Archive for the ‘Trips’ Category

I have just returned from a meal of prawns. This was not a mere meal however. The prawns, fresh from the lagoon, had swum through a sauce, the origin of which can only reasonably be explained by a bargain with at least a mid level deity. After their journey through the sauce of the gods, they had leaped onto a skewer, and were brought to me after a brief encounter with a grill. The more robust among them were still gently waving their legs, and quietly imploring “eat me, eat me.” I could not disappoint, for fear of incurring the wrath of the sauce deity.

Of course, one dish does not make a meal. After careful perusal of the menu, I had settled upon the intriguingly named, and even more intriguingly described “Le Colonel”. It was described as lemon glace and vodka. Curious as to how this was carried, off, I decided to risk my well being in the name of research. Imagine my surprise when I was presented with a wineglass full of a clear liquid & a scoop of ice cream. Now, I cannot be sure that the liquid was in fact vodka, for it has never before passed my tastebuds. At least not in an an inordinately long time. Possibly as long as last Tuesday. But there it was, exactly as it said on the tin. And damned good it was too.

Followed by an expresso, all was well in the world.

I can hear you asking, where was this meal? Is the boy not currently residing in Arizona, where the chances of being shot are much greater than the chances of finding good seafood?

Well yes, the boy is currently residing in Arizona, but as always, is managing to escape from his supposed residence on a regular basis, in this case to French Polynesia. A curious combination of a bad day at work & the realisation that some of my Airpoints were expiring led to a quest for inner fulfilment. Or at least a quest for some diving, a good meal, and no seppos.

After exhaustive research of the Air NZ route map, I determined that there were many islands in the Pacific within reach & likely to fulfil the first and third requirements. And then there were a couple of French colonies, well placed to satisfy the second as well.

So, I checked the flights and asked my boss for a week off. To this he has the habit of agreeing, asking where I am going, and then swearing at me and threatening to say no. One day he probably will, but this may also be the day I quit.

Let me tell you though, the pace of the trip was hectic. Living in a land with insufficient holiday entitlements forced me to limit it to a week. I arrived in Papeete at 3am, and was greeted by people playing ukeles. Very nice, but suspicious, especially at such an absurd hour. A breif interlude in the airport ensued until the busses started running to the ferry terminal.

This of course provided the reassurance that I was in the islands. The ferry was running on islands time, but the bus at the other side was not. The next one was in two hours, and would result in me missing the entire days diving – not an optimal solution.

Luckily, I was in the islands. While looking for alternative transport, I was generously offered a ride by some locals in the airconditioned comfort of the back of their ute (for those reading this in less favoured lands, this is a pickup). Sweet mate.

So, within a few hours of landing, I had a dive, lunch & was installed at the campground.

The following week went something like this:

7:15am picked up for diving

8:30am feeding the sharks. Mostly small (1m) black tips, but always a few larger (2-3m) lemon sharks, with a mouthful of pearly whites & friendly enough to flash you a smile as they cruised past.

Noon: diving is finished, time for lunch and various combinations of exploring, relaxing & dinner.

The shark dives did result in a little contemplation, as is normal when your morning caffiene fix is replaced watching sharks feeding at close quarters. The logic of training sharks to come when people jumped out of a boat still strikes me as a little suspect. But they were all very friendly, and there is something of a pickup about rolling out of a boat & into waters which are well stocked (infested is such a negative phrase) with sharks in the morning.

The usual fare resulted from the diving – pretty good hard coral, a couple of rays, a couple of turtles, tuna asking to become sashimi. In addition there was a ver amourous remora (how far up your leg would you let a suckerfish swim? Especially when you are on film). It is also worth nothing that turtles at times have difficulties distinguishing between food & the fingers holding it.

The other divers provided almost as much entertainment. Top of the list was the seppo who felt it was very important to tell us all how expensive the camera that she left at home was. This was almost as important as ensuring that her lipstick was in top condition, even on the boat out. Watching her take great pains to explain to the dive guide that she did not like sharks or morays and only wanted to see pretty fish. Well, there were pretty fish as well.

Our last dive was a true finale, a nice ray, four turtles, and at all times an honour guard of 20-40 black tip sharks. The only way to avoid seeing the sharks was to close your eyes. Apparantely this was quite disturbing to our seppo friend when she looked up from her clownfish to see she was surrounded by them. I will reluctantly admit, that they were possibly less of an honour guard in farewell than simply watching to make sure I didn’t steal anything on the way out.

So the mornings were flat out diving, leaving the afternoon crammed with the arduous tasks of lunch, going for a walk, sitting on the beach with a beer, going swimming with a beer (that beach got hot!), and pearl shopping.

Early in the game, I was shopping for a new hat (having lost my favoured hat to my great distress, though I am sure the releif of others who had to be associated with me when I was wearing it), and was distracted by the shiny baubels. At this point I remembered the words of my mother, whenever she hears I am going somewhere associated with pearls to get her a string. So there I was & saw the perfect piece for a certain Arizona babe (no not Mum). But alas, on closer inspection, the pearls were decidedly on the less than perfect side.

So I had a purpose & the next afternoon I hired a scooter & went in search of the perfect shiny thing. After stopping for lunch of course – I would not want you to think that I undertook this in reckless abandonment of what is important in life. Many pearl shops later, there was no joy, and had endured a range of corny hard sell lines or just being ignored before coming to Ocean Pearl Gallery (it is my website & I shall plug who I want to), where Sabina suggested that she could make anything they did not have on display.

This begun the arduous task of choosing the pearls (empty a bag into a tray & start sorting through them like they were marbles), describing exactly the way they were to be mounted, trying a few alternatives… This is a most entertaining way to fill in a few hours. I have never commissioned jewellerly before & it is pretty cool.

Only 1200 years before you get your string Mum, but a pendant is a step in the right direction.

This took a couple of afternoons between my morning diving & my afternoon explore & lunch. They didn’t seem to mind me being slightly damp in their shop though, which was pretty good of them. They were also kind enough to suggest an alternate route for my walk home (after offering the obligatory transfer back to my hotel/campground). I think I messed up their customer demographics for the week.

Staying at the campground did have a few disadvantages though. Not least of which was a distressing lack of internet access and even available power points. The sunset over the beach wasn’t too bad though. But worst of all was the dawn chorus. There are a peculiarly large number of chickens in the area. And where there are chickens, there are roosters. Roosters which start to crow as soon as they are woken, in this case, at about 3am, probably by those bloody ukelee players. This was very unamusing.

I spent some considerable time (generally after about 3:15am) wondering about the efficacy of buying a shotgun and walking around encouraging every rooster I saw that noon would be a better time to start crowing, or at least just for the ukelee player to be a little quieter. But then I realised, that I was not in Arizona, and so could not simply buy a gun at the local Walmart.

So my thoughts reluctantly turned to other ways of reducing the noise. Would eating chicken at every meal reduce the numbers, or would they increase in response to the increased demand? This I thought was a risk not worth taking, so I contented myself with eating fish and cursing the chickens.

