After a little too long of sitting around cursing the state of the UK rail system at the present. I decided that action should be taken. A weekend away was required. Volunteers were obtained from far & wide. Namely Fluffy & Rachel in Frankfurt & Paul & Lisa from London. Long and laborious research was undertaken to decide where we should go. Rachel said “lets go to Paris ” and so we were convinced.

A lesson had been learnt from our trip to Frankfurt. Flying on the cheapest airline in London from the airport furthest away was that you often pay for the cheapest means of travel. So we decided to go by train. And besides the chunnel sounded pretty cool. Tickets were booked.

In an effort to ensure that we got a reasonable amount of time in Paris we went for an early train. Now the problem with these early trains is that they leave very early in the morning. And that means that to catch them you have to get up even earlier in the morning. Or even just not bother to go to sleep in the first place. Because we were going to be leaving so early in the morning we decided that the most responsible idea would be to meet at Pauls place the night before. Alas Pauls place is a pub so the combination of lack of sleep and a couple of quiets ensured that details of the journey to Paris remain slightly hazy. Although it was dark, so there would not have been much to look at anyway.

Slightly more refreshed than when we departed we arrived, after managing to negotiate the Paris Metro system, we arrived at the Eiffel Tower. Here we had arranged to meet Fluffy and Rachel. And we did. So here we were, standing at the base of the icon of one of the most famous cities in the world, capital to culture and the arts. What were we to do? The obvious. Lunch.

After some discussion we identified a location that looked promising for the provision of cheap provisions. Leaving the Metro station. I must say there were a few dissenters who felt that I was on the wrong track heading into the rabbit warren of back streets. They soon saw the error of their ways. We came across a small cheap restaurant & piled in, and immediately emptied the proffered water and asked for more. But none of the legendary Parisian rudeness here. The waiter/cook was great, even overcoming such obstacles as having but one frying pan & having only one of the diners at the table speak more than a few words of French. So over a good long lunch we caught up and generally had a good time. Paris was beginning to grow on me

After lunch it was decided that the Louvre must be done. I was a little suspicious. Why a museum named after a particularly dodgy automobile accessory should be such a magnet was a little beyond me. However the alternative, shopping with Lisa (she had been there before & had xmas shopping to do) was simply too frightening. So off we wandered

Paul’s guidebook gave the advice that you should grab a map, for without one you would become hopelessly lost. We had several, in both English and German and between us enough degrees and other generic qualifications to outfit a scrabble board, but still we became horribly lost. At one point Paul decided that the only way out was to lay a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back and had gone some way before he turned around and saw that the trail extended no further back than Fluffy and myself. Without a map I am sure that we would never make it out alive, and at times I was not sure about making it out with one. The only rational explanation is that he Louvre has some little known extension of L space that results in the 3rd floor merging with the first without the assistance of the second, often in a direction which is in stark contrast to that implied by the two dimensional representation of the map

The failings of cartesian geography were the least of our worries in attempting to reach our destination. We had to face numerous trials. Being sidetracked by Mattias investigating rayguns beside the exhibits (who is to argue with a physicist about whether the mysterious machines were simply hygrometers or in fact death rays). Having to wait while Rachel attempted to decipher the cuniform script on the clay tablets (alas, she had learnt another variety). Trying to restrain ourselves while Paul claimed that he actually knew something about some of the paintings. And of course looking for Pat who had got generally distracted and wandered off somewhere else.

Despite the trials, we eventually to make it to the room to see the Mona Lisa, made the usual jokes about the cause of that smile, and remarked that she was a lot smaller than expected. This is not helped by being put in a room directly after paintings which would be better described as murals, and would have been a cast iron prick to hang straight. So then we wandered off to the Venus de Milo, where we learnt that there is substantial academic debate over exactly what she was doing with her arms. This was news to me, as I had always thought that she had originally been holding a mug, hence the Milo tag, but this it appears is not a favoured alternative. In contrast to Mona babe, Venus is quite large, and has disproportionately large feet.

Eventually we made it out, and while waiting for Lisa to finish her shopping, noticed what must be the highlight of the Louvre. A sight so stunning that I was spellbound, and will carry the picture in my mind to the grave. The handicapped lift. A stainless steel pillar silently rising from the floor in the centre of a spiral staircase. With a whooshing sound and a few flashing lights (discrete and tasteful flashing lights of course ), it could be imagined on the deck of the Enterprise. So after checking that there were no disabled people around waiting to be elevated to the exit, I wandered up to the lift displaying all of the universal signs ofa small child wanting to play on a particularly cool toy. I was greeted by the lift attendant with the universal language of being told to bugger off. It appears that the Louvre exists for higher reasons than for the enjoyment of tourists. Next time I go on crutches.

After being told to bugger off & not sit on the floor while waiting for Lisa, we decided to sit in a cafe close by. Fluffy and Rachel, who have not had their baseline of what is a reasonable price for items such as coffee shifted by living in London, balked at the prices. Paul & I, having been numbed, were about to order, when Rachel told us that the waiter had said that because they were not ordering, they had been told to bugger off. Parisians it seems are best when you are where the tourists are not.

Having had enough walking for the day we wandered off to where we had managed to score some accommodation, sleeping on the floor of a friend of Mattias’s. After having a bite to eat, we did what must be done while in Paris.

We sat in a cafe, drank coffee, philosophised, and plotted revolution. Being a group with rather wide ranging political views, we focused more on the gratifying details of who would be first against the wall (my nomination was the lift attendant at the Louvre), rather than the pesky details of political ideals.

The next day we decided that we really should go up the Eiffel Tower. I am not quite sure how this got decided, but it happened. Rather than waiting in the huge queues for the lifts, we took the stairs.

