CAMBODIA – December 2015

Please Note – I am currently editing the travel journal I started writing in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback and encourage my readers to post comments.

Next Around the Bend –  Indonesia

Hanging On

After two relaxing nights at the Sofitel, at Siem Reap, we looked forward to our seven day cruise on the Mekong River onboard RV Amadara. Our journey would see us travel from north-west Cambodia to south-east Vietnam, at a forty-five degree angle across Indochina.

During the rainy season, passengers boarding RV Amadara at Siem Reap enjoy a leisurely twenty-minute bus ride to Tonle Sap Lake before enjoying the perks of their vessel. We, however, were not boarding RV Amadara in the rainy season! Instead, we faced a six to seven hour bus ride –  along a mixture of one lane highways, corrugated dirt roads and tracks which may have been fit for a herd of Cambodian jungle goats – to a boarding point further downstream where the depth of the river could comfortably accommodate our boat.

It was about twenty-five minutes into our extended road trip when I knew I was in trouble.

I don’t wish to be too crude, here, in the description of my predicament. Let’s just say that I was faced with the universal biological function whereby water is eliminated from the human body and my need to eliminate said water became more acute with the passing of time.

And only with the passing of a significant amount of damned time would a significant amount of dammed water be allowed, finally, to pass!

Our Cambodian guide explained that the locals referred to rest breaks as ‘happy stops’. There would be just two such stops on our long journey and the first was some 2.5 hours away! So, until then, I was subjected to bus-bound purgatory, without relief.

So, I just closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and tried to think about something else. Anything but the Mekong River, or the Tonle Sap Lake…or waterfalls…or irritation systems…or dripping taps.

The violent shuddering of the bus over corrugations in the road did not help. Nor did the sight of several trucks spraying water onto dirt roads to settle the dust storm caused by the passing traffic. The offers of a water bottle to increase my fluid levels were akin to a cruel joke, which I swiftly rejected with an impatient wave of my hand.

Time passed slowly, like water seeping from a busted garden hose. I added that image to the list of things I really needed to stop thinking about. Together with water pistols and high pressure cleaners and washing machines.

I tried turning my attention to the scenery. It was typically Indochinese. There were open green fields, mango trees, occasional villages with houses on stilts to avoid the floods. Damn! ‘Floods’; another thing to add to the list of things not to think about.

As the time for our first ‘happy stop’ limped closer, I began to fret. Was the 2.5 hour estimated travel time accurate? It seemed remarkably precise. Were we running behind time? The bus was delayed at several road works.

Suddenly, as though by miracle, the bus began to slow and turn off the road, before coming to rest at a market area. Was this it? Were we really there? Oh! Blessed relief!

HeyIgottagotodamen’s“, I calmly said to Huckleberry B the moment the bus doors opened, clearly communicating my plight.

With that, I was out of the bus, darting across no man’s land and into the lavatory. Aaaaaahhhhh.

Stuck on a Tender

MV Amadara is a very nice riverboat. Only five months old, it is more spacious than the narrow vessels we have experienced in Europe. Perhaps the bigger river permitted a boat of broader width? But I am only guessing.

Whilst our itinerary looked engaging, I spent a lot of time on a Tender.

Unfortunately, I am not talking about a tender vessel which takes tourists from a mooring point to shore. Rather, the Tender I spent much time on, in our comfortable stateroom, was a Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by one of my firm’s major clients.

To her credit, my understanding beloved allowed me to spend as much time as I needed and never once grizzled when I declared I had to stay onboard whilst she went on the organised tours. She understands the meaning of ‘bread and butter’.

I was fortunate to have a good WIFI connection for most of the journey. What I was even more grateful for was that the WIFI was complimentary, even in our suite.

Whilst I was able to venture out several times, my week onboard RV Amadara was typified by preparing drafts of our Tender response – iteration upon iteration – punctuated by leisurely lunches and dazzling dinners. It was actually quite a nice way to spend the week! Each period of creative thinking rewarded by bountiful food and alcohol; my business mind continuing to work sub-consciously whilst my holiday brain enjoyed the dining room banter.

Occasionally, whilst tapping away on my laptop – which I unhappily lugged from Sydney – I would hear a noisy motor outside my window. I am somewhat embarrassed to report that on more than a dozen occasions over the week, I forgot where I was and thought our neighbour back home had started mowing his lawn, and actually proceeded to make a mental note-to-self that I had better get my lawn mower out too, later in the afternoon. Then I would remember where I was and recognise that the motor I heard was, in fact, attached to a wooden longboat, hauling bags of rice or farm equipment to the next village down the Mekong River.

Then I would rise from my seat and stand by the window, drinking in the view. On the far side of the river I would see a row of dwellings rising upon stilts on the steep banks. I would hear children yelling out to us and waving. Others would be playing chasings with their friends. Meanwhile, the river would be busy with activity. In addition to the lawn-mower-motor powered longboats, I would see fisherman balancing on their shallow canoes, throwing nets into the water.  Another river boat might pass by, heading upstream towards Tonle Sap Lake.

Then I would return to my laptop with renewed vigour and a new idea.

Not a bad way to spend the week at all!

The Photogenic Monks, the Boy with a Sandal and the Oxen of Oudong

On the first morning of our river cruise, Huckleberry B enjoyed a visit to the Lakeside Wetlands on a motorboat. She did so, solo, whilst I continued working on the Tender.

The next day, we ventured out together to visit the Oudong Monastery. This was one of the highlights of our time in Cambodia.

Oudong is the former capital of Cambodia and lies just 35 kilometres north of the current capital Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, much of Oudong was destroyed by Khmer Rouge air strikes in the 1970’s. The largest Monastery in Udong, Vipassana Dhura, is a reasonably new structure and this was the focus of our morning tour.

We arrived at the Monastery after a short bus ride and were ushered efficiently to the main temple. A tall building with long white columns holding up an ornate golden roof, the main building is quite impressive. We had to climb several flights of stairs to get to the main hall. Once there, we enjoyed expansive views of the Cambodian countryside.

After removing our footwear – a subject to which I will return shortly – we entered the hall and were invited to sit, cross-legged, before three Buddhist Monks. The Monks proceeded to bless us through the medium of a 15 minute chant. It was quite an uplifting experience, rendered all the more enjoyable when the Monks invited us to pose for photographs behind them. I was fortunate to snap a shot of the Monks alone with Huckleberry B.

After leaving the Monastery, however, I did something stupid. As I was strapping on my right sandal, a little boy broke away from the group of local children who were hovering around and moved in swiftly to assist me with my left one. He was too fast for me and the job was done before I could decline his offer of assistance. Services having been rendered, albeit not upon my request, I felt compelled to give him some money. I had a dollar in my pocket which I decided was more valuable to him than to me.

When our guide found out, she was cranky. With me, not the boy. Whilst acknowledging that it is easy to feel sorry for the children because they are poor, the guide explained that if the children know they can come to the Monastery and tourists will give them money, then they will hang around the Monastery rather than go to school.

Damn! Did I feel dumb!

As we left the Oudong Monastery, I pondered how much that dollar note would cost the boy who helped me with my left sandal.

Soon, however, we were back on the bus and on our way to our next experience; an ox-cart ride through the rural streets of Kampong Tralach. When we arrived, the white oxen and their drivers were waiting for us. Each couple was assigned a pair of oxen and an accompanying cart. Entering the conveyance was no easy task. First I sat on the rear of the cart and gradually slid backwards on the warm embroidered matting, before placing my arms on the railings.  Then Huck B did the same until she was comfortable with her back against my chest, with her legs dangling over the rear edge of the cart.

Soon the ox-cart driver gave the command to his oxen and away we plodded. As instructed (more than once) I kept my hands away from the large wooden wheels as they slowly went round and round. We enjoyed the view as we bumped along the earth road.

After about twenty minutes the platoon of ox-carts gathered in a clearing and we were ushered, again efficiently, back onto the bus to return to RV Amadara, where lunch would be waiting.

The Tuk Tuks of Phnom Penh

That afternoon, I left our riverboat again and joined Huckleberry B on a Tuk Tuk adventure. Each Tuk Tuk featured a dude on a motorbike hauling a small carriage with four seats. I used the word ‘carriage’ in the last sentence, but realise that suggests a degree of majesty which is not warranted. Perhaps ‘small trailer with seats and a roof’ is a better description.

Seating arrangements were at random, so it was no surprise that we were joined by a couple we had not met before. To our delight, it transpired that they were Mexicans living in Sydney! We engaged in animated chatter as the streets of the Cambodian Capital flashed by.

A bunch of Western Tourists on a swarm of Tuk Tuks was quite a sight, as our drivers weaved through traffic and jumped ahead at every set of traffic lights. Our driver was a bit of a character. When we first arrived, he proudly wore a Chelsea FC cap, but when he heard we were from Sydney he reached into his bag and substituted a cap emblazoned with the Australian flag. Sometimes, as he drove, he would point out a local landmark and provide us with some running commentary. With the traffic noise combining with the sound of wind rushing by our ears, though, we never had any hope of hearing him.

Our Tuk Tuk journey took us to the centre of the city where we saw the President Hun Sen’s city dwelling and a monument to the former King Norodom Sihanouk. Then, as the sun set over the Mekong River, we zipped along the northern shore back to RV Amadara.

A Tourist’s Dilemma: To Tour or Not to Tour

Evergreen Island

Sometimes, when holidaying overseas you are faced with a difficult choice; should we indulge in macabre voyeurism or not.

On this trip there were two organised tours which made us face this conundrum. The less confronting dilemma (although still difficult) was posed after we crossed the border into Vietnam when we had an opportunity to visit to a local village on Evergreen Island.

I admit to having a fundamental problem with a tour which is based upon seeing how people far less fortunate than us live in poverty. We poke our noses around and then return to a temporary home onboard our river boat which is far more comfortable (and sanitary) than the permanent dwellings the villagers live in. Some fellow travellers even make ‘helpful’ observations about how the villagers could improve their living conditions, whilst totally ignoring the fact that the villagers are doing their best to merely produce sufficient food to sustain life.

When discussing whether to visit the village of not, Huckleberry B reminded me that she grew up in government housing in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. When she waited for her bus outside her school, she would wave at busloads of Western tourists travelling north from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, through her hometown, just as young Indochinese girls have been waving to us throughout this trip. Huck B is confident that her young, smiling, moon-face appears in dozens of photo albums around the world.

Then Huckleberry B raised her right arm and showed me a stigmata on the back of her hand.

You see this?” she said, “Between my diamond ring and my diamond bracelet, there’s this black mark. Do you remember how I got that? From the chickens in our coup pecking me whenever I took their eggs. For a couple of years, I used to collect left over food from the garbage bins in the wet market near our home. The inedible stuff was fed to the chickens and we ate the rest. I started working, with my siblings, when I was 6 years old, selling lottery tickets at the train station. I never forget where I came from. Been there, done that.”

Huckleberry B and I also recognised, however, that our visit to Evergreen Island was a source of income for the villagers, so there was a benefit to them. We ultimately decided to go on the tour and I am comfortable with our decision.

Throughout the walking tour, children would smile at us and wave and say ‘hello’. I thought of my wife, as a young girl, standing outside her school, waving at the buses that stopped so that the tourists could see how the locals lived.

The inhabitants of the Evergreen Island village seemed happy enough, though I remained uncomfortable when I compared the living conditions in their stilted houses with those onboard RV Amadara. Towards the end of the walk, the children were grouped together and they sang us a welcome song in Vietnamese. The wealthy Westerns, of whom we were two, responded with a rendition of “ABC”: not the Jackson 5 hit (that would have been ridiculous) but the children’s song which goes through the alphabet and ends with “now I know my ABC, won’t you come singalong with me“.

The Killing Fields

The far more difficult decision we were called upon to make, earlier in our voyage, whilst still in Cambodia, was whether to visit Pol Pot’s Tuel Sleng; otherwise known as the S21 Detention Centre or ‘The Killing Fields’.

I am happy to admit that part of me wanted to go. Just like I was tempted to accept an offer to visit the Treblinka Concentration Camp on our day trip from Prague to Dresden to Zagan and back to Prague in 2010. That said, the part of me which did not want to visit S21 acquired a louder voice when I heard that we would walk – not just on mass graves – but on bones and other physical remains.

Just as there was oscillation in my own mind, on the eve of the tour, whether to visit the Killing Fields or not, there were debates around the dinner tables onboard RV Amadara that night. Two schools of thought existed. Those who argued that if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it and those who argued that they already knew enough about the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, without having to see the remaining evidence first-hand.

I was already leaning towards not visiting S21 when Huck B delivered two telling blows (at least for us).  Firstly, the date or our proposed visit, 24 December – in addition to being Christmas Eve – fell during the Winter Festival in the Chinese calendar. Stepping on somebody’s bones during this period may bring bad luck. Secondly, Huckleberry B grew up  in Malaysia in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She and her family saw the Cultural Revolution in China, followed by the American War in Vietnam, followed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and lived in genuine fear that the ‘domino effect’, so heavily propagated by the USA, would soon reach her country. For B, Pol Pot’s Killing Fields were very close to home when she was a teenage girl. There was no need to relive it in order to remember it.

Those who did go to S21 came back ashen faced and sombre. The lunch time conversation was unusually subdued. We heard stories about the museum which depicted remarkably vivid images of executions and human remains. Some visitors left the museum in a state of distress.

Whilst a quietly spoken voice still argues with me that I should have gone, I am confident I made the right decision.

What a Fine Bunch of People

Our Cruise Director – an amiable young Vietnamese man named Son – commences every announcement he makes by warmly greeting his ‘Ama-waterways family’.

What I thought, at the outset, to be a bit over the top ended up becoming quite endearing. I believe he really viewed us that way.

With his fluent American English, his ever-attentive attitude and his willingness to joke about most things, including himself, Son was one of the best Cruise Directors we have met. He was certainly one of the most popular! Particularly with the young female passengers onboard.

We were fortunate to have picked a cruise with many very engaging and interesting people. In no particular order, there was a Jewish couple from Boston, an American couple living in Sharjah, a Canadian couple and their son who lives in Hanoi, two couples from LA who are friends, an African-American man who was onboard because he was ‘in the industry’, a man from Atlanta travelling alone because his son had pulled out, two female friends holidaying together, an American woman living in Bali and a couple originally form Iran who now live in the States. There were also two Mexican clans, travelling separately. We were the only Australians onboard! Which is a first of us and a little surprising given Australia’s proximity to the region.

At every meal, we had a variety of interesting people from whom we could choose to dine. And I have to say that my wife was very popular amongst all of them as she glided from group to group, chatting away happily.

And speaking of meals, the food onboard RV Amadara was excellent, from breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. What we both really appreciated was that there was a genuine attempt to match the food with the region. As I have said before, it is jarring when you spend a day, for example, in Shanghai, and you pick up your menu in the ship’s dining room that evening to find that it’s Italian night again! Every meal onboard RV Amadara featured a local option – including at the breakfast ‘Action Station’ where a different variety of noodles was available each morning – and the quality was very good.

The dinners, where joyous carousing amongst new friends abounded, were particularly memorable.

On the last night of our Mekong Delta adventure, a conversation developed about World War II. Our table began debating when Hitler could have stopped his expansionism and said ‘thanks folks, that’s enough’ and got away with it. Don’t ask me how we arrived at that subject, because I can’t remember. Dinner conversations – fuelled by plentiful food and an enchanted wine glass which replenishes itself with every mouthful – are living organisms with multiple, tangled legs.

What I do remember, however, is that the conversation quickly morphed into a very spirited exchange of views on current American foreign policy. At this point, I recognised I was out of my depth and retreated. The discussion which followed, however, was fascinating!

There they were – a west coast African-American from LA, a northern Jew from Boston and a southern gentleman from Atlanta – battling it out; trying to persuade the others to their point of view. They each knew their facts and they were each passionate about their position. Some concessions were made, but not many. If you are wondering how there can be three sides to a debate, the answer is easy: the two extremes and the middle ground.

I went to sleep that night excited by the debate I had witnessed and truly sad that I might never meet these fine people ever again. Or the other new friends we had met during the week. It’s both one of the joys and one of the curses of cruising.

By the way, whilst no agreement was reached during that debate on our final night onboard RV Amadara, there is one political point every American we met during our trip agreed upon; Donald Trump is a joke and the joke ceased being funny a long time ago. Not that any of them liked Hilary much either.

The spare room in our house remains available, on a short term basis, whilst permanent accommodation is sourced, should anybody wish to emigrate.

Moonriver

THE CANARY ISLANDS – October 2015

 

The Little Big Boat

It has been some time since Huckleberry B and I have sailed on a big cruise ship. In recent times we have been biased toward smaller, more exclusive, vessels housing up to, say, 300 passengers.

By contrast, Celebrity Eclipse is massive! With 2850 passengers and over 1,200 crew, this is the biggest ship on which we have ever voyaged. Walking from one end to the other requires some effort. Climbing the stairs – whilst our virtuosity triumphed – from the restaurant on Deck 3 to our Stateroom on Deck 8 leaves us more breathless than it should!

Yet, despite its dimensions, we have enjoyed some of the perks we would expect on a much smaller vessel. As suite guests, we have access to an intimate restaurant named Luminae, where we (particularly my garrulous gal) have become well known amongst the staff and some of our fellow suite occupiers. The existence of this little oasis has also allowed us the luxury of avoiding the frenetic production line of the main restaurant, let alone the lawless bedlam and untold waste of the buffet.

So where will Celebrity Eclipse take us?

First stop is Vigo in northern Spain, followed by Lisbon, the Portuguese Capital. Then it’s down to Gran Caneria, Taneriffe and Madeira, before La Coruna in northern Spain and back to Southampton.

Segway to Heaven

We tried something new in Vigo.

Rather than slog it up a steep incline – followed by over 250 steps – to the top of La Guia Hill, high above the Spanish town, Huck B organized a Segway tour. So much for the triumph of virtuosity!

Controlling the Segway took a little getting used to; lean forward to propel the machine, lean back to brake, pivot the handlebars left and right to change direction. For about – I am guessing – 97 seconds, we considered handing the Segway operator his money and telling him to forget it! Memories of our abandoned ski lessons in Cervinia in 2007 made a most unwelcome re-appearance in our memories. By  the 98th second, however, we got the hang of it and soon we were zipping around with more confidence in the practice area. And then we were ready to go!

Entering the throng of passengers heading for the Old Town was a little daunting because now advanced Segway skills were required to avoid mowing down some slow moving senior citizens and causing an incident which might headline the Spanish evening news!

The first steep incline also presented a Segway challenge; lean back for some instinctive reason and suddenly you’re reversing down the hill at pace. If the first steep incline was daunting, the first steep decline was a little nerve-wracking. Leaning forward to position your Segway at the top of the hill, our vehicles reached the tipping point and suddenly gathered speed as gravity wrought its evil. Now we had to lean back in order to apply the brakes and slow our conveyance to a more comfortable pace.

While daunting at first, I was surprised how quickly instinct triumphed; the brain says slow down and, without conscious thought, you lean back. Remarkable!

Soon we were rolling along Calle Real, lined with traditional Galican houses, to Alameda Square. Next  we trundled along Calle de Los Cesteros – the Street of Basketmakers – and then we were climbing La Guia Hill to Castillo del Castro.

The view from the peak was lovely and reminded us of the view over Nagasaki. We temporarily abandoned our Segways, which called for an additional advanced Segway driving skill. Because the machine self-propels, we couldn’t simply step off. Instead a Segway enthusiast is required to find a wall or a tree and slowly advance until the handlebars of the otherwise unstoppable force meet the face of the immovable object.

Suddenly strolling around the Parque del Castro seemed boring by comparison. Where is the challenge in placing one foot in front of the other? The park was, however, very pleasant. But I was counting down the minutes until I and my Segway were re-united. I was looking forward to the adventure of the long descent back to sea level….

I estimate that we may have burned north of 500 calories had we marched to the peak above Vigo. And that would have been good! But I enjoyed our Segway ride and look forward to doing it again.

A Good Tart is Hard to Find…

Huckleberry B came to Portugal for one thing: Portuguese tarts!

“This is a private tour”,  Miguel the Guide said when we meet him outside the cruise terminal, “what are your objectives in Lisbon?”

“Portuguese tarts”, Huckleberry B responded instantly, “I want Portuguese tarts!”

“That is easy”, Miguel chuckled, “Anything else?”

“No, just tarts!”

After further discussion, we reached agreement with our extremely amiable host that he would take us on a tour of nearby Sintra, and the highlights of Lisbon, before launching an offensive on the tart store.

We made it clear that we had no interest in wandering aimlessly around a big old houses, so we were happy to see the Pena Palace from the outside. Yes to tarts, no to palaces!

The drive around Sintra was delightful. We stopped for a small cheese pastry, dominated by cinnamon, at a local cafe, before negotiating the narrow alleys and lanes of the mountain town.

Lunch by the sea was equally delightful; wonderfully succulent, freshly caught sea bream with a side of unnecessary boiled potatoes.

Sightseeing and lunch behind us, tart time had arrived!

The recipe for genuine Portuguese tarts was developed, Miguel informed us, by monks in Concento des Jeronimod, a Monastery standing a short distance from where the Vasgo de Garma monument now stands. When the Monastery was forced to move, the ancient tart recipe was given to a family who established Pasteis de Belem in 1837.

According to both legend and the marketing blurb on the side of Pasteis de Belem boxes, the secret recipe is recreated to produce 20,000 hand-made tarts every day, employing purely traditional methods.

When we arrived, the queue was long but the service was fast. Soon we were walking away with 24 Portuguese tarts, or a mere 0.005% of the day’s production. Huckleberry B gave most of the tarts away, to friends we had made onboard and, more importantly, some of the staff like our butler, cabin stewards and the staff in Luminae and Murano.

Truth be told, I have never been impressed with Portuguese tarts. I equate them with scrambled eggs in puff pastry…

But the tarts produced by Pasteis de Belem tarts were extraordinary!

A good tart, these days, is hard to find; custard, pastry, the scrumptious kind!

At least, now, I know where to find them!

The Butterflies of Tenerife

After a day at sea and a slow day in Gran Caneria (“The Land of the Dog”), we arrived in Tenerife, which lazes in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of the border between Morocco and Western Sahara.

Huckleberry B had a great plan for our day in Tenerife.

Being the day prior to my birthday, my beloved’s plan was to provoke an adrenalin rush and to remind us that – despite negotiating our way together through middle-age – there remain epic experiences waiting around the bend.

Her plan? Paragliding from 2,200 metres above sea level!

Oh my ever lovin’ God!

“Is it tandem…?” I politely enquired with a stony face and a quivering voice.

Upon confirmation that it was, I said “great” whilst a bunch of heavily intoxicated and highly excitable butterflies held a party in my stomach.

When we woke on the morning of the paragliding adventure, however, a quick glance out our stateroom window witnessed a wind-socket billowing parallel to the ground and straining to break free from its mast. Suddenly the butterflies in my abdomen started playing tug-o-war. On one side, the butterflies representing the wuss in me felt relieved that the paragliding adventure might be cancelled. Opposed to them were my dare-devil butterflies who could not wait to be strapped into the paraglider before embarking upon a half-hour journey, following the wind currents, back to the mundane ground.

We were having an early breakfast when an email arrived announcing that our paragliding was cancelled on account of adverse “air conditions”. The disappointment was profound! By this stage, my dare-devil butterflies were winning the tug-o-war and had even started sledging the wuss butterflies.

So what would we do with the rest of the day?

Our adventurous spirit crushed, we settled for wandering around Tenerife in search of reliable WIFI.

Oh my ever lovin’ God!

Which brings me to a tip for the unwary traveller; when a cafe owner touts coffee and free WIFI, check that the WIFI actually works as advertised before placing your coffee order! We didn’t and a disappointing day became even more dismal.

Throughout the day, I thanked Huck B for her meticulous planning and confirmed that her thinking was absolutely correct.  Whilst daunting, something like paragliding would have helped arrest my otherwise unrestrained gallop towards 50…in several years’ time.

A Beautiful Birthday in Beautiful Madeira

Huckleberry B and I agree that Madeira was the highlight of our trip. What a glorious island!

The early stages of our tour with Jeff – the half South African, half Madeiran guide – was dominated by the island’s most famous export, Christiano Ronaldo.

The was a life-size cut out of him at the cruise terminal and there was a statue of him next to the bay. We saw the village where we grew up and the football field where he played his first match. We felt that Christiano was everywhere.

But the true highlight of our tour was the majestic mountains which rise sharply from the North Atlantic ocean to peaks which soar over 2,000 metres above sea-level.

Jeff was at pains to take us on the roads less travelled. One such road was a mere track through a forest, which represented a “short-cut” between two roads. Other less travelled roads were very narrow lanes which separated houses in quaint little mountain villages. On at least one occasion, Jeff rejected a simple left hand turn in favour of navigating his way through an exceedingly narrow alley which gave him no advantage in getting from A to B.

Our delightful tour culminated with some Madeira wine tasting (and the purchase of four bottles) and lunch of some local fish and another plate of unnecessary boiled potatoes, a superfluous pile of roasted maize cubes and a peripheral bowl of garden salad. We were very surprised to receive a bill of only 39 euros for the three of us. Jeff ended up taking most of the extraneous extras home with him for dinner.

We loved our time in Madeira. The island was truly beautiful and a fitting venue to celebrate my birthday.

La Coruna Shenanigans

Our last port, before one final idyllic day at sea, was the Spanish town of La Coruna.

Three factors, however, conspired to prevent us stepping ashore.

Factor number one was travel fatigue. It happens on every holiday. There are some days when we cannot summon the energy to wander around, no matter how exotic the location.

Factor number two was the weather. Steady rain and travel fatigue combined to produce an insidious lethargy.

Factor number three may be attributed to the Spanish Government. After leaving Madeira, we returned to our our stateroom to find a note stating that we had been selected for a random passport check. The Spanish Government required us to surrender our passports until after we departed La Coruna.

What?

Did the Spanish Government really suspect that we might use the opportunity to abandon the comfort of Celebrity Eclipse, and shun our life at home, in favour of overstaying our welcome in Spain?

Seriously?

Well, we hope the Spanish authorities enjoyed studying our passports over a two day period. If they did, they might have counted the number of times we have resisted the temptation to start a new life in a multitude of countries around the world.

In any event, the Spanish need not worry. We are much more likely to relocate to Madeira!

Of Trivia Kings and Rugby Adversaries

On the first day of our voyage, we entered the Skyview Lounge in search of trivia quiz comrades.

After being summarily rejected and callously dismissed by a couple who claimed – falsely we believe – that they were waiting for friends, Huckleberry B approached a more inviting couple accompanied by a young man in a wheelchair. After the customary introductions and preliminary small-talk, we had soon befriended Lawrence, Karen and young Andy.

And so a formidable trivia team was formed.

As the days passed, the five of us triumphed regularly, either jointly with others or outright. Thanks to Andy’s freakish recognition of random songs from all eras, we won most of the music quizzes!

On the Sunday afternoon, however, the cohesion in our team was ripped asunder by a virulent rivalry.

It’s not Lawrence’s fault that he was born in Glasgow. We were, therefore, understanding when he joked – after another trivia triumph – that we should retire to separate staterooms to watch the Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final.

What a match! Every time I felt the Wallabies enjoyed a comfortable lead – and I could face Lawrence with the kind of gracious goodwill victors find easier to muster – the Scots came storming back.

Were the Wallabies lucky to win a (literally) last minute penalty? That seems to be the consensus. We heard from Karen that her stateroom was engulfed by animated yelling late in the game! Having suffered greatly when the Socceroos were on the other side of a dubious last gasp refereeing decision while battling bravely with Italy in the knockout stages of the 2006 Football World Cup, I tend to be more philosophical about such things these days. It’s all part of the theatre, ain’t it?

Not that we saw the end of the match! With 10 minutes to go, the feed on ESPN in our stateroom inexplicably switched to the build-up to a gridiron game. We wrongly assumed that all TVs onboard were similarly afflicted and resorted to watching Sky Sports News and waiting, breathlessly, for score updates. When we finally heard we had won, the relief was immense.

Whilst not, traditionally, a consistent watcher of Rugby Union, I’ve enjoyed this World Cup very much. I may have to watch more often. We’ll see…

Goodbye to the Eclipse

We shall miss life onboard the ship; the trivia quizzes, dinner in Luminae and time together with time to spare. Unusually, for us, we will even miss the onboard entertainment, which included a Freddie Mercury tribute and a Beatles show.

Special mention must be made of the staff in Luminae, particularly the maitre’d,  Linda, and our waiter, Rosario. Linda is a Scottish lass and one of the happiest people we have ever met. Rosario is from Goa in India. A thorough professional and a part-time comedian, he kept us well fed and entertained throughout our voyage.

The feedback we gave Celebrity was that, for the first time, we would consider another cruise on Eclipse for the dominant purpose of being re-united with Rosario and Linda. High praise!

We will also miss the little things; like the light streaming into our stateroom on a sunny afternoon and the view, through our window, of an impossibly blue ocean which stretches all the way to a distant horizon.

Moonriver

VIENNA – October 2015

 

IBA Cocktail Party Shenanigans

During our week in Vienna, Huck B and I enjoyed a number invigorating seminars on such diverse subjects as mediation schemes in different jurisdictions, privacy in the age of social media, liability for damage caused by drones and the promotion of diversity in the workplace.

Whilst the new learnings were invaluable, three incidents on the nightly cocktail circuit will also live in the memory.

Incident #1

Incident one occurred at the welcome dinner on the first night of the conference. The event was held in a grand concert hall in central Vienna. Over 4,000 lawyers from over 130 countries crammed into the ornate building. Each of four rooms, including the concert hall itself, featured different forms of local entertainment. For us, the concert hall was the highlight, where an orchestra played Viennese tunes and ballerinas danced on the stage.

We felt it was tragic, however, that the sublime music was accompanied by the rhythmical clatter of cutlery on crockery and the less rhythmical chatter of staccato voices in animated conversation.  That so few in the eclectic audience enjoyed the exquisite performance was very sad.

Incident #2

Incident number two took place the following evening when I ventured alone to a cocktail party at the Spanish Riding School new Stephenplatz in central Vienna. Unfortunately, Huckleberry B was not able to enjoy the evening because she had caught the severe chest infection which afflicted me in the week before our departure. All my fault!

I arrived at the  grand palace which housed the riding school to find a long line of lawyers awaiting entry to the event. As we waited in the cold, I chatted with Gunter, an impeccably dressed German lawyer from Munich, who was ahead of me in the line.

About 15 minutes into our vigil – and searching for things to talk about – I remarked that when I received the invitation to attend the function at the Spanish Riding School, I was expecting a venue in the country, rather than a former palace in the centre of Vienna. This prompted Gunter to give me a brief history of the Riding School – including an explanation that the Riding School was ‘Spanish’ because Spain was the origin of the riding techniques – before, most remarkably, embarking upon an unsolicited demonstration of some of the steps I should expect the horses to perform!

Suddenly Gunter – the dignified German lawyer from Munich – was prancing in front of me; left foot behind the right with knees bent; right foot behind the left with knees bent to the same angle;  marching on the spot with knees to the chest and, best of all, rearing up on his hind limbs whilst punching the sky with his upper limbs. He even demonstrated how the Spanish horses were taught to defend attackers approaching from behind by balancing on his right left and kicking backwards with the left.

It was an extraordinary performance!

Had I known that the actual Spanish horses would, after a long and tedious wait, only perform one five minute dance – with no greater precision than Gunter, the stately German lawyer – I would have thanked him and immediately returned to the hotel to join my ailing beloved.

Incident #3

Incident number three occurred on the second last night of the Conference. Huck B and I attended a cocktail reception, hosted by an Italian law firm, at the Grand Hotel Wien.

There, we were fortunate to bump into a Bolivian father and son. Whilst both lawyers, it soon emerged that the Bolivians moonlighted in the noble art of wine production. Suddenly we were immersed in an intriguing discussion about wine production at high altitude!

All the discussion about wine animated a desire to drink some. So I headed off to the bar to collect a glass of cheap, not very impressive, Italian chianti. Whilst there, I engaged in some spontaneous discussion with a Macedonian delegate; Alexander the Great and all that!

An exchange of business cards disclosed that I was a Partner in an Australian law firm and an accredited Mediator. The Macedonian’s eyes sparkled as he explained that he, too, was a Mediator but that he had encountered difficulty in his homeland because Mediation was not yet popular.

I was about to hear all about the Macedonian Mediation Malady when an attractive young woman tapped the Macedonian on the shoulder and said she and her gal pals were ready to proceed to the next cocktail function. The young Macedonian asked for five minutes so he could finish his story and the young lady reluctantly agreed…

Honouring the unspoken understanding which binds all men from Australia to Macedonia, I quickly told my friend of five minutes standing that his story could wait and that he should heed a deeper calling!

Rarely have I seen such a mixture of respect and gratitude on another man’s face. He placed a firm hand on my shoulder and said: “You understand, right?”

I assured him that understand I most certainly did and told him that he should go.

The invigorating exchange over even more quickly that it began, I returned to the high altitude wine production discussion with a glass of red in my hand and a cheeky smile on my face.

That said, I never did find out why Mediation in Macedonia was not popular…

Moonriver

LONDON – October 2015

An Experience Revisited

The week Huckleberry B and I spent in London in July was truly one of the best weeks in my life, not the least because we experienced some of it with my Dad and his partner.

So it was magical to return to London’s wonderful West End for two days before we flew to Vienna for the annual International Bar Association Conference.

Two more musicals added to our list; Showstopper and Kinky Boots.

They say Showstopper is the first truly improvised show to enjoy a full-run on the West End. It’s truly remarkable because every night’s production is completely different.

The show begins with suggestions from the audience. The first element to be crowd-sourced is the setting of the story. Among other random suggestions were the Sahara desert and a mattress factory. Through raucous cheering, the mattress factory won. Next to be decided is the musical style. On our night, the five selected musical styles included High Society, the Book of Mormon and a flamenco dance.

From there, the whole show was improvised. Truly something.

By comparison, Kinky Boots was a conventional musical! Which is saying something given that it’s the story of how a struggling Northampton shoe manufacturer exploited a niche market opportunity by producing thigh-high, stiletto boots with sufficient strength to hold the weight of both transgender and crossing-dressing men!

We are still not sure whether all the backing dancers were men or women. Strong jaw lines, six packs and the hint of an Adam’s Apple; yet they looked so good in tights! I am so confused!

Anyway, as a business owner, I found the story line of deploying existing capabilities to exploit a new market inspirational!

We are using London as our base during this trip, so we haven’t finished with the West End yet.

A Rivalry Renewed

Huckleberry B and I are yet to either forget, or forgive, that insolent immigration man we encountered when we arrived at Heathrow in July.

Remember the imbecile who heckled us just because England had defeated Australia in the first Ashes test at Cardiff?

We thought we got the last laugh when the Aussies thumped the Poms at Lord’s. As everybody now knows, however, the glorious afterglow of that famous victory was soon doused.

Yet this morning, as Huck B and I board the early flight to Vienna, we want to seek out that irritating immigration grub, take him by his  corpulent neck and rub his smug face in the immigration paperwork on the desk in front him.

“England eliminated in the first round of their own Rugby World Cup“, we would whisper in his ear with unrestrained hostility, “and who knocked them out? That’s right, buster! Australia!”

Then we would straighten him up and remind him that in the last 18 months, England have been knocked out at the Group Stage of the Soccer, Cricket and Rugby World Cups! And we’d give him one, well-directed slap to his forehead for each of those three English humiliations!

Take that, immigration dude!

Whilst Huckleberry B and I toyed briefly with the idea of parting permanently with over 500 Quid to secure seats at the back of the top deck at Twickenham – where, if we squinted our eyes and screwed up our noses, we might see some mircro-organisms in gold and white jerseys scurrying around on a billiard table far below us – we settled for watching the match on the big screen at the Sheraton Skyline Sports Bar near Heathrow. I’ve already mentioned the early flight to Vienna, right?

In any event, ’twas at the Sports Bar that we witnessed a most remarkable phenomena…

Seated nearby were a group of Kiwis; easily identifiable by the All Black Jerseys they were wearing on their chests and the self-satisfied smittenly smug smirks they were wearing on their faces.

What was remarkable, however, was that they burst into orgasmic eruptions of joy whenever Australia scored! We had difficulty conceiving of any set of circumstances which would cause a Kiwi to barrack so enthusiastically for the Wallabies, until the reason for their support slowly dawned on us…they’d prefer meeting Australia in the knock-out stages than England.

Hmmmm, not sure how we feel about that!

Be that as it may, Australia are through and England are vanquished. Just the ammunition we needed as we prepare ourselves for a week with a regiment of traditionally snooty and oh-so-superior English lawyers…

Here’s the game plan:

Snooty English Lawyer: “Well the Magna Carta was English, ol’ boy. And we did develop the common law…

Us: “Yep. Good work.  So, tell me: how are you enjoying the Rugby World Cup?”

Moonriver

LONDON – July 2015

 

We Come For the Ashes

It started as soon as we arrived.

Huckleberry B and I shuffled forward to the passport control counter at Heathrow – weary after a long journey – and were greeted with the customary question, “Why are you visiting London?

We’ve come to watch the cricket at Lord’s“, my gallant wife replied.

The chubby immigration officer reclined in his seat as a cheeky smile migrated across his corpulent face and an insurgent chuckle sparkled in his eyes.

I was hoping I’d process some Aussies today“, the insolent immigration man beamed, “have you heard the result from Cardiff?

Yep“, I sulked, “Just saw it on my iPhone as I was queuing up.

My inner voice, however, wondered whether the irritating immigration man really thought that it was his role to supplement his core duties with heckling the citizens of recently defeated sporting opponents.

Lookin’ forward to Lord’s are we, mate“, our impertinent immigration irritant continued to niggle us, “Lookin’ forward to another floggin’?

I knew this would happen“, Huck B grumbled.

‘ere ya go“, our irrepressible immigration officer tossed our passports onto the counter, now laughing openly in our faces, “enjoy the Test!

Congratulations“, I said over my shoulder as I stalked off towards the baggage carousel, “you’ll be featuring in my travel journal.

Whilst we got the last word, I couldn’t help but notice that our impudent immigration man was still chuckling away to himself. I earnestly prayed he would not get the last laugh…

Gower Street

Huckleberry B had arranged a lovely room in boutique hotel called The Academy on Gower Street in Bloomsbury.

Just north of Covent Garden, our hotel was well positioned to allow us to walk both to Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood, by day, and the West End theatres, (mostly) by night.

For eight glorious days we had a choice when we left The Academy of turning either left or right.

A left hand turn would take us north to Euston Road which, to the east, becomes Marylebone Road. On this path, over Marylebone, through Regents Park, past the Islamic Centre, across Park Road, lies Lord’s Cricket Ground and ‘the Home of Cricket’.

A right hand turn takes us south to Shaftesbury Avenue where another right hand turn took us to Leicester Square and Piccadilly, where the theatres flourish and bright lights glimmer.

On each sunny morning during the Lord’s Test, we set off with a spring in our step, hope in our hearts and joy in our souls.

On some days we turned left in morning but returned, late in the evening, from the right. This was not a week where we planned to get much rest.

I came to love those evening walks back to our hotel on Gower Street. Tired, but quietly euphoric from a day well spent, my beloved and I would stroll from the bright lights on Shaftesbury Avenue and head towards the quiet darkness on the edge of Bedford Square. It was there that our London experience would become ethereal…

The warm glow of street lamps cast shadows on the brown brick terrace houses which stretched to the horizon. Indistinct shapes lurked in the darkness. In my imagination, Sherlock Holmes walked ahead of us in his deerstalker hat, whilst Bridget Jones waddled towards us. Was that Mr Bean on the other side of the road looking at us quizzically?  Was Dr Who about to step out of that telephone box next to the park? Surely that shadowy figure above us was a woman in an overcoat being transported by her own umbrella.

Oh how I love London!

Memories from the Past

One of the joys of watching live cricket, particularly during slow periods of play (yes, I admit they exist) is to dream about times past.

Whilst admiring the grand stonework of the Members’ Pavilion, my mind easily conjured up images of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, Stan McCabe and Bill Ponsford, Denis Compton and Lindsay Hassett.

And Bradman…

‘The Don’, himself, rated his 254 at Lord’s in 1930 as his finest innings. Cricket folklore says that when he square cut his first delivery, hurled down by Maurice Tate, nobody saw the ball until it rebounded off the fence at deep point.

Though I possess mental images of the greats of the past – borne of a lifetime of cricket reading – I have my own contemporaneous memories of supreme gallantry and audacious skill.

Clive Lloyd and Rohan Kanhai smashing the ball all over Lord’s in the first ever World Cup final in 1975; Kim Hughes skipping down the wicket and smashing Chris Old, over mid-off, into the top deck of the Members Pavilion during the Centenary Test in 1980; Michael Slater kissing the Australian coat of arms on his helmet after posting his century in 1993; Steve Waugh holding the World Cup aloft in 1999.

I even recall stumbling home from a Tokyo night club, as a teenager in 1985, frantically scanning through the channels on my shortwave radio in search of Radio Australia and – through the staccato static and the constant crackling – listening to Alan Border accumulating 196.

But my favourite memory of a Lord’s test occurred in 1989.  It’s the night of my father’s surprise 50th birthday party. Our house is vibrating with joyous carousing. But the TV is on and some of us are cheering Steve Waugh as he clips the ball off his pads and plays glorious back foot off-drives to the fence. At the end of the Australian innings, we clapped him from the field; undefeated on 152.

It’s remarkable the symmetry life sometimes produces. I was reminiscing about that joyous night in 1989 – when we celebrated Dad’s 50th – as my dear Dad and I settled into our seats below the Compton Stand on the first day of the Ashes Test at Lord’s in 2015…

Memories for the Future

And now I have new memories of Lord’s to cherish:

  • Ricky Ponting looking sheepish as he donged ‘the 5 minute bell’ to herald the imminent commencement of play;
  • Champagne corks flying in lovely parabolic arcs from the top decks of the stands before bouncing on the outfield;
  • Warner trying to hit Moeen Ali all the way to Sydney, but only hitting him as far as Anderson at deep mid-on;
  • Old man Rogers erasing the painful memory of Lord’s Test past with a soothing 173;
  • Steve Smith dominating with 215 in the first innings and 58 in the second, the first man since Bradman in 1934 to achieve this feat in an Ashes Test;
  • Jimmy Anderson – one of my least favourite cricketers (of any country and of any era) – going wicketless for the Test;
  • ‘The three Mitchells ‘ – Johnson, Starc and Marsh – charging in, with supreme menace, and terrorizing the English batsman;
  • Mitchell Marsh caressing two lofted drives into the Members’ enclosure to end Australia’s second innings, a mere 509 runs ahead;
  • The Australian fielders cavorting – like a troupe of demented Whirling Dervishes – after Ben Stokes was run out whilst jumping to avoid being hit by a Mitch Johnson throw at the stumps;
  • Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon walking back to their fielding positions, arms around shoulders, smiling and giggling, after yet another wicket during England’s unfathomable fourth afternoon collapse;
  • The sparkle in my father’s eyes as he absorbed the resplendent Lord’s vista on the first two days; and
  • The smile emblazoning my wife’s beautiful face as Australia surged towards a truly remarkable victory on days three and four.

Before the test started, I counselled my inner-self to enjoy the occasion irrespective of the outcome. This was, potentially, a once in a life-time experience and it would be a shame if I allowed the events on the field – over which I had no influence, let alone control – to spoil that experience.

That Australia performed so well only served to enhance what proved to be a truly extraordinary experience. The best measure I have heard to demonstrate the gulf between the two teams – in this Lord’s Test – is that Australia averaged 82.0 runs per wicket whereas England averaged just 20.75.

The Aussies, literally, out- performed the Poms by a multiple of four!

Will We Ever Walk This Way Again?

On that stunning sunny Sunday afternoon – English wickets tumbling, Englishmen around us grumbling – it slowly dawned on me that the Test was likely to end that day and our 5th day tickets would soon be relegated to the status of souvenirs.

It was a strange feeling; extreme excitement – as the Australians took wicket after improbable wicket, inflicting psychological scars as they went – mixed with a menacing melancholy because our adventure was coming to a rapid conclusion.

Test matches have ended early before at the Sydney Cricket Ground – my `home ground’ – but there has always been next year to look forward to. Who knows whether we will every have a chance to visit Lord’s again during an Ashes Test; let alone with my Dad.

I began looking around, quickly trying to commit the entire experience to memory: the sights and the sounds and the way the trees behind the Edrich Stand stood proudly in the sun and the way the media centre hovering at the Nursery End, leaning forward expectantly like an immense slips fielder awaiting a catch; and the way the playing surface famously ran downhill from my right to my left; and the murmuring of the well mannered crowd; and the apartment buildings on St John’s Wood Road peaking over the top of the Mound and Tavern Stands; and the glory of the ever present Member’s Pavilion casting a highly critical eye over both the players’ techniques as well as their temperaments, as that grand old lady had done for over thirteen decades.

The way almost everything about Lord’s had exceeded my expectations.

And too soon it was over. Hazlewood bowled Anderson and the Australians embraced whilst the Englishmen trudged from the ground. Huckleberry B and I gave each other a fist pump before standing and applauding our heroic champions.

Looking around one last time, I wondered (once more) whether I would ever venture this way again.

Denis Compton’s Dinner Jacket

Here’s some more cricket folklore for those with an interest…

Denis Compton was a dashing English batsman of the 1950’s. Legend has it he would score a quick 60 or 70 runs in the afternoon, leave the ground in his dinner jacket, return in the morning wearing the same dinner jacket (albeit now somewhat dishevelled) and go out to bat to complete his century before popping up a catch so he could get some sleep in the dressing room until he was called upon to field in the afternoon.

What a lifestyle!

Huckleberry B and I sought to emulate Compton’s cavalier lifestyle during our week in London.

Adding to our four days at Lord’s, Huck B and I enjoyed seven West End shows together. Whilst this meant battling a total of 11 strangers for leg and arm space for some 45 hours over an 8 day period, we loved every minute of it.

We saw everything from the totally ridiculous (The Book of Mormon) to the truly sublime (The Audience).

In between there was the upbeat (Memphis), the versatile (The 39 Steps), the sentimental (Bacharach Re-Imagined), the whimsical (Bend it Like Beckham) and the uplifting (Sunny Afternoon).

Or in other words:

  • Memphis – the story of one white boy wooing one black girl, whilst transforming popular music in 1950’s America through his DJ style and song selection,
  • Bend it Like Beckham – the story of one Indian Girl falling for one white boy, whilst transforming East London through her passion for football…and David Beckham,
  • The Book of Mormon – the story of two white boys, one of whom woos a black girl, whilst transforming both themselves and an Ugandan village through spreading an imaginative and provocative version of the word of Mormon,
  • The Audience – the story of one regal white woman influencing eleven white men, and one other white woman, whilst transforming the United Kingdom through incessant talking,
  • Sunny Afternoon – the story of four cockney lads (collectively named ‘the Kinks’) who wooed just about anybody they could, whilst transforming the 1960’s through their semi-violent music,
  • Bacharach Re-Imagined – the concert, without either a story or wooing, whilst transforming the soul through beautiful music, innovative staging, inventive choreography and effective lighting, and
  • The 39 Steps – a play with none of the above!

The 39 Steps was actually quite something. With just four actors and (they say) over 100 characters, the story told by the dramatic 1935 Hitchcock movie is re-told in very humorous way. We would recommend it to anybody.

Special mention must also be made of The Audience.

The Queen conducts a weekly audience with her Prime Minister and this wonderful play imagines some highly dramatic meetings with Winston Churchill,  Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, albeit not in that (chronological) order. The dialogue is brilliant and the acting extraordinary. Each Prime Minister was easily recognizable from the moment they appeared on the stage.

And the Queen! Oh, the Queen!

Kristin Scott-Thomas already occupies a special place in our hearts. She was Fiona in Four Weddings & A Funeral and Katherine in The English Patient. Now she plays the Queen with such exquisite subtlety that she rivals Helen Mirren.

The play was truly wonderful and will long live in the memory.

Our last night in London was occupied watching a juke-box musical about the Kinks. I confess to getting teary when listening to Waterloo Sunset and Sunny Afternoon. Whenever I hear those very London-ish songs in the future, I will fondly remember that extraordinary week Huckleberry B and I spent in London in the mid-summer of 2015.

Dining in London

Speaking of dinner jackets…

The decadent lifestyle we maintained for a week also featured a number of memorable meals.

It started with lunch at Cote, on Charlotte Street, when we caught up with George and Cherel, whom we first meet on our voyage to Antarctica in December 2009.  George, who stands at an imposing 6 foot 6 inches, gave us a great story when last we met. He was standing in a crowded Japanese subway train when he looked down and found a little Japanese lady holding onto his belt for support. On this occasion, he gave us another story to retell. Whilst attending the opera in London, George was whacked on the head by a little English lady wielding her cane who complained he was blocking her view. What’s with this guy and the little old ladies of world?

Next came a delightful lunch at the Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall with my father and his partner. We had a little trouble finding the RAC Club. Little did we know that the numbers on Pall Mall ascend sequentially on one side and, when you get to the end, cross the road and start heading back the way you came, continue ascending sequentially. Thankfully a little policewoman, with a very big machine gun, who was guarding the back entrance to (I think) St James’ Palace, pointed us in the right direction. The lunch, itself, was a sumptuous affair in very posh surrounds, punctuated by sips of Argentine Malbec and animated conversation.

The next evening, prior to our audience with the Queen – played, as mentioned, by Kristin Scott-Thomas – Huckleberry B, my father his partner and I dined at the Ritz. We weren’t quite dressed up like million-dollar-troopers, but we scrubbed up pretty well, nonetheless. Another bottle of Argentine Malbec, more sparkling conversation, more delicious food and more very, very posh surrounds. What a dinner!

And I’m sure, on that enchanted night, I heard a Nightingale sing in Berkeley Square!

Several nights later we took a break from the West End and shared a lovely dinner at the Cinnamon Club in Westminster with our dear friends, Robin and Peter. We met on a cruise from Dubai to Rome in April 2013, during which we spent an intriguing and fascinating day in Israel (amongst other adventures). The restaurant was very elegant, serving Indian fusion food. Another splendid evening in London.

Finally, the early finish to the Test allowed us an opportunity to have lunch with our nephew, J, and his wife, N. We shared some lovely food at a tapas bar on Charlotte Street.

In between, we managed to squeeze in a bowl of a ramen at Ippudo and a bowl of laksa at C & R Cafe in Rupert Court.

The Road Home

Lunch at the Royal Automobile Club, dinner at the Ritz, four days at Lord’s, seven West End shows, meals with two sets of old cruise friends, lunch with our nephew and his wife, precious time with my dear old Dad and more memories which Huckleberry B and I can share for as long as we have our memories!

What a stunning week!

Our feet are tired from walking over 80 kilometres around North-West London and our hands are sore from clapping exquisite shots, beautiful songs, wonderful wickets, clever dialogue, victory speeches and curtain calls. Damn it! We even applauded the food we were served and each other!

We are grateful for the inspiration provided by our cruise friends. George and Cherel are great walkers and we have tried to match their very daunting daily step count. Peter and (particularly) Robin have taught us not to take the precious time we have together for granted. We must enjoy life whilst we can.

On that note, I feel so blessed to be able to feed two passions – test cricket and live theatre – in one cracking week. I suspect I will remember this as one of the best weeks of my life.

As our thoughts turned to home, Huckleberry B and I paused to wonder whether that irritatingly insolent immigration officer who heckled us at Heathrow, when we arrived last week, was still laughing.

We doubt it.

But we are smiling. And we have joy in our hearts.

Moonriver

JAPAN – April 2015

Eating Tour of Asian – Phase 2A

Huckleberry B and I arrived in Osaka on 6 April 2015. The second phase of our Asian Eating Tour began immediately. Whilst waiting for our bus to take us to the Port – where L’Austral awaited us – we found a Ramen joint at the airport and went on immediate attack.

Whilst most of our meals over the next 7 days were provided by the chefs onboard L’Austral, we did devour some Japanese food at lunchtime.

We smashed another round of Ramen at Tamano, on the southern coast of Honshu.

The next day, whilst visiting the beautiful island of Miyajima, I enjoyed a bowl of Oyako-Don (boiled chicken coated in egg and onion over white rice) whilst Huck B tried a similar dish with oysters.

Later on the same day,  whilst heading back to where L’Austral was docked at Hiroshima, we made a short detour to sample a local delicacy; Okonomiyaki.

Sitting at a bench across from an enormous hot plate, we watched the Okonomiyaki maiden prepare our meal with as much passion as she had prepared thousands of similar meals before. She cracked an egg and spread both the white and the yoke until it was the size of a plate. In the meantime, she fried some noodles on the hot plate. Next, the Okonomiyaki maiden placed sliced cabbage and bean sprouts over the egg mixture together with some seafood. Once the noodles were cooked, she added them on the burgeoning stack. With a perverse smile, the Okonomiyaki maiden flipped the stack so that the original egg was now smiling towards the heavens.  Finally, she cracked another egg and, once it had cooked, swiftly shifted the entire stack onto the new egg before squashing the stack so that it was now only an inch thick at the centre.

We devoured the results of the Okonomiyaki maiden’s labour and congratulated each other for choosing a spouse with a passion for food.

Japan’s Lesser Islands

Completing the Set

Huck B and I are no strangers to Tokyo, having visited the electric, eclectic and eccentric metropolis on three occasion. And I, of course, lived in the Japanese capital for two years in the mid-1980s.

In 2009, we visited Okinawa onboard Diamond Princess and last October we spent three idyllic days at Noboribetsu in Hokkaido, prior to the IBA Conference in Tokyo.

On this cruise, L’Austral took us to the southern islands of Shikoku and Kyushu, thus completing the set. Thirty years have now passed since I first set foot on Honshu in December 1984. Now we have finally walked on each of the four major Japanese islands, plus Okinawa.

The Cherry Blossoms of Tamano

Our first port of call was the sleepy town of Tamano, situated on the south coast of Honshu, to the east of Hiroshima. If you noticed the word ‘sleepy’ in the previous sentence, you’ll already have got the message that there was not much to do in Tamano.

After a short walk around the hamlet – and after receiving assistance from the most eager-to-please woman ever placed behind the counter of a tourist information desk – we took a cab to a beautiful garden some 15 minutes outside the town.

We were fortunate to arrive in Tamano in the last week of their Cherry Blossom season. The Sakura were truly beautiful. What made the experience extraordinary was the windy conditions…

The Sakura petals strained for as long as they could, resisting separation from their home on the branch, before being plucked by the mischievous wind. They swirled upwards, meeting their cousins on the way and twirled in a stately dance before the breeze callously abandoned them in favour of a new love. So the Sakura petals drifted to the ground like snow flakes, continuing to twist and glide in an elegant waltz as they fell, before coming gently to rest on the grass below. But, as they rested, the cheeky wind would return and sweep them back towards the sky before allowing them to again come to rest.

Miyajima – La Isla Bonita

The beautiful island of Miyajima lies just off the south coast of Honshu, a 20 minute ferry ride from Hiroshima.

The last time I visited this idyllic place with my family in 1986, Madonna had just released La Isla Bonita and I have known the island by that name ever since. Miyajima was wonderful place then and remains one of my favourite Japanese destinations now.

The highlight is the majestic sight of an imposing Tori gate guarding the entrance to a narrow bay. At high tide, water laps at the orange legs of the structure. Doubtless you would have seen countless images of the Tori gate standing proudly in the water. Other than Mount Fuji, it is probably the image most reproduced to represent Japan.

We strolled around Miyajima for a couple of hours, through the large Shinto shrine at the head of the bay, up to the pagoda and through the forest back to the shore. It was a lovely morning.

Another Garden at Uwajima

At Uwajima, Huckleberry B and I stepped upon the island of Shikoku for the first time. At this port we were fortunate to have the company of a “Goodwill Guide” named Midori. She had a friend with her who was learning the art of goodwill guiding. Essentially, a Goodwill Guide shows a tourist the local attractions in return for an opportunity to practice speaking English.

Midori showed us two shrines before we went for a long walk to see a remarkably beautiful garden. Its main feature was a picturesque lake – with a large supply of ravenous carp – surrounded by multiple wisteria of varying colours which climbed, in regimented fashion, over wooden arches.

The Little Cherries of Kagoshima

The port of Kagoshima lies on the south coast of the island of Kyushu. When we strode confidently ashore, our conquest of all four major Japanese islands was complete.

Kagoshima markets itself as ‘the Naples of the East’. The similarities are readily apparent. An otherwise unattractive city rendered beautiful by its placement by the sea; under the shadow (literally and figuratively) of a large, active volcano!

Rather than pizza in the shadow of Vesuvio, it’s tonkatsu in the shadow of Sakurajima.

Our visit was, however, more akin to a failed match strike on a damp matchbox than it was to volcanic pyrotechnics. The damn volcano was enveloped not by streams of lava but by low hanging dark cloud. She failed to even cast the famed shadow referenced in the previous paragraph.

Whilst we took a ferry across to Sakurajima’s base and rode a bus towards her peak, there was nothing to see but a double futon of cloud, so we retraced our steps and headed back to L’Austral.

It was there that the true highlights of our visit showed their faces.

Our vessel was the lucky recipient of a farewell concert performed by a swing band named “The Little Cherries”. Comprising boys and girls aged between just 9 and 15 years, they played big band tunes for about half an hour on the pier and continued playing as L’Austral sailed away. Not only were they close to note perfect,  they even had ‘the moves’; they stood and swung their instruments in unison. The Little Cherries were truly magnificent!

The Little Cherries are on YouTube. Check them out!

From our vantage point on our verandah, I could see dozens of passengers enjoying the performance, which they communicated by swinging their hips, clapping their hands and through generalized hollering! The tunes made famous by the likes of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman never induced so much joy!

It was certainly the highlight of an otherwise fairly dull day.

A View of Nagasaki

Our second stop in Kyushu was at the northern port city of Nagasaki. On this occasion we were assisted by another Goodwill Guide named Yuri.

First we visited a Chinese Temple dedicated to a Confucius. It was, reportedly, the only Chinese Temple built by Chinese, for Chinese, outside of China. Huckleberry B was particularly moved by this inscription:

“Confucius said ‘anybody who possesses the fine virtues of politeness, tolerance and generosity, honesty, diligence and benevolence can be regarded as a person of humanity. Politeness will save one from the insults of others; tolerance and generosity will invoke the love of others; honesty brings trust from people; diligence foretells success; and benevolence encourages others to follow your instructions.'”

After the temple, we took two trams, a bus and a cable car to a peak which promised commanding views over the city. Never completely comfortable with heights, my anxiety was not completely settled when our cable car rocking and rolling past a graveyard. Once at the peak, however, the promised views became reality. We could see our ship far below.

Some posters at the peak proclaimed that, along with Hong Kong and Monaco, Nagasaki boasted one of he three best night views of the world. Unfortunately, the accompanying image labelled “Monaco” looked an awful lot like the view we had enjoyed, a week earlier, from Restaurant Felix, Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon, whereas the image entitled “Hong Kong” looked distinctly European. On Huck B’s instructions, our guide informed the staff manning the information centre of the error!

The Markets of Busan

After Kagoshima, we crossed the Sea of Japan and visited the South Korean port of Busan.

Unfortunately, we only had two or three hours on South Korean soil. We were intrigued, however, by the local fish market, where a huge variety of sea life continued swimming in large open tanks, refreshed by continuously recycled water, waiting to be sold. Some of the sea creatures appeared more eager than others to complete the transaction.

Otherwise, we trekked the narrow alleyways among the open market across the road, debating whether we should obtain any local currency.

All too soon, we were back on the shuttle bus, returning to L’Austral.

The Best Cartoonist in Sakaiminato

The last port in our 7 day cruise was at Sakaiminato, on the north coast of southern Honshu (if that makes sense).

Other than being a reasonably picturesque fishing village, there is not that much to say about Sakaiminato.  We feel qualified to make that statement because we saw most of it on foot.

Sakaiminato’s claim to fame, however, is a famous cartoonist named Shigeru Mizuki. Some of his characters have been rendered into bronze statues, which now line the main shopping district of the small town. Most of the shops sold t-shirts and other oddities featuring Mizuki’s characters.

The Battle of Trafalgar

Readers may recall that when Huckleberry B and I sailed around Cuba some time ago, our cruise was afflicted by “the Cuban Missile”; a tight lipped, perpetually petulant, uniquely unpleasant Russian woman who left a trail of complaints and conflict where ever she went.

On L’Austral, a French vessel, an English gentleman we have nicknamed ‘Lord Nelson’ fulfilled a similar unfortunate function.

We first met Lord Nelson when we arrived in Osaka. We wheeled our luggage from our limousine bus to the gateway to the port. As it happens, the man we now know as Nelson and his wife (Lady Nelson) arrived minutes earlier. Soon enough he was haranguing the L’Austral staff to “speak up so he could, perhaps, hear them“. Later that night at dinner, we heard him bleat – from the table next to ours – that his table was “unsatisfactory” because it was removed from “the action” at the centre of the restaurant.

When morning arrived, we were witnesses to another volley of Nelson’s carefully aimed cannon balls; the bacon in the buffet was “utterly disgusting” because it was effectively simmering in a plunge pool of fat.

By this stage, Lord Nelson had achieved a 100% attack rate. We had seen him thrice and he was heard bitching thrice!

A few nights later, we sat down to dinner at a table for 8 with some new friends we had made. There were 2 seats vacant. Suddenly a familiar voice asked whether he and his wife could join us. Now Nelson was sitting amongst us! The complaints followed shortly thereafter. Nelson ordered a rib eye steak and requested that it be cooked medium rare. The first attempt at satisfying Nelson’s beef requirements was dismissed as over-cooked; the second attempt banished because it was under-cooked. The maitre’d was summoned and a savage broadside unleashed.

Like most human beings, it transpired, however, that Lord Nelson was far from one-dimensional. Whilst determined to receive every ounce of value he had paid for, Nelson was actually an engaging and entertaining dinner companion. We both grew to like him and to take his monotonous moaning in our stride.

One of the ties which bind is a shared love for cricket. I thought it was very sportsmanlike for Nelson to come to Australia two summers ago to watch his countrymen get thrashed 5-0! Nelson said that he doesn’t care who wins the upcoming Ashes series so long as Davy Warner gets seriously injured!

Lord Nelson even turned out to be good-humoured about his reputation. Towards the end of the cruise we were walking from the dining room – and heading to our stateroom for the night – when I observed that the crew were already setting up for breakfast and the buffet trays had already been arranged. Nelson quickly quipped that if I lifted the lid I’d find that tomorrow morning’s bacon was probably already simmering in an inch of fat!

Eating Tour of Asia – Phase 2B

The second stanza of our eating tour of Japan commenced when we left L’Austral.

We spent three nights at Fushioukaku in Ikeda, outside Osaka. Each night involved Japanese degustation. At the risk of emulating Lord Nelson,  however, we were a little disappointed by the quantity, quality and speed of our dinners. The multiple courses were essentially dumped on our table in quick succession rather than being presented in a leisurely manner, thus allowing us to savory catch delicacy. The waitstaff seemed to be in a constant rush.

My beloved Huckleberry B was left a little crestfallen as we celebrated her 52nd birthday.

We had a better experience last October, for my birthday, at Noboribetsu in Hokkaido.

Phase 2B did, however, feature more satisfying ramen for the ravenous rascals.

Travelling from the port near Kyoto to Ikeda involved a taxi and three legs by train. Thanks to Hucleberry B’s meticulous planning, each connection was smoothly made and we arrived at Ikeda – albeit in steady train (not Huck B’s fault) – before 12 noon. A quick scope of the area failed (narrowly as it turned out) to identify any ramen joints, so we decided to embark upon the 15 minute taxi ride to our hotel, dump our bags, and return to town for a more thorough search.

Upon our return, we were fortunate to find a satisfactory ramen restaurant in an alley near the station. Our enthusiasm for their food was rewarded with a bonus sixth gyoza on our second order!

Later that afternoon a stroll to the – get this(!) – Instant Ramen Museum (!) revealed the holy grail of ramen purveyors! Ippudo! The world- famous Ippudo!

Full from lunch, we resisted the urge for a second serving of ramen and deferred our visit until the following afternoon. When we did, we enter ramen heaven!

Moonriver

 

HONG KONG – April 2015

 

Eating Tour of Asia – Phase One

Anybody for Won Ton Noodles?

We came to Hong Kong to eat.

Actually, Huckleberry B and I came to Hong Kong to have some new business shirts made, but the feeding frenzy which accompanied that venture was the highlight of our trip.

It started soon after we landed, late in the Chinese afternoon. Once fully checked in and satisfactorily semi-unpacked, we ventured out into the Tsim Sha Tsui night. Our demands were not sophisticated. All we wanted was a cheap, local noodle joint. We were not disappointed.

Across Nathan Road, behind the iCentre, where the neon lights turn night into day, we found just the place we were looking for. After an impatient wait, our spoons and chopsticks were soon engaged in mortal combat as we shoveled noodles, soup, fish balls, more noodles and won tons into our mouths.

With a nod to the committed gluttony which would guide us through the subsequent days, we accompanied our noodles with an oyster pancake which we shared. Whilst not as satisfying as the oyster omelette I craved for, it was satisfying enough.

Huckleberry B and I rolled back to our hotel and looked forward to the days ahead.

Yum Cha with a Michelin Star

The next two days – in between shopping – were dominated by a new phenomena (at least for us); a dumpling restaurant which boasted a Michelin star!

There are four Tim Ho Wan restaurants in Hong Kong. The principal outlet is in Mong Kok and there is another eatery at Sham Po Shui; both on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour. We, however, chose to visit the Tim Ho Wan restaurant at Hong Kong Station, on the Island of the same name,  only because it was in close proximity to our tailor near Central.

We did, however, find the restaurant somewhat difficult to locate. First we tried to enter Hong Kong station from a stairwell which only permitted access to the station itself. Then we took several wrong turns when negotiating a busy overpass. Finally, we had difficulty locating some escalators which would take us to the basement where the restaurant awaited.

Once there, however, Tim Ho Wan was not difficult to find. The mass of people waiting to enter the small restaurant heralded its location. So we took our blue form, ticked the box next to the dumplings we wanted to order, returned the form to the most powerful dumpling matron in the world and waited…and waited…and waited some more.

An hour passed before we were permitted entry into yum cha nirvana.

Did I mention that the restaurant was small? So small, in fact, that we ate at long communal tables and we had to squeeze into chairs with merry dumpling gobblers on either side. A large shoehorn, or similar device, would have helped.

A further toe-tapping, saliva inducing wait sapped our strength as our dumplings were prepared and eventually brought to our table. I was tempted to reach across the random person on my right and pinch a prawn dumpling or two. Soon enough, however, our own dumpling steam baskets made a triumphant arrival and were stacked so high in front of us that I had to crane my neck to see Huckleberry B’s beaming face.

What sets Tim Ho Wan apart from other yum cha establishments is that the dumplings are made fresh  on site, rather than being snap frozen at some remote location months prior to consumption before being steamed back to life shortly before being served.  The difference is incredible and ultimately well worth the extensive search and the extended  wait.

The dumplings were so good, in fact, that we voluntarily put ourselves through the traumatic waiting and ordering process again the next day!

Felix

High atop the Peninsula Hotel – with inspiring views across Victoria Harbour to the dazzling lights on Hong Kong Island – sits Restaurant Felix.

Given that we were reservation-less, Huck B had the clever idea of asking whether we could dine at 6pm on the promise that we left by 8pm. We were still struggling to escape our domestic time zone, so the early dinner made no difference to us.

Her ingenuity rewarded, we were soon ushered to a table at the exclusive restaurant…

The oysters were incredible, our entrees delightful, but the real highlight was the main course I chose. Still somewhat full after a bevy of succulent sumptuous dumplings at Tim Ho Wan at lunch,  I was hooked by the fish option for dinner. What made the dish remarkable was the cherry blossom infused broth. It was subtle but absolutely stunning. We both demanded a spoon so we could savor every precious molecule.

Dessert was also pleasing, although what made it special was something rarely  found in Asia; genuinely good coffee. Mine was so good I ordered a second cup.

Rogues Within a Nation

Since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, it has become afflicted by a virulent disease; the influx of Mainland Chinese.

We have been told by friends living in Hong Kong that the locals resent the Mainlanders because they treat the locals as inferior beings, unworthy of their consideration.

We experienced their lack of consideration several times during our stay in Hong Kong.

I was lining up for some won ton noodles at the breakfast buffet – yet another opportunity to feed the gluttonous beast – when a woman strode up behind me and shouted her order in Mandarin from the back of the queue. I had literally just opened my mouth to ask for one bowl with won tons, fish cake slices and noodles when my voice was overwhelmed by the bleating from behind me. The cook behind the counter was moved to apologise to me!

Whilst waiting for her order to be prepared, the uncouth woman inspected the steamer basket on the adjacent counter and discovered ten prawn dumplings waiting to be consumed. Now, I confess that in the same situation my internal voice would whisper, “so many dumplings, so little time“, but I would still leave some for other diners. Not the Mainlander! With fierce determination, she systematically transferred each dumpling from the steamer basket to her plate and scurried back to her table, before returning to collect her won ton noodles.

Huckleberry B had a similar experience with two Mainland Chinese at the won ton counter the next morning.

Our friends in Hong Kong told us a story about Mainlanders abusing the superior Hong Kong hospital system. Expectant mothers cross the border before their pregnancy is obvious, remain in Hong Kong until they are ready to give birth and ‘gate crash’ the hospital. No hospital would turn them away in the circumstances. Not only does both mother and child receive better medical care, the newborn has a right to Hong Kong residency!

Moonriver