Of course a week was too short, but that was all I had before having to go back to work to pay for the next trip, somewhere, sometime.

short while ago I was wandering along, minding my own business, looking for a car park when I saw a ship. Nothing too surprising about this, I was on a wharf at the time, and the two often go together. I didn’t pay it too much attention at the time either. I was looking for a car park, & it did not offer one. The big masts and lots of ropes captured my attention for a longer span than most things do, but as I had mentioned, I was on a mission. And pretty tired, as it was about 4am. But then, right in front of me, I saw what could only be described as a sign.It said “car park” with an arrow. But it was a night for strange and mysterious signs, because below it was another saying “crew on the Endeavour”. I interpreted the mysterious signs to mean that that the ship was the Endeavour, and that I could get myself a ride on it. And that I needed to turn right to get a park.

I was in.

For those few of you reading this who do not live in the favoured lands, the Endeavour was the ship that Captain Cook discovered & mapped New Zealand, large parts of Australia & half of the Pacific.

Not being one to to rush in, I checked with my boss on Monday whether I could take a week off. The conversation went something like this “David, can I have a week off”.

“Yeah, when?” He is good like that, though I did hit him at 9am & he was probably still half asleep and thought I was asking if he wanted a coffee. That or he was just really glad to get rid of me for a week.

I had picked the sailing from Bristol to Jersey for a number of sound and important reasons. The food in Jersey is good. You can get duty free booze there. It was a week long trip – long enough, but not too long, and it was during a quiet period at work, so I thought I would be able to get the time off without having to quit, which is a little extreme for a short trip. And the weather is generally pretty good in November isn’t it?

So, I had a week sailing from Bristol to Jersey on the replica of an 18th century collier. The question you are all asking now is “What was it like?” (I know only cool people read my website, so I won’t have anyone asking “But why?”)

The Endeavour is operated by a non-profit organisation, which has the education of people as one of its major aims. I learnt a number of things, and probably the best way to describe the experience is to tell you some of the things I learnt:

I am not good at tying knots

I am not good at climbing high things (actually this was something I knew, but had reconfirmed. Again)

I do not learn best while up high things

I am good at hanging on to things

Tying knots while hanging on to things is difficult

With sufficient incentive it can be done

Tall ships involve a lot of high things

And tying things while you are up there

Hammocks are the most comfortable place to sleep in a rolling boat (the hammock stays level like a pendulum when the boat rolls).

Failing a hammock, solid wooden sea chests will do nicely if you are tired enough.

Likewise any mostly horizontal space out of the wind

Tying your own hammock is a powerful incentive to learn a few knots

A touque makes an adequate pillow (for those of you in the favoured lands, it also known as a beanie, but mine came from Canada, so it retains its original name)

The best spot on the boat is the fender lounge – out of the wind, horizontal & nice soft fenders to lean against.

Always coil rope clockwise

No firearms licence is needed to own a cannon

I want a cannon

It is a survey requirement for all Australian ships to have Vegemite (the 2nd mate told me, it must be true, though I was not complaining)

There are a lot of ropes on the boat:


They all have a name, just don’t ask me what they are.

So much for what I learnt. All of life is a learning experience, and we all know how exciting that is most of the time. What did we do? Basically we had three watches of about 12 people, and there was always a watch on duty. One night we got to sleep for a whole seven straight hours! The duty watch did everything from steering the boat to watching that the monkeys steering the boat weren’t about to steer it into something. Other tasks included climbing up the high things to pull sails up or down or generally piss about with them as the captain wished.

The observant among you will have noted that high things have been mentioned a couple of times. They deserve further comment. Every time the sails came up or down, a watch had to go aloft. The photo shows the situation nicely.

Simply climb up the netting on the outside. If you only have to deal with the mainsail (the bottom one), you climbed up to the narrowest point of the netting & stepped across onto the boom. Simple. It was never more than about a 70cm gap between the netting and the boom. Then you could clip yourself onto the safety line. From there you untied all of the ropes holding the sail up, or pulled it up & tied it up. If you were working on the topsail, you simply kept climbing. Yes, up the inverted bit to the fighting top (the flat platform. There you could stand and quiver for a while before climbing up some more to the next boom.

Of course, this occurred while you were at sea, so the boat rolled some while you were up there, just to add to the entertainment. It did not roll suddenly violently, just quietly and sufficiently to make you very aware that you were 20 metres up the mast.

This photo nicely illustrates the disregard for vertical the boat had. This was taken, as you can see, when it was nice and sunny, not when it was blowing its guts out like that night.

This was, without a doubt, the second most scary thing about the trip. On a scale of scary things it rates about a 7, where the realisation that you have just run out of air and you are still 20 meters down is 5, and Wednesday night was about a 9.

On Wednesday night, we were in the middle of the English Channel. And the weather picked up. It turns out it did not pick up as much as the Captain was expecting, but that is nice in hindsight. It got to a force 8, gusting to 9. Also known as a gale, where twigs break off trees. For those of you who are more analytically minded, the wind speeds were 62-74 km/h. Gusting to about 90. The average height of the waves is about 5.5m

During a lot of this time, we were sleeping below decks in our hammocks. Or attempting to. While hammocks ride out a lot of the rolling of the ship, this only works until the ship heels over enough that the side of your hammock hits the ceiling. This is about 45 degrees over. The fact that you can hear things breaking and shifting on the deck (aka your ceiling) does not help the sleeping either.

That was a very long night. A significant part of it was spent reflecting on the fastest way to the survival suits in the event of the damned ship capsizing and the knowledge that given the water temperature out there, the survival time was number in minutes, and not many of them. Second to this thought was reflection on the fact that we had a GPS, engine & radar, so knew if we were about to run into something solid & could do something about it. These little accessories were things that Cook did not have.

The night passed, and we made it alive & unscathed, but damned tired. Travel has got easier.

The rest of the trip.

After Italy, we had a significant run of campgrounds without electricity & I stopped writing about things as they occurred. Next time I will buy a car adapter for my laptop. And probably a GPS navigation unit, because I am told that they don’t close their eyes. But here is a breif rundown of the remainder of the trip…

Croatia – with the best scenery from campgrounds ever, man I wish I knew more people who played Risk like that

Some great diving & being introduced to the local Brandy, made with 7 herbs and spices, some of which were even identifiable & legal.

Staying in an apartment overlooking the Adriatic

Slovenia – checking out the cows in the marketplace, and the dragons on the bridge

Then inland to Austria & Graz – more heavy metal.

Czech Republic – drinking Budweiser in Budvar

Scaring the locals as the person in the left hand (drivers) seat of the car struggled to read a map & while not letting it exit stage rear

Trying to figure out how to read the astronomical clock in Prague, as well as catching up with Sarah’s parents

Germany – staying at a campground at one of the former checkpoints into the city

Worship at a slightly more modern cathedral selected by myself, not Sarah for a change.

Ahh, Stuttgart. Great museums with inspiring exhibits.

Liechtenstein – the smallest country with the steepest & narrowest streets drivable on. Even if it did confuse the hell out of the locals, who seemed to think an engergetic stroll up them was a better idea.

Switzerland – how much?

Luxembourg – damn those swans.

Netherlands – I really cannot recall…

Belgium – I really really cannot recall. All I know is that beer brewed by monks is a sign from God. Probably that he loves you and wants to be happy. Especially when it appears to start at 8%

Plus the coolest town around – the Dutch/Belgian border meanders through the town with disregard for where the buildings are or any other apparent rules. Making it an idea spot for an international pub crawl & dead ants in two countries at once.

London – it was good to be sleeping in a bed & have electricty after 10 weeks without. But not for long because Ireland was beckoning..

Ireland – off visiting relatives I never knew I had & attempting to keep my Grandmother from causing too much trouble. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Gotta be a better way to travel around the Ring of Kelly than some tour bus eh Grandma?

Sarah had decided that her adrenaline gland needed a bit of a workout, so pointed us in the direction of Italy. Here we quickly learned a number of things about Italian roads and driving. Those little orange lights in the corners of cars are optional at best. Italians like decorating their roads with lines and signs and lights. Italians learned their roading design from the Romans. Straight is good. If there is a hill, go through it, if there is a valley build a bridge. In one day I have been through more tunnels & over more viaducts than I have ever been through or over before. The small tunnels are only half a kilometre long. But the thing we learned most is that on the Italian motorways you need to stay awake. Five cups of expresso awake.

The speed limit on these motorways is 130kmh. So everything is moving faster than this, often much faster, once providing a perfect example of the improvements Skoda have made to their cars over recent years. Skodas never used to get to 80mph, let alone pass Benzes that were cruising along at that speed. But not all of the traffic flies along the motorway at speeds variously greater than the speed limits, changing lanes without indicating, and sometimes just drifting around the lanes. For there are the trucks. They cruise along at a mere 90kmh or so, but occasionally pass each other, just to add that bit of excitement to the trip. They don’t indicate either.

With all of this overtaking going on, the Italians have developed a number of effective techniques to indicate that they may wish to pass you at some point in the future. Chief among these is simply sitting so close on your tail that they will be able to smell if you break wind.

But the worst thing about Italian motorways is the signposting. In a 2km stretch (ie one minutes travel time), there were two offramps, one onramp, and signs indicating which lane you needed to be in NOW! (the far one). Needless to say we missed that offramp the first time around. And of course rather than taking the “we will build offramps that people can take at motorway speeds, and slow down on the way out”, the Italians have taken the opposite approach. If you hit these offramps at 130 you are in Trouble. They start out as about 70kmh corners and get tighter. This is can be exciting.

It appears that the Italians now make up for the lack of gladiatorial shows by deciding not to install traffic lights at intersections. Or they just turn the ones they have off. But Italian traffic light techniques really do get amusing. The orange light means something, but I am not sure what. The red light means “stop unless you saw the previous green light”. If you do not move off the instant the light turns green, you are tooted. Streams of traffic in other directions or not.

Basically it appears that buying a car in Italy entitles you to a piece of the road as well. You do in fact own the road, so manoeuvres which may be considered slightly rude in other countries are perfectly acceptable, you do own this bit of road after all. This is of course the cause of some troubles to tourists, as they rely on borrowing parts of the road that Italians decide to lend them from time to time. Luckily for me, I was driving a Mercedes, which as we all know, comes with road ownership rights as standard. This allowed me, if not to fit in, at least make some progress.

After surviving some of Italys motorways, Sarah decided that her adrenaline gland was in fine form for a trip through the alps. She was wrong. These roads are great fun. Nice little hill on one side, a bit of a dropoff on the other, spectacular scenery, if a little blurry, the desire not to hold up any of those other cars around. The SL is not really designed for that sort of road, but stood up quite well. Though I don’t think that the passenger doorhandle used to be that loose.

While the SL is not really designed for shooting through the Alps, it is designed to grab attention. And in Italy it does. The number of second glances & outright stares is gets is amazing, even in its current bug splattered state (and it is very bug splattered – even the horizontal bit of the bonnet is covered in dead bugs). Then they see me & do a big double take. I figure they think I stole it.

We eventually headed into Milan for a bit of a taste of the fashion capital of the world. Or claims to be. Personally I think that there is one word missing from that phrase. Victim. This seasons fashions include sunglasses which look like they were designed by someone playing far too much playstation, distressed jeans (why pay extra for jeans which look dirty & torn?), and the silliest shoes that have been seen outside Imelda Marcos’s wardrobe. And yes that is just the guys. I know, I am not one to criticise peoples fashion sense, but these people…

But the worst thing about Italian cities is the motor scooters. Driving a car through a city where cars are outnumbered ten to one by the things, none of which obey any road rules, and seem to expect you to get out of their way is a one of lifes little experiences. I did shortly discover an effective means of dealing with them. Try to run them down & cut them up whenever you can. While it may not promote good Anglo-Italian relations, it does keep at least one side of the car free of the things trying to pass you. Which is useful if you intend to turn in that direction. Interestingly, the further south you went the more the riders relied upon hair gel for head protection. Mind you with the amount of gel some of these guys were wearing, in the result of sudden head/road impact, the road would probably come off worse.

Another thing which became apparent, is that the whole navigation/driver symbiosis works a whole pile better if the navigator keeps her eyes open. Map reading & direction giving is easier that way you see. To this day, I am not sure why Sarah decided that she would prefer to shut her eyes, but did at one point mention something about being on the side of the oncoming traffic.`

After a brief and uninspiring encounter with Milan (how can a fashion capital not have discovered architecture?), we headed south. Pulling into the campground in Florence, behind the oh-so original VW van full of kiwis & aussies, we set up base before exploring the centre of the Renaissance. Here Sarah found some art museum which kept her entertained for a while. There was also a pretty good science museum. Most of these artist types did useful things with themselves when they weren’t painting, and there was a pile of the stuff they did it with on display. And if anyone reading is interested in armour, the Stibert Museum is quite something. Less a museum than the contents of an eccentric gentleman’s attic. A damned big attic, with some really interesting stuff.

Continuing our zigzag route of Italy, we decided to pop into Ravenna to check out the mosaics. In the 5th century AD Rome was getting sacked, so the bosses decided to bugger off to Ravenna for a while till it all blew over. Of course you cannot hang out in a city without sufficient temple & churches, so they had to build a few.

For those of you who know, you will recognise that the 5th century was after the Romans had got the mosaic technique sorted, but before the paint roller was invented. Not content with putting pretty patterns on the floor (been done), they put them on the walls, and ceilings. Domed ceilings. These Italians seem to have a thing about putting stuff on ceilings. It is like the priests wanted people to go into their churches, raise their eyes skywards and think “how the hell did they get that there?, it must have been a miracle”. No doubt a few also thought “glad I stuck to tiling floors”. And by the way, the floor of the Sistine Chapel is quite nicely done, a little more quiet and understated than the ceiling.

For those of you in the know, Italy is home to two table top states – the Vatican & San Marino. So of course we had to visit them both. San Marino is a small mountaintop republic protected from sheer cliffs, impressive fortifications and an army of manic drivers. I think that in part of it’s history it prefers to forget, San Marino was a penal colony for Italians convicted of driving offences. To leave they must sell sufficient really tacky souvenirs to pay for a ticket back. Unfortunately none of these shops had anything about the history of the republic, and why it did not join with Italy when it was formed, so if anyone knows, can you let me know.

The Vatican of course, is in Rome, and no trip to Italy would be complete without a trip to Rome. Rome, capital of the empire which covered the known world. Rome, still with the parts which remained after the sackings handed out by barbarians, goths, popes, and various other people who didn’t forsee the value of the future tourist dollar. Rome, where you cannot turn without being run over by a moped. Rome, where not a building goes without a “Pope X was here” plaque. What remains of those buildings after they were stripped of their marble to build other buildings that is.

In a move which will surprise many, the Vatican moved with the times, and seems to have phased out the selling of indulgences, and replaced them with the selling of posters, books and some really tacky souvenirs. Then again the church never has been the arbiter of good taste, so the tacky souvenirs shouldn’t surprise. Unfortunately it appears that the Vatican doesn’t have the funding to provide decent explanations, or in a lot of cases, labels, for its varied collections, so if you are going to go, either buy a guidebook beforehand (or from one of the many conveniently placed stalls), or take someone who knows something about any of that stuff. Thanks Sarah.

Another little detail for anyone who is interested in heading to Rome to see how those ampitheatres managed to get so many people in and out and keep them entertained. Don’t. Go to Nimes, you can wander around all of the seating and passageways of the ampitheatre there. Then head to Pozzuoli (near Naples), where you can wander around all of the underground parts & figure out just how they got all of those animals up into the courtyard. Then head to Rome & have a look at what the ampitheatre must have been like before some Pope decided to turn it into a quarry.

Well, the time for another little trip has come around again. The insurance papers for the car arrived. The insurance papers for the car arrived again. Correct insurance papers arrived for the car. Thanks very much AA & Norwich Union, it only took 3 ½ months. My travel insurance company reluctantly agreed that perhaps they it was reasonable to expect scuba diving insurance to cover scuba gear, and so added it to my cover gratis. Very good of you Club Direct. The car was tuned up and gassed up and ready to go. All I needed to do was wait for my bank account to catch up. Like that was going to happen in a hurry, so roadways we headed.

Sarah had arrived from Perth to experience the joys of ten weeks of my driving in countries where rather than simply ignoring the road rules, I didn’t know them, and had only a very slight chance of meeting someone who was going to be able to explain them to me. I figured that giving her more than a day to ponder her decision wasn’t a good idea, so we headed off on Monday evening, and now you have a country by country review. Aren’t you lucky?

20 May

I had decided to take the Channel Tunnel to France for the simple reason that cars on ferries were no novelty, but cars on trains, hey, that was good enough to keep me amused for a while. As it turned out, the whole journey. Possibly even enough to decide to go back that way. But given that I bought a cheap (£20) day return ticket and didn’t, rather than a £150 single ticket, I may be avoiding them for a while. I wonder how good their data matching is.

Now that I have piqued your curiosity, I will have to explain a little about the train. If I haven’t, skip this bit. Basically, it is a really big train, with two levels, and you drive up a ramp, and then along the carriages until you get to the end. And then just sit in your car till the end of the trip, when you drive off. Sounds odd, and this photo explains it a little, but I will admit, not much. You had better look at it, there might not be too many more, you know me & photos.

Anyway, having successfully accomplished the my first navigation of the channel with car, our next task was the simple one of finding somewhere to stay for the night. More specifically somewhere to pitch the tent, on or near the beach, so I could watch the sun go down over the sea with a drink & a cigar. That sort of thing just can’t be done in London, & it sucks. It sucks bigtime. But it was ok, I had done some research. There were plenty of campgrounds & beaches south, so all we had to do was come out of the train & turn right & drive for a while.

Having given these instructions we headed off. And found a variety of small coastal villages. And eventually found a suitable campground. With the office closed. Odd, so we wandered around some more and found another. Again with a closed office, but someone inside. This time as we wandered around looked for the way in, the owner came out to see what these stupid foreigners wanted. When we said “a camp site please”, she launched into a small spiel about the time. I did my best look stupid but harmless look, and Sarah did her best apologies in French. It seems that the French she remembers best from school were apologies, I am not sure what that means about her efforts at school. But it was effective, and suitably chastised, we got ourselves a spot and headed beachward. Where objective 1 of the holiday was achieved. Things were looking good. Now we figured we should do some of the cultural & gastronomic stuff.

Heading into Bayeux, we had a squiz at their cathedral. As all European cathedrals are, it was big, old, had famous dead people in it and was generally impressive. And for extras it came with big cracks in the walls and scaffolding. Also in Bayeux were a curious number of embroidery shops. Not sure why though. And the museum with the longest & most circuitous route to get to its main (& only) exhibit. The tapestry was good sprint training though, if you wanted to keep up with the audioguide which you couldn’t pause or rewind.

Near Bayeux are the D-Day beaches, so we headed up to them & had a look at the Mullberry’s which actually made it across the channel. They are big concrete bathtubs, which were floated across the channel with the aim of pulling the plug to created a breakwater & with enough of them, a harbour. A number didn’t make it across and now make nice dive sites in the channel. One didn’t leave Portland harbour, and now makes a big concrete box in the middle, but a lot did, and still make a big harbour.

Needing to be fed, we headed to a nearby restaurant, where I was enticed by the lure of a regional speciality, tripe with vegetables in Calvados. I had never had tripe, and now I can see why. I am also a little more suspicious of the whole “local speciality” thing. It could easily be a ruse by unscrupulous restaurateurs to con gullible tourists & get rid of any old tripe. And it could even fool thoughtful and considering travellers such as myself.

Still, the next day was better. Here we were in the heart of a place called Calvados. I had once been told there was drink called Calvados, an apple brandy. And had even tried some, and it was judged to be not bad. I wondered if there could be a link. So we set out to determine if this was the case. This required Sarah’s first little lesson in the art of driving my car. This went fine. I managed to avoid throwing my toys out of the cot, and Sarah managed to avoid hitting anything.

But things were to improve, we found a place that made apple cider, pear cider, and even Calvados. I graciously allowed Sarah a small try of the pear cider, & I had a slightly larger try of the pear cider & a couple of different varieties of Calvados. We left much happier, with a couple of bottles of each. Sarahs driving had even improved with the practice.

And on a similar note, I must say that French supermarkets are great. Not only do they have a vast array of ludicrously priced alcohol, and cheeses of all variety (ordered by the tried & tested, smile, point “we”, “merci” approach), they have some great chocolate. I managed to buy one which had a safety warning. What the safety warning said, I have no idea, as it was in French, and my French is largely limited to menus, but I suspect that it may have something to do with the fact that eating 99% cacao chocolate is like being hit over the head with a chocolate brick.

After the warnings I had had, largely from my few English workmates, appeared to be false, I was beginning to like France. This place has promise. Now I hear that there is a town called Cognac…

And we found it. Wasn’t that clever of us. On the way we had a look at a couple of castles and some Chateux down some river valley or another and a few other things, but hey, that is not why you come to France now is it? Food & booze, people. Other than the principle of separation of powers of government, the only things I can think that the French have contributed to society. And they borrowed the idea of separation of powers. I did pay too much attention in those law lectures didn’t I?

Anyway, Cognac is a small town with eight or so major Cognac houses in the town itself. And then a pile of smaller producers in the surrounding areas. We started off the day by going & finding one of the smaller producers by the standard approach of driving around in circles until we found some signs. This was harder than it may seem, but paid off. Despite our lack of French & the distillery ladies lack of English, we communicated on a level that mere words cannot. BTW, for anyone touring this place, degustations means tastings. Good word to know.

Unfortunately we did break some social taboos in our attempts. We shocked the lady from the distillery by telling her that Sarah could not try anything cause she was driving (yes I did bring her for a reason), and she insisted it was ok, it would only be a little. So we tried Pineau, an aperitif made from Cognac & grape juice, and it was judged not bad. Then I moved onto the Cognac, & it was judged damned good. Damned good. After a couple of glasses to decide which was best, we left with a few bottles to add to the collection in the boot. But don’t tell any customs agents.

Having sampled the wares at one of the smaller producers, we headed back into town, ditched the car & headed off to the majors. The tour at Otard was very interesting, telling us a great deal about the history of the firm & the castle it was based in. Apparently just after the revolution, castles were going cheap in France, so a Scottish dude decide that this one would do nicely for him & set himself up a cognac house. Economies of course did have to be made, so the chapel was converted into a cellar where cognac could be aged. Our guide did not say if the angels share was higher in this room. And after a nice tour of the castle, was the main event, the tastings. Here they produced a bar full of glasses of their VSOP & said that if you wanted any of the others, just say. We did, and they were good. Good place Otard, much more generous than a number of the other houses. Though Larssons, while they do not do tours & such, were very friendly, and the woman on reception was eager to help.

Suitably stocked up we headed south in search of some history to go with the culture. This we found at Nimes, which has a great roman ampitheatre, which they still use today, or at least they still use part of it. It appears that the health & safety weenies have been at them a bit, because all of the high bits with no barrier fences between them and the hard low bits are not used, but this still lets them sit 7000 people. While you would think that the inside of an ampitheatre would be a simple thing, this was a veritable labyrinth, designed to get 27,000 people who know where their seat is in and out quickly and easily, and tourists who want to wander around looking at it all, hopelessly lost. But once you figure the layout out, it is a damned good ampitheatre to look at if you want to see how they got all of those people in and out. Very trick.

But there is more to France than just food, booze & old stuff. The Med called. I had some diving I wanted to do. Here I was disappointed. The hospitality which had been present so far through the trip ran out. I found myself a dive shop & cruised in & asked about doing some dives the next day. The guy there asked to see my certification & said that “…in France…” as I was had only the open water certification, I could only go on their bunny dive in the afternoon. But first I would need to get a medical certificate. The little details that I am legitimately qualified to dive to 39m, and that a medical certificate is unlikely to show up any fatal problems that the past 150 dives have not did not appear to be relevant. We were in France now, and we would do it the French way, or not at all. Anybody would think they invented the sport. Figuring that getting a French medical certificate for one dive was a bit of a waste of time, we headed off with dark clouds over the car.

These dark clouds were not really dissipated by the next stop, St Tropez. It appears that this playground of the rich and famous, is in real life the shopping mall of middle aged American tourists who are looking to experience the rich and famous lifestyle by proxy. That and there seemed to be a perpetual traffic jam both into and out of town. Mind you, there are worse cars to be stuck in traffic in on a fine & sunny afternoon.

A word of advice though, if you don’t like attention, don’t sail your motor yacht to St Tropez. Here even the act of a medium sized boat backing into the mooring attracted a sizeable crowd. Do these people watch people parallel park their Ferarris? Although, these yachts did provide yet more confirmation that loads of money does not confer good taste. The owner of Golden Cat, not content with having the largest boat in the harbour, had decided that he needed a personalised welcome mat. Very understated. The boat beside him had seen this, and decided that his 50 foot boat was obviously deficient for its lack of a welcome mat, and had rushed out to buy one. Unfortunately it appears that the only store open at the time was the warehouse, and so he returned with probably the cheesiest door (gangplank?) mat ever seen.

The next day in Monaco (yes, life is tough), it was more of the same boats. And a curious detail emerged. Common with St Tropez, none of the boats were registered in France. They were registered in the British Virgin Islands, Isle of Man, Jersey, Luxembourg & Cayman Islands. What do all of these countries have in common? Not a coastline, that is for sure. Still, if you own a boat that big, I am sure you have your reasons for registering your boat in small countries with an excess of accountants.

As might be expected, the average money density in Monaco was significantly higher than the surrounding countryside. Actually significantly understates the point. Sarah thought that she had seen more Ferraris, Bentleys & Lambourghinis in one morning than she had in the rest of her life. Mind you a fair number of them were just doing bogan laps. Still, if you can afford a Lambourghini & don’t have to do any of that inconvenient work stuff, why the hell not drive it around in circles all day. To me the summary of the place was one hotel which had two yellow Ferraris & a Bentley parked outside. In most places in the world, owning a Ferrari is something special. In almost all of the other places, owning a yellow one will ensure that you never just blend into the crowd. In Monaco, something more is required. Perhaps painting it matt black with flames down the side would do it.

So for a change the Benz just blended into the background of ordinary cars. This was quite useful at times though, as Monaco is a maze of one way streets, two way streets which look like one way streets, and inadequate signposting. When attempting to find the way out of town, when faced with an intersection where I didn’t know who had right of way, I decided to take the simple approach of following some locals. Unfortunately this was something of a miscalculation, for the locals I followed were driving motor scooters, which have their own road rules. In the ensuing Jag with local driver v. Benz with dumb tourist driver, the Benz won, without even any horn honking and excitable hand waving. Very restrained this lot. Maybe they should go to Italy for lessons, cause we were about to…

Now as I am sure you have figured out by now, I think the best thing about living in London is it is an easiest place to go on holiday from. And holiday I shall. And I think it is coming time for another little jaunt.

I have been having those nagging feelings that I have been living in London for over a year now, and other than a few weekend trips, and a week in Barcelona, I haven’t really got to the rest of Europe. This should be rectified.

So I had an idea. Buy a car & drive around Europe in Spring.

But as anyone who has done any of those getting stuff done courses knows, there is a step between an idea & doing. It is planning. Important details need to be sorted out. Here, I can fall back on the wealth of experience derived from every other Kiwi & Aussie who has come over here & done the trip around Europe. Key amoung these is the transportation issue. Experience has long shown that purchasing a classic example of 20 year old German engineering is the way to get around

There were of course, two choices.

Option 1:

VW Combi.

Seats, sleeps & contains cooking facilities for as many as liberalities and elbow room allows. Economical and generally reliable. Distant cousin of the bahnstorming 911. Plenty of room for dive gear, clothes, cooking equipment, tents, and any other essential or generally useful items. Often found painted in the kind of colour scheme that turns heads & makes drug dogs whine.

Pros:

Admirably practical mode of transportation

Cons:

It is a combi

Option 2:

Mercedes 380SL

Seating for two, one double amputee and a well behaved hampster. Reliable (at least it bloody well better be). Been known to engage in a little bahnstorming on weekends. Plenty of room for dive gear and a few essential clothes. Turns heads.

Pros:

Not a combi.

Admirable means of travelling.

Cons:

Gas is cheaper on the continent isn’t it?

The insurance – hey how big a risk is a guy who has had his UK licence for 6 months & buys a 3.8 litre convertible?

Tough call huh? I am sure that you are glad that the accountant in me won out. The Mercedes it was (when was the last time you saw an accountant in a combi?). And besides it’s a V8, every boy wants a V8, especially this one.

So now it is just down to minor details of planning a route & sorting out little administrative details. And saving some money after I spent it all on my car. At present these details largely involve a map & a whole lot of pins marking places which would be cool to go to so I can figure out a vague route. At present it goes something like this. Wander vaguely east via Cognac, Geneva, Stuttgart & a variety of places in between to Croatia. Then depending on money, time & inclination head north or west.

The reports on the trip are fairly limited, because I found that electricity in campgrounds is also limited, and this really knocked out my ability to write stories. Sorry.

When Brenda sent me an invitation to her wedding, I knew I had to go. It was to be on the 29th of December, a time when all should be departing the misery of London for warmer climes. So, I put plans of another diving holiday on hold and booked myself some tickets to Canada.

Having done this my thoughts turned to “exactly what do I want to do in Canada”. A thought instantly popped into my head. Snow mobiling. So off on a web search I went, and sent off a couple of emails asking people how they could entertain me & how much it would cost. Shortly after I got an email from Jeff Wilson of Klondike Ventures saying that he could sort me out & take me out camping & go dog sledding, ski joring & ice climbing. Snow mobiling it appeared, could be done, but really shouldn’t be encouraged. Nonetheless, it seemed that Jeff had a pretty cool way to fill in the time before the wedding & would leave only a few days after to be filled, so I was set.

Before I arrived I was a little concerned about the minor detail that I had been told that it got a little cold in Canada in winter, and this was something that I was not really used to, nor particularly prepared for. So I begged & borrowed a few items I figured might be useful, and thought positive thoughts. And Lisa was kind enough to give me a picket thermometer for xmas so I would know just how cold it was. This concern was needless. The temperatures were pretty balmy for most of the time, even reaching -5 a few times during the day. This was quite warm enough when trying to get a team of dogs to do as you wanted.

Of course it did drop to a slightly cooler temperature at night. This was not a problem though, as even when we were sleeping in a tent while dog sledding, these were outfitted with fire places & would therefore remain pretty much above freezing all night. On the night that I decided to forgo the tent & sleep outside under the stars in a sleeping bag, while the air was -22 or so, Pat was a whole pile warmer than nights sleeping in a dive bag in a field of daisies or a slightly windy dock in Weymouth. It seems that preparation is everything in sleeping out. Must remember that. And in answer to your question, it seemed like a good idea at the time. All of the times. And if you haven’t done it, don’t knock it. And you haven’t done it.

The cold weather did have some hazards though. And this is a nasty one. While the ice that is pretty much everywhere is ok with a little luck & standard rubber soled shoes, it becomes a whole new ball game when wearing leather soled dress shoes (I was going to a wedding remember?). This I discovered about two steps after I encountered said ice while wearing said shoes. Though I am not sure if the second step could really be counted as such, it was more of a flailing. Curiously the famous Canadian politeness & friendliness was conspicuously absent on this occasion as Leanne, a friend of Brendas I had met on our previous trip laughed at me. A lot.

Being made aware that leather and ice have a friction co-efficient only dreamed of by oil manufacturers made some difference to the success of walking in such a combination, but it was still somewhat erratic. What was curious though is that the addition of alcohol to the ice and leather combination made the progress a whole pile easier. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something. I would never have thought that there would be so many fruitful applications for that particular trio.

I am sure that a couple of you are thinking “what is ski joring & how dumb did Pat have to be to try that one?” Well the answers are being towed on cross country skis by Huskies & no more than usual. It is, as it sounds, something like water skiing, which I can do, so I reasoned that it could not be that difficult. Except of course that when water skiing you do not have to contend with trees, hills, rocks, steep banks, ice or if you were really lucky, combinations of the above. Unless of course you get it really wrong. These are apparently fairly normal features of cross country skiing, which I was only vaguely aware existed until I got to Canada. This of course resulted in me spending some time lying face down on the ground figuring out how to get my skis under me & pointing in the forward direction. This wasn’t too bad though, as the snow was generally pretty soft & the dogs were happy to treat these as sniff around the tree breaks.

While the ski joring was pretty good, the dog sledding was best. Imagine a team of 5 dogs who know that it is time for walkies tied to the front of a sled. Throw in a the normal features of cross country skiing mentioned above. Stand Pat on the back of the sled. Stand back.

The sled of course can be steered. Mostly by the dogs. Where they run, the sled follows. Partially by divine assistance, and least of all by me twisting the sled to attempt to coax it to steer away from whatever particular hazard the dogs had run around, and the sled was running towards. There did seem to be a knack to it though, and as the time went on I appeared to receive a little more attention from whatever divinity it is that looks over me.

Having mastered the basics, or at least been told the basics, we shot off up hills, down hills, along river valleys, all around places with just us & the dogs. And after the dogs had been running for a bit they even stopped barking. Sweet. The perfect antidote to that sprawling disease called London. And by the end of it, Jeff had managed to convince me that a team of dogs is a more fun way to bugger about in the countryside than a noisy snow mobile. Looking back, I dunno how it happened, but it did.

Ice climbing. This involves tying sharp pointy things to your feet & with the additional aid of two nice sharp axes, climbing up a shear, slippery wall of ice. Jay (my guide) assured me that it was perfectly safe though. Actually, thinking about it, he didn’t, he just had me sign a liability disclaimer. It was great though, and the focus on where is the best place to put your next foot or axe was a pretty good distraction from the little detail that you were getting a reasonable distance above the ground. Mostly. And Jay, possibly as he was being paid to teach me, did not laugh at me when I cocked things up, and even managed to keep most of his winces pretty discrete.

If you want to try it, they are making a pretty impressive ice wall at Shunda Creek hostel, which is a pretty good spot to spend a few days even if you intend to keep your feet on the ground. And thanks for the meal Tamara, it was great.

However good Shunda Creek was, it was here that the cold hit me first and worst. There I was, relaxing in the hot tub on Xmas evening, after a full days ice climbing, and decided that a cigar & drink would top off the day just fine. Alas I found that my Zippo did not want to work. It appears that a mere -15 is cold enough to stop them from working. Shocking isn’t it? But never fear, as resourceful as I am, I managed to hunt down some matches, which performed rather better. But I tell, you life is a struggle at times.

At this point I had better mention the wedding, because 50% of the people who ask me about my trip ask “how was the wedding?” It was good. But I know that is not going to be enough. Brenda (the bride remember), looked fabulous, all went off without any noticeable problems, and a good time was had by all. It was good to catch up with people I had met on the last trip & meet a few more. Thanks for inviting me.

At the wedding, thoughts turned to what I was going to do for the few days between the wedding & me flying out. At this point Leanne showed that she had not gained her “moderately evil” moniker for simply laughing at people wearing slippery shoes. She heard that I had never snow boarded before & would be flying out in a couple of days so said “hey lets go snow boarding in Banff”. I, ever cautious, said “cool, ok”. And off we went.

As I have not been skiing in quite some time, it had never seemed necessary to purchase a ski jacket. And I did not manage to borrow one for the trip, and here I was going boarding. This was solved by the simple application of a number of layers of clothing, and ignoring certain evil people laughing about how cold they thought I would be. However I had a plan. Every time I wiped out my woolen jersey got an extra coating of snow and ice, and in a short amount of time, these formed a nice windproof barrier on the outside of my jersey & thus kept me warm during the fastest runs. Cunning eh?

The Sunshine resort in Banff has a deal where you got a lift pass, board rental & introductory lessons for about the same price as the lift pass & board hire. This seemed like a good idea, so I was off. Unfortunately it was not. The lessons were based on the liability insurance school of teaching. At lunchtime I found that by the end of the day they aimed to have us making turns on the bunny slopes. Probably. This contrasted somewhat with my usual approach to learning such things. I am a firm believer that these balance activities are less hard the faster you go. There is a slight offset, in that the ground becomes harder the faster you go, but I had travel insurance.

Thoroughly bored, and having figured out the basics of turning by heading straight down the bunny slope a couple of times, I was looking for more. At that point Leanne came along and saw that she was not likely to get too many good laughs by watching me on the bunny slopes. So she did the generous thing and offered to show me how it is done on the way down a real hill, all for the small price of having her laugh at me. I am used to people laughing at me as I attempt activities involving grace and coordination, so it seemed a small price to pay.

On the way up the lift Leanne, being the good teacher, shared a few secrets about surviving ski lift accidents. Although these pretty much boiled down to “if things start to go horribly wrong, bail”. Not exactly the most inspiring advice. I also learnt that the ambulances in Canada were not free, and so if I hurt myself horribly & required their services, I would have to pay for them. Needless to say, this concerned me somewhat, especially when Leanne claimed not to know the location of the nearest hospital. Although I suspect that it was more likely that she did know, but figured that hauling me off to hospital would waste the rest of her days boarding. I would have waited Leanne.

Anyway, Leanne shared with me the essentials of snow boarding. Mainly that it is the art of falling down a mountain attached to a plank. The trick though is to make the board do most of the falling, while you stand on top of it. This looks much cooler, and is less painful than the other way around. The other essential of snow boarding is that as you have your feet tied to the board, you can pretty much fall on your bum or your face. I generally ended up on my bum, and by the end of the day, I was somewhat concerned about the prospect of a 7 hour flight home the next day. But it was a damned good day, spoiled only by the prospect that I was going to have to go home & then to work the next day.

But that was Canada, a special thanks to Brenda & Larry for inviting me to their wedding, Jeff & Jill of Klondike Ventures for the great times with their dogs, Jay Banks for taking me ice climbing, Tamara at Shunda Creek for running a great place, Leanne for her boarding lessons & driving me around Yvonne for a place to stay & dropping me to the airport (again) & everyone else for making me feel at home. It is a great place, I will be back (better change your addresses guys!).

Alas all good things must come to an end, it was time to go to work & start getting the next trip sorted.

Before we get too carried away about this little tale, there needs to be a bit of a warning & an explanation. First the warning. Mum, you don’t want to read this, but if you do, it is all lies. Thinking about it, if you are easily bored, you probably don’t want to read it either.

And for the explanation. Why Jersey? People look at me funny when I said I was going to Jersey & said why. Well the reasons are many & simple. It is not London, it is an island & therefore inherently cooler than the UK. Before you get started on the state of my geography, the UK is not an island. You can walk to the UK from Europe (thousands do), it is part of Europe in all but a strict cartographic sense. Also I got some really cheap tickets for the ferry.

The plan was simple, nothing could go wrong. Catch up with some friends at the pub, catch the train, catch the ferry, buy all the duty free booze you carry. We got to the train station with enough time so that there was no hurry, but not too much that we missed too much of that drinking time. Sweet.

Things started to go less well at this point. The dude at the train station had no knowledge of the 10:30 train to Weymouth, & reckoned that the last one went at 8:30. I blamed Tom, for being too stupid to be able to read a train timetable. Rather unfairly, he tried to pass the buck to the train company for changing the timetable without notice, putting incorrect information on the website, or most gallingly of all, me, as he claimed that as I was there when he was checking the times, I should have checked his maths (am I supposed to do everything?)

Anyway, after ascertaining that no train was arriving from anywhere within a time which would allow us to catch our ferry the next morning, we decided that the only option would be to catch the train to the place nearest & figure the rest out from there. This closest station happened to be Poole, a mere 30 miles (or so) from Weymouth.

So we arrived in Poole at 1:30 (yes am) & after spending 1/2 an hour walking around in a nice 1/2 circle, we found signs that pointed to places on the way to Weymouth. So off we went. We got lucky, and after about 1/2 an hour or so of walking we managed to hitch a ride a few miles up the road. Then we started walking again. At this point a number of things were remarked, like how nice we were sure the scenery was here, how narrow these roads were & how poorly designed for pedestrians & NOT how lucky we were that it was not raining. Ill prepared we may have been but stupid we were not.

We did start to remark that distances were somewhat further when they were in imperial measurements, and mooted that they should change all of the signs to kilometers so we didn’t have so far to walk.

But someone was smiling on us. Some dude who muttered a lot decided that he should pick up 2 people who were hitching at 4am in the middle of nowhere. Community care of people who should be in mental institutions has some benefits I guess. But after a while of uh huhing to his muttering, we finally reached Weymouth & he dropped us off.

So we wandered to the ferry terminal & had a little nap.

Arriving in Jersey (after another little nap) we did the usual – wandered around the shops, had a look at some of the stuff in town & then decided “lets rent a car”. So we rented the cheapest car we could find at the first cheap & dodgy rental place we came to. It was an 850cc clone of a car with a name I had never heard of, and previously would not have beleived would sell in the western world. But enough dissing the car. I got to drive it cause the rental agreement said only I could (bad luck Tom). Tom got to hang on. For a poxy little car it had pretty good acceleration & revved nice and freely (must have been cause it was red). And only started to smell like it was on fire occasionally & only then after the more fun bits.

But this allowed us to wander all around the island, take in the sights (although for some reason Tom wasn’t that interested in them & kept putting his hand over his eyes). We found nice mostly deserted beaches, lots of cool castles, a vineyard with a distillery (it was calling to me). All and all a nice cruise around the island on a sunny day. And then it was time to head back to Weymouth, where after arriving at 1:30 we checked into our seaside accomodation. This being a budget trip, was one of the more out of sight docks that adorn the town. I slept fine, but Tom complained more. Hey Tom, next time bring a sleeping bag. At about 6 Tom decided that as he was cold awake and bored, the only reasonable action to take was to wake up the warm, asleep and (previously) happy Pat. Last time you get invited anywhere Tom.

Then it was time to catch that train & head off home.

So, to ensure you don’t fall into the same traps as I did, the lessons learnt from the weekend are:

30 miles is a long way when you are walking.

Jersey is a nice place to go to

Red cars do go faster

You can hitch a ride at 4am, it just takes a while

Tom can’t read train timetables.

Duty free on a 3 hour ferry trip is a great concept.

If any of you care, Tom insisted that he get an opportunity to put his lessons learnt for the weekend. Get your own website dude. But anyway, here they are:

If Pat thinks something is a good idea it isn’t.

Dunno what he means by that, but it kept him happy.

Barcelona is a pretty cool city. Warm, sunny, friendly people who are not trying to sell you perfume, great architecture, what more could you want? Other than a few less English tourists, but you can’t have everything.

Well what I would have liked would have been a stomach which had not decided to go on strike. This was either the result of something I ate in Egypt, or on the Iberia flight from there. Given the timing, it was more likely the latter. An airline that is nasty enough to not let you listen to your walkman is capable of anything.

This was a bit of a bugger and meant that it took that bit longer to go and visit things, and they couldn’t be too far from a toilet.

But Barcelona was a good place to be feeling poorly, and I was still able to do most of the usual things, looking at the buildings designed by a dude who couldn’t draw straight lines, that sort of thing. But despite his obvious lack of basic drafting tools like rulers, this Gaudi guy was pretty switched on. Designing a bench made out of bits of ceramic tile that as well as looking cool is actually comfortable to sit on is pretty impressive.

Of course, like everyone else, I went to see the worlds most visited construction site, and I have to say that it is pretty impressive. What is more impressive is the fact that while they have been working on it for over 100 years, they still have another 30 or so to go. And they haven’t built the big towers yet.

One minor drawback to Barcelona was the timing. When I was there, it was coming up to St Georges Day. It appears that St George is the patron saint of everywhere in Europe which hates dragons. But I also learnt that the story taught to us on our side of the world is not strictly the whole story. Before slaying the dragon from his mighty steed, he deafened it and herded it into favourable ground by throwing around more explosives than was used to dig the Suez canal. The Spaniads, as this is such an important event to them, faithfully re-enact the event in its entirety. Except for the dragon and the might steed bit, because they are hard to come by. But to make up for it they use more fireworks.

At this point I feel I should be writing some kind of summary of inspiring thought at the end, but there is not really a lot to say, other than it was time to go home & get a job (which took slightly under 24 hours) and get some money back into that bank account.

The trip has come to an end

After the disappointment in Bahrain, I decided that it would be a good idea to rock down to Alex pronto to make sure that I wasn’t stuck again.

The weather gods obviously were feeling that they had been a bit harsh, and I was able to go diving in Alex without any weather delays. Alex has been around for a while, and because of that, and the assistance of the geology gods, has a few interesting things under the sea.

Around 1000 AD, the locals were getting a bit worried that they were going to get to host a home game of the crusades. So to make things that little bit more difficult for the away team, they decided to get a whole lot of those columns and things that were lying about and drop them in all of the little beaches where it would be easiest to land a boat full of crusaders.

Things were pretty quiet for about 400 years. Then it was noisy. Probably very noisy, and peoples worlds were rocked. Literally. In more than one way. There was a bit of an earthquake. This made the lighthouse, all 100m of it, fall down. It also dropped the level of the land in the area drop by 6 or so meters. This meant that as well as all of the columns and such scattered around to greet the crusaders, a reasonable portion of the city, including the ruins of the queens palace, was now under the sea.

Some people have said that there are easier ways of going to look at ruins than strapping 25kg of kit, including a tin can filled with 3000psi of air to your back. But these reports are often unreliable, and besides, I had the kit with me, and had not had a dive in over a week, so down I went. And besides, I have never seen real ruins before, so it isn’t the sort of thing you want to miss.

Now you are going to be wondering what they were like. I am not sure. They were pretty cool. These old people were big on columns. Very big. Those big pink granite blocks down there came from Aswan (way south), and then from way up there when it was part of the lighthouse. Those cobbles were part of the queens courtyard, and that was the queens wharf. There was some seriously old stuff down there.

But despite being very old and cool, they were, well, kindof ruined. They just weren’t what they used to be. With a sense of romance and imagination you could imagine what it must have been like here in the heyday of the city. But romance and imagination rarely inflict themselves upon me.

But there were some pretty cool points. In the middle of Alex harbour there is a WW2 aircraft. It crash landed right on the courtyard and ended up a bit over a meter from the base of a column. In other places, the plane would be the dive, but in Alex they don’t even know what sort it is. It was also pretty ironic that lots of the artefacts that we were looking at were simply rubbish. And of course besides the 2000 year old rubbish there was early 21st century rubbish. Though I think in another 1000 years the amphoras will still look cooler than the coke bottles.

Other things about the dive were less thought provoking. There was a very distinct layer of very murky water on the surface. At 6m the visibility was pretty good, but at 3, you couldn’t see your hand if you stretched your arm out. Now the nice easy explanation for this is that it is simply the silt laden waters of the Nile, before they have been able to mix with the salt water of the Med. I did not confirm that this was the case, as I find that sometimes optimism works best if it is not made to compete with cynicism and questions about such matters as sewerage treatment facilities in developing nations.

So after diving in Alex, it was back to Cairo where such famous attractions as Cairo taxi drivers, perfume sellers, the pyramids, camels, the Egyptian museum and papyrus merchants awaited. As well as a few less famous ones.

I was fast learning that in Egypt your scam sensors need to be operating at least 150%. These people have had 2000 years of experience with fleecing tourists. Unfortunately all of the best comeones start with people being friendly. Though some of locals are refreshingly bad. Just when I had decided that other than “Taxi, want a taxi?”, “hey, nice shirt (it was one of my white(ish) t shirts)” was the worst comeone line I had heard, along came one which made them look good. “You walk like an Egyptian”.

Most of them were pretty good though. While attempting to cross the street, I suddenly found myself inside a perfume shop, drinking coffee with a man who had married a Kiwi, and used to live in London, and had a shop in Auckland. It seems that this is the standard career path for an Egyptian perfume seller, as they all had a similar story. And after it became apparent that you really were not the perfume buying type, it was lucky that they had a brother/cousin/uncle who owned a papyrus shop that you just had to visit. Beam me up Scottie, I am in trouble down here.

But they were pretty friendly though. One guy was kind enough to stop me getting on a big flash new airconditioned bus, which stopped quite a way from the pyramids, to take me on a great journey including one local bus, two microbuses (like minivans, but with less doors and more people) which was cheaper, more fun, and lead directly to the pyramids. Or at least directly to his brother/cousin/uncles camel stable, where I was able to rent a camel for my trip around the pyramids. Wasn’t that nice of him?

For those of you who were wondering, yes, the pyramids do look as big in real life as in the pictures, but no the sphinx doesn’t. And for something that big, the pyramids really shouldn’t be able to jump out like they do. One minute you will be minding your own business, the next minute, there will be some big triangles in the way. And personally the navigation beacons for alien spaceships ideas sound a whole lot more reasonable than those screwy tomb theories. I mean who is going to go to all of the effort make 2.5 million big blocks of stone, then pile them up, just to be buried below a triangle? It just isn’t credible. And despite being one of the biggest cliches around, viewing said triangles from the collection of random movements on legs known as a camel sure beats walking.

But thankfully, not all of the people you meet in Egypt want to sell you things. While I was trying to decipher the Metro map, I met a nice young man who wanted to marry a western woman, and decided that I could help him. Why, he decided I could help him I am not sure. But he also decided that the best way to ensure that I helped him was to impress upon me the advantages of Egyptian men in general, and him in particular, in matters of the bed. In some detail. On the tube. Alas I wasn’t able to help him as we married my youngest sister off last month, but if any of you girls are interested, I am sure I have his email address around here somewhere.

No visit to Cairo would be complete without a taxi driver story. Mine is as follows. I grab a cab to go to the airport. I manage to beat off the person who attempts to negotiate a higher fare for the driver and claim his cut. We then set off. After a short distance he asks if I smoke, or if I mind him smoking. I reply no to both, having spent too much time around Jen to object to the latter, but not enough to say less to the former. He pulls out a cigarette, which remains unlit. This confuses me a little, but what do I care? A little while later we get onto the freeway and are driving along when he starts talking to the person in the bus beside him. I am reminded of the scene in Speed, where they are trying to warn the bus not to drop below 50. The reason for the conversation soon becomes clear. At the next intersection the taxi driver next to us, after a similar exchange (albeit one which takes place while stationary), produces a box of matches, which are then passed back and forwards allowing my driver to finally get his smoke.

Egypt did however leave me with one unanswered question, which if solved, would give great happiness to the world. Why is it that the odds of remembering that the blue colour on the tap does not mean that it is cold is inversely related to your need for a hot shower?

That, and what is it about Iberia planes which makes them the only airline I have ever flown on where they don’t let you play your discman. Not a good introduction to Spanish hospitality…