For the rest of my family and others who believe that f people had been meant to go to high places they would have been given wings, I can offer one bit of advice. If you are ever in Paris, and are tempted to go up the Eiffel Tower, don’t. I am beginning to suspect that the shrink who mentioned the whole aversion therapy thing to me was a quack (nothing personal Brenda).

One of the interesting features of the Eiffel Tower (other than the fact that they were only able to build it when they promised to tear it down in a year), is that it is a latticework construction. This means that it is very light for its height.. It also means that there are big gaps everywhere to make it quite plain just how high you are. And you are high. I suspect that it was actually designed as it was to scare the living bejesus out of anyone who was fool enough to climb those stairs. Of course this was not helped by the fact that it was a windy day, and latticework provides no protection from the buffeting of the wind. Some say that the view is spectacular, but I feel that similar results could have been achieved from a lower altitude.

After making it back down, there was only one thing to be done. Lunch. So off we headed again. Again another fine lunch, and I feel that it is my duty to report that snails are tastier than their garden variety leads people to imagine, but even less substantial.

Alas, after lunch our time in Paris was soon coming to an end, only time to wander through a very disappointing market, and trawl numerous shops on the hunt for the mighty prize of cheap booze and cigarettes.

The trip back on the train was interesting. To board in London you had to go through the whole metal detector security type thing. To board in France you got on the train. To arrive in France you walked off the train. To arrive in London there was the whole passport thing (and Paul & Lisa having to wait for those of us in the second class citizen, non-European passport queue). What this says about the two countries I am not sure. And I was awake for the Chunnel this time, and it was quite impressive. Long, dark and deep enough to make your ears go pop.

Being an accountant, you become accustomed to some things. Like not working over Xmas & New Years. Thus it came as something of a shock to find that not only was the 2nd of January not a public holiday in this country , but I was expected to be at work then. And functional. Or at least as much as I usually am. What sort of a fool would choose 31 December for a year end?

The xmas period was not looking good. It soon became clear that it was going to be somewhat impractical to be at my usual New Years haunt in Masterton. A cold and miserable holiday period looked to be on the cards. This was not right. So thought long and hard about where I could go instead. The criteria, as you could imagine, were tough. It must be hot and sunny. I toyed with the idea of a bloody cold holiday in Canada, but the second criteria of being close to London kindof ruled that one out. Hot and sunny suggested to me diving, a pastime which is not very common in the UK in winter & I had therefore not been able to do since I had arrived.

So again the arduous task of researching potential trips began. To the net with the keywords of liveaboard (what better way to spend a summer holiday than on a boat) and scuba. Eventually one name popped up Explorer Tours on Royal Diving 1 (might as well give them a bit of a plug), because they had a trip in the Red Sea going when I could. Specifically it was based out of Sharm el Sheik, at the very tip of the Sinai in Egypt. So I booked it pronto.

Of course the flight could not leave from Heathrow, a mere 4 tube stops away from where I live & work, but from Gatwick. More convenient than Stanstead, but that is not saying much. So another early morning ordeal to get to the airport began. The sacrifices I make astound even me.

When I booked the trip I pretty much figured out what it was going to be. It was going to be a full on stressful time. After waking up, I was going to have to eat some to get those energy levels up, then I was going to have to dive some, and then perform the highly arduous (and essential task) of off gassing, before repeating. Now before you all start making the obvious jokes about off gassing, this is not just aimlessly sitting around talking. That is for cafes. This is serious business.

When diving, nitrogen becomes dissolved in your blood, and if you get too much then it starts to do Coke can impressions, which is bad. So after a dive, it is a matter of safety that you wait for long enough before going diving again. Extensive field tests and clinical research have identified that the optimum conditions for off gassing are generally achieved while sitting in the sun on the top deck of the boat (slightly higher altitude you see) in the sun (warm Coke fizzes less you see).

So while to the amateur, it appears that there is a lot of lazing around being done, it is in fact a critically important safety precaution.

However my initial assessment was mistaken. There was more. We would generally wake up (or be woken) by the dive guide for a briefing pretty early in the morning. We would then go for a dive for an hour. When we got back our beds were made, and breakfast would be almost ready.

We all ate like very hungry people & mentally prepared for the task of off gassing. Through the day the pattern would repeat. Briefing, dive, food ready when everyone had got themselves dried and such. Tough huh. The food was a little disappointing in that we didn’t have turkey on xmas day & I am a traditional sort of a guy when it comes to that. But that is being just a little picky, cause it was all great (Sarah, you should take lessons from the chef, he even managed to do good things with lentils & I ate them), and 3 course dinners every day on a boat are fairly impressive.

And most importantly no-one ever complained of going away hungry. Even me.

So far I haven’t mentioned the diving. Which is kindof odd for a diving holiday is it not? Well it was good. Very good. There were 11 divers on the boat, mostly Brits, but also the ubiquitous Aussie, and the Welsh dive guide Richard.

The first day was not too special. But this was the day which was planned for easy dives so that everyone could get themselves sorted out & Richard could get an idea of how everyone was. So that was cool, and it beat being stuck in London. And we did do a nice little night dive, which was pretty cool.

The next day the dives started getting better. First dive of the day was the Dunraven. Some night in the 1800s, the captain of the Dunraven found out that his best mate was doing his wife, so got pissed and while doing so drove his boat onto the reef. It is now sitting upside down on the bottom & makes a nice ship to swim through, having a look at the boiler, managing not to put your hand on the stonefish which was lying around trying to look inconspicuous (and succeeding). Not a bad wake up before breakfast.

Then we dove the Sarah H. One day in 1973, apparently unassisted by best mates and wives drove his ship straight onto the reef. This made a nice home for lots of fishes before heading along the coral wall for a change of scenery. We saw all the usual stuff: one fish, 2 fish, red fish, blue fish. Big fish, small fish, lots of fish at once, fish by themselves, big fish eating small fish, small fish eating smaller fish. Also some less usual stuff, like a turtle, moray eels. Right at the end of this dive a pod of dolphins came cruising by and swam with us. It is amazing how they can all manage to swim perfectly in sync, and almost came close enough to touch. After a little while they got bored with swimming with us slow & clumsy ones & buggered off. We all piled onto the rib at the end of the dive with smiles allover our face, and Richard didn’t seem too concerned that his rule of a max time of 60 minutes being extended a little.

After a great dive we motored over to the Thistlegorm. On 6 October 1941 the Thistlegorm was sitting with its cargo of ammunition (in hold 4 ), bren gun carriers, gumboots, bedford trucks, rifles, BSA motorbikes ( on the back of the trucks), Spitfire wings, and trains awaiting orders & trying to look as inconspicuous as a 9000 ton freighter can. To the regret of the crew and the present delight of the Egyptian government & a lot of divers, it was not inconspicuous enough and was noticed by a German bomber, and hit in hold 4 (and we remember what was in that one don’t we?) So it sank. Very quickly.

On the plane on the way here there was an article on the Thistlegorm saying that despite having far too many divers crawling over it, it was still one of the best wrecks in the world. And here we were, directly above it, the only boat around. Timeto go down for a night dive. To be wandering through the wreck and realise that because that round thing the size of a plate is one of those bumper things on a train, that means the big thing in the dark behind it is a train is something where you had to be there, but you weren’t, so you are not going to know. Sorry.

The next morning Richard dragged us all out of bed at a time which I don’t usually see when I am working, let alone on holiday. But this let us have our first daytime dive of the Thistlegorm alone again, before all of the day boats had arrived. While we were sitting on the top deck, waiting to go down again, we saw 10 other boats come in, all try to moor in a very small area, drop their divers, and generally crawl all over the thing. Somehow our 6:30 start seemed worthwhile, especially when Richard told us that the people on the boats arriving now had to leave at 4.

After all of the other divers came back up and were doing their offgas thing, we went back down for another trip, this time actually though the holds where all of the stuff was. No need to say just how cool this was.

After we came up all of the other divers went down again for their last dive before having to leave. After they had all cleared off we wandered down again. Four dives on the Thistlegorm without any other divers about. Seems that there was a bit of smart planning going on there, thanks Richard.

The days did start to haze a little after this, with lots of fantastic dives, and a few that were just there for the entertainment value of others. A couple of little pointers. Never expect to actually reach the outside reef of the lagoon at night when you are diving with people who are easily distracted and don’t have a compass. All that actually happens is you swim in one big circle seeing a whole lot of interesting little things, while everyone on board laughs at your attempts to swim in a straight line (they can see your torchlight). Lion fish (nice looking fish covered in lots of poisonous spines) will follow people with torches ( especially people with a torch which could have doubled as a searchlight during the blitz) for ages, and it gets very annoying to have a troupe of 6 of the bloody things following you for a whole dive. The most disappointing thing is that there were very few sharks. The only one I saw was a leopard shark, and it hardly counts because was asleep, and is a non big teeth variety of shark anyway. Not sure what it is about neoprene that makes people swim towards sharks rather than away, but there must be something in it. Also, trusting a grinning Egyptian crew member is not a good idea, but will result in some form of hilarity, probably at your expense.

It must also be said that getting back to a boat which is moored in the harbour at 3am after an evening sampling the local hospitality is more difficult than getting off it in the evening. We did manage to achieve this without any losses, although details on how this was achieved are still sketchy, and are likely to remain so.

On the last day we couldn’t dive, as we had to fly in the evening. On the advice of our local, we determined that the best way to soak up the cultural experience that was Egypt was by buggering off out of the bloody great resort that is Sharm, obviously not an option, so we hung around the pool all day. More good advice from Richard Mitchell, dive guide extraordinaire.

The worst part of the trip was the fact that the flight back was on New Years eve, even if we did have the midnight thing twice, once over Luxembourg at 2300 GMT , and once as we were about to land at 2400 GMT .But a cheapo airline is not the best place to spend New Years eve. And when we finally got out of the airport at lam, all of the trains & tubes had stopped. But thanks to Alex, I managed to make it home without having to resort to an £80 taxi ride.

Walking to work on Tuesday I was so laid back I was almost vertical. This lasted about 4 hours, but by then I was working on planning the next little excursion.

10 August

Today I felt that I should take some time out from my hard routine to catch up with you all. So after getting up at the crack of noon, I ran to the nearest net cafe & wrote emails. To rest up from this I sat in the sun in Central Park & read my book, wrote a few postcards, that sort of stuff. That and confirmed just how small the world is. I was chatting to a couple of Aussies at the hostel who knew a couple of friends of mine from varsity who were now working in London. Gotta go a long way to get away from that type of stuff these days.

11 August

For a change, I will spare you with the details of today, except to say that it consisted of a lot of wandering around and looking at various stuff, which was interesting to me, but the details won’t be to you. That and I went out again & discovered why so many people in New York do cocaine. The reason is twofold. One is that they can’t afford beers, and the second is that people do drugs trials where they pay you a couple of thousand for you to take cocaine for a month & submit yourself to a few blood tests and such. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my plane tickets extended so had to go to London and get a job as an accountant rather than a coke head. Bummer huh?

12 August

Alas today was my last day in the Big Apple. Woe is me. So after packing up I went to Coney Island with a couple of the other people from the hostel. There we a few of the least motivated freakshow acts in the world. The dwarf was good enough to take time out from bleaching his hair to mumble something at us while tying a balloon in an unrecognisable shape. After dragging ourselves away from this we went and had a bit of a look at the Atlantic (a lot like the Pacific actually & very calm as well), and of course went on the ferris wheel. Do many people start wondering what the design life of ferris wheels was at the turn of the century after they have got on the thing, or is it just me?

So then there was a bit of a rush to JFK, because NY public transport never runs on time, and I got off at the station before the one I should have and staggered around lost for a while. Bummer that. But once the bus driver actually got moving, he seemed to sense the urgency, and got a move on. That or he was practising for a role in Speed, unaware that in the next sequel, the bomb is in a passengers bag, which will go off if it gets lost. But it is an odd feeling to be in a bus that is doing the slalom track down the motorway, running the odd red light, and generally acting like it is a much smaller vehicle in a bigger hurry. But we made it there, and I even got off at the right terminal.

13 August

I arrived in London and was given the regulatory grilling by the immigration agent. It appears that merely having the requisite visa is not enough to get into the country , you should also meet a few conditions that they make up on the spot. Luckily, being an accountant, with sufficient money to last for a while and having a couple of interviews already arranged with recruitment agents seemed to knock out most of the reasons the immigration agent could have for not letting me in the country. It seems they have this dread fear of Kiwis & Aussies coming here and bludging off the dole. This might be justified if we could actually get it & London were not so much of a dump of a place to be with no money. Oh well, it is their country I guess.

But, in an absolutely amazing display of kindness, I was actually met at the airport by Lisa (Sarah’s sister). Remember that I arrived at about 9am. Again people are being amazingly nice to me. Dunno why.

Lisa dropped me to Pauls place, who had been good enough to offer me his floor to sleep on for a while. Paul just happens to be living & working in a pub at the moment, so I was forced to spend the day experiencing a typical British Sunday by sitting in the pub gossiping. I could sense that this living for free in a pub was going to get a bit expensive.

8-9 August New York – yet more museums and galleries

8 August

A couple more museums today, the least impressive of which was the Gutenberg. It is a pity that they don’t pay as much attention to how they display their Monet’s as they do to the design of the building. A fantastic building with lots of paintings stuck to the wall is about the best you can say about it.

Later I found myself walking past Bloomingdales & felt that I should wander in. Shortly after entering I got the feeling that I could not afford anything in the store. But it does appear that torn jeans are back in fashion. For USD80 a pair you too could have some. Now instead of looking like a bum with no money & old jeans it seems I could be mistaken for someone who feels it is important to keep at the cutting edge of fashion no matter how stupid and overpriced it is. Oh well, I am sure they will go back out of fashion again. They probably are already.

It seems though that the designers of this store took their inspiration from ancient labyrinths. Once getting in I wandered for ages trying to find a way out, only succeeding in making my way deeper into the depths of the store, where all but the most determined shoppers fear to tread. I am sure I saw a sign saying “Abandon cash all ye who enter here”. But it may just have been a halucination brought about by the panic of knowing I may never leave alive. Eventually I did make it out though, but only by being sucked into the grasp of the jewellery department, which had some very nice pieces, and the attendant was very nice. She seemed very disappointed when I turned down her offer to look at some of the jewellery , and seemed even disbelieving when I said that I doubted there was anything I could afford. Which when based on the ones with prices, was, I thought, a safe bet. But then again maybe they didn’t show the prices on the other stuff because they were embarrassingly cheap.

So eventually finding my way out onto the safety of the New York streets with wallet still intact I wandered downtown some more. I eventually found myself in Soho, where the urban decay look is very fashionable, and you find expensive fashion stores around the comer from a real dive. They really do have some interesting stores. I went into one, which was set up like a swanky apartment, with flash stereo, nice looking kitchen, odd bathroom, all of that sort of thing. About the only thing it didn’t have is anything that was obviously for sale.

Still confused by this and wondering about the meaning of shops that didn’t sell anything, I sat in a cafe for awhile & drank some coffee while watching some models do a photo shoot outside. Those smiles, it is amazing what they can do surgically these days.

9 August

I got up a bit late today, not feeling that well, I must have eaten something a bit dodgy the night before. I couldn’t think of any other explanation for it. So after finding something stave off the dehydration I walked down to the Museum of Natural History. A little pointer here. This is a very large, very impressive museum, one which you could easily spend all day looking at happily. But when you are not feeling on top form, it is just a bit less appealing.

But the most amazing thing I saw in New York I saw tonight. I went out with some German guys from the hostel. The guy who was over 21 forgot to bring ID, and the other 2 had ID, but it said that they were 18, because they were. Said Gennans actually tried to convince the bouncer that you had to be 21 to get a credit card in Germany, therefore the fact that they had them meant that they were 21. The amazing thing was not that this attempt did not result in grievous harm coming their way, though it didn’t. The amazing thing was that it worked. The bouncer probably let them in so they would stop arguing with him & hassle someone else. Maybe the Poles felt the same.

6-7 August New York – those buildings really are tall

6 August

As my backpackers was under a block from Central Park, I decided to go downtown by the scenic route through the park. It was a very nice walk, watching all of the diligent locals running, jogging, biking and roller blading through the park on a sunny Sunday morning. It is a pity there were no coffee stands, I could have sat and watched them for hours.

Most interesting was the horses though. There were several people riding their horses through the park. In a city where it costs hundreds of dollars a week to get a car park, I would have thought that keeping a horse would be impossible. But neigh, people do.

5th Avenue of course looks very impressive, even on a Sunday, when most of the shops, are shut. New York in general was impressive. I could have snapped off a roll of film just taking photos of the buildings, which for me is a lot. I even would have if my camera was not broken.

Of course when wandering down 5th Ave, you just have to pop in to the Metropolitan Museum of Modem Art, so I did. It was pretty good, a lot of design exhibits, which was interesting more appealing than just pictures. But they did have some great Dali’s, some ok Van Gogh’s & of course a pile of Andy Warhol stuff, some of which even looked ok.

7 August

Another day of wandering around looking at the sights (isn’t that a surprise?). One of the more impressive sights was the USS Intrepid. This was an ex WW2 aircraft carrier, which upon reaching the end of its useful life was parked up in NY & turned into an aircraft museum. Because this was such an old ship it was a lot smaller than the modern ones. But it was big, The main hanger floor inside the ship was just huge. As wen as a lot of interesting planes, including a version of the mach 3 Blackbird spyplane, which had a pretty interesting blurb about them. They were designed & built in secret for the CIA. -Several years later the airforce found out that they existed complained that they didn’t have toys that much fun & several years after that, even managed to get their bands on some.

Inside the hanger there was a number of informative displays on how the US navy, and in particular the Intrepid won WW2 against the Japanese. Apparently there were a few conflicts in other areas, but these were not too major. But considering how the Americans often do the glory of their fallen soldiers thing it was not too bad. Just across the wharf was one of the original nuclear missile submarines, and that was small. We toured through that and you came out wondering how they managed to fit that many people in such a small space for so long.

After looking at all of the 40s & 50s stuff designed to knock things down, I wandered back into town to have a look at the some of the things they were trying to stop other people from getting a chance to try to knock down. And the best of these was the Chrysler building. Thegroovyest building in a city full ofgroovy buildings. Unfortunately, other than the lobby , which was fantastic even down to the level of having great looking mailboxes, you couldn’t go in. The Empire State may be taller (but only just), but it has nothing on the Chrysler. Pity their cars aren’t as good. Mind you in the 30s they looked better than they do now.

So, not having enough of the big buildings I wandered south to the World Trade Centre, which is simply a pair of very tall shoe boxes laid on their ends. But getting in is no easy matter. Sure you can just walk in to the shopping mall below it, but to actually go up a lift you need to go through security. Togo to the top this included full airport grade metal detector treatment. I am not 100% sure what the point of this was because based on past evidence terrorists can just park their van in the carpark below, and unlike a plane, you cannot demand to be flown to Libya from inside a building. Especially one 108 floors high. But then again it may have been to stop people getting pissed off in the huge queues for the lift & clearing a passage with their Uzi (which they carry solely for personal defence of course.) But eventually 1 made it to the lifts and the lifts made it to the 107th floor and stopped in the normal manner, unlike what happened a couple of days later when they were stopped by the roof. Better than being stopped by the basement I guess.

Once at the l07th floor you can stand right at the edge and look straight down. It is a long way. But then you have to go up onto the roof. This was somewhat freaky .It was pretty windy up there, enough to make the building sway quite noticeably. A lot of the other people didn’t seem to notice this, leading me to conclude that my sense of swaying buildings is more heightened than most. Probably one of my many highly attuned survival instincts.

But the swaying building was not the oddest thing. The roof of the building was not flat. We were on a central area, then there was a drop of several metres and a high fence, which was in turn set in from the edge of the building itself. This fence was odd. It was topped with razor wire, which was in turn electrified. I did not see machinegun towers, but I guess that you are not allowed them in downtown New York. Or at least not in the areas the tourists go to. But my question is this.

Why? What are the odds of someone breaking into the building by climbing unnoticed up 108 floors of sheer glass? I doubt that anyone who is determined enough to achieve that is going to be put off too much by a fence at the top. Especially when the alternative is climbing back down again.

After getting down onto solid ground, I did as any accountant would do, and popped over to Wall Street. Unfortunately the market was -closed, but I think it is like sausages. If you like the finished product it really is best not to see how it is made. It was an interesting street. Very much a concrete canyon, tall buildings lining both sides of a very narrow road all the down. With one exception. On the corner right opposite the exchange is the JP Morgan building. When the land was bought, it was the most expensive land in the US and probably still is. Therefore to get any sort of efficiency you you would want to build the tallest building you possibly can, like the rest of the street. Or you could build a small. 4 storey office block, because efficiencies are for people who have a shortage of money.

I figured I should continue to work on the aversion therapy while I was at it and so wandered up to the Empire State. The outside viewing platform on this one (at least the one which was open) is only at the 86th floor, so it is not that big. It still gives a pretty good view of the city by night though. Unlike the World Trade Centre the fence here is at the edge. I was beginning to become very aware that I was standing at the top of a 70 year o1d rush job (it was built in a very short space of time, partially as labour was pretty easy to come by at the time). It was amusing to watch all of the people try to get better shots with their video cameras by holding them outside the bars of the fence. While this makes sense, those bars did mess with the view (and provided zip reassurance about the potential reawakening ofgravity in this area), I really think that actually putting your hand through that strap they tie to the comer of a camera may have been advisable. I wonder how many very broken cameras are lying on the sticky outy bits of the building 10 floors below. I suspect quite a number. Bags not being the guy who has to go and clean them up though.

Alas the lifts from the 86th floor to about the 80th, where you caught the lift to the bottom, were out of order. Out of order in one of those vague non-specific we don’t want to cause alarm ways so we had to walk down the stairs for a few floors before catching a functioning lift down the remaining 80 floors. Unfortunately when I asked people on the lift on the way down if they knew what was wrong with the other ones had the cable snapped or something exciting like that or had they just got stuck 1/2 way between the 82nd & 83rd floors no-one seemed to know. Couple of people looked like they didn’t want to know though.

3-5 August GP to New York – a muggers dream

3 August.

Today was raining. Damn, that meant I couldn’t paint that fence. Don’t you just hate that? So today we bummed around some, like being on holiday really. I did decide to go forth and do battle with the evil money machine. Armed with a pen and paper to report it’s misdeeds to higher authority, and ensuring that it was aware of all of the unpleasant things I would do to it if it did not co-operate I stepped forth. And it gave me money in a suitably chastised manner. Who says that threatening a machine doesn’t work?

4 August

Being my last day in town, I felt that the most appropriate thing to do was bum around some more & rest up.

Brenda took the Blazer to the dealer for a checkup because it was just about to run out of warranty. This was helped a little by the 6000kms we had clocked up in the past month or so. Big place this. Especially as we only covered a little bit of it. Amazingly the dealers found nothing wrong with the car. It seems then that they are all a complete pile of junk. Must remember that if I am ever in the market for a 4 wheel drive.

In the evening I flew to Calgary where I stayed overnight with Brenda’s mother.

5 August.

Brenda’s mother was even good enough to drive me to the airport at 5am. This was amazing, thanks.

I eventually arrived at the hostel at 9pm, and as there was only 2 timezones difference, this was a long day. It was made an the longer by the fact that United doesn’t serve beer on North American flights. Thought they did decide, like most airlines, that they should showcase the finest in local cuisine. But I am not really a great fan of cheeseburgers, so I wasn’t that impressed.

US immigration did not live up to the surly reputation that they have. Then again it was in Calgary. The only conclusion I can make of this is that it is not the immigration people per se, merely the fact that they are on US soil. Understandable.

As you arrive on the plane at Newark, you can look across to Manhatten Island and see the Chrysler Tower , World Trade Centre and Empire State, just sitting there, telling you that you have arrived, despite still being in New Jersey. It was a great sight.

In my befuddled state on the way to the backpackers I couldn’t help noticing that almost everyone on the train seemed to be wearing large amounts of gold jewellery. This seemed unusual. Wasn’t New York the sort of place where you were wiser not to go around showing large amounts of removable & portable wealth. Then it slowly dawned on me. These guys weighed approximately as much as I did. When my backpack and dive bag were added in. They probably had less to fear from muggers than I did Although any mugger who wanted my bags at that point would have been welcome to them. When you add dive gear and work clothes, and a few other toys which you can’t do without when you shift countries to the stuff you need on a trip, the weight increases some. No-one was going to grab my bags and make a run for it.

After a day of travelling, the city that never sleeps had to do without my help tonight.

31 July- 2 August Edmonton & Grande Prairie – the biggest job list in the world

31 July

Deciding that it would be good to catch back up with Shari & some of Brendas other friends, a day at the mall was arranged. The mall was West Edmonton Mall, which is so named as it covers most of West Edmonton. Or if not most, a lot of it. It proudly proclaims that it is the biggest shopping mall in the world & is complete with such facilities more women’s clothes stores than you can shake a credit card at, almost. as many souvenir shops, a wave pool, a rollercoaster and an ice skating rink. Now I can understand the reasons for all but the last. They tell me it gets a little nippy up this way in winter, so they have shopping malls so you can buy stuff without dying of hypothermia. But I still can’t quite see the reason for going to a lot of effort to have an ice skating rink inside when they happen by themselves outside.

Of course I went on the roller coaster, the Mindbender, which was was the biggest covered roller coaster in the world- they seem to have a thing about being the biggest here. Brenda decided that she would rather not go on the roller coaster, as when she was working in the mall one of the carriages fell off and bent more than a few minds. A flaw which they have obviously fixed, because it hasn’t done it again, but Brenda remained unconvinced. The roller coaster was pretty good, but alas did not bend my mind as much as it has been on previous occasions.

So after the ride we caught up with Shari, and learnt that while the baby was very ill, as they had known it would be, it was doing reasonably well considering.

Some news was not so good. My money card was still playing up, though this time the machine was polite enough to tell me to stuff off in english rather than french. When we returned home an email to the bank saying “help” was sent.

It was decided that I should be exposed to as many facets of Canadian culture as possible, so we went to a baseball game with Brendas father in the evening. To be fair it was more exciting than cricket, and may have been better still if the Trappers (the Edmonton team) were not losing 10 nil. But it had its moments, not least of which was the fact that if the batter only clipped the ball (which they did reasonably often), there was .a fair chance it would end up in the stands. This required some level of attention to be paid

After the game we went for a bit of a tour around the other side of town. This was much less suburban than the west side, probably partially due to the influence of the varsity being over here. We stopped for a quiet in the Suburban Hotel & listened to a great blues band. This place fair rocked, I would have loved to see it on a Friday or Saturday.

1 August

My bank, probably sensing the concern that the malfunctioning plastic was causing me, emailed me back sharply. Unfortunately, all they could say was “it looks OK at this end, please send us some details like the exact message & location of the machine so we can look into it further”. After this little bit of news we headed off to Grande Prairie. This takes about 6 or so hours, and there is not a hell of a lot to see (those prairies you understand).

2 August

After arriving in Grande Prairie & getting a good nights sleep in a bed for a change, I leapt up at the crack of noon and was promptly told to start on Brenda’s expanding to do list. This enabled me to see a little of Grande Prairie, on the way between places where Brenda had stuff to do. This town was getting a dangerous one to be in. Alas there was no time to start on painting Brenda ‘ s fence, a fact that disappointed me deeply.

In the evening we wandered out to the stables & Brenda rode Jim (her horse) for a while. He was a bit snakey because he hadn’t been ridden for a while. This was mainly because he frightened the girl Brenda had asked to ride him on the first time she attempted to do so. There is a perfect opportunity here to make comments about similarities between Brenda and her pets, but I won’t, even from this far away. Not that I am scared or anything though.

28-30 July Wetaskiwin – quadding

28 July

This morning on the drive up to Wetaskiwin, I learnt that while the road was undeniably straight, the countryside was not flat, with those negative connotations of not having any hills. but open. Brenda was home.

I found an ATM & tried to get some money out, but as well even though it insisted on communicating entirely in french, it managed to convey the message that it was not going to give me any money with anything short of explosives, or failing that, somebody else’s card. I was beginning to detect a pattern here.

So we caught up with some of her teaching friends over lunch and drove out to Sharon & Daves place. When Sharon was in Waterton with us she had obviously not realised that if she invited us to come and visit on the way north that we would not do the polite “oh no, we couldn’t” thing, but instead ask if we could go quadding as well. So we did.

Now this quadding thing probably requires a little explanation. A quad is a four wheeled motorbike. And quadding involves taking said bike and riding across every river, through every track in the bush and up and down every hill (they put some on for me specially, though it is amazing how you can hide a reasonable sized river valley in a prairie) you can find Generally as fast as possible, which took a little effort on my part at times as I had only ridden one once before. But I managed to keep up. During this you discover that quads float. A little. Enough so you have next best thing to no traction on the river bed. & get swept downstream. but not enough to stop them drowning themselves. It was also discovered (but not by me) that if you get it a little bit wrong driving up a steep enough bank, they will fall onto their backs. Driving down the hill was easier, all you had to do was drop it into second, lean as far back as you could, and forget about trying to stop on the way down.

Of course this is one of those activities that you cannot explain how much fun it was, or why. The details of what you actually did, just don’t sound as good when you weren’t there. So I will leave it at that.

In our little crowd of quadding & post quadding revelry was one of Sharon & Daves neighbours, Sheryl, who obviously hadn’t met that many New Zealanders before, because she decided that Kiwi (that was me) was ok, because he drunk beer. What can I say, it comes naturally.

29 July

Quadding again. See above.

By this point I was beginning to get a bit concerned about the effect that spending this long in North America was having upon me. This was prompted by being given a beer and deciding that even though it was a Budweiser it didn’t taste too bad. Either the one I had in Argentina I had was crook, and the entire US beer brewing industry was the butt of jokes it didn’t deserve, or I had caught some insidious North American disease which made it taste like beer. I had to get out before I was completely assimilated and started spelling badly and needing warning labels. But

before I did I had to go for another quad ride. Which was like the others, except with less rivers and flatter hills because it was dark, and Darwin had a theory about people who do that sort of stuff.

30 July

Today we had to leave to drive north to Edmonton to see Brenda’s dad. But not before slipping a quick quad ride in (they were fun you see) & doing the museum. While Brenda visited one of her old neighbours I got to drive myself, without the aide of my portable road codes, to the local museum. While Wetaskiwin is a rural backwater, a lot like Ash Vegas, but wjthout the sense of terminal boredom (but that may just be because I was quadding for most of the time I was there), it has a great museum. It seems that one of the locals was a born collector of cars and machinery and planes and stuff, and often went flying around over the prairies looking for derelict stuff to collect and restore. And then he donated it all to make a museum. So I wandered around looking at cars and planes and learning how a grain elevator (the big towers they store grain in) works.

25-27 July Banff to Calgary – animals?

25 July

Due to the limited number of ways to spend money, we decided that the best activity was to have a bit of a wander up one of the hills. The one which looked most promising, the locals called Sulphur Mountain. We could go up on a gondola, or we could save the $20 (Canadian), and walk up you could catch the gondola down for free (1 guess it uses less electricity that way). The cheap way seemed to be the perfect option. Especially as I had been told that you could hurt yourself on that ground if those cables snapped, and preferred my ground close to my feet and not accelerating towards me at 9m per second per second. Odd I know.

It was quite a nice little walk & the way up killed 1 1/2 hours quite nicely. Brenda did not feel that is was such a fun way to spend an hour or so, but found enough energy to tell me how much she hated me & to refuse to turn around and go back down. I blame my being out of breath on the altitude (Banff is high), and that the climbing more hills to become acclimatised to the altitude approach was working a little slower than expected.

On the way up we met a mountain goat, which was obviously fitter than Brenda, as it wasn’t asking to be carried. But it was coming down. Maybe it caught the gondola up & walked down. It was a friendly goat though, walking right up and sniffing my hand looking for food. I suspect that it had been fed by tourists before. That or it was an above average bear .

But we made it to the top, which was full of tourists who had obviously taken the $20 poorer route, because they didn’t collapse into a small heap at the top. But the view was nice (partially because I wasn’t having to drive through it). Although I can’t imagine why a Coke should cost $3 at the top of the hill & $1 in town just down there. Still the same stuff isn’t it? 1 decided to buy two in town shortly.

So then Brenda convinced me that the gondola was the best route down. So we sat in the gondola looking down at the ground and the path we walked up (ok there is some artistic licence there, but staggered just seems a little alcoholic ), more tourists walking ( in the same manner as us) up. At this point the other guy in the gondola said “I can’t believe that people actually walk up there”. When Brenda said that we did he looked kindof funny, like he was locked in a small fibreglass box suspended 50m above the ground with two head cases, and all of a sudden started acting like he didn’t mean to offend.

But the thing that touched me most today was the email I got from two close friends Matt & Sarah commenting about the silence on the email front, and hoping that 1 had been eaten by a bear. Thanks guys.

So, having run out of ways we couldn’t spend out money, we drove on to Calgary.

26 July

A day where not a lot happened, other than me slaving in front of a computer writing this stuff for you. In between going in to Calgary & having a wander around that is.

27 July

Another day bumming around Calgary .The money machine was being uncooperative, but I figured it was just having a bad day or something. We then wandered off to another museum to look at some coins. I offered to just drive myself there, but Brenda weighed up the options of me driving her car through Calgary to a destination I had a vague idea of the location of, or being dragged through another museum. She didn’t have to think too hard. But this time, while I looked at a nice display of coins, Brenda decided that she could absorb this sort of thing by osmosis (she probably learnt this from her students), found a chair & went to sleep.

On Thursday nights in summer the Calgary Zoo has something they call Jazzoo. You pay your money and they have a band at the zoo as well as the animals. There was some Irish band there when we went, so I am not sure where they get the Jazz part of Jazzoo, but then again, why would you let details like accuracy get in the way of a catchy marketing line.

It was good that the band was there, because most of the animals were hiding. It is possible that they had gone to sleep, but implausible given the amount of noise & number of people wandering around, more likely is that they had wandered off to listen to the music as well.

However I feel that the most likely explanation is that zoo management had discovered that people don’t expect to be able to see all of the animals all of the time. This means that rather than admitting that a cage is empty because one of it’s former occupants went crazy, killed all of it’s cellmates & therefore had to be destroyed, it is more profitable to leave the signs for the Mountain gorrillas, Dragus regis & dodo in the cages. Not only does your zoo look more impressive, but people will actually spend longer at a cage where they cannot see the animal, waiting for it to appear, than one which they can clearly see the animal sleeping in a corner. “Oh look, a lion sleeping in the corner, that’s nice, whats next”. And the more time people spend at the zoo, the greater the overpriced icecream and drinks revenue. The savings on food did obviously not need to be explained to zoo management, but the increased revenue from people returning again to “see the gorilla which must have been asleep the last time we visited” came as quite a surprise even to the most imaginative marketing people.

24 July

Still disappointed by my bear experience, we drove on to Banff, through more lovely scenic mountains, which looked disappointingly similar to all of the other lovely scenic mountains & tended to

[Ed. -At this point either Pat found a bear, and it was not of the local vegetarian type -or he wandered off and forgot to finish the sentence. ..we shall await with baited breath, the next exciting installment!]

Do you really think that I am the sort of person who would just wander off and forget that they were in the middle of something? No. A bear came for me. A big one. And I had no carrots. Why would I be carrying carrots? Luckily, after some effort I managed to convince the bear that a drink (which I was carrying), would be even better than carrots, and we departed friends.

This does however lead to an interesting observation. The Canadian parks service people have all of these signs around telling people not to leave food lying about outside, because that not only attracts the bears, but trains them that there is food in campgrounds and therefore a good place to hang out. Logical. Likewise the signs saying ‘don’t feed the bears’, which has led to the development of very clever disguises by some bears ( although not your average bear of course).

However the same signs also say that if you are actually chased by a bear, the best thing to do is to drop something (like your backpack, not the person you are travelling with). It seems that the idea of this is not that you can run faster without it, although I suspect that that would be a likely result. No, the bear will investigate the pack. And upon investigating it, it will discover that there is food inside, so it was a worthwhile exercise. Now what does that train the bears to do? Any bear on reading the signs, can see that if it wants to be fed, the best bet upon stumbling across a tourist is not to sit there and look cute (unless wearing a clever disguise), but to run at the tourist, so they drop their backpack. And if they aren’t carrying one, well the signs also point out that bears can run faster than tourists, so as long as they are willing to flag the vegetarianism for a day, they will be fed either way. Good work forests service. At least things are slightly safer than the US, where they tell me it is a constitutional right to arm bears.

So, having got rid of the bear, we drove on to Banff, through more lovely scenic mountains, which looked disappointingly similar to all of the other lovely scenic mountains & tended to drag on some. This wasn’t helped by Brenda telling me to slow down whenever I managed to get them nice and blurry .Which considering the effort I needed to go to to do this in the Blazer is pretty inconsiderate.

But eventually we arrived in Banff. Banff is, as I knew, a resort town, a cosy spot nestled among the mountains with lots of ski fields around. This means lots of tourists. From this I imagined Queenstown, where upon discovering that they already have two of every imaginable way to separate tourists from their money, have gone out and invented new ones. These include, but are certainly not limited to building bridges for the sole purpose of having people throw themselves off.

But Banff is not like this. We called in to the visitor information service to determine where we could obtain the maximum amount. of adrenaline for the minimum amount. of cash. There was skiing of course. but being the middle of summer. that was kindof out. There was rafting. But unfortunately somebody once told Brenda that you could drown in water when it was in that rare liquid state. so she prefers it in its solid form. and even more strangely to ski on rather than cool her drink. These Canadians can be odd, but that knocked the rafting out.

Other than that you could go mountain biking. hiking. fishing or shopping in anyone of the many fine stores supplying a wide range of quality Canadian souvenirs. which were often priced in Yen for your convenience. So it seems that in Banff in summer there was little to separate the non-souvenir buying tourist from their dollar. Which was in many ways a godsend. as I was spending NZ dollars which had continued its plummet. It was still odd though. despite the lack of things to do, tourists still flocked here. Maybe it. was the scenery.