me from Malate into Makati - about 20 minutes through streaming traffic in roads narrow and wide alike. The city looks like a mash between Mumbai, Jakarta and Sao Paulo. Middle class neighborhoods rub against poorer shopfronts, soaring glass towers against older concrete buildings that were once the high points in town. Many roads seem to be upturned, with work going on to install drains, cables, restructure or just hold together. Once away from the bay its difficult to have a sense of orientation - or maybe it was me just letting the sensation sink in and not worry about the direction.

Met up with Chinky Calderon for lunch. I first met Chinky in Cebu in 2005 when I visited Philippines for the first time; she's a friend of Charlie's and we've stayed in touch since. Quick update of each other's activities over last year, jaunt around an indoor market in Greenfields looking for fans for a party she's holding and I headed back to Makati to wrap up business.

At the end of the day I met up with Jude again, who had gotten me an invitation to go to an event organized by the Mexican Embassy to celebrate Mexico's Independence Day. Of course I couldn't refuse - Viva México! The event was in a hotel ballroom, all decked out in Mexican colors, with chefs imported for the occasion. So good to see the bright colors of Jalisco and hear the music of Veracruz! And the sopa de tortilla!

Mexico is always one of my most favorite countries in the world.

Met some people, wrapped up the fiesta, walked Jude to his offices, headed back to Malate for drink and then crashed out at the hotel. Jef was watching TV and I don't think I remember much else.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Meeting an acquaintance

Managed to struggle awake at a reasonable time, which was good because had to head back to the airport to pick up Jeferson Menuza, a guy I had been chatting with for years. He flew up from Cagayan, since I had no time to go there and visit him and his family.

As is so often the case, chatting and meeting are often to different things. Once we could talk more easily, we quickly found we had little much to talk about that the other actually found interesting or could relate to. So anyway we were able to twitter on about this and that, and the time passed.

In the evening I wandered around a different part of the city, heading down the bay front away from the US Embassy. The bay is enormous - it could hold an entire Armada comfortably within its encompassing embrace. It also smells from the effluent of the city, which I suspect lies in the bay and festers as there is no significant current to sweep the detritus away.

Saw more of the street life at night in the district, which was subdued given its a Sunday. This time no crashing out - just a meander back to the hotel, with the evening finished off by a really good back massage by a Filipina. One of the things I discovered the time I had overnighted the first time I passed through Manila - there's a 24 hour massage service in every hotel I've stayed at. I love being slowly kneaded, especially after long flights.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Party in Manila

I made the flight! I'm stunned - I was sure I wouldn't even be close. This Cebu Pacific flight was from the 'budget' terminal - bright, light and ful of filipinas returning home from work as maids etc from Singapore. There's actually quite a large filipino community in Singapore; the mall on Orchard Road where I bought my air tickets was full of stalls selling filiipino foodstuffs, movies and other stuff from home.

I slept the entire flight out to Manila, waking up once to the sound of the stewardesses singing to everyone. Yes there was a competition - three stewardesses, three songs and three winners - those passengers who were first able to guess the song. There was also a 'raffle', with three lucky winners selected by randomly picking a seat number out of a bag. What an absolute total delight! A human touch where normally you get an amorphous lump of mewling passengers prodded into obedience by scowling warders. American Airlines (whose cabin staff are morose), British Airways (governesses) and Continental (Con Air) could all lean a trick or two from these sweet, smiling, staff.

Landed some time in the afternoon, grabbed a cab into town and checked in to the hotel Jude Defensor had proposed for me - the Riviera Hotel in Malate. I called him on arrival and said though the price was great (1,700 pesos) the place wasn't, so the alternative he had proposed would be a good idea.

Jude came by, and this was the first time I had met the Expat editor, the magazine in which my article on security had been printed. After the usual introductions we went up two buildings and checked out the Executive Hotel. At 2,500 pesos a night it was perfectly acceptable.

From there Jude acted as guide to Manila for me. This is the first time I've walked in the capital of the Philippines; the first time I was physically here I just 'overnighted' in a hotel near the airport, so I saw nothing of the city itself, except by air.

We walked up the seafront promenade, past the US Embassy in its high profile location on the bay, through the park with its fountains and outdoor theater where young ballerinas were pirouetting to the music of Mozart, past the old Senate building and the shell of a building the Queen of Spain had, many years ago, funded for its restoration.

By now it was dark. We kept on walking, over a bridge into Chinatown, through a gate in the glowering walls of Intramuros, the old Spanish heart of Manila with buildings are sisters to the buildings I remember from Mexico.

In the much cracked and as many times repaired church a wedding is being celebrated, the whole family in white and with cockades of flowers. From here on in the streets appear cracked, the buildings shuttured, the atmosphere one of abandonment. Think what could be done to revive such as place - made into a tourist attraction, a Bohemian quarter, with arts and night life and street shows that make a place live. Not here - people want the modern luxuries of malls, air conditioning and boxy apartments that sell for twice the value in two years.

We wandered back up streets that I had no idea were, stopped at a bright, formica tabled restaurant for a delicious bowl of beef stew, then back through Malate to the hotel.

Later in the evening Jude came by again to invite me to a party he had been invited to, not far from the hotel. Great fun! Locals, plus guys from Spain working for an NGO, a woman from Angola, some Dutch, an American and an Indian who looked like a guru. The noise roared on and the rum was too soon gone.... The view from the apartment looked over one section of the district that still had the old, two story Chines style houses, infinitely preferable to the anonymous concrete towers that dominate the city.

Eventually wandered back to the hotel and crashed out (I'm always doing that, huh?)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Work and play in Singapore

Some work in the day, plus organizing the flight to Manila tomorrow. Lunch was in another street stall (I enjoy the food thoroughly), dinner with some people I had been introduced to on the trip back in June.

Went out again after dinner (hey, its Singapore!), met up with some more people (in the same bar), conversed with them a while and crashed, reasonably early at about 4am on the 13th. Which is good, coz the flight is at 09:30 ...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Street Eating and Bars

Long work day, bad weather too. All heavy with rain. In the evening headed back to my four-dollar street restaurant, walked around a bit and then went for a drink in a bar not far from the hotel.

You enter through a gate in a high wall; inside, before you get to the two storied building proper, the still-walled entrance has made an outdoor 'garden' and small bar, which complements the larger one inside. Nice place to sit and have a drink.

Chatted with one guy who said he was from Vietnam, a student on a three week exchange. Turned out to be a hustler, but the storyline was fun anyway.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Back in Singapore

A long, long flight and then I touch down in Singapore and head to the hotel I've selected this time round. I had checked out the Royal Peacock Hotel the last time I was here; a budget hotel on the south side of Chinatown not far from a good slice of night life. On this voyage I'm splitting the costs with my client (my way of convincing them of letting me get back out here), so I'm trimming everything.

After the requisite meetings and presentations the city is mine - and I go out to enjoy the scene until late. The decorations I saw on the avenues as I came in were now lit up - a riot of many hued lanterns and giant flowers. And a rabbit, even though its not the Year of the Rabbit.

As I ate my deliciously filling chicken and rice for all of four Singapore dollars, I was told this was in celebration of the mid-autumn festival, a ceremony once banned in China but now common throughout countries with a significant Chinese population.

I spent at least a couple of hours shooting what I could with my snapshot camera (the big one staying at home), then many hours more trying to get something presentable out of them with Photoshop. Snapshots are fine enough for 'good weather' shots but they fade fast when it comes to low light situations; the sensor is small, so the noise is great.

Met up with some people in a bar near the hotel, conversed with them a while then crashed out.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Off to Singapore!

Great! I'm off to Singapore again! I've definitely fallen in love with the lifestyle and culture of South East Asia. If I can swing it this is where I want to live for some considerable time in the future.

The usual early rise, the usual last minute things to do, the usual frenetic rush to pack in time and I'm gone into the blue yonder, this time thanks to Lufthansa.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Back in Brasil

After days at home waiting to know the next business posting from my existing client, I spoke to some other people and soon found myself back in Brasil.

It took a while, since I was held over one day in Newark thanks to bad weather.

Anyway, I'm here in Belo Horizonte, working and fixing problems as is my wont. I've walked around the center of the city a couple of times; there's little of consequence here so it will be some time before I pick up my camera.

Work is too intense, my brain is too tired - and anyway its too risky to go out on the streets in Brasil with anything of value.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


As though I hadn't enough of visiting Sentosa's LunaPark, I could not resist taking Marcia to MarineLand by Antibes.

So after the obligatory shopping at Carrefour up the valley from Nice, we buzzed off along the coast and played around in the Park for a while.

The dolphins did the same tricks as in Singapore, the orcas splashedaround while their trainers dressed like the guy in the movie 'The Day the Earth Stood Still', and the seals did a better job than every one else put together.

There was an additional attraction - some raptors; eagles and vultures that basically flew from trainer to trainer in exchange for gobbets of meat (hopefully bought in Carrefour too).

At the end of the day we played crazy golf, which here is crazy because the course hasn't been tended in years so its crazy to try to get any sensible score out of it.

One of those great days with someone I love very much.

Monday, July 07, 2008

On my way again

Flying again. This time Singapore to Munich, Munich to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Nice. So many stopovers to keep the price down for my client.

It's raining most of the time and there's the threat of a strike in Germany. Made it through really late and my brother picked me up.

Crashed into bed at 2am.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Wheel

The very last thing Ilham and I did on Sunday night was to take a ride to the top of the Wheel, Singapore's version of London's Eye.

We were told that night time wasn't the best time to ride the Wheel or see the city. Not so - it was fun to see the place by night, with the lights sparkling through the beetle backs of the the concert halls, twinkling from the storied homes of people and racing down the highways.

Plus the Wheel itself changes color, so we road a rainbow to the top and back again. Not bad at all!

One of the problems with Singapore is the lack of taxis - there simply aren't enough. We walked a long way - all the way back to the Mandarin Hotel, no less, to find a taxi to take us back to the River. There we had dinner by the river edge, bringing the weekend to end with a beefsteak and beer.

Thanks so much Ilham for the time together!


After Little India Ilham and I went to Chinatown, wandering around the streets and the market squares.

Later we went to the principal Buddhist temple. This was absolutely incredible - the sheer opulence of the place, the vibrancy of the colors, the grace of the monks.

Two things were truly amazing - the museum of Buddhist history and art, and the smaller temple in its garden on the very roof of the temple complex. Truly beautiful.

Little India

The weather remained as unsettled on Sunday as it had been Saturday. So, after breakfast and checking out the best possible timing of things, Ilham and I headed off to Little India.

As you might expect, Little India is a part of Singapore that is home to a large community of Indians. Indians have lived in SE Asia for millenia, way before the English began exporting them as laborers and imperial functionaries to vaious parts of the world in hte 19th century.

Most now are merchants and traders. living here as they would in London, Chicago or Melbourne.

We visited two temples; the first we couldn't get into to, the second (which was actually near Chinatown, that we visited later) we did. Here's some fotos.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Friday night Ilham came up from Jakarta to visit me in Singapore for the weekend. We had dinner in one of the restaurants just below the hotel, then hit the Ministry of Sound to see the night life. Quite a place.

Saturday morning, not too early, we headed off for Sentosa, the island just south of Singapore island that serves as its park, playground and pasttime.

Getting to Sentosa was fun - we took the cable car from Mount Faber, Singapore's highest hill. This is most ingeniously made. It works like the cable cars in the Alps - double band of six man carriages with a waypoint for changing from one band to the other. The waypoint is the top floor of a skyscraper that stands by the water's edge on Singapore Island.

As the car went up to the station on Sentosa itself, I could see the entire north shore being remodeled. Great trucks, greater earthworks. As I learned before, these are part of the massive investment Singapore is making to become a regional hub for entertainment and the conference industry.

We hit every one of the rides - the Pirates, the Logs, the Aquarium, you name it. Same as in most other luna parks, but I hadn't done this for ages, so it was fun all over again.

Later in the day we went down to the beach on the south side of Sentosa, taking the 'ski ride' down to the shore. It was sunny enough to sit on the beach and go for a swim, but this was cut short by a dark monsoon cloud invading the day's happiness.

It didn't last long (tine enough for a Cuba Libre) then we shot off to see the dolphins do their thing in the pool. I haven't seen these dolphins before - they are long nosed like the river dolphins of the Amazon, but their bellies are pink. Where are they from?

After the show was over, we walked back along the beach to the bridge that links Sentosa to one of the artificial islands built along the coast. The sign says that this is the southernmost point to which you can walk in Asia. Counting bridges from Malaysia to Singapore, from Singapore to Sentosa, and from Sentosa to this point, well its possible. But looking at the map, more of Sentosa lies south of here...

The sunset was beautiful, especially from the ski ride back up to the top of the tower. We got back to the hotel and basically crashed.

What a fun